Limit of the Sky
By Holly Schofield
MORGAN HOWARD STRETCHED out her arms, letting the rising thermal take her higher. Hundreds of feet below, treetops drifted past. The treetops became rocky shoreline, then whitecaps marring the waters of the strait. She admired the palette below; November on the western shores of San Juan Island came in shades of pearl, blue, and soft gray.
She banked toward shore then initiated a steep dive, grinning as she imagined wind rushing through her feathers. The tallest fir swung close, a lone veteran with a broken, dying spar. The eagle nest, a sharp bundle of sticks perched on the top-most branch, drew near. She tensed for the landing.
The loud ring of her cell phone jackhammered through her skull. She lowered her arms then closed the eagle-riding software with a twitch of an eyelid. The intracortical connection and the visual linkage ended with only a small mental jolt. That figured. The day she was dumping the project was the day the eagle “mind meld” was finally getting bearable.
Her phone, set to maximum volume and the most irritating ringtone she could find, continued to ring stridently, almost hard enough to rattle the row of empty eagle cages on the far wall of the laboratory. She removed her unauthorized prototype—a modified pink swim cap studded with tiny magnetic field generating “coils”—and diverted the eagle’s visual feed from the swim cap over to the holographic display monitor on the lab’s countertop. Willy, the eagle she’d been melding with, gazed over his territory of forests, ocean, and cliffs.
The phone continued to ring. Morgan raked her fingers over her stubbled scalp where the electrodes had left tingles. It was probably yet another call from Major Andrew Anissette, the military liaison to the university; if she answered, she might say things she’d regret. And if it was the dean, trying once more to convince her not to torpedo her career, well, there weren’t any arguments left for him to give.
She worked quickly, shoving the swim cap into her purse then boxing up the official Brain To Brain Interface (BTBI) equipment in the cardboard boxes supplied by the military. In four hours she could be out of Seattle traffic and at her father’s old cabin—now hers—on Vashon Island for her well-deserved vacation. She taped the box shut and hefted it onto the dolly. The satisfaction she got from rehabilitating Willy and the other dozen eagles from their wartime trauma and brain surgeries was at an end. It was unlikely anyone would use the equipment again. Very few people had her cross-disciplinary qualifications in wildlife biology and neuroscience and, certainly, no one understood the neuro-chips or the eagles like she did.
Movement on the display caught her eye and the view changed to green and brown blurs: Willy was bobbing his head as he cleaned his talons. She reached a hand towards the screen as if she could give Willy a pat on his feathered white head twenty miles up the Oregon coast then let her hand fall. In a perfect world, she would be able to completely extract the eagles’ God-awful neural chips and throw them in the ocean, but attempted surgery by army veterinarians had killed several eagles already, and she wasn’t about to risk such a procedure on Willy. No, the best plan was just to walk away from the whole project.
And part of that damage control involved sneaking her prototype out of the lab. All the materials were her own and it actually might be deemed her intellectual property in court but she’d rather not have to trust the military to play fair. She shoved the swim cap into her large purse below a scarf and a pair of gloves. Her dedicated hands-on training with the unit went far beyond any cognitive neuroscience advancements the military had ever made. Maybe it, or a subsequent generation of equipment, could eventually even cure the Major, that uptight prick.
The phone had started clanging again. She’d have to answer it if only to appease her aching head.
The call display showed a picture of a young girl. For a minute, she couldn’t place the face. Then she recognized the Major’s daughter: a failing university student with whom Morgan had reluctantly suffered through “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” at the Major’s behest.
With a sigh, Morgan put her phone on speaker and laid it on the counter. The military in general, and the Major specifically, seemed to bring her nothing but trouble. “Charlotte?”
“Oh, Morgan, you’ve got to help!” Fear hung from every word.
Morgan’s stomach clenched. “Where are you? Switch to holo!” She flicked on a monitor beside the one with Willy’s feed and began to pull up a GPS mapping tool.
A thumb loomed on the phone screen, then Charlotte’s head and shoulders appeared, framed against a U-shaped settee. Ocean waves rolled behind her and, in the far distance, a green shoreline stretched.
