‘So, how can I help?’
‘Well…I still have a pretty constant headache. It’s been going on a while now, a really pounding one. And, I don’t know if it’s because of the headache, but I just can’t seem to get any decent rest. I wake up shattered every morning. To be honest, I feel like I haven’t slept for weeks, and…’ Emet broke off, suddenly self-conscious and concerned he was rambling.
He looked up, a little nervously, wondering if he should continue. He felt encouraged when he didn’t find boredom in Dr. Brice’s eyes, but instead interest, possibly even intrigue. But the intense and thoughtful gaze quickly became disconcerting, and he was relieved when the doctor broke the silence.
‘I see from your notes that you’ve had a few tests, which have all found nothing. And you’ve tried a few medications.’
‘Yes. I was hoping you could give me something a bit stronger? Maybe something to help me sleep, too?’
Fixed in Dr. Brice’s gaze again, Emet thought he heard him murmur ‘Perfect’, and saw a brief flicker of something in his eyes. Excitement?
‘I’m sorry?’ Emet asked, feeling a little confused.
The doctor scrunched up his nose, pulling his glasses a little higher. ‘Oh, no, nothing, I mean yes, I think I have something that would be perfect. For you. For your symptoms, I mean. It’s quite a new medication, so don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it, but it’s very good. I have a packet right here actually. Take one just before you go to bed and one on waking.’
Faintly concerned at the newness of the drug, but too tired to summon the energy to formulate any more questions, Emet accepted the small box being held out to him, thanked the doctor and left.
That night, as he struggled to keep his eyes open during dinner, he looked across the table at his wife, Aiya. They had only been married 6 months and he was sorry she’d had to put up with his current poor health for most of that time. Strangely, despite that, they had become increasingly happy together overall. He had felt his love for her deepen. He tried to listen as she talked about a news article she’d seen earlier; a doctor, Dr. Kegh, had finally been found guilty of multiple homicides of participants in his medical trials and was going to be kept in an institution for the rest of his life, with no chance of release. She was clearly indignant at this supposed justice. It had been a closed trial with most of the details kept secret from the press. The doctor himself hadn’t even been able to attend his trial, having been drugged into catatonia ever since his killing spree.
Emet tried his best to sound interested but his brain seemed to be struggling to string a coherent sentence together. Aiya smiled warmly, but her sweet eyes betrayed her concern. He squeezed her hand and smiled back, trying to look a little brighter. He apologised that she’d have to spend another evening without him, as he pushed himself up from his seat to make his way to bed, and kissed her tenderly.
He slumped down onto the bed, glass of water in one hand, odd-looking orange capsule in the other. He brought the tablet to his mouth, paused for a moment, then swallowed it. Anything that might help, he thought. He switched off the light and lay down. It was only 8pm, but he was exhausted. He closed his eyes, feeling as if he were drifting off to sleep almost immediately. He jolted sharply from that funny feeling of falling that sometimes startles you out of the beginnings of unconsciousness. Settling down again, he closed his eyes, but now felt oddly awake.
Thirty frustrating minutes later, Emet lay alert in the dark, eyes wide open. No use, he thought, might as well get up and do something. He felt a little annoyed that the pill had apparently woken him up rather than sending him nicely off to sleep, but the irritation was offset by a definite dimming of the pounding in his head. He reached out to turn on the light. Odd. He fumbled to reach the lamp, seemingly farther from the bed than normal. Finally finding the switch, he flicked it, then froze.
Everything was different. Yet weirdly familiar. A painting of the seaside hung on the wall opposite, but it wasn’t the one he had recently chosen for his bedroom. The furniture was made of a lighter wood and its placement in the room was off. The lamp his hand still clutched was a different colour and the glass of water next to him was full. Panicky and disoriented he pulled his hand in sharply, knocking the lamp over and sending the glass of water flying. For some time, he lay motionless, eyes wide and heart pounding, blood rushing in his ears.
He began to try to work out if he could be dreaming. If he was, it wasn’t like anything he had experienced before. It was either that or the sleep deprivation was sending him slightly mad. His memories felt fuzzy and mixed up. Maybe that was his seaside painting after all. It certainly was something he would choose, quite peaceful and calming: a beautiful summer’s day at the beach. His heart rate gradually dropped to something near normality. He felt wide awake now, for the first time in as long as he could remember, and very hungry. He cautiously pulled back the covers and stepped out of bed. Catching sight of his torso in a mirror as he walked towards the bedroom door, he started to wonder when he had bought these blue pyjamas. He opened the door and daylight flooded the room.
