NEW FICTION: HOMEOSTASIS by Carlos Hernadez

Paul Raven @ 01-07-2009

It’s the first of July – time for your monthly dose of Futurismic fiction! This time, we’ve got a story that probably comes closer to the sort of thing we try to achieve with our blogging output than anything we’ve yet published. “Homeostasis” is a plainly-told story about real people adapting to a plausible piece of tomorrow’s life-saving medical technology; Carlos Hernandez understands that science fiction can pitch hard and still have a heart. Enjoy!

Homeostasis

by Carlos Hernandez

Eight seconds of footage, from a security camera so old it surrounds every object in the picture with rainbows. Man at a gas station robbing the attendant. Pantyhose flattening his nose. Waving a knife like a snakecharmer’s pungi.

Customer walks in. Good-looking guy, California hair, white as a country club. Has no idea; walks in texting. The robber runs over and slams the knife through the top of his head. In to the hilt.

On 4chan’s boards, someone posts an animated gif that infinitely loops the last two seconds. The word “pwnd” flashes at the end. Dozens of people respond with “lulz.”

#

Angela in the waiting room with her kids. Greg Jr. is painstakingly choosing his playlist. Lucy is asleep, her Hello Kitty purse wobbling treacherously on the precipice of her knees. Chase is unknotting his shoelaces. He’s only learned to tie them, likes to practice.

This is the end of everything thinks Angela. It’s her only thought; it repeats like an animated gif, one word at a time. She has luminous wet patches beneath her eyes, remnants of the tears she obliterated before her children could spot them. Thank God for no-run mascara.

An IC nurse is jogging toward them. It’s Bonnie. She is 270 pounds, wears pediatric scrubs covered in cartwheeling pandas. Still a full first down away from the waiting room, she yells, “Ms. Justice!”

Greg Jr. yanks out his earbuds; Chase stops playing with his laces; Lucy opens her eyes instantly. She had been fake-sleeping.

“Greg?” asks Angela.

Bonnie reaches the waiting room. Stops, stoops, grips her thighs for support. Huffs and swallows. “He’s awake,” she manages. “He just opened his eyes.”

Angela forgets she has children. She runs.

#

“What’s wrong with Daddy’s head?” asks Lucy.

“Shut up, Lucy,” says Greg Jr. He hits her, she starts crying, there is a scene. But it’s Bonnie who must broker a truce. Angela is bedside, watching Greg. Chase, dead-faced, watches Angela.

Angela is so close to Greg’s face she can see his vacant eyes saccade. He smells like he smells when he comes home from work, before his evening shower, after all the colognes and deodorants have died away. His own animal self.

The robber’s knife went all the way through his head; its point poked out from his palate like a shark tooth. It’s a miracle he didn’t die instantly. It’s a miracle he didn’t die during the operation to remove it. It’s a miracle his eyes are open and saccading.

The arc of skull they removed during the operation is 110mm long by 40mm wide by 25mm deep. Where once was skull there is now a cream-colored computer. It bulges like a Mohawk from his head.

An eneural, it’s called. Angela has heard of them, passingly, shruggingly. There was a report on 60 Minutes a few months back: on the one hand, real people, who would otherwise be heads of cauliflower, leading normal lives thanks to eneurals; on the other, reports that crooked governments — including, allegedly, the U.S.! — using them to control peoples’ minds. So are eneurals good or bad? You decide.

The eneural is now Greg’s corpus callosum. It will perform thalamic functions, will take over for damaged parts of his diencephalon. Without the eneural, he will never fall asleep again. Were it removed while he was asleep, he would not wake.

Everyone loves Chase because he has big eyes. Those eyes are locked onto his mother. He says “Mommy?” every once in a while, yanks on Angela’s sleeve. To no avail. After today, he will trust the word “Mommy” a little less.

#

Greg’s eyes had locked onto Angela’s an hour ago. She put her hand on his cheek and nodded and raised her eyebrows as if to say, “Go ahead, Greg. Tell me.” Then, twenty minutes ago, his bottom jaw started moving, like a dummy’s. She watched him and cried as quietly as she could. She cried so quietly Lucy could hear her tears strike the bedsheet.

