The Ship Whisperer: sneak peek

The Ship Whisperer comes out tomorrow! It includes a broad range of stories from near-future tech SF to hard SF set in a future thousands of years ahead. How to convey the sense of a collection with a focus on minds human, animal and artificial, complexity within and without us, humor as well as grave urgency? You probably can't... but still, a snippet is a snippet. To offer a sneak peek at the book, I've decided to reprint the full story "Étude for An Extraordinary Mind" (first published in Futuristica Vol. II in 2017) here. Enjoy!

Étude for An Extraordinary Mind

PRELUDE

Doctor Stephenson leaned forward and smiled reassuringly. “Tell me, Mandy, what do you experience when you switch between your implants?”

The girl across the table remained silent.

“Your parents are worried about you.”

No response.

She was usually difficult to get to talk and would just sit silently crouched in her chair like some frightened little animal—but there was something different about her now. Doctor Stephenson started being suspicious about its reason.

“Am I talking to Mandy?” he asked, suddenly with a very stern expression.

“No,” the girl said defiantly.

“I want to hear her opinion now.”

“Why? It’s my damned life too! Who ever cares about my opinion? Nobody!”

“I will hear you out, I promise. But I need to talk to Mandy first.”

After a short pause, she spoke: “Fine.”

The girl changed in front of his own eyes. It wasn’t dramatic, one might not even notice it at first sight, but he knew the signs. Her look changed. She lowered her shoulders and stooped a little. Her muscle tone rose up as if she was nearly in a spasm. She seemed a little nervous but also distant.

“Now, Mandy,” he said softly, “you do remember my question. Please, tell me.”

***

MANDY & BECCA

The grass leaves were moving rhythmically in the wind. Amanda Burnham sat on the lawn and watched them carefully. Their motion was not regular as it depended on the whims of the wind but she could see repeated patterns there. They were really quite simple, could be reduced to a few basic curves. But the way they interfered and changed was unique. Every chime of the wind was itself unrepeatable although the larger patterns were few. Like music, she thought. Just a few basic tones but bring them together and you have a unique melody. But on an even larger scale, the patterns repeated once again. To defeat them, you’d need a piece more complicated than ever composed.

She wasn’t aware someone was talking until her mother entered her view and knelt beside her.

“Mandy, it’s time to go to the hospital,” she repeated. This time Amanda noticed but still didn’t quite comprehend. What hospital? Why? She looked at the swaying leaves again. They almost grasped her full attention again as mother interrupted: “Mandy, please come.”

Mother’s face seemed different than usual. Her expression changed. But Mandy could not tell what it meant, however hard she tried.

What hospital, she wanted to say but remained silent. The words sort of stuck in her throat as so very often when she considered speaking. She just stood up and followed mother to the car.

*

Mrs. Burnham was clutching her husband’s hand firmly as they waited outside the operating room.

“I just hope we didn’t make a mistake,” she said hoarsely.

He squeezed her hand comfortingly. “It’ll be all right, you’ll see.”

She drew a deep breath. “Yes. It will.”

Meanwhile, the surgeons just a couple of yards from them were carefully guiding the robot operating on Amanda Burnham’s brain.

They had waited for so long! According to the law, the surgery couldn’t have been done until their daughter reached fourteen. Since they found about them when she was ten, implants helping people on the autism spectrum to communicate better, learn to recognize others’ emotions and express their feelings and thoughts proved even more efficient than they had dared to hope.

But still they felt like fainting when the lead surgeon came out of the door. And then he smiled.

“It went okay, no complications whatsoever. The preliminary test suggests the implant is working normally. However, we’ll know more in the next few days.”

They hardly heard his last sentence. By that time, the Burnhams were hugging, almost in tears, thinking of their little girl. She was a teenager, but a little girl still. Not only in their eyes; she just never behaved like a teen. She never fitted in. She was always by herself.

It might change now.

They stood there in the dimly lit hospital corridor, silently, happily, without doubts.

