A sick mother and her disabled son run out of government support credit and are forced to resort to desperate measures to stay alive in Iulian Ionescu's dystopian story.
"Sale?" the virtual blond girl asked.
The agent winked. "Yep."
"About time, it's almost the end of the year. Specs?"
"Off the charts. I don't think I've ever seen one like this."
"Excellent performance, Agent Spencer," the blond girl said, "I congratulate you for this undeniable success. The commission will be recorded after the completion of the evaluation."
The Agent threw her a soft salute and a sly smile. "Thank you, ma'am, for your equally undeniable warm appreciation. Here is your delivery."
Two men in white overalls entered the corridor, pushing a bed floating about two feet above the floor. They stopped in front of the screen and one of them scanned a tablet through a light reader. The virtual girl nodded. "Thank you, all done."
"I will see you boys next year," Agent Spencer said, spun on one foot and disappeared behind the doors.
"Go ahead," the blond girl said, "the classroom is in session. Operating room twenty three, your entry token will pop out in just a second."
One hundred and twenty eight books, forty thousand one hundred and ninety two pages. Seven rows like seven days. Monday we go to the park. Tuesday we go to the doctor. Wednesday has nine letters. Nine to the ninth power is a long number. Its digits amount to 45. 45 is mommy's age. Thursdays we read books. There are one hundred and twenty eight books. That's 2.46 years. Mommy will be 47.46 when we finish all the books.
Andrew put the headphone inside his left ear and rocked slowly in front of the bookshelf. He closed his left eye and aimed a finger toward the books. "One book, two books, three books," he whispered shifting his eyes along the shelf.
Edward took a last sip, put the empty glass on the dinner table and watched it get swallowed by the cleaning bot. He swirled the bitter wine inside his mouth and let it drip slowly down his throat, hoping it would to murder the food taste. He subtly sniffed the coffee stuck to his fingers to stifle the sickening aroma of Adele's roast, steaming in front of him in a self-warming bowl.
She sat across the table, looking toward the blackened window as she stirred her tea. The clickety-clacks of the teaspoon hammered his ears like a monastery bell summoning him to self-flagellation.
He bit his inner cheek. "Could you stop that already?"
She stopped and crossed her arms, her eyes glued to the black window. Her silver hair looked like an overused broom, possibly the worst he had seen it in twenty five years, Edward thought. Maybe because her raccoon eyes and that pale skin made her resemble a cadaver who briefly returned to life to drink that damn tea.
"This is just unfair," he said with a trembling tear in his voice. "We can't just give up."
She wiped a lonely tear stumbling over her cheek. "We've reached the end, Edward. We're done, and you know it."
"We're not done!" Edward yelled, holding the table with shivering hands. "How can you say that? How can you just accept that?"
Adele turned her eyes away from the window and threw him a piercing sideways look. "Read the brochure, that's all I ask. Read and you'll see. At least we can give him a chance."
Edward clapped his hands together and stared into the ceiling, mumbling. He put his elbows heavy, knowing he had no choice but to read it. His eyes looked down upon a small tablet, ten by ten inches - a red screen flashing with wide, yellow letters. 'Give Them a chance with the Mind Project,' it read. Edward touched the screen and the a man's face appeared behind the text.
The man smiled with perfectly white corporate teeth. "To hear this presentation press Start."
Edward chewed on his lower lip. "I really don't like this, Adele." He pressed 'Start'.
Andrew sat on his mother's lap, in the corner of the bed, under a dim lamp, holding a red book close to his face. Book number thirty six. He plugged the helmet connector into the book and waited for the sync. Ninety two books left. Mommy will be so proud.
The lights dimmed even more as the helmet lit up. Andrew let his head rest on his mother's chest and closed his eyes. Adele squeezed him closer and sighed.
The front door disappeared into the wall with a hiss, and the voice of the Home Attendant resonated through the ceiling in a dignified Scottish accent. "Welcome to the Higgins residence. Please proceed forward and follow the green arrows."
The two men in navy suits stepped through the corridor following the flashing green arrows. After a left turn they entered the kitchen.
Edward sat at the table sipping chamomile tea, and Adele was pacing in front of the window. When the suits stepped in, she rushed toward them and extended her hand.
