In the near future, the creation of artificial humans has changed the world – almost everyone now owns a so-called ‘fabricant’ and, through a quirk of genetics, their ethical treatment is forever assured. But now an amazing breakthrough has given one government the idea to use them for something for which they were never intended…
“God,” Professor Schmitz laughed as he scratched thoughtfully at his beard. “I guess the first time we noticed it…uh…well, you know, we just used donor DNA at first, but then we ran into some legal loopholes so we decided to use material from the lab staff. And I couldn’t very well ask anyone to do that unless I was willing to throw my hat in the ring too. So, really, the first fabricant we made was from my own DNA. I mean, the first one that worked. As you know, there were hundreds of failures. And it was still pretty controversial back then, so our funding was really limited. But we made that first one, Alpha – no gender, a really basic wetware brain, really just a proof of concept, you know? But I loved that thing. At the time, it didn’t seem strange because, you know, we put so much of ourselves into the work and…yeah…I mean, it just seemed normal to have this affection for something – for a being – that we’d all a hand in creating. Alpha was our little science project and, you know, it was going to change the world. So who wouldn’t feel some sort of connection? And I was in charge of all the research, so of course my feelings ran deepest. Nothing strange about that at all. Then, we made Beta..uh…a little girl, she was this time…with the DNA of my research partner…uh….long-time collaborator of mine, Dr Francis, who died a few years ago I’m sorry to say. But anyway, Beta was her’s and, right from the moment she came out of the incubator, she said she felt like Beta was her daughter. And, you know, we all loved her, but not like Dr Francis did. And I guess we didn’t think too much about it, really, but it did seem a bit odd because, really, Beta was as much mine as Alpha was, except for the DNA thing, but I didn’t have the same affection for her that Dr Francis did. So we started to think about it, and narrowed down the variables and…”
“And you realised it was the DNA?” the interviewer interrupted.
Schmitz moved his hands eagerly. “Yes! Yes of course it was. I mean, it’s obvious in retrospect but, at the time, genetic engineering was really in its infancy. We’d cloned animals, and we could create artificial human embryos but, you know, that was really just advanced IVF treatment. Don’t get me wrong, it changed the world in its way, but we were waiting for the next leap forward in terms of creating true artificial life. So when we built the first fabricants and found that, bizarrely, we loved them like they were our own kids well…” He laughed. “All I’ll say is, it didn’t seem obvious at the time. We knew that there was a…uh…a compulsion to protect any creature bearing our own genetic material. Of course there is. Hereditary and altruism and imprinting and all that, it was well-established, but the idea that there might be a connection that transcended the behavioural patterns of…uh…of society, you know? The idea that there was this deep, intrinsic genetic connection…that blew our minds…”
The interviewer nodded thoughtfully. “People were sceptical though, weren’t they?”
“They were! And rightly so. Because, of course, there are countless examples of parents not recognising their own offspring. Adopted children separated at birth from their mothers, then passing them in the street. And, you know, sperm donors. We’d know about this, which is why it was so surprising. The story of Oedipus wouldn’t make sense if he felt a deep, automatic connection to his parents! That’s why everyone assumed this was mostly behavioural. But, well, we did some pretty extensive research, which really delayed things for a number of years, and what we found was that it was really all down to the process used to create fabricants. I won’t bore you with all the specifics, but it comes down to the way a DNA sample is processed. The connection is there with true, biological offspring, but sex cells are a sort of…uh…a sort of buffer in a way. It’s to do with the genome’s capacity for mutation which, of course, is responsible for evolution and so forth. So there’s no messing with that. And the altruism in nature, the mothering instinct, is really a compromise between this intense, physical bond that, we now know, animals feel with their exact genetic replicas and the need to change. We’ve looked at species that replicate asexually and we’ve found similar things. If something is grown from you – not born of your DNA naturally – but actually cloned from your genetic material directly, there is this incredible sense of connection with the resulting organism. Really, it’s like they’re a part of you, in some biological sense. Like a limb. And you’d need to be pushed pretty far to rip off one of your own limbs, right?”
“Of course,” the interviewer agreed. “And far from being just a scientific curiosity, this was actually a major turning point, wasn’t it?”
