Original prompt: Scientists have discovered a QR-code like pattern that can plant memories into humans. After testing, they realized what horrible consequences this could have, and they decide to hide their discovery from the world.
“No, I swear, it really happened! I remember it clear as day! I brushed my teeth at home at 8:45 a.m. this morning, just after drinking my coffee! I even remember the amount of tooth paste I put on the brush!”
“For the third time, John, you’ve been here, in this laboratory, since 6:00 a.m. today… We put those memories into you as a test run twenty minutes ago, don’t you remember?” Mary asked.
“Yes Mary, I do. And yet I can’t help but think it was real! I know I shouldn’t have been able to do it… It’s fascinating. There’s not even the slightest sense of incongruity in my brain! It just feels… right. However, I don’t think my behaviour has been altered in any way, has it?”
“I don’t think so. You’re still as high-spirited as ever,” Jake said with a smirk.
Mary jotted down John’s impressions on her notepad. The experiment had been successful. A bit too much to her taste, even. When they discovered that enigmatic symbol in those Asian ruins, four months ago, Jake and Oliver had a sort of collective hallucination, and they suddenly altered the symbol by smashing a rock on its upper part, before Mary and John could see it clearly. As a result, when they looked at it afterwards, they were left with a fleeting impression of having been in space a long time ago. Mary had tried to ask Jake and Oliver about what they saw, but all they said was that they couldn’t remember it. No matter what sort of questions she asked, they couldn’t recall anything.
Truthfully, she was a bit jealous. The faint impression she had of floating in space with stars twinkling around her made her dream about the vividness of the other two’s visions. But then, if she thought about it, maybe it was better for her to retain her memory of it rather than experiencing an astral trip and then forgetting everything about it like Jake and Oliver.
As they came to the conclusion that the symbol was gifted with hallucinative properties, they took pictures of it and went back to the lab in London to decipher it. They found that even a mere picture of it had its properties, as Camille, who had stayed there, got the same memory as Mary after looking at it.
Apparently, the key to activating the hidden power of the mark was to stare at it for at least five seconds. What was left was to find how the effect was triggered. After long and arduous months of erroneous hypotheses and rigorous testing, they came up with a model for translating a concept sentence into a symbol.
John volunteered to be the guinea pig: they decided to implant into him a memory based on the sentence “I brushed my teeth this morning”. The result was above all of Mary’s expectations: not only had John successfully gained this new memory, but he remembered it in great detail, and seemed absolutely convinced of it being genuine, even though he also seemed to remember it was all fake.
“Are you all right, Mary?” Camille asked her, a bit of concern showing in her frowned brows.
“Why, yes, sorry Camille. I was thinking we still had a few things to figure out, but that experiment went well.” Mary said with a smile, to reassure her.
“You’ve been away for a while, haven’t you. We were talking about the dangers of this discovery,” Oliver said, as serious as ever.
“Gosh, the topic switched? Which dangers are you referring to?”
“Just imagine what malevolent people could do with this,” John said. “They could make people think a fake event really happened. For example, an innocent person committing a crime, or worse. Our judiciary system could be completely nullified! I’m sure of it, with just how realistic my teeth-brushing illusion seems to me.”
“Now that you mention it, it could be dangerous indeed… We’ll have to think about whether to make it public or not then…”
“The answer is obvious, Mary. We absolutely mustn’t publish our findings,” Jake replied.
“I agree,” Oliver said.
— That’s surprising, Mary thought. It’s not often that those two are of the same opinion.
“It does look like the most rational option,” Camille said. “We’ll discuss it tomorrow, it’s already late.”
Mary had gone back to her room, a few meters from the lab. She didn’t feel sleepy at all. On the contrary, she was eager to solve a particular riddle.
— There’s still one thing I don’t understand, she thought. Our model absolutely doesn’t account for influence on the subject’s behaviour. Our previous tests show it: no matter how we might try to design the shape, the only brain area whose activity reacts to the pattern is the hippocampus, associated with long-term memory. There’s no way Jake and Oliver would have acted on impulse just because of that symbol. Something doesn’t make sense.
Mary switched on her laptop and browsed through the different pictures of the original symbol. She pondered for a bit, then she opened the software they used to create their own pattern, the one they used on John. She imported what she could from the picture and corrected the artefacts according to their theory.
— Okay. This is the symbol I saw just after Jake and Oliver altered it. The upper section has been crushed but I think I can recognize the start of this pattern… I can do it.
Mary gathered all the reports and notes they had taken since they began studying it. She launched a few simulations with different parameters and edited the damaged part minutely, pixel by pixel.
— Maybe Mom was right about me becoming a surgeon, after all.
The patterns obeyed a very chaotic law: as long as the shape wasn’t exactly the way it was meant to be, there was no effect whatsoever to be observed. Prompted by Camille, they had done countless tests on small variations of the original symbol, but none had ever produced anything. Mary steadily completed the drawing, cross-checking her intuition with her data and her models, and a few hours passed in a blink of an eye.
— I think it’s almost finished. Just a few pixels here, and… it’s done. Holy pickle, it’s done! I’ve repaired it! Can’t wait to tell the others. Let’s save and go to sleep…
Hah, who am I kidding? Of course I’ll stare at it. What did those two see? I’ll know soon.
“You don’t want to do that, Mary.”
Mary suddenly turned around and saw Jake’s face. His ordinarily playful face was nowhere to be seen. Only a pair of eyes as cold as ice were looking at her. Behind him stood a looming shadow she guessed was Oliver, who wasn’t that different from his usual self. As stoic as ever.
“We’ve underestimated you. I knew you were bright, Mary, but this is something else entirely,” Oliver said.
“Wh— What do you mean? What are you going to do?” Mary asked, as she dreaded the worst.
“Nothing, really. We’re still your friends, Mary. But that drawing changed us. Trust me, it’d be better for you not to receive its message. And yet, the choice is yours. We wanted to warn you, that is all.” Jake stated, with a matter-of-factness that didn’t sound like him at all.
“Oh, come on, guys! You know me!” Mary answered, as she couldn’t help but smile from the sudden relief. “I just have to know.”
“I know, Mary. I know,” Jake said.
As she turned her head to look back at the symbol, Mary caught sight of a faint smile in the right corner of Jake’s mouth.
A resigned smile.
So discrete, and yet, so sincere that it brought a few tears to Mary’s eyes, even if she didn’t know why.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t listen to you,” Mary said, as she couldn’t bear to see that expression on Jake’s face.
She looked at the symbol again.
Those five seconds lasted forever, but they eventually elapsed. Then —
Mary knew why.