Neurotech Nightmare

by | Jul 20, 2023

Two faceless men in a server storage room

Two Faceless Men in a Server Storage Room (2023), Fiona Bewley. Image generated by OpenAI’s DALL·E 2.

Bo didn’t know how long he’d been sitting on the cold tiled bathroom floor. Maybe five or ten or thirty minutes. He’d listened to the recordings over and over. His grandmother had been right, and he knew better now why they needed to keep their gift a secret. He wished he could stay here and not face out there. The intruders had just turned his world upside down. A choking guilt swelled inside of him; hot tears poured onto his white shirt.

He stared at the thin transceiver in his hands. It was on him now. The intruders brought him this news, and now he had a choice. People needed to know. Ah! There was no truth. He slapped the small device onto the tiles under his palm, sat on the floor, his knees bent. He thought of his daughter’s future. Imagine—a world where she didn’t have to hide who she really was. His whole life he’d kept his family’s secret: they could still hear. His eldest daughter, Liz, could hear too. Fear surged through his body and he clenched his teeth, closed his eyes, and wished this all away. He looked right out the open door at the spot where the two intruders had been standing. They had left him, head pounding and arms and legs like jelly.

No, he thought, no, shaking his head. The intruders knew. They brought him the recordings. And now, people needed to know: humanity’s loss of speech and hearing was not a natural development. It wasn’t because of the computers and AI and neurotech. Revealing this would expose him and his daughter, and he couldn’t let anything happen to her. They called it their “super secret.” Smiling to himself, he thought about the moments alone with his daughter, listening to the transceiver. Or walking out back among the pines, the crunch under foot, or the loud silence of an early morning forest and the soft birdsong. Recently she’d loved listening to recordings of ocean sounds. They would pick their special moments, her big brown eyes melting his heart, him not wanting to stop while his wife and other daughter were out. He loved her bright eyes and smiles when they would listen to tracks of laughter. He couldn’t risk taking that away from her. Or from him. His ancestors had been persecuted, disappeared and tortured. Their struggle made so much more sense now.

They weren’t discriminated against; they were silenced.

Bo knew the truth. Guilt flooded his veins. He scrambled for the toilet, vomiting violently. Heavy years of family dread now out. The beauty and simplicity of sound removed from generations. He retched a few more times and sat down with his head resting on the side of the bowl; he reached for the transceiver and pressed play on the track again.

That morning had been as normal as any other. Ty held the door as he left and nodded at Bo as he made his way into the server storage unit. For over twenty years, they’d had the same three security guards on the team. Everyone knew computers needed humans. Malfunctions kept them busy, overheating, moisture buildup and so many software glitches. And they’d had a few attempted break-ins, but mostly they kept things under control. A main reason he’d chosen the isolated position was so he could go undetected and protect his secret. Generations of careers determined by staying under the radar. He also loved the sounds. The daily concert of the servers, the low whir mixed with clicks was a beautiful addition to his day. And it was all for him. A wave of guilt washed over him—others had been robbed of this auditory world.

The intruders knew. They bought him the recordings. And now, people needed to know: humanity’s loss of speech and hearing was not a natural development. 

Bo watched the two workers appear on his screen, unannounced; he’d never seen them before. Nor did the system recognize them, their presence a malfunction in his day. Unauthorized. He couldn’t let them in. His words typed out a message to Upstairs as he thought them: Are we expecting maintenance? There’s no entry in the calendar here. The two workers looked similar: they both had large round eyes, were of similar height, and stood with their rectangular bodies to the camera but looking directly at the door.

Then the confirmation came on Bo’s feed: 03-05-2198: 11 a.m. New server column 77325 in box room 2. He typed in the code to open the door for them.

Bo watched on his camera feed as the workers went into the server room, a tall server unit strapped to a trolley following them. He was hypnotized by the familiar chirr, womwomwom. The feed showed them unloading the server unit from the trolley, then inserting wires and testing the connections on their screens.

Legs crossed, arms folded, Bo monitored the camera feeds, the workers busy, everywhere else empty. And then nothing made sense anymore. He saw, to his left, that the workers were coming towards him. He looked back at the screen—there they were still standing by the column. And they were next to him. And also on the screen. He started to send a message, How are you both here and … but they both quickly raised a finger and pressed it to their lips. Bo didn’t know exactly what that meant, but he understood he shouldn’t continue with his message. He stood up and squared up to them, but they didn’t budge. He got so close to them that he could hear their hearts beating, one-two one-two against the deep soft whirring beat of the server room.

Arms locked, they gently guided him into the bathroom. The only place without cameras or sound sensors in the building. He felt safe here and oddly safe with them. Most days he would take a break in the bathroom to listen to his transceiver. His father had taught him how to enjoy music. He said it used to be how information was shared. People used to speak and others would listen. They would even do it for enjoyment. Until they couldn’t. He had also learned that speech went first. What followed was deemed a natural progression, that humans no longer needed to hear speech. All information was processed in their minds or on their screens. Those that still had some speech or hearing were discriminated against for being too “able.” Beaten and wiped out by others who wanted everyone to be the same, or so Bo had thought until today.

