As was his custom nearly every day, Alberto arrived at work early. He had an affinity for seizing the day, starting at half-past seven in the morning. The long days played to his advantage, allowing the hours he accumulated to enable an early departure on Fridays, office-bound traditions permitting. However, it had been over three years since he’d made his way home at that hour, a detail his girlfriend still playfully held over his head. Besides that, in July, on the outskirts of Seville, the heat was unbearable, but at the hour of his arrival, it was not only bearable but rather pleasant. Ten years earlier, fresh from winning a European scholarship to develop his project, he used to arrive at the same hour as everyone else, when the sun was already asserting its presence with authority. Even though his parking spot was shaded by a grand tree, he always lingered to extract the parts of his wheelchair and assemble it next to his car so he could ascend into it. Those few minutes, brief as they were, meant that by the time he reached the building, he was soaked in sweat, and upon entering, the shockingly cold air conditioning would often gift him with more than one cold. They claimed it was an intelligent building, but clearly, it hadn’t been conceived with those in mind who must assemble wheelchairs every time they descend from their cars under the scorching Sevillian sun.
At the entrance, a plaque read “European Union’s Advanced Technological Projects,” and someone had scribbled underneath in marker “Proyectos tecnológicos avanzados – Sevilla, España.” Months had passed since a staff meeting had decided to ask the security guard to erase it, but he had responded that this was Sevilla, where Spanish was spoken. Let the cleaning crew remove it, he had said, but their contract only covered the interior of the building. It was this same security guard who had given him the idea of arriving early. “I start work at seven in the morning, and at that hour, the temperature is wonderful,” he had told him one day. Since then, when the heat began, he always arrived at half-past seven. This had continued until the project started bearing fruit, and from then on, he entered early every day of the year, as that hour and a half of quiet before the rest of the staff arrived was immensely productive.
In the laboratory, things generally went well, a clockwork of science humming in quiet efficiency. Yet, on days when the heat of Seville became almost a tangible entity, the air conditioning would stubbornly refuse to stir by mid-morning, despite the sun streaming through the window and the automatic darkening of the glass to fend off its fiercest rays. Alberto was quite convinced that the culprit was the central computer of the so-called intelligent building, meddling with parameters and ranges in its programming like a mischievous sprite. Fortunately, the air conditioning was an old geothermal relic, which, with the grace of a reset button, could wrench back control from the modern brains of the building and churn back to life, though not without the assistance of Fernando to actually press it—since it was placed just out of reach for someone in a wheelchair.
Fernando had a penchant for the nocturnal hours and the embrace of his bed, so he would waltz into work post ten in the morning. They balanced each other out, in truth; with Fernando’s day stretching out to the cusp of nightfall, Alberto found solace in knowing a competent pair of hands remained when he retreated home.
On this particular day, a frisson of nerves had gripped them both. Even Fernando had cast aside his love affair with his pillow to arrive at half-past eight. For a month now, the simulations had been flirting with perfection, and just two days prior, all the delicate parameters had been entrusted to the AI, the very essence of their labor, now busily compiling code. After staring down the screen’s stubborn 99% for the umpteenth time, Alberto decided to inspect the servers, just in case some anomaly had decided to play hide-and-seek. He had long ago insisted that the air conditioning of the hardware room march to the beat of its own drum, independent of the building’s whims. The cooling of those machines was sacrosanct, the brand of the air conditioner one that had earned his unwavering trust. How they had achieved it remained a mystery, but the server room sat at a precise nineteen degrees Celsius—a testament to Japanese precision. Perhaps, he mused, they should have been tasked with programming the building’s AI.
Donning a tracksuit top emblazoned with the logo of his family—an uppercase ‘A’ to the power of six—he made his way around the room, every inch the accessible domain, inspecting the humming mainframes with an expert’s eye. It was as he was making his return that Fernando burst through the door, a herald of triumph: “One hundred percent!” With a surge of adrenaline, Alberto propelled himself, wheels spinning, back towards the heart of their world—the laboratory.
