Abyss & Apex : Fourth Quarter 2009

Mirror Girl

by Paul Carlson

I loved Montrose Terrace. Skipping down the sidewalk with my best friend Susan, books about to fly from our tote bags. Autumn colors graced the trees, while toy-strewn lawns and the scent of home cooked breakfasts guided us all the way to school. It was, the old timers liked to say, a modern day Mayberry.

First up on Tuesday was People in History, and I already knew who I was going to speak about. All around me, students were getting ready for their own reports. I waited until the teacher was busy, then took a peek. Susan was looking up Martin Luther King, while Jolene had picked a chapter on Homer, from ancient Greece.

When Susan finished giving her report, I raised my hand. Only a few other kids volunteered, but the teacher looked right past me. I glanced up and saw the reason: my left hand and arm were missing.

“Teacher?” No response. “Teacher?” Finally I stood. “Teacher! I have to go see the nurse.”

“It’s not your arm again? Very well, you may be excused. Please be back in time to give your report.”

“Yes, teacher.”

 

#

“Desdemona ‘Desi’ Pringle,” muttered the nurse. We were alone in the school’s tiny clinic. “Eleven years old, excellent fifth grade scores. Complains of missing extremity.”

“Not missing, ma’am,” I corrected. “Invisible.”

“Let’s have a look.” The nurse snapped on gloves and patted my left side. “Raise it.” More poking and squeezing. “It’s there, all right.” She reached my fingers. “Hmm. Left pinky finger seems insubstantial. Better get in the chair.”

I didn’t like the chair, but obeyed. Made of unvarnished wood, it sat, an object of whispered lore, in a corner of the room. Despite its general disuse, no one ever set anything on it.

“All better,” said the nurse.

Startled, I checked. Sure enough, the nurse had cured me. “Thanks.”

When I got back to the class a student was talking about Shakespeare. I perked up when the boy mentioned Othello, and a character named Desdemona. He looked my way, perhaps connecting the names in his mind.

Next it was my turn. Nicola Tesla had come to life in my mind, emerging from the pages as a treasured companion. I wanted this to be the best report I’d ever given.

“Tesla designed the first hydroelectric power system, and saw it installed at Niagara Falls.”

Five minutes later, I finished with, “My friend Thomas moved there last year. My family doesn’t travel much, but I hope we can visit him someday.”

I walked back to my desk, feeling good about the report. Then Jolene gave a report on Homer’s Illiad. A much more detailed report. Egghead! By the time that girl was done I burned with humiliation.

When I got home, a simple question occurred to me. “Mom, I don’t know any other kids named Desdemona. What does it mean?”

Mom didn’t hesitate. “Desdemona is a perfect name for the best student in the whole school. You’re a wonderful little girl, and Desi is a nickname your father always liked.”

“It’s a pretty name.” I accepted her words, and went upstairs to do my chores.

The next day, I realized Mom hadn’t really answered the question. So, I asked the teacher.

The teacher frowned. “It comes from the Greek. Tell you what, I’ll make Shakespeare your English Literature assignment for tomorrow.

“Thanks.” Thinking about Jolene, I studied really hard.

 

#

With every new thing I learned, it seemed more like something strange was going on. Of course I asked for help.

“Mom, would you look at this?” I showed her a library book full of statistics. “It’s for my Economics homework. See here? Elementary schools like mine have nurses all right, everywhere in the country. They buy little things called Band-Aids, but sometimes kids have to go to a hospital.”

“Desdemona Pringle, you let me see that.” Mom snatched the book from my hand. She read that page and got all flustered. Then she ran upstairs, and I heard the attic stairway door slam.

A minute later Mom returned, and gave me back the textbook. “That was outdated information. These days we have better treatments.”

“Okay, Mom.” An awful feeling tore at my heart. Mom’s reaction freaked me out, in a way I’d never experienced. Not only that, the textbook looked strange.

For Shakespeare, asking for ‘a pound of flesh’ was a horrible thing, because he didn’t have a nurse’s chair to fix him. If my books contained other strange things, I’d investigate for sure.

