The Lab

experimental sci-fi humor, horror, and prose.

Eyes Wide Open

Michael walked into the front office and took a seat. He sat nervously and wondered what the doctor would say about his request. After all, it's fairly unusual for an implant patient to ask for a removal. His left eye would almost certainly be blind afterwards.

The woman sitting next to Michael looked up briefly then went back to her blank magazine and chuckled. Michael could not view what she saw through her implant, but assumed from the magazine's back cover that it must be something funny about celebrity lifestyles.

Every magazine was like that these days. Just blank pages with codes printed in infra-red. When you looked at them with ocular implants (and the right app installed, of course) you could see videos, articles, or endless cat memes. What technology had stolen from print it had given back in the form of augmented reality everything. Any flat surface could be a medium for publishing.

Michael looked at the empty picture frames on the walls, each large enough for a work of art or three standard advertisements. Today, Michael could see neither the art nor the ads, just a shifting fuzzy blinking pattern that caused a dull headache. Michael turned back to the door he came through and wondered if this was all a mistake.

"Michael Stroke", the nurse shouted as she opened the door to the back office. "Michael Stroke for a 2:30 appointment with Dr Dazzle".

As Michael stood up he wondered if Dazzle was really the man's name or just a clever marketing gimmick to drum up business. Not that it mattered. Ocular specialists were in such demand they could write their own tickets these days. "I'm here."

"Please wash your face thoroughly and put on this cover", the nurse said roughly as she led him to a small examination room with a washbasin and chair. "The doctor will be in with you shortly", she said in the same curt tone, then closed the door.

As Michael scrubbed his face he wondered if this was the right solution. There must be some other way, he thought. Some way that wouldn't impair is medical abilities.

Michael looked out the window for a brief moment, then came to his senses. No. It's the only way. He'd been through this. Living with the virus would only impair him more. Michael pressed a button to close the quarantine blinds just as the doctor arrived.

"Good afternoon Mr Stroke. I'm Dr Dazzle." said the doctor with a genuine smile.

"Please call me Michael. And thank you for seeing me on such short notice."

"You're lucky. Normally I wouldn't have any openings for another two months but there was a last minute cancelation. And call me Allan, by the way."

Allan then flipped on his tablet and swiped through some notes. "You want me to remove your implant. So what's the problem you're seeing? Are you having registration issues?"

"Not exactly. I'm seeing fuzzy lines that cause me headaches."

"All the time?"

"No. just in adboxes and overlays."

"Hmm. Then that doesn't sound like a registration issue. Maybe it's a connection problem. Let me take a look."

Dr Dazzle pulled out his optic probe and placed it directly over Michael's right eye. Michael pulled back and said "It's my left eye I'm having problems with".

"I know, but I want to capture a baseline. It's odd that you are having difficulties with one eye and not the other."

One eye and then the other, the doctor visually observed Michael's eyes through the probe's viewfinder while it received data from the translucent film of technology embedded under his cornea. Most implants these days had direct laser connections for remote diagnosis but these particular ones seemed to be older. Much like the positively ancient (by implant standards) QR codes, Michael's used a shifting grid of black and white to transmit data.

Allan removed the probe and looked sternly at his tablet while Michael looked calmly back. "These are some very confusing results" said the doctor. "First, your implants aren't the same revision. In fact, you have two completely different brands! That's very unusual. The one with the trouble is made by A-Corp. Was it replaced at some point?"

Michael had prepared for this question. "Yes. I had a skiing accident some years ago and had to put in a new one. It was not under the best of circumstances so I just went with what they had available. Fortunately none of my natural tissue was damaged. Just a slight puncture in the anterior chamber. "

"Fascinating. Do they cause you headaches? Most of my patients with temporary unmatched pairs get headaches from them until we put in their proper second implant".

"It's been fine. I don't notice the difference very often. Perhaps I've just gotten used to them. At least until recently, of course".

"I'm glad to hear that. So why do you want it removed? It may impair your vision permanently to no longer have an implant."

"I'm just tired of the headaches. And I can always use my other eye."

"I see", said Dr Dazzle walked across the room and shut the door, then turned to the wall and pressed what appeared to be an empty spot in the wall with his thumb. A small tray slid out with a tiny switch. Dr Allan Dazzle then flipped the switch and the lights turned red. Now Michael was nervous.

"I have just disabled the central recording system. Everything you and I say while the lights are dim is private and cannot be subpoenaed, per doctor - patient confidentiality doctrine. So tell me Michael. Who are you hiding from?"

Michael's stomach tightened. "Um. I'm not sure what you mean? I don't think I'm hiding from anyone."

"You can drop the pretense now. Your eyes are eighteen revisions behind, which as you know, is illegal. All optical implants are required by law to be updated with the latest vendor firmware within 30 days. Yours are nearly three years behind. Anyone who does that has something to hide."

Now Michael struggled to answer. "I guess I just forgot to upgrade. I'm not very savvy with gadgets and things."

"Bullshit. To avoid updates requires an active network block, and someone who isn't tech savvy would have no idea how to do that. Now please be honest with me. Doctor Michael Stroke. Who.. "Allan drew out the syllables, "are you hiding from?"

"W.. wh.. why do you think I'm a doctor?", Michael stuttered.

