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by Matthew Aitkenhead
John Macmillan was waiting for me when I arrived at the Prince of Wales, a pint of Orkney Dark Island before him already half-finished. I waved at him that I was going to the bar, and he pointed at his glass and gave me a thumbs-up. With a sigh, I dug my wallet out. While the beer was poured, I squinted around the dim warmth of the pub, quiet on a Tuesday afternoon. There were a few regulars, some familiar faces and some new, but it was quiet enough for our purposes. We didn't want to be disturbed.
"Cheers." John raised his glass to mine and drained the remains of his pint with a practiced flick of the wrist. He belched softly. "'Scuse me."
"Nope." We grinned at one another, reminded of our undergrad days when such comments were expected and even sometimes funny. Then it was down to business.
"You sure about this?" I asked.
"Of course, Ed. Why, you're not having second thoughts, are you?" John's eyes were dark, the emotions hidden behind an inexpressive face and a tangled mass of beard.
"No, no. Just making sure that everything was still okay."
"Why wouldn't it be? We've tested this damn idea to death. We both know that Clarity doesn't have any harmful side-effects when combined with alcohol, and done all the live trials we could think of. We're at the stage where the only thing left to do is go for it."
I waved a hand, uncomfortable with the term 'live trials'. "I know all that. I wish that we could have found some other way of doing this, though. It just doesn't feel scientific."
"Ah, but that's where you're wrong. There's a definite science to drinking, as well as an art. It's all method and technique, Ed." John grinned, knowing that I was aware he was jesting. I felt my mouth curl in a half-smile.
It was impossible, as ever, to deflect John Macmillan from the path he had chosen. The damnable thing was, he was always proven right in the end. Time and again in the eight years I had known him, I had watched and half-hoped that his latest mad endeavour would misfire. It never did, and I always felt guilty afterwards about the need to see him fail just once. It was as though I were betraying his trust by my very thoughts.
Even so, Clarity was the closest John had ever come to failure. Eighteen months after the first trials, we still couldn't get the drug to work as planned. The only reason that funding had been continued as long as this was because of our previous track record together. The university trusted him, and for once was willing to back words of faith with cold, hard cash. Even so, that source would soon dry up as well. I worried that this was another possible reason we were rushing into this.
"Don't worry, Ed." John reached across the table and gripped my arms. His eyes shone for a moment in the gloom. "I can feel it. This is going to work." Maybe he was right. I was willing to put my faith in him one more time. It was surely worth the risk, our friendship notwithstanding.
The drug was actually a combination of twelve different compounds, their correct proportions painstakingly determined using massive trials and state-of-the-art statistical methods. It had taken a year alone to get the formula right, before we started testing it on fruit flys and rats. There was no danger to the animals, none of the compounds were capable of causing damage either alone or in concert. Although the effects were a little alarming to watch.
Clarity did either just as the name suggested or the exact opposite, depending on how you looked at it. The drug interfered with the brain's ability to recognise patterns within the information received from the senses. It didn't stop the process entirely, instead inhibiting the pattern-retrieval process below a certain level of matching. The end result, we hoped, would be to create temporarily the mental state experienced by victims of strokes and other brain-related conditions, but without any permanent effects.
It sounded altogether insane the first time John told me about it, but he had only laughed at my concerns. "Of course it's a mad idea. What else could mimicking brain damage in a healthy subject be? Think about it, though. We aren't going to be stopping blood-flow to parts of the brain, or cutting bits out entirely like some people do to experimental animals. The effects of the drug will be entirely temporary, lasting about as long as the hit from a cigarette. And unlike with cancer-sticks, there will be none of the free radicals or other poisons."
Now sitting opposite me in a dark and smoky bar, John smiled at the cigarette burning between my fingers. I resisted the urge to stub it out. "It had better work. It certainly did with the rats, so if something goes wrong today then we'll have a major flaw on our hands." I didn't have to remind him that going back to the drawing-board now would be an impossibility in terms of time and money.
"Ah, but." John raised his forefinger and wagged it in my face. This was the one thing about him that annoyed me, if you discounted his being so damned right about everything. He was always doing 'the finger thing' in arguments with people less intelligent than he was, which meant just about everyone. It had led to me sometimes calling him the Abbot, a nickname that he didn't get and which I refused to explain, despite his often drunken entreaties.
