Reach for the stars

By Priya Chand, Republished from nature.com

Impact factors.

 

JACEY

The holes widen into craters while I sleep.

The day is a blur — but that’s school. No one pays attention anyway.

“No time for dinner,” I say, my toes cold where they touch the linoleum.

Mother looks at me, wielding her spoon as the soup bubbles over. “I don’t like this. Why can’t you go natural?”

Unaugmented reflexes. The team would drop me. The schools wouldn’t like that. Career suicide.

“I have to make captain.”

She goes to eat and I go to the Chamber. Sit. Pincers lift my scalp away, layer by layer until the air hits my brain. I feel nothing. No pain.

Wires seep in, reinforcing my sensorimotor cortex. Brodmann’s areas 3 and 4 — neurobiology was last year. Every detail is at the tip of my fingers, fresh as the day I learned it.

When the plate comes down to secure the electrodes, my foot twitches. The device locks, then my skull is replaced. Back to normal.

No, not normal. The only parts of the Moon we’ve explored are its impact craters.

****

No one can beat me. We’re all augmented, of course, but they haven’t spent hours brainmapping and it shows. One girl keeps driving the ball into the ground. Should’ve elevated precision. Idiot.

Later, we have pizza to celebrate. I can’t remember how to eat it, but I watch the others and my mirror neurons fire zip-zip-zip and it’s there. Fold and cram.

Mother is making tea when I get home. I tell her we won. She nods and sniffs the pot, adding spices I’ve never had the time to learn about. Still, the scents are soothing. I yawn.

The stimulator disintegrates during sleep. There’ll be a fine metal dust on my bed in the morning. Mother changes the sheets every day, I watch her tuck the linen in while I brush my teeth and comb my hair.

I wake to a pale arm near my body. Shriek — it’s creepy. Mother runs in, brays nervous laughter and as my synapses reconnect I start laughing too.

It’s mine. My arm.

Test Wednesday. Active augmentation is banned so I use it to study, to help me best comprehend maths and higher logic. The stimulators — two this time — target my thalamus, strengthening the corticothalamic loops. This is more effective than direct stimulation of the prefrontal cortex. There are plenty of data to confirm.

As the machine disengages, I hear a slickness, a ‘gloop’ where the air rushes to fill the gaps between torn brain cells.

Everyone does it. It’s perfectly normal.

Studying takes 20 minutes. The memories slide into vacant spots, the barrage of signalling drenches my hippocampus. I feel those pathways strengthen, standing out like veins on a bodybuilder. My mind is a muscle.

I ace the test. I come home to tell the woman in the kitchen about it. She says I call her Mother.

“Like mater,” I say. Latin last semester, an accelerated programme for premeds. They tell us to come to class augmented, but you can’t practise medicine on stimulators. I’m waiting for the FDA to finish phase IV trials. It’ll be legal soon.

“Yes, exactly,” she says. Mother. Mater.

Dura and pia, my hard and soft mothers; I wonder where she fits in, her sharp bones and unexpected curves. I look for her in the layers of my head, which fold back for the anatomy pre-practical.

Fine motor skills.

My hands don’t shake. I lay out the fetal pig’s heart, ventricles exposed. I extract its smooth brain, a strange grey-yellow in a formalin fug.

The next morning, I can’t tell left from right.

“There’s a special report on,” Mother/Mater tells me over breakfast. I take the cereal one bite at a time. Yes, I hold spoons with my right hand. Problem solved. “The postmortem on John Li.”

John Li wanted to get into Harvard. John Li got addicted to augmentation, skipping sleep so the stimulators wouldn’t disintegrate overnight.

And then he killed himself.

“I don’t have the time.”

“It’s the weekend.”

“Finals are next week.” One slot, one thousand students. I have to be the most perfect of all.

Huddled over my notes on the renal system, drops of blood where the sealant missed gluing my skin together, I hear the TV. Expert commentary on John Li’s brain. “Scarred.”

I imagine the Moon, welcoming every meteor to its blank surface. No strata for protection. You can’t be a blank slate forever.

****

Last day of exams.

I wake to metallic dust on my pillow. I sleep on clean sheets; we must have a robot for that.

Brush, eat, test.

The second it ends, I follow 30 others to the bathroom. We discuss how poorly scanned the holograms were, blurring the lens, stroma and cornea together, ha-ha isn’t that ironic.

The joke falls flat. There’s too much awareness of how little separates us. We can’t wish each other good luck; that’s the only difference between getting in and not getting in when you’re identically gifted.

The proctors shoot disapproval as we wipe our ears, but this is the future. Silver smudges on our fingers and brains like the Moon.

Some want to ban nontherapeutic stimulation, but that’s pointless. Normal students forget plenty, no studies show significant deviation from the norm.

We are the future.

I look in the mirror to straighten my hair, but I can’t tell which anxious face is mine.

 

 

Author information

 

Priya Chand graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in neuroscience. She’s since found that writing stories can be as mindbending as conducting experiments, and is looking for a way to combine the two. Find her @writelies on Twitter.

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