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The Reluctant Transhumanist

ryeguy123's picture

Crunch, the sound shook him out of his thoughts. He turned his head to where the doctor was working, but could only see part of her back from behind the surgical screen. One mechanical hand was missing from the tray, and his eye focused on the remaining left hand’s hollow wrist with the long thick screw in the center, contemplating its design.

Crunch, he understood it. A few loud popping noises followed and he remembered the sounds of having his wisdom teeth pulled. What a mechanical wonder the human body was, chemicals and electricity, bones and muscles.

* * *

The Reluctant Transhumanist

Alt+Tab brought up the browser window. F5 refreshed the stock market data. IDEO was $4.15/share and still climbing. Alt+Shift+Tabbed back one screen. F5 to refresh it. Two minutes left on the Honda 1000-horsepower generator and the highest bid remained only $812.33. Alt+Tab-Tab two screens over. F5 refreshed. RYSO at $27.83/share.

Ctrl+N opened another browser window and he keyboard-shortcutted into his stock portfolio. Alt+Shift+Tab back one screen. F5. RYSO at $27.52/share. Alt+Tab forward and purchased fifty shares, now five dollars below its average index. If it dropped more, he would buy more. It was bound to fluctuate above the average before month’s end.

The purchase confirmation returned after several agonizing seconds. Alt+Tab-Tab-Tab-Tab-Tab flipped through a screen with each keyboard tap. He rattled the transaction off into this month’s spreadsheet and Alt+Tab-Tab-Tabbed back to the auction. F5 refreshed its status. Highest bid was now $815.26, with forty-five seconds left. He trumped it up one dollar—F5--hoping, while the page reloaded, that the highest bidder had not entered a maximum bid. The page returned, now $817.26, there was an automated bidder in place.

Forty seconds left till the auction closed. A keyboard short-cut opened the calculator, and he rattled in the going rate for a used 1,000-horsepower electric generator on the number-pad, subtract the estimated resale time, converting minutes to dollars based on last month’s net profits divided by its 43,200 minutes, subtract free shipping, and then subtract an additional three-percent for margin of error: $922.05. He submitted the bid with twenty seconds left on the clock. If anyone bested it, they actually needed the generator and recognized the bargain.

$922.05, his bid came back. Fifteen seconds left. It was as good as his or not worth any more time. Alt+Shift+Tab-Tab. F5. $27.32/share. He submitted a purchase request for another 100 shares, the stock symbol, whatever it represented, grew more undervalued each second.

His stomach moaned and he winced. He was one-hour thirteen minutes overdue for a meal, but, as usual, could not afford the break. A ping sound alerted him to a new e-mail, and he noted the subject with satisfaction, “You Were the High Bidder” in the screen’s bottom right-hand corner. That meant he had approximately twelve hours to find a buyer for the generator. Yet another clock joining the cacophony ticking inside his head.

He double-clicked on the script he kept tucked into the screen’s bottom corner. An entry box appeared and he Ctrl+C cut and Ctrl+P pasted the auction description into it. With a few quick modifications, he hit the “OK” button. The script would now automatically put the generator for sale on seventy-two local newspapers’ classifieds boards nationwide with an asking price of $1,599, ten-percent below the going rate for a used generator.

He tabbed back to refresh another stock display with one hand, reaching for the MRE lying on the desk a few feet away. $4.92share. MRE forgotten, both hands zipped back to the keyboard to sell all 2,000 shares of IDEO for an estimated profit of $52,356--after taxes.

Again he reached for the MRE, but another ping nabbed his attention, a reply to his ad in the Chicago-Sun, six hundred miles away. He verified the generator included output modulation, making it safe for delicate electronic equipment. He toggled back and forth between sentence fragments to check on other stocks and auctions.

The e-mail vanished across the Internet and he snatched the MRE, cutting open the thick plastic with a dirty knife and quickly shoveled the cold chicken sludge down his throat with the blade’s flat edge. The little he tasted was unappetizing. The year’s supply of Meals-Ready-To-Eat was several years past what was considered appetizing, but that was a quality issue. The nutritional value remained, providing the 2,000 daily required caloric intake, plus 60-grams of protein. Its antiquated state allowed him to acquire the whole supply for exactly $365, one-dollar a day, a savings of $715 dollars a year.

He yawned and shook his head to clear the impending mental stupor. Yawning was like his moaning stomach, symptomatic of another neglected biological need. He snatched the bottle of pills sitting beside the discarded meal wrapper and popped one with a few gulps of water from his ever-present jug. Modafinil was intended for the treatment of narcolepsy, but allowed him to completely avoid sleep without ever growing fatigued.