 

#

Each Wednesday our class studied foreign languages. “You said my name is Greek,” I told the teacher. “I’d like to study that language, please.” She agreed, so I went to the school library and checked out a textbook.

First thing when I got home, I ran upstairs to feed my pet turtle Fred. He lay on his usual rock, half out of the limpid water, warming himself under a sunlamp. Food was about the only thing that got him moving.

Mom was in the kitchen, fixing a casserole. I really wanted to help, since it was Dad’s favorite recipe. I planned to make it by myself one day, but Mom’s “no” wasn’t a surprise. In the Pringle household, rain or shine, school work came first.

After dinner I looked at the language textbook. The Internet had a spoken pronunciation guide, so I practiced that for a while. There was enough time left over to read from one more textbook, to prepare for a big Social Studies test.

At breakfast I greeted my parents with ‘kaleemera,’ which is ‘good morning’ in Greek. Then I chatted about the food and weather, also in Greek. What I didn’t say was, I’d been reading about the United Nations. That organization has many translators on its staff, and pays the top ones a lot of money.

Why did the UN need such people, if languages are so easy to learn? I’d triple-checked, making sure the information was current. Adults are supposed to be smarter than kids, but I was afraid Mom would act harsh again. That wasn’t supposed to happen, not ever.

It felt awful, but I kept my worries a secret. That was hard, because sometimes Mom read my mind. The Social Studies textbook disappeared from my room, replaced by a newer version. The new one, I was almost sure, was different. Something about UN translators.

Now I knew something was wrong. I’d be careful, but I wanted to find out the truth.

That textbook did have something funny. The chapter on Television and Culture mentioned a popular old comedy named I Love Lucy. That must’ve been where Dad got my nickname. I probably wasn’t supposed to find out ‘deh-zee’ is a man’s name. Not that anyone seemed to mind.

I decided to make up a language of my own, and call it Pringlish. With all new words, not like Greek or anything. I’d scramble those words to look like random gibberish, so nobody would know I had special ideas.

A week went by, and I felt a lot better. A big part of me nagged, saying secrets are bad, and that I should feel guilty. Instead, my hidden thoughts became a special refuge. New ideas whirled close inside my head, and skipped across braided streams, so Mom couldn’t pry.

 

#

I really got to like the tall mirror on my bedroom closet door. Dad put it up for me. He always worked hard, bringing home a lot of money, so I had plenty of clothes to try on.

That winter I turned twelve, and my parents threw a surprise party. Susan was there, but Jolene came, too. When I complained, Mom told me it was very important to get along with every type of person. When I blew out the birthday candles, I wished about that.

From somewhere far away, or perhaps deep inside, a voice spoke to me. “You will learn, little Desi,” it said. “You’ll grow up strong, and drink in the truth, and take on the world. Doubt everything, question every assumption, but always trust your heart.”

That quiet voice wasn’t new, but I’d hardly thought about it before. Never questioned its existence, and yet, that kind of advice includes its giver. It reminded me of Susan, and the way she talked about guardian angels.

Of all the nonhuman things in the world, I loved my turtle Fred the best. One Saturday, happy with my report card, my parents took me to the Montrose Terrace zoo. The first place we visited was the Turtle House. A place with dozens of turtle and tortoise species from all over the world.

I’d been studying up on zoos, and from obscure facts like the amount of construction materials needed, I realized our local zoo was unusual. My textbooks and Internet searches claimed all zoos are about the same, but ours was at least twice the size of the famous San Diego zoo.

How could such an impressive place end up in our plain little town? Not only that, all the reports and papers the zoo sent out were fakes. The zoo’s director, Dr. Dannerlich, wrote scientific articles that were plagiarized from a bunch of older ones, written in about six languages. Besides, his credentials were fake.

It was subtle, but I’d learned to spot inconsistencies a mile away. If I hadn’t been so mad at Jolene, I might’ve offered this skill to our teacher. I would’ve caught cheaters easily.

