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First pages

Chapter 1

Flagstaff, AZ

Ellen flung her keys at the kitchen counter and winced as they chattered across the granite and crashed into a glass bowl. She massaged her temples in a futile attempt to soothe the damage to her mind from a lengthy Monday at the office. A subzero bottle of gin called to her from the freezer, but she resisted the urge to seek chemical oblivion. That privilege was reserved for the weekends. Well, mostly. She turned to look at the freezer so she could consider the matter further and was surprised to see the door wide open, fog pouring out towards the floor.

“What the hell?” she said to herself, squinting at the appliance in confusion.

She glanced down the hallway instinctively, as if Jim might have been the one to leave the door open, but he had texted her from Seattle an hour ago. No one should be in the house. Her gaze returned to the kitchen and found the freezer door shut tight. It could not have closed in the fraction of a second she had looked away, and it should have never been open in the first place, so she dismissed the vision as a stress-induced hallucination and headed to the master bedroom.

In the connecting hallway, she tore off her sweater and undershirt. The feel of fresh air on her skin was invigorating. She considered tossing the sweater on the bed but then decided to hang it in the closet. The rest of her clothing found the bottom of the hamper. Her favorite lounging outfit was in the wash, so she debated for a moment what to throw on instead. An urge drew her out of the closet and towards the bathroom, allowing her to postpone the decision. The door to the bathroom was mostly closed, obscuring the view beyond except for a ray of light cast from the bedroom onto the countertop. Ellen was about to push through the door and flick on the light when an object on the counter caught her eye and froze her feet to the floor. Her senses screamed up to the highest level as panic struck her in the gut.

On the countertop lay an enormous knife. The steel was cold gray and only reflected light along a sliver defining the sharpened edge. The spine was serrated. Ellen did not have time to inspect the handle because a hand in a black glove reached down and gripped it. She bolted out of the bedroom, sprinted down the hallway, passed through to the opposite side of the kitchen, and crouched behind a cabinet to give herself a moment to think. Impossible. Her mind was overwhelmed by chaotic tangents that lead nowhere, but eventually she shut them out and focused on the moment. As Ellen’s thoughts became quiet, the sound of gasping caught her attention. It was coming from her, and if she could hear it, so could he. She tried to slow her breathing, but the sound persisted. Holding her breath yielded silence, but blackness quickly crept in around the periphery of her vision, and the pounding of her heart grew with each beat, expanding from her chest until her ears were nearly overwhelmed.

She gave up and gulped for air. As her vision came back, a series of framed pictures on a nearby tabletop caught her eye. The images of her wedding day, husband, and family unleashed a maelstrom of new thoughts.

Thank God the kids were not home.

Why did Jim have to be out of town—again—like always?

How am I going to get out of this? Why is this happening to me?

Ellen sensed the passage of idle time and forced herself to focus on one thing, getting out of the house alive.

She powered her torso up slowly, head tipped back, eyes straining against their sockets. She wanted to see beyond the speckled granite countertop to check if the man had followed her. Her balance precarious, she started to reach for the countertop but stopped short to avoid revealing her position. Instead, she placed her palm against the cabinet door. As her forehead neared the height of the granite, she popped up for a split second and then dropped back down on her haunches. No one was in view. Maybe the man had not followed her, or maybe he was just hiding. She dared to look again, carefully checking her entire field of vision this time. The room appeared to be empty and still. Panic yielded to confusion in her mind, so Ellen tried to use her string-tech to call outside the house. No luck. The only thing responding was the car—status ready.

A plan of action crystallized in her mind. She shuffled along the row of cabinets while hugging the floor, keeping herself below the height of the countertop and moving towards the side door to the garage. If she could get to the car, maybe she could drive away far enough to find a link back to the outside. The chance of hope slowed her breathing. She paused for a moment, her brain straining for a rational explanation. Was she dreaming? Or perhaps she was just losing her mind?

