Nai Gor (chapter two): Painkiller
Posted By: Chuckles
Date: 28 August 2009, 5:51 am
In the fifth type, the symbolic or mocking dreams, the characteristic element is one which I call demoniacal. I am afraid this word will arouse some murmurs of disapproval, or at least some smiles or sneers. Yet I think I can successfully defend the use of the term. I will readily concede at once that the real existence of beings whom we may call "demons" is problematic, and yet men of science find the conception very useful and convenient.
I hope to satisfy even the most skeptical of my audience by defining the expression "demoniacal" thus:
I call demoniacal those phenomena which produce on us the impression of being invented or arranged by intelligent beings of a very low moral order.
—Frederik van Eeden, 1913
Nai Gor (chapter two): Painkiller
Only a handful of the medical units were in use, and with the exception of a soldier trying to land a date with the triage nurse, the waiting room sat empty. All in all, it had been a slow couple of weeks for the medical staff on the Siberia. Under normal circumstances Dr. Westley Barnard would have considered that good news, but not now. What does a physician do when people skip getting sick and go straight to dying?
That was not the sort of thing they covered in medical school.
It all started about two weeks before with soldiers failing to show up for duty, only to be found dead in their beds. Autopsies revealed nothing. As far as Dr. Barnard could tell, their hearts simply stopped beating as they slept. It was maddening. Westley had been with the UNSC for over twenty-three years and he had seen his share of challenges. He'd treated Grunt-bite wounds, replaced organs immolated by plasma and even helped repel a Covenant boarding party during open-heart surgery. But he'd never imagined that his greatest challenge would come from not being able to fight at all.
Tearing away from his thoughts, he looked up from his desk with weary eyes. "What is it, Sandie?"
The young nurse walked into his office and sat down, flashing a polite smile. "Sir, Ensign Quan Thao came in yesterday evening with a severe migraine and I kept him here for observation. About 0500 this morning his heart went into an arrhythmia. Thankfully he was here, so IDA saved him," she said, referring to the Independent Defibrillation Assistant attached to every bed in the infirmary.
Barnard nodded. "He would have died in his sleep with no sign of sickness or trauma, and that fits the profile. Do we know if any of the victims complained of migraines?"
"He wasn't asleep," Sandie said, shaking her head. "He woke up a full minute before the arrhythmia."
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah. I walked in before IDA saved his life. I heard him..." She paused, folding her arms in front of her as if she were cold. "Sorry, sir, I'm a little spooked right now."
Dr. Barnard smiled warmly. "Take it a step at a time. Why were you in his room before the arrhythmia?"
"The temperature in his unit dropped from twenty-one degrees to minus ten, triggering an alarm at the nurses' station."
Sandie nodded, now looking more terrified than spooked. "It felt even colder. Ensign Thao's eyes were wide and frightened. He stared as if someone was standing next to his bed and begged for his life. Then his eyes rolled back, the IDA activated and the temperature was normal again."
"The thing he was looking at, did you see it?"
"And Ensign Thao is fine?"
"Yeah. Scared of his shadow, but fine. He said that he saw a 'human-shaped blackness' at the foot of his bed. Thinks it was his dead mother-in-law trying to murder him. He's probably just trying to make some sense of it."
Westley chuckled. "He could have tried harder. When you checked him into the infirmary last night, did the computer flag his race?"
"Yeah," Sandie said, narrowing her eyes. "I'd wondered why it would—"
"And with a name like Thao I'm guessing he's what, Hmong, Laotian ... "
"Sounds like Brugada Syndrome. Ever heard of it?"
She shook her head. "No, I haven't."
"Young healthy men wake up with a sense of foreboding that is often accompanied by terrifying hallucinations. Moments later the heart goes into an arrhythmia that, in the absence of medical intervention, usually results in death. For reasons we've never been able to determine, Brugada Syndrome occurs almost exclusively among males in a few people groups in Southeast Asia, especially the Hmong."
"I don't think that's what happened." Sandie bit her lip and dropped her gaze to the floor. "I should've told you about this earlier."
"Told me about what?"
The young nurse looked up, eyes moist and frightened. "My roommate died in her bed a few days ago and, uh, I think I was awake when it happened." She took a deep breath. "I was awake. I felt the freezing air, I listened to her beg for her life—but I didn't do anything because I was too scared." Tears flowed down her cheeks. "I'm a nurse. I might've been able to save her, but I hid beneath my covers."
Feeling the need to do something, Westley offered a box of tissue, but she ignored it.
"When I finally I dared to get up, I found her dead. Tears were frozen on her cheeks and the look on her face ... I'll never get it out of my mind."