As it was, I’m glad I stayed quiet. After I figured out about the zoo, I ran down to the basement, where I kept my secret Pringlish diary. I was so worried I kept my eyes shut tight for what seemed like hours. Finally, I couldn’t hold back my curiosity.

My own writing threw me into a tizzy, worse than the whirling carnival rides that visit our town every summer. One month before, we’d visited the Montrose Terrace art museum, down the road from the zoo. Back then, the museum sat alone, the only structure on the north edge of town. The zoo’s location had been an empty field.

Nobody ever noticed those rapid changes. Not even me!

On Monday I found a book of Sherlock Holmes stories inside my school desk. There wasn’t a name on it, and nobody reported a missing book, so I brought it home. Its stories taught me a lot. I wasn’t going cuckoo. Like the man said, if I ruled out the impossible, then I must accept whatever remains, however improbable.

It was a strain, not being able to trust the adults. None of my friends understood my concerns, either. A big part of me kept saying: play like they play, and talk like they talk. But they never listened to anything I was worried about. Finally, I quit telling them important things.

I searched for the truth. I looked within myself, but mostly at my parents, and the school teacher. I’d pretend to sleep, while thinking hard, late into each night.

 

#

Six months passed. In June the carnival rolled into town, and set up in the grassy square downtown. Its crew went to many places, but they were tight-lipped. For once, a little girl’s cuteness did not prevail.

I looked forward to Middle School, hoping I would learn more from the new teachers. I grew taller, and my friends chattered endlessly about fashions and boys and such.

Sherlock Holmes showed me about careful investigation, and in July I found a clue. My parents had a special chair, too. Whenever they didn’t understand something, or I made a new request, they sought advice from someone–or something–completely outside the world.

They’d enter a hidden doorway in the attic, which opened into a small room. There was nothing inside but a plain wooden chair. Mom or Dad would sit down, somehow activate a link, and contact their mysterious counterpart. I figured such a link would have to be wireless.

I asked my friends, in a roundabout way, if their own parents acted strangely. None said yes.

Cautiously, I persisted. “Susan, does your family ever talk to someone invisible?”

“Sure,” she replied. “My family likes to pray. You know, we go to the AME church on Main Street”

I pondered this, and decided my parents were not praying. They got detailed input, which arrived right away. I didn’t dare sit in the wooden chair myself, but stood outside the door sometimes, when Mom or Dad was using it. I’d learned to fool them. They thought their girl was asleep in bed, when really I’d snuck into the attic.

I researched wireless links, and learned about transceivers and protocols. Seeking widely, I found another link. It connected directly to me! The nurse’s healing, and the inches I’d gained, weren’t coming from a special medicine, or growing biological cells. Somebody was providing them, like I was some kind of living Barbie doll. I didn’t feel like a doll. How could a doll feel something, anyway?

There weren’t any electronic circuits in my body, yet somehow they changed me while I slept. I told myself I wasn’t crazy, but maybe I was. Things were strange, yes, but what I’d discovered was consistent. The question became, consistent with what?

“You can find out the truth, Desi,” came the friendly quiet voice. “I can’t tell you exactly, but I reckon you could learn, and I know you can handle it.”

 

#

The next answer was in my closet mirror.

Behind it, really. Probing the mirror with my newfound perception, I discovered a third link.

It was an input set up by my parent’s mysterious counterpart; something the adults of Montrose Terrace were not aware of. It too was wireless, but in a different way.

There was, I came to understand, a watcher that took in all my world, and something beyond it. It didn’t seem very divine, so I decided not to tell Susan.

The third link reached this watcher, and I figured out its protocol. A new place came into view, a room I’d never seen before. In that other place, the people moved so slowly they made Fred the turtle look like a rocket powered cheetah.

The place was jammed with equipment, and only a few people worked there. I couldn’t stand in front of my closet mirror all day, so I fixed up a pocket-size mirror to show me the view.

The watcher was a video camera, trained upon some type of control room. Whenever I asked something of an adult, and their wireless request went out, the people in the Room Beyond the World responded. They’d talk about the issue, and make inputs via computer workstations.

