“Do you know how they used to treat epilepsy?” May asks rhetorically with an open smirk, “They used to stick two sharp metal prongs between the eyes and pound them in with a hammer.”
“Jesus Christ, why?”
“It would disconnect the frontal lobes,” May replies, “it would scramble up the patient’s mind, sometimes leave them as vegetables, but hey, better than getting seizures right?”
As May speaks the amusement ride rolls quietly along. The small cart in which we sit bumps roughly over the worn metal rails as it creaks along its tracks. A small metal lap-bar digs uncomfortably into my legs with every sudden jolt of the cheap ride.
“How do they treat epilepsy now?” I ask my sister as elevator-esque music brightly plays from some concealed speaker.
“I’m not sure exactly,” May admits quietly, “I think they send controlled shocks to certain regions of the brain to neutralize the event.”
“Please keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times,” a chipper voice commands politely. May waves her hands outside the cart with a mocking grin on her face. As she reaches out, the next display lights up.
“Another major mind disease scientists often treated throughout the early twentieth and twenty-first century is a disorder they called ‘schizophrenia’” an animatronic lab-scientists told us merrily, holding out a plastic test-tube, “Someone with schizophrenia had trouble telling what was real and what was not real. Their families often were very concerned.”
“Why does it always say that?” I ask as I watch the animatronic scientist passes the test-tube to another machine to its left.
“Say what?” May asks.
“It always ends with ‘their families were very concrened’. Why?” I explain, “I mean, if anyone has a major illness wouldn’t their family be concerned?”
“It’s a ride for children.” May shrugs.
“What, you’re too old for the Disease Museum now?” I ask sarcastically, knowing the designers hadn’t intended the ride for high-schoolers.
“I’m just saying, they’re obviously sugar-coating everything,” May laughs, “they don’t mention how they use to tie schizophrenics down and toss them into padded rooms.”
“Weird being back here, huh?”
“Yeah,” May nods quietly, “Christ, when’s the last time we were here?”
“Been a long time.”
“Amazing how different everything is now,” May breathes as our cart stumbles clumsily past the animatronics’ dead eyed stares. Chipped paint peels from its lips, but it dutifully holds its smile. The light goes out over display as the next zone flickers lazily to life.
“Throughout most of mankind’s existence,” an announcer with boredom creeping under his voice, “few diseases were as openly feared as cancer.”
“Oh!” May smiles, “This part was always my favorite.”
“Ugh, I hated this one.”
Before us, the cancer display stands frozen. Men and women adorn the stage, each with mis-shapen lumps swelling from their plastic skin. They look surprised at their disfigurement, as though frozen at the precise time they noticed the massive lumps of unwanted flesh.
“Do you know how they use to treat cancer?”
“Why do you know about every disease in the exhibit?” I ask in disbelief.
May blushes before brushing off my question:
“’Cause it’s interesting, buttface. Now, when they used to treat cancer, they would just kind of lop off flesh from the infected area and hope for the best. Worse yet, if they couldn’t get the growth off, they would just shoot radiation at the thing and hope for the best.”
The ride creaks onwards with a low grinding hum.
“Next, we look at the bubonic plague,” the narrator continues, his voice distorted by the cheap audio system, “this disease caused swollen balls over the body, similar to cancer. However, unlike cancer, mice spread the bubonic plague.”
“How did they treat this one?” I ask, half mockingly and half out of genuine interest.
“I’m not sure actually,” May admits with a shrug, “I think they just let people die from it and called it good.”
“The ride’s almost done, right?” May asks, yawning.
“Yeah, not as interesting as I remember it either. I don’t think there’s too many exhibits left. Didn’t they have one on those immune-things?”
“No, I think they scrapped that. It came near the beginning, right?”
With another harsh creak of steel, the cart rolls shakingly forwards. It rounds a loose bend in the track, its crooked wheels whining against the rails all the way. As it enters the next chamber of the ride, the lights flash quickly on.
Three cribs stand under the spotlights. On the left, an animatronic baby sobs a piercing wail as it shakes its fists unintelligently before its face. On the right, another animatronic baby coos playfully as it stretches its fingers out towards the cart. Its chests rises and drops with each breath and a loving smiling stretches over its synthetic face. In the center crib, there is no movement from its occupant.
“SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome,” the announcer speaks solemnly, “struck nearl-”
Mid-word, the audio cuts out, the lights go out, and silence fills the air.
“What the hell?” May curses.
“Sorry folks,” a voice speaks over an intercom, “whole park’s lost power. We’re gonna try to get you out; don’t leave the cart.”
“Well that’s just great, isn’t it?” I scoff.
“Why can’t we leave the cart?” May asks with annoyance, “There was an employee door right there.”
