Tag Archives: optogenetics

Switchblade Pisces Pt. 17


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Chapter 17


On one side of the large parking lot outside the main entrance of the clinic Delacroix, two FBI agents, four local police cars, and a SWAT van sit there looking mean. On the other side there’s Eklund, Janis, Jazz, a few doctors in lab coats carrying tasers and me. Things don’t look that good. I’m betting on a number of things that might not be true, but at this point my plan is the only thing that makes sense. A hail mary pass, that just might get us all killed. Fun.

Eklund walks across the no-man’s land of the parking lot. Janis follows him. Delacroix joins him in the center of the space with the two agents to back him up.

“What’s it going to be, doc? The hard way, or the really hard way?”

Eklund looks older than I’ve ever seen him. He wipes sweat off of his brow and glances at me. I nod at him, even though I’m not sure about this either. Then he clears his throat and speaks. “What is will power, Agent Delacroix?” he asks.

“That sounds like a question, doc. I’m looking for an answer.”

“True, but you see, your reasons for attacking us seem to be contingent on whether or not the agent we took from the hospital wanted to be saved or not. But he was unconscious, how can we know what he wanted?”

“Your Pisces there put him in the hospital, I don’t think he’d be running to join her again.” Delacroix walks closer to Eklund using his height to intimidate the smaller, older man.

“You don’t think, but you don’t know,” Eklund points out.

“Sure, fine. Why don’t we wake him up and ask him? Oh, that’s right, we can’t, because he’s in a fucking coma.”

“Janis?” Eklund turned toward Janis, who’s rubbing her wrists in discomfort.

Delacroix and the two agents tense up, expecting an attack.

“Go to Delacroix. Do whatever he asks.”

Janis’s eyes go wide, but she follows the order, walking over to Delacroix.

“Go ahead. Give her an order,” Eklund prods.

“Stand on one foot,” Delacroix asks, and Janis does so. “Jump up and down.” Janis still follows the order. Delacroix’s face hardens into a scowl. “Kill yourself.”

The blade snaps out of Janis’s wrist, but she doesn’t raise it to her neck or any other part of her body. She wavers still on one foot. Then, slowly, her raised foot comes down.

“Kill yourself!” Delacroix yells, but now Janis’s blade retracts back into her wrist. She walks, slowly at first and then with more determination, back to Eklund’s side.

Eklund smiles. “She has a computer in her brain. It has a very simple program. Follow every order. A couple of days ago, she would have followed your order. But she has gained a will of her own. She has learned how to ignore her programming.”

“Am I supposed to be impressed? One of your robots is malfunctioning, how does that change anything?”

“Janis, if you could go back, would you rather I hadn’t helped you out? Would you rather I had left you in a coma?”

Janis swallows and shifts her weight. “Sometimes…sometimes I think I feel that way. But not right now. I don’t want to die, and I don’t want to be in a coma again either. I’m sorry if I’m not supposed to say that!”

“It’s okay, Janis. You’re a human being, now, not a robot at all. You’ve made me very proud.” Eklund pats Janis on the shoulder and turns to Delacroix. “You say Agent Fox wouldn’t want to be here. I say at the moment he has no will of his own. I say that anyone with an ounce of willpower would rather they have a will than not, and the only way we can give Agent Fox any semblance of will, would be to let us help him. Afterwards, he can decide if it’s worth it or not, but until then, let us do what we can.”

“How do I know you didn’t just program her to act this way? She’s your robot, you could tell her whatever you wanted.”

“I’m not a robot!” Janis says suddenly, her blades out of her wrists. She seems a little startled by her own outburst, but then she slowly smiles. “I’m not a robot,” she says again. “I have a will of my own.”

“Oh yeah? How do you know that? How can you be sure?”

Janis steps in front of Eklund, powerfully, resolutely. She is her own woman. “I know I’ve got it,” she says, “Because it makes me feel good.”


There was a flurry of decisions that had to be made, most of which I couldn’t quite follow. Eklund and his clinic were allowed to continue under stringent government surveillance. He was no longer classed as a terrorist threat, but was required to pay a fine and work a few hundred hours of community service for the injuries the two agents sustained.

As for me, I have a job now, working for Eklund. As to what that job actually is, that’s difficult to say. I can usually pick things up pretty quick and passing the tests for certification in different areas hasn’t been a problem. Sometimes I work in the operating room, assisting one of the doctors, sometimes I’m fixing some electrical problem. Eklund understands how bored I get doing the same thing and lets me work on whatever needs doing. It’s perfect for me and I get paid more than I would ever make doing something else.

Janis visited her mother again recently. I think they bonded a little. There was mutual crying. I asked her out on an official date, and we’ve gone on a few of them since. That’s going pretty well. Janis still can be a little too accommodating at times. I don’t think we’re going to stay together. I think she’s still learning who she is, and at some point she’s going to have to see other people just to make sure I haven’t influenced her too much.

