Homunculus: Chapter 17: Pressure


“Hi, Connie, it’s Liz.”

“Oh, hi, Liz. How are things?”

Liz shrugged, which didn’t carry well over the phone. “Not too bad, I guess,” she added.

Constance Wainwright was one of the first people Liz had met when she first moved out to the area after college. They had lived almost next door to one another in the apartment complex, and even though they had each moved out some time ago, they still kept in touch with each other.

“Wait,” Connie said, “didn’t you have plans or something tonight?”

“I did, yeah,” Liz answered, her voice falling slightly, “but that fell through at the last minute. Not much going on now.” Liz kept the phone by her ear as she flopped down on the couch.

“I see,” Connie said knowingly.

“See what?”

“Oh, nothing.”

“No, seriously, what?” Liz shifted onto her side.

“Boyfriend trouble, again, I take it.”

“No,” Liz protested. “Well, not really.”

“Mmm hmm. I don’t suppose he was the one who fell through tonight? Stood you up?”

“No! Nothing like that. He’s just been tied up with his job lately. I mean, even more so than usual.”

“So this isn’t the first time,” Connie asked.

“Well, it’s the first time he’s canceled outright on me, at least.”

“But he did choose his job over you. That’s not a good sign.”

“No, I don’t really think ‘chose’ is the right word. I just think things are pretty crazy over there for him right now.”

“You just think? He hasn’t told you?”

“Not in so many words, no. It’s…” Liz paused, trying to choose her words carefully. “He doesn’t like to talk about his job very much. Like he tries to keep his work and his personal life separate. I could probably stand to take a couple lessons from him,” she added, glancing guiltily at the stack of papers under her coffee table.

“And you’re sure he’s not just using work as an excuse to hide something else he might be doing?”

Liz laughed at the idea. “If he is, he’s doing a fantastic job timing it with the news.”

There was a pause at the other end of the line. “What do you mean, the news?”

“Oh, you must’ve heard the latest about it by now. There was some kind of arson attempt at the place he works. Two people died.”

“Oh my.”

“Yeah. He gets tied up with work whenever his company makes the headlines, but this is the worst so far. I can understand how that might work.”

“Hang on,” Connie said, her voice trailing off briefly. “Medimetics, right? The ones with the simulated brain?”

“That’s them. Actually, now that you mention it, he works something to do with security on that project.” No wonder he had sounded so frazzled when he had called her to cancel a few hours ago.

“Really? That’s certainly something. No wonder he sounds busy.”

“Yeah.” Liz rolled onto her back and stared up at the ceiling fan.

“Do you know if they’ve figured out who’s responsible? For the break-in, I mean?” Connie asked.

“Well, they did find the bodies of two of the arsonists. They somehow managed to die in the fire even though there wasn’t much actual damage; I’m not entirely sure how that worked. The news is saying they might’ve had an accomplice, but who knows.”

“Do they have a motive?”

“Apparently the police think the two are associated with some right-wing religious group. Which I guess makes sense, since a lot of them have been throwing a fit about what Medimetics is doing. No one’s taken credit for it or anything, though.”

“Ah. What does your boyfriend think?”

“Douglas hasn’t talked about it at all. In fact, we haven’t talked much since it happened. I get the sense he’s been pulling a lot of overtime since then.”



Liz kept staring at the ceiling fan, watching it slowly rotate. She couldn’t bring herself to be angry with Douglas for all but ignoring her the past couple days, since she knew it wasn’t his fault. But on the other hand, she wanted to be able to do something about it. She just had no idea what, but she knew moping at home about it wasn’t going to accomplish anything. She suspected that was what had motivated her to call Connie. Maybe talking about it some would help her think.

“You know…” Connie said.


“I’d bet Douglas — Douglas, right? — I’d bet Douglas could stand to use a little vacation right about now.”

“Yeah, probably. He’s focused on his work, but he was sounding a little worn out when he called.”

“I have an idea.”

Douglas sighed as he scrolled through the pages of the Simulacrum configuration manual. He knew the situation was bad, but the sheer extent to which the developers had cut corners continued to amaze him. It was as though they had gone through the checklist of all the issues they needed to address, and picked the worse possible way they could find an excuse to check the boxes.

It wasn’t just the fact that they were using an essentially unmodified off-the-shelf OS without any kind of hardening. It wasn’t even the fact that nobody was keeping the software on it patched. It was that the manual explicitly called for not doing so, with the excuse that the system’s isolation from the rest of the network made it unnecessary and lowered the cost of day-to-day maintenance. They didn’t even so much as run a virus scanner on any of the machines, with the excuse that they didn’t have the resources available to handle the processor overhead.

Cheaper for them, maybe, but not for Douglas, who now had to figure out a way to verify the integrity of a room full of machines that practically had a “pwn me” sign taped to their back. He couldn’t decide where to begin the actual analysis. He couldn’t even convince himself it wasn’t a lost cause right from the start, but Jessica had shot down the only real solution as being too costly.

Again, for them, not for him. Such were the dangers of having project security paid out of a different budget than project development and maintenance. He made a mental note to include consideration of Medimetics’s budgeting system as a potential threat source the next time he was tasked to prepare a risk assessment.

His phone rang. Douglas recognized the incoming number.

“Hi, Liz,” he said, answering it. “Look, I said I was sorry about tonight, but–”

“Forget about it. What are you doing this weekend?”

Most likely, staring at pages of inconclusive scan results from a subset of the machines in the Simulacrum. “Probably working, unfortunately.”

“No, we’re going camping.”

“I can’t, I–”

“Sure you can. I know your car doesn’t, but my car has enough room to pack a tent and the rest of the gear we’d need.”

“No, I mean–”

“It’ll be great. I can pick you up first thing Saturday morning and drive out to the campsite, spend the night there, and come back Sunday evening.”

“I’ve got piles of work here,” Douglas protested. Not literally, of course, but the to-do list on his computer was looking particularly foreboding.

“You’ll be back in plenty of time to report to work Monday morning.”

“This isn’t the kind of thing that can wait until then.”

“So have someone else cover for you. Make someone else spend their weekend stuck in the office. You’ll be spending your weekend in the complete opposite of the office.”

“A tent is probably the only thing smaller than this office.”

“I was talking about the Great Outdoors.”

“If they were so great, we wouldn’t build buildings to keep it out.”

“Oh come on, now you’re just making up excuses.”

“Besides,” Douglas said, “anyone who fills in for me is just going to be calling me constantly while I’m out there.”

“Correction: they’ll be trying to call you constantly. The place I’ve reserved is far enough out in the middle of nowhere, you won’t be able to get any signal. That part of why we’ll need to leave first thing Saturday morning, actually.”

“You’ve already reserved a campsite?”


“But if there’s no signal, what if something happens and we get stuck out there?”

“Oh darn,” Liz said, “I guess we’d have to find something to do with even more time alone with each other. Wouldn’t that be terrible.”

“We’d run out of food eventually.”

“It’s a campsite, not outstate Montana. There is civilization out there, after all. It just knows to keep its nose out of our business while we’re out there when we’re not looking for it.”

“Good, then if this is all secretly some plot to kill me and hide the body, there’s a chance I’ll still be able to notify the police.”

“Yes, we obviously didn’t think this nefarious plan through enough.”


“Camping was my friend’s idea. Not only would this trip give you a break from whatever they have you doing over there, but she says a camping trip with her then-boyfriend did wonders for their relationship.”



“So no pressure, then.”

“Of course there’s pressure. I told you I’m not taking ‘no’ for an answer on this. Besides, I’m already speccing out what kind of tent I’m going to buy. Don’t tell me I’ve wasted these last ten minutes online for nothing.”

Douglas leaned back in his chair to think. He tried to lean back, at least; his chair had been fated for the Dumpster before being pressed back into service for his office, and the non-functional recline mechanism was probably part of the reason it had been awaiting the scrap heap. Part of him was wary about heading off alone someplace in the middle of nowhere with someone he didn’t know as well as he’d like. But another part of him was well aware of how paranoid that sounded. Working late a second night in a row, and continuing to do so for the foreseeable future, certainly suggested his work was consuming an ever-larger chunk of his life. He was paid look at security threats all day, but that didn’t mean he needed to see everything in terms of threats and vulnerabilities all the time.

Besides, if Liz really did have it out for him, she could probably find a far more subtle plot to do so.

“OK, you win,” he said. Mort could stand to get a lot more familiar with the inner workings of the Simulacrum, after all.

“Excellent. Now, what size sleeping bag do you think you’d need?”

Chapter word count: 1,773 (+106)
Total word count: 29,976 / 50,000 (59.952%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 16: Crisis

Jacob lay in bed, having an existential crisis.

Technically, of course, that wasn’t true. In one sense, he merely had the sensation of lying in bed, or at least a reasonably close approximation of one. In another, he was constantly running in a thousand different directions through countless silicon and fiber optic channels at as close to the speed of light as engineers could manage. In a third, he was standing still in a hot and noisy room, completely motionless save for an army of whirling magnetic platters and a constellation of blinking LEDs. Then there was the sense, one that Jacob scarcely cared to acknowledge save for the sake of completeness, that those three notions were completely irrelevant, since he was really rotting in a pseudonymous grave somewhere, doomed to be forgotten.

However, all that was irrelevant to his current existential crisis. After all, Jacob had had plenty of time already to ponder that one, and had gotten a pretty good handle on it by now.

No, this time, Jacob was wrestling with the notion of his own mortality. Most people were fortunate to only have to go through it once. Jacob could remember the time he went through his first one, around the time the doctors had taken the tens’ digit off of his remaining life expectancy. Looking back on it, Jacob was convinced he had handled it pretty well. Better than most, in fact.

Some people used that moment to take stock of their life and reevaluate what was truly important to them. Others decided to live their remaining years to the fullest, so they could die with no regrets. Others resolved to hold on as long as they could, to refuse to go down without a fight.

Jacob had decided to stop playing by the rules everyone else did. After all, history had shown all of them still had a 100% mortality rate.

Jacob had learned first-hand that the key to success was knowing how to quit while you were ahead. He had let his startups get bought out before the tech crash, earning him his first fortune and isolating him from the sector’s inevitable failure. The story had played out similarly years later in real estate, confirming to Jacob he had made the right move betting everything on the Simulacrum. Maybe one couldn’t live forever, but that was only because they tied themselves to their original body. He escaped with little time to spare, but the important thing was, he had escaped.

And while his new existence were hardly perfect, it was a lot better than the alternative. Besides, there were advantages to living in a simulated environment. At the top of the list, he was safe from disease, as here bacteria and viruses simply didn’t exist. He wouldn’t get sick because he couldn’t get sick, because there was nothing here to make him sick. The only foreseeable threat to his continued good health would be old age, assuming the simulation of his physical body were detailed enough to incorporate that. But since he had effectively been transplanted from a body with one foot in the grave to the one he had now, it should be just as easy to swap out an old virtual body for a new model every few decades, with just the side effect of some disorientation after the swap. He could be effectively immortal. Not a bad deal at all.

However, the news of the attack on the Simulacrum — no, of the attack on him — made him start questioning all of that.

In his old life, he had never needed to worry about someone trying to set his brain on fire from the inside, but from what he could tell it had almost actually happened. While he had been sleeping, no less, completely unaware that anything was even happening.

Then there was the thought of what those two people had been trying to do with the servers beforehand. No one, not even the Daves, had been able to tell him much about that, so either they didn’t know or they didn’t want to tell him. It wouldn’t be the first time they had kept him out of the loop on details about himself. But that, it was like… the closest analogy Jacob could come up with was if someone broke into your bedroom at night and did a little brain surgery on you while you were asleep.

Jacob didn’t feel any different. At least, he didn’t think he felt any different. Would he remember if he did?

He turned his head to the side and saw Gavin crawling around on the inside of the terrarium walls. He didn’t seem any different from before, at least. Gavin did as he always did, lurking around in his fake body in a fake kitchen inside a fake room inside a fake reality.

The conversation Jacob had had with the Daves when they introduced Gavin jumped in his memory. Hadn’t they said they made space for him in the Simulacrum during a system update? He hadn’t given that comment much thought originally, but now it dawned on him that that was one instance where the software that gave him his existence was already mutable. In a sense, he had already experienced unannounced overnight brain surgery. At least once. For all he knew, it could have happened a dozen times already. If they hadn’t told him about it that one time, he never would have known.

The thought hardly made him more confident about what his assailants had done to the servers.

Jacob was realizing that his existence was a lot more precarious than he had thought, perhaps even more so than that of his old life, in his old body. At least then, if he was threatened by something, he had the chance of doing something about it. But here? He was completely reliant on Medimetics to protect him, and their track record had taken a pretty big hit. This had been his backup plan. Did his backup plan need one too?

Backups. He knew the Simulacrum had a backup system, which had been a relief. Then and now, he had always been at risk of a stray cosmic ray shooting through his body and breaking a DNA strand or flipping a critical bit somewhere. But with a backup of him, even if his assailants had completely destroyed the building, burned it to the ground, he would still be alive somewhere, waiting to be revived in a rebuilt system, the same virtual body but a brand-new physical one.

So if that had happened, would he be dead or alive? Jacob’s understanding of biology told him that even in the “real” world, life was a surprisingly tricky question. Bacteria were obviously alive, but what about viruses? They just sort of floated around until they latched on to a cell and took it over. And where was the line that separated the chemical reactions taking place in primordial ooze from the first living whatever?

