The Crystal Bridge

Chapter 4 - Brain Spikes

James watched from the town-car as the buildings thinned out, replaced with miles of sand and sagebrush that rippled in the desert heat. The sage­brush became sparse and then scraggly bushes disappeared too. All that remained was a blinding expanse of white sand that forced James to squint even through dark tinted windows.

What have I got myself into? It’s a strange place to build a pharmaceutical lab, in the middle of the salt flats. Mom would kill me if she knew I’m planning on living out here, so far from anything normal. She’ll be bugging me about grandkids even more once she finds out.

That made him think of Stacie, his boss at the coffee shop he’d been stuck at for the past three months. After his book had tanked and tanked hard, no one had wanted to hire him in his field and he’d taken anything he could get to pay the bills. Stacie is beautiful…pink hair, tattoos, and all. At least it was pink last time I saw her. She changes it so often.

James had ignored the flirtations. She’d been his boss after all, but now he wondered if he should’ve just gone for it. Now I’ll never know. That option’s gone. Mike had showed up with a job offer James couldn’t pass up and he’d tossed his apron on a counter and walked out without much thought. Didn’t even get a chance to see her after I quit. The last week had been a whirlwind of interviews, paperwork, and packing.

The car stopped at a guard box. The driver flashed a security badge and the car moved on through the gate past two sets of razor-wire fences. The car rolled to a second stop in front of a squat, brown brick building with only four tiny windows. The building looked very little like the huge pharmaceutical conglomerate James ex­pected, more like a small town clinic that had lost all its funding.

“This can’t be it.”

The driver glanced back at him. “It’s more impressive inside.” He turned off the engine and hopped out. “Coming, sir?”

James cracked the door and blinked at the morning sun reflecting off the white sand. He stepped out into the desert heat. A salty, metallic tang that he could almost see rose in waves from the scorched white sand, burning his nostrils as it climbed inside him and into his lungs.

The driver unloaded the luggage as James coughed violently. “You get used to that too.” He cracked a smile and pointed at the rusty steel doors. “Go on in, sir. You don’t need to worry about your per­sonal effects. I’ll take them to your quarters.” The man waved away the tip James proffered. “That’s not necessary, sir. Omegaphil does not pay poorly, even just a lowly driver.”

“Yeah, I noticed. Okay, thanks.” James shoved the bill back into his pocket with a shrug.

“My pleasure, sir. Good luck.”

The badge allowed James through the locked and heavy security doors. He stepped into what looked like the waiting room for a dentist office except for the two large, armed guards. They just nodded toward an elevator. Friendly place.

A thin, trembling male voice filled the elevator as soon as he entered. “Welcome, Dr. Iverson. We’ve been expecting you. We’ll see you shortly in Section Five.”

The elevator hummed as pulleys and hidden machines carried him downward. The doors opened with a ding on the impossi­ble, a maze of bright-lit corridors that led off in all directions. Mike and a balding man in a white lab coat, who introduced himself as Dr. Stephens, waited for him in a circular lobby by the elevator.

Mike shook his hand and gave him the usual charming Mike smile. “So good to see you again, buddy. We’re gonna have so much fun here, you and I.”

“Yes, lovely. Shall we?” Dr. Stephens glanced at his watch. “We have much to do before you get started.”

Mike laughed. “Doc Stephens here is a bit of a wet blanket, but a good egg down deep, aren’t you Doc?”

The balding man slicked a wisp of hair back over his head where it did little to hide the shiny and hairless dome. “Not really.” But a hint of a smile betrayed him. “We must go.”

Stephens led them down a corridor to the “Neural Interface Room” according to the plaque on the door.

Dr. Stephens excused himself. “Mike will introduce you to the neural interface process. I have some pressing business with Vander Carlson.”

James thought back to his interview with Vander just a few days ago, thinking of a charcoal pin-striped suit and shark-like eyes. The man unnerved him. “Good luck,” he called after Stephens.

A chuckle answered him and James thought he heard Stephens mutter that he would need all the luck in the world.

Mike opened the door. “After you, old friend.”

James took three steps inside and froze. “What’s that?” He pointed at the machine in front of him. “It looks like some unholy combination of electric chair and an iron maiden.”

