Stephanie Taylor walked over the Walnut Street Bridge in Philadelphia again, even though she’d never been there in her life. She was heading west towards University City, with the morning sun on her back and a gentle breeze blowing through her long hair. She glanced down to her left at the Schuykill River calmly flowing beneath her and thought about her parents, imagining that they were still alive. As she neared the end of the bridge a sense of urgency grew within her – she needed to get somewhere, but she didn’t know where that was. Confusion began to overwhelm her and she turned, looking all around. As the sun hit her eyes she woke up.
Again? That’s the third time this month.
She laid in bed staring up at the ceiling.
What is it with Philadelphia?
Stephanie had never even been to America, let alone Philadelphia.
Becca thinks it’s from watching vids. But then why just Philadelphia? I should be having dreams about all sorts of places I’ve never been to.
“Brains can do weird things sometimes,” Becca had said the last time they talked about it. “Maybe yours just latched on to something you saw and it’s stuck in a loop or something.” This from a woman who works with brain-oriented nanotech.
I’m still unsure whether that’s insightfully simple or just lame.
They had scanned Stephanie’s brain, checked her blood, did diagnostics on all the nanotech in her body, and everything had checked out – she was perfectly normal.
As normal as a thirty-three-year-old-self-obsessed-introvert-workaholic can be.
She sighed, flopped to the end of the bed and began to pet her dog, Sagan. The three-year-old black Labrador retriever wagged his tail and rolled over so he could have his belly rubbed. She indulged him for several minutes while she let her mind wander. The memory of her parents came to her, along with a sense of melancholy.
I miss them.
Stephanie eventually rose from her bed and pulled on some sweat pants and a long shirt. “Hypatia, open the window please,” she said to her house system.
“Good morning Steph,” Hypatia answered in a gentle female voice with a soft Scottish accent.
The window quietly opened outwards and the sounds of birdsong drifted into the room. Stephanie walked over and took in a view of lush green trees. To her right she could just catch a glimpse of the Severn River in the wide valley below, a couple of wind turbines turning lazy circles near its bank. The Forest of Dean in southwest England was lovely this time of year. She took a deep breath of the moist air, smiled to herself, and turned back to the room. She stopped at a mirror to pull her chestnut hair back into a short ponytail, then frowned.
My hair was much longer in my dream... Actually it’s always longer in my dreams. Maybe I should let it grow out.
Stephanie couldn’t remember the last time her hair was that long in real life, or if it ever was. She leaned in towards the mirror and looked at her eyes. They were a striking hazel color and one of her most notable features.
I suppose they’re the same in my dreams, but who knows?
She went downstairs and the wall of her lounge lit up, displaying news headlines and the weather forecast. It looked like it was going to be nice for a mid-twenty-first century day in June. She ignored the rest of the news displayed there. “Show me information about Philadelphia.” Several pages immediately appeared on the wall. She pointed at a couple and they took over most of the surface. She read, looked at pictures, maps, videos, and street views. In particular she took time looking at scenes of Walnut Street as it headed west out of Center City. It all looked exactly as it did in her dreams. There was something disturbingly familiar there, like an itch inside the back of her skull. But she couldn’t pin it down and say exactly what. Perhaps it was nothing more than having witnessed that scene in her dreams so many times, but it felt like more than that.
I’m all for a little mind distortion, but this is just getting annoying now.
She heard her dog coming down the stairs and decided she would get back to this later. Sagan came over and nudged her leg, looking up at her expectantly. She bent down and gave him a rub with one hand, then squatted and used both hands to scratch behind his ears. He closed his eyes in delight and gave her one of those dog smiles that always made her feel warm inside.
Wonder if he ever dreams about running through a field he’s never been to before?
Stephanie put on some sneakers and headed outside with Sagan for their morning walk. It was a beautiful morning and the two of them did their usual two mile loop on the small country lanes surrounding their home. As far as her dog was concerned, every walk was the best one ever, and Stephanie often admired his immersion in the moment. The walks usually allowed Stephanie time to relax and slow down, but today her mind kept going back to her dreams and the images she looked at of Philadelphia. She couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something more to it all.
I need to talk to Becca about it again, and not let her get away with some naff answer this time. In the meantime I need to stop thinking about this shit and just enjoy my walk.
