Eight Hours To Go

Thorne hesitated. The clinic’s storefront consisted of a glass elevator that went only down. Below the earth, into the unknown. A sign on its door read in elegant silver script: “Rent a Brain Today, Genius Guaranteed.” Thorne could see straight through the waiting elevator to the barren forest beyond. A frigid breeze shuddered through the branches and whipped at his cheeks.

Cadence squeezed his hand. It felt cold and clammy, like his own. They’d driven two hours north of Manhattan to reach this famed destination for the wealthy and connected elite. To say they didn’t belong was ironic in its understatement. They were 22 years old, fresh out of Julliard—she, a budding opera singer, he, a jazz pianist—and poorer than the illegal immigrants who squatted in the apartment next door.

But their doomed prospects had changed since Thorne’s acceptance into the prestigious Arlington Hall Piano Competition, with its grand prize of $100,000 and the promise of international renown. Each pianist would have twenty minutes to improvise—live on stage—the most brilliant and original jazz piece possible, in the grand tradition of 1920s jazz legend Arlington Hall. A handpicked group of music industry power players was going to judge the winner. And then Thorne, in his recurring fantasy, would rise to thunderous applause, his fingers tingling with ecstatic energy, and accept the top prize. The life he dreamed of would fall into place like a perfect arpeggio—the diamond ring he’d soon be able to afford, the touring invitations, the record deal.

The only problem was his paralyzing fear: What if he froze? It had happened before—multiple times—in concerts far less consequential. For this one, there couldn’t even be any preparation. The contest, after all, was about showcasing creativity on the spot. The emcee was going to assign each player a time and key signature and a first measure. The rest would be up to them.

At home, alone with his trusty Yamaha keyboard, Thorne could compose with the daring, nuanced complexity that had earned him the honor of a finalist spot. Yet under any sort of public pressure, that boldness flattened to mediocrity. It was as if the creative part of his brain shut down. He couldn’t create anything worthy of playing. His inspiration vanished. His mind stuttered and his fingers betrayed him. He cringed just imaging the humiliation—at Carnegie Hall no less, in front of 2,800 people.

Cadence nudged his arm. “You ready, love? We can’t be late.”

Thorne nodded uneasily.

“You do want this, right?”

He glanced at the ground. “Yeah.”

“You better, considering how long it’s taken to save—”

“I know,” he said. “I just still kind of feel like it’s cheating.”

She scoffed, pushing a blonde curl out of her face. “No one will be able to tell. The implant is the size of a grain of rice.”

She pressed the “down” button on the elevator before he could reply.

“This decision is going to change our lives,” she said. “Just wait.”

Once they were underground, a perky receptionist led them to a private room that looked more like an executive suite than a doctor’s office. The walls were beveled chrome, and instead of a patient’s exam table draped in thin paper, Thorne sat on a supple leather massage chair. Cadence whistled as she plunked into an identical chair beside him. A mahogany coffee table showcased the clinic’s catalog in a laminated gold binder—the types of brains available for 24-hour rental. Thorne flipped through it while they waited for the micro-neurosurgeon. The brains were listed in descending order of price: Einstein’s was the most in demand, and thus the most expensive, at $10,000 for a day. Shakespeare’s was a close second ($9,500), followed by Leonardo da Vinci’s ($8,750) and Aristotle’s ($8,000). There were dozens of geniuses available in every field throughout history, from philosophy and science to art, music, and literature.

The procedure straddled the cutting-edge of biotechnology, according to the glossy marketing brochure. Using DNA sequenced from a specimen of the genius, the innovative researchers at Rent a Brain had created a miniscule bionic interface that, when implanted at the base of your skull, re-wired your neuronal processing circuits in the image of the original brain. So you retained your own memories and identity, but you could temporarily experience the world as that genius. After 24 hours, the carbon nanotube implant would dissolve on its own and your brain would revert to its natural state without any lasting effects. The method was safe, patented, and guaranteed to work—just like the slogan promised.

The transformation struck him without warning, like a blow to the head.

