Story Excerpt

Glitch

by Alex Irvine

 

1

Kyle heard the hiss and rattle of a small air compressor, punctuated by periodic beeps from somewhere near his head. He wondered why he couldn’t see them; then he realized his eyes were closed. So he opened them. Shari was right there, face tight with worry. He saw bandages on her hands and a stippling of cuts on one side of her face.

Behind her, blank walls. White sheets covered Kyle up to mid-chest. Hospital? Why was he in the hospital? What had happened to Shari?

A voice from behind his head said, “Awareness seems pretty good. He’s coming out of it. Give him a minute to orient himself.”

“What happened?” Kyle croaked.

He turned his head and confirmed his initial impression that he was in some kind of hospital room. A nurse technician wearing a big name tag—JORDAN :)—swiped at a tablet and studied a monitor on an instrument cart near his bed. “Don’t go too fast,” he said. “There are always little inconsistencies at first. It can be confusing.”

“Kyle,” Shari said. “Do you know who I am?”

“Yeah, babe,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I?”

She looked over at Jordan. “I don’t remember the next question,” she said, like there was an agenda she was supposed to follow. Jordan came around the side of the bed and spoke quietly into her ear. Kyle noticed a company name on the badge, but he couldn’t make any sense of it. ResuRx. He felt like he should be able to understand it, but the meaning kept slipping away from him, and anyway Shari was asking him more questions as Jordan went back to his instruments.

Last name: Brooks.

Place of birth: Livermore Falls, Maine.

Current occupation: Logistics coordinator.

“Aren’t these the kinds of questions you ask when someone has a brain injury or something?” Kyle asked. He craned his head around to see Jordan. “And why is Shari asking them instead of you? Are you a doctor?”

“I know it seems a little strange, Mr. Brooks,” Jordan said. “Please just bear with us for another couple of minutes while we get some baseline readings.”

“Baseline readings of what?”

Shari sat on the edge of Kyle’s bed. “Babe. Just . . . be patient, okay? We’re supposed to do this a certain way even though it’s confusing.”

“Okay. I feel pretty good though. Nothing is sore. What happened, some kind of accident?”

“Now,” Jordan said.

Shari put a hand on Kyle’s chest. The small weight of it calmed him a little. “What are some of the last things you remember?”

He considered this. He remembered walking through Monument Square, smells of food cooking, foreign music, languages he didn’t understand. He was angry about something, his guts in turmoil, but he tried not to pay attention because he had to stay focused. . . .

What do you think, lilies?

Lilies are cool, sure. Long as it isn’t roses.

“I remember being in Monument Square,” he said. “I remember hearing somebody—a couple, a man and a woman—talking about flowers.” Shari got a strange look on her face. She looked over at Jordan.

“Keep going, Kyle,” Jordan said. “Talk it through.”

“Then . . . shit,” Kyle said.

He remembered the bomb going off, the sound so huge it wasn’t even really a sound, like a physical blow straight to his brain. Then he remembered lying on his side, seeing blood and bodies, smoke swirling up from the base of the old Civil War statue in the middle of the square . . .

“Someone set off a bomb,” he said. “Is that—”

He looked at his arms and hands. No cuts or burns. Also no scars. Not the scar on his elbow from a bike accident six years before. Or the tattoo on the inside of his left forearm, 06-18-41, from his parents’ death four years ago. He touched his ears. Neither was pierced.

“Wait a sec,” Kyle said.

Then he remembered. ResuRx was a recompiling clinic. “Shari, what—”

“Back up,” Jordan said. “You said you remember the bomb?”

“Yeah, it was horrible, there were people lying all over the square, like . . .” he trailed off, not wanting to give the horror life by describing it.

“That’s—no, Kyle. You couldn’t remember the bomb. I was there. I saw you. You were . . .” She closed her eyes and heaved a shuddering sigh. “You couldn’t remember the bomb.”

“How is that possible?” Shari asked. Kyle looked up at her and saw she wasn’t talking to him.

He looked over at Jordan, who was still tapping and swiping, but now he had a worried frown instead of his previous mask of professional focus. “Looks like we got a little glitch here,” the nurse said.