A decade prior, he had dared to table a proposition that he was certain would be dismissed outright. His curiosity had been piqued by an article penned by a French university don, who, with the aid of the latest generation of cerebral scanners, had unearthed a curiosity: while slumbering, the synaptic connections in certain individuals mirrored precisely those they would exhibit upon waking in the days to follow. When queried, each subject spoke of an odd sense of déjà vu. “A glitch in the Matrix,” he had quipped to his flatmate upon sharing the article, only to find the reference lost on someone unacquainted with the pillars of cinematic lore.
The article had stirred echoes of tales from his father’s side of the family, narratives of dreams that unfurled into reality. Such stories would have remained mere family folklore had it not been for a discourse with Fernando, a companion from his university days. Fernando had confided something not found in public treatises, for the scientific community had no lexicon for phenomena devoid of empirical rationale. At CERN, weeks spent attempting to ensnare and detain the elusive ‘God Particle’, also known as the Higgs boson, with the latest supercollider had been fruitless. They had resolved to return to mere simulations when, a day thereafter—with the accelerator lying dormant—the subatomic particle sensor signalled an anomaly. Peculiarly, this detection was exclusive to the auxiliary sensor, positioned a respectful distance from its primary siblings. A modest assembly of inquisitive minds was tasked to scrutinise, though officially their efforts bore no fruit.
Unofficially, however—a secret Fernando held only because his sister’s ex-lover was a CERN denizen—the auxiliary sensor appeared to detect these subtle subatomic particles solely during the vigil of one particular laboratory intern. This revelation came to light only when the AI, asked to cross-reference every shred of data available, highlighted this singular commonality.
During those nocturnal hours when the young intern was assigned to her duties, the sensor detected the elusive particles. After a considerable dance with bureaucracy, they were granted permission to install a security camera within the laboratory’s confines. The revelation was as startling as it was inexplicable: the subatomic particles betrayed their presence to the sensor only at such times when the intern, wearied by the day’s labours, succumbed to sleep’s embrace.
The collective consensus chalked it up to a system aberration, for logic offered no foothold in such fantastical grounds. Yet, when Alberto shared his narrative’s thread with Fernando, they both agreed that coincidences were the universe’s way of remaining anonymous. They hypothesized that these subatomic particles were perhaps a medium, a sort of cosmic telegraph, through which the brain dispatched messages to itself across the vast expanses of time. These messages, they postulated, might manifest as prophetic dreams, those curious visages of the future, or what the layman might call déjà vu.
Despite their capacity to procure the official data from CERN and the French university, the pair held scant hope that their project would be endorsed, yet it seemed there were those with the foresight to see its potential, for the project was indeed sanctioned. Their early endeavours took root in one of the edifices on the Isle of la Cartuja, but as their simulations began to bear promising fruit, they were visited by a high-ranking official from Advanced Technological Projects. Upon his return to Brussels mere hours later, they found themselves flush with funds sufficient for years and with explicit directives to vacate the tech park for more secluded climes.
Later, within the laboratory’s sanctuary and nearly ten hours on, the obstinate ‘100%’ vanished from the screen, supplanted by the icon of a thumb-up—a gesture of completion that Fernando, weary of duplicitous percentages (his term for the AI’s prognostications), had implemented as an unambiguous signal. Alberto was alone; Fernando, overcome by exhaustion, had retreated to the reprieve of the cafeteria’s sofa. Glancing at his phone, Alberto instructed:
“E-Sheep. Summon Fernando, if you’d be so kind.”
“Right away, Alberto,” the phone replied with a sultriness that his girlfriend found less than charming.
“Apologies. No response,” the phone informed him after a minute’s futile effort.
“He must be asleep. Try waking him every ten minutes. Tell him it’s urgent. Say I’m about to test the neural interface. That ought to snap him to.”
With the control program now on his screen, Alberto tapped the icon for voice command.
“What dost thou require?” inquired a female voice, laced with the lilting tones of Sevilla. Alberto closed his eyes, exhaling slowly. At times, Fernando’s sense of humour did indeed try his patience. He navigated to the advanced menu and defaulted the voice interface. When he returned to the prior screen, the AI’s reply was a stark, masculine, and impersonal:
“Initiate real-time synaptic connection test,” Alberto announced.
“Please connect the interface,” the robotic voice responded.
