Metamind

Zenia, Quilo, and Tadashi have invented telepathine: a biotech substance which lets people share live sensory experiences with each other. Their new product radically transforms interpersonal relationships and the concept of selfhood, awakening a collective consciousness within the networked minds of its users. As humanity watches a new form of life rousing in its midst, it’s up to our three friends to prove this revolution is not a threat—and to find out where its potential may lead.

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Chapter 1

Molecule

Attention is the beginning of devotion.
By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies—all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.
Why should our bodies end at the skin, or include at best other beings encapsulated by skin?
Is there a line or sort of bag of which we can say that “inside” that line or interface is “me” and “outside” is the environment or some other person? By what right do we make these distinctions?
O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! A secret theater of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all—what is it?

“You know how a chameleon can move its eyes separately from each other, but still see through both of them?” I asked.

“Yeah?”

“That’s kind of what this feels like.”

Quilo giggled. “You’re right, it does.”

I sat cross-legged and reclined against a crooked tree trunk while the boy rolled around in the grass, watching him like one of the chameleon’s eyes in my metaphor. Its other eye? That was him. Because I was experiencing the world from Quilo’s point of view, too: face up close to the lawn with its dewy scent, blades rustling past his ears and tickling his hands. The seventeen-year-old came to a rest on his back, looking at the sky. Through his eyes I could see Spica and Arcturus, along with their neighboring stars, as they played a twinkling game of hide-and-seek with the soft-glowing electree canopy swaying above.

What had started as a bewildering, disorienting, and other-worldly experience just five days prior was now a regular pastime for the two of us; one which we anticipated with delight. We called it “tuning in:” opening up our sensory perceptions to each other in real time through the use of our homemade invention, telepathine. The viscous liquid, inhaled in atomized form, contained a variety of custom-engineered neurotransmitters and wirelessly communicating nanobots designed to weave both of our nervous systems into one sensorium. We’d been gradually expanding our tests over the past few days, and today’s trial session was our longest. By now, our perceptions had been entangled for five hours—a transformative experience which we both still struggled to express in clumsy, abstract words.

Tiny legs skittered across what seemed like my arm. I went to brush them aside but found nothing there. Instead, the little insect was located on Quilo’s arm. After the momentary cross-confusion between our sensations, he gingerly picked the critter off his arm and placed it on a nearby blade of grass, all without ever looking away from the sky. The boy was able to coordinate his activity by utilizing my own eyesight fixated on him.

Quilo’s gaze pivoted down along a tree, following it to the ground where it disappeared behind the little Japanese tea house at the edge of the glade. Then the view swung to the side and focused on a woman’s face—my own. Or rather, a mirror image of the visage I’d grown used to over four decades: brown eyes, a wide round nose and even rounder cheeks, tightly knotted strands of not-quite-black-anymore hair blowing across it in the wind.

The boy’s seagreen eyes locked with mine. We both giggled at the sight of our real selves.

“Still looks backwards,” he said. “Are my nostrils really that crooked?”

“What? No! Your nose looks nice like it always does.”

Another gust whistled past the tea house and rolled across our bodies.

“Come watch the stars again?” Quilo asked, breaking the stare.

I laid down beside the boy and we both let our eyes roam the clear sky in silence. Our combined eyesight, encircled by the meadow’s canopy, made me feel like a gigantic pupil, almost as if Mother Earth herself had grown an eyeball out of her immense body and was peering through us into the endless universe above—trepidatious, enthralled, curious… and a little lonely, for this sensation had never permeated the substance of reality before. It was a unique appearance in its thirteen-billion-year history. No one else had any idea what it felt like. No other soul even knew we were doing this right now—save for one; the genius behind telepathine’s network code.

“Zenia?” Quilo said.

“Hm?”

“Do you want to tell Tadashi?”

“I guess we’ve practiced enough for now.” Even though we were both looking at the sky instead of each other, Quilo was still able to perceive my nod through the telepathine link.

“Think he’s back home from tai chi yet?” the boy asked with his wrinkling brow transcribing itself onto my own forehead.

“Oh, honey!” I laughed. “On a night like this? That man will probably be out until sunrise. C’mon, I bet he’s at the temple.”

We clasped our left arms together, leveraged our weights in a combined motion against the ground, and lifted off it in an elegant, three-quarter swirl. Without missing a beat, we transitioned out of this rising double-helix move into our new, cooperative method of walking: side-by-side, one of us continuously looking ahead and to the left, the other ahead and to the right. Quilo had christened it “panorama-mode,” a name I found quite endearing (and totally spot-on).

“Are you ready to have him tune in with us?” I asked.

“Of course. I really want to find out what omni-vision feels like!” The boy turned his head further to the side to cover more of our environment, but the panorama split in half. He quickly reversed the move.

It felt as though I was present in two bodies at once, looking out from a twin perspective but comprehending the view as one consciousness. And although nothing about the world surrounding us changed, the doubling of sensory phenomena turned formerly banal experiences into numinous miracles. Appreciating a tree trunk’s tactile surface, listening to the chattering insects, or just observing the stars with two pairs of eyes—pleasant pastimes on their own, yes, but in this state of widened, fused-together, double-fidelity awareness it was hard for us to contain our amazement without drawing the attention of passersby.

