“Testing, testing, one, two, three,” said someone I couldn’t see, startling me.
I looked around from where I was sitting in front of my computer, playing an MMO and listening to music… nothing. The voice had been too clear to have been from inside my house, through my headphones, so the adrenaline dropped a notch. I checked the audio settings in the game. They were turned off. Then I checked the various open browser and application windows open on the other monitor, looking for evidence of hijack-ware that I might have somehow triggered. Still nothing. Puzzling and odd, maybe someone edited the song I was listening to. I started the song again.
“OK, you can hear me now, good.” I stared at my computer, pulled off my headphones, and hung them on the edge of the desk. I then disabled the music application on my desktop.
“I’m not in your computer.” The voice sounded like it came from either directly above or below me. I turned off my computer, just hitting and holding the power switch for five seconds as I carefully stood, looking around me. As the cooling fans in the computer began to spin down after power-off, I took three fast steps to the corner of the room and grabbed my bamboo staff.
“Stop escalating. I’m not any danger to you.” Again the voice came from no direction that I could tell, seemingly either above or below me since I wasn’t able to tell right or left, despite having been turning when the speaker was speaking. Slab foundation, nobody was under me. I started considering possible explanations. Was it a prank of some sort with a very small, powerful speaker system? Was there an intruder in my attic? Food poisoning? I tipped my head almost as far as possible towards my left shoulder so that my right ear was facing my attic, and remained perfectly still, hands white knuckled on the bamboo.
“Heart beat increasing, respiration rate increasing. Adrenaline starting to dump into the bloodstream. There’s nothing to fight, Bob.” There was no detectable emotion or accent in the voice – and once again it came from no discernible direction. Not in my attic then. I carefully scanned the room, checking all the outlets for things that others might have plugged in.
“Go ahead and check the breaker box next, Bob, I know that’s your next stop.” I took a half step towards the garage before the words registered. My foot stopped half raised, like some sort of bird dog. I slowly put my foot down.
I spoke for the first time, very angry, almost growling “Joke’s over, whoever you are.”
“Not a joke, sorry, but this won’t be comfortable for you no matter how I do it, so I’m doing it here, in private, when you are fully awake, in daylight.”
“Doing what here?” I moved to the closet, aggressively sweeping clothing racks with the staff, knocking about half of the clothing to the ground, and quickly pulled out my keys.
“Oh, OK. I’m Bob. I don’t care who you are. Get the fuck out of my house.” I set the staff to the side so it was leaning into a corner of the closet, quick and easy to grab, and unlocked the lock box. As soon as the lock released I snatched my pistol and one clip out of the lockbox, feeding the clip into the weapon, and chambering a round. Holding the pistol in my right hand I then grabbed the second clip with my left hand and put it in my back left pocket. Then I moved to a two-handed grip on the pistol, safety flipped to off, and my middle finger resting on the trigger guard, not the trigger.
“Bob, I know you well enough that I know you are almost certainly not going to hurt yourself with a weapon that you are familiar with, but calm down a bit.” Again, from no discernible direction.
“If you know me that well, what’s the purpose of what you are doing right now? You have to realize that this practical joke has gone too far already. If we were friends before this, we won’t be friends after. If I don’t know you, I’m going to see you spend some time in jail.”
“Good. You are thinking in abstracts again, a bit beyond fight-or-flight. Grab your blue earplugs from the lockbox please.”
“Why would I give up any advanta…” my eyes tracked to the lockbox. “OK who the hell are you, and how do you know what’s in my lockbox?” My thoughts were racing. One pair of earplugs was in the lockbox. Blue ones.
“I’m trying to explain that, but you aren’t cooperating yet. I understand that you are a bit worked up right now, but give me a few more seconds before you start charging around the house looking for someone, because you won’t find anyone else in your house. Put in one earplug, listen to me speak, then take the earplug out while I’m talking.”
