Over the heavy walnut desk, the infofield displays several feet of electronic paperwork. Lilith Ambrose is three thumbprints and one e-signature away from being joined with Jacob for eternity. Again.
In the weeks after they found out that Jacob’s cancer was back, that it had spread to his lungs and his brain, and that it was without a doubt terminal this time, the university had leaped into action. It was a race against the disease to preserve his magnificent brain, they explained.
It was possible, they had insisted—the gray-haired deans in gray suits, gray beards, gray eyes, waving their hands at important words like the connectome and neuron networks and artificial synapses. They could have Jacob in EEG and imaging the very next day. The lab was ready. There was the Berger Implant.
On his index finger, Dr. Liam Gomez held a small, rectangular wafer. For Lilith, looking into the tiny device had been like staring into an eye. The depth and refraction of its intricate squares within squares conveyed a sense of the city—no, the universe—inside.
“Designed to hold up to two and a half million gigabytes of memory,” Dr. Noah Ferber-Kelton added. “A whole human mind, delivered to the organic host extracranially via the jugular vein. A relatively simple procedure…”
For the first time that afternoon, Lilith became aware of all of the gray eyes focused on her. Then everything felt gray—the speckled upholstery on the chairs, the early spring gloom out the window, a fog that seemed to drift in around her.
“That’s where you come in, Mrs. Ambrose. Our Berger Implant is merely software. We’ll need an organic host in order for us to continue interfacing with Dr. Ambrose. We assumed you’d be the natural choice…”
Lilith had given them a thin, wordless smile, neither yes nor no, but no one seemed to notice.
“The Berger Implant provides a sort of joint tenancy of the host’s brain: twice the memories, twice the processing power…”
That’s what Lilith remembers of the droning voices. Joint tenants. Now, in the soft lamplight of her own study, finally alone, Lilith laughs, a short, wry huff. Her mind drifts to her twins—joint tenants inside of her, once upon a time. She can still remember what their wrestling felt like, the twisting and bulging of tangled knees and elbows under her ribs. The deans had made joint tenancy sound so seamless. They’d never been pregnant. Is that what it would be like? Jacob tangling himself with her own thoughts and memories?
Kate and Owen had wrestled inside of her for thirty-seven weeks. For Lilith and Jacob, the situation would be more permanent. This time there is no till death do us part.
“We view the Berger implant as an intermediate step,” Dr. Ferber-Kelton had explained, “until machine upload is perfected in the next ten to twenty years. The ultimate goal would be to upload your joint mind into the digital network where it can live on in perpetuity. An organic host is not ideal—there’s always the potential for mutual corruption, but the procedure is miraculous, nonetheless.”
The Berger Implant has made death less relevant, so long as there’s someone willing to take you on. The university had taken her cooperation for granted. Am I willing? Lilith allows herself to wonder for the first time.
She remembers Jacob’s cheek pressed against her teeming belly, searching for signs of life—a kick, a flutter. “One to replace each of us,” he had murmured.
That was more than twenty years ago, before his first diagnosis, before the immunotherapy and stem cell treatments. Maybe immortality had always been his goal.
When they were little, Jacob would sit with Kate and Owen and try to teach them about the universe, from the gas giants to the smallest atoms. Enthusiasm colored his normally flat baritone voice. It wasn’t really baby talk, but that attempt at pouring his mind into unsuspecting two-year-old vessels was the closest he ever got to baby talk.
It’s one of Lilith’s favorite memories—Jacob in the recliner, reading aloud from A Brief History of Time, drawing out his words just slightly, a glass of scotch in one hand while the twins played with their blocks, oblivious. It was one of those rare moments of clarity where she knew, even as she watched it unfold from across the room, that it was perfect—something she would replay in quiet moments for the rest of her life. Lilith had recorded it in high resolution with her mind’s eye, noting the flush in his cheeks, the twins’ congenial babble as they built tottering towers that reached their shoulders before crashing down. So different, but working together—Kate with Jacob’s broad shoulders and wide forehead, Owen with Lilith’s long, graceful fingers too delicate for a toddler’s pudgy hand.
Lilith leans back into her chair, hand to the soft skin of her forehead as if she could reach inside and caress that memory.
She doesn’t look at the infofield when she opens her eyes. Instead, her hand travels to the right-hand drawer under the wide desk and pulls out a notebook. With a confident slash, Lilith runs her pen down the center, cleaving a page into two parallel universes.
