From the editor:Happy holidays! We hope everyone's had a chance to disconnect and relax a bit this holiday season. In "Disconnected," Vanessa Fogg imagines a future where always-on neuromods and nanomachines have permanently altered our relationship with technology and each other. Vanessa spent years as a research scientist in molecular cell biology, and now works as a freelance medical writer in western Michigan, where she also dreams of selkies, dragons, and gritty cyberpunk futures.
You’ve worked twelve hours straight; you feel you could work twelve hours more. But an alert is chiming softly and a bar in your peripheral vision flashes your low blood sugar level. Another bar shows the amount of energy the neuromods are using to boost your willpower and motivational circuits. A whisper of electricity brushes your auditory cortex, and a pleasant voice gently suggests that you take a break. You scowl, yet a third bar shows the total hours you’ve already logged in this week. You know that you’re pushing it, and you don’t need another lecture from your health/wellness app on rest and productivity. You’ve come to a good stopping point anyway. The alert waited for that, of course. You sigh and stretch.
Logging out, you tell the other team members, and there’s the mental equivalent of distracted nods of assent.
You blink as you emerge from the company’s VR environment. Night fell while you were working; a single light burns low on an end table across the room. Floor-to-ceiling windows look out over the city: a galaxy of lights, lit towers of glass and steel, auto-cars sliding smoothly on the streets below and brilliant holo-ads shimmering in a dusk-violet sky.
You glance only briefly out the window. The instant you logged off from the company’s VR-site, certain filters dropped and now a dozen mundane administrative messages appear in your inbox. There are more messages and alerts and shared vids from friends and social contacts. A cloud of expectations, of demands, press at your consciousness.
You feel hungry for the first time in twelve hours. Thirsty. Your bladder is tight, and you’re tired enough to crumple to the floor and weep.
But outside the apartment door you find the food delivery you expect. The AI system took the liberty of ordering it twenty minutes before alerting you for your break; the program also made sure to have that single light switched on for when you withdrew from work, just as you like. The food delivery is hot in your hands. Pho. Scent of cinnamon and cloves and star anise, sweetness and spice in the heady beef broth. The smell is enough to make you dizzy. The soup container feels solid and real.
You can’t explain it to your family. You can’t explain it to anyone who hasn’t been there.
Oh, they’ve all been in VR rooms, of course. And your VR workspace is nothing flashy: only visuals, not even tactile sense. Just the images of proteins to be rotated and tweaked, built and manipulated. You can’t explain what it feels like to solve and design these puzzles: to decode a protein’s structure and design a better one. The neuromods feed you focus and working memory that you never had in your prior life; visual processing skills are heightened, you make intuitive leaps that surprise even you. In the immersive 3-D environment, you can see the way a protein should assemble and fold. You can see how an alpha-helix placed just there would reduce the overall energy function; you can see how the alteration of a protein loop here would affect substrate-binding over there. . .
Years ago, scientists realized that human visual intuition could be combined with computers for the prediction of protein structure from raw gene sequence. Years ago, they conceived the first human-based computational games to solve and design protein structures. Compared to those first crude programs, the designs you play with at work are like Da Vinci paintings to a child’s stick drawings.
You can’t explain the way you lose time as you stand in virtual space, stringing together amino acids, bending and twisting them in helices, weaving them into sheet-like structures that then fold into barrels or the blades of a propeller. You can’t explain the pleasure when you hit precisely the right fold, maximizing catalytic activity, stability, solubility. Linked with coworkers, you swap and mutate protein domains; you model protein-protein interactions; you watch a virtual cell receptor bind its hormone. You design protein-based drugs to fight cancer, inhibit microbial toxins, reverse cellular degeneration. You design proteins that power the movement of nano-machines in the blood, and proteins that quiver at the heart of environmental nano-sensors undersea.
You can’t explain this to most of your family, or to anyone who hasn’t entered this space with fully optimized neuromod and team support. The only one who would understand, even faintly, is your sister. She was once better at solving protein structures than you.
Your mother called you, crying, when she heard what your sister had planned. “You have to talk her out of it,” your mother insisted. “Go to her. She’ll listen to you.”
You sputtered incredulously. “When has Emily ever listened to me? Mom, I’ve tried, believe me. But you know how she is. She’s made up her mind and she’ll do what she wants.”
“You’re just giving up on her?” Your mother’s voice rose. “You’re a horrible person. You don’t care about your little sister at all.”
Which isn’t true, of course. But what can you do? What are you supposed to do?
