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Fiction

NeuNet

“I’m going to have to stay a week longer,” was the first thing Laura said. No hellos or how-are-yous, just straight to the point.

Silence. Or at least, a silence overlaid onto a landscape of background murmurs. Laura was probably calling from the office.

“Matty, did you hear me? I have to extend my trip.”

Matthew looked down at the dark spot on the front of his shirt. He’d read somewhere that applesauce didn’t stain.

“I heard you.”

“So you’ll have to be alone with Dad for another week. I hope that’s okay?” Matthew knew that was a rhetorical question. With his sister, it was always a rhetorical question.

Matthew fingered the wet spot and brought it to his nose. It smelled like Fall, flat and flavorless. He’d stopped putting brandy into applesauce years ago, when the doctor had told him not to “excite” Dad.

“He had a bad day today,” Matthew said quietly.

“What? Matty, speak up! The connection must be bad!”

An indistinct voice yelled something at Laura’s end.

“Dad. He was asking about Rupali,” Matthew continued. “When I told him Rupali was gone, he spilled his food everywhere. I was cleaning up when you called.”

“Matty, I can’t really hear you. I’ll text you later, okay? The new nurse’s coming tomorrow, so you’ll be fine! Thanks!”

Click.

Matthew turned back to the kitchen table. Dad had already fallen asleep in his chair, the special chair that he’d salvaged from Matthew’s grandmother a decade ago. Though it matched nothing in their kitchen, he’d insisted on installing it there, dubbing it his “Breakfast Throne”. It was now covered in stains and smears, a hundred spilled meals marring the once icy blue upholstery.

Dad’s hands were folded neatly on his lap. That was the odd thing about Dad: despite the drool puddling around his collar, despite the messy hair and disheveled clothes, his hands were always poised and perfect. Perhaps they recalled Dad’s days as a surgeon, when they had been his prized instruments.

Matthew approached the table and swept up an armful of the newspaper he’d protectively layered onto the tablecloth just that morning. It smelled of apples. He would replace it anew with the smell of decrepitude and dust, taken from the basement, from the piles of old tabloids Dad had always insisted on hoarding “for emergencies”, even before the dementia had begun its wearying work. As far as Matthew knew, this was the first time a legitimate excuse to use them had been found.

Matthew hated going downstairs. He hated wading through Dad’s memories, memories that should have stayed in his head instead of leaking out and pooling in the mustiness of the basement.

He’d have to call and ask about the new nurse. And tell his editor he’d have to work from home for another week.

• • • •

Dr. Maryam Quraishi had won no awards for her research. She held no distinguished fellowships, had rarely spoken at colloquia, didn’t have tenure. As far as scientists went, she seemed utterly mediocre. But once her paper, a quiet piece published in the obscure journal Frontiers of Neural Computing, was picked up by social media, she found herself, for the first time, in the spotlight.

In an interview with The New York Times, Dr. Quraishi said she’d been inspired by The Matrix movies from the 2000s. “Even at that young age, I thought, using humans as batteries? That can’t be efficient. It must be something else. But it was only as a teenager that I realized, what if they’re using human brains as a giant distributed computer?”

During a segment aired on BBC News, Dr. Quraishi attempted to deflect ethical and religious concerns about her work. “People have been condemning scientific progress for centuries. How is this any different?” When pressed further, she fidgeted with her hijab and declared, “All we are doing is expanding the potential of the human mind, of the God-given human brain. Is that so wrong?”

Despite her genius, Dr. Quraishi had little affinity for business and political maneuvering. She was quickly voted off the board of the company she had founded to advance and commercialize her groundbreaking technology, though they did put up a nice note about her on the company’s official website. She drifted back into obscurity once the university, out of ethical concerns (or more cynically, out of their donors’ ethical concerns), refused her tenure.

She was found dead in an alleyway, knifed in the stomach. The police never decided whether it was a simple mugging or an act of religious extremism.

• • • •

To Matthew, sex always reminded him of the first time he had gone swimming, at his middle-school swimming pool. It was the smell that really took him back: sweat, mixed with a sour, chlorine-like tang that hovered in the air as a reminder of recent activities. But there was also the initial trepidation, the ginger testing of the waters before finally taking the plunge, followed by the overwhelming feeling that you had to keep going and couldn’t stop even if you wanted to.

