A Threnody for Hazan
By Ray Nayler
By Ray Nayler
First Appeared in Asimov's March / April 2018
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff'd bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
-- Macbeth Act V, Scene III
Scandal surrounds her name. Secretive, calculating, manipulative: Hazan was all these things.
Like all great inventors, she moved boldly to take her place in history – elbowing others aside, taking what was hers. She was hated, she was despised. Like all great inventors, she was the boldest among thieves. She invented almost nothing, yet would dwarf her rivals. She appeared at the correct moment and in the correct place. She was a master thinker. What is thought but the association of one isolated concept with another? She bound the parts into a whole. She saw the way forward, and she acted.
I, too, have acted. I have done what none would expect of me. I have suffered the consequences. I have stolen, I have lied, I have taken advantage of my connections and my position. I have lost everything. I have been removed from my post and thrust out into the world.
For a lover of habit and small comforts like myself, I suppose that is cruelest: to lose the happy office lined with books, the heavy old desk and chair, the view from the window of pigeons circling the minaret, their semaphore of ash belly and cream wing under an ever-changing sky. But I found that, by the time I lost them, I no longer wanted such comforts.
It can be said Hazan destroyed herself with her determination to be first, best, and greatest. She succeeded. She was all of those things. Let her have my tenured, comfortable life as well: let it be a footnote to hers.
Hazan deserves to be presented to the world as she truly was, by one who knew her. She was truly great: I was the true confidante and familiar of greatness. That will be enough of a eulogy for my career.
That last night, when I went to the sailboat, I knew. Coming aboard I knew: tapping at the hatch I knew, coming into the lighted salon I knew. There, on the small circular table, lay her notebooks – and next to them a bottle of Calvados, a single snifter. As if commanded to do so, I sat down. The boat was silent except for the sounds of water against the hull, the vessel’s natural shift in the embrace of its element, the play of gravity against buoyancy. It was dark except for the salon’s cinnamon circle of light, at the center of which were the notebooks – the simple, black, sturdy books Hazan always carried with her.
What I will assemble here will not be only from these notebooks, which I read through that long night. There is not enough of her there. I will shape her portrait with the compliment of my gaze. That is, perhaps, what I was placed here for: to see a great person for what they were, to know and study greatness.
I was one of the team that completed the human connectome. They called it the “grandest map of all” – the map of the synaptic connections, the axons and dendrites that compose the forest of the brain. The work was world-changing, but there was little glory. It was group work and discipline. It was made possible not as much by genius as by technological advances and funding. We had finally reached a point of massive computational and magnifying power, supported by a web of public and private funding as thick as any the world had ever seen. The telescope and wealth produced Galileo, not the other way around.
The connectome consumed my youth and the early decades of my career, just as it had consumed the youth and careers of many others. The project spanned a century: more, if you count the time it took to develop technologies to process the petabytes of data contained in a few cubic millimeters of brain tissue, the manual reconstruction of which would have taken a million person-years.
I came at the end, when triumph was near. I reaped the benefits of the work of others who had gone before, sacrificed their lives to the invention of quantum computing, to the perfection of computerized boundary recognition so synapses could finally be mapped automatically and without error. Many other careers more brilliant than mine had been submerged in the project from end to end, drowning in it, never reaching the glory of the finish line.
Other careers, other lives had been given up to machine learning, to cellular scaffolding, to the artificial culturing of neurons. Other anonymous, quiet lives were devoted to the experiments in quantum mechanics that finally allowed the time-barrier to be broken and proved the existence of the simultaneity we had suspected lurked beneath our impression of time’s passing.
Immediately, massive legal barriers were erected. The world feared someone would send a human being “back” (I place this in quotes, of course, because now we know there is no “back”) into the simultaneity: everything that has happened continues to happen). The world feared someone would shift away the delicate scaffolding upon which our present moment stands.
Humanity has long fantasized about moving back and forth through time. That was the time-travel of our books and of our scheming. Wells’ Time Traveler returns to his day and age with wisdom and warnings before departing again. But we know now there is no return of matter from the simultaneity. And there is no seeing into it, beyond the barest gropings of date and position data interpolated from our present day world. And there is – the greatest of all frustrations – no movement into the future. Perhaps, I grant, this is a limit of our present technology: perhaps we have not yet discovered how to achieve this movement. Or perhaps, as some have theorized, there truly is no future: the present moment is our time machine. The present is the forward-plunging tip of time’s arrow, penetrating forever into the vacuum ahead.
For years (and here is something we at the institute never told the public), the most substantial thing secreted into the simultaneity was a ball-point pen perhaps slightly more advanced than the average writing instrument of the 1965 Alexandria from which it was fated to continue the remainder of its existence. We never recovered it. Who knows – perhaps it has returned to us again from the depths of time – this massive threat to continuity – and resides somewhere at the bottom of an unknown drawer, having nearly destroyed us all. Or perhaps it did indeed destroy some other us, murdering a world with a subtle shift in the substructure of the now. The tantalizing truth is, we would never know.
