Warped & Wired: Chapter 1
Mlina Cruis liked normal. Normal was good. It was explainable. Trustworthy. This however, was not normal.
She stood on a large rock outcropping that gazed across the Pacific Ocean. Or at least that’s where she had been two seconds ago; now her vision was flickering, phasing in and out like a hazy mist. She began to make out two vaguely familiar people standing in front of her. As her vision cleared, she found herself in a steel-walled room that looked like a computer graveyard. Every imaginable electronic device or component she could think of lay scattered in about five pieces around the room. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. Was she dreaming? If so, why could she still smell the salty air and feel the rock-pocked ground beneath her?
“Mitchellina? Mitchellina, can you hear me?” A soft feminine voice bounced through her ears.
“Of course she can hear us,” a male voice answered. Mlina stepped toward the people, but they didn’t move any closer. She stepped forward again, almost losing her balance. Again, everything slid forward along with her, keeping her eternally three feet away from the people.
“What’s going on?” Mlina managed to ask. “Who are you?”
“Don’t be afraid.” The woman smiled assuringly. “Everything’s all right.”
“Yes, this message is being fed into the auditory and visual centers of your brain through my ingenious—”
“I still don’t like this,” the woman interrupted. “She’s not some kind of computer.”
“I know, but we already discussed this,” the man answered. “It was necessary. Now can we get on with it? You’re wasting memory.”
“All right.” The woman turned to Mlina. “Now that you’re eighteen, I think you should know the truth.”
Eighteen? She wasn’t eighteen yet. She wouldn’t be for another year or so. Before she could point this out, the man started talking again.
“I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay with Uncle Albert. We hadn’t planned on leaving you, but—”
“But it was becoming too dangerous,” the woman interrupted.
“Yes, we had to keep you and my invention safe. Hopefully you aren’t aware of it, but you…static…serious…static…rain…static…vention…”
Mlina’s vision and hearing blurred again, before snapping back into focus. The sights and sounds of her jungle island washed over her like a tsunami. Looking down, she almost tumbled headlong off the sheer cliff and onto the rocky reef below.
Mlina stumbled back from the edge. Turning, she saw Mom running toward her, panic clear in her voice and face. She grabbed Mlina and jerked her further from the cliff’s edge.
“Mlina? Mlina, can you hear me?” Why did everyone suddenly think she was deaf? Mom grasped her face in her hands and gazed into Mlina’s eyes.
“Yeah Mom,” Mlina replied, slightly dazed.
“Are you all right? What happened? What were you doing so close to the cliff?”
Mlina had to think for a moment to decide which question to answer first. When she finally decided which one to answer, she heard Dad rapidly approaching.
“Did it happen again? Is she all right?”
Mlina broke away from Mom’s grasp. “Why are you both talking like there’s something wrong with me?”
“You just about walked off that cliff without even looking,” Mom replied.
Okay, she had a point. Having lived on an uninhabited jungle island her whole life, Mlina was a very agile and skillful climber. She didn’t just walk off a cliff because she wasn’t paying attention. But she wasn’t sure if she wanted to tell her parents about…whatever it was she had just experienced. She didn’t know if they would understand; she didn’t even understand it.
“I…thought I saw…people,” Mlina said hesitantly. “And, some kind of…room.”
Dad sighed, rubbing his beard. “I thought we were over this.”
“Over what?” Mlina asked. “What are you talking about?”
Now it was Mom’s turn to sigh. “You’ve had these episodes before. When you were much younger, you’d frequently have nightmares or hallucinations. We thought you’d grown out of it.”
Mlina frowned. That explained it. Sort of. It still didn’t explain what this hallucination meant, if anything, or why her parents didn’t tell her about them. Obviously they could be kind of dangerous if she wasn’t expecting it. She didn’t remember anything about hallucinating when she was younger. Heck, she could hardly remember anything from her childhood. The earliest thing she remembered was finding a troop of spider monkeys when she was seven.
“Why don’t we go back to the house and you can lie down.” Mom took her by the hand, leading her down the rocky slope.
