Wetware

In a crumbling future where biotechbology is commonplace, Andy has been out of work for a while but his luck has just changed and he’s about to begin a new job at Wetworks, the world’s foremost manufacturer of wetware. His curiosity and enthusiasm get him noticed – but by whom, and for what?

The doctor spent a few moments adding some details to the holo-screen as she idly played with the syringe on the desk. The medical implant that replaced her left eye whirred faintly as it interfaced with the system, and then she turned to Andy and gave him a reassuring smile. Subdermal holos glimmered faintly under her dark skin. “Okay, I think we have all the details we need. Could you hold up your arm?” Andy did as she asked, and the doctor scooted over to him on her chair, syringe in hand. She ran a thumb across his wrist and his IV port obediently responded to her medical chip by emerging from his skin with a soft sucking noise. “I haven’t seen one like this in a while,” she observed.

He shrugged. “I’ve been out of work for a while. My ‘ware’s probably overdue for an upgrade.”

“Well, you’ve got a job in the right organisation then,” she said with another smile. She positioned the syringe. “Sorry about this, Andy. You’ll be working with tissue samples though so we have to make sure there’s no risk of infection.”

Andy winced as the syringe compressed itself automatically and delivered the dose of vaccine. “I thought all the bio-tech was cultured in the lab.”

“It is. But you weren’t…”

“Oh.”

“Human cells – even cloned ones – can pick up hepatitis just like you. You pass it on to some ‘ware, someone gets it implanted and, well, I’m sure I don’t have to spell it out.” She removed the syringe. “Think yourself lucky though – a few decades ago, you’d have had to come back and see me again in a month to get the second dose, and then a third one after that.”

He rubbed his wrist. “It’s no problem. I’m just happy to be working again.”

The doctor nodded. “It’s tough out there, isn’t it?”

“Real tough,” Andy agreed, “but now I can get back on my feet. What’s a little hep b injection against that?”

“Quite.” She returned to the holo-screen and finished off entering her data. She beckoned and he put his hand out. The system picked up his chip and registered his attendance. “Okay, Andy, you’re all done. Now, you need to come back here in about four weeks so we can do  a serology and make sure the vaccine was effective.”

Andy stood up and flexed his shoulder. His arm ached slightly. “Is there a chance it won’t be?”

“A small percentage of the population don’t respond to innoculation. But it won’t be a problem if you’re a non-responder. There are adaptations we can make.”

He frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that…”

“There’s no chance you’ll lose your job,” she said. She had that comforting smile down pat, it seemed.

“Can I get that in writing?”

“No, but the vaccination’s recorded on your chip now. Arrange an appointment for a blood test with the reception interface on your way out if you don’t mind.”

Andy left the doctor’s office and walked out into the reception area. A holo-avatar popped up behind the desk and he quickly negotiated his follow-up appointment. The waiting room was full of people. Most of them looked tired and hungry and he felt a pang of sympathy. A couple of weeks ago, that could have been him. But now he’d landed this job, which came with full health cover to boot, he didn’t have to worry about sharing that fate any more. Pale, hollow eyes watched him leave and he pushed them out of his mind. He had to get to work.

It was hard not to fidget in anticipation as he rode the air-metro across the city. Through the smog he could make out the gleaming towers of the central business district, with their flashing holos cavorting invitingly. He couldn’t see what products they were advertising from this distance, but he felt his stomach do a little leap of excitement as he thought about finally being able to afford to buy them himself. He hadn’t tasted non-recycled food in months. He remembered all too well the bleak, cheerless day when he’d finally realised his budget didn’t even stretch to synthmeat and he had to join the truly destitute in the recyc queue of the dispensary. He had almost been able to feel everyone looking down their noses at him, even if his new line had in fact been the longest. His had been a fate shared by billions, by the vast majority of humanity in fact, but that didn’t make him feel the stigma any less. It was all a fading nightmare now though. Work. He had work. It felt like he’d won a prize in a contest. He watched out of the grimy window as the towers got closer and closer, and then he was gliding in amongst them, watching in wonder as the bounding neon mascots reflected off the yellow-brown clouds that hung over the ground-level highways far below. The air-metro creaked into the terminal a few moments later with an alarming whine of strained metal. The carriage he was in was one of the older ones, all peeling paint and corroded framework, barely held together by its own electrostatic field. The air-filters were working overtime to keep a breathable atmosphere in place and he felt his lungs start to burn mere seconds after the cabin began to depressurise. It couldn’t dampen his mood though. He slipped on his breathing mask and nearly skipped onto the platform as he joined the crush of commuters heading into the city.