She took a deep breath and looked around. She was surrounded by trees, pastures, and hedgerows. Not for the first time she thought about how lucky she was to live in such a peaceful area so full of nature.
So glad I don’t live in some overcrowded city like, oh, I don’t know, Philadelphia!
She chuckled and grinned wryly to herself. Shaking those thoughts out of her head, she did her best to tune into her surroundings again and enjoy her walk. When she and her dog approached the last bend and their house came back into view, Sagan gave an excited bark and they both broke into a run. It was a game they always played, racing to see who would get there first. Sagan invariably won of course, for which Stephanie always praised him, and which was probably why he enjoyed it so much.
After some stretching, Stephanie headed inside and showered. She put on some blue jeans and a simple long-sleeved shirt and went downstairs to have breakfast. Having already finished his meal, Sagan was lying on the back porch gnawing on a chew toy.
While most people in the developed world now had retinal and aural implants that allowed them to connect to the wider world at any time, Stephanie had so far resisted. She occasionally got teased for still using external devices to stay connected, but she didn’t care. While the world was a lot more equal than it used to be, with nearly anyone on the planet who wanted to be connected able to do so, divisions still existed. Being able to afford implants that allowed instant connectivity was a luxury that usually came after nanite blood infusions for health monitoring and maintenance. The latter had practically become a basic human right at this point.
A few billion microscopic robots is all the tech I need inside me right now, thank you very much.
So Stephanie sat down at her dining table and asked Hypatia to show her the tech section of the BBC on the wall in front of her, rather than having it scroll across her retinas. She liked it this way. It allowed her to connect only if she was deliberate about it – not like some of those zombies who seemed permanently jacked-in and perpetually zoned-out. She brought up an article that was talking about the latest procedures involving bio-engineered synthetic blood. This was of particular interest as her own blood was already entirely artificial, having been replaced in an experimental procedure two and a half years ago that cured her of a rare form of cancer.
Okay, a few billion microscopic robots and five-odd liters of synthetic blood, but who’s counting...
The article Stephanie was looking at discussed the link between manufactured blood and the latest brain research. The latter continued to be a touchy subject in most countries. Messing with the brain was okay to a point – things like Parkinson’s disease was a thing of the past, and most other brain maladies could be readily treated. But doing anything to artificially enhance an individual’s intellect was still considered by many to be taboo. Fully recreating human consciousness was a level of magnitude beyond that, and it still seemed to elude the experts. In America in particular there was a large fundamentalist block that opposed the development altogether. But even internationally other governments had put restrictions and caveats on the research that had hampered progress. Fears of Skynet were real, even if killer AI wasn’t.
Stephanie washed up and grabbed a light jacket. She went out the back door and down the trail leading to Becca’s house, two minutes away. Whereas Stephanie’s home looked more typical of traditional English construction – red brick and a solar-collecting roof made to look like ceramic tiles – Becca’s was unabashedly modern. Built primarily from recycled plastic “concrete” and programmable glass, it sat in an embankment, completely covered on the top by mosses and grass and all but invisible except for the front face. Even the glass front could be made to look like the embankment it sat in if desired. Other than the modest gravel drive that ended at a picnic table in front of a small pond next to the house it would be hard to tell there was anything else there at all. Stephanie walked up to the entrance and the door automatically opened as she approached.
“Good morning Stephanie.” The voice of the house system was male, with the slightly overdone accent of an old English butler.
“Morning Nigel,” she replied. Nigel’s voice was so stereotypically exaggerated that she couldn’t help but smile each time she heard it. Being an American Becca found it charmingly “English” and fully embraced the characterization.
Sagan followed Stephanie inside and headed to his usual spot near one of the windows. Becca’s tabby cat Fossey came over and greeted him, and he wagged his tail as they touched noses before she wandered back off. Stephanie could hear Becca’s mellow mid-Atlantic American accent in the lab area off to the right. She was having an animated conversation with Henry, one of the Bristol techs who they often liaised with.
“Look, I know the parameters initially said we could expect a variation of two-point-eight percent, but I had to adjust the input of oxygen and now it says three percent, why is that so hard to understand?”
