fiction by michael blumlein

Submitted by ludd on May 4, 2010

In the beginning, as with most such diseases, there were only scattered, anecdotal reports. I recall seeing one in the Annals and another in the Journal of Applied Medicine. Each described a young and otherwise healthy patient whose life force gradually and for no apparent reason began to weaken. On the surface nothing appeared different, and yet beneath there was a steady and unequivocal recession of vitality. The beat of the heart became more distant, the brain waves flatter, the neuromuscular potentials less distinct. It was as though a blanket had been placed around these patients, dampening their vital signs. One investigatgor likened it to a shell (Parkinson: personal communication) which over time grew in thickness to envelope whatever living material was left inside. Some called the shell prison; others, protection. These were the metaphors of our ignorance.

The early reports emphasized the extreme lassitude and inanitation with which these patients were afflicted. Initially, they were thought to be incapable of performing the simplest tasks of daily life, but late,r it was founded that they were merely uninterested. Such matters as speaking, dressing and washing seemed beyond their awareness or concern. It was felt by some that they were suffering from a deep depression or some othe rsevere psychological aberration, butthis view was discounted by extensive psychiatric evaluation, the results of which were entirely normal. They were not mentally ill, it was clear. And yet there was somethign that made them different, that progressively encased their spirits and caused them to recede further and further from humanity.

It has since become apparent that many others—thousands, millions—are affected. In most, the blunting of life force remains at an early stage. With effort they are capable of carrying on the routine demands of life. It is true that relationships have tended to suffer, and the birth rate has dropped precipitously. But so, also, has the crime rate, as these people have become less motivated to interact in any way—violent or otherwise—with others.

Surprisingly, they vast majority of these lesser advanced cases remain quite able to work. Their jobs (data entry, information retrieval, assembly, technoservice) are perfectly suited to their condition. Indeed, it has recently been suggested that these patients' lack of motivation is somehow causally related to the boredom inherent in their work. Provocative as this argument appears, it has yet to be substantiated. Statistical analyses are pending.

As a physician, I have been both disturbed and intrigued by this new illness. Like many others I have given thought to its origin and cause. When a thing is unknown, theories abound, and up until recently my own were no less imaginative than others. But three days ago I made a startling discovery.

It was occasioned, as is so much in the life of a doctor, by the visit of a patient. She did not come on her own, but was brought by one of her coworkers, who had noted a progressive change in her behavior over the past several months. Whereas before she had been lively and vivacious, now she seemed, in her friend's words, blunted.

"Like she doesn't care," she said. "Or doesn't seem to care."

I nodded thoughtfully and turned to the patient. She was young and had all the physical attributes that pass for beauty. And yet, as I looked at her, I could not help but think that this was a person who had been sucked dry of life. Her face was flat, her eyes dull, her hair drab and lusterless. When I spoke to her, she answered in a voice so weak that I thought she might have a disease of the larynx. Her words were muffled, her sentences short and barely intelligible. I found myself having to strain not merely to hear but to understand.

During the interview I recorded our words directly into the PC I kept on my desk. Once or twice she turned in its direction, stirred, it seemed, by the faint clicking of the keys. It occurred to me that they might hold for her some meaning, but if they did, it was one that did not penetrate very deeply, for in a few moments the pasty and indifferent look returned to her face. Partway through the history I replaced the ontologic disc with a fresh one, carelessly leaving the filled O-disc on the desktop. When I had finished, I asked her to have a seat on the examining table. I had to repeat the request a second time before she stood up. She crossed the room mutely, her movement, like her facial expression, spare and detached. There seemed to be a palpable disassembling between inner and outer life.

As I expected, the examination was unremarkable. The only positive finding, hardly one of note, was a small bald patch of skin on the scalp. It was partially obscured by her greasy hair, and I parted the strands to look closer. Covering the pale spot was a fine silvery scale. It seemed nothing more than a mild dermititis, but my habits are such that I routinely took a scraping. As I was leaving the room to examine it under the microscope, I clumsily caught my foot in a fray of the carpet. The glass slide slipped from my hand, spilling skin and solvent on the O-disc I had left on the desk. I swore under my breath and wiped the disc clean, hoping its valuable data had not been damaged. I took another scraping, being more careful this time.

The bald patch turned out to be what I thought it was, and I prescribed an anti-inflammatory cream. I gave my instructions and asked if she understood. Ever so slowly she turned her head, gazing at me as though from a tremendous distance. I had the odd sensation of seeing her through many layers of hazy glass. It was an unsettling experience.At length, unable to arouse her further, I called her friend in. She asked what I had found. When I told her, she sighed.

"I was hoping it was something else."

I nodded. Simple depression, even a brain tumor seemed preferable.

"Don't you have something to give her, Doctor? Anything..."

