Prototype Ch. 01by_FirstBorn_©
This is the first chapter in a story intended as a spiritual "sequel" to another piece by another author: Feedback, by Markov Beest. Unfortunately, he never chose to post that story here.
It is my belief that I received permission to do this from the author directly back when I first considered this idea. All attempts to reach him recently have failed [undeliverable].
It is written as a stand-alone, therefore you do not NEED to read his story to understand this one.
That being said, it is one of my FAVORITE stories so I highly suggest you read it- if you can find it.
I'd like to say that it was an impulsive decision. You know, one where you have to make a snap judgement and then just live with whatever happens after, good or bad. Usually bad in relation to things like this. But I'd be lying if I tried to pull that. I had known about the prototype for going on 3 years before I finally had enough reason, nerve, a good swift kick in the pants- whatever it finally took to pull it off. Getting it all home involved three separate trips. But once I had the cap along with all those wires, I couldn't very well leave the rest of it in the warehouse.
I may have been forced to drop out of college, but that didn't mean I was dumb. I covered my tracks, shifted things around in the surplus warehouse so there wasn't a glaring empty spot where it had been sitting. No big blinking red sign screaming "something is missing here", just a warehouse full of all the things a university no longer needs. It had been sitting there for years, and with any luck it would be years more before anyone would notice its absence. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Allow me to back up a bit.
My name is Benjamin. Now I'm in my mid 20's, but not so many years ago I was a student here. I had a bright future ahead of me- or at least I thought I did while I was enrolled here amidst the throng of all the other naive college students. Until I was forced to drop out for... financial reasons. In the span of one year my parents divorced, and both of them remarried. I didn't deal with that so well- and in the process I sort of alienated all of my financial support. Even emancipated I still couldn't afford the tuition and fees on just federal loans. So I withdrew from college and took a job as a Janitor at the university instead.
The idea was to save up enough money from work and then use my "employee discount" to get back into school without bankrupting myself. There was no way I was going to go back to either of my parents with my tail between my legs and beg for help. I was going to do this all on my own.
That was five years ago. I still haven't gone back. I may have been smart enough to major as a computer systems engineer for a while, but let's just say I hadn't ever been forced to manage my money very wisely. And bad habits are hard to break. Especially when you pick up a few new ones along the way. But there will be time enough for that later.
I was in a rut- just living my life from day to day. I kept telling myself I'd go back to school someday. But that didn't mean I wasn't going to enjoy life in the meantime. Thing is, someday never came. And at the rate I was going, it wasn't ever going to. It took a hard conversation with an old friend to knock some sense into me.
Maggie all but threw the words at me. If there had been anything in her hands at the time I would have likely had to duck. "That is a load of horse shit and you know it, Benji!"
This late into the fight I was understandably a bit defensive, so I wasn't really what you'd call a good listener anymore. I was more focused on counter-attacking. "Oh come off it, Maggie. It's not like you're doing that great with your degree in theater! You anywhere near Broadway yet? Why aren't you in New York by now?" Yeah. I can be an ass sometimes.
"Fuck you too, Asshole. At least I finished my degree!" Her hands were on her hips now. I had seen her in this pose more times than I could count. We had been friends since we were in grade school. Back then she was nothing but legs and arms and a big bag of bashful thrown over her shoulder. I had grown up into an otherwise average specimen of what mankind has to offer. Avery height for a man, about 5'9", and what I would call a "healthy" physique but nothing to be overly proud of. At least I hadn't let my quarter life crisis go straight to my gut. Maggie, on the other hand, had matured into something particularly more attractive.
She wasn't terribly tall but was closer to six foot than five and a lean and healthy figure to go with it. Her long light brown hair reached well past her shoulders and she was particularly creative in how she styled it. Every day was something different- often with some new styling thing she found on the internet. Today it was in a double french braid going down the back. But it didn't seem to matter how she wore it- it was always gorgeous. Yeah, consider my opinion biased.
Her skin was just a shade darker than white, which meant that she never had to spend any time in the sun to get that naturally tan look. Brown eyes that were expressive as hell and a small nose that sat pertly just over her not-quite-pouty lips rounded out her face. All in all she was somewhere north of girl-next-door but not quite close enough to you-should-be-a-model hot. Her biggest flaw, in both of our opinions, was that she wasn't very well endowed in the upper chest department. But considering she was trying to be an actress, and not a porn star, that wasn't that much of a flaw really. To be fair, a lot of porn starlets are fairly flat chested too, at least starting out. But I knew better than to point that out to her during those discussions.
Even with all that history, in that moment, all her years of being one of my closest friends were on the edge of burning up and being tossed into the trash.
And I had to just make it worse. "Yeah. In theater. I was going to be an engineer." I sneered at her judgmentally.
"Was, Benji. Was." She declared emphatically. "All you're turning out to be is a Janitor. And not a very good one either."
My pride wanted me to defend my job to her, but the rest of me just couldn't muster the energy to do it. She took my grudging silence as agreement, and continued her attack.
"Don't get me wrong- the guys that clean the Theater at Clairemont do a great job. They take pride in their work and the money it brings home to their families. You have any pride in your work, Benji?" She demanded.
