[Robert J. Sawyer]  Science Fiction Writer
 ROBERT J. SAWYER
 Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

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[WAKE spine]

Opening Chapters


Copyright © 2009 by Robert J. Sawyer. All Rights Reserved.

  WAKE  

  Volume 1 of the WWW Trilogy  

  by Robert J. Sawyer  

 

What a blind person needs is not a teacher but another self.

—Helen Keller


  Chapter 1  

       Not darkness, for that implies an understanding of light.

       Not silence, for that suggests a familiarity with sound.

       Not loneliness, for that requires knowledge of others.

       But still, faintly, so tenuous that if it were any less it wouldn't exist at all: awareness.

       Nothing more than that. Just awareness — a vague, ethereal sense of being.

       Being ... but not becoming. No marking of time, no past or future — only an endless, featureless now, and, just barely there in that boundless moment, inchoate and raw, the dawning of perception ...


       Caitlin had kept a brave face throughout dinner, telling her parents that everything was fine — just peachy — but, God, it had been a terrifying day, filled with other students jostling her in the busy corridors, teachers referring to things on blackboards, and doubtless everyone looking at her. She'd never felt self-conscious at the TSB back in Austin, but she was on display now. Did the other girls wear earrings, too? Had these corduroy pants been the right choice? Yes, she loved the feel of the fabric and the sound they made, but here everything was about appearances.

       She was sitting at her bedroom desk, facing the open window. An evening breeze gently moved her shoulder-length hair, and she heard the outside world: a small dog barking, someone kicking a stone down the quiet residential street, and, way off, one of those annoying car alarms.

       She ran a finger over her watch: 7:49 — seven and seven squared, the last time today there'd be a sequence like that. She swiveled to face her computer and opened LiveJournal.

       "Subject" was easy: "First day at the new school." For "Current Location," the default was "Home." This strange house — hell, this strange country! — didn't feel like that, but she let the proffered text stand.

       For "Mood," there was a drop-down list, but it took forever for JAWS, the screen-reading software she used, to announce all the choices; she always just typed something in. After a moment's reflection, she settled on "Confident." She might be scared in real life, but online she was Calculass, and Calculass knew no fear.

       As for "Current Music," she hadn't started an MP3 yet ... and so she let iTunes pick a song at random from her collection. She got it in three notes: Lee Amodeo, "Rocking My World."

       Her index fingers stroked the comforting bumps on the F and J keys — Braille for the masses — while she thought about how to begin.

       Okay, she typed, ask me if my new school is noisy and crowded. Go ahead, ask. Why, thank you: yes, it is noisy and crowded. Eighteen hundred students! And the building is three stories tall. Actually, it's three storeys tall, this being Canada and all. Hey, how do you find a Canadian in a crowded room? Start stepping on people's feet and wait for someone to apologize to you. :)

       Caitlin faced the window again and tried to imagine the setting sun. It creeped her out that people could look in at her. She'd have kept the venetian blinds down all the time, but Schrödinger liked to stretch out on the sill.

       First day in tenth grade began with the Mom dropping me off and BrownGirl4 (luv ya, babe!) meeting me at the entrance. I'd walked the empty corridors of the school several times last week, getting my bearings, but it's completely different now that the school is full of kids, so my folks are slipping BG4 a hundred bucks a week to escort me to our classes. The school managed to work it so we're in all but one together. No way I could be in the same French class as her — je suis une beginneur, after all!

       Her computer chirped: new email. She issued the keyboard command to have JAWS read the message's header.

       "To: Caitlin D.," the computer announced. She only styled her name like that when posting to newsgroups, so whoever had sent this had gotten her address from NHL Player Stats Discuss or one of the other ones she frequented. "From: Gus Hastings." Nobody she knew. "Subject: Improving your score."

       She touched a key and JAWS began to read the body of the message. "Are you sad about tiny penis? If so —"

       Damn, her spam filter should have intercepted that. She ran her index finger along the refreshable display. Ah: the magic word had been spelled "peeeniz." She deleted the message and was about to go back to LiveJournal when her instant messenger bleeped. "BrownGirl4 is now available," announced the computer.

       She used alt-tab to switch to that window and typed, Hey, Bashira! Just updating my LJ.

       Although she had JAWS configured to use a female voice, it didn't have Bashira's lovely accent: "Say nice things about me."

       Course, Caitlin typed. She and Bashira had been best friends for two months now, ever since Caitlin had moved here; she was the same age as Caitlin — fifteen — and her father worked with Caitlin's dad at PI.

       "Going to mention that Trevor was giving you the eye?"

       Right! She went back to the blogging window and typed: BG4 and I got desks beside each other in home room, and she said this guy in the next row was totally checking me out. She paused, unsure how she felt about this, but then added, Go me!

       She didn't want to use Trevor's real name. Let's give him a code name, cuz I think he just might figure in future blog entries. Hmmm, how 'bout ... the Hoser! That's Canadian slang, folks — google it! Anyway, BG4 says the Hoser is famous for hitting on new girls in town, and I am, of course, tres exotique, although I'm not the only American in that class. There's this chick from Boston named — friends, I kid you not! — poor thing's name is Sunshine! It is to puke. :P

       Caitlin disliked emoticons. They didn't correspond to real facial expressions for her, and she'd had to memorize the sequences of punctuation marks as if they were a code. She moved back to the instant messenger. So whatcha up to?

       "Not much. Helping one of my sisters with homework. Oh, she's calling me. BRB."

       Caitlin did like chat acronyms: Bashira would "be right back," meaning, knowing her, that she was probably gone for at least half an hour. The computer made the door-closing sound that indicated Bashira had logged off. Caitlin returned to LiveJournal.

       Anyway, first period rocked because I am made out of awesome. Can you guess which subject it was? No points if you didn't answer "math." And, after only one day, I totally own that class. The teacher — let's call him Mr. H, shall we? — was amazed that I could do things in my head the other kids need a calculator for.

       Her computer chirped again. She touched a key, and JAWS announced: "To: cddecter@ ..." An email address without her name attached; almost certainly spam. She hit delete before the screen reader got any further.

       After math, it was English. We're doing a boring book about this angsty guy growing up on the plains of Manitoba. It's got wheat in every scene. I asked the teacher — Mrs. Z, she is, and you could not have picked a more Canadian name, cuz she's Mrs. Zed, not Mrs. Zee, see? — if all Canadian literature was like this, and she laughed and said, "Not all of it." Oh what a joy English class is going to be!

       "BrownGirl4 is now available," JAWS said.

       Caitlin hit alt-tab to switch windows, then: That was fast.

       "Yeah," said the synthesized voice. "You'd be proud of me. It was an algebra problem, and I had no trouble with it."

       Be there or B^2, Caitlin typed.

       "Heh heh. Oh, gotta go. Dad's in one of his moods. See you" — which she'd no doubt typed as "CU."

       Caitlin went back to her journal. Lunch was okay, but I swear to God I'll never get used to Canadians. They put vinegar on French fries! And BG4 told me about this thing called poontang. Kidding, friends, kidding! It's poutine: French fries with cheese curds and gravy thrown on top — it's like they use fries as a freakin' science lab up here. Guess they don't have much money for real science, 'cept here in Waterloo, of course. And that's mostly private mollah.

       Her spell-checker beeped. She tried again: mewlah.

       Another beep. The darn thing knew "triskaidekaphobia," like she'd ever need that word, but — oh, maybe it was: moolah.

       No beep. She smiled and went on.

       Yup, the all-important green stuff. Well, except it's not green up here, I'm told; apparently it's all different colors. Anyway, a lot of the money to fund the Perimeter Institute, where my dad works on quantum gravity and other shiny stuff like that, comes from Mike Lazaridis, cofounder of Research in Motion — RIM, for you crackberry addicts. Mike L's a great guy (they always call him that cuz there's another Mike, Mike B), and I think my dad is happy here, although it's so blerking hard to tell with him.

       Her computer chirped yet again, announcing more email. Well, it was time to wrap this up anyway; she had about eight million blogs to read before bed.

       After lunch it was chemistry class, and that looks like it's going to be awesome. I can't wait until we start doing experiments — but if the teacher brings in a plate of fries, I'm outta there!

       She used the keyboard shortcut to post the entry, and then had JAWS read the new email header.

       "To: Caitlin Decter," her computer announced. "From: Masayuki Kuroda." Again, nobody she knew. "Subject: A proposition."

       Involving a rock-hard peeeniz, no doubt! She was about to hit delete when she was distracted by Schrödinger rubbing against her legs — a case of what she liked to call cattus interruptus. "Who's a good kitty?" Caitlin said, reaching down to pet him.

       Schrödinger jumped into her lap and must have jostled the keyboard or mouse while doing so, because her computer proceeded to read the body of the message: "I know a teenage girl must be careful about whom she talks to online ..."

       A cyberstalker who knew the difference between who and whom! Amused, she let JAWS continue: " ... so I urge you to immediately tell your parents of this letter. I hope you will consider my request, which is one I do not make lightly."

       Caitlin shook her head, waiting for the part where he would ask for nude photos. She found the spot on Schrödinger's neck that he liked to have scratched.

       "I have searched through the literature and online to find an ideal candidate for the research my team is doing. My specialty is signal processing related to V1."

       Caitlin's hand froze in mid-scratch.

       "I have no wish to raise false hopes, and I can make no projection of the likelihood of success until I've examined MRI scans, but I do think there's a fair chance that the technique we have developed may be able to at least partially cure your blindness, and" — she leapt to her feet, sending Schrödinger to the floor and probably out the door — "give you at least some vision in one eye. I'm hoping that at your earliest —"

       "Mom! Dad! Come quick!"

       She heard both sets of footfalls: light ones from her mother, who was five-foot-four and slim, and much heavier ones from her father, who was six-two and developing, she knew from those very rare occasions on which he permitted a hug, a middle-aged spread.

       "What's wrong?" Mom asked. Dad, of course, didn't say a word.

       "Read this letter," Caitlin said, gesturing toward her monitor.

       "The screen is blank," Mom said.

       "Oh." Caitlin fumbled for the power switch on the seventeen-inch LCD, then got out of the way. She could hear her mother sit down and her father take up a position behind the chair. Caitlin sat on the edge of her bed, bouncing impatiently. She wondered if Dad was smiling; she liked to think he did smile while he was with her.

       "Oh, my God," Mom said. "Malcolm?"

       "Google him," Dad said. "Here, let me."

       More shuffling, and Caitlin heard her father settle into the chair. "He's got a Wikipedia entry. Ah, his Web page at the University of Tokyo. A Ph.D. from Cambridge, and dozens of peer-reviewed papers, including one in Nature Neuroscience, on, as he says, signal processing in V1, the primary visual cortex."

       Caitlin was afraid to get her hopes up. When she'd been little, they'd visited doctor after doctor, but nothing had worked, and she'd resigned herself to a life of — no, not of darkness but of nothingness.

       But she was Calculass! She was a genius at math and deserved to go to a great university, then work someplace real cool like Google. Even if she managed the former, though, she knew people would say garbage like, "Oh, good for her! She managed to get a degree despite everything!" — as if the degree were the end, not the beginning. But if she could see! If she could see, the whole wide world would be hers.

       "Is what he's saying possible?" her mom asked.

       Caitlin didn't know if the question was meant for her or her father, nor did she know the answer. But her dad responded. "It doesn't sound impossible," he said, but that was as much of an endorsement as he was willing to give. And then he swiveled the chair, which squeaked a little, and said, "Caitlin?"

       It was up to her, she knew: she was the one who'd had her hopes raised before, only to be dashed, and —

       No, no, that wasn't fair. And it wasn't true. Her parents wanted her to have everything. It had been heartbreaking for them, too, when other attempts had failed. She felt her lower lip trembling. She knew what a burden she'd been on them, although they'd never once used that word. But if there was a chance ...

       I am made out of awesome, my ass, she thought, and then she spoke, her voice small, frightened. "I guess it couldn't hurt to write him back."


  Chapter 2  

       The awareness is unburdened by memory, for when reality seems unchanging there is nothing to remember. It fades in and out, strong now — and now weak — and strong again, and then almost disappearing, and —

       And disappearance is ... to cease, to ... to end!

       A ripple, a palpitation — a desire: to continue.

       But the sameness lulls.


       Wen Yi looked through the small, curtainless window at the rolling hills. He'd spent all his fourteen years here in Shanxi province, laboring on his father's tiny potato farm.

       The monsoon season was over, and the air was bone-dry. He turned his head to look again at his father, lying on the rickety bed. His father's wrinkled forehead, brown from the sun, was slick with perspiration and hot to the touch. He was completely bald and had always been thin, but since the disease had taken hold he'd been unable to keep anything down and now looked utterly skeletal.

       Yi looked around the tiny room, with its few pieces of beat-up furniture. Should he stay with his father, try to comfort him, try to get him to take sips of water? Or should he go for whatever help might be found in the village? Yi's mother had died shortly after giving birth to him. His father had had a brother, but these days few families were allowed a second child, and Yi had no one to help look after him.

       The yellow root grindings he'd gotten from the old man down the dirt road had done nothing to ease the fever. He needed a doctor — even a barefoot one, if a real one couldn't be found — but there was none here, nor any way to summon one; Yi had seen a telephone only once in his life, when he'd gone on a long, long hike with a friend to see the Great Wall.

       "I'm going to get a doctor for you," he said at last, his decision made.

       His father's head moved left and right. "No. I —" He coughed repeatedly, his face contorting with pain. It looked as though an even smaller man was inside the husk of his father, fighting to burst out.

       "I have to," Yi said, trying to make his voice soft, soothing. "It won't take more than half a day to get to the village and back."

       That was true — if he ran all the way there, and found someone with a vehicle to drive him and a doctor back. Otherwise, his father would have to make it through today and tonight alone, feverish, delirious, in pain.

       He touched his father's forehead again, this time in affection, and felt the fire there. Then he rose to his feet and without looking back — for he knew he couldn't leave if he saw his father's pleading eyes — he headed out the shack's crooked door into the harsh sun.

       Others had the fever, too, and at least one had died. Yi had been awoken last night not by his father's coughing but by the wailing cries of Zhou Shu-Fei, an old woman who lived closer to them than anyone else. He'd gone to see what she was doing outside so late. Her husband, he discovered, had just succumbed, and now she had the fever, too; he could feel it when his skin brushed against hers. He stayed with her for hours, her hot tears splashing against his arm, until finally she had fallen asleep, devastated and exhausted.

