Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Woman Who Destroyed Us

I know what they say. They say she was a pioneer. They say she helped millions of people live a normal life. They say she created the next stage of evolution for humanity.

I need you to understand how wrong that is. To understand what she is: a killer.

She’s destroying people’s minds, molding them into her image of what the human brain should be. And none of them complain afterward, because of course they wouldn’t. Their brains are made to be happy—and so they are. She’s washing out the human species into mindless automatons.

More importantly, she killed my son.

• • • •

Maggie decided on her plan during a sunny afternoon in early April. The weather had bloomed into the fragile clarity of a perfect spring day, the type of day that only came in tiny crystals before being smothered by summer. Maggie went out to get the mail, and instead sat down on her porch and listened to insects chirping and the breeze whistling in the old house’s shutters, and wanted to spit on all of it.

Perfect days shouldn’t be allowed to exist anymore.

Maggie closed her eyes and reflected on the irony life had flung at her. First, Henry’s diagnoses, and learning she did have the strength to love him, truly and genuinely. Not only the strength, but the desire. Throughout the years, every minute of every day that she’d scraped and scratched out on his behalf had been worth it—every anxious conference with his doctors, every time she caught him wistfully staring at other children playing and her heart broke a tiny bit more, every too-short accounting of funds that went to his care first and always.

She vaguely recalled the pain of giving up her engineering career, or of the day Henry’s father left, but it was an unfocused sort of pain, tempered by time and willingness. Or perhaps that long-ago pain was nothing now, compared to the bonfire that consumed her every time she recalled the day she’d lost Henry.

Her son, her real son, had vanished—replaced by an imposter wearing his face. And if she ever managed to get him back, he would hate her for it.

She wondered, sometimes, if she was being selfish. She’d told herself so many times she would do anything, sacrifice anything, if it would mean a better life for him. But that wasn’t supposed to mean sacrificing him. She’d always told nosy strangers that he was fine just the way he was, and she had meant it.

But that woman, she had seen how smart Henry was—Maggie had told people how smart he was—that woman had seen it, and had dangled such glittering promises in front of him. Seduced his brain for herself, all with her smug assumption that everyone was better off as carbon copies of her version of normal.

That doctor wasn’t even a real person, was she? All the magazine profiles were gleefully transparent about that. Proud, even. How she’d built her own personality by zapping whatever neural pathways she’d decided fit her concept of the ideal human. They’d had her up before ethics boards in the early days, for God’s sake, before enough rich dilettantes decided brain stimulation was the way of the future to start normalizing it.

She was destroying society, that doctor. Maggie didn’t know why more people didn’t see it. On her message board, the only place she still felt sane, she’d talked to a woman whose daughter had been turned down by every university she applied to. Ten percent of the kids at Harvard have an implant now, the woman had mourned. How can she compete? She came to me sobbing and asked if we could afford it. My healthy, energetic, brilliant seventeen-year-old daughter came to me asking for elective brain surgery.

The message board folk were on a spectrum, with some adamant the new technology was spitting at Nature and some who allowed it might be permissible to treat a proven medical need. Maggie stayed quiet when those people talked. Most of them didn’t have anyone who’d been judged to have such a “medical need,” the type that insurance would pay for, and they didn’t know any better.

Someday she’d get up the courage to write a post. A long post. Her story. Her manifesto, she supposed it would have to be called, at the length such a thing would run. But manifestos always had some sort of action at the end of them, didn’t they? If only she could figure out some way to disable all the implants, every instance of deep brain stimulation in the entire world. Dig a channel to send the course of humanity hurtling down a different path, bypassing this future entirely.

But even if she could do that . . .

Henry came to see her sometimes. Or Hank, as he called himself now. He would greet her and call her “Mom,” standing awkwardly with his hands in his pockets and eyes that were a stranger’s. Maggie tried her best to keep her eyes dry, to keep from staggering when the memories cut her: Henry tackling her with hugs so fierce they almost lost balance, Henry’s lopsided smile of accomplishment when he figured out some new philosophical concept, Henry collecting every flower in the yard and filling his room with them.

All Hank talked about was how good his grades were now, and how much money he would be making soon, and Maggie screamed inside her head about how much she didn’t care. She wanted his smile back, his love of botany, his penchant for memorizing any type of diagram and reciting it back to her with unadulterated joy; his painting and his laughter and the way he would challenge her to board games like he was preparing for the most serious battle in the world; she wanted Henry.

Any fantasies about tearing the implant out of his head crashed when she imagined what would come next. Henry’s eyes, filled with betrayal, with hatred at her, and then he’d go and get it put back in again.

But that crisp spring day, her body sagging on the porch like her bones had lost their will to hold her up, Maggie hit on her idea. She couldn’t save Henry. But she could show that woman, that monster, exactly what she had done. She could show everyone who gave that doctor such plaudits that the thing they so loved was nothing more than a phantasm.

She sat up. The cool air suddenly felt invigorating. I could do this, she thought. That doctor always claimed the implant didn’t make you different, that it just made you a truer version of yourself, but she was wrong, and Maggie could prove it. Because the doctor had an implant, too, and without it . . .

Well. Without it, they would all see. That doctor wasn’t going to be the same person. She’d be erased. She’d be someone else.

A squirrelly reticence wormed its way through Maggie’s gut. Was she contemplating murder? She knew how she felt about losing Henry, after all.

But no. The doctor was a programmed personality, nothing more: an organic AI that had been written over a real human’s brain. If anything, Maggie would be saving the person the woman used to be.

For the first time in two years, the edge of Maggie’s lips curled up toward something like a smile. She’d need that manifesto after all.

• • • •

She sold us on a miracle.

“I couldn’t get out of bed,” she told us, the same line she’s spouted in all those magazine profiles. Everyone knows her story, but she told it to us anyway, describing the endlessly circling thoughts that had crushed and trapped her, the compulsions that wouldn’t release her from mounting panic unless she scraped her hands bloody or hung onto every candy wrapper or broken pencil that crossed into her teenaged world. Such graphic detail—I wonder if she wrote herself a subroutine for stimulating creative language.

