Two by Two

Mason frowned as soon as he spotted the pair walk into the coffee shop. A middle-aged, seemingly well-to-do man followed closely behind by a teenager, of at most 18. Their gait was almost identical, and they wore matching disgruntled facial expressions as they approached the barista, expressions that suited the older gentleman perfectly but seemed slightly comical on the young man. “Two large coffees, black,” they intoned, their voices effectively blending into one. It was an eerie effect, but the barista barely gave it any notice as she turned away to prepare their drinks.

“It’s unnatural,” he hissed under his breath, staring at them. “Them just walking around as if they’re not two separate people, invading everyone else’s space. They’re even dressed alike!” It was true; they sported the same expensive suits, perfectly tailored to fit their individual frames, as well as identical $400 haircuts.

Brie had heard this speech before, and tried to suppress an eye-roll. “What two people decide to do with their lives is their business — ”

“He’s just a boy! How could he have possibly made a well-informed decision? They ought to really set up stricter laws on such things.”

She regarded the teenager. The gel in his sandy hair seemed barely able to contain what she could only speculate was normally an unruly mane, but that had at least temporarily been tamed into submission (although a cowlick or two in the back were making serious threats). His jaw had yet to fully square out, and the sprinkle of freckles across his nose made it far easier to imagine him throwing a baseball outside in the sunlight than the reality of him standing in his immaculate suit holding a suitcase and glancing impatiently at his expensive watch. The older gentleman, on the other hand, looked as if he had been born in his suit, gel-ed hair and all.

They had received their drinks and were both taking sips at the same time while headed for the door, uncannily copying each other seemingly without any thought. She had to admit it was strange-looking, as if the universe had somehow fractured and given her an illicit glimpse into two parallel versions of the same person. Given the synchronized extent of their movements, she guessed they had probably been linked for about a year at that point. Most likely he was only 16 or so when he signed. “They are getting younger and younger, aren’t they?”

“And of course it’s only the rich who can afford it. There’s probably some sort of underground market for child Mimics,” Mason muttered.

“He will be well-off, that’s for sure.”

It was a deal that more and more young people took these days, especially those with less than stellar employment prospects. Their future was set, as long as they agreed to give up their individuality. As long as they agreed to drown themselves in someone else.

As a science writer for a popular blogging site, Brie had been following the technology for a while now, fascinated by how quickly the public had taken to it. The original procedure had been invented as a medical treatment to help people with traumatic brain injury, most often war veterans injured in explosions during battle. Somehow, using a combination of surgery and cutting edge ultra-flexible micro-electrode arrays, scientists were able to record activity in one part of the brain and replay it to the damaged regions, allowing the vets to eventually regain a lot of original function. She recalled many heart-warming stories in the news of soldiers who could walk for the first time in years, into the arms of their teary-eyed loved ones. It was hailed as a breakthrough revolution in neuro-rehabilitation and modern medicine.

But it wasn’t until the invention of a non-toxic, injectable wireless nano-electrode that companies finally figured out a way to monetize and sell the technology to the general population. After extensive human testing and over a billion dollars in investment, in 2029, Cortechs Pharmaceuticals introduced the world to NeuroEcho, the first ever method of wirelessly linking two people via electrical brain activity. As of 2033, over 10 million people had tried the procedure, doubling the company’s stock price and allowing Cortechs to reap its investment five-fold.

It was billed as a “vacation into another’s mind,” the ultimate voyeuristic experience. Not an un-apt description, since the entire process took at minimum a week to fully enjoy, so people often had to take time off from work. There was also no guarantee about the efficacy, which was highly dependent on individual factors. But under ideal circumstances, the reviews all claimed you’d experience a feeling of closeness unlike anything felt before. During the height of the craze, Brie had interviewed people who swore they had experienced a complete loss of identity, as if they were a single consciousness occupying two bodies, and the lines between self and the other person were virtually erased.

