Homunculus: Chapter 5: Debut

“OK, gentlemen, there’s just a few ground rules I need to go over with you before you can get started,” Mort Duon explained as his hand reached behind the receptionist’s desk and returned holding three cards with clips attached to them. “First, make sure you’re wearing these at all times while you’re in the building.”

Mort handed the badges to Ulric and his two cameramen. Ulric flipped his to what turned out to be the front: a red drawing of the Medimetics logo, with big black letters reading “VISITOR” running vertically down the middle. He clipped the badge to the collar of his shirt. Next to him, Lance and Hank stared at theirs for a few seconds before attaching theirs to the bottom hem of their respective T-shirts. Maxwell observed that the two cameramen didn’t worry too much about their appearance.

“Good enough,” Mort continued. “Second, we’re going to need those back from you before you leave, both for security reasons and because badge number 427 has a lot of sentimental value. But mostly for security reasons. Third, you’ll be needing to stick around Max over there while you’re in the building.” He pointed towards Maxwell, standing next to the receptionist’s desk and conspicuously checking his watch. “If I catch any of you running around unescorted, you will be shot. With a dirty look. And then thrown out of the building. Any questions?”

“Yeah,” said Hank, raising his free hand slightly. “So, if we need to go to the bathroom…”

“From here, straight down that hallway, make a right, then a left, and they’ll be on the right.”

“No, I mean, when we go, do we…”

“Does Max have to watch us pee,” Lance interrupted. At least one of them has a bit of tact, Maxwell thought.

“Not unless you want him to, I guess,” Mort replied. “But hey, who am I to judge. I’m OK if Max waits in the hall for you to do what you gotta do. That work for you, Max?”

Maxwell rolled his eyes. He found Mort’s usual routine for handing visitors was tiresome enough the first time he was forced to witness it. It didn’t get any better with repetition.

“Right,” Mort continued. “Well, if that’s all, I’ll let you be off. They’re all yours, Max,” he said, turning to Maxwell and gesturing with a flourish towards the crew.

“Thank you,” Maxwell replied insincerely. “Now, gentlemen,” he addressed Ulric and company in a more cheerful voice, “if you will follow me, I’ll take you to see what you came here for.”

Maxwell began stepping backwards down the hall as he gestured towards his visitors to follow. Ulric came first, followed by Hank and Lance, filming as they walked. Past them, Maxwell caught Mort reach over the receptionist’s desk and grab a telephone handset.

“As you’ll remember,” Maxwell said as he continued walking backwards while facing the camera, occasionally stealing a glance behind his back to make sure he wasn’t about to ram into someone, “the last time you saw Mr. Feldspar-Leigh, it was at the hospital, making history as the first person to ever undergo a full scan by Medimetics’s revolutionary Mark VII MRI, the world’s first and only MRI capable of generating a complete three-dimensional image of a patient’s entire nervous system with sufficient precision to resolve neural activity at the cellular level. A lesser company might stop there. But not Medimetics.”

Maxwell slowed his pace slightly to make sure he’d reach the door at the right moment of the speech he had rehearsed. “Remember the completion of the Human Genome Project? That was merely data collection, figuring out what the three billion base pairs in our genetic code were. A landmark accomplishment, but worth little without knowing what those base pairs mean. So too is the Mark VII, as revolutionary as it is, ultimately just a data collection tool. And what good is seeing the human mind,” he paused, having underestimated the length of the path by a few steps, “without understanding it?”

Maxwell removed his ID badge from his jacket’s lapel and swiped it through the card reader next to the door. He punched his PIN into the keypad, the green light and quiet bump as the door, temporarily freed of its locking mechanism, shifted slightly on its hinges. He grabbed the handle with one hand, turned to face the film crew, and continued.

“Prepare to meet the next step in understanding the human mind. Allow me to reintroduce you to Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh.” Maxwell pushed his body against the door and stepped inside, sidling next to the door so as to not obstruct the view inside.

A wave of hot air rushed through the door and slammed into the film crew, followed by the dull roar of air conditioning and countless fans. Lance and Hank stepped inside, slowly panning their cameras inside to take in the racks of servers arrayed along both slides of the corridor leading to the back of the room. Ulric followed behind them, saying something.

“Pardon?” shouted Maxwell.

“I said, is there anything you can do about that noise?” replied Ulric, also shouting.

Maxwell shook his head. “Not without either shutting everything down or making this room hotter than the surface of the sun in August.” Maxwell jolted at remembering something, and turned his head towards the cameramen. Raising his voice even more, he yelled, “And don’t touch anything!”

