Spring sunshine was filtering through the Venetian blinds that covered Dr. Jefferson Parkindale's office windows, throwing thin, evenly spaced rectangles of light across his desk and the floor. The scientist was reclining in his comfortable computer chair, feet up on the corner of his desk, shoes off, fingers interlocked behind his head. He sighed happily.
"I'm telling you," he said to his guest, "signing up for the Interno program was the best decision I've ever made. It's a wonderful technology."
His guest was Dr. Graeme Carter, a longtime colleague and companion. They had worked on many research projects together over the past two decades, though their friendship had never truly extended beyond the walls of their offices and laboratories. "I'm happy for you," said Carter. "You've done nothing but smile over the past three weeks! I've almost come to miss that old contemplative frown of yours."
"Oh?" said Parkindale. His face drooped into a flatter, duller, somewhat distant expression, with a hint of a grimace. "This one?"
"That's the one," said Carter. "But on second thought, maybe I haven't really missed it at all. If you're happy, why not look happy, eh?"
Parkindale brightened up with another smile. "Precisely! Exactly! Still, what's the saying? All things in moderation?"
Parkindale turned his eyes towards the ceiling and muttered to himself for a moment. "Too much smiling... Too much smiling... Yes, that's helpful."
"Er," said Dr. Carter, regarding his friend somewhat quizzically, "so, I've been wondering... How does the Interno program work? I've only heard bits and pieces about it. When I heard you were having the procedure done I went online to do some research, but there's very little information available, surprisingly."
"Oh, the Interno is wonderful!"
"So you've said. But what is it?"
Parkindale swung his feet off of the desk and onto the floor and sat up straight in his chair. "What time is it?"
"Five past two," said Carter. "Why?"
"That's been two hours, then," muttered Parkindale. "Sufficient for today, I think." He reached over and twisted the blinds closed. "Too much sun time gets me hyper," he said with a wink.
"Really? Sugar and caffeine do it for me. Have you had yourself fitted with a solar panel or something?" joked Dr. Carter.
Parkindale's smile faltered for a moment. "Oh. No! How silly. Of course not. We humans function on chemical energy harvested through eating, not on solar power... What an idea! Have you ever been to Europe? Nice weather we're having today!"
"Whoa," said Carter, "relax. I was only joking." He fixed Parkindale with a curious stare.
Parkindale smiled benignly.
"Anyways," said Carter, "the Interno?"
"Ah, yes. In layman's terms, the Interno is an expansion device for your subconscious mind."
"You mean... an implant?"
"Precisely," said Parkindale. "Exactly. It's small, noninvasive, safe, reliable—"
"—and a long list of other marketing buzzwords, I'm sure," said Dr. Carter. "But what does it do? How does it work? Beyond making you such a persistent smiler, I mean."
"It's marvelous," said Parkindale. "Brilliant. To put it simply, the Interno automates all of the most boring, mundane, tedious tasks and chores of your daily life, freeing your full brain power up so that you can focus on what's truly important."
Carter stroked his chin. "What sorts of tasks do you mean?"
"Oh, the obvious ones, to start," said Parkindale. "Brushing your teeth, combing your hair, other elements of personal hygiene. Taking out the trash. Scratching itches. Eating, if you want." Opening a drawer in his desk he took out a bottle of lotion, rolled up his shirt sleeves, squeezed a little lotion into his hands, and began to rub it onto his elbows, and then his neck.
"And what does it look like, on a practical level, when you 'automate' those tasks? Can you still taste your food, or do you just ignore it altogether?"
"That depends on the food!" said Parkindale with a wink. "I rarely pay attention to my breakfast cereal, for example, but at the company barbecue yesterday I made sure I was experiencing the full pleasure of the steaks and hamburgers. Some of the small talk, on the other hand..."
"Are you saying you can even automate conversations?"
"Almost flawlessly!" grinned Parkindale. "Chit-chat is really pretty predictable, most of the time. There are a few gaps in the Interno's social programming—it might toss out an occasional nonsequitor—but when you're talking to someone like Susie-May Buttons from the BioChem department it's doubtful she'll even notice, honestly."
"Fair enough," said Carter. "So how do I know you aren't automating this conversation right now?"
"Does it feel like you're talking to the real me?"
"Well..." said Carter. He gazed intently at Parkindale's face, studying his colleague's somewhat plastic smile.
Parkindale raised his eyebrows and kept smiling.
Carter studied his colleague's glassy eyes.
Carter studied his colleague's even-as-clockwork breathing.
"Well," said Carter again, "you seem real enough, I guess..."
"Then what's the difference either way?"