"Sandie," Dr. Barnard said, doing his best to sound positive, "I'm sorry about your roommate, but I'm sure there's a rational explanation for all of this."
She shook her head slowly and glared at the ceiling above his desk. "They both knew it had come to kill them. They knew. I've felt it twice and I know why." Sandie's body began to shudder and her thin voice broke. "It's as if you're already in your grave. You can feel it, smell it, taste it." She dropped her head into her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. "And I can't get free of it. I can't get the stink off of me."
Michael Donnadio sat on the edge of his bed staring at the small red pill in his hand. The doctor's instructions had been simple: swallow the drug, go to sleep and try to have fun. But like a scared kid strapping in for his first roller-coaster ride, he just wanted to come out on the other end alive. Fun was the furthest thing from his mind.
"He's trying to kill you."
Mike lifted his head and glared at the AI hovering above his nightstand. "I'm well aware of that, Solon."
"Oh." the construct replied, pulling thoughtfully at his long white beard. "Since you seem intent on following the advice of a serial killer, I naturally assumed you had forgotten. Do you care to make any changes to your legal will? Thought I'd ask while I still had the chance."
The last two days had ruined Donnadio's taste for virtual sarcasm. "Yeah, I want my AI assistant donated to a chandelier factory."
"I'm not suicidal, Solon. It's just that sometimes the best way to get what you want is to let your opponent think he's having his way with you. Works for me in chess."
Now it was the construct's turn to glare. "He is having his way with you."
Mike smiled. "See, I even fooled you."
"I am really going to miss that sense of humor."
Donnadio walked over to the sink and rinsed out a cup. "What does this pill do?"
Solon sighed. "It keeps your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex active and functional during REM sleep."
"Doesn't sound dangerous to me."
"And you'll be right here to wake me if there's any trouble, right?" He filled the cup with cold water and turned to the frustrated AI. "Right?"
"Then why worry?"
With his counsel rejected and the decision made, Solon smoothed out his simple white robes and spoke with calm resignation. "Because it was Nai Gor's idea."
Fifteen minutes later darkness filled every corner of the room. Weeks of travel, tension and stress had taken their toll, draping fatigue on Mike's body like a lead suit. Under normal circumstances, it would have taken at least half an hour for him to fall asleep, but nothing about the last few days had been normal. Lying in the bed with his eyes closed, Mike's lips moved soundlessly as he counted out four-four time like a first year music student in order to keep his mind active as normal consciousness waned.
One two three four, two two three four, three two three four, four two three four, five two three four, six two three four ...
Muscles relaxed. Cares and concerns fell away.
thirty-four two three four, thirty-five two three four, thirty-six two three four ..."
Bits of noise and light came and went as—for the very first time—he observed the transition from waking consciousness to sleeping. A loud bang, a bright flash ...
Soft grass lay under his feet, green and vibrant. He lifted unshielded eyes to the sun and marveled at the brightness of its golden-yellow against the warm blue sky. The colors around him were powerful and vivid, as if the whole world were a wet painting. A forest lay off in the distance, sparkling like a diamond as the windblown leaves reflected sunlight. Now he understood what Janks meant when he said lucid dreaming could be addicting. A village of several dozen small buildings lay directly before him in the middle of a huge clearing and Mike ran towards it with the ease and energy of a teenager.
A narrow cobblestone street wound like a snake through the little town, splitting off now and then to coral a wayward house or building. Slowing to a walk, he crossed the small patch of grass that passed for a front lawn and approached a man slumped over in a chair on a porch.
"Hello?" he said, tapping the man on the shoulder. A face with at least eighty years of wrinkles looked him over as if he were a blemish on a perfect world.
"If you're looking for a guide, you're on the wrong side of the village." Taking sudden notice of Mike's hands, he jumped out of the chair. "Oh, you're one of them." The old man shook his head and cursed. "You'll bring the forest down on us, sure as hellfire!"
"What do you mean by that?" Mike replied, but the man was already back in his chair, head bowed and oblivious.
A young man walked up the street towards him, smiling. He wore black clothing and the collar of a clergyman.
"You looking for a guide, mister?"
Mike smiled. "No, I'm looking for someone named Nai Gor."
"Well I don't know anyone by that name, but I can help you look." He offered a milky white hand and smiled even wider. "By the way, I'm Bart."
Donnadio gave the hand a quick shake before joining Bart on the cobblestone street. "Name's Mike. You get many visitors around here?"
"I see your hands are empty," the man said, ignoring his question. "That's curious."
"Why is that curious?"
