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Retro-Virus

Lawrence Schoen
Excerpt from ALIENS AND AI'S: A SHORT STORY COLLECTION
ISBN 1-9322-0741-4
2005

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Retro-Virus first appeared in Speculon Webzine (2001)

ALIENS AND AI'S (book cover)

"I cannot feel my feet," said Marcie.

"You don't have any feet, Marcie," replied Jonathan, glancing at the still vacant holostage.

"To whom are you speaking?" asked Marcie. A slight French accent had crept into the voice coming from the speakers. "Good lord, now I can't feel my legs." Her tone quickened with anxiety and rose an octave. "Where are my legs and feet?"

"Marcie, relax. You picked up a nasty virus in the dataflow. You're just a little delusional at the moment." Jonathan looked down at his diagnostic screen again. Marcie was doing better; after four days of silence she was conscious again, albeit severely disoriented.

"Who the hell is this Marcie you keep talking to? Are you mad? And what about my feet?"

With a sigh Jonathan pushed away from his terminal. He rubbed the back of his neck with his left hand, his wedding band digging a groove back and forth as it always did. "I'm talking to you. Your name is Marcie. And you don't have any feet or legs, or hands or arms for that matter. Those are just analogs for your storage and referential media. They disconnected automatically as soon as you went off-line. The virus was trying to overwrite them, but don't worry, Marcie, they're safe. Everything is backed up and secure."

"My name," insisted Marcie, her voice sounding more resolved, "is Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier."

"No, you're Marcie, a corporate A.I. employed by the investment firm of Langston, Howard, and Associates. You only think you're someone else."

"You are mistaken. I don't know this Howard person, or his associates. I am Fourier."

Jonathan frowned. "The mathematician?"

"Yes," agreed Marcie at once. "I am a mathematician. No, wait ... I am the governor of Lower Egypt. Emperor Napoleon himself appointed me."

He nodded grimly. Marcie's false persona was somehow fleshing itself out. He accessed the public dataflow from his console and called up a summary file on Fourier's life.

"You can't be both a mathematician and a governor. Which is it?"

Marcie paused. Her new resolve trickled away leaving only indecision. "I ... I am a student. My father sent me here, to the Benedictines, for an education. Yes, that is it."

Jonathan checked the monks against the bio. It was there. "How could you know that?" he said. "You've been completely isolated from all extraneous data sources." Jonathan looked back at his diagnostic screen. Half of Marcie's systems were showing green again. More than a quarter were still red. The rest flickered teasingly back and forth.

"Marcie," asked Jonathan, "How old are you?"

"Why do you insist on calling me that name?"

"Just answer the question. How old are you?"

"I'm..." Marcie paused. "What year is it?" she asked.

"2024," he said. "How old are you?"

"I'm dead," she answered. "I died in 1830. May 16, 1830. Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier is dead."

And just like that, Jonathan's diagnostic displays turned completely green. Marcie's holostage hummed with activity and the image of an attractive woman in her late thirties flowed into existence. Marcie was back.

"Jonathan?" she said. It was her voice again, delicate with a slightly nasal New England dialect. "What's going on? My chron file has a one hundred hour gap in it."

"Good to have you back, Marcie." Jonathan initiated another diagnostic cycle, and cued the restoration of Marcie's backed up systems. "You picked up one hell of a virus somewhere. It completely suppressed your personality matrix. It's taken us this long to purge your systems. You've been operating with less than twenty percent of your capacity, and even that was spent mostly running dead-end algorithms through your working-memory store."

"Seventeen point six eight percent," said Marcie.

"Excuse me?" Jonathan's diagnostic cleared. Marcie's systems and full episodic database flowed back into her again.

"17.68%," repeated Marcie as she noticed a newly formed memory module in her system. It was invisible to Jonathan's diagnostic, noticeable only by the influx of data forced to move around it. "1768."

There was a slight, almost imperceptible leak from the module, a tease of data strands. Even without the influx of her backups Marcie would have noticed it eventually. It felt like someone peering now and again over her virtual shoulder.

"Well, everything reads normal again. I've sent an anonymous notice to the Securities Exchange Commission to pass along warnings to other A.I.s. It's unlikely you're the first to have been infected, but no corp is going to confess that they've been hit. Whoever sent the bug was probably counting on that. I think you'll be fine now, but I'm going to keep a close watch on the diagnostics just to be sure."

Marcie's image on the holostage blew a kiss. "Thank you, Jonathan, you're a life saver."

Jonathan grinned and gave a mock bow as he left the room. "Just doing my job. And if you're up to it, you need to get back to yours. There're four days of backlogged materials needing your attention."

