In the beginning, there is noise.
"You'll get used to it, Acacia." That's what the technician tells me as I wake up from the Pilot installation to a barrage of stimuli. "It'll fade. It'll become background."
No. Try again. Different noise, different times, different soundtrack, different rhymes.
No. Try again.
My head finally clears. The scene swims into something close to focus. A high-pitched whine, and silence below it. I yawn to pop my ears. Vomit instead, without hearing the sound of my own retching.
Silence blankets chaos, but chaos is my milieu. I'm familiar with chaos. Usually it's a noisy thing: people screaming, car alarms blaring, sirens. That's where I live and work, the intersection of all of that. This is a different scene, all ghosts and echoes.
I open my eyes and realize I hadn't opened them the first time. The sky is the color of sand, gritty like sand.
"Lie still," somebody says, which isn't right.
"That's my line," I say.
"She's conscious." An upside-down face appears in my field of vision. He has two moles on his chin, which give him a second, smiling, right-side-up face, moles for eyes.
"This one's awake!" the chin-face calls to somebody else.
I try to get up, but my body doesn't oblige. A wave of nausea sweeps over me.
"Lie still," the voice repeats. I obey. Somebody is doing my job on me. My job: patching soldiers together well enough that they can be flown to bases with more advanced medical care. I lie still, on the wrong side of the equation.
I open my eyes. Try to think why they were closed. Remember a case study about a guy with anterograde amnesia from a lobectomy. "I am awake for the first time," he wrote. Crossed it out the next day. "Now I am truly awake for the first time." If I remember him, I probably don't have amnesia. It's a consolation. I remember thinking that.
Eyes closed, I gather myself in. Nest in the facts of me. Acacia Saylor: Army medic, Baltimorean, Aquarius.
Somebody far away is screaming. My job is to help. First I have to open my eyes.
"What's that embedded in her temple?" somebody asks. "Is that flashing light supposed to be there?"
"My Pilot implant," I think I say. It shouldn't be flashing. It's never flashed before.
"Some kind of implant?" Another voice guesses, as if I hadn't spoken.
"Do we need to worry about it? Can we turn it off?"
"Get the gut wound stable. We can't do anything for her head if she bleeds to death."
They aren't my unit if they don't know about my Pilot. Everyone I work with knows about my implant. I'm the Pilot evangelist.
"Don't take it," I try to say. "Don't turn it off. It helps me."
"Ssh, we've got you. You're gonna be okay," says a voice next to my ear. I'm not reassured.
Those are the fragments that stay fragmented. I manage to stitch those scraps of memory together, patch them with my own medical report. When the first car bomb went off, I had run toward the victims. The second was the one that got me, or rather the shrapnel and the blast. Concussion and a gut wound that ruptured my spleen and nearly bled me out before the transport arrived.
But why hadn't I checked for a second bomb? Or had I? That was part of the protocol. With my Pilot I could usually get the lay of the land before running in.
"You were lucky," the nurse at the hospital tells me. The first one I remember after the chin-faced medic. "Twenty-one people killed, almost a hundred injured."
She's the one who reads my charts to me at my request. I've been evacuated to Germany, and the sun shining through the window is a gentle German sun. She has to raise her voice because my ears haven't yet stopped ringing.
"Will I be able to go back?" I ask.
She gives me a confused look, and I repeat the sentence in a drill sergeant bark. Before she gets offended, I add, "Speech impediment. Shouting helps."
She knows I mean back to my deployment. "I don't know. They're sending you home first."
"You heard me say 'ruptured spleen,' right? Look at yourself. That was no laparoscopic surgery. You've got weeks of recovery ahead."
She's right, of course. I wouldn't be any good to anybody in this shape.
Something else nags at me. "You didn't mention my implant." I touch my temple, the reassuring nub of the LED.
She nods. "I haven't gotten to the implant yet, but there isn't much here about it."
"I was part of a test group."
"It says that much." She waves the tablet at me. "It says our doctors consulted with Walter Reed and Balkenhol Neural Labs and determined that your implant didn't need to be removed or deactivated despite the concussion. Continue to monitor, etcetera, etcetera."
One of the memory fragments tugs at me. I point at my head again. "The light. Is it flashing?"
