Coed – episode 1

“Coed” is a fictional exploration of fusion – two persons coming together to cohabit in a shared body.  Fusion cases are more complex than fission, involving greater discontinuities, botb physical and psychological.  You may find that contemplation of fusion cases fosters real doubt as to whether two persons are present, or one.

She knows he’s in there – she can see him brokenly through the office door’s bevelled glass, framed and backlit by the window, inert in his chair.  “It’s me, May,” she calls softly, not wanting to attract attention in the hallway.

The last thing Jerry wants now is to be bothered by students.  With time suddenly so precious to him, he is not prepared to squander it on their all-too-protean intellects.  The knob rattles, making him seethe.  Typical of students nowadays; they’ll barge in anywhere.  They hardly care which washrooms they use.  Even May startled him at the urinal, once.  They were both convulsed by giggles, meeting like that.  He scolded her, but she didn’t care.  Abruptly, it occurs to Jerry that it’s probably May now – she said she’d drop by this afternoon.

At last she sees the fragmented figure inside lurch to its feet, lean towards the door.

He was right – May stands there with her shining golden hair and the essay-in-progress which has been her excuse for visiting him during the entire term.  Playfully, she kicks the door closed behind her.

Instead of reaching out to her, Jerry stands listlessly, his arms limp.  She wonders what’s wrong.

He realizes he will lose this too.  In six months – a year at most – she will avoid his gaze.  Not only she, but all the other tantalizing female students.  And even the ones that aren’t tantalizing.  But now she is waiting for him, to say something.  “How much have you written since last time?”  His tone is collegial, only a little condescending.

“Nothing,” she admits without a trace of guilt.  She dares him with her eyes to reprimand her, but her playful invitation is rebuffed.

That’s how he feels about her too – absolutely guiltless.  It’s a wonderful relationship, even more so than his relationship with Carole, which he once thought wonderful enough to justify the unpleasantness and expense of a divorce.  And now when he has achieved this, and so much else – when his life has at last taken a finished shape, with full-professor status, four-month European vacations, and a conscience mature enough to allow him the things he really wants – now, at age forty, it’s over.

“You look tired.”  She touches his face, drawing his eyes to her sympathetic smile.  “Did you spend half the night in the lab again?”  She knows that’s a stretch.  Jerry may have done it once, but can usually be depended on to avoid discomfort.

Tired – does the deterioration show already?  “No no.”  He laughs, trying to sound vigorous, although the reminder of the lab brings another pang of regret.  The past twenty-four hours seem an unbroken succession of such pangs.  Even the lab, charmless and cluttered, has suddenly acquired a nostalgic colouration.  Even awkward, faithful Sam, fretting over the chimpanzees and computer monitors for more than half the night, night after night, seems a companion to be cherished.  Jerry did indeed stay up late with him once, to witness the impressive linguistic ability of the chimp Nina, the product of eighteen months’ coaching and drill, being transferred to her previously languageless sister Tina.  That memory brings the worst pang of all.  It’s a honey of a project, which, until yesterday, Jerry fully expected to make his name internationally and get him out of this tedious, oil-rich cow-town.  Now he expects nothing.  Oblivion is a bitter pill.

Not happy to see me? May wonders.  “Should I go?”

Jerry sees the worry in her face.  She probably thinks he’s getting bored with her.  Afraid she’ll lose her A+.  He savours the irony, and feels sick.  “May, I should tell you something about myself.  About my health,” he qualifies.  “A doctor, whom I have no reason to believe incompetent, has told me I will shortly…” – he breaks off.   Conscious of the tragic romance of it all, Jerry begins to sense a small benefit in this looming catastrophe.  “Lose my mind” would be jarringly inappropriate, like a joke at a rape trial.  “Shortly die,” he concludes with simple dignity.

May suddenly understands his sadness and evasiveness.  She can only gasp and throw her arms around him.  “Oh, Jerry, no!  What is it?  You look fine, really!”

