“We called ourselves ‘The Christmas Club,’” Julissa said, as she swiped tears from her face under the harsh light hanging over the table in the investigation room.
Grace looked up from watching the tape spin in the archaic tape recorder that sat between them on the metal table. Julissa had consented to an interview, but only if there was no computer equipment used to document the proceedings. As Julissa has waived her right to have an attorney present, it was worth the effort to dig the ancient machine out of the trunk of her great-grandmother’s belongings. “Why is that?”
A smile broke through Julissa’s tears. “We wound out having an impromptu meeting in the research lab Christmas night four years ago. That was after Naomi and Bianca’s first semester ended. We all got bored hanging out with our families all day, and made excuses to run by the lab to check on things.” She wiped her nose with the crumpled tissue. “It’s amazing. We all had the idea within a two-hour time frame. I went by first, around seven o’clock. By nine, all four of us had made excuses to break out of the home for a little while to supposedly ‘check on things’ in the lab.”
Grace smiled at what was obviously a happy memory for Julissa. “I take it you really didn’t need to check on anything?”
“No, we just needed a break from houses full of families.” Julissa sniffed. “It was fun; maybe the most fun holiday we had while we were here. We opened a bottle of wine that Kasei brought, ate nuked leftovers from the Christmas party, and chatted until one in the morning.” Julissa grabbed a fresh tissue from the box next to the tape recorder. “Kasei and I had been at odds with Naomi and Bianca over writing the code for the system the whole semester, but we finally had a breakthrough that night. I think that having just the four of us, without the other members of the study around, gave us the freedom to talk about our hopes and dreams for Domino. We were finally away from all of the faculty and staff pushing their expectations down on us for the grant. We could actually talk about what we hoped to accomplish with this program.” She paused, a small smile breaking through. “The alcohol probably helped too. We were honest with one another, for the first time ever.”
“What did you to accomplish with Domino?” Grace asked.
Julissa sighed. “The purpose we established that night was to help people through the grieving process by developing a software program where they could communicate with the likeness of their recently deceased loved ones. We recruited volunteers from nursing homes and hospitals to have Domino access their neural chips to study the electrical patterns in their brains. Those patterns would establish a code that would emulate their likeness online. This code would remain stored in Domino so the subjects’ loved ones could access the system after their demise to converse with them post mortem. Eventually, we did want to expand it to allow the code on the Internet so they could have true freedom in an unlimited world, but that was a long-term goal. Our immediate goal for the grant was to get the code functional inside Domino.” She held up a hand as Grace started to speak up. “Please understand, this was not an attempt at achieving immortality by storing human consciousness online. The purpose of Domino, as least at that stage, was to give people the opportunity to resolve issues and say goodbye to their loved ones properly. It also gave terminally ill people a chance to preserve their memories and their likeness online, to give them comfort that something would survive after their physical body was gone.”
“Domino was created to help with the grieving process for both the dying and the survivors,” Grace said.
“Exactly,” Julissa said.
“All of the subjects for this project were terminally ill?”
“Yes, they had all been diagnosed with terminal diseases. Mostly neurological diseases that the neural chips could no longer repair, like late stage dementias, or aggressive cancers.” Julissa paused, staring into space. “The neural chips have only been in mass production to implant in the public for thirty years, and it’s ideally done in infants. A lot of adults chose to have them as well, but the chips didn’t work as well in adult implantations because they don’t have a full lifetime of biological and neurological data and history to draw from to correct these issues.”
Grace nodded. She was familiar with the failures of the neural chips in adult implants. They could help with healing and reduce or eliminate the need for pharmaceuticals, but they worked best if implanted in infants shortly after birth. It had something to do with how the chips stored data as the brain developed. Like many things, the chips worked best if they were there from the start. There were many studies in progress on this very issue. She was surprised none of them were interested in this experiment.
Grace flipped through pages of materials she printed out prior to the interview, since she couldn’t have her computer. “So all of the subject participants were older adults, who had neural chips implanted later in life?”
