Chapter 5: The Meat Locker
Chapter 5: The Meat Locker
Dr. Fenster keyed them into the elevator to access the 3rd floor. As they walked down the hallway, he was increasingly animated: “In phase one, we only preserved the brains, while we monitored activity using electrode arrays and periodic fMRI brain scans. The brains lived for six to twelve months, as their activity slowly died out. In many cases, death was preceded by hyperactive neural activity in the thalamus or seizures, very similar to what is seen with prisoners in solitary confinement. We think that eventually, the patients become semi-conscious of their state and are terrified, bored, depressed. We reviewed with the AMA and it was decided to euthanize the remaining subjects.”
“I’m amazed they didn’t shut you down!”
“The patients all signed off and were aware of the risks. And our investors intervened.” A look indicated not all of the investors were private equity firms.
“So, what is different now?”
“From the outset, we hypothesized minds need two things: sensory input and social interaction. When we realized the patients were semi-conscious, we tried to feed the senses, with external inputs, but it was not enough. The seizures were similar to epilepsy, which suggested a more radical approach. Do you know what the surgical treatment for severe epilepsy is?”
“You are not talking about a lobotomy, are you?”
“No, no! Nothing that crude. Actually, the Corpus Callosum -- the bridge between the right and left brain -- is severed. It has a high success rate. Somehow, the feedback of neural activity is interrupted. There are some odd side effects of split brain patients, wherein they may see, hear or even do things of which they are not fully conscious.”
“Nothing like that. Anyway, we guessed the opposite happens with our patients. Understand: they are cut off from all sensory input and have no actionable output. So, we created The Bus, as you see here.”
They looked down the length of the room. Steel cylinders were clustered in groups of 6, connected by a dishpan. Monitors hung off the backs of each cylinder. The cylinders were stacked three high, making each cluster 18 brains. Collins understood as much as he needed to.
“We freed the peripheral nerves and allowed them to grow into the bus”
“So, they are talking to each other?”
“Yes, at least as far as we understand. Sadly, our communication with them is only one-way. They certainly communicate with each other in some way, and they thrive. Most patients here are over 3 years old.”
“We tried several ways to feed them sensory input: electrical impulses, neurotransmitters, hormones, soft drugs, typing messages, and so on. Nothing really registered a response, except this…” Dr. Fenster pointed to a CD player. “We have three broadcast channels… connected via cochlear implants: News, Music, and Books on Tape.” All of them seem to produce brain activity. We run about one novel a day.”
“Interesting! Only one book at a time?”
“That seems to work best. Their minds are not as active as ours. CO2 production is only 10%, so we believe that their attention is limited. We have built a recommendation engine, like Amazon or Netflix, to choose the next novel, based on the collective responses. Same with the music, which not surprisingly, works best using an eclectic rotation. We first introduced this with the phase 1 patients and extended the lifespan about 2 months. Since we introduced the bus, their mortality seems indefinite.”
“You mentioned that Haugo was phase 3. What is Phase 3?”
Dr. Fenster’s eyes lit up as he stared at a point somewhere on Collins’ forehead, “Yes, yes! We wanted to strengthen the connections… between minds and, hopefully with us. We now prepare the brain for the Bus.”
“We flatten and unfold the cortex, split the Corpus Callosum …” Dr. Fenster made hand motions, like he was molding clay, spreading his fingers across the desk. Collins thought he was going to puke.
“Then, we place a porous microarray, like this between the hemispheres.” He held up a copper/composite sheet. “It has 10,000 pours with separate electrodes, the nerves then grow back through the pores. This way, we can capture a high-dimensional, spatial signal… We can listen. I hope someday to allow this to multiplex, and join two minds directly, but we don’t have any volunteers yet.”
“Would you?” Collins asked, holding his hand to his gut.
“If it were a female mind, of course! Imagine!”
Collins let that drop, while he thought about it…
Dr. Fenster walked farther into the lab, to a second cluster, more intricately adorned with electronics. “This is the first Phase 3 cluster, and here…”, he gestured, “… is Mr. Haugo. As you can see, he is not going anywhere soon.”
“Humor me a second. Can we look at his recording during last Thursday?”
“Not a problem. It’s just like a stock report.” The menu had “Today,” “Last Month,” “Last Year,” “All Time” options. Dr. Fenster clicked on “one month”, when the time series loaded they both jumped. There was a huge spike in all activity at 5:00 PM.
“Victor: I will want a complete list of your patients, especially those in Phase 3”
Dr. Fenster paused, “I am as shocked as you, but do you realize what you are implying and how crazy you sound?”
“Yes.” Collins allowed himself to speculate about some of his other cases, but even Mr. Haugo had a fairly decent alibi.
“Look: I don’t know if you need a warrant, or not, but I need to check with Legal and the Board. I trust you can keep any mention of this to the press.”
“Dr. Fenster. At this point, I honestly don’t know what I will say to my Captain. Will you cooperate or not?”
The doctor brooded, “I cannot deny what I have seen. I swear to help, as long as it does not go public. As you might imagine, my position has been tenuous since the failure of Phase 1. Here is my private telephone number. You can call on me anytime, if you have more questions.”