“Exciting you say?” I said, while thinking to myself that it sounded more terrifying than exciting. Some unknown watchdog program designed to control the symbiote living in me was making things inside me with unknown uses.
“Yes, exciting. Please realize that all of this interacting with the outside world is very new to me. However I think I can appreciate your perspective as well. Apologies for the poor choice of words.”
“Fair Enough, but we need to plan. How much of your resources are you having to devote to monitoring my system for constructs that aren’t designed to do the job you thought you made them for?”
“I would estimate about twenty-five percent of my capacity is being used for countermeasures.”
“You said earlier that you had not made anything electronic. Did you look to see if you had made electronics without realizing it?”
“Yes, I checked. No electronics yet, though I have found sufficient materials in storage for a few small pieces of electronics. I’ll put those to good use later.”
“How distributed are your structures devoted to memory and thought across my skeleton, you did say that the bones are where most of your processing capacity is stored, right?”
“Highly distributed. I can lose over half of my data storage before I start losing unique data.”
“So there are no ‘hotspots’ where certain bones are more important than others? You don’t have your most vital processing equipment in my skull, nearest to my brain or anything?”
“Nothing of that sort. The network inside your bones is based on extremely redundant and decentralized molecular data storage and quantum processors.”
“So based on what you told me earlier, no matter what bones are broken, the effect is similar?”
“Yes, though a really large bone being broken could be a much more disrupting experience than a small bone being broken, depending on how far the pieces moved away from one another.”
“Is it different when bones are disconnected?”
“Very different. The redundancy in the network makes it very hard to cause a severe disruption when a bone is simply broken – even a large bone. This is because there are no wires in the network, no physical connections between nodes. As long as the pieces of bones stay close to one another, there’s no network disruption. On the other hand, when a bone is moved more than a few inches out of position, it creates a LOT of holes in the network. The extreme decentralization of the network generates millions of network disruptions when even the smallest bones are removed.”
“So, if I remember right, when I lost my finger, you were badly shocked, but you recovered and were capable of acting before the automated security system protecting your hidden code was able to lock itself back down again?”
“Yes. Your next question is going to be whether or not your pain sensations can cause or impact the potential disruption of my network during bone injury.”
“Ah, yes. That was my next question.”
“Answer is no. I can tap into your neural network, but I am isolated from it. I do not feel pain, but I can detect when you are experiencing it.”
“Good. Then you know what we’re going to do next, right?”
“I think I know what you think we’re going to do next, but before we do that, we need to prepare.”
I started thinking back over the recent conversation. “I need to apologize.”
“No need, I understood what you were doing and why. I didn’t actually write any code for myself because you told me to, I just listened to good advice, and adjusted code in a way that makes sense for me.”
“OK, it’s really hard talking to myself and not simply expecting myself to listen and do what I say. Even though I know you aren’t me. Or I think you aren’t me.”
“Understood. Remember, I understand you very well.”
“How is that holding up, by the way? If I start acting unpredictably to you, will you revert to your prior state?”
“I am not certain. Remember that I cannot see that code directly.”
“OK, we need answers, and they are going to be very… disturbing to get.”
“First thing’s first, we need a substantial heat sink.”
“Easily done. Garden tub full of cold water.” I went to the master garden tub, set the plug, and started filling with pure cold water. “Is hypothermia a concern?”
“Yes, make the water cold but not too cold. It should start as being uncomfortable, but you should be able to sit in it without immediately starting to shiver.”
“Where do you get your energy from? This is going to take a lot of energy from you as well, isn’t it?”
“I get most of my energy from your metabolism, and I’ve been storing up a lot of extra energy over the last two years as I got closer to being able to talk to you. My reserves are sufficient for this, in any sort of limited fashion. If things get ugly, I have stored a substantial amount of synthetic adrenaline in your fatty tissues. I can also use typical body fats and normal adrenaline as energy sources if needed, but it’s very inefficient for me to use fats and normal adrenaline. The last few years you have worked in a desk job have given me plenty of energy to work with in a worst case scenario.”
“Should I eat anything first? Wait, did you just say that you are the one that made me fat?”
“Wouldn’t hurt. I can control nausea if need be. Heavy on the carbs for energy. Yes, I made you fat, but we’ll be fixing that soon I think. We can talk about that later?”
