The Adjoiners

by


Please enjoy the winner of the APA Philosophy Through Fiction Competition.

Finally Colin was out the door. Andrea watched from the window to make sure he didn’t return, blaming a missing book or the need for a warmer coat. He’d been counting on a snow day, that’s why he’d been so difficult. It was a normal reaction, not “school refusal,” or whatever they’d called it last time. She’d have been equally disappointed this morning if the roads up to the Ogee National Park Visitor Center had confounded all predictions and remained passable.

Colin had dwindled to a mote in a blinding field of snow by the time the whistling kettle forced her retreat to the kitchen. She set about making breakfast, all the while struggling to tamp down a rising joy. She could tell herself it was because she’d achieved this tiny triumph with Colin, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t the hours and hours of free time the snowfall had loaned her (to be paid back later, of course, plus interest). It wasn’t even what she was going to do with all that time. It was the way she felt about it. Unseemly. An outdated word, but it felt right. At the very least, she should inform the study coordinators. Of course they hadn’t asked. Why would they? Her feeling states were completely, entirely irrelevant. No, best to keep them to herself.

She retrieved the syringe from the locked desk drawer in her bedroom and perched on the edge of the coffee table, where the necessary materials were already arranged. Again she felt a slight nausea—this was the worst of it, not the injection itself so much as the knowledge something foreign would soon be moving through her bloodstream, past the blood brain barrier, and into her brain—but more than that, a sharp anticipation. That, combined with the syringe itself, brought to mind the stereotypical image of an addict. Legs splayed, eyes rolling up into the head, the tip of the syringe still buried in flesh. She didn’t look like that, of course, but still. There. Woosh. It was in.

She checked her phone. It was 8:30. The adjoiner would dissolve around 2:30, 3:00, around the time Colin got home. Already it had begun. The disorientation, the sense of unreality, as if she were entering a different country. Patches of cloud, crisply defined, overlit by pounding sun. Startling cobalts, azures. The scenery in equal measures familiar and different, exhilarating and frightening. As the effect increased she shifted over to the sofa, knees curled under for warmth, elbow resting against the broad curve of the armrest. Right next to the table where she’d stationed her half-finished toast, a bottle of water and a few snacks. Her phone—displaying Freq’s tracking data—lay in her lap.

She closed her eyes, her external eyes, and was with him once again. He rolled his head, eddying downward, as if he knew she’d arrived.

“Hey there, Freq,” she said, aloud, in a room thirty miles west and 25,000 feet below. The words reverberated in her thoughts, which existed in fragmentary form in the air as well as on the ground, but Freq ignored whatever he sensed of them. Flapping his wings he resumed his ascent. “Yeah, that’s right. Onward and upward. Maybe we’ll break your record today, what d’you say?”

Below the crinkled foothills stretched into a blazing expanse of smooth white plain, crisscrossed by thin grey ribbons of highway. Mt. Ogee must be behind them. Without thinking she turned to look, but—of course—her view remained the same, at least until she opened her eyes on foggy window-glass.

It was a little like walking with a companion, the way by leaning in you could shift their direction without ever actually touching them. From within Freq’s brain implant she nudged until he slid rightward. A few seconds later Mt. Ogee drifted into their field of vision, its sharp 10,000 foot peak poking through a lacy wreath of clouds. It was always spectacular, but today particularly so. Freq seemed to agree: his heart rate picked up, and he went up several hundred feet in a couple seconds, as if bursting with the beauty of it. Though that might have been a reaction to her own enjoyment. More than any of the others, his mood seemed to fluctuate along with hers. The first time she’d joined him he’d been so jittery and excitable, crazy even, the way he’d swooped around that 777. And over the past month he’d been so much slower, and she couldn’t help but feel it was her slowness, her moroseness—the seemingly endless stream of calls from the school, the patronizing offers of assistance, Colin, oh Colin, what was going on with Colin—leaching into him.

His feathers riffled as he passed quickly through several layers of current. She knew where he was going. “Work before play,” she told him, regretfully. It had become their routine: they’d fly southeast, where he would hunt for rabbits and squirrels, occasionally catching a fox, and on one memorable occasion a young doe. Each of the three eagle-pairs in the study was being introduced to a different region. If any decided to relocate from their traditional nesting site near the housing developments and strip malls threatening the land west of Mt. Ogee, the Animal Intra-Mental Manipulation Study—at least her portion of it, dozens of species had been fitted with adjoiners, throughout the U.S. and in Central America—would be a success.