Other lives uncovered Keiser’s law, that essential discovery that a copy of the connectome close enough to the original can be “inhabited” by the original consciousness through coordinated stimulation of the neuromodulators in the reticular activating system. Put simply: the consciousness of a living being does not – and cannot – duplicate, as we had once theorized, but instead will move (will “transmigrate,” as the more poetic like to say) from the original into the copy – and then will transmigrate back, if the copy is suddenly deactivated or destroyed, taking memories with it that, for reasons not yet understood, fade the way our dreams fade with the dawn.
At the time Hazan and I first met, the first mice had already transmigrated into little robot mouse bodies complete with artificial neural mouse networks – and back – and forgotten their mouse-robots days as if they had been mouse-robot dreams – decades ago. The first human had transmigrated to an artificial neural network and back just five years before. The life support systems necessary for keeping the original body intact and waiting for the return of its consciousness had long ago been perfected by anonymous teams of graduate students and their tenured masters. Few heroes, little fame.
Then came Hazan, with genius and force. And all this lay at hand . . . the connectome, Keiser’s Law, the pathways into simultaneity no living being could cross, the artificial neural networks, and the massive collections of laboratories strung along the Bosporus in Istanbul Protectorate: the Institute. Thick with grants, public-private partnerships, webs of foundations funding all sorts of things rich people hoped would make them richer or save their souls, the Institute lay waiting – a machine of great potential, ripe for Hazan’s taking.
Her first words to me were: “get the fuck out of my lab, you little weasel.”
I was standing in the doorway with a mug of coffee in my hand. I had punched the wrong button in the elevator and gotten off one floor below where I intended. The corridors all look virtually the same in the Institute’s massive labyrinth. I had turned into Hazan’s lab expecting my own, and was surprised to see a completely different set of equipment inhabiting my space. Where my own work table should have been, there was a skinny, wild-haired figure bent over an antique optical microscope – the kind of polished brass thing that normally inhabits the Institute’s museum, not its laboratories. The optical microscope was out of place among the many more powerful, and not immediately identifiable, machines whose ceramic, metal and plastic carapaces crowded the space.
The narrow, rude figure gave a sigh of irritation and turned a sunburned face to the doorway. This was Hazan – wiry, perpetually wind and sunburned by her second life on her sailboat, cheeks and lips chapped. Her hairstyle appeared to have been achieved by gathering the coppery, sun-faded corkscrews of her hair, pulling them straight up from the scalp and indifferently hacking them off with a pair of scissors, then cutting the sides and back close with a set of clippers (I later confirmed this was, indeed, the technique). The irises of her eyes were dark enough brown that one could not, in most lights, make out the dilation of her pupils against them. They were wide-set over a nose slightly too large. I leave it to others to use words like “beautiful.” I’ve never found beauty to be of much use, having always been more attuned to complexity – the subtle branching of the axon, for example, as it wends its way through the forest of its sisters. Hazan had a face that could belong only to one person. It was a face made mask-like by the weathering of a life spent as much as possible in the open, and as much as possible out of reach of other humans. It suited her perfectly.
She waved a dismissive hand at me. “You’re not that shit of an intern they sent to spy on me. But anyway you’re not in the right place.”
“No,” I said. “I punched the wrong button on the elevator. It’s something I seem to do with a reasonable frequency after a twenty-hour. . .”
“Is that coffee?”
“It is, in fact.”
“Give it here.”
And for some reason I did so – I walked over to her and handed her my favorite coffee cup. She took a large gulp of coffee, swished it through her teeth – a thing I had never seen a person do with coffee before – swallowed, nodded in approval. She set the mug down and turned back to her microscope.
“Come back tomorrow, I’ll return your mug.”
This was the beginning of a relationship – strange, out of balance, central after that day to my entire existence.
Hazan the liar: she never did return my mug. She decided she liked it (it was a heavily made clay thing, drip-glazed yellow and green, with a comfortable handle). She told me the next day she intended to keep it, but that I could have visitation rights: she needed another mind to bounce ideas off of.
She kept vampire hours, avoiding her despised “colleagues,” showing up after nine at night, often not leaving the lab until after dawn. I found myself more and more often with her, demoted of my own accord from my tenured and respected (if invisible) professor’s routine to a de facto research assistant. I neglected my own work, delegating it to my staff of graduate student slaves. I became the absentee landlord professor we all bitched about when we ourselves bore the yoke of graduate work.
My reputation suffered. I did not mind. Have you, dear reader, ever seen true greatness? You are not offended when it asks you to serve it: you serve willingly. Would you hold Shakespeare’s inkwell for him while he wrote Macbeth? Would you BE his inkwell? But I get ahead of myself . . .
The situation, awkward to begin with, soon developed stranger angles. After a long night in the lab we ended up on her sailboat, the pilothouse sloop she lived aboard. With threats, and some minor violence, she managed over the next several weeks to turn me into a serviceable first mate. Over the coming months I too grew sunburned, leaner, saltily disheveled. Her hours became mine, her equipment began to bleed over into my lab space a floor above, until my lab was reduced to an annex of hers.
