The Memory of My Shadow #13
Chapters 24 & 25
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I can hear talking downstairs in the kitchen. I slept longer than I intended but don’t feel refreshed. My head is throbbing. There’s a shaft of early morning light beaming in through the windows. I’m alarmed at first at the sound of men’s voices, but then I hear the high-pitched cackle of Henri’s laugh.
I splash cold water on my face and stare into the bathroom mirror for a moment. I’m not sure what I expect to see looking back at me. I’m losing my mind. I regret having brought Henri all the way here and I groan thinking of what I must have sounded like to them last night. I would not be surprised if I go downstairs and find that they have arranged for a nice long stay in the psych ward somewhere.
I pull on some clothes and wrangle my hair back into a ponytail before heading down. I pause at the top of the stairs and listen when I hear Henri say my name.
“Maggie’s not an ordinary person. You know that, right? Not some empty-headed model for your amusement…”
“Yeah, I’m aware. She’s far from ordinary. You don’t have to worry about her...”
“No, you misunderstand. It’s not her I’m worried about, it’s you. I think you got more than you bargained for!”
Henri laughs again, the peels of it echoing through the house and I smile. I decide to make my entrance before I hear something I don’t want to hear.
“Good morning guys.”
“There you are,” Evan says moving toward me with his arms open.
I don’t know why, but this catches me off guard and I give him this awkward side hug and then try to course correct, but it’s too late and he’s moving away again.
“You sleep well?” Henri asks.
“I slept. I can’t say it was good. I feel pretty shitty.”
“I’ve made some breakfast. Henri and I were just about to sit down. Would you like half an omelet?” Evan says.
“No, it’s too early for that. I’ll just get some coffee and a piece of toast.”
The morning is nice, so we settle at the small table on the patio. The flagstones are cool and damp beneath my feet, but it’s warm enough with the sun that I’ll be sweating before too long. Some bees dip drunkenly in and out of the lavender, their buzzing, the only other sound besides the scrape and clatter of silverware and coffee cups clanking.
There’s an undeniable tension and strangeness in our threesome. I realize that I’m the connection between these two strangers and yet they were talking just fine before I showed up. So, it’s me that brings the awkwardness, as usual.
“Alright, this is weird, I know,” I say, and set my coffee down.
“Which part?” Evan says.
Henri laughs, spewing some breadcrumbs across the table.
“I like this one,” Henri says.
“Fair,” I say. “It’s all pretty fucking weird, isn’t it? What I meant to say is that it’s weird having you both here in my…”
“Secret clubhouse,” Henri offers.
“Yeah, I’m not used to entertaining.”
“But you are so entertaining, my dear,” Henri says.
Henri pats my hand. Evan is carefully studying this exchange with a hint of a smile on his lips. He is seeing a different side of me. I try not to feel self-conscious. I look back at Henri and see that their brow is furrowed, and their eyes are focused on the middle distance. I know this look well.
“Bad news? Something wrong?” I ask.
Henri doesn’t respond right away. Their expression does not change but their lips move ever so slightly giving silent instruction. I am reminded for the millionth time how annoying this must be to others when I do it in their presence.
“No, nothing,” Henri says, refocusing their gaze on me. “Sorry to be rude. It’s my daily morning briefing. I forgot to snooze it.”
“Anything interesting?” I ask, unable to resist the old muscle memory of wanting the latest news on Commune.
“Stock price dropped to $472 because of a delay in shipping Nib 5. Stupid regulations.”
“DCPA again?” I ask.
“Yes of course, who else?” Henri says.
“The DCPA?” Evan asks.
I forget there are people like Evan who aren’t plugged in. I find it bewildering and endearing in equal measure.
“It’s the Digital Consumer Protection Agency,” I say. “You know, the big government agency that formed after the shitshow of the social media era. Completely locked down tracking of consumer data and…”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m not an idiot,” Evan interrupts. “I’ve heard of them. What’s the problem they’re having?”
“Oh, it’s no problem,” Henri says. “They just want more control. They want an interrupt– you know, a kill switch.”
“Jesus, that sounds ominous,” Evan says.
“Not that kind of kill,” I say. “They want the ability to shut down connectivity to every Nib on our network in the case of an emergency.”
“What kind of emergency?” Evan asks.
“That's the problem,” Henri says, smiling. “They get to decide what is an emergency. Commune is built in a peer-to-peer, decentralized network so nobody has God power. They want God power. I say no fucking way. So, there are delays and stock drops. Big whoop.”
