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Chip off the Ol' Block

Vasilis Afxentiou
[vafx@hol.gr]

"Power is always charged with the impulse to eliminate human nature, the human variable, from the equation of action. Dictators do it by terror or by the inculcation of blind faith; the military do it by iron discipline; and the industrial masters think they can do it by automation." -- Eric Hoffer






Middle-aged with a broad bust, silvering hair and bushy stray brows, Reginald Marcus stopped scribbling, squinted and eyed the intruder from behind the posh cherry-wood desk.

           "What is the nature of your call, Mr.---?"

           "Hauge, Dr. Seamus Hauge. Billions, Mr. Marcus."

           Staring hard now, Reginald Marcus, president of International Medical Software Development, bit his lip. Last night's partying with the board pantheon was apparently not punishment enough. And currently they had been the only staple of companionship around. His inflicted isolation lately, he hoped, would not debilitate him, turn him into another Hughes.

           The heavy sweet aroma expensive Havana cigars are famous for, mingled with the scent of leather of the choicely Near-East quality.

           "Billions?"

           "Most appropriate, Mr. Marcus, for the biggest medic software company around."

           "That we are."

           Reginald Marcus considered having an employer-employee talk with Ms. Atwood, his new, goggle-spectacled, personal secretary. Retirement had absorbed the older, more adept, Mrs. Parsons. Bless you, Mrs. Parsons, he thought, but your understudy dispenses protocol blindly.

           "I do hope you remember." Hauge reached into his coat pocket and extricated a small white card. "You had said,`Show this card.'"

           A vestige of recollection trundled in Marcus. "University of Edinburgh?" "School of Computer Medicine -- now doing a sabbatical at A & M," said Hauge. "Hadn't explained half of what it's all about. Too busy looking over my shoulder and all last evening."

           Then and there, Marcus denounced Old Cherokee Bourbon and silently apologized to Ms. Atwood.

           "You did say billions?"

           "Quite. Sir, you pioneer in treading paths no one has ever voyaged on before. Of course, you'll undoubtedly be facing competition no one's ever dealt with."

           Marcus was grateful for the man's garrulity. It gave him time to compose. Looking out the penthouse window, that was one of the four walls opposite the luxurious bar, he gazed upon the azaleas flooding onto the terrace, the pointed and cubed tops of looming skyscrapers with their mirroring or black windows, the steel and glass blocks of his empire where the thousands of men and women worked for him like sprite-ful ants scurrying every which away.

           Marcus nodded at the man: his newest and perhaps most lucrative triumph. If only Quasimodo would stop pealing those bells inside his head.

           He reached into the pocket of his cashmere jacket. "Want a couple?" Hauge looked at what Marcus was offering. Anti-acid drops. They came in an etched container, carved out of white gold in the shape of a basket cockle. A modest diamond carapace was set into it. A pistil of blood-red was infused atop it.

           "I don't mind if I do." Hauge took two. "I say, we were a slight tipsy last night."

           "A might." Marcus took a deep breath. "It's a Mont Blane ruby," he said, fingering the blaring red stone. His tenure just then carried the exaggerated seriousness of Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The container was small in Marcus's palm, but prodigious, substantial, potent.

           "You do have an eye for the arresting," Hauge said. "Excellent taste too. The braised liver with the onions was lip-smacking, and the chitterlings, never tasted anything like it."

           "Now, to our subject, Dr. Hauge."

           "Quite." Hauge alternated his legs. "It's a processor, to make a long story short. Somewhat different from a computer processor in that it learns and -- and carries a certain, I might say, intrinsic leverage."

           "Don't all?" Marcus tossed four anti-acid pills into his mouth. Haziness enclose him and thickened.

           "Not quite," Hauge said. "All processors so far in the market are silicon and binary. They are made up of tiny transistors, switches, imprinted on silicon based wafers which are activated to an on or off state by a trickle of current."

           A churning built up in Marcus's stomach, clutched for a time, then loosened. For a moment the upheaval seemed to wane. It was a rough landing, not like ever before.

