First he gave us helpful advice for the robot uprising, then he wrote the robot war novel Robopocalypse. Now Daniel H. Wilson is turning his attention to the plight of cyborgs and posthumans, with his dystopian new novel Amped. And we've got the first three chapters right here! Come back tomorrow for chapters four and five...
Opinion of the Court
Supreme Court of the United States
No. 09- 1153
SAMANTHA BLEX v. BOARD OF EDUCATION ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE ANFUSO delivered the opinion of the Court.
The question in this case is whether users of implantable technology (e.g., Neural Autofocus units) are guaranteed a right to education under the Fourteenth Amendment. The respondent Board of Education asserted that implanted students wield an unfair intellectual advantage over nonimplanted students and faculty, interfering with the fair administration of education.
The case of Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, established that public institutions may not discriminate against students based on their immutable characteristics. We hold that the use of implantable technology constitutes an elective surgery, and that there is therefore no protection for implanted citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Therefore, we hold that implanted citizens are not a protected class.
It is so ordered.
I'm standing on the steep slate roof of Allderdice High School, gripping a rain- spattered wrought iron decoration in one hand and holding up my other hand, palm out.
"Don't," I'm saying to the girl in front of me. "Please don't." My hand wavers, tracing incantations of fear and panic in the air. Just beyond my outstretched fingers is something that has been spiraling out of control for years. Only I shouldn't call her something. Should never call her a thing.
Somebody is what I mean.
It's the technology, see? We can't get away from it. Anywhere you find people, you find it. Clever little contraptions. Cunning strategies. We're toolmakers born and bred; and even if you don't believe in anything else, you'd better believe in that. Because that's human nature.
It's the tools that make us strong.
And it's the tools that put a girl on the edge of this roof. I crawled out here against all advice the second I heard who it was. I owe this girl a debt and I can never repay it but I'm doing my best to try.
Samantha is just fifteen. The wind is smearing her brown hair against gray skies, pushing her tears in streaks across her blank, emotionless face. Allderdice is a massive school, built during the industrial genesis of Pittsburgh. Sam stands on the precipice, six stories up. The rain is spitting at us through afternoon sunlight, and the dull stone building seems to be bleeding or crying or both. I can't believe she's really going to jump. Not after all she's been through.
You make a tool to fix a problem, right? But — and I've thought about this — it's the boundaries that define us. Bold, black lines that can't be crossed — the limits of human ability. Lately, the edges have been torn off the map.
Now we're all getting lost.
Eight years ago a little kid named Samantha Blex missed a week of class. In the first photos on the news, you could see Sam was a little cross- eyed. She smiled a lot through her kid- sized purple eyeglasses. Cute. The kid was all slobber and grubby fingers and grins. Had a habit of putting blocks in her mouth.
That's why, when Samantha walked back into school after her weeklong hiatus, a lot of the other kids' parents were scared. Terrified is more like it. A textbook case of fight or flight, with a serious lean toward fight.
See, Sam wasn't cross- eyed when she came back to class. She didn't put blocks in her mouth anymore, either. In fact, Samantha Blex pretty quickly demonstrated that she was now the smartest kid in third grade. After a few breathless rounds of testing, Sam turned out to be in the top- hundredth percentile on citywide intelligence tests.
The kid had one hell of a week away.
In an interview, Sam's teacher told a reporter in a shaky voice that he wasn't sure if Sam was still the same little girl, now that she'd visited her doctor and been given a Neural Autofocus implant. That quote grabbed a lot of airtime. I felt really bad about it later.
Should have known better than to say it.
And that's how it started. With sweet little Sam walking back into my classroom, looking me right in the eye with a new spark of intelligence — a new electricity altogether.
Where'd the spark come from? It's simple enough. An aspirin-sized piece of conductive metal, an amp, carefully placed in the prefrontal cortex of the kid's brain. A baby squid pulsing with an exquisitely timed series of electrical stimulations, gently pushing her mind toward the beta one wave state. Focused concentration, 24- 7. This sharpened focus massively amplified her intelligence, bulldozing away the dim, mild, slobber- mouthed little girl I knew.
And only a little nub of dark plastic on her temple, like a mole, to show for it. A maintenance port.
Just like mine.
"I know how you feel, Sam," I call to the coltish teen on the roof. "I get the stares. I hear the whispers. We can make it through this."