The one time she had managed to save up enough money to try it with a close friend, she had not experienced anything nearly as extreme. First, they had to undergo a series of psychological examinations to determine their compatibility. Score too low and you got a refund (minus the testing expenses) and weren’t allowed to proceed. After a half day spent with EEG electrodes stuck to their heads, gazing at various pictures, having their motor movements and reflexes measured, and undergoing various intelligence and memory tests, they were thankfully deemed compatible enough to proceed to the next step.

Next was the nano-electrode injection, a silver, filmy, and altogether rather alarming-looking substance that seemed like it shouldn’t be going anywhere near her body, let alone into her veins. She turned her eyes away and tried to not to feel the coolness as it seeped into her body, or to imagine the tiny particles making their way through her blood-brain barrier and into the interstitial matrix of her cortex. Her skin crawled, but she kept repeating to herself that they’d be out of her in less than two weeks.

Then came the tedious part.

It was explained to them that, in order to ensure that their brain networks were maximally synchronized, they had to spend at least two days in very similar settings, copying each other’s movements as much as possible. Turns out, you can’t just force one person’s brain patterns on another. Without previous compatibility and syncing, the brain would either simply ignore these foreign signals as noise, or, if the amplitude was high enough, enter into a seizing state.

If she hadn’t had paid almost a week’s salary to be there, she would have sworn she was in a Kafka-esque nightmare, being poked and prodded for two days in a clinical lab as she and Sarah mimicked each other eating, reading, watching the same TV shows, doing various strange exercises that spanned their entire range of movement, and even wearing identical clothing. Finally, after two days of syncing, the activity being recorded in their brains began to be broadcast to the other. Their link was finally open.

Brie didn’t know what she had been expecting exactly. To hear her friend’s voice in her head? To all of a sudden be able to just sense her? The reality was much more subtle. A fleeting vision here, seen from the Sarah’s eyes. An impulse to move her hand there, when she hadn’t ever planned to reach for her coffee. Seeing herself from another person’s perspective was strange, but also allowed her to put her own inner turmoils into context. Troubles that used to loom larger-than-life in her mind seemed much smaller, from the outside.

Emotions bubbled up from out of nowhere, but it was always hard to pinpoint the source. She lost her train of thought sometimes, derailed by Sarah suddenly realizing she forgot to confirm their tickets before leaving, or feeling incredibly thirsty, or just thinking of a funny video she had seen. They spent most of the next two weeks together, but even when separated, Brie seemed to sense her friend’s general state of mind. She found it overall a very comforting, pleasant experience. Even after the nano-electrodes had completely cleared out of their systems, they retained a close emotional bond that persisted to this day.

Cortechs even sold “couple’s retreats” for those in troubled relationships who wished to regain their former closeness. Outcomes were excellent, with almost all successfully linked couples quoting increased communication, mutual understanding, and a general sense of bonding and affection. Numerous startups were founded on the premise of helping lonely hearts find their “neuro-match,” to jump start a budding romance via linking.

The one time Brie had suggested to Mason that it might be fun to try out together, he had looked at her like she’d requested for him to eat maggot-infested food, before launching into a long-winded tirade about the precarious nature of identity in this new world order of dangerous enmeshment and loss of self. She decided to never bring it up again. In all honesty, they seemed to have such different perspectives she wasn’t sure they would be compatible to link in any case. To Mason, the worst injustice one could do to oneself was to get lost in another.

Brie could tell he had worked himself up by now. He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Did you hear about that lawyer in the news? Got arrested for trying to perma-link with his 13-year old son, after he found out he had cancer. Can you imagine? Apparently he figured it was best to keep the family business in the family.”

She hadn’t heard. Brie cringed thinking about it. “That’s horrible.”

Perma-linking with family members was considered taboo, children especially, as it was all to easy to run into practically incestuous situations such as a son suddenly finding himself attracted to his mother. Unlike regular linking, perma-linking resulted in lasting changes to the brain. Only invented in recent years, it was a service catering almost exclusively to the very rich. Such a procedure required nano-electrodes to be surgically embedded within the cortex, allowing them to persist within the brain for years without degrading. Syncing could last up to two years, with longer sync times ensuring more long-term changes to brain structure, and more memory transfer. As implied by the name, it was intended to be permanent.