           The whipping in his gut build up again, gripped, expired. The pill holder shone. Its rainbow beams washed over him and nudged him five centimeters into the soft leather of the chair.

           "Don't claim to be a pundit, but I am conversant with the subject of solid state electronics," Marcus said, showing a bit ruffled.

           Hauge spoke over the wide desk separating them. "May I illustrate further?"

           "Never say 'no' to that."

           Marcus tolerated another brisk, vibrantly disorienting pang of nausea. He must look the worse for wear. His onerous, strained breathing patiently slowed down, but still tethered in pain. "The stuff must of been poison," he mumbled, his heart hammering against his chest, keen to break loose from it. But Hauge seemed to no longer be attending him or his predicament.

           Marcus listened to Hauge prattle on about what he considered monumental, and rated him arch-ingrate. He thought that he would perish here, imbibed, maligned like an unsuspecting Napoleon amidst his empire; his immortality perhaps mere footsteps away.

           "No offence intended," said Hauge. Hauge looked relieved. Then lifted and high of heart. He sank into his chair, relaxed, and seemed to appraise all that surrounded him.

           The office was huge and plushly furnished and was only a small part of the pent-house they were in. Low, soft music and singing was piped in that he recognized to be Bolivar, an old opera by French composer Darius Milhaud.

           Hauge next upped his head and took in the vista of a quadrant of Dallas that lay beyond the enormous window and between an Apollo by Scopas and Orcagna's Madonna delle Grazie.

           "I only wanted to clarify a point," he now continued. "My discovery is neither silicon-based or binary. It's organic, neural-prosthetic implant or permanently cultivated, DNA-protein- based."

           He produced from his pocket a black cube the size of a die with a thin pig tail of tiny electrodes running off it.

           "Uses quanta states instead of binary logic."

           "No offence taken," Marcus returned in his Texas drawl, craning forward for a better look.

           I've landed a big one this time, his gut told him. Intuition and on the spot assessment of multitudes of executives, yuppies and hirelings over the years had honed and sharpened his capacity for judging, and seldom proved him wrong. His ashen face started to bead with sweat.

           The sun, rising behind the forest of buildings, was turning the cinemascope, polarized plate-window to sunset red, and only a massive vermilion ball, jabbed by black angular and sharp-edged protrusions, could now be discerned. The flat land and low granite hills beyond gradually faded into an artificial, maroon dusk.

           Numbing out there, Marcus's thoughts bandied about. The yellows and ambers, the glare of the lapis lazuli blue sky, the harsh light of the desert rocks and dust. The heat that makes air ripple like silk.

           He had planned to leave today for Kruger National Park in South Africa to survey his latest acquisition there, a three wing hospital, purchased dirt cheep. But it could wait. So could Lanarkshire; that was a nine-floor, thousand-bed "gift" from Glasgow, literally a steal. Competition better don their glasses, he thought.

           "It works quite splendidly." Hauge interrupted Marcus's fixed look and raised the black die higher. He regarded as Marcus got deeper absorbed by the shades and moods around him. The hangover had run its course and would make things easier. Marcus looked to him dazed, and his eyes like two red puddles at the bottom of a dry well.

           Make hay while the sun shines, Hauge thought.

           "Matter of fact its encapsulation is entirely too exaggerated. The active device inside is much, much smaller. It will be designed to interface directly with synapses. But the filament connections make it presently impossible to reduce further. Working on it. Its function? I'll demonstrate shortly."

           Marcus made a steeple with his hands. "About the billions." His attitude and diction changed. The voice was curt and brusque.

           "No question about it. Everyone and their aunty would kill for one," Hauge preened. His listener attended mutely, so he cultivated the idea. "Rather funny, but fashion rests on the most rudimentary supposition that has ever promoted a model of human trend: a majority of people will be imitated more often than not. Fads come and go. Not trustworthy. Yet in the long run a trend- varying populace will be imitated most of the time than not. The untouchable harijan, here, would want, and be able, to reach the highest Brahman---"

           "We're not Hindus, Mr. Hauge," Marcus cut in, unsettled. "Jean Cocteau said, Tact in audacity is knowing how far you can go without going too far. More pertinent, will the proponents of this trend have the tolerance to see it through to success and absorb the costs? Why, Sir, would everyone want one?" Marcus fumbled with the pill container again.