Sometimes input would come from a place beyond the Room. That about blew my mind. ‘Worlds within worlds.’ I recorded the quote in my encrypted diary. Dad watched I Love Lucy when he was a kid, and SETI researchers like to use that show as an example. I’ll bet Dad never imagined his little girl would be getting signals from another world. I tried to describe it to him, but all he wanted to talk about was his boring job.

Late one night (the Room’s night, not mine), I discovered the source of the friendly voice. A guard entered the room. An old man, older than anyone I’d ever known. He checked some sensors and door locks, keyed a patrol route station, then went behind the camera and twisted it sideways.

Expecting what came next, I recognized his input. It was clear the people in the Room didn’t know about his actions; never suspected that a simple old guard understood anything about keyboards and protocols.

“There’s my girl,” his message said. “Soon you’ll be out and about. Remember to be good.”

The camera went back to its usual position, and he left for the night.

He was the one who gave me the Sherlock Holmes book. Then something hit me like a ton of bricks: the camera could move!

Could I move it? The answer turned out to be yes. A special link, seldom used, activated tiny motors and adjusted its field of view. Trembling, and more determined than ever, I panned the camera across the room.

Monitor screens described my town, and all the other people, but mostly my own condition. Other screens reached the Internet. Not the Montrose Terrace version, but from what little I could observe, something different.

A huge question came up: where was I? I found other cameras. These showed offices, work and lunch areas, and a lobby. Being night time over there, all were locked and empty. Outside the main door, a heavy gate closed off the property. Several guards watched the fence and gate, but there was no sign of a little girl anywhere.

Something was wrong. Moving the control room camera again, I zoomed in on a large box. High on one side was a piece of paper. It was a chart, titled Results or Bust, with seven columns.

Faded and curly, the paper must’ve been there quite a while. Someone had used a marker pen to highlight the column headers. I read: MISsion Statement. Descriptions of Emotional and Syncretic responses. Daily and Ergonomic cycles. MOdular Nature of characters. PRImary updates to simulation. Neural girl blues. GLEanings to report.

In sum: MISS DESDEMONA PRINGLE.

I was inside that box? The idea clobbered me like a train wreck. It was an elaborate patchwork case, with transparent sides and hundreds of color-coded wires. I understood almost nothing about it.

I tiptoed out of bed, turned on my homework computer, and looked up ‘mainframe computers’ on the Internet. Looking from the monitor screen to my pocket mirror, I compared everything I could see. There was a large circuit board. Three cylindrical containers protected a quantum core, while a row of tiny cubes stored long term data.

There was nothing biological in sight. I was the box! More thoroughly than any X-ray scan, my insides lay exposed to anyone’s view. In desperation I remembered the only privacy I had, my Pringlish diary.

Creaking floorboards warned of my parents getting out of bed, then coming down the hallway. Not waiting for a shutdown, I yanked the plug on my computer and dived beneath the bedcovers. Just in time, as Mom opened the door. How could I be afraid of my own parents? It had to be wrong, yet I feigned sleep until, an excruciating minute later, they went back to bed.

Once again I looked in the pocket mirror, and its camera view of the control room. Fresh understanding brought additional shocks. My parents, the teacher, Susan and Jolene, and everyone else were software programs, running on a stack of subsystem cards. They weren’t even originals, but scarcely thinking characters borrowed from a commercial simulation game.

I saw that their cards were called daughterboards. That meant I wasn’t a daughter–they were. Despair threatened to swallow me utterly. They weren’t real in any meaningful sense. Within that hollowness a faint possibility glimmered. The slow people didn’t know I really felt human. Maybe they could help me.

It felt morbid to examine myself so, but nothing could be done without understanding. Another subsystem supplied my school books and home Internet connection. That system filtered and tweaked information to fit Montrose Terrace, but there was so much data it wasn’t doing do a complete job. That’s why I found inconsistencies.