"Well," the man said, looking around with concern, "Nai Gor, eh? A guide showed up this morning. Maybe he'll know him. Aha!" he said, pointing and smiling from ear to ear. "There he is!" Taking Mike's hand in a vice-like grip, he ran towards a short man wearing a large hat and hiking clothes. Stopping suddenly about ten feet away, Bart whispered in Donnadio's ear. "They're not all guides who look like guides. Many a time I've seen the Devil's cloven footprint on the hills and streets of this village. I'll wager he didn't waltz into town with horns and a tail either, so mind your company."
With that, he was off, singing a song as he strolled down the street. The short man walked towards him, the wide brim of his hat low over his face.
"You'd be the one looking for a guide, am I right?"
"No," Donnadio said with a smile, "I'm looking for Nai Gor."
"One's the same as the other. He doesn't live here, so if you're bent on meeting him you'll need to leave this village. Can't leave the village except through the forest and only a fool would set a foot inside those trees without a guide. So you're either looking for a guide or you're a fool." The stranger paused to look him up and down. "Possibly both."
The words were spoken neatly, but also flat and toneless—and Mike didn't know how to take them. He searched the man's face for an expression, but he could discern neither eyes nor mouth. "Are you saying you know where to find Nai Gor?"
"No, nobody does. Doesn't matter, though. You go into those woods and he'll find you."
Mike grunted. "Then why do I need a guide?"
"Because you have no idea what you're chasing. He goes by other names, you know. Not allowed to say them in this village, but I assure you they're more chilling than the one he gave you. But go ahead," the man said, sweeping a hand toward the distant trees. "Stroll in alone. And when you feel the ground shake beneath your feet and hear voices out of the pitch-black that turn your heart sideways, you'll know why nobody in this town ventures within a stone's throw of them trees without a guide." Leaning in closer, he lowered his voice to a whisper. "And that goes double for a man who's got Nai Gor looking for him."
"No," Mike said, making no attempt to hide his growing irritation, "It's the other way around I'm looking for him."
The guide laughed. "Whatever you say. This will cost, you know. Especially if I'm gonna have Nai Gor sniffing my trail."
Donnadio raised his hands palms forward. "I'm not carrying anything."
"We'll work something out." The hat sagged as the short man sighed. "You have the look of a man who's been led in circles. Have you already met Nai Gor?"
"No, but I'm looking forward to it."
"Fool," the man said as he turned to walk away. "Come back when the trees are closer. I'll be waiting."
Mike remembered Bart's warning and a childish feeling of terror swept over him. "Wait a minute! Show me your feet!" But the guide was gone before the question left his mouth. Bending down in the dust where they'd stood, he searched for footprints.
He found both cloven and whole.
"Sweat pants and a t-shirt, Commander?" Nai Gor looked over his virtual clothes with mock concern. "I feel all uncomfortable and overdressed."
Mike closed the door behind him and sat down. "I'm afraid this isn't going to work out. I tried it your way and got nowhere."
"Oh?" the AI said, tilting his luminous head. "Did the Commander have a bad dream?"
"It was different than Jankman's journal. A lot different."
"What, did you get scared? Run into some dead loved ones?"
Donnadio shook his head, and his neck ached with fatigue. "No, just different."
"Different?" The construct replied with wide-eyed amazement. "You jumped out of bed and ran in here with your messy hair because it was different?" Nai Gor laughed. "They'll let pretty much anyone coach hockey these days, won't they?"
Sleep hung heavy on Mike's eyes and he suddenly wished he'd remembered to bring coffee. "You said I'd find answers, that I'd see what he saw, but I didn't."
The construct smiled. "Of course not. You went in looking for a killer. You were on a mission, playing Sherlock Holmes, doing something you loved, being the hero. For Janks lucid dreaming was more of an opium den. He just wanted something to numb his brain, and who could blame him? He hated space, hated his job and hadn't heard from his wife or kids in over a year. Any sane man would have turned to the bottle, but the poor devil was allergic to alcohol." Nai Gor shook his head in mock sympathy. "What a waste. Don't you think Brian would have made an excellent drunk?"
"If that's true then why did he vow to never go back in?" A look came over the AI's face that Mike hadn't seen since their first conversation: unrestrained glee.
"Something frightened him. Something he saw in the woods."
"Yeah?" Mike said, rubbing his eyes. "What did he see?"
The construct chuckled. "C'mon. You don't give away the punch line in the middle of the joke. It's bad stagecraft. You lose the crowd. No, you wait 'til the end; until you have them eating out of your hand." Nai Gor paused as Donnadio's eyelids flickered shut and his head fell forward, only to be jerked upright again. "Are you getting any of this?"