It didn’t bode well for trying to draw analogies from that to Jacob’s current situation. He used to be made of chemicals, now he was made of ones and zeroes. No, wrong level of abstraction. What were those ones and zeroes made of? Photons and electrons zooming across a network. Voltages inside transistors. But those were ephemeral. Permanently, what was he made of? Polarizations of magnetic fields on a disk.

So what made those alive and not, say, a text file? Well, what made one set of chemicals alive and another not? Activity, Jacob guessed. It might not be the complete answer, but it at least seemed like part of it. A living body and a dead body were the same physically except for the interactions taking place. So by analogy, he was alive as long as there were processors executing the software that simulated those interactions. The bits on disk were then his real body, and the bits in memory and on the network were what made him alive.

Jacob immediately saw one difference. It was impossible, so far as he knew, to go in the physical world from a dead body to a living body. But if his dead body were bits on a disk, then any computer with the right software could read those bits and execute the same calculations that made him live. But then, what meaning did death have when resurrection were so cheap?

Jacob recognized there might be some interesting theological implications behind that, but his background was software development, so his thoughts led in that direction instead. He was alive as long as a program was running the simulation he was in. A running program means a process executing on an OS on a processor. But processes don’t run continuously, since there are usually lots of processes fighting over processor time. Instead, the OS switches between them several times a second, fast enough that the average user doesn’t even notice what’s going on. In fact, even the programmer can usually ignore it and pretend his program has complete uninterrupted control of the processor. But in reality, it gets a few milliseconds, then gets shoved into a corner of memory while another process gets a turn.

Therefore, if his thinking was correct, not only was death meaningless, but he died every few milliseconds and was resurrected a few milliseconds later. And even if that entire system crashed and burned — figuratively or literally — he could be born anew from a backup body in cold storage which, if death was meaningless for him, was just as alive as he was. Or was part of him. Or something.

Jacob’s existential crisis was rapidly turning into a headache. He decided to cut his losses and find something to distract himself with something before he somehow find a way to conclude that he was God and the OS was the devil or some nonsense like that. He rolled out of bed and sat down in front of his computer to check his e-mail.

He noticed a folder sitting on the computer’s desktop that he didn’t remember putting there. It was labeled “news”. He double-clicked on it and saw a file named “test.txt”. Strange; it wasn’t as though anyone else could use his computer while he was away from it, especially since Jacob was careful to make sure the lid of Gavin’s terrarium stayed firmly in place. Jacob opened the folder in the text editor:

“You are in more danger than you realize. If you read this, delete this file and replace it with something else. Tell no one about this message. They cannot be trusted.”

Chapter word count: 1,778 (+111)
Total word count: 28,203 / 50,000 (56.406%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 15: Review

“Sorry I’m late,” Mort mumbled as he stepped into the office. Douglas was seated at his desk, and Jessica had already claimed the chair closest to the door. He squeezed between her and the desk, set his cup on the corner of the desk, and dropped into the remaining chair.

“You look awful,” Jessica said.

“It’s been a really long night,” Mort said, rubbing his eyes. “You wouldn’t think talking to the police would be that exhausting, but it is.”

Mort leaned forward, tossing an unlabeled DVD onto the desk immediately in front of Douglas. As he shifted his weight, the chair wobbled forward and to the left on its short leg.

“That’s a copy of the security camera footage and system logs from last night,” Mort explained, trying and failing to stifle a yawn.

Douglas picked it up, look at it for a few seconds, and inserted it into the computer under his desk. He swiveled the monitor sideways, trying to position it so the three of them could look at it.

“OK, which one do you want to go through first?” Douglas asked.

“Might as well start with the big one: the shot of the server room last night,” Mort answered, the chair now wobbling back and to the right. Mort look down at the uncooperative chair leg. He then reached up and pulled an ugly orange book off the shelf above him.

“What are you doing?” Douglas shouted.

“I’m trying to balance this chair,” Mort said. For effect, he shifted his weight back and forth, demonstrating the wobble.

“That’s why I didn’t move over for you,” Jessica said quietly.

Douglas quickly leaned over the desk and yanked the book out of Mort’s hands. “This is an original copy of the TCSEC! It’s practically a collector’s item!”

“You’re the only person I’ve ever known who actually collects the Rainbow Series,” Jessica said.

“Here,” Douglas said, tossing a thin book onto Mort’s lap. “PHP pocket reference. About all it’s good for.”

Mort slid the pocket reference under the chair leg as Douglas carefully returned the orange book to its place on the shelf.

“Now that that’s done, can we get down to business?” Jessica said, checking her watch. “Once I’m out of here I’ve got a conference call with Corporate to discuss where we go from here.”

“OK, just a second,” Douglas said as he studied the file listing in front of him. “Its, um…” All of the file names were a series of digits. They looked like timestamps of when they were made.

“Here, I’ll do it,” Mort said, taking the keyboard and swinging it around to the part of the desk in front of him. “I practically know the names of these by heart now. Here we go.”

A video recording of the Simulacrum server room began playing on the screen. Mort narrated as he tapped on the keyboard. “OK, that’s the door. In a second here… there, we see two men dressed as janitors enter and walk off-screen. The corridor outside the door lost power a few seconds before they entered, which is why the door lock was disabled at the time. Now is when I started panning around to check the room and saw them there, in front of those racks, doing something.”

Douglas bent down and rummaged through a drawer in his desk, occasionally glancing back up towards the monitor. Jessica leaned closer to the screen and studied the image.

“It looks like one of them has a CD?”

Mort nodded. “Right. The police found it on one of the, um, bodies after the fire. There were three racks unlocked when we went in. It’s hard to tell from the video, but presumably they put it into at least one of the machines in each rack, maybe more.”

“Is that all they found on them?”

“The police also said they found an ID badge issued to a Mr. Dwayne Tyrell, along with a key to the server rack and a key to the supply closets. Mr. Tyrell is employed by the custodial firm we contract with. The police haven’t been able to reach him.”

“So they stole his ID and key?”

“Or bought him off,” Douglas guessed, holding a document in his lap. “Maybe they gave him a million bucks and he fled the country.”

“Or he could be the third man,” Mort said. He typed something on the keyboard, and another video appeared on the screen, showing the front lobby, facing the outside doors. One man held something next to the door and entered, followed by two others. “This was taken fifteen minutes the power disruption. They badged in using Mr. Tyrell’s ID, though from the video there’s no way to tell if he’s one of them or not. But we do know he’s not one of the two they found in the server room.”

“Either way,” Douglas said, “they got in using that ID, cut the power to the hallway, and thus disabled the only lock on the door to the server room.” He tossed the document in his lap over to Jessica.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“That is a copy of the risk assessment I had prepared on the system architecture for Simulacrum. Note in particular the part where it recommends an electronic lock that fails secure when it loses power. If that had been followed, they never would’ve gotten.”

“And we took that lock off the table because of the fire safety risk,” Jessica replied. “There’s no way the fire marshal would’ve approved that. If the lock lost power and sealed the door during a fire, well, you’ve seen what happens. And getting rid of the suppression system wasn’t an option, since the alternatives couldn’t guarantee extinguishing a fire without damaging the equipment, and we wouldn’t be able to afford that. We had to go with a lock that would fail safe and permit evacuation.”

“But you didn’t even pair the magnetic lock with a conventional lock! Lose power, and there goes your physical security!”

“We didn’t have the budget to retrofit the fire door on the room with a secondary lock. We were way over budget with the system the way it was.”

“Besides,” Mort added, “if they shut off the power from the electrical room, that means they picked the lock on it, so they could’ve picked that one as well.”

“Is that how they killed the power?” Douglas asked.

“We won’t know until the police run the prints they collected, but that’d be my guess. All I know for sure is that there weren’t any clear signs of forced entry.”

“Do we at least know what was on that CD they had?”

“No idea,” Mort replied. “The police took it as evidence. They’re going to run it through their forensics lab to find out.”

“And how long will that take?”

Mort shrugged.

Douglas groaned, resting his head in his hands, elbows on the desk in front of him.

“That bad?” Jessica asked.

“As I said in that report,” Douglas replied, “the system architecture the developers came up with relied on two things for security: minimizing connections to networks, and maintaining physical security. Now we’ve lost physical security and had someone load God knows what onto the system, since they couldn’t even be bothered to disable autorun on those machines — which, I might add, was another one of the recommendations I made in that. Without knowing what it was they had on that disc, there is literally no way to find out what they might have planted on it. The system is far too big and complex to analyze for malware.”

“On the bright side,” Mort said, “their little attempt to burn the place down suggests they weren’t very sophisticated. I doubt they’d even know how to put any kind of real rootkit on there to hide their tracks.”

“You don’t have to be too sophisticated to download one off the Internet,” Douglas said.

“Besides, I doubt their plan was to steal our data or plant backdoors or anything.”

“How can you be sure?”

“They tried to burn it down, right? They were out to destroy it, not subvert it. They probably just wanted to wipe the machines, tried a few boxes, and when that didn’t work, tried to go for physical destruction.”

“Which didn’t work, thanks to the suppression system,” Jessica added. “The entire system operated through the whole incident without anything worse than a little superficial smoke damage and some ruined manuals.”

“I certainly hope you’re right,” Douglas said.

“OK, so bottom-line this for me. What do we do now? Mort?”

Mort shrugged. “Realistically? There’s not much we can do. Simulacrum’s still running fine as far as anyone can tell.”

Jessica nodded. “Douglas?”

“You’re not going to like this.”

“I figured as much.”

“The only way to be sure the system’s OK is to wipe the machines and do a full reinstall of the system from backup, before the attack. As valuable as the system is, I don’t think we can afford to keep running it when its security has been compromised.”

“When we suspect its security might have been compromised,” Mort corrected.

“And how difficult will that be?” Jessica asked.

“With that many machines?” Douglas replied. “Probably two weeks, minimum.”

“Take the system down for two weeks?” Jessica said. “There’s no way Corporate would approve that unless we know for a fact it’s necessary.”

“There’s no way to know for a fact that an ordinary laptop has been rooted, let alone a massive cluster like that. We’re running at risk, and if we have been compromised, there’s no way to know when it’ll come back to bite us.”

“Look,” Jessica said, “I’ll bring it up with Corporate, but you know as well as I do it’s a non-starter with them. But I might be able to use it to talk them down to something more reasonable. Please tell me you have something else I can go to them with.”

Douglas thought. “At the very least, can they hire some actual guards to cover the night shift, since now we know people are going to try to break in?”

“OK, that’s good,” Jessica said, tapping something in to her PDA. “What else?”

“Wire the magnetic locks in the building to have backup power,” Mort suggested. “It doesn’t even have to be much, as long as someone’s around to check in on any power failures promptly. You’re welcome.”

Jessica nodded. “Those I think are doable. In the meantime, do what you can to clean up the machines without causing any downtime.”

“And when I finish that, maybe I can help Sisyphus with that rock of his,” Douglas said.

“Now that that’s out of the way, I have a conference call I need to set up,” Jessica said as she left the office. Mort stood up to follow her out.

“Oh, Mort,” Douglas said.


“Good job last night. We might not have even noticed anything if you weren’t holding down the fort.”

Chapter word count: 1,836 (+169)
Total word count: 26,425 / 50,000 (52.85%)

Homunculus: Chapter 14: Watch

Music played in the background as a purple lowercase h approached the bright white @ symbol. Mort took his hands off the keyboard and considered his options, secure only in the knowledge that the mind flayer couldn’t do anything until he decided what his elf should do next. He had only encountered mind flayers once before, and it hadn’t gone very well. Then, he had unwisely tried to engage one in melee combat without so much as a greased helmet to protect his intelligence score. “The mind flayer’s tentacles suck you! Your brain is eaten!” Dying from it was bad enough, but the game twisted the knife by listing the cause of death as “brainlessness” on the high scores list.

Mort leaned back in his chair as he weighed ranged combat versus tactical retreat, as the radio stream played on through the speakers. There were a few advantages in taking the night watch shift. First, there usually wasn’t much going on to worry about. Sure, there was a steady stream of attacks slamming against the perimeter defenses of the network, but rarely did anything happen that required manual intervention. Really, most nights all Mort had to do was keep an eye on the firewall logs for anything really suspicious, and once in a while help someone who managed to lock themselves out of their office without anyone else around at this hour to let them back in. The quiet gave Mort plenty of time to spend trying to find the Amulet of Yendor.

Relatively quiet, of course. One advantage of working security was knowing the limitations of the firewalls, after all. Mort had learned quickly that the network’s blocking of streaming music sites was implemented by configuring the DNS servers to refuse to resolve the domain names for those websites. All Mort had to do was look up the station’s IP address manually before coming in to work, plug that in to the browser, and he was good to go. Sure, technically he was violating policy, but there was no harm done. After all, the whole reason for prohibiting streaming media was to conserve network bandwidth, and during the graveyard shift there was plenty of spare bandwidth to go around to the dozen or so people actually in the building.

A klaxon sound effect blared over the music, jolting Mort upright. The key to carefully slacking off during your shift was making sure you’d be alerted when something warranted your attention. He minimized his game and checked the monitoring software. It showed a floor plan of the building, with one hallway flashing red. Power had been lost to corridor C-7. And only C-7; the rest of the hallways, along with the various rooms connected to them, remained green. A few seconds letter, C-7 switched back from flashing red to solid green; power had been restored.