Every couple of months he would forgo the medication to catch eight-hours of actual sleep, but only because he needed the mini-vacations to refresh his mental state. Dreams were important, without them this all lost purpose.

Purpose, he looked up at the poster on the wall behind his desk, at the cool clear blue waters, glistening sunlight across miles of warm beaches, the finish line, reward for years of sacrifice.

Another ping returned him to the monitor. There was a buyer for the generator who already secured the deal with a direct payment into his escrow account. He smiled, that was a net profit of $677 for one hour and twenty-two minutes work, off and on. He could even have the auction seller ship it directly to this buyer.

* * *

It was 5:00 PM. The mail’s presence was guaranteed at this time of day and he was anxiously awaiting an excuse to get away from the three flat screens. Shuffling through the living room, past the kerosene heater, which only cost two-dollars a day in fuel vice the three dollars in electricity his condo’s central air system consumed, he came to the front door and scooped up the pile of letters on the floor there. With a quick glance through the mail slot for packages outside, he swiveled and sorted through this fresh batch of paperwork on his return trip to the office, formerly bedroom.

The bills were obsolete. He quickly identified them and threw them into a basket for record keeping. All of his expenses were settled online through automated transactions. He merely reviewed them for consistency, and, occasionally, efficiency, before moving on.

There were the collector’s cards he had won in online auctions. Each of these lightweight envelopes represented a few dollars profit, meager, but essential to maintaining a steady and diversified income. These were all part of his regularly scheduled online financial games. What he was hoping for wasn’t here.

It was now one hundred twenty days past due. The contractor was not returning his phone calls nor had they responded to his written inquiries. Now his only remaining option for getting payment was legal action. Not only would that cost him in representation fees, but every hour he spent in the legal process was hundreds of dollars in potential income abandoned for something as intangible as justice. He had to let it go.

His fingers ached, and he set the remaining envelopes down to rub his knuckles, but this action no longer helped. The pain was deeper than massage could penetrate; it was in the very tendons and muscle attachments. It concerned him, and his cursory research into repetitive stress injuries validated those fears. The physical malaise could only heal through the impossible: an extended break from the keyboard.

Stretching his fingers and popping each joint one by one for relief, he shuffled back to the bedroom, popping the kerosene heater off on the way. Settling down to his desk, he opened his project planner and removed the delinquent income from his net profits. It was a painful loss, over the rest of his projected life span it would cost him thousands in compound interest, setting him back months, but ultimately just a drop in the ocean of transactions.

Again the fingers ached and he grew nervous, as if this minor pain might grow into a malignant, crippling disorder. Pulling a wool blanket around his legs and over his shoulders, he tried to sit straight in his chair, fighting the urge to huddle forward against the encroaching cold. He could no longer spare the two-dollars a day, $60 a month, and $240 per quarter-year length of winter’s season. Besides, the cold was good for his hands.

* * *

“Love you too,” he said, hanging up the phone and swiveling back to the monitors. His mother had cost him nearly half an hour’s productivity, and while he tried not to resent the distraction, throughout the entire conversation he felt like he was sinking, falling behind in the race. The race, of course, was against his finite lifespan and maximizing the proportion of it spent doing nothing on those distant beaches.

He did manage to redeem the time somewhat, keeping his hands in a pot of hot water. Ice water was the most effective at alleviating the pain, but the numbness hampered his WPM, increasing typing errors, and cutting into his productivity. Not good.

Yet the pain was also cutting into his productivity. A full ten-percent of his time, two hours and forty minutes a day was now spent fighting the pain. Painkillers cut into his profit, massaging and stretching his fingers cut into his time. The pain was a liability, and he dreaded the only guaranteed solution he found online.

Unacceptable, he thought, banishing the option from his mind and stared up at the poster of paradise on his wall. It would detract from his quality of life. His present life was qualitatively in the negative, but the solution to his tendonitis would reduce the quality of paradise when he finally reached it..


Dear Valued Customer,

This automated reply is in regards to your recent inquiry about item #1000101

He crumpled over the keyboard half way through the sentence, balling his hands into painful fists. He was trying to finish modifying the transaction confirmation letter, but the strain was too much. The pain overwhelmed him.

It was not fair. Why was flesh so frail? He was only… three…? Maybe four…? years into this and already his body was rebelling, falling apart under the strain. It was unacceptable. The project required at least eight years of dedication, maybe less with a little luck.