YES, she scrawls at the head of one column, and then NO. She watches her handwriting unfurl in the NO column—tangles and loops, her own network of thoughts and memories.
Will I still be me?
While most people typed on screens or dictated into devices, Lilith preferred to write—print, cursive, even calligraphy. The pressure her pen exerted across a page always grounded her thoughts, made them real.
Jacob was different. “What’s next? Hieroglyphics?” he’d tease her. He may be a genius, but he looked right past life’s little truths.
Her hand traces NO over and over again until the letters are bold and their weight cuts deep into the paper.
Then she remembers Jacob’s face and her hand stops. In that gray room at the university, his heavy brow had seemed buoyant, and the skin that hung over his sunken cheeks folded into a smile for the first time in weeks. “Perfect,” Lilith had heard him mutter with a breathy reverence, eyes lifted toward the Berger Implant.
Perfect… Her memory stretches further back, to his hand, young and laced with coarse black hairs, tracing the outline of her cheek, the prominent ridge of her collar bone. “Perfect,” he had declared in the same tone.
Lilith’s hand travels a few inches to the left, to the universe it hasn’t explored yet—the one in which she says YES.
I wouldn’t have to live without him. She names the fear that’s plagued her for thirteen years, since his first diagnosis. Jacob, distant as he could be, was a constant in her life. He was the voice saying, “I trust you,” even when Lilith didn’t trust herself. “You’re ok. Things will be fine. Cheer up.” Even in the face of his sickness, he’d wrap her in his vast arms and say cheer up, and all her worries felt misplaced. Maybe she’d need that voice in her head. With his work to finish—his writing and his lectures—she’d have something to ease the transition.
Slowly, she traces the YES heading.
Jacob was such a heavy presence in her life. There had been the doctors—the red boxes in her calendar, the bottles of blue pills, purple pills, chalky white pills on the nightstand, the miles of research she’d absorbed from her infofield. Even before, in happier times, there were the mundane matters of their lives to arrange—meals to plan, the social calendar, the house, the kids.
“I trust you,” Jacob would mutter from his desk, looking away momentarily from his infofield.
He’s so heavy, Lilith writes in the NO column before she quite knows what she means. She thinks of his body over hers, collapsed in satisfaction, her ribs straining for air, or of his inert limbs in bed—a thick arm thrown across her chest, a heavy leg pinning the covers over her, and it’s so hot.
In the fog of that gray room, she should have felt excited about the Berger Implant, Lilith tells herself. Grateful. At fifty-eight years old, he had so much more to say, to give. What if her eyes had locked with Jacob’s—if there’d been a secret exchange like twins? What if they had both said perfect?
Jacob could live on. She should have felt excited. But beneath that thin smile, what she’d wanted to say, if she’d had a voice in that room where people waved their hands at artificial synapses, was What about me? It would have sounded petulant, out of place amid talk of connectomes and optogenetics, but there it was, hidden behind her pressed and poised lips.
“What about me?” she says now in the soft lamplight of her study. What would she do, cut free of the heaviness? She could recapture the pieces of herself she’s lost in her marriage: silence in the morning; the quiet space in her brain where she used to try to describe the progression of color in a sunset; milk, once the treatments made him lactose intolerant. What if she was, in some unacknowledged way, looking forward to the end?
And there are still Kate and Owen—twenty years old now, studying. Owen has a girlfriend. Kate has an internship. Their lives are starting to take shape.
Better me than them, Lilith scrawls in the YES column, because NO is a universe where the university approaches Kate and Owen, next in line to carry their father’s legacy.
“You might as well,” Kate had shrugged when Lilith told her over the infofield about the gray room, the Berger Implant with its winding facets and 250 million gigabytes. “You’ve kind of always been mom and dad, anyway.”
Kate doesn’t remember A Brief History of Time. Neither she nor Owen ever showed an interest in their father’s work. Eventually, Jacob had realized the futility of trying to pour his mind into theirs and retreated into his office.
Lilith doesn’t want to see her children saddled with their father. He’s too heavy.
Better me than them. Lilith traces the letters, her pen heavy.
Lilith is hot. It’s hard to breathe. She thinks of the cool, gray fog in that room at the university. A person could get lost in the fog. He’s so heavy. His bright but weary smile: Perfect. Better me than them.
