‘Digital Ligatures’, Lauren C. Teffeau

Illustrations © 2014 Martin Hanford

 [ Way to die, © 2014 Martin Hanford ] Had I known how excruciating it would be, I would have picked a different way to die. Regret swims in my stomach as flames lick down my neck.

“Miss? Miss?” The tech’s voice abrades my skin. Sand paper. Coarse grit. “We have to perform an emergency shutdown.”

The sidewalk cushions my back like cotton candy, warm and fragrant after baking in the afternoon sun. I open my mouth, but all I hear is whalesong.

“Blink if you understand.”

I try to force my eyelids to contract, but the tech’s greasy-gray face screws up in annoyance. There was another man here. Before… I still remember the green armband he wore as he reached for the housing behind my ear. A muted trumpet wails. Wait—

“Shit! We’re losing her.” Another voice kisses my ear like astringent. “Her dataport’s hashed, man. She’s lucky she still has all her brain function.”

Some metallic contraption looms over my face, beeping and whirring in time to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

“Won’t matter if we can’t get her vitals stabilized.”

Everything trembles. I remember the man with the green armband. I expected him. But not the pain.

“One. Two. Three.” Something buzzes in my chest like an old fluorescent light bulb. “Again!”

They told me how it would be. They told me. But they left out all the important parts. Probably because I wouldn’t have signed up for this if I knew dying was as close as you could get to the real thing.

Two Months Earlier

The penlight lances straight into my brain as the doc waves it back and forth. “And nothing’s been able to give you relief?”

I swipe at my watering eyes. “That’s why I’m here. The pain’s pretty constant at this point.”

“Hmm.” He trades the penlight for a diagnostic scanner and holds the contraption up to the back of my neck where my implant lurks. “Well, there’s nothing wrong with your dataport or configuration settings.”

He steps back and gives me a long look. “You haven’t tampered with any of the factory defaults, have you?”

“No, of course not.” Void my ThinkPro 3000’s warranty and risk scrambling my brain? No thanks.

“Have you tried reducing the amount of time you spend with your implant?”

My mouth purses. “I use it for work. I can’t just turn it off.” Besides, I’ve been using an implant of one kind or another since high school.

His eyes roll back into his head. An eyecast command, but I can’t tell if he’s reviewing my case history or simply synching with someone via his implant.

Finally, he returns to himself. He hands me a useless pamphlet on ’tasking whiplash. I can tell he thinks it’s all in my head—and it is, that’s the problem. He gives me a prescription for painkillers. But they’ll make me sleepy, so I can’t use them when I’m working, which is when I need relief the most. What a waste of time.

I leave the doctor’s office and just start walking, the blocks melting away under my heels. Audio sales pitches drone out the urban symphony of exhaust, car horns, bus hydraulics, and people’s voices. God, I hate whoever invented ambush marketing.

Overwhelming my implant’s proximity feeds, blips of light converge at the subway station in a seizure-inducing mass—the implant signals of the other commuters as they crowd around me. A dull ache builds in my temples—my mind’s warning that there’s too much, too fast. I can only shield myself from so much with the Thought Processor. But by the time the fatigue of tuning everything out starts getting to me, my train arrives.

I grab a seat and nearly give in to the urge to rip the damn thing out. It’s nothing new. My brain is ready to explode at the end of every workday with the onslaught of interoffice memos and messages, from clients and colleagues alike. Even with filters and subroutines to manage the communication barrage, I’m still overwhelmed. I do as much as I can at my workstation at home, but that only provides temporary relief.

Most nights as I’m shuttled back to my apartment, I put the device on standby and take the trusty old touch screen out of my purse and read. It’s distinctly lo-fi, but the iron clamp around my head lessens ever so slightly.

On the ride home, one knot of schoolgirls laughs in unison, making faces at one another, as they synch quietly together. I see one of them, tall and cocky, pointing not so discreetly to a young woman a few rows up, her face drooping with Down’s syndrome. An elderly gentleman, probably her caregiver, glares at the other girls but otherwise just sits there, a constipated look on his face.

Neither have implants. Disconnecteds? It’s kind of a novelty to see them out in the wild.

The car fills with piercing laughter, then silence once more. The girls get off at the mall.

I’m one of the few people still on the train as we head further away from the city. Across from me is a vaguely young man in a business suit—the only person for rows. His eyes roll back into his head, and he starts making chaotic gestures with his hands. His mouth slack, his trousers tented.

