The Ivory Gate, Part 2 of 2
Eugene C. Myers
Missed Part 1? Read it in our June issue!
gotta go, could have some info soon. later.
Jason stared at the computer screen, afraid the words would disappear if he looked away, even for a second. His first reaction was excitement at the prospect that he might soon have answers to at least some of his many questions. He had been getting worried that Laura was just leading him on, that she was holding information back. That she was really an agent of MenTec. Those thoughts never lasted long. He had a gut feeling about her, and he knew she was just as much in the dark as he was. Until today, he hoped.
His next reaction, an even stronger one, was to miss Laura. This one surprised him, because rationally he understood that of course she would be back soon. He now spent most of his time chatting with her online while she did her work and he continued his extra summer classes. Even after getting to know her better and connecting with her, every time she signed off, after every e-mail he sent her, a part of him worried that he would never hear from her again.
Madness. Could two people really become this close in such a short period of time? And he was getting ahead of himself, he didn’t know if she even felt the same way he did, how could she? She was smart and sexy and... And what was he feeling, anyway? Love? Jason laughed out loud, but it sounded empty to him.
He had things to do now; she would be back before he knew it. He would finish up his essay on artificial intelligence experiments in the 2010s, then make some lunch. Maybe peanut butter and jelly. Jason looked around his room, noticing the rumpled piles of clothes strewn across the floor and the stack of plates and cups that had accumulated on his desk. He’d better clean up before his mother came back from her trip. But he had until a few hours at least before she got in. He turned back to his computer screen. The words were still there, they were real.
gotta go, could have more some soon. later. With a silly grin on his face, Jason cheerfully switched to his essay and began typing.
The Interface room was a sharp contrast to the lab she had been working in for a week. Where the other room seemed primitive, drab, and boring, this one was state-of-the-art, with nearly every inch of space occupied with a machine that beeped or clicked, demanding her immediate attention. Laura found herself overwhelmed, it was impossible to take it all in at once. She did notice, with some satisfaction, that there was a door leading into the curtained room, just where she had thought it would be.
Tim was standing patiently by the door, watching her with a smile. She must look like an idiot, a child in a candy store. No, he was looking at the room through her eyes. All this was familiar territory to him, tools he used on a regular basis. Perhaps he missed the sense of wonder he had felt his first time. Right now, she didn’t mind him staring at her. In the back of her mind she was still thinking about Jason, and wishing he could see all of this himself.
Tim moved over to a console near the door and gestured for Laura to come over. “Dr. Morris said he would be here shortly. In the meantime, let me show you around.” Laura nodded, intent on his every word. “A lot of this is technology you’re quite familiar with,” he continued. “This is an EEG – electroencephalograph. It reads electrical activity in the brain. We keep it on all the time so it can measure what we call evoked response potential in the patient, how the brain reacts to stimulation around it.”
Tim ignored the obvious question already forming on Laura’s lips. Whose brain? He moved further along the console. “This is the HDSR, the hyper dynamic spatial reconstructor. It works with X-rays to create a three-dimensional holo of the brain.”
“Similar to a CAT scan?” Laura interrupted.
“That’s right. This is the grandson of the CAT scan. The HDSR allows for a much greater resolution and detail, with a negligible amount of radiation exposure.” He pointed to the last two devices on the console. “We rarely use these anymore. This is the PET scan and the MRI, which I’m sure you’re familiar with.”
Laura nodded. She knew that the PET scan required a radioactive solution to be injected into the blood stream, so the machine could pick up positron emissions and translate them into an image of the brain. MRI stood for magnetic resonance scanning, which was safer in comparison. “Why don’t you use them anymore?” Laura thought that this equipment was still standard issue for hospitals, but this wasn’t her area of expertise.
Tim moved to stand beside a larger machine, and rested his hand on the top of it. “Because of this.” It seemed to have some of the same displays and controls of the other devices she had seen in the room so far, but Laura had never seen anything like it before. Was this a new development by MenTec?
“I don’t recognize it,” she said.
“This is an advanced analytical tool developed by MenTec almost thirteen years ago. It’s called neural stimulation tomography. It combines and improves upon many of the other devices you just saw. The NST uses quantum digital imaging to track the movement and activity of neurons on the brain, without any harm to the patient.” Tim was obviously proud of this device, almost as if he had developed it himself. But she already knew who must have invented it: Dr. Richard Morris.
This was what he had worked on in his time outside of public scrutiny, and it was very impressive. But why hadn’t this been introduced in hospitals and labs yet? It couldn’t possibly still be in prototype stage after over a decade, could it? Could MenTec be hoarding its neurotechnology so it could stay ahead of the game? That would be a crime, when people could be benefiting from their discoveries right now.
Jason would find all of this very interesting. Laura noticed that she no longer questioned whether to share this information with him, but she didn’t think about it for long. Tim had resumed talking.
“If you think this is incredible, wait until you see what else we’ve got.” His excitement was contagious as he steered her to another bank of consoles. He gestured that she should sit next to him in a reclining chair.
“We call this the “window.” Tim indicated a small hooded visor set in the center of the console. He lowered his eyes to it, flipped a switch, and adjusted a dial. When he finished fine-tuning the display, he moved over so she could take a look. What she saw astonished her.
It was like looking through someone else’s eyes. She seemed to be moving down a set of stairs, a disembodied hand sliding down the handrail. She found it really disorienting, detached from her own body for a moment, and she pulled away.
