By James E. Lalonde
“It’s likely within a few months of AGI (artificial general intelligence) arriving it will independently upgrade itself into something monumentally more intelligent and complex than humans. It’ll be up to society to carefully control this dangerous process and avoid a Terminator-like scenario. Some futurists and technologists believe the beginning of AGI is the beginning of the Singularity, a concept where intelligence and technology grow at exponential speeds and human life is forever transformed.”
Zoltan Istvan – Visonary
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
William Butler Yeats
Gliding down the sterile white corridor of the Infinity Brain Institute, Slammer the Jammer hardly looked the part of mother of the Singularity—or as some later claimed, mother of the Second Coming. Nor did she look like her real name, Patty Pond, an anything but mild-mannered, banished roller derby queen, disguised now in the costume of her second chance. Her mind was racing and quick; her thoughts were short and clipped, not missing a detail, the way a big, slouching cat did on the prowl; the way she did on the roller derby track, all the while appearing cool and moving slow, until it was time to jam.
Right now she was playing a colorful float in her own solitary Krishna parade, dressed in a hand dyed red hemp vest and billowing genie pants. A massage kit was slung like a quiver across her back. A single peacock feather fluttered from the puff of blonde hair between the shaved whitewalls of her head. The face on her Infinity badge was blinking orange like a traffic light at a dangerous intersection.
Patty paused beneath one of the relentless surveillance eyeballs bulging overhead and cracked her neck, left, right, the way a fighter does about to step into the ring. She blew the annoying feather into place, smiled big up at the camera and flipped it the bird.
“Ok, let’s do this,” said Patty.
A man in black standing next to a scanner watched her approach, a no-chit-chat colossus guarding this back door to the heart of Infinity. The sanctum sanctorum. She stopped before him. Nothing needed to be said. She knew the drill. Everything went into the tray. She watched the man’s big hands dance over her massage kit. His nails were clipped tight and his finger bore a Navy Seal’s ring, with an eagle swooping down upon an anchor with a rifle and a trident clutched in its talons. A Glock clung to his belt holster on his back, peeking at her like a pet monkey. Patty stepped into the body scanner.
She felt the Seal admiring the muscular ghost beneath her massage costume. She had a sprinter’s legs and an asymmetrical face, her nose broken in a derby, the damn thing never setting right. Still, she knew that hers was a face some said was pretty, not that she cared beyond the utility of that guise, useful, at moments such as this one.
"The hacksaw blade is in my sandal," said Patty.
The Seal stared down at her through his aviators. A flicker of light danced across the dark lenses. Patty saw the nanotat patch protruding behind his ear. Listening. He smiled. It was practically a conversation. He handed Patty her massage gear, but kept her cell phone and truck keys. Patty’s badge turned green at his nod and the double doors opened sesame.
Beyond the doors, she sidled up to Nurse Wackenhut’s station. This was the final outpost. Checkpoint Charlie, Dr. Khursi had called it. Whatever. It was a crossing into another world, where Nurse Wackenhut stood guard, a Valkyrie wearing a nurses’ cap pinned to her head like an insect impaled upon a collector’s tray. Wackenhut’s redheaded assistant looked up from the security monitors.
“Morning Moneypenny,” said Patty, as she gave her the usual Bond wink.
Moneypenny blushed and suppressed a smile. She was a lipstick girl, prim and proper, with an obvious crush on Patty. Moneypenny was always on the monitors and she knew the bird was for Wackenhut. It was their little joke.
Wackenhut stood nostrils flaring, frozen in place, a corona of hospital light around her head, guarding the last passage to The Room, her face scowling from her badge. The badges had their own eyes and ears. They could open and close doors and take calls. See things their masters could not, things that weren’t quite there. Or were concealed. It was like having two Wackenhuts watching you. And Patty figured that was exactly what Wackenhut was there to do.
“Looking good,” said Patty, said leaning into Wackenhut’s badge. "You do something with your hair?”