Odd. If something had happened to the building’s power supply, a lot more than a single corridor would have gone dead. It could be a piece of equipment starting to fail. A handful of additional alerts appeared on the screen; now that they had regained power, the electronic locks on the doors in that corridor were reporting the power disruption themselves.

A quick check of the procedures manual told Mort he needed to check the status of the rooms whose locks had lost power, from most to least valuable. The Simulacrum server room was first on the list for C-7, so Mort called up a real-time feed from the security camera there. Right away he could see that the lights were on in the room. Odd; it was unusual for anyone to need to be in that room even during business hours. Cross-checking the audit logs from the door lock, he saw that no one had even badged in over the last 24 hours. Mort panned the camera to see the rest of the room and stopped when he saw two janitors standing next to an open server rack.

The Amulet was going to have to wait.

Mort picked up the phone and dialed a number on the piece of paper taped on the wall. When the other end picked up, he said, “Hi, this is Mort Duon, Medimetics Security. I’m calling to report a breaking and entering in progress…”

Alex paced back and forth as Burt remained hunched over the rack’s console. They had been here far too long already. This was supposed to have been a quick operation, a few minutes at most, in and out before anyone even realized what was going on. Alex checked his watch. Fifteen minutes had gone by since they had broken into the server room.

“Well?” Alex asked anxiously.

“I have no idea why this isn’t working,” Burt said, his voice full of frustration. “I’m going to try another console.”

“Again? This is the third one you’ve tried.”

“Do you have any better ideas?”

Alex knew they couldn’t stop now; they had come too far to turn back now. Alex handed Burt the cabinet key and started pacing again, struggling to think of a backup plan. He put his hands behind his neck and craned his head back.

Alex saw a security camera mounted near the top of the wall, pointed at them. He swore.

Alex ran towards the door. He thought he might have heard sirens outside, but dismissed the idea. There was too much background noise to hear anything on the other side of the door. But surely they had been spotted by now, and it was only a matter of time until the cops arrived. If they left now they might be able to escape, but now for sure they’d never get a second chance. If they were going down, they were going to take the Simulacrum with them.

“Quit messing with that thing and help me barricade the door,” Alex shouted. He looked around. Server racks were plentiful and heavy, but it would take too long to disconnect and disentangle them from the rest of the equipment to be able to move them. They needed something else.

“There’s a table here,” Burt shouted. Alex ran over to see it. It was metal and didn’t look particularly heavy, but it was a start. The two of them pushed it across the floor in front of the door, doing their best to angle it between the door and the nearest server rack. It wouldn’t hold the police off for long once they started forcing their way in.

“Plan B,” Alex declared.

“What’s Plan B?”

“If all else fails, kill it with fire. You still smoke, right?”


“So you’ve got a lighter, right?”


“Good. Now we just need kindling. Look for something in here that’ll burn.”

Alex and Burt fanned out, looking for paper or wood or something that would take a flame. Once they could get a fire started, it could destroy the equipment far more effectively than they could if they tried doing it by hand, especially since they hadn’t thought to bring hammers or anything like that. If only Burt had been able to log into the machines, he could use the CD to spread the virus on it to the entire network and bring everything down all at once. Fire was going to have to be the next best thing.

Alex found a pair of cabinets. They were too heavy to move in front of the door without unloading them first, but fortunately they were unlocked. And even more fortunately, full of stacks of printed manuals.


Alex scooped up as many manuals as his arms could hold and stumbled back towards the center of the cluster of racks on that side of the room, dropping them into a heap on the floor. Once Burt saw what Alex was doing, he followed suit, and after a couple trips the cabinets were mostly empty.

“OK, that’ll have to be good enough,” Alex said. “Light it up.”

Burt kneeled down, flicked open his lighter, and put the flame to the pages. Soon, the manual began to burn, and Burt moved the lighter to another part of the heap.

“Once that gets started,” Alex continued, crystallizing the plan in his mind as he spoke, “we go over to the door and make sure no one gets in until the fire really gets going. Once we can’t stand it in here any longer, we get out of here. By then, between the fire, the heat, and the smoke will do what your virus couldn’t.”

“It wasn’t my virus,” Burt protested as smoke began to rise from the heap.

“Whatever. Let’s do this.”

Alex ran back to the door and pressed his weight against the table as best he could. Burt soon rounded the corner and did likewise. Outside, Alex was sure he heard voices. It would only be a few seconds before they tried to get in. They had to be kept out until it was too late to put out the fire.

Alex and Burt jumped as a excruciatingly high-pitched screech blared throughout the room and red lights flashed. They instinctively let go of the table to cover their ears.

“What’s that?” Burt screamed.

“Security alarm?” Alex shouted.

“But why didn’t it go off until–”

As the police officer lifted the bullhorn to his mouth, an alarm sounded in the hallway outside the door to the Simulacrum server room. The two other policemen looked around to see the cause, each one keeping one hand on his holstered sidearm.

Mort, standing behind them, didn’t need to look around. He knew exactly what the alarm meant.

“Everybody get away from the door!” he shouted.

“They won’t hear you–” the officer in charge said.

“Not them! You!”

“Listen, I’m–”

“Now!” Mort screamed as he broke into a dead run down the hall. He heard the police behind him do likewise a few seconds later. Mort stopped once he was sure he was a safe distance away, bending over and gasping for breath as his heart raced.

“What is all this about?” the officer demanded of him once he caught up with Mort.

“Fire alarm. Server room. Automatic.”


“Suppression system. Inert gas. Forces all the. Oxygen out. Before fire. Can spread. Alarm means. ‘Get out.’”

“So anyone still in there…”

Mort nodded. “Is dead.”

Chapter word count: 1,720 (+53)
Total word count: 24,589 / 50,000 (49.178%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 13: Janitor

The black van rolled into the Medimetics parking lot. Most of the building’s windows were dark, and there were only a few cars scattered throughout the lot. The van pulled into a handicap parking space near the front door and switched its lights off. The doors opened, and three men dressed in blue janitorial uniforms climbed out.

Alex turned wordlessly to the two other men. They nodded, and Alex approached the front door. Through the glass doors, he saw the lobby, illuminated only by a single overhead light. The reception desk sat in front of the far wall, unoccupied. A row of chairs lined the other two walls, also empty. No witnesses.

Alex pulled the key card out of a pocket and swiped it through the reader mounted alongside the doors. The lock clicked, and Alex pulled the door open and entered, followed by Burt and Charley. As Charley let the door gently swing closed, it clicked again as the lock reengaged.

Silently, the three turned and walked, single file, down one of the hallways branching off from the lobby. They turned right, then left, until reaching the supply closet. The door was locked, as expected, but the key in Alex’s other pocket took care of that.

Inside, they found exactly the supplies they expected: a pair of mops and large wheel buckets, and a stack of short yellow sandwhich-board signs with “CLOSED FOR CLEANING” in big black letters. Burt fished out a rough hand-drawn map of the building’s floor plan, while Charlie began filling the buckets with water from the faucet. With his finger, Burt pointed to the room they were in, then slid his finger along a series of hallways until it reached a room circled several times in red ink at the corner of the building. He folded the paper back in his pocket.

Alex grabbed the stack of signs, with Burt and Charlie each took hold of one of the mops, using them as handles for moving the half-full buckets they sat in. Alex opened the door, and the three preceeded down the hall along the agreed upon path.

As they rounded a corner, Alex’s heart jumped as he saw someone walking towards them. Alex quickly caught himself and remembered what they had talked about during planning. Walk confidently, like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Don’t make eye contact with anyone. Don’t draw attention to yourselves. Alex followed those rules as best he could, keeping his eyes focused on the corridor in front of him and silently hoping the two behind him weren’t going to blow their cover. He relaxed as the man nodded his head slightly as he passed but otherwise said nothing.

For the first time, Alex felt confident that this was going to work.

The rest of the walk proved uneventful, and soon they were at their next destination. Alex dropped two of the signs in the hallway and handed the rest of the stack to Burt, who took them and his mop and bucket around the corner to do likewise. Charlie left his mop and bucket next to the signs Alex had placed and approached the door. None of them needed to consult the map to verify which was the right one; there was only one with a yellow triangle with a black lightning bolt on it. They didn’t have a key for this one, so it was now up to Charlie.

Alex picked up the mop and began slowly wiping it back and forth across the floor. Around the corner, the sound of sloshing water told him that Burt was doing the same. Without any soap or cleaner, all the mop was accomplishing was pushing any dirt or grime around, but that wasn’t important. What was important was that as long as he and Burt kept their backs to the corner and looked like they were working, anyone who happend to come across them might not notice Charlie kneeling in front of the door, lock picks in hand.

As seconds gave way to minutes, Alex confidence began to waver. Was it supposed to take this long? They had each had their turn with the set during training, and Charlie had proved to be the best of the three at it, but that didn’t necessarily mean he was good enough. This was the riskiest part of the plan, the one part where they were all fully exposed, with little any of them could due to avoid notice other than to provide a distraction and hope that anyone who came along would turn around and look for a different path without looking too closely at what was happening. The lights in some of the windows, the couple cars in the parking lot, and most of all the person they had seen earlier all proved that there were still people here, even in the middle of the night. Not many, but all it took was one.

Charlie coughed three times. Alex sighed in relief. The signal.

Alex looked behind him just long enough to see Charlie enter the electrical room. Smooth sailing from here. Alex returned the mop to its bucket, and Burt soon rounded the corner, his equipment in tow. Alex picked the two signs up and, with Burt, carried everything back towards the supply closet. Charlie would stay behind, waiting for them to give their signal.

This time, they passed no one in the hall. The two of them quickly dumped the buckets out into the wash basin’s drain and returned the equipment they had borrowed to its original place. The hard part was over, so as long as they didn’t leave behind any obvious clues, they were in the clear.

After a quick check of the map, they set of down the hall again. The route that took them back through the lobby was the shortest, so they went that way. Even though there was a slightly higher chance of them being seen there, the experience earlier showed that no one they might encounter would probably be able to recognize them as not actually being janitors. Once they saw the uniforms, they didn’t bother looking at the face or for a badge. They were janitors, ignorable, invisible.

The route back through the lobby also had the advantage of matching the one they had seen in the video they had studied for hours on end. Even without consulting the map, Alex could easily follow the correct path to the door of the server room, despite never having set foot in the building before tonight.

Once they had arrived, Alex quickly surveyed the situation. A red light shone just above the keypad and card reader next to the door. Alex knew not to bother trying the card in his pocket; not only did he not have a code to punch in, but he was sure its owner wasn’t authorized to entire anyway. Burt tapped Alex on the shoulder and pointed down the hallway. Alex heard footsteps echoing from that direction, increasing in volume with each step.

Alex and Burt quickly took a few steps in the opposite direction, so as to be a little distance away from the door before the person approaching saw them. Burt leaned his arm against the wall, and Alex slouched against it in turn. Stay calm, act casual. In low voices, they jumped into the middle of a conversation about next Sunday’s football game. Just a couple janitors slacking off on their shift.

As they talked, the footsteps drew louder and sharper as someone approached from behind Alex. The woman passed them, not appearing to give any indication of taking notice of them. Good. Alex and Burt continued the ruse as the woman continued down the hall and rounded a corner. They stopped talking once she was gone but stayed in that position, listening and watching for anyone else.

Alex chided himself for being a bit too optimistic earlier. There were two times in this plan where they were at risk of being discovered, and this was the second. It was essential that they were alone before executing the next step. Alex hoped Charlie would stay patient and wait for the signal, however long it took.

Alex and Burt waited for a few minutes. They saw and heard no signs of anyone else in the area. They returned to the door to the server room. It was now or never. Alex took his phone out of his pocket and flipped it open. Holding it in his left hand, he used his thumb to type in a simple message: “OK”. He hit Send, returned the phone to his pocket, and waited.

The hallways had been dim up until now, with only every third light or so turned on, but it was briefly plunged into near-total darkness, illuminated only by light from the far end of the corridor or spilling out from intersections. After a second or two the emergency lights came on, effectively returning the hallway to its previous level of illumination.

But more importantly, the red light on the keypad was off.

Seconds ticked in his head as Alex turned the handle and pushed on the door. It was a little heavier than he expected, but it opened without any resistance. He and Burt quickly entered and shut the door behind him. Inside, they were greeted by hot air and a loud hum of hundreds of computers chugging away in unison. They seemed unaffected by the power outage, confirming that they were on a separate power supply than the one Charlie had switched off for them to deactivate the magnetic lock.

Alex’s count reached ten. Not that Alex had any way to tell from inside the server room, but according to the plan, Charlie would restore power to the corridor and exit the building, waiting for them in the van, his role complete.

But there was no sense in thinking about that now. Alex followed the path he remembered from the video, navigating the maze of server racks until he found the one that housed the administrative console. He tried the rack’s handle and found it locked. Alex pulled a small key from his pocket and turned it in the lock. Keys for these were easy enough to come by, the racks being mass produced by a manufacturer who, as a little Internet research found, didn’t bother making multiple keys for their equipment. The protective door swung open, and he stepped back to let Burt play his role.

Burt took a CD from his pocket and inserted it into the drive of the topmost computer in the rack. He then pulled out the tray above it and swung the monitor up into position. It lit up and displayed a login prompt. Alex watched as Burt typed in a user name and password.

