"Life and Devices"

Copyright © 1983 by Roger M. Wilcox. All rights reserved.
(writing on this story began 28-November-1983)

"Watch this, Juan!" enthused post-graduate cryo-chemist Rafael Edmonton.

Juan Alpha, Spanish undergraduate cybernetics student, watched with disinterest as the man before him set up another one of his fandango displays. They usually ended in disaster.

"Do I really have to watch this?" asked Juan.

"No, but I think you'll be impressed this time. This isn't just another boring display of chemical oscillators; it's one of my own creations." He carefully eye-droppered a blue-violet liquid into a beaker.

"What's in that stuff?"

"A little of this, a little of that. Mostly benzene."

"Am I right in assuming that it's a hypo?"

Rafael threw an intimidating glance at Juan. The half gallon bottle that the eye dropper came from was labelled "HYPO" in three-inch-tall letters. "Yes, it's a hypo. But not just any hypo; this is going to blow your mind away."

He put the eye dropper back in the bottle and left the room with it. When he returned, the bottle once in his hands had been relpaced by a squarish gadget pointing at the beaker. "This emits microwaves of practically any frequency; it was developed by a former student and friend of mine, Carb Ferris. Right now, I have it set at 1.09 centimeters wavelength. Now watch closely."

He tapped a button on the device's front. Instantly, the sparse coating of liquid on the bottom of the beaker exploded into a solid cylinder that overshot the beaker's top. It was almost transparent, but still retained a little of the liquid's original blue-violet color.

"How'd it do that?" asked Juan Alpha, considerably impressed.

"This hypo is unique. As you know, 'hypo' is short for hypothermal, any substance that can remain a liquid below its normal freezing point. Most hypos will freeze when seeded by a crystal of their own solid form; but this hypo requires microwaves to crystallize. And the best part of it is that the solid form is almost four hundred times less dense than the liquid, meaning it'll expand like you just saw. Go ahead, pick it up."

Juan did just that, though with some caution. The surface of the cylinder was slightly warm, and felt at least as hard as water ice. As he picked it up in his left hand, he realized that T.A. Edmonton wasn't kidding about it being four hundred times less dense than the liquid — it weighed almost nothing.

"Put it back, Juan; the demonstration's not over yet."

As soon as Juan had replaced the cylinder in the beaker, Rafael Edmonton aimed his microwave emitter at it and tapped the button again. The ice shattered and lay crumbled in the beaker. He pushed the button once more, and the pieces turned to powder. He pushed it a final time and the powder turned to the liquid state from which it had originally come.

"When the trace quantity of metal in it first absorbs the microwaves, the solid form it takes on is essentially a colloidal suspension — a gel. As it absorbs more, the molecular bonds harden, making it as hard as glass fibers and as unmeltable as salt. Since it's mostly organic, it makes a great insulator, too.

"As more microwaves are beamed toward it, the bonds become even harder and lose their structural strength, becoming very brittle. It eventually shatters under its own weight. It will then go on, in the presence of more microwaves, to break apart into powder granules, and finally lose all of its bonding and liquefy. Actually, in the solid form it's only metastable and breaks down like this over a period of hours anyway, but microwaves speed it up."

Juan took in everything the man said. "Will any microwaves do this?"

"No, they have to be 1.09 x 10-to-the-8th Angstroms in wavelength, plus or minus point oh one." His old schooling shone through on his choice of units; most modern chemists would have chosen to use nanometers instead of Angstroms.

"Can you imagine the applications of this?!" mused an awed Juan.

"Applications? Ha! I just did this for the sake of finding out, not for the military to turn it into a death weapon."

"But —"

"I always knew it was possible; it was just a matter of coming up with the right organic compound. The moment somebody tries to apply this to society, though, every government on Earth will be fashioning an "ice army" to hold its power. That's why I'm not letting anyone in on this formula."

"You're kidding!"

"There's one thing I never kid about, and that's pure science. Applied science has to be the biggest detriment to our race since hierarchies were created; were a lot worse off now than we were twenty thousand years ago. I will not sell out, period."

Juan Alpha cautiously approached the workshop of yound Carb Ferris. He, too, was an undergraduate student, but had advanced quickly and was now one of the best electronic miniaturizationists in the city. He also showed a fondness for robotics.

"Carb Ferris?"

"Yep," he said, still concentrating on his soldering. Juan Alpha advanced into the room of the sandy-haired young man without another word.

"I understand you know Rafael Edmonton, for whom you built a microwave emitter."