We sailed, we worked, and we talked in the cramped salon over Calvados or the sludge of coffee grounds. I learned her obsessions. Hazan’s was a darker world than my own – a world without optimism. A world of war and poverty. I rooted the world in science, in the deathless rhythms of academia. She rooted the world in the darkness of human cruelty – a darkness she felt was rooted, like original sin, in the Second World War – that massive conflagration that had nearly consumed mankind centuries ago. The war was an obsession for her, its nuances a constant companion. When she was not reading science, she read war. It saturated her being.
She came from poverty and want: she traced her anger back to a grandfather multiple generations removed – a fishmonger crushed to death in a garbage truck while trying to rescue his day’s stock from a corrupt policeman. Anger, she believed, encodes in our epigenetics, then settles in our genes. It passes down through generations as resistance.
“This is what the world does,” she said: “what happened literally to my ancestor is what happens to many of us every day.”
She had grown up near the docks in a liminal world, a port city where the call of the muezzin mixed with fog horns and the cries of seagulls. She had fought her way to where she was under her own fierce power – hard-won exchange programs to Istanbul, the Western Protectorates, scholarships, immigration. The way we have always squeezed talent from the dirty sponge of poverty.
People said we began to look alike. They meant, of course, that I had begun to look like her.
The rumors swirled, the scandal grew: she made enemy after enemy at the institute, and her enemies became mine as well. But while I paid the price for my association with her, I was allowed only glimpses of what she was working on. Until, quite suddenly, it was done.
She called her invention, with her own macabre sense of humor, “the shroud.” It combined many other technologies into a single whole. It was, in essence, a neural network like the finest gauze, a honeycomb of connectivity, a winding sheet of neurons. It was a gossamer of mind as well as ocular, auditory, olfactory and somatoreceptors in an array so light it could be laid not on top of, but rather into a surface. It crawled with microscopic arthropod carpenter-bots who worked their feet into gaps measured in picometers. It might shimmer strangely when it caught the light just so – like a trick of the eye, like a momentary, odd deflection of the sun’s rays, a liquid reflection on the ceiling of a room, a heatwave pooling on a road.
Otherwise, it was invisible. Invisible, undetectable, failsafed to “wake” following insertion into the simultaneity, and to “sleep” again after a set time. That was the trick: Keiser’s law would move its inhabitant from our moment to wherever and, thanks to a law as foolproof and as little understood as quantum entanglement, back again. Inert, nearly undetectable, absorbed innocuously into a surface, the winding sheet could defeat the barrier, bearing a conscious mind into the past – and perhaps back again.
Technically, it was also illegal. But Hazan gained access to the simultaneity through my (rapidly decaying, but still largely intact) good offices. Thus I found myself in the control booth along with a hand-picked clutch of her graduate students. And as she slept behind the glass of her life-support chamber, we flung the net of her consciousness toward a set of coordinates she had programmed in herself.
Sitting in the salon of the pilothouse sloop that had been her floating home, the burn of Cognac in my mouth, I turned the page to that day:
Journal Entry 247
Writing quickly, before this fades. I can already feel its edges dissipating – gaps appearing. I am in a field. Disoriented. The winding sheet is trying to orient, trying to determine up and down – it takes a moment. I can hear people talking in Polish. I have the uncomfortable feeling of being upside down. Orientation kicks in. Success: I am embedded along the starboard wing surface of a Polish biplane. My ocular sensors are along the front edge of the wing. It is a cold morning: I see Witold Urbanowitz at the controls, as I had predicted: the first time, and I have hit my mark. I see his student, see the wobbling wings of his biplane as Witold gives mock chase. And I can feel the wrench of g-force as we turn – as I turn, as he turns what I, the I that is invested in the shroud, have become a part of, this flimsy antique of the first World War, of a war already past even in this time. And then the first bullet hits. I become consciousness of a sudden, indescribable smell. The closest I can come to it is the smell of the oil used on that most ancient of things, a typewriter’s keys. I have smelled it only once, yet here it was again – and unrelated at all to what was happening. Damage to the olfactory receptors.
Then we are on the ground. Polish, but this is a famous story, so I know what they are saying:
Fellow Officer: “You’re alive, Witold? You’re not hit?”
Urbanowitz: “What the hell’s going on?”
Fellow Officer: “you should go to church and light a candle. You were just attacked by a Messerschmitt.”
And indeed I can make out the word “Messerschmitt” just as it was in the books. It is an autumn day, bright and clear and cold, and I hear the German engines, and somewhere in the way my body is mapped through the shroud, the bullet has shattered teeth I do not have. Phantom teeth. I feel the blood flow from the broken mouth that does not exist. The failsafe is kicking in – the damage to the connectome is firing the failsafes. I smell burning hair – Witold’s whiskers streaming fire. The Polish autumn sky shreds as the shroud fails, and somewhere hundreds of years in the future, I awake . . .
. . . in the lab, told everyone that everything is fine. Not sure. Not sure at all that this is the case. The smell of burning hair has come back with me. Not possible. Not a memory of the smell, but the smell itself, of old Urbanowitz’s whiskers burning. And sharp pain – terrible pain – finally fading after a half an hour to a dull ache in the mouth. Phantom travelers from the past.
