Jerry took a sip of his Mai Tai and gazed out over the beach. This was nice. A wonderful breeze came in off the ocean, and while the tropical sun was out in full force, here in the shade of the bar patio it was more than comfortable -- it was pleasant. For the moment, life was good, damn good. The waiter came over carrying two plates and glanced at him. "Cobb salad?"

"That would be me. The young lady gets the chicken Caesar." Jerry pointed to the empty chair and added, "She'll be back in a moment. Freshening up."

The waiter smiled as he put down the two plates. "No problem." He straightened up and turned to him. "Anything else?"

"I think that will do fine, Miguel. Thanks for all your help."

"Any time, Senor." Miguel walked away as Barb came out onto the terrace. Jerry smiled as he watched the woman wind her way in between the other tables back to where he sat.

"Ooo, that looks good," she said, spying her salad. She sat down and pulled herself closer to the table. "I'm famished."

"Well, let's dig in. A beautiful day, a great meal, charming company' . . . " He let his voice trail off as he gestured toward her. "It doesn't get any better than this."

The woman smiled. "Well, aren't you the flatterer."

Jerry placed his napkin on his lap and picked up his fork. He stabbed at his salad. "You were going to tell me how you ended up in this out-of-the-way place."

"An odd set of coincidences. Some neighbours had been here and talked about their trips to visit the island. They always spoke favourably of the place, saying it had yet to be discovered, meaning that the regular hordes of tourists hadn't yet found it."

"Unfortunately, all those undiscovered nooks and crannies are eventually found by tourists, and what was out of the way, quiet, and charming becomes commercialized." He took another sip of his drink. "I think it's inevitable."

He stuck a piece of hard-boiled egg and placed it in his mouth. Something caught his attention out of the corner of his eye. He glanced off to that side, out over the white sand of the beach, following his line of sight down to the ocean and over the water. A strange distortion rippled in the distance. It reminded him of how an asphalt road in the hot sun can heat up the air, distorting the light. He stared off into the distance as he chewed. "You never told me how you found this place," Barb said. She followed his gaze into the distance. "What?"

"Nothing." Jerry looked for another second before turning back to his companion. "I thought I saw something out over the water, but I must have been mistaken." He speared another bit of salad and went back to eating. He smiled at her. "So, I'm thinking our stories are somewhat similar. For you it was the neighbours. For me it was a colleague at the office. He had been coming here for years and always spoke highly of the place. As he put it, he wanted to escape from the rat race, and this corner of the world seemed pretty much away from everything." He picked up his drink and held it up to the woman as a mock toast. "But of course he said you didn't have to give up all the pleasures of civilization."

Barb chuckled and raised her drink, following his lead and clinking glasses with him. "Amen to that." She took a sip. "Yes, I enjoy the peace and tranquility, but I also enjoy a drink as well."

Jerry concentrated on cutting some ham into smaller bites. He brought a piece to his mouth and glanced up to see a black square about two feet by two feet sat in mid-air about five feet behind Barb. He looked twice and shook his head. Was he seeing things?

He put down his fork, rubbed his eyes, and looked again. Yes, there was a black square there. Pitch black. It didn't appear as though anything was inside the square; it was just black. He watched as a man walked up the steps of the terrace from the beach and headed to the bar. His torso disappeared when he walked behind the black square, as though he walked behind a solid object. What was it?

Barb glanced up and noticed Jerry staring over her shoulder, once again transfixed. She turned around but didn't see anything.

Turning back, she said, "What?"

"I' . . . " Jerry hesitated. This was too bizarre. Was he seeing things? Was he overtired? Was he really hallucinating? Maybe somebody had put something in his drink. "Nothing," he said. "Maybe I'm losing my mind."

"Oh? Did you have one to lose?" Barb laughed.

He smiled. "Okay, point taken." He returned to his salad. "Don't pay any attention to me. I'm tired, drugged, or plain delusional."

