Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Fiction - Small Miracles

This story won me second place in an international contest in 1999, entitled "The Next Fifty Years of Computing". This was an event sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery, which includes the likes of Microsoft, Intel and HP.


David Laderoute

Douglas Moore crossed his arms and tried to focus on Doctor Mashood's assessment of the dying woman. It wasn't easy. Part of it was the incongruous way the doctor's sing-song, subcontinent lilt read out the dreary list of trauma and injury. But more of it was Sandra Wilson herself. Moore knew she was Chinese by descent, although you could no longer tell by looking and her name gave no hint of it. He only knew her lineage because he'd seen her graduation picture from the Shanghai Fusion Institute. She'd been very beautiful, before the accident. If he tried, he could see it still, in spite of the scar tissue congealed over the burns...could see the young woman that had smiled her charm and intelligence from the proud grad photo.

"...finally," Mashood was saying, "opportunistic infections--very antibiotic-resistant ones, I might add--forced us to amputate her left leg and arm." The physician paused, then closed his mouth and turned to Moore. "And that is all."

"Um...." Moore blinked and tried to concentrate on the sterile white hospital smell instead of the faint but keen tang of scabrous tissue. "I'm sorry. It's just that I don't see much of...." He swallowed. "Well, of this sort of thing, in my field."

"Of course not. When computers fail, it is a very clean thing."

Moore automatically read hostility into Mashood's words and glanced at the doctor, ready to defend himself. But the brown eyes seemed free of recrimination. Moore finally shrugged and looked back at what remained of this woman named Wilson. "So how long do you think she'll survive?"

Mashood folded his arms. "Based on where she was found, she should be dead now. Brief as it was, she still received approximately one thousand rem of highly penetrating neutron emission. We're all surprised she didn't suffer immediate CNS failure."


"Central nervous system. Such intense radiation exposure will literally...." Mashood's hands fluttered as he sought an analogy. "...fry the brain." He shrugged again. "Perhaps the neutron burst wasn't uniform, and she was caught in a...dead zone, yes?"

Moore remembered the images fed back from the CNN newsbots that had entered the spectacularly failed Indonesian fusion plant...what, a month ago, now? Most of the place was simply gone, puffed into vapor when the containment field failure--the accident that was never supposed to have been possible--occurred. Those protected from the direct flash of stellar heat, by walls or machinery, were generally twisted into all sorts of jagged death-contortions. He remembered the flat voice-over speculating about electromagnetic pulse, and how it might instantly scramble the neural activity of the human, electro-colloidal brain...and another hired expert disagreeing, stating that sufficiently high neutron flux could do the same thing. At the time, it had seemed so...well, moot. Academics arguing over esoteric causes of death, while carbonized bodies smoldered on the thinscreen in Moore's office....

And he'd made, "Gee, that's a shame," noises and flicked the feed over to the ‘Wall Street Journal’, to start tracking the effect on stocks tied to the fusion industry.

But someone had contacted someone else, who knew Moore and his company's work. The Indonesian government, backed by the burgeoning global fusion industry, was looking for ways to undo some of the vast public relations damage from the accident. A miraculous recovery for at least some of the survivors would do quite nicely.

And now, Moore was here--his financing assured, his hitherto fledgling bio-nanotechnology company suddenly poised to gobble up precious market share...hell, maybe even to take over a whole damned market niche.

"Can we see any of the other survivors?" Moore asked.

"There are no other survivors, Doctor Moore. She is the last."

Moore recalled that her husband, a Canadian engineer named Alan, had worked in the plant with Sandra. He puffed out a breath.

"Well, it looks like she's the one, then."

Mashood shifted uncomfortably. "Doctor Moore, please...I have to restate my objection. She should not be removed from our life support systems. I know that you have governmental approval and all required legal waivers, but--”

"Doctor, believe me, I understand your concern." Briefly, Moore tried to mentally re-contour the ruined face. "But can you really do anything more for her?"

Mashood sighed. "No."

"Well, maybe I can."

They left Sandra Wilson and retreated to Mashood’s impeccably tidy office. Moore knew that, outside, a monsoon busily drenched Jakarta. But Mashood had programmed his window-wall to show friendlier climes--today, a sunny desert-scape dotted with a riot of flowering cacti. As they entered, a jazzy trumpet piece started from hidden speakers.

"'Blues', by Miles Davis," Mashood said. "Do you like jazz, Doctor Moore?"

