by Greg Egan

B B   A A A A A

This is an excerpt from the novel Distress by Greg Egan, first published in the United Kingdom by Orion/Millennium and in the United States of America by HarperCollins. Copyright © Greg Egan, 1995. All rights reserved.

Publication history

Chapter 1

“All right. He’s dead. Go ahead and talk to him.”

The bioethicist was a laconic young asex with blond dreadlocks and a T-shirt which flashed up the slogan SAY NO TO TOE! in between the paid advertising. Ve countersigned the permission form on the forensic pathologist’s notepad, then withdrew to a corner of the room. The trauma specialist and the paramedic wheeled their resuscitation equipment out of the way, and the forensic pathologist hurried forward, hypodermic syringe in hand, to administer the first dose of neuropreservative. Useless prior to legal death — massively toxic to several organs, on a time scale of hours — the cocktail of glutamate antagonists, calcium channel blockers, and antioxidants would halt the most damaging biochemical changes in the victim’s brain, almost immediately.

The pathologist’s assistant followed close behind her, with a trolley bearing all the paraphernalia of post-mortem revival: a tray of disposable surgical instruments; several racks of electronic equipment; an arterial pump fed from three glass tanks the size of water-coolers; and something resembling a hairnet made out of grey superconducting wire.

Lukowski, the homicide detective, was standing beside me. He mused, “If everyone was fitted out like you, Worth, we’d never have to do this. We could just replay the crime from start to finish. Like reading an aircraft’s black box.”

I replied without looking away from the operating table; I could edit out our voices easily enough, but I wanted a continuous take of the pathologist connecting up the surrogate blood supply. “If everyone had optic nerve taps, don’t you think murderers would start hacking the memory chips out of their victims’ bodies?”

“Sometimes. But no one hung around to mess up this guy’s brain, did they?”

“Wait until they’ve seen the documentary.”

The pathologist’s assistant sprayed a depilatory enzyme onto the victim’s skull, and then wiped all the close-cropped black hair away with a couple of sweeps of his gloved hand. As he dropped the mess into a plastic sample bag, I realised why it was holding together instead of dispersing like barber’s shop waste; several layers of skin had come with it. The assistant glued the “hairnet” — a skein of electrodes and SQID detectors — to the bare pink scalp. The pathologist finished checking the blood supply, then made an incision in the trachea and inserted a tube, hooked up to a small pump to take the place of the collapsed lungs. Nothing to do with respiration; purely as an aid to speech. It was possible to monitor the nerve impulses to the larynx, and synthesise the intended sounds by wholly electronic means, but apparently the voice was always less garbled if the victim could experience something like the normal tactile and auditory feedback produced by a vibrating column of air. The assistant fitted a padded bandage over the victim’s eyes; in rare cases, feeling could return sporadically to the skin of the face, and since retinal cells were deliberately not revived, some kind of temporary ocular injury was the easiest lie to explain away the pragmatic blindness.

I thought again about possible narration. In 1888, police surgeons photographed the retinas of one victim of Jack the Ripper, in the vain hope that they might discover the face of the killer embalmed in the light-sensitive pigments of the human eye ...

No. Too predictable. And too misleading; revival was not a process of extracting information from a passive corpse. But what were the alternative references? Orpheus? Lazarus? “The Monkey’s Paw”? “The Tell-Tale Heart”? Reanimator? Nothing in myth or fiction had really prefigured the truth. Better to make no glib comparisons. Let the corpse speak for itself.

A spasm passed through the victim’s body. A temporary pacemaker was forcing his damaged heart to beat — operating at power levels which would poison every cardiac muscle fibre with electrochemical by-products, in fifteen or twenty minutes at the most. Pre-oxygenated ersatz blood was being fed into his heart’s left atrium, in lieu of a supply from the lungs, pumped through the body once only, then removed via the pulmonary arteries and discarded. An open system was less trouble than recirculation, in the short term. The half-repaired knife wounds in his abdomen and torso made a mess, leaking thin scarlet fluid into the drainage channels of the operating table, but they posed no real threat; a hundred times as much blood was being extracted every second, deliberately. No one had bothered to remove the surgical larvae, though, so they kept on working as if nothing had changed: stitching and chemically cauterising the smaller blood vessels with their jaws, cleaning and disinfecting the wounds, sniffing about blindly for necrotic tissue and clots to consume.

Maintaining the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain was essential — but it wouldn’t reverse the deterioration which had already taken place. The true catalysts of revival were the billions of liposomes — microscopic drug capsules made from lipid membranes — being infused along with the ersatz blood. One key protein embedded in the membrane unlocked the blood-brain barrier, enabling the liposomes to burrow out of the cerebral capillaries into the interneural space. Other proteins caused the membrane itself to fuse with the cell wall of the first suitable neuron it encountered, disgorging an elaborate package of biochemical machinery to reenergise the cell, mop up some of the molecular detritus of ischaemic damage, and protect against the shock of re-oxygenation.