Something clanged as it fell to the floor in another room, this wasn’t her imagination. The sound spurred her forward. Reaching the end of the cabinets, Ellen realized that the door to the garage was in plain sight from much of the surrounding house. Her position was likely to be revealed if the man was nearby, but no better option came to mind. She decided to go for it and slid across the gap, eased open the door to the garage, and slipped inside. She did not observe her pursuer through the narrowing cleft as she coaxed the door closed behind her.

Ice-cold cement stung the bottoms of her feet. Her naked arms and legs bristled at the chill in the air, but these sensations only registered weakly in her mind. She turned around and faced the darkness. The vehicle sensed her proximity and automatically unlocked the doors.

A sliver of moonlight provided meager illumination through narrow windows in the garage door. She could see the car, but little else. She paused to listen and allow her eyes to adjust. Detecting no sound from her pursuer, she glided to the car, opened the door, and slipped into the driver’s seat.


Starting the engine would make noise.

Opening the garage door would make even more noise.

Ellen considered driving the car straight through the door but hesitated because she feared the vehicle might get stuck. Instead, she decided to start the engine and hit the button for the door at the same time.

The engine turned over, and the exit began to open. She put the car into reverse. One second passed. She hit the steering wheel repeatedly with her hand. “Come on, come on…” she said out loud.

Another second ticked off the clock. The door was half-way open now, but it seemed as if two hours had passed.

Ellen stared at the oversized white door to the house, now illuminated by the car’s headlights. She gasped in panic when the doorknob began to turn. Her rational demeanor could no longer be sustained. She shrieked with increasing intensity as the door slowly swung open. A massive man emerged. Gray knit ski cap, dark glasses, winter camo hunter’s mask over his nose and mouth, heavy jacket and pants with square knee patches. He stood stiffly with his arms flared out, occupying more space than his body required. His left hand gripped the enormous knife and pointed it directly at Ellen’s face.

The garage door had ascended three-quarters of the way up, and the potential exit allowed Ellen to regain some control. She hammered the accelerator to the floor and pinned it there like the worst kind of cockroach. Tires squealed on the slick garage cement, but initially, the vehicle moved more sideways than backward. This gave the man time to jump onto the hood, one hand grabbed the edge near the windshield and the other arced down violently. The knife pierced the lower portion of the windshield like an icepick and embedded in the plastic dash beneath, sending rock-salt-like glass shards bouncing across the interior of the vehicle.

The tires eventually began to grip, and the car shot out of the garage, accelerating backward down the drive. The vehicle clipped several hedges and bushes, barely making the turn in the long country driveway as it neared the main road. The sudden changes in direction caused the attacker to pivot sideways, and his hand slipped from the knife, leaving it embedded in the car dash. He gripped the edge of the hood with both hands, but it was clear this was a temporary solution.

As the car slammed across the dip at the edge of the street and tires screeched at the ninety-degree turn and stop, the man went flying off of the hood. He converted inertia from the toss into a controlled roll with surprising agility, coming to a stop and somehow standing on his feet about 15 feet from the car.

Ellen had already put the vehicle into drive and slammed the accelerator once more. The car launched forward, but the man remained motionless. He simply watched. Ellen fixated on him in the rearview mirror as the car introduced distance between them.

She began to laugh uncontrollably in response to the adrenaline rolling like waves through her body. Intellectually, she knew her laughter was inappropriate, but she could not stop. The car was moving too fast, but it was difficult to convince her foot to ease back from the gas pedal. A sharp turn came into view ahead, so she shifted her foot over to the brake.

With the turn approaching quickly, it was clear she needed to slow down. Panic. She crushed the brake and could feel her lower back push into the seat as she applied maximum force. The tires howled, and the vehicle started to drift sideways into the direction of the turn. She pulled the steering wheel hard over, but there was only a weak response. Pavement gave way to gravel, and in the absence of significant friction, the car rotated further and slammed sideways into the guardrail.

For a split second, it seemed as if the ordeal might be over, but then the car’s velocity converted into rotation. The vehicle flipped over the guardrail and launched into the air. Momentum carried it past the sharp edge of a towering cliff, allowing the car to spin for several seconds of freefall before it finally slapped into the ground.

