The Flat-Faced Man
// VEIL Initiative
His friends called him Boxer. That's the name he was known by to anyone but his closest family. In his business, no one went by their real name, and in this case his name fit well; his face was rough and flat like he'd been punched one too many times. He also had a short, stocky build, so one might look at him and think he'd actually had his share of battles in a boxing ring.
Tonight though, that abrasive exterior faded, and a different man appeared: a kind, loving father. It was the holiday season again, and he was home with his family. Even if only for a day or two, the darkness that shrouded him the rest of the year seemed to fade away.
His shoulders relaxed as he sunk into his chair, reveling in his son and daughter's excitement. Although almost teenagers now, this day brought out their silly and boisterous childishness. As the two ran around excitedly opening presents, Boxer watched his wife's face as she smiled at them. Her face glowed with pure love.
He sighed in contentment. It was this yearly occasion that kept him grounded, otherwise he'd be entirely lost in the nature of his work.
Boxer was in the business of Artificial Intelligence— a black market business. Not the kind of AIs people program, not Dumb AIs, tasked with menial jobs and routines that humans couldn't be bothered with. His was the business of real AIs, Smart AIs. The kind of AI that can only be formed from a human subject - at the cost of their life.
Long ago, at the time of Great War, Smart AIs were only created for military purposes. Of course, the top secret and highly sensitive procedures were inaccessible to the general public. But when the Cognitive Impression Modeling process and technology was opened to the public, consumer AIs soon became available for regular citizens. At first they were expensive, but soon non-military specialists adopted and improved the CIM process in their own private ways; tweaked to make their AIs better than others' for sale on the market. Competition made them more affordable for everyone, although cheaper didn't necessarily mean better or safer.
During this time, "anti-ghosting" groups began popping up worldwide. They picketed at CIM labs where humans went in and software came out. Theirs became a battle over the value of natural human life. CIM specialists were labeled as murderers because they believed that Smart AIs produced from human brains could no longer be considered human, nor alive. In their eyes, every person who never came out was a victim of murder.
Boxer got lost in his thoughts again. His children were finishing getting ready for bed and his wife leaned over to give him a kiss as she walked to the kitchen. It was time for his walk. This was his time now, to reflect on his year, the good and the bad in his line of work, his regrets, his memories - the faces that came and went... so many faces.
This was his routine: a slow meander alone through the urban jungle where they lived. He pulled his hood over his head, and stepped out his door into the street. He tried to block out the sounds of the automated ads at storefronts activating as he walked by - each one controlled by an AI telling him to buy or invest, telling him how much he needed this product or that.
Boxer looked up. Everywhere he was surrounded by towers and bridges, high and low, layers upon layers of businesses and homes. In this eastern side of the city at this time of night, there weren't many people out. He saw only a few stragglers, who passed him quickly as they hurried along, keeping their eyes to themselves.
He was so lost in his thoughts that he barely heard the sniffle in the alleyway just ahead of him. The sound made him pause for a few seconds. Yes, someone was there. He listened closer and stepped forward cautiously. Someone was mumbling to themselves, but it didn't sound like a grown man. He took another step forward and heard whimpering words, numbers. Boxer couldn't quite make out what was being mumbled, but what he heard was unforgettable - reminding him of a state he'd been in long ago.
He stepped in from around the corner to find the source of the whimpering; here was a young boy, probably about 9 years old, crouched and covered in old blankets beside a garbage disposal. Shivering, damp and cold, he was muttering unintelligibly. Boxer sized up the boy; these were definitely the signs of an overdose.
Boxer had seen these symptoms enough recently to know that this was a drug for which the side effects could be irreversible if not treated immediately. It was a drug that Boxer himself had known intimately many years earlier; he had only broken his addiction with the help of specialists, introduced to him thanks to connections, friends of his employer known only as Scorpio. Yes, he was sure of it - this drug, which he knew only too well, was warping the brain of this boy.
He wanted to comfort him. He crouched down in front of him, looking over his face, and did the first thing that came to mind - what he and his children did to make each other smile: he pushed his nose up and stuck out his tongue, making a funny pig's face. It always made his children laugh. Here, though, it had no effect. The boy was too far gone and didn't seem to even notice him. He returned to rambling off numbers and equations. Boxer's heart sank.
