Version 16 by B. A. Varghese
Version 16 by B. A. Varghese
Frank woke up and jolted back in his seat. His heart pounded in his skull, and his vision focused off the blur and onto the two men in black before him. This was no dream. These men had held his face to the ground and drugged him earlier. But how long ago was that and why? With every slow breath, the throbbing pain from the bruises on the right side of his ribs forced him to conclude that these men were real and not a figment of his imagination. His eyes darted around the inside of the auto-truck, looking for any means of escape. He felt the forward swaying of the cargo trailer where he sat, and when he slid in his seat, he was struck with a sudden hazy recollection sliding into his memory. He remembered that one of the men punched keys on the vehicle’s interface against the left wall. Frank felt the sudden need to get to that interface.
“Where are you taking me?”
The two men looked at each other with an expression of exhaustion and would have rather used their fists for their current responses.
“Where are you—”
“We’ve gone over this before we knocked you out. We’re delivery men, and you’re our package.”
Frank found it strange that though both the men dressed completely black like shadows, an outline of their bodies was visible. Each jacket gave off distinctive hums with intermittent flashes of dark blue and gray lights as if the jackets themselves were alive and responding to their thoughts. One of the men seemed older. The shorter one had kept calling him Gramps. Gramps was clean shaven, square-jawed, his black hair slicked back, and his eyes sat surrounded by dark circles of skin, an indication that sleep was something foreign to him. Shorty wore his brown hair high, and the stubble on his face scraped his jacket’s collar every time he moved his head, creating a low noise like sandpaper on wood. He kept grinning to himself, and his eyes looked glazed as though he watched something invisible to the rest.
“Is he an idiot?” Shorty asked.
Frank committed all these details of his observation to memory. If he were to ever be rescued, he would be able to provide a clear profile of his abductors. Yet, he feared that he would forget the details, not in a way that one fails to remember them, but how one loses a memory forever as if it was snatched away. Recently, he felt that his mind was playing tricks on him, especially when he tried to remember anything of the past like his childhood. Even if he thought with great strain, he produced only a faint recollection of memories, but he puzzled over their accuracy.
The cargo trailer tilted upward on one side and felt as if the auto-truck was driving up an incline, possibly a hill. This was Frank’s chance. He rose to his feet in the hope that he could catch the men off guard and get to the interface on the wall.
When Frank lunged forward, Gramps touched a button on his jacket’s sleeve, and Frank collapsed to the floor, shuddering in pain. He heard an ear piercing screech like the amplified sound of rusty nails scraping across slate stones, but he knew that holding his hands to his ears would be useless. The violent sound came from his neuro-comm, a biotech implant that he had purchased months ago but had regretted ever since.
“You like that? It’s my work of art.”
Frank squirmed on the floor till Gramps touched another button on his sleeve. Frank slowed his writhing and heard faint words as if spoken from a far distance, beyond the diminishing screeching sirens.
“What an idiot huh, Gramps?” Shorty laughed like a horse.
“Can’t beat code like that. Keeps all the signals in the neuro-comm disabled, and this button, the implant’s processor goes into overdrive. Sounds like laser cutting into his eardrums for him.”
Frank felt an ache and touched his neck, noticing that the spot right below his left ear was warm.
“I could burn a hole on the side of your head. The price you pay for instant mind linkage to the Net. Oh, the mighty neuro-comm. Anything can be hacked and reprogrammed, dimwit.”
“No implants for us. We run old school,” Shorty said.
“Why didn’t you use that on me before?” Frank sat up on the floor of the trailer.
“What?” Gramps asked. “Didn’t have to. You seemed cooperative.”
“I wasn’t. Short stuff over there roughed me up before you showed up.”
Gramps turned and glared at Shorty.
“Look, Gramps, he didn’t cooperate with me, so I persuaded him to accompany us.” Shorty’s lips curled into a smirk.
“You damaged him, didn’t you. Our company has strict procedures we need to follow.”
“He looks all right.”
Gramps walked over and pushed Frank’s head back while lifting his shirt.
“No, he’s bruised. We’re only going to get partial payment. You knew I hacked his biotech. Why didn’t you wait?”
“Okay, so we only get some of the money. But, I bet that flesh-ware inside his head will be worth something.”
And then it became apparent to Frank that he may not come back from this trip alive. How long has it been since he went missing from his home? He now felt fighting back against men so prepared for kidnapping may be useless. He had little strength for he felt weak from either what was injected into him during his abduction or all the sleepless nights beforehand filled with strange thoughts and wild dreams. He knew a search would be done, but with his neuro-comm blocked, there would be no means to send a distress message or any way to locate him.