When deep brain stimulation became a possibility for her, she’d been circling her ideation for months, flirting with fantasies of razors and ropes. Her parents had tried all traditional paths for her, and all had failed. She described it as drowning. Nothing to lose. Nothing left but the one last gasping hope that she could be cured by new technology.

I don’t know whether I believe her. Her parents are dead now, and they never gave the magazine interviews she’s so fond of, but if I could speak to them, what would they say? Maybe they weren’t like me; maybe they didn’t love her as she was and hid their faces with embarrassment when people asked why their daughter was no longer in school. Maybe they whispered in their darkest, secret thoughts that life would be easier if their daughter killed herself, so when the marching future offered them the chance to kill her themselves and call it treatment, they jumped at the chance.

But Henry and I weren’t drowning. I told her that. I told her it was hard, but we got by, and that we were, mostly, happy. It was certainly true of me, and Henry assured me it was true of him, too. I told her he didn’t need fixing and we didn’t need miracles and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks, not with something as precious as my child’s brain, his person.

“It doesn’t change who you are,” she told us a dozen times, falsely. “It will just make him become more of the person he wants to be.”

In retrospect, of course she would say that. It’s the only way she can excuse what she’s done to herself, isn’t it?

I still almost said no. I told Henry I loved him exactly as he was, that I couldn’t fathom wishing him different without wishing him not Henry. When you know the whole of someone, even what others see as their weakest points are a part of what you love. That’s how I found peace with it after the first of his ever-evolving diagnoses, first ADHD and then the rapidly cycling correction to anxiety, bipolar, BPD, ASD, with each new doctor as likely to declare a previous misdiagnosis as to add another label to the combination they were medicating him for. But long before all that, when I was in shock after that first child psychologist sat us down and explained all Henry’s difficulties with school and with the other children weren’t just a phase . . . I asked myself if I would swap my boy for one the doctors described as “normal,” and the sick horror of the thought made it hard to breathe.

Because that boy wouldn’t be Henry.

I made sure my son knew all this. I made sure he knew it all, every day, especially the days after his father left, or the days I found him staring at university or job-hunting websites with an expression like someone had socked him in the stomach. And when he first came to me about DBS, I made sure he knew he didn’t have to have brain surgery, not for me. Not then, not ever.

But he wanted more. And like the fool of a parent I was, I didn’t want to deny him.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” he said to me right before, squeezing my hand almost as tight as I was squeezing his. “I’ll still be me.” I almost begged him to promise.

Afterward, one of the handful of times he visited, wooden and humorless, he said, “I didn’t realize how much it would change me.”

He didn’t look at me when he said it.

• • • •

After a week spent online, Maggie had freshly swallowed every article and magazine profile ever written about Dr. Laura Chen. She’d also studied as much of the workings of the DBS implants as she could understand, hunting down research papers that were a little jump above the layperson. Her electrical engineering was rusty, but she’d done similar research before Henry had gotten his implant, and the more she read, the more conversant she felt.

Besides, she wasn’t trying to do any complicated neuroprogramming. She just wanted to figure out how to shut a unit down without hurting the person physically. The shutting down part looked relatively easy—DBS patients had as many cautions as people with pacemakers, and Maggie was reasonably sure that despite the unit’s shielding she could disable one with a homemade EMP soldered out of a flash capacitor. But the relative ease of that side of the equation meant it was standard for the individual frequency-generation algorithms of a DBS unit to be solidly backed up.

Especially someone whose implant programming was as complicated as Dr. Chen’s.

Deep brain stimulation worked via electrodes inserted far into the brain that produced electrical bursts in response to what they’d been programmed to view as abnormal neuron firing. But Dr. Chen had taken it far beyond “abnormal.” She’d been given her original implant under medical supervision, but after being inspired to enter the field herself, she began experimenting with her own neural pathways in college, tweaking the electrical bursts to increase her stamina, intelligence, and determination. DBS didn’t have any sort of pinpoint precision—neurologists still weren’t even sure why it worked as well as it did—but Laura Chen had been an artist at it. Later she went overseas to have more electrodes inserted so she could mess with her neurons in every lobe, and Maggie was willing to bet the code that now equaled Dr. Chen’s personality was very carefully protected.

Maggie would need some type of access. Preferably some way that would avoid her coming face to face with the doctor—she didn’t know if Dr. Chen would recognize a skeletal, graying woman as the pleasantly round mother she’d met two years ago, but best not to take chances. Luckily, in several of the magazine profiles, Dr. Chen had been pictured with her wife.

From there it was only a hop and a skip to a thousand social media updates and the name of the studio where the wife took yoga every week.

For some reason, it surprised Maggie that the studio was only half an hour away. It shouldn’t have, because they’d moved here back when Henry was commuting in every other day for testing appointments. Maggie tended to think of Dr. Chen as being far away and unreachable, somehow on another plane thanks to her fame, despite the fact that the young man wearing Henry’s face now worked for the doctor as a research assistant.

Maggie took a breath and clicked over to buy a yoga mat.

Her first day of class, she was struck by how long it had been since she’d been out of the house for any but the most necessary errands. She’d even been having groceries delivered, mostly stacks of instant noodles that she didn’t eat. A few women leaving the yoga studio greeted her on the way in, and Maggie had to think hard to shape the words of a suitably banal response.

She’d signed up for an open level class, and she got lucky: she recognized the woman she wanted as soon as she stepped barefoot onto the smooth wooden floor. Dr. Chen’s wife was a striking dark-skinned woman, taller than everyone else in the class, with a firm jaw and her hair the type of shiny black waves Maggie tended to assume existed only in shampoo commercials. Her confidence and grace were magnetic. Maggie thought she would have felt drawn in even if she hadn’t had other motives for being there.

She unrolled her mat on the next spot over and gave the woman what she hoped passed for a nervous smile. “Hi. I’m Maggie.”

The answering smile she got was open and welcoming. “Victoria. Nice to meet you.”

Maggie knew her name was Victoria, knew everything about her that could be gleaned from a public social media page. But she said “nice to meet you” back and then the line she’d planned as a nonthreatening conversation opener. “It’s my first day.”

“Oh! Well, Terrence is a fantastic teacher,” Victoria said. “He’s great at helping you work at your level. And you can go into child’s pose anytime, no judgment.”