Forgive me hands, he thought to the cramping digits. I know, it was supposed to be finished by now, but I was young and I failed to take into account inflation… volatile markets… and…dishonesty.

He leaned over onto his hands, squeezing them between his bony chest and knobby knees. Make the pain go away. Anyone should be capable of making it in a free market in a free world. It just requires hard work, dedication, and resignation.

Managing to look up at his computer, he found his project plan displayed on the middle monitor. Why hadn’t he maintained a history of its modifications? Ctrl+Z. Ctrl+Z. Ctrl+Z. Ctrl+Z. Undo. Undo. Undo. Undo. It was no use. He could not walk backwards through the years of changes, could not look up the rational behind them. He was slave to the project plan, prisoner to his own past reasoning that he could no longer recall. Sure it felt right, sound, logical years ago, but what about now?

The far right monitor held the current status of one of his many stock portfolios. He squinted, not at the portfolio, but at the advertisement playing in a continual loop to the screen’s right. Red arrows radiated from a pair of hands, casts appeared on those hands, like the useless supports he wore now, which failed to provide any ergonomic support, a waste of profit. A red blinking “X” appeared over the now empty casts on the screen, and he knew what came next. It was the only way.

He shed the blanket, stood up, and lumbered downstairs. His overcoat waited beside the door and he blew on it to stir up the dust. It took some time for him to figure out the laces on his boots, but eventually drew them tight around his calves.

Only then did he notice the bathrobe, the thermal underwear, and thick beard belaying his purpose. No matter; he pulled the overcoat over his shoulders and felt sufficiently presentable. The black, wide-brimmed hat near the mail basket fit snuggly over his head and, more importantly, shielded his eyes. The eyes were important. Finally he fumbled through the mail pile for the keys and his wallet, the final components. Another clock started ticking as he searched for them.

* * *

The metro station still wasn’t accepting debit cards, a dilemma he failed to account for with a cash alternative. By the time he managed to find an ATM machine, he was an hour behind schedule, but the aching hands prodded him onto the train anyway. An additional hour was a setback, but abandoning this errand would compound the net loss.

He sat on the train, staring at his hands nestled in his lap. He held up his right hand, then his left, rubbing the fingers together, feeling the texture of his fingerprints. More people got on the train the closer it came to the city, but the low brim of his hat protected him from noticing them. He examined the tips of his fingers, pausing at a paper cut he could not remember receiving on his index finger. He poked it, grinning at the sharp, uncomfortable pain this caused.

A hangnail on his thumb brought another pause as he fiddled with it, summoning nostalgia for hangnails past. The fingernails were short from his constant gnawing, more efficient than getting up for the clippers and more persistent as well. Long fingernails were bad for productivity, interfering with typing and such. Plus it was possible the act of chewing them recouped some of their protein value.

He wiggled the digits, feeling the cool winds play between them. He stroked his overcoat, enjoying its soft, velvety texture. Hands were such wonderful tools, all the more tragic how they had failed him.

A large woman sat down in the neighboring seat, and he stopped playing. Setting his hands down in his lap again, staring at them, thinking. They were actually quite clumsy things, he told himself, inefficient, a distraction.

* * *

The train’s loudspeaker announced his stop, and he made a clumsy effort to get up. The overweight female passenger sitting beside him realized, too late, his intention, and when she finally got up and stepped out into the isle, fresh passengers were boarding, forcing him to push against their current, struggling to escape the train.

He made it onto the boarding platform, there were passengers milled around the train’s doors. There was never enough room for all the people in the city. He burst from the crowd, stumbling forward in surprise at the sudden freedom. The mall doors were straight ahead, and he wasted no time passing through them.

The mall was another river. The low brimmed hat and overcoat pulled tight around him offered some protection, but the lights, sights, and sounds overwhelmed nonetheless. He marched across the ceramic tiled floor with purpose, but was actually still trying to compose himself, to focus through the surrounding bewilderment both dizzying and frightening.

Without eye contact, so important in gauging people’s intentions, he was left to estimating the trajectory of their lower halves. So he stayed to the right, which prevented him from walking into the oncoming pedestrian rush, but stalled him with intermittent window shoppers. He navigated around these with some difficulty and awkwardness.

His breathing grew heavier, panicked. His skin crawled with heat, ears burning, and he imagined them glowing, blood red. When his vision blurred so that he could not recover focus, he turned halfway into the nearest store and huddled against the faux marble columns framing the entrance. He remained there for some time, pressing the brim of his hat and nose into the plastic, eyes closed, breathing patiently. He was exhausted, wondering how he would ever get home and how he even got here.