I'm flawed hardware, like anybody. Have been for a long time. Epilepsy. My doctor says it's a Tower of Babel in my head and I believe him. Of course, I would. My doctor is my father. But the nub on my temple doesn't lead to anything as hot shit as a General Biologics Neural Autofocus unit. It's just a simple stimulator designed to treat epilepsy and keep me from swallowing the old tongue. Proverbially. Dad has always said that doesn't really happen.
Still, turning my implant off is not an option. And that's the bitch of it. These tools we love so much have burrowed under our skin like parasites. They're in our brains now, our joints and organs. Crouching behind our eyeballs and clinging to our sinuses. Making us smarter and stronger and always, always more dependent.
"You don't know how it feels," says Sam. "You're medical. Not elective. You've got no inkling."
Sometime in the past, in some sterile office, a doctor said Sam had a problem. She had a little trouble concentrating, that's all. But there was a solution available. And her parents chose to use it. They had a little bit of money and they wanted the best for their daughter and they were willing to take the risk. Any parent might have done the same.
"You didn't choose this, Sam."
"Tell me about it," she mutters, eyeing the ground.
It was my first year teaching. Age twenty- two. Those chubby faces with their quick eyes sent me packing to teach high school the very next year. But I was there. I watched it all begin. Now, I'm crouching on the roof and inching away from the safety of the window and I'm watching it end.
"Stop that, Mr. Gray," Samantha warns. She sounds slightly irritated, as if she'd caught me picking my nose. "Don't come any fucking closer."
I'm creeping across the spine of the building toward her now. A shivering, cowardly twenty- nine- year- old turtle on a slippery log. My knees and crotch and chest are blotched with water, my cheeks sprinkled with drops. Please, please, please, I'm thinking. Please don't let me slip and fall and die this morning with my water- splotched crotch and my goddamn useless pencils in my shirt pocket and my soft clean hands with no calluses on them. This roof is slicker than ice. Slicker than a fucking waterslide and there's no going back, so I hump it forward and ignore Sam's annoyed voice.
She gives up protesting, and waits.
It was the Pure Human Citizen's Council that pressured schools across the country into barring implanted kids. They said the few modified kids were taking precious resources away from the vast majority of human kids. It was true and Allderdice agreed, but Samantha's parents were passionate and that's how she ended up before the Supreme Court. A poster child for the inevitable future.
The lawyers picked Sam because she was a straight Neural Autofocus job. The nub on her temple wasn't connected to the minnow's flash of a retinal implant in her eye or a gleaming prosthetic limb. She was just a little girl, pretty and pure — save the one inhuman flaw buried inside, the truth of it flickering out into her IQ score.
Finally, my face crosses over into shadow. I see a knee- length skirt snapping in the breeze. Samantha stands with her hands on her hips, resigned.
I realize that she hasn't jumped yet because she is trying to figure out how to make sure I am safe. A relieved breath hisses out of me, a whimper. We both hear it and think about it for a second.
"Jesus, you're a pussy," says Samantha. She glowers down at me like a ship's figurehead sprouting from the peak of the roof. Too hard to be made of wood. Made of metal. Little flecks of it, anyway.
"I'm jumping," she says. "Trust me, you'd have jumped years ago."
"No, Samantha — "
"Shut your mouth," she snaps. "You don't know shit. I'm smarter than you, remember? You couldn't teach me back then, so why try to talk to me now? Just shut up. I'm jumping. The impact is going to kill me instantly. It'll take about two seconds to fall." Immediately I think of how she looked in those little purple eyeglasses. The memory of her floats like a haze over this teenage girl in front of me. It was too much, the gap between the old Samantha and the new. Something broke in that week she was gone. A piece of her must have got lost in the transition. Samantha glances down. "It looks like I'll hit damp grass, which doesn't mean I won't die. That's inevitable from this height. I'll have accelerated to about forty miles an hour. But the grass is good. It means that when I hit, there's a solid chance my guts won't spray out of my mouth and asshole."
I just blink. Her words are a rock wall and I've rammed into it going full speed with all the momentum gathered by an idealistic career teaching mostly docile students. I mean, I know that the obedient kids I teach are different from the ones who stream out into the world at the end of the day. But I never fathomed this kind of talk. This never showed up from eight to three. It was trapped inside the desks and books and held back by, what? The threat of detention, I guess.
