Bobby Raye Mitchell, thief and convicted murderer, sat strapped to a hard plastic chair on the tenth floor of the Lucas Falls county hospital. A device called a Synaptic Current Amplitude Measurement (SCAM) rested comfortably around the curve of his bald head like an unadorned coronet. The nasty thing gave off an electric taint of ozone.
The SCAM would measure Bobby Raye’s chances of facing execution in November — three months hence. So far, the chances were looking very good, or bad, depending on if you were Bobby Raye.
Dr. Paul Mathewson, a neurologist for the state of South Carolina and head of the Rice Prison Stem Cell Initiative, sat across a cheap fold-out table from Bobby. The thin doctor paid his patient scant attention as he meticulously adjusted settings on a flat screen status display Bobby couldn’t see.
By the door stood a large man wearing a state police uniform with two equally large men dressed in the flimsy pants and near sleeveless pullover that, regardless of color — theirs were dull orange — marks hospital orderlies the world over.
“Now,” said Dr. Mathewson in a distracted tone, “you know the drill, Bobby. I’m going to ask you a few questions. I’d appreciate it if you try to answer as best you can, but it’s not necessary. Ready?”
“Whatever,” said Bobby. His tailbone hurt from sitting in this hard chair for the last twenty-five minutes while the doctor adjusted his stupid machine and the cop and hospital heavies eyed him like scared kids on the playground.
It was all stupid anyway. The questions didn’t matter. The machine didn’t care whether he answered correctly; it measured synaptic function and pattern, not accuracy. So no matter how blank Bobby tried to keep his mind, the SCAM would find him thinking.
“Bobby, how do the French celebrate the Fourth of July?” asked Dr. Mathewson without looking up from the monitor.
“Same as everybody else,” lied Bobby.
Dr. Mathewson grunted, and continued with his banal questions, each one demanding a little more logic than the last. Bobby tried to bluff his way through every one.
All the Eggcons said it was no use lying — the machine could tell if you knew the answer — but they all tried anyway. If the stem cells the state had injected him with could make Bobby smarter, it stood to reason he might be that one Eggcon whose mental acuity became so great he could fool the SCAM.
But Bobby knew the chances of that were slim at best in his case. The last three SCAMs had shown a marked improvement in his IQ — from an average of sixty-five to about one hundred twenty — but he wouldn’t be breaking any land speed records in the area of deep thought. Mostly, his improved perceptions served as further punishment for his crimes, since now he could better despise his current imprisonment and fear his upcoming execution.
Execution. Yes, the state would definitely execute him now. Anyone with an average IQ of seventy or better was deemed cognizant of his own crimes and therefore punishable by law. And since the advent of the SCAM, cons couldn’t purposefully fail an IQ test to avoid justice. The SCAM knew all.
“Bobby? Bobby. ”
“You faded out for a second there,” said Dr. Mathewson. “I asked, do you feel guilty for the crimes you committed? Would you have committed those same crimes if you had this level of intelligence earlier in your life?”
What a stupid question. You don’t teach a dog to speak and then ask him if he still wants to eat cats. Of course he still wants to eat cats, only now he can have them delivered.
Sure, some part of Bobby knew killing was wrong. Everyone knew that. But the added brain power just made it easier to imagine, to plan, and though he hadn’t got the chance yet, possibly to execute.
Weren’t words fun?
“No, sir, Doctor. If I had it to do all over again, I would never have killed those people. I would have finished school and played it up right. I might be sitting where you’re sitting, helping out us Eggcons, showing us the error of our ways and all that,” said Bobby.
He had to keep his hand in. And who knew, maybe they’d believe him. Maybe he could be that first Eggcon to convince the world he was a new man, a different man from the one who had received the stem treatments. Surely that old Bobby was dead. This one was borne out of synaptic potential the way a baby is birthed into the world with a blank slate of wildly growing brain cells.
But that kind of thing had been tried before, and by men with more stemmed genius than Bobby Raye Mitchell had gotten in the deal. In fact, his was a new kind of surgery, designed to curb the potential for creating criminals with the brains of a Hawking or Einstein. The inmates had taken to calling convicts undergoing the new procedure “No Yokes”.
New, preprogrammed cells with a hard-on for mimicking only brain tissue had been injected into his neck vice opening his skull. The new procedure had saved the state scads of cash, or so the rumor went. And all those stray cells, the ones that didn’t take root inside his head, were flushed through his system — so much expensive fecal matter — down the chute like Bobby’s potential.
