“I can’t believe you dragged me to the middle of the goddamn desert. This place is ridiculous.”
“Seriously, Thomas? We jumped through so many hoops to get permission to travel, and we ate beans and rice for 3 years to pay for all this, and now you’re going to bust my hump as if I had any control over where the Communion Centers exist? This is the only one in the States. You are impossible!”
“This is a load of crap and a waste of time, and you know it.”
“Well, it is a load of crap that you are going to participate in, graciously, if you don’t want to waste the rest of your time alone. You promised, and we are doing this.”
The elderly couple entered the Communion Center together, and immediately sat at opposite ends of a plush blue couch in the waiting area. They did not appreciate the luxurious softness of their seat, fit for a Sultan. They did not see the real mesquite coffee table before them, or the selection of holographic books and magazines, hand picked to suit them by the staff. They did not appreciate the perfect climate of the room, or the lighting, which had the quality of films, when films existed. All of this was lost on them. After 46 years together, in a world where time was made almost meaningless by developments in life extension, they had lost most of their compassion for one another. The children were long raised and gone, off to the colonies now that the exploration of space had at last become real, out of necessity. The forms of work they had practiced their whole lives were made relics by technology so advanced that it that had become indistinguishable from sorcery. People were nearly immortal now, and with the approach of a world without death, people simply didn’t know what to do with themselves. Tensions ran high as the world adjusted to the most fundamental change that could possibly happen. What the world needed, desperately, was a way to bring people back together, and at last, one brilliant person had found it. For a price, total empathy was now possible, and slowly, people were returning to the peace that life out of balance with nature had taken from them. After years of pleading, Violet Faraday had finally convinced her husband Thomas that it was time to give it a shot. They had chosen to forego the treatments that removed the specter of the grave, and go naturally. They wanted peace. The Communion technology, once it leaked a little further into the world and took root, was going to change everything, for everyone, but for the Faradays, all that mattered was that it might bring them back together, so that their last years could be the best of their lives.
Sophia Bradbury had been raised nearly 100 years ago at the end of the 21st century, an awkward time when technological advancement was moving at more or less tenfold the speed of emotional maturation, as it always had for humans. She had moved through school and higher education like a fish through water, surpassing her peers in every way but one: social interaction. She was a terribly sensitive creature and the world is a harsh place for such souls. She found solace in her research, and learned to love being alone. Deep down, what she really wanted was to feel connected. She had no idea how this urge would shape the world one day. At the tender age of 23, she landed a job straight out of college, working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. She had very mixed feelings about this, for DARPA had always struck her as a shadowy organization filled with shadowy men who do very shadowy things indeed, but it was also the absolute best place in the world to do the kind of research her heart most longed for. What DARPA wanted, DARPA got. They were outside the budget, and they were every bit as rich in intellects, having plucked the finest minds on Earth as they ripened on the vine and put them straight to work.
You see, war had finally gotten too expensive. Fossil fuels, despite the empty promises of 20 generations of politicians, were in fact finite after all, and they dried up. This lurched the world to a grinding halt, and alternative energy finally had its chance to get off the bench. Sadly, having been neglected as long as anyone could remember, it just wasn’t in shape to take the place of dinosaur juice. In a panic, the full resources of the world’s governments were temporarily focused on sustainability. Once an acceptable degree of that had taken place, the old war machinery continued, beneath the surface. Never again would the remaining superpowers allow themselves to come so close to the edge of oblivion, but instead of working toward a cooperative whole, they predictably returned to the attitude of the previous centuries, and put all their energy into espionage. Competition for whatever there was left to exploit was the name of the game, and it was an open secret, though a mask of Utopia was begrudgingly accepted by the common folk. As has been the case for time immemorial, the leaders of the human race shook hands, while their free hands held knives ready to be plunged into each other’s backs.
Sophia struggled with this, but she really had no choice. There was a sort of unspoken martial law in effect worldwide, and from now on, the private sector would be lucky to get the scraps that fell from the table of government-funded research. The public at large were being kept in a stupor, and there just weren’t any jobs outside of the domination machinery. So, she tried to make the best of it, figuring if she was trapped anyway, she would be the best in her field, and she was. The Bradbury Institute for Research and Development was established in 2122, and Sophia found herself in charge of the finest brain trust to exist in many years. At times, it was completely overwhelming, and eventually she gave up her title to return to direct research. The Institute kept her name, and she continued to operate with a certain freedom because of the respect she had garnered over the years. After all, she had given them the LifeMic, which could be implanted as early as birth and recorded every facet of a person’s existence for later study. The GodSkin, a garment which made an agent invulnerable to physical attack, had been hers as well. She cursed these achievements for the ways they had been abused, but she would soon redeem herself.