A chink in the curtains let in a bar of sunlight. Filled with ungainly, fidgeting dust particles, it coated the sheets with a sickly pallor. The sheets needed a wash.

“How do you manage it?”

The voice came from around his navel, from a mass of brown curls flecked with gold. A deep, throaty voice, not really his type.

Matthew wriggled his hand into the curls, searching for the scalp as he twined the thick hair around his fingers.

“Manage what?” he asked.

“You know, working while taking care of your dad. Alone.”

Matthew found the scalp and began to scratch gently.

“I’m not alone. I live with my sister.”

“Oh, the extra bedroom. I thought that was, like, a guest room?”

Matthew’s scratching became a little more insistent, eliciting an approving purr.

The curls sat up and Matthew found himself looking into a pair of green eyes, also flecked with gold. It was like peering into a New England forest in early fall.

“Katie, the previous nurse? She says your dad’s getting worse. Says he’s not really there anymore.”

Matthew let his fingers trail down to the nurse’s face, until it met the light patch of fur in the chest-hollow. Again, not really Matthew’s type.

“Are you supposed to gossip about your patients like that?” he asked, trying to change the topic.

The nurse—what was his name again? Josh?—groaned and lay back down.

“Seriously though, have you thought of a home, or something? Where he can get twenty-four-hour care from professionals? He’s gonna need it soon.”

Matthew’s fingers clenched tightly, eliciting a slight yelp.

“My Dad wouldn’t have wanted to be in a home,” he said.

Josh nudged off Matthew’s hand, rolled over, stretched up, and brought his lips to Matthew’s. He smelled of sweat, beeswax, and mass-market spice. His proto-beard was too rough, and his tongue too invasive.

“You know there’s always NeuNet?” Josh asked as he broke away from the kiss.

“What?”

“NeuNet,” Josh explained. “I had this eighty-year-old patient who had a stroke. Vegetative. For more than a year. Her family finally decided to send her to NeuNet. They’ll take anyone as long as certain bits of the brain are still functional.”

Matthew paused. He stared at the birthmark on Josh’s upper lip. It was small and dark and reminded him of a bead of dried blood. He pushed Josh away.

“You should go.”

“Wait—I didn’t mean to upset you! I’m sorry!”

Matthew slid off the bed and rummaged for his underwear.

“You didn’t. But you have other patients. And I have to help Dad.”

“Uhh—I guess I’ll see you on Wednesday, then?”

Matthew’s smile was as colorless and brittle as bleached bone.

• • • •

When Webster Holcomb saw NeuNet’s call for volunteers online, he felt as though his prayers had been answered. Not that he prayed anymore these days.

It wasn’t that Webster wanted to die, just that he no longer wanted to live. After his wife left him, after his son publicly shunned him, after he realized that every day was the same, worn roll of film endlessly looping its story of hopeless drudgery, Webster decided it was time to end it all.

Webster had tried to kill himself twice before. The first time, he’d got vertigo and climbed down from the roof before anyone noticed. The second time, the first sign of blood on his forearm had made him feel faint, and he’d dropped the razor in the water.

Suicide clearly wasn’t the option. It was messy and looked like it hurt too much.

So he called the hotline listed in a tidy serif typeface, and attended the three counselling sessions they required of him. Most volunteers only needed one.

He was a special case, of course. Most NeuNet volunteers were the terminally ill, or those with debilitating mental disorders. Attempting to address the problem of prison overcrowding, a couple of nations had even sent over inmates serving life sentences for especially heinous crimes. Webster was their first completely willing and healthy volunteer. As such, perhaps for the first time in his life, but definitely for the last, Webster was special.

He’d be contributing to the future of humanity, they told him. Traditional computers were obsolete: NeuNet’s trailblazing technology would allow mankind to transcend the “digital age” to who knew what? Did Webster know about the untapped potential of the human brain?

He didn’t, and frankly didn’t care much. All he wanted was an easy way out.

They assured him that it was quite painless. He would be placed in a comfortable bed, sedated, and hooked up to the network. His consciousness would then dwindle as his brain became a node in a vast network of other human brains, taking in, processing, and outputting data faster than any device humans had ever managed to create, serving the rest of humankind with all their informational needs. His body would be fed and cared for, while his mind would literally be touching hundreds of others in a way more intimate than any known mode of communication.

