Asking a Shadow to Dance

Isomorphic is a mathematical term: it means of the same shape. This is a lie.

Every morning you wake up in the apartment you might have bought if you hadn't been married (but you were, and those identical apartments are not the same). Your car takes you through the same route you would have taken, to an office where you look into the blankness of a camera and the camera looks back. You see nothing. The camera sees the pattern of blood vessels on the back of your eyes, and opens your computer for you.

The interface you see is always the same, just patterns of changing data devoid of context. Patterns that a combination of raw genetic luck and years of training has made you flawlessly adept at understanding and controlling. The pattern on your screen changes five times each second. Faster than that, you move your fingers in a precise way, the skill etched in your muscles as much as in your brain. The pattern and your fingers dance together, and the dance makes the pattern stay in a shape that has no meaning outside itself. You have received almost every commendation they can give to someone doing your job. Only the man on the other side of the table has more. You have never seen his screen, and he has never seen yours.

The inertial idiocy of that security rule is sickening in its redundancy. You couldn't know what he's doing from the data on his screen any more than you can know what you are doing from what you see in yours. Sometimes you think you're piloting a drone swarm. Sometimes you're defending an infrastructure network, or attacking one. Twice you have felt a rhythm in the patterns almost like a heart, and wondered if you were killing somebody through some medical device.

But you don't know. That's the point. Whatever you could be doing, the shape of the data on your screen would be the same, all the necessary information to control, damage, defend, or kill, but scrubbed of all meaning tying it back to the real world. Isomorphism, the instructors called it.

But that's a lie. It's not the same, and it could never be.

You begin to lose sleep. Twice the camera on your computer has to learn a new pattern for the blood behind your eyes. Your performance doesn't suffer; the parts of your mind and body that do the work are not the ones grappling with a guilt larger because it's undefined. Your nightmares are shapeless: you dream of data and wake up unable to breath.

One day you finally allow yourself to know that the man across the table enjoys his work. Always had. You had ignored him all those years, him and everything not in the data, but now you look at him with a wordless how? He makes a gesture with his head, come and see. An isomorphism that scrubs the data not only of meaning but also guilt.

You need it so much that you don't stop to think about the rules you're both breaking under the gaze of the security cameras. You just go around the table and look at his screen.

There's no isomorphism. There's nothing but truth, and you can neither watch nor stop watching. His fingers are dancing and his smile is joyful and he has always known what he was doing. And now you can, too.

You scramble back to your screen in blind haste. The patterns of data are innocent, you tell yourself, of everything you saw on that other screen, and so if the dance of your fingers. They just have the same shape, that's all.

You work efficiently as ever. You wonder if you'll go crazy, and fear you won't, and know that neither act will change your shape.