Your mother says the botched neuromod integration damaged your sister’s brain. She says that’s why Emily has joined a cult; that’s why Emily’s dropped out and gone dark, refusing to connect with her family or anyone else online, pulling out all her mods, even living without a health monitoring app for Christ’s sake how will she know if she’s sick, if a blood vessel is ballooning toward aneurysm, if an infection has taken hold, if a cell is taking its first steps toward malignancy? How can anyone help her when she lives with other crazy people on that primitive farm, trying to grow her own food in soil that is surely contaminated; she’ll poison herself, or at the least become malnourished, and she won’t even have a health monitor app to tell her so.
We should sue the surgeon, your mother still says sometimes. All the doctors. The manufacturer. The company that paid for the implants and then dropped her like trash when it didn’t work out.
You close your eyes. Oh, Mom, you say tiredly.
You haven’t actually talked to your mother in weeks, though you can check her online whenever you want. She keeps her health and mood status open. You can see that she’s just finished watching the first season of that Korean detective drama that’s taken the world by storm. You can see that she’s been enjoying a VR travel series on the Swiss Alps. She’s been doing pretty well with her calisthenics routine, and she had lunch with an old friend last week. Her anxiety levels are trending high again, and you wonder if the neurofeedback needs to be tweaked. You set a reminder to message her after your project deadline is over.
Of course, there’s always another deadline after that. But you’ll call or visit her soon; you promise yourself that.
You never scheduled time for Emily. She was just always there with you, online and off. Never more than a thought away—a messaged joke, a quarrel, and then helpless laughter over some stupid vid that only the two of you found amusing. You’re only two years apart, and yes, you’re the older sister, but she was the leader in so many ways. She was the one who discovered the free online protein-modeling games; she was the one who drew you into that world. GlaxTech and other companies had just begun using the games as tools to spot and recruit talent. You and your sister both landed GlaxTech sponsorships to college, Emily skipping a year of high school and entering right behind you. There were promises of training and jobs once you were legally old enough for the implanted neuromodulators.
“It’s stupid that we have to wait,” Emily said, gesturing dramatically at a screen of biochemical signaling pathways. “If we had our neuromods, we’d have all this memorized by now. Downloaded straight into our brains.”
“It’s better that our brains finish maturing without them,” you said automatically. You were lying on the floor, slumped over your own study screen.
She rolled her eyes at your parroting of the official line. “The age limit is arbitrary and everyone knows it—people’s brains all develop at different rates and in different ways. Who’s even to say that neuromods would interfere with adolescent brain development, anyway?”
It was just like Emily—so impatient, always wanting to learn and understand more, faster. You keep looking into the past, trying to understand what happened, looking for clues as to how she could give everything up. You think that she should be with you, designing protein structures or even directing the research as a principal investigator. You think that she should be sprawled out with you in your home, making fun of your clothes and taste in music, hiding her eyes during scary vids, eating cheese chips on your real leather couch and getting crumbs all over the gleaming surface. Until four years ago, you had never lived in a home without her. You still find yourself reaching out automatically—on the verge of sending her a picture or link or joke, a message, a quick Emily, guess what, you wouldn’t believe, what do you think—before remembering that she’ll never receive it; she took herself offline and out of your life; she’s not there.
Work is relentless, always. But you take your recommended breaks; you get sufficient sleep and rest. You exercise because you should, running and weight-lifting to an optimally personalized playlist of beat-heavy music. You eat what your health app tells you to, in the quantities you should. You run your meditation app, the neuromods pacing your brain through a defined set of slow alpha and theta wave patterns, clinically proven to reduce stress and promote creativity and problem-solving. You stand in the shower, allowing expensive gallons of hot water to flow down the drain, allowing your mind to rest on its own.
You talk sometimes with your best friend from work, Shao. He does a dead-on impression of one of the managers and shares your love for cheesy old adventure-vids. During a mandated real-time VR staff meeting, he opens a private chat channel and makes snide comments to you about the execs until you have to bite your lip to keep from laughing aloud.
It’s 2 am and you’re frowning at an external work screen when Shao messages you from the far side of the world. How’s the report coming? he says.
You flick on the audio so he can hear you groan.
He chuckles over the open audio. “You should see what Roberts is demanding on my end,” he says, and launches into a complaint of the ever-shifting demands the wet lab biologists are making on one of his protein designs.
“At least we’ll be together again on the V6 project next week,” you say.
“True. It’s been too long, and it’s not the same without you.”
You feel your face warm.
He’s right; it’s not the same. You and he are usually together. In GlaxTech’s VR space, designers can link brain patterns via their neuromods, facilitating teamwork, reinforcing focus and certain visual and problem processing skills. You link more often with Shao than with anyone else; something about your brains syncs together better than any other pairing you’ve tried. You’ve worked with him for the past three years.