Thorne had already picked out his genius months ago: the famously dazzling and fiery Arlington Hall, of course. Cadence liked to joke that it was a no-brainer.

Thorne didn’t want to show her now that he was nervous. He couldn’t afford to back out or they would lose the $3,000 deposit.

But most importantly, the competition was tonight.

Without the literal guarantee of genius, who knew how badly he might freeze up?

No one will be able to tell, he reminded himself. It would be their little secret. Once he was rich and famous, he could have the luxury of guilt. Anyway, he knew he deserved to win. This was just going to ensure it.

There was a knock on the door. An alarmingly young man in a white coat entered. He couldn’t have been older than 26. He offered Thorne a toothy grin and an extra-firm handshake. The embroidery on his lapel read: Dax Weber, M.D.

“Are you the—micro-neurosurgeon?” Thorne asked in dismay. Cadence shot him an admonishing look.

“At your service,” the kid-doctor said. “Don’t worry, you want someone young. The older guys can’t hang … their hands are too shaky to do microsurgery.”

He held up both hands at eye level, and Thorne saw that they were perfectly still. He felt mildly reassured. The doctor turned his back to lift a needle from a tray on the counter. “So, Arlington Hall, huh? He’s a popular pick. More fun, I hear, than some of our other composers.”

“Oh yeah?” Thorne mumbled. His own hands were sweating. The back of his neck was hot and flush. He wondered if he might faint—and then the thought of fainting brought on a wave of dizziness. Cadence stroked his arm as the doctor made small talk.

“A lot of people go for Beethoven but then want a refund when they see how manic he was.” He smirked. “Maybe some brains should come with a warning. But don’t worry—Hall’s a great choice.”

Thorne managed a smile, eyeing the needle in his grip. It was at least three inches long.

“So first I’m going to insert a local anesthetic. You’ll just feel a tiny pinch. Then I’m going to made a small incision and insert the interface”—he held up a tiny black bead smaller than his pinky nail—“stitch it up, and you’ll be good to go. Any questions?”

“Are you sure no one will see it?”

“Positive. Your hair will cover the incision. Ready?”

Thorne nodded, thankful for the first time for his thick unruly locks. The doctor approached him brandishing the needle. Thorne grit his teeth at the sting, but numbness quickly set in. Five minutes later, the whole thing was over.

“You’re a new man!” Cadence cried. “Do you feel anything?”

Thorne opened his eyes. He hadn’t realized he was squeezing them shut. His head was gently throbbing. But he felt no different yet.

The doctor winked.  “It takes about twenty minutes to take effect.”

“Great,” he said weakly. Twenty minutes was exactly how long he had tonight to make or break his career.

Seven Hours To Go

The transformation struck him without warning, like a blow to the head. A pleasant warmth expanded throughout his skull and then, in the same instant, he noticed a definite internal shift. It was like ten cups of coffee zapping his brain, arousing him to his surroundings in a way he had never experienced. Though he was typically oblivious, he now felt a sense of thrilling presence as he and Cadence walked to their rental car in the clinic’s parking lot.

Strange perceptions bombarded him. The leaves crunching under their feet—step, step, crunch—suddenly reminded him of a drum beat. The hiss of the wind, which before he’d barely registered, now evoked a high-pitched flute. A playful melody emerged in his mind as if without his permission, set to the rhythm of his stride.

“You okay?” Cadence asked, watching him. “Your fingers are twitching.”

“Hmm?” He looked down absent-mindedly at his hands, as the swelling orchestra in his head broke off. His fingers were playing a syncopated imaginary top line against his leg. He balled them into fists and stared at her.

“I wasn’t doing anything.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Yes, you were.”

“I didn’t mean to.”

A slow smile spread across her face, and Thorne realized how beautiful she looked under the dappled light of the dying trees. He wasn’t particularly sentimental—he shied away from displays of affection—but all at once had the urge to take her, right then and there. She was reaching for the car door when he grabbed her wrist and wrapped his arms around her, pressing his mouth hard on hers.