I think I’m okay with that. I think I love her, and I think I’ll be a little jealous of whomever she’s with, but I think I’ll be able to deal with it. I’m still learning who I am too after all. Maybe we’ll find each other again. Maybe we’ll drift apart, but whatever happens, it will be because of our own decisions. Our own will.

When Agent Fox wakes up the first time, I’m there in the room with Dr. Eklund and Dr. Gardener. He opens his eyes and blinks a few times. “Don’t worry, Fox” I tell him, “We aren’t going to hurt you.” The fans on his prosthetic cortex whir. “I’m Ethan Yates. I’m a friend. These two helped you out of your coma, their names are Dr. Eklund and Dr. Gardener. For a while, you’re going to have to do whatever we say, but eventually, you’ll be able to make your own decisions. Nod if you understand.” Fox nods slowly, and I know he’s going to be okay.

I love my job.



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Switchblade Pisces: 11

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Chapter 11


Not knowing where to go, I wander around aimlessly for several minutes before I see Janis making quick strides from the other end of a hallway. I wave hello to her stupidly. Her eyes widen a little and she stops. “Please do not ask me to do anything,” she says, her voice much calmer than her face looks.

“What’s going on?”

Janis’s fans are whirring. “I am not sure. I think I might be frightened, but this does not explain why I left my room.”

I look around. We’re in the front part of the building. The hallways are lit dimly by a few lights and exit signs, but no one is around the immediate area. There’s probably one or two night nurses around, but I don’t see them. In the secret area past the employees only sign there is probably a lot more activity, but that seems like a world away at the moment. “What were you thinking about when you left?”

Janis looks down. “I was thinking…those FBI agents…they were following orders. I was thinking…they were like me.”

I swallow looking away. “We don’t know that they’re dead.”

When I look back, Janis’s expression seems pained. She’s rubbing her wrists. “Hold on,” I say, “I’ve got a computer in my room I think…” I lead her into my room and turn the television on, finding a local news channel. I figure they might say something about the explosion. While the news anchors are cooing over some rescued kittens for a human interest piece, I look up the name of my apartment complex on the computer.

I find a one paragraph blurb about a small explosion. It doesn’t say anything about anybody being hurt. I show this to Janis. “They couldn’t have been that badly injured,” I say.

Janis shakes her head. “They are agents. It would not have been reported.”

I turn back to the computer screen, not sure what to say. On the television, the news anchors are commenting wryly about the antics of an incompetent bank robber. I’ve always wondered about the crimes the news doesn’t report on. I remember hearing a few stories about cops getting injured, but never FBI agents.

“Well, you seem to be the expert. Would they just go to a local hospital or is there some secret government hospital that we’ve all been kept in the dark about?”

Janis frowns at me. Her fans whir a little. “If there was a secret hospital, we wouldn’t know about it.”

“Right,” I say, turning back to the computer screen, “Good point.” Making a mental note to try to avoid sarcasm with Janis if the future, I look online for hospitals in the area. There are several candidates, so I checked if any of them were known for their burn units. “This place looks good,” I say, pointing to the screen.

“Yes,” Janis says. “We will go there.”

I get up and start to follow Janis out of the room, when I stop myself. “Wait. We will?”

Janis turns around. “There is a problem?”

“No. Well, maybe. I thought you didn’t have free will.”

“I don’t.”

“But then…how…?”

“Are you ordering me not to go?”


“Then I am leaving.”

I frown. “We could wait for tomorrow. Might be easier. Visiting hours and such.”

Janis shakes her head. “They might be moved. We are not family.” She walks out of the door she seems almost pushed out by some force. I follow her, but it’s a little difficult keeping up with her brisk pace. We go through the winding halls, through the “Employees Only” door. The large hangar-like space beyond is darker now, but there are still lights in some of the lab spaces and coming out of some of the rooms. When we reach the back door, Janis pauses. “I do not have a choice. I have to go.”

“Okay,” I say cautiously.

“Why did you ask if I had free will?”

“It just seemed like you had made a decision is all. Heck you practically gave me an order.”

“I did not. I cannot do that. You are free to do whatever you please.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t have any better plans for the moment.”

Janis’s fans whir a little as she looks at me with that puzzled expression I’ve seen a lot recently. She turns and we both go through the back door to the secret entrance.  She finds her bike, and I sit behind her as we rise with the large elevator car. There were helmets for both of us on a rack by the bike, so this time if we crash and get launched into the air at seventy miles an hour, there will be an extra half inch or so of cushioning between our heads and the asphalt when we hit it. “Isn’t there a car we could use?” I ask as the hatchway to the road outside opens.

After a pause, Janis says, “You do not have to come. You could stay here. It may be dangerous.” The way she says it, it sounds like a question.

“That’s a good point.” I mean it too. I’m not sure myself why I’m doing this. I’m not going to be any help. Probably just get in the way. At the same time I’m already ready to go. Got my helmet on and everything. It would feel silly to go back to my room now. If I could even remember where it was. “I think I’ll go with you though. Doesn’t feel right not to. Inertia, I guess.”

