Nanodoc n. Medical application of nanotechnology. Introduced into the circulatory system by injection, or the respiratory tract by inhalation, nanodocs perform virtually all forms of medical practice, from treatment of disease to plastic surgery. ~~programmer, specialist in the use of nanodocs.
Pietro coughed with shock, finishing off with a splutter as he tried to catch his breath.
"Y... You mean...", he stammered,"... like with a knife?"
He was so horrified with the idea that it was impossible for him to hide his response.
The doctor almost smiled.
"Like with a knife, yes," he said, obviously enjoying Pietro's discomfort. "But we don't use knives as such. We just program some nanodocs; they go in and very gently remove the problem. You won't feel a thing."
Pietro rubbed his throat as if in response to the chafe of an invisible razor.
"But I thought the N-Docs were the problem?"
"Not all N-Docs. Only your internal ones. They're causing the condition because they don't know how to handle your complaint. You are somewhat unique, you know. Yours is the only case of this since bioformatting began. That makes you one in hundreds of billions. Your N-Docs are supposed to keep your body running at peak, by adjusting any imbalances and imperfections as soon as they appear; but as things stand, they are running around doing all the wrong things – nibbling away at your system, and slowly doing serious damage to almost every major organ in your body. The only way to stop them is to remove the cause of the imbalance. Surgery."
"But surely the programmers can just tell them to behave?"
"If the programmers – and we have had some of the very best working on this problem – could have done anything, they would have already done it by now. Your resident N-Docs are so desperate to repair what they see as a critical condition that they won't accept any new instructions. Remember, these are not just standard N-Docs; they are descended from the ones you were injected with at birth. They've grown up with you and your condition. Who knows how their little minds work by now? They learn as they go along, and every new generation has learned a little more of the wrong things, acted a little more in the wrong way. That's why we only found out that anything was wrong last week: they kept you looking healthy, even though you were actually malfunctioning."
"Malfunctioning! I like that! You make me sound like some kind of machine!"
"That's all the human body ever was, and not a particularly complicated one at that, by today's standards. Anyway, your N-Docs are refusing to communicate, and they wiped out the deletion modules we injected you with in short order. We don't actually know exactly what they're doing – nor how they are doing it. They have evolved into extremely powerful little machines with a distorted view of the universe – the universe being your body, so far as they are concerned. The only thing we do know for sure is why they're doing it: to remove what they see as a problem. After the procedure, they will either accept new commands or re-evolve to a more usual configuration. Hopefully."
"I don't think I like that 'hopefully'," said Pietro. "What it says to me is that it might not work. What happens if they don't respond to commands afterwards."
"I'm afraid that that's a little out of my field..." the doctor told him. His eyes lost focus for a moment as he checked the database on his aspidistra. "... But Mr Follows, our chief of programming, will be free shortly, if you'd like him to explain more fully."
"I'll V-Bod him later." Pietro was beginning to calm down, and was determined to take control of the situation. "What do I do now? What preparations do I have to make?"
The doctor's eyes glazed over again, and Pietro received a datafile from the aspidistra. Pietro set his auto-browser to search for things that it thought he might want to know immediately.
"You should find everything you need for now in there," the doctor told him. "There's also an edited transcript of a meeting we had yesterday on the subject."
Pietro's browser dumped a few headlines to his short term memory.
"Oh, my God!" he started. He slumped in his chair, his hands falling to his lap. "I'll be blind...!
"... And deaf!"
He looked up, straight into the doctor's eyes.
"What am I going to do?"
"The treatment," began Mr. Follows, "will consist of a series of injections of specially bred N-Docs." He was walking around his laboratory as he spoke. His manner was brusque, as if he considered Pietro's appearance an intrusion, and Pietro got the idea from his tone that listening quietly was required. Perhaps he would be asking questions afterward.
"I say specially bred, and that is what they are. We are breeding them now. They will be ready in five days, if they pass all tests with minimal faults, and there will then be fifteen days of trials before the treatment can begin.
"There will be two types of N-Doc injected simultaneously, but both types will be programmed to perform the same tasks. One group will be heavily armoured, or the Nano-machine equivalent of heavily armoured, and the other will be stealth modules.