White, sterile walls ran the length of the room, making it appear too large to hold just the vile-looking chair and a computer console. James expected his voice to echo, but it didn’t.

“What’s going on, Mike?”

“You read the papers, signed the wavers. You need the neural interface installed before you can start work.” Mike walked over and sat down in the contraption.

James grimaced as Mike lowered himself onto the sleek metal chair. “And the evil brain spike machine installs the neural interface. What? Like I’m a car getting a new stereo?”

“Come on, James. It isn’t as bad as it looks. Quick, rela­tively painless, and then you’re off to work in Section Six, with me and the fun toys Omegaphil has to offer. You’re either all in or all out at this point.”

Seriously, what have I gotten myself into?

Mike ran a hand back and forth along a polished stainless steel armrest. He pushed a button and kicked up his legs as a leg rest slid up beneath them. Despite the hard metal and leather restraints, Mike looked comfortable, the chair bent in sleek curves to fit his body and gleaming in the white of the room like a lazy-boy throne.

“Would you get out of that thing?”

“I’m trying to make it easier on you.” But Mike stood, walked over to a large smoky mirror, and picked at something in his teeth.

“Then start some actual explanations. Yes, I signed the papers, but I assumed the neural interface stuff was exterior, electrodes, brain­wave scanners, something normal…ish.”

The chair stared back at James from the mirror with hundreds of dark blue eyes, glass circles running the length of the armrests and dotting the curved back. Small tubes wound away from the thing, weaving into a bundle, like nerves drawing closer to the brain. The bundled wires and tubes vanished through a hole in the ceiling, but not before traversing past a shining, metal dome. “This looks more invasive than anything I expected.”

James took in the metal dome that hung from the ceiling, thinking it vaguely resembled a hair dryer at a beauty parlor, but he doubted his grandma would set foot beneath the thing, no matter the reputation of the salon. It hung from a large, hydraulic arm, allowing it to move down on the segmented appendage like a scor­pion’s stinger. Nope, Nana would be horrified.

James swallowed as his eyes ran along the inner curved surface of the dome. Pumps, lights, and electronic equipment pulsated there, alive with movement and activity. Two large spikes jutted from the dome, like upside-down skyscrapers. Each spike broke down into its own set of segments like a spider’s leg, able to move and bend at any angle.

James leaned against an immaculate wall. “What have you gotten me into, Mike?”

Mike pulled himself away from the mirror, giving up on whatever eluded him in his mouth. He put on his most charismatic smile, revealing the black poppy seed stuck high in his gums between two front teeth.

Normally James would have laughed, but he didn’t even smile. “What is this?”

Mike’s smile grew. “This is your dream job, the best thing that’s ever happened to you, to any of us.”

James took in the crazy grin and the gleam of joy in Mike’s eyes and began to wonder how many times his friend had been in the chair. How many alterations have they done to make him think this is a good thing? “Save me the corporate propaganda.”

“Okay, my old friend, let me explain things a bit better. I told you about the job, prehistoric genetic research for possible pharmaceutical applications, right?”

“Yeah, but you said nothing about this.”

“Until you signed the confidentiality papers I wasn’t allowed to tell you everything.”

“No kidding.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be doing plenty of your precious prehis­toric genetics, but that’s just the beginning.” The gleam in Mike’s eyes burned brighter and he waved his hands faster as he spoke. “The main focus of our study is genetic manipulation of multicellular organisms in real time, James. Real time!”

“That’s impossible and you know it. Real time manipulation would require changing all the genes at once, which can’t be done at the macro level, not yet.”

“Impossible on a living animal, true. But what if you’re work­ing with simulations, holograms? The firm we work for has the best scientists in all fields working here, from computer engineers to theoretical physicists. They’re a million times ahead of the rest of the world. We’ve got thousands of specimens fully mapped!”

James slid to the floor, his back against the wall. “Still impossible. Simulations are useful, but they can’t replace the real thing.” He paused as the rest of Mike’s statements sank in. “Thousands? Really? Why hasn’t it been in the news? Something that big?”