The door slammed behind them and the harsh white light clicked on, stripping the room of any shadows. Bo leaned against a cubicle wall, fascinated by the intruders’ presence. They stood in the middle of the bathroom, in front of the sinks and mirrors. Suddenly they opened their mouths wide, bulging eyes growing bigger as they exhaled fleshy noises towards Bo. He’d never seen anyone speak. His heart thumped in his chest, bwombwombwom. Their grunts came from deep within and left their bodies through their wide fish-like mouths, shaping the sound. They were speaking to Bo. Tears pooled in his eyes: centuries of silence destroyed right in front of him. Their bodies jolted and leaned towards Bo as their noises merged into a songlike melody, and they repeated, Jo-in us, jo-in us. Bo stared intensely, holding eye contact with one of them for a long moment. He reached out his hand; he wanted to be closer. A burning sensation in his chest had him weeping at their serene and guttural sounds. He now had others that shared his secret.

The shorter of the pair reached into a pocket and slowly revealed a small rectangular piece of soft metal in a thin plastic casing; Bo reached for it. The small wire held volumes of sounds, like his collection that his family had kept safe for generations. Their eyes met, with a gesture of pleading and urgency, before Bo heard a throaty voice say, Share and spread what you hear beyond those near.

He thought of his daughter’s future. Imagine—a world where she didn’t have to hide who she really was. 

He kept his transceiver behind the toilet in the wall where a small corner of tile was cracked. He rushed to where he hid his transceiver in the cubicle and reached behind the toilet to fetch it. Moving fast, he was eager to know what these speaking people wanted to share with him. While he held the slender silvery object, his grandmother’s initials weighed heavy on his eyes. BH. Bo Hyran. He rushed out of the cubicle as he was inserting the wire, pushing the door with his shoulder, but the pair were gone. He had to know right now what they had just given him rather than chase after them. He locked the door, sat on the floor and selected the first track on the list.

He heard music playing: whiny instruments and a booming tone accompanied a fast and piercing voice and then some singing. Goosebumps prickled his arms.

I’m a man, not a machine,

Don’t you know what that means?

Sing it loud and set us free

I’m a man, not a machine.

People had fought to keep the ability to say things, and to hear others say them. He would have loved to sing. Bo understood the energy of the fast beat and nodded his head to it.

The track ended and Bo clicked to the next one. This time, a track named “Stephen Hawking” spoke with a shallower and tinnier voice:

Once humans develop artificial intelligence, it would take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded.

Then came a lot of crackling, and a conversation of four different voices:

“No, with respect, my excellency, we cannot play God.”

“Even if we wanted to forbid it, how do we know that we can control the development?”

“It will work. We have confirmation from all systems that within five generations, childhood development in these areas will be near to impossible.”

“So, you are saying we have no choice? Resolution 12 should be destroyed. I refuse to play a part in this. Technological transformations unleashed incredible political forces when they were new. Fascism wouldn’t have been possible without the radio. The printing press led to peasant uprisings and wars between Catholics against Protestants. Industrialization fueled world wars and led to the rise of communism. Neurotech has the potential to be of that disruptive scale and yield near-to-total control. But destroying human communication and altering evolution in such a dramatic way is not worth the losses.”

“Quit it, Cai. Resolution 12 is the only way to ensure near-to-total control. Without it, neurotech systems will be a domestic service that give our thumbs a break. You need to go now. Sair, please show Professor Cai out.”

The transceiver started to feel hot in his hand, his body flush with fear. He listened again and again, familiar words now sounding foreign. Drumming it into his thoughts. Humans denied other humans his incredible ability to hear. He now had a sense of the sound of truth. He had to do something. Bo pulled at his thick grey hair. People had to know. Spread what you hear beyond those near. But the risk of being stripped of his abilities was too high, and for his daughter too—no, he couldn’t let anyone do that to her. And he hated violence, even if he knew how to intimidate as part of his job. Bo, a simple security guard in a server storage unit. Spread what you hear beyond those near.

Humans denied other humans his incredible ability to hear. He now had a sense of the sound of truth.

Bo’s solo and silent protest on the cubicle floor lasted hours. He refused to get up. Upstairs may have noticed something. But the consequences didn’t scare him now. The intruders had been smart to hide their interaction. His heart started beating faster. He had a tough decision to make. There were no wrong decisions other than indecision. He could flush the transceiver wire down the toilet right now. And go back to silence. And Liz would grow up in a world of silence with him. Her future, her world, was more important than the life he believed he had chosen to lead.

The intruders must have planned this whole thing. Bo pictured them installing the new server column, working efficiently. The answer was right there: in its tall black casing, the new server. They wanted him to share the truth and now he understood. He had to do it for Liz, for those who had been denied generations of truth. He could transcribe everything, and millions of networks and systems were housed right next door where he could upload it all. He stood up slowly, using the wall to help him up, and took a deep breath before heading out of the bathroom.

Fiona Bewley

Fiona Bewley

Publab Fellow 2022

Fiona Bewley is an editorial assistant at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, a China Studies graduate, and a foreign language enthusiast. During the LARB Publishing Workshop in 2022 she met a vibrant and ambitious writing coach who is helping her improve her narrative voice and work on plot development. She is still working on short stories for her first collection, I don’t want to be here anymore which explores themes of belonging, escapism, and loss.