Brain Zap Girl

In 2043, after the North American continent destroyed itself, a wave of sludge and radiation drifted up the south coast of China. The bioneural toxins in these 'clouds' infested the entire Asian Continent, winding their way through the countryside and up our family trees. Children emerged with frenzied brains and unsettled temperaments. I was among them - what they called a 'bioneural causality.' A fuck-up. Drugs like cedofizz were created to tamp the neurosis and make us productive members of a flourishing Asian society.

By the time I graduated from University, I was firmly entrenched in a strict cedo regiment that helped keep me in line. When I entered the Hong Kong Stock Exchange program as a production line artist, I saw all kinds of inequity, but the cedofizz helped me not to care. Being a woman meant I was still a tiny minority in what was still, even after 120 years, a male-dominated industry. In the hundred years since the birth of the modern advertising agency, that hadn't changed at all. By the time I turned 30, I'd surmounted the odds and become Creative Director for the Exchange. By then, the steady, sound-dampening hum of my cedofizz-addled brain was all it took for me to cast a blind eye to the boy's club bullshit permeating every corner of the office. One pill in the morning before I hit the Hong Kong Stock Ticker (HST) Rail tube was all it took to keep my mood steady for a long day designing marketing materials and broker presentations. It was all I needed to stay sane.

Without the cedo, I'd fall prey to the corruptions of my own poisoned synapses. Without the cedo, I'd descend into madness, they said.

I slid quietly into my holocube each morning, shifting and sizing items and colors with shorthand finger gestures, whisking proofs out and away with a simple flick of my wrist. Through all the impossible deluges and demands and last minute deadlines, I kept my head submerged in the cube, in a consistent haze from early in the morning until very late at night. I had the cedofizz to thank for the steadiness of my mood, although the drug came with a serious afternoon downer. When my energy level shot down, all it took was an ephrx jolt to the base of my skull, and that usually got me through the rest of the work day. The cedo/ephryx cocktail left me cold by bedtime, but at least my awful mood swings kept their distance. More importantly, the work got done and I never complained.

I desperately needed to keep my job in order to keep my condobar. Fifteen hundred of these garish oblong beauties were set against Hong Kong's largest condo garage, in bright pinks and greens and yellows. Mine was pink, up on the three hundredth floor. It was ad-subsidized. Every time I switched on a computer, or opened the refrigerator, or brushed my teeth, or used the toilet, I'd sit through an ad before I could close the refrigerator, or put the toothbrush back, or flush the toilet. Ads came up with my morning alarm. Ads played quietly over my ceiling fan as I fell asleep. As a consequence, the rent - while exorbitant - was just barely affordable.

If the time ever came when I could not pay the rent, they wouldn't even bother asking me to pack. I figured this out months ago, when my downstairs neighbor - a sweet old man who loved to play Mahjong - got evicted. With a giant scraping and roaring, the automated, robot controlled crane ship came along and slid its arms into the exterior sockets in my downstairs neighbor's condobar. His condo was subsequently drawn right out of it's steel enclosure, like an underwear drawer being removed from its dresser. Outside the bubble windows, I'd caught lights of the ship tilting forward and heading off toward the unknown, keeping my former neighbor's condobar in vice grip. I'd heard the term D&P (dump & purge) before. Now I knew what it meant. The contents were dumped to some unknown place, and the apparatus itself was disinfected, re-purposed, and re-inserted.

A week after my poor Mahjong loving neighbor left, the condobar returned, and someone else moved in. I told myself I'd never let that happen to me. Keeping my job, therefore, was the only important thing left in my life.

Unfortunately, around that same time, the reliable hum of my cedo-buzz stopped working. My mood plummeted. My ability to function ceased. I immediately consulted my virtual medical console - vmc - in a panic. Its simulated voice told me that .001 - .005% of cedo patients presented this particular problem. For them, the cedo's effectiveness halted and could not be renewed. I was one of these very unlucky few.

The cedo had kept me steady for most of my life. Now, it no longer worked, and the steady buzz became instead a series of high pitched car alarms. Two weeks passed and my normally stoic, impassive manner decayed. I rode the HST Rail in a desperate fatigue. My emotions oscillated from fierce anxiety, to overpowering rage, to exhausted apathy. Now, when someone rang me inside my holocube at work, I answered only to yell 'too busy, call back!' I lashed out at friends and colleagues when the strain increased. I was inconsistent and unpredictable. Once upon a time, I'd steam through twenty simultaneous work projects with no issues. Now, all I had were issues. All it took was something small for me to become absolutely angry and irate and miserable.

