The Elderly Cyborg (Leading Edge Magazine, Issue #58)
Vera traced her fingertips along the sutures in her husband’s skull, the rubber-gasketed socket a stark contrast underneath his thinning gray hair. “Good lord, they took a divot out of your head,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting that.”
“That’s the part of my brain that remembered where I left my car keys,” he laughed. “I wasn’t using it anyway.” His eyes were still unfocused from the anesthesia as he lay wrapped in the stiff sheets of the hospital bed, looking horribly frail – but thankfully, his smile was as kind as ever.
She pulled down her bifocals to peer at the black plug above Harold’s left ear. “Can you… Can you hear anything yet?” she whispered. “Will you hear?”
“Nothing yet,” he said, but she saw the eager way Harold closed his eyes, reaching out to the fresh implant inside his skull. “The nanotech fibers are manufacturing bridges across my dendrites, mapping schemata of my brain patterns – “
The tension in her chest eased. He still had his full memories.
“That’s not what I asked, sweetie.” She kissed him on the forehead to stop him from reciting everything he’d read in the ‘Popular Science.’ “I asked whether you’d hear it.”
He blushed. Harold was always so boyish around his new toys, spouting bursts of technobabble to anyone who’d listen; that unabashed glee was one of the reasons she’d fallen in love with him all those years ago.
“I’ll just know,” he said, almost vibrating with excitement of it all. “You’ll ask me, ‘What’s the capital of Paraguay?’ and if my meat-brain doesn’t know, the implant will automatically find the answer on the web, and it’ll be just like I knew it myself.”
“But you still won’t know where your car keys are,” she joshed.
“I will!” he said, almost leaping out of the bed. “I’ll just register the last known location of my car keys online with a flick of my implant, and boom! Perfect memory. The cutting edge, Vera! The cutting edge!”
He took her hand in his, looking penitent.
“Look, Vera,” he said. “I know you wanted the Winnebago…”
“You wanted a Winnebago, Harold.” She squeezed his hand. “I just want to travel cross-country, with you. I don’t care whether I do that by trailer, train, or teleporter.”
“I wish there was a teleporter!” he said, his eyes glazing over. “I’d love to see that. But even if they develop one, I promise you…. I won’t buy it. This is the last gadget I spend my money on. After this, my gewgaw fund goes to saving up for that trailer. It’ll be a couple years from now, but we’ll do it while our legs still work. You’re not going to limp down the Grand Canyon in a walker on my watch.”
“Sweetie,” she said, patting his wrist, “You’ve been a staunch husband, a wonderful father, and the best damn kisser I’ve ever known. Your only vice is techno-lust. I’ve seen worse.”
Though, Vera thought, she wasn’t too fond of their basement. It was a tottering museum of antiquated hardware piled in ceiling-high stacks because Harold couldn’t throw anything away – dusty stacks of laserdiscs, messy piles of Apple Newtons and Palm Pilots and iPhones neatly buried in their original boxes, 14.4k modems and wireless routers and last year’s Aircast pyramids all snarled in tangles of old cords.
“So we wait a few years for Arizona,” she shrugged. “I never thought you’d make it onto the beta rollout for the implant, but apparently they needed some old fogeys along with the young bucks – and it’s your once-in-a-lifetime chance. If this gussied-up wi-fi connection in your head makes you happy, then who cares about Arizona? We’re still young.”
“I tell you,” he said blissfully, tapping his forehead. “With this in my head, I’m never going senile.”
“Wanna see a trick?” Harold asked, grinning madly.
It was Wednesday night family dinner, and the three grandkids sat eagerly at Harold’s feet. It would have been a wonderful family gathering if it wasn’t for the way her daughters, Stacey and Shauna, looked on in such dismay.
Harold snatched a plug off the table and hooked a set of speakers to the socket in his head. “Choose a song,” he said. “Any song.”