“It’s ok,” Jacob says. He’s still not used to the sound of his voice. Their voice. Hearing his thoughts expressed in her silvery, quiet register is jarring. He feels like his words carry less weight when he speaks in front of his classes, at symposiums. Sometimes the voice becomes unexpectedly brittle and it feels like his words will crumble before they leave her mouth. His eyes (their eyes) wander to unexpected places, lingering on faces he’s never noticed before. He doesn’t feel in control yet, but he’s learning.
Lilith is upset today, but he’s heard this story enough times that it’s easy to tune out. Even before, he’d been able to work over the sound of her voice. It was never this persistent on the outside, but he’s getting used to it.
“Cheer up,” he coos. “You’ll have your turn at dinner. Things will be fine.”
Lilith has learned to use the fog. She veils her thoughts inside the clouds of words that rise and swirl, circling his consciousness and making him shiver. She has learned to hold feelings without assigning words to them. That’s the only way to protect them from his disapproving gaze. Funny how someone doesn’t need eyes to gaze.
Two minds and two hands—one set of hands, really. It isn’t a fair equation. Jacob knows how to make those hands do his work. The typing and scrolling, naturally, but she feels him even in the way her hand rests on her thigh when he’s deep in thought.
Lilith was surprised when they stepped behind the podium, before the pitched rows of eager students, to feel her hands unleash his forceful gestures, made still-more violent by his unaccustomed handling of her lighter bones.
“Brilliant!” Dean Gomez had declared from the back of the room.
“Trippy,” Owen had said when they met for their first dinner as a family of three-plus-baggage.
“We’re fine.” Lilith felt her throat form the words that tickled the edge of her thoughts like insect feet. She couldn’t swallow them. She couldn’t even reach out in that moment to drown his words in a long sip of Pinot. She could feel all of Jacob’s energy focused on being “fine.”
“It’s different,” she was able to add, and her ears strained to detect a difference between his words and hers.
“But we’re learning.” Jacob punctuated the sentence with finality. There was a difference. She wondered if the twins were listening as closely.
“So who’s driving?” Kate asked, studying Lilith through narrow eyes.
“Yeah, you seem like Mom. Mostly. Except…” Owen wrinkled his nose, an old gesture.
Lilith pictured the little boy, perched over a line of ants with his magnifying lens. She savored this image, without giving words to the brief hope it aroused. She didn’t want Jacob to wrap his arms around her. She didn’t want to be lulled; she wanted to be seen.
“Except…no, I don’t know.” Owen’s nose relaxed, smooth, and Lilith exhaled a fog of disappointment.
She felt her ribs straining as she took a breath and Jacob consumed the air. “We’re co-pilots,” he said. “It’s a partnership.”
She’d wanted to argue, but he was so heavy. Lilith stored her anger in the fog.
“Cheer up,” he says now, gazing into his infofield. “You’ll have your turn at dinner.”
She lets the fog roll in silently.
In the beginning of their joint tenancy, Jacob had been annoyed by his own hunger, at his need to stop and prepare a meal. He needed Lilith—the skill and muscle memory she’d developed over years in the kitchen, her knowledge of its geography of pots and plates. And knives. In the kitchen, he grudgingly took a back seat, relinquishing the hands.
Now, in the fog, she thinks of chopping onions, carrots, potatoes. When she pictures the knife pounding a steady rhythm through the firm vegetables, Lilith does not focus on the blade’s glinting edge. That stays in the fog, where he can’t see.
Instead, she thinks of the sharp, sweet onion smell, the sting in her eyes, drifting weightless, a potent vapor free from the heavy fiber. In a few more hours, she’ll have the knife.
Lilith keeps a well-curated kitchen. Even before the days when she filled bento boxes with sliced cucumbers and bell peppers, Lilith placed a high value on good knives. No mangled flesh as she muddled through a dense butternut; Lilith savored the quick finality of a clean cut.
Now, as she pulls potatoes and onions from the pantry and lays them out methodically on the marble island counter, she feels a clean cut within her reach. It had been a mistake, letting him linger on like this. One errant gesture—a slice landing a few inches off course, opening the smooth skin of her wrist like a ripe tomato, or a sudden inward lunge toward her heart—could set her free from Jacob. It would have to be fast, decisive.
Mechanically, Lilith reaches overhead to the cabinet that holds their crystal wine glasses, a wedding gift from almost thirty years ago. She fills it halfway with left-over Pinot.
That’ll calm you down. She feels it more than hears it—part of her, but separate.
Lilith swallows the purple liquid in a long gulp without pausing as usual to note the way it tastes like the earth after fall’s first rain.