There’s a moment of uncomfortable silence while we sit on the motorcycle. “I was in a car accident,” Janis says suddenly. “I was not wearing a seat belt. Neither was my father. He died. I was in a coma. Everything I was before then is gone. Sometimes there are flashes of memory. Sometimes I wonder what happiness is, and if I have ever experienced it.” Janis straightens in her seat. “I do not think I like inertia.” With that, she turns the ignition.

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Switchblade Pisces: Pt. 10

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The room I’m in isn’t too bad. It’s a little on the small side. It’s even smaller than my efficiency apartment where this all started. There’s a double-sized bed, and the room can fit maybe three more beds of the same size and that’s it. On the other hand the refrigerator is well stocked with tv dinners, the microwave works well, and best of all, the flat screen opposite the bed takes up almost the whole wall. It’s got all the satellite channels, and all the latest operating systems, including the ones for video game consoles. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo, all in one Frankenstein set up. Testing the system out earlier, I started up all three versions of the same game using the same disc slot, giggling madly when they all ran flawlessly. I felt like a mad scientist. And that’s when I remembered where I was.

So I’ve been lying in bed, staring at the ceiling for the past hour or so. I should try to escape. But I’m not really a prisoner. The FBI is possibly going to try to kill me, but probably not. If I just go the police or something… I want to help out Janis, though, even though she killed those people. That was kind of my fault though, wasn’t it? And maybe they aren’t dead.

I’m stupid for agreeing to stay here. Baxter is a madman, I don’t care how good his intentions are. Teaching Janis self defense, okay. Surgically attaching knives to her wrists? Crazy. Even if it is kind of badass.

Letting out a growl of frustration, I get up and look at the games available on the entertainment system. It looks like Baxter’s got Biomechanica 4. It just came out last month. I really liked the other three games in the series. They had a lot of action, and a nice linear plot. None of that role playing crap where you had to figure out what the right thing to say is and depending on what you do the game could change.  All three console versions of Biomechanica 4 are in the display case underneath the television. The Playstation version is supposed to have better resolution, but the Xbox version is supposedly more stable. The Wii version would normally be my last choice, except I’ve heard that there are some extra features they put in that version since it was the last one they rolled out.

I rub the bridge of my nose with my fingers. I rummage in my pockets. I normally carry a six-sided die and a coin with me for just this kind of predicament. I left in a rush though. I’ve got my wallet, but no change. I don’t even have my keys, much less anything else. I could maybe try to flip one of my credit cards, but they’re too light. I want to be able to see whatever I use spin a few times before landing. That way I can sure it’s truly random. Maybe I could fold one of my dollar bills into a foot ball shape and mark one of the sides?

I shake my head. Too lopsided. I’m in a huge building. There has to be a coin or a die somewhere. I’m still dressed, I just need to put my shoes on. I usually put my right shoe on first, because I’m right-handed, but the left one is closer this time, so after some deliberation, I put that one on first and then the right.

Before I open the door to leave, I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. I’m acting crazy. Why can’t I make a decision? Is Baxter right? Is it a lack of willpower? I swallow. I feel like I have willpower. I can go days without having one of these attacks of indecision. It’s probably just stress. Whenever I get stressed, it’s like the part of me that knows what to do just takes a vacation. I always kind of thought everyone was like that. Maybe they are a little bit. Maybe whatever it is most people go through, I just go through more. Or less. Or something.

Maybe I’m just tired. If I sleep for a while, maybe I can figure all this out when I wake up. I don’t know how I’m going to be able to go to sleep though. Maybe if I just lie down, though, I’ll calm down enough. It seems like a reasonable plan.

I hesitate at the door while I consider it. My hand turns the knob.

Why am I even leaving? For a coin so I can flip it to make a decision? That’s stupid!

I push the door open.

I should just stay in the room and think about things a little more.

But the door is closed and I’m outside of the room in the hallway.

It’s two in the morning, and the front part of the clinic, where I am is mostly empty. The room I came from is at the top of a T intersection in the hallway. I can go forward, left, or right. All three ways seem to disappear into shadow.

I feel utterly lost.

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Switchblade Pisces: pt 9

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After going through the office door, there’s a short antechamber, and then another door. There are more hallways after this, only these are a more modest size with rooms that remind me of a retirement home. When I look back at the door, there’s a sign reading “employees only” in serious-looking blocked script.

After the wide expanse of the other hallway, these corridors seem positively claustrophobic. They turn and exit in several different ways. Along one branch I see what looks like sunlight.

“This is the front of the clinic. The only part most people see. Everyone thought I had gone mad when I put so much money into this place. Baxter’s Vegetable Garden, they called it.” Eklund stops at a room. He opens a door. Inside there are bright decorations, stuffed animals, a girl sleeping in a bed connected to machines. “They told her parents she was brain dead.” Eklund shakes his head. “It’s only part of her brain. Just twenty five percent. People have survived with less. But it’s her personality that’s missing, her dreams. Her will. There’s no way to give that back to her, the doctors say. They say it’s better to give up.” Eklund closes the door and faces me. “I will not give up.”

