Yellow Pill

Seen on Twitter, via Slate Star Codex. Decided to try my hand at a more nuanced version. Limiting myself to 1000 words as a challenge, and to avoid spending too much time.


Gives you the ability to read and search the minds of anyone you can see, even if it’s a picture. You can also turn their minds “off” to put them in a coma.

“This is kind of embarrassing.”

“There’s always a first time, y’know.”

“That’s what my ex said before I decided to break up with him.”

Not her exact words, but you can guess from way she feels. Surprising how embarrassment seems to feel the same to everyone—a diffusing self-consciousness, from the pit of the gut where live the butterflies, which roar in a winged flurry to the tips of your ears to sit cooling off. And then a guy, exuding the cocky vibe of an asshole. A curious, novel sense of warmth; took you a while to recognise a girl in love.

No one told you reading minds would be this hard. You have to listen, the fortune teller teased, listen to the body, listen to the things that are not said. Tried to make sense of that, because despite your disbelief she told you more about yourself than you could about her. Laughingly she names you the promising one, puts in your palm a yellow pill, and shoos you out before you could ask.

“I’d ask you what you are doing here, but you’ll tell me when you decide to. If you can really read minds, shouldn’t you have brought me a glass of water?”

Thought that was just your throat dry from nervousness.

“Thanks. People always forget, that bodies still need caring for even if the lights are off. I think they’ve got me on fluids, and probably a shitbag as well, but that doesn’t quench the thirst at all. I’m a total ingrate, aren’t I?”

“Hey, everyone’s got the right to complain.”

Silence. Is that a pout? Women’s minds can be so hard to read, you think, and then the irony strikes you.

“It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Then again I’ve never gotten in the head of a coma patient before.”

“‘Patient’ sounds about right; that’s all I can be these days. Patient. A patient. Who else have you been … in?”

“This guy with the left side of his head caved in. Bunch of teenagers beat him up with a baseball bat. It wasn’t pretty. In his head too. Just image after image, like a holiday slideshow on fast-forward. Not a single coherent thought.”

“What was he thinking about?”

“I don’t know. Really. I mean I saw things but couldn’t make any sense of them.”

“Huh. That makes some kind of sense to me. People don’t really form full sentences in their heads do they? I’m not even sure if what you think I’m saying is what I’m really saying. In my head, I mean. Wait, if you’re reading my mind, how am I able to hear you?”

“Beats me. I thought it would be a one-way kind of thing too but maybe that’s not how the universe decided to work.”

“You sound like a horrible day. What do you do anyway?”

It was interesting for a while, being able to read your patients’ minds. Nobody figured out how you knew where the pain was coming from. Not cardio or gastro, not you either. But whatever it was—something like an oversensitive thought microphone—kept pulling in all the associated negativity into the thought-stream. Couldn’t put a finger on it but it got a bit much to bear after about a month. Don’t know if anyone noticed you heaving in the cubicle every two hours. The fortune teller could’ve at least told you how to stop the thought-stream, if such a thing could be done.

“I’m a designer. For interfaces, apps, that kind of thing. My company is trying to get into neural input peripherals, prosthetics that can talk wireless to your phone, I don’t know the details but I’m supposed to figure out what these pati—I’m supposed to refer to them as clients, but screw that—what these patients want from their peripherals. Because apparently it’s hard to tell people how it feels to be deaf-mute, so I act as some kind of translator.”

“Haha what, so you’re some kind of translator for people who can’t say what they’re thinking? Who’s paying you to talk to me?”

“Actually my client’s in the next room. I just ended a session there and your door was open and then you came at me with your thirst. So I thought I’d drop by.”

She sounded young, and desperately thirsty. Was not expecting a coma patient at all.

“Nice of you to drop by. Sorry I don’t have anything to say. The worst thing about being in a coma is that you’re not really in a coma, you’re still here, to no one except yourself. Like a ghost waiting for some kind of afterlife. You’re not going to ask what it’s like being in a coma?”

“I’d ask you what it’s like being in a coma, but you’ll tell me when you decide to.”

“Asshole.” She’d have looked cute saying that, but nobody ever knows what they look like doing anything. If they do they would be unable to do it.

“I’m actually more interested in what it’s like not being in a coma. I don’t mean having my body back and all; I’m kind of used to this. It’s nice being able to pee in a dream without waking up worrying about wetting the bed. At least I think it’s a dream, but it’s not like I can pee as I am right? I mean what would it be like not even having the mind be there. Have you read any minds like that, only feelings and no thoughts? Like that guy with the free lobotomy?”

You think about Stephen, lying on the stone cold and blanched, thinking his tranquil thoughts. Wondering if he feels cold as you do. Wondering if he’s enjoying this state of zen he’s always talking on about. Funny that it was a Suzuki Zen which sprawled him across the road, curiously bloodless, ear to the ground. Like one catching the drumbeat pulse of a world without thoughts to read.

“Was he a friend? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to remind you.”

“You couldn’t have known. Not your fault.”

“Did you read his mind?”

You didn’t have the pill then. His eyes were closed in death, as they were whenever he talked about death. About a life with only his mind and without his treacherous, cancerous body. Now his words came to you unbidden, and it feels not so different from now.

“That’s a funny thought. Just yesterday I was thinking, if someone offered me a pill in each hand and the pill in the left hand lets you keep your mind and the one in the right hand lets you keep your body and I could only pick one, I would probably pick the one in the right hand. Because I already know what the left pill is like.”

“Wouldn’t that make you just brain-dead?”

“You’re the one with medical experience, you tell me. But you’ve never read such a mind before, have you? You’re about to leave, I can tell. Don’t go, please … Once you go you’ll never come back. Take something of me with you before you go?”

“I don’t—”

“Look, don’t say anything, just give me your hand. Your left or right, and I’ll do the rest, okay? Don’t think anymore. I’m so through with thinking.”

So you reach out, and touch her lidded eyes, and turn her with her ear to the pillow, so that she can listen to the drumbeat pulse of the world. And then you listen, too, until it is time to leave.

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