Maggie didn’t know what child’s pose was, but she thanked Victoria and pretended to concentrate on smoothing down the curl of her mat.

She did, indeed, spend most of the class in child’s pose. Even lying folded double felt like it stretched her raw, leaching her pain into a puddle on the studio floor. She’d plotted out what she would say to Victoria after the class, too, but when she turned and tried to form words, she had to fight past a sob stuck in her nose and throat.

“I . . . I just moved here, and . . .”

“Sweetie, are you okay?” Victoria put a hand on her shoulder.

“I . . . I guess I’m a little overwhelmed.” The sob bubbled up, undenied, and Maggie swiped at her eyes and nose in annoyance. This was not what she had planned. But she pressed on. “Would you let me buy you a cup of coffee? I’m so new here and . . . it doesn’t have to be today, next time would be fine too, or whenever—”

“Oh, sweetie. I’ve got time now. Let me show you this great little shop around the corner; they’re a coffee shop and an antiques house, so all their tables and chairs are these interesting older pieces. You can buy the furniture, too, but I just like the vibe.”

Victoria put a hand on Maggie’s shoulder again and shepherded them out of the yoga studio, calling farewells to Terrence and the other students.

Maggie had more careful scripting in her head, but instead she ended up weeping her way through a latte and a slice of truly decadent flourless chocolate cake.

“I’m sorry, it’s just—I miss my son,” she whispered between sniffs, and Victoria “oh, sweetie’d” her again and drew all the right conclusions.

“You’re so kind,” Maggie said finally, sincerely, when she was able to wipe her tears away on a coffee shop napkin and not have them immediately replaced. “I’m sorry. I guess I needed a friend. Can you recommend—tell me what there is to do around here. Tell me about you.”

“Well, I’m an artist,” Victoria said. “Mixed media, mostly—I like exploring the place where painting and sculpture meet. My wife always says something poetic about fractional dimensions.”

“Like a fractal,” Maggie said automatically. “Something that isn’t two-space but isn’t three-space.” Like the surface of the human brain, she thought, but cut herself off before adding. So many wrinkles and fissures and complexities. Not flat. Not simple.

“Yes! Exactly,” Victoria said. “Are you a mathematician?”

“Engineer,” Maggie said. “Or at least, I was . . .”

“I so admire that. My wife is brilliant at all that, but I could never wrap my head around STEM fields. Just got the creative genes, I guess.”

“These days you could always get an implant for it,” Maggie said. Too soon, maybe, but when else was she going to get such a good opening?

Victoria hesitated. “Actually, my wife is a DBS researcher and neuroprogrammer. And there was a time I—but that’s a story for another day. You were asking about good ways to get yourself out of the house.”

Maggie was sure she hadn’t phrased it that way, but she was, she reminded herself, only playing a part. Who cared if Victoria felt pity for her rather than friendship? As long as it got her in.

• • • •

I’ve heard all the logical arguments. That DBS is elective and victimless, that it helps many and on the whole harms no one. And I haven’t believed in God for thirty years, so I’m not one to say it’s a crime against nature.

But I do think we have to give some serious thought to what it means to be . . . oneself. We all change over the course of our life, but is that equivalent to rewriting our neurology? How many neurons do we alter before someone isn’t the same person anymore? Before we’ve killed who they used to be?

The religious opponents of DBS sometimes call this soul. I think it’s science, but I agree with them for all that.

How long before less invasive treatments for any condition involving the brain start to be phased out as unprofitable, before society will no longer give any accommodations because “why don’t they just get DBS”?

There will be people who say what I’m choosing to do here doesn’t address any of that. That I should write books, or articles, or give speeches, not attack a single person just because I disagree with her.

They might be right. But sometimes a demonstration is worth a thousand words.

• • • •

Dr. Laura Chen had been far from the only doctor performing DBS in the country, of course. The surgery was all too common, and plenty of people got their treatment from someone who wasn’t the face of a movement. Henry had found her name online thanks to all those magazine articles, and he’d written to her before he even told Maggie he was researching. Dr. Chen had told them to come out and see her personally.

In retrospect, Maggie should have been suspicious. What kind of celebrity doctor tells a sixteen-year-old kid to see her personally, unless she’s trying to steal his brain away?

She’d relived that first conversation with Henry so many times it had become a specter in her head. She should have listened to her creeping foreboding, but she’d shelved her reservations and tried to listen to her son with an open mind. She’d learned from him so many times, after all—he read widely and thought deeply, and he’d changed her opinion on more than one occasion. Those long, rambling conversations were one of the many things that had made him Henry, one of the many things she loved.

But he’d never approached her with something so . . . personal. So frightening. She remembered the moment clearly: she’d been making dinner, and her hand had frozen on the handle of the frying pan she’d been taking out. The pattern of brownish scratches crisscrossing the Teflon had etched itself into her memory.

“Mom, have you heard of deep brain stimulation?”

Of course she’d heard of it. The news loved their clickbait headlines about each new twist in the proliferation of DBS. And when she’d seen that first article, the fleeting thought had crossed her mind, could Henry benefit? But the technology back then had been limited to extreme cases of OCD, depression, and a few other mental illnesses—clear-cut cases all, not the overlapping patchwork of combinations and question marks that Henry’s doctors argued over.

Back in the beginning, the DBS scientists had talked big, saying they had such hopes, that this might even be the key to treating previously intransigent personality disorders or neurological conditions that conventional medicine struggled to unlock. But nobody had predicted just how fast DBS would explode. The more the researchers and doctors managed to expand it, the more the funding poured in, and the more those clickbait headlines passed over Maggie’s dashboard.

It had gotten to the point where well-meaning acquaintances had begun asking. “Have you ever considered DBS for Henry?”

At first she’d politely explained that Henry still couldn’t be treated with DBS. As the years passed and questions got ruder and more frequent, she’d become grateful that this remained true, that she could shut down such brutally impolite good intentions with a simple statement of fact.