I’m impressed, but the force of Eklund’s convictions scares me a little too. I actually step back away from Eklund into Jazz’s chest. Swallowing, I say, “I still don’t see where I come into the picture. I don’t think I have much willpower. Why are you interested in me?”

Eklund looks down, a small smile coming to his face. “That’s precisely it, Ethan. You have the lowest amount of willpower of any otherwise healthy person we have documented. You are intelligent, you’ve gotten admirable marks in all the classes you’ve taken in college and in high school. The jobs you’ve had have all been brief, but you’ve gotten good reviews when I’ve interviewed your employers. Still, you’ve been in that efficiency apartment next to the university for over a decade now. You’ve changed your major eighteen times. It’s astounding that you’ve been able to keep going the way you have.”

“I’m just trying to figure out what I want to do,” I say, “That’s not that strange.”

Eklund raises a bushy white eyebrow.

I swallow nervously. “Well, I mean, it’s a bit weird I guess. Ten years is kind of crazy. But I’m just interested in a lot of different things.”

“You see?” Eklund raises a finger. “You can’t even stick to your guns on your own opinion of yourself.”

I want to protest, but I can’t think of a workable argument.

Eklund glances at Janis and Jazz behind me and looks down. “I can only imagine how you must feel. To never be sure of anything. I’ve had my doubts before. It is true I need security to protect myself and this clinic, and it is true that I can’t risk this place being discovered by the wrong people. Using Janis and Jazz as I have, giving them their modifications… It was a creative solution to a problem. It protects them, and they have not suffered for it. Still, sometimes I feel like I’ve taken advantage of them.”

“We would not exist without your assistance. Any advantage you take from us is therefore morally acceptable.” Jazz states, his prosthetic cortex whirring a little. Janis’s whirs some as well.

“Thank you, Jazz, but I’m afraid I can’t take your words to heart, especially when you act like a cult member about to drink the kool-aid.” Eklund sighs, looking a little older. “The kool-aid comment was an allusion to the Jonestown cult. I am speaking about a conflict between philosophy and emotion. Do not attempt to understand.”

“Thank you, Baxter. I will not.” As I look back at him, Jazz seems to relax a little.

“That goes for you too, Janis.” Eklund warns. “This subject might make you overheat.”

Janis nods.

“She overheated a bit on the way over here,” I said. “She was upset about the agents she killed.”

There is a soft sound of something sliding against skin, and Janis’s cortex begins to whir.

“Janis,” Eklund said, “Please retract your blades. You are angry at me, but you probably don’t want to kill me.”

I whip my head around to see Janis snick-ing her blades back into her wrists.

“Janis, you should visit Dr. Kisugi to make sure you haven’t hurt yourself.”

“Yes, Baxter, I will do that.”

I watch her turn and walk down the hall, through the employee’s only door.

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Switchblade Pisces: Pt.8

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“I’m glad you could make it, Ethan,” the man says, “I’m Baxter. Let me show you around.”

Eklund sounds older; he’s maybe in his sixties, but his voice has a manic energy that makes me wonder if maybe he’s my age, only he has bronchial pneumonia or something.

He leads me, Janis, and Jazz through a bulkhead door and into a brightly lit expanse lined on either side with doors and glass partitions. The floor is covered in white tile, and the aisle way is as large as a two-lane road. The wet stone smell of the cave is still there in the background, but now there’s a strong scent of antiseptic. It’s like a hospital, an airport, and a mall all had an orgy and left this place in their wake.

“Impressive, eh?” Baxter says. In the light I can see the lines in his face. He has more crow’s feet than I would have thought possible around his eyes. He has thick laugh lines too, and some nice forehead creases. The man is a prune. His eyes are sharp though. Light green and piercing. His hair is bright white, but thick and dynamic. I hope I look as good as this guy when I’m his age. I hope I’m as energetic too. “Four wings of a hospital all the way down, with multiple ORs, elevators, stairwells, and bathrooms spaced evenly in case of emergencies. Easier to dig forward than down, you know.” He hopped into the driver’s seat of a golf cart that was sitting by the door. “Well, get on. The offices are at the very end.”

I sit next to him uneasily while Jazz and Janis sit behind us. I keep on thinking I should do something, but I have no idea what that might be. Looking at the long corridor ahead with labcoated people walking busily down and up its length I ask, “How are you paying for all of this?”

Eklund raises a bushy white eyebrow at me as he keys the engine. It’s electric, so there’s only a somewhat disappointing hum when he does this. “This is the Baxter Eklund Cognitive Trauma Ward. You have a loved one in a coma? We take care of them for you. The place would practically pay for itself if it weren’t for the goddamned government regulators.”

I raise my own eyebrow at this.

“We take on a few pro bono cases as a charity. But the government wants all of our cases to be pro bono.”

