Fiction: The Box

Jerry took a sip of his Mai Tai and looked out over the beach. This was pretty damn good. A wonderful breeze was coming in off the ocean and while the tropical sun was out in full force, here in the shade of the bar patio it was more than comfortable, it was quite pleasant. For the moment, life was good, damn good.

The waiter came over carrying two plates and looked at Jerry questioningly. "Cobb salad?"

"That would be me," said Jerry. "The young lady gets the chicken Caesar." Jerry absent-mindedly pointed to the empty chair and added, "She'll be back in a moment. Just freshening up."

The waiter smiled as he put down the two plates. "No problem." He stood upright and turned to Jerry. "Anything else?"

"I think that will do just fine, Miguel. Thanks for all your help."

"Anytime, señor." Miguel walked away just as Barb walked out onto the terrace. Jerry smiled as he watched the woman wind her way in between the other tables back to where he was sitting.

"Ooo, that looks good," she said spying the plate in front of her chair. She pulled it out slightly and sat down. Grabbing either side with her hands, she pulled herself closer to the table. "I am famished."

"Well, let's dig in. A beautiful day, a great meal, charming company…" Jerry let his voice trail off as he gestured towards the woman, and then continued." It doesn't get any better than this." Jerry picked up his utensils wrapped in paper napkin and unfurled them. He put the utensils on the table with the one end propped up on his plate.

The woman smiled at Jerry. "Well, aren't you the flatterer."

Jerry placed the napkin on his lap then picked up his fork. He stabbed some of his salad. "You were going to tell me how you ended up in this out of the way place." Jerry put the fork in his mouth and began chewing.

"An odd set of coincidences really. Some neighbours had been here and occasionally talked about their trips to visit the island. They always spoke favourably of the place saying it had yet to be discovered meaning that the regular hordes of tourists hadn't yet found the place." Barb began eating.

Jerry finished his mouthful. "Unfortunately, all those undiscovered nooks and crannies are eventually found by the tourists and what was out of the way, quiet and charming becomes commercialised." Jerry took a sip of his Mai Tai. "I think it's inevitable." He looked down at his plate and poked at a piece of hard-boiled egg in his Cobb salad. Using the edge of his fork he cut it in half then picked up one piece. As he placed it in his mouth something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He glanced off to one side looking out over the white sand of beach. He followed the line down to the ocean then out over the water. There was a strange distortion in the distance. It reminded him of how the heat of the land or an asphalt road or concrete in the hot sun can heat up the air distorting the light. Jerry stared off into the distance as he chewed.

"You never told me how you managed to find this out of the way place," said the woman. She looked up and saw that Jerry seemed transfixed by something. She turned and followed his gaze into the distance. "What?"

"Nothing." Jerry looked for another second then turned back to his companion. "I thought I saw something out over the water but I must have been mistaken." Jerry speared another bit of salad with his fork and went back to eating. He smiled at Barb. "So, I'm thinking our stores are somewhat similar. For you it was the neighbours. For me it was a colleague at the office. He apparently has been coming here for years and always spoke highly of the place. As he put it, he wanted to escape from the rat race and this corner of the club seemed pretty much away from everything." Jerry picked up his drink and held it up to the woman as a mock toast then took a sip. "But of course he said you didn't have to give up all the pleasures of civilisation." Jerry chuckled.

Barb chuckled too. She picked up her drink following Jerry's lead and clinked glasses with him. "Amen to that." She sipped and smiled. "Yes, I enjoy the peace and tranquility but I also enjoy a drink with that. Ha, ha."

Jerry smiled back as he picked up his knife to cut a piece of ham into smaller bites. He poked a piece and brought it up to his mouth just as he looked up at the woman. She was looking down at her plate as she too cut a bite off of a piece of chicken. Jerry looked over her shoulder and suddenly realised there was a black square about two feet by two feet sitting in mid-air about five feet behind Barb. Jerry looked twice. He shook his head. Was he seeing things?

Jerry put down his fork and rubbed one of his eyes and looked again. Yep, there was a black square there. Pitch black. It didn't look like there was anything inside the square; it was just black. As he was looking at it, somebody from the beach walked up the steps of the terrace and headed to the bar. The person walked behind the black square and it was as if they had walked behind a solid object. Part of the person disappeared out of view behind the square. What was it?