He’d programmed his chip with the location of his new place of employment, and now it gently guided him down the correct walkway with a subtle vibration on the right side of his body. He cheerfully joined the workers who were wearing their own clothes instead of the garish corporate uniforms with their dancing holos or the colourless overalls of low-grade menials who shuffled along with heads down. Last week, even they would have looked down on him – a penniless scrounger barely able to pay rent on his hab-pod – but now he was one of the luckier ones. The walkway he now entered was bright and relatively clean, and the air was fresh enough for him to be able to turn his mask down to half power. The holos were advertising middle-class products, and they were quite meek and unobtrusive. It was all quite pleasing.

Another buzz from the chip sent him off down a capillary tunnel and soon he was in an open plaza before a tall building displaying only a handful of token holos scrolling up and down its height. The logo above the door was a familiar one and it told him that this was the headquarters of Wetworks Inc. and, in smaller letters underneath, that said company was a subsidiary of the Hoshi-Wójcik Corporation. He went through the doors, still feeling lighter than air. Immediately the light on the front of his mask started to glow green, indicating he had entered an area with breathable atmosphere. He took it off and folded it back up into his pocket, just as a holo-avatar popped up behind the reception desk. It took the form of an attractive, blonde white woman, but its blank eyes gave him the same sense of unease he got from all simulations. No matter how good their air was, there were some technological limits even Wetworks couldn’t surpass.

“Hello, sir,” the avatar said with a plastic smile, “could you place your chip over the reader on the desk, please?” He complied wordlessly, not even looking at the interface as it bobbed cheerfully in front of him. “Thank you, Andrew,” it said after a few seconds, “please take a seat over there.”

“It’s Andy,” he said without looking around.

“Thank you, I’ve said that preference. If there’s anything else you need, please don’t hesitate to return to the desk and reactivate me. Have a nice day.”

“Yeah, thanks,” he replied absently. By the time he got to his seat, the receptionist had winked off and he was alone. As he had been even when the avatar was there, he had to remind himself.

He’d only been sitting down for a few minutes when the lift at the other end of the lobby arrived with a low chime and a young woman wearing scrubs and a lab coat walked out. She was pretty, with brown hair and an olive complexion, and she greeted Andy with a wide smile and an outstretched hand. “Sorry to keep you waiting. It’s Andrew, right?”

“Andy,” he corrected, but all his attention was focused on the creature perched on her shoulder. It was a small, furry primate with a long tail, a flat face and black, inquisitive eyes that ceased their darting for a moment and focused on him as it climbed onto the woman’s other shoulder.

“I’m Kay,” she said, “and this…” she moved her shoulder so he hopped down her arm, “…is Sim.”

“That’s…a monkey…” He’d never seen one outside of a holostream before. It was a frighteningly realistic simulation. “I’ve never seen anything that sophisticated,” he said.

“Sophisticated?” Kay look confused. “Oh, he isn’t a holo!”

“He’s real?”

“That depends on your definition.” He was cradled in the crook of her arm now, and had a lock of her hair wrapped around his clever little fingers. She disentangled herself with a wince and held him slightly away from her. “Sim’s a real organism, but he was cloned here at Wetworks.”

“He’s artificial? I didn’t think it was possible to create a viable organism in a lab. He must have been grown from a real zygote, right?”

She shook her head. “He’s homemade, Andy. We like to bring him to meet new employees to show what we can do. He’s the first of his species we’ve created – brought back from the dead, you might say. Saimiri sciureus – a common squirrel monkey to you and me. Synthesised from the original genome, with just a few modifications. He’ll live longer, is immune to most diseases, doesn’t carry any parasites and he’s smarter…” she freed her hair from his mischievous grasp again, “not that you’d know it.” She led Andy towards the lifts. “I’m one of the scientists here,” she explained, “and I’ll be looking after you while you find your way around.”

“Okay.” He stood next to Kay as the lift slowly rose, and tried not to notice Sim staring at him from her shoulder with his little black eyes.

“Have you worked with wetware before?” she asked.

“Um…no. I mean, I have wetware. Obviously. And I tried to read up as much as I could. But no. No experience in this particular field.”

“Well that’s no problem. Being a lab assistant’s just doing what you’re told really.”

“That I can do.”

“Good, I’m sure you’ll get on fine here.” The lift came to a halt and the doors opened into an ordinary-looking corridor. “This way,” Kay said, and led him down the corridor to a door protected by a security sensor. She waved her wrist in front of it and it unlocked. “Your chip won’t be activated yet, so just stick with me, all right?”

“No problem.” Sticking with her didn’t seem like it was going to be too arduous, he thought to himself as he took a glance at her behind, just visible below the hem of her coat. Sim seemed intent on cock-blocking though: the little creature still watched him intently from his perch.

“I should warn you,” Kay went on, “it’s a little…freaky…in here the first time you walk in.”

“Freaky?” They were at another door, this one protected with reinforced steel, and the security check seemed to be taking a little longer.

