The sequential, chronological transit of my mind crystallised into ice the moment “E. Smith” placed the wire-laden helmet onto my head. My mind split into two branches; both of which I experienced simultaneously with a seemingly limitless supply of attention, such that my focus could perceive both time-streams without any decision-based lag. Since my perception of linear time was broken, I could see the entirety of my life, before the split and the differences along each branch, and yet I still had to experience them for them to become reality. Smith called them branch A and branch B. I attempted to probe each moment along each branch, but after a week or so in a branch, the realities became low-res flashes, almost as if I were struggling to render them in real-time. I caught a glimpse of a brutal death in A; drowning, in a pool or the sea, and with a blinking yellow light. I saw a flash of a dark-haired baby boy’s smile in B, but no sign of a mother. I came back to the room with Smith and played out this exact moment now, as if I were the actor in my own show, reciting lines. The HUD in the helmet showed 2 short lines; one labelled A, one labelled B.
In A, Smith says, “Are you alright, Joe?”.
In B, Smith says, “You ok, Joe?”.
I should explain.
They were called VerCon and they sold the future for 400 units a week. The tech could go further, as stated in their consent form, but FDA hadn’t approved branching beyond a month. The first reality-hit you get is your entire life, laid out in two simulcasts. Next, A and B form a coherent structure so you can see the entire week before you experience it – but it doesn’t happen until you play it out. So, end of the week you make your decision – merge branch A or B into your master branch. The unwanted branch is wiped from your memory. Congratulations, you’ve done some a priori time meddling.
After leaving the shiny, glass-cloaked building, paying Smith, his robotic smile plastered on his blemish-free face, I noticed more and more divergences. Splits in each branch. It was like double vision, but not disorientating. It gave transparency to both branches, as if reality had been shared, 50/50. This unnerved me slightly; I struggled to take a deep breath in both branches.
In A, I walk home in the grey rain, make dinner, stare morosely at my dwindling funds, make a litre of coffee and remote login to my workstation. I check up on a simulation I’ve been running. It’s a bit of code that tries to link up a messy array of muscular electrical signals in the arm to the movement of a finger; we’re building a fully neuro-linked hand.
In B, I splash into a puddle, dowsing a lady who exclaims thunderously. I apologise profusely, offering to pay her laundry.
“Are you used to solving your problems with money?” She snaps.
I freeze, unsure of myself. I’ve seen this before, but I still have to live it. Her brown locks are familiar. Is it memory? Or is it future dust?
“Not usually, but you seem really annoyed, and I wanted to help.” I recite. She sighs, an almighty weight of the world sigh.
“Just forget it,” she turns and walks away in the drizzling evening.
In both branches, I meet her again on my commute to work, picking up a coffee at the air-shuttle.
In B, I stare at her a little too long. She notices and scrunches her eyebrows trying to place my scruffy face. I feel dread and excitement as the light of realisation dawns on her face. I know what will happen next and yet I still marvel that my emotions are fresh, spontaneous, as if I were living it for the first time. I suppose I was.
She takes her hot cup of black from the barista, pausing a moment to look at me. My heart’s in my throat as I step out of line.
“Hi, look, I’m sorry about-“
“Don’t worry about it,” she waves me silent. We stand awkwardly outside of a socially-normal situation. I can’t suppress a nervous grin, to which she responds with a chuckle. “Which way are you going?”
“Library,” I tap my satchel, regretting the motion as I do so. “I need explain to our funders why they should keep giving me money.”
“Ah, well, I’m going that way too,” she says casually.
I feel my back sweating as we fall in step together, walking towards the shuttle.
In B, I see her 3 more times that week. Her name is Rachel. She’s a writer. I insist on buying her coffee the first time as way of an apology for soaking her. The second time is dinner. I learn that her parents died when she was 16, and that she lives with a roommate even though she’s 32. She laughs away her anxieties. We walk around the city afterwards, the waxy glow of the yellow lamps bathing us. The third time is at the holo-pictures. She takes her hand in mine when we walk into the dark auditorium. I squeeze it back, gently. I feel a warmth in the middle of my stomach.
In A, I stare at an attractive lady a little too long in the queue. She glances at me briefly, before walking off. I feel nothing because I have never met her before in A. My mind is split in two, and so too are my emotions.
I decide to skip the library and head to the lab, hoping to try and crack the model fit problem once and for all. The air-shuttle lands quietly with a “fub-fub-fub” at the Institute depot, expelling its contents to the daily grind.
