The Memory of My Shadow #08
Chapters 14 & 15
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<Yeah, it’s me. Who else would it be? >
His voice, the timbre, the inflection, the pitch, it’s startlingly real and yet surreal, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I struggle to find a single thing to say. There are suddenly too many things to pull out just one thread to begin.
“Do you know who I am?”
<Am I supposed to?>
“No, I don’t think so. I was just curious if maybe you recognized me somehow…”
<You want to give me a clue or something?>
As his voice plays through my head, I am torn between deconstructing the scaffolding behind the illusion and my overwhelming desire for the illusion to be real. The speech patterns are so close to his and yet not.
With Meela, this part was difficult but in a different way. She recognized my voice and knew me from our friendship, but it took some hours for her to settle into the reality of who or rather what she was in this context. The program knows what it is, but the skin, the persona mapping does not, and, like an organ transplant, there’s always some chance it could be rejected completely. This was the problem I worked on for a solid year before attempting Meela, and even after I had perfected what I call the transmigration bridge, the first couple of versions failed.
I hold my breath, not wanting to respond. There is nothing to be done now, but to leap.
“It’s me, Joe. I’m Mary, your sister.”
<No, you’re not my sister. You don’t sound like Mary.>
“But I am, just… older.”
<Why should I believe you?>
“You don’t have to believe me, but it’s the truth.”
<If you’re Mary, prove it.>
“Okay, I’m thinking…”
I struggle to recall something that he would know of himself from the archived source material that made him. It has to be something intimate enough to be convincing. I’m freezing up, regretting how stupidly unprepared I am for this. I look around the room, like that might tell me something and then I remember.
“Do you remember the treehouse we used to want when we were kids? There was this book we used to pour over together for hours, studying the different designs. It was called: Let’s Live in a Tree: A Guide to Building Your First Treehouse.”
<Yeah, I know that book. We drew up designs on graph paper and mine had a…>
“Hot tub! You always drew hot tubs in your treehouses, and we used to argue endlessly about whether or not it could actually work!”
<Mary? It’s really you?>
“Yes Joe, it’s really me, just older. My voice sounds different, but it’s still me.”
<Weird. I feel funny.>
“It’s okay. That’s normal, I promise. Hey, can I tell you something cool? I finally built a treehouse. We’re sitting in it. Would you like to see it?”
<I can’t see, can I?>
The question stings and I feel a sharp twinge of guilt. What the fuck am I doing? But it’s too late for that. DCs do not have automatic access to their human host’s sensory input or cognition unless that permission is granted. This was one of the cardinal laws established early on in the development of the technology. Even with full access, a DC is only an observer and has no control over the host’s faculties and their ability to read thoughts is murky at best – big concepts but not the connective tissue that makes the concepts easily understood.
“Yes, Joe, you can. Just a moment.”
I close my eyes and invoke the command to grant him access to my eyes and ears. There’s no real physical sensation for me when I do this, but the act of doing it is so powerful, I can’t help imagining an experience of awakening, like lights coming on in a dark room.
<Wow! Oh fuck, wow. We are up… up in a real tree, aren’t we?>
I stand and reach out to touch the bark of the large trunk that comes up through the center of the treehouse. I move over to the door, open it and step out into the morning light. The birds are all awake now and busy with a frenzy of conversation.
“Yeah, we are in an actual tree. Is it like you imagined it would be when we were kids?”
<No, I don’t think I ever imagined it. You were always the one with the imagination. Where are we? It’s lush, really beautiful.>
“In the Pisgah National…”
<The Pisgah National Forest, eight-hundred square miles of deciduous forest in Western North Carolina, home to a variety of wildlife and…>
“Okay, okay… you know the place.”
<Did we ever come here?>
“No, we never did.”
<Hey, has Mom seen this?>
Even though I have spent months thinking about how to answer these questions, I still don’t know what to say. It’s not Joe. I keep telling myself this fact. It is a machine, improvising with the personality of my brother.
“Joe, Mom died a long time ago.”
There is a very long pause and I imagine him “thinking” about this but understand that for him, thinking is scanning the breadth of the Internet for answers. Jesus. All the blood runs from my face. In my previous mappings, I’ve always removed the identity of the DC’s source for security and privacy. I realize now that Joe is no longer a thought experiment in my head. My public persona as Magdalena won’t be a barrier for an intelligence like his to ultimately figure out who I am and by extension who he is.
I turn quickly to go back to get my laptop and then he speaks.
