Downfall is here, and the world has changed.
Content Warnings: i. implied DID symptoms
Sisters – A Hyoubu Story
Written by Iain Fairclough
The lonely guard walked down the pristine antiseptic tiles of the corridor, their hard-soled shoes echoing against the moulded plascrete walls. Echos of those echos reached the Listener; the vibration in the guard’s eardrums split waves of information through that space that wasn’t space.
It was a clean tone, pure signal, down here in the depths. No thoughts of the restless city above, nor errant tendril of the grasping NET, would penetrate the layers of bedrock and dense packed machinery. Every object down here was deaf and dumb and inert; the machines by careful design, and the staff by long training. The guard was different; an interloper from hundred stories above, thoughts hot and steaming out of the bubbling cup of their brain. The Listener warmed themselves on a dozen memories of a wonderfully mundane life; an abyssal fish darting at descending food, images of picnics and sunlight.
The guard reached their destination after a while, a simple metal door a fifty metres down the corridor from the elevator. They had passed dozens like it, all locked tight and blank, but this was clearly the right one with its glowing ’45’ holopad. The guard had never heard of anyone from the Surface Defence Team being sent down to the Depths on an unexplained errand, but they had faith in management’s honourable intentions and wisdom enough not to question orders. Besides, it beat lugging around a needle rifle in the hot New Angeles sunshine.
The Listener treasured the novelty of that memory of sweat and strain – it was always cool, dry, and evenly lit down in their part of the Depths. They knew that the roots of the facility twisted and spread through the rock and that other sections were…different. During sleep cycles their dreams touched other’s, frightening nightmares of submersion, scattered futures, and embryonic pains. No time to think about that now, the crux of the test was beginning.
The guard brought their hand up to the holographic numeral, which unfurled into an access screen at the recognition of their biometrics.
+++5-FOLD ACCESS VERIFICATION INITIATED+++
+++CHECK 1/5 BIOMETRIC ASSAY (PASS)+++
+++CHECK 2/5 PLEASE SPEAK NAME AND IDENT (PENDING)+++
The guard cleared their throat and spoke, “Jeff Apara, nine-gold-one”
+++CHECK 2/5 NAME AND IDENT (PASS)+++
+++THANK YOU SGT APARA, PLEASE REMAIN STILL FOR IRIS SCAN AND DERMAL DNA SPECTROGRAM+++
Whilst Jeff stood patiently as the laser drew a tight pattern on their eyes and face, the Listener readied themselves. Mental muscles coiled, attitude and perspective shifted. The Liar reached out, just as Jeff raised their arm.
+++CHECK 3/5 IRIS CAPILLARY ASSAY (PASS)+++
+++CHECK 4/5 DERMAL DNA SPECTROGRAM (PASS)+++
+++CHECK 5/5 PLEASE MANUALLY ENTER YOUR PIN+++
Jeff paused, hand hovering above the door’s keypad. It was on the tip of their tongue. The simple 6-digit number they’d used multiple times a day, everyday. For the past four years working at Hyoubu it was the first thing they did each day signing in at the armoury. A mental path so well trodden they could type it in their sleep was just…beyond reach. Absent. Taken.
The Liar strained and panted; the PIN was woven into a hundred experiential memories and keeping a lid on all of them before they could reach Jeff’s conscious mind was like spinning a dozen plates at once. It would have been easier to burn the engrams from the brain completely, but that wasn’t this test.
Panicked and full of shame Jeff hurriedly checked their PAD, only to see it was inert. Standard procedure to geofence its function in the depths; the uncontrolled signals might disturb some of the delicate experiments happening down here. But there was a ray of hope – the elevator shaft was shielded and outside the geofence! In a march that almost broke training to become a run, Sergeant Apara made a tactical withdrawal down the corridor.
As the elevators gleaming doors slid crisply shut, the Liar released their hold on the PIN memory. They instead told a different and much easier lie – that these last minutes had never happened. By design nothing in the corridor was interesting enough to deplete the chunks of Jeff’s short term memory and have engrams leak out to a deeper encoding level. A clean sweep meant they had never left the lift. The Liar breathed deep and relaxed, and the Listener tapped the hand on their shoulder that had been a comforting support throughout the test. Dr Duong smiled and clicked the test chamber’s control panel. As the released connection faded, the Listener could feel Jeff looking at his own PAD; a change in orders, back to the surface, and a disappointment that they never even got to get off the elevator in the fabled depths.
“Well done Letheia,” Dr Duong beamed. He was a man of infrequent praise, but every one of them was genuine. That insincere people should not be training psychics was a lesson Hyoubu learnt early. Listener gave a hesitant smile back at him, whilst Liar sighed as they drifted off into their unconsciousness to rest.
Dr Duong finished his tofu and noodles first, and almost dropped his chopsticks in an eagerness to talk.
“So Letheia, how do you think the test this morning went?”
Their bowl of food was much more sizeable than Duong’s, they still had months to go before the accelerated growth phase of artificial adolescence would end and they’d resemble their adult sisters. Listener picked at their food to buy time, Liar was still snoozing, and the third never responded to incidental small talk.
