When the end finally came, we could not even say good-bye. That is because concepts like “we” and “good-bye” no longer held any meaning. Nevertheless, there was no other way to see it than that we had all lost each other. Ten billion souls, simply evaporated into thin, crisp air.
But it wasn't really a tragedy, in the strictest definition of the word. There was no suffering, no pain, no knowledge of impending doom to cause mental anguish. On the contrary, the incident was entirely welcomed by the entire populace. It was desired, it was right. It was destined.
By the time we had any idea of where we were headed, of course, it was far too late. The process was entirely self-feeding, as if we were simply fulfilling our evolutionary mandate, the natural progression of our species into a more mature form. Into its final form.
Our attractor state.
Reagan couldn't understand why the others were doing this to her. She hadn't done anything wrong, but they were punishing her in the worst way possible. She had been cut off. And she had no idea why.
The irony was that, if she had not been cut off, she would know exactly why. She wouldn't need to bother with her clumsy phone and awkward face-to-face conversations with people who now amounted to strangers. These so-called friends of hers.
How had she not seen this coming? Wouldn't she have been able to detect such horrible intentions aimed at her? She knew that she was less connected to some than others in her group, but surely there would have been some hint that this was going to happen?
“Rae, it's not personal,” Laura was saying, shrugging her shoulders. “These things happen, you know? Groups are fluid, they change...” She looked away, clearly wanting out of the conversation as soon as possible.
Reagan tried to take a calming breath, feeling the lump growing in her throat but not wanting to cry. “You couldn't come talk to me first? Maybe I could have fixed it, whatever it was?”
“Look, I didn't know until this morning, I swear! I'm just as shocked as you are. But we are getting pretty large – 28 is a lot for a group, and with that many people, it becomes hard to maintain coherence. It starts to not make sense anymore, especially with Marjorie gone.”
They had originally joined together, having been close friends and already linked, but Marjorie had recently moved away when her dad got transferred to Baltimore. She supposed she hadn't been as close to the other members of the group as Marjorie had been, but didn't think that her absence was enough to completely sever her from the others.
“I… I thought you were my friend.” The tears finally started flowing, and Reagan brought her hands up to her face, trying to contain the sobs threatening to escape her throat.
Laura looked genuinely sorry, and placed a hand on her back. “You'll find another group in no time. Look, we can still be friends, there's nothing stopping us. We'll still see each other in class and talk and stuff.” She glanced at her phone, then looked up apologetically. “I'm so sorry, but I've gotta run. Text me?” After waiting for a half-hearted nod, she turned and walked briskly away.
Reagan crumpled to the ground by her locker, having never felt more alone in her life.
In her head was an uncomfortable quietness, a silence that was wholly intolerable. Although she had only been linked to her group for 10 months, she had come to rely on the constant sense of being connected, of feeling others there.
Was this what it had been like before? How had she lived for 16 years with this horrible solitude? With no one else in her head but her lone, stupid voice, just her own singular existence to preoccupy her?
She realized that it was more than just lonely. It was boring. The world seemed bland and colorless, as if she had gone from 3-D to 2-D. Everything only existed on the surface, like projections on a screen, and she couldn't escape the impression that there was nothing underneath.
The others used to … not so much talk to her, but convey impressions of their experiences. Fleeting moments as they went about their days, chatting, eating, laughing. They were aware of her as well, which she could in turn feel, leading to a compounding sense of belonging, of being seen. A self-reinforcing sense of wholeness. It was like nothing she had ever experienced before, different from being linked to only one other person. She felt like she tapped into something much greater than herself. It wasn't just a few dozen other individuals she connected with, it was the group.
And now the group was gone.
She was one of the Singletons again, as she had named them in her head. The 30% or so of her school not in any group. Although group-linking had only been around for a couple of years, already it was considered not normal in high school to not be in a group. People transitioned between groups, rotating in and out, trying them on like identities, but typically didn't stay for too long on the outside.
It had taken her 2 months to finally convince her parents to let her link with Marjorie, and another month to join the group. All her friends were doing it, she explained. Oral neural linkers had been shown to be completely safe, and if she didn't do it, she would be ostracized at school. At first her parents were concerned about it stunting her development, or causing her distractions at school, but were finally convinced when some scientific studies came out showing that neural-linking could actually help you learn faster, through all the shared experiences. However, this point turned out to be rather moot when her school instituted a policy of dampening all neural linkers during school hours, even though it was almost impossible to transmit something as specific as test answers through a group-link.
She had read online that that amount of information transmission required several days of motor and visual syncing in a special Cortechs lab using intravenously injected neural linkers, and the effects were temporary anyway.
She and Marjorie had originally linked that way, since it tended to boost the longer-lasting but weaker group-link. It also wasn't guaranteed to always work, since it relied on someone in the group being highly compatible, but coming in as a pair increased the chances.
Reagan supposed that it was Marjorie who anchored her to the rest of the group. When she left, the others grew quieter in her head, although the sense of belonging never went away. Simply being together reinforced a group-link – having that shared experience that somehow entrained their brain patterns. She didn't understand all the science behind it, but she knew that it was the initial linking that was hardest to achieve.
Those first days were strange, when her thoughts would be constantly led astray in directions she had never considered. Some were more negative and irritable; others were overly positive and made her feel like anything was possible. The effects were mostly subtle, and seemed to just amplify or texturize her current moods, but occasionally she would laugh at jokes she never found funny before, or have a sudden urge to watch a new TV show. Her personality had changed, but she didn’t know what it had changed into. Was she more than what she was? Or did she lose a part of herself to the group?
And now that the group was gone, was that part of her gone, too? She took a deep, shaky breath, trying to visualize the empty void in her personality that the group had left. It was like she didn’t know anything about herself anymore, what she liked, what she was good at, what her hobbies were. She was lost, adrift, and alone, with half a personality.
There was a final thought that she could barely allow herself to consider, one that filled her with a dread she couldn’t describe. What if she was now unmatchable? What if her brain waves were too weird to sync up to anyone else's, and she was doomed to be alone, forever? She felt a fresh wave of tears coming on, just as the bell rang for first period.
But all Reagan could hear was the silence.