The original coding was incredible. I had to turn numerical values into a wiring diagram for a brain. There was nothing physical to which I could refer, only a general idea of a direction and a set of over ten million figures that all led to different parts on a 3D map. It took me weeks just to figure out how the basic coding worked.
I hardly slept or ate. I missed classes. The whole time, I kept wondering what kept me going. Now, I think it was more than just proving myself to Hu: I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. There were only a few people in the whole world who could.
Two months after our North End dinner, Erik and I were standing in a research lab, deep within the bowels of MGH, hovering over a mildly sedated rat with its skull removed and its brain exposed. It was midnight.
“Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?” I said to Hu before we began.
“Lily,” he said in a heavy tone. “This night is going to change everything. It’s going to change the world.”
A few moments later, the program that I had written was interacting in real time with the living mind of a common rat. Erik was right. Nothing would ever be the same.
Our first human subject was a fifty-three-year-old father of three with terminal pancreatic cancer. Every oncologist in Boston had failed to slow the advance of his aggressive malignancy. He was in debilitating pain.
I was terrified.
“You let me worry about the neurology,” Hu said. “Just code what I tell you to code, and the rest will take care of itself.”
His name was Mark Giragosian, and he sat on the exam table looking at me, his eyes pleading as though he could see through the silence to my reluctant heart. Such a moral quandary.
“I don’t want my children to see me in pain,” he said, trying to put me at ease. “I only have a few months, Lily. I don’t want to spend it in a cloudy drug-induced haze either. I’ll be gone soon. I want them to remember me—the real me.”
Then Erik looked over at me as if to say, ‘See, Lily, we are the good guys.’ And we were that day.
Hu took me out to dinner to celebrate, and to prepare me. “They aren’t all going to be like that, Lil. If we’re going to keep pursuing this, we’re going to need funding.”
“Like a grant, Hu?” I asked, knowing better than to expect it to be that simple.
“I need funding too,” he said.
I didn’t know it at the time, but he hadn’t paid the interest on his loans in months, and Hu was just weeks away from being thrown out of Harvard. He had other loans too, from less scrupulous creditors than banks. Until that moment, I just thought he came from money; he thought he was going toward it. This was the point of no return. I could’ve walked away with a clean conscience then and there.
But it was Hu, and he could see it in my eyes: I was teetering on the edge. All it took was a smile and a little push. “We’re going to do some really special things, Lily. You and me.”
Hu graduated medical school early the following year, taking a little pressure off. We were still scared of being found out, but at least no one could accuse him of practicing without a license anymore.
I was spending so much time working for him that I considered dropping out of MIT midway through my junior year. “Not a chance, Lily,” Hu told me. “Just keep at it and you’ll be done in a year. In the meantime, we’re paying off all your loans.”
Hu worked with two categories of people. We called the cash customers ‘clients,’ and they had no neurological pathology. The sick people were designated ‘patients,’ many of whom got treatment pro bono.
I felt good about the patients we were helping. Like Mr. Giragosian, most of the people we saw were in great need. We did a lot of good. But the paying clients made me sick, both from fear of getting caught and from the sense that I was violating every moral fiber in my being.
Through his many social contacts, Hu had built a network of deep-pocketed customers, willing to pay a hefty price in exchange for a brief period of neurological exploration. Hu used scans to research which buttons to push, and he could pretty much direct me to push them all with very few limitations.
I almost quit after we made a house call to a hard-partying friend of Hu’s from Weston. When the session was over, she looked up at me and asked, “Have you tried it yet, Lily dear?” I shook my head. “You simply must. God, I thought heroin felt good.”
In essence that’s what we were doing, overloading the brain’s reward systems, pumping people’s brains so full of dopamine that they drifted into some pleasure-filled netherworld, like a fiery orgasm that lasted as long as we kept our fingers on the button. It felt so dirty taking that money. But Hu kept assuring me.
“It’s only for a little while longer, Lil. Once I’m out of debt, we can get a venture capital firm involved and take this thing legit. It’s way cheaper than street drugs, and there are no side-effects or social costs. We could rid the world of drugs and make a fortune doing it.”
I knew better though. There’s always a cost.
In the spring of my junior year, Erik introduced me to Eileen Tsu. He’d met her through a Chinese honor society at Harvard. She was twenty years old and already had gray hairs coming in around her ears. I could tell by the way she carried herself that she was hanging on way too tight. She was the type of girl who studied sixteen hours a day and it still wasn’t enough.
She clenched her teeth when she wasn’t talking to me, and she started crying, “I just need someone to help me relax—for like a few minutes. I just can’t stop, and I can’t sleep, Lily. I can’t breathe.”
