Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Brain Freeze

Brain Freeze (first draft) -

It was night again outside, a brief shade from the cold sun whose warmth never seemed to reach them.  The nights were short this time of year; the days in contrast were unbearably long.  Insomnia had set in for the first couple months working there, something he was warned about but never thought it would happen to him.  It was strange; he thought the loneliness of being separated from friends and family would get to him first, but it was his internal clock that sabotaged his sleep and sanity.  He barely thought of his family, or friends; society seemed so distant and inconsequential to him.  All he could think of was Patrick and his rage.  He wanted to lose himself in his work but found it hard to concentrate on anything in particular.  He wasn't even sure if he remembered his first couple months here at all.  It was all such a blur.  Everything was out of focus; he looked at himself in the mirror and did not recognize his face.

His partner in crime, a brilliant recluse named Patrick Murray, had been locked in the Arctic Circle for months trying to crack the cryogenics problem.  The idea was nothing new; cryogenic research had been around since the 60’s.  Aspiring immortals, some of the rich and fool hardy subscribed to the idea of freezing their brains after death and slow rot claimed the rest of their bodies.  The hope was that a few hundred years from now technology would make brain transplanting possible, but the reality was the that freezing flesh caused significant damage to the host, ice crystals would crudely cut through precious brain matter as they formed.  If technology ever made brain transplants possible it was likely the rich “corpsicles” of 1966 would come back mentally retarded, vegetative, or worse.

Patrick Murray was a spindly man with wild inquisitive eyes, a stern face outlined by a salt and pepper beard that betrayed his kinder side.  His energy and enthusiasm were contagious; he had a self-professed love of life that Carl found inspirational in these dour times.  Mr. Murray was always talking self-improvement, he held strong to the overly optimistic belief that anybody can accomplish anything with enough time and drive.  When he wasn't peering into a microscope he was doing Pilates and push-ups in his personal quarters, squats by the mess hall.  He was so obsessed with health and physical conditioning that Carl remembers when they first met during a company get together at a pizza parlor back in the states that Patrick had to excuse himself mid meal to run a couple miles around the strip mall because he was worried about consuming too many carbs.  Coworkers were reaching for bread sticks and seconds while Patrick ran alone outside, shirt slogged with sweat in the mid-July sun.  Despite being older than Carl he looked to be in far better shape.  Carl had the middle age bulge, where Patrick had a perfect six pack.  To try to close the gap Carl took to the gym several months before being deployed to Outpost 13149, but he found out quickly that he couldn’t compete with Patrick’s fanatical workout schedule.  It certainly took his confidence down a few pegs to know that for months on end he would be locked in a rigorous work schedule with someone who appeared smarter and stronger than he was in nearly every way, but the research was too exciting to pass up for personal reasons.   

 Murray had developed a means of plastination that would keep the structural integrity of the brain intact for centuries.  Using an aldehyde-stabilized method of cryopreservation he could capture the center of personality and identity in the brain, the connectdome, and essentially copy it to a hard drive where it would be stored digitally.  From there he could reproduce the flesh in a plastic mold for the brain, and duplicate the synaptic structures with great fidelity using 3D printing techniques.  The only downside was that the process involved destructive scanning of the host brain; when the brain is analyzed it is immersed in a toxic chemical bath that destroyed the cellular structure of the tissue, and once the brain is frozen it is cut into fine slices for analysis.  The original brain would be entirely destroyed, replaced with something closer to a plastic brain.  

For months Patrick and Carl would replicate the process on rabbits, goats, and pigs with successful brain transplants to all of them.  The real hurdle was human trials.  Because of the sensitive nature of the experiments and the need to sub artic temperatures for the cryogenics the company that funded them had decided to send them to a remote outpost in the Arctic Circle where the Geneva Convention had no reach.  There they could begin analyzing and plasticizing brains from human cadavers.

For several months the team hit setback after setback.  The first twenty some samples were disasters, the plastination of the cerebral cortex proved to be a massive challenge.  More samples were hastily flown in from Russia.  Carl didn't want to imagine how they came across so many new samples that were entirely intact.  These people looked like they died in their sleep.

After months of failures the normally optimistic and sunny Murray had become introverted and non-conversational.  They would sit in silence for hours contemplating the specimen under the objective lens of the microscope, and then he would toss the slide away with a sigh like it offended him.  Carl would hear the delicate slide shatter in the biological waste bin.  Hundreds of brain slices left to rot in a trash bag.  Hundreds of memories and personalities callously discarded.  The situation was tense; nerves were on edge. 