“Sure you want my eagles? If I were you I’d be worried about them jinxing the whole project,” she’d told Mitch Reid of the Adjoiners Team the first time he’d called her over at the Fish and Wildlife office.

He’d laughed. “I take it you’re referring to their name?”

“What else. Of course.”

“Rather superstitious for a scientist.”

“Hmm. It’s simply I don’t trust the universe. The name doesn’t make a bad outcome more or less likely, but maybe it’s inevitable some disaster is going to happen, and think what everyone will say. Icarus Eagles. No effing way. What were they thinking?”

“So, merely because a long time ago some guy with a weakness for Greek mythology gave the species an inconvenient name, you’d forgo—?”

“Course not. Anything that would help them, absolutely anything. Fair warning, that’s all,” she’d said. “But he wasn’t some guy. Given how high they fly—regularly thirty, even thirty-five thousand feet—it’s amazing, the detailed observations Richard Wiltshire was able to make more than two centuries ago. Even more amazing is the fact he noted the unique behaviors for which they’re named, which normally take place at altitudes even higher than that.”

It turned out that Mitch Reid, like just about everyone else, wasn’t actually that well-informed about Icarus Eagles. So she explained to him how they flew into the upper troposphere, where the oxygen was too thin, even given their extensive adaptations; and how they would do this even until they lost consciousness, at which point they generally plummeted tens of thousands of feet before regaining their bearings. “Falling like Icarus. Hence the name. Pretty nutty, huh? Sure you still want us?”

Freq descended into the snug valley that she’d chosen for him. As always she pressed him to scout around— check out the nest-appropriate Douglas Firs and Sitka Spruces, the ice-crusted stream, the rocky slopes above the treeline—but though he didn’t fight her lead he didn’t show much interest either. His eyes skitted from thing to thing. When he landed on a sturdy branch near the top of a 150-foot fir she tried visualizing his nest back at Ogee—moss filled, flecked with old feathers—as if it were there right in front of them. No reaction. Of course eagles didn’t visualize nests on the way to making them. She needed to figure out the mental steps he took in deciding to make a nest, before she had any hope of influencing his behavior.

By this time—she opened her eyes to peek at her phone—it was a quarter past noon. He was hungry, she was hungry. He circled over scrabbly fields while she blindly felt for her cold toast, and when it turned out to be hard as a rock, scarfed down an energy bar. He caught a squirrel. Generally she preferred to mute—as much as she could—the sickening sensation of tearing flesh and breaking bone, so that was her chance to stumble, dizzily—halfway between worlds—to the bathroom.

Once satiated Freq studied the landscape with suspicion. If she recorded that in her notes Mitch Reid would think her irrational again, this time in an anthropomorphic sort of way, but there was no other way to describe it. If Freq’s thoughts were words they might have been what the hell am I doing all the way out here?

“Hey Freq, it’s okay.” She wasn’t sure why she talked to him, except it made her feel more like a friend, less like an invader. He probably felt the reverse. Still she couldn’t stop herself. “We’re done here. Go on. Do your thing.”

He would head back before he did it. It always happened in the same general location, in the middle of a commonly used flight path, though she’d tried nudging him elsewhere. (What if he fell into a plane, on his way down?) Of the six eagles in the study he was the only one who flirted with planes. After that first time she’d joined him—after coming so close to the fuselage that she could see the stunned little faces peering through the windows— she’d checked those photos people were always posting on social media of Icarus Eagles seen from inside planes, and sure enough, there was Freq. And there was Freq. She’d kept looking and as far as she could tell almost all of them were Freq. That’s was when she’d started to think of the F—the prefix to the 5-digit number assigned him by Adjoiners Team—as standing for Frequent Flyer.

