The Trouble with Speed

He wished he could stop reading. But it was too late. He had blown his cortex like a fuse, losing the ability to imagine, to plan, or even to eat with a fork and a knife. Forget dreaming at night, Xavier hadn’t been able to form his own coherent thought—only those of others.

Now, with his inner voice gone, Xavier lay on his back, in a puddle of piss, besides a broken monitor and a cracked plastic helmet: the Subvocalizer.


Xavier Booker’s troubles began when he quit his other projects. Previously he had been tutoring elementary students, introducing them to everything from Lewis Carrol to James Joyce. But when the offer came to earn enough money to pay a year’s worth of rent in three months, the freelancer did not refuse. On his 33rd birthday, he signed the confidentiality agreement with the number one subvocalization company in the world. Work would begin shortly.

On the express overnight bus across the country, back to his city, Xavier fantasized about the future. Soon he could start things over with his ex, afford a Bot, maybe write a novel, get married. Of course, after he finished his contract. Maybe they would have him for a consecutive assignment, although the company explicitly prohibits half-year or full-year contracts. They told him he was the first programmer of his kind, with a graduate degree in Literature. What they failed to reveal was that hiring Xavier was an inside test: what happens when someone like him gets into their machine? A professional reader, east coast educated with honors, ten years’ experience analyzing stories, and an IQ of 151. It was the final stage of internal research before releasing their device to the general public. “Behemoth Set to Disrupt Entertainment Industry,” read one insider headline. “Everyman a Director,” read another.

The minute Xavier got back to his apartment; he emailed his tutoring clients one by one—with a smirk on his face—saying he would no longer deliver classes. “I’m focusing on other projects,” he wrote. Xavier didn’t feel the need to explain himself. Except to one family: The Davis’s, and their seven-year-old daughter, Little Lindsey. For her, he would call.

“Come over for dinner,” said the mother. “Let us thank you, at least.”

One driverless taxi ride later, and he was at their uptown apartment on the 80th floor, ringing the doorbell.

“Welcome, Xavier,” said the Bot, in its factory default voice. “We have been expecting you. May I take your—”

Xavier handed it the pinstripe jacket he had bought that afternoon, before handing his student’s mother a bottle of red. “For you, Charlotte.”

“You are so traditional,” she said, pecking his cheek and leading him by the hand to the kitchen, through the living room. If only she knew what that hand had done, imagining her. If only her husband weren’t in the Army.

“Good evening, sir,” said Xavier, breaking from the mother’s hold to extend the same hand to the father. “I hope you—”

“Why are you quitting us, son?” His voice was as stern as usual, but accompanied by a glint of sorrow, while behind him shone a wall of medals and ribbons. “That company’s a cult, you know?”

“I didn’t think I am young enough to be your son, sir. As for cult, you shouldn’t believe everything you—”

“I know all about Behemoth.” The Colonel sighed, mentioning the lawsuits against them. But Xavier was distracted. As the mother left to turn off the old timey gas stove, thoughts of regret gripped the ex-tutor. Mostly the comment on being a son, remembering the war hero had lost two boys in Taiwan. Before Xavier could apologize, the Colonel put a hand on his shoulder. “Do what you must,” said the Colonel. “But we could use you here.” He showed Xavier to the living room’s love seat and poured him a double whiskey, no ice. “Our daughter would have failed kindergarten a second time if it weren’t for you. Forget her skipping the first grade the following year. Now that she is back on track, with girls her age, I. . . .” The Colonel handed the tumbler to Xavier, then wiped away a tear. “Well, thank you. Cheers.”

Xavier’s throat burned from the drink almost as much as the pit of his stomach with regret. But no, no. This is for the best. Any second now, he knew, out from her bedroom, the officer’s only remaining child, Little Lindsey, would run to greet him.


“Read Faster.” That had been Behemoth’s first slogan. Building off early 21st century technology, their Subvocalizer 1.0 ran words, one after the other, before your eyes. That tech had been around for decades, obscure enough, like the most innovations, before a group of over-medicated Valley dwellers figured out the clutch: to isolate the user, using headgear. Only then did readers experience the exponential rate of their reading shoot from 200 words a minute to 400, even 800 if exercised in short bursts.

When the 2.0 came out, millions of dollars were funneled from major Publishing Companies, in order to acquire the license to outfit their books for the Subvocalizer, also to correct its structural defects. The second device promised to eliminate the “waste” of reading by having word-data fed directly to you, at neuron-speed. It was the revolution that print had been waiting for, like the move from analog to digital, digital to holographic, holographic to endogenous music over the last dozen years. Now visual words could be encoded as a subvocal voice inside your head, even running at 1,600 words a minute on some human test subjects, usually those of exceptionally high IQ.

Now, the company Behemoth promised a version 3.0. This announcement alone took them from being a Unicorn Brand—a privately-funded, billion-dollar business—into a Hectocorn Brand: the same thing, but a hundred times over. And this is when Xavier came in, as a contracted tester for their latest product, the 3.0, which had cracked the nervous communication systems that went from visual to audio, at least in the lab.