“I see you still do your heavy thinking on the floor. Come on, you saw where we are. We’re in the middle of nowhere, just desert, guards, and guns. It’s like something from a movie. Area 51, except better, without the slimy alien bits. We’re leaping into the future here. I couldn’t go back to beating chemicals with clubs, grunting, just hoping something happens. And, once you see what’s possible here, neither could you.”

“I don’t know, Mike.” James pointed at the chair and dome. One brain spike quivered as if in anticipation. “I mean, look at that thing! What does the chair o’death have to do with genetics?”

“I guess we did get a bit off topic. I forget how shocking this all looks at first.”

“Really? I think that thing may just haunt my nightmares forever.”

“Melodramatic much?” Mike laughed. “Okay, okay, it threw me for a loop too, but the benefits outweigh the risks. The machine implants a few organic micro­chips in your head, teeny tiny things. They allow you to use the box.”

He said “box” with more emphasis than one would expect from such a mundane word, but James ignored that for the moment.

“Chips…in my brain?”

“Don’t worry. They aren’t going to fry your brain or anything. They’re super small, like nothing you’ve seen before, made up of only a little metallic compounds, organic proteins, and carbon nanotubes. They’re then powered by your body heat and a chemoelectrical process that’s perfectly safe. Sec­tion Five’s all about nano-tech. I’ll have one of the guys show them to you. Not really my expertise, as you know. I prefer mammals over metal.”

James just shook his head, still sitting on the floor as Mike paced awkwardly in front of him.

Mike stopped and stuck out his hand. “Won’t you stand up? This is weird talking to you like this.”

James slapped Mike’s hand away. “You’re more than welcome to join me down here, if you’re that un­comfortable. How do these chips work?”

“Fine. I’ll stay standing.” He went back to pacing. “The chips link together over a wireless system and allow you to access the box.” Mike made his way over to the chair and thumbed an arm restraint. “It doesn’t hurt. They give you a mild sedative and local anesthetic. The computer scans you at all times. Those brain-spikes, as you called them, are laser guided. It’s safer than driving.”

“And what is this box thing you keep talking about?”

“It’s B. O. C. S. for Bio Organic Computer Simulation. BOCS for short. Cute, eh? It makes sense too once you see it. Okay, first things first. I’ll get permission to show you the BOCS and then you’ll be ready for your install.” Mike smirked. “Like a stereo upgrade.”

“And what if I say no?”

Mike leaned down close and whispered, glancing once at the one way mirror. “This is going to be the most amazing job you’ve ever had, believe me. But if you turn back now, you’re out for good. You don’t get to know anything more. You don’t get to see anything more. You never get to talk about any of this with anyone. This complex doesn’t exist, BOCS doesn’t exist, your friend, Mike, is working in re­mote parts of Asia. You don’t want to do that, do you?”

“So much secrecy. What have you gotten me into?”

“I saved you from that coffee shop. But, really, your book is what got them interested in you, Prehistoric Genetics, Unlocking the Code.”

James rolled his eyes.

Mike nodded. “I know, I know. Laughed at by the scientific community, but only because it’s way ahead of anyone else. They’re calling you a prodigy here. They would’ve brought you in with or with­out me. I did you a favor by providing a friendly face and all.”

James stared hard at the floor. He didn’t like the install idea, but he had to know more. After a long moment passed, he looked up. “Can you show me this BOCS thing first?”

“I’ll have to check.”

A beep came from a speaker above them and then a woman’s voice filled the room. “Mike. Dr. Iverson is authorized to see the BOCS before making a decision on his neural interface.”

“Thank you, computer, even though I already knew that.”

James laughed. “Computer? That wasn’t creepy at all.”

“More obnoxious than creepy. Aren’t you, computer?”

“Yes, Mike.”

“See, even she knows it.”

James smiled. Mike always made even the worst situations more fun. “Let’s go see this boxy thing already. You’ve been going on about it enough.”

Mike stuck out a hand once more to help his friend to his feet. “You’ll love it and you’ll understand why you’re here. Come on, buddy. Let’s show you the real wonder at the bottom of this odd rabbit hole.”


James held out the suit Mike pulled from a locker. Who ever thought of a white wet suit? So shiny too. He peeked inside and found the matte black interior he expected. The fabric slipped on easily and James tried on the matching gloves, hood, and booties. The hood resembled a Mexican wrestler’s mask with holes for his eyes, nostrils, and mouth.