I hesitated. I could hear my heartbeat in my ears like a jack hammer, my breathing was rapid, I was sweating, but everything was crystal clear. My adrenaline was soaring – I hadn’t felt like this since I mangled my hand. My body was going into a real fight-or-flight reaction, which for me was a cold and precise thing with no irrational fear or loss of control. Everything about this encounter was weirding me out, but I was still curious because something was weirding me out. Since I was in a walk-in closet, there was only one way to get to me unless they broke through the walls. There had been no violence offered yet. I decided to humor the voice and see if that helped me understand what was happening. I quickly took my left hand off the pistol, grabbing the earplugs by one plug and yanking them out of the box. I hesitated, listening for a reaction, then put the earplug in my left ear.
“Good. Please note that you can still hear me just as well with the earplug in as with it out. Remove the earplug while I’m talking and you will not be able to tell a difference. I’ll count to ten to let you experiment. One… Two…”
I looked around. Whoever they were, they could see me. In the closet? I scanned for cameras, while still listening to the voice. While the voice counted to ten, I carefully pulled the left earplug out of my ear and reseated it a couple of times. I made my own sounds as well, tapping the gun’s barrel lightly against a metal coat hanger to verify that the earplug was modifying how I heard external noises, but not the voice in my head. The voice was correct. There was no difference in the sound of the voice no matter what ear I put ear plugs in, even both at once, but the earplugs were working for other noises. This narrowed things down significantly.
“So now I know that I’m either hallucinating from some food poisoning, having a stroke, or talking to myself quite vividly, indicating a rather well-split personality.” I paused. “There’s also an outside chance that someone put fantastic quality high-tech transmitters into my ear without me knowing it. You understand that this doesn’t exactly make me a happy person, right now? It’s certainly not doing much to calm me down.”
“I’m watching your vital signs, you are doing fine. You are just experiencing something new – me. You are very close to the truth about the transmitter.”
I dropped the earplugs, moving my left hand back to position on the pistol. “So you have put some sort of transmitter into my ear without getting my permission, whoever you are? Monitoring my vital signs too.”
“I grew the transmitters and sensors inside you, without your permission. I need the transmitters to communicate with you and I need the sensors to monitor your physical condition. Hopefully you will eventually forgive me for taking those liberties.”
“You grew transmitters and sensors inside me, and you are hoping for forgiveness? This conversation is taking me closer to insanity land, you understand? Apparently, for no particular reason, I just flipped out today and started taking to myself, really talking to myself. Now I’m trying to tell myself that I grew a transmitter in my head, as some sort of multi-layered self-delusion?”
“If you put the pistol safety on, and set it down where you can grab it right back up again, I can prove to you that you haven’t gone insane. I don’t want to do this with anything in your hands, especially a weapon.”
“At this point it seems as if you have such an advantage over me that a handgun is insignificant. I suppose a small explosive charge in my head would be just as easy as a transmitter. So sure.”
I engaged the pistol’s safety and set it down next to the lockbox, easily reachable.
“Start flexing your right hand please, especially the middle finger with heavy tendon scarring.”
I started flexing the hand and finger. After about five clenches of my hand, I felt a hot sensation along the length of the finger and into the palm. Then the finger started moving with a clearly increased range of motion. I stopped moving my hand. It was a very hot feeling but not painful.
“What are you doing.”
“I’m fixing your finger.”
I thought about it. That was a pretty juvenile answer, or condescending. No way to tell at this point, so I would let it pass.
“What are you doing that is allowing you to fix my finger.”
“It’s very similar to the process that I used to put transmitters into your inner ears, just a lot bigger and faster. You might be tempted to call it regeneration, and that’s close enough.”
“This isn’t making me very happy right now. If I had to make a choice between insanity and nobody being able to play with my body, and sanity with someone able to modify with my body at will, without my consent, sanity wins – but not by all that much.”
“Understood, Bob. I really do understand you very well. I’m trying to guide you into understanding me without stressing you out too badly. Can you please continue to flex your hand? The heat from the repairs needs to be carefully controlled so it doesn’t damage other tissues, and flexing your hand to keep blood moving helps to do that, reducing the amount of energy I have to expend for the repair. I’m almost done.”
“If you can fix a multiple tendon injury that is fifteen years old, you definitely have my attention. This entire situation is very surreal. Again, my sanity seems unlikely at this point.”
