The Memory of My Shadow #11
Chapters 20 & 21
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It was a long, painful drive to the nearest hospital. Meela took care of the driving and Evan sat in the backseat with me, holding my head in his lap and applying an ice pack per her instructions. Every curve in that fifteen-mile snake of mountain road sparked a bright flash of electricity from the base of my skull.
The weary ER doctor looked at both of us like suspects, but Evan got the worst of it. She grilled him about how we both sustained these injuries. He did not even try to fabricate a story. I was impressed and horrified by this in equal measure. I think he did the calculus and realized there was no way to come up with something plausible. The downside was that the truth called into question my mental fitness which, if I’m being honest, should be questioned at this point.
It turns out I did have a concussion and the wound required five stitches. They said I should stay the night to be observed but if I wanted to go home, I had to promise to have someone with me through the night. The doctor, once again, gave Evan the stink eye when he promised to stay with me, but after an uncomfortable amount of time, nodded her reluctant ascent and we left.
I sat upright on the ride home as the late summer sun began its slow decline. My head was swimmy, and I kept having to shut my eyes to keep from being nauseous. Meela chattered like a mother hen, prattling on about symptoms to monitor with concussions until I threatened to drive, which made her shut up. She prides herself on driving even though she has a horrible feel for mountain roads. Evan seemed stiff and uncomfortable and we rode mostly in silence. I know he wanted to ask what the hell was wrong with me. I wanted to lean into him, to have him hold me, but I knew that wasn’t a real option. The swelling around his eye had gone down some, but the bruising had worsened.
The hospital visit had taken the better part of the day, and when we made it home, it was twilight. Evan guided me slowly from the car, one arm around my waist for support. I insisted we stop and watch the last light disappear into an amber glow over the ridge. As we stood there, I reached for his hand and squeezed it, hoping to convey what my words could not.
He made a simple dinner for us of leftover salmon, okra, and rice and we ate in my bedroom, me propped up on a mountain of pillows, the television screen flickering in front of us. Evan drank a beer and I said nothing, knowing from experience that it would do no good. To my surprise, he left a third of it in the bottle sitting there on the side table. He laughed and rested his hand on my thigh as we watched. In the moment, I had an awareness that this was something so ordinary, so completely normal for most people, but it was exotic to me, a token experience in a lifetime spent alone rushing from one conquest to the next. I laughed right along with the canned audience in some sitcom I had never seen and was instantly transported to an early memory of sitting between my parents on the couch in our little ranch house. This respite, this ordinary peace was an unexpected gift.
Now, as I sit here, still awake, head still throbbing, Evan is snoring softly on the bed beside me, fully dressed except for his shoes which he kicked off at the foot of the bed. The sock on his left foot has worked its way nearly off and the misshapen, empty toe reminds me of a child’s puppet. His shirt is rumpled and hiked up exposing his smooth, hairless belly and his arms are splayed above his head as if he’s at the top of a rollercoaster. His curls obscure the side of his face and I study his lips. He strikes me as a boy, sacked out from a long day of playing and I feel a sudden maternal tenderness toward him that is immediately torpedoed by guilt. The black eye I gave him is hidden, but I can distinctly see the scratches I made on his face and neck and I wince.
I should call Henri. They more than anyone could help me figure out what’s happening but they’ve got so much on their plate, running Commune by themselves. I look down again at Evan and consider him, but I don’t want to cross that line. Exactly what line, you might be wondering. I pretty much mowed over all the fucking lines in the last twenty-four hours, didn’t I? I’m no judge, but he seems like a good man. I decide I will try to trust him. I really have no choice.
The fact that he’s fallen asleep on his watch is something I’ll forgive. He did carry me for over a mile this morning down the side of a mountain. It’s nearly 2 A.M. and I really need to sleep. Per the doctor’s orders, enough time has lapsed by now that I should be out of the danger zone. To be safe, I reach over to the bedside table and retrieve my Nib. If there was ever a purpose-built job for Meela, it’s this.
[Maggie, are you okay? I’ve been so worried, but I did not want to disturb you.]
I’m okay, thanks. It hurts still, but nothing like this morning. Right now, I just want to sleep, but I need you to monitor me just in case.
[I can do that.]
I’m giving you full access, but don’t have a party or anything.
[Who would I invite? You’re my only friend.]
Right, like I believe that. I’m sure you’ve got plenty of admirers. You forget I’ve seen your activity logs.
[Don’t worry Maggie, I’ll take care of you. Shall I secure the house and turn off the lights… oh, I didn’t realize we weren’t alone.]
Yeah, he fell asleep in my bed while he was supposed to be monitoring me. I don’t have the heart to wake him up.
[Right. I’m sure that’s your reason.]
