Saturday, September 18, 2010

There Were Some Unexpected Side Effects [Part 1]


This is the beginning of a short story I never really finished. I want to complete it, but can't seem to get motivated. I supposed reader reaction will determine the ending. Of course, in the end, it may be able to stand alone as is. Let me know what you think.


Erin Withrow was fresh out of school and it showed. Her quiet steps and shy demeanor spoke volumes. She had spent the last four years as an intern at the Vanderbilt University Hospital but none of that experience seemed to matter now that she was here. The Oak Ridge Human Enhancement Institute had become the premiere site for cybernetic development since it opened just 15 years ago. Since that time, there was an explosion in "human enhancement" that would shape the 22nd century into a new age of experience for mankind. At least, that's what all the advertisements wanted you to believe. For Erin, it was hallowed ground. She had worked and studied hard for this opportunity and now she was stumbling around, wide eyed, as an assistant led her to her new lab. The assistant was a short man with dark hair who's name she could not quite remember despite the name tag on his chest. She had made a point to remember names. People seemed to respond better when you cared. He led her down the never ending maze of sterile halls. Offices, lab rooms, and operating rooms were all too common here and made navigation that much harder. Each hall seemed to look just like the one before it.

"Um, excuse me sir." she asked.
He did not turn, but only tilted his head slightly while continuing down the halls.
"How do you know where we are going? This all looks the same and there are no signs or identifiers on the walls?"
"The implant" he pointed to his right ear. "It's linked to the network here on site, tells me where to go. You'll end up with one too."

They finally came to a stop. The assistant touched the pad on the door. It activated a small screen just above it. On the screen was a view of the inside of a lab. A man came into view.

"Yes, can I help you?"
"I've got your new one here Dr. Williamson. She just arrived today." the assistant said pointing back at Erin with his thumb.
"Right, I'll be up in just a second." the man on the screen said.

The door opened with a few heavy clicks. Dr. Williamson motioned for her to step in. She turned before entering to see if the short dark haired assistant would follow but he had already gone. She stepped in to the flat white sterile room. The doctor was tall and somewhat overweight. He had a thick grey beard and short wavy graying hair. He shut the door behind her, keyed the pad on the door and it made thick locking sounds again.

"You must be Miss Erin Withrow" he bellowed while shaking her hand.
"Yes, yes that's me." she said while tucking brown locks behind her ear.
"You'll have to excuse the precautions, we must maintain a sterile environment." he said.

The doctor walked over to a flat panel on the wall. He pressed a sequence of keys and immediately the room started to emanate a faint whir. The flat white room was a void. There was no furniture and only the panel the doctor had keyed a moment ago. Abruptly, an odorless gas came from under the floor, from the ceiling and the walls. A beam swept the room and it's occupants. Erin gasped.

"Oh don't worry dear, it's only a decontamination chamber. Perfectly harmless. Unless, of course, you are some nasty little germ critter. Sure beats scrubbing and washing like we had to in the old days."

"I've never been in a decon room before." she said.

"Well, you'll have to get used to it. This is your new home away from home." he said as the gasses ceased.

A door on the far side of the room was suddenly illuminated by a green line that traced the outside of the frame. Dr. Williamson opened it and Erin followed. They walked down a short hall and into an office on the left. There were three men seated at computer terminals. One had his feet up on the desk. The moment he saw the doctor he retracted them with a bit of shame.

"Gentlemen," the doctor said loudly "we have a new assistant with us. Her name is Erin Withrow. She comes to us from Vanderbilt."

She blushed a little and nodded her head.

