One Flew Through the Electrostatic Converter

by Roderick T. Long

[1977 (age 13), San Diego. This is my proto-cyberpunk story, as it were. What’s posted here was the rough draft; I’ll post the final draft if I come across it.
What I had vaguely remembered as the central event of this story is not here, so either it’s in the final draft, or else more likely it was in another story entirely, which I hope to find.]

What will life be like in the twenty-second century? That’s the question this story tries to answer. At least, this is one answer. Whether it’s the final answer or not, only time will tell. No such thing as R-blocs yet exists, but light-hoppers are vaguely possible, and scientists are already experimenting with X-brains. Architects have already envisioned “layered cities” similar to the one shown here, and many people dream of the inflation-free prosperity predicted in this story. But “One Flew Through the Electrostatic Converter” is also the story of a few hours in the life of a boy named Buck. His last name may be Smith or Jones or Johnson. Then again, it may be Rogers.

Buck sped his light-hopper around a corner and up two tubes to his R-bloc. It was smaller than most of the other R-blocs in Buck’s neighborhood, having an inside diameter of only half a mile. “R-bloc” was just a corruption of “Roentgen-bloc”; for when a Roentgen ray was shot along a Mobius strip under certain conditions, it created a collapsed state of spatial distortion, so that the inner volume of an R-bloc would be hundreds of times greater than the outer surface. In other words, on the outside, Buck’s R-bloc was only a few yards long, but inside, it was half a mile. This is how people could still have plenty of room to live in, even though the world was crowded and overpopulated.

Buck maneuvered his ’hopper through the circular door and entered the giant spherical R-bloc. The light-hopper operated totally by light-power. As long as there was light – daylight, firelight, starlight, any kind of light, even the faint glow of phosphorus – the light-hopper could fly. Only in pitch blackness would it fail to work. Light-power was the most widely used form of energy on Earth.

Buck jumped the ’hopper over the tiny running stream by the door of his R-bloc, and up to the main bungalow. Dismounting, he ran over to the echomike and said, “Mom? Dad? Where are you?” The echomike transmitted his voice all over the woodsy R-bloc.

“They’re in Clearway Section for the day about that contract, remember?” his X-brain hummed. “They told you at precisely 5:08 PM the day before yesterday, and again at 8:57 PM last night.”

“Yeah, I forgot,” said Buck. “Don’t act so smug. Gee, I’m starved – better get something from the vittlevac!”

“You ought to work on your essay for school on ninth-dimensional theorems instead,” the X-brain whirred pleasantly. “I don’t have to remind you that it’s due exactly six days from now, at noon in the central classroom, do I?”

“Nag, nag, nag!” Buck snapped. “Why can’t you ever shut up?”

“Nyaah, nyaah,” the X-brain grumbled disagreeably, and then maintained a sullen silence for the next five minutes.

The X-brain, or “extra-brain,” was the dubious blessing that had emerged from the laboratories of the twenty-first century scientists. A miniaturized disc-shaped computer, the size of a thumbnail, once implanted in the brain, can give information and logical advice. However, to be linked up with a human brain, the disc had to be as complicated as a brain. And making it as complicated as a brain also, unfortunately, resulted in the creation of personality. It would be a different personality, and a totally unforeseeable one, each time.

Buck used the X-brain as a telepathic transmitter, sending a random thought to the vittlevac. The screen flickered vaguely. Buck reinforced the first thought with a second, stronger one, more precisely aimed, and the screen glowed blue. Then a door slid open, revealing a plate of Oriental sweet-and-sour pressed duck patties with almonds. At least, it looked like Oriental sweet-and-sour pressed duck patties with almonds, and it tasted like Oriental sweet-and-sour pressed duck patties with almonds, but it was actually an artificial conglomeration of atoms. The vittlevac was programmed to produce almost any style of almost any food known to almost any culture. Oriental sweet-and-sour pressed duck patties with almonds was one of Buck’s favorite dishes, so he ate eagerly. “Don’t eat so fast, it’s bad manners,” peeved the X-brain.

After lunch, Buck went outside, jumped on his light-hopper, and skimmed over to his study igloo. He flew through the electrostatic converter a couple of times, because he knew that, although it was harmless to himself and the ’hopper, it confused the circuits of the X-brain, who chattered angrily for several minutes afterward.

In the igloo, Buck slid into the plaschair. In front of him was the huge dictovac. “Okay, Exey,” Buck said (Exey was his nickname for the X-brain), “I’m doing my homework now. Happy?” The X-brain did not deign to answer.

Buck dictated mentally into the dictovac. Then, “Hey, Exey, what’s the precise definition of a third spatial lapsis?”

“I won’t answer that,” said the X-brain. “No fair cheating. If you don’t remember it, I can’t tell you.”

“Dum-dum, it’s an ‘open book’ test! Teacher said ...”

“I don’t remember Teacher saying anything about it!”

“’Course you don’t! You were switched off! But Teacher said it was ‘open book’!”

“Prove it!”

“Probe my brain, then! Mind-probe can’t lie!”

Buck felt the fuzzy, ticklish numbness at the edge of his consciousness, which showed he was being probed. Then, “Yeah. You’re right. The memory of it’s there. But Darn!”

