Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
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Bleeding Metal

by John Carrick

February 23rd, 2285

Dr. Fox set the black-metal device on the desk; he'd felt its need. The machine was hungry and would have to be fed. He looked around the facility and let the dull emptiness fill his ears. The bay was abandoned at this hour. Decoratively spare to the point of empty; clusters of terminals stood separated by sheets of foamed plastic. Couches leaned against cold metal walls.

Fox knew that if he were caught with another invention, he'd be done for; nothing could save him from a second charge of treason. He looked out the window, procrastinating. Even in this he was frustrated, seeing only his reflection staring back from outside the glass. The conference center hovered at ten thousand feet, over international waters, where legislative restrictions could not be enforced.

Dr. Andrew Fox was tall and lean, his physique that of an obsessive scientist, who eats when he has to and resents the activity. The device was not as forgiving about its needs and flashed another reminder across Fox's mind. He scanned the area and again listened intently, taking every precaution before exposing himself. Thank god the facility was used for dubious projects; here, privacy was more important than security. During the past week Fox hadn't discovered even a hint of any recording system. If there was no surveillance, he was safe.

Fox triggered the feed tray and watched it extend from the rectangle, its matte finish absorbing light. The doctor opened the center drawer of his assigned desk. He fished out some change and a letter opener. He set the coins and blunt knife next to the feed tray and closed his eyes.

In his mind Fox called forth the utility menu. He could operate the device with his eyes open, but it was easier to focus on the visual cues without the added distraction of sight. He enabled the ingestion program and checked the thing's vitals. Everything looked normal; the cache was low, available reserves in the mid range.

Andrew opened his eyes. He knew the device could smell the metal and was aware that it was about to be fed. He picked up a couple coins and set them on the center of the plate. It was best to let it start slow. A moment later they began to sink, as if the face of the plate had turned to gel.

Andrew closed his eyes and checked the activity display. The burn gauge had spiked and other ingestion protocols buzzed with the activity of consumption as the coins were broken down and processed at the molecular level. Andrew felt dirty, as if he were intruding, and turned the display off. He piled the remaining coins on the plate and set the letter opener across the top. The previous coins were still being metabolized and it would take some time to consume them all.

Despite the current illegality of his creation, Fox knew that eventually someone else would hit upon the idea of wireless forebrain data-transfer. When they did, he could release his version of the concept, maybe a year or so later. He'd be accused of copying, but that was better than treason. Then he'd be in the clear.

The algorithm he'd used to write the code was similar to modern telecommunications; but Fox had created a six-sided switch structure that supported the human mind. The drive seemed to have limitless space. All of his research resided in the banks of the device. He generated and received correspondence over its frequencies. He was even capable of perusing other systems without leaving a hint of his presence.

In meetings Fox would occasionally look at the ceiling or rub his forehead as if engrossed in thought. Nine times out of ten, he was accessing the device for an answer to some problem asserting itself in his mundane environment. Dr. Fox always had the answer. The knowledge at his disposal made him an intellectual giant. Knowledge is power.

Dr. Fox understood the government's desire to be aware of all technological advances. The potential damage inflicted by an enemy equipped with such a device could be devastating. Yet, the copyright laws clearly stated that any inventions created while on the national payroll were government property.

The government employed Fox across an array of fields and even so, he might have a case, if he took it to court. This is if he made it to court. The feds didn't play around when it came to ownership rights. Everyone knew a colleague who'd been royally screwed by the Federal Acquisitions Department: the heavy-handed FAD.

Fox watched the consumption of the coins. He could still see their faces, the wet metal had only half swallowed them. After all this time, Fox still hadn't decided on a proper name for it. For marketing purposes, it could be referred to as the Molecular Neural Interface, as that was what it did. Lately he'd been calling it the Micronix. He didn't know why, but he liked the sound of it.

The machine's genesis felt more like discovery than invention; as if it had been there all along, guiding him, one step at a time. After the latest upgrade to the neural interface, he now had trouble defining where the box left off and his own mind began.

Perhaps the device had named itself and filled him in. It was difficult to determine which thoughts were his and which weren't. 'Micronix' would be the name he would suggest to the marketing team if -- when he could reveal its existence. Even his girlfriend didn't know about it; he hadn't told her. If she knew, she would be considered to be an accomplice. Anyone could charge you with treason, and rarely were such charges settled with a good-old-fashioned fistfight.

A gifted prosecutor could spin jaywalking into a crime of sedition and subversion. The arguments have become so ingrained in the minds of the citizenry; it's become a unique art form, with auteurs, amateurs and part-time dabblers. Suspicion of treachery stripped a citizen of all rights, rank and property, pending a verdict. To be found guilty meant the death penalty, anything less was considered mercy.

Dr. Fox knew his failure to disclose the creation made him guilty of treason. He also knew how disastrous the device could be. If anyone was hurt with it, that would be his responsibility. When Oppenheimer created the bomb, the honorable thing to do would have been to immolate Los Alamos before allowing a city of innocents to burn instead.