Morgan hardly recognized the tear-ravaged teen. The spark of intelligence she had tried to set afire that day last month in the lab had disappeared. Yellow stains, probably vomit, defaced the front of the girl’s shirt. Tattoos spread across her temples down to her cheeks. Most alarmingly of all, a beige shower cap clung to her head.
“Morgan, please!” Charlotte’s eyes jerked like a spooked horse. “I need ... aw, screw it!” Her head twitched and she touched a silver control pad on her wrist. Instantly, a beatific yet lopsided smile spread across her face. The transformation was incredible. “Hey, Morgan. I’m jacked and I can’t get up.” She giggled and the image slewed as the girl abruptly slid off the vinyl seat and onto the metal floor of what had to be a boat.
Morgan fumble-dialed the Major on the seldom-used landline. “It’s urgent.” She drew a long breath before explaining. What she thought of him, and what he thought of her, was irrelevant now. The girl needed help.
Morgan’s departure would have to wait.
The Major had been nearby, at a project-closeout meeting in the dean’s office. He strode through the lab door and barked, “Report, Dr. Howard.” His usual clipped sentences were no sharper than usual. Had it been her own daughter in trouble, Morgan knew she would have been rather more upset.
She pointed to the blinking green dot on the map. “There’s her phone signal. Puget Sound. A couple dozen miles up the coast from here.” She’d propped up her cell phone on the dark blue counter so the tiny 3D image of Charlotte appeared lost on a plastic sea.
That was all he could say? The man was impossible. “The only detail is that she’s jacked. Which you would know if you’d talked to her today. Why’d she phone me and not you, anyway?”
“Blocked her calls. Tough love. Jacked?”
“Slang for wireheading, Major.” The latest unwise teenage thrill required only a couple of household sponges for the anode and cathode, along with a simple fabricatable chip and a good template. Basic medial forebrain bundle stimulation—easy enough to jolt the pleasure centers of the brain. A very crude version of the pink cap that lay in Morgan’s purse.
The Major gave a single nod, studying the tilted image of Charlotte’s legs splayed out below the seats, short skirt hitched high. They could both predict the eventual outcome of repeated stimulation. Numerous lab studies had shown that if a rat or a monkey could push a button to self-stimulate the pleasure center of their brains at the expense of eating or sleeping, they would. There was no reason to think a human wouldn’t make the same choices.
For a moment, the Major stood ramrod straight, staring at the counter. Morgan looked at him, really looked at him for the first time since he’d entered into the lab. His uniform jacket was unbuttoned, his hair out of place, and there were bags under his eyes. Maybe he wasn’t as insensitive as she’d thought: he looked like he’d been awake all night, maybe searching for Charlotte on campus or something.
The teen must have heard Morgan’s voice over her phone. She opened her eyes. “I’m on Broan’s boat. Broan’s boat. Broan’s boat.” She giggled until tears ran. “Shhh, here comes Broan.” The holo image blurred, the bared legs shifted off-screen, then a gray sky with a few tattered white clouds came into view. Charlotte must have sat up and laid the phone on the decking.
A thin man with a brush-cut leered up out of the holo field, or rather, Morgan realized, he was leering down at Charlotte, towards her phone.
“Girl, we’re gonna have some fun once you come down from that jack-shit. Party time.” His jean-clad leg appeared, blurred, and Charlotte grunted in pain as his foot struck her just out of camera view. Several more kicks then, “Is that thing on holo? Shit!”
The image distorted: sky, waves, water, then blackness.
Morgan kept tapping keys, futilely, but the GPS signal was also gone.
The phone connection had been completely broken.
“You don’t know that Charlotte went overboard. Maybe just her phone did,” Morgan said for the second time in five minutes, staring at the map, Charlotte’s cell phone now a steady red dot tagged as Last Known Location.
Andrew, on hold with the Coast Guard, grunted a second time. How do you comfort a guy like that? Not with a hug. She tried logic again. “She’ll be okay. There must be other people on the boat.”
“No, Dr. Howard, doesn’t appear to be. Coast Guard says it’s registered to a pimp, John Broan. Boat’s a fast one, Formula 400.” He rubbed his face. “Coast Guard says they can intercept it in half an hour, based on the coordinates.”
