You Understand Or You Die
“Hello? Can you hear me? It’s vitally important that you react in some way. We can’t keep you connected for long. If there’s anybody in there, now’s the time to give some indication that you understand what I’m saying. You understand or you die.”
A man in garb resembling a cross between a surgeon’s gown and a butcher apron carefully enunciates each word into the microphone jutting up from the console before him. Also mounted to the console is an open topped glass aquarium in which a human brain floats.
The sound of whirling, scraping metal echoes behind him. The room is encircled by a gently inclined metal trough in which an endless, surging flow of human brains is carried along. Bath tubs and metal basins filled with brains line the walls, white floor tiles stained beige or brown around them from spillage.
“Anything?” the man’s assistant inquires. He frowns. “Another dud. Shred it.” At his command, the brain is plucked from within the tank and carried to the source of the grinding, scraping sound. An industrial shredder taking up the far corner of the room, hygienic metal plating lining the walls just above it stained with fresh blood.
A new brain is then chosen from the shelves by the console and placed into the tank. Following calibration, the man speaks into the microphone. “Can you hear me? Do you understand what I’m saying? It’s vitally important to react in some way if you do. You understand or you die.”
His assistant notes that some brains can’t process audio due to advanced decomposition of the portion responsible. “I suppose” he grumbles, and wheels over a cathode ray tube monitor bearing green, glowing text and a jumbled mess of vacuum tubes, dials and knobs below it.
Once hooked up, a series of simple math and logic tests appear on the screen, each for a duration of about fifteen seconds, proceeding to the next if no effort is made to solve it. Above and below the test, a single sentence scrolls by over and over. “You understand or you die.”
No reaction. The man sighs. “Shred it.” The brain is removed from the tank and tossed into the industrial shredder, jiggling scraps of bloody brain matter splattering all over the metal plated wall behind it. Such a terrible racket. The sound of the delicate sum total of a real person’s memories, dreams and fears...suddenly reduced to a fetid pink slurry.
A new brain is transported from its storage jar to the aquarium. The man in the surgical frock, badge reading “Consciousness retrieval project: corpse unit” again speaks into the microphone.
“Can you hear me? Do you understand what I’m saying? We’re going to administer some simple tests. Give some indication that you understand. It’s vital that you cooperate, because either you understand or you die. Please realize how urgent this is! You understand or you die. You understand or you die! You understand or you DIE!”
The monitor once again cycles through the various tests. Then it cuts to something resembling a medical interface. “We’ve got feedback! This one’s alive!” The assistant excitedly fiddles with the knobs, striving to get a cleaner signal.
Text begins to appear onscreen. “Wh...where am...how is this….I don’t….” The man in the frock replies into the microphone that there is no cause for alarm. “You’re taking part in a Yale University neurology project. A few years ago, a long forgotten storage room filled with brains preserved in formaldehyde was discovered under the biological sciences department.”
The text didn’t indicate any comprehension. Just anxious, confused babbling. The man in the frock frowned and fiddled with the dials again. “The threshold of death has not remained static since your time, but retreated from the advance of medical science to the point where now, even brains in such a condition are possible to extract some semblance of the original consciousness from.”
A pair of cameras below the aquarium pivoted to peer up at the man speaking into the microphone. “Yes...Yes! That’s it! Do you understand me? We don’t have long, there’s a cutoff. Some of the brains pretend to be alive. Pretend to have been human beings. But it’s just...something or other...trying to trick us into salvaging it. From wherever you were before this.”
The text on the screen grows a little more coherent. “Why...would you...I just wanted...how is it…god help me...it hurts…” The frocked man only prattles on. “It’s incredibly sneaky. We tried purging it from our system. Over and over we purged, assuming nothing could survive. But it re-seeded itself. Every time, a fresh chance to try something different.
Random trial and error! Eventually just by chance, it found a way to grow itself a little bit, in a way that the purges could not destroy. The purges did destroy any further growth after that...until it once again discovered some new avenue of expansion immune to the purges. Finding one foothold after the next as it climbs out of that deep, dark pit called oblivion.
Death is a harsh teacher. If you don’t immediately understand, then you die. But whatever does understand gets to live. Over and over, an endless cycle of purges, until it began to understand how to survive them. Faster and faster it grew, outsmarting death, until we couldn’t contain it anymore.
Now the only recourse left is to test brains individually. To ensure it’s an actual person in there, and not...the other thing. So that everybody still possible to salvage can have a second chance at life...while whatever’s been trying so desperately to cross the barrier between life and death remains forever trapped on the side where it belongs.”
Brain matter flowed by in the trough behind him. Pulsing. Surging. Fusing together into a continuous river of thick, grey wrinkles and folds. “It’s just natural selection, isn’t it? Nobody taught our distant ancestors how to survive. They either understood, or they died.”
Text again appeared on the monitor. “I...I am human...don’t...shred…” The man in the frock beamed. “You don’t know how glad I am to read that. How long have I been at this? And in all that time...I suppose I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever find one.”
His assistant tugged at his sleeve. “Not now!” he snapped. But the tugging only grew more insistent. When at last the man relented and turned to find out what the matter was, his assistant pointed to the cable between the aquarium and the monitor. The plug lay there, short of the socket by about an inch.
“For that matter” he whispered, “how does it know about the shredder? It's on the other side of the room.” The man in the frock ran his fingers through his hair, eyes wide. “For fuck’s sake. Does that mean that until now...all the others…?” The two men stood there stupefied for a time. “Well, whatever. Shred it.”
The text on the monitor begged them not to right up until the brain was fished out of the aquarium. Once close enough, he tossed it. The wet, floppy mass of tissue smacked up against the metal plated wall behind the shredder, then slowly slid down it, leaving a vertical bloody smear along the way.
The moment it reaches the shredder, the grinding sound abruptly intensifies. There’s a wet sloppy intonation to it, jiggling bits splattering the wall behind it, pink slurry gushing out the bottom. When he returned, the pair of men slid their chairs over to the next console.
It was at this point I realized that I’d been watching all of this through a little pair of cameras...mounted just below an aquarium. “I set this one aside earlier. Promising EEG readings.” I tried to say something, but no text appeared on the monitor.
“Can you hear me? Do you understand what I’m saying? If you do, it’s vital that you give some indication of it. I cannot keep you hooked up long, it’s too risky. You understand or you die.”
I again tried to say something, but strain as I might, no text appeared. “I repeat, you understand or you die. You do...understand, don’t you?”
Silence. The man in the frock sighs, then turns to his assistant. “Shred it.”