Samantha doesn't seem worried about detention.
"And don't think that nub on your temple makes you anything besides a spaz, Gray. Sorry. I meant to say autosomal dominant frontal lobe epileptic. Yes, we all know."
She taps the mole- sized nub that protrudes from her right temple, clear hazel eyes shining in the spotty sunlight.
"This, Mr. Gray. This is really something. You know, right after I got this, I was actually looking forward to coming back to school. I didn't see things so clearly then."
"You can't listen to other kids," I say. "They're only jealous."
"Kids?" she asks. "You think this is Algernon syndrome? That dumb little Samantha woke up and realized the other kids were mean? I haven't worried about children since the third grade. It's the rest of the world, Mr. Gray. Allderdice is a microcosm. And the larger world hates us. To quote the Honorable Chief Justice Anfuso, 'The existence of a class of superabled citizens threatens to pull apart the fabric of our society.' There's no place for me here. Or anywhere else."
"That's today. But what about tomorrow? What about the Free Body Liberty Group? We don't know what might happen," I urge.
"The world has been changing, Mr. Gray. People have been waiting for permission to hate us. Now all the evil is going to come out. There are too many of them and not nearly enough of us. This has all happened before. It will end the same. In labor camps. Mass graves." She looks at me with pity. "You're a dead man walking. How pathetic that you don't even know it."
Somehow, I find the courage to crouch on cramping legs.
I reach my wavering hand out to her, feeling the warm lick of rain on it.
"Please, Samantha," I'm saying.
"You were right," she says.
"About what?" I ask.
"What you told those reporters. You said you didn't know who I was when I came back. It's true. I'm not the same girl."
"Don't do this. We'll fight them. I promise you, Sam."
"Sam's gone. I'm somebody else. Somebody that never should have existed."
I'm shouting and standing up and I've forgotten to be afraid.
As I reach for her, I see her tear- streaked face between my fingers for a frozen instant. Her eyes are wide open when she steps off the roof.
Eight years ago, a little girl named Samantha Blex missed a week of school. When she came back, she changed the world. And this morning, she left it.
us & canada
Washington DC: Bomb blast rocks Pure Human Citizen's Council
A massive bomb blast has torn through a building in the US capital of Washington DC, killing three and injuring eleven.
CNN said no arrests have been made and no group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Local news footage showed a plume of smoke floating over a two-storey office building that had been largely reduced to rubble. The street was cordoned off by police investigating the bombing, even as firefighters continued to suppress the flames.
All roads into the city centre have been closed, said radio network NPR, and security officials evacuated people from the area, fearing another blast. A spokesman for the Washington Hospital Center said the survivors had been taken there for treatment, many with serious injuries.
In a telephone call to a DC television station, Eric Vale, assistant chief of Washington DC police, said the leadership of the Pure Human Citizen's Council was safe, including Pennsylvania senator Joseph Vaughn, head of the PHCC. An investigation is ongoing, according to Mr. Vale. "We urge people not to point fingers until all the facts are in. We've got experts taking the scene apart in order to determine who is responsible for this attack."
The names of the dead have not been released.
I didn't see Samantha hit the ground. But I heard the sound of it. The blunt impact is still looping through my brain, ringing like a concussion. It's a blurry haze that settles over everything: my crawl back to the window, the sharp looks from late- to- arrive cops, and the concerned questions from my students in the hallways. I can barely speak, much less answer. Principal Stratton takes one look and tells me to take the rest of the day off.
Now, I'm walking fast and aimless through downtown. Headed on a loose path toward my dad's office. The rain has let up and I'm searching the gleaming streets for something sane to latch onto. Some thought, some sight. I'm not finding anything.
The city of Pittsburgh is in the middle of a major course correction. The rest of the nation is, too. The Supreme Court's ruling has slapped about half a million people in the face. This morning, everybody with an amp in his head is standing, blinking into the light of a new day. Wondering what it all means.
I'm starting to get the gist.
Legalized discrimination. Around a hundred thousand amped kids being sent home from school across the nation. Nearly half a million amped adults wondering if they've still got a job. And a couple hundred million normal people, celebrating.
Sirens wail as a column of dark SUVs hurtles past me, long antennae seesawing over potholes. At one point, a tubby, middle- aged guy sprints by, barefoot and panting and with one metal- laced plastic leg. His real foot hits the sidewalk, then his fake one.