The word drove itself right into Kyle’s gut, turning into a knot of fear. He started breathing hard. “Glitch, what the fuck, Shari, was I—”

“The bomb killed you, Kyle. This is a recompiling clinic. But your last backup . . . calm down, babe. When was your last backup?”

“Like a month ago, we had a little extra money so I did one. Right after we decided to get married. I didn’t want to lose that if . . . well, if anything happened.” Backups were expensive. Before that one, Kyle hadn’t backed up in maybe a year? He couldn’t remember for sure.

A smile ghosted across her face and was gone. “But you remember things after that, too?” She looked at Jordan. “Could he have overheard someone talking or something after the download but before he woke up?”

Jordan shook his head. “Nope. We do full sensory deprivation until the download is complete to avoid contamination. I’m looking at the record here, and all the protocols were observed and witnessed.”

“They sure as hell weren’t,” Kyle said. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be . . . fuck, what kind of glitch are we talking about?” Am I even me? He couldn’t ask that question out loud.

“I’m working on understanding that now,” Jordan said. “You have to understand, this is very rare, but occasionally there are transmission errors, or corruptions in the storage protocols.”

He was already barely able to grapple with the idea that he’d been killed and recompiled. But if he’d been killed and recompiled and now it wasn’t even all him . . . Kyle couldn’t breathe. “Who else is in my head?” Kyle panted.

Shari took his hand. He saw her wince as he squeezed, and remembered the bandages covering her hand. “Babe.” There were tears on her face, but she was solid, strong like she always was. “Kyle. Breathe with me. Breathe.” He tried, but he couldn’t unlock his muscles. “Babe, it’s okay. We’ll get through this.”

“Emotional hyperarousal can compromise the early stages of reintegration,” Jordan said. “I’m going to give him something.”

Kyle started to fade. He kept his gaze on Shari’s face, feeling a belated surge of relief that whatever had happened to him, she was okay . . . but behind that was a strange unease. There was something wrong about her, something that didn’t fit. He drifted away before he could pin down exactly what.

*   *   *

Jordan was still there—or there again—when he woke up and so was a doctor. She was swiping through his reports, and when she saw Kyle was awake, she said, “Mr. Brooks, I’m Doctor Origi. Jordan here has given me all the technical updates,” she added with a nod at the tech, “and I’ve spoken to Ms. Rivera about your initial post-compilation orientation progress.”

Kyle looked around. “Where is Shari?”

“She stepped out to talk to family members. She’ll be right back.” The doctor did a physical exam, testing Kyle’s reflexes and looking into his eyes. “Physically you’re right where you should be. The muscle memories you have shouldn’t conflict too much with your physical state. Sometimes they do when an older person is recompiled into a younger body.”

Shari stepped back in. Doctor Origi smiled at her. “He’s up.”

“Is he ready for what you told me, do you think?”

“I’m right here,” Kyle said.

“He’s ready,” Doctor Origi said. “Kyle, Jordan has already informed you that during the course of downloading your backup, some corruption occurred.”

“Yeah.”

The way Doctor Origi explained it, Kyle’s glitch involved an overlay, a doubling of certain parts of the data transmission due to corruption of the source file. So Kyle had received his entire backup—a complete version of his personality and memories dating from about six weeks before the bombing in Monument Square. The problem was, he had also received an unknown amount of extraneous data—the other persona.

“Because the glitch didn’t become apparent until you woke up,” she explained, “we had already deleted the existing backup according to law.” It was a felony to download the same persona into two or more different bodies, since duplication raised intractable questions about which one could vote, own property, et cetera — so the law decreed that as soon as a clean download was accomplished, the backup must be scrubbed.

“How did the source get corrupted?” Shari wanted to know. “That seems like kind of a big problem.”

“We don’t know. ResuRx is a recompilation and implantation clinic. We contract data storage and security to an external vendor. It’s my understanding that they are investigating, but . . .” Doctor Origi looked from Shari to Kyle to see if they wanted to pursue the topic further. Kyle didn’t. He was still trying to get his head around the fact that he was carrying someone else’s memories and couldn’t get a clean backup because his had been corrupted. So he was now, permanently, not who he had been before.

A weird surge of glee rippled through him and he grinned. “What’s so funny?” Shari asked.

