Jan 24 2013 5:00pm
Stepping Stone and The Love Machine (Excerpt)
“Sit down, Ms. Kim,” Dr. Marchant Lewis said.
Lois frowned slightly and then lowered herself into the chair he indicated.
Lewis was clad in a crisp white doctor’s smock that was at least two sizes too small for his great girth. Small plastic buttons strained to hold the garment across his belly. In the spaces between Lois could see the black T-shirt he wore.
When the big man looked down on Lois she shuddered inwardly.
“Don’t be nervous,” he said. “It doesn’t hurt.”
With some effort, he walked around the table and took the seat across from her. As he wedged himself in a button popped off and struck Lois on the cheek.
“Oh,” she cried, half rising from her chair.
“Sit down, Lois,” he commanded in that rumbling low voice.
Lois regained self-control and sat back.
On the table between them sat a sleek, silvery box about the size of the multimedia player that Lois had bought just that week. In the center of the glittering box was a red rectangular button, that was half the size of a matchbook and lit from underneath. Marchant depressed the button with a thick finger and two square plates shot out from either side, one for Marchant and the other for Lois. Each plate had a shallow, hand-shaped depression covering the most part of its surface area.
Marchant smiled and placed a mitt on his template. He indicated with a glance and a hand gesture that she should do the same with hers.
“Am I supposed to put my hand here?” she asked, stalling.
Marchant nodded. The fat of his face, Lois thought, made him look more like a grotesque baby than a grown man.
“What’s supposed to happen?” she asked with hardly a tremor in her voice.
“Exactly what I proposed to InterCyb,” Lewis said. “Through a noninvasive electronic medium I will be able to map the complete neuronal system of your hand, gauging the flow of stimuli with absolute accuracy.”
Kim stared at the colossus opposite her. She was made nervous, she knew, merely because of his size. Marchant Lewis was nearly seven feet tall and weighed, she’d been told by her boss, Ryan Lippmann, over five hundred pounds.
Big men had always frightened Lois—ever since childhood. But she knew that her fears were unfounded superstitions based on her own size and the bedtime stories her grandmother had told her when Lois visited her in Korea Town. The stories always had ogres that were as big as houses with obscene genitals and fingernails like claws . . .
But those stories were for children.
Marchant Lewis was no ogre. He was the top neurophysicist in the nation; maybe in the entire world. The thesis for his Ph.D. from MIT was the complete mapping of the memory systems of pigeons, a revolutionary achievement for any biophysicist, comparable to the greatest scientific accomplishments in history. It was a coup for InterCybernetics International when Lois brokered the deal to hire him away from the government. She had to trust him; her future depended on the success of this man.
But still she hesitated.
“What will happen?” she asked. “Exactly.”
“Your hand will be drawn in and the Datascriber will begin its work.” Something about Lewis’s smile seemed threatening or maybe it was just that Lois could tell that he knew something that she did not.
“Will it hurt?”
“I sincerely doubt it.”
“I don’t really see why I have to do this,” Lois said, trying to keep the whine out of her voice.
“Somebody from management has to,” Marchant replied. “This technology is about tactile sensation. How can you justify the millions that you’ve put into my work if one of you doesn’t test it?”
Her hands clenched firmly together in her lap Lois Kim said, “That is precisely why I’m here, Dr. Lewis. Your method of farming out work to different unaffiliated labs makes it very difficult for us to judge your work—and its cost analysis.”
“You can’t judge without putting your hand on the template, Ms. Kim.”
There was nothing else for her to say. She’d put off this meeting for a month already and her boss was e-mailing her daily now wondering, forcefully, What is happening with the Lewis project? It was Labor Day Friday and she had plans with Grant, her boyfriend, to leave for Death Valley that afternoon.
Cautiously she laid her hand upon the template.
“Let the weight of your hand rest on it, dear,” the older man said.
The moment she let her forearm relax straps shot out from both sides of the plate looping and tightening over her hand, securing palm and fingers to the form made for them.
