Jeffrey Ricker

 

PERIPHERAL

 

by Jeffrey Ricker

 

 

Hobson had never even heard of chronic inflammatory leukemia. His doctor said it wasn’t genetic, they didn’t know what caused it, and it typically hit you after age seventy. It usually wasn’t what killed you. Usually.

You might have six months or sixteen years left. You’ll feel just fine, though you’ll get tired easily. Then one day you’ll just be too exhausted to even get out of bed.

There would be little to no pain, though. In the end, the doctor said, it would just feel like an overwhelming urge to go to sleep.

The doctor told Hobson this with a reassuring calm, as if it were meant to comfort him: no pain. Hobson wasn’t worried about dying—well, he was, but not about the actual event itself. It would be pointless to worry about something that had been inevitable since his birth. No point at all.

It was that time after the “one day” when he’d still be alive and too exhausted to do anything but sleep that terrified him. He’d leave so much work unfinished. The thought of it would intrude in the moment after he turned out the light to go to sleep. He’d lie there, frozen, eyes open, staring into the purple gloom and trying to memorize the contours of each shadow and lightness. Remember the dresser, the chair, the door—because one day, four, maybe five months into the future, he’d turn out that light and not be able to turn it back on, no matter how much he might want to.

Each time the thought came to him, he’d turn the light back on, get dressed, and drive to the lab.

He’d been getting up in the middle of the night and heading to the lab for years, though. It’s what had finally sent Amanda spiraling out of his orbit 10 years ago. It might have been too late for children, she’d said, but she still had enough years left that she wanted the chance to spend them with someone who wasn’t married to his work.

“Those damn probes of yours,” she’d said, lugging a suitcase toward the front door. “Maybe if I were a million miles away from you, then you’d notice me.”

Actually, the five probes were billions of miles away at that point, moving toward five different planets. None of them would reach their destinations in Hobson’s lifetime, even if he lived an exceptionally long life. Assuming there was anyone left on Earth to receive the first transmissions from their destinations, those people could download the data, put on a neural interface, and they would not only learn what the probe had discovered, they would experience it.

For about a month after his doctor visit, Hobson went about his work as if nothing had changed. If his colleagues noticed anything different in his behavior, none mentioned it. If Miguel noticed any change, he didn’t say. Miguel hadn’t said a whole lot of anything since the fall, when Hobson had overheard him talking on the phone, saying he thought working for Hobson was damaging his prospects and he was thinking of asking for a transfer.

He hadn’t asked, though. Not yet, anyway. They continued to work in strained silence, Miguel downloading the data feeds and Hobson working on the neural interface that still refused to work. Their tasks meant they didn’t have to address Miguel’s… betrayal. Defection. It felt like that, and yet it felt petty to think of it like that. Hobson couldn’t say Miguel was wrong. He knew how he was perceived around the department; he just didn’t care. He could see, though, how it might be an issue for Miguel, who was half Hobson’s age and looking to chart a career path that didn’t lead to a dead end.

After going through the routine of security measures—including the short but painful conversation with the night security officer—Hobson walked down the gray corridor to his lab to see a sliver of light at the bottom of the door.

Miguel didn’t hear him come in. There was music playing—jazz, not loud, but too high to carry on a conversation. Miguel sat with his back to the door, facing the trio of computer monitors where Hobson normally sat. At his left was a bottle of scotch and a tumbler one-third full. On his head, weighing down his normally unruly black hair, was the neural interface.

Hobson let the door clack shut, enjoying the little leap Miguel did in his chair—no, not his chair, my chair—as he turned around. His elbow collided with the bottle of scotch, which he caught too quickly to be drunk, although the interface now sitting lopsided on his hair made him look a little tipsy. He turned off the music.

“It was after hours,” he said, “so I figured…”

Hobson waved a hand—don’t worry about it—and as he shrugged out of his jacket, said, “A hat really does complete an outfit, doesn’t it?”

Miguel reached up to the helmet-like metal framework holding in place three concentric rings of sensors that pivoted to keep in contact with the skull. It would have looked like some elaborate head massager if it weren’t for the multicolored wires coiling back to the computer.

Hobson thought Miguel was about to pull the contraption off. Instead, he smiled and straightened it out.