Burt frowned.

Burt tried again, with the same result. Now Alex frowned.

“Something wrong?” Alex asked, as quietly as he could over the background roar.

“I don’t get it,” Burt said.

“Get what?”

“The CD was supposed to automatically set up an admin-level account for us as soon as I put it in. It did during the dry-run.”

“So what do we do now?”

Burt shook his head. “Maybe it just takes a little longer on this system to work.”

“How much longer?” Alex said, worried he wasn’t going to like the answer.

Burt shrugged.

Alex didn’t.

Chapter word count: 1,905 (+238)
Total word count: 22,869 / 50,000 (45.738%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 12: Feedback

Asset Woes, Part 2
posted by Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh today at 3:47 pm (updated 7:13 pm)
tags: assets legal lawyers wife currentevents lessonslearned

If recent experiences have taught me one thing, it’s this: never let your wife get a copy of your death certificate.

I mentioned in a post earlier this week about how I got locked out of most of my accounts. Since then, I’ve been exploring my options for how to get them back, and at the moment it doesn’t look good.

Here’s what I’ve learned so far. Most financial institutions have procedures for handling the death of a client. This typically means turning over control of the account and associated assets to the closest surviving relative or next of kin, just like with any physical asset the person might have owned. Naturally, the institution wants to see proof that the account owner is dead.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

Not long after my death certificate got posted for the world to see (and still no luck trying to get that taken down, even though that kind of thing must violate half a dozen things in HIPAA), my wife got her hands on it and took control of everything of mine she could find. At least, that’s what seems to have happened. None of the institutions I’ve contacted have been willing to talk to me about the account, giving me some nonsense about client confidentiality. They seem to think that means keeping information confidential from their clients. But either way, what information I have been able to get from them all points to my wife.

Some of you might think that this would be a simple matter of contacting my wife directly and getting this all sorted out. Well, it’s not that simple. As you might have been able to guess from my barely having mentioned her here until now, we haven’t exactly been on the best of terms for the past year or so. I’d really rather not dwell on the details of that, so don’t bother asking in the comments. Suffice it to say that she and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on the whole Simulacrum project, and apparently we still don’t, since she hasn’t been returning any of my calls. I haven’t entirely given up hope on that front yet, but I’m not holding my breath either. My guess is that my only recourse at this point is having the court invalidating the account transfers on account of my actually being, you know, alive.

Which looks like it’s going to be easier said than done. I’m still waiting to hear back from the Medimetics legal people, but for the time being they’re probably my best bet. Just to be on the safe side, though, I’ve been contacting some other lawyers too. Needless to say, though, none of them have shown any interest in taking my case. There seem to be two reasons for that.

First, not surprisingly, there’s not much in the way of case law or precedent for people in my situation, which probably means it would be a lot of work coming up with a solid legal basis for my claims. Hardly a case they can hand off to their interns or paralegals or whomever. (I’m not entirely sure how law offices work, but that’s their job, right?)

[Edit: To be clear, it's not a question of whether someone who can prove he's alive can reverse things done on account of his assumed death -- I'm pretty sure that's easy! No, the big issue is whether I have standing to file a legal claim in the first place. There's very little precedent on the ability of entities who aren't flesh-and-blood humans to file suit. And what little precedent there is limited to the occasional nut trying to sue God over something or other, and those tend to get thrown out on jurisdiction issues. (Seriously, Google it.)]

Second, there’s the question of my ability to pay. Remember, the whole problem is that I don’t have access to any of my assets, and if I lose in court that would obviously stay that way. None of the lawyers I’ve tried contacting thus far have been willing to take the case on contingency, since it’s a lot of work with no idea of the chances of success and thus no idea whether they’d actually see a dime for it.

In hindsight, I probably should’ve hired a lawyer or two on retainer to handle cases like this. Though really, I should’ve gotten officially divorced in the first place and avoided the whole mess in the first place.

Consider that another lesson learned, those of you hoping to follow in my footsteps some day. It’s all fun and games until you try to get the lawyers involved.


From: Jasper Reynolds <jreynolds>
To: Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh <jfeldspar>
Subject: Re: Request for assistance

Mr. Feldspar-Leigh,

Thank you for the additional information you provided regarding justification for MLT contravening our standard policy, mandated by corporate, against providing legal representations to individuals affiliated with the company. You make a compelling argument for the assertion that your personal legal interests are aligned with the company in this issue; namely, that legal support of your claim to the control of financial assets registered in the name of Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh coincides with the corporate message that Project Simulacrum instantiates not a computer program but a human being.

However, I regret to inform you that your request has been denied. After much discussion between myself and several other members of the MLT, we have come to the conclusion that MLT can best serve the company’s legal interests by focusing our attention on other cases at this time.

Also, I would like to take this opportunity to remind you that any content posted to the official company website, including weblogs (“blogs”), is required to be reviewed by both the MLT and the PR department before publication, to ensure that said content coincides with corporate policy and does not introduce the appearance of any legal obligations on the part of the company. In particular, your recent post titled “Asset Woes, Part 2″, originally posted at [URL removed by spam filter], falls under the section of the website content policy prohibiting “statements regarding planned, pending, or current legal actions” (section 17, paragraph 5, subparagraph 4(b)). The offending post has been removed pending review, a member of the MLT will be in contact with your shortly to discuss changes will be required to reinstate it. To avoid future complications, please be sure to submit future posts and comments for review no less than 48 hours prior to publication.

Disclaimer: the following statement does not necessarily reflect the opinions or viewpoints of Medimetics or the Medimetics Legal Team.

I wish you luck in your efforts to regain control of the assets you believe belong to you.

End disclaimed text.

Jasper Reynolds Medimetics
Legal Team
~ Unless stated otherwise, no portion of this message constitutes legal advice. ~

This message may contain confidential or proprietary information and is intended solely for use by the recipient. Forwarding, publishing, or otherwise divulging its contents to other persons without the express written permission of the originator is strictly prohibited. Violations may be subject to legal action.

From: Oliver Trenton <oliver1@…>
To: Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh <jfeldspar>
Subject: Offer of legal support

Mr. Feldspar-Leigh,

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Oliver Trenton, founder and president of Over Zero. Our organization’s mission is to prepare human society for the coming technological singularity by promoting science, technology, laws, and cultural attitudes to support the exponential advancement of society.

Needless to say, your experiences as the first recorded instance of human-machine fusion has been of keen interest to us. Thus, you may be able to understand that your recent report of legal trouble (your post “Asset Woes, Part 2″ on your blog, which seems to be unavailable at the moment, by the way) has particularly caught our attention.

On behalf of Over Zero, I would like to offer you whatever support we can in representing you in court. We believe the difficulty you have experienced in recovering access to your assets is yet another instance of discrimination against Digital Americans such as yourself. History has shown that once bigotry becomes accepted and entrenched in society, extraordinary effort is required to undo the damage and restore equality.

While I myself am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice (sorry, our staff lawyer made me say that), I believe the biggest challenge you will face in court is rightful recognition of your status not only as a person in the eyes of the law, but also of an American citizen, with all the rights and privileges thereof. There will be a strong push by traditionalists to label you as “just a c******* p******”, and if recognized legally would relegate you to the status of Medimetics property. I do not think I need to elaborate on the consequences that such a ruling could have on a minority group such as Digital Americans.

However, I believe that your case could be precisely the test case Over Zero has been looking for the establish the rights of Digital Americans. Just as your old, organic brain and body were recognized as having legal status of personhood, so should a complete and fully functional digital representation of that same system. We do not anticipate the need to establish where the line, if any, should be drawn between conventional software and Digital Americans, but in my opinion it is clear which side of the line you fall on.

While our legal resources at Over Zero are admittedly modest, I promise you that, should you accept our offer to represent you, your case shall have the full attention of our legal staff member. And although we would appreciate any donation you may be willing to provide to your organization, given the twin factors of the importance of your case to our mission and your present difficulty in providing payment, Over Zero shall be willing to represent you on a strictly pro bono basis.

From all of us at Over Zero, I would like to close by saying it would be an honor to have the opportunity to work with you, and we eagerly await your reply.

Oliver Trenton

Chapter word count: 1,733 (+66)
Total word count: 20,964 / 50,000 (41.928%)

Homunculus: Chapter 11: Roommate

“Jacob, I have good news and bad news,” Jacob heard Other Dave’s voice say.

Jacob paused his experimentation with his computer’s newfound Internet access. Back when he was in the hospital, he had quickly learned that hearing a doctor prefix something with that sentence was never a good thing. Which, technically, was pretty self-evident from the “bad news” part, but doctors were in a position to provide a particular level of bad news that other people simply couldn’t. And even though neither of the Daves had any kind of medical degree, in a sense Jacob was in the same relationship with them as he was with his doctors in the hospital. The Daves were ultimately responsible for keeping him alive.

“I don’t want any bad news,” Jacob said.

“OK,” Other Dave replied, “then I’ll just tell you the good news. As part of the code updates New Dave and I pushed out to Balthasar last night during the resync–”

“Balthasar?” Jacob asked.

“You’re sitting in it. Anyway, part of that update freed up some of the resources in the cluster.”

“OK.” If Other Dave was expecting Jacob to be impressed at the news, he wasn’t.

“That means you don’t have to be all alone in there anymore. Meet your new roommate.”

There was a flash of light and a high-pitched “fwoosh” from the corner of the room. When Jacob looked, he saw a glass terrarium sitting on a table, neither of which had been there before.

“What was that?” Jacob asked.

“I figured if I’m going to be able to be able to play God in your world,” Other Dave replied, “I might as well do it with a little style, right?”

“That’s style?”

“Hey, shut up, Q is awesome.”

“Q who?”

“Don’t get him started,” New Dave called, his voice sounding distant.

“Don’t listen to him,” Other Dave said. “He thinks Kirk is better than Picard.”

“No appreciation for the classics,” retorted New Dave.

Jacob ignored the Daves’ bickering and walked across the room to inspect its new occupant. The terrarium was decorated like a miniature kitchen, as though someone had raided some poor little girl’s dollhouse. There were two tiny dishes, one with water and one with something brown that was presumably supposed to be food. Something suddenly skittered from underneath the toy table and darted behind the fake pink fridge.

“Was that a cockroach?” Jacob asked.

“His name is Gavin,” answered Other Dave.

“You’re putting a cockroach in my home.” As soon as he said it, Jacob wondered if “home” was really the right word to use. The only alternatives he could think of at the moment sounded more awkward. Jacob supposed this really was his home now.

“Technically,” Other Dave corrected him, “we put you into his home. Gavin there was Balthasar’s original resident. He could probably teach you a thing or two about living there.”

“So, first him, then me.”

“First Gavin the cockroach, then King the dog, then Reston the monkey, now you. It’s not like we were going to test the system on you originally.”

“Be thankful for that,” New Dave said, his voice clearer now, as though he had moved closer to the microphone. “The early activation tests on Gavin didn’t end well.”

“Do I want to know more about that?” Jacob asked hesitantly.

“Probably not.”

“So why not give me the dog?”

“We only had enough free resources from the last update to add something with Gavin’s complexity,” said Other Dave. “We could give you King, but that would mean giving you a bit of a lobotomy to make room.”

“I’ll pass, thanks.”

“If it were up to me, I’d put Reston in there. Having a monkey for a roommate would be a comedy goldmine.”

“Monkeys aren’t domesticated,” New Dave countered. “Sure, it’s all fun and games, until Reston decides to challenge your dominance and suddenly he’s clawing your eyes out.”

“Lighten up,” said Other Dave, “I wasn’t being serious. Besides, it’s not like we couldn’t just restore you from backup if that happened.”

“Restore me…” Jacob said.

“Sort of like an extra life in a video game. Except you don’t have to run around looking for green mushrooms first. Hey, there’s an idea for 2.0.” Jacob heard a chair scoot, followed by the faint squeaking of a marker writing on a whiteboard.

“Oh, you should see the rest of his ideas for the expanded virtual environment for the next major release,” New Dave said. “Be glad it’s not his job to design any of the rooms you’re in now.”

Jacob didn’t answer. While he certainly wouldn’t mind a living space that amounted to more than a studio apartment, his attention was currently focused on the terrarium, and the cockroach that was hiding somewhere inside.

“You can take him out, if you like,” Other Dave said. “And if you accidentally step on him, we can restore him from backup too.”

“I’ll pass,” Jacob said distractedly.

“Your loss.”

Jacob thought he saw an antenna sticking out from behind the miniature oven. It looked like there was a piece of plastic and a wall of glass separating the two of them. But Jacob knew in reality, they were both somewhere inside a room full of computers. How far apart were they separated there, he wondered. Were they running on separate nodes? Or were they all tangled up with each other, relying on a few bits of software to distinguish between his brain’s and the insect’s. For a fleeting moment, Jacob wondered what would happen if the software running the simulation got the two confused.

“None of the programmers happens to be named Kafka, is there?” Jacob asked.

“Hmm?” said Other Dave.

“Never mind.”

Jacob turned his attention away from the miniature vermin and back to his computer. He did something that was sure to prove that he was still human and not a cockroach: go online and check the status of his financials. The investment portfolio was simple enough; what money he hadn’t sunk into Project Simulacrum directly was mostly tied up in Medimetics stock. Jacob checked the market value over the past month. Not surprisingly, it had quadrupled almost instantly when he was announced to the world a week ago, after which it wavered between double and triple, presumably as the day traders fought one another over the gains to be found in short-term fluctuations. But that didn’t matter too much to Jacob; he was in it for the long haul, financially and otherwise.