No. I turn away and try to find the place where I left off in my book, but I can hear him. Awful little noises he makes in the back of his throat. This can’t be happening.

He jerks spastically in the periphery of my vision, mewling like a tomcat. He stumbles off the train at the next station.

He never even saw me.

A few weeks later, I find myself in a nearly identical doctor’s office across town. I drum my fingers on my knee. Twenty minutes past my scheduled appointment time. I begged to be squeezed in for a second opinion, but still.

The dated waiting room makes everything worse. A stack of yellowed magazines sits on a nearby table. They might be artifacts of the previous decade, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to touch them.

Others wait along with me. An elderly couple. A young mom trying to convince her kid to take a nap. A man in his late thirties paging through a magazine. His eyes meet mine for a second before sliding away—but not as a result of an eyecast command—this is entirely voluntary. Weird.

I tap my knee again as another person who isn’t me is called back. The man’s gaze lands on me again. He’s a big guy, all legs and arms crammed into the teeny chair caddy corner from mine, with graying temples. I give him a benign smile to be polite, but he latches on. “What are you in for?”

“Headaches.” I point to the housing behind my ear.

“That’s too bad.”

I shrug. What do I say to that?

“You could always unplug.”

I laugh. It sounds harsh in my ears. Abrasive, like steel wool. “Not an option.”

He leans forward in his seat. A green bracelet slides out from under his shirtsleeve. “Why? Business or pleasure?”

I resist rolling my eyes. “Required at work.”

He gives me a thoughtful look. “A shame, that.”

“That’s why I’m here. For something to help me get by. What about you?”

He points vaguely toward the hall leading to the examination rooms. “My father’s getting a check-up.”

I nod, pretending I care.

He opens his mouth to say something else, but a nurse bustles in, brandishing a clipboard. “Conway, Cassandra?”

Finally. I stand up and the man stands as well out of some misplaced sense of chivalry that went out of vogue decades ago. Just like the magazine he’s reading.

In his haste, he knocks my purse to the floor along with his copy of National Geographic. Our heads bump as I kneel down to collect my things. He pushes a card into my hand and whispers, “Just in case you can’t find the answers here.”

I step away from him as if burned, the card weighing down my hand. I hurry over to the nurse, who blinks at me blearily—must have been synching while she waited. “Follow me.”

The card says “Answers, Always” and gives an address for a community center in Midtown. It’s a run-down building with the institutional look of an abandoned school. I sit at the sushi bar across the street and debate whether I’m going to go in. The doctor’s appointment was a bust, and I’m running out of ideas.

At 2pm, someone sets up a sign outside the front door: “A.A. Meeting in the Conference Room.”

Answers, Always. A.A. Ingenious, really. But to the casual passersby, it’s just another Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. What have I stumbled into?

I pay my bill and cross the street. I’ve drunk enough green tea to give me the shakes. I should just go home, but I walk into the lobby anyway and follow signage to the conference room.

A man with a clipboard stops me when I round the last corner. He’s wearing a Che graphic tee. A grad student? An idealist fresh from the Peace Corps? “Name?” he asks, his pen at the ready.

“I thought we’re all anonymous here.”

“Cute.” He thrusts the clipboard into my hands. It’s a brief questionnaire. Name; occupation; issues for Answers, Always.

“I’m not filling this out.”

The guy rolls his eyes and snatches back the clipboard. There’s a pale patch of skin on the back of his neck where his implant used to be. He points to a row of chairs lined up against the wall. “Wait here until you’re called by one of our counselors.”

Counselors? What is this, therapy? Still, I take a seat. The guy ignores me and fidgets with the green bracelet around his wrist.

“Miss?” A woman is suddenly in front of me, with fat streaks of iron gray hair on either side of her head. Her reading glasses, attached to a cord on her neck, magnify her eyes. I wonder why she never got the surgery. “Right this way.”

The conference room’s arranged into a dozen or so cubicles with curtained entrances. A cross between a voting booth and a fortuneteller’s tent. But inside, there’s no crystal ball or voting machine—just a table and two chairs.

Ironsides holds out one of them, and I sit, resisting the urge to cross my arms over my chest.

“Before we get started, I have to ask that you turn off your Thought Processor.”

“It already is.”

She nods, unsurprised. “Then what can we do for you?”

“I’m not sure. What kinds of things do you, you know, do?”