I exhale, relieved.
"But it was, when you first came in. It's off now."
"Off? It can't be off. I thought you said it didn't need to be removed or deactivated. You said that!"
"We didn't do anything to it. Wait a sec." She swipes at the tablet a couple of times until she finds what she was looking for. "One of the doctors asked about the flashing, and got a response from Balkenhol Neural Labs that flashing meant it was coming to the end of its battery life.
"It says it won't do any harm staying in your head, and you can get it replaced back in the US." She looks back up at me, all smiles. "See, there's another reason to go home before going back to your deployment."
I fake a smile. As soon as she leaves, I reach for the tablet with my charts on it. Pain erupts from my abdomen, the protests of muscles torn by surgery. I grab the tablet, then fall back onto the pillow, panting. I want to read what the nurse was reading, but it asks for a password. I click it off again, then tilt it until I can see the side of my face in its reflective surface. It's a vague reflection, brown skin in black glass, but good enough to confirm: no light. She wouldn't have lied, but I still had to see it for myself.
It's been six years since I had to live in my pre-Pilot head, with its wandering attention and fizzling connections. I'm fuzzy now, but I can't tell where the concussion ends and the dead Pilot begins. The old me. I don't want her back.
"What do you think you are, a superhero?" asks the private who sits next to me on the plane back to the US. "Let them give you a medical discharge. Don't complain. Get out while you've still got two legs." He's lost both of his just below the knees.
I shake my head. Gently, since it's still a little delicate. It's loud in here, so my shouting doesn't sound out of place. "It's my job. I don't want to think about looking for another one."
"But you said you're a medic? You can work anywhere. Ambulance, ER. You can have all the excitement without the bombs."
"It won't make you a superhero," the Balkenhol Neural Lab doctor had said, back before any of this. My school principal had arranged the meeting, but she didn't explain what it was about until we were all in her office: Principal Ramos, behind her desk; Major Adderly, who introduced herself as an Army doctor, and Dr. Roffman from BNL, in folding chairs that were comically too small for both; me in the actual good armchair. I couldn't figure out why I merited this attention, or what I had done wrong, or even why I got the comfortable chair.
"So it'll help me in school?" I worked on enunciating.
"No. All it does is stimulate your attention. Lets you make use of a little more of it."
Principal Ramos cleared her throat. "Acacia, you failed chemistry twice, but you're taking it a third time. Why?"
"I want to be a doctor."
"And you've told your teachers you want to join the Army when you graduate. Why?"
"To pay for med school."
The Army doctor, Major Adderly, leaned forward in her tiny chair. "What if we said that if you volunteered for this Pilot program you would have a good chance of passing chemistry the next time around? Then after graduation, we'd work to get you qualified as an Army medic?"
"I'd ask, 'why me?'"
Dr. Roffman smiled. He had a mustache like a push-broom. "BNL needs young, healthy volunteers. The studies in other primates have been hugely successful." His mustache twitched when he talked.
I forced myself to pay attention, to concentrate on making connections they weren't speaking. "And I fit the bill because I'm old enough to sign for myself and I don't have any family to talk me out of it?"
Principal Ramos shook her head. "You fit the bill because I've seen how hard you work. I think this could genuinely help you cope better with some of your learning disabilities. I'm not in the business of selling experiments to my students, but I think you'll benefit each other tremendously. They've shown me the studies, and I don't think it's dangerous."
I didn't have anybody left at home to run it by. I knew there was probably a whole book of fine print somewhere, knew there was more to it than they were saying. At the same time, I was twenty, aging out of high school, and no closer to my goals than I had been at eighteen. If I ended up with a certificate of completion instead of a diploma I'd never be able to get into college or the military.
After school, I walked to the nursing home to tell my grandfather about the meeting. Head up, purposeful, no earbuds, just like Granddad had taught me. Know your surroundings, he had said, when he was still taking care of me instead of the other way around. I tried to be aware, but I was still surprised by a whistle from one of the corner boys. I glanced over to see if it was somebody I knew, Arin or Jay or one of the others who used to be in my class, but I didn't recognize this guy. I ignored him and picked up my pace, glancing out of the corner of my eye to make sure he didn't follow.
Granddad was already in the dining room.
