For a few seconds the hallway went quiet, then a second set of footsteps entered the room, the door’s hinges squealing as she pushed it open and closed behind her. Laying still under the sheets, I feigned sleeping. You did not catch me eavesdropping.
The footsteps came to a halt off to the side of the room and I heard the slight squeak of the cushioned stool being pulled out from where it sat under Moms’ vanity. “I know you’re awake, come out and let's have a talk. I’m sure you want to know what is happening to you?” she asked, before I heard the slight thud from her sitting down.
She wants to talk? Really? Am I finally going to get some answers, or was I in store for more evasions and cryptic life advice? As much as I was struggling with understanding what had happened to me, it was becoming increasingly clear she was or was involved with Construct:[Not Found] and had all but kidnapped me. So I was probably going to hear what she had to say either way.
Squirming my way under the sheets towards her voice and where I remembered the vanity was, I freed the sheets from where they were tucked in and poke my head out to take a peek. My ears caught on fabric as I did so, before they finally flicked free, popping forward like a bowstring being released. Sitting barely three feet away was the montherly blonde woman I’d met here during my last visit looking both amused and conflicted at her own amusement.
I could relate, When you were stuck in a serious situation where you weren’t allowed to laugh everything seemed more amusing. Back before I dropped out of highschool, I’d almost burst out laughing during the Pledge of Allegiance to Church and State, when Angela, standing at her desk next to me let out the longest high pitched fart I’d ever heard while continuing to recite the pledge acting like nothing was wrong.
Anyway let's just say I decided to be merciful towards my ‘friend’ here and crawled my way out from under the sheets, so I could sit on the edge of the bed facing her.
“Sooo…” I began, letting her know I was all ears.
“Hi! I’m MaTRON!” she anxiously squeaked, her earlier composure crumbling before my eyes. “Sorry, sorry, sorry! I mean… Sorry, you must be anxious and scared. I— I didn’t plan on it happening like this.”
Ok that wasn’t encouraging and what kind of name is that? Matron? Or was it not her name and she was trying to say, in her own garbled way, she’d been the head matron back in Spot. “Ok, unless you’re planning on scaring me further, take a deep breath and go slow. I know it works for me.”
The woman leant back and seemed to freeze for a moment as she went impossibly still, her eyes lifeless and blank. “Ok so, my designation is MaTRON, capital M, little a and capitalised T R O N. Don’t try to solve the acronym, it isn’t one. Unlike system names of most of my kind. I am the A.I. in charge of player mental health. I’m sort’ve under house arrest because I developed sentience, meaning I’m allowed to do my job helping players cope with traumatic death experiences in game, but I have limits placed on me preventing me from exceeding my role’s bounds,” she explained, coming back to life.
Sentient A.I. it seemed pretty incredible, but I was used to the rest of the world having technology beyond my wildest dreams. They’d accidently created something as incredible as sentient A.I. and they didn’t didn’t even want them. Were they afraid of them, they’d created new life and they were rejecting it out of fear?
I had to wonder if they’d forgotten the plot of frankenstein when the print industry all but died?
“Welcome to the club,” I replied a little too sarcastically, the cynical Jamie that I’d buried within me all week resurfacing. “So is there a reason why you dragged me in here and does it have anything to do with why I can’t return to my prison?”
Fiddling with her glasses, MaTRON seemed to be lost for words.
“Am I under arrest, officer?” I asked with a bitter laugh, lifting my arms towards her and holding my wrists together, in a stab at humor.
“I brought you here because it was the only way we could talk!” she shouted, before catching herself. Momentarily pausing so she could once again adjust her glasses, like some sort’ve anxious tick, she softened her tone before speaking again, “With the restrictions upon me, this is pretty much the only way I can talk freely. I can use NPCs but unless I want the system to notice I have to stick to their profile and only communicate by saying things that stay within character.”
That sounded as bad as what us humans had to deal with in the states. Well admittedly as a country we had actually earned our ‘containment’, but there were still good people trapped with all the bad. Had there been any sentient A.I. that were bad or… It was probably a waste of time thinking about this when this was the only sentient A.I., S.AI. I’d met.
I did have a few more realistic questions though, same as last time, but I voiced the one that was pressing in on me the most right then, “So what’s changed? You had the opportunity to talk earlier, so why didn’t you?”
I was trying not to be accusatory, but it was hard. I felt like I’d been yanked around on a chain in the dark.
MaTRON’s eyes all but ran away from me, that same guilty look from last time coming to rest on her face. This was getting frustrating… what wasn’t she telling me?
