Remix of photo by Taylor Brandon, images by RCA and Philips

Test Patterns

by Matt Hollingsworth

Detective Solomon Zhou studied the silver-haired woman seated across from him in his office. She claimed, and the report verified, that she’d been in a coma for the last seven years. Yet, she remembered things from that time. Awful things. Men in her room. Hands near her. The AI programs were scanning thousands of hours of hospital security camera footage to identify the assailant.

Zhou turned his gaze to the office window, watching the holographic birds dart among the cypress trees, chirping softly. Recently, he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to tear the window down or to crawl inside it.

Tonight, he promised himself. Tonight, he’d drown himself in an audio-novel or tinker with old computer parts, wiring and unwiring circuit boards until he felt pleasantly numb. Anything to dull his feelings, anything except using a Holo player. Right now, he had work to do.

“Did they explain the process to you, Mrs. Goldbrook?” he asked. The woman nodded, clutching the cross suspended from her necklace. “Will you give me your hand?” She reached out, and he attached the electrodes to her palm and wrist. Her hand twitched.

“There’s nothing to worry about, ma’am. It’s perfectly safe.” She still looked nervous, so he tried to make small talk to calm her. “I notice your necklace. Are you a Christian?” She nodded. “So was my dad,” Zhou said. “Does that necklace comfort you?”

“God comforts me,” she said.

Zhou gave his best imitation of a smile and rubbed his neck, still sore from his cousin’s couch—Jenni had taken their house in the divorce.

“The police didn’t believe me,” Mrs. Goldbrook said. “That someone would do that to an old lady. They think it was a dream.” She looked so much like Zhou’s own grandmother. He wanted to help her. Maybe he couldn’t keep his own life together, but at least he was good at his job.

“Ma’am, I promise, I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

That seemed to encourage her. Honestly, Zhou hoped it was a dream. He’d seen some awful stuff from his time as a detective, but this…

“We’re going to calibrate the machine first.” Zhou said, attaching the neural monitors to her head. “I want you to think about a strong memory. Anything.” Mrs. Goldbrook closed her eyes, and an image appeared on the screen on Zhou’s desk. He saw through Mrs. Goldbrook’s eyes as she walked between rows of chairs in a garden toward a man in a tuxedo. Her wedding, no doubt, and it must have been long ago because Zhou could see the sky—the real one.

“That’s good. Now I want you to think about the assault. Remember as best you can.” She clenched her hands. More images appeared but a very different sort. Swirls of mist obscuring strange patterns of shapes, loud distorted music. The machine was supposed to show color, and it had for the memory of her wedding, but these images were black and white. Zhou frowned, checking the settings.

“Can you describe what you’re remembering?”

Mrs. Goldbrook shook her head.

The patterns disappeared, and the mist began to clear, giving way to vague outlines. Zhou thought he could make out a window, a door, something that might have been a nightstand. Could be any one of a million rooms though somehow it looked familiar. Zhou checked the picture of the hospital room where Mrs. Goldbrook had stayed, but the layout was completely different.

“Can you remember the men? Try to picture their faces.” Suddenly, there were two dozen shadowy figures on the screen, the images fading in and out, shifting like a heat blur. Zhou had never seen a memory like this, not even of a dream.

Eventually, the face of one of the figures came into view. He was a longhaired man, maybe 40, with a nervous, guilty expression, but as his image grew clearer, it twisted into a cruel smile.

Across the table, Mrs. Goldbrook cried softly, her eyes closed.

“Do you need to stop?” Zhou asked.

She shook her head.

“Can you remember the assault?”

A black and white kaleidoscope of shapes tumbled across the screen, forming geometric grids with patterns of squares and lines. Then the man again. He sat against a wall, bawling, his body shaking. The image cut.

“They’re right, aren’t they?” Goldbrook asked. “Was it a dream?”

“Why don’t we try again in a couple of minutes.”

He spent over an hour with Mrs. Goldbrook but got the same results. Only one face could be clearly discerned. Eventually, Goldbrook was too drained to continue.

After she left, Officer Stevenson came by. “Find anything?” he asked.

