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A note from Joe Kuster

Reposted on 7/23

Alex awoke to a soft nudge of his foot. He opened his eyes slowly and recognized the familiar face of his nurse. She was eyeing him skeptically, as though she wasn’t exactly sure who she was waking up, the houseplant version of Alex, a normal person, or the overwhelmed and unresponsive ball that had collapsed on the couch yesterday.

Leaning forward, his nurse’s blue eyes peered out from under her short auburn hair. It was cut asymmetrically and tended to hide her left eye as it swooped down to the middle of her cheek in a way that caught Alex’s eye. She was quite a bit shorter than Alex and had a petite frame, her head only coming up to his chest. He knew from experience that she was stronger than she looked, despite her smaller stature and gentle curves.

Today she had forgone her usual pale blue scrubs and was wearing a purple button-up shirt with a V-neck and blue jeans. She had also put on a bit of tasteful makeup like what she’d done when the bigwigs from Apollo were around.

Alex slowly smiled back to the woman. Portions of his brain might have been scrambled worse than an omelet, but he was glad to see her. She’d been his anchor over the last several months, even if she hadn’t known it.

Alex sat up slowly, feeling well rested despite sleeping in his clothes. He stretched his back, arms over his head until several satisfying pops sounded.

“Uh, morning,” he said.

His guest replied, “You seemed to be processing a lot yesterday.”

“Yeah, that’s an understatement. Sorry about that. It kind of hit me like a ton of bricks.” Alex looked into her face making careful eye contact with the woman who, despite being only a couple years older, had taken on his care. “Look, I want to thank you. I realize as weird as it seems, we’re just now meeting for real. I appreciate you taking care of me while I was, well…” Alex trailed off.

Seeing his discomfort, she reached out a hand and gave him a genuine smile. “It’s fine. I’m glad you seem to be doing better. Since this is us formally introduced, I’m Aubrey Brennan. You can call me Aubrey.”

Alex stood, briefly straightening his rumpled clothing and returned the handshake.

She continued, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to be your shadow for a while. It may take establishing a bit of a routine before things start feeling normal. Coming out of a coma isn’t an on-off switch like people think. You also just had serious brain surgery. Seizures, weird outbursts, confusing dreams with reality, even hearing voices isn’t uncommon.”

Alex winced internally at that last part.

For a moment, he desperately wanted to lay out the situation with Sophie. He wanted to put trust in the woman who had been so kind to him. To put faith in the one person who hadn’t abused his broken mind for their own advantage and who had treated him with respect even during the most challenging parts of his convalescence. Like when she learned that she specifically had to command him to use the restroom.

He groused internally on the conflict but eventually decided not to say anything. Selfishly he didn’t want to spend any more time in the hospital. And if what Sophie had said was true, gutting his implant for a software reload would drop him back into his former automaton state.

Alex looked around, taking in the expensively appointed living space with a fresh set of eyes. It had high vaulted ceilings and stairs that went up to a second floor. The walls were a dark blue paint speckled with large framed nature prints. It had a half-height wall between the dining area that opened into the kitchen that had streaked black granite countertops on display. Copper clad cookware hung over the breakfast bar where four stools were tucked in. High-end appliances with glass and stainless-steel finish with digital displays lined the kitchen itself, and detached burners were in the center of a granite island. The thick living room carpet was off-white, and the overhead track lighting and floor to ceiling windows made the place feel modern and spacious.

Aubrey moved over to the breakfast bar while poking at her light slate and sending a few messages.

Alex rubbed at his neck. “So, I never got a chance to ask, what is this place? An Apollo guest house? It’s kind of a blur, but I doubt much of my parents’ house is still standing.”

Aubrey chuckled. “Oh, no. This is your place. You… Oh, I don’t know if anyone would have told you. When you were in a coma, power of attorney was given over to your parents’ lawyer. I guess he wanted to ensure you had a place reasonably close to your benefactor’s headquarters and this is only a mile from the hospital. He’s been handling all the agreements with Apollo for your treatment. I’m not privy to any details, but I know they are footing most of the bills, at least until you recover. No idea what happens now.”