Chapter 2

Southern Entrance to Yellowstone National Park

“Is it really safe?” asked a slender teenage girl sporting a matching look of disbelief on her face. Her simple question echoed around a small gathering of people standing in a clearing hemmed in by pine trees. Children attached to parents’ hips, older gray-haired folks, and everyone else stood silently with their attention focused on a single man. He faced directly toward the onlookers but did not rush to answer the query. Instead, he paused and then slowly, but overtly, inhaled the pine-scented air. This action enlarged his nostrils and drew attention to chaotic hairs protruding out into the daylight. The nose hairs appeared to be part of an intentionally disheveled appearance that included stubble on his chin and cheeks, and an unkempt mop.

As he exhaled, he grinned in an attempt to win the group’s trust. The move backfired, and the body language from the assembly indicated his usual tricks weren’t working, so he decided to just get on with his speech. “Sure it’s safe,” he said in the tone of a used car salesman. “Look, I know it is hard to remember, but not so long ago everyone lived this way all the time. In fact, I’m guessing you probably know someone who still does. Besides, all of you have gone completely offline before. Just remember your last update,” he said with a slight lisp.

“You’ve probably heard lots of rumors and maybe some horror stories, but for the most part, they are not true. This is what you can expect. Some of you will experience few effects at all, maybe none. After about half an hour, though, most of you will experience mild disorientation, some dizziness, that sort of thing, for about a day or so and that will be it. It is also possible someone might get unlucky and experience more intense disorientation, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea…”

“Diarrhea?” someone from the crowd interjected.

“Yeah, I know, weird huh? The body can do strange things, but basically that’s as bad as it gets, and in any case, those symptoms usually only last for a day or two.” He paused to let the info sink in. A few softening countenances suggested he was starting to win them over.

“So why is that ambulance parked over there?” asked a small boy, pointing to the incriminating vehicle.

The guide took the question in stride. “It’s there out of an ‘abundance of caution’,” he said, using air quotes to accent the words. He leaned over, holding the back of his hand in front of his mouth, and faux-whispered to the boy, “You can ask your mom what that means later.”

“I already know what it means,” the boy said quickly. “It means you are full of…” He hesitated, looking around at the remainder of the group before continuing, “BS. As my mom would say.

Uncomfortable chuckles circulated around the group. The guide, unfazed outwardly, decided to go into the technical aspects of orientation. “Yellowstone is arguably the oldest National Park in the world. It was set apart some time ago as a nature preserve. Congress has, in their indefatigable and infinite wisdom, designated that modern technology should not penetrate into or disturb the pristine wilderness inside the park boundaries any more than absolutely necessary. Therefore, all around the perimeter of the park are electronic devices which cancel out all RF, that’s ‘radio frequency,' signals to prevent them from entering the park. That means no string streams. No net. No one can remain online while inside the park. In fact, all string-tech is disabled before you can enter. Each of you will be issued a cell phone which you can use for emergency contact from within the park only.”

“One of the side benefits of this policy, of course, is that you can only experience Yellowstone in the flesh. There are no recorded strings of it, so each of you will have a very unique, one of a kind experience. Something which has not been strung all around the world.”

The youngest listeners appeared dumbfounded at what they were hearing, the disbelief obvious on each of their faces. Surely, they were about to enter a barbaric land, the likes of which were only rumored to still exist, and even then only with poor credibility.

“Ok, so if you can now all follow me, you will see what I’m talking about for yourselves. As we cross those gates over there, your string-tech will automatically shut down,” the guide moved towards the inside of the park. The crowd naturally followed him, except for one man who appeared to be distracted by an unseen force. He remained behind for a brief moment, and then without saying a word returned to his vehicle and drove away.


FBI Los Angeles Field Office, String Division

A frowning Asian woman with hair pulled tightly back against her scalp clattered with long fake nails on a keyboard. She looked up without missing a beat and said, “You’ve got to be kidding. No one smiles after getting called back from a vacation.” Her comments were addressed to Diego Chavez, sharp suit, not a single hair out of place, who appeared to be genuinely smiling from inner self-content, or perhaps a fortuitous hormonal imbalance.