I’d have done her a real service by convincing her to drop out of Harvard. I could hear my voice uttering the words, ‘It’s all just a stupid game, Eileen. You don’t have to play. Get on a plane. Move to San Diego, work in a coffee shop, and sit on the beach. None of it really matters.’
I didn’t say it though. I took her money and hacked into the neural implant Hu’d placed two weeks prior. She was like a different person when we were done.
“That was better than sex,” she said as I nodded. “Not that I’d know these days. I’m so wound up no guy would get within fifty feet of me.”
“You don’t need to be here, Eileen,” I said. “Maybe this place isn’t right for you.”
She looked at me like I was the crazy one, “That’s so easy for people like you and Erik to say, Lily. I can’t let my parents down; they’ve worked so hard for me.”
Eileen became one of our regulars. Her father kept her in money as long as she kept up her grades. She’d come to see us two or three times a week, and it appeared to be helping her. After eight weeks, she looked like a whole different person. She smiled, and her face had a glow about it.
Things had become so routine with Eileen that Hu broke protocol that morning. He had a lunch meeting with a venture capital guy.
“I’ll be right across the river if you need anything, Lily.”
It seemed like we’d been doing it forever by then, and nothing had ever gone wrong. Nobody knows why; it may have been totally unrelated and just bad luck that it happened then. Eileen started seizing.
You can’t really appreciate how long a minute is until someone is dying in front of you. Erik didn’t pick up at first. I had to call three times.
“How long?” he asked, his voice cold and calm.
“A minute,” my frantic voice came back.
“Calm down and patch me through to your glasses, Lily. I’ll talk you through this.”
I connected him; he was stepping away from the lunch table so he could talk. He asked me to look down at Eileen so he could get a visual on his tablet. I don’t think he liked what he saw.
“Go over to the drug box, Lily. The code is 514. Open it.”
Eileen continued to convulse on the table.
“There should be an auto-injector in the top drawer. I need you to take that out and remove the cap. Got it?”
“Yes, I got it.” He could see my hands shaking on the video stream.
“Okay, Lily, stay calm,” Erik said. “Go into the second drawer and pull out a vial with a blue top. Make sure it says Ativan on the label. When you have it, load it in the auto-injector.”
“Okay,” I said. “Now what?”
“Set the dial to three and press it to her left upper arm. Make sure you hold it tight to her skin. If she pulls away when you depress the button, she won’t get the drug.”
She was writhing around, but I managed to keep the thing on long enough to get the drug into her system. It didn’t help.
“Look up at the monitor, and pull up a scan for me, Lily,” Erik said; I could hear it in his voice, he was nervous now too.
There was a long pause as I tried to keep steady so he could get a good look at the screen.
“Call 911,” he said. “Get her to MGH. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I had this sick feeling in my stomach the whole ambulance ride. The paramedic kept yelling at me, trying to get me to explain what was going on. It was like a blur, and then I was standing before this doctor in the ER watching Eileen still twitching and convulsing. She was making this horrible noise every time she tensed up, like a sick animal in agonizing pain.
I’ll never forget the look on that young doctor’s face; I could see the question in his eyes: ‘What have you done?’
Then he told me that I needed to tell him everything or Eileen might die. They were drawing up meds for her.
“I gave her three of Ativan from an auto-injector,” I said.
“And who told you to do that?” the doctor asked.
“Dr. Erik Hu. She’s his patient.”
The doctor shook his head. “Go sit in the waiting room,” he said. “Some people will have questions for you.”
Before I walked out, I told him everything—about the implants, the hacking, about Hu—everything. “I hope that will help you to save her.”
He scowled at me, “Me too. Now get out of my sight.”
Hu never showed up at the hospital, but the police did. I went right from the ER to jail. It was a cold reality when it finally set in—all the things we’d done.
I haven’t spoken with Erik since that day. I don’t suppose that conversation would do either of us much good.
In all, Erik implanted over two hundred neural implants into perfectly healthy brains. He did at least twice that number on people with varying pathologies as part of his practice. I estimate that in the months we were operating, I hacked into the neural implants of Hu’s patients over four thousand times. I don’t know the exact total, but the prosecution alleges we took in 1.2 million dollars, and I have no reason to argue with that sum; it sounds about right.
The greatest joy I’ve ever known in my life was the moment my lawyer told me that Eileen was going to be okay. I’ve never cried like I did then. I’m grateful to all the doctors and medical professionals who helped her.
Erik and I played with fire, and we were lucky that nothing burned down. But that’s not going to stop this technology from coming. It’s here now and spreading, and no volume of water will stop it from propagating like wildfire.
If there are lessons to be learned from us, I hope our data serves that purpose; just as I hope this account will serve as a warning to other scientists: do it the right way. Please.