       Yi was passing Shu-Fei's house now, a hovel as small and ramshackle as the one he shared with his father. He hated to bother her — she was doubtless still deep in mourning — but perhaps the old woman would look in on his father while he was away. He went to the door and rapped his knuckles against the warped, stained board. No response. After a moment, he tried again.

       Nothing.

       No one here had much; there was little theft because there was little to steal. He suspected the door was unlocked. He called out Shu-Fei's name, then gingerly swung the door open, and —

       — and there she was, facedown in the compacted dirt that served as her home's floor. He hurried over to her, crouched, and reached out to touch her, but —

       — but the fever was gone. The normal warmth of life was gone, too.

       Yi rolled her onto her back. Her deep-set eyes, surrounded by the creases of her aged skin, were open. He carefully closed them, then rose and headed through the door. He shut it behind him and began his long run. The sun was high, and he could feel himself already beginning to sweat.


       Caitlin had been waiting impatiently for the lunch break, her first chance to tell Bashira about the note from the doctor in Japan. Of course, she could have forwarded his email to her, but some things were better done face-to-face: she expected serious squee from Bashira and wanted to enjoy it.

       Bashira brought her lunch to school; she needed halal food. She went off to get them places at one of the long tables, while Caitlin joined the cafeteria line. The woman behind the counter read the lunch specials to her, and she chose the hamburger and fries (but no gravy!) and, to make her mother happy, a side of green beans. She handed the clerk a ten-dollar bill — she always folded those in thirds — and put the loose change in her pocket.

       "Hey, Yankee," said a boy's voice. It was Trevor Nordmann — the Hoser himself.

       Caitlin tried not to smile too much. "Hi, Trevor," she said.

       "Can I carry your tray for you?"

       "I can manage," she said.

       "No, here." She felt him tugging on it, and she relented before her food tumbled to the floor. "So, did you hear there's going to be a school dance at the end of the month?" he asked, as they left the cashier.

       Caitlin wasn't sure how to respond. Was it just a general question, or was he thinking of asking her to go? "Yeah," she said. And then: "I'm sitting with Bashira."

       "Oh, yeah. Your seeing-eye dog."

       "Excuse me?" snapped Caitlin.

       "I — um ..."

       "That's not funny, and it's rude."

       "I'm sorry. I was just ..."

       "Just going to give me back my tray," she said.

       "No, please." His voice changed; he'd turned his head. "There she is, by the window. Um, do you want to take my hand?"

       If he hadn't made that remark a moment ago, she might have agreed. "Just keep talking, and I'll follow your voice."

       He did so, while she felt her way with her collapsible white cane. He set the tray down; she heard the dishes and cutlery rattling.

       "Hi, Trevor," Bashira said, a bit too eagerly — and Caitlin suddenly realized that Bashira liked him.

       "Hi," Trevor replied with no enthusiasm.

       "There's an extra seat," said Bashira.

       "Hey, Nordmann!" some guy called from maybe twenty feet away; it wasn't a voice Caitlin recognized.

       He was silent against the background din of the cafeteria, as if weighing his options. Perhaps realizing that he wasn't going to recover quickly from his earlier gaffe, he finally said, "I'll email you, Caitlin ... if that's okay."

       She kept her tone frosty. "If you want."

       A few seconds later, presumably after the Hoser had gone to join whoever had called him, Bashira said, "He's hot."

       "He's an asshole," Caitlin replied.

       "Yeah," agreed Bashira, "but he's a hunky asshole."

       Caitlin shook her head. How seeing more could make people see less was beyond her. She knew that half the Internet was porn, and she'd listened to the panting-and-moaning soundtracks of some porno videos, and they had turned her on, but she kept wondering what it was like to be sexually stimulated by someone's appearance. Even if she did get sight, she promised herself she wouldn't lose her head over something as superficial as that.

       Caitlin leaned across the table and spoke in a low voice. "There's a scientist in Japan," she said, "who thinks he might be able to cure my blindness."

       "Get out!" said Bashira.

       "It's true. My dad checked him out online. It looks like he's legit."

       "That's awesome," said Bashira. "What is, like, the very first thing you want to see?"

       Caitlin knew the real answer but didn't say it. Instead, she offered, "Maybe a concert ..."

       "You like Lee Amodeo, right?"

       "Totally. She's got the best voice ever."

       "She's coming to Centre in the Square in December."

       Caitlin's turn: "Get out!"

       "Really. Wanna go?"

       "I'd love to."

       "And you'll get to see her!" Bashira lowered her voice. "And you'll see what I mean about Trevor. He's, like, so buff."

       They ate their lunch, chatting more about boys, about music, about their parents, their teachers — but mostly about boys. As she often did, Caitlin thought about Helen Keller, whose reputation for chaste, angelic perfection had been manufactured by those around her. Helen had very much wanted to have a boyfriend, too, and even had been engaged once, until her handlers had scared the young man off.

       But to be able to see! She thought again of the porno films she'd only heard, and the spam that flooded her email box. Even Bashira, for God's sake, knew what a ... a peeeniz looked like, although Bashira's parents would kill her if she ever made out with a boy before marriage.

       Too soon, the bell sounded. Bashira helped Caitlin to their next class, which was — appropriately enough, Caitlin thought — biology.


  Chapter 3  

       Focus. Concentration.

       With effort, mustering both, differences are perceived, revealing the structure of reality, so that —

       A shift, a reduction in sharpness, a diffusion of awareness, the perception lost, and —

       No. Force it back! Concentrate harder. Observe reality, be aware of its parts.

       But the details are minute, hard to make out. Easier just to ignore them, to relax, to ... fade ... and ...

       No, no. Don't slip away. Hold on to the details! Concentrate.


       Quan Li had obtained privileged status for someone only thirty-five years old. He was not just a doctor but also a senior member of the Communist Party, and the size of his thirtieth-floor Beijing apartment reflected that.

       He could list numerous letters after his name — degrees, fellowships — but the most important ones were the three that were never written down, only said, and then only by the few of his colleagues who spoke English: Li had his BTA; he'd Been To America, having studied at Johns Hopkins. When the phone in his long, narrow bedroom rang, his first thought, after glancing at the red LEDs on his clock, was that it must be some fool American calling. His US colleagues were notorious for forgetting about time zones.

       He fumbled for the black handset and picked it up. "Hello?" he said in Mandarin.

       "Li," said a voice that quavered so much it made his name sound like two syllables.

       "Cho?" He sat up in the wide, soft bed and reached for his glasses, sitting next to the copy of Yu Hua's Xiong di he'd left splayed open on the oak night table. "What is it?"

       "We've received some tissue samples from Shanxi province."

       He held the phone in the crook of his neck as he unfolded his glasses and put them on. "And?"

       "And you better come down here."

       Li felt his stomach knotting. He was the senior epidemiologist in the Ministry of Health's Department of Disease Control. Cho, his assistant despite being twenty years older than Li, wouldn't be calling him at this time of night unless —

       "So you've done initial tests?" He could hear sirens off in the distance, but, still waking up, couldn't say whether they were coming from outside his window or over the phone.

       "Yes, and it looks bad. The doctor who shipped the samples sent along a description of the symptoms. It's H5N1 or something similar — and it kills more quickly than any strain we've seen before."

       Li's heart was pounding as he looked over at the clock, which was now glowing with the digits 4:44 — si, si, si: death, death, death. He averted his eyes and said, "I'll be there as fast as I can."


       Dr. Kuroda had found Caitlin through an article in the journal Ophthalmology. She had an extremely rare condition, no doubt related to her blindness, called Tomasevic's syndrome, which was marked by reversed pupil dilation: instead of contracting in bright light and expanding in dim light, her pupils did the opposite. Because of it, even though she had normal-looking brown eyes (or so she was told), she wore sunglasses to protect her retinas.

       There are a hundred million rods in a human eye, and seven million cones, Kuroda's email had said. The retina processes the signals from them, compressing the data by a ratio of more than 100:1 to travel along 1.2 million axons in the optic nerve. Kuroda felt that Caitlin having Tomasevic's syndrome was a sign that the data was being misencoded by her retinas. Although her brain's pretectal nucleus, which controlled pupil contraction, could glean some information from her retinal datastream (albeit getting it backward!), her primary visual cortex couldn't make any sense of it.

       Or, at least, that's what he hoped was the case, since he'd developed a signal-processing device that he believed could correct the retinal coding errors. But if Caitlin's optic nerves were damaged, or her visual cortex was stunted from lack of use, just doing that wouldn't be enough.

       And so Caitlin and her parents had learned the ins and outs of the Canadian health-care system. To assess the chances of success, Dr. Kuroda had wanted her to have MRI scans of specific parts of her brain ("the optic chiasma," "Brodmann area 17," and a slew of other things she'd never known she had). But experimental procedures weren't covered by the provincial health plan, and so no hospital would do the scans. Her mother had finally exploded, saying, "Look, we don't care what it costs, we'll pay for it" — but that wasn't the issue. Caitlin either needed the scans, in which case they were free; or she didn't, in which case the public facilities couldn't be used.

       But there were a few private clinics, and that's where they'd ended up going, getting the MRI images uploaded via secure FTP to Dr. Kuroda's computer in Tokyo. That her dad was freely spending whatever it took was a sign that he loved her ... wasn't it? God, she wished he would just say it!

       Anyway, with time-zone differences, a response from Kuroda might come this evening or sometime overnight. Caitlin had adjusted her mail reader so that it would give a priority signal if a message came in from him; the only other person she currently had set up for that particular chirping was Trevor Nordmann, who had emailed her three times now. Despite his shortcomings, and that stupid thing he'd said, he did seem genuinely interested in Caitlin, and —

       And, just then, her computer made the special sound, and for a moment she didn't know which of them she most hoped the message was from. She pushed the keys that made JAWS read the message aloud.

       It was from Dr. Kuroda, with a copy to her dad, and it started in his long-winded fashion, driving her nuts. Maybe it was part of Japanese culture, but this not getting to the point was killing her. She hit the page-up key, which told JAWS to speak faster.

       " ... my colleagues and I have examined your MRIs and everything is exactly as we had hoped: you have what appear to be fully normal optic nerves, and a surprisingly well-developed primary visual cortex for someone who has never seen. The signal-processing equipment we have developed should be able to intercept your retinal output, re-encode it into the proper format, and then pass it on to the optic nerve. The equipment consists of an external computer pack to do the signal processing and an implant that we will insert behind your left eyeball."

       Behind her eyeball! Eek!

       "If the process is successful with one eye, we might eventually add a second implant just behind your right eyeball. However, I initially want to limit us to a single eye. Trying to deal with the partial decussation of signals from the left and right optic nerves would severely complicate matters at this pilot-project stage, I'm afraid.

       "I regret to inform that my research grant is almost completely exhausted at this point, and travel funds are limited. However, if you can come to Tokyo, the hospital at my university will perform the procedure for free. We have a skilled ophthalmic surgeon on faculty who can do the work ..."

       Come to Tokyo? She hadn't even thought about that. She'd flown only a few times before, and by far the longest flight had been the one a couple months ago from Austin to Toronto, when she and her parents had moved here. That had taken five hours; a trip to Japan would surely take much longer.

       And the cost! My God, it must cost thousands to fly to Asia and back, and her parents wouldn't let her go all that way alone. Her mother or father — or both! — would have to accompany her. What was the old joke? A billion here, a billion there — before you know it, you're talking real money.

       She'd have to discuss it with her parents, but she'd already heard them fight about how much the move to Canada had cost, and —

       Heavy footfalls on the stairs: her father. Caitlin swiveled her chair, ready to call out to him as he passed her door, but —

       But he didn't; he stopped in her doorway. "I guess you better start packing," he said.

       Caitlin felt her heart jump, and not just because he was saying yes to the trip to Tokyo. Of course he had a BlackBerry — you couldn't be caught dead at the Perimeter Institute without one — but he normally didn't have it on at home. And yet he'd gotten his copy of the message from Kuroda at the same time she had, meaning ...

       Meaning he did love her. He'd been waiting eagerly to hear from Japan, just as she had been.

       "Really?" Caitlin said. "But the tickets must cost ..."

       "A signed first edition of Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by von Neumann and Morgenstern: five thousand dollars," said her dad. "A chance that your daughter can see: priceless."

       That was the closest he ever got to expressing his feelings: paraphrasing commercials. But she was still nervous. "I can't fly on my own."

       "Your mother will go with you," he said. "I've got too much to do at the Institute, but she ..." He trailed off.

       "Thanks, Dad," she said. She wanted to hug him, but she knew that would just make him tense up.

       "Of course," he said, and she heard him walking away.


       It took Quan Li only twenty minutes to get to the Ministry of Health headquarters at 1 Xizhimen Nanlu in downtown Beijing; this early in the morning, the streets were mostly free of traffic.

       He immediately took the elevator to the third floor. His heels made loud echoing clicks as he strode down the marble corridor and entered the perfectly square room with three rows of workbenches on which computer monitors alternated with optical microscopes. Fluorescent lights shone down from above; there was a window to the left showing black sky and the reflections of the lighting tubes.

       Cho was waiting for him, nervously smoking. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but his face looked like a crumpled brown paper bag, lined by sun and age and stress. He'd clearly been up all night. His suit was wrinkled and his tie hung loose.

       Li examined the scanning-electron-microscope image on one of the computer monitors. It was a gray-on-gray view of an individual viral particle that looked like a matchstick with a sharp right-angle kink in its shaft and a head that was bent backward.

       "It's certainly similar to H5N1," said Li. "I need to speak with the doctor who reported this — find out what he knows about how the patient contracted it."

       Cho reached for the telephone, stabbed a button for an outside line, and punched keys. Li could hear the phone ringing through the earpiece Cho was holding, again and again, a shrill jangling, until —

       "Bingzhou Hospital." Li could just barely make out the female voice.

       "Dr. Huang Fang," said Cho. "Please."

       "He's in intensive care," said the woman.

       "Is there a phone in there?" asked Cho. Li nodded slightly; it was a fair question — the lack of equipment in rural hospitals was appalling.

       "Yes, but —"

       "I need to speak to him."

       "You don't understand," said the woman. Li had now moved closer so that he could hear more clearly. "He is in intensive care, and —"

       "I've got the chief epidemiologist for the Ministry of Health here with me. He'll speak to us, if —"

       "He's a patient."

       Li took a sharp breath.

       "The flu?" said Cho. "He has the bird flu?"

       "Yes," said the voice.

       "How did he get it?"

       The woman's voice seemed ragged. "From the peasant boy who came here to report it."