"I can take it or leave it. And, me Douglas."

“Yes, thank you. I am Hamid.” Mashood smiled, then, to the air said, "Music off, please." He turned back to Moore in the sudden silence and gestured him to a chair. "So...Douglas. Tell me more about what you believe you can do.”

In answer, Moore extracted a golfball-sized, gray sphere from his pocket. He blew on it, and it immediately began to change, morphing first into a mirror-faced cube, then a ball of pinkish fluff, like cotton candy, then a gleaming brass bullet. The changes continued, about once very five seconds, as Mashood watched.

“So,” the physician said, “this is your fog.”

"In the flesh."

"Actually, I've seen it before, on a three-V program. One of your engineers was holding a...handful, if that's the right word. It kept changing, just like this. One moment it would be a beautiful, blue crystal, then it would become red, and then it would become--"

"--a flower. I know. That engineer was me."

"Ah. I'm sorry. I didn’t recognize you."

Moore grinned. "It's surprising how much hair you can lose in two years, isn't it? Anyway, the fog was the real star of that show. This is its descendant.”

"How is this different?"

"Physically, it isn't. The basic design of each component foglet is essentially the same--a spherical hull, containing a one-hundred million MIPS rod-logic computer and a power source, and twelve arms ending in data exchangers, mechanical grippers or chemical-specific discriminators. There are also features that allow each foglet to change its characteristics as an antenna in the visible-light spectrum...that's how they can change color."

"So the difference, then, is in how these ones are programmed...?"

"That, and in the on-board computers themselves. The part you didn't see on three-V was my fog-flower suddenly crumbling to dust. The computers produced a lot more waste heat than we’d hoped. Since then, we've tweaked the rod-logic elements into a more efficient format."

Mashood pursed his lips thoughtfully. “I’ve read a tiny bit of your field’s literature. I don’t pretend to understand much of it, however, this heat issue seems to be a serious problem. I recall one of your colleagues...or competitors, yes? A Doctor Rosen? She seems to be very wary of it.”

“Bah. Doreen Rosen thinks she's still at MIT and not out in the real world. She wants to do away with the rod-logic format altogether and use a buckled-logic format instead.”

Moore hadn't bothered keeping disdain out of his voice, prompting Mashood to smile. "Competitor was the correct word, I see."

"Not for long. If she doesn't stop her navel-gazing and get on with things, employee will be the correct word."

“Still...her approach is better?”

Moore shrugged. “Both are what we call reversible computational systems, because there’s no fundamental need to dissipate heat during the course of a computation. You can actually reverse most of your calculations, without erasing data. In an irreversible system, you create heat every time you map two logical states onto a single output state, because then you do erase a bit of information.”

“I’m sorry...what is the difference, then, between the two types?”

“In rod-logic systems, you have a three-D matrix of tiny rods being pushed and pulled by input signals and timed by clocking signals. The pattern of rods blocking and unblocking one another defines the computation. Most of the contact between the rods is just pressure. But we haven’t quite managed to engineer all of the sliding motion out of the system, so there is a small amount of friction, which means a small amount of excess heat.”

“Which adds up, I would think, given the sheer number of computations in such a small volume.”

Moore shrugged again. “It can. But we’ve reduced the problem by more than an order of magnitude.”

“And in...what was it, buckled logic...?”

“Yes. In that type of system, the state of the computation is stored in the elastic deformations of a solid component. These deformations are like...say, a thin sheet of plastic held edge-ways, between your thumb and forefinger. If you squeeze it, it will buckle either one way, or the other. That’s the basic logic element.”

“Ah. So there is no friction, and no heat.”

“ But it’s a much more complicated engineering problem than the rod-logic format, which is...well, just a more mature technology.” He could have added, more mature, thanks mainly to me. But he didn’t. Instead, he shrugged and tried to sound magnanimous. “Doreen’s made progress. But we've got the competitive edge.”

“Is that why you are here, then?” Mashood asked softly. "To solidify your 'competitive edge'?"

Moore frowned, taken aback. “No...of course not. This is...well, about giving someone back their life.”

Mashood didn’t answer immediately, leaving an uncomfortable silence hanging. Moore finally opened his mouth to speak, but Mashood sighed and shrugged dismissively.

“I’m sorry, Douglas. It just seems so...experimental.”