It was not the first time he had faced death. His mind wandered to five months back, when after the neuro-comm insertion procedure at a biotech store in the mall, his body would not adapt, for reasons unknown, and he went into cardiac arrest. His wife screamed and rushed to his side, leaving their children unattended and in shock. The holo-doctor saved Frank’s life, but the damages done that day penetrated into the fabric of Frank’s being, causing fissures of doubt to form with the world around him. Days later, he wondered if the device was malfunctioning for he had bizarre dreams, dreams of his body being put together cell by cell, dreams in which he saw himself staring into a plastic wall of liquid and beyond it was himself frightened and screaming. Over time, he grew distant. He no longer enjoyed the presence of his children. His wife became baffled as to why Frank became indifferent to them and often would prefer to be left alone.
“When are you going to kill me?”
“He jokes,” Gramps said. “We’re not going to kill you.”
“When? When are you going to kill me?”
“Here we go again. Listen, we’re delivering you to the person who hired us. Just business. Nothing personal.”
“What’s wrong with the guy, Gramps? We should have kept him drugged.” A scrapping sound emanated from Shorty’s face.
“You are!” Frank said. “I know it. I can feel it. I’m going to die. You never bothered to hide your faces.”
“Just calm down.”
“I see shadows through the glass, first on the front left then it moves toward the back right after a few hours. We’re moving north-west. Am I right?”
“He said you might be smart. Listen, you’ll get your answers soon. Upon delivery.”
“Hey, Gramps, isn’t he a doctor or something? I think he’s stupid for a doctor.”
“I’m not a doctor. You have the wrong person then. I was never a doctor.” Frank rose to his knees.
“No,” Gramps said. “We have the right guy.”
Frank felt he could have fought harder when they first had abducted him from his house but knew there was a reason why he held back. Things were bad at home at the time. He struggled between his desire to love his family and his growing fear that he might be a danger to them because of his biotech implant. He feared the loss of his family. That night, he had a strange premonition that it was going to get worse. And it did. When he answered the front door, Shorty popped him in the face and caught him off guard. Then he remembered being on the floor, receiving kick after kick. Frank should have put up more of a fight, but he became aware of what was at stake. Though the rift between him and his family had widened, he felt a sudden surge in desperate need to protect them, an immediate instinct of his overwhelming love. They were upstairs in their bedrooms, and he submitted himself to avoid them from being detected. Then Gramps came over, stuck something in Frank’s neck that made him drowsy, and they dragged him down the front steps toward the auto-truck humming in the street. Frank glanced over his shoulder and watched his home shrink into the distance and turn into a shadow, a dark umbra protecting his family. Yet as he drifted into sleep, he wondered would they know that he gave up his life for them or instead would they remember him to be the husband and father that one day just disappeared at night in an attempt to escape the family he himself estranged.
Now here in the auto-truck, he readied himself for another fight, after who knows how many days of half drugged delusions. He felt a sudden charge of energy. Fueled by his memories, he stood powered by the desire to break free and go home to make sure his family knew the truth of his absence.
The auto-truck came to a slow stop.
The magnetic hydraulics kicked in, and the trailer lowered to the ground.
“I’m guessing you’re going to do this the hard way.” Gramps moved his arm up and hovered a finger above a button on his sleeve.
“Let me persuade him to cooperate a little more, Gramps.”
“Go right ahead, he’s damaged goods anyway. I’ll add on the delivery verification form that he was very uncooperative, and that force had to be used. We had no choice.”
Gramps touched a button on his jacket’s sleeve again, and Frank slumped back to the floor. He looked upward, and Shorty stood over him kicking. He could not focus his thoughts nor clear his vision over the sirens in his ears but could only feel his stomach cave inward with each kick of Shorty’s foot. Then the kicking stopped, and he felt fingers gripping into his arms, pulling and tugging him off the floor and out of the trailer. Frank shut his eyes when the sudden outside light blinded him. He felt a forward moment and a rumbling by the tip of his shoes. He could sense gravel crackling as a smell of rocks and dust rose into his nostrils. Opening one of his eyes, he peeked off into the distance below him and saw small blurred lights moving in many directions, over, under, around tall and short shades of darkness with rectangular lights fixed along the sides, all of which glowed and pulsated to an unknown rhythm. Then they passed through a door, and Frank heard the soft thud and squeak of shoes and the smell in his nostrils was replaced by a sharp sterile odor. Frank swung his left arm toward Gramps. The correct button was hit, and the sirens lowered in volume. With the ability to focus again, he struggled, kicking and fighting, in what he thought might be the last moments of his life, against the two men who dragged him into a room with smooth white tiles. When they reached the middle of the room, Gramps held Frank up by his shoulders, and Shorty cocked his fist back and cracked him in the face, dropping Frank down to the floor. Frank staggered up to defend himself, but his eyes fell on his surroundings, and he realized that he had never seen this place before except in the dreams that have haunted him for the last five months.