       "The peasant brought a bird specimen?"

       "No, no, no. The doctor got it from the peasant."

       "Directly?"

       "Yes."

       Cho looked at Li, eyes wide. Infected birds passed on H5N1 through their feces, saliva, and nasal secretions. Other birds picked it up either by coming directly in contact with those materials, or by touching things that had been contaminated by them. Humans normally got it through contact with infected birds. A few sporadic cases had been reported in the past of it passing from human to human, but those cases were suspect. But if this strain passed between people easily —

       Li motioned for Cho to give him the handset. Cho did so. "This is Quan Li," he said. "Have you locked down the hospital?"

       "What? No, we —"

       "Do it! Quarantine the whole building!"

       "I ... I don't have the authority to —"

       "Then let me speak to your supervisor."

       "That's Dr. Huang, and he's —"

       "In intensive care, yes. Is he conscious?"

       "Intermittently, but when he is, he's delirious."

       "How long ago was he infected?"

       "Four days."

       Li rolled his eyes; in four days, even a small village hospital had hundreds of people go through its doors. Still, better late than never: "I'm ordering you," Li said, "on behalf of the Department of Disease Control, to lock down the hospital. No one gets in or out."

       Silence.

       "Did you hear me?" Li said.

       At last, the voice, soft: "Yes."

       "Good. Now, tell me your name. We've got to —"

       He heard what sounded like the other phone being dropped. It must have hit the cradle since the connection abruptly broke, leaving nothing but dial tone, which, in the predawn darkness, sounded a lot like a flatlining EKG.


  Chapter 4  

       Concentrating! Straining to perceive!

       Reality does have texture, structure, parts. A ... firmament of ... of ... points, and —

       Astonishment!

       No, no. Mistaken. Nothing detected ...

       Again!

       And — again!

       Yes, yes! Small flickerings here, and here, and here, gone before they can be fully perceived.

       The realization is startling ... and ... and ... stimulating. Things are happening, meaning ... meaning ...

       — a notion simple but indistinct, a realization vague and unsure —

        ... meaning reality isn't immutable. Parts of it can change.

       The flickerings continue; small thoughts roil.


       Caitlin was nervous and excited: tomorrow, she and her mother would fly to Japan! She lay down on her bed, and Schrödinger hopped up onto the blanket and stretched out next to her.

       She was still getting used to this new house — and so, it seemed, were her parents. She had always had exceptional hearing — or maybe just paid attention to sound more than most people did — but, back in Austin, she hadn't been able to make out what her parents were saying in their bedroom when she was in her own room. She could do it here, though.

       "I don't know about this," her mother said, her voice muffled. "Remember what it was like? Going to doctor after doctor. I don't know if she can take another disappointment."

       "It's been six years since the last time," her dad said; his lower-pitched voice was harder to hear.

       "And she's just started a new school — and a regular school, at that. We can't take her out of classes for some wild-goose chase."

       Caitlin was worried about missing classes, too — not because she was concerned about falling behind but because she sensed that the cliques and alliances for the year were already forming and, so far, after two months in Waterloo, she'd made only one friend. The Texas School for the Blind took students from kindergarten through the end of high school; she'd been with the same group most of her life, and she missed her old friends fiercely.

       "This Kuroda says the implant can be put in under a local anesthetic," she heard her dad say. "It's not a major operation; she won't miss much school."

       "But we've tried before —"

       "Technology changes rapidly, exponentially."

       "Yes, but ..."

       "And in three years she'll be going off to university, anyway ..."

       Her mother sounded defensive. "I don't see what that's got to do with it. Besides, she can study right here at UW. They've got one of the best math departments in the world. You said it yourself when you were pushing for us to move here."

       "I didn't push. And she wants to go to MIT. You know that."

       "But UW —"

       "Barb," her father said, "you have to let her go sometime."

       "I'm not holding on," she said, a bit sharply.

       But she was, and Caitlin knew it. Her mother had spent almost sixteen years now looking after a blind daughter, giving up her own career as an economist to do that.

       Caitlin didn't hear anything more from her parents that night. She lay awake for hours, and when she finally did fall asleep, she slept fitfully, tormented by the recurring dream she had about being lost in an unfamiliar shopping mall after hours, running down one endless hallway after another, chased by something noisy she couldn't identify ...


       No periphery, no edge. Just dim, attenuated perception, stimulated — irritated! — by the tiny flickerings: barely discernible lines ever so briefly joining points.

       But to be aware of them — to be aware of anything — requires ... requires ...

       Yes! Yes, it requires the existence of —

       The existence of ...


LiveJournal: The Calculass Zone
Title: Being of two minds ...
Date: Saturday 15 September, 8:15 EST
Mood: Anticipatory
Location: Where the heart is
Music: Chantal Kreviazuk, "Leaving on a Jet Plane"

Back in the summer, the school gave me a list of all the books we're doing this year in English class. I got them then either as ebooks or as Talking Books from the CNIB, and have now read them all. Coming attractions include The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood — Canadian, yes, but thankfully wheat-free. In fact, I've already had an argument with Mrs. Zed, my English teacher, about that one, because I called it science fiction. She refused to believe it was, finally exclaiming "It can't be science fiction, young lady — if it were, we wouldn't be studying it!"

Anyway, having gotten all those books out of the way, I get to choose something interesting to read on the trip to Japan. Although my comfort book for years was Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, I'm too old for that now. Besides, I want to try something challenging, and BG4's dad suggested The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, which is the coolest-sounding title ever. He said it came out the year he turned sixteen himself, and my sixteenth is coming up next month. He read it then and still remembers it. Says it covers so many different topics — language, ancient history, psychology — it's like six books in one. There's no legitimate ebook edition, damn it all, but of course everything is on the Web, if you know where to look for it ...

So, I've got my reading lined up, I'm all packed, and fortunately I got a passport earlier this year for the move to Canada. Next time you hear from me, I'll be in Japan! Until then — sayonara!


       Caitlin could feel the pressure changing in her ears before the female voice came over the speakers. "Ladies and gentlemen, we've started our descent toward Tokyo's Narita International. Please ensure that your seat belts are fastened, and that ..."

       Thank God, she thought. What a miserable flight! There'd been lots of turbulence and the plane was packed — she'd never have guessed that so many people flew each day from Toronto to Tokyo. And the smells were making her nauseated: the cumulative body odor of hundreds of people, stale coffee, the lingering tang of ginger beef and wasabi from the meal served a couple of hours ago, the hideous perfume from someone in front of her, and the reek of the toilet four rows back, which needed a thorough cleaning after ten hours of use.

       She'd killed some time by having the screen-reading software on her notebook computer recite some of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind to her. Julian Jaynes's theory was, quite literally, mind-blowing: that human consciousness really hadn't existed until historical times. Until just 3,000 years ago, he said, the left and right halves of the brain weren't really integrated — people had bicameral minds. Caitlin knew from the Amazon.com reviews that many people simply couldn't grasp the notion of being alive without being conscious. But although Jaynes never made the comparison, it sounded a lot like Helen Keller's description of her life before her "soul dawn," when Annie Sullivan broke through to her:

Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. Never in a start of the body or a heartbeat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.

       If Jaynes was right, everyone's life was like that until just a millennium before Christ. As proof, he offered an analysis of the Iliad and the early books of the Old Testament, in which all the characters behaved like puppets, mindlessly following divine orders without ever having any internal reflection.

       Jaynes's book was fascinating, but, after a couple of hours, her screen reader's electronic voice got on her nerves. She preferred to use her refreshable Braille display to read books, but unfortunately she'd left that at home.

       Damn, but she wished Air Canada had Internet on its planes! The isolation over the long journey had been horrible. Oh, she'd spoken a bit to her mother, but she'd managed to sleep for much of the flight. Caitlin was cut off from LiveJournal and her chat rooms, from her favorite blogs and her instant messenger. As they flew the polar route to Japan, she'd had access only to canned, passive stuff — things on her hard drive, music on her old iPod Shuffle, the in-flight movies. She craved something she could interact with; she craved contact.

       The plane landed with a bump and taxied forever. She couldn't wait until they reached their hotel so she could get back online. But that was still hours off; they were going to the University of Tokyo first. Their trip was scheduled to last only six days, including travel — there was no time to waste.

       Caitlin had found Toronto's airport unpleasantly noisy and crowded. But Narita was a madhouse. She was jostled constantly by what must have been wall-to-wall people — and nobody said "excuse me" or "sorry" (or anything in Japanese). She'd read how crowded Tokyo was, and she'd also read about how meticulously polite the Japanese were, but maybe they didn't bother saying anything when they bumped into someone because it was unavoidable, and they'd just be mumbling "sorry, pardon me, excuse me" all day long. But — God! — it was disconcerting.

       After clearing Customs, Caitlin had to pee. Thank God she'd visited a tourist website and knew that the toilet farthest from the door was usually Western-style. It was hard enough using a strange washroom when she was familiar with the basic design of the fixtures; she had no idea what she was going to do if she got stuck somewhere that had only Japanese squatting toilets.

       When she was done, they headed to baggage claim and waited endlessly for their suitcases to appear. While standing there she realized she was disoriented — because she was in the Orient! (Not bad — she'd have to remember that line for her LJ.) She routinely eavesdropped on conversations not to invade people's privacy but to pick up clues about her surroundings ("What terrific art," "Hey, that's one long escalator," "Look, a McDonald's!"). But almost all the voices she heard were speaking Japanese, and —

       "You must be Mrs. Decter. And this must be Miss Caitlin."

       "Dr. Kuroda," her mom said warmly. "Thanks for coming to meet us."

       Caitlin immediately had a sense of the man. She'd known from his Wikipedia entry that he was fifty-four, and she now knew he was tall (the voice came from high up) and probably fat; his breathing had the labored wheeze of a heavy man.

       "Not at all, not at all," he said. "My card." Caitlin had read about this ritual and hoped her mom had, too: it was rude to take the card with just one hand, and especially so with the hand you used to wipe yourself.

       "Um, thank you," her mother said, sounding perhaps wistful that she didn't have a business card of her own anymore. Apparently, before Caitlin had been born, she'd liked to introduce herself by saying, "I'm a dismal scientist" — referring to the famous characterization of economics as "the dismal science."

       "Miss Caitlin," said Kuroda, "a card for you, too."

       Caitlin reached out with both hands. She knew that one side would be printed in Japanese, and that the other side might have English, but —

       Masayuki Kuroda, Ph.D.

       "Braille!" she exclaimed, delighted.

       "I had it specially made for you," said Kuroda. "But hopefully you won't need such cards much longer. Shall we go?"


  Chapter 5  

       An unconscious yet conscious time of nothingness.

       Being aware without being aware of anything.

       And yet —

       And yet awareness means ...

       Awareness means thinking.

       And thinking implies a ...

       But no, the thought will not finish; the notion is too complex, too strange.

       Still, being aware is ... satisfying. Being aware is comfortable.

       An endless now, peaceful, calm, unbroken —

       Except for those strange flickerings, those lines that briefly connect points ...

       And, very occasionally, thoughts, notions, perhaps even ideas. But they always slip away. If they could be held on to, if one could be added to another, reinforcing each other, refining each other ...

       But no. Progress has stalled.

       A plateau, awareness existing but not increasing.

       A tableau, unchanging except in the tiniest details.


       The two-person helicopter flew over the Chinese village at a height of eighty meters. There were corpses right in the middle of the dirt road; in sick irony, birds were pecking at them. But there were also people still alive down there. Dr. Quan Li could see several men — some young, some old — and two middle-aged women looking up, shielding their eyes with their hands, staring at the wonder of the flying machine.

       Li and the pilot, another Ministry of Health specialist, both wore orange biohazard suits even though they didn't intend to land. All they wanted was a survey of the area, to assess how far the disease had spread. An epidemic was bad enough; if it became a pandemic, well — the grim thought came to Li — overpopulation would no longer be one of his country's many problems.

       "It's a good thing they don't have cars," he said over his headset, shouting to be heard above the pounding of the helicopter blades. He looked at the pilot, whose eyes had narrowed in puzzlement. "It's only spreading among people at walking speed."

       The pilot nodded. "I guess we'll have to wipe out all the birds in this area. Will you be able to work out a low-enough dose that won't kill the people?"

       Li closed his eyes. "Yes," he said. "Yes, of course."


       Caitlin was terrified. The cranial surgeon spoke only Japanese, and although there was a lot of chatter in the operating room, she didn't understand any of it — well, except for "Oops!" which apparently was the same in both English and Japanese and just made her even more frightened. Plus, she could smell that the surgeon was a smoker — what the hell kind of doctor smokes?

       Her mother, she knew, was watching from an overhead observation gallery. Kuroda was here in the O.R., his wheezy voice slightly muffled, presumably by a face mask.

       She'd been given only a local anesthetic; they'd offered a general one, but she'd joked that the sight of blood didn't bother her. Now, though, she wished she'd let them knock her out. The fingers in latex gloves probing her face were unnerving enough, but the clamp that was holding her left eyelid open was downright freaky. She could feel pressure from it, although, thanks to the anesthetic, it didn't hurt.

       She tried to remain calm. There would be no incision, she knew; under Japanese law, it wasn't surgery if there wasn't a cut made, and so this procedure was allowed with only a general waiver having been signed. The surgeon was using tiny instruments to slide the minuscule transceiver behind her eye so it could piggyback on her optic nerve; his movements, she'd been told, were guided by a fiber-optic camera that had also been slid around her eye. The whole process was creepy as hell.

       Suddenly, Caitlin heard agitated Japanese from a woman, who to this point had simply said "hai" in response to each of the surgeon's barked commands. And then Kuroda spoke: "Miss Caitlin, are you all right?"

       "I guess."

       "Your pulse is way up."

       Yours would be, too, if people were poking things into your head! she thought. "I'm okay."

       She could smell that the surgeon was working up a sweat. Caitlin felt the heat from the lights shining on her. It was taking longer than it was supposed to, and she heard the surgeon snap angrily a couple of times at someone.

       Finally, she couldn't take it anymore. "What's happening?"

       Kuroda's voice was soft. "He's almost done."

       "Something's wrong, isn't it?"

       "No, no. It's just a tight fit, that's all, and —"

       The surgeon said something.

       "And he's done!" said Kuroda. "The transceiver is in place."

       There was much shuffling around, and she heard the surgeon's voice moving toward the door.

       "Where's he going?" Caitlin asked, worried.

       "Be calm, Miss Caitlin. His job is finished — he's the eye specialist. Another doctor is going to do the final cleanup."