Bewildered, he wandered into the almost-familiar kitchen. The clock said 10:11am. Opening the wrongly coloured fridge door, he took out a pot of yoghurt and slowly sat at the breakfast bar which had inexplicably gained two extra stools. He ate thoughtfully, musing that clearly he had slept through the whole night in what had felt like only an instant. That at least explained why he felt rested at last. That pill must have really knocked him out.
The pills! He hadn’t taken one on waking. He quickly returned to the bedroom, but the pills were gone. He felt under the bed – perhaps they had fallen off the bedside table when he knocked over the lamp. But he couldn’t find them, and the solid wooden bed was far too heavy for him to move. He would have to make another trip to the doctor’s, he thought, frustrated.
He pulled on clothes he couldn’t quite remember purchasing and left the house. He walked briskly, deep in thought, resolving to mention the bizarre memory problems to Dr. Brice. He was hopeful he’d be able to get a quick appointment.
He slowed as it dawned on him that he should have reached the turning by now. Unsure how he could possibly have lost his way, he spun around. The street was unfamiliar. Nothing was right. The bricks of the village houses were redder, the tarmac of the roads not black enough. Even the sky seemed a slightly unusual shade. The style of the houses was strange, too. They looked a little squat, rather wide based and only two stories high. Neat rows of small, flat squares overlapped all over the sloping roofs, and the windows seemed too small. Just as he began to wonder who would want to live in such places, he spotted a figure running directly towards him.
‘Emet? It’s you isn’t it?’ wheezed the man.
‘Yes… Sorry, do I know you?’ replied Emet.
The man’s eyes lit up. ‘Yes, you do, I promise. We need to talk. Right now. Let’s go back to yours.’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t place you. I’m having a bit of an odd morning, actually. But I can’t talk right now, I’m just on my way to the doctors, except I seem to have got myself a bit lost. I was distracted and well, these new housing developments that keep springing up…’ Emet trailed off, wondering which direction to walk to get away from this lunatic.
‘Listen, Emet, this will sound odd but, well, I’m Dr. Brice, and…’
‘Don’t be ridiculous! I don’t know what kind of scam you’re trying to pull but I just saw Dr. Brice yesterday so you can’t fool me. You look nothing like my doctor!’ Emet said firmly, thoroughly annoyed.
‘Frankly, Emet, you look nothing like yourself either,’ the man pleaded as Emet strode off – any direction was better than standing here.
‘Wait!” shouted the man, running after him. “Look, I have a mirror! Glance at it and I’ll leave you alone if you want me to.’
‘Oh for goodness sake! Fine, now leave me al…’ Emet stopped dead, staring at the strange face where his reflection should have been. It stared back with the same stunned expression he felt on his own face.
‘I’m sorry, Emet,’ said the man quietly, scrunching up his nose as his glasses slid downwards. ‘I was hoping to break this to you more gently, but I can’t have you wandering around town in this state.’ He led Emet, speechless, back along the street and to the door of one of the squat houses.
‘This isn’t my house,’ murmured Emet in a wavering voice.
‘Actually it is. Sort of. Do you have your key?’ replied the possible Dr. Brice, hand outstretched. He let them into the house and into a living room.
Emet sat on a brown leather sofa, feeling dazed. Dr. Brice took out a small, orange capsule from his pocket and held it out to Emet. ‘Here, take this, it might help everything make a bit more sense.’
‘After what your last tablet did to me?’ spluttered Emet. ‘It’s messed up my vision, my memories, even my face! What have you done to me?!’
‘I promise you that your vision, memories and face are all just fine. You just don’t understand everything yet. That’s where this tablet comes in,’ Dr. Brice said with what he hoped was an encouraging, reassuring expression.
‘Then explain it to me. I’m not taking any more pills until I know exactly what’s going on. Then I’ll decide for myself if your drugs have addled my brain or not,’ Emet replied firmly, pushing Dr. Brice’s outstretched hand away.
