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We knew we had something incredible the first time we got a clear image.
With each click of a switch the equipment whirred and whined its way to life. This little closet, out of the way from the main lab, was jammed full of racks and secrecy. It was the brains of the Direct Encephalo Ionizer, or DEI, the instrument to which we had dedicated our lives. It fired up without a hitch as each of the components blinked their way on.
In the moment before the main computer booted up I caught a glimpse of myself in the dark screen, a reflection of a graying dark beard that hid all the wrinkles of worry underneath. I was glad to see my image disappear into the blue screen that showed it was all progressing. This had to work, and soon, if we were going to keep our funding.
I slipped through the door to greet LaShonda who was prepping our subject in the big dentists chair we had grabbed at a garage sale. Right now, she was Dr. Clark, straight business, cool and professional, until the moment demanded more. That was until her smile lit up the room, stretching across her broad chin with a warmth they don’t teach you with your doctorate in Cog Psych.
She stood in front of the large quartz disk that was clamped onto an improvised pole on her left that held the beam emitter. To her side was the other pole where the impossibly heavy detector drooped slightly. LaShonda did her best to fuddle with the clamp and level it, but it was always a shade off balance.
“You comfortable now, honey?”
“Uh, yeah, I guess so.”
“Just relax, this won’t feel like anything special.”
Our subject that day was Jayda S, one of our students. They all had to take their turn under the beam, but none of them ever seemed to like it. Jayda, like most, had the excitement of discovery brighten up her young green eyes, but the way she fumbled with her long blonde hair betrayed her worry. She was the crew that made this exploration possible, just as surely as LaShonda and I shared the role of Columbus. Jayda’s confidence was as important to us as it was to any ship in uncharted waters – and moreso.
“We’re ready to go when you are,” I called to them both.
“You’re all set, honey?” LaShonda checked in.
“Uh—huh. What do I have to do?” Jayda nervously responded.
“Just look over here at the board. We’d like you to think about the problems up there. Concentrate on solving the integral in your head.”
As one of my Physics majors, we knew that Jayda had her calculus down cold. I settled in to watch on the screen and sync the signal behind the viewing computer as LaShonda aligned the beam to focus right on Jayda’s head.
“We have a signal, It’s strength 90. Up a bit, yes, 93 … 95, that’s as strong as we can expect,” I relayed.
“Just relax, honey. This is no big deal. Focus on the integral.” There was that smile.
I switched it over to the video signal and adjusted the sync frequency. Once again we had a blurry image that was vague and out of focus. The static and deep purple color was dispatched when I clicked on the filters we’d programmed in for this run, but there still wasn’t much there. A row of something repeated and a few outlines of round figures. Another result too subtle to impress the unimaginative.
“Are we getting the same patterns?” LaShonda asked me. Her cool demeanor quivered a bit as her brow tightened under her cornrowed hair.
“Same, sort of. Same but different. It’s just not much of a signal.”
“The new filters working?”
“I think so. Actually, we have signal, it’s not decoding into anything striking.”
Jayda was silent as she stared at the board. The process of solving this simple integral was probably over in her head already, but she did her best to concentrate on the process like we told her.
“Just relax, honey. Bill, you have anything different?”
“Same as before. The beam is on full.”
There was a pause after I said that, a pause filled with the warm hum of machines and the whistle of air conditioning. The machinery was unrelenting, but LaShonda stole a moment from it and made the single greatest leap we could have made.
“You mind if we try something different, Bill?”
“Go ahead. It’s working properly, we’re just not getting anything new.”
Her brow unwrinkled as that smile turned to pull our subject off in a new direction.
“Jayda, honey, just relax. Think about something peaceful and happy for a moment.”
“Like a memory?”
“Yes, from childhood. Something that always relaxes you.”
The screen in front of me flickered and flashed as the video went way out of sync. I clicked on the control panel to lock it in once again. This was a new signal to us.
“Whoa, that did something.”
“Did what, Bill?”
“I dunno, it just … Got it again, up like two kilohertz. 2230, actually.”
There, on the screen, was the new world we were looking for. A sharp picture of people, running and laughing. It buzzed in and out a bit, but in brief moments the images were clear. I was vaguely aware of how my eyes grew large as I silently tried to pull this image into my own head.
“Bill, you got something?”
“Come … get over here. Mother of God, this is amazing.”
“What is it, what do we have?”
We were paying no attention to the outward manifestation of Jayda now that we had the inside of her head up on the screen. That was our mistake. The noise and commotion pulled her attention away from the peaceful hum of her own thoughts and into our excitement. The image flicked off into static before LaShonda could come over and see it.
