Hors d’oeuvres on silver platters were carried around the room by white gloved hands. Dr Tina Merriman, dressed in a glittering emerald gown and holding a flute of champagne, looked down at the crowd below. Perhaps two hundred people were assembled on the street, punching fists into the air or holding signs with misspelt phrases. Dr Mark Abbot joined her side and glanced at the crowd before tipping his wine glass in her direction.
“This is the thanks we get for the gift we gave to the world.”
“They’re angry because they’re frightened.”
“And they’re frightened because they’re ignorant,” Mark finished, his scorn apparent. Tina pulled her gaze from the window to look at him. A brilliant surgeon but like so many of his kind; arrogant. She believed the public’s fears were founded. A corrupt medical system would never allow all those who needed a brain transplant to have it; for now, her success would be reserved only for the rich. Maybe one day the cost would lower enough for everybody to have access to a life-saving procedure.
“Come, we’re supposed to give speeches and have photos taken,” Mark encouraged, offering his arm. “It’s good to be young, smart and beautiful.”
Tina puffed laughter as Mark leant into his conceit. The waggling of his eyebrows had her giggling before she took his arm. They joined the group of four other doctors who were part of her team, each holding an etched rectangular trophy that was the Edison award. Flashbulbs blinded her and she smiled through it until it got too much. The white light was persistent, and she closed her eyes with a soft click.
“Do you know where you are?” an unfamiliar voice asked.
The strange question had Tina opening her eyes. Yet another soft click sounded. Instead of a room full of elegantly dressed innovators at the top of their fields, she saw two women in lab coats peering at her. The blonde one held a small torch for testing eye reflexes.
“What’s going on? How did I get here?” Tina tried to shield her face, but her arm was too heavy. Had there been something in her alcohol? Had she been doped and kidnapped? Why had she been squirrelled away into a room full of computer equipment?
“It’s okay, you’re safe,” the blonde said gently. She clicked the torch off and pocketed it. “Can you tell me who you are?”
“Dr Tina Merriman.”
“Very good,” the woman smiled, her tone reminding Tina of carers who work with the very young or the very old. “Do you know what year it is?”
“It’s 2025. What happened? Did the protest get violent?” She imagined an attack where she might’ve been concussed. It wasn’t unusual to get partial amnesia and feel confused. Seeing the way the two women looked at one another made her anxious. She didn’t feel confusion so much as a lack of clarity. One of the women stepped away, closer to the computers. Tina took a breath to calm herself and heard a strange whirring. She needed answers and panicking wasn’t the way to get them. “I would like to know what happened.”
The blonde nodded.
“There was a bombing and you were on the cusp of the affected area.”
A bombing! Tina gasped and heard the whirring sound again. Where was that coming from?
“You’re suffering from some memory loss—not uncommon in these circumstances. Your memories should return soon. You might get them back scattered or all in one go. If you need help we’re only a phone call away. I must say you’ve inspired me my whole life.”
Her whole life? Tina stared at the woman who looked to be somewhere in her late twenties. Tina hadn’t been recognised for her achievements until tonight. She recalled the way the two of them had looked at each other when she’d answered the question about the year.
“What year is it?”
The answer was so ridiculous that Tina burst into laughter. “In 2081 I’d be ninety years old!” she exclaimed through her mirth. She didn’t feel like a ninety-year-old woman.
“Her math is on point,” the other woman said. Tina’s gaze flicked to watch her making peculiar gestures in the air. There was nothing she was manipulating as far as Tina could see.
“Yes, Dr Merriman. That’s right.” The blonde woman patted Tina’s hand, but she couldn’t feel it. She recognised the movement from the way the blonde’s arm shifted forward but the lack of sensation was worrying. Tina looked downward and all coherent thought left her.
There was a mechanical body—a robot body—where her human one should have been. No clothes were necessary to cover up the white glossy shell that she inhabited. Was that why she couldn’t lift her hand earlier? It was heavier than usual? She splayed her fingers and watched as the fingers on the robot hand spread out.
“What? Get me… this is ludicrous, how did?” And then it clicked. Tension left her body. “This is a dream. Of course.” Tina laughed again, feeling hysteria bubbling within.