“Hi, Sherry. Heard we have a case?” Chavez said without allowing his façade to crack. He would have preferred to finish his trip to Yellowstone, but vacation had taken on a new definition since he made Senior Special Agent.

“Maybe, maybe not. It’s probably nothing, but I figured I better call you just to be safe,” she said, returning her gaze to the empty space above her keyboard.

Chavez rolled his eyes and the joy faded from his face as he leaned over her shoulder, syncing into her virtual string-monitor. “Let’s have a look at what you’ve got,” he said. A notice informed Sherry that Chavez was now viewing the projection from her computer with his string-tech, so she played back a video-reduction of a string. “Those readings are off the charts,” Chavez said, his brow creasing. The vitals of the person who had originally recorded the string were overlaid on the upper right quadrant of the video playback. As the recorder looked down at herself, the half-naked body of an attractive woman was revealed. Chavez continued to watch as she moved through a house into the garage, where she was pursued by a man with a large knife. “I think I can see where this is headed, but for a snuff-string, she is really faking those vitals.” Chavez continued to watch as the woman drove off a cliff before the string ended in blackness. “Huh, what happened there towards the end? It seemed like something was cut out,” he asked, still focusing intently on the blackness that remained after the string had finished playing.

“That’s the complete download, at least by video.”

“I’ve got to string it,” Chavez said, taking a seat. After a few seconds, his expression became blank and remained that way as he saw, smelled, tasted, and heard the entire episode as if he were the woman herself. The recorded string played back through his string-tech, temporarily displacing his mind into her reality. When the string finished, Chavez’s expression sharpened as the inputs of his own mind returned home. “I don’t know. It looks completely legit to me. I can’t see any obvious manipulation, but it’s weird. Just before going over the edge, she blinks and a sharp turn in the road appears out of nowhere. It’s like a few seconds are missing, but the string is continuous. There’s no shift in the time-stamp, and it definitely looks like she is in the car for the whole ride.”

“Then either she is dead, or we have missed something,” Sherry said.

“Or maybe both,” Chavez said. “It’s definitely not your typical snuff-string either way.”

“So I didn’t ruin your vacation for nothing?” Sherry said, frowning.

“Let’s run the whole thing back from the beginning and slow it down to see if we can pick up anything in slow motion.” After a short clattering on the keyboard, the scene replayed again at 1/8th speed, each frame clicking by just long enough to register independently on the eye. “Hold on, go back,” Chavez said referring to the moment the woman was about to lose sight of the man in her rearview mirror.

“What is it?” Sherry asked as she replayed the scene again.

“Back it up to just before she shifts view from him back to the road and then play it forward frame by frame.” Sherry executed the request. The attacker in the rearview mirror grew slightly smaller in each frame as the car accelerated away, and then the woman’s perspective began to shift away from the mirror towards the road. Just before her view of the man would have been obscured by trees as the vehicle turned a corner, the man in the rearview mirror simply disappeared. Chavez’s head snapped back, and he shared a look of disbelief with his coworker.

“Do that again,” he said. It was not a mistake. They had seen it correctly the first time. The man in the mirror vanished instantly. Chavez would have only been slightly more surprised if the staffer walking across the other side of the office suddenly evaporated from view. “I knew it! I’ve been saying this was going to happen. I don’t think the guy was ever there at all. He was projecting into her live-string, and she couldn’t tell it was not real.”

“Then I guess that’s not impossible after all,” Sherry said.

“Nope, but I wish it was, because this is a cataclysmic problem for us, as in the whole world,” Chavez said, staring blankly at the frozen clip. “We have to keep this under tight wraps. Can you imagine the panic it would cause if people found out that some psycho can control everything they see, hear, or smell? And he doesn’t mind tricking you into your own death?”