“What’s this?” Lois said, the hysteria fully formed in her words.
“Your hand has to be held completely motionless or the Datascriber won’t work. Relax, Ms. Kim. There’s absolutely nothing to worry about.”
While Marchant Lewis spoke Lois felt the insistent tug of the template pan as her hand was drawn into the silver box. She could feel her heart throbbing like that of a small, frightened animal. It was hard for her to catch her breath. A warm, viscous liquid oozed between her fingers.
Lois was ready to scream when she had the vision.
There was a long and very wide plain of green that spread out for what seemed to be many miles in front of her. This plain went on and on until it slammed into a slate-blue sky. A fluttering of red boomed above her head. She knew somewhere in a faraway place that this was just a redbird suddenly frightened and taken to wing. But in her heart this was an amazing event not unlike when the Lord spoke and life sprang from nothingness.
“Marky,” a woman’s voice called. “Marky.”
Lois cried for joy at the redbird and her mother’s call.
Mama never called me Marky, the distant thought chimed. But Lois didn’t care. She pressed her hands upon the green, green grass feeling every spiky blade against her tender palms. She heaved herself up making it to a wide-legged stance. A street appeared between the lawn and sky and a big maroon car zoomed past. Lois took in a deep breath hearing the growl of the car’s engine and her own breath simultaneously. She blew at the automobile’s red brake lights as it got smaller and quieter. She laughed—exultant at her own power.
Cars move due to the internal combustion engine, the faraway mind intoned.
“Marky,” Mother called from what seemed like very far away.
Lois spun around so quickly that she lost her balance and fell back onto the grass. The sudden motion of her body, the jumble of sky and green and street made for a joyous confusion that brought her to the edge of fear.
But then two huge black hands folded around her sides and Lois was suddenly like that redbird flapping her arms and legs in flight.
The broad brown-black face—Mama(?)—smiled, showing hungry teeth. Lois felt her bowels clench but she wasn’t embarrassed by the sensation.
“Marky,” the Woman said again.
“He’s a beautiful boy,” a deep voice boomed.
The Man standing next to the Woman scared and amazed Lois. This wasn’t Dada but still he kissed the Woman. He tried to do the same to Lois but she reared and slapped his big wet lips.
“Benny’s a friend, Marky,” the Woman said but Lois let fly a stream of curses that came out as one long unintelligible cry. Her bowels opened up and the redbird seemed to be flapping in her chest.
“Somebody needs changing,” Mama said and the world folded into flesh and the music of only the Woman’s voice and hands . . .
When Lois Kim opened her eyes she was still sitting across the table from Dr. Lewis. His smile was beatific and she realized, with some surprise, that he no longer frightened her. She had momentarily lost track of where she was and then, with a sudden fright, she remembered the lashes that had trapped her hand. She yanked her arm back only to see that she had already been released. She felt for the oil that had covered her fingers but her skin was completely dry.
As if in answer to her unasked question Marchant held up his hand showing that it was coated with thick, brightly glistening fluid.
“Did you feel the oil on my hand?” he asked in the tone of a much younger man.
“Y-y-y-yes,” she stammered. “How did you do that?”
Marchant’s smile turned quizzical.
“That’s hard to explain,” he said. “As you know when nerves are excited they send an electric pulse down a conductor. This pulse transmits data that becomes the semblance of information in the brain.”
“I do have a degree in bioneurology, Dr. Lewis,” Lois said. The anger she felt also elated her. She was glad to be irate. The emotion somehow anchored her inside her own feelings.
“Yes, of course. That’s why I wanted you to come and be the first to experience my little device. That . . . and other reasons too, I guess.”
“What other reasons?”
Marchant smiled. He paused for a moment before speaking again.
“My research has found that when any nerve fires a tiny fraction of energy comes free and travels out of the body. This pulse has a very specific, if weak, signature. What my Datascriber does is read this signature, magnify it tenthousand-fold, and transmit it to the waiting cells of another.”