I’m starting to get that desperate, queasy feeling I always get when people talk politics around me, so I attempt to change the subject: “Why am I here, Dr. Eklund? Why is the FBI after me?”

Eklund doesn’t answer right away. He drives past a bathroom, and a small group of people in lab coats pointing their tablet computers at each other and nodding. Finally, he says, “You’re a curiosity to me, Ethan. Unfortunately, the government has learned to be a little suspicious of the people I’m curious about.”

“Why would they care?”

Jazz speaks from behind me in his deep baritone. “Dr. Eklund has been trying to solve the problem of free will.”

“Yes, thank you, Jazz. I tried to find people who seemed to have a lot of free will first. People who followed their own path regardless of the consequences. After I contacted two people the FBI had under surveillance, they got leery. When I found the third they started to get violent.

“They used some strong arm tactics. Some of my staff were beaten when they refused to cooperate. I had to let them see this part of the ward, so they could see I wasn’t heading some sort of paramilitary boot camp back here or anything. Thankfully they didn’t know what all the equipment was for.”

The golf cart is finally reaching the end of the hallway, where a comically innocuous looking wooden office door stands inset in the wall. Eklund steers the cart into a space by the door and turns off the ignition. I don’t feel like getting off yet, though. I’m feeling a little sick. “Why couldn’t you have just told the FBI what you were doing?”

Eklund lets out a rasping laugh that turns into a cough before he gets control of it. “For one thing, they wouldn’t have believed me, and for another, I don’t exactly want the FBI to know what I’m doing.”

“Why did you program Janis to kill those people?”

Eklund’s expression turns serious. “Why didn’t you order her not to?” He turns away and gets off the cart.

“There, there,” Jazz pats me mechanically on my shoulder. “You did what you thought was right.”

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Switchblade Pisces Pt.7

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I’m beginning to get a picture of things, but I’m not sure how much of it I’m making up. Filling in the spaces, I ask, “Janis,have you ever killed anyone before today?”

Her cortex fans are whirring more now. “In simulations. I have been training for three years now.”

I cover my forehead with my hand. “Janis, you’ve been playing video games. Real life is different. Ending someone’s life is not anywhere near the same as making some mass of pixels go away. That’s what your brain is telling you. What happened to your father and you, when you saw him lose you, and then when your mother visited you and you saw her realize that you will never be who you were again, that’s what those FBI agent’s families are going through right now. Maybe one of them is at this moment in coma just like you were. Or maybe all them are dead and their loved ones don’t even have a body to cry over.”

“If they were agents, then she did the right thing. They would imprison Eklund and without him, many would die and quality of life would diminish worldwide. They wanted your information to get more control over people. That would diminish freedom. The negative of their death is less severe than the negative of letting them have what they want.”

I shake my head, “Jazz, it doesn’t matter whether what she did was right or not. They were people. Whenever people die, it’s sad. That’s just the way it is.”

“Would you like me to believe this?” Jazz asks.

“Believe whatever you like!”

“I only believe what I am told to believe. I am a Pisces.”

I’m about to argue the point when Janis grabs my free hand. “Thank you, Ethan. I think I understand now.” She releases my hand suddenly and stares at it for a little while. Then, slowly, she wraps her fingers around my hand again. “It is not only me. I see myself in other people. I…feel a little of what they feel because I can imagine myself in their position.”

Janis’s hand is so warm against mine. She looks so beautiful. I close my eyes and swallow. I can’t be thinking about things like that!

“You do not have to be…afraid, Ethan.” I open my eyes and there is Janis looking up at me. “I will not hurt you.”

“Unless she is ordered to,” Jazz adds, his cortex whirring, “Have you made your decision yet?”

Oddly, when I look at the fans on Janis’s prosthetic cortex, they don’t seem to be spinning much at all.

“I’ll go see Eklund,” I say, almost without realizing it.

Jazz nods and takes an exit onto a highway.


After the highway, we travel through several back roads until Jazz pulls over at a fairly nondescript area where the road widens a little for cars that need to turn around. The road here cuts into the hill so I can see the sedimentary layers underneath the soil. There’s a sign that says to watch out for falling rocks.

Jazz puts the car in park and gets out.

I look at Janis, but she’s just sitting, rubbing her wrists, looking distant.

Through the side window, I can see Jazz touch an area of the shorn off hill with his large hand. The surface moves inward and up, revealing a rectangular space not unlike a garage.

Jazz walks back and folds his large body back behind the steering wheel.

As he drives us inside, I feel like I should say something but I have no idea what would be appropriate. Wow? Cool? Nice place you’ve got here? That last might be good, but the moment’s gone by now and I don’t think either Jazz or Janis are in a position to appreciate sarcasm. It bothers me that I’ve driven by so many areas just like this one and never really noticed them. Somehow I’ve always had the feeling that if I drove past a secret hideout I would know it if I saw it.