The Subvocalizer arrived a week after signing the paperwork. Xavier knew the delivery man had arrived, when he heard the screeching halt of an armored vehicle. Neighbors were honking their horn, bullying the driver, and making fun of his stuck-up face, causing Xavier to look out his window and see, in addition to all of this, two rent-a-cops with heavy pistols step inside his building.

The Subvocalizer’s hardware comprised of a Helmet and a Tome. The Helmet, modeled after a helicopter pilot’s, was the wearable half. The Tome, the shape of a rectangular box and the weight of three textbooks, was the operating half. It had the potential to replace all libraries, all cinema, all VR. All in all, the kit occupied half the space of a cheap Ikea desk. Xavier shivered just thinking about its potential, as he unboxed everything.

Unfortunately, because his job required robust troubleshooting, he had received the glamourless prototype version of both devices, not the stylish tech-convention model. A letdown, but still, he was eagerly trembling as he plugged the device to his personal laptop, to code from there. Outside his apartment, meanwhile, Xavier noticed the armored vehicle was parked there an extra hour, probably bugging his place, as he had read on a forum from other test subjects anonymously breaching their contracts to leak details. When he was done setting up, the company’s internal motto rang in his head: “Make it painless, make it addicting.”

Xavier had his own internal motto, too, something he didn’t bother to tell the company: “Amphetamines. Amphetamines. Amphetamines.” They wanted him to do as many as possible? Away he would go.

The Tome connected to the fiber outlet in the wall, and he fired up his OLED screen, and put on the Helmet, buckled it tight. Pitch dark in there, except for the light that came from the dimly lit menu screen inside. This wasn’t where he would receive the book data, since data entered between the two electrodes, a positive one and a negative one, sending transcranial waves directly into the sensory regions of his brain. Whether his eyes were opened or closed was the difference between an open or closed fridge—the cooling system runs either way, while the light is just for the user.

Xavier got cozy, feeding himself one story, then another, then another, visualizing the sample text as vividly as you would a five-sense VR experience.


Four weeks in, and things got even more interesting. Especially when Xavier saw his first direct payment come in. It was a powerful feeling to see his bank account increase from four digits to six. He opened a savings account. Drank a beer and let the bubbles tickle the back of his throat. It will be good to never worry about money again.

Experiencing so many stories first-hand, Xavier stumbled upon a revelation: reading bad prose was like walking into a dark room and discovering that the lights in there turned on dimly. Worse, being forced to finish a bad story was like having to study for a difficult exam in that same dimly lit room. Your eyes hurt. Your brain struggles to remember. And everything feels like a chore. Thank God for the pills. A relief to take off the helmet after an hour of work and . . . not remember anything about what he had accomplished that day, like working a job you hate, the stories got . . . odd?

Suddenly he forgot what he was thinking about. Oh yes.

Xavier, and the world, knew how lifeless insipid stories were. Yet, it was another thing to experience them first-hand. After an exquisitely bad bout of tales without inspiration, Xavier started to hope the Subvocalizer would force writers to be much more articulate, much more precise, much more . . . better? In their writing. Xavier rubbed the shallow wrinkles on his forehead, as he stumbled his way to the kitchen, sensing a glowing-opal dizziness inside his chest—kindness?—for bad writers out there, lost in a gust of sandy air. A crashing wave. Say, this device can serve as the feedback system for people out of tune with the effect that their own words has on readers, ill or otherwise.

Pride filled Xavier as he reached his conclusion, and his kitchen. Or was it hunger?

Why had he gone in there? He touched his stomach, scratched the happy trail that went down into his shorts. But couldn’t remember. Or, was he thirst? Why else be in there . . .

. . . no way he got delivery two days ago, noticing the trash pile by the door it looked about four or five days tall. But what if had he just—

All upon him now was a clamorous headache, pounding the back of Xavier’s head, where the electrodes went in. Then came an ache in his pants. He put his hand back to the happy trail under his belly button, maneuvered south. He vaguely remembered the shadow of a feeling called guilt. But why? He was a grown man, in his own apartment, no one could break in. And then his past life flashed before his eyes. It was darkly lit, though, like bad writing, his thoughts undigested, unprocessed—how horrible to think in bad writing, like Xavier was doing. His present tense: a first draft. Leaned against a dirty wall. But unstrapping the cherry lace which held up her satin dress. Small breasts and round butt. The mother of an old student of his, who used to bring him lemonade, feed him. Xavier’s cool lips wetting his fingers, as he descended into a memory, groping for the climactic articulation, as does an author, of its conclusion.

But his own inner voice and inner imagery had already started given out. All those texts, stories and novels feeding directly into his imagination corroded his mind like using a jewelry wire to jump a car, or an 18-wheeler.


If Xavier had read less Literary Fiction and more Science Fiction, then maybe he would have seen it coming. Instead of falling down this rabbit hole.