Journal Entry 248
Tomorrow: they have subsided. Ephemera, qualia trailing a pioneering stunt. There is the lingering burst blood vessel, but I think this is not related. Well worth it. I am the first at something. I am the first. I could take on the world today. All is crystalline above the Bosporus and penetrated by a sun as clear as that in that autumn so long ago. I am ready to return again.
There the journal entry ends. Should I be insulted there is nothing of what occurred in that caesura between entry 247 and 248? That a moment that was everything to me ended up on the cutting room floor? Might be nothing at all to her? Not even worth a journal entry? A footnote? Or does its absence indicate its importance?
She came to suddenly, hours before we had expected. She came to like a drowning woman flailing against the air, striking a student with a half-closed fist. She came to gasping, clutching (now I know why) at her mouth. I held her wrists to keep her from injuring herself while they drew out the IV. Mine was the first face she saw on her return. Her left eye, I remember, was bloodshot. A subconjunctival hemorrhage – not serious, but unexpected. Sustained during her flailing? Some strange spike in blood pressure? Even a sneeze could cause such a thing. She turned her eyes to me – one of them clouded by that red spider web which now I know should have stood out as a warning of the things to come.
“You’ll take me home, Baris.”
Is this the first I have mentioned my name? Fitting it should come from her mouth, then.
One of the graduate researchers objected: “we need at least an hour to run tests. And to debrief before . . .”
“Professor Burakgazi will run the tests and debrief me,” Hazan snapped. “You may go.”
They departed sullenly, likely swearing her off forever. Forever was temporary. They would come again – on their knees, if they had to – when she came calling.
Here is what ended up on the cutting room floor between entry 247 and 248: I took her home, parking as close as I could to her slip. I supported her to the boat, helped her aboard. She was still weak. And in the salon she clasped her mouth to mine, pulled me toward her. Tore the top two buttons of my shirt from their moorings.
The thing itself was a failure. I was perhaps unprepared – or terrified, or confused. It did not work. An awkwardness of limbs and teeth clacking together. A cut lip – mine. A thumb in my eye. Embarrassment, apologies. But after that I was fully what she needed: research assistant, partner in crime, first mate, and – physically now – a buoy to cling to as she began to slip beneath the waves.
In the dark of her cabin, she said: “I want to see what they see. The real witnesses of history. The ones that don’t return to us to speak: that don’t publish memoirs. The ones who hold their secrets behind red teeth. I want to be the first to see the truth. We don’t have the whole story of history, Baris. All we have is the lies of the victors and the survivors. But there’s another world out there: the world of people destroyed by the moment. The ones who didn’t survive the blitz, Kursk, the Ardennes, the siege of Budapest. We only know the edges of history – the fringes of it. I want to plunge into the center of it. The inferno itself. I want to know what nobody has known, and survive. You need to help me see it through. I need you to promise you will stay by me.”
And in the dark, I said: “always.”
. . .And in the dark, I say: “always.”
From Journal Entry 249:
It takes a moment for the shroud to orient. I am a spider on a wall, and I am the wall. The light falls into the alley way, a long lemon stripe across the crumbling plaster and the exposed brick of the wall opposite from the wall I have become. Morning light. Below the citrus strip of light, in the shadow, there are three of them. They do not speak with one another. Two men and a woman. God, they are dirty. They are all beautiful, unspeakably beautiful: ruined statues in a graveyard, their faces blackened with a patina of soot, their hollow eyes gleaming. They wear quilted jackets, torn in several places, and even the cotton batting leaking from the rips in the fabric is soiled. One of them is a woman, but you could barely tell: the angles of their cheekbones, sepulchral, make them all of a single gender, a single type. There is nothing left of them of excess flesh. War has eliminated the men’s span of shoulder, the woman’s span of hip. They are medieval icons in a burned church.
The woman has a stolen German Luger in her hand, two potato masher grenades tucked into the rope she is using as a belt. One of the men has a British Sten. The other has a Nagant revolver, and two knives – one with a long serrated blade, the other one just a repurposed bayonet, jammed into a stained band of cloth he is wearing as a belt, like a Barbary pirate. He grasps the other two. He kisses each of them on the mouth, grasps their heads by the ears, stares into their eyes. There is a rumble. I feel it in my – I want to say I feel it in my bones, but no – I feel it shuddering through the brick to which I am attached, through the plaster my shroud is wound into, and which now begins to crumble as the rumbling increases.
“Es iz tseyt,” he hisses to the others in Yiddish.
And now I can hear the clatter, beneath the rumble, of boots. He steps forward into the street. For a moment, the stripe of acid, citrine light hits his cheek, where a streak of filth is smeared away and the skin is clean. There is a scattering, there, of freckles. Under his filthy cap, his hair the color of fire.
The others are running, the other way, down the alley. His revolver is in his hand.
He shouts into the street: “Schweine! Hier bin ich!” He is grinning, (or are his teeth bared in fear? Am I twisting this to make him something he is not?) He levels the revolver.
And then he is a red mist, and in that same instant, I feel myself separating. I see myself, chunks of me, in a cloud of brick dust, of plaster. The connections between the synapses tear and for a moment, before the wall I was a part of collapses, the ocular sensors see the others. They are halfway down the alley, already fallen, crumpled in that impossible way of the dead, smoke rising from their burning clothes. The enormous “thooooommmm” of the tank shell tears through my mind . . .