“It was a huge turning point. Absolutely huge. Because, like I said, this was so controversial in the beginning. It seems so luddite now, but there was such massive opposition to our research. The big fear was that we were cloning a race of slaves. Disposable human beings we could abuse as much as we liked. People had these horrible visions of wars waged with fabricant soldiers, and fabricant slaves doing terrible jobs, and fabricants being…uh…you know, created for sexual purposes or what have you. These were real fears. And they seem bizarre to us, but people protested outside our labs constantly. They thought we were making human life less valuable, you see. But when we presented our findings, everyone realised it wasn’t quite like that.”
“People loved the fabricants like children…”
“Yes! Exactly! We found, right away, that people were no more willing to abuse fabricants than they were biologically born humans. Now, of course, human nature being what it is, that’s not to say there aren’t still times when bad things happen. Bad things happen to trueborn people too, and I suppose they always will. But the idea that fabricants would be ‘disposable’ just went right out of the window. And people were so protective of any fabricant made from their own DNA, that we just had this automatic failsafe built in. Anyone who wanted one had to have it cloned from their own genetic material. So all the fears were totally unfounded. Now, fabricants are just a part of life. That’s not to say there aren’t moral objections to their use – just like how, in previous centuries when we ate non-cultured meat, there was always a percentage of people who found the idea of using animals for food objectionable – and yes, there are militant factions within those larger groups but, mostly, the people who don’t like it just don’t get one.”
“The question I know you always see on the ‘net about this issue is, ‘do the fabricants like serving humans’?”
“And, as with vegetarians a hundred years ago, my response is the same: what does the word ‘like’ mean in this context? How do we measure how much a horse ‘likes’ pulling a cart? It doesn’t know any different. Obviously there’s cruelty and there’s abuse and misuse, but in principle, you can’t assign human values to something with a brain not capable of comprehending them. And, while fabricants might look basically human, they aren’t. They emphatically are not humans. They’re vat-grown from human genetic material, they’re capable of speech and reasoning but, ultimately, each of them has a brain designed to perform a certain task, and they’re incapable of conceiving of a different life. If they can be said to ‘like’ anything, it’s whatever role they’ve been given.”
“And the most novel innovation was the corporate licenses, right?”
Schmitz chuckled. “I wish I’d come up with that. But no, it was actually the brainchild of an activist named Jane Sherman. Again, this was pretty early on in the process, and we’d gotten everything signed off. Fabricants were being rolled out for personal use – at first only to the very wealthy of course, as the creation process was so laborious in the beginning – but naturally people wanted to use them for manual labour and so forth. Well, if we insist that a fabricant be cloned from its owner’s DNA, how does that work with a corporation? Sherman’s idea was that any business wishing to use fabricant labour would go through an extensive vetting process, and that the most senior member of the organisation – a CEO, president, really whoever made the big decisions – would have to submit their genetic material for the creation of specialised fabricants. Any worries about labour rights quickly went right out of the window. And the beauty of the legislation was that it would always be tied to the individual. If they died, the fabricants would be taken away and repurposed. They could never be owned by the corporation itself, they’d always belong to the individual and, as you know, fabricants are ineligible for being passed on to other owners in any way. You can’t buy them, or inherit them or anything. It changed the corporate landscape overnight because companies had to follow this code of ethics, and it was such an advantage to have a fabricant workforce that no one wanted to be left behind…but they had to follow the rules! Corrupt practices just evaporated. Unscrupulous companies tried to purchase fabricants, and of course it was treated exactly as if they’d try to buy child slaves. Almost universally, their customers abandoned them. It was quite beautiful in a way.”
The interviewer smiled. “Well, it’s a fascinating topic. We owe so much to your work, Professor, and the world is a very different place than it once was.” She turned to the camera. “We’ll be continuing our feature on The People Who Made Society tomorrow, when I speak to Jackson Holbert, the man who designed the air tram.”
Sherman drummed her fingers on the table irritably and exchanged a concerned glance with Professor Chang as General Mulgrave laid out his argument. “You have to understand,” the man was explaining as he motioned with his hands, “these are desperate times.”
“Aren’t they always?” Jane sighed. “Sorry, I don’t meant to be flippant, general, but every generation thinks they’re living in the end times. I understand how this latest disagreement between the North-West Coalition and the Pan-Africans could explode into outright war at any moment, but haven’t we been here before? I remember the same story being played out ten years ago during the Madagascar Crisis. That didn’t turn into World War Three, and neither will this.”
