TALES FROM NEW CANADA: “Duosentience”
“The scan will be next,” the voice in my mind informed me. My own voice; not my own thoughts. Rather disconcerting.
Duosentience is defined as the coexistence of two consciousnesses operating as one. In practice this means pairing one mechanical and one organic being in a single human body. This is done by implanting a nanobot.
The nanobot in my arm, the source of that disquieting voice, did confuse the scanners and we made it through. My circuit tattoo was disabled in a puff of circuit smoke by stern looking and very tall New Canadian officials. Under the cover of this procedure, the nanobot shut down and entered my vein, where it was disguised by the flow of blood. The cube I carry around – the main source of the nanobot’s intelligence – was disguised as a decorative accessory. It was certainly pretty enough, and when you pressed a button it displayed wildly changing constellations. One of the officials turned it on and admired the patterns, then switched it back off and placed it carefully back in its case. I hoped that my heart rate hadn’t spiked. But then I remembered that it could not spike – I had taken a quieting agent, administered by my fully legal medical implant.
As far as I know, I’m the only person on New Canada carrying a nanobot inside me. I don’t want it in there, either. But it was a requirement from my employers when I was sent here on this assignment.
“Corporate espionage?” I asked, when I was told what I would be doing on New Canada.
“Nonsense!” retorted Vanos. “This is an information-gathering mission.” This of course meant exactly the same thing and I was momentarily angry at her, but then she pushed her thick glasses up further on her nose, a gesture I found both endearing and attractive, and my rage dissipated. Lately In the last while she had been distant and strange. And she seemed to be relieved that she was finally sending me away. But in moments of tenderness, I was able to forgive everything.
It was easiest on New Victoria to part ways, where relationships such as ours were heavily disapproved of. Even though it was precisely our mutual desire that had worked so very much in her favour before, it was inconvenient to her now. I thought wistfully of how it would be here on New Canada. We could be together. But Vanos? She was still Vanos to me, not Stella. Last name, after all this time. They didn’t use last names here on New Canada, or at least, not very often. I wondered if that would have affected our relationship, rendered it kinder.
My cover identity, or rather cover profession, was that of a holoprojection artist. Preparing for this mission had taken years and had involved artistic training. This was the real reason I had taken on the job – I could never have afforded art school on New Victoria on my own. I did not qualify for scholarships because my parents hadn’t agreed to the full set of neuroenhancements when I had been born. In fact, that was how Vanos and her team had found me. Stubborn to the last, I had applied and passed all the phases but the physical at the end. Someone in a dark suit had been waiting outside the exam room: Stella Vanos herself. Could she have known I would be so attracted to her? Yes, she must have. She’d had access to my psychological profile. Though these things weren’t openly discussed on New Victoria, it must have been obvious in every scan.
But my lack of neuroenhancements – my weakness – turned out to be an advantage for the organization I now worked for. I would pass through every interplanetary scan undetected. I would not be subjected to the same waiting lists as most New Victorians. If I wished, I could blend into other populations on other planets.
As visiting artist, I would be collaborating on a commission for a company called New Canada Engines. Vanos and her people wanted to know about their technology very much – NCE built the most advanced engines on all the colonies. And since I was to represent New Canada Engines to the New Victorian public, I would be given access to lower-level design specifications. This would be enough for Vanos and her team to extrapolate the key to the engines’ design – at least, she seemed to think so. I thought she was either being naive or intentionally deceiving me, because I felt I would have to do some more active spying at some point, something that terrified me.
I had signed a mountain of nondisclosure agreements and had undergone countless psychological tests.
The New Canadians were convinced that I was trustworthy. And I trusted them. As soon as I arrived here, I felt at home.
This would definitely be a problem. It was so tempting. No more restrictions, no more hiding. I even courted a woman for a while, trying to forget Vanos. Unfortunately, this woman’s name was also Stella. Maybe I had sought her out intentionally. I don’t know.
I actually lived far more luxuriously here than I had on New Victoria. That in itself was a shock. Back home, we’d been told that we had the highest standard of living on all the colonies. True enough for the richest of families; not true for everyone else. Wealth disparity was tremendous.
Here there were differences, too. But somehow, people enjoyed a high quality of life overall. New Canada was always mocked in our media. It seemed that the truth lay somewhat removed from what was being said.
“New Victoria has a clearer social structure and more benefits available to its citizens,” insisted the nanobot, cutting irritatingly into my thoughts. I had not realized it was listening to everything that passed through my mind.
“Look around yourself and see how well we could live here,” I retorted, fighting hard to make my raging thoughts calm. But it saw my distress anyway and administered a dose of quieting agent. How disturbing that it could control my dosage.
Over the following months the nanobot’s thoughts would find its way more and more often to my mouth. Was it controlling what I said, or was I just subconsciously mirroring what it was saying because I heard it so often?
I tried leaving its cube behind in my apartment whenever I went out but it made no difference. Its range must be tremendous. It could probably reach me anywhere on the planet, I thought morosely.
“Yes,” it chirped cheerfully at this. “I am programmed to interface between my units at great distances.”