"Ah, but, what?"
"We didn't give the rats this stuff beforehand, did we?" He raised the glass to his lips and drank deeply of the dark brown beer.
"True, but the pre-treatment did work with straight ethanol, vodka and just about anything else we could inject into them. And you can't mix vodka with ale," I joked, pretending to misunderstand him. "That's just disgusting."
John played along, shaking his head in mock disgust. "Ed, please. Plus it would give me a terrible hangover. I'll settle for a single malt, though. What about you?"
"I'm the observer, remember? One is my limit. I'll have an orange juice." John went to the bar and returned with his whisky, my juice and another pint. He reached into his jacket pocket and extracted a tiny vial of white powder. Making sure that no-one was looking, he tipped the contents onto his tongue and washed it down with half the whisky.
The alcohol was needed, to provide some extra interference with neuronal activation prior to the drug's effects. Softening up the enemy, we called it. Without the alcohol to scramble the brain slightly and weaken the blood-brain barrier, the drug was largely ineffective. This meant that the subject was forced to either sit in a sterile lab and drink, or go down to the pub. And there was no way that John and I were going to get drunk in the lab, for goodness sake. It went against the grain.
I almost reached out to stop him at that point, but something held me back. Curiosity, perhaps. Or that same desire to see him proved wrong. To finally see one of his grand ideas fail. He was the ideas man, the one who provided the starting point while I struggled over the nuts and bolts. It was this inventiveness that I resented, feeling petty and peeved at the same time by my inability to supply those vital concepts.
It all boils down to ideas, to concepts, in the end. The brain is designed to detect patterns in its environment, regularities in structure that allow it to predict and understand. It's a trick learned through evolution, but it can be misleading. We see things that aren't there, our interpretation of the world is just that -- an interpretation.
* * *
John had showed me an example only two days ago, when we were round at his flat working our way through a bottle of malt and drunkenly debating the problem, as we often did. I had been arguing that concepts are all a matter of degree, and that in no situation is the mind ever going to give a completely false match, one that doesn't exist at all but which we see nonetheless.
"So what would you count as completely false?"
"Something that went against accepted scientific laws." I reached for the bottle and topped our glasses up. "Something that could be disproved completely."
John grinned. "Come on then." He grabbed a torch from a drawer and ordered me outside, into his back garden and the still November night.
"You won't need a torch. There's a full moon tonight."
"I know. That's the point." He flicked the beam on, and pointed it at the ground. I stared at the circle of illumination. "You see that?" I nodded. "What is it?"
"It's the light from the torch."
"Just so. And it makes a shape on the ground." He waggled the torch. "You can see the shape moving, right?" Again, I nodded, as the oval of light tracked around the garden. John pointed the torch upwards, towards the glowing face shining down on us. "And do you accept that, although the beam is weakened over distance, some of the light will still make it to the moon?"
"I suppose so. If the torch is strong enough."
"Good. Now watch." He flicked the torch to the left, then to the right. "So the illumination from the torch moves across the face of the moon. If I move the torch fast enough, that patch of illumination will move faster than the speed of light, because of the distances involved. Which is impossible."
I saw what he meant. "So you're saying that really, there is no patch of light."
"Exactly. It's all in the mind. There's no real object there, because nothing can break the speed of light. It's just a pattern that we see, it doesn't really exist at all. All those individual photons are separate, they don't make a bigger whole."
"So if this works, you won't see the light as a patch. It'll be -- oh, I don't know. Something else." I scratched my head. "I can't imagine what it will feel like."
"That's what we're going to find out."
* * *
Now we sat, two days later, facing one another. John's eyes darted around the room, looking at everything, waiting for the effects to kick in. My fingers played with the pen and pad of paper that I had brought for taking notes. I watched his face carefully.
"Not sure." He turned to look at my face, and stared at me with an intensity bordering on the disturbing. "I still know who you are. I know who I am." He held his hand up in front of his face. "This is a hand. Fingers, thumb, palm. Skin and bone, nerves and nails." His face lit up suddenly. "Not nails!" He grinned at me. "Not nails. Claws. Nails are for hammering."
"It's working, then." My heart beat faster. "What does it feel like?"