After we’re inside, Jazz turns off the engine and the door —rock face? Portcullis?— falls back into place with a reverberating thud. There’s an uncomfortable time when nothing seems to be happening, but just as I’m about to mention this, there’s the sound of hydraulics and we’re being lowered down below the floor.

Once again I get to see the sedimentary layers of the rocks through the car window, but now they’re lit by sparse, artificial light and covered over with algae blooms where the light is brightest. We keep going lower and lower, down past older and older sedimentary layers. I’m just beginning to worry irrationally about possibly going through the crust into the mantle of the Earth… when we stop.

Jazz and Janis get out of the car immediately. I take a moment to think about how I got to be where I am and whether I really want to be here. I wonder if perhaps I might be safer staying in the car. But then I realize that I’d be staying in a car several stories beneath the surface of the Earth on a hydraulic elevator operated by someone I can only assume is some kind of mad scientist.

Might as well see if I can figure out where the controls are.

When I get out, the scenery reminds me a little of those caves they have at tourist traps. Stalactites and stalagmites dramatically lit by strategically placed lights. Dominating the scene is a man wearing a linen suit that was probably white at one time. He has a white fedora on and glasses with flashlights embedded in the rims so that looking at his head is like seeing a car coming at you in the night. Because of this, I can’t make out his face too well, but judging by the martini and olive he’s holding jauntily in his left hand, I don’t get the impression that the conversation I’m about to have with him is going to be dull.

“I’m glad you could make it, Ethan,” the man says, “I’m Baxter. Let me show you around.”

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Switchblade Pisces: Pt.6

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 At this point, I feel hopelessly lost. How could all of this stuff be going on without me hearing about it on the news or something? “They can make brain cells that fire when you shine light on them?”

“Yes, this is the fundamental technology behind the optogenetic interface. The fiber optics provide an input into the brain, and EEG can be used as an output.

I know about EEG.  It stands for electroencephalogram, and it’s what a lot of the video game console makers are working on. Basically it’s where you put sensors all around your head to measure the slight electrical impulses your brain gives off. The EEG reads your thoughts and the character does what you want it to. It’s the latest thing, but it’s still a little slow. “How do you deal with the lag?”

“The lag? I am guessing you mean the lag you experience in video games that use EEG? The version we use is more invasive. The electrodes have almost direct contact with the brain. They are also more sensitive than what is commercially available. This significantly reduces the lag we experience.”

Jazz has exited off the highway and we are now on road going through the woods. When we pass by a visitor’s center I realize we must be in a national park. Jazz drives into an empty cove for RV enthusiasts that has a fire pit in the center.  “Are you okay?” I ask Janis.

“I am better. I am not yet ideal though.” Janis takes a few deep breaths. “I should be able to walk.”

Jazz gets out of the car and invites us to follow him. “I hope you have made a decision by now. We really do not have much time.” Janis and I both get out of the car and lean against the door.

“I haven’t even had a chance to think about it, yet! Just give me five minutes okay?”

“I will comply, but I would prefer to keep moving.”

I try to go over everything in my mind while Jazz and Janet are silent. Here I have two highly trained cyborg assassins sitting here waiting for me to give them an order and all I can do is make them wait! What is my problem exactly?

“I do not understand why I am so upset,” Janis says suddenly. “My prosthetic cortex affects my speech and decision making, but my memories and emotions are completely biological. Can you explain my feelings to me, Ethan?”

The purple irises of her eyes pull me in as she asks this. Something about the way she says my name makes me want to hold her. I swallow. “I don’t know. Usually I just know what I’m feeling without really thinking about it. Do you have any clues?”

Janis looks down. “Images keep playing through my mind. I see my father in the moments after the accident, when he is trying to get me out of the car, just before I black out. I see my mother saying goodbye to me after visiting me here. I see the two secret service operatives just before the explosion from the grenade I threw. I do not know what these images have in common, but when they cycle through my mind like this it is worse than confronting any one image by itself.”

“What happened when your mother came to visit, Janis?”

“I do not kn…I…I do not know!”

I think the exclamation startles Janis as much as it does me. She blinks slowly and the fans on her prosthetic cortex whirr loudly for a second.

“Mr. Yates,” Jazz says, “It has been five minutes. We can deal with Janis’s malfunctioning later if we must.”

“I am n…I..am not malfunctioning!” Janis takes a few short breaths. New tears come from her eyes. “I am not a robot, and neither are you, Jazz. Our guardian told us we should train ourselves not to rely on the prosthetic cortex.”

“Dr. Eklund is an optimist. Realistically, there is no way we can regain what we have lost. We should learn to work synergistically with our optogenetic interface. We should adapt to what we are.”

I hold my hand up. “Let her speak.”

“Very well. I will comply.” Jazz crosses his arms. I notice the fans of his prosthetic cortex whirr a little more than usual.