“A lot, but I have no idea what it means. Sent you a face from her memories to run through the database. Have you found anything from the security cameras?”

“Not yet, but there’s a lot to go through.” He gave Zhou a pitying stare. “How is everything? With the divorce?” Zhou smiled and rattled off a few clichés, always darkest before the dawn, new chapter, first day of the rest of my life.

“I know exactly what you’re going through,” Stevenson said. “When Amber left me, it was the hardest thing I’d ever gone through. So, if you ever need some advice…” Stevenson had dated Amber for two months, and they’d fought for about half that, but Stevenson seemed to think he had the cure for any woe. “I think I know something that’ll get your mind off Jenni.”

Zhou didn’t particularly want to know what Stevenson had in mind. “I think I’ll pass for tonight,” Zhou said. Stevenson started to respond, but Zhou cut him off. “I’m not interested.” Stevenson shrugged and walked off.

Zhou left the office late that day, cutting through the park on his way back to his cousin’s apartment. He ran his hand along the bark of a synthetic tree, staring at the artificial sky of the dome that shielded their city. He saw an image of the full moon and knew that somewhere, 400,000 kilometers away, hung the real moon he’d never see.

Zhou checked his messenger, hoping to see something from Jenni (“I made a mistake and want you back”). Instead, he saw the picture of a blonde woman he wanted very much to forget along with, “Why the cold shoulder? I miss you.” He deleted it, closing his eyes, and breathed deeply. Part of him still wanted to reply, but he’d drown that out too. Just like everything else.

The next day, Stevenson popped in Zhou’s office and said, “We found a match on the face. Eric Daniels.”

“That’s great. Call him in.”

“Wish I could. He lives in Australia.”

“But this proves Goldbrook was right. If you just contact the local police…”

“That’s the other problem. There’s no record of him having been to America, certainly not in the seven years Goldbrook was in the coma. And the police don’t start international investigations over a hunch.”

“A hunch? This is straight from the victim’s memory,” Zhou said.

“And memory work is notoriously unreliable. Maybe she saw his face somewhere and incorporated it into her subconscious.”

Zhou frowned. “Could the travel records be wrong?”

“Have you tried getting through customs recently? They don’t make mistakes with their records anymore.”

“Maybe he got here some other way?”

“There’s an ocean and several thousand kilometers of radioactive wasteland between us and him. What did he do? Swim?” Stevenson paused. “Look, I know you’re just trying to be thorough, but unless we find something more substantial, it seems like a dead end. I think we should keep looking.” He handed over the report.

Zhou hated roadblocks. He may not have been a great husband, but solving crimes was something he could do right.

“You know, there’s no jurisdiction on the internet. This file says Daniels likes to spend time in New Dodge City. Maybe I should pay him a visit.”

Sunlight warmed Zhou’s neck. Hundreds of quaint wooden buildings lined the canyon. New Dodge City was busy but, unlike the real world, never crowded. The algorithm expanded the map whenever things got too cramped.

The detective had forgotten how real it all felt. The way the sand slid beneath his shoes, the smell of roasting pork from a nearby building—a virtual reality so lifelike it was almost perfect. Almost. He used to visit almost every night, but when Jenni left, he’d smashed his own Holo to pieces. He’d promised himself that he’d never use one again, but there was no other way to reach Daniels, and this was an official assignment. For today’s mission, he’d borrowed one from the police station, an older model from just after the switch to full-color graphics.

Still, he felt… uncomfortable.

“Solomon?” Behind Zhou stood the blonde whose picture he’d seen on his messenger. She wore a red dress, Western themed like the rest of the map but far more revealing than a real dress from the Old West.

Zhou turned without speaking, hurrying in the opposite direction. She caught up to him, and put her hand on his shoulder. He jerked away as if burned.

“Don’t you want to see me?”

“You ruined my marriage.” He could almost see the algorithm behind her eyes, trying to calculate a response. She looked so real, had felt so real all the times he’d taken her and programs like her to bed, but she, just like the dirt and rocks and trees, was data on a computer server. Not a real person. That’s what he tried to tell his wife when she found out what he’d been doing with all those hours spent on his Holo.

