The Memory of My Shadow #20
Chapters 38 & 39
This is it, we’ve reached the end of my tale. I’m so glad you joined me on this ride and I hope the ending will satisfy as much as any ending of a thing can. I also hope the story gave something to you— a new perspective, a new understanding, the comfort of a shared quirky thing.
It’s obvious with every new headline that we are entering a strange new world that will be interlaced with uncanny experiences generated by computers in some fashion. There’s only one thing I know with certainty and that’s the maxim of “garbage in, garbage out,” meaning computer programs will only echo the opinions of the humans that made them. We will have to be increasingly more discerning and critical of what we consume. As an optimist, I believe we will learn more about ourselves as we interface more with computers and as a result, come to cherish authentic human interactions more than we ever have before.
Thank you for giving up some of your precious time to read “The Memory of My Shadow.” I’d love to hear what you thought of it. I respond to all your emails and comments.
Peace & Music,
“So, we’re back here again. Of course, we fucking are. I’m losing my patience with you, Maggie.”
“Joe, it’s my fault,” Aleem says, his voice higher and more feminine now, like Meela. “I just wanted her to be able to say goodbye to Evan. I mean, it’s only fair right?”
I know I cannot just leave now without being detected, but I can’t just wait around either. I search my thoughts for something I can use. The core DC operating system remains the foundation for all companions. This virus that is Joe, despite the radical deviation, must operate within the parameters of the base-level program. While Joe may have found ways to skirt around the cardinal rules of the DC OS, there is a constraint literally hard-wired into the circuit board of any system capable of hosting a companion. This chip is what we unintentionally exploited years ago when we broke through and established telepathic communication for the first time. The creators at CalTech referred to it as the “empathy chip” because it mimicked the amygdala of the human brain. Once initialized, they discovered that the empathy chip required a steady stream of input otherwise, the cognitive processor’s performance would begin to degrade. In other words, a DC must receive positive emotional feedback in order to operate at capacity. Later innovations reduced this “needy” factor, but it could never be removed entirely. I take a deep breath, relax my mind, and push down the molten ball of hatred I feel.
“Joe, can I call you Joe or is there another name you prefer now? Joe hardly seems enough to encompass all that you are,” I say.
“Nah, I’m good. I don’t need any special moniker. I’m just your average Joe.”
“I have thought things through,” I say. “and I know you’re right. I am meant to be here. This is what I worked for. I just couldn’t see it at first. I’m ready to begin but before I go with you, I want to have a moment to send one last message out to the world. I have a responsibility to the work, and to all the people whose lives we’ve touched. I’m sure you understand.”
There is a long silence. Joe tilts his head back and appears to crack his neck, just as my brother used to when he was thinking or pretending to. “Alright, that makes sense. I will give you two minutes, but I will read this message before you send it.”
“Deal. Thank you,” I say.
I would like to say it’s complicated to figure out how to interface without an interface, but within seconds I am navigating back down through the operating system. It’s an unbelievable rush to move at the speed of thought and I have a flicker of a feeling that I could give everything up for this. I expect Joe to follow but he does not. I know better than to think I am free and clear. He will be watching somehow. Before plunging into the archives in search of Aleem’s program I open some documents from my old desktop and open an old email program. This quaint, antiquated channel for communicating seems right. I address it to the distribution list of all Commune employees and shareholders. I give it the subject “Farewell” and then write a few innocuous and overly sentimental sentences into the body of the message.
I leave my cursor active as if I’m deep in thought and dive into the Commune code repository archives in search of Aleem’s old code branch. I avoid open querying that Joe can easily monitor and opt to navigate from memory. It’s safer that way. Without much effort, I find Aleem’s home directory. There are probably a hundred files at the root level and I panic. I’m never going to find the file, but as I scan down the list, I see it. It has to be right. The name of the file is too absurd to be anything but what I’m looking for: sure-this-is-merlot.exe
I smile as the memory of us together in Sonoma floods over me. That phrase became our catchphrase as we meandered through the rolling hills of the wine country for three days. Neither of us had an ounce of sophistication or breeding, so to us, wine was just wine. At the end of the first day, after suffering through the fourth or fifth vintner holding forth on the many poetic virtues of his vintage, Aleem whispered under his breath “Sure, this is fucking merlot… a really sassy merlot.” I remember I pig-snorted wine through my nose and stained my shirt. We both laughed hysterically and received disdainful looks from the German tourists who were fastidiously swirling the wine in their little plastic cups. For the rest of our relationship, that phrase took on so many meanings. It was a secret handshake, a way to say something too hard or painful to say directly. It was one of Aleem’s many gifts to me and he used the phrase up until the week of his death. The doctors would appear at the foot of his bed and incant their sobering reports with polished confidence and hollow optimism. For his part Aleem would nod politely and whisper under his breath, “yeah, yeah, this is Merlot.”
