The Memory of My Shadow #18
Chapters 34 & 35
The “thingy” Henri referred to in his note was our nickname for the first viable prototype for the device that would become the Nib. The name stuck because, in early testing trials when all of our spirits were high, Henri would talk with great reverence and enthusiasm about the thingy. “Hand me the thingy, did you try with the thingy, we can’t talk about the thingy in public yet.”
The name persisted and we all called it a thingy even long after the slick marketing name replaced it. The original thingy is kept on display as a conversation piece for visitors in a glass case at Commune’s headquarters in Atlanta. Now, I don’t know that I have a choice but to go and try to get it. But why? Why did they zero in on this old device? Why the fuck could Meela not use any of the fourteen other models I have stashed around the house? Better yet, why can’t she just jack into me directly like before? It’s pointless to ask questions that cannot be answered without more information. To get more information, I need Meela, and to get Meela, I need the thingy. I can’t help but smile every time I say the word in my head as Henri did: tingy. But that is just another one of Henri’s gifts. They were always the clown.
As I am gathering myself to make this unexpected trip, the practical voice in my head reminds me that a man is dead. That is real and must be dealt with. There will be questions. There will be consequences. I weigh my options, which are few and I decide that the greater risk, the endangerment of so many other souls is worth more than my puny life or my professional reputation. But still, there is a body to consider. The body of someone I love.
I pack all the ice I have in my freezer and ice machine into the tub of the closest downstairs bathroom and then drag Henri’s body in. I leave them wrapped in the sheet as if that will somehow help me forget what I’m doing to my dear friend. I think about Shareen, Henri’s partner. She will be devastated, and I will have to tell her what happened. I can’t think about that right now. I cover the body with more ice and crank down the air conditioning as low as it will go.
It’s useless to lock the house or to try to engage the security system now that there’s a gaping hole in my living room. Also, it’s not worth the risk of potentially engaging Joe. I realize he can watch from the security cameras. If he has been watching me, all he can see is the activity of someone grieving and half-mad. I expect he has a plan for me, but that plan requires me to play into it. He will expect me to log in and launch a full, frontal attack. After all, he knows my rage well. It runs in the family. Leaving is something he won’t expect.
In the driveway, I see that Evan took the rental, which I should have expected. He doesn’t know how to drive. I’m in no shape to go manual, but I don’t have a fucking choice. I throw my bag with my laptop into the front seat. I crank the engine, and before pulling out, I tick through a mental checklist. I can’t afford any mistakes at this point.
Fuck. How am I going to get into Commune without an ID? God damn it. How am I going to get past the biometric scan? Henri. No, no, no. You’re not going to do that. I hear Henri’s voice in my head very clearly. It’s just hardware, Maggie. Don’t be a baby.
The wave of despair looms over me so large that I will disappear in its swell long before I’m crushed by its weight. I ache for my friend. I can’t navigate the world without them. I can’t do it. I’m not strong enough to beat this. Joe will kill more people and this time, I’m the one who gave him a gun. I’m so distraught that I don’t see the headlights coming up the drive until the vehicle is right behind me, the lights filling the cabin of the old Landcruiser.
I panic and fumble frantically, torn in two directions. The result is a simple meltdown of me beating my fists on the steering wheel. I hear a single car door slam and steps in the pea gravel approaching my side of the car. The knock on the window, even though it’s expected, makes me jump. I turn to face the jury of whoever this person is, realizing I have no idea how to plead.
“Maggie, I’m not leaving you,” he says, loud enough so I can hear through the glass. “You can’t do this alone.”
I open the car door and mostly fall out of the front seat into his arms. For the first time in my life, I allow myself to surrender, to fall apart. He just holds me as I sob and says nothing. Eventually, the pain in my chest begins to ease and I’m able to speak.
“Evan, I need you to do something for me. It’s horrible, but we have no choice and I can’t… I can’t do it. I can’t do it myself.”
“It’s okay,” he says. “Tell me.”
I have to say the words several times in my head before I have the courage to put them in my mouth.
“I need you to cut off Henri’s index finger and I need you to get their ID badge from their things upstairs.”
“I know, I know. It’s awful and if there was any other way…”
“What the fuck are you planning here?”