I considered the ignorance and hypocrisy it took someone to waste my time with unnecessary last minute changes to a project. I was convinced that my colleagues were all punishing me for being a bioneural freak. They were not only all stupid, and bad at their jobs, they were all out to get me. They hated me. I was the only woman in the department, after all, and to make things worse, I was the only cedo-baby among them. Of course they hated me. How had I not seen this all along?

All during this descent, I clung to my expensive cedo-fizz, still desperately popping the pills, though it was clear they no longer worked. I finally concluded there was no point in taking more of it, so I stopped. I asked my vmc for advice on calming my mind and dealing with stress, but all I received were long, verbose essays on stress relief and endless, unhelpful statistics. Robots make terrible brain doctors, I thought. I signed my name into a mailing list for lesser known brain drugs, and within the hour, the ads playing throughout my condobar started telling me about various cheap alternatives to CEDO.

"Ms. Feng-Le - is your CEDO subscription heading you toward the slums?" one ad said excitedly. "If so, this absolutely 100% guaranteed safe herbal alternative will end your bioneural shakes!" In my desperation and anxiety, I immediately ordered several boxes, not even knowing or caring if they would work. They had to work. I got the shipment, took one pill and immediately became nauseous and threw it up. I then sat in my living area and stared at the ten boxes of unopened herbal remedy, and cried.

I needed to keep my job. I knew that people were already whispering behind my back about what a stupid, mean bitch I had become. Each day I came in feeling more and more victimized. They suffered through me, I thought resentfully. Sons of bitches hate me. Well, they don't know how good they got it. Must be nice. Fuck them. 

To make things worse, my Korean counterpart, Hyo, came to our office and started bossing me around. He was an arrogant prig who'd been hired just a few months before me, and he was convinced I was his subordinate. He asked me to get him coffee the first morning he arrived, and during the lunch meeting, he dressed me down in front of the CFO for not adopting better brand strategies. He demanded that I begin supplying him with weekly reports on my progress. No one had ever stood up to him. I ordinarily wouldn't have, but being off cedo snapped me in two, and I said no. My voice shook, and I seethed. I told him I never wanted to see him take sole credit for anything again. I meant it.

Before the week was out, I also discovered that Hyo had stolen my work and passed it on as his own. I knew this because he presented my work to the CFO and then took sole credit for it. He paid no consequences for it.  Everybody loved him. By the time his week with the Hong Kong Exchange was finished, everyone must have felt I was an unhinged, sloppy, overly sensitive woman with emotional issues. Hyo's unfair assessment of me might as well have been true by the time he left. I completely broke down in the shuttle car on the way home, smearing my pink mascara and green lipstick all over my LED rainslicker. I took the elevator up, leaning heavily against the side with my arms held up. The doors opened and I thudded through the front door into my pink palace. I'd lose everything soon. I knew I would. Hyo had seen to that.

I injected myself with some ephryx, and tore into some processed vegetable protein. Each time I took a bite, a new ad began somewhere near me - on the black bezel table surface, in one of the windows, or even sometimes on the ceiling. On my last bite, a new ad began, one I'd never seen before. The voice was breathless and self-assured.

"Good day to you, Ms. Feng-Le. Every one of us, every one, now grapples with mental illness. Some of us breathed in the bioneural clouds that drifted from the former United States, and never recovered. Some of us merely were born into the world cursed. The best, greatest hope for the great continent is a happy, positive workforce doing happy positive things. Are your cedo-shots not doing enough positive things for you, Ms. Feng-Le? Find yourself listless and tired despite three ephryx dermals a day? Running out of options? Try ZAP today!"

With each new claim the ad made, I sat up little more. I immediately consulted vmc about taking ZAP. It warned me that ZAP was a new drug in the testing phase, and not worth the risk. I could almost feel the vmc shooting me quick flashes of judgmental pity. So, to spite my naysaying vmc, I jumped onto the site and ordered all I could afford - only a week's worth. It came on Tuesday, and I began taking it on a Wednesday.