Her relentless questions force him to reveal that it won’t be bodily death, at least not for some time, but a rapid-onset disorder of the central nervous system.  Although his body will shamble around for a few years yet, the disease will kill him, Jerry MacFarlane, the thinking man, before the summer is out – kill him as finally as any terrorist bomb or freeway accident.  Despite May’s persistence, he declines to go into further details, suggesting they are too horrible.  And it’s true; to dwell on his future in the practical, clinical terms of bedrails and incontinence would surely blight the bitter-sweet mood that is growing between them.

She allows his arms to enfold her – comfort her, when she should be comforting him.  As her dad would hold her when something went wrong, no matter whose fault it was.  Her dad’s love was without reservations or judgement, as love should be.  May feels Jerry’s right hand move from her back to the door, locking it, and lowering the unusual little blind over the bevelled pane.  This action she finds reassuring.  Jerry is still himself, for the time being at least.

*  *  *

Term is over; he would go on vacation anyway.  What’s different from other summers is that he won’t come back.  A motile vegetable will pass through customs under his name – most likely be pushed through in a wheelchair.  Passport in his hip pocket, Jerry wanders around the Department taking a perverse pleasure in reminding himself of everything he will lose.  Next stop is the lab.

Sam is in there, of course.  So are Nina and Tina, signing away to each other with an elation that contrasts sharply to Sam’s habitual worried demeanour.  Pallid, pudgy and nervous, Sam is marked by his seven years of graduate study as some men are marked by jail.  “I crunched the redundancy data.”  He gestures apologetically towards a spreadsheet.  “Want to look?”

The tiny font of the spreadsheet and the painful pinkness of Sam’s eyes are repulsive to Jerry.  “Just summarize,” he says faintly, sitting with a hand over his eyes.  Soon he regrets even that concession.  Sam’s ‘summaries’ are a torture of technicized concepts and arcane jargon, utterly lacking in stylistic grace.  The spreadsheet tables themselves could hardly be worse.  There is purity in numbers.  Resigning himself to the verbal strafing, Jerry rephrases, simplifies, glosses the crude material into a package fit for human consumption.  That is Jerry’s chief intellectual talent, as he admits to the mirror on those increasingly rare occasions of self-scrutiny – packaging.  Having few ideas of his own which are both innovative and worthwhile, he excels at marketing other people’s – an essential academic function which more than justifies his professorship, salary and vacations.  Because that function does not command the respect it deserves, Jerry has had to compensate by applying his marketing genius to his own reputation.  Even if Jerry isn’t one of the more creative lights of the Psychology Department, no one would ever say so.

The task of making Sam comprehensible, almost second nature to Jerry, does not wholly absorb his lucid, erudite, clever mind.  The rest contemplates the project as a whole, into which the new results must somehow be fitted.  It is, as he feels more and more intensely these days, a honey of a project, the best thing he has ever had going.  That dredges up the lurking misery once again.  In the cold shadow of ultimate loss, Sam’s barbaric speech becomes intolerable.  “You’ve made your point,” Jerry cuts him short.  “Let’s put it into perspective.”

With a grunt of relief, Sam breaks off and waits for Jerry to translate his private understanding into something the world – or at least an examining committee – could grasp.  Sam has been writing his PhD thesis for five years.  For the past four, Jerry has had to tell him it’s not ready yet.  An attempt to graduate could be fatal to his prospects.  Sam must get a couple of publications under his belt first.  If Jerry’s name appears as co-author, above Sam’s, that will lend authority and improve the papers’ chances with the reviewers.  Jerry’s stylistic assistance will of course be indispensable.  Although Sam has presented him with several working drafts during the past year, Jerry has not yet found time to perform the necessary, but dreary, editorial task.  In the meantime, he will get Sam another grant.  Jerry also receives a grant for the project – a Senior Research Fellowship, a comfortable cushion on top of his salary.  Sam gets a Junior Research Fellowship, and has no salary.  His clothes are polyester with crooked seams.

