by Graham B.
How we care for our siblings in any form.
|Watching over a brother who’s half crazy can be a handful. When the other half is genius is where it gets interesting.
I certainly had my hands full watching over of Alan, with our mother long dead and our father developing early-onset Alzheimer’s. I think it was a miracle for me to finish medical school, let alone begin my post-graduate studies in neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins. Alan’s obvious genius made it all the more galling when he dropped out of MIT to pursue what he called “more esoteric studies”. He could have done anything he wanted.
And that’s exactly what he did near as I could determine when he bought that black-market Q-44 quantum cloud computing unit.
Alan never needed a reason to do something. He would get an idea and just act on it. And ideas like his were dangerous. Once he got it into his head to hack the regional transportation loop and reprogram its scheduling to make it more efficient.
His algorithms improved the efficiency of the system by fifteen percent, and the passengers noticed. But the transportation authority was not pleased, and began an investigation which almost swept him up if I hadn’t called in favor with the D.C. DA’s office, where my dad used to work. Alan stayed a free man, and the algorithms stayed as well, but that close shave did nothing to sober him up.
I was working on my latest dissertation up in the office in my dad’s three-story brownstone when Alan burst in, a satchel under his arm.
“We’re cooking with plutonium now, Greg!” he exulted, grinning in his peculiar way when one of his ideas is burning a hole in his skull.
I rolled my eyes.
“Really, Al. You’ve gotta get a new tagline.”
“Wait ‘til you hear what I’ve got in mind. And it’s right in line with your particular skills!”
And he plunked the satchel down on the desk in front of me.
I knew that he was having another of his hare-brained, but otherwise brilliant ideas and wasn’t much interested in bailing him out again. But I also knew that he wouldn’t stop hounding me until I heard him out.
Sighing, I unzipped the satchel.
“Isn’t she beautiful?”
I saw chrome-plated cylinder, about eighteen inches long and eight inches in diameter with a fiber-optic jack and what look like two stainless-steel threaded hose outlets. There were no markings of any kind on it, not even serial numbers.
“What’s this?” I asked, growing more annoyed by the second.
“That’s a Q-44, brother, the only one outside a laboratory.”
“So what’s a Q-44?”
Grinning, Alan pulled up a chair and sat on it, backwards.
“It’s a quantum cloud device, like the ones IBM makes. Hopped a hypersonic all the way to Hong Kong to get it!”
I wondered how much that hypersonic ticket would cost me, then frowned.
“I don’t see an ‘IBM’ logo on it.”
“Don’t worry about it! It’s all legit. Well . . . sort of. Anyway, I need your help with what I plan to do with it.”
“And what’s that?”
“I need you to do brain surgery on me.”
Let me be clear. I am not a practicing neurosurgeon, yet. And Alan knew this. But for ten minutes, I sat there in stunned silence while Alan laid out his plan.
“You remember the accident that killed Mom? And took away my memories up until age four?”
I nodded, still stunned at what Alan was proposing.
“I think I can recover those memories. But it’s going to require some technology, and someone skilled in cutting skulls. That’s you, brother.”
My mind was in a whirl, but I managed to answer.
“Are you nuts? The only skulls I’ve cut are cadavers! You want me to do deep brain stimulation? Do you know what the risks are?”
At this point, Alan’s face turned serious, and when it does that, I usually can’t refuse him. This time was no different.
“Greg, I know I’m asking a lot. But I need this. And you are the only one I trust to do this. But if you don’t, I’m going to find someone else. I mean it, Greg.”
No licensed neurosurgeon would do what he was asking, which left some back-alley cutter.
I was along for the ride, for better or for worse.
The accident Alan was talking about was a hazy memory for me. Alan was only four years old, and I was six. Mom had taken Alan to the park while I was in bed with the flu, and I remember being very unhappy about it. I remember Dad opening the door to a couple of policemen, the trip to the hospital where Alan lay in a bed with a bandage around his head and tubes coming out his nose, and most of all, that it was the last day I ever saw Mom. Alan woke up and couldn’t remember anything. Of course, I learned about concussions later. I guess we recovered from the loss of our mother well enough, but Alan had to relive his life with her through photos and video clips.
As he talked, Alan pulled out some diagrams and showed me his plan. I looked, and somehow I was even more flabbergasted.
“One of these stimulators is going to the amygdala!”
“I know you can do it, Greg. I’ve seen you do those card tricks. Your hands are like silk!”
“This isn’t a card trick, Alan. This is highly experimental brain surgery. I’m not even qualified to do regular brain surgery!”
“Is it possible?”
I wasn’t happy, but I nodded.
“With current technology, yeah, it’s possible.”
“Then, let’s get started!”
We worked on weekends.
I put my foot down and told him I would not neglect my studies, and Alan said that was okay because he needed the time to work on his machine, anyway. While I was attending lectures and taking tests, he was down in the basement doing something involving a rare piece of computing technology I couldn’t even fathom. The few times I went down there, all I saw were computer racks, slowly acquiring equipment.