I woke on Thursday morning completely overrun with steady noise. Nothing made any sense, but no one was out to get me any longer. They'd forgotten about me, I realized. I also realized that they had my best interests at heart. Nothing mattered except my projects at the Stock Exchange. I did well. I even thanked Hyo over holo-call for the week he spent helping me improve my habits. I was going to be ok.

Over the next few days I was convinced that ZAP was the ticket. I gained empathy for my colleagues, empathy I hadn't even known through the humming, buzzing locomotive of the cedo. With ZAP, I heard everything around me, both good and bad, but I took nothing personally. I continued taking ZAP in the evenings, as instructed, and for weeks, my productivity increased and I had never been more steady.

On my seventh day of ZAP induced calm, I stared out across the vertical stretch that defined Hong Kong's skyline. My fingers blazed over the holocube. My mind pushed through corridors of thought like bursting steam. I thought about installing a few new fake plants for my condobar, and maybe buying a new sonic steamer. I thought about how quickly the ZAP had worked. I considered installing a subroutine in my cube which would auto-generate certain reports. Soon, my wandering mind had tuned me away from the opaque virtual walls of the holocube, and I began to hear a conversation taking place very close to my desk.

Two executives spoke next to the long wall outside their office. They didn't know it, but I could hear them. Some bad numbers related to Hyo's work had been released, but I was being blamed for it. Hyo had really listened to me when I asked him to start giving me more credit for work. He'd given me credit for his bad numbers. He told Executives that I was responsible, since I had asked for greater responsibility.

"This was clearly a mistake," one of the Executives said. "To give a woman so much authority when she needs to stay in her niche. What was she thinking?"

The ZAP held me under the water, so I wasn't really upset by what I heard. I turned back to my work and sank under the smooth hum of the highly effective drug. A part of me, though, even through the ZAP haze, wondered if standing up for myself might be worth something. 

It wasn't until the following morning that I realized I had run out of ZAP. The pills had worked so well for me that I had simply not paid attention to my meager supply. I went to the kitchen table console to buy more, and accessed the ZAP bookmark. Nothing came up. The site had been pulled.

No, I thought. This can't be happening. I need my damned pills. 

I asked the vmc, who told me that records of a drug called ZAP did not exist.

This can't be, I thought.

I did a desperate search for ZAP anywhere on the web, and couldn't find any trace of the drug having existed. Someone had performed a complete wipe of all records. I sank to the kitchen floor, already feeling glimmers of cracks peering through the fading hum of the ZAP. These cracks were charged with electricity, and they popped inside my skull like miniature zaps. I thought I heard the sound of an ax beating against the windows outside, crunching through the thick glass, thud by thud. I had a sense that someone was outside, but that was impossible. I stood up from the floor and ran across the condo, yanking open the drapes, and saw nothing but solid glass and blue sky and the light fingers of the Hong Kong skyline. What sort of hallucination was that?

That day at work, pre-occupied by my morning hallucinations, I accomplished very little. More strange visions accosted me. My holocube grew and shrank around me. My mind spun like a centrifuge. By the time I took my afternoon ephyrx, I'd become a whirling dervish. By four, I was climbing the walls, peeling off my socks in the office, drawing faces on the fabric and running around from desk to desk with my new sock puppet, making it 'talk' at everyone, and laughing maniacally whether they found it funny or not. This was nothing like quitting cedo. This was something else entirely, and it scared me.

I was such a basket case by the time I got home that when the first brain zap hit me, I screamed out loud. The zap was similar to that morning's but much more intense. It was an electrical pop shooting through my visual cortex and across my eyeballs and all the way down my brain stem. It zapped me again, and again. My surroundings compressed and expanded with a flurry, then it was over.

"Virtual medical console!" I gasped, turning to one of my screens. "List side effects of ZAP withdrawal, in order of severity!"

There was a brief pause, and the vmc answered,

"There is not enough collected data to provide that assessment. Please rephrase your query so that I can better help you."

"Tell me about ZAP withdrawal!" I shouted, exasperated. Another pop vibrated over my eyes and across my skull, turning everything black for a moment. Then another one.

The console said,

"ZAP is not a known quantity in the Hong Kong Ministry's database at this time."