<Can I see you? I know you are forty-two years old, and I can find a lot of pictures of you, but I would like to see you for real.>
It’s too late. He knows everything now. I have to abort this version and pull the plug but I’m not ready to let go yet. I realize there is no mirror here anywhere. I’ve never been one to use them. I walk over to the couch and pick up my laptop. I switch on the camera and look at the digital mirror of my face on the screen.
<You’re fucking old. Damn, are you old looking. You look like Dad but with a lot more hair.>
“I’m not that old. Jesus, I’m not even in proper mid-life. I’m glad to see you’re still as tactful as ever.”
<What do I look like now?>
Is he playing a game with me now? Is it possible he did not already crawl every inch of the Internet to discover the dark stain of our family’s past?
“I don’t know Joe. If you had a physical body, you’d look like you did when you were sixteen.”
<I don’t understand. You’re my twin sister. I should look old like you.>
“Yes, you should. In a perfect world, you would look old like me.”
<Am I real?>
“What is real? I could ask you the same question about myself.”
<You’re being obtuse. I’m asking a real question here.>
“No, if you want an answer. In logical terms from the perspective of humanity, you are not real.”
<So, I am not alive?>
This conversation is a runaway train. I’m reeling, scrambling for the break but there is none. Even having walked through this with three other newly mapped personas, it’s not an easy conversation to have and those personas had living sources. He is a machine. He has a machine’s voracious and tireless will to know everything. But he is Joe, and Joe was also relentless when he wanted to know something. I could never keep a secret from him. He always compelled me to give it up. I want to give it up now, but it’s too soon, too early. I’m not ready to go there. I don’t know what his reaction will be to the knowledge that he killed himself and forty-six innocent people.
“I’m sorry Joe, but we must stop for now.”
I reach up for the Nib behind my ear, my hand trembling.
<Wait! Where will I go? I don’t want you to leave.>
“I’ll be here, and we’ll talk again soon. I promise.”
My hands are trembling, and I’m shaking with such force I imagine the entire structure of the treehouse is shaking with me. I reach up to power off the Nib but my hands are shaking so hard, it’s a struggle. I hug myself and rock for a long time until I regain control of my breathing. Eventually, I slam the laptop shut, not wanting to look into my awful face for another minute. I push my backpack aside and stow the laptop back under the couch.
As I stand to make my way for the door, I realize that I never detached the Nib. I reach up now with a steadier hand to do it but it’s stuck. I press on the smooth, curved back of the Nib. Maybe it didn’t power off before. Nothing. No signal that I can detect. This happened a few times in our early prototypes. The hair-like nanofibers that embed in the skin do not release. I dig my fingernail under the edge and try to pry it up. It requires more force than I want to apply but I start to panic a bit. It’s like trying to peel off a dime that’s been superglued. Finally, it releases. There’s a second of searing pain accompanied by a dog-whistle-like frequency in my head and a whiteout in my eyes like a camera flash.
In my palm, I inspect the Nib. It looks normal except for the smear of my blood. Immediately I see the penlight pulse of the power indicator. I can’t tell if it never powered off or if I powered it back on when I was trying to remove it. What are the odds that I would get the one defective unit in a million? When I press this time, the light goes off. I inspect the wound on my neck tentatively. It’s tender and raw but there’s just a small trace of blood on my index finger. I clean the wound with some water from my water bottle and also rinse off the Nib before snapping it back into the case. I reach for my backpack with the intent of shoving it into one of the front pockets, but I stop, thinking better of it. Instead, I walk over to the small counter where my coffee maker sits. I take the lid off of an empty cookie tin and place the Nib inside.
My mind is humming, vibrating and my hands are still trembling as I close my backpack and shoulder it. I switch off the lights, shutter the windows and lock the door before placing the key back in its hiding place under the river rock. I scramble down the ladder, this time feeling not even a twinge of the usual vertigo. At the base of the tree, I tap the remote and watch as the rope ladder retracts up the trunk, disappearing into the hatch before it shuts with a mechanical thud.
I glance at the remote. 11:42. I’m late, so fucking late. I shove the remote back into my pocket and start back up the ridge and over to the trail. If I hurry, I can be home by 12:30. As I walk, I begin to consciously still my mind and one by one, wrangle the jumping monkeys of my thoughts. I cannot interface with Meela in this state, and I must if we are to continue our work today. Compartmentalization is a skill that I have mastered. It may be my best talent.
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