In 2125, Sophia was taken off all current projects and was more or less commanded to focus all of her talents on one in particular. DARPA was absolutely obsessed with the idea of mind-reading. This was no real surprise for an organization that had pioneered such developments as dragonfly-shaped surveillance robots, and it was almost comical how quickly they had returned to a Cold War cliche. The “remote viewing” programs of the 1980s, a direct reaction to a rumor that the Soviet Union had psychic spies, had been lampooned forever as the hogwash that it clearly was, but this was different. The idea here was not to squint in a dark room and do automatic drawing, and just hope you guessed where the nukes were. No, this was the ultimate form of interrogation. It had all been leading up to this since the Spanish Inquisition. The goal was a machine that could interface directly with a human brain, and extract information from it with the ease that people had once done with the Internet. With this device, no amount of personal discipline or training could possibly stand between an interrogator and the deepest recesses of any political prisoner’s mind. The Mental Process for Achieving Total Hegemony, or M-PATH, as they called it, would be the end of secrets.
Sophia had worn a face of stone as she exited the briefing room. She had simply nodded, and walked out of the room completely numb. Somehow, she had managed to propel herself to the elevator, and gone down to the level where her apartment was. Sometimes, due to the artifice of the place, she forgot for an instant that she lived deep underground in a former missile silo, converted by DARPA into a nuke-proof research facility. She would never forget again. She collapsed on her bed, her body and mind simply stopping out of shock. Hours later, she woke, unrested, and awash in a cold sweat.
There was only one way to survive this horror. She would have to throw herself so completely into the details that she would not be able to see the whole picture. She became a woman possessed. She banished her staff to other projects, so they would be spared what she endured. She isolated herself completely, and began to resign herself to the task. She told herself that the test subjects were criminals, terrible men, and for a time, it worked. Their faces blended into one, the pallid, generic mask of The Enemy. She pretended, eventually, that they were only dolls, and felt nothing. But it couldn’t last, and it did not.
You see, the system was designed to be one-way. There was a sort of ring, and you placed it around the crown of the head. A system not that different in principle but far more sensitive than the MRI scanners of the last century would literally read the subtle electrical activity of the brain, and the data would be fed into a bank of computers which translated it back into the thoughts which had produced the activity. The system would record all of the sensory data contained in the memories, and the associated thoughts, and the Operator could then sift through them and look for patterns. Eventually, a sort of index could be formed, and from there, a search engine. It was absolutely sinister. Privacy had long been missing from the culture, but this was the erasure of the possibility.
There was a problem with the one-ring system. Computers, as amazingly complex and downright organic as they had become, were still only simulations of mental processes. To really experience human consciousness, you need a human nervous system. For M-PATH to come to fruition, the Operators would have to take a great risk by hooking their own brains into the damned thing. Sophia volunteered, despite the protests of her superiors. They were aghast that she would risk frying the greatest brain they’d ever gotten their claws into, a real treasure trove of genius to exploit. She insisted, reminding them in a moment of rare spunk that it was her name on the goddamned wall, and they found that there was no one qualified to take her place anyway. They relented.
Sophia reverse-engineered the sensor helmet and managed to create one that transmitted instead of receiving. With the two-ring system still safely one-way, she was satisfied and begrudgingly resumed testing. It had been a welcome break to solve a problem instead of doing what she now considered a form of deep torture on subject after subject. Her work had paid off, and the M-PATH MK II was functional. The system would pass biologically stored information, unfiltered, from the prisoner’s mind, and the Operator’s mind, and into the bank of computers. The Operator would now be truly living up to their title, guiding the flow of information, probing ever deeper, acting as the most horribly intimate of all Inquisitors. Everything would be recorded, and could be sorted through at leisure rather than on the fly. This was it. The final phase.
The experiments resumed. Once again, Sophia threw herself into the project, learning to scan and pull from brains as easily as she had learned to read books. She was a natural, and she hated it. She knew that she would wind up spending the rest of her life training people to do this detestable thing. She secretly hoped the machine really would wipe her mind, and stop all of this, but she pressed on. She had no choice. For some, rebellion would grant them a quiet execution, but they’d never let her go that easily. What she had learned long ago was that you could not quit this job. She let herself die a little, and pressed on.
Subject 212 changed everything. It was his eyes. He was the first one who could actually look her in the eyes, and halfway through the scan, he did. She dropped her guard, and let herself look back, and what she saw was a human being. A human being who had a history, and a life, and a family, and was not just another head to put in the center of an electromagnetic sensor array that could very well erase all of that. As her discipline lapsed, the flood of another mind’s memories was too powerful, and she began to stroke. Her own mind stopped in its tracks, and she was helpless to do anything but observe the contents of this man’s life and dreams, this man who her masters would assure her was barely human at all. Smoke began to rise from the rings, and wispy arcs of electricity danced between them. Suddenly, Sophia was aware that she was not simply watching this man’s mind. She was feeling it, as directly as her own. She felt his fear, and his dread, and then, something beneath it. She felt him forgive her. She could not move, and their eyes were locked. She watched, no, felt, as he died. That was it. He was gone. She remained, and in a moment, she regained control of her own body. Her consciousness returned, but it was missing something. She’d left a piece of herself inside that man and he had taken it with him.