He stroked the cold marble with the fingertips of his right hand, then the backs of his fingers. Without this tranquil oasis, he might have continued fighting the crowds until he dropped dead of exhaustion. He looked up and around, eyes avoiding the staring onlookers. His destination was fifty yards away.

He memorized the route before leaving this sanctuary, visualizing himself successfully navigating it several times over. Shuffling along the storefronts, he counted the forks in the walkway, and crossed over to the other side at the appropriate intersection. Once there he merged with the flow running in the opposite direction and cut over once more to enter the clinic.

“May I help you?” a soft woman’s voice asked, when he paused inside the entranceway, taking deep breaths. He looked up slightly, and took a few cautious steps into the room. Again she prompted him, “Do you have an appointment?”

“Yes,” he almost whispered, lifting his head high enough to catch a glimpse of the pretty receptionist before lowering the brim of his hat again and gave the fake name, “Ajoy Singh.”

“You’re expected Mr. Singh,” she said, and he drew his overcoat around more tightly, imagining the woman staring at the bathrobe and pajamas underneath, “If you’ll just take a seat, the doctor will be with you shortly.”

He heard the receptionist notify the doctor of his arrival and, before he could sit, another woman’s voice called at his back, “Ajoy?” he turned around, timidly, without looking up, “Right this way please.”

He shuffled past the lab-coated woman with the high-heel shoes into a brightly lit hallway. She directed him into one of the many rooms along the corridor. It was an office, warm and comfortable. He sank into the large leather chair at the doctor’s urging.

She sat down behind the desk, and he saw her set down a digital recorder, “Do you mind if I record our conversation? It’s for legal purposes.”

He shrugged, “Yes--I mean, no. I don’t mind.”

“Thanks,” she started the recorder. “You requested a surgical procedure we offer at this augmentation clinic, would you mind repeating that request now?”

“Hands,” he said, a tremble in his voice. “I need new hands.”

“And the reason you are requesting this procedure?”

“Carpal tunnel syndrome,” he said, rubbing his fingers, “chronic and crippling. I can’t continue my work with this pain.”

“Is your employer demanding you undergo this procedure?” she asked.

“No,” he replied, “I have no employer. It’s for me, personally. I mean—I’m self-employed.”

“I understand,” she said soothingly. “We get more people in here for this procedure than you might expect, although eyes are our primary product.”

“Yes,” he whispered loud enough for her, “I know.” He gestured at his eyes, hidden below the brim of his hat where she could not see. They rendered a clean image that did not give him headaches or make him squint. He need not even blink with them.

“This procedure isn’t the same as ocular augmentation,” she said in a gentle, but serious tone, “The prosthetic hands we give you won’t provide any feeling, and although this is an outpatient procedure, you will go through an acclimation period. They will take some getting used to. You will have more strength, and find your typing skills enhanced, but you won’t be able to receive tactile sensory input through them.”

He nodded, “I am aware of that.”

“You also need to be aware that the procedure is not reversible,” she added. “If, in the future, you decide this change isn’t for you, you won’t be able to have your old hands back. You’ll go on a waiting list for donors. It could take years and it might not ever happen at all. You will be the last in line for hands because you gave yours up of your own free will. If we do find you new hands, they won’t be as functional as the one’s you have now. The nerve connections are never perfect. For that reason most of our customers prefer to stay with their prosthetics.”

“I’ve researched this,” he said.

“Have you researched alternatives?” she asked. “There are many treatments for your condition now.”

“Yes,” he shook his head. “None were acceptable. I don’t have the time for therapies with questionable success rates. I need certainty. This procedure will keep my life on schedule to an early retirement.”

She was quiet for several seconds before asking, “Are you a transhumanist?”

“Transhumanist,” he muttered the word thoughtfully.

“Someone seeking salvation through technology,” she explained. “We get them in here all the time, looking to upgrade their biological parts. Immortality’s their ultimate goal.”

He considered the concept, and shook his head, “Not a transhumanist.”

“Okay,” she said with a touch of concern, “It makes no difference if you are or not. Now I just need you to fill out some release forms.”

Although the doctor offered systemic anesthesia, he preferred to stay awake through the procedure. The prospect of being unconscious while strange people cut off his hands was too disturbing. He lay down on the surgical table and stared up into the bright lights while a young man applied localized anesthetic to each arm through an IV drip.