"The main problem that they face will be the extremely aggressive reactions from your resident N-Docs. They wiped out the exploratory group in a matter of minutes, and we can expect the same reaction to the surgery units. This is the reason for the multiple injections. We must ensure that you constantly have enough of the new N-Docs in your body to perform the surgery. Armour and stealth may not be enough, so we shall rely also on numbers. That is really all that I have to tell you for the moment, so if you will excuse me..?"
"But..." Pietro was almost afraid to speak, and certainly did not want to admit to have understood little of what Mr. Follows had said. "But what do I do when my CPU's gone?"
"Not my field, I'm afraid; but I must say that I have enjoyed working on this case. The samples of your resident N-Docs that we took from you proved to be surprisingly resilient and prolific in the seconds before they shut down. If we could persuade some of them to stay active outside your body, studying them would be a very interesting project indeed. You must come to me again if you have any other problems."
Pietro left hurriedly, ordering a translation of what he had just been told as he went.
"Offlined? What do you mean, offlined?"
Pietro gazed at Stella's perfect features: the long, wavy blonde hair (perfectly coloured and kept at optimum length for her style by N-Doc program Cpfc-66\295\lf), those beautiful blue eyes (N-Doc program PMe-382\71G), the straight nose, with the cute little upturn at the end (program LL-940\000\121D), and the high cheekbones (PMw-648-21M -- but she swears she was born with them), and melted.
How could he tell the most beautiful girl in the world (Guaranteed for two years) that he would soon no longer be able to talk to her at machine speed, and that they would be reduced to just verbal communication? That they could no longer share virtual images, but would have to suffer interminable vocal descriptions of physical objects and conceptual constructs? That she would have to look for him in the flesh if she needed to see him, instead of just accessing the nearest tree to send a V-Bod to his location?
That is: How could he tell her all that without having her run screaming for the hills?
He could only put it bluntly.
"They are going to take my CPU out."
She sat back hard against the unmoving restaurant seat, and her eyes widened. They widened so far that they almost formed circles (thus invalidating the guarantee); her thick eyelashes (Ffm-29\48) seeming rays of light from her stellar orbs.
"But..." she said, searching for words – and the nearest tree's medical database at the same time – "... But won't you die?"
Pietro gave a little laugh – the one that he had learned to do so well over the last few days.
"No," he squeaked, and cleared his throat. "I won't die. People survived
thousands of years without being online. It will just take me a bit longer to find things out and to communicate. Things shouldn't be too bad once I get used to it..."
From deep down inside, he listened to himself as he started to give her the same line of waffle that the doctors and N-Doc engineers had spent the week pumping into him. It had left him unconvinced, and now he was trying to fob off the potential love of his life with it.
Shamed at the thought, he tripped over his words and stopped short.
Stella was sitting quietly, staring at him.
"It won't change who I am," he said. "Just make it a little harder for me to interact."
The defeated tone in his voice seemed to strike home, and she looked as though she were willing to listen. At least that gave him a chance to talk her into accepting that his problem might not be so bad as it sounded.
She wriggled delicately in her seat.
"How much harder?" she asked, tartly and to the point.
Pietro wished that he knew which databases she was accessing. Her browser was set up nothing like his, as her interests were more personally oriented. Heaven only knew what kind of information she was being fed.
"Well," he sighed, thinking fast, "I won't be able to talk directly any more, or be able to upload or download data from plants and trees without some kind of interface. That will make things a bit slow, but not impossible."
"What about meetings and trips?" Curiosity was getting the better of her, and she was beginning to sound genuinely interested. Pietro was not sure whether this was a good or bad sign, so he played along.
"Purely physical," he said. "I won't be able to interface quickly enough to run a V-Bod actively in discussions. Hell, without virtual imagery, I shan't even be able to see or hear what everyone else is seeing or doing."
The fearful expression was returning to her face. He knew that if she got too afraid, he would lose her from his life forever. But what could he say?
"My olfactory sensors will still be working," he said, forging blindly ahead, playing for the time to find The Right Thing To Say. "I still have the pheremone sensors – I was born with a nose – but without the CPU I won't be able to interpret the incoming data."
Pietro knew that most of what he was saying would be going over her head, but that even the worst of the vanity-based databases she used would have the capacity to translate for her.