*

“It cannot be switched on all the time. Best to learn to switch it on in the morning and off before going to sleep. Also…”

Mrs. Burnham listened to the tutorial absentmindedly. She’d heard it maybe a hundred times. She couldn’t wait to actually see it work. She clutched a sheet so hard that her knuckles were all white.

Mandy listened too. Her mother could not tell if the girl was happy, nervous or anything else and was impatient to find out. She might—in a moment!

“So, Amanda, would you please try it like I instructed you?” The doctor smiled.

She looked at her parents hesitantly.

“Turn it on. Please,” Mrs. Burnham almost whispered.

Her daughter did. And a whole new world opened before her.

*

It took weeks for Mandy to adapt to her implant. At first she was afraid of switching it on; everything seemed so different and yet the same! It was scary and confusing. After she got used to it, Amanda started testing her enhanced personality in situations that previously repelled or scared her. They didn’t seem so anymore. She became so self-confident! And suddenly she was almost talkative compared to her older self. Her parents were delighted—and she, much in surprise, found herself feeling that strange pride too.

If stimulating certain parts of her brain, making it form new synapses and facilitate them, could make her feel this confident and not isolated anymore, what else could it do for her?

One afternoon, nearly four months after the surgery, she practiced her violin and an idea suddenly occurred. That very night, she brought it forward to her parents.

“That’s not going to happen! It’s too dangerous, be sensible!” they said—and et cetera. Mandy expected that and stood her ground. She still remembered the day before the surgery, the faint leaves in the wind and a melody hidden behind them, one she tried to reach but failed. She needed a door into this kind of world—and was determined not to let go until she succeeded.

Eventually, after endless weeks of persuasion, crying, quarrels and discussions with doctors, her parents gave in.

When Mandy turned off her implant that night she was suddenly terribly scared.

Did she really do this? She could remember herself reasoning with them, listing arguments, yelling at them! That just wasn’t her. The memories gave her chills.

But she did get what she wanted, didn’t she? Wasn’t it good?

She couldn’t sleep at all that night. In the morning, she felt extremely tired and yet nervous. The memories of her own behavior haunted her most of the night though she knew she didn’t do anything bad and it probably didn’t matter much.

Immediately after she turned her social implant back on, she became horrified by the fact she spent nearly a whole night just wondering about such stupidity! She really was different under the implant’s influence—better, for sure! Without it, she could become absorbed in unimportant details and worried dead about them. All her doubts and concerns from the night seemed so pointless now.

On one of her regular sessions with a specialized therapist from the hospital, she considered telling him about her experience but decided not to. Hell, he’d think she was crazy. She had to switch the implant off during the sessions, but didn’t tell him anyway—this time she could get her “other self’s” opinion. But often she just couldn’t understand herself—her own memories about decisions, feelings or conversations didn’t make sense to her without the implant, as if it turned on a whole new side of her personality.

That’s actually quite funny, she thought after she turned it back on again. Imagining myself as a new person! I should get my own name…

It was just for fun, but she secretly named herself Becca. She always liked the name, unlike Mandy or Amanda—that was so dull.

I’m Becca, she repeated wordlessly and smiled.

HENRIETTE

When she had her new musical implant switched on, Amanda Burnham could think of little else but music. It was everywhere and in everything. As she requested, the implant induced a special state of synesthesia in her brain so that she could perceive any sensation as a sound. The color of her mother’s hair sounded like a waterfall with a hint of Vivaldi’s Summer. The grass outside the house reminded her of early Stravinsky. The leaves truly performed some kind of a ballet. However, when the wind was strong, the lawn was nothing but the most chaotic and visionary pieces by Shostakovich.

At first she was overwhelmed by it but she gradually learned to control her new forms of perception. It was a world she was unable to grasp ever before and one she always longed to reach; so clear now! Playing pieces she learned before on her violin and piano seemed awfully easy now. She started learning more complicated ones but it still wasn’t enough. There was so much exciting music all round and no one seemed to give it any attention. No artificial music she ever heard even approximated how beautiful the sound of autumn was or how startling a dusty bookshop’s tones seemed.

She would show them all.

