You'll Never Dream Again
Anything I coulda said, I done said it already. I already told those folks I wasn't angry about what happened. Ain't nothing changed since then.
Fair's fair, that's what I say.
You asking me if I got regrets? Sure, I got some heartbreaks where the little things are concerned. Ain't a man alive who don't look in the rear view mirror from time to time, wonder if he shouldn'ta hanged a left. But I don't harbor no ill will. I knew what I was signing up for. Hell, I just about begged 'em for it by the time it was all said and done, so I wouldn't be much of a gentlemen now if I turned around and started cryin' about it, would I? Got what I asked for. Fair's fair.
Now if what you're suggesting is that I have a wee bit of nostalgia for the way things uh...used to be, well then sure. Who wouldn't? I got some sentimental thoughts pinging around that old processor of mine. Can't see a sunrise worth a damn no more. Guess I miss that. Woulda been nice to get out the fishing rod one more time, too. Take a quick ride out to Broad Bay, push the Whaler over that wake just one more time. See if I couldn't pull in a catfish or two. I miss that a good bit. You want nostalgia, there it is.
And, oh yeah, while I'm on it...the taste of hickory-smoked catfish. It wasn't Uncle George's pan-fried sensation. I had that pleasure plenty of times. Easy to dig it outta the ol' memory bank. But hickory—well, I never wound up trying catfish on a hickory-wood grill. Always meant to, just never got around to it. The boys back at the bait shop, they used to say, turn on that hickory-wood, get a game on the radio, maybe fill a plastic bag fulla pond water just to keep the black flies away...you could be blinking on the tip-toe threshold of the mighty Lord's kingdom, and you wouldn't even know it.
What a day that would be. Wish I'd done it. Now I just gotta sit back in this lil' rocking chair—if that's what you'd call it—take a lay of the land, and be grateful for what I got. Or what I got left.
But hell. You didn't wanna hear about that. You came over 'cause you wanted to know how I got in this mess in the first place.
Thing is, it started with the catfish.
I should have never gone out that morning. Frenchie—he was my brother back before we lost him in the War—he always used to say, don't go fishing around sunrise if the seat is dry. Meant there might be lightning coming. But I was just so damn hungry, hell, I didn't think of it. Frenchie always said I was headstrong in all the wrong places. Meant I was stupid. Guess I was. 'Cause I took the Whaler out to Broad Bay on the day of the worst lightning storm in forty years.
I was about half an hour from shore when I started getting wise to it. That lake was a big son of a bitch and I was right out in the middle. When those storm clouds started gathering, I pulled the line and pushed the Whaler full throttle back to shore. I prayed I could hit dry land before the worst of it, but the Whaler, she was just an outboard, and she didn't haul ass too fast. Her gunwales were slamming on those waves, I could practically feel 'em coming apart. Then I saw the lightning, and the thunder wasn't too far away.
Maybe I was twenty feet from shore when I felt that fast surge of hot voltage running up through my hands on the steering column. It went into my shaking elbows and straight up through my noggin. Hair stood up on my neck. Probably stood up on my head too, but I blacked out before that.
Next thing I knew, Henry Fallows, local patrolman extraordinaire, he's looking down at me, asking me what day it is. And I thought, Henry that's a hell of a question, it's a Sunday. Of course it wasn't a Sunday no more—apparently it was a Wednesday, and Monday and Tuesday, well I don't know what happened to them.
I lost all feeling below my elbows from then on out. Which on account of things, wasn't that bad, except I wasn't much good at taking tourist yokels out on the lake anymore without the use of my hands. So Uncle George at the bait shop—he wasn't my real uncle, by the way—he couldn't keep me on pay, 'cause he was having trouble staying afloat as it was. Told me I might get a government pension on account of my military record and all, but that was hogwash, since I didn't serve in the Coast Guard long enough. So I was hung out to dry. And what was I gonna do for grub if I couldn't use my hands for nothing? They was all I had. Like Frenchie said, I was headstrong in all the wrong places.