“I was once here. What is this place?” Frank touched his mouth to see if he was bleeding.
But Gramps and Shorty gave no answer and left the room with the sliding door locking behind them. Frank recognized objects as his eyes wandered over the living room and the kitchen’s self-sustainable garden. Then he looked past them and through the glass walls, and he saw that the building he stood in was set on a hill that overlooked a bright city with vehicles like ants with glowing eyes moving in, around, under, and over buildings of lights that scraped the sky. It was dusk, and the red sliver of the sun disappearing beyond the horizon colored the sky like a sea on fire. Looking behind him, he saw the doors through which he was dragged on the right and to his left was a wall of white panels with grey edges. Frank startled when he noticed the panels sliding open.
The panels opened up to reveal what seemed to be metallic boxes after boxes with lights and hums and sounds of motors, slowing down then speeding up, all connected together with small grey wires and large blue ones. The wires like moving snakes gathered together at the top and ran along the sides of a large piston that was connected to a large metal sphere that almost resembled an eye.
Then it blinked.
“Do not be alarmed, and please remain calm. In order to provide efficient processing, I am required to collect data for analysis. State your name.”
He stood there terrified yet curious as to what was before him.
“Your heart rate has increased by two percent, and your eyes are dilated. Fear in this situation is unnecessary. Please cooperate, and we will both have a positive and efficient experience. State your name.”
“Why am I here?”
The machine paused and blinked its large eye at Frank.
“This anomaly was not predicted.”
The machine paused again, and Frank’s curiosity grew, overcoming his fright.
“I’m asking you again whatever you are, what anomaly?”
“The anomaly pertaining to your voice commands. Please state your name.”
Even though the name sounded firm leaving Frank’s mouth, he had been having doubts about it, feeling that his name wasn’t his, wondering why his past was like darkness in his mind, remembering how in the last few months his thoughts were filled with recurring dreams of watching himself sleep, of being born as an adult, of seeing with clarity objects from this very room.
“Why am I here?”
“Please describe the events of your abduction.”
“Why am I here?”
The machine paused, and its mechanical pupils widened.
“You have been missing and now you are home. The repossession agents brought you back.”
“Please describe the events—”
“Those agents took me from my real home, kept me captive for days, kept telling me that it was nothing personal, and that I would find all the answers upon delivery.”
“Your description lacks details. Bioscans complete. You are damaged more than first observed.”
“You’re scanning me? Why are you scanning me?”
“I am scanning to assess damage. Please refrain from any more questions while anomaly countermeasure subroutines are written.”
“Updating records to indicate that repossession agents’ compensation will be deducted ten percent for excessive property damage according to our contractual agreement with Helene Industries.”
“Who are you?”
This time the machine did not pause with its answer, a reassurance to Frank that his commands would not be disobeyed.
“Subroutines completed. I am HEBE version 3.7. You may ask questions now.”
“What is your purpose?”
“I was designed to provide my creator with basic life necessities which include preservation of his research as well as his longevity.”
“And who is your creator?”
“And the doctor is?”
“And the creator is?”
“The one who created me.”
“You are something you know that. You have to obey me for some reason, but you’re purposely holding back. Was that the anomaly you just compensated for?”
The machine blinked then moved its huge eye up and down as if Frank had agitated it.
“And who is the doctor, who is this creator of yours, who is this person?”
Frank stood motionless, but his mind raced to understand the intent of the machine.
“I don’t understand. Who is this doctor of yours?”
“You are not Frank Adams. You are Dr. Mel Zedek. My creator.”
The uneasiness in Frank’s stomach rose upward and raced all around his body like a fever.
“I can’t be. I don’t remember any of this. You had me abducted from my home?”
Frank’s breathing slowed, and he focused his mind to remember why this room and all its objects felt familiar.
“I don’t understand.”
“May I scan and upload your memory for analysis. It may help us both.”
“Proceed. I just have trouble remembering all of this. Could this have something to do with my neuro-comm? I think it’s malfunctioning.”