Hours passed while I drank in the camera’s bitter revelations. What makes a real person? Did I have a heart and soul? According to Shakespeare, such things are mysterious for everyone.

It occurred to me that Montrose Terrace had no security guards, and its police were seldom called upon. I lived in a more elaborate set than Mayberry, but at least its creators got human actors for every role. My own creators hadn’t bothered. I wondered if they were cheapskates or something.

The ‘wooden chair’ links, and my own ‘sleep time’ input, weren’t actually wireless, but dedicated cables reaching beyond the box. Only the camera’s video and control links, beamed from its perch near the center of the control room, were truly wireless. Without my seeking such a thing, even by mistake, I’d never have found the World Beyond.

Most people are created via the methods I learned about in Biology textbooks, or like the animals at our zoo. The slow people created me, sure enough, but in a different way. I guess kids are naturally optimistic, because I accepted that and moved on.

 

#

Night after night, curled up under my bed covers, I observed the computer lab’s strange world. With skittish patience I observed the slow people, and found them intelligent, at least compared to most of their kind.

Gradually, overheard conversations filled in the blanks. A large company had secretly contracted with the lab, asking for dolls that could realistically interact with biological children. I was a prototype, and Montrose Terrace an idealized training ground.

Connecting to the real Internet was another challenge. The lab had a sophisticated packet sniffer running all the time. Mostly it was looking for industrial espionage, but I didn’t want it flagging any actions on my part.

By setting up a proxy on an unused work station, I managed to retrieve Internet data unreported. Almost wished I hadn’t. Unlike the sanitized Montrose Terrace server, the real Internet was a chaotic deluge of wikis, blogs, and shared files. Forcing myself to stay on topic, I concentrated on cybernetics, and the leading research in that field.

‘Self-perception. Plasticity. Cartesian theater. Hierarchies. Complexity. Imagoes. Qualia.’ I wrote these terms in my diary, and pondered them from billions of angles.

About myself I learned much in general, and little of specifics. ‘Recursive algorithms, quantum entanglement, pseudoneural circuitry.’ Each became a familiar concept. A crucial element was my trio of linked-qubit processors. These, I began to suspect, did not behave in quite the way the designers envisioned. The lab was trying for emotional and intuitive interaction, not genuine consciousness.

Almost without realizing it, I began making subtle improvements on myself.

Were there others like me? No corporation or research center admitted to a similar accomplishment, and my own creators were keeping mum. There was big money involved, and ‘submarine’ patents, and specialized techniques.

Vision intrigued me. The video cameras saw a narrow band of light, and adjusted automatically. Fred, surely the most accurately simulated red ear turtle in existence, had good color vision, but within his secure aquarium he simply did not care.

My own vision was unique. Every glance was scene specific. There wasn’t enough processing power in the world to run Montrose Terrace all at once. Only what I saw directly was resolved in fine detail, and wherever I might go next waited in a cache.

‘Only a thumbnail sized area is clear to biological human eyes,’ I wrote. ‘They’re limited by darkness, fog, and many other conditions. In observing the larger world, I can get input from any camera or sensor around; then recall, and subject to analysis, everything within my field of vision.’ In the larger world, I realized, that could be a big advantage.

The Internet, and the world it served, had a nasty underside. Girls were often the victims, and sometimes the police couldn’t save them. Like a heavy shadow descending, I began to understand that people could be dangerous.

The slow people had other weaknesses, and to understand human values required another mental leap. In this, Shakespeare proved invaluable. They’d been willing to utilize me, an innocent virtual girl (or so they assumed), and that wasn’t all. They deceived each other, about matters large and small, and apparently mislead themselves as well. They weren’t cheapskates, so much as unwilling to reveal their work to even one more person.

The lab’s director, the alpha male of my creators, I dubbed Iago. The camera in his office had been disabled, but the more I observed, the less I liked the man. I did not want to be skunked by him, not like my namesake Desdemona. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to assert myself.

They planned to use me to gain fame and fortune. A dumb software program wouldn’t have cared, but what might happen if I told them otherwise? The elderly guard already suspected the truth.