           Hauge looked down the desk. "Because we can make it from them for them," he said. "A trend of fashion will catch on in some places like flash fire, and this can do it, Mr. Marcus!"

           "A fad or here to stay?" Marcus stubbornly inquired.

           "Mr. Marcus, what a question!"

           "A good one," Marcus retorted. "A common mistake with technocrats is that they try to do away with, they say alleviate, human deficiencies. Aimless wriggling through the dark is what I say. Yet, and here's the paradox, they depend on these to make their bundle. They try to improve the system, and profit at the same time, by getting rid of it. Will your device provide to the degree that no other gambit is needed?"

           Hauge stared puzzled.

           "Look, we've got problems in this business that all these gadgets put together cannot solve," Marcus said. "Dehumanizing people to promote what is not simply a fad but a permanent fixture can prove not only unprofitable in the long run, but the most chancy and perfidious of all ventures risked. So, a fad or here to stay, Mr. Hauge?"

           The raspy voice was permeate with disdain, with harsh reservation.

           And your place in this snug paragon of corporate rectitude, Mr. Marcus? Hauge itched to ask. But, for the present, he had to keep Marcus sweet, and thoroughly receptive.

           Marcus sighed. "Your answer to my question?" he asked, and eyeballed Hauge. "Business, Hauge, ain't Pachisi."

           "I don't know the answer," Hauge expelled, with calm gravity.

           "I don't think you want it to be a fad," Marcus snorted. "Biological engineering is only a step below cyborgs."

           Now an odious and distasteful look darkened his face. He reflected at the consequence of the precarious grounds Hauge was rummaging through, and the rip it could irrevocably rend in the edifice of popular consent.

           "Don't know who said, 'boldness without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination'. That's burning ground, Hauge. The deep roots you talk about, are they perhaps the uprooting of other social strains?" Silently: All the same, curious as hell to see what you're nuzzling up to.Then loudly, "Want some coffee?"

           Ms. Atwood softly served the cappuccino.

           I must've been sloshed, Marcus thought. He grunted massaging his temples. He put down one of the two silver and ivory tankards the secretary brought in, rose, moseyed over to where Hauge sat. His flat nose, his six-foot-three, two-twenty pound lean frame he hoped would hint at his beloved hobby. In his middle forties he could still get a few rounds in the ring without losing much wind. Other than by-the-book pugilism Marcus harrowed at all form of polemic art. But he loved to bluff. It gave him the edge over disorderly board meetings.

           "Dr. Hauge, what's this about making computer components out of people?" A look of stern reproach appeared on his face.

           The other scanned the tower before him and sipped the last drops of his coffee.

           "Not out of them, dear man, for them, like a heart valve, a skin graft from artificially cultured cells, plastic arteries, etcetera. Things that enhance, save people's lives as pacemakers, artificial kidneys."

           "Go on," Marcus said and sat near in another chair. Never had he been offered anything to compare with what this young man was offering. In his mind flashed a menagerie of cyberpunk images and endless queues of eager, nail-biting clientele. Meanwhile, dim circumspection tainted him with doubt. Visions of hacked, and patched up heads and defiled torsos paraded in front of him. But in the end he nudged aside the stink of fear and revelled at a euphoria of released capital fantasies.

           "To put it simply," Hauge continued, "a sample of the subject's DNA is got and blown up hologrammically in a computer. The double helix is much easier to deal with that way."

           Hauge thought while he spoke, Something akin to hunger in that stare. A breeze of faith with a trace of sadness touched his face. It made Hauge's heart flutter. You never felt the bite of frost through torn shoes in deep Nor' Loch winter. Never had to eat stale bread and left-over mutton days on end in squalid, pest-infested, Auld Reekie ghettos to save up for coming tuition fees.

