Damien Krsteski writes science fiction and develops software. His stories have appeared in Plasma Frequency, Flapperhouse, Kzine, Bastion, Devilfish Review, Mad Scientist Journal, Every Day Fiction, and others. He can be found athttp://monochromewish.blogspot.com and @monochromewish.
The Scramble by Damien Krsteski
Leslie, age 6 (entry #845):
Terrence puts another cube on the pile of toys. The tower sways, then falls and there are toys all over the carpet.
I show him my crayons. “Want to draw?”
“No,” he says.
I take a piece of paper from under my bed and start drawing his face on it. It's a funny face, with big, round eyes. I don't have green so I make them blue.
Searching for more paper, he pulls out an old drawing of mine. Circles and squiggles and pencil holes. My face goes all hot and red when he shows it to me.
“Give me that.” I take it, tear it in half.
He doesn't say it, but I know he's glad the drawing is gone.
“You hate it too?” he says, his fingers digging in the carpet. Scramble – that's what Daddy calls it. Like eggs for breakfast.
“I don't know.” I shrug. “I just want it to go away.”
He hugs me.
“Me too,” he says.
Marion, age 9 (entry #1530):
Today in school they're giving us the Diary.
A brown powder that looks like what's all over the kitchen when Mom makes cookies. Dominique, who's usually very quiet in class, refuses to smell it in because her parents said they're giving us little bugs just like the Scramble and that it's only going to get worse. Some of my friends then get scared and refuse too but Mrs. Simmons calls this older doctor to come and he convinces us that what they're giving us is nothing like the Scramble, not even a little bit.
He explains that they give us the first part of the Diary when we're too young to remember, and that this is the second part, which is supposed to improve it very much. He says now we'll learn to remember everything as it is.
Jody sneezes into her powder and blushes and covers her face with her hair and starts crying. Everyone laughs.
Kerry, age 13 (entry #3704):
At the Arcade with a bunch of friends, I'm killing at air hockey, when suddenly someone taps my shoulder. I turn around and feel this gigantic rush of emotion sweeping all over my body, and guess who's standing there, smiling like stupid? They'd moved so we haven't spoken in ages, but we've known each other since we were kids. His name is Bobby now.
I turn to my friends to introduce him, but they're just eyeballing him up and down, arms crossed.
He asks about me, about my parents, what I've been up to, and I tell him I'm fine, we're all fine.
He touches my bracelet, exchanging contact information. We say bye and my friends just don't shut up about how stupid I looked and how Kerry loves Bobby, Kerry loves Bobby but I don't pay them any attention and just keep scoring goals.
On my way home, Bobby calls me. We stroll around, catching up, end up holding hands.
Standing right next to this wooden bridge that's arcing like a cat's back he turns around and goes in for a kiss. I close my eyes and just as it's about to happen this light breeze carries the little shitheads and we scramble and all changes. I open my eyes, push him away. I don't like him anymore. He's disgusting and pathetic so I storm out of there like the brave girl I'd become, just then, by way of the breeze.
At home, I pull the bed covers over my head, put A Shitty Life's latest album on. I erase Bobby's contact info from my bracelet.
I feel worse than when Professor Victors caught me whispering the answers to Jaime in biotech class, and I think I know why. It's not what happened, but what I am now. My mind's scrambled into a sad person's mind and that's that.
So I'll just hate the Scramble for the time being, wait for it to come again and change me for the better.
Sydney, age 17 (entry #4995):
“Are you sure you don't want to be a lawyer?”
“I might become one, eventually, but not now.”
“It's just you were really good at arguing.” Mom laughs.
“No, you were a pushover.”
She's made my favorite dessert, chocolate chip cookies. Now she's pouring me a second glass of milk.
“Mom, I see what you're doing, but I'm sticking to my choice.”
“It's a dangerous field.”
“Oh, God, we've been though this over and over, Mom. Technology will solve our problems–”
“Look at what it's brought us.”
She used to be scientifically-inclined herself, a few scrambles back, but then I was too young and very much into hardcore punk to care about anything. Mom and I always seem to change in phase with one another, meaning we never get along, unfortunately.
“I'm going in September.”
She smirks. “You know you'll change your mind. Your precious technology will see to it.”
I stand up to leave but she's quicker. As she's walking out the door, she says, “Wash the dishes.”