"Fuck you, Maggie. Where do you get off judging me, huh? Is this what our friendship means to you? I'm just some punching bag you can beat up on because you think you're better than me? Just get the fuck out."
She stared at me a few moments longer as if stunned into silence. I almost thought she was going to try and make me throw her out. Then her anger seemed to deflate with a loud sigh as she dropped her arms from her sides. When she finally looked back up at me, all I could see in her eyes was pity. Fuck that- I'd rather have her angry at me than pity me.
"Oh get off it. Don't give me that look. You're no better off than I am and you know it." I threw back at her trying to get her angry again. It failed.
"At least I'm trying," She sighed, not even trying to muster the energy to yell anymore. "At least I'm doing something to better myself, to make something of myself. You've already given up and you're haven't even hit 30 yet." She moved to go- pausing only a moment before she opened the door and walked out of my life, or at least my apartment. "You change your mind... Decide to make a change- you know where to find me. I'm not going to enable you to just..." She waved her free hand around the apartment. It was a mess. I didn't clean up before she came over anymore. You weren't supposed to have to do that with old friends. They accepted you for who you were. "This... all this... There's no future for you here, Benji. You used to be so driven. Where's the Benji that had goals? That was going somewhere? The one who was going to get his degree and then rule the world?"
"He got lost when his parents all but disowned him and he had to take a job cleaning toilets and sweeping floors in a warehouse just to survive." I spat back at her.
"Well- you ever find him again... you let me know."
And then she was gone. I stood there, smiling at myself with my arms crossed in front of my chest like I had just won. I hadn't. I'd just lost. For all I knew at the time I had just lost my closest friend that I had lusted after since my adolescent mind could fathom what lust was. She had been trying to help me. Trying to knock me out of my funk. And I had driven her away.
But don't worry. She wasn't gone forever. And she had been right- although it took me a week to be able to admit it. But during that week, each day as I had swept the floors I had walked past that machine. And the seed she had planted in my head started growing, pushing its way up and out of my subconscious and forcing me to act. So I stole the machine in three separate trips and covered my tracks so no one would know.
Yeah- that's right. I'm blaming my act of larceny on my best friend of nearly twenty years who wasn't even talking to me anymore. Well, it was her idea. Sort of.
I've always been a believer in the idea of working smart, rather than working hard. Some could call that being lazy. And in an unmotivated individual they'd be right. But that's not who I was anymore. Not after Maggie had knocked the cobwebs loose and goaded me into action.
Sure- I could have hunkered down and really started saving. I could have enrolled in school again and started taking classes before all my credits from the first go around expired. But that would have been working hard. I wasn't certain what this machine could do- but I knew something about the lab it had come from and I had a hunch it was going to be my ticket. Or- it could have just been a pile of dust-collecting junk that no one was ever going to miss. It was worth it to risk it.
The machine itself consisted of two computers that both connected to a wire mesh helmet thing that was full of electrodes. From what I could tell from the computer layouts and input types it looked sort of like an EEG reader. One of those things that could read brain waves. You know- like the games you can play at science centers where you're supposed to clear your mind of all thoughts. The machine moves a little ball back and forth based on the amount of brain activity it reads. The person who can not-think the best- wins.
This wasn't one of those machines, though. It had been something one of the labs on campus had put together with some industry grant. The original faculty member that had been in charge of it had pretty quickly left the university and gone into business with the company and taken her lab with her. There had been some sort of dispute about property rights to the original prototype though. Three years later it was still mothballed in surplus waiting for the courts to decide who got to throw it away.
Until I removed the decision from their hands. It didn't even take much work for me to get it set up back at my place once I had all the pieces. Turns out in nearly three years of college I had managed to learn a thing or two about computers, both hardware and software. At least enough to get the thing turned on and running.
As I had suspected from the few rumors I had heard about that lab, it was some sort of training program. The first computer was the main controller interface. You could program in problems for the second computer to display. Anything from math problems, to re-organizing bits of text from online documents. There wasn't much documentation in the code that ran the machines so I had to all but break the system multiple times just to see how things worked. I could just hear one of my old professor's judgmental voice in the background as I worked. These are the hallmarks of a lazy programmer.. But there was enough to get by.
The second computer displayed the problems on the screen over a sort of radar display. If you wore the cap full of wires while you were working you could see a blip on the screen that would jump around from place to place. The closer it was to the center of the radar screen the better your mind was learning the problem set.
The system was already primed with a series of what looked to be random problems to get started. Instead, I decided to kill two birds with one stone and use it to memorize the scant few papers that the doctor in charge of the project had published before she left. I figured there might be something in them that could help me if I ran into any problems. Bear in mind- I was going to be an engineer, not a neuro-physiologist so I wasn't expecting total understanding here. But anything would have to be better than random shape puzzles and matching number problems.
The first few trial runs were mostly a bust. I had some success with recall, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn't seem to get the blip to the center. Something was missing. Then, on the fourth day I finally put two and two together and figured it out.