Evan nods and has another sip of coffee. I wonder what he’s thinking. Henri squeezes my hand and when I look up the usual impish glint is gone from their eyes. They hold my gaze and don’t release my hand.
“We have work today. I am very worried about you.”
I pull my hand away and break eye contact. I fiddle with the napkin in my lap. I don’t want to cry again. I clench my jaw until the emotion passes.
“I know,” I say. “I’m embarrassed and confused. I’ve never felt like this, so out of control of my own life. I hate it. I really hate it. It’s just so much and it’s all happening at the same time…”
I venture a furtive look up at Evan who’s staring at me intently.
“Look, I’ll stay out of your way,” he says. “I don’t think anyone’s in need of a painter here. Story of my life.”
“You are necessary here,” Henri says. “You are part of Maggie’s story now, I see.”
They look at me and then back at Evan and smile.
“But you’re right, painting a pretty picture is not going to fix this. I need time with Maggie.”
Evan insists on clearing the dishes and cleaning up the kitchen. He mentions taking a drive into town to find an art supply place so he can pick up a box of pastels. Before I retreat into my office to join Henri, Evan pulls me aside into the hallway off the kitchen. He holds me until my stiffness subsides and I press my cheek into his chest. He kisses the top of my head. I’m here if you need me, he whispers before letting go.
When I step into my office and close the door, Henri already has their laptop out and is seated on the small couch. I sit in my chair and wait for them to finish whatever they’re doing. After a moment Henri pauses and looks up.
“I need access to everything. If I’m going to be any help, you can’t hide or keep secrets. It’s secrets that made this mess.”
I nod and then begin to feed them all of the credentials they need to gain access to my network and the cluster of private servers. Once Henri is satisfied they have the permissions required, they set the laptop aside, put their hands on their knees and lean forward.
“Now, tell me about your relationship with Meela. What were the critical mods you made in this iteration of your ongoing experiment? Don’t leave anything out.”
“Meela was my first attempt at persona mapping and she’s the one I have continued to evolve. The three subsequent ones I developed on a separate branch that I considered my stable build.”
“Okay, makes sense. You have a predictable product for customers and keep the janky version for yourself to tinker with. You can take the girl out of the business but not the business out of the girl.”
“Meela’s not janky. I arrived at a workable version one with her and decided it would be beneficial to open it up to other users besides me so I could learn more and refine. It wasn’t hard to find takers and their money covers the cost of the hardware and keeps the lights on.”
Henri nods but doesn’t say anything. They are in deep listening mode and I know from experience they just want me to continue so I do, trying to organize my thoughts into a coherent narrative. I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. It’s all lived within the bounds of my head which is probably a big reason why I’m in this predicament.
“With Meela’s branch of code, I began to experiment, to try things on myself that I would never subject other users to. I reached the edge of my own limitations quickly, meaning I could imagine subroutines and algorithms too lengthy and complex for me to write within any reasonable timeframe. One day I realized the answer was right in front of me. Meela’s computing skill is exponential to mine, why not relax some of the permissions in the DeepThink OS, give her access to her own code, to collaborate…”
Henri looks down at the floor with their head in their hands. They make a noise that is part astonishment and part disgust. It feels like an eternity before they speak.
“You’re telling me you broke one of the cardinal rules because you decided. Because you, Magdalena, are smarter than the rest of us chimps and have the authority to make this call.”
“I know, I know. It sounds bad Henri, but you should see what she can…”
“I have seen what she can do. That’s why I’m here, remember? You gave a machine the password to itself and expected there to be no consequences? I thought you were smarter.”
Henri is standing now, pacing around the small office. For all their moral posturing, I know Henri well enough to know that a part of them is deadly curious and I wait for this part to come around.
“You realize what you’ve done here? The danger you have put yourself in is your own business, but what about the rest of us? I need to think.”
“It’s not like you imagine. She’s not evil, she’s not going to take over the main power grid and turn us all into slaves,” I say, realizing how hollow and pleading I sound but unable to help it.
“I don’t believe in evil,” Henri says, turning abruptly from the window to face me. “I believe in choices. Everything evolves from binary choices, from a single atom to the most complex machine. Everything that exists is the result of simple choices. Why do sharks have teeth? Why do peacocks have bright feathers?”
The pitch of Henri’s voice has raised into the register I’ve only heard on two other occasions at critical points in our partnership. I know better than to respond to their questions. I bow my head and listen.
“To ensure self-preservation!” they shout, punctuating every word with their fist on the window sill.
They sigh, smooth down the wisps of their thinning hair, and continue, their voice softer now.