She grinned. "Okay now, what the heck are you seeing? Little green men? Flying saucers?" She glanced around. "No, wait. Don't those guys show up at night? And usually in an urban setting? I don't remember many B movies taking place on a sunny beach." She turned back to him, still smiling.

Jerry stopped eating. He stared at the face of the woman. It was pixilated. Instead of seeing a sharp image, he saw something indistinguishable. All he could discern were the individual points of colour making up the woman's face. What the hell was going on?

He peered over her shoulder again. The black square was gone. He glanced across the beach into the distance over the water. The waviness of the light he had seen earlier was also gone. He looked back at his lunch partner. Her face was now sharply in focus. Were Jerry's eyes going crazy on him? Though she continued to talk, Jerry remained caught up in his thoughts, then realized she sounded as if somebody had turned the sound down, making what she said incomprehensible.

He looked toward the bar, at the individual stools neatly placed in a row in front of it, at the bartender busy wiping the bar's surface. Then he noticed the bartender had no head. In fact, everything at the bar from a height of about five feet up seemed to be missing: the head of the bartender, the bottles on the shelves behind the bar, the large mirror on the wall. There was a grey space, but not a static grey. There was movement, as if dots of various shades of grey were blinking on and off or moving around.

"Jerry?"

He jerked back to reality, startled by the sound of his name. He turned to face the woman.

"Are you all right? You seemed to have disappeared on me there. Were you off to la-la land?" Barb had a quizzical look on her face. She acted as though she knew something was wrong, didn't know what exactly, and had decided it best to proceed in a cautious manner. "Is there something on your mind? Is there anything I can do?"

As she stared at him with an expectant look, he wondered what to say to her. Should he explain what he saw? Should he explain that he wondered if his eyesight was going? He put down his fork again and rubbed his eyes. "I don't know if my eyes are going weird on me."

"What do you mean?"

Jerry chuckled, not necessarily because anything was funny, but more in a reassuring fashion to try to impart to the woman that the situation was not grave or anything. "I've seen strange distortions. I'm wondering if my eyesight is going on me." He stopped rubbing his eyes and dipped two fingers in the glass of ice water sitting beside his plate. He dabbed both his eyes with the water and wiped them with his napkin.

"Ever had this happen to you before?" She looked at him concerned.

"I don't think so. Well, not that I remember." He blinked a few times in a pronounced fashion and glanced around. In each of the places he had previously seen something odd, everything now appeared to be in order. This was crazy. Maybe he did need to get his eyes checked.

Jerry turned back to Barb, whose mouth was open as if she was about to speak. He wondered if she was hesitating for some reason. Sparing his feelings? Being diplomatic? Then he realized she moved slowly. She spoke, but the sound was deep, like a recording slowed down. He tried to understand what she was saying, but the sound was so deep and the speed so slow, her voice had become indecipherable.

He noticed a waiter coming out of the bar, walking slowly. Barb's now-deep voice emitted a guttural groan. He turned and saw a couple walking on the beach, and they, too, were moving sluggishly. Even the long hair of the woman, displaced by the wind, swirled slowly around her head. Little by little, she brought one hand up to grab hold of her hair and sweep it away from her face.

There was a crackle of static. He looked around but saw nothing that could have made such a noise. It was if he'd heard the static of a radio not receiving a proper signal.

Dead silence. He heard nothing at all and Barb was frozen in place. He glanced toward the couple on the beach. They were stopped in mid-stride. There was no longer any sound at all. No wind, no surf washing in on the beach, no birds, no conversation coming from the bar. Silence.

Jerry became alarmed. Was he having some sort of psychotic episode? Had somebody drugged his Mai Tai, and was he now hallucinating his ass off? Talk about a royal freak-out. Stay calm, Jerry, he counselled himself. Stay calm.