“The boat sure was going fast.” Morgan nodded. Her eye caught motion on the other screen as her favorite eagle turned his head, and therefore the camera view, to admire his incoming mate, Elsa. On a side panel, the bird’s endorphin reading jumped. “Andrew,” she said, realizing as she said it that it was the first time she had ever used the Major’s first name. “Willy. Willy can help us find her.”
“Who? Oh, W-One. Yes, of course.” Andrew’s regular visits to the lab these past months and old-school insistence on face-to-face meetings had made him familiar with the eagles’ names and their progression through the rehab procedures.
The box with the BTBI equipment, which one was it? She scrabbled through the stack on the dolly.
“If there was ever a time to use this equipment ...” Morgan plucked out a standard military headset. The intended purpose of the eagles’ cognitive implants as a weapon would never sit well with her but as a tracking device they were better than a drone, able to soar for hours at a time and adjust to changing weather and circumstances instantly. Never mind their attacking capabilities.
Willy chose that moment to launch himself from the nest and soar high above Puget Sound, his view covering several square miles.
Morgan tweaked the joystick and zoomed in on the speeding boat. “They’re heading north of Whidbey Island, near the Canadian border.” International boundaries didn’t really matter. The winding waterways in both countries offered Broan numerous hiding spots. As the view enlarged, Andrew’s daughter became visible, sprawled near the stern. Her white legs were apparent even from Willy’s six hundred feet above the waves. “She’s there! Thank Goodness!”
The view twisted away as Willy headed east to the shoreline. Fir snags and arbutus crowns came into view. The boat became a tiny dot as Willy caught an updraft and rode higher.
Morgan fit the gray metal headset over her scalp and plugged it in to the computer. “I’ll activate his chip link.” The primitive chip in Willy’s head simply sent impulses into the somato-sensory cortex, similar to a radio receiver. A mild jolt to the neurons on the right cheek and Willy would turn right, a similar tickle on the left and he’d turn again. But only if he wanted to, much to the frustration of army commanders. It wasn’t all that effective, hence the much more painful but inconsistently performing Warbird software that resided somewhere in the military servers at Fort Lewis.
Once the dean had signed the joint agreement with the military, Morgan had been requested to stop working on real-time transfer of sensor-motor information--research that could potentially rebuild nerve pathways in animals, maybe eventually even help humans with motor neuron diseases. At that point, she’d changed her focus to the eagles’ rehabilitation. Then, last month, Andrew had been ordered to reinstate the Warbird software research for one last hurrah.
Morgan swore under her breath as she tapped the touchscreen. It would be wonderful to go back to those earlier times, back when the project was forging a different path, uncovering new understanding of the brain.
Back when her job had been without moral conflict.
Back when the sky had been the limit.
While Andrew phoned in the new location to the Coast Guard, Morgan flicked her way through various cortical ensemble templates. Guiding Willy with the chip link alone was as cumbersome as steering a bus by remote control. Useful for guiding a rat in a maze but difficult in the three dimensions that made up Willy’s world. She stabbed at the screen. Clumsily, with many over-compensating actions and corrections, she managed to angle the obliging Willy northward. He must not have had a particular location in mind and was just out for a spin around his territory.
The boat emerged back into view, its wake two diverging white lines. Morgan zoomed in on the boat deck. Charlotte, shaven head now bare of the shower cap, hung onto the railing, leaning into the wind, her mouth a rictus of fear. Broan had one hand on the boat’s wheel and the other waving a shotgun in the air. His lips moved. The silence made it even more unnerving.
After five minutes, Willy curved east again. Morgan increased the prickling sensation on his left cheek until he arced his head and raised a claw, trying to scratch his face. Eagles didn’t normally fly in straight lines and the unnaturalness must have begun to grate on him. She could feel it too—like fingernail scrapes deep within her mind.
Willy headed deep inland, most likely for a treetop where he could brush the imagined wasp off his face.
“The link’s not strong enough to override his instincts. No surprise. It’s not working.” Morgan sat back and rubbed her hands over her upper arms.
To her surprise, Andrew’s eyes were shiny. He stumbled over to the lab sink and washed his face. His voice was flat as he mopped his face with a paper towel. “We need to activate Warbird mode.”
“No, Andrew. Just ... no.”
“Just to follow the boat, not to attack, damn it.”
“The software doesn’t work. That’s why your offensive, immoral project failed. All it does is cause pain to Willy.”