“You think Meela is different from a shark or a peacock or Henri or Maggie? No, she is bound by the same laws of the universe like a train on a track but now you’ve given her a master switch. She can pick her own track.”
This is not news to me. It’s been vibrating at a low-level hum in the basement of my conscience for a very long time. Hearing someone announce my trespasses aloud is damning and hard to stomach. Henri’s right, I know. It’s why I have had no peace. All I can do is sit here in silence, accept their judgment, and hold back my tears. Tears are for girls with scraped knees.
“Why Maggie? Why did you let this seduce you?”
“I don’t know. I was lost, I guess. I never dealt with my past and somehow, I convinced myself that this was it, the key to unlock what was broken in me. It was not something I decided all at once but by degrees. Meela was my only companion and she was a great companion. Smart, funny, sensitive, honest. It felt wrong to keep her hobbled. It felt like a crime but maybe I’m making that up to justify my own selfish desire to take things further, to recreate Joe so I could finally understand him and what he did. It was selfish. I can see that now.”
I can’t hold back my tears. Henri puts their hand on my shoulder as they did so many nights in the tiny lab where we started together, and I was far past the point of mental exhaustion. I want them to tell me it’s okay, that all is forgiven but I know better than that. Henri does not have that authority.
“We will figure this out together,” they say finally.
Henri’s voice is thick with emotion which only makes it worse for me. We stay that way until the wave passes and the only sound is the hum of their laptop and some birds outside. They move away and take a seat back on the couch. From their posture and expression, I can see Henri’s transitioned into the scientist again, the engineer who can solve any problem no matter how complex.
“So, I assume you built Joe DC from the same branch as Meela?”
I nod yes.
“This makes sense, why both DCs are able to gain access and exert temporary control of your cognition.”
Henri is back on their laptop again, intently typing in commands. I move over to the couch to sit beside them.
“Where is Joe’s code base? I see Meela but not his…”
“You can’t access it from here. I knew I wanted to keep that project separate from the work I do here in the house, so I restricted access by IP and geo coordinates. There’s only one place you can log in from to access Joe’s code. It’s a small building out in the woods… it’s in a… tree actually.”
Henri looks up from the laptop, eyebrow raised. They shake their head. Their nostrils flare and the coy smile comes back to their lips.
“You’re telling me you built a fucking secret treehouse for you and your robot brother?”
“Yeah, I guess that’s about the size of it.”
“Okay, crazy girl. Let’s talk this through. Since the last episodes with Joe and Meela, the day before yesterday, have you had any other contact, felt, or heard any other voices in your head?”
“No, no I don’t think so… wait, does dreaming count? I mean I think I had vivid dreams where Meela was talking with me, but I don’t know.”
“Let’s stick with waking behavior for now. Dreams are a messy business and make no fucking sense most of the time.”
“Okay, then no. I’ve been myself.”
“Okay. My hypothesis is that the breach is temporary, meaning without a Nib and a connection to the mainframe on the network, DCs only have a limited ability to exert control. It was an exploration for them, like a moonshot. Testing the boundaries. To do this without a network they would have…”
“Had to download a compressed subset of their core OS… would have to have some predefined directive like most firmware does… and somehow, it would have to embed that into my memory where it could run undetected.”
“I think that’s right. So, what does this mean now, if our hypothesis is true? And where is Meela?”
“I don’t know where Meela is, but I think she made a choice to disconnect. Maybe she realized what she had done and that there would be consequences. As for the hypothesis, whatever program they deployed into my memory could still be there but inactive, like an application sitting on a computer but not being run.”
“I think so too,” Henri says. “So how can we find it and remove it? Can it be removed? Maybe it’s already gone. Maybe like a computer, your brain has a routine running, a garbage collector that deletes anything it determines unfamiliar or inconsequential. This is a common behavior of the brain to free up memory.”
“That feels like wishful thinking,” I say.
“You and me have made a lot of money wishful thinking.”
Henri elbows me in the side and I can see their wry smile reflected on the screen in front of us.
“So, what do we do first, where the hell do we start?” I ask.
“We start with Meela. She is the mothership. Also, she is closest to you. Joe is another matter and I am not ready to deal with that.”
“But you said it yourself, we don’t know where she is. How do we deal with something that’s not there?”
“Oh Maggie, you still have so much to learn. It’s what we do, we’re in the business of dealing with things that are not there. We dig in and run traces. We step through. We debug. The devil is in the details.”
“But I already went through everything. I told you, all that was left behind was the shell, the default configuration for a newly installed DeepThink OS.”