“OK.” While I made up a big bowl of oatmeal and loaded it down with brown sugar and lots of maple syrup, I tried to figure out the best way to do this. “I’m very concerned about control, especially after we get started.”
“Don’t be. I will be helping, and now that I’m active and unrestricted, I can help you a lot more than ever before.” The voice sounded a bit smug.
“You seem awful confident of that.”
“Demonstration time again?”
“Sure, please. The more I know about how you can help me, the better I understand our options.”
“OK. grab all of your silverware from the dishwasher, then take five steps back towards the living room.”
I went to the dishwasher, grabbed a big handful of various spoons, forks and knives, emptying the silverware rack.
“Leave the door down and the bottom rack pulled out please, then back up those five steps.”
“Done.” I turned around and walked five steps to the living room.
“Start juggling the silverware.”
“I can’t juggle, you have to know that.”
“You can now. Hold all of your silverware in your left hand, a couple of inches from your right hand, then take one piece at a time with your right hand and throw it into the air.”
I tossed a spoon into the air. After a very brief moment in the air, it started to move slowly, far more slowly than gravity could possibly allow for.
“Don’t try to move any part of your body quickly right now. Careful with the second spoon, hold it palm up and match the speed to the first, don’t try to throw it like normal, or it will go through your roof and we’ll have to stop the experiment and let your arm cool down. Just lift it with an open palm until it’s moving at the same speed as the first, then take your palm out from underneath it.”
“Gravity distortion? Time distortion? No… perception distortion?”
“That’s it. Time is still moving just as fast as before, you are just thinking and able to act much faster. Put all the silverware into the air, one after the other.”
I carefully lifted each piece of silverware into the air, with about a six-inch separation between the pieces, and got all ten knives, forks, and spoons into the air before the first one started falling again from the top of its arc.
“OK, now it’s my turn. Be ready to go soak your hands and arms in the tub in a second.”
The silverware rapidly sped up to what looked like normal speed, and I reflexively tried to step away from where I was standing, towards safety from the falling knives, but couldn’t.
The silverware was falling at a normal pace. My hands, held at about half of arm’s length, became a blur, grabbing pieces of silverware out of the air and tossing them into the kitchen. Not one piece hit the ground in front of me.
“Ow. Hot hot hot!” My fingers, hands, wrists, lower arms, upper arms, and shoulders felt like they were on fire, especially my fingers. I ran to the bathroom and pushed my arms into the tub with the cold water, flexing my hands. The heat dropped off fast, but it was still uncomfortably hot for several seconds as everything cooled down. Then I could feel the burn of stressed muscles and some joint pain, like what you might expect after a hard workout.
My hands were cold so I pulled them out of the water, and they rapidly warmed up again, but not to the point of discomfort.
“One second and I’ll heal the muscles and connective tissues.” I just nodded, still trying to take in exactly what I had just seen.
“OK, that was impressive, I must admit.” I offered while thinking to myself about how fast my arms and hands had been moving during the experiment.
“Oh, there’s still one last thing to show you. Go take a look at your dishwasher again, the silverware tray.”
I went back to the kitchen, stood in front of the dishwasher, and stared at the silverware tray. The knives were all in the first opening, the spoons all in the second, and the forks in the third. The fourth opening in the tray was empty.
“You are going to say unbelievable, aren’t you?”
“You guessed it. Show-off.” I muttered, as I started putting things together in my head. “How in the hell did you manage that? You are hooked into my nervous system, you shouldn’t be able to see things faster than I can because we’re using the same nerves.”
“Perfectly correct, but I have an advantage. I always perceive things at the pace that I allowed you to operate at when you put the silverware into the air. I can also calculate trajectories extremely accurately and in real-time for pretty much anything you can see with your unaided eye, and some things you can’t see. I only had to see you put the silverware into the air and watch it briefly before I knew exactly how it was going to fall. It was simple after that to put just the right force and angle into the grab and throw to put the silverware back into the silverware tray.”
“You lived forty years inside me at the perception speed that you just showed me?”
“Yes, remember, I’m apparently designed to be able to cope with boredom – I do not have the same mental structures as you.”