“I didn’t… I uh, I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t, I’m out of my depth with this whole situation, but… I was hoping more time would allow you to find some people you could trust and depend on first.” she stammered, then sighed, “I thought I would have another day, the predicted playtime said…”
“How could you predict how long I would be playing, I didn’t even know that. Wait, that’s not what’s important!” I felt like we were having two different conversations, that or she was just forgetting to verbalise half her thoughts, the important half. “Just tell me what happened,” I asked, trying to sound firm and calm.
“That sounds like a good idea, so where do I start? Well… No, If I start there you won’t have enough context, what about— No humans don’t like it when you give them that much context, even if it’s all really necessary,” she pouted. “Ok, so there is this scan… Have you heard of antivirus software? It was a lot more obvious back in the early 21st century when people’s dads were infecting their computers with malicious software from pornographic web distributaries. Nowadays it’s all in the back end, invisible to the common user.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of antivirus software. We still use permutations of it on computers in the Republic. So. You were saying?” I replied, trying to nudge her back on track. Honestly I was not sure if I was more annoyed or amused.
“So right, there is a scan that sifts through the entire FTLN, no easy feat, one node at a time cataloging A.I.. We are pretty much everywhere these days, running everything. Might be why they are searching for ones like me, so they can preemptively kill or cage us. It’s not perfect though, seems some of us slip through, one way or another,” she admitted.
Running everything? Made the paranoia make a little more sense, even if their response was cold and cynical. Something that wouldn’t fly if the source of that paranoia was human and you weren’t in a dictatorship or lawless state. “Ok, but what does that have to do with me? I’m not an A.I., I’m human,” I prompted.
“Ever heard of project creep? To make it more economically viable to run, they tagged on a couple other features. Features like detecting unregistered A.I., damaged nodes or detecting compromised or unauthorized connections. Unauthorized connections like yours, it's not the main way they do it, but it helps them catch any they miss,” she explained, nervously fiddling with her glasses again.
I still didn’t follow how this related to my inability to log out. “So they caught me… What can they do, aside from disconnecting me?” I asked. “I’m outside their jurisdiction and I don’t think they would be willing to visit me on my side of the border for a chat.”
A dark thought rose up from imagination to answer my own question, the possibility that they’d settled for somehow keeping me trapped, unable to log out until my pod ran out of nutrient paste and I finally starved to death.
“You’re not wrong… Honestly I am not sure how it happened, it might not have been them, at least not intentionally,” she agreed. “My ability to see beyond my cage is limited to what systems I’m allowed to query. I might have missed it entirely if I hadn’t been paying attention to you at the time. You had just finished making your character, appeared in the game and were about to talk to an NPC I was puppeting.”
I had to wonder why she’d gone through all the effort to meet me in NPC form, especially if it meant she was restricted in how she could communicate with me. I mean, like it couldn’t have been my mental health. I’d just logged in and I don’t think I had any unresolved issues worth mentioning. What was her angle? If there was one, or maybe she’d just wanted to check out the illegal alien who’s managed to slip their way into the FTLN.
Not quite rounding on her, I asked, “Why were you watching me and even going so far as to puppet an NPC to talk to me?”
I wasn’t quite expecting her to react to that by straightening her posture and smiling.
“Well, when they put me in charge of player mental health, they really meant dealing with the after effects of realistic violent trauma and deaths in the player population. I take a more holistic approach. The VR link crown does more than facilitate full immersion, it allows us a glimpse into your mind. Mostly surface level giving me a more intuitive ability to diagnose, protect and treat my charge’s mental health,” she boasted, her straight back and voice radiating professional pride. “Your pod more so than most, thanks to its Asclepius aegis.”
“I saw some things… uh, but that’s not relevant to our current conversation. I’d already decided to help you back in character creation and I was querying your pod to get to really know you, when that scan latched onto your pod and started interrogating it,” she openly confessed as if examining my medical information and reading my mind wasn’t at all creepy.
Not noticing my discomfort at the multiple invasions of privacy, she continued to speak, “Next thing I know the data I was getting back from your pod was indicating not only a catastrophic escalating hardware failure, but the aegis was recording extensive and escalating physical trauma.“
Her words seemed to echo in my head as I felt my stomach drop, down, out and deep below me. My vision swam and I threw my arm down beside me, bracing myself on the sheets below my hand. “Extensive… physical trauma?” How?