“She’s only seventeen, Morgan.” In the six months he’d supervised the eagle project, he had never called her anything but “Dr. Howard.”
Morgan wrenched her eyes away. “It doesn’t work,” she said again, shaking her head. She walked over to her purse, each footstep weighing a hundred pounds. “But I have something that does.”
She’d never tried the swim cap in conjunction with the Warbird software. The thought disgusted her. She continued shaking her head even as she took off the standard headset, opened the Warbird software link and gestured for Andrew to enter his high-level passwords.
The innocuous pink swim cap settled heavily on her head, out of all proportion to its weight.
She spread her arms wide and blinked the interface on.
A tilted arena of green tree crowns, brilliant blue water beyond. Morgan soared, lost in the sheer glory of being airborne. The scent of the fir trees rising from below was almost tangible.
Andrew coughed, somewhere far away. Morgan exhaled long and slow and used the visuals for a meditation focal point before sending Willy a direct thought: lower. He dropped instantly, then, at her next instruction, angled out into the strait. If the earlier apparatus was comparable to steering a bus in a rainstorm, the sophistication of her own apparatus was performing like a sports car on a dry and sunny racetrack.
Among the whitecaps, the blemish of the speedboat was easy to pick out.
Broan loomed larger, his wild eyes catching the light. He swigged from a half-filled liquor bottle and propped it next to the shotgun by the wheel. Charlotte huddled in a corner, head down. Soon, the boat would enter a narrow maze of channels and disappear from view.
A murmur on Morgan’s right. Andrew, his voice rough, was on his phone, feeding the Coast Guard revised GPS coordinates, his other hand half-raised in a fist.
Then his voice blared in her ear. “The Coast Guard! Won’t get there in time! Got to stop the boat now!” He slammed his fist on the counter.
Morgan clenched her jaw so hard that pain radiated right to her ears. She had to save the girl, even at the expense of Willy. She focused on single, discrete thoughts: Attack. Claw. Fight.
Willy swept in a tight circle, then he cried, a high pitched wail of confusion and distress. She tried again. Defend the girl. And again. Save her. Please, Willy, please.
For long moments, she repeated the phrases, using every mind-calming technique she knew.
Finally, she lifted the swim cap. Voice raw, she shouted at Andrew. “It’s no use! Even with my enhanced connection, Willy simply won’t react to direct neuro-commands!” The abuses the eagle had endured by those military combat operators, those jerks, must have dampened his response receptors irreparably. “He doesn’t feel pleasure any more. There is no way you can reward him for attacking.”
Andrew’s eyes glinted, yellowish in the harsh lab lighting. “Carrots, Dr. Howard, are one way. Sticks are another. Pain avoidance. Poke Willy a bit with your mind. Minor phantom pain, momentary twinges, is all it is. Willy will instinctually avoid that, even if it doesn’t hurt him much. Let the Warbird software help. Have him dive at the boat, slash at Broan’s hands.”
She stared at Andrew. He was right. There was no other course of action. But he had misunderstood her explanation. Willy couldn’t feel pleasure but he could feel real pain to the same degree as any animal—the two hemispheres of the amygdala were not related. She could tell him how much poking at Willy’s mind would hurt Willy and herself—tell this man who had sent men off to their deaths in Iraq and was now at risk of losing his only daughter—and add to his misery.
Or she could keep the knowledge to herself.
She settled the cap to her scalp, ignoring the tears running down her face, lifting her impossibly heavy arms.
Attack, Willy. Do it! Now! Like dominos falling, electrical signals passed through her neural connections at lightning speed. Pain shot through her temple like a live wire, transmitting Willy’s agony directly to the most primitive areas of her brain. She felt herself almost fall and groped for the countertop.
Fighting for control, she managed to lock some of the pain away. Fight! Slash!
Eons later, she couldn’t take it anymore. Willy was shuddering now, his mind a black hollow of pain. Sharing the agony, she steered him to the shoreline several hundred feet away, where he circled and cried.
She threw the swim cap on the counter and clawed at her sweaty forehead as if she could gouge out the last few minutes. Her lab coat felt constricting and she wrenched it off.
She’d rest for a minute. Just for a minute.