Lynn, age 19 (entry #5771):
Early morning, in the bus, on my way to the Nanotechnology 1 final, we have our first Scramble in three weeks. A shock wave spreads, a perfectly normal middle-aged lady sitting next to me faints, and when she comes to, she starts yelling something about Nordic Ice-monsters. Instinctively I peer into my mental self trying to gauge the level of change, and first thought springing to mind is that now my name is Lynn. Oh, oh. Bad sign from the get-go.
An extensive divergence.
The bus drops me off on campus, and hands in pockets I walk over to the classroom, all the while probing the depths of this new personality, trying to discover my new self. And then it hits me. I think what I'm studying is boring, tedious work, which will never bear fruit.
I find myself going to a place I abhor. Each step forward takes considerable effort.
The counteracting system that's in me these past fifteen years starts to act – my Diary recites bits it considers helpful at the moment – and tries to reconcile the two mutually-exclusive beings: who I was minutes before and who I am now.
It doesn't stop the Scramble, just kindly reminds you of your past.
So I linger a bit in the cold marble hallway, and ask myself if I want to go inside. The new me wants to take me to a bar, then dancing, then maybe on a walk in the rain. It's so alluring. Closing my eyes I can almost taste the wine and hear the music, but then I take a deep breath, focus on that grainy image of my former self, and walk into the classroom.
I ace the exam.
Robbie, age 21 (entry #7002):
“Which of the three is considered to be bug type zero?”
Aubrey holds up the textbook's screen, revealing a triptych. I point to the middle picture – a nasty first-generation nanobot, capable of swift replication and self-modification.
“Correct,” he says. “And the other two?”
I squint at the nanomachines. “Left-side: the Alexander Kropotov prototype, considered the first viable weapon against the nanobots. Right-side: the bots from the EU firewall, no longer in use.”
“Good.” He smiles. “What happened to the Kropotov cells?”
“Obsolete. The nanobots adapted.”
“Pattern 1-1-2. One quarter of existing bots diverges from the original design by a small margin, another quarter does the same albeit down a different evolutionary branch, and two quarters of the bots fight the antidote.”
“Wow.” He looks up. “Word for word.”
“Shut up. Next question.”
I'm lying on my bed, hands behind my head, staring at the ceiling. Aubrey, propped against the footboard, flicks through the textbook.
“How's about some neuroscience?”
The swooshing sound of text being shuffled around on the touchscreen. “Aha,” he says, stopping his finger at a question.
“How do nanobots manipulate neurons? Describe the process.”
“Trick question. Neurons aren't their prime target but rather glial cells, namely astrocytes. We understand only a fraction of their modus operandi: just the part where they increase levels of Calcium, tricking the astrocytes to influence neural brain matter.” In a monotonous voice, I add the big disclaimer of our field: “Naturally, every researcher that's gotten close to explaining how the Nanopest works has become an immediate subject of a nanobot attack, wiping his brain clean of the acquired information.”
Aubrey puts the textbook down, turns to look at me. “Do you think the same will happen to us?”
The flaking ceiling's not holding any useful information but that doesn't prevent my scrutinizing gaze. “Undoubtedly,” I say.
“Well, what's the point in all this then? Why are we studying if there's zero chance of us ever discovering the ultimate truth?”
There's quiet for a moment, then I say, “Because right now that's who we are.”
Dorotea, Age 24 (entry #8103):
My parents aren't at my graduation ceremony, but that's no surprise. A few years back they finally got a divorce and now Dad lives with his girlfriend in some godforsaken backwater, off the grid and off the net, head wrapped in tin-foil. Mom's blaming technology and science for his paranoid behavior so she wants little to do with me now.
Aubrey isn't here either. He graduated last year and is now in Europe, working with famous mathematicians. I’ve sent him emails and even a few Diary fragments but he hasn’t replied. Too busy, I guess.
The Dean calls out my name. I go up on the dais.
Dorotea, Age 25 (entry #8233):
A ghostly carousel of numbers and symbols smack in the middle of my unkempt room. Swirling, responding to my every hand gesture. I jab my elbow at an illuminated pile of digits and they spring to life, rearranging themselves.
Data-mining. My mentor, Professor Greenstalk, burdened me with our entire nation's neurophysiological lab data, and I'm regrouping it into easily digestible chunks before they feed it to the computers at the Uni. Dirty work.
A cluster of numbers pertaining to myelin sheath transport speeds as effected by the nanobots. I reach out, hold them in my left hand for a moment, then clump them together with a set of data on oligodendrocyte degeneration. A flash resembling stellar phenomena as the data sorts itself.