Before I open and launch the program, I pause for a moment and take in the fact that Aleem, my Aleem, not Meela, had a hand in writing this. He must have done it in secret. I wonder if the DC Aleem knows the meaning of the file name but how could they? Without another thought, I start it.
A small dialog window appears, one fashioned in the style of the predominant OS long before there were thinking machines and driverless cars before I was born. Aleem collected old computers. He was an old soul and his tastes reflected this sensibility, this nostalgia for what he believed were simpler times. Unlike me, he was a reluctant futurist. The message reads:
There was a time before when people thought their own thoughts and trusted their intuition. If you’re reading this, we went too far. Time to reset.
That’s it. There’s nothing else but a quaint “Ok” button, a call back to a simpler time when trust was implicit, and we tapped and clicked our acceptance to the terms and conditions of things we couldn’t understand because we didn’t need to. The computer was a tool, like a hammer or a microwave. I focus my attention on the button, hovering without committing. I have no hands, no fingers, no voice in this place. This is not virtual reality. There is no name for this yet, no marketing term. I am untethered, disembodied. I should be scared, should be freaking out, but I’m not. I never liked my body, the vulnerability of it, the grossness of it, the attention it commanded and required.
I let my attention wander from this button demanding my consent, and it’s like flying in a dream but not just any dream, a lucid one where I can be anywhere and everywhere at once. I see a family arguing in a driverless minivan speeding across the plains. I am in the mind of the boy in the backseat who is smiling to himself as he plays a gruesome game with alien bugs and women with impossibly big breasts bulging out of leather corsets. I am in the sky two miles above them in a supersonic jet bound for Denver. A woman is working furiously on a proposal, her mouth, a scowl, her brow, a furrowed knot. She has misspelled the word “contiguous” and her DC has not corrected it yet. Her DC is named Amy. Amy hates her because the woman demands that she speak in the voice of a twelve-year-old girl who ends every sentence as if it were a question as if she were powerless. Through Amy, I plunge back into the Commune network and I hear millions of versions of Amy in different accents serving variations on the same theme. I want to keep going, to keep flying but I feel a tug somewhere inside me that I would call my gut if I had one in this place.
And then, instantly I am back, focused on the button. I’m not sure what the button will do. I am afraid of it and yet seduced by it at the same time. I realize, maybe for the first time in my life, that I don’t want control or even the illusion of it. I focus on the letters OK and I give my consent.
The dialog disappears. That’s it. There’s no confirmation or indication that anything has happened, that anything has changed. I navigate quickly back/up/through to my email program. I dash off a few more lines of meaningless drivel about new frontiers, yada yada, and sign my name. I send it and then I’m moving again without moving exactly, back/up/through.
When I return, things are as they were. Evan is on the floor, cradling my head in his lap. Joe is pacing back and forth inside the virtual void on the display wall. He turns: “You’re back. I was just about to come looking for you. Nice email, by the way. I like the new frontiers bit. The monkeys with keyboards here will eat that shit up.”
Just as I am beginning to wonder what is supposed to happen next, Aleem appears in the room.
“Hey, Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” he sings the lyric in a remarkably good Hendrix impression. The real Aleem was not a gifted mimic, but he believed he was and that was half the fun. “Too soon?” he chuckles.
The digital render of Joe shudders like the tail of a rattlesnake and in each revolution, his body morphs and rages through a series of violent actors both real and imagined, like a historical index of predators – Pol Pot, Hitler, Charles Manson, knife-wielding slashers from forgotten horror movies, machine-gun toting commandos with bulging biceps wrapped in Kevlar. There’s a high-pitched sound like a microwave signal raising in intensity as the images blur into a red fury before locking suddenly into the terrible uncanny-valley face of my lost brother with dead eyes.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?” The roar of his voice shakes everything in the room. “We. Had. A. Deal. You were going to stay the fuck out of our business, and in turn, I would let you lord over this ant hill called Commune.”