And now Greg, hoarse and dehydrated, blinks and says “Hey you.”

“Hey,” says Angela.

#

Greg’s knees and elbows don’t work. He has to kick his whole leg forward when he walks. He can operate his fingers only in unison. Physical therapy is helping, but it’s slow going. The other day the staff applauded him for picking up a pencil.

One night at dinner — he must eat with a bib now — he pushes himself free of the table and moans and stands and sticks out his arms and starts making his stumbling way toward Chase.

He and Chase used to love to play Frankenstein. Greg thinks that is one thing he can still do. Hell, maybe his condition will even improve his impersonation.

Greg Jr. instantly understands what his dad is doing and feels humiliated. He hates that bib more than anything. Lucy, who’d been stirring her food rather than eating it, starts barking out fake, forced laughter. Angela launches herself out of the chair and follows Greg with mincing steps. “Are you okay?” she subvocalizes in his ear. She doesn’t know what is happening. She has read all the conspiracy theories surrounding eneurals she could Google and is only 99% convinced there’s nothing to them.

Chase used to run howling from the table and hide, giggling loudly, behind the sofa. But now, with big, inscrutable eyes, he just licks mashed potatoes off his spoon and watches Greg approach. Greg pauses in front of him, arms outstretched. Chase’s eyes don’t meet his. Instead, they are looking at his head. At the eneural.

#

Four months, and Greg completes physical therapy. Everyone is amazed by his progress.

A month more, and he is back to work. Real estate, a profession he loves like a lover: a rich lover who is scared Greg will leave it, so it showers him with money and expensive delights. His manager tells him as long as he can smile and look handsome, he’ll always have a job with them. Greg tells him about the new casing for his eneural: it’s covered with a wig made from his own hair, fits his skull seamlessly. Clients won’t even know it’s there.

A month more, and Greg is employee of the month. Not only is he among the office’s top three performers, but the new improved Greg can spool out thirty years of amortization in his head, figure continuously-compounded interest over a decade without a calculator. Uses those tricks to impress buyers.

Two months later, Greg slides into third during a company softball game. It’s a close call. They give it to him because nobody can believe he can play softball at all. But it is a legitimate close call. Even if he hadn’t been stabbed in the head and now needed a computer to keep him alive, it could have gone either way.

#

Now Greg always eats with a bib. He doesn’t have to anymore. He just likes to.

“It makes sense,” he says to Angela. “Remember what my ties used to look like?”

He found a good deal online for wholesale lobster bibs. The bibs have a picture of a lobster in a chef hat holding up a platter with a cooked lobster on it. “Aren’t they funny?” says Greg. “Though in truth, the bib-makers are playing off of a lobster stereotype. Lobsters probably don’t go out of their way to eat other lobsters in the wild. It’s just when they’re jammed together in tanks and traps that they start cannibalizing each other.”

Angela squints at him. It’s not a nice squint. “How do you know that?”

Greg’s doesn’t know what he’s done wrong. “I don’t know. I read it somewhere.”

Somehow she squints even more. “That’s not the sort of thing you used to know.”

Best to make a joke of it. “That was then, my dear. Now,” and he taps the eneural for emphasis, “I remember everything. Did you know lobsters don’t have a centralized brain? And lobsters can be right- or left-handed. The dominant claw is called a ‘crusher.’ And do you know how to tell a male lobster from a female? Males have these things called gonopeds … hey! Where are you going?”

#

Greg Jr. is doing worse in school; Lucy’s about even; Chase draws nothing but mummies now. But Bobby Entin draws pictures with headlines like “I like to kill Mommy” so nobody at preschool is worried about Chase.

After reviewing the report cards, Greg says “Let me talk to Junior.”

It is the last thing Angela wants. But the best she can do is ask “Are you sure?”

“You know he only opens up when he’s pitching. And no offense, honey, but you can’t catch.” He kisses her on the head — she flinches, he ignores it — then heads out the screen door to the back yard.

Junior’s arm is shockingly better since Greg last caught for him. Every time the ball lands in Greg’s mitt it buzzes like an alarm clock. Sometime during his absence, someone taught Junior to throw a split-finger.

“D in math?” asks Greg.

“So?” says Junior.