She feels the heavy chef’s knife glide through a potato, hitting the bamboo cutting board with a solid click. The fog leaks from her mind and seems to fill the kitchen. Or maybe it’s just the steam from the pot of water she’s begun to boil.
Lilith hides her new thoughts in an old story: the flow chart, two parallel universes. YES and NO.
He’s so heavy, she thinks into the YES column. Click.
As Jacob learns to live in her body, she feels her control slip away. In the beginning, it was like walking through sand. Then it was walking through water. Now sometimes she feels she can barely stand up without his permission. She wonders if he could swallow her completely, invisibly. He had always dictated the direction of their lives, even from the outside.
What about me? Lilith sighs a heavy breath into the NO column. She looks at her hands as they turn a potato, slicing the rough skin away in a long, unbroken spiral.
Did she still have a self? Without looking, Lilith slides the knife into the soft pad of her index finger, enough to draw a thin ribbon of blood. It hurts.
“Careful,” Jacob says, his voice a long, flat drawl.
Lilith almost misses the difference as she concentrates on the sharp tingle in her fingertip and savors this connection with her body. She pulls her finger between her lips before resuming the rhythm of her chopping.
“So steady,” Jacob coos, the voice in her head languid and content. Lilith can feel her cheeks flush.
Lilith thinks of the ice cubes in Jacob’s scotch. The thought tickles the edge of her mind like moth wings. Late in the evening, he would sit and sip his scotch, and sometimes his voice would drift toward her at the sink while she rinsed the dinner dishes, unraveling a treasured thought or a piece of news: the dean said… I was thinking of writing…
She thinks of his voice, imbued now with that same relaxed softness. The wine.
Lilith drops her pile of potatoes into the roiling pot and refills the crystal glass. He doesn’t resist as she brings it to her lips. He doesn’t seem to notice their quickening heart rate.
Lilith wordlessly files his contented lethargy in the NO column. She puts the lid on the pot and watches the steam obscure the clear glass as she takes another sip. Perhaps she has other choices.
It feels good to let go, to coast along on someone else’s expertise, Jacob thinks. He hasn’t felt this way in a long time. When he was stuck in bed, some days without the strength to bring his own food to his mouth and sometimes without an appetite at all, he had resented Lilith’s virility. Now, as he watches her hands (their hands!) move over the kitchen, he’s thankful for her skill. He surrenders himself to that skill. He smells the earthy, salty aroma of his dinner, feels the hot steam curl around his face as they lean over the pot. It’s almost blinding.
Lilith is happy, too, he notes. Her morose chatter has slowed. It’s a big change, taking me on board, Jacob admits to himself. But she’ll get used to it.
Already, she’s thinking about his students. Their students. Slowly, he joins her in panning across the large auditorium, pausing to look into individual faces. Lilith always had such an eye for detail. She looks past the cluster of young women arranging notes on their infofields, and lands on a young man, who leans forward in his seat, light brown hair falling across his face.
Jacob doesn’t connect this image to the sudden deepening of his hunger (their hunger!). He only beams at the way she’s taking a genuine interest in the students. It was inevitable, he thinks. Of course, she’ll come around.
Lilith saw that boy smile on the first day she walked into the lecture, equipped with an extra brain and a sudden deep knowledge of astrophysics. Dennis or Derrick or something. Dustin! A lot of the students, serious as they were, smiled at the sudden change in Dr. Ambrose once he showed up in the body of his “organic host.”
Dean Gomez had filled them in on the plan: “I assure you, you’re still privy to the genius of the late Dr. Ambrose, whose role is selflessly carried on by his wife.”
There had been ripples of whispers and giggles, and incredulous stares. But this kid, Dustin, made her feel like she really did have a self. His gaze lingered on her in a way that made her throat close, occasionally, well beyond the first day of class.
Lilith wraps all of this wordlessly in the fog as she carries a single plate to the table. She hides a whole plan in the memory of Dustin’s face—blue eyes following her high-heeled steps around the lectern, straight teeth gently denting his full bottom lip. Perhaps with some encouragement…
Dr. Ambrose would need a few research assistants. If she could get close enough to this Dustin, she could remind everyone at the university that she still had a self. Maybe that self isn’t cut out to be a professor. There are other ways to destroy Jacob before he destroys her. She remembers what Dr. Ferber-Kelton said about “mutual corruption.”
You might make me a better teacher. Lilith senses Jacob’s thought. I trust you.
He may be a genius, but he looks right past life’s little truths.