Lamar lays asleep in a dusty, long-abandoned emergency room of a former hospital in the outskirts of the city.
R8PR moves around a few times a year to keep potential sleuths off his trail, but this is the area he revisits the most often, because it’s the only place where there is functional medical equipment to use when we need it. Even so, this place seems a bit out of his style. It’s abandoned, but it’s not in ruins and certainly not a good place to hide out for too long because this is a popular spot for homeless people to gather, at least on the lower floors. We had to avoid a few drugged-out individuals yelling at us as we dragged this guy over here.
But we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t desperate.
I can’t believe Lamar Gwinett of all people would just come stumbling into my home like that. He was my very best friend in school, but after graduating from the A-levels he went off to “find himself” and that’s the last I heard of him. It has to have been six years since we last spoke. What the hell happened?
He looks fine. Just as rugged and handsome as always, even if his clothes are a bit tattered and his face is covered in sweat. The only thing to worry about is the fact he’s knocked out, and, well… that thing protruding from his head.
R8PR brings over some strange device and begins scanning through Lamar. I can’t pretend I understand any of it, but R8PR’s computerized brain rapidly analyzes the incoming data.
“Just as I thought,” he says. “That’s an AI embedded in his brain, all right.”
“Wait, that thing there then… that’s a computer?” I ask. It doesn’t look like any kind of computer I’ve ever seen before. Either Lamar is now a yuppie on the cutting-edge of wearable technology, or…
“Seems so.” Lamar’s been unconscious this entire time, but this chart shows that his brain activity is currently off the charts. I don’t know exactly what that means. “Morgan, do you know much about neural science?”
“I’m afraid I don’t,” I tell him.
“Good, then I won’t have to bother explaining it to you with any actual science. In simple terms, Lamar shouldn’t be alive right now.”
“His brain is functioning, but it’s very technically brain-dead. All of the electricity that should be moving through his brain is being rerouted into the AI.” He pauses and taps on the protruding computer sticking out of Lamar’s head. “But this little guy here seems to be keeping him going. Sort of. It’s very complicated, but the brain is being powered by an artificial intelligence that is trying to take over all motor functions. But it turns out that, due to some glitch or another, the AI is stuck in a feedback loop and can’t break through. So it’s essentially a dead AI keeping a human alive.”
“That almost makes sense,” I say. “Almost. I know you explained it simply, but it still went mostly over my head. How can any of this happen?”
“Tell me about it,” he says. “I have no idea how someone could have–”
Lamar wakes up screaming, his arms flailing about.
R8PR and I both jump.
Okay, take two.
We are now sitting in what used to be the hospital’s waiting room; the chairs are comfy, though quite smelly from years of disuse. I cracked open the vending machine, and we are all having soda and expired candy bars. Well, two of us, anyway.
Lamar’s still doing pretty badly. He seems to be in a daze, though at least he’s conscious now. He’s already eaten ten chocolate bars and is well on his way towards devouring the entire selection of granola products.
I try to think of something to say to him. It’s just been so long. Does he even recognize me? I sure recognize him. Looking great, dude. He makes me feel so short when he’s around, though.
It’s too quiet in here. I try to think of something to say to lighten the mood a little, but all that comes out of my mouth is, “Man, you’ve really let yourself go.” That wasn’t the most tasteful comment I’ve ever made.
He takes a slow, but deep breath, and mutters, “You’re one to talk.” He smirks.
“You may not be in the best shape right now” R8PR says. “But I’d like to introduce myself. I’m R8PR, an advanced artificial intelligence on the run from every conceivable government or corporate interest, and Morgan’s dearest friend. May I ask you a few questions?”
“Go ahead…” He goes through his third bottle of M.B.A.-in-Logistics Pibb in a row, and wipes his mouth clean. “I’m listening.”
The fact that this vending machine still has some sodas in it is a testament to how long this place has been abandoned. Mayor Epstein a while back made a big fuss about public health and got everyone all hyped up on water, lemonade, and tea. Not that the kind of sweet tea we drink in Atlanta is any better than a Coke, but his fervor got the endorsement of, well, Coke, and now the best place to crack open a cold sugary soft drink is an abandoned hospital waiting room.