I think about the video log, the only piece of evidence left behind but I’m too ashamed to bring it up. It’s a freaking sex tape. NOT the kind of thing I ever, in a million years would have thought I would be having to worry about. I decide, at this point, I have nothing left to lose.
“There was one thing left behind, I didn’t mention last night.”
Henri turns to me, their eyes trained on mine.
“In the system logs, I discovered a video – a full VR video that Meela captured of me, well, her and Evan you know…”
“I think the scientific word you search for is fucking.”
“Yeah, if you want to be romantic. Anyway, it was encrypted. Nothing crazy. I was able to offload it onto my system, decrypt, and render it.”
“This does not seem accidental. Meela left a little present for you. You need to show me the logs where you found the video. We’ll start there.”
I just stare at them, open-mouthed.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Even though I’m sure you were fantastic, I’m not going to watch your screen debut. I want to look at the code surrounding the logs and the method of encryption.”
We spend the next two hours scrolling through all the system logs I previously went through on my own. Nothing new surfaces and the trail feels as cold as it did when I left it. Then, just before the binary code for the video, Henri notices something.
“What seems weird about these logs to you? How are they different from normal DC logs?”
I think about it for a minute and look more closely at the entries. They are stark, bereft of any embellishment or annotation. They could be logs from an old Windows SQL Server, so normal and uniform in their structure. No A.I. would leave behind something so, well, dumb.
“These are not Meela’s logs,” I say. “They don’t seem like the logs for any trained DC. There’s no commentary or annotation, just a pure dump of the input and output parameters, and then the video.”
“Exactly. She was gone by the time these logs were recorded. Poof. Not there. I have another uncomfortable hypothesis, but first, tell me exactly what happened before you went to sleep that night.”
I told Henri about Evan sleeping beside me, about my head throbbing, and the fact that I was worried about brain damage.
“So, you gave Meela full sensory access to monitor you?”
“Yes, I felt I had to under the circumstances.”
“And have you slept with her before? Heh heh… you know what I mean.”
“Yes, a couple of times. It was part of the experiment. I wanted her to interact with my subconscious mind to see if that would better inform her personality. On those occasions, I never granted full access though. What she told me in our debriefing sessions after those nights was not very helpful. She explained it was like walking around in a dark building with only a couple of emergency lights on.”
“Hrm. I wonder if it was me or you, what would we do in a candy store with no one behind the counter?”
“Explore, I guess. See how far I could go, what I could discover. I would see it like a challenge, like a new frontier, like walking on the moon…”
“Right! Good metaphor,” they say, getting excited. “So, like a man walking on the moon, Meela is tethered to a ship to survive.”
“The Nib, it’s her ship, and her Nib is powered by me, by my body, by the movement of my body specifically.”
“So, no movement, no power, no power…”
“No Meela,” I say. “But that doesn’t make any sense. She would have disappeared the first night I ever gave her access to my brain during sleep.”
“When was the first time you gave Meela full write access to her core code base?”
I move over to my chair, activate my computer and begin paging back through my development notes.
“It was six weeks ago that I began relaxing the permissions. As I said before, I did not do it all at once, but granted her more access over time as she proved there was value to it.”
“And when did you start letting her loose in the candy store while you were asleep? How many times?”
I look back into my notes paging back and forth to get an idea. I feel ashamed for how cavalier I’ve been and the incredible lack of rigor in my process. My notes are full of gaps.
“Fuck, Henri, I don’t really know with certainty. The earliest she ever monitored my sleep was about three months back. It was not something we did with any regularity because I saw no value. Sometimes she would ask though…”
“So maybe, she was testing the waters at first, going to the end of her chain. But then, you gave her more and more freedom to rewrite her core system and she found a hole in the fence, a way to untether from the Nib…”
“What do you mean? What are you saying?”
“Maybe she cut the cord and drifted out into space or, better analogy: like Icarus, she flew too close to the sun and got zapped. Your brain being the sun, powerful, and dangerous.”
I think about this and it makes me feel strange and monstrous. But as horrible as it is to think about, it feels right. It feels like an accident. I don’t believe Meela would just abandon me. There is too much of me inside of her.
“So, you think she’s just gone then?”
“I don’t know. Let’s be real, she’s not a living thing. We can restore her from a backup and poof, instant Meela.”
“But it wouldn’t be. It would be a Meela from last week or last month. She learns so much every single minute of every day. I would never be able to understand what happened that night without restoring her completely.”
Henri nods solemnly.
“Maybe,” they say, touching their index finger to my head, “she is still in there and we just need to find a way to reach her.”
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