Authors: Steve Alten
Still, I suppose the vagina comeback deserved something.
Closing my eyes, I regurgitated the first lines of an opening address I had committed to ABE memory. “If you believe that God is perfection and that we were created in His image, Ms. Helms, then why aren’t we perfect? The answer lies in the human brain. Like a computer, our brain was designed to process information—in our case about four hundred billion bits of information a second. We’re only aware of an infinitesimal percentage of that storehouse of memory because our brain must adhere to the programming limitations imposed by the blinding forces of our perceived reality—a reality anchored by natural selection and the weight of our evolution as a species. While there are exceptions to the rule—photographic memory … Mozart composing music as a child—solving abstract problems of logic or recalling previously read texts was not a skill our ancestors required to survive while hunting and foraging. Furthermore, the human brain cannot relay to the mind what our senses cannot perceive, and our senses lie to us during every waking moment.
“By the baffled look, I gather you’re lost. An example then: As we speak, our planet is rotating on its axis as it soars through space at a speed exceeding eleven hundred miles a minute. And yet, we feel nothing. Why? Because our senses lie to us, concealing the velocity from our brain. The walls of this train possess atoms, each a universe unto itself, and yet we cannot perceive of the micro any more than the macro. If our senses cannot perceive it, Ms. Helms, then for us it does not exist, and yet it does. What is needed is a pair of neural spectacles that will allow us to see.
“Enter ABE, a bio-chip that allows its user to direct his or her thought impulses to the parts of the brain best suited to download, comprehend, store, and retrieve the information. Think of ABE as a television remote control, one that uses thought energy to enable its user to channel surf or immediately dial up their desired program or app.”
Stealing a breath, I had ABE restore the h-phone volume, catching Mount Saint Helms in midgust.
“… virtual research showed that eighty-six percent of a populace enhanced with your neural chip would use ABE like an LSD trip, smelling colors and seeing music in their heads. Ninety-seven percent of subjects using ABE would miss at least five hours of work each week, absorbed in some sordid act of mental masturbation. Of greater concern to many of us New Americans who adhere to the guiding principles of the Bible is that your neural chip can control the secretion of hormones like progesterone, allowing a woman to abort her own child.”
And there it was. No matter what the topic, the religious radicals always steered the conversation back to what Dad had dubbed the “GAG reflex”—God, abortion, and gays—only now the crusaders had a new tool in their arsenal of crazy in which to fool the public: virtual research. The dysfunctional algorithm was a turd of vanilla sway shitted by a group of Creationists demanding that online school curriculums offer their contrived branch of science, which claimed to debunk evolution as an improvable theory.
The words made my blood pressure spike, causing the carotid artery in my neck to throb. For a split second I could feel my anger summoning another soul looking for a vacancy.
Ah, but I had ABE.
Sensing the emotional tsunami, my tiny neural implant reduced my level of adrenaline, causing my constricting blood vessels to redilate—a sensation similar to submerging oneself slowly into a cool pool of water on a hot summer’s day.
With the physical symptoms of my anger subsiding, it was time to demonstrate to Madame Mammary Glands what ABE was really about.
“Ty mne Vanku ne valjay.”
“Sorry, I don’t speak German.”
“It’s Russian, Ms. Helms, and it’s one of several dozen languages I now speak, thanks to ABE’s temporal lobe setting, which stimulates memory, allowing its user to create his or her own database in the time it takes one to listen to a language CD. Read a book and you’ve memorized the text; engage ABE’s dictation unit and you can record a letter or even a novel and simultaneously download it to anyone else who possesses an ABE chip. Program ABE’s self-diagnostic app and your brain will boost your body’s immune system to prevent cancer or cure virtually any ailment. Immortality is within our reach, Ms. Helms. ABE bridges the gap between human frailty and human perfection; unfortunately, it doesn’t come with an app that conquers human ignorance.”
“If ABE has made you so smart, Professor, why were you kicked off the Omega Project?”
Ouch, didn’t see that one coming.
“Who told you that? An anonymous source?”
“Actually, it was Monique DeFriend. You remember Dr. DeFriend? I believe she was your supervisor for three years before the Great Die-Off. She told me you were assigned to GOLEM, the computer now being used to remotely mine the lunar surface.”