Relative performance was one thing; Jacob wanted a dollar figure on his current holdings, and couldn’t remember offhand how many shares he owned. His next stop was his brokerage’s website. He typed in his user name and password and clicked the button.

“Login failed. Re-enter your user name and password. Make sure your CAPS LOCK key is off.”

Jacob typed his user name again, carefully this time, entering one letter at a time has he watched the keyboard, making sure there were no typos. He tabbed over to the password box and stopped. What was his password again?

In retrospect, it had been months since he had ever had occasion to use it. How had he managed to type it in once already without realizing it? Muscle memory, he guessed. He remembered not jumbled sequence of lowercase, uppercase, numbers, and symbols, but rather the sequence of motions needed to type it on a keyboard. Trying to remember it character by character would be impossible. He fixed his eyes on the screen and tried again, but his hands wouldn’t move. He was still trying to remember his password instead of simply typing it. It was like blinking or breathing: you could do it without thinking, until you tried doing it consciously. You couldn’t start doing it automatically again until you distracted yourself with something long enough to stop thinking about it and letting instinct take over again.

Jacob looked across the room at the terrarium. There was something black stuck to the side of the miniature refrigerator, motionless. At least a cockroach wouldn’t keep him up all night barking.

Now. Jacob turned back to his computer and typed in his password before he could start thinking about it again. He clicked the button. Still failure. He tried it all over again a third time, first making sure his hands were positioned properly on the home row. Still no luck. He sighed.

At his old home — Jacob briefly realized he was now referring to it as that — he kept a list of his passwords written down, hidden away for this sort of occasion. That didn’t exactly help him now. Nor was he going to ask someone to go in there, find his password list, bring it back, and read it off to him here. That left one recourse.

He clicked the “Forgot your password?” link next to the login prompt.

The login page was replaced with a question: “Where were you married?” He couldn’t remember why he had chosen that as his secret question, but at least he could remember the answer easily enough, even though the event now seemed like it took place a lifetime ago. In a sense, it had. He typed in “Crestwood Hills Chapel” and hit Enter.

A new page greeted him: “Your password has been reset and sent to your e-mail account sus4iver@(domain).com. (For security reasons, your complete e-mail address is not displayed.)”

Jacob froze. That did not look like any of his e-mail accounts. It almost looked like….

The realization hit him. He couldn’t think of any other explanation. He tried logging in to one of his bank accounts. Same user name, same password. Failure. He tried that site’s password reset function. Another message saying the new password has been sent to sus4iver. He could try checking his other bank accounts too, but by this point Jacob could guess he’d find the same thing there as well.

Jacob swore.

“Something wrong?” Other Dave called.

“That’s Susan’s. It has to be.”


“My wife.”

Chapter word count: 1,671 (+4)
Total word count: 19,231 / 50,000 (38.462%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 10: Alert

Douglas didn’t like the story that the filter logs were telling him. If he didn’t know any better, they might lead him to think that the entire Internet had it out for Medimetics. Hardly a second went by without something nefarious slamming against one of the firewalls. That wasn’t what was bothering him about it, however. Almost by definition, anything that the firewalls were catching was something that Douglas didn’t need to worry too much about. It was what might be slipping through undetected, or getting buried in the noise, where the trouble lay. “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” was one of most idiotic sayings Douglas had ever heard. Ignoring something didn’t make it go away, so never being aware of something in the first place was even worse. It certainly can hurt you, Douglas knew. Whenever he heard someone use that saying, he’d counter with another little piece of folk wisdom, but one what was far more accurate: you never hear the one that gets you.


Douglas look up from his phone. He saw Liz sitting across the table, staring at him expectantly.

“Oh?” he said. He noticed the waiter standing beside them, notepad in hand, waiting with feigned patience. “Um, just water for me, thanks.” The waiter nodded and swiftly turned to walk away.

“You don’t mind if I have wine, do you?” Liz asked.

“No.” Douglas slid his phone back into his pocket.

“Oh, good. I didn’t know if you were maybe religious or a recovering alcoholic or something.”

“No. Not since I last checked, at least.” Did something about the way he had dressed that evening suggest ‘recovering alcoholic’ somehow? Douglas quickly dismissed the idea, if only because he couldn’t immediately think of what precisely that might entail. He could imagine what an alcoholic looked like pretty well, but a recovering one?

“OK then,” Liz said. Her eyes fell on the upturned wine glass in front of her. Did she feel self-conscious about being the only one drinking? Douglas guessed that he ought to change the subject.

“So,”, he started, “um, how have you been?”

“Pretty well this week,” she replied. “I’m this close to coming up with the campaign strategy for this big client. It’s the first time we’ve…”

Douglas’s phone vibrated and buzzed in his pocket, much as it had been for the past several hours. He took it out and checked the screen: another perimeter security alert from the firewall. He frowned slightly and returned the phone to his pocket.

“Something wrong?” Liz asked.

“No more so than usual,” Douglas answered. At least as long as he scoped the definition of ‘usual’ to be limited to the time since some idiot on cable news had tried stirring up controversy about Simulacrum. The first of many, Douglas worried.

“That bad?”

Douglas waved his hand. “Don’t worry about it. You were saying?”

“Well, like I was saying, this’ll be the first time I’ll be integrating a promotional weblog as part of the product positioning strategy. It’s pretty exciting, actually; it’ll be a chance to cross-promote–”

“It’s not astroturfing, is it?” Douglas asked, a second before he realized that he probably shouldn’t be calling Liz’s professional activities into question on their first date.

“A what?” she asked.

“It’s, um, fake grassroots,” Douglas answered, trying to think of a save. “Like where a company tries to make it looks like there’s a lot of public interest or support in a product or something, but then a skeptic comes along and finds out all the blogs and websites are being run by the company selling the product. There’s inevitably a backlash against the company once they’re caught red-handed. I, uh, wouldn’t want something like that to happen to you.” That might work.

“Oh, no, not like that. That’s an amateur mistake. No, this is definitely going to be part of the client’s presence on the Internet, but with more in-depth postings and testimonials than we could get away with on a traditional corporate website. Of course, part of what I’ll be doing is keeping the two on-message and synergized with the more traditional thrust of the campaign.” Did she just use the word “synergize”?

“Then nothing to worry about in that case, I guess. You know, I’ve heard of… hang on a second,” Douglas said as his phone once more demanded his attention.

He checked the screen. Yet another alert about a possible horizontal scan against the network. They had become tiresome a few hours ago. Still, though, something didn’t look quite right about it. He flicked his thumb, switching the display from the current alert to a history of what happened recently. Scans were coming from multiple addresses but didn’t look like there was much overlap between them. Someone trying to hide their tracks. Slightly interesting, but hardly unusual. But that wasn’t it; he had seen that sort of thing enough even before Medimetics had drawn everyone’s attention for something like that to be sticking out at him for some reason. His gut was telling him something was unusual about this, but he couldn’t quite see….

“My eyes are up here, by the way,” Liz said.

“What? Oh, uh, sorry,” Douglas said, looking up from the screen.

“You know, you could at least flatter me and be staring at something else when I say that. What have you got that’s so interesting anyway?” She reached out towards Douglas and twisted his wrist so that the phone’s screen angled towards her.

“Hey, that’s–” Douglas protested.

“Relax, I just want to see what I’m competing against this evening. I didn’t think there was a game on tonight.”

“It’s nothing,” he said, pulling the phone free and shoving it back into his pocket.

“It’s not nothing. Don’t tell me you’ve secretly got some other date lined up this evening and are trying to keep her busy until you can ‘go to the bathroom’ and sneak off to see her. Because if it’s that, I can just go home and watch it on reruns.”

“It’s just… what?”

“Well, it’s the only conceivable reason for your behavior, if decades of sitcom plots are any guide.”

Liz was presumably joking, which meant she couldn’t be too upset with him yet. That was a good sign. Probably.

“It’s definitely not that.”

“Good, because no matter what the writers try to tell you, hilarity does not ensue. So what is going on?”

“My phone gets an alert every time it looks like someone’s attacking our network,” Douglas explained.

“And that happens once every few minutes?” Liz asked doubtfully.

“Of course not.”


“This is the Internet we’re talking about. You get attacked a few hundred times a second. On a good day.”

“And today?”

“Is not a good day.”

“No wonder you’re so distracted.”

Douglas shook his head. “It’s not like that. Most of it is garbage it’s not worth looking at. Script kiddies running some cool hacking tool that they have no clue how to use properly or what it actually does. Backscatter from slightly more competent kiddies who happen to be spoofing your address. Ten-year-old boxes that have never been patched spewing attack traffic that only worked when Clinton was in office. E-mails from Nigerian royalty or advertising dubious pharmaceuticals. But all that’s just part of the background noise.”

“So what are you worried about?”

“The stuff that isn’t that. Things that suggest that someone is trying to attack us, specifically. Or worse, that they have been attacking us for some time and haven’t noticed until now.”

“How hard is that?”

“Very. The idea is, once you let in all the good traffic and throw out all the obviously bad traffic, whatever’s left is interesting and is worth looking at. For some carefully defined value of ‘interesting’ that’s tricky to make a computer understand.”

“So every time your phone goes off and distracts you…”

“… is a time when something I’m supposed to look at happened. At least, something I used to think I wanted to look at. This rule set was working a lot better a week ago, I can tell you that much.”

“But now that your company’s all over the news, everyone’s suddenly interested in what you’re doing.”

“Pretty much. If it were up to me, I’d fire our PR and marketing departments and work in obscurity, not attracting anyone’s attention.”

Liz shook her head. “You wouldn’t want that.”

“It’d make my job a lot easier.”

“Well, that’s the problem,” Liz said. “No PR and no marketing means no one knows who you are. No one knowing who you are means no one buying your products and services. No customers means no sales. No sales mean no revenue. No revenue means no company. No company means no job.”

“You might have a point,” Douglas conceded. The fact that everyone seemed to be throwing garbage at his network just meant that his network had lots of valuable information in it that needed to be protected. And that meant job security. Until there was some high-profile security breach or the network went down for longer than management was willing to tolerate, and he got the boot, and had trouble finding new work thanks to that same high-profile failure. And if experience had taught him nothing else, it was that a defender’s failure was inevitable. It was just a matter of where, when, and how bad. For the defender to succeed, he had to stop every single attack that came at him. For him to lose, one attacker just needed to get lucky once. Statistics was not in his favor.

But neither was a steady stream of alert data that he simply didn’t have time to review. Douglas made a mental note to tweak the rules that triggered security alerts to make them less noisy. That would let him focus on what was important, at the cost of increasing the risk that the one that was going to get him in the end would sneak up unannounced. But what choice did he have?

“So,” he said. He once more removed the phone from his pocket and, holding it in front of him for Liz to see, powered it off. “Tonight you’ll have my undivided attention.”

“What about after tonight?” Liz asked.

“Thinking about that now would divide my attention.”

Chapter word count: 1,719 (+52)
Total word count: 17,560 / 50,000 (35.12%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 9: Survival

Jacob was furious. The computer screen followed him as he paced back and forth in his environment, clenching and unclenching his fists in front of him. New Dave turned the volume knob of the speakers to the left.

“None of you bothered to tell me I was dead,” he fumed.

“We were waiting for the right time to tell you,” New Dave said.

“We wanted to give you a chance to get used to the environment before you started worrying about other things,” added Other Dave.

“Worrying,” said Jacob.

“We predicted the activation process would be putting you under enough stress as it was,” Other Dave explained.

“So I have to learn about my death third-hand from people talking about the news coverage of it?”

“I’d hardly call Chet Arrow ‘news.’”

“Jacob, just take a couple deep breaths and calm down,” said New Dave.

“OK, fine, I’ll get right on that. Oh wait, I can’t breathe, because I’m dead.”

The Daves looked at each other and shrugged. There was a beep and a click behind them. They turned to see Maxwell enter the lab, his face grim and determined.

New Dave hit the microphone’s mute button. “How’d it go?” he asked.

“The PR boys have it figured out,” Maxwell replied. He gestured towards the console. “How’s he handling the news?”

“Not well. Maybe you can talk some sense into him.” New Dave rolled his chair to the side, giving Maxwell room to sit down at the computer. Maxwell stared at it for a few moments.

“How do I…?” he asked.

Other Dave reached over and hit the mute button.

“Jacob, can you hear me? This is Dr. Newhausen.”

“I don’t know, maybe you can drag my body out of whatever gutter it’s laying in and ask it,” Jacob replied.

“Jacob, please,” Maxwell replied, his voice calm and measured. “You knew that this was inevitable. It was the whole reason you funded Project Simulacrum in the first place.”

Jacob slowed down. Maxwell was right; in the months following the dot-com crash, Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh had taken the fortune he had made from selling off his Internet startups and became an angel investor. Initially, his portfolio included a variety of high-risk, bleeding-edge startups, one of which was researching ways to implement neural simulation. Maxwell was in charge of that project, before the startup began to show some indications of progress and was acquired by Medimetics.