Ten years old. My small hand clutching the razor-sharp knife with its clumsy handle repaired with electrical tape, fitted by work to my fingers, cutting through the belly of the fish. The cloud of wasps that would always hover over the pile of fish guts in the corner of the yard, their languid thoraxes undulating in the courtyard breeze. As I cut the fish, I always watch them – like a gazelle watches a tiger. I am terrified of them. Every week or so, one of them descends – arbitrary, unprovoked, and deals me a horrible bite. I never know when it will come. Their buzz is the buzz of my damaged auditory receptors. Dimly through the rubble I am buried in I see the cherry tree that bloomed there in the courtyard. It was an ugly thing, with a damaged trunk eaten away by termites, most of its branches broken away, just a small ring of stunted growth near its top. You could hardly even call them branches. But every spring, it wore a crown of glory, the most delicate shade, a pink that could be mistaken for white in the wrong light.
The SS man standing amid the broken pieces of me, my scattered limbs and memories, says: “Ja hier sind Sie.”
In the hallway one of the graduate students says “I want no more part of this.”
We have had to remove Hazan from the laboratory in a wheelchair. She is responsive, but for some reason is having trouble walking on her own. The sedatives? It’s among their possible effects. But it could be something else, and we all know it.
“Take her to my office,” I say. “Quickly.”
“Es iz tseyt,” Hazan mumbles.
I lean down to her. “What? What was that?”
“I want no part of this,” the graduate student says again.
I turn to the graduate student who has spoken. “No-one needs you, if you do not want to be here.”
The graduate student is one I barely recognize. Pasty, overworked, anonymous; one of Hazan’s. As Hazan’s wheelchair passes them she lunges up and grabs them by the collar, yanks them down to her face.
“Don’t you dare get in my way,” she says. “You have no idea how painful my bite can be.”
Gently, I pry the poor thing’s shirt collar out of her fingers. “Time for all of us to go home.”
On the boat later that night, Hazan jerks awake in her sleep with a spasmodic thrashing of limbs, shouting “Schweine! Hier bin ich!” I grapple with her, trying to keep her from toppling off the narrow berth. The sharp end of her elbow crashes into my eye.
By the morning, my eye has swollen half shut, and is decorated with a crescent of blue-black. I lay on the deck in the sunshine clutching a bag of frozen peas on my face while Hazan sits cross-legged at the bow, practicing her knots. The Bosporus is blooming with jellyfish whose simple nervous systems, etched inside their gelatinous transparency, resemble startled cartoon faces.
As I watch her, Hazan raises one of her hands and regards the back of it, holding it up like something she has just found on a beach – something she has never seen before. She does this for a full minute or more, turning it back and forth, clenching and unclenching it.
Later we sail to Anadolu Kavağı and have lunch near the docks. Over her second helping of fish, Hazan grins across the table at me and my black eye. It is watering, and I’m dabbing at it with a napkin. “You know, Baris, that in the end it’s you who made this possible. You’ve stood by me. Only you. In my entire life – only you.”
It feels like there is a grain of sand in my eye. “Compared to you, Hazan, I’m really just another graduate student.”
“No,” Hazan says. “What you are is the only person I’ve ever been certain of. I know you will see this through with me to the end.”
The sun is dazzling. “I just pressed the wrong button on the elevator, that’s all. All this time, I’ve just been hoping to get my favorite coffee mug back.”
Hazan kicks me, a little too hard, under the table.
From Journal Entry 250:
There is a difference between those who return to speak to the world, and those who do not. Those who return shape their own lives when they speak of it to others. They give it a narrative arc, a theme, a plot. You could see this plot in that alleyway, taking shape: the kiss on the mouth, the brave words – the other two, they would get away. They would tell their grandchildren about their brave friend (I think he was a lover to them both, but he would have become a friend – would he have been insulted?) in the war, the one who had gone to meet his death at the hands of the Germans so they could get away. This all would have become a story, with a moral and an ending.
That was how it was supposed to happen: that was act three – “The Brave Partisans.” And there may have been a memoir, maybe even a Nobel Prize who knows? Some triumph to share with the world. At the very least, something to give this Bubbeh and Zaydeh an identity, a legend for their grandchildren, a nobility that would shine out past their liver spots and lend a secret light to their glaucous eyes.
Instead, there are only their crumpled bodies in a Tallinn alleyway, nameless graves (probably never even found), and even the German who stood over them and declared it all a waste probably never made it home. If he did, he never told anyone.
Baris – I know you are reading this: you’ll have seen this all the way through to the end. These stories of the dead, these blind alleyways of history nobody has been down – they have more to tell us about humanity than we have ever learned from listening to those who lived. Others can carry this research on. They must.
We can begin to learn the truth about ourselves. We can go and see the truth for ourselves: feel it and smell it, hear it, have it shake us to pieces. And maybe finally we will know empathy. Maybe will all finally know empathy, Baris, the way you have felt it for me.