“It is. But I really believe we can program the fog to take over from most of whatever biological processes have failed in Sandra Wilson’s body. We know it works with lab animals. All that’s left is human trials...and that’s just been awaiting a suitable subject. Sandra is that subject.”

He leaned into Mashood’s lingering uncertainty.

“This could completely revolutionize the way we treat all kinds of disabilities. You’re a doctor. You should be eager to see this work.”

“I am,” Mashood said, sighing again. “I’m just not so eager to see it fail. Because, if it does, it will harm much more than your ‘competitive edge’, yes?”

Moore ran a hand through his hair, frowning slightly at the expanse of scalp that always seemed to be just that much bigger. He remembered--suddenly, and rather inanely--the recent spate of commercials about hair-factories. The prosthetic follicle had finally 'come of age', as one ad put it; real hair, woven out of the body's own proteins and programmed into whatever style and colors you wanted. He kept meaning to download some of the literature, and try to cut through the hype--

Then his eyes fell on Sandra Wilson's scalp, scoured bare by radiation sickness. Or, not quite bare; a few strands of black hair were just visible through the crystalline curve of the tank--

A discrete cough cut through the soft, rhythmic hiss of the ventilator that did Sandra's breathing for her. Moore found Mashood standing beside him. From the physician's manner, Moore could feel his discomfort. This was his ICU, yet it wasn't--not with his patient enclosed in a cylindrical, plastic tank, surrounded by drooping skeins of optical fiber, a portable MRI and an array of lasers splashed with optical-hazard warnings.

"I'm sorry, Hamid," Moore said. "I'm just checking the seals on the tank before we go any further."

Mashood’s dark eyes settled on Sandra Wilson, lying sealed inside the oversized plastic coffin.

“Is this tank really necessary?”

Moore shrugged. “It helps keep things contained, at least until the fog’s programming kicks in., not really. We’re using it mainly because your legal department insisted on it.”

“Ah,” Mashood said, then turned and tapped the door. It opened, admitting a pair of nurses wheeling a crash-cart heaped with resuscitation equipment. He spoke with them for a moment in fluent Jakarta Malay, then produced a thinscreen from his lab-coat pocket, unfolded it and dialed in Sandra’s patient code. "Well, whenever you are ready, am I."

Moore nodded. "Okay. Let's do what we came to do.”

He touched a thin-screen he’d taped to the side of the tank. A series of floating icons appeared. In sequence, he touched one, then another, then several more. The computer coordinating things, an old-but-adequate organo-optical databrick, responded-- flashing through a final series of diagnostics, then, with an unceremonious click, opening a valve on an innocuous, chrome-bright cylinder connected to the tank. A diffuse mist immediately began floating around Sandra Wilson.

Mashood leaned forward and peered through the plastic. Sandra Wilson was quickly shrouded by a tenuous vapor. After a moment, Moore said, "I think we've reached full diffusion in there. Time for the next step.”

Moore chased more icons across the thinscreen. A chime sounded as the laser interface poised over the tank activated, firing a barrage of pulses, coded by frequency and duration. The fog absorbed the laser-data, digested it, and responded.

Moore took a deep breath. "Here we go.”

The fog began to coalesce, condensing into an increasingly thick cloud around Sandra's head and face. Moore could imagine the minuscule rod-logic computers humming in their molecular way, controlling the myriad tiny arms and causing them to lock, to transfer ripples of information, to grip and twist and pull. An infinitely intricate, but incredibly precise game of leap-frog began, the foglets' collective behavior changing as quickly and smoothly as that of a maneuvering school of fish. In the macroscopic world, the fog pooled into an increasingly thick cloud around Sandra's nose and mouth, then dwindled in volume, until it was finally gone.

"So," Mashood breathed, "now it's inside her."

"Now it's inside her," Moore acknowledged, staring at the split MRI image he called onto the thinscreen. “It's moving into its programmed configuration." He nodded approvingly. "In fact, it's improving on my original programming, just the way it’s supposed to. Look here...this agglomeration of foglets is adapting to that occlusion of the bronchia we talked about." He glanced at Mashood. "I deliberately didn't tell the fog about this growth in her left lung, to see how it would respond."

Mashood nodded tightly. “You must be gratified that your experiments are working out so well.” Moore glanced sharply at him, but the physician just looked back at his own thinscreen. “I am surprised there’s so little response from the patient to all this," he said. "Just a slight increase in breathing labor, that’s all.”

“In spite of how it looks,” Moore said, “it’s really not much different than inhaling a lung-full of mist--” He stopped as a new series of icons flashed onto the thinscreen.