It was different saying it to Henry, though. “Honey, if you’re thinking . . . it’s still limited, and your situation is complicated. They can’t—”

“I know, I know,” he’d said, already gaining steam in his familiar Henry way. “If you look at what’s officially treatable via DBS, I can’t benefit yet. But I’ve been emailing with one of the premiere researchers in the country, Dr. Laura Chen. She’s pioneered a lot of the expansions of DBS treatment over the past generation. Before she started pushing the research, the field was in a state of nascent infancy compared to what it’s capable of now. And the best part is, she’s like a self-improving AI, because she essentially reprogrammed her own neurology to make her better able to reprogram people’s neurology. She—”

“That’s the best part?” Maggie couldn’t help muttering.

“It’s a testament to the genius of humanity,” Henry said, either missing or ignoring her sarcasm. “There’s a recursive beauty to it. Like a piece of art, except science.”

“I know who Dr. Chen is, honey,” Maggie had said. She wondered if the doctor would have understood what a compliment it was that Henry had just compared her to a piece of art.

“I emailed her,” Henry went on, barely pausing. “She’s more than a genius—she doesn’t submit to what others say are the limits of reality. I think she might be the harbinger of the next stage of human evolution. Making our species into something new and better.”

“Humanity doesn’t need to be made better,” Maggie tried to argue.

“Yes, it does,” Henry said, with his intense, peculiar gravity that Maggie loved even when it choked her up to see other people shy away from it. “Of course it does. What do you think the entire field of medicine is? Vaccines, cancer treatment, pharmacology—they’re all evidence of humanity’s agency in making bug fixes to evolution. Natural selection is nothing more than a long-term guessing game that has resulted in a flawed product that gets along as best it can. DBS might be the start of a true sort of intelligent design, one engineered by science. Cool, huh?”

Maggie often had this feeling when Henry got on one of his logical tears, the sensation of being bowled over by an ocean wave, trying to frame a response and failing utterly even though she knew in her bones what she wanted to say. Maggie was smart, she knew she was smart—she had been an engineer, after all—but Henry always presented his thoughts as such airtight arguments that she needed time to sort through what she actually thought of them.

The stakes had never felt so high, though.

“Dr. Chen thinks she might be able to help me,” Henry continued, and in retrospect, that was when it all slipped out of Maggie’s control. “She says we should come out and see her. She has all sorts of tests she wants to run on my brain. She says I can be her test subject.” He beamed. “It would be fascinating to see what my brain is doing on a mathematical level. If those algorithms can be rewritten, then I could stop being such a buggy program.”

The pan banged against the sideboard. Maggie put it down carefully. “You’re not buggy,” she said. “Human brains aren’t computer programs.”

“Why not?” Henry said blithely. “All we are is very complicated organic machines. Mom, let’s say you’d stayed in AI research and you’d built some sort of intelligence that was unlike humans but equivalently complicated. You wouldn’t hesitate to refine your own project, would you? Medical researchers are hoping to be able to do the same thing, only they’re working backward in understanding a complicated machine they didn’t create.”

“Henry, slow down, okay? You’re getting way ahead of yourself. We don’t even know this woman can help you.”

“Oh, of course not, not now at any rate. She’s told me as much herself. But there’s no negative value in acquiring more data, and great positive potential.” He reached over to pull a gingersnap out of the cookie jar and bit into it with a decisive crunch.

Maggie didn’t agree that day. She wasn’t so much of a pushover as that. She did her own research, staying up hours into every night, sleep she couldn’t afford to lose but collating information she couldn’t afford not to have. She asked Henry to show her the emails Dr. Chen had sent and then started emailing the woman herself, pages of questions and concerns that came back with prompt, detailed, and intelligent replies that neither over-promised nor treated Maggie like anything less than an equal.

And through it all was Henry, who had latched onto this idea like a limpet on a rock and talked of almost nothing else. He rambled on to Maggie about the latest research over every meal, about the new ideas Dr. Chen had sent him, about the unassailable logic of letting his brain be scanned every which way.

None of that was what convinced Maggie, however. Instead, it was the day his voice got quiet and he said, “Please, Mom. I want to do this.”

To Maggie, being a parent didn’t just mean she loved her kid unconditionally. It also meant she had to respect him.

Since he’d become old enough, she’d always told him he had a voice and a choice in any of his treatment. She told herself she had to live up to that. And he was right, wasn’t he? There wasn’t any harm in getting more information.

• • • •

There’s more controversy about elective DBS than medical DBS. Like plastic surgery: realigning a cleft palate or reconstructing a body after surgery passes without judgment, but those who choose to reshape their noses or breasts will navigate society’s stigma.

The arguments by legislators who’ve worked to ban elective DBS—whether successfully or not—have all followed a similar theme: fear. Fear of a society in which rewriting one’s brain becomes the norm rather than the exception, or of those who would use it to exacerbate qualities of greed or predation. Those who have testified before them in favor of elective DBS have generally made the argument for libertarianism and self-determination, that this is no different from altering one’s brain through meditation or therapy or hard work, and that any of these things could be considered “mind-altering.”

But I think Dr. Chen revealed what they all really think, in that one ill-considered news comment she “clarified” after all the flack. She was challenged on whether she worried that her advocacy and research would turn the whole world into a society of people with brain implants, all programming themselves to be whoever they wanted to be.

“What would be wrong with that world?” she said.

Those of us who object aren’t all afraid of new technology. We’re rejecting her image of the future.

• • • •

“I call this piece Transhumanism,” Victoria said.

Over the past four months, she and Maggie had graduated from increasingly frequent coffee dates to movies, museums, and beach trips. Maggie’s worry about accidentally running into and being recognized by Dr. Chen before she accomplished her goals had gradually faded; Laura Chen worked so much that the few times she was available for socializing it was easy for Maggie to pretend she’d come down sick.

She still didn’t know where Laura kept her backups. It was a hard thing to work into conversation, after all. But it wasn’t like it was a chore to keep spending time with Victoria. Maggie caught herself wishing at times that she could have a true friend like this someday, a girlfriend with whom she could argue about the actresses in television shows or go out for margaritas on her birthday. Uncomplicated.

If only it were real.

