Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Interface

by Rick Huffman


John Morphy approached his Buick LeSabre in the garage beneath his townhouse condominium. As he extended his right hand, the vehicle emitted a short beep followed by an electronic-sounding female voice.

"Subject identified... access permitted."

The door locks sprang open. As Morphy took his position in the driver's seat and shut the door, the engine immediately roared to life. Snow lined the shoulders of the street as he approached the on-ramp to the interstate on his way to United Telecom. Morphy had worked for the corporate research lab in the development of human/computer interaction for the past five years.

Morphy continued to steal a glimpse at the tiny lump that bulged beneath the skin of his right hand as the Buick quietly blended in among the morning traffic. The biochip implant had itched like crazy for the first two days but now, on the third day, it was becoming a bit more bearable.

Rudolph "Red" Glen, the head of the cybernetics department at United Telecom, explained that this was normal.

"It'll take a couple of days for the proteins in your body to anchor the little bugger into place," explained Glen as he brushed his hand through a wild thistle of red hair.

"But it'll be worth it John. This'll be the first time that a biochip with an active transponder has been implanted into a human. It'll allow you to interface with your computer directly through your central nervous system. And this is only the beginning!"

Morphy had to admit that events over the past three days had been revealing, to say the least. Doors in the lab that normally required smart cards automatically swung open for him. Lights blinked on when he entered a room. And at home, the device ran his bath and brewed his morning coffee.

Morphy sped up as the traffic dispersed. He was anxious to get to work -- to his computer. Since the device had been implanted, he felt more powerful. Not at one with his computer, exactly, but somehow closer. He no longer thought of his computer as a separate thing. It was more like an arm or a leg now.

####

As Morphy walked briskly through the halls of United Telecom, he was greeted warmly by some of his colleagues while others were somewhat wary. He was, after all, John Morphy: The world's first cybernetic man. It was understandable that some people were confused about how to react.

The door to Morphy's office swung open as he approached and another sexy female voice greeted him.

"Good morning John. You have ten new messages."

The sexy voice had been Red's idea. The poor cybernetics chief was so wrapped up in his work that his sex life was confined to vicarious amusement.

Morphy perched in front of the 21-inch monitor and concentrated on opening his e-mail. Almost immediately, the first message was open and ready for his inspection. On the first day, he'd sometimes had to concentrate for five minutes or more to get a response from the computer, but he was getting much better. He slowly caressed the tiny bulge in his right hand as he read his mail.

The biochip was about the size of a grain of rice. It consisted of four parts: a computer microchip, an antenna coil, a tuning capacitor and the glass capsule that "housed" the whole thing.

The microchip stored a unique identification number that allowed access to the physical computer and, subsequently, to outside LAN networks. Since this device contained an active transponder, in theory, Morphy should be able to "think" himself through cyberspace. The microchip also contained the circuitry necessary for the ID number to be received and recognized.

The antenna coil was used to send and receive signals, and the tuning capacitor stored a small electrical charge, which activated the transponder.

The original biochips with passive transponders were used primarily for pet identification and were injected into the subject with a hypodermic syringe. But Red Glen had perfected a "zip quill" for the active biochip that could simply be pressed in.

As Morphy read his e-mail, a contented smile crept across his face and he felt more comfortable than he had all morning -- he was linked to his computer. His eyelids became leaden as he continued to read and he soon drifted into a satisfied slumber.

####

Morphy awoke abruptly, grasping desperately for a handhold to keep from falling. A series of orderly protrusions on a vertical plane were the only things that prevented him from plummeting to an almost certain death. Morphy's hands clutched the rivets like vices and his eyes darted about in a frenzied survey of his surroundings between panicked gasps.