*

It took her only a week to finish her first composition, a short experimental piece for a solo violin, so far a not very ambitious étude. She didn’t expect the thrill it caused in her parents and teachers, nor that it would lead them to find her a high-ranking private music teacher. She soon didn’t need her at all. When the teacher left, she admitted that she’d never had any more talented pupil.

She felt an urge to distinguish herself from her more common, less musically talented selves. However, she couldn’t explain it to her parents like that. Therefore she came with a reason she knew they wouldn’t resist.

“I want to use a pseudonym as a composer,” she declared. “I’ll go under the name Henriette. It sounds like sand by the lake we used to go for holidays to. I loved being by the lake but never told you.”

She noticed with satisfaction that it touched them more than anything else could.

Henriette could hear the faint eerie twinkle of their moved expressions.

MANDY

Sometimes Becca or Henriette grew tired of themselves. Then she would become old Mandy again; unable to express herself and connect with others, but full of reliving and tasting memories from her time as them. It was strange. Everything she did with the implants on seemed a bit different with them off. She was often startled by her own courage or ideas.

However, some memories could hurt too.

Mother’s warm smile when she normally talked with her as Becca.

The proud look on her father’s face after she finished her first own violin piece as Henriette.

She knew they had always loved her with whole their hearts. But now they loved her most when she was not quite herself; improved, augmented, just better at everything.

Becca could sometimes be problematic—impatient, willful or disobedient. In the end, they’d always forgive her and hug her, talk with her, take her to the cinema…

When she was Henriette, they seemed a little reserved in her memories, almost scared, but they admired her like never before.

I’m right here, she wanted to say to them without the help of any implant. She would look at her parents, the words longing to come out. This is me. Don’t you like me this way?

But she could never bring herself to actually say it.

BECCA

There was something tragically beautiful about the town at night. Becca looked at it from up above, sitting on an old railway bridge, and she could see it from one edge to another. The street lamps. The lit windows. The slowly moving cars. The occasional pedestrian.

“They’re all so normal,” she interrupted the silence. “So bloody normal. Living their tiny ordinary lives, nine to five, orderly families, small sins and lies. How can they cope?”

Gary smirked. “Hey, one would almost think you envy them!”

“Shut up.”

She knocked off the ash from her cigarette. He was right, of course, but she would rather die than admit it.

It made her sick. Everyone else knew who they were. From birth to death, they had just one life and managed well. She was sometimes confused about who she really was. When she transferred to a normal high school, she started calling herself Becca publicly—a nickname, she’d explain to her parents. They seemed slightly worried but her communicativeness assured them again that everything was all right.

In truth, nothing was all right.

She closed her eyes and remembered her last performance. Almost blinded by the badly aimed lights, seeing the audience just as a vast darkness full of strange human-like shapes, but paying attention to none of it; playing was everything. She kept totally focused. She and the violin were one. She felt out of time and space, confined just to the world of music, until she stopped. A moment of transitional silence went past, followed by thrilled clapping. Everyone said she had a straight path to Carnegie Hall.

She was deeply satisfied with that but longed most for performing, practicing, and composing again. Her name was Henriette.

Then she was scared by that hall full of people and such anticipation after she became the old Mandy.

The day after that, just her social implant switched on, she was envious to Henriette and disgusted by Mandy.

She realized nothing would be all right ever again.

“Damn,” she exhaled when her lighter stopped working. Becca turned to Gary. “Hey, do you have yours?”

She was grateful for his presence. They’d soon stick together at school, both quite different from the others. He was still unsure about his sexuality, shared home with a neurotic mother and hoped that he’d never again see his father. He introduced her to Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. She grew a liking of them, which made her life even more complicated. Henriette tried to suppress the memories of their songs, she found them almost painful to reminisce. The memory of her dislike clashed uncomfortably with Becca’s opinion. They even started dressing differently; Henriette felt best in long skirts and high-collar blouses, whereas Becca perhaps out of rebellion chose to wear punk clothes. Mandy, anxious in the center of attention, would stick to jeans and hooded sweatshirts.

Hell, nothing was normal anymore, she sometimes even felt like competing with them. Her parents had noticed, of course. Nevertheless, she couldn’t talk to them. It would be weird for Becca, impossible for Mandy and unimportant for Henriette.