Perma-linking was also mainly one-way, with input from an older Primary training the brain networks of a younger Mimic. Upon signing their contracts, Mimics’ old identities were declared legally deceased, thus ensuring them no legal or practical recourse should they change their minds. In most cases, after only a few months, they were unable to change their minds regardless, having at that point completely lost a separate sense of self. In all interviews with such pairings, both claimed to have an experience of only one consciousness, spread evenly across two distinct bodies. They were legally recognized as one entity for the duration of their link (effectively until one died, as no one had ever chosen to terminate a perma-link). Once one did die, typically the older Primary, the other would be given full control of all faculties. The experience of the death itself was apparently not very traumatic, likened more to an amputation than anything else.

“Why would anyone do that to themselves? What kind of society do we live in if this sick procedure is legal?” Mason clenched his jaw and balled up his fists, glaring at the front door of the coffee shop as if the two men in suits would at any moment step back in to challenge him to a fight.

Brie bit her lip, not wanting to start another argument over this. “I mean, I don’t really agree with perma-linking, it seems to be just another way for rich people to extend their lives, but regular linking’s not so bad. It’s … nice to be able to connect like that sometimes.”

He turned to her, incredulous. “It’s not connecting, it’s losing yourself! It’s letting go of all the things that make us who we are, that make us different. If we don’t have our identities, what do we have?”

“It’s not losing yourself to be able to see someone else’s point of view — “

“So you think we should all just be the same? To have identical thoughts, just a bunch of robotic clones without an original opinion among us?”

“Of course I don’t think that, you’re putting words in my mouth,” she turned away in frustration, crossing her arms. She sighed, trying to calm herself. “It helps people feel closer, like they have more common ground.”

“What it does is make sure we have absolutely nothing of interest to say to each other. Any thought that I have, someone else would have? It’s a nightmare. I would rather die before I live in a world where anyone else thinks exactly like me.”

Brie began to retort, but something in his tone stopped her. A tinge of sadness, resignation perhaps. She decided not to push it any further.

Instead, she studied him. He was fiddling with his phone, foot tapping with nervous energy, agitated by the argument. She didn’t know what he was thinking, behind those eyes. Couldn’t imagine what it was like to have grown up like he did, to see the world through his singular perspective. Years lived, friendships made, traumas created and healed over. He could tell her, in words, but she would never really know, with such an imperfect transmission stream. There was an impassable abyss between them, by the mere fact of the physical distinction of their bodies. Each of them in their own, isolated universe, with no way to meet, just the way he liked it.

Two weeks later, it was announced that the body of William van Holdt, CEO of Capital World, a major multinational banking corporation, had been voluntarily terminated at the age of 61. This was the first voluntary termination of a healthy, viable body, and incited furious public debate on the ethics of early termination. Several states announced intentions to legislate bans against the procedure altogether. Mason was scandalized and refused to read the news for a week, making dire proclamations of the dystopic future that was all but guaranteed.

The younger William van Holdt, previously known as James Bell, spoke at the interment ceremony, with a confidence and self-assuredness far beyond his physical 23 years. His speech was an inspirational one, broadcast live across the world, watched by billions. He spoke not of the past or of fond memories, but of rebirth and the future.

He did not consider a death to have occurred at all, for he was still very much alive. The old body could now be cast off as an old skin, he proclaimed, unneeded because humanity had finally transcended mortal bounds, the flesh prisons in which we were all born. Bodies might decay and eventually die, but humans no longer had to. The soul could live on, mortality finally solved, and the answer had been in front of us all along: each other. We were everlasting, two by two.

Brie thought it was touching, if a bit trite.

Finally, William van Holdt assured his shareholders that, although his appearance was changed, he was still very much the same person, legally and by all other definitions, and that daily operations would continue without interruption at Capital World.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.