The vertical plane that supported him was a dark shade of blue. To his immediate left was a large picture of a small case "e" which appeared to be circled by a gold Saturn's ring at a 45 degree angle. As Morphy's grip tightened even more, he saw other large pictures; one that looked like a folder with a piece of paper sticking out, another that looked like an enormous smiley face with a "Y" next to it. If he didn't know better, he'd think that these were icons and that he were precariously clinging to his computer desktop. And then he remembered the implant -- and he realized that he was! Thank God that he'd selected wallpaper with rivets, he thought.

Morphy's strength was beginning to falter so, without thinking, he reached out to the picture of the small case "e" and pounded it twice with his fist. The icon changed shades and Morphy was launched into a flash of white with a ribbon of blue above his head. Within the ribbon, large white letters read "Windows Internet Explorer". Everything began to cascade in a series of brilliant colors, and the plane to which Morphy was adhered began to shake violently. When his grip loosened and he fell backwards, he tried to scream but no sound was emitted as he was whisked inside the Large Area Network -- into cyberspace.

####

As the light show diminished, Morphy's screams became audible, but only for a moment because his queasy stomach purged itself of the morning's breakfast. Morphy clung to a large line beneath bold text that read "Yahoo Games". But as his dangling legs grew wilder, he again lost his grip and fell. When he landed on a line of text that read "Chess", the light show and sickening G-forces started all over again.

After a terribly disoriented John Morphy finally managed his footing, he found himself in a large room with 64 red and black squares. He stood among an army of white chess pieces that appeared about 15 feet tall from his perspective. An annoying sign kept flashing and beeping above his head. He looked up to discover what it implored him to do -- "Click Start".

####

Morphy was starting to regain his bearings now that he could move about on a horizontal surface. As he marched over and depressed the "Click Start" button, a banner flashed above his head declaring "Kasparov defeated by Deep Blue".

"That's old news," he thought. But his immediate concern was how to get out of here. As a loud "clunk" signaled the start of the game, Morphy realized that the game must be played out before he could exit.

"Well," he thought, "there's nothing that says I have to win."

Morphy knew a little about chess, and he was gambling that his opponent did also. He planted himself firmly behind the white F2 pawn and thrust forward with all his might. Beads of sweat had formed on his brow when the burdensome pawn came to rest on the F3 square. Morphy prayed that his opponent knew the game, or he'd get a hernia trying to complete it.

Another loud "clunk" signified that his opponent had moved. Morphy saw the black E7 pawn now occupying the E5 square. His heart raced a little -- so far, so good. He got behind the G2 pawn and, with a Herculean effort, parked it on the G4 square.

"Please," thought Morphy, "you've got to see it."

Morphy's anxiety rose as a long pause preceded his opponent's move. When the "clunk" sounded after an excruciatingly long wait, the black queen was sitting on the H4 square. Checkmate for black in two moves! This was the most humiliating defeat in chess, but Morphy was elated as he dashed toward the "Exit" button and jumped on top of it with all of his weight. He was immediately whisked away again.

####

When he emerged at the Yahoo Games site, he was unable to get a handhold on a line of text as before. He fell and landed on an icon called "Interactive Epics". As he tumbled into this realm, he landed on another icon that sent him into a sub-realm. When he emerged on a horizontal surface, a cool sea breeze blew through his hair and gentle waves lapped against the shore of a beautiful island.

Morphy slowly rose and found a host of fierce-looking men before him who were clad in armored war clothing. He soon discovered that he was also dressed in armor. But his musings were halted as the largest of the warriors shook his spear and queried the stranger.

"Who are ye, in armor, who come over the swan road in that steep keel?" demanded the stern warrior.

"I guard here," he continued, "so that no forces hostile to the Danes or the noble king Hrothgar may raid. So I ask ye again... who are ye?"

As he had been falling, Morphy had not seen that the last icon he'd landed on had read "Beowulf's Battle with Grendel".

####

Morphy was chained as a prisoner when Hrothgar's warriors led him to the king.

"Noble Hrothgar," said the thane, "ring-giver to the Danes. We bring before you a stranger who comes over the sea road and looks worthy of a warrior's esteem, but he says not who he is."