Another electric spasm ran back across my eyes. I sprawled over my couch, breathing heavily. So, the Ministry had erased the records. It didn't surprise me. All through the night, the zaps continued until I was exhausted from them. I turned on the sink for some water - waiting another thirty seconds for a beer ad to finish - then poured myself a glass, and drank deeply.

The next shock to my brain felt different, but it was enough to cause me to release the glass, which shattered on the floor. The glass exploded every which way, but the shards lay on the floor, still, like sparkling mirrors. Through them I could see something, the outline of a wall, or a person sitting down. It looked like the condobar beneath me. I was looking through the floor. I just stood and gaped, and lost consciousness.

I woke to a dull ache in my skull and some bruising on my tailbone. I lay still on the bathroom floor, next to broken shards from my glass. I turned over and stared down into the tile, and only saw grout. The zaps from the night before had ceased. My entire body felt stretched and spent. I was late for the 7:30 HST Rail, and arrived late for work. As I sat in my cube, Hyo emerged from an adjoining office. I waved at him cautiously and he saundered over. His eyes were always sleepy, and the edges of his lips were always curled up in a lazy grin.

"Hey, slacker." he said. "You get me that report?"

I wasn't in the mood for his bullshit, but my head ached too much for me to argue with him.

"Yes, it's coming." I said. "Why didn't you tell me you were going to be here today?"

"What, are you my boss now?" he asked, amused. "Just get it done. Mr. Kang and the rest are waiting on you in there. I'll be in there with them."

"Yes, sir." I said darkly.

He was already halfway to the executive office when he heard me. He turned back around, that lazy smile still on his face, and said,

"Don't sass me."

I laughed.

"I'm serious." he shot back. "I've been here longer than you, and your reputation is already poor with the boss. You're not pulling your weight. Do some serious consideration before you...."

I tuned him out as he droned on with his lecture, and I thought to myself, 'god, I wish I had some zap.'

Right when that thought crossed me, and as if by divine intervention, my muscles stiffened up and the familiar electric spasm jolted me. While the shock coursed down my head and through my body, I had a sense of no longer being in my cube, but on the floor somewhere, curled up in a ball in an unfamiliar room somewhere. I was sobbing, but I wasn't me. I felt hot tears running down my face but did not feel sad or scared. I saw my hands through the haze and they were not my hands but the hands of a man, hands that looked a lot like Hyo's. Sobs shuddered through me.

When the brain zap ended, I was still looking up at Hyo's face. He no longer smiled. Instead, he stared straight ahead as if in a daze. The smile had vanished from his lips. He backed up, slowly. He wasn't looking at me any more. He wasn't even talking. Blood had begun to fall from his ears and nostrils. It took a few more seconds for him to to notice it it at last, and he wiped his ears and nose frantically with both hands and ran for the men's room.

He ran past the long wall toward the restroom, flicking his hands about in a furor, casting off a long trace of blood spatter all down the grey walls. I watched him in shock, and another zap ran through me, this time to my retinas. The blood on the far wall - Hyo's blood - burned a ragged hole into the plaster now. I could see through the wall. Boss Kang and the others shared a drink in the executive office. One of the other executives sat on the corner couch with his holotablet, watching a simulated sex act and laughing with his mouth open.

Another zap hit me and the four broad holographic walls of my cube sputtered and went dark. I felt suddenly nauseated. My hallucinations had only grown more involved and more sadistic. Hyo came out from the restroom. His fingers splayed over his face, and blood leaked between them and over them, running down onto the floor.

"Mr. Kang! Mr. Kang!" he cried.

He ran past me in a panic, when I suddenly heard a loud pop. The air became suffused with red mist that descended over me and soaked into my dress. Hyo still lumbered toward the door, but something was wrong. His head was missing.

From the moment I'd caught my first zap in my cube, to that very moment I stared over at headless Hyo, not more than thirty seconds had elapsed. Was that me, I thought. Am I responsible? The door to the executive office opened, and two of them rushed out.

"What is the meaning of this?" Mr. Kang demanded. A few account executives stood around, stunned. They said nothing, but one by one, they each pointed at me. I saw myself, standing in my black and white checkered blouse and skirt, eyes bloodshot, hands trembling. I watched her, or me, this strange girl, and I felt confusion and derision. Who is she, I thought, whilst simultaneously thinking it's me, dammit! It's just me! But the other thought pushed in, the one belonging to this other person, this accounts asshole, and I thought his thoughts. I knew this girl brought disaster with her. She's not professional, I thought, while also thinking, I am a goddamned professional. None of you know me.

