Authors: Robert J Sawyer
Big breakthroughs seldom come quickly or easily—or in the form that might be expected.
What a blind person needs
is not a teacher but another self.
Not darkness, for that implies an understanding of light.
Not silence, for that suggests a familiarity with sound.
Not loneliness, for that requires knowledge of others.
But still, faintly, so tenuous that if it were any less it wouldn’t exist at all: awareness.
Nothing more than that. Just awareness—a vague, ethereal sense of being.
Being ... but not becoming. No marking of time, no past or future—only an endless, featureless now, and, just barely there in that boundless moment, inchoate and raw, the dawning of perception...
* * * *
Caitlin had kept a brave face throughout dinner, telling her parents that everything was fine—just peachy—but, God, it had been a terrifying day, filled with other students jostling her in the busy corridors, teachers referring to things on blackboards, and doubtless everyone looking at her. She’d never felt self-conscious at the TSB back in Austin, but she was on display now. Did the other girls wear earrings, too? Had these corduroy pants been the right choice? Yes, she loved the feel of the fabric and the sound they made, but here everything was about appearances.
She was sitting at her bedroom desk, facing the open window. An evening breeze gently moved her shoulder-length hair, and she heard the outside world: a small dog barking, someone kicking a stone down the quiet residential street, and, way off, one of those annoying car alarms.
She ran a finger over her watch: 7:49—seven and seven squared, the last time today there’d be a sequence like that. She swiveled to face her computer and opened LiveJournal.
“Subject” was easy: “First day at the new school.” For “Current Location,” the default was “Home.” This strange house—hell, this strange country!—didn’t feel like that, but she let the proffered text stand.
For “Mood,” there was a drop-down list, but it took forever for JAWS, the screen-reading software she used, to announce all the choices; she always just typed something in. After a moment’s reflection, she settled on “Confident.”
She might be scared in real life, but online she was Calculass, and Calculass knew no fear.
As for “Current Music,” she hadn’t started an MP3 yet ... and so she let iTunes pick a song at random from her collection. She got it in three notes: Lee Amodeo, “Rocking My World.”
Her index fingers stroked the comforting bumps on the F and J keys—Braille for the masses—while she thought about how to begin.
Okay, she typed, ask me if my new school is noisy and crowded. Go ahead, ask. Why, thank you: yes, it is noisy and crowded. Eighteen hundred students! And the building is three stories tall. Actually, it’s three storeys tall, this being Canada and all. Hey, how do you find a Canadian in a crowded room? Start stepping on people’s feet and wait for someone to apologize to you. :)
Caitlin faced the window again, and tried to imagine the setting sun. It creeped her out that people could look in at her. She’d have kept the Venetian blinds down all the time, but Schrodinger liked to stretch out on the sill.
First day in grade ten began with the Mom dropping me off and BrownGirl4 (luv ya, babe!) meeting me at the entrance. I’d walked the empty corridors of the school several times last week, getting my bearings, but it’s completely different now that the school is full of kids, so my folks are slipping BG4 a hundred bucks a week to escort me to our classes. The school managed to work it so we’re in all but one together. No way I could be in the same French class as her—je suis une beginneur, after all!
Her computer chirped: new email. She issued the keyboard command to have JAWS
read the message’s header.
“To: Caitlin D.,” the computer announced. She only styled her name like that when posting to newsgroups, so whoever had sent this had gotten her address from NHL Player Stats Discuss or one of the other ones she frequented. “From: Gus Hastings.” Nobody she knew. “Subject: Improving your score.”
She touched a key and JAWS began to read the body of the message. “Are you sad about tiny penis? If so—”
Damn, her spam filter should have intercepted that. She ran her index finger along the refreshable display. Ah: the magic word had been spelled “peeeniz.”
She deleted the message and was about to go back to LiveJournal when her instant messenger bleeped. “BrownGirl4 is now available,” announced the computer.
She used alt-tab to switch to that window and typed, Hey, Bashira! Just updating my LJ.