           "Then the work begins. All genes not supportive to the preset parameters are extracted and replaced by modified ones: genes that heal the crippled, the blind, can make the deaf hear again; genes for mathematical acumen, for musical talent, for body stamina, business sagacity -- you name it. The helix is then shrunk back down to its nominal size, superimposed on the original, and with the help of a broad-band laser beam is imprinted upon it."

           Blood, Marcus? Is that what you want? Hauge remembered his own skeletal, pinched face crimping in concentration over voluminous texts. The explosive awakenings in the midst of nights by dreams in which cadavers he had dissected pursued him, threatening to fell him into so many lean strips. And that one child, the little girl, that expired in his arms slowly and lingeringly because the blood pool was empty and her parents could not pay Marcus, the world-wide provider of blood, for the rare, new blood.

           What new deal were you striking up, Marcus, at the time?

           "Pardon my limited knowledge of genetics," at last Marcus wrenched in the luxurious chair, his hulking body coercing a tormented squeal from its frame, "but won't that just change the original chromosome's physical shape and not its quality?"

           "Ah, but it will. Chromosome is the name of the strange fellow: body of colour. Very sensitive to colour frequency modulations. The modified facsimile will be colour stained -- coded with transparent dye where effective changes are desired, and by a mirror dye where not."

           "Still, that leaves you with just one little, altered chromosome." Marcus stood up grinning, his argent hair wildly streaming and gleaming from the blowing air vent close above it, his pearly teeth teasing with their perfect dental work. He patted his lips with his index finger.

           "That can, and will, reproduce its exact duplicate," Hauge came back, "since the regenerative mechanism will not have been touched."

           Marcus laughed, "I didn't know such fidelity, especially in the case of artificial encroachment, existed. But the building of a complete helix from half of one -- a split helix -- is done, if I'm not mistaken, with the aid of an enzyme," Marcus said.

           "I didn't either -- a decade back. But at University we managed, piecemeal, to weed out that protein strain and the aminos and anything else that could interfere." Hauge tapped at the die and its dullness dispersed.

           Marcus knitted his brows. "Well, won't something else still rectify the mutated helix?"

           "No. Now, the enzyme only constructs the mirror image of that which is in front of it. It does not compare chromosomes in doing so."

           Marcus shook his head. "Hauge, it'll still give you a chromosome different from the subject's intrinsic physiology. Won't the body's defences fight it off?"

           "Does the immune system fight off radio-actively mutated chromosomes, tissue for that matter? If it did we would have the cure for AIDS -- for most cancers. The same principle holds true here. Furthermore, this is controlled and meticulously guided mutation. Not to mention that it comes from the same contingency as its host's inherent genes."

           Two million years of conditioning, Hauge thought, The sun. The moon. Lightning. Fire. The piquancy of light and the seductiveness of color and what they incite, all pact into an irresistible live blend of rays. Symbols of a revered, supremacy/servility evolutionary path. Ritualistic moulds of castes and adherents to combat-based values -- all now exposed, unguarded, before the slued raptures of subliminal intensities and hues, bolting through the optic nerve. Visible phenomena that silently cuffed and castrated willpower, the id, the superego -- the brain's very identity.

           At that moment, Hauge caught himself almost mesmerized. He was engrossed in the force of power availed to him. It tickled within him that mysterious ember he called imagination. But only for a moment.

           "And its quota?"

           "Varied solely by the subject's needs and by the subject alone." Hauge pinched two of the exposed fine wires on the end of the die's pig tail. Marcus saw the inside begin to whirl and soon turn to murky grey, dull cream, and, finally, to diamond brilliance.

           Marcus got up and came close to look at the sparkling jewel the other held between his fingers. Coruscating sprays of rainbows caught, filled and kept his eye -- his sight. Its pristine radiance bathed his retinas making him blink and a tear drop dribbled down his cheek.

           "It's sin, itself!" he nearly drooled and kneeled before the Scot to have a better look. "Where is the agent?"