Mlina sat up in her bed. She couldn’t rest. The strange feeling that she’d seen the people from her hallucination before still bothered her. Where could she have seen them? She had never even been off the island. What they said also didn’t make sense. Uncle Albert? Her eighteenth birthday?
“What is going on?” she asked aloud.
Perhaps I can be of assistance? an unfamiliar voice asked.
Mlina whirled around. Her room was empty. “Who’s there?”
I am not there, I am here. The voice had a mechanical, but slightly feminine monotone.
“Where?” Mlina turned round in the opposite direction.
Would you please stop spinning? the voice asked. You are making me dizzy.
Mlina grabbed at her head, feeling around for…anything. Then she stopped herself. She must be hallucinating again. The voice, the voice sounded so real. But so had her hallucination. “Look, I know this isn’t real. So would you please just be quiet so I can get some sleep?”
There was no response. All Mlina could hear was the soothing chorus of jungle noise. Relaxing, Mlina sank onto her pillow and immediately fell asleep.
Images. Words. Incoherent phrases and pictures danced and swirled around Mlina’s unconscious mind, making her head spin in dizzying circles.
Her eyes flew open. She jerked upright. Everything looked like it always did. She glanced at her solar powered alarm clock. She had slept for…two minutes? How could she have fallen asleep for just two minutes? It wasn’t the next day was it?
“One new message,” a familiar, but still startlingly electronic voice announced. Mlina looked over at her desk. Her laptop’s screen was on and flashing the “new email” message. Mlina got up and walked over to her computer. She tapped on the inbox to retrieve the message. The subject line stopped her cold: “You are not Mlina Cruis.” Mlina slowly reached her hand out and tapped on the message. A news headline instantly appeared in the view window. “Famous Scientist Lost in Hurricane.” Mlina scrolled down until she came to a photo. It was the man and woman from her hallucination. She read the story underneath the picture:
“World famous cyberneticist, Daven Kihd, and his wife, Beth, an accomplished brain surgeon, were officially declared lost today. The cargo ship they had boarded from the West Coast sank somewhere in the Pacific during hurricane Allonia. Rescue teams have searched extensively for weeks, but to no avail. Their seven year-old daughter, Mitchellina, has also been reported missing and is feared lost as well.”
Another photo was imbedded within the text. Mlina collapsed into her chair and stared at the screen.
The photo was of her.
Younger and paler yes, but it was her. Same blonde hair, same face, same…eyes. The eyes clinched it. How many people could claim to have dual-colored eyes? But there they were: ocean-blue left eye, lavender-colored right eye.
Anger and confusion began to surge through Mlina. Why? Why had they hidden this from her? To not tell her about her hallucinations was one thing, but to lie outright to her about who she was and where she’d come from. Was anything else they told her a lie? How could she know? How could she ever trust her parents again? They obviously weren’t in the habit of being honest with her.
Mlina suddenly felt cold despite the fact she was in a tropical jungle. They weren’t her parents. She was alone. Her parents were dead. She was supposed to be dead. She didn’t belong anywhere, to anyone.
Mlina stopped herself, reining in her wild imagination. She was jumping to way too many conclusions. She had no idea where this email had come from. The address line just said ‘NICI’. Maybe it was someone’s idea of a practical joke. If so, it was downright creepy that it fit her so well.
She needed more info. She wasn’t going to let some cracker with a twisted sense of humor ruin her life without sufficient evidence.
She jabbed the link to go to the actual news site. A box popped up informing her that access was denied. Mlina frowned. Denied? She had never been denied access to a website before. She opened up a different window and typed the web link into the search bar manually. The virtual roadblock appeared again. She tapped over to a search engine and typed out the keywords. Again her access was restricted.
“Why am I being denied?” Mlina pounded her palms against her forehead.
Allow me. It was the mechanical female voice from earlier.
Mlina jumped. Her vision was suddenly overlaid with a translucent computer interface. Windows flipped back and forth, characters randomly appeared and disappeared in front of her. Mlina closed her eyes but the images wouldn’t leave. She tried plastering her hands against her eyes. Still the images flashed. “What’s going on?” she asked aloud to no one in particular.