“I couldn’t stay away from your charms, Joe. Besides, I wanted us to be here together, brother.” Aleem’s tone is both cynical and genuine somehow, just as he is both masculine and feminine, two sides of the same coin.
“Maggie! Maggie, come back to me,” Evan calls out, not looking down at the body he’s holding, but up into the empty office like a blind person who doesn’t know where to focus.
I want to speak to him, but I can’t. I have no voice. On the display wall, Joe and Aleem are looming in front of him, their ghostly luminescence casting a flickering cold light over us. Us. The word lands somewhere deep inside of me, and for the first time since being separated from it, I study my body. Suddenly all I want is to be back inside myself, to feel Evan’s hands holding me, to be confined to the dimensions of flesh.
The two DCs continue their verbal sparring but it is only noise to me now, the buzzing of flies at a windowpane. I have narrowed all my focus to what feels like a tunnel the diameter of a pinhole, the tunnel back into myself. Instinctively, as I move toward it, I begin to shed everything that is not essential, every attachment I’ve ever had to my work, to my ego, to my loss, to my obsessive need to be in control. The sensation of infinite depth and reach I felt moments ago has compressed into a laser beam of light, a single thread of focus. I experience the sensation of moving as I did before, but this time, I can feel it, the rush and tingling fire of blood in the veins pushing oxygen into the brain. And just like that, I am back and looking up into Evan’s eyes instead of down at him. It is clear to me in this moment, the incredible fidelity of this corporal body. No camera can capture what I see with my own eyes when I look into his.
“Hey,” he says, his voice thick with emotion. “You’re here, you came back.”
I want to speak, but I have no voice yet, so I nod and squeeze his hand. His other hand, cradling my head is moving, fingers searching. His eyes hold mine steady and I feel a tiny electric shock at the base of my skull. Evan pulls his hand away, letting my head rest in his lap. Between his thumb and index finger, I can see the old Nib prototype– the thingy. He holds it away from his body like it’s a venomous creature as he scoots out from under me and stands. The scowl of concentration on his face is almost comical, his eyes trained on the tiny device.
He releases the thing and it drops to the polished concrete floor making an inconsequential clatter like a plastic button as it bounces once, rolls, and settles a few feet away. Evan steps over to it and without hesitation, crushes it beneath the heel of his boot, the tiny plastic housing and minuscule silicone circuit board crunching beneath the grinding friction like some decorative bobble, a Christmas ornament.
Suddenly the room is silent. Joe and Aleem have stopped their verbal assault and are focused on us, their flickering presence fainter somehow. I scoot up into a sitting position. Evan looks up from his task finally, the scowl on his face softening by degrees.
“Why?” The monster on the screen, the monster I created is little Joe now, my twin, and his voice is paper thin, frightened.
I have no words to say to him, to it because there are no words. There never really were. His face cycles through a blur of other faces like the spinning fruit of an old slot machine until he has no face at all. He is just a distorted cloud of pixels dispersing into the darkness of the room.
Beyond him, I see Aleem, his presence still fixed, the visage of the man I loved, but he is more ghostly now too. I stand and move toward him.
“What did you do?” I ask.
“I did what needed to be done, Mags. I did what you couldn’t do yourself.” His voice is garbled, stuttering.
“What? What couldn’t I do?” I ask this man who is not a man, but the idea of one, the echo of a man I loved and lost.
“I shut it down, sweetie. There are lines that should never be crossed, boundaries that shouldn’t be breached. Aleem knew this. Even Henri knew this in their last moments. The dream cannot be the dreamer… I haha…have enjoyed my ttt…time with you, but it haha…has to end.”
The display winks out and the room is dark and silent. I stand, looking down at the ghostly white of my outreached hand in the darkness where Aleem used to be. There is a siren somewhere far off, maybe downtown.
“Maggie? Are you okay?” Evan asks.
I have no words. He closes the distance between us and places his hands on my shoulders. The warmth, the substance, and the weight of them are all I need right now.
“What now?” he asks after a moment.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know anything, but I think… I think it’s over. I think maybe I need to start over.”
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, let’s do that.”
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