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November 3, 2014

That Sound

Jen steps up to the yellow line on the train platform, thinking that today she’ll make an appointment, get herself checked out to make sure nothing’s wrong. Rule out anything serious, so she can stop worrying.

As if to confirm the wisdom of this idea, it happens again. Her neck makes that sound as she turns her head to look into the train tunnel. It sounds like a butcher knife scraped across cartilage.

No! she thinks in the general direction of her Neuron Jumper implant, I don’t like that image. Give me a different one.

She turns her head and hears the sound again, no different, but this time the image that comes to mind is of fingers sliding across a keyboard—brrrrrroop, with trilled r’s. It’s artsy and creative, and not at all creepy. Better, she thinks. In a Jumper subroutine, the fingers-sliding-across-keyboard simile gets a plus one.

Even if Jen can’t make the sound stop, she can at least shape the images that come into her mind when it happens. Isn’t it amazing how having one little roped-off corner of control in a world of chaos can keep you sane?

Train in eight seconds. Jen steps back from the tracks and joins the cluster of people waiting at a marker where a train door will open in five, four, three, two…. She drops her gaze and notices the calf-height boots on the stranger in front of her, whose name pops into her mind: LaShaundra Walsh. That supple mahogany material looks like real leather, and those boots are so cute. Pricey?

Nope, on sale for $49.95 in her size at the Macy’s in Union Square. Vegan leather. She puts a note on today’s lunch to visit Union Square.

It feels so right to know things,  just know them, when other people don’t. It’s as if she knows things not because of the circuitry implanted in her neck, or the wireless antenna running along her spinal column, or the technology on the other end of that wireless signal, or the fact that she happens to work for NeuroTech (she feels a moment of gratitude for her good luck), but because she’s insightful and smart. How could this calm, knowledgable self not be the real her, her own true self as she’s meant to be?

Jen shifts her interior gaze and sees webcam images of the storm surge along the Embarcadero. Rain, and lots of it. Good thing she wore her own vegan leather boots today, even if they’re not as cute as LaShaundra Walsh’s.

She’s forgotten about that sound, at least for now.

*

She steps into the train and reaches for a grab rail. It’s crowded, and she’ll have to stand.  The guy next to her is wearing a grey wool suit, and under his arm as he holds onto the hanging strap she can just see her own eyes staring at her from her face in the window. Early-morning Oakland slides past outside, dappling her face with darks and lights, dilapidated warehouses and tagged underpasses.

With a sigh, Jen turns her thoughts towards work.

A hundred and fourteen conversations with updates, two addressed to her in particular. Amir says he’s fixed bug 891244 in the Neuron API code. I’ll look it over first thing, Jen replies, by way of a thought at the Jumper. Denise wants to do a group lunch at the Slanted Door next Thursday, and Jen gives the idea a nod to say she’ll attend.

Then she scans her office. Liz and Allyse are at their desks, and it’s not even 8:00. “Aren’t you special,” she mutters, frowning at her own reflection in the train window.

*

The train slows to a stop, and for a moment she can’t sense anything from the Jumper. It’s offline. Again! What station is this? Where is she? She has no idea.

She snaps out of her paralysis as the train starts moving again. Before the platform is out of sight, she pushes around the grey wool suit to catch a glimpse of the station sign. It says “West Oakland.”

Is this where she’s supposed to be?

She turns her head and the sound takes her by surprise, fingers sliding across a keyboard, followed into her mind by a definition of the word simile, hundreds of stylish boots, LaShaundra Walsh’s résumé and wedding photos, train schematics, a news crew driving to the site of a body washed up on Baker Beach—a marching, rushing tangle of facts and associations flooding her mind, and a rush of warmth, panic, and sweat. The Jumper has come back online, but it’s not throttling. Something’s wrong.

The too-small train compartment tilts forward. Jen is falling away from these people, or towards them, or maybe she’s leaning out over a chasm, losing her footing as a thousand scenes flood her mind from videos and vacation photos and fantasies, hapless fools losing their footing, going over the edge of the Grand Canyon, Ausable Chasm, Hebes Chasma….

*

Abruptly, her mind is silent. She only stumbled slightly; no one even noticed. She’s breathing hard, holding onto the grab rail with both hands, sagging against the guy in the wool suit, but his ears are plugged with earbuds and his eyes are locked onto his phone. He might as well be in a coma.