Fortunately she had Gary.

She breathed in the smoke and savored it for a while. “It’s weird, you know? Having this… split personality, sort of. I heard my parents discussing it with a doctor once. He told them not to worry, that some patients experience this for a while and then it just fades away… which means that I will just fade away.”

“Even if that was true, why don’t you let the other ones disappear?”

“I guess it doesn’t work that way. I’m not the… original one. But that…” That would be nice, she was going to say but couldn’t bring herself to actually say it. They’re me too. There is no they!

“Anyway, I have to start seeing a new therapist. Not just that—a bloody psychiatrist! As if I were crazy! They want me to see him every week.” She sighed. “Sometimes… it feels like being crazy. Maybe they’d better lock me up somewhere.”

“That’s what worries you?” Gary put an arm around her back and pressed her shoulder reassuringly. “You’re not crazy.”

I wish you were right, she smiled unhappily.

MANDY

In the deep of night, there were raised voices from downstairs. She could not fall asleep, not while hearing them. It was an argument, she was almost certain about that—Becca would know for sure without having to think about it but Mandy didn’t want to bring her around now.

She heard her own name several times and wondered about the meaning of that worrying conversation. Mom and dad were fighting—but why? And why wouldn’t they stop?

She was trembling and hardly aware of the tears running down her cheeks.

The voices rose to a crescendo. For a fraction of time, Mandy contemplated how would Henriette perceive it. But she didn’t want to exchange places with her either.

Becca would go down there and ask them why are they fighting, try to stop them—make a scene about it if they didn’t make peace… Why don’t I? Mandy almost shuddered at the thought. However, she was right—she could do it herself, if only she could just make her body move the right way.

She put all her effort into getting from the bed. As her feet finally touched the carpet and she stared at the doorknob, there was a loud slam of the door downstairs. Then heavy silence.

She was too late.

BECCA

She was supposed to be at the geography class. Fuck geography, she thought. She didn’t have the assigned homework anyway.

Gary was skipping class too, for the second day in a row. When she finally saw him, she realized why: He had a dark swollen bruise all over his left eye.

She sat beside him on the old unused bridge in silence and offered him a cigarette. He took it without a word.

“He came back,” Gary spoke after a while. He didn’t need to add who.

“Funny. Mine left in the middle of a night a couple of days ago.”

“I would exchange places with you, you know.”

Becca sighed. “Yeah, I guess so. Sorry.”

Yet for a moment, she thought she actually would like to exchange places—given that she would be normal and Gary would end up in her skin, or rather in one of them. They acted like good sounding boards to one another but she felt that although he had understood her best of all people, he could still never really grasp the idea of being just one of different persons occupying one body. Nor could her parents. That was why dad left, wasn’t it?

And that stupid bitch didn’t know how to stop it, she was just crouching in her bed like some helpless animal! Really, if I didn’t have to switch places with her from time to time…

Staring at the town below, she blew a cloud of smoke angrily.

Mom will leave me too when she finally sees the monster I am… But why should I care? She was never any good for me! I can take care of my own life!

For the first time, Becca toyed with the idea of leaving first.

HENRIETTE

Henriette was excited by Mandy’s and Becca’s feelings though she expressed little of such herself. However, they were a great source of inspiration. There were so many surprising variations in there, especially since father had left! She decided she would compose an étude focused on them one day. She started soon, but it was a difficult theme to grasp, she was never satisfied. At the same time, she set off after one late-night practice in the garden. The night was beautiful: a light breeze, cooling air, stars shining above, smells of nocturnal flowers like the evening primrose. And so Henriette started composing a nocturne.

It took her many weekends, free afternoons and especially nights to finish it. Mother was worried about her at first but Henriette easily persuaded her that she was all right. She learned how to make Mandy memorize that she needed to switch on the musical implant as often as possible. And Mandy did, partly because she rarely wanted to be just herself these days.

Henriette focused on nothing but music and it brought its results. Her nocturne received audacious critics. Some of the experts even compared her style and imagination to Fauré or even Debussy. She couldn’t wish for better compliments but didn’t mean to stop there. Her work would become something completely new and fascinating, she was certain of that.