“I guess they don’t want us to sue if we tripped or something.”
For a while we sit in the dead quiet. Within the room, it’s too dark to even see my own fingers as I raise them in front of my face.
“So, how are things?” May asks to break the uncomfortable silence.
“Not too bad. Just stranded in the dark with an idiot.”
“I wish we didn’t get stuck in the infant-death display. Place always gave me the creeps.”
“Better than the cancer one,” I counter as I look forward into the pitch-dark blackness. Only the slight delay of my echo gives a sense at how far away the walls must be.
“Have you ever heard how they cured SIDS?” May asks in a near whisper.
“No?” I reply, not understanding why she dropped her voice.
“Oh? You’re not going to tell me the story?”
“Maybe just look it up on your own, all right?”
“We are locked in a dark room,” I answer with a nervous laugh, “this seems like a good time for conversation. Besides, I’m interested now. You say it’s worse than shooting someone full of radiation? So, how’d they cure it?”
“Well, it’s not so much how they cured it,” May speaks after a reluctant pause, “but who cured it. Have you ever heard of Edna Coil?”
“That German scientist?”
“What? No, she was Hungarian. Born premature Christmas Eve in Budapest about a century ago. Later she attended the University of-”
“How do you know this?”
“I wrote a report on her.”
“Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Sorry,” I apologize, not losing the amusement in my voice, “continue.”
“Well, whatever. Point is, she was smart, like, crazy smart. Also just crazy. Also weird looking.”
“She had mismatched eyes, first of all. One green and one blue. Super short too and skinny with tiny boobs. Others said she would frequently get mistaken for a child.”
“That’s odd. She just like never hit puberty?”
“Well, she must have; she had a kid, a boy named…err, something. It’s not really important, I guess. Anyways, so weird looking really smart lady.”
“Okay, got it.”
“Now she became notorious at college for little experiment she ran in her spare time. One weekend, she picked up a golden-retriever from the pound by the university. She ran nano-wiring into a dog’s skull so that she could supply direct electrical impulses into its brain.”
“Well,” May continued after a thoughtful pause, “She could imitate particular electrical patterns that would naturally occur in the dog’s brain. Very quickly, she managed to map out particular sequences of shock that would elicit different responses from the dog.”
“Like a Pavlov thing? She conditioned them?”
“No, she used their natural responses. Like, she could get them to drool without ever introducing food.”
“She would send a certain pattern of electrical shocks to the brain and the dog would simply perceive the smell of, say, bacon or ham.”
“I see,” I reply, looking out into the blank shadows around our stationary cart.
“Funny, part is,” May laughed darkly, “Coil did all this in her university dorm room. Kept the poor hound locked up in a big wire kennel under her lofted bed. Even when she installed the nano-wiring, she performed the operation on her own personal desk.”
“Christ, imagine getting her as a room-mate.”
“Her actual room-mate didn’t last too long.”
“Quit the college or got a different room-mate?”
“Hanged herself, actually.”
“Yeah,” May coughs uncomfortably, “Anyways, so Coil had this beat-up golden retriever locked up in her room with a bunch of wires running out of its head, and she could program it to experience particular responses. Naturally, she decided to experiment with the extend of artificial stimuli she could generate.”
I say nothing.
“Coil would program the dog to feel more hungry the more it ate, so that it would gorge itself, or she’d program it to always feel full so it’d almost starve. Other times, she would try to make it think it had broken its leg or make the room spin until the creature would vomit. And everything she did, she recorded. Always.”
“So, what, are there tapes of all this?”
“Yes. I didn’t watch them though,” May shakes her head, “too morbid for me. But everything Coil ever did, she carefully taped and catalogued. A true scientist.”
“What ever happened to the dog?”
“Died in an undisclosed project, as others have put it. She dumped its body in the lake and hid some of the videos elsewhere, so we don’t know what exactly she did to kill it.”
“And she never got charge for animal cruelty or anything?”
“No, she actually published some of her results to get her doctorate. Her work with neural nano-wiring was ground-breaking, and universities as well as private companies practically fought over her employment.”
The cart creaks as I shift my weight idly. A draft slips through the stale interior air.
She eventually joined some tech-company in Guangzhou, China. They agreed to give her a full lab, staff, and complete discretion to run experiments as she deemed interesting.”
“And what did she decide was interesting enough to investigate?”
“Sudden infant death syndrome,” May stops after naming the disease, “You sure you want to hear this? It gets a lot worse from here on out.”
I consider the question for a moment before replying shakily:
“Yes, I think I do.”
“Fine,” May breathes quietly, “so how much do you know about SIDS?”
“Not much. It used to kill babies right?”
