by Joanna Koch
Issue 7: Horror | 3,004 words
© Vladislav Ociacia/Adobe Stock
Kyle was a choice specimen. That’s why I married him.
See, I don’t think it’s fair that the rich white guys who run things made evolution illegal for the rest of us. Why do they get to keep all the candy for themselves? I’m smarter than they think, even if I bottomed out on their fake morality scales in all the tests. Those things are rigged, anyway, right? I’m not about to let something as arbitrary as a law stop me from getting my hands on some of the good stuff.
Kyle had the neural augmentation mod before there were any laws, before people even heard of protein activators or quantum plasmids or neuro-cycling stem boosts. Back in the early eighties, they tested prototypes at Mother of Grace Hospital. Sure, you’ve never heard about it online or in the news. It was all clandestine. That’s why they used Grace, the gunshot hospital.
Kyle’s mom couldn’t afford health insurance. She had nowhere else to go. As a diner server trading coffee refills for sexual harassment and a bit of loose change, you can’t blame her for taking him to a shithole like Mother of Grace. What’s a working woman without coverage supposed to do with a kid who’s chronically sick with asthma and bronchitis? I feel for her, really I do. And Kyle doesn’t remember the bad parts. He doesn’t know what I know. I swiped the video from the basement archives. It’s a series of stills culled from grainy microfiche.
Kyle came back to Mother of Grace Hospital as an adult, this time not as a patient. His asthma attacks and infections transformed into neurological assets in the interim. His sweet sandy towhead turned dark, and his deep blue eyes went from petulant to kind. He’s everyone’s favorite scrub scrunch on the psych ward, not the type of nurse who’d want a below-average like me hitting on him out in the open. But he seems receptive when I plunk down my lunch tray, so I run with it.
“You mind?” God-a-mighty I’m such a seductress.
Kyle doesn’t flinch—not at my housekeeping uniform or at my cleaning cart parked against the wall. He gives me this shy little glow of a look. “Sure. Have a seat.”
I know Kyle’s not shy. Boy didn’t flinch when the doctor pushed a six-inch needle into the back of his neck at eight years old. He stared that doctor down like a champ. I wonder if that doc had any kids, and if he went home and looked them in the eyes that night. That doc’s someone I’d like to get my hands on when my IQ jumps a zillion points and I can do anything I want to anybody I want, when I can do anything with the impunity of the rich.
Yeah, that’s right. I’ll do any goddamn thing I want. I’ve got a list. Better hope you’re not on it.
I give Mr. Fake Shy Boy a nudge. “How’s that broccoli cheddar treating you today?”
Kyle’s bowl is almost empty. He hasn’t eaten his bread. “Too many carbs, but I couldn’t help myself. It’s too good to stop. Do you want to try some? Save me from myself?” He holds up his spoon.
I can’t believe this guy. “No thanks, I’m good.”
“You don’t have any veggies. Are you sure? I’ll get you your own bowl, a clean bowl, if you like. I’ve got extra food-share points left over from volunteer night.”
“Aren’t you a sweetheart?” I nestle my elbow into his willing bicep. Not too hard.
Poor dupe’s grinning already. “You sure?”
“Oh, yeah. Hot dogs are brain food.”
I take an enormous bite.
I know Kyle’s got the sleeper mod. My research proves it. And you can’t miss the way he beams with unreasonable hope.
Everyone knows the sleeper mods went rogue most of the time—that’s what gave them their name. The old school code, thought to be standard and predictable, generated activators capable of learning, activators that were too smart, too adaptable, too inclined to create unique scenarios and snowball into hyperbole. The records say little Kyle’s head hurt like his brain was exploding, like something was hammering to get out. Something was. Sleepers need to spread. Kyle didn’t complain. Tough little kid. The mod whispered to his neurons, blinded him with crazy enzymes. He kept cool for almost three hours before he spoke up and told his mom how bad it hurt.
