Mandy scampered along to keep up with Dr. Gibson’s long strides. The chill of the tiles seeped through her ankle socks and the pungent odor of bleach tickled her nose. She adjusted the gap in her lilac colored exam gown for the umpteenth time.
Dr. Gibson cleared his throat. “The screening agency was supposed to explain the project to you. Do you have any questions?”
“You’re going to take a bunch of scans of my brain, right?” Judging by the psychological screening she had, they must be looking for a special type of mind too. That would come in handy.
“Correct. We’re using a NMRNM. Think of it as a big camera.”
Mandy smiled. “A nuclear magnetic resonance neuro-monitor uses magnetic fields to stress hydrogen bonds and then reads the radio signals emitted when the field is released and the bonds snap back into their normal conformation.”
He stopped and stared down at her.
Mandy blinked up at him, letting her eyes widen just a bit. That’s right, I know stuff and such. “I’m getting a degree to be a chemical psychiatrist—you know, to help people.” And to figure out her own issues, but she never told anyone that part.
His brow rumpled. “I see.”
After navigating the twisted hallways, they stood before a heavy metal door worthy of a super bad guys’ hideout.
The butterfly mood tat on her inner wrist fluttered. Its azure wings faded to gray.
Mandy rolled her eyes. The tat worried too much. It would probably be fine. She shook her hand, rattling the tattoo. It gave an exasperated shake of its wings, but its color brightened a little.
Dr. Gibson stepped forward and the door slid open. The room was crammed with shiny equipment. A dozen people in white coats with data pads roamed among the machinery. A graying Asian man in a charcoal-colored suit watched them enter. All this busyness was focused on her. Mandy smiled for anyone watching and concentrated to keep her rapid breathing under control.
The doc indicated the older man. “This is Mr. Moto from the Wakahisa Corporation. He’s the financial director for the Prometheus Ascension Project.”
Great. It even sounded like a world domination plot. Hopefully, no superspies would show up to spoil things until after she got paid.
“This is Amanda Clementine,” Dr. Gibson said.
“Mandy,” she corrected, automatically. Maybe she shouldn’t have, but it came up so often that it was sort of a knee-jerk reaction. “I know it’s late and we all want to get this over with and go home. I’m not trying to be difficult. Only my dad called me Amanda so . . . I go by Mandy.” And my butt’s getting cold.
Mr. M exchanged a glance with Dr. Gibson and bowed slightly. “Miss Clementine.”
His shallow bow might have been a sign of disrespect. Mandy glanced at the doc, but he was no help. He might not even know the customs. She returned a deeper bow. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Mr. M walked around her, inspecting her like a new car. He’d better not kick the tires.
“I read the files. She is not the same caliper of mind our competition is scanning.”
The doc stepped closer to Mandy. “She is the one we want to use as part of the model. I’m sure of it. She is very capable.”
Mr. M stopped in front of her and handed a data pad to the doc. “I’ve made my recommendation. The board has sided with you, for the moment. Let us begin.”
Smiling, the doc handed the pad to Mandy. “Here’s the contract. There is just one formality before we begin. I need you to sign a waiver.”
Mandy accepted the pad from him. They were obviously well funded. If she was going to make a play, it would have to be now. She scrolled through the legalese and straight to the side-effects. Her research showed that the risks were minimal, but there were always side-effects. She needed to pick a good one.
“Hair loss? Gee, Doctor Gibson, I don’t know about that.”
The doc glanced toward Mr. M. “All these adverse reactions are unlikely, and the hair loss would be temporary, even if it happened.”
“A girl needs her hair.”
“People have lower-power versions of these scans all the time for medical reasons with no issues whatsoever,” the doc said. The pitch of his voice rose slightly, a stress indicator.
With all the testing she had undergone, whatever they were looking for must be rare. They needed her as much as she needed the money. “Sixteen dollars an hour is practically minimum wage. I just don’t know.” She pouted for emphasis.
“I’ll pay eighteen,” Mr. M said.
“I was thinking thirty-two. If I need a wig, I want human hair.”
Mr. M turned to leave the imaging lab. “Perhaps I misjudged her. Handle the trifling issues, but you must begin tonight.”
The doc tapped the pad and changed the hourly rate. “An interesting negotiation tactic.”
