Mirae sits on her bed, parting her hair with one hand and feeling for the access port on the back of her head with the other. She finds the notched edges of the cap and twists counterclockwise until it comes loose. Her eye twitches as she slides the plug into her skull. The sensation isn’t strong enough for her to say it hurts, but she doesn’t know how else to describe it.
Her post-op recovery had been difficult. She had fever dreams of worms crawling into her brain through the still-healing metal port. Even after she was fully recovered and ready to be plugged in for her first update, images of the plug’s pin connectors piercing too deep and puncturing her occipital lobe made her hands shake.
Mirae remembers her mother getting impatient with her. She grabbed Mirae’s hands and guided them—forced them—to shove the plug the rest of the way in. “See? Everything is fine. Stop overreacting,” her mother said. And she was right. All systems normal. Software installation completed without any issue.
But Mirae still cried that first night.
The next night, Mirae was expected to take care of it by herself. She sat on her bed and tried, she really did, but every time she tried to bring it close to the back of her head, her trembling fingers would lose their grip. So she kept sitting there, for hours, until there was a soft knock on her door, and Seojun came into her room.
He sat down next to her and ruffled her short and bristly hair that was still growing back. He was careful to avoid brushing against the lines of sutures carved across her scalp. Her brother had always been gentle.
Then he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and squeezed, just a little, just enough to make her feel safe. Mirae knows he said something to her that night, but she can’t remember what it was. It felt so important at the time.
It’s been years since then. Mirae runs a hand through hair that now falls past her shoulders. She presses her fingertips into the roots, finding the faint lines of scar tissue carved into the back of her head around the NeuroLace’s access port.
She lies down, closing her eyes. She hasn’t seen her brother for a long time. Sometimes she wonders—
The neural implant sends a signal to her dorm room lights, turning them off. Her mind follows suit.
Sometimes Mirae has dreams, but they are all redacted with patches of static.
She hears shouting at the front door. She recognizes the voices of her father and brother, but the words are all just white noise. She can hear Seojun crying.
Her mother drags Mirae upstairs and shoves her into her room. Mirae bangs on her door as her mother locks it from the outside, begging to be let out, to at least say goodbye, but—
There is a faint buzzing in Mirae’s head, a pressure between her synapses.
At 0500 hours, the implant fires an electrical pulse through Mirae’s brain, and her eyes snap open. She sits up and pulls the plug out. She screws the cap back on, twisting clockwise until she hears it lock into place with a click.
The VR hall’s massive expanse of LED panel flooring is lit up in a grid of numbered square spaces.
As Mirae walks across the room, her implant pulls up a three-dimensional map of the VR hall’s floor plan, overlaid with the corresponding diagram of the student’s zone assignments, and it plots the optimal route to her designated space. The corner of her mouth quirks upwards. The restriction: “No student is permitted to cross the border into another student’s assigned space” only goes into effect after the exam begins. The NeuroLace doesn’t make this distinction, however. Its projected path contains too many right-angle turns to be optimal. She adheres to the path anyway, skirting the borders of her classmates’ zones like a bee navigating a labyrinth of glass walls.
Each student is given a VR headset and a pair of elbow-length AR haptic gloves. The headset visor’s wide display dominates Mirae’s field of vision as the standby screen counts down, and the headphones are absolute in their noise cancellation. She imagines the view through the VR hall’s security cameras: a room full of medical students standing silently in grid formation, all of them blind and deaf to the world around them as the test proctors start to patrol the aisles.
The countdown ends. The standby screen vanishes.
Mirae is standing in a blank, unfurnished white box of a room. The patient on the operating table in front of her is already prepped and covered by a surgical drape.
Forty-seven minutes in, she examines a length of the patient’s intestine. The temperature regulators and haptic sensors in her AR gloves simulate the tactile experience of living viscera.
“Suction,” she murmurs into the headset’s microphone. The disembodied silicon tube of the suction pump materializes, air hissing and squelching as it drains out the blood collecting in the abdominal cavity.
She hears beeping from the vitals monitor, indicating a drop in blood pressure. She turns to check the screen but finds the display’s numbers still well within healthy range. The alarm sound’s flashing color indicator is absent as well. Her brow furrows.
She links her implant directly with the headset, overriding its security measures with a blink and connecting to the university’s management VLAN. Her close contact with the headset allows the NeuroLace to establish a proximity connection that is functionally equivalent to hardwiring in.
She normally refrains from doing this, out of respect for exam protocol, but the implant confirms her suspicion that someone’s interfered with the signal being sent to her headset—her visor is receiving visuals from a different simulation entirely. Her classmates were subtle this time. Their previous sabotage attempts have been far less practical.
