During the wintry depths of his depression, his seasonal affective disorder in Elton, New Mexico, Dr. Radhakrishnan would have settled for any kind of surgery at all. He would sit in his house, looking out the windows into the dim blue light, which would sift down from the sky like a gradual snowfall, and watch the neighbors’ dogs sniff and dig into snow-banks, and wonder how one went about getting one’s hands on a dog, and whether it was technically illegal to do brain surgery on one, just for practice. Now that he was back in the saddle, though, he was starting to get picky. In this phase of the project, they were working on Mr. Easyrider and Mr. Scatflinger, not their real names. The samples of brain tissue that had been overnight-expressed to Dr. Radhakrishnan in Elton had belonged to these two men.
It was not entirely clear what their real names were. Both of the patients were in the category of found objects. Neither one was neurologically equipped to identify himself, and if either of them had been in the habit of carrying identification, it had been removed by other persons before they had come under the purview of the authorities. Before Dr. Radhakrishnan arrived to impose some sense of decorum on the Barracks, the Americans (naturally) had come up with these names. Like everything else that bubbled up over the rim of the icky cultural stewpot of America, the names were pervasive and sticky and could not be scrubbed off once applied. Actually, for a while they had referred to Mr. Scatflinger as Mr. Shitpitcher, but this was completely unacceptable – the nurses could not even bring themselves to say it – and so Dr. Radhakrishnan had changed it.
Mr. Easyrider had been run over by a motorcycle. They could not be positive about this, since there were no witnesses to the event, but the motorcycle track running over the side of his head provided telling circumstantial evidence. The resulting trauma had caused a subarachnoid hemorrhage, which is to say that a blood vessel had burst inside his head and bled internally, killing part of the brain.
Mr. Scatflinger, nee Shitpitcher, had been employed in heaving cow manure on to a trailer. The trailer had tipped, an avalanche had taken place, and his legs had been underneath it. There were major broken bones. A fat embolism formed at the site of one of these breaks, passed up into his heart, and then apparently crossed over from one side of his heart to the other through a small congenital hole. From there it was pumped straight up his carotid artery into his brain where it caused a massive stroke. This was known as a paradoxical embolism.
If Dr. Radhakrishnan were to take certain doctrines of his religion absolutely literally, he would not be allowed to have any contact with either Mr. Easyrider or Mr. Scatflinger. Yet today he was going to carve great holes in their skulls and implant fresh biochips. Of course he was wearing gloves, so technically speaking he wasn’t coming into contact with them. But this was a technicality.
Anyone who adhered, at least nominally, to any religion that was invented millennia ago by people who ran around in burlap and believed that the Earth was built on the back of a turtle – that is, any of the major religions – ran into little dilemmas like those on a regular basis. The Christians practiced ritual cannibalism. Whenever he flew between the West and India there was always at least one Muslim on the plane who had to get out the in-flight magazine, check out the route map on the back page, triangulate against the position of the sun, and try to figure out in which direction Mecca lay. And when the ambulance had brought a Chiricahua Apache in to the Elton State University hospitals with a severe brain bleed that needed emergency surgery, Dr. Radhakrishnan had not had time to consult all of the religious authorities in order to figure out whether Hinduism allowed him to touch an Apache. He just gloved up and dove in there. At a certain point one had to just shrug, stop looking over one’s shoulder theologically, and get on with life. Perhaps in some later life, at some more mystical plane of existence, Dr. Radhakrishnan would find out whether or not he had broken any cosmic rules by touching an Apache in New Mexico, or by touching Messrs. Easyrider and Scatflinger here in Delhi. In the meantime, like everyone else, he had to translate the arcane precepts of his ancient religion into a somewhat looser and vaguer set of rules called ethics, or values.
“I am waiting for the biochips,” he said into the telephone. “Waiting and waiting and waiting.”
There was a brief silence on the other end of the line, or what passed for silence. Indian telephones had a sort of organic quality. Not the sterile silence of American fiber-optic linkups. On one of these phones, one felt that one was plugged into the electromagnetic fabric of the entire universe; the phone system just one huge antenna picking up emanations from other telephones, television and radio stations, power lines, automobile ignition systems, quasars in deep space, and stirring them together into a thick sonic curry. This is what Dr. Radhakrishnan listened to while he was waiting for Zeldo to come up with another excuse for not being ready.