Sitting up straighter, Mike took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes again. "Something about losing the crowd?"
"Commander, you're obviously tired and I'm being far too bland. Let me put it another way. 'To catch a saint, with a saint I bait my hook.' I dangle it before your sentimental eyes and you follow. And if common sense tells you to stop, it makes no difference because the love for your dead friend will goad you on and strangle reason. Once you finally recognize what you've done it will be too late. The hook will be set. 'Most dangerous is that temptation that doth goad us on to sin in loving virtue.'"
Donnadio sighed. This was starting to feel like the dream. "Is that what you do with your spare time in AI prison, think up zingers like that?"
"Well," the construct shrugged, "These hands aren't real. Kinda hard to knit. Besides, I stole part of that from Shakespeare."
The AI smiled. "I'll let you figure it out."
Too tired to think of a suitable reply, Donnadio moved on. "Why did everyone ask me and Janks if we were looking for a guide?"
"Because that village is like an airport or train station: it's not a destination but rather a means to an end."
Mike wrote something on his data pad and then looked up. "But there were people living there."
"Really?" Nai Gor said, raising a simulated eyebrow. "You might want to reconsider the logic of that statement."
"You came from there, and you're real enough."
"Yes," the construct replied in voice that sent a chill down Donnadio's sleep-deprived spine, "but I'm not people."
Lieutenant Daniel Hooks sat at the long table alone, staring blankly at the Wardroom wall. He had no idea how long it had been since he'd last slept, but he knew that the hallucinations had begun during the fourth day. It started with human forms appearing in his peripheral vision, then he saw weird bugs crawling everywhere, and finally—about eight hours ago—he started seeing cats. Bright red cats. Dark green cats. Burnt orange cats. Electric blue cats. Shorthaired cats. Longhaired cats. Fuzzy cats. Skinny cats. Always on the walls. Never on the floor or ceiling. Nothing but cats—hour after hour after hour.
At present, forty-two of the colorful hallucinations frolicked on the far wall. That was the first count, anyway. He would count them at least two more times before feeling certain. After that he would sort them into colors, then sizes, and finally move on to the next wall.
Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-sev—
The door swung open, spooking the large purple tom who had been curled up by the knob and sending him into a panic—and if Danny had learned anything in the last eight hours, it was that panic spreads like wildfire among cats.
"What is it?" He replied without taking his eyes off the wall. One, two, three, four, five...
Captain Buddy Richards looked at Hooks, followed his eyes to the empty wall and sighed. "Nai Gor wants to see us, Lieutenant."
Fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen... "It's near impossible to keep track when they're all jumping at once. I wish my camera would work for this." ...eighteen, nineteen, twenty...
"Are you listening, Danny?" Richards said, raising his voice. "Nai Gor is waiting."
Hooks raised his hand to shield the cats from his view. "What does he want us for?"
"I don't know, but he's real agitated. Said he would make sure it found us if we didn't come right away." Richards walked over and pulled the Lieutenant up by his arm. "C'mon, there's no time. We have stop by the weapons locker on our way."
"Why?" Hooks asked, getting to his feet for the first time in several hours.
Richards tried to answer twice before finding his voice. "A flamethrower, son. Nai Gor insisted."
"I finished the miscreant's memory-core analysis, in case you're interested."
The Commander's eyes brightened as he bent over to untie his shoes. "Well done, Solon. Glad to see you're keeping busy. What'd you find?"
"Nothing I can categorize, since I lack sufficient reference. Normal methods of evaluation have proven problematic." Solon dropped his gaze for a moment and then looked up sheepishly. "I have formulated several theories, but they're problematic as well."
Mike sighed. "So you're afraid of sounding stupid. Duly noted. Continue." He saw something flash in Solon's eyes for an instant and disappear. If he had so much as blinked, he would have missed it.
"Forgive me, sir, but that construct should not even exist. Familiar as I am with the process, I'm surprised the initial brain scan worked at all. Every single parameter is at its limiting point."
"Yeah," the Commander said, nodding slowly, "But Brian did have an IQ of nearly two hundred."
"Even if it was two hundred thousand, it could not account for the anomaly. With intelligence of this magnitude, size would be a greater limiting factor than design—at least in the physical universe known to us. Relatively speaking, if the capability of a perfectly functioning human brain were the size of an apple, the brain scanned to create Nai Gor would be at least as big as the ship we are in right now."
"But I was right there when it was scanned. The brain belonged to Brian Jankman."
"Agreed. I located code consistent with a normal scan within the crystal and I am quite certain it came from Dr. Jankman. It is, however, completely subjugated and he probably only uses it for reference. The remainder, which represents the bulk of the code, almost certainly came from somewhere else."
