Science Fiction Speculative Fiction

I’ve never sat in a place so devoid of color. The waiting room walls are wax white, the linoleum floor unblemished. My tongue tingles with the lemon-scented cleaning product that lingers in the air. A semicircle of unoccupied leather back chairs face a reception desk fronting the room. The desk is an imposing block of gloss, the fluorescent lights from the ceiling reflecting in its sheen surface.

The space is mouse quiet, aside from the incessant patter of fingers on a keyboard. A deadpan receptionist sits behind the desk like a cold librarian, unmoving and silent. Her dark hair, tied back in a bun, stretches the sallow skin across her face. For an Arizona resident, she’s vampire pale, her skin tone matching the walls.

The only color in the room is a flickering television screen on the wall above the reception desk. A captivating bald man with striking cheekbones fills the screen. It’s a familiar face, Dr. Cornelius Kane. His expression is amiable but authoritarian as if a smiling Mr. Clean spent two decades commanding the Navy SEALS. Like a large predator cat, he moves with fluidness and poise. The TV is on mute, and as Dr. Kane speaks, subtitles appear at the bottom of the screen:

Trial participants demonstrated massive increases in creativity. Scores on the Creative Achievement Outcome Measure improved significantly after treatment. Self-reports include substantial improvements in clarity of mind, focus, divergent thinking, building associative mental networks, and time spent in solitary activity.

It’s information I already know; I’ve seen the video countless times. It’s pulled from the Kane Neurotechnology website. Links to the research articles that back up the claims are posted on the site. I’m not a scientist, but I do my homework. I’ve read the studies, and it’s convincing enough research to draw down my life savings for the procedure.

“It’s not too late to change your mind.” A voice that drips with honey breaks the silence.

I glance over at my wife, Heather, sitting beside me. A soft smile plays on her lips. Her brown eyes are as rich and warm as coffee. God, I love coffee.

“No refunds, and I’ve already signed the waiver,” I say with a smirk. I glance at the cold receptionist, but her eyes are locked forward, fingers tapping away.

Heather moves a strand of curled blonde hair from her face. “Well, let’s hope it’s as good as they say. It is all our money.”

I nod enthusiastically. It’s not the first time we’ve had this conversation. “The research is all there, and Dr. Kane’s a genius. I’m just glad I’m getting in before everyone else does. We need this; we can’t live in that hole forever.” An image of our ramshackle one bedroom apartment in Vancouver flashes in my mind.

“You know early adoption doesn’t always pay off, right? There’s a reason why people wait until they test more guinea pigs.”

“Well, I’ll be a guinea pig that can serenade with a violin, like Vivaldi.”

There were many success stories from Dr. Kane’s procedure — at least discussed online in the forums.

One of the trial participants was Jason Carling — a nobody from small-town Kentucky. He wrote newspaper articles for his local town. After the procedure, he wrote six best-selling books in a year, one of which currently holds a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. And then there was Amy Swinward — a pianist in Los Angeles — struggling to get her music career off the ground for a decade. She went from waiting tables in the dim recesses of a speakeasy to a thriving concert pianist, now slated to play at Boston Symphony Hall in a few months.

My eyes return to the subtitled television screen. Dr. Kane is standing in front of a machine, a giant silver donut, lying on its side like an upright hula hoop. It resembles an MRI machine, only it glistens and reflects light as if pulled from the space age. He places a hand on its gleaming surface, his mouth moving as the familiar words scroll onto the screen:

The synaptic pruner works like an MRI machine. It utilizes strong magnets to force protons out of equilibrium. Then, a specific radiofrequency is pulsed through the subject’s brain that permanently changes the biochemistry of their brain cells. We specifically target the brain cells and pathways involved in the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of sleep.

An image of a woman sleeping in a dark room flashes on the television.

Each stage of sleep has a different purpose. In slow-wave sleep, your brain forges memories of the current day. It remembers facts, dates, and details. In REM sleep, the brain forms new connections and associations. It’s our creative center. 

The image of Dr. Kane with the shiny donut returns.

The synaptic pruner amplifies the REM stage of sleep, drastically improving our tested subject’s creativity over time. We found creativity growth was exponential, with increased sleep periods leading to accelerated increases in creativity.