James stretched and twisted inside the suit, the comfort surprising him. James had been diving a few times and found wet suits constricting and cumbersome. Even the tight hoodie didn’t leave him feeling as claustrophobic as he’d expected as it molded to the contours of his face.

He finished admiring himself in the full-length mirror and stepped out of his dressing stall. Mike stood waiting and James couldn’t help but laugh at the crazy angelic scuba instructor aspect of it all. “Do I look that ridiculous?”

“Yes, even more so, since you put it on backward.”

“What?” James looked down at his white clad stomach and legs. “I put the zipper in the back.”

Mike laughed. “Gotcha. You look fine.”

“Very funny. So, we going swimming in this BOCS thing?”

Mike shook his head. “It’s not a wet suit.” His eyes flashed from the shadowed holes in his hood. “You’ll see. Come on, you’re gonna love this. Seriously, there’s nothing like this anywhere. No drug, no amusement park ride, no anything that can compete with the BOCS.”

James followed Mike through a glass door that led them to a narrow hallway. Halfway through, Mike stopped them both.

Red lights flashed grid patterns up and down the white of their suites. James squinted, but the lasers never came close to his eyes. They then stepped through a very large door into a huge white square room. James would’ve guessed it to be at least ten thousand square feet, maybe more.

“Welcome to the BOCS!” Mike’s voice echoed in the large space, making him sound more commanding than he was in his odd not-a-wetsuit that closely matched the coloring of the walls.

If James squinted, he couldn’t even see Mike a few feet from him. “Nice camo. You even glitter, like the walls.” The walls and floor of the room sparkled as if painted with millions of microscopic diamonds. “Vampire room?” James joked as the giant door closed behind them with a hiss and then the seams disappeared. “Wait, did you see that?”

“Yeah. There’s more to come.”

A gentle hum came from behind the wall where the door had been. James took a step away just to be safe as the other walls took up the same tone. Even the floor vibrated with a hum he could feel in his teeth.

James shot Mike a questioning glance, but Mike had walked away from him while he’d been preoccupied with the door’s vanishing act. Mike stood in the middle of the room with his arms outstretched.

The hum continued to build into a deep, loud buzzing. The sound reminded James of the earthquake drills in elementary school and the odd noise they’d sent over the loudspeakers. He made his way toward his friend. “This place is crazy. What are you doing?”

Mike did a little dance to the thrum in the walls. “There’s no drug like this.”

“So you said. What’s going on?”

Mike ignored the question and shot back several of his own. “What kind of ground do we want? Sand? Rock? Limestone? A mix of those? Or maybe something more organic?”

James thought his friend had finally lost it. “What are you talk­ing about?”

“Just answer the question! What kind of ground do you want in here for our…garden?” Mike laughed like he’d told a joke, seeming madder by the second. James didn’t see why it was funny.

The hum reached a new level, a deafening thrum, deep like thunder, making it difficult for James to think straight. He had to yell over the noise. “Fine! Dark earth, compost, that’s the only stuff for a garden.” Mike’s lost it and I’m joining him, talking about this like we’ve got a wheelbarrow of the stuff.

“Done!” Mike shouted back. He winked once and the hum vanished.

A dark spot formed beneath Mike’s feet and spread to the edge of the room. James watched as soil rose up around them. A dizzy, springy sensation came with it as tiny green sprouts worked their way out of the soil under his feet and across the newly formed earth. Soon grass swayed all around them in the unexpected breeze.

Mike waved an arm and trees burst up around them, winding out of the earth like something from a time lapse nature show. Hills formed, a mountain came into view in the distance, and sky broke free from the white ceiling.

James reached down, expecting his touch to pass through the tall grass at his feet. His bare hand wrapped around a single blade. What? He stared at his fingers. Where’s my glove? James looked to the ground around him, but he couldn’t see it anywhere. He’d lost it somewhere in the grass.

“Mike, I think I misplaced my glove.” James wondered what Omegaphil Pharmaceuticals might do to people who lost equipment.

“I told you it wasn’t a wet suit. You still have it on. Those cargo pants and t-shirt aren’t really there either. Once you have the chips you’ll even smell the air in here.” Mike’s face shifted between reverence and pride. “Let’s add a few friends, shall we?”

James looked down and inspected his new wardrobe, not seeing any detectable sign that they weren’t real. He could even feel the tag scratching at the back of his neck inside his t-shirt. A new hum filled the air as he stuck his hands in the pockets of his cargo pants, feeling the woven threads at the bottom that held them together. Incredible.

The new hum turned out to be insects that buzzed around in lazy swarms, even landing on his arm occasio­nally with the soft touch of tiny legs, but not biting. Birdsong filled the trees. James watched as a robin flitted out of the forest to catch the buzzing insects.

“Wow, just…wow.”

“You think that’s good, you’ll really like this.” Mike waved his arms at the closest grouping of trees and something walked out of the depths. It moved like a predatory cat, but it wasn’t any type of feline James had seen before. Horns stuck out from its goatish cat head and James swore it had a mane of feathers.

Intense awe rose up in James’ stomach as he stared at the creature, tasting sweet and bitter in his mouth. “What is that thing, Mike?”

“That would be my second original creation. I call her Daytha.”

Almost on cue, the creature let loose a loud whoop followed by a string of sounds that were frighteningly close to words. It walked toward them, eyeing them without warmth in its large feline eyes. The mane bristled, spreading out in a mix of colors that danced hypnotically. James stared at the colors, unaware that the creature continued to approach, slow, but relentless.

He managed to wrench his attention from the feather mane and looked the beast in the eyes. It snarled, showing teeth like mini scimitars, but James’ mouth fell open when he truly stared at the Daytha’s eyes. They showed intelligence above any cat he’d ever seen and a scowling hunger he’d never seen in any goat.

“Beauty, isn’t she? I mixed up a few things to make her. Recombinant DNA was always my specialty.”

James didn’t look away from the Daytha, afraid it would advance as soon as he did. “Yeah, I can see that.”

“Don’t look so petrified. She’s not real.” The Daytha vanished without a sound or even a rustle of grass and Mike’s grin vanished with her. He kicked at a holo-pebble, frowning. “Not real at all.”

His grin returned a second later and he winked at James. “Let me show you my first one.” His arms waved again and he mumbled to himself, looking to James like some kind of a sorcerer, weaving spells into reality.

A cloud of birds formed above the same group of trees where the cat-goat had first appeared. The cloud hovered over the trees in swirling patterns. Mike waved his hand and the swarm floated away from the forest toward where they stood. Thousands of birds the size of sparrows swam through the air around each other. James knew not to trust they’d be any type of bird he’d seen before.

Mike cut into James’ thoughts. “They aren’t birds. I know that’s what they look like from here. They’re reptiles.”

One of the lizard birds landed on a stump near them. Its leathery wings folded in as it eyed an insect that crawled across the wood across from it. James watched in awe as the flying lizard pounced on the insect, tiny jaws snapping up the small meal.

“You’ve made little drakes, tiny dragons?” James breathed out in awe, almost a whisper. He’d always loved dragons. Loved? I obsessed over them.

Mike dripped evident pride. “That’s what I was going for. They didn’t turn out quite right, pretty much just lizards with bat wings. I couldn’t get the size right and getting them to breathe fire…well, that’s pretty much impossible.”

“That’s what I would have said about all of this.” James fully smiled for the first time in hours as tiny drakes above him attacked insects in midflight, fighting each other for the bigger morsels, wrestling and tumbling in the air. “They’re amazing!”

James stood in silence as Mike waved a few more animals into view. As he continued his sorcerer impressions, a woman stepped from the trees to join them. Her jet black hair reached her waist when the wind didn’t catch it in fluttering tendrils. Her skin was the perfect color of olive, bronze in the sun where it curved. She wore animal skins with symbols painted over every inch and moc­casins that gave no sound of her footsteps.

James smiled larger and stared, entranced, as she stepped up next to him with a pleasant smile of her own. He looked at Mike, who was still waving his arms, and asked, “Did you do this as well? She’s beautiful!”

Mike looked up, surprised, and made a coughing, choking sound that turned into a laugh. “James, let me introduce you to the director of Section Six, Dr. Reed.”

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