Something newborn and fragile rose out of the phase transition occurring inside our minds. “My” body suddenly didn’t end at its epidermal border anymore. It stretched out into the world until it encompassed us both in an emergent “I” born from the sum-total of our sensoria. Much like any youngling, it was still a little wobbly; a toddler taking first steps. But every wave of it was irresistible. It submerged us in a sense of self which felt in no way like it suppressed our old identities, but instead built them up and fused them into something superior: “Quenia,” or “Zilo,” or whatever I might’ve called it—as long as its label was more remarkable than Tadashi’s sterile “hyper-awareness of two networked brains.”

A mystery slumbered within this technology, and we wanted to give it a good poke.

“Wind’s picking up just like they predicted,” I said during our stroll. “I bet there’s going to be a real mess to clean up once we’re through the storm.”

“Yeah. Mom says there’s no way we can avoid it anymore. It grew super fast.” Quilo’s mother was a member of the navigation team steering our massive floating city across the ocean, whose extraordinarily warm waters and weakened currents had spawned the strongest typhoon on record. “She’s really glad the city builders thought about spare turbines,” the boy added.

Gusts loosened a handful of fronds on the lanky tropical electrees leaning over the path ahead, and the sudden rustle of their landing startled a hidden stray cat. I picked up one of the fronds as we passed. Quilo kept his eyes on the way forward so I could see through him where we were walking as I inspected the frond. It burned through its residual power current, cells pulsing in a decelerating, ever-dimming turquoise, transitioning from a unified cascade of light into sloppy static.

“What kind is that?” the boy asked with a quick glance at the dying foliage. He’d taken an interest in my job as the city’s chief electro-botanist, and was determined to learn how to identify all the electree varieties in the city.

“You tell me,” I teased him, handing over the frond.

He studied its shapes and structure up close as I monitored the path, which allowed him to hop across a rather large pothole without interrupting his task. He scanned the frond all over, checking each botanical feature I’d taught him two days prior.

“C’mon, you know this!” I said after a while, grinning.

“Roystonea?” he probed, one eye shut and the corner of his mouth scrunched to the side.

Nope. He’d missed the difference in leaf structure which was so obvious to me—but in his defense, I used to make the same mistake.

“I can see why you would think that,” I answered. “But we don’t have any royal palms this side of the neighborhood. Try again, though. You’re close.”

This time he didn’t hesitate. “Nucifera?”

“Nucifera, that’s right. Nucifera ardor—remember? Because it’s an electree. Quite a healthy one, actually.”

“Right.” A little shake of his head.

“Second choice answer. Not bad,” I said, eventually adding, “Y’know, those two species came up on my expert certification test and I blanked. Just couldn’t remember. Totally clueless. I sweat bullets!”

“How did you figure it out?”

“Who says I did?”

“What?!”

“That was the only question I got wrong.”

“Ugh! The same stupid thing happens to me with all the different fullerene molecules.”

Not a sentence one usually hears from such a young mind, but I got used to it soon after meeting this one. Tadashi and I couldn’t have made telepathine a reality without Quilo’s out-of-this-world engineering talent. We met him through one of Tadashi’s fellow faculty members at the university, and the boy designed us an adaptable nanobot which combined the professor’s networking code and my biomolecule into the substance now interfacing with our senses.

Tadashi’s favorite tai chi spot sat a short stroll away in Gnosis, the education district. Our city was composed of many such neighborhoods, each an artificial island linked to the others by a layered web of bridges and walkways. Together they formed Opalis, our home which crisscrossed the Pacific. The spires of Gnosis rose over the bridge’s crest leading into the district as we climbed it. Behind them loomed the slender, gold-domed towers in Karuna and Fora.

We stopped on the bridge to the education complex for a moment as the gusty sea breeze sprayed droplets in our faces from below. Quilo let go of the frond over the railing and we watched it fall into the water, its leaves fully extinguished now. Typhoon Hageshī’s outer thunderstorm bands sat prominently on the eastern horizon, lightning frequently illuminating them from within. Opalis had already made two course-corrections on its journey from Tokyo to the space elevator in Indonesia to avoid the worst of the superstorm’s erratic track. Every last one of the city’s propulsion systems was churning deep below the water line to steer us out of the path of devastation, but forecasts still called for blustery days during our skirt around Hageshī’s center.

“Can you look at that thunderhead with me?” I said, pointing unnecessarily. Quilo’s gaze responded without hesitation.

“A little more to the left. See where it forms that towering ledge?”

Our two views overlapped and the world crystallized into a high-fidelity sight far beyond the capacities of a single human. Sensory convergences like this one revealed astounding details in our environment; details we’d have never noticed individually. The clouds gained in three-dimensionality and depth. Their lazy convulsion as the shifting air masses reshaping the overall structure became an obvious motion. We took great joy in ‘borrowing’ each other’s eyes in this fashion, always happy to indulge one another.

“It looks like a dog!” Quilo said with just the tiniest hint of puzzle-solving delay.

“Right? Moon’s throwing the perfect shadow.”

Goosebumps prickled across both our bodies in waves.

“Good catch!” he said after a few seconds, taking over the reigns of his eyes again to search for the dropped frond momentarily and, upon noting its disappearance, decided to follow the ripples left behind by departing ship caravans instead.

