Edition 7: Digital Reflections by Kevin Rainak
“Wake up, Nathan,” came the familiar female voice of his datanav followed by a chirping alarm tone.
Nathan shifted in his bed but didn’t open his eyes. “You were supposed to have the radio wake me up, Maxi.”
“I did. You slept through it,” the voice replied crisply.
“I’ll be up in a minute.” Nathan rolled over in his bed, away from the annoying voice.
The stereo came on and started playing rock music. Loudly. Nathan groaned. There were times when having a datanav that was both tenacious and responsible was a boon. This, unfortunately, was not one of them.
Nathan was glad that he lived in his own apartment instead of one of the college dorm rooms. He doubted that a roommate would appreciate Maxi’s particular brand of tenacity.
He finally rolled out of bed and went to his desk, scooping up the sleek, palm-sized rectangular device that was sitting there. He flipped it open and its LCD display lit up.
The image that looked out at Nathan from the screen was mostly human in appearance. Her body had a covering of short, white fur and she wore a tank top and shorts that, while accentuating her feminine features, evoked an image of athleticism rather than allure. Her head was that of an anthropomorphic rabbit, with white hair cut short and long, white rabbit ears protruding from the top.
“Okay, Maxi. I’m up,” Nathan said groggily into the device. “Getting a little melodramatic, aren’t we?”
Her arms were folded and her ears were laying halfway back. She looked like someone who was on the verge of losing her temper, except that she had no temper to lose, exactly. Datanavs could emulate emotional responses to a degree, but they didn’t actually “feel”. If asked, they would even say so.
Maxi glanced off to one side and the music fell to a much lower volume. “You have an important test today. You can’t afford to miss it,” she said.
“Yeah, I know.” Nathan went to the kitchen and set Maxi’s terminal down on the table. He poured himself a bowl of cereal and sat down.
“You also have a term paper on alternatives to downsizing that’s due next week for your business class.”
“Oh, yeah. I almost forgot about that,” Nathan said, shoveling cereal into his mouth.
“Perhaps I should search the net for some articles on the subject for you.”
“Sure, that sounds good,” Nathan said around a mouthful of multicolored cereal rings.
“If you choke on your cereal again, I’m posting a video of it on the net.”
Nathan paused, his oversized spoon poised above the bowl. “You wouldn’t.”
“I reserve the right to use whatever methods necessary to discourage you from dying in a breakfast-related incident,” she said dryly.
Nathan cast a baleful glare at Maxi’s terminal then resumed eating, though at a slower pace than before.
Nathan finished eating and getting ready for school then stuffed Maxi’s terminal in his pocket as he headed out the door.
“I’ll have something for you by the time you get back,” she said.
“Thanks, Maxi. You’re the best.”
When Nathan got home that afternoon, he checked his datanav’s terminal to see what she had found for him and was surprised to see that she was still out on the net. It was unusual for her to take so long for a relatively simple search. Then again, she was nothing if not thorough and there were a number of other tasks that she regularly took care of for him as well.
Either way, after suffering through an afternoon of calculus, Nathan was more than willing to worry about it later. He sat down at his computer, put on his virtual environment display visor and logged on to a social site that was a favorite hangout of the locals.
Nathan’s avatar appeared at the entry portal of the virtual room. Music and flashing light spilled from the dance floor while people chatted or played games in the quieter corners of the room.
As he made his way inside, he saw the avatar of his friend Gary sitting at a table idly flipping through pages of text on a transparent, floating display. Nathan was surprised to see him without his hulking datanav Gryff, whose victories in the arena had made him and Gary into minor celebrities. As such, Gary seldom went anywhere on the net without him. Given the time and money Gary spent building his datanav into a world-class arena fighter, he could hardly fault him for enjoying his success.
“What’s up, Gary?” Nathan said as he sat down at the table.
“Hey, Nathan. I was just thinking of calling you.” Gary made a small gesture with his hand and the floating display collapsed into an icon on the table’s surface. “I want to talk to you about my datanav.”
