Melissa missed working the manta ray tank most of all. From her apartment she let her mind begin to follow visitors at the aquarium. She could hear the movement of the water and the murmur of the crowd as they pushed toward the edge of the shallow tank, reaching out to touch the swift graceful creatures. The rays cut through the water effortlessly, pulling her mind along from one sensation to the next with each one falling into place as if by design.
Her feeds were much more vivid lately. It was becoming too easy to lose herself among the clouds of sensations. She was experiencing the minds of the entire crowd all at once now, a mosaic of feeds, a whirlpool pulling her thoughts inward with the rays in the tank as its center point.
Her focus shifted to a woman reaching out to touch the back of a small ray. Melissa could see through her eyes and gasped when her fingers connected with skin, she shivered and jumped, pulling her hand from the water. The young woman reached out with her other hand, wrapping it around the back of someone next to her. As she turned her head to kiss him, Melissa caught a glimpse of his face. She awoke suddenly and thought to herself, could it have really been Robert or was she just projecting her fears onto the feed?
Melissa found herself in the front entryway of her apartment not sure why or how long she had been standing there. Her head was pounding so hard she could see flashes behind her eyes and she felt far away, almost behind herself, looking down a tunnel of visual artifacts of her other senses.
"I wish she would visit me," Melissa whispered aloud, glancing at the framed watercolor by her sister on the hall table. She stopped walking and began slowly shifting her weight from one foot to the other as her mind began to follow her sister Alicia's feed. She was rocking her baby to sleep. In that moment Melissa was a mother, allowing her to forget about the scattered fragments of her own life.
She awoke to a knock at the door and found herself still following her sister, now asleep with the baby in her arms. For Melissa the dream was over as she was jolted back into her own reality.
Evelyn Alphonse paused at the apartment door mentally preparing herself for a confrontation she had been avoiding for months. She took a deep breath and knocked again, a little louder this time.
"Melissa, honey? Can you open up?", Evelyn said with her face close to the door. "It’s your mother. Open the door." She knew her daughter was home. She wasn't sure, but it was possible she had been in her apartment ever since Robert left.
"Melissa, please open the door." she said changing her tactic. "You know what? I talked to your supervisor at the aquarium and she said your job was still waiting there for you when you return. You're welcome back anytime. How about that?"
Melissa answered through the door, "Did you call Robert's law firm and talk to him too? Is he waiting for me? I doubt it." There was a long silence and then Melissa turned the latch and slowly opened the door.
Evelyn quickly stepped into the doorway. "Have you at least gone to visit your sister and seen the new baby? What can you tell me about him? I haven’t seen even a picture of him you know. Do you have one?" Her mother raised her eyebrows and looked around the entryway of Melisa's apartment packed full of trash, laundry, and boxes piled up everywhere like a cluttered bookstore.
"Of course I've seen the baby mother, he's beautiful." she paused looking down at the floor. "I just can't handle it in person right now, but of course I’ve seen him. He's my nephew isn't he?"
"Sweetheart, you used to be so outgoing. Now you're just stuck in your own head all the time. I’m worried about you. So is your sister, and so is Eric."
"The feeds are real mom. They're real people with real lives just like the one I used to have." Melissa's eyebrows curled, "Wait a minute. Why did you mention Eric? You haven’t talked to him or Alicia for over two years."
Evelyn glanced down and then looked her daughter straight in the eyes, "Yes, I called Eric, and he's coming over to help us." Melissa's face changed from a blank stare to panic as she grabbed her mother's arm. "Oh my god! You can't be serious! Help us do what? I told you I’m fine."
"You aren’t fine Melissa, your life's disintegrated into a practical nonexistence. Seriously, I think you might be addicted to those things in your head. You should just be glad your father isn’t alive to see you like this."
"No way, you need to call Eric and tell him to forget it!" Melissa tried to shut the door but Evelyn's foot was firmly planted in the way.
"I can’t darling, in fact he will be here any minute. I mean really Melissa, you're watching them right now aren't you? While you're standing here talking to me. You can’t even look me in the eyes." Evelyn got up close to her face. Her daughter's eyes were staring straight ahead, twitching rapidly.
"Mother I told you-" Melissa steadied herself against the door jamb then slid to the ground hitting the floor sitting slumped over as her mother dropped to her side.
On arrival Eric found Evelyn holding Melissa pleading with her to wake up. She was flushed and sweating, her pupils dilated, eyelids twitching and staring straight ahead.
Eric lifted her head so he could see into her eyes and held her wrist. "She's breathing normally and her pulse seems okay. If I had to guess I would say she was having an absence seizure, but they usually only last a minute or so. How long has she been like this? Does she have a history of this sort of thing?"