“Nothing,” Kyle said. “I don’t know.” But he had a hard time clamping down a wave of giggles. Doctor Origi and Jordan observed. “Unusual or intense—or unusually intense—emotional responses are common early in the orientation process,” Doctor Origi commented.

She went on to explain that Kyle’s brain was currently grappling with the duplication and making choices about which version of certain events was the correct one. Overall she seemed relatively unconcerned, reassuring Kyle and Shari that since Kyle’s download was complete, Kyle himself would gradually prioritize his own genuine experiences because they caused fewer conflicts with the uncorrupted parts of the download. “You’re going to have what we call conflict fugues,” she said. “These occur even in clean downloads, because of little transmission errors and the shock of implantation. What happens is you’ll just get lost in thought for a little while. Your mind will wander; you might experience unusually intense emotional reactions. That’s your cerebral cortex sifting through a bunch of different experiences and making executive decisions about how to fit them all together. Which ones to keep, which ones to discard, and so forth. Like I said, everyone gets them, but you’re going to get more of them over the next couple of weeks, until your brain has settled which neural pathways and formed memories it wants to integrate.” She glanced over at Shari with an encouraging smile. “It’ll probably be harder on you than on Kyle. Bear with him a little, okay?”

On the other hand, neither the doctor nor Jordan the tech could answer their questions about how much of Kyle’s backup was duplicated and therefore corrupt. They also couldn’t say how Kyle would be able to distinguish between his experiences and the overlaid foreign memories. “It all happens subconsciously—or pre-consciously,” Doctor Origi said. “You can direct the process the same way you work through any confusing set of memories. You know how sometimes you’re not sure whether you’re remembering something right, and then you try to relate the two competing versions of events to other things and you see which one fits? That process will still work.”

“What about conflicts that don’t feel like conflicts? What happens if the brain has already made a choice before Kyle consciously knows there’s a conflict?”

“That we can’t do much about,” Doctor Origi said. “But . . . I mean, I hope this doesn’t sound flip, but you’ll never know about those, so maybe don’t worry about them? You’re going to be changed. I would be lying if I said otherwise. But your consciousness can manage that change, and if you surround yourself with things that are familiar, you’ll come through just fine.”

After running a baseline cortical assessment, Doctor Origi scheduled a two-week consult. Then she examined Shari’s wounds, wrote her a prescription for pain meds, and sent them home.

 

*   *   *

2

Kyle found his mind wandering as Shari drove. Something about the sunlight through the car window put him in mind of a kitchen table in a place he remembered but didn’t think he’d ever lived. There was a woman there and the jingle of a dog’s collar. A sense of belonging, them against the world . . .

“Kyle, you okay?”

When he looked up, they weren’t where he’d expected. Instead of the one-block stretch of Taylor Street, thick with multi-family homes clustered around a playground, he saw a different neighborhood. Single-family houses, yards, big trees.

“Where are we?”

“Oh my God, I didn’t think of that. You had your last backup before we moved, babe. When we were still on Taylor Street.”

He was starting to put it together. They’d had the first floor of a three-family house, a little garden in the back and kids trooping up and down the sidewalks morning and afternoon because of the school around the corner. Kyle remembered that. He remembered proposing to her there, in the kitchen one Saturday morning, smells of coffee and toast in the air.

But that wasn’t what he’d been remembering in the car a few moments before. He described it to her, leaving the woman out. He—no, his passenger—felt tender and protective toward her, and Kyle didn’t want to try to explain that to Shari.

“That must be the place the other person lived in. Remember what the nurse said. You need to recognize those memories and steer yourself away from them. Your brain is making new pathways, and it’s going to try to merge everything. The more you think about you and your real memories, the better you’re going to be until we find out if you can get a fresh download.”

Even though old backups were supposed to be destroyed when an individual was downloaded into a recompiled body, ResuRx was checking to see if there might be an accidentally archived copy of Kyle’s backup somewhere. Shari was optimistic, and Kyle absorbed some of her optimism. Maybe everything would turn out all right, even though their insurance company had preemptively denied any claim to a clean download on the grounds that their policy permitted only one recompilation per calendar year. So even if ResuRx did turn up a copy of Kyle’s backup, they were out of pocket if they wanted a fresh download, and neither of them had anything like the kind of money to do that. She taught fourth grade, and he did logistics management for a grocery distributor.