“I was one of the design engineers. And I wasn’t kicked off the project, I resigned … for personal reasons … to work on ABE.”
“She said you’d say that. She also said, and I quote, ‘While Robert Eisenbraun is a brilliant scientist, his brain enhancement chip is designed only to serve its owner’s personal needs, as opposed to GOLEM, which is true artificial intelligence, created to protect and serve all of humanity. In the wake of the Great Die-Off, Professor Eisenbraun’s decision to seek personal glory over the needs of mankind is more than a bit disconcerting.’ Care to rebut the comment before my news outlet runs with it?”
“Ty mne Vanku ne valjay.”
“Yes, you already said that. What does it mean?”
“It means, ‘Don’t make yourself more stupid than you already are.’ Good day, Ms. Helms.”
I terminated the interview, and the hologram poised above the worktable pixelized into a thousand micro fragments.
Brilliant work, Eisenbraun. So much for not tossing red meat into the arena.
The small audio device attached to my left earlobe clicked twice. “ABE, identify new caller.”
ANDRIA SAXON. LOCATION: CAPE CANAVERAL.
“Accept call. On visual.”
The three-dimensional video cone reappeared, revealing my beautiful fiancée, her recently trimmed short-cropped raven-black hair streaked with ocean-blue highlights that matched her eyes. Her sex was barely concealed beneath a two-piece neoprene running outfit; and her astronaut trainee’s athletic physique glistened beneath a layer of sweat as she jogged at a brisk pace on an all-terrain treadmill.
She looked up at the h-phone poised above and in front of her and her smile lit me up. “Hi, babe. Still adore me?”
I held back my joy. Our last argument was still fresh on my mind. “That depends,” I said, sounding a bit bitchy. “Are you calling to apologize or to break off our engagement?”
“Don’t whine. You know I want to be with you forever, I’m just not comfortable planning a spring wedding right now.”
“So we’ll elope.”
“Why don’t you just club me over the head like a Neanderthal and drag me off to your cave?”
“As I recall, you were the one living in a cave when we met. And this astronaut training regimen is getting old. Seeing you three days a month isn’t working for me. At least if we were married—”
“In six weeks I’ll have earned my astronaut wings. Once I complete my internship at Alpha Colony—”
“Whoa, you never said anything about Alpha Colony. How long are you going to be on the moon?”
“Three weeks. It’s a new requirement of all shuttle personnel, in case something goes wrong and we get stranded.” She increased her speed, the simulated gravel grinding louder beneath her feet—her attempt to avoid the conversation. “After that, I’ll be assigned to a fusion depot and we can plan out the rest of our lives.”
“What did you say? I can barely hear you.”
She changed the setting on the all-terrain treadmill from gravel to the far less noisy soft sand. The pliable surface forced her to cut her speed in half. “Better?”
“Six weeks and our future will be resolved. These days, six weeks to you is like six days, the way you hibernate inside your head like a Shaolin monk.”
“I didn’t realize I’d become that bad.”
“Face it, Ike, you’re addicted to your own brain device.”
“Tell you what, while I’m in DC, I promise not to access ABE.”
Andria smiled. “I’ll bet you your collector-edition Stones CDs you can’t do it.”
“And if I win, we get married when I return?”
“No deal. Anyway, I already took the discs. Ike … you never told me, what’s this meeting with your uncle all about? And why DC? The city’s barely juiced.”
“Uncle David told me our agenda’s strictly on a need-to-know basis, and I never argue with a three-star general. Now, if we were married—”
“Fine. Don’t tell.”
“I don’t know why he wants to see me. These days, the Pentagon has more to do with tracking power surges and estimating crop returns than security measures.”
“When will you be back in Florida?”
“Miss me already?”
“Actually, there’s something I need to talk to you about.”
“Is this business or personal?”
“Both, and I’d rather not do it over the phone.”
That gave me a moment’s pause. “The weather forecast from Orlando to Washington calls for overcast skies. My travel time could be anywhere from thirteen to eighteen hours, depending on how well the train’s backup batteries are working.”
