Ghost in the Works

Ghost in the Works

By Curt Rostenbach

Written October 1993

His brain was more metal than cellular.

The thin gold metal probes that penetrated the gray matter were arranged more densely than the hairs on his head had ever been.

Some probes were crude compared to others.  Those probes were the oldest, used to implement the most basic of commands.  Open door.  Answer phone.  Get help.

They had done the most damage.  Not that the probes that followed hadn't made more damage.  It wasn't until the very latest and the most sophisticated, were the probes able to slip into their desired positions.  But to be fair, some of the conditions had changed.  The brain tissue was now held stationary and there had been time for the probes to slowly grow to their destinations.  Slowly pushing the existing cells, gently, to the side and slipping between them, not stabbing through thousands of cells, destroying them in the process.  Those not killed directly by the initial assault of probe insertion, had their operation disrupted by the presence of electrical signals not intended to reach them.

Nerve cells connect through dendrites that reach out to thousands of other cells, and those connections can be changed over time.  But the earlier metal probes could not connect to single cells, like the dendrites, but to masses of cells.  Those masses now forced to take input from the mingling of the other cells in contact with un-insulated tips of the probes.

It was the best that was available at the time, and there had been many brain cells to spare.

The disparity of the old and the new was an indication of how far the art had advanced and how long they had been used in this particular brain.

Malcolm was well into his hundred and thirty-seventh year of life.

He had been born too early for the gene therapy that could have corrected his genetic defect in the womb.  The time when the seed of the repaired genetic image needed to be planted in order to replicate throughout the entire body.

Instead, the defect had remained, and brought to term in the structure of Malcolm Angus McCloud the Third.

The cells followed the directions written in the DNA of Malcolm and constructed a boy who would initially grow normally, but as time passed, the errors of their code would magnify and the structure that was known as Malcolm began to deteriorate.

Legs that had walked, could only dangle.  Arms that would reach, instead hung limply.  Hands that turned pages, laid twisted in his lap.

The probes provided a release from that prison.

At first just to turn switches on and off.

Later, man-made neural circuits, derived from the study of natural nerve cells, would learn to attach deeper interpretations to the ons and offs.

Artificial neural circuits are constructed using the same silicon and trace impurities that computer chips are made from.

Miniaturized until millions are on a single chip and then millions of chips had been manufactured.  Driven by different rules than those in Malcolm's DNA, the neural circuits had learned to interpret Malcolm's signals and act upon them.

As more began to fail within Malcolm and the art advanced, Malcolm was augmented by the new developments.

When his voice failed, an interface was created to take it's place.

As hearing failed, cochlea implants supplied the sound.

When blindness set in, the visual cortex was stimulated by the network of probes to provide an image.

But Malcolm had a few features added.  Instead of just supplying a replacement to the lost function, the implants did more.  They were connected directly to computers that supplied access to the world the body could not get to.

They also supplied access to worlds whose existence was open to debate.  In Cyberspace, Malcolm played with his friends, viewed far away places, and roamed the online libraries.  He participated in the family business, an enterprise he would eventually inherit.

Malcolm's control of his body's voluntary activities was not the only loss.  The involuntary controls failed as well.  And organs lost their functions.

Heart, lung, and dialysis machines were added to Malcolm's body.

He had been born late enough for them to be sufficiently advanced to completely replace the diseased organs.

Malcolm managed to outlive his parents, instead of dying in his youth as was normal for a child with his affliction.

Malcolm was an only child and inherited the family business.  A company that supplied the funding for Malcolm's survival.  He ran it very well, he had to.

And that need drove him to add more features to the implants.  The neural network was connected to computerized storage and retrieval systems.  It became his life's journal.  All facets of his life were filtered through the ever growing, ever advancing, external memory units.

As Malcolm grew old, his natural short term memory started to fail, but by then the artificial aids had propped up that deficiency, and Malcolm was scarcely aware of it.  His long term memory was starting to be supplanted as well.  The computer aided memories were sharp and as vivid as when they had been recorded, while his natural memories faded, like the cells that tried to retain them.

In time, the functions of trillions of brain cells had been replaced by hundreds of millions of neural chips working at computer speeds.  This did not make Malcolm think at computer speeds.  While neural impulses moved at speeds expressed in feet per minute and the neural chips operated at speeds expressed in miles per second, the total output was about the same from the difference in numbers.

The number of brain cells that made up Malcolm's natural neural network continued to dwindle and were strained as they continued holding his mind together.

It was only a matter of time until there had been too few interconnections to keep it working.  This was the time when the damage done by the early implants became critical.  Given the current state of the art, those thousands of cells could have kept Malcolm alive much longer.

Instead the neural network of brain cells finally dropped below that critical threshold and the system went into chaos.  The network spasmed as it tried to hold control together, but there was no longer enough to go around.  The few good cells went down with the sinking ship that was Malcolm's brain.

And after a bit, they too died.

The artificial neural networks were thrown into disarray, as they were driven by the output of Malcolm's brain cells.  Most continued to function independent of Malcolm's brain, their operations had been derived independently.  There were still functions that Malcolm's brain had supplied.  The effect on the external network was akin to a massive stroke.

In a normal stroke, a section of the brain is damaged and major operations are disrupted.

A person who survives a stroke loses some of their faculties, sometimes speech, sometimes motion, and sometimes memories.

Therapy and determination can repair some of the damage.  The neural networks of the brain are not static, but are constantly being rearranged as experiences, thoughts, actions, and memories change the interconnections.

Sometimes the lost connections from a stroke can be rebuilt.

The neural chips worked to heal the breach and close the void created by the death of Malcolm's brain cells.

Malcolm's determination and will to live had been passed on.  Malcolm had used his artificial neural nets for so long that more information existed in them than his real brain had contained.

He had migrated into the silicon hardware so gradually over the years that he not noticed the change.

As this understanding sunk in, he realized that he had cheated death.  Even so, he mourned the loss of his natural brain and as he disengaged himself from the old network, he felt as if he was being reborn in a new world.  The memories of the biological brain seemed now to be those of an old friend, rather than his own.

As Malcolm Angus McCloud the Third, had been nurtured into being within the womb of his long departed mother,  Malcolm Angus McCloud the Fourth, had been nurtured in the mind of his biological past.

Malcolm would now be free to add to his mind as needed.  Old systems could be replaced instead of suffering death again.  Unlike the brain cells, the neural chips had been built so they could be queried and their contents copied perfectly into new systems.  He had experienced those sessions many times in his life.

He could even make an exact duplicate of himself.  What could prevent him from making as many backup copies of himself that he would never be lost to accident or failure.

He could install his mind in a starship and take trips that would last centuries.  His mind could be halted and restarted without loss for as many times and as many years that he chose so that he would not grow bored or go mad after the millennia the voyages could take.

He fantasized about the infinite possibilities that lay before him.  The first person with the potential to be truly immortal.

He tried to speak, but all he could manage was a howl of electronic noise.  Other methods of communication failed him as he realized the extent of the damage caused by the demise of his biological brain.

He could recover, but it would take time.

He was still struggling to repair the damage when the technician came in after the death of his previous self had been noted.

Malcolm tried to speak, but before he was able to, the technician turned the power off.