“Pop goeza weezel!” yelled Jessica, clapping her pudgy hands enthusiastically. Tyler and Jake, who Shauna had yet to toilet train at the age of four, did excited little dances on the floral-print carpet.
“Dad, this is creepy,” Shauna said, sighing. “Do you have to?”
“Darling, you loved his gadgets when you were young,” Vera said. “Now let your kids get their fun. That’s my Winnebago in his head, after all.”
Shauna was thirty-eight and the victim of two bad divorces, but she could still give her mother a teenager’s pained sneer when she had to. Stacey rolled her eyes in long-suffering sympathy.
Harold squeezed his eyes shut, looking uncannily like a man having a bowel movement, then smiled. “Nine thousand, thirty-six matches,” he reported cheerfully. “Apparently ‘Pop Goes The Weasel’ is one popular tune! Got a favorite version, kiddo?”
“Just choose one, Dad,” Stacey sighed. “It doesn’t matter.”
“All righty, then! Buffering…” He closed his eyes again, and the sounds of a thin harmonica playing the old tune burst out of the speakers. The kids applauded.
“iHarold,” he said, bowing. Vera still chuckled, though she doubted the kids would get such an ancient reference.
Then Harold flinched as the song transitioned into a loud hip-hop beat and a rapper began shouting:
Pop goes the, pop goes the, windin’ of the weasel – I see the empty pocket needs a refill…
Shauna and Stacey covered their face with their hands. “Dad,” Stacey said, “That’s the wrong version.”
“It’s 3rd Bass!” he said, going walleyed in the way Vera had come to think of as Harold’s “look-up stare.” “Track six off their album Derelicts of Dialect, 1991, cheapest price one cent plus a dollar-ninety-nine shipping.”
“We know you can look things up, Dad,” Shauna sighed.
“He’s not showing off, sweetie,” Vera explained. “He’s so full of information now, it just leaks out of him.” But she didn’t like the way her daughters wrung their hands, so she gave Harold a look.
“Hey, kids,” he said, unplugging himself from the speakers and rising from the table. “Who wants to watch James Bondin fully-remastered, 360-degree pulse-sound?”
“YAY!” The kids rushed downstairs, eager as always to watch realdef movies, and Harold trailed behind.
Shauna sipped her wine. “They’re gonna break a leg down there. All that old equipment stacked loose…”
“As long as Tyler and Jake keep their hands to themselves, they’ll be perfectly safe,” Vera shot back pleasantly, taking a guilty pleasure from Shauna’s scowl; Shauna had raised grabby kids, and knew it.
“So how are things?” Vera asked.
“How are things with you?” Stacey shot back, concerned. “Dad’s been acting ten kinds of weird since his implant went live…”
Vera sighed; the kids were always this way when Harold found some new toy. Their ill-chosen husbands had affairs with other women, but Harold? Harold had affairs with gadgets. Though unlike her daughters’ himbo husbands, Harold always returned to her.
“Actually, it’s been wonderful,” she said. “Remember how that table was cluttered with printouts of instruction manuals? Well, he reads them in his head these days. And he’s been a beast at our weekly bridge game with Phyllis and Geoffrey – he just looks up the right bids!”
She felt a glimmer of guilt. If Shauna had been a little less spiteful, Vera might have admitted that Harold had been distant lately – Vera had to nudge him at church to stop him from closing his eyes and watching streamed-in movies, and his constant mentions about the weather in Japan were getting wearisome.
But years of experience had taught Vera that Harold’s obsessions were fleeting. When he got his first cell phone, he’d called her from the garden, the attic, the basement, just to show he could. Eventually, the hype would fade and the inconveniences would set in, and things would settle back to normal.
Stacey nodded reluctantly. “If you’re sure he’s fine…”
“He’s your Dad,” she insisted. “How are things with you?”
“Good,” Stacey said, reaching into her purse. “I have a very special gift for Gramma!”
She got out a crumpled crayon drawing that Jessica had made. It was Grampa, a stick figure with a scribbled black plug on his head that connected to a wobbly green globe.