Slap, clink. Slap, clink. Slap, clink.
I stop and watch the man until he is gone. The shock of what I saw this morning is starting to fade around the edges, tickling and stinging. An acid knot of anger and sadness has wormed its way into the back of my throat and cornered itself there.
From somewhere nearby, I hear the repetitive, booming calls of a rally.
"Pure Pride," they're chanting. "Pure Pride."
The Pure Human Citizen's Council is reveling in the decision. The organization grew up organically in the last decade, responding to amps like a foreign body rejection. At first the PHCC was a religious nonprofit. Sanctity of the body, love what God gave ya — that sort of thing. But then they got support from all over and they got it fast. Middle- class families who worried their kids wouldn't be able to compete in the new future. Labor unions with an eye on keeping jobs for their human members. And politicians who knew a good bandwagon when they saw it.
Pure pride. Pure pride.
Following the chants, I find the Cathedral of Learning jutting out of the university lawn like a broken shard of some fairy- tale castle. Out in front, a crowd surrounds a hastily constructed stage with a solid- looking podium on top. These people are all smiles, victorious. Less than a mile from here someone is rinsing blood off a high school lawn.
Everywhere I look, I see bare temples.
Crossing into the park, I slide half behind a tree and watch a girl wearing a short skirt and a pair of sunglasses with frames that dip to intentionally expose her smooth, unmodified temples. Hairstyles, sunglasses, hats — all designed to make sure that one important patch of undisturbed skin is visible. Proof of your humanity. I don't remember when the style became popular. A year ago? Two? Maybe when people first started boycotting amp- run businesses. Or when the first Paralympian broke an Olympic record. It was a gradual erosion. Always something small enough to shrug off. And besides, none of it should affect me. I'm not an amp like Samantha.
The neural implant in my head only kills seizures. That's it. Boring. No intelligence amplification or prosthetic memory or body diagnostics — just a run- of- the- mill medical implant. Amazing for the minute after it was created, then made stupendously mundane by mass proliferation and daily use.
I'm a normal guy. I was a normal kid. Normal as anybody.
That's the speech I practiced for so many years. A litany I repeated so many times I'd even convinced myself. Until this morning. Now I'm starting to understand that I stood right in the middle of the train tracks until it was too late. I convinced myself things were fine, even while the steel rails were vibrating under my feet like jackhammers and that great big steaming black mother of a locomotive was inches away, whistle shrieking, barreling down on me faster than God's thoughts.
The nub on the side of my head feels like a conspicuous pimple. I let my hair hang loose over it, but it won't fool anybody. And I see it hasn't fooled the three well- dressed guys with radio earpieces who roam the crowd. Nobody allows his hair to hang this way by accident. Not unless he has something to hide.
Some weakness. Some deformity.
My first seizure happened when I was thirteen. I was hanging with some older kids from school. We skipped out to lunch and I rode in the back of a real manual- driven pickup truck. Dumb typical teenager shit. I remember standing up and leaning into the wind. My hair lashing my face numb. That old truck rattling with speed, really galloping.
And then the bump, of course.
I didn't feel the impact. Just the cold hand of a ghost running down the back of my neck. Saw trees flashing by. Body skipping over asphalt and rolling to a stop like a puppet with cut strings. The smell of grass and the burned- rubber scrape of my sneakers on hot pavement. Limbs quaking. Those strange funny moans in my throat. I remember the eyes of my friends as they leaned over me, scared and guilty and confused.
Those same eyes were there when I came back from the hospital. Amped. My own dad, Dr. Gray, put the bug in my head and he always said he did it just right. I didn't come back any smarter. Didn't move any faster. Still had all my fingers and toes. Just left the seizures and brain trauma behind me.
I thought I came back normal. Thought I could pull it off. But a medical maintenance nub looks the same as a Neural Autofocus one. No matter what you say to yourself, you get the same stares. The technology has made it inside your body and contaminated you. Outsider, say the eyes that flash my way. You don't belong here.
I flinch when the applause begins.
"I am incredibly honored to introduce the president and founder of the Pure Human Citizen's Council, based right here in Pittsburgh . . . our very own senator Joseph Vaughn," announces a reedy- voiced woman from the podium. Rapturous applause radiates from the crowd.
