Science Fiction

Brain Trust

By Marie Vibbert
Jul 3, 2019 · 3,980 words · 15 minutes

Hanoi street

Photo by Tran Phu via Unsplash.

From the author: This was my very first sold short story. I wrote it shortly after my wedding in Vietnam in 2001. Or I should say, I had already been working on the premise (the coopting of poor or third-world minds for distributed computing nodes, unappreciated minds become exploited labor) and a week in my mother-in-law's house made me change the setting.


Mrs. Bang Hue Ngyuen threw a handful of millet over the water; the chickens splashed and squabbled.  They formed a pattern of white and brown, feathers and water droplets – like a skull, the sinking circles of eyes between them.  Bang froze.

            Her brother, Lam, dropped his dishtowel and pressed against the sink, as though he could dive through the aluminum bars of the kitchen window and catch her.  Bang fell gracefully, like a shot crane, chest first into the shallow mud.  The chickens fluttered a few feet away and resumed their bickering at the base of the family’s two banana trees.  They fluttered again at the slam of the kitchen door.

            Lam scooped up his sister.  The bag of seed fell over, spilling into the mud.

            Bang rolled onto her side on the kitchen floor.  Her hand slid over mud and she pulled wet fabric, like a decayed skin clinging to her torso.  Lam prayed overhead, hands flat together, bobbing up and down. 

Bang groaned.  “I’m fine,” she said, spitting mud into her hand.  “Damn it.”

            Lam’s wife, Chau, slathered Bang’s face with a hot rag smelling of ginger.  “Lam, stop.  Get her a clean shirt!”

            Bang pushed Lam’s wife away.  “I’m fine,” she said again, and crawled backward to the wall.

            Lam ignored them both, bobbing a few more times.  Chau slapped the rag against her knee.  “This is your fault, Lam.  You and those stupid chickens.  Working your sister half to death!”

            “I’m really fine.”  Bang levered herself up against the wall and crossed the room between her brother and sister-in-law.  She turned on the water in the sink to wash her hands.

            Lam finished his prayer and straightened very carefully.  “I’m taking her to the hospital.”

            “No!”  Bang hit the sink-edge with the flat of her hand.  “Look, I was tired.  I was out all night….”

            Chau said, “We’re getting rid of the chickens.  Honestly, we make enough to get by without them.  And your sister…”

            Lam walked out the front door.

            Bang dreamed of skulls: slices in high-contrast false color, blooming green sinuses and brittle orange ridges.  She walked to the node office and asked to see a counselor about it.  “Could it be I’m seeing the node?  It happens all the time now.”

            The woman patted Bang’s hand like she was a child.  “That’s actually quite common.  People think about the node, and about what research there might be, and start to imagine it vividly.”

            “I do see skulls.”

            “Imagine you could see the data going through your head.  Imagine it was even all the same stream.  It would make no more sense than reading three random pages from a biochemist’s dissertation, but our minds love to make sense of chaos.  That’s what makes the node so helpful to science.  If it makes you feel better to see skulls, see skulls!”

            Bang nodded and thanked the counselor, tried to mimic some sort of “yeah it’s all resolved now” expression, and slipped out of the office as fast as she could before someone else started talking to her like she was an infant.

            The node office had seemed so magical when Bang first entered it.  The recruiting women in their silver jackets almost popped out of their skins with eagerness, so beautiful and clean.  They looked down at the scrawny poor, the used-up husks of old laborers and said, “You are an elegant processing machine.  You have a valuable and unique mind.”  Bang saw the hungry, empty eyes, the effect it had on them, to be appreciated, even a little, even as an indentured mind.  Bang wasn’t like them, but after all those days trying to get Troung to love her mind, she hungered for that same scrap of validation.  Troung left her on the twenty-third of August. Bang got her node implanted on the twenty-ninth.

Bang imagined her brother Lam as a printout: his height, weight, how many hairs on his head, the motion of his fingernails scratching his arm.  Pages and pages of mathematical representations: the spark of synapses, the puff of an angry word.  She imagined taking three pages of him and studying them carefully.  Would she know if a parabolic function represented the dimension of his left nostril or the wave of pressure in the wall of his stomach as he laughed?