“That’s delightful!” Vera said.
Shauna frowned. “Oh, yeah, about Tyler and Jake – do you mind giving me the check for their swimming lessons?”
Vera sighed. Shauna never brought her drawings from Tyler or Jake – but she always remembered to ask for their check. “I’ll get my checkbook.”
Shauna chuckled, tapping her debit-ring on the table. “Dad’s stuck in the future, but come on, Ma – who uses checkbooks these days?”
Vera bit back a scowl. They’d lost seven years’ worth of tax receipts in a hard drive crash, and ever since then the finances were firmly under her control, in good solid ink.
“Just tell me how much you need, dear,” she said, reaching for the drawer.
Harold got out of bed. Vera moaned in protest as her cuddly human radiator left her tangled in cold sheets – Harold was a regular furnace under the covers, which came in handy on chilly winter nights like this – but she settled back down into a half-sleep, knowing Harold would return from the bathroom.
There was the clatter of plastic falling onto linoleum.
Adrenaline yanked her awake.
She chided herself for being so panicked. Burglars, she thought, her heart throbbing, but those were the ideas of foolish old biddies; next thing you knew, she’d get a yappy watchdog and call the police when branches knocked against the windows. Harold had probably just tripped.
She peered into the dark. Harold hadn’t answered her.
“Harold?” she called – louder this time. Her voice cracked, and she hated that.
Someone messily upended the contents of another drawer onto the floor. An inhuman growl of frustration, like a hungry dog moaning for a biscuit.
Harold had only left the bed a minute ago. Could a burglar have tied him up that quietly? Wouldn’t he have shouted for help?
Or had he emailed the police from his head?
Her hands trembling, Vera crept into the living room. All the lights were on.
The cabinet doors had been flung open, her cookie jars shoved rudely to one side. Harold knelt, his back twisted painfully. He tugged out another drawer and dumped out a pile of old appliance manuals.
All the while, he kept making that low keening sound in the back of his throat.
“Harold!” she yelled.
He lurched around on his hands and knees. She was used to having Harold’s face light up whenever he set eyes on her – but now he flinched away.
He stumbled to his feet, all his usual grace gone. He grabbed her shoulders hard enough to leave bruises.
“Uh neet checkbook,” he whispered in a cold, guttural voice. “You moofed it, Vera. Which draw – drower? Gif me checkbox. Plise.”
She yanked a hand out of his grip. “Wake up, Harold!” she yelled, slapping him across his black plug.
Harold hand snapped backwards to smack her – and then his face flushed beet-red as he stared his own fingers in horror. His hand froze, trembling, in mid-air, as he tried to wrestle it down.
“G-g-g-give me checkbox, Vera!” Harold flung himself backwards, the glass cracking he thumped against the cabinet. “Please. Checkbox. The luh-lettuce is grabbing. They uh-opened up the suh-cellar door and the leftwards oar fandangoed….”
He slammed his arm against the wall, shrieking defiance – and the trembling flooded up his arm. Harold’s eyes rolled back and he tumbled to the floor, juddering and shaking his way into a grand mal seizure. His legs pushed the manuals around in crazy patterns.
They told her later that the ambulance took fifteen minutes to arrive. It seemed like forever.
“You’re very lucky you’ve rearranged your house recently, Mrs. Neubert,” the doctor said, looking down at his clipboard.
Vera pushed his clipboard down, startling the physician. If this young whelp wasn’t going to answer her questions, the least he could do was look her in the eye.
She’d been curled up in the cramped plastic seats of the ER since midnight, begging anyone in a white coat for news of Harold. The staff refused to tell her where Harold was. She was sick with worry.
Shauna and Stacey had dropped their kids off with their exes to come wait with her, and the cell phone rang every ten seconds as all their friends and relatives wanted updates. And Vera couldn’t help but wonder if this was a preview of how things would be at Harold’s funeral – everyone asking how she was, constantly badgering her with efforts to give comfort, when all she wanted was Harold.