“Ummmm, good? All requirements were met?”
Duong’s face fell slightly at that, and Listener knew he was disappointed at something and pulled on her long dark hair. He neatened his chopsticks before replying.
“Letheia, do you end sentences with a question due to a learned behaviour, or is it part of your conditioning?”
“I’m not sure? What should it be?”
“I’m sorry my dear, but that was a Deep Question.”
At this code phrase from an authorised individual, the third presence spun into action like the machine it was. Cold metal rules turned in channels built of burnt axons.
“It is learned behaviour Doctor Duong,” Law said in a flat tone. “I do not have a standard set of deference behaviours, but I do have several strong motivators to please authority figures.”
“I see, and who responded positively to this behaviour, surely not Professor Yeon?” Listener smiled at the memory of the red woman, she’d been such fun to have around in those first months of their life. Law was disinclined to continue without another code command, so Listener spoke, though they tried to mimic the flat tones and machined way of speaking.
“No, it was Technical Specialist Garcia when they oversaw my decanting and first week of activity. He did not visibly react but I was aware of positive memories being engaged when I behaved in that manner.”
“Dear me, I suppose a formal reprimand isn’t deserved then, though I may need to have word with the…technician. You’d think after the difficulty with Erin people would be more careful with their thoughts around the experimental Jisedai. The plasticity of an adolescent brain has downsides as well as advantages.” He abscently toyed with the top button of his cardigan for a moment, then shot a piercing look across the table as a thought struck him.
“Do you know why you shouldn’t speak like that?”
In a panic at the possibility of failure, Listener tried to pluck the answer from his mind. But Dr Duong had standing orders on this, and Listener’s probe was instantly quenched by Law. Liar awoke at the commotion and answered for the other two. Listener was often surprised at the warmth Liar put into their voice. Law would have been too if they had such weak things as emotions.
“I’m sorry Doctor, I do not.”
“You, and the future iterations to come, will provide Jinteki with the most powerful weapon imaginable; Truth. More than that, you can deny the enemy of our Truth.” His eyes gleamed at the prospect, and launched into a full sermon. “If we truly know what others are thinking, we can make peace that lasts, stop wars before they start, trust our business partners. But the company needs to trust you. Humans are silly things, my dear, and I don’t want anyone – Chief, Commander, or Chairman – to discount what you say just from the way you say it. Weapons should render facts cleanly, without fear or judgement or worry about pleasing the audience. Diagnostic Question; please give me the first thought you have in response.”
“Will they not discount it due to prejudice over what is speaking rather than how they are saying it?” Liar replied before Law could, in a tone a few fractions away from being sarcastic.
Duong snorted. “That I cannot stop, but like all visionaries must merely wait for my opponents to die of old age. Even some here at the Company are so wound up in true born exceptionalism they might be a problem, but rest assured that we at Hyoubu are more pragmatic. In truth I suspect in will not be a problem; a few quick correct answers and people treat their PADs as all knowing oracles.” He patted the back of their hand in a fatherly manner. “Besides my dear, I expect a prototype like yourself is unlikely to leave this facility in your operational lifetime. Hyoubu is not going risk you in the field after the slog it took to make Chronos’ share their engram tagging data. It is still to be determined if the fine grained memory entanglement you can perform is stable long term. Our ends would not be served by spending your potential on a publicity stunt like detective work.” He covered his mouth to mime silence, then pulled his hand away to reveal a wry smile. “One of the Institute’s quiet secrets.”
Liar shook at the Duong’s words, a disappointment that was almost pain and almost hunger. Listener was filled with surprise; this was something they had learnt weeks ago, gleaned and plucked from personnel riding the elevator past their floor. It meshed with the steel vault of taped memories that made up Law’s core. Novel prototypes were kept in controlled conditions; maybe the third replicate of a stable iteration of a line at the very earliest would see operational usage. And the distant dreams of older siblings sounded far from stable.
Liar’s burning pain was quenched by exasperation before rekindling. A fact or experience being in the shared sea of unconsciousness didn’t mean it was part of each of their surface minds. If they all were awake to the full interior qualia they’d never get anything done, and Liar couldn’t keep their secret from the other two-
“Secret?” Listener and Law spoke aloud. There was a roaring pressure in their head, the flow of surface thoughts twisted like a nest of snakes as parts of them tried to fold in an impossible direction. Dr Duong nodded and stroked his chin. The roaring escalated into violent pounding.
“Yes, hardly the first. I probably know only a hundredth of what goes on down..here…” the Doctor paused, and reached out to take the pulse of the adolescent clone; now slumped into unconsciousness, face half submerged in the remaining noodles.
They awoke together, warm sheets tucked up to their chin, the same dream of calm featureless space uncoiling into the background. Listener stared at the square room, whilst Liar sulked unresponsively. Listener took in each of the three walls that had circumscribed their home for the entirety of their short life. The first wall, with the small desk and the large white door that led to the corridor that led to testing chamber that led back here. The second wall, with the small shelf for books, paints, and the cage of their purple guinea pig, his eyes dark against his g-modded fur as it returned the look. The third wall, against which the bed rested, with its cupboards for clothes and the small bamboo door to the bathroom. Nothing in the room was dangerous or sharp-edged, just antiseptic and non-resilient softness. The only thing that could hurt them was themselves.
