When I become you, we can’t be

I paced around my flat. Jason was late. To be fair, I’d told him any time after eight, but  leaving me in the dark until ten was absurd. He knew I’d been waiting for years for this moment. Phone off too. He’d probably shrug it off, as usual; ‘You know me too well for it to be rude!’

[[Note: this is a short story, written as a recent assignment. It was an attempt at executing a trick of narrative structure, dressed up in the guise of a neuroscience romance story. Enjoy, and any feedback is welcome!]]

A few more seconds ticked into oblivion as I strode to the living room. A lamp in the corner gave the room a muted orange cast, but my eye was drawn to the three black sentinels along the wall. Each of the LCD screens running from my processor hub sat idle and dark, their slowly pulsing standby lights glowering at me in perfect time.

Skirting the precisely arranged experiment table, I sat before the LCDs and began idly spinning on my chair. A brush of my fingertips, three almost imperceptible clicks and the monitor array flashed to life. It was exactly how I’d left it. The brain scanning software was prominent on the central screen, with the peripheral monitors ready to display and record the live scanner feeds. I flicked open my social aggregator: three uninteresting new notifications, but nothing from Jason.

A jarring buzz from the doorbell had me on my feet and halfway across the room before conscious thought kicked in and I checked myself. Taking a deep breath, I flicked my fingers across my hair to check it was in place, then started remonstrating with myself for being so vain.

The thudding of my heart was suddenly louder than usual. A shiver of trepidation crawled up my spine. Why did it have to be Jason? He was the most obvious and qualified subject, but could also the most dangerous to experiment with. I cursed my weakness, my incessant self-doubt and the enormous complexity of the grey matter in my head. Neuroscience? I should have become a physicist. At least string theory only metaphorically messes with your head.

Jason. The door. He’d been outside long enough to think that I wasn’t just hovering aimlessly, waiting. In fact…

“Come in, it’s open!” I called, and flopped down on the single sofa. By the time the door had clicked open and shut and Jason’s footfalls arrived in the room, I was the image of nonchalance. I looked up from the hastily-selected paperback in my lap and frowned severely.

“I know, I know, I’m sorry, Lucy. You know, it’s…”

“… not rude because we know each other too well. Yeah, right. Tonight! Sometimes I wonder why I keep you as a friend.”

“It’s because I –  hey, are you reading upside-down?”

“No. Um.” I put the book down hastily. “We’re behind already, let’s get started. Sit down. Over there.”

Jason shrugged and flashed an amused, yet slightly apologetic, look at me as we moved to the experiment table. A flat touchscreen dominated the centre of the surface, a visualisation twirling across it. I sat andshuffled the plain, firm chair forward, swinging the metal arm holding the headgear to one side so we could speak directly across the table. Jason mirrored the movement, handling the equipment with the ease of familiarity.

“You’re in a bit of a hurry. Shouldn’t we just chill out and let our brains wind down for a bit?” he queried.

“I think it’ll be ok. I’ve scheduled a ten minute relaxation sequence before the synchronisation exercise. We just need to make sure we stay awake through it.”
The colour of the flatscreen’s visualisation wove a blue glow over Jason’s features as he grinned. I’d been bouncing off the walls all day at work, triple checking the software codes and running unnecessary simulations. I’d even skipped out on our traditional afternoon coffee break. The suggestion that I’d fall asleep now was absurd. I allowed myself a quick smile and rested my hand on the touchscreen, dismissing the visualisation.

“So, what are you going to say in your Nobel acceptance speech?”

The question hung awkwardly in the air. Now, with the control panel for the thought-sharing apparatus filling my vision, I couldn’t bring myself to come up with a witty answer. Jason’s forced smile twisted into a nervous grimace. Philosophers had grappled with the nature of consciousness for millennia, but we were about to make history by melding two individual thought patterns into a single, shared mesh.

My mind flashed back to the rejection from the College ethics board. Self-experimentation was the only recourse; my work was too important to be constrained by red tape. The suggestion of using animal models was downright ridiculous. How could we ever know if we’d achieved simultaneous thought experience if we were relying on mice?

“Relax.” A hand slid onto my involuntarily clenched fist. “This is going to work. It’ll be exactly like we planned.”

The plan. It was a start. If it worked, we could put in more controls and blinds and publish it ourselves. The thought-shaping apparatus was my unique design, after all. It was capable of both reading the magnetic and electronic impulses in the brain, and feeding signals back in. By creating favoured pathways of synaptic expression, it could shape the concious thoughts of the user.