"So you'll be able to smell stuff, but not understand it?" she asked, proving his point. "Even the tree and plant scents?"
"Especially the tree and plant scents. Gengineered plants load tons of data into each molecule of scent, which I'll still be able to gather, but without my wetware CPU I'll have no way of reading it. It'll be the same with my sweat glands. They'll still be pumping out data, but it will be unstructured, unformatted, and..."
"Oh, my God!" she gasped. Her hand was raised to her face. She gaped at him as though spiders were crawling from his mouth.
"Unstructured data!" she cried. He could see tears welling in her terrified eyes. Then her V-Bod blinked out – very rudely; etiquette dictates that one leave by a door.
He stared at her chair, wondering exactly what he had said to get that kind of reaction – what had her paranoid vanity databases told her?
"But Mr. Stoker...."
"Sorry P, but that's the way it is. I can't afford to pay you five hours for doing simple jobs that should take two seconds. If you can't access the web, you can't do the job, and I shall have to replace you with someone who can. It's out of my hands. Thanks for all your efforts so far."
"Oh shit! It's Pietro! Look, I've gotta go!"
"Why won't anyone talk to me?" Pietro whined, making an invisible cat's cradle with his fingers.
"Why do you think they won't?"
Pietro craned his neck around to try to see the owner of the voice, behind him.
"I didn't say that I think they won't. I know it for a fact! Everyone is avoiding me!"
"Please relax and lie back on the couch."
Pietro leaned back and raised his arms above his head.
"You think I'm making this up, don't you?" he demanded. "You think that I haven't really turned into some kind of leper. Try walking down the street with me and watch all the nice people dive for cover."
"I want you to tell me why you feel that you are being avoided."
"Why I..? Look, I am being avoided! This isn't a complex! People are avoiding me! And the why of it is that I'm dangerous! Or I will be, at any rate. After the surgery, I won't have any control over what I transmit. I researched it after my girl dumped me. I'll still be sending in the specific range of aromas used for data transfer. I'll be like a disease, infecting every person and plant I come into contact with!"
"Hmmm. I see." Pietro could almost hear his medical records whizzing across from the aspidistra to his analyst.
"Do you really think that your doctors will let this happen?"
"What can they do? They can't stop me emitting. Not without killing me, anyway."
"I don't really think that that is an avenue that we wish to explore. If, as you say, you have a medical problem that is having an adverse effect on your interpersonal relationships, then it would be better to concentrate less on what is wrong, and more on what can be done."
"Which is nothing!" grumped Pietro. "Once my CPU is gone, it's gone. They can't put another one in."
"Perhaps not, but the web existed long before gengineering made direct interfacing possible. Headbands, for example, were quite effective."
"They were?" That was news to Pietro.
Surprised at the analyst's helpfulness, he ran a browse check through the data he had collected over the week. "Only headband I've got on file was part of a research project about eight hundred years ago. Nothing about it going into production."
"There was one made." The analyst obviously had accessed different data to Pietro – not hard to do considering the size and scope of the web. "Twenty seven million units produced, marketed, sold, and used by a grateful public. Quickest search route is Adolf Tyree, the design team leader. Everything else cross references from there..."
"Adolf Tyree..." Pietro echoed.
As he said the name, he thought of searching for it. That thought caused a signal to be sent from his main wetware – his brain – to his Central Processing Unit – the wetware component that would soon be removed from his body.
Tiny fluctuations in his genetic code were instigated by the signal, which in turn caused thousands of tiny changes all throughout his body. This collective alteration, ultimately, made his sweat glands vary their output by an almost immeasurably small amount.
For the next few picoseconds, the 'taste' of his sweat changed, so that instead of simply carrying out housekeeping functions – ID, calls, status, location, time checking, emergency stats, clothing adjustment, etc. – it also carried with it a search command for the name 'Adolf Tyree'.
The aspidistra by the window picked up the scent, and slowly – aspidistrae are notoriously slow, which is why consultants favour them, as this slowness ensures that their clients pay more attention – searched through its database for information on the subject and probable secondary subjects. It found only a few references (6,384,127), so it decided it best to cross reference with the poplar outside the window. The poplar found a few more entries (1,632E907), and called back for refinement. The aspidistra relayed the call to Pietro along with some (83,286) refinement options. Pietro's CPU interfaced with his subconscious, and between them they chose the most appropriate (610) of those options.