Barb looked up and noticed Jerry was staring over her shoulder once again transfixed by something. She turned around and looked. She stared moving her eyes around but she didn't see anything.

Turning back to Jerry she said, "What?"

"I…" Jerry hesitated. This was too bizarre. Was he seeing things? Was he overtired? Was he really hallucinating? Maybe somebody had put something in his drink.

"Nothing," said Jerry. "Maybe I'm just losing my mind."

"Oh? Did you have one to lose?" Barb laughed.

Jerry smiled. "Okay, point taken." Jerry took another mouthful of salad. "Don't pay any attention to me. I'm tired, drugged, or just plain delusional."

Barb looked at him smiling. "Okay now, just what the heck are you seeing? Little green men? Flying saucers?" Barb looked around. "No wait. Aren't those guys supposed to show up at night? And usually in an urban setting? I don't remember many B movies taking place on a sunny beach." Barb turned back to Jerry still smiling.

Jerry stopped eating. He stared at the face of the woman. It was pixilated. Instead of seeing a sharp image, Jerry was looking at somewhat indistinguishable image where he could discern the individual points of colour making up the woman's face. What the hell was going on?

Jerry looked over the woman's shoulder. That black square was gone. Jerry looked across the beach into the distance over the water. The waviness of the light he had seen earlier was also gone. He looked back at the woman. Her face was now clear as a bell, sharply in focus. Were Jerry's eyes going crazy on him? Was he suffering from some sort of optic meltdown? The woman was continuing to talk but Jerry was so caught up in his thoughts it was as if somebody had turned the sound down and what she was saying was incomprehensible.

He glanced across the terrace into the building. He looked at the length of the bar and the individual stools neatly placed in a row in front of it. The bartender was busy wiping the surface of bar. Then Jerry noticed. The bartender had no head. In fact, it looked like everything at the bar from a height of about five feet up was missing: the head of the bartender, the bottles on the shelves behind the bar, the large mirror on the wall. There was just this grey but not quite a static grey. There was some movement within the grey as if there were dots of various shades of grey blinking on and off or moving around.

"Jerry?"

Jerry jerked back to reality startled by the sound of his name. He turned to face the woman.

"Are you all right? You seem to have disappeared on me there. Were you off to la-la land?" The woman had a quizzical look on his face. She knew something was wrong but didn't know what exactly and so was proceeding in a cautious manner. "Is there something on your mind? Is there anything I can do?"

As the woman stared at him with an expectant look, Jerry wondered what to say to her. Did he explain what he just saw? Did he explain that he wondered if his eyesight was going? Jerry put down his fork and rubbed his eyes.

"I don't know if my eyes are going weird on me."

"What do you mean?"

Jerry chuckled, not necessarily because anything was funny but more in a reassuring fashion to try and impart to the woman that things were not grave or anything. "I've seen some strange distortions. I was wondering if my eyesight is going on me." Jerry stopped rubbing his eyes then dipped a couple of fingers in the glass of ice water sitting beside his plate. He dabbed both his eyes with the water and wiped them with his napkin.

"Ever had this happen to you before?" Barb looked at him concerned.

"I don't think so. Well, not that I remember." Jerry blinked a few times in a pronounced fashion then looked around. In each of the places he had previously seen something odd; everything looked as if it was completely in order. This was crazy. Maybe he really did need to get his eyes checked.

Jerry turned back to Barb. He noticed that her mouth was open as if she was about to speak. He looked at her wondering if she was hesitating for some reason. Spare his feelings? Being diplomatic? Suddenly he realised that Barb was moving very slowly. She started to speak but the sound was very deep like a recording which had been slowed down. Jerry tried to understand what she was saying but the sound was so deep and the speed was so slow, her voice was almost indecipherable.

Jerry looked up. A waiter came out of the bar but he was walking very slowly. Barb's now deep voice emitted this guttural groan. He couldn't understand what she was saying. Jerry turned to his right and saw a couple walking on the beach but they too were moving very slowly. Even the long hair of the woman, displaced by the wind, moved very slowly around her head. She was bringing one hand up very slowly to grab hold of her hair and sweep it away from her face.

Suddenly there was a crackle of static. Jerry looked around but didn't see anything which could have made such a noise. It was if he had heard the static of a radio not quite receiving a proper signal.