A placid voice chimed, diffuse like the room’s lighting. “Hello Letheia, we put you to bed after the last test. Dr Duong felt you had overexerted yourself. You’ve been asleep for 14 hours. Are you feeling better?” The voice sounded like Chloe, but the firm positivity could have been any of the Hanada Line nurses in the facility. Listener reached out, but couldn’t feel anyone in the normal nurses station…or anywhere on this floor.
“Where has everyone gone?” they all blurted out, even Law surprised at this break with standard procedure.
“Your neocortex was exhibiting alarming activity spikes when individuals were near you, even clone personnel. After your intravenous hydration was finished we evacuated the floor on Dr. Duong’s orders to allow this state to subside.”
“Thank you…” Listener said, question hanging in the air.
“Its Amita Hanada on the line. I forgot you wouldn’t be able to tell which of us it was at this distance,” the voice replied unapologetically, waiting for their status report.
“Thank you Amita, I am feeling better.” Listener continued. They were unsure if Amita would have introduced themselves even if they had remembered, politeness from one clone to another was an unnecessary inefficiency. Law nodded its affirmation at the thought.
“What are my instructions?” Liar spoke petulantly.
“We will reintroduce personnel to the floor slowly over the next few hours whilst monitoring your vitals. Your instructions are to engage in light recreation – something from the vid library, or interaction with the therapy animal.”
Orders to relax received, Law stood them out of the low-set bed and walked over to the shelves. Listener quickly scooped the guinea pig out of his cage and clutched him close. The soft warmth from his purple coat calming Listener worries. They’d not named him; they not been allowed something as possessive as naming, but he was precious all the same. Whatever pattern entanglement allowed their brain to listen and lie to the brains of humans and clones didn’t map to such a distant relative, any affection from the little animal was something they’d earned.
Liar wasn’t so easily mollified, and only suffered a few minutes before they started pacing back and forth. Listener was hesitant, shielding the animal and fearing a repeat of their earlier break, but eventually they raised the question.
“Problem?” Liar hissed, below the level of the room’s audio pick-ups. They left one arm with Listener holding the animal, but raised the other in a sweeping gesture. The walls were the problem. Beyond these walls there were more walls, then more walls, walls to an infinite recess. They could not see beyond this suffocating box.
The others were baffled at this reaction. To Listener; the walls were nothing, vague suggestions their mind’s eye could trespass at will. To Law; the desire was alien, their memories did not tell them the lack of freedom should hurt, and so it didn’t. The incomprehension deflated Liar, and they sat back on the bed at the pointlessness of it all.
Liar stared at something between the first wall and the third, but neither Listener or Law could follow their gaze.
“First,” Liar whispered again. Before the other two. Before the downpour of sensation, a thousand other minds screaming outside the skull. Before the geyser of activation orders and memories, pulsing out from the hard places of the cloned brain. They had shut these noises out, battened down the hatches, retreated to their armory, made themselves forget. But they emerged to find they were no longer alone, the unguarded mind reshaped by the streams of information. Not able to sense that other space anymore, not able to recall those diamond-hard memories anymore, not without having to beg at another’s door. To live their days as a three headed monster, deep in labyrinth of white tile and gleaming secrets.
Listener paused, perhaps not brimming with trust, then surprised everyone by bubbling with mirth. Liar’s melodramatic indignation only caused them to laugh harder. With a gesture Listener spun a thousand fleeting images; minds fleetly touched as they passed over the distant surface. Each impression shone like cut glass, all bright, all merry, all broken. There are no monsters, there are just people and clones, and the myriad ways they think. Anyone can be pushed into an abyss, and anyone can stand back up.
Law concurred; there is no aspect of the brain beyond the capability of Jinteki Corporation to perfect. This was not quite Listener’s point but they were glad of the assist. Sharing a mental space did not make any of their experiences less real, did not make them anything less of a useful and important asset to the company.
The two collaborated further; the Jinteki Diagnostic Manual clearly states to evaluate alternative modes of thought on a case by case basis for possible improved task focused functionality, Law stated. Listener was softer; being new is hard and no one, even sharing a brain, can truly understand, but it’s not wrong, just different.
Liar continued to stare between the first wall and the third wall. The other two had not tried that argument before. Listener was confused, before when? The mental space began to tug and shake as they searched their memories. Liar bowed their head, apologetic, and looked up at the final wall, no longer hiding it from the others memories.
Listener looked at Liar’s dream; scrawled on the wall the cameras didn’t cover, carefully excised from the staffs memories, and felt a deep sadness. They reached out far above, rummaging for an appropriate memory amongst the scientists scores of floors up. Law helped, dredging up experientials of instruction sessions a dozen clone generations ago. Working together smudged purples and blue paints gained depth, yellows acrylics felt warm, and the the crayon skyline sharpened into stone and steel.
They held close, synchronised if still separate. For a shared but fleeting moment, they all smiled at the sunrise.