Out the corner of my room comes another, very non-cosmic blue flash. A new message. I move away from the number ballerina and walk over to my terminal.
“Important: I need you at the lab tomorrow morning. Early.”
I crawl back to the data carousel and give it another spin.
Dorotea, Age 25 (entry #8234):
In the lab, I see Professor Greenstalk has already set up the equipment.
“Hi, Dorotea.” She hands me a velvet, sensor-laden glove.
“Morning, Professor.” I nod, put it on.
We face two translucent screens with blooming bouquets of multicolored straws. Connectomes.
“Take a look at this.” She makes a hand gesture and we zoom in on the scan. Two separate images are superimposed – a before/after shot of a nanobot-affected brain. A pulling gesture with her free hand and a bunch of paused newsreels appear. She clicks Play.
A beautiful news anchor speaks of a gruesome triple murder, of a seemingly ordinary young student shooting an entire family dead the previous night. He might have killed more, she says, if the police hadn't professionally intervened. A still photo of the smiling student pops up next to the video of a distressed witness' testimony. Professor Greenstalk pauses it.
“And thanks to the very professional response of the policemen, we have these scans.” She smiles. “They only shot him in the chest.”
I suppress my disgust, manage a nod.
“This,” she says, flicking back to the original scan, “is his connectome from two months ago. And this one's post-mortem.” The second image. “Notice anything?”
Despite my repulsion, it's clear what she's alluding to. The change is minimal at best.
“Not a nanobot attack?”
“Oh, it very much is. People around him were equally affected. Though no one else pulled out a gun.”
“Then it was a minor attack.”
“Not according to witnesses.”
But small scrambles couldn't turn normal people into killers, could they? “What then?”
“I don't know.” Her smile widens. “But this ought to clarify things.”
She hands me a stack of papers. “Skim through the legalese and sign here, and here.”
“What's this?” I weigh them up.
She scuttles about the lab, turning machines on.
She stops, looks at me, smiling. “We got Diary access. Brace yourself to experience a truckload of memory.”
My heart sinks.
“I'm not comfortable with reliving murder.”
“You don't have much choice.”
“Can't we put it up on the monitors?”
Shaking her head. “Someone needs to think his thoughts. I need to observe his connectome as it changes.”
No use protesting. The academic chain of command is to be obeyed at all times.
“All right,” I say. “Let's link up equipment.”
Once we do so, I become a murderer.
It's not evident to me. Not at first. People around me moving, talking. Colors. So surprising how colorful the world can seem after a long period of moping, of depressing darkness. Like soaring out of the water depths and finally taking a huge breath, not caring about anything else except that you're alive, and oh how good it feels to be alive.
The mall becomes the epicenter of the universe, its shoppers bustling about like comets, escalators ferrying them from the dimension of men's wear to the multiverse of the food court. I take measured steps, observing, paying attention to the slightest detail. A mother buying candy for her son, jerking the red balloon tied to her wrist up and down as she takes out her wallet. A young couple eating corn dogs, walking in step. A family, passing by these lights, these shiny festering neon lights, their daughter pointing that way, mesmerized.
I hurry in their direction, about to warn them of the danger of the Arcade. Hands in pockets. A touch of something cold, heavy.
There they are, a few meters away, entering neon pinball hell.
I pull out my gun, aim first at the father, pull the trigger. A spray of blood over their faces. I laugh, knowing I've saved him. The mother's and daughter's screams are cut short by two precise shots. They slump to the ground, silenced, and saved.
The fragment ends here, the police response cut out for legal reasons.
As the memory fades I go from maddened glee to absolute disgust. Professor Greenstalk's face comes awfully close to mine.
“Well?” she says.
I push her aside, sprint to the bathroom. I throw up.
When I get back I briefly recount the event to Professor Greenstalk, then excuse myself and head home.
I spend the day in bed, mind blank.
Dorotea, Age 25 (entry #8235):
“How many entries do we have?”
Professor Greenstalk flicks through the holograms hovering before her. “Currently around eight thousand, which is almost everything.”
“Where do I begin?”
She rummages through the virtual dossier, picks out a folder at random, one close to the event, and hands it to me. My glove automatically transfers the data to my cortex’s nanotechnology.
I relive entry after entry. The day he bought the gun. A rainy afternoon of backyard bottle shooting. A night out with his cousin. Then we go further back and I relive days when his drunken father gives him, or his mother, a beating. His first kiss. His last lay (several nights prior to the shooting).