Dead silence. Jerry heard dead silence. He looked around him. Everything had stopped moving. Barb was still. She was frozen in place. Jerry looked at the couple on the beach. They were stopped in mid-stride. There was no longer any sound at all. It was completely quiet. No wind, no surf washing in on the beach, no birds, no conversation coming from the bar. Silence.

Jerry looked around. What the hell was going on? Was he having some sort of psychotic episode? Had somebody drugged his Mai Tai and was he now hallucinating his ass off? Talk about a royal freak-out. Stay calm, Jerry. Stay calm.

Pushing back his chair, Jerry stood up. He glanced at Barb then turned and took a couple of steps towards the centre of the terrace. He stopped and slowly turned around carefully looking at the whole scene. Dead silence. Everything was still. But not still in the sense of the quiet of the morning when everybody is still asleep or the quiet of mid-afternoon when everybody is sunning themselves on the beach and the bars are generally deserted. No, this was still as in being frozen. Somebody had hit the pause button and the movie was now stopped, motionless in this single point of time.

There was another crackle of static, a little louder but this time, the entire scene jerked and everything before Jerry's eyes was briefly distorted, twisted like the image of a television which has its signal interrupted. Jerry twisted around. What the hell?

Jerry rubbed his eyes. Grey dots were appearing everywhere. The entire scene before his eyes was dissolving. No not dissolving so much as transforming into something else seemingly pixel by pixel. The terrace, the bar, the beach, it was all disappearing turning into grey. Jerry glanced back one last time at his lunch partner, Barb. She was still sitting at the table unmoving but more of an outline than a complete figure.

Turning around, Jerry saw that what he was looking at wasn't just grey, another scene was forming. It was like the beach terrace was turning into something else. But what? The grey didn't seem to be just grey; it looked like some sort of wall. A concrete wall? He looked to his left and saw that the grey was interrupted by something. It looked like a bed. And there beside it. What was that silver thing? And that other silver thing?

Jerry stared as point after point, pixel after pixel changed into something new. It was different. It was strange but suddenly Jerry recognised the place. It was a jail cell. Jerry turned around watching the remaining points of light representing the beach terrace disappear leaving the grey concrete walls of this small room. There was a bed and a stainless steel sink and toilet at one end of the room and at the other end, there was a door in the middle of the wall. Jerry looked around and tried to guess the dimensions. It seemed to possibly be ten feet by fifteen feet but he wasn't completely sure. There was no window.

Where was he? What just happened? How did he get from the beach terrace to here? Was this teleportation or something? Magic?

Jerry walked up to the door. There was no handle. He pounded on the door with his fist striking the flat with the fleshy side of his hand. The thump was dull. There seemed to be no echo so he had no idea of what was on the other side. A corridor? A line of more cells? Was he in some sort of jail?

Jerry looked around. There didn't seem to be any distinguishing features to the room. He looked up. The ceiling looked to be eight feet high. Above the door there was a grill of some sort. He guessed this had something to do with air circulation. Turning, he looked into the centre of the room and saw a light. This was embedded in the concrete so the surface was completely flush with the rest of the ceiling. Surprisingly enough, the light managed to completely light up the room. Jerry leaned towards it and squinted. It looked to be halogen or something similar. He wasn't sure but a reflective cone surrounding the light seemed to cast the illumination into every corner of the small room.

He stepped to one side and put his hand on the wall. It was neither hot nor cold. He moved his hand feeling the surface. Was it concrete or some other material? He moved his head up close and peered at the material. He couldn't tell. Whatever the case, it was hard like concrete although the surface didn't seem to be as rough. This was smoother but somehow it didn't quite feel like metal.

Jerry turned back and looked at the room. This was totally bizarre. He had no idea of what to make of it. He took a couple of steps and stood in the middle of the room. Slowly he turned 360 degrees examining every wall and ever corner of what he felt he should really label a cell. Yep, it certainly was a jail cell of some sort. How did he get here? Had he imagined the oddball transition from the beach terrace to here with the pixilation of the scene? Maybe he had gotten really drunk and blacked out or something then done something foolish which had resulted in him being arrested by the police. Jerry thought hard but couldn't remember anything other than what he saw. What he saw? What was that business of everything freezing? Even Barb, his lunch partner had frozen. He hadn't imagined that. Had he? Was that part of his faulty memory caused by the blackout? Try as he might, Jerry could not remember anything else.

He sighed. He sat down. He suddenly realised he felt a little spent. This whole incident had gotten him all charged up and now that he was in the quiet of this cell, his body was slowing down. The tension was going away and he was feeling a little tired. This whole thing was stressing him out something severe.