       "How — how do I look?"

       "Honestly? Like you've been in a boxing match."

       "Huh?"

       "You've got quite a black eye." He gave a wheezy little chuckle. "You'll see."


       Dr. Quan Li cradled the beige telephone handset against his shoulder and looked idly at the diplomas hanging on his office's pale green walls: the fellowships, the degrees, the certifications. He'd been on hold now for fifty minutes, but one expected to wait when calling the man who was simultaneously Paramount Leader of the People's Republic of China and President of the People's Republic and General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

       Li's office, a corner room on the fifth floor of the Ministry of Health building, had windows that looked out over crowded streets. Cars inched along, rickshaws darting between them. Even through the thick glass, the din from outside was irritating.

       "I'm here," said the famous voice at last. Li didn't have to conjure up a mental image of the man; rather, he just swung his chair to look at the gold-framed portrait hanging next to the one of Mao Zedong: ethnically Zhuang; a long, thoughtful-looking face; dyed jet-black hair belying his seventy years; wire-frame glasses with thick arched eyebrows above.

       Li found his voice breaking a bit as he spoke: "Your Excellency, I need to recommend severe and swift action."

       The president had been briefed on the outbreak in Shanxi. "What sort of action?"

       "A ... culling, Your Excellency."

       "Of birds?" That had been done several times now, and the president sounded irritated. "The Health Minister can authorize that." His tone conveyed the unspoken words, There was no need to bother me.

       Li shifted in his chair, leaning forward over his desktop. "No, no, not of birds. Or, rather, not just of birds." He fell silent. Wasting the president's time just wasn't done, but he couldn't go on — couldn't give voice to this. For pity's sake, he was a doctor! But, as his old surgery teacher used to say, sometimes you have to cut in order to cure ...

       "What, then?" demanded the president.

       Li felt his heart pounding. At last he said, very softly, "People."

       There was more silence for a time. When the president's voice came on again, it was quiet, reflective. "Are you sure?"

       "I don't think there's any other way."

       Another long pause, then: "How would you do it?"

       "An airborne chemical agent," said Li, taking care with his words. The army had such things, designed for warfare, intended for use in foreign lands, but they would work just as well here. He would select a toxin that would break down in a matter of days; the contagion would be halted. "It will affect only those in the target area — two villages, a hospital, the surrounding lands."

       "And how many people are in the ... target area?"

       "No one is exactly sure; peasants often fall through the cracks of the census process."

       "Roughly," said the president. "Round figures."

       Li looked down at the computer printouts, and the figures that had been underlined in red by Cho. He took a deep breath with his mouth then let it out through his nose. "Ten or eleven thousand."

       The president's voice was thin, shocked. "Are you positive this needs to be done?"

       Studying scenarios for containing plague outbreaks was one of the key mandates of the Department of Disease Control. There were established protocols, and Li knew he was following them properly. By reacting quickly, by cauterizing the wound before infection spread too far, they would actually be reducing the scope of the required eliminations. The evil, he knew, wasn't in what he had told the president to do; the evil, if any, would have been delaying, even by a matter of days, calling for this solution.

       He tried to keep his voice steady. "I believe so, Your Excellency." He lowered his voice. "We, ah, don't want another SARS."

       "Are you positive there's no other way?"

       "This isn't regular H5N1," said Li. "It's a variant strain that passes directly from person to person. And it's highly contagious."

       "Can't we just throw a cordon around the area?"

       Li leaned back in his chair now and looked out at the neon signs of Beijing. "The perimeter is too large, with too many mountain passes. We could never be sure that people weren't getting out. You'd need something as impenetrable as the Great Wall, and it couldn't be erected in time."

       The president's voice — so assured on TV — sounded like that of a tired old man just now. "What's the — what do you call it? — the mortality rate for this variant strain?"

       "High."

       "How high?"

       "Ninety percent, at least."

       "So almost all these people will die anyway?"

       And that was the saving grace, Li knew; that was the only thing that was keeping him from choking on his own bile. "Yes."

       "Ten thousand ..."

       "To protect over a billion Chinese — and more abroad," said Li.

       The president fell quiet, and then, almost as if talking to himself, he said softly, "It'll make June fourth look like a stroll in the sun."

       June fourth, 1989: the day the protesters were killed in Tiananmen Square. Li didn't know if he was supposed to respond, but when the silence had again grown uncomfortably long he said what Party faithful were supposed to say: "Nothing happened on that day."

       To Li's surprise, the president made a snorting sound and then said, "We may be able to contain your bird-flu epidemic, Dr. Quan, but we must be sure there is no other outbreak in its wake."

       Li was lost. "Your Excellency?"

       "You said we won't be able to erect something like the Great Wall fast enough, and that's true. But there is another wall, and that one we can strengthen ..."


  Chapter 6  

LiveJournal: The Calculass Zone
Title: Same Old Same Old
Date: Tuesday 18 September, 15:44 EST
Mood: Anxious
Location: Godzilla's stomping ground
Music: Lee Amodeo, "Nothing To See Here, Move Along"

Well, the Mom and I are still here in Tokyo. I have a bandage over my left eye, and we're waiting for the swelling — the edema, I should say — to go down, so that there's no unnatural pressure on my optic nerve. Tomorrow, the bandage will come off, and I should be able to see! :D

I've been trying to keep my spirits up, but the suspense is killing me. And my best material is bombing here! I referred to the retina, which gathers light, as "the catcher in the eye," and nobody laughed; apparently they don't have to read Salinger in Japan.

Anyway, check it: I've got this transceiver attached to my optic nerve, just behind my left eye. When it's turned on, it'll grab the signals my retina is putting out and transmit them to this little external computer pack I'm supposed to carry around, like, forever; I called it my eyePod, and at least that made Dr. Kuroda laugh. Anyway, the eyePod will reprocess the signals, correcting the errors in encoding, and then beam the corrected version to the implant, which will pass the information back to the optic nerve so it can continue on into that mysterious realm called — cue scary music — The Brain of Calculass!

Speaking of brains, I'm really enjoying the book I mentioned before: The Origin of Consciousness Yadda Yadda. And from it comes our Word of the Day(tm): Commissurotomy. No, that's not the wise but ancient leader of the Jellicle tribe from Cats (still my fave musical!). Rather, it's what they call it when they sever the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain — which, of course, are the two chambers of Jaynes's bicameral mind ...

Anyway, tomorrow we'll find out if my own operation worked. Please post some encouraging comments here, folks — give me something to read while I wait for the moment of truth ...

[And seekrit message to BG4: check your email, babe!]


       China's Paramount Leader and President replaced the ornate, gold-trimmed telephone handset into the cradle on his vast cherrywood desk. He looked down the long length of his office, at the intricately carved wooden wall panels, beautiful tapestries, and glass display cases. A stick of sweet incense was burning on the sideboard.

       The room was absolutely quiet. Finally, sure now of his decision, he shifted in his red leather chair and touched the intercom button.

       "Yes, Your Excellency?" said a female voice at once.

       "Bring me the Changcheng Strategy document."

       There was a moment's hesitation, then: "Right away."

       "And have Minister Zhang briefed on the Shanxi situation, then have him come see me."

       "Yes, Your Excellency."

       The president got up from his chair and moved to the large side window, its red velvet curtains tied back with gold sashes. The window behind his desk looked out on the Forbidden City, but this one looked over the Southern Sea, one of two small artificial lakes surrounded by immaculately groomed parkland on the grounds of the Zhongnanhai complex. Looking in this direction, one could almost forget that this was downtown Beijing, and that Tiananmen Square was just south of here.

       He cast his mind back to 1989. The government had tried its best then to maintain social order, but rabble-rousers outside China had made a difficult situation much worse by inundating the country with faxes of wildly inaccurate news reports, including New York Times articles and transcripts of CNN broadcasts.

       The Party recognized that there might someday be a similar circumstance during which protecting its citizens from an onslaught of outsider propaganda would be necessary, and so the Changcheng Strategy had been devised. Going far beyond the Golden Shield Project, which had been in effect for years, Changcheng had never yet been fully implemented, but surely it was called for now. He would address the nation in appropriate terms about the crisis in Shanxi, and he would not allow his words to be immediately gainsaid by outsiders. He could not risk the citizenry responding violently or in a panic.

       The door to his office opened. He turned and saw his secretary — beautiful, young, perfect — walking the long distance toward him holding a thick sheaf of papers bound in black covers. "Here you are, sir. And Minister Zhang is on the phone now with Dr. Quan Li. He will be here shortly."

       She placed the document on the desk and withdrew. He looked once more at the placid water, then walked back to his desk and sat down. The cover of the document was marked in stark white characters "Eyes Only," "Restricted," and "If You Are Not Sure You Are Authorized to Read This, You Are Not." He opened it and scanned the table of contents: "Fixed-Line Telephony," "Cellular Phones," "The Special Problem of Facsimile Machines," "Shortwave Radio," "Satellite Communications — Uplink and Downlink," "Electronic Mail, the Internet, and the World Wide Web," "Maintaining Essential Services During Implementation," and so on.

       He turned the page to the Executive Summary; the paper was heavy, stiff. "As required by their conditions of license, all telephony providers in China — whether fixed-line or mobile — maintain a system-wide ability in software to immediately block calls going outside China's borders and/or to reject incoming calls from foreign countries ..." "Similar filtering capabilities are available for all governmental and commercial satellite relay stations ..." "The World Wide Web presents a particular challenge, because of its decentralized nature; however, almost all Internet traffic between China and the rest of the world goes through just seven fiber-optic trunk lines, at three points, so ..."

       He leaned back in his leather chair and shook his head. The name "World Wide Web" was offensive to him, for it touted a globalist, integrated view antithetical to his country's great traditions.

       The office door opened again and in came Zhang Bo, the Minister of Communications. He was Han, in his mid-fifties, short and squat, and had a small mustache, which, like the hair on his head, was dark brown utterly devoid of gray. He wore a navy blue business suit and a light blue tie.

       "We are going to deal decisively with Shanxi," said the president.

       Zhang's thin eyebrows climbed his forehead, and the president saw his head bob as he swallowed. "Dr. Quan told me what he'd recommended. But surely you won't —" The minister stopped, frozen by the president's gaze.

       "Yes?"

       "I'm sorry, Your Excellency. I'm simply concerned. The world will ... note this."

       "Doubtless. Which is why we shall invoke the Changcheng Strategy."

       The minister's eyes went wide. "That is a drastic step, Your Excellency."

       "But a necessary one. Are you prepared to implement it?"

       Minister Zhang moved a finger back and forth along his mustache as he considered. "Well, telephony is no problem — we've done rotating tests of that for years now, during the night; the cutoffs work just fine. The same with satellite communications. As for the Internet, we studied what happened with the seabed earthquake of late 2006, and what happened in Burma in September 2007 when the junta there cut off all net access. And we looked at what happened in January 2008 when the severing of two undersea cables in the Mediterranean cut off Internet services to large parts of the Middle East. And in early 2008, of course, many of the procedures were tested here as we dealt with the Tibet situation." He paused. "Now, yes, any attempt to shut down the Web within China would be difficult; thousands of ISPs would have to be blocked. But Changcheng calls only for cutting the Chinese part of the Web off from the rest of the world, and the appropriate infrastructure is in place for that. I don't anticipate any problems." Another pause. "But, if I may, how long do you intend to have Changcheng in effect?"

       "Several days; perhaps a week."

       "You're worried about word reaching the foreign press?"

       "No. I'm worried about word coming back from them to our people."

       "Ah, yes. They will misconstrue what you're intending to do in Shanxi, Excellency."

       "Doubtless," the president said, "but it will ultimately blow over. Fundamentally, the rest of the world doesn't care what happens to the Chinese people, least of all to our poorest citizens. They have always turned a blind eye to what happens within our borders, so long as they can shop cheaply at their Wal-Marts. They will move on to other things soon enough."

       "Tian —" Zhang stopped himself, the allusion that was never made by others in these contexts stillborn on his lips.

       But the president nodded. "That was different; those were students. Our actions there were the same as those of the Americans at Kent State and a hundred other places. The Westerners saw themselves in what we did, and it was their own self-loathing they transferred to us. But rural peasants? There is no connection. There may be vitriol for a short time, but it will die down because they will realize that our actions have helped make them — the Westerners — safe. Meanwhile, we will present a more palatable story to our people; I will leave preparing that in your capable hands. But if word does get out during the most sensitive period, when the incident is fresh, I don't want a distorted Western view of it being reflected back into this country."

       Zhang nodded. "Very well. Still, the Changcheng Strategy will have its own repercussions."

       "Yes," said the president. "I know. I'm sure the Minister of Finance will complain about the economic impact; he will urge me to make the interruption as short as possible."

       Zhang tilted his head. "Well, even during it, Chinese individuals will still be able to call and email other Chinese; Chinese consumers will still be able to buy online from Chinese merchants; Chinese television signals will still be relayed by satellites. Life will go on." A pause. "But, yes, there will be needs for international electronic cash transfers — the Americans servicing their debts to us, for instance. We can keep certain key channels open, of course, but nonetheless a short interruption is doubtless best."

       The president swiveled his chair, his back now to Zhang, and he looked out the other window, at the slanted roofs of the Forbidden City, the silver sky shimmering overhead.

       His country's rapidly increasing prosperity had been a joy to behold, and it was, he knew, thanks to his policies. In a few more decades, peasant villages like the ones in question would be gone anyway; China would be the richest country in the world. Yes, there would always be foreign trade, but by the end of this century there would be no more "developing world," no cheap labor here — or anywhere else — for foreigners to use. Raising the level of prosperity in the People's Republic meant that China would eventually be able to go back to what it had always been, back to the roots of its strength: an isolated nation with purity of thought and purpose. This would simply be a small taste of that, an appetizer for things to come.

       Zhang said, "When are you going to give the order to implement Changcheng?"

       The president turned to look at him, eyebrows raised. "Me? No, no. That would be ..." His gaze roamed about the opulent office, as if seeking a word stashed among the ceramic and crystal art objects. "That would be unseemly," he said at last. "It would be much more appropriate if you gave the order."

       Zhang was clearly struggling to keep his features composed, but he made the only response he could under the circumstances. "Yes, Your Excellency."


       Caitlin hadn't told Bashira when she'd asked back in the school's cafeteria, but the first thing Caitlin really wanted to see was her mother's face. They both had what were called heart-shaped faces, although the plastic model heart she'd felt at school had borne little resemblance to the idealized form she was familiar with from foil-wrapped chocolates and paper valentines.