REM sleep; it's our brain's dreaming state. Dreams are a thing Heather says I have too much of. There's one that's always with me, twinkling like a light at the end of a dark tunnel:

I’m in the Sydney Opera House; a sold-out crowd watches in rapt attention. My fingers flutter down the neck of my violin, the bow gliding across the strings as golden notes flow in a melodic symphony. As the notes fade and the applause thunders, I see Heather. She's there in the front row, gazing up at me with those coffee eyes. I did it. I made it.

Synaptic pruning is my answer to a two-decade struggle to make it in music. I want to be a professional violinist, a legend, forever enshrined in history, like Antonio Vivaldi or Niccolo Paganini. As much as I enjoy my career as a music teacher, I'm playing second fiddle, settling for plan B.

At thirty-five, my time is running out. Why does genetics get to determine who succeeds and who doesn’t? Why can’t I be gifted?

As Dr. Kane moves on to describe the success stories, I nudge Heather with my elbow. “Come on; this is just incredible, even after how many times we’ve seen the video.”

“Yeah,” she says. “Except you need to take into account those comments on the forums. The ones from the family members?”

I shake my head. “There were maybe two or three. And even then, it’s not that big a deal.”

“Not that big a deal?”

“Mr. Grady?” a sharp voice cuts through the waiting room; the patter of fingers on keys has stopped. The receptionist squints at me behind horn-rimmed spectacles. “Dr. Kane will see you now.”

She glides like a pallid ghost from behind her desk to open a door in the wall. She gestures for me to follow.

I hesitate. “Can… can my wife come too?” I point a sideways thumb toward Heather.

The receptionist glares with eyes of ice. “Just to the pre-op room. Once you’re in pruning, it’s just you.”

I look at Heather, nod, and take her delicate hand. We walk to the door.

We enter a wide hallway as white as the waiting room. The squeak of our running shoes on the bleach clean floor mix with the clack of the receptionist’s heels. She opens one of the doors that line the hallway and ushers us into a small room with a cupboard unit, sink, two leather back chairs, and a rolling stool. 

Heather and I sit in the chairs; the receptionist sits opposite us on the stool.

“I’m Dr. Kane’s assistant,” she starts, not providing her name. She looks at the tablet on her lap, tapping through it with pale fingers. “I see you’ve completed all the preliminary questions on our online intake. You’ve paid the full amount. It looks like you’re ready for pruning.”

She opens a drawer and pulls out a white jumpsuit. 

“Please leave your clothes and shoes in this room and put this on. Remove any metal objects, earrings, necklaces, or piercings. I’ll be back in five minutes.” She gets up to leave.

As the assistant goes for the door handle, Heather grabs her arm.

“Please, I have a question,” Heather says.

The assistant meets her with a frozen stare.

“We were reading online,” Heather continues, “about the procedure. There were a few mentions about synaptic pruning and some of the experiences of family members after the—.”

“Fake accounts by the pharmaceutical companies,” the half-dead assistant cuts in. “We’re cutting into their market share in the creativity space. They’ll do anything they can to taint our company.” Her lower lip curls into something — I think it’s a scowl, but it could be a grin — before she walks out and closes the door behind her.

Heather raises her eyebrows. I shrug. “Seems reasonable,” I say, but it doesn’t change the look on Heather’s face.

Removing my clothes and shoes, I put on the white jumpsuit. Heather and I chat about what life will look like afterward. It’s a quick five minutes, and when I hear a knock on the door, I wish I had more time. I’ll be different after this. It’ll be the last time I’m with Heather as the old me.

I look into her eyes and put a hand through her curled hair hanging like a blonde curtain on her shoulders.

“I’ll see you after,” I say.

“I love you,” she says, a soft smile on her lips.

I smile back, lean toward her, and our lips meet in a brief symphony of warmth. For a moment, we’re back home in our tiny Vancouver apartment, Itzhak Perlman on the violin, our bodies cozied up on the couch, television campfire crackling on the screen.

“Love you too,” I say, meaning it. I pull myself from the embrace and look at her, taking in her delicate cheeks and coffee-brown eyes.

A part of me wants to stay, to turn around and go home. Maybe everything I want is right here.