I shouted into a wrist phone about a bio-neural emergency. I'd had my brunch interrupted for this shit. I knew I shouldn't have hired that bitch, that bio-neural accident waiting to happen.

"Come at once!" I screamed. I felt a pressure in my head that would not subside, and I began to panic.

Then, the spell lifted and I was entirely myself again, standing near my cube, trembling. The others in the room were staring blankly. Some of them held their hands out in front of their faces as molasses-thick blood emerged slow and dark from their nostrils. The executive stopped screaming into his wristphone and stared blankly at Hyo's body on the ground. I didn't want this. My zaps had gotten into them somehow. I had gotten into them. Their brains couldn't take it. I had to leave. What had I done?

I rushed to the elevator, just as a series of loud, awful pops rang out from the suite. More heads had exploded. I jammed the button for the lowest floor - HST Rail Station. If I could just get back up to my condobar and lie down, maybe I'd wake to find this had all been some horrible nightmare. I had nowhere else to go but home. Something awful and invasive swirled in my brain, holding me somewhere between nausea and full blown nuclear annihilation. Just as I jumped onto the train, I caught the large stock ticker on the side of the rail, and the large red letters normally reserved for stock prices reading instead: 'BIO-TERROR THREAT IN PROGRESS. VIGILANCE. VIGILANCE.'

I made my way down the aisle and sensed peoples' eyes on me. A flurry of zaps almost knocked me onto the floor. My eyes rolled back and cycled me into another person's mind, then another, and another. From there, I watched myself struggling to stand in the aisle. It was a strange sight. I feared her - this woman in a black and white dress stained in blood. I hoped she wouldn't hurt me, then I was her again, and I knew I would try not to hurt anybody. I focused my thoughts on non-corporeal things, trying to extract myself from others' minds.

I focused my frenzied brain on the train, on the metal sheathing and the magnetic resonance current underneath, and the rattling connectors between the cars, and the antennas feeding a signal toward the Ministry's high office. My brain zapped again and something exploded over the car. Everything shook. The passengers shrieked.

No... control it, I thought. One more violent or uneasy thought might cause whole train to derail and swing over the track into the countryside. I needed to get home. I needed to rest my mind in a comfortable place, and work on controlling the zaps. Maybe they would go away. Maybe I could plead involuntary manslaughter, if the Ministry would be so generous. I moved from car to car in an attempt to get off peoples' radar. I had to keep moving, or some brave soul might see me as a threat and try to overpower me. I couldn't have a train full of exploding heads... it just wouldn't do. I wouldn't allow it.

The train pulled into Condobar Station right as I reached the last car. The whole garage was a high ridge of shelves and gleaming windows, covering a whole quarter mile of the HST Rail in shadow. A team of ministry agents met me at the door. I zapped and found myself weighed down by the heavy strap of a gun at my side. Through the glass of my face shield I saw her - disoriented, covered in blood, but strange and beautiful and wary. I couldn't bring myself to pull the trigger on her, as I'd been told.

"Don't shoot!" I found myself saying, in a deep voice. "New orders! Let her go!"

First, I saw her move past us, but just as quickly, I was her again. I saw the agent whose mind I had entered, a stocky man, their leader. He stood dazed, and had lifted his shield to touch the dripping blood by his nose. The others were caught off guard by his orders, and didn't know whether to apprehend me or let me go.

"I'm sorry!" I said earnestly as I passed him. "I am so sorry!" I disappeared into the lobby and moved into the elevator, paying no mind the onlookers there who gasped at the sight of me. The large lights overhead popped and went dark as I passed underneath them, as did the elevator's. I was barely able to type in the number 3-0-0, before falling against the side of the cabin. Sweat dripped from my temple. My stockings were ripped and my legs flecked with shrapnel from Hyo's skull.

In those moments, I felt absolutely everything I knew it was possible to feel. I didn't have long to live, I feared. Either the agents would kill me or I'd be taken in and executed. How many HKSE executives and colleagues had perished because of me? I felt regret and fear and rage and all I had never been allowed to feel for most of my young life. It was awful, terrible, I knew... but exhilarating.