Exasperated, Dr. Brice spoke quietly. ‘Your face, your house, your village, and everything else you remember are all safe. They’re just not here. Have you ever heard of, ahem, zombies? I don’t mean the undead variety of horror movies,’ he added quickly, as Emet flashed him a withering glare, ‘I mean the kind envisioned by philosophers speculating on how consciousness arises. Some held that the physical brain was all there is to it: consciousness was produced by the activity in the brain, and could never be separated. Others believed consciousness was a separate substance, something that could perhaps leave the body on death for example, continuing its existence in an afterlife or reincarnated into a new body.
‘But if consciousness were separate and separable, this raised the possibility that perhaps some brains have it and some don’t. That some physically fully functioning brains somehow aren’t imbued with that special extra substance. No-one would ever know. They would grow up like anyone else, learning the proper reactions to events – crying to indicate pain, laughing at something funny, and so on. Even they wouldn’t know, unaware of what was missing in them. Such people would act totally normally, but without any kind of ‘inner life’ they would just be going through the motions. Biological robots, in effect, processing input and selecting the appropriate response for each situation. Now, a few months ago…’
Dr. Brice broke off as Emet suddenly stood and began pacing the room in obvious irritation. ‘You’re talking nonsense,’ he spat.
‘I would have agreed with you entirely until about eight months ago!’ said Dr. Brice defensively. Then, more calmly, he continued with a small smile, ‘Would you like to know the real reason that Dr. Kegh murdered so many of his trial participants? And yes, he did do it.’
Curious despite himself, Emet slowly sank back down onto the sofa and with a resigned shrug raised his hand to motion Dr. Brice to go on.
Dr. Brice took a deep breath, exhaled with a long, loud puff, and began.
‘Eight months ago, I was a neurologist working on the detailed mapping of brain function, specifically memory storage and retrieval, when I was headhunted by the military to join a special project. I didn’t know many details about the work before I accepted the position – I wasn’t allowed to. Not until after I had signed strict non-disclosure agreements. The day I arrived at the base I was met by General Taeyr, who introduced me to my three teammates. I was immediately interested because the others weren’t neurologists, but instead an astrophysicist, a nanoroboticist and a bioengineer. I couldn’t imagine what project would need this range of skills!
‘After we’d exchanged brief pleasantries, General Taeyr got straight down to the business of briefing us. He informed the four of us, matter-of-factly, that until just a few months ago none of us had had consciousness. We stared blankly at him as he informed us about the recently-developed apparatus that had funneled consciousness into us. Then we stared blankly at each other as we each tried to work out if we were the brunt of some elaborate joke. We kept on staring as General Taeyr flicked through his slides detailing how the equipment had been designed and built over the previous two years to harness ‘free-floating’ consciousnesses and attach them to “zombies like you. ‘Empties’, we call you,” he’d said, with a smug little snort. I guessed pretty quickly that General Taeyr was certainly not an ‘empty’ in this weird game we were playing.
‘Apparently enjoying destroying the foundation of everything we’d ever believed about ourselves, General Taeyr shoved some booklets into our hands, detailing the military’s investigations that had begun a couple of years earlier. They’d confirmed their fears – something like a quarter of all people were empties. He told us of the heated arguments about what should be done. They had feared a massacre if the world found out, driven by panic and fear. I got the distinct feeling that General Taeyr really wouldn’t have cared if all us empties had been cleanly wiped out. But the deaths of many poor, innocent normals amongst the fighting wouldn’t have been acceptable collateral. Nor would the continuing paranoia from then on, over who might or might not be empty. So, no, the people could never find out about this. But it had to be fixed.
‘Someone had finally had the bright idea that if empties exist, and consciousness is a separate substance, then there might be free-floating consciousnesses drifting around the universe. If they could be harnessed and funneled into the empties, end of problem! The empties wouldn’t notice, they’d still have all the memories of their till-now consciousness-free bodies, stored in the physical brain. The normals wouldn’t notice either, at least not in any way that might cause alarm. Perhaps just an inexplicable sudden increase in compassion from their formerly empty friends and family. It seemed perfect.
‘And it seemed to work! They’d re-tested a bunch of us empties after switching on the apparatus a year or so ago and found them all to be normal. They celebrated, patted themselves on the back, and thought that was it.