"Um," said Carter.
Parkindale laughed. "I'm pulling your leg, of course, Graeme. Of course you're talking to the 'real me'. I only use the Interno to get out of boring conversations."
"Right..." said Carter, squirming a little in his chair. "Still, the whole concept of this 'Interno' does bring up some awkward questions, doesn't it?"
"Well, what happens your 'conscious' brain while you've got yourself set on 'autpilot'?"
Parkindale leaned back again in his chair and surveyed the ceiling. "It's a little bit hard to describe. I guess you could call it a sort of 'out-of-body' sensation. Depending on what you're automating, you feel detached from your physical senses, and your brain is set free to wander where it will, or to focus intently on whatever it chooses. My scientific work has never been more productive, and my leisure time has never been more relaxing. I've begun to write poetry, Graeme. Me, writing poetry. Can you believe it? Granted, it isn't very good poetry..."
"So does the Interno affect your personality, then?"
"Oh, I wouldn't think so," said Parkindale, "not significantly. Do you think it has affected mine?"
"Hmm." Carter thought about this for a moment. "It's hard to say, to be completely honest. You've always been a bit, er... eccentric. If anything, you've been eccentric in some different ways recently, that's all."
Parkindale furrowed his brow, while continuing to smile. "How so? Can you be specific?"
"Oh, it's nothing too big," Carter assured him. "You're a bit dreamier, a bit more absent, and I suppose that makes sense. The constant smiling... Again, I'm not complaining about it! Simply observing. And your habits have changed. There's, er, the lotion, for one. I don't remember you ever using the stuff before."
"Always good to keep your skin and joints well lubricated!" said Parkindale.
"'Lubricated'?" said Carter.
"Moisturized, I mean," said Parkindale.
"Right... And you're always perfectly punctual now."
"The Interno has some very useful clock and day planner software!"
"And this one's a bit weird, but when you walk, you always seem to go the exact same speed... The rhythm of your footsteps lines up pretty much perfectly with this one song I keep hearing on the radio, actually."
"Do people normally walk at inconsistent speeds?" said Parkindale.
"Well, sometimes people are in a hurry, or sometimes people are just kind of strolling gently along. You always seem to be on kind of a steady march."
"Interesting," said Parkindale. "Like this, you mean?" He stood, stepped out from behind his desk, and paced the length of the office, his socked feet marking a very distinct and even beat across the carpet, thap, thap, thap, thap. He spun on his heel when he reached the wall and paced back, thap, thap, thap, thap.
"Yes," said Dr. Carter. "Just like that. I can hear the song in my head." He hummed a little melody softly.
"I see," said Parkindale. He swung his feet back up onto his desk, rolled his pant legs up, and began applying lotion to his knees. Staring at the ceiling, he muttered, "Varying walking speeds... Varying walking speeds... I'll have to see if I can get myself a firmware update for that. I mean, get the Interno a firmware update, of course."
Dr. Carter shifted in his seat awkwardly. "I do have one other question," he said.
"What happens if, hypothetically, the Interno gets stuck somehow, say there's a glitch in its software, and it doesn't turn the autopilot off when you want it to? I'm speaking purely hypothetically, of course."
Dr. Parkindale waved one hand dismissively. "You've been reading too much science fiction," he scoffed. "That article in the Enquirer was complete speculation and sensationalism. The Interno is very well programmed. It's loaded with fail-safes and auto-quits and resets and antivirus programs. It's virtually impossible for the Interno's systems to break, or be defeated. You're statistically more likely to be hit by a hovercar than have something go wrong with your Interno."
"Really, Graeme, there's no need to be so paranoid. If there's one thing I've been learning more and more, it's that you should really try to approach life from a positive perspective rather than a negative one. Don't think about risks or drawbacks or worst-case scenarios. Think about opportunities, benefits, goals, targets, dreams... Being fitted with an Interno has definitely shifted my perspective towards the positive things. I'm sure it would work for you, too!"
"Er, maybe," said Dr. Carter, standing.
"Think about it," said Parkindale. "Consider it. I can get you a good referral, help you jump the waiting list. It's not too expensive, either. Just $5,000 for installation and $500 per year afterwards for regular maintenance and software updates. It's a bargain!"
"I should really talk it over with my wife, but I'll let you know what I decide," said Dr. Carter, stepping towards the door.
"Tell her there's a couples' discount—the second unit is 50% off!"
"I will," said Carter, as he exited into the hallway and bustled off.
Dr. Parkindale smiled at the closed door.
He squeezed some lotion onto his elbow.
Behind his smile, deep inside himself, some fading part of him screamed.