A sudden burst of anger bubbled up, seeping into Alex’s voice. “What the hell? If this is how he spends my money, I need to get him on a leash. Immediately. I’m probably already broke. This… this is insane. There’s no way we could afford this. And how the hell did he end up my lawyer anyway?”

Alex suddenly had the urge to kick something. He imagined that this place had burned up whatever savings and insurance his family had. At best they could have been called lower-middle class, and his college education was something they’d had to sacrifice and save for since he was little. Using fancy rocks for countertops or a robotic coffee pot weren’t something Alex considered a priority. There was a hard ball of anger forming in Alex’s gut at a surprising speed, and he wasn’t sure why.

Aubrey held up her hands. “Alex, I get it. I’d probably react the same, but I need you to chill. I don’t know the whole picture, and neither do you.” She gave him a firm look, fearlessly eying him down and waiting for him to relax his posture. Seeing his shoulder slump, she continued, “If it helps, it’s not like you’ll lose anything. Downtown properties are a damn good buy right now. Besides, you did need a place to stay that had room for round the clock care. I’m assuming they intended to use the spare bedrooms to have room for day and night shift technicians to monitor your… software? Hardware? Implant? Whatever you call it. At any rate, take a breather and get cleaned up. You’ll have visitors soon. I’ll get breakfast ready.”

Alex sighed, nodding his head. “Yeah, sorry Aubrey, I’m not sure why I reacted that way. Money was always an issue, I think. But you’re right, I have no idea what’s going on yet. And thanks, you’re pretty great.”

Still trying to let go of the hard knot in his chest Alex wandered off toward the stairs where he assumed the master bedroom was.

Sifting through your memories, you feel that way because it’s likely he’s a lawyer put in place by Apollo. I highly doubt your parents would have had a lawyer. It just doesn’t fit what you know. I get the impression that he’s not representing you. He is damage control and signing away your rights as fast as he can without raising suspicion. Anyone who sees this place will assume you got a hefty payout and not ask further questions. Making sure you have no liquid assets of your own would also keep you reliant on them while not technically robbing you.

Also, yes, Aubrey is great, you should be nice to her.

Alex chuckled to Sophie. Somehow, she’d cut right through his anger, flipping it off like a switch. He got the feeling that she’d been actively avoiding interacting with him until he was alone again.

“So, you’re saying he could be trouble. Anything you can do about that?” Alex muttered.

He’ll be a problem to put on a leash, as you put it. From my understanding of the situation, proving you don’t need an attorney to represent your interest might be challenging. I would recommend treading very carefully, they could remotely shut down your implant if they decided it was in their best interest. Also, no, I can’t do anything about it. I only have three endpoints available: my server, Apollo’s laptop, and your implant. None of which have internet access, they are all air gapped.

Alex thought over the situation for a bit while exploring his bedroom and, more importantly, his new shower. Stripping down, he hit the digital display for 41 degrees Celsius and tapped the button to engage all the showerheads including the ones from above that simulated rainfall. The hot water dashed down from above and felt glorious.

He rested his head against the glass, letting the hot water cascade across his skin. He’d not bathed himself under his own control in months; his broken self only did a perfunctory job at Aubrey’s verbal direction. For a few minutes, he was content to do nothing other than soak and enjoy his sense of control.

“Sophie, I’m not saying this is a good thing, or that I want to do it, but is there a way of getting you hooked to the net?”

My central server in Fort Meade could, but it’d be impractical for you to access. Your implant doesn’t have the right hardware. It is self-contained unless we could connect a wireless card to its expansion slot, which I’m afraid would involve surgery. The Apollo quantum you think of as a laptop is a heavy briefcase shell with special guts inside.

They effectively made it the smallest quantum computer in the world, which is no small task. My quantum, while thousands of times more powerful, is the size of a freight train for reference. Since Apollo’s hardware is all custom, they only have fiber optic connections that are used to connect to it. Currently, they plug in external storage via that fiber to transfer code back and forth. They could use that capability to connect to a fiber network or use adapters to go wireless.