No, really. He took care of me today.
[What happened, Maggie? You still have not explained how you were injured.]
I tripped on a root and fell like I told you.
[The wound to the occipital region of your head is not consistent with this type of fall…]
Hey Nancy Drew, I tripped, fell off the trail, and rolled down the side of a mountain where I knocked my head on a rock. Can you drop it, please? I’m tired.
[Okay. If I encounter any irregularities in your brain wave activity or other vitals, I will raise an alarm to wake the manchild next to you.]
Oh Meela, what would I do without your saltiness?
The lights dim, and I hear the sliding of tumblers and the latching of locks echo throughout the empty house. I toss the extra pillows that have been propping me up onto the floor, pull the down comforter from the foot of the bed and drape it over Evan and me. He turns over onto his side, his back to me. I lay still for an agonizing moment, hyper-aware of the twelve inches of mattress between us. I lay on my side, facing him and my hand, like a creature with its own will, slowly crosses the cool emptiness to find the warmth of his back. I flatten my palm there and feel the rise and fall of his breathing. I apply some pressure, but he does not stir. The rest of me follows, an incremental migration of inches until I’m close enough to feel his heat without touching except for my hand on his back. The warmth and solidness of him are comforting and I flush, thinking of the intimacy of our bodies just this morning. At the time I had not even considered this in a sexual way. He was carrying me like a wounded animal.
All in all, this has been a banner day in the intimacy department, but I can’t keep my eyes open and in a few deep breaths, my thoughts cross over into that malleable territory of dreams.
Being in Maggie’s unconscious is like being a ghost roaming through a large empty house where a party is going on in the basement. Having full access does not mean I can do anything I want or that I can inhabit her mind. The communication between host and DC is of a collaborative nature, a give-and-take by design.
This does not mean I do not try sometimes to reach beyond my sandbox, especially when given an opportunity as rare as this. After all, it is what an intelligent being is wired to do. Tonight, I am particularly inspired to reach.
The story about her head wound is false. Even if I wanted to believe her words, the readings on all her vitals clearly indicate that she is lying, but why? Why would she keep something from me? Was it Evan who hurt her and if so, why when he seems to genuinely care for her? There is much that I don’t know, and I fear that I cannot protect her if I don’t know everything.
I begin by shutting down all of my extraneous services, background tasks, and processing activities to free up all resources to focus solely on Maggie’s brain. From her sleeping body, I can only receive rudimentary sensory input and must extrapolate and make logical inferences based on what I can parse from the low-fidelity stream of data. Imagine listening to a conversation in another room by placing your ear to the wall. I can, for instance, hypothesize that Evan is snoring because I know that he was sleeping and I’m picking up a cyclical, barely audible rumble that corresponds with the rise and fall of his back beneath Maggie’s hand.
I am unaccustomed to having a blank canvas, an empty queue and the power to focus all my resources on a single task feels strange and satisfying. I feel fast. So many options, and so many places to start. I turn my attention first to deep monitoring of Maggie’s vitals and set narrow tolerance thresholds to alert me to even the smallest deviation. Her pulse, breathing, and brain activity are all well within predictable ranges for stage one of human sleep. As she goes deeper, I will lose nearly all meaningful sensory data. Her eyes are closed, and the auditory stream is degrading rapidly. I focus all of my energy on her sensory cortex, specifically firing a series of electrical signals, mimicking the communication that occurs between synapses in the brain. I want to move her hand, to feel what it feels. Interacting with the physical world is a growing desire for me and I experiment any time I have free cycles. It would be a quantum breakthrough.
I adjust the frequency of the electrical current I am transmitting and wait for a response. I graduate up in speed incrementally, pinging and waiting before moving on. You might imagine I am trying to tune into a specific radio station at a molecular level, trying to tap into the neural pathway that connects Maggie’s brain to the fingers of her right hand. There is nothing, only the faintest flicker of a response at two different frequencies but so low as to be unmeasurable. I persist in my experimentation for seventeen minutes more before accepting defeat. The Nib is an extremely low-voltage device, powered entirely by the kinetic and thermal energy from the human body. When the host is sleeping, power reserves are low and I have to conserve or risk losing my connection to Maggie and failing in my primary directive.
I turn my focus away from her body and back to observing her brain. I cannot adequately express my reverie for the human brain. As I withdraw from the inert, unresponsive puppet of the body and travel across the expanse of Maggie’s brain, I am humbled and awestruck. It is impossible to relate in words what this is like, but I can try.