Satiated with our experience, we descended the bridge into Gnosis and its sea of luminescent electrees; one of many garden parks I designed two decades ago. Their purple, magenta, indigo, and icy blue hues illuminated the surrounding building facades in soft chromatic gradients. We caught stars winking at us through underlit foliage, laugher from a late-night gathering reverberating between student dormitories and lecture halls. A few drones buzzed across the sky, flying slower than usual to account for the buffeting winds aloft.

Our destination, the expansive science quad, was surrounded by a group of curvilinear buildings adorned with huge murals of famous scientists and inventors—worn and in need of repair after yet another round of municipal budget cuts. We goofily said hello to Elion’s and Einstein’s scuffed faces, rounded the corner past Galileo’s cracked chin, and entered the temple grounds through a torii gate near the prominent holosculpt of Earth.

Posed under a pondside jacaranda electree behind the main pagoda, Tadashi quietly hummed to himself in tune with a nearby wind chime. His body flowed through a series of pushing and pulling motions, pivoting on his heels in time to witness our arrival.

“Ah!” he proclaimed, swung his feet together, and bowed with gentle giggles. He embraced Quilo and held my hand. “Beautiful night!”

“It is.” I replied. “Say, have you taught me that move? I don’t recognize it.”

“Teach you right now! ‘Taming the Tiger’—good for back. Wanna join, Q?”

“We wanted to tell you something first.” Quilo said.

“Oh?” Tadashi’s eyebrows rose far above his octagonal pince-nez glasses.

“We started our telepathine test.”

The little old man’s eyes darted back and forth between us, making almost a dozen round trips before he finally asked, “Now?”

We nodded with big grins.

“Was wondering how long you would wait!” Tadashi’s mouth curled into a mischievous smile, blue eyes squinting in curiosity. “What’s it like?”

“It’s a little strange.” I answered.

“Bad? Better to stop?”

“Not bad,” Quilo swiftly replied. “But it’s weird. Takes some getting used to, because it changes something about you.”

Tadashi jiggled his hands. “Tell me more!”

“Well… it feels like I’m inside two bodies,” I answered.

Quilo agreed. “Yeah. Looking out of both at the same time, but driving one.”

“So we’ve had to spend the last few days learning how to… drive together, I guess you could say.”

“Marvelous!” Tadashi contemplated this for a moment, then asked us, “Progress?”

“Lots. We’re getting good at it.” Quilo said. “But ‘we’ is almost not the right word.”

“Ah! Of course. Brain learning, adapting, integrating. New skill—like riding bike,” the professor said. “Q! Monitor!”

Quilo reached into his jangling backpack and pulled out a tablet aglow with holographic info-threads. Its light patterns represented network traffic between the syntonized nanobot swarms inside our bodies as they exchanged data. Tadashi scrolled through millions of points and checked the occasional pop-up number table until he had the view arranged to his liking. He nodded rapidly. “Synchronization! One awareness, but bigger!”

“How do you think that’s going to change us?” Quilo asked.

The professor drew colored spheres in the air using the tablet. “Think of water molecule: hydrogen, oxygen, hydrogen. Atoms don’t disappear when combined. Still there. But! Relationship between them creates new behaviors, abilities. New identity grows out of existing ones.”

“Could this new identity take over at some point?” I asked.

“Already has. But abstinence enough to revert to solo-mental operation. Telepathine is a tool: use when needed, put away when not.”

He said it so matter-of-factly without feeling its first-hand allure.

“Experience must be interesting,” he added.

“You have no idea!”

“Want to join?” Quilo said as he drew an inhaler out of the backpack between his feet. The little object rocked in his open palm a few times before settling down.

“Delighted to!”

We’d made enough telepathine to fill twelve of those inhalers, but were down to the last pair. Tadashi smiled and took the device from the boy’s hand. With two deep puffs its contents entered his lungs.

“How long?”

“Takes about an hour,” Quilo said. “But it starts to creep up on you before then.”

Tadashi returned the used inhaler with a little grunt, exhaling faint sparkles.

“I’d love to try that pose now, while we wait,” I suggested.

He smiled. “Ah! Observe!”

The chimes hanging in the blooming jacaranda pattered back and forth across two octaves as the wind strengthened during our lesson. Tadashi had been teaching tai chi long before I immigrated to Opalis in my twenties, and we originally met during one of his outdoor classes on Karuna island. Focused, deliberate, and as graceful as a monk, the man explained each of his moves at the same time as he streamed and blended from one to the next. The telepathine link proved a useful tool as we imitated his poses. Each time Quilo or I didn’t line up properly, the combined sensory outline of our bodies turned into a fuzzy field, but the instant feedback allowed us to return to the correct alignment without much delay and fused our two body consciousnesses back into a visceral larger one.

We got the hang of it in no time, and Tadashi let us take a break while he demonstrated another pose. He hesitated while narrating “hugging the tree” with an astonished exhale drawing out the last word of his description. Quilo shot a glance in my direction and I gave a tiny nod in response. Tadashi resumed his performance before either of us could inquire about the man’s condition.

We carried on, and it didn’t take long before I noticed the first subtle changes in my own perception. The tune-in process never announced itself with fanfares or spectacular sensory shifts, it faded in like a slow-rising tide, initially more noise than structure before color apparitions, sonic phantoms, and tactile whispers introduced themselves with a faint luster across my awareness. A third conscious perspective bubbled forth out of nowhere, incongruent with Quilo’s or mine: new stretching and contracting sensations as well as a cool breeze on curiously hairy skin, and nose-pinching eyeglasses drew a thin, dark gray outline in this part of my growing visual field. Sensory coherence increased with each minute; “I” now peered out of three bodies.