“With respect, Ms Sherman,” Mulgrave said, “you’re not party to all the information that we are.” He motioned at the other officers sitting on his side of the table. They were stern-faced men and woman, all in the grey uniforms of the NWC’s military. Some of their aides were also present, including a fabricant sitting beside Mulgrave and taking notes who was obviously his own.
“No, we’re not,” Chang admitted, “but the legal situation is very clear here.” Mulgrave was about to say something, but she held up a hand to silence him. “No, don’t quote Latin at me, general. As my colleague Ms Sherman will be only too happy to explain if you require it, the limits on creation and distribution of fabricants are enshrined in international law. They will not be suspended for the NWC, for Pan-Africa, for the Pacific Concord or any other State. This is fundamental to all our operations. Indeed, it is fundamental to modern society.”
“If you would just permit us to present our proposal,” Colonel Hertz said, leaning across the table with a tablet as she did so, “you might see how dire the need has become.”
Sherman took the tablet and perused its contents with a few flicks of her fingers. “These are specifications for a new kind of…uh…” she read from the screen with obvious distaste, “‘tactical fabricant’.” She angled the screen towards Chang who rolled her eyes. “You’re asking us to breed warriors, general. Warriors to fight your wars.”
“Tactical units,” he corrected.
“You want them to be strong, fast, inured to pain and…” she made a disgusted sound in her throat, “to ‘be biologically dependent on the release of adrenaline in a combat situation’. You want psychopaths, in other words.” She threw the tablet down on the conference table. They were in an airy meeting room in the Transnational Ministry of Fabrication’s Paris offices, but it suddenly seemed dark in there, as if the sun had gone behind a cloud.
“There’s no way we could ever agree to these proposals,” Chang said, more diplomatically. “It goes against our fundamental principles.”
“I fail to see the distinction between these tactical units and any other fabricant,” Hertz said, retrieving her tablet.
Mulgrave put his hand on his fabricant’s shoulder and exchanged a warm look with it. “I have the pleasure of caring for thirteen of your wonderful creations, ladies,” he explained, “including Jae here. He was engineered specifically to function as my personal assistant. He takes my notes, he makes me coffee, he organises my entire life. And he enjoys it. Why does he enjoy it? Sometimes, when I spend time with him, I think it’s because we have a bond of mutual respect. But deep down, I know he’s just made that way. Made to love his work. It’s what he’s for. Soldiers aren’t monsters. I’m not suggesting we craft these units without the ability to experience compassion or empathy. They shouldn’t be cruel. But would it not be more cruel to send them into battle reluctantly?”
“It would be cruel to send them into battle, period,” Sherman spat. “Don’t you get it, general? You sit there with your own fabricant beside you, understanding intrinsically the bond between owner and fabricant that holds our society together, and you ignore the main issue with creating warriors by such means: whose would they be? Yours? Would you send your own fabricant into the line of fire?”
“If the need was great…”
Chang shook her head. “It’s easy to say that, general, sitting here. But if it was your own, biological child…”
“Both my sons are currently serving in the NWC military. My eldest is an airman, my youngest an engineer. They’ve both seen combat.”
“But they chose to have those lives,” Sherman said, leaning across the conference table. “You’re talking about exactly the same kind of slavery that the anti-fabricant zealots were scared of when this technology was first developed. Sending sons and daughters into battle is one thing: sons and daughters can choose to throw down their weapons, sons and daughters can exercise the right to…”
“Jane,” Chang said softly, putting a hand on her arm and drawing her back slightly. “General: moral philosophy aside, the central problem here is one of simple logistics. As you know, corporate-owned fabricants are cloned from a nominated representative of the company. If said representative dies or leaves the company, the fabricants are returned to us for repurposing. How would this work in a military context? Suppose they were created from your genetic material. What if you were to die while your fabricants were in the field? Military operations, and more importantly human lives, might be put at risk if they were forced to suddenly leave the theatre of conflict, as they surely must be in such circumstances.”
“Exactly,” Sherman went on, “you can’t just leave them out there fighting, because your successor might use them recklessly. The most fundamental protection against such abuse, enshrined by law and custom, is that fabricants share their owner’s DNA.” She hammered her hand down on the desk as she spoke. “Fun-da-mental. Without it, everything blows up in our faces. And these precepts are simply incompatible with a military context. We always knew that. Hell, that’s part of the reason we made these laws in the first place.”