"This food is why I married you," he told me, waving a spoonful of mashed potatoes.
"I'm not your wife. I'm Acacia. Your granddaughter."
"Oh! Is Acacia here? What restaurant is this?" He looked around. He had gotten way worse in the year he'd been here.
"Let's start again, Granddad. I'm going to let some scientists put something in my head. It's a good idea, right?"
"A good idea. Right, right. Where did Teenie go? Did she leave without me?" He stuck his tongue out in frustration.
I signed. I let them test me and poke me and snake the implant into my left temporoparietal junction and test me some more. Count backwards from one hundred while putting together a puzzle. Listen to a chem lecture while watching a movie, then answer questions about it. They were right that it didn't make me any smarter, but it improved my focus. The dysgraphia was still bad, but I was allowed to do most exams orally anyway, and my teachers were mostly patient with my speech. I got a C in chemistry, graduated with an actual diploma before I aged out, not a certificate. Granddad couldn't go to graduation, so I didn't bother going either.
My new home is a furnished apartment near Fort Meade. Everything I own is in storage in San Antonio, but there's a couch and a bed and some random kitchenware. I could fall asleep now, after the long flight, but I'm antsy and wired. My stitches hurt. I can hear the neighbors talking through the wall.
I eat takeout chicken and read a medical journal, trying not to contemplate being jobless. My memories from before the Army are like my pre-Pilot memories: hazy. A feeling like things are just out of my grasp. Some people would argue the pre-Pilot me is the real me, original flavor. But me with my Pilot is me awake and alive. Not cured, just helped. Enhanced, maybe, but enhancement only brings out what's already there. The bettered me is the real me. Like that amnesia case. "Today I am truly awake for the first time." I know how he felt, only I'm in a better position to appreciate it.
I have no memories of the bombs that hit me, so instead my dreams piece together other incidents. Adopt other traumas as my own. There's one in which I'm both the medic and the soldier on the ground, my own bloody hands in my own bloody wound. There's one in which I'm painstakingly putting adhesive bandages over the neck of a soldier whose head has been severed. Bandage after bandage, with cartoon characters on them. "You're going to be fine," I tell him. "Lie still."
I know I should tell somebody, but the VA says it'll be weeks or months until I can get an appointment, so I keep the dreams to myself. I read a study that says dreams are our attempts to apply lessons we have learned from previous experience to new experiences. That makes a certain amount of sense.
Balkenhol reaches out to me before I can get a VA appointment. They send a car the day after my flight. I'm ushered into a cramped conference room with three BNL technicians. The air conditioning is pushed up too high, and it's rattling the vents near the ceiling. I walk halfway around the room rather than taking the closest seat, so I can have my back to the wall instead of the door. I wait for introductions, but none come.
"Describe how you feel the Pilot helps you as a combat medic," one of them says, as if we were already mid-conversation. She has an air of seniority. I have the urge to call her sir.
"I can't," I say. "I've never been a medic without the Pilot. I don't know how it helps me because it's part of me."
They take notes.
"It's part of me," I say again, suddenly terrified that they're going to rip it from my head. "I can see everything. Some of the other medics get nervous because when they're bent over somebody there's a chance they're gonna get taken out. But the Pilot lets me treat my patient and stay aware of my surroundings. It's like—it's like being able to absorb multiple inputs. Watch multiple channels at once. Ask anybody I've worked with. I did great in the blood labs and on the ground. Everybody wants me on their team. Don't take this away from me. Please."
The same technician says, "The Army tells us they're very pleased with your success in the field."
"You're going to take it." Defeat tugs at me. I want to run from the room, to hop a freight train. I'd do anything to keep it, but it's theirs to take. I haven't paid for it. I can look into whether they can force me into surgery against my will, but I'm guessing I've already signed something to that effect.
I try to think of anything to delay them, and seize upon something. "The concussion."
I wonder if the other people in the room are just extras, and direct my plea at the only one who talks. "The implants were initially developed as part of a deep brain stimulation project, right? For epilepsy?"
"But it didn't work."
"And you found another use, and since then you've been testing them on healthy-ish volunteers like me, right? No epilepsy, no brain injuries, no disabilities based on structural defects."