The wind chimes worked their way down a frantic glissando as Tadashi’s sensory signals further integrated with my consciousness. Stutters and hesitancies interrupted his usually fluid movements; his eyes twitched a bit and a similar spasm crept up his left leg.

“Are you starting to sense us?” I asked.

“Y—yes,” he stammered, teetering to one side. “Which… my legs?” Quilo rushed over to steady the man.

I remembered the sensation; kind of felt it again, too. Tadashi’s brain didn’t know what to do with all the new information flooding into his perception—information at once familiar and strange, like multiple out-of-body experiences overlapping one another and competing for attention, each claiming to be his own. A week ago, Quilo and I had to figure it out by ourselves. The professor, on the other hand, could benefit from the insights we gathered during those early, bumbling trials.

“I want to try some exercises to get you acclimated.”

Tadashi opened his mouth to say something, but became stuck in that position. Eventually he closed it again, and merely nodded.

“Unless you’re uncomfortable and need to stop,” I added.

He had to readjust his glasses after a vigorous head-shake. “No. Stay.”

“I’m going to walk towards you,” I told him. “It’s going to feel weird; like you’re the one walking. Just focus on staying upright. And try to pay attention to which signals are coming from your own body, and which ones are coming from ours.”

Separating out one point of view through the use of motion had helped us tremendously during our first tests. The contrast allowed us to identify each other’s awarenesses sooner compared to passively waiting for understanding to sink in. Quilo kept his hands on Tadashi’s arm as I approached the two, my gaze fixed on the old man’s eyes. He blinked rarely, concentrating with all his might on the new experience. I watched myself through his and Quilo’s senses as I closed in on the two of them. Their vision overlaid on top of mine, their ears picking up additional sounds—ruffling grass and a nearby frog burping in tandem with the wind chimes. Tadashi’s gaze didn’t waver from my face, again obscured behind my dense hair as the wind pushed past us. Our three sensory streams swirled through each other, drifting into and out of sync every so often before blurring back into noise-distorted perceptions.

Minutes passed without a spoken word as the boy and I took turns in our strange little choreography performance for the professor, whose leg-twitches were finally subsiding. I grasped his shoulders after yet another walk-towards-you exercise, smiling and raising my eyebrows inquisitively. Tadashi squeezed his eyes shut, held still for a moment, then opened them again.

“How about now?” Quilo asked. “Is it starting to make sense?”

The old man blinked a few more times. His hand reached out to grasp at objects only to penetrate empty space. With each discovery of this newfound mental experience he uttered a small grunt of understanding. “Better…” he whispered.

“Keep on listening to the environment with each sense,” I encouraged him.

Quilo pulled a small container of lemoncherries from his backpack. “Let’s try these,” he said as he plucked a few off their stems and began eating them. With no perceptible delay, the nanobots in Quilo’s body read his nerve signals, encoded the sensory experience, and wirelessly flashed a copy of it to our bodies. Tadashi smacked his lips as Quilo’s taste perception blossomed inside our mouths. He broke out in laughter.

“Tangy!” Tadashi said, and accepted an offer to try some lemoncherries himself. Interestingly, the old man’s taste buds emphasized the fruit’s cherry origins a lot more than did the boy’s.

“Whoa,” Quilo said, “didn’t expect that. I like the way you taste them, too!”

“Zenia!” Tadashi handed over the bunch of fruit. “Try!”

I never turn down fresh lemoncherries.

Both of my companions gasped in response to the flavors I was experiencing. “Ooh! Like champagne!” Tadashi fawned.

Quilo nodded. “It’s amazing how we taste things in different ways. I thought something was wrong when we tried this for the first time!”

“Okay, everyone together now,” I said and proceeded to hand out the last few plump lemoncherries.

“Turbocharge!” Quilo said with a hop.

“On three!”

Cool and zesty liquid burst from the ruptured fruit pods in our mouths, causing a flavor avalanche to tear across our tongues: Quilo’s sour citrus highs, Tadashi’s deep berry tones, and the sparkle generated by my taste buds flowed into each other like three rivers in a delta, a unique combination of flavors only possible through our simultaneous combination of experiences. We gasped, giggled, oohed and ahhed in tandem like little children.

The lemoncherries faded all too quickly from our immediate awareness and left us wanting more.

“You know,” I said while wrapping my hair in a bandanna and sizing up my friends’ spirit of adventure, “the orchards in Nutrio are just about ready for another harvest…”

Tadashi, supported by myself and Quilo flanking him on either side with our arms interlocked, led us out of the temple grounds and towards Nutrio island. We practiced our sense-focusing skill as we trotted down alleys and plazas, converging our attention beams on single objects—the full moon overhead, bioluminescent arteries on an electree leaf, humming air conditioner platoons—always marveling at the fullness of the environment. A blanket chrysanthemums outside an apartment complex held our attention for a bit as we admired their dewy scent and regarded each petal and peduncle interacting with the soft glow of the trees and moonlight around us.

