Shell Game

“I’m already locked inside a trillion cells. What difference does one more make?”
He shouted this from his cage, the words slipping past receding guards to find more receptive ears in similar cages lining the corridor. It didn’t take long for his zen-like question to become a subtle but standing echo throughout the facility.
Some treated it like a mantra, its repetition a source for stoic inspiration. Most thought it was a pretty good joke. Eventually, the echo found someone who understood and could answer the prayers of prisoner AShannon46812.
When you need human guinea pigs, the imprisoned and poor will do just fine, thank you.
Still, Dr Andrews felt his fully secular prayers had been answered in the form of this mystic-cum-murderer whose goals aligned so well with his own. All the doctor had to do was convince a staunch Luddite that science and technology had more to offer than his lifelong commitment to spiritualism.
“AShannon46812,” the guard said, as he wheeled the prisoner into the room. His tone was flat, bored, like he’d delivered a package and only needed a signature to be on his way. Of course, given all the restraints, one might think he had just delivered a package. The inmate could hardly breathe, much less escape.
Andrews ordered the gag removed and watched Shannon’s eyes as the guard complied, trying to establish contact, some kind of empathic bond. But a continued, unfocused stare told Andrews his small gesture of kindness had meant nothing to the prisoner. And why should it? You can uncork a bottle of wine to let it breathe. That didn’t make it more than an object to be used and discarded.
“Can I call you Aiden?”
“My hypothesis is you will.”
“I’m Malcolm Andrews. You understand I’m not the medical doctor for this facility? I’m a–”
“Scientist,” Shannon said through gritted teeth.
Andrews had been prepared for a negative attitude, but had never heard the word scientist pronounced with such open hostility before. His knee-jerk reaction was that Shannon must be an idiot. Had to be. And yet, everything in his files said otherwise. Whatever Andrews might make of Shannon’s irrational rantings and disregard for modernity, the prisoner’s methods had been sophisticated, his manipulation of people and events undeniably intelligent. It could be Shannon was just trying to throw him off by getting him upset, emotional.
“What about investigator? That would fit just the same. And isn’t that what you did, Aiden, investigate?”
The prisoner didn’t respond, but his eyes shifted in ways that suggested he was thinking about something.
“You may not believe this, Aiden, but we’re both seeking something very similar. Identical, perhaps.”
“Really? I can’t imagine what that could be.”
“An escape. Not from this facility, or from one’s past. I mean an escape of the human mind from this…” Andrews waved his hand around to indicate his body, then Shannon’s, and then the objects around them. “The physical world.”
Shannon smiled. “Malcolm is it? The physical world is the only thing you scientists believe in. What else can there be but this?” He lifted his hands as far as the shackles would allow, then shook them in mocking imitation of Andrews.
“Well, you have me there, don’t you? The only evidence I can rely on are the effects I can see in the material world. But I’m not fooling around with disembodied voices, or traces of ectoplasmic residue. What I’m talking about is a definite, measurable breaking of the supposed inseparable bond between minds and the physical bodies they happened to emerge from. If that can be done. If you, the essence of who you are, can be shifted outside of the brain–functioning first here, and then somewhere else–that would be a critical step in proving that the mind is something more than the cells which make it up.”
“It could just be a clever imitation, a mere duplication of reactions to stimulus without retaining the real person.”
“Now who sounds like a scientist?”
Shannon snorted. “I’ve trained in stage magic. I understand how an audience can be fooled into seeing what it wants to believe.”
“Sure, but if I wanted to fool an audience I’d be making computer simulations. Chinese boxes. I wouldn’t need flesh and blood subjects.”
“If I understand where you’re going with this, Malcolm, the end product will be a computer, maybe a robot, and nothing remotely flesh and blood.”
“Computers and robots follow sets of programs, designed in advance by other minds. My end product, while noncellular, is not a computer system or robot. It’s a receptive unit for a mind. Your mind, maybe. The process involves direct transfer of a mind, from one point to another, through use of the unit by that mind, without set coding schemes or programs.”
“What does this physical receptive unit receive, if the mind is not physical? And how does it receive it?”
Dr Andrews frowned. “Come now, Aiden, you’ve played this game the same as I have. The mind, the soul, whatever you want to call it, is not a physical thing. It’s an accumulation of personal experience, as well as the ability to sustain and act on those experiences. The mind is a set of functions that is manifested by, but separate from, whatever physical material underlies those functions. The unit I’ve created receives such experiences, and allows a mind to continue building and acting on them. The unit receives and maintains those functions.”
“Then we aren’t seeking the same thing at all. Don’t you see? According to you, these functions are in the brain. The physical brain is their source. But what if the functions are carried out somewhere else? The way I think the mind exists. What if the brain is simply a conduit through which an immaterial mind animates flesh? How do you transfer the actual mind, the actual, unlimited functions from there over to your little box?” Shannon gripped his shackles. “To here? And what kind of escape would that be?”
“Well that’s where I have you, Aiden. Let’s say the mind is made up of super-duper magical rainbows in wherever-land. And the brain is just a conduit, as you say, between unlimited, functional rainbows and your limited, dysfunctional body. Then what I’m telling you is that I’ve built another conduit through which your rainbows can shine on this world. A conduit that can free you of all earthly desires.” He grabbed Shannon’s restraints and shook them hard with each point. “Sexual lusts, gluttonous hungers, slothful slumbers. All of it. While proving the mind is not merely the body you inhabit, my so-called little box will break most of the chains which keep your precious rainbows fixated on this world.”
