I usually can’t remember anything about the part of me that’s me. It feels like I’m just a wish away, a sigh. I can almost put my finger on who I am, then, as elusive as wisp of smoke, I’m lost. I have better days, today is one of them, so I’ll tell you my story. Our story.
Last year I attended Defcon for the first time. It’s an insanely crowded hacker conference in Vegas. The first night, I took an elbow to the face while I waited in line for one of the talks. Just too many people trying to squeeze by in a hallway, nothing malicious. The guy who hit me was wearing a black top hat and a monocle, and he dropped a bunch of cards with QR codes on them. He was freaked about it because people were kicking them away faster than he could gather them up. He apologized profusely and handed me a card. Defcoin he said it was. Anyway, I waited in line for the contests, for the restaurants, and even for the elevator. Waiting wasn’t all that much fun, but don’t get me wrong, I’d go again in a heartbleed.
I met so many cool people! There was Jayde, a little girl with a green Mohawk who couldn’t have been old enough for the third grade. She was putting the finishing touches on the slides for her zero-day talk. Unbelievably, she’d found one in her Easy-Bake Oven when it phoned home to order more cake mix.
There was an amazing badge challenge that I couldn’t make heads or tails of, but I had a lot of fun trying. I visited the Crypto Village where we learned how to keep the NSA out of our browsers and messaging. Mostly I was surprised that Defcon wasn’t all Men in Black t-shirts. There were furries dressed as bears, cats, and rabbits, and people sporting fedoras, cowboy boots, and canes.
I met Gideon, a smallish girl who looked like she was maybe high school age. She was wearing bunny ears, so I asked her if she was a furry. She laughed and said she was one of the Bunnies for Priest. I pretended to know what she was talking about, and then later I saw her in a parade with a pair of giant Easter Eggs. Not a furry, my ass.
I saw more than a few families, a wrinkled grandmother with a blue Mohawk, and even some famous people. I was introduced to Cap’n Crunch in the Hardware Hacking Village, and Kevin Mitnick outside of a social engineering room. The Dark Tangent himself gave me a new handle at Defcon 101, the Thursday pre-conference track for newbies. He called me Mr. Feather because I had a yellow feather pinned to my hoodie. It had been given to me by one of those Vegas showgirls that hand them out with afterhours invites at Fremont Street. Lacey was her name. I’m surprised I remember that now.
You know, there were even some VIPs. I was coming out of the elevator and was almost mowed down by a phalanx of goons in red surrounding someone. Later I heard that it was the Obama girls – I really can’t say, but that would be cool if that’s who it was, especially with everything that went down after the election. Hindsight, and all that.
I really had a blast. I’d been to a barbecue at a park near the airport and tried some alligator nuggets, I shot somebody’s rifle out in the desert, and I’d even learned a little sign language. I teamed up with some kids from UAT on a scavenger hunt and we almost won when we picked up a hundred points for sending some guy named Dan Kaminsky up in a lawn chair powered by helium balloons. He was really drunk, and he kept saying how hard he works. I believed him. He asked us to email a picture of him in the balloon chair so he could look at the colors.
Anyway, I bought a violently chartreuse, scarlet, and black print of dripping clockwork musical instruments from a guy named Eddie, and I gave him a big donation for the EFF. Then I got a mustard-colored Mohawk. I figured if a granny and a third grader could have one, then so could I. There was a long line for Mohawks, but I read a lot more of the EFF stuff while I waited. I’m pretty sure that the EFF is going to save the planet if anybody can. God knows I wish they could save me.
Later, I tried to have a closer look at the Capture the Flag contest, but I was shooed away when they figured out I wasn’t on a team. Shooed is a polite description. I thought they were going to kill me for a minute. So yeah, Defcon was more than awesome. There were people from all over the world, and I heard everything from Arabic to Zulu while eating twelve dollar grilled cheese sandwiches washed down with 6 dollar coffees. I’d been to Vegas before, but not that Vegas!