And when she finishes the étude, they might applaud her even more.

Full of dreams and satisfaction, she went to bed and switched off the musical implant.

MANDY

Amanda almost collapsed in her bed. She had never felt so exhausted so far. She knew the reason; Henriette practiced night after night the whole week, with hardly three hours of sleep a day. She could cope with being tired better, being absorbed in playing and composing—and experiencing fatigue as music too, as Mandy could well remember if not understand.

If only she could talk about it with someone… She was so alone. Like before the surgery—but she didn’t have the memories of talking, laughing, hugging at the time. She didn’t miss it so desperately, yet almost unable to relive them personally. Sometimes… sometimes she wished the others never switched her on again.

Right now Mandy would most have liked to sleep; nevertheless, she just couldn’t.

Not after she remembered the conversation Henriette overheard the other day but didn’t pay much attention to. Father was back home for the afternoon—and he had brought a guest with him, that psychiatrist she had started seeing, Doctor Stephenson.

“…we’re very worried about our Mandy. Some time ago after she got the implants, she started acting weird, as if…”

“As if she was another person with each of the implants,” finished Mr. Burnham after his wife and sighed. “I’m not sure if we’re overreacting, but… what do you think, as an expert, after you’ve seen her a couple of times?”

“I can assure you that developing what seems like a new personality is not too rare among patients treated with such implants, though it’s certainly not a common trait. It’s not a true case of MPD. The brain forms new pathways, which are being reinforced by the implant. When it’s off and they’re not fully developed yet, the patient can feel very different. And even if they are, the effect can last in a less apparent form. Similar things can actually happen to everyone: People can behave, feel and think differently even when using foreign languages. Even myself, when I speak Spanish, can seem like a slightly different person and sometimes I think or say things I wouldn’t using English. There’s of course a contributing effect of the specific environment but I used that as an example that many factors influence our behavior. However, what you describe sounds serious and these symptoms in patients usually last up to a couple of months. I think we better had a closer look at your daughter at the clinic if you agree, run some tests. Just a short hospitalization.”

BECCA

A short hospitalization.

The words resonated in her head and made it ache.

Preventive. To get readings on the implants in a controlled environment.

Her hands were trembling. She could hardly grasp her cell phone, let alone the violin.

She would play, just to relax, to bring herself away from this, without calling in Henriette.

But she was too shaky to do even that.

They’ll lock me up in a hospital room. Then I’ll fade away…

She suppressed a sob.

They shouldn’t have let me have this life in the first place if they want to take it now.

Becca decided she wouldn’t let them.

*

She couldn’t let go of her violin. It was the only impractical item she took along.

She left in the middle of the night, took the car keys from the usual place beside the fridge and gave her home for almost seventeen years one last look. Probably the last; as if she knew for sure.

No windows were lit when she turned the keys in the ignition. She held her breath, but when nothing happened for a while, she turned away from the house too and took the car to the road.

What was she feeling? Sadness, naturally. Fear, a little. Freedom—even more still.

Absolute freedom…

It became almost unbearable. It engulfed her so quickly she nearly didn’t have time to get too frightened. Suddenly she was free for the first time in her life. And she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it.

Becca turned the car to the highway. Almost no other cars were there at this time of night. She was here, alone, and could go anywhere. The notion was intoxicating.

She wondered how it would sound.

HENRIETTE

As soon as she came to the surface she knew the melody was complete.

The drive could be a composition itself. She almost couldn’t bear listening; it was too much! Even the great Paganini wouldn’t had been capable of such speed and probably no living violinist could play it, certainly not her. But it was overwhelmingly beautiful.

This should become a whole orchestral suite, the road lights for the strings and the piano, the roar of the car for the brass and percussion, the darkness of the night around perfect for the woodwinds…

However, she grasped the central melody and imagined it as a violin solo.

It forced tears into her eyes. She had never heard anything nearly so complex.

In such state, she could hardly control the car. She knew she had to go away for a while if she wanted the chance to finish her masterpiece.