“Our previous work,” Jerry expounds, “indicated that most processes we classify as ‘mental’ – thought, memory, affect and aversion, intellectual and creative abilities, purpose and personality – can be understood as operations of ‘programs’, analogous to computer software…”

“Isomorphic,” Sam mutters.

“Don’t exaggerate.”  Jerry frowns.  “‘Analogous’ is enough – just as a ‘hardware’ of neural tissue instead of silicon chips is enough.  The key point is that just as a single computer program can run on many different machines, so a single ‘brain-program’ can run on more than one brain.  Experimentally, we proved the possibility of recording the entire functional contents of a mammalian brain and transferring it without measureable loss to another brain.  There’s the evidence.”  Jerry points to the two chimps in their cages.  “Sam, what are they talking about?” he asks, suddenly intrigued.  Although Jerry has often wished he knew ASL – American Sign Language – the sheer work of learning it has so far deterred him.

Sam watches the chimps’ lively gestures for a moment.  “Sex.”  He sighs.  “They’re growing up fast.”

This puzzles Jerry.  “I thought they had a sheltered upbringing.”

“Once a janitor shoved Nina’s cage up against Bobo’s.  You know how horny he is.  It gave her ideas.  Which were copied over to Tina, unfortunately.”

“So they’re reminiscing about that romantic encounter?”  Jerry is amused.

Sam nods.  “The big argument is about whose encounter it was.”

Jerry guffaws – a break, like the sun, piercing his morbid obsession.  “Each one thinks she was the lucky lady, does she?  Well” – he sobers, spotting a connection – “actually they’re both right.  After what we did to them, they aren’t Nina and Tina any more.  They’re both Nina.”

Sam sucks his lower lip, waiting to be convinced.  But Jerry has gone quiet, having been struck by the outrageous thought that the project could actually save his life.

In the course of their work, Jerry has grown used to thinking of himself as a set of psychological attributes.  And a set of psychological attributes, as their work has shown, is a program.  And a program can be copied from one brain to another.  Therefore he could be transferred to someone else’s brain.  The inference is so elementary, he is amazed he never made it before.  Made now, it takes his breath away.

The theory is proven, the technology is in place, facilities are available; all that’s needed is a healthy, willing recipient.  Willing…that’s a problem.  Jerry’s momentary high collapses.  Who would be willing to let Jerry’s ‘program’ replace his own?  Who would generously offer, “Okay, erase my brain – you can use it from now on.”  Certainly nobody intelligent.  And Jerry has no wish to be programmed into a stupid brain.

Sam is pleading for an opinion on the redundancy results.  Jerry’s warning look stops him in mid-sentence.  But he remembers it isn’t Sam’s fault that he’s dying, and graciously continues his exposition.  “In the chimps’ case, all experiential traces, as well as certain innate capacities, were wiped from Tina’s brain prior to the experiment.  Only the cerebellar functions, being essential to bodily survival, were spared.  That left a virtually ‘blank’ brain into which Nina’s program could be fed without interference.  But what we’ve learned today indicates it was unnecessary to erase Tina.  Her brain had sufficient capacity to support the Nina-program as well as the original Tina-program – at the same time.  In other words, the two personalities (if we can speak of chimps as personalities) could have been superimposed.”

“That’s what I figured,” says Sam, grateful for the words.  “But not just chimps.  It would be true for all higher mammals.”

“Undoubtedly.” Jerry lapses again into silent musing.  The recipient’s brain needn’t be erased.  It’s not a question of someone giving up his brain – hence his life – for Jerry; it’s a matter of sharing.  Again the outrageous, impossible hope bobs up like a life preserver.

But who, who would let a forty-year-old academic into his mind?  Would Sam?

The thought of inhabiting Sam’s worry-racked body – certainly ulcerous, possibly cancerous – is appalling, especially if he would have to share it with Sam.  But Jerry is desperate.  He has already roughed out a tactful approach to the subject when Sam unwittingly supplies an answer.  “I’m glad we didn’t know about the redundancy when we did Tina,” he mutters, watching the chimps.  “Can you imagine having somebody else in your head?  I think she’s better off as she is.”