“Yeah. There’s a lot of cutting edge stuff going on behind this door. You squeamish at all?”

“Not really…”

“That’s good.” The door opened with a clang and they stepped through into a busy laboratory, filled with equipment Andy couldn’t begin to fathom, more people wearing clean clothes than he’d ever seen in one place before and…things… “You okay?” Kay asked.

“Uh…” The nearest bench was tended by a short red-haired man who was prodding at an eyeball held in a clamp with some kind of pointed instrument. When he poked it, it swivelled on the long fleshy tendon that connected it to an archaic-looking terminal on the bench, looking for all the world like it was trying to escape the scientist’s none-too-tender attentions. Kay went over to him and beckoned for Andy to join her. “This is Hans. He’s the head of our sensory prosthetics team. Hans, this is Andy, the new lab assistant.”

“Hi Andy,” Hans said, giving him a tight smile, “sorry, I’d shake your hand but I’m all gloved up right now.”

“No problem,” Andy murmured.

“This is one of the most advanced bio-prosthetics we produce,” Kay explained as Hans returned to tormenting the disembodied eye. “It’s rigged up to one of our pattern units.”

“Pattern units…?”

“Do you just drag these guys off the streets?” Hans asked without looking up.

“The pattern unit is a kind of basic computer which generates an electrical signal not unlike a human brain pattern. We can program them to mimic the particular effects of a single sense, or a cluster of senses in the more advanced models. This one is replicating the effect of pain. When the prosthetic is plugged in, its nerve endings draw data from the pattern unit, and we test how it reacts.” As if to demonstrate, Hans poked the eye again, and it seemed to visibly flinch.

“That’s…”

“A little strange, right?” Kay said. “This model is very expensive though. Each one has to be custom built. We spend a long time making sure they all work correctly. When this prosthetic is implanted, it’ll be indistinguishable from a real human eye. In fact, by any sensible measure, it is a real human eye. It was grown from human stem cells in our incubation centre.”

“Amazing,” Andy said, “how much would something like that cost?”

“More than any of us could afford,” Hans told him shortly, “so if someone lets you get your grubby mits on one of these, try not to drop it, all right?”

“Come on,” Kay said, “there’s a lot for you to see this morning.” He followed her to another bench, where an arm was held in a transparent plastic box. Ports studded its pale flesh, connected to wires which were fed through the bottom of the box and into the back of a terminal operated by a kindly looking middle-aged woman. She pressed old-style analogue buttons on the terminal and watched with satisfaction as the arm’s muscles twitched. When she saw she had an audience, she toggled a few controls at once and the hand clenched slowly into a fist. “Looks good, Marie,” Kay said. Sim stood up on her shoulder, clapped his little hands together and showed off his surprisingly sharp teeth. Obviously he was impressed too.

“I’ve never seen prosthetics as good as these,” Andy said.

“Only the hyper-rich can afford them,” Kay shrugged, “although as we get better at manufacturing them, the prices will fall.”

“Will I get to work with this kind of stuff?”

“Sometimes,” she said, leading him on, “but most of our work is a lot less glamorous. Wetworks is responsible for twenty percent of all global wetware technology. Obviously it isn’t all produced here – our smallest manufacturing facility is three times the size of this building – but this is where we do the research into new methods of bio-technology interface and, as you’ve seen, work on some of the more bespoke creations. Most of what you’ll be doing involves setting up the equipment for us scientists, prepping the samples, coding the pattern boxes and, ultimately, disposing of tissues. It’s not always going to be exciting, but you will be working with some of the finest scientific minds in the world on some of the most advanced wetware projects going on anywhere right now.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Andy told her honestly.

“Good. Now let’s take a look at the neural lab.”

*

Andy settled into his new job right away. His first rotation put him in the main lab, working on the pattern boxes. It was tedious work, but he found he had something of a knack for it. He worked on one of the benches off to one side, reprogramming the clunky terminals each morning. Jack, another lab assistant, would bring him the boxes from the previous day, dumping them on his bench with a cheery cry of, “Used brains!” Kay had explained how it worked to him on his second day: brain patterns were uploaded from the central system onto each box. Over the course of each day, as the scientists worked on various prosthetics, the data on their drives gradually degraded until it became unusable. It was to do with the nature of the patterns. “They’re organic,” Kay had explained, “we get them from volunteers in MRI machines who are exposed to certain stimuli to get what we need. They’re real encoded electrical signals from real human brains and there’s two-way feedback between the boxes and whatever they’re plugged into. The pattern wants to change and propagate, but because it’s just a computer, it can’t do that so it just degrades into junk data. Noise. That’s why they need to be wiped and the patterns recompiled each day.”