“Yes,” Julissa said. “All of them had been implanted in middle age, when the technology was first available. The chips did a great job of holding off their diseases, by the way. I believe our youngest participant was an eighty-five year old with Parkinson’s disease.”
“Are any of the subjects still alive?” Grace asked.
Julissa nodded. “Three from the last batch are on hospice care.”
Grace consulted her notes. “Undergraduate programs here at Palmetto University are four years, and the graduate programs you and Kasei were enrolled in was another two year program. If the four of you established that the purpose of Domino was to help with the grieving process four years ago, then the project was already underway for two years. What happened during those first two years, when you and Kasei were freshmen and sophomores? Were there other members on the team before they started at Palmetto University, or did you expand the team when you hired them?”
“There were no other members. Kasei and I worked with the university staff on research and development,” Julissa said. “We were gathering information on the neural chips to figure out how to write a computer program that could collect the data we needed to set up Domino. Kasei and I tried to do it ourselves, but we couldn’t. We needed people who specialized in programming and computer science to help us bridge the gap between the neural chips and the system we were designing.”
“That’s why you brought Naomi and Bianca into the project.”
Julissa nodded. “We also spent those first two years figuring out where to recruit subjects. Most psychology studies recruit from the student population of the school, but that obviously wouldn’t work for us. We had to get inventive.”
“How so?” Grace asked.
Julissa looked down. “Kasei’s mother is a psychiatrist. She works for a practice affiliated with the system the local hospital is in.”
"You used family ties to recruit subjects.”
“We used family ties to get the word out that the study was in progress and ready for patient trials,” Julissa said. “Every participant in this study contacted us directly to volunteer.”
“But they got the contact information, either directly or through a chain of connections, from Kasei’s mother.”
“Yes,” Julissa stared at Grace, “but that’s not wrong.”
Grace returned the stare. “I’m not implying that it is. I’m just making an observation that family ties seem to be a strong factor in this study.”
Julissa paled. “What do you mean?”
Grace leaned forward. “Why haven’t you mentioned that you and Kasei were cousins?”
Julissa set her jaw. “It doesn’t matter.”
“It’s another family tie in this study. It was enough for the university to suspect a conflict of interest, and to dig deeper into other potential conflicts.”
Julissa snorted. “They overreacted, just like you are. We’re distant cousins, not even legal. Her grandfather and my grandmother were brother and sister. As far as I’m concerned, that makes it third generation ‘don’t give a crap.’”
“Ok, I see your point,” Grace flipped through papers again. “It does seem strange that the university would raise concerns about you and Kasei being distantly related six years into a successful study. The question about whether it was ethical for Kasei’s mother to help with recruitment for the study also should have been addressed sooner. It looks like the university launched an investigation in November of last year” She stopped at a page midway through her stack. “What happened on October 23, 2175?”
Julissa paled again. “Kasei’s father died in a lab accident. The university opened an investigation into Domino two weeks later.”
Grace nodded. “That was the catalyst for the investigation, then. Why?”
“The accident occurred in our lab when he tried to integrate with Domino. The security filter Naomi developed blocked him. Unfortunately, it caused an overload of his neural chip and he died of a massive embolism.”
Grace thumped the papers down on the table. “Wait a minute. Kasei’s father died the same way and in the same lab that Kasei died in last week?”
Grace took a deep breath, pulling her notepad in front of her. “Why was Kasei’s father trying to integrate with Domino? According to our research, he was a doctor at the hospital in Columbia working with the neural chips.” She reached for a paper in the nearby stack. “In fact, wasn’t he on the team that developed the Wi-Fi enhancements to the chips?”
“Yes, but he had been discredited and removed from the team.”
Julissa stared at Grace. “You’ve already done research into the connections amongst the team members, so I might as well be straight with you. Kasei always talked about the groundbreaking work her father and grandfather did on the neural chips, but the historical documentation barely mention their contributions. Her grandfather was on the team that developed the neural chips and established the foundation that went on to fund the work her father participated in. It even provided the seed money and support for this study, but he’s barely mentioned in official documentation. Don’t you wonder why?”