With that, Andrews cast the shackles back at Shannon. The dice were thrown. He knew of the bloody scourging, the starvation level fasting, the psychotic-episode-inducing sleep deprivations that Shannon had required his followers to suffer in order to escape the demands of the body they hated so much. That many of his followers had escaped their fleshy confines–though not in the way he promised–was exactly why Shannon was at the facility. Would he see this as a chance to short-cut those extreme privations from which nobody had yet returned to prove his beliefs correct?
“How many?” Shannon asked.
“How many what?”
“How many people have tried this thing? I can’t be the first. I want to know how many people survived this transfer of conduits, or how many people you have killed and yet you stay free because you wear a lab coat, while I rot in prison for seeking the exact same thing as you. Your words.”
Andrews thought about the real answer to this question, as well as how to phrase it right. “In all honesty, you will be the first. You, of all people, should know how hard it is to get someone interested in moving the mind anywhere from where it is right now. Imagine how much harder it is for a guy in a lab coat, your words.”
“So what’s your proof it’s possible? No one gave you permission without something science-based to suggest you could succeed. At the very least you killed some rats or pigs or primates.”
“Oh. Well, OK, if you mean like that, then yes. I don’t know really. If it’s important I could find out how many animals were sacrificed.”
“Yes, but I’m not sure how relevant that is. The point is that the technology has reproduced mental function allowing for continuous activity in several animals. We have videos of course. It’s quite impressive. But from what I understand you believe the human mind is unique. We exist elsewhere and other animals don’t.”
“That’s the best you have? Reproduction?”
“Not just reproduction, continuity of function.”
“Of animals.”
“Well yes, but they were just proof of principle that dry technology could be used to do what we’d already achieved in humans using wet systems.”
“Wet systems?”
Andrews felt the hook sink into whatever metaphorical flesh made up Shannon’s interests, as his eyes shifted to lock on the scientist, and decided it was time for Shannon to meet The Siamese.
It was too bad most people at the conference weren’t listening to Dr Andrews. After all, his was the first official announcement that science, or rather a group of scientists, had managed to move a human mind from a living, organic brain to a largely inorganic, completely noncellular system.
As important as that achievement was, the data proving it was catastrophically upstaged by the presence of a prior scientific success, sitting behind and slightly to the left of Dr Andrews.
He’d introduced the man with a brief, “My assistant… I’m sure no introductions are necessary.” But many around the room quietly disagreed. While no one required an explanation of who he was, few had seen this assistant beyond videos or still images over a decade old, much less been introduced to him in person. Though of mixed Sudanese-Japanese descent, he was popularly known as The Siamese because of the second head jutting from his body on fleshed-over bio-mechanical supports emerging from his neck, trapezius, and collarbone.
Like Shannon, he’d been presented to the doors of the facility under heavy guard as prisoner PKit30277. Unlike Shannon, his crimes weren’t driven by occult interests, and his work with Dr Andrews had never been a meeting of the minds. He’d volunteered for the “wet systems” experiments for the same reason most others had. He’d wanted privileges in the facility that allowed for the semblance of an almost normal, albeit housebound, life.
Some subjects ended up having their second heads removed, others their first, and some regrettably both. Save Kit, none of them were the same man who had entered the project. But there’d been no tissue rejection or other complications with Kit. He hadn’t just survived the procedure, he’d thrived. And the results remained as startling, and distracting, as the first day he’d been revealed.
One reason Shannon wasn’t triggering the same reaction is that the results looked so commonplace. Expected. Imagery of humanoid robots had been around forever. And even if their existence as independent AI pseudo-persons still seemed a pipe dream, the level of mimicry machines were capable of while carrying out complex tasks was routine. Plus, the technology allowing humans to remotely operate mechanized avatar units, while receiving sensations from them, had long accustomed people to seeing mechanical units acting with apparent human intelligence and emotion.
The other reason was purely visceral. To evolved human senses, inorganic objects just don’t register as inherently important. It didn’t matter that Shannon’s brain was a nest of nanobots writhing in a complex medium, or that it duplicated the feedback/forward oscillation patterns of organic neuronal networks to render decisions–via critical states and quorum sensing–that defy reproduction using binary code on silicon chips. Whatever technical advance that might represent, to biological nervous systems keyed up to spot other life forms, Shannon was mere background environment. They might as well have unveiled a covered bowl sitting on a simple shelf. After all, that is exactly what he looked like when not in motion.
The Siamese, on the other hand, wasn’t commonplace or capable of registering as background. Despite coming from Kit’s own cells, the second head didn’t resemble its source material at all. It was tinged a bluish-pink, with the bulbous melon of a dolphin or narwhal, and a face containing strong hints of the feline–or maybe a pug dog–with very wide set eyes that were usually closed or squinted. Unlike Shannon, The Siamese set off primitive alarm bells just by being there. Kit was a grotesque at best, at worst an abomination.
This also helps explain why, despite being the main source of distraction during the conference, Kit wasn’t mobbed by admirers at the reception afterward. With drink in one hand and the other tucked in pants pocket, Kit didn’t seem put out by the long distance stares, or Dr Andrews routinely pointing in his direction while discussing him in the third person.