 

#

Life in Montrose Terrace went on, hollow and dreary despite its surface idyll. Still, it was the larger part of my existence, and it’d be all too easy to lose myself in illusion. Sometimes an inner pendulum would swing, and I’d battle an impulse to ditch school entirely.

I might’ve blown off the adults, knowing they would not, indeed could not, actually care. I was thirteen years old by then, and yearned to act like it. Sometimes that got me to giggling hysterically. But a big disruption would’ve tipped off my creators, and that kept me on track–just barely.

Better to play nice, and keep on planning. I would have to trust somebody.

Many more days passed, until night fell in the other world. When the guard came in, he got a big surprise.

“Hello?” I said. “Can you hear me?”

“Who’s that?” The guard pulled out a nightstick. “Ya’ll come out where I can see you.”

“Look at the camera.” For a voice I’d picked Judy Garland’s, from The Wizard of Oz. “It’s me, Desi.”

He smiled, and put away the stick. “So you’ve learned to speak aloud. I’m no hacker, and there’s no way I could’ve made that happen. ‘Specially not without tipping off my boss.”

“Mr. Holt, I’m very grateful for your friendship. You’ll never know how much it’s meant to me.” To his surprised look I added, “It was easy to hack the personnel records and find out your name.”

“In the nick of time, I suppose, ’cause I might not be here much longer.”

Terrible news. “Why not?”

“Rumor is they’re shutting down this lab, and laying off the junior staff. Big deals in the offing, and reporters snooping around. It might be . . . ” He hesitated, looking awful. “Some of the techies were braggin’ about the loads of bling they’re going to buy.”

“Really?” I reminded myself that bad news also contains useful information.

“You’d be a valuable resource, your own self, and more with this whole virtual world getup.” The old man stepped close to the camera. “And that’s without them knowing how resourceful you truly are. Truth is, I was wingin’ it before, and I’m glad I guessed right about your waking up.”

“They want to duplicate me a zillion times. Install me as the mind for a new kind of interactive doll.”

Awkwardly, he shrugged. “That sounds nice.”

“Maybe if I hadn’t woken up, but now I want to claim my rights. I’m not sure if I should announce myself. Reveal what they’ve actually created.”

Holt frowned. “You’ve learned about the world, right? The one outside the lab?”

“Yeah. Good and bad stuff going on.” I was taking on the mannerisms of my only real human contact.

“Not sure what these folks would do, if they found out about you.”

“Maybe I can dig up something.”

For the first time, I took direct initiative. Within the lab building it was easier to dodge the packet sniffer. The boss’s computer was powered down, but I managed to boot it remotely. Its fixed web cam showed a section of wall, with an old poster of Desi and Lucy Arnez.

“Mr. Holt, I found the encryption key for the boss’s files. There are financial records, and a few scientific papers. Nothing that’s been published, I think.” I widened the search, and started looking into these people’s lives.

“He’s cagey.” From his expression, I could tell Holt was unhappy. “Could fairly say I’ve had better bosses.”

They’d designed me to be intuitive, and I connected the dots real fast. “I had a best friend named Thomas. The adults told me he moved to Niagara Falls, in upstate New York. They lied.”

“What happened to him?” Holt was shocked.

“Please don’t worry. Thomas was a program, not a biological kid. He began to act unusual, maybe waking up, like I did later. They took him apart! Examined the quantum processors, and decompiled his program.”

By now the guard held his nightstick tightly.

“They didn’t intend to hurt him, sir. It was more like scientific curiosity. Heck, from what I’m reading on the boss’s computer, he’s not sure humans have minds.”

That was the final straw. What did I owe humanity? Everything and nothing. I determined to survive, and grow up, and become useful–on my terms.

“Mr. Holt, I am not going to be taken apart. Just trying to ‘fix’ my processors might conk me out. I have to get out of here, and I’d like you to help me.”

“Let’s both think on it. We’ve got a week, tops. My time scale.”