“So Ds are for stupid people. And you’re not stupid.”

The ball thuds into Greg’s meaty mitt. “I don’t need math.”

Greg throws a grounder; Junior fields it gracefully. “I do math every day at my job.”

“No you don’t.”

“What?”

You don’t. Your eneural does it for you.”

“Ah,” says Greg. “So what does that mean? Instead of learning algebra, you’re going to get an eneural like your old man?”

“Beats studying.” A little too much action on that split-finger, but Greg backhands it, saves the wild pitch. “Nice one, Dad.”

“Thanks. Well, we’d better get an eneural in your head soon, or you’ll never pass math. Angela!” Greg yells. “Bring out the big Chef’s knife. I’m going to stab Junior in the head.”

Junior cracks up. “Nuh-uh!”

“Uh-huh!”

“Mom won’t let you.”

“Yeah,” Greg concedes, “you’re probably right. Tell you what. Why don’t I help you with math tonight? It was always my favorite subject.”

“Can’t.”

“Why?”

Greg Jr. taps his head right where an eneural would sit. “Mr. Lopez says we’re not allowed to use calculators.”

Greg stands up, flips up the catcher’s mask. Junior is laughing the honest, merciless laugh of a fifth-grader.

Just a joke thinks Greg. He pulls down the mask, crouches, punches his mitt. “You just tell Mr. Lopez that your dad is a calculator, and if he has a problem with me helping you with your homework, he can come talk to me. One more pitch, then we go inside to do some math, okay?”

“Okay,” says Junior, still laughing. Then he gets suddenly serious, sets, checks first base.

Greg keeps calling for heat, but Junior keeps shaking him off. He likes his new split-finger better.

#

Angela reads online that, while some fundamentalist religions accuse eneural developers of playing God, the International Theological Commission of the Catholic Church has come out in support of eneurals. The Commission finds that, “as the brain is no more the soul of a person than any other of the body’s organs,” prolonging or enhancing its function does no more to “create life” than any other prosthetic. At the press conference announcing the Commission’s findings, Cardinal Secretary of State Salvador Bianchi says, “The matter is simple, really: a man who has lost his soul cannot get a new one by means of an eneural.” The always-colorful cardinal adds: “Science can make the legs of a dead frog dance by running electricity through them. But that doesn’t mean dead frogs like to dance.”

#

Angela’s parents are dead. She is an only child. Before she had kids she used to have a lot of friends, but now she has her family. She needs to talk, but to whom can she turn?

She turns to Nurse Bonnie. Bonnie works the night shift, so most nights she has plenty of time to talk.

Everyone else is asleep in the Justice house. Angela in the amber darkness of the kitchen, her hand cupped around the phone’s receiver. “Bonnie, I feel like … I feel like I don’t know him anymore.”

“Oh, honey,” says Bonnie. “Of course you know him. He’s still the same Greg.”

“See, that’s just it, Bonnie. I don’t know if he is the same Greg. Some things are the same. Most things. But not everything.”

“Okay,” says Bonnie. “But you’re not the same person you were before the attack either, right?”

“No,” says Angela. She pauses to mourn the person she once was. “No I am not.”

“It’s natural for people to change, Sweetie. That’s just part of life.”

“Yeah, okay, but it’s more than that. It’s not that he’s changed. It’s that … what if Greg died the night of the attack?”

The living silence of the phone connection buzzes in Angela’s ear. “I don’t think I follow you,” says Bonnie.

Angela takes a deep breath. “I mean, what if Greg died that night and now the eneural is just pretending to be him? What if it’s just reading Greg’s memories and using his body to impersonate him, but really Greg died almost a year ago, and now I’m living my life and raising my kids with a … a fake Greg? What if he’s all body and no soul?”

There thinks Angela. Breathing feels suddenly more satisfying. I said it.

Bonnie says nothing for a long time. The kitchen is still monotone brown. Aren’t eyes supposed to adjust to darkness? “Well, honey,” Bonnie finally begins, “let me ask you something. Before the accident, how did you know Greg had a soul?”

Angela wakes up a little. “What do you mean how did I know Greg had a soul?”

“Just what I said. How did you know?”

Angela laughs. “Everybody has a soul, Bonnie.”

