by Paul Briggs
The first rule of medicine is “First, do no harm.”
The second rule is, “When you’re sewing up a patient after a splenectomy, try not to leave your smartphone in there.” I failed to heed this rule, and now I live in Miami and work as an orderly in a nursing home, while supplementing my income with the occasional illegal procedure.
Mostly this involves either removing unwanted bullets from unsavory characters without reporting them to the police, or altering the hormone balances of athletes in ways that will improve their performance for a few years and probably kill them later. Every once in a while, however, I get a strange case.
“I want one of those brain chip things in my head,” says the kid in the back room that doubles as my office.
Meet Brenton. Nineteen years old. In Miami, officially for Spring Break. Tall, slim, fresh-faced, curly-haired, leaving a trail of privilege wherever he goes. Been to all the right schools, taken all the right prep courses. Now he’s a student at Yale, alongside kids who are actually smart and/or hard-working, and he’s not doing so well. Which is why he put the word out to somebody who knows somebody who could put him in touch with me.
“Those things they put in like the brains of retards and crazies?” he elucidates. “I want one. I figure if they can turn a retard normal, they’ll turn me into like a genius.”
When I contemplate what Brenton wants me to do to him, I feel a curious nostalgia for the days when I had medical ethics. The Kulikhov-Chang neurointerfacing biochip, invented just a couple of years ago, was designed to deal with schizophrenia, brain damage and developmental disorders. It detects areas of damaged, malformed or underdeveloped brain tissue and compensates for it. It was not designed to boost the intelligence of a normal brain.
Well, money is money and I need more of it.
“In order to stimulate the chip to do its work properly,” I say, “you’ll need to stretch yourself a little intellectually. I suggest when this is over, you cut your Spring Break short and return to Yale to hit the books.”
Brenton looks disappointed at this, but nods. Of course, the chip probably won’t have any effect on him at all. But if he thinks it does, our old friend the placebo effect will take it from there.
* * *
You’d think it would be harder to get hold of one of the biochips. But the hospitals that carry them are supposed to destroy them if they aren’t used within three months. It’s no great expense to persuade one of my old friends to part with an old chip that’s about to be tossed in the incinerator. (No, I’m not worried about using an old one. They’re like prescription drugs — everyone pretends they’re useless after the sell-by date, but they’re not.)
The hard part is prepping the storage shed of a nursing home for brain surgery. You need a lot of specialized equipment, which I’ve been keeping in my own shed at home, to hold the head absolutely rock-steady. Then there’s antibiotics, bone saws… on the whole, I’m glad I insisted on getting paid up front.
“You understand, once it’s integrated itself with your brain matter there’ll be no way to remove it without killing you?”
Brenton nods. “I figure I’m still gonna need it when I get a job,” he said. I wasn’t sure he could think that far ahead.
I bolt him into the restraints and give him the sedative.
* * *
Three hours later, I apply the sealant that will weld the bone of his forehead back into place, sew up his scalp, and take him out of the restraint. Once the sedative wakes off and he wakes up, it won’t take long for the chip to connect itself to his brain.
Once he’s fully woken up, Brenton gets ready to leave.
“Thanks again, doc,” he says.
“Don’t mention it,” I say, meaning it literally. I would rather not make a habit of this sort of thing. “Just go back to Yale and get cracking on your homework.”
“Normally I’d hate hearing that,” he says. “Not this time, though. Man, I can’t wait to start getting smarter. I can’t wait to start getting smarter. I can’t wait to start getting smarter. I can’t wait to—”
While Brenton repeats the same sentence over and over and over again, I grab the biochip manual and search desperately through it for some hint as to what’s gone wrong and whether there’s any hope of correcting it.
The news isn’t good. The chip is programmed to scan for damage or underdevelopment and correct it. If it doesn’t find any, then a few seconds later it scans again. And again. And every time it does this, it essentially reboots the whole brain. This isn’t normally a problem, because normally it finds the problem within the first few scans and can get to diagnosing it.
But there’s nothing wrong with Brenton’s brain except the one thing modern neuroscience can’t cure… and the one thing I have no right to criticize him for.