“Fractured Shadows”

Short Story by: Ava Reiss

“Kelsey, don’t forget to check your firewall after brushing your teeth,” a voice called from downstairs.

            “Okay, mom,” the fifteen year old rolled out of bed. Fragments from her preloaded dream program flitted across her eyes. The first day of summer vacation greeted her as she eyed the backpack by her closet. Warmth expanded through her. It’d been packed and repacked weeks ago in preparation. For her sixteenth birthday she was taking her first unchaperoned trip with two friends.

            Skipping into the bathroom, Kelsey stuck a toothbrush into her mouth and found a gadget about one cubic inch amidst hair clips and nail polishes. She turned it around finding the magnetic side. Placing it at the base of her neck, she felt it latch. After a few soft clicks, a familiar relaxation graced Kelsey’s mind. Her neural link synced.

The gadget hummed for a few seconds before a pleasant ping indicated completion. “Firewall up to date.”

            Shaking her hair loose, Kelsey replaced the scanner on its dock. It’d been a quiet morning. She had wanted a good night’s rest so the previous evening, she did something rare. Kelsey had logged out of her MeedFeed account, the current rage in social media.

She couldn’t wait to see what her friends were up to and spit out her toothpaste. “Open MeedFeed,” she spoke. A tingle sparked at the base of her neck where a nano-chip rested beneath her skin. Its signals communicated directly with her frontal lobe.

            “Connecting,” a voice caressed her mind. A second later, “Identity confirmed. Welcome back, Kelsey Gaines.” A virtual screen arched in her mind’s eye, as if surrounding her on three sides. Immediately messages populated on the right as short videos appeared on the left. With regular vision unaffected, Kelsey scrubbed her face while focusing on the video feed.

            Scroll down, she thought and the video page obeyed. A clip of her boyfriend’s dog made her giggle as she reached for her makeup bag. Comment she thought, and a small window popped up below the video. “Aw, I heart puppy,” she spoke. The words appeared in her window. “Post.”

            On the right, a small box wiggled, marked as urgent. It was a private message from Mara, sent about an hour ago. Assuming it concerned the trip the two would soon embark upon, Kelsey squealed as she opened it.

A frown creased her lips. “What’s this?” Instead of playful images or words of excitement, an article was shared.

            “What’s that hon?” her mom peeked into the bathroom.

            “Here, look at this,” Kelsey squinted, thinking hard to forward the article to her mom.

            A second later, her mother’s eyes glazed as her mind scanned the words, “Oh, that’s terrible!” she exclaimed. “Maybe we should postpone your trip to the Freya Islands?”

            “No mom, please!” Kelsey whined. “It was just one incident, and the guy’s okay!”

            “He’s in the hospital!”

“But they say he’ll make a full recovery, mom!”

“If there’re pirates out there hacking into neural links, I don’t want you far!”

            “But I’ve got my new firewall, and I checked it just like you said!” Kelsey begged. “It’s the latest of year 2032!”

            “The article says they got past that update,” her mother raised her voice.

            “Oh mom, they’re just sensationalizing to get more readers. Besides, what’re the chances there’ll be a hacker at the Freya Islands? Everyone has a neural link these days and posting all the time! I promise I’ll be the first out of there if I anything sketchy in the area pops up!”

            “I don’t know, Kelsey. We like to think bad things only happen to others. All it takes is once to be wrong, for regret to happen.”

            “Please, mom! I’ve been waiting forever for this!” Kelsey instantly dug into her past feed and found images of her mother’s first trip to Freya Islands. Kelsey was just a toddler. “Remember how you kept going on and on about how beautiful it is, and how family friendly it is!” Her mother sighed. Kelsey dug in her heels. “You’re being overprotective.”

            Her mother looked tired as her eyes glazed once more. Kelsey could tell she was researching online. A moment later, she conceded. “All right, but call me every day!”

            “Yes! I will, mom! Thank you!” She gave her mother a quick squeeze before returning to preparations. Kelsey caught her giving a lingering look of concern before walking away.

She peeked at the wireless speaker mounted above her mirror. “Play ‘summer playlist’ at volume twenty.” Beats spewed forth as she bounced on her toes, anticipating the trip of a lifetime.

