They turned down a side street and ducked into a nearby coffee shop — which proudly advertised itself as “Not Another Fucking Starbucks, Est. Yes” — where they sat down at a corner table to wait.
The air along the river was filled with a warm mist of soft rain.
Myra Rider picked her way through the crowd of people — only slightly reduced by the weather — milling about while waiting to see the USS Blueback. In the near distance, she could see the heavy traffic of Interstate 5 flowing over the twin decks of the Marquam Bridge. Beyond that, partially obscured by the gray drizzle, were the green arches of Hawthorne Bridge. If she zoomed in and refocused her vision, she could just make out the stream of bicyclists hurrying across.
"— but the neural pathways just don't exist," Alexis Norwood was saying. The other cyborg gestured with a gloved hand at a virtual projection of a human nervous system, which was visible only to the two of them. Occasionally, someone would walk right through it, shattering the illusion of the augmented reality.
"What about repurposing some existing ones?" Myra asked. She tapped a section of the illusory brain, causing it to glow. "It's not like we need independent eyebrow control."
Alexis shook her head. "There aren't enough spare pathways to do that. Not without resorting to Morse or ASCII."
The two of them dodged around a herd of tourists being shepherded towards the submarine, then continued towards the back of the OMSI building.
"Which is a problem because…?"
"Because then you lose any possible speed or accuracy advantage that would have been gained from a direct interface."
"Right." They stopped in front of a staff door. "What if we ditched manual input?"
"What do you mean?"
Myra pulled open the door and gestured for Alexis to enter. "Don't think at the interface. Do a real-time translation of thought into language, and then have a software agent interpret that into instructions."
"That's impossible." She paused, then added, "Well, at least with our current tech."
"Isn't that why we're meeting with Conrad?"
Alexis nodded slightly, ceding the point. She dismissed the virtual projection with a casual wave of her hand.
They stopped again when they came to a dead-end in the maintenance corridor.
"Do you have the key?" Myra asked.
"Of course," Alexis said. She reached into her pocket and removed a small wireframe rose. Holding the delicate trinket carefully between her thumb and forefinger, she gently slotted it into a matching indent in the brickwork wall. Then, in the practiced tone of one performing rote recitation, she said, "Keep Portland Weird".
Immediately, the wire flower began to glow. Cracks spread outwards from it through the wall, and the brick facade crumbled away to reveal a barrier of thorny vines, which in turn began to retreat from the glowing rose, forming a spine-covered tunnel to another world.
"After you," Alexis said, pocketing the key.
The two women walked through the tunnel and into Three Portlands.
Three Portlands was, paradoxically, the simultaneous product of human creativity and lack of creativity. Three places, each named after the other in turn, each possessing their own unique character and history that were so strongly similar in their uniqueness. The resulting merger and overlapping of the cities' adjacent pocket dimensions gave rise to its own brand of eclecticism, different from those of the individual Portlands.
The air in Three Portlands was filled with the scent of salt and pine. Crowds of people filled the streets — anartists buying supplies, parahumans chatting over coffee, Manna representatives soliciting donations — everywhere she looked, Myra Rider could see the bustle of the anomalous world. In the distance, towering over the town, was the shadowy form of the Portland Observatory.
They turned down a side street — bypassing what was either a performance art installation of a battle between a wizard and a laser-wielding robot, or an actual battle — and ducked into a nearby coffee shop — which proudly advertised itself as "Not Another Fucking Starbucks, Est. Yes" — where they sat down at a corner table to wait.
It wasn't long before Conrad Trent arrived. The British cyberneticist had an almost preternatural knack for showing up exactly two minutes after the people he was meeting, no matter how early or late they arrived. There was no explanation for it — it was just one of those things that happen around people involved in the paranormal.
"Afternoon, ladies," he said as he took a seat at the table. "What's the weather like in Portland today?"
"Rainy with a chance of more rain," Myra said. "What about Portland?"