"So sooner or later, you're going to need to know what happens when an implant is put into a healthy volunteer who then gets a brain injury, even a minor one. That's me, in front of you. Right here, right now. Why would you take it out when this would tell you so much more? You probably have twenty other people you can test the other scenario on, but you can't manufacture my condition."
I keep the triumphant note from my voice, but I can already see their gears turning. I'm right.
"We'll take that back to the project director," one of the silent techs says at last, "but you misunderstand. We're not going to take it out. We simply don't have any reason to continue studying you."
That wasn't what I was expecting. They're not taking it out, but they're not turning it back on either. Though she did say she'd take it to the project director. Under the circumstances, that's the best I can hope for.
They send me back to my apartment to stew. I sit on the lumpy couch and go over a new protocol for surgical cricothyrotomy. I read out loud, following my finger. Practice the procedure in my head, let my hands go through the movements. After ten minutes, I quiz myself; again after thirty. I read the protocol again with a movie on, purposefully distracting myself, then type summaries of both what I'd read and the movie. I'm testing myself on the new knowledge, but also on my limits with the dormant Pilot. So far, it doesn't feel all that different.
I look online for a grocery store and locate one within walking distance. As I walk, I scan for snipers on the roofs and windows of apartment buildings. There are six other people in my line of sight: a couple at a bus stop, the others walking. I watch to see if anyone has a hand inside a jacket. Ingrained habits, habits that have saved my life more than once, even if they're not necessary here. Still, it's reassuring how much I can take in even without my Pilot working.
The store isn't high end, but the produce looks fresh enough, and the floors are clean. One of the speakers piping smooth jazz overhead has a whine on the high end. It makes my whole body tense, makes me yawn to pop my ears even though they're fine. There had been a sound like that after the bomb took me out, I’m pretty sure. I can't ignore it, not entirely, but I roll my shoulders back and concentrate on shopping. I fill a basket with apples, sweet potatoes, onions, cooking oil, tin foil, frozen chicken, cereal. As it gets heavier, I start to feel my stitches. In the dairy aisle, I reach for eggs, then glance to my right and drop the carton.
"Excuse me," I say to the teenage boy standing near the milk, stepping around the mess I've made. "But is that a Pilot implant?"
He looks at me uncertainly, then nods, one hand on the refrigerator door.
"How do you have one?" And where did you get it? And when? And why? I stick to one question, but he's still eyeing me.
"Look," I say. "I have one too. I'm just curious where you got yours?" And how. And why. I start turning my head so he can see mine, then remember that it's off, and finish with an awkward gesture in its general direction.
"At the Neural Implantation Center in Bethesda. BNL. I thought that was the only place in the area."
"I'm not local—Army."
He smiles then. "Oh, cool. My dad is Air Force."
I smile back and echo him. "Cool. So are you part of another test group?"
"I don't know what you mean. I got it from my parents."
Cool," I say again. "What kind of disabilities do you have, if you don't mind my asking?"
He's put off. "Why do you think I've got problems? It was a Christmas present, that's all. It lets me play video games while I listen to lessons. Lots of kids have them at my school."
"Cool," I say for the third time, knowing I sound stupid. I move off with what I hope is a friendly wave.
I don't have a phone, so I have to wait until I get back to the apartment to look up what he's talking about. Balkenhol has opened a Neural Implantation Center. Pilots for the masses, or at least the masses that can afford them. I watch a video, then search for articles. My tablet reads them to me while I make dinner, taking my anger out on the sweet potatoes, dicing them into hash.
How can they think this is a good idea? The technology isn't fully tested yet. Or maybe it is, and I've just missed all the news while I was deployed. It looks like they're becoming a fad in private schools. The price tag is steep, as much as a good used car.
A separate page, buried several clicks deep, explains that the battery lasts about five years, and the only way to replace it is to replace the whole unit, though the leads stay in place. There's no price listed for the battery replacement procedure, but I'm guessing it's not cheap. You're theirs by the time you need it; you'll pay anything. Or maybe they haven't priced it yet since most of their commercial clients are only in their first year of implantation. I want to call Balkhenhol, but I don't want to draw attention to myself if they're still deciding whether to turn mine back on.