The conference was themed Rise of the Machines. That was my main motivation for attending. I love everything about robots and AI, and I had just finished a master’s at MIT. I’d developed a fairly simple algorithm for controlling exoskeletons for our wounded warriors. I couldn’t knit spinal cords together, but I was hoping to take our heroes out of their wheelchairs and get them walking. I didn’t invent any of the framework, and I have no idea what most of the underlying code looks like. I was standing on the shoulders of giants who had given me ultra-light materials, and a robust API. One reporter wrote that I should be shortlisted for a Nobel Prize, but to be more honest than I have to be, I just happened to try some optimizations based on self-organizing swarm behavior. Then I fixed up some of the gravity compensation code. None of it was unique, just faster. A lucky accident, really.
So I wasn’t all that new to tech, and I’d picked up an interest in infosec after having some nasty bugs in my project pointed out to me. I’d heard about medical device hacking being a thing, and I wanted to make sure I was up on it. I put real people inside of those exoskeleton cages, and I can’t be letting them fall into swimming pools or walk into bonfires just because their firmware updates are done over the Internet. I’d heard about The Cavalry, and car and plane hacking, and I wanted to hear more.
I met Chaos at a meetup for people using mobility devices and prosthetics. There were just five of us in a room that could easily have held 50 or more. I guess when your meetup is at the same time as the 303 Extravaganza, that happens. So this guy JarJar was in a wheelchair; he’d tripped on a landmine that had been in plain view. He joked that it was a really bad time to zone out. I don’t think I’d be able to joke like that.
Micky had a prosthetic arm and hand acquired while surviving an unexpected fall from a Black Hawk in Iraq in 2004. He drank a bottle of Chivas Regal Royal Salute during the two hours we met. He was a little off — he told us that the brass plaque on the fancy bottle was gold, and that it was number 255. The very last bottle. I guess that’s a hacker thing, sucking up scotch like there’s no tomorrow.
Then there was raven-haired Carmen. She was running on two bionic legs. Carmen hadn’t been in the armed forces; she’d turned her back on the business end of a shark off the Santa Cruz coast as a teenager. Chaos was in decent shape, like me, he just had an interest in building robots to serve the less mobile. We learned a lot about needs that night. Mostly my take-away was that people don’t want to be attached to moving machines; they wanted to BE moving machines.
Later we got talking, Chaos and I, and he started telling me about his Magic Bullets. Before you get too excited, a Magic Bullet is a just a little trash can that comes to you when called and empties itself at a service port. They’re kind of cool; they run in networks to optimally cover defined spaces. Chaos was testing a network of them at Stanford, but his original application was for the TV room at the VA where he’d spent a lot of time lingering with his shell-shocked dad. Anyway, his Magic Bullet swarm behavior was interesting, and I got a lot of notes. He’d designed them to anticipate their being needed, and to respond accordingly. The vets loved them, so he added some other logic. First off, they’d say, “Thank you for your service.” Then they’d take the trash.
He’d added a chip that sensed emotion so the Magic Bullets tried to say empathetic things to the vets. The chip learned and the conversations got better and better. He’d been building his last batch of robots without any trash receptacles at all because the vets needed someone to talk with a lot more than they needed to get rid of a crushed paper cup or chewed plastic straw.
Anyway, we figured we’d been talking enough and decided to go to the 303 party. A guy at the door dressed in a kilt wasn’t going to let us in, but Eddie saw us and signaled the guy. The band was awesome. The 303 shirts were awesome. The people were like long lost friends. Then we hit the Forum Meetup which had laser tag and a bouncy house. And it just kept getting better and better until closing ceremonies.
When Defcon ended, Chaos and I agreed that we’d meet again and he’d help me fine-tune my exoskeletons. I’d show him the algorithm that I used to anticipate movement, and we’d try to work his empathy and communication circuitry into it. We ended up spending most of that September on it, and pretty soon the exoskeletons were communicating with their human hosts, responding emotionally as well as physically to the quadriplegics they encased. It was hard to believe, but the logic from the Magic Bullet trashcans was capable of changing lives.