Fenton residence, Encino, California

In a neighborhood where home price clearly varied on the million dollar scale, the house where Chavez arrived appeared to be unimpressively at the bottom of the pack. Originally constructed in the 1960’s, stained and weathered primary wood beams broadcast the home’s age. Chavez double checked the address and his location. He appeared to be at the right place. Somehow, he had imagined that one of the most famous scientists in the world would have a nicer home.

Chavez got out of his vehicle and knocked on the door. No one answered. Chavez scanned the neighborhood behind him to pass the time. He was about to retreat when sounds from inside convinced him to stay another minute. The man who opened the door was over 40, but trim and fit. His expression was obscured by a modest length, graying beard as he examined Chavez without saying anything.

Chavez recognized the man, but politeness required the usual social formalities, “Fenton? Professor Fenton Fenton?”

The man’s expression shifted to a look of minor irritation. “Yes, that is what my father named me,” he said, putting on a forced grin. Both men looked at each other in silence for a brief moment.

“Special Agent Diego Chavez from the FBI, String Division,” Chavez said, holding up his badge and standing in plain sight just as he had learned in field training. The awkwardness of the situation forced him to realize he had not interacted with enough people in person recently.

After looking at the badge, Fenton opened the door halfway and stepped into the void, blockading the opening with his body. His clothes appeared to be new, but the style originated from at least one decade prior. He remained content to once again let Chavez make the next move.

“So I guess the rumors are true,” Chavez said.

“How’s that?” Fenton replied, raising his eyebrows slightly.

“Oh, sorry. I meant the rumor about you not being plugged in. I can’t detect you online. In fact, I couldn’t pick up on any string-tech in the house. As law enforcement, we’re used to knowing who’s around since we can bypass all privacy blockers.”

“We?” Fenton asked, amused.

“Yeah, um,” Chavez said, looking around impishly since he was alone. “The royal we, I guess.”

“Sorry, I’m being an ass. It happens from time to time. To answer your question, yes, the extra privacy from electronic snooping is a side benefit of not having string-tech,” Fenton said.

Chavez took a step backward and grimaced. “It is weird though, to think that the guy who practically invented string theory is not even plugged in.”

Fenton groaned in response to Chavez’s comment. It was true, 15 years prior Fenton had developed the underpinning math that allowed for translation of strings between different people, something which had baffled the scientific community for years. Subsequently, development of string-tech had expanded exponentially, eventually invading virtually every aspect of life. Fenton had naively failed to recognize that his achievement would quickly make him a public figure. In a surprisingly short amount of time, many changes were required. First, he unplugged his phone, then he changed his email address. Eventually, he was forced to move into a shambled home that drew little attention.

“Yes, I suppose it is odd. Why don’t you come inside?” Fenton said, finally dropping his guarded formalism. He withdrew into the interior of the home, leaving Chavez to follow and close the door. “I’m afraid I don’t normally entertain too many guests, as you can tell.” No lights were on, but there was sufficient candescence from the sun filtering through large rear windows to illuminate the space. The furniture was outdated by at least twenty years and worn, as was the Persian rug on the scratched oak floor. The house was not dirty, but it wasn’t clean either. Fenton sat on a lounger that matched the couches and offered Chavez a seat with a wave of his hand.

“You have a beautiful view,” Chavez said.

“Yes, thanks. I find it helps me think.”

“Professor, we need your help…” he began to speak, but then abruptly stopped. “OK, first I have to ask. How the hell can you not be plugged in? I mean, I know you must have gotten that question like a million times, but,” he searched for words, “I don’t get it.”

“Just because I developed a method for guessing the solutions to super-parallel, but underdetermined, equations doesn’t mean I want that string-junk inside my head. It’s not that I’m technophobic per se, but I don’t like anything that can influence my mind. In fact, I’m reluctant to take any drugs, including over-the-counter painkillers for headaches,” Fenton said while pointing a finger towards his temple several times. “But I don’t think you came here to talk about me. You said you needed some help?”

Chavez’s expression turned serious. “Yes. Forgive me. Here’s the problem, it looks like someone figured out how to hijack and manipulate live-strings in real time,” he said, keeping his eyes fixed on Fenton.