“What is that?” she asked, pressing her palm against her eyes.
“It takes some getting used to at first. It’s an imaging device relaying visual information we can send to a person, sort of a virtual reality but much more advanced. The video game companies would love to get their hands on this technology. Obviously what we’re getting is a flat image, but it seems perfectly three-dimensional when it is sent directly to the brain for processing.”
Directly to the brain? For processing? Dr. Morris’ theories were obviously more than mere speculation. Tim made it sound as easy as taking a roll of film to the pharmacy to get it developed.
Laura was getting a chill. This seemed monstrous, like peeping into someone else’s thoughts, and it didn’t sound exactly safe. She wasn’t sure what was going on here, but she had to fight the urge to leave before she did. This all seemed very surreal to her, like a fanciful dream from which she couldn’t wake up.
“So... is this a recording?” Laura asked, uncertainly.
“This is a delayed feed,” he replied. “This actually happened about thirty seconds ago, real-time. It takes that long for the computer to process the data stream and translate it into a video image that we can see. The brain works much faster. You can also display it on this monitor as the footage is recorded digitally and archived on that server,” he pointed to a massive black box dominating the far corner of the room, “where it is automatically synched with the readouts from the NST for later analysis.”
Laura was astonished at the size of the server he had just indicated. It was the largest she had ever seen, easily ten times larger than the most sophisticated hardware she had worked with. With the advent of molecular circuitry, computers just didn’t get that big anymore. What could require so much raw processing power and storage?
Laura tried to pay attention as much as she could. She wasn’t sure she could remember all of this later on, at least not all the details. Thankfully, they were interrupted before she could get any more confused. The door leading to the curtained room beyond opened. A youngish woman entered the lab and looked at them in surprise. She narrowed her eyes at Laura and rushed up to Tim’s console. Dr. Morris appeared at the door and followed her in at a more leisurely pace. He made eye contact with Laura and gave her a reassuring nod.
“Who is this person and what is she doing here?” the woman asked Tim icily.
Dr. Morris flashed Laura a quick, encouraging smile, and spoke calmly. “Her name is Laura Greene. I asked Tim to show her the facility. She’s just been authorized to work on the project. Laura, this is Allison Jones. She’s our...neuropsychological consultant.”
Allison glared at Dr. Morris then glanced at her wristwatch impatiently. Dr. Morris turned his attention to Tim and the active console, and suddenly became concerned. “Tim, I thought you would wait until I had talked to Laura before you showed her the window. Some of this information might be a little disturbing for her before she understands everything.” Tim simply shrugged and lowered his eyes to the window again.
Allison brushed past Dr. Morris and sat down at another console, slipping a complex headset that covered her eyes. “I don’t have time for this,” she snapped. “I have work to do and I’d appreciate a little silence.” Laura observed Dr. Morris, who was about to retort with something, but then he seemed to back off. Who was this woman if she could speak to him this way?
“We were leaving anyway,” Dr. Morris finally said. “Laura, please come with me. There’s something I want to show you in the next room.” Laura’s heart nearly stopped as Dr. Morris walked toward the curtained room. She jumped up from her seat and hastened to catch up to him. When she did, he whispered to her, almost inaudibly, “I’m sorry about all this. I’ll answer all of your questions of course. In good time.”
Laura didn’t get a chance to respond. Dr. Morris opened the door and ushered her into a dimly lit room. As her eyes adjusted to the different lighting she could make out a hospital bed with a figure laying on it, a man she thought. She wrinkled her nose involuntarily. The air was stale in here. There were countless wires and machines connected to the body on the bed, and Laura was sure he must be close to death. Was this the person she had been monitoring this week?
Dr. Morris spoke quietly. “Laura, meet Jason Reed.”
It was like the world turned upside down. Jason always experienced this when his mother came back from one of her working vacations. He wondered how stressful a conference on chimpanzee psychology could be. She seemed to be in an unusually bad mood today.
He coped with her nagging and complaints like he always did. He locked himself in his room, where he didn’t have to hear about how dusty the living room was, or about the pile of unwashed dishes in the sink, the nearly empty refrigerator, or the newspapers he hadn’t brought in for a week. And no, he hadn’t spent all his time on the computer while she was away, and he would love to chat with her later about her trip and hear about the man she had met at the conference.
He couldn’t stand it. He wondered when her next trip would be, and hoped it would be soon. He couldn’t wait until he could go to college. He wanted to attend a real one, just so he could get out of this house. Until then, the only escape he had from the boring reality of his life was through his computer, and now through Laura.
Where was she? The empty chat room taunted him. How long had it been since he had heard from her? An hour? Maybe two. Much too soon to be worried, but worry he did.
What had happened to her?
Laura sat in uncomfortable silence, looking at Dr. Morris from across his desk. He too was quiet, giving her time to digest everything that she had seen. The things she had just learned were giving her the mental equivalent of indigestion in the form of a pounding headache. She hoped the analgesic he’d given her would take effect soon.
She hadn’t needed to tell Dr. Morris a thing. He knew she’d been in contact with Jason all this time; in fact he had counted on it. She had been used, just like Jason said. But to what end? And what about Jason? What were they doing to him in that room?
“I won’t pretend it’s simple, Laura. I won’t even pretend it’s right – morally, ethically, or scientifically. It is what it is, and I am still coming to terms with that myself. I hope I can help you understand my position.” He looked at her earnestly.