The NeuroLace’s internal clock ensures Mirae is aware of each wasted second detracting from her final score. She knows better than to hope her mother won’t notice.
She considers submitting an error report, but she doesn’t want to have to take this exam again. Besides, the audio and haptic input and output are clean of any interference. Instead, she uses her implant to access the correct visuals for her assigned simulation. With the data feeding directly into her visual cortex, she doesn’t need the headset at all.
She finishes the exam in record time with her eyes closed.
Every residence hall has a lobby area with a massive scoreboard that displays the names of the university’s top one hundred highest-performing students, based on exam scores. Five columns, twenty student names each. Most names shuffle up and down the rankings. Some people make it onto the board with one exam and fall off with the next. The competition is fiercely volatile.
However, “Mirae Yang” is a constant at the top of the first column.
Students at the university commented on this when Mirae first enrolled. They said things like, “Oh great, there’s another one.” Because apparently “Seojun Yang” used to occupy that same spot on the scoreboard. He took the top rank with his first exam results and kept it all the way through graduation.
Mirae’s mother has never mentioned Seojun’s performance to her, and she has never said explicitly that Mirae must do the same. She doesn’t have to. Mirae understands what is expected of her.
Right below Mirae’s name is “Reesha Vala.” Also a constant. Vala is outfitted with an implant made by Nextype as well, though hers is from the Kernel series.
Mirae turns to scan the room. She finds Reesha almost instantly. While the other students huddle together in their social circle clusters, Reesha, like Mirae, stands alone.
Mirae is pale—the ideal for a Korean woman, her mother always tells her. Meanwhile, Reesha’s golden-brown skin has a warmth to it, even in the harsh halogen lighting. The visual contrast makes Mirae think about the sun and the moon.
Reesha looks up and meets Mirae’s eyes. Mirae blinks, but she doesn’t look away. She wonders what Reesha sees when she looks at Mirae. Perhaps Mirae’s expression is just as blank as Reesha’s is right now. Maybe they are a matching set of robots wearing human skin, brain cases hollowed out and filled with silicon nanowires.
Notifications ping in the back of Mirae’s mind as her implant compiles relevant social media, tracking certain keywords and tags.
A post from Nate Schneider, a name she recognizes from seventy-eighth place on the score board:
Must be nice to have parents that spend a quarter of a million dollars on buying you a better life.
He doesn’t have to specify who he’s referring to. The Nextype NeuroLace is the only implant model in that price range. Mirae’s mother has given her the full breakdown of the implant’s product price, surgery costs, post-op maintenance, and the data plan, so she could know exactly how much her brain cost.
Nate Schneider’s post spawns a long thread of comments:
They clearly installed all the M.D. software in her already, why is she even here.
Mirae is not a person to them. This is fair. She doesn’t really think of herself as much of a person anymore either.
Other students have neural implants from companies like Gigabrain or CloudMind, but as Mirae’s mother has told her at length, not all cybernetic companies are created equal. It’s difficult not to notice how Mirae and Reesha’s scores are close, but the gap between Reesha and the CloudMind student in third place is a chasm. Other students don’t have any implants at all. They almost never make it onto the board.
Another popular thread begins with a comment from Nia Solomon:
Actually curious though, if you took their Nextypes away, which of the two do you think would be smarter?
And the replies keep piling up.
Vala maybe. At least she acts like she’s paying attention to what’s going on.
Haha that’s so accurate. Yang always looks like she’s on another planet.
I bet they’d both fail out immediately. Neither of them knows how to work hard.
Mirae has never spoken to Reesha. If she were gentle and kind like her brother, maybe she would smile and go up to Reesha and say, “Hey there, I’m glad I’m not the only one.” Maybe she would ask to be friends.
Instead, Mirae just looks at Reesha and thinks about their upcoming organ transplant surgery simulation, where they will have to do this all again.
Her mother sends a direct message through the NeuroLace:
I saw the exam results and noticed your score was lower than usual. I want to remind you that hospitals don’t give positions to people who act complacent.
Mirae breathes in deeply, imagining the alveoli in her lungs reinflating to their full capacity, before letting the air back out. It is an essential action of the human body to maintain lung function. Nothing more.
My headset malfunctioned, Mirae replies.
Her mother’s response is immediate: Did you file an error report?
Mirae wants to ask why it matters, her exam score can’t really get any higher than it already is. But she’s tired. Agreeing to file the report is easier.
Mirae is in the middle of doing her pre-rounds at the university hospital when her implant receives a message from the front desk. Someone is asking to see her.
There’s no reason to believe it’s Seojun, but fluttering butterfly wings tickle the inside of her stomach lining. She takes haphazard notes through her implant’s word processor on the progress reports for all the patients she’s following. Her presentation to the attending physician at rounds later will be conspicuously average, but she doesn’t care.