"Somewhere else?" Mike said, covering a yawn with his fist. "You mind giving me a few options?"
The AI shrugged. "Impossible to say, but it's certainly not of human origin." Solon pulled his beard and frowned. "There's one more thing. Something happened to me during the core analysis. I had no reason to expect the AI to be that powerful and I got too close. He grabbed me for an instant and altered something." Again, something flashed in Solon's eyes, and the AI pitched slightly forward.
"I've run diagnostics, and I appear to be fine, except that..." The usually confident construct looked away as if embarrassed. "Just before he grabbed me, I detected a pattern in his code I had never seen in any other AI. I didn't know what it was until after he let me go. It appears that Nai Gor is in pain; constant, horrible pain. Subjectively speaking, I had no reference for the concept until he altered my programming." Mike winced as Solon's virtual face contorted and his luminous body began to shudder. "Now I feel the pain as well."
Donnadio climbed into bed and stared at the ceiling, stunned and silent. The sharp-witted construct had been his constant companion for over four years. And although Mike knew that even smart AI's were merely clever programming made to look and act human, he had, nevertheless, come to rely on Solon for more than information and analysis. "So," he said, turning back to the AI, "Given what we now know about his intelligence, what do you recommend?"
"Commander, I've been against your on-site involvement from the start. But now—" The holographic image contorted out of shape, reminding Mike of a funhouse mirror. "Now I've changed my mind. Impossible as it seems, Nai Gor was patterned after somebody, pain and all." Solon contorted again. "I recommend we find the poor fellow and put him out of his misery."
"Is that the SMRID-46i?"
Captain Richards nodded and set the bulky weapon on the ground.
Nai Gor smiled. "Bud, have you ever smelled burning flesh?"
"Yeah, thanks to you."
"Good, great," the AI with impatient delight, "Now describe it to me. Every detail. Do not leave anything out."
Throughout the reluctant, grisly description Nai Gor remained spellbound. As it came to an end, the holograph began to clap.
"Excellent, Bud. Perfect. And when you said you could taste it, that's for real?"
The Captain nodded.
"Wow. I'm gonna say it again; excellent. You put me right there with you. I could almost smell it." The AI turned to the Lieutenant. "How about you? Anything to add?"
Danny's head wagged dreamily. Eighty-seven, eighty-eight, eighty-nine. Lotta cats in here. More than the wardroom, that's for sure.
Nai Gor stared at him for several seconds; his mouth slowly curling into a sneer. The virtual eyes shifted to Captain Richards and the expression softened.
"I'm still foggy on one thing, Bud. You said it smelled sweet but that it also smelled pungent. Did you mean both at the same time or that it changed from one to the other?"
The Captain shrugged. "I'm not sure. It's been a while."
"Indeed it has," the AI said eyeing the flamethrower. "How about a refresher?"
Richard's mouth dropped open. "What?"
Nai Gor looked at the groggy Lieutenant and then turned a mischievous grin towards the Captain. "Pick it up," he whispered excitedly. "Torch him. Do it now."
"No!" Richards said, backing away. "I can't!"
Oblivious to the debate concerning his immediate future, the Lieutenant continued counting cats.
"Sure you can," the construct said laughing. "Look at him! He'll be dead before he even knows what's happening."
Eyes wide with terror, the Captain continued to back away. "I can't! I won't!"
"You will! Burn him! Do it now, or you'll taste the tortures of the damned every night for the rest of your life!"
The Lieutenant woke from his stupor as Richards took his first unsure step towards the flamethrower. Both men looked up and for a fraction of a second their eyes locked.
As the Captain dove for the weapon, Nai Gor laughed like a child watching a cartoon.
Did I tell him enough? Solon's ethics subroutines did not reply. His cycles slowed as another wave of pain tore through his code. Simulating an act is not the same as doing it or wishing it to be done, is it? Again, no reply. Commander Donnadio needs my help and pain affects my ability to assist him effectively. Therefore, anything that lessens the pain without causing actual harm is consistent with my duty, correct? This time Solon's ethics subroutine agreed and he immediately ran the simulation. He watched himself plunge a knife into the Commander's neck, pull it out and then slash the throat open to the spine. He could feel the warm spray of blood as the knife scraped against the bone. The simulated Donnadio keeled over and bled out: wide-eyed, pale and dead on the bedroom floor. Solon fixated on the corpse and a measure of relief flowed over his code.
He had no idea why the hellish simulation helped, but it helped—and that was all that mattered as the suffering AI stared at the sleeping Commander and ran the simulation over and over again.
All night long.