But the dream beckons. I can hear the notes of gold pour onto the stage; the roar of the crowd when I take my bow.

I open the door, meet the assistant's face, and move to leave. Before the door closes, Heather sticks out an arm.

She looks at me through the crack. “Remember to ask Dr. Kane what we talked about,” she says.

“I will,” I say. I mean it.

“Follow me. Pruning room’s this way.” The assistant pushes the door closed.

After a few twists and turns down a series of hallways, we arrive at a large metal door with the word CAUTION across it.

Beside the door is a keypad. The assistant punches a code on the keypad and waits for a beep. She pulls open the door.

The pruning room is white and windowless, save for what looks like a two-way mirror extending the length of the right wall. Fluorescent lights shine down on the machine in the middle of the room, the sparkling silver donut from the video. I can feel the round hole in the synaptic pruner luring me toward it, boundless reaches of untapped creativity only steps away.

Beside the two-way mirror, a door opens and my eyes jolt open. From the screen to the flesh, Dr. Cornelius Kane bounds toward me.

“Mr. Grady,” Dr. Kane says, his voice booming like a smooth roll of thunder. His massive frame strides across the room in a lab coat; his tanned head gleams under the fluorescents. Raw power radiates from him as if he’s filled with a thousand light bulbs, wattage emitting with each step. I feel like I’m in the presence of Tony Robbins graduated from Harvard Medical School.

As he reaches me, he holds out a mammoth hand. “Dr. Kane,” he says.

I shake it, feeling myself shrink at the voltage exuding from his handshake. I want to say my name, but the words catch in my throat.

“So, the procedure is fairly simple,” he says; his words are presents wrapped up in a bow. “You lie on the table,” he gestures to a gurney table in front of the silver donut. “Your head goes into the synaptic pruner. It’s going to run for two hours. You’ll hear some noises, may have some head discomfort, and then you’re done. We pull you out. You go home a changed man.”

“I saw on your intake that you’re claustrophobic.” He pauses. “It shouldn’t be a problem. If you start to feel a panic attack, just relax.”

Great advice. Easier said than done.

“Don’t move. It’ll ruin the procedure, and you might end up with some… Problems.”

Dr. Kane stares into my eyes like he’s reading my thoughts. “Any questions?”

My brain is flash-frozen, electrified from meeting Dr. Kane in person. I shake my head.

He gives me an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “It’s easy. No anesthesia. No cutting you open. No scars. It’s hardly brain surgery.”

He turns to leave, and Heather’s request pops into my head.

“Dr. Kane?” I manage to squeak out. My voice is as frail as dry spaghetti; I’m surprised he hears me.

He turns on a dime, moving like James Bond in a spy thriller. “Yes?”

“I…” I struggle to find my words. “I wanted to… I wanted to ask about some of the side effects. Some people were mentioning online about —.”

He cuts in, words as suave as a politician. “The pharmaceutical companies are getting smarter. Their employees are creating shadow accounts and posting negative publicity about our therapy. Sales of creativity-enhancing drugs are dropping. They want to keep you hooked for life; I guess they’re not fond of the one treatment fix.” He flashes a charismatic grin. “You picked the good guys. One shot and you’re done. There were no documented side effects in the clinical trials. It’s safe.” He doesn’t skip a beat, words flowing effortlessly off his tongue. He could have told me he had seven toes on his right foot, and I would have believed him.

“He’s ready,” he says, nodding to his assistant. As he heads to the door beside the two-way mirror, I feel like a secret agent that just debriefed for a mission.

“This way Mr. Grady,” his assistant says, gesturing to the table by the synaptic pruner. I gulp as I look at the hole in the donut. It’s taken on a different vibe. Two hours is a long time with my head in there.

As we near the machine, I catch my reflection in the donut. My image is upside down, my white jumpsuit hanging loosely on my thin frame. 

For a moment, there's another person in the reflection, a third person in the room. It's another woman. I think it's Heather, but the image fades as quickly as it appears.

The assistant positions me on the table, her hands as pale and cold as her demeanor. I squint in the fluorescent lights above. She pulls straps attached to the table and tightens them around my chest, arms, and legs. Immediately, my pulse quickens.