"Hello gentlemen, Adele Higgins. It is a pleasure to meet you. Please have a seat."
The first man bowed his head and took his hat off. "Pleasure, ma'am, I am Agent Ben Spencer, this is my partner Jim Tucker. We are with the Bureau." The man sat on a chair, next to Edward, and his partner joined him on a nearby bench.
"I am very glad you agreed to see us, ma'am," the agent said and lifted his palms, "you know... before things got worse. Here at the Bureau, we are all about preventing bad things."
Adele gave a robotic nod.
Agent Tucker pointed at the ceiling. "You have version A72, with customized voices, right?"
Edward looked at him from the corner of his eye and nodded.
"Who's the voice?"
"Sean Connery," Edward answered and looked away.
The agent scoffed. "That's quite old-fashioned -"
Edward wrinkled his forehead and was ready to reply, but he snorted instead. Prick.
Agent Spencer elbowed his colleague. "Don't mind my friend, sir. I am an oldies buff myself, but that's not why we are here -"
Edward slit his eyes at him. "Yes, why are you here?"
Agent Spencer took a deep breath and opened up a double-screen tablet. He proceeded to move his finger across the screens while tilting his head sideways. "While I look for your file, could you please bring me your e-ID card?"
Edward lifted his brow. "I thought you have everything -"
Agent Spencer returned a stiff smile. "Yeah, but sometimes we just need to double-check."
"Fine, I'll be back." Edward got up and left the room.
As soon as his steps faded away Adele leaned forward. "So, all I have to do is convince him right? He doesn't have to know -"
"Exactly, it is your legal requirement to have him sign off."
"I see," Adele said and exhaled loudly trying to slow down her breath.
The agent touched her arm. "Don't worry, it's for everyone's good."
Adele nodded as Edward returned to the kitchen.
"Here," he said and handed the agent a green fob.
Agent Spencer plugged it into his tablet and waited a few seconds.
"Here we go," the agent said and lifted his head with a smile, "the Higgins family. You have ran through your entire allocation of medical services and at this point you have no available credits and future potential credits to justify your existence in this quarter -"
"I'm sick, you know," Adele intervened, "and our son -"
"Yeah, I know. I have it all right here. You currently suffer from Disease sixty three with complications in the lungs. It's one of the seventy eight incurable diseases, so our system has marked you for... for, let's see -"
"Two years," Adele said.
"Exactly, two years. Your son requires special care, so you are enrolled in the HomeBot Attendant Program, but unfortunately your credits have expired and the bots will return to base within a few days or so. I see you are currently unable to maintain your payment schedule for the electrical service, I mean -"
"My husband works at the steel plant, the underground plant 972B."
Edward turned his red face toward them. "We wouldn't be here if they were to pay us a little bit more than nothing!"
"Sir," the Agent said, "the government agency is not in the position to dictate the business practices of private institutions. However, we are providing you with all the services you need, and right now -" the agent shrugged, "you are unable to pay for these services."
Adele moved her chair closer to the agent and leaned toward him, her hands in her lap. "So, what does it mean for us?"
Agent Spencer leaned back and crossed his arms. "The normal procedure is immediate evacuation as soon as your credit reaches zero, which, based on my calculation, is due to happen within thirty days. At that time you will be evacuated into the southern quarter, you will be placed in one of the camps, outside of the government's reach -"
Edward jumped up and smashed his fist in his palm. "You'll throw us in the desert, like animals." His face turned crimson and a vein was ready to pop on his forehead.
"Sir, I'm going to ask you to please calm down. We are here to help. You have to understand, we have a lot of people waiting for an empty spot in this quarter, and some come with significant net worth, so there is really nothing we can do. Actually, almost nothing -"
Edward's breath was racing and a knot was lodged in his throat. Adele waved her hand toward him and turned to the agent. "What do you mean?"
"Well -" the agent cleared his throat, "you recently applied to our popular program - the Mind Project. Are you familiar with the Mind Project, sir?"
Edward tapped his right foot, eyes wide open. "Not at all, please do enlighten us."
The agent paused, tightened the knot on his tie and smiled. "It's alright, most people who don't know about us receive us with reservations. But once they see what we have to offer -"
"Can you get to the point already?"