“What are you doing right now?” you say. You can see that he’s officially logged off work; he should be relaxing, not thinking of it at all.
“Eating curry noodles,” he says breezily. You imagine him sitting out on his balcony with his lunch, palm trees waving behind him. It’s afternoon where he lives in Singapore, a full twelve hours’ time difference between him and you. You imagine him in the tight white shirt you last saw him wear.
As though you were still linked, brain patterns resonating on frequencies other than the ones authorized at work, Shao says (curl of mischief in his smooth voice): “What are you wearing now?”
I’m not showing you,” you say coyly. You haven’t left your apartment in days and you look a damn mess and you know it.
You can hear the smile in his voice, even if you can’t see it. Neither of you flicks on the visual. “I’m sorry to bother you—I didn’t expect you to pick up, actually. I just wanted to check in. You should get back to that report. Isn’t it due in a few hours?”
“Yes, Boss,” you say. Shao is technically your junior; you helped train him.
“Okay, I can take a hint. I’ll leave you to it. I--” Pause. “Damn, Roberts is messaging me again.”
You smile. “And I’ll leave you to that. Bye.”
“Bye.” The connection breaks.
Instead of turning your attention immediately back to your report, you take a moment to stare into the darkness of your apartment. It’s been a month since you hooked up with Shao in that adult VR game. You wonder if it was a mistake. You wonder if you’ll ever meet him in person.
You imagine seeing Emily in person. You’d have to get on a plane and fly hundreds of miles across empty country. You’d land in Chicago, the closest functioning city. Then you’d call an auto-car and let it speed you hundreds of miles more on crumbling roads, past open fields, to the primitive commune in western Michigan where she lives in what she claims is a “natural” state with like-minded throwbacks. You’ve seen satellite photos, but they have some way of keeping out the mini-drones, so you can’t get a closer look. You can get a more detailed view of the surrounding forest and hills. The pavement gasps and crumbles away to dirt several miles from the compound, then the dirt road ends and you’d have to hike in the last half mile. You know the precise coordinates. You could get there. You could.
She was rambling on about a gathering she’d been to, an amazing group of people, a “return to humanity,” and “living as we were meant to live” and shedding artificial supports for “a return to pure, unmediated consciousness.” You were exhausted from two straight days of GlaxTech training; you were hungry. What are you talking about, Emily? you said in exasperation. Can you hear that you’re not making any sense? Have you thought logically at all about what you’re saying?
You saw her in the hospital room after the implants didn’t take. A rare immune reaction, one in a thousand, the doctors said. Your mother was yelling at the far end of the room to a hapless medical resident: What’s wrong with you, can’t you screen for these kind of reactions, what kind of doctor are you? Your sister was sitting rigidly up in bed, staring blankly ahead. Her head had been shaven for the operation, and her eyes looked too wide in her pale face; she seemed very young. She was weeping silently, the tears slipping and glinting down her cheeks.
You never told her, as other well-meaning people did, that she didn’t need any fancy neuromods. You didn’t say that she could still get a job, she could still build a life. Everyone knows that those without neuromods can’t compete. That’s why you and Emily worked so hard at school; that’s why you literally spent months of your lives playing those damn protein-structure games online. You knew that you would need corporate sponsorship for your cognitive augmentations; your family couldn’t afford to pay for them. And you need the most up-to-date neuromods to get ahead in everything now: medicine, science, architecture, finance, vid-making, music, VR-game design. Everything keeps getting more complex; the human mind can’t handle it on its own.
What you told Emily, as you squeezed her hand, was that you would help her. You would have money from your new job. Technology is always improving, you told her. People are working right now on neuromod platforms with different advanced materials; they’ll find one that gets around this reaction. And when they do, I’ll have the money to help you get it.
She shook her head. She murmured something you couldn’t hear. You bent forward, and you heard her whisper, “I’m already obsolete.”
Shao jokes that the ongoing V6 project will make everyone obsolete. The company has finally done what the industry has spent years trying to accomplish: the engineering of viral vectors for the safe, efficient, and long-term delivery of genes to the human brain. You were part of the group working on modification of the viral capsid proteins, changing key amino acids to alter viral tropism and enhance transduction. The first clinical trials wrapped up late last year. Company stock is up 500% and eventual government approval is all but assured.