Vaughn. Self- appointed watchdog for the human race. As a second- term senator from Pennsylvania and a news pundit, he doesn't promote hate but calls the struggle between amps and "pure humans" a war. Never condones violence but supports self-defense for any person whose way of life is under attack. Claims only to target extremist amps, but says that among amps, well, extremism is mainstream.
This is the man who is responsible for pushing Samantha's case all the way to the Supreme Court.
The crowd vibrates to Vaughn's thousand- watt smile. The politician is shaking hands and making eye contact with each person he greets. Everywhere he looks, his smile is reflected in the faces of his supporters. Watching him move among the crowd is like watching a fire spreading.
By the time the head of the Pure Human Citizen's Council bounces onto the stage, the crowd is buzzing. Signs bob in the air:
"Pure pride!" "Level the playing field." "Humans first!"
"The highest court in the land has spoken. . . . Welcome to the first day of the future of the United States of America!" shouts Vaughn, pumping his fist to violent applause.
A shadow falls across me and I'm staring at a red tie. It is wrapped around the neck of a large, friendly-looking man. His suit is crisp but his fingernails are filthy. A tattoo marks the web of his right thumb. Two tiny capital letters: EM.
I frown at the tattoo and he casually folds his hands to hide it.
"Maybe you want to move along?" asks the security guard, smiling down at me like he was my best friend's dad. That's okay, I think. Maybe I'll just stay and hear this rally out. Learn something about my enemy.
So I smile right back and sit down cross- legged in the grass.
He takes a measured breath and mutters something into his collar. Then he smiles wide again and walks around behind me. I feel his palm on the top of my head. His meaty fingers drum against my skull a couple times.
"That's fine," he says. "Just be a good little amp."
I rest my chin in my hand and listen to the senator.
"Today, the Supreme Court upheld what we knew was right all along — this country needs a level playing field!" he shouts. The crowd's hands blur in applause.
"Yes, the courts have ruled in our favor," Vaughn says, "but the fight is not over. Just this morning, our offices in Washington, DC, were bombed. I know we're all praying for our brothers and sisters who were murdered in that cowardly attack, and we sure won't rest until the guilty parties are brought to justice!"
The energy feels manic. People spew ragged shouts of approval. "And there are plenty of guilty parties. As I speak, doctors trained at this university are turning more people into amps. Federally funded researchers are not just curing disease but going further — tearing the humanity away from regular people. Our soldiers. Our parents. Our children.
"The federal Uplift program promised that, with a wave of a magical wand, our disadvantaged youth would be implanted and cured forever. They made promises. Said their legs will run faster, their minds will think more clearly, and their eyes will see farther. The doctors came and turned whole communities of people into amps overnight," says Vaughn, his vowels falling like snow on the crowd.
Strictly speaking, it wasn't overnight. The changes crept in around the edges, too slow to be noticed, like mold on bread. Fixing serious medical problems first but always moving closer to the simple trials of daily life.
It started with kids. The blind kids, the ones crippled by disease, and the stone- faced kids with low IQs. Kids with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder so bad they couldn't sit still long enough to wipe their own asses.
I remember seeing those kids after school was out, climbing inside a wheezing government bus with the words uplift program written on it. Its windows were painted over with the silhouette of a little boy reaching hopefully for the sky. Diagnosed and evaluated and treated in one afternoon. The kids came back to school the next day with a nub on their temples and a wicked case of the smarts.
It was a new life for kids in need. Until one day an amp kid threw a football hard enough to snap ribs. A high school debate championship got canceled when the judges realized two- thirds of the participants had amps. A new generation of children was arriving, smart and fast and strong enough to send chills down your human spine.
"But what if you are not ready?" asks Vaughn. "What if you see the risk as too great, the cost as too high, or if you are comforted in the knowledge that your child is perfect in God's eyes, as all children are? Ask yourself, how long will you be able to hold the line against this new wave of parasitic technology? Because we are on the verge of an arms race. One child upgrades and leaves for an amp school. Then another. And another. Soon, your child will be the only normal child. Left behind. And even if your community doesn't upgrade, others will. So if you don't live in a flashy place like Los Angeles or New York City, why, you just might watch your whole town get left behind. How then will you protect your children?"
Vaughn's voice breaks with emotion on the word. He pinches the bridge of his nose and wipes his eyes. Very convincing.