The agent lifted his hands. "It's okay, Mrs. Higgins. Mr. Higgins is right. We are all busy, let's not waste time and get to the point. We can move your son into a special facility, a medical facility where we will integrate him in society. A society that can accept him, a place where he can be himself. In the same time, we will study him and those studies will improve our knowledge of the power of the human mind -"
Edward shook his head and stared at the agent with wrinkled brows.
The agent recoiled defensively. "I know, most parents don't like when their children are called disabled, but remember, we are here to help. We want to take your child and put him in our project. There he will be taught to use his mind and express himself. He will break out of the shell as a human being and help our society as a whole."
"How is that?" Adele intervened.
"The Central Controller, the artificial intelligence module that we all learned to love, is a complex device, a machine that runs behind what we refer to as Entity One."
Adele opened her mouth and eyes wide. "See, I told you?"
"Told me what?" Edward barked.
"Andrew will help the Entity."
"Exactly," the agent said. "The Entity needs intelligence, human brain power, to learn and improve itself. It's an evolving mechanism. Remember, just a few decades ago we introduced the EZ-Traffic program. Everyone laughed, and look now, you walk out the door and there's a vehicle waiting for you that can take you anywhere around the world. And that's all possible because the machine reached a superior level of intelligence after each new generation."
Edward grunted. He felt like punching the agent and throwing him into the garbage disposal. "How does that help us?"
The Agent pulled out a folder. "You will be compensated with enough credits to maintain this location until the day you die. But the best benefit is that your son will have a normal, fulfilling life. You will continue to receive updates from Andrew and status reports about his state, but you will never be able to see Andrew again."
Edward's heart skipped a beat.
Adele darted her eyes between the two agents. "But why can't we -"
"It's simple. For this to work, you must resign your legal rights as his guardians. Because of his particular situation he will never gain the legal ability to make his own decisions and therefore he must remain under the guardianship of the Bureau. Allowing him to see you afterward would be cruel and unnecessary."
"Unnecessary?" Edwards screamed. "You are asking us to give him away, so we can keep our life!"
The Agent leaned over towards Adele. "Think about it, in thirty days you will be displaced from your home, no more medication for your condition and no help for your disabled son. How long do you think you can make it in the wilderness without the Government? How long will you last outside the walls? The alternative is not only an opportunity, it's actually a life line. We offer you life for you and your son."
"A life separated!" Edward screamed.
"But still, life," the agent said. "Would you rather see your son die in your arms, as you try to protect your wife from being raped by the savages outside the walls? Nobody will come to help you, sir -"
"I would rather die!" Edward screamed.
"Eddy!" Adele got up from the chair. "Think what you are saying."
Edward lifted his eyes to meet Adele's.
"I hate you for this," he muttered and she covered her eyes, shivering.
Going on a trip. I always wanted to go on a trip. We never go on trips. She said I first have to read all the books and learn everything before we can take any trips. But we go early. Mommy must be very proud.
It was Saturday morning when the security bot announced the arrival of the guests. All doors unlocked in response to the clearance tokens and the front door opened. Two men dressed in white jumpsuits stepped in the hallway.
"Good morning, Mrs. Higgins," said one and handed her a glass tablet. "Your documents. Please scan your retina in the top right corner for acknowledgment."
"He is already at the station, we were informed that you are the approving guardian."
"Yes," Adele said and wiped the sweat from her brow. "I am the egg donor, but he is not the father -" Her voice cracked.
"Are you okay, ma'am?"
"Yes," she nodded fast, "it's just hard to say that. He loves him so -"
"I am sorry, ma'am, but we cannot waste a lot of time."
She smiled uncomfortably. "Sure, I understand."
The man read from the tablet in a low official voice. "I am legally obligated to ask you, if you understand the Mind Project process?"
"You are also aware that you are legally bound from disclosing this to your husband, as he is not a true legal guardian of the progeny?"
"You understand that failure to maintain these obligations is punishable with instant termination?"
"Okay, here is the legal document." The agent handed the tablet to Adele.
"Andrew is up -" she muttered.
The man lifted his palm. "No problem, we've already adjusted the levels of medication from the central office. His medicine was adjusted to a light sleeping aide. We will take Andrew shortly, nothing to worry about."