She returned his look stonily, waiting for him to continue. Dr. Morris coughed gently. This wasn’t easy for him.
“The Ivory Gate project is the pinnacle achievement of MenTec’s research, the height of my professional career. I also count this as the lowest point, because I have made some very questionable decisions in regard to it.”
“What kind of project are you running? What’s wrong with him?”
“Jason is in a coma. He was in a terrible car accident when he was five, and he has been in that room since the age of six, where our machines have kept him alive.”
The blood drained from Laura’s face. She clenched the arms of her chair until the knuckles turned white, and she felt a fingernail break. The sudden pain helped to clear her mind.
The evidence in the other room supported what Dr. Morris had said, but it also contradicted Laura’s own experience. To her, Jason was very much alive. She had talked to him daily, only a couple of hours ago, and she knew he was real.
But she had only talked to him through the computer. From what she was beginning to understand, the computer was what created Jason’s reality. Dr. Morris’ papers were not just theories after all. They were facts.
“Jason said his father died when he was five, after the accident. Did his mother agree to... all of this?” Would a grief-stricken widow cling to any slim hope so she wouldn’t lose the rest of her family?
Dr. Morris rubbed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. “Jason’s parents, both of them, have no idea that he is even still alive. For the past twelve years, Allison Jones has been in loco parentis. She’s a psychologist, like I said, but for all intents and purposes she has raised Jason since he was six. All from the Interface room.”
Dr. Morris made eye contact with Laura, willing her to understand what he was saying. “It’s a well-documented fact that people are capable of creating false memories, memories of things that never happened in their childhood, especially when helped along. His father’s death, the friends Jason remembers, all of it is false. Memories planted by hypnotic suggestion so he doesn’t realize how limited the reality we give him is.” Dr. Morris averted his eyes. “Allison is very good at what she does.”
He spoke the last sentence bitterly, and Laura could see that all the pride he may have had in his accomplishments was gone. It had been replaced by guilt, regret, and disappointment.
Laura drummed her fingers on the arm of her chair, chewing over everything in her mind. She felt like the protagonist listening to the villain explain his evil plan just before he killed her. She knew Dr. Morris had something else in mind, and even now she could not think of him as a villain. There was still a big question dominating her thoughts. “How did you do all this?”
Dr. Morris perked up as he explained. Laura was showing an interest; maybe she could still help him. “After we designed the NST, we were able to discover much more about the brain than had ever been possible before. We finally understood the brain and the way it communicates, and we learned enough to develop a primitive synthetic nervous system, an artificial neural network that mimics the functions of the brain. Admittedly, it is on a much larger scale than the elegant compactness of the human brain, even with the substitution of molecular nanotubules instead of neural fibers.”
Dr. Morris paused to sip some water from a mug, giving Laura time to let the information sink in before he continued. Instead, her sense of dread continued to build with each word.
“What were you trying to accomplish? I thought you wanted to communicate with the brain, not replace it.”
Dr. Morris sighed and ran a hand through his graying hair.
“True. Our original plan was to try communicating with the unconscious mind of coma patients directly via the neurological computer link. Eventually, our investors on the Board, and the project, became more ambitious. We wondered, with this new interface, could information be fed into the brain that was entirely indistinguishable from reality? We thought the answer was yes, but we needed a test subject.”
Jason. Laura began to feel sick as she grasped the implications of what they had done. She understood the thirst for knowledge, she shared it. This was going too far, wasn’t it?
Technology that was designed to help had been perverted into something else, just to see how far it could go. Putting rats in a maze.
“The damage Jason suffered from was particularly suited to this experiment,” Dr. Morris continued. Now his explanation sounded clinical, dispassionate, as if he were describing a lab experiment to a lecture class instead of talking about another human life. Did he truly regret what he had done?
“His reticular activating system, the RAS, was disabled in the accident. The computer was able to compensate, by feeding visual images directly into his cerebral cortex and sorting and redirecting the signals appropriately. The neurons of the Ivory Gate, when stimulated, convinced the brain that these signals were ‘real.’ All we needed then was the cooperation of his parents.” Dr. Morris stood up and paced around his office, becoming agitated in his recollection. Did he even notice Laura was still there?
“For a while, the Reeds cooperated. We collected digital footage from their house, their neighborhood, for the virtual recreation we were building. They supplied us with current pictures of Jason’s family and friends.” All in the hopes that they could reach his mind, wherever it was, and get their son back, Laura thought. They didn’t realize what they were getting him into.
“When they began to suspect that our doctors were not working in Jason’s best interests, not trying to bring him out of the coma as we’d promised, his parents backed out. After a year of our careful preparation, they demanded that Jason be disconnected from the equipment and allowed to die peacefully.”
Laura breathed heavily. She wiped her slick palms on her lab coat. “Then what happened?”
“We pretended to agree, and asked that his brain be donated so we could further our research.” Dr. Morris stopped, returning to his desk and slipping into his desk chair. He looked as though he had aged five years in the few minutes that he had been standing. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his sweaty brow. “Jason’s mother was no longer able to have children, and the death of her only son hit her extremely hard.”
“And you continued to let her believe he was dead?” Laura nearly shouted.
Dr. Morris seemed to shrink in his seat. His hand trembled as he squeezed the handkerchief in his fist. “They wanted him dead. His death would have served no purpose, but here at least he would be able to live a normal life and advance our science.”