Part of him had pity and badly wanted to take this lost child and hold him to keep him warm. Another part of him, his business side, was telling him that this boy could be a prime candidate for an AI. He was torn.
As he knelt down and looked into the boy's face, for a brief moment he saw his son in the boy's eyes – not the son of his that was at this very moment sleeping soundly in his bed, but the other son who had succumbed to an alien illness just over ten years ago. Despite years of searching for a cure, with endless research, and seeking help of specialists, there'd been no way to save him.
That was what had pushed him over the edge, when he had turned to the drug for relief - a drug drenched in social and moral controversy.
It was an intellectual stimulant, designed to boost the mental capacity of the human mind. This drug had been developed by scientists funded by groups that valued the natural human brain. They believed that if software- AI born of the human mind- was capable of so much more, then so also was the human mind itself - it was simply a capability that had to be unlocked. They believed that if the human mind could not keep up with this new digital stage of human evolution, then humanity would be overridden by AI, converted to AI. And so, after much experimentation and research, this medical achievement (a breakthrough to some) was reached.
It was a very powerful drug coupled with enormous risk; some brains would accept it, others would reject it. But not right away. Its function was to alter brain cells, rewrite and improve the natural neural network within the human mind. Over time, with extended exposure, the neural network would improve, new pathways, synapses, and axons would appear, brain cells would even duplicate themselves. The effect was a vastly improved intellect with faster thought processing and awareness. The downfall? Only a small fraction of users would know its success.
These enhanced "Natural Intellects", or NIs as they were called, often turned to gambling, competitions and contests of intelligence. But regular human opponents weren't enough. They'd compete with Smart AIs. Just like underground street fighting, people would bet on which competitor was smarter in a battle of brains - the Human NI, or the Smart AI.
The rest, the unlucky ones, had brains that could not handle the improvements this drug introduced, and slowly deteriorated. The more the drug was used in hopes of success, the greater the chance that the brain would crash and completely shut down. Like an engine getting ahead of itself, the brain would stall. The effect was just what Boxer saw in this boy in the alley. A jumbled mess of rampant thoughts, taking over the conscious mind uncontrolled, with no restraint.
This had been him, years ago. Boxer had turned to this drug mostly in hope to find a cure for his son, but plagued by doubt and fear, becoming guilt and grief, as he was unable to find a cure. To raise funds, he turned to the underground. That was when he met Scorpio - a tall slim man with a permanently bloodshot right eye and a tattoo of a scorpion around his neck. After doing some research of his own on Boxer, he'd bet on him in a match one night. Boxer had won the face-off - and later that night his brain shut down.
Scorpio found him in much the same condition as the boy in this alley. But he'd looked past his state, seeing opportunity and great potential with him as an employee. He took him in. Boxer was looked after and treated, and eventually rehabilitated, breaking out of the addiction. Slowly, he was able to cope. His was a long recovery as his brain fought to re-balance itself to the best of its ability.
Now, Boxer was free, but with that came a great indebtedness to Scorpio. His underground establishment became Boxer's new home. He was made to believe that Scorpio was in the business of saving lives. Rather than watch people succumb beyond hope to the dangerous addiction to which he nearly lost his life, this was an opportunity to save them by allowing them to live on far beyond their natural life. What Boxer couldn't have known then, however, was the true nature of Scorpio's black market business — and who he would be "saving."
Boxer looked again into the boy's eyes. So young. A child that hadn't yet experienced life, and one who shouldn't deserve to die. This boy certainly didn't look new to the streets. Was anyone looking for him? Would he be missed? Likely not. The only way to save this boy would be a process that would bring a quicker to end to his suffering natural life.
Boxer pulled out his chatter and opened a comm with his wife back home. He didn't explain any details, but said he'd be back home a little later as something had come up. Then he contacted Scorpio. A time and place were arranged. Boxer gathered the boy up in his arms, and made the trek to the rendezvous location. An unknown man was waiting for him when he arrived with the boy.
The deed was done. Boxer sighed; even on this day, he couldn't escape his job. He turned and headed home in solemn silence. As he approached his old, rugged building, he paused. Stepping into the shadows, he pulled out his chatter again.
Bypassing a few simple security protocols he connected to a different source, then opened a new channel. "Hello... are you there?" he tentatively asked. "If you are, I... just want to let know how much I love you."
The clear voice of an AI responded, "Hello, father."
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