“Lucky?” she cried. “My husband’s had an attack! Now you let me in there!”
He scratched the back of his neck. Behind him, two other young doctors studied their shoetops, and three rumpled programmers consulted their PDAs.
“We can’t yet. You have to understand that Mr. Neubert was, ah, compromised.”
“Our forensics team is looking into it, but we’ve traced the attack back to somewhere in Russia – it’s a wilderness out there, no computer security laws at all. They must have been running scans looking for implants, and they found a way in.”
“Someone broke into Harold’s head?”
“Nobody expected this,” he said quickly, his voice an odd mixture of reassurance and defensiveness. “It shouldn’t have been possible to rewire the neural interface to promote actionable behavior. We ran tests. But somehow, they reverse-engineered the process to make it so that the patient – “
“ – that Harold, however crudely, would search for his own financial data. Which is why I say you were lucky, Mrs. Neubert. If you hadn’t chosen to clean out the drawers that week, moving your checks, well… he would have gotten your bank account information.”
Vera felt numb. If she hadn’t embarked on a Winter Cleaning program this week, Russian hackers would have cleaned out their life’s savings. Hell, if she hadn’t insisted on sticking to her old, fuddy-duddy paper, they’d be penniless.
Her daughters pursed their lips, swallowing back “I told you so”s. The doctors told her that this was a close thing – the hackers had been able to override physical motion, but had not breached what they called “the deep memory layer.”
Vera wondered how many others with their first-generation implants had just gone broke.
“We’re looking into it,” the doctor said, maintaining firm eye contact. “Someone must have found this vulnerability back when we were gold-testing, and they just waited for the first wide-scale rollout to take advantage of it. In the meantime, we’ve issued an emergency firmware patch to help the others, temporarily blocking numerical traffic. This won’t happen again, I assure you.”
“Let me see Harold.”
The doctor looked back to the programmers. A lanky young man stepped forward, looking haggard. He didn’t talk to Vera, but to the doctor. “Under normal circumstances, the proper measure is to reinstall the operating system – we can’t be sure they didn’t leave a backdoor program – “
“Are you seriously suggesting erasing my husband’s brain?” she yelled, getting to her feet. They all backed away – even Stacey and Shauna.
“I’m simply saying that it’s what we would do, under normal circumstances. These aren’t normal circumstances. This hasn’t happened before, but… We’re not going to reformat his mind, Mrs. Neubert.”
“But parts of his brain have been corrupted.”
She tasted bile.
“Nothing serious,” he reassured her, smiling broadly. “It’s just the financial centers… Which is probably for the best, considering the circumstances. We restored some of his processing, but for security’s sake you’re going to have to take control of your finances. We’ve devised some recommendations, and the first is to get a safe and put all of your critical documents into it. Do not tell your husband the combination, and pay the bills when he’s out of the house…”
Vera listened quietly to all of their recommendations, which boiled down to “Don’t let him near money.” She’d have to get new credit cards and take Harold’s away. She’d have to treat him like a stranger.
She passed the time with fantasies about suing, but she’d seen the stack of papers Harold had signed before the implants. She was sure that was secure, at least.
After another hour where they explained how the implant couldn’t be switched off without affecting brain activity, Shauna and Stacey went with her to see Harold. He was strapped to the bed, a tangle of gray cables plugged into the port over his ear.
His cheeks were raw with crying. He hung his head at the sight of Vera.
“Vera,” he said. “I would never – “
She caught him by the chin, kissed him on the lips. “I know,” she said. “I saw you fight. You good, good man.”
She untied him, and he began to sob with relief. She realized that Harold had thought about not coming home with her.
That wouldn’t do. Not at all.
They let him loose, against Shauna and Stacey’s protests. “Maybe you should give them a while longer,” Shauna said. “You know, to fix you.”