The original system had come with four password protected files with different names in them. Each time I had loaded up the system it had asked me which file to use, but I couldn't begin to guess what the passwords were- so I just hit cancel and proceeded without them. A comment from one of the papers had hit a nerve that day when I had been lamenting about how hard I was trying to focus but couldn't ever manage it.
"That's it!" I cried out to no one in particular as I was sweeping the floor of the warehouse for the millionth time in my life. "I am trying too hard because there's no other choice!" It had something to do with pattern recognition. But to recognize the pattern, there had to be something there that didn't belong! That's what those lists had been for. The outliers. The wrong answers. Something for me to sort out of the system as trash so that only the real answers would be left behind.
I couldn't finish my shift fast enough that night. The moment I got home I loaded up the machine. A few more tries guessing the password on the largest list still left me with nothing- so instead I just wrote myself a new one. I wasn't sure what to use, so I just grabbed an old dictionary I had been given as a gift from my high school English teacher upon graduation. Worst case scenario I'd improve my vocabulary, right?
And it worked. Too well, in fact. At first the dot seemed to bounce around like it always had, but once the outlier fragments started appearing it didn't take long for me to find the center. And away the time flew. I knew I had been at it for a while when the sound of my phone alarm pulled me out of it enough to stop. Absently, I swiped it away to silence it as the mental fog slowly cleared.
Once I had dragged my eyes off the computer screen, a few realities came crashing down on me all at once. First off, my bladder was screaming at me with an intensity that left me feeling amazed I hadn't already pissed myself. That taken care of, there was the sudden and immediate attention the likes of which only an empty stomach that had been so for far too long could demand. While I shoved the last few chips into my mouth from a bag that had already been half empty I tried to take stock of what had just happened. I couldn't have been at it for more than a few hours and yet... all evidence seemed to tell me I was off by hours more.
With my head more clear I checked my phone again. The alarm that had so rudely interrupted me had been the one to get me up for my 9 am shift at work. My eyes slowly moved to stare almost blankly at the machine. Somehow it had sucked up almost 14 hours of my life. And with that realization the weight of a full night without sleep landed on my shoulders like a sack of potatoes.
"Holy hand grenades," I muttered aloud. It had worked. But had it worked, I wondered. I tried recalling the papers I had fed into the machine and, with a start, I realized that I had them. I started spouting off entire paragraphs from one and then, almost distractedly, jumped to a section of another. I started moving almost on impulse, digging around on what amounted to my desk nearby for the printouts I had made of the original PDFs.
"Holy fucking hand grenades!" I said again.
I could barely contain my excitement! In the course of one day I had memorized 5 somewhat long and tedious research papers on cognitive learning theory word for word. The implications of this development started to slowly dawn on me. Papers. Magazines. Research Articles. Hell, entire textbooks! I could memorize anything I could manage to scan into the machine. Granted, it wouldn't write papers for me, but it would cut my study time down to a fraction of what it used to be. School would be a breeze!
Did I even need school anymore, I wondered. I could memorize entire manuals. I could get certified for every systems protocol in use- and stay at the cutting edge with every new protocol that was put out there. Granted- knowing them wasn't the same as applying them... but it was the first and most important step.
My mind reeled with the possibilities. I had to... I had to... I had to tell someone! Almost by habit I dialed her number. I'm going to blame it on being so distracted with superfluous information and definitions that I failed to recall the state of our relationship at the time. I suppose, in hindsight, I'm lucky she even answered the phone. I was the one who kicked her out, after all.
"What is it, Benji?" Maggie's voice asked with only a thin edge of condescension, as if I were an annoying younger brother barging into her bedroom uninvited. "Decided to do something with your life? If not- I am busy at the moment."
"I uh..." I wasn't ready for that. Memories of our last conversation filtered up with the anger and bruised pride that were attached to them. But she had been right, I reminded myself. Without her, none of this would have happened. I swallowed it all, forced it back down- and tried again. "I'm sorry, Maggie. You were right. About all of it."
There was a pause before she answered. "I was?" She asked incredulously.
"Yes." I persevered. "I was in a rut. And I was an ass. You were just trying to... to help me see it. I couldn't at the time. I wasn't ready. But I am now. Forgive me?"
"Benji, I..." She started, but I didn't give her the chance to finish. I guess an ass can't quite help being an ass- even when he's calling to apologize.
"Maggie- I know we've been friends since we were kids... but do you think, maybe, you could stop calling me Benji? It's Benjamin. I'm not 8 anymore, and neither are you."
"What the fuck, man?" She asked, anger obvious in her voice again. "Are you calling to apologize or just fight with me some more?"
She was right, again, I realized. "Look, I'm-" But it was her turn to interrupt me.
"You know what- I don't care. I finally got a part in a show and if I don't get my lines down before the next rehearsal I might lose it. Not that you cared to ask what was going on in my life or anything when you finally call me after over a week of nothing. So I don't have time for you right now, alright?"
"Wait!" I cried out, grasping at straws. "You're right- I'm sorry." Then the hook occurred to me. It was so obvious. I was literally staring right at it. "Wait... what if I could help with that? Would that be an olive branch you could accept?"
There was another pause before she asked, "What? You offering to read lines with me? Don't you have to get to work? Or are you slacking off there now as well?"