Dr. Fox would die before surrendering the device. He stared at it, flat and wide now. It would slowly return to its earlier shape, a narrow rectangle, once the meal was completed. The Micronix consumed objects to increase its processing capacity, packing the electrons into its liquid core.

Andrew didn't believe the device could think, but if it could, he might not know it. There wasn't any way for the doctor to pinpoint the origin of his thoughts anymore than the origin of those that weren't his. The concept disturbed him.

When utilizing his own memory he could easily recall much information, but after assimilating the data, he often found himself working in the Micronix environment. He couldn't remember the last time he'd pressed the power button, the device's only button. How long had it been since he'd powered it up manually? How long since he'd cycled the power at all? The machine never powered down. It was always there, at the edge of his consciousness, whenever he wanted it.

If he were showering, or engaged in some other activity that activated his tactile environment, it could be more difficult to interface. Occasionally, if he were physically too far away, response times would lag, but those were minor glitches. He'd polished the interface so as to be as supportive as possible to his own mind. He didn't see how he could improve it.

Dr. Fox realized he was again considering a grand unveiling. He weighed the pros and cons. It would replace an entire technological sector. No one would need the conventional methods of communication. Fox remembered he still hadn't figured out how to secure anything. Since there was only one user, he hadn't focused on signal separation. Before it could work for the public, it needed testing.

Fox closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair, reaffirming his belief that it could never be made public. It was too much power for the common man. He wondered if it was too much power even for himself. Could he do without it? Could he endure the blank faces as he scrambled for some forgotten fact or figure?

What would happen if he didn't feed it for a while and left it somewhere out of conscious range? Perhaps he would return to find that it remained fully charged; he doubted it would do much, left alone.

Composed of gravity-repelling Terillium, the drive seemed to have limitless space. As long as the charge was strong, it remained light. As the charge dissipated, the device would lose its ability to repel gravity and would grow heavier, the first sign that it needed a meal. Then the menus would become a bit more difficult to access, blurry, often causing pain, a headache. Finally the flashes, bright pulses of metallic hunger laced with adrenalin. If it was going to be used, it had to be fed. That much was clear.

Still Fox wondered, if he left it somewhere, out in the middle of nowhere? Somewhere he could be rid of it once and for all. Somewhere like a weapons lab, way out over the ocean.

The doctor couldn't do that, wouldn't do that. He'd put so much effort into the thing's creation, its birth. Fox shook his head. Birth. A birth isn't invented. Why did that word assert itself? He took a breath and calmed himself. Thoughts of revolting against the device were reassuring. IF it could influence him, it wouldn't allow him to entertain thoughts of rebellion. It meant Fox was still in control, but he wondered why abandoning it felt like murder.

Fox loved it. He had created it. While he yearned to someday have a family of his own, at present all he had was the device. He would live with his sin for one more day. Maybe tomorrow he would do something different. He leaned back in the chair and rubbed his eyes. He could still get some sleep before dawn.

Fox rose and crossed to the couch in an upright crawl. The soft leather was cool against his face; he would have to shave before the long day of meetings.

Fox smiled as a concept arose in his mind. Could he devise an algorithm that would allow the system to spread its processing power to other objects, instead of consuming them? It might be able to write to other items, which would then work for it; nodes in its network, slaves to a master. The Micronix could create bay stations for incoming data streams, instead of internalizing everything.

Fox was sure it could be done. He worked out the equations and committed them to memory, testing himself, intending to measure his recollection in the clear light of morning. A solution to a long-standing problem within reach, relief washed through him. His muscles unknotted and he drifted off to sleep.


Twenty minutes later Fox woke, suddenly startled. How could he have been so stupid? He'd gone to sleep with the thing right out in the open. Anyone could walk by. He had to remember he wasn't at home.

Fox looked across the room. Suddenly his arms were covered with goose bumps. Something was very wrong. His desk stood in its usual place, but now it was black. The chair stood away from it, as if afraid to be near it.

Fox rubbed his eyes and looked again. The light-green desk was now matte black. He noticed the walls and the ceiling. What used to be gunmetal blue had taken on a distinctly darker tone.Fox rubbed his eyes and looked again. The light-green desk was now matte black. He noticed the walls and the ceiling. What used to be gunmetal blue had taken on a distinctly darker tone.

Dr. Fox remembered the equations he'd thought of earlier. He closed his eyes and focused. Sure enough, the equations had been read and recorded. The machine filed them under Upload Process Equations. Fox pulled up the history, dated just after the thought, he saw a new process; upload transfer. He terminated the process.

It was possible the upload to the facility walls could be diffused enough to go unnoticed, or at least not be blamed on him. The desk was another issue all together. Fox opened the patio doors.

When a toilet in the nearby restroom flushed, Fox knew it was already too late. He heard the sound of someone at the sink. He glanced at the device, the coins and knife, being consumed by the plate. The consumption had stalled as the Micronix occupied itself with transferring data into the desk. The ends of the letter opener were stuck out through the sidewalls of the machine, its center being liquefied into nutrients for the kernel. Fox pulled open the center desk drawer. It was metal; they were all metal.