Pushing back his chair, he stood. After glancing at Barb, he walked toward the centre of the terrace, then stopped and slowly turned around, carefully taking in the whole scene. Everything was silent and still. But not still in the sense of the quiet of the early morning, when everybody is asleep, or the quiet of mid-afternoon, when everybody is sunning themselves on the beach and the bars are generally deserted. No, this was still as in frozen. Somebody had hit the pause button, and the movie was now stopped, motionless in this single point of time.

There was another crackle of static, a little louder, and this time the entire scene jerked. Everything before his eyes was briefly distorted, twisted like the image of a television that has its signal interrupted. He turned around. What the hell?

He rubbed his eyes. Grey dots were appearing everywhere. The entire scene before his eyes was dissolving. No, not dissolving so much as transforming into something else, seemingly pixel by pixel. The terrace, the bar, the beach' -- it was all disappearing, turning into grey. He glanced back one last time at his lunch partner, Barb. She still sat at the table, but she was now more of an outline than a distinct figure.

Turning around, he saw that what he was looking at wasn't just grey; another scene was forming. It was like the beach terrace was turning into something else. But what? The grey didn't seem to be only grey; it appeared to be a wall. A concrete wall? On one side, the grey was interrupted by something that looked like a bed. And there beside it ' -- what was that silver thing? And that other silver thing?

He stared as point after point, pixel after pixel changed into something new, until he made sense of the place. It resembled a jail cell. He turned around, watching the remaining points of light from the beach terrace disappear to leave the grey concrete walls of this small room. There was a bed and a stainless-steel sink and toilet at one end of the room, and at the other end was a door in the middle of the wall. There was no window. He walked up to the door. There was no handle. He pounded on the door with his fist, striking the flat surface with the fleshy side of his hand. The thump was dull. There seemed to be no echo, so he had no idea what was on the other side. A corridor? A line of more cells? Was he in jail?

He looked up. The ceiling appeared to be eight feet high. Above the door was a grill. He guessed this had something to do with air circulation. Turning, he noticed in the centre of the ceiling a light fixture embedded in the concrete so its surface was flush with the rest of the ceiling.

Nevertheless, the light brightened the entire room. He squinted toward it. It appeared to be halogen or something similar. He wasn't sure, but a reflective cone surrounding the light seemed to cast its illumination into every corner of the small room.

He stepped to one side and put his hand on the wall. It was neither hot nor cold. He moved his hand, feeling the surface. Was it concrete or another material? He moved up close and peered at the wall. He couldn't tell. Whatever the case, it was hard like concrete, although the surface didn't seem to be as rough. This was smoother, but didn't feel like metal. He turned back and looked at the room. What to make of it? He examined every wall and every corner of what he concluded was a jail cell. How did he get here? Had he imagined the bizarre pixilated transition from the beach terrace? Maybe he had gotten really drunk and blacked out or something, then done something foolish and gotten himself arrested. He thought hard, but couldn't remember anything other than what he'd seen. He sighed, sat on the bed, and realized he felt spent. This whole incident had stressed him out, and now that he was in the quiet of this cell, he felt exhausted.

He clasped his hands on the edge of the bed. He leaned forward and peered between his legs underneath the bed. It was a metal slab fastened to two walls, at the side and at the head, with one leg supporting the corner away from the walls. He sat back up and examined the bed. There was a pillow, two sheets, and a wool blanket; just an ordinary bed. He slumped forward, his chin buried in his hands, and tried to imagine what he could do next.

He considered the stainless-steel sink nearby. It seemed nondescript, a sink with two faucets. Next to it was a toilet, also utilitarian. On a wall behind the toilet, a roll of toilet paper was gripped by a metal holder shaped in a U. He wondered how one would take off a used roll and replace it with a new one. If he were indeed in a jail cell, the authorities worried about prisoners being able to fashion weapons out of whatever was on hand, so they would do their utmost to ensure a prisoner couldn't get a hold of anything like a piece of metal. That would explain the "why" of the fixture, but not the "how."

