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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