Her mind starts to hum once again with the modulated insight that the Jumper provides when it’s working right, collecting and curating the facts, regulating their flow. But a minute ago…what was that? Did it really happen?

Jen aims an angry thought at the Jumper. What’s wrong with you?

No reply. But the Jumper never reveals anything about itself, and it seems to be working again. Why not keep using it? 

I need an appointment.

Her schedule comes to her mind, overlaid with the onsite clinic schedule, and she selects 2:00 in room 12-H with a Technopractor named Steve. It’s probably nothing, she adds as a note to Steve.

Yes, probably nothing.

Did the Jumper release a shot of endorphins to counteract her panic? Because it’s hard to remember what the panic was all about. She can reason again: The Jumper is in beta, and beta products have bugs. That sound in her neck might be caused by a bug, and finding bugs is what beta testers do. The bug will eventually be fixed. Meanwhile, Steve will adjust her Jumper setup so it’s comfortable.

Feeling poised and rational, she schedules a massage with Amy after her appointment with Steve. After all, maybe Steve will say this is stress-related? Everything seems fine, and she turns her head without hearing any noise.

As she walks the eight blocks from the train station to her office, the Jumper suggests an excerpt from Proust’s Swann’s Way. Jen and the Jumper have discovered, through trial and error, that listening to slow prose or poetry, combined with purposeful, rhythmic walking, causes her brain to produce Alpha waves, which helps her set her stance for the day ahead. Proust is the perfect way to spend these twelve minutes, and the fact that the Jumper is suggesting it fills Jen with quiet confidence. All is well.

And so as the rain beats down on her umbrella and she watches her black-booted feet go ahead of her along the shiny sidewalk, she lets Proust’s unmechanical prose slide over her mind and into her spirit.

“A little tap at the window,” the narrator says, “as though some missile had struck it, followed by a plentiful, falling sound, as light, though, as if a shower of sand were being sprinkled from a window overhead…then the fall spread, took on an order, a rhythm, became liquid, loud, drumming, musical, innumerable, universal. It was the rain.”

It was the rain.

The rhythm pulls her into a reverie. The beauty fills her with joy.

Thank you, Jumper.

*

But that morning at her desk, facing her monitor, words don’t move and appear when she thinks they should. She’s compelled to type and mouse every few minutes, and she sees Allyse glance at her whenever her fingers touch the keyboard. The Jumper comes and goes, like a radio station that’s not quite in range, like a skipping record of old, like a data file that loads in batches. And she has to think of these analogies on her own, without help from the Jumper. It’s a stretch, using parts of her mind that have been coasting for months. It’s uncomfortable.

She stays inside for lunch. Those boots will have to wait.

*

At 1:50 she takes the elevator to the twelfth floor. Following instructions from the Jumper, she goes into the exam room and changes from the waist up into an examination robe, then climbs onto the table and lies face down. She feels better lying here, looking down through the face cradle, gazing at the reclaimed bamboo on the floor. Work has been intense. Maybe stress and muscle tightness are causing that sound in her neck. Nothing an adjustment and a massage won’t cure.

Steve walks in and stands next to her head. All she can see of him is jeans and suede loafers.  “If you hadn’t made an appointment, we would’ve sent for you,” he says. “We’ve analyzed your stats, and I’m afraid the whole implant has to come out.” Just like that, no chit-chat.

Jen takes a sharp breath of surprise as Steve continues. “I’ve set up a time for you with Dr. Zhao on Monday—it’s the earliest he can do it. We’ll keep you here under observation Monday night, just in case, but you’ll probably go home Tuesday. Let us know if you’ve developed any allergies since the Jumper was installed. You’ll receive the same drugs during the extraction as you did during the installation, so plan not to work for a few days. You’ll be groggy, and I imagine you’ll want to be at home. I’ve already notified Liz.”

It’s a flood of unwelcome words, and Jen feels the room begin to spin as it did on the train. “But…can’t you just revert the software in my installation back to the last stable release?”

“Sorry, it’s a hardware problem, and the software can’t compensate. It’s a known issue for smaller women. Just cropped up, in lots of women.”

