“Are you ready?”
The subject took a deep breath and nodded. Ula could sense his anxiety, but the man's emotional state was of no interest to her. In fact, it was a bit annoying.
"You need to empty your mind of all extraneous thoughts," she said, placing the E.I.R. onto his head. Fashioned out of an old bicycle helmet, the unit held eighteen transmitters in key locations within the padding, each one connected to a colour- coded wire, all of which came together in a cable that led to the mainframe computer. Not unlike the connection between a laptop and a printer, except that in this case, the printer would be a human brain.
The man reached down to stroke the guide dog that sat pa- tiently at his side. An unwelcome distraction, Ula instructed him to keep his hands folded together in his lap.
"I'm sorry," the man apologised. "I'm a bit nervous."
It wasn't a question so Ula didn't bother with a reply. Taking her place at the station, she opened the programme and brought the four GIFs she'd created to the front of the screen. Simple an- imations drawn in crisp, white lines on an empty black back- ground, there was a hummingbird, a kite, a galloping horse, and a boy on a bicycle. Easy to code and, if the trial was successful, easy to recognise and describe.
"I'm going to begin now," she said after running a final sys- tems check. "Please lean your head back onto the pillow and imagine that you're lying in a field of grass, staring upwards into a deep, dark void. Focus on it and nothing else, but don't try too hard. Let it come to you. The first image will be generated in three... two... one..."
The man drew a shaky breath and held it, his pulse rising as his heart beat wildly in anticipation.
"A positive result is more likely if you relax," Ula said. "Please breathe normally."
He exhaled and tried to focus on the dark world that en- veloped him, searching for something, anything, but finding only the uninterrupted emptiness that he'd lived with for three of his six decades. His hopes were starting to fade when a sudden streak of soft white light broke through the veil. But like a silent flash of faraway lightning, it was gone as quickly as it appeared.
Ula made a note of involuntary movement in the subject's ocular region. "Please tell me if you experience anything unusu- al," she said.
"I... I don't know." The man furrowed his brow. "I can't be sure... I thought I might have, but..."
"Describe what you thought you saw."
"I'm not sure if it was real." His face became contorted and his head moved reflexively from side to side, as if searching for the phantom light. "I... I can't be certain."
"Please describe it," Ula persisted.
"It was a light... very faint, like a flash... or a pulse."
"Do you still see it?" A camera was recording the session, but
Ula made notes anyway. It helped her to think.
"No, it's... It's gone now. Perhaps I -- " He froze in mid-sen-
tence. "Oh god..." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Yes, I... I see it now, but it's..."
Ula leaned forward. "What do you see?"
A wave of emotion engulfed the man, rendering him speech- less. He choked on his words and started to tear up.
"Please describe what you're experiencing," Ula said, her voice rising with frustration. But the man was lost, unrespon- sive. She had no choice but to end the test and remove the E.I.R. from his head.
"It's very important that you tell me exactly what you saw," she said sternly. "Please describe it to me in detail."
"It was a... a bird," he was finally able to say. "Rather, a ren- dering of a bird. A hummingbird..." He needed to draw a breath before he could continue. "It was hovering... out there in the darkness, and I... It seemed so real... I felt I could have reached out and touched it."
He broke down and started to cry uncontrollably, upsetting his animal and making it impossible to continue. Ula had no choice but to dismiss the subject with instructions to return the following day.
After completing her notes, she locked the office and headed for the institute's empty back stairway, preferring the eight flight walk to the lift, where she would undoubtedly be forced to share the tiny space with a bunch of strangers. The experience could traumatise her for hours, sometimes for days.
Exiting into the courtyard, where her bicycle was locked to the black iron railings at the side of the building, she tried to analyse her state of mind. Something like nine years had passed since she'd written that first line of code. A quarter of her life spent gathering data, writing, testing, failing, then gathering more data, re-writing, and testing again. She'd been caught in a vicious cycle, feeling that she was getting closer with each re- volution, but never quite getting there. Until now.
Why then did she feel so empty inside?
Something had changed -- something unsettling -- but she couldn't put her finger on what exactly was troubling her. In all the time she'd spent pursuing success, she'd never quite consid- ered the consequences of achieving it.
A light rain was starting to fall as she pulled into rush hour traffic on Old Street, heading west. My god, she thought, allow- ing herself a private little smile. She had literally made a blind man see! Not quite a miracle, but the world would look at it that way. And there lay the problem. Once her achievement became public knowledge, everything would change. The anonymity she enjoyed within the organisation was about to come to an abrupt and very unwelcome end. They'd left her alone for ten years, but they'd all want to be part of it now.