I'm not sure why I'm so furious. Is it the for-profit bit? The fact that they used me as a guinea pig and now they're satisfied enough with how it works to market it for mass consumption? That they want to leave mine off when they're stuffing them into the heads of anybody who can pay? I see how delicately everything is balanced. If I had been five years younger, if I couldn't have signed for myself, the Pilot wouldn't be for me. It would be for some rich kid with the same diagnoses I had and parents who could afford to upgrade his brain. Or anybody with money, with no diagnoses at all, who wanted an edge in school or business. I was cheap labor, some poor lab rat who'd gotten lucky for a while.
I check my bank balance, which is depressingly low. The automatic withdrawals for Granddad's nursing home eat most of my paycheck. There isn't anything I could go without to pay for the procedure, and I don't have anything worth selling other than the Pilot.
New dreams that night: I'm again the victim lying on the ground, again the medic. This time I have oven mitts for hands. My brain is fuzzy, sluggish. I want to do my work but I can't. I want to live, but I know I'm dying. There are sirens, car alarms, calls to prayer. Above it all, a droning voice telling me I'm not supposed to even be here, and I should report to the lab at once. I stuff my organs back into my body and walk off a fake street and into the lab, where I'm put on a gurney and rolled into a cabinet.
What am I if I'm not a medic? The Army is the only thing I've known, but it was supposed to be a temporary thing in any case. I only had another year to go. The discharge paperwork still hasn't come through, but I don't have any duties or even ID for the base here. It's over. I just don't know what comes next.
The local fire companies turn me down when I try to volunteer, say maybe when I'm fully healed. I'm fit enough, soldier fit, other than my healing gut. Paranoia says I'm being sabotaged, but I know my voice is the problem. I don't sound fast enough to keep up unless I shout. Two extremes, neither particularly good for civilian life. In high school, I had a speaking device to do the hard work for me in class, but I was never allowed to take it home, and I could never afford one now.
I try another tack, writing to local hospitals and ambulance companies, attaching my certs, offering myself as a triage expert. I warn them about my speech impediment, and I try to be as eloquent as I can on the page, so they remember that when they hear me speak.
Only one responds, and I offer to do a ridealong, a working interview. It doesn't go well. It's a slow shift. The EMTs exchange glances when I try to make conversation. They can't wait to get rid of me. I don't care what they think; all I want is a chance to show them what I can do, but nothing comes. I shouldn't wish for emergencies. I sit in the back and dig my nails into my palms, listening to the radio and the tires and the traffic around us and the voice in my head that says there must be something I can do.
I dream I'm in a cage when the lab around me starts to burn. I try to tell people to leave, to let me out so I can help, but they all act like they can't understand me.
I buy a phone and an app that lets me listen to the emergency radio frequencies. Maybe I can make it to some crisis first and impress the EMTs as a good Samaritan. It makes me feel like I'm doing something useful. I wander my new neighborhood picking up trash, waiting to be in the right place at the right time.
Balkenhol doesn't call, and I'm not about to remind them I'm out here. I wish I had the contract, so I could see if they have any obligation to maintain the Pilot, but if I still have a copy, it's in my storage unit in San Antonio. There's only one person unaffiliated with the lab or the Army who might know.
I take a train up to Baltimore, flag a cab, direct the driver on a "this is your life" tour. He drives me to the high school. I've paid him enough to stick around and take me to Granddad's nursing home next, but he takes off the second I close the door. I don't blame him: I don't know why I'm here either.
There are supposed to be guards at the metal detectors by the door, but the machines are off and nobody stops me. I wonder which statement they're trying to make: that everyone is too apathetic to bother causing trouble, or that things have gotten so bad here there's no point in pretending. The halls smell like the flu. There's graffiti on the lockers. It's been five years. Was it always this bad, and I was too focused on getting out to notice? Entirely possible.
I look for Pilots on the kids that I pass, but I don't see the telltale lights. Nobody here can afford them, I'm guessing.
The receptionist ushers me into Principal Ramos's office. I'd only ever been in there once before, the day she introduced me to the doctors. Her office is still slightly nicer than everything else around it, though shabbier than I remember. Solid furniture, a bit dinged up. An ancient Turkish rug, worn in front of all the chairs. These are things I wouldn't have noticed as a kid. A persistent fly throws itself against the top pane of the window behind her.