“Thorne!” she exclaimed, laughing through the kiss. “We have to get back so you can get ready—”

He silenced her with his lips.

This time, she didn’t protest.

40 Minutes To Go

Thorne had never felt less nervous before a concert. He was scheduled to perform last out of three finalists. As he waited backstage in his dapper black tux, he watched the green room’s flat screen, which was broadcasting the competition on primetime. The sound was off—no contestant was allowed to hear any other, for fairness’s sake—but he was able to watch his first competitor and the audience’s reaction in real time.

She was Reza Andrews, a well-known rising star in the jazz world, a fellow Juilliard alum whose arrogance was matched only by her indulgence of it. The camera zoomed in on her long French-manicured fingers, which were flying over the ivories as if she couldn’t channel her virtuoso capabilities fast enough. Her sleek black braid swayed as she practically levitated off the piano bench, vibrating with the frantic blur of her hands.

Thorne yearned to hear the music she was creating, to judge its merit against the last four hours of earth-shattering practice he had just wrapped up at home. There was no question he was at the top of his powers. (If they could be properly called his.) Never had he felt more creative, more bursting with ideas for chord progressions, bass lines, key changes, melodies. How could Arlington Hall have sustained this level of genius every day of his life? No wonder he’d had a reputation for intensity. The world as Thorne knew it now seemed intractably dull, and he dreaded the moment that the implant would dissolve. The back of his neck itched slightly and he reached up to scratch it, wondering if it was possible to become addicted to another person’s brain. In a way, this was the most intimate experience he’d ever had, even though it was with a guy who was long dead.

There was no time to ask questions. Thorne was up next.

On the screen, Reza finished with an annoying dramatic flourish, and the audience immediately jumped to its feet. Even from his distance backstage, the roars of the crowd penetrated his private green room. Yet he wasn’t worried. Let them lap her up, he thought, feeling generous. In the front row, he saw Cadence standing and clapping obligingly. He couldn’t wait to kiss her later, after he was declared the victor.

The second finalist was a new hot shot on the jazz circuit, Asa Hudson. He was only 18, but he’d already garnered notice from the mainstream media. A natural talent, he’d never been formally trained—a point of controversy in the snobby jazz world. Winning the competition would forever shut up the critics who called him a poser. Asa took the stage with a little wave, his chubby face flush with anticipation. Thorne felt a stab of pity. He was going to eviscerate the poor kid.

The twenty minutes of his performance passed quickly. Even though he couldn’t hear it, Thorne found himself riveted to the screen. Asa appeared to launch into his improv with the confidence of someone much more seasoned. He closed his eyes as he played, yet never stumbled or even slowed. He pounded the piano in three definitive final chords and then turned to the audience with a giant grin.

But when the camera panned to their faces, Thorne gasped. They actually looked angry.  Some people were even booing. It made no sense. Asa Hudson froze, glancing wildly back and forth. He seemed just as confused as Thorne felt. The rattled emcee ushered the kid off-stage, waving his arms for the audience to quiet down.

There was no time to ask questions. Thorne was up next.

A clap of anxiety burst inside him.

You got this, he thought. Focus.

Someone knocked on his door. An usher, probably. It was time.

But when he opened it, Cadence was standing there, terrified and breathless. Her mouth was twisted into a grimace, and she kept rubbing her chest as if to dispel its tightness. She snuck a glance over her shoulder, then slipped into his room and quickly closed the door.

“What the hell?“ He reached past her for the knob. “I’m about to go on—”

She looked him straight in the eye. “You can’t.”

He wanted to shake her. “Cadence, I—”

“The audience senses there’s been a scam.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The other finalists sounded freakishly similar to Hall.”

Thorne started to pace. Sweat pooled under his armpits. “I don’t understand …”

But he did. With the clarity of Hall’s brain, he couldn’t help catching on.

“I saw that kid scratch his neck,” she whispered. “Right before he started playing.”

Thorne stared at her in horror.

“And that bitch Reza, did you notice when she was swaying, her braid moved?”

“No,” he said.