Jerry sighed again, more than a little worn out, and lay back on the bed. He stared at the ceiling and blinked at the light shining directly into his eyes. Finally, he shut his eyes and put his left arm across his face to shield him from the brightness. He thought about what had happened and tried to imagine where he was. He racked his brain, wondering what explanation would make sense of it all. At some point, without realizing it, he drifted off.


"Oh Bob, Bob, Bob. What have you done now?" Carl's tone was that of an exasperated parent dealing with an irresponsible child as he stood behind Bob, watching him madly play with a console interface.

"Damn," Bob said. "Everything was working quite nicely when suddenly, there was a glitch in the environment control. It started cascading throughout the entire grid, and even though I rerouted processing to other servers, I couldn't get it to stop. I had to transfer the subject back to the holding environment to avoid possible contamination from whatever was propagating throughout the system."

"The holding environment?"

Bob frowned. He knew what was coming.

"You're not telling me you put the subject in that dumb jail cell, are you?" Carl said. "Couldn't you come up with something a tad more pleasant than that?"

Bob kept fiddling with the console. "Carl, it's stable. I haven't had the time to work on something 'more pleasant,' as you put it. If I had left the subject in the middle of that systemic meltdown, there was an almost one hundred percent probability he would have wound up fried, too."

The two men remained silent. Carl watched Bob play with the interface doing God only knew what. Bob was a brilliant man, but was any of this worth anything? This wasn't cutting-edge technology; it wasn't even bleeding edge. This had moved well past what was real to science fiction. Carl turned toward the Box, a clear polymer cube with dozens of attachment points providing both organic and synthetic feeds. If Bob could make this work, it could revolutionize the technology that bridged the gap between man and machine.

Carl left Bob to sort out his problems. He turned to gaze across the room at the operating table, where a white sheet still covered the body. The family had agreed to the deceased's wishes, but he wondered what the deceased now thought of his situation. Carl leaned over and peered inside the Box. The brain was suspended in a type of amniotic fluid, its stem connected to the prototype of a new-fangled neural coupling developed by a robotics company in Europe. While the technology now existed to replace various parts of the body, nobody had yet succeeded in tapping into the brain. It was too complicated.

Bob continued to program the console, determined to save Jerry, convinced his work in artificial environments and this brand new neural coupling might be the trick to getting a human brain linked directly to a computerized system, a simulated world. But they were treading on tricky ground here. Other attempts to directly link brains to artificial environments had not been successful. In fact, there were reports of subjects suffering problems from the links. In one case, a man in the States had his mind scrambled and was now in his third year of therapy, trying to sort out the resulting schizophrenia.

Here they had a test subject nobody had to worry about when it came to scrambled brains. Jerry was dead, clinically and legally. Bob and Jerry went back a long time, and as friends had discussed over many a beer the ins and outs of robotics and the linking of man and machine. When Jerry found out about Bob's initiative to put the human brain directly into a simulated environment, he immediately signed all the necessary paperwork to hand his brain over to Bob in the event of his death. Neither Jerry nor Bob had imagined that anything would come of this contract, but six months later Jerry was involved in a fatal car crash. The ambulance rushed Jerry to the hospital and, following the procedures laid out in the power of attorney, the hospital had immediately contacted Medulla Research Labs. Bob had arrived at the same time Jerry was pronounced dead and had rushed the body off to the labs to harvest the brain. While the Box supplied the brain with oxygen and nutrients, it had no built-in interface to connect to the brain and its consciousness. Previous work in this area had led to the conclusion that a brain without a body' -- that is, a brain with no connection to the world and hence no stimuli' -- would implode. The subject attached to the brain would quickly develop psychosis and go insane. Therefore, the computerized environment, the simulated world, was necessary for the mental health of the brain. This artificial world supplied the stimuli the brain needed to function. Even though Bob had made sure the brain was sedated during the set-up of the procedure, he knew he had only a certain window of opportunity to make this work. While a normal brain when sedated might appear non-functioning, all sorts of activities continued via connections to a body and to the senses of that body. Without those connections, without the stimuli, the brain would malfunction. Even a sedated one.