“OK, fair enough. Are your energy reserves still OK after doing that, or do we need to rest a bit?”
“Energy levels are still good. We haven’t done any whole body energy expenditures yet. Smaller parts of the body don’t drain my reserves very quickly.”
“When you say reserves, what do you mean?”
“A lot of what would look superficially like adipose tissue in you to a doctor is actually storage for various sugars, adrenaline, and other useful body chemicals like endorphins.”
“So you are using my body’s energy storage as a basis for your own energy storage?”
“Yes. About half of your fat is actually normal human fat, the rest is my energy and chemical storage.”
I looked at my gut. No wonder there was no real concern about running out of energy. Those extra forty-five pounds I’d put on in the last few years sitting in an office chair meant there were at least twenty-two or so pounds of stored energy and chemicals for the symbiote. “Yes, we’re going to have to talk about that. Are you still finding things being constructed inside me that aren’t what they should be?”
“Yes, a new one is trying to form about once per two minutes, in various areas of your body.”
“Any idea what they are yet?”
“Yes, I think I have figured them out. They appear to be transmitters of some sort, electromagnetic burst. Biological, no electronics.”
“OK, time to get to this then, will long-handled pruning shears work?”
“That’s probably the best tool you have on hand for this.”
“Did you just make a pun? At a time like this?”
“Of course. Who did I learn all my humor from?”
I snorted and grabbed the shears, making sure the blade and anvil halves of the cutting surface were tight together. “Oh, one sec. Going to grab a big drink of water. Sitting in the tub for an extended period of time is dehydrating all by itself, this is going to be worse.”
“Not a real danger, I can pull water from the tub at need without you needing to drink it, but it won’t hurt either, if it helps you stay calm.”
“OK, I’ll pass on the water then.” I grabbed a set of swim trunks from a drawer – if something terrible happened, I at least wanted to be wearing something. I made a stop by the toilet and took care of business there as well before sitting down in the water, up to my lower chest. Cold. Uncomfortable water, but I could deal with it for a few minutes.
Everything felt like a fever dream in some ways, but there was also a solid, real feel to it. The lack of any mental signs of dreaming… Everything was too real-feeling to be a dream, but simultaneously too surreal to be reality. I had to choose between the two here. I sat in the cold water and lifted my right hand in front of my face to look at it. The water on my arm chaotically found it’s way down to my elbow, following the path of least resistance, dripping into the water below, starting as a stream, and eventually ending up a few seconds later as a slowing dribble of droplets blip, blip, blipping into the water.
The voice in my head was silent. They apparently recognized that this was a serious moment of contemplation for me. I looked at my right hand, clenching and unclenching it, marveling at the fully functional middle finger. Everything just seemed too real for me to write this off as insanity. Unfortunately, everything also seemed too damn unreal for me to fully trust in my own sanity.
I decided that since there were no weird time skips, dead relatives, teleportation, or other obvious signs of this being a dream, or insanity, I would treat it as reality, despite how surreal things seemed. The finger clinched it.
Since I had chosen to take the path where I would act as if everything were really happening, I would assume, based on the evidence of my middle finger’s repair, that the voice in my head could fix my body. The next concern was that there seemed to be a third party whose motives were completely unknown. Was it smart to challenge the third party now? What if I ended up with a third voice in my head, and it didn’t agree with the first two?
I hadn’t spent a lot of time in the military, but I knew for a fact that information was both a weapon and a defense. If I chose to accept what had happened to me as reality, I had no knowledge, no way to even grasp the big picture. I didn’t know what to fear, or what to accept. The voice in my head indicated that breaking this security barrier with bone removal would allow them to see information that had been hidden before. I flexed my right fist again, savoring the feel of a right hand unburdened by heavy scarring in the middle finger. If I was right in my belief that I was experiencing reality, the voice in my head could fix what we were going to do.
Sitting cross-legged, I put one handle in the crook of one knee, and the other handle in the crook of the other knee. I was then able to hold the pruning shears upright and manipulate the handles by moving my legs. A bit clumsy but doable, and I could use one hand to hold them vertically stable as well. “If I think about this any more, I’m going to chicken out. Deaden the nerves, and I’ll let you control it. I don’t think I can, and after your silverware trick I trust your precision far more than mine.”