"What is that?" Mashood asked.

"That's the fog telling us it's in position,” Moore responded. "It left a relay chain of foglets up to her mouth...those are reflecting the laser light in a characteristic way. That means it's time to turn off your ventilator."

Mashood pressed his lips into a thin line, then tapped a code into his thin-screen.

He paused.

Moore opened his mouth, ready to be persuasive...but Mashood sighed softly and touched one, last icon. The thin-screen chimed in shrill alarm, and a repeater buzzed from the wall over the tank.

Mashood cut off the alarms. The steady, rhythmic background hiss of the ventilator had stopped, as had the movement of Sandra’s chest.


Both Moore’s and Mashood’s attention flicked rapidly between Sandra and their respective thinscreens.

“Her blood oxygen is decreasing,” Mashood finally said.

Moore breathed a silent plea towards Sandra.

“Still decreasing.” Mashood tapped the thin-screen, reactivating an icon. “In another twenty seconds, I’m going to restart the ventilator.” Moore felt the nurses tense beside their crash-cart.

Moore placed a hand on the tank. “Come on, Sandra,” he said, which was stupid, because she really had nothing to do with it, it was the fog--

Sandra’s chest heaved.

And again.

“Yes!” Moore whispered, looking at the data. The fog had finally activated. Each of the myriad foglets was now part of a cooperative network, acting to expand and contract Sandra’s chest--pumping oxygen through the radiation-ravaged cells of her lungs, into her bloodstream, and stripping carbon dioxide out.

“Her blood oxygen is leveling off,” Mashood said, raising his eyebrows in wonder. “And now I’m recording an increase in oxygen content. Can you verify this, Doug?”

Moore nodded. “I certainly am.”

Days of watching and waiting lay ahead. But, for now, Moore couldn’t stop grinning a triumphant grin.

Only a week after being weaned from the ventilator, Sandra was also free of the respiratory booster, cardiac stabilizer and dialysis filters. Moore’s fog had taken over from each, until only basic feeding and care systems remained.

Soon after that, Sandra Wilson woke up.

Moore made the trip to the hospital in the wee hours, right after Mashood called. He arrived rumpled, the same clothes on that he’d taken off before bed, to find Sandra lying calmly--a relief, since he’d always been concerned about her panicking, should she awaken. Still, her dark eyes shone with restrained fear; Moore glanced at Mashood in the subdued light, wondering what the physician (looking decidedly unrumpled, despite the hour) had already told her.

Mashood smiled. “Doctor Douglas Moore, I’d like to introduce Sandra Wilson.”

Moore fumbled for a moment, then finally said, “Hi.”

It sounded vastly insipid, but Sandra nodded, once.

“We've been talking about what has happened, and where she is. Sandra, do you remember the accident itself?"

She shook her head.

"I'm not surprised." Mashood turned to Moore. "I have told her about what you’ve done, but only in very general terms.”

Her remaining hand floated towards her chest.

“Breathing....” she whispered.

Moore nodded. “Yes. We’re helping you breathe with some advanced nanotechnology...a three-D matrix of micron-scale robots, controlled by molecular mechanical computers. You were...sorry, are an engineer, so I assume you understand what that means?”

She nodded.

“We’ve programmed them to respond appropriately to the natural muscular action of your own breathing,” he continued, “so the whole network of robots is working with you, not against you. They’re helping with a number of your body’s other functions, as well. It’s...well, unconventional, but we believe it will offer you a better chance of recovery than the conventional methods."

She nodded again.

“Well,” Moore went on, “we’re hoping that we can offer you a freer, more comfortable recovery. If you have any questions....”

Her hand tapped her chest again, and her mouth worked.

Moore frowned. “I’m sorry....”

Mashood leaned forward, listening, then looked at Moore.

“The robots. She wants you to tell her more.”

Moore smiled. “Sure. Anything you want to know.”

Mashood left them that way...and found them still that way, Moore talking and Sandra listening intently, while dawn broke over Jakarta.