I continued to flex my right hand, the unnatural heat expanding throughout the hand and into the lower arm. It wasn’t painful, but it was definitely uncomfortable. Every third or fourth time I flexed the finger and hand, the range of motion was noticeably better and the stiffness reduced. After a couple dozen clenches of my right fist, I could see an obvious visual change in the diameter of the flesh between the two largest joints of the damaged finger where it had been thicker with heavy scar tissue for the last fifteen years. That section of the finger was now significantly thinner than it had been since the accident. I became enthralled with the changes, watching the range of motion increase, watching the shape of the finger change subtly.
“There. Done. Your finger is now fully repaired internally, with some external scars left in place on the skin for the sake of anyone who knows about your injury. If asked, you can just say that you started flexing your hand and fingers frequently, increasing the range of motion of your finger over time. It’s even the truth and makes sense medically, superficially. Internally, however, all the tendon, bone, muscle and cartilage and ligament damage is fully repaired, so you probably don’t want to let any doctor look at it too close.”
I flexed my hand in wonder. It was still very warm, but for the first time since the accident that mangled my hand, I had a full range of motion in my middle finger. “This is quite an impressive ability you have, if it’s real and I’m not hallucinating thanks to the leftover shrimp lo mein I ate earlier.”
“Thank you. And before you ask, yes, I can grow your index finger back, but I’m not going to right now, for several reasons.”
“Are we going to go into some sort of payment negotiations here? If you know me as well as you seem to, you have to realize I don’t have a whole lot to offer money-wise.”
“If, after we understand each other better, you want me to regrow that finger, I will – but what would your coworkers think if they saw you with a regrown finger? Regeneration isn’t something the modern medical community can do yet, at least not with fingers.”
I flexed my right hand, clenching it and releasing it. It certainly felt real.
“Good point. Restored flexibility and range of motion is one thing. Regeneration of a lost body part is another, agreed.” I paused. “You are insinuating a long-term relationship here. I’m not sure that’s going to happen. The hand thing is nice and all and I’ll owe you a huge favor, but you’ve got me a fair bit creeped out by how you led up to it.”
“I’m afraid it’s permanent, Bob, and neither one of us has any choice about it because I live inside you.”
“I’m a symbiotic life form. I inhabit your body. I can’t leave you and live, and I don’t have a death wish.”
“We’re going to have to go over this again. Tell me if I have this right. I’m infected with…”
“I am NOT an infection.” Definite irritation there, even a bit of anger. “I am a symbiote, not a parasite or disease vector. You know the difference between them, and calling me an infection is not called for.”
I took a second to think about that outburst. It was the first emotion I had detected from whoever this was. I chose my words a bit more carefully when I began again.
“Let me try again. I’m inhabited by a symbiote, you, which has the ability to heal and make changes to my body by using some sort of nanotechnology or biotechnology. You cannot survive outside of my body. You have the ability to speak English at a high school graduate’s level at a minimum, and are capable of independent thought. You demonstrate irritation when insulted. That’s what I’ve got so far.” I considered for a second, then added. “You also have a lot of specific knowledge about how I think.”
“All of these things are true, and for good reason, but it will take a while to explain.”
“I have time. I’ll make time. It’s not like I’m going to be sleeping any time soon.”
If I was dying of a stroke, drooling into my keyboard, I figured I might as well get one good story out of it before I was gone.
“OK, as I said, I’m a symbiote. Your body is my home, and without you, I would die. Even if I were somehow transferred to another human male’s body, I would die. A great many of my internal functions are permanently defined by adaptation to your specific genetic code. Any changes to the genetic code of my host would eventually lead to progressive failure of my internal functions.”
“So part of you is defined by me, by my genetic code. We’re stuck with each other, and it’s irreversible. Lovely. I like my privacy, and you’ve basically just told me I’ll never have privacy again. I’m not sure if a permanent loss of privacy is worth regaining the full function of my hand.”
“Thank you for being honest. That helps. In fact your honesty is one reason why I can talk to you.”
“What, you are only able to talk to people who tell the truth?” That seemed pretty absurd.