“The trauma could have caused a dissociative disorder,” the gesturing woman said. The blonde frowned and shook her head, holding Tina’s robot hand.
“Tina, please. You are not dreaming. I understand this is a shock, but you’ll remember soon.” The blonde leant forward, peering into Tina’s eyes like she might be able to see something human in them. “Do you remember discovering how to transplant a human brain?”
“Of course, I do. I was just at the awards dinner, celebrating.” Tina looked around the room. Every wall was covered in computer equipment. Machines she didn’t recognise with readouts she didn’t understand. They did look kind of… futuristic. “But that was about saving lives, not making robot abominations!”
“Tina, look at me. Tina, please look at me.” The blonde gave a worried smile when Tina stared at her once more. “You are not an abomination. You have saved many, many lives. There were problems at the start, do you remember? The first ten years were riddled with rejections and suicides. A law passed in 2038 that no living creature should receive a brain transplant. Your husband saved your work when he invented a biochemical fluid that the brain could survive in, so transplants are now placed into artificial containers.”
There was so much to unpack in that explanation that Tina could only stare at the woman for a long moment.
“My husband?” she asked finally.
“Yes, we’ve called him to let him know you’re alright. He’s sent a car to pick you up.”
“Who am I married to?” Tina asked, wondering if she would recognise the name.
“To Dr Mark Abbott.”
“Mark? I married Mark?” Tina laughed. “This must be a dream. I’d never marry him!”
The blonde, still holding onto Tina’s robot hand, spoke over her shoulder at the other woman. “What are her nominals?”
Her nominals? That didn’t even make sense. Had language changed in fifty-six years? She supposed certain words did morph. Why was she even entertaining this? It was a dream. Dreams didn’t follow logic. There was relief in that thought.
“Steady. Almost perfect, actually.” The other woman stopped gesturing to shrug at the blonde. “The EMP didn’t do any damage to her. Apart from the memory loss, she’s fine.”
“Can I go now?” Tina prompted, wanting to progress the dream to a different stage. She’d never had the opportunity to control a dream before and it was surprisingly difficult. She was wary of getting up and walking out in case the robot body didn’t comply with her wishes.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of you wandering around the city with such a huge gap in your memory,” the blonde said, standing straight. “Please wait here until your car arrives.”
Tina, who’d worked with patients herself many times, knew that protesting would get her nowhere. Besides, she’d wake up and the dream would be over.
While waiting she discovered that taking a breath made something whirr inside of her. Robots didn’t need to breathe so something else must’ve been happening. Maybe she was oiling herself. She laughed softly and caught the attention of the two women.
“Just had a funny thought.”
“A memory?” the blonde prompted.
Tina shook her head and the two of them went back to whatever they were doing with the equipment. She heard a car rolling up outside, tyres on bitumen.
“Okay, your ride’s here,” the blonde said, moving towards her. She unplugged something out of Tina’s shoulder—it was the first time she felt a physical sensation. The blonde spoke as she headed for the door. “A technician will drop by your place in the next couple of days to see how you’re going. Take it easy in the meantime.”
“It was an honour meeting you, Dr Merriman,” the woman at the computers said.
Cautiously, Tina leant forward in the chair, getting ready to stand. There was a sensation of weightiness before she stood to her full height, perfectly balanced. She took a tentative step towards the door the blonde had opened for her and saw the city lights beyond.
She stepped down onto the street and looked back to discover the room she’d been in was actually a vehicle. It reminded her of an ambulance, painted white with blue and red lights on top, but the word TECHNICIANS was emblazoned along the side in red. The blonde remained in the doorway, watching her expectantly.
Tina turned back to look at the car in front of her. It still looked like a car, albeit rounder at the back and squatter at the front. She entered the opening and sat on the forward-facing seat. The car door slid shut and it quietly propelled forward even though she was the only one in the car.
Out the window she saw a city she still recognised, though there were a few extra buildings. Interspersed among the people were a lot of white robot bodies. She noticed a robot animal on a lead and stared at it, wondering what it meant. Were brain transplants now so accessible that people could get them for their pets? The idea was appalling; animals couldn’t give consent.