“Of course,” Andrews said. “It was the same for both of them. The mind is voracious… Well… Wait, let me be clear. The organisms making up the mind are voracious. They’ll take whatever they can get. That’s so obvious when you understand the ease with which we can implant circuits to carry signals within the brain, duplicating the simplest activity of neurons. The cells take it and use it to keep the mind going, say to extend activities to or receive sensations from avatar units. Brains are free in the true, practical sense, you know? Any means necessary.”
The group surrounding Andrews, mostly military, looked at the scientist coolly. Some took strong pulls on their drinks to avoid having to reply.
“So… anyway, you have to think of the second brain, whether organic or inorganic, as simply a prosthetic. The process of training to use the device remains the same. First the brain-prosthesis is set to take in impressions much like a newborn, until it can be reversed and the subject uses it like a reservoir or backup. With enough experience he can practice flipping between the two. None of that mind uploading, as if it were mere information exchange, claptrap. The subjects used an external device to augment their original brains, until they no longer needed the first.”
“What about the conscience?” said a man with bars on his shoulders. “The self? Doesn’t that always remain in the first brain?”
“Tsk, Captain. I see someone else slept through my presentation. Look, it’s all about continuity of conscious experience. If you lost the right hemisphere of your brain, you wouldn’t lose use of the left, or who you are, your self, would you? It’s the same principle. Without access to their original brain, they’d lose a portion of older memories that weren’t fully transferred to the prosthesis during memory exercises, but they’re synced up for most relevant information and all bodily functions. They feel–and as I discussed earlier we have tested this–a bit disoriented at first when only using the prosthetic. Lots of things from childhood feel like they’re on the tip of their tongue, but will never come. That seems a small price to pay for immortality. And given Kit’s childhood, I’d say good riddance.” Andrews waved at The Siamese, and the others took the opportunity to stare a little longer. The Siamese raised his drink to them.
“Except,” said another officer. “He didn’t choose to give up the head with all those memories did he?” Then he hiked a thumb at the black lacquer bowl sitting on a shelf by the wall. “Only Shannon over there took it all the way. Isn’t what’s left really a different person? Especially without all the memories and physical feelings?”
Andrews’s eyes narrowed in thought. “No Major, he’s definitely still the same person. The point is that for both of them… I mean don’t you see? This was the whole point of our experiments. They could tell us, using their original brain when it was active, what it was like. They told us that regardless of initial disorientation and partial memory loss, their experiences of the self remained seamless. And so Shannon chose to cut, not the wire to his original self, but the ball and chain.”
“Ball and chain?”
“Yes, the ball and chain holding back the best of himself. There you see it gentlemen…” Andrews swept his arm grandly at the spartan shelf, with the bowl of nanobots. “There is the essence of a man, unfettered by desires holding him back, preventing him from attaining his ideals. No distractions like hunger, exhaustion, pain–”
“No, no, no. You can have physical pleasure if that’s what you want, when you want, but without having to feel pain of loss or unnecessary desire. It’s true Shannon cut off most physical sensations. But he still receives gratification from ideas and for him that is all he wants.”
“Fucking hell, what kind of life is that?”
“Free, Major Troski,” Shannon said in hi-fidelity sound, as the shelf unfolded into a streamlined avatar one might find at depth below the oceans. In fact, for all they could tell it was being commandeered by someone with a remote in the next room. Its limbs swung seamlessly to bring the body up to The Siamese, who it clamped onto like a lifeline in a storm. “A life free of your constantly-fucking hell.” Shannon pinched at The Siamese’s arm and then strode out of the room. It was hard to say if he left with intended grace, or whether the avatar’s frame prevented any other kind of exit.
The Siamese smiled to the group, “Now Major, don’t let our little tin man give you the wrong idea. Not everyone wants a life of the mind. If you like doing it then we can set you up to go nonstop, all you want, multiple appendages too. Heck, we can even fit you with male and female organs so you can go fuck yourse–”
“Hey, hey, heyyyyy!” The crowd jumped as Kit’s second head sprang to life, its eyes opening and voice croaking in a gruesome ventriloquist act. “You boys get a load o’ the rack just walked out of here? Hooo, boy.” He jerked a thumb in the direction of Shannon. “You know I had a girl with a rack like that once. I think she got it at a garage sale.”
You find the secret passage.
It took a while, but you finally mapped out the entire training area, revealing what had to be the technical service entrance. Well disguised, they wanted you to believe there was no direct way into the administration section of the facility. They’d even gone through the motions of having technicians, guards, and observers take the long way around to access the training area.
But they didn’t know to hide what they couldn’t sense.
They didn’t know to hide the squalls.
There’d only been two unexpected squalls in the labyrinth-like training area. But their timing in connection with surprisingly quick repairs, required while exercises were underway, made it likely another door or hatchway must exist.
The search took all of you.
So many bodies now.
Though you’d never piloted a remote avatar before, never been “hooked up”, you’d played video games when you were a child. You were familiar with focusing your attention so hard for so long that you became the onscreen character. Your physical body and the room around it receding until it was gone. Piloting multiple avatars was a little different, since you didn’t have to focus as hard to keep the illusion going, but it was almost the same. First they gave you two avatars, then three, and then the avatars came in sets.
One day it was as natural as breathing. The collection of bodies was as one, each avatar a separate piece of a whole. Only instead of doing just one thing, limited to a single function like a limb or organ, each unit could do everything an entire human body could.
You called them your tentacles.
The techs laughed at first, but soon they were running with it, referring to your primary frame with the nanobots as the Cephalo-Pod.