The doctor abandoned the small talk early in the procedure. His one-word responses to her questions were unencouraging. So silence reigned, and his only clue that his hands were gone was when the electric scalpel stopped humming.

Out of the corner of his left eye, he saw their replacements. Silvery things of elegant design, their wrists were hollowed out and a thick screw was visible in the middle. He went back to staring up into the light. It was calming and helped his mind wander.

The bright incandescence burned deep into his retinas and he imagined a warm sun in a light blue sky. He was lying on that rocky shore, enjoying the cool breezes occasionally sweeping off the ocean, washing away the sun’s accumulating heat. He did not have to wait for Spain to enjoy the beach. It was only a few hours away. He could go in the summertime. It need not be like this.

He could settle for another beach, in South America someplace. What was so special about those beaches in Spain anyway? He had never visited one. He was betting his life, his health, his hands on a daydream, retiring thirty years ahead of schedule for something he was not even sure was paradise. This was a world of possibilities. Why stay chained to a desk for another ten years?

Crunch, the sound shook him out of his thoughts. He turned his head to where the doctor was working, but could only see part of her back from behind the surgical screen. One mechanical hand was missing from the tray, and his eye focused on the remaining left hand’s hollow wrist with the long thick screw in the center, contemplating its design.

Crunch, he understood it. A few loud popping noises followed and he remembered the sounds of having his wisdom teeth pulled. What a mechanical wonder the human body was, chemicals and electricity, bones and muscles.

* * *

The doctor saw him into the waiting room after an hour of observation, his head light with painkillers. She was obviously concerned over his refusal to stay a few more hours and run through some adaptation exercises. She provided him with an intricate puzzle box to practice with, and he noticed the company logo and phone number on one side.

“Welcome to Humanity, version 2.0,” she said flatly, as if this were her routine clever catchphrase, but was completely out of place with him as the patient.

He tried slipping the puzzle into his coat, but couldn’t find the pocket. The hands worked well from the start, he could grab and manipulate things, but they still felt like clumsy extensions. He held them against his chest without looking at them, and they twitched nervously, mimicking his old habits. Only now the fidgeting failed to assuage his anxiety. He hoped that would change eventually.

He walked unsteadily through the lobby and paused at the clinic entrance, watching the mall traffic rushing by at breakneck speed. After a moment he turned back, finding the doctor and receptionist still watching him with concern, and averted his eyes to the floor.

He requested they call him a cab.

* * *

It took an effort of will and intense concentration to pull out his wallet and extract the debit card to pay the cab fare, but he managed. Retrieving his keys was another matter, pulling his pocket inside out with them. He left it this way, choosing to get back inside and give them the real test. On the way in, he was met with a pleasant surprise as the wrist swiveled in a most unnatural fashion when he turned the doorknob.

Shuffling into his office, he dropped into his chair and quaffed down two more Modafinils. He easily ripped open an MRE barehanded and poured its beef stew contents down his throat, chasing them with a glass of water. Then he swiveled to face his three screens, placing the ergonomic keyboard in his lap.

The inbox was a good place to start. Opening his e-mail, he selected from the list of unanswered correspondence, one requiring a fairly lengthy and customized reply. Waiting for the message to load, he reached up to chew at his forefinger absentmindedly. The tingly metallic taste, like licking a battery, reminded him that bad habit was no more.

When the reply window opened he practically attacked the keyboard, amazed as the words flowed from his brain, through his hands, and onto the screen. There were no errors, no misspellings or improper punctuations. The artificial hands automatically corrected for the occasional miscommunications between mind and body.

It was incredible. His productivity would certainly benefit, and he made a mental not to document the improvement in quantifiable means. Like his eyes, these were another upgrade.

He checked his investment portfolio. The cost of the hands was a setback, and it would take them several years of improved productivity to pay for themselves. He reminded himself they corrected something detrimental to his life’s plans, his obsolete biology.

The inflation rate had risen unexpectedly and some of his better performing stocks were forecasting slower growth rates. More setbacks. He winced a little at the throbbing in his head and looked up at the poster of paradise. It had gotten a little further away, but with these new hands he could now run a lot faster.

Terrific stuff!

This is the best science fiction short story I have read in a long time. As one who - after six months of typing a novel into this very site - is pretty bashed about with repetitive strain, I have a special affinity with your hero!

Gus Savoie's picture

awesome

Although the narrative felt a little awkward at the beginning I found the story to be quite compelling. Nicely thought out, plotted and executed. Bravo!

-G