“If you’re here, it’s because one of our operatives thought we could help you.” The word operative brings to mind covert machinations and conspiracies. I don’t like it. Ironsides keeps speaking. “So why don’t we start there. Where were you contacted?”

“A doctor’s waiting room.”

“And why were you there?”

I sigh. The room feels more like a confessional. “I’ve been having headaches.” Ironsides leans forward in her seat. Silent, encouraging. “From my Thought Processor.”

She leans back, all business once more. “And no one’s been able to tell you why.”

I nod. “Thought Processors are also required for my work.”

“Compounding your symptoms.”

“Yes. How did—”

“You aren’t the only one experiencing difficulties using the Thought Processor for long periods of time. The manufacturer denies it, but the implants are not designed for near-constant use. Nor have they been entirely forthcoming with just how the device interfaces with people’s brains, making diagnosing problems like yours difficult.”

I must look a bit lost because she reaches over and pats my hand.

“We are in the process of putting together a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturer and can provide you with resources if you decide to fight your company’s policy regarding the Thought Processor,” she says. “We’re working with a lawyer who has a strong track record advocating for Amish rights,” she says.

Lawsuit? That’s not what I came here for. I like my job. I shake my head. “I’m not interested in suing.”

The woman’s face falls in disappointment. “Well, I’m afraid there’s nothing more we can—”

“Wait. What about, I don’t know, a medical dispensation or something?”

She folds her hands in front of her. “There’s no… legal way to secure you a dispensation if your current providers can find no cause.”

I sag back into my chair. So much for answers.

Outside, I pop a pain pill and brace myself as I activate my implant. I can feel each of my synapses fire, static-y sparks that pulse behind my forehead and along the base of my skull as all the work stuff I’ve been putting off rears its head. Along with increasingly frantic messages from my boss to confirm I’m actually going to have my latest assignment ready by tomorrow.

Someone knocks into me from behind. No signals in my proximity feed.


I turn around and see the guy from the doctor’s office. He raises his hands in a placating gesture, his bracelet just hovering outside his cuff.

“Have you been following me?” My voice is shrapnel in my ears.

“I’ve been assigned to you. To see if you change your mind.”

Another shooting pain runs through my temples, and I wince.

“You okay?”

“No, I’m not,” I say through my teeth.

“Come on, there’s a coffee shop around the corner.” Despite the pain, I use my implant to access a map of the city to confirm his words. “Bright lights, other people… Better than a secluded sidewalk with a stranger, right?” He smiles, the fine wrinkles at the corners of his eyes contracting. For some reason, that sets me at ease.

When I don’t respond, he takes that as answer enough and steers me toward the café. He orders me a decaf mocha and leads me to a table where he can see the entrance. He takes a sip of his black coffee and looks me over, his brown eyes assessing this time. “Let me guess. You’ve been having problems with your implant, and no one’s been able to help you.”

I mash my lips together, then finally nod. “Headaches. Bad ones. The doctors say there’s nothing wrong, but—”

He laughs, hollow and bitter. “But there is.” He gives me another long look and pushes back the shaggy hair at the nape of his neck where his implant used to be. But unlike the guy with the clipboard at A.A., ridges of scar tissue mark where his Thought Processor once was.

My alarm must be written all over my face for he grabs my hand and places my fingers on the ridges.

“It doesn’t hurt. Not anymore, I promise.”

 [ Thought processor, © 2014 Martin Hanford ] He goes by Grady.

When the university he worked at created a virtual campus and sold the real one to a real estate developer, when his tenure case fell through because of his criticism against the move to online-only education, that was the beginning of the end. “The headaches just made my decision easier,” he says.

I take another pain pill with the last swallow of my drink and try to ignore the sympathetic look in his eyes. “How did you get involved in A.A.?”

He lifts his shoulders. “Didn’t want what happened to me happen to someone else.”

I tell him about my meeting with Ironsides, about work. About how I don’t know what to do. I’m babbling, but can’t find it in me to stop talking, not with the drugged haze that curls around me like a cat.

“What’s so wrong about disconnecting?” he asks when I lose steam.

I just stare at him.

“Right.” He sighs. “But think about your quality of life. Without your Thought Processor, the digital ligatures chaining you to society, you’ll see things differently. I guarantee it. I’ve found it surprisingly liberating.”