"No. I don’t know, a couple minutes maybe?" Evelyn looked up with tears running down her face. "What's wrong with her Eric?"
"The implants are safe Evelyn, but whatever's wrong with Melissa, we need to get her to the institute immediately so I can run some tests and get a better read on her condition." Eric squatted down and lifted Melissa into his arms. Evelyn followed him as he carried her to the elevator and then down to his car waiting at the curb.
Evelyn opened the door and slid into the backseat next to her daughter, "I just don’t understand. Why can’t we just remove the implants?"
Eric directed the car to drive to the institute and turned to Evelyn, "Removal is not exactly possible. People generally think of the implants as a single thing, but actually they’re a massive number of very small devices spread uniformly across the thalamocortical fibers of the brain where they meet the inner nucleus. This is where the senses are organized and transmitted to the cortex, the thinking part of the brain."
There was a brief silence and then Eric continued, "They convert chemical signals produced by these fibers into electrical signals that can be mapped and normalized into auditory, optical, and somatosomatic channels. These channels are then in turn transmitted through the network to the implants of other people. Each tiny implanted device intercepts the sensory signals traveling along a fiber but also generates signals which travel toward the cortex. These sensory channels are what people refer to as feeds, the encoded sensations of others made available for anyone to experience in real time via the implants. It's actually quite remarkable if you think about it."
"I don’t get this Open Society business, why are people getting these implants? I’ll never understand it. I don't think I want to." Evelyn shook her head as she slowly stroked her daughter's hair.
Eric gestured at the street outside with a sweeping hand motion, "A world completely open with no place for secrets. Research shows people behave differently when anyone could be watching them anytime." Eric looked left and then right and then looked at Evelyn and smiled. "Besides, what gives a person the exclusive right to their own experience? I say the experience of the individual is public domain and should be free for anyone to experience. The collective mind as we call it."
"Is that what you want Eric? To live in a world where you’re being watched by strangers night and day?" Evelyn shrugged.
"You don't understand, no one has to be watching. Having your feed open to the world changes the behavior of people regardless. What do you have to hide Evelyn?"
"What about you? What about the secrets you've kept? Secrets from your own wife? That doesn't sound very open to me Eric. It didn't change your behavior."
"Are you talking about what happened before the wedding?"
"Yes Eric, I still can't forgive you for what you did to Alicia."
There was long silence and then Eric finally responded, "You have the right to feel the way you do. She's your daughter after all. I can't forgive myself sometimes, but more importantly, Alicia has forgiven me."
"How do you know she’s forgiven you Eric?"
"The baby is proof enough."
Melissa could tell she was in the back seat of a car by interlacing the feeds of the people all around her, seeing herself through the eyes of other drivers, passengers, and pedestrians. There was no doubt the car was headed to the institute. The car stopped at a light and she saw herself through the eyes of a woman who pulled up alongside them, her face resting on her mother’s shoulder superimposed with the reflection of this other woman. She could feel a thousand interacting minds of the city surrounding her, each one an agent, a tight closed loop of consciousness which comprised their very being. This woman, Eric, her sister, all of them droplets in a waterfall falsely believing themselves to be individuals. Connected through the network.
The station guard at the entrance of the institute waved the car through the gate as they arrived. Melissa watched through Eric's eyes as he carried her into the building, along the winding labyrinth of hallways, eventually entering a room where he placed her gently into a comfortable chair situated under a large metal horseshoe shaped device which encircled her head.
Evelyn stood by as Eric tapped his fingers through screen after screen of charts and graphs. "This machine gives us detailed pictures of her brain and also downloads information from the implants themselves. You can see here some very dense growth around the implants." Eric was pointing at what Evelyn thought looked like a beetle crawling around in rice noodles. "Normally deactivation would be a solution. However, in a case like this with a serious health risk I absolutely need a second opinion."
"What do you mean serious? She’s going to be alright isn’t she?"
Eric took a deep breath, "There are complications. The scans indicate that her thalamocortical tissue is demonstrating an abnormal affinity for the implants. However it’s impossible to discern if there's been an actual mutation or if it's just endogenous nerve tissue."
"Eric, is there something you can do to help her or not?" Evelyn walked over to a chair in the corner of the room and sat down, dropping her head into her hands.
"Look, I've got to be straight with you, we’re dealing with things totally outside current models of the brain. The neoplasms or whatever they are aren't even the immediate danger or the cause of the seizures. The primary concern right now is the intracranial pressure which can be stabilized with a fairly simple procedure. Only after the pressure is at safe levels can we start to unravel why the fibers have such a strong affinity for the synaptic substrate on the implants."