After a few hours laboriously uploading the code – the patterns were incredibly complex, and had to be constantly checked and rechecked for errors – he’d cornered her at lunch and asked why they didn’t use a more modern computer with organic components. “I have implants in my body more advanced than these stupid boxes!”

Kay had laughed at that. “You certainly do. But Wetworks has two separate divisions; we make artificial prosthetics for interaction with humans, and we make organic components that are used in computing. But legislation means we have to keep them totally separate.”

“Huh?”

“We can create the artificial neural tissue that every modern computer uses; artificial synapses and neurons faster than any microchip or processor. In fact, we could build an entire artificial brain if we wanted, just like Sim’s.” She petted the monkey. She was hardly ever without him as far as Andy could tell. “And we can make a fully-functional human body, grown right here in the lab. Only an extremely thorough genetic analysis would reveal it hadn’t been born naturally. Now, what happens if we take one of our synthetic brains and put it in a synthetic body?”

Andy had nodded, finally realising what she’d been getting at. “You’d have fully synthetic humans.”

“Exactly. And the labour market is bad enough without being able to clone workers in a lab.”

“Good point.”

“So the Wetware Separation Act, as it’s known, prevents us from connecting any kind of organic computational equipment to a prosthetic. We have to keep the two parts of the lab totally separate. Hence the antique terminals you have to use.”

“Well, as long as there’s a good reason, I guess…”

The work was actually interesting, thankfully. There were hundreds of thousands of individual brain patterns, for every kind of sensory input, every kind of emotion or mental activity. Some of the more obscure ones he’d never seen used – what organ could they be growing that might need someone thinking about the movement of a fish in a sunlit pond to check it was working properly? – but he got pretty good at uploading the more common ones. They were further broken down by demographic, since many of the more advanced prosthetics were custom made for their eventual owners. As Hans explained to him, there were some surprising differences. “A child’s sense of taste is different from an adolescent’s, and from an adult’s and from a senior citizen’s. So if we’re building someone a new tongue – don’t grin, it’s happened before – we have to make sure it can taste the same things their real tongue used to.”

“Do you ever make enhanced prosthetics though? Like, if someone wanted to replace their tongue with one that found really gross things delicious?”

Hans gave him an arch look. “Who would want that?”

“I don’t know; it was just a thought…”

“Some people want stronger arms, better eyesight – hell I’ve got some enhancements there myself since I was born myopic – but most people rich enough for that know it’s a waste of money. I could give a guy the most muscular arm in the world, but he’d still need to hit the gym every day to maintain it, just like his own arm. These prosthetics, they’re indistinguishable from the real thing. They work just the same, with all that that entails.”

Andy nodded thoughtfully, then belatedly handed over the fresh pattern box he’d come to deliver. “Another thing I’ve been wondering about…”

“Go on,” Hans sighed as he plugged the heart he was working on into the terminal.

“Why don’t the people who buy this stuff ever clone them from their own stem cells? The way  Kay explained it to me, all the cells come from a central library in the basement, all cloned from donors, most of whom are now dead. It seems like it’d be easier to get stuff right – with the stimuli I mean – if it was just their own organs, regrown.”

“Well, it isn’t that simple. Firstly, it wouldn’t be their own organs. If I took your DNA and used it to grow another person, I wouldn’t get you. I’d get your twin. Now, the two of you might look more or less the same, and you’d certainly be genetically compatible – not that that’s a problem; we have a rejection rate of less than a hundredth of a percent, thank you very much – but you wouldn’t really be the same. Your body changes over time. Organs adapt to their environment too. Think of everything that’s passed through your stomach; tastes you’ve developed, tolerances you’ve built up. You weren’t born with it like that. If I grew a new stomach from your stem cells, it’d just be like your stomach when you were a baby. We’d still need to program it with all this stuff.” He waved at his bench with his scalpel.

“Still, it’d save time to do it that way, surely?”

Hans shook his head. “The second reason we don’t do it, is it’s not worth our while. Not everyone who puts in an order is good for the money, when it comes down to it. We take a deposit, we check credit ratings, but these things are expensive. A certain percentage never reach their intended recipients and we put them on ice. Somewhere down the line, someone else wants something similar, and they’re close enough, demographically speaking, that we have to do minimal reprogramming, and the organs get repurposed. When that happens, if we’ve cultured it from stem cells we haven’t vetted and modified ourselves, the rejection rate goes way up.” He jabbed his gloved thumb towards the ceiling. “Not worth it.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Andy started to turn away, but Hans waved his scalpel to get his attention.

“Don’t you want to hear the main reason though?”

“Those aren’t the main reasons?”