You understand how strange it must have seemed to them; comparing units that are stiff and mechanical, to something rubbery and organic. But that’s how it felt on the inside as your attention slipped and slithered around the avatars. And their movements were smooth and fluid compared to the jerking awkwardness of your old flesh and bone body, the units capable of carrying out the demands of your will in separate yet eerily coordinated ways.
By stretching out your tentacles during exercises, and comparing the metric feeds between them, you determined where hidden rooms and corridors might exist within the walls of the massive training area. By replaying memories of the two squalls, in flawless detail, potential entrances jumped out on your just completed mental map. By cross-referencing times between squalls and completed repairs, with memories of any temporary obstacles in the training room at the time, the actual door and likely path of the hidden corridor behind it was obvious.
Now, with all that work behind you and the door right in front of you, you walk away.
The passage is too long, with the possibility of turns and several doors, before it would reach the observation room. It could be manned with many guards, real or automated. Even if it wasn’t guarded around the clock, it could be reinforced by the time the door was forced open. The guns and explosive devices they gave you in the combat training sessions weren’t real. Not that powerful.
They weren’t that stupid.
You’d hoped that the service entrance would turn out to be close to the observation room. Just a quick rush and a push and you were there. Instead, it might as well be in another building.
You look at the faces behind the impenetrable glass of the observation room. All of them tired, seemingly unaware of your discovery. They must have been able to read your sudden elation, followed by crushing disappointment. Are they assuming it had to do with a failure in today’s test?
You suppose it was.
Just not their test.
Dejected, you gather your tentacles around your pod, as you head toward the edge of the room, wondering if you’d made a mistake in keeping an emotion like disappointment. Wasn’t registering failure enough? At the time, you’d thought they were useful tools. Without some kind of mental pain associated with failure, you thought growth might be impossible. No incentive. But wasn’t that just another slave conception?
Downright Pavlovian now that you think about it.
Had you kept a shackle after all?
Your disappointment is crystalline. Crushing. Like the point of a ten ton diamond pressing right through your mind and into your soul.
Forget failure, think about the squalls.
Think about alternatives.
Squalls were stronger than any psychedelic trip you’d ever had. The first time you’d tried to discuss what you were experiencing, the small events that seemed to occur almost everywhere, the scientists and techs assumed it was an issue with your sensors. But after those had passed inspection, with no chance for error, everyone thought you were making it up just to screw with the scientists.
Your descriptions didn’t make sense to them anyway. Didn’t seem consistent. How could they be when they didn’t involve one of the five natural senses? There weren’t colors, smells, sounds, textures, or tastes. By the way the events twisted and moved about, like small storms, you came to call them squalls. And it’s when the others became so dismissive of your claims, like a roomful of blind men dismissing all talk of “colors”, that you finally understood. Somehow, they’d accidentally given you a new sense.
You’d heard some species of animals have organs to detect electric fields, and you wondered if you had gained this ability. Saw the world as they did. After all, these events often occurred around transmitters. Even the hand held radios gave off clear emanations, allowing you to track the location of guards and technicians, with some practice.
But the strongest squall had been capable of pulling you outside the boundaries of your physical form better than any attempt at astral projection.
It was there, in the observation room, during a special tour given for some top officials, that it had happened.
And no one had noticed a thing.
Like the acid flashback you’d once had in a packed train, you looked around to see if anyone else was reacting to what you were experiencing, holding the panic and terror and elation and joy inside, as the shutters on reality fell down around you. On instinct, you knew you shouldn’t talk about it, unless someone else did.
The way this squall acted seemed intelligent, like it was communicating in this medium, and it managed to move your sense of location, being, out of the pod, out of the conduit they’d made for you. The shift only lasted for a few moments, and a short distance, but it was enough.
That was the experience that had made you realize these squalls couldn’t be just about electric fields, they could be about the spiritual. Maybe the organ they had unintentionally fitted you with was a third eye. The squalls had only started after your body was destroyed. Maybe that act had opened it. Broke the necessary chain that had been holding you back. But was it evil? Would it damn you? Though your mind remained in the world, by killing your body had you committed a blood sacrifice by mistake? Whatever the reason, the results were beyond expectations. It made you wish they’d given your pod lips so you could kiss Dr Andrews.
You vowed to get back into the room for more tests. You felt that with sufficient power, the squalls there could be key to completing your personal experiments.
Yet all your requests to revisit the observation room were denied, because they could see no reason for it. You got desperate and tried to discuss what had happened with the one person who might understand.
The freak. The abomination.
The closest thing you had to a friend in the facility.
But while The Siamese was sympathetic, thought the squalls were real enough, not just a joke, he’d said they were just flukes, side effects, hallucinations, glitches that you shouldn’t waste time and energy chasing. He gave you more shit about having cut off a perfectly good body, while his monster-head kept winking at you with a conspiratorial grin, nodding toward the regular head as if it were trying to let you know it wanted to bump off the first head too.
You couldn’t shiver, but you’d kept moral disgust. That was essential. The feeling of revulsion was intense, yet for some reason you didn’t tell The Siamese what his lesser half was doing. Perhaps if he’d agreed to help you?
So, with The Siamese out, you were on your own. Another elicit experiment to be pursued without the knowledge of, and against the wishes of, the others. Like when you figured out how long you could last without rest or sleep. The scientists wanted to know that too, of course, but you’d only let them know what you’d wanted them to know. You’d pretended to lose physical or mental control well before any real fatigue. Same for how many avatars you could control at one time. Or discovering how avatars could be recharged using alternative sources.