“But the world runs on implants. To give that up?” I shake my head, then stiffen at the resulting wave of pain. “Look, I appreciate what you guys are doing with A. A., I do. But I can’t just disconnect. I’d lose my job for one, my friends, everything.”

“What if we could give you an excuse to stay disconnected? One no one will question?”

“Ironsides already told me you couldn’t get me a medical dispensation.”

“Officially, that’s true. But there are other ways…”


He nods. “But you need to be absolutely sure it’s what you want.” Grady swirls what little liquid remains in his mug and stands. “Well, you must be exhausted after today,” he says with a sheepish grin.

Afternoon turned into evening while we were in the café, so I let him walk me back to the subway. He gives me his number and a complicated series of instructions for how to leave a message if I decide this is how I want to proceed.

“Think it over.” He gestures to his scarred neck. “There’s no coming back from this.”

I thought it over. For two whole weeks I negotiated the headaches and tried to keep the rest of my life from falling apart. I did it, but it took the rest of my prescription pain pills. When they ran out, so did my resolve.

It took some doing to find a working pay phone. Then almost an hour before Grady called me back on the contraption. “I got your message. Sorry it took me so long. I had… things to take care of.”

“It needs to come out. It needs to come out right now!” I turned my implant off hours ago, and my head still aches. Pain when I turn my head. Pain when I blink my eyes. Pain if there’s a loud noise or a bright light or a strong odor.

Pain when I try to think what to do.

“I understand. We can make that happen.”


“The less you know, the better. I’ll handle everything.” His voice is soothing, even though the fidelity of the connection leaves something to be desired. “Cassie, go back to your apartment and get some rest. Tomorrow, if it’s not better, if things get to be too much, I want you to go for a walk.”

“That’s it?”

“Yep. We’ll take care of the rest. I promise.”

The next day, I pick a direction and walk just like Grady said to. I’m not sure how long I wander. I find myself in a section of town I’ve never been to before, buildings closely tucked together and rundown. Footfalls follow me, heavy and insistent.

I don’t turn around. Instead I try to catch glimpse of whoever is behind me in one of the grimy windows. Three men. Rough looking in baggy, nondescript clothing.

My muscles tense as I scan the block for help, but it’s empty. I walk faster, adrenaline fighting through my medication. If they follow me around the next block, I’ll run.

Their steps speed up to match mine.

I dart around the corner and slam into a hard chest. A man sneers down at me, and the other three close in.

Before I can scream, one of them covers my mouth, anchoring me to the front of his body. My breath sputters in my windpipe. Someone gives my Thought Processor a hard flick, the tinny sound reverberating through my neck.

“Today, you die.”

I struggle but the hand over my face clamps down harder, jostling the green bracelet tucked into the man’s shirtsleeve into view. I start to relax. Grady said—

Then pain rips down my spine.

The detective crosses his arms and leans back against the observation window. “And then what happened, Ms. Conway?”

I blow my bangs out of my face. “I told you. I woke up in the hospital and filed a police report.”

The detective’s eyes roll into the back of his head as he synchs with one of his colleagues. But even with his implant, there’s only so many ways he can reword his questions.

He walks back to the table and picks up his touch screen. He queues up the report and sets it down in front of me. “This report?”

I scan the form and nod. “Yes.”

He snatches back the screen. “Says here you were mugged.”

“Well, what else would you call it? They were after my Thought Processor.”

“The ThinkPro 3000 has been a major commodity on the black market. But to actually attack someone to get one? That’s pretty rare.”

I plunk my elbows on the table. “Well, lucky me.”

“Let’s review your day.”


I expect a retort of some kind, but his eyes are roving again, unfocused, conspiring with his colleagues.

“According to your report, you took a walk and somehow you found yourself in a not-so-nice part of town.” He searches my face.

“Yes. I’ve been pretty stressed at work lately, and just lost track of where I was, you know?”

“When we cross-reference the time with your Thought Processor usage, your implant was in standby.” He approaches the table and leans down. “I find it hard to believe that you could be so oblivious to where you were, especially considering you weren’t using your implant.”

I shrug. “Like I said, things have been stressful. If I kept my implant on, I would have been inundated with all the work stuff I was trying to get away from.”

“But by all accounts, your performance at the consulting firm has been exemplary.”

“Doesn’t mean it’s still not stressful.” I shake my head. “What are you implying anyway? I thought you brought me down here to help with—”

“We’re just trying to get the whole picture.”

I glance at the time display projected onto the wall. “I would think after an hour you would have succeeded.”

