Monday, May 2, 2011

Chapter 5

    A memory - irrational, out of place, yet horribly vivid - exploded in his brain.
    He is again a child of eight. He is in bed, shivering and sweating, his body raging with fever, his mind a hodgepodge of confused thoughts. Golden summer sunlight streams into the room from a window to his left. His mother hovers above him, large-breasted and sweet-smelling, her blonde hair a soft halo in the sunlight.
    He looks down at his right arm. It is bright pink around the sting, swollen to nearly twice its normal size. He cannot believe something as small as a bee can cause so much pain.
    His gaze brushes the closet door on the far side of the room and he turns quickly back to his mother's face.
    “You'll be all right, honey,” she says. She takes the hot wash cloth from his forehead and replaces it with a cool one. Then she smiles down at him. “Sleep now.”
    But he cannot sleep; he does not dare close his eyes. He had heard his mother talking to Aunt Clara on the phone earlier that day, telling her what the doctor had said about his allergic reaction and what it could mean. He knows he will not be all right. He can feel death waiting for him - a large, dark, bearded old man who lives in the closet. He knows that if he closes his eyes, the old man will come for him in his sleep.
    “Sleep,” his mother says again, soothing his brow with her cool fingers.
    His eyes become heavy, but he fights approaching sleep. Soon his eyelids start to sag shut. He forces them open again. They begin to sting, then burn, but he keeps them open. Finally, he can fight sleep no longer, and closes his eyes.
    And he hears the barely discernible creak of the closet door opening.

    First the sound, then the familiar ritual of waking....
    But this time something was missing. The memories were gone. They were no longer being projected against the blank screen of his mind.
    His name and identity were gone as well.
    Frantically, he searched for the missing parade of his past, that glut of memories which should have been marching continually out of his subconscious into his
 conscious mind.
    Then suddenly, there it was: Steven Collins. And his memories filled his thoughts.
    He lay on his back, a sheet pulled up around his neck. He felt his body drenched in perspiration. The fever still raged in him, worse now than before, and he continued to shiver uncontrollably.
    The room was unusually warm, and the air smelled strangely antiseptic. The light entering through his closed eyelids was not right, either; it seemed too bright, too clear, not yellow enough.
    He opened his eyes.
    Back-lighted by the strange white light, a face hovered above him. Lean, almost emaciated, it belonged to a youth no more than twenty years old. Above hollow, clean-shaven cheeks, light blue eyes held a haunted look. The boy bit nervously at his lower lip as he gazed intently into Steven's eyes.
    Beyond, the walls were white, institutional - like a hospital.
    “You feelin' better?” the youth said. His voice was high and thin.
    Steven tried to speak, but his mouth and throat were too dry. His attempt came out a hoarse croak.
    “That's all right,” the boy said. “Take your time.”
    Clearing his throat, Steven swallowed hard and tried again. “Where?” he said hoarsely, glancing around the room.
    “The university,” came the boy's answer.
    The boy nodded. “The university has its own generators.”
    “Who....” Steven swallowed again. Damn! Why couldn't he take the hint and get a glass of water. “Who... are... you?”
    “Hansen. Roger Hansen. But look, don't talk just yet. You're too weak, and you need something in your stomach.”
    The boy turned from Steven's bed and left his limited field of view. He was gone for several seconds. When he returned, he carried a tray on which rested a laboratory beaker filled with water, a bent piece of glass tubing for a straw. There was also a bowl of something steaming.
    The boy placed the tray on a low, wheeled cart to the bed's left, then brought the beaker up to Steven's mouth. Steven took the glass tubing between his lips and sucked. Only a trickle of water reached his parched throat, but it was better than nothing.
    Taking the beaker away, Hansen put it back on the tray. In a few seconds he brought a spoonful of hot, thin liquid to Steven's torn lips. Steven couldn't tell what it was - there was something wrong with his taste buds - and he had trouble getting it down.
    “I know,” Hansen said, “it isn't very good potato soup. But I doubt your stomach could handle anything heavier.”
    Steven didn't try to respond; he only hoped his expression conveyed gratitude. But right now he needed information almost as much as he did food and water.
    Seeming to sense this need, the boy talked while he feed Steven, relating his experiences since the End.
    “I was a sophomore here at the university before it happened,” he said, “majoring in physics. School during the day and janitorial work in the laboratories at night. Sweeping, cleaning lab equipment, things like that. And occasionally I'd help one of the profs, Dr. Samuels, with his work.”
    That name, Samuels - it triggered a flood of memories. Steven forced them down.
    Hansen laughed, almost spilling the soup. “It's funny, in a way,” he said. “Those dog packs roaming the city?” Steven nodded. “They're from here.”
    “From... here?” Steven managed. He was beginning to feel a little stronger.
    “That's right. And I guess I'm to blame. Dr. Samuels was using the dogs for research into various brain dysfunctions - you know, performing lobotomies, augmenting
their brains with electronics, that sort of thing. It was a large experiment. When it all started falling apart, I turned the dogs loose; I didn't want them to starve to death in their cages. I didn't know.” He shrugged.
    Steven nodded. That explained the strange scars and hardware he had seen on the dogs when he was attacked. “You didn't... didn't know what? That they'd... go wild?”
    Hansen shook his head. “Brain dysfunctions. That's what keeps the dogs here. And that's what keeps you and me here, too. I'm epileptic.” He waited for Steven's response.
    “I'm not,” Steven said, and instantly realized the boy would take it wrong. He hadn't meant it the way it had sounded.
    “Not just epilepsy,” Hansen said, with some pain in his voice. “There are other brain dysfunctions, both natural and otherwise.”
    Hansen nodded. “You know, like the dogs. It can be caused by radical brain surgery - lobotomies and the like - or by electronic augmentation.”
    “You mean like... computer implants?”
    “That's right.” Hansen brought the spoon to Steven's lips again. Steven swallowed the rapidly cooling soup. “You have one, don't you?” Hansen said after a few seconds of awkward silence.
    “Yes. This girl I knew before - “ the thought brought a sudden torrent of memories, sharp and harsh. He pushed them back into his subconsciousness. “She was doing her doctoral studies here. Then we found out I had this disease, similar to Alzheimer's. She talked me into signing myself over to a government-funded research group that was doing work on the physiology of memory.”
    “I heard about the study,” Hansen said. “They were working closely with Samuels. There were two of you, I think. Two operations. Let me see... Collins and...
    Instantly, the newspaper stories Steven had read about Alvarez prior to that other's operation flashed into his mind. Raul Alvarez had possessed symptoms similar to Steven's, but his condition had been attributed to the bite of a black widow spider a few years before. He had spent nearly two years in a coma. When he came out of it, his mind began to deteriorate.
    “You must be Collins,” Hansen said, shattering the memories.
    Steven nodded. “They got to me at a relatively early stage, so I was just what they were looking for. But my short-term memories were beginning to fade fast. I guess I shouldn't complain. They gave me quite a bit of money to let them put their computer in my head.” He tapped his right temple with his index finger and felt a sudden lance of pain. Was it real? he wondered. After a few seconds it passed, and he continued. “I wasn't even supposed to know it was there, unless I wanted to remember something specific.”
    Again the memories flooded his mind, and he shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. But the strikingly vivid parade of events from his past would not dissolve.
    “Now there's something wrong with it,” he said. “It seems to be going out of control. The memories keep coming, whether I want them or not.”
    “That explains why you're still here, in this world,” Hansen said. “But look, you're too sick for this kind of exertion. You need rest. I want to give those antibiotics I pumped into you while you were asleep a chance to do their stuff.” He placed the bowl down on the tray just out of Steven's reach.
    “Thanks,” Steven said, suddenly realizing how exhausted he really was. His entire body ached with the fever and quivered uncontrollably beneath the perspiration-soaked sheet. Hansen was right; he did need rest now more than anything else.
    The boy smiled down at him. “See you later,” he said. Then he turned and left the room.
    At first, in the irrational fog of fever, Steven fought sleep, trying desperately to think through what Hansen had said. But it did no good; he couldn't think clearly. The effects of the fever, combined with his exhaustion, made thinking impossible. Soon his eyes closed and he was asleep.