Although she had JAWS configured to use a female voice, it didn’t have Bashira’s lovely accent: “Say nice things about me.”
Course, Caitlin typed. She and Bashira had been best friends for two months now, ever since Caitlin had moved here; she was the same age as Caitlin—fifteen—and her father worked with Caitlin’s dad at PI.
“Going to mention that Trevor was giving you the eye?”
Right! She went back to the blogging window and typed: BG4 and I got desks beside each other in home room, and she said this guy in the next row was totally checking me out. She paused, unsure how she felt about this, but then added, Go me!
She didn’t want to use Trevor’s real name. Let’s give him a codename, cuz I think he just might figure in future blog entries. Hmmm, how ‘bout ... the Hoser! That’s Canadian slang, folks—google it! Anyway, BG4 says the Hoser is famous for hitting on new girls in town, and I am, of course, tres exotique, although I’m not the only American in that class. There’s this chick from Boston named—friends, I kid you not!—poor thing’s name is Sunshine! It is to puke. :P
Caitlin disliked emoticons. They didn’t correspond to real facial expressions for her, and she’d had to memorize the sequences of punctuation marks as if they were a code. She moved back to the instant messenger. So whatcha up to?
“Not much. Helping one of my sisters with homework. Oh, she’s calling me. BRB.”
Caitlin did like chat acronyms: Bashira would “be right back,” meaning, knowing her, that she was probably gone for at least half an hour. The computer made the door-closing sound that indicated Bashira had logged off. Caitlin returned to LiveJournal.
Anyway, first period rocked because I am made out of awesome. Can you guess which subject it was? No points if you didn’t answer “math.” And, after only one day, I totally own that class. The teacher—let’s call him Mr. H, shall we?—was amazed that I could do things in my head the other kids need a calculator for.
Her computer chirped again. She touched a key and JAWS announced: “To:
spam. She hit delete before the screen reader got any further.
After math, it was English. We’re doing a boring book about this angsty guy growing up on the plains of Manitoba. It’s got wheat in every scene. I asked the teacher—Mrs. Z, she is, and you could not have picked a more Canadian name, cuz she’s Mrs.Zed, not Mrs.Zee, see?—if all Canadian literature was like this, and she laughed and said, “Not all of it.” Oh what a joy English class is going to be!
“BrownGirl4 is now available,” JAWS said.
Caitlin hit alt-tab to switch windows, then: That was fast.
“Yeah,” said the synthesized voice. “You’d be proud of me. It was an algebra problem, and I had no trouble with it.”
Be there or B^2, Caitlin typed.
“Heh heh. Oh, gotta go. Dad’s in one of his moods. See you”—which she’d no doubt typed as “CU.”
Caitlin went back to her journal. Lunch was okay, but I swear to God I’ll never get used to Canadians. They put vinegar on French fries! And BG4 told me about this thing called poontang. Kidding, friends, kidding! It’s poutine: French fries with cheese curds and gravy thrown on top—it’s like they use fries as a freakin’ science lab up here. Guess they don’t have much money for real science, ‘cept here in Waterloo, of course. And that’s mostly private mollah.
Her spell-checker beeped. She tried again: mewlah.
Another beep. The darn thing knew “triskaidekaphobia,” like she’d ever need that word, but—oh, maybe it was: moolah.
No beep. She smiled and went on.
Yup, the all-important green stuff. Well, except it’s not green up here, I’m told; apparently it’s all different colors. Anyway, a lot of the money to fund the Perimeter Institute, where my dad works on string theory and other shiny stuff like that, comes from Mike Lazaridis, co-founder of Research in Motion—RIM, for you crackberry addicts. Mike L’s a great guy (they always call him that cuz there’s another Mike, Mike B), and I think my dad is happy here, although it’s so blerking hard to tell with him.
Her computer chirped yet again, announcing more email. Well, it was time to wrap this up anyway; she had about eight million blogs to read before bed.