Better off dead?”  Swearing under his breath, Jerry gets up.

“Where are you going?” Sam asks apprehensively.

“Europe.”

“Right now?”  Sam fidgets under Jerry’s contemptuous gaze.

“What difference does it make?”

“I was hoping you’d call Gupta before you left.”

Jerry’s eyelids droop.  He has heard this request before.  He has replied gently, tactfully, in a manner that would inform any cultivated person that he was asking too much.  Sam, Jerry knows, is not a cultivated person.  He resolves to be blunt.  “You don’t invite someone of Gupta’s stature to serve as external examiner in a manure-pitchers’ college, even if it has a fancy lab, dimwit.”

“But he’d understand my work!  Jerry, you know him – please just ask.”

“It’s not up to me.  It could embarrass the Department as a whole.”

“Embarrass?” Sam echoes in a strangled voice.  “This an important project.  Isn’t it?”

Jerry remains stony.  “Your contribution is respectable groundwork for a doctoral dissertation.  It isn’t more than that.”

Sam blinks, then drops his gaze.  “There are a couple more chapters of my thesis that I wanted some feedback on before you take off.”

Jerry’s patience is exhausted.  “Ask Nina.” He lets the door close behind him.

Next stop Europe, to burn out his torch.  He’ll call May, though, before taking off, for a last taste of her pity and admiration.  Savouring this notion, his mind makes another Olympian leap, forcing him to sit down on the nearest bench.

After a long period of abstraction, he digs out his phone.  Of course he would prefer someone of his own sex, but….  The first move is to make a date for this evening.  As he punches her number, he is already planning how to pop the question.

*  *  *

Ten minutes early, May finds no one at the lab but the chimps.  Eager for diversion, both start signing to her at once.  May can only smile and shake her head like a foreign tourist until the chimps give up.  “One day I’ll learn your language,” she promises them.

“Do you need something?”  At the unexpected challenge, May turns to see Sam staring in open mistrust.  He snaps his fingers.  “Oh yeah, Mary, right?”

“May.”  Sam’s absentmindedness makes her anxious.  “Where’s Jerry?”

“Still down.  Want to look?”

Sam leads her past an Authorized Personnel Only sign, as far as a door fitted with a small glass pane.  Peering through, May sees an impressive array of electronics.

“Over there.”  Sam points to a far corner.  On a rolling table half-hidden by a wheeled cart with computers, a sheet covers lumpy contours which May – cued by the position of an IV tube – recognizes as human.  The head end is engulfed by an oversized helmet from which cables extend in coils to various machines.

“How does it work?” May ventures.  Her specialty is developmental psychology.  The outer reaches of neuroscience and biocomputing are alien to her.

“NINS output, fMRI input.”

May struggles with the graduate student’s natural fear of admitting ignorance.  The thought that she’ll soon know much more than Sam is reassuring.  “And what’s that?”

Sam’s face lights up alarmingly as he launches into a barrage of acronyms and programmers’ jargon.  She fights the urge to tune out, feeling – perhaps in something signalled by Sam – that she ought to understand the process better.  Sam’s program – which he calls ‘simple’ – stimulates the brain and records responses, looking for correlations.  May makes the point that the stimulus-response model of brain function was discredited decades ago.

“Sure,” says Sam.  “Because any stimulus can alter the brain-state.  So if it’s repeated, the output can change.”

“We remember things.”

“Yeah, we remember a few things, and that changes the functional state of the system.”  Sam has an annoying, nerdy way of anticipating her questions.  “That problem’s so easy to deal with.  I just knock out the hippocampus so no new memories get laid down during recording.  Brain functions become repeatable.  My program just runs brute-force tests until it can emulate the brain perfectly.”

“But.”  Feeling out of her depth, May plunges in regardless.  “If we didn’t lay down new memories we’d be…robotic, wouldn’t we, like those stroke patients who introduce themselves every five minutes?”