The Department Head called me in for a meeting the next day. We’ve known each other for years, he and I: he was on the connectome project for a while, gained the glory of seeing it completed, then parleyed that into a career of endowed chairs, consulting, “expert” appearances, book signings. He’s a motivational speaker to the world, distractedly leading the research department at the institute three hours a week: the ultimate, really, in absentee landlords. He’s off selling futures in technologies others will do the hard work to develop.
Recently I’d heard him on a broadcast inspiring us all: “what’s the connectome worth, you say? Why have we invested these billions of dollars? I’ll tell you why. We used to think we were our genes, but we found we were more complicated than that. Then we believed we were our neurons – but it turns out we’re no more our neurons than we are carbon itself. We share neurons with most living beings on the planet.
So who are we? We’re not our neurons, we are the pattern in which they are connected. We are a pattern, embodied in matter. We’ve come full circle, you see? We’ve come to see, now, that we belong to the abstract world of information. Information is the new soul. And maybe that all sounds far-fetched to my audience, but imagine this –someday we’ll all be uploading ourselves into new bodies waiting for us on tropical beaches rather than flying there in planes. We’ll be encoding our patterns into laser beams and moving them at light speed . . .”
All the lives of all the scientists dedicated to these concepts, and all this idiot wants people to imagine is a better way to get to the beach . . .
All that money spent, and he’s boiling it down to “laser beams” to get their blood pumping and keep the money flowing in.
I don’t think people like Hazan’s parents will be uploading themselves into sexy tropical beach bodies any time soon.
Every week the Department Head goes to the barber down the street to have his scalp shaved clean with a straight razor. Every month, he has his connectome re-mapped and stored. It takes a whole day, clogs up the laboratories. No matter – he’s terrified of death. Of – as he calls it in one of the terms he uses to sell us to the public – information theoretic death. I hear his jocular, reassuring voice, wending its way into millions of earbuds: “all attempts to achieve immortality are really just us trying to permanently archive our information.”
“Baris – thanks for coming in. What happened to your eye? Are you all right?”
“It’s fine. The boom of a sailboat caught me as I was tacking.”
He nodded, glad not to have to continue to extend sympathies. “Look. I’m going to cut right to the point, because I know you’re a busy man.”
“Thanks,” I say. I’m fiddling with his espresso machine. He has this sleek chrome-plated contraption in his office that makes the best espresso I’ve ever had. Every time he hauls me into his office I race to see how many cups I can drink while he performs. I take my cup to a big leather armchair.
“I know you and Professor Hazan Terzi are close. I also know that lately you’ve been working with the connectome and the simultaneity.”
So he’d been told. I’m sure it was the graduate student who said he wanted “no part of this anymore.” He came in here and tipped Serhan off. But this was coming – the inevitable questions, the attempt at shutting down of the project. I’d been preparing for it. I’d planned for it.
“That’s the case, yes. More precisely, I should say that we’ve been using the equipment of the simultaneity to work with the connectome.”
“What do you mean?”
I sighed and got up to make myself another espresso. “Well, we’ve told our graduate students . . . Look, Serhan . . . you and I both know we can’t trust graduate students. We’ve sold them a story about going back in time. But what we’re really working on . . . well, it’s complicated, but you’ll understand. We’re working on a way of getting the connectome to address synaptic structures across time. So that when we reconstruct a person’s connectomes it’s . . . it’s hard to break this down. It’s like the difference between a snapshot in time and a video: we think we can use some of the functionality of the simultaneity to create a more accurate connectome. One that isn’t frozen in a single moment, a single second of a single day, but instead takes into account an evolution of the synaptic connections. But that isn’t what we’ve told the students. You know Professor Terzi. She’s . . . difficult. She’s secretive. But her methods work.”
Difficult . . . that might be an understatement. Hazan once gave Serhan the finger when he walked into one of her lectures. She once tried to spit on the Department Head during a department meeting. She missed, but many of us wish she hadn’t. She referred to Serhan as “that ‘practical use’ piece of shit” who always wanted us to produce widgets we could sell to the public.
Serhan frowned. “What I was told was this wild story about sending Hazan back in time to watch people kill each other. And something about her being injured by these experiments.”
“Ridiculous,” I said. “You understand the simultaneity as well as I do. You know that’s impossible – sending someone back and then retrieving them. What we’re trying to do is find a use for the simultaneity . . . to finally make it function for this institution as more than just a curiosity, providing us with patents we can exploit, and improve the effectiveness of connectome mapping. Of course you understand how sensitive this is. I don’t need to tell you what would happen at this delicate point if . . .” I trailed off, letting him imaging the intellectual property theft, the rival institutes seeking to outpace our research.
I had done it. The Department Head was already not there in the room. His eyes were far off, dreaming new patents, shaping new sales pitches. Somehow, I’d done it. I’d done more than just shield us for a few days . . .
Serhan rolled a pen over his desk blotter, pushing it along with his palm like a miniature rolling pin. Smoothing things into place. “Tell me a bit more about this . . .”
Two hours later, I walked out high on excellent espresso, with the use of the labs for the next quarter, and an assurance that Hazan and I would be given a free hand, for now.
I had also doomed Hazan.