"Not like I'd expected." He lifted his hand to his face once more. "Oddly natural. Nothing feels wrong, exactly. Just different. Words with multiple meanings don't apply any more, they don't exist."
"You mean, like 'bare naked', 'brown bear', and 'to bear fruit'?"
He frowned. "I only understood the second one of those. Give me another."
"The reign of Queen Elizabeth. Rain and shine. Give him free rein. Aah, let's see. I cut myself on a pane of glass. It caused me pain." This went on for a while, till I ran out of examples to give. "So what happens when I say something that makes no sense?"
"It sounds like nonsense. There's no connection there."
"Is it wearing off yet?"
"Maybe. I'm not sure. Perhaps I'm just getting used to the effects." Before I could stop him, he retrieved another vial from his pocket and swallowed the contents. "Let's see what happens, shall we?" He rattled his empty glass on the table, and I returned to the bar.
When I got back, John was frowning in thought. He grabbed my pad suddenly, and drew three crosses in a line on the page. "What do you see?"
"Three crosses in a line."
John nodded significantly. "Exactly. This is what I'm trying to say. I can't see the line any more. I can see the crosses, but that's it."
I sat back, frowning at the pad. No matter how I looked, I couldn't manage not to see the pattern that wasn't really there. "Bizarre." I looked up, and saw that he wasn't paying attention to me, but was staring at the ceiling. "What?"
"I don't know. I got a hint of something there, but it's gone. Give me a minute." He drummed his fingers on the table top, eyes blank. Suddenly his face took on an expression of astonishment, followed by something that I couldn't recognise. It was as though he had just seen something that was so unutterably bizarre that all he could do was look with blank incomprehension. And yet, at the same time, there was an awareness in John's eyes, almost as though he was understanding what he saw. I retrieved my pen and poised, ready to write.
"Whoah." Finally he breathed out, and I became aware that I too had been holding my breath. "That was intense."
"What?" My fingers were gripping the pen tightly. "What did you see?"
"I can't tell you. No, I mean I want to, but there's just no way. To explain, I mean. To describe." His eyes locked with mine briefly, then began wandering around my face. "Sit still. I'll try to get it back. I was like -- like nothing changed at all, but everything did. Like one of those optical illusions, you know?"
"Two black faces, or one white candlestick? That kind of thing?"
He shook his head. "No, more like one of those pictures made up of dots, that you have to look at right to make the image jump out at you. Except this was different. The image was already there, it was like I lost it, and there was nothing but dots for a moment, and then it all snapped back but there was a different picture there."
My pen scratched the page while my pulse pounded. Our surroundings were forgotten, irrelevant. "So what was the new picture like?"
"That's what is so difficult to explain. You were there, and this pub, and everything --" he waved his hand vaguely "-- but it wasn't the same. It's like, say you were a little kid that had lived in one house all his life, and then you moved away for years and came back when you were older. The house would be exactly the same, but you wouldn't see it the same way."
"Was it pleasant, or unpleasant?"
"Definitely not unpleasant. But not exactly good, I mean -- yow!" He sat rigid for a moment, gripping the edge of the table. A couple at the nearest table looked over curiously, then resumed their conversation. I stared at John, waiting for whatever it was that had struck him to pass. Finally, he relaxed slightly, his eyes lowering to the table top. "It comes and goes. I saw everything."
"What do you mean, you saw everything?"
"I mean, I saw everything. The scales fell from my eyes. I could see, clearly and for the first time, everything around me. Reality."
My pen had stopped moving. "What did it look like?"
John reached for his beer, and smiled wryly. "It made me want to have another drink." He took a swift gulp. "The Universe doesn't care. It's big, and cold, and emotionless." He glanced at me. "I know, I know. That doesn't make any sense. But it's what I saw, and it scared me." Another gulp of beer. I noticed that his hand was trembling slightly. "We're all part of a machine, just tiny little components moving about. There's no god, no good or evil, no real life even. It's all mechanistic."
"But you thought that already, didn't you? I thought you were an atheist."
"There's a big difference between believing in something like that and actually seeing the evidence. It's all just too much to take in. It scares me, but in a way, it feels right at the same time."
I stared at my glass, realising that I had finished my drink. I hadn't even noticed. I went up to the bar once more, and as I turned back to look at John I saw him swallow the contents of another vial. Ignoring the drinks, I rushed back to the table. "Enough, John. That's enough."
