Thursday, May 5, 2011

A = 1

“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.

“I don’t…”

“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?”

My br1-9n h1s b5-5n r5w9r9ng 9ts5lf f15r thr5-5 w5-5ks n15w. Th5 CDC m15v5d m5 9nt15 1 cl9n9c f21ll 15f s9m9l1r s21ff5r5rs, s21m5wh5r5 15-21ts9d5 15f 1tl1nt1. 1 st1t5ly w1rd w9th b9g scr5-5n5d-9n p1t9-15s th1t g9v5 v9-5ws 15f w9d5 gr1ssy l1wns 1nd p1tch5s 15f b1r5 bl15-15dy s15-9l, 5nd9ng 9n k21dz21-c15v5r5d br9ck w1lls th1t m9ght h1v5 st15-15d th5r5 wh5n Sh5rm1n p21t th5 c9ty t15 th5 t15rch. 5v5ry15n5 th5r5 9s w15rk9ng t15 g5t t15 th5 m1g9c p15-9nt wh5r5 th5 d15ct15rs c1n try th5-9r m9r1cl5 sh15t th1t c1n k9ll 15r c21r5. H15n5stly, 1t th9s p15-9nt 9’m n9t s21r5 wh9ch w1y 9’d pr5f5r t15 g15. Th9s pl1c5 9s 1n 1syl21m by 1ny 15th5r n1m5, 1nd th5 f15rms 9 s9gn5d t15 g5t 9n 1r5 5n15-21gh t9 k5-5p m5 h5r5 21nt9l w5ll p1st j21dgm5nt d1y.

Th5 c15nd9t9-15n h1s spr5-1d p1st h5-1r9ng, p1st sp5-1k9ng. M21scl5 m5m15r9-5s w1r w9th th5 wr15ng s9gn1ls fr15m my br1-9n wh5n5v5r 9 try t15 wr9t5 15r typ5, s15 n15w 5v5n my ch9ck5n scr1tch n15t5s l15-15k l9k5 1n 1lg5br1-9st’s n9ghtm1r5. 1t n9ght, wh5n th5y g9v5 21s 15-21r m5ds 1nd d9m th5 l9ghts, 9 l9-5 1w1k5 1t n9ght, b5c1-21s5 9n my dr5-1ms 5v5ry15n5 sp5-1ks 9n n21mb5rs.

Synth15n21m5r1-5sth5s9-1 9s c1-21s5d by th9nk9ng, th5 br1-9n m1k9ng c15nn5ct9-15ns, w15rk9ng thr15-21gh th5 1lph1b5t 1nd s5t 15f n21mb5rs. S15 th5 ‘th5r1py’ p1rt 15f th5 c21r5 9s 1ll 1b15-21t m1k9ng 21s th9nk. W5-’r5 g9v5n crypt15-s15d21k21 m1st5rp9-5c5s th1t sp5ll 15-21t h1-9k21 p15-5try 9n b1s9c c9ph5rs, 1nd pl1y fl1shc1rd g1m5s w9th sp5c9-1l 1lph1n21m5r9c d5cks. Th5r5 9s 1 c15nst1nt l15w-9nt5ns9ty b1bbl5 1s p5-15pl5 t1lk t15 5-1ch 15th5r, th5 h1lfn21m5r1l, h1lf-1lph1b5t9c1l ch1tt5r pr15c5ss9ng 9n 15-21r b1ckbr1-9ns. Th5 c15nc5ntr1t9-15n 15f st9m21l9-, th5 d15cs s1y, w9ll sp5-5d th5 pr15c5ss 1l15ng.

L1-21r9-5 c15m5s by, wh5n sh5 c1n. Th5 d15ct15rs d15n’t m9nd h5r v9s9t9ng, b21t d15n’t 5nc15-21r1g5 h5r t15 st1y l15ng. 9 tr9-5d t15 t1lk t15 h5r, 1t f9rst. T15 w15rk 1r15-21nd th5 d9s5-1s5-, 21s5 w15rds w9th l5tt5rs 9 h1dn’t l15st y5t. 9t d9dn’t w15rk. 9 s15-21nd5d l9k5 1 l15v5s9ck t5-5n1g5r sp15-21t9ng d15gg5r5l v5rs5-. L1-21r9-5-, bl5ss h5r h5-1rt, 21nd5rst15-15d. S15 sh5 st1rt5d t5-1ch9ng m5 h15w t15 s9gn.

W5 st1y5d 1w1y fr15m th5 l5tt5rs 1nd n21mb5rs. 1v15-9d5d 1 n5w 1v5n21-5 f15r th5 c15nd9t9-15n t15 pr15gr5ss d15wn, n5w w1ys t15 scr5w 21p my br1-9n. L1-21r9-5 h1d 1n 9d5-1 th1t th5 s15m1t9c c15mp15n5nt, th5 v9sc5r1l m15t9-15n 15f m15v9ng 1rms, h1nds, 1nd f9ng5rs m9ght h5lp 1 b9t, 1nd th1t 9f w5 st21ck t15 r5pr5s5nt1t9v5 s9gns w5-’d b5 15k1y. S15 w5 g5t by, 1n h15-21r 15r tw15 1t 1 t9m5-, s9tt9ng 1cr15ss th5 t1bl5 fr15m 15n5 1n15th5r 21nd5r th5 g1z5 15f th5 15rd5rl9-5s, try9ng t15 t1lk w9th15-21t sp5-1k9ng.

L1-21r9-5 t1k5s n15t5s, t5ll9ng m5 sh5-’s w15rk9ng 15n 1n 1rt9cl5 f15r 1 sp5-5ch p1th15l15gy j15-21rn1l.

9 w1nt t15 t5ll h5r th1t 9 l15v5 h5r. F5-5l h5r h1nd 1g1-9nst m9n5 1g1-9n. J21st t15 s9t n5xt t15 h5r, ch5-5k t15 ch5-5k, 1nd f5-5l th5 w1rmth 15f h5r 1g1-9nst m5-. 9t’s wh1t 9 h15ld 15nt15 1s 9 w15rk my w15rdm1th s15l9t1-9r5-, wh1t 9 wh9sp5r 1b15-21t 1t n9ght wh5n th5 15th5rs st1rt cr1ck9ng d9rty j15k5s 15r 9ns21lt9ng th5 15rd5rl9-5s 9n m1thd1m1g5d 5ngl9sh.


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.

The Cure
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.

“Base 13.”



  1. Awesome. That said, you coded "sUmewhere outside of Atlanta", "at this point I'm nIt sure", and "enough tI keep me well past".