The next day, Moore returned to the lab he'd set up in space provided by the Indonesian fusion secretariat. He had a full day planned--finishing off a press release, getting caught up on a progress report for the shareholders, checking on how the next software upgrade for the fog was progressing, and paying a virtual visit to his bio-interface subcontractor in San Francisco. He particularly looked forward to the last. The folks there worked hard at integrating human physiology even more directly into the digital universe than it already was. But most of their applications, to date, had been in the burgeoning VR-entertainment field. He had a completely new challenge to offer them, and expected them to eagerly snap it up. First, though, the markets. He wanted to see how far up his company's shares were today, especially on the all-important Hong Kong exchange--

As soon as he entered his makeshift office, his pocket thinscreen chimed the first bar of Beethoven's Fifth--an irritating default he'd never got around to changing. Somebody had sent him a v-mail, which should have been forwarded to him automatically. He cursed the gremlins of telecommunications and unfolded his thinscreen, hoping that, whatever it was, it hadn’t been urgent.

Doreen Rosen’s face appeared on the device, backed by a shelf lined with books and a restlessly shifting three-D abstract that could only be fog.

“Hello, Douglas,” she said. “I cancelled the auto-forward on this, because I didn’t want to interrupt you at a busy time.” A pause. “From what I've heard, it seems you’ve had lots of those, lately. I just wanted to offer my congratulations...I’ve heard what you’ve achieved with that poor woman in the hospital. You know my feelings about rod-logic, of course...but I can only wish we could have moved as quickly as you did. We're finally at the bench-production stage, but....” She shrugged. “That’s science, isn’t it? To the victor go the spoils, and all that.” Another pause. “Anyway, I hope everything works out...for her and you. Give me a call sometime.”

Moore smiled wryly as the image flicked back to a default he did like, a blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds.

“Well, thank you, Doreen,” he said to the sky-scape. “That was big of you.”

Which should have been the end of it, but wasn't. All through the rest of that day, and often thereafter, he wondered if he would have been as generous in defeat.

Of course he would...wouldn't he?

“You’re looking good this morning,” Moore said, putting down the case he’d been carrying and touching the smartglass window in Sandra’s hospital room. He said, “Light,” and the window obliged, changing from smoke-Grey to a shade short of clear. The recent monsoon gloom had given way to blue skies, and now sailboats and hovercraft poked out of the shelter of the Jaya Ancol marina, on their way across the bay to the haze-shrouded islands of Pulau Seribu. Sandra groaned, blinking at the sudden flood of sunlight.

“And suppose I wanted to keep sleeping?” she asked, working herself higher up the pillows with her remaining hand. She was looking better--much better than either Moore or Mashood would have thought possible only two weeks previously, when she’d first awakened. Her voice had improved, too--software updates to the fog in her lungs and trachea had made it more responsive to the movements of her throat and mouth. She still whispered, but it was a strong whisper.

“Why in the world would you want to sleep on such a beautiful day?” Moore laughed, and sat down beside the bed.

Sandra grinned--another improvement, since fog had also been programmed to replace her missing teeth. It further spurred Moore’s growing sense that he could, indeed, accomplish nearly anything with the fog. And that reminded him of why he’d come here today.

“Well, it’s not like I’m going to get to enjoy it,” she said, her smile fading.

Moore touched her hand. “Maybe not.” He glanced at the bedclothes, falling off of her thighs and down to perfect flatness where her legs...weren’t. “But maybe we can change that.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, we’ve used the fog to supplement, and even take over some of your body’s key functions. And it’s working...well, frankly, beyond our best hopes. I imagined all sorts of ongoing interaction and monitoring being necessary. But the fog has proved us wrong. Its programming is adaptable, so it’s learning to accommodate your physiology in all kinds of ways. It’s taking care of itself, really.” He took a breath. “So, why not use it to give you back your legs, and your arm?”

She stared. “Is that possible?”

In answer, he opened the case he’d brought. It contained a half-metre long plastic tube with an elastic cuff and a valve connector, a metal cylinder of pre-programmed fog, and a hand-held version of the laser interface.

“Why don’t I show you?” Moore said.

Sandra watched as he slipped elastic cuff of the tube over the stump of her arm, attached the cylinder to the valve, and released the fog. When it had filled the cylinder, he pointed the interface at it and triggered the flood of laser-data. The fog booted, then condensed, in seconds, into a generalized forearm and hand that enclosed Sandra’s stump.

Moore slipped off the tube. Sandra hesitated, then slowly rotated her shoulder. The arm lifted off the bed and hung, extended, in front of her.

“Douglas, it’s... remarkable.”

He shrugged. “Unfortunately, it’s just a basic prosthetic...and not a very good one, at that. The latest electromechanical ones are vastly superior. In fact, this one currently has no movement, no’s basically just a statue of an arm, stuck onto your body. It doesn’t even match your skin-tone. But that can all change.”