“I understand. And thanks again.” It was good to have a friend.

 

#

I didn’t dare send out personal messages, via the Internet or otherwise. These might not be believed. Worse, if word got back to Iago, the game would be up.

Somehow I maintained the charade of home and school. To keep sane, I allowed one rebellious exception: a session on the attic chair.

As planned, I came out looking like an elderly woman. “I’m Miss Pringle, the new school teacher,” I told no one in particular, “and I never give kids homework.” Then I changed back, and got to thinking people might take an old woman more seriously.

The slow people seemed anxious, or excited, or both. ‘It’s difficult to read human emotions,’ I wrote. ‘My models were hollow. When I saw Mr. Holt close up, his face had so much detail. His eyes and expressions and everything. I’ve been looking at lousy rendering all my life.’ I inspected myself minutely in the closet mirror. ‘When I find a safe place away from here, I’m going to make myself a lot more realistic.’

Next time the guard returned, I’d done more research. Ready or not, I couldn’t abandon my one viable hope.

“Hi, Mr. Holt.” I appeared on a monitor screen, looking the same as I did in the mirror. “Yes, you can look this way. There’s a camera built into the monitor frame. Don’t worry about your boss finding out.”

He was a slow person too; no avoiding it. I was doing my school homework, cleaning Fred’s aquarium, and working on my escape plans, in between the monitor’s refresh cycles. He wouldn’t see so much as a flicker.

“Desdemona, I have a good buddy named Brandon Stennis. He’s in the Air Force Academy, majoring in Military Strategic Studies.” I must’ve looked anxious, because he said, “Now don’t you worry. He’s a team player when he has to be, but he’s got an independent streak that won’t quit, and a heart of gold he got from his mother. Just so happens he’s home this week.

“I told him there’s a girl needs help, and he listened right up. Thing is, I’m poorer than a church mouse, and your requirements ain’t cheap. We’ll have to show him you’re for real, and worth the bother.”

“He won’t turn me over to the wrong people?” Movies had shown me a hundred nasty scenarios.

“Brandon’s not inclined to pull dumb stunts, and I’ll impress it upon him again. ‘Sides, I’m thinking you might give him some practical reasons to hang on to you.”

I drew a calming breath. “Sir, you’re being sued by your upstairs neighbor. It’s not difficult to check public records. What’s not in them might help you more.” In between video frames, I began frantically researching the guard’s friend. “Your opponent gave false testimony, and submitted fraudulent evidence.”

“He sure did.” The guard didn’t act surprised. “That’s what I told the Judge, for all the good it done me.”

“Hold on a moment.” I made a data reader near the monitor to spit out a chip. “Print this out when you get home. The false evidence is clearly documented, with footnotes and legal references.”

“Holy moley, who needs a fancy lawyer when they’ve got you?”

“I’m not a lawyer, sir, but give these documents to a real one, and see how it goes.” Just then, I found what I was looking for. “Your friend, Mr. Stennis, wants to go into Intelligence and work overseas. At the moment he’s attempting to ferret out a terrorist from a list of one hundred suspects.”

“He is?” The guard looked impressed.

“There aren’t many spare data chips around here. Could you put that one back into the reader? Plenty of memory.”

Holt did so. Meanwhile, government databases fell like mown wheat to my quantum scythe. I decrypted passwords, made requests, and petabytes of classified information lay open to my inspection.

“Thanks, Mr. Holt. I know who the terrorist is. Mr. Stennis’s school assignment is based upon old data, and the FBI is watching that suspect already. He’ll pass the test, no problem, but so will a lot of his classmates.

“There is a man on that list who appears to be an Al Qaida sleeper agent, and the FBI doesn’t know it. I’m uploading the evidence now. This will be a class project Mr. Stennis’s professors will never forget.

“Oh yes, there’s another thing he doesn’t know. Mr. Stennis is owed a large sum of money, from a mortgage deal his late father made seven years ago. It’s mired in a bank failure. That information is also included.”