He flew on and on. As always the view was stunning, but even it got monotonous after a while. She drifted, her head falling forward, before coming up with a start. The morning’s caffeine was wearing off. Freq was now climbing at a steep angle, having reached his favorite spot. No planes were in sight. The sky shifted from indigo to purple, shading to something even darker in the farther reaches above. He rose through the thinner air. Suddenly not too far off there was a plane; but that didn’t make any sense. They’d climbed too high for that. What was it, military? With those undulating wings? No, it wasn’t a plane at all, but an immense eagle. In its mouth was a wriggling animal, all fur and blood. The blood dripped onto the clouds, staining them wine-red. By that time she’d realized she was asleep, but she didn’t want to wake up; despite the violence of its subject it was a mesmerizing dream, rich with emotion and detail. The mega-eagle grew closer. Along its neck and body ran a row of openings, shaped like windows but without plexiglass, out of which thrust knobs of human hair. Only one of them had a face.

A blur of blue and white, the wailing of a fierce wind, the sensation of plummeting through space. She reached her hands out to grab onto something, anything, and encountered the sofa. Her heart was pounding, her shirt soaked through. Freq was coming to, as well, pulling out of his dive.

How weird.

It had never happened that way before, her and one of the eagles losing consciousness simultaneously, in all her weeks of careful observation and meticulous recording-keeping. She’d missed his hallucinations. Freq’s stray thoughts might still be caught up in the memory of them; she should try to capture what she could for the paper she was writing, Icarus Eagles fly into the troposphere to evoke hallucinatory experiences. Or Icarus Eagles engage in apparently hallucination-seeking behaviors. She hadn’t got the wording just right yet and wasn’t going to tell Mitch Reid of her discovery until she did. They hallucinate because they want to. And they want to because it’s beautiful. Yes, it needed a lot of toning down. The odd thing was, the images in Freq’s mind right now echoed those in the dream she’d just had. An eagle-plane, with hairy heads sticking out the windows. She hadn’t been dreaming. She’d been in his hallucination all along, semi-sleeping, maybe. In some sort of altered state.

But she had been dreaming. The images hadn’t all been his. She’d seen a sliver of face under all that hair in one of the plane’s windows, and it had been her own. And Freq’s implant insertion had been done remotely, by drone. He’d never seen her before.

Below them the town of Ogee sprawled, radiating along twisted streets that branched off Ring Highway and Loyal River Road. Red lights flashed up north, toward home. Again her heart pounded hard. What a strange thing. They had done it together. Her dream, his hallucination, had somehow seeped into each other, merged into one. It had been—she was—thrilled, that was the word. Freaked out and thrilled. Would anyone believe her?

Another flashing light sped along Ring Highway. It met up with the others, two or three vehicles’ worth from the look of it, on a twisted snip of road outside the town center. All at once she recognized where it was they were, and what that sound was that had been annoying her the past ten minutes. Not the wailing wind. Sirens. Right around the corner, her corner.

Out in the bright cold, past the neighbors’ houses, the empty lot, and the clustered mailboxes, houses, she ran, almost without awareness of what she was doing. Cold seeped through the weave of her sweater. Pebbles poked at her stockinged feet. Freq was still with her, and she with him. He wasn’t far away. She looked up, and thought she might have seen him in the interstices of the trees. She’d been told never to do this, go out when she was joined, and sure enough it was making her sick, the conflicting images, the clear sky seen from below and the snowy land seen from above.

She reached the Ring, and was forced to choose between the slushy shoulder and the busy pavement. A driver leaned on his horn as he zoomed around her. She could see them now, an ambulance and a bunch of police cars, behind a stand of young trees a hundred feet down Laurel Trail Road. It was 2:48. She was being paranoid. But not many people lived out here. She looked for a wrecked car. It was probably a car. Nothing was visible, nothing was visible, nothing…

The first thing she recognized was the dingy gray camo of his coat. The EMTs kneeling around him hid everything else.

“Oh. Oh.”

A policeman—one she knew, Rob something—turned at the sound of her voice. Her eyes followed his to the ground. Red bloomed in the muddy snow. The EMTs shifted and there was Colin, face drawn, eyes half-closed.

“Is he okay?”

Her voice was a whisper really, a breathy nothing, but people turned in her direction anyway. A policeman was engaged in conversation with Jeremy Garrett, a classmate of Colin’s who lived nearby. Jeremy, visibly shaking, was the only one who didn’t look up. “We’ll know more when we get him to the hospital,” an EMT told her.

