38. Veronika

Veronika stepped aside as bots passed in the hallway, transporting crates that had been delivered via tube to Lycan’s new digs. She was in high spirits. She had helped save a life, even if the life she’d helped save was someone who was not currently alive.

Lycan was pacing around his new apartment, directing bots where to put things. When he saw Veronika, he grinned, rushed over to greet her.

“So, what do you think?” He raised an arm toward the heights of the condo. It was an impressive space—opulent, and very modern. It was vertically oriented to the extreme, the ground floor maybe twenty feet square, but the highest point of the ceiling a dizzying hundred or more feet above. Rooms were perched at varying heights above, some walled off, others open platforms.

“It’s really something,” Veronika said. “I didn’t realize you were in this sort of income bracket.” She tried to banish thoughts of the lousy three grand Lycan had contributed to help Rob. His self-separating recycling system probably cost more than three thousand.

Lycan tried not to beam, but failed. “It’s just recently that I could afford something like this. The project I’ve been working on at Wooster is gaining traction, and I’m part owner in Wooster.”

“What is the project again?” He’d told her, but Veronika had only half listened (actually, she had probably one-eighth listened). Now she was curious again.

“I’m spoiling the surprise, but okay, that’s where I’m taking you—to see my project.”

Veronika tried to look enthused. They were going to Lycan’s office to see his work. Yay. “Great.”

They took a micro-T that ran right through the Wooster Physionica Building. Moving through the polished lobby, then down a dizzying open-air walk to his lab, Lycan’s step took on the strut of a guy in his element.

“This way.” He led her into a room with a glass wall that looked onto a series of enclosed spaces, where seated people were wearing systems connected to what looked like a network of vines that twisted and stretched haphazardly, clumping into knobby growths where three or more vines connected. Except that the growths weren’t vegetal, but rather slick, silvery-gray.

“What are those viney things? Are they organic?” Veronika asked.

“No,” Lycan said. “It’s an artificial neural network.”

That’s exactly what it looked like, she realized—big, interconnected neurons. Veronika considered the implications for a moment. “Are you trying to construct an artificial intelligence?”

“No, nothing that ambitious,” he chuckled. “That’s why I like you—you’re smart enough to make that sort of leap. We’re developing a means of directly communicating emotional experiences between people through their systems.”

Veronika looked at Lycan, back at the network. “As in, taking what someone is feeling and letting someone else feel it?”

“The exact chemical signature.” He pointed at a young woman with wild hair whose eyes were closed. “She’s recalling some event that made her feel sad, or scared, or happy, and the actual feelings are interpreted as electronic impulses, transferred to another test participant and converted back into neural impulses.”

Veronika peered at the woman behind the glass, trying to fathom the idea of feeling exactly what she was feeling. Or vice versa.

“This is the future,” Lycan said. “Connecting people to each other directly. At this point we can’t improve any further on the speed of information transfer, but there’s lots of room to improve the quality of the information we transfer.”

Veronika studied the shiny silver neurons disappearing into the wall. “Do you have to be connected to the neural network for it to work?”

“No, we can do it wirelessly. It’s just simpler this way.”

The actual chemical signature of the emotions. Which meant that a piece of the person would be transferred to someone else. “Perfect empathy.”

Lycan nodded eagerly. “Exactly. You see the implications without me needing to spoon-feed you. I thought you would.”

Lycan seemed the most unlikely person to be working on a project like this. He was not adept at reading other people, and his own emotions seemed rather repressed. Of course, Veronika was a dating coach. Maybe some people were drawn to understand their own greatest weakness.

“Who’s ‘we’?” she asked. “Are you working with a team?”

“No, ‘we’ is me, and my assistant. Emily. She’s a graduate student. Plus some undergraduate volunteers.”

Veronika put her hands on her hips, took another look at the network, seeing it in an entirely different light. “This is entirely your work?”

Lycan looked at the people working behind the glass, his expression that of a proud father looking through the glass at his newborn son. “More or less.”

She shook her head slowly. “Now I understand why they footed the bill to have you revived. You’re fucking brilliant. I mean, one in ten million. Aren’t you?” When Lycan didn’t answer, she looked up at him, asked, “What is your IQ?”

Lycan look both embarrassed and pleased by her attention. “It’s high.”

Veronika thought back to her first meeting with Lycan, watching him climb over the railing of Lemieux Bridge, her spastic attempt to talk him out of it. She’d been watching one of the great modern minds. He could win a Nobel Prize.

“You know, when you said we were going to see your work, I have to admit, I wasn’t thrilled. I figured it would be dull. I was wrong.” She suddenly saw Lycan in an entirely new light as well. His awkwardness wasn’t run-of-the-mill awkwardness, it was the eccentricity of genius.

“Tell me more,” she said. “I want to understand how this works.”