"Sure I know him, but I didn't make that emitter specifically for him. I built it for everybody's benefit."

"Oh, then you're not —"

"— an absolute pure scientist like him? No way. The guy's fantastic except for that one point. Seems he believes that every time we let our findings into the world, they get turned into weaponry. Evidently he's forgotten that electricity and penicillin were let out into the world, too. Any particular reason you wanted to see me?"

"Well, yes. He's concocted probably the most versatile hypo the world has ever known, but he's keeping the formula to himself. It's the only hypo I know of that's frozen by microwaves."

Carb lowered his soldering tools. "So that's what he wanted my microwave emitter for. I didn't think he was going to use it for a garage door opener."

"Well anyway, I want to get that formula and let it out."

"You do that and he'll sue you for everything you've got." He resumed his work.

"Maybe, but something like this is just too important to be held back in a laboratory. Every time these things are kept secret, there's the inevitable lab fire and all the notes and the person who designed the stuff go up in smoke, and then the world never gets its benefit at all."

"You've been reading too many comic books. You have super soldier serum syndrome on your brain."

"But things like that probably do happen. I was wondering if you could help me get the formula."

Carb Ferris put down his tools and turned to face Juan. This was the first time they looked each other in the eye. "Why me?"

"Because you know him. Because you probably know where he hides his notes."

"You're right there. He was pretty chummy with me before I let him use my microwave emitter. Well, maybe if you don't let anybody know so we won't get sued . . ."

Carb's voice took on a boyish quality. "Hey, you want to sneak in tonight and get the formula? There are some things I'd love to try out on it!"

Nightfall found them both carrying out Carb's idea. Though the lab room was used for demonstrations by several professors, the post-graduates had their own sacred, hidden sections of the storage area where they kept their projects. Carb Ferris quickly picked out the section that had been set aside for Edmonton, and pointed his flashlight at it.

"Mr. Ferris . . ."

"Call me Carb."

". . . won't we set off some kind of alarm?"

"Naah, I made sure I tripped it before it was turned on. No one'll know we were ever in here."

Through his obvious apprehension, Juan approached the area Carb's flashlight illuminated. The largest bottle there was clearly marked "HYPO" in three-inch-tall letters, but lacked any other description. Juan picked up the bottle, feeling its weight in his hands.

"Oof! This stuff has to be at least three times as dense as water. Can you give me a hand?"

"Sure," said Carb, setting down his flashlight and putting his hands on the bottom of the bottle.

Together they managed to get it to the floor. Looking back up at where the bottle had been, Juan noticed something.

"There's a piece of newsprint here with a bunch of scribblings on it."

Carb glanced at what was written. "Yep, that's Rafael's scribbling, all right. A little of it looks like it's in Russian — he'd studied that language, you know — but it mostly looks like instructions. Down at the bottom there's a long chemical reaction formula."

Juan brightened up. "This is it! This has to be the hypo!"

"I wouldn't be too sure. It's not above Rafael to go out of his way to hide a secret he intends to keep, and it's not like him to leave one of the biggest projects of his life lying around where someone can get at it."

"Well, maybe he's changed. C'mon, let's copy this down word-for-word and get out of here. I don't like sneaking around places at night."

"This sure looks like the right stuff," said Juan after following the copied instructions in Carb Ferris' workshop. "Carb, do you have —"

"— right here!" Carb replied as he produced a rather large version of the microwave emission device Rafael Edmonton had. "It's not the microminiaturized version a certain cryo-chemist has at the moment, but it does the same thing." He pointed its business end at a beaker containing five drops of the substance, and pushed the button.

For a long while, it appeared as though nothing happened; but when Carb shut off the emitter, the substance felt much warmer. Carb was a bit confused, but Juan was simply disappointed.

"Darn! I felt sure that was it."

"But why'd it heat up just because I beamed 1.09-centimeter microwaves at it?"

"Don't you remember? Ferric benzylate was one of the ingredients. The iron probably absorbed the microwaves and turned them into heat energy."

"But if it did, it did so with almost perfect efficiency; as well as if I had heated it directly."

Juan snapped his fingers as a totally different thought popped into his head. "Wait a minute! How long did you expose that to microwaves?"

"About thirty seconds."

"And how long did that device you gave him expose it to them?"

"About a fourth of a second. . . . And it wasn't a tenth the intensity of these microwaves!" He reset a few controls, dunked the beaker in cold water, and fired a quarter-second burst at it after he'd set it up again. The substance quick-froze into the cylinder of ice the image of which had been burned into Juan's memory.