I came to the pilothouse sloop to tell her the news. She was on the deck rebuilding one of the bilge pumps, up to her elbows in grease, a smear of it across one cheek. Did I notice her hand trembling slightly? Was there an unsteadiness in her when she stood? Our minds move backward through time, inserting things, shifting things around. The world in our memories is not the world that was. Even our personal histories are distorted. There is no solid ground in the mind, no truth to rest upon.
“Finally,” she said. “For once in my life I’ll get a chance to finish what I started.”
From Journal Entry 251
We’ve missed the mark this time. I had aimed for a wall of a building, but the building is not where we thought it was. Instead, the shroud ends up working itself into the cobblestones of a lane. It’s a difficult angle for the ocular sensors, and disorienting; it is as if I am laying prone in the street. For a moment, I consider scrapping the insertion and trying again. But the ocular sensors are able to angle so that at least I am not staring up into the sky.
Distant gunfire clatters against the low-slung gray clouds. There is a shattered tree. It is cold. January 27, 1945. Budapest. The jagged teeth of broken buildings jut from the gums of their own rubble. A haze of coal smoke and cordite is suspended over everything.
There are four of them. They are walking backwards, almost running. One turns and pulls the trigger of a pistol, get nothing but the tiny “click” of an empty Luger. In disgust, he throws the gun down on the cobblestones. One of them stumbles. Two of them are in quilted jackets, one in a matted sheepskin coat. Their heads are clumsily shaven against lice. I glimpse the tattered collars of German uniforms beneath their coats. The fourth is in a filthy German officer’s greatcoat. His once-blonde hair is the color of tallow and ashes. Blood streams crimson from a wound on his scalp – blood as rich as a rose, the only brightness in this January world glazed with the dust of shattered brick and stone. They are standing right on top of me. I feel their boots on the surface of the shroud.
From around the corner I hear the Red Army soldiers call out:
“Ruki vverkh! Hände hoch!”
One of the Germans in a quilted jacket falls to one knee. He has a bayonet in his hand, and he plunges it into the shroud, works it into and through me, severing synapses, tearing through neurons, prying out a cobblestone from the street, his desperate fingers scrabbling between the stones, tearing loose a chunk of me. His comrades also fall to their knees and begin prying . . .
I attempt to scrap the insertion, but I cannot. Something has gone wrong. Something has already broken in the shroud. The failsafes are not functioning. He throws the piece of me, the brickbat, the chunk of myself. I see the Red Army soldiers, now, coming around the corner. There are five of them, three in cloth tank helmets, the other two in salt-stained ushankas. Their swollen, malnourished, windburned faces are all alike. The rest of their clothes are not what you would call uniforms anymore. Or maybe they are the true uniform of war – a burned, stained, re-stitched mass of rags and wrappings, dragged from the bodies of others as the desperate survivors slogged their way through unimaginable fire. The cheap, machine stamped “Papasha” submachine guns they are brandishing are, I realize, empty. They were hoping the Germans would just surrender. One of them pulls the trigger with a hollow clack. The cobblestone strikes him in the face. He falls to one knee, shakes his head like a man trying to wake up, sits down heavily, and then slumps, unconscious or dead, to his side.
“Hände hoch! Hände hoch, ya skazal!” another one yells. There is a terrible fear in his voice.
As the four Germans pull me into pieces, I see my father. He is in his boat painted the color of a child’s summer sky, drifting in the middle of the street. The boat, hull half submerged, is rocking gently among the stones, its bow slightly rotating aft in a breeze that is not here in this time. My father is standing, balanced, concentrating as he hauls the net from the liquid surface of the street. The cobblestones and broken hunks of brick the two groups are hurling at one another fly past him, leaving him undisturbed. One passes, unnoticed, through his chest.
The hauling of the net requires patience and balance, as he taught me. You must not be distracted. He draws it slowly from beneath the stones. Tangled here and there is a struggling, scaled form, glittering, reflecting a light from elsewhere, drawn from its element underneath the stones. Near the bow of the boat, in white paint, in my father’s clumsy hand, is the name of the boat: Hazan, the name of his only child.
Then he flickers, fades. The sky, too, shudders, swarmed by black static as a hand grasps my memories and yanks them free from the rest of me, hurls them into the violent air . . .
Hazan would not wake up. We kept vigil for three hours, there in the lab. Her pulse was slow and even, her consciousness registering on the screens as having returned – the river of electrical impulses through the synapses. But she would not wake up. The graduate students stood in whispering circles, discussing. I sat by the side of the apparatus, my fingers gently touching hers. Afraid to disturb anything, but wanting her to know that there was someone here in this world, waiting. The others are worried for their careers – in their minds their futures are already engulfed by scandal. They see tenure torn from them, reputations burned.
Then she awoke. Just a flutter of eyelids, a disoriented groan – but enough.
We bring her from the lab in a stretcher. I drive her to the hospital myself. She is feverish, incoherent. The diagnoses fluctuate: there appears to be severe nerve damage. Massive short term memory loss. Periodic petit mal seizures. Her hands grasp the air as if pulling on a rope. Hand over hand. Is she trying to pull herself up from the hospital bed? Up out of some imagined well?
In her delirium she says, “I never asked for this. I never asked to be human.”