“Your science could have saved him. You had the technology to talk to him, to try to bring him out of the coma. But you got too greedy.” Laura found herself unable to stop now. She needed to vent all the anger and frustration that was building as she listened to this mad scientist justify his actions.
“I know.” Dr. Morris whispered the words, his lips moving almost soundlessly as he repeated them over and over. “There was nothing I could do. I needed to continue my research; it was for a good cause. I was pressured to move forward with the experiments no matter the cost. I regretted keeping the truth from Mrs. Reed, and I empathized with the loss of her son.” He looked up and almost smiled. “ I arranged to clone Jason for them.”
Laura gasped. Dr. Morris glanced at her nervously. His eyes searched her face worriedly, looking for something. Approval? All he could see on her face was the horror she felt thinking about everything he had done in advancement of his career, in advancement of science. Her expression reflected the feelings he had grappled with ever since Jason was hooked up to the machines for the first time, all because of him.
“By that time cloning had become an ordinary procedure, but not yet widely accepted. It was very expensive and outside of the Reeds’ means, even with the money they received from Jason’s life insurance. We did it for free and they had a newborn son in nine months. We never heard from them again.”
As if that made everything all right. “You lied to them and traded a life for a life,” Laura spat out. “That’s disgusting.”
“We did what we had to do. The operation was a success, more successful than we expected. Jason’s brain took to the new interface extremely well, adapting to the artificial neural network almost immediately. After the twelve months of isolation from the world and the lack of stimulation, it embraced the information we offered it. The brain seemed to compensate for the unrefined video images we supplied, and reacted exactly as if what Jason saw were real. It used the personal experiences of his six years, the memories we planted, and the data from our computers to create a reality for him so convincing that to this day he hasn’t suspected a thing, for even a moment.”
His shoulders drooped and he stared at the top of his desk, wringing his fingers absentmindedly. “It worked too well. We soon discovered we were unable to disconnect him from the machine. His brain had become co-dependent on the synthetic nervous system, and any attempts to have Allison tell him the truth or bring him out of it were unsuccessful. The brain simply ignored anything it couldn’t accept as reality. If we attempted to forcibly interfere, he might have suffered irreparable neurological and emotional damage. The only alternative was to leave him hooked up. The interface and the constant attention of Allison, who he perceived as his mother, sustained his mind and helped keep his body alive. Hormone injections, physical therapy, and stress treatments kept his muscles and organs in shape as he matured, after a fashion. He grew up right in that room.”
So they had left him in a dream world, and for all those years he had been living a lie, denied his real parents, denied real friends, denied real love.
“A number of our scientists welcomed this unique opportunity to study a living mind, twenty-four hours a day. They were able to recording his activities and monitor his brain’s neural activity. Some of the results from this revolutionized years of research. Our investors recognized the potential of this technology, which they preferred to remain secret. We’ve been unable to release our findings except as wild theories, when all along the science is proven and the technology already exists.”
Laura stood and moved beside Dr. Morris, noting the hunch to his shoulders and a tired look in his eyes. She put a hand on his shoulder, and felt him jerk slightly at the contact.
“You could have stopped this,” she said softly.
Dr. Morris looked at her meaningfully. “It’s not too late.”
Not too late? It was too late to give Jason those years back, but maybe not too late to give him back his life, his real life. Was Dr. Morris implying there was something Laura could do? Was that why she was here, why he was telling her this?
“What do you mean?” Laura stepped back. Dr. Morris swiveled his chair to face her, straightening in the seat.
“We can bring him out of this. You and I.”
Dr. Morris wanted to free Jason from his coma? He had just finished explaining to her how impossible that would be. The connection to the synthetic nervous system must be inseparable after over a decade, after growing and developing from childhood with simulated information feeding it from a computer. What kind of a person would be left after all of that was stripped away? What part of Jason could survive? Would he even still be Jason?
“How? Why now, all of a sudden?”
Dr. Morris stood and stepped closer to her, even as she pulled away. He walked past her to the door leading to Jason’s room and opened it, looking at the still figure on the bed. How often did he stand there and look at his experiment? Could he face the results of his decisions every day and keep his sanity, keep his humanity and compassion?
“I have wanted to do this for a long time, Laura. A long time. I always came up with an excuse, or I never had the opportunity, or I was afraid to act. When I learned you were coming here, I thought I finally had a chance to succeed. To make up for my past.”
“What can I do?”
“You’ve already done it. You made contact with him, like I intended to when all this began. You communicated with him. You connected with him. He has something to link him to reality. Someone. Even the computer can’t give that to him. I think that’s all we’ll need to return him to us.”
“It’s too risky, isn’t it? You said he could be damaged if we disconnected him from the interface.” Laura was worried. Living a life in an artificial world was better than not having one. Or was it? She realized she didn’t want to lose Jason, but unless this worked she’d never really have him in her life either. Laura pushed away her selfish thoughts. This was about what was best for Jason. It wasn’t her decision to make, or Dr. Morris’.
“There is a risk, yes.” Dr. Morris turned around to face Laura. “There’s something else. The Board plans to pull the plug on the project at the end of the summer. They believe we’ve learned enough, and continuing it is a tremendous drain on resources and increases the danger that we’ll be discovered.”
Pull the plug? Then there was nothing to lose by not attempting Dr. Morris’ plan. There wasn’t a lot of freedom of decision in this at all, but there were a lot of ways things could end badly for Jason.
