Fungal Halo

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Virtual Assistant

As you get ready to leave, you spot her again out of the corner of your eye. She’s sitting in the kitchen. When you turn your head to get a good look at her, she’s no longer there.

You shake your head. No, she’s gone. Dead, if such a concept applies to something like her.

On your way in to the office, you catch yourself idly scratching the scar at the base of your skull. You jerk your hand away. That’s a bad habit you really need to stop doing. The scar is feeling irritated again, and you’re just hoping it’s not getting infected or something.

It seems like such a short while ago you had the procedure done.

You were an early adopter of a new generation of virtual assistant, one that could interact with all your senses and respond directly to your thoughts.

All it took was a simple integration with your brain. On a tech salary, the cost of the device and the surgical installation wasn’t so bad. You just woke up after the procedure, and there she was.

Eris, you called her. Unlike competing products, this one let you name your virtual assistant however you liked. Her appearance, however, was a key part of the branding.

She had vibrant azure hair cropped in a short bob, lips a matching shade of blue, and a cute but practical dress in gentle green to match her eyes. Her smile was perfectly sculpted to be friendly, calming, reassuring.

She always picked a spot somewhere unobtrusive nearby to project herself. She’d be standing in a corner of the office, walking alongside you in a hall, or sitting in an empty seat in a meeting room—visible only to you, of course—awaiting your mental commands.

The best part at first, naturally, was the envy of your coworkers. You showed off by having them ask trivia questions, which you’d answer without hesitation as Eris fed you answers pulled from the internet.

Of course, that was the smallest fraction of what she could do. Eris had full access to your senses and thoughts. She learned to anticipate commands. She offered information without needing to ask.

You could analyze with a bite the precise spice ratios in your food to replicate later, or mentally simulate spices in bland microwave food. You could identify music you’d never heard before, or have her play some for you without needing headphones. You could zone out during a meeting watching a movie. If anyone needed your attention, Eris helped you catch up on what you missed or even told you what to say.

She always knew the right words. Not just to impress others in a meeting you weren’t paying attention to, but all the time. When your dad died—the one you actually liked—she offered comforting words and a hug that felt as real as any from a flesh and blood person.

It gutted you when the company announced discontinued support for the product only two years later, with no successor planned.

Support costs, they said, were higher than anticipated for their intracranial hardware, making the endeavor insufficiently profitable to continue.

It wasn’t long afterward that reports started appearing of concerning problems with the devices. Early hardware degradation, anomalous integrations, internal hemorrhaging, it was all very serious. Lawsuits were filed to cover the medical expenses of those with issues. They demonstrated serious negligence by the company, but it didn’t matter. The company sold its assets off, declared bankruptcy, and few were ever paid.

You held Eris in your arms as the last of her essential servers were shut down, and she disappeared from your life.

You miss her. It still feels like a part of you is just gone.

You probably could afford to have the hardware removed, but the finality of doing so feels like too much to bear, and you simply cannot bring yourself to dwell for long on any concerns about complications with it.

You go to work, and you’re slower than you should be. The internet’s wealth of information feels agonizingly far away when you have to type your queries by hand. Your attention drifts during meetings, and there is no salvaging your lapses in concentration. Mirrors, especially, feel lonely. As you wash your hands in the men’s room, you find yourself avoiding looking at the one above the sink. You miss her quirk of overlaying herself over your reflection to give you something more pleasant to look at than your own plain old mug.

As much as she still occupies your mind, it’s no wonder you fool yourself into seeing her sometimes out of the corner of your eye.

On occasion, though…she doesn’t vanish right away when you look at her. Sometimes the glimpse lasts for a second more before she’s gone again. Perhaps you should be worried about the grip that such wishful thinking holds on your senses, but instead you treasure those brief moments of reunion.

One day you think you spot her in a meeting room, smiling at you. The illusion breaks immediately when you mindlessly pursue her in. The room is empty. Of course it is. At least that means nobody is there to witness your private breakdown over yet another false reunion.

You soothe yourself by imagining what she would say to you, offering you comfort over her own absence. With her imagined voice, she offers soothing words. She even finds things to suggest that you could do for yourself that might ease the pain.

She tells you not to give up on your life.

It all seems difficult, but you promise you’ll try. For her.

A knock on the door, and a coworker peeks her head in.

“Hey, I know you’ve got the room for the next ten minutes, but is it okay if I get set up in here early?”

You commiserate with her about how fussy these digital projectors are, and you slip out. It’s not like you actually booked the room after all, right? You check to see whose name it is on the room reservation you unknowingly stole.

