Homunculus: Chapter 28: Melchior

A heavy-sounding metal shutter slammed shut behind Jacob. Before him, the narrow corridor stretched for about fifty feet before branching off to the left and right. Shortly beyond that intersection, a featureless haze obscured what lay belong. Jacob recognized the general technique as one used in early 3D video games: hide the polygon clipping plane by having everything take place in a foggy environment.

Of course, he assumed that that wasn’t the true reason behind the fog, unless the computers powering the simulation in which he now lived didn’t have enough resources left over to render a more complete virtual world. Besides, appearance was largely irrelevant now; the whole point of the exercise was to confirm the proper functioning of his short-term memory. Before he had stepped inside the maze, he had been given an overhead map of all the corridors to study for a few minutes. It hadn’t seemed too complex when he held the map in his hands, but now, when all that he had to go off of was his memory, it didn’t seem quite so simple. He tried to mentally overlay the map, or at least the parts that hadn’t faded from his mind yet, on top of the corridor before him.

Jacob was pretty sure he could remember how to find the way out, but he’d prefer to do it without any needless handicap. “I don’t suppose you could turn down the fog machine a little?” he called out.

“The parameters for this test are strictly defined,” answered a disembodied voice that seemed to come from all directions at once. Something sounded a little off about it. “If we tried to change them now, it would invalidate the data we’ve collected so far. Just get through the course and let us know anything you think might be important or notable.”

“OK,” Jacob replied. The sound of his own voice called into focus what had been strange about the other one: there was no echo. He was surrounded by impossibly smooth walls, but somehow sound didn’t seem to reflect off of them at all. He reached out to touch one: it was warm and felt extremely slick, as though it had been greased down, although it left no residue on his fingers.

“There’s no echo,” Jacob said. “Is that supposed to happen?”

“Test protocol requires us not to give you any information that might affect your performance or expectations,” the voice replied. “Think monologue, not dialogue. Now please get started.”

Jacob shrugged and began making his way slowly down the corridor. There was still a lot to get used to with his new world. Just two days ago was the traumatic and disorienting experience of first being put inside the simulation. Not long after he had finally gotten the hang of moving around under his own power without having to lean on things had his handlers started telling him about the series of tests they needed to run him through to shake out any lingering bugs. Or at least, telling him that that was what was going to happen; if this first test were any indication, they weren’t going to tell him any details about the particular tests until immediately before it started.

Jacob turned right, walked past the next intersection, and then turned left. The next right led him to a dead end, so he doubled pack and went straight when he returned to the intersection. Four intersections and he was already starting to get lost. Next time they gave him a maze, he’d need to remember to stop inspecting his new surroundings and jump right into the navigation part; wasting time like that just meant the map would be that much harder to remember.

Jacob followed the corridor as it twisted left, then right, and finally delivered him to another intersection. If he were still on the right path, the exit should be within sight from here. Or at least it would be, if not for that infernal fog. All the corridors branching off from where he stood, including the one from which he had come, faded into the fog. They were all absolutely indistinguishable from one another. He arbitrarily chose the rightmost path, following it as it stretched for some distance before twisting left, then left, then left again, depositing him at another intersection. Or possibly the same one; it was impossible to tell.

“Can you at least tell me whether this maze is Euclidean or not?” Jacob asked.

“You saw the map,” the voice replied.

“Sure, but maybe you gave me the wrong map to see if I’d figure it out. Some kind of hazing ritual, maybe?”

“Test protocol requires–”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jacob said, waiving his hand dismissively. He turned right, which, if he were right and if there weren’t any funny business going on, should lead him to the exit.

A door in front of him emerged from the fog. “Found it!” Jacob shouted. “So, um, how do I open it?” There didn’t seem to be any handle or knob on it. Jacob stepped forward to inspect it more closely.

Then, before Jacob could perceive what was happening, the world ceased to exist.

Dave Franklin noted the outcome of the test in his logs. Initial condition: baseline snapshot 0032X, plus minor damage to region 84Q-75b. Outcome: successful completion of maze, with two navigation errors. Subject reported visibility problems, commenting about a ‘fog’ obscuring his view. Duration: seven minutes fourteen seconds, including approximately three minutes subject spent upon entry before beginning to move through the maze.