When she arrives at the front desk, she finds a stranger. He looks around Seojun’s age, tall and dark skinned.
“Hey,” he says. “You’re Mirae, right? I’m Cole. Your brother’s boyfriend.” He pauses here, clenching his jaw. Perhaps he is waiting to see how she will respond. Mirae doesn’t know if he sees any reaction in her at all. She feels as if she has frozen.
He continues, “Seojun says he’s okay with you cutting ties with him, but I—” He swallows. “It would mean a lot if you could still visit him. Please. He’d really like the chance to talk to you one last time.” The emotion in his voice is raw. His eyes are pleading.
She doesn’t understand.
“Cut ties?” she echoes. “Last time?”
Cole’s brow furrows. “He’s been in the hospital for the last two years, and he’s been trying to reach out to you for longer than that.”
He takes in her expression, her blank stare.
“You didn’t know,” he realizes.
The last time she saw Seojun, he—
There is a buzzing in her skull, like the frantic wingbeats of trapped insects.
Where are you going?
Mirae feels the edge of disapproval in the text her mother sends to her implant. It’s not really a question. Her mother has full access to the NeuroLace’s location tracker. She knows where Mirae is. She always does.
Mirae imagines her tracking data mapped out: from a subway to a bullet train to this bus terminal where she sits beside Cole. A long, winding route across the country, far off-course from anything she’s supposed to be doing.
You’ve missed three lectures today. What are you doing?
Mirae boards the bus headed for the Third River Medical Center.
Seojun’s hair is longer. He is thinner. He is lying on a hospital bed with full life support, and Mirae still doesn’t understand what is going on. She can’t process anything over the sound of the ventilator.
Cole leans over to press a kiss to Seojun’s temple. “I’ll be right outside,” he whispers before he steps out into the hallway.
There is a neural link display monitor set up beside Seojun’s bed. Text scrolls down the screen:
Mirae stares. Everything inside her head is static, her brain suddenly a high-latency network with delays in every thought transmission.
Just in case you’re worried. The risk of degenerative neural burnout from Nextype implant usage is rare, less than one percent. I’m just very special.
This is where Seojun would smile ruefully, shrugging his shoulders. Instead, his eyes are on Mirae, but no other part of his body moves. He can’t even turn his head anymore.
Cole said you didn’t get any messages from me at all?
“No, nothing,” she croaks. “I thought—”
She doesn’t know what she thought. For years, she was distantly aware that he was gone, but she never questioned why or how.
Seojun looks at her, his eyes bright. He must be trying to send her something right now, but she doesn’t see anything. There’s still a block.
She sits in the chair beside his bed and takes his hand in hers. Their neural implants connect instantly, the proximity allowing her to override any lingering restrictions.
Messages filter directly through her auditory cortex.
“I missed you,” he says.
She can hear his voice, the warm tone from her memories that always made it sound like he was smiling whenever he spoke.
“I wanted to talk to you that night, but Mom wouldn’t let me. She said I shouldn’t make you grieve for me. That I’d just be a distraction. But I still wanted to at least say goodbye.”
Mirae’s vision shifts in and out of focus. She is sobbing, her choked breathing at odds with the rhythmic sighs of her brother’s ventilator.
She squeezes his hand, even though she knows he can’t feel it.
“You missed your clinical hours today,” her mother says as Mirae walks in the front door.
Mirae says, “How could you make me forget Seojun?”
Her mother blinks; then she sighs, as if this is just Mirae overreacting again.
“How did you make me stop thinking about him?” Mirae demands.
Her mother scoffs, “It’s nothing that serious. It’s just Nextype’s standard parental controls for restricting what content the child can perceive or focus on.”
“Did you know he was dying?” Mirae asks.
Her mother’s expression doesn’t change.
Mirae asks, “Did you know the implant could kill us?”
Her mother just says, “I don’t see how that’s relevant.”
There is a buzzing in Mirae’s head. She can’t tell if it’s coming from the threads of the neural implant, or if it is coming from her own thoughts. Neurons fire, impulses and transmitters straining through the spider’s web of silicon stitched throughout her brain.
Her mother’s eyes narrow. “Don’t give me that look.”
Mirae doesn’t know what look that could be. She can’t feel anything in her body.
“Don’t forget,” her mother insists. “I had you assessed by a specialist during your early development. You had no proficiencies of any kind. You scored below average in every category of intelligence before I got you that implant.”
Mirae laughs. It feels like battery acid in her throat.
“Do you have any idea how competitive the job market is right now?” her mother says. “People can’t earn a good future through hard work. You have to buy it.” Her tone is patient, like she’s addressing a child throwing a tantrum.
“I don’t care,” Mirae says. “I don’t fucking care.”
