The brain activity scan, projected on the wall screen of the control room, looked like nothing McQueen had ever seen before. Flashing pinwheels of color, zipping strings of letters and numbers, fragments of binary code followed by a series of coding, three-sixty views of three-dimensional figures. Yet the girl who sat just beyond the glass wall, her shadow cast sharply on the concrete floor by the single hanging bulb, neither moved nor spoke.
“What is this?” McQueen—a thin-lipped, hard-jawed woman in her mid-fifties—turned from the view of the girl to the white-coated man who stood beside her.
“She flooded,” he replied, his face lit half in flickering green from the computer scan and half in red from the glow of the nearby exit sign. Behind him, analysts sweated at the computers, typing furiously.
“ ‘Flooded.’ What does that mean?” McQueen asked.
“We’ve seen it before, in other subjects of intense interrogation. It’s a self-defense mechanism. She’s flooded her brain with data, until the essential information is obscured in the avalanche of random information. Not many people can do it at will, but she’s thirteenth generation and not yet sixteen years old. Her mental flexibility is profound.”
“Is it reversible?”
“It’s…difficult. Honestly, all past subjects have died or become vegetables. Their brain just gives up.”
McQueen leaned against the glass wall and stared at the girl, calculating.
“The future could depend on getting her back, Dr. Wade.”
Dr. Wade sighed, rubbing his forehead with a thick thumb.
“Theoretically, it’s possible to get her back, if we sedate her and monitor her closely.
But it’s never succeeded. The brain, once stimulated so overwhelmingly, keeps firing randomly—even in sleep—until it destroys itself. She’s burning up her brain to hide the information.”
“Did she give any information to the interrogators?”
“Nothing of value.”
Suddenly, one of the analysts motioned for McQueen. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but the computer identified a pattern. Somewhere beneath the garble, it looks like a path has opened up to the cloud. She’s uploading something.”
“That’s completely impossible,” Dr. Wade said, a little too loudly.
“You’re talking about the thirteenth generation, Doctor,” McQueen snapped. “We don’t even know what they’re capable of.”
“It would be like threading a needle while trying to swim out of a whirlpool!” The doctor followed McQueen to the diagnostic screen. “Even if she could do it—which I still insist is impossible—she would self-destruct to do it. The brain would be completely overloaded.”
“Where is she uploading to?” McQueen asked the analyst.
“Can’t tell. She’s webbing.”
“Throwing her trail over a wide network of servers, uploading random bits of information at each one, like spinning a web. It typically takes days or weeks to trace the web down to the central point, and to determine which information is relevant and which was meant to be a false trail.”
Dr. Wade rubbed his upper lip and stepped backward, his face draining of color as he shook his head. “I don’t believe it. It’s impossible!”
A second analyst half-rose from her seat in alarm. “She’s burning up! Ma’am, we’re losing her. If she isn’t stopped, she’s got about ninety seconds left.”
The first analyst threw up his hands. “I can’t trace the upload. We need time. Ninety seconds isn’t enough.”
McQueen turned sharply and her gaze met those of a woman in navy scrubs. At a curt nod from McQueen, the woman swiped her keycard through a door security, and dashed into the room beyond the glass wall. The girl did not move, did not even blink, as the woman grasped her elbow, turned it to expose the blue thread-like veins, and plunged a needle through the skin.
“There you go,” the woman soothed, rubbing the girl’s arm. “Go to sleep.”
The girl stirred and her gaze fell full upon the woman.
“You’re too late,” she said clearly. “It can’t stop now.”
She leaned forward and smiled a little, her mouth gaping with old blood and saliva.
Her breathing labored, her eyelids fluttering, her fists clenched. Her voice came as part-growl, part-whimper. “The truth is safe.”
The light above her winked out and a shower of sparks exploded in the control room. McQueen and Dr. Wade fell to the ground, covering their heads as the supercomputer whined, the pitch rising with each moment. The massive wall-sized screen became a blur of flashing code, then collapsed into blackness.
After a moment of deep stillness, the emergency lights flared crimson. The analysts stirred, some still frozen in their chairs, others trembling on the floor. McQueen scrambled to her feet, zipped her keycard through the security lock, and yanked open the door to the holding room. She knelt by the toppled chair and the girl’s crumpled form on the concrete, two fingers pressed to the girl’s neck.