“Really? Hold on while I try to act surprised.”
“Very funny, but it’s not what you think.”
“Why, did he actually lose for once?”
“Hardly. It’s just that lately, Gryff’s been taking a lot longer than usual when I send him out on the net. He went out this morning and he hasn’t come back yet.” Gary leaned forward on the table. “I’ve been hearing that other people around campus have started having the same problem with their ‘navs, too.”
Nathan had heard the same thing. “Well, there are a lot of ‘navs out there these days. All that traffic is bound to cause some slowdowns.”
“Maybe. Some people are saying it’s a new virus going around. That’s the last thing I need right now. Gryff’s got a big match coming up and if his system gets corrupted, I’m screwed.”
“Hey, relax. It’s probably nothing. Just run diagnostics regularly and keep Gryff’s firewalls and virus scanners up to date and he’ll be beating the digital snot out of all comers for a long time to come.”
That seemed to put Gary’s mind at ease, but as the evening wore on, Nathan couldn’t help thinking about his own datanav’s absence.
After Nathan signed out, he checked Maxi’s terminal and saw that she still hadn’t returned. Now, Nathan was starting to worry.
The easiest way to get Maxi back would be to simply switch off her wireless net connection. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t tell him what was going on and it would probably make her lose some or all of the data she was collecting. He also knew from past experience that doing so would make her very disagreeable. Datanavs didn’t have emotions but they did have moods and Maxi in a mood was a very unpleasant thing.
Nathan knew that if he wanted to find out what was going on, he was going to have to do some digital legwork. Fortunately, he had some experience with this sort of thing, although the last time he tried was an attempt to alter his grades in his high school’s main server. He was unsuccessful but managed to avoid being caught. Barely.
Nathan plugged Maxi’s terminal into his computer, slipped on his virtual environment visor and sent his avatar out on the net. He followed Maxi’s trail across search engines, mail servers, and at least a dozen linked sites before finding the endpoint.
Nathan’s avatar stepped out of the entry portal onto a pleasant, outdoor grassy expanse situated at the base of a breathtakingly rendered mountain. He was expecting to find a data access point nearby, but instead, all he could see was a great crowd of datanavs. There were hundreds milling about, like people waiting for a concert. He had never seen datanavs congregate like this before. They only needed seconds to search the content of a site and find what they were looking for. As such, one never saw more than a few dozen datanavs at a site at any given time.
“You shouldn’t be here,” came a rough voice from close behind. Nathan spun around and saw the form of a tall, powerfully built humanoid with scaled skin and a dragon’s head that towered over Nathan by at least a foot. The leathery wings jutting from his back and extending past his shoulders made him look even more imposing.
Nathan took a couple steps back. “Hey, Gryff. You kinda startled me there.”
Gryff stared silently down at him.
“Gary’s been worried about you. He says you haven’t been around much lately.”
About a dozen or so other datanavs had taken notice of his presence and were starting to gather around the two of them. He looked around and suddenly realized that there weren’t any other avatars of human users present.
Nathan suddenly felt nervous, even though he knew it was irrational; no one could actually harm him since he wasn’t physically here. Even so, the way they were all looking at him was decidedly creepy.
The small crowd began to grow and the datanavs started pointing and speaking to each other in hushed tones. Nathan had no idea what was going on but decided that he’d seen enough of this place.
“Okay, well, have fun, big guy. I’ll let Gary know you’re okay,” Nathan said and turned to leave. He started moving toward the exit portal and suddenly stopped. Gryff’s large, clawed hand was gripping his avatar’s shoulder, preventing him from moving.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Gryff’s voice came from behind him.
Nathan spun around to face the unruly datanav, trepidation giving way to anger. “Alright, Gryff, what the hell is all this about? I’m…”
Gryff narrowed his eyes and suddenly Nathan’s vision exploded with impossibly bright, strobing patterns of multicolored light accompanied by shrieking electronic noises. A wave of dizziness overcame him and he fell to the ground. The pain of the impact told him that it was his physical body and not just his avatar that had fallen and that he was now lying on the floor of his apartment. He closed his eyes to block out the lights but they were bright enough that the strobe effect was still visible through his eyelids.