Her fingers claw at the cap of her implant, trying to dig under the edges so she can rip it out of her skull and shove it in her mother’s face. She’ll turn herself back into an idiot. Maybe then her mother will finally be sorry.
“Stop!” Her mother runs to her. She pulls Mirae’s hands away from her head and embraces her, pinning her arms. Mirae hasn’t been held in years, not since Seojun left. Her mother’s body feels warm.
She strokes Mirae’s hair and says, “Don’t damage the implant.”
Mirae stops moving.
Her mother loosens her grip, stepping back. “Okay?” she says.
Something shapeless and important is hemorrhaging deep inside Mirae’s ribs. Her mother will never understand how much this hurts, and she will never apologize.
“Okay,” Mirae says.
She returns to her university. She does her clinical hours at the hospital.
Her thoughts aren’t hers. Her brain isn’t hers. And her brother is dying. She wants to climb out of her body and set it on fire.
At 0500 hours, she bolts upright, her brain lit up like an LED billboard with reminders of today’s exam.
She looks over her shoulder at the cable trailing behind her, winding across her dorm room bed to where it’s plugged into the wall. The weight of the cable pulls at her skull.
She pulls the cord out of her head, dropping it to the floor.
Mirae stands in the empty white box of the simulation’s operating room, staring down at the virtual patient she’s meant to perform a heart transplant on. No matter what she does, she always ends up back in this nether space of a room, alone with a faceless body covered in blue surgical drapes.
The replacement heart is suspended in a clear plastic case. Mirae will first need to run through the synthetic organ’s activation sequence, to demonstrate her knowledge of protocol. The artificial heart must be hooked up properly to the transfusion system and primed with the patient’s blood. Looking at it like this, though, the replacement heart seems like nothing more than a plastic model. Just a toy in a box.
The NeuroLace’s internal clock ticks away the seconds. Mirae remains motionless.
She fantasizes about not doing a single thing for the entire six hours of the exam. She imagines taking the headset off, setting it down on the floor, and walking out of the VR hall entirely.
Her classmates’ voices clamor all around her as everyone stares at the main lobby’s scoreboard. For the first time in three years, “Mirae Yang” is in second place, and “Reesha Vala” is in first.
Social media notifications ping in the NeuroLace like a ball bearing ricocheting inside a glass bottle. Mirae ignores them. She just hates that she’s on the board at all.
She’d stood in that simulation with every intent to walk away, but her body moved as if on autopilot, executing the motions of the operation like an automaton. She can’t even blame the parental controls. She’s disabled those now. This is just obedience, so deeply ingrained it feels more like base instinct.
She turns away from the scoreboard and walks out of the hall.
“Did something happen?” an unfamiliar voice calls out to her.
Mirae turns. Reesha Vala has followed her outside.
Mirae stares blankly. It really is strange that she has never heard Reesha speak before this moment. Even though they’re both so familiar with each other’s names and faces.
“I don’t understand the question,” Mirae says.
“You just seem—” Reesha pauses. “Sad.”
Mirae’s brow furrows. She takes that word and turns it around in her head, processing it. “You’re right,” she says. “I am sad.” The words catch in her throat. The simple act of saying it out loud makes the feeling painfully tangible.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Reesha says.
Mirae smiles helplessly. “I don’t think I know how.”
“I see,” Reesha says. This is the point where it would make sense for her to excuse herself from this conversation and politely make her departure. Mirae certainly wouldn’t blame her. Instead, Reesha says, “Would you like to talk about something else, then?”
“Well—” Reesha struggles for a moment. “What are some things that you like?”
Somehow, Reesha’s discomfort reassures Mirae. They both are unfamiliar with how to be a person. I’m glad I’m not the only one, Seojun would say.
Mirae is about to reply that she doesn’t think she’s ever liked anything in her life, but then she remembers. “Bees,” she says. She likes the sound they make. And their hives.
Reesha looks delighted. “Hexagons are the best shape,” she agrees.
Their conversation is clumsy and stilted. Neither of them knows what they are doing. But at the end of it, Reesha holds out her hand and asks Mirae if she’d like to link implants and exchange messages with one another.
The hope is almost painful, like a creaking in Mirae’s ribs, but it also makes her feel like she is full of light.
Mirae is on a train heading to the Third River Medical Center. She stares out the window at the scenery that flies by in a blur and thinks about what she wants to say to her brother today.
She wants to hold his hand and ask him about his boyfriend and his life that she’s missed out on all these years. She wants to tell him about Reesha.
Mirae will not cry this time. She wants to spend her visit with Seojun smiling.
She will say hello, I love you, and goodbye, as many times as she can before it really is the last time.
Editor: Kat Weaver
First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors