“So…doing 1nthing for dinner tonight?” I said.
It had been eight weeks since I started working with Laurie in the lab. That worked out to one week of getting to know one another, five weeks of listening to her go on about her steadily decaying personal relationship, and two weeks after the break-up to give her time to mourn and avoid looking like a sexual scavenger targeting some vulnerable relationship roadkill.
“What did you just say?” Laurie looked up from her laptop and stared at me like I was a peacock in an evening dress. After waiting this long to ask her out, it was not the response I was really hoping for.
“I s1id…’” I tried again.
“No, wait. You did it again.” Laurie turned away from her laptop to give me her undivided attention. There was a note in her voice somewhere between curiosity and concern.
“Did wh1t?” For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what Laurie was going on about. Was I slurring or something? Maybe something in my accent? I’d moved around so much as a kid that my personal version of English had everything from New Jersey nasality to a Mississippi drawl. Maybe there was something in my voice the beautiful speech pathologist I’d been sharing a cubicle with for eight weeks had somehow not heard?
“S1y ‘a’.” She said.
“Just do it, Vikram. Say ‘a’.”
“1.” I said.
“Did you hear it that time?” She asked.
“He1r wh1t?” I was starting to get concerned now. Either this was the set up to a hell of a prank, or I’d suddenly gone selectively deaf to a terrible speech impediment that was currently killing my chances of a date. Neither option seemed terribly plausible at the moment…unless Laurie really, really wanted an excuse out of going to dinner with me.
“Okay, I want you to say ‘a’ again, but this time, pay attention to how you say it—the shape of your mouth, the movement of your tongue. Try to enunciate.” Laurie spoke very carefully, just like she did to her patients.
“1.” I said—and doing it, I knew it was wrong. I knew I had said ‘a’, I had heard it as ‘a’, but my tongue had touched the top of my mouth. That wasn’t right. I tried it a few more times. “1. 1. 1.” I tried. I could not hear the difference, but now that I twigged to the way my mouth was moving, it bothered the hell out of me. The worst part was that when I wasn’t paying attention, I couldn’t notice it—and even saying it, I couldn’t hear the difference between what I wanted to say and what sound was coming out of my mouth.
“I’m calling Dr. Choudury. We need to get you down there as soon as possible.” She said.
“L1urie. Wh1t 1m I s1ying?”
Laurie looked me in the eyes, her baby browns misting up a little. “You’re saying ‘one’. I think…I think you might have synumeraethesia.”
“It’s a condition, Mr. Walloon,” Dr. Ilias said. “triggered by a viral infection.”
Laurie squeezed my hand, and I gave her a small squeeze back. The initial visit had led me from one end of the hospital to another, until at least two percent of my fluid volume resided in a variety of test tubes. I had been irradiated and imaged by every device in the hospital, and they were seriously thinking of sending me to a bigger hospital with when the Center for Disease Control marched in, Hazmat Gestapo mode, to lay claim to the entire hospital and anybody and anything that might have come into contact with me. When everything was said and done, they’d dressed Laurie and I in their best floral-print smocks and sat us down with Dr. Ilias for the bad news.
“The first symptoms are a very mild and specific form of synaesthesia—the conflation or confusion different sensory data. It is involuntary, automatic, and in the majority of cases somewhat minor—the association of certain letters with particular colors, for example. A normal person would see a white page of black text, while the synesthete would perceive each letter as its specific color. Rarely, the condition is more pronounced: a person might ‘smell’ colors, or textures might cause them to ‘hear’ sounds. In each case, it is not sensory organ that is at fault, but an error in how the brain receives and processes the information. In your case, the virus specifically targets parts of the brain associated with speech, language, and mathematics. A correlation develops between certain letters and numbers. You perceive the letter ‘a’ as ‘1’, and as you noted from your hearing tests, you automatically perceive ‘1’ and ‘a’ as having the same value.”
“It used to be called ‘Cryptographer’s Disease,’ because the results are often the equivalent of a basic cipher—replacing letters with numbers. The basic mechanism exists in everyone. If you read 6-5-1-18 and know it is a simple substitution, you would quickly be able to translate it—6-F, 5-E, 1-A, 18-R—as FEAR. With a little practice, you can read 6-5-1-18 as FEAR quite easily, without even having to think about the substitution. That is, in effect, what is going on in your head, Mr. Wallace.” Ilias fiddled with his pen. “Our tests reveal the viral infection has pretty well run its course; we’ll give you a dose of anti-virals just to make sure. The problem is that the virus merely triggers an innate function of the human brain, and the development is much the same as when you learned to speak and add or subtract. The coordination between numbers and letters that has begun in your grey matter continues to develop.”