“Don’t use slang,” Buck said, mimicking his X-brain. “It’s bad manners.”

“Alright, I’ll tell you the definition. But a thmart big boy wike you thould be able to wemember a widdo definition wike that!” the X-brain replied condescendingly.

“Oh, shut up!” said – or rather thought (for all communication with the X-brain was telepathic) – Buck, wishing that his X-brain could be calm and quiet, like most X-brains. However, there were worse X-brains than his – occasionally his mind would touch other people’s X-brains in a crowded room, so he had seen all kinds.

In about an hour, Buck jumped up and temporarily “locked” the dictovac’s mechanism. “That’s all I can stand for today! I’m going out for a ride in the city. Wanna come along?”

“As if I had a choice!” The X-brain gave an electronic snort at the thought.

Mounted on the light-hopper, Buck turned the dial that would bring the two lenses into alignment. (Buck’s ’hopper hadn’t had an automatic computerized adjustment unit installed in it yet.) However, he turned the dial too fast, and the lenses slipped past each other. Three times he “stalled” in this manner until he finally got the ’hopper started. “Clumsy,” purred the X-brain. “Any other kid –” Enough. Buck mentally switched the X-brain off in midsentence.

“That’s a relief!” It was a relief to get the droning voice out of his brain for a few minutes. It would be good for him to see something of the city besides the school and the residential R-bloc section. It had been a long time since he’d been in Recsec. How long? “Hey, Exey, when was the last time I – oh darn, I forgot, he’s socked out.”

Buck’s ’hopper sped like a comet out of the R-bloc door. He didn’t have to worry about bumping into anything, even another light-hopper, because all ’hoppers had posit-gravitic fields around them. Flying in a ’hopper gave Buck a sense of power; he roared like a rocket up the transtube to Recsec. Recsec had originally meant Recreation Section, but it was no longer used solely for that purpose, but as a sort of “shopping mall,” too.

Buck was surprised that Recsec was not giving out the eerie buzzing one usually heard – even the great poet Hephæstus Darkmoon had written of the “rising, falling, keening Mindsong” of Recsec. Then Buck realized the reason. Mindsong – of course! The buzzing was from his mind touching the other X-brains of all the people in Recsec. With Exey dormant, he no longer had a telepathic transmitter, so all was much quieter.

Suspended from the high ceiling was a huge spaceship, with a price tag of one billion dollars. “I’ll never be able to afford that,” Buck mused sadly. “My family makes only ten million a month! Well, maybe if Mom gets that raise ... what would I use a spaceship for, anyway? Well, I could buy a planet for the ship to go to – ever since we discovered the space wrinkle, and started colonizing other solar systems, uninhabited planets have been selling for only a couple, or maybe three, four trillion dollars. If I save my allowance, then maybe by the time I’m grown up ... well, Iֻll think about it.”

“Gee, Teacher said that ’way back in the twentieth century, a million, or billion, or trillion dollars was so much that ... well, it was a lot. Most people then couldn’t even afford a sailboat, much less a spaceship!”

Buck looked over to another section of Recsec, where hundreds of oil tankers were lined up. “One of those I could afford,” Buck thought. “Almost any kid could, out of pocket money. I bought a jumbo jet a few years back, but I can’t fly it ’till I get my license. ”

Before going back to the R-bloc, Buck decided to take a look at the city from above. He moved into the “Old Man’s Cigar” – Buck’s private name for the central transtube – and put the ’hopper on high. It thundered up the chute like a bullet up the barrel of a gun, weaving in and out of the other light-hoppers. Suddenly, he was up in the sky. This was flying! Hopping around the R-bloc was okay, but there was no sky there, no clouds, no wheeling sense of freedom. Buck looked down at the massive block of building that was the city. It was roughly cube-shaped, miles tall, miles long, miles wide, and even bigger inside because of all the R-blocs. Parts of the city were forests, parts were mines, parts were parks, and there were fountains and staircase and different levels. But up here, there were only birds – and Buck.

“And me!”

“Oh gosh, for heaven’s sake, Exey, I thought I had turned you off!”

“You didn’t say for how long,” the X-brain reminded him.

“Well, gee, until I turned you on again!”

“You didn’t say that. You should be more precise. You’re never precise. And it was rude of you to interrupt when I was informing you that you were clumsy and that any other kid could have started that light-hopper and ...”

“Here we go again,” sighed Buck. “Nag, nag, nag.”

“Speaking of ‘nag’, your parents are probably home by now, worried about you. And when you go down the ‘cigar,’ don’t fly so fast. That posit-gravitic field is no excuse for going at speeds of 97.853211 kilometers an hour, which is your average speed. [2012 note: I wonder whether I meant 197 rather than 97, since the latter is only a bit above 60 mph.] And do some more of that essay tonight, after dinner. And speaking of dinner, I’ve been meaning to tell you not to gobble when you eat. And don’t turn me off again, or I’ll play the Hallelujah Chorus in your brain as loud as I possibly can.”

“Shut up.”

“Shan’t! So there!”

Buck flew home by way of the electrostatic converter that night.

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