We Apologize for the Interruption – Part 1
Editors Note: Because of strong demand, Silver Blade will be running two Serial stories concurrently, and posting new installments for each on alternating weeks.
Peg was tucked snugly in bed in the coma ward, but the blankets itched. They felt heavy too, like they were pushing down on her, pinning her to the mattress. A nurse buzzed around the room at a dizzying pace, hooking up monitors and re-arranging equipment. Peg knew they would try to get this part over with quickly. “Under ten minutes from scan to snooze” was the gold standard.
Nana kept trying to distract her with small talk, but right now, all Peg could do was gape at a length of catheter tubing, attached to some kind of drainage bag. She had a vague sense of its purpose and it completely grossed her out.
“There, there,” the nurse said. “You won’t remember any of this and Mt. Sinai is excellent. You’re in good hands. See? Your mother knows.” The nurse smiled at Nana, who was nodding. “Cross my heart, dear, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“She’s not my mother,” Peg said. Her head was swimming. Correcting this small technical error was all she could manage.
Nana took Peg’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m her grandmother,” she explained, “Her mother passed a few years back. Early Alzheimer’s.”
The nurse stopped what she was doing and regarded Nana with sad understanding. “Skeptic or uninsured?”
“Skeptic,” Nana spat the word with bitterness. “My daughter was a stupid, selfish, irresponsible bitch. But it’s not too late for my Peg.”
Did she really just say that? Peg stiffened, and even the nurse looked shocked. When Peg finally found her words, her voice cracked. “Just because I won’t remember this, doesn’t give you the right to say whatever the hell you want.”
Nana looked down, fixing Peg with a cold, challenging look. As long as Peg could remember, she had never talked about her mother with such callousness. What the hell was happening?
The nurse looked back and forth between them with a panicked expression. They were all saved from this downward spiral of events by a strawberry blonde in green scrubs entering the room. The newcomer strode up to Peg’s bedside, oblivious to the tension.
“Doctor Lamonde,” she said, saluting with a manicured hand. “I’m the anesthesiologist who is going settle you into your three-day R&R. Just waiting for verification on that scan from the good folks in New Jersey… Nancy, any word?”
The nurse checked her handheld and gave a relived go-ahead nod. The doctor tied an elastic around Peg’s arm while the nurse flipped on the vital monitors. The wetness of an alcohol swab began to evaporate, spreading a chill over her body.
“Make a fist and hold it,” Dr. Laomnde ordered, unwrapping a butterfly IV. With her other hand the doctor kneaded her flesh in search of a suitable vein.
Peg thought she might vomit. Now that it had come to it, three thoughts drowned everything else into white noise.
First: Somewhere in Weehawken, New Jersey, Biomimetics techs had just confirmed transmission of the brain scan taken just minutes ago. The scan was their blueprint for her syn, an exact copy of her brain.
Second: If the docs were to scan her again, right now, the two scans wouldn’t match, nor would her neuro-algorithm spit out in the same combo of 1s and 0s. New memories had formed, new neural pathways had been drawn, and who she was had irrevocably shifted.
The third thought: She had been avoiding this one. But it had been there all along. It pulsed even louder now, demanding Peg’s absolute and immediate attention: They are going to rip out your brain.
Beeps and flashes of light announced the fight-or-flight heart rate that was churning Peg’s blood pressure.
“No!” she shouted, pulling her arm away. The effect was immediate. As soon as the word had left her lips, a word she hadn’t even realized she was going to say, the vital monitors sounded longer pauses between heartbeats. Less unsettling blood pressure numbers displayed on the screen. She could breathe.
“What do you mean, ‘No’?” Nana, red-faced, was first to break the silence. “Do you have any idea—”
“Ma’am, please,” Dr. Lamonde held up a hand to quiet Nana, and searched Peg’s face, a bit fearfully. “Young lady, are you refusing the coma?”
* * *
Peg stared at the blue sky projected on the office ceiling, searching for an answer. She winced at the brightness of the digital image, a veritable Rorschach of fractal clouds, changing shape by the second. Last night, after leaving Mt. Sinai, she’d been told to go straight home and to report to Sonar’s office first thing. She hadn’t slept well.
Why had she done it? She owed no one an explanation more than Sonar. For an entire year they had met here, an hour every week, to make sure she was ready. At first she hadn’t liked the idea of talking to a shrink, but anyone who got the syn upgrade had to get mental health clearance. Much to her surprise, she’d actually come to like therapy—and Sonar. But she hadn’t done her friend any favors yesterday. A neuro-psych’s reputation was built on a low In-Between rate and Peg had blown her perfect record.
“Peg, we have to talk about this.” Sonar tapped her fingernails impatiently.
“I know,” Peg said quickly.
The easy way out was to blame Nana, but Peg knew that the real reason was bigger. Not just bigger, but more upsetting, and harder to put into words. And should she have to? Refusing the coma was her right.
Peg had always thought of herself as pro-choice. Why should anyone be forced into the coma? Of course the issue had always been a little more theoretical. The choice to refuse was far worse in the long run; she knew that. There had been mere minutes between the scan and the walk to the coma ward. Now she was facing the loss of three whole days—the time it would take Biomimetics to construct the syn. The construction was so expensive that insurance companies only gave you one shot at it once the syn was in production. If she didn’t go through with this three days from now, she might never be able to afford to. The coma was the solution to all the anxiety this caused, but she had refused it.
Not quite absently, Peg held her head in her hands and found that succumbing to the urge to rock back and forth was somewhat comforting.
Sonar coughed and shifted in her chair. Peg thought about saying that she knew Sonar was uncomfortable around her. No one wants to be around an In-Between.