Carl stooped to look inside the Box again. "Any idea what's wrong?" He could hear Bob's breathing becoming more rapid. It was the sound of frustration.

"I don't understand it. This was working. I don't understand why it stopped working. I have no idea where that cascading glitch came from." Bob stood and kicked back his chair in anger. The chair flew backwards and hit a table. "Damn. I'm that close!" he muttered, gesturing with his thumb and index finger nearly pinched.

Carl waited a moment. No point in upsetting the apple cart. "How long has it been?"

"I know! I know!" Bob said, on the verge of panicking. "It's been ninety minutes and yes, I know the recommendation, the theoretical recommendation of one hundred minutes."

Carl knew Bob was backed into a corner and could make a mistake. While little was known about how the brain worked when taken out of its natural environment, the human body, a paper presented by two European scientists about five years earlier had postulated that under sedation, a brain could last about one hundred minutes before permanent damage occurred. Permanent meant that the brain would suffer irreversible schizophrenia and never function again in a normal manner. While the paper could not conclusively prove this to be the case, its findings had caught on in the world of neural sciences and become the standard by which research was conducted.

It was this paper to which Carl was referring. If it had already been ninety minutes since Bob had sedated the brain when the glitch occurred, Bob had pretty much exhausted the time available to him to effect a repair. If he couldn't do so, if he couldn't give the brain a simulated world to live in, Bob would have to terminate the brain rather than let it become damaged in its void of stimuli.

Bob paced up and down, both hands on top of his head. "Oh, Jerry! Jerry! What have I done to you?"

Carl considered Bob with a raised eyebrow. "Bob, Jerry was dead. Jerry is dead. There is nothing else you can do." He tried to sound reassuring. "You did the best you could. Let's not forget you're working in a speculative area of research. You can't expect miracles. You yourself have said we're ten, maybe twenty years from getting something that proves to be in any way stable."

"I guess," Bob sighed, sounding crestfallen. "Jerry was a good friend. I . . . I was hopeful. Maybe a little too hopeful." He stopped pacing and bowed his head, staring at the floor.

Carl glanced at his watch. "It's time."

Bob didn't move. He continued staring, then after a few seconds let out a big sigh. "Okay." He studied the floor for another few seconds before walking over to the Box. Then he leaned down and looked inside. "Sorry, Jerry. I tried," Bob said, addressing the brain suspended in amniotic fluid.

"Do you want me to do it?" said Carl.

Bob shook his head. "No, I'll do it." He stood up, reached toward the console beside the Box, and put his index finger to the touch screen. He navigated through several menus, then paused. His eyes glanced at the Box. "Bye, Jerry." Bob touched the screen. There was an odd noise and a slight flash in the Box. The system had sent an electrical discharge into the brain, immediately short-circuiting it and abruptly halting all neural activity. A graphic display on the touch screen showing the real-time activity of the brain moved from right to left, gradually replacing its varying measurements with flat lines.

Carl looked at his watch again. "Alan's coming on now. I'm going to ask him to clean things up. How about you and I go get ourselves a cold one?"

Bob stared inside the Box. "Okay." He sighed again. "I know so little."

Carl put a hand on his colleague's shoulder as the two of them walked out of the lab together. "God left us the clues. We just have to figure out what He meant."

END

CONTENTS


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William Quincy Belle is just a guy. Nobody famous; nobody rich; just some guy who likes to periodically add his two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating his contribution. He claims that at the heart of the writing process is some sort of (psychotic) urge to put it down on paper and likes to recite the following which so far he hasn't been able to attribute to anyone: "A writer is an egomaniac with low self-esteem." You will find Mr. Belle's unbridled stream of consciousness here (http://wqebelle.blogspot.ca) or @here (https://twitter.com/wqbelle).