One day Carl decided to get some fresh Artic air to clear his head.  The area had just been pounded with another snow blizzard, a heavy snow drift had threatened to collapse part of their tool shed where they kept the Snow Cats snow-mobiles, really their only means of escape if any emergency happened.  Carl propped a ladder against the frost covered shed.  The aluminum bent in a bit bringing down some tumbling icicles but seemed stable enough.  The roof was dense with ice, but he felt like he could hoist his body on top despite the slippery slope ahead of him.  He cautiously began lifting his body and then his snow shovel on to the roof but felt his body slowly start to slide down the frictionless surface of the packed ice.  He rammed his fist into the adjacent undisturbed snow but it wasn’t enough to hold his body weight, and he suddenly fell back.  His fingers caught the edge, one last gallant effort to not fall off the roof, but the fingertips painfully caught the sharp edge of the metal gutter, slicing off the tips of his index and middle finger before falling backward into the snow below.  He was more embarrassed than anything.  The fall wasn’t far, just enough to knock some of the wind out of him, but the snow softened most of the blow.  He was calling himself a fool under his breath when he heard the tool shed buckle, dumping the roof top of snow directly on top of him.  There were a few desperate breathes, a muffled cry, then all faded to black.

Carl woke up later in Patrick’s room to the smell of ammonia and tickling numbness on his lips.  Patrick kept Spartan living quarters, the bare essentials only so that he could focus entirely on his work.  Carl’s eyes were blurry, unfocused.  He felt dazed.  He suspected he had been concussed by the snow and Patrick carried his limp body here to recover and regain some warmth.  The idea of Patrick finding him like that embarrassed him further.  He was wearing fresh clothes, so he was sure his co-worker and part-time mentor had redressed him when he found him soaked in his own sweat under the snow drift, probably on the verge of hypothermia.  He had to thank him; he had probably saved his life.  He already felt overshadowed by Patrick is almost every way, he was sure this would swell his ego to astronomical proportions had he not hit a wall with his cryogenic research.
Carl’s head felt like it was swimming in the bottom of the ocean as he turned around to look and see where Patrick was.  He was startled to see Patrick had been sitting silently in a dark corner of the room, observing Carl carefully, expectation fat and pregnant in his eyes.   He explained how he found Carl, and his embarrassing story was re-animated with words.  Carl wanted to hate this man, there was a bitter jealousy welling up inside him.  He hardly heard Patrick talk, all he could see where the strands of his neck stand up, and the urge to yank one out, dig his teeth into it, and pull like a dog tugging at his rope.  His irrational feelings made him feel like a monster, but he could do little to stiffen them.  Any lingering bitterness towards Patrick before the accident seemed amplified tenfold by his concussion.

When Carl found the strength to move his legs Patrick carefully helped him wobble to the mirror above the sink to examine the bump on his head.   Patrick claimed he received the nasty gash from the fall.  He didn't remember hitting his head in particular but was sure those details would pronounce themselves after he has had time to recover.  Carl fingered the back of his skull where an ugly new scar seemed to part his hair while Patrick smugly explained how he required stitches as well, and that he was very lucky that Patrick knew basic first aid.  Yeah, real lucky.  He knew the swelling should concern him, but for some reason outside of the unexplainable seething anger he felt towards Patrick he was generally numb to his situation.  He felt like he was sleepwalking, even though he never suffered from the malady himself, he felt like he could injure himself with little consequence.  The oddest thing about it all was that although Carl could tell it was his face in the mirror he felt like he was staring at a stranger, like he didn’t identify with his own image.  Everything felt like a bad copy of a bad copy.  He had to stand in the mirror, staring deep in his own eyes looking for the spark that was him.  He was an alien intruder in his own body, operating the body’s gears and levers but divorced from it all the same.   He huffed into his palm to smell his own breath, and then grabbed a toothbrush.  It flexed and snapped immediately in his grip.

Carl giggled; the cartoonish way it easy sheered in half struck him as funny.  He grabbed the floss and the entire plastic container folded and fell to the floor in a bird’s nest of string. It was if his hands had lost all gentile tactility and have become deadly instruments.  When he grabbed an object he had lost all sense of when to stop squeezing, how much pressure to apply.  They had become industrial strength vices.  He grabbed the sink facet and it twisted off with ease, sending water jetting from its rivets.  Patrick seemed astonished, frantically scribbling notes into his flip book; a Cheshire cat smile crossed his lips.  Carl caught it from the edge of his vision and blacked out for the second time that day.