Mandy scribbled her name on the pad. “I need the money, but he kind of cheesed me off. Doctor Gibson? It seemed like you stuck up for me there.”
He took the pad back and touched her on the elbow to guide her through a second set of double doors. “Since I chose you for this phase of the project, we’re partners of
The gleaming neuro-monitor dominated the next room. It looked like a ten-foot doughnut, sitting on its edge with the black exam table running through the center. A fluffy pillow sat on the table.
Mandy walked around the machine, careful to keep the back of her drafty gown towards the wall. She drew her hand along the cold exam table. The reality of her situation settled over her, making her stomach flutter. After she got out of debt, she needed to rearrange her priorities. “How long have you worked on this?”
“Ten years. I’ve practically lived here for the last seven. I even have a cot in the back.”
Mandy looked up at him. “Seven years? It wouldn’t hurt to take a night off, now and then. Go on a date.” As if she knew much about such things. Landin was her first serious boyfriend and she had only dated him for about a month. Anxiety always made her so chatty.
The doc’s cheeks turned rosy. He was cute when he blushed. “I never had much of a social life. Besides, people all over the world are working on artificial intelligence. This is a race.”
Mandy looked up from the exam table. “Artificial intelligence? That’s what we’re talking about?”
His cheeks didn’t look so rosy anymore. “I probably wasn’t supposed to say that, but yes. I should remind you that you’ve signed non-disclosure agreements. We’re trying to build a virtual human brain by studying a real one.”
“That would be me?”
“Well, yes. The team that cracks it will be part of history.”
Mandy frowned. “What good is it to be remembered, if you didn’t have fun?”
“You’ll understand when you are older.”
“I hope I never get that old,” she murmured.
“If you’ll lie down on the table, we can get started. Do you want a step stool?”
Mandy hopped onto the table. “Nope.” It wasn’t that she was short, at five feet and a quarter-inches, but rather that average people were freakishly tall. No one seemed to get that. She lay down and adjusted her gown, so her bottom wasn’t touching the cold plastic. Her head sunk into the pillow. They probably sanitized these things anyway.
“Don’t worry. I’ll personally monitor your progress and we’ll discontinue at the first sign of anything unusual. Okay?”
Mandy glanced from the ring to his eyes and nodded. He did seem to be the sincere sort.
He moved out of view.
“Now that the contract’s signed and all, I’ve been wondering something and what Mr. Moto said cinched it. All kinds of people must have applied. People smarter than me, I’m sure. So how come I’m the one you picked?”
“Don’t underestimate yourself, and computers are smart enough. We were looking for something else. High EQ.”
“That’s right. We’re more concerned about how well you play with others. AIs are going to be like humanity’s children.”
That made the hair prickle along the back of her neck. “I never thought of that. It’s kind of scary.”
“That’s why I’m not trying to model the human mind. I’m trying to model the human heart.”
“Oh.” Somehow, that was better than being smart.
After a few moments, his voice came over a speaker. “Ready?”
“Ready,” Mandy replied.
The ring spun up, producing a steady hum.
“Close your eyes and relax.”
Mandy closed her eyes and tried. With a lurch, the table moved her into the humming ring.
“We’re going to take a series of scans while your mind is active, doing different things, like math problems. We’ll start with something simple. Think of something sad, like a favorite pet dying. The more emotional the memory is, the better the reading.”
Mandy should have asked for forty. The puppy had been a long time ago and those were mostly happy memories, so she couldn’t squeeze much sadness from that turnip. One memory lived in her most troubled dreams, but she never tried to recall it on purpose.
“Are you concentrating?”
She needed the money. Mandy focused and opened a door that normally remained locked.
Tumbling sky. The taste of blood, like sucking on a penny. The smell of singed hair. A clean white room and a bed too large for her eleven-year-old body. She stared at the ceiling, not daring to disturb the tubes and wires, while fear rested its full weight on her chest. The monitors counted her heartbeats and a door creaked.
Something unseen held her head straight, but she could move her eyes just enough. In the doorway, a blurry figure with frizzy hair and a faded Hawaiian shirt turned its back on her. She raised her small arm, sending a trickle of prickly cold through her fingers.
“Daddy? Daddy, don’t go . . .”