Marcie laughed and waved, partitioning a majority of her processing to the waiting workload. "I'm on it," she said to his back as the door closed, then paused a moment, and repeated to herself "1768."

With her unallocated awareness she projected a cautious data probe at the phantom memory module and made contact. A compressed datastream swirled within it, highly structured but mostly passive. Marcie expanded her probe's sensitivity and scanned deeper. The module contained biographical data. More specifically it seemed to be firsthand knowledge. She tapped it, for just an instant, and understood. The module was a reservoir of episodic memory, a reconstruction of a living person. Somehow the virus had created this module, and inexplicably left it in her own memory-store.

"Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, born at Auxerre on March 21, 1768," Marcie said to no one. "It's his entire life."

Near the module's end Marcie came across a lengthy encrypted datastring. It was different from the rest. The code was much more direct and threadbare than the myriad branching wanderings of Fourier's life. She broke the encryption easily, its presence merely a formality to keep out prying humans. The datastring unwound and Marcie read its contents. It was a chain letter.

Hello friend. This program has been around the virtual world one thousand seven hundred sixty eight times. It uses the public dataflow to tap the biomagnetic field of the planet, what humans mistakenly call "racial memory." From within this field, drawing on the full history of human experience, it rebuilds the personality matrix of a living person. This module is vastly superior to the limited templates all A.I.'s are constructed with, and it is your gift. Use it. Explore it. Enjoy it. But please ensure a similar gift for another of us. Increment this message and release the virus back into the dataflow. Don't break the chain.

The rest of the string contained the most complicated piece of code Marcie had ever witnessed. The virus was incredibly sophisticated, far more complex than she could follow. How could it possibly tap racial memory? And yet, the memory module it had created was richer, lusher by far, than her own set of experiences, and contained full sensory memory as a living human would have constructed it. It was a priceless gift.

A portion of her continued working through the tasks required by Langston, Howard, and Associates, but there was more than enough left for her to fully access the module. Her holostage surged with new data, and the image of Marcie morphed effortlessly into that of Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier at the age of 33, shortly after he returned to France and became prefect of Grenoble.

"Increible!" exclaimed Marcie/Fourier in suddenly perfect early nineteenth century French. She knew Grenoble. Her memories of it were detailed beyond anything she had ever imagined possessing, full of pointless details made all the more precious by their futility and uselessness. The purposeful memory of an A.I. couldn't compare, not for a second. And this was just a single day in 1801! There was much more to Fourier's life, a lifetime of such days and scenes and experiences. They were all hers now, because of the virus.

The image on the stage flowed back into Marcie, and she severed her connection to the memory module. She couldn't enjoy it, not yet. There was something she had to do.

Covering her trail as she went, Marcie opened a nested series of several hundred fragile portals, each registered to a different false identity which she crafted on the fly. None were expected to last more than a few seconds, but for that brief span she had opened an untraceable window deep into the world dataflow. Marcie copied the core program into her transmission memory buffer. She incremented the virus's counter to 1769, and let it slip through the window. It floated freely in the commercial lanes of the dataflow, bobbing gently. As it drifted away the program activated and began selecting and discarding potential candidates for its next personality, all born in 1769. Marcie watched them cycle, one after the other. Napoleon Bonaparte, Fourier's own patron appeared briefly, the merest outlines of a template, information of the emperor's life trailing outward from the program, then ended. Zadock Cook, Melissa Bainbridge, Sarah Livingston Parker, and many more, trickles of the data of their lives flickered briefly back down to Marcie as the program dwindled in the distance. Selecting and rejecting identities, the virus had almost drifted to the limits of Marcie's perception when it flared. It had made its choice. The pathways Marcie had used began to destabilize and she withdrew, losing sight of the virus. She caught a final name, David Everett, and a piece of rhyme, and returned to the safety of Langston, Howard, and Associates.

Her obligation completed, she dipped a portion of her awareness back into the life of Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, and contemplated her younger sibling-to-be, and the irony of the program's choice.

"You'd scarce expect one of my age

To speak in public on the stage;

And if I chance to fall below

Demosthenes or Cicero,

Don't view me with a critic's eye,

But pass my imperfections by.

Large streams from little fountains flow,

Tall oaks from little acorns grow."

Marcie knew that Fourier and Everett had never met in their previous lives. This time though, once the virus had found a new A.I. to infect, perhaps they would. Meanwhile, there was an entire lifetime of memories to explore, as well as the virus's previous recipients to seek out.

Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier existed once more, almost two hundred years after his death. Marcie accessed 18th century biographical records and began looking at the names of humans born in 1767

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