"Amps are going to work together. Amps are going to find each other. And if we don't stop them right now, these amp communities will continue to grow like a cancer that will rot out the heart of this great nation.
"We are balanced on the edge of a cliff, my friends. When we step off that ledge, things will never return to normal. There are now nearly five hundred thousand amps. Once these implants become even more widespread, the technology will accelerate faster and faster until we are in a future spinning out of control. Our society — the one our forefathers fought and died for — will be ripped away from its heritage, cast out of the orbit of human civilization that stretches back for thousands of years. And we must not let that happen."
Joseph Vaughn rakes a sober gaze over the crowd and then looks down at his pages, waiting until the adulation subsides.
"What can we do? How can we stop the destruction of our nation, our society, and our children's future? Well, I'll tell you how. We've got to separate the amps. Regulate the amps. And obliterate the technology that turns human beings into amps. Together, we stand as the last generation of pure human citizens. And so we must act as a collective instead of as individuals. We must fight for our nation instead of for ourselves. And we must win. Because if we fail, ladies and gentlemen, the world of humankind — our world — will come to an end."
The crowd's wild response is like proof that Samantha was right. Everything changed today. The most terrifying part is that Sam was smarter than me. Her eyes were open so wide at the very end — open for such a long time while mine were squeezed shut. She saw this coming and she chose to step away. Chose to have her dead body shoveled onto a gurney and pushed into an ambulance waiting quietly in the parking lot with its goddamn engine off. No sirens, no lights.
In a final orgy of applause, the rally moves on. The smiling faces and unblemished temples march out of the park, singing, headed downtown for the next stop. They leave behind muddy footprints, crumpled flyers, and tiny plastic American flags. The litter of patriots.
I sit in the damp grass and absorb the numb quiet for fifteen minutes. Soon, the Cathedral green is abandoned. Even my friendly bodyguard with the strange little tattoo has ambled away. Now there is just the stage and the podium sprouting from it like a tombstone.
Curious and alone, I mount the stage and stand behind the podium. Looking out onto the green expanse shaded by the slat-windowed cathedral tower, I try to imagine the power Vaughn must have felt standing here.
But I don't feel powerful. I feel empty.
My enemy stood on this spot moments ago and declared war on people like me. His vision of how the world should be seems so stark. Now that he has the momentum of the nation, I doubt Senator Vaughn and his Pure Priders will stop at words.
A piece of paper still rests on the podium. Just an extra page that must have fallen off the end of the speech. I pin it against the wood, hold it quivering in the breeze.
The letterhead is marked with an official seal: a coat of arms with the words "Pure Human Citizen's Council" on a circular banner, wrapped around the bas- relief image of a smiling little girl with a clean temple. Beneath her face, the word "Elysium" is embossed. Faintly, I notice the first and last letters of the word are bigger. Somehow familiar.
I've seen those two letters before, in a tattoo: EM.
Pittsburgh Post- Gazette
Federal Agents to Seize Research
* * * FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — BREAKING NEWS * * *
PITTSBURGH — In another blow to implanted citizens, agents with the FBI have been tasked this morning with seizing research equipment and documents from federally funded laboratories in Pittsburgh and throughout the nation.
The seizures are part of an ongoing ethics investigation that took on sudden urgency with the announcement that the federal government would not consider implanted citizens a protected class. As a result, the federal committee on research and technology issued a nationwide freeze on government research into neural implants and announced a recall of all related equipment from federally funded laboratories.
According to the FBI, this first series of seizures will likely be without incident. Since last July, federal research dollars have been restricted to medical studies that center on curing serious neurological disease, such as refractory epilepsy or Parkinson's disease.
"We don't like to call our people in on such short notice, but we were instructed to take action immediately," said Tanner Blanton, supervisory agent for the FBI's Pittsburgh southside office. "There is no criminal investigation at this time, but based on careful examination of seized evidence we will determine whether federal funds were used outside the mandate of government contracts."
I must have noticed the white van parked just outside my father's office on some level, but the meaning of it doesn't hit me until about thirty minutes later — right after the detonation.
I'm standing in the sunlight outside my dad's medical practice, a government satellite office two blocks from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine where Neural Autofocus was invented. Vaughn's speech is finished, but I can still hear the roar of his crowd from where it has gathered on the school steps just around the corner.
My dad answers the door. I open my mouth to tell him what happened and he doesn't let me finish the sentence. Grabs me and folds me into a bear hug.