‘But it wasn’t… General Taeyr told us it had soon became pretty clear that there were some noticeable side-effects. The formerly-empties had started behaving erratically, lurching between different temperaments.
‘I suddenly felt cold. I remembered how worried I had been over my sudden, inexplicable mood swings over a few months around a year ago. One day I would be relaxed and easy going, the next, tense and impatient, with no apparent pattern. I was just recalling my long, but unhelpful, sessions with a counselor as General Taeyr informed us that the number of people seeing therapists then had rocketed. They’d had no memory problems, and their goals in life had never changed much, just their underlying manner. Queasy, I looked around at my teammates. They looked as white as I felt. I began to have an awful, terrible feeling that maybe, just maybe this was all somehow real.
‘The research into the empties and their new consciousnesses had begun again quickly. This time the focus was on figuring out where these supposedly free-floating consciousnesses had come from. The original program had perfected how to detect their energy signatures, it was just a case of developing a tracker. It had generally been assumed that there must have been a large influx of these signatures when the harnessing machine had been activated, but that now there would be rather less activity – one new harnessed consciousness being pulled down whenever a new empty became sufficiently developed in the womb, probably arriving from random directions.
‘General Taeyr flashed up the next slide, a map of the stars overlaid with hundreds of lines showing us the paths the supposedly free-floating consciousnesses had taken to reach our empty heads. They all came from a single point in the sky a couple of hundred million kilometres out from a pretty average looking star a few hundred light years away. The origin of the signals wobbled back and forth around the position of the star. All the new consciousnesses were coming from one planet. And that wasn’t all – each signal was frequently flitting back and forth between our planet and theirs. Whenever a signal arrived, it was drawn into the nearest empty and imprinted on his brain, but only temporarily.
‘A batch of formerly-empties had been brought in, under the guise of some standard medical survey, and monitored. Initially, everything had looked fine. The signatures held steady, nothing changed. But when the night begun, so did the activity. Whenever they’d fallen asleep, their harnessed consciousness had been liberated, zipping back to where it had come from. When an empty had awoken, a new signal had been pushed in. But the new consciousness might have a totally different nature from the one of the day before.
‘General Taeyr told us the solution: actively link each consciousness’s signature to one particular brain only. So the signals had been mapped and catalogued and compared and organized. The new algorithms had been put in place. Now the signals zipped back and forth, perfectly matching to their intended brains. The erratic behaviour stopped. The government hailed its recent anti-stress programme as successful and the world went back to business as usual. I remembered having taken part in a few sessions of that anti-stress programme. I remembered thinking it had been rubbish, and wondering why it had seemed to actually work when my mood swings stopped.
‘Now I finally knew why. A single consciousness from some planet had been assigned to me. As of a few months ago, I had my own consciousness. Except was it really mine? It – I? – spent half of its time on another planet.
‘It was a fair shock to find out I was a formerly-empty, I can tell you! To be told that, actually, I was devoid of consciousness for the first couple of decades of my life. But my teammates and I had been specifically recruited for our psychological robustness and scientific thinking. And, after some time, some convincing, and a lot of examination of the results and our own experiences, we accepted it all. Especially because, as we quickly found out, we had been brought in for an amazing scheme.
‘Our first project briefing made that very clear. A planet full of consciousnesses could only mean one thing. If we could only communicate! The potential for cultural and technological exchange was incredibly exciting. When I woke up in the mornings, I would lie there and wonder what ’I’ had been doing perhaps only a few minutes earlier on that other planet so far away. It was a strange feeling. I felt connected yet at the same time so totally cut off from that other world.
‘The problem was how to communicate with those beings. General Taeyr pulled up stellar charts to show us the location of the other planet. The consciousness harness system makes use of a dimension not subject to the tedious speed limit normally affecting transmissions. The conscious energy could cover the few hundred light years practically instantaneously, but any communication signal we sent to the planet would take hundreds of years for them to even receive. And then we’d have to wait another few hundred years for the reply, assuming that they could even understand our message, and would want to talk to us, that is.
‘The obvious solution was to get the consciousnesses zooming back and forth to do the communicating. Us! Toka the astrophysicist and I beamed at each other. It dawned on me that for probably the first time in my life, I felt special. Important.