Towards the end of the day – and his memory stream – I emerge exhausted.
“Did you feel crazy?”
I shake my head.
“Did you know you were going to commit murder?”
“Did you plan using the gun on people?”
“Any deviant thoughts?”
Several questions later she leaves, flummoxed, and probably a bit dissapointed. I stay until later, filling up police forms, though I suspect to no avail thanks to the murderer’s uneventful memory log.
On the other hand, I feel relieved at not having experienced anything traumatic, despite it having a negative effect on our research.
On my way home, resting my head on the car’s window while its headlights scour the dark road ahead, I hear a fuzzy voice speaking of the murder in the background. I turn up the volume on the cab’s touchscreen.
“Sources claim top neurological researchers are on the case assisting the police.” I scoff at the praise. “Has the Nanopest gotten worse? Will it turn us all into ravenous murdering cannibals? Could this be the end of days—” I switch the radio off.
But the question remains. Are the nanobot attacks increasing in intensity? If so, how can a relatively normal person commit such crimes leaving no difference in his connectomes?
I pay the cab and it drives off.
In my living room I notice the blue light flashing.
One new message. Plain text. Aubrey.
I know what happened. Saw the data. We need to talk, think I got something for you. A.
My finger hovers above the delete icon, and I long to press it, but don't, and instead click on Reply.
So nice of you to write. Now kindly fuck off.
Dorotea, age 25 (entry #8236):
I manage to wake up angry, at 4AM. The living room is bathed in blue. I open the message.
I know you’re mad and you have every right to be!!! But please understand it was difficult for me too. Just view the Diary fragments I’m sending you and I think you’ll understand. First the frags, then we’ll talk. A.
I start typing.
Yeah, cause *I* LEFT AND NEVER WROTE YES IT WAS VERY DIFFICULT FOR YOU
But then I stop, and pound the delete key. Don’t want to come off as desperate.
I download the frags. I’ll hate myself later. Now, I’m too curious.
Decryption finished, my computer spits out a rainbow-colored hologram in the shape of a tootsie roll. I hold it at eye level for a moment, then swallow it.
In an instant I relive his memory. Gripping an iron-wrought railing on a balcony, gazing out at the sea. Below, the tarmac of the Promenade des Anglais glints like a riverbed in the waning sun. The gilded lights of a gorgeous building to my right are slowly winking into life. On its roof, spelled with light bulbs, the name Negresco. I breathe in the salty air, watch the scantly dressed joggers for a moment.
The apartment is small, a simple futon, a flaking pale green wardrobe and a kitchen in an alcove. In the mirror I catch a glimpse of my own – Aubrey’s – reflection. Unshaven and groggy. From a drawer I pull out a cigarette pack. The Dorotea part of my mind thinks, that’s weird, I have never smoked.
I go back to the balcony, light one up. I think of the research, the big Monaco fund, but I’m not pleased with it, scientists here are exploring directions that make me uncomfortable. Back home, we rely on Big Data. Here, they avoid it.
I blow a smoke ring at the sunset, and the memory blurs as I jump forward in time.
Salty air carried by a strong but pleasant wind. The late-spring sun beating down. Seagulls, and the swooshing sound of the tidal push and pull. Promenade des Anglais is empty, save for the occasional cyclist. These long walks help me think as step by step I digest the info from the meetings with the geniuses.
I dwell on Antoine's words. A spoiled generation, he said, his thick glasses sliding down his nose. You don't like how the world changes you, so you change the world.
We're not talking about nature, but about a terrorist who caused the biggest nanotech spill in history, I said.
Aubrey, don't you see it doesn't matter. Our research shows that spill or no spill people have always been…
I walk into an old building, cold marble beneath my sandaled feet.
“Ah,” says Jean-Luc, “you made it.”
I smile at him, shake his hand. He points to his office. “No one will disturb us here. Please.”
His desk is almost too tidy, with nothing but a chromed lamp in one corner. He sits in his swiveling chair, drums his fingers on the desk top, gestures at a very ordinary chair opposite him. “Sit. Please.” His please sounding like an order.
“Antoine says you're having trouble adjusting.”
“So it seems.”
“You're a bright researcher.” His fingers make a steeple.
“Seems like I grew up on a whole other planet.”