Sophia frantically removed the ring from her head, and began to pace. This wasn’t the first one that had died. Every new tweak of the system carried great risk, and there had been several casualties. Hell, all of them had gone away minus something, even if they had lived. But Subject 212, his death was different; it had mattered. It had mattered because it had been impossible for her to differentiate his consciousness from her own, and then she thought, maybe there was no separation at all. Maybe to kill anything is to kill everything. She wished she could lock the door. She wished she could get away from the cameras. She wondered how much they had seen.
The computer. She had to find out what had happened before anyone else did. She wasn’t the only one smart enough to decode the recordings, and there were always investigations when one of the “livestock” died, probably to see if they could do it on purpose. Oh, they’d love that, a machine that gave you the ability to kill with a thought. She wouldn’t give them that. She managed to hide the first genuine smile she’d had in ten years as she discovered that the computer had been completely shorted out by the instant of bi-directional connection. The system couldn’t take it! She had an out.
DARPA was shocked. No one had had a stroke in 25 years, at least no one in the government. In exchange for signing your life away, you got a very special injection. Your personal squad of microscopic angels would then work full time, repairing your cells as they fell apart. You only got soul-sick from then on. Your body would be just fine, as long as they needed you. It ensured decades of faithful service, particularly since the tiny mechanics could be remote controlled and given more sinister work to do, if necessary. It was a fluke, and they couldn’t argue with it. The one loophole in the contracts was that if you were unfit to serve, they’d let you go. You were considered safe, because no other government would hire you in such a state, and it would do you no good at all to go to the media, since they were the most faithful servants of all. The public at large was too paralyzed by ignorance to do anything. As far as they knew, you never existed anyway. Once in a while, DARPA actually let someone out, and from that day, that person was a ghost.
* * *
Ah, but there is a certain freedom in being a ghost. Sophia felt 20 years younger, released from the yoke of DARPA. She had hustled them with a master’s skill. She’d figured out a way to immobilize the nanobots in her first year, and she did so just long enough to appear to be damaged goods. Once free, she let them bring her back up to snuff, and then she shut them off. She knew better than to give the bastards a hold on her. Immortality gave her the creeps. She felt compelled to improve life, rather than simply prolonging it. Finally, she knew exactly how to do it.
Thus the Multinational Project for the Attainment of Total Humanity was born. Sophia took incredible pleasure in removing all the original evil from the M-PATH name. She had managed to make quite a bit of money selling inventions she didn’t really care about, since her real passion was consciousness. People always needed amusement, never more before than now, and she cranked out all sorts of new toys. It felt empty, but it was quite lucrative, and she started a new Institute in honor of her new mission. She had worked for DARPA long enough to know their selection process, and she beat them to the next crop of geniuses. The finest minds of every nation were secreted away to work on what would prove to be the single most important technology in human history. The dream was, once more, the direct connection between two human minds, but this time, it would serve to connect lives rather than to destroy them. Free at last from the barriers imposed by the inherent limitations of language, the consciousness of another mind could finally be experienced as naturally as if it were your own.
This time, Sophia wanted to be sure it was done right at every stage. Free from the restrictions of her former life, she started in a very strange place. She had been wracking her brain, trying to figure out positive uses for the technology. Human trials were miles off, but what could she do right now? She bit into a fresh strawberry, grown in the Institute’s victory garden, and it hit her. Hardly anyone got to have this experience. Despite amazing technology, most of the world was still hungry, and those that ate were eating dreadful food indeed. If people knew what they were really putting into themselves! It didn’t need to be this way. In a burst of intuition, she grabbed a portable M-PATH prototype and brought it into the garden. She slipped the Operator ring (they were now affectionately called “halos”) on, and, laughing at herself a little, placed the other around a strawberry plant. It seemed so silly. Everyone knows plants don’t think.
Well, not like we do, as it turns out. But plants have a mind, or rather, they are part of a mind, and they have a memory that goes back for eons. If anyone can teach us how to thrive, it is the collective intelligence of the plant kingdom. It was waiting for us. The shamans and psychonauts got a taste of communion with the plant, but M-PATH was the real deal. Sophia built enough systems for an entirely new team, and began to recruit botanists. Within 5 years, her squad of plant-talkers created a database that allowed for the most perfect agriculture in history. She felt she couldn’t reveal M-PATH just yet, so she started a puppet company which claimed to have simply achieved genetic mastery of all major crops. She had obstacles, for sure, as there was another company which had made that claim since the 21st century, but in the end, truth won out. Her team traveled to every stretch of the world, sharing their discoveries, with the best and brightest, for free, and it grew far too quickly to be stopped. Finally, abundance could be universal.