Fenton raised one eyebrow. “I must be missing something Agent Chavez. Live-string manipulation has been around for a while, as I’m sure you know. Every time you look at a string-monitor, or even your own HUD, you’re seeing live-string manipulation.”

“You’re right. What I meant to say was they hijacked the live-string and manipulated reality in a way that the person couldn’t tell. Basically, a guy inserted himself into a woman’s live-string, and she thought he was actually there. It looks like the guy can alter live-strings in real-time for anyone that is plugged in without them knowing about it.”

“Oh,” Fenton said with a hint of disappointment in his eyes. He turned to examine the view outside. After some thought, he glanced at his watch and then looked up at Chavez, “Listen, I didn’t realize it was this late. I have to give a lecture in a few hours. Could we possibly continue this discussion later, maybe in the afternoon?”

Chapter 3

Near Flagstaff, AZ

A small spring-fed trickle of cool running water that survived above ground for only 75 feet was sufficient to draw in animals from miles in every direction. Most could only be identified by the tell-tale tracks they had left behind, but presently, several deer quenched their thirst at the lush crag below an expanse of ponderosa pine. Only one drank at a time, the remainder keeping watch, ears up, eyes forward, and heads on swivels. Although water brought life to the land, it also served as a harbinger of danger and death. The coalescence of game ensured that predators frequently stalked the area. Such was the case this time, though the deer were all unaware. A telescopic lens enabled surveillance from a distance where neither sound nor smell could betray.

Among the herd was a large buck. Majestic antlers crowned his head, their mass sufficient to slow his motions by sheer inertia as he looked from side to side. He was the most cautious of the group, not taking a drink until all other animals had gone before him, and even then he drank only in abbreviated gulps. It appeared as if the buck could sense danger even though no obvious signs were present, but this was not actually the case. Its behavior was merely a product of instinct. Lawrence Little deftly hovered crosshairs over the center-of-mass just behind the shoulder. He pulled the trigger, but the rifle did not respond. Fortunately for the deer, there was not a round in the chamber, and Little had no interest in drawing attention to himself with the report of a rifle.

Little scanned away from the deer to the dry bottom of the creek bed. He sat comfortably on pine needles behind the cover of some low-lying bushes. He wore full camouflage for further protection, including a hat and a shape disrupting net that draped from the crown of his head to his shoulders. He had approached the area silently, with a stealth learned from years of hunting. If the deer had not detected his presence, no fool of a human would. The scope swept across something foreign, and Little reversed carefully back to the spot for a closer look. An upended vehicle sat at the bottom of the gorge with one of the front doors hanging open. Little smiled and slipped his head back from the scope for a moment, careful not to shift its viewpoint. After a quick glance with the naked eye, he focused back on the car through the scope, straining to see inside the vehicle. Unfortunately, since the car was upside-down, only a miniscule amount of light penetrated inside, leaving Little unable to discern the vaguely defined dark shapes within. The smile dissipated as Little examined the area around the vehicle. He swept back and forth, surveying the land in both directions for several hundred yards. No one was around.

Perhaps the authorities had not found the location yet, he thought. He shifted his head up and checked the area with his natural senses. His eyes found nothing, but more importantly, he could hear nothing but the chatter of birds and the occasional squirrel. The forest did not manifest the unnatural silence induced by the presence of people. Little would need to get closer to see his handiwork inside the vehicle, but his thoughts returned to the tracks leading to the spring. If he approached the site, evidence of his visit would be left in close proximity. He sat musing his options for several minutes, but ultimately decided the risk was too great. Satisfaction could be obtained through other means. He decided to retreat and post the string online where it would be sure to draw the attention of the FBI.


UCLA Lecture Hall, LA

Fenton stood confidently before a group of several hundred students. His difficulty with interpersonal interactions on a small scale did not translate into problems in the lecture hall. In front of a crowd, he was confident, captivating and perfectly at ease. Although his status meant he could teach whatever course he chose, he frequently taught introductory classes that were eschewed by his colleagues. Classes on string theory, not the old string theory from physics but the new one that formed the foundation of string-tech, were in high demand when Professor Fenton taught. After introductory comments, he dove straight into the meat of the subject.