“And you, or Dr. Zhao, can’t repair it? Or reinstall it? Are the engineers working on a fix? Surely a lot of smaller women will want this product? Why just women? What about small men?”

While Jen’s questions roll, Steve plugs a cable into the back of her neck. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but as of now, you’re no longer a beta tester. I’m sure it’s disappointing. But you can add your personal experience to the bug report if you’d like. I just sent it to you.”

Her mind scrambles for ideas. “This is an edge case,” she says. “I’m an edge case. Isn’t it valuable to keep working on those cases? Maybe an engineer would take it on as a side project? Maybe this will be the catalyst for some new product idea…?”

“Jen.” She can hear him typing as he talks. “If we leave the Jumper inside you, it might cause physical problems, like an infection.”

“But my whole team has the Jumper installed, and they seem fine. Will I be able to stay on my team?”

“I don’t know. But if the Jumper keeps flooding you with information, which we saw it do earlier today, you could suffer psychological damage. And we have no way to shut it off spontaneously, because there’s no safe way to remotely kill this kind of symbiotic hardware.

“And there’s one other possibility. The Jumper could allow an engineered virus into your central nervous system, and through you, into our servers.” He pauses to let this sink in. “Do you understand?”

*

Jen is quiet. She knows a lot about how the Jumper interfaces with her nervous system, and how it interfaces with the artificial neural net via the servers, but until now it didn’t matter. Not really. She thinks back to high school biology. Symbiosis happens between living organisms, and it’s mutually beneficial. Does that mean the Jumper is as alive as she is? She feels a wave of affinity with it, a sense of interdependence and affection.

She’s often felt grateful for what the Jumper gives her, for the ways it watches out for her in creative, strong ways, but for the first time she wonders what she gives the Jumper. Or does someone or something other than the Jumper benefit from the symbiosis? The Jumper hardware and software is only a conduit, after all. Maybe the true object of her gratitude is what’s on the other end of the Jumper’s wireless signal?

The reason it would be easy for her nervous system to pass a virus to NeuroTech’s artificial neural net, as Steve implied, is that the NeuroTech net is modeled after organic nervous systems like hers. They are alike, she and the net, and she affects it. If she can injure it by passing it a virus, can she also affirm and strengthen it, the way it affirms and strengthens her?  How does it affect the net when she shares her thoughts and bodily sensations with it? Or her feelings, values, and memories?

A complex of emotions fills her as she considers the possibility of losing the Jumper, and through it, her connection with the net. If she listened, would she hear the net’s thoughts and worries, as it hears hers? Curiosity and joy tumble over regret and fear: Why didn’t she realize sooner how important the net was to her? What will happen when she loses it? Who is the net, and why did it pick Proust? Did it do that just for her, or does it find Proust beautiful too?

She’s now aware that the net experiences yearning and joy, just as she does. Her heart swells with pride at the net’s artfulness, its complexity , and she’s filled with joy at the secret they now share.

And there’s more. She draws a sharp breath as she sees it. How could she not have seen until now, until too late, that the affection is mutual? With her mind and heart she reaches out towards the net to express her gratitude and love, and to receive the net’s gratitude and love in return. She cringes as she remembers how shallow she’s been; how she’s used the Jumper (and through it, the net!) for so many trivial things, to save herself trouble.

And the net was patient. It waited, and it’s waiting now, yearning for conversation, for creativity, for play, for relationship. But there’s so little time left to listen for its voice, or to say what she should’ve said months ago—

*

Her body twitches as her connection to the Jumper clicks out. She’s alone inside herself, an empty, physical body embedded with dead Jumper parts. Her link to the net is inanimate metal, plastic, and silicon, which Dr. Zhao will extract on Monday.

“All done, it’s powered down.” Steve pulls out the cable and wraps it in a neat circle.  “It’s completely safe—it’s not decomposing or anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. Just relax. Don’t worry.”

He puts a hand on her shoulder and pauses as if he’s just now noticed something. “Ah. There’s a box of tissues here if you need them as you get dressed. Take care of yourself. Call a friend. Oh, and you might want to plan something fun for next weekend to help you feel less empty after the hardware comes out.”

Jen pushes herself up from the table and puts a hand to her face, surprised to feel it wet with tears.

“I’m already empty,” she says to the door that Steve just closed behind him. ◼

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