Fox couldn't put the device in there with an open feed plate. The machine would try to eat the desk and he didn't want to imagine the results. That would involve discovery on a grand scale. The inky color of the desk was dangerous enough.

Dr. Fox activated a thirty-foot signal jam. The Micronix confirmed the command as Chuck Davis, one of the acquisitions guys, entered the terminal bay. Dr. Fox smelled the scotch and cigars. Davis had been with the generals.

Chuck was one of those guys who behaved as if he were twenty, well into his forties. It worked for him. Fox didn't understand men who made a living by bartering partnerships.

Davis measured success by return on investment, not tangible benefit, or contribution to all mankind. Fox felt sorry for him, Davis could never understand the scientists he worked with. Since Fox had known him, he'd never taken a stand on an issue. Though he had displayed a talent for parroting data and a nose for loose investment capital.

"Fox, what's the deal? You're here late."

"Rest when I'm frozen," Fox replied.

"They'll never get that one. Long term suspension, fool's gold. What would we do with it if we had it?"

"Deep space exploration, maybe?"

“No profit margin.”

Fox rolled his eyes and shook his head.

"What's that?" Davis asked, gesturing to the device at the center of Fox's desk.

Fox hesitated.

"Is that an undisclosed?" Davis asked.


"You don't have any new projects on file with the DOD."

"How would you know?" Fox replied

"People are watching you and I know that is not on file." Davis was drunk and the alcohol was catching up with him.

"That's undisclosed, I know it is." Davis tapped the side of his head.

The tapping of his head with his left hand, it would be the left eye that was wired. Probably a straight model; connected to the forebrain. He undoubtedly had a sub-dermal personal data recorder, probably a series of implants under an arm or along his hip.

Now Fox had to do something about the situation. If Davis had kept his mouth shut, Fox could have denied it. The images from the retinal implant could have been scrubbed, and it would be one man's word against another. But the audio feed would be hardwired to the storage and now that would have to be erased as well.

"What do you want to do about it?” Fox asked. “You negotiate, right?"

Davis picked up a wastebasket and vomited.

Fox stole a writing tablet from a neighboring station and set the device on it, putting them in the center drawer were it could continue its digestion privately. Fox hoped the device wouldn't slip off the tablet. It had a habit of doing that when there was metal nearby. It didn't need to have the feed tray out to eat and often moved itself to reach whatever goodies might be close at hand. There was lots of change in that drawer. Given enough time, it would slide from the tablet to the get at it. If the Micronix slipped off the tablet, it would attempt to eat the desk. That was how it had gotten his handgun.

Fox hadn't given himself time to theorize about how the new upload equations would affect the device's appetite. Would it curb it, or kick it into overdrive? It was possible the signal generation required massive amounts of energy. Perhaps the device would need to consume more instead of less.

Fox put a friendly arm over Davis' shoulders and led him toward the open balcony door. "Let's get you some fresh air, huh?"

Using the Micronix, Fox hacked the optical signal and accessed the executive's storage. Immediately Davis's security registered the intrusion and tried to shut Fox out. The doctor mentally struggled with the daemons, but they had been upgraded and he didn't have the data wedges to crack their breakpoints. It was over. He was beaten. There was nothing he could do about the audio without burning Davis's system.

Davis leaned over the railing, vomiting again.

Fox could burn the storage, knowing it might kill the drunken schmuck, or at least fry his mind. He could purge the data stores, leaving the security daemons intact; their logs would show an intrusion, but there would be no evidence of what precipitated the hack. It would have to be sorted in court.

Davis gave a particularly forceful hurl, and consumed by a fit of disgust, Fox seized the man by the knees and lifted him up over the railing. He executed a coordinated attack on Davis's system, burning everything and scorching his mind, as he watched the man vanish below.

Fox crossed back to the desk and opened the drawer. The feed plate was no longer digesting the coins. He lifted the interface and they slid from the plate. The one-sided coins and bits of letter opener clattered into the drawer. Fox closed the plate and pocketed the device. He pushed the desk across the concrete floor and out onto the metal patio.

Almost immediately the patio became stained with black splotches where the desk touched it. Fox tipped it onto its side, against the railing, and the inky color ran all across the bars. He heaved the desk up over the railing, then it too tumbled to a speck in his vision. He looked at the stained railing and floor. He felt like he was standing in a puddle of blood.

Fox stepped out of the stain over to the clean side of the patio. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the device. He called up the data storage interface and deleted the upload equations. For a moment he considered throwing it into the ocean, but then pocketed it again.

Fox leaned on the railing, inhaling the fresh ocean air. He stood for a few minutes, just breathing. When he came back to himself, it took a coordinated effort to pry his fingers from the railing. He didn't remember grabbing it, but it seemed as though he'd been locked to it for hours. His hands were exhausted.

Fox returned inside, closing the patio doors. On the railing, where he'd placed his hands, two inky stains slowly spread into the metal, wetly reflecting the pale moonlight.


© 2010 John Carrick

Bio: John Carrick is a writer/editor, living and working in the City of Angels, the heart of the fictional world.

E-mail: John Carrick

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