Art by Jed McGowan

​Brain Trust

“I'm just not sure I want to give my son a brain lesion, even if it would get him into preschool.”

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Feb 11 2016, 3:00pm

Art by Jed McGowan

"I'm just not sure I want to give my son a brain lesion, even if it would get him into preschool," Charlotte was saying as Olivia approached the table. Even at noon on a balmy November day, the patio outside the midtown Starbucks Platinum was otherwise empty; nobody else wanted to risk their skin to the sunlight. Pippa was on a Vitamin D kick, though, and since Olivia had gotten SPF microsurfacing just last week, she couldn't really complain. Besides, you so rarely got breathing room in this city.

Olivia gave a taut "oh good, this again" smile and began busily applying sprouted almond pesto to her protein chips so she wouldn't be seen rolling her eyes. Charlotte was such a wet noodle, especially when it came to FGTL. A good, devoted mother would have her child's entire brain replaced if it would help him succeed.

"It's not just about preschool," Pippa insisted. She had ordered a cup of hot water and was making up a sachet of calendula leaves, maca powder, and gold leaf. "It's going to improve Burr's compassion, his tolerance for his entire life. Discrimination means treating someone differently because of things like race and age and gender presentation, right? Noticing those features is a very real handicap—once you see them, they influence your decisions without you even realizing it. If you can spare your child that handicap, why wouldn't you? I'm giving Burr the tools to be a bigger person."

Olivia noticed that Charlotte was leafing through a pamphlet titled "Fusiform Gyrus Targeted Lesioning: An Investment In Your Child's Future." Pippa had probably given it to her. For that matter, Pippa was probably quoting from it.

Olivia studied Charlotte's Botox-frozen face, framed by lank, unconvincingly highlighted hair. Poor old moose—no wonder she was tempted by the idea of a whole generation immune to age or beauty. Pippa had always been a natural zealot, but Charlotte's interest in FGTL must be personal, driven by the fantasy of a conveniently lesioned young football hunk taking her teenage self to prom. Pippa at least was pretty, in a ferrety sort of way, but everything that came out of her mouth made Olivia wonder whether there was targeted lesioning for the part of the brain that interpreted speech.

"Of course," Pippa was saying, dunking her completed sachet in the water, "I do also think it will make him a better candidate for Summersky Institute. They're very big on inclusivity. Emma's little girl Kendrick is there now, and Emma says they replaced Black History Month with Human History Month, so they could focus on really significant figures who are important for all the children. Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Joss Whedon, people like that."

"Mm." Olivia tapped precisely half of a stevia packet into her coffee. "It is important for children to have role models. I don't know how I feel about Summersky, though. It seems a little... relaxed."

Pippa frowned. "I think they're really committed to excellence! They believe so strongly that every child has equal potential—that's why they support FGTL. The pre-preschool parents' group got a message about it the other day. 'Summersky Institute is committed to serving all sufficiently advanced children, without influence of race or gender.'"

"That's just it. I'm not sure I want Falconer getting the idea that everyone is equal." Olivia took a measured sip of coffee, then reapplied her lipstick. "This is my problem with FGTL. The truth is, some people—you know what I mean—just aren't as qualified as others. Look, I'm not a racist. I voted for Mckesson. It's not about that. But the truth is, sometimes you can just tell whether a student is going to be 'sufficiently advanced.' If Summersky didn't go through the whole equality charade, they'd save themselves a lot of time, and they'd save the kids a lot of risk."

"Charade?" Pippa said, her teacup trembling in her bony hand. She had a tendency to feel everything very sincerely and loudly for as long as she cared about it, usually several weeks, and bristled at any indication that others' convictions were less pure.

"So, about the risks," interrupted Charlotte. She was squinting at a box on the back of the pamphlet that was crammed with fine spidery print. If you had a strong enough magnifying app on your Google contacts, you could just make out "talk with your pediatrician before committing to targeted lesioning."

"There are side effects, right?" Charlotte continued—with a bit of a whine in her voice, Olivia thought. "Don't some kids lose the ability to tell faces apart at all? I'd be pretty upset if Bandicoot couldn't tell the difference between me and the guy who services the jellyfish tank."

Pippa snorted. "You probably would have been one of those parents who thought autism was caused by vaccines instead of gluten."

"No, this is real," said Olivia. "There was a three-part BuzzFeed investigative longread about it. The whole reason FGTL works is that the fusiform gyrus lets you recognize faces. If the surgeon is tired, or the kid moves, or some parts of the brain are just a little bigger or smaller than they were supposed to be, they can wind up taking out more than they meant to. The kid can't process characteristics of faces, which is the goal, but they also can't process faces at all, which isn't. Didn't you wonder why Baby Gap started selling those ridiculous adult-size colorful hats? It's for parents to wear if their kids' lesioning goes wrong, so their children can recognize them."

Charlotte was making a face that, pre-Botox, would certainly have looked concerned. "Bandicoot has such a large head," she murmured.