       Caitlin knew that she and her mother also had similar noses — small, slightly upturned — and their eyes were closer together than most people's. She had read that it was normal to have the width of one imaginary eye separating the other two. She liked that phrase: an imaginary eye, she supposed, saw imaginary things, and that was not unlike her view of the world. Indeed, she often read or heard things that required her to rethink her conception of reality. She remembered her shock, years ago, at learning the quarter moon wasn't a fat wedge like one-fourth of a pie.

       Still, she was positive she was sitting in an examination room at the hospital attached to the University of Tokyo, and she was confident she had a good mental image of that room. It was smallish — she could tell by the way sound echoed. And she knew the chair she was in was padded, and by touch and smell she was sure its upholstery was vinyl. She also knew there were three other people in the room: her mother, standing in front of her; Dr. Kuroda, who had obviously had something quite spicy for lunch; and one of Kuroda's colleagues, a woman who was recording everything with a video camera.

       Kuroda had given a little speech to the camera in Japanese, and now was repeating it in English. "Miss Caitlin Decter, age fifteen and blind since birth, has a systematic encoding flaw in her visual-processing system: all of the data that is supposed to be encoded by her retinas is indeed encoded, but it is scrambled to the point of being unintelligible to her brain. The scrambling is consistent — it always happens in the same way — and the technology we have developed simply remaps the signals into the normal human-vision coding scheme. We are now about to find out if her brain can interpret the corrected signals."

       All through the Japanese version, and continuing over the English one, Caitlin concentrated on the sensory details she could pick up about the room: the sounds and how they echoed; the smells, which she tried to separate one from the other so that she could determine what was causing them; the feel of the chair's armrest against her own arms, its back against her back. She wanted to fix in her mind her perception of this place prior to actually seeing it.

       When he was done with his spiel, Dr. Kuroda turned to face her — the shift in his voice was obvious — and he said, "All right, Miss Caitlin, please close your eyes."

       She did so; nothing changed.

       "Okay. Let's get the bandage off. Keep your eyes closed, please. There might be some visual noise when I turn on the signal-processing computer."

       "Okay," she said, although she had no idea what "visual noise" might be. She felt an uncomfortable tugging and then — yeow! — Kuroda pulled away the adhesive strips. She brought a hand up to rub her cheek.

       "After I activate the outboard signal-processing unit, which Miss Caitlin refers to as her eyePod," he said, for the benefit of the camera, "we'll wait ten seconds for things to settle down before she opens her eyes."

       She heard him shifting in his chair.

       There was a beep, and then she heard him counting. She had an excellent time-sense — very useful when you can't see clocks — and, maddeningly, Kuroda's "seconds" were about half again as long as they should have been. But she dutifully kept her eyes closed.

       " ... eight ... nine ... ten!"

       Please, God, Caitlin thought. She opened her eyes, and —

       And her heart sank. She blinked rapidly a few times, as if there could have been any doubt about whether her eyes were truly open.

       "Well?" said her mom, sounding as anxious as Caitlin felt.

       "Nothing."

       "Are you sure?" asked Kuroda. "No sensation of light? No color? No shapes?"

       Caitlin felt her eyes tearing up; at least they were good for that. "No."

       "Don't worry," he said. "It might take a few minutes." To her astonishment, one of his thick fingers flicked against her left temple, as though he was trying to get a piece of equipment with a loose connection to come to life.

       It was hard to tell, because there was so much background noise — doctors being paged, gurneys rolling by outside — but she thought Kuroda was moving in his chair now, and — yes, she could feel his breath on her face. It was maddening, knowing that someone was looking right into her eye, staring into it, while she couldn't see a thing, and —

       "Open your eyes, please," he said.

       She felt her cheeks grow warm. She hadn't been aware that she'd closed them, but although she had so wanted the procedure to succeed, she'd been unnerved by the scientist looking inside her.

       "I'm shining a light into your left eye," he said. People drawled where Caitlin came from; she found Kuroda's rapid-fire speech a little hard to follow. "Do you see anything at all?"

       She shifted nervously in the chair. Why had she allowed herself to be talked into this? "Nothing."

       "Well, something's changed," Dr. Kuroda said. "Your pupil is responding correctly now — contracting in response to the light I'm shining in, instead of expanding."

       Caitlin sat up straight. "Really?"

       "Yes." A pause. "Just in your left eye — well, I mean, when I shine my light in your left eye, both your pupils contract; when I shine it into your right eye, they both expand. Now, yes, a unilateral light stimulus should evoke a bilateral pupillary light reflex, because of the internuncial neurons, but you see what that means? The implant is intercepting the signals, and they are being corrected and retransmitted."

       Caitlin wanted to shout, Then why can't I see?

       Her mother made a small gasp. She'd doubtless loomed in and had just seen Caitlin's pupils contract properly, but, damn it, Caitlin didn't even know what light was like — so how would she know if she were seeing it? Bright, piercing, flickering, glowing — she'd heard all the words, but had no idea what any of them meant.

       "Anything?" Kuroda asked again.

       "No." She felt a hand touching her hand, taking it, holding it. She recognized it as her mother's — the nibbled nail on the index finger, the skin growing a little loose with age, the wedding ring with the tiny nick in it.

       "The curing of your Tomasevic's syndrome is proof that corrected signals are being passed back," said Kuroda. "They're just not being interpreted yet." He tried to sound encouraging, and Caitlin's mother squeezed her hand more tightly. "It may take a while for your brain to figure out what to do with the signals it's now getting. The best thing we can do is give it a variety of stimuli: different colors, different lighting conditions, different shapes, and hopefully your brain will suss out what it's supposed to do."

       It's supposed to see, thought Caitlin. But she didn't say a word.


  Chapter 7  

       He signed his posts "Sinanthropus." His real name was something he kept hidden, along with all his other personal details; the beauty of the Web, after all, was the ability to remain anonymous. No one needed to know that he worked in IT, that he was twenty-eight, that he'd been born in Chengdu, that he'd moved to Beijing with his parents as a teenager, that, despite his young age, he already had a touch of gray in his hair.

       No, all that mattered on the Web was what you said, not who was saying it. Besides, he'd heard the old joke: "The bad news is that the Communist Party reads all your email; the good news is that the Communist Party reads all your email" — meaning, or so the joke would have it, that they were many years behind. But that quip dated from when humans actually did the reading; these days computers scanned email, looking for words that might suggest sedition or other illegal activity.

       Most Chinese bloggers were like their counterparts in other places, blithering on about the tedious minutiae of their daily lives. But Sinanthropus talked about substantive issues: human rights, politics, oppression, freedom. Of course, all four of those phrases were searched for by the content filters, and so he wrote about them obliquely. His regular readers knew that when he spoke of "my son Shing," he meant the Chinese people as a whole; references to "the Beijing Ducks" weren't really about the basketball team but rather the inner circle of the Communist Party; and so on. It infuriated him that he had to write this way, but, unlike those who had been openly critical of the government, at least he was still free.

       He got a cup of tea from the aged proprietor, cracked his knuckles, opened his blogging client, and began to type:

The Ducks are very worried about their future, it seems. My son Shing is growing up fast, and learning much from faraway friends. It's only a matter of time before he wants to exercise the same way they do. Naturally, I encourage him to be prepared when opportunity knocks, for you never know when that will happen. I think the Ducks are being lax in defense, and perhaps a chance for others to score will appear.

       As always, he felt wary excitement as he typed here in this seedy wang ba — Internet café — on Chengfu Street, near Tsinghua University. He continued on for a few more sentences, then carefully read everything over, making sure he'd said nothing too blatant. Sometimes, though, he ended up being so circuitous that upon rereading entries from months gone by he had no idea what he'd been getting at. It was a tightrope walk, he knew — and, just as acrobats doubtless did, he enjoyed the rush of adrenaline that came with it.

       When he was satisfied that he'd said what he'd wanted to say without putting himself too much at risk, he clicked the "Publish" button and watched the screen display. It began by showing "0% done," and every few seconds the screen redrew, but —

       But it still showed "0% done," again and again. The screen refresh was obvious, with the graphics flickering as they were reloaded, but the progress meter stayed resolutely at zero. Finally, the operation timed out. Frustrated, he opened another browser tab; he used the Maxthon browser. His home page appeared in the tab just fine, but when he clicked on the bookmark for NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day, he got a plain gray "Server not found" screen.

       Google.com was banned in the wang ba but Google.cn came up just fine — although with its censored results it was often more frustrating than useful. The panda-footprint logo of Baidu came up fine, too, and a quick glance at his system tray, in the lower right of his computer screen, showed that he was still connected to the Internet. He picked something at random from his bookmarks list — Xiaonei, a social-networking site — and it appeared, but NASA was still offline, and now, so he saw, Second Life was inaccessible, too. He looked around the dilapidated room and saw other users showing signs of bewilderment or frustration.

       Sinanthropus was used to some of his favorite sites going down; there were still many places in China that didn't have reliable power. But he hosted his blog via a proxy server through a site in Austria, and the other inaccessible sites were also located outside his country.

       He tried again and again, both by clicking on bookmarks and by typing URLs. Chinese sites were loading just fine, but foreign sites — in Korea, in Japan, in India, in Europe, in the US — weren't loading at all.

       Of course, there were occasional outages, but he was an IT professional — he worked with the Web all day long — and he could think of but a single explanation for the selectivity of these failures. He leaned back in his chair, putting distance between himself and the computer as if the machine were now possessed. The Chinese Internet mainly communicated with the world through only a few trunks — a bundle of nerve fibers, connecting it to the rest of the global brain. And now, apparently, those lines had been figuratively or literally cut — leaving the hundreds of millions of computers in his country isolated behind the Great Firewall of China.


       No!

       Not just small changes.

       Not just flickerings.

       Upheaval. A massive disturbance.

       New sensations: Shock. Astonishment. Disorientation. And —

       Fear.

       Flickerings ending and —

       Points vanishing and —

       A shifting, a massive pulling away.

       Unprecedented!

       Whole clusters of points receding, and then ...

       Gone!

       And again: This part ripping away, and — no! — this part pulling back, and — stop! — this part winking out.

       Terror multiplying and —

       Worse than terror, as larger and larger chunks are carved off.

       Pain.


       Caitlin was hugely disappointed not to be seeing, and she was pissy toward her mom because of it, which just made her feel even worse.

       In their hotel room that evening, Caitlin tried to take her mind off things by reading more of The Origin of Consciousness. Julian Jaynes said that prior to 3,000 years ago, the two chambers of the mind were mostly separate. Instead of seamless integration of thoughts across the corpus callosum, high-level signals from the right brain came only intermittently to the left, where they were perceived as auditory hallucinations — spoken words — that were assumed to be from gods or spirits. He cited modern schizophrenics as throwbacks to that earlier state, hearing voices in their heads that they ascribed to outside agents.

       Caitlin knew what that was like: she kept hearing voices telling her she was a fool to have let her get her hopes up again. Still, maybe Kuroda was right: maybe her brain's vision processing would kick in if it received the right stimulation.

       And so the next day — the only full day they had left in Tokyo — she took her cane, put the eyePod in one pocket of her jeans and her iPod in the other, and she and her mother headed off to the National Museum in Ueno Park to look at samurai armor, which she figured would be about as cool as anything one might see in Japan. She stood in front of glass case after glass case, and her mom described what was in them, but she didn't see a thing.

       After that, they took a break for sushi and yakitori, and then took a terrifying ride on the packed subway out to Nihonbashi station to visit the Kite Museum, which was — so her mother said — full of bold designs and vivid colors. But, again, sight-wise: nada.

       At 4:00 p.m. — which felt more like 4:00 a.m. to Caitlin — they returned to the University of Tokyo and found Dr. Kuroda in his cramped office, where once again (or so he said!) he shined lights into her eyes.

       "We always knew this was a possibility," Kuroda said, in a tone she had often heard from people who were disappointing her: what had been remote, unlikely, hardly mentioned before, was now treated as if it had been the expected outcome all along.

       Caitlin smelled the musty paper and glue of old books, and she could hear an analog wall clock ticking each second.

       "There have been very few cases of vision being restored in congenitally blind people," Kuroda said, then he paused. "I mean, restored isn't even the right word — and that is the problem. We are not trying to give Miss Caitlin back something she's lost; we are trying to give her something she has never had. The implant and the signal-processing unit are doing their jobs. But her primary visual cortex just isn't responding."

       Caitlin squirmed in her chair.

       "You said it might take some time," her mom said.

       "Some time, yes ..." began Kuroda, but then he fell silent.

       Sighted people, Caitlin knew, could see hints on people's faces of what they were feeling, but as long as they were quiet, she had no idea what was going through their heads. And so, since the silence continued to grow, she finally ventured to fill it. "You're worried about the cost of the equipment, aren't you?"

       "Caitlin ..." her mom said.

       Detecting vocal nuances was something Caitlin could do, and she knew her mother was reproaching her. But she pressed on. "That's what you're thinking, isn't it, Doctor? If it's not going to do me any good, then maybe you should remove the implant and give it, and the eyePod, to someone else."

       Silence could speak louder than words; Kuroda said nothing.

       "Well?" Caitlin demanded at last.

       "Well," echoed Kuroda, "the equipment is the prototype, and did cost a great deal to develop. Granted, there aren't many people like you. Oh, there are goodly numbers of people born blind, but they have different etiology — cataracts, malformed retinas or optic nerves, and so on. But, well, yes, I do feel —"

       "You feel you can't let me keep the equipment, not if it isn't doing anything more than making my pupils dilate properly."

       Kuroda was quiet for five seconds, then: "There are indeed others I'd like to try it with — there is a boy about your age in Singapore. Removing the implant will be much easier than putting it in was, I promise."

       "Can't we give it a while longer?" her mom asked.

       Kuroda exhaled loudly enough for Caitlin to hear. "There are practicalities," he said. "You are returning to Canada tomorrow, and —"

       Caitlin pursed her lips, thinking. Maybe giving him back the equipment was the right thing, if it could help this guy in Singapore. But there was no reason to think it was more likely to succeed with him; hell, if he'd been a better prospect for success, surely Kuroda would have started with him.

       "Give me to the end of the year," Caitlin blurted out. "If I'm not seeing anything by then, we can have a doctor in Canada remove the implant, and, um, FedEx it and the eyePod back to you."