A thought occurred to Laura, one she hoped was not true. She wanted to believe Dr. Morris, she wanted to believe that he truly regretted what he had done and wanted to make amends. What if he was still lying to her?
“Does anyone else know about this? Tim?”
Dr. Morris laughed hollowly. “Tim is as bad as I was when I was his age. He is only interested in the science, and I am not one to judge him. I am trying to steer him in a different direction, so he won’t make the same mistakes I did.”
“Tim doesn’t agree with this plan, does he?”
“I have told Tim all he needs to know. He believes I don’t want my research to go to waste, that if Jason were alive he could tell us more about the experience and the way his mind works, or doesn’t work, after he is disconnected from the interface. That’s the only thing Tim would understand or go along with, albeit reluctantly.”
That was the problem. Which story did she believe? She spoke and was disturbed by the hardness in her voice. “Tell me the truth. Do you really care about Jason? Or do you still care more about your research?”
Dr. Morris looked at her sadly and sat at his desk. “I’m not even sure anymore. I’ve been keeping this up for so long, I am afraid that I am incapable of feeling anything. That’s why I have to do this. When it’s done, if Jason is all right, then I’ll know. And when I ask him to forgive me for what I’ve done to him, when I face his family, I need to feel something.”
“Was it worth it?”
Dr. Morris smiled, a real smile that momentarily erased the lines of worry and age on his face. Laura caught a glimpse of the brilliant young doctor who wanted to change the world. The idealist who had succeeded in changing the world, but perhaps not in the way he’d meant to.
“Let’s ask Jason.”
The next morning Laura had a hard time getting out of bed. Besides the fact that she had been unable to sleep for most of the night, she was not looking forward to returning to MenTec. She had been going over the day’s events in her mind, thinking about Jason and the project and wishing it were all just a dream. She ignored the flurry of e-mails she received from Jason, wanting to know what had happened. She just couldn’t talk to him until she sorted her feelings out. She didn’t know when she would be ready, if ever.
How could she face Jason? Damn Dr. Morris for putting this on her. Damn her father for getting her into this. Damn Jason for contacting her in the first place. This would be so much easier if she hadn’t met him.
Couldn’t she just ignore the whole thing? What if Jason were better off not knowing the truth? Could she really take that away from him? Was it her responsibility to tell him?
When she finally made it to the research lab, she was startled. The dark curtain in the window had been removed. She could see clearly into the other room, where Jason lay peacefully, oblivious to the fact that his life was all illusion. Not all of it, she amended. She was real. Her connection to him was real.
Laura walked up to the Interface door and swiped her identicard, already knowing that it would open for her. The green light flashed on and the door latch clicked free. She took a deep breath and opened the door.
Tim was sitting at the “window” viewer, his face pressed closely to the display. Laura ignored him and made her way past him to the door leading to the room that held Jason captive in his own mind. She paused, checking her reflection in a monitor. She brushed her hair back with her fingers, and smoothed her clothes. She hadn’t bothered with the lab coat today.
This is silly. I know he can’t see me, why do I care how I look? First impressions. Out of the corner of her eye she caught Tim watching her. First impressions can be deceptive, she reminded herself. But not about Jason. She was right about him. She slipped through the door and heard a stifled laugh escape Tim’s lips as the door closed behind her.
This was harder than she’d expected. Jason’s body was stiff, arms clenched to his sides, stuck in several places with IV drips. Electrodes were attached to his head. A mass of wires and tubes and useless flesh. She was surprised they had even bothered to keep him in decent physical condition when they only cared about what was inside the shell. He was in much better shape than she had feared; Laura imagined that if she tore him loose of all the technology that he would get up and walk over to her, like Lazarus rising from the dead.
What about her? Did she care more for what was inside? His mind, his personality, his sense of humor. His soul? All the things that made him Jason, whom she had gotten to know without knowing what he looked like. Now that she knew, could she accept them in this body, if he even could come out of wherever his consciousness was locked in his mind? Could she love him if he were debilitated? And most importantly, was the risk worth it? The risk of losing him forever, or the risk of him forgetting her, or the risk that his personality became altered so much that he was someone else entirely.
She knew what Jason would want, as surely as if she were there in that bed instead of him. She would have to give him the choice. Any rationale for inaction would be as bad as what Dr. Morris and MenTec had done to Jason. The lies had to end.
Returning to her computer, Laura logged into the chat room Jason had secured for their personal use. What handle to use? She searched through her memory for an appropriate name, a figure from mythology. A hopeful name.
Medea, she typed. C’mon Jason. I know you’re around somewhere. He arrived in just under a minute, and she knew him by his user name: Theseus. Well chosen.
Laura! Thank God. I was so worried. What happened to you? Laura was glad to see that he hadn’t immediately asked for the information she had learned.
A lot. You were right. They are experimenting on human patients. Coma patients. Was he happy right now, to discover that his suspicions were correct? That they could finally expose MenTec for what it was? Laura hated what she was doing to him. What she would be doing to him. She wondered if their relationship would survive all of this. Now wasn’t the time to be selfish, though. She had a job to do.
Really? Can we get proof? How long have they been doing it? What kind of experiments? The letters appeared rapidly now. He was excited.
Jason, your life isn’t real. Jason, you’re still in a coma. Jason, your father is alive and the person who raised you isn’t your mother. Jason, wake up. Wake up. What should she say to him? Maybe the direct approach would be best, like tearing a Band-Aid off in one quick motion.