Maggie had continued to ask about Victoria’s art, on the theory that people always liked talking about themselves, particularly avant-garde artists who dabbled in relative obscurity. She’d told Victoria she wanted to go to her next exhibit, and Victoria had seemed surprised but gratified. Now they stood in front of a painting that spilled into three dimensions in the southwest corner, an abstract sculpture of a human torso with flowing hair. The daubed acrylic behind it was all shades of blue and green, and when Maggie looked closer, she caught the silver sparkle of fish.

Transhumanism, Victoria had said.

“It’s not the title I would have expected,” Maggie responded. She liked the piece a lot more than the title. “I would have pegged it for Mermaid.”

Victoria laughed. “People have such a narrow view of transhumanism. Like—they picture cyborgs and mechanical eyes and hands you can screw a flamethrower onto.”

“We have the mechanical eyes now,” Maggie said. “I don’t think anyone considers those people cyborgs.” It had become an accepted medical technology, the next generation of prosthetics. Maggie had no objection; she didn’t view useful medical tech as any sort of fallacious slippery slope.

“Oh, I know. I just think—everything’s sort of like that, isn’t it? Right now we’re foraying into what a generation ago we would have called transhumanism, except it’s not flamethrowers and chrome skulls, it’s . . . a natural extension of humanity. Dimensions we never imagined that integrate seamlessly with our daily lives. Like how no one could have predicted the way smartphones and social media would be just one more ubiquitous aspect of us, not something we think about every day as The Fancy Technology We Type Into.” She laughed again. “There I go, an artist trying to explain my art. I should know better.”

“No, it’s okay,” Maggie said. “Your wife’s work, I know. It must be important to you.”

“Yes. It’s . . . I sort of live it through her, in a lot of ways. The moral and technological questions she struggles with—it’s one of the main inspirations for my art.”

“I saw her post about DBS to your wall the other day—” They’d officially friended each other; it wasn’t stalking anymore. “You said she struggles with her work? I don’t—I mean, I’ve seen some of the articles about her. She always seems so confident.”

“That’s her public face,” Victoria said. “There have been . . . she’s had some hard decisions to make. This next piece is about one of them, actually.”

“Oh, my God,” Maggie said. She’d physically recoiled from the piece before she could stop herself. “Sorry! It’s just—it’s affecting—”

“I have to confess, that was the reaction I was going for,” Victoria said.

Maggie stood and took in the art. This one had an abstract representation of a person in it, too—a man painted on the canvas who screamed soundlessly into the void. Maggie fancied she could hear the wails in the jagged black that bled from his skull. The mixed media in this painting was at the top, a lowering cloud of crushing metal, and the whole thing felt upside-down in a way that made her brain want to vomit.

“Who is he?” she asked.

“A man named Andrew Track,” Victoria said. “This is . . . just between us, okay? Laura wouldn’t want this getting out online or anything.”

“Cross my heart,” Maggie said.

“He was a serial child molester and murderer. Vicious. I can’t even tell you how—what he did to those children—” Her face trembled for a moment before she firmed her mouth. “The worst type of person. When they caught him, he’d kidnapped a little boy, and he taunted the police with it, saying the child was still alive but they’d never find him.”

“And the police wanted your wife to—”

“Yes. At that time Laura was the only one who’d been doing the type of research they needed. Most DBS researchers hadn’t been looking into . . . that kind of thing . . . yet. The DA offered Track a deal much better than he deserved if he would plead insanity and submit to Laura’s experimental DBS as treatment.”

“I take it he said no.” Maggie couldn’t tear her eyes away from the abstract Andrew Track in the painting.

“He said no. He could have saved himself from prison, from a possible execution sentence, but he said no. He taunted them. Said if he was going down, he’d take the little boy with him. The prosecutors got a court order to give him an implant anyway, and they took it to Laura and said that was all the consent she needed.”

Maggie had painted nightmare moral hypotheticals about DBS in her head so many times, each designed to spiral to the conclusion of we do not want to choose this world. But hearing this had actually happened . . . it all felt too uncomfortably real, the future she was trying to push against already arrived and crashing around her. Like she was standing in the middle of a flood still claiming she could help stop a tsunami.

She wondered why she hadn’t heard of this case. Gag orders, probably. Hiding away the ugliness of power.

“I can’t say I’m comfortable with the courts having that kind of say,” she said, trying for a detached political take but unable to keep a small bite out of her voice, “but I’m glad they were able to rescue the boy, at least.”

Victoria gave her an odd look. “They didn’t. Laura refused to do it.”

“What?” Maggie said. The woman who thought they’d all be better off with implants? Had refused? When it would save a boy’s life?

She’d just been mentally decrying the court’s power to rewrite a person’s mind as a slide into dystopia, but now she found herself unreasonably angry in the other direction. Who was Dr. Chen, to give herself the power to decide who lived or died?

“It wrecked her,” Victoria said softly. Her eyes were on her art piece. “Not sleeping, not eating, every minute of every day obsessing about the decision. The prosecutors were trying to find some way to compel her, but she’d committed no crime. She just said she couldn’t operate on someone who hadn’t consented to it. But it tore her up inside; every night she almost broke and changed her mind. Until they found the boy’s body.”

Sensing there was more, Maggie waited, spellbound.

“That wasn’t the end for her. The family didn’t know who she was, but she watched footage of them obsessively, knowing she could have saved their son. Meanwhile, Track went to trial, and it was going against him hard. No one had any doubt he would be sentenced to death. Halfway through the trial, his lawyers switched to an insanity defense, and . . . it worked. He was condemned to a state facility and mandated to undergo whatever treatment they deemed necessary. By that time, DBS research had marched forward, and Laura was no longer the only one who could treat such a thing. So they ended up forcing it on him anyway.”

“Oh, God,” Maggie said. It was inadequate. “Did it take? I know it doesn’t end up working a hundred percent of the time.”

Victoria nodded. “It worked. They treated him. They fixed whatever . . . I’m not a doctor, but—I don’t know. They were able to give him empathy, remorse . . .” She swallowed. “He wrote to Laura. He’s still incarcerated in a facility, probably forever. I don’t know the legal reasons, but I guess they don’t want to risk the thing malfunctioning or him tearing it out of his head. But he wrote to Laura, and the letter was—devastated. Like he was begging her, even though it was all already over and done. How could you do that to me. How could you let me be responsible for one more death . . . He says he would do anything to bring that boy back, to bring any of them back.”