A few years after that, the Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh that had been recognized as one of the lucky survivors of the crash dropped out of the public spotlight. Maxwell knew the reason: a medical diagnosis that set Jacob’s life expectancy at about the end of the decade. About this time, Jacob reshuffled his portfolio, putting some of it into the growing real estate market and the rest into Medimetics, specifically becoming the primary source of funding that enabled Project Simulacrum. And once Jacob grew skittish about the prospects of real estate months before the mortgage crisis, he sank his second fortune solely into Medimetics. His money came with but one condition: that he be the first human test subject, that life being preferable to none at all.

His fortunes weren’t the only cost Jacob paid to see Project Simulacrum come to fruition. His seemingly reckless investment strategy and increasing obsession with the company strained his relationship with his wife to the breaking point. As his trial separation from her turned into a divorce in all but paper, Jacob signed the series of consent forms Maxwell presented him as the project became a reality.

Maxwell didn’t know how much of the collapse of Jacob’s health was due to his medical condition, how much to the stresses of funding a one-in-a-trillion shot at survival, or how much to his personal life. Nor did it really matter, as far as Maxwell was concerned. The important thing was, the Mark VII became operational before Jacob grew completely unresponsive.

“We all knew you — not you, the physical you, the old you — didn’t have much time left,” Maxwell continued. “Conspiracy theories aside, I can assure you the Mark VII had no ill effects on your physical health after the procedure. And just to be doubly sure of that, it’s been taken out of operation until it can go through a full suite of tests and technical review to confirm that it did not contribute to the coma.”

“Out of operation?” Jacob asked. No longer pacing, he now stood facing the computer terminal in his environment, his face filling the monitor in the lab. “Are you saying there’s other–”

“The Mark VII has a legacy mode where it performs a standard MRI scan,” Maxwell explained, anticipating Jacob’s question. “It’s rather unnecessary if you ask me, but it was the only way marketing could convince the hospital to install it. They wanted something they could use before the Mark VII’s results were fully validated. And no, none of the patients that have gone into the Mark VII in legacy mode have had any complications that can be traced back to the machine. The fact that the old you entered a coma afterward is just a coincidence. A coincidence, mind you, that shows just how close we came.”

“But I died two whole months ago. I haven’t been here–”

“The old you died,” corrected Maxwell.

“Just because we scanned you half a year ago doesn’t mean the simulation was ready yet,” added New Dave. “We wanted to make sure all the bugs had been worked out before we tried loading you. I’m sure you can appreciate that.”

“We took the precaution of interring your old body under a false name, just in case there was any unpleasantness such as the kind that some people are trying to stir up.”

“My old body…” Jacob said quietly.

“It’s not like you were going to be able to go back to it anyway,” Other Dave said. New Dave kicked his shin and glared at him.

“So what now?” Jacob asked.

“Now,” Maxwell replied, smiling faintly, “we make sure the public understands that you, the new you, are the real you, not the old you. We need to get your voice out into the public square, so the public learns to identify with you as a person, not some kind of computer program.”

“Because that’s what’s best for the company, right?” Jacob said doubtfully.

“There is that, but what’s good for the company is also good for you, Jacob.”

Understanding flashed in New Dave’s eyes. “If the public’s against us and there’s pressure to shut the project down…”

“… then that’s it for me,” finished Jacob. “Survival.”

Maxwell nodded. “Unfortunately, there’s nowhere else you’d be able to go.”

“So what do I do?”

“For now, essentially the same thing we had been planning to get your voice out. We’re working on a way to set up some kind of talk show circuit for you, but since you’re more or less a shut-in here, that’s mostly going to mean an Internet presence. Tell the world about your experiences, what you think, whatever, as long as they get to know you. Everything else will follow from that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m already late for a brief to the CEO.” Maxwell nodded to the Daves and let himself out.

Jacob stood silently, his eyes closed, slowly tapping his finger against his leg.

“He does know I still don’t have access to the Internet, right?” Jacob finally said.

“You don’t?” New Dave asked, turning to another of the computer terminals. “I thought I fixed that this morning.”

“I can check again… no, still nothing.”

New Dave cursed silently, staring at the series of network diagrams on the screen in front of him. He traced a line through a series of boxes and circles and arrows, his finger hovering a fraction of an inch away from the display.

“This is all jacked up,” he concluded. “This has got you running through just about every firewall in the building. No wonder you can’t get out to anything.” He sat their silently, eyes fixed on the screen, thinking. “Unless…”

New Dave pushed away from the terminal and swung his eyes around the room, surveying the layout. He mentally overlaid the network diagram over what he saw. The two machines in the corner were hooked up to the test rig. The three on the desk along that wall connected to the operational system down the hall. The three in the center hooked up to the R&D intranet, which connected all the labs together but didn’t even link to the corporate intranet, not since the time marketing had poached one of their sensitive schematics to use as a background in a trade brochure. But the two computers on the wall by the door were on the corporate intranet, which linked to the DMZ, which by definition…

“Do we have any spare Cat-6 in the cabinet?” he asked.

Other Dave peeked inside the drawer. “Yeah. Why?”

New Dave pointed as he talked. “We tunnel the virtual network interface of Jacob’s box out of the operational rig and bridge it to there. We run the cable from that switch, over the ceiling tile, into that switch there, into the intranet. From there, we’re golden; it looks just like another box on the corporate LAN, as far as the firewalls care.”

Other Dave considered that. “Couldn’t we just figure out what filter rules need to be changed on the routers we already have running–”

“If you want to go through a Network ECP,” New Dave said, shaking his head. “That’ll take a month, and then you-know-who will just kill it anyway, since it touches the operational rig, and we’re back to square one. We need this done now, or corporate will cave to public pressure and shut us down. Unless you’ve got a better idea?”

Other Dave didn’t say anything.

“Well then, screw the rules, I have deadlines.”

“Ha! In America!” said Other Dave.

“… What?”

“Huh? I thought you were quoting… never mind.”

Chapter word count: 1,676 (+9)
Total word count: 15,841 / 50,000 (31.682%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 8: Arrow

“Welcome to Straight Arrow. I’m your host, Chet Arrow. Tonight’s target: Medimetics announced this week that they have successfully uploaded a human brain into a computer. You’ve heard the news, watched the video, but now you’ll learn from our quiver of experts what it means. Is it the biggest breakthrough of medical science of our lifetimes, or will it inexorably lead to America’s destruction?”

The camera zoomed back from Chet Arrow to reveal the arcing anchor desk he sat at the center of. He wore a tailored suit and his trademark stars-and-stripes tie.

“Let’s get started,” Chet continued. “First up: Dr. James Pendleton, professor of biology at Greenfield University. Dr. Pendleton, you must see this as an exciting time for your field. What’s your reaction to the news?”

The camera panned and zoomed to the far right end of the desk, where a bespectacled man with graying hair and a tweed jacket sat. “In a word, Chet,” he began, “underwhelmed.”

“How so?”

“Frankly, I’m looking for the science behind all of this, and so far I haven’t seen any. Maybe we’ll see something come out of this, but I’m not holding my breath.”

“But you’ve seen the press release with the video interview with–”

“That video proves nothing. All we see are racks of computers and an animation of a computer-generated figure answering questions. Do you play many video games, Chet?”

“Absolutely not. They rot the brain.”

“Well, my children do, and I’ve seen more realistic acting and animations in them than I do in that video. It simply isn’t that hard to put together with a little time and money. Far less money than Medimetics claims to have put into their project, I might add.”

“So are you saying it’s a hoax?”

“I’m not saying that yet, but the signs are there. If this really is a scientific breakthrough, you’d expect some of the researchers involved would be publishing papers on their methods. How does the Mark VII achieve the scan resolution required, how do their computational models of cellular interactions in neural tissue work, that sort of thing. As far as I can tell, not only have no papers been published, but none have even been submitted to any scientific journals. There’s not even so much as a preprint available on arXiv. If there is science here, then where’s the science?”

“Medimetics has answered that question in an earlier interview, I believe,” Chet said, shuffling through a stack of notes in front of him. “Here, their Dr. Newhausen says they haven’t published on it to protect their trade secrets.”

“Nonsense. Science by press release is not science, plain and simple. If they don’t reveal their methods, there’s no way for other researchers to try to replicate their experiments to validate their claims. And without peer review or third-party confirmation of their results, this is no better than rumor. At least when Hwang Woo-Suk lied about having cloned human embryonic stem cells, he went through the effort of fabricating data. Medimetics doesn’t seem to have even done that.”

“You heard it here, folks: accusations that Medimetics is perpetrating the biggest scientific fraud of the century,” Chet summarized.

“That’s not what I’m–” Dr. Pendleton protested.

“But if it is true,” Chet continued, the camera once again on him and Dr. Pendleton’s audio suddenly cutting out, “what does it mean for mankind? Next we have Justine Wright, senior fellow at the Worthington Institute for Ethics. Justine, if we can put a person into a computer, does that mean that computers will some day demand the same rights as us?”

The camera quickly panned to Chet’s left, where seated next to him was a tall, thin woman wearing a red blazer. “As you can imagine, Chet,” she began, “this as been a hot topic of conversation at the Institute these past few days. But the conclusion we’re coming to is that the idea of granted rights to whatever may be running inside their mainframe raises a host of very difficult and disturbing problems.”

“You have no idea,” said the man seated at the far left of the table.

“Hold on, Lou, we’ll get to you soon enough,” Chet said. “Justine, what are some of those issues.”

“Take the right to vote, for example,” Justine continued. “Should simulated people have it? Consider the fact that these ‘people’ are ultimately just a bunch of zeroes and ones that can be moved around or — and this is key — copied. If you give a simulated person the vote, do copies of him also have that right? And if so, what’s to stop anyone from creating a voting bloc of hundreds of thousands of copies of the same digital persona, all voting identically?”

“Has ACORN started buying up computers?” Lou quipped.

“But if not, where do you draw the line?”, Justine continued, ignoring the outburst. “Does the original copy, such as the one Medimetics claims to have running today, get those rights either? Or are they reserved for the original flesh-and-blood person they copied? Or maybe the entire collection gets treated legally as one person, in which case, if two of them try to vote, whose do you count? First come, first served? Is there seniority? Fact is, our legal system simply isn’t set up for a world where non-human entities can be created on a whim and treated as people. It threatens to bring our entire system down.”

“Nonsense,” said the twenty-something man sitting between Chet and Dr. Pendleton.

“Which brings us to Oliver Trenton, founder and president of the… singularity advocacy organization Over Zero,” Chet said, reading the last five words slowly off the prompter as though they were a foreign language. “Oliver, first off–”

“Our legal system already recognizes non-humans as persons under the law,” Oliver said, talking over Chet’s segue. “They’re called corporations. In fact, I’m a little surprised you don’t seem to have heard of them, seeing as how Worthington has been lobbying Congress for extended First Amendment rights for corporations. That’s right, I’ve done my homework.”

“Corporations don’t have the vote either,” countered Justine.

“Don’t make me cut your mic too before we even get to you,” warned Chet. “Perhaps you could start with what it is your group does?”

“Certainly,” Oliver said, his voice slightly calmer. “The Singularity is the coming point in time at which our rate of technical advancement will outpace our current capability to adapt to it or even understand it. It’s when technology will become an autocatalyzing force for its own advancement, leading to an explosion of new capabilities that we, by definition, aren’t even capable of imagining yet.”

“So Skynet takes over?” Chet asked.

“That’s one possibility, to be sure, but hardly inevitable. Any technology can be used for good or evil.”

Dr. Pendleton leaned into frame and shouted loud enough to be picked up by Oliver’s microphone, “Nukes.”

“Which kept the Soviets from invading in the Cold War and killing millions of Americans,” countered Justine.

“Your point?” Chet said, glaring in Dr. Pendleton’s direction.

“The point is,” Oliver said deliberately, “that we need to make sure that when the Singularity occurs, humankind is along for the ride. And Medimetics has put us squarely on that path by digitizing the human brain.”

“So it’s a human exterminating mankind instead of a pure machine,” replied Chet.

“No, not at all. Medimetics has done precisely the right thing for the wrong reasons. Why bother figuring out cures for human diseases when we can upload ourselves into machines? The rate at which we can advance far outpaces what we can do in meatspace, where we’re limited by ecological carrying capacity and the rate of evolution.”

Offscreen, Lou snorted.

“Right now, it takes a room full of servers to replicate one person in real time. That sounds like a losing deal, but remember Moore’s Law: computing capability doubles every eighteen months. In a year and a half, Medimetics will be able to either have two people in there, or be able to run one person at twice the speed. Three years from now, it’s four people or four times the speed, and it keeps doubling from there. Remember that today your phone by itself is far more powerful than the biggest supercomputers of the fifties. In my lifetime, we could see the day when humankind actually transitions from carbon-based to silicon-based life, with no limit in sight to where we can go from there.”

“An interesting idea, to be sure,” Chet said flatly. “Finally, we turn to friend of the show Lou Masterson, executive director of the Coalition for Freedom, Values, and Family. What do you say to all this, Lou?”

“It’s an abomination,” Lou intoned, scowling into the camera.

“Care to elaborate?”

“Medimetics is playing God, and the Bible shows us what happens to people who do that. I’ll be fire and brimstone for them, and hiding inside a computer won’t stop that.”

Chet nodded.

“But it’s far worse than that. I have evidence right here,” Lou continued, holding up a small bundle of papers in his hand as he spoke, “that Medimetics is in league with the Obama administration to euthanize our parents, our grandparents, and all right-thinking conservatives as part of his so-called heath care reform to eliminate opposition to his radical leftist anti-America agenda.”