After lunch it was chemistry class, and that looks like it’s going to be awesome. I can’t wait until we start doing experiments—but if the teacher brings in a plate of fries, I’m outta there!
She used the keyboard shortcut to post the entry and then had JAWS read the new email header.
“To: Caitlin Decter,” her computer announced. “From: Masayuki Kuroda.” Again, nobody she knew. “Subject: A proposition.”
Involving a rock-hard peeeniz, no doubt! She was about to hit delete when she was distracted by Schrodinger rubbing against her legs—a case of what she liked to call cattus interruptus. “Who’s a good kitty?” Caitlin said, reaching down to pet him.
Schrodinger jumped into her lap and must have jostled the keyboard or mouse while doing so, because her computer proceeded to read the body of the message: “I know a teenage girl must be careful about whom she talks to online...”
A cyberstalker who knew the difference between who and whom! Amused, she let JAWS continue: “...so I urge you to immediately tell your parents of this letter. I hope you will consider my request, which is one I do not make lightly.”
Caitlin shook her head, waiting for the part where he would ask for nude photos. She found the spot on Schrodinger’s neck that he liked to have scratched.
“I have searched through the literature and online to find an ideal candidate for the research my team is doing. My specialty is signal processing related to V1.”
Caitlin’s hand froze in mid-scratch.
“I have no wish to raise false hopes and I can make no projection of the likelihood of success until I’ve examined MRI scans, but I do think there’s a fair chance that the technique we have developed may be able to at least partially cure your blindness, and—” she leapt to her feet, sending Schrodinger to the floor and probably out the door—”give you at least some vision in one eye. I’m hoping that at your earliest—”
“Mom! Dad! Come quick!”
She heard both sets of footfalls: light ones from her mother, who was five-foot-four and slim, and much heavier ones from her father, who was six-two and developing, she knew from those very rare occasions on which he permitted a hug, a middle-aged spread.
“What’s wrong?” Mom asked. Dad, of course, didn’t say a word.
“Read this letter,” Caitlin said, gesturing toward her monitor.
“The screen is blank,” Mom said.
“Oh.” Caitlin fumbled for the power switch on the seventeen-inch LCD, then got out of the way. She could hear her mother sit down and her father take up a position behind the chair. Caitlin sat on the edge of her bed, bouncing impatiently. She wondered if Dad was smiling; she liked to think he did smile while he was with her.
“Oh, my God,” Mom said. “Malcolm?”
“Google him,” Dad said. “Here, let me.”
More shuffling, and Caitlin heard her father settle into the chair. “He’s got a Wikipedia entry. Ah, his Web page at the University of Tokyo. A Ph.D. from Cambridge, and dozens of peer-reviewed papers, including one in Nature Neuroscience, on, as he says, signal processing in V1, the primary visual cortex.”
Caitlin was afraid to get her hopes up. When she’d been little, they’d visited doctor after doctor, but nothing had worked and she’d resigned herself to a life of—no, not of darkness but of nothingness.
But she was Calculass! She was a genius at math and deserved to go to a great university, then work someplace real cool like Google. Even if she managed the former, though, she knew people would say garbage like, “Oh, good for her! She managed to get a degree despite everything!”—as if the degree were the end, not the beginning. But if she could see! If she could see, the whole wide world would be hers.
“Is what he’s saying possible?” her mom asked.
Caitlin didn’t know if the question was meant for her or her father, nor did she know the answer. But her dad responded. “It doesn’t sound impossible,” he said, but that was as much of an endorsement as he was willing to give. And then he swiveled the chair, which squeaked a little, and said, “Caitlin?”
It was up to her, she knew: she was the one who’d had her hopes raised before, only to be dashed, and—
No, no, that wasn’t fair. And it wasn’t true. Her parents wanted her to have everything. It had been heartbreaking for them, too, when other attempts had failed. She felt her lower lip trembling. She knew what a burden she’d been on them, although they’d never once used that word. But if there was a chance...