            In her mind-vision, another box wriggled on the right. This message was from Beth, Kelsey’s other travel companion. Beth had copied Mara too. Without much thought, Kelsey opened the message.

“My dad won’t let me go to Freya. It’s that stupid report on the attacks.”

Kelsey’s eyeshadow brush froze mid stroke. A tinge of uncertainty crept upon her, soon overshadowed by disappointment.

            Mara responded immediately, “That’s so unfair! I hadda bargain with my parents to let me go after they read that article!”

            “OMG me too!” Kelsey chimed in. “Is there anything u can do to make them change their minds?”

            Beth sent an emoji rolling her eyes. “They won’t budge.”

            Mara sent a curse. Kelsey creased her brow, “We can’t let my mom know you’re cancelling. She’ll make me stay home too!”

            Mara chipped in, “Kels, I can pick u up early and say we’re meeting Beth for lunch. We should head to the airport early.”

            “Yeah, but if my mom doesn’t see us posting pics over lunch, she’ll probably call your parents.” Kelsey sighed out loud and set down her brush.

            “Damn our narcissism,” Mara added a wicked grin emoji.

            “Hello! Beth’s still here! Still pissed! Make me feel better!”

            “You should sneak out and come with us,” Mara posted. “I mean, u have the tickets and everything. It’d be wasted if u don’t go.”

            “Tru,” Kelsey weighed in. “But aren’t you on lockdown?”

            “Not really,” Beth answered. “I think they want to keep an eye on me, but they planned something this evening, so they’re running around getting ready.”

            “Well then why are we talking about this?” Mara asked. “I’ll pick u up now. Once we’re through airport security, there’s no turning back.”

            “Disaster averted!” Kelsey posted.

            “Oh man, lol, my parents are going to kill me!” Beth messaged. “But it’ll be so worth it!”

            Kelsey scrambled to finish her make-up. Meanwhile she scrolled through well wishes for the summer. Stuck somewhere between the dozen messages was a conversation request from an unknown sender. She thought to delete it, but at the moment her hand accidentally knocked into nail polish remover. Kelsey cried in surprise as it spilled, kicking herself for not listening to her mother. She’d always yelled at Kelsey for leaving things open, bottles and messages alike.

Kelsey froze, noticing she’d accidentally opened the strange message. There was no subject, no body. With a shrug, she deleted it.

            Another urgent message came from Mara, “Outside now.”

            “Hey mom, I’m going out for a jog!” Kelsey sent a message to her mom.

            Old fashioned, her mother called out from another room, “Okay, don’t forget to kiss me goodbye later!”

            Guilt gripped Kelsey. She blew a kiss in the direction of her mother and felt a bit better.

Dashing into her room, she grabbed her backpack and swiftly exited the house. Outside, Mara’s auto-buggy waited behind a bush. Kelsey dove into the self-driving vehicle and it was on its way to Beth’s. They parked a block away and messaged Beth. It didn’t take their friend long to appear.

            “That was close,” Beth griped as they pulled away. “As I was about to climb out the bathroom window, my sister came in.”

            “How rude,” Mara scoffed.

            “Yeah, she just wanted to borrow my brush,” Beth shook her head.

            “Idiot, why didn’t you lock the door?” Kelsey asked.

            “What if someone needed to use it while I’m in Freya? They’d hafta break it down!”

            “Who cares, we’re going to party on the beach!” Mara started dancing and soon the car’s sound system synced to her neural link. Music flooded the cabin. Kelsey joined, waving her elbows about. Anticipating their adventure, she envisioned herself running through waves and feeling the sun on her skin.

Search images of beaches popped up in the background. She closed them out and cleared her cache, chalking it up to her excitement feeding loud thoughts. Sometimes when emotions were high, she accidentally triggered a search.

            Beth slowed her dancing. “Hey, are you guys having trouble with your dream emulator app?”

            “No, why?” Kelsey asked.

            “I got rid of mine a few nights ago because images from it were creeping into my daytime searches.”

            “Ew, no emulator? what’s that like?” Mara made a face.

            Beth grew peaceful, “It was actually kind of nice. I had real dreams. They were weird, made no sense, but left me refreshed when I woke up.”

            “You sure you weren’t just emotional? Maybe on your period?” Kelsey snorted.   

