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Greg Egan

DISTRESS

Thanks to Caroline Oakley, Deborah Beale, Anthony Cheetham, Peter Robinson, Lucy Blackburn, Annabelle Ager, and Claudia Schaffer.

It is not true that the map of freedom will be complete with the erasure of the last invidious border when it remains for us to chart the attractors of thunder and delineate the arrhythmias of drought to reveal the molecular dialects of forest and savanna as rich as a thousand human tongues and to comprehend the deepest history of our passions ancient beyond mythology’s reach.

So I declare that no corporation holds a monopoly on numbers no patent can encompass zero and one no nation has sovereignty over adenine and guanine no empire rules the quantum waves And there must be room for all at the celebration of understanding for there is a truth which cannot be bought or sold imposed by force, resisted or escaped.

— From Technoliberation by Muteba Kazadi, 2019

PART ONE

1

“All right. He’s dead. Go ahead and talk to him.”

The bioethicist was a laconic young asex with blond dreadlocks and a T-shirt which flashed up the slogan SAY NO TO TOE! in between the paid advertising. Ve countersigned the permission form on the forensic pathologist’s notepad, then withdrew to a corner of the room. The trauma specialist and the paramedic wheeled their resuscitation equipment out of the way, and the forensic pathologist hurried forward, hypodermic syringe in hand, to administer the first dose of neuropreservative. Useless prior to legal death—massively toxic to several organs, on a time scale of hours—the cocktail of glutamate antagonists, calcium channel blockers, and antioxidants would halt the most damaging biochemical changes in the victim’s brain, almost immediately.

The pathologist’s assistant followed close behind her, with a trolley bearing all the paraphernalia of post- mortem revival: a tray of disposable surgical instruments; several racks of electronic equipment; an arterial pump fed from three glass tanks the size of water-coolers; and something resembling a hairnet made out of gray superconducting wire.

Lukowski, the homicide detective, was standing beside me. He mused, “If everyone was fitted out like you, Worth, we’d never have to do this. We could just replay the crime from start to finish. Like reading an aircraft’s black box.”

I replied without looking away from the operating table; I could edit out our voices easily enough, but I wanted a continuous take of the pathologist connecting up the surrogate blood supply. “If everyone had optic nerve taps, don’t you think murderers would start hacking the memory chips out of their victims’ bodies?”

“Sometimes. But no one hung around to mess up this guy’s brain, did they?”

“Wait until they’ve seen the documentary.” The pathologist’s assistant sprayed a depilatory enzyme onto the victim’s skull, and then wiped all the close-cropped black hair away with a couple of sweeps of his gloved hand. As he dropped the mess into a plastic sample bag, I realized why it was holding together instead of dispersing like barber’s shop waste; several layers of skin had come with it. The assistant glued the “hairnet'—a skein of electrodes and SQID detectors—to the bare pink scalp. The pathologist finished checking the blood supply, then made an incision in the trachea and inserted a tube, hooked up to a small pump to take the place of the collapsed lungs. Nothing to do with respiration; purely as an aid to speech. It was possible to monitor the nerve impulses to the larynx, and synthesize the intended sounds by wholly electronic means, but apparently the voice was always less garbled if the victim could experience something like the normal tactile and auditory feedback produced by a vibrating column of air. The assistant fitted a padded bandage over the victim’s eyes; in rare cases, feeling could return sporadically to the skin of the face, and since retinal cells were deliberately not revived, some kind of temporary ocular injury was the easiest lie to explain away the pragmatic blindness.

I thought again about possible narration. In 1888, police surgeons photographed the retinas of one victim of Jack the Ripper, in the vain hope that they might discover the face of the killer embalmed in the light- sensitive pigments of the human eye…

No. Too predictable. And too misleading; revival was not a process of extracting information from a passive corpse. But what were the alternative references? Orpheus? Lazarus? “The Monkey’s Paw?” “The Tell-Tale Heart?” Reanimator? Nothing in myth or fiction had really prefigured the truth. Better to make no glib comparisons. Let the corpse speak for itself.

A spasm passed through the victim’s body. A temporary pacemaker was forcing his damaged heart to beat —operating at power levels which would poison every cardiac muscle fiber with electrochemical by-products, in fifteen or twenty minutes at the most. Pre-oxygenated ersatz blood was being fed into his heart’s left atrium, in lieu of a supply from the lungs, pumped through the body once only, then removed via the pulmonary arteries and discarded. An open system was less trouble than recirculation, in the short term. The half-repaired knife wounds in his abdomen and torso made a mess, leaking thin scarlet fluid into the drainage channels of the operating table, but they posed no real threat; a hundred times as much blood was being extracted every second, deliberately. No one had bothered to remove the surgical larvae, though, so they kept on working as if nothing had changed: stitching and chemically cauterizing the smaller blood vessels with their jaws, cleaning and disinfecting the wounds, sniffing about blindly for necrotic tissue and clots to consume.

Maintaining the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain was essential but it wouldn’t reverse the deterioration which had already taken place. The true catalysts of revival were the billions of liposomes— microscopic drug capsules made from lipid membranes—being infused along with the ersatz blood. One key protein embedded in the membrane unlocked the blood-brain barrier, enabling the liposomes to burrow out of the cerebral capillaries into the interneural space. Other proteins caused the membrane itself to fuse with the cell wall of the first suitable neuron it encountered, disgorging an elaborate package of biochemical machinery to re-energize the cell, mop up some of the molecular detritus of ischaemic damage, and protect against the shock of re- oxygenation.

Other liposomes were tailored for other cell types: muscle fibers in the vocal fold, the jaw, the lips, the tongue; receptors in the inner ear. They all contained drugs and enzymes with similar effects: hijacking the dying cell and forcing it, briefly, to marshal its resources for one final—unsustainable—burst of activity.

Revival was not resuscitation pushed to heroic extremes. Revival was permitted only when the long-term survival of the patient was no longer a consideration, because every method which might have achieved that outcome had already failed.

The pathologist glanced at a display screen on the equipment trolley. I followed her gaze; there were wave traces showing erratic brain rhythms, and fluctuating bar graphs measuring toxins and breakdown products being flushed out of the body. Lukowski stepped forward expectantly. I followed him.

The assistant hit a button on a keypad. The victim twitched and coughed blood—some of it still his own, dark and clotted. The wave traces spiked, then became smoother, more periodic.

Lukowski took the victim’s hand and squeezed it—a gesture which struck me as cynical, although for all I knew it might have reflected a genuine compassionate impulse. I glanced at the bioethicist. His T-shirt now read CREDIBILITY IS A COMMODITY. I couldn’t decide if that was a sponsored message or a personal opinion.

Lukowski said, “Daniel? Danny? Can you hear me?” There was no obvious physical response, but the brain waves danced. Daniel Cavolini was a music student, nineteen years old. He’d been found around eleven, bleeding

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