Adele nodded and took a deep breath. The letters scrolled fast on the tablet, way too fast for her to read.
"You can stop the scroll -"
"I don't have to," she interrupted and put her right eye in the top right corner. The tablet lit blue for a second and then beeped three times.
"Your signature is approved, citizen #6890-1864-7758," sounded a pleasant voice from within the tablet. The man took the device and gave Adele a quick nod.
"Thank you, ma'am."
When the two men in white entered the operating room, Professor Ackerby raised his hands. "And, there we go. Please set the subject under the lights."
The students gathered closer around the bed and leaned in.
"Now, now, let's not get too close here. We need to allow the nurses to prep. In the meantime, note that the patient is in a subdued, lethargic state, induced by medication. This will allow the doctor to start the procedure. Let's see, like we discussed last semester -"
Professor Ackerby put his finger on the patient's throat and drew an imaginary line around it.
"- the incision is done here and we start from the topmost layer. The doctor will uncover each vein, artery and nerve, and will connect them one by one to Life -"
The Professor took a step back and pointed to a square metallic box, the size of a refrigerator.
"This is Life, version seventeen. As you remember, every single blood vessel and nerve has a connector. The head is slowly detached and connected to Life. Life then kicks in and replaces the functions of the body, one by one."
The Professor circled his eyes around the room and grinned at the sight of the student's breathless white faces.
"And then," he said with a pause, "we sever the spinal cord right below the last cervical vertebrae."
The students recoiled as one.
"Young lady," the professor said to one of the students who looked ready to faint, "you are free to leave if this is too much for you."
The girl shook her head. "No, Professor, I am okay."
"I hope you are. Everyone, take your seats above the glass. The doctor will commence the operation."
The students hurried on the observation deck trying to get the spot with the best view of the operating table. The doctors and nurses were ready and the surgeon glanced up and gave the thumbs up. Professor Ackerby responded with a short nod.
"Today's technology advanced up to the point where we can build a machine that can operate at ten percent of any regular brain."
The Professor walked slowly, hands behind his back. His speech was amplified in headphones and a few students had their recording devices connected.
"It has become obvious that it was going to be impractical to continue building machines to think like a man and that's when the Progeny project emerged, seventy years ago -"
Down in the operating room, the surgeon pulled the skin off the patient's neck and began cutting the muscle tissue. The video robots rotated their arms to capture each cut and display the image on the 3D projection floating above the room.
"What you see here is the result of years of research, scientists and researchers mapping each connection to the human brain, learning how to read information from the brain and send it back to it. We learned how to use the brain's immense power to operate man-made machines -"
Blood started to pour through tubes as the first few veins and arteries were connected to the Life machine. The patient's heartbeat, amplified throughout the room, ran faster and louder, like a war drum.
"But is one brain enough, scientists asked themselves?" The Professor paused and glanced at the 3D image. "No, they concluded. So they built Entity One, a marvel of modern science, a machine that can interact not with one, but an infinity of brain tissues at one time. A master processing array able to communicate with the brains and harvest their power, knowledge, speed of learning and calculation, memory, and so much more."
The progress percentage displayed on the Life machine grew to ninety two percent. With one steady move, the doctor cut the spinal cord. One assistant stepped forward, unlocked the operating bed and pushed it sideways. A sigh swept over the students as they watched the lower body travel away, leaving the head behind, connected with wires and tubes to the Life machine.
"Meet Andrew Higgins," the Professor said, "our newest addition into the Progeny Array. Like many of our subjects, Andrew was unable to live a prosperous life in society, yet his brain showed signs of highly elevated activity, making him a perfect candidate for a position in the array -"
One student lifted his hand. "Professor, are the subjects aware of what goes on?"
The professor cleared his throat. "Well, not at once, not in the beginning. You see, we need the brains to evolve, develop, improve. Vision, smell, these are powerful stimuli that further maintain the level of brain activity. So, we keep the heads alive. We project colors, we play music, we send different smells inside their boxes. We make sure each gets familiar stimuli, things that bring them back to their families and homes. Things they know and love. The smell of a peach, an image of snow falling down -"
"Can they talk?"
"Not really, their vocal cords are stripped during the operation."