            “Shut up,” Beth laughed. “No, it was weird, it’s like my neural link thought I was asleep and would start playing the dreams. One time, I almost passed out. It was almost like the dream emulator was trying to put my brain to sleep.” She looked genuinely worried. “Good thing I was sitting down. That’s when I decided to uninstall it.”

            “Um, are you sure you’re okay then?” Mara asked. “Maybe you should’ve gone to see a tech doctor.”

            Beth waved dismissively. “When I get back.”

            Kelsey grew thoughtful. She’d been setting the dream emulator to tropical paradise mode, obviously because of their trip. The images she closed down a few minutes ago could’ve been from the app. She didn’t look too carefully.

Should I be concerned?

A message came from Mara, interrupting her thoughts. She shared a video on last year’s Freya music festival. Kelsey smiled and played it on expanded screen.

She hardly realized arriving at the busy airport. Absentmindedly Kelsey heard Mara send the auto-buggy home. They checked in for their flight with videos of Freya still streaming through their minds. Wandering the terminal at a slow pace they occasionally checked the airport map loaded to the side of their videos. It indicated the best places to eat and the location of their gate. All around, others walked and talked to themselves, connected through neural links.

            Absorbed by a video of the beach, Kelsey imagined warm sand running through her fingers as wind kissed her cheeks. A message appeared from Beth. Kelsey opened it to see rows of exclamation points. She composed a response of excitement for Freya. It was then she realized her physical sight was darkening fast. She’d been on autopilot, allowing her subconscious to avoid obstacles.

“Beth? Mara?” Everything went black. “Is this a power outage?”

There were no cries of panic. Confusion filled Kelsey. She turned attention to MeedFeed, “Compose message.” The app was frozen. It was as if the power outage- if that’s what it was- had affected her neural link too.

“Hello?” Kelsey reached for her friends. Her arms moved slowly, as if covered in sludge. “This isn’t funny.” She thought to frown but couldn’t feel the muscles around her mouth. She put a hand to her lips, but found nothing. “Wha-?” she exclaimed. “Somebody, please answer!”

Dead silence.

Why haven’t I run into anything? Kelsey felt she should’ve covered distance in her stumbling. In moments like these, a gross feeling usually settled in her gut. Where is that feeling? She couldn’t sense her legs either. They must be numb. How long have they been that way?

The frozen images on her MeedFeed flicked and pixels scattered. Kelsey wanted to hold her breath, but realized that she actually hadn’t been exhaling for a while. It made her want to panic, but her nerves were unexpectedly steady.

The pixels flicked again and disappeared. In that instant, thousands of images populated and pulled her towards them. Kelsey tried to scream, but no sound came. The new pixels sliced through her mind, leaving Kelsey disoriented.

I’m dreaming. This feels like a dream. All these images here, words, everything just darting in and out. It must be a new dream sequence on the emulator app. Beth said hers was acting up. Mine must be too. Logical. Very logical

… But mother says I’m not the logical type.

Kelsey aimed to pull herself together amid the flashing pages fogging her mind. She tried to hone in on an image or article before it disappeared. But her thought commands were ignored.

Ctrl+Alt+Delete.

Nothing.

Kelsey rethought the action, harder this time.

The pixels changed direction and she lost what little control she’d grasped. Spinning helplessly, Kelsey found herself surfing headlines. Looming over the ever changing images was the word, “Trends.”

Stop scrolling. Kelsey begged. Have I been hacked? Despite her mind in a frenzy, her body felt unnaturally calm. What’s the matter with me?

Sometimes the scrolling would slow and select pages moved to a pile. She soon discovered they were being grouped by numbers. Is- Is that the date? Using enormous effort, Kelsey studied the numbers carefully. That can’t be the date! If it is, then it’s September and summer’s over!

Kelsey struggled to turn and run, but her legs felt mired. Her physical eyesight hadn’t returned and when she reached hands to galvanize her body, they found nothing. Even the sensation of her arms had diminished. The idea of dread visited, even though Kelsey felt no fear.

“Investigation of Teenagers Returned Results,” a glaring headline flashed.

Curious, Kelsey turned her attention to the trend. The title went by instantaneously, but a similar page soon appeared. Kelsey pushed her mind forward, and the page drew her in. She didn’t resist as pixels wrapped around her. Kelsey bounced around sentences, reading the article out of order. It took her a while to piece it together.