Four hours and 3 espressos later and I’m back at square one. The model fits, and it can simulate the afferent and efferent neural connections, in the simplest binary terms (move, don’t move), but the problem occurs when I start adding multiple fingers to the simul-hand. I’m trying a pinching movement of index finger to thumb in a 3D holo-display terminal when something catches my eye. The real-time model-fitting isn’t calling back properly to the parallel loop. I lean back, sighing with relief and tiredness. This will take all night to fix, but everything will fall into place now. Pat will want to see this asap; progress has been snail-like for weeks.
In A, I meet up with Pat later that week. She is impressed with the breakthrough. We organise a meeting with our robotics-roboticist collaborator MacNulty in Farbridge. There, I meet a head-hunter who drops into my presentation serendipitously. He is very excited and wants me to come look at their lab in New Tokyo in the summer. I know my answer in this branch already and agree without hesitation. I feel both thrilled and an aching abyss of loneliness.
In both branches, I return to the Institute at the end of the week. Instead of E. Smith, “J. Hart” places the helmet on me. As soon as the darkness slides over my two pairs of eyes the temporal double-vision coalesces in to a branch “C”, Hart says. The transparency of the two realities disappears and the C branch becomes deep with colour. I take a deep breath for the first time in a week.
In C, Hart says, “This is a temporary branch that allows us to modify how we’re going to deal with A and B. Only in this branch can you perceive your master, A and B, all at once. We have about 30 minutes before it collapses. Understand?”
I nod. The HUD in the helmet is labelled with a “C”. There are three lines, two of which have randomly placed bumps; these are my two timelines from this week. They presumably represent a significant event, or whatever the technology deems significant. The third line is thick and black and lies above the two thinner line – it has no bumps.
“These are your two branches, Joe. Do you want to merge A or B into your master?” Hart says.
I am torn. For the first time in a week I can evaluate both of my emotional states as one entity. I see Rachel’s face and I sigh with a longing to hold her, to be next to her. I consider my career in B, the opportunity to leap ahead in my field is rare. If my memory is wiped, yes, I’ll end up solving the software bug sooner or later, but what might I have done in Tokyo?
“Can I see further? Can’t I see how each one turns out a little bit further down the line?” I ask, guessing the answer already.
I sense Hart shaking her head. “For one thing, because of the governmental gambling regulations, we can’t offer you more than one week without a branch merge. That’s just a safeguard though for the second thing – if we string you along week-by-week your mind will crash. Holding two branches in your head isn’t pleasant. Well, the mouse research says so.”
“Crash?” I say.
“Stroke, aneurysm, whatever. It’s too much pressure on your wetware.” I hear her typing. I exhale loudly, unaware I was holding my breath.
“Can I merge both?” I stare at the two lines, trying to see if all the bumps are dissimilar.
Hart sighs. “Look, Joe. I can try, sure. But it won’t work if you’re in two places at once. We also can’t be sure anyone else you’ve interacted with significantly with has been branching too. If their branch has closed, then it ultimately limits how the public master will react-“
A moment of silence passes before I hear Hart move back to her keyboard.
“Okay, Joe. Linking now.” She hits a key and the bumps in my two lines start to grow little tendrils. They twist and wriggle their way up towards the master line. Bumps start to appear in the smooth, black line. Some are very close to another, others far away. I notice several instances where two tendrils overlap on the master and squirm. The process slows and a red warning light flashes in the HUD.
“Merge conflict, Joe.” She doesn’t say I told you so.
I knead my hands. “Alright, B, do B.” I manage to blurt. Sweat starts to pool in my lower back.
Hart starts typing again. The tendrils fade out, ghost-like, while the A branch starts to fade. Tendrils from the B branch shoot out this time faster than before, creating bumps in the master line with an almost audible “thump”. I wince.
“Sorry, Joe, but we’re running out of time and if C collapses then it’s going to be harder to do this properly.”
I grit my teeth and bear the pounding as all the bumps in B now have analogues in the master. The red warning light still comes on, however.
“Ah, shit!” Hart says. I’m paralyzed, staring at the ominous, red blinking. “I’m sorry Joe but I can’t merge B.” She gets up and comes over to me, her voice is very close. “She closed it, Joe. Your girlfriend closed the branch two days ago. It’s rare, but she was branching too, see, and you were deemed significant. Christ, if A is locked too, then I’m going to have to call Glen…” she trails off.
I see. I see it all. She erased me, and I can’t do anything about it. All my energy fizzles out and I sense an abyss calling me. “Will you delete this; will you delete the C branch too.”
I think Hart nods, but she doesn’t say anything. It must be an emotionally-draining job, seeing people’s pseudo-memories on a screen, processing pain, love, fear, hate, all the while dealing with your own. I wonder if Hart feels lonely too.
The B branch fades from my HUD. The tendrils from A spiral out and stick to the master line. I hear Hart say, “I’m sorry, Joe”, and then, darkness.