Jason, they’ve been experimenting on you for the last twelve years. There. She had said it, but it didn’t make her feel any better. The silence stretched on for minutes. What was he going through? Were things beginning to make sense to him? Suspicions and memories he had, suddenly clicking into place?
What are you talking about?
Laura’s hands shook as she composed a response. She couldn’t imagine what Jason was going through right now. For all the shock she had experienced, this was his life she was talking about. Dr. Morris even thought Jason might not be capable of understanding.
I mean that you never woke up from your coma. The scientists experimented on you. They created a virtual existence for you in a computer, directly linked to your unconscious mind. Your only real contact with the world is through the internet. With me.
That’s ridiculous. Is this a joke? It’s not very funny.
Jason, it’s all true. Dr. Morris explained it all to me. I’ve... I’ve seen your body.
Then he lied to you.
Then you’re lying to me.
Your woking with then. You’re working with them. Jason was starting to make mistakes. He was usually so careful, almost anal about his spelling.
No, Jason, believe me. If you can understand this, then we can figure something out. Let me help you.
Go to hell go to hell goto hell gotohell hell hell hell
Jason logged out of the chat room.
Jason, I love you. It was too late for that. It might not have been enough, but she knew she meant it and wished he could have known it too. She would have another chance.
Blinking back the tears that were obscuring her vision, Laura remembered that Dr. Morris had said telling Jason the truth could damage him permanently, that his brain might reject it. What if that happened and she was responsible? She ran over to the medical console and noted higher readings all across the board. He was agitated, but he was okay.
“You really pissed him off,” Tim said from behind her.
“Shut up,” she said. She wanted to go home and crawl into bed and have her mother bring her a cup of cocoa, like she had when she was a little girl. When she was younger, she never had to worry about things like this, the problems of the grownup world. A perverse uncaring world filled with lies and suffering. Then she pictured a six-year old Jason, sitting in an imaginary bed, being brought imaginary cocoa by a stranger who he thought was his mother. In a world that existed only in his mind. It didn’t get much crueler than that.
“Well, at least you tried. You could have handled it better, but maybe you didn’t really want to succeed. Now you can leave with a clear conscience. Or continue working on the project with us until they cut him off. You’d learn a lot, and your career would be set at MenTec for life.”
“How do you know what I told him?” she asked indignantly. It didn’t really matter and it only provoked him. He tapped the side of his head, and she remembered the visor in the Interface room that he could spy on Jason’s world with. This whole project was sick to the core. Tim grinned at her, a serpent in the Garden of Eden offering her the apple of knowledge. No, she’d already taken the apple, but now that she knew the difference between good and evil, she could do something about it.
The first thing to do was figure out how to get back in touch with Jason. She turned to Tim and forced a sweet smile on his face, clasping his arm forcefully. She felt him begin to pull away.
“Show me how the Interface works.” Tim nodded mutely and led the way to the Interface room.
The next thing she would do was find his family, his real family. The mother he never knew, the father he missed, and the brother he didn’t know he had. She would get the address from Dr. Morris. She couldn’t face this alone, and she thought they had a right to know that their son, their first son, was alive.
The Reed house was nice – a normal suburban home, like the one Laura had grown up in. Like the one Jason had grown up in, but more real. She stepped over the carefully manicured lawn and up the stone path, not knowing whether she was the bearer of good or bad news. Don’t kill the messenger.
She rang the bell and a teenage boy immediately opened the door. He looked like he had been on his way out, and when he caught sight of her he whistled. Laura blushed. She knew the boy was about twelve years old, a perfect replica of Jason at that age if he hadn’t been in a coma hooked up to a computer. She could see the resemblance though, and it hurt her.
This could have been Jason, if he had been able to lead a normal life. Would Jason resent this image of what he had lost? The boy had floppy brown hair, wide, intelligent blue eyes, and a boyish grin befitting his age. She had never met a clone before, or maybe she had but she didn’t know it at the time. But he was not a clone to her, just a boy. A cute little boy. A cute little boy who was leering at her and staring at her chest.
“Eric?” A woman came up behind the boy and put a hand around him affectionately. This was Mrs. Reed. Jason’s mother. Suddenly Laura couldn’t find her voice. Mrs. Reed looked at Laura and back at Eric, who now had an angelic expression on his face. “Friend of yours?”
“I wish,” he muttered under his breath.
“Run along, dear,” she told him. “Aren’t you supposed to be meeting Amy?”
He looked at his mother blankly. “Amy?”
“For a study date. At the library.”
“Oh yeah,” Eric said. “Right. Gotta go.” He submitted to the peck on the cheek his mother gave him and slid past Laura. He walked backward down the path and gave her a smile. “Nice to meet you. See ya ‘round.” He turned and ran off down the street.
“Eric! You forgot your books!” Mrs. Reed called out to him, but he was already out of earshot. Or pretending not to hear her. Laura seriously doubted he was going to the library or that he would be doing any studying tonight. He was only twelve, she thought. Is that how Jason might have ended up?
“I’m sorry about that,” Mrs. Reed said. “Can I help you with something, Miss...?”
Laura turned around and faced Jason’s mother. She was pretty, and already Laura could tell she was much nicer than Allison Jones was. The words spilled out of her mouth, coming too fast, but it was better to get them out before she lost her nerve and thought of some absurd excuse for being on this woman’s doorstep. “My name is Laura Greene. I want to talk to you about your son.”
