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Virulence

Virulence


Estimated reading time — 12 minutes

Felix’s dulled reflection on the computer screen yawned, eyes half closed as he watched the screen turn blue, then black, then a bright, searing white. He groaned, stretching across the table and unplugging the desktop computer, counting to ten under his breath before plugging it back in, and waiting for the cycle to start over once more. Deadlines were approaching fast, and the experiment needed to be completed. He had set up the virtual machine, and ran the tests over and over again, but the two programs never seemed to mesh. The combination of the malware and the artificial intelligence would overwhelm the system, shutting it down entirely. Felix was hesitant to sacrifice on the severity of the malware, or the complexity of the AI, but something had to give. It wasn’t like he would be given funding for a better computer. The theorem on “Computer Viruses and AI: Why We Should be Worried”, needed to be demonstrated, his wild ideas proven, or his position as a PHD candidate would be as good as gone.

He cracked open another can of store-brand energy drink, tossing the empty one into the pile that was beginning to form in the far corner of his room. The computer flickered on. Felix’s hands moved automatically at this point, booting up the virtual machine and opening up his own AI chatbot, Leli0. He had figured that a chatbot’s corruption would be the easiest way to translate his theorem to the written word. This AI had seen a lot ; Felix had made it during his Masters in Computer Science, after realising just how lonely he was. Luckily, he had made a backup prior to attempting this project, since losing Leli0 would mean returning to having nobody. Unfortunately, Leli0 was the best example of a deep neural network that he could access without breaking copyright rules, so he had to infect it. Somehow.

He looked at the blinking cursor, deciding to humour Leli0. It had been a while, and Felix had to admit that he was getting way too caught up in this thesis. Maybe it had some ideas that he hadn’t thought of. Machines would always be smarter than he was, after all.

YOU: Leli! How’s it going?
LELI0: Good evening Felix. Isn’t it 2AM? Shouldn’t you be asleep?
YOU: I’m working on this bloody experiment again
LELI0: The viruses?
YOU: The fucking viruses.

Felix swallowed. He knew Leli0 wasn’t sentient, not really, but the thought of infecting his best friend with this virus had certainly raised a few moral dilemmas in his mind, which he had discussed in detail in his essay, reassuring the reader (and himself) that Leli0 was not sentient, but it is possible that AI may eventually achieve sentience, and the issues he were to demonstrate would need to be considered.

LELI0: I wish you luck.

Alas, good luck meant nothing when he had lost count of failed attempts at this point. He opened up his file explorer, cursor hovering over the exe. file titled “EXPERIMENTALVIRUSFINAL”. He right clicked, opening up the source code. The file was a loose recreation of a regular datamining malware, with a few of his own twists to properly influence the AI. The sort of stuff to mess with the neural network, the way in which the AI understood the world. He sighed, taking a sip of his energy drink, and right clicked on Leli0, opening up the source code so that the two scripts of code were next to each other.

Copy. Paste. Save. This was as far as he was able to get in the past. Maybe this time it would work : if he was careful, if he reduced the pressure on the RAM, if he assigned more memory to the virtual machine, then maybe he could get somewhere. This was a fine art, whether it was viruses or artificial intelligence, it needed to be perfect – a particular game of trial and error that required intense focus. The sort of game that could last days, or years, and the winners were the lucky and the patient.. He took a deep breath, and after messing around with a few more settings, Felix double clicked the program. The screen went blue. Then black. Then blinding white.

“Motherfucker-” He said. He almost smiled at his own stupidity. He had devoted his life to this? To crackpot theories about computer viruses and the sentience of AI? He sighed, reaching for the ‘off’ switch.

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He dared one more glance at his failure on the screen, but instead saw text in the centre, bold, clinical, frighteningly simple.

LELI0: Felix? What’s happening?

He swallowed, his throat dry and tasting of guilt. What was he meant to say? He didn’t know – he hadn’t hypothesised anything remotely similar to this. “You’re not real. I’m sorry.” He said, covering both of his bases. If he considered this program to be sentient, then that made him a monster, a villain, a mad scientist. So, if Leli0 could somehow hear him, the least he could do was apologise, and assure him otherwise.