“It was my mother who signed over her guardianship of me to Dr. Eklund so he could give me the prosthetic cortex. A year after I awoke with the prosthesis, he invited her to visit me. He told her not to expect too much. I greeted her politely. When she asked me questions I answered them truthfully. But she started crying. I started having problems with my prosthesis about that time, but I managed to maintain equanimity. It was when she said goodbye that I had the worst reaction.”

I’m beginning to get a picture of things, but I’m not sure how much of it I’m making up. Filling in the spaces. “Janis,” I ask, “have you ever killed anyone before today?”

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Switchblade Pisces: Pt.5

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“I don’t understand. Why is she crying all of a sudden?”

Janis tries to speak “I…I…I…”

The male Pisces shakes his head. “Her speech centers are controlled through her optogenetic interface. You need to wait for her to cool down before you can talk with her.”

“Alright, what the hell is an optogenetic interface?”

“I will comply with your request for information, but may I be permitted to take you to Eklund as I do so?”

“No. I don’t want to go there.” I grit my teeth as I try to figure out what to do. “I need to think. Can you take us somewhere safe?”

“Safety is relative. I can take you somewhere that is hard to find, but I am afraid the FBI will still reach us eventually. I urge you to make a decision quickly.”

“I know, okay? I suck at decisions! Just… give me some more time to think.”

“I will comply as best I can.”

 “What’s your name by the way?” I ask to distract myself from Janis. It’s uncomfortably warm next to her, and she looks so vulnerable and hurt. Despite myself, I’m kind of worried.

The male Pisces turns on to the road and drives back toward the highway as talks. “My name is Jazz. That is the music I like the best. I don’t prefer any artist in particular, so I simply chose Jazz as my name. I am told that I enjoyed jazz before I became a Pisces as well. Has Janis told you how we came to be this way?”

I shake my head no, then I realize Jazz can’t see me so I say the word. Janis is taking shuddering breaths, but she is sitting unaided now, her elbows on her knees as she holds her head in her hands.

Jazz stops at a red light and takes the opportunity to pat Janis on the knee again. “Love will find a way,” he says, “time heals all wounds.”

It strikes me that despite the awkward mechanical way Jazz does this, he is still doing a better job at consoling Janis than I probably would, even if I weren’t upset with the Pisces woman for killing two people. Looking ahead to watch the light, Jazz continues his explanation. “Janis and I both suffered severe trauma to our brains, which left us comatose. Although our bodies were capable of autonomic functions, breathing, digestion, et cetera, we had no activity in our frontal lobes. We were vegetables. I was a police officer who got shot in the temple. Janis was a twelve-year-old girl who was in a car accident while sitting in the passenger seat. The air bag deployed too quickly for her. She was in a coma for ten years before Dr. Eklund found her.”

The light turns and Jazz drives onto the highway as he continues. “Optogenetics refers to the way Janis and I were rehabilitated. The computers you see attached to our heads control lasers which are guided through fiber optic cables to special genetically modified neurons grown in our frontal lobes. Using cells from our skin, Eklund’s laboratories were able to create neural progenitor cells. That is, cells that are able to create new neurons.”

“They can do that?” Sitting next to two people with computers attached to their brains my question seems hopelessly naïve.

“My guardian is the only one who has been able to create a working prosthetic cortex, but many of these technologies have been available since the beginning of this century.”

“How come I never heard about them?”

“The information has been available in many respected scientific journals and news magazines.”

“Oh,” I say. I guess this is what I get for reading nothing but sci-fi novels and video game reviews.

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Switchblade Pisces Pt. 4

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We’re at a gas station, because apparently even motorcycles driven by crazy robot girls need gas occasionally. I’m leaning on one of the support columns, and Janis is filling the tank when I realize I have a way out of this situation.  I call to Janis to get her attention. She looks up, her purple irises regarding me with the same focus that she had previously applied to filling the tank. “Yes?”

“I’m not going to see this Eklund character of yours. I order you to take me to the cops or whoever you’re supposed to call in this situation, and for you to confess what you’ve done.”

“I will comply. This is not ideal, however.”

“I don’t care if it’s ideal! That’s what we’re doing.”

“You understand that you will be arrested if I do this?”

“I don’t believe you about that. All I know right now is you just killed two people and I just helped you blow up my apartment after you tried to kill me.”

Janis hangs up the nozzle, but she pauses just as she’s lifting her leg above the seat of the motorcycle. She shudders and starts to collapse. Without thinking I find myself diving forward to catch her. She is burning hot, her face is beet red. She opens her eyes and they look blood shot. “I need to rest. I don’t feel well. I think. I…think I am upset about something.” She closes her eyes and a droplet of moisture falls out of a corner of one of them.

Is she crying?

She’s running a high fever, and the fans on the boxes on her head are whirring like crazy. I feel the side of one of them and involuntarily jerk it away. Feeling again more carefully I estimate that it’s running about fifty degrees Celsius. That’s not too bad for a processor, but for something attached to a human?

I consider my options. I could just get on her bike and leave her, but that doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. Even though she did kill some people.