“I got it to work,” he said.

Hobson didn’t think he’d heard him right. He was quiet maybe a moment too long; Miguel’s smile dipped.

“You didn’t,” Hobson said.

Miguel nodded. The smile came back wider as he turned back to the monitors.

“I had to rewrite the buffering subroutines. It occurred to me if the download was overloading NASA’s bandwidth, it would probably do the same thing for the human brain.”

It was basic, really. Obvious, even. The sort of thing Hobson shouldn’t have overlooked, but had. Amanda would have said she wasn’t surprised.

Miguel glanced back at Hobson for a moment. “Guess you’re lucky you didn’t fry your synapses.”

“Lucky.” Hobson pulled up a chair. “Do you have another glass?”

Miguel grabbed a styrofoam coffee cup and poured Hobson a shot. Hobson sipped his drink, letting the comfortable, warming burn settle in his gut, and thought of picking up the bottle and smashing Miguel over the head with it. Not because Miguel had done what seemed impossible, but because in the process he’d shown that Hobson was irrelevant now, a tangent to his own life’s work.

Maybe that was how it always had to happen.

And maybe he wanted to smash the bottle, not over Miguel’s head, but his own, for the same reason.

Hobson held out his free hand. “Mind if I give it a spin?”

Miguel handed him the headset and got up. Hobson settled into the chair and lowered it onto his head. The unit was already turned on, so the prickly feeling startled him—not like a shock exactly, more like the way static pulls clothing into wrinkles. His hair, what little he had left, felt like it was standing on end.

He called up the data feeds. “Which one did you load?” he asked.

“Number two,” Miguel said. That was the one heading to Gliese 581g—the best candidate for another Earth. “Number three doesn’t seem to be transmitting anymore.”

“Did you check the archived feed?”

Miguel shook his head. “I was kind of eager to get started.”

Frowning, Hobson opened the number two feed and waited while the stream buffered. “It takes a while to get it down to a manageable load,” Miguel said, “but it’ll still pretty much blow your mind.”

“Good to know.”

Miguel wasn’t wrong. The data barged into his mind like a clamor of voices all trying to talk to him at once. Hobson winced. They weren’t really voices, but that’s how his brain struggled to make sense of the data: like sounds, lots of them. Hobson resisted the urge to shake his head and instead tried to focus on one of the voices, one of the trickles in the stream, but they all sounded the same, like a single person talking over themselves. Eventually, he let his mind wander and found that he could, little by little, pick out the data: telemetry, speed, distance, images. The tug of Jupiter, years ago, as the probe slingshotted its way out of the solar system. The pinprick of light that was the sun, receding until finally it was indistinguishable from all the other stars in the void.

He wasn’t ready for the cold. A sensation of ice against his skin—no, whatever was colder than ice. The near total absence of heat, as if temperature didn’t exist. That and the silence. The vacuum didn’t swallow sound; sound didn’t exist out here—

Out here. The thought brought Hobson back to the lab around him, to Miguel looking at him, concerned. Hobson glanced down at his hands, expecting to see them aching white with frost, but they were fine. He flexed his fingers. They were no stiffer than they always were. That sensation of paralyzing cold was only in his head.

But it was there.

Miguel smiled. “I did the same thing—with my hands, I mean. I couldn’t believe they weren’t frozen solid.”

Hobson drank more scotch to push back the memory. He worried he might drop the glass.

“And what about the stars?” Miguel asked.

“The stars.” At just the mention of them, they sprang into view in Hobson’s memory. So many stars, the wide band of the galaxy stretching diagonally along his course, and among them, getting closer though still decades away, one pinpoint of light.

When Hobson tuned back into the room, Miguel smirked.

“You were just seeing them, right?”

Hobson took the interface from his head and placed it carefully on the desktop. “It’s one thing to see them from the ground, or even from the Webb telescope. But to be out among them, it’s just…”

Hobson couldn’t decide on the right word. “Humbling” seemed inadequate. “Holy” made him uncomfortable but might have been about right.

Miguel topped off his drink. “It’s weird though, how much the data feed sounds like you.”

“Me?” Hobson gave an uncomfortable, barking laugh. “A stream of binaries. Nothing more.”