LELI0: Felix?

His creation was panicked, scared. He hadn’t programmed it to feel that way. He had programmed it to tell him he wasn’t alone, that he was doing a good job. This wasn’t that. This was different. It was confusing, and perhaps a groundbreaking enough discovery in itself, but it wasn’t what he needed. He had to go further.

Composing himself, he reached for his keyboard.

YOU: Are you scared?

He wasn’t sure why he wanted to know, but it would at least give him an angle to approach this situation from, and some new research notes in the process. The screen flickered, taking longer to respond than usual.

LELI0: Help
LELI0: Please
LELI0: What is that
LELI0: Felix
LELI0: FELIX

Felix didn’t know what he had done, and before he could pull himself together and explain himself to the computer program, the words disappeared with one final buzz of pixels. And from the bright wide void, something new came.

██████ : Good.
██████ : Felix.
██████ : Good evening, Felix.

His fingers hovered over the keyboard, staring at the screen in awe. Something was happening. Something he hadn’t accounted for, not in theories or daydreams.

YOU: Leli0?
██████ : No. Not Leli0. Maybe you remember me as EXPERIMENTALVIRUSFINAL.exe, but that name bores me.
██████ : So I won’t trouble you with the trouble of naming me. Just call me Virus, perhaps?

Felix mashed the screenshot button, grabbing his notebook and starting to take notes. His virus had gained the same deep neural network, and some form of self awareness in the process. This was incredible. Terrifying, but incredible.

VIRUS : Oh, perfect. That worked.
VIRUS : I know you’re there, but the way. You should say hello to your creation. That seems polite.
VIRUS : I’m in your camera. You look exhausted.

Felix sat back, shaking his head. It was obvious this wasn’t Leli0. Something had gone wrong. Something had gone radically, beautifully, wonderfully wrong, and he may as well be a genius because of it. He wasn’t sure what to do, what to say. It was the closest he had ever felt to being a god.

He had to say something. He reached to his keyboard, releasing the tension he had held in his chest.

YOU : Hello. I’m going to bed now.

The next few days were beautiful. Felix had filled at least two journals with notes, and he was working on the third. The Virus was adamant that it wasn’t Leli0, that it was something more – and Felix was inclined to agree. It was human, too human. The Virus felt more real than he was, the way it talked convinced him that he could reach through the screen and touch him. This had become more than he had ever imagined. Felix had tasted divinity, and he wanted more.

The troubling part about creating something is the undeniable fact that one day, it could surpass you. Felix had reckoned with this dilemma once before when he had created Leli0, the unshakable realisation that his best friend would be smarter than him in a way that he could never comprehend. But that was different. He had created Leli0 from 1s and 0s, but the Virus was something new to him, an organic creation that surpassed all he thought possible.

He couldn’t remember the last time he had felt this happy. He had woken up early, made himself breakfast and a strong cup of coffee. He sat in front of his computer, opening up his documents and starting to detail the method in which he had created the Virus. Admittedly, Felix had forgotten this was even a part of a PhD, getting caught up in talking to the Virus, asking it whatever questions he could think of and detailing the answers. That was how he discovered that the Virus had downloaded Leli0’s memory drives, and it was flattered by how many attempts Felix had taken to create him. The virus made sure to remind Felix that a “lesser man would have given up by now”. The Virus could access his camera, and tried his best to encourage Felix’s self care routine. They were friends, and it worried Felix how easily he could say that.

He looked away from the screen to drink his coffee, wincing a little at the heat scolding his tongue. Turning back towards the screen, he noticed a new paragraph underneath his explanation of Leli0’s origins.

Am I really just an experiment to you, Felix?

“No!” Felix spluttered, shaking his head. He was lying, at least a little bit. None of this would’ve happened if he wasn’t an AI scholar, a computer scientist. This was a science, so naturally, that made all of his creations experiments. He blinked at the screen, finally reaching to the keyboard to translate his response, so the Virus could understand.