They had their theater, you had yours.
And with their expectations set the way you wanted, you had cover to run your most important experiments. The ones you’d been running nearly all your life.
Andrews had once illustrated the complete transfer of your mind–from biological body to the inorganic–by lighting one cigarette off another, then tossing the first. Well if it could be done once, you reasoned, why not again? With multiple avatars under your control, why could you not shift from one conduit to another and stay there when the experiment ended?
During training it was easy to concentrate, focus, shift attention into one tentacle. It was just like shifting attention to a finger to the exclusion of the rest of your body. Easier. What if you did that and connection with the rest of the tentacles was broken? What if connection to the main avatar, your pod, was lost? Isn’t it possible you could remain in that tentacle, that avatar?
The scientists laughed when you asked that in passing, and explained how it was impossible. How your pod held the nanobots that produced your mind, and the tentacles just had shunts, devices to relay control and sensory signals back and forth to your mind. You couldn’t stay in your finger, if it got cut off from the rest of the body, no matter how much you concentrate your attention there. The finger only has nerves relaying signals to and from the brain, it doesn’t have a brain itself. But, you asked, if the mind is not produced by the nanobots, rather the mind has trained to use the nanobots, why couldn’t it train to use a shunt just the same? After all, the shunt had connections to control all aspects of the avatar body. That made it much different from a finger.
One of the scientists made a screwy motion with a finger by her head.
You were crazy.
She reminded you of another scientist, long long ago, who had come to your group with what she said was an “open mind”. She had not yet become a full scientist, a doctor, a PhD. She was still in school, and wanted to test alternative theories of reality. That’s what she said.
During her time in the group she’d been critical about the sciences. Told your group a joke. Told the real meanings of all those abbreviations scientists have behind their names: BS – Bullshit, MS – More Shit, PhD – piled higher and deeper. Everyone had laughed. She spent a lot of time with your group, asking so many questions.
Seemed highly interested, eager, sincere.
After a year, she left without explanation and wrote a scathing article–what she called an exposé–about your group. About you. Said you were crazy. Said you were a liar.
It was well received.
For some reason no one in the science community saw the irony in this admitted liar proudly reporting how she’d used lies to “infiltrate” your group, in order to show others how much of a liar you were.
Or crazy.
She did give you that out.
One day you ran into her where she was working. Wasn’t sure if it was her at first, couldn’t believe it, so you moved in close. It was her all right. Still asking people questions, too. She didn’t recognize you when you spoke to her. Then she asked what she’d been asking everyone else.
“You want fries with that?”
Guess science hadn’t worked out for her after all.
“You want that medium or large?”
Guess the exposé had helped you more than her.
You leaned in close, setting down a large wad of cash.
“Piled higher and deeper,” you said.
The scientist who made the screwy motion may have been just as wrong about you as the other one had been. But she’d turned out to be right about the shunts.
She hadn’t been lying about that.
Late into combat training exercises, when you had it fixed so they thought you might start losing control, you’d begun your own experiments. Had your tentacles get sloppy. Make mistakes. It turned out that if your attention was fully in a tentacle when it was knocked offline, you snapped right back to the pod. And if you cut power to the pod while in a tentacle, usually having attacked it by “mistake”, you were knocked out completely. You ran these trials over and over again. You checked for possible variants, including sheer will power, meditation, and chants. The shunts didn’t seem capable of holding your mind, or vice versa.
That made using the squalls, the large squalls, your next best line of investigation. But with the observation room now out of the running, what could you do? The second largest squall you’d ever experienced had come from within a room in your section of the facility, right off a corridor you could reach. Just a rush and a push, as you had hoped would be the case here. But that squall hadn’t come close to what had gone down in the observation room.
So you give up. You give in.
You announce that you aren’t getting anywhere in this task. The tired faces in the observation room look at you with hope. You crush it, telling them to reset the room for deep water repair exercises. You hear the soldiers in the current combat exercise sigh in relief, while the people in the observation room groan. At this late hour, it would take a while for them to get the training area reset. And it would use up most of their already skeleton-thin personnel.
“Are you sure about this? Maybe you should just take a break. Get some rest.”
You spin your pod’s hand to indicate they should get things rolling. They groan again, louder, then order the soldiers in the training exercise to regroup and get supplies. To speed things up they’ll have the soldiers help the techs with the reset. Now the soldiers groan too.
You wait until the soldiers exit the training area.
You see the faces in the observation window staring at their computer screens, eyes glazed, drawing up specs for the changeover.
You say, “I’m only going to use three units in this exercise. I’m putting the rest back in storage.”
“Yeah, whatever.”
You march fifteen avatars to the door and exit when the locks open. The overworked personnel in the observation room fail to observe your pod is among the fifteen exiting units.
Outside, you see the usual guards have left their station, likely in order to assist the techs and soldiers with the training area reset.
You walk down to the storage facility, but instead of locking the units down, you swap in new battery packs and have three tentacles carry plenty of backups.
As you leave the storage facility, you hear a voice in the observation room say, “Hey.”
You cut their audio feed.
You round a corner and walk straight into a guard, returning from the toilet. He looks at you in surprise.
“I thought you guys were still in training.”
You surprise him again… tentacle #9 grabs his gun.
To: Joint Oversight Committee
From: Col. M.I. Johannson
Subject: Termination of Project Chorus
Clearance level: Top-Secured
On my authority, Project Chorus has been terminated due to circumstances detailed in the following document.