“There’s just one more bug that we really ought to get rid of,” Zeldo said. “Twenty of the best guys in the business are going over this code line by line.”
“Twenty? You only have four people there!”
“Most of the work is being done in California. Over a satellite link,” Zeldo said.
”Well,” Dr. Radhakrishnan said, “while your team is sipping espresso in Marin County, my team is standing in a hallway here at AIIMS with two brain-damaged patients on gurneys, waiting.”
A long silence, the sonic curry poured forth from the telephone. “I don’t know what to tell you,” Zeldo said. “It’s not quite ready.”
“Did you hear about the programmer’s wife?” Dr. Radhakrishnan said. “She is still a virgin. Her husband just sits on the edge of the bed every night and tells her how great it’s going to be.”
Zeldo did not laugh. Dr. Radhakrishnan was beginning to get that tingly feeling in his hands.
He stuck his head out of the office and looked down the hallway. Mr. Scatflinger was lying on the gurney, quiescent, his head freshly shaved, blue lines drawn on his scalp like the rhumb lines of an ancient navigator.
“Can you or can you not reprogram this thing remotely, after implantation?”
“We can modify the software. That’s how we’re programming it as we speak. It’s sitting in the culture tank and we’re talking to it over the radio.”
“Put the culture tank into the truck and get it over here now. That is an order.”
The chip consisted of a silicon part – the part that Zeldo was responsible for – surrounded by an inert teflon shell, connected on either end to brain cells that had been grown in a tank in Seattle. The only way to keep those brain cells alive was to supply them with oxygen and nutrients. The biochip sat in a tank full of a carefully pH-balanced, temperature-regulated, oxygenated chemical solution that Zeldo and the other Americans referred to as “chicken soup.” The soup gave the brain cells everything they needed to stay alive, except for intellectual stimulation. The chip was only a couple of centimeters long in its entirety and so the tank itself wasn’t that large, just a few liters in size. But it was attached to a variety of machines to keep it properly balanced and regulated, so the apparatus as a whole ended up being roughly the size of a vending machine. It rolled around on oversized rubber wheels, and it had enough built-in backup battery power so that it could be unplugged from the wall for up to half an hour. All of this portability was needed, for the time being, because of the far-flung nature of this enterprise. The chips had first been incarnated in Seattle, placed into this tank, and then rolled on board a specially chartered GODS jet, where the support systems had drawn power from the airplane’s generators. From the Indira Gandhi International Airport, the whole mess had been transported to the Barracks for debugging. Now it had to be shipped down the road to AIIMS for the actual surgical procedure. Each time it was trundled from one place to another it had to survive on battery power for a few minutes.
Zeldo and his cohorts referred to the apparatus as the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. They hauled it around in the back of a truck. The truck poked its way slowly down the Delhi Ring Road, pulled off into the parking lots of AIIMS, and backed up to a loading dock.
The back door flew open and there were Zeldo and his hackers, surrounding the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, all blinking lights and bubbling tubes.
There was an interval of half an hour or so, during which the patients were prepared for surgery, the operating room people got scrubbed and gloved, and Zeldo and his crew got the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari transferred across the hospital to the operating theater, leapfrogging from one power outlet to the next, down hallways and up elevators. Then Dr. Radhakrishnan just had to perform a couple of operations.
It was strange, and possibly ludicrous, to be doing both Mr. Easyrider and Mr. Scatflinger at the same time. Each operation was a major event in itself. But there were many strange and ludicrous things about the way the Radhakrishnan Institute was currently functioning. As they went over the plans for this day, they had all shared a creepy, unspoken feeling that they were extending themselves years beyond where they really ought to be, and that many things might go wrong.
The operations were conceptually simple. Incisions were made along the lines that had been drawn on the patients’ shave heads. Flaps of scalp were peeled back and the bleeding was cauterized or clamped off. When the actual skull was exposed, Dr. Radhakrishnan cut through it with a bone saw.
A polygon of skull, a trap door of sorts, was cut into the side of the head and saved for later use. Still, the brain itself was not exposed; they looked through the hole at a tough inner membrane, the brain’s final layer of protection. When this was flapped out of the way, they were looking at actual brain matter.