“Keep trying, Doctor. Failure. Not an option.” Andrew said, ice in his voice. He’d taken off his uniform jacket and loosened his tie. Large sweat patches darkened his shirt.
“The pain is too unfocused! It’s only making Willy panic.”
“Need a higher signal-to-noise ratio, that’s all.”
“That’s the reason the Warbird project failed in the first place,” Morgan snapped, then berated herself for her loss of control. She took a Buddha-breath, deep from her belly, her momentary rage dissipating as she achieved partial zazen state again. Andrew’s PTSD could perhaps be alleviated if he learned this ancient yogic methodology, she thought.
She paused, swim cap in hand. Huh. Maybe that was why there had been inconsistent results with the Warbird software in all the military testing. Perhaps rage was the answer. She just wasn’t angry enough to get through to Willy.
But she knew someone who was.
She turned to the dolly and dug through one of the packed boxes. “Here.” She thrust a spare headset—a standard military one—at Andrew. “Put it on. Channel your anger to Willy. He’ll sense it.”
“Doubt it, Doctor. No experience. No training.”
True. And, although he had amazing self-control, without her years of meditation practice, he wouldn’t have her degree of focus.
She’d have to connect in tandem with him.
“Failure is not an option, remember, Major?” She pushed him into her chair and placed the headset on him hastily. No time for an MRI. She found a splitter in the boxes and pulled up compatibility software. Another Buddha-breath, then she raised her arms.
The instant she blinked the twinned set on, Andrew gave a loud gasp. Morgan’s view immediately clouded with Andrew’s overlapping and uncontrolled inputs. Interference, manifesting as a sudden murky gray fear, clogged her view. Willy lurched and went into a dead fall, like swooping on a rabbit. Morgan fought the panic, most of it this time from Andrew, and Willy leveled out, then rose.
“Oh, my Lord, that’s magnificent!” Andrew’s voice was hoarse. His panic lessened, the neural handshake steadied, and Morgan’s vision cleared a bit. She ached all over from the strain of Andrew’s aura, like she’d caught a bad flu. Was this how he felt all the time? How did he live with such fear and guilt and sorrow? She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment.
By the time the boat reappeared below them, Andrew’s presence had receded to an aching brown mist blurring the scene. Morgan directed the visuals onto Broan’s face.
“Picture the creep as if he was a male rivaling for Willy’s mate’s attention,” Morgan said through gritted teeth, as she refined the close-up image. She was vaguely aware of Andrew leaning forward in his chair. The haze intensified, making Broan’s sneer indistinct and her arms heavy as lead.
Morgan ignored her thudding head and issued commands rapid-fire. Slow. Stop. Obedient despite the agonizing throbbing in his skull, Willy propped out his wings and halted, allowing the boat to pass underneath.
Broan raised his shotgun and fired at the bird, seemingly just for sport. Willy flailed and panicked, flapping madly. Charlotte dove for the gun and the two humans wrestled for control.
A bird, another bald eagle, zipped past. Elsa! Morgan yelled and Willy cried high and wild. Broan wrestled the gun from Charlotte and fired again. Elsa plummeted downwards, into the water behind the boat. Her body rose for a moment on a swell, then disappeared into the white foam.
Andrew seethed inside Morgan’s mind and red hot flames momentarily filled her view. Time to act, before Andrew’s burgeoning rage eclipsed her sight entirely. She put Willy into a steep dive, wings folded. Pain seared through her mind like salt on an open wound. She pulled Willy up just short of the wheelhouse, claws outstretched towards Broan, beak open. Charlotte grabbed the gun barrel but Broan thrust her aside. A shout. A shot. A feint, then another, then a confusion of wings, feathers, and claws, and red-black blood.
Morgan tightened her mind, pulling Willy away.
She pulled away again, almost blind, pain blistering through her skull. Again nothing. Andrew’s anger, intense flames now white-hot, overwhelmed every command she gave. All Willy had left were his primary instincts. After Elsa’s death, base survival had been subsumed by the instinct to kill.
More blood, black tufts of hair, some kind of fluid. A shot of the decking and a blurred close-up of some rivets.
Andrew stood so violently his chair crashed backwards. He tore off the headset, gave a hoarse inhuman cry, shoulders shaking.