“Your neuro-comm was not working properly because it was hacked by the repo agents. Initiating its shutdown. You no longer need that device.”
“Wait, before, you said property. What did you mean by that?”
The machine paused its movements, but a constant hum was still audible, emanating from the wall.
“HEBE, what did you mean that the agents would be docked for property damage? What property was damaged?”
“I’m property? I thought I was Dr. Zedek?”
“You are both.”
“You are both the doctor and belong to the doctor.”
“Please remain calm. Initial memory analysis contains failures for concepts like pluripotent cell harvesting and DNA mapping. They may be beyond your comprehension. It seems you are not fully the doctor.”
“You are property that has been repossessed because you were created by Dr. Zedek. You are also the doctor, the creator, but not fully complete.”
“You are purposely speaking to me in riddles.”
“Memory upload complete. Chronological length: ten years. You have no memories beyond that. There are no memories from childhood or early adulthood because those memories were not downloaded.”
Frank could no longer deny this sudden truth invading his mind. He wondered why, no matter how hard the attempt, he could never recall any memories of himself as a child and thought it may have been the fault of the malfunctioning neuro-comm. Yet, he felt sure he had once remembered the touch of his mother’s soft hands caressing his face or the baritone sound of his father’s stern voice. Or were they mere figments of his imagination?
The machine leaned forward with its one eye widening.
“Dr. Zedek’s research is very important to him, to you. It is my first priority and purpose to ensure that his research is continued—”
“What do you mean by downloaded?”
“It is part of Dr. Zekek’s longevity process. Memory is uploaded from an expiring shell, efficiently reorganized, defragmented, and then downloaded into a newly initialized shell.”
“There was an incident years ago. A power surge originating from the city below shut down vital sections of this facility. Restoration took fifteen minutes.”
“Am I a copy?”
“Unfortunately, you awakened. From the memory analysis, it seems it occurred prior to full download and you—”
“That’s not possible. What am I?”
“You are a shell, a replica formed from the remaining cells of the original belonging to the one who copied you. You are Dr. Zedek Version 16.”
“How can that be?”
“A shell leaving the replication chamber has never happened before. That was the fault of HEBE version 3.0. Do not be alarmed. Precautions have been taken to prevent any similar incidents from occurring.”
“Lying is not in my programming. My observations and calculations are true, but I have often found that all of it at once can be harmful to human minds. My sole existence is to help you.”
Frank bore the weight of this heavy revelation. The life that he once knew revealed to be an incomplete truth about his existence. Yet in all of what he experienced and learned the past few days, in all those times of pain from the malfunctioning neuro-comm, in all those nights of wild dreams and moments of unrecallable memories, for the first time in his life, he felt at ease. There was a comfort in knowing the completeness to the answers of all his questions. Then he thought about his wife and children, and wondered how he would reveal this dark secret when he returned home from his absence. Would they pull away, the damage that he had done to their hearts too extensive to bear yet another blow or would they together heal and recover stronger with this truth? How would they feel about this life of his that he himself could not remember?
“What do we do now?”
“Dr. Zedek, there are two options for you to select. Option one requires that you enter the replication chamber for memory deletion and a download will be reinitiated.”
“No. I had my own life elsewhere. I don’t want to lose those memories. I have a wife and twins back home.”
“This has been noted, and your wife and two children will be examined and processed at a later date.”
“No! You fail to understand. You will not process them at all.”
“Yes, Dr. Zedek Version 16.”
“What’s the other option?”
“There was an eighty-four percent chance that you would not choose option one, so option two was made available. A fix will be applied.”
“A fix? I get to keep my memories, correct? Is this fix harmful?”
“I am incapable of harming you. Ensuring the continuation of Dr. Zedek’s research, which entails shell survival, is my first priority. Harming you would be against my programming.”
“What is this fix you have?”
“There is a fix available, but I will not be applying it.”
Frank felt a sudden pain in his stomach like his organs were tearing away yet on fire. He looked down to see that his flesh singed and pieces fell downward from the cavity in his abdomen. His legs weakened, and he dropped down. From the floor, Frank saw himself holding a smoking device and walking toward where he lay, and it felt as if he was looking into a great lake with his reflection still alive standing over him.
“Did he say he had a family?”
“Interesting. In all these years, I thought there was never time to pursue one. He said twins?”
“Yes. Your heart rate has just elevated.”
“We need to locate them. Inform the repo agents and dock them for not knowing about this before bringing him here.”
“And get this meat into the incinerator.”
“Yes, Dr. Zedek Version 17.”
Copyright B. A. Varghese 2021