“Imagine a hundred people using telepathine!” Tadashi said with his nose buried deep inside a flower. “Imagine!” He kept shaking his head as he marveled at an indescribable vision.

Then we switched our strategy, walked closely together as a tight cell, and looked out from this position, spreading our sensory cones out wide like three flashlights trying to catch every subtle vibration in the environment. This omni-sensory configuration obliterated the the old concepts of directionality for us. Gnosis neighborhood wasn’t “behind,” its domes were simply receding; and Nutrio’s silos weren’t “ahead,” but growing in size. The whole world encircled us and slid around our position as we—awkwardly, still, but growing more confident—walked as one hexapedal unit.

Words failed us again and again as we tried to illustrate our perceptions to each other. Quilo conjured a handful of new terms and expressions in an attempt to grab hold of what we were experiencing.

“Like, how else can you describe this to someone who hasn’t done it?” he asked after blurting out another new portmanteau.

“Description questionable,” Tadashi said, adding, “Too close to consciousness for abstraction.”

“Maybe we’re better off leaving it in the realm of experience,” I said. “You know? Show instead of tell.”

We passed a public restroom, and Tadashi excused himself to make use of it. Quilo fiddled with the nanobot controller to isolate our swarms. From the beginning, it had been routine for us to permanently blend out certain parts of our body, but occasionally we preferred a complete temporary detachment from the network for more privacy—“be-right-back mode,” another one of Quilo’s coined terms.

The boy continued his word experiments while we waited, too distracted by his thoughts to pay any attention to the sensory solitude we were experiencing. Perhaps it was no problem for him, but I felt boxed in and cut off, disconcertingly unaware of my surroundings without the multi-body feedback. I tried to compensate with active scans, turning my head frequently like a careful animal surveying the land for predators, trying to recapture the world around me which had slipped out of awareness.

That just made it worse. A mere body’s worth of nerve endings just couldn’t comprehend the world adequately—not anymore. A creepy void stalked me in every perceptual dimension, whispering with bared fangs: What’cha gonna do about it?

I tapped Quilo’s shoulder and pointed at the tablet in his lap, which he handed over. The holographic representation of our bot swarms had changed from a dense arterial cloud into three sequestered blobs. Debug messages scrolled past in the lower right corner.

“Where’s the switch that re-weaves our swarms?” I asked.

He pointed at a small symbol. “It’s the setting over here. But Tadashi isn’t done yet. We should wait for him first.”

“No, I thought we could link ours back together, and then join up with him when he’s back.”

“Oh,” Quilo said, taking the tablet back. “I don’t think he programmed that in yet. It’s all or nothing right now.”

He looked around with the same kind of urgency as I had just a few moments ago, as if he couldn’t quite keep track of the environment.

“Kind of eerie,” he said.

“You really notice how it’s missing, don’t you?”

“Yeah, but it wasn’t this strong the last time we tuned out.”

“We were never linked for more than two hours up until tonight.”

“Hmm. Well, he’ll be back soon. It’s just a couple more minutes.”

I didn’t want to wait that long. Quilo resumed his search for the perfect description of our experience while I tried to come to terms with the feeling that my life had been split into a before and after telepathine era. The new epoch had me utterly spellbound.

Tadashi returned within the minute. Quilo asked the professor if he was ready before he’d even closed the door behind him; the boy’s finger hovered just millimeters away from the activator switch on the tablet. It made contact instantly after Tadashi answered with a flowing “after you” gesture.

The digital dam holding our bot swarms back from one another vanished, and data strands flickered to life on the tablet’s display. Blindfolds dropped from my awareness as we tuned back into each other. Every sense unfolded into multiple dimensions like a kitten stretching out in a sunbeam for maximum coverage. The warp and weft of our three bodies tightened into a single perceptual tapestry once more. I sighed with relief and satisfaction.

“Ah!” Tadashi said. “Concurrent awareness. Intense presence. Figured it would be fascinating—did not expect it to be excellent and preferable.”

“Let’s go!” Quilo shouted as he ran ahead. “I’m hungry!”

My hand grabbed Tadashi’s and we hurried to catch up with the boy.

I was back. The real I, the big I, the self of selves—not just the incomplete fragment. And I liked it. Maybe even a little more than I cared to admit.

We were joined together again, trotting towards Nutrio’s entrance gate as a three-person circular molecule, when we encountered an old woman. She faced away from us, bent over, filling two cloth bags with fresh-picked moonflowers from a vine climbing the nearest silo. Our unusual gallop must have startled her. The bag toppled over and flung a cascade of white petals across her feet as she spun around. Quilo had been leading the trot and came to a stop first, with myself and Tadashi bumping into him; our little group had to take a second to steady itself from the sudden change in momentum.

Like a staring contest between unsure animals, neither the woman nor we had an immediate reaction to this unexpected encounter. Everyone froze. Quilo was the only one of us looking directly at the stranger until Tadashi turned his head to observe her, too. I watched the woman through their eyes. She began to reach for the spilled bag, but didn’t dare look away from us.

“Hello, Mrs. Sugimoto!” Tadashi bellowed. I tried yanking his arm, but he either didn’t understand my signal or didn’t care. “Swimming tomorrow?”

The lady twitched, perked up, and dithered a bit before smiling at us with a feeble wave and nod.

Tadashi bowed by sliding his arms out from our interlocked position.