“It was a debacle. I am personally ashamed. I will never do anything like that again. The level of incompetence makes me physically ill. I may shoot myself,” Dr. Radhakrishnan was saying.
“Have a drink,” Mr. Salvador said. This was easy to arrange because they were sitting in the bar of the Imperial.
“When I am tense I bite my lip. Today I think I have swallowed half of my own blood supply.”
“Think of it as opening day for a new business venture,” Mr. Salvador said. “It’s always a debacle.”
“Even debacle does not do justice to this day,” Dr. Radhakrishnan said. “It was an apocalypse.”
Mr. Salvador shrugged. “That’s why we make mistakes, so we can learn from them.”
“One gets very impatient, doing research for years and years. The pace is so gradual. After a while you say, “I wish I could just get on with it and put one of these things into a human brain and see what happens. But this business today reminds me of why we take years and years to get ready for these things.”
“The patients are both alive. All’s well that ends well.”
A waiter came by and gave Dr. Radhakrishnan another drink. Mr. Salvador tossed some rupees on to the table. “Why don’t you take that with you?” he said. “I have something to show you.”
“Let’s go for a spin.”
The former site of the Ashok Theatre had been surrounded by a barricade twenty feet high. In places it consisted of chain-link fence with tarps stretched across it. In places it was pieced together with scraps of wood. In and of itself the fence was a considerable investments; the materials that went into it could have housed thousands. Things did not become much clearer after Mr. Salvador and Dr. Radhakrishnan had gotten past the guard at the gate. Most of the site was filled with a scaffolding. It was just a dense three-dimensional web of steel, with some parts of it additionally shored up with wooden beams. So far most of the work was being done in iron; the scaffolding was intertangled with another web of reinforcing rods.
The density of activity was incredible. The site seemed to contain several workers per square yard, all doing something as fast as they could. Several cranes were active, moving giant prefabricated constructs of reinforcing rod into place.
“All reinforced concrete. So it looks like hell until we pour,” Mr. Salvador said.
Dr. Radhakrishnan would have gotten lost in a second, but Mr. Salvador knew his way through the tangle. He led him fearlessly into a passage that cut through the heart of it, straight in toward the center, brushing past workers the entire way. He noticed along the way that he was now walking on planks. Looking down between gaps, he could see straight down one or two stories. The place was extraordinarily well lit with thousands of electric lights strung on long yellow cords. Hundreds more workers were down below them, bending more steel rods into place. Large amounts of concrete had already been poured down there.
As they approached the middle, Dr. Radhakrishnan could see glimpses of more concrete through gaps in the scaffolding. It was a sort of squat concrete obelisk, rectangular in cross-section, rising straight up out of the foundation below them, up to a height of three stories above their heads. It was large enough, perhaps, to put a volleyball court on each level. The walls had a few rectangular openings on each level where, presumably, this part of the building would later be connected to adjacent rooms or hallways. Thousands of reinforcing bars sprouted from the walls at the levels of the floors-to-be and along the locations of future walls, giving the whole tower a bristly, hairy appearance. The bare concrete walls, still so new and clean they were almost white, had already been partly obscured by conduits, plumbing, and ductwork that grew up and snaked around the structure like tropical vines climbing a tree. Craning his neck to look up towards the top, Dr. Radhakrishnan could see the louvered enclosures of large pieces of machinery mounted on the roof, probably air conditioners and electrical generators.
The obelisk was connected to the surrounding scaffold work by a couple of catwalks, giving it the appearance of a keep in the center of a medieval castle. When they walked across the bridges into the building, they passed through some kind of a cultural divide. Everyone working inside here was Korean, Japanese, or American and they were speaking English to each other with varying degrees of proficiency. Some of them were wearing smart, clean coveralls, and some of them were wearing ties. Two or three big Calyx computer systems were already up and running, nice ones with huge color screens, and engineers were using them to zoom in on various subsystems.
“This, of course, is the essential core of the operation,” Mr. Salvador said. “The only part that you will really need in order to continue your research. It will be ready to use in a week. As long as you don’t mind walking through an active construction site in order to reach it, that is.”
“Not at all,” Dr. Radhakrishnan said.