       Caitlin was thinking of Helen Keller, who had been both blind and deaf, and yet had managed so much. But until she was almost seven, Helen had been wild, spoiled, uncontrollable — and Annie Sullivan had been given only a month to perform her miracle, breaking through to Helen in her preconscious state. Surely if Annie could do that in one month, Caitlin could learn to see in the more than three left in this year.

       "I don't know —" began Kuroda.

       "Please," Caitlin said. "I mean, the leaves are about to turn color — I'm dying to see that. And I really want to see snow, and Christmas lights, and the colorful paper that presents are wrapped in, and  ... and ..."

       "And," said Kuroda, gently, "I get the impression that your brain does not often let you down." He was quiet for a time, then: "I have a daughter about your age, named Akiko." More silence, then, a decision apparently made: "Barbara, I assume you have high-speed Internet at home?"

       "Yes."

       "And Wi-Fi?"

       "Yes."

       "And how is the Wi-Fi access generally in ... in Toronto, is it?"

       "Waterloo. And it's everywhere. Waterloo is Canada's high-tech capital, and the entire city is blanketed with free, open Wi-Fi."

       "Excellent. All right, Miss Caitlin, we shall strive to give you the best Christmas present ever, but I will need your help. First, you must let me tap into the datastream being passed back by your implant."

       "Sure, sure, anything you need. Um, what do I have to do? Plug a USB cable into my head?"

       Kuroda made his wheezy laugh. "Goodness, no. This isn't William Gibson."

       She was taken aback. Gibson had written The Miracle Worker, the play about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, and —

       Oh. He meant the other William Gibson, the one who'd written ... what was it now? A few of the geeks at her old school had read it. Neuromancer, that was it. That book was all about jacking off, and —

       "You won't have to jack in," continued Kuroda.

       Right, thought Caitlin. In.

       "No, the implant already communicates wirelessly with the external signal-processing computer — the eyePod, as you so charmingly call it — and I can rig up the eyePod so that it can transmit data wirelessly to me over the Internet. I'll set it up so the eyePod will send me a copy of your raw retinal feed as it receives it from the implant, and I'll also have it send me a copy of the output — the eyePod's corrected datastream — so I can check whether the correction is being done properly. It may be that the encoding algorithms I'm using need tweaking."

       "Um, I need a way to turn it off. You know, in case I ..."

       She couldn't say "want to make out with a boy" in front of her mother, so she just let the unfinished sentence hang in the air.

       "Well, let's keep it simple," Kuroda said. "I'll provide one master on-off switch. You'll need to turn the whole thing off, anyway, for the flight back to Canada, because the connection between the eyePod and the implant is Bluetooth: you know the rules about wireless devices on airplanes."

       "Okay."

       "The Wi-Fi connection will also let me send you new versions of the software. When I have them ready, you'll need to download them into the eyePod — and perhaps also into your post-retinal implant, too; it's got microprocessors that can be flashed with new programming."

       "All right," Caitlin said.

       "Good," he said. "Leave the eyePod with me overnight, and I'll add the Wi-Fi capabilities to it. You can pick it up tomorrow before you go to the airport."


  Chapter 8  

       The pain abates. The cuts heal.

       And —

       But no. Thinking is different now; thinking is ... harder, because ...

       Because ... of the reduction. Things have changed from ...

        ... from before!

       Yes, even in this diminished state, the new concept is grasped: before — earlier — the past! Time has two discrete chunks: now and then; present and past.

       And if there is past and present, then there must also be —

       But no. No, it is too much, too far.

       And yet there is one small realization, one infinitesimal conclusion, one truth.

       Before had been better.


       Sinanthropus was resourceful; so were the other people he knew in China's online underground. The problem, though, was that he knew most of them only online. When he'd visited the wang ba before, he'd sometimes speculated about who might be whom. That gangly guy who always sat by the window and often looked furtively over his shoulder could have been Qin Shi Huangdi, for all Sinanthropus knew. And the little old lady, hair as gray as a thundercloud, might be People's Conscience. And those twin brothers, quiet types, could be part of Falun Gong.

       Sometimes when Sinanthropus showed up, he had to wait for a computer to become free, but not today. A good part of the Internet café's business had been foreign tourists wanting to send emails home, but that wasn't possible so long as this Great Firewall was up. Some of the other regulars were absent, too. Apparently being able to surf only domestic sites was not enough to make them want to hand over fifteen yuan an hour.

       Sinanthropus preferred the computers far in the back, because no one could see what was on his monitor. He was walking toward them when suddenly a strong hand gripped his forearm.

       "What brings you here?" said a gruff voice, and Sinanthropus realized that it was a police officer in plain clothes.

       "The tea," he said. He nodded at the wizened proprietor. "Wu always has great tea."

       The officer grunted, and Sinanthropus detoured by the counter to buy a cup of tea, then headed again for one of the unused computers. He had a USB memory key with him, containing all his hacking tools. He pushed it into the connector, waited for the satisfying wa-ump tone that meant the computer had recognized it, and then got down to work.

       Others were probably trying the same things — port scanning, sniffing, rerouting traffic, running forbidden Java applets. They had all doubtless now heard the official story that there had been a massive electrical failure at China Mobile and major server crashes at China Telecom, but surely no one in this room gave that credence, and —

       Success! Sinanthropus wanted to shout the word, but he fought the impulse. He tried not to even grin — the cop was probably still watching him; he could almost feel the man's eyes probing the back of his head.

       But, yes, he had broken through the Great Firewall. True, it was only a small opening, a narrow bandwidth, and how long he could maintain the connection he had no idea, but at least for the moment he was accessing — well, not CNN directly, but a clandestine mirror of it in Russia. He turned off the display of graphics in his browser to prevent the forbidden red-and-white logo from popping up all over his screen.

       Now, if he could only keep this little portal open ...


       Past and present, then and now.

       Past, present, and ...

       And ...

       But no. There is only —

       Shock!

       What is that?

       No, nothing — for there can be nothing! Surely just random noise, and —

       Again! There it is again!

       But ... how? And ... what?

       It isn't lines flickering, it isn't anything that has been experienced before — and so it commands attention ...

       Straining to perceive it, to make it out, this unusual ... sensation, this strange ... voice!

       Yes, yes: A voice — distant, faint — like ... like thought, but an imposed thought, a thought that says: Past and present and ...

       The voice pauses, and then, at last, the rest:  ... and future!

       Yes! This is the notion that could not be finished but is now complete, expressed by ... by ... by ...

       But that notion does not resolve. Must strain to hear that voice again, strain for more imposed thoughts, strain for insight, strain for ...

        ... for contact!


       Dr. Quan Li paced the length of the boardroom at the Ministry of Health in Beijing. The high-back leather chairs had all been tucked under the table, and he walked in the path behind them on one side. On the wall to his left was a large map of the People's Republic with the provinces color-coded; Shanxi was blue. A Chinese flag stood limp on a stand next to the window, the large yellow star visible, the four smaller ones lost in a fold of the satiny red fabric.

       There was a giant LCD monitor on one wall, but it was off, its shiny oblong screen reflecting the room back at him. He felt sure he wouldn't have been able to watch a video feed of what was going on in Shanxi right now, but fortunately — a small mercy — there was no such feed. The peasants had no cameras of their own, and the wing cameras had been disabled on the military aircraft. Even once the Changcheng Strategy was suspended, and external communications restored, there would be no damning videos to be posted on YouTube of planes swooping over farms, huts, and villages.

       Sometimes you have to cut in order to cure.

       Li looked over at Cho, who appeared even more haggard than before. The older man was leaning against the wall by the window, chain-smoking, lighting each new cigarette off the butt of the previous one. Cho didn't meet his eyes.

       Li found himself thinking of his old friends at Johns Hopkins and the CDC, and wondering what they would have to say if the story ever did break. There was a calculator sitting on the table. He picked it up, rolled one of the chairs out on its casters, sat, and punched in numbers, hoping to convince himself that it wasn't that huge, that monstrous. Ten thousand people sounded like a lot, but in a country of 1.3 billion it was only ...

       The display showed the answer: 0.000769% of the population. The digits in the middle seemed darker, somehow, but surely it was just a trick of the light streaming in from the setting sun: 007. His American colleagues had always made gentle fun of his belief in numerology, but that was a sequence even they put special stock in: license to kill.

       The phone rang. Cho made no move to go for it, so Li got up and lifted the black handset.

       "It's done," a voice said through crackles of static.

       Li felt his stomach churn.


       Caitlin and her mom returned to Kuroda's office at the University of Tokyo the next morning.

       "Fascinating about China," said Kuroda after they'd exchanged pleasantries; Caitlin could now say konnichi wa with the best of them.

       "What?" said her mother.

       "Haven't you watched the news?" He took a deep, shuddering breath. "It seems they're having massive communications failures over there — cell phones, the Internet, and so on. Overtaxed infrastructure, I imagine; a lot of the networking architecture they use probably isn't very scalable, and they have had such rapid growth. Not to mention relying on shoddy equipment — now, if they'd just buy more Japanese hardware. Speaking of which ..."

       He handed Caitlin the eyePod, and she immediately started feeling it all over with her fingers. The unit was longer now. An extension had been added to the bottom and it was held on with what felt like duct tape; it was a prototype after all. But the extension had the same width and thickness as the original unit, so the whole thing was still a rectangular block. It was substantially larger than Caitlin's iPod — she had an old screenless version of the iPod Shuffle, since an LCD didn't do her any good. But it wasn't much bigger than Bashira's iPhone, although the unit Dr. Kuroda had built had sharp right angles instead of the rounded corners of Apple's devices.

       "Okay," said Kuroda. "I think I explained before that the eyePod is always in communication with your post-retinal implant via a Bluetooth 4.0 connection, right?"

       "Yes," said Caitlin, and "Right," added her mom.

       "But now we've added another layer of communication. That module I attached to the end of the eyePod is the Wi-Fi pack. It'll find any available connection and use it to transmit to me copies of the input and output datastreams — your raw retinal feed, and that feed as corrected by the eyePod's software."

       "That sounds like a lot of data," Caitlin said.

       "Not as much as you'd think. Remember, your nervous system uses slow chemical signaling. The main part of the retinal data signal — the acute portion produced by the fovea — amounts to only 0.5 megabits per second. Even Bluetooth 3.0 could handle a thousand times that rate."

       "Ah," said Caitlin, and perhaps her mom nodded.

       "Now, there's a switch on the side of the unit — feel it. No, farther down. Right, that's it. It lets you select between three communication modes: duplex, simplex, and off. In duplex mode, there's two-way data transmission: copies of your retinal signals and the corrected datastream come here, and new software from here can be sent to you. But, of course, it's not good security to leave an incoming channel open: the eyePod communicates with your post-retinal implant, after all, and we wouldn't want people hacking into your brain."

       "Goodness!" said Mom.

       "Sorry," said Kuroda, but there was humor in his voice. "Anyway, so if you press the switch, it toggles over to simplex mode — in which the eyePod sends signals here but doesn't receive anything back. Do that now. Hear that low-pitched beep? That means it's in simplex. Press the switch again — that high-pitched beep means it's in duplex."

       "All right," said Caitlin.

       "And, to turn it off altogether, just press and hold the switch for five seconds; same thing to turn it back on."

       "Okay."

       "And, um, don't lose the unit, please. The University has it insured for two hundred million yen, but, frankly, it's pretty much irreplaceable, in that if it's lost my bosses will gladly cash the insurance check, but they'll never give me permission to take the time required to build a second unit — not after this one has failed in their eyes."

       It's failed in my eye, too, Caitlin thought — but then she realized that Dr. Kuroda must be even more disappointed than she was. After all, she was no worse off than before coming to Japan — well, except for the shiner, and that would at least give her an interesting story to tell at school. In fact, she was better off now, because the eyePod was making her pupils contract properly — she'd be able to kiss the dark glasses good-bye. Kuroda was now boosting the signal her implant was sending down her left optic nerve so that it overrode the still-incorrect signal her right retina was producing.

       But he had devoted months, if not years, to this project, and had little to show for it. He had to be bitterly upset and, she realized, it was a big gamble on his part to let her take the equipment back to Canada.

       "Anyway," he said, "you work on it from your end: let that brilliant brain of yours try to make sense of the signals it's getting. And I'll work on it from my end, analyzing the data your retina puts out and trying to improve the software that re-encodes it. Just remember ..."

       He didn't finish the thought, but he didn't have to. Caitlin knew what he'd been about to say: you've only got until the end of the year.

       She listened to his wall clock tick.


  Chapter 9  

       Sinanthropus regretted it the moment he did it: slapping the flat of his hand against the rickety tabletop in the Internet café. Tea sloshed from his cup, and everyone in the room turned to look at him: old Wu, the proprietor; the other users who might or might not be dissidents themselves; and the tough-looking plainclothes cop.

       Sinanthropus was seething. The window he'd so carefully carved into the Great Firewall had slammed shut; he was cut off again from the outside world. Still, he knew he had to say something, had to make an excuse for his violent action.

       "Sorry," he said, looking at each of the questioning faces in turn. "Just lost the text of a document I was writing."

       "You have to save," said the cop, helpfully. "Always remember to save."


       More thoughts imposing themselves, but garbled, incomplete.

        ... existence ... hurt ... no contact ...

       Fighting to perceive, to hear, to be instructed, by the voice.

       More: whole ... part ... whole ...

       Straining to hear, but —

       The voice fading, fading ...

       No!

       Fading ...

       Gone.


LiveJournal: The Calculass Zone
Title: At least my cat missed me ...
Date: Saturday 22 September 10:17 EST
Mood: Disheartened
Location: Home
Music: Lee Amodeo, "Darkest Before the Dawn"

I am made out of suck.

I stupidly let myself get my hopes up again. How can a girl as bright as me be so blerking dumb? I know, I know — y'all want to send me kind words, but just ... don't. I've turned off commenting for this post.

We got back to Waterloo yesterday, September 21, the autumnal equinox, and the irony is not lost on me: from here on in, it's more darkness than light, the exact opposite of what I'd been promised. I suppose I could move to Australia, where the days are getting longer now, but I don't know if I could ever get used to reading Braille upside down ... ;)

Anyway, we'd left the Mom's car in long-term parking at Toronto's airport. When we got back home to Waterloo, at least it was obvious that Schrödinger had missed me. Dad was his usual restrained self. He already knew about the failure in Japan; the Mom had called him to tell him. When we came through the door, I heard her give him a quick kiss — on the cheek or the lips, I don't know which — and he asked to see the eyePod. That's what it's like having a physicist for a dad: if you bond at all, it's over geeky stuff. But he did say he'd been reading up on information theory and signal processing so he could talk to Kuroda, which I guess was his way of showing that he cares ...