On the third day, she comes to. I am asleep at her bedside – barely sleeping, really. She says, “Baris.” I open my eyes. She is sitting upright in the bed, her eyes clear. She has drawn the IV out from her arm, and is cross-legged on the sheets. Where was she, in the space between then and now? For those three days of delirium? What did she see?
“Is it over? Have they taken it away from me?”
“Not yet,” I say. “I’ve managed . . . I’ve managed to keep the students quiet about the accident. For now. But I don’t think we have more than a few days before one of them loses their nerve. We should gather the data while we can. Now that you are awake, I’ll return to the laboratory and start wiping the files.”
“No, Baris. I need to go in one more time. Can you take me to the boat, and then to the lab?”
“These places you are returning to – the damage they are doing to the shroud –it’s being transferred back somehow – back to your body in this time. I don’t know how it’s happening. It’s something, maybe, about Keiser’s law.”
“Baris, they’re nothing. Ephemera, qualia. They’re ghosts in the nervous system, fading over time.”
I believed her because I wanted to. Her hand trembling on the boat – her looking at her hand, turning it over in the sun like an alien thing . . .
“You need to promise me, Hazan, if I agree to do this, that you will choose a safer target. That you’ll at least stop this obsession with war. It’s destroying you. There has to be a safer way to test. . .”
“Baris, enough.” A flush of anger drifted through the capillaries of her cheeks like a cloud, then faded. “I know you worry. And you are right. I’ll stay away from the war. For good. Besides,” she said, “there’s no wisdom to be found there. Just interrupted lives and cruelty. I thought I would find some sort of answer. I was wrong.” She tried to stand, but had to be helped from the bed. “I’m all right. I’m just tired, that’s all. Maybe I just need a break. Can you take a break from being human?”
Supporting her with an arm around her waist, I managed to thread us past the doctors, get us out of the hospital. What a world we live in; the weak support the strong, and everyone sees it the other way around.
Two days later, we are back in the lab. There is only a quartet of graduate students left. These are Hazan’s most loyal followers. They do not love her: they are simply the ruthless ones. They know if they can manage to cling to her for long enough, they can ride her wake into greatness. We can all feel the invisible hand of the institute closing on us. Soon, they will confiscate all of this. They will take what can be marketed, and close down the rest. Reckless, pioneering Hazan will be the human sacrifice – ejection from the institute, disgrace. Hazan’s career has ended – torn to bits by ambition. The students hope one of them can pick up the pieces and make their own career out of them, with tenure and all the benefits.
As always, Hazan has masked her destination’s coordinates, coded everything herself. She takes the little calmative pill, swishes the glassful of water through her teeth and says: “See you soon, Baris.”
She settles in, closes her eyes.
And does not wake up.
I sleep, when I can sleep, at her side. Her face is serene. She looks far more vulnerable than she would like. Finally, on the third day, without any indication her consciousness has returned to her body, she’s moved to the institute hospital’s suspension ward, where they seal her into one of the tubes high in the wall to wait with the others in their long sleep. Until what? They seal the tube. Until, I suppose, the resurrection. Hazan, where have you gone? And for how long? You said I would see you soon. How easily you break your word. Hazan the liar.
I am in tears. I am alone, again, in the world. The Surah of Az-Zumar rises unbidden, in my brain, itself resurrected from my childhood days in the cold Madrassah, swaying, mumbling the Koran to atone for the sins of my father:
And the trumpet will be sounded, and all that are in the heavens and all that are on earth will fall down senseless. Unless they be such as God wills. And then it will sound again - and lo! Standing they will begin to see!
Serhan moved into PR mode quickly, shifting blame for the accident away from the institute onto Hazan and myself, who had an “unhealthy, obsessive relationship that endangered both of them.” Moreover, he told the press, “I have to say that it was personally depressing to see Professor Baris Burakgazi dragged into this. As many of you know, he and I finished the Human Connectome project together. Our years of fruitful collaboration . . .”
What had been accomplished in “fruitful collaboration” with Serhan could be written on a single page. Then burned, and scattered to the wind. I left the university with my possessions in a box, happy to go.
To the boat, the only place that called to me, the only place that made sense.
To find there the light on in the salon, the Calvados and the single glass, the neatly stacked journals.
In the hour before dawn, I read the last lines in the journal.
From Journal Entry 252
And so, Baris, you’re finally going to have to learn to sail the boat single-handed. Now you can see why I pushed you to get so quick at trimming the sails when we were coming about. . . this boat, for what it is worth, is now yours. As I am
I go up onto the deck, where Venus dominates the sky and the stars are fading.
And then I see it: a gossamer shimmer, coating the boat from bow to aft. Like a trick of the eye, like a liquid reflection on the ceiling of a room, a heatwave pooling on a road: I lay a hand on the cool surface of the boat deck rail.
Hazan in the hospital: “Maybe I just need a break. Can you take a break from being human?”
“Whatever shape you choose, Hazan” I say. “For however long you choose it.”
In the pilothouse I start the engine. I bring in and coil the mooring ropes. I take the wheel in the pilot house. And we pull, Hazan and I, slowly away from the dock, headed down the Bosporus and toward the Marble Sea.