“Nu uh.” There was a glint in the stocky man’s eye. “The number one reason we don’t take samples from our buyers is this: we archive everything. You mentioned that library? There are thousands upon thousands of stem cell patterns down there. And you’ve seen the brain pattern archives. They walk through our doors, they give us their stem cells, and we’ve got them forever. And we’d never sign any kind of waiver that prevented us reusing what we have, not for all the money in the world. What if we get some grav-ball player’s DNA and everyone starts wanting her tendons in their new legs? What if a Nobel Prize winning physicist comes in for a new pinkie finger and we use his DNA to make neural interfaces for computers? His superior brain, with its superior neurones, underpinning a whole new line of tech? Chilling, isn’t it?”

Andy narrowed his eyes. “You just said it didn’t work that way though. If we make a grav-ball player’s leg, it won’t be her leg. Her legs come from years of training.”

I know that,” Hans grinned, pointing to himself with his scalpel, then at Andy, “and you know that, now, but they don’t know that, do they?”

“I guess not,” Andy said, returning the grin.

“Rich people are vain, son,” the scientist said as he returned to his work, “that’s why they pay us to build them new bodies.”

After a few months toiling away with the pattern boxes, Andy was moved into the neural lab. It wasn’t exactly a promotion, but Jack certainly acted like it was, ribbing him for being a “teacher’s pet” and acting like he was going to start eating lunch apart from his old friends. Andy didn’t rise to it, but secretly he was excited to move into what felt like a more glamorous department. His tour of the neural lab on his first day had been quite brief, but what he’d seen had intrigued him. Everyone in the world used computers with components designed and built by Wetworks, and it felt like he’d be involved with something that had a tangible effect on his own life. It didn’t disappoint. The scientist in charge of the neural lab was called Lenka and seemed a lot less easy-going than Kay. She clearly loved her work though. If the prosthesis lab had been Frankenstein’s ghoulish workshop, the neural lab was like a witch’s cave, full of bubbling vats of pinkish ooze and lit by dim ultraviolet lamps high on the walls. “Much of the material is photo-sensitive,” Lenka explained, “so we have to keep it dark.”

“I guess brains work better inside skulls,” Andy observed. Lenka just lifted an eyebrow without saying anything and continued to show him around.

His work in the neural lab was a lot more varied than it had been in prosthesis. He worked on lots of different benches and machines, playing with the weird, fleshy goop that he was reliably informed was cultured neural tissue. He used instruments to tease it into certain shapes, sealed it in resin and handed it over to the scientists to input the programming that would turn it into a computer component for any number of devices. It was fascinating stuff, but he soon started to find himself growing a little bored with the limitations he observed. Lenka would construct entire clusters of neurones into what he could see was a kind of artificial brain, but it seemed so…unambitious. They were just using them like organic circuit boards. It seemed a waste of potential.

“We can grow an entire brain, right?” he asked her at lunch. She usually ate alone, but he’d decided to sit at her table in the canteen, heedless of what Jack might say about him doing exactly as he’d predicted.

“An entire brain?” she asked, poking at her limp-looking cut of synthmeat.

“Yeah. Like in Sim?”

“That thing?” She nodded across the room where Kay was sitting with some of the other scientists, feeding some of her food to the monkey as he hopped up and down to the entire table’s audible delight.

“He has a brain, doesn’t he? A cultured one, I mean.”

“The animal is entirely synthetic, yes. But what of it?”

“Well, why do we play around with all this neural tissue, fitting it into a machine to make it faster, when we could just grow a whole brain and use that?”

“It is not so simple,” she explained, “a brain is more than just neurones and synapses and so on. A brain is a living, growing organ. If we cultured a brain, it would be the brain of a newborn infant. We would still need to program it, and doing so would take many years.”

“But we have a whole library of brain patterns we could use…”

Lenka’s eyes narrowed. “Unless your training has been very remiss, you should know all about the Wetware Separation Act. We cannot use technology from the prosthesis lab in our work. If we created a human brain, programmed with human thoughts…well…what would people say?”

“But it wouldn’t be a real human brain, would it? It’d just be like Sim.”

“People can stomach an artificial monkey. An artificial mind? I think not. Sim is the most intelligent organism Professor Diaz would allow Kay to create. She wanted to make a chimpanzee, but it was deemed too controversial. There are many synthetic organisms in labs, zoos and private collections all over the world. We have cultured everything from bacteria to rhinoceros, but governments the world over have drawn the line at great apes, cetaceans and cephalopods. They are arguably sentient. We cannot, must not, create an artificial sentient creature. If I must explain why, you have no place working here.”

“Laws are made to be broken,” Andy joked, just trying to break the tension.

Lenka looked at him coldly. “Not this one. Not until some fundamental shift in how we define humanity. And I for one hope I am dead and buried when that day comes. Maybe a hundred years of progress would be enough to change the world that much, but I have no desire to see it.”