“What did we have, Bill?”
“It looked like … like guys in uniforms laughing and doing something exciting. Let me show you.”
I replayed the scene and there they were. A glimpse of men in what were clearly … Civil War uniforms? They were in a large hall of some kind that had a cross at the end of it. Was this a church? It had to be, I reasoned, but the men were full of the glee that could only have come from some kind of defiling. Two of them grabbed something shiny off the alter just as the image fluttered off to static.
LaShonda ran her fingers over her cornrows. She knew this would take time to absorb.
“Jayda, honey, what were you thinking of just now?”
“My grandfather. When I was little he used to take care of me all the time.”
“Yes, he … he died just a few weeks ago. I miss him terribly.”
“Is there, ah, any chance that your grandfather was in some, I don’t know, Civil War re-enactment group?”
“Noooo, not that I know of.”
There was another long silence that filled what she said next with a terrific air of importance.
“What exactly were you thinking of, honey?” The cool, professional Dr. Clark was back in the room now that the moment was over.
“My grandfather. The last time I saw him.”
“What did you do, I mean, what was he like?”
“Just relax and tell us more, Jayda,” I interrupted. She was like my own daughter now and not just a grad student guinea pig.
“We used to just walk to places and talk about stuff.”
“What kind of stuff?”
Another silence defined the moment. I clicked on the replay one more time to try to make sense of it even as we grilled her.
“I was thinking about some stories he told about his grandfather. No, wait, great-grandfather. Family lore. It was real important to him, he told me about it over and over.”
“Civil War?” I gulped knowing the answer.
Jayda blushed a dark red that came from a well deep inside of her. “Yeah.” The color drained as quickly as it came. “Yeah, how did you know?”
I ran the moment we captured into a loop and turned the monitor to Jayda. “Is this what he told you about?” I knew the answer was yes, it simply had to be. We had the image straight from inside her head in front of us.
“Um, no, not at all. Grandpa told me about his great-grandpa Samuel S. and the 11th Pennsylvania Cavalry, how they served with distinction and valor.”
“They never … you never heard a story about them looting a church?”
“Bill!” LaShonda lost her cool a moment, “Just, just don’t put things into her head, we have to know what this is.”
“I’ve already turned the monitor around. It’s too late.”
“The subject is, in fact, contaminated, but it’s her own images. We don’t want to add our own prejudice.”
Jayda had been focused on the screen as intently as she possibly could. When the argument was hitting its own pace, she suddenly put a stop to it.
“This isn’t what Grandpa told me at all. I don’t know where this came from.”
The hum and whistle of machines filled the moment again. It defined what we had in our own heads as well as any image the DEI could possibly have created.
I broke the silence carefully. “It’s been over 10 minutes already, she’s done for today.”
“Yes, Bill, you’re right. Jayda, can we pick this up tomorrow?”
“Ah, sure. What is it?”
“We have no idea, honey. If you can’t tell us, we have no idea.”
As Jayda got up to leave, I went into the closet off the lab to switch off the equipment. While the lights on the panels slowly extinguished, one by one, I could feel how much my heart was pounding in my chest. Were these the results we were expecting? Not at all. Would they be enough to get us what we wanted? They almost looked faked, they were too good.
If only we knew what we had then.
There are many details about the DEI and its construction that I want to tell the world, but with all the chaos and lawyers I can’t. This will have to be sorted out before the patents can be filed and we get our chance to teach the world what we have created. We dedicated two years of our lives to this and have a sense of ownership. That’s something the courts don’t seem capable of understanding.
What I can tell you is that some of the reports you may have read are correct. We started with a perfectly coherent beam of muon neutrinos and record how they split into patterns of electron neutrinos and tau neutrinos as they passed through the brain of the subject. The detector is one of our own making. A signal is decoded with a Fast Fourier Transform and synchronized through a series of filters to create a video image.
For now, the world will have to be content with the DEI’s results we were able to publish. Our subjects were limited to 10 minutes a day because we really didn’t know what kind of hazard this represented. It was all new and we weren’t taking any chances. That’s what we thought, at least.
The session with Jayda left us feeling empty and anxious. Something showed up on the screen, something we didn’t anticipate at all. We were nearly out of grad students to test and all we wanted was more. The loop of images flickered over and over under the hum of air conditioning and fluorescent lights as we powered the equipment down.
“What … what the Hell is this?” I shook my head to answer myself.
“I don’t know, Bill. But it came from deep in her mind.”
