Chapter 1

“The subject is a Dr. Farid Youssef, 45 year old male, height five foot ten inches and weight approximately 180 pounds. Based on the level of rigor mortis and core body temperature, time of death appears to have been between 2 and 5 am yesterday,” Dr. Sarah Monroe dictated into the overhead microphone.

Sarah continued, “Subject appears to have been in good health and shows no outward signs of trauma or obvious physical indicators of cause of death. Examination of the chest cavity and internal vital organs shows no signs of tissue damage or stress; lungs and heart also appear normal. Lack of obvious heart stress or other internal organ damage as well petechial hemorrhaging in the eyes indicates that a stroke may be a possible cause of death. I will now begin removal of skullcap and examination of the brain.”

Sarah picked up the laser bone ablator and began the task of removing the skullcap. This was a procedure that she had performed hundreds of times and was almost second nature at this point. As she had learned from previous experience, extreme care must be taken when performing an encephalectomy, because every human skull is unique. The key to achieving a clean encephalectomy was to allow the laser to penetrate deeply enough, but not too deeply, into the skull bone to leave behind only a paper-thin layer of bone tissue connecting the base and cap of the skull. If done correctly, then only a gentle tug with the hands is enough to complete the separation of the cap, exposing the brain intact and undisturbed. However, if the laser is held in one spot for just a second too long it can penetrate into the cranial cavity and possibly damage the brain or distort the tissue. Hence, Sarah always made sure to take the utmost care when performing this particular procedure.

Sarah didn’t know the subject personally, but she had seen him on the news before and he was something of a celebrity activist in certain small, academic circles. Dr. Youssef was a neurobiologist and professor at Columbia University’s Medical Center and was a very vocal critic of biological computing and the companies that profited from it.

Sarah had done her own research into biological computing, or the use of excess human brain capacity as a computational resource, and felt that it was safe, or at least as safe as any other new technology. Now that biological computing had been around for several years without a single medical case of adverse health effects linked to the technology, the mainstream medical community, including Sarah, were increasingly beginning to see critics like Dr. Youssef as quacks and out of touch technophobes.

Whatever her personal beliefs though, Sarah was also keenly aware that the more high profile or wealthy a person was, the more likely that lawyers, reporters, conspiracy nuts, and even other medical examiners would be combing through and carefully examining all aspects of the person’s death and autopsy. They’d be looking for any mistakes or excuses they could find to blame her, or anyone else involved with the case, of mishandling or even covering up evidence. Even though Dr. Youssef’s death was looking more and more like an unfortunate case of a life cut short by natural causes, she knew that her technique, reports, and analysis would need to be flawless. Therefore, Sarah took her time, working slowly and deliberately, and after twenty minutes of careful laser ablating she was finally ready to remove the skullcap and begin her examination of the brain.

“Removing the skullcap now,” she stated into the microphone. Sarah gave the skull a gentle but firm tug and felt the last remnants of bone give way with a not unfamiliar popping and sucking sound. However, as she began to remove the skullcap, Sarah gasped and reflexively jumped backward, skullcap in hand, as a gelatinous semi-liquid material began oozing out of Dr. Youssef’s head and onto the floor of the autopsy suite.

As Sarah caught her breath and took stock of the situation, her first thought was one of panic and concern. Had she made a mistake and damaged the underlying brain tissue? She quickly examined the skullcap and confirmed that her technique had been perfect. Regardless, even a major slip up with the laser ablator would not have resulted in the complete liquefaction of brain tissue that she had just observed.

It was immediately apparent that whatever caused the extensive damage to Dr. Youssef’s brain was also the cause of his death, and Sarah had never seen or heard of anything like this before. In medical school, she had learned about rare hemorrhagic viruses and other horrific diseases that had the potential to attack and break down tissues in the body including the brain, but most of those diseases had been cured, or only existed in remote, technologically backward villages in faraway countries. To her knowledge, nothing like that had ever been recorded in the U.S.

After taking a few moments to catch her breath and collect her thoughts Sarah realized that in order to figure out what had caused this damage and prove that it was not due to a mistake in her technique, she needed to collect some clean samples of the liquefied brain matter. Fearing that the sample on the floor was contaminated, she quickly grabbed a glass vial and a spatula and scooped a small amount of liquefied brain matter that remained in the skullcap into the vial and sealed it. Since this was not a standard autopsy sample, Sarah placed the vial in the pocket of her lab coat so that she could properly label and catalogue it later. Looking at the floor around the autopsy table, she realized that she needed to get some help cleaning up before she could safely proceed with the rest of her examination.

Sarah carefully placed the skullcap on the examination table and turned to head for the door to the surgical suite to see if she could find one of the junior medical assistants to help with the cleanup. However, before she reached the door four men in suits burst into the room along with the Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. James Elkins. Dr. Elkins was momentarily caught off guard by the disastrous state of the examination room and stared at the floor for a few seconds before turning distractedly to Sarah. “These men are with the FBI and will be taking over this examination. They are here to collect the subject and all evidence gathered thus far and will be transporting everything to their own facility in Virginia for further analysis.”