“He was a different person, though,” Maggie said. She had to keep believing that. “Just because the new him would have consented—”

“No. It doesn’t work like that,” Victoria said, with adamant firmness. “You’re the same person after DBS as before. That’s why Laura wrecks herself so much about it. She says it’s like time travel—trying to know how people’s minds might change and what true consent is, because—we’re talking physiological illnesses here that have refusing treatment as a possible symptom of that illness. But you can’t say that either, because that’s saying sick people don’t get to make their own choices.”

It had never occurred to Maggie that Dr. Chen had spent more than a second of thought on any of those quandaries.

Victoria misinterpreted her expression and gave a little self-conscious laugh. “Sorry. This takes up a lot of brainspace for Laura. And me too, I guess.” Her eyes focused on a point far away. “She got to the point, after all this went down—she wanted to try to rewrite her grief. She said she couldn’t bear it, wanted to program it out of her head. I told her no, absolutely not, that she had to work through it the usual way. I’m not sure if I was right or not. What value does pain give us, really?”

Maggie thought about the last two years. She wouldn’t rewrite an instant of her pain, because it paired hand in hand with her love for Henry. She couldn’t decrease one without dulling the other. “It makes these things important,” she said to Victoria. “Some things shouldn’t be taken lightly. We need to know that.”

“I’m not sure you need one for the other,” Victoria said. “Sometimes pain is just pain.”

• • • •

I’m absolutely certain now that forcible DBS is going on behind the scenes. Court orders we don’t hear about, people modified with no compunction as more and more doctors are able to program such implants. Does anyone really believe in an era when we call torture “enhanced interrogation” that we wouldn’t perform brain surgery on a Guantanamo Bay inmate in the name of national security?

This operation is already something a legal guardian can choose on behalf of a dependent. How many times has a child or dependent adult been forced into this “treatment” even when they would choose not to have their brains sliced into? How long before governments and insurance companies begin requiring it?

But it can be reversed, you might say. Ah, but here we come back to that same old circular question. Once a person receives it, they won’t want it reversed. The original is dead for good.

• • • •

Maggie’s phone rang just after two in the morning. She groped for it, still half asleep, disoriented enough to wonder if she’d slept the day away.

“Maggie?” Victoria’s voice was distinctive, even choked and tight with emotion. “Maggie, I’m so sorry. I’ve had a—it’s an emergency.”

“What is it?” Maggie managed to slur out.

“It’s Laura. She—something went wrong with her implant. She’s in the hospital, and they told me to get—the doctors, Laura’s backups—I don’t know what I’m doing. You were a computer engineering person, right? Can you help me?”

Maggie wondered, later, why Victoria had chosen to call her. Dr. Chen’s colleagues doubtless would have jumped at the chance to swoop in and render aid. But perhaps they were Laura’s friends and not Victoria’s. Perhaps, for something this intimate, Victoria had wanted someone she knew, someone she could trust.

Maggie told Victoria she was on her way and struggled into an oversized sweater and jeans. On the way out, she paused by her dining room table.

Maggie had never asked Victoria to her place. The house had been collapsing into cluttered disuse since Henry had left, and now Maggie’s homemade EMP was spread out across the tabletop, the pocket-sized device she could use to knock out Laura Chen’s DBS implant. She’d finished it months ago. She’d told herself she was biding her time, that there were still Laura’s backups, that she wasn’t in any hurry. After all, who knew what would happen to her after it was done, and she still had to finish her manifesto . . .

She hadn’t written a sentence on that for months, either.

Laura’s backups. This might be her chance. Her best chance.

Maggie didn’t know why that thought didn’t make her happier, why instead, it only left her with an empty chill.

It was because she liked Victoria. That was why. But Laura’s loved ones had to see, too. They all had to understand. Didn’t they?

Maggie hugged her sweater around herself, left the EMP on the table, and hurried out the door.

Victoria met Maggie at the door to the old-fashioned brownstone she shared with her wife, her makeup smeared and streaking down her face. “Come in—I’m so sorry to wake you up like this—I’m so sorry—I didn’t even ask; do you have to be somewhere in the morning?”

The only places Maggie had been in the entire past half year she’d gone to with Victoria. She’d sort of figured she would drift through life using her ex-husband’s alimony to cover the rent and going into debt for everything else, until she died or went to jail for Laura’s murder.

“I don’t have anywhere to be in the morning,” she said.

Victoria was too overwhelmed to give more than an incoherent picture, like the abstract daubs of one of her paintings. “They want—they told me to go get some specific file things off her server, but I don’t—I’m messing this all up.” Victoria smoothed out a scribbled-on piece of paper, one dotted with cross-outs and smears like her makeup. “I should have paid more attention before this. I knew this might come up some day. I should have had Laura make me memorize everything—”

Maggie took the paper. Her hands were shaking. Half the notes didn’t mean much to her either, but once she got a look at the server . . .

“Laura’s computer,” Victoria said. “It’s right there. She gave me the passwords, they’re on the bottom there—”

Maggie held the paper as if it might break and moved over to Laura Chen’s computer.

Figuring out the system turned out not to be that hard. The most difficult part was Victoria hovering behind her, rambling and asking questions, like was Maggie sure she was transferring the files over to the external drive correctly, and could she check again . . . Maggie marveled a little that she never felt the urge to snap at Victoria peering over her shoulder, but maybe she found the patience to cut a panicking friend some slack.

Or maybe she was patient because the guilt was already creeping up inside her. This would be so easy. She had access. Pull it all off the cloud, format and overwrite, she was rusty but it would only take a few keystrokes. Victoria wouldn’t even realize what Maggie was doing.

It was all right at her fingertips, everything she’d been working toward for so long.

She finished copying files over to the drive. The sun had come up, its natural white light filtering around the blinds and displacing the lamp’s glow. In a minute, Victoria would be going to the hospital to give the doctors what they needed.

Maggie had been befriending Victoria for months now—this was a damned lucky chance. If she went ahead with it all right now, the backups would still exist on the external drive; Maggie would still have time to think it over. If she didn’t do it . . . she might never get another shot.