“It’s not her grandfather, that much I’m sure of.”
LaShonda casually grabbed a pen. “Let’s run down what we know it isn’t first.”
“OK, we know it’s not equipment failure.”
“It certainly isn’t an example of cognitive learning.”
“Whoo, yes, we’ll have to explain how far we’ve strayed.”
“It isn’t a ghost.”
We looked at each other. When LaShonda was serious her dark eyes became more in command of the situation. I never knew anything about her personal life or how she came to be the best Cog Psych researcher I’d ever met. All I knew was that I trusted her like no one else. That, and when her eyes stared through me the way she did that moment she was determined to see far beyond the situation we had in front of us.
“You’re sure it wasn’t a ghost, LaShonda?” I wasn’t sure.
“No, no I’m not. I mean …” It was hard to tell when mocha skin blushed.
“I know what you mean. Look at these guys, they aren’t actors.”
“What do you mean, Bill?”
“They walk bow-legged, like a rancher.”
“Jayda said something about Cavalry.”
“Those were stories, though, those weren’t … events.”
“She had a trauma recently, that might explain the strong signal.”
“That’s the thing, the signal strength was as high as ever.”
“But how much of that is noise, Bill? What part are we looking for?”
We had struggled with the signal to noise ratio for so long I had forgotten that we didn’t even know what signal we were looking for. It was all data, as any researcher would tell you, and all data is good. But some of that data was numbing by its sheer volume.
“How did we get something like this?” I struggled to remember specifically. “What exactly did you ask her?”
“I only asked her to relax. Remember, she’s had a trauma. This signal may come from lower down in the brain.”
“But even she didn’t recognize the images.”
“That’s true.” She tapped her pen nervously on the chair.
“We can start over with the students. Summer doesn’t start for four weeks.”
“No … no, Bill.” LaShonda’s eyes focused tightly on mine and her voice rang out as Dr. Clark. “These … kids, they haven’t seen enough. We need someone who’s had a trauma.”
I whistled my breath out slowly. I knew what she meant and how hard she meant it.
“Mother of God, this is so far from the project proposal,” I said through my teeth.
“DARPA will throw a fit.”
“But we’re getting results. We can’t back down now.”
“The presentation is in … what, two weeks from tomorrow.”
“And we’ve got nothing up until this, nothing anywhere near as solid.”
“Can we tie it back to cognitive learning somehow?”
“Let’s see what we have and then we’ll work it back.”
The pause in the conversation crackled through the air. I turned my head to stare at the boys in blue at the monitor, over and over running up to the big silver set and gleefully grabbing it off the alter. Why did I know they were gleeful? Why did I know they were doing something they shouldn’t? All my life I wanted nothing more than truth, the hard provable kind of truth that hours of programming spit out in reams of data.
I lowered my eyes to put some distance between myself and the moment. The floor didn’t have any answers, so I lifted my gaze to see that conquering smile beaming a ray of confidence like nothing else could. I laughed, and soon LaShonda laughed with me.
“What are we going to do?” I just wanted to move on and get more.
“Find someone who’s been around.” Her voice rang with experience.
“Like who? Jim McDermott in Chemistry?”
“He’s been married four times, that’s trauma.”
“Ha!” she laughed. “No, something bigger. There’s a homeless man on the campus I’ve been watching.” It was just like her to watch people and file them away in her mind’s catalog.
“Do you know his name?”
“Charlie. I talked to him once. Very charming, like many alcoholics. Something happened to him.”
“Any idea what?”
“He’s very evasive, but I’ll bet it’s just below the surface all the time.”
“You Psychs never stop, do you?” I grinned to cut the tension.
“Just like the Physicist who still sees nothing more than signal,” she shot back, her eyes focused on to mine in a laugh.
I don’t know if it was out of curiosity or a vain effort to please our funders, but we decided to do it. The next day, I found Charlie on the bench by the Quad. I offered twenty bucks to come in and sign a complicated form he probably didn’t understand and just sit down in the cool air conditioning for a half hour. He was clearly happy to get out of the heat even as his plans for the twenty burned inside him. His rumbled body with wild hair on top relaxed easily into the battered old dentist chair as I went into the closet to fire the DEI back to life.
“Just relax, honey, this won’t be anything special.” LaShonda was cutting to the chase.
“I’m as cool as a cucumber.” Charlie’s blue eyes flashed.
“You won’t feel a thing.”
“No sweat, nice setup you have here. What kind of experiments do you run?”
“We just look at people’s reactions.”
“That’s some whacked stuff. What are you looking for?”
“Nothing, honey, just relax.”