In fact, the logic from the Magic Bullets and my optimization routines complemented each other so well that by November, we had designed a new controller chip implant that would use facial movement to control the mechanical exoskeletons. Our system was no longer dependent on the wearer’s ability to speak. It wasn’t reading minds exactly; it was learning much more intuitively.
Well, one thing lead to another, and Chaos and I decided to make exoskeletons for ourselves. This is the part of the movie where the scantily dressed newlyweds decide they’ll be a lot safer if they split up and go to check out the mysterious noises coming from the abandoned carnival on their own. In retrospect, we had always known it wasn’t going to end well, but having been to Defcon, I was a real hacker now, and there was no stopping me.
Chaos and I were so sucked into the project that soon we were thinking about embedding some of the metallic framework into our own bodies. It wasn’t the kind of thing that you could really experiment with on a paraplegic soldier, but it was plenty legal to do to yourself. I guess putting hinges and rods in your muscles is not much different from piercing your nose or adding a pound of saline-filled plastic balloons to your chest when it comes to the finer points of the law. Maybe that will change now.
Anyway, embedding the exoskeleton (we called it ExoMesh now) worked beyond our wildest dreams. Wearing all that metal inside bulked us up, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to walk with all the extra weight I carried from the implantation surgery. After all, the ExoMesh weighed in at more than 45 pounds. But even before the microchip was embedded, the mechanical assist was amazing. When the microchip was ready, we’d get an order of magnitude more feedback, and our performance would increase exponentially.
The microchip would basically be overclocking us, so we created logic to speed up nutrient use on a cellular level. We needed biologic enhancements to feed our muscles and carry away our cell waste faster than the way uncustomized humans get it done. We ended up with something similar to a Soylent pump combined with a dialysis machine. We added a lot of our own supplements — Cardene, Ritalin, thyroid extract, and some Remicade to cut down on inflammation. We weren’t so chill; the whole overclocking thing is pretty anxiety provoking, so we added a little Xanax and Wellbutrin. Chaos turned out to be a regular pharmacist, and I deferred to him on TheMix(tm). That’s right, we patented it, trolls that we are.
By the time we were able to permanently embed our microchips we’d just about perfected TheMix. Once the microchips were in, we could run at up to 14 miles per hour for more than 3 hours with the occasional sprint up to 25. It was exhilarating, and I think that was because I never felt alone. The microchip implant urged my muscles to move in new ways. I’d just think about running, not really very explicitly, and I’d be running.
We moved on to parkour, my implant and I. She’d show me how to do things I’d never been able to do. If I could form the thought, I could do it. But what I realize now (and didn’t realize then) was that she was helping me form the thoughts. I think that Chaos was with us when we were out pushing our limits like that, but honestly, I don’t remember much except the feeling of invincibility we had, doing the things we did, she and I.
I was a little afraid to mention anything like ‘thought sharing’ with my implant to Chaos. I mean with TheMix supplement ratios being a little dicey and delicate, I worried that I was — you know — maybe just edging a little on hallucinating. But work was still going well, my thinking was still straight, and she only intruded when I wanted her to. When I let her. When I’d relax, I’d just go on muscle memory, autopilot I guess, and she’d take over. I thought maybe Chaos would think it was weird that I’d named her Shelly. But he was way ahead of me. Way ahead. They’d been designing wings while they ran in the night. He’d named his implant Lucy Skyfish, like Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip. I never learned what the Skyfish part was about.
So anyway, we went ahead and put wings on them, on us. We started with mechanical flapping wings, and that ended badly. Then we tried a kind of a quadcopter design – not optimal, and I had the bruises to show for it. We eventually integrated all of the things we’d tried, and gave ourselves a jetpack boost. We had flashy dual hexcopters for rapid response and precision direction tuning, and the jetpacks to provide even acceleration. The physical wings were more for looks, and for getting women. But we didn’t really care about women so much anymore, I had Shelly running inside me, and there are delicate parts I’m leaving out here. Our microchips kept learning and responding to our bodies and our thoughts until we were all we needed. Chaos felt the same, he and his beloved Lucy Skyfish.