    He sits across the large walnut desk from a small, gray mouse of a man, wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a hearing aid. The man keeps pushing his glasses up on his nose with his middle finger, and talks with a lisp.
    “You realize, of course, that this procedure is highly experimental,” Dr. Hadley says.
    Steven nods. “Then I'll...” He pauses. For an instant, the thought won't come. “I'll be the first,” he finally says.
    Today is a good day. The thoughts flow relatively smoothly through his mind. His ability to express himself is less impaired than it has been lately.
    “No,” the doctor says, again pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. “There's one other operation scheduled before yours.”
    Steven must think about that for a few seconds before it makes sense. Hadley waits patiently.
    “The other.. he has... what I have?”
    “Yes. At least his symptoms are much like yours. And again, we can't be sure just what it is, but it shares many symptoms with Alzheimer's Disease.”
    Has the doctor told him this before? He can't remember. But there is a question he wants to ask. If he can only think of it.
    “Who...” he begins, but it is gone again. After a moment it returns. “Who is the other....”
    “A man named Raul Alvarez,” the doctor lisps. “He teaches architectural design at a community college in San Diego. His operation will be nearly three months prior to yours. On...” he flips forward through his desk calendar, “October thirteenth.” Again he pushes his glasses up.
    Another question tries to form in Steven's thoughts, one he is not sure he has asked before. It hangs just beyond his mental grasp, refusing to congeal.
Then suddenly, it is there. “How does the device work?” he asks.
    “You have asked me that question a number of times, Steven,” Dr. Hadley says. “If you think hard, I'm sure you will remember.”
    Steven concentrates, and slowly the memory surfaces. But before it is completely in his conscious mind, it again vanishes.
    “No,” he says. “I can't remember.”
    Hadley nods and smiles patiently. “We'll go over it one more time,” he says. “Your memories are always there, in your subconscious. Everything you have ever experienced or witnessed is stored in your brain. But the mechanism which calls up memories for most people, bringing them from the subconscious level into the conscious mind, is dysfunctioning in your brain. Although the memories are there, you cannot access them.
    “The device I intend to implant in your cerebral cortex will electronically manipulate that faltering access function. On demand, it will literally shock the memories from your subconscious into your conscious mind.
    Steven nods. The only thing that matters to him is that he will again have his memories.

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