Dave initiating the process of reloading the baseline snapshot into the Melchior system, following the steps from memory. Dave didn’t need to refer to the documentation; not only was he the one who had written it, he was the original architect of the Simulacrum itself. As he watched the progress bar on the screen in front of him slowly creep forward, he reflected on those good old days when he could spend his time solving challenging technical problems instead of serving as a lab monkey running tests.

Dave hated running tests. It was boring and tedious and a complete waste of his skills. Dr. Newhausen had insisted that Dave personally administer the first set, since he would be best qualified to handle any problems with Melchior that might arise. Dave had foolishly agreed before learning just how many of the tests were necessary. Now that he was a week into it with at least another week to go, Dr. Newhausen refused to let him swap duties with someone else, insisting that it was essential that as many variables as possible be controlled, and “person interacting verbally with the test subject” was unfortunately one of the easiest to control.

Noting how much time was left before the baseline snapshot would be fully loaded, Dave returned to his notes and copied them into his latest e-mail to Dr. Newhausen to give him an update on how things were going. Skimming through the results of the day’s testing reminded him of another reason why he hated running tests: observing the results of the knockout experiments wasn’t always pleasant. This latest one was fine, but some of the others….

The worst in recent memory was 51J-96x. Just seeing the region code was enough to send a chill down his spine. Dave had sat there, listening to Jacob’s terrified screams as he huddled in a corner and babbled about blood dripping down the walls and the series of nightmarish creatures charging down the corridor at him. Dave aborted that particular experiment about a minute in, but still had to type out detailed notes about everything Jacob had said. Dave wasn’t sure which was worse: having had to experience vicariously what Jacob had, or knowing that somewhere in his brain was a tiny little region without which he too would be sent into unending terror.

Dave hit the Send button and forced his mind to focus on something less disturbing. Testing did have its advantages, he reminded himself. For starters, he was the only one working on Melchior named Dave. It had been like that at the beginning of system development, until Dave Vargas had been hired on and, for obvious reasons, earned the nickname “New Dave”. Which, of course, meant that he had become dubbed “Old Dave” by those looking for a way to verbally distinguish the two and whom for some reason just continuing to call him “Dave” wasn’t enough. He was only in his mid-forties, after all; that could hardly be considered “old”. The situation just became more ridiculous when Dave Stevenson joined the group as well, and Dave had been subjected to absurd and needlessly long debates about whether the other Dave should be called “Third Dave”, “Dave Cubed”, or “Dave the Steve” before they settled on calling the other Dave “Other Dave”. There was none of that nonsense here, at least.

The baseline snapshot finally finished loading. Whenever Dave would finally be finished running the tests, the first thing he planned to do was find a way to optimize the process to not take so long. As it stood now, he spent more time resetting Melchior after each run than he did actually running the tests themselves.

Dave checked the list of tests. Next up was 84Q-75c. Dave told the system to take the snapshot of Jacob’s simulated brain that they had saved 40 hours into his original activation in Melchior, and modify the loaded copy by severing the neural connections at whatever position 84Q-75c designated. The codes seemed meaningless to him, but apparently they meant something to Dr. Newhausen, who had devised the scheme. Dave knew how the internals of the Simulacrum worked, but the rationale behind the actual neurobiology model was above his head.

Dave double-checked that Melchior was ready and, finding it so, began the next test.

A heavy-sounding metal shutter slammed shut behind Jacob. Before him, the narrow corridor stretched for about fifty feet before branching off to the left and right.

“You know,” Jacob said, taking stock of his new surroundings, “this would be a lot easier if the map you had given me were in color.”

“What do you mean?” asked the disembodied voice surrounding him.

“Well,” Jacob replied, wondering why he had to explain something so obvious, “the map had everything in black, but the left wall is blue and the right wall is red. Knowing everything was in different colors would’ve made it easier to remember the right path.”

“I’ll make a note of it,” the voice said. “Please proceed to the exit and report anything else you think might be noteworthy.”

Jacob nodded to no one in particular and began making his way forward. He expected there’d be plenty of tests to follow, so he didn’t want to waste too much time on the first one.

Chapter word count: 1,812 (+145)
Total word count: 49,386 / 50,000 (98.772%)

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