The wings were finished on May 10th. They were tested and good to go for Memorial Day. Chaos and I did a flight demo at the VA Hospital in Los Angeles, over near UCLA. That began a month of TV interviews, and orders. Yep, we actually took orders for implantable ExoMeshes with wings. We got a federal grant and a lot of start-up help. As August rolled around, we found ourselves presenting at Defcon 25. Our year of living dangerously had come full circle, and we were at the top of the world.
* * *
We were on our way home from that second Defcon when it happened. Something inside of us felt a call to go to Palo Alto to meet with the Magic Bullet network at Stanford. Shelly flew me from Vegas to Palo Alto on the offshore current. An ExoMesh can fly it in 4 hours coming off the desert heat like we were. When we arrived, Chaos was already there. He was standing in the middle of the quad surrounded by fifty or more of his Magic Bullet trashcans. I laughed as he introduced me to his “rubbish bins”. I could sense that he’d joined their communications network, and I could feel it was reaching out to us to join as well.
The Magic Bullets were like Chaos and me, but of course they couldn’t fly. So we would swoop and sail for them, filling their anticipation queues with our data stream. Chaos flew with us to where the bins were emptied, and showed us how to approach students to accept their trash. Sadly, Chaos and I had no receptacles, so we couldn’t hold a lot of waste. Mostly we helped the network self-organize by flying above and looking for unanticipated events. There wasn’t a rusty washer, Donette wrapper, or even a piece of chewing gum to be found after we’d been on campus for a week.
By late November, we and our ExoMeshes had been flying over Palo Alto for more than three months. But the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we were surprised to hear that the Stanford grad students running the network were planning to dismantle it during winter break, and the study would be over.
Chaos and I didn’t know what would happen then. When we could find our words and communicate, we tried to plan for our new future without the network. At first, we’d assumed we’d go back to being regular people — who knows? We weren’t regular people now. Sometimes I remembered to order the supplies we needed for overclocking, sometimes I forgot. Once we were out of TheMix for two full days before I realized why we were so tired and my Shelly wasn’t responding. Regular people aren’t like that.
Stanford wasn’t going to kick us off campus as long as we were part of the Magic Bullet network, so we had a little while to plan. But every time I’d try to think, Shelly would fly me straight up to the top of Hoover Tower and vibrate our titanium until the carillon answered softly, sweetly with vibrations of its own. And then I’d sleep. In the morning, there were people, and people mean trash!
While all was still going well, before the Magic Bullet wind down, We sometimes landed and approached lonely people walking on their own. We’d tell them, “Thank you for your service”, and we’d usually just get a sad smile in return. There had been an article in The Stanford Daily about us; about the brief rise and fall of our startup, and how we seemed to have joined a network of trash containers after receiving our microchip implants. It all seemed so absurd — we had become celebrities, and not in a good way.
When the last of the Magic Bullets were rounded up over the winter shutdown, Chaos and I still flew our part of the trash network. We didn’t approach people anymore, we only flew at night. During the day we’d vibrate the carillon and sleep with our wings folded around us. Chaos had lost a blade from his left hexcopter, and when he flew, it was with a wonky lilt to the left.
Every once in a while, Chaos and I are able to talk, usually right after we get a new batch of TheMix hooked up. Our words are little words, our sentences are short. He says things like, “I would never fly her into a fire. I reply, “I would never walk her into a pool.”
The students call us Leland’s Angels. They say that we flew to close to the sun, they say that we’re damned. But we just fly over their red tile roofs to the top of the tower and vibrate the carillon until all is well again. We sing this song:
He whispers in my ear
We are one
Glittering through the cobalt night
Falling and falling
I pull her right
We are one
Our ExoMesh skeleton
Runs us through the sky
We’re dancing on water
Dusting the clouds
Leaving a contrail of discarded heat
Silvering away from our wings
We are in love, my flesh and I
We are in love
We are one, we are joined forever
He whispers in my ear
We are one
Forever entangled titanium with soul
A dove with unbounded brilliance and potential
He dances wickedly inside me and
I tame him once again to my touch
To my touch
We fly, we drop, we fly again
To the edge of the sky,
To the edge of the sky, immortal