On the date scheduled Leo walked into the Brain Institute to get a new brain. He had won the regional lotto for the procedure, which he considered a rare stroke of good fortune in his life. Ten years ago he had been a machinist, a job he enjoyed for the precision and concentration it required, but when the robots took over his job, he was forced to retire. Maybe it was just as well, he had thought, for he could now spend more time with his wife, who had been experiencing episodes of mild forgetfulness. But soon after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and for her remaining years he was her constant caregiver. Now that he was alone (their two daughters lived abroad), he filled his time by rereading old books and fretting about the future. And then the letter came, an old-fashioned letter in the post, declaring that he (along with a few other lucky residents) had been granted the procedure at no cost.
As he sat in the institute’s lobby, Leo glanced at the other people occupying the white plastic chairs lined up in three even rows opposite the reception counter. (His seat was in the last row next to the front door of tinted glass.) Altogether there were 17 men and four women, and all but one were at least as old as he. The exception was a slender lady sitting on the other end of his row whom he guessed to be about 30, and Leo’s first thought was to wonder why someone so young would want to switch out her brain. Her steady downcast stare and hunched shoulders, however, quickly reminded him that age had little to do with the psychic damage a trauma of any sort can inflict. As for himself, by age 20 he had suffered enough psychic damage to last a lifetime. The Terrorist Wars had been especially grueling. Years and years of escaping one certain death after another had taken their toll. And by the time the Final Peace was declared, his entire family had been wiped out—all, that is, except a step-uncle who ended up dying of the canine flu only a few months later. And then there were the dozen or so years of barely surviving in the favela—all those lives crammed at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, all those days and nights trying to capture but mostly chasing after rats and raccoons for stew meat and succeeding only if you were lucky. But luck had never been his to expect. Until today.
His name was called: Leo Anzalone. He got up a little stiffly from the chair he’d been occupying since eight that morning and approached the reception window, where a middle-aged woman with orange lipstick began to explain the steps to follow. First: Go down the left corridor into Room #5, then complete a questionnaire at a computer workstation. Next: After the questionnaire has been assessed and the results compiled (you’ll see the results within minutes), follow whatever the computer tells you to do.
What will it tell me to do? Leo felt compelled to ask.
I don’t know, sir, the woman replied. It all depends on your answers.
She smiled at him mechanically, her plump orange lips offering little encouragement. Leo saw that it was useless to ask any more questions, so he just did what he was told. He made his way down the hallway and found Room #5. It was a room a little larger than a walk-in closet with a ceiling panel of bright florescent lights above a single workstation. After closing the door, he took a seat before the computer. At first, he wasn’t able to read what was on the screen due to an abundance of reflected glare. Only when he leaned forward in his chair was he able to make out the first question.
Question #1: Why do you want to have this procedure done?
That’s a good question, Leo thought, as he stared into the white rectangular textbox, empty except for the pulsing cursor which struck him as overly eager for an answer. He needed time to reflect, however. He thought, if he were to be truthful, he would have to say that life for him had been a disappointment. Having a new brain would be like starting life anew. A new brain would enable him to encode more positive memories and learn new things with ease, and, if he understood the procedure correctly, allow him to forget whatever he wanted to forget. Then there was the possibility of avoiding the cruel decline he had witnessed firsthand in his wife, since tests revealed that he, too, was genetically predisposed to dementia.
But was the truth really what they wanted to hear? Leo didn’t think so. The truth had rarely worked in his favor before. So, he typed (slowly, as his hands were not as agile as in his machinist days) what he thought they wanted to hear: I believe in progress and want to be part of that progress by replacing my elderly brain with a better functioning one.
Question #2: How do you feel about erasing all your memories, both good and bad?
From this question Leo realized he must have been mistaken about the procedure. He wouldn’t be allowed the luxury of picking which memories to keep and which to erase. It appeared that all memories had to be eliminated. As before, he took some time in answering. He thought about his wife. If he could erase the final years, have that excruciating time excised from his brain like a cancerous mass, he would be ecstatic—that’s how he would feel—though, in truth, he wasn’t so sure about a permanent erasure of everything before. He and his wife had met in the favela. Seeing her for the first time, even with her grimy skin and matted hair, was like discovering a flower amid a heap of trash. He loved her from the start. And the memory of that feeling—indeed, the feeling itself—had never really diminished. Not even at the end when she had forgotten who he was and would often look past him as if he were not there. It was enough that he knew who she was. He knew her welcoming smile, her snub and slightly off-center nose, her soft amber gaze, and the tiny scar just below her right cheekbone that had later folded into a wrinkle. He knew her and to forget her, perhaps even as she was in her final days—that was something to consider.
He typed: I wouldn’t mind keeping some of the better memories.
Question #3: Do you believe science and technology have had a positive effect or a negative effect on humankind?
The room, it seemed, had become hotter. Beads of sweat were beginning to form on Leo’s forehead. It seemed, too, that the fluorescent lights were thrumming louder than before, sounding more like a swarm of bees, distant but headed his way. A suspicious feeling crept over Leo: it was a feeling of paranoia even, something he hadn’t felt in years. Was it possible that these questions were not asked of just any random lotto winner? Was it possible that they were only meant for him? This last question was especially suspect. How was he, Leo Anzalone, supposed to answer something like this, he who had participated in a number of minor protests in his youth? Did the institute know he had signed a petition written by the New Saboteurs, signed by all in a mixture of their own blood? Did the institute sift through the repositories of big data in order to isolate the smallest crumbs of incriminating facts?
Of course, they had.
Leo knew exactly how he would have answered a question like this when he was young and angry enough to care about such things, and now, he thought, why not? Why not give them a truthful response, one that came from a time when no amount of premeditation was ever required?
And so he typed:
Nature has its ways and its reasons. We as humans—we sit outside the natural order of things, perhaps fallen out of grace in some cosmic way. I myself have tinkered with things, playing my small part in the destructive whole, but there comes a point when perhaps it’s best to step aside and reconsider…
He hesitated, combing back his thinning hair with one hand (remembering, strangely, the lushness of his former curls), then resumed:
Science has created both the sublime and the base, but mostly the base. Yes, mostly the base…
A great many thoughts came to him now. He was thinking of the backlash that had followed the Final Peace and the clampdown that remained. He was thinking of the straitjacketed life of the present day, the strangulating hold of both science and technology, the masterful control of government and commerce, and the faraway dream he and so many others once shared of not having your every thought and action—your very person—trapped, dissected, and “improved” ad infinitum… Thinking of all this made him wish he were chasing after rats again!
And despite the ever-buzzing lights and the growing warmth of the room, a feeling began to rise up from within him. The surprise of it caused him to stop typing. The recognition of it caused him to look down at his large, thick-veined hands, lying motionless on the keyboard. It was remarkable to him how occupied and involved his hands had once been and how still they were now, stilled by a new-found sensation of wonder and possibility.
After a bit more time had passed, Leo got up from the workstation and left the room. He continued on through the lobby, now filled with what looked like a new set of clients. Soon enough, he had pushed through the tinted glass doors and was standing outside the Brain Institute. It was midday, and the sun beat down with its usual ferocity, but for the first time in a long while, Leo didn’t mind the heat. In fact, as he made his way into the stream of pedestrians, he couldn’t remember the last time the sun had felt so good on his skin.