The next logical step was to try to communicate with other animals. This was quite a daunting task, but she wasn’t slowing down now. Once more, the M-PATH project was able to steal the world’s best minds away from the war machine and put them to work expanding the vocabulary of consciousness. Biologists of every kind became part of the world’s largest research project, struggling to keep it to themselves, but overjoyed with the work they were doing. At long last, human beings had discovered a way to become part of the planetary conversation instead of arguing with it. This was incredible, but how would they convince people to try it for themselves? Sophia’s latest dream team wracked their brains, but came up dry. They pleaded with her for help. In a moment of devilish inspiration, it came to her. “It’s simple. We’ll trick them.”
The M-PATH system was retooled, and reborn as a sideshow. Traveling through the world, the research project in the guise of a circus tempted the public with the chance to “talk to the animals,” and people came in droves. Seeking a cheap thrill, most left changed forever. Touching the mind of an animal is an experience that completely removes your taste for meat, as it turns out. It was that simple. The wall between human flesh and animal flesh was erased in the minds of all who passed through the nomadic “Doolittle” exhibit. There was a worldwide wave of sudden and vehement vegetarianism, and eventually, those who did wish to eat meat had to look for it on the black market. This had an unexpected benefit. Vast resources had been wasted on meat production, not to mention on health care stemming from mainly carnivorous diets, and now, they were freed up. For the first time, we could afford to go back to the stars, and slowly, we began to move in that direction. It took some time for the average person to wake from his trance sufficiently to contemplate such possibilities. In the end, we had to do it. But that’s another story.
M-PATH was finally ready for people. The momentum was there. Sophia had hung on for this moment, and she relished it. She would not live to see the full bloom of the utopia she had started with a single act of rebellion, for it would take many more generations to reach its zenith,but her work lived on through her team, and their children, and their grandchildren. In time, M-PATH would connect every living thing on Earth in an irreversible way. Before she died, Sophia took the time to have a Communion with each member of her team. When she felt she had passed on all her knowledge and intention, she let herself die. She was buried on the grounds, surrounded by strawberry plants.
* * *
Violet Faraday and her husband Thomas were taken to the room at the back of the Communion Center. In the center of the circular, softly lit room, there was an apparatus coming down from the ceiling. Just below it were two plush chairs, one white, one black. The technicians guided each to their own chair, Violet’s white, Thomas’s black, and helped them sit comfortably. Glancing up for a moment, Violet caught a glimpse of the M-PATH, and thought to herself that it looked rather like a sideways 8. The two were given their instructions, and asked to try to relax. With that, the technicians left the room, and the lights were dimmed. The halos descended on the Faradays’ heads, and delicate arcs of bright blue electricity began to crackle between them. Thomas had shut his eyes, but when he opened them to see what the sound was, he saw that Violet was looking directly at him. Their eyes met and locked. Slowly, he felt her mind penetrate his for the first time in years. Memories began to wash over them as they experienced them anew.
It was so obvious to Thomas, in this state, how little of their time together had actually been negative. So much had been merely his perception. He felt tears on his cheeks, and he saw them form in the corner of Violet’s eyes. He understood, now. She had always been there for him, no matter how negative he had been. She had carried the children they had raised, and helped him bury his parents. She had forgiven him when he closed himself off to her out of fear of his own death. He had never stopped loving her, deep down, but he had stopped feeling it, because he had been afraid. Their children were alive, but they would never see them again. No one comes back from the colonies. That’s the deal. He felt helpless, angry. The comfort of knowing your children might save the species was so empty when they were removed from your life. Now, though, he felt so foolish. If he felt this way, how must she feel? She had grown them in her own body, and she had let them go with so much grace. He had resented her for that for all this time, because he could not do it. But wait, what was this? She showed him how many nights she had cried as he slept, mourning for her children. No one truly knew what waited for them out there in space.
It was hard, but he found the strength to get past the influence of the M-PATH and move his hand. At first only a little, but eventually he was able to touch hers. He felt her hand move, just a little. More tears. He felt shame wash over his face. He saw forgiveness wash over hers. Their hands were entangled now, squeezing. This was the moment. The techs watched the monitors to be sure, but they had been doing this long enough to know by gut alone. Empathy had been reached. The corner was turned. The work was done. Slowly, they powered down the M-PATH, and autonomy returned to the Faradays. They stood, and embraced as they had not for over 20 years. “I love you, Violet. I’m so sorry.” “I love you too, Thomas. So am I.”
They walked out of the room, together.