 

            Lam was a monsoon when he had his mind well and truly made up. He pushed the car from the porch and onto the road.  Lam was a chauffeur.  He drove a light solar hybrid owned by his employer, Mrs. Huang, an important woman who wore black ao dai and pinned her grey-streaked hair high on her head.  It was one of the only cars in town.  Lam was called the car-man because he had use of it, as long as he kept the power cell levels up and the plastic gleaming.  Every day he drove Chau to the market and dropped Bang off at her job at the hair salon.  He dressed in colors that matched the paint.  He cut his hair in a way that flattered the car.  He hated the car, but once in it, it was him, and there was no question that someone was going somewhere.

            The waiting room was brightly lit, with fake plants.  They sat in a row, Bang, Lam, Chau, in bright orange plastic chairs.  They faced the room like a review board.  An old plasma TV on the opposite wall displayed a woman who would be beautiful without her exaggerated expressions, standing in a red sequined pant suit, gawking and gasping into her microphone about something “So stupid!”

            A little green lizard crawled over the television, his serpentine form pricking out pixels.  Bang felt Lam stare at the lizard, felt him hate it: a sign of dirtiness in a hospital. At any minute he would walk stiffly to the nurses’ counter and demand to talk to someone on the cleaning staff.

            Chau bounced her baby in her lap, a constant motion and steady hum of nonsense words to keep the toddler occupied.  The whole family was dragged out of their day for Lam’s stubbornness.

            For her stubbornness.  Bang tried to come up with a good lie to keep the doctors off track.  If they would even notice.  The plastic chair squeaked when she moved to cross her legs.  Doctors were as stupid as anyone.

            She kept her hands on her knees and kept her eyes on the television, crafting a slightly cynical but relaxed expression.  An old woman was leaning forward in her chair closer to the TV, two men hanging onto her arms, desperately cheerful.  Another woman rocked in her chair, a very small baby in her arms, just a pea-pod of pink cotton.  A man stood by the outside door, hitting his heel on the floor.  Bang would likely never see these people again, but didn’t want them to think she was here because she was sick.  Let them guess which one of her family was the patient.  Bang held her head high. I am an elegant processing machine, she thought.

            It didn’t take long.  The nurse reached behind Bang’s head as she shined a light in her eyes and felt the edge of the metal plate.  The little penlight clicked off.

            “It’s nothing,” Bang said.

            The nurse had already lifted Bang’s hair, her barrette tugging painfully on a few too-tight strands.  “How long have you had this?”

            “Four months,” Bang lied.  Six months was the maximum time allowed, but the node office casually forged their records because it was cheaper than new implants.

            The nurse tapped the penlight on her information pad.  Squares of red and yellow blinked and changed color.  The pad tilted, and for a moment Bang saw the beautifully curled script flash blue and grey.  “According to this, you’ve had it two years.  You know that has to come out.  Are you currently employed, Mrs. Ngyuen?”

            “Salon May,” Bang said, tasting metal.  “I’m a shampoo girl.”

            The curtain rings chimed as the nurse swept them back.  She pulled the curtain closed behind her.  Bang grabbed the plastic coated fabric.  “Don’t tell my brother.  I can pay.”

            The nurse pulled the curtain from Bang’s fist.  “It’s fine, Mrs. Ngyuen.  You can tell your family yourself.  See the clerk for a prescription on your way out.”

            Bang felt more like an abandoned child in wet sweats than an elegant processing machine.

            Lam was standing by the television with his hands in his pockets.  The lizard had moved to a high position on the wall.  “What did the doctor say?”

            “That I’m fine.” Bang ripped off the prescription form as it printed from a slot on the wall.

            Bang’s niece was asleep, sprawled across her mother’s arms like a cat.  Chau smiled as artificially as the woman in the safe-sex poster behind her.  “Let’s stop at that new soup place for dinner.”  She hoisted her daughter up to her shoulder, and the toddler moaned.

            Lam grabbed Bang’s arm too hard.  She jerked free, but he had the crumpled prescription in his hand and was squinting at it.