"Ah, you know, the usual," he said with a wave of his hand. "The usual being rain, of course."
"Of course." She smiled slightly as she took a sip of coffee. No matter where you went, it was always raining in Portland.
"But enough about the weather," Conrad said. "I assume that the two of you have a reason for this meeting, so let's hear it."
Alexis cleared her throat. "Right. We wanted to ask for your help on something. You're the —"
"I'm gonna have to stop you right there," Conrad said, holding up a hand. "I've already told your boss that I'm not interested in a job."
"This isn't for Anderson," Myra said. "This is a… personal project."
"Is that so?" He raised a quizzical eyebrow. "And what kind of project might that be?"
"Electronic telepathy," Myra said, matter-of-factly.
The other eyebrow went up. "Oh. Oh, I see. That kind of personal project." He took a sip of his own coffee. "I thought the Church and Anderson were pals now. Why isn't he helping you out?"
The two women glanced at each other. Conrad could see their jaws moving subtly as they silently conferred through subvocalization.
Finally, Alexis turned to him and said, "It's… complicated. Ever since MCD's started backing us, Anderson's been focusing more and more on products that can be easily commercialized. Usually, that's not an issue — most of the things the Maxwellists want are things that other people would use too — I'm proof of that — but there's not much market appeal for an electronic hivemind."
Myra began to protest. "It's not a hivemind, it's a —"
"A communal interchange of thought, yes, you've said so before, dear. That doesn't make it not a hivemind."
Myra sighed at her partner's irreligiousness and continued drinking her coffee.
"Anyways, the point is that Anderson's not onboard with this. Which means that we're having to get by on our own time and money."
Conrad nodded. "Alright, I'm following you so far. Why come to me though? I haven't done any serious work in the field in over a decade — not since Silver Hand went under."
"Well, neither has anyone else. You're still the leading expert on electroneural interfaces — hell, we're still using your interface designs for our prosthetics. If anyone could build a working BCI, it'd be you."
"You flatter me," he said, smiling at the compliment. He downed the rest of his coffee before replying. "Sure, count me in. Sounds like it could be fun."
A week went by before they met up again.
"You're sure we're going the right way?" Alexis asked. Conrad had directed them to an address that was nominally located in the Lime District, but addresses had a tendency to change in Three Portlands, especially out in the periphery.
"Pretty sure," Myra said. She skirted around a group of street performers engaged in an elemental juggling act, taking extra care to avoid the halogen jugglers. "I think I remember this street."
Alexis skeptically eyed their bone-white surroundings — almost everything in the Lime District, including the buildings and the roads, was made from Portland stone, giving the district a strangely neoclassical feel. She wasn't sure how Myra could tell this particular white-walled avenue from any of the others.
However, soon enough they found themselves standing in front of the disused machine shop where Conrad and Myra had once worked, almost ten years ago. Here, the Portland stone made the empty building seem as if it had been abandoned for a millennium instead of a decade — with the exception of the sign above the door, which still said 'Silver Hand Cybernetics' in bright, bold letters.
"Wow, talk about déjà vu," Myra said. "This place hasn't changed a bit."
"It looks different on the inside," Conrad said, appearing next to them. "Workshop's been picked clean. What Anderson didn't take, the artists scavenged — last I heard, the CNC router was down at the Reconstruction getting used to build scrap golems."
"So why come here then?" Alexis asked.
"Because I still own the lease," Conrad said. He fished a set of keys out of his pocket and unlocked the front door. "And because this place still has a working connection to the old Prometheus network."
Myra whistled in surprise. "That thing's still up after all this time?"
"Yep. You can thank the guys over at Redzone for that. They've been keeping the servers running." Conrad flicked on the lights. "Most of them, anyways. The Defense subnet died ages ago, and Computing's servers were cut-off months before the collapse happened. But the rest of it's all there."