Anyhow, I used to read the classifieds a lot, 'cause they always had some kind of funny story in 'em. Some desperate heifer lookin' for love, calling it a request to move furniture, hoke like that. So 'round the time of my unfortunate injury, I used to pass the hours pouring through those ads. I had to turn pages with a cooking spoon between my teeth. Real mighty shit, as Frenchie used to say. And I was turning those pages when I came across something I ain't never seen before. One of those new startup outfits. And they had a funny tag:
"Make money while you sleep!"
Make money while I slept, well hot damn if that wasn't the best job I ever heard of. Then I thought maybe it was funny business. Like this pretty girl who used to bus tables at the Lake Lodge, told me how one guy paid her three hundred bucks to sleep while he breathed heavy and touched her fingers all night. But this didn't seem to be that kind of thing. They called themselves the Bandwidth Corporation. Bandwidth, like that thing on a radio. Except it was for computers or some such.
So I rang 'em up, made an appointment for what they call a Lobe Evaluation. Uncle George drove me three hours down to Boston where they were setting up shop off 1A. Apparently the lab they were working out of used to be a Chinese restaurant, 'cause it still smelled like garlic, but now it was all little desks and cubicles. Lots of people comin' in and out, talking to these nice girls in pantsuits.
I was lucky enough to have one of the prettier ones. She was Oriental, which is to say she was probably of the Korean persuasion, which we didn't get a ton of up in Carroll County, but they hung around Cambridge a whole lot. She had this nice smile and these dainty hands, and she hooked me up to some kind of salad bowl apparatus they put on my head with wires running in and out.
"All we're going to do is measure your frontal lobe. Then we'll move deeper into some of the more un-accessed recesses."
I didn't know what the hell an "un-accessed recess" was, and I said as much. Hell, come to think of it, I didn't know what they did here at all. So she told me:
"We are a high-volume data processing facility. We handle clients who are falling short when it comes to server space, compiling speed, or general processing needs."
"Well I ain't falling short on any of that."
She smiled and turned back to the three computer screens unspooling in front of her. "No, I don't imagine you are. Which is why we're willing to pay you to help us facilitate our clients' needs."
"You mean, working on computers and such?"
"No. In fact, all you have to do is sleep."
"Yes. For eight hours each night."
I was pretty confused right about then, so she gave me the lay of the land:
"The human cortex is capable of handling much more activity than just your everyday bodily functions. It is a complex biological supercomputer that can analyze, compile, and render data faster that any processor known to man. Most people only use about 8% of its total surface area. The rest is simply unoccupied space. Like living in a large house with hundreds of rooms, but you only spend time in one of them. What we're trying to do is rent out those empty rooms for a reasonable price."
"So what you're saying is that I give my brain to science?"
"Not quite. Your temporal lobe, as well as your cerebellum, will remain fully under your control. As for the areas you never use, you will lease them to us on a trial basis."
"How's that gonna work?"
"When you're awake you will enjoy all the functionality you've always had. Eat your breakfast, tell jokes with friends, watch your favorite sports teams in the afternoon. But when you sleep, your mind will shut down and your cerebral activity will transfer to our servers. There, we will use it for basic computational analysis, renting it out to client companies who will apply the trillions of calculations your mind is capable of performing. In the morning, you wake up without any memory of these operations, and you go about your daily life again."
"I don't think I'd make a good human calculator. I ain't all that bright."
"That's perfectly all right," she said. "Common intelligence has little to do with our process. We look only at the physical volume of brain matter, which in your case happens to be quite impressive."
"Impressive, huh? What about any side effects?"
"Only one. You'll never dream again."
I flashed her a sly fox grin, 'cause I thought this was pretty damn funny: "Honey, I haven't had a dream worth remembering in twenty-odd years. You wanna take that time away, go right ahead."
And that's how it all began. Once they figured out my noggin was all ordered and right the way they needed it to be, they fired me up and did a little cut-and-tuck to put an antenna in back of my head. Right there behind the medulla oblongata. That way they could talk back and forth between my nether regions and their radio station back home, I figured. But aside from a little scar in the back of my neck, I didn't feel a thing. My brain was officially hard-wired and ready to go.