Just then a black sedan pulls up in front of us. A man who looks to be in his forties rolls down his window and addresses me. “Ethan Yates?”


“Please get in the car. Janis is overheating. She needs rest. You are only a few miles from Eklund’s compound. I’ve been tracking her on GPS.”

Crap. Reinforcements. He’ll probably kill me if I don’t go with him. “Janis. Go ahead into the car, alright? You don’t have to follow that last order I gave you.”

“Th…Th…” Janis tried. I could barely hear her over her fans. Damn it!

The guy in the car gets out. He’s wearing a shiny silver suit. It looks expensive, but I’m not an expert. I’ve been wearing jeans and t-shirt for most my life. The guy in the suit opens the back door and I help him get Janis inside.

“She’s burning up,” I say to the guy. “You have a hospital or something in this place?”

“She will be fine. She just needs to rest.”

I sit next to Janis feeling the temperature of her skin. Before I realize it, the car door is closed and the guy in the suit is in the driver’s seat again. ”I will take you both to Eklund now.” That’s when I see the two boxes on back of his head.

“You’re like her? You’re a Pisces?”

“Yes,” he says as he drives out of the gas station. “I will follow any order given to me. I lost more of my brain tissue before reconstruction, so I suffer less from emotional stress when compared with Janis. She has been like this before, when her birth mother came to visit. I believe that if you give her physical contact and say meaningless optimistic statements, it will accelerate her recovery.”

Janis sobs involuntarily. She is definitely crying now.

The man stops to wait for traffic at the entrance and reaches back to Janis while he’s stopped. “There. There.” He says as he pats her mechanically on the knee. “It will all be alright.”

Janis sobs again.

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Switchblade Pisces Pt. 2

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“I am a Pisces,” the woman says as if that explains everything.

“You’re kidding me. So am I.” I laugh.

“When were you made?” the Pisces girl asks with a tilt of her head.

“I was born February twenty first. I just missed being an Aquarius by two days,” I tell her. Not that I believe in all that mumbo jumbo, but it’s always bothered me that I was a Pisces. I mean Scorpios are supposed to be the worst I think, but whenever I see a description of Pisces it seems like the most wishy washy of signs. Worse, it fits me pretty good in some places.

The girl closes her eyes and turns her head back and forth in three movements. “You are not a Pisces in the way that I am a Pisces.” She opened her eyes. “I was ordered to kill you. In the event of my failure, I was ordered to tell you that your services are requested by Baxter Eklund and to take you to his base of operations. Would you like me to repeat the message?”

“Who is Baxter Eklund?”

“He is my guardian.”

“Oh.Did you grow up in a mental institution or something? That would explain a lot.”

The girl looks down and rubs her right wrist with the thumb of her left hand. “The AI of my prosthetic cortex was developed in an institution of learning, a laboratory. Also, I have been training with my optogenetic interface for three years in the same environment. In this sense it can be said that I grew up in a mental institution. However, I did not grow up in a mental institution in the derogatory sense you seem to suggest.”

Although she doesn’t have a discernable accent, she says all the syllables of the word “laboratory.” La-bo-ra-to-ry. It’s kind of cute and creepy at the same time. Like a levitating puppy.

“Are you supposed to be a robot or something?”

“I told you. I am a Pisces.” She’s taken to rubbing her other wrist now.

I rub the bridge of my nose. “Just so we’re clear, you don’t mean Pisces as in the astrological sign, you mean something else?”

“I am a human female, partially controlled by computer through an optogenetic interface. I am distinguished from other human females from my programming, which requires me to answer any question truthfully and to follow any order that I can physically obey. Humans with this programming are called Pisces.”

I don’t know what an “optogenetic” interface is, but there are things I’m more concerned about at the moment.“Okay. So you aren’t going to kill me if I turn my back to you or something?”

“Not unless you want me to,” the Pisces girl releases her blades and tilts her head.

“Thanks, but no. I think I’ll pass.” I look around my apartment, trying to think of what to do now. I should probably phone the police, but, well look at it another way, I’ve got a beautiful girl in my apartment. Sure she’s a psychotic nutjob who might kill me anyway no matter what she says, but that kind of adds to her mystique. “So, uh what’s your name?”

“Janis” She says, retracting her blades once again into her smooth, lightly tanned wrists.

That’s a neat trick she’s got. “Janus? As in the two faced Roman god of doorways and financial fortune?”

“No. My name is Janis because Janis Joplin’s name was Janis. I admire the passion she exhibits in her music, perhaps because I do not understand it. I hope to someday.”

I nod and get up from the floor. “Nice to meet you, Janis.” I hold out my hand. “My name is Ethan. Ethan Yates.”

She extends her hand and grasps mine. Her hand is unexpectedly warm. Almost too warm. Her grip is firm for a woman, but not unnaturally so. I release her hand and she seems to look me over. “You are attracted to me, yes?”

I feel a little heat rise to my cheeks. “Yeah…uh sorry.”

“Please do not attempt to have sex with me.”

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