            Bang snatched it back.  “It’s for keeping me awake.”

            In the car, she read the paper.  The ink was faint, cheap printing, the tiniest dots spelling out the prescription and forming a mottled pattern around the edges, which was for security.  Bang didn’t recognize the drug.  When they got home, she let the wadded-up paper fall into the water by the roadside.  It would dissolve in an hour.

            When Lam picked Bang up from work the next day, he asked, “Did you get the medication?” before she had even sat fully into the passenger seat.

            “Yes,” Bang lied.  “It’s just a once-a-day pill.”

            Lam’s eyes were on the road.  He honked and maneuvered the car into a flock of schoolgirls on bicycles, their white ao dai pinned up behind them. “I saw you toss the prescription in the yard.”

            “Oh,” Bang said.  “Never mind, then.”

            A schoolgirl stared into the window like a surprised goose.  An oncoming truck blared its warning.  Lam continued toward it until there were no more fluttering white pants on their right.  Traffic squeezed and flowed around the circle at the center of town.

            Bang rested her cheek against the seat belt.  “I don’t need medication.  It won’t happen again.  I just need rest.”

            “You need to stop looking for Troung.”

            “Troung? What are you bringing up Troung for?”

            Lam glanced toward her.

            “Oh,” Bang said.

            Troung was Bang’s husband.  They’d married fresh out of high school, stupidly, and gotten a small apartment near his parent’s place.  One day she’d come home from work and his stuff was gone.  It wasn’t entirely a shock.

            When Bang goes to the Distributed Computing office, or when she goes to the coffee shop to steal network, or whenever she doesn’t want to tell Lam where she’s going, she tells him she’s going to look for Troung.  Or she tells Chau, rather, because Chau has a soft spot for failed romances, and Chau defends her to Lam.

            Yes, of course, if she was hiking and searching all over southern Vietnam for her lost Troung, she would be exhausted.

            “I’m not ready to give up,” she said. 

            “If you were searching for a better job, you’d have found it by now.”  Lam leaned close to the steering wheel as the little car rounded another truck.  “If you were looking for a purple crane, you’d have found it by now.”

            Bang shrugged her way deeper into her seat, the soft foam collapsing around her.  “I’m looking for a job too.”

            Bang propped a mirror on the shower knob and twisted around with her back to the larger mirror over the sink.  She took out her barrette and twisted her hair up in one hand.  She pressed her finger into the control box and pulled the processing signal to low.

            Lam suspected something.  He was silent when they were together.  Bang decided not to go to the café, but she found the hours between work and sleep stretched into infinity.  One could feed chickens or watch dubbed Chinese soap operas for only so long.

            “I’m going for a walk,” she announced, and slipped quickly out the door with her purse.

            She followed the road to a narrow dike between paddies and walked along the plain flat lands.  Some distance behind her brother’s house was a small island in the rice fields with some family’s tomb on it, a misshapen concrete structure painted bright blue.  It looked like an oversized pinball machine.

            Bang lay down on the top and turned her node up, let it use all the empty space of her mind and closed her eyes.  She felt still, and empty, and dreamed of skulls.

            The higher she turned the processing node, the more data packets were processed by her mind -- her unique, sophisticated pattern-matching mind -- the more fractional pieces of euro were deposited in her account, but she didn’t care about that.  She tried to feel the data, and simultaneously, she tried not to think, to free up her mind to cure cancer, to plot monsoon cycles, to plant flowers on Mars.  She knew it was childish, but while she lay there, her hat tipped over her face, smelling the vibrant green of the field, she was doing something grand, touching something beyond her life. 

            Bang spent most of what she earned not thinking at the cofeeshop, researching distributed nodes, chatting with other “paid volunteers”.  She knew the risks, the studies, had her own formulated opinions.  Saved on an Australian server for a few dohm a month she had a folder full of scientific articles on the mind, the skull, thought.

            She’d wanted to be a brain surgeon, back in high school.  Troung had encouraged that, but her biology scores weren’t as good as her math, and anyway, there was no money for the university.