"Yahoo!" Juan cheered as he pointed at the beaker. "That's it! That's what the hypo did!"

"Then we've got our mystery substance! All right! Now I can get to work on what I've wanted to do with this stuff!"

"And what might that be, you micro-miniaturizer you, as though I hadn't already guessed?"

"Right on it, my friendly cybernetic specialist. I'm pretty sure the liquid form can be even further compressed. And I could probably build a teensy microwave generator along with it, and fashion this thing into an ice ray. You can bring it to parties and blast your friends with it, and they'll say that it was almost as devastating as being hit with an empty cereal box."

Juan was a bit skeptical at this proposal. "I saw that microwave generator you gave — uh, let Rafael use. It wasn't that teensy."

"Oh, but that one transmitted anywhere on the spectrum you set it to. This one will only have to transmit very weakly at one frequency, so there's no need for big power supplies or tuning capacitors or any of that extraneous junk."

Juan shook his hand. "I wish you luck. I also think we should wait a bit before we release the formula to the world; I wouldn't want a law suit to cut off this — er — project of yours. Uh, by the way, why didn't it freeze when you exposed it to intense microwaves?"

"It probably went through the cycle so quickly it didn't have time to hit the solid state. Eh — so long, Juan (hint). I have some things to take care of."

Juan left. Before dawn that very morning, Carb removed the overrides from the alarm system and made certain they left no trace of their presence. It was less than two days later when Carb Ferris let Juan Alpha in on the good news.

"Juan!" he yelled across thirty meters of college-campus morning. "I've got it!"

It took a few seconds for those words to click in Juan Alpha's mind. "The Ice Ray? You made that thing? I thought you were only kidding!"

"Nope," he panted when he arrived. "Take a look! The white button fires the hypo in a concentrated stream of fine mist. The red button beams a fourth of a second's worth of low-intensity microwaves at it. Don't worry, the hypo container is the equivalent of a faraday cage, so the reserve hypo won't blow up in your face — it's too compressed, anyway. Push both buttons together and you get a steady pole of ice."

Juan tried it out. He pushed both buttons at once, and a high-pitched whistling/hissing tone, rising in pitch, accompanied the quick formation of an ice pole two meters long. Releasing the buttons, Juan picked up his new six-foot-long toy.

Carb Ferris continued his description. "The microwaves are only beamed at one part of the hypo at a time, which prevents the rest of the stuff from turning brittle and breaking. Of course, a couple of dials can change the length of exposure to the microwaves, their intensity, and how far out they're beamed."

Juan had quit listening by the time he whacked Carb in the shoulder with his nearly massless battle staff. "Hey, watch it," Carb yelled. "That felt like you hit me with a baseball bat."

"Oh, come on. It can't be denser than a paper husk."

"But it's nearly as hard as . . . as diamond. If you put your own strength into it, it hurts like hell."


Juan dropped the pole and held down the red button. The staff of ice quickly decomposed into a few drops of liquid. "Y'know, Carb, I want to use this. This little gizmo of yours could do wonders if directly linked to a brain. Imagine: all these controls under subconscious command, with the ability to do . . . practically anything."

"Sounds good to me. Actually, you can have this whole project. I'm starting to work on something bigger now."

"What's that?"

"Something much bigger. Come by my workshop and pick up my notes on the Ice Ray; then you can worry about the wrath of Rafael Edmonton."

"Say, speaking of which, where is he? I haven't seen him for the past couple of days."

"Oh, you know those post-graduates, always giving big lectures to the Ladies' Auxiliary Chemistry Society about how they need more money for research or something. Say, maybe we can get together some time and just talk about things besides this whole hypo fiasco."

"But until then, hasta luigi. I'll come by some time and get those notes."

He did more than that. Before the day even ended, he had gone into Carb's workshop and obtained not only the design specifications for the Ice Ray, but a few multi-aptitude robots of his that could be programmed for just about any task. "If things work out the way I hope they will," Juan commented to Carb, "I'll be using those robots to perform surgery on myself."

Juan has his own arsenal of equipment. Through a few days of tinkering and working the Ice Ray into what he already knew, he had rigged the microscopic adjustments and controls of the device to respond to thought impulses — nearly subconscious thought impulses — directed at it through nerves. All Juan had to do was hook it up to certain selected nerves in the body, and it would essentially be a real part of the person who used it.

"And its first recipient," he told himself, "Will be me." He quickly set about to write surgical programs for Carb's robots. They would implant a copy of the device inside his left wrist, route its output to his hand, and lastly replace his palm with a flesh-colored screen through which the hypo mist could easily penetrate.