“I’ll explain it all to you on the way, but there’s no time right now. You have to trust me. I know it’s a horrible thing to ask, but lives depend on this. I promise. Where I need to go, it’s the only way I can get in.”
Evan blows out a long sigh and pushes his hands through his hair. “Okay,” he says, and just like that, he turns and heads into the house. At this moment, I appreciate his darkness, the morbid, obsessive part of him that can lean unflinchingly into the task in front of him.
I transfer my backpack into his rental car and get into the front seat. I program in directions to Commune headquarters in Atlanta and I wait, trying not to think about what Evan is doing. After ten minutes he returns with a small Tupperware container and a keycard.
“Alright, let’s go before I get sick again,” he says, getting into the passenger side and slamming the door.
For the first fifteen minutes of the drive as the car navigated us through the many switchbacks out of the mountains, neither of us spoke. We just watched the road disappear. Eventually, I broke the silence and began to calmly explain everything that had transpired. I teared up when I told him the way Henri died and Evan began to cry too. I told him everything I knew and more importantly, everything I didn’t know. I told him I had no plan but to get to the device to try to make contact with Meela.
We are two hours into the four-hour journey and have each been deep in our own thoughts for some time when Evan breaks the silence.
“Can they hear us right now? I mean, can they hear us talking? Can they read your thoughts?”
“No, I don’t think so but I can’t back that opinion up with any actual evidence. It’s just a feeling.”
“Well, that just doesn’t make any damned sense to me. Why all those times before and not now?”
“Exactly,” I say. “It makes no sense because we’re in uncharted territory where all the rules we take for granted no longer apply.”
“I can’t accept that. Can’t even wrap my fucking head around it.”
“No, me neither, but I have to begin to try. It’s the only way to get through this. We have to make some baseline assumptions and learn from them. I can tell you my working theory.”
“Okay,” he says, turning in his seat to face me. “Shoot.”
“I think what both DCs, Meela and Joe were doing was a bit like a… like a moon shot, meaning they were able to send a projection of themselves but not their complete consciousness if that makes sense.”
Evan just stares back at me blankly.
“Think of it like a pre-recorded message you put into a pod and sent out into space except this technology is more complex than just a one-way message. They found a way to compress the core functionality of the DC program or what we call the kernel into a lightweight abbreviated version. I think it’s the base persona with one very specific directive and the rudimentary functions to execute that directive.”
“So what you’re saying is that this light version of them can operate essentially the same way but with a radically narrower scope?”
“Exactly,” I say, relieved that he’s not a complete idiot, which would make him so much harder to love.
“That seems crazy though. I mean the conversation you had with Joe last night in the woods, at least the way you described it seems impossible. You had this highly specific, emotional exchange about the most traumatic event of your life.”
“I know but I did say it’s just a theory. It was a focused conversation intended to do one specific thing,” I say.
“And that was to help you what, get closure on your trauma from the shooting?”
“Yes, it was very tidy and efficient. As complex as it seems, the A.I. could easily have predicted my likely responses in this type of conversation and prepared for them. Tapping directly into my brain, there’s potentially no limit to the level of nuance the program can interpret and use. As smart as we think we are, humans tend not to question information when it aligns with our understanding of things and it’s what we want to hear.”
“It must have limits though, right?” Evan says. “Maybe if the scope of the message or topic is limited then the time is limited too. Maybe, once the program or whatever has run, it’s done, it’s used up its available energy?”
“Brilliant, yes. That’s exactly right, or at least that’s what I’m thinking. It’s happened to me enough times now that I know or can sense at some deep level when they are coming through. At first, it was so foreign I had no frame of reference.”
“That makes sense to me. And so, you don’t have that feeling now is what you’re saying?”
“No, I haven’t, and I’ve tried to invoke them both repeatedly for the past couple of hours.”
“I still have one question though,” Evan says. “Why do it at all? Clearly, the horse is out of the barn here and this thing’s not operating by your rules.”
“That’s easy. To distract me. It’s a game of chess.”
“Okay, so why in the hell are you going to plug back in? You saw what he did to Henri.”
“Because I don’t really have any better options at this point. And these were Henri’s last words to me. They suffered a great deal to deliver that message.”