“I’m convinced that we can program the fog to respond to your movements, the same way it's working with your diaphragm to allow you to breath. In fact,” he added, unable to keep the excitement out of his voice, “I think we can even manage some degree of direct interface with your nervous system. Your nerve impulses would become input signals. Then we’d have the best prosthetic going, instead of...well, the worst.”

Sandra stared at the arm. “You mean I would get my arm back? And my legs?”

“That’s the idea.”

“That would” She broke off, blinking through sudden tears.

Moore shifted awkwardly. “There are still some problems to work out--”

“That doesn't matter," Sandra said, wiping her eyes. “It doesn’t even matter if it ever works. It’s just so nice to be able hope.” She sniffed, then coughed--a tight, hitching thing, thanks to a minuscule lag in the fog’s response to the convulsions of her chest. When it stopped, she shrugged. “And if it does work, I know exactly what I’m going to do.”

“What’s that?”

“I’m going to dance.”

Moore smiled. “I’d love to see you dance.”

She smiled back, but it immediately faded. "I've never danced alone before. Only with Alan...."

Moore shifted uncomfortably. This was the first time she'd mentioned her husband.

"I'm sorry for your loss," he finally said.

"I think you would have liked him." She nodded into his eyes. "I know he would have liked you."

Moore smiled in awkward gratitude.

Their talk drifted on to other things. At some point, Moore’s hand found hers...her real one. He was still holding it when she fell asleep.

Mashood’s frantic v-mail was waiting for Moore when he stepped out of the shower in his hotel room. All the physician said was, “Sandra is me!” and then clicked off.

Moore felt gut-punched. He threw on whatever clothes were handiest and flung himself out the door. He’d thought, once, about applying to Jakarta's municipal traffic control for an emergency routing pass for his rental car. But everything had gone so smoothly that the whole concept of an 'emergency' had slipped quietly into oblivion. Stuck, now, in the standard traffic pattern, he’d only made it half-way to the hospital when Mashood finally answered his call.

“What the hell’s happening?” he snapped at the thinscreen, then cursed as the car, obeying some distant computer, fell dutifully in behind a lumbering cargo flat.

“Sandra’s body temperature started to rise, and she went into respiratory distress.”

Moore swallowed ice. “Is she alright?”

“No. But she’s stable.”

“So what happened?”

“I was hoping you could tell me. All I know is the fog in her lungs seems to have failed. Some was expelled on its own...the rest we purged. She’s back on a respirator now.”

“Damn it.”


Moore glanced out the window; he was just edging past the restored sprawl of Old Batavia. “I’ll be soon as I can.”

Through the remainder of the trip...all the way up to Sandra’s room on the ICU floor...the hard truth buzzed around Moore like an angry insect. But he managed to hold it bay until he faced the output from the databrick, which had been monitoring the fog and had activated the crisis management function that had probably saved Sandra’s life.

All his confident work had only delayed--not prevented--the fog’s thermal collapse.

He looked at Sandra, jerking slightly as the ventilator worked to puff life into her. The dark eyes--which had only just started to shine, again--were closed.

“I’m sorry, Sandra,” he whispered, taking her hand. But it was the wrong one, stiff and unyielding...the one warmed only by the waste heat of countless computations.

Moore tapped the thinscreen in a desultory way, chasing ideas across its smoothness, then flicking them off into digital limbo. The rest of his team had long since gone home; he worked alone, insulated from the night by the conditioned air and white background noise of the lab.

Two days, since the fog had so miserably let, had let Sandra down. As a guard against further traumatic failures, the fog supporting her cardiac and other functions had also been deactivated, reduced again to so much mist and purged from her body. Even the faux-arm had been removed, leaving Sandra right back where she’d started, before Douglas Moore had entered her life with promises he couldn’t keep.

He rubbed eyes gritty from fatigue and blinked at the thinscreen. Data hovered on its surface, molecular statistics and other sterile facts surrounding a three-D schematic of a foglet-hull.

What had happened seemed clear enough--a fundamental structural failure had cascaded through the fog in her lungs, faster than the network could cope with it. Within a few minutes, virtually all of the foglets had broken down. The exact nature of the failure might still be uncertain, but Moore could reason out the gist of it all too easily. His upgraded rod-logic computers were better than their predecessors. They did produce far less heat. But a fatal flaw still lurked in the fog’s fundamental structure. A particular molecule was a fraction too big or too small, a certain chemical bond was slightly weaker than they’d calculated--something. But heat was the trigger; the cooler computers just meant whatever it was took longer to manifest.