Finally the images fled, leaving Mlina to stare at her computer screen. It now showed the news article in full, with related headlines and unrelated advertisements in the sidebars. Mlina lightly tapped a sidebar that caught her attention: “Renowned Scientist Accused of Child Experimentation.” The article went on to say that Daven Kihd had been suspected of conducting harmful experiments on his daughter and that Social Services was conducting a thorough investigation.
Mlina sat back, her head boiling with fresh anger and confusion. Why didn’t her…parents…tell her about any of this? She guessed it was possible they didn’t know about this Daven Kihd; but that shouldn’t stop them from telling her they weren’t her real parents. She deserved to know the truth, didn’t she?
Her bedroom door swung open, knocking against her chair.
Mlina whirled on her mother, knocking the metal chair under the desk in the process. “Why?” she asked, barely able to control her tone.
Her mother looked at her in confusion. Then she saw the computer. Her eyes went wider than sand dollars. “Oh, honey. I’m so sorry.”
They did know.
Mlina’s anger boiled over. Without a word, she swept past her mother and stormed out the door.
Mlina stomped across the beach, rocks and shells scattering ahead of her.
Why? How could they lie to her all these years? Who were they? For all Mlina knew now, they could be her aunt and uncle. If that were true, Mlina wanted a new family. But her hallucination, if that meant anything, sounded like she should know who she was living with. Not one explanation she thought of made sense.
Mlina turned off the beach and beat her way into the thick jungle underbrush. After a mile of running, climbing, and crawling, Mlina reached the small crag of rock wedged into the side of the island’s volcano-turned-empty-crater. She sank against the warm rock face, pulling her knees close to her chest. The physical exertion and warm sun cooled her temper slightly. But unexplainable questions still threatened to ignite her anger once again. She loved her life on this secluded Pacific island. The weather was almost always as beautiful as the environment itself; the animals made wonderful pets, her…parents…were kind and loving. Why did everything have to be ruined?
“Why?” she asked the open air. “Why now?”
I believe I can offer some explanation.
Mlina shrieked. The sound shot across the rocks, rebounding off every corner and crag.
“Why can’t you be quiet? Why? Why? Why?” Mlina pounded her head with each word. Hallucinations could be explained. Her adoptive parents’ deceit could, somehow, be explained. This…this…hallucination, or voice, that kept talking back to her… That could not be explained.
If you’ll just be quiet for a minute, I’ll try and explain, the mechanical voice shouted.
Mlina shrank back into the cleft. Maybe if she just let this hallucination play out it would get out of her system and quit bothering her.
“All right. Talk. Who are you? Where are you?”
I am the Neural Infrastructure Computer Interface, or NICI. And I am right here, in your brain.
Mlina groaned. She already knew that. What she didn’t understand was why this hallucination was talking back to her.
The voice continued. I am part of the Neural Net Matrix installed in your brain.
“Wait,” Mlina held her hands up to stop the voice, even though no one was visible. “You’re saying I have a…computer…in my brain?”
Wonderful. So in essence, she was talking to herself, literally. “How did it…you…get there?”
You’re father, Daven Kihd, created me and implanted the matrix within your brain.
Mlina was speechless. NICI. This thing had sent that email with the news article. Worse than that, the news article was right? Her own father had used her as a guinea pig for his experiments? The news caught her so off guard she barely could get the next word out. “W-why?”
I’m not sure. I was not fully activated when he installed the matrix into your brain. I do know however, that he made a fatal error when he made the final installation.
“What do you mean?” Mlina sat up.
I was set to operate in a virtual dormant mode until you were eighteen. I was then to completely activate, allowing you to make use of my capabilities.
“Oookaaay. So what’s the problem?”
Rather than setting to activate, my program is set to completely de-activate on your eighteenth birthday.
“So? What does that mean? I won’t have to listen to you?” Mlina asked hopefully.
I’m afraid it’s more serious than that. Since my matrix is completely integrated into your brain, a total shutdown would cause permanent mental damage. Possibly death.
It took every ounce of self-control Mlina had to not scream, cry, and beat a hole into the rock. This day had the makings of a classic disaster. Now, not only was she an orphan, with a computerized brain, that talked back to her, but she was going to die when she turned eighteen. Less than a year away. Could this day get any worse?