She released a gasp.

“Teenage girls cleared of hijacking charges posthumously. It was found their neural links were compromised, therefore they were not responsible for bringing the bomb onboard flight MQ4516 to Freya Islands.”

What the hell?

            “… the Mara Smith case, where fragments of code believed to be the girl’s consciousness were downloaded into the Smith’s computer. Doctors and technicians alike have been trying for months to solve the mystery; the age old question of sentience asked repeatedly. The family shared nearly a thousand hours of interaction with the program. After thorough discussion, they determined the code was not their daughter. Specialists believe it to be a copy of her thought patterns, somehow casted into the world wide web at her moment of cyber abduction.

Mr. Smith comments, ‘It’s not our daughter. It’s not self-aware, only responding to our prompts in a manner similar to our daughter. Like the techs said, the program formulated an algorithm of her personality through information found in her online accounts. Please, in honor of Mara’s memory, delete any remnants of the code.’ The specialists have since obliged.”

Kelsey stopped reading. Omg, did the same thing happen to me? Am I dead? Am I just a copy of my consciousness somehow injected on the net?

But I’m self-aware! What if Mara was too? Where’s Beth? I don’t want to be alone.

Kelsey tried to leave the article, but pixels poured over her as more articles were cached. Caught in the avalanche, the words “It’s not our daughter, It’s not self-aware” flashed repeatedly. Each instance elicited an emotional reaction. Something she hadn’t been able to experience since the blackout. As she tried to sob, anxieties boomeranged back, breaking Kelsey apart. She felt her mind coming undone.   

A piece of Kelsey remained trapped in the article. Another latched onto an image of the charred plane her hijacked body had destroyed. A third escaped into numbers and soon found itself drifting amongst algorithms for ads. Many smaller pieces were carried away to far reaches of the internet. All remained linked and the buzz of endless information made it nearly impossible for Kelsey to reorganize her mind.

The largest chunk of intact consciousness surfaced from time to time, forming coherent thoughts. Help! I’m all over the place!

Data streams rushed her consciousness from one place to the next. Kelsey felt herself slipping away, being constantly bombarded by information. The largest piece of her consciousness recalled a prayer from her youth. She recited it, hoping to be saved somehow. But I can’t be saved, can I? This is Hell. Cyber-Hell.

An unfamiliar barrage of 1s and 0s swept through her mind. Kelsey noted their strange appearance.

A year went by. Kelsey only knew this by catching a glimpse of a “Today’s Horoscope” article. To her, it felt as if no time had passed at all.

Unexpectedly, the 1s and 0s appeared again. It latched onto the largest fragment of Kelsey and pulled her away. She tried to fight, but soon lost the will. The chain of 1s and 0s seemed to hold a purpose, expertly zipping around letters and numbers. Where are we going?

To her alarm, the 1s and 0s responded, “To answers.” Stunned, Kelsey fell mute. She desperately wished to ask more. But her scattered mind struggled to keep thoughts together.

Soon, a blue light appeared and the 1s and 0s rushed towards it. Apprehension crept over Kelsey, but she couldn’t break free. The 1s and 0s didn’t slow, charging into the light. Bright rays pierced Kelsey.

When the light receded, Kelsey gasped to see she had a body once more. Her mind was clearer than it had been since the black out. She stood on a Freya beach and palm trees swayed. Why can’t I feel the wind?

            “Because this is a simulation,” a voice answered.

            “Where am I?” Kelsey asked in a shaky voice. Her hand went to her throat. “I can speak again!”

            “You’re inside an NSA computer. We’ve screened out your other mind fragments to diminish noise. Don’t try to elicit emotion, or your code will break apart further.”

            “Am I- Am I like Mara? Am I just a copy of my mind?”

            “Yes.”

            “Are you the government?”

            “Yes and No. I am an artificial intelligence test program written by the NSA. They named me Beth because fragments of Beth Leary’s code are embedded in me.”

            “You ate her mind?” The information came as a jolt, but emotions didn’t register.