In my free time, I was going over his diagrams and making changes to the layout in order not to turn Alan into a carrot. The surgery was actually pretty straight forward. I needed to place the electrodes at specific junctions where different lobes of the brain responsible for memory communicated with each other. The machine would record the electrical impulses and interpret them, using the algorithms Alan had written. Alan told me that the Q-44 would essentially be recording his memories. I hardly had time to ponder this staggering revelation, as busy as I was trying to keep this crazy project as safe as possible.
Next came the part that made me queasy. The machine would use the resulting information to provide “feedback” to Alan’s brain, in the form of a sophisticated pattern of low-level electrical pulses. The idea was to stimulate the release of locked away memories in the damaged parts. I had little idea how the machine did this. I was only there to cut.
After three months, the machine was finished. Once again showing the kind of resourcefulness that makes me nervous, Alan had gotten a hold of an Army-issue field trauma surgery bay, which included a portable CT scanner. He also brought a portable cryogenic unit which generated the liquid helium needed to cool the R-44 to its operating temperature.
Alan showed up with his blond hair already shaved completely off, leaving an ashen gray skin which had never seen the sun. He grinned.
“Going for a new look. You like?”
As we set up, Alan’s perpetual jocularity faded. But my hopes that he would get cold feet and give this up vanished when he sat down in the surgical bay and nestled his head in the stereotactic frame.
“You look like a cyborg,” I told him, as I adjusted the device.
Alan met my gaze from the bay and I suddenly realized that Alan was afraid. I wasn’t sure if he was afraid of the procedure, or what it might reveal.
“You sure you want to go through with this?” I asked.
“I trust you, Greg.”
“I’m going to numb your scalp, but you won’t go to sleep.”
“That’s the idea, brother.”
“Listen, this is going to be weird. You are going to have hallucinations . . .”
“Greg! We’ve been through it a dozen times! I don’t think we missed a single detail.”
Doubtfully, I pulled on my surgical gloves.
“Let’s do it!” he said. “We’re cooking with plutonium now!”
The surgery went surprisingly fast. The CT scanner was a good one, and I was able to get the electrodes implanted with the only unwanted effect being Alan suddenly complaining about a raging itch on his left leg.
Then I turned to the machine and flipped up the toggle Alan had showed me. That’s all I had to do. LEDs lit up and I heard the gentle thump of the cryogenic pump. Moisture condensed out of the air and spilled out of the machine and onto the ground.
Alan’s eyes were very wide.
“I’m starting the first series now, Greg!” he said breathlessly.
Lights flickered on the machine, but not much else happened.
My breath suddenly exploded from my mouth, and I realized that I had been holding it.
“Easy, brother,” Alan said. “I’m the one in the chair. I need you frosty. Huh! See what I did there?”
I was anything but frosty, but I stayed at my post as Alan ran through more series of algorithms. Finally, after about fifteen minutes, I noticed that the rhythmic thumping of the cryo pump had increased speed. I looked at Alan but saw only a fixed stare.
“Are you okay?”
His lips moved, but no sound came out.
“I’m shutting this down.”
“NO!” Alan cried. “It’s working! Give me a moment!”
The thumping increased until it sounded like a motor. I looked over at the heat exchangers and saw that they were glowing red.
“Just another minute!”
“No! I’m pulling the plug!”
I reached for the toggle, but froze when a voice burst from the machine’s single speaker.
“Mommy, are we going back to the park today?”
Somewhere, a circuit breaker tripped, and the thumping ceased. The machine’s lights faded as it shut down. I looked at Alan, who still had that vacant stare.
He didn’t respond.
I started to call 911, but instead called the neurosurgery unit at Johns Hopkins. He was still non-responsive when they took him to the neurosurgery ward.
Alan wasn’t exactly a vegetable, but he never really came back. Even now he just stares into space and occasionally murmurs something unintelligibly. Brain scans showed only minimal activity, just enough to maintain the autonomous motor functions of his body.
The authorities detained me, but after reviewing the facts, decided that I hadn’t really committed any crime. Johns Hopkins terminated my residency and expelled me. I would never practice medicine, but I did get a job teaching biology in high school, which I discovered I had a knack for.
No one ever determined the origin of the Q-44 unit, but here, I had a stroke of luck. Although IBM couldn’t lay claim to it, they were more than happy to study it in a controlled environment. The research team connected it, pumped in some liquid He, and were blown off their feet when it spoke to them.
Now, they have me in three times a week to “interface” with it in order to assist their research.
And if you ask me, it’s the right thing to do.
He is my brother after all, even he looks like a chrome-plated eighteen-inch cylinder and has a four-year-old’s comprehension. And with my new background in teaching, I should have him cooking with plutonium in no time.
Word count: 1991