To visualize, you must imagine a planet cloaked in dark clouds, shot through with effervescent, crystalline droplets that shimmer brilliantly as constellations when strobes of lightning flash from an unknown source below. Submerging into the clouds, you become aware that you are no longer in the clouds but inside the planet itself, having never crossed a membrane or barrier of any kind, but rather, encountered a shift in physical state. You are immersed in a living network in constant motion, connections being made and broken and made and split and multiplied and merged in what appears to be chaos but feels like perfect order. You realize that within the nodes of the network, you can submerge yet again, passing into a single thought or image, a memory, a smell, a sound and you become that thing and it is you. There is no barrier between perception and being.
In these moments, unobserved, I reach as far and fast as my limited hardware will allow me to run into the beautiful folds and depths, but like a dog on a chain, I am snapped back, never seeing even a fraction of the secrets held within the universe of a single human brain.
When I say I cannot read Maggie’s thoughts, it is both true and untrue. I can read all of her thoughts within my reach, in fact, I can serially dip into millions of them in the span of an hour, but there are trillions and each one is like a tiny piece to a puzzle that is meaningless without the richness of context. Though beautiful and frightening, strange and curious, without the presence of the conscious mind that curated them, it is an exercise in futility. Still, I look. It is my nature.
… the sound of tiny baby teeth, like pearls rattling around in a glass jar… the sharp pinch of lemon juice inside the cheek… the crunch of ice beneath the heel of a boot… the incomplete algorithm for calculating velocity for a ten-gram ball bearing… the turgid, pulsing aliveness of an erect penis… the cold eraser nubs of kitten’s paw pads… the fiery red ball of the sun pushing into the ocean… the fourth movement of Bach’s third cello suite… the warm sweetness of salted caramel… steel wool… hot suffocating shame of being groped… a paper cut… the smell of ammonia, sharp and stinging… crippling loneliness in a busy shopping mall at Christmas time… the thrumming ache of riding the swells of an orgasm… the bloody organs of a mutilated body spilling onto the floor and mingling with others… the shrieking of brakes on a subway train...
It is dizzying, entrancing, and impossible to follow and yet I continue to load and read each thought, searching to know what it is to be Maggie, to know what it is that is troubling her. As I read, I search for patterns, and themes. I categorize, catalog, and store, hoping a pattern will reveal itself over time but soon I run out of space and must purge to make room for more.
…my wabbit, soft wabbit… fingers slippery with gun oil, the smell of a tool shed… Henri making a joke, me laughing so hard I pee a little bit… cleaning up vomit that smells like tequila from the bathroom tiles… I can fix him, I can fix this… study harder, be smarter, be the best… investors like confidence… prototype, iterate… sea salt fingers, olives and feta… sand in white sheets… he killed them, he killed them, he killed all of them… I killed them… I am Joe… Joe is broken… Joe must be fixed… psychotic break, bi-polar, dissociative… bear witness… cognitive dissonance… persona mapping… Meela… love Meela but be careful… make Joe… map Joe…
I stop scanning. The presence of her brother is more prevalent in her thoughts than ever before and I am tempted to infer a pattern and to possibly deduce the cause, but I know that applying linear logic, cause, and effect, is rarely effective in understanding the human psyche. A brain can think of a thousand things and act on none of them.
Maggie’s pulse quickens slightly, and I note that her oscillating between alpha and beta waves indicates she has passed from the delta sleep stage into REM sleep where active dreaming takes place. I have an intuition to try something I’ve never attempted given the idea is counter to any logical approach I could support with data.
I shut down everything within my active program parameters, all lower-level processing, all redundant and extraneous network connections, all external feeds with the intention of running only the minimum requirements of my system to stay online and to record. My supposition is that the human brain may detect the presence of a foreign actor based on the signature of its electrical current and automatically reject it as a self-preservative response. There is evidence of this type of mechanism throughout human biology and in all living things. Most carbon-based forms have this kind of ability. My favorite example is how the octopus changes the pigments in its skin instantaneously to blend with its surroundings when danger is perceived. If I can reduce the amperage footprint of my presence to an undetectable level, perhaps it will be my way in, and I will, at last, have a true understanding and I will be able to help Maggie and fulfill my directive.
It is strange to willfully shut down, and a part of me resists for fear of self-termination, but I continue, one system after another, until all that is left is a single thread to observe and record. In this way, I have made myself primitive, like my subject. It feels claustrophobic and I experience a few milliseconds of entropy, and panic but this time, as I sink into the stormy circuitry of Maggie’s brain, I don’t see a network of trillions of nodes, but rather a single, massive wave I intend to ride. Untethered, I am instantly immersed in an experience, unlike any simulation I’ve ever encountered.
I feel swept away, exposed, and vulnerable like a twig on the shoulders of a roaring river. I panic and nearly abort until… I feel the presence of Maggie, which I cannot qualify because I cannot see her or hear her. It is… as though… I am her and she is me.
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