“Yeah. Essentially, infants would randomly die all the time within the first year of life. The child would show no signs of struggling or trouble breathing or anything like that. Autopsies would show no apparent signs of death. The kids would just die without explanation.”
“When did this start?”
“Oh it was always around. Rates were low enough that it was never really considered an epidemic or anything; it was just something miserable that people would have to live with.”
“How the hell did Coil cure it?”
“Well, her first step had to be to find children who died from it to get data. This came as a challenge, as the current rate of death was around one in every two-thousand children. What Coil came up with, was a cheap implanted device for every child that would monitor brain activity. She ran some advertisements saying it would help brain development, or some shit like that, and she managed to sell around forty-thousand units.”
“Yeah, paid a good advertisement firm a hefty check to get those into homes. The amount people paid for them helped cover the start-up costs.”
“So she got the data then?”
“Yep, all in all, she recorded twenty-three deaths with her devices.”
“What did she find?”
“Something that hadn’t been found before,” May answers vaguely, “in every case, she noticed a particular brain pattern just before death.”
“And how did that help?”
“Well, that’s how she cured it,” May chuckles, her voice in an odd part of her register, “every infant now for the first year of life have a similar implant installed. If that brain pattern is detected, the device sends out other signals to muddle the brain. Once the kid is old enough, the thing’s taken out.”
“Did we have those?” I ask, not aware of any such device, “Why have I never heard of this?”
“It’s a very minor procedure,” May answers, “but yeah, we had them when we were young. Maybe a reason we’re still alive, right? Anyways, the treatment worked like a charm and Coil managed to eventually win a Nobel prize for her work.”
“You sound unhappy about that. I mean, she did a good thing right? You said it yourself that we might not be alive if not for her.”
“Yeah, the device is all fine and good, but Coil didn’t stop with its invention,” May sighs, “you see, SIDS intrigued Coil, and she wanted to know its exact cause, not just some neural data.”
“So, Coil didn’t stop when she learned the lethal pattern. Instead, she ran some nano-wiring through the soft spot of some infants’ skulls and tested what would happen if she forced them to experience the neural sequence.”
“Yeah, guess what happened?” May asks rhetorically before answering herself, “they all died suddenly, showing no other symptoms of disease.”
“What was she trying to do?”
“According to her assistants, the few who hadn’t quit or tried to report her to the police, she was testing to try to find an exact cause of death. During the tests, she kept all kinds of wires hooked up to the kids. Personally, I think she did it just for fun. It sounds crazy, but I’ve seen the videos of her applying the neural pattern; you should see the way she just hovers over the cribs watching the babies die, like a god-damned vulture.”
“Did she ever find a precise cause of death?”
“Nope, but it never discouraged her,” May scoffs, “in her own words, more or less paraphrased: ‘it is not possible for death to result from such a simple neural stimulus; there must be some other symptom we have not yet registered’.”
“It doesn’t stop there, though,” May laughs with macabre interest, “next, she tried testing the impulse pattern on adults to see what would happen. She figured it might make a more ‘humane’ method of execution.”
“Who the hell volunteered to be tested?”
“Coil paid off party officials to bring her condemned criminals. Then, she ran wires into their skulls and pushed the button just for the hell of it.”
“It had no effect?”
“None, whatsoever. I guess this surprised Coil too, as she ran this trial quite a few times on adults of different age, race, and sex. Every time the same thing, the impulse had no effect whatsoever on fully-matured humans.”
“Humans? You make it sound like it worked on animals.”
"She tried it on animals certainly, but no effect. Only infant humans would experience any kind of effect at all, and that effect was always a sudden and otherwise unexplained death.”
“How young did the kids have to be?”
“Well, that was Coil’s next question. How does one biologically define an infant? So, to test this, she tried running the same trial on older and older children.”
“And the result?”
“Well, around this time,” May’s voice lowers, “the authorities started taking actions to shut down the experiment. Her employers paid off everyone they could, but it became clear that it was practically impossible for Coil to acquire anymore children to experiment on.”
“No kidding,” May agrees, “she managed to duck any criminal charges with the release of her research. For the most part, people were just happy that she found an effective treatment for SIDS. The deaths she caused were worthwhile sacrifices, at least as far as history is concerned.”
“Do you know why the syndrome only effected children?”
“There are a few theories out there. A popular one is that a child’s brain isn’t correctly formed and the electric impulses causes the amygdala to short out.”
“How would that damage the brain?”
“I dunno, always thought it was kind of a stupid theory.”
“Any better ones?”
“Well, there’s only really one other I know,” May replies, “and it was first proposed by Dr. Coil herself midway through her research.”
“Hmm,” I murmur out into the darkness.
