It had been some time since I last saw Nelisse. Later she would be labelled by the press as The Notorious Dr. Crow, but for now she was still the quiet, slightly awkward fellow scientist I had shared a lab with one long summer years ago. Grey had now started to creep into her hair and the glasses were no longer in evidence, but the familiar bulbous ears and toothy smile remained.
We met in a canal-side café near St. Augustine’s. I did not see her approach, engrossed as I was in the week’s issue of Die globale Zukunft and a spelt croissant. Instead she landed at my table fifteen minutes before she was due, bursting into my concentration like a needle into a soap bubble. I swallowed my irritation and hoisted my cheeks towards my ears while rescuing the croissant from an impending flattening by over-sized handbag.
“I have news, such news!” she gurgled, spittle at the edge of her lips betraying turgid excitement I thought unbecoming of a rationalist. I fell back upon societal prejudices and assumed an announcement of marriage, marvelling briefly at the ability of life to find companionship even for such niche compositions, with the usual reassessment of my own chances. I was, of course, mistaken.
“Do you recall my obsession, my life-long focus, my magnum opus, my primary direction?” she frothed. I searched briefly the flashes of memory from the old days, the topic was not hard to seize upon given how frequently she had brought it up at length.
“So you have finally cured death,” I said flatly. “I shall call the committee, is it published?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she said. “As I stated so many times, the goal is transcendence, not avoidance. There is no disease to cure, only a natural imperative to bypass.”
My intended joke about immortality granted eternity to write up one’s research died in my throat, so earnest was her tone, so serious. I considered the likelihood that she had finally succumbed to the insanity that threatens all in our profession, then reflected that such a state might well grant success to such a line of inquiry as hers. Perhaps there were new data. I urged her to divulge.
She waffled for a few sentences with jargon clearly of her own devising, before settling on that phrase that would become so familiar to the coming generations:
“Transmission of consciousness,” she said.
“How on earth would you measure that?” I replied evenly. “How would you measure an animal’s ongoing experience as being transmitted to another?”
“Not animals,” said she. “Human trials. One subject. Me, in fact.”
She had definitely lost all grasp on reality, I concluded at this point. How great the fall had been, from such promise of a leading scientist to a crank who forgot the basic rules of experimental design, objectivity and sample size.
“You have transmitted your consciousness,” I sighed, wondering how quickly I could bring this unfortunate meeting to a conclusion. “Into what?”
“Not so much transmitted actually,” she said. “More like shared. Connected. An overlapping of sensory experience, a merging of mental environment such that one mind comes to inhabit two bodies. Like the compound eye of a wasp, such that it sees in many directions at once… two pairs of eyes, two pairs of ears, twenty fingers… two brains, one mind.”
“You have two brains,” I repeated, emitting as many uncomfortable social cues as I could remember how to reproduce. “Where do you keep the other one?”
It was at this moment that a child approached the table, just as suddenly and distractingly as my first guest had arrived. A boy of maybe one or two years, recent acquirer of the art of walking yet long practiced in that of charm, bearing a wide smile and wider eyes. He extended a pudgy finger and prodded my elbow. I glared at him, wishing he would recede. I am not a fan of people in general and immature ones in particular. Yet the child seemed to have a curiosity and that, I suppose, is something a scientist should applaud.
“Err… where is your mother?” I said, loudly and slowly in the manner I reserve for undergraduates.
“No mother,” interjected Nelisse Crow. “Unnecessary. Genetic technology and artificial environments render such primitive mechanisms obsolete.”
I turned to stare at her, then back at the child, who met my gaze with green, unblinking eyes.
“He is… yours?” I said.
“He is not mine,” she replied. “He is…”
“Me,” said the child.
I jumped, knocking the small plate holding my croissant such that it rattled noisily against the glass tabletop, and sending my magazine onto the cobbles. I leant down to retrieve it, took a breath and then re-composed myself. The child’s voice had seemed ill-toned, incongruous. The formation of the sound too well-formed, too… knowledgeable. I shivered.
The boy’s smile broadened.
“Sharing of minds,” he said. “Over-lapping senses. Two bodies, one mind.” The sound of his voice rattled around in my ears, upsetting expectations and judgment of the normal. The words, the intonation, the pattern of speech were those of Nelisse Crow, yet they emerged from the tongue of an infant who should have been just beyond mere noise-making.
I pondered the possibility of a trick. Ventriloquism? But I had never known Nelisse capable of such subtlety, and this realisation twisted my gut into knots.
“What have you done?” I hissed. “What horror is this? What abomination?”
Crow’s brow furrowed, clearly mine was not the reaction she had desired.
“This is how it must be,” she said. “What did you expect? You were aware of my ideas, my approach. You did not bring them along to a conclusion?”
“Ideas, yes,” I said. “Not this, not actual, embodied…” In the moment I realised I was trying to keep my voice down to avoid the child hearing, and yet even that assumption no longer held in the new world that stood at my knee, staring me down with emerald inquisition.
“I shall never die,” they spouted, woman and boy speaking in complete unison, same words, same intonation only gender and tone differing, “I will expand further and further, my light shall cross the universe in all directions while you, with you fettered vision and fear shall wither according to nature’s rules…”
They stopped suddenly. Crow sat back in her chair, the boy broke his stare and gawped upward. I followed his gaze.
Surrounding us, all around our table in a tight circle, stood a large crowd of people, silent. Men in suits; grandmothers in brightly coloured coats; waiters; a policeman. Our fellow customers at the café, passers-by on the street. All had stopped what they were doing and gathered around us. None spoke. None blinked.
Through this crowd pushed an elderly gentleman. His manner of movement lit up a stray puzzle piece in my mind. As I pictured peeling back his wrinkles and thick grey hair, recognition surfaced. Here stood Professor Willard Litman. My tutor, my mentor from many years ago who ran that laboratory in which I had first met Nelisse Crow. Nobel prize-winner, hero of mine and one-time surrogate father-figure who had disappeared a few months after I first met him and had been the subject of much media intrigue. I gasped.
He spoke. They all spoke – the crowd. They spoke together, in unison, to me and Crow and the child.
“What did you do?” I screamed at Litman. “What did you do?”