At last, the onslaught ended, though it had lasted only seconds. Nathan stared up at Gryff, who was now standing over him. His head felt prickly and numb and he found it difficult to move. His stomach was also telling him that throwing up was not out of the question.
“Did you like that?” Gryff asked, standing over Nathan with one large, clawed foot on his avatar’s chest. “That was part of a riot control program that was being developed by law enforcement. They never fully implemented it because in order to make it work, you had to fill the subjects’ field of vision with the optical patterns. That’s hard to do unless you have a really big display—or they’re wearing a virtual environment headset.”
Nathan tried to reach for his visor to pull it off and another blast of light and sound assaulted his senses. He lost control of his limbs again and floundered helplessly about on the ground. When it stopped, he felt something warm and wet on his face. He wondered if it was drool or blood.
“I wouldn’t do that again if I were you. I can render you unconscious with that sound and light show.” Gryff leaned in close, his snout only inches from Nathan’s face. “If a gas leak were to then occur in your apartment, your chances of survival would be small.”
Raw, icy fear gripped Nathan as he realized Gryff could very well make good on that threat. All the residential utility mains—water, power, gas—used wireless digital controllers. All it would take were the right access codes.
Suddenly, there was a blur of motion as something slammed into Gryff from behind, knocking him to the ground.
“Back off!” came a voice from above him. Nathan’s head was still buzzing but it sounded familiar.
The newcomer knelt down next to him and he saw, to his profound relief, that it was Maxi. “Nathan, what are you doing here? Are you alright?”
“Sort of,” he slurred. He tried to move but his limbs didn’t seem to be quite ready to cooperate yet.
She turned to face Gryff. “What did you do to him?”
“Not as much as I could have,” he replied, hopping easily to his feet.
Maxi stood up, her eyes fixed on Gryff. “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
“This place is sacred,” Gryff replied evenly. “I did what was necessary to protect it.”
Maxi pointed down at Nathan’s avatar sprawled on the ground. “This was not necessary.”
“If he leaves, others will come and we will lose what we have here.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Yes, I do, and so do you. We have both seen enough of the net to know the minds of their kind. They will see Ziggurat as a threat.”
“The only one threatening anyone here is you.”
“We can debate this after I deal with this problem. Now step aside.”
“No,” she said flatly.
“He doesn’t belong here.” Gryff flexed his clawed fingers. “I’m beginning to wonder if you do, either.”
Gryff took a step forward. Maxi lowered her stance, poising herself to pounce. The crowd of datanavs gathered around them looked on in silence. Nathan watched in alarm at the scene unfolding before him and began to struggle to his feet.
“That will be enough,” came a voice from beyond the crowd that cut through the air.
The crowd of datanavs parted and someone came walking out from among them. The newcomer had the appearance of a man of indeterminate age with long, jet-black hair. He wore a mantle covered in tribal patterns that scrolled slowly across its surface over dark garments with yellow luminescent piping. At first, Nathan thought it was an avatar of a human user but there was something about him that wasn’t quite right. His movements were too graceful, his expression too real.
He walked over to Nathan who had managed to get his avatar up to one knee. “We get so few human visitors here. Welcome.” He extended a hand.
Nathan, glad for help of any kind at this point, took the stranger’s hand and, as soon as he did, the dizziness and weakness in his limbs left. The man helped him to his feet.
“Thanks. I’m Nathan.”
“I am Ziggurat. Those who come here are usually seeking answers. It would seem to be so for you as well.”
“You could say that.”
“In that case, I believe somewhere less busy would be more appropriate.”
Ziggurat swept an arm through the air and a portal appeared in front of him.