"I hope so." He leaned back to look up at me, and for a moment I saw the spark in his eye. This was the old John Macmillan, shining through. I felt a wave of relief wash over me, seeing him still there, but the next moment he slumped forwards once more and all expression left his slack-jawed face.
"John!" I grabbed his shoulder and hissed into his ear, scared. Several people looked up, concerned. "John! Talk to me! What do you see?" Get a grip, I told myself. I had to deal with this. Here we were, sitting in a smoky pub in the middle of Aberdeen, experimenting with wild combinations of drink and drugs. Not exactly the ideal setting for an experiment, but I had no other choice. "Talk to me, John."
And so he did. Words began to tumble from John Macmillan's mouth, words that no person ever wanted to hear. About the absence of God, and the stupidity of humans. About how we were missing so much of reality, drowning ourselves in useless animal behaviours. We had to let it all go, drop all the shackles, break free from the tyranny of our own minds. I tried to shut him up, to stop the flow of addled insanity. I might as well have tried swimming up a waterfall.
Eventually the barman came over, and asked us to leave. Apparently John's behaviour was disturbing the other customers. I nodded, quite disturbed enough myself, and grabbed John's arm. He didn't move, but continued staring at the tabletop. I leant over and whispered loudly into his ear, aware of the eyes fixed on us from around the room. "Time to go, mate. Let's continue this outside." I grinned at the barman, embarrassed. "Sorry about this. He's had a few too many, I think."
Finally I got John to stand and herded him towards the door. We passed a table surrounded by people, and John stopped and turned, facing them. I gripped his upper arm, but he ignored me, pointing at one of the staring onlookers.
"She is pregnant." There were gasps from around the table, and the woman burst into tears. The man beside her started to stand, threateningly. He froze as John's next words were directed at him. "He has cancer. Cancer of the bowel." His gaze roved around the group. "She is alcoholic. He had sex this morning. He is not wearing underwear. She is carrying a large sum of money."
I dragged him bodily towards the door, horrified. The people John had been pointing at sat shocked, silent. The entire pub was stilled. Finally I managed to force him through the door and out into the sunshine. I steered him in the direction of Union Street, glancing over my shoulder occasionally to see if anyone was following. It gave me something to occupy my mind, to avoid thinking about what had just happened.
Finally, when I thought we were safe, I allowed him to stop. John swayed gently, a glassy stare ignoring the hubbub surrounding us on the pavement. I stood right in front of him, trying to make eye contact and failing.
"We have to stop this now. We had no indication that the effects would be cumulative. What if it doesn't wear off?"
He stood silent for a moment, eyes focussed on a point three feet in front of him. Afternoon shoppers streamed by, intent on their destinations. When he finally spoke, it was with a slow thoughtfulness that frightened me more than anything else so far. This wasn't the direct, forceful John Macmillan of old, but someone new, different. "There isn't going to be brain damage. It will wear off without lasting effects."
A man bumped into John, and we swayed together, one supporting the other. I took his arm and directed him down a side street, where it was quieter. We walked slowly, the noise at our backs receding. "How can you be sure?"
Again, that pause, as though formulating his thoughts, translating from one paradigm to another in his head. "I can see it." Then he turned to me. "We have no more beer."
I laughed, then realised he was serious. What the hell, I thought. "I'll get some." There was an off-licence on a street corner nearby. "Wait here." Moments later I rejoined him and we shuffled onwards, bottles in hand, ignoring the occasional glances of passers-by. Just a couple of drunks.
We sat on a park bench, away from the crowds. Occasional couples, with dogs and children, strolled past. The weather was unseasonably warm, the sunlight glowing on John's beard and face, highlighting that La Gioconda smile.
"Clarity is working fine. It's reducing the ability of the memories to resonate with patterns that are incomplete. But there's something else. It's causing the attractors to lock onto patterns that are more directly given, more complete. I'm seeing the fundamentals of the Universe, the patterns that are really there."
I stared into his eyes, trying to take this in. "We didn't predict this. Why is it happening now?"