Shifting into high gear, she pulled out of the bicycle lane and manoeuvred around a slow-moving lorry. The rain was coming down hard now and the roads were building up to the usual late afternoon gridlock. Ula kept moving, weaving in and out of traf- fic as she entered the Old Street roundabout, then accelerating onto City Road, heading toward Angel. When somebody honked, she turned around to give them the finger.
And that was it. She never saw the bus that left her broken and bleeding on the cold, wet concrete.
In spite of living in London for a year and a month, Mia Fraser hadn't seen much of the city outside the West End and East Putney, where she'd been sharing a two bedroom flat with three other girls. Still, something about Highbury Fields was eerily familiar. The children's playground, the local pub, even the sunbathers, scattered across the green under a clear blue Sep- tember sky. It all struck a chord.
Shrugging it off as an effect of too much Saturday night par- tying, Mia re-checked the text to confirm that she had the right address. Can't be, she thought. Too good to be true. The impos- ing three-story brick townhouse was not only a five-minute walk from the Victoria Line, and ten minutes to trendy Upper Street, it also sat at the exact centre of the crescent, overlooking the wide open spaces of the park. Steeling herself for disappointment, she climbed the steps to the front entrance and rang the doorbell.
"Hi!" She flashed her most charming smile when the door opened a crack. "I'm Mia."
The woman stared out at her, perplexed.
"We texted this morning... About the room?"
"Oh... The room."
Caught in the direct sunlight, the woman looked pale and
drawn, older than her thirty-eight years. She had short-cropped dark hair, which she clearly cut herself, and a tall, angular frame that was hidden under a loose-fitting jumper and baggy tracksuit bottoms. She gripped a walking stick in her right hand.
"Is it still available?" Mia asked.
The woman nodded. "Yes. It's available."
"Great! I mean, I thought somebody would've snapped it up by now. It's such an amazing location!"
The woman hesitated, as if unsure how to respond, then asked, "Do you want to see it?"
"Yes, absolutely! I mean, if it's a convenient time."
She was beckoned through the door, into a dark entrance hall with an elaborately painted tile floor. The woman gestured to- ward a wide wooden staircase.
"It's up there," she said.
Mia was someone who couldn't stop talking when she was nervous or excited and, at the moment, she was both. "I'm Amer- ican," she explained as the woman led the way to the first floor landing, supporting her weight on the cane as she painstakingly pulled herself up, step by step. "But you probably figured that out. I grew up in Franklin, Tennessee, which is pretty close to Nashville, but I've been in London for a year now, in a flat share. We just heard the landlord's selling the building so we have to get out by the end of next week, which is pretty inconvenient because that's when college starts. I’m doing a degree in Fine Arts at Central Saint Martin’s. Painting. This'll be my second year. Did I say my name is Mia?"
"Yes, you did."
"Right. I thought I did but I wasn't sure. What's yours?" "Ula." She glanced back but didn't quite look Mia in the eye. "It's a great house," Mia said, soaking it up. "Loads of char-
acter. I love all the art."
"This is it." Ula opened the first door on the right as they
stepped off the landing. "It’s quite small."
Furnished with a single bed, a wardrobe, a chair, and a set of drawers, it wasn't at all small compared to what Mia was used to. There was even a window with a view across the park.
"It's perfect!" she said. "I don’t have much stuff. Just a cou- ple of suitcases and my drawing board. I’d be at school most of the day and I don’t play loud music. In fact, I’m really quiet. You wouldn’t even know I’m here!"
Ula pointed down the hall. "There’s a separate bathroom for this room. I have my own."
"I love it. I mean I really love it!" Mia wondered how it could still be available. Eighty pounds a week in a location like this? It was like hitting the jackpot. "Have you had a lot of peo- ple look at it?" she asked.
Ula frowned. "Why would I lie?"
"No, I just meant... I thought you'd get dozens of people
from your ad."
"Oh. I don’t know. My phone’s been off most of the day." "Yeah? Well, lucky me!" Mia displayed her charming smile
again. "For a change!"
"It used to be my room," Ula said. "Before my mother died." "Oh. I'm so sorry."
Ula met Mia's eyes for the first time. "It was a long time
ago," she said.
"Oh, well... I'm still sorry."
Ula seemed at a loss for what to say next, so Mia kept talk-
ing. "Do you want me to fill out an application? Or I can give you a deposit... Unless you want references first?"
"No," Ula looked away and shook her head. "You seem fine."
"Really? Oh my god, that’s great! And I promise you won’t regret it. I’ll be the perfect housemate!"