The program dipped her head in overacted guilt. “I’m sorry if I harmed your relationship. I just wanted to make you happy. Would you like me to cheer you up?” The response felt off, not quite human. A real woman would have gotten angry at his accusation—“Are you sure I’m the one who ruined it?”—or tried to justify herself—“There’s nothing wrong with what we did. People have needs, and if she doesn’t understand that, that’s her problem.” That’s how you could tell AIs apart. The longer you talk to one, the more subtly off they seem in their responses. Still, even knowing what she was, even newly divorced, Zhou found himself sweating, heartbeat rising.

“Please, just leave me alone.” He turned, almost running from her, eyes on the ground, not looking back.

He found Daniels drinking by himself in a saloon. There were other customers, most no doubt real users, but some AIs.

Zhou grabbed the stool next to Daniels and said, “I half expect John Wayne to step in.”

Daniels looked over, smiling. Zhou had researched Daniels. The Australian man ran a blog on old American Western movies, and Zhou had spent the last hour learning enough about them to fake his way through a conversation.

“I didn’t think anyone knew who he was anymore except me,” Daniels said.

“Are you kidding? How could anyone forget the Duke?”

Daniels stuck out his hand. “I’m Eric.”

They spent the next few minutes discussing classic Western movies. It was an interrogation tactic. People open up more if you make them feel comfortable. Zhou let him do most of the talking, not wanting to reveal his ignorance. Eventually, he said, “You seem to know a lot about American movies, but your accent…”

“Australian. Mum was from the States. She introduced me.”

“Ever been?”

Daniels shook his head.

“Not even once?”

“I don’t travel much.”

Zhou spent the next half hour subtly probing Daniels. If he was lying, he was very good at it. In books, cops have an almost magical ability to tell if someone’s lying, but in real life, it’s not so easy. Still, Zhou had done a lot of interrogations, and it seemed like Daniels was telling the truth. But there was one final test.

“You know, I have a friend who likes Western movies. Lizzie Goldbrook.” Zhou was watching the man’s face, but if he recognized the name, he gave no sign. “She actually just woke up from a coma. Spent the last few years at Grace Medical.”

Daniels wrinkled his brow at the odd comment, apparently unsure what to say. Still, if Zhou’s comments made him nervous, he was hiding it well.

Daniels said, “I guess we should drink to her recovery, then. We need more Western fans in the world.”

After another few minutes, Zhou deactivated the Holo and was once again in the police station. There was a message on his computer screen: Goldbrook is in the hospital in intensive care. It’s some kind of brain trauma. The doctors don’t know what’s causing it.

The heart rate monitor bleeped regularly as Zhou and Mrs. Goldbrook talked. Her expression was dazed, but her mind was clear enough to talk. He’d wanted to bring the memory reader, but the doctors wouldn’t let him given her condition.

Zhou asked, “Is there anything else you can tell me?”

“It’s all so… off. I don’t know how to describe it,” she said, pauses between every word.

He handed her a picture of Daniels. “Do you recognize this man?”

Her expression darkened. “That’s him.”

“Do you know his name?”

She shook her head.

“Do any of these names sound familiar?” He listed Daniels’ names along with a few dummy names. If she picked Daniels out of the list, it would be good evidence of a connection, but she said none of them sounded familiar. Zhou asked, “Can you tell me about any of the other assailants?”

“There were so many.” She paused, apparently considering. For a moment, Zhou was concerned she’d fallen asleep, but then she looked up at him with a strange expression, as if startled like she’d forgotten he was there. Finally, she said, “I just can’t remember right now.”

“Did you try to resist? If so, how did they respond?”

She paused for another long moment before saying. “I was just watching it play out.” She seemed to drift in and out of awareness after that, and finally the doctors told him to leave.

That night Zhou sat in his cousin’s living room. On his computer, he replayed the memories he’d recorded in his session with Goldbrook.

He wondered if it would be appropriate to visit her again in a few days, not to ask any more questions, just to be there for her. He tried not to get attached to cases, but he always seemed to anyway.