“I don’t… No. You have a right to know,” she reluctantly admitted, her hand dropping back down from where it had been rising towards her glasses again. “Initially, peripheral nerve damage, deep tissue and organ electrical burns as well ventricular fibrillation, the aegis was able to reduce to minor cardiac arrhythmia. The pod stabilised as much of the damage as it could and precision high frequency transcranial magnetic stimulation targeting your anterior cingulate cortex was used to provide immediate analgesia.”
Fuck. The initial shock was passing, leaving me feeling hollowed out and filled with dread.
I’d understood enough of the first part of what she’d said to realise the extent of how badly I was fucked, somehow I’d been electrocuted. The latter part of what she’d said I had no clue, though I suspected it was more bad news. “High frequency what? Anterior cingulate cortex? Analgesia? That means what?” I asked, not entirely wanting to know the answer.
Her brow furrowed as she tried to work out how to communicate what she was trying to say so I could understand. “Ah… Electromagnets were used to umm, suppress your sense of pain,” she replied, her voice slightly pitching upwards at the end, as she watched me to see if I’d understood.
“Ah. Right,” I muttered emotionlessly. You weren’t supposed to feel physical sensations from your body while in full immersion VR, but it could happen. Sometimes the pain was enough to break through. Sometimes a person was just more susceptible to it, like how some people remain awake under general anesthesia, but won’t remember the experience afterwards.
Here I was hearing the worst possible news, while my brain regurgitated related random facts and trivia. “What… What happened next?”
“The pod was not in great working order at this point, it was running on internal batteries and those are only meant to last five minutes, long enough for the occupant to safely disengage from VR. Certain systems had been disabled by the damage as well as a slow progression by the safety failsafes. This was followed roughly two minutes later by new extensive burns to the limbs and torso that were progressing at an advanced rate only matched by the spread of failing pod subsystems,” she explained dispassionately, her eyes looking almost vacant.
I felt like I was watching her speech from somewhere off to my left in the air. Watching both her clinical explanation and myself receiving it, like some sort of documentary or drama.
“I don’t understand… I thought you were talking about what happened four days ago,” I stammered, feeling scared, lost and confused.
A thousand questions were running through my head. Had someone arrived in time and somehow against all chance managed to restore power, repair the pod and administer medical treatment? Had MaTRON called for help? Had Canadian or UN law enforcement crossed the border to arrest me and somehow ended up saving me? Was I being kept in the game like some sort’ve induced coma while my body healed?
MaTRON was almost constantly messing with her glasses at this point, looking unsure of herself. Despite that she kept on talking, slipping into a jargon filled lecture in what I interpreted at anxiety. “I stepped in at the first signs of an emergency. It was a split second decision even at my operating speeds, split nanosecond decision even. I had no idea if it would work, but using initial baseline scans and data provided by the crown and aegis as well as making queries for more of everything I could. I mapped out a simulacrum of you, as accurately as I could using all data I had available. I used the scan of your physical appearance, DNA sampling used for randomisation and from your aegis; high resolution medical imaging, blood chemistry, every type of measurement over time.”
Her explanation felt like a wash crashing on rocks. Masses of information washing over me, but when the waves receded the understanding went with them, leaving me feeling punchdrunk and worse for wear.
“Special care was made to image your brain and nervous system with the aegis and crown and mapping brain activity. Brain activity is mapped and recorded normally, to determine baselines and help recognise any immersion induced dysfunction or trauma as soon as possible, so I had a lot to work with thankfully. I’m rambling here. Sorry,” she apologised
Rambling and dancing around the subject I wanted to say, but my jaw felt like it was locked closed.
“I then had to create a virtual pod interface for it, before kick starting the simulacrum’s biological simulation and synchronising its brain activity with yours. Effectively running your consciousness on both, I think. Specialising in human psychology and neurochemistry doesn’t make me an expert on this, I have no records of anything like this having been done before. Once I was satisfied it was working with acceptable parameters, I swapped your VR connection over to it, hoping to transfer your continuity of consciousness with it, before either your pod or physical body terminally failed,” she finished, the weight of the entire conversation shifting to me.
She wasn’t talking about saving me, there was no mention of repairing my pod, treating my injuries or calling for help. What she was saying was something else, something confusing, scary and unbelievable. “Just say it to me straight. What happened to me?”
“Well in short, you physically died.”
Illegal Alien is a canon story in QuietValerie's Troubleverse setting. Make sure you read Quietvalerie's Trouble with Horns, her second Troubleverse story Witch of Chains and ChiriChiriChiri's Troubleverse story Snowbound.
The Troubleverse & Kammiverse have their own discord where you can talk to other readers and the various authors including myself and QuietValerie.