“Many great students we've had from your side of the Atlantic.” He shakes his head. “Not the problem.” With one eyebrow cocked up, he adds, “For an adult you are very stubborn, Aubrey.”
“Science is why I moved here. You seem to be doing none of it.”
“To discover truth you need to consider all possibilities.” His shoulders drop slightly. “Study the math, and consider all possibilities.”
The memory fades out.
Dorotea again, in my dark living room, looking down expecting to see marble but find a bland, beige carpet.
Confused as all hell I write him a message full of question marks. He replies inside of a minute.
That was my disclaimer. Here's the data. A.
Alongside the message comes a flood of files: documents, images and spreadsheets, all zipped up in one archive titled All Possibilities.
I don't know if it's the sleeplessness, the adrenaline of experiencing Aubrey’s memories, or a peculiar mixture of the two, but I click through the files like a maniac, immerse myself in the data, espouse their analytical frame-of-mind.
My alarm startles me. Shit. I’m supposed to be at the lab in thirty minutes.
Need time to process this. Too strange.
I send the message and log off.
Dorotea, age 25 (entry #8237):
Professor Greenstalk's already at the lab when I get there.
I go through the motions with her, study the murderer’s connectomes, write things down, but it’s all muscle-memory while my mind’s parsing Aubrey’s theory. Once the initial rejection passes, I turn a critical eye at it, and try to debunk it. Late in the afternoon, when after many mental attempts I realize I can’t, I decide to tell Professor Greenstalk.
“What if the Scramble isn’t evil?”
“Sorry. It’s what my dad used to call the nanobots.” I press my knuckles against my eyes.
She sighs. “The Nanopest is a horrible chapter in our history, which people like me and you are working hard to end.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I say, surprising myself. “But what if it’s not just a chapter? I mean, the nanotech stuff, sure, that’s recent, but what if scrambles in one way or the other have been happening since homo erectus?”
She stops shuffling neurons on the screen to look at me. “Care to explain?”
All Possibilities. The research conclusions and the data appear before my eyes.
“European researchers have analyzed human behavior, change patterns, and they say the nanobots make no difference.”
Hand on hip. “Tell that to the young family and that poor student.”
“Mathematicians siphoned data from arcane lifelogging applications and noticed that the rate of change of mental states has stayed absolutely the same. People’s minds changed in all sorts of ways prior to the bots as well.”
“They believe that with or without the nanotech we experience personality changes, the scramblers only make them apparent, they are not the cause. Apparently the original creator wanted people’s internal changes to be obvious to everyone.”
“Why would someone bother doing that?”
“Another step towards the Open Utopian Society? No one knows.” My mouth curves into a smile. “But supposedly there are followers with a manifesto already.”
“So what do our European counterparts suggest?”
“Accept the nanobots. The only thing they restrict is us finding out how they work. Other than that, they believe scramblers have a non-interference policy.”
“Just what I'd except from a bunch of theoreticians.” She gets up, fires up the supercomputers. “In the meantime, we gotta get back to solving this.”
I don’t budge.
“Well?” She jerks her head sideways.
“Sorry,” I say. “Need rest. Time to think.”
She yells, “What about these four victims? Don’t they deserve your time?”
As I’m walking out I consider mentioning that the impulsive crime would’ve been committed regardless of nanotechnology, that our obsession with the spill has made us absolve ourselves of all responsibilities, and that that has turned out to be far more dangerous than any technology, but before I manage to open my mouth I realize I’m out the lab and smiling at the setting sun.
Dolores, age 26 (entry #8397):
Soaking wet, he’s standing at my door.
“You should’ve taken an umbrella.”
“More dramatic this way.” He smiles. I don’t.
“What do you want?”
Adrian says, “Wanted to give you this.” He hands me a folded piece of paper.
I open it. It’s a drawing. An old drawing of mine. A funny face with big, round, blue eyes cause I didn’t have green.
Tears start flowing down my cheeks.
“You stopped writing.”
“Wanted to see where I stand. So I can be sure.”
“Are you now?”
I hesitate for a moment, then wrap my hands around him and squeeze tight.
Dolores, age 27 (entry #8697):
A clear morning. The smell of goat cheese and fresh baguette. He's made breakfast. We eat, then we head for the clinic.
We're strolling down the Promenade, slurping from juice-boxes. The Diary-removal procedure's supposed to be short and painless. All will be the same, except we'll no longer have the ghosts of our past selves burdening our decisions.
At the clinic doors, he takes my hand in his.
We walk right in.