Then she rose, her eyes cold.
“She’s dead,” she said. Behind her, on the wall screen, a single message flashed:
Jennifer saw him as soon as she slid into the bleachers of the semicircular classroom. Mr. Gill. If he ever wore anything but black and his signature depressive expression, he would have been unrecognizable. Behind him, the wall displayed the logo of Integrated Humanity International: a diagonal swath of rainbow hues, upon which were superimposed two Is joined by a horizontal bar to create the central H. Both of the Is flourished with branches like the trunks of great oaks, to symbolize the growth of humanity.
A digital message leaped into her peripheral vision and she turned her eyes fractionally to view it.
Sender: Eta-Tom. Message: What’s the Gill here for? What did we do wrong? With a flicker of thought, she fired back a reply. Sender: Jen, G13. Message: Maybe he has news of Sophia.
I hope so.
Mr. Gill cleared his throat and all eyes in the room instantly riveted upon him. He let his gaze travel impressively over the faces before him—young faces, anxious faces.
“I’m afraid I have unhappy news for you all today.”
The collective apprehension in the room tingled in the air.
“You have been aware, no doubt, that we have made every effort to find the missing student, Sophia. We have found her. I regret to inform you that she is deceased.”
Only a numb silence answered him. Mr. Gill continued.
“We are not exactly sure what happened, but it seemed that she was attempting to reach the Theatron and landed in the hands of Dissent. We launched a successful operation to recover her. Unfortunately, by the time we took her to safety, she was too far gone. She had been intensely interrogated, and in order to protect the information she possesses about the program, she had flooded. I know this may be very upsetting. Be assured that security is very watchful. Sophia might still be with us today if she had followed our safety protocol and remained in the Center. There will be no more classes today, and a ceremony of remembrance will be held this evening at five. That is all.”
Mr. Gill nodded to the classroom, turned, and exited the room amidst the tension of a terrible silence.
Once he was gone, the room erupted into chaos.
Jennifer observed one of the boys—Eta-Tom—slump over his desk and rub his hands through his short hair over and over. One of the girls, Iota-Sheryl, began to weep quietly, the sharp intake of her breaths echoing through the chamber. A chair suddenly scraped against the floor as Nu-Charles exploded from his seat, vaulted up the steps two by two, and thrust open the double doors violently as he exited.
Jennifer remained for a few more moments, then rose from her seat, ascended the steps to the doors, and passed into the hall.
It happened sometimes. Not everyone in the program made it. Dissent made sure of that, sabotaging IHI and targeting the Generations at any opportunity. The public outrage over the killing and kidnapping of gifted trainees—teenagers and children, no less—did not lessen the momentum of the underground opposition to the IHI agenda. Deaths were part of the program. Not common, but always possible.
But two deaths in four months was unusual. First Otz, now Sophia. Why them?
She could almost see Otz now, his faced tanned and his fine hair bleached by the sun (when did he ever see the sun?), and the mischievous sparkle of his island-green eyes. His voice filtered into her mind, that voice that needed no microphone at news conferences or in television interviews.
“Good morning!” He turned on his wheeled stool and used his legs to scoot himself to the side of the large teal “visiting chair.” The sleeve of his white lab coat brushed her cheek softly as he swung the overhead lamp over her. “How do you feel today? Any pain? Anything unusual?”
“Nothing to report!” Strange, her voice was not usually so low, nor her reply so forthcoming.
“Your scan this morning looked good. I worried that the upgrades I made to the interface might cause some discomfort, but so far so good!”
“What was the purpose of the upgrades this time?” Again, that was odd. Jennifer never questioned Otz. She trusted—and admired—him too much to bother.
“Working out bugs, mostly.” Otz said, sliding his finger over his electronic tablet purposefully. “Like that glitch last week that lost the signal between you and one of the satellites. But this next upgrade will be different.”
Otz lowered his tablet and peered over his oval glasses at her, with all the pride and excitement of a father announcing a new baby in the family.
“Starting today, we’re beginning to differentiate Generation Thirteen.”
“Differentiate? You’re splitting us up?”