Becca was pacing around the area, and looked over as Stephanie walked in, the blue in her eyes sparkling through her black wire-frame glasses. She was shorter than Stephanie, with dark, wavy hair tied back in a thick braid, and she seemed older than the year-and-a-half she had on her friend. Like Stephanie she was dressed in comfortable jeans and wore a dark, oversized t-shirt with the faded print of a red dragon on it. She waved and smiled before her face became a scowl again and she went back to speaking with – at? – Henry. The creases in his forehead seemed a permanent feature, at least when he was talking to Becca. His image appeared in the lower corner of a wall-sized display that was otherwise a chaotic mixture of math formulae, diagrams, and images.
“Just run the numbers again and get back to me later, Steph is here, I gotta go.”
She made a gesture with her right hand and just as Henry was about to respond his image faded and slid off the wall. With the conversation ended music began to play in the background, the usual post-rock ambient mix both women liked to listen to while they worked.
Becca turned again to face Stephanie. “Good morning darling!” she said with a bright smile. She skipped over to her friend and gave her an enthusiastic hug. “I’m gonna get another cup of coffee, you want anything?”
Stephanie smiled and shook her head. “I’m fine for now, thanks. Trouble over at Ubiquitous Nano Solutions?” She gestured to the wall behind them where Henry’s image had been a moment ago.
Becca made a face as she refilled her oversized Yoda mug. “UNS please. I don’t need to be reminded of the ridiculous and wholly inaccurate name of the company we work for.”
“Wholly inaccurate? That’s stretching it just a bit. Besides, they do good work, even if they chose a goofy name.”
“You mean we do good work, I’m not sure about the rest of them.” Becca smirked and took a gulp of her coffee. “And yeah, okay, we do brain augmentation programs which involves nanotech, but we’re hardly ubiquitous. The whole thing is such a stupid, corporate-sounding name.” Stephanie gave her a knowing smile. “I know, I’ve said the same thing a million times before, so sue me. Anyway, that,” Becca pointed back at the wall, “was just Henry being his usual pedantic self, worried about anything that might mess with his carefully crafted schedule. Whatever I can do to upset that is a win in my book.” She flashed Stephanie a mischievous grin.
“You are truly evil, I’ve always known that,” Stephanie replied, turning back to look at one of the diagrams displayed on the wall. She made a pinching motion with her fingers and moved her hand to the table top in front of her, where the image reappeared. “I suppose he might also be concerned that any extra oxygen might change the chemical balance, regardless of what the calculations show.”
“That’s because despite his analytical mind he sometimes still lets his emotions get in the way of the math. He knows better than to believe he can out-think a supercomputer, but it doesn’t stop him from trying. I think he gets too attached to his own creations.”
“Perhaps. By the way, it’s ‘maths,’ not ‘math.’ Not that me constantly reminding you makes any difference.” Becca stuck her tongue out and Stephanie smiled. She gestured and spun the diagram in front of her. “Anyway, we should finish our own tests on the new parameters and then set up for that diagnostics you wanted to do on me.”
Becca’s house was open-plan, with a sizable work area – the lab – off to the right, usually visible through the smartglass partitions. This is where the women did most of their work, linked to the UNS offices in Bristol. Several hours passed as the two of them worked on their project, going about it with a quiet, practiced efficiency. Becca occasionally broke the mood with a snarky comment or goofy observation, knowing that Stephanie’s intense focus sometimes needed a jolt lest she get too involved with one aspect of the work and forget to come up for air. Though her timing was usually pretty good, it sometimes annoyed her friend. After one such break in concentration Stephanie looked sidelong at her coworker and scowled.
Dammit Becs, I was in a groove there!
She took a deep breath.
She’s right for the most part though, I do sometimes lose sight of the big picture when I get this focused, even if her interruptions can occasionally be... intrusive.
She refocused and got back to work. It was nearing lunchtime when Becca’s voice again invaded Stephanie’s thoughts. “Yo dude, you in there?” Stephanie suddenly became aware that Becca had called to her several times now. She looked up in surprise.
Wait a second, what just happened? I was thinking about my dream just then? That’s never happened before, I don’t daydream when I’m working like this, ever.
Becca looked at her friend with concern. “You okay hun? You actually seemed to space out for a minute there, and not in your usual ‘I’m calculating the infinite complexities of the universe, leave me alone’ kind of way.”
Stephanie took a deep breath and exhaled. “Yeah, I was just thinking about something. Let’s have some lunch and I’ll tell you about it.” She smiled reassuringly and headed into the kitchen.