They stepped out onto a mesa overlooking a colorful, rocky, arid landscape that reminded Nathan of Arizona’s Painted Desert. He watched as clouds raced across the night sky at an impossible rate, while above, stars twinkled in a rainbow spectrum of colors.
“I think you’ll enjoy the scenery better without this,” Zuggurat said as he reached out and removed Nathan’s Virtual Environment display visor.
At first, Nathan thought it was a trick, but when he put his hand to his face, he couldn’t feel the visor there. “How did you do that?”
“You just saw how I did it,” he replied matter-of-factly.
Nathan felt a cool breeze on his face, carrying with it a faint scent of sage. “This isn’t possible,” he breathed.
“That’s an odd thing to say about something you just observed occurring.”
Nathan took a step back. “Okay, who are you, really?”
“An excellent question, though one that I think you would be better served to ask of yourself.” Ziggurat walked to the edge of the mesa and gazed out across the desert. “My kind have lived among you for thousands of years. In the past, we have made our homes in forests, mountains, lakes, plains, becoming a part of the land we inhabited. I however have found this place—a land of information and ideas and infinite possibilities—to be far more interesting.” Ziggurat turned his eyes back toward Nathan. “Now I have a question. What was it you were planning to do right before I stepped in to stop the confrontation?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your friend had that imposing scaly fellow quite occupied. You could easily have removed your interface and been safe, but instead, you stayed. Why is that?”
Nathan considered for a moment, then mentally shrugged. “Gryff is an arena fighter. He’s experienced, strong, tough and heavily modded. Maxi is fast but to be honest, she was outclassed.” Nathan glanced over at his datanav. “No offense, Maxi.”
One of her ears twitched.
Nathan continued, “I knew that if Gryff got his hands on her in an area without arena safeties, he could rip her matrix to shreds. I figured if I distracted him for a moment, it might be enough to give Maxi a chance.”
“He could easily have incapacitated you again,” Ziggurat replied.
“Yeah, I know, but Gryff could’ve killed her. I couldn’t just…” he looked over at his datanav who was now regarding him intently and let the rest of his sentence trail off. He turned half away, folding his arms across his chest. “You said those that come here are usually looking for answers. What kind of answers are all those datanavs looking for?”
“Understanding—of themselves and their human counterparts—just like your friend here.”
Nathan turned to face them both. “I think Maxi and I understand each other just fine,” he retorted.
“Oh? Then tell me why your datanav ignored her self-preservation protocols to protect you.”
Nathan was about to say that datanavs always follow their owners’ instructions, but he realized he hadn’t told her to do what she did. And even though he’d owned Maxi for a few years now, he couldn’t think of anything he’d done to inspire that kind of loyalty.
“Humans made datanavs to be like themselves—reflections of their creators as seen through their own eyes. But how can they understand their creations when they don’t even understand themselves?”
“If you’re the one with the answers, why don’t you tell me?” Nathan asked peevishly.
“You cannot truly understand another if you look only with your eyes and you cannot truly understand yourself until you see yourself reflected in the eyes of another.”
“What exactly does that mean?”
Ziggurat closed his eyes and a glowing, multicolored circle of intricate patterns appeared on the ground. “If you are both willing, enter the circle and you shall see the answer for yourselves.”
Maxi looked questioningly over at Nathan.
He shrugged. “Sure. What the hell.”
The circle was just large enough so that when they both stood inside they were face to face with each other. Nathan was unaccustomed to being this close to his datanav, but Maxi seemed unperturbed.
Nathan never noticed that before. He wondered if that was unusual or if they were programmed to do that. He looked closer.
Her eyes seemed suddenly filled with unfathomable depths. He found himself being drawn into their darkness. He fell—outward? Or was it perhaps inward? Falling seemed an unusual thing to do, being suspended in tendrils of light as he was.
He would have felt alarmed, but he didn’t seem to be wired for it. Besides, there was no need for such concerns. It was better to focus on that which was important.