“Bold claims,” Chet replied. “Can you back it up?”

“Absolutely. The CFVF has been doing its homework too, and we’ve found some facts that Medimetics has conveniently left out of its press releases.” Lou tapped the papers in front of him for effect. “For example, you already know that Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh, their guinea pig in all this, was already confined to a hospital bed before he got ‘scanned’ or whatever they call it. But did you know that after the procedure, he fell into a coma? Or that four months later — that’s two months ago, mind you — that Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh, the real one, in the hospital, died? I have a copy of his medical records for the past year, including his death certificate, right here, and they’ll be posted on the CFVF website immediately following this program for all to see. Isn’t it interesting how no one in the liberal media bothered to find out the truth behind what happened? Or how Medimetics is pushing the idea that Mr. Feldspar-Leigh is inside the computer, and that apparently means we shouldn’t know or care about the real person? Could it be that this is Obama’s plan to secretly kill his opposition, through a loophole of Medimetics’s devising?”

“How did you get a copy of–” started Justine.

“You can’t possibly believe–” exclaimed Oliver simultaneously.

Dr. Pendleton shouted something inaudible.

“Well,” said Chet, cutting them all off, “that’s all the time we have tonight. Which of our guests do you think hit the bullseye tonight? Text message or Twitter your answer to the contact information at the bottom of your screen, and visit the Straight Arrow website for up-to-the-minute results. And tune in tomorrow night, when we’ll be discussing a case you won’t believe the Supreme Court has granted cert. Good night.”

Chapter word count: 1,854 (+187)
Total word count: 14,165 / 50,000 (28.33%)

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Homunculus: Chapter 7: Buddha

Jessica had suggested that Douglas take his mind off of his work. Shortly thereafter Medimetics began their press blitz to announce Project Simulacrum to the world.

Being a slow news week, the press was happy to oblige.

Everywhere he had turned for the past sixteen hours, there it was. It was on the front page of all the newspapers. Below the fold, yes, but still there. Television news wasn’t nearly so demure. When the news channels weren’t showing clips from the half-hour documentary that Medimetics had commissioned as part of their press package, the talking heads were blathering about it. And when they weren’t there was still some mentioned of it in the news crawl somewhere. Except when it went away during commercial breaks, in which case there’d be advertisements for when they’d be running the documentary in its entirety, bracketed by still more discussion.

Douglas ordinarily could stand to watch any of it, but he felt compelled to at least keep an eye on it periodically, if only to find out if any truly sensitive information about the project had leaked out as well. Granted, Douglas wasn’t himself generally privy to that sort of information. His job didn’t require him to know how any of it worked, at least not when one got past discussions on the information flows in the system and who was authorized to access what domains and the like. Besides, he lacked the background in bioinformatics and computational biology to be able to follow the meetings he had been compelled to sit in on once the speaker got past the introductory slide. But Douglas knew he could recognize hard numbers and algorithmic details when he saw them, even if he only had an inkling of what they actually meant. Fortunately, the media didn’t seem interested in exceeding Douglas’s expectations of them; if there were sensitive information leaks, they were well-hidden inside torrents of misinterpretations, unfounded speculation, unfettered punditry, and excruciating analysis of what people were saying on Twitter about it.

Not that Douglas was really going to complain about any of it. After all, if you were going to hide a needle in a haystack, why stop the people shoveling manure into it as well?

He would complain, however, that the TVs mounted in the corners of the coffee shop were each tuned into a different news channel, each of which were still going on about it. Even his morning coffee wouldn’t provide a respite. That left his list of places he could go without hearing about Project Simulacrum at one: the Medimetics web site, which was still effectively being DoSed by everyone hammering it for more information.

Douglas tried to shut the TVs and the newspapers people were holding out of his mind. He fixed his gaze straight in front of him, focused on the line leading up the counter. He needed some kind of distraction, something to keep his mind off of it until he went in to work.

His brain obliged, suddenly recognizing the woman immediately in front of him in line.

“Liz, right?” Douglas asked.

Liz spun around, presumably in surprise at the sound of someone saying her name. “Oh, hi, um, Doug?” she said.

“Douglas,” he corrected, slipping into his stock response. “Doug is a cartoon character.”

“Uh huh. So, we meet again, I guess. What are the odds?”

“Today? No more than one in six, at most,” Doug guessed. Each morning he picked where he’d get his morning coffee by rolling a die. He didn’t want his morning routine to be too predictable, and he knew he couldn’t trust himself to randomly pick where to go on his own. People had horrendously bad intuitions about randomness.

“Oh. So, um, how are things?”


“Right.” Liz’s eyes flashed in recognition of something. “Oh, right! You work for Medimetics, right? Congratulations on the–”

“Thanks,” Douglas cut her off, “but could we please talk about something else?”

“Like what?”

“I don’t care. Anything else.”

“It was a brilliant piece of work, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“That’s what I here,” Douglas replied, stifling a sigh.

“I mean, I wish half of my clients had the vision to produce a full-length video spot like that.”

“It’s really not… what?”

“Most of the time they just want a couple press releases, maybe pick up some advertising slots with heavy penetration with the boomer demographic, but that’s about it. But that video’s got all the news channels buzzing. You can’t pay for that kind of publicity. Believe me, I’ve tried; no one’s willing to pony up that kind of cash.”

“I guess so.” This was going to have to be good enough.

“Are you kidding? It’s already the second day, and you’ve already reached the pinnacle of the news cycle!”

“What’s that?”

“They’re now starting to talk about their coverage of the story. Something has to be huge for it to reach that level.”

“Ugh,” Douglas said.

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Isn’t it?” he replied, claiming his coffee from the counter. “There’s nothing worse than listening to the media talk about itself.”


“There’s one thing worse than listening to the media talk about itself.”

“No, you have to focus on the big picture,” Liz said, taking a seat at an empty table and gesturing towards the chair across from her. “You have to look past what they’re saying and look at what it means.”

“It’s just naval gazing,” Douglas said, sitting down. “It means nothing.”

“The words mean nothing, yes, but think about it. Half of marketing is all about how to get your message in the minds of the public.”


Liz shook her head. “Advertising is just one way to do that, and even that only really works when your message is ‘Buy this product.’ But that’s not what they message you have here is. Your message is ‘Medimetics is the leader in brain research.’ You’re defining who you are, your place in the market. That’s the groundwork for everything else. Investors will give you money, because you’re the leader in your field. Customers will pay attention to your advertising, because you’re the leader in your field.”

“What does any of this have to do with media naval gazing?” Douglas asked.

“Patience, young grasshopper,” Liz smiled. She was clearly in her element now.

“Just as long as I don’t have to snatch a pebble from your hand or anything.”

“I promise nothing. Now, you’re complaining about the news. But tell me this: what is news?”

Douglas stared blankly at her. She might as well have asked what a chair is. It’s one of those things that exists so clearly in your mind that you can’t put it into words, something more basic than words.

“It’s things that are new,” Liz continued. “Right there in the name. If your message, that ‘Medimetics is the leader in brain research,’ is news, that means that it is new, which means that Medimetics was previously not the leader in brain research, but it is now. News only cares about what’s different, not what’s the same. The news media covering your message means that it is still news, still a novel concept for your audience.”


“But when they start talking about their coverage of it, your message has reached the next level. It’s transcended news: it’s no longer news, it’s an established fact. They’re no longer saying that ‘Medimetics is the leader in brain research.’ Everyone knows that; that’s just a fact. Now they’re asking, ‘Why are we wasting our time talking about this?’ The unspoken answer: we shouldn’t be, because this isn’t news anymore, everyone knows it, it’s no longer interesting. When they start focusing on their coverage of you, that means you’ve won.”

Douglas reflected on that for a moment. It seemed wrong; it ran counter to his intuition of how it was supposed to work. But the way Liz explained it, it almost made sense. Finally, he hazarded, “I never looked at it quite like that.”

“That’s the brilliant part of it; almost no one does. That’s why it works so well. It’s downright zen.”

“Zen,” Douglas said doubtfully.

“It is. Think about marketing nirvana.”

“Why would you need to sell people on the idea of freedom from suffering?”

“No, not marketing nirvana. Only record companies are interested in that. I mean, the highest level of enlightenment of your marketing message.”

“I think you might be mixing up your Eastern religions.”

“Doesn’t matter. Think of Nike. When’s the last time you actually saw an advertisement for Nike?”

“Probably half a dozen times this morning,” Douglas guessed.

“Wrong. You’re just thinking of their logo. Nike is so ingrained in your mind, all they need to do is paste their logo on something to remind you of them. They’ve evolved beyond the need to tell your their message. Their message is practically part of our culture.”

“So what you’re saying is, the fact that pundits are spending hours talking about whether pundits are talking to much about Simulacrum proves that, um…” Douglas tried to remember his comparative religions class in high school, “Medimetics is on the Eightfold Path?”

“Maybe, maybe not, but you’re already ahead of the pack. You’re the one everyone else is going to be gunning for.”

“So all we have to do is dodge a hail of bullets coming from every direction. Which means my job is to keep the Buddha in supply of bulletproof vests, I guess.”

“Tough job. You know what they say, ‘If you meet the Buddha on the road, shoot him.’”

“I, uh, what?” The metaphor was rapidly spiraling out of control. “And you do realize we’re using ‘enlightenment’ to mean ‘huge piles of money,’ right?” If this metaphor became any sicker, it would have to be euthanized.

“Trust me, it all makes sense with a degree in marketing and a minor in spiritualism.”

Douglas would have to take her word on that. Unless. An idea flashed in his mind, something that could address several of the issues he found himself wrestling with. There was no time to for even a cursory risk analysis, just the sense that this was either a very good or a very bad idea, and there was no time to figure out which it was before the window of opportunity closed.

“Perhaps,” he started, silently hoping for the best, “you could try explaining it to me over dinner some time.”

“Hmm,” she smiled, “maybe in exchange for explaining how exactly one put a brain inside a computer anyway?”

“I promise nothing.”

“Good enough for me.”

Chapter word count: 1,768 (+101)
Total word count: 12,311 / 50,000 (24.622%)

Homunculus: Chapter 6: Sleep

“Ugh,” Jacob sighed as he leaned back into the chair. He rubbed his forehead as he looked at the computer screen out of the corner of his eye. “Words cannot describe how tedious that was.”

“Oh come on,” New Dave said, his voice appearing to come from the speaker, “it wasn’t that bad.”

“The questions were insipid. ‘What does it feel like being the first person uploaded into a computer?’ How am I supposed to answer that? ‘Better than spending the rest of my life in a hospital bed?’ ‘Pretty much the same as being the seven billionth person not uploaded into a computer?’”

There were plenty of differences, to be sure. The most obvious, of course, was that his new virtual body was completely healthy and disease-free, and would presumably stay that way in the perfectly germ-free virtual environment. However, most of the other differences were in the little things and weren’t terribly interesting to talk about. Like how most of his senses didn’t work quite as well as he was used to. Or rather, they seemed to work just fine, but the environment he was in didn’t quite match with expectations. Sound was pretty normal, especially when it was relayed in from the outside world. Audio engineers had pretty solid models of how to represent sound digitally and how the human ear was supposed to perceive them, thanks to people wanting to download music. Vision was pretty solid too, but he was still having trouble getting used to all the tiny little corners on everything. Anything that wasn’t trying to be a flat surface was clearly made up of millions of tiny little polygons, especially if he put his face right up to it.

Then there was touch. People had tried to digitally reproduce tactile sensations before, but it never got much more sophisticated than shaking game controllers. There were probably braille output devices out there too, Jacob assumed, but he had never encountered any personally. But beyond that? Jacob drummed his fingers on the perfectly smooth desk surface, and then on the allegedly padded arm of the desk chair. Other than the arm having a little give to it, they felt largely the same. That and the polygon thing together made falling asleep downright weird; it felt like the bedsheets were some kind of lightweight chain mail.

And taste? It was obvious no one had ever tried to figure out how to digitally reproduce taste. Jacob figured that was because he was the only one who would realistically be interested in something like that. It’s not like there were any taste-based peripherals on the market. The very idea was disgusting — sticking some USB device in your mouth for extended periods. Jacob used to find it unpleasant to use someone else’s keyboard or mouse, especially when the keys and buttons proved to be a little too sticky. Using someone else’s taste thingy? No thank you. At least people tended to wash their hands several times a day. People brushed their teeth at most what, twice a day?

Granted, Jacob appreciated the effort he assumed the Daves and everyone else had put into in trying to add some taste to the virtual food he needed to eat so his virtual stomach would stop telling his very real brain that it was hungry. The result, however, left a lot to be desired. The only way Jacob could think of to describe was that it was as though all the food he was given had been run through a Fourier transform first. If he thought about it hard enough while he was eating something, he could almost figure out what all the different little pseudoflavors were trying to be, and in some abstract statistical sense they seemed to be in roughly the right proportions to one another.

Smell wasn’t any better, but Jacob wasn’t terribly eager for that to be improved. He had always known that being unable to smell properly deadened how things tasted, and here that seemed to be somewhat of a benefit. Nor was Jacob eager to have a more genuine olfactory perception of his virtual bowel movements.

Jacob wondered if there had been one unlucky programmer whose job it had been, full-time, to implement virtual bowel movements. He quickly decided he didn’t really want to know the answer.

