By Damien Krsteski
[MY WIFE] dragged me to one of her company cocktail parties.
“Sure I’ve seen it,” I said to a middle-aged woman who had blabbered to me, champagne in hand, for the better part of an hour.
“Really? What did you think of it?”
The subject was the latest [MOVIE DIRECTOR]’s film, a supposed existential masterpiece I’d only read about in my newsfeed.
“It’s the finest of the decade,” I quoted the review. “The way he plays with light in the death scene to convey a sense of despair is absolutely mind-blowing and indicative of his style.”
Touching the brim of her felt hat she tilted back her head, her jewelry glinting in the chandelier’s light.
“Why, that’s precisely what I thought…”
We kept the discussion going until [MY WIFE] finished mingling with her colleagues and reluctantly made her way back to me.
“There you are.” She took my glass and drained the bubbly in one gulp. “Let’s go.”
I spent the following nights staring at the ceiling, wondering why that precise moment of innocent untruthfulness looped in my head over and over again.
I’ve told bigger lies before (and quite well according to acquaintances), so why couldn’t I banish that trivial conversation from my mind?
There was something unsettling about it, perhaps the ease with which I’d slithered my way through the conversation, or the blasphemous notion that I, a man of logic, had publicly defended a subjective opinion I didn’t share — or rather, one I didn’t know whether I shared or not.
One question compelled me night after night: how far can a man wade his way through society by uttering only unoriginal thoughts? By divorcing fact from meaning. Speaking without understanding.
I started small, casual chit-chat with the grocer, the pizza delivery boy, the barber. I woke early to comb through the newsfeed for all sorts of topics — sports, culture and politics — and then repeated the sentences word for word as they’d been written to any who would listen.
“[FOOTBALL TEAM]’s lead is indisputable…”
“She played that part with utter and inimitable grace…”
“The president of the United States could never bring herself to admit the failures of the administration regarding [WAR IN THIRD-WORLD COUNTRY]…”
The response was immediate and quite expected: people listened, nodding politely, gulping down the expert words of an educated and well-rounded individual. Soon it came time to pit myself against a person specialized in a field I had little knowledge of.
I wound up in a vinyl record store. Having read opinion columns and album reviews on a select few musicians the previous day, I felt as cognoscente as I could ever be.
A plump young man with caked ketchup stains on his [BAND X] shirt devoured a burrito at the cash register. He gaped at me as I held two records up to him.
“Which one do you suppose is better?” I said innocently.
He waggled his chin in the direction of [BAND X]’s latest album in my left hand.
“Really?” I held it a bit higher than the other as if weighing its contents. “I was leaning towards this one.” Meaning [BAND Y]’s new album.
Swiftly he turned and settled his unfinished meal carefully on the counter. Wiping his mouth with a sleeve he nodded towards his original choice.
“Nah, man, the vastly superior album’s that one.”
My spine tingled with anticipation as I spoke the words I’d learned by heart: “I’m not sure I want a hodgepodge of an album, songs flowing gracefully one into the other as tanks into eastern Europe, with not one but two power ballads (served unmercifully to our ears by one the gruffest vocalist on Earth) and an outro song so boringly long you’d want to blow your brains out like [BAND X]’s erstwhile singer.” I took a deep breath and appended, “No, thanks.”
The clerk looked disgraced. He gaped at me for a moment then rattled off a long string of words which seemed as borrowed from a review as mine.
Having memorized every argument/counter-argument pair from the comment section of the album review, I struck back.
He blushed, crossed his arms.
Muttering profanities under his breath he attempted another rebuttal, but my arguments repelled his words and left them wriggling impotently on the ground.
His face betrayed a flicker of doubt. He sighed. “Okay, man, buy what ever the hell you want.” He scooped up his burrito and dragged himself over to some customers in the country music aisle.
I did buy the album out of sheer excitement, but four steps out the store I lobbed the record straight into a dumpster.
Repeating the music store experiment in a different location, while satisfying, brought little to the table. The bookstore was easiest, and the sports pub proved most resilient (a black eye reminded me of it for a whole week).