“Are there any options for treatment?” Laurie said.
“Clinical trials for pharmaceuticals have not gone well; early efforts along those lines led to permanent speech, mathematical and comprehension disabilities without significantly affecting the progression of the condition. A hemispherectomy—disabling one half of the brain—can cease the spread in many cases, but carries its own significant side effects and is in any case normally reserved for children. The CDC does have an experimental treatment, which does not involve the attendant risks of surgery, but it involves the condition to have pretty much run its course, during which time you should be under observation. Results so far have been excellent, but in cases where it fails…well, the condition worsens.”
I looked at Laurie, and she looked at me. I turned back to the doctor.
“Where do 9 s9gn?”
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13-25 12-1-14-7-21-1-7-5 8-1-19 3-15-12-12-1-16-19-5-4 20-15 1 19-5-20 15-6 5-24-16-18-5-19-19-9-15-14-19, 1-14-4 5-22-5-18-25 19-5-17-21-5-14-3-5 15-6 14-21-13-2-5-18-19 1-14-4 12-5-20-20-5-18-19 8-15-12-4 4-21-1-12 13-5-1-14-9-14-7-19 6-15-18 13-5. 20-8-9-19 13-21-19-20 2-5 20-8-5 7-14-15-19-9-19 15-6 20-8-5 16-25-20-8-1-7-15-18-5-1-14-19, 20-8-5 8-9-4-4-5-14 19-5-3-18-5-20 4-9-19-5-1-19-5 15-6 14-21-13-5-18-15-12-15-7-9-19-20-19. 5-22-5-18-25 14-21-13-2-5-18 9-19 1-12-19-15 1 12-5-20-20-5-18, 16-18-5-7-14-1-14-20 23-9-20-8 13-5-1-14-9-14-7, 1-14-4 1-12-12 12-5-20-20-5-18-19 1-18-5 14-21-13-2-5-18-19 9-14 13-25 5-25-5-19 14-15-23. 3-15-13-16-12-5-24 23-15-18-4-19 3-15-12-12-1-16-19-5 9-14-20-15 1-14 5-17-21-1-20-9-15-14 23-8-9-3-8, 9-6 3-15-13-16-12-5-20-5-4, 18-5-3-15-14-19-20-9-20-21-20-5-19 20-8-5 20-5-18-13. 13-25 6-5-12-12-15-23 19-21-6-6-5-18-5-18-19 1-14-4 9 19-16-12-9-14-20-5-18 15-6-6 15-21-18 10-1-18-7-15-14 1-12-15-14-7 12-9-14-5-19 15-6 13-1-20-8-5-13-1-20-9-3-1-12 12-15-7-9-3, 4-5-22-5-12-15-16-9-14-7 19-12-1-14-7 20-8-1-20 15-14-12-25 13-1-11-5-19 19-5-14-19-5 9-14 1 12-1-14-7-21-1-7-5 20-8-1-20 3-1-14 2-5 19-21-2-10-5-3-20 20-15 1-12-7-5-2-18-1-9-3 15-16-5-18-1-20-9-15-14-19.
20-8-9-19 12-1-19-20 23-5-5-11 15-18 19-15, 9 8-1-22-5 20-1-11-5-14 20-15 18-5-1-4-9-14-7 16-8-15-14-5 2-15-15-11-19. 9-20 9-19 12-9-11-5 16-15-5-20-18-25 20-15 13-5 14-15-23…20-8-5 6-18-1-3-20-21-18-5-4 19-25-12-12-1-2-12-5-19 5-24-16-18-5-19-19-5-4 9-14 20-8-5 19-5-22-5-14 4-9-7-9-20-19 6-15-18-13 5-24-15-20-9-3 13-5-20-5-18-19. 9 23-18-15-20-5 15-14-5 15-6 20-8-5-13 15-21-20 6-15-18 12-1-21-18-9-5, 2-21-20 19-8-5 4-9-4 14-15-20 21-14-4-5-18-19-20-1-14-4, 3-15-21-12-4 14-15-20 17-21-9-20-5 13-1-11-5 9-20 15-21-20. 9-20 20-15-15-11 13-5 19-15-13-5 20-9-13-5, 20-15 5-24-16-12-1-9-14 8-15-23 20-8-5-25 1-12-12 16-12-1-25-5-4 15-14 22-1-18-9-1-20-9-15-14-19 15-6 8-5-18 14-1-13-5-14-21-13-2-5-18. 9-20 23-1-19 1 8-25-13-14 20-15 12-1-21-18-9-5, 8-9-4-4-5-14 9-14 16-19-5-21-4-15-18-1-14-4-15-13 14-21-13-2-5-18-19, 23-1-9-20-9-14-7 20-15 2-5 6-15-21-14-4.