“Scrub before you put the gloves on this time,” said Wackenhut. “And lights on."
Patty moved past the nurse, her steps eager now, as she headed for the prep room.
“If I had my way…” Wackenhut spit the words like darts at Patty’s back.
Patty just smiled. She was bullet proof. Dr. Khursi, the dude who’d hired Patty, and Nurse Wackenhut seemed to be in a competition to see who despised the other most. Godzilla meets King Kong. And the look on Wackenhut’s face when Khursi had instructed Wackenhut that Patty was not to be disturbed during these ‘therapies?’ Priceless.
The last doors opened silently as though there were invisible attendants waiting for her. Patty stepped inside the antechamber and held her breath. It was the same feeling every day. She whistled through her teeth. That he was real. The crazy thrill he gave her.
Nine floated in his vibrating harness above an articulated gurney. The suspension hammock was there to prevent bedsores, the way Patty was there to keep his muscles toned and lithe. Klieg lights kept a relentless watch on him.
At first glance, Nine looked like some cyborg straight out of a science fiction movie. Not that she had ever personally met a real cyborg. He seemed to be wearing a Phantom Menace mask. Black synthetic flesh, nanotats, covered much of his face and body. Sometimes when the light was sharp, as it was now, his nano’s glinted the way a salmon’s scales do when it rockets from a river. And of course, there was that twinkling crown of fiber optics about his artificial cranium.
However, Patty’s eyes always ended her daily survey upon his delicate lips, which were still bare human flesh, and pursed as if he had been frozen in the middle of a sentence. No. Nothing about Nine was as it seemed.
Patty hastily put on the blue scrubs. With her back to the camera, she made a show of not washing and drying her hands. The purple nitrile gloves annoyed her. What was the point of washing your hands before you put on gloves? The power of massage was human flesh upon flesh; there was no substitute for that contact, for that connection, that communication. This was especially true for the wounded warriors she’d worked on at the VA. But the gloves were Dr. Khursi’s rule: No skin in the game. She raised her arms and twirled for Wackenhut.
"Open the pod bay door, Hal," she said.
Patty stepped through the door as it opened and immediately turned off the main bank of spotlights. The room was suddenly a shadow play. The fine optical rain of the holocam pierced the gloom, capturing her every move as she went to him.
The air was sterile and light as a breath. Nine’s life signs glowed in the biometrics dancing on the floating displays attending him. The only human sound was his respiration.
She swiped the remote to lower Nine’s body onto the Memory Foam. She peeled back the skin-tech web straps, but left the diaper and its catheters. Then she unrolled her massage kit on the stainless steel sidebar and laid out the disposable blue towels.
“So how’s it hangin’ Nine?” said Patty.
There was no reply from the impassive figure.
“Oh, me? I’m terrific,” she said. “Thanks for asking.”
Dr. Khursi had told Patty that Nine was brain dead.
But from that first day, when she had run her fingers across his torn flesh, the black threads stitching him together like some Frankenstein, she had realized that Nine was terribly human and anything but dead. She began trying to awaken him, to put back the missing pieces of whoever he was—or had been, once upon a time.
There were plenty of people out there who looked as bizarre as Nine. Her old gang, for example—the Roller Babes derby team. People called them freaks. Pushing the rules. Doping was passé. Nanotats were the thing. Web-cat eyes and nano body cams. Micro-thin exoskeletons to boost body slams and sprints, and the new grease paint—screaming nanocrystalline holomasks to terrify opponents and thrill the crowds. But the Roller Babes were just wearing costumes.
Nine’s nano’s were a second skin. It was alive, like some symbiotic parasite that they were growing on him. She thought of those wasps that lay their eggs in insects, which devour their hapless hosts. What ever they had done to Nine, it was spreading faster every day, the way her feelings for him grew stronger with each touch. She leaned into his good ear where there also was still bare flesh, delicate and boyish, save for the devilish stream of nanotats just beginning to flow like a toxic spill down the auditory canal.