“It’s probably not going to get any better,” New Dave said.

“What isn’t?” Jacob asked, having lost track of the conversation.

“The interviews.”

“There’s more?”

“Are you kidding? I bet once the press releases go out, every media outlet in the country is going to want their own interview with you.”

“Oh joy,” Jacob deadpanned. “Not only do I get to answer stupid questions, I’ll get to answer the same stupid questions over and over again.”

“It’s not like you have a whole lot of better things to do in there.”

“About that. What am I supposed to be doing in here anyway? It’s not I can go anywhere or anything.”

“There’s the Internet. Rumor has it PR wants you to blog or Facebook or Twitter your experiences. Keep people interested in the project.”

“Oh yes. People might get bored with the fact that you’ve digitally reconstructed me inside a computer unless they know what I eat for lunch every day. ‘Got simulated gas from a bean burrito that never really existed. About to toot ones and zeroes. #simujacob’”

“Heh. Then I’ll have to hear Other Dave talk about the three dozen memes 4chan came up with about your digital farts.”

“‘I can haz virtchewal cheezburger?’”

“‘No they be takin mah simulated bukkit!’”

Jacob shuddered. “Please tell me there’s some kind of firewall between me and the Internet.”

“Like you wouldn’t believe. I’m not sure you can even get out to the Internet yet on that computer.”

Jacob looked at the computer. Of course, it, like everything else around him, wasn’t really, well, real. In this computer-generated virtual reality, there was a virtual computer. But in another sense, it was the only real thing here, since it was his only connection to the universe outside the simulation. Jacob had visions of M. C. Escher drawing a diagram of how that worked. Actually, M. C. Escher would probably draw a diagram of M. C. Escher drawing the diagram of M. C. Escher drawing… Jacob thought he better change the subject before he got caught in some kind of infinite recursive loop. Inside a computer that might actually be possible.

“I don’t suppose there’s any chance I could get some company in here?” Jacob asked. “I mean, talking with you via whatever you call this is nice and all, but other than that I am kind of alone in here.”

There was a pause. “Actually,” New Dave said, his voice dragged out in thought, “there might be something we can do about that. I’ll need to run some numbers first.”

That night, Jacob lay in his bed, trying to get comfortable under his polygon chain mail blanket. He had tried not using it, but the night air was too cool for him, and there didn’t seem to be a thermostat in his virtual environment — he’d have to remember to bring that up with the Daves the next day. Finally, however, sleep came to him, and he dreamed of finding a door that led to a virtual outdoors outside his virtual home.

Meanwhile, in the server room, the countless racks of computers powering the Simulacrum worked as tirelessly as they did when he was awake, for there were still millions of neuron-to-neuron interactions to simulate one timeslice at a time. As they did so, a steady stream of data flowed over bundles of fiber-optic cable to the other side of the room, where entirely different clusters of computers studied the activity taking place in Jacob’s simulated brain, algorithmically looking for a way to tease out correlations between the activity in his brain and his behavior in the simulation. Tease out the imagined world of his dream inside the virtual world of the Simulacrum would have to wait for another day; right now they struggled to figure out whether he was going to roll onto his left side or right side next.

In an instant, plus or minus the time variance between the individual computers, the simulation paused. Jacob didn’t notice, nor could he notice, as the complete state of himself and everything around him was frozen. The simulation itself was now asleep. The computers, however, continued running, each now flushing gigabytes of data out of memory and onto disk. Only with the virtual world frozen in place would the disks have the time to save and checkpoint what, to Jacob, was the entire universe. As each one finished, it flashed a message across the miles of network cable running every which way through the room, as each computer virtually queued up in line.

One by one, each computer began to spew its saved piece of the simulation — each piece large enough to overwhelm most ordinary computers but still a tiny fraction of the overall whole — across the network to the gateway to the outside world. There, the deluge of bits would be systematically chopped into chunks, mutilated, replaced, shoved around, and mixed together a dozen times before being shot at the speed of light halfway across the country, where they would then be run through precisely the opposite wringer and stored safely away in case disaster struck.

The entire process of streaming a copy of Jacob and his entire virtual world to the other facility would take the better part of a day, even using the entire set of dedicated high-speed lines Medimetics leased at a premium. But while each computer was waiting for its turn, now that it had saved a copy of its piece of the world to disk, it could go back to its primary function of giving life to Jacob. Once they were all ready, they once again continued advancing the world in lock step.

Jacob rolled onto his left side and continued dreaming.

Chapter word count: 1,681 (+14)
Total word count: 10,543 / 50,000 (21.086%)

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.”


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.”


“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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Homunculus: Chapter 3: Activation

Jacob F. Feldspar-Leigh woke up.


At least, he felt as though he was waking up. His thoughts were still fuzzy and out-of-reach. All he was willing to commit to for sure at this point was an unmistakable sense of disorientation. If experience were any guide, this was a sign that either some kind of heavy sedative was wearing off, or he was starting to recover from a very good party from the night before. Unfortunately, it was probably the former.

His body felt numb and his mouth was dry and tasted blue. Wait, something was wrong. Blue? He meant two. No, that wasn’t right either.

Jacob lifted his arm to rub the sleep out of his eyes, which turned out to be trickier than he thought since his arm didn’t appear to exist anymore. Which was just as well, since the arm that wasn’t there passed right through his head and continued driving downward towards anchovies.

Jacob closed his eyes to put his thoughts in order. They seemed to be closed already, seeing as how he couldn’t, well, see anything anyway, but he closed them a second time just to make sure. There was disorientation, and then there was disorientation. And whatever this was, it was both.

Jacob tried to remember whatever it was that had happened to him, since as strange as it all was, it also seemed a little familiar. He ignored the indistinct buzzing that now came from the blue-tasting darkness — well, blue-green now, but whatever — and tried to think. Severe dissociative thought, phantom everything syndrome, it was all, all…

The word he was looking for eluded him until the buzzing shifted into a wet gurgle.

All side effects.

Jacob cautiously opened his eyes and saw that whatever darkness may or may not have been there before was now a dark gray, as though light were filtering in from somewhere through fog. He tried calling out to the gurgle, but only managed to mumble a “buh?” But he definitely felt his tongue touch the inside of his mouth and a faint breath pass through his lips, which was the only thing so far that seemed to make much sense.

Continuing to lay on his back — atop what he dared not try to figure out just yet — Jacob focused on the gurgle. As his senses returned, the gurgle resolved into a cluster of consonants and vowels, and then words, and then English words, and finally particular English words, repeated over and over: “Don’t panic, Jacob. Jacob? Don’t panic.”

“OK”, Jacob whispered.

The voice became a cacophony of cheers.

“He wasn’t going to panic,” Dave Vargas said once the cheers from the others in the room died down. He scratched his beard.

“Hey, if I were him, I’d want the first words I heard to be something friendly and reassuring,” Dave Stevenson replied.

“No, I mean, right now he’s probably physically and psychologically incapable of panicking. Or of doing much else, really, until he fully comes around.”

“Still, though, it’s the thought that counts.”

Dr. Maxwell Newhausen tugged the microphone away from the two Daves and towards him, and asked, “Jacob, how are you feeling?”

“But did we really need the first words to be a reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide?” New Dave asked, ignoring Maxwell’s interruption.

“OK, first, he’s the one who’s supposed to say the first words,” Other Dave retorted, pointing a thumb at the bank of computer screens in front of them. “And if you really want ‘buh’ to go down in the history books, go right ahead. Second, it’s not my fault that Morse wasted ‘What hath God wrought?’ on a freaking telegraph line. That’d be way more appropriate here.”

“Would you two shut up for a minute?” Maxwell half-shouted, half-whispered at the Daves, as he held his hand over the microphone. “Jacob, can you hear me? How do you feel?”

“I think…” came Jacob’s voice from the speaker. Other Dave punched a few keys, and one of the monitors zoomed in on a three-dimensional rendering of Jacob’s face as his body lay horizontally in a featureless void. “I think ‘buh’ about summed it up.”

“Well, just keep still for a little while longer while your brain gets caught up on things,” Maxwell advised.

“And don’t look around too much just yet,” Other Dave shouted to be picked up by the microphone. “We haven’t gotten around to loading the environment yet.”

“What do you mean?” Jacob asked. The three men in the room knew that technically, of course, it wasn’t Jacob, but for the moment at least it would be a lot less confusing for everyone if they thought of the person they saw and heard through the control console as Jacob. Especially for Jacob; he had enough on his mind to think about.

“Hang on, just close your eyes for a second and don’t look down,” New Dave said.

Just as Jacob had been getting accustomed to his perceptions being a lot less disjointed, the grayish void around him suddenly vanished from existence, and he found himself staring at a smoothly shaded white surface. Once the momentary disorientation of the change passed — he probably should have listened to the voice’s advice after all, he thought — he looked around and saw that he was in some kind of room. He looked down and saw he was lying on a bed. Not a hospital bed, just an ordinary bed. Almost ordinary. Something looked a bit off about it, but since this was the least off things had looked recently, Jacob wasn’t going to worry about that just yet.

Especially not when his attention was drawn to his body itself, which no longer had the pale and atrophied look he had lamentably become accustomed to over the past several months. He didn’t quite look normal, either, but his body did look like something that could almost pass for healthy. Jacob then noticed the lack of beeping medical equipment or hanging IV bags anywhere nearby.

“It worked,” Jacob said quietly.

“Yes it did,” came a voice from the other side of the room.

Jacob turned his head — bodily motion seemed to be working normally now — and saw a computer sitting on a gray metal desk. There were some squiggly lines moving on the screen that Jacob’s couldn’t interpret. Farther down that wall there was a closed wooden door. A series of overhead lights illuminated the room. But that was about it; the rest of the walls were light blue but otherwise featureless and undecorated, nor were there any windows anywhere.

“Huh,” Jacob said.

“Something wrong?” a different voice asked. It was definitely coming from the computer.

“I was expecting something a bit more…”

“More what?”



“Pay up,” said a third voice.

“Fine,” said the second.

“What’s going on?” Jacob asked.

“I bet New Dave it’d take you at least an hour before you mentioned The Matrix,” the voice replied.

“Twelve minutes,” said the third voice.

“Do you think you can walk yet?” the first voice asked.

“I think so,” Jacob replied, slowly lifting himself up into a sitting position, steadying himself with both hands against the mattress.

“OK, but take it easy. Even normally, someone bedridden for months would have some trouble walking after all that time. Just use the walker until you get a feel for walking again.”

Jacob looked around. “What walker?”

A pause. More faintly, he heard the first voice say, “Would you two knock it off for a minute? You forgot to load the walker into the environment. It’d like his first steps not to result in a faceplant. Especially not if you two have a bet about that too.”

Jacob then heard a faint clicking sound. His vision still seemed a bit off, but he could hear perfectly well. Without warning, a walker silently appeared next to the bed.

“Don’t overdo it,” the first voice said, at normal volume.

“And for the record, we didn’t have any other bets going,” called the second.

Jacob slowly stood up, putting most of his weight on the walker. “Just how many of you are there?” he asked, as he experimented with balancing on his own two feet.

“This is Dr. Newhausen,” the first voice said. “You remember me, right, Jacob?”

Jacob thought. “We met a couple months ago, right? When you had me sign all that paperwork.”

“That’s right, Jacob,” Maxwell replied. “And several times after that as we discussed what you’d be experiencing right now.”

Jacob nodded. The dissociation from before; Dr. Newhausen had warned him about that.

“Who else?” Jacob asked.

“Dave Vargas,” New Dave said.

“And Dave Stevenson,” added Other Dave.

“Who?” Jacob asked.

“They’re two of the developers that made all this work,” Maxwell explained. “You’ll be working with them to take care of any of your usual needs here.”

Jacob stopped and thought about that. “What counts as usual?”

“You name it,” replied New Dave. “Eating, drinking, sleeping, whatever you need.”

“Right, right,” Jacob said. Being stuck in a hospital bed, fed through IVs and tubes, drifting in and out of consciousness more than sleeping, that had been what passed as ‘usual’ for him. Normal daily activities would be a change of pace after that. No, wait, that couldn’t be normal. “But,” Jacob said hesitantly, “I’m in a computer, right?”

“We imaged your brain and nervous system and reconstructed them in a simulated environment inside a computer, yes,” corrected Maxwell.

“Inside a rack full of computers,” corrected New Dave.

“Inside a bunch of racks full of computers,” corrected Other Dave.

“So why would I need to eat or drink or sleep?” asked Jacob.

“Because that’s how we programmed you,” said New Dave.

“Specifically,” added Maxwell, “we don’t know for sure that you really do. But we also don’t know what the effects on the human brain are of being deprived of food or water or sleep indefinitely are, even if there’s no longer any strict biological need for them.”

“In other words, let’s make sure ‘normal’ works before we start monkeying with it,” said Other Dave.

“Good idea,” Jacob said. Minimizing the amount of experimentation being done on him was probably a good thing, especially while he was still re-mastering the art of bipedalism. He looked around at the spartan room he was in. “Speaking of good ideas, is there anything you can do about this place?”

“The Daves should be able to help you with that,” answered Maxwell. “They don’t need me here for that. Oh, and Jacob?”


“Welcome to Project Simulacrum.”

Chapter word count: 1,765 (+98)
Total word count: 5,228 / 50,000 (10.456%)