“And when the bombs start dropping?” Mulgrave asked.
“They aren’t yet,” Chang reminded him.
The general sighed. “Of course we knew all this. And we hoped you’d see our side of the argument before it came to this but…” he picked up another tablet. “We know about your latest advancements in fabricant technology.” He slid the tablet across the table.
Chang and Sherman both looked down at it, but it was the Professor who reached for it first. “This is speculation,” she said after giving the contents a brief read.
“Speculation based on solid evidence. We know what you’re trying to do.”
“Even if we were doing what you suggest, to use it for military purposes would still be barbaric.”
“But this would sidestep the main legal issue, would it not?” Hertz asked.
“Perhaps…” Chang admitted.
“Even so!” Sherman burst out. “We cannot seriously entertain the notion that…”
Chang put her hand on Sherman’s and gave her a significant look. “I think we’re all very tired,” she said, addressing the military officers. “And you’ve given us a lot to think about. I’m afraid there’s no way we can give you any sort of answer today and, morally, we remain opposed to the entire concept.”
“We appreciate that,” Mulgrave said, “but innovation is always driven by need. War is coming, one way or another. Billions may die if this conflict is allowed to take place, and negotiations are failing. We need more soldiers. We need fabricants. Even I find the idea distasteful, you should know, but worse crimes have been committed in the history of warfare to prevent further deaths. Such is the nature of last resorts and, please let me assure you, our government has considered every other possible solution. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
“Thank you, general. We will try to give you an answer within the month.”
“We can’t seriously be talking about this,” Sherman said as they walked back to their apartments. “Just the idea…”
“I know, I know,” Chang sighed, “and I don’t know how they found out about Phi, but he’s absolutely right that her very existence changes everything.”
“But this wasn’t why we created her!”
“Of course not, but the law will need to be adapted to take account of her…unique nature, won’t it? We knew that going into the project. This is just a use of the technology that never occurred to us.”
“Yes, strange how monstrous barbarity never crossed our minds, isn’t it? Anyone would think we weren’t sociopaths.” She waved her hand in front of the doors and they slid open smoothly as the reader picked up her chip.
Chang smiled at Sherman. She had always been an incredibly stubborn woman, and age had done nothing to dim that fire. She loved her for that, but it could be frustrating sometimes. Chang was always the diplomat, smoothing things over. They shared values, or they’d never have been able to live and work together like this, but differed in how they preferred to see them implemented. Their comfortable apartments in the TMF offices were decorated with a kaleidoscopic mish-mash of personal effects accumulated during two long and successful lives. Sherman flounced down onto the couch and put her hands over her eyes. “I have a migraine coming on,” she murmured.
“Phi?” Chang called out as she moved into the kitchen and took out two glasses. She poured juice and removed a nutri-pack from the fridge for Phi. “Where are you?”
“Sorry, mother,” came the fabricant’s musical voice. She walked into the living area from the direction of her bedroom and then up to the counter to take the nutri-pack with a cheerful smile.
“What do you say?” Chang asked.
“Thank you,” Phi burbled. She went over to the couch and sat beside Sherman who put an arm around her with a contended sigh. Chang watched them for a moment. There was no reason they couldn’t have created a true embryo from their own DNA, of course. Their genders were no barrier to having biological offspring, but Phi had been a labour of love. The fabricant, resembling a biological human more than was strictly necessary, was cloned from both their genetic material – something which had always been technically possible but which was perfected in her alone, such that they both felt the same bond between owner and fabricant. It was a stunning breakthrough. The idea had been simple: too often, partners might have their own fabricants, fabricants that improved their lives immeasurably, fabricants with whom they both shared a bond of familiarity, if not necessarily genetics. One partner died, and all their fabricants had to be recalled, potentially causing misery on top of misery. There were anecdotal stories of disabled individuals who depended on the aid of a partner’s fabricants to maintain their independence, who were left struggling when said partner died. It was an awful thought. So, what if a fabricant could be created that could be shared? That way, both partners could own it, since they both shared the attachment, and they could go on owning it even after one partner died. It had taken years of effort to modify the cloning technique, to preserve the genetic connection. Phi was the result. Their daughter, after a fashion.