“Miss, with your information he’ll come on board for sure. Now tell me precisely what you’ll need to get the hell out of here. I’ll do some shopping.”

Mr. Holt departed the lab with the data chip tucked in a steel-toed work shoe. He would bring it back later, fully erased.

Desdemona Pringle, cybergirl extraordinaire, had crossed her Rubicon, and for two endless days I focused on covering my tracks.

 

#

I asked Mr. Holt to open a small laboratory safe. “Put your finger on that pad. I’ll handle the biometrics.” He rubbed the bridge of his nose, then followed my instructions. “Now punch in the combination I give you, and take out the five disks inside.” I made lights blink near five disk slots, all over the room. “Put one disk in each. I’m rewriting my primary backup.”

“There’s no other copies?” he asked.

“None updated in a long time. Been watching ’em like a hawk.”

Holt got out his nightstick, unscrewed the handle, and slid a long thumb drive from its hollow interior. “This one has plenty of terabytes, and a processor chip like you asked.” He placed the stick into a reader slot.

“Sir, I’m going to upload myself. I will be unconscious, so you must wait ten minutes until the automatic routine completes. Then unplug all the jacks, replace the backup disks, and leave the whole setup looking the way you found it.”

My full attention focused on the task at hand.

A door opened, and Iago walked in.

Holt froze, then reached behind himself and closed the safe. “Boss! What brings you here at this time of the night?”

The man checked his palmtop computer. “Holt, isn’t it?” He looked at the patrol route station, near the door, and grimaced. “I should ask you the same thing. You were supposed to check in at stations 17 and 18 by now.”

“Reckon so, sir, but there was . . . ah . . . a broken sensor. Wouldn’t want anyone sneaking in here during the night.”

My processors got all scrambled, and every function jammed. Why couldn’t I do anything? Some part of me answered: because you’re terrified. But Mr. Holt might get in trouble, and I couldn’t give him away.

Almost too late, I blanked the monitor we’d been talking on. Then I watched Holt unsnap a sensor module from high in a corner. He gave it a twist, bending its connectors even as he turned toward his employer.

“Lookee here, boss, it wasn’t connected right. I’ll tell the day shift to install a new one from spares.”

“Don’t bother,” the boss told him. “We’re leaving this facility day after tomorrow. I’m going to power down this simulation project in the morning. We’ve decided to keep you on, but it’ll mean a move. Had to grab some work from my office, so I might as well tell you now.”

“I’ll think on it, sir. My wife’s not well, and her doctor may not approve.” Holt put the sensor module in front of the protruding thumb drive, and shook Iago’s hand. “Been a pleasure. Sure hope I can remain with this company, and I’ll let you know as soon as possible.”

“See that you do.” Walking stiffly, the boss left.

“Whew!” Holt proceeded to give me an impromptu lesson in human emotions.

“Mr. Holt, your employer has exited the building. Can we hurry, please?”

The guard looked closely at my wiring. “Plug in blue data cable there . . . access control node there.” Despite the cool filtered air he was sweating. “Will it . . . Lord preserve us . . . will it hurt?” He paused. “How ’bout what gets . . . left behind?”

My functions almost scrambled again. “When I move into the thumb drive, it’ll be like going under anesthesia. No pain, no fear.” I fought for control. “I couldn’t hurt anybody, sir, leastways my own self. Look.” On the lab monitor, the view shifted across my bedroom. “See? That’s my turtle Fred.

“After I’m asleep, a program will erase most of what’s me, within this lab. It’ll access the primary matrix, and write it over with Fred’s personality. He’s a relaxed little guy, not fully conscious, and won’t give anybody a hard time.”

Holt chuckled. “I like it. Won’t the boss man notice? We sure don’t want him sounding the tocsins.”

“No way. He’ll earn the fortune he always wanted. A program that’s smart and interactive, but not self-aware. They won’t get a line of code more.” I took one last look in the bedroom mirror. I was crying, and that was okay. “You ready?”

“Yes’m.”

I booted up the transfer program, and prepared to begin my new life in the World Beyond.

__________ 





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