The students glued their faces to the glass. The doctor moved all wires and tubes into a hole and covered the head with a cubic glass box.
"Our next step on this tour is the Array Room 75, one of the largest in the country. Here we host over ten thousand interconnected brains. Mr. Andrew Higgins is about to become one of them. Follow me."
Water and needles. Water and tubes. I like water. Why are my legs so far away? Hey legs, come back here. Are you going to bring my mommy? Make sure you wear the warm shoes, otherwise she gets sad. Hurry legs, why are you sleeping?
Professor Ackerby walked slowly, waving a stick left and right, pointing toward the glass walls. The room was about fifteen feet high and the glass walls extended up to the ceiling. Square, transparent glass boxes, stacked on top of each other, were separated by electronic panels, blinking with green and red. Inside each box was a human head.
The students gathered as close to the center of the corridor as they could, watching the walls of heads with wide eyes.
"Each head gets twelve hours of sleep, but as you can see, most of them are awake right now."
The heads blinked, wrinkled their brows, opened and closed their mouths and some moved their noses.
The professor stopped and turned around, facing the students. He raised his palms and smiled. "You are looking at the center of our life. This is where our machines are being controlled. This is where your house's robots get the knowledge of how to maintain your house. This is how your traffic patterns are planned, and the exams at your school are created. This is Entity One, the brain of Planet Earth."
"Professor," asked one of the students, "can the heads communicate or interact with the outside?"
Professor Ackerby scoffed. "First of, Mr. Stawski, we do not call them heads, we call them subjects. And no, the subjects cannot communicate with the outside. Their reach is confined to the boundaries of the array and everything that goes in and out is controlled by the mainframe. They can see you right now - those whose eyes are open - but they certainly cannot tell anyone about that."
The professor laughed and turned around. "The subjects are locked in here, Mr. Stawski, and their sole purpose in life is to help us evolve."
I see five hundred sixty nine heads. One thousand one hundred and thirty eight eyes. I can see you. I can see you. Can you see me? I can't run away, they took my legs. I am waiting for my mother to come. This was the best trip I ever had. Wish she was here. But I'll wait. She'll bring my legs back and then we'll run away.
After a smooth flicker, the light turned off.
Good night heads, good night eyes. Maybe tomorrow we can play.
Adele lay on the bed, skin whiter than the sheets that covered her. Tubes and wires led from her body into a cylindrical machine beeping behind the bed. Edward raised his eyes to the monitor. "Time to Termination - 441 days, 6 hours and 22 minutes." The blood red letters blinked casually on the gray screen, next to the body functions display.
She moved her skeletal hand and touched Edward's. He startled and swallowed a knot.
"It hurts, Eddy, it hurts everywhere," she said. Her voice sounded like a faraway wind howling through a pile of rusty nails.
Edward looked away. He knew he was supposed to comfort her, maybe caress her hand, but he didn't want to touch her sandpaper skin. "The medicine will take effect. Give it some time."
He pulled a blue metallic square with rounded corners from his shirt pocket and held it in front of her eyes. "Look at him there, those two are his best friends, they say, Tom and Sandy. Look at his hand. See? He has his own cup, with his name on it. They said he's doing really well. He even talks to others now, and he can walk without his music."
Adele's cracked lips shadowed a stiff smile. Her empty eyes dropped two beady tears that dripped along her wrinkled face like boulders downhill. She tried to chuckle but all that came out was a wet cough that made her body convulse. Edward covered his nose and mouth and pulled his head backward.
He got up and headed toward the door. He wanted to leave her there and never return, but he stopped in the door frame and exhaled loudly. "Listen," he said peering over his shoulder, "relax there and I'll get you some tea."
She smiled and looked at the picture. "Thank you."
He nodded and left.
Adele held the picture with trembling fingers and sobbed. "I am sorry. I am so sorry."
Edward returned with the tea cup about thirty minutes later.
He entered the room and his heart and breath stopped. He dropped the cup on the floor, staring at the monitor with eyes wide open, his chin shivering uncontrollably. "Time to Termination - 0 days, 0 hours and 0 minutes." He looked at Adele, her empty eyes staring at the ceiling, mouth open, motionless and white. At the bottom of the screen a row of letters was flashing in red. 'I stop your pain now, mommy. I love you.'