She went to squat on the ground next to the stretcher—made it halfway down—and someone pulled her up and away. She tried to shrug them off. “Is he breathing? Tell me he’s breathing,” she said.

“Yes. He’s breathing.”

“Jeremy. What’s happened?” she called out. When he didn’t answer she turned to Rob. “What happened?”

“We’re trying to find that out. Let’s let them talk, let everyone do what they need to do, okay.”

Colin moaned and rolled, giving her a glimpse of the back of his head. Hair sodden with blood. On his scalp she saw an oozing gash flecked with black debris. Next to him, in the bloody snow, a thick branch. “It fell?”

But it hadn’t. She could see that from Jeremy’s face. Another figure was coming up the road, the purple pompom on her hat bouncing side to side. Jeremy’s mother, Eden. Rage swept her up, buried her under, like an avalanche. Colin had never told her but somehow she’d known anyway. She’d tried to talk to Eden, ask her if she knew anything. Eden hadn’t listened. But now everybody would know. Because at just that moment Jeremy was being snapped into handcuffs.

“Hold on, officer!” Eden’s words came out tinny and small. It was then Andrea realized Eden was hundreds of feet down the road. That pompom had seemed much closer, right below her. She’d seen it through Freq’s eyes, not her own. There he was, so close, skimming the tops of the firs down the road.

“Don’t you come down here!” she screamed at Eden, her voice unfurling through the air. “This is you, this is you, this is your fault.”

“Whoa.” A policeman backed away. Another followed, jostling into her, mumbling excuses. It took her a few seconds to realize they weren’t pulling back from the screaming mother but rather the ambulance, where a looming figure had somehow commandeered the roof, in the mere seconds since she’d last seen him. Golden eyes ruthlessly surveyed the gathering—the three police officers, the two EMTs, Colin on the stretcher, Jeremy—eventually settling on Andrea. She flinched. He kept staring. From inside—fading now, the adjoiner was breaking off—she could feel his aggression. Was it directed at her? As he swiveled toward Colin the emotion sharpened. He sniffed the air. Colin’s blood.

The policemen approached either side of the ambulance, waving their batons. “Shoo, go on, shoo,” Rob said. Freq looked skeptical. They lightly banged the metal. At that Freq stretched his wings, eliciting audible gasps at his seven feet of wingspan. He took his time, stretching his neck, looking around once more. This time his eyes fell on Eden, who’d just arrived, huffing and puffing. She screeched. He flapped his wings, once, twice, and took to the air.

SciPhiSeperator

Andrea held Colin’s dry, hot hand. Occasionally he moved his fingers, or mumbled something she couldn’t hear. Once his eyes flickered and he told her he was sleepy. The doctors came and went. The sunlight crept up and down the wall. She fell asleep holding his hand and woke up holding his hand. Her ex-husband called to report his flight information. She pretended she was writing it down. She didn’t want to let go to go find a paper and pen.

“Don’t you have to go to the bathroom?” a nurse asked her. “Go on, I’ll hold his hand for you.”

Her mind wandered. Thinking about Colin made her want to throw up, so she thought about other things, like how it wasn’t surprising a bully would raise a bully. Eden kept sending her messages, through mutual friends, and when she managed to get Andrea’s number, via text. Jeremy didn’t mean it. He was the one who called the police after all. They’re only fifteen, babies really. And finally Pls call. She texted back clumsily with one hand. I can’t believe ur asking me to call. After what happened. Pls leave me alone.

When she wasn’t thinking about the attack, she was thinking about Freq, how strangely he’d acted. She thought—she wasn’t sure, the join had been so weak at that point—that he’d been feeling something powerful when he perched on that ambulance. Had he picked up on her feelings? It made sense, he’d done it before; but she couldn’t shake the thought there was something else, that he’d recognized her. At first she couldn’t imagine how that could be, then she remembered that dream they’d shared, the way her face had been sticking out that plane window. He couldn’t know it was her, though. For that he’d have to understand she was dreaming about herself. Or even know she existed at all, outside the thoughts she put into his mind.

The door cracked open and Rob leaned in. “How’s Colin doing?”

She gave Colin’s fingers a squeeze. “They say he’ll be okay.”

“Good, good. Can we talk to you?” He held the door open.

“I can’t just leave him.”

“It’ll only be a few minutes.”

Reluctantly she put Colin’s hand on the coverlet, and followed Rob out the door. He led her down the hall to a waiting area, where a man she didn’t recognize—in street clothes, not a police uniform—offered his hand.

“Greg Ridlock of the FBI.”

“The FBI?”

Rob gestured for her to sit. “It turns out there’s a bit more to what happened than we thought.”

The FBI agent leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, and spoke in a low voice. “It’s called cramming. It this new thing kids are doing. They get their hands on this fancy new technology, adjoiners it’s called, it, um, it’s something that goes—”

“I know what it is,” she said. “But you need an implant on the other end.”

“Yes, so, lots of kids have them, brain aids, for learning disabilities, ADHD.”

Oh, she thought.

“So the kid here—”

“He had one.”

“Yeah. So, the kids use the adjoiners—you said you know about them?—usually a whole bunch of kids at the same time.”

“Cramming.”

“Exactly. They all cram in to the one kid, not how these things were intended to be used, obviously. The things are sort of two-way, but not completely. All the kids can see and hear what the implant kid— Jeremy in the case—sees and hears, but he can’t do the opposite. He can kind of hear them thinking, like they’re whispering in his ear.”

“How many of them—cram in?”

“Sometimes dozens. I had a case with more than a hundred.”

“You’ve had a lot of cases?”

“Not so much last year, just a slight rumbling, the technology’s brand new. But this year, just in the last two months, it’s gone through the roof.”

“I don’t understand. How come I haven’t heard about it? And where are they getting them? A hundred. They’re like a thousand dollars a pop.”

“They steal them, from labs, here and there. Or buy them from dealers. A whole bunch were stolen late last year from a supply center.”

She’d been acting strange, asking the wrong questions. His eyes, cool and watchful, operated separately from the rest of him. Could he see that she was worrying about her drawer back at home, the key she kept with the coins in her wallet? But that didn’t make sense. They were talking about Jeremy, not Colin, and he’d been the one with the implant, not the adjoiner. She cleared her throat. “Did Jeremy—did he let them, why did he let them?”

“So they take turns. Kid like Jeremy gets to do it the other way, then they turn around and say now it’s payback. They recruit kids like him. Bottom line is, they cram in, egg him on, trying to get him to do something crazy. They have to make it worthwhile, see. Most times it’s something sexual. There are kids who’ve done it just with their partner, that happens too, but you also get a whole bunch of kids cramming into one kid, looking to share that sexual experience he’s having. Then there are the thrill cases. Stealing, crashing cars, daredeviling, that sort of thing. One group got a kid to attempt suicide, the crammers wanted to know what it was like to die. Fortunately she made it. We’ve been keeping that out of the news out of concern about copycats. Extreme copycatting, we’re calling it. There’s been some talk about them catching ideas, you know, like you catch the flu. The docs are saying the brain-to-brain contact breaks through a kind of mental immune system.”

“And you think that’s what happened, they provoked him to attack Colin?”

“We’re working on the details, the numbers involved, tracking their locations, but it seems so.”

“It doesn’t really matter, though, does it? Jeremy still did it. They might have egged him on, but they couldn’t make him do it.”

He nodded. “Agreed. We’re not saying he’s not responsible, only that we got to track the rest of them down. They’ve committed a crime, all of them.”

At that Rob and the FBI agent stood up. She followed, shakily—when had she last eaten?— and they leaped to her aid. When she was steady on her feet they walked her down the hallway, one on each side. “It’s terrible timing, I know. We just want to keep you informed,” the FBI agent said.

“We’re all rooting for Colin down at the station,” Rob added.

Back in the room she picked up Colin’s hand, but after a few minutes she put it back down and took up her phone. Her anxieties had changed form, become agitating and restless. She pecked the letters into the searchbar. Cramming.

SciPhiSeperator

The last remaining flower arrangement had finally turned. Andrea crammed the slimy stalks and withered petals into the trash bag. Crammed. She couldn’t escape the word. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to do it again. Cram.

The flowers had been from Mitch Reid and the others on the Adjoiners Team. She’d told them little— that her son was in the hospital, that she’d have to temporarily suspend the joins, nothing more. Fortunately the news hadn’t gone national, though of course it made the front page of the Ogee County Record. The main article, Assault Leaves Local Teen With Head Injury, wasn’t the problem. The FBI and police must not be talking, because cramming wasn’t mentioned at all. But there was a related article below: Icarus Eagle Loiters at Scene of Assault. One of the policeman had taken a picture of Freq in all his stately glory, which had led to a number of articles, including a column speculating that the eagle had been attracted to the “injured boy,” and might have tried to feed on him if the police hadn’t arrived. “I would consult our local expert on Icarus eagles, Dr. Andrea Warther of the Mt. Ogee U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office, but oddly enough she is the mother of the boy in question, so I’ll have to file this under #thingsthatmakeyougohmmm.” It hadn’t helped that there’d been additional reports of Icarus eagles hanging around town, though she was pretty sure those sightings were the result of mis-identifications of ospreys and hawks, if indeed they’d occurred at all. Probably gossip and rumors, like whatever had led the columnist to confuse the order of events and report that Freq had arrived on the scene before the ambulance.

The toaster dinged. She paused to peer out the window at a flash of something dark, probably a crow—in a way she wished Freq had been loitering in town, she missed him, terribly—before fishing the cheese toast out with a fork. A bowl of tomato soup, three cookies, and Colin’s tray was ready. The fact was, Icarus eagles did scavenge, opportunistically. She hadn’t wanted to recognize the truth of it: Freq had been excited at the smell of Colin’s blood. The feel of that thought was still there, she couldn’t scrub it out. The slightest remembering of it made her ill. At the same time she was experiencing a powerful compulsion to join the eagles again. Not joining was her penance. Because her son had been hurt. Clearly she had to be guilty, of something.

“Here you go, hon,” she said.

Colin mumbled thanks. He was watching something on his laptop. She glanced over his shoulder to make sure it was nothing weird. Cartoons. Eden was right, he was still a baby. She couldn’t bear to ask if he’d ever done it, crammed. “Have you, Mom?” What would she say then?

The knock came just when she’d sat down to her own lunch. Outside a police car pulled away, having deposited onto her steps the FBI agent from the hospital. Her heart was pounding hard enough to tremble the front of her blouse. She crossed her arms in front so he wouldn’t notice.

“Greg Ridlock, I don’t know if you remember, please call me Greg.”

“Why are you here?” she asked, anxiety making her sound ruder than she’d meant to.

“Is there somewhere we can sit down?”

They sat across from each other at the dinette table. “Okay, so we’ve been going through, trying to get locations on all the kids who were involved, and something came up I want to tell you about. Informally.”

“What is it?”

“You know what I’m talking about, right?”

She followed his gaze. Behind her stood Colin, looking off-kilter with the injured side of his head half-shaved. She’d tried to convince him to get rid of the shocks of hair on the longer side, but he’d insisted on keeping them. “Umm…no?” he said.

Greg switched back to her. “We have reason to believe Colin was one of the crammers.”

I knew it, she thought. Right out of my drawer. “He hasn’t been a part of hurting anyone, has he?”

“What I’m saying is, he was cramming that day, the day he was assaulted.”

“That day?”

She distinctly felt Colin behind her, saying nothing. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Not a lot,” Greg agreed.

“That can’t be. Colin?”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe?” She thrust herself out of her chair, up to where she could see them at the same time. “I don’t understand. Are you saying that Colin was joined to Jeremy, at the same time when Jeremy attacked him?”

“Yeah,” said Colin.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. That’s what the guy’s saying.”

She shook her head. “What? That’s not the point, Colin. I’m asking it it’s true.”

Colin stared at her, the color rising in his cheeks. Finally he said, “I guess.”

“You didn’t know who it was?”

“That it was me? Of course I didn’t know.”

“How could you not know? You didn’t recognize the street, your clothes, your own head, for pity’s sake?”

“I wasn’t really looking. I didn’t want to look. I was, like, hiding in there.” He paused. “Maybe I knew at the last minute, you know, when it was too late.”

She turned to Greg. “Somebody must have known. It can’t be by accident. It’s so awful, so cruel, it’s worse than what we thought. You have to find who did it, who planned it—”

He motioned for her to listen. “There’s something else, the reason I came by. I thought you should know. They’re looking to charge everyone involved with the assault. Everyone.”

It took her a few moments to figure what he meant. “You’re charging Colin?”

“He was involved.”

“With his own assault?”

“Yeah, well. He was one of the perpetrators, as well as the victim. It didn’t have to be him at the other end. It could have been someone else. In fact like he just said he thought it was someone else.” He put his hands on the table and pushed himself up. “Look, I’m not writing that down. I’m doing you a favor here. Breaking the rules. I know it’s kind of a raw deal. My advice, get a good lawyer.”

At the doorway Greg offered his hand and she took it without thinking. He said something nice-ish. Outside a woman was running toward the house, with someone else following close behind. Eden and Rob the policeman. “So guess what, Miss High and Mighty!” Eden yelled. Rob called out for her to stop. It suddenly occurred to Andrea that the two of them were cousins, or somehow related. Clearly Rob had told Eden while Greg was telling her. Andrea could imagine what she must be thinking. That their sons were equally guilty. Or maybe that Colin, who’d invaded her son’s mind and made him do bad things, was actually the guiltier of the two.

As soon as Greg passed over the threshold Andrea reached for doorknob. She wasn’t angry anymore. Just terrified. Certainly she didn’t want to talk to Eden. As the door swung shut—Greg, still right there, looked back in surprise—she saw something. Another dark flash. It was followed by a piercing scream. She threw the door back open. There, on top of her hybrid SUV, was Freq. The noise of the door banging attracted his attention, and he made little stepping motions until he’d brought her into his field of vision. He stared. Something about his expression seemed angry, furious even. She wilted before it. What had she done? She was as bad as the crammers. Somehow he’d recognized her from that dream, and he was letting her know what she’d done to him. She thought maybe it was similar to the anger he felt toward other Icarus eagles who invaded his territory. And she had, hadn’t she? Invaded his territory?

Freq swiveled his head toward Rob and Eden. In a blur of motion he launched himself off the SUV. The next moment he was up ten feet in the air. She blinked her eyes. It was surreal. Right below him, caught in his talons, dangled Eden. Her shirt had ridden up, exposing her stomach and the lower half of her bra. For a moment it seemed Freq would lose his grip on the fabric, or Eden’s shirt would peel off, and everything would be just fine. Maybe a few broken ribs. Then he adjusted his talons, strengthening his hold. Eden struggled. He went higher, up to thirty feet.

Greg leaped off the stairs and jumped into the air, his arm extended. Pointlessly. Rob yelled into his phone. That wasn’t going to work either. Andrea let go of the door and ran for her desk. No, purse first. She grabbed it off the kitchen counter, pulled out her wallet, and poured all the coins out on the floor, waving off Colin when he tried to help. Key in hand she raced to her desk, turned the key in the drawer, and pulled out the box of syringes. Her hands were shaking. Don’t let her fall. Dear God, and this is even more important, don’t let Freq drop her. The needle pierced skin. She hesitated. She didn’t want to do this. She didn’t want to find out what had happened to Eden, and she really didn’t want to share in whatever was going on in that brain that led him to this. Did I make you do this, Freq? Are you mad at her for me? At the moment it didn’t matter. You have no choice.

The join opened with a blur of raw feeling. He was angry, and for a moment she was angry again too. Were they angry at Eden, or her(self)? She couldn’t waste time figuring it out. She had to tamp it down. Eden was still there, hanging limply, either unconscious or too afraid to move. They were already thousands of feet in the air. She would nudge him, but slowly, so slowly. Down, over there, that meadow near Loyal River. “Hey Freq. Wouldn’t it be nice to go there?”

“Mom,” said Colin, from somewhere in the world beyond her closed eyes.

“Not now.”

“Mom.”

The river was melting away the snow on the banks. She could see the interpretive signs at the trailhead. A mobile home was parked in the lot.

“You enjoy doing it?”

“God, Colin. Not now.”

“Before, when you did it before. I don’t mean right now. Is she okay?”

The ground rushed up. As soon as Freq was close she nudged hard, and Eden slid from his grasp, landing on the packed snow with a nauseating crunch. Thankfully she was moving, crying out. Time to tell Rob and Greg. They’d better hurry. Freq felt forlorn. He might arc around and swoop down to pick Eden up again. “No, Freq. Keep going. Up where the planes are and beyond. Why don’t we go ahead and break that record, just like we said?”

“Mom,” Colin insisted.

“Honey—”

“I knew it was me.”

She opened her eyes. The blues and greys of Freq’s sky washed over Colin’s face.

“I wanted to do it. I enjoyed doing it.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“It might have been me that made it happen. I wanted to hit that head so hard. I think it was me, I think I started it off.”

She closed her eyes again. Freq was right beside her, wings thrumming along, as exhausted and confused as she. He pored over the fractal streets of Ogee, searching for something in their twists and turns. Was it something he’d lost? Or something she’d lost, some comforting certainty? She shivered, and like an infection Freq caught it, fifteen thousand feet above.

Food for Thought

Was what happened to Colin a crime, and if so, who is guilty of committing it?

It is commonly believed it is impossible to commit a crime against oneself. Under this view an act that would be considered a crime if undertaken by one person against another cannot be a crime if self-directed; and the individual involved cannot be called a victim.

If—as it first appears—Colin believed his target to be someone other than himself, his guilt is less controversial. Such an act reveals him as willing to cause harm to others, even if by luck it happened to be himself who is suffers the actual harm. It turns out however that Colin knew he was the target. A related issue is the guilt of his accomplices, assuming they didn’t know that Colin knew himself to be the victim. But what if they knew he knew? After all, Colin participated in and may have been the one who initiated the act of violence. That would imply Colin’s consent to any role the accomplices might have played in the attack, making them no more guilty than Colin himself.

There are situations in which a person is considered to have committed a crime despite the victim’s apparent consent. Hazing is a notable example. A more relevant case is that of William Melchert-Dinkel, who impersonated a depressed woman in chat rooms and successfully convinced a number of people to commit suicide. Neither of these cases is perfectly equivalent to Colin’s, which involved no overt force or deception. Hazing involves a measure of force, in that goods are offered that can be gained only through submission to the hazing; and Melchert-Dinkel persuaded by means of deception.

Another factor is at work in Colin’s case. His victimization occurs by means of mental manipulation. They—whoever they are—made him want to do it to himself. Mental manipulation is obviously possible without technology, but technology raises the stakes, as seen in the Melchert-Dinkel case. The neurotechnologies of the future will undoubtedly raise the stakes even further. Jan Bublitz and Reinhard Merkel have argued the law should protect people’s minds just as it protects their bodies. On this view the crime against Colin would consist in the act of manipulating his desires and intentions, and further it might be a crime even if it hadn’t resulted in any injury to his body, or even if it hadn’t caused him any harm at all.

What if the manipulation is crowd-sourced, as in Colin’s case? This circles back to our original question, because Colin was part of the crowd. Surely he has the right to mentally manipulate himself— it would be absurd to call that manipulation at all, rather than merely thinking—but can he consent to his own mental manipulation by others?

Jan Christoph Bublitz and Reinhard Merkel, “Crimes Against Minds: On Mental Manipulations, Harms, and a Human Right to Self-Determination.” Criminal Law and Philosophy 8 (2014): 51-77.

Lisa Schoenberg is Professor of Philosophy at Cheyney University, Pennsylvania, USA. Her story, “The Adjoiners”, was winner of the APA Philosophy Through Fiction Competition. Lisa holds degrees in both creative writing and philosophy. In her student years she won a number of awards for her fiction, including a Columbia Scholastic Press Association Award for poetry. Then she took a class in the philosophy of art and fell in love with the field of aesthetics, ultimately earning a doctorate in philosophy at Temple University. Her interest in writing fiction never completely abandoned her and recently she has begun feeding it again. Currently she is working on Versions, a novel about personal identity. Lisa lives in Wayne, Pennsylvania, in a house that dates to 1792, along with her husband Mark and daughters Charlotte, Juliet, and Violet.

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