As if on cue, the air-conditioning in my cabin shut down, the lights dimming. “Here we go again. Computer, reduce window tint by seventy-five percent.” The window, which had been a darkened rectangle, brightened to reveal a gray countryside, blurred by the bullet train’s 264-mile-an-hour velocity.
“Don’t worry, Ike. In a few more years we’ll have mined enough helium-3 to keep the world running twenty-four/seven.”
“Andie, talk to me. What’s so important—”
“Gotta go, baby. Call me after your meeting, okay?”
The call powered off before I could respond.
With no sun to energize its solar-paneled roof, the bullet train gradually shed its forward inertia until it rolled to an annoying, schedule-busting, perspiration-inducing stop. Outside my private compartment, I could hear a knocking make its way toward my cabin, eventually striking my door.
The conductor poked his head inside my first-class berth. “Sorry for the delay, Dr. Eisenbraun. Backup batteries didn’t have a chance to charge with the brownout in Charlotte. Forecasters are predicting a delay anywhere from one to three hours. Those windows go down if it gets too hot. Can I bring you a cold beverage?”
“I’m fine for now, thank you.” I waited until the cabin door clicked shut, then locked it. What I had not told Andria was that it was not my uncle who had summoned me to the Pentagon, but the vice president.
The questioned remained: why?
* * *
The bullet train rolled quietly through the predawn darkness, its solar panels handicapped by the night. Only its proximity to Washington’s Union Station kept the seven-car aluminum-and-steel beast inching forward at twenty miles an hour, as its backup generator suckled off the energy junction still another thirty-three miles to the north.
I stretched myself awake in the queen-size berth. Sunrise and its accompanying burst of velocity were still fifty-eight minutes away. ABE’s built-in chronometer, functioning like a sixth sense, intuitively informed me the time was 6:12
Unlike the train, the tiny neurological device implanted in my brainstem was powered neither by battery nor photovoltaic cells but by my body’s own internal heat. As long as I functioned, ABE functioned.
I climbed out of bed and entered the bathroom. The water closet was barely large enough to accommodate my frame. I relieved my bladder, then brushed my teeth, staring at my reflection in the oval mirror. My hair was dark brown and kept Jesus long, my beard and mustache neatly trimmed. I hadn’t been without facial hair since a bad case of acne when I was seventeen. For a long moment I contemplated shaving, if only to get a reaction from Andie. I thought better of it, though. I was afraid the acne might have left pockmarks on my cheeks, and who needed to see that?
Stepping out of the bathroom, I dropped to my chest on the warm tile floor and pumped out a quick set of push-ups, stopping at thirty. One whiff of the musky scent coming from my armpits sent me back to the sink for a sloppy hand washing, followed by a fresh coat of antiperspirant.
A train ride that should have been completed in seven hours had entered its second day, thanks to fluctuating weather patterns and a new power grid still in its infancy. A year after developing ABE, I had considered purchasing an old steam locomotive and fitting it with a system that used the train’s own rotating wheels to keep a series of batteries permanently charged. By the time I had set my design to paper, the world had committed its future to an entirely new source of energy.
As the air conditioner clicked on I sighed with relief, feeling a wave of cold air filling the cabin as the train’s velocity increased.
* * *
At precisely 7:14 in the morning, twenty-five hours after I had boarded the train in Orlando, I stepped out onto the concrete platform of Union Station’s upper level. Unlike in Central Florida, the morning air here was crisp with an autumn chill, forcing me to root through my old gym bag for a sweatshirt. Andria hated the relic, threatening to burn it along with my old college boxer shorts with the exposed elastic in back, but I’m a creature of habit, and besides, I prefer a carry-on that I can sling over my shoulder or, if need be, use as a pillow. With the city’s escalators no longer running, my way proved more pragmatic than Andria’s fancy suitcase on wheels.
Adjusting the sack of clothing over my left shoulder, I followed the other two dozen passengers into the historic terminal.
A vaulted ceiling heavy in Roman architecture greeted me as I made my way through the dimly lit 121-year-old structure. The GDO hadn’t been kind. The food court was gone and the storefronts were all empty, looted a decade earlier. A recent restoration project had cleaned up the vacant shops and their rodent population, but the terminal remained a generation away from returning to its stature as a tourist Mecca.