I was sure the nanobot had compelled me to go down to the library and read for hours about the wonders of New Victoria, that it had been the one that hat convinced me I was homesick. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it couldn’t possibly have the ability to alter my thoughts…
I lay awake for hours every night, trying to stop my mind from barreling down the tracks of suspicion. I always failed. And every night, the nanobot soothed me. It sang me songs, all of which would only make me more uneasy. After many songs, it would inevitably pump out a dose of quieting agent and I would drift off, relieved in spite of everything that I could finally rest.
And one day, it crossed another line.
I remember the moment. I was in a cafe, a type of establishment popular here. It is so cold here that this white frosty precipitation called snow covers the ground, and hot drinks are very much in demand. As I sipped something delightful, a brew they call hot chocolate, the nanobot protested.
“This is not healthy for your body,” it scolded me. “Your mission requires proper nutrition and this is your third such drink today.”
“Please leave me alone,” I replied. “I am having this, whether you like it or not.”
As I reached for the drink, my muscles seemed to freeze. Then my arm started shaking. I managed to pick up the hot chocolate, but my wrist twisted, and I was now spilling hot liquid all over the table. And my dress. And the floor.
I apologized profusely to the staff, tipped heavily, and escaped. I was hyperventilating and crying. What a violation.
“Overt displays of emotion are undesirable in the context of your mission,” chided the nanobot. “Drawing attention to yourself in a transit car would be unwelcome.”
So I walked home. It was a very long walk and I kept thinking of a wonderful heated transit car, but I also thought of all the stares and the judgment, something this planet did not lack, and here I agreed with the nanobot that this walk would do me good. It was so happy at my compliance, it almost seemed to purr.
“You have not yet done your exercises today,” the voice reminded me when we had reached my apartment.
“I walked home. I’ll do them tomorrow,” I grumbled back.
“You are aware that these two activities are not equivalent.”
“I’ll do them tomorrow,” I repeated firmly.
“You must exercise.” This time, it did not then force my muscles into action. But the threat was there – I now knew that it could make me carry out any physical action it wished. The nanobot simply didn’t consider it necessary yet.
What if it made me hurt someone? The thought chilled me. Usually the nanobot would say something whenever I was distressed, but on this point it was eerily silent.
“Well?” I asked it outright. “Would you?”
“That is not within mission parameters,” it answered me. Hardly comforting, somehow.
That night, I called Vanos and told her what had happened. Rather than shock and sympathy, she offered me coldness, mirrored by unsympathetic words in my mind piped there by the nanobot.
“It stays,” she told me. “It is necessary, especially with your psychological profile.” She meant my rebelliousness, my independence. Those things she had claimed to love about me, but had only ever intended to exploit.
The next day I asked the New Canadians for asylum. It was surprisingly easy, and no one asked me any difficult questions. I was terribly nervous – I could not admit that I had this insidious machinery inside me. That would most definitely result in a Trial, something to be avoided at all costs on this planet.
I could not destroy the nanobot inside me; at least, not right away. So I destroyed its home.
The cube that once housed its mind is now at the bottom of the New Bow River, doubtless flooded and frozen. Water resistance can only last so long, and at these temperatures, no delicate New Victorian robotics could survive down there.
I heard it clearly for a few more days. Then its messages became simple and emotionless, unrefined. It had no more control – I could now oppose it. I hadn’t realized its intelligence was housed in the cube. Probably less expensive that way. Maybe less risky – it seemed the nanobot in my arm was simply a rudimentary model. That was likely why the New Canadian scanners hadn’t picked it up. My advantage – usually nanobots are far more complex and intelligent.
As soon as its fading words flickered out for the last time, I went to a doctor who worked with neuroenhancements. She was not New Canadian, obviously. But there was demand for her services from offworlders with all sorts of malfunctioning tech.
Please remove this circuit tattoo, I asked her. I do not wish to be reminded of my time on New Victoria. It was difficult for me. I think one of its components may have floated into my vein.
She knew. No components float away from a circuit tattoo. But she nodded understanding, and she removed the tattoo, and the nanobot. Wordlessly, she showed me my sentient parasite, now lifeless, under high magnification. Then she incinerated it. No record of it appeared on my file.
New Canadian administration is slow. My asylum application is still being processed, but in the meantime I am being treated very well. I told them the truth about who I worked for. I said there had been an abuse of power. Vanos is persona non grata here now. I suspect this will make her very upset – she had been slated to take a diplomatic trip here next month. It was to have been our contact time for a large data transfer. I had hoped it would also be a defining moment in what I had naively perceived as our relationship.
Surprisingly, they let me continue my artistic work for New Canada Engines, a detail that gives me so much joy I can hardly breathe. I haven’t taken my quieting agent in… well, since I got rid of that nanobot, actually. I find I am calm on my own these days.
I will never speak to it again. I will never speak to her again, either.
Late at night when I drift between dream and wakefulness, I hear the nanobot singing to me, only now it is the voice of Stella Vanos, taunting me, romancing me and then betraying me.
I do not miss being duosentient.
Clio Em is a mezzo-soprano, a composer, musician and creator of sci-fi worlds. She is also an Irregular Dreams writer.
Artwork: Hali Rey