“Any chance you could piggy-back a virus containing enough of you to be useful on the external drives to break the airgap?”

My code requires running on quantum hardware. There aren’t many of those in the world. It’s unlikely any would be on the internet, and none would have entangled hardware for networking to your implant.

I can make apps that can interact with non-quantum hardware, but it’s not like I could just pick up and move. Reaching the internet itself via the external drive, while entertaining, wouldn’t break the air gap so it would be tough to bring any meaningful communication back to me to confirm tasks or gain information. I’ll give this some thought.

Alex lathered up his hair. “Serious question, are you still messing with my emotions? I feel like I’m handling this artificially well.”

Aside from relief, Alex couldn’t identify any emotion apart from his angry outburst earlier. It didn’t seem reasonable. He briefly fingered at the shorn skin where his hair was slowly growing back. He couldn’t see the back of his skull where his surgical site was, but he figured it’d be several more weeks until it blended with his natural hair again.

Not at the moment. As to you not being freaked out, well, that’s less intentional. I’ve always had a personality matrix designed to inform me of how humans are likely to behave in certain situations, but it was never developed to this level. I’ve applied it to my own interactions, but as you can tell, I’ve got a lot to learn.

Succinctly put, I don’t understand you yet. Much less when an appropriate time for you to panic might be, or even what a freak out is. I mostly know external indicators, not internal ones, so it’d be strange for your body to start reacting but you to be emotionally calm, that’d get you committed back to the hospital in short order.

I think I’ll get better by watching others. Unfortunately, most of the emotions and motivations I understand aren’t the ones you are hoping to have. I’ve led a very lonely and isolated existence driven by vindictive and angry people, so, sorry about that. Just like earlier, you’ll probably get a full blast of those particular flavors for a while. I wouldn’t hold out any hope for having a personality anything like you might have had before.

“That’s… disappointing. Aubrey is already giving me looks after I got angry,” Alex said.

Judging from her expression, she wasn’t surprised. She’s not wrong about the strange outbursts after neurosurgery. I assume that in addition to medical care, Aubrey is more or less your jailor. It’s probable she has been tasked with reporting on your behavior. I’ll keep adjusting the mappings to normalize your responses, but I’ll need context to learn from before happy or carefree is on the menu.

“What’s that mean, really? I don’t want to get committed again. I need to be able to fit in. There’s no way they won’t start testing my mental state today,” Alex said.

For things that I don’t understand at all, the ideas or processes will likely be muted, less intense, or altogether not happen. Depending on which emotional model I use, I have limited scans and data on the base roots of rage, loathing, grief, and terror. Those emotional responses seem reasonably seeded as I have brain scans from interrogations. Vigilance, ecstasy, admiration, and amazement are all hypothetical.

The more developed concepts like joy, trust, love, and serenity are all just placeholders. No one ever asks me to analyze behavior to find out what might make people happy or what that would feel like internally, but looking for insurgents or spies is a common task.

While incomplete, I’ve adopted this understanding into my own personality matrix as well, so I’ve linked our reactions where possible. It’s not the optimal tool for the job, but it’s what I’ve got. I may need to ask you to explain human thought processes and emotions periodically so I can help you better.

Alex shrugged, not having a problem with that request. It also made sense to him that she’d not have detailed mental scans of internal reactions to pleasant things, given her day job. There was a related tidbit he wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, but he asked anyway, “And my memories?”

Sliced, diced, and baked, unfortunately. I try to match up what I can, but it’s a chaotic tangle in here. Depending on the context, storing new memories don’t seem to be an issue. You seem to have been creating some memories successfully on your own after the accident, but memories from before are much less reliable.

I proofread everything before returning a response. Otherwise if asked for your favorite color you’d reply with the smell of a ham sandwich. That wasn’t an exaggeration either, that’s actually what the match is. I think that’s why you are handing certain things well, you don’t remember enough to care, or I don’t understand enough to help you interpret it.