“Who are you, anyway?” Patty whispered. Her lips brushed his earlobe, just enough to take Patty’s breath away.
It was the same question she asked him every day. Asked with growing familiarity, tenderness—and urgency. She had the terrifying feeling that one day she would show up and the dark matter would have consumed Nine. Or worse, he would simply be gone. He would wake up without her. Be taken. Where? Why?
Her hand moved to stroke his head, but stopped just before she touched the crown flickering about his skull. The fiber optic synapses lashed at her hands with painless whips of light, as if she were interfering with whatever they were doing to Nine—feeding him inscrutable codes, or perhaps, stealing his mind? She shuddered and quickly withdrew her hand.
What the hell was she doing here, like really? Caressing this comatose cyborg boy? She took a few deep breaths. She felt her heart beating, the way you feel it and then cannot stop feeling it. The way she felt Nine’s heart beneath the skin of nanotats.
Nine had one thing in common with the other cases she had worked on at the VA. He might be comatose, Khursi’s brain research science fair project; but she was certain—he was in there, listening to her.
"Nine’s no name. You got to have a name?"
“Gimme some chill,” said Patty. Her tiny music player filled the big chamber with a synthesized confection of sounds, chimes and water running. It was the standard naturopathic massage music play list from the classes at Bastyr.
She studied Nine’s lips. Did they move? Was that just another of his involuntary spasms? Or was he trying to tell her something? The music? Was he telling her that it sucked? He looked more like a rock and roll dude.
“Right, right, you know, you’re right,” she said. “This isn’t a yoga class. Let’s bump it up a notch today,” she said. She blew the damned feather away from her face. “The Fourth of July is coming up. Let’s celebrate!”
“Gimme some Fourth of July rock and roll,” said Patty. The wild strings of her favorite guitar filled the room. Patty closed her eyes, dropped her shoulders, pursed her lips and lost herself for a moment in an air guitar riff of the Star Spangled Banner, plucking invisible strings and dropping to a knee in a grand finale. She opened her eyes and her face was inches from the scar tissue on Nine’s body. She shook her head. “Sorry. I guess you aren’t much into fireworks right now.”
She put on some Lakota chanting. A soft choir of human voices joined them. She took a step back. Closed her eyes. Shook her hands at her side. Inhaled. Exhaled. Grounded her feet.
“So, OK. What do you want to talk about today?” she said.
She squeezed a fragrant unguent on her plasticized palm and rubbed her hands together to warm them as she prepared to navigate the matrix of Nine.
“You have a mom?” said Patty. Shit. Great start, Patty, she scolded herself. “Sorry. Of course you do.”
Was Nine’s mom out there, wondering what happened to him? Did she even know he was alive? Or was Nine’s mother like her mom? Just took off one day. Was that why Nine was here, nobody else to care?
“My mom? Left me behind, too,” said Patty. “No, it’s ok, really. It’s a bummer not having a mom. Maybe we are the same that way? Anyway, you don’t always get a choice, you know? People just leave sometimes.”
Patty put pressure on his soles, as if that was a salve for being motherless.
She always began with the feet. She worked the nexus between his second toe and his heel, holding and releasing. Her eyes followed a pulse of blood up his leg, through the labyrinth of markings etched on his flesh.
“That’s what I remember most about my mom, really, her leaving,” said Patty. “I was like five, and I woke up. Just sat up in bed. It was weird, that spooky time, you know, just before dawn. I heard her leaving, her footsteps, in the gravel. Dragging her feet. I ran out. Saw this big ass old car door thumping shut. She didn’t even look back. I can still see her face, slumped against the window, you know, like she was too tired to look at me?
“Then this song comes on, like it was going to bust the glass. She was into all these dead rockers, you know? Hendrix. Morrison. Cobain. So you’d think? Like Nirvana? Right?”
Patty waited for Nine to not answer.