They also made sure to inform him that the process would leave him completely alive and breathing. This was not, repeat, not assisted suicide in any way. It was all perfectly, perfectly legal.

But would Webster still be able to feel, to dream, to think?

Unfortunately not.

Excellent.

And with that, Webster sold his apartment, donated all his meagre assets to a suicide hotline, and took a taxi to oblivion.

• • • •

A month of daily research did little to ease Matthew’s anxieties about NeuNet. Today’s forum posts were the same: vitriol and praise in equal measure, with no clear consensus or pattern. The only thing Matthew was reasonably certain about was that the technology worked. He clicked away from the message boards and sifted through the emails from Dr. Kumar, hoping that looking at them repeatedly and for long enough would unearth new meaning and understanding, the way museum docents claimed abstract art worked.

Matthew had never liked the docents.

The emails, phone calls, and counselling sessions had all been crisp and clean, well-laundered messages folded in soothing platitudes and perfumed with generous squirts of “You’re doing the right thing!” and, “This is how he would have wanted it!”

But would Dad have wanted it this way? Matthew glanced at him, snoozing in his Breakfast Throne. Or did it really mean something to Dad that Matthew was now washing him, cutting his hair, filing his nails?

The nails badly needed work. Matthew had been negligent, what with the recent flurry of activity with NeuNet. He had always taken extra care with Dad’s hands, carefully filing the nails down to neat edges every two weeks. As a child, he’d seen those hands in action on numerous occasions, painting a watery sunrise onto a canvas, or expertly setting Laura’s dislocated arm when she’d fallen off a tree as an over-exuberant eight-year-old. Sometimes, in his rare moments of lucidity, Dad would ask for his pencil and sketchbook and try to draw Matthew, though the images soon devolved into senseless scribbles as his dementia took over again. Matthew sometimes wondered if Dad’s intellect was in his hands, and not his aging, broken brain. Matthew stored the drawings in the basement, along with the piles of newspaper. There had been no new drawings of late.

The laptop blipped with a new email from Laura. Matthew had been expecting a call. Hey, I agree with Dr. Kumar. We should just go for it, before Dad gets any worse and becomes ineligible. The longer we wait, the more likely it is for Dad to have an accident. I told Dr. Kumar that we’re very interested. She said they can get him ready within a month. You’ll have to take him in a few more times before I get back. Love, L.

So it was settled then. Laura had made the decision, as usual. Without really consulting Matt—

—Ammonia. Matthew’s nostrils flared as the familiar, sour bouquet of piss tickled, nudged, pulled his face away from the laptop. A wet spot was growing in Dad’s pants, matching his widening goofy grin. He giggled.

Matthew did not immediately get up.

• • • •

As soon as Paul proposed, Megumi suggested genetic counselling. She considered herself a sensible, modern woman, and wanted only what’s best for any future children. The counselor was optimistic, and the joyful couple soon welcomed Vanessa Kim into the world.

In hindsight, Megumi realized she hadn’t been entirely fair in calling John Park (MS, MPH) a hack and a fraud. After all, genetic counselors didn’t give right or wrong answers; they spoke in suggestions, likelihoods, and possibilities. Nevertheless, in the moment, Megumi had been sad, and sadness is ripe substrate on which anger often blooms in ugly, desperate patches.

At less than 1500 grams, little Vanessa suffered from a malformed heart and immune deficiencies. As she grew up, learning disabilities, frequent seizures, and severe difficulties in forming social bonds plagued the girl. Physicians cautioned the Kims that even reaching her forties would be considered a “miracle” for Vanessa.

It was much less cruel to take her to NeuNet than to let her live a life of such suffering, the nice doctor told the distraught parents. Their daughter would not only remain alive and free from pain and misery, but would also contribute to society in a way she would never be able to otherwise. Paul and Megumi would be doing the right thing.

The couple never again had children.

Every so often, Paul would find his wife sobbing in front of her computer and he would hold her, squeezing, squeezing as if to wring the tears out.

• • • •

Matthew had expected ovoid pods filled with pink goo, helmets with silvery cables extending like antlers, and chrome embellishments everywhere. He had not expected what amounted to a large warehouse, albeit pristine white, filled with upright, oblong metal boxes. It reminded him of when he’d once visited a server farm—which to be fair, this sort of was.