MANDY

It felt like waking up from a nightmare, except she had woken up into it. She clutched the wheel tightly, scared like never before, much more than when she had learned that parents would no longer be living together. But she still felt something of Henriette’s awe—and Becca’s joy of freedom. It was vaguely familiar. She was capable of feeling that, just under different circumstances—but it was a contact point nevertheless.

She was still afraid of running away and shocked she suddenly found herself in such situation but probably for the first time, she could not only recapitulate Becca’s memories; she could understand them. For her, the flight stayed scary and unreasonable, but she could follow the path of Becca’s emotions and decisions and end up right here. For the first time.

And it brought along sudden relief which gently took the fright away.

If only for this short moment, she didn’t feel like sharing her body with a strange girl.

Maybe if Becca could feel this too…

BECCA

In one moment of horrible confusion, she became Becca again. Just a blink—and then she saw the truck and realized the car steered into the opposite side of the road while she was switching the implants. She heard a coarse outcry that hardly resembled her voice but it must have been her.

She turned the steering wheel quickly, but not quite in time.

***

CODA

“…it was almost a miracle your brain as well as both implants didn’t suffer any serious damage. You almost died, Mandy. You even lost one of your arms.”

The girl looked at her right arm, looking just normal in her long-sleeve t-shirt. Only the strangely smooth skin on her hand suggested it wasn’t a human limb. “It feels mine.”

Doctor Stephenson nodded. “That’s right. It’s supposed to. I hope you’ll be able to continue playing normally. But the risk you subjected yourself to…”

“I didn’t,” she said quietly, looking down. “That was Becca.”

Doctor was glad she wasn’t looking him in the eye. He was afraid he just gave away an emotion even she in her state could notice and recognize: fear. He feared that her condition was more severe than he thought before, that this was partly his fault too—and that it could become worse.

“Mandy, I wish you—either of you—spoke to me openly about your thoughts and feelings before. I’m sorry I didn’t understand how tough it was for you. I’ll try my best now. Are you willing to work with me to make everything better again? Trust me, it can be done.”

Mandy looked as if she was assembling courage to speak. “What do you mean?” she asked eventually.

“You, Becca and Henriette are one person. It feels different but that’s just a side-effect of a few different neural pathways developed around the areas stimulated by your implants. We can use all kinds of therapy to smooth down the differences, slowly, carefully –”

“No. They wouldn’t like to let go,” she whispered almost inaudibly. “And I can’t… I can’t murder them.”

“There is no they,” he repeated urgently. “Trust me, Mandy.”

“Even if I trusted you… With either of my implants switched on, I might not.”

He almost smiled; at least they were making some progress. “Let’s try.”

All of a sudden, she looked directly upon him and he knew she changed again. “I’m willing to try to… blend with them if you let me finish my étude first. I haven’t had the chance yet. I must. And then… I hope she continues playing, if not composing. Please let her… me… remember what a perfect feeling it is to give life to all the music with my violin. That’s all I’m asking.”

She didn’t wait for his response. Then the girl blinked and looked at him again. Stephenson inadvertently felt the hair on the back of his neck rising.

*

Becca struggled, she didn’t want to be woken up. It was the first time since the crash. The last thing she remembered were blinding lights of the truck and echoes of Henriette’s beautiful memories and Mandy’s fear.

No, not just fear. There was something else.

She closed her eyes.

Relief. Sort of… contact.

The scene opened before her again and she shivered, facing the approaching truck once more. She quickly looked around the calming room.

She realized she was trembling heavily. Oh God, what must have Mandy gone through after the horrible accident?

And she could feel the disorientation and pain…

Mandy might have more courage than her, after all. And wasn’t it Becca who was always so afraid of fading away—rebelling, feeding her own fear?

Becca blinked and drew a sharp breath, surprised by her own thoughts. What would Gary have to say about that, after how she treated him instead of trying to help? Or… her parents, who didn’t deserve her hatred despite all that happened?

She recalled Doctor Stephenson was waiting for an answer. For her answer.

For the first time, giving way to her fear and running away was not an option.


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