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Random House (2002)
Hardcover: 339 pages
ISBN: 060960595X

Vintage (2003)
Paperback: 352 pages
ISBN: 1400031176

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Read an excerpt from Wetware



The logo for Galapagos Wetware was an enormous turtle which smelled of iodine, salt, and seaweed. It hung above the door like a shoe above a cobbler's shop. The geometric pattern of the shell showed in dark greens and yellow, and the turtle's leatherlike flippers squeaked as they moved. Galapagos Wetware was in a building that had originally been a mill, and the architecture of the place still suggested the height of the machine age. What had been made here? Transformers? Electric motors? Generators? When Briggs worked late, he thought he could smell something that lingered from the time a small factory had been operated here. What was it? The scent that came from a spark in an electric engine or from the copper brushes in a generator? Even now he could feel the lingering, almost erotic quality of this scent that had been the essential perfume of that previous industrial age.

Briggs's first project, which he had started five years before, had been to design workers who would do jobs that no one else wanted: people who cleaned up in hospital rooms after patients had died from new, virulent diseases, or who worked in nursing homes where people died alone in the usual messes. And people were needed for jobs that still required the efficiency of the human hand. For instance, coal was mined and used in making plastics, but the automated cutter at the face sometimes got jammed, and someone had to go down into the hot depths, to the coal face, and reach into the machine's stainless-steel blades. A lot of people had tried to come up with an automated human hand, but everyone confronted the fact that nothing was as good as the opposable thumb. Briggs's boss, Mashita, was proud that hehad been clearheaded enough to start making these creatures when other people were still worrying about whether or not such a thing should be done at all.

Of course, there were many emergencies. That was one of the things about all of this: everything was learned the hard way. One night the technicians had looked into the glass-covered platforms where the prototypes had been growing and discovered that the skin of the models was turning black, like plants touched by the first hard frost. Except, of course, these weren't plants. They had the shapes of humans, or the advanced ones did. There had been some speculation about how the room had been infected with weapons-grade smallpox. A pinprick in the tubes that circulated the growing medium, for instance, or maybe the virus had gotten in through some breach of procedures for maintaining a sterile room. The rules were rewritten and enforced more strictly.

When the skin turned black from smallpox, the technicians had looked through the glass canopy, where a creature's face had an expression of confused horror and a suspicion of events just beyond its ability to comprehend. The first thing, of course, would have been the sensation, only partially realized, of being almost alive. Briggs tried to imagine what it would be like to exist as an inanimate object feeling the first blush of life. The first sensation must have been increasing warmth. And along with that, an apprehension of the first odors, which here would probably be iodine, but perhaps the novelty of them would have made them pleasant, like the scent of apple pie in an oven. In this moment, though, the creature had been trying to make sense of the effect of the smallpox. It went through the growing medium like acid, like some starved thing that had finally found the feast it had always dreamed of. The prototypes had turned black from the toes up, from the lungs in. It took about twenty minutes. And this, of course, was just enough time to feel how the smallpox worked and to wonder about what it meant. IQs just sufficient to ask the hard questions, but not high enough to be able to answer them.

The technicians sat against the wall, hands in fists, bawling. It had surprised management how attached to the first prototypes the technicians had gotten, and how they had stayed extra hours to watch them grow. In an unguarded moment, the technicians said it had been reassuring and beautiful to see the extra-long polymers at work: the organs revealed themselves in magenta and gray, from which blue veins emerged, the pattern of the blood vessels like a tree in the fall without leaves. The bones got hard, and the eyes focused on a light for the first time. The technicians had found it hard to explain why they were certain that these creatures had been delighted by a sense of increasing life, by vitality that grew each day, but all were convinced that this was the case. You could see the delight in a creature's partially formed brow, raised in surprise, in obvious and joyful anticipation of what was happening. This keen thanksgiving for being alive, or almost alive, acted as a tonic on the people who saw it, and afterward these people looked at small things with a renewed pleasure, such as the pistachio-ice-cream tint of leaves in the springtime. These early technicians all learned something from the creatures beneath the glass. This was something that the technicians didn't talk about (for fear of getting fired), but it was one of the things that made them work long hours for little pay, just as it was the reason that they often came in on their own time to make sure everything was all right.

The bad thing had been the cleanup, the black shreds, the wilted bones, the pools of fluid, but the technicians had done it. In fact, they hadn't wanted anyone else to do it. They had all shown a fierce proprietorship, like members of a family who didn't want strangers to handle and bury their dead.

Well, those early technicians didn't work here anymore. There wasn't time now for such considerations, and of course it could cause trouble. What the personnel section was looking for were professionals. Cool. Certain. Who didn't give a damn about the first cry of surprise or terror that came from one of the growing platforms.

Briggs had watched the effect of the smallpox like the rest of them. Then he'd gone back to work, redoing the code for the first models, improving their immune systems, but as he worked he felt the first desire to add something that was not in the specifications. He thought about it at night, when he was on his way home, and then first thing in the morning. What he kept coming back to was this: since he was the basic designer for this project, he was allowing these creatures to be sentient, but not allowing them the ability to make sense out of those moments when a sentient or conscious creature had to confront mortality. Or just exquisite pain. How could they make sense out of that? All they felt was a kind of black terror. And, of course, these creatures would certainly confront the obvious fact of mortality, not through an accident, like the smallpox, but in their ordinary work. These creatures would be used until they were worn out or killed.