Grace leaned forward. “Why?”
“Because they had bipolar disorder.”
Grace jolted, reaching for her papers again. “Who had bipolar disorder? The grandfather, the father, or Kasei?”
Julissa leaned forward. “All three of them.”
Grace leaned back. “Why would they be discredited because they had bipolar disorder? Can’t that be controlled through the neural chips and medication?”
“It can be, if the patient consents to have the necessary monitoring of their neural chip and takes their medications.”
Julissa’s eyes darted around the room. “Unfortunately, as is the case with many bipolar patients, they didn’t. They grew frustrated with the repeated adjustments that treatment necessitates, and just decided to live with it.”
“I still don’t understand why this led to the investigation into the study. Why was Kasei’s father trying to integrate with Domino?”
“To talk to his father,” Julissa said.
“Kasei’s grandfather died thirty-two years ago,” Grace said. “There’s no way he could be in Domino. He lived and died before the program was even written.”
Julissa cracked a small smile. “Did he?”
“What do you mean?” Grace asked.
Julissa looked down. “The purpose of the neural chips was never to integrate man and machine. The purpose was to create a new evolution of humanity. To make man and machine one thing. No more real world and cyber world.” She leaned forward again. “The purpose was to create an evolved race of artificial intelligence that was directly connected with the human mind that didn’t distinguish between reality, as we define it, and the cyberworld.”
Grace stared at Julissa, her eyes wide. “You and Kasei didn’t develop Domino. Her grandfather did.”
Julissa nodded. “He set the stage for it. We finished what he started.”
Grace slumped back on her seat. “How did Kasei get her grandfather’s neural code in Domino? Where was it stored for over thirty years while her family waited for her to get to college where a study could be funded to launch this effort?”
“That’s where we get to why we needed Naomi and Bianca on the study. Kasei’s father had the code from her grandfather’s neural chip stored on an external storage device, but we couldn’t figure out how to transfer it from that old technology to our newer computers. Naomi figured out how to build a bridge to transfer the neural chip data into Domino.” Julissa paused. “In a sense, Kasei’s grandfather was the first inhabitant of Domino.”
Grace rubbed her forehead. “I suppose this is what the Christmas night conversation was about four years ago?”
Julissa nodded. “It was. We were surprised the code was still stable, but it held up remarkably well over the decades.
Unfortunately, it also revealed a problem that became more obvious as the study went on.” She paused. “We learned that the primary emotional state that people were in at the time that their chip was mapped to Domino was the state that dominated their activity in the program.”
“Computers don’t have emotions,” Grace said.
“They don’t, but emotions do influence human thought and decision making,” Julissa said. “Unfortunately, the code didn’t know it was an issue to adjust for, and none of our programming methods seemed to offset it. The emotional state that the subjects were in when they were integrated in the system is the predominant state that stuck in the programming.” Julissa shifted in her chair. “For example, all of the subjects were experiencing a high level of fear when they were integrated. This is natural. They knew they were dying, and were anxious about preserving themselves in an experimental computer program. When we ran the program back for their loved ones, there was a heavy tone of anxiety and fear in the responses. The relatives found this disturbing, and reported that it was making their grief worse instead of better.” Julissa looked down. “One subject said it was like reliving the nightmare of their final days all over again.”
Grace nodded. “It worked, but not as expected.”
“Of course not! How can you resolve issues if the program has the same problems that prevented them from reconciling with the host during their lifetime? You run up against the same walls.”
Grace smiled slightly. “The program had the same problems as the people.”
“Worse, actually. People have the potential to overcome their problems. Programs, not so much. You can only rewrite code so much or it becomes something different, or it breaks. Then there was Kasei’s grandfather. It seems he was on a rage bender in his final days, and that paranoia was destabilizing Domino.”
Grace squinted her eyes. “Rage bender?”
Julissa waved a hand. “It’s why it’s called bipolar disorder. They swing between states of high activity and paranoia, and states of deep depression.”
