“Synthesis” was written for the flash fiction competition “Poke the Mango” on Needle in the Hay (http://needleinthehay.net/). The theme of the competition was augmented reality.
It was originally published on 26 June 2016: http://needleinthehay.net/synthesis-lydia-trethewey/
Tuesday 13th September, 10.30am
White blood sprites dance in my eyes. My eyelids flutter open onto a long blade of fluorescent light, a high-pitched whine stroking my brain. I lie prone on the metal sheets, lipless ghosts drifting above me. Thin splinter of metal like the proboscis of a butterfly, comes closer. Somebody’s sculpting circles into my retinas.
Shut my eyes; grit and salt slide between the lenses.
Open again. Warm afternoon sunlight caresses the soft pillow and eddies around the hospital bed. It tastes like butter. My mouth smells of moss and haemoglobin.
The door opens, peeling back my nerves, and the doctor walks in. He has wiry spectacles and carries a clipboard.
“Good to see you’re awake, Mr Wilkins,” he says. As he speaks a burgundy ink blot spreads out from his midriff, obscuring half of his body. “The operation was a complete success. You may experience some mild synaesthesia as your body adapts to being able to ‘see’ chemical excretions. It should pass in a day or two.”
“Thank you,” I say, my voice starched cotton.
He walks around to the foot of the bed and the burgundy stain dissipates. “So,” he says, tapping a pen against the clipboard “when is your deployment?”
Saturday 25th December, 6.04am
“I can’t sense anything over this,” Joel says.
We crouch low in the scraggly acacias, boots crunching on pebbles of glass.
“The whole place reeks of fear,” he says, shaking his head and lowering his rifle. “It’s like a swamp of pheromones.”
I blink slowly.
Fear is contagious here, spreading from person to person, drowning us in psychological odours. I look down at the concrete pad on which we squat, perhaps a hospital once, maybe a luxury resort. Now even the foundations are crumbling under the pressure of weeds. Back home they call this a ghost-town, but the phantoms here are flesh and blood. I see them fleeing in my nightmares.
“Kyle?” Joel says, looking over at me.
Joel has a faint orange beard and the delicate fingers of a violinist. He stares at me through the filter of his lenses and I know that he can see the chemical insignias of my weariness.
“Why did we ever agree to this, Joel.”
Colours sweat out through his pores, a detailed heat map of his emotions. I try not to look.
“Someone has to do it,” he says. ”These people need our help. We’ll return home as heroes.”
The edges of my lips twitch. A mosquito lands on my knee. “We’ll return home as soldiers,” I say.
Joel opens his mouth.
Bullets zip through the air. We flatten against the concrete pad, following a ritualised movement to our guns. Bright yellow adrenaline leaks from our bodies, like a cloud of urine blotting out the sun.
Monday, 24th September, 2.15pm
“What’s wrong?” Cynthia asks.
I lie on my back staring up at the fan. It slices a void through the air, inert plastic, no hormones, no visual dissonance.
Cynthia sits down on the mattress beside me. “You’ve changed,” she says, “I have noticed. When you came back from Kamenka you went blank. Now you won’t even talk.”
Soft blue wisps cling to her skin. I shut my eyes. White blood cells dance, the empty spaces along my capillary paths.
“Don’t block me out, Kyle,” she says, bleach in her throat.
The bed is mud, stale pheromones excreted into its fabric.
“Fine,” she says, standing up. “But just remember that I waited for you. I didn’t have to, but I did.”
The door slams.
I remember when emotions were hidden, mysterious. I feel like a pervert, peering into her inner sanctum, making her transparent. Chemical excretions turned to colours in my enhanced eyes, a pattern I can decipher. Fear, arousal, pain. I’ve made her the same as an animal.
I turn off the fan.
Cynthia creeps back in, remorse glowing along the sweat on her arms. “I’m sorry,” she says. She sits by the window, looking out. Her eyes slide towards me, watchful like a deer. “I’ve heard about a new treatment…” she says slowly.
I close my eyes.
“They can reverse the augmentation, remove the lenses without damaging your brain.”
Words crack in my throat. “There’s no point,” I say. “I was deployed with this guy, Joel, he had the reversal treatment. Made the world go limp, he said, dull. Said everything felt muted. He jumped in front of a train.”
Cynthia doesn’t respond. Her lethargy is tangible. I roll off the bed and walk over to her, put my hands on her shoulders. Something indistinct flickers beneath the resignation and fatigue.
Down on the street clouds of chemicals drift along, a technicolour fog.
The theme of this competition was augmented reality. The idea of human-computer interfaces as sensory augmentation got me thinking about how technology could be returned to the service of something more primal, animal. Chemicals and pheromones are present to us as theoretical concepts, but are also felt. How does the skin become an interface with the world? In a way Synthesis pushes back against the idea of bodily augmentation without a cultural framework in which to understand it. Kyle’s amplified experience of his world leaves him isolated and discordant.
I had been reading about synaesthesia, and it seemed consonant with sensory augmentation as an idiosyncratic experience of reality. It seemed to highlight the impossibility of imagining things beyond the limits of our senses. Metaphors – the warm sunlight tastes like butter, my voice is starched cotton – become literal descriptions.
Check out the other shortlisted stories at: http://needleinthehay.net/winner-announcement-poke-mango-award/