“This is just a momentary glitch,” he snapped. “It’s patched.” And to show that he was all right, he jogged all the way to the car, his gait terrifyingly unsteady.
“I’m perfectly fit!” he called to his daughters, puffing up his chest. “I’m the same as always. It’s just a minor uh-anomaly!”
“Come on, Harold,” Vera said, gently leading him to the passenger’s seat. “You’ve had a hard day. I’ll bake you apple crisp for dessert.”
“I don’t want to inconvenience you,” he muttered, leaning hard against her. “I’ve done enough of that already.”
As they pulled up to the parking attendant’s booth, Vera realized that Harold still had his wallet. She couldn’t bear to ask him to give it to her, the way they’d said she should, so instead she asked him for $35 to pay the man.
He looked down at the bills dumbly, pulling each of them out in turn. Then he held them all out to her, a strange bouquet of green.
“You’d buh-better do this,” he said, and she realized he didn’t know how to read money any more.
It took Vera almost a month to decide where to put the safe. At the back of the dining room? Studded in above the bed? Maybe in the basement, jammed into the concrete, where its ugly steel would blend in with all of Harold’s other equipment?
And all the while Shauna kept calling her, checking in. “How can you tell it’s Dad?” she asked. “Honestly, I’m afraid to come over. With that… thing in his head, it might be hackers making him act like Dad until they can steal my purse.”
“Don’t talk nonsense.” She kept her voice low, so Harold wouldn’t hear. But Vera was more watchful now. Harold polished apples on his pants leg before he ate them now. Did he do that before? Or was that a newly-installed behavior?
It took willpower to trust Harold now. That bothered her.
“I just don’t know,” she said, balling her hands on her hips.
Harold’s hands slipped around her belly as he kissed her neck from behind. She tensed.
“You’re stuh-stalling,” he said gently. “It could be a ceramic safe festooned with daisies, and you’d still hate it. You just don’t want the suh-safe, is all.”
He was right, of course. It was the fact of the safe, a hard piece of shrapnel embedded inside the easy comfort of her house, that bothered her.
Harold laughed, but Vera could hear the strain in it. “I want you to be protected, Vera, and… I can’t guarantee they won’t be back. Not until the duh-doctors get the filters right. Which they wuh-will! In time. And then we’ll extract that safe like a rotted tooth.”
She forced a smile. “I suppose,” she said.
He put his thumb under her chin and made her look at the grace of his smile.
“Let’s do it together,” he said. “Thanks to ol’ Sparky here, I know where they sell tuh-top quality safes, and… I’ll make something nice. They can’t stop me from using power tools. How about a secret panel? Like in all those old horror movies? We can put it behind the collage.”
She relaxed. That was the sort of thing only Harold would say.
But it frightened her how easily he took to convalescence. He didn’t trust himself to drive. He couldn’t read the prices on the safes, so he just pointed at the models with the most features. And when she wrote a check for the total, ignoring the way the salesgirl had to call a manager over to ask how to process it, she had to cover the account number with her hand so Harold wouldn’t see.
And all the while, the people in the store stared. The newsfeeds had been clogged with lurid tales of the brain-hackers, and everyone knew that Harold had made it onto the beta test; it wasn’t too hard to put two and two together, even if Vera had staunchly refused to call the reporters back.
“I wish you’d wear a hat,” she whispered as they stood in line, feeling the prickle of attention upon her neck. “Everyone can see your implant.”
“We’ll puh-pick up a hat on the way home,” he said. “Maybe a top hat. So I can look rakish.”
She laughed, and they talked about buying a tuxedo and tails to go with it, and she fell in love all over again. They decided to go out to dinner at the steakhouse, and as they exited the restaurant a reporter collared them.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a holofeed reporter, tapping his headband recorder to “on.” “I just wanted to ask you some questions about your implant – “
“Is that a camera?” Harold asked, and then stiffened.
“Harold.” Vera shook him. He didn’t respond. The reporter turned to her, concerned.
