Clockwork Bird Episode Two: Peacock

E-Liza: Would you like me to read this file aloud to you, Shelly?

Shelly: [sighs] Yeah, okay.

E-Liza: File zero one dot zero four dot two zero zero open parenthesis one close parenthesis-

Shelly: Oh shit, it’s an old file format. Okay, stop, E-Liza it’s fine, I’ll read it myself.

E-Liza: Okay, Shelly, is there anything else I can help you with?

Shelly: No, thanks.

E-Liza: Okay, Shelly. [power off sound]

Shelly: [sighs] Thank god she’s shut up.

Dave: E-Liza playing up again?

Shelly: [startled] No! No. I mean. It’s an old file. She’s struggling to read it out loud, that’s all.

Dave: Ah, I see. [pause] Oh come on, it’s a figure of speech.

Shelly: Sorry, I know.

Dave: Well, if you’re getting an old file format, I suppose it’s not properly screen-reader friendly, which is no good to me. I can as Taylor to record the audio or-

Shelly: No! I can do it. [awkward laugh]

Dave: You sound very… keen.

Shelly: Taylor looked like he had a lot on this morning, that’s all. I’ll take it home with me.

Dave: No need. There’s an empty office down the hall. It’s not much more than a broom cupboard

Shelly: Oh great

[laptop slams shut]

E-Liza: Hello, Shelly. Looks like you’re reading a file. Would you like me to read it to you?

Shelly: Christ, no. Thanks, E-Liza.

E-Liza: Is there anything else I can help you with?

Shelly: [bored] no.

E-Liza: Okay, Shelly.

Shelly: [deep breath] Okay. So. Um. Statement dated first of April 2026, Claimant is the United Kingdom against U-Co Industries Limited, regarding Data Protection Infringement. Statement of Dr Samuel Maxwells.

Um. Statement begins.

Growing up I was always very interested in how things work. My father was an engineer in the Royal Air Force and even after he retired, he always had his hands in something, and was more than happy to let me help, or more likely get in the way, from the moment I was old enough to reliably hold a wrench. I think he was disappointed, that I ended up choosing medicine over engineering.

I did my medical degree at Hull York Medical School, passed with flying colours, though I won’t deny it was certainly a grind. It was actually whilst I was in my second year, before I’d really been let loose on any humans aside from cadavers, that I met Christopher Darwin.

I think it was his name that interested me at first. I was at a University gala of sorts, lots of interesting academic types rubbing shoulders, and a friend of mine nodded at him across the room and told me he was Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson.

He was a tall, broad man, with a head of dull red hair that had once been styled but had since grown out and hung untidily about his shoulders. There was something greasy about his look, sleazy, even. He looked more like a gangster than a scientist, and nothing like the wisened, bearded sage his famous ancestor had been. He was not a medical doctor, someone told me – or maybe he told me himself, it’s hard to recall now, it’s been so long – instead he specialised in nano-robotics.

Like I say this was some time ago, before everyone was chipped and the best excuses computer assistants were being made by Google and Apple, so I was impressed when he told me that he had managed to get one hundred gigabytes of storage onto a chip smaller than a grain of rice. He couldn’t get it to do anything at that point, of course, that would come later, but he was becoming something of a name in certain academic circles, from the way everybody kept deferring to him in conversations.

I didn’t run into Darwin for another decade or so, and by then we were in up to our necks with that coronavirus business. I was working in New York at the time, having just completed an extra couple of years of study and was flourishing as a reconstructive surgeon, working out of a small private practice about five minutes walk from Central Park. Even our little surgery was feeling the effects of the virus, but nonetheless, Darwin came in one day, and even with a protective mask over his face I recognised him instantly.

He had no memory of me, of course; I was hardly the spritely nineteen year-old I’d been when I’d shaken his hand at that gala. He was polite enough, and asked me if I wanted to sit in on the meeting he was having with a couple of the more senior doctors in our practice. I said that I would be honoured. I hadn’t heard a whisper about him since I’d left university but we didn’t move in the same circles, and that a nano-roboticist would be dropping by a practice like ours was enough to pique my interest.

Darwin had brought with him a briefcase, the shiny silver kind that looks like it has been made out of industrial flooring. Nestled within the padded lining of the briefcase was a device, coiled carefully, small enough that it could fit in the palm of my hand. He claimed it was an artificial synapse; that it could be used to relay information from the brain to parts of the body previously paralysed.

I don’t need to explain why this sounded absurd. We don’t understand enough about the human brain or how synapses successfully relay information. It’s a category error, you see, to think of the human brain as being anything like a computer. Brains are malleable, adaptable, in a way computers cannot be, even when they use the most advanced and impressive algorithms and machine learning.

Darwin smiled when this issue was raised. The Synthnapse, as he called it, was not attempting to be a brain, only a single synapse. It could carry a limited amount of information, and only information of a very specific kind. Well, our resident neurologist laughed right in his face, as you can imagine. One synapse is not enough to reconnect a paralysed limb to the brain.

Darwin smiled again. He posited that if damage were limited to an area of synapses, using the Synthnapse as a sort of biological bypass would allow communication between the brain and the rest of the body beyond that damaged part to proceed as normal. He then proceeded to pull up his sleeve, revealing one of the coiled devices he held in his hand was thoroughly embedded into his forearm. He had been in an accident several years before which had left him with no use of two fingers on his right hand. He demonstrated the functionality he had in his hand, tapping each finger to his thumb once, twice.