Hank freed his left hand just long enough to give a thumbs-up. Lance had already disappeared around the corner, no doubt filming another identical-looking rack of servers.

“This is no good,” Ulric shouted, shaking his head. “The microphones won’t be able to hear anything over this noise. We’ll have to do the interview somewhere else and dub a voice-over for here in during post.”

“When your boys are done here, I’ll take you to see the lead developers who put all of this together,” Maxwell replied. “It’ll be quieter in there.”

“I thought you said it would be quiet in here,” Ulric complained as Hank set up a tripod and Lance positioned chairs in the development lab.

“I said it’d be quieter,” Maxwell replied. “This room only has three racks in it.”

“Sounds like three too many.”

“I can fix that,” New Dave said, lifting himself out of his chair. “You don’t have anything running on the test rig, right?”

Other Dave shook his head as he continued doing something at one of the computer terminals. New Dave walked around to the other side of the partition, rolled out a keyboard and monitor from the rack, and started punching in commands. Slowly the noise dwindled as the computers in the racks powered off.

“We’re ready over here,” Hank said.

“Me too,” added Other Dave as he clicked the mouse and spun to face away from the terminal. Behind him, the screen turned black, and slowly columns of green letters and numbers trickled down from the top.

Maxwell sighed silently. Hopefully this part of the interview could be wrapped up quickly, and they could do the rest up in his office, with a decor more fitting a Nobel-worthy neuroscience project and a minimum of Dave-borne antics.

“So that’s what the Simulacrum looks like?” Ulric asked as New Dave sat down next to the other Dave.

Other Dave shook his head. “That’s just the screen saver. Seemed appropriate.”

“Ah. Well, let’s get started with introductions, then.”

“Dave Vargas,” said New Dave. “I’m the senior technical lead for the Simulacrum project.”

“Dave Stevenson,” said Other Dave. “Assistant senior technical lead, et cetera.”

“And tell us a little about it?” said Ulric.

“Well,” began New Dave, “the basic idea is actually pretty simple. You take a computer model of a brain, all the cell interconnections –”

Synapses, you idiot, thought Maxwell.

“– and action potentials and everything, and step it forward in time.”

“Plus simulate the body attached to it,” added Other Dave.

“Right, the brain expects a body attached, after all.”

“And by ‘step it forward,’ you mean?” asked Ulric.

“Basically, simulate the biochemical reactions taking place in each cell. Conceptually, that’s all there is to it. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated in practice, since you’ve got lots of cells involved and they’re all doing their own thing at the same time and interacting with each other all over the place. So you wind up needing an awful lot of hardware to mimic a two-pound lump of tissue,” New Dave explained, tapping his head. “And even more network cable connecting them all together.”

“Once we figure out better models of how the brain works, we should be able to shrink that down a lot,” added Other Dave. “Right now we’re sort of simulating everything we can think of since we aren’t sure yet what’s important and what isn’t. Proving P=NP would help too, but I’m not holding my breath on that.”

“Until then, it’s a lot of equipment.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a room that big filled with computers,” observed Ulric.

“Good, so you’ve seen Balthasar already,” said Other Dave. “Although to be fair, about a third of that is for analyzing the data that comes out of the simulation. But two-thirds of a shload is still a shload.”

“Balthasar?” Ulric asked.

“Yeah, Balthasar is the operational rig. Caspar’s over there in the corner is the test and development rig. Well, part of it; the rest is in the other server room. They’re named for–”

“They’re named for why Other Dave here isn’t allowed to name systems anymore,” interrupted New Dave.

“Other Dave?” Ulric asked.

“Right. Everyone calls me New Dave, and he’s Other Dave. Because he’s the other Dave,” New Dave explained.

“Sorry, I thought you said you were the senior developer? So, um, why are you the New one?”

“I think what you really came here to see,” Maxwell interrupted, cursing himself for letting this trainwreck go on as long as it had already, “is the man inside the machine, right? Can you call him up on the screen there?” Maxwell would have to remember to thank the folks in PR for sending him through those how-to-represent-the-company-without-looking-like-an-idiot training sessions next time he saw them.

“Oh, uh, right,” said Other Dave, spinning back around to the console. After typing on the keyboard for a few moments, he whispered, “You’re on, bud,” into the microphone and put the interface in full-screen mode.

A male face appeared on the screen, a fine mesh of polygonal seams running over it. As its mouth moved, a voice came from the speakers.

“Hello, world. I am Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh.”

Those two code monkeys must have put him up to that, thought Maxwell.