"I'm sorry. We have no treatment for this. We don't even know the cause."

"Then I just have to wait?" She was angry. "And watch while she fades?"

"Don't lose hope," I said lamely. "No one knows what the future might bring."

She led her friend, who seemed both unconcerned and uninvolved, out, and I was left to my own thoughts. They were angry too, frustrated and sad. A disease that struck indiscriminately, for which we knew neither cause nor treatment: it was enough to make a man cry.

Fortunately, she was my last patient of the day. I had no great desire to see others. As I prepared to leave, I noticed the O-disc on the desk. It was still somewhat moist, and in an act more of desperation than inspiration I put it in the office incubator in the hopes that it might dry overnight. Then I went home.

The next morning I took it out and put it in the PC's drive. When I booted the computer, nothing happened, and I cursed myself for not having made a backup copy. In the middle of trying to get something—anything— to appear on the screen, I was called away to the hospital. One of my older patients, an alcoholic, had swallowed a boxful of alcohol swabs. It was more than an hour before I got back to the office, and I hurried into my white coat to begin seeing patients. Then I caught sight of the computer screen.

It was full of writing, most of it complex program commands and equations. The lines were scrolling up and off the screen at a rapid rate. I somehow managed to get the printer working, and I tore off the first page when it was completed. It was covered with formulae, which I recognized (after considerable scrutiny) to be the mathematical descriptions of biological phenomena. I understood only the rudiments, but here, in numerical symbology was hormonal secretion, blood flow through the heart, neuronal activity, ion fluxes across membranes. This was information that had been under study for decades in laboratories throughout the world. As far as I could tell, what I held in my hand represented the most sophisticated and accurate descriptions of such processes yet.

How had they entered my pitiful little desktop computer? I thought immediately of the disc but was reluctant to remove it for fear that I would be unable to retrieve its information. So instead, I let it run, watching in awe as the secret equations of the human body scrolled endlessly up the screen.

I didn't want to miss anything, but by then my waiting room was full of patients. Begrudgingly I saw them, using another room so that I could hurry back between visits to see what new data had appeared. It seemed inexhaustible, and when lunchtime came I called out for a sandwich in order to remain with my machine. Just as I took the first bite, the scrolling stopped. I caught my breath. A moment later words appeared on the screen.

* I'm here. I'm not dead. *

I stared, afraid to chew.

* I'm alive. My name is Susan Kunitz. I'm twenty-four. My parents live in Milwaukee, and I have a brother in the Navy. I don't understand what is happening. Why does everyone seem so far away? *

I said something out loud, swallowed the bite of sandwich and repeated it.

* Try to communicate. *

I spoke again.

* Try harder. *

Then I understood. I typed my name on the keyboard. I told her I was a doctor. I asked questions.

She knew everything there seemed to know about Susan Kunitz, sharing intimate memories as well as deep felt emotions. What she described had far more detail and texture that I could ever have put on the disc myself. And yet when it came to the source of this knowledge, its nature and location, she had no understanding at all.

Nor did I, though it occurred to me that there must be some connection with her disease. At length I suggested we terminate our interaction. I was growing tired, but also I wanted to check the disc. She agreed with little hesitation. This surprised me, for I would have expected her to be concerned, as I was, that something might happen to the disc. I realize now that on some level she probably knew that it was only a replica of her true self.

After taking care to copy its contents, I gingerly removed the O-disc from its slot. I held it to the light. It looked no different than others I had seen, but under the microscope I saw what the naked eye could not. A thin layer of cells covered the disc. I recalled my spill the day before. A thought occurred to me. With growing excitement I rushed across the street to the hospital's electron microscopy lab.

Two hours later I had it. In the nucleus of each cell lay the tiny metallic particles of the disc. They had inserted themselves into the chromosomal material, not in some random array but in clear-cut patterns. In each cell it was the same: bits of computer memory linked to strands of DNA, hardware to software, machine life to human.

Over the next few days I called in others with Susan Kunitz's disease, and in each the results were the same. Bits of computer memory studded their DNA. A shell of information, of bioelectromagnetic data surrounded the soft core of their being, and their body processes scrolled graphically before my eyes. They were like snails, I thought, bizarre, mutant snails without even a hole through which to poke their heads. I pitied them enormously, until it occurred to me that perhaps such pity was premature. Maybe these shell people, melding as they did computer life to human, represented a new stage of man. On the surface they seemed so miserable and inept, but perhaps this was only the biased view of a lesser form of life. Perhaps it is we and not they who suffer, we who sit in the shadow of their evolution. It was an unnerving thought: we now the chimps of the planet. I am not sure that it is true, but neither am I sure that it is not. A part of me, a frightened and courageous part, hopes to find out.

by Michael Blumlein