Jerry clasped his hands on the edge of the bed. Was this a cot? He leaned forward and put his head between his legs and looked back underneath the bed. It would seem that this was a type of metal slab fastened to two walls, at the side and at the head, with one leg supporting the corner away from the walls. He sat back up and idly looked at the bed. There was a pillow, two sheets, and a wool blanket. He leaned forward and put his elbows on his thighs supporting his chin in his hands. Now what?

He turned his eyes and looked at the stainless steel sink. It seemed nondescript. It was a sink with two facets. He looked at the toilet. It was the same, made out of stainless steel and very utilitarian. Jerry hadn't noticed before but on wall behind the toilet was a roll of toilet paper fixed to the wall. It looked like little more than a piece of metal shaped in a U. He looked at it for a bit before starting to wonder how one would take off a used roll and replace it with a new one. If it was a jail cell, the authorities would worry about somebody being able to fashion a weapon out of something so they would do their utmost to ensure a prisoner couldn't get a hold of anything like a piece of metal.

Jerry sighed. He felt a little tired. Maybe worn out was a better term. He looked around again then lay back on the bed. He put his right arm up and slid his hand behind his head. He stared up at the ceiling blinking at the light shining directly in his eyes. He brought up his left arm and laid it across his face using his forearm to cover his eyes and block out the light. He thought about what had happened and tried to imagine where he was. He racked his brains wondering what explanation would make sense of it all. At some point, without realising it, Jerry drifted off.

*********************

"Oh Bob, Bob, Bob. What have you done now?" The tone of voice indicated the exasperation of a parent dealing with an irresponsible child. Carl stood behind Bob watching him as he madly played with the console interface.

"Damn. Everything was working quite nicely when suddenly there was a glitch in the environment control. It started cascading throughout the entire grid and even though I re-routed processing to other servers, I just couldn't get it to stop. Finally I had to transfer the subject back to the holding environment to avoid possible contamination from whatever was propagating throughout the system."

"The holding environment?"

Bob rolled his eyes. Here it comes.

"You're not telling me you put the subject in that dumb jail cell you've got? Couldn't you come up with something a tad more pleasant than that?"

Bob kept fiddling with the console. "Carl, it's stable. I haven't had the time to work on something more pleasant as you put it. If I had left the subject in the middle of that systemic meltdown there was an almost one hundred percent probability he would have wound up fried too."

The two men remained silent for a bit. Carl watched Bob continue playing with the interface doing God only knows what. Bob was a brilliant man but was any of this worth anything? This was no longer cutting edge technology; it wasn't even bleeding edge. This had moved well past what's real to science fiction. Carl turned and looked at the box. It was a clear polymer with dozens of attachment points providing both organic and synthetic feeds. If Bob could make this work, it could very well revolutionize the technology which bridged the gap between man and machine.

Carl left Bob in peace to sort out his problems. He turned to look across the room at the operating table where a white sheet still covered the body. It was a contribution to science that the family agreed to the deceased wishes but he wondered what the deceased now thought of his situation. Carl leaned over and looked inside the box. The brain was suspended in a type of amniotic fluid with its stem connected to the prototype of a new fangled neural coupling developed by a robotics company in Europe. While the technology now existed to replace various parts of the body, nobody as of yet had succeeded in tapping into the brain. It was just too complicated.

But Bob was convinced that his work in artificial environments and this brand new neural coupling might be the trick to getting a human brain linked directly to a computerized system, a simulated world. But they were treading on tricky ground here. Other attempts to directly link brains to artificial environments had proven to not be very successful. In fact, there were reports of some subjects suffering problems from the links. In one case, a man in the States had his mind slightly scrambled and was in his third year of therapy trying to sort out the resulting schizophrenia.

Here they had a test subject nobody had to worry about when it came to problems or scrambled brains. Jerry was dead. Yes, he was dead clinically and legally. Bob and Jerry went back a long time and as friends have discussed over many a beer the ins and outs of robotics and the linking of man and machine. When Jerry found out about Bob's initiative of putting the human brain directly into a simulated environment, he immediately signed all the necessary paperwork to hand his brain over to Bob in the event of his death. Neither Jerry or Bob knew if anything would come of it but here they were not six months later when Jerry was involved in a fatal car crash. The ambulance rushed Jerry to hospital while following the procedures laid out in the power of attorney to immediately contact Medulla Research Labs. Bob arrived at about the same moment Jerry was pronounced dead and rushed the body off to the labs to harvest the brain.