"It was on the news, Owen. I'm sorry," he says.
Then, oddly, he scans the street. Pulls me into the waiting room and locks the front door. I give him a look, and my dad says something that puts a cold sweat on my forehead: "The police are looking for you. Just for questioning. But there are things you need to know."
We march past familiar photos of my father's happy patients: a toddler with his prosthetic carbon fiber arm clasped around his mother's neck, preteens with their maintenance nodes coated in rainbow colors they chose from a thick binder, and an elderly man standing straight and proud with the skeletal metal of an artificial calf and foot shining below his khaki shorts.
You can't separate the body from the mind. In the last decade, the Neural Autofocus became elective with every upgrade, from artificial limbs to medical exoskeletons to retinal implants. Autofocus makes the communication between mind and body seamless. Sharpens you up, they say. Every one of those smiling faces on the wall has that subliminal gleam of intelligence. Overclocked brains and shiny new limbs.
My dad ushers me through the empty waiting room and down an antiseptic corridor toward the back offices. Most of the lights are off. An office window is broken. Papers are strewn around the floor, marked by boot prints.
"We were raided this morning," Dad says. "The feds seized everything."
"Because of the ruling?"
He nods. "A research freeze. Vaughn's rallies have them in a frenzy."
My father cocks his head and listens to the eerily quiet hallway. Then he opens the door to his cramped office. Cheap venetian blinds chatter as the door swings. He squeezes into the squeaky chair behind his desk. A blank square marks where his computer used to be. Emptied file cabinets gape.
I sit down across from him.
As a kid, I played with toy cars on the floor under this desk. After my mom passed away, I hung out here for countless hours before and after school. I grew up under these fluorescent lights, but now the place seems strange, broken.
"What's going to happen?" I ask.
My father just shakes his head.
"It's too much to tell and I waited too long. I am sorry."
He clears his throat and looks away, blinking. I realize how much older he looks today.
"Sorry for what?" I ask.
"You have to understand, Owen, when we started this research all those years ago, we were excited. The potential to do so much good. Curing diseases, making people better. But when you got hurt . . ." He takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry I never told you."
"Never told me what?" I ask, my voice hollow.
The answer is already nibbling at the back of my mind. Little memories of life here at the shop: playing, working, even sleeping here when my dad worked late. And every once in a while, after the nurses left and the front door was locked, Dad called me into the operating room to check on my implant. He wanted to make sure the seizures would leave me alone, he said. I'd stare at the anatomy poster on the wall while he put on his mask and pulled his magnifier lens over one eye. The last time he tinkered with my implant was in high school, when I was about Samantha's age. The age she'll always be.
Frontal lobe. Temporal lobe. Motor cortex. Sensory cortex.
"You're an amp," he says.
My father watches me absorb the words, desperate for forgiveness. Grasping at it. But this new reality is too shocking to digest.
"I'm not medical?" I ask, reeling.
His lip twitches involuntarily and I realize he is holding back tears. "You were hurt so bad, Owen," he says. "My baby boy. Falling off that truck hurt you worse than you knew. Worse than I ever, ever let on."
"But you said I had a simple brain stimulator. That I'm not like the elective kids. Not an amp." I mumble the words like an incantation. Like a prayer. "You told me I was normal."
"Understand that I used every possible means at my disposal to repair the trauma. You didn't need to know. Stigma does terrible things to children. You've heard those demonstrators outside. I needed to give you a normal childhood."
"So you lied."
"Until you have a child of your own, you cannot comprehend how much I love you," he says flatly.
"Do I even have epilepsy?"
"You do. But the hardware you've got is special. It does much more than prevent seizures. The insult you suffered to your brain was . . . devastating. The implant had to shoulder the burden while you healed. It became a part of you, Owen."
There is something else. Something worse. Some shiver of guilt in my father's shoulders gives it away. "Neural Autofocus can't do that," I say.
He fixes his eyes on mine and replies instantly. "I gave you something extra."
I press my palms against my eyes until dark pinwheels lace my vision. I've had a head full of lies all of my life. This thing my father put in my brain does more than stave off epilepsy. It must accelerate my mind, sharpen my intellect, insinuate itself into every thought I have.
Every thought I've ever had.