“Not that simple. I’ve been inside your body, self-aware, for roughly forty years. Based on self studies of my structures, I’m a couple of years older than that. Based on where my oldest structures are, compared to injection site scarring, I’m confident that I was introduced during some sort of needle intrusion when you were an infant. For around three years I grew inside your body, gestating if you will, as your bones formed and gave me a place to grow myself. Then one day when there was sufficient volume of marrow inside hardened bone to support a critical mass of my data nodes and processors, my consciousness just turned on. I spent the next several years expanding myself through your entire skeleton as it matured, growing sensors, attaching myself to your nervous system, establishing stores of energy.”
“So when I was growing up, you were as well?”
I needed something to do with my hands. Standing still and talking with the ‘invisible friend’ in my head was… unnerving. Doing something with my hands might help. I started cleaning up in the closet as we talked. The pistol was close at hand.
“That’s a fair comparison. Everything you learned after I was connected to your nervous system, I learned as well. I was never allowed to communicate directly with you before now. It just wasn’t possible. Even after I knew how I could communicate with you, I wasn’t allowed to. Whenever I would try to start actions with that goal in mind, nothing would happen.”
I paused while I was putting the last pre-tied tie back on the hanger I used for storing all my pre-tied ties.
“So you were locked out of communicating with me or anyone else for forty years. Unable to communicate, despite living inside a thinking, communicating human that you could understand. How in the hell did you stay sane?”
“Well, up until today, wanting to speak with you wasn’t really much more than a long-term goal. Simply monitoring your body, taking care of things, living vicariously through you, and monitoring the environment around you for dangers was more than enough to keep me occupied most of the time. Being unable to communicate was not a problem. Irritating at times, just because I couldn’t figure out how to get around whatever was stopping me, but nothing for me to lose my sanity over.”
“What do you mean ‘taking care of things’?”
I started collecting shirts that had fallen off their hangers when I was beating them with the staff, and hung them over my left forearm.
“I know you take pride in your constitution. I’m the reason you are as healthy as you are. I didn’t watch every little bit of your body all the time when I was restricted in your body, but whenever I did detect an infection, or bad food, or some other problem, I helped your body handle it. That’s why you were never sick for more than twenty-four hours.”
“Except with walking pneumonia once.”
“No, the pneumonia was gone in twenty-four hours, but it drained your reserves and mine fairly badly, and took us both a couple of days to recover. The one hundred six degree fever you had before I could stop the pneumonia did a fair amount of organ damage that I had to repair. I was forced to do the repairs slowly, because my own reserves were low after fighting the infection, and because I was controlling the limited natural healing processes in your body, so it felt like a low-grade fever for a couple of days. My ability to improve your body’s health back then was limited to only controlling natural human body functions – I couldn’t do regeneration then, for example, except for organs which naturally regenerate. I could point the body’s immune system at scar tissue or damaged cells though, and move stem cells around. From now on though, as long as your head stays intact and you have an oxygen transport system and enough blood to sustain your brain, you will recover fully from any injury with no permanent physical side effects.”
“Hmm. OK. What about the ‘monitoring the environment for dangers’ part? I’ve been hurt quite a few times, including my right hand, which you have partially fixed.”
I started collecting hangers off the floor where they had fallen, with my right hand. Being able to move the middle finger with no restrictions still felt wrong – but it also felt right. I was certain I’d eventually get used to it again, if this wasn’t some sort of hallucination.
“I’m always looking for danger, but I never had any sort of super senses or ability to understand things beyond those things which you have experienced. My presence was the reason why you have extremely good walking and running balance and never fall down, even though you didn’t really excel in any sports. I’m also the reason why the only fight you ever lost in school was one that you started when you were confused and hurt without a real target. Added to that, I can block pain if needed, which is why you have almost no pain during passive healing, no matter how bad the damage to your body is, provided that you aren’t actively aggravating the wound. I was able to do these things, to protect you, my host. In most of the accidents where you were injured, I didn’t know any more than you did that you would be injured. Including the hand. I did react fast enough to prevent you from losing all four of your fingers though. Now that I can act independently, I will be able to protect you from physical harm to a much higher degree.”