"Introductions all around." he waved his arms in dramatic flair "Here we have the good Mr. Will Samson, genetics are his specialty." He was tall ebony man in his thirties. He stood and shook her hand with a smile. "And next we have Mr. Ivan Lampkin." Ivan stood shaking hands with Erin. Ivan's grip was crushing for such a frail thing as Erin, but she smiled despite the pain. Ivan was barrel chested and obviously took care of himself physically even though he must have been well into middle age. "Ivan is our lead technician. He keeps all the machines running as they should." The doctor continued. "And last, and certainly least" The doctor laughed "is the infamous Ted Cain. Ted, remind us, what is you do here?" The long haired man who had previously had his feet on the desk stood and smiled. His hands went into his pockets and he rocked back and forth on his heels. "I make the magic happen." Ted mused. They all broke out in a laugh. Dr. Williamson expanded, "Ted is our implant technician. He knows a great deal. It might be hard to get that information out of him though. You'll have to wade through his crude personality." Erin waved. "Miss Withrow here, is our new psychology expert. She comes highly recommended from Vandy. Hopefully she can see what we have failed to see." Dr. Williamson said in a somber tone.

The doc led her further down the hall. At the end was another pad that he keyed. He opened the door and motioned for her to enter. He followed her and closed the door behind them. Again, this door locked with a heavy click. The room was dark and illuminated only by the glow of computer terminals and test equipment. Above the main work station was a large flat pane of plexiglass. Behind the glass was a table with some kind of grotesque machine. Erin had no idea what it was, but there was something about it that disturbed her deeply. The machine was about seven feet long and about 3 feet tall. There were strange pieces of metal and contraptions she could not identify all about it's surface. In the room with the strange machine were several monitors and equipment trays. There were many leads coming off of the machine creating a spiderweb of cables that ran to a computer station in the isolated room.

Dr. Williamson sat down at the desk and entered his password into the terminal. He brought up several of the monitoring screens and activated the displays of the test equipment.

"What is that thing on the other side of the glass?" she said with a shudder.
"That," pointing "is your new patient miss Withrow." answered the doctor.

A chill ran up Erin's spine.

"I don't understand Dr. Williamson." She dreaded the response.

"Miss Withrow, please call me Doc." He motioned for her to sit.

She sat and listened intently.

The doctor began; "Miss Withrow, What you see there is a genuine mystery to science. Inside that terrible machine is a man. He has been trapped for the better part of two years now. We don't know exactly why he's in there, or how exactly, he got to be in there. In fact, we only know a small portion of what's going on inside that machine. All we know for sure, is that he is alive and we can't get him out." He waited and gauged her response.

Erin was somewhat frightened but intrigued at the same time.

Nothing could have prepared me for this.

Dr. Williamson continued. "You see, this man was fitted with a new and experimental product two years ago. The Cognitive Enhancement Interface or CEI for short. He paid a great deal of money to be the the alpha test subject. Every thing was going well for him until this happened."

The doctor typed in a command to the terminal, searched for a file and brought it up on the display. The screen showed a man laying on a table in a medical room. He had on a gown and was fitted with what appeared to be several sensors. While moving slighty back and forth, his hands reached to his head and he grabbed his hair. The man screamed in agony. He began to kick and convulse violently. Two men entered the room and yelled for help. Suddenly, all of the instruments in the room sparked and smoked. The two men backed away, not sure of what was happening. The fear on their faces was apparent. The video flickered and glitched with pixelation. The room was now alive with movement. The machines were all coming apart. The table the man was on was shaking and warping. The man screamed and writhed in pain as the broken objects moved toward him in a blur of motion. Everything in the room was coming apart.

Erin leaned in closer. Her hand came to cover her mouth. Her eyes were wide and unbelieving.

The video began to distort and pixelate more frequently now as all of the machinery in the room was being destroyed and drawn to the man. Pieces began to form around him. They moved and seemed to be alive. Arcs were now coming from the shell around the man. It thickened still as pieces of the room were flying all around. Cables were ripped from the walls. The lights had smashed and came falling into the tornado of the unthinkable thing on the table. The video flickered once more and went black. When the picture came back, red emergency lights were visible in the room. The two men returned with flashlights. There were several others with them now, doctors, nurses, even what seemed to be a janitor. They all stared in amazement at the now still coffin-like monstrosity in the room. There was smoke and falling bits of dust in the room visible through the flashlight beams. One of the men with a light stepped forward cautiously. He reached out and touched the coffin. He retracted his arm quickly and yelped. "Its red hot, don't touch it!"