Sarah examined the four men briefly. Although their suits and outward appearance clearly screamed FBI agent, there was something about them that she could not quite put her finger on that just seemed off. At the same time, she wondered why the FBI would take such a strong interest in the death of a professor that until a few minutes ago appeared to be simply a tragic case of genetic bad luck and early natural death by stroke. Clearly they knew something more than what they were sharing with either her or Dr. Elkins, based on his stunned reaction to the mess on the floor. Her instincts were screaming that something wasn’t quite right, but with her boss and the FBI telling her to stop her examination she had no real choice but to comply. Swallowing her pride and curiosity, she replied. “You boys are just in time. I was just getting ready to go find some help cleaning up this mess but since you’re here now I’ll leave it in your capable hands. The subject and all relevant samples are there on the table and I can send you a copy of my recorded notes as well, if you want them.”

One of the agents, who dwarfed the other men in the room at well over six and a half feet tall with the muscular build of a professional weight lifter, responded. “Thank you for your cooperation, Doctor. We will handle it from here.”

Based on the stern looks on the faces of the agents and the short and direct response she had just received, Sarah knew that there was no point in asking any further questions because no answers would be given.

As Sarah began making her way past the agents to leave the room her body was suddenly jerked to a halt like a dog that had walked to the end of its leash. Startled, she turned to locate the cause of her sudden lack of forward motion and came face to face with the large agent who had just spoken. He was holding her arm in what felt like a steel vise. Their eyes locked and with a menacing glare the agent simply stated, “It goes without saying that this is an active investigation and anyone who speaks to or leaks any information to the press will be dealt with harshly and swiftly.” He punctuated the words by tightening his grip on Sarah’s arm to the point where she was certain it would leave a nasty bruise.

Before she could respond, Dr. Elkins jumped in. “Dr. Monroe is a professional and one of our best medical examiners, and if there are any leaks they won’t be coming from this office!”

With that, the agent released Sarah’s arm and gave Dr. Elkins a withering glare and a nod. No words were spoken, but the message was clear—the agent would hold Dr. Elkins personally responsible for any leaks that came out of his office.

Sarah stuffed her hands into her pockets to resist the urge to rub her throbbing arm. Feeling a bit angry at Dr. Elkins for stepping in and speaking on her behalf like she was a child, she briskly walked past the other agents and out the door of the examining room. She wanted to put as much space as quickly as possible between herself and the testosterone-fueled display of alpha male behavior likely still occurring in the examination room. However, after taking a few steps down the hall she felt something brush against her hand and realized that in all the commotion of the last few seconds she had forgotten about the sample she had just collected.

Sarah started to head back to the examination room to hand over the sample, since keeping it would be a federal offense and grounds for firing, but stopped as she suddenly realized what was bothering her about the agents. None of them had seemed surprised by the mess they saw when they walked into the examination room. Dr. Elkins had been stunned by the sight of liquefied brain matter all over the examination room floor, just as she had been, but none of the agents had batted an eye. It was almost like they expected or had seen this sort of thing before. On top of that, the large agent in charge had been a tad overzealous in his words and actions, even for a government agent. He had said any leaks would be dealt with “harshly and swiftly”. She had assumed he meant legal prosecution, but when she replayed the moment in her head the words felt more like a physical threat than a legal one. Also, in the heat of the moment she had seen Dr. Elkins jumping into the conversation as a patronizing gesture, but looking back she wondered if he wasn’t truly scared for her safety and trying to protect her.

Clearly there was a lot more going on than just a simple jurisdictional pissing match, so against her better judgement and with the vial clenched in her hand, Sarah continued back down the hallway to her office. Once there she immediately closed the door and started mentally preparing a message to send to her old friend, Elizabeth Carter.

She had never seen anything like what had happened to Dr. Youssef’s brain and with the sudden appearance of these supposed FBI agents, she knew something bigger was going on. If she was going to get any answers she was going to need help from someone she could trust. Elizabeth was an old friend from medical school who had gone the academic route becoming a professor and researcher specializing in the study of viral pathogens that affect the nervous system, including the brain. If anyone in her close group of friends could help her understand what had happened to Dr. Youssef, it was Elizabeth. Sarah’s encounter with the agents had left her a little nervous about the whole situation though, so she decided to keep the message vague.

She dictated into her AI, “Begin Message. Hi, Elizabeth. It’s been quite some time since we last spoke and I hope you, David, and the kids are doing well. I know you’re probably busy but I was hoping we could get together for coffee sometime this week. I would love to catch up and could also use your help with a paper I’m writing. Just let me know if you’re free and I look forward to catching up again soon. Bye for now. End Message.”

Sarah sat holding her AI in her hand, debating whether or not to send the message. She knew that what she was about to do could result in criminal charges or worse, but she also knew in her gut that something about the agents and really the whole situation she found herself in just didn’t feel right. She needed to get some answers quickly. So, after taking a deep breath, she looked down at her AI and dictated one last command. “Send message to contact Elizabeth Carter.”