A billboard on a low roof caught her attention and she stared at it, horrified. There was a picture of a robot body, very similar to her own, with encouraging words emblazoned beneath.
Got aches and pains? Buy the EB-4.2 model before your own body gives out!
“Aches and pains?” Tina whispered. Were people getting brain transplants because they felt the onset of ageing? Was this dream a portent of how her discovery could be abused? Would people in the future really treat it like a cosmetic procedure or a ticket to eternal life? Would they keep upgrading themselves until their minds gave out? And what about those who would struggle with the transition? What kind of psychological impacts was society opening itself up to?
“This is not real. I’m dreaming,” Tina insisted, but there was a harsh quality to this dream that she didn’t recognise from others, which were soft and hazy and weird. She could feel her anxiety clawing up inside of her and sitting on her chest, making her feel like she couldn’t breathe. But she didn’t need to breathe, did she? She was a robot.
She didn’t feel like a ninety-year-old woman, but since her brain was now encased in an artificial husk, there was no way to get the sensation of age other than through memory, and her memories were gone. What had the blonde technician said? There’d been a bombing. An EMP had gone off; an electro-magnetic pulse, something that didn’t harm humans but shut down everything electronic.
She remembered looking down at the protestors from the function room. She remembered their anger, their fear. She’d called herself an abomination to the technician, who’d strongly disagreed. But those people, those terrorists who’d set off the bomb, they would agree with her. They would spout some religious passage to justify the murder. And it was murder because even if they looked like robots, the minds inside belonged to people.
Tina conceded it would be difficult to see them that way, even if the robots were made to look as human as possible. She could imagine the kind of problems society would have with them. She wished she’d been aware enough to ask the technicians if robots had lost any human rights.
The city gave way to a highway which then turned into suburbs. The houses grew larger as the car changed streets. It pulled into a driveway of a house that looked like a pile of white blocks left behind by a giant child. There was a pretentious hologram of a fountain in the front yard. That had to be Mark’s doing.
The door opened and a strangely familiar middle-aged man hurried out, followed by a woman Tina didn’t recognise and two teenagers closely behind. As she stepped out of the car and was hugged by the man whose arms she could not feel, she deduced they were her children and grandchildren.
“Mum, holy muck, I’m glad you’re alright,” the hugger said. Tina wrapped careful arms around him and stared over his shoulder at the woman who looked like she’d been crying. Seemed like she had a good relationship with her daughter-in-law. The teens watched from their mother’s side.
“Where’s Mark?” Tina said, again feeling like this might be a dream after all.
“The house,” her son said, stepping back and holding onto her arms. He was giving her an odd look. “Are you alright? The technicians said you had some memory loss?”
She gave the man a studious look. Her dreaming mind had done a good job of making him look like a perfect combination of Mark and herself. How delightful!
“I’m alright, I just need a nap.”
“A nap?” her son repeated slowly.
“You know what I mean,” Tina hazarded. “I’ve momentarily lost the word.”
“Downtime?” he provided.
“Yes. Downtime.” Tina looked towards the front door, but Mark was nowhere to be seen. She’d thought he would come out here to greet her like her son and his family. It was strange that they were even here. She’d expected to see Mark and nobody else. “Do you live here with us?” she asked. “I have a few holes in my memory, but they are starting to come back,” she lied.
“Oh, okay,” her son said, sounding like it was very not okay. “Yes, you wanted us with you after your transition,” he said, gesturing at her.
“Right,” she said, now wondering if Mark had made the transition, too. It didn’t explain why his white metal backside wasn’t out here, though. “Let’s go find your father.”
“Find him?” her son repeated.
Tina sighed and caused a whirr to go off inside her chest. She marched into the house with her insta-family trailing behind her.
“Mark?” she called out from the foyer. The house was exceptionally beautiful on the inside.
“Yes, Tina?” Mark’s voice replied. Tina looked up and around but saw nothing.
“Where are you?”
“All around you, my love,” he said.
“What? Are you plugged into the house?” she guessed, getting the hang of this dream.
Tina felt a pull to one side and turned, seeing that her son had tugged on her arm. “Mum, don’t you remember? He is the house. We live in him.”