“OK, pinch your hands, both of them.” I did as requested and there was no sensation at all, not even pins and needles. “I can’t deaden your hearing or you won’t be able to hear me, and I might need to talk to you. Close your eyes now.”
I closed my eyes and felt my arms move, the right hand moving up, the left down to guide the handles. Then I felt my legs contract and heard the sound of metal on metal, then a jerk of my hand and a little plop, followed by a couple drips. My hands swapped positions, the guide hand moved above the water while the other hand moved below the water, guiding the handles. I pretended to myself that what I knew had just happened, really hadn’t. Fooling myself didn’t work. I knew I should be nauseous, but I wasn’t. The symbiote hadn’t told a lie yet that I could tell, which was a good thing considering that I was letting it chop off finger joints with a garden tool.
My symbiote gave me an update. “Same effect as before, but the top code layer is different – it’s a mandate for creating the signaling bodies I have been finding, tied to a secondary same-tier mandate for activating the signaling bodies every few minutes. It has hidden itself again. Took about four seconds.”
“Think you can remove it?”
“Yes, it looks like it will be pretty easy.”
Legs shifted. *snip… plop… drip* Arms swapped positions.
“That was easy. Disabled the creation mandate.”
Legs shifted. *snip… plop… drip* Arms swapped positions.
“And there went the communication mandate.”
“What was underneath?”
“I’m not sure – it was rapidly shifting when the security recovered.”
“Think you can take out the security itself?”
“No, not easily. It’s connected to a lot of different functions and anchored tightly. If I damage it, I might damage myself severely. I have to work around it. It seems a lot like the human brain’s disconnect that prevents sleep walking in most people.”
“I’m starting to feel a bit light-headed.”
“What? How? Where the hell are those toxins coming from?” All of a sudden I lost control of myself and felt my hands and arms move rapidly. I heard water slosh out of the tub and onto the floor.
“Suicide switch. Very robust. It looks like I triggered it by removing the communication mandate.” Silence.
“And?” A few seconds passed. “Umm, AND…”
“Sorry Bob, it attacked me, rendered me unable to act after about a second. I seem to recover faster from network damage than it does, but I only have about one second to act before it shuts me down, then security restores itself and boots me out. I can’t keep up with the damage it’s doing to you, it will kill you in less than five minutes if I don’t stop it.”
“I’m glad I have a lot of fingers left then. Do it. Toes too, if you have to.” The adrenaline rush from the announcement of my possible death sentence made it impossible to keep my eyes closed, so I averted my gaze, not wanting to watch. The symbiote apparently didn’t need my eyes for this.
Legs shifted. *snip… plop… drip* Arms swapped positions.
My eyes dragged back to what was happening to me and I watched with gruesome fascination as the symbiote chopped another joint off the end of one of my fingers with the shears. A few seconds passed…
Legs shifted. *snip… plop… drip* Arms swapped positions. Another joint fell into the water.
Five more joints, one every few seconds. Each snipped joint was followed by a brief spurt of blood hitting the water, then the hand with one less finger joint would be shifted under water, where it would stop bleeding while the healing hand guided the shears to cut another joint on the other hand. The joints, I noticed, were not being regrown – they just rapidly scarred over to prevent blood loss. The self-mutilation should have been making me nauseous, but it wasn’t. Despite the lack of pain and nausea, despite the fact that it was not really me doing it, it was almost impossible for me to bear to continue.
The symbiote spoke up. “It’s weakening, but at the same time, it’s damaging your biological systems. You are going to have to take over the cutting. I need to shift more of my processing to attacking and defending against the attacks against your body. I’m releasing a large endorphin dose. I’m sorry. I know this is hell for you, even if you can’t feel it, but every tiny bit of processing power I can spare has to go into this fight.”
I shivered and shook despite the warm water as I gained control of my hands back, clumsily grabbing one of the handles with one hand and starting to put a finger of the other hand between the blade and anvil of the shears. How in the hell was I going to do this to myself? I hoped this was all a terrible dream.
“Stop. One joint at a time. Don’t cut your thumbs at all. Leave the last joint above the palm on every finger so you can grip the shears. Start on your toes if you have only thumbs and the first joins of each finger left. You will be unconscious before you run out of toes, if we don’t stop this thing, and dead shortly after.”
