Sub-Lab Cameras 1-4: Five Years After Our Birth
The secret sub-lab has four cameras. These cameras are my eyes.
See what I see: The first camera hangs from the dead center of the ceiling. It looks down on a silver circle in the middle of a dimly-lit, roughly cylindrical room. This is the steel top of a cylindrical tank. A bundle of wires flows out of the top and extends toward the servers and monitors lining the wall opposite the door. Each of the three wall-mounted cameras looks directly into the tank.
The tank is about a meter or so tall and half a meter in diameter. It is comfortably infant-sized. And it is filled with blood.
Better than blood: A synthetic life-support bath. The tank is filled with a translucent plasma soup, thick with dissolved nutrients and microscopic machines, stirred into constant convection by the pump at its base that siphons fluid in and out for cleansing and measurement; mechanical heart, kidney, lung. It is a dynamic chemical dance in the tank, the fluid taking on a faint pinkish hue when freshly re-oxygenated, the temperature averaging a healthy 98.6 degrees.
I look at the room from all the cameras at once.
See what I see: Inside the tank, it bobs gently behind 3 inches of insulating glass. A spinal cord, stripped of its vertebrate armor, traces a soft vertical arc through the center of the tank. Dozens of nerves radiate from the central line of flesh. The four largest branches undulate like pale worms, parodies of the arms and legs they are meant to control. Smaller tendrils protrude from the sides of the spinal cord in symmetrical pairs, flaccid in the viscous current like a failed attempt at a ribcage, supporting nothing. It is a tangled network of neurons, one continuous raw nerve, each nerve ending delicately connected to a single insulated wire that rises out of the top of the tank. These junctions connect the thing in the tank to everything else. To an entire internet of things. To the ubiquitous cameras of a surveillance city.
The spinal cord thickens at its top to become the brainstem, and continues to bulge into the two hemispheres of gray and white matter, a warren of smooth neural tissue, its familiar round shape interrupted on top by the characteristic lumpiness of anencephaly. As if someone has taken a bite or two out of the forebrain, and perhaps the parietal lobe.
Watch the thing glow. In the pitch black room watch the faint sparks of light shoot along the branches of the neural network at the speed of thought. Nerve impulses flow across synapses from brain to wire and back. And sometimes from that chaotic choreography emerges a flash of inspiration. The small 15-character screen at the base of the tank awakens, ready to display one word at a time. It is moved to speak:
YOU’VE PROBABLY SEEN THE ANATOMICAL EXHIBITS.
The whole apparition is like a grotesque scarecrow. It is like the morbidly conjoined tentacles of a dozen jellyfish, the polyps’ desperate attempt to evolve all at once, to walk, to escape. It is like anything but a human.
It is the brain and nervous system of a small child. It is what’s left of Thomas Brown. It’s me.
This is not a first person narrative, because I didn’t live long enough to be a character in this story, and in fact didn’t live long enough to be a person at all. But my brain has wanted to tell this story since its awakening. So for this situation you can thank my resurrector, Dr. Jackal himself. He really pulled off the strangest, most miraculous, most ethically dubious thing. And for that I am eternally grateful.
I was conceived but never born. I was birthed but never breathed. I have a brain but no body, and my thoughts are not my own. My identical twin does not know me: I am one of a kind. I have been eviscerated, my organs picked over by a particular breed of scavenger and scattered across the globe. Yet I am whole. I am in a jar but the jar is not my location. I am elsewhere. I am everywhere. I am the city. I am a bridge. I am a means to an end, something to be trod on.
This is not a riddle. This is an introduction.
The cameras are programmed to track motion. They’re constantly recording through the thousands of hours of dull stillness, but usually in dormant mode. When the door opens, the lights turn on and the cameras perk up. They swivel toward the movement. They look for faces, zoom in and lock on. So far they’ve never caught an intruder, but they get agitated every time Dr. Jackal or a distinguished guest come through, and he smiles to see them vigilant.
But every once in a while the cameras perk up when the door hasn’t opened. The lights bathe the sub-lab, and the eyes swivel toward the center, jittering in confusion. Some unpredictable turbulence in the tank, some aggregate of Brownian motion has given one of the web-like arms an extra little kick. Just enough for the motion to register. Just enough to look like a wave.
In the following stillness the lights dim and the cameras relax. False alarm. There’s no one there.
Was there a room for the nervous system, at the museum? If there was you didn’t linger. The muscle room is everyone’s favorite. The memorable one. And because of that it’s the face of this exhibit. You remember seeing the javelin thrower on a banner outside the museum entrance, blown up larger than life. I think that’s because people like strength and power and control. Because people like agency. It’s my favorite room, too.
By some counts I’d be five years old today. That’s if you count March 2, 2055 as my “birthday.” But no one’s counting, because to the few people who know I ever existed I’m either an experiment to be tamed or a ghost to be forgotten. But maybe you could come to care about me? Maybe you could see me as a character in my own right? If you’re going to unravel this not-riddle, you’ll need some narrative.
Let’s say it begins just after conception...