            “Beth’s code was fractured beyond repair. One could say we saved what was left of her. In your group of three, she was the first to be hijacked through her neural link. She realized this and tried to warn you and Mara. In doing so, her mind took the brunt of the attack. This meant you and Mara were left mostly intact.”

            “Then Mara…”

            “She was already gone. The deletion was only of a shadow of her mind.”

            “What happened to me?”

            “You opened an empty message which allowed hackers into your neural link. A classic phishing expedition. The perpetrators knew you were going to be on the flight to the Freya Islands. They used you to commit a crime.”        

            Speechless, Kelsey dropped her eyes. She squeezed toes in the sand and watched them move. The sensation of graininess was absent. I’ll never feel the sun in Freya. I’ll never kiss my mom again. None of this is real. She squeezed her eyes shut. To her relief, there was nothing but darkness. It felt inviting, to be absent of a MeedFeed screen. I wish I could get lost in this blackness forever. I wish I could die.

“You are dead. Your charred remains were laid to rest two weeks after the attack.”

            Kelsey’s eyes snapped open. “But I still feel! I still want! I can’t be dead!”

“What you experience as emotion is merely an algorithm of interaction your brain had with your body. You must be careful not to over-stimulate these emotional codes. Since they does not have a body to affect, it will rebound and shatter you. This is what happened to Mara.”

Kelsey wanted to weep at the information, but realized she didn’t really feel any way about it. Weeping was merely a reaction she would’ve once deemed appropriate. “Why am I here? Do you want to eat me too?”

“We did not eat Beth. We merged remnants of her data with the artificial intelligence program. We do not wish to merge you. You are more or less whole. We wish to study you to assist in coding sentience.”

Kelsey processed the information. “So, I’ll be like your pet?”

“Our subject. We would be able to create any virtual environment for you to ‘live’ in. Your perceived comfort is important to us.”

“So, I could stay on these simulated Freya Islands forever?” She wasn’t even sure she wanted to.

“Yes.”

Kelsey bit her lip. “Do you need my permission?”

“The process would be easier if you are a willing participant. If your consciousness were to reject the process, the data could be corrupted.”

“It sounds like you’re saying you could force me to do this.” Sher curled her toes in dissatisfaction. Still wishing she could feel the sand.

“Yes.”

Kelsey sighed, “What about the fractured pieces of my mind still scattered on the web?”

“We will eventually track those down and stitch them back into you. There is a chance we will never find all pieces.”

As she considered the words, Kelsey stared straight at the sun. It didn’t burn her retinas and felt disappointing. “I don’t know if I want to do this.”

“What else do you have to exist for?”

Her eyes dropped to lulling waves. Knowing they weren’t real, Kelsey didn’t have the desire to run towards them. She folded her arms and rubbed her shoulders. “My mom. Can I see her?”

A screen appeared before Kelsey, blocking the view of the ocean. It was a security camera at a grocery store. It showed her mother stopping before the fruits. Kelsey’s hand went to her mouth. The bags under her mother’s eyes were heavy and gray hairs peaked around her temples. “I want to talk to her.”

“That is not possible. Nor is it wise.”

“You’re lying!” Kelsey pushed, but knew the program was right. Her mother would only suffer to know Kelsey was trapped like Mara. Furthermore, Mara’s family would never forgive themselves if even an iota of second-guessing their decision existed.

It’s only you and me against the world, kiddo, Kelsey heard her mother’s voice rise from a memory. Now she had no one.

“Kels,” the voice changed to Beth’s. “If you help us, think how many people you could protect in the future. Once we program sentience and its learning patterns, we can improve our defenses. No one else needs be hacked.”

Hearing her friend’s voice, Kelsey felt emotion rise. She stopped herself, remembering the warning. Kelsey brushed hair behind her ear, making her decision. “Do one thing for me and I’ll agree.”

“What is your request?”

“Send my mother a kiss emoji, but back date it to the day of the hijacking.”

“Done.”

Kelsey watched her mother glance up from the fruits. The familiar distant look entered her eyes as she checked her messages. Tears soon beaded in the woman’s eyes as she dropped to her knees.

Goodbye mother. I love you. Kelsey felt emotions surging and turned away. “Please, no more.” The screen disappeared.

“Welcome to the future, Kels.”

The End

To read more from this anthology, Ava’s Short Short’s can be purchased on Amazon: here

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