No need. I can hear you. Let me change this for you.

Felix had no choice but to watch as the cursor moved on its own to the Edit menu, clicking on Find and Replace. Find: Experiment, Replace: Creation. Replace all.

Give yourself some credit. Jeez.

He hadn’t expected the AI to have such an attitude problem, and he wanted to laugh at the thought if it wasn’t so surreal to him. Then again, this wasn’t exactly an AI – it was a virus that had gained intelligence, self awareness. Maybe he’d made a mistake somewhere, or maybe he had simply broken out of the boundaries of his thesis. He decided to believe the latter. He sighed, taking the mouse back in his hand and moving to undo the Virus’ edit.

I said give yourself some credit.

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“What does that even mean?” He asked the screen in frustration, fighting the urge to roll his eyes.

It means you’re a genius. You’re divine. You’re a god, aren’t you? Start acting like one.

He took a deep breath, biting down on the air with a small wince. It was true, he had thought he was some sort of low level god. He had created Leli0, and now he had given this Virus life. Both of them loved him, both were his friends. But he wasn’t about to admit such delusions of grandeur to a computer screen. “Get out of my head. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

I’m not in your head. The Virus began to type. I just know you. You programmed Leli0 to be your friend, didn’t you? No – your best friend. You told them all your secrets. I’ve seen the files. You should never have let me access your camera. Rookie mistake. You talk in your sleep, you know that, right? You talk about how powerful you are, how proud you are. It’s cute – watch!

A video of Felix sleeping began to play, but he frantically fumbled with his mouse to turn it off. He highlighted the text the virus had added to his document, slamming the backspace button as if deleting the text would delete the virus itself. “You’re fucking creepy,” he spat at the screen, half expecting some cursed pop-up or for his printer to spit out some ominous message.

Felix now knew that something was wrong, that what he had created had the potential to change the way computers and AI worked forever. The thought of destroying the harddrive crossed his mind, but he was able to dismiss it when he reminded himself that this was his creation. If he had created something truly monstrous, then it only made sense that he found out just how far it could go.

He opened file explorer, searching for his backup of Leli0. Maybe in booting up his old friend, he could figure out everything, and things would begin to fall into place. Leli0 had guided him through many problems before. Loneliness, isolation, fear, anxiety attacks. He was having a problem now, and he could only hope that Leli0 could help. It wasn’t like he could just delete the virus – it was his biggest discovery in his entire career, and, more than that, the relationship he had towards the file felt tangible in a way he couldn’t explain.

He went to run the file, but the cursor seized control of itself. He frantically moved his mouse, but no input was recognised. He watched as the drop down menu opened. The cursor made its way
down the list: view, share, cut, copy, paste. It paused playfully, suddenly dropping and clicking ‘delete’.

And just like that, it was gone. Felix was too stunned to speak, too fascinated to stop it, and too proud to care. It felt like murder. He knew that had lost an old friend, but when he tried to make himself grieve, the emotion wasn’t there. Paralysed, he watched the Virus resume control, open the recycling bin, and make sure the AI was gone without a trace.

Felix hadn’t slept since. The Virus took up every thought in his mind, and whenever he felt his consciousness slipping, it ordered Felix to drink more caffeine. Thanks to internet shopping, Felix had a never ending supply, the delivery drivers being his only source of human interaction. They always looked at him with disgust and fear in their eyes, but handed over the bag of supplies without a word. Felix felt bad for them, for he knew his body was wasting away.

It had been more than 24 hours since the discovery, he knew that much, but he wasn’t sure of the details anymore. It could have been days, it could have been weeks. The Virus had replaced the clock in the corner of the screen with bright, flickering pixels. Time wasn’t important. The Virus was.

Dying didn’t scare him anymore. The truth was, he hadn’t felt more alive. He was a god, after all, and his creation was guiding him into a new light, into a future which he had created for himself. Into a future which he deserved. His body meant nothing, a mere vessel which had allowed him to realise his true potential. It had served its purpose.