The king rose to display a face lined with worry as he studied the prisoner. The gray hair beneath his jeweled crown fluttered in the breeze as a wave of recognition crossed his features.

"I knew him when he was a boy. His father is a Geat called Ecgtheow. Now his offspring has come to us in bravery seeking a friend. Seafarers who took gifts to the Geats say that he has the strength of thirty men in his grip."

The kindly old king sank to his knees with tears in his eyes and continued.

"Holy God, out of kindness, has sent this man to us to save us from Grendel's terror. Welcome son of Ecgtheow -- welcome Beowulf."

Morphy also sank to his knees upon the utterance of these words. But it was not out of respect or recognition -- it was out of shock.

####

Morphy slowly regained his faculties as he was unchained and taken to the mead hall, Heorot, to celebrate. He had read the Beowulf poem in school, years ago, but didn't remember much about it. From the conversation in the mead hall, he learned that Grendel was a monster descended from Cain who had tormented the halls of Heorot and the court of Hrothgar for twelve years. During this time, no warrior, no matter how brave, could kill Grendel. And now, all of these warriors were singing praise to Morphy as their savior! Morphy gulped another swallow of the bitter-tasting mead. He needed to be drunk.

####

As nightfall approached, a few of Hrothgar's bravest thanes chose to stay at Heorot with Morphy/Beowulf. The old king's eyes glistened with tears in the wan firelight as he embraced Morphy and then retired for the night to the castle.

Morphy's mind was racing and his heart was pounding with fear as he clutched his sword and watched as some of the other warriors drifted off to sleep. What the hell had he gotten himself into? As he trembled in his armor he, too, defied reason and drifted away to sleep. When the first scream erupted, Morphy thought that he was awaking from a nightmare. But he soon found that he was awaking TO a nightmare.

The dying screams of a warrior resounded throughout the hall. Morphy sprang to his feet and saw the man's body on the floor of the great hall with his head lolled to one side. The man's sword lay on the ground shattered to pieces and his legs were badly broken.

Morphy felt a warm liquid emerge in his groin area as he turned toward the enormous monster and watched as Grendel took another man and broke his back like a twig. Opening his powerful jaws, he took a giant bite of the man's midsection and spat it on the ground.

The other warriors were scurrying toward the exit but Morphy could not move. He remained transfixed at the spot where he had urinated on himself as the monster turned toward him.

As Grendel approached, Morphy's drawn weapon clattered to the floor and a series of faint whimpers escaped from his throat. Morphy was numb with fear. It was merely a reflex action that made his hand shoot up and intercept the arm of the monster as Grendel reached for him.

When he squeezed, the bones in Grendel's hand shattered and the beast howled in agony. In all of his miserable life, Grendel had never felt fear -- now he did.

Morphy's eyes reluctantly gained the sober recognition that, in this program, he had been given the strength of Beowulf. And in his newfound clear thinking, he suddenly remembered how Beowulf had defeated Grendel.

As Grendel struggled to withdraw his arm, Morphy only gripped him more tightly. The monster screamed and moved toward the door in desperation. Morphy was dragged along and his feet scrambled for leverage, but he would not loosen his grip. Morphy set his legs and, summoning all his strength, began to pull the monster toward him.

Grendel opened his cavernous jaws as Morphy drew him closer, but then Morphy suddenly threw the beast to the ground without loosening his grip. Grendel struggled, and as he grew weaker, Morphy grew stronger.

In a last ditch effort, Grendel regained his footing and headed toward the door, but not without Morphy's stubborn grip still latched to the arm of the beast. With all the effort that remained in him, Grendel lunged for the door. When he did, Morphy jerked with all the strength he had.

There was a ripping, tearing sound as Grendel's arm separated from his shoulder. Morphy even thought that he heard a sucking sound followed by a pop as the shoulder joint was released from its socket. As the last of the stringy sinews snapped away, the monster roared in agony and ran away. Morphy was left holding the twitching arm and a box of text above him was flashing, "Game Over -- You Win".