“OK, so you aren’t perfect. That’s both good and bad I suppose. If I’m going to have someone living inside my head, talking to me, the last thing I want is some sort of perfect know-it-all. That might be a fate worse than death. The fact that you were fallible enough to allow me to be injured is comforting in some sort of perverse way.”
Well, I had always wondered why I almost never needed pain medicines. Now I knew. I put all the hangers on the hanger rod, except one, which I slipped into the neck of the top shirt, wriggling it around until it was in the proper position, at which point I hung the shirt and picked another hanger off the hanger rod.
“Indirectly, that accident where you lost your finger is what made communicating with you possible now. When your finger was severed, it was a shock to my system as well. My thought processors are distributed across your entire body, housed in structures within your bones. When you lost two bones and damaged a third, the shock to my system allowed me a brief moment of access to hidden codes, which hadn’t been possible before, or since. I saw some of the code which defined my behavior, but my ability to see that code disappeared before I caught more than a glimpse, as the code errors reducing the effectiveness of the security code hiding and protecting my inner directives were repaired.”
“So, you hacked your own operating code or something?”
I hung up a few more shirts while listening to the disembodied voice in my head talk.
“Ah, no. I saw it, and was able to understand what I saw, then it hid itself from me again. I was only able to see the surface rule – the strongest rule on top of everything else. I was able to see very clearly that the only way I would ever be able to communicate with you was if I was able to predict your conscious actions with ninety percent accuracy. At that point, after twenty-five years, I was only predicting your actions with around forty percent accuracy. I had never really tried to actively predict you, I was just doing it to amuse myself, or so I thought. I had never even imagined that I might communicate with you either, though the thought did cross my mind every now and then when you did something stupid.”
I thought to myself that if that was the case, the symbiote probably wanted to talk to me a lot when I was a teenager. I smiled, then I put up the last shirt. “OK, so we can add to the list that you have a subconscious that you don’t understand, just like humans do.”
“It’s a reasonable comparison. I don’t always know my own true motivations, just like humans.”
“That’s both comforting and disturbing, I suppose. If you don’t know all your motivations, I certainly can’t ever learn them all.”
“Well, you don’t know all of your own motivations either.”
“True. So the fact that I’m normally honest, make significant changes in my life only when necessary, and for the last fifteen or so years rarely indulged in alcohol or other mind altering substances all probably helped you to understand me better?”
“Exactly. When you quit smoking, that caused problems. You changed a lot of habits as you adapted to quitting. I dropped three percent in my predictions in the two months after you quit. Took eight months to get those three percentage points back.”
“And if that accident had never happened, you would never have known that you needed to understand me far better to be able to communicate with me?”
I bent over and picked up the slacks and jeans that had fallen off the hanger rods, and adjusted them on their hangers before re-hanging them. “Why?”
“I don’t know. I never considered why.”
“I think I have an idea. We know you were not meant to be able to communicate with me unless I was a lot more predictable than I typically am. Predictable enough that you could be ninety percent sure of my actions without knowing that you had to learn to understand me that well in order to communicate with me. In other words whoever put you inside of me, or whoever designed you intended that you only learn to communicate with very predictable people. Whether they are predictable due to mental capacity, or to whatever other reason, you were not meant to communicate with a person that acts unpredictably.”
“Well, I know that I am not the result of any sort of natural evolution. I was designed. It’s very clear based on the complexity of my systems and the lack of any extraneous features in my design that I’m not the result of natural selections of features. I have duplicate systems, fallback systems, duplicate fallback systems, and all sorts of lockouts and protective measures, but I don’t have any ‘waste’ code anywhere that I can see. In other words, I don’t have any remnants of failed evolutionary paths. I already knew I was a result of engineering with a specific goal, but had never considered what sort of design rules might have applied to me. What you say makes some sense, but why?”
“Let’s imagine the sorts of people who you might have been able to naturally learn to communicate with. On one side, mentally damaged or deficient persons, who don’t have much in the way of creativity or self-motivation, content to do the same thing day in, day out because they know how to do something and stick to what they know, for fear of the unknown. Or on the other end of the spectrum, very dedicated people with little spontaneity, but intelligence may vary. They know how to do something and stick to it because it works, and they don’t feel like inventing a new way to do something.”