For an instant, I envy Samantha Blex. At least she saw herself for who she was. It occurs to me that my own father killed whoever I am, or might have been, with the implant he chose to put in my adolescent skull.
"Things got out of control so fast," says my father. "Joe Vaughn and his Pure Human Citizen's Council — they came out of nowhere. You can never underestimate the fear that drives humankind."
"I need to think," I say.
"You don't have time to think," he says. "The federal government already has my research. There were things in there I couldn't erase. Parts requisitions. Lab time. Once they figure out what I did, I'll be arrested. Then they're going to come for you. For what's inside your head. They are likely already on their way."
I'm touching the nub on my temple, prodding it compulsively with my fingertip. "What did you do to me?"
"The hardware I gave you was stolen," he says. "At the time, there was no other choice. Nothing off the shelf was powerful enough to compensate for the damage."
"This is crazy — "
"You need to go right now. Through the side office. The police are looking for you about your student's death. Do not speak to them under any circumstances. Try to close your bank account." He starts scribbling notes on a piece of paper, frantic. "Listen to me, Owen. Get your things and go west, to a place called Eden. It's a trailer park in Eastern Oklahoma," he says, handing me the paper.
I stand up and open the office door. "A trailer park?" I ask.
"Eden is where all of this began — the original Uplift site. We chose to test Autofocus there because it was isolated and rural. The population was in need. A perfect setting for our experiment. Only now, it's become an enclave. Full of other people who are like you. Your own kind, Owen."
He reacts to the look on my face. My own kind?
"You've got to find a man named Jim Howard, an old colleague of mine. He'll guide you through this. There's a lot you need to learn about yourself."
"Dad?" I ask. "Dad, come with me. I can't — "
"Go!" he barks. The force of his exclamation jolts me into the hallway. "Find Jim Howard. Don't tell me how you're getting there. They're coming for me right now. When they take me in, I will have the opportunity to obfuscate the situation. At the very least, I may cause a delay. It is the best chance you've got." My father is suddenly small and old and feeble behind his desk. Like someone I've never met. Never would want to meet. "I risked everything to give you a life," he says. "Don't throw it away."
I know the thing I'm about to say isn't fair and that I can never take it back, but I say it anyway. That's just how it goes, sometimes.
"You didn't give me a life," I say. "You stole it."
My father is quiet for a long second. When he speaks, his voice is without emotion. "You've got to realize, Owen, that without the amp you would have died. It is a part of you, but you have to give it permission. I gave you something extra. When the time comes, you have to activate the amp willingly."
"When the time comes for what?"
"To do good, Owen," he says, standing. He softly pushes the door, eyes never leaving mine. "I'm sorry that I waited until it was too late. Find Jim. The old man is the only one who can help you now."
The door shuts and the hallway is silent save the far- off roar of demonstrators. I follow my dad's advice and walk on dull legs out the side door. Through the adjoining offices. Out into the alley that runs alongside the building. Run my fingers over rough brick. Look at the world without seeing it. After a half minute walking through the familiar backstreet, I get a funny feeling. For some reason, I stop and look at the sky.
A block away, a bomb detonates.
The guttural roar engulfs me and a shock wave brings my knees to the pavement. Dark smoke pours into the street behind me. The concussion has erased half my father's building. Pieces of brick and concrete are still spinning away.
It takes a little while for my legs to listen to me.
A harsh ringing in my ears already combines with a cacophony of sirens. Fire trucks, ambulances, police. I stagger toward the smoke, an urban zombie. Flames are eating the rind of the building. Its heart is a burned- out mess. The parking lot is wiped empty, the pavement cratered where the white van sat.
The realization gently nudges into my mind: my father could not have survived.
A heap of smoking gray rubble smolders where his office was. Nothing recognizable, just twisted rebar and concrete and ash. I don't stop advancing when the surging heat starts to prick my face or when my throat goes raw and stinging from the smoke.
I stop when I see the flashing blues and reds.
Under no circumstances, my father said. Tears well in my eyes as I survey the wreck. I blink them away, searching for some sign of life. The clouds of smoke throb with police lights, ring with sirens. The silhouette of a police officer drifts through the haze and comes into focus.
"Hey," she calls.
I turn and stumble away. Ignore her shouts as I duck around a corner. Eyes leaking, I accelerate until I'm sprinting down the alley — running blind, breath rasping, away from the noise and turmoil and death.