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

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.