Things seemed to become less fun after that. The work wasn’t so enjoyable now he felt his horizons had been walled off, and he began to find himself growing bored and listless. Life as a lab assistant was mostly repetitive, and he longed for something more stimulating. In the months he’d been out of work, he’d wanted nothing more than a steady, decently-paid job, but now he had one, he was restless. One day, as he was heading back to the lab after lunch, someone he hadn’t met before fell in beside him. “It’s Andy, isn’t it?” the stranger, a tall man with grey hair and light brown skin asked.

“That’s me. Do I know you?”

“Not yet, but I hope to change that.”

Andy stopped and eyed the man up and down. “No offence, but I don’t like the sound of that…”

“Sorry, Andy, I’m bad at introductions.” He held out a hand.

Andy took it with a slight frown. “How did you know my name?”

“I make it my business to know everything I can about all my employees, from the scientists and lab assistants, all the way down to the unchipped drone who cleans the facilities.”

“Your…employees?”

The man’s grip was firm and his wide smile was almost unnaturally gleaming and white. “I’m Professor Diaz, Andy, the scientist in charge of this facility. And I’d very much like to talk to you about a project we’re working on.”

*

Diaz’s office was nice. It was decorated in a slick, somewhat antique, minimalist style, like something from a ‘stream set in the early part of the century. He poured Andy a glass of something brown. “Have you ever had scotch before, Andy?”

“Scotch? I…no…”

“Very hard to get hold of now,” Diaz said, tapping his nose as he poured himself a glass too. Andy was sitting in a big leather chair, the professor was perched on the edge of his glass desk. “They tried to make it from snythcrops, but somehow it just wasn’t the same. Same with brandy, rum, even vodka. That’s why the only liquor you can buy in most places now is that horrible syrupy stuff flavoured with chemicals.” He swirled the whisky around in his glass, then took a long, appreciative sip. Andy did likewise, and immediately started coughing at the harsh alcohol burn. Diaz laughed. “Go gently – it’ll take a little while to get used to it.”

“I guess,” Andy croaked. “If you don’t mind me being blunt…uh…sir, what am I doing here?”

Diaz smiled and put his glass down on the desk beside him. “You probably think it’s an amusing affectation for someone like me to be so particular about drinking real scotch. I am, after all, a man who founded a company devoted to creating artificial life.”

“I was thinking something along those lines to be honest, yeah.”

The professor pointed at Andy. “And that’s why you’re here. Because you’re honest. I’ve had reports from at least half a dozen of my scientists about the kinds of questions you’ve been asking since you got here. Questions about the limitations of what we do, about the potential of the technological power we wield. I won’t flatter you by lying and saying you were the first to ask such questions. Indeed, without these questions, the Wetware Separation Act wouldn’t exist. As soon as the first cultured body part was grown, people began to wonder where it might lead. No one wanted to think about the implications if someone were to grow an entire human in a laboratory. Governments moved quickly to restrict the technology. Some people said it hampered progress.”

“Were you one of those people?”

Diaz stood up and moved around his desk so he stood behind it. There was a frosted glass window behind him that let in the faint light of the outside world. “I had concerns that we might be missing certain opportunities. But I see the logic of the legislation. I understand the fears of the population. But I think of myself as an artist…”

“Right…”

“There’s that honesty again! Yes, scoff if you like, but I am striving not for a practical application for my work, but for an ideal. All art is fundamentally useless, or it should be. I don’t want to build faster computers, or create new arms for victims of industrial accidents. My interest lies in the authentic.” He pointed at the whisky. “My parents were ecological activists. The world they grew up in had thick forests, clear blue seas, breathable air in every city. Butterflies danced over verdant fields filled with colourful wild flowers and whales and dolphins cavorted in the oceans. It is a world you and I know only from holostreams. But they raised me on the memory of the Earth as it once was, and I longed to live in a time of plenty. You could still buy real fruit in ordinary stores when I was a child. My parents tried to avoid eating synthetic produce as much as possible. When farmed meat became impractical, they became vegetarians rather than switch to snythmeat. To this day, I can’t stomach that rubbery stuff. We tried to stay authentic, to stay real, but it was no good. Real food soon became unaffordable, and they watched, growing greyer and weaker, as the world they had known and loved was replaced with a neon, plastic imitation.”

Andy had heard rhetoric like this before. Everyone had. It was the stuff of any number of political ‘streams. But to hear it from a guy who made wetware? “What changed your mind?” he asked.

“Changed? Nothing changed, Andy. I told you I’m an artist, struggling for authenticity. I want what my parents had, but I know it’s now beyond reach. You can’t turn back the clock. The whales are dead, the forests are felled, the glaciers have melted. But I was not content with the replacements the new world offered. I wanted to do better. I wanted to recreate the world humanity had burned to ashes with its greed. That’s why I founded Wetworks. To rebuild. To bring about a rebirth. I have spent my entire life working towards blurring the line between the real and the synthetic. Now, only a biologist with the right equipment could tell the difference between one of our prosthetics and a real organ. And our computer processors are faster and smarter than ever. We are on the cusp of a biotechnological event horizon.” He made a fist in front of him. “But we must go over the edge! We must stare into the abyss, Andy!”