“See you then! Goodnight!” he said after returning upright. Then, with a whisper in our direction, “Will go nuts trying to figure out what’s going on.”

The lady scurried off with frequent stolen glances over her shoulder, abandoning a mound of flowers where she had been scrounging. Before she disappeared from sight she halted once more to get a final investigative look at us, but didn’t seem comfortable that we were watching right back. The figure slid out of view. We resumed our journey into Nutrio, walking individually now.

Quilo and Tadashi didn’t seem bothered by the encounter; they frolicked through the orchards and gardens with amused squeals and sampled all kinds of produce, but I found it difficult to participate in the meta-sensory romp. For the first time, telepathine produced not just wonderment and excitement, but also anxiety.

“Zenia, eat! We need your taste buds, too!” Quilo said.

Tadashi shook his head in silence. The old man looked directly in my eyes, a piercing glare, and I saw the swirling detail of my irises broadcast back to me through his partition of our collective eyesight. From this perspective it was hard to miss the frown draped across my face.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

No doubt he was feeling the twist in my stomach, too. The physiological effects betrayed my emotions while our bodies were networked.

“I’m worried how others will see us,” I said after some hesitation. “Do you think we scared that woman?”

“Kikue? No. Probably more concerned with how we saw her.”

“Are you sure she’s not going to think we’re a bunch of misfits? I mean, we are behaving a little strange.”

“Sure,” Quilo said, throwing away a kiwi rind, “but we’re not doing anything stupid. It’s not like we’re drunk.”

“If anything, opposite!” Tadashi added. “Better perception together means better problem-solving. Group intelligence. Would not want to live without such an advantage.”

“You’re right—and that’s the other thing. I like this so much that I don’t want to go back to the solo-sensory state. How do we tell this advantage apart from what might become an addiction?”

Tadashi nodded as his thumb and index finger kneaded his lower lip. He turned to Quilo after a few pensive moments. “Q, your father has cochlear implants, no?”

“Yeah.”

“Must be addicted to hearing, then.”

“What? No. That’s ridiculous. I’m glad he can hear.”

“Ah! Precisely. We celebrate! Another dimension of experience made available. Same with these.” Tadashi removed his glasses and held them out in front of us. His part of our aggregate visual sense went blurry, like a frosted window pane dropping in front of his face. I couldn’t even recognize the pattern on my bandanna now, it was just a green blob perched on top of my head. “Can’t see you. Can’t write code. Can barely get around like this. Technology is a blessing. Improves abilities.” He snapped the glasses back on his nose. “Same with telepathine. Builds on existing senses, opens up expanded awareness, promotes coordination—even increases joy. Clear benefits. Why not use it?”

I found comfort in his perspective. He was right.

“But,” he continued, “caution is healthy. Good idea to take a break for a few days.”

Quilo nodded. “Yeah. I can’t make more nanobots anyway until the minifacturing labs open up again. They’re shut down for the storm passage.”

“Then that’s a good chance for us to observe any potential side effects from withdrawal,” I said.

“Keep notes,” Tadashi agreed. “Any doubts, concerns, findings—speak up.” He glanced at both of us, then added, “Still on board?”

“Yes, no doubt,” I said.

“Good. Q?”

The boy nodded, chewing on the remainder of a kiwi fruit.

The network tablet beeped an alert at us. “Bandwidth consumption is outrageous,” Tadashi muttered after checking it out. “Must find scaling solution. Have idea; need time. For now, prototype is a success!”

We’d reached a natural endpoint for this test session, and both Quilo and I wanted to get home and catch some rest. The professor tapped on the networking tablet a few times and reconfigured our nanobot swarms for termination. Holo-projections flipped from from green to red. Instantly, a massive object inflated inside me, pushing its way from the core of my body to its surface and lifting a layer of skin right off. My two companions’ forms dissolved out of perception, the influx of every extrasensory pinprick across my anatomy evaporating like a light bulb burning out with a crack and prickle. Reality drained down to a limited, single human point of view again for the first time in eight hours. The sensory vacuum barreled in like closing curtains from all sides and imploded upon me. Meta-sight replaced itself with nothingness, acting as blinders on what usually was my normal visual periphery. Sounds which had so much depth and clarity flattened into drab, one-dimensional noises that sat against my skull with quiet pressure. Even the scents of the environment lost every hint of direction. Finally, the last connections between our bodies dropped away, bottling up my consciousness in a container now far too small—not just temporarily, like before, but also with a gravity of permanence.

Outwardly, nothing changed. The phenomenon was purely immanent; subjective and interiorized, which made it all the more difficult to relate to uninitiated people as time went on. The longer I occupied this meta-mental realm, the more disorienting it became to tune out. At this reduced scale of magnitude I felt so tiny and partial, as though large swaths of my body had vanished—and then expected to just keep on living life as if nothing had happened. As if everything was okay. I’d been a blind person granted temporary eyesight, only to have it plucked out of my experience at the press of a button.

And we only had one inhaler left. Not enough for two people to tune back into each other until we made more. The pining magnified. I wanted to rip the tablet out of Tadashi’s hands and reverse the commands. Alas, once sent, the disconnect signal caused our nanobot transceivers to disintegrate their immunosuppressant shells. They were already dissolving into simple elements and would soon be flushed out of our bodies or recycled for use elsewhere.