I hadn’t anticipated the backlash after the story broke in the media for the first time. Our successful human demonstrations were suddenly part of a sinister mind control plot; the public pressure undoubtedly affected the board’s decision to suspend our future experimental schedule. It was ridiculous! A simple, distinct change in the user’s thought pattern would disable the machine-brain link and conciousness would snap back into their sole posession with no harm done.

I forced myself to relax my hand. Jason’s touch lingered for a moment, then he sat back. His eyes, dark in the dim light but glinting with the reflection of the screen’s patterns, sought mine. Despite his outward calm, I saw fleeting hints of excitement, anticipation and concern in his gaze.

“Thanks. You’re right. And if it doesn’t work, well…” My stomach twisted a little at the thought.

There was no reason to think the experiment would fail. We’d spent days linked to the machine, calibrating increasingly complex thought expression patterns: shapes, colours, responses to music, responses to temporal change. We’d rehearsed the sharing scenario on individual machines. The output from our latest experiment had set my skin tingling; a 3D output video showing our concurrent thought patterns as we recalled details of a concert we’d both attended. The patterns seemed to dance with each other, mostly in rhythm but occasionally mis-stepping. Linking the machines would smooth out the irregularities, but more importantly, allow us to share and shape each other’s thoughts directly.

I reached out and swung the headset back into place. The thick felt cap, wirelessly connected to the processing units and lined with an array of embedded sensors and magnets, slid snugly over my head. I leaned forward slightly into the headset and adjusted the guide clamps, which gently but firmly secured my head against movement. I could still see the flatscreen display; the detectors had identified that we’d activated the apparatus and were awaiting confirmation to start the experiment.

Jason cleared his throat, then took a deep breath.

“All good to go?” he queried.

“We are. Let’s start. See you in half an hour; hear you sooner!”

“Oh, and Lucy?” A note of emotion touched Jason’s voice. I glanced up. “Thanks for getting me involved in this. I feel… yeah. It’s amazing.”

“There’s no need to thank me.” I replied after a pause. I felt myself relax slightly, and tapped the trigger to commence the experiment. “I don’t think anyone else would be right for this.”

The room plunged into darkness as the screens and lights winked out. I looked at the centre of the flatscreen. Jason did the same. A shape appeared on the screen, a plain white circle at first, slowly shifting shape and hue. It maintained perfect symmetry, so that the exact same information was feeding into our vision despite sitting opposite each other.

A mild hum reached my ears. It was part of the program; the volume of the hum would increase along with the similarity in our thought patterns. If a very high level of thought sharing was achieved, the hum would change pitch slightly; a subtle cue that the experiment was running successfully.

My meditation training took over. The soothing simplicity of the shape on the screen filled my consciousness, pushing aside the thorny complications I’d faced in getting to this moment. Nervousness that had gnawed at my stomach all day was numbed and I started to feel the familiar warm sensation of the sensors reading my thought patterns.

The world beyond the screen fell away as my focus increased. The shape on the screen slowly started to fade, but the hum intensified. The sound of a crowd cheering became audible, soon replaced by the opening chords of an irresistably catchy rock tune. I allowed my mind to open to the scene; a grassy natural amphitheatre, a stage, a crowd and the band playing on a warm summer evening.

We’d chosen to sit further back on the hill, to avoid the throngs near the stage. The sound was crisp and we smiled at each other as we sang along to the opening verse. As the band moved to the chorus, the hissing feedback from the guitars changed pitch slightly. The music surrounded our heads like a friendly, warm embrace. We knew the song by heart.

The clear sky was cut by a single jet contrail, illuminated in bright yellow light by the setting sun. The couple in front of us stood, obscuring our view of the stage. Without needing to say a word, we rose to our feet. Our toes tapped and our arms found each other’s shoulders as the second chorus reverberated throughout the amphitheatre.

We were lost in the moment. The music whisked away time and immersed our minds. The world was more vivid, more rich than before; sound seemed to fill our ears, vision extended beyond our field of view, and touch was felt as an emotion, not a sensation. As the final chords rang out we stood together, bathing in the happiness of the moment.

“That was amazing.”

“Wasn’t it?”

“Should we go?”

“No, let’s wait for the crowd to leave first.”