Shari walked him through the house—their house—and Kyle started to feel better at the sight of all his stuff. Their stuff. Physical evidence of their lives together. He could figure it out. With some therapy and some help, he could preserve himself, and gradually the invasive memories would fade away.

The thought made his stomach upset. He stopped and closed his eyes right as Shari was opening the door to their bedroom. “Kyle. Babe.”

“I’m okay,” he said, getting control again. The initial nausea was gone, but now his stomach was knotted with fear at the way the other persona—fragmentary, terrified, and angry, walled in by Kyle’s consciousness—was still able to provoke such strong reactions in his body.

“You don’t look okay. You want to lie down for a while?”

“No, I want to see the house.” Forward, he thought. I have to remake myself before I get remade.

Nausea rose again, and he was lucky to remember where the bathroom was.

*   *   *

He slept, and when he woke up the sun was going down. Shari heard him stir and came out of the kitchen. “Hungry?”

“Yeah. My stomach feels better.”

She brought bowls of sancocho—her mother’s recipe—and they sat on the couch flipping through options on the TV without ever settling on anything. “Who did it?” Kyle wondered out loud.

“Well, the cops aren’t saying, but it was an African food festival. Not too hard to figure out, is it?”

“Is that why we were there?”

“Yeah, you couldn’t stop talking about all the kofta you were going to eat.” Shari smiled at the memory, then the smile broke, and she started to cry. “I’m sorry, this is—”

“Hey, no, don’t apologize. I mean, in some ways this is harder on you. I didn’t see you die.”

Stuttering images of the bombing’s aftermath flitted through Kyle’s mind. Maybe he hadn’t seen Shari die, but he’d seen death, all right.

No, he hadn’t. The other person had. And he’d been . . .

Happy?

Kyle couldn’t believe that. He was misinterpreting something, or the memories were corrupt, their emotional resonance mangled and scrambled. He refused those memories. It was his mind . . . at least for now.

“What are you thinking about?” Shari asked.

“Sorry, babe,” Kyle said. “I got confused for a minute.”

“The other one?”

“Yeah. He’s . . . I can’t tell whether he’s just confused or what, but he just hates everything. It’s kind of hard to deal with.”

“I bet. You said he. Do you know who he is?”

Kyle shook his head. “Right now it’s just a bunch of impressions kind of drifting around. Once in a while something, like . . . locks itself into place.”

“That fits with what they said in the clinic.”

“Yeah. But it also means something else was overwritten. I’m . . . Shari, how long before I’m not me?”

“You’re always you. You lived through something terrible. How could you not change? Remember what they said, babe. You’re all in there. There’s just some extra stuff. It’s going to take some time for your brain to sort out what belongs and what doesn’t. I mean, think of the people who couldn’t afford a backup, or couldn’t afford to get recompiled. From that perspective, I’m glad we only lost a month,” Shari said. Kyle admired her ability to put the best face on things, but he wasn’t sure that was all they had lost.

Shari went to bed early because she had to be at school by 7:30. Kyle was on leave from his job, so he sat up late scrolling through the headlines to get a sense of what he’d missed during the month since he’d backed up. Things seemed pretty much the same, baseball scores and celebrity absurdities against the backdrop of slow-motion disintegration of the social order he’d known when he was a kid. The militia movements out west were fighting over water and massacring refugees; there were riots in Louisiana and South Florida over forced relocations. Catastrophic floods in the upper Mississippi Valley. White supremacist terror attacks in Spokane and Boise . . . and Portland, Maine.

Terrorism, he thought. The FBI and local police were saying it out loud. He thought of Shari. She was Dominican on one side and Cuban on the other. Whoever set off that bomb wanted her dead.

Kyle watched a news segment on the Monument Square bombing and saw his name among those killed, along with eight others. Kyle lingered over this, fixated by an emotional surge he at first thought was just voyeurism. Then he realized it was something much worse, a kind of vengeful pleasure welling up from a part of him he hadn’t realized was there.

He shut the tablet off and sat in the dark. That’s not me, he thought. That’s the other one.

But it had sure felt like him. He looked around the room, seeing the dim outlines of familiar furniture in an unfamiliar room. Kind of like his brain.