Evelyn looked up, "Eric slow down. Her brain is growing into the implants, but isn’t that normal? Isn't that how they work?"
"Yes and no, the fibers attach to the implants, but the scans are showing them surrounded by extremely dense bundles of microdendrites." He gestured to some numbers on the screen. "Her synaptic density is eighty seven percent, close to the theoretical limit. Typically we see densities around five, maybe six percent. Unfortunately for Melissa, all this sensory information is drawing her attention inward and her brain is ignoring signals from her own body."
"Her brain thinks the feeds are more important than keeping her alive?"
"Yes, sort of. It’s the returning signals to the thalamus that seem to be attenuated, so in some sense she’s starting to forget she has a body."
Evelyn dug through her purse and pulled out her phone, dialed and then after waiting a minute spoke loudly into it, "Alicia, it's mom. Melissa isn't well, we need you to come to the institute as soon as possible. I'm here with her and Eric. Don’t worry about finding someone to watch the baby, just bring him with you and come as soon as possible." Evelyn hung up and tilted her head back, closing her eyes.
"Don't worry, she'll come." Eric said, "I’m taking Melissa to surgery now to relieve the intracranial pressure. I'll start an Endodyne treatment after that to restore her consciousness a bit." Eric smiled awkwardly, "Can you wait?"
"Of course I'll wait."
Alicia found her way through the hallways of the institute and burst into the waiting room with the baby squirming in her arms. "Mom are you alright? Where's Melissa? Her feed is down!"
"Your sister is having some problems with her implants." Evelyn stood up and reached out to hug Alicia, "Look, I want to apologize for what happened two years ago. I never should have said those things, in front of all those people at the wedding."
Alicia stepped back and held her at arm's length, "That isn't important right now mom, we can talk about it later."
"It's important for me to apologize, it's been tearing me up inside." Evelyn bit her lip.
"Eric is the one to blame mom, you were mad at him for what he did, believe me, I understand that. So let's forget it for now okay?"
Eric and another woman brought Melissa into the waiting room. "We were able to relieve the pressure by installing an EVD." Eric held back Melissa's ear as he showed Evelyn the plastic tube leading down her neck. "This is also how we deliver the Endodyne which seems to be working well, she should regain consciousness shortly."
Alicia bent down next to her sister. "Melissa, can you hear me? I’m here, what's wrong with her eyes?" Her eyes were looking forward but twitching rapidly. "Eric what's happened to my sister? What did you two do to her?"
The woman who came into the room with Eric stepped forward, "We saved her life is what we did to her. You should be thanking us."
Eric quickly stepped in, "Alicia this is Elizabeth, a CNS here at the institute. My colleague."
"Are you kidding me Eric? Do you really think we need this right now? Yes, a pleasure to finally meet you Elizabeth, I've heard so much about you." Alicia said with a sarcastic grin on her face.
"Sorry, let me introduce myself properly, I'm Dr. Elizabeth Wernecker, a cyber-neurosurgeon here at the Institute. I'm pleased to finally meet you Alicia, your husband is a highly respected engineer here, it’s a real honor to work with him. And of course Mrs. Alphonse, I have heard so much about you as well."
"Yes, tell us more about the work you do with my husband. It sounds like you two made a real breakthrough for science. Mirroring each other behind my back."
"Mirroring?" Evelyn said, "I thought they were -- you know what."
Eric interrupted, "It’s a slang term people use for when two people follow each other when they're... together. Elizabeth and I received a grant to research how it changes relationships between people. As you can imagine it's a rather interesting exercise."
"You see mother, they made themselves into guinea pigs for the good of science. Honestly Eric, we all know there was more than just research going on." The baby woke up and Evelyn reached out for Alicia to hand him over to her.
"I’m going to walk him around in the hallway." Evelyn said, "Can you children sort out your little argument so we can get back to the real problem here?" Alicia handed the baby over and Evelyn walked out into the hall.
"I agree with Evelyn, can we all try to act like adults?" Elizabeth said. "Remember, I’m here to help Melissa survive this, and so far we’ve only taken care of the immediate danger. We desperately need to understand what's happening to her, why her tissues are growing so rapidly, so densely."
"You know Dr. Homewrecker, we aren't talking about some tissues in a test tube here, we’re talking about my sister." Frustrated, Alicia lowered her head into her hand rubbing her eyes and breathing slowly.
"Alicia, is that you?" Melissa said. "I know you're here, I can see myself in your feed." She smiled slowly.
Alicia moved quickly to her sister's side, "I'm here. I'm glad you're awake, are you feeling better?"