He’s silent again, his mouth shaping words, as he consults with the hive mind. Finally, he looks back up at me. “Your attackers were very sophisticated, targeting you in an area where street cameras didn’t cover. We’ve since fixed that, so please know that something positive has come out of your ordeal.”

“Gee, thanks.” I reach for the tepid glass of water that was provided when I arrived.

“Do you have any enemies, Ms. Conway?”

I nearly snort water out my nose. “Enemies? Not that I know of. You don’t think…”

“It’s just that the injuries you sustained…” He gestures to the bandages that still cover the hole behind my ear. “Losing your ability to use implants, to connect with your friends, with society… It’s a cruel fate in this day and age.”

I don’t trust my self to answer and take another sip of water.

He stares at me for a long moment. Then with an eyecast command, he pulls up a mug shot of a young man. “Do you recognize him?”

“No. Should I? Do you think he was one of the men who attacked me?”

He blinks and a new mug shot is displayed. “How about this one?”

“Nope. Sorry.”

“This one?”

The next image squeezes the air out of my lungs. He’s younger, without the crinkles around his eyes, the gray along his temples, or the hard line to his mouth. But it’s him. Grady.

“Take your time.”

I exhale slowly. “I think I recognize him.” Can’t risk lying, not with however many people watching us from the observation room or through the detective’s broadcast function on his implant.

“You think?” the detective prompts.

“Hard to say.” I squint at the image. “He was older.”

The detective pushes off the wall. “This was taken ten years ago. Spencer Gradin, a disgraced professor and activist.”

I wonder what Grady had done to get arrested, then shut down that unhelpful line of thinking. “I’m pretty sure he wasn’t one of the men in the alley, but I recognize him from somewhere.”

“Are you sure? Mr. Gradin has been living off the grid for the last seven years.”

“Like I said, the man I met was older.” I shrug. “Maybe some bum off the street.”

Another mug shot replaces Grady’s. I shake my head. Then a series of more mug shots. I make noncommittal sounds. Ask the detective to go back a couple times.

“I’m sorry. I can’t be sure that any of them were in the alley.” My hand flutters over the bandages behind my ear. “My memories of that day are practically nonexistent.”

“We appreciate your efforts nonetheless, Ms. Conway. In the weeks leading up to the attack, you saw a doctor for headaches, is that correct?”

“Isn’t that private information?” The detective just raises his brows, waiting. I sigh. “That’s correct. The doctor assured me my implant’s configuration settings were in working order. Eventually I was put on a migraine medicine that made my symptoms… manageable.”

“Have you had headaches since your accident?” Before I can answer, he raises his hand. “Headaches like you were suffering from before, not as a result of your trauma.”

I shake my head. “But I’ve been on so many drugs that it’s hard to say.”

“Of course.”

He consults with his colleagues again—an extended conversation. His head makes small, involuntary movements as his eyelids flutter.

“Well, Ms. Conway, I want to thank you again for your cooperation today. What will you do now, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“I haven’t really thought about it. I have a big report due for work next week, and then…”

“Without your implant, do you think you can still be effective in your job?”

“Of… of course.” I can still do all the same things I could do before… A new thought dowses me better than a bucket of cold water. “And if the consulting firm doesn’t think so, I’ll sue them for discrimination.”

A startled chuckle escapes the detective as he opens the door. I follow him back through the precinct—past screens and screens of realtime traffic cameras and satellite maps of downtown.

He leads me all the way outside. His consideration is overkill, but then he stops me with a hand on my elbow. He watches my face as he reaches behind his ear and switches off his own ThinkPro 3000. “You know what I think?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“I think your headaches were tied to implant use. Faced with the runaround from the medical community, you decided it was easier to kill off your connected life than continue to limp along with headaches. How am I doing so far?”

“I have no idea—”

“Save it. You tell Grady that we’re watching. Tell him we’re fast approaching the time when disconnection will be illegal. A transparent society is a connected one. You tell him that.”

“I don’t—”

“Goodbye, Ms. Conway,” the detective says, flicking his implant back on.

I bite down on my tongue and incline my head. I retreat to the subway. I have my medical dispensation. I can continue to work, live my life as normally as I can.

Grady said that wouldn’t be enough one day. That one day the stigma of being disconnected would be too much. He said to find him then.

He said he’d be waiting.

© 2014 Lauren C. Teffeau

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