“Thank you, Bobby, you’ve done wonderfully,” said Dr. Mathewson. “Your average IQ this session was one twenty one. I’m recommending you go back to the prison tomorrow. Have a good night.”
Bobby Raye Mitchell began to think with his heart, or, more rightly, his heart began to think, on August 21, 2032. By then Bobby had less than a month before the state of South Carolina would end his life by lethal injection, which seemed ironic to Bobby now that he knew the meaning of irony.
It started like a headache. Not that his heart hurt his head. It was like a headache in that it started without Bobby realizing anything was different and then suddenly he was suffering from selective concentration. One moment he would be thinking how he could make a shiv out of the hard ruler plastic in the library and the next he would be thinking about the moral implications of murder and how the death of one man affects so many innocent others.
It was infuriating.
But he wouldn’t let that happen this time. For Bobby Raye had found that when he concentrated his brain could still master his heart. No matter how the heart tried to subvert his thoughts, Bobby could beat it.
Bobby Raye covertly patted the sharp piece of plastic hidden in his blue prison jumper, turning the motion into what looked like an idle scratch of his ample belly. The weapon felt reassuring.
You don’t want to do this, said his heart.
He did and he would.
Bobby eyed Roy Cumberland, a lanky old inmate with scraggily salt and pepper hair.
You don’t have anything against that man. He has done nothing to you.
That was true, Bobby hardly knew him. But this wasn’t about Roy — it was nothing personal. It was about being Bobby Raye Mitchell. He was a killer — had been a killer even before he became a No Yoke — and he wasn’t about to let some sentimental heartstrings take that away from him. It was all he had.
The bell sounded high above and the assembled inmates of cellblock 24b began milling about, slowly taking their plastic trays to the wash window table by table.
When their turn came, Bobby followed Roy at a distance. Once Roy reached the window, Bobby slid a hand into his shirt and grasped the shiv by the dull end. It would probably cut Bobby when he used it, but it would kill Roy. That’s what mattered.
Bobby dropped his tray, pulled the shiv free, and reached for Roy’s shoulder with his now free hand. He was already drawing back for a deep stab at the slighter man’s kidneys when the first, tiny, prickling pains began to spread across his left side and into his arm.
Won’t let you.
A stick of dynamite exploded inside Bobby’s chest. The pain filled his ears with blood rush. It surged through his back and down his left arm. His shiv clattered on the cement floor, forgotten.
Bobby staggered, foam building on his lips, right hand pressed firmly over his left nipple as inmates ogled him with wide eyes. Some laughed, but most looked more surprised than anything.
I warned you.
Bobby slipped in someone’s mashed potatoes — probably his own – hit his head on the floor, and passed out.
Harsh, white light flashed in his eyes. Bobby tried to speak. The only sound he made was a torpid gurgle.
“Don’t try to talk,” Mr. Mitchell, said a voice from out of the light.
Was he dead? He felt dead. And, judging by the considerable pain, this wasn’t a good place to be dead. Perhaps Father Ortiz had been right all along.
“Mr. Mitchell, you had an episode in prison — a mild heart attack. Do you hear me, Mr. Mitchell? Can you nod your head? Very good.”
The room was still too bright and his vision too vague for Bobby to distinguish much of anything. The men around him were wispy, gray shadows.
“You hear that murmur, don’t you?” said a familiar voice. It took a moment for Bobby to place it. Dr. Mathewson from the prison.
“Yes. Very irregular,” said someone Bobby didn’t know.
Myriad suction cups crisscrossed Bobby’s chest under a paper-thin dressing gown. His vision was still too poor to make them out, but he could feel them. They itched.
He tried to raise his hand to scratch and found that he was cuffed to the hospital bed.
“Don’t try to move, Bobby,” said Dr. Mathewson, absently.
“Let’s have a look at the spectral display,” said the unknown voice. Bobby’s vision was beginning to clear. He squinted up and could just make out a rotund man with receding hair standing beside Dr. Mathewson who was spare and rail thin in comparison.
“Would you look at that,” said the fat doctor.
“Strangest response I’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Mathewson.
The fat doctor shook his head. “I don’t know what to make of it. Kevin, is this thing working right?”
Yet another man in a white coat, this one young – probably mid-twenties – stood on the opposite side of Bobby’s bed. He frowned, his forehead wrinkling in thought.
“Yes, sir. I set everything up right. You know, Doctor, if I may, I’ve seen a waveform like that before.”
“Before I became a lab tech I was in the Army.”