He gave the command; he went under.

When he came to two hours later, his wrist was beginning to feel sore from the implant. He looked down at his bandaged hand, admiring the delicate touch of Carb's robots and the success of his programming. "When the scars heal," he speculated, "There won't be any trace that this operation ever occurred. Even this artificial palm looks like my own hand."

The implant was, however, interfaced with the environment in one respect. Right on the underside of his left wrist was now a flesh-colored hatch less than an inch on a side, beneath which the device stored its packets of hypo. One cartridge held about a five minute supply, and so would have to be changed every so often. Changing these capsules, though, was literally a snap.

He had to test it. He stiffened his arm, aimed in a random direction, and gave the mental signal for the implant to fire a stream of hypo and freeze it less than a millimeter from his palm. He felt the device click on even before he saw the quick- moving column of ice and heard its betraying whistling and hissing sound mount in pitch. He turned it off almost subconsciously when the pole grew to five feet, and watched as it flew across the room and stopped dead against a wall in under a half-second.

He picked the pole up; it was light, and warm from both the energy it released in freezing and his own body heat. This was the hypo he had come to know and respect, all right. "Congrats, Juan Alpha," he said to himself. "You are now an official ice maker."

With the smirk of someone testing an idea out for the first time, he focused his attention once more on his device, telling it to beam a dose of microwaves at the pole but not shoot out any more hypo. Visibly, there was no change in the frozen rod; but when he brought it down against a table, it shattered into a myriad of rounded beads.

"Well, what do you know," he commented. "Safety ice; no sharp edges." He beamed some more microwaves at the pieces, and contentedly watched them decompose and finally dissipate into tiny droplets of liquid hypo.

"I can't wait for this to heal. I know it's not the sensible thing to do, but —" He activated Carb's preprogrammed robots once more. "— I've got to have this thing in my other hand, too."

For five hours after the anesthetic wore off, he continued to sleep. The hard days and nights, all filled with the excitement of this project, had caught up with him. He awoke rather groggily to see the sun rise on the new day's horizon and the new bandages on his right hand. This operation had not been quite as successful as the last; his right hand would take more time to heal. In the end, though, they would both look and work the same. He hoped.

"I don't care if my entire hand is wrapped up, I've got to try it out." He reached over to his right hand, pulled the cover off of its artificial palm, and fired an ice blast. A ten foot long shaft leapt from his hand, to the tune of the familiar hiss/whistle, and settled happily on the floor after clunking into the wall.

"Hooray, it works," he grumbled, and promptly fell asleep again.

He jerked himself out of bed late in the afternoon. "Carb Ferris has to see this!" he yelped as he threw on his normal clothes and dashed out of his room, nearly forgetting to lock the door behind him.

He ran over to Carb's workshop/home on the other side of the college campus. "I'd like to see the look on his face," he mused, "When he sees what this import student from leftist Spain can do. He's not the only inventor in the world!"

When he finally made it to his workshop, though, he found the door unlocked and no one inside. In fact, there was nothing inside at all except for bare walls.

"Oh my God," Juan said, "I hope his place wasn't burglarized." He nervously inspected the room for traces of forced entry, items ransackingly removed, etc., but found none. "Nope. Burglars don't operate this well without getting caught. That means he just packed up and moved out. Beats me —"

He glimpsed a small piece of yellow paper sticking out from one of the closed (and presumably empty) cabinets. He snatched it up, and read:

"'To whom it may concern: (this means you, Juan.)' How nice. 'I had to go someplace far more private for my latest project. It's unlike anything that's ever walked the face of the Earth; I knew you'd understand. Sorry I couldn't see what you did with my Ice Ray, but I'm sure it was something cybernetically spectacular. Yours, Carb "Microminiaturization" Ferris.'"

When Carb Ferris opened his eyes, he knew something was wrong. He was staring up at an off-white ceiling illuminated from the corners, and as far as he could tell, lying on a hard, bare floor. He blinked once at his strange environment and heard a dull metallic "clack." Puzzled, he blinked again, and heard the same sound. He ignored it; metal clacks were the least of his worries.

"Where am I?" he asked himself methodically. His voice sounded distorted, almost alien. It was nothing like how he sounded, just having woken up or not. This further confused him, until he propped himself up on his elbows; the clanking sounds and sudden view of his abdomen cleared up a lot of questions while creating even more.

He didn't speak. He was too afraid to do something that required that much intellect. His entire body was covered in layers of semi-polished steel.

