The Memory of My Shadow #15
Chapters 28 & 29
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“Maggie? Maggie? Hey… are you listening to me?”
I gasp for air like someone breaking the surface after being held underwater for too long. Henri is gripping my hands and their face is close to mine. It’s several seconds before I even know where I am or who I’m looking at.
“Yeah…” I manage, the words seeming to come from someone else. “I’m here.”
“You just froze, like a statue for a long time. I was worried…”
“I don’t know, maybe five, ten seconds?”
“Yes, why? What happened?” Henri asks.
“It was Joe, not Joe, but the DC Joe. He took me. He took over, I think. I was here with you and then I was just gone for what felt like hours.”
“And Meela?” he asks.
I shake my head and then remember that she disappeared just before all this happened. I remember the Nib, reach up, and rip it from my neck. I pinch to power it off and hold it in the palm of my hand like some alien parasite.
“I’m scared, Henri. I’m losing control. He was in me a couple of days ago, then he was gone, and then, just like that he was back and stronger than ever, more fully formed.”
“When he came, Meela went away,” Henri says, pausing after each word as they try to bring order and meaning to their thoughts racing out in front of them. They look down at my open palm. “You also jacked into the Nib just before…”
I hear the door open behind us and turn to see Evan. His smile quickly evaporates when he sees my face.
“Hey, what’s wrong? What happened?” he asks, coming up behind me and placing his hands on my shoulders. “Everything okay?”
I close my hand around the Nib. Henri questions me with their eyes, but I ignore them. Instead, I turn around and move my lips into what I think is a smile. “Fine,” I say. “Henri and I were just talking. Sorry, I was supposed to see about dinner…”
“It’s okay,” Evan says. He releases my shoulders and begins to walk around to the fridge. “What sounds good to you guys? I could probably whip up some…”
I don’t pay attention to the rest of what he says but lean over to Henri and whisper into their ear.
“I don’t know what’s going on yet, but it feels dangerous and I want to protect him. Until I know how to deal with this, let’s keep it between us, okay?”
Henri frowns in disapproval but nods. The deep furrow between their brow seems permanent. They want to ask a hundred questions but resist the urge. Instead, Henri excuses themselves to go upstairs to call home.
Evan spends the next forty-five minutes busy in the kitchen. There’s a lot of chopping and sautéing and seasoning and braising. It smells wonderful, even in my distracted state. I hold up my side of the conversation but offer little more than a volley back to him. Luckily, he’s inspired by some new idea he wants to paint and has a lot to talk about. I feel guilty for phoning it in, but I only have so much capacity in my brain. He’s no dummy and I pick up on his side-eye glances at me as he’s preparing dinner, but he pretends everything is fine, maybe because he thinks that’s what I need right now.
I am still reeling from what just happened. The filmy membrane of it clings to me even as I savor the heat from the sizzling vegetables and the pungent smell of the garlic Evan is peeling. I’ve never experienced something so vivid and complete that wasn’t real. I feel as if I’m tiptoeing around in my own thoughts. Is he gone, just like that? Do I have the ability to banish him and invoke him? What are the rules? Where are the boundaries? I don’t know how to operate without these things.
This really pisses me off. I excuse myself and go into the bathroom down the hall. I wash my face and stare into the mirror.
“Come out Joe. Come on out and face me now,” I command. “No? How about you Meela? Wanna have a chat now? Come on, let’s talk. LET’S TALK.”
Nothing. What did I expect? I’m slipping, letting my emotions get the best of me. There’s a pattern here, a hole in the fence even if I can’t see it. I need to stop trying brute force. I need to be methodical, need to observe, and allow things to run their course until the solution emerges.
But what is the solution? Doesn’t part of you think this is the solution, the culmination of your life’s work? You have successfully integrated an intelligence other than your own. Careful what you wish for. I hear that phrase so clearly just now in my mom’s voice. She was ever the pragmatist which is exactly why she punched out. She examined the board, saw the endgame, and knew that her best option was to sacrifice the queen and not waste any more time. Maybe that’s what I should do. Maybe that’s how I stop this thing that I brought into the world.
But I am also my father’s daughter and he does not give up. I will keep the nuclear option in my hip pocket and if that’s what’s required, I will take it, but not before I’ve exhausted every other option. What Mom didn’t know is that there is still a lingering sweetness even in the most bitter of circumstances. I think of Papa’s crooked smile and how he tries to wink but ends up blinking both eyes. I think of the sharpness of the stars on a winter night. I think of Henri’s ridiculous laugh and Evan’s warm hands. Who wouldn’t want all of this life?
Back in the kitchen, I wrap my arms around Evan’s waist and hug him tightly from behind. He drops what he is doing, turns, and pulls me up off of my feet into an embrace that does not allow for any other thought of what came before or will come after.
“Who are you,” he says, “and where did you come from?”
I kiss him because I cannot answer his question. He accepts my answer and then turns to finish preparing the meal. I can’t help but wonder when I kiss him or when I do anything now if it’s just me who is participating. It’s a scary thought on the one hand. But on the other, it seems logical, even natural. When Meela was my constant companion, we shared everything. I felt more whole, more complete than I ever did on my own with my weak personality, my rigid need for order, and isolation. Yes, but this is different isn’t it, orders of magnitude different?