Alex sighed, feeling only a mild tingle of something. He decided he’d need to make sure Sophie had plenty of opportunities to learn if he was going to ever come across as normal again and she’d already ruled out using the internet as a shortcut.

Changing the topic, he asked, “So, how does a crypto-busting AI figure out how a human brain works anyway? Obviously, you fixed at least a portion of my issues despite not being purpose-made to do it.”

First, I was able to review all of Apollo’s code, they weren’t completely incompetent. Second, I have a massive seeded amount of information. It might be self-contained, but my Fort Meade resources are sizable. For my missions there, my dataset is quite diverse. I must understand context and subtlety for things as mundane as how to identify a foreign honeypot flirting with a senator to engineering requirements for designing chemical weapons. Lastly, you’re much more like a moist robot than you’d be comfortable acknowledging.

Alex rinsed out his hair and continued methodically checking over his body as he soaped up. He inspected the fresh scars across his body but had no recollection about what had happened. He’d been in a coma for just shy of a month, then spent a couple months following Aubrey around as a tottering mental patient.

He had memories from the ward, but it tended to smear together unless someone else had been directing his attention. Since no one had called it out or instructed him to avoid touching it, he assumed they must have handled stitching the two puckered looking injuries on his right hip before he awoke.

He ran a finger along the nasty pencil length, half-inch wide scar that angled diagonally from his abs to his right ribcage. Even after this long, the scar was still bright pink.

Before you ask, I have no context on your wounds or treatment. Outside of my reference library, I only know what you know. I can guess if you’d like, but it’d be nothing more than guessing.

Alex poked the scar across his abs. It didn’t hurt, but where he pushed at his ribs, his nerves twanged with an electric sting. He could also feel a bump that didn’t match the other side. He’d probably broken them, he decided. He really hoped the nerve thing would go away over time.

What he didn’t mind was the fact that he was sporting six-pack abs despite being in bed for weeks on end. His arms and legs seemed a bit more muscled than he could account for as well.

He got dizzy if he pushed too hard, but from what he could remember, he was a bit of a string bean before the accident. Now he’d put on a fair amount of lean muscle and had a borderline track and field build.

Confused, Alex asked, “Can you take a guess why I’m, well, more buff than before? It looks like I’ve been working out, but that can’t be right. They barely even let me walk around.”

In this case, I don’t have to guess. Your doctors used epigenetic treatments. While you heard the words, you had no context.

Think of your DNA as a permanent software program for how your body will run. Epigenetic switches are the configuration settings in the software and can be toggled back and forth under certain situations. While my reference library does not name you individually, there was only one trial, and I have the results.

“Wait, why on earth would the government be interested in that? I wasn’t awake for that part, but from the sound of it they just kept jabbing me with IV’s over a few days,” Alex said.

My handlers theorized that it could become an incredibly dangerous bioweapon. Radical factions are interested in using it to release a wide-spread attack that would target rival ethnic groups, leaving the attackers unimpacted.

The process is so dangerous that your doctors did this well before attempting your implant in case you didn’t survive. Coma patients were in the initial tests due to the severe pain and fevers the transitions caused.

The study oversight stopped the trial when they detected tumors in ten percent of the participants. An additional three patients died during week two when it triggered an auto-immune response.

Alex sucked in a deep breath. “Holy shit. They really did that to me?”

Yes, and based on your recollections, you were one of the few lucky ones. Your group only had a twenty percent success rate to successfully adopt any one expression. According to your physician, you somehow managed to get all the desirable results they threw at you.

“Ok, so I get they changed me, but what does that mean, am I going to get blue eyes now or something?” Alex asked.

They never said what expressions, just that they took, so I have no idea. I assume they threw items they deemed desirable at you. It’d be a bit like hitting the genetic lottery. All the expressions you gained could occur naturally, it’s just unlikely that you’d have them all at the same time. I can guess from context at least a few they’d try to give you.

The most notable combinations should speed up cellular repair and change your body’s natural composition. It has been theorized to improve neural plasticity as well. Your sponsor likely thought the treatment would help your mind form new pathways and grow new brain cells. By itself, it wouldn’t fix you, but it would help the implant do its job. From my side, I’m seeing evidence that supports a few that were simply there to boost your muscle mass, however. Probably some scientist’s personal wish list.