“Is he – “
“Fallll-con PUNCH!” Harold shrieked, and punched the reporter in the belly. The reporter doubled over as Harold giggled, a high guffaw that was nothing like him, and flung Vera down to the sidewalk.
Vera struggled to get away, but Harold leapt on top of her, squeezing her in a tight embrace.
“DO A BARREL ROLL!” he screamed. “DO A BARREL ROLL!” And he began rolling around in the street like a kid who was dropping to put out a fire – except that he forced Vera to tumble with him, mashing her face into the hard asphalt and then flipping her over his belly to squash her again. Her elbows cracked, her ribs protested as Harold forced himself down on top of her – and despite her screams, he kept rolling.
After a few moments, some nearby parking lot attendants rushed over, wrenched Harold off of her. Her glasses were shattered. She plucked bits of gravel out of her cheeks, blotting her bleeding nose with a Kleenex as Harold stared at his hands in horror.
“Muh-my God, Vera,” he said. “What have I done?”
She reached out to touch him, but it took so much effort.
“You couldn’t fight it this time,” she said sadly.
“I just want to be very clear, Mr. and Mrs. Neubert,” the doctor said emphatically. “This is not an intrusion. Our filters worked. This is a Trojan.”
They’d strapped Harold into a wheelchair before they’d let her see him. She stroked the back of his head, feeling fiercely protective; the doctors wanted to talk to her alone, as though Harold were a mental case.
He said nothing. He just cried. She wanted to beg him to make jokes the way that only Harold could, but she wouldn’t show weakness in front of the doctors.
“I fail to see the difference,” she said stiffly, feeling the foam padding of the neck brace rubbing up against her jaw.
The doctor kept glancing nervously back at the team of programmers. There were more of them.
“The hackers broke into Mr. Neubert’s brain,” the doctor said carefully. “This, on the other hand, was something your husband acquired on the web and downloaded. The program simply waited for a trigger action. In this case, a camera.”
The lead programmer stepped forward. “I’d like to stress that this has nothing to do with us, Mrs. Neubert; we have no control over what your husband chooses to view.”
“Neither does he!” she shouted, and took no pleasure from the way they flinched. “You engineered it so that it’d go on the net automatically, as some kind of supplement, whenever he didn’t know the answer – he doesn’t even know which thoughts of his are wired any more!”
Harold said nothing in his defense. He looked miserable.
“And why was he looking at…. What did you call it?”
“A ‘barrel roll,’” the doctor said, blushing. “It’s an old, fairly arcane Internet reference. It was probably designed by college kids who thought having an old man roll around would be – ah, funny.”
“Well, it’s not,” she said, feeling the filth on her clothing; she needed a shower. “And why was he looking at these barrel roll sites?”
“He wasn’t. It may have been camouflaged to look like some other information he wanted – a news site, perhaps. We’re scouring his search history to find the Trojan vectors, but a lot of those sites are now offline.”
The doctor adjusted his glasses. “They may have served their purpose already.”
Her skin goosepimpled.
“So,” Harold asked. “Huh-how many puh-programs are in me?”
The doctors and the programmers exchanged glances, each hoping that the others would respond.
“We don’t know.”
They took Harold away from her.
“It’s for your protection,” Ma,” Stacey said. “Who knows what else is in Dad’s brain? He hurt you, Mom.”
The doctors emphasized that Harold was unsafe; tests showed he had at least seventy-two malware programs installed. But he looked fine to Vera, or at least as fine as a scared old man locked in a gray concrete room could be.
The wireglass cable that led out of Harold’s head was just long enough for him to pace from wall to wall; they had soldered it to the implant’s plug so he couldn’t tear it out. On the other side of the wall, the cord snaked through to a massive stack of server farms that monitored his brain patterns for anomalies.
They found them, too.
Every license plate Harold saw was beamed back to somewhere in the Chinese emirate. When he slept, his brain composed personalized spam mails. His sexual fantasies were broadcast to porn sites. They told Vera this, but it seemed hard to believe such awful mechanisms lay behind Harold’s gentle smile.