My teachers said none of the test subjects survived exposure in the original project. They really harped on it. They said the code was dangerous and flawed, not what they use now. Of course, they never mentioned the kids who were part of the Mother of Grace experiment.
I smelled bullshit.
They fed us this idea that neurological evolution was too risky for anyone but the chosen few who (big surprise!) happened to be rich and smart in the first place. They said the brain’s redundancy and inefficiency protects and heals it when damaged if you start from a certain baseline capacity. Average and below average people like us had to stay safe and unevolved for our own good. They expected us to thank them for jobs assigned by genotype, to settle for average marriages and make more average kids and be happy, happy, happy without any chance at enlightenment. I argued it was my brain and my choice to take a risk, and they always came back to the deaths: one hundred percent death rate for those not vetted. Don’t get any big ideas. The tests tell us if you’re a candidate or not.
And kiddo, you’re not.
Career track put me in housekeeping, so that was the end of school for me. No high school, no chance at college. Mother of Grace gets pretty messy in my department, but I didn’t care. I wanted access. My uniform makes me invisible. I push my cart through the library and the archives and down under the public floors, and no one pays attention. I get free reign with research documents, original records without redactions, and all the time in the world I need to train for the future in an old practice lab.
All the time in the world to get ready for Kyle.
Back in the eighties, little Kyle’s head was exploding. He repeated a loop of gibberish between stunted breaths, and scared the hell out of his mom and cousins when he lapsed into silence, turning cyan blue around the lips. Any half-assed coder today would recognize the DNA chains extending by progressive redundancy, creating copies ripe for mutation, producing probabilities through repetition that litters the text until that one pristine moment arrives and a new marker blooms.
Gold in the noise.
The doctors knew exactly what they were dealing with. They rushed Kyle away for further “treatment.” Sure. Don’t worry, ma’am. This is a charitable institution. No cost to you. Just sign right here…
I don’t blame his mom for signing the papers. I’m a working woman, too. If you were in her position, I bet you’d have done the same.
The doctors swept Kyle away and reported a rare congenital aneurism. That’s the official diagnosis in his chart. Internal memos tell a different story: a transcriptional complex gone rogue.
Evolution is abrupt.
Kyle’s a hot, sexy farm of proteins ready to be reaped.
“I want what’s inside you.”
The lamp burns out in the alcove outside his apartment. We’ve been on three dates, and he’s hardly kissed me through our sweaty, anxious moments of longing. Tonight Kyle gently crushes me at the waist with his shy groin. I pull him closer, harder with my hands. Things happen fast.
I’m filled by the vestiges of the aborted experiment that haunt his cells with improbable possibilities. I harvest his bacteria and renegade proteins, pumping them out of his colonized body. I want to awaken the rogue hidden inside of him and feed on his dormant desires. I’m so turned on I can’t keep from crying out. I scream.
Then it’s quiet. We’re drenched. He catches his breath. “Are you… okay?”
“Did I hurt you?”
My hot forehead lives under his chin. “Not enough.”
He laughs, relaxes. “Mm. Me too. Come on inside.”
We’re inseparable after that.
I lie awake beside him in the dark, putting off the inevitable act. The locked container of Kyle’s flesh holds everything I’ve ever wanted, everything I’ve been denied. His warm, slow breath fascinates me, distracts me from my goals. I follow the pulse of an artery under the stubble on his neck, the soft way his chest lilts beneath the sheets, the mystery of stillness in muscles toned by speed. If I touch him in his sleep, he sighs like a content beast.
Shared bacterial flora might be enough. Maybe intimate contact will provoke the rogue and set it loose. Maybe the restricted proteins aren’t buried in his brain cells alone, sequestered beneath a sheath of myelin and mucus. Maybe love is all you need.
Or maybe I’m looking for an excuse to lie to myself.
When Kyle asks me to marry him, I do.