Other liposomes were tailored for other cell types: muscle fibres in the vocal fold, the jaw, the lips, the tongue; receptors in the inner ear. They all contained drugs and enzymes with similar effects: hijacking the dying cell and forcing it, briefly, to marshal its resources for one final — unsustainable — burst of activity.

Revival was not resuscitation pushed to heroic extremes. Revival was permitted only when the long-term survival of the patient was no longer a consideration, because every method which might have achieved that outcome had already failed.

The pathologist glanced at a display screen on the equipment trolley. I followed her gaze; there were wave traces showing erratic brain rhythms, and fluctuating bar graphs measuring toxins and breakdown products being flushed out of the body. Lukowski stepped forward expectantly. I followed him.

The assistant hit a button on a keypad. The victim twitched and coughed blood — some of it still his own, dark and clotted. The wave traces spiked, then became smoother, more periodic.

Lukowski took the victim’s hand and squeezed it — a gesture which struck me as cynical, although for all I knew it might have reflected a genuine compassionate impulse. I glanced at the bioethicist. Vis T-shirt now read CREDIBILITY IS A COMMODITY. I couldn’t decide if that was a sponsored message or a personal opinion.

Lukowski said, “Daniel? Danny? Can you hear me?” There was no obvious physical response, but the brain waves danced. Daniel Cavolini was a music student, nineteen years old. He’d been found around eleven, bleeding and unconscious, in a corner of the Town Hall railway station — with watch, notepad, and shoes still on him, unlikely in a random mugging gone wrong. I’d been hanging out with the homicide squad for a fortnight, waiting for something like this. Warrants for revival were issued only if the evidence favoured the victim being able to name the assailant; there was little prospect of obtaining a usable verbal description of a stranger, let alone an identikit of the killer’s face. Lukowski had woken a magistrate just after midnight, the minute the prognosis was clear.

Cavolini’s skin was turning a strange shade of crimson, as more and more revived cells began taking up oxygen. The alien-hued transporter molecule in the ersatz blood was more efficient than haemoglobin — but like all the other revival drugs, it was ultimately toxic.

The pathologist’s assistant hit some more keys. Cavolini twitched and coughed again. It was a delicate balancing act; small shocks to the brain were necessary to restore the major coherent rhythms ... but too much external interference could wipe out the remnants of short-term memory. Even after legal death, neurons could remain active deep in the brain, keeping the symbolic firing-pattern representations of recent memories circulating for several minutes. Revival could temporarily restore the neural infrastructure needed to extract those traces, but if they’d already died away completely — or been swamped by the efforts to recover them — interrogation was pointless.

Lukowski said soothingly, “You’re okay now, Danny. You’re in hospital. You’re safe. But you have to tell me who did this to you. Tell me who had the knife.”

A hoarse whisper emerged from Cavolini’s mouth: one faint, aspirated syllable, then silence. My skin crawled with predictable monkey’s paw horror — but I felt an idiotic surge of exultation, too, as if part of me simply refused to accept that this sign of life could not be a sign of hope.

Cavolini tried again, and the second attempt was more sustained. His artificial exhalation, detached from voluntary control, made it sound like he was gasping for breath; the effect was pitiful — but he wasn’t actually short of oxygen at all. His speech was so broken and tortuous that I couldn’t make out a single word, but an array of piezoelectric sensors was glued to his throat, and wired to a computer. I turned to the display panel.

Why can’t I see?

Lukowski said, “Your eyes are bandaged. There were a couple of broken blood vessels, but they’ve been repaired; there’ll be no permanent damage, I promise. So just ... lie still, and relax. And tell me what happened.”

What time is it? Please. I better call home. I better tell them —

“We’ve spoken to your parents. They’re on their way, they’ll be here as soon as possible.”

That much was true — but even if they showed up in the next ninety seconds, they would not be allowed into the room.

“You were waiting for the train home, weren’t you? Platform four. Remember? Waiting for the ten-thirty to Strathfield. But you didn’t get on. What happened?” I saw Lukowski’s gaze shift to a graph below the transcript window, where half a dozen rising curves recording improved vital signs were extended by dashed computer projections. All of the projected curves hit their peaks a minute or so in the future, then swiftly declined.

He had a knife. Cavolini’s right arm began to twitch, and his slack facial muscles came to life for the first time, taking on a grimace of pain. It still hurts. Please help me. The bioethicist glanced calmly at some figures on the display screen, but declined to intervene. Any effective anaesthetic would damp down neural activity too much to allow the interrogation to continue; it was all or nothing, abort or proceed.