The interior of the building was as barren as the classical ruins it resembled. The gently humming fluorescent bulbs cast a harsh light over the bleached white stones, giving the place a sterile, lifeless look. The missing machinery and the absence of any other people only served to amplify the similarities to a crypt.
Conrad lead the way to the back office, which was secured by another locked door. This room was filled with furniture — desks, tables, chairs, an entire wall of filing cabinets — having escaped the looting of the local anartists. All of the computers were gone, however, carried off by Anderson a decade ago when they bought the former subsidiary of Prometheus Labs.
Conrad sat down at the nearest desk and removed a laptop and an Ethernet cable from his bag. It took him less than a minute to set up the laptop and get it connected to the building's network. Soon, the three of them were looking at the familiar flame logo of Prometheus Labs.
Welcome to the Prometheus Labs Employee Intranet. The message on the login page was written in an old monospace font that appeared ignorant to the passage of time.
Conrad quickly signed in and began searching through the company's old files.
"Back in '98, the state-of-the-art was electrodes buried straight into the grey matter." He pulled up an MRI scan of a brain with these embedded electrodes to demonstrate. "Messy bit of business, that. Sure, it gets you some great resolutions, but that degrades rapidly as you get scar tissue buildup."
Sure enough, the image on the screen showed significant signs of scarring and tissue rejection, as the body had tried to eliminate the foreign objects embedded in its brain.
"Now this," Conrad pulled up another image, "was the state-of-the-art back in '04. Electrocorticography — ECoG. Surgically implanted electrodes on the surface of the brain. Gets you a better resolution than an EEG, but not as good as deep implants. Penfield and Jasper were doing it back in the 50s for epilepsy treatment, but we only started using it in neural interfaces after Prometheus broke up. Resolution wasn't good enough until then, you see."
The image displayed on the screen showed a computer-rendered cross-section of a brain, the surface of which held several circular electrode patches.
"That's not what we're using right now though," Alexis said.
"No, you're using myoelectric sensors and nerve splicing. Easier and safer than ECoG, and it's all you need for the prosthetics you're using. No need to interface directly with the brain when you can just use the existing nerve endings and neural pathways. I imagine that's why nobody's done any work on this stuff since then." He closed the image and started searching again.
"Alright, so let's assume we can use this for our interface. That still leaves us with the problem of translating brainwaves into words."
"Ah, not true!" Conrad said, raising a finger in excited interjection.
He tapped at the keyboard for a moment, then turned the laptop so that the two women could see the screen better. A single word was displayed prominently in the center of the screen.
On seeing their confused expressions, Conrad explained, "Back before everything imploded, Medical and Defense were working on developing a technique for full-body regeneration. I don't know if they ever fully succeeded before the collapse — that particular bit of information was on the Defense subnet — but they did manage to successfully transfer a consciousness between brains."
It took only a moment for the implications of this to sink in.
"If consciousness is transferable, that means that… that means brainwaves are mutually intelligible between different brains," Myra said.
"Which means we don't need to translate the brainwaves, we just need to transmit them," Alexis said.
"Bingo," Conrad said, looking pleased.
The three of them sat there for a while in silence, contemplating and considering this revelation.
"We'll need a way of filtering," Myra said. "Thoughts aren't the only things encoded in brainwaves. There's gonna be motor signals, sensory input, subconscious signaling, everything. We don't want to be transmitting that — who knows what that could do to the receiver."
"My money's on marionettes," Conrad said. He turned the laptop back to face him and started typing again. "Playing the other person like a puppet."
"That's probably optimistic," Alexis said. "More likely is that it'd cause a seizure."
"Or that," Conrad said.
"Still, isolating the brainwaves that encode thoughts is a much easier problem than trying to translate those signals," Myra said. "This is looking more and more like it's within reach of our current tech."
"Oh, I don't doubt that it's possible," Conrad said. "The question is whether or not it's going to be practical."
"Let's find out."
As it turned out, it took seven months and over a dozen different people to do just that.