I test my bacterial theory and get as much of Kyle inside me as often as I can. Hospital sex isn’t as difficult or clinical as you might expect. After all, I’m in housekeeping. I have the keys to everything.
A detour through the children’s ward after a long lunch brings up memories of the microfiche stills. I’ve been dumb enough to be honest with Kyle about my research, my goals. I told you I was marked as average, unworthy, invalid. “Isn’t it hard for you working here?”
“No, of course not. I like helping people.”
“But the bad memories?”
“Good ones.” Kyle grins and nestles his arm at the base of my spine. “That’s why I came back, to pay it forward. The nurses were great, like a team of moms. I was their mascot.”
“Aren’t you angry?”
Kyle shushes me when I talk about new markers, replicating insights, or the remains of the rogue mod waiting to unfold an untenable awareness from inside his augmented brain. We go deeper below the main floor each day, closer to the center where the heart of the rogue first hatched.
“I know it’s in there. Give it to me.” I’m covered in Kyle. Half of the lights don’t work down here.
He pants denial between each breath. “The experiment was a failure. I’m an average, normal guy. I love you. Oh, God.”
He fills me up. He’s ready to come. “That’s what they want you to believe.”
Afterwards, Kyle pulls me close in a nook where unattended centrifuges whir like giant worker bees. His grip is threatening and warm. “What I believe, what I worry about, is what happens when you realize I’ve already given you everything, and it’s still not enough. What about our vows?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll see the truth when we strip away this sterile facade.”
“I’ll lose you when you wake up from your cute little delusion, baby.”
“When I wake up, we’ll be closer than ever. We both said those vows, not just you.”
He grips my shoulders, shakes me. “Promise? You know what you’re doing, you’re sure? Do you promise?”
I answer with a hand slipped under his scrubs.
Unabashed, his lips lock onto my neck as Mother of Grace shares her secrets with me. I’ve toured the wards of brains sacrificed to involuntary experimentation. I’ve mourned in the long halls lined with specimen jars, inspected mildewed cabinets of unofficial, forgotten records. I’ve practiced in abandoned underground surgical suites, prepared for an apotheosis. Buried below Grace, in the tunnels connecting the old autopsy rooms with the city’s former central morgue, quarantined voices still state the argument of injustice and exploitation.
If you’re quiet, you can hear the brains humming.
The signal is noise until you sit still and silent on the freshly mopped floor, until you close your eyes and hum along with the brains dreaming in formaldehyde.
They sing: I am the message; I am the code; I make the possible actual, incorporate form into matter. Matter causes change, and change is the aim of all life. From Aristotle to twenty-first century shaman, a handful of rare, disciplined practitioners have seen inside their own cells and been transformed. Who says we are blind slaves to our biological statistics? Who says an individual doesn’t have more autonomous worth than her genetic profile predicts?
Who says poverty equals consent?
Evolution is abrupt. As cocks rise and fall, as empires come and go, evolution, thwarted, rolls backward into the primal fury of the denied and desired breast. There must have been an age when humans began to sow and harvest, an older time when humans learned to hunt. We fight. We are born violent. We strive to be more than we conceive.
Conceive is a fearful word, a biological word. In its root meaning, it binds men to a woman’s will or lust or joy. The bodiless brains beneath Mother of Grace hum of metamorphosis, of breaking intrinsic bonds. Their song is beyond binary men and women, greater than species survival ruled by the uterus, more than the sum of our historical copulations and conflicts. The song is thought. The song is power. The song is progress. We shall sing the song, and the song shall make us free.
Thus sayeth the brains dreaming in formaldehyde.
In an obsolete surgical suite forgotten by Grace, I open Kyle’s head and pull back the metal mesh securing a section of his skull. Kyle talks compulsively, a side effect of the hypnotic anesthetic.
“There’s this video you’d like. I mean, I know you don’t like videos, but this one’s about dark matter. You’d like it. Let me find it.” His fingers wag in the air.