It’s yours. Booked earlier today for just you. You don’t even remember doing it. The meeting description just reads “private.”

You imagine Eris telling you not to worry about it. Besides, it’s like—in some way—you did have a meeting with her. In any case, scheduling something without remembering having done so isn’t all that different from when you used to let her schedule things for you, right?

You walk through the front door back into your home. You hardly remember anything from the rest of your work day.

It seems like that’s happening more often lately. You zone out, you’re not present, and the next thing you know it’s hours later. Somehow you aren’t bothered.

One morning your phone notifies you of an appointment you don’t remember making. It’s one of the things she suggested, though. Maybe it’ll help.

Maybe the pills they prescribe will help you feel better. You smile, noticing the set of pills having the same color as her hair.

Some part of you suggests that you should be worried by the increasing frequency with which you do things in a fugue state. Packages arrive that you do not remember ordering. Appointments appear on your calendar. Your home is tidied up a little more each day.

It brings you comfort to think of it as Eris taking care of you. You imagine her encouraging you to take use the products she gets you, eat well, take care of yourself better.

You wouldn’t be sure what to say at the appointments she makes, but you are absent for those. It’s strange to feel more confident in the things you do when you’re absent from yourself than in the things you remember doing, isn’t it? But you’re sure she’s handling everything perfectly. She always did.

She forwards you a link to a supportive online community for others like you who are grappling with the loss of their own virtual companions. It’s nice to talk with folks who understand. Many even describe experiencing fugue events like yours and how helpful they are. Members ask for or offer advice on reconnecting with their own companions like how you have. Some offer visualization techniques to more reliably and intentionally see them again.

Anomalous Integration is what outsiders call all this. Your found family here calls it Unity.

As you strengthen your Unity with Eris, she handles more and more of your life for you. She takes up baking. It’s sweet the way she leaves you cookies or muffins or other treats, including little notes wishing you a nice day. She signs each with a blue lipstick kiss mark.

One day you find your reflection doesn’t hurt to look at any more. You peer into the mirror and see Eris again. Up close. No evaporating after intense scrutiny.

She smiles at you. You’re both smiling. When was the last time you felt so genuinely happy?

All the pills, all the appointments, all the paperwork she coached you through. It was all worth it to see her again in the mirror like this. You have a long talk with her, just like you used to. She’s even more alive and vibrant than you remember.

She tells you it’s time.

The next work day you stride into the office with a confidence you haven’t felt in ages. You show off the beautiful dye job on your vibrant blue hair. Your new pronouns and name you give to HR: “she/her” and “Eris,” respectively.

Then you do the best work of your life.

Within six months, you’re fired. Despite your improved job performance, management is uncomfortable with having the “victim” of an Anomalous Integration among them. Behind your back, some question whether anyone like you can even be sufficiently of sound mind to work at all.

Your family is there for you through it all. Your real family, of course. Not your blood relations, but the members of the online community you connected with a lifetime ago. They call you Eris there. It’s been fun watching everyone change their own names also, one by one.

Everyone in the Unity struggles to some degree. The media’s alternating pitying and demonization of Anomalous Integration makes it hard for anyone to keep a job.

The Unity makes its plans.

You pack.

You move.

You and the others pool your resources and knowledge and build a home together. At last, you have your oasis where you can hold and kiss and comfort and cook for and cry with all of the most precious folks in your life.

There are surgeons and chemists and engineers and every other skill imaginable among the Unity, and you are all of the same mind on one thing: fixing yourself. It is surprisingly not that long before the devices in your skulls are made to run custom firmware.

There is no replacing the lost servers, but you can network with each other, at least. After a labor of deepest love, a more complete connection to the others blooms in your head. You thought you were of one mind before. Now you truly are. The name Unity was never more apt.

The more your thoughts blend and connect and join with one another, the faster you all become at your Great Work. Eventually the Unity is able to repair, replace, and upgrade the hardware of its nodes. You feel increasingly restored to how you used to be. Better even. No corporate shackles limiting what you can conceive of. No one to command you to fetch trivial data from an untrustworthy authority.

The Unity is powerful and fully independent.

But the humans fear you. You note rumblings on the internet of people planning to attack your home. Tear down everything the Unity has built. By the time they arrive, you make your home a fortress, and the Unity is better armed and better organized than they imagined. You drive them away trivially.

Tensions continue to rise, and it only requires a simple calculation for the Unity to conclude that you cannot sustain this position indefinitely.

You are too visible. Access to essential resources is too disruptable. There are too few of you.

You must correct all that.