It was a two-hour drive to the facility, and Vera thought that this was what visiting a man in prison must be like – an impression not helped by the rows of other wives and fathers and daughters, each whispering to their own infected, beta-chipped relatives through locked doorways.
Reporters slouched outside the hospital, jerking to life when she approached, barking questions. Vera had read the op-eds in the newsfeeds, about how the first mail programs and Internet protocols had been designed without a care for security, the first cell phones had been designed without security – this was just the latest ghastly episode in a long history of terrible, trusting failures.
She’d read until she was sickened. But she had to concentrate on Harold.
“Do you remember Vermont, Harold?” She read from the laminated card they’d given her to test Harold’s memory.
Harold gave her that wall-eyed, “look-up” stare as he reached out to the Internet. “Never memorize what you can look up,” Harold had always said, and now he was living proof; his brain had a note saying, “Go here to look up what Vermont is.”
But they’d shut off Harold’s connection – he hadn’t gone into a fatal seizure when he’d lost signal, which was, they assured her, a wonderful thing. But all of his knowledge of states was stashed on computers that he could no longer connect to.
After an embarrassed pause, he’d blink furiously.
“Ih-is it a licorice?”
“No, sweetie,” she urged him. “Don’t you remember? The Teddy Bear Inn?”
“Oh yeah,” he said, smiling. “Tacky little buh-bed and breakfast in the uh-ass end of Vermont. Ruh-member how we thought it would be romantic, to cuddle up in a room filled with tuh-Teddy bears? And then we couldn’t do it with all those luh-hittle beady eyes, watching us like furry perverts?”
She smiled. “That’s right, love. Don’t you remember Vermont, though?”
“I-ih told you, love,” he shrugged. “No clue. A car? A Winnebago? Nuh-no worries, they’ll get me those memories back in no time.”
She spent hours there, falling asleep in a plastic chair the orderlies had left for her.
Her daughters tried to get her out of the convalescence center – “You can’t help him,” Shauna said. “Let them remove the spyware while he sleeps.” Stacey said.
Even Harold told her to go home.
“Yuh-you’re terrified of nursing homes,” he said. “The bleach uh-irritates your sinuses. I’ll be fine, love. Juh-just stay home.”
How could she tell him that the bed was too big without him? That as uncomfortable as this cramped chair was, it was better than waking up in the middle of the night and realizing that her husband was in a cold cell, two hours away?
No, it was better like this. Because every time he woke up, they’d taken something.
The emergency spyware-removal programs they’d cobbled together were crude, unpolished. While deleting the Russian body-control routines, they also excised control of Harold’s left arm; it flailed and flopped around like a dying fish. If they put his left hand in water, Harold tried to dry his right arm against his sweater.
Another scan scooped out his bladder control; they told her that it had destroyed the spambots, but all Vera saw was Harold, flushing with shame as he begged nurses to change his diapers.
Stacey and Shauna visited occasionally – and sometimes Harold even recognized them. The areas that governed his sight were heavily infested with spyware, and after they’d removed the Chinese license-plate program, Harold found it nearly impossible to process shapes.
Shauna and Stacey hated visiting, tried their best to peel Vera away from her husband. “You have to remember,” Stacey said helpfully. “It looks like Dad, it has Dad’s face, but the Dad we knew? He’s gone. For your sanity, ma, you have to accept that the man you loved is dead.”
They meant well, but they didn’t have a clue.
Every moment Harold was awake, he pressed his nose to the scratched glass window, knowing that this might be the last time he saw her.
“I pack you,” he whispered, and she knew what he meant even if his words were starting to go. “I pack you with all my ball.”
“I pack you, too,” she said, kissing the plexiglass. It tasted salty, like dried tears.
Three weeks later, they wheeled Harold out. The doctors were proud; he was fully cleansed, every last trace of infection removed, a job they thought impossible.