Too late to go back. You’re stuck in here now. I shuddered imperceptibly at the thought and the prospect of the next few solitary days. At least my electree checkups would offer a distraction.

We said our goodbyes and repeatedly affirmed our mutual satisfaction with the experience we’d shared. Tadashi gave us a big hug, unable to wipe the delirious grin from his face. “Thank you!” he said before wandering off a little ways into the orchard to resume his tai chi.

My walk home paled in comparison to the night’s shared miraculous experiences, and not just because the bright moon had set. The taste of expanded awareness left behind an urgent desire to claw it back by any means upon its loss, like a heartbroken spirit yearning for a bygone lover; a bee that can’t find its way back to the hive. Indeed, I had lost a vast part of something that had become me. Or maybe I had become it; the boundaries seemed superficial at best and only appeared when I tried to think about the experience instead of just feeling it.

Over the next few days, Opalis skimmed its way around the worst parts of the typhoon, heaving up and down with the waves as the storm battered down on us. I spent most of my time indoors, tending to the electrees around the city’s parks and cleaning up debris during lulls in the weather. Each night, with pregnant raindrops pelting against my windows and Hageshī’s growling winds forming the soundtrack, I descended into bizarre dreams full of fractal eyes and mouths, spinning ears, and flexing hands recursively zooming past me and lobtailing into various scales of magnitude before finally diving back into unending coastlines of color and texture. Alongside each undulation in the rhythm chanted a lyrical, disembodied choir. It exuded from within and without, unyielding, desperate to ensure the arrival of its message: “Come back. Come back. Come back. Zenia! Come back!”

Oh, how I wanted to.

Chapter 2

Cell

Is not something, itself analogous to a brain, being produced within the totality of human brains?

If the human race develops an electronic nervous system, outside the bodies of individual people, thus giving us all one mind and one global body, this is almost precisely what has happened in the organization of cells which compose our own bodies. We have already done it.
There is thus a larger entity, call it A plus B, and that larger entity, in play, is achieving a process for which I suggest the correct name is practice. This is a learning process in which the system A plus B receives no new information from outside, only from within the system. The interaction makes information about parts of A available to parts of B and vice versa. There has been a change in boundaries.
I felt a larger meaning of my own self when the barrier vanished between me and what was beyond myself.
What is a self, and how can a self come out of stuff that is as selfless as a stone or a puddle? What is an ‘I’?
To be shaken out of the ruts of ordinary perception, to be shown for a few timeless hours the outer and the inner world, not as they appear to an animal obsessed with survival or to a human being obsessed with words and notions, but as they are apprehended, directly and unconditionally, by Mind at Large—this is an experience of inestimable value to everyone.

We sat in the grass under a meandering row of indigo electrees lining Nutrio’s promenade while we tuned in. Rooftop sails on the buildings behind us rippled and throbbed in the breezy post-typhoon weather. A sea of a thousand curved, white fabric triangles caught the wind as if our city had grown snow-capped mountain ranges overnight. Forecasts had us traversing the sea at nearly twice our usual cruising speed, and Opalis was easily making up for time lost in the detour around Hageshī last week. Sagan’s Reach, the space elevator and the city’s next destination, was already visible through distant haze: a thin line stretching from horizon to zenith with diamantine sunlight glinting off its stratospheric track sections.

Invisible telepathine tendrils entwined my consciousness with Quilo’s. He recited the names of various plants surrounding us as I silently passed my gaze over them.

“Trillium.” “Zinnia.” “Quillaja.” “Oxalis.”

“Correct,” I said, “although I was hoping you’d go for the one behind the oxalis.”

“The calathea?”

“Yeah. It’s the first one I taught you.”

“And too easy to remember with those markings. I thought you wanted me to try the difficult one.”

“Smartypants,” I said and focused on a palm in the distance.

“Hah! Roystonea ardor!”

“Well, I sure am glad neither of us makes the same mistake twice.”

“Another one I’m never gonna forget.”

I closed my eyes and listened to the urban buzz and peacefully roaring ocean as their sounds played on our eardrums, and hoped this little quiz had calmed the boy down a bit. But his bare feet still alternately tapped against the grass; faster now than earlier. His eyes remained open, restless, as if chasing after a swarm of thoughts.

“My Applied Nanofacturing professor keeps bugging me,” he said, flopping on the ground. “She thinks I haven’t started my final project yet. I didn’t tell her about my telepathine bots.”

“Why not?”

“Because I couldn’t explain it. I just said I need more time to figure it out—but she’s onto me.”

“You’d better come clean soon.”

“You think so?”

“Hiding this from her is a bad look.”

“Okay, so what do I tell her?”

“It doesn’t have to be a thesis-level explanation, you know. Just say your nanobots are part of a… prototype mental network, and she’ll get to see them when you present your final.”

He rolled his eyes at me. “No way, she’ll interrogate me for an hour after class if I describe it like that!”

“Then keep your schedule free, mister.”

“Ugh.”

I nudged him. “I’ll keep mine free, too. If she wants a demonstration, we’ll give her one.”

A buzz from the networking tablet interrupted Quilo’s frown. He placed the device between us in the grass and answered the call. Tadashi’s face appeared on a flat holo-plane, next to the face of his programming assistant, Celine.

“Ah!” the professor said, “got you both. Good.”

“What’s up?”