“Electronic connections to living brains were first explored nearly a century ago, though most people were unaware such experiments were being carried out. Initially, the science focused on severe epilepsy. The first deep brain implants successfully controlled seizures and cleared the path to more elaborate brain interfaces. Subsequent work focused on the restoration of lost functions, such as interfacing with robotic limbs or artificial ears. Next came sight. After a while, essentially all of the technology for communicating with every sensory organ was available on an individual basis,” he said, pausing to emphasize there were caveats to his previous statement.

He held up both hands in front of his chest and continued, “Many of these original devices were crude and barely resembled the string-tech you are familiar with today, which would not have been possible without progress in the unrelated area of nanotechnology.” As he covered the material, Fenton clicked through slides that matched the lecture content. A three-dimensional image of the nanowiring within a string-tech-enabled mind painted the screen on the back wall. The image spun slowly, revealing thousands of connections penetrating throughout the brain.

“After a nanotech solution was developed to construct the interface, the resolution became sufficiently dense to match neuronal dimensions, which meant that, in theory, the gear could match what people perceived with their own organs,” Fenton said, scanning the audience to evaluate whether the class was still with him. Aside from a few stragglers, he still retained almost everyone’s attention.

“Eventually a few people without any disabilities elected to have full sensory implants, allowing them to perceive the world through their own senses or through digital inputs. Many attempts were made to use the mind to record experiences as well. The recorded experiences, now known as strings, that were projected to other people were colossal failures. Which reminds me, why are they called strings?” Fenton asked, scanning the room for hands. “Yes,” he said, pointing to a young woman.

“I heard it was because their thoughts were turned into strings of code,” she said.

“Interesting. Any other ideas?” Fenton asked, selecting another hand.

A young man answered, “It’s a reference to the string connecting a tin-can telephone for kids.”

“Thank you. You’ve both covered the most popular explanations, but actually, neither is correct. The true answer is that the terminology was invented by a marketing firm,” Fenton said. The comment drew groans and grunts from the audience.

“Sometimes reality sucks,” Fenton said, replacing the moans with chuckles. “Returning to our discussion of early attempts to transmit strings between people. In the best cases, the person attempting to receive the string perceived everything in horribly pixelated, low-resolution black and white images. There was a serious translation problem between the way one brain recorded events and how another brain perceived them. For example, speech was usually completely unrecognizable because the volume might vary between jet engine screeching and dead silence even though someone was just speaking normally in the string. The sounds were typically unrecognizable. Visual images were equally jumbled. Actually, the early days of string-technology were fairly dangerous. There were numerous examples where attempting to view a string caused someone to lose control of their bladder or bowels. There were even rumors of temporary comas.” A few students gasped. Most were glued to the professor, which was rare regardless of the content matter, so Fenton tried to take advantage while he could.

“Many people attempted to solve the interface problem by carefully controlling input stimuli for two subjects under identical conditions to reveal differences and eliminate them, but these efforts were in vain because it was simply a classic case of too many variables and not enough equations. As a mathematician, I realized this and I was curious about whether there was a purely mathematical solution. Since all of you likely have string-tech implants, or you are ‘plugged-in’ as they say, you know that there was a solution.”

A student near the front row raised his hand.

“Yes,” Fenton called on the student.

“When did you realize you were working on something that would change the world?”


About me

Ryan Julian is a Professor of Chemistry at the University of California, Riverside. He earned his B.S. from the University of Utah and Ph.D. from Caltech. He has won numerous awards for his scientific research, including the Biemann Medal and the McCoy Award. He leads a bioanalytical research team at UCR that studies topics ranging from protein structure to molecular aging.

Q. What is the inspiration for the story?
Actual experiments where people are planting electronic devices in the brains of living animals and people.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, and Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October, are two of my favorites. The inclusion of science and technology within a captivating storyline appeals to me.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A seminar about research where a monkey with a chip planted in its brain could be made to see a light that wasn’t actually there.

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