But now, she put everything at risk. There was no limit to how many individuals could contribute to this form of fabricant’s genetic pattern. These disgusting ‘tactical units’ could bear the DNA of an entire headquarters of generals, if required. The chain of command could be preserved indefinitely.
“Mǐn? Are you all right?” Jane asked from the couch. She and Phi were looking at her with worried expressions and Chang realised she’d been standing there holding the two glasses of juice in her hand and staring into space for over a minute. “Yes, yes, just a little distracted.”
They all sat together on the couch, watching the ‘net stream. Phi was between them, contentedly absorbing her nutri-pack. She wasn’t a real child. No fabricant was. It was important not to think of them that way. Her behaviour was coded into her brain and, though her mind was significantly more sophisticated than most fabricants’, she was not capable of growing like a human child. She was sweet, and of course they both loved her – she was made from each of them – but she wasn’t an actual person. Adjusting to the difference between the genetic bond engendered by a fabricant and the love of actual offspring was one of the great hurdles of fabricant ownership. Sherman, despite being an advocate for ethical treatment of fabricants since their introduction, had always resisted owning one for that very reason. It had taken this project to change her mind.
“Phi, could you go and play in your room?” Sherman asked suddenly. The fabricant didn’t even question the command, she just jumped off the couch and walked away obediently. ‘Play’ in this context meant use the tactile, brightly coloured equipment in her room that helped them monitor the stability of her sensory apparatus. All fabricants had to have some sort of regular stimulation like that to keep their artificial brains functioning properly and Phi, as an experimental model, needed it more than most at this stage.
“Is everything okay?” Chang asked.
“I’ve been thinking…”
“That’s never good.”
Sherman laughed as she pulled her legs up onto the couch and turned to face her partner. Despite being nearly seventy, Sherman still had a kind of antsy, girlish energy that Chang always found infectious. Sometimes it felt like her whole life was one long childhood sleepover – with a guest who refused to stop playing truth or dare and just go to bed. “How many genetic patterns do we have in the databank?”
Chang thought about it. Sherman was an invaluable member of the organisation, but she wasn’t a scientist. When Chang had taken over from Professor Schmitz as the head of the TMF, absorbing her long-term partner and the architect of much of the fabricant legislation into the hierarchy had been one of her first acts, and she’d never had cause to regret it, but Sherman wasn’t really involved in the direct running of things. “Well…all of them.”
“That’s what I thought. And they’re backed up every day, right?”
“Of course.” The TMF had many offices, labs, distribution centres and fabrication plants all over the world, and it was necessary to keep the databank of genomes accessible to all of them. It was just code: incredibly complex code, protected by an endless series of patents, but just binary digits nonetheless. But with those digits, human cells could be cultured, and from them, fabricants manufactured. Every owner of every fabricant in the world submitted their DNA for cataloguing, and the TMF kept them until the donor died in its vast central server. “Why do you ask?”
“I have an idea…but I’m going to need your help.”
“What sort of idea?”
“The best kind,” she said, grabbing both of Chang’s hands. There was a sparkle in her eyes. “The kind that changes the world.”
General Mulgrave stalked into the laboratory looking tired and visibly frustrated. “You’ll have to excuse me, ladies, but I’ve just been overseeing some extremely tense negotiations via ‘stream.”
Sherman regarded him coolly. “War still threatening?”
“Don’t play games with me, Ms Sherman. It’s a minor miracle we’ve been able to hold off hostilities as long as we have. I’ve made all kinds of concessions I never would have otherwise, because I was hoping you’d have good news for me. You’ve kept me waiting three months. I pray, for all our sakes, you’ve made the right choice.”
“I believe that we have.” Sherman wasn’t able to keep the smug tone out of her voice, and Chang had to shoot her a warning look across the lab. Most of the small room was taken up by a clouded incubation chamber in the centre. Chang was operating the controls, working on the final checks.
Mulgrave looked around and then noticed the placid girl sitting silently on a stool to one side. He approached her with a smile. “Do I take it this is the experimental model? Phi, yes?”
“That’s Phi,” Sherman told him.
“And she’s…” he pointed from her to Chang.”She’s both of you, right?”
“She’s cloned from both of our DNA, yes.”
“And you both…?”
“We both feel the bond,” Chang said from across the room. “She’s functional.”