First there had been the filtering problem. A search of the Prometheus archives had failed to turn up any leads, so they had outsourced the question to the Maxwellist network. The solution came from an Australian neuroscientist and a German computer scientist, who together devised an algorithm for filtering out the unwanted neural signals based on wavelength and frequency patterns.
Then there had been prototyping issues. The high-quality alloys needed for the electrodes were sourced from a supplier in Three Portlands, but they needed precision machining equipment which couldn't be found in the city to fabricate them — they ended up purchasing time from Anderson Robotics to use their facilities, after much negotiating.
The next step was finding a skilled neurosurgeon to implant the electrodes, and volunteers to test them. The former was provided by a Russian expatriate living in Maine, while Alexis and Myra offered to be the latter.
After that, there had been weeks and months spent testing and debugging the interfaces. They had to be confident that they could get a clear signal from the electrodes, that they could precisely and safely stimulate sections of the brain with them, that the filtering algorithms were working correctly — every foreseeable problem had to be resolved before they tried linking their brains together.
So it wasn't until December, on a rare sunny day in all the Portlands, that they made the first connection.
They were in the main workspace of the machine shop, which was once again filled with equipment. A thick black curtain, borrowed from one of the local theaters, ran through the middle of the room, partitioning it into two approximately equal sections. Myra and Alexis each sat in one of these sections, on opposite sides of the barrier. A table with several laptops had been placed perpendicular to the curtain, which Conrad sat behind. From there, he could monitor both parts of the room and the diagnostic displays on the laptops.
"Checkscans look good," he said. "We're good to go when you're both ready."
Myra smiled and gave him a thumbs up. Alexis took a breath and nodded.
Conrad began tapping away at one of the laptops. He stopped typing, pausing for a moment, before slamming his finger down on the enter key in the most forceful and dramatic manner he could muster, producing a rather satisfying sounding click.
Myra fidgeted anxiously. She was confident that the interface would work. They'd spent so much time refining the design, it had to work. But there was a niggling doubt in her mind that worried that it would fail.
Alexis frowned as nothing seemed to happen. So that was that. Just as she'd silently feared, it hadn't worked. The tech just wasn't feasible right now. Still, some part of her brain continued to insist that it would work, she just had to be patient.
Conrad watched the diagnostic displays intently. The interfaces were talking to each other, but there was no way to tell from the displays alone whether the transmission of thoughts was working as intended. He pressed a few keys on one of the laptops, then turned it so that only Myra could see it.
"Oh, that's clever," the two women said in unison, as the mental image of an elephant filled their mind's eye. "You're going to see if she's thinking about elephants now."
Conrad frowned in alarm. The displayed readings of the women's higher brain functions had become congruent — their separate thoughts had coalesced into a single gestalt consciousness.
The entity that had been Myra and Alexis only had time to briefly consider the novelty of hearing their voice from two mouths with two sets of ears before they died, killed by Conrad's press of the escape key.
Myra and Alexis both blinked as they gradually became aware of the absence of the other's thoughts.
"That was…" they both began.
"… weird," Alexis finished.
"… strange," Myra concluded.
On the monitors, Conrad watched as the women's brainwaves began to decohere, falling back into their distinct thought patterns.
"You two alright?" He asked.
"I think so." Alexis said.
"Yeah, I think," Myra said. "Any idea what happened there?"
"Uh, looks like a feedback loop," Conrad said, typing furiously. "We didn't account for the possibility of detecting received signals. Basically, the interfaces kept retransmitting the same set of thoughts between the two of you until they just sort of… merged."
"What would have happened if you hadn't cut the connection?" Alexis asked.
"Not sure. Maybe nothing. It looks like the feedback loop broke after your thoughts cohered." He chuckled humorously. "Good thing too, or it might have fried your brains. That would have put an end to your nascent hivemind real quick."
They all sat quietly for a moment, wondering what the next step was.
"So I suppose the question is," Conrad finally said. "Is this a bug, or a feature?"