“You’re not going to dissect my brain, are you?”
“Not exactly.” There was that smile.
I was out in the room just long enough to see a small sense of panic light up Charlie’s eyes through this exchange. He did have a secret just below the surface. I felt a bit ashamed as if I had lied to him about what we were doing, but we had done our best to explain what we were doing. It wasn’t our fault he didn’t quite get it.
“Now, you’re relaxed and comfortable, honey?” There was that smile.
“Sure am. You’re a real sweet thing, you know it?”
“I know it.”
“That smile of yours, it just lights up the room.”
“I’m glad you like it. Just be comfortable.”
“I knew a woman like you once in Mississippi. I like black women myself. Once you go black you never go back, I always say.”
“You like your women strong and determined?”
LaShonda couldn’t see me wince as she was engaging him.
“You know it, babe. You’re a real class act.”
“Why thank you. You mind if I ask you a few questions?”
“How could I resist a woman like you? Shoot.”
“You live … here on campus?”
“Sure do. Have a great setup down at the base of the big Greek building. I’d love to show it to you sometime.”
“Uh-huh. How long have you been homeless?”
“I’ve been on the road for like 12 years. It’s a great life, always has adventure.”
“How did you come to be homeless?”
“What do you mean?”
“You like to drink, don’t you?”
I took my eyes off of the screen for a moment as she cut through him in a way our beam simply couldn’t. It felt as if her getback for the earlier comments was slow in coming but sharper and more focused than neutrinos could ever be.
“I got no problem, babe. I just take what I can get.”
“But you haven’t always been homeless. Tell me how you got there.”
On the screen, the now familiar flicker shifted and snapped me to attention. The image of a man standing in the doorway of an aircraft, blustering in a buffeting wind, came into sharp focus. I threw all the filters on and quickly had it in sharp focus.
There was a man who looked a lot like Charlie, but younger and clean cut. His eyes were as empty as they were blue, already looking past this moment. He was holding a darker man by the shoulders who kicked and squirmed as hard as he could. For all his struggle, I could see the pale of fear draining away his life. Then, in a flash, he was let go and wiped from the scene by the wind.
There was something about this video which simply hurt, reeking of adrenaline smashing into flesh and bone and eventually mind. I realized that Charlie hadn’t said a word. It was up to me to push this forward.
“Charlie,” I asked, “Have you ever been in like the CIA or Speical Forces or something?”
LaShonda shot a look back at me as I, once again, contaminated the subject. I wasn’t going to turn the monitor around this time, but she had to have some clue what I saw. This was a nasty, horrible evil that filled the screen in a way no data or image ever could.
“Hey! You guys … you’re trying to read my mind!” Charlie’s eyes bugged out wide.
“No, honey, we’re not … we’re just trying to learn how the mind works.”
“You’re inside my head! Just like those CIA bastards were always trying to do!”
“Just relax honey, it’s …”
“You’re perfectly safe here. We’re not .. I mean, we …”
“You’re inside my head! Get out of it! Get the Hell out! I gotta get out!”
Charlie got up and bolted for the door as fast as a man could. LaShonda shot a devastating look back at me as if I’d done something terrible wrong, but I knew the image would speak for itself.
“You gotta see this. You … you just gotta,” was all I could say.
“Bill, you have to stop doing this! We were getting something, weren’t we?”
“I’m sorry, LaShonda,” I sighed with my eyes closed, “But you needed to know where this is going.”
“What do you mean?”
“Take a look.”
I put the brief video on loop so that LaShonda could see what I meant. She absorbed it coldly, and I felt a need to explain.
“This is … this is an evil, I don’t know how else to describe it.”
“It does look like our subject did something terrible, Bill.”
“It’s more than that. I heard about this. When I studied in Bogotá I knew many people who had this happen to friends, brothers, parents …”
“I understand, Bill.”
LaShonda put her hand on mine and my heart sank just a bit lower. I felt like a child for a moment as a feeling of being out of control of my own world washed over me.
“We don’t know what we’re getting with this thing yet, you know.”
“I realize that. Perhaps we should review what we have and how we do it before we get any more data.”
“Yes, yes, that’s a good idea. We have to decide what to tell DARPA.”
“The review with Anderson will take us a lot of time to prepare. We should get that together.”
“Yes, we have a lot of data to sift through already.”
“There are … 26 student interviews that should provide some kind of patterns related to cognitive learning.”
“Perhaps we should put a monitor up that you can see, maybe behind the subject.”
“That may be a good idea as well. Let’s stop gathering data and work this out.”