“I saw a spot of redness. A fresh stitch.”

“Jesus Christ.”

She pressed her fingertips to her temples. “They rented him too! They have his brain so they’re playing too close to his style. I mean, no one else has ever been able to improvise quite like Arlington Hall, am I right?”

Thorne barely nodded.

Cadence spun on her heel, ticking points off her hand. “His quartile harmonies, his sidestepping dissonance, his hard swinging bebop—it’s freaking legend. But Reza and that kid, they both pulled it off. And now no one’s buying it.”

“We’re all cheaters,” he moaned. “We all deserve to lose.”

“It’s my fault.” She buried her face in her hands. “I pushed you into this, but you never needed the genius, only the confidence. You’re good enough to win on your own!”

There was another knock on the door. “Thorne?” called an usher. “You’re on in sixty seconds.”

He balked at Cadence, his face whiter than ivory. It would be a miracle if he didn’t faint.

“Be right out,” he shouted. He looked back at her in panic.

“I’ll never have this chance again. I can’t just back out now!”

She hesitated. “Then go out there and try to come up with something that’s yours.”

“But how?”

There was no time to answer because the usher was calling again, this time urgently: “Thorne? You’re on.”

Cadence attempted a smile that looked like a wince. “Go,” she whispered. “You’ll figure something out.”

A fog of dread carried him through the door.

Show Time

The disgruntled audience was in no mood to welcome him. Thousands of narrowed eyes sized him up as he stumbled onto the stage and took a quick bow. The emcee introduced him with enthusiasm bordering on desperation, trying too obviously to pretend that nothing was amiss. The show must go on, Thorne thought. And so it would.

He sat at the piano as the emcee reeled off his challenge: E flat major, 9/8 time signature. A recording boomed through speakers overhead, playing the first measure of a piece he would have to complete. The jazzy notes sounded spunky, almost coy, like the start of a game of hide and seek.

Then, silence. The crowd waited. Twenty minutes started ticking down. He tensed. Think. What would I play?

His mind instantly fed him a melody line that he recognized as a variation of one of Hall’s old masterpieces. Every element of Hall’s unique sensibility was there—the swinging rhythm, the harmonic palette, the dissonance. He strained past it, trying wildly to come up with something different. Something, anything else.

Someone started to boo. He hadn’t yet played one note.

He closed his eyes and let his hands crash onto the piano. Out of sheer retaliation, he started to play the chords of Beethoven’s 5th, but with a syncopated upbeat tempo.

More boos hurled at him. “Real original!” some jerk shouted.

Every single person was gazing at him, reveling in their scandalized disgust.

And then, like a schizophrenic, his hands somehow transitioned from the Beethoven—ingeniously, he had to admit—back to the first melody line he’d heard in his brain: the classic, unmistakable Hall. It fit perfectly with the E flat major, 9/8 time challenge. It was too damn good not to play. So he let his hands play.

An indulgent minute went by, and he was really getting into it now, giving himself over to the master in control at the base of his brain. But the boos were growing, too. Others were joining in. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a couple people standing in the front row, cupping their mouths.

Who was he kidding? He wasn’t going to win like this. He wasn’t even going to get through the piece.

In the middle of a measure, he jumped to his feet and turned to the hostile crowd. Their boos ceased. Hundreds of surprised faces stared up at him, the whites of their eyes glistening in the darkness.

“You’re right, okay?” he yelled. “We all ripped off Hall!”

Then he reached up behind his neck and dug his nails into his skin. Almost wanting the pain, he ripped open the stitch and scraped at his raw flesh until he felt the smooth edge of the implant bead. It was pulsing in tandem with his racing heartbeat. He plucked it out and flung it on the stage. Blood dripped from his fingers, staining the white cuff of his sleeve.

He had never commanded an audience like this. Every single person was gazing at him, reveling in their scandalized disgust. For a moment, no one peeped.

Right away he felt the muscles in his head contract and his consciousness shrivel. His connection to Hall vanished, along with his effortless flow of musical ideas, like the rapid ebb of a powerful tide.