“But how did you know? How could you tell there was a soul inside of him?”

Angela switches the phone to her other ear to buy some time. “I don’t know. I could tell, is all. I could feel it.”

“What, exactly? What could you feel?”

Angela shuts her eyes. “When we were in bed and I lay my head on his chest, I could feel the life there. Okay? I could feel his life shooting up my ear canal.” She laughs at herself. “I know that sounds crazy.”

“It doesn’t. Keep going.”

A smile rises from the depths of her body up to her face. “Sometimes when he came home from work I’d be in the kitchen prepping dinner, and he’d sneak up behind me and wrap his arms around my waist and scare the crap out of me. I scare really easy, so it worked every time. And when he would do that, I could feel his soul. I could feel the … mischief inside him. And then it would jump from his body into mine, like electricity, and his mischievous mood would become my mood, so instead of getting mad I’d just start laughing. We stand like that and laugh together, and then I would call him a sonofabitch and tell him to go get cleaned up for dinner. His soul used to make mine laugh, Bonnie. That’s how I knew.”

“And now when you touch him, you don’t feel his soul?”

Angela opens her eyes. Then her mouth falls open. Then she says, “To tell the truth, I don’t really know.”

“You don’t know, Sweetie? Either you can feel his soul inside him or you can’t, right?”

Angela puts the receiver in her lap for a moment. She raises and drops it two, three times. Finally she presses it to her ear and mouth and, in the smallest voice she has, says: “Bonnie, we don’t really touch anymore.” And instead of sobbing she adds quickly, “I don’t want to touch him.”

The line goes quiet. The kitchen crowds her from all sides. Then Bonnie says, “Angela, hang up the phone. Go hold your husband.”

#

When Angela gets back to her bedroom she sees Lucy asleep on Greg’s chest. Greg smiles at Angela through the darkness and mouths “Nightmares.”

“Bullshit,” Angela mouths back. She is smiling patiently.

Greg mouths a sentence too complex to decode without sound. Angela holds up her hands and says “Wait.” She walks over to his side of the bed and kneels. In her ear Greg whispers: “Do you want me to go put her in her bed?”

Angela shakes her head. This is getting to be a habit with Lucy — they will have to have a talk with her in the morning — but no need to cause a scene now, disturb the whole house. In Greg’s ear, she whispers, “But can you make a little room for me?”

Greg looks at her. Every other time Lucy has come to their room claiming nightmares, she slept between Angela and Greg. Angela liked her there; she found that, with their daughter separating them, she slept better.

So Greg is surprised she wants to be next to him. “Really?” he whispers.

Angela nods, smiling. Greg gently scoops up Lucy and moves her to Angela’s side of the bed, then cautiously scoots himself over. Lucy licks her lips but does not wake; her head finds its way back to Greg’s chest and settles in. Angela snuggles up next to Greg; she must lie on her side to keep from falling off the bed.

Angela places her head on Greg’s belly. She is looking at Lucy. Her daughter looks so much like her. Lucy’s mouth is slack; her arm is thrown over Greg’s stomach; she could not be more asleep.

Angela listens to Greg’s chest. She hears blood and breath and even a little digestion. And, from a little higher up, she feels the high-pitched thrum of the eneural. It is an alien presence in Greg’s body. But it is just that, a presence — one voice in the choir of his homeostasis.

Angela takes Greg’s hand and places it on the back of her neck. She can feel the caution in his palm — he is excited, eager, but plays it cool so that she doesn’t get spooked. So like him: caring and boyish and endearing and gentle. It’s good she thinks, her forehead just touching her daughter’s. Sleep is coming quickly now; Angela has time for just one more idea. She sighs and settles in and thinks It’s enough.

###

Carlos HernandezCarlos Hernandez is the co-author of Abecedarium (Chiasmus 2007), author of the novella “The Last Generation to Die” and many short stories, most recently in the anthologies Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery, and Interfictions 2. By day, he is a professor of English at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY. He lives in Queens, which is the best borough in New York.