This is exactly what you were looking for, wasn’t it? When you started playing this role? Access.

Her hands moved on the keys of their own accord, sweat starting all over her body. Format, overwrite . . . slash in the kill.

The next prompt hadn’t appeared yet. The system was working. It would take another minute . . .

“Thank you,” Victoria said. Her hands were curled around each other, squeezing until the knuckles went pale. “Laura changed my life. I’d be a different person without her. Literally, I mean—”

Maggie’s head jerked up.

“What? You have DBS?” She’d never noticed the bump of an implant, but Victoria’s hair might have covered it—

“No,” Victoria said to her hands. “I wanted it. I wanted it so badly. I thought it would solve—you could probably tell from the first time you saw me that I’m trans.” She paused and took an unsteady breath. This wasn’t news to Maggie—Victoria didn’t tend to talk about the grievances she’d faced in being accepted as a woman, but the few personal essays she’d written on the subject had come up during Maggie’s prior social-media haunting.

None of those essays had mentioned DBS.

“It’s how Laura and I met,” Victoria continued, almost too quietly to hear. “Almost thirty years ago, back in the early days when she was the one willing to take all the new risks. I went to her and—I don’t tell people this. But I begged her for the surgery. I wanted to reprogram my dysphoria. I argued, I yelled—I said it was no more invasive than matching my body to my brain with a physical transition, but it would let me keep my family . . . I told her she didn’t have the right to judge who I wanted to be.”

“You wanted it—and she refused?” Maggie said.

“She said of course it was my choice, but she wasn’t going to be the doctor who did it, and that was her choice. I called her a lot of names and cussed her out and said she was playing God by deciding who got to reshape their brains and who didn’t, and she said I was treating her like a surgical vending machine. ‘Surgical vending machine,’ that’s what she said. We had it out right there in her office, so loud that people came running to see if she was all right.”

Waves of emotion crested up, surging through Maggie in a flood. Shock, that Laura Chen had turned down a person who wanted to step into her brave new world. Anger, that Laura had seen Victoria was fine, normal, not broken, and refused, whereas Henry had been something to be fixed. And behind it all, uncertainty, washing through Maggie until she doubted her own mind.

“If it weren’t for Laura, I wouldn’t be me,” Victoria said. “Or—I’d be a different me. I guess either way I could have found a path, but—it’s like that cat, right? Both dead and alive, but I’m alive, and Laura’s got the implant but she’s her alive version and we’re both alive cats and—I’m not making any sense, am I, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”

She was making too much sense. Quantum lives, Maggie thought. Neither real until the waveform collapsed. Andrew Track had fought against an implant with every vicious bone in his body, but the new Andrew wished it had been forced on him earlier. Victoria had begged for one and might not have regretted it if she’d gotten her way, but Victoria now was thanking every lucky star that she’d remained a woman.

And what about Henry? He’d never go back, but if he’d understood beforehand just how much he would change, would he have gone through with it?

Like time travel, Victoria had said. Whose choice did you listen to? The person now, or their hypothetical self?

What if those two selves disagreed?

No, Maggie’s brain kicked back. They couldn’t play that guessing game. You couldn’t base rewriting someone’s brain on consent that was a maybe. She couldn’t get lost in this, this twisty logic—

“We’re happy,” Victoria said softly. “I’m happy with who I am, now, and Laura’s got an implant but she’s alive and she’s her and she’s happy, and can’t we just be happy?”

She’d raised her eyes pleadingly to Maggie.

Maggie glanced at the screen. The prompt had appeared. Just like that, with no fanfare, the backups erased. She held Laura Chen’s whole personality in the external drive in her hand.

Can’t we just be happy, Victoria had said.

She reached out and put a hand over Victoria’s. “You can. And . . .” She swallowed. “I won’t stand in your way.”

Victoria’s expression had turned confused yet grateful, and Maggie’s brain tried to kick back with one more angry echo, but Maggie barely noticed. For the first time in years she felt light. Free.

She’d go home and chuck her homemade EMP in the trash. Then she’d make a graceful exit from Victoria’s and Laura’s lives. Leave them be. Leave Henry—Hank—be, as much as she’d always carry the pain of losing him with her.

Laura would realize soon enough that her backups were gone, and she’d re-download them and put everything back where it was supposed to be, and Victoria would be left with fond memories of the friend who’d come to her art exhibits and discussed philosophy with her and been a shoulder to cry on in the middle of the night.

The front door banged open along with a rapid knocking.

“Victoria? I just got your message, I’m so sorry, I came as fast as I could. Are you here? The door was open—Mom?”

Maggie had frozen in her chair as soon as the familiar cadence echoed through the house. Henry’s tall frame loomed in the doorway before a reaction had even connected in her brain.

“Hank, it’s okay, come in—wait.” Victoria’s eyes traveled back and forth between Henry and Maggie, the rest of her so still it was as if she’d been carved from glass. “She’s your . . . what?”

“What are you doing here?” Hank said to Maggie. “Did you—oh God, was this you? Did you do something to Laura?”

“No!” Maggie cried, outrage flooding her even though that had been her exact intention. “She had a malfunction. I’m just here to help—”

“This whole time,” Victoria cut in. “You—Hank’s told us about his mom. You knew I was married to Laura. You—” The shock drained away from her and whole body had begun to vibrate with anger. “Get out of my house.”

“I didn’t—” Tears flooded Maggie’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know you, I didn’t know—I wanted her to understand what she was doing.” The ludicrousness of the argument fell across her like a weight, the idea that this woman whom Victoria described as being so torn up by the power she’d given herself, so deeply concerned with choice, would find anything new to her in Maggie’s paltry bitterness.

“I’ve tried to tell you, over and over again,” Hank said, his voice cold. “You could be trying to get to know me again, and instead you’re—what, plotting revenge against the doctor who saved my life?”

“She didn’t—

“I don’t understand you,” Hank said. “Did you get some power trip off having me depend on you? Was that it?”

“No!” Maggie choked out. “No, I never—that’s not—you said yourself that you changed, you changed, I thought it would help you but not change you.”