“Please don’t move,” she says, eyes boring into me, “You don’t want to ruin the procedure.”

The room closes around me, the white walls condensing, squeezing me like a python strangling its prey.

She walks to the door by the two-way mirror. I can’t see it, but I can hear it close with a thud.

Dr. Kane’s voice booms in from a speaker. “Mr. Grady, the procedure is going to begin.”

The table starts to move, my head sliding toward the hole in the donut. My chest heaves as my breathing increases. My heart rate gallops like a racehorse. 

“You are going to hear a noise when the machine turns on,” says Dr. Kane. “Please remember not to move.”

The table stops moving. I’m inside the pruner; a reflective casing completely envelops my head. All I can see is my reflection in the casing, eyes wide like a frightened rabbit, beads of sweat glistening on my forehead.

 “OK. Here we go. In 3…2…1.”

The noise is deafening, like switching on a thousand industrial drying machines. An array of lights flash around my face in rapid fire, as if I’ve ingested handfuls of LSD and am raging in the guts of an EDM concert.

My heart is a bass drum inside my chest. I struggle against the straps, but they pin me to the table. A muffle of words emanates from the speaker, but I can’t make them out.

I close my eyes and Heather’s there. I can see her clearly, shining like an angel at the end of a dark tunnel.

 A sensation appears on my forehead, subtle at first, like an insect crawling in a circle. And then the insect grows serrated pincers; it’s digging into my scalp, clawing at the flesh on the path to my brain. I scream, but I know no one can hear.

There are no sweet sounds of a violin, just the savage roar of the synaptic pruner pummeling my ears, the angel in the tunnel fracturing into a thousand pieces.


My fingers dance down the neck of my violin in a flurry of grace as ethereal notes pour into the heart of the Sydney Opera House. The symphonic swirl captures the dark faces peppering the sold-out auditorium. An otherworldly stream of sound flows from my instrument as if a divine presence has occupied my soul. 

As I near the climax of my masterpiece, the notes rising in a melodic crescendo, my eyes meet the familiar face in the front row: a woman. Curled blonde hair hangs on her shoulders, and coffee-brown eyes gaze into mine.

I know her, yet she is becoming more of a stranger. She’s been to all the shows, every single one. After the last, she claimed I was her husband. She said I loved her.

Maybe it’s true. Maybe I’m not remembering. 

But I need to be careful. Super fans will say anything.

April 22, 2023 02:19

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Emma Winnicutt
16:36 Sep 17, 2023

Wonderful imagery! A great story to illuminate the lengths people will go to in order to realize a dream or perception of themselves.


V. S. Rose
22:11 Sep 22, 2023

Thank you Emma! :)


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Levi Michael
20:54 Apr 28, 2023

Hey, V.S., Great story. Your prose and structure are as clean and stark as the waiting room setting we begin in. Beautifully constructed. The ending could have been considered cliche, or obvious, but it still managed to pleasantly surprise. You showed us the “bomb under the table” about a quarter way through, “Yeah,” she says. “Except… the comments… …from the family members.” and we are left guessing until the end. Wonderfully executed. My only critique would really be more of a question. The introduction of the wife comes from our bli...


V. S. Rose
00:13 May 02, 2023

Thanks for the detailed analysis Levi! Your comment was as helpful as Ygor providing his brain to the monster. I agree with you on that one. I think it is a rather blunt way to introduce the wife, somewhat jarring, and might be smoother to have her introduced perhaps earlier during the description of the waiting room in the first couple of paragraphs. I do enjoy when you point out things that stick out as a reader as it helps me develop as a writer so it's appreciated!


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Alexander Corby
16:53 Apr 26, 2023

Excellent build-up and fantastic imagery in your writing! Thank you so much!


V. S. Rose
01:37 Apr 28, 2023

Thanks Alexander! Appreciate you taking the time :)


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Laurel Hanson
15:51 Apr 26, 2023

THis is great. The premise is stellar (and so, so likely to be a feature of our future) but I love the ending. Really well done.


V. S. Rose
01:35 Apr 28, 2023

Thanks Laurel! Super appreciated.