Mrs. Reed ushered her into the house, shutting the door behind her. “What about Eric?” she asked, puzzled.
Laura took a deep breath. “No. About Jason.”
Laura really needed to work on giving people sudden news. She decided she was better at the analytical aspects of psychology but would probably be lousy at therapy. After the bombshell had been dropped and the initial shock wore off, Jason and Eric’s mother, Melanie, had taken it extremely well. Time heals all wounds, they say, and having Eric all these years had helped her to cope.
In fact, she took it better than her husband Steven did. He wanted to call the police and lawyers and storm into MenTec immediately. When they understood the situation, they were just as indignant as she was and wanted to do something, anything. Whatever it took to get Jason back. Good, Laura thought. Because what I have planned is desperate and dangerous and could easily backfire, especially against Jason.
Laura returned to MenTec after hours, under the pretense of having to finish up some work for Dr. Morris. That was true enough. In Research Lab Three, she stepped up to the door to the Interface room and swiped her identicard. The Interface room was empty except for the myriad blinking lights and cacophony of clicking and beeping of the diagnostics. In the dim lighting, it took on a sinister aspect. Maybe that was just her imagination.
Laura seated herself at the Interface station where Allison had sat, and slipped on the headset. Tim had explained how this worked, and she knew it could be harmful to her since she hadn’t been conditioned for it. No time to worry about that.
She adjusted the small dual screens in front of her eyes, pressed the electrodes against the flesh of her temple, and slid the tiny microphone to her lips. She recited the words that, when spoken, would disconnect the data feed and bring her back to reality.
“There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.”
Laura pressed the activation button and stifled a scream as she felt a surge of electricity run through her scalp. Her temples felt like they were on fire, and for a moment she lost vision as the neural network overrode the visual signals her eyes were sending to her brain.
Laura’s blind eyes accepted new images from the screens in front of them, images she was aware of but unable to access, relaying the information through the RAS, through the nerves of the Ivory Gate, and directly into her cerebellum. The result was a virtual reality, but less refined than the one Jason had lived with for most of his life. The other difference was she could leave when she wanted, and for Jason it would be much harder, if not impossible.
She recognized the house she was standing in. She had left it only a few hours before, the Reed home. There were differences though. This house had known nothing of a loving father or a hormonal younger brother, or a woman who would do anything for her son. The living room was dark, complementing Laura’s mood.
She stepped uncertainly through the room, getting her legs and shakily feeling her way around the furniture. She caught her reflection in a mirror above the fireplace. She recognized a younger version of Melanie Reed. Very attractive woman, Laura thought. I see where Jason gets his looks.
The real Melanie Reed hadn’t changed that much in the last decade, but obviously no one had bothered to update her image file in the database. This must be one of the things Jason’s mind was able to compensate for. He expected to see his mother age over the years, so it filled in the gaps and made it appear so. Laura almost regretted not being able to pursue this as a line of research, it sounded really fascinating. Almost.
She made her way up the stairs to where she knew Jason’s room would be. She saw a light at the end of the hallway and walked quietly up to the door. She hesitated for a moment, taking long breaths. She knocked. Too softly. She knocked harder.
She heard a sigh come from the other side of the door. “Go away.”
She knocked again. “Mom, I don’t really feel like talking right now.”
Laura pushed open the door and walked into the room. Jason jumped up from the bed and glared at her. “Mom, really!” He paused for a second, and then looked at her suspiciously. “Mom?”
Jason. He didn’t look exactly like he did in the lab, nor exactly like an older version of Eric. Was this what he thought he looked like? Had his mind, given free reign, been able to make him look the way he pictured himself, the way he wanted to be?
He was taller than he was in real life, a little thinner, but just as pale. His brown hair was dark and wavy, and his blue eyes were hidden behind thick glasses. Interesting that he had corrective lenses when everything around him was all in his mind. More interestingly, he had asked who she was, which meant he was starting to believe that his mother was not really his mother.
She gave him a hug, her eyes tearing. She hoped that wouldn’t affect the interface. Caught up in her emotions she didn’t immediately notice that she couldn’t feel him. It didn’t really matter.
“Jason! I’m so sorry!” Jason didn’t struggle, just stood there dumbfounded. Her voice. Her voice was her own, because the computer was taking it from the microphone on the headset her body was wearing. She pulled away and looked at Jason cautiously. “It’s me. Laura.” Would he explode at her? Would his brain shut down? He moved towards her. This time he hugged her, and she could see he was crying.
They stood that way for a while, just holding each other, not needing to speak. Not able to speak. As the sobs in his body died down, he finally let her go. He touched her cheek lightly, his mother’s cheek. “I wonder what Freud would say.”
Laura laughed. Everything would be all right. She knew it.
“This is really weird,” he said, as he sat at his computer and began typing feverishly.
Laura sat on his bed. She had so much to say to him. Where should she start?
“Are you okay?” she asked. Not brilliant, but to the point. He didn’t look up from his computer.
“I think so. I think I’ve never been better, actually. I’m sorry I didn’t believe you at first.” He turned to her, wiping his still moist eyes.
“It’s not your fault. Dr. Morris explained that it was likely your brain couldn’t understand it, that it would just reject the possibility that all of this,” she looked around his messy, average teenage boy’s bedroom, “isn’t real.”
He nodded. “But I said some things... that I regret. It took some time, but eventually everything you said sank in. And I realized that I...trust you. With my life.” He looked around too and laughed. “Literally.”