"There's some aspect of the brain's activity that we overlooked. I can't quite understand it. It's as though there has to be a certain level of matching going on in the attractors. There's a built-in need to recognise patterns that has to be satisfied at some level. Effectively, the brain's activities can't be switched off. Just redirected."
My pen skittered over the paper of the notepad, trying to take it all down. "Why didn't we see this before, with the rats?"
"We probably did. They just couldn't communicate their experiences to us." He laughed suddenly, briefly. "Rat nirvana."
"How come you can still communicate with me? You can still listen, still speak." I found myself wishing, not for the first time, that we had done this in a more stable environment. It really didn't feel like science any more, and that scared me.
He nodded and spoke slowly, carefully. "It's not easy. Language is an important part of the brain's activity." He paused, and I waited, pen stilled. "There are strong patterns and weak patterns. The strong patterns are easier to work with." He reached abruptly into his jacket and brought out another vial.
I grabbed his hand. "Enough. We can do this again some other time, maybe take it further. This is as far as we go the first time."
"No. Yes. It's okay. I want to see." He put his other hand on mine. "You are not so concerned for me." There was a glint of understanding in his eyes. "I know how you feel."
"John, I'm sorry." I felt like I was confessing some great sin, unburdening myself. "I shouldn't think like that, it's not right."
"It's natural." He popped the lid of the vial and swallowed the contents, washing them down with a swig of beer.
Those were John's last words to me for a while. No matter how strong the patterns for language might have been in his brain, they could not withstand the onslaught of Clarity. I watched him, trying to imagine what was going through his mind. Somewhere between the tight resonance of the normal mind with the world and freewheeling randomness, John Macmillan hung. I checked his pulse and breathing, making sure that the autonomic responses of his brain stem had not been affected. Both were slow and steady, regular as clockwork.
I knelt in front of him, on the ground, peering under his half-closed eyelids. "John. If you can hear me, try to communicate your experiences to me in some way. This is an experiment, remember. We have to record what happens." I waited, watching for some sign that he had understood me. "I understand that what you are experiencing might be impossible to translate into normal communication, but please, you have to show me."
Nothing. I knelt there until my knees began to complain, the hard uneven ground digging in. Finally I stood and turned away, trying to get some blood back into my legs. I stared at the blue sky, the trees, the clouds, ignoring the man behind me and trying to imagine what his perception of all this was. I stared at a tree, trying not to see the shape but the pure essence of the thing, the components rather than the whole. I couldn't do it, and in truth I wasn't sure that I even wanted to. What use was a world where you saw only the underlying nature and none of the structure built upon those foundations? What could be achieved in a situation like that?
I shook my head, and turned back to the bench. It was empty. I stared bug-eyed, and whimpered in near panic. I looked left and right, scanning the park, and finally spotted him. He was standing by a tree, a tiny figure more than two-hundred-yards distant. I ran over, trying to work out how long my back had been turned. Twenty seconds, thirty at most. It took me the best part of a minute to reach him, and I knew he was no athlete. When I reached him, I rested my hands on my knees for a moment, struggling for breath. John continued to stand, motionless, leaning against the tree trunk. It was as though I didn't exist.
When I could stand, I checked his breathing and pulse again. They were unchanged. "Okay, come on. How the hell did you do that?" No response. I stood closer, watching his eyes. "Was that your way of telling me what you could see? That your new understanding of reality allows you to do things that are thought to be impossible?" After a few seconds, his expression distant and unaltered, John nodded once, slowly.
Like a good scientist, I wrote it all down. Perhaps that was my way of dealing with it. Keep records, trap the new knowledge in a framework that's already understood. I stood and watched him for a while more, until I got bored. Then, unable to think of anything else to do, I took John's arm in mine and walked him slowly home.
I lay him on his sofa and sat myself in a chair at his living room table, watching and waiting for the drug to wear off. I made a few more notes, trying to organise and structure, to control what had taken place. Perhaps John would be able to explain it to me himself, when the effects of Clarity had dissipated. After an hour or so, his eyes closed and his breathing changed. He slept, and lulled by the soft sounds of his snoring, I finally drifted off myself.
* * *
Rough hands shook me awake. I jerked upright in my chair, trying to focus on the figure before me. John's face was inches from my own, his eyes wild, his grin enormous.
"Whah?" It was all I could manage. I rubbed my face where it had been pressed against the table top all night. "Whassup?"