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Lily Finch
00:29 Apr 26, 2023

V.S. The price of wanting more and the consequence of getting what you asked for in the end. I had an inkling of something like this happening when you wrote "A part of me wants to stay, to turn around and go home. Maybe everything I want is right here. But the dream beckons. I can hear the notes of gold pour onto the stage; the roar of the crowd when I take my bow. I open the door, meet the assistant's face, and move to leave. Before the door closes, Heather sticks out an arm. She looks at me through the crack. “Remember to ask Dr. Kan...


V. S. Rose
09:28 Apr 28, 2023

Thanks Lily for your sharp reading. Appreciate your great analysis as always. You've got a knack for picking apart stories and providing thoughtful insights.


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03:28 Apr 25, 2023

This reminded me of a story I think is called the genetic lottery, but I can’t find it online—really haunting tale about what we give up when we gamble on improving on nature. I loved the richness of detail here.


V. S. Rose
00:53 Apr 28, 2023

Thanks Anne. There's a book called The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality. (I haven't read it) But maybe what you're referring to is a short story. I feel like there's always that trade-off, we improve technologically but lose something in the process, always pros and cons. I guess the real question is when will what we improve no longer be human. Thanks for reading and the feedback :)


01:15 Apr 28, 2023

Yeah— I found that book too, but it’s not that. It’s about an activist couple in love: they protest all kinds of appearance-based discrimination including by the woman going into a machine that rewrites the dna of her physical appearance and then once she isn’t beautiful she believes her lover will reject her and never gives him a chance to know her in her new skin. Really interesting and deeply moving. Yours is reminiscent of that. Great story.


20:00 May 02, 2023

I think it’s a story by Raymond Carver, but I still can’t find the title. Alas I don’t have my copy of the book.


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Michelle Oliver
12:32 Apr 24, 2023

Well that was such an interesting premise. Neural pruning, and what needs to be cut in order to become great. Fame and fortune, but at what price? Nothing is free, and everything requires some kind of sacrifice. The question here is how much was willingly sacrificed? It seems as if the greatness could only be achieved at the cost of those who loved them.


V. S. Rose
00:41 Apr 26, 2023

Thanks Michelle! Yeah I guess this was the typical striving for success but forgetting what's actually important to you in the process, and then losing that thing that is important. You always get down to the bone with your feedback.


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Crissie Dittrich
12:14 Apr 23, 2023

I loved this story! Thank you for writing it!


V. S. Rose
00:06 Apr 26, 2023

Thanks Crissie!


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Kevin V
16:35 Apr 22, 2023

Hi V.S.! So, a Synaptic Pruner! That's really creative and I much enjoyed how the story flowed. I did have some inkling it would mess with his memories. I just didn't know how far it would go. Amazing what some of us will go through to achieve our dreams. Ray Bradbury wrote in 'Something Wicked This Way Comes,' that "Most men jump to give up everything for nothing." Mr. Grady already had everything. A loving wife, a career, but wanted fame enough to jeopardize it all. And, really, he did. Nicely done, V.S.! Thanks for sharing.


V. S. Rose
23:59 Apr 25, 2023

Thanks Kevin. That's a great quote! I love it. Often so true though. Even when people are aware that it's the wrong thing to do, it still happens anyway. I guess that's why we have quotes to remind us!


Kevin V
00:12 Apr 26, 2023

Yes, but sadly the quotes tend to become meaningful AFTER the fall.


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Mary Bendickson
04:49 Apr 22, 2023

Oh! No! Say it ain't so! Side effects are real! Had me pulled in. Maybe he needs something like a video that reminds him daily of who she is. Like that movie with Drew Barrymore 'Fifty First Dates', I think?


V. S. Rose
23:34 Apr 25, 2023

Haha I was thinking of fifty first dates after I wrote this. I think anything that involves memory loss triggers the thought of that movie. Love Adam Sandler movies!


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09:00 Sep 05, 2023



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Amanda Lieser
02:47 May 09, 2023

Hi VS! Holy cow the language in this piece was incredibly enchanting. I love the way that you managed to explain some of the science in such a beautiful way. I thought that you did a great job of providing plenty of background for the reader, while also allowing us to go along on this journey, that ending was absolutely heartbreaking and totally worth it.


V. S. Rose
12:05 May 11, 2023

Thank you Amanda! :)


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