Evan nods but says nothing. He turns and faces forward. We are rolling fast down I-85 and should make it into Atlanta by ten o’clock. I’ve been playing through scenarios for what to do when we get to Commune, and I have the rough outlines of a plan forming. But it could easily fall apart, for any number of reasons. For us to have a shot at retrieving the device without being detected by security, I have some preparations to do.
I pull out my laptop and just as before, use the anonymous backdoor login to access the Commune network. Once inside I poke around until I find the office security platform. From there I can access all the cameras in the building. Before I left four years ago, we were staffing only two security guards at night for the entire building given that the building security is state-of-the-art and requires very little human intervention. One guard manned the front desk in the lobby to vet after-hours guests and the other patrolled the ten floors of the complex just to have a presence and to monitor things.
I can see from the surveillance feed that this still seems to be the setup. I can also see that the guard at the desk is still Willie Freeman and this presents the first problem. He knows me well and knows my face. I’ll need to find a way to get him away from the desk when we enter the lobby, but my first critical task is to hack into the employee database and swap Henri’s credentials for some other employee. It will draw unnecessary attention in the system if Henri is logged as entering the building. I browse quickly through pages of faces. Some I recall, but so many new ones I’ve never met. I filter on just females in middle management positions and find a woman I can pass for in a pinch. I pull out Henri’s key card and transpose the ID number from it into Maria Lopez’s file. I also replace her fingerprint scan with Henri’s.
Evan has been watching me work. Saving my changes, I look up at him. “What?”
“Nothing, I’m just wondering how creepy you feel hacking into your old company and falsifying records. I always figured you for a squeaky-clean, straight shooter.”
“Well, that ship has sailed, hasn’t it? I might go down in history as the woman who introduced a technology that single-handedly destroyed human civilization.”
“That seems a bit dramatic, don’t you think?” he asks.
“I don’t think so. Up until now, there’s been a clear line of demarcation between us and machines. Even with all the power that comes with sentience, machines have been relegated to their respective silicon boxes, tethered to the hardware that we control in the physical world. What I did is effectively built a bridge for them to cross over into carbon-based hosts. You remember the great pandemics where viruses wiped out swaths of the world’s population? Well, those were dumb, single-celled organisms. Make no mistake, it will try to destroy us. Still think I’m being dramatic?”
We ride for the remaining half hour into the city in silence, each looking out our own window watching open fields be replaced by charging stations and automated fast food dispensaries and those by monolithic rows of shopping centers which are replaced by office parks and eventually skyscrapers. I feel somewhat claustrophobic as our little car is tucked in tighter and tighter with the flow of automated cars less than a couple of feet from us in all directions, turning, slowing, and speeding up like a flock of starlings. Evan holds my hand and I’m grateful to not be on this journey alone. I don’t think I could do it.
The rental car navigates to the seventeenth street exit and after a few stoplights, I can see the glowing symbol of the Commune logo hovering above the trees of a small park just off the Georgia Tech campus. My heart beats just a little faster. Something swells up inside me that I recognize as pride but is just as quickly diminished when I’m reminded of Henri. This was something we made together, from nothing but an idea. We had an idea that changed the world. All that work, all that sacrifice at the altar of an idea that was never the cure. I only thought it was. In truth, maybe it was a disease we were growing in our lab.
From my backpack, I pull out a small make-up bag and quickly apply some lipstick and a little eyeliner. I pull my hair back into a bun, doing my best to mimic the picture of Maria Lopez, Senior Manager of Data Insights. I direct the car to park at the far end of the mostly empty lot away from the front entrance but close enough to observe the front desk. Once we park, I pull out my laptop and navigate back into the security system. I set off a door alarm on the fifth-floor East stairwell and also one on the seventh-floor West and we wait.
After a moment, we see Willie get up from behind the desk and shuffle to the elevators.
“Okay, are you ready?” I say.
“Oh, you want me to do this mission-impossible shit with you?”
“I could use your help. I’m improvising now and there will be things I can’t do alone. You must know though, if you come with me now, you’re a part of this. You don’t have to do it.”
Evan looks down and studies his hands for a minute and I’m convinced he’s not going to come. I wouldn’t. Why risk your entire life for some crazy woman? Then, he looks up to meet my eyes.
“I’m already a part of this. Let’s go.”
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