“Sure.  But that static state is just temporary.  When my program’s done its thing, it turns the hippocampus back on.  The same thing happens when it transfers the data to the other brain.  Knock out the hippocampus, train the brain until it can emulate the program, then turn the hippocampus back on.  And wake the person up.”  Sam shrugs.  “It took seventeen hours to record Jerry.  He’s a complex guy.”

“That doesn’t sound like much!  Considering the years of experience – of life – that went in.”

“We only remember a tiny fraction of it.  Plus, the system’s pretty efficient.  With this hookup, my software can talk to Jerry’s brain as easily as your left hemisphere can talk to your right.  And it asks more sensible questions.”

The inert, sheeted form, dangling a catheter tube, looks insignificant beside the busy, blinking machines.  “Isn’t it terrible about Jerry?” she says.

“Uh, yeah.”  Sam looks uncomfortable.  “He was a good supervisor.  Now I have to find another one.”

This strikes May as inadequate.  “I feel so honoured that he chose me to preserve his knowledge and expertise.”

“Are you really going through with this?” Sam mutters in a rush.

She looks at him in surprise.  His eyes are evasive, making her suspect jealousy.  “Who wouldn’t?  It would be terrible if all his talent was lost, when he’s still young and hasn’t accomplished half the things he’s capable of.”

“Is that what he told you?  There’s more to it than that.”

“Oh, I know.”  Jerry was careful to make her understand, over that lingering candlelit dinner, that she would gain his life-memories too.  Far from being deterred, she is charmed and warmed by the prospect of knowing him so intimately.

Jerry put it playfully.  “It will be open kimono for me.  Can you face that?”

“I think so.”  The wine was very good – a Montrachet – and she was happy.  “Of course I can.”

Jerry dropped his eyes.  “You’ll know all my secrets.  I feel embarrassed already.”

No one, May reflects proudly, will remember him better than she will, when he is gone.

Sam nods unhappily.  “As long as he made it clear.”

“Jerry said I’d be able to take over his lectures, complete with jokes.  Of course, the administration may not go for it – but obviously that ability won’t hurt me as a student.  I’m not too crazy about grad school,” she confides.  “I’d like to get it over with quickly.  If I knock off the prelim exams in April I can get an early start on my thesis.”  Full of confidence, she feels superior to Sam, whom she knows has been around a long time.  He must be content to be a student – or else he’s not smart enough to graduate.  But Sam is smart, she thinks, considering everything he just told her.  But narrowly focussed – a software geek.  A coder.  He probably isn’t smart enough, or Jerry would have chosen him rather than herself to inherit his intellect.  That’s why Sam is just an assistant on Jerry’s project, instead of having a project of his own.

“Here’s Heinrich,” Sam whispers, as a small man in a surgical gown enters the lab.

“This is the recipient?”  The man points at May, then is convulsed by a fit of coughing.   At Sam’s nod, Heinrich fishes a folded paper out of his pants and hands it to her.  The paper is damp.  “Sign here…and here.”

“What’s this?” she asks Sam.

“Just a consent form – releasing the university from responsibility.”  May signs quickly, hoping Heinrich will go away.

“Doctor Hesse, Faculty of Medicine,” he introduces himself.  “This operation is my concern.”  Refolding the paper, he lurches through the windowed door.

“Who’s that creep?”

“A figurehead.  Technically, this is human experimentation, so it has to come under Medicine.  Heinrich owes Jerry something – his job, I think.”  Sam blinks at her. “Ready to go under?”

“I guess so.  I already decided I’m going through with it.”  May allows Sam to lead her through the windowed door.  Heinrich’s eyes are liquid and unhappy.

“There’s no anaesthetic,”  Sam explains.  “The computer will put you to sleep, sort of.  You’ll have lots of dreams, but you won’t remember them.”  His lumpy face suddenly comes alive in an uneven grin.  “Hey, when you wake up can you be my supervisor?  Ha, ha.  Just kidding.”

…continued in episode 2

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