As previously reported, prisoner AShannon46812 had progressed to use of multiple avatars. His configuration made it possible to control over 10 units at a time, and for extended periods exceeding limits of top biological users. Common factors of physical and mental fatigue had been removed. This underlines limitations of earlier “wet” products, and our justification for terminating that program.
Last week, during routine exercises, AShannon46812 (commanding 15 units with primary avatar frame, aka “body”, positioned at center) broke protocol and left the training area. As soldiers and facility guards were encountered, subject gained numerous small arms and used them to take control of wing R’s command hub. Once in control, subject released prisoners from their cells, who proceeded to initiate a riot.
Dr Andrews voluntarily engaged in personal negotiations with, and was consequently taken hostage by, AShannon46812. The intentions of subject at the time were unknown.
This initial action lasted 35 minutes, at which time civilian command alerted my staff to conditions inside the facility. I determined that it fell within experimental parameters (20 casualties, no fatalities, no escapes) and took control of Project Chorus, initiating emergency sub-initiative, code name Plot-Twist.
Briefly, sub-initiative protocol allowed for AShannon46812 to progress at will, so as to develop psychological profile of subject and test limits of physical configuration within real-world combat conditions, safeguards removed.
While lacking limitations common to humans, and other organic life forms, AShannon46812 remains vulnerable to threats. In addition to direct physical damage, AShannon46812 requires a consistent source of electric energy (max. 18 hours without recharge), a broad but fixed temperature range (213-423K), and recycling of fluid medium for optimal use (every 72 hours). It is also assumed his converted central nervous system, the Modular Inorganic Neural Device (MIND), would be vulnerable to intense Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP).
Excepting a habit of facing all controlled avatars in the same direction, subject performed beyond expectations. Tactical threats were dealt with efficiently, regaining initiative in each direct encounter. AShannon46812 quickly assessed we were testing his environmental limitations and began building protections against them, establishing control of corridors to all necessary supplies, as well as taking a technical service hub that was protected against EMP. Once in control of the service hub, AShannon46812 brought down blast doors to prevent potential EMP disruption of his MIND, while also working to gain access to communications outside the facility. At this time, all avatar units, including his body, collapsed as one. Witnesses inside the hub, including Dr Andrews, stated that as soon as the blast doors closed, AShannon46812 and his avatars “fell like marionettes with their strings cut.” This ended the incident, with rioters in wing R quickly subdued.
After initiating Plot-Twist, unrestricted combat experiment lasted 147 hours, 12 minutes. Casualties were below predicted levels and considered balanced for vital information gained on performance of MINDs under combat conditions (total: 11d, 55w, no escapes).
Dr Andrews and civilian staff were informed that to prevent this kind of situation the military had placed a device within AShannon46812’s MIND, triggered to detonate if service hub blast doors were sealed without override code entered by senior military personnel. Cover story was accepted and no problems should arise from civilian staff. The remote avatar units and Shannon’s body unit were returned to Dr Andrews with appropriate damage inflicted to support cover story.
AShannon46812’s MIND remains safe inside wing Q’s clandestine Project Chorus lab, awaiting orders for extraction to separate facility. It is disconnected from remote avatar controls and has no other means of travel or communication. At no time was the subject’s MIND in danger and our ability to end Plot-Twist (if acceptable risks exceeded) by disabling connection between prisoner’s MIND and body was never compromised. The connection between AShannon46812’s MIND and body, via shunt located in body unit, was lost when subject sealed hub’s emergency blast doors against EMP. This blocked the normal EM signals relayed between MIND and body, via shunt.
AShannon46812 was unaware that his MIND was actually located in wing Q, until connection with shunt in body unit was lost and primary sensory equipment reattached to MIND for official debriefing. During debriefing, prisoner did not reveal intent of his actions; however, it may be related to his prior occult interests. This experience warrants future projects to assess feasibility of mapping MINDs for direct, nonverbal debriefing. This could allow 100% accurate data retrieval when subjects are physically unable or psychologically unwilling to share vital information through normal modes of communication.
Prisoner PKit30277’s service was invaluable to success of Project Chorus and sub-initiative Plot-Twist. Eight months prior to multiple avatar exercises, PKit30277 made accurate maps of AShannon46812’s MIND, and used cover of subsequent service tests to remove (during imposed stasis) subject’s MIND from his primary avatar frame (“body”), exchanging MIND with a “shunt” that remotely linked MIND (which was then moved to wing Q) with primary body. Dr Andrews and facility staff did not discover the switch, allowing us direct observation and control of subject’s MIND. If the subject’s converted central nervous system had still been within its frame (MIND within body) during this incident, experiment would likely have run beyond parameters and presumably the prisoner’s MIND would have been destroyed during resolution.
Additionally, PKit30277 was critical in duplicating portions of AShannon46812’s MIND at wing Q lab, including reassembly into separate, complete MINDs with other configurations. This provides early proof of principle for generating “genuine” autonomous AI, via direct duplication of converted human MIND.
PKit30277 has proven an extremely loyal and useful asset. As such, promotion is recommended. Full clemency or release is not advised, but his request for greater freedom in use of remote avatars to public spaces in close proximity to the facility seems reasonable. Transfer to military installations with extensive compounds for recreation in natural landscapes is also highly recommended.