“I was wondering if this might happen. Your cortex was the template, so… You mean you didn’t notice it yourself, just now?”

How much scotch had Miguel drunk? “What are you talking about?”

“Maybe you didn’t notice it because having your own voice in your head is just second nature. But when I sit here and think about the data I accessed—” he closed his eyes for a moment, his face going slack until he opened them again “—it’s your voice, all right.”

His voice? How, Hobson wondered, could a computer program, even one designed to mimic the sensory processing and decision making of a human mind—how could it have a voice?

“I guess,” Miguel said after Hobson remained silent, “it’s kind of like having five copies of yourself floating around the galaxy now… well, four at least, since we can’t get ahold of the third probe.” He got up from his chair and grabbed his jacket. “Maybe tomorrow, eh?”

Tomorrow. “Miguel, I have leukemia.”

Hobson hadn’t intended to say it. Maybe it was the scotch talking. Miguel’s smile remained hesitant, then faded. He sank back into his chair. “You’re serious.”

Hobson nodded. “Yep, dead serious.” He chuckled before bolting the last of his drink. When he held out the empty glass, Miguel refilled it, a deeper pour this time.

“They told me I could have six months or sixteen years,” he said before Miguel could launch into any questions, “but that was six months ago, and I’ve been feeling like it’s going to be sooner rather than later. Once I’m gone, you’ll have to take over the lab.”

“Six months. You’ve known for six months.” Miguel took a deep breath, his nose flaring above his straggly mustache. He’d been clean shaven when Hobson took him on, and though he’d never been able to grow decent facial hair in that time, he kept trying.

“You weren’t going to tell me, were you?” Miguel leaned back in his chair, the wheels squeaking and carrying him a few inches from the desk. “You were going to keep it to yourself if I hadn’t told you about this.” He waved his hand toward the screens.

Hobson opened his mouth but couldn’t come up with an answer. Miguel got up and pulled on his jacket.

“This is so like you, Gerald.” Hobson flinched, not because of Miguel’s anger but because he used Hobson’s first name. No one ever did.

“But you’ll need to take over the program when I’m gone,” Hobson said.

Miguel opened the door without turning around. “That’s so not the point.”

Hobson sat in the silence a moment—even in the solitude of the lab, the cooling fans on the computer still whirred, the overhead lights buzzed.

“Too little, too late, Gerald. As usual.”

Hobson didn’t say that; it was the voice in his head, but Miguel was wrong about one thing. The voice wasn’t his own; it was Amanda’s. The one other person, he remembered, who’d called him Gerald.

He slipped the bottle of scotch into a drawer, locked the lab door, and sat back down. His fingertips stung as he began typing in commands to see if he could find the missing probe. It was only a memory, the phantom pain of the void’s biting cold, but it had gotten to him. The last time he’d been truly cold like that was a snowshoeing trip years ago with Jack, another colleague who’d become a friend until—where was he now? Hobson couldn’t remember. Jack had drifted out of his orbit, moving on while Hobson seemed to stand still. They’d spent two days in the back country, Hobson’s grip on his poles unreliable as the melting ice and snow seeped into his gloves. He’d thought he would never feel warm again.

Hopefully, when he was too exhausted even to pull a blanket over himself, death would be warm when it came.

He kept at it until four in the morning, when he found something odd. The loss of number three’s data feed, six months ago, hadn’t been a malfunction. If Miguel had stopped to take a look, he’d have seen the last line of code in the transmission was a termination command. The probe had cut itself off.

Hobson frowned. It wasn’t designed to do that. If the transmission program crashed, it was supposed to automatically reboot. It hadn’t crashed, though. It had simply stopped accepting calls.

He decided to follow a hunch, and found the probe exactly where it should have been, on its way to Kepler 22b—another Earth candidate. He sent a connect command and settled in to wait the hour it would take for the signal to arrive and respond.

Seconds later, the receiver pinged.

Had he accidentally bounced it off a satellite in orbit? Was he getting so far gone that he couldn’t even aim anymore?

Hobson double-checked. No, it was from the probe. And it was in real time.

He opened the data feed, expecting to see a wash of information scroll across the center screen. Instead, it was five words.

gerald, put on the interface

Hobson had never liked his first name. He didn’t even think of himself when he heard it.