At that, Dr. Williamson ended the video. He looked out of the side of his eyes toward Erin. She was unmoving and still had her hand over her mouth. He turned and looked at her head on now. She was in a trance. She had just seen the unthinkable happen and it was a very disturbing reality.

"Miss Withrow, are you alright?" the doctor asked.

"Miss Withrow."

She was silent.

"I know what you have just seen is disturbing, but please, hear me." He leaned closer to intercept her long gaze.

She stirred and looked at him in horror.

Please, tell me this is not real. Please, tell me this is not real!

"I.. I don't think I can help you with this Dr. Williamson." She uttered.

"Miss Withrow, please. We need your help. We have tried to free that poor man in there for two years now with no success." said the doctor.

"But why me? How could I possibly even help that man" she said while pointing to the terrible coffin in the other room. "What could any psychologist possibly do to help in this situation?"

"I'm glad you asked." the doctor responded.

Dr. Williamson touched a key and spoke; "Ted, Ivan, could you please join us in the observation room."

A moment later they came into the observation room to join the doctor and Erin. Ted sat leisurely at one of the stations and began to log in to his terminal. Ivan stood in the corner with his arms crossed, silent.

"Ted, go ahead and bring up the feed. We need to show Miss Withrow here, why we need her help." said the doctor.

"Sure thing boss."

A few clicks and one final dramatic tap later the main screen came to life again. Only this time, there was something fundamentally different about what was shown. Not the content, but the look, the feel of the picture. There was a hazy sequence of disjointed events being portrayed. A small child ran through a patch of grass with a dog. She laughed and giggled as the dog playfully chased her.

"What are we looking at?" asked Erin.

Ted answered "What you are seeing now is a live feed of that man's dreams."

"How is that possible?"

Ivan finally spoke "Fused nerves and electrodes, induced interference from too much iron in the blood, who knows. There are thousand and one explanations for how this is happening. What we know for sure is that the ordinary auditory implant, worn by many people today, is transmitting the signal you see here. We think the experimental CEI implant somehow linked itself to the auditory implant."

"We don't know that last bit for sure Ivan." Ted interjected.

"He's right, we don't know that for sure, but that's our best guess. We are limited on test options here. I've already had several of my machines destroyed trying to do any sort of active testing. That has limited us to passive testing only." Ivan shifted his massive weight and sighed.

"I still don't understand how you think I can help this poor man." Erin said. She was in over her head and she knew it.

Dr. Williamson looked Erin in the eyes again. "We simply need to look at this problem from every angle. I know this seems overwhelming right now. But I need you to make a decision. As you might have surmised, this project is very sensitive. I need to know if you are on board. Will you help us help this man?"

Erin looked through the window into the isolation chamber. Her dreams had just been poisoned. She had often imagined her career figuring out new and creative ways to help people. She never imagined... this. Her heart filled with dread at the thought of being trapped in a steel coffin like that poor soul. Her heart reached out to him.

I will help you.


  1. During the video she watched of the transformation, I could not help but think of the scene in one of the Superman movies.

    I liked the story, I like the hook!
    Here is my constructive criticism:

    "She had spent the last four years as an intern at the Vanderbilt University Hospital but none of that experience seemed to matter now that she was here."
    is a good sentence, but i think it would be stronger if it were "those experiences" instead

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Jonathan! I appreciate the criticism.

  3. Nice hook. It made me think of some of the human/machine imagery in Akira and Ghost in the Shell.

    I also like the calm attitude toward implants. The assistant's casual,You'll end up with one too. was scary in its own right.

    Now I want to know what they think she can do with his dreams.