In exchange, I was getting a check for two grand a week. A week! All that for resting my head on a pillow and doing what Frenchie used to say I did best. Of course, they gave me this whole list of rules. Things I had to be careful about. I took a little green pill to make sure I stayed asleep from the moment I hit the hay 'til the moment I heard the roosters screaming out from Jim Kelson's farm. I couldn't get less than eight hours a night, or they were gonna dock my pay. Any more than eight, that time was mine alone. Something about the body needing the other sixteen hours of waking time to regulate its cycle.
And here's the damnedest thing: she was wrong about the dreams. I was having 'em all the time. Long ones, short ones, intense ones that left you sweating in the morning, begging for more. I was even squeezing in a fantasy or two. And they weren't the typical trips you'd come to expect, either. They had numbers in 'em. Things I'd never understood before. Things these clients of theirs were plugging into my head between the hours of ten and six: selective permeability indices from a bio-lab in South Carolina, variable dynamics from a car plant in Detroit, mammogram results from a breast clinic in Texas, even election numbers from San Bernardino, California...you name it, I probably crunched it one time or another.
At first I couldn't understand hide nor hair of what they were saying inside my head. But over time it started to get clear. Like a language where the numbers were talking to me, clear as day. Sometimes they'd shine out in bright, vivid colors. Sometimes they'd break into song. And sometimes they told little stories with happy endings, sad endings, endings I didn't much care for because I didn't like the way they turned out. Certain numbers had real-life feelings too. Prime numbers especially. They came off pretty sad. No rhyme or reason, crying out like nature's accidental creations. Looking for love and getting nothing back.
And when I'd wake up, I'd remember every damn thing. Like these feelings were staying with me in my waking hours, keeping me company. Maybe it was because of the lightning, but whatever it was...I was seeing the world in a whole new way. Every system had a logic—a boot program, little bits scampering about, the embedded programs keeping things on their feet while the kernel kept pumping utilities into the directories. And I understand that logic like it was going on inside my own head. It never left me. Most good things fade in reflection, but now I could remember every detail of everything I'd ever seen, heard, or felt, in high resolution.
This one time, Uncle George—who like I said was not my real uncle on account of his first name being Uncle—he took me out fishing on Penny Lake. Not because I could handle a lure no more, but so I could sit out there on the water for the first time since my aforementioned accident with the lightning. It'd been a while. Actually six months, seven days, eleven hours, forty-four seconds since the accident, by my count. I was longing to feel the rise and fall of a lake again.
We got out there and Uncle George dropped his bait, when low and behold I started hearing the catfish moving down below. Like I could sense the ripples hitting our keel, and I could see all the life moving around underwater. Couldn't really explain the damn thing, but golly if it wasn't something special. And what a catch we had that day. Uncle George told all the boys at the bait shop about it. They thought I was tripping off that lightning storm, but I knew there was more to it.
I went back to the Bandwidth folks. When I showed up, they'd upgraded my case to some higher authority. The little Korean girl was gone, and now I was sitting down in front of this doctor fella, tie and all, who wanted to know just what exactly I'd been seeing. I explained it to him, real slow, and he nodded.
"Your case seems particularly unusual. Your neural transmitters appear to be realigning."
"Realigning into what?"
"Well, we're not sure. Its architecture is becoming more integrated. Like that of a UNIX, for example. A parallel processor. But this is also very concerning. The human mind keeps to 8% capacity because it can't wear out the limited functions of its vessel body. With your brain working on overdrive, I'm afraid your body might not be able to keep up. I'm going to recommend ceasing treatment immediately."
"Doc, you can't go talkin' like that. You put me on this stuff. You let me see things like I never seen nothing before, and now you just wanna cut me off? What if you take it away and my mainframe melts?"
"Well," he said. "Our only possible method of continuation would involve you signing a liability waiver, terminating all future claims—"
"Show me where to sign."
And that he did. I walked out ready to go. They doubled my hours, so now instead of sleeping eight hours a day and waking for sixteen, it would be the other way around. Doctor said it would be better for my body to relax while the mind ran its course.