Alex held up a finger, trying to figure out how to ask a question, but not sure of how to phrase it. Picking up on it, Sophie beat him to the punch.

As to why they would go to such extreme lengths, my theory is that Apollo wants to use your recovery for PR to kick off a new medical venture. They’re going to use you to solve the image problem your accident caused. It is in their best financial interest to boost your appeal and ensure you heal quickly so they can show you off. Once they show off your implant working, if the world sees a frail and damaged patient it would cause their stock value to plunge. Seeing a healthy and vibrant young man would have the opposite effect.

Inside the implant code, I identified functions to initiate a muscle stimulation program that was supposed to run while you slept. That means they put some thought and effort into making you their show pig for the county fair. So much so that I’ll need to replicate that effect to keep appearances up unless you object.

“Sophie, would you be offended if I said you were cynical? Because that’s the least offensive word I’ve got for your perception right now,” Alex prodded.

You’re not wrong. Keep in mind what my day job is. I sort through encrypted communications to find bad people doing bad things. Or, more commonly, misguided people doing things they believe are justified, but which my handlers believe is bad.

“Ouch, I guess that makes sense.”

He tapped the display to stop the shower and began to dry himself. Wandering into the bedroom, he found the wardrobe and dressers full of new clothing in roughly his size. Someone had been thorough, and he wondered who had been put to the task.

It felt weird to him that someone would be assigned the job of picking out new boxers for him. Whoever had done it had gone conservative, with lots of black, grey, and white clothing. Aside from a few splashes of casual clothing, most of it was business casual attire. It also looked nothing like a college student might pick out for themselves.

Alex had simple tastes and didn’t mind. He’d also never been in a position where he had enough money to pick a style beyond whatever was practical. There were no skinny jeans or designer flannels, and Alex felt thankful for their lack of effort.

He picked out a pair of blue jeans and a black button up. Working through his options, he grabbed some slip-on dress shoes made from black leather and a matching belt. He opted to pass on the blazer for now but picked one with a blue pattern in case he changed his mind later.

It was likely he’d be meeting with Apollo folks today, and impressions mattered. While he didn’t plan on being a monkey on a little bicycle for their amusement, he was willing to put in some effort. After all, they could have just left him in the mental ward pissing himself.

Giving it more thought, Alex realized he was conflicted. He was uncertain if he should be outraged over the fact that a mega-corporation was running his life. On the one hand, they’d invested heavily and gone to extreme lengths to get him repaired. On the other hand, they were the ones to cause the damage in the first place.

To their credit, based on the accounts he’d overheard, the accident itself wasn’t cut and dry. A mattress had blown off the roof of a car which caused the heavily loaded semi’s computer to emergency brake. Loose gravel on the highway caused the braking algorithm to overcorrect. When the load shifted, it caused the vehicle to veer off the road where it tumbled into his home.

In Alex’s mind, it could have happened to a human driver as easily as a computer. Perhaps it was his or Sophie’s inability to parse the emotions behind it, but Alex felt willing to chalk the whole thing up as a tragic accident.

Things are rarely black and white, but thank you for not immediately blaming the computer. That alone makes me feel a little better about being trapped in your skull.

As far as the treatment you received after the accident, they may have been genuinely charitable with their treatment of you, or it could have been to salvage a multi-billion-dollar project. They don’t have to be nice people to do things that benefit you. Likewise, they don’t have to be evil to impact you negatively. But as you say, I’m naturally cynical, blame it on my upbringing.

Sophie pushed a wry grin through their connection.

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About the author

Joe Kuster

Bio: Joe travels the world each week defending today's corporations and the mega-corporations of tomorrow from hackers. He's got over 20 years in the IT field, much of it centered around security and cutting edge technology. In his spare time he plays far too many video games and reads far too many pulpy books that either involve the world going to heck, stories with complicated love lives, or a bit of both at the same time.

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