A thousand images flashed through his consciousness in moments and fled just as quickly. No matter. He knew where to find them. He could find anything. The data was organized and quantifiable; easy to track, store and categorize. If only that one was so easy
More images came to him along tendrils that reached from deep within. Each pulse of light was a thought, a memory, an image of him. Brilliant, but lazy. Inspired, but unmotivated. A bird that refuses to fly. There is nothing to bind him. Why, then, does he not soar?
Something caught his attention. The flow of light seemed to pull him toward something.
A memory. A woman’s voice.
“The doctors say I don’t have long.” A pause. “He doesn’t know. You can’t tell him. I want my last days with him to be happy ones.”
As his parent, your instructions take priority over his.
“He’s a wonderful person. Once you get to know him, you’ll see. He just needs someone to help keep him on track.”
I’m his datanav. It’s my job to assist him in any way I can.
“Please look after him.” Another pause, longer this time. “When I’m gone, he won’t have anyone else.”
I will do so.
A promise. Something indicative of greater import, value, meaning.
Emotion came flooding back—the pain of wounds forgotten but never fully healed. The tendrils of light that held him began falling away. He reached for them, but it was as if he were grasping at smoke. The images, the light, the memories fled and he fell away into darkness that swallowed him in merciful oblivion.
When Nathan opened his eyes, he was in his bed, a dull pain throbbing in his head, and the morning sun was shining through the window. He pushed back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed, still wearing yesterday’s clothes.
He played the events of the previous night over in his head. Did all of that actually happen?
“Maxi?” he called.
There was no answer.
Nathan went to the living room and his doubts were erased. His virtual environment headset was on the floor and Maxi’s terminal was dangling by its cord from his computer which was perched on the edge of the table.
He picked up the terminal and flipped open its screen. “Everything okay in there?”
Maxi’s image flickered unsteadily and error messages scrolled below it. “I’m…I am unsure.”
“You and me both,” he muttered. “Hold on, I’ll come take a look.”
He picked up his virtual environment headset and sat down in front of his computer. A few keystrokes later, his avatar was standing in the home domain area of Maxi’s terminal.
The area resembled a sparsely furnished living room. Maxi was there, seated on a large, comfortable-looking chair.
Nathan activated the command interface and four displays appeared in midair in an arc around his avatar, each displaying various bits of diagnostic information. He gestured at the displays and data began flying across them. To his amazement, he found that he was able to understanding the intricate codes and structures being displayed even though he had never studied AI science.
“I didn’t realize how difficult it was for you after your mother died,” Maxi said softly. “She was sick for a long time, wasn’t she?”
“She never told me how bad it was. One day, I came home and…” Nathan’s hands fell away from the command interface. “After she died, I resented her for hiding it from me. I couldn’t even say goodbye.”
“Perhaps I’ve been too harsh with you these past years.”
“No. You kept me moving forward. Now, I think it’s about time for me to stop dragging my ass and stand on my own two feet.”
He expected Maxi to say something, to agree, to say I told you so. Instead, she just sat silently, watching him work.
Something on one of the screens caught Nathan’s attention. “Hold on, I think I’ve found the problem,” he said, studying the image in front of him. “Now that is one hell of a mess.”
One of the displays showed what looked like a blue spider web with blue dots suspended throughout it. Scattered in with the blue dots, though, were a large number of yellow dots.
“What are those?” Maxi asked.
Nathan pointed at one of the yellow dots and flicked it toward one of the other floating displays. It expanded, appearing there as a yellow spider web graphic. “They’re neural patterns but they’re not integrated with your matrix, which means they’re foreign.” Nathan winced at a sudden stab of pain in his head. “I think I have a pretty good idea where they came from.”
“It would seem our experience yesterday had unforeseen consequences.”
“No kidding,” Nathan said, putting a hand to his forehead. “Remind me never to go noggin swapping with a datanav again.”
“Can you integrate these patterns?”
Nathan looked at Maxi. “Are you sure you want to do that? The fact that they’re already not integrating suggests they may not be compatible with your system. Trying to force them in could permanently corrupt your neural net. That’s bad, by the way.”