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10 Responses to “NEW FICTION: HOMEOSTASIS by Carlos Hernadez”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Loved it, specially for the emotional take on the whole philosophical zombie problem.
    One thing though. Pwned is passe even now. It would be more realistic to see EPIC FAIL on 4chan /b/, if it even continues to exist by the time eneurals are in the market. It’s a nice detail though.

  2. F.J. Bergmann says:

    Excellent story, but note that the roof of the mouth is the palate, not “palette.” And the protagonist changes names from Angela to Amanda partway through.

  3. Paul Raven says:

    Thanks FJ – you can blame yours truly using the unedited typescript instead of the 2.0 edition for those errors, which are now corrected. :)

  4. Paul Cole says:

    A truly forward looking story. Shows a great understanding and feeling for the human condition when what is human and what isn’t is being asked. Bravo

    Paul Cole
    Host of WRFR radio talk show & podcast Beam Me Up

  5. Adam Rakunas says:

    Excellent stuff. Thank you, Carlos, for writing it, and thank you, Paul and Chris, for publishing it.

  6. Jetse says:

    Carloooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooos!

    (Non-CGP people can ignore this comment, and I’ve just downloaded the story & get back to this thread after I’ve read it…;-)

  7. Justin Schwan says:

    I loved the powerful, straightforward prose. It’s all story.

  8. Jetse says:

    “Science can make the legs of a dead frog dance by running electricity through them. But that does mean dead frogs like to dance.”

    I think that should read: “But does that mean dead frogs like to dance?”

    Apart from that, short, sharp, nice and effective. Thought-provoking. And quite a few writers I see in the slushpile could use Carlos’s brevity. Some stories are soooooo bloated.

    Anyway, the philosophical zombie and the Chinese Room: not sure what the story alludes to here. I see several possibilities:

    1) The hardware is changed, but the software is still the same (old Greg = New Greg);
    2) The hardware is changed, but the software is different (Old Greg ≠ New Greg);
    3) The hardware is changed, but the software is different *because* it had to fit the new hardware;
    4) The hardware is changed, and while the software was originally the same, it changed because of some added enhancements, such as perfect recall, more computing power, and so on;

    Carlos, smart writer that he is, leaves that for the reader to work out. Personally, I suspect option 4 is closest to the story.

    Comes the $64 million question: does the new Greg have intentionality, is he conscious, does he have a ‘soul’? It’s as if Carlos had John Searle and Daniel Dennett have it out through Angela and Bonnie.

    The story title hints at the most probable interpretation:

    Homeostasis: a relatively stable state of equilibrium or a tendency toward such a state between the different but interdependent elements or groups of elements of an organism, population, or group;

    Which would hint that the mind of the ‘new’ Greg is now in a new equilibrium with his body. And possibly also that the ‘new’ Greg has finally reached a new equilibrium with his surrounds (his family, his job). And finally, possibly, that the ‘new’ Greg has a consciousness, will, intentionality and, well, ‘soul’ that is now in a new equilibrium with his new hardware.

    Basically, what it comes down to – I think – is that the question ‘can a machine – let’s call it ‘Artificial Intelligence’ of the strong kind – have intentionality/a consciousness/a soul?’ is answered by Greg’s actions:

    —Would a ‘soulless automaton’ try so very hard to get through to his son?
    —Would a ‘soulless automaton’ be so gentle and caring with his daughter?

    The clincher is here:

    “Two months later, Greg slides into third during a company softball game. It’s a close call. They give it to him because nobody can believe he can play softball at all. But it is a legitimate close call. Even if he hadn’t been stabbed in the head and now needed a computer to keep him alive, it could have gone either way.”
    If the call is so close, that it doesn’t make a difference, then there *is* no difference. Both old and new Greg are human, have intentionality, have consciousness, have a ‘soul’ (for lack of a better term).

    As always, YMMV…;-)

  9. Jed says:

    Belated comment: Good stuff!

  10. Tom Marcinko says:

    “You decide,” indeed. And that wacky cardinal!

    The family dynamics and the kids’ reactions all rang true, and made this story poignant. Very effective use of the snapshot technique, too.

    Mr. Hernandez just published “Fembot” on DayBreak, which is set in this “universe” and is even more ambitious, IMO:

    http://daybreakmagazine.wordpress.com/2009/12/25/daybreak-fiction-fembot/

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