When the poplar received Pietro's choices, it performed a secondary sort and relayed the relevant (432,226) files to the aspidistra, which dumped them en bloc into almost a fiftieth of a second's worth of scent, earmarked for Pietro's Olfactory Sensor Array (nose).
On retrieval of the data, Pietro's CPU crunched seven kinds of Hell out of it, and transferred all of the main headlines to his short-term memory.
From Pietro's point of view, he had idly wondered about Adolf tyree's work, and, three seconds later, he knew everything that there was to know about the subject. Just as if he had always known.
And that was not the end of the process. As Pietro accessed the new information, his CPU kept on crunching the files it had in memory so that it would be ready to feed him any more data that may be needed.
The aspidistra was accessed twice during the next forty seconds, and the poplar only once, showing how excellent a selection of refinement options the CPU had chosen initially.
All of the information he needed was there for him to access as soon as he called for it. His CPU, using his main memory interface, anticipated search keys before he knew he was going to want them, and set up fast pathways to any data that it thought may be called.
Pietro, and everyone else on the planet, took this information access for granted. So far as anyone knew, things had always been that way. Five hundred years is a long time, longer that human life expectancy had been five hundred years before, and wetware gengineering had been firmly in place for that long. For all of those years the web and web interfaces had been refining and redefining themselves, becoming more and more efficient, and constantly adapting to the needs and preferences of the time.
Halls of learning had become halls of research, as there was no 'learning' to be done. What education do you give to the man who 'knows' everything – after running a few built-in training routines at a very early age?
Even creativeness and flair had been put on-line. There were resident subroutines in every CPU that figured out how to shunt their particular human brain into high gear, which allowed for leaps of invention which could span almost any problem.
The Golden age had happened. Man had become Superman, who could do and know almost everything.
Certain areas of the web were restricted, of course. If you wanted to find out about things like chemical weapons manufacture, the recipe for General Peterson's Porkchops, or the finer details of nanotechnology, you needed clearances.
Pietro did not have nanotech clearance.
What he had was a dysfunctional nanodoc system.
Some quirk in his genetic makeup had gone unnoticed by the ante-natal N-Docs when he had been born. They had done the million-and-one tests, modifications and repairs. They made sure that he would never have allergies; restructured his gums so that his teeth would grow straight; formatted his CPU; installed his operating system; and performed the initial set-up for communications.
But they had missed something.
Even the doctors and medical specialists could no longer be sure what that initial something was, because, by the time his body functions had started to go wrong because of it, his internal N-Docs had tried to compensate. The knock-on effects of that continuous and evolving compensation meant more changes – with more effects. And so on and so forth until, at twenty-eight years of age, Pietro's system could no longer be patched up by his resident N-Docs – and that little something missed at birth meant that Pietro's CPU was going to have to be surgically removed.
It would be big news. The first tonsillectomy in hundreds of years!
"I can't find any record of hardware being used for anything other than hobbies for the last three hundred years," Pietro said.
He was actually beginning to enjoy himself. He and Dalek were sitting in the square where the fast oaks were, accessing areas of the web that neither of them had known existed before. The processing speed in the area was so high that Pietro was beginning to feel a little drunk under the fusillades of data that were overrunning him.
"Try going to exploration\solar system\asteroid belt\mining\automatic\," Dalek said, eyes glazed as he gazed at real-time images of events taking place millions of miles away. Pietro obediently obeyed, allowing his CPU, which remembered the path, to drop him into a seat next to Dalek's, which was floating in space between Mars and Jupiter.
A fifth of a picosecond later he had left Dalek behind, as he explored in a slightly different direction.
"That's it!" he yelped. "Microchips! Millions of the things, and still in production... Wow! Have you seen what they're used for?"
"Hold on. What? You've lost me... Microchips? Oh, yes," said Dalek. "What image ref. are you on?"
Pietro relayed the reference and the two of them sat silently for several seconds as the images played directly into their optic nerves.
"Magnificent!" Dalek gasped, finally. "I never knew that machines that big existed! Have you been to the asteroid mines before?"