           "A tiny shimmer -- the star, if you look hard, in its geometric centre."

           "How?"

           "Body heat. It is attuned to the body heat spectrum. Enough to generate ample potential for the chromosomes to activate and act as catalysts to the liquid plasma pigmentation surrounding it, and then some. Here," Hauge said and pinched more wires. The liquid swirled, sparkling, spewing needles of sheen through space. It changed to transparent bloodstone.

           "Get off your knees, Old fellow," Hauge said, offering his chair. "Take this too." He reached into his pocket. "Shouldn't we get back to the billions?"

           Marcus pinched and gawked.

           "Are you with me, man?"

           Marcus saw the die in his own hand turn into a green emerald, a blue sapphire, yellow citrine, fire opal.

           "Eh, Yes. Absorbing sort of prettiness."

           "So, pretty!" Marcus's parched voice was weak and reedy.

           "Uh -- you're in no condition to preside over the board, dear man. Oughtn't we let your board's directors know that you're postponing things? 'Till further word, let's say."

           Marcus rose, walked to the complex communicator, punched the red button, said what he was told, and returned to his seat.

           "Ms. Atwood," Hauge remembered the little plaque on the slight, bespectacled secretary's desk, "would you come in," he said, now bending over the intercom and standing behind Marcus' elegant desk.

           The secretary entered, riddled over the sitting man playing with his empty hands.

           "So, so pretty..." Marcus raved on.

           "Is anything wrong, Mr.---"

           "---Mr. Marcus will be leaving now. Oh, and, Ms. Atwood, would you be kind enough to bring your pad with you when you come back. We have changes to make."

           An enigmatic expression cast on the young lady as she faced Hauge, sitting behind the great desk. For a moment, Hauge thought amused, she must have taken me for someone else.

           "Yes, Sir," she said, lingering her dispersed, fish- bowl stare a while.

           The Scotsman observed and humoured the other's fascination as she watched the die in his hand turn cornelian pink, hyacinth red, amethyst violet, lazurite blue, peridot green.

           "Have one," he said, reaching again into an empty pocket, knowing it would be the most important thing on her mind from here on.

           "Anything else, Ms. Atwood?"

           "No, oh not a thing, sir. So pretty!" she chirped and gawked at her empty hand, sighed deeply and escorted her charge out.

           "Ah, one more thing. Change Mr. Marcus's flight for Marakesh instead, and accompany him personally 'till he boards." The climate should be more akin to Texas's, he considered, and put the real die back in his coat pocket. He always wanted to see how it felt to be a megatherium of business, unfettered to make and supply freely as much blood as needed for poor, needy people and little girls like his late sister, Margaret. But he wasn't sure if he had what it took. Clearly, though, all one needed was a dab of cheek and a spot of hypnotic power at his touch.

           Everything else then just couldn't help coming your way.

           The board members will be the true challenge, the Scot thought, after Ms. Atwood had left.

           "Into the maelstrom!" he hollered and quailed at his own sound. It was noon, the sun out of view, and the show-case window clear. Marcus's empire spilled once more before Hauge's surveying eyes. He'd have to call upon more compelling reserves than the die for the board. At that rumination, there was a knock at the door.

           A meek Ms. Atwood peeked in. She took off her bone- rimmed glasses with the thick, round silver lenses. The secretary's irises rendered an unexcelled performance that even a chameleon would have coveted to be capable of.

           Hauge quickly looked away -- but not quick enough.

           Ms. Atwood was careful not to look directly into the bar's inlaid looking glass on her left as she refitted the eyeglasses. At times like these, she thought, a mirror could prove to be one's own worse enemy.

           "The saddest part of all this business, Mr. Hauge," Ms. Atwood said, leading the catatonic man slowly out from behind Marcus's massive desk, "is not recognizing your competition and not inquiring why one needs to wear thick, silvered glasses inside this glare-free building. The naked eye, Mr. Hauge, can often be quicker than a die."



About the Author (click here) © 2000 Vasilis Afxentiou, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission



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