“No. The fucking Beach Boys. Good Vibrations! Good Vibrations? Morris, he’s my friend, he said she was probably headed for San Francisco. Chasing a dream she’d heard on the radio, that something was still happening there.”
Patty paused again and let Nine digest this.
“Yeah, I know. People do weird shit. Anyway, I chased her car. In my nightie… Papa Earl found me. My grandpa. He said it was my bloody footsteps…”
Nine suddenly looked sad. No. He felt sad. She felt his sadness. The room was as quiet as that morning her mom left. Even the Lakota seemed to stop chanting. Was she pulling a Debbie Downer, or what?
“Hey. Really, I bet your mom misses you,” said Patty.
But she didn’t think so.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t leave you. I promise.”
She was quiet now. She lost herself in massaging him, gently one moment, digging deep the next, as she mapped her way up his body, connecting the acupressure points, bridging wounds as she ran the oiled fingers of her gloved hand gently over the scatter-shot, nanotated shrapnel scars. There were scars anywhere his boots and Kevlar body armor had not covered him. Yeah. The wounds were proof of life, proof that that Nine was not only human, but also that he had suffered terribly for humanity.
Her touch is how she met Nine.
She was interning in the cabbage patch at the VA. She’d been assigned one of the worst cases, a limbless, comatose boy named Kevin. That’s where the creepy Indian dude, Khursi, had discovered her. His real name was stenciled on his white lab coat: Dr. Khurshed Bhubaneswar. Like anybody could pronounce his name?
He was ‘consulting’ at the VA hospital up on Beacon Hill. He was feared by the nursing staff. One of the male nurses at the VA, Arka—everyone called him Art—was from Calcutta, where Khursi had made a dark name for himself. Art hid in the supply closet whenever Khursi was coming down the hall.
“Don’t let that Oxford accent fool you,” said Art. “He is as much of an Oxford man as The Great Gatsby! He did a year residency. They say he was invited to leave. He is really just a bloody body snatcher!”
Art swore that Khursi’s grandfather was the model for a character in the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And that Khursi was from an infamous family of ‘Thuggees’ and body snatchers and ‘Kali followers.’ Kali was the goddess of life and death, especially death, the one with all the arms trying to grab you. Khursi had put himself through medical school procuring bodies for Western medical schools and biotech companies, which were willing to turn ‘a blind eye for a fresh body.’
“Very fresh bodies,” Art had whispered in the cafeteria. “And they say he discovered the secret of Kali, the ancient formula for reincarnation, resurrection of the dead!”
“Come, you don’t expect us to believe that superstitious crap?” said one of the other nurses.
“Believe what you want,” said Art. “They called him Dr. Khursenstein. He bragged about his work. He told people that if Frankenstein had been successful, he would have been more famous than Charles Darwin!”
Thing is, as far as Patty was concerned, the fact that no one wanted to get caught alone in an elevator with the dude was an opportunity. You had to be able to separate the shit from the shoe in this world. The VA was her first real massage job. It was the job no one else would take, working on ‘the vegetables,’ the comatose with no limbs and fewer prospects. But when she touched them, it was like she was talking to them. That was the way it was with Kevin.
Khursi must have been there behind her in the doorway for some time. He did not look like an Oxford man, with his elephantine ears, black bristle moustache and bushy crescent eyebrows. He was a sinister Mr. Potato Head with cold marble eyes, watching stealthily how she navigated the remaining runways of Kevin’s flesh without causing the convulsive pain of the others who touched him.
“I’ve got a special project for you,” Khursi said. He would give her no other details until she signed the Infinity papers.
“Why me?” Patty asked.
Khursi cocked his head at Kevin’s scarred torso, as if he could hear the telltale beat of Kevin’s Purple Heart, the sound of which most could not bear to hear, those who wished as a gift that it would just stop beating. But it was Kevin’s heart that kept Patty coming in each day. For Khursi, her gift for working with the horribly disfigured vet seemed to validate his unlikely choice of Patty.
“That is why,” Dr. Khursi said.