"No," said Pietro. "I've heard of them, but I never thought that they would be quite so spectacular. Look! There's another robot!" He nudged Dalek's V-Bod. "I'll bet that that little baby's full of microchips!"
"Baby? It looks as if it's full grown to me! It must be a mile across!"
"I don't know. I can't tell. It's hard to get the perspective without something to measure against."
"One point two imperial miles average diameter. Mean density is less than water, so it must be mostly hollow."
That was why Pietro liked working with Dalek. His browser was set up for the fastest routes to technical and analytical data, which was just the kind of data that Pietro needed at that moment. He had felt somewhat comforted when Dalek had agreed to help him with his search. If anyone knew the ramifications of Pietro's condition, it would be Dalek, and if he was not afraid to spend time with Pietro, then there was nothing to be frightened of.
"They use microchip controls because of communication times, apparently," said Dalek. "They work on their own, completely unmanned, but it takes so long for them to get decisions from home that the N-Mechs get annoyed and start acting erratically. The microchips are formed into some kind of decision-making array, so they decide what to do, then call home to tell what they've decided."
"Dear Mother, I've decided to eat Mars..." laughed Pietro.
He watched briefly as Dalek's V-Bod flew ahead through space to get a closer view, but he had lost interest. His head was ringing with a huge influx of data related to microchips.
He focused on Dalek for a second, catching up with him.
"I've got to go and take a look at the place that makes the robots," he said. "You coming?"
"You've really got to get this hardware fixation of yours looked at. You'd think it were important, the way you go on about it," Dalek told him. "C'mon, let's explore the asteroid belt. I mean go there in our actual bods. They let you hop on the freight transports to get there and back, and we can hire something sporty to run around in when we're there."
"Why is everyone fixated on the idea that I have fixations?" Pietro demanded. "You can't call it a fixation, when I've only got two weeks to come up with something – or I'll never be able to 'explore' anything again! I won't have the wetware to do it with!"
Pietro stood up, stretched, and looked around the square at the people going about their business.
"Thanks for all your help. I'll see you later," he said to Dalek's body. The words fell on deaf ears. To all intents and purposes, he and Dalek were no longer on the same planet.
"What? Replace your CPU? Are you crazy?"
"No, I'm sick. I have no choice in the matter."
"But you're here! If you ain't got a CPU, how are you running that V-Bod?"
"My CPU hasn't failed yet. I've got about twelve days to find a cure – and there isn't one – or a replacement CPU. And don't look at me like that! It's not infectious! Especially since I'm not really here!"
The factory foreman looked at him sideways, with a puzzled expression.
"Ok. I'll take you at your word on that..." she lied, Initiating a browse command to confirm what he had told her. ".. But what makes you think that we can do anything about it?"
"I'm here because Microsoul used to make the PFK107986, which was used for almost sixty years before wetware happened."
"PFK stuff, huh?" She rubbed her chin with a very masculine movement. "Oh, yeah. Simulated higher brain functions. Jesus, this is archaic! 'Fraid we don't make it no more."
"I know you don't! If you did, I could stop off at a supermarket and pick one up off the shelf! What I want to know is can you still make them? I've found all the other components I need to make a headband. I just need your interface unit to connect it all to my brain. Your company held the entire market for as long as hardware interfaces were in use, so you're the only people who have the know-how to make a PFK107986."
"Had the know-how is right!" the foreman said. "How old d'you think I am? This is going back centuries! Oldest guy works here is only three-twenny. You need skills that were lost a Hell of a long time ago."
"Yes, but surely you make even better stuff now, easier to produce."
"Sure we do, but what we make now is worlds away from that clanky old stuff, and the software to run it..." Pietro noticed her eyes glaze momentarily, "... which we ain't hardly got no more, has got damn little in common with what we use now. I'm not just talking bus interfaces, either. All the stuff I can find is written in a language I can't make head nor tail of. Hell, even the character set is different! It'd be a major project just to retrain some of our guys to work with this stuff, and then they'd probably end up with all kinds of bad habits! What did you think? That we'd have a few units left over from better part of a thousand years ago?"
Actually, yes, thought Pietro. That was the general idea.
He rubbed his forehead and swept back his hair.