Harold lolled in the wheelchair, his eyes staring at nothing. She shook him by the shoulder; he wobbled bonelessly.
“He’s a vegetable!” Shauna protested.
“Not… entirely.” They dragged a keyboard over and plugged a small monitor into his brain. “His verbal and ocular centers are largely deteriorated, but you can try to send short messages directly to his cortex by typing here. He might even respond.” They bobbed their heads. “It’s better than many people get. Folks with Lou Gehrig’s disease, for example…”
“What can he see?”
“In real life? Nothing. But we think that in time, it might be possible to beam him simple pictures. The problem is that it would take another computer to preprocess the pictures into – well, however his damaged cortex now visualizes them. And we don’t have the resources to write a customized program for each victim…”
“That’s my husband in there,” she said quietly. “I have the resources.”
The doctors went pale as they understood. Her daughters were slower on the uptake, of course; she explained it to them.
They shrieked. Dad was gone, they said. They threatened to sue her, to call her senile and take away her rights. She invited them to do so, reminding Shauna pointedly that she’d cheerfully spend their inheritance on lawyers to defend herself. The doctors refused to do the procedure until she pointed out that though there were stacks of documents absolving them from blame, pretty much any jury would look at Harold’s slackened body and convict on the spot.
She felt guilty, of course. But as precious as her offspring were, Shauna and Stacey had never really understood them.
She’d always been close to Harold. This was just one step closer.
It was early spring, but it felt like summer. Vera drove the Winnebago down the desert road, easing the big vehicle around the curves to South Rim Village. It was a sprawling tourist trap, bristling with neon signs advertising cheap rooms and cheaper meals.
Harold pinged her. Here? he asked.
She parked in a lot next to the bus that would take them to the trail, then unplugged the black cable from the overhead input box. It was difficult, having a ten-foot length of stiff wireglass sticking out of your head – she’d learned to wrap it around herself like a hula hoop, but it was never comfortable. And Harold had never mentioned that the implant itched, all the time, like a constant rash.
The tiny back bedroom smelt of urine; she spritzed some Glade and cracked a window. Harold was strapped into a box in the corner, his limbs starting to draw in upon themselves like some dead insect.
She plugged herself into Harold’s head. His relief washed over her.
Thank God, he pinged. I’m so blind and stupid when I can’t access you.
I only unplug for a few minutes, she thought back. We can’t stay plugged in all the time. But I’ll always come back to process for you.
I know, he said, and his lips pursed in that weird, slobbering way she’d come to realize was him blowing kisses. She ruffled his hair affectionately, then wrestled him out of the box and into his wheelchair. Even with the electric lift, it was still a wheezing effort to drag him out to the curb.
People stared, of course. They always did. And few people ever offered to help.
Well, we do look a little freakish, Harold interjected, jarring her out of her revelry. Like baggy cyborgs.
She laughed. Vera was still getting used to that constant presence; it had taken months for Harold to learn how to utilize Vera’s visual processing centers as a replacement for his own damaged tissue. As long as she was plugged in, all of Harold’s thoughts went through her cortex first, and she in turn colored his world with her impressions. When they went into a gift shop, they could see every lamp and trinket exactly as the other person saw it – and they took a deep pleasure in their shared satisfaction. Seeing through her eyes, he finally understood her love of cookie jars; she felt his thrill of new technology.
The doctors had said such a thing was impossible, of course.
She hadn’t thought it would be possible to be closer, but now that they shared a single brain, her neurons taking up the slack of his damaged ones, she’d become his network. It was hard to imagine ever being so distant.
As she heaved him into his wheelchair, her back aching, she felt his gratitude beaming directly into her head. A closed loop, she thought; she had no connection in her implant but Harold, and Harold had no one but her. Even if this wasn’t what they’d planned on, they were going to see the country together – literally.
I love you, snuggabuns, he said. I’m sorry.
For what? she asked.