The women put together a salad along with strips of lab-grown chicken. They took the food and some bowls over to a table by the front windows. The day had clouded over and it looked like it might rain. Sagan had been lying outside but noticed them and got up. The door opened for him and he came in wagging his tail. He knew he wouldn’t be getting a hand out from the table, but was perpetually hopeful. He settled down near Stephanie’s feet and sighed.
“So what’s up, everything all right?” Becca looked at her friend with some amount of concern in her eyes, seeming to study her closely.
“Yeah, I’m okay, I guess.” She took a bite of her food and paused to chew. “You know I told you that I’ve had this recurring dream about being in Philadelphia?” Becca nodded. “Well, I had another one last night, which is the third time it’s happened in the last month, and at least a dozen times overall. Always the same, I was walking over the bridge on Walnut Street towards the university.” She paused and took another bite. “So over there,” she said, motioning towards the lab, “I was thinking about the dream, and for a moment I felt almost like I was back there. It’s the strangest daydream I’ve ever had, like I was completely not here thinking about our work, which has never happened before.” She stared out the window, looking through a gap in the trees towards the Severn valley below.
Becca’s brow furrowed as she looked at her friend, her face a mixture of thoughts which she tried to keep contained by forcing a neutral expression. Finally she smiled and took a bite of food. While chewing she said “You know, if you get good enough at this it could save you a shitload on virtual travel programs. You should really try to expand your horizons though, at least give Times Square a try.”
Stephanie stuck her tongue out. “Thanks, you’re a big help there, dork.” She took another bite of food.
Becca turned more serious again. “Well, fortunately we were going to do that test on your blood today. We’ll just expand it and do a full scan of all your systems, bio, nano, the works.”
“That’ll use up the rest of the afternoon, won’t Henry freak out even more if we don’t stay on schedule?”
“Fuck Henry and his schedule, you’re more important than UNS’s next product iteration.” She paused and looked at her friend. “Honestly though, I wouldn’t be too worried about what happened. People daydream all the time. It can be very healthy for the creative process. Maybe this is a good development in your own personal evolution into an actual human being.” She was smiling again, that signature glint in her eyes. Stephanie smiled back and held up the middle finger of her left hand in response.
They finished lunch and Becca picked up the empty dishes, heading back towards the kitchen. Stephanie left the table before turning around to give Sagan the last piece of chicken she had saved from her lunch. He gave an appreciative wag of his tail and followed Becca into the kitchen to see if there was anything more to be had.
The two women headed back into the lab. A glass panel slid shut behind them and all the walls became opaque, blocking the view from outside the room. There was an examination table and instrumentation that allowed for full body scans and any number of other tests to be performed. Stephanie moved to the table and laid down. The walls and ceiling of the room lit up with displays showing various vital signs and body functions.
Becca picked up a tablet from a side table and did a few swipes and presses. “It’s a deep scan, so you know what that means.”
“Brain fade. Yeah, I know.”
Stephanie didn’t like what the two of them had come to call “brain fade” – the experience she had when they periodically did these kinds of deep scans. It wasn’t exactly sleep, but she could feel herself disconnecting and eventually losing consciousness. Everything slowed down, and what seemed like minutes could be an hour or more before she came back to her full senses. Becca jokingly called it rebooting her system, and it did actually feel like that in many ways. It wasn’t uncomfortable, but she wasn’t thrilled with the idea of losing control of herself and being so unaware of her circumstances.
From what Stephanie knew – which was actually a lot – this sort of experience was unusual. Unless someone had undergone significant brain modifications then a scan like this didn’t normally lead to the kind of disconnect she always experienced. The best explanation she had come up with for her brain fade was that the scan somehow affected her artificial blood, slowing down some element of it during the scanning process, causing lethargy and that feeling of disconnection. It wasn’t an entirely satisfying explanation, but it was the only one she had for now. In any case no harm had ever come from it, so she didn’t object to the regular scans Becca insisted on performing.
“Ready darling?” Becca looked at her with a friendly smile, her glasses reflecting the glow of the wall beyond the table. Stephanie nodded and her friend pressed once more on the tablet.
A low hum surrounded Stephanie and almost immediately she began to feel the familiar tiredness wash over her. She’d learned not to fight it, so she closed her eyes and let go, quickly drifting off into unconsciousness.
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