Chapter word count: 1,783 (+116)
Total word count: 8,862 / 50,000 (17.724%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 4: Bet

Editor’s note: this chapter was supposed to go up yesterday, but couldn’t due to server problems which continued until at least this morning. Chapter 5 should be going up sometime this evening, barring further issues.


Douglas walked down the hall, stopping just short of the door. It hung open a few inches, letting a little bit of sunlight slip through and diffuse across the floor. He knocked softly twice on the door, just below the nameplate that read “Jessica Powers, CISO.”

“Come in,” came a familiar voice inside the office.

Douglas slipped through the doorway and shut the door behind him, keeping the handle turned to avoid making too much noise in the process. Behind the desk sat Jessica, propping her head up in one hand as she wiggled her computer’s mouse with the other. She looked up briefly as Douglas moved towards the guest chair, and then her eyes focused at a point twenty feet past the wall behind him as he sat down.

“Is this a good time?” Douglas asked. Jessica normally kept her hair in a tight ponytail, but this morning a few strands had already managed to free themselves. And although it was a bit tricky to tell from this angle, her eyes looked a little bloodshot too.

Jessica lifted her head up and waved her newly freed hand dismissively. “No, it’s all right,” she replied. “My fault for calling an 8 o’clock. It sounded like a much better idea yesterday afternoon.”

“Rough night?”

Jessica shook her head and sighed. “You could call it that, I guess. I can still remember when I could stay up half the night drinking and still teach lab in the morning no problem. Now I can’t even make it past ten at an office party without feeling it the next day.”

“It’s hell getting older.”

“Older, nothing. The problem is I let myself get out of practice.”

“So how was it, anyway?” Douglas had noticed on the way in that most of the parking spaces reserved for executives were empty. Even more so than normal.

“Oh, you know how it is.”

Douglas shook his head. “You’re the one with ‘Chief’ in her title, not me. They don’t send us peons invites.”

Jessica smiled. “Don’t sell yourself short now. You’re more of a flunky. Or maybe a toady. The real peons look up to you.”

“I’ve seen the org charts. They don’t have to look up too far.”

“Ah, I remember those days. Seniority does have its perks, after all. Stick around here long enough, and you’ll find out.”

“Like an office?”

“Don’t you have an office yourself?”

“Only because they were out of cubicles when you brought me on board. I think mine used to be a broom closet.”

“Janitorial supply closet,” Jessica corrected. “Trust me, I was the one who had to justify giving a new hire something with a door and more than two walls. But it was worth it.”

“Yeah, yeah, save the flattery for my performance review. So how was the party anyway?”

“You really didn’t miss much. Champagne uncorked. Improvised confetti. Speeches by the boss about the ‘new era’ and the ‘billion dollar bet’ and all that. A lot like the internal announcement, really, but with a little more slurring and stumbling through it.”

Douglas pondered that. “How do you improvise confetti, anyway?”

“A stack of fax cover sheets and a cross-cut shredder.”

“Ah.”

Douglas had met Jessica back in college, when she was a lab TA for one of the low-level programming courses Douglas took freshman year. She had ended up serving as a sort of informal mentor for him up until she graduated as a super senior and went on the real world, which in her case meant Medimetics. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet they had kept in touch since then, and one day when he expressed dissatisfaction with his job, she told him about a position that was about to open up on a big project. World-changing stuff, she had told him cryptically.

Of course, when he signed the second-largest NDA he had ever seen, the actual world-changing aspect turned out to be in other people’s hands. His role was to make sure they didn’t screw things up royally while they were at it.

“Anyway,” Jessica said, straightening herself in her chair. “That brings us to why I asked you here at this hour.”

Douglas frowned slightly. He suspected he could bet on what Jessica had asked him here to tell him.

“Now that Simulacrum is off the ground and operational, management wants to go full-steam ahead with the press package.”

“Which means…” Douglas began.

“The camera crew will start filming tomorrow.”

Douglas sighed and shook his head. He should’ve put some money down on that bet.

“Now, I know what you’re going to say,” Jessica continued.

“That it completely flies in the face of everything you’ve asked me to do here to go public with everything?” Douglas said.

“Come on, Douglas, don’t be dramatic. It’s not everything.”

It was at least a third of that NDA. “You’re talking about having a camera crew film all the equipment for our uber-secret project, interview all the people involved, and send it out to however many media outlets that will listen.” And listen they no doubt would.

“We’ve had this discussion before. I understand the risks just as well as you, but you need to keep in mind the risks of us not doing this. Simulacrum is huge. Huge,” she emphasized. “Frankly, I’m surprised news about it didn’t get out when it was still in development.”

“Some of it did,” Douglas countered.