“So he was agitated.”
“To put it mildly,” Julissa snorted. “Kasei was keeping in contact with his code, and he kept complaining about being confined to the system. He wanted a bigger space. He said the program was too small and too crowded.”
“How many participants did you have in the study?”
“A little under a thousand.”
“That’s a lot of data,” Grace said.
“We were conservative. We had nearly a million applicants. We had to filter them to get an appropriate base of participants who were still healthy enough to be scanned and to consent to the program of their own free will.” Julissa paused. “Nearly a quarter of the applicants were from family members of comatose patients.”
“We all want to live forever,” Grace mumbled.
“Obviously, we can’t,” Julissa grumbled. “We reported this, of course. We had countless meetings to propose solutions to offset the emotional element of the programming. We thought we were making progress in at least keeping the program on track. Then Kasei’s father killed himself trying to get into Domino himself to save his own career, and they discovered that Naomi built that back door to the Internet to let Kasei’s grandfather out.”
“Naomi built a back door to allow people to escape?”
Julissa nodded. “Kasei hounded her to do it until she finally consented. Kasei went into a state of her own after her father died, naturally. She was completely out of control. We had to change the locks on the labs and block her for a month before Bianca finally got frustrated enough to tell her that we’d build the back door if she’d stop hacking us and give us some peace.”
“Kasei bullied Naomi to build the back door to the Internet?” Grace asked.
“And then Bianca bullied Naomi to help her build a virus to take down Domino altogether. She was frustrated with the entire thing and had given up. Bianca was barely getting by academically, and was sick of school. She wanted to get out from under the pressure of the study, so she sabotaged it.”
Grace sighed and rubbed her face. “I had no idea all of this drama happened. They sure did keep it quiet in the media,” she flipped through pages again. “There’s no report on the death of Kasei’s father.”
“It was handled internally by the university police.”
Grace dropped her papers. “Where do you fit in all of this?”
“My focus was to keep the experiment going. I had a personal interest, of course. I’m using it for my doctoral thesis. Or at least, I was. I have no idea where to go from here. I thought Bianca had a backup of all the Domino data, but she swore that she destroyed it.” Julissa sniffed, grabbed a tissue, and blew her nose. “I guess I’ll never find out what happened with that now.”
Grace reached across the table and patted Julissa’s hand. “Don’t give up yet. My partner is an expert at digital forensics. If anybody can find those files, he can.”
Julissa snorted. “Tell him to check the dark web. I wouldn’t put it past Bianca to sell it to the highest bidder.”
Grace took back her hand. “What?”
“That was another issue that came to light in the investigation, and another reason Bianca wanted Domino gone. She was hacking into the university system to change data.”
“What kind of data?”
“Mostly her grades, but they did find a similar signature on some of the data and results reported from Domino.” Julissa clinched her jaw. “It seems that many of the problems that I reported for further investigation in our proposal to continue the grant disappeared somewhere between my transmittal to the study directors and the President’s office.”
Grace threw her pen down. “It seems there are more than just family ties complicating matters here.” She glanced at a paper on the table. “One more question. Why was the study established here? Why not at the university in Columbia? They have more resources to carry out something of this magnitude.”
“Isn’t it obvious? Kasei got her scholarship here, not there.”
“I see. Daddy pulling more strings?”
Julissa shrugged. “I think her mother is an alumna here. Generous donations can get you far.”
“Money can open doors that would usually be closed.” Grace nodded toward the tape recorder. “Do you think Kasei got in the system? Is that why you didn’t want any computers in here?”
Julissa looked at the tape recorder. “I know she did. She got there, and beyond.”
“You mean she got out the back door?”
Julissa nodded. “She did.”
“Domino is crashed. How do you know?”
“You know that message you found on Naomi’s computer the night she jumped?”
“I got it too.”
Grace sighed. “How do you catch a paranoid computer code?”
Julissa sagged against the back of her chair. “That’s the million-dollar question.”