Lois was astonished. She expected to be presented with a binary chart mapping certain human nerve pulses and associating those excitations with general realms of sensation. It was the overall opinion of the scientific community that actual sharing of sensate experience was at least thirty years away.
“That’s incredible, Doctor,” she said.
“Did you feel the warm oil on my hand?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, definitely.”
“Then it has gone from the incredible to the commonplace.”
For a time they sat there in silence. Lois was trying to absorb the ramifications for InterCyb. This was completely new technology like the steam engine or the lightbulb. The Datascriber would put them in the position to bring in billions of euros on the open market. Her employee stock in the company would double in value within hours of the public announcement. All she had to do was call her immediate superior, Orlando Mimer, and . . .
But if she did that Mimer would take all the credit. He’d go to Lippmann and together they would take the project from her. She’d be cut out of the loop after delivering the report. Lewis would be moved to the company’s labs in Mumbai and she would be transferred to some other project; a pat on the head and a ten-thousand-euro bonus would be the most that she could expect.
“Who else knows about the scope of your work, Doctor?” she asked.
“Only you, my dear Lois.”
She was taken slightly aback by his intimate tone but any eccentricities on Lewis’s part were negligible compared to the immensity of his discovery and her part in its development.
For a moment she was reminded of the vision she’d had, the child called Marky, but she dismissed this as an illusion brought on by unfounded fears.
“Maybe we should keep it to ourselves until . . . ,” she said, “until I’ve had a chance to work out a strategy to approach the board with.”
“And why is that, Lois?” Marchant asked, a knowing smile on his dark bulbous face.
“Well,” Lois said, “there’s the question of the allocation of funds. We’re in the middle of an acquisition—Neurotel Techtronix—and of course there’s your position on the project.”
“My position? Why I’d be the chief scientist in charge of everything, wouldn’t I?”
“Yes. But InterCyb always assigns a team manager when they move to an A-level project—”
“Yes. This is a giant breakthrough. It’s so big that there’s no telling who they might assign. And the team manager has more say over the project than even the chief scientist.”
“No,” Marchant Lewis said. “How can someone with lesser knowledge have more control than the inventor himself?”
Days later, thinking back on their discussion Lois realized that Marchant was having fun with her. But at the time she was so amazed by the magnitude of the invention that she missed the subtle change in his voice and the twinkle in his eye.
“It’s because their major concern is profit not the advancement of knowledge, per se. They’ll put somebody in to make sure that they have some toy on the market rather than a truly advanced system that will facilitate the shared human sensation that your project portends.” Lois stopped a moment, pretending to be overwhelmed by the possibilities when really she was just holding herself back so as not to overstate her position. “But if I work with you privately for the next few weeks we can . . . um, position the project so that you maintain control of its direction.”
While she spoke Dr. Lewis smiled down on Lois. His responses seemed to be more about what she was thinking than to her words. She felt like a child lying to her mother. The smiles seemed to say that the doctor knew what she was trying to get away with but also that it was okay—he still loved her.
Love? Why would she think about love talking to this hulking middle-aged man, this misanthrope?
“I’m sure you’ll do what’s best, Ms. Kim,” Marchant said in his slow ponderous voice. He folded his hands over his large stomach and smiled.
“So you’ll wait until I call before filing your monthly progress report?” she asked.
“If that is your advice.”
“It certainly is. There’s no reason to blunder ahead if you can get a better situation by taking the time to consider your position.”
Lois got to her feet and waited while Marchant shifted his bulk from between the arms of the chair. They stood there for an awkward moment, the black behemoth and the Korean doll.
“I should be going,” she said.
“I’ll be awaiting your call.”
Another moment of silence passed. Lois felt that the doctor’s intense gaze was burrowing into her soul.
“Good-bye,” she said, taking a step backward.
He nodded gracelessly and she turned away walking quickly through the door of his small rented lab. Just before she was off down the hall she heard him say, “You take care, Gooseberry.”
Stepping Stone/The Love Machine © Walter Mosley 2013