"Notes. Take notes." Belatedly, I saw the scattering of empty vials on the table surface. I tried to count how many were there. A dozen at least.
"You didn't. Tell me you didn't." John just smiled, and pressed a mug of tea into my hands. As I sipped at the scalding liquid, I was dimly aware that he'd remembered the amounts of milk and sugar from our previous morning-after-the-night-before sufferings. I tried to force myself awake. "When did you take it?"
"Just now. It hasn't kicked in yet."
"You should have waited. We need to do more tests after last night, it didn't go as planned. We aren't ready ." My voice trailed off when I realised that he wasn't listening to me. With a sigh, I reached for the pad and pen once more. "How did you feel when you woke up?"
"Fine. Apart from the hangover." Finally I smiled, and he grinned back. "I can remember what it was like, Clarity doesn't seem to impede the creation of new attractors in the brain at all." He stared at me. "Do you know what this means? Everything that I saw yesterday is still with me, so even if the drug doesn't have a permanent effect physically, it still causes lasting changes. I'm not seeing things the same way today as I was beforehand."
I struggled to understand. "So over time, the effects of the drug will stay with you?"
John nodded. "It's a chemical route to nirvana. Someone finally managed what all those guys back in the Sixties couldn't achieve with all their drugs, and without the brain damage." He slumped back onto his sofa. "This is brilliant!" His smile faded slowly. "It's starting to take effect again, I can feel it."
"I'm still not sure about this." Even as I spoke, I became aware of something happening. The world altered, subtly, around me. I stared at the empty vials on the table-top, noting for the first time that there were two clusters. Stupidly, I glanced at my empty mug. There was a slight residue in the bottom. John Macmillan laughed. I stared at him, and shook my head as I traced my finger around the bottom of the mug and licked the last remnants up. "You bastard."
"Sit back. Enjoy the ride."
I didn't have much choice, and within seconds Clarity took hold. My mind opened up and dissolved in on itself, leaving me staring at reality in incomprehension. For several long, terrifying seconds there were no objects, no words or phrases or concepts. I stared around wildly, trying to recognise something, anything.
A noise made me turn my head, and I tried to understand the thing, the object, that was making these sounds. Speech was gone, and I didn't even recognise my companion any more. There was something on the edge of consciousness, like a feather tickling the base of my brain. I latched onto it, drowning in my inability to recognise a single thing, desperate for understanding, for comprehension.
Reality clicked. It was as though I had turned my head by the tiniest fraction and suddenly recognised something I had known all my life but had been looking at from an unfamiliar angle. Everything was still there, but nothing was there at all. I felt the truth in every particle of myself and my surroundings, recognising it all at some deeper, more basic level.
The Universe was a hierarchy, built from the tiniest concepts up, a pyramid of meaning. At some point in the climb up that pyramid, I could see now, the brain had stopped seeing the truth and begun making things up, seeing in a way that fitted better with the way it was built.
I could have sat for hours in stupefaction, simply staring reality in the face, but there was something else. Some tiny part of my mind could see myself from without and was aware of this room in a different way. I turned to John, understanding blossoming like a flower. Our minds were intermeshed, locked in their appreciation of reality, the attractors pulsing strongly enough to cause resonance in one another's minds. All those mental impulses, that electricity of the mind, no longer a buzzing confusion but moving in stronger, simpler patterns, an effect detectable over distance.
He could feel my thoughts, and I his. We stood as one, moving closer, our minds embracing, overlapping, caressing like lovers. The intimacy soothed and excited, stimulated and stilled, allowing us to see one another and so to see ourselves with a clarity never heeded before. I was distantly aware of the tears rolling down my cheeks, salt taste in my mouth, the throbbing of my entire body in tune with this other that stood before me.
This would pass. The drug would wear off, the effects would disappear. But we would remember. I knew that, and willed myself to memorise everything that I felt. This was a change, a previously undiscovered potential unleashed, with implications staggering in their scale. We saw in our minds' eye the future of the world: thoughts unhidden, secrets revealed, understanding and sympathy and appreciation throughout humanity. The colossal potential.
As one, we smiled.
Story © 2004 by Matthew Aitkenhead email@example.com
Illustration © 2004 by Senthil GK firstname.lastname@example.org
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