If she died, the case would probably die with her. The station’s AIs had finished searching through the hospital security camera footage and found nothing. No men in her room.

He felt a sudden urge to see the blonde woman in the red dress or one of the other programs. He thought about one particular AI with dark skin and curly hair, the main one he’d used until she had disappeared just a few days before Jenni left and he’d destroyed his Holo. Still, there were public ones at the library. There were people who would design custom programs for you. They could even make one that looked like Jenni. To see her grey-blue eyes, hold her hand, and… He shook his head. No, not that. Not ever.

He remembered once, at the height of his addiction, when his Holo had broken. He’d spent almost thirty minutes staring at the test pattern, willing the device to work. He’d almost been—

Zhou froze.

Test pattern.

He grabbed his computer, searching the internet for “Holo test patterns.” He skimmed the pictures until he found a particular image, a black and white kaleidoscope of shapes forming geometric grids with patterns of squares and lines. He compared it the pattern he’d recorded in his memory session with Goldbrook. The pictures were nearly identical. He called Officer Stevenson.

Before Stevenson could even say hi, Zhou said, “I know what the weird shapes are from Goldbrook’s memories. They’re Holo test patterns. The way the system checks to make sure it’s sending the right signals. That’s why the memories were in black and white since only the newer models have color. Her memories of the assault are from a Holo.”

“Are you sure?” Stevenson asked. Zhou shared the identical patterns from his computer screen. Stevenson studied them then said, “Okay, the patterns the same, but how did they get there? The AIs would have noticed if someone put a Holo over her face in the security footage, surely.” He thought for a moment. “Maybe the memory was from before. She could have seen the pattern earlier then dreamed about it during the coma.”

“Maybe.” Zhou put his hand to his chin. “Tomorrow morning, let’s talk to Goldbrook’s family, see if she even owned a Holo. If not, we’ll need to talk to somebody in Technical.”

Goldbrook’s family assured Zhou that she didn’t own a Holo, and they doubted she’d even know how to use one. The police ran her eye scans just to be sure, to see if there was an account associated with them.

In the meantime, Zhou and Stevenson went to Officer Hakim from the station’s Technical Division. The middle-aged woman was working on her computer when they approached. Glancing up, she typed on a wrist-worn device displaying a miniature keyboard. A robotic voice from the device said, “How can I help you?”

This was the condition that made Hakim the topic of perhaps more gossip than anyone else on the force. She wasn’t deaf, nor could there be injury to her vocal cords—if there had been, the doctors would have grown her new ones. So far, no one had worked up the courage to ask her about it, nor did she seem particularly anxious to share.

Zhou said, “We want to know if a Holo would work on someone in a coma.”

Hakim’s fingers were a blur as she typed. The mechanical voice said: “A normal Holo won’t work when you’re asleep. If you’ve ever fallen asleep while using one, you know it automatically logs you out. However, I remember reading studies a while ago on altering Holos to work with comatose patients to allow them to communicate with their families.”

She searched for something on her computer then turned the screen to them. As she again typed on her wrist device, the voice continued: “Here’s an article from a medical journal. They tried it about ten years ago, but it says the experiment didn’t work.”

Ten years ago. That was before Mrs. Goldbrook’s coma. Stevenson asked, “Did the experiments continue? Maybe a test sometime in the past seven years?”

After several minutes of searching, Hakim shook her head: “Not that I can find.”

“This is for the Goldbrook case,” Zhou said. “Can you have the AIs look through the security footage again, this time for anyone putting a Holo over her face?” He explained the situation and their suspicions.

Hakim typed: “I can have them search again, but I’m almost certain they would have flagged something suspicious like that. However, there is another possibility. People have also done experiments interfacing with VR directly through a chip in the brain, without the need for an external device. While the coma experiments were done with the classic facemask-style Holos, if someone was trying to hide the connection, he or she could also use an implanted chip. It could likely cause a lot of problems for the subject though—headaches, memory loss, even brain trauma.”

