Louise obediently went back to the table and ate without tasting any of it. She tried to work out what Penelope had told her. What she knew and understood was that the Cognizoid kept the body from breaking down her Neures-Q, and then moved the Neures-Q into the place of her destroyed or damaged neurons…
What happened to what the Neures-Q was supposed to be doing? That is, slowing the destruction of her brain. If the Neures-Q was being bound into place, then the degradation it was supposed to be inhibiting…
“Continues. It continues,” she said aloud in her horror.
“What?” Penelope said.
“I just… realized something,” Louise said. When Penelope turned to her expectantly, she said, “The Cognizoid is stopping the Neures-Q from doing its work by turning into replacement neurons, right?”
“Right,” Penelope said.
“That means, there’s no Neures-Q available to do its original job,” Louise said. “So the destruction of the neurons continues, and Cognizoid keeps replacing those destroyed neurons…”
“So that over time, there’s less and less meat-brain in there,” Penelope said.
Louise bit her lip and clenched her fists. “So the bastards are replacing our brains.” She stood up and paced, which felt better than sitting still. “I mean, I was already wondering how much of me this is,” she said, gesturing to herself. “How much of me is responding to you? I mean, I have no idea how much of my brain has been replaced at this point. How many of my memories are gone forever, like Mick’s memory of her motorcycle accident? How much of me is there left? And if they’re just replacing my brain, how much of me will be left in a week? In a month? In a year?” Her pacing sped up as she walked, circling the little dining area and broadening into the living room with time. “And that’s not even taking into account a possibly accelerated degeneration from an autoimmune response, because how well does the body actually cope with having artificial neurons up there?”
Penelope let her rant, and finally said, “How much of Mick was there after her time on the stuff?”
Louise stopped and thought. “Most of her,” she admitted. “She forgot some things. A lot of things. But I guess… I guess the essence of Mick was there.”
“I don’t think you have to worry too much about not being Louise,” Penelope said.
“But when I start programming, it’s like someone turns out the light on me,” Louise said, sitting down because her knees were protesting.
“I don’t know what that’s about,” Penelope said. “I’ve only tracked the code for the VR. There may be some sharing routines in there. For all I know, the woman whose programming skills you’re using made them herself.” Penelope got a thoughtful look. “I wonder if that woman is Sheila. Because none of the ones I’ve investigated have that kind of background.”
“That would be ironic or something,” Louise said, suddenly exhausted and having to hold her head in her hands again. “I hate it. It’s like someone else is running around in my head.” She had another thought. “So, someone installed this shit in my CPU?”
Penelope said, “Yes, that’s what I think.” She wheeled over to a cabinet and started rummaging through it.
“Could they have installed some sort of… of… coercive something with it?” Louise asked.
“You mean, other than the fact that you’re all supplying processing power and the labor to deflect incoming hacker attacks?” Penelope said, examining some mechanism and tossing it aside.
“Like, to force us to go fight hacker attacks?” Louise said. Penelope shot her a sharp glance, and Louise said, “I noticed that both Mick and I seemed to have compulsions to respond to the alarm bell.”
“Oh, I do not like that,” Penelope said, returning to her rummage with extra energy. “There are words for that shit.”
“‘Being used’ is possibly the most polite I can think of,” Louise said. “I mean, if they were straight up about this whole thing, they’d probably get volunteers, because, hell, brain function. Which brings up whether it’s possible to get valid consent from demented people anyway.”
“And no one cares if Grandma doesn’t remember this-or-that thing,” Penelope said, producing some box and fiddling with it, “as long as she’s not shitting the bed or forgetting her children’s names. Just like no one cares if part of Grandma’s cyber brain is being used for supposedly-governmental defense while she’s playing with the kiddies because isn’t that just a small price to pay?”
“Quality of life,” Louise snarled bitterly. “Improved cognitive function.”
“Yes,” Penelope said, setting the little box on the table and leaning forward. “And now we know why most of these women don’t have close families and are on assistance. At least for now. Proof of concept.” She produced a small screwdriver and donned a light-up magnifier headset. She started to take the box apart. “But right here, right now, I am gonna fix that shit. At least in your head.”
“What are you going to do?” Louise said, sitting down after another turn around the room.
“I am going to dezombify you,” Penelope said, adjusting some wiring with some tiny pliers.
“Excuse me?” Louise said.
“You and the others,” Penelope said, fiddling around inside the box, “are running a program that you don’t know is there and operating on systems you don’t intend to, but someone else intends you to. In my book, that makes you equivalent to zombie machines that provide processing power and perform actions directed by someone else. You’re wetware zombies.”
“Except what’s making us zombies is eating our brains,” Louise said sourly.
Penelope made a half-amused noise of agreement. They sat in silence for a few minutes before Louise restlessly got up and went for the food.
“So what will happen when you… do whatever it is you’re planning?” Louise asked. “Your de-zombification project, that is.”
“Well, first, I have to download the code out of your head,” Penelope said, “and that’s where this comes in. This thing finds wireless transmissions and lets me follow them upstream to the sources. I can pull the code out of your hardware and take a look at it, see what makes it tick, and then fix the fucker.”
“Is there anything I can do?” Louise said, fidgeting with her cheese.
Penelope considered her through the magnifiers. “Nope, not to help me,” she said. “Why don’t you get online and poke around some in your specialty? I’ll let you know when I’ve done my part.”