Mulgrave nodded in satisfaction. “I’m sorry we had to be so underhanded about it last time. She’s an astonishing breakthrough. This is a world-changing moment. You’ll forever alter corporations, governments and, yes, the military. With fabricants bonded to multiple owners, we can finally make proper use of these amazing creations.”
“It is certainly going to change things,” Sherman acknowledged, “although not quite in the way you imagine.”
“Jane…” Chang warned.
“It’s too late now, Mǐn!” Sherman laughed. “Isn’t it?”
Chang frowned slightly. “You’re about three seconds premature, actually. But it’s fine.” She tapped a final command with a flourish, and the incubator began to open.
“What is this?” Mulgrave demanded.
“Come,” Sherman said, taking his head. “Look what we’ve made.”
Mulgrave allowed himself to be taken over to the incubator, a look of mixed curiosity and apprehension on his face. Clearly, he knew he was being outmanoeuvred. As the smoke cleared, he looked down at the figure lying in the pod, resting on a cool bed of amniotic gel. In all appearances, she was a girl of little more than five- or six-years-old, hairless like all emerging fabricants, with light brown skin and features that looked both plain and beautiful at the same time. He leaned over curiously and, when she opened her eyes and looked at him, he drew back in horror.
“Yours,” Sherman explained.
“Why would you make me a fabricant?”
“She’s not just yours,” Chang said with a small smile, “she’s also Jane’s. And mine. And everyone else in the building’s. And everyone in your staff. And…well…do you want to explain it to the general, Jane?”
“This is Omega,” Sherman said, running a hand lovingly over the child’s smooth face. “Her genome is made up of over twelve-billion distinct genetic patterns. She carries the DNA of the entire human race.”
“Why would you do this?”
“To stop you,” Sherman said. “To stop everyone. We already had billions of genomes in our databanks – almost everyone on Earth has a fabricant now – and the rest we managed to obtain from police archives. The anti-fabricant groups were the hardest to obtain, of course, but since so many of them have been involved in criminal activity, they were all there…”
“That’s illegal! There’s no way I’ll let you get away with this!”
“We knew that,” Sherman admitted, “but, as of thirty seconds ago, it was too late. Omega exists now, and that’s it. We’re also streaming live from this room to everyone on the ‘net.” She pointed up at the camera mounted in the ceiling above the open incubator in which Omega reclined. “Everyone is seeing and hearing this, or they soon will when it’s shared around the world. Every single human being on Earth will feel the genetic bond with Omega. She will be as precious to us all as our own children. For those without fabricants, it will be the most jarring of all, I’m afraid, but it was a necessary step.”
“I don’t understand why you’d do this,” Mulgrave said, his voice a low growl.
“Simple,” Chang said, “we’re going to tour the world, the two of us with Phi and Omega. We’ve got the money to travel by air tram wherever we want. We can be in any city on the planet inside an hour.”
“And we won’t be sharing our itinerary,” Sherman said with a smirk. “We could be anywhere. With Omega: the most precious child on Earth. So if anyone, anywhere thinks about, say, launching a missile or planting a bomb, they should know that they’ll risk hurting her.”
Chang could tell by the look on Mulgrave’s face what the idea of Omega coming to harm made him feel. It wasn’t his fault: it was totally instinctive, a simple reaction to the presence of his genetic material in the being sitting calmly in the incubator, watching him intently with black, liquid eyes.
“Do you understand, general?” Sherman pressed. “Do you understand what we’ve done? No one would dare hurt Omega, and no one will know where she is, ever. And if some psychopath was to try and find her and kill her, think of how swiftly the wrath of the world would descend on that foolish individual. She is the ultimate insurance policy. From this day forward, everyone will have a daughter potentially in the line of fire. For years, humans have tried to use philosophy and law to extend the empathy they feel for their close genetic relatives to strangers. Now, we’ve sidestepped the whole problem. Now, we must all find a way to live in peace. We have finally succeeded in making war go out of fashion. Thanks to Omega.”
Mulgrave stared at the little girl in the incubator, still watching him calmly. She smiled at him, and then his knees buckled and he had to grip the side of the incubator to stay upright. Chang rushed over to him and put her arm around his shoulders. “Sorry to spring this on you, general,” she said, honestly, “but it was the only way. If anyone found out about this before she was finished…”
“I understand,” he said. “I understand everything. Now.”
Omega looked at them each in turn. “Hello,” she said after a few seconds. “What are you all looking at?”