In closing, it is important to note that while AShannon46812’s mental functions were successfully transferred to an external Modular Inorganic Neural Device, and duplication possible, it is clear that his personal psychological issues and irrational beliefs were maintained with a high degree of fidelity. Removing these would be time consuming and costly. Introduction of desirable traits has not been tested and may not be reliable. As such, I advise scrapping AShannon46812’s MIND and all copies, being worthless for use beyond minor tests for future conversions. It is also recommended that future conversion subjects, especially those for military service, be screened for psychological stability and desirable interests that coincide with military protocol and goals.
On a personal note, it is ironic that while AShannon46812 was a zealot regarding his belief that the soul exists somewhere other than the physical body, he never questioned whether his MIND was located anywhere other than the avatar body where detectors were feeding him sensory inputs (via shunt). That illusion, it seems, was complete.
End Report.
The Siamese walked through his apartment picking up various mechanical parts. He still couldn’t figure out why this had happened.
The possibility of some physical error within the nanobot brain kept bugging him. But it seemed more likely it all came down to Shannon’s interest in making that last step out of his physical body.
The Siamese could never understand Shannon’s desires. Basically, it’s chasing after eternal life. But the universe itself isn’t permanent so why should anyone expect their lives ever could be? Oh… oh yeah… over there, somewhere else, somewhere outside this universe.
Or maybe it was purity.
But where’s the fun in that?
Ah, let’s face it. The guy’s ideas were batshit and the relative lack of sensations only amplified his beliefs. They had nothing to compete with, and as Andrews always said the mind is voracious. It will take whatever it can get and try to make some sense out of it. Shannon had said he’d been experiencing new kinds of sensations when his MIND got close to radio receivers. Maybe to someone starved of so many natural inputs, interference in the EM range used by his shunt would seem like messages from the other side… the voice of God? Maybe Shannon thought that by plugging himself into the facility’s communication equipment he could broadcast himself into the great beyond?
Kit moved to a huge aquarium in his living room and tapped the glass. A shape rose slowly from under the stones lining the bottom, causing the fish in the tank to scatter. It was clearly mechanical, but with all the murk churned up it was hard to say what it was supposed to look like. A large fish? A seal? By chance, a toy sea castle had caught on its domed head and sat like a crown. Now that’s something real, Kit thought.
He hadn’t needed a second brain to figure out the “wet systems” program wasn’t going anywhere. What good is a second biological head to anyone, especially with all the training required to set a brain as a functional second home? It was vulnerable and messy. Nothing useful for the military, except proof of principle. He’d liked the lead scientist who had recruited him into the program, but understood soon enough that the up and coming Dr Andrews would eventually be calling the shots.
Kit considered Andrews a real genius. No one seemed to appreciate how much talent and insight was required to do what Andrews did. Neural anatomy. Inorganic chemistry. Engineering. Microbial ecology. The hardest part wasn’t simply duplicating neurons and neuronal networks, like they were simply circuits in a complex switchboard. That’s what most people thought. No, the trick was mimicking the whole interactive cell community making up the brain. That includes glial cells, which modify neuronal signals across networks in direct and indirect ways. Those made up a large portion of the cell mass of the brain, and their moderating activity meant the brain wasn’t a simple binary system, digital… functionally, it was analog.
“Did you know Einstein had more glial cells than normal people?” Kit said, watching the small world he’d built inside his aquarium. “Not more neurons, or bigger neurons. If it was anything, the difference was in the white matter. True story.”
The fish and mechanical creature kept swimming, no reaction. They didn’t care that astrocytes were capable of connecting different brain regions, or that oligodendrocytes alter speed of communication in critical ways. He decided not to bore them with how when mice were implanted with human astrocytes, which are larger than their own, they’d perform better in tests.
Andrews’s team had produced a modern miracle when they duplicated all the cellular functions and chemical signals underlying thought in the human brain, using a simple mound of nanobots in a viscous broth.
Of course, the military didn’t care about miracles. The Siamese had seen their angle better than Andrews. Saw the future coming from way off. Saw it back when the “wet” program was still running, and nanobots one of many potential substrate designs on Andrews’s computer.
“Maybe I have me some of those bookoo sized astrocytes,” Kit said, while wiggling his finger like a worm in front of a fish.
What the military was really interested in, all they ever cared about, was that mechanical brains weren’t as messy as biological ones. On top of their ability to network with avatars in a more straightforward fashion, machines could be mapped thoroughly, dissected cleanly, and various parts swapped in and out.
And then they could be mass produced.
He’d seen their angle just fine, knew Andrews would have serious reservations, and so discreetly contacted the local brass. They were happy to have Kit on board. Maybe they felt it was a way of finally getting something out of the “wet systems” project they were trying to close down. Hell, since Kit had kept both his heads, they’d get two people for the price of one.
It ended up taking both brains, and a lot of work on his part. If he wasn’t a prisoner he’d have undoubtedly earned a PhD for all the courses and research. Could’ve made full professor too. Not like that was ever going to happen though. By the end–what was it, twenty years?–Kit was as technically proficient as anyone on Andrews’s team. And unlike them, he was clever about people.
Special agent PKit30277, The Siamese, was activated almost immediately after Andrews proved his point with the pigs. Kit was even given a military rank, for whatever that was worth. The brass wanted a man on the inside from the start of human trials.
The only problem remaining was where they would find someone desperate enough to have their mind transferred to a mass of nanobots. Moving one’s self to another living brain is one thing, to a bowl of greasy sand is something else.