‘The problem, of course, was that memories are stored in the physical brain of a body. The consciousnesses imprinted here could never remember the planet they had just come from. We had to solve this memory barrier so that the minds could always remember both planets, wherever they were currently located. They could then gather information and report back. Perhaps, in time, we would be able to carefully let the native population know that we existed, hope that they wouldn’t be too distressed that we’re ‘borrowing’ some of their consciousnesses, and set the groundwork for a true interplanetary alliance.
‘I worked closely with the bioengineer Mila to develop a brain mapping system. We learned how to precisely measure the structure of the memory centres of a brain, and send the information to the harnessing machine for encoding, effectively uploading a person’s memories and making them available to the mind wherever it is. Then we simply had to implant a chemical transmission processor into the body – both bodies – to monitor and upload new memories as they are formed. The signature tracking system takes care of the rest, joining up the memories from the two planets into one accessible whole. Pretty neat, right?
‘The first time I woke up on the other planet was amazing. But I was disoriented. Confused. We thought we’d known what to expect. We hadn’t anticipated how distressing it would be having one set of physical memories and one set of uploaded memories to deal with at once. They didn’t gel well. Our brains fought to use only our physical memories one moment, our uploaded memories the next. Sometimes one set dominated over the other. Sometimes both sets mixed together. We got scared. Panicked.
‘Building and implanting the processors on our end had been relatively easy once we knew what we wanted to do, with access to advanced equipment and support teams. But it took rather longer than we hoped on the other side. We had to figure out the slightly different brain chemistry and get hold of the parts we needed. Too long for some of us. When the mind couldn’t make sense of it all, well… Yular landed in front of Mila and me one day as we were about to walk into our apartment block. Toka shut a train line down for hours. But the hardest thing for me was when I found Mila. We were so close to it being over… I’d been so sure we’d both make it. She was just staring and staring. But she didn’t see me anymore.
‘When I finally implanted the second transmitter, the relief of sudden coherence was almost overwhelming! My mind stopped struggling to choose one set of memories over the other. I could relax. I cried for a week.
‘I met Mila, Toka and Yular once back home. They feel different now. They’re still being kept on the base. I don’t think anyone knows what to do with them. I couldn’t bear to be around them anyway.
‘After what happened to my team, General Taeyr and the others had some intense debates. They’d got to know us over the last 6 or 7 months and I guess they’d got used to us. Maybe formerly-empties weren’t quite so expendable. They suspended new recruitment, pending an investigation to ‘evaluate the risks’.
‘They evaluated me too, for some reason, even though I made it pretty clear to them that I’m just fine. Obviously I’m made of stronger stuff than the others. After my psych tests they even wrote up on my file that they have some ‘concerns’ about me that should be addressed. Ridiculous. That kind of bureaucracy really makes me angry! Just covering their own backs…
‘As I walked out of the facility that time, accompanied by General Taeyr, he asked me, “Want to know how we found out about you guys?” I nodded. “It was that Dr. Kegh. You’ve heard of him, surely? He’s on trial for murdering a bunch of people in a medical trial he ran a couple of years ago. He was the one that developed a method of testing for the existence of a person’s inner life. He’d become obsessed, convinced that zombies existed and were everything that was wrong with the world, devoid of any real feelings of compassion or empathy… That’s why everyone is so wary of you emp…” he broke off, glancing up briefly at me and correcting himself carefully, “…was so wary of you guys. Dr Kegh had invented a contraption and tested a batch of volunteers. Even he’d been shocked by his results. He’d told the government, the army, the police, but they’d all dismissed him as a nutcase. We hadn’t listened. It had been enough to send him over the edge… It took them a long time to link the murders to him. He was clever, of course, and an experienced doctor. He’d made each death look like some kind of natural cause. By the time anyone realized every victim was actually a victim, and had been in his medical trial, he’d killed every one of the empties he’d found and was already preparing his next trial. At that point, we took all his research and began investigating. Just in case.”