####

This time, when Morphy was whisked back to the Yahoo Games homepage, he was determined to latch onto something. He grabbed hold of the first solid object he came into contact with, and inched his way toward the scrollbar at the right of the screen.

When he was there, he carefully placed his feet on the scrolling notch and rode it all the way down to the bottom of the screen like an elevator. He had an idea. He didn't know if it would work, but he had to try something to get out of here and back into his body.

At the bottom of the screen, he kicked at the little e-mail icon and the e-mail program engulfed him as it came to life. He knew it was a long shot, but since the computer he was in was interfaced with the biochip in his body, it just might be possible to e-mail his consciousness back to the biochip. The identification number stored in the microchip would be the address, but the problem was in how to type it in since he did not have physical access to a keyboard and his "thinking" is what had gotten him into this predicament in the first place.

Morphy scaled the e-mail screen to the top and tapped a series of drop-down menus until he found one titled "Address Book". It was his hope that Red Glen had put the biochip code into the address book. Morphy scrolled through the names until he came across a series of 15 digits followed by @unitelecom.com. This was it! He still didn't know if it would work, but he hurriedly placed the address in the recipient box and hit the "send" button.

The dazzling light show blossomed in front of Morphy's eyes for the last time. His next memory was that of sucking in a long breath as he regained consciousness in front of the computer monitor in his office.

Morphy sprang from the chair and retrieved a penknife from a desk drawer. He made a hasty incision in his right hand and picked out the biochip implant with the knife blade.

When Red Glen and the lab director found him in his office, Morphy had passed out in a pool of blood, but not before he had destroyed the biochip beneath the heel of his shoe.

####

The past two weeks had witnessed a host of debriefings. After two days in the hospital, Morphy had been placed on light duty indefinitely. Despite the near-disaster, Red Glen still expounded the virtues of the biochip implant.

Red envisioned a day when a system of embedded chips interfacing with an artificial motor system would allow paraplegics to walk. He imagined the field of nanotechnology, still in its infancy, to conceive of tiny computers called nanobots to manufacture materials, and intelligent machines that could perform surgery when swallowed.

Red imagined a world where everyone had a biochip implant that replaced everything in their wallet: cash, credit cards, ID cards, insurance, everything. A cash-free society of simplicity is what the biochip offered.

But John Morphy did not see it that way.

"How much of our humanity are you willing to sacrifice for convenience?" asked Morphy.

Red Glen's answer was direct and chilling.

"It isn't a matter of sacrifice or even choice John. It's a matter of the next step in evolution. The integration of man and machine is the next logical step in human evolution. It's already started. There's no turning back now. Those who resist it will die out -- survival of the fittest, you know. That's the way evolution works."

Morphy recalled the banner "Kasparov defeated by Deep Blue" as he listened to Glen's speech. Computers were already superior to humans in an alarming number of ways. Perhaps his experiment had failed but Glen, or someone like him, would eventually get it right -- and soon.

A winter chill cut through the air as Morphy exited United Telecom and paused to watch a happy young couple walking cheerfully through the snow. How he longed for the innocence they still possessed. But even with their innocence and happiness as they laughed and danced in the snow, Morphy's eyes welled with tears as he watched the young man balance on the icy curb with his hands braced on the shoulders of his giggling sweetheart. For despite the young man's love for the young woman, and despite his obvious happiness in the simplicity of the moment, and despite the promise of a rich and full life before him... Morphy knew that his foot shall slide in due time.

THE END


© 2010 Rick Huffman

Bio: Rick Huffman is a long-haul truck driver who spent 20 years in the television industry before making a career change to the road. Philosophy is a passionate hobby since the road offers plenty of time for solitary thought. For some of Mr. Huffman's musings on philosophy and trucking, visit The Life of an American Trucker.

E-mail: Rick Huffman

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