Lukowski said gently, “The nurse is getting some pain killers. Hang in there, man, it won’t be long. But tell me: who had the knife?” The faces of both of them were glistening with sweat now; Lukowski’s arm was scarlet up to the elbow. I thought: If you found someone dying on the pavement in a pool of blood, you’d ask the same questions, wouldn’t you? And tell the same reassuring lies?

“Who was it, Danny?”

My brother.

“Your brother had the knife?”

No he didn’t. I can’t remember what happened. Ask me later. My head’s too fuzzy now.

“Why did you say it was your brother? Was it him, or wasn’t it?”

Of course it wasn’t him. Don’t tell anyone I said that. I’ll be all right if you stop confusing me. Can I have the painkillers now? Please?

His face flowed and froze, flowed and froze, like a sequence of masks, making his suffering seem stylised, abstract. He began to move his head back and forth; weakly at first, then with manic speed and energy. I assumed he was having some kind of seizure: the revival drugs were overstimulating some damaged neural pathway.

Then he reached up with his right hand and tore away the blindfold.

His head stopped jerking immediately; maybe his skin had grown hypersensitive, and the blindfold had become an unbearable irritation. He blinked a few times, then squinted up at the room’s bright lights. I could see his pupils contract, his eyes moving purposefully. He raised his head slightly and examined Lukowski, then looked down at his own body and its strange adornments: the pacemaker’s brightly coloured ribbon cable; the heavy plastic blood-supply tubes; the knife wounds full of glistening white maggots. Nobody moved, nobody spoke, while he inspected the needles and electrodes buried in his chest, the strange pink tide washing out of him, his ruined lungs, his artificial airway. The display screen was behind him, but everything else was there to be taken in at a glance. In a matter of seconds, he knew; I could see the weight of understanding descend on him.

He opened his mouth, then closed it again. His expression shifted rapidly; through the pain there was a sudden flash of pure astonishment, and then an almost amused comprehension of the full strangeness — and maybe even the perverse virtuosity — of the feat to which he’d been subjected. For an instant, he really did look like someone admiring a brilliant, vicious, bloody practical joke at his own expense.

Then he said clearly, between enforced robotic gasps: “I ... don’t ... think ... this ... is ... a ... good ... id ... dea. I ... don’t ... want ... to ... talk ... any ... more.”

He closed his eyes and sank back on to the table. His vital signs were descending rapidly.

Lukowski turned to the pathologist. He was ashen, but he still gripped the boy’s hand. “How could the retinas function? What did you do? You stupid — ” He raised his free hand as if to strike her, but he didn’t follow through. The bioethicist’s T-shirt read: ETERNAL LOVE IS A LOVEPET. MADE FROM YOUR LOVED ONE’S OWN DNA. The pathologist, standing her ground, screamed back at Lukowski, “You had to push him, didn’t you? You had to keep on and on about the brother, while his stress hormone index climbed straight into the red!” I wondered who’d decided what a normal level of adrenaline was, for the state of being dead from knife wounds but otherwise relaxed. Someone behind me emitted a long string of incoherent obscenities. I turned to see the paramedic, who would have been with Cavolini since the ambulance; I hadn’t even realised that he was still in the room. He was staring at the floor, his fists clenched tight, shaking with anger.

Lukowski grabbed my elbow, staining me with synthetic blood. He spoke in a stage whisper, as if hoping to keep his words off the soundtrack. “You can film the next one, okay? This has never happened before — never — and if you show people a one-in-a-million glitch as if it was — ”

The bioethicist ventured mildly, “I think the guidelines from the Taylor committee on optional restraints make it clear — ”

The pathologist’s assistant turned on ver, outraged. “Who asked you for an opinion? Procedure is none of your business, you pathetic — ”

An ear-splitting alarm went off, somewhere deep in the electronic guts of the revival apparatus. The pathologist’s assistant bent over the equipment, and bashed on the keypad like a frustrated child attacking a broken toy, until the noise went away.

In the silence that followed, I almost closed my eyes, invoked Witness, stopped recording. I’d seen enough.

Then Daniel Cavolini regained consciousness, and began to scream.

I watched as they pumped him full of morphine, and waited for the revival drugs to finish him off.

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Greg Egan science fiction writer Photo of Greg Egan, science fiction writer Photo of Greg Egan, science fiction writer Photo of Greg Egan, science fiction writer Photo of Greg Egan, science fiction writer Photo of Greg Egan, science fiction writer Photo of Greg Egan, science fiction writer Photo of Greg Egan, science fiction writer Photo of Greg Egan, science fiction writer
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Copyright © Greg Egan, 1995. All rights reserved.