Someone, he figured, during the blank period that still lay in his mind, had kidnapped him and plated him in a suit of armor. He had just woken up and was about to be told, by whoever his captors were, the terms of his ransom. The armor could have been anything from something to pin him down to a psychological ploy to ease him into going crazy. It was certainly not necessary for the latter; he was going quite insane on his own.

But something didn't feel quite right. Either he was anesthetized or already crazy, but he could hardly feel the suit of armor at all. He reached over to his left forearm with his right hand and tried to pull the metal off at one of the joints. The strength of both the metal and of his arms was surprising; he could feel the stress on his system and on the armor.

. . . and on the armor! A horrifying thought broke into his consciousness. He hadn't felt the metal against his skin, but had felt when the metal was under stress; he was a robot! He was Carb Ferris with the body of a metal man!

No, that couldn't be it. He was Carb Ferris; no one, not even himself, was able to transfer human intellect to a robot, even if that just meant transporting the brain. He felt his eyes with his metal hands; they felt like hard surfaces with stiff shutters. It was seconds later when he realized he was able to feel through metal plated fingertips.

He could no longer deny that he was an android. How or why the change had come about could wait to be answered, although an instantly repressed inkling about the ordeal flashed by him. He sat up, and nearly went deaf with his clanking noise as amplified by the room's acoustics. Wherever he was, he didn't like it. Getting to his feet, he found balance nearly impossible and fell down on his front side. He would have to do something about that.

He pulled himself along the floor with clumsy robot hands until he reached a wall. Even prone, if this body was half as strong as it seemed, he should have no problem busting through a plaster wall. With all the grace of a baboon, he let fly a solid right-jab at the wall. The faded-pink surface only shook.

"Huh?" he grunted tinnily. He'd seen how powerful that punch was; that much steel flying at that speed should have gone through cinderblock like a rifle bullet. What was that wall made of?!

He inspected it more closely. The paint had been scratched off where he hit it, exposing dark gray metal underneath. He clawed off more of the paint, clumsily making both clanking and screeching sounds against the metal. The wall, he discovered, had about the same composition and construction as a vault door.

"Oh great," he mumbled. He propped himself up on his hands. "Now how am I going to get . . ."

A crack in the wall caught his attention. He clacked his metal eyelids instinctively three times, and scrutinized the crack more carefully. It couldn't have been any thicker than — no, it was far less thick than a hair, yet he could make out its finest details. It didn't appear larger than it really was; he just got finer resolution.

It was more than just a place where the paint had dried and peeled, it was a fissure right in the metal. "A weak spot!" he cheered, and slammed it with the back of his fist.

The wall caved in a couple of centimeters where he hit it. One more blow finished the job, sending two meter-wide sections of the wall falling out and backward. The hole was more than big enough for him to crawl through.

But someone was blocking his exit; someone who reminded him of a ghost. "Congratulations," said the live Carb Ferris. "You passed. I had to test the visual magnifier; it worked perfectly."

The metal creation stared blankly into his previous human face. He would have screamed, but that reflex had been removed. He just sat there, dumbfounded, and believed he was going mad. He tried to form the words, "You're . . . you're . . ."

Carb bit his lower lip and wrinkled his forehead. "I was afraid that might happen; you don't have all your memory back yet. Tell me, what's the last thing you remember?"

The robotic Carb Ferris looked contemptedly at the guy who stole his body, and resolved that he might as well search his memory as best he could. His eyes clacked shut. Vague memories swam by his senses, images of his previous year at college, of good old Rafael Edmonton, of hundreds of old projects either abandoned or left hanging, and of a new name — Juan Alpha. Who was Juan Alpha, and why . . . oh, yes, he was a cybernetics student. He'd just met him yesterday.

No, he'd met him several days ago. Yes, there was a vivid picture of that bottle of blue-violet hypo, of the Ice Ray, of him cleaning out his old room/lab and moving into a little secluded workhouse in the San Gabriel mountains. Gad, that place was hard to acquire. It wasn't so much the price tag on the land as it was the fact that when people saw his equipment they throught he was planning to blow up the world. Imagine, mistaking robotic and neural-duplicating equipment for explo ...

Neural duplication! Of course, that was it! That was right! Carb Ferris' masterpiece, project Metal Mind: the total duplication of a human brain, with microcircuits for neurons and electricity for impulses. In order to ensure its functioning, he had to transpose a real, living, human brain onto the schematics and silicon. And what better brain, he'd reasoned just before he blacked out, than his own?

— Remainder of story yet to be written —

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