“Not geographically. You’ll still stay here at the Center with the rest of the Gen-13 students. The differentiation I mean is of another sort. You see, up until now, all of Gen-13 has been given the same exercises and tasks, to bulk up your mental muscles and work out the glitches in the new programs. We needed you all to be what we call ‘fully integrated.’ From the results of your last test, it’s clear that you are. You can access ‘virtuality’ at will, you can manipulate and analyze terabytes of information in nanoseconds, you can interact seamlessly with any kind of digital data man has created so far. In short, you’re a living, breathing super-computer. Fully integrated.”
He paused, lost in thought, and raised his tablet again.
“But the differentiation?” she prompted.
“The hmm? Oh, right! Differentiation! Well, that’s the fun part. Imagine a track-and-field sports team. In pre-season, everyone does the same thing: exercises and drills to build muscle and increase endurance and flexibility. Then the season starts and they all translate their basic fitness into specific events, like hurdling or javelin-throwing or relays. That’s differentiation. Each of you in Gen-13 is about to graduate to a specific skill.”
“So I’m selected for a certain skill, and then trained for it?”
“Good heavens, no! Selected? How barbaric that would be! My dear, you are a human being! Sure, I could probably program you for anything. But you have a personality. You have raw talents that should be developed. Over the last few months, my team and I have been observing your performance in a wide variety of tests.”
“You mean test week. I thought that was just to see if we were performing adequately.”
“Partially. But mostly it was to establish each student’s aptitudes. And I have a file here”—he tapped his tablet—“that informs me of yours.” He leaned forward and raised his blond eyebrows until his eyes seemed to bulge from his face behind his glasses. He spoke in the grand whisper of a fortune-teller.
“Want to know what your aptitude is?”
“What is it?”
“Pattern-finding. Only two of you display a strong pattern-building aptitude: you and Jennifer.”
Jennifer snapped the memory shut as though it burned her. After a brief moment of strangled thought, she opened it again, just enough to rewind the memory to the moment when Otz leaned close.
There. In his glasses. The reflection revealed a girl, but not Jennifer.
Jennifer closed the memory and buried it underneath the exercises. She needed time to think.
As Jennifer continued her day’s lessons, the memory nagged her. Sophia. Why was she getting memories from Sophia? How was that even possible? Memory transfers from living people were possible. Memory file, much like video, could be shared wirelessly. The Generations sometimes shared information that way. Did this mean, then, that Sophia wasn’t dead?
Perhaps she had been “killed” officially so that she could go underground and fight Dissent. She always would have made a fantastic secret agent: observant, quick-witted, and brave. Nothing had scared Sophia. If she had been born in another century, she would have been a pioneer woman or an Amazon warrior princess. She would know the truth at the Ceremony of Remembrance.
Jennifer held her breath when she entered the Memorial Room. Soft, reflective music played as pictures and videos of Sophia unfolded on the wall screen: Sophia laughing; Sophia standing on the edge of a monument with her arms spread wide, as though she could fly; Sophia captivating the rest of Gen-13 with some witty or brilliant observation; Sophia and Otz sharing a moment of unashamed laughter. Muted lights of shifting pastel hues softly illuminated Sophia’s casket, which occupied the wall opposite that of the slideshow of her life.
As soon as Jennifer saw Sophia, she knew. It wasn’t a dummy or clever replica. It was the real Sophia. Her dark hair curled luxuriously over her shoulders, and her eyes seemed closed in restful slumber. The blouse had been chosen well; her face had always come alive with that shade of dusty wild rose pink. But even the clever cosmetics could not hide the evidence of some vague, clinging darkness. Sophia had died in pain.
A dull ache settled into Jennifer’s chest. She pulled at one of Sophia’s dark curls and it sprang back. She touched the hand. It wasn’t cold. It was simply lifeless and sunken.
A short walk in the enclosed garden of the suburban center did not alleviate the pressure of death and the myriads of questions on Jennifer’s mind. In the hallway, several of the Gen-Thirteeners, even some of the other older Gens, had touched Jennifer’s shoulder and offered her their deepest condolences. Why did they assume she had been close to Sophia? Certainly, they had been roommates. But the one did not presuppose the other.