Which meant Moore had taken the wrong path. Fiddling with the computers hadn’t been the answer; digging into the fundamental stuff of the fog was. Of course, now that he knew in what direction the problem lay, Moore likewise knew that he and his people could eventually solve it. And there was still the data they collected, and the fertile ground of further research, refinement, technical papers....

But that wouldn’t help Sandra. Even with the most heroic measures in place, Mashood gave her only a few more weeks to live...a few months, at most.

I’m going to dance.

Moore leaned back and stared at the thinscreen without seeing it. He sat that way for a long time.

Would I be as generous in defeat?

There was only one way to find out, of course.

Moore leaned forward and touched the voice-input icon on the thinscreen.

"I want to place a call...."

Moore smiled tiredly when Sandra's eyes finally opened. Gone was the triumphant thrill he'd felt the last time this had happened; in its place was just simple relief and warm satisfaction.

"What's happening?" she whispered.

"There was a problem with the fog," Mashood said from the other side of the bed. "I'm sure Douglas can explain what it was, and how it was corrected, much better than I can."

She blinked and looked down the length of the bed--at her chest, rising and falling on its her arms....

At her legs.


"Try moving them," Moore said.

Experimentally, she flexed her fingers, bent her knees and elbows, wiggled her toes. The movements were stiff...jerky, even, bordering on spasmodic...but they were movements.

Her movements.

She looked from Mashood to Moore, and back. " You said it didn't work...."

"It didn't," Moore said, shrugging. "At least, mine didn't. There's a defect somewhere in it...some kind of molecular flaw. Our rod-logic computers still put out enough heat that it eventually triggers the defect, and the fog breaks down. I think we can eventually engineer around it, but, until then...." He shrugged.

With Mashood's help, Sandra slowly levered herself to a sitting position. She touched her face, smooth and unblemished...ran her hands through a spill of hair, lush and black.

"The best part," Moore said, "is that you never need to comb it." He shrugged again. "I hope it's the right length and color. We used the best photos we could find."

"It looks so...real," Sandra breathed.

"There's still lots of room for improvement," Moore said. "It would be nice to get that direct neural input going, for one--"

"Douglas, what I told you before hasn't changed. Hope is enough." She nodded. "Thank you."

Moore smiled ruefully. "Well, the person you really want to thank is Doreen Rosen. It's her fog we're uses a different type of computer, so the breakdown problem...well, isn't. You'll meet her soon. I think you'll like her."

"I'm so sorry your fog didn't work," Sandra said. "I know you had such high hopes for it."

"No, I'm the one who's sorry. I’m just glad Doreen was able to step into the breach.”

Mashood smiled his understanding. “And now she has the ‘competitive edge’...yes?”

“That she does,” Moore agreed, then looked back at Sandra. “So, when you talk to her, make sure you put in a good word for me, okay?”

Sandra smiled, and suddenly became the beautiful young woman in the grad photo. Moore smiled back.

"I think you really should rest, now, Sandra," Mashood said.

"I couldn't rest...not now. Douglas, could you help me stand up?"

Moore glanced at Mashood, who just gave a resigned shrug. Slowly, he helped Sandra swing her new legs over the edge of the bed, and her feet to the floor. With her arms around him, she shifted her weight, and Doreen Rosen's buckled-logic computers responded by bending, then straightening her faux-legs, taking up her weight and lifting her until she stood erect, still embraced by Moore. She shifted fractionally in his grip, as the fog network strove to make minute, balancing corrections.

"It's too bad," she whispered, "that there's no music."

Moore smiled...then shared a wide-eyed look with Sandra, as a tune he recognized as one of Mashood's old jazz pieces filled the air.

Mashood put his thinscreen down on the beside table. "Wynton Marsalis," he said. "Not really appropriate for dancing, but it's all I've got loaded, I'm afraid."

Moore grinned his thanks at Mashood, then looked at Sandra. "May I?"

In answer, Sandra clutched Moore more tightly and began to sway with the music. Soon, she was shuffling her fog-feet in tiny, hesitant steps.

Mashood watched for a moment, then quietly slipped out of the room, leaving them alone to dance.

No comments:

Post a Comment