As I exited the elevator, I turned to face it and a zap ran through me, crippling the doors and sending a shower of sparks out from the elevator shaft as the elevator cabin dropped with a wild shriek. To my left and right, sparks flew from the other elevator doors. No one would be able to get up into my condo.

When I got inside, I immediately pulled off my dress and slipped on my Hello Kitty one-piece. I slipped the hood over my head and grinned. Might as well be comfortable while my world is erased, I thought. Better yet, let's see them try. I was desperately thirsty. After enduring an awful ad about erectile dysfunction, I drank long and deep from the faucet for what seemed like ten minutes.

The sound of crunching thuds - a sound like axes against glass - startled me. I thought, not again, more hallucinations, but something told me to look. I whipped open the drapes to the sight of multiple agents wielding laser torches and axes. The Ministry must have piled them into a nearby automated crane ship to rappel from it to my windows and take me out, one way or another. I heard a crunch as the first window yielded.

The first wave of agents smashed through my freshly broken windows wielding axes. They unsnapped their ropes and came at me. I didn't have time to process. With my anxiety came more zaps. As they came, I felled one after another. Some crumpled to the ground, other just dropped their axes and ran for the elevator. More waves burst in through the condo, but they were no match for me. I wasn't even dropping to the ground anymore with each electrical surge that ran through me; I stood tall and faced them down.

"Come on, you sons of bitches!" I cursed at them. "Asshole motherfuckers!"

By the time the full team of agents was dispatched, I'd entered at least twenty minds, sending most of the agents running confused. I'd possibly doomed a few of them by staying in their minds for too long, but I desperately hoped that most of the misguided souls would simply scatter into the entryway and not come back.

My condo was empty and quiet save the approaching sound of the nearby crane ship hovering above my floor. It's contents spilled so close to a condo, it must have reverted to D&P mode by default. It was upon me, sliding its arms underneath the sockets outside. Deep vibrations ran over the floor. For just a second, all was still, but as the crane ship wrenched away, I lost my balance. The quake hit every corner of the condo. Vases tipped and shattered, shelves spilled their contents. The sound of squeaking metal signaled the water pipes were twisted off. The ground shook and tilted, and the entire condo flipped and swayed. I lost all moorings and fell into a door frame, where I clung for dear life. All the contents of my pink palace - shoes and handbags and art folders and knitting supplies, they all fell toward the axe-shattered windows and dropped through hundred stories below, to the distant rail station.

Seeing my life disappear like that, even as I faced my own imminent demise, caused me a sort of peace. I could barely hold on as the condo raced toward some unknowable slum. Surely the Ministry hadn't meant to set me loose outside the Capital. I was at the mercy of the crane ship's automated programming, but I would not hold on much longer. I began to laugh. It wasn't the laugh of a woman at the end of her rope, or the laugh of a desperate person with nothing left to lose. I laughed like someone tasting true freedom and release for the first time ever. I laughed at the hilarity of finding release at the very end.

With my laughter came a zap so strong that I did let go of the door, and free-fell toward the windows to my death. In that instant, I entered the crane ship with my mind in one giant pulse. I rolled my metal frame forward in the air, up-righting the condo. This steadied the pink abode high in the sky above Hong Kong, and the fierce woman inside it, dressed in Hello Kitty pajamas, rolled back safely onto the floor. I sensed her, there inside the structure. She was me - or I was her. Either way, she was safe.

The antigrav rotor grinding beneath my bulk wheezed and struggled with the strange conundrum of my consciousness having infested its circuitry. Even as I zapped back to my body, splayed flat on the carpet, gazing up at a ruined ceiling in a ruined pink palace, I knew I hadn't entirely left the crane ship. Part of me was still in there, somewhere, guiding its movements. I was in both places at once. With enough practice, I thought, and if the brain zaps persisted, I could be in several, or even hundreds of places and things and people at once. I knew this much - the Ministry would never get me. Never.

The interior was wrecked and in shadow. I dusted myself off, and for a laugh, tried to switch on the vmc. Surprisingly, it flickered to life, and without any advertisements. The virtual doc's simulated voice was wrecked and distorted.

"Welcome, Ms. Feng-Le. Please state your query."

"So, doc..." I said, as the condo began to rise. "Where would you like to go today? Sky's the limit."


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