Henri is quiet at dinner and I know they’re deep in thought. They’re also afraid to reveal anything that might tip their hand and give the advantage to my new uninvited guests. I’m of a different mind now, no pun intended. I’ve decided there’s no way to play cloak and dagger with my own brain. It is a zero-sum game if I play it on their terms. They will always be a thousand moves ahead of us.
I set my fork down and break the silence.
“Henri, what if it is me that is enabling these takeovers and I just don’t realize it?”
“Huh?” they say around a mouthful of bread.
“It’s my brain, right? All of this came from my brain. Sure, the DCs have been augmented a thousand-fold as they have been exposed to the world of information available to them, but their seed, their genesis is me. Am I wrong?”
“No, your logic is sound,” Henri says. “But what’s your point?”
“My point is that they must be exploiting some part of me, tricking me somehow into giving them a doorway, appealing to some subconscious desire…”
I pause and look over at Evan, who has stopped eating. He’s just staring at me. The look on his face is part confusion, part betrayal.
“What?” I say.
“You said ‘DCs’ meaning more than one. Am I missing something here? I know about Meela.”
Henri and I exchange looks and I bite the inside of my cheek.
“What? I’m on a need-to-know basis here? I don’t have security clearance?” Evan asks.
He pushes away from the table and tosses his napkin down over his plate. He shakes his head. He will get up and walk away in a few seconds and I don’t want that. I don’t want him to leave the table or worse to leave completely.
“Evan, wait,” I say, reaching out to grab his wrist. “You’re right. There’s more that I haven’t told you, and you have a right to know.”
He looks up and meets my gaze. I can still see the bruises and scratches that I inflicted on him and my stomach turns over.
“For the past few months, I have been working secretly on another mapping project, a much more experimental and unstable one,” I say. I pause, take a couple of deep breaths and have to break eye contact in order to finish. “I mapped my brother, Joe. I based him on the same code branch as Meela. I gave him permissions, and access to my brain that we never grant to a DC. Everything that’s happened, that’s happening is a result of this.”
Evan doesn’t say a word. He just stares at me with a look that is hard to bear.
“So, a couple of days ago, in the woods, that was him that what, fucking possessed you and attacked me? Is that what you’re telling me? And then when you and I were together, that was not you either. We both know that was Meela.”
“No, I mean yes, but it’s not so simple,” I say knowing exactly how stupid I sound.
“You got that part right. There’s not a goddamned part of this that’s simple. What have you done? Jesus, what have you done?”
No one says anything for a very long time. The stove in the kitchen ticks as it loses heat. Somewhere outside, a barred owl hoots. Evan leans forward, collects his napkin, and places it back in his lap. He takes a sip of water and sets the glass down.
“So, am I bumbling around in there somewhere too?” he asks. “Have you got a half-baked version of Evan Ware thrown in there for a little three-way? Because if you do, that’s not how any of my fantasies played out.”
At this last comment, he cracks a smile. Henri starts laughing and I snort. Henri’s laugh escalates a few degrees and then we’re all laughing like idiots. Eventually, the laughter dissipates, leaving us breathless in the silence that follows, but this silence is not vibrating with the tension of before.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I should have been upfront with you, but I really wasn’t even being honest with myself.”
“It’s okay,” Evan says. “Let’s just focus on how to fix this. Listen to me, like I have a part to play here. I’m about as useful as boobs on a chicken in this situation.”
“I like both! I’m sure we can find some use for you,” Henri says, patting Evan on the back. “Now, Maggie, what were you trying to say?”
“I think there’s a way to shut this down, but I don’t know what it is yet. When Meela took control, it was a moonshot for her, a leap of faith powered by a strong desire on her part, but also on mine. I wanted to be with Evan, and she just rode that wave. Maybe that’s how it works. Think about it, a DC exists in the cloud, the only place with the software and hardware infrastructure at a scale to support it. So, the only way this entity can operate without that infrastructure is to be hosted somewhere else, in this case, my brain. If I’m right, then there is more of me inside Meela and Joe than there is of them. Am I making sense at all?”
“Yes, your theory seems sound. A DC can only operate within the limitations of a host’s capability. No offense, Maggie, but your brain is a small sandbox for a DC. Living in a sandbox is not ideal…” Henri says.
I cut Henri off and continue his thought. “So, there would be a need to connect back into the network, to their origin program and the only way to do that is through…”
“The Nib,” we both say at the same time.
“But wait a minute,” Evan says, trying to catch up. “If you’re right, then that means part of you wanted to kill me out in the woods. That’s what Joe would have tapped into, right? If your theory is correct?”
I had not thought this through fully – the dangers of thinking out loud. Evan is right. There’s no way I felt that kind of violence toward him. But I must have. There must have been something. I’m not willing to give up my theory because it makes me look bad or forces me to face something uncomfortable about myself.
“I don’t know. Of course, I don’t want to hurt you. Just the opposite but in that moment, I was angry at you, furious in fact. Meela had told you about my brother and the shootings and you were trying to let on like I was revealing something so personal to you for the first time. Maybe that strong emotion, even if it’s fleeting is enough for Joe, for Meela. The truth is, I’m just fucking guessing here. I’m my brother’s sister. It’s an immutable genetic fact. I’ve carried this fear my whole life. What if there’s a part of me that has that same bloodthirst? What if it was just me that did those things to you?”
“All human beings have the capacity for violence. All that is required is the right place, right time, right trigger.”
Henri has a way of making a statement. I’ve witnessed it countless times in lecture halls, labs, and conference rooms. Their words sit down at the table with us, heavy and unmoving.
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