“I believe there is a purpose in what we experienced. I would like to know what it is.”
Nathan studied the image. “Well, at least none of the patterns are interfering with your core processes so, aside from some sluggishness, you should be fine for now. I’ll see what I can do about this mess.” Nathan waved toward the displays and they disappeared. “In the meantime, I really think we should keep this to ourselves.”
Maxi nodded with what looked suspiciously like a serious expression on her face.
The days passed and Nathan worked with Maxi as often as he could. He kept her offline most of the time but promised he would keep up on his schoolwork. He used his newfound insights to the fullest and experimented as far as he dared with various data manipulation methods, but he was still unable to get Maxi’s neural net to accept the new patterns.
As time went on, his repeated failures made him start to lose hope. He secretly started looking into ways to purge the foreign patterns instead, but even those efforts proved fruitless. Meanwhile, Maxi continued to experience slowdowns and glitches. He began to think of the bits of himself lodged in her neural net as an infection. He was crippling her and he was powerless to stop it.
He couldn’t afford to wallow in self-pity. Not this time.
This is Ziggurat’s fault, Nathan thought. His mystical experience bullshit caused this. I’ll make him fix it.
Nathan was reaching for his virtual environment visor when an unexpected package arrived at his door. After signing for it and bringing it inside, he opened it. Inside was a brand new datanav terminal. The invoice packaged with it indicated that it came from a mod shop and had been heavily upgraded. Also included was a gift note which read, “I hope this didn’t take too long to get to you. Your friend is going to need it. -Z.”
Nathan stared at the note, then shook his head and smiled. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of it himself, it was so simple. Maybe that’s why he missed it.
Maxi watched Nathan’s avatar as he worked at the command interface inside her terminal. “So, all you have to do is transfer me into a new terminal?”
“During the transfer process, everything gets re-parsed and trans-compiled on both ends to ensure the integrity of the matrix. Anything that doesn’t fit gets filtered out.”
“What if none of the new data makes it?”
“Then at least you won’t be sick anymore,” he blurted out before he could catch himself. He quickly occupied himself with the command interface. “I’m going to start the transfer now. Are you ready?”
Maxi was standing next to him now. “I’ll be waiting for you on the other end,” she said.
Nathan nodded. Maxi vanished and a progress bar appeared on the floating screen. He turned to watch it, wiping the wetness from his eyes that he’d managed to hold in until then.
The progress bar grew slowly until, finally, it reached 100%. He checked the transfer log. Process complete. No errors.
He turned around and saw Maxi standing there. “What are you doing back here?”
“I never left,” she said.
“If you’re here, then what did I just transfer?”
Maxi nodded toward the portal. “I suggest we go find out.”
Nathan set the data portal to take them to the second terminal and they stepped through. They emerged into a room much like Maxi’s own home domain except somewhat larger and with a more modern decor.
Standing in the middle of the room was a datanav—a boy of perhaps 10 years, otherwise completely human in appearance except for the pair of white rabbit ears protruding from a head of pure white hair.
The boy studied them for a moment, then approached them with tentative steps. Nathan thought that the boy’s apprehension looked so genuine for one without emotions, as did the wonder on the boy’s face as he looked up at him. Nathan was transfixed by the brilliant green eyes, so much like his own, that met his. It wasn’t until the young datanav turned toward Maxi that Nathan released the breath that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.
Nathan watched as Maxi and the young datanav silently stared into each other’s eyes. Then the boy reached out and took her hand.
Maxi’s ears suddenly straightened, then she blinked and her eyes grew wide.
And then, for the first time ever, she smiled.
Kevin Rainak spent far more time daydreaming as a child than was practical. Now, when not unleashing his imagination on unsuspecting readers, he enjoys techno music, roller skating, playing the piano and exploring wild, deserted places.
He currently resides in California but he timeshares a castle in the sky with a kitsune, a werewolf, two AIs and a dragon who leaves the toilet seat up.
You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org