“I was a signals analyst. That there looks like a modulated carrier wave to me.”
The two doctors looked back at the spectral monitor where it hung on a silver pole beside Bobby’s bed.
“Hearts don’t send radio signals, Kevin.”
“Lots of electro activity through all that muscle, the ability to oscillate, I can’t think of a better organ for it. I’m just telling you what I see, that’s all Doctor. My equipment is working fine. That heart is modulating a signal.”
The men were quiet a moment.
Tell them I am, said Bobby’s heart.
Couldn’t if I wanted to, thought Bobby through a fog of pain and drug induced euphoria.
“Turn the volume up,” said the fat doctor.
The thrum-thrum sound of a living heart filled the room. With it came a sibilant buzz of static. Pops and wheezes punctuated it, giving it an irregular beat.
“You hear that?” asked Dr. Mathewson.
“Turn it up more. All the way.”
The sound rose until the heartbeat rang in Bobby’s ears.
“The static. I swear it’s making words,” said the fat doctor. “Listen.”
They leaned closer. They listened.
The fractured hiss popped and hiccupped a few more times, like a man clearing his throat, and then it spoke.
“I want a lawyer.”
Mark Jessop, the prick lawyer who had taken the heart’s case, stood before judge and jury, thumbs hooked on his red suspenders, floppy jowls shaking as he spoke. His refined southern accent made Bobby Raye want to puke.
“Heart, isn’t it true you have stopped Mr. Mitchell from committing murder on at least two separate occasions?”
“That’s a lie!” screamed Bobby Raye from the witness stand.
“Your Honor, I move that Mr. Mitchell’s words be stricken except when he, personally, is called upon to speak. Otherwise, I encourage the court to view him as merely a mode of locomotion for my client, the Heart. Unless called upon for his testimony, Mr. Mitchell is no more relevant than a wheelchair.”
“I agree,” said the judge.
“That ain’t fair, Judge,” said Bobby.
“This is my courtroom, son. I and the state of South Carolina decide what is fair. I don’t expect to hear another word out of you unless a question is directed your way. Is that clear?”
“Yes. Sir,” said Bobby in clipped tones. He clenched his fists under the ornate box’s paneling where no one could see and pulled hard but impotently against the padded cuffs on his writs. In his ears Bobby heard the monotonous beat of his traitor heart.
“Continue, Mr. Jessop,” said the judge.
“Do you need me to repeat the question, Heart?”
“No,” said a tinny voice from a receiver mounted on the defense table far out of Bobby Raye’s reach. “It is true I have stopped Bobby from killing two of his fellow inmates in the last three weeks.”
“And when did you decide it was wrong to take human life?”
“From my first moment of sentient thought, I knew it was wrong to kill.”
“Now, Heart, you contend that you did not begin thinking or feeling until after Mr. Mitchell’s stem cell sessions, is that correct?”
“And it was from that point on you became more than just an organ, isn’t that true, Heart?”
“I believe I am more than just a bit of rude flesh, yes.”
“And, therefore, you took no part in the murders committed by Mr. Mitchell prior to his conviction?”
Mr. Jessop turned to face the jury. “Good people of the jury. I would remind you of the expert witness testimony of Dr. Paul Mathewson earlier this week. This heart had no more sense of reality than the good Judge’s gavel prior to inadvertently receiving stem cells intended for this killer’s brain.” Mr. Jessop punctuated each of his last three words by pointing at Bobby Raye. “No further questions, Your Honor.”
“Mr. Legree, do you have anything for this witness?” asked the judge.
Mr. Legree, the prosecuting attorney, looked up from scratching notes on a legal pad, as if he hadn’t been listening. Slowly, he stood, his eyes sweeping the courtroom.
“No more sense of reality than the judge’s gavel?” said Legree. “You know, you’re right about that, Mr. Jessop. But by your logic his spleen wasn’t accessory to the crime either. Nor his stomach, nor his bowels, nor his right ear. Would you have us cut this man to pieces to find what part of him is culpable for murder? Did only his right hand, which pulled the trigger, commit a crime? Or did all those parts of him, in fulfilling their life sustaining functions, make it possible for Bobby Raye Mitchell to become a killer?”
“Mr. Legree, this is sounding more like a summation than a cross examination. Do you have questions for this witness, or not?” said the judge.
“May I ask a question of Bobby Raye, Your Honor?”
“Bobby, was your heart beating on December eighth, twenty twenty-six?”