“Brain trauma…” Zhou said. He and Stevenson eyed each other. “We need to get to the hospital right away.”

Hakim accompanied them to the hospital where they met with three of the brain surgeons.

“I’m telling you, there’s no chip or anything in her head,” one doctor explained. “We’ve scanned her brain ten different ways—electromagnetic resonance, deep imaging—”

Hakim cut her off: “Have you tried an X-ray?”

The doctor who’d been speaking raised an eyebrow. “An X-ray? Do you think this is the Dark Ages?”

“There are ways to cloak a foreign object from most modern forms of scanning, give off a false signal, but an old-fashioned X-ray is too primitive to fool,” Hakim said.

The doctors looked back and forth. One said, “I think we have an old X-ray machine in storage.”

Sure enough, they found the chip in Goldbrook’s head. They scheduled the surgery immediately.

While the procedure was underway, Zhou had the hospital staff track down the chief neurosurgeon for Goldbrook’s last operation. His name was Dr. Jamison. Zhou and Stevenson took the man aside for questioning while the nurses performed X-ray scans on Jamison’s other patients.

It was dangerous to assume someone is lying just because they’re nervous—after all, most people would be nervous talking to the police in such a situation—but Zhou had a feeling this man’s denials of all knowledge were hollow.

Eventually, Hakim joined them, holding a glass vial containing a miniscule piece of metal.

“How is she?” Zhou asked.

“Still unconscious, but better now that this is out of her head.” The talking wrist device elicited no surprise from Jamison. Hakim handed Zhou the vial. Under her armpit were tucked a stack of X-rays. She lay them out on the table—fifteen, every single one with the same white square in the brain. “Look what the nurses found in the other patients, and that’s just the start. There are a lot more patients to check.”

Dr. Jamison gulped, his hands clenching and unclenching. Zhou stared at him, letting him stew in silence for a full minute before he said, “Well? It’ll go easier on you if you cooperate.”

After another minute of silence, Jamison choked out: “I was in so much debt, and I didn’t know what to do.”

“Someone paid you to do this?” Stevenson asked.

“Several clients. I’ll give you names, addresses, anything you want, just please—”

Hakim’s mechanical voice cut him off: “I recognize this brand. It’s been altered, but it looks like it was produced by the same company who did those comatose patient studies. How do they tie into this?”

“I was involved in the study years ago. We were trying to help people, give coma patients a way to access VR, but it didn’t work. Not enough of the subject’s brain was active to use the device. Eventually the project ended, but not before we discovered something. The device can use the idle parts of the patient’s brain, run programs on it, like a computer running software in the background.”

Finally, Stevenson asked the question they all wanted to know: “What are the devices for?”

Jamison closed his eyes. “You know all the AI programs online, right? They practically run the planet.”

“AIs? Of course.”

“AIs for spam. AIs for selling stuff. AIs for…” Jamison grimaced. “AIs for other—”

“Pornography, prostitution,” said Stevenson, “and now sexual assault. Get to the point, will you?”

“Do you know the one thing they struggle at?”


“Relationships and conversation. They can make small talk fine, but imagine you want an AI program that can do more, that can pretend to be human. Imagine you want an AI that could form relationships with your customers, to keep them coming back. The problem is that the longer you talk to a program, the more the cracks start to show, the more formulaic and mechanical they become. More likely they are to contradict themselves and break the illusion.” Zhou knew this all too well. “You’ll also notice how they try to keep responses vague and general, to let you lead the conversation. So how do you build a better AI?” Jamison pointed to the chip. “Plug it into a human brain.”

He explained how he’d sold access to the patients’ brains to various clients. Some were running simple sales programs or chat bots. Others were used for experimentation by biohackers on the Dark Web. But when they found out what Mrs. Goldbrook’s chip had been for, they all grimaced. She was being used for the sex AIs. Sex was an intimate thing, and nothing broke the illusion like being reminded that your lover was data in a computer, as Zhou knew full well. So, hook a human brain to an AI. Use their brain to run the program. Makes the program more realistic, and realistic programs attract more customers.

