The Rumor of Dragons

I worked regularly with murderers and worse, but the only patient that scared me was the young prosthetics engineer with a brainhack addiction I met in my office once a week. It was her eyes. They moved in a pattern neither random nor similar to any condition I had ever met, which made sense, as her neurochemistry was in a carefully self-tuned and almost unique state. That was what brainhack did: the combination of drugs, implants, and software allowed people to achieve cognitive and emotional configurations new in human experience - because unachievable and unsustainable without the technology.

Many other brainhack addicts seemed to have chosen out of infinite possibilities of consciousness the same specific configuration. She lived in a blank in psychiatry's map, but the place was getting crowded and, judging by her expression -- always a gamble when it came to brainhack users -- it was not a hospitable one.

"You don't seem happy," I said.

Her hollow laugh, at least, was a familiar one. I was no stranger to hearing bleak, defiant hopelessness. "You wouldn't, either."

We had been approaching her situation through the usual therapeutic paths. Perhaps it was time to acknowledge my ignorance of how her mind and emotions worked and embrace the fear and thrill of starting anew. And everything began with a question.

"Then why not stop using?"

She didn't laugh. She looked at me as directly as she ever did, while still keeping her eyes moving in their usual, unsettling pattern. "You wouldn't, either."

"Then help me understand how it feels."

"I can't," she shrugged, an oddly recognizable gesture in context. "Can you explain to somebody a feeling they have never had? It's a different way of processing sensory information, memory, everything. Change your wetware, change your world." There was black humor in her quoting of the now infamous slogan.

"Part of my job is precisely that. The mind and brain of somebody suffering from depression or trauma, especially if it happened early in their lives, do work differently than those of somebody who hasn't. Feelings of happiness or safety might be as unknown and difficult to imagine for them as what you are feeling is to me."

"There's a cultural reference frame at least. Movies, expectations, language. We don't have that."

"That's a good point. Is that why you are dating a fellow brainhacker? Do you find her easier to connect with?"

"Let's say I'd find it impossible to connect with anybody who didn't use. But most of us live with other brainhackers, dating or not. It's good for... shifts."

I couldn't understand what she meant, which pointed to a new piece of the puzzle. A faint new line on the map. "Shifts?"

She seemed uncomfortable about broaching the topic, but I felt it was important enough not to mention it or offer her to leave it be. If she stopped I wouldn't pressure, but every piece of information helped me understand her. "We sleep the same as default people. Can't stay awake all the time."

"Why is sleep a problem? Do you have nightmares?"

She shook her head. "We all do. But we perceive different than you do, right? Same photons, different patterns. If you saw what we see you wouldn't want to show your back to them."

Them, not it. I felt a sudden urge to look over my shoulder, but it wasn't where she was looking what was different, but how, and the way her brain understood what she saw. I wondered if this was how people began using brainhack. The doubt.

Because brainhack didn't induce hallucinations. It had been originally developed as a pattern-detection enhancer for soldiers and forensic scientists.

She was looking at me in a way she had never before. I didn't have the right neurochemistry (yet?) to understand what she was seeing, but something shifted minutely in my own mind, and her suddenly and retroactively obvious constant terror was a thin background noise that, once noticed, I knew I would never be able to get out of my head.