“Yes, sir, it was,” said Bobby, and thought, you’re going down with me, freak.
“I object,” said Mr. Jessop. “No one’s questioning if my client was working when the crime was committed. The Heart had no idea what Bobby Raye was doing –”
“Overruled. I’m allowing this,” said the judge.
“Bobby, is it frightening to have a heart that controls you? Do you think it’s dangerous?” asked Legree.
“Oh, yes sir,” said Bobby, smiling. “If I don’t do what it says, it forces me. Sometimes I wonder who’s really in control at all.”
“Is it true that your heart has kept you from pursuing a sexual relationship over the last three months?”
“That’s right,” said Bobby. He had tried to tump a guy shortly after recovering from his heart attack, but the heart had stopped him. Just as they were getting started, Bobby Raye’s blood pressure had dropped so low he had near passed out.
He might have had AIDS, said the heart in Bobby’s mind.
So what? We’ll both be dead a few months.
“Chilling, isn’t it?” said Legree, unaware of the silent dialogue inside Bobby’s head. “Who among us wants some bit of ourselves telling our body what to do?” Mr. Legree turned to the jury. “What would it be like to have your left elbow tell you who to love? To have your right foot tell you where to go? This heart is a monster, perhaps more so than the man who carries it.” Legree, warming to his audience now, turned swiftly back to Bobby, his eyes fairly gleaming. “It hears your thoughts, doesn’t, Bobby?”
“Yes, sir. And talks in my mind even when I don’t want to hear it.”
Legree shook his head in sympathy. “I can’t imagine that kind of nightmare. To have your own private thoughts desecrated by an interloper that is your very own heart. Bobby can’t even divorce himself from this internal eavesdropper. He can’t plug his ears and expect to be alone in his thoughts. To place such a burden on another human being, even one who claims willingness is inhuman. I implore the jury to destroy this abomination before it finds some way to reproduce itself in someone else.”
“Objection!” screamed Mr. Jessop. “That man is fear mongering.”
“I agree,” said the judge. “Strike that last from the record.”
The heart beat loudly throughout the small surgery, its sound amplified on sanitized speakers. The beat overcame Bobby Raye’s senses so that he was no longer aware of the antiseptic smell, the chilly air, or the gathered surgeons.
“Bobby, we have a minister here. Do you have any final words?”
Sleep stole over him for a moment, but he fought it off.
He turned leaden eyes on the surgical team: great doctors privileged to stand in the room, with lesser men and women watching from the observation window above, and still others participating via webcast across the globe. His nose itched, but he was strapped to the bed and what did it matter anyway?
“Damn my heart,” he said, and then yielded to oblivion, released at last from the rhythm and the thought.
Tanya felt the skin above her breast bone prickle as Dr. Rudolph slid the cold stethoscope from spot to spot.
“Anymore pain than usual?” he asked.
“No, seems to be healing fine on this end. I get tired pretty easy, but it’s nothing compared to the artificial one.”
“Scar looks to be healing fine — didn’t pucker at all. How about you, Heart, feeling any discomfort?”
“Feeling wonderful,” said a firm, gender-neutral voice from a small speaker attached to Tanya’s hospital gown.
“So,” said the doctor, seeming somehow bashful now though he hadn’t done so when Tanya was bare-breasted before him a few minutes ago.
The question. It always came up eventually, and after nine months Tanya was an expert at spotting it. Sometimes she let it hang, acting bemused, but not this time. Dr. Rudolph was a friend. She would help him out.
“So what’s it like having a heart with a mind of its own?” supplied Tanya with a wry smile.
Dr. Rudolph grinned. “Yeah.”
“Weird and wonderful. One minute I’m a sad statistic — one in a hundred thousand who can’t take stem treatments — and then next thing I know I’ve got a donor heart with attitude.”
“You mean charming personality and witty sense of humor,” said the Heart.
The doctor chuckled.
“Do you still find it weird?”
“You get used to it,” said Tanya. “I’ve always said I’m of two minds about everything. Now it’s true.”
The doctor chuckled. “I hear you’ve decided to specialize as a heart surgeon.”
“Yeah, well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? Wouldn’t make sense, a proctologist with a talking heart.”
Rudolph laughed. “You make my ribs ache, Tanya.” He sat back on his wheeled stool, still smiling. “Just promise me you won’t overdo it in school and especially in residency. I don’t care how strong you think you are, you’re still a heart transplantee.”
“Don’t worry, Doctor,” said Tanya. “I’ve learned to listen to my heart.”