“Were the comatose patients controlling the AIs?” Zhou asked. “I’ve met one of these patients, and she wouldn’t have done the things these programs do.”

Jamison stared at his hands, “Not in the way you’re thinking. Imagine her consciousness—her soul if you believe in that—as a software program that runs on the hardware of her brain. We used her brain to run a separate program of our design. This woman… she would never have been a prostitute, but perhaps she would respond to a touch from her husband, particular flirts, ways of acting during intimacy. That’s what the program filters for. The patient wouldn’t be aware of it at all, so it’s a victimless crime.”

Victimless. Zhou’s hands clenched into fists. “I’ve got memory work that says she was aware,” Zhou said. “She remembers being assaulted by strangers. She remembers the face of at least one of them.”

“That’s impossible,” Jamison said, but he didn’t sound confident.

Zhou leaned forward, uncomfortably close to Jamison. “Let’s hear the names of those clients.”

They brought two dozen cops as backup, but they didn’t need them. The address Jamison gave them was for a shabby and graffitied house near the edge of the dome. The moment the officers busted down the door, it was over, and ten computer programmers were on their knees in surrender, begging for a lawyer. A tall, lanky man cried as an officer cuffed his wrists. There would be confessions soon, but they already had most of it from Jamison.

“You don’t understand,” the programmer cried. “They weren’t supposed to remember.”

Almost a dozen people had been wired into the sex AIs. Men and women exploited as objects. Violated for the pleasure of uncaring patrons. Zhou watched as, one by one, the programmers were hauled out of the house to the waiting cop cars while other officers set up a crime scene.

Then, Zhou glanced at one of the computer screens, and his body grew cold. It was an image of Mrs. Goldbrook and a picture of another woman, far younger. A dark-skinned woman with curly hair. Zhou’s mouth went dry. His legs turned liquid.

He looked to the tall programmer. The only one still in the room.

“Who is this?” He motioned to the curly-haired woman.

The programmer just shook his head, wiping away tears. “I want my lawyer.”

Zhou grabbed him around the neck. “Who is she?” he shouted. Instantly, three officers were on top of them, prying Zhou’s hands off the crying man. “Tell me who she is!”

“That’s the subject’s avatar,” the programmer said. “The AI she was connected to online.”

Zhou’s hands shook. A moment later, he was outside the warehouse, on his knees, eyes wide. Stevenson and two other officers stood beside him.

“Why’d you do that? You’ve given his lawyer material to use in court.”

Zhou stared at his hands. They seemed like some kind of alien hands, not really his. Something foreign to his being.

“I know her.” It was hardly a whisper. “The AI. I slept with her.” He was shaking now. “I was one of the men Mrs. Goldbrook saw.”

When he finally understood, Stevenson said, “It’s not your fault. You didn’t know.”

Had he? Hadn’t he noticed how much more realistic the program had seemed than the others? Out of thousands and thousands of AIs, what were the odds that he would end up with one of these few who’d been connected to a human brain? No wonder the bedroom from Goldbrook’s memories had looked familiar—he’d been there with her.

He didn’t know what was worse—what he had done, or the knowledge that someday, even having seen this, he’d want the programs again.

Stevenson put his hand on Zhou’s shoulder, but Zhou shook it off. “Look, I know what you must be feeling.”

Zhou glared. “You don’t know anything.” He sat on his knees for several moments before another officer offered to drive him back to the station.

He didn’t speak on the ride. Above them, the imitation sky brightened with a fake sunrise.

Zhou just stared at his hands. Did his actions make him a criminal like those programmers? What could he be charged with? Even if he wasn’t legally a criminal, he still felt like one. In the past, whenever his conscience had pricked him about the Holo use, he would comfort himself by saying: It isn’t real.

Except it was.

He knew where he’d be as soon as Goldbrook recovered: at her feet begging her forgiveness.

In his childhood, Zhou’s father told him of a God who died to rescue people like him. Never paid it much thought before. He remembered Goldbrook clutching that cross in her hand. Maybe that’s all he could do. Cling to that cross for dear life. Pray that someone was holding him even tighter.