By the end of month two, Xavier had lost all sense of time and money. He did not even open his bank account. He retained a glimmer of trust in himself and in what he was doing, but besides that he could not remember if he liked to sleep on his back or on his side, let alone when food came, or anything else. Worse, he hated being outside the machine. He could not stand walking around his dwelling without knowing what things meant, without knowing why, without an authoritative narrator. Only his gut and organs guided him loudly enough. Otherwise regret and guilt and shame and disgust were dead in him, any line that divided those feelings washed away with the high tide of drugs and electronic subvocalization.

Lucky for the lonely Xavier, he had scattered sticky notes around the house, with instructions on how to walk along the hall or how to open door. As for work, he had the Behemoth managers writing to him.

“You’re doing great,” one sent, in an email full of smiley faces. “Keep it up!”

Xavier was on a roll, the last of its kind, crunching the last of his thoughts like the kernels at the bottom of a popcorn bowl. Licking the hard metallic spoon of his tasks. Or, if not, Xavier sat at his desk, before a blank laptop screen, drooling.

He might have pounded a whole bottle of amphetamines too, if it weren’t for the clear instructions written on the side. One an hour. No more than 5 a day. But what time was it? What was a day?

With a pencil in his hand, writing himself one final note: I am Xavier. Never give up. Ten syllables, six words, twenty letters. Not a one belonged to Xavier. The only thing that would have been his, were he to speak, would be the voice with which he gave life to those words. But nothing belonged to him. He put his eyes to those words and heard, glistening in the distance of his retreating imagination, the sound of another man reading those words and letters.

Xavier fell from his chair, convulsing in a speechless, thoughtless seizure. A pile of goo. For a moment he could taste the foamy spittle expulsing from his mouth; smell the putrid stench of amber piss soaking his jeans; feel happy, even grateful for this moment where he knew he felt his own sensations. Or had he dreamed this dream before, of dying at his desk? The question pained him more than the crack of the helmet falling on the floor with him in it, the experiment failing.

His door bursting open.

An ambulance firing its horn . . .

They had bugged his place, after all.


The patient woke up in a hospital bed, doused in incandescent lights, and the face of an angel over him.

“Mom?” asked Xavier, raising his hand at the face and its halo.

There was laughter, bringing focus. “Not quite,” said his ex-student’s mother, Charlotte, chuckling to herself, while her hand rest on Xavier’s face. “Although you did put us as your emergency contact.”

“Is he up?” asked the Colonel, holding in his hand the pinstripe jacket Xavier had forgotten at their apartment months prior. “Well, son, how do you feel?”

Xavier wanted to reply, but got choked up instead. The tears in his eyes and the snot in his throat were too much, though not what held him from back from talking. Rather it was the thoughts running through his head. All the thoughts. Beautiful, painful, his.

“Hello, sir,” he said, weakly reaching out to shake the Colonel’s hand.

“Please, Xavier,” said the man, “Call me Charlie.”

“What about me!” It was Little Lindsey, radiant as ever, tan, nimble, happy to see her ex-tutor alive. As she was curling the hospital sheets in her hands, nervous despite herself, as she turned her big clear eyes towards Xavier and said, “I’m on the honor roll.”

Xavier smiled. “See, you didn’t need me.”

She said, “But that doesn’t mean you had to go and die on us!”

The words made Xavier notice the parent’s reaction. What could their faces mean? Anything, anything he wanted. But he didn’t want to guess, or have it dictated. They were having thoughts of their own. And if Xavier wanted in on their mind, he would have to hold a conversation. “Die?” he asked. “What happened?”

Charlotte, the mother, got red in the face. “Yes, dear, medically dead. His brain stem, right? Honey, you were essentially a vegetable with a heartbeat. Doctors said it was impossible—”

“You called him a carrot!” shouted Little Lindsey. “A carrot!”

The mother blushed. “Anyway, there’s a class-action lawsuit going on. Maybe you could—”

“Let the man rest,” said Charlie, the father, having read the drug result file and knowing just how liable the company was or wasn’t. Meanwhile he ruffled his daughter’s hair and continued: “The resurrection was her idea,” he said. “She suggested that they put your body under the Subvocalizer again.” He frowned, pondering something quietly in his head, until speaking again: “I told them, Over My Dead Body. That thing had done enough damage. But when Little Lindsey told us about your favorite book, we thought, What do we have to lose?”

“What book?” asked Xavier, still finding it hard to think for too long, like standing on an ankle that had recently healed from a bad sprain.

“Worked like a charm, too. A miraculous reset, the doctors said.” The Colonel furrowed his bottom lip. “The book? Finnegans Wake. Did I say that correctly?” He looked to his daughter for confirmation.

“Yes, dad,” she said, winking at Xavier. “The crazy book, remember?”


Photography Credit: Jason Rice (above)author photograph provided by the writer.

Iván Brave lives in his hometown of Houston, Texas. He has two novels published, as well as work printed in Tilted House, Latino Book Review, and online in various journals. His latest novel, Awake & Asleep, garnered him a generous artist grant from the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance (2023). Learn more at