While "The Box" supplied the brain with oxygen and nutrients, it had no built-in interface to connect to the brain and its consciousness. Previous work in this area had led to the conclusion that a brain without a body, that is a brain with no connection to the world and hence no stimuli would quickly implode in on itself. Psychosis would develop quickly and the subject, the person's mind would go insane. Therefore the computerized environment, the simulated world was necessary for the mental health of the brain. The artificial world supplied the stimuli the brain needed to function. Even though Bob had the brain sedated during the set-up of the procedure, he knew he only had a certain window of opportunity to make this work. While a normal brain when sedated might appear non-functioning, there were all sorts of activities going on which involved a connection to a body and to the senses of that body. Without those connections, without the stimuli, the brain would malfunction, even a sedated one.

Carl remained stooped slightly looking inside The Box at Jerry's brain. "Any idea of what went wrong?" Carl could hear Bob's increased breathing. It was the sound of frustration.

"I don't understand it. This was working. I don't understand why it stopped working. I have no idea where that cascading glitch came from." Bob stood up and kicked back his chair in anger. The chair quickly rolled on its wheels backwards until it hit a table. "Damn. I am that close!" Bob held up his right hand with his thumb and index finger just a slight bit apart.

Carl waited a moment. No point in upsetting the apple cart. "How long has it's been?"

"I know! I know!" Bob was on a verge of panicking. "It's been ninety minutes and yes I know the recommendation, the theoretical recommendation is one hundred minutes."

Carl knew that Bob was backed into a corner and knew that Bob could make a mistake. While little was known about how the brain worked when taken out of its natural environment, that is the human body, a paper presented by a couple of European scientists about five years ago had postulated that under sedation, a brain could last about one hundred minutes before permanent damage occurred. Permanent meant that the brain would suffer irreversible schizophrenia and never function again in a normal manner. While the paper could not conclusively prove this to be the case, the paper had caught on in the world of neural sciences and had become the standard by which all others were doing their research.

It was this paper to which Carl was referring. If it had already been ninety minutes since Bob had sedated the brain when the glitch occurred, Bob had pretty much exhausted the time available to him to affect a repair. If he couldn't do so, if he couldn't give the brain a simulated world to live in, Bob would have to terminate the brain rather than let it just go crazy in its void of non stimuli.

Bob paced up and down holding both hands on top of his head. "Oh Jerry! Jerry! What have I done to you?"

Carl looked at Bob with a raised eyebrow. "Bob, Jerry was dead. Jerry is dead. There is nothing else you can do." Carl tried to sound reassuring. "You did the best you could. Let's not forget that you are working in an extremely speculative area of research. You can't expect miracles. You yourself have stated that we are ten, maybe twenty years from getting something which proves to be in any way stable."

Bob sounded crestfallen. "I guess." He sighed. "Jerry was a good friend. I… I was hopeful. Maybe a little too hopeful." Bob stopped pacing. He put his arms down. He stood there with his head bowed staring at the floor.

Carl looked at his watch. "It's time."

Bob didn't move. He continued staring then after a few seconds let out a big sigh. "Okay." He continued looking at the floor for another few seconds then walked over to The Box. He leaned down and looked inside. "Sorry, Jerry. I tried." Bob looked at the brain suspended in the amniotic fluid.

"Do you want me to do it?" said Carl.

Bob shook his head. "No, I'll do it.' He stood up, reached towards the console to the right of the box and put his index finger to the touch screen. He navigated through several menus then paused. His eyes glanced at The Box. "Bye, Jerry." Bob touched the screen. There was an odd noise and a slight flash in the box. The system had sent an electrical discharge into the brain immediately short-circuiting it and abruptly halting all neural activity. A graphic display on the touch screen showing the real-time activity of the brain moved from right to left gradually replacing its varying measurements with flat lines.

Carl looked at his watch. "Alan's coming on now. I'm going to ask him to clean things up. How about you and I go get ourselves a cold one?"

Bob was still looking at The Box. "Okay." Bob sighed again. "I know so little."

Carl put one hand on the shoulder of his colleague as the two of them walked out of the lab together. "God left us the clues. We just have to figure out what He meant."

 
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