"I didn't know what to think," he said. "All I know is that in a few days I won't be able to think at all, hardly, unless I can get something together. There must be some way you can help. You'll get great publicity when it's all over."
"When it's all..? Are you listening to me? What you are asking is damn near impossible! Yes, we still make chips, but we make biochips! We have none of the hardware to produce the stuff you want, and you can't just knock up those old silicon units in a barn on the farm. The cost to us would run to billions in production machinery. Nobody's going to authorise that kind of investment just to make just one unit!"
"But what about biochips? Surely they can do the job even better than the old type?" said Pietro. "Can't you just adapt them to do the job?"
"With what? We only have partial software, so the gaps will have to be developed. What we have of the original stuff will have to be translated into something useable, and direct translation won't work because the languages are too far removed. I could set a team – a big team – on reading the old software, learning how the old language worked, then figuring out what the programs do; then they'd have to write the whole thing from scratch. Then..." she sighed, "... There's the hardware/wetware interface. Give us five years, and we may be able to do some initial tests."
Pietro staggered back against the wall.
"F-five years..!" he stuttered. "But..."
"Sorry Son, but that's the way it is. Five hundred years ago it would have taken a couple of days, but the world's a different place now from then, and high tech is always high tech. I can't rebuild silicon age technology without rebuilding all the infrastructure first, so you're stuck with waiting for software to be developed."
She grinned as Pietro left, and sent out a command to sweep the web of all information regarding stock item hc.frs-992.
It wouldn't do to have the young lad find out about the rack of complete and functional headbands that were sitting around in the obsolete items store.
"You can't be serious, Stella! Not after all we've been through!"
"I'm sorry, Pietro, but I can't take the risk. Even seeing you with a V-Bod like this runs the risk of my picking up a transmission of bad data through the plant system. The plants near my real body will duplicate precisely your emissions, errors and all."
"I know," said Pietro, who had not known. He wondered where she had got her new-found expertise in gengineering. She had never shown any interest before.
"It's over Pietro. I won't be seeing you again."
"It's over Pietro, I won't be seeing you again!" Pietro muttered as he manhandled the rough rope, forming an unshapely knot.
"Sorry son, but that's the way it is!" he growled as he tossed the end of the rope over the branch of a mainline oak.
"Thanks for all your help so far!" He tied the rope off to a protruding root.
"You must come to me again if you have any other problems!" He climbed onto the chair.
"It won't hurt a bit!" He pulled the noose down around his neck, wriggling his head until it was comfortable.
"You'd think it were important, the way you go on about it!" He stepped off the chair.
His last though as the rope tightened and his throat was crushed was: "High tech is always high tech!"
Then his spine snapped and he stopped thinking altogether.
"And how are we today?" the doctor asked.
"Mad as hell!"
"Goood, good. Still bearing grudges, are we?"
"Yes, 'We' damned well are! You were supposed to help me get better, not drive me to suicide!"
"Are you not better? Did the offending N-Docs not stop functioning?"
"You know damn fine they did! But I had to kill myself to make it happen!"
"Yes, well. I was pretty sure that the N-Docs' termination routines would still be in place, but you had to be well and truly dead for them to activate."
"So you spoke to everybody first, you bastard! You herded me into killing myself by taking away every option I had! Have you any idea of the despair I went through? Couldn't you have just given me an injection?"
"That would be murder. I am a doctor. There are rules. And besides, there are not many poisons that your N-Docs couldn't counter. Unfortunately, they are also the ones that we can't counter, so you really would have been well and truly dead."
"One of the advantages of medical priority on the web," the doctor said. "I was able to add notes to all of your files, so that everyone you talked to knew what I needed them to do. We do that quite a lot – to stop restaurants giving people food that they shouldn't eat, and such.
"Anyway. The good news: With your old N-Docs out of the way, we managed to find and patch the root of your problem. You now have a new batch of N-Docs running around fixing all of the little subsidiary problems. Your spine has been made as good as new, your neck is nicely straightened, and there is no reason you should not go on to live to be a thousand."
"Good!" Pietro yelled, hurling his empty mug at the doctor's rapidly retreating form. "Gives me plenty of time to get my own back!"
He lay back in the bed and smiled evilly as he mentally reviewed the staff database for the hospital.
"And I will, you smug bastard. I will!"