Still, Jennifer delayed her bedtime routine, and found no solace when she entered her room. The empty bed, blankets askew as though thrown back in the fury of decision, seemed to await the girl would never return. Jennifer, normally irate with Sophia’s sloppy habits, could not bring herself to straighten the rumpled blankets. It seemed wrong to correct the shortcomings of the dead.
Jennifer rolled onto her own bed, turned toward the wall, and pulled up the covers to her chin.
Time to unravel the mystery.
The monitors would be watching her brain activity, but there were ways to deceive them. The Gen-Thirteeners were like normal teenagers in at least one respect: they found ways to carry on covert activities, even under the watchful eyes of their authorities.
Jennifer accessed a comedy video and began to watch. Then, using the video as a shield, she retrieved Sophia’s memory. It began from the same instant when she had shut it.
“What do you mean by ‘pattern-finding’?” Sophia asked. Otz rose from his chair, eagerness lending his movements energy.
“You can see patterns in things where other people see randomness. You can identify anomalies where other people see only ‘the usual.’ Pattern-finding has so many applications. You could be a cryptographer and crack codes. You could be a detective and solve mysteries. You could map out weather patterns and help us prepare for disasters. You could be a bio-engineer. And so much more.”
“I thought everyone in Gen-13 could do that.”
“Not like you can.”
“And Jennifer can do it too?”
“I never knew that.”
“You should spend some time with her. I think you would like her.”
“I suppose,” Sophia sounded doubtful. “She’s so hard to talk to.”
Otz jostled her shoulder playfully. “Not everyone is a world-shaker like you. Someday, you may find Jennifer is a friend well worth trusting.”
The memory ended. Jennifer nestled deeper into her pillows, thinking. Out of curiosity, Jennifer scrolled back in her mind to the memory and viewed its details.
Sophia was thirteenth generation, and represented by the Greek letter phi, just as Jennifer was represented by the Greek letter lambda. The code “01-10” sent Jennifer’s mind reeling. This was only the first message of ten total messages. There were more memories to come.
The extension “.ecmf” mystified her. Why send an Encrypted Conditional Memory File? Memory files were usual communications, but encrypted files were for high security, coded to the receiver’s brain-signature to ensure that no one else could read it. A conditional file was of even higher security; the receiver could only download the file upon thinking a particular thought, a thought that would then be the “key” to opening the file.
Otz. Otz in conjunction with Sophia was the key. How had Sophia predicted Jennifer’s thoughts? And why the secrecy? What was to come? Jennifer wondered if Sophia knew Jennifer’s own secret. If she did, why would she trust her? Or did she, perhaps, know Jennifer better than anyone else?
The memories continued to arrive, often several days apart. A monitor asked Jennifer once if she were viewing something secretly; the continual scans in the Control Room indicated elevated brain activity, but the shielded files were inaccessible. Secret activity, although forbidden, was quite common amongst the Generations. The monitors cracked the security, and the Generations designed new security measures to protect their hidden data. This “shielding” was hardly a matter for punishment anymore, but the monitors were required to address and document it.
Jennifer answered evasively and, by the time the interview was over, the monitor left convinced that Jennifer was receiving messages from a secret beau, probably one of the other Gens. Jennifer did not correct the misunderstanding.
As the memories arrived, Jennifer realized that she both dreaded and yearned for the next installment. The information frightened her and tilted her familiar and predictable world. But the revelations also gripped her mind. She had to know. She had to know what Sophia knew.
Wonderful story! This is one of my favourite short stories by Yaasha Moriah. The first time I read Project Minerva I had just finished a long day of school. I devoured the entire story in one night and stayed up late in order to finish it. This is a captivating story that builds up momentum as you move through each of Sophia’s memories. Answers to questions are unravelled through a winding narrative that connects the lives of the two main characters: Sophia, a spunky young girl from the 13th generation who loses a dear friend to sinister circumstances, and Jennifer, her quiet and un-adventurous roommate who is entrusted with the volcanic memories of deceased Sophia. Jennifer unexpectedly finds herself in a position to complete the courageous mission which Sophia failed to finish. With several plot twists and a unique perspective, this is an exciting story of daring, courage, justice, revenge, friendship, and cunning.
June 15th, 2015