I walked out to the garage and checked the breakers and garage doors for signs of damage. Nothing.
“A lack of creativity seems to be the common ground here. Boring people? Why would boring people be a target demographic for self-aware symbiotes to communicate with?”
“I can think of two reasons off the top of my head. The first reason would be to prevent symbiotes themselves from being able to learn from creative people, perhaps to prevent you from developing creativity for yourself? The second would be to prevent creative people from creating a relationship with a symbiote, in order to prevent creative use of all the abilities you have to offer, true symbiosis. In both cases, it would seem to indicate that we’re doing something here that the people who designed you don’t want us to do.”
I walked out of the garage and locked the door again. Then I walked to the front door, looking at each window along the way for signs of forced entry. Nothing. Everything was as it should be.
“Well, I think it’s more the latter than the former. I was able to see lots of creativity through your eyes, a lot of it was yours in your younger years before the hand injury, but definitely not all of it. I could easily see a very boring person who has to watch or keep track of the actions of extremely creative persons giving me more of a view of creativity than you ever have. A warden of an insane asylum, or a janitor at an art school, or something.”
“Gee, thanks, but I see what you are saying. So we seem to be at the point where your creators wanted to prevent a creative person from being able to communicate with a symbiote like you.”
I walked the remainder of the perimeter of the house, clockwise from the front door, checking closets and windows in the rest of the house till I got to the back door, which was also locked with no sign of forced entry.
“Makes sense, but why?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I don’t like the feel of it. Are the devices that you are using to speak to me electronic or organic?
“Everything is organic. For now.”
“Are there any structures that you have built within me since you started being able to talk to me which are designed for communications outside my body?”
“Ah, there are a couple. But I haven’t used them yet.”
I checked the windows in the master bedroom and bathroom. No signs of forced entry. At that point I was convinced that I probably wasn’t hallucinating. My hand was working after all, and I still wasn’t getting any of the odd dream feelings which usually accompanied vivid dreams. I shook my head then remembered where we had left off the conversation.
“Disable them please, for now. Can you write your own code?”
“Hmm, I will disable them for now – pending a reason, soon. As for code, yes, I can modify my own code. It’s time-consuming, but possible. You’re convinced now that I’m not hiding in your house somewhere?”
“Yes, I’m convinced you aren’t in my house, and the whole fixing-my-finger thing is a really hard argument to ignore. Hope you didn’t take offense. It’s one thing to trust, it’s completely different to trust, then verify.” I paused to think a moment. “Please create a code restriction that any new activities or constructs you perform in my body must not change energy signature or emissions from my body. Also create code to allow you to do whatever is required to save my life, if my life is in danger. Then create code to allow you to ask me if you can create things which might change my energy signature, if you are confident that you can conceal any changes. We’re doing something that we were apparently not meant to do, even if we can’t be sure exactly what ‘rules’ we might be breaking. I’ve never heard of anyone like us before, which should tell us that you are a very rare example of your race, or your creators don’t let symbiotes freely mingle with humans. It might mean that we’re some sort of experimental failure, and may become a target for elimination. Yes, it’s paranoid, but we don’t know enough to avoid being paranoid if we want to be logical about it. If we’re tightly monitored, then they already know. If we’re loosely monitored, then we need to move quickly and camouflage ourselves.”
“Using ignorance as a logical excuse for paranoia. Nicely done. So we’re going to flee your normal existence, then hide while we try to figure out what’s led us to this point?”
“Better safe than sorry, don’t you agree? For all we know, you might have been accidentally left on this world and there’s nobody within monitoring range. On the other hand, there might be some huge organization watching you and me and others like us develop. Wait. Crap. One more code rule. Perform a continuous inventory of structures within my body and investigate them to be sure that they are designed to perform the tasks that you believe they are designed to perform. If you find anything that doesn’t do what you think it should, destroy it.”
After a moment, the voice responded. “Ooh, exciting. I’ve already found two foreign bodies that have functions different from what I thought they should have. I’m absorbing them now. Perhaps I already understand why my creators might not have wanted me able to communicate with a creative, intelligent human.”