I stuck to the routine: early mornings of data mining followed by a whole day of applying my meta-knowledge throughout varied locations and with all sorts of characters. Apart from a few oblong glances most people couldn’t tell the difference between a person who understood the facts and one who’d merely memorized all possible answers to their questions. I felt like my experiment was edging towards a satisfying conclusion.
One night as I drove [MY WIFE] to meet a friend on the outskirts of town I had an epiphany.
“You should seriously consider getting a job,” she said, her speech slurred. “You seem to have way too much free time.”
She sipped from her energy drink can. The stench of vodka — which I pretended not to notice — spread around the car.
“Don’t drink caffeine at night.” My fingernails dug into the steering wheel. “Makes you all jittery.”
She mimed a military salute. “Yessir.”
On my windshield the darkness of the star-flecked sky was interrupted by a lone green streak. A squirming arrow superimposed over the heavens, guiding the car. The road slithered into the distance, flanked by poplar trees.
Then realization dawned on me. Of course. My experiment was far from finished. Bypassing my meaty memory would be a fascinating next step.
“Why don’t you give your former employer, whatshisname, a call?” [MY WIFE] said. “Your old spot could be available.”
But I was already too immersed in planning to listen to what she had to say.
The package arrived a week later and I tore out bubble wrap as fast as I could. The lens container, a mid-sized bottle of cleaning fluid, and an ear bud were encased in a plastic case. Gingerly, I placed the lens on the tip of my index finger, applied a few drops and brought it to my eye.
A monochromatic menu hovered before me. A string of text thanked me for my purchase and welcomed me to Third Eye’s augmented reality environment. I looked around my workroom — the superimposed text followed my gaze. Giddy with excitement at the prospects of my new plaything I fired up my terminal, connecting straight to Third Eye’s API. The drivers and additional software downloaded to my computer within seconds of entering my purchase code, but it took me four hours to relay the functions I needed to my customized data crawler and two more to implement speech recognition.
By 5 a.m., version alpha was ready for testing.
“Ask me anything.”
She rubbed the sleep from her eyes.
“What do you want?” She opened one eye, face puffy and pale, voice raspy from cigarettes.
“Just ask me a factual question.”
She straightened up, put the pillow between her knees and set her head on it.
“What’s our capital city?”
“That’s easy. Ask me something I wouldn’t know.”
She groaned. “What was our GDP per capita for 2019?”
The word Processing wrote itself before me. Recognizing the query, the device now pinged my newscrawler for the data.
I read the answer out loud. “Is this correct?”
She replaced the pillow and pulled the covers over her head. “How would I know?”
It took some tweaking, but my contraption was ready for use within days. Once again I started small and worked through the areas geographically, testing people from my neighborhood before spreading out.
It listened to words in conversations, filtering out sentences with inflections towards the end. Once a phrase was judged to be a question, it pinged my substantially more powerful computer back home for the answer and overlaid it on my vision in letters shining like fireflies.
When we had friends over I dominated discussions. Always I steered conversations towards factual topics, history, science, geography, so I’d test both myself and the software.
The television screen in the living room looped quiz shows.
Who is [PERSON X] and how old is he?
Milliseconds later I had the correct answer spelled out before my eyes. I spoke the words in chorus with the show participant.
Where is [COUNTRY X] located and what’s the capital city?
The answer came in the shape of a map alongside longitude and latitude coordinates. Capital city and population size, too.
The ear bud I left unused — a bone-conducted voice turned out to be too distracting for practical day to day use.
Gradually, using it became second nature, and when any part of this system malfunctioned or was switched off I felt alone and vulnerable. I connected first thing in the morning and shut it off right before sleep.
I analyzed my progress. Many people constructed lives out of lies, cheating on spouses, driving to work daily despite been fired months before, climbing corporate ladders and becoming proficient backstabbers in the process — so merely lying more and more (or rather, claiming knowledge I didn’t posses) would break no new ground.
My focus shifted to improving the answer-fetching algorithms. I wanted it to answer questions of an ephemeral quality just as well and to recognize phrases with imperfect semantic structure. The latter proved easier to deal with, what with all the open-source algorithms online. The former was more elusive, but I had to solve it.
A closed feedback loop — such was the shape of my solution.
To begin with I taught my terminal the basics of data structures and algorithms. Complexity theory. Syntax and code optimization for the three programming languages I used on a daily basis.