He strained his ears, hoping to catch some sort of noise. Do a thousand interconnected minds, exchanging information at the speed of thought, make a sound? A weird, penetrating drone, perhaps? But no, all Matthew heard was the quiet whirr of cooling fans, and the prim clip-clop of orderlies making their clipboarded way around the floor for routine check-ups of all their “volunteers”.

It smelled of chlorine—and there it was again, that feeling of hurtling forward with no possibility of stopping.

“As you can see,” his guide, a pert Barbie lookalike who smelled too strongly of roses, explained, “our volunteers are kept exceedingly secure, with daily check-ups on their physical well-being. In fact, from what we’ve observed, the volunteers actually experience an increase in lifespan under our controlled conditions.”

Her name tag identified her as “Sandy”. Someone had taken the trouble to draw a pink flower on it. To Matthew, it enhanced the sepulchral atmosphere of the place. Flowers for the (essentially) dead.

He followed her back out to the “Private Lounge” that had been assigned to them. Dr. Kumar was rifling through Matthew’s paperwork. She looked up and smiled as the two entered.

“Everything seems to be in order, Mr.—I mean, Matthew,” she announced cheerfully. “And I already reviewed the test results the lab sent us. Physically speaking, your father is in fine shape. He should have no trouble here. In fact, he should be ready very soon!” She pointed towards the large window set into the wall, looking into the adjoining room where Matthew’s father lay, asleep.

He was being given a manicure as a final act of beautification before being entombed in an iron coffin, and interred in a sea of data. It made Matthew think of a Viking burial at sea. Or what he’d heard of them, at any rate. Except didn’t one’s family help prepare those burials?

Laura had been too busy to come today. Something about a meeting with a major client that she simply could not miss. Still, she’d called in a favor and had one of her company’s lawyers look at all of NeuNet’s paperwork.

“My own father’s a volunteer here,” Dr. Kumar confessed from behind Matthew. “He’s much better off now than he was before.”

Matthew turned back to look at the doctor, whose casual blouse and dark jeans were probably an attempt to look more approachable.

“You’re doing the right thing for your father,” the doctor said gently.

Yes, Matthew told himself for the hundredth time that day, Dad would be comforted—no, overjoyed—knowing that this was his fate. Of course, he would be. “It’s a shame to let them go to waste,” Dad used to say about the goddamned newspapers. Dad would be happy knowing that he, himself, would not be going to waste. Right?

Sandy, who was hovering by the door, smiled prettily. “Is there anything else you’ll need, Matthew?”

“Thank you very much,” Matthew said politely. “I’d like to leave now.”

• • • •

Matthew stood on the gray concrete outside the clinic where Sandy had left him. He took a deep breath and held it for a moment. He wanted to taste freedom, to savor the new life he was going to have. But his nose was too cold.

He dialed Josh.

“Matthew!” Josh finally answered. “I—I didn’t think you’d call!”

Matthew wondered what Josh would smell like today. Probably some sort of ersatz sea breeze.

“Evening plans?” Matthew asked.

“What? Uh—nothing much? It’s my day off—”

“My sister will be back late. I’ll be home alone.”

“Uhh . . .”

“I want you to come over and fuck my brains out.”

“What? Yeah, of course! Wait, what d’you mean? Your dad’s not gonna be home?”

“Come by around eight,” Matthew finished and hung up.

His eyes scanned the empty sky for a cloud in the shape of something cheerful, a soaring bird, high on optimism, or anything, really, to match the mood he was supposed to be in. All he found was icy, blue emptiness.

Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas

Sharang Biswas is a writer, artist, and award-winning game designer. He has won IndieCade and IGDN awards for his games and has showcased interactive works at numerous galleries, museums, and festivals, including Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, and the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. His writing has appeared in Strange Horizons, Fantasy Magazine, Baffling Magazine, Eurogamer, Dicebreaker, Unwinnable, and more. He is the co-editor of Honey & Hot Wax: An Anthology of Erotic Art Games (Pelgrane Press, 2020) and Strange Lusts / Strange Loves: An Anthology of Erotic Interactive Fiction (Strange Horizons, 2021). Find him on Twitter at @SharangBiswas.