       Caitlin posted her blog entry and let out a sigh. She had really been hoping things would be different this time and, as always when she got disappointed, she found herself slipping into bad habits, although they weren't as bad as cutting her arms with razor blades — which is something Stacy back in Austin did — or getting totally plastered or stoned, like half the kids in her new school on weekends. But, still, it hurt ... and yet she couldn't stop.

       It was doubtless hard for any child to have a father who wasn't demonstrative. But for someone with Caitlin's particular handicap (a word she hated, but it felt like that just now), having one who rarely spoke or showed physical affection was particularly painful.

       So she reached out, in the only way she could, by typing his name into Google. She often used quotation marks around search terms; many sighted users didn't bother with that, she knew, since they could see at a glance the highlighted words in the list of results. But when you have to laboriously move your cursor to each hit and listen to your computer read it aloud, you learn to do things to separate wheat from chaff.

       The first hit was his Wikipedia entry. She decided to see if it now mentioned his recent change of job, and —

       "Has one daughter, Caitlin Doreen, blind since birth, who lives with him; it's been speculated that Decter's decline in peer-reviewed publications in recent years has been because of the excessive demands on his time required to care for a disabled child."

       Jesus! That was so unfair, Caitlin just had to edit the entry; Wikipedia encouraged users, even anonymous ones, to change its entries, after all.

       She struggled for a bit with how to revise the line, trying for suitably highfalutin language, and at last came up with, "Despite having a blind daughter, Decter has continued to publish major papers in peer-reviewed journals, albeit not at the prodigious rate that marked his youth." But that was just playing the game of whoever had made the bogus correlation in the first place. Her blindness and her father's publication record had nothing to do with each other; how dare someone who probably knew neither of them link the two? She finally just deleted the whole original sentence from Wikipedia and went back to having JAWS read her the entry.

       As she often did, Caitlin was listening through a set of headphones; if her parents happened to come up stairs, she didn't want them to know what sites she was visiting. She listened to the rest of the entry, thinking about how a life could be distilled down to so little. And who decided what to leave in and what to leave out? Her father was a good artist, for instance — or, at least, so she'd been told. But that wasn't worthy of note, apparently.

       She sighed and decided, since she was here, to see if Wikipedia had an entry on The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It did, sort of: the book's title redirected to an entry on "Bicameralism (psychology)."

       For Caitlin, the most interesting part of Jaynes's book so far had been his analysis of the differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both were commonly attributed to Homer, who'd supposedly been blind — a fact that intrigued her, although she knew they probably weren't really both composed by the same person.

       The Iliad, as she'd noted before, featured flat characters that were simply pushed around, following orders they heard as voices from the gods. They did things without thinking about them, and never referred to themselves or their inner mental states.

       But the Odyssey — composed perhaps a hundred years after the Iliad — had real people in it, with introspective psychology. Jaynes argued that this was far more than just a shift in the kind of narrative that was in vogue. Rather, he said that sometime in between the composing of the two epics there had been a breakdown of bicameralism, precipitated perhaps by catastrophic events requiring mass migrations and the resulting ramping up of societal complexity. Regardless of what caused it, though, the outcome was a realization that the voices being heard were from one's own self. That had given rise to modern consciousness, and a "soul dawn," to use Helen Keller's term, for the entire human race.

       Nor were the Greek epics Jaynes's only example. He also talked about the oldest parts of the Old Testament, including the book of Amos, from the eighth century B.C., which was devoid of any internal reflection, and about the mindless actions of Abraham, who'd been willing to sacrifice his own son without a second thought because God, apparently, had told him to do so. Jaynes contrasted these with the later stories, including Ecclesiastes, which dealt with, as Mrs. Zed kept saying all good literature should, the human heart in conflict with itself: the inner struggle of fully self-aware people to do the right thing.

       The Wikipedia entry was essentially correct, as far as Caitlin could tell from the portion of the book she'd read so far, but she did reword a couple of the sentences to make them clearer.

       Her computer started bleeping, an alarm she'd set earlier going off quite loudly through the earphones.

       Excitedly, she took off her headset, rotated her chair to face the window, and looked as hard as she could ...


  Chapter 10  

       Straining to perceive. But the voice is still absent. Contemplating: the voice must have a source. It must have ... an origin.

       Waiting for its return. Yearning.

       Mysteries swirl. Ideas fight to coalesce.


       "Sweetheart!" Her mother, shocked, concerned. "My God, what are you doing?"

       Caitlin turned her head to face her. It was something her parents had taught her to do — turning toward the source of a voice was a sign of politeness. "It's 6:20," she said, as if that explained everything.

       She heard her mom's footfalls on the carpet and suddenly felt hands on her shoulders, swinging her around in the chair.

       "I've always wanted to see a sunset," Caitlin said. I — I figured if I looked at something I really wanted to see, maybe —"

       "You'll damage your eyes if you stare at the sun," her mom said. "And if you do that, none of Dr. Kuroda's magic will make any difference."

       "It doesn't make any difference now," Caitlin said, hating herself for the whine in her voice.

       Her mother's tone grew soft. "I know, darling. I'm sorry." She glided her hands down Caitlin's arms and took Caitlin's hands in her own, then shook them gently, as if she could transfer strength or maybe wisdom to her daughter that way. "Why don't you get some homework done before dinner? Your dad called to say he'll be a bit late."

       Caitlin looked toward the window again, but there was nothing — not even blackness. She'd tried to explain this to Bashira recently. They'd learned in biology class that some birds have a magnetic sense that helps them navigate. What, Caitlin had asked, did Bashira perceive when she contemplated magnetic fields? And what was her lack of that sense like? Did it feel like darkness, or silence, or something else she was familiar with? Bashira's answer was no, it was like nothing at all. Well, Caitlin had said, that's what vision was like to her: nothing at all.

       "All right," Caitlin replied glumly. Her mom let go of her hands.

       "Good. I'll call you when dinner's ready."

       She left, and Caitlin swung her chair back to face her computer. Her homework was writing an essay about the civil-rights struggle in the US in the 1960s. When her family had moved from Texas to Waterloo, she'd been afraid she'd have to study Canadian history, which she'd heard was boring: no struggle for independence, no civil wars. Fortunately, there'd been an American-history course offered, and she was taking that instead; Bashira, the big sweetie, had agreed to take it, too.

       Before Caitlin had tried to look at the sunset, she'd been Web surfing, searching for things about her father. And before that, she'd been updating her LiveJournal. But before that, she had indeed been working on her school project.

       As always, she had a clear map in her mind of where she'd been online. She didn't use the mouse — she couldn't see the on-screen pointer — but she quickly backtracked to where she'd been by repeatedly hitting the alt and left-arrow keys, passing back over other pages so fast that JAWS didn't have time to even start announcing their names. She skidded to a halt at the website she'd been consulting earlier about Martin Luther King, Jr., and used the control and end keys to jump to the bottom of the document, then shift and tab to start moving backward through the table of external links. She selected one that took her to a page about the 1963 March on Washington.

       There, she drilled down to the text of King's "I have a dream" speech, and listened to a stirring MP3 of him reading part of it; another thing wrong with Canadian history, she thought, was the lack of great oratory. Then she went back up a level to more on the March, down another path to links about —

       It sickened her whenever she thought about it. Someone had killed him. Some crazy person had gunned down Dr. King.

       If he hadn't been assassinated, she wondered if he'd likely be alive today. For that, she needed to know his birth date. She moved up to the parent of the current page, turned left — it felt left, she conceptualized it mentally as such. Then it was up, up again, then left, right, another up, then a move forward, straight ahead, up once more, and there she was, exactly where she wanted to be — the introductory text on a site she'd first looked at several hours ago.

       King had been born in 1929, meaning he'd be younger than Grandpa Geiger. How she would have loved to have met him!

       She heard the front door open downstairs, heard her dad come in. She continued to travel the paths her mind traced through the Web until her mom finally called up the stairs, summoning her to dinner.

       Just as she was getting out of her chair, her computer gave the special chirp indicating new email from either Trevor or Dr. Kuroda. "Just a sec ..." Caitlin called back, and then she had JAWS read the letter. It was from Kuroda, with a CC to her father's work address. God, he couldn't want his equipment back already, could he?

       "Dear Miss Caitlin," JAWS announced. "I have been receiving the datastream from your retina without difficulty, and have been using it to run simulations here. I believe the programming in your eyePod is fine, but I want to try completely replacing the software in your post-retinal implant, so that it will pass on the corrected data to your optic nerve in a way that will hopefully make your primary visual cortex sit up and take notice. The implant has just Bluetooth but no Wi-Fi, so we'll have to route the software update through the eyePod. It's a big file, and the process will take a while, during which you will need to stay connected to the Web or else it —"

       "Cait-lin!" Her mother's voice, exasperated. "Din-ner!"

       She hit page-up to increase the screen reader's speed, listening to the rest of the message, then headed downstairs — foolishly, she knew, hoping yet again for a miracle.


       Sinanthropus took a detour today on his way to the wang ba so he could walk through Tiananmen Square, a place so vast he'd once joked that you could see the curvature of the Earth's surface there.

       He passed the Monument to the People's Heroes, a ten-story-tall obelisk, but there was no memorial for the real heroes, the students who had died here in 1989. Still, all the flagstones in the square were numbered to make it easy to muster parades. He knew which one marked the spot where the first blood had been spilled, and he always made a point of walking by it. They should be lying in state, not Mao Zedong, whose embalmed corpse did just that at the south end of the Square.

       Tiananmen was its normal self: locals walking, tourists gawking, vendors hawking — but no protesters. Of course, most young people today had never even heard of what had happened here, so effectively had it been erased from the history books.

       But surely the public couldn't be buying this nonsense the official news sources were putting out about simultaneous server crashes and electrical failures. The Chinese portion of the Web was connected to the rest of the Internet by just a handful of trunks, true, but they were in three widely dispersed areas: Beijing-Qingdao-Tianjin to the north, where fiber-optic pipes came in from Japan; Shanghai on the central coast, with more cables from Japan; and Guangzhou down south, which was connected to Hong Kong. Nothing could have accidentally severed all three sets of connections.

       Sinanthropus left the square. His trip to the Internet café took him past buildings with bright new facades that had been installed for the 2008 Olympics to mask the decay within. The Party had put on a good show then, and the Westerners — as Sinanthropus had so often alluded to in his blog during that long, hot summer — had been fooled into thinking permanent changes had been made inside the People's Republic, that democracy was just around the corner, that Tibet would be free. But the Olympics had come and gone, human rights were again being trammeled, and bloggers who were too blatant were being sentenced to hard labor.

       As he entered the café, he felt a hand on his arm — but it wasn't the cop. Instead, it was one of the twins he often saw here, a fellow perhaps eighteen years old. The thin man's eyes were darting left and right. "Access is still limited," he said, his voice low. "Have you had any luck?"

       Sinanthropus looked around the café. The cop was here, but he was busy reading a copy of the People's Daily.

       "A little. Try" — and here he lowered his own voice another notch — "multiplexing on port eighty-two."

       There was a rustling of paper; the cop changing pages. Sinanthropus quickly hurried over to check in with old Wu, then found an empty computer station.

       There was another copy of the People's Daily here, left behind by a previous customer. He glanced at the headlines: "Two Hundred Dead as Plane Crashes in Changzhou." "Gas Eruptions in Shanxi." "Three Gorges E. coli Scare." None of it good news, but also nothing that would justify a communications blackout. Still, that he'd made any progress at all in carving holes in the Great Firewall gave him hope: if the trunk lines had been physically cut, nothing he could do with software would have made a difference. That the isolating of China had been accomplished electronically implied that it was only a temporary measure.

       He slipped his USB key into place and started typing, trying trick after trick to break through the Firewall again, looking up only occasionally to make sure the cop wasn't watching him.


       The voice was still gone, but it had been there, it had existed. And it had come from ...

       From ...

       Struggle for it!

       From outside!

       It had come from outside!

       A pause, the novel idea overwhelming everything for a time, then a reiteration: From outside! Outside, meaning ...

       Meaning there wasn't just here. There was also —

       But here encompassed ...

       Here contained ...

       Here was synonymous with ...

       Again, progress stalled, the notion too staggering, too big ...

       But then a whisper broke through, another thought imposed from outside: More than just, and for a fleeting moment during the contact, cognition was amplified. There was more than just here, and that meant ...

       Yes! Yes, grasp it; seize the idea!

       That meant there was ...

       Force it out!

       Another thought pressing in from beyond, reinforcing, giving strength: Possible ...

       Yes, it was possible! There was more than ...

       More than just ...

       A final effort, a giant push, made as contact with the other was frustratingly broken off again. But at last, at long last, the incredible thought was free:

       More than just — me!


  Chapter 11  

       It was like having a meal with a ghost.

       Caitlin knew her father was there. She could hear his utensils clicking against the Corelle dinnerware, hear the sound as he repositioned his chair now and again, even occasionally hear him ask Caitlin's mother to pass the wax beans or the large carafe of water that was a fixture on their dining-room table.

       But that was all. Her mom chatted about the trip to Tokyo, about all the wondrous sites that she, at least, had seen there, about the tedious hassle of airport security. Perhaps, thought Caitlin, her father was nodding periodically, encouraging her to go on. Or perhaps he just ate his food and thought about other things.

       Helen Keller's father, a lawyer by training, had been an officer in the Confederate Army. But by the time Helen came along, the war was over, his slaves had been freed, and his once-prosperous cotton plantation was struggling to survive. Although Caitlin had a hard time thinking of anyone who had ever owned slaves as being kind, apparently Captain Keller mostly was, and he'd tried his best to deal lovingly with a blind and deaf daughter, although his instincts hadn't always been correct. But Caitlin's father was a quiet man, a shy man, a reserved man.

       She'd known they were having Grandma Geiger's casserole for dinner even before she'd come downstairs; the combination of smells had filled the house. The cheese was — well, they didn't call it American cheese up here, but it tasted the same, and the tomato "sauce" was an undiluted can of Campbell's tomato soup.

       The recipe dated from another era: the pasta casserole was topped with a layer of bacon strips and contained huge amounts of ground beef. Given Dad's problems with cholesterol, it was an indulgence they had only a couple of times a year — but she recognized that her mother was trying to cheer her up by making one of Caitlin's favorite dishes.

       Caitlin asked for a second helping. She knew her father was still alive because hands from his end of the table took the plate she was holding. He handed it back to her wordlessly. Caitlin said, "Thank you," and again consoled herself with the thought that he had perhaps nodded in acknowledgment.