“It’s like this, for the first couple years of our lives the brain works differently, right? It’s like how children can learn a new language super quickly because the communication portion of their consciousness is much more powerful than an adult. A lot of a child’s, particularly an infant’s, brain can preform far more efficiently than adult, and in theory, an infant might be able to conceive of an idea that an adult could not. Well, Coil hypothesised that the lethal impulse pattern could only be comprehended by a brain composed in a certain way.”
“So an idea only infants could think of?” I ask skeptically.
“An idea only infants could comprehend that resulted in their immediate death once thought of,” May clarifies.
“How the hell would someone even begin to test that?”
“Coil figured if the pattern could be recreated on a conscious subject on life support with a basic understanding of speech, she could simply ask about the idea and confirm her suspicions.”
“Huh, kinda makes you wonder what she might have learned had she succeeded.”
May doesn’t answer for an odd pause, and I glance in her silent direction, only seeing the same unmarked blackness of the shadows.
“Actually, Coil did test it.”
“I thought you said they shut her research down?”
“Well they did, but she managed one last test before they did. Like most of her work, she recorded it, and uhm, I’ve actually seen the footage.”
“It was a primary source for my essay; the essay isn’t well-known in popular culture but it’s much debated in certain circles.”
“What does the video show?”
Another silent moment passes over while May collects her thoughts.
“It starts with a shot of an empty laboratory. If you watched any of the rest of the experiments, you’d recognize the place right away. It’s where she experimented on all the infants.
“Now, Coil paces into the room, stops, and you can see her yell to someone out of frame. The camera has no sound, but it looks like she just yells a couple syllables. After her call, a child kind of clumsily strolls into the room, the way children walk, you know. It’s kind of hard to see with the grainy nature of the video, but the child is all but confirmed to be her son.
“She leads him to one of the operating table and plops him down. Not saying anything to the kid, she shoves some tubing down his throat and hooks him up to all sorts of equipment. The respirator makes sure he breaths and some machine pumps his blood for him; his whole body’s on auto-pilot.
“Then she attaches the nano-wires to his brain, just like to that poor dog in her dorm room. All the cables run to this one battered old lap-top.
“For a couple minutes, Coil types on the computer, probably taking notes and making sure the readings are correct or whatever. The kid looks nervous as fuck, his eyes are shifting all over the place and he tries several times to undo his restraints. Each time he tries to wiggle his way out, his mother yells at him and he settles down a bit.
“Then, she steps over to the camera and checks it for a moment, clearly making sure she’s recording. Once that’s done, she steps back to the computer and presses the enter key once.
“Almost immediately, this look of shock fills the boy's face and his whole body goes rigid. You can practically hear the machines struggling to keep him alive, and the restraints just dig into his skin as he pulls against them. Every inch of the kid turns white as a sheet while he does this thousand-mile stare, the kind of gaze you see in those cheesy war movies, that the actors can never quite seem to get right.
“Coil drifts over him, leaning in like a reaper and whispers into his ear. You can see the boy struggle to manage a slight nod and then Coil asks him another question. The boy is just wringing with sweat at this point and he gulps several times while his lips open and close repeatedly. All the tendons in his neck tense, bulging out from his pale skin. This odd, fever-dream like look hangs over him while his arteries become visible, swollen and red.
“He leans into his mother side and on the videotape, you can just barely make out his jaw moving as he speaks.”
I rub some warmth into my forearms as I wait impatiently for May to continue the story. All the while, I stare in her general direction although shadows entirely conceal my sister. Only when it becomes apparent she has no intention to continue speaking do I open my mouth:
“Well, what did he say?”
“I don’t know,” May admits, “The tape doesn’t have any audio, and because of how he leans in behind Coil, it’s impossible to read his lips. Soon after, like within seconds, you can see his heartbeats flatline on the monitor and his body goes limp.”
“How does Coil react?”
“Hardly at all,” May replies half-heartedly, “She makes a note on a clipboard of his time of death and wraps up his body for an autopsy. Day after, she leaves the country to avoid prosecution, and within the next week, she publishes her findings and proposed treatment.”
“And that’s it?”
“That’s it. That’s how she cured the sudden infant death syndrome. She never spoke of her experiment and died two decades later in an automobile accident.”
“I guess whatever she learned died with her,” May sighs, “frustrating, but it's how history goes. At the very least, we have the fruits of her labor. Who knows if we’d be alive if not for her. Certainly, we wouldn’t have such a fun exhibit in the Disease Museum.”
“Hah,” I say dryly, “when do you suppose they’ll fix this damn ride anyways? I don’t want to be locked here all day.”
“I dunno, but I hope it’s soon. It’s getting colder.”
Without reply, we scoot in a little closer together, conserving what comfort we can against the inky blackness all around us.
Written by Levi Salvos