            She imagined somewhere at the back of her head, the spiderweb dance of electricity traced a beautiful tapestry that explained it all, like the wild handwriting of her high-school algebra teacher, clicking and sliding and covering the surface of her mind, spelling out answers.  She hoped somewhere in the answer was a distinct curve, a little wiggle on the tail of a d, maybe, that she put there personally, her unique imprint on the surface of human knowledge.

            Bang woke with the pain of her arm scraping concrete.  Something cylindrical and cool was against her forehead.  The tomb, the hard rectangle of concrete, was no longer under her but beside her.  The cylinder was Lam’s arm.

            She pushed and kicked until Lam let her stand on her own.  His mouth hung open.  His eyebrows pressed together like he had just been slugged in the gut.

            “I thought you were dead,” he said.

            Bang brushed the hair out of her face and straightened her shirt.  “Is it illegal to take a nap now?”

            “No,” he said, the sound squeezed out of him.  He reached for her face.  Bang’s back foot stepped on the steep edge of the little island and slid further.  Her knee pressed into the soft ground and she muttered all her best curse words while Lam helped her back up.

            “You used to talk to me,” he said.

            “There. Is.  Nothing. Wrong.”  She balled her fists and stepped toward him.

            Bang awoke on her own bed, surrounded by the familiar smell of her room.  Her nephew knelt next to her, pressing his hand onto her cheek in a clumsy toddler-attempt of patting.  “Meh!  Auntie wake up!”
            Chau leaned in the door with the phone pressed to her ear.  “Baby, leave your auntie alone.”  She looked down and covered her other ear with her hand. “Yes?  No, she just woke up.  Are you sure?  Okay.  Love you, too.”

            Bang moved her hand in what she hoped looked like a natural stretch, out along the bed, up a bit, then crooked her elbow and reached for her head.

            “Lam already turned it off,” Chau said, lips tight.  She folded the phone and stuffed it in her front pocket.  “If you’re feeling better, go wash up.  I made soup.”

            Bang sat up.  Her nephew crawled backwards away from her, quiet, his eyes wide and staring at her.  He reached out and patted her hand again. 

            Chau was already across the kitchen.  Bang stood.  “Where’s Lam?”

            “He went to the coffee shop.”

            “That’s ironic.”  Bang reached down and mussed her nephew’s hair. 

            Chau opened and shut the refrigerator door with more force than was necessary.  “He’s writing letters for you.”

            “I can write my own letters, thanks.”

            Chau turned sharply from the stove, the wooden soupspoon in her hand like a weapon.  “How could you lie to us, Bang?  You know how Lam--”

            “Needs to take care of everything?  Yes, I know.” 

            They stared at each other, across the kitchen.  Trai and his little sister sat off to the side, Trai holding the baby’s hands and trying to get her to play rock-paper-scissors.  Chau turned back to the soup.  The spoon made long, soothing scrapes along the inside of the pot.  “I defended you, Bang.  What about Troung?  Did you ever search for him?”

            “He’s living in Da Lat,” Bang said.  “He’s happy.”

            Chau ladled soup into three bowls and a sipper cup.  They sat and ate together on the straw mat by the back door.  Then Bang stood up and walked away.

            Purple and orange lanterns hung along the edge of the restaurant’s shelter, the living, open night beyond them, hissing and chirping.  Bang found a seat near the edge, listening to the mosquitoes tink against the high florescent lights.  She ordered a Coke and waited.

            Lam fell into the seat opposite her.  “What did you need it for?  You can tell me.  Are you in trouble? Is Troung in trouble?”

            “It’s not the money,” Bang said.

            He reached for her Coke.  “I know the salon doesn’t pay you enough.  I’ve talked to Mrs. Huang--”

            “I’m not going to work for that pretentious bitch.”

            Lam set the bottle between them.  He straightened in his chair, his hands flat on the table.  “We’re in public.”

            “I don’t need more money, and I don’t need to make your mistakes.”  Bang snatched up the bottle and walked to the bar to get another Coke.  She could feel the silence of the other patrons.  Didn’t anyone say “bitch” this far out in the boondocks?