“How did you get here? Do you remember?” R8PR asks.
Lamar chuckles softly. “That’s a tough one.”
“Tell us everything you can think of.”
“Everything’s fuzzy. I was doing… something. Then I was in a place for a long time. I escaped from somewhere. Then it blanks out for a bit, but my mind kept saying one thing– ‘Find Morgan Harding.’ That’s what I focused on, and somehow I ended up in this hospital room, so I guess it worked.”
The weird part is that the last time I saw Lamar, I was still living at home with my parents. I’ve moved three times since then, and I have no idea how he found me.
“I’d venture to guess you didn’t put that AI into your own head, did you?”
“The… what?” He puts his hand on the top of his head and rubs against it until he reaches the metal sticking out. His face goes pale. Uh, relatively. You know what I mean.
“That’s called a neural augmentation. It–”
“Neural augmentation,” Lamar says in monotone. His eyes glaze over, as if his consciousness was suddenly erased. “An implant, artificial or otherwise, designed to modify or enhance brain function in individuals. History. The first brain transplant was done by Dr. Toni Leondis, after which she remarked, ‘Once we have learned the secrets of this matter, we will conquer the universe. It all starts with taming the mind.’”
The room falls silent.
Lamar grips his head in pain. “What’s happening to me?”
“We were hoping you were going to be able to remember that for yourself,” R8PR says.
“What’s the last thing you clearly remember?” I ask. “Do you know what year it is?”
“I mean… I remember graduation. I remember going off to the West for a while. I wanted to experience the real world. Hitchhiked north, all the way to Des Moines. Then…” He stops. “Nothing. I remember nothing.”
So all those years since I last saw him… even HE doesn’t know where he was for all of that. I was interested in finding out what he had been doing since high school and A-levels, but I guess that’s a real mystery. Is this going to be our new quest, trying to recover Lamar’s memories and travelling across the continent on a big adventure?
“I’m not letting you go out West,” R8PR says to me suddenly. “That’s a no-go already.” How did he… Trust me, I was never planning on that.
“No,” Lamar says. “Wait, that wasn’t the last place. The newest memory I have is… It was somewhere… I rode on the train to Atlanta. I think I was in North Georgia somewhere. I was…” His posture straightens. “North Georgia. Term commonly referring to the areas north of the Atlanta city limits, up to the northern border past Chattanooga. In the past, encompassed the areas between 33.8 N and 34.9 N, but now has expanded to include–”
R8PR makes a high pitched series of beeps in rapid succession. Lamar stops.
“What was that?” I ask.
“I used binary flashes to terminate the AI’s current command. That will hold it for now,” R8PR says. I have no idea what that means. “But without knowing more about this AI, I won’t know exactly how to work with it.”
“So we need to find out who did this to him.”
Lamar grunts and squints his eyes. “Stop talking so much.”
R8PR raises a finger to where his mouth would be, and speaks with a softer voice. “Let’s worry about that a little bit later, okay? I’m going to stay in the hospital a few days to do some more tests. For now, we should try to keep Lamar comfortable.”
“That makes sense.” I finish my bottle of Coke and try to toss it halfway across the room into the recycle bin. It bounces off the rim and falls onto the floor, rattling loudly. Lamar grips his forehead again. “Sorry.”
“I don’t have work tomorrow, so… why don’t we hang out?” I say. I actually am scheduled for tomorrow, but I took to task flirting with the newest part-time clerk enough that she will switch for me if I give her a call. Don’t judge me. My charm is impossible to turn off.
“That’d be nice,” Lamar says. “What do you have in mind?” He says this without even a semblance of a smile, without his voice raising in pitch. I’m worried about him.
“Maybe just hanging out at home, like old times. My apartment is kind of dirty, but… just like the old times.” When he fails to respond, I stand up from my chair and pat Lamar on the shoulder. “It’s gonna be okay.”
“I’m not sure it is.”
“Don’t say that, just trust me. It’s gonna be okay.”
He says nothing.