Jerome Washington

Tim is sitting at the table across from me, playing with his hair. It’s been getting longer, and he’s so proud of it. Finally he talks, and I sip my coffee.

“John will be here soon, and we’re going to see a movie. Sorry if I run out on you unexpectedly.”

I shrug and smile. Tim knows I don’t approve of John, but he’s happy, so I keep quiet. Instead I switch back to my earlier question. “Alright. As a biology student, tell me why telepathy is impossible.”

Tim’s something-uccino goes neglected, since this is what he loves talking about. “This is divergent biology I’m studying, so ignore anything your old textbooks might say. We’re opening new frontiers every week. And don’t print this as fact! Anything I say now could change tomorrow, too.”

“But that said. The whole 20th century notion of telepathy is misguided. They had these ideas about the spirit world, about astral projection, the soul, all that religious B.S.” Tim waves his hand around, and I wonder that he doesn’t spill the coffee he’s holding. “You know, the Army did studies on psi and psionic powers. And of course the Soviets had to keep up. After Apollo, everyone knew there had to be something to all those old folk tales, right?”

“People were very big on invisible energy fields. Powers of the mind, independent of the body. All of NASA’s testing showed that Apollo could manipulate magnetism, centering on his body. It was part of his cells. These days, companies like Persona can take a cell sample out, manipulate them just so, and get a magnetic field. Weak for just that sample, far weaker by proportion than the man could make on his own, but it works now. It took decades to figure out.”

“The Army didn’t want to wait. They thought, if it’s all in the mind, we’ll get willing volunteers and just train them to use their abilities on their own. And they called this Project Stargate.”

I held up a hand to make a point. “Stargate was successful, though. I mean, the Transhuman Capability Catalog emerged from their data, plus data from people around the world. Right?”

Tim gave me that pitying smile that I hated, but that I tolerated because he was about to tell me something useful. “Stargate was a failure. They didn’t find what they were really looking for. Clairvoyance, telepathy, remote viewing. What they wanted was an unbeatable spy. Someone who could gather intelligence around the world with mental power. It turns out that it’s all biology after all. Supposedly there are metahumans with sensory apparatus built into their cells - I can’t even imagine what that would feel like - but it’s still radar, or sonar, or what-have-you. Which brings us to telepathy.”

“There’s no mind. There’s just the brain, with its chemistry and emergent properties. There’s no Force, no Jedi mind trick, and no energy field that lets you interact with a mind directly. No soul, darling. And so no telepathy.”

I cut him off, triumphantly flourishing my own cooling coffee cup. “Hah! Beast-boss. The guy who controls animals. How does he do it then?”

“Nanomachines in the brain,” Tim answers, with a smoothness that tells me he’d anticipated this question. I felt my shoulders slump as he went on. “They dissected one of his bears, once, and did a thorough examination of the creature’s brain. Symbiotic organic nanomachines.” He enunciates each word, savoring the flavor of the syllables. “Tiny radio antennae. Totally alien to any evolutionary development on Earth, but capable of interfacing with the nerves.”

“Well fine, but isn’t that telepathy in a way?” I flared. I was right, I knew it, but I couldn’t see why Tim drew a distinction.

“Perhaps the outcome is, if you insist. Beast-boss is able to fine-tune his animals’ instincts. He can tame them or direct aggression against someone or something else, and probably more that we don’t know about. But it’s not really mind to mind communication, nor is it over any sort of supernatural channel. It’s like… if I could make you cry every time you were looking at a particular person, that’s purely physiological, but your mind will extrapolate from that, draw emotional connections, self-justify the behavior. You’ll find some reason to believe the person made you sad. You might even make up something you did wrong to them! Imagine that. It sounds like mind control, but it’s just Pavlovian conditioning. It’s like making kids observe Mass to get them to believe they’re Catholic.”

Ahh. His objection to the non-materialist implications becomes clearer. I don’t think my point can be made much further, and I’ve got enough to write about. We drink in silence, feeling the coolness of the neglected coffee. I see John come in the door at the other end.

I think about what Tim said. Emotions deriving from physical actions. About how there’s no mind, only the product of the body. And I don’t believe it. Well, for a moment. And I don’t mind trying the experiment.

As John approaches, I get up from the table. And I do what I haven’t done since I first met the man, which is smile and wave, like he’s a friend, like I approve of him being here with Tim. And I tell myself, if I do this enough, maybe I’ll feel like he’s an okay guy. Maybe my emotions will change. And if they don’t, I tell myself with some satisfaction, then I got to prove Tim wrong for once.