            She heard a chair scrape the concrete floor.  She leaned her forearms on the scratched glass counter and waited for the aged proprietor to shuffle to the drink cooler.  She felt Lam’s breath on the back of her neck.  “Don’t swear.  Not in public, sis.  No one wants to marry a profane woman.”

            She pushed her elbow at him, stepped away, tall. “I am married,” she said.

            It felt like being on stage.  The whispering audience of rice grass hidden by the stage lights.  She accepted the fresh, cold bottle of Coke with an elegant turn of her wrist and strutted across the concrete to her chair.  She tossed her hair back and twisted the cap.  It would have looked better with a beer.

            Lam stood behind her still.  He put his hand on her shoulder.  “The brain trust is for poor people, Bang.  Cambodians and orphans.  If… if you need something extra…”

            Bang jerked her shoulder away from him.  “I’m not on drugs, damn it.  If all you can think about is money, go talk to your wallet and leave me be.”

            She heard the car door slam and waited for the whir of the engine.  She finished her drink.

            He was a statue of sulk behind the wheel as she slipped into her seat.  After she fastened her seat belt he leaned forward like an automaton and pressed the ignition. 

            As they pulled onto the road, he glanced at her.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “I shouldn’t have brought up Troung.”

            “You didn’t,” Bang said, watching the brightly lit stage of the roadside bar retreat from them.  “I’m not sorry I called Mrs. Huang a bitch.  Just so you know.”

            “I know,” he said.

            A truck sped past them, causing the light body of the car to shudder.  Bang watched her brother’s white knuckles jerk.  One wheel caught the soft edge of the road and for a second her heart stopped.  They lurched back onto pavement.

            Lam exhaled slowly.  His hands relaxed and moved lower on the wheel.

            “I know why you want me to take it out,” Bang said.  “And just so you know, I’m not thanking you for picking me up.”

            It rained that night, unseasonably.  The chickens screamed in their coop, gossiping and arguing over the steady drum of water on the corrugated roof.  Trai stood by the back door, howling because he couldn’t go out to play in the water and mud.  Chau and Lam were silent, sitting in the living room.  They were fighting.

            Bang washed the dishes, slowly.  It was stupid to have her hands in water while the world was wet, but she stood there, looking out the window at bowing banana trees, washing.  Loudly, she asked, “What was it you were going to be when you grew up?”

            The world got a little quieter.  The baby stared up at her, one hand in her mouth.  Bang swept her hand around the inside of the rice steamer.  There is a certain pleasure in feeling a smooth surface that was recently complicated.  She put it on the counter.  “I’m asking you, Lam, asshole.”

            Her brother slapped the doorpost between the kitchen and living room and pointed at his children.

            “They can hear worse at school when they’re older.  Now come on, what did you want to be?  It was an engineer, wasn’t it?”

            He looked down at Chau, who was re-attaching the head of her son’s doll.  She twisted and worked at it, the rubber squeaking.  She looked like she was strangling it.

            Bang dried her hands.  “You should have tried to be an engineer.  It would have worked out, somehow.”

            Lam leaned against the doorframe, like he was too tired to stand.  Bang slipped past him and took her umbrella off its hook by the door.  “I’m going to the coffee shop,” she said.  “You can come, if you want.”

            She didn’t look back until she passed two farms.  Lam was walking with his head bowed against the rain, his hands in his pockets, his shirt flapping.  She waited to shelter him under her umbrella and tell him about the blooming skulls, but when he reached her they just stared at each other.  The rain crashed and thudded on the umbrella and ground, drowning out all the little sounds you don’t notice, the gurgles and creaks of a body, the passage of breath.  In that strange un-silence they stared at each other, and for a moment Bang was convinced she could read her brother plainly, in ones and zeros, all described perfectly on the back surface of his eye.

 

END


Data?1524840055
Marie Vibbert

Snarky stories with robots, space ships, and blue collar sensibilities.

2 Comments
  • the kat
    July 19, 10:35am

    Those names seem awfully familiar. *grin*

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  • Marie Vibbert
    July 22, 11:04pm

    Names mostly stolen from my friend Gina's family. : D Yeaaah I was a silly young writer when I did this one.

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