It will revolutionize everything!! the tech media is screaming. The current neuromods use electricity to stimulate brain cells. They consist of nanoelectrode arrays that record brain activity and adjust neuronal firing according to programmed apps. But the name of the new game is “light”. The new viral vectors can deliver genes safely to specific neurons, and that means that the genes for special, light-activated receptors can be expressed in those neurons. Light will trigger specific activation of these precisely marked cells. The new light-using neuromods will offer an exquisite, unprecedented level of control. The promise is nearly inconceivable. A rainbow of wavelengths will play a symphony of cell signals.
It will all happen fast. Everyone knows it. The hardware for light-using neuromods has already been worked out in animals; the groundwork for this field—“optogenetics”—was laid out at the turn of the century. The only real, unexpectedly difficult, stumbling block in humans was the development of the clinically safe viruses.
Your team did it, but there’s still more work to be done. There are hundreds of neuronal subtypes in the mammalian neocortex alone, and the current viral vectors target only a fraction of them. GlaxTech means to hone viruses to target them all. The research director wants changes to some of the light-responsive receptors used, and the clinicians think the safety profile can be improved yet further. But the proof-of-principle holds. “We have at least a few more years of work ahead of us,” Shao says. “Before we’re all retired and replaced by a new crop of light-wired kids.”
Of course, you think, you’ll be light-wired yourself by then.
Emily would have loved this work. That’s what really gets you. She loved those protein-folding games more than you ever did; she loved the larger science behind and around it. She could have gone to grad school; she could have been a research director; she was smart and could have done anything, if only she could have kept going.
In your fantasy, you travel to her hippie-commune in Michigan. You walk right up to the door (somehow, there are no sensors, no security to stop you). You find her and you say to her, Have you heard? There’s a new type of neuromod coming out, a completely different mechanism, more powerful than anything. It won’t hurt you like the other one did. I have money, I took out a loan, I can get it for you. I have connections. You’ll be one of the first ones, at the leading edge. Come back with me. Please come back.
In your fantasy she comes back, but you know that in real life she wouldn’t. It’s what you told your mother: once Emily makes up her mind, no one can talk her out of it. She’s made her choices, and giving up on them would mean giving up her pride. Something your little sister—your bratty, brilliant, remarkable little sister--could never bear to do.
It’s silent in your auto-car. You sit back and watch the gray cityscape stream past. There’s barely a hint of vibration as the autonomous car guides itself smoothly, flawlessly, to its input destination.
As the car drives on, the buildings become progressively shabbier. Roads and neighborhoods empty out; weeds and trash overtake the streets. Risqué holo-ads dance and leer above seedy VR-parlors that cater to those who can’t afford their own external mind-rigs, let alone neuromods. You see people gathered outside a mind-temp agency, waiting listlessly to go in and rent their brains out by the hour for the lowest-level cognitive tasks.
Your mother lives on the outskirts of the city, in the same apartment building where she raised you and Emily. The neighborhood isn’t quite as bad as the scene outside the car window, but it’s close.
You think of things that Emily said. You watch the crumbling buildings skim past. The sky behind it all is gray and flat and featureless.
You wonder if some of Emily’s Luddite tendencies actually come from your mother. Mom pushed you and Emily hard, but she doesn’t optimize her own brain. Her neuromods are cheap and minimal; she won’t accept your help in buying new ones. She did let you buy her an anxiety-control app, but you know that she doesn’t use it fully.
And she still cooks many of her own meals by hand, from raw ingredients. She’s cooking lunch for you today. She’s too proud to take large gifts from you, but she’ll accept token ones. You sent her the delivery yesterday: flowers and groceries, including cuts of beef—not the synthetic stuff, but the real thing from real cattle.
The car turns down old, familiar streets and pulls up before the faded brick building. As you get out, the apartment building’s security AI is already analyzing your heart rhythm signature, scanning signals from your various body mods and comparing them to identification signals on record. The front door opens just in time for you to stride through.
The warmth of the hallway closes around you, and for a strange, flashing moment, you wonder what it’s like to be your mother. To have two daughters, and to have one of them disappear.
This world is broken, Emily had said before she left. You see that, don’t you? You see how damaged our society is, how utterly dysfunctional and broken?
Of course you see it. You didn’t say it out loud, but of course you can see that the world is broken. But that’s just the way it’s always been. The world is always damaged, and there are always winners and vastly more losers, and all the people in between, just struggling to survive.
You head to your mother’s apartment. Your sister is surviving in her own way, you know. And today, your mother is cooking you your favorite dish. Her door glides open at your touch, and the rich scent hits you. Pho. The deeply colored beef broth, the smell of cinnamon and cloves and star anise.
This story originally appeared in The Future Fire.