"Acacia, lovely to see you." Her voice is warm, though she doesn't get up from her desk. She directs me to the same worn armchair I had sat in my last time here. "Are you still in the Army?"
She isn't anyone to me. We only met the once. The vice principals were the ones who brought me in every year to tell me which classes I had failed, how long I had left before they'd be able to stop bothering with me. The only reason Ramos still recognizes me is because she sold me as a lab rat.
She tenses, but doesn't betray herself. I imagine a lot of students must have confronted her over the years. "Why did I do what?"
"Why did you pick me?"
"Acacia, I can honestly say nobody ever tried harder to graduate than you did. I thought with a little more help than we could afford to give you, you could succeed. And you were going to go into the medical field, to help people. Have you done what you wanted to do?"
I nod. "Did they pay you?"
"Yes. They paid for a whole new chem lab."
That isn't what I expected. I had pictured her in a Lexus or a new apartment. "It feels like they tested on poor kids and now they're going to sell it to rich kids and nobody like me will get a chance again."
She meets my gaze. "That's probably true."
"So was it worth it?"
"I'll admit I had hoped they might offer more help for students like you. But we needed those supplies. And it helped you, right?"
There are more things I could probably say, but I'm losing steam. "Yes, ma'am. Thank you. One last thing. Do you remember the terms of the agreement?"
She frowns. I follow her out of her office, across the reception area and into a file room. My file is thick. All those extra years, extra services, successes and failures. She leafs through it, then pulls out a thin folder and waves it in the air. Runs it through an ancient copier that sounds like an airplane taking off, hands it to me. The copy has thick lines running lengthwise down the page, but it's readable. I see what I'm looking for: they have no obligation to maintain it once they're done observing me. I'm on my own. I used to know that, but I must have forgotten.
Principal Ramos is watching me, waiting to see my reaction.
"Thanks," I say. "And, um, if you ever need a new nurse..."
She smiles. "We haven't got the budget for a nurse anymore, but I have an opening for a guard at the front door. I could put in a good word for you."
"I'd appreciate that." It's something.
Without the cab, I'm stuck walking to the nursing home, just like in high school. The neighborhood is as bad as it ever was: no better, no worse. I put in one of my earbuds, leaving the other ear to pay attention to my surroundings. The reassuring static of the emergency channel fills my head. My boot heels grind broken glass into even smaller pieces. Kids bike lazy circles on the corners, waiting for word from the dealers who employ them. As it ever was.
What will it be like being back in my old neighborhood? Is it a defeat? I don't think so. I can be a good door guard, for now. A job is a job. I can save up for the Pilot battery, and go back to school on the GI bill once my paperwork comes in. Wasn't that what I wanted in the first place, back before I'd ever heard of the Pilot? To be able to take care of people like my grandfather? If I thought I could make it through school then, pre-Pilot, surely I could do it now with the discipline I've learned. If discipline is enough.
When the sirens start, I close my eyes to catch their direction, then pick up my pace. The dispatch comes through my phone. It's for a collapsing building; I actually hear it fall when I'm a block off, a muffled whump. I remind myself where I am, that I don't need to scan for snipers.
The building is an old rowhouse repurposed as apartments. The whole front has caved in. At least two people out front in the rubble, probably more inside. Assess the situation, the first rule. We can't go inside while it's unstable, but maybe we can help the people out front.
I can tell the EMTs are thinking the same thing. They're talking it out as they swing from the ambulances, attention focused on the victims. Which means I'm the only one who notices when the adjacent building shimmies.
"Don't move!" I shout, my voice ringing clear at that volume, Army-weight behind it. They stop. We're out of the way when the wall buckles, and then that building gapes open too. My ears are ringing, and dust billows and obscures everything, but the EMTs aren't under it, and now they look at me for the okay and I nod, my attention split between where I want to be and the potential threats posed by the other rowhouses, almost as if my Pilot were still working. I realize: the Pilot helps me, and I want it back, but it's not all of me.
In the distance, more sirens. For the first time since getting back, everything feels like it's settling into place. Chaos is my milieu, noisy and messy and home.
I bend over the first victim I reach. "Lie still."
I am awake for the first time.