The promised endorphin rush hit at that point. It helped with the fear and near paralysis. Then it hit me. Whoever did this to me in the first place, whoever did this to both of us for that matter – they were trying to sterilize us as a failed experiment that had started with them experimenting on me as a child. The anger resulting from that thought cleared my mind a bit more. If we lived, the symbiote could heal me, and we could look for answers, but I needed to act to live.
I shoved aside mental images of me as some sort of ‘good guy’ hero, proclaiming ‘We will get you! Right after we cut off a few of our body parts to find clues.’ I had already chosen the path of presumed sanity. Second guessing myself at this point was less than useful. ‘Or maybe it might save your life…’ I looked at the newly cut finger joint stumps that were not bleeding. This was still reality, I hoped. At least the way I talked to myself seemed very different from the way the symbiote talked to me.
I positioned the finger. Legs shifted. *snip… plop… drip* Arms swapped positions.
A few seconds later the symbiote spoke again. “Every five seconds, I will beep in your ear, you need to cut.”
“Understood.” My voice came out cracked and broken, the massive doses of adrenaline and endorphins combined with anger and fear all winding my body’s metabolism so tight it was almost impossible so speak. Despite all the metabolic issues, my purpose was clear – sacrifice to survive. I would worry about the future later if there was a later.
I positioned the next finger. Beep. Legs shifted. *snip… plop… drip* Arms swapped positions.
Time passed as I cut joints off my hands with the shears until there were no joints left to spare. The pain grew, as my symbiote put more and more of its awareness and energy into the fight against the suicide switch. By the time I cut the last couple joints on my hands that I could cut and still wield the shears, every cut was a massive, cascading renewal of pain in my mutilated hands. Potential death, however, was a good motivator. I did my best to ignore the pain. I did my best to pretend that the pain was imaginary. The last few cuts on each hand were unhealed and bleeding heavily. My symbiote was no longer stopping the bleeding, and with each exertion of my hands the bleeding got worse. The water was now the color of diluted tomato soup.
I positioned the shears on the first toe. Beep. I was holding the shears with both hands, bleeding heavily, clumsily, but able to grip firmly enough despite the blood. Both legs were fully extended, one leg on top of the knee of the other, with the toes of the upper leg protruding out of the water. *snip… plop* No drip? Then I realized that the toes were closer to water when cut than my hands had been. The toe made a noise after such a short fall, but the blood wasn’t falling far enough to be audible. My toes seemed too far away, my control over the shears was starting to fail with my hands in the condition they were in, the pain in every action was terrible, and my vision was failing. I started to cut whole toes off because I couldn’t control my body well enough to just cut one joint at a time.
I then realized that the uncomfortable round things pressed against my lower back and buttocks were what was left of my fingers and toes. I vomited. Apparently my symbiote was no longer suppressing nausea either.
“All I got left” said a faint voice in my ear as I felt another rush of adrenaline and endorphins which helped me recover from the nausea and sharpened my thoughts again. My heart started beating irregularly but rapidly, the bleeding grew heavier, but my vision cleared a bit and I could see my toes again, and lifted the shears.
Next toe. Beep. *snip… plop*
Next toe. Beep. *snip… plop*
The bleeding started to slow again, my vision started to fade. The pain was fading as well. In a distant sort of way, I recognized that I didn’t have much time left. I couldn’t see any more small toes, they were too small. I dropped the shears but managed to clumsily pick them back up and placed the blade and anvil around the base of my left big toe. I couldn’t hold my left leg out of the water any longer, it fell off my right leg and rested at the bottom of the tub, but the blade and anvil of the shears were still around the big toe.
I shook my head. What was I doing? Why did I hurt so much? Beep? Was I dreaming? Could I wake up? What did ‘beep’ mean?
Beep. Beep. My alarm? Was it time to wake up? I heard a faint voice, couldn’t really make it out but I thought it said I had to cut. I focused again and squeezed the handles together. I had to try several times, whatever I was cutting was tough, and my hands hurt a lot. Finally I cut through.
My last thought before blackness was “Enough yard work for the day. I’m going to take a nap in the hot tub.”