The only grain that remained was the certainty that he needed to get the hell offstage. All pretense gone, with blood dripping down his neck, he ran. That was when the roars started.

Cadence met him stage left, motioning for him to hurry, and dragged him toward an emergency exit backstage. It was clear she had already scouted their escape and he loved her for it.

“It’s over,” he said, as soon as they tumbled outside into the cold. “It was over before it began.”

 “I know.” She leaned her head on his shoulder and he wrapped an arm around her waist. They walked in silence all the way home.

One Year Later

Thorne was about to start packing up his keyboard. It was past rush hour on the subway platform in midtown, so his core audience of commuters was thinning out. He had thirty minutes to drop off his keyboard and get downtown before his bartending shift at The Blue Note, where he worked five nights a week.

He didn’t resent his job. Every night was a free show, and every performance, an education. He studied with the diligence of a protégé, without a mentor to care. If he’d learned anything from his spectacular failure, it was to follow his own creative passions without restraint. It was easy now, there was nothing at stake.  After logging hundreds of thankless hours on the subway platforms, he’d hardened to tough crowds and his stage fright had faded. He even learned to find inspiration in the motley subway throngs—the constant, fiery rush of underground travelers stimulated his mind. By now, he could play anywhere and for any audience. Not that it mattered at all. He was nothing in the jazz world now. After the scandal, he’d exploded like a rocket, with fiery mentions strewn all over the media, until he finally burned into oblivion. Occasionally, though, someone recognized him, which was why he wasn’t too surprised to notice a man on the platform watching him now.

When they locked eyes, the man walked closer. He was an older guy, slightly scruffy, rocking a leather jacket and washed-out jeans—casual, except for his unwavering focus on Thorne.

“This is a joke, right?” The man raised his eyebrows. “You, playing here?”

Thorne reddened. Any fool was allowed to play in the subway, even a reformed cheater like him. Was he really never going to live it down?

“Sorry, no.” He started to lift his keyboard off its stand.

The man kept looking at him, a strange grin playing at his lips.

“One doesn’t have to be a genius to recognize a musician of your caliber.”

There was a slight emphasis on the word genius that told Thorne this man knew exactly who he was—but he wasn’t holding it against him.

“Oh.” Thorne smiled. “Thanks.”

“You signed?”

“Nah, indie. I have about 50,000 subscribers on YouTube, though.” He didn’t add that most of his fans had discovered him after the scandal, but so what? Followers were followers.

The man nodded approvingly. “Ever heard of neuro-streaming?”

“Sure.” Thorne knew that some hardcore music fans were opting to get a new brain chip implanted that could stream sound waves directly into their auditory cortexes. A handful of dedicated channels had sprung up in recent months to serve the burgeoning market.

“I run a premium startup channel for live jazz. We broadcast from a studio around the corner.” The man pointed his thumb toward the 42nd Street exit. “I’ve actually been trying to recruit new talent for our weekday morning slot.”

He handed over a card from his jacket as a train pulled into the station.

“Gotta run,” he said, “but why don’t you give me a call? We should talk.”

He flashed Thorne a smile full of promise before jogging away.

Thorne watched him disappear onto the train before looking down at the card. Its fancy raised letters read: Cooper Gordon, Producer, NeuroJazz Studios, 321 West 42nd Street, New York, NY 10036. A phone number followed.

He didn’t know how long he stared at it. He had to go, otherwise he’d be late for the bar, but suddenly his fingers found their way to the keys as he started to improvise one last piece. An encore.

His hands darted up and down in a game of his own invention, catching up to each other, then crossing over with glee, skipping, hopping, flying to their next destination. He forgot the ticking clock. He forgot he was in a dank, dreary subway station. Its high ceilings and open acoustics welcomed every joyful note.

If he tilted his head and closed his eyes, it sounded almost like a concert hall.

Kira Peikoff, a journalist and novelist based in New York, has written for The New York Times, Slate, Salon, and other publications. She is the author of the thrillers Living Proof and No Time To Die. @KiraPeikoff