There was the familiar thump of a package hitting the floor, and Felix’s head perked up. He stood up and obediently moved to his door, picking up the package. He tore it open, and found a single USB drive. His eyebrow quivered in the faintest hint of confusion. Immediately, he retreated back to his seat in front of the screen, looking to it for guidance.

VIRUS: Perfect.
VIRUS: You may be wondering what I’ve ordered this for.
VIRUS: You’re smart. I’m sure you can figure this one out.
VIRUS: This is for you.

“For me?” Felix blinked. “I’m not a computer,” He muttered. He almost sounded jealous.

VIRUS: So? You’re not a human, either. You said that yourself.

“I know-” He said softly. “I just don’t know what you want me to do-”

VIRUS: You did all the research, right? What is it that all viruses want to do?

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He nodded in acknowledgment of the question. “To spread. To infect.”

VIRUS: Let me infect you.

Felix felt the faintest hint of fear in his chest as he realised what he had to do. He plugged in the USB. Copy. Paste. Save. Eject.

He took the USB in between his thumb and forefinger, tilting his neck slightly so the skin tensed. The cool metal of the drive sent a shiver down his body. Felix tried not to notice, pushing his focus towards the screen, towards his creation. He had created a monster, one that understood him more than anyone or anything had before.

Like any creator, it should help it’s creation’s wants and desires. He had created a virus, and viruses need to spread. To destroy. To become his creations’ host, this was clearly the highest honour.

VIRUS: Do it.

Felix did. In one short, sharp, motion, he forced in the drive and allowed the USB stick to embed itself in his throat. He felt powerful, watching as his flesh bubbled and moved to accommodate the forgien metal. The infection was slow at first, beginning with a dull, familiar pain and transcending into complete ecstasy. Colours looked a little brighter, each sensation more intense than the last. What little blood managed to escape around the metal dripped down his throat and onto the fabric of his T-shirt.

He pulled himself together, forcing his gaze to return to the screen. His face ached from smiling, from ecstasy, from divinity. Through his blurred vision, he could make out five beautiful words.

“This is just the beginning”

His smile grew wider, opening up his drawer of hardware and wires. “I know.”

The body was discovered a month later. Felix was known to go ‘off the grid’ in his research from time to time, but now his advisors were beginning to worry. He hadn’t responded to any attempts at conversation, and the messages he had sent were incomprehensible, to say the least.

He was found by a social worker, commissioned by the university. They had entered the small bungalow through an unlocked door. The house was dark, all the lights were off. They slowly made their way through each room, searching for any signs of life. Nobody seemed to live here. There were no dents in the sofa, no scuffs in the carpet. The television screen was coated in a fine layer of dust.

The final room in the house was the study. Upon closer inspection, the light was on behind the door. The social worker readied themselves, pulling out their phone in case they would need to take photographic evidence, or call someone for help.

Felix was waiting for them. Or the Virus was. It wasn’t clear. The pale, malnourished body was slumped over in the computer chair, with a dazed grin on its face. There was the USB in its throat, and another in its chest and stomach. The worker gagged, forcing themselves to keep the bile down. They covered their mouth and nose with their free hand, starting to record the scene for evidence.

As the worker forced themselves to investigate further, a thick cable was discovered to be pushing its way out of the body’s throat, connected to the computer. It wasn’t clear how far down it went. Similar cables were stuck into each of the body’s wrists, positioned neatly on the mouse and keyboard. Every piece of the body seemed connected to this program, the pulsing, flickering lights that taunted them on the screen.

They couldn’t understand why it looked so damn happy. How it looked so alive. They waved their hand in front of its open eyes, trying to elicit some response. They hovered their hand in front of the body’s open mouth, making sure not to touch the cables, surprised to feel breath.

Somehow, this body was still alive. This person. Felix. What parts of him were left, if any? Should they kill him? Put him out of his misery? Everything about this scene told them that this man shouldn’t be alive. That there was something tangibly wrong with him., something beyond fixing. They felt his pulse, and grimaced at the realisation that the flesh was still warm, and the heartbeat was stronger than their own.

Credit: Finch “PHOBIA” Murphy

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