“New network code! Bandwidth much better. Would like to test—are you free later?”

The four of us arranged a meeting, but throughout the whole conversation I felt like Quilo’s eyes were stuck to Celine’s lucent face floating above the tablet. She made his stomach somersault with a thoughtful compliment on the nanobot design at one point, and at the end of our chat Quilo took his time to reach for the tablet and disconnect the call. Tadashi beat him to it. Our friends’ faces disappeared while the boy’s smile lingered, abdomen fluttering.

“Hey,” I said, pulling his attention to the present, “there’s a struggling electree over by the synthmeat lab I’ve been studying. We’ve got enough time to check it out before we meet Tadashi and Celine. You in?”

He leaped to his feet before I even finished the question.

“Don’t forget your shoes, silly!” I had to shout after him.

My leafy patient lived in the shade of a wide, tied-down parasol struggling against the wind. Blown-over barricades were strewn all around it, their metal legs sticking out of the grass like petrified upturned cattle.

“This one’s been giving me some trouble for a while,” I said. We came around to the other side of the knobbly trunk that couldn’t make up its mind where it wanted to grow. A junction between two odd-angled branches splayed open like a wound and stuck out a flaky, crystalline tongue at us. Misshapen leaves grew in unusual spots around the area, their bioluminescent cells aflicker. Quilo drew nearer for a better look.

“Don’t touch it,” I warned him. “That’s corrosive.”

“Why is it doing that?”

“I think it’s a genetic defect. The tree’s internal wiring never fully developed and it can’t handle the amount of electricity flowing through. Its insides are corroding because of the strong current. That’s why I’ve got it shaded: prevents the sunlight from killing the poor thing.”

“Can you repair it? Or… heal it?”

I donned my thick gloves. “Perhaps. If I can get some good gene samples I should be able to figure out what’s happening.”

The corrosion looked a lot more delicate and fragile than it turned out to be, and I had to use a rock to chip away anything larger than a flake. With some effort and a few heavy blows in the right spot, the whole crystal started to wiggle in its socket like a ripe tooth, but it was still hooked firmly on something deep inside the tree.

“What if we bend the branch back some?” Quilo asked after watching me struggle against the stubborn outgrowth.

It was worth a shot. “Try to push it back and up,” I suggested as he moved into position.

I could rotate the crystal somewhat while Quilo yanked at the branch.

“Again,” I said.

It rotated a few more degrees, now noticeably looser. We were getting there. An old couple watched us from the pathway.

“And again. Real good this time.”

Quilo’s shoes dug into and through the grass, uprooting small turf patches as he grunted against the tree’s crackling limb. The crystal dropped a few centimeters before snagging once more.

“Hold it there,” I said, wiggling the outgrowth.

A loud snap ripped through the air and splinters spewed past my face as the branch gave in to Quilo’s force. The crystal dropped from its lodged position and I caught it at the same time as the boy thumped face-first into the ground, eliciting little worried chirps from the elders. My senses immediately picked up the umami scent and squishy texture of the dirt. Quilo stood back up, retrieved the branch, and twirled it over his head like a trophy. I had to notify him sternly that he was sprinkling corrosive flakes all over in order to calm him down. He dropped the branch and joined my inspection of the exposed wound.

This was my first chance to look deeper into the tree’s abnormal growth. The usual radial pattern of nutrient vessels and electric arteries I would have expected from a healthy specimen was instead knotted into a malformed globule. Smaller clusters of corrosive growth littered the organism’s internal structure haphazardly, with healthy circulatory features desperately pinched in wherever there was room. Bark-like encasements surrounded the larger areas of corrosion as though the tree forgot which part of itself was inside and which outside. The structure seemed familiar.

“That almost looks like a tumor,” I said as I ran my gloved fingers along the bark-sheath enveloping the abnormal growth.

“A cancer tumor?” Quilo asked.

“Bark shouldn’t be growing inside the tree; it would normally be a waste of energy and resources to do that. I think it’s trying to protect itself by isolating the corroding parts.”

I removed a variety of samples from the tree and sealed them in containers for later analysis. Quilo carefully placed them in my bags, but couldn’t stop eyeing the branch he’d snapped off of the tree while he was doing so.

He pointed at it. “Can I take this along?”

“Absolutely not.”

“But you’ve got your protective foil right here. We can wrap it.” He pulled out the roll of transparent material stashed neatly next to my sample containers. “Please? C’mon, I know it’s dangerous. I’ve handled worse things. Please?”

“Why? You don’t have any more room on your trophy shelf at home.”

He screwed his brow into a ferocious knot. “No, not to show off! I want to study the growth patterns inside it. The structure is interesting.”

Quilo was right on that observation, and I didn’t want to stifle his curiosity. “Do not make me regret this, young man,” I said, taking the foil from him.

“Promise. I don’t want to lose my hands to tree diseases.”

We wrapped up the exposed corrosive areas on the branch in two layers of the foil and secured it, and I lent him my pair of gloves so he could handle the specimen properly at home.

I finished my treatment by applying some nutrient paste to the electree’s wound and covering it with more protective foil. I returned the capsized barricades to their proper places while Quilo loaded the severed branch into his backpack, a good third of it sticking out at the top.

The distant school bells on Gnosis island gonged eleven o’clock, reminding us of our meeting.

-- End of preview --
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