The crowd moved around us, a faceless sea of bodies swirling towards the exit, draining out of the amphitheatre. The hubbub filled the air with a peculiarly loud hum. The darkening sky hinted at a cool night; the first stars were appearing on the blue canvas.

“Wouldn’t it be nice if life was always as good as this?”

“It couldn’t be. Moments like this are better because they’re rare.”

“But we can take these memories with us all the time. They’re only a thought away.”

“Memories aren’t normally like this. This is… more.”

We paused, revelling in the intensity of the experience. Our grip on each other tightened minutely; it was physically imperceptible, but psychologically profound. Somehow we were conversing, even though every word came from a shared perspective.

“We should do this more often. Life’s made for sharing… not in a cheesy way, you know what I mean… it’s just nice to spend time together.”

“Why haven’t we? We spend so much time working, and having coffee, and talking about ethics… it would complicate things if we… no, we’ve always been friends, best friends… there was the time when we fell asleep on the couch together watching the test visualisation… we didn’t talk about it, but… it meant nothing, we’re just… no, there’s something more… even if there is, we should be professional about it… but we’re missing out on times like this… maybe, but what if it goes wrong and…”

“Damn it, I don’t get you, and this bloody hum is driving me crazy!”

I gasped, the concert scene snapping out of my mind. A moment of disorientation and nausea passed and I immediately regretted losing my temper. I moved to loosen the clamps holding my head in place, but my arm twitched uselessly and bumped an unfamiliar object. It was still dark.

A wave of recalled sensation dragged my thoughts back to the sharing experiment. It had worked. Too well. I needed to speak to Lucy about it. She must know now how I felt for her – or was it how we felt for each other? I tried to form a word, but it was like trying to reach out from a floating cloud to operate my mouth. Suddenly, I was scared. Was the machine still running? The hum had stopped. The lights were slowly coming back on, but my vision was cloudy.

“Lucy. You OK?” My voice sounded thick. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to push it like that. I got carried away.”

Somehow, I was speaking without moving my mouth. It must be me though; I could hear the words I wanted to say. As my vision adjusted, my first impression was that I was looking in a foggy mirror. My reflection removed itself from the clamps and pulled the hood from its head. Paradoxically, I remained locked in place.

Realisation physically jolted me. I spasmed in the clamps; Jason leaped up from his chair and started moving around the table. He seemed to be mired in slow motion. My thoughts raced. When I had lost my temper, I’d broken the mental connection; but somehow, I’d ended up in Lucy’s head. Yet Jason seemed to be… well, himself. Myself. I reached back into my memory for an explanation of how it could have happened, but it was a jumble. Nothing was where I’d left it; vast gaps – everything I’d experienced without Lucy was missing, and an immense area of unfamiliar memories opened before me.

It was too much. I only vaguely felt the clamps falling away; I slumped onto the desk. The moments drew out as I lost myself in the depths of Lucy’s memory. With immense clarity, I grasped the feelings she’d had for me, waxing and waning but never fading and never fulfilled. Did I feel the same way? I thought I had; but now I wasn’t sure. Yes. I had. We could have been so…

“Lucy? Lucy! Come on, wake up. I’m sorry!”

I was pulled upright. My own face, drawn with fear and concern, filled the confused remnants of my vision. As I surrendered to the unfamiliarity of the brain I found myself in, a wave of sadness permeated my dissolving consciousness. I could never pass on what I’d just discovered. Decades of Lucy’s memories pulled at me; I was a wisp of fog, a temporary thought pattern without a familiar physical anchor to cling  to. I faded.

My eyes snapped open. Focus came quickly. Jason’s eyes, so close, locked onto mine, glistening with tears. He must have seen what he was looking for; he pulled back, leaving me to sit up in the plain, sturdy chair. I blinked. I felt strange, as though I had the edge of a hangover and a dull ringing hum in my ears.

“Lucy. Thank God. Are you alright? What did you see?”

“I’m fine, Jase, calm down.” I paused to think for a few seconds. “What time is it? I must have fallen asleep waiting for you. I need some water… then we can get started?”

Categories: Science | Tags: , | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “When I become you, we can’t be

  1. Mary Beth

    HmmmmMakes u wonder….call Lucy again! Question her bigtime.

  2. Nathan

    I really identify with Lucy. I’m tired and thirsty too.

  3. Pingback: My 5 best posts of 2011 « David Robertson

  4. Pingback: An fMRI for your thoughts « David Robertson


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