There wasn't much left of Patrick after Carl tore through his body, tearing it limb from limb like a rabid animal.  His perfect abs were shredded and laid over the back of a chair like a blanket.  Carl pulled the biceps right out of his arm as Patrick howled; in a distant corner of his mind he begged forgiveness but ignored his pleas.  Laugh at me?  Laugh at my failures?  My pain amuses you, now your pain will amuse me.  Patrick’s shredded arm was slick with blood; Carl had trouble holding the slippery tendons between his fingers and he yanked and tore at his flesh. 

His rage didn't end with Patrick.  The whole lab was mocking him; the entire laboratory was a cruel reminded of his failure.   Tiles were ripped from the ceiling.  Pink insulation was ripped out of the wall in bundles.  Wires were severed like arteries.  Desks bolted to the floor were easily upturned; broken glass covered the floor like ice, each step was a heavy crunch.  Carl would barely register what he was doing.  He felt like a puppet with no puppet master, but something brought his tantrum to a grinding halt.  He had thrown the television against the wall.  The cathode ray tube exploded with a pleasurable pop, and out of the rubble a DVD marked “Carl’s surgery” caught his eye.

He fumbled with it; his fingers were slick with sweat, blood, and bits of dry wall, and stuck the disc into a working DVD player.  What he saw made him wish he could rip Patrick apart all over again.  It was a video shot from within the compound looking out a window aimed towards the shed that Carl had fallen from.  It was if Patrick was waiting for him to fall, expecting it like a trap, and set up the video camera to capture it.  Carl saw himself in the video but couldn't shake the feeling of detachment, like he was watching someone else act out the role of Carl.

When he fell in the video, and the snow piled on his unconscious body, Patrick stood by for a full twenty five minutes, an eternity before pulling him out from under the snow.  What was he waiting for?  Then the video skipped suddenly to a surgery.  It looked like Patrick was operating on a split watermelon, then Carl realized to his appall that Patrick was operating on his head, the scalp split back to reveal the skull beneath.  He watched in horror and traced the scars on his scalp with his fingers as he watched his own brain being removed, dosed in chemicals, and copied.  He was the first successful plastination of a human brain.  Patrick finally did it.  He used him as his guinea pig.  Perhaps the brains weren't fresh enough?   

Whatever the case Carl hardly cared; he could not see past his hatred; the betrayal by Patrick left him feeling empty and used.  He needed to get out of here before someone from the company figured out the murder that transpired here and what he really was.  If they found out he was the first human with a plastic brain he would be subjected to a battery of tests and questions that he did not want to answer.  In fact he could imagine a lethal response to such inquiries.       

Carl’s thoughts become jumbled and mixed up.  He can feel his intelligence fading like the dying embers of a fire.  All that is left is pure bestial rage.  His fist goes through the screen; glass digs into the knuckles of his fist.  He licks the blood off his hand, practically lapping it up like a dog.  Blood begins to slowly leak out of his ear, but he doesn’t notice.  He is too busy ripping wire from the ceiling and dangling from the exposed I-beam like a monkey.  He feels the warm embrace of ignorance as his brain slowly melts, memories turned to mush, humanity shed until Carl sits on the floor in a convulsing vegetative state, the last gasp of a suffocating brain.  Had Patrick been alive he might have given him the chemicals necessary to keep his brain frozen and plasticized, but Patrick’s body lied in strips of flesh on the floor, some of which Carl has chewed on in primate curiosity. 

Carl dies again, but it is not the end. 

He awakens in another lab, another place, another time.  Patrick’s secrets are discovered by the company.  Carl’s brain is now data waiting to be copied and deleted by whim.  He awakens in the company lab, a multi-million dollar state of the art facilities, surrounded by strangers, his last memory of falling under the snow in Antarctica.  He can’t move.  He can’t feel.  He is only a brain, eyeballs, a bundle of copied, plastinated nerves.  Thoughts come slow and painfully.  He screams silently from the confines of his jar, and is melted.  The process occurs time and time again, and Carl is caught in a purgatory of silent pain and desperate dreams…