These new creatures were, as Briggs began more and more to believe, pornographic, which is to say they would exist as people to be used. And yet, in the places where they were allowed to be almost human, they had nothing but a few obsequious gestures and words. There was nothing intricate in their makeup, nothing beautiful or passionate, nothing that would respond to music or would allow them the freedom to investigate, with a thrill, the onset of the enormous and mysterious attraction to another human being. Their psychology was perfect. They were too practical for such concerns as the mystery of being alive. They were gray-skinned, dull-eyed, with hair like an indoor-outdoor carpet.

Briggs added a cue for the first models. He wanted them to have a capacity for visionary experience, however brief, that would give them peace and allow them to perceive their difficulties, even in extreme circumstances, as something beautiful. Briggs had studied the lives of the saints, looking for descriptions of the most beatific moments, and then he had worked long hours to find a way to include this ability in these blunt, gray creatures. In those days he had been uncertain about doing such a thing, and so he had included a cue, a word that activated this ability. He didn't tell anyone that he had done this, just as he didn't tell anyone what word triggered this ability.

Of course, when these creatures were put into production, he would see them from time to time, working on the garbage truck, for instance, that came through his neighborhood. They were plodding, uninspired, uncurious, going about their business with a brutal frankness. The men had short haircuts and heavy beards, and they wore baggy clothes that were gray, and looked as if they were cut from rags that had been used to clean a floor. If a button fell off, or if a hole was worn into a shoe, the creatures did the only thing they knew how to do, which was to endure. They pulled their coats together and persisted. Maybe they stuck a piece of paper into a shoe or tied the coat together with a piece of twine, but that was it. They had thick hands and undefined but large muscles. They tended to be dumpy. Briggs noticed that their noses were often running, and he made a note to himself to look into the sections of the creatures' code that controlled their immune systems and their allergic reactions.

Briggs saw these early creatures in other places too, in the alleys behind restaurants where they worked as busboys and dishwashers. Once he looked into the window of a greasy spoon and saw one of them working at the side of a gray dishwasher, which looked like an armored car in a cloud of steam. The man (or at least that was what he looked like) seemed an extension of the machine: the same gray color, the same sluggish insistence, and a repetitive movement of elbows, as abrupt as the push rods on the side of an old steam locomotive. Briggs was mesmerized as he watched the gray shapes in the steam.

The inside of the window was covered with rills of condensed water, the bead at the head of each one giving them the look of transparent and very small snakes, and as Briggs watched, the lines of moisture obscured what was going on inside. He went on looking, his heart pounding, his head aching. He rolled his shoulders and looked around and tried to walk away. The night was clear and cold, and he took a step up the street, but turned back at the sound of a hiss.

Through the window he saw that the creature had been tugging at a black tube, jerking it one way and then another, and that it had come loose and had started spraying a white jet of steam. It swept over the creature's face, almost like water coming out of a hose. Then the black tube fell to the ground and swung back and forth, spraying steam, bumping into the legs of the dishwashing machine.

The creature made a low, doglike howl, a two-tone wail that was repeated over and over, since the only way the intensity of it could be increased was through the sheer number of cries. His face had been scalded, and as he sat down, shocked by the sudden sensation, he let his apron fall into the mechanized works of the machine. He was dragged into the stainless-steel works of the tanklike thing, where the levers, gears, and chains worked in the damp. By the time that Briggs had gotten inside and called to a cook to turn the thing off, the creature had been mangled.

"Ah, Jesus," said the cook. "What a mess. Shit."

Briggs leaned down, under the machine, and held the creature's head. His hair was wet and his skin had an unnatural heat, although the skin wasn't really red yet. His eyes looked up at Briggs and blinked, and then he howled that same two-toned cry, which seemed to be uninformed by anything aside from the rankest, unrelieved misery, like that of a child who has just lost a leg in a stupid accident. The creature took Briggs's hand and pulled him down into the greasy hot space under the machine, but all the creature could do was say, "It hurts. It hurts."

Briggs put his lips close to the creature's ears and whispered the word, the cue.

The creature looked up at Briggs, his stare sharpening, everything about him quickened, more alert, more penetrating. The howling stopped, and for an instant the creature looked around the room, at the clouds of steam, which appeared cloudlike and soft, and out of it he must have seen Briggs's face in a nimbus of steam and light. Briggs looked down, desperately wanting to comfort, to do anything to make up for this, which seemed so like that moment when the smallpox had done its worst. The creature closed his eyes. When he opened them, he said to Briggs, "Oh, if you could only see."

Briggs sat there while the creature trembled, eyes closed, concentrating on a moment of illumination. Soon, though, it passed, and when it did, the man looked at Briggs and said, "You did that. I know you did. It was so . . . " He grasped Briggs's hand and looked at him. "Oh, please, mister. It was so . . . If I could just tell you." He closed his eyes and trembled with concentration. "Beautiful," he said. "Is that a word?" Then he went back to the two-toned, unrelieved howling, although every now and then he looked at Briggs and said, "Mister, oh, please, oh, mister . . . won't you help me?"

Briggs sat in the alley when it was over, looking up to the end of it where the avenue began. He could still feel the grip of the creature's hand on his forearm, the desperate, imploring touch, just as he could remember in the creature's eyes that terrifying and soothing instant of illumination.

Briