The trials with human subjects had been going on for weeks before the investment was announced. The press releases were hyperbolic: if we want to stay relevant in a world of intelligent machines, we need to re-engineer our own brains. Thanks to advances in neuroscience, we finally have the foundation to do this. This seed investment will help.
The initial trial results were very promising: the rejection rates for the neural grafts were low, and the cognitive performance of the test subjects improved significantly. We were so excited. We were breaking new ground, and we were going to make a ton of money.
We were also taking the brain, the result of billions of years of evolution, and poking it with a stick to see what happened. Oh well.
After a few weeks, the cognitive capability growth curve started plateauing, and the behaviour of the patients became increasingly erratic. They were distracted, impatient and volatile. They sat at the cafeteria and the library in small groups, talking in whispers, gazing shiftily at each other and at us. Initially, we thought that their enhanced intellects were chafing at the restrictions of the test facilities. They were probably channeling their new cognitive resources into mind games, perhaps even getting a bit paranoid. We would need to keep an eye on them.
And then, one night, test subject Morales was stabbed in a corridor. 65 knife wounds. I remember the smell of his bowels, one of the orderlies skidding in the pool of blood, black on white. The CCTV footage was horrifying. Six individuals had assaulted Morales on his way to the bedroom. We couldn’t identify any of them because they were wearing crude masks made of bed linen.
I know what you are thinking. We should have shut down the trials and called the police, but you can imagine what our investors thought about that. Instead, we hired a private security firm and started interviewing all the test subjects.
Reese, a member of Morales’ ‘group’, opened up to us in the director’s room. His story was hard to believe. According to him, the neural grafts had produced a significant side-effect: they had severely warped the test subjects’ sense of time. The specifics of this distortion varied across individuals.
In some of them, the subjective perception of duration became extreme and unpredictable. Seconds felt like hours, days felt like seconds. What should have been a momentary irritation – a shaving cut, a sore tooth – became an eternity of agony.
In others, memories of the past, experiences of the present and expectations about the future blended into each other, making the subjects feel as if they were being buried alive in a tomb of time.
Yet another group perceived time as a road of forking paths, every action they took opened up a new path, a slice of them went this way, another that way. It was as if they were living through a shredder.
One group became convinced that future or past versions of themselves had travelled ‘here’ and were following them, perhaps meant them harm.
How could the test subjects function with all this going on inside their heads? It was hard, Reese said. It required a lot of mental effort. This explained why their test results had stalled: the subjects had been focusing their expanding cognitive powers on dealing with all this temporal disruption. But they were starting to get used to it now, and starting to think, ‘what next?’.
Subjects with the same symptoms started forming gangs. They didn’t think that different senses of time could coexist in the same society. They would have to compete with each other for dominance. They also felt threatened by our ‘primitive’, linear, sequential temporal perceptions. They started conspiring against us. Morales wanted to warn us about what was happening. This is why he was murdered.
The interview finished and we sat down in silence. The security director stared at me uncomprehendingly. This was way out of his league. I looked at Reese. I wondered what must be going on inside his head. The level of neurosis that could have created this incredible hallucination.
And then the lights went off.
We tried to open the door but it was locked. After a few moments, I heard someone whispering outside, not just one voice, many voices, becoming a singalong chorus: Reese, Reese, Reese, you shouldn’t have, Reese, Reese, you are a bad boy, you telltale Reese, you are punished Reese, go and stand against the wall, go and stand against the wall. NOW.
Reese whimpered, and then there was silence. When the lights came on, some time later, he wasn’t there
30 test subjects escaped from the test facilities that night, taking with them several cases of biological materials and neural graft samples. Their attack had been coldly efficient, and as far as we could tell no-one was hurt. However, I remember something strange happened when I stopped by the director’s room to pick up my notes. I heard someone crying. The sound was very faint, as if arrived from far away. It sounded like Reese. It couldn’t be. The room was empty.
I went back home.
The police investigation concluded that the trials had induced an episode of mass psychosis in the test subjects. The company shut down and the investment was written off. I went to work for another lab.
Life has gone on. Sometimes I dream of an empty room, echoes of crying, a shadow against the wall. I try to imagine what those test subjects are up to now. If Reese was right, they are out there, super-intelligent, ruthless, intent on transforming humanity’s perception of time, and mould it to theirs. They are not short of options.
I look at my TV, my smartphone, my computer, I see news of big mergers between telecommunications giants and media companies, I look at my grandchildren staring at their screen of their mobile phones, as space dissolves and all time becomes now. I think of the Time Gangs, and I know in my bones that their project is in train.
Dissonant, vertiginous melodies chase each other across loosely coupled slices of quantum reality in Mamoru Fujieda’s Radiated Falling, achieving a temporal discombobulation to rival the effects of the best neural grafts in the market. Enjoy!