Before long it could spot bugs or warn me if my code was bloated as if it were a word processor correcting bad grammar. A red squiggly line would underline the problematic code and over my field-of-view the system would display the solution it had deemed more elegant.
I turned to the bigger problems of pattern recognition. I wanted this device strapped to my eye and skull; to parse every question or discussion and retrieve an adequate answer or opinion for me to say; to record and assess all visual situations and produce an optimized response on my part; to guide me through streets with the lightest traffic in town; to haggle with shop-owners based on their facial tics and provide hints on how to play people based on their current body language.
“Glassy look, hubby.”
“What?” I tore my eyes from the quiz show and turned to face her. Sensors registered the change in my focus and promptly paused the show.
“I said I hate that glassy look of yours, all distant.” She had her feet on the ottoman, hands behind her head.
In a sudden sweep of color, her body’s outline was traced in luminous red squiggles like throbbing capillaries. She breathed heavily. A red aura took shape around her. I was seeing this type of overlay for the first time, gaping at it.
“What’s wrong with you? Hey!” A pillow hit my face. When I opened my eyes her side of the room was inundated with red. She stood, carrying the color with her, screaming, “Look at me. Look at me.”
The doorframe pulsed in blue. I pushed her aside and walked out of the room, straight through the blue door and blue hallway and into my blue room all while she was kicking and screaming at me in red. I shut and locked the door.
The neural network intertwined to my device had led me safely out of conflict. After a few moments [MY WIFE] stopped banging on my door, and I heard her walk away and rattle some bottles in the kitchen.
The hot colors all but dissipated.
The multi-layered and increasingly connected network of artificial neurons cultured in my home computer learned as much about me as it could, adapting to my surroundings. Twice I had to upgrade my hardware, and when I surpassed my credit card limit I began contemplating other solutions.
My old university lab had a decent array of machines strung together for professors to boast with and attract freshmen at the annual open campus day, machines which were ironically left idle for the most part due to low student interest. People did borrow time, for calculating pi or monkey-typing Shakespeare, but these were one-off experiments that didn’t use up much computing power.
I could hack the school’s security systems blindfolded (I’d designed parts of them myself) so planting my code proved to be a piece of cake.
A compact script (the device assisted me in writing) monitored their system for idleness and spawned a new neural net, which tunneled through to the local one for parallel computation and communication.
Once unused, NeuralNet2 saved the state of each neuron and whisked the data to my local disc. When needed again, the local network signaled the planted code to check for system availability, then deployed and restarted NeuralNet2 from its saved state.
I had a second trick up my sleeve: the script monitored the system for remote logins and spread the neural networks to those computers too, then from those onto others, and so on.
I was walking back home from the supermarket when a teenager fiddling with his phone slammed into me from behind. The human-shaped silhouette in the left corner of my vision shone bright — the left arm glowing in a paler shade of blue than the right — and almost instinctively I balanced the bags of groceries in my arms based on the force implied by the colors.
“Sorry.” He pranced away, whistling, leaving a trail of musical notes in his wake. Two or three seconds later, when a sufficient amount of notes were recognized by my device, I saw them transform in the words [BAND X] – [SONG X].
I whispered, “Download it.”
Back home [MY WIFE] was waiting in the kitchen, stooped above an overflowing ashtray. The colors in my vision screeched get out, get out. I set the groceries on the counter, started stocking up the fridge.
“We need to talk.” Her voice was hoarse but unwavering. She must have had a few drinks.
She shrugged. “Things.” A cigarette dangled from her lips. “Us.”
The silhouette in my vision made a sitting gesture so I pulled up a chair and sat down. Her bloodshot eyes peered through me.
Lighting her cigarette she said, “What’s the matter with you? Huh? S’like you can’t see me no more.”
Words appeared as if wreathed in smoke. “Nothing,” I read out.
“Nothing my ass.”
“It’s true,” I said. “You on the other hand … you have a problem.”
An outraged “What?” sent red sparks flying from her.
“You’re a booze bag.”
She tried to slap me but the shape’s right arm flashed and I raised mine just in time to stop her. New words appeared. “I’m serious.”