‘I thought about it for a few days, Emet, but I couldn’t accept their suspension of the project after what I’d already been through. Now they doomed me to be the only one knowing both sides. The only person on the source planet with a whole other culture in my head. It just wasn’t fair…
‘So, I decided to do a bit of recruiting myself. It’s totally safe, I know exactly what I’m doing now. I still have access to the harnesser and I know how to create transmitters on both sides. I took a job as a GP. I’d heard that some minds weren’t coping perfectly with the signature matching. Effectively, the consciousness never gets a rest, whenever one body is sleeping, it nips into the other, never getting a chance to switch off and have some down time. Constantly awake. It was having a physical effect in some of the most alert minds. Exhaustion, headaches, and so on. And that is where you came in.’
Dr. Brice leaned back in his chair, looking rather satisfied, and waited for Emet to express his excitement at having been chosen to be involved in such a life-changing project. The possibilities were breathtaking!
Emet stared back, incredulous. He didn’t say a word. This was too much. He didn’t know if he believed any of it. He searched Dr. Brice’s expression for any hint of deception, but saw only earnest excitement and a glint of pride. And he couldn’t dismiss the fact that his memories didn’t fit this life. Bizarre as it sounded, Dr. Brice could actually be telling the truth. He felt a wave of nausea and panic rising in his throat. The thought of living two lives! How could he make sense of how to live on two different planets? He suddenly thought of his wife – what if he had another wife in this other life? An image of a woman’s face flashed across his mind, along with feelings of familiarity and fondness. Did he know her here? Pangs of incomprehensible guilt quickly turned to anger and resentment.
Rising from his seat, he scowled at Dr. Brice. ‘How could you do this to me?! Wrenching me out of my life, mixing up my head like this! I didn’t ask for any of this! I don’t want two lives, I can’t do it. Disconnect me! I don’t want any part of this. I’ll tell everyone what you did! You won’t get away with linking up unsuspecting victims to your machine!’
Dr. Brice recoiled, evidently shocked and confused by Emet’s rage. ‘I… I’m sorry. But Emet, think of everything you’ll be able to experience. The incredible opportunity I’ve given you… I understand things feel a bit odd at the moment, but once you take the tablet this side and the transmitter adds this body’s memories to the machine, you’ll feel so much better, I promise.’ He held the pill out again, smiling hesitantly.
‘I don’t want it. Take it away. Take it all away – block my signature from the harnesser. I don’t want to ever live in two bodies again.’
‘No, Emet, I’m not sure you quite understand. You’re mixed up. If I disconnect you now…’
He broke off as Emet leant menacingly close. ‘I mean it,’ Emet said quietly, his unblinking eyes piercing the doctor’s own, only inches away, before stepping back, arms folded. ‘Now get out.’
After a moment of frozen silence, Dr. Brice stood, visibly shaken. Despondent, he walked to the door, his head hanging. He paused with his hand on the doorknob, then straightened and turned towards Emet with a look of contempt. ‘Fine. I’ll block your signal,’ he snarled. ‘Stay here. I’ll send you a message when it’s done and you’ll never have to see me again.’ He left, slamming the door shut behind him.
Emet sat alone on the sofa, hardly able to process what had just happened. As he looked around the room, fragments of muffled memories tried to jostle their way into his awareness. He vaguely remembered buying the ornamental elephant on the mantelpiece at a large, colourful market. He pushed the thoughts from his mind, and fixed his attention on the phone in his hand. He willed it to bleep, desperate to awaken at home with his wife, to be back in his familiar village, and for all of this to be over.
A message appeared from a withheld number. He clicked on it, finger shaking.
‘It’s ready. You’ll be disconnected in a few moments and access to your uploaded memories will stop. You’ll never be pulled from your original body again.’
His sigh of relief was abruptly cut short as another message appeared.
‘I wish you all the best for the rest of your life on Earth. And don’t worry, I’ll keep an eye on Aiya for you.’
Food for Thought
Is consciousness separable from the physical brain (mind-body dualism)?
What does this mean for living beings? Could some people be biological ‘robots’?
What does this mean for death, afterlife, reincarnation?
If memories are stored in the grey matter of the physical brain, could a consciousness / spirit ever remember specific facts about their life/lives when in any such afterlife, or reincarnated?
Where / what is the ‘I’ – the sum of memories in the physical brain, or the consciousness?
About the Author
Raised in Scotland and currently based in Edinburgh, Becky Enoch has studied physics, astronomy and philosophy, and previously worked as an astronomy researcher in exoplanet discovery. She likes to create stories that weave together elements of each of these disciplines.
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