"You closed the quarantine blinds before I arrived, which implies you are hiding from something. You also knew to use them instead of standard blinds, which means you know your way around a doctor's office. You also use terms like natural tissue and anterior chamber. Most of my patients don't talk like that."

Michael gained a few inches of spine back. "That's ridiculous. I could just be familiar with doctors equipment. You know what. Forget about the implant. I'll just deal with my headaches. Good bye."

Michael leaned forward to stand when Allan moved in front of him.

"Talk to me. I think I can help. You're MSF aren't you. What is your real name?"

Michael had feared this moment for days, but when it came he was actually relieved.

"Okay, okay. I am a doctor. And Michael Stroke is my real name. I probably should have checked in with a pseudonym but.. truthfully I was never cut out for this spy stuff."

"I've been in doctors without borders going back a decade. But I'm not hiding from anyone. Well, not anyone in particular. Not here in the States anyway."

"I see. But you are hiding from someone somewhere, right? Or else you would have kept your implant firmware up to date."

"Yes. Three years ago I skipped an update when they turned on some new forms of tracking. Before then I could just turn off the tracking, but this was different. Something intrinsic to the firmware that couldn't be disabled. So I found a network block and stopped updating."

"I suspected as much. So what are you hiding from"

"Allan. Are you familiar with Costa Buena?"

"Sure. It's pops up in the news from time to time. A Central American country always teetering between autocracy and full dictatorship. Is that where you have been traveling?"

"Yes. As you may know, the government of Costa Buena assumes anyone giving assistance to the poor and suffering must be an outside agent trying to overthrow the presidency.

Supposedly only A-Corp has access to my data under the new implant tracking system but honestly I don't trust that. Tracking my every move may be illegal under UN convention, but that won't stop the president of Costa Buena, or any of a number of other bad guys. The mob. Neo-FARCs. There are a lot of people who would be interested in what I do.

"Which is?", Allan raised an eyebrow and leaned in slightly.

Michael continued. "A few times a year I fill my luggage with medicine and equipment and fly to La Laguna Azul, an expensive beach resort. I use it as my base. From there I can travel around the country distributing supplies."

Now Allan looked confused. "While disabling your eye tracking helps, surely they would know as soon as you entered the country what you were doing. There still is customs to get through. They would know you are there".

Michael smiled: "True, but La Laguna is special. It's a resort for the rich and powerful; and though I am neither I have an agreement with the owner. He appreciates our work. It is also one of the few places the government allows to be off the grid. No tracking or recording of any kind.

So while I am officially staying there I am able sneak out to other parts of the country undetected. The owner periodically hosts medical "training sessions" so that we have an excuse to get in. As long as I leave on time no one is the wiser. Well, that and..."

"As long as your eyes don't give you away." Allan completed. "Now I think I understand. And I also think I can help you fix your vision problems without permanently blinding your eye."

Michael feel both relieved and shocked. "What? How?! That would be fantastic?".

Now Allan wore a smile. "As I suspected, the scan reported a digital virus in your left eye. It's what is causing the headaches and blurry images. Presumably at some point it will hold your vision ransom in exchange for a sum of money to be sent to an anonymous address. That you only got it in one eye is probably because you have two different brands. These viruses often target specific make and models.

This virus is pretty standard stuff. There are viruses all over the network. New ones every day. Most people just update their firmware after an infection and the virus goes away. That's why you are required to keep it updated. But of course you haven't had that option. Now let me ask you: what if you did?

"How? The vendor patches for both of my eyes enable manufacturer tracking. I'd never be able to get out of the resort again. Even if I installed a different brand I'd still be stuck. All of them do tracking. And I can't trust them not to leak information to the government of Costa Buena.

"Not all firmware is made by the manufacturer.", said Allan. "Have you heard of something called Open Source?"

"No. What is it?"

"It is firmware created by outsiders. They reverse engineered the hardware inside of implants and wrote their own new firmware. From scratch. They don't work for A-Corp or anyone else. They just make it free for everyone to use."

Wait! Wouldn't it be crazy to install some software from the internet into my eyeball? How would I know what it did?! Anyone could sneak anything in there!

Quite true. Not all software is equal. I recommend you try 'eyecon5'. It stays up to date with all of the latest viruses and 'unknown benefactors' pay for regular audits by security professionals. Doesn't have all of the features of some other firmwares, but for what you do it's going to be the safest option.

That sounds amazing. Can you install it?

Unfortunately no. While the firmware itself is not illegal, bypassing the BIOS requires using a certain crypto key. This key is widely known and distributed, but was technically stolen, therefore installing it would be a crime.

Allan hands Michael a small slip of paper. Send a secure message to this contact. You will get physical address of someone who can install it. They rotate the locations so that they don't get caught. Don't be surprised if it's a rather unsavory area of the city.

Michael, I know you said you were never any good at this spy stuff, but you're going to have to learn if you want to keep doing this.

Yeah... Michael looked down at the paper. I don't know what to say. This is amazing. Thank you.

Just say you will keep helping people who need it. Then Allan turned off the red light.

"I'm sorry I couldn't help you more.", Dr Dazzle spoke loudly for the benefit of recording devices. "Do you have any other questions?"

Just one. Is Dazzle your real name?

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