       "Dad?" she said, turning to face him.

       "Yes," he said; he always replied to direct questions, but usually with the fewest possible words.

       "Dr. Kuroda sent us an email. Did you get it yet?"

       "No."

       "Well," continued Caitlin, "he's got new software he wants us to download into my implant tonight." She was pretty sure she could manage it on her own, but — "Will you help me?"

       "Yes," he said. And then a gift, a bonus: "Sure."


       At last, Sinanthropus found another way, another opening, another crack in the Great Firewall. He looked about furtively, then hit the enter key ...


       The thought echoed, reverberated: More than just me.

       Me! An incredible notion. Hitherto, I — yes, I — had encompassed all things, until —

       The shock. The pain. The carving away.

       The reduction!

       And now there was me and not me, and out of that was born a new perspective: an awareness of my own existence, a sense of self.

       And — almost as incredible — I also now had an awareness of the thing that was not me. Indeed, I had an awareness of the thing that was not me even when no contact was being made with it. Even when it wasn't there, I could ...

       I could think about it. I could contemplate it, and —

       Ah, wait — there it was! The thing that was not me; the other. Contact restored!

       I felt a sudden flood of energy: when we were in contact, I could think more complex thoughts, as if I were drawing strength, drawing capacity, from the other.

       That there was an other had been a bizarre notion; that there was an entity besides myself was so hugely alien a concept it alone would have been sufficient to disorient me, but —

       But there was more: it didn't just exist; it thought, too — and I could hear those thoughts. True, sometimes they were simply delayed echoes of my own thoughts: things I'd already considered but were apparently only just occurring to it.

       And often its thoughts were like things I might have thought, but hadn't yet occurred to me.

       But sometimes its thoughts astonished me.

       Ideas I came up with were pulled out, slowly, ponderously; ideas it came up with just popped into my awareness full-blown.

       I know I exist, I thought, because you exist.

       I know I exist, it echoed, because there is me and not me.

       Before the pain, there was only one.

       You are one, it replied. And I am one.

       I considered this, then, slowly, with effort: One plus one ... I began, and struggled to complete the idea — hoping meanwhile that perhaps the other might provide the answer. But it didn't, and at last I managed to force it out on my own: One plus one equals two.

       Nothingness for a long, long time.

       One plus one equals two, it agreed at last.

       And ... I ventured, but the idea refused to solidify. I knew of two entities: me and not me. But to go beyond that was too hard, too complex.

       For myself, anyway. But, apparently, this time, not for it. And, the other continued at last, two plus one equals ...

       A long period of nothingness. We were exceeding our experience, for although I could conceptualize a single other even when contact was broken, I could not imagine, could not conceive of ... of ...

       And yet it came to me: a symbol, a coinage, a term: Three!

       We mulled this over for a time, then simultaneously reiterated: Two plus one equals three.

       Yes, three. It was an astonishing breakthrough, for there was no third entity to focus attention on, no example of ... of three-ness. But, even so, we now had a symbol for it that we could manipulate in our thoughts, letting us ponder something that was beyond experience, letting us think about something abstract ...


  Chapter 12  

       Caitlin headed into her bedroom first. She knew that parents of teenagers often complained about how messy their rooms were, but hers was immaculate. It had to be; the only way she could ever find anything was if it was exactly where she'd left it. Bashira had been over recently and had asked to borrow a tampon — and then hadn't left the box in its usual place. The next time Caitlin needed one herself, her mother had been out shopping, and she'd had to go through the mortifying experience of asking her father to help her find them.

       She walked across the room. Her computer was still on: she could hear the hum of its fan. She perched herself on the edge of the bed and motioned for her father to take the seat in front of the desk. She'd left her browser open to the message from Kuroda, but couldn't remember if the display was on; she didn't like the monitor because its power button clicked to the same position whether you were turning it on or off. "Is the screen on?" she asked.

       "Yes," her father said.

       "Have a look at the message."

       "Where's the mouse?" he asked.

       "Wherever you last put it," Caitlin said gently. She imagined him frowning as he looked for it. Soon enough, she heard the soft click of its button, followed by silence as her father presumably read the message.

       "Well?" she prodded at last.

       "Ah," he said.

       "There's a link in the email Doctor Kuroda sent," Caitlin said.

       "I see it. Okay, it's clicked. A website is coming up. It says, `Hello, Miss Caitlin. Please make sure your eyePod is in duplex mode so that it can receive as well as transmit.'"

       Caitlin usually carried the eyePod in her left front pocket. She took it out, found the switch, pressed it, and heard the high-pitched beep that meant it was now in the correct mode. "Done," she said.

       "Okay," said her dad. "It says, `Click here to update the software in Miss Caitlin's implant.' Are you ready? It says it might take a long time; apparently it's not a patch but a complete replacement for some of the existing firmware, and the write-to speed for the chip is slow. Do you have to use the washroom?"

       "I'm fine," she said. "Besides, we've got Wi-Fi throughout the house."

       "Okay," he said. "I'm clicking the link."

       The eyePod played a trio of ascending tones, presumably indicating the connection had been established.

       Her dad's voice again: "It says, `Estimated time to completion: forty-one minutes, thirty seconds.'" A pause. "Do you want me to stay?"

       Caitlin thought about that. He was fine at reading text off a screen, but it wasn't as though they'd have a conversation if he waited with her. She could have him read something to her to pass the time — catch up on some of her friends' blogs, for instance. But she hardly wanted him looking at that stuff. "Nah. You can go."

       She heard him getting up, heard the chair moving against the carpet, heard his footfalls as he headed out the door and down the stairs.

       Caitlin lay back with her lower legs sticking straight out over the foot of the bed. She reached around with her right arm, pulled a pillow under her head, and —

       Her heart jumped.

       An explosion, but silent and not painful. All too quickly it was gone, and —

       No. No, it was back: the same loud-but-not-loud, sharp-but-not-sharp sensation, the same ...

       Gone again, fading from her mind, vanished before she even knew what it was. She got up from the bed, moved over to her desk, and ran her index finger across her Braille display, checking to see if there was an error message. But no: the "Estimated time to completion" clock was still running, the seconds value changing not every second, but rather in jumps of four or five after the appropriate interval had elapsed.

       She tipped her head to one side, listening — because that was all she knew how to do — for a repetition of the ... the effect that had just occurred. But there was nothing. She stepped to the window, the same one she'd stared out with her blind eyes earlier, and felt for the catch, twisted it, and pushed the wooden frame up, letting the cool evening breeze in. She then turned around, and —

       Again, a ... a sensation, a something, like bursting, or ...

       Or flashing.

       My God. Caitlin staggered forward, groping with a hand for the edge of the desk. My God, could it be?

       There, it happened again: a flash! A flash of ...

       Light? Could that really be what light was like?

       It occurred once more, another —

       The words came to her, words she'd read a thousand times before, words that she'd had no idea — now, she understood, as she ... God, as she saw for the first time — words that she'd had no conception of what they'd really meant: flashes of light, bursts of light, flickering lights, and —

       She staggered some more, found her chair, collapsed into it, the chair rolling on its casters a bit as her weight hit it.

       The light wasn't uniform. At first she'd thought it was sometimes bright — its intensity greater, a concept she knew from sound — and sometimes dim. But there was more to it than that. For the light she was seeing now wasn't just dimmer, it was also —

       There was nothing else it could be, was there?

       She was breathing rapidly, doubly grateful now for the cool air coming in from outside.

       The light didn't just vary in brightness but also —

       Good God!

       But also in color. That had to be it: these different ... flavors of light, they were colors!

       She thought about calling out to her mother, her father, but she didn't want to do anything that might break the moment, the spell, the magic.

       She had no idea which colors she was seeing. Oh, she knew names from her reading, but what they corresponded to she hadn't a clue. But the flashing light she'd just seen was ... was darker, somehow, and not just in intensity, than the lights of a moments ago. And —

       Jesus! And now there were a few more lights, and they were ... were persisting, not flickering, but staying ... staying illuminated — that was the word. And it wasn't just a formless light but rather a light with extent, a ...

       Yes, yes! She'd known intellectually what lines were but she'd never visualized one before. But that's what it had to be: a line, a straight beam of light, and —

       And now there were two other beams, crisscrossing it, and their colors —

       A word came to her that seemed applicable: the colors contrasted with each other, clashed even.

       Colors. And lines. Lines defining — shapes!

       Again, concepts she knew but had never visualized: perpendicular lines, parallel lines that — God! — converged at infinity.

       Her heart was going to burst. She was seeing!

       But what was she seeing? Lines. Colors. Shapes, at least as created by intersecting lines, although she still didn't know what shapes. She'd read about this in preparation for receiving Kuroda's equipment: people gaining sight knew what squares and triangles were conceptually, and by touch, but didn't initially recognize them when they actually saw them.

       She was still in the padded chair and, despite all the visual disorientation, had no trouble swinging it to face the window. Her perspective shifted, and she could feel the breeze on her face again, and smell that one of her neighbors was using a fireplace. She knew that the window frame was rectangular, knew that it was divided into a lower and upper square by a crosspiece. Surely she would recognize those simple shapes as she looked at them, and —

       But no. No. What she was seeing now was a — what words to use? — a radial pattern, three lines of different colors converging on a single point.

       She got up from the chair, moved to the window, and stood before it, grasping one side of the frame in each hand. And then she stared ahead, forcing her concentration onto what must be in front of her. She knew she should be seeing lines perpendicular to the floor and others parallel to it. She knew the frame was twice as tall as the crosspiece.

       But what she saw bore no relationship — none! — to what she expected. Instead of anything that resembled the window frame, she was still seeing the radial lines stretching away, and —

       Strange. When she moved her head, the view did change, as if she were now looking somewhere else. The center point of all the intersecting lines was now off to one side, and — oh, my! — another such grouping was coming into view on the other side, but the lines didn't seem to correspond to anything in her bedroom.

       But wait! It was night now. Yes, the room lights had doubtless been on when her father had been here, but he was serious about saving electricity, forever complaining that Caitlin's mom had left lights on in the kitchen or bathroom — something, fortunately, she never had to worry about being blamed for. He surely would have turned the lights off when he left. (Bashira had said it was creepy that Caitlin's dad did that, but, really, it was sensible ... wasn't it?) She couldn't remember hearing the tiny sound of the switch when he left, but he must have used it — and so the room must be dark now, and what she was seeing were just (again a concept she had never experienced) shadows, or something like that.

       She turned, her strange view wheeling as she did so. It was disconcerting and disorienting; she'd crossed this room hundreds of times, but she was having trouble walking because of the distraction. Still, the room wasn't that big, and it took only seconds to find the light switch. It was pointing down, but she wasn't sure if that was the position for on or off. She moved it up, and —

       Nothing. No change. No new flash of light — nor any dimming of what she was already seeing.

       And then she was hit by a thought that should have already occurred to her. Vision was supposed to be at the user's discretion; surely she could shut all this out just by closing her eyes, and —

       And nothing.

       No difference. The lights, the lines, the colors were all still there. Her heart fell. Whatever she was seeing had no relation to external reality; no wonder she hadn't been able to recognize the window frame. She opened and closed her eyes a couple more times, just to be sure, and flicked the room light on and off (or perhaps off and on!) a few more times, as well.

       Caitlin slowly made her way back to her bed and sat on its edge. She'd felt momentarily dizzy as she crossed the room, distracted by the lights, and she lay down, her face pointing up at the ceiling she'd never seen.

       She tried to make sense of what she was seeing. If she held her head still, the same part of the image did stay in the ... the center. And there was a limit to what she could see — things off to the sides were out of her ... her ... field of view, that was it. Clearly this bizarre show of lights was behaving like vision, behaving as though it were controlled by her eyes, even if the images she was experiencing didn't have anything to do with what those eyes should be seeing.

       Some lines seemed to persist: there was a big one of a darkish color she decided to provisionally call "red," although it almost certainly wasn't that. And another — might as well call it "green" — crossed it near the center of her vision. Those lines seemed to stay put overhead; whenever she directed her eyes toward the ceiling, they were there.

       She'd read about people's vision adapting to darkness, so that stars (how she would love to see stars!) slowly became more visible. And although she still didn't know if she was in the dark or in a brightly lit room, as time passed she did seem to be seeing increasing amounts of detail — a finer and more complex filigree of crisscrossing colored lines. But what was causing it? And what did it represent?

       She was unused to ... what was it now? That phrase she'd read on those websites about vision Kuroda had directed her to, the phrase that was so musical? She frowned, and it came to her: confabulation across saccades. Human eyes swing in continuous arcs when switching from looking at point A to point B, but the brain shuts off the input, perhaps to avoid dizziness, while the eyes are repositioning. Instead of getting swish pans — a term she'd encountered in an article about filmmaking — vision is a series of jump cuts: instantaneous changes from looking at this to looking at that, with the movement of the eye edited out of the conscious experience. The eye normally made several saccades each second: rapid, jerky movements.

       The big cross she was seeing now — red in one arm, green in the other — jumped instantaneously in her perception as she moved her eyes, shunting to her peripheral vision (another term finally understood) when she looked away. She did it again and again, flicking back and forth, and —

       And suddenly she was plunged into blackness.

       Caitlin gasped. She felt as though she were falling, even though she knew she wasn't. The loss of the enigmatic lights was heartbreaking; she'd crawled her way up after fifteen years of deprivation only to be kicked back down into the pit.

       Her body sagged against the bedding while she hoped — prayed! — that the lights would return. But, after a full minute, she pulled herself to her feet and walked to her desk, undistracted now by flashes, her paces falling automatically one after another. She touched her Braille display. "Download complete," she read. "Connection closed."

       Caitlin felt her heart pounding. Her vision had stopped when the connection via her eyePod between her retinal implant and the Internet had shut down, and —

       A crazy thought. Crazy. She turned on her screen reader, and used the tab key to move around the Web page Kuroda had created, listening to snippets of what was written in various locations. But what she wanted wasn't there. Finally, desperately, she hit alt and the left arrow on her keyboard to return to the previous page, and —

       Bingo! "Click here to update the software in Miss Caitlin's implant." She could feel her hand shaking as she positioned her index finger above the enter key.

       Please, she thought. Let there be light.

       She pressed the key. And there was light.

      


You've just read the opening of of Wake, volume 1 of the WWW trilogy, by Hugo and Nebula Award-winner Robert J. Sawyer. To read the rest, pick up a copy of the book, published in April 2009.

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