Alberto picked up the virtual reality glasses, lighter than air and steeped in the promise of the future, so unlike the cumbersome contraptions his brother had donned in his youth. These were lined with a mesh of synaptic connectors, with a resolution so sharp that the human eye couldn’t discern it from reality. He held the glasses a moment—a heartbeat—in the palm of his hand and then set them upon his eyes.
The world he saw was unchanged, a direct mirror of the laboratory—a virtual echo, to prevent the all-too-mundane collisions with the non-virtual world. Yet unlike reality, this realm offered him a floating menu of options before his eyes.
“Activate forward voyage,” he declared to the empty air.
“And the desired date?” the AI inquired with a curiosity that seemed almost genuine.
“Ten years from this day,” Alberto replied, as if setting a rendezvous with the future itself.
The familiar lab vanished, and with it, a momentary sense of vertigo took hold. Alberto realized his eyes were closed; he opened them. Nothing had changed…
But no, that wasn’t true. The computer screen was awash with unfamiliar graphics, and instead of disembodied virtual hands, he saw his own, attached to his arms, typing away. He tried to move them, but they were not his to command; they were ensnared in a dance of their own. Then, a voice startled him—it was his voice—saying, “Shorai, lower the temperature, please,” followed by the mechanical sigh of the air conditioning.
Minutes crawled by, but his future self did nothing but stare at the screen until suddenly, he exclaimed, “Blimey! A glitch in the matrix! And I remember what this is… Hello, Alberto. Don’t try to control my movements. My brain still rules this body. You can only watch and listen. We’re ironing out the sense of smell. Touch and taste remain elusive. Yet we know reaching beyond is an impossibility.”
Astonished, Alberto began to suspect a prank—a simulation of extraordinary quality, courtesy of Fernando. He ventured, “What’s my chair made from? Reinforced aluminium or carbon?”
“No simulation,” the future Alberto retorted, “And for the record, I can’t hear you, but it’s carbon.”
“How do you know I’m speaking, then?”
“I’ve watched this recording a thousand times. I know by rote what I did. And just so you’re aware, Fernando has woken up and is about to enter.”
Alberto heard footsteps. In the real world, his head turned, but his vision remained unaltered, tethered to the sights of his other self, inducing a surreal dizziness.
“Crikey!” Fernando’s voice boomed at his side, startling him to his core. “It works!” he exclaimed, peering at the screen that showcased Alberto’s vision.
“Ha! I remember that scare,” the Alberto from times yet to come said. “Watch this.” He stood and strode across the room to the video conference PC and flicked it on. His own image appeared. He faced his dual selves and greeted, “Hello, Alberto! Hello, Fernando!”
“He’s less hirsute,” Alberto observed to Fernando.
“What are you on about, mate!” Fernando shot back, “Can’t you see—”
“Ha! Yes, I’m thinner on top. Blame our father for that,” the other Alberto said with a grin that carried a secret weight.
Alberto felt Fernando’s grip on his arm. “Mate! Don’t you see? He’s walked across the room!”
On the screen, the other Alberto nodded with a knowing smile.
“Look at this,” he urged, gazing down at his legs. Alberto’s initial view was simply of tight jeans, but then he noticed vertical lines.
“That’s it,” said the other. “What you’re seeing is the exoskeleton. The battery’s a tad larger than your phones. It’s linked to my legs and spine, responds as swiftly as the real deal. Sometimes I run in the park just because I can.”
Moisture fogged Alberto’s VR lenses as the other him returned to the camera’s gaze. Only they understood the profound significance of walking for someone confined to a wheelchair.
“Here’s hoping it works for the official tests,” Fernando said. “I’m up next.”
“It will. But be cautious; the future doesn’t always carry good tidings. Now, disconnect, or the servers will overheat, and in any case, synaptic resonance never outlasts ten minutes. Farewell.”
Alberto stared at his future self for a suspended second and commanded, “Disconnect.” His doppelgänger vanished, and the virtual lab returned.
“End of the real-time synaptic connection test,” Alberto declared, his voice quivering with emotion.
Albert commented to Fernando as he removed the glasses, “I guess when I’m older, I’ll sound like my dad too.” He wiped away his tears and looked up to his friend, whose eyes were also moist with emotion. Gripping the edge of the table to keep from falling, he slowly and carefully rose to his feet, managing any potential spasms. Once fully upright, the two friends embraced in a moment of profound connection and shared experience.
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