Peg opened her mouth to say so but closed it again abruptly. The first sign of Generalized Dissociative Dysphoric Mania was relaxation of social filters. Like telling people what you really think of them. It was exactly what Sonar would be looking for, and Peg needed to get cleared, get the hell out of here. Her last pre-syn moments would not involve being forcibly strapped to a hospital bed and put down like some kind of rabid animal.
Even if she wouldn’t remember it.
“You’re worried that if you say the wrong thing I won’t give you sign-off, aren’t you?” Sonar asked, not unkindly.
Peg nodded, heart pounding.
“Well,” she sighed. “I don’t think you chose an easy path for yourself. But so long as I think you’re not going to harm yourself—or anyone else—I won’t stop you from leaving. Fair?”
Peg withdrew her fingernails from her head and felt pain where the skin depressed. “Fair,” she agreed.
“You don’t know why you did it, do you?”
“Not unusual, I guess.” Sonar tilted her head in examination. “You having any regrets?”
“No,” Peg said. Sort of. She had a headache.
“What’s going on in there? Talk to me, Peg. No self-editing.”
“It hardly seems worth spending so much time processing. What if I have some major life-changing break-through? Total waste of effort on both our parts.”
“Remember what I said about keeping a diary? Sometimes people in your… situation become obsessed with certain experiences or realizations and are afraid to lose them after the surgery. That’s normal. A diary could help with that.”
There was a silence until Peg realized that Sonar was waiting for her to confirm she had absorbed the suggestion.
“Right. Diary. Got it.”
Sonar sighed. “We just need to get you through these next few days. Humor me. I’m on your side.”
As it went, humoring the only person standing between her and freedom did seem like a good idea. Peg moved her hands away from her head and sunk her nervous energy into stroking the velour of the sofa. Maintain eye contact. Normal posture. Normal thoughts. Normal behavior.
“I’m thinking about how everyone will be weird around me.” I’m thinking that if you decide I’m unwired they’ll take me to Mt. Sinai in a straight-jacket. When I wake up I’ll never know what you did. Or what Nana said.
“Good,” Sonar said, nodding eagerly. “What do you think other people will be thinking?”
“That In-Betweens are dangerous.” Peg didn’t feel dangerous. She’d never felt more vulnerable. “Or that I’m turning into a religious freak or a technophobe, which is stupid since I’ve had every other upgrade for my age group.” The syn upgrade wasn’t anything like a regular tissue replacement, even a major one. But it’s what you want to hear, so I’ll say it.
Sonar was staring at her. Damn! She had trailed off mid-sentence. Peg brushed off all tangential thoughts with a hair flip.
“Anyway, c’mon, it’s me. I understand about the upper limits of cell replication—the Hayflick Limit, all that.”
She did, too. Peg had done the Hayflick proof in cellular biology as an undergraduate. For half a semester she watched her worm cell culture divide. The goo kept chugging along, happily doubling its mass in her Petri dish, until one day the cells just …stopped. Cells aren’t immortal, that was the lesson, and each organism’s cells were programmed to count down to their own end. Divide. Divide. Divide. Divide. Die.
And while you could replace your organs, derm upgrade, and swap out your bones and muscles until you never thought you’d see the outside of an OR again, the brain was the limit. It wasn’t exactly replaceable. One day your ridiculously healthy body would find itself home to a geriatric brain. Game over.
That is, until Biomimetics invented the syn.
“Do you think their worries are unfair?” Sonar asked.
The distinct scent of chocolate tickled Peg’s nose, and her mouth watered. It reminded her of being a fat teenager, before she’d traded in her thyroids for ones with a metabolism to match her eating habits. She frowned distastefully at the culprit, a monstrous purple flower set in a simple brown planter on Sonar’s desk. It was engineered to release this particular aroma when it was dehydrated.
Peg wrenched her attention away from the flower.
“It’s like every post-syn I meet is looking at me and thinking about their In-Between moments—and I don’t care what the definition is!” Peg yelled. Only people who refused the coma were considered In-Betweens. “You can’t remember, so you can’t argue with me about it.”
Sonar raised an eyebrow and Peg flinched with the realization that she was acting defensively.
“I feel,” Peg started again, “that post-syns know, on some level, that they lost something.” She took a deep breath. “It messes with you people to look at me.”
Sonar dropped the section of hair she had been twisting, her expression thoughtful. “You think I’m projecting? That I’m secretly upset about the memories I lost walking to the coma ward?”
“Look, I want to go.” Peg stood up and retrieved her coat. “Is that okay?”
It was Sonar’s job to make sure that she wasn’t dangerous. That was the point of these morning evals for these next three days. By the stats, Peg had 50/50 odds of keeping her sanity. It was a controversial law, but after Ginger Louis shot a corporate heavyweight at Biomimetics three years ago, no one was taking chances with In-Betweens, even the civ lib hard cases. Hell, most other states had banned the In-Between option.
It was hard not to think about Ginger Louis, hard not to question every stray thought or passing urge for breaches from normality. You could drive yourself crazy waiting for the crazy to come.
Sonar frowned. “What are your plans for today?”
“Head to campus? I can teach the pre-calc tutorial instead of the sub.”
Sonar hesitated, but signed her tablet with a quick flourish.
Peg hadn’t reached the door when a queasy feeling in her stomach took hold. Everyone she knew expected her to be in a coma. And everyone else would get a zap to their handheld within yards of her approach, warning of an In-Between. The police had tagged her.
Maybe this was a mistake.
“Second thoughts?” Sonar sounded hopeful. “You don’t have to do this. I can call Mt. Sinai.”
Peg took a step away from Sonar, even while her mind toyed with the offer.
“I’m fine, really.” She swallowed to soothe the dryness itching her throat. She searched for something to sound casual about. “Your fly-trap-magnolia monster wants water. It reeks like cocoa in here.”