Time to go to bed, Kyle thought. Tomorrow maybe things will be better.

*   *   *

He came to his senses on the front porch with no idea how he’d gotten there. His watch said it was 3:26 a.m. There was nobody on the street. Sometimes wayward teenagers hung out in the playground midway down the block, but tonight—

No. He wasn’t on Taylor Street. This was their new place. They lived on Richardson now, in an actual house.

Shit. He’d been sleepwalking. Was that the other person?

An image drifted through his head, smeary and fleeting. A toddler on the bricks of Monument Square, spilling out of a baby backpack. Eyes closed, mouth open, dust in pale streaks on his skin and in the black springs of his hair. An adult’s arm still twisted through one strap of the backpack. Blood dark on the bricks.

One more maggot won’t grow up to be a roach.

Kyle twitched and his eyes snapped into focus. God, what kind of a person—

The thought had come from inside his mind.

He leaned his elbows on the porch railing and rested his face in his hands. Imagine dying, he thought, and that’s one of your last thoughts . . . and now it’s one of my memories. Because he did remember it, and to his shame a part of him had felt a visceral satisfaction. That was the other person.

Brian. That was his name. Another neural pathway knitting itself into the gooey matrix that made Kyle Brooks who he was, and who he would be. Brian.

“You’re a fucking asshole racist, Brian,” Kyle said into his hands. “Sooner you’re gone, overwritten, forgotten, whatever . . . sooner the better. I hope nobody recompiles you.”

The screen door creaked behind him. “Kyle? Who are you talking to?”

He stood and turned around as Shari came out onto the porch. “Hey, babe. Sorry, I couldn’t sleep.” He was scared to tell her about the sleepwalking. He’d never done it before.

“Because of . . . ?”

“Yeah. I’m having weird dreams.”

“I bet.” She sat on the porch swing and patted the cushion next to her. Kyle sat, and she tucked herself under his extended arm. They swung gently, feeling the night breeze. “Well, dreams are how the brain organizes itself every night, right? God knows your brain has a lot to do on that front.”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “You got that right.”

“By the way,” she said, “that was us talking about flowers.”

It took him a moment to figure out what she was talking about. Then he remembered. Lilies. Someone else talking about lilies. But it was him and Shari. Something wrenched loose in Kyle’s head as he tried to come to grips with the idea that he had only someone else’s memories of something he had done. Remembering his own life from the outside, as Brian wormed his way in.

All he could say was, “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Shari said. She looked out over the street, her gaze losing focus as she drifted into the memory. “We never did finish that conversation.”

 

*   *   *

3

Around nine the next morning, Kyle was looking at old family pictures and more recent videos of him with Shari. Doctor Origi had recommended this as a way of cementing his personal history, fortifying it against the intrusions of the foreign persona. Brian. It felt good, made him feel a little more whole.

The doorbell rang. He got up to answer it, but Shari was already there.

Two men in suits showed them badges. “I’m Detective Kwon,” one of them said. “This is Detective Murphy. We’re investigating the bombing in Monument Square. Mind answering a few questions?”

*   *   *

In the time between Shari opening the door and the cops stepping over the threshold into the living room, Kyle’s mind slipped a gear, and a flood of memories coursed through his consciousness.

*   *   *

Daddy, what does ZOG mean?

Watching the hair grow back over the tattoo on his scalp, but he would know it was there

White genocide, man. The media won’t talk about it but it’s happening

In a basement among his friends, doing important work. Marie was there. Everyone wanted her, but she was his. In the world to come they would outbreed the mud people

Walking fast on a side street, the backpack heavy as destiny over his shoulder

Rage at the foreign smells, foreign voices, under a statue to Civil War dead, where it all went wrong to begin with

Fuckin’ animals everywhere, like Maine is fuckin’ Mogadishu all of a sudden

Leave it right there, no one will notice

RAHOWA

Then everything was fire

*   *   *

“Kyle,” Shari said.

He looked around, wondering who she was talking to. Who was Kyle?

Then he snapped back into himself. He was Kyle. But he was also someone else . . . Brian Rudiger. And Brian Rudiger wasn’t just another casualty of the bombing.

He was the bomber.

 

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Copyright © 2021. Glitch by Alex Irvine

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