She sprang up. The device overlaid one last sentence, and the words almost stuck in my throat. As she strode out the kitchen though, I managed to read them out, demanding a divorce.
The myriad shapes and symbols gave out instructions, which I followed. They told me to redistribute the weight of the cardboard box from my left to my right hand, to walk an optimized path from the truck to the house and vice-versa, to avoid looking at her eyes at all cost.
She sat on the truck’s front seat, smoking.
When I loaded the last of her boxes she started up the engine and stepped out.
Her look was one of contempt, disappointment, anger, though mostly it was sadness I saw. When she opened her mouth to speak or cuss or yell, she changed her mind, got back in the truck, and drove away.
I couldn’t tell the day of the week, and even when I could it was useless because an eye blink later it was tomorrow, and the day after, and the one after that.
My mind took the back seat as my body switched to autopilot. I saw my hands move, do stuff, very efficiently and without any volition on my part, akin to muscle memory but of things I’d never learned or practiced.
Society never noticed the difference. I took part in my activities and barely changed my habits. Shopping in the corner market, eating in the Thai restaurant, walking in the park. Change was internalized. I had more time to think, to let my mind wander while my body obeyed the optimized rules of movement, conduct, and reaction.
Someone asked a question and the written answer before me signaled my mouth to move and air to pass through my vocal chords in the shape of those words. Another person smiled or greeted or communicated in body language and my muscles and bones reacted according to the appropriate response calculated by my device.
I embodied the experiment. A person living a life not his own, speaking without understanding, doing without knowing.
But this was not the end. Not yet.
My existence became instinct. My actions became reactions. I was reduced to a pair of eyes shoved to the back of my skull, observing but unable to act.
Movement became differential equations and speech a function of acoustics. I glimpsed only the end product of the ever-calculating neural networks, and my body listened to their reasoning.
At times I couldn’t understand it, why my legs carried me to that part of town, why my mouth spoke to those people, shook these hands, kissed that girl, signed those contracts…
There were rare moments when I woke from sleep screaming at the empty house, sensation creeping back in my arms and legs and torso, euphoria spreading through my reclaimed body. I cried out in joy, clasping my arms, pulling the skin on my face.
But the joy was stillborn. Moments later the sensations slipped away, and my body reverted to its new, rightful owner.
The eyes at the back of my skull soon tired, eyelids drooping. Even my status as observer was no longer certain.
I sensed my body do things to itself, apply further modifications, pushing the metamorphosis towards completion.
The experiment’s endpoint, within my grasp.
But this is where I lose track of [MY STORY]. Here on out all I remember is an engulfing blackness and the implacable, primal fear beneath it all.
Here I am now, awake for the time being. It’s the needles they stick in me, the adrenaline shots that chase away the sleep.
Atrophied consciousness due to cognitive outsourcing is their diagnosis. Sounds like something made up.
The doctors say I was so dependent on external decisions the conscious part of my mind became dormant, unused. They mumble a lot of medical jargon as well and even showed me a scan of my rewired nervous system.
Apparently, my software had spread throughout the world, causing a scare rivaling that of the millennium bug a quarter of a century ago. Tracing that software is precisely how they’d found me.
I ask about the dark spots, the blemishes littering my memory like cigarette burns. They call my mind stale and mention retrograde amnesia but mostly look at their shoes.
I see they know as little as me.
I spend my days strapped to this hospital bed, forcing my mind to stay conscious for more than seconds at a time, recovering my past. Shards are all I remember. Concepts. Relationships between concepts. Who said what and when and why. But not really the people behind the actions. Not the feelings. I remember a woman but not her name or her face or her touch. Just what she said. And who she was.
No one comes to visit. They say I was successful and made heaps of money, but no one comes anyhow.
I glance at the world map on the wall — red circles and lines showing my scattered nervous system prior to the surgeries — and wonder what he would have to say about that.
The reply comes in the shape of an indecipherable, soothing whisper.
My eyes close.
I fall asleep.
Damien Krsteski is an SF author from Skopje, Macedonia. His work has appeared in places like Liquid Imagination, Fiction365, Way of the Buffalo podcast, 365 Tomorrows and others. More information about his work can be found on his blog: http://monochromewish.blogspot.com