"I don't know. I'm having a hard time staying out of the feeds. I can see so many at once. Each person connected to every other person. It all fits together so perfectly, like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I can even see feeds other people are following."
"What? You aren't making any sense. It's not possible to see who other people are following. Eric, tell her. She isn't making any sense." Alicia turned to her husband.
"Actually, it's not as crazy as it sounds. It’s possible the loops she's referring to are the thalamocortical fibers in the brain. There are ones connecting the thalamus to the cortex, but also others which run back, from the cortex to the thalamus. Together these fibers are actually referred to as thalamocortical loops, and it's been hypothesized they may be the seat of consciousnesses in the human mind."
There was silence and then Elizabeth spoke, "Eric, I have other patients to attend to. Can I talk to you in private for a moment?" Eric followed her into the hall and Elizabeth continued in a whisper, "This is an incredible find Eric, we are going to be famous!"
"Right, but the important thing right now is keeping Melissa safe."
"Of course Eric, we absolutely need to keep her alive so we can understand the cause of the affinity. This is going to put our institute on the map. It's going to put us on the map, you and me." She put her hand on his arm.
"Obviously it's an important finding, but I have an obligation to Alicia and her sister to make sure science doesn’t interfere with our better judgement." Eric pulled his arm away and Elizabeth's hand dropped off.
"Of course I care about Melissa, but sometimes we need to put society above the individual, even your own sister-in-law. Besides, think of the funding we could secure, not to mention the commercial possibilities. Think of all the good we could do with that money."
"Can we please just worry about saving her life first? I don't mean just keeping her alive, I mean getting her life back, the life she had before all this started." Elizabeth sighed heavily and then turned away, heading down the hall and leaving the question unanswered.
Back in the room Melissa confided in her sister, "Alicia, I don't think I'm going to survive this."
Alicia was surprised, "What do you mean? Eric said the Endodyne is working. Everything is going to be alright."
"I don’t want to be studied. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else."
"Everyone's here to help you. Don’t let my issues with Elizabeth worry you, she knows what she’s doing. If Eric trusts her, I trust her."
"It’s not that Alicia. I already feel shapeless, inhuman. I can’t let people be turned into this."
"I don’t understand, you look like yourself? You're going to be okay."
"I'm already gone Alicia. I can’t unsee what I have seen. I need you to help me, I need you to ask Eric to stop the Endodyne."
"No way! Are you crazy? It's what's keeping you alive right now Melissa."
"I need you to listen to me. I can't let this happen to anyone else, do you hear me? I'm not sure what that would mean for people. For humanity."
Eric suddenly came back into the room and saw the terrible look on Alica's face, "Is everything alright?"
"She wants you to stop the Endodyne treatment Eric."
"I can't do that, you would die within hours of stopping the treatment and almost immediately enter the absence state again."
Melissa still struggled to speak, "If you don’t help me do this Eric, I'll find a doctor who will. Sometimes we need to put the needs of society above the individual, right?"
Eric paused for a moment, realizing that Melissa had overheard his conversation with Elizabeth in the hallway through their feeds. "I can't stop the treatment even if I wanted to, Melissa. I'm sorry."
Melissa turned to her sister, "Ok then, maybe you're right. Alicia, I need to ask you to do something else. Even if it sounds silly will you do it for me?"
"You know I would do anything for you." Alicia knit her brow and patted Melissa's hand.
"Swap feeds with me. You follow me and I’ll follow you, okay?"
"Sure, but why?"
"Don't be scared okay? And don’t stop following no matter what."
"Scared how? Melissa, maybe you should just rest."
"I can’t explain, just mirror me."
Alicia smiled and did as her sister asked, "Okay I’m there. I can see myself."
As Melissa began to follow Alicia, a feedback loop was created, like two cut pieces string attached back to each other, coalescing as if never separate. Alicia was lost in the mirror, losing track of time. Slowly, she became aware of the room again and then of her sister, her face now different somehow. Melissa laid motionless with Eric at her side as Evelyn returned to the room with the baby asleep in her arms.
"What’s going on?" Evelyn whispered.
Eric looked up at her, "I’m sorry, her condition is deteriorating rapidly. I'm not sure what's happening."
"Oh my god, is she dying? Is she gone?" Evelyn said.
"She's not gone mom, she's here with me now, I can feel her consciousness entangled with mine. Hand me Gabriel and sit down next to her. Can you call Robert? I think we are going to need him."
Alicia turned to her husband with tears streaming down her face, "I'll tell you what is happening Eric, you're shutting off the Endodyne treatment and you are helping me get Melissa out of here right now!"