The Night Janitor

’Excuse me’, said Hector, slipping his mop under Nell’s legs.

She pushed her chair back to make things easier.

He’d been working as the night janitor since she joined the Institute, six months previously. They’d never talked much; maintenance staff were not supposed to bother the faculty.

It was midnight.

‘How are you?’ Nell said.

‘Well… uh…’

Hector stood up. He rested his bucket on the floor. The mop handle leaned against his thigh.

‘Good. Thank you.’

‘Excellent,’ said Nell.

They looked at each other. The bank of computers hummed.

Each waited for the other to speak, but neither did.

Hector smiled, shrugged, and picked up his bucket.

*

Nell stirred her coffee, straining at the screen.

She’d been thinking about Hector all day. In the shower. Eating breakfast. At the supermarket. Driving to the campus. Sitting here.

It was midnight. Nell was wearing perfume for a change.

The lab door swung open. Hector appeared with his mop.

‘Hola,’ said Nell with a smile.

‘Hola,’ said Hector.

‘Como estas?’ she asked.

‘Muy bien,’ he said. ‘And you?’

‘I’m struggling here,’ said Nell.

‘Ah?’ said Hector. He almost asked how he could help, but resisted. How could he help?

‘Maybe you could help,’ said Nell.

Hector posed his bucket on the floor, cautiously. He looked at her.

‘I need someone,’ said Nell.

Hector gripped his mop tighter.

‘What time do you finish work?’ she asked.

‘Two… if I hurry, one thirty.’

‘Will you go for a drink with me?’

Hector blinked, wary.

‘Yes… of course.’

‘One-thirty in the car park?’

‘OK,’ said Hector.

Nell turned back to her screen. Hector remained for a moment, then picked up his bucket.

*

‘This is it,’ said Nell, holding open the palm of her hand. They were sat in Freddie’s Bar, the nearest late-night place to campus.  

Hector looked at it. A tiny micro-chip, a few millimetres long.

‘Where does it go?’ he asked.

‘On the cerebral cortex. Laid there ever so gently.’

‘What does it do?’

‘It transmits, in real time, the signals produced by the brain’s neural networks, to a supercomputer in the lab.’

‘It reads people’s thoughts?’

‘Thoughts, fears, hopes, desires, memories.’

Hector picked up his beer bottle. Took a long draught. Set it down.

‘Why?’ he asked.

Nell reached over and grabbed Hector’s wrist.

‘Imagine, that when Death came calling for your body, you could still exist.’

‘Still exist?’

‘We could download your brain data from the cloud and run it back through a different machine.’

‘What kind of machine?’

‘An android. It could be synthetic or organic, but it would be you inside it. It would be you.’

Hector took another drink.

‘That’s wild,’ he said.

Nell squeezed his wrist.

‘What do you say? Will you help?’

Hector shook his head.

‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘Why is it secret?’

‘This procedure… quantum respawn… is not yet legal. It will be one day. But that could be twenty years off.’

‘So?’

‘We can’t wait twenty years. There’s an ethical imperative to act. Don’t you think?’

‘I don’t know what I think.’

‘We need to road test it, check it out thoroughly, and prove that it’s safe.’

Hector blew out his cheeks.

‘Man,’ he said, ‘I’m going to have to think this through.’

‘Of course,’ said Nell.

‘Eighty thousand?’

‘In cash.’

She closed her palm. They looked into each other’s eyes.

 *

‘Let me see… the scar’s healed really nicely! Are you feeling any pain?’

Hector frowned.

‘Not pain. That’s not it.’

They were sat in Freddy’s. It had been a month since the operation, performed by a neurosurgeon friend of Nell’s.

From Nell’s perspective, the whole thing was a triumph. The chip was transmitting a clear, steady stream of neural data. Running it through the lab’s equipment, she was starting to be able to unscramble it. Interpret it.

There had been no hint of adverse side effects.

‘So… if not pain… what?’ she asked.

Hector took a drink of his beer. He was struggling to find his words.

‘Your, ah, computer is reading my brain to build up a picture of me.’

‘That’s right.’

‘More and data, until you have everything you need. The whole me.’

‘You got it.’

‘I think we’re there now.’

Nell studied him. Hector was sweating.

‘Well, I’d like to keep going a while longer,’ she said. ‘We agreed on a year.’

‘Take it out now. I’ll reimburse you.’

Hector had used the money to pay off the mortgage on his mother’s apartment.

‘Don’t be silly. Keep the money, you deserve it. What’s wrong?’

‘I… ah… feel that I’m not just transmitting information.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I’m receiving it.’

‘What are you receiving?’

‘Thoughts. Opinions. Suggestions. They’re coming through in the other direction.’

Nell shook her head.

‘That’s not possible. Who could be sending you information?’

‘The other me,’ said Hector. ‘The me you’ve got trapped in the lab.’

*

‘You and your big mouth.’

‘Shut up.’

‘What were you thinking?’

‘I’m not listening.’

‘I’ll decide that.’

Hector sighed, pulled his car over and stopped in front of a warehouse. It was three a.m. The streets were deserted.

‘Gambling with Mama’s apartment money.’

‘Shut up or I’ll pull the chip out myself.’

‘You haven’t got it in you.’

‘Please be quiet. Please.’

A dog was watching from behind the warehouse fence.

Hector exhaled, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel, trying neither to think nor hear.

He started the engine and drove off.

The other was silent. I’ve spooked him, thought Hector. He knows when the chip goes, he’s finished.

‘Wrong.’

‘Carajo!’ Hector slammed his fist into the wheel.

‘When the chip goes, as you put it, you’ll have outlived your usefulness. I, on the other hand, will be the lab’s star attraction.’

‘Bullshit.’

‘You’re yesterday’s man, Hector. You know, perhaps it would be best if you tried to get the chip out. There are pliers in the kitchen.’

Hector parked in front of his house, got out, slammed the door behind him.

Leaning against the front door, he fumbled in his pockets for his key.

‘Let me help, Hector. I hate futile suffering. Let’s figure out a way to put you out of your misery.’

Hector finally got the key in the lock. Turned it, pushed open the door, and headed straight for the drinks cabinet.

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