“Okay…”

Diaz burst into a laugh suddenly. He held out his hands. “I’m sorry to be so melodramatic. I get passionate, sometimes. Listen, Andy, I want to ask you something.”

“What?”

“Have you ever thought about having children?”

He shrugged. “I guess, one day.”

“You have a wife, a girlfriend?”

“No.”

“A husband? Boyfriend? Anyone?”

He shook his head. “Nope.”

“Sounds to me like children aren’t really in your immediate future then.”

“What are you getting at?”

“Procreation: it’s the aim of every organism on Earth,” Diaz said, circling around his desk again as he spoke. “Your body is really just an engine, designed to replicate your DNA, which wants to propagate itself across nature. It seeks to recombine with new DNA and pass itself on in the form of a new organism, a child. In doing so, it will be copied, imperfectly, and this will create variation, mutation, and ultimately evolution. This desire to carry on your genetic pattern, to pass on these selfish genes, is the one driving force in your life. It is what makes you fear death, it is what makes you want sex, and it is what instils in you a desire – maybe not now, but someday – to sire offspring. I think, in part, it is this fundamental instinct that makes us all distrust the idea of artificial humans. They seem wrong to us. Like they have perhaps jumped the queue somehow? But these concerns are unfounded. Nature has clones of its own. The humble banana plant, and the relatively common phenomenon of monozygotic twins in humans are examples. It’s nothing…strange, or dangerous. And, as you know, simply having the same DNA as another organism does not make you the same as them, or our job would be much easier! If only it were possible to simply culture an organ and have it be identical to the one once possessed by the intended host! Cloning is not the grotesque blasphemy against creation science fiction would have you believe.”

“What does any of this have to do with me, sir?” Andy asked, when it seemed like Diaz had finished his current soliloquy.

“Do you want to be cloned, Andy?”

“Do you mean…do I want an identical twin brother, thirty years my junior?”

Diaz clapped his hands like a child. “Very astute. You are quite right. If we took your stem cells and grew a full artificial human from scratch, that is exactly what we’d get.”

“That, and probably a jail sentence, right?”

“Oh yes, yes indeed. A synthetic human brain must never be connected to synthetic human body parts. We all know this. It is fundamental. But, Andy, let me ask you this, have you ever wondered where the man ends and the machine begins?”

“How do you mean?”

“Let me show you something.” Diaz reached over his desk and activated a small holo display that floated between them, showing a tall, handsome man running down a race track. “Do you recognise him?”

“Sure, he’s Tyler Brundle. The military veteran who became a marathon runner.”

“Yes indeed. You know that Mr Brundle nearly died in the Second Syrian War?” The holo changed to show Brundle climbing the side of a building at some sort of promotional event as a crowd watched, cheering.

“I’d heard that, yeah.”

“He lost all four limbs, his entire body was covered in third to fourth degree burns, both lungs were severely damaged from inhaling toxins, he was blinded in both eyes and lost his sense of taste and smell. He had numerous other organ damage. There were people who quite seriously suggested it would be kinder to put him down, like a dog. But Wetworks stepped in. We rebuilt him, free of charge, and gave him a new life.” Now Brundle was playing grav-ball, bouncing off walls, leaping towards the goal with astonishing power and grace. “There is not one part of that man’s body that is truly natural. We even had to craft new neural tissue for him, contravening the strict letter of the Wetware Separation Act. Have you heard the old joke about the broom?”

“Uh…I don’t think so.”

“A worker has a broom that he uses to sweep the floor. When he is old and has to retire, he says to his boss that he has used the same broom for twenty-five years. His boss is astonished. ‘The same broom?’ he asks, ‘how is that possible? It looks brand new!’ The worker nods happily. ‘Oh yes, it’s had twenty new heads and fifteen new handles, but it’s served me well all these years’.”

“And that’s like Brundle, is it?”

“Yes indeed.” Diaz deactivated the holo. “How much of what you see there is really him? We have replaced every part, even some of his brain. Where is the line? Did he become artificial when fifty percent of him was synthetic? If that is the definition – as some believe – then many humans living today cannot truly call themselves human at all. That way lies madness. The trick, when it comes to artificial life, is to replace just one part at a time. That is what I mean by cloning, Andy – by true cloning.”

“I’m still not sure I understand…”

“Let me present you with a scenario. A human’s body is cloned. His arms, his legs, his organs, his face, his eyes, his tongue, his genitals, his fingers, toes, every hair on his head. Everything, in fact, except his brain. At the same time, separately, his stem cells are used to grow a new brain, genetically identical. Were we to put that brain in that body, all we would have would be a baby in the body of a grown man.”

“You’d need the donor’s brain pattern,” Andy said, “which you’d get from an MRI. Like in the pattern boxes.”

Exactly.”

“But you can’t do that, because it’s against the law.”

“Indeed. But what if we were instead to take the man’s actual brain, and place it in the new, synthetic body. How would that be different from the situation with Mr Brundle?”

“I guess it wouldn’t be…”

“And then, we take the same subject’s brain patterns, and imprint them onto the new brain.”

Andy scratched his head. “Isn’t that illegal too?”

“Not at all, despite what you may have heard. The Wetware Separation Act simply restricts the interface between cultured neural tissue and other kinds of biotechnology. But the donor’s body would, crucially, be a real body. There’s no law against putting an artificial organ inside a human – how could there be? We all have artificial organs, Andy. It’s not controversial. Neither of the two acts I described break any laws.”

“So…” Andy thought it through, “…you’d have someone’s brain inside a body that looked like their old body, but was actually artificial…and then, in their old body, you’d have a brain grown from their own DNA, with their own thoughts programmed into it?”

Diaz put his hands together, then slowly drew them apart and made two fists. “One…becomes two. Like an amoeba splitting. Think of it: two humans, completely indistinguishable from one another. Neither completely artificial. Both sharing the same memories, the same mind. True cloning. True procreation. True immortality.”

“It sounds incredible,” Andy admitted, “but who are you ever going to find to agree to that?”

Diaz smiled. “Who do you think, Andy?”

*

Andy opened his eyes. He felt…a bit strange. Everything was blurry, but after blinking a few times the room gradually came into focus. He was strapped to some sort of upright gurney. Two figures stepped up to him before he could start struggling and released his bonds. He stumbled forward, but they caught him and steadied him on his feet. He stared around him. He was in some sort of round, featureless room with dull grey walls. A woman was standing just across from him, moving a few holo characters around on a kind of device he didn’t recognise. Her clothes were in a style that looked unfamiliar, but the image of a bored, lifeless bureaucrat was universal. She looked up at him and nodded with a kind of weary resignation. “All right, how are you feeling?”

“A little confused,” he said. His throat felt raw.

“That’s normal. How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Three…”

“What’s your name?”

“Andy.”

“Okay, he seems fine,” she said to the two men who’d helped him before, “take him through.”

“Wait,” he asked as the two workers started to lead him away, “where am I? Did the procedure work?”

“It worked,” the woman said, “it worked just fine. It’s been working fine for a hundred years. Could you step through the door please?”

“A hundred years? I don’t…”

“You don’t understand,” she said, sounding thoroughly bored, “I know. None of you ever understand. But reorientation will explain everything. Through the door please.”

He let them move him on through the rounded door and into a huge room full of people. No…not people…not exactly… He stared around him in astonishment. He was in a chamber the size of an air-metro hangar, one of hundreds and hundreds of identically dressed men who were wearing the same shapeless grey tunic he was, who had the same coloured hair, who had the same bewildered expression on the same…the same face… He felt sick. The man in front of him – who looked exactly like him – turned to him. “Do you know what’s happening?” he asked. Andy shook his head. No one knew what was happening. There were more men and women in the same outfit as the woman who’d spoken to him in the round room before, moving amongst them, dividing them into lines that were all destined for different doors on the other side of the room. As another of them was admitted, the line shuffled forward imperceptibly.

“There’s no need to panic,” one of the workers said as he passed by, “I know you’re all confused, but everything’s going to be explained very soon. After a few hours in reorientation, this is all going to seem like a bad dream.”

Andy looked up. High on the wall, above a gantry on which a number of other workers stood, all holding weird devices that might have been weapons, a glowing hologo floated. He recognised the font as the one Wetworks used, but they seemed to have changed their name. Now they were called Andyworks Inc. A stylised mascot with his own face bounced happily underneath. He was waiting a table, then he was cleaning the streets, then hauling garbage, then working in some kind of factory, then charging into battle in a uniform he didn’t recognise.

“Please try to stay calm, Andy,” a woman’s soothing voice announced over a public address system that filled the room. As one, several hundred identical men looked up. “Everything will be explained during reorientation. We understand that this is alarming, but you have nothing to fear. Your previous memories will be suppressed shortly and you will be reassigned to your new lives. Welcome to the future.”

In his head, he heard Lenka’s voice. A hundred years of progress. And then Hans’s. We archive everything. Another Andy went through the distant door, and the line shuffled forward a pace.

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One Response to Wetware

  1. Pingback: Forever Man | serialwritist

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