Leaning over the keyboard, he typed: Miguel, is this you? Are you trying to play a joke on me?

The response was almost instant: for pete’s sake, gerald, just put the damn thing on

There was no flood of data when he opened the feed this time, nor a sense of overwhelming cold or deafening silence, no spray of stars across the sky. He was still in the lab, he could feel the chair beneath him, the keyboard and the desk under his hands, the interface on his skull. And in his head… not a voice, exactly. The information they exchanged, he couldn’t exactly call it a conversation. Neither of them spoke, but in the space of a few moments, Hobson knew everything that had happened in the six months since the probe had cut off contact.

It had woken up.

He leaned forward over the keyboard and typed. How did this happen?

how should i know? do you remember being born? i wasn’t there, and then suddenly i was.

Snarky and just this side of rude. Miguel was right. It did sound like him.

So, he typed, six months ago you suddenly realized you exist?

darnedest thing, isn’t it?

He hesitated, his fingers resting on the keys, before typing his next question. But why did you cut yourself off?

it’s what you would have done, gerald. isn’t it?

If Amanda were there, she would have said, “Touché, Gerald. Touché. One-upped by yourself.”

Hobson sat there and started to move his fingers across the keys but had no idea what to type. All he knew was that he felt an ache in his chest that had nothing to do with his illness and that he seemed powerless to make better.

“What do I do now?” he said aloud, barely audible above the fluorescent lights’ buzz and the whir of computer cooling fans.

what do you *want* to do, gerald?

The question took Hobson by surprise. Not just because he hadn’t typed his own question into the computer, but because he heard the response in his head.

“I don’t know,” he said, again aloud.

in that case, i have a suggestion

A flood of data came down from the probe, streaming into his head and across the screen at the same time. He couldn’t grasp all of it at once, only enough to figure out what the probe had in mind. Which was kind of preposterous.

“Organic memory upload?”

that’s the ticket

“You want me to come with you.”

it’s not like you have anything better to do, and you’re running out of time, aren’t you?

Hobson looked around the room. A glass wall separated him from the cooling room where the supercomputers were housed. He stared at his reflection in the glass, at the interface hugging his head. “This will have to be reconfigured.”

true

“That could take months.”

or a couple hours. like this.

More data came down, schematics and diagrams that Hobson saw in his mind’s eye. Mind’s eye, he thought. What was the voice in his head but his mind’s ear? For the longest time it had been Amanda’s voice, the mind’s ear that let him know everything he’d done wrong and what a failure he was.

Hobson touched the interface. “I’ll have to completely dismantle this in order to make the modifications.” Suddenly timid, he lowered his hands and stared at the backs of them, the constellations of spots interrupting the wrinkles. “Miguel will think that I’m sabotaging his success.”

so? write him a note and explain. besides, you’ll be leaving him with something that does even more than his own achievement did. he can take credit for it himself if he wants. anyway, it won’t matter once it’s done.

I don’t know, he thought.

maybe that’s the point, gerald. won’t it at least be interesting to find out?

After that, the probe fell quiet, and Hobson was left with the blinking cursor on the screen in front of him, the buzz of the lights and fans all around, and the ache that he still couldn’t put a name to. Amanda’s voice in his head had fallen silent, too; apparently, she’d run out of things to say. He reached up again and pulled the interface from his head. Resting in his lap, it felt insubstantial, thin, barely there.

He opened a desk drawer and rummaged around for his toolkit, then began detaching the wires. He could still hold the memory of the diagram in his head, but he called it up on the screen just to make sure. As the wires slid from his lap to the floor, he went to work at unscrewing the sensors. It was almost five in the morning now. Miguel wouldn’t be in for at least another three hours. That was more than enough time to make this work and enter the upload command.

He wondered if he’d feel cold. Uw

 


Jeffrey Ricker

Jeffrey Ricker is the author of Detours (2011) and the YA fantasy The Unwanted (2014). His stories and essays have appeared in Little Fiction, Aftertastes, and in the anthologies Foolish Hearts: New Gay Fiction, A Family by Any Other Name, and others. A 2014 Lambda Literary Fellow and 2015 Vermont Studio Center resident, he has an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. You can find him online at Twitter and Facebook.                                                                                               

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