This wasn’t proof enough, of course. Darwin charitably let us rig him up with all manner of diodes so we could monitor the synaptic currents in his arm, but of course, there was still no proof that it was the Synthnapse making any of this possible. Not until he jamed the end of a screwdriver into the part of it that had intermittently been flickering with a thin white light. The readings for his hand stopped immediately. Of course, to double check, we made him sit in full headgear and try again so we could tell that he was, indeed, trying to move the fingers on his hand, but could not.

Darwin jammed the screwdriver in again, and as if by magic, his hand was fully functional. I could not stop grinning; one of my colleagues audibly gasped. The Synthnapse worked.

The implications for such a device were astronomical, but, unfortunately, so was the price. That’s why he had come to us, to see if we might offer his device to our patients at full price on the basis that it was ‘experimental treatment’. That was it; there was no mention of tracking data or cookies or anything like that. Just a miracle treatment, that really worked.

When the head of the practice asked if anyone would like to volunteer to learn how to implant the devices, I leapt at the opportunity. Yes, most of my day to say work involved routine, elective plastic surgeries, but I had my fair share of patients who had mobility issues as the result of accidents, and to be honest, I couldn’t resist. It was fascinating. I learned how to perform the procedure to implant the Synthnapse, and within six months, I had my first patient on the table.

Let me tell you, there is nothing quite like seeing a woman who has not been able to move her toes for a decade wiggle them delightedly as a result of your own handiwork. Word spread fast, and by the end of the first year, I was performing two or more Synthnapse implants a week. We were helping people. And like I said, I had no idea about the data. If you want to know about that you’re going to have to talk to Dr Bennett. That was always her field, not mine, and I can only tell you as much as I know, and that’s that the data was being stored improperly, and someone was able to find out that they were taking it.

As far as I know it was completely anonymised, anyway. I’m not a neurologist and I only know as much about synapses as any other surgeon, perhaps a little bit more because of the Synthnapses, but I don’t see how data like that could be used to harm anyone and I frankly can’t see what all of this fuss is about. It’s not as if it’s important, is it, what the messages your brain sends down your arm to make your fingers wiggle look like?

I imagine there is going to be a big fanfare about how we’ve been stealing people’s thoughts but that couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s just signals, impulses. That’s all.

Signed Dr Samual Maxwells.


Shelly: I mean I knew about the Synthnapses. I know a couple of people with them fitted, even, but. I suppose they were collecting the data so they could use it to program the synthetic limbs. I know they had the Huddau Bay facility by then; I’d be surprised if Sam really had no clue what they were using it for, especially if Sophie Bennett was already involved in U-Co, even then.

E-Liza: Do you need some help?

Shelly: I… no. No, I’m fine. I just. It’s so weird. I mean, it’s not like you see people with synthetic limbs everyday or anything, but I can’t imagine them not being plastered all over billboards everywhere. That’s what gets me about it. They still use pictures of him, Robin Jaeger. He’s in half of their advertisements, even though they’ve released newer versions of the limbs now, I swear, every other ad, there he is.

I remember the first one I ever saw, I was with [pause, she cannot bring herself to say her name] I was in London to see a show and there he was, taking up the whole side of a building. I’m kind of embarrassed to say it now but I thought he was pretty good-looking, at the time. I mean, can you blame me? All that black hair, and his chest was almost as perfectly sculpted as the black carbon limbs fused onto it. To be honest, it was his eyes. The photo was doctored, obviously, and I never got to see them in person but they were this incredible shade of green, like a field in spring or leaves from a rainforest.

E-Liza: Okay, Shelly. Do you need any help?

Shelly: Yeah. These cases, the U-Co ones… how many of them were won by the complainant?

E-Liza: One case with the term ‘U-Co’ was successfully won by the complainant.

Shelly: Which one?

E-Liza: Case number seven zero seven eight zero.

Shelly: Who was the complainant?

E-Liza: U-Co, against Unique Corporations London Ltd. For copyright infringement.

Shelly: Shit.

E-Liza: Sorry, Shelly. Can I help you with anything else?

Shelly: God. What am I doing, sitting here talking to a computer? I need to get out more. [pause] I don’t know. Jesus. I chalked it up to him being blown up to ten times normal human size and the photo being heavily edited, but I swear even then, despite how gorgeous those eyes were, there was something missing from them. Almost like he was-

[door knock]

Shelly: Hello?

Dave: I’m heading off. Just wanted to make sure you’re doing the same.

Shelly: Shit. I didn’t realise the time.

Dave: Well. Don’t hang about the station after I’m gone, alright? Taylor is still here, she’s just finishing some paperwork. Did you finish dictating that statement?

Shelly: Oh, yeah. I did.

Dave: And?

Shelly: Nothing, um, particularly useful to us.

Dave: Well, that’s one less thing for us to worry about, I suppose.

Shelly: I suppose.

Dave: Well, I’ll see you in the morning.

Shelly: Oh, I, uh…

Dave: [sigh] it is a figure of speech. Goodnight, Shelly.

Shelly: Right. Goodnight.