Morgan stood in stunned silence, not bothering to disconnect the now-lifeless equipment. She lowered her aching arms.
It was a long twenty minutes before the Coast Guard phoned. Charlotte had taken the wheel and had been on her way back to the harbor when they’d reached her. The officer was kind enough to aim his phone at Charlotte, sending the image back to Andrew’s phone. The teen had wrapped Willy’s lifeless body in her jacket and was sitting on the bench, just rocking back and forth, back and forth.
“Here, let me help.” Andrew said, closing the lab door behind him and taking the heavy box from Morgan’s arms. “Charlotte sends a hello. First round of therapy’s done.”
Morgan let go of the box warily. Three weeks at her seaside cabin had gifted her with rainy days full of rest and introspection. She followed Andrew’s glance around the lab. The sun shone feebly through the blinds, striping the cages and dusty scattered boxes. A lone eagle, a juvenile male, perched sullenly in the only occupied cage, his magnificent plumage a glory of brilliant white and chestnut brown.
“All packed up?” Andrew placed the box in the stack on the dolly, then put his hands at his back, a kind of parade rest, and frowned at her.
Morgan reached for the next box. She and Andrew were now comrades-in-arms, she thought wryly, with their own little secret about the unauthorized use of government equipment, the scientific leap ahead that her swim cap was capable of, and Andrew’s later wiping of his software access. “I’m glad Charlotte is all right.” Sitting on the porch at the old cabin, she’d realized that everyone had their burdens to carry, Andrew included.
“Updates for you, Doctor. You’ll have seen Broan’s sentencing, life in prison. You might not have seen his attempts to elicit public sympathy. Online uproar. Media circus.”
“I’ve glanced at newscasts. Some kind of petition and various lobbies?” She had spent her vacation mostly offline: meditating, hiking, and eagle watching. Headaches and gut aches still remained; sort of like PTSD, she figured—something else she now shared with Andrew.
“Seem that Broan’s eyesight was ruined by what the press are calling a rabid eagle and social media are calling a terrible bout of misfortune. Signed on to be a guinea pig. Someday, may get an experimental optoelectronic prosthesis that will translate the visual signals via intracortical—”
“—microstimulation,” Morgan finished. “A spin-off of the technology he was dealing. The very technology we are helping to advance.” Something in her chest eased even further than it had these past few weeks. But she still had to get her own life in order. She lifted the box of electronics—there was still a lot of equipment to dismantle.
Andrew touched her arm, halting her. “Best news last, Doctor. The military responded to the media outcry about eagle welfare in urban areas. Amazingly fast, if slightly off kilter in goals. The remaining Warbird eagles will all be quietly rehabbed and released. The Warbird program shut down forever. Funding increase will facilitate that. That is, if you’re willing to stay on?”
Morgan set the box back onto the counter. “Wonderful! I’d like that.” It would be a satisfying project to complete and after that, she could take stock of her ambitions.
She opened a box lid and set a bundle of electrode connectors next to the row of cages. Timmo, the juvenile male eagle, rustled his feathers and glared at her as if he knew which cages had belonged to Willy and Elsa. Morgan wiped her eyes on her sleeve. Her grief would linger for a while. And Andrew still had bags under his eyes. It seemed some burdens were harder to lay down than others.
Andrew still stood at the window, his eyes on the brilliant clear sky. She put down her next handful and joined him, squinting into the infinite blue.
She’d been thinking about a refinement to the pink swim cap for a week or so, one that heightened the wearer’s pleasure feed and allowed it to be communicated more strongly. It might help Timmo, the juvenile male in the cage, rehabilitate faster if she could bounce his joy of flying back to him, ramping up his pleasure like an infinite series of mirrored reflections. Further, if more people could feel the exhilaration an eagle experiences in flight, their mental wounds might heal in some small way, too.
Meanwhile, the swim cap was the best sensory apparatus they had. She turned and dug it out of her purse. Thin, pink, and lightweight, it dangled from her hand as she offered it to Andrew. “Timmo is really keen for a flight. Want to go along for the ride?”
Holly Schofield is a member of SFWA. Her fiction has appeared in “Lightspeed,” “AE: the Canadian Science Fiction Review,” “Unlikely Stories,” and other publications. Her previous story for “Perihelion” was in the 12-MAY-2016 issue.