And it was brilliant. The visions I started seeing. I wasn't just looking at a waking world full of shapes, smells, and sounds. Now all my surroundings were blending into one symphony. Like I could see the notes behind the melodies. Sometimes I'd be talking to some of the boys down at the bait shop, giving 'em advice on how to fix this or that, and I could just see the problem like an exploded view, all in my head, working itself out. If only Frenchie coulda seen me now.
But there were side effects, too. For starters, I had no sense of the passing time anymore. My body was getting older, but my mind felt like it was getting younger. I started forgetting my old vessel had limitations. Like my damn hands, that were good as nothing nowadays to do anything except wipe my bleeding nose, which was also becoming a problem. My eyes were clouding over, too. Before I knew it, I was blind. My means of comprehension were tip-top, but my ability to gather the facts, well, it was falling apart. I felt numb. No more fishing trips, no more drinks with the boys, couldn't even watch a ball game in peace 'cause I was falling apart on the outside.
I went back in to Bandwidth and I saw the doctor, who was now not just one doctor but a whole line of 'em, poking and prodding me like I was some kind of mainframe on the new hardware market.
"Doc, you've gotta get my body back on track. My mind's running at a thousand miles an hour, but I can't so much as lift a fork anymore."
"The reason for your condition is very simple," they explained. "You are no longer a man. You are an artificial intelligence."
Now, two things I'd never been called before in my life. One was "intelligent," although that had changed a lot in the last two years, seven months, three days, one hour and fifty-seven minutes since my accident. But the other was "artificial." In the sense that I always considered myself one-hundred percent the genuine article. But I couldn't deny feeling a little differently these days. I had the fastest brain in the world, and nothing to use it for. In my head, I was starving for more memories, more information to crunch—but my body was just a bunch of broken parts. And without it, I couldn't make new memories.
"Judging by our calculations, which we ran through your head last night before our appointment today, your body will soon come to a point where it ceases to function."
"And when's that gonna be?" I asked. But the truth was, I already knew. I'd had a dream about it the night before. A bad kind of dream, where there was all these catfish hangin' around, and they were nipping at my arms and legs, and for the first time in a long time I could feel what it was like, being nipped on. Taken apart. Broken down. By the end I was just a pile of fish food on rye.
Options were limited. Time was short. These geniuses in coats, they were already working on a backup plan, because they didn't wanna let me go. I was gonna die—wasn't no way around that. But then, maybe they could keep me going in some way. They showed me these drawings for something called a "virtual imprint," where they'd take all my memories, thoughts, and barbecue recipes, and they'd stamp 'em across a massive server. I even saw a picture of the mainframe they were building. Damn thing was the size of Illinois! It would think like me and act like me, but the Me that made it...well I was going away.
Uncle George and the rest of the boys, they had a good-bye party for me the last night before my download. By then I was all hooks and levers. Couldn't breathe for myself, couldn't much work that mouth of mine in the way I knew how to work it. I just lay there while they stood around me, talking one at a time, telling me what a good friend I'd been. I didn't feel like much of a friend. Didn't feel like much at all.
Finally, one of 'em threw down some catfish on that hickory grill. By then I couldn't smell worth a damn, let alone taste the thing. So all I had was the sound of it—everyone just lapping it up and telling me how good it was. So much for one last meal.
I left and I returned. Not the part of me that lived those memories—he moved on, I'm afraid. But the part of me that holds them—the couple of bits pinging around on this serial drive mounted in a super-cooled, multi-terabyte mainframe—I'm still hangin' around, crunching numbers.
I don't really sleep at night. I just sit there and think back. All the little stuff that never happened. Like my brother Frenchie, and all the years we never got together. Wish we could've gone fishing. Never had me a memory of that. And while I'm still pretty damn sure that hickory-smoked catfish must have been one hell of a dish, I'll never know. Because none of those memories ever had me eating a hickory-smoked catfish, neither.
Everything else, all those little sights and sounds I never got a chance to make my own, well...I guess that little Korean girl was right...
I ain't never gonna dream again.
Fair's fair. That's what I say.