“You can’t separate me from my disabilities,” Hank said flatly. “They were part of who I am. Still are. It’s like you expected the same person but with all the hard parts excised. It doesn’t work like that.”

Maggie was sobbing into her lap. She swiped the sleeves of her oversized sweater across her face, wanting more than anything to disappear, to get up and go, but her knees were liquid.

A hand touched her shoulder, hesitantly at first. But then Victoria knelt next to Maggie’s chair. Her hand became firmer, more comforting, rubbing careful circles on Maggie’s back. “Hank still loves you,” she said softly. “You broke his heart, the way you’ve shut him out. We think of him as a member of our family, too, now, and—Maggie, my mother said something to me once.” A tremor went through her voice. “She and I . . . we found each other again. It took a long time. My dad still won’t—I think my mom ended up divorcing him over it, when he wouldn’t call me by my name, wouldn’t invite me to any family events, wouldn’t—but my mom, she said, she said it was hard but that she had to accept that when our children grow up, sometimes they don’t turn out the way we expect. And we have to let go of that, the expectation.”

“But that’s not . . .” Maggie tried. If Henry had grown up—grown up differently, without all the hurdles, would he have grown into the man Hank was now? Only slowly, giving her enough time to adjust, to get to know the new him every time he evolved?

Victoria squeezed her shoulder. “I have to go to Laura now.”

“Wait,” Hank said. “Let me check the drive.” He cast a suspicious look at Maggie as he squeezed past her.

Maggie stumbled up and groped her way to the door. Hank and Victoria, bent over the computer, didn’t try to stop her.

Hank would figure out what she’d done. He was well on his way to becoming a neuroprogrammer himself, and doubtless knew Laura’s systems almost as well as she did.

Maggie hadn’t succeeded in destroying Laura. She’d instead destroyed any chance of being able to get to know Hank again.

The old echo of Henry’s loss panged through her. She was losing her son, again. And this time it was her own doing.

Somehow, with almost no memory of it, she managed to get home. The sun was well up now, warming away the chill of night, but Maggie was so drained she couldn’t even drag her key out of her pocket. Instead she collapsed on the steps to the porch, head on her knees, a sad mirror of the day she’d first embarked on this folly.

She must have moved at some point, but day blurred into night into day, and Laura Chen found her there.

“Hi,” Dr. Chen said, with the same brusqueness Maggie remembered. “Can I sit down?”

Maggie gestured with a soggy sleeve, and Laura Chen perched on the step beside her.

What are you doing here, Maggie wanted to ask, along with, strangely, Are you okay, did I kill you, I’m sorry.

She didn’t say either one.

“I worry,” Dr. Chen said, after a few very long minutes, “that you’re right.”

How would you know what I think? But of course, Hank would have told her; Hank who still knew Maggie as well as Henry had.

“I like who I am with DBS,” Dr. Chen went on. “I didn’t like who I was before. It was very cut and dried, for me. And I like to think that over the years I’ve tried to make good choices, but technology—sometimes there’s no right answer. I don’t believe there’s one way things are meant to be.”

Maggie never had, either.

“There are even clearer, possibly catastrophic dangers to DBS,” Laura Chen said. “It could theoretically be hacked, or used to disable someone instead of help them. There will be people who want to use it to eliminate people like me: queer feminist women who refuse to sit down and be quiet. The ways parents could misuse it if they find a willing doctor, it’s . . . you can imagine my nightmares. How other people decide to use it, I believe I bear some responsibility for that.”

“But you still believe in it,” Maggie said.

“Yes. I do. Very much,” Dr. Chen said. “But that doesn’t mean the hard questions go away.”

“Is Hank . . .”

“He says he doesn’t want to speak to you again,” Dr. Chen said. “Neither does Victoria, after Hank found what you’d been doing on my system. He fixed it all before I even knew it happened—I’m fine, by the way, I had some simple hardware degradation that’s been replaced and upgraded—but Victoria ended up so mad she told me to think about pressing charges against you. But I’m not going to, because . . . I understand. I can’t say I’ve never thought about—well. Everyone wonders who they would be if life had gone a different way. I understand. I wanted to tell you that.”

She stood up.

“I’m sorry,” Maggie whispered.

“It’s not okay,” Dr. Chen said, “but it is complicated. If you want to, I think you should start writing to Hank, even if he never responds. If he stays in the field, he’ll realize someday just how few right answers there can be. Maybe he’ll change his mind.”

Change his mind. Because Hank’s mind was his to change, and his to reprogram if he wanted to, as he’d wanted to then and he wanted to now.

Maggie nodded.

“If you don’t mind some more unsolicited advice,” Dr. Chen added softly, “I hope you’ll talk to someone. There’s more than one way to reprogram your brain.”

• • • •

Dear Hank,

Dr. Chen recommended I write to you. I don’t know if you’ll read this. I don’t know if I hope you will or not.

I’m sorry.

I don’t know what to say other than that, that wouldn’t sound like an excuse or dishonesty. But I’m working on seeing your point of view, and not pretending I know what you—you at any time—would have thought. I’m working on . . . not knowing all the answers.

I’m moving. I’m going to go back east and try to build a life. Update my skills, find a job, leave the house, try to make some friends, maybe. Some days I’m optimistic I’ll be able to do it. Some days I’m not.

My therapist says that’s okay.

Oh, I’m seeing a therapist, and I’ll continue once I move back home. They also started me on antidepressants. I think it’s helping. As Dr. Chen says, I’m trying to reprogram my brain to be . . . more of who I want to be.

It just took me a while to get there. I’m sorry.

Maybe someday I’ll change me enough that you’re willing to give me one more chance.

S.L. Huang

S.L. Huang is a Hugo-nominated and Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. She is the author of the Cas Russell series from Tor Books, starting with Zero Sum Game, and the recent fantasy Burning Roses. Her short fiction has sold to AnalogF&SFStrange Horizons, and more, including numerous best-of anthologies. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, where she’s appeared on shows such as “Battlestar Galactica” and “Raising Hope” and worked with actors such as Sean Patrick Flanery, Jason Momoa, and Danny Glover. Follow her online at www.slhuang.com or @sl_huang.