Author: Chana Kohl

Chelsea Roberts walked up the hill to work, a hot cappuccino and bag of bakery-fresh rugelach in her hand. In a few, short minutes she’d savor the warmth of tender pastries in her mouth while browsing her morning feed. Her life was all about the simple pleasures.

Like storm clouds gathering, a crowd collected outside her office complex, their protest led by someone Chelsea instantly recognized. She watched as Styx N Stones, a popular podcast journalist, notorious conspiracist, and all-around provocateur, shouted over his live stream, “MegaCorp! Stop the Chip! Leave our brains alone!”

“Aw, hell” she whispered at yet another backlash from her employer’s bid to develop the first human-machine interface. Ever since news broke about the Microchip Pilot Study, her work had become the center of a PR nightmare.

Chelsea swung her long braids behind one shoulder and marched defiantly through the crowd, but Stones blocked her path.

“Are you the one responsible for jabbing people’s brains with poisonous metal?”

“I just run data,” Chelsea pivoted just in time for a security guard to escort her away from Stones and his minions.

Once inside her office, she dropped the bag of hardened crescents on her desk. Heartbeat racing, she messaged her boss.

Paul Wesley waited inside a sun-bright office, hands clasped behind his back, a clear view of the agitated crowd below. He turned around, his hair neatly cut but tousled, as if he’d just returned from sailing his Catalina.

“Sorry to bother you. I thought we should go over the latest numbers,” she hesitated, “given everything going on.”

“No bother, Chelsea. Relax. Have a seat.”

His facial lines, softened by fillers, remained motionless as Chelsea ran down the alarming number of adverse effects documented. Complaints ranged from the usual headaches, rash or nausea, to things clearly unexpected: hearing loss, disequilibrium, even claims of hormonal changes. A dubious number of positive side effects were reported as well.

“Although evidence suggests most of these are due to illusory pattern perceptions, I think we should halt the study to investigate.”

“We will investigate, but we’re not stopping the study. No one received a microchip. The only thing volunteers received was topical anesthesia and a cheap, plastic prosthetic.”

Chelsea’s almond eyes narrowed in confusion, “I…don’t understand.”

“We’re studying the placebo effect: the human brain’s capacity for self-fulfilling prophecy. The power of suggestion is the next big frontier in social enterprise.

“I want you to scour health-monitoring databases for volunteers who, miraculously, are faring better, and all those confirmed doing worse, then cross-reference for any bio-markers both groups share in common.”

“But what about Stones?”

“We pay him well—-along with all the other Astroturfers trolling the Internet—-to stir the pot.”

Chelsea felt a surge of queasiness, followed by a streak of cold, like after that questionable sashimi platter from SuSu Sushi-o.

“I can’t…this can’t be ethical. Doesn’t this violate informed consent?”

“Read the fine print again.

“No one is being harmed.” He reached for a manila envelope on his desk and handed it to her, “Look, I know you’ve been searching senior living options for your mom. Take some time to think about the big picture.”

After the protestors drifted away and only the scattered remnants of litter remained, Chelsea walked home. Beneath the cold veil of night, she contemplated life as a whistleblower. It wasn’t until she was back in her tiny apartment that she read the contents of the envelope.

Stock options.

Years later, whenever MegaCorp’s VP of Product Development taped a studio interview, she always requested cappuccino and fresh rugelach from her favorite bakery.

They never quite tasted the way she remembered.