“Just tell me.”
“Okay, there’s a panel on dark matter, and this person in the audience says they don’t know what it is. They ask the panel to explain. Everyone laughs.”
“The scientists laugh at the question instead of answering it.”
“That seems unprofessional.” I’m having a hard time, digging deeper than I had planned. It’s a good thing there’s no pain receptors in the brain.
“No, no, no. That’s why you have to watch. They’re laughing because no one knows what dark matter is, not even NASA or Einstein. Here, I’ll find it.” Kyle pokes buttons on an imaginary device.
I contaminate my gloves to still his fingers, pathogen protocols be damned.
Who am I kidding? He’s not leaving here alive.
“Just talk to me, okay?” I release him and refocus the scope. It’s a delicate instrument. “Who named this stuff if it doesn’t exist?”
“It exists. They just don’t know what it is.”
“You can measure it. Eighty-five percent of gravity can’t be attributed to any known mass. It doesn’t follow the rules of gravity. Think about it. Everywhere in deep space, maybe even around us, inside us on earth, there’s all this unknown stuff. Isn’t it exciting?”
“I’m not comfortable with that level of uncertainty.”
“You don’t have to do this.”
Visible under a dab of reagent, a knot of microscopic arteries binds a clump of tissue. I think I’ve found the hot spot. “Do what?”
“You’re not going to learn anything new this way.”
“I’m reverse engineering. You’ll be fine.”
“No, I won’t. But I want you to be happy, if this is what it takes. It’s just—I thought you wanted us to be together. Forever.”
“I do.” Echoes of wedding vows toll in my head.
“If only my genotype survives, how will your residual proteins recognize me? Is information constant, or can it be created or destroyed?”
The rogue is there, inside the cluster, old and emaciated. It holds on to the last thread of artery I extract, like twin baby snakes clinging to a dead vine: convulsive and twisting, each side suckling the other’s tail.
Given an excess of possibilities, the foundation laid for the future of the unnecessary, exemplary human brain is its superfluous variety of proteins. According to geologists, the record of earth’s development describes a series of convulsions. Evolution suggests that wisdom must be convulsive, or not at all. As theology and philosophy follow, as Kyle’s brain breaks apart in the shell of his open skull, the self-replicating sleeper squirms to escape my syringe.
Language requires a live organism. Did humans evolve because of language, or did language arise from us? Was it mutation or choice? I speak to the rogue so it sticks to my voice. The lumpy chain of polypeptide folds seeks to divide and reorganize. They bubble in harmony with my phenome.
Assimilation is as smooth as a dreaming brain sliding into a glass cylinder.
Kyle’s gone mute. Alarms flash and blare through the underground corridors. Evolution is abrupt. I understand everything in an instant: the distance in unity, the formlessness of desire, the mandates of love—how past, present, and future collide in this single moment.
I look down on my body from a high shelf in the dim corridor. Awareness is endless.
After the sirens stop and the security guards clear out, the wheels of the maid’s cart squeak on the freshly mopped floor. My body is dissected and inert. It’s invisible to the housekeeper from her limited temporal standpoint, despite the clever sparkle in her resentful eyes. She’s a bad Cinderella. She doesn’t recognize her lover, herself, or the responsibility and loss that will come with power when she claims it. She stops her progress to stare inside and tap on my jar.
Blood glitters on my gown instead of stars. I’m bride and groom, dead and alive, murdered and twinned. I’m one with the vacuum of eternity, a brain swimming in an abyss. When I scream inside my cylinder, there is only silence, and the humming sensation of toads hopping out of my mouth.
Joanna Koch writes literary horror and surrealist trash. Author of the novella The Couvade, their short fiction has been published in journals and anthologies including Synth, The Big Book of Blasphemy, and In Darkness, Delight: Masters of Midnight. Find Joanna at horrorsong.blog and on Twitter @horrorsong.