Laura sighed with relief. “I’m glad. I wasn’t sure how you would take it. I don’t think I could handle all of this being dumped on me.”
“No, things are starting to make sense, actually. I always thought I’d been adopted.” They looked at each other for a moment then began to crack up, grateful for the laughter to relieve the tension of the situation.
After things had quieted down, Laura looked at Jason awkwardly. “Jason, we don’t have a lot of options, but the decision on what we do is entirely up to you.”
Jason became serious. He took off his glasses and set them on his desk. “Laura, if that’s true, then I don’t have a chance.”
Laura’s heart sank before she realized what he had meant. “It’s dangerous, but I want you to try to come out of this coma.”
“Then that’s our decision.” Jason smiled at her and turned to the computer. “Besides, according to these files, if we do nothing, I’m going to die anyway in a couple of months when they switch off whatever’s keeping me ticking.”
“It’s all here, reports, files, Dr. Morris’ private logs, everything.” He turned to smile at her. “It’s amazing how easy it is to hack into a computer when you have a direct link to it from your brain. And all of it’s on the way to the major newspapers, satellite cable networks, and local law enforcement.” He noticed her look of concern. “I’m okay with this. Really. I needed to know the truth. Thank you.”
Laura had almost forgotten. “Jason, go to the chat room,” she blurted out. “There’s a surprise for you.”
“I don’t know if I can take any more surprises,” he laughed, but he did as she told. He signed into the chat room as simply “Jason.” No more illusions. He discovered someone was already there waiting for him.
Mom and Dad: Jason, come back to us. We love you.
Jason looked at the screen quietly.
“Dad,” he whispered softly. He rubbed his teary eyes and then typed a response. I’m coming home.
Laura was glad she had done this, all of it, but it wasn’t quite over yet. Jason looked up from his computer and held out his hand. Laura got up, walked over to him, and placed her hand in his.
“You know I might not come out of this. Or... I might not be the same.”
Laura didn’t care. He would make it, he had to. They had already come this far.
“Don’t worry. You’ll make it. We both will.”
“I think I have control over the interface, and I’m going to need to shut it down to make this work. I’d prefer it if you weren’t along for the ride. It could get pretty rough.”
Laura nodded mutely. She stepped back from Jason, resisted the urge to click her heels, and said, “There’s no place like home.” The last thing she saw was Jason’s smiling face.
Suddenly she felt a searing pain and the world blanked out. When her vision cleared, she was sitting at the Interface console. She took the headset off and wiped sweat and tears from her eyes.
“Ahem. How’d it go?”
Laura spun around and saw Tim and Dr. Morris standing behind her. She jumped up from her seat.
“He’s going to try it. I think it’s going to work.”
Dr. Morris collapsed into a chair and lowered his head. “Then it’s over. It’s finally over.” Not quite, Laura thought. It’s really just beginning. The next few weeks would be the hard part.
Tim grinned. “Nobel, here we come!” Laura decided not to tell him that the secret was out, and that by morning he would most likely be posting bail instead of cashing that check for the Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She glanced at Dr. Morris. She would give him a few more minutes of peace. He deserved a small reprieve before he faced his crimes.
A few minutes later, every diagnostic in the room went wild as Jason deactivated the artificial neural network connected to his brain and again lapsed into a coma, this time to try to come out of it on his own, without the help of technology. Aided only by the memory of the woman he loved. That would be enough.
Jason Reed wheeled himself slowly down the hallway, checking the room numbers as he went, worried he might miss the one he was looking for. There it was, on the left. Room 1020.
He had doubts about coming here today. He’d wanted to be stronger first, but his body still needed a lot more physical therapy and practice after thirteen years. He had to be content with the wheelchair for a few more weeks at least. Jason also still had difficulty speaking clearly. Finally his mother told him to stop making excuses and to go see her.
Laura had moved away, not far, just far enough to escape the attention she had received during the investigation and lawsuit MenTec faced after the project had been exposed. She’d enrolled in a college, a real one, the same college Jason would be applying to the next semester, by no small coincidence.
Laura’s mother had gotten his parents an excellent settlement, which had been put to good use immediately for his rehabilitation when he finally came out of his coma two weeks after the computer link had been broken. He had been happy to learn that Dr. Morris and Tim Parker, two strangers to him, had been arrested along with most of the staff at MenTec, and were awaiting trial. They were likely to have long sentences in prison, and in the meantime their research was finally being shared at no profit to them.
When Laura had learned Jason was finally awake she had e-mailed him, and for a while it was just like old times, although his typing was significantly slower. He had discovered pretty soon that his body just couldn’t keep up with his mind, but it was improving. She understood that he needed time to heal, physically and emotionally, and she respected his wish to keep some distance until he was ready. He kept delaying their meeting; he wanted it to be special.
Laura knew he was making excuses, and she would wait for him, but she had also made it pretty clear that he’d better hurry up about it. He worked hard on the physical therapy, he had good incentive to make as much of a recovery as possible. Laura helped with the emotional therapy. She would make a good psychologist one day, he thought.
He was finally ready to see her today, but even after everything he was still worried there would be no room for him in her life.
Mustering the courage, Jason knocked lightly on the door and it flew open immediately. Jason looked up and swallowed. There she was. More beautiful than the picture he had first seen a lifetime ago.
Laura gave him the smile that had helped bring him out of the darkness, the smile he had waited to see for all these months.
It was worth it.
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