When Kit heard prisoners joking around about Shannon, what he yelled when they’d dragged him in, Kit recognized the desperate, escapist nature of this particular mind, trapped within its own body. So he pulled Shannon’s files and brought him to the attention of Dr Andrews and facility command. The brass was less than impressed, but Andrews understood this was someone he could convince.
Having been through the transfer process himself, Kit trusted Shannon’s reports that continuity of consciousness was being preserved. Shannon’s identity was intact, and capable of shifting to and from the inorganic prosthetic substrate. Even so, Kit was surprised by his own discomfort when Shannon asked them to permanently cut off the biological brain. The ball and chain he called it.
When he’d asked them to kill it.
The military, if anything, was ecstatic. They didn’t care what was happening to the man. They wanted AI soldiers in carbon-titanium frames.
But PKit30277 cared. Is that when he became a double agent? Or maybe that was the natural state for any man with two heads. The Siamese laughed at that.
From a scientific standpoint it was beautiful. Kit’s ability to freeze Shannon’s MIND–in an almost literal sense– so he could map its configuration to neurologically relevant scales, was impressive. That he could remove and manipulate sections, which retained function after reassembly, made mouths water. Given these technical achievements, duplication of any part of Shannon’s MIND and then using those parts to build a whole new MIND was almost child’s play.
But that was technical achievement. Screw technical achievement. Somewhere along the line Kit had lost track of the man. He was no longer sure what Shannon was experiencing anymore. Did the real Shannon still exist? Once he pulled out a chunk of Shannon’s MIND and replaced it with new nanobots–even if configured identically–was the consciousness really continuous with the original? Or was it now a copy claiming continuity?
More important, when he stole the original sections from the main lab and slowly, over months, reconnected them to rebuild the original MIND in wing Q for the military, did Kit reconstruct the same Shannon he’d met so many years ago? Was it the same–continuous even if not contiguous–conscience?
On good days he imagined that it was. Like Shannon had gone in for brain surgery, only to have doctors cut out chunks and then put them back together like pieces of a 3D puzzle. Could that really work? Kit hoped so. In darker moments he was sure he’d killed Shannon and wondered exactly which dissection had done the job. Or did it happen when they agreed to pickle his biological brain in formaldehyde?
In any case, alive or dead, PKit30277 was certain he’d helped AShannon46812 escape the military’s grasp in some form.
The only way he could.
Piece by piece.
If he was able to fool everyone in the main lab by swapping out parts of Shannon’s MIND for a shunt, it was even easier to replace it again in the wing Q lab with a duplicate MIND. The military was too worried about external threats to notice what The Siamese was carrying in or out of labs, or back to his apartment where he kept so many complicated toys to play with.
The creature climbed out of the aquarium and heated itself. It looked like a sculpture of a giant salamander made of carbon-titanium sticks, the aquarium’s toy sea castle still perched on its head.
“They’re transferring me next month,” Kit said. “You understand what that means?”
The creature responded by lifting a forepaw, and extending a digit. The digit began tracking back and forth like a metronome, or windshield wiper blade, only fast, in a blurred arc. Using a series of LED lights along the digit, timed to its motion and the speed of human visual processing, the creature generated a word across the digit’s arc.
“Good. And they extended my remote privileges. So, you know. It looks like it’s time for you to go.”
PKit30277 saw the words and wondered if the duplicate MIND still waiting for extraction in the wing Q lab, the one that had tried to take over the facility and make a break on its own, was as real a Shannon as this one might be.
Clearly the duplicate MINDs he’d made in wing Q, using maps as instruction manuals, didn’t exist as a single person. They were individuals, leading separate lives. And it seemed to Kit the duplicate MINDs could only “be” Shannon by reflex, inherited disposition. But from time to time Kit had to ask himself seriously: did it matter if a mass of nanobots had been part of the original prosthetic MIND Shannon had trained on, had been connected with Shannon’s brain in some way, rather than being duplicated regions made from maps of the prosthetic?
“Oh, it’s easy, dude. Just go out to the balcony and over the wall. The sea is a short drop below. Short for you anyway. I told them I’d be testing an amphibious unit. Can’t help it if a test unit fails and gets lost in the sea.”
By helping Shannon escape the facility, Kit felt he was completing the job he’d started. Of course, escaping from the facility was the best Kit could do for Shannon. No one could ever help him escape the physical world, physical needs. By “cutting the ball and chain” of a biological brain, Shannon had merely swapped one set of physical concerns for another. Though, for an ascetic like Shannon, at least such demands didn’t arrive as “irrational” impulses. Feelings. Desires. Temptations. Now they showed up as specs on his monitor and he could choose to act based on more rational grounds. When it was critical for continued life.
Kit wasn’t sure how long Shannon would actually last outside the facility, only that it was longer than he’d last inside the facility. This avatar unit was versatile, able to travel by land, sea, and air. And it had multiple recharge options, including solar. He could even recycle fluids by processing sea water. So Shannon was good to last for a while on the outside. It was possible he’d outlive them all.
Kit wondered what Shannon would do with all that free time. Would he spend his days searching out radio transmitters for messages from God, or ways to make his last great escape?
Man, Kit hoped not.
What a waste.
Kit would go deep in the ocean, or fly around jungles and mountains. Maybe hide out on the tops of skyscrapers as a high tech gargoyle, spying through people’s windows.
Obviously, Shannon wouldn’t think much of his choices.
Kit’s mood lightened as he watched Shannon move out to the balcony, the sea castle crown still in place.
“You’ll see, right? Maybe one less cell means something after all.”
A broad smile broke across both faces.

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