"Not to mention the sex problems," said Olivia, dropping her voice a notch and enjoying Charlotte's fishlike gape of shock. Even Pippa looked startled. She was playing it up, she knew, but it was worth it. She hadn't liked Charlotte's judgy sideways glance when she'd said some people were better than others, and she'd had it about up to here with Pippa's touchy-feely nonsense, too. Sometimes she wondered why she spent time with these SJWs, but it was hard to find other mom friends in New York, especially when you were parthenogenetic and it was just you and the nanny holding down the fort.

"He's four," said Charlotte, scandalized.

"He is now," countered Olivia, "but FGTL is for life. Didn't you hear about the 13-year-old in Iowa, one of the flagship cases? Brought his girlfriend home to meet his parents and she turned out to be 48. He had no idea. Now she's in jail and he's in counseling. They're considering charging the parents too," she added. This wasn't true, but it seemed like a nice way to twist the knife. Charlotte and Pippa never kept up with the news anyway, so they wouldn't know any better.

"With what," said Pippa sulkily, but the Olivia's story had found its mark. She watched smugly as Charlotte put down the brochure and eyed it like a rat with H2N2. Pippa picked it up and looked at the fine print for a very long time.

"I have to do it now if I'm going to do it," she said. "They won't do the procedure after he turns five."

"So what?" Olivia said. "What do you lose? What does he lose? Besides the myth that this would be a just world if everyone looked the same."

"When I was a kid," Pippa said slowly, "my parents told me that everyone was equal, that the only thing that mattered was how hard you worked and how much education you had. And I believed that. I went to school and got my Master's of Project Management degree and met Brayden and got married, and I thought I'd earned all my happiness fair and square." She fiddled with her wedding ring, three large diamonds with the words "CONFLICT-FREE" etched into the band. Charlotte looked curious but wary. Her own husband had left her for a sexbot shortly after Bandicoot was born, Olivia recalled, and not even a good one.

"And then after the election all that nasty stuff started to surface," Pippa continued finally, "things I'd been ignoring all my life, things the activists on the news cascade were saying had never gone away, just gotten pushed down. After Twitter collapsed it was easier to ignore, they said, for politicians and... well, people like me. But the unfairness didn't change, or anyway it didn't go away, because there were hundreds of years of unfairness that affected how much opportunity people had. And I started to think, what if I only had the money and time to get multiple degrees because of what I look like, who my parents are, who their parents were?" She seemed genuinely overwrought, Olivia was startled to note—speaking haltingly, rubbing at her hands and wrists, very different from the strident enthusiast who surfaced when she wanted you to give up riboflavin or start eating a teaspoon of powdered slime mold every day.

"It's not just race, either—what if Brayden hadn't liked me because I wasn't feminine enough, or I was too old? What if I'd gotten turned down for fertility? That happens all the time to people who don't... deserve it. In their hearts."

She was quiet for a moment, holding her cooling tea. Charlotte was staring at her goggle-eyed, or maybe that was just what her eyes looked like naturally. Olivia shrugged. "Would all that have been any different if you'd had FGTL?"

"Of course it would," said Pippa. "I wouldn't have noticed any of it. It was really hard for me. And I want better for Burr."

Olivia took a long, slow pull of coffee. "Well," she said finally, "it's your choice, of course." Pippa nodded vaguely. Olivia could see her future: a night of wrestling with the memory of brief guilt she struggled to fully understand, a few months of fence-sitting, a last-minute conversion to the belief that FGTL causes childhood obesity or something else that would let her change her mind with a clear conscience. At very least, they wouldn't have to waste any more lunches on the subject.

Charlotte broke an awkward pause by gasping theatrically and saying, much too brightly, "oh my goodness, ladies, I'm late, I have to go. Pippa, are you heading to the H train? We can walk together."

Olivia nibbled a protein chip contemplatively as she watched them walk away. The truth was, she'd mainly been trying to goad them because Pippa had annoyed her, talking like an airheaded tumblrite about something as important as brain surgery. It didn't matter whether Pippa and Charlotte's larval little children were surgically drafted into their mothers' egalitarian fantasy world or just turned into shallow-thinking drones of their own accord. It didn't matter whether the woman currently clearing their debris off the table would be able to buy her children two years of private tutoring for the cost of an FGTL treatment, tutoring that might get them into a college she couldn't afford. This was how the world worked: you didn't get ahead by being unremarkable, or by being complacent.

She tucked her sheet of hair behind one ear—she always did this before calling someone, an embarrassingly outdated childhood habit—and brought up her bone-conductive phone app.

"Yes," she said into the air, "this is Olivia Newsmith, calling to confirm my son's targeted lesioning appointment. We're doing the full empathy-blocking treatment." She pulled up some notes on her contact lens. "Anterior insula, midcingulate cortex, supramarginal gyrus. That's right, Wednesday. All right, we'll see you then."

Charlotte and Pippa were nearsighted trumps. You didn't succeed in this world by ignoring people's idiosyncrasies, their personal struggles and societally-inflicted disadvantages. You succeeded by noticing, and then exploiting them because you didn't give a shit.

Some people were just better than others, and her son was going to be one of them.