“But those were just rumors, and even the handful of people who believed them didn’t buy into them all the way. But now that it’s working, and we really do have a working digitized human brain? Someone’s going to blab eventually.”

“They always do,” Douglas reluctantly agreed.

“Right. So if the news is going to get out, it’s best that we get to frame it before anyone else. Let them know that Medimetics just advanced the state of the art in neuroscience twenty years. That the next dozen major discoveries in the secrets of the human brain will be coming out of our research labs. Along with the treatments for who knows what neurological disorders.”

“And the stock price tripling overnight will be nice too, no doubt.”

“Ever the cynic. Yes, that too, probably.”

“If only the threats to the project would only triple once everyone finds out about it,” Douglas added.

“I told you, we’ve had this discussion before. That’s why I hired you, after all. If there’s anyone I know who can handle it, it’s you.”

“I hope so. It’s asking a lot.”

“I know. And Douglas,” she continued, glancing briefly in the direction of the office door, “please keep in mind that even if we do have a leak at some point, it’s not the end of the world.”

“I know.”

“And I know you well enough that it bears repeating. This is big, there’s no doubt about that. But I don’t want to see you burn yourself out over it, running after every little thing that comes up and losing sight of the big picture.”

“I know.”

Jessica leaned back in her chair. “You know, I remember the time when a certain senior spent two all nighters back-to-back in a computer lab working on a memory allocator. You remember what happened to him?”

“As I remember, I got full points on that project once I finally squashed that last heap corruption bug.”

“After you finally got some sleep. By which I mean, you passed out on the keyboard and slept through one of your finals.”

“No, I forgot about the final and fixed the bug once I woke up,” Douglas corrected. “I just needed a little more time on the project.”

“No, what you needed was to get away from it for a while. Come back to it with a fresh perspective. It’s too bad that your body had to force that lesson on you.”

“Well, it’s not like I ever tried to do that again.”

“No, but remember who you’re talking to,” Jessica smiled.

“Someone who knows way too much about my college days.”

“No. Well, yes, but also someone who happens to sign off on your timesheets. I’ve seen the extra hours you’ve been putting in lately. Don’t spend all your time worrying about work. It’ll still be there for you to worry about after you’ve gotten some rest.”

“Right. Anything else?”

“Just one more thing.”

“Yes?”

“The one exception to that is: don’t stay up too late drinking when you have to be in at work early the next morning. Trust me on this.”

Douglas pressed the buzzer next to the door of the Simulacrum development lab, took a step back, and waited. He heard footsteps behind the door, which then opened, revealing a bearded head.

“We don’t want any,” New Dave said.

“Too bad, you’ve got some,” Douglas replied. “I promise I’ll be quick. I’ve got things to do too.”

New Dave stepped aside and let Douglas in. The door automatically swung shut behind him.

“Good, both of you are here,” Douglas said, raising his voice to be heard over the trio of server racks filled with equipment in the corner of the room. In theory, the padded cubicle divider separating the server area from the lab terminals reduced the noise level. The Simulacrum lab refuted that theory.

“What’s going on?” Other Dave asked, looking up from one of the lab computers.

“As I’m sure you know, in congratulations for finally getting the Simulacrum up and running, you’re going to be rewarded with a visit from the camera crew. They’ll no doubt want to film in here and in the main server room to see what a billion dollar project looks like.”

“We know,” New Dave said.

“Well, while you two are getting your full Warhol’s worth, make sure they don’t get at any technical information.”

“Sir,” Other Dave said, feigning exasperation as he gestured towards the whiteboard mounted on the wall, “you can’t let them in here. They’ll see everything. They’ll see the big board!”

“Yes, that’s sort of my point,” Douglas continued. The whiteboard was covered with hastily written boxes and arrows every which way, along with columns of dotted numbers and a few tic-tac-toe boards. Douglas had no idea what any of it meant, except the tic-tac-toe boards, but know it looked like the sort of thing Medimetics’s competitors would love to see leaked to the press. Again, except the tic-tac-toe boards. “Just make sure you erase all that stuff before they come in here. You’re still under NDA. Especially details about the simulated brain gap,” he added, just recognizing Other Dave’s quote.

“Speaking of the board,” New Dave said, “is there any chance we could get a bigger board in here?”

“It already goes from one corner of the wall to the other.”

“Well, a bigger wall would be nice, too.”

“Think of how much better we could pull off the ‘billion dollar bet’ with some nicer lab space,” Other Dave added. “It’d look better on camera too.”

“You’ll have to take that up with facilities,” Douglas replied as he let himself out.


Chapter word count: 1,851 (+184)
Total word count: 7,079 / 50,000 (14.158%)

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