20-8-5-25 3-15-13-5 6-15-18 13-5 14-15-23. 9-6 20-8-5-25 19-21-3-3-5-5-4, 9 20-8-9-14-11 9 23-9-12-12 12-15-19-5 20-8-9-19 19-9-13-16-12-5, 2-12-9-19-19-6-21-12 21-14-4-5-18-19-20-1-14-4-9-14-7, 1-14-4 18-5-20-21-18-14 20-15 20-8-5 23-15-18-12-4 1-19 9 23-1-19—9-7-14-15-18-1-14-20, 2-21-20 3-21-18-5-4. 9-6 20-8-5-25 6-1-9-12, 20-8-5-25 19-1-25 9-20 23-9-12-12 2-5 23-15-18-19-5. 9 20-8-9-14-11 9 23-9-19-8 20-15 2-5 3-21-18-5-4. 2-5-20-20-5-18 20-15 2-5 9-7-14-15-18-1-14-20, 1-14-4 23-9-20-8 12-1-21-18-9-5, 20-8-1-14 1-19 9 1-13.
Laurie attended the procedure. The orderlies had shaved the sides of Vikram’s head around the ears and set him face-down on the table. Dr. Ilias was there, to explain what was about to happen.
“The initial cause of your condition was a viral infection. Now that your brain has re-mapped itself, we are going to deliberately expose you to a related strain. In ninety percent of subjects, this begins a reverse of the original alpha-numeric correlation. Your brain will begin to associate 1 with ‘a’, 2 with ‘b’, and so on until you have regained your previous ability to communicate in alphabetic characters.”
A nurse brought in a chrome box emblazoned all over with an overlapping fluorescent biohazard skein. He popped the box to reveal a pair of needles, their business ends capped and sealed, then swabbed Vikram’s shaven head.
“The virus is introduced simultaneously into the internal carotid arteries, which passes behind the ear and into the temporal lobes.” Ilias explained. Two doctors entered the room, gloved and masked. Ilias politely shut up, and together he and Laurie spent the next few moments in silence. The first doctor lightly tapped the left side of the head, found the artery, and slid the tiny steel needle beneath the skin. On the right, his partner had done likewise. The looked at each other, and the doctor on the left held up three fingers. Two. One.
The plungers depressed. Vikram lay like a beached whale, as they withdrew the needles.
A = 0
Vikram was reading the phonebook again when she came to visit. It had been a week, and Dr. Ilias had said he should be responding to the treatment by now. She was surprised to see Dr. Ilias himself there for the visit.
“Hello Vikram.” she said. “How are you feeling?”
The corners of Vikram’s mouth twisted, and he spoke.
“8 B-11-18-4 1B-11-17.” he said, quite clearly, struggling to enunciate.
Laurie did a quick translation in her head. “That’s…not right, is it?”
“No.” Dr. Ilias said quietly. “It is not.”
Vikram signed to her, hands shaking. Laurie signed him back.
“The procedure does not always work.” Ilias explained. “Each individual is different; the anatomy of their brain at a fundamental level is often quite unique, the result of a lifetime of learning, growth, damage, and abuse. Connections are made and later degrade, only to regenerate as the body seeks to correct the flaw. A path to a memory of yesterday may be lost and found again a million times. A virus, too, is unpredictable, prone to mutation, vulnerable to antibodies. Much work remains to be done on the procedure.”
“What happened?” Laurie said.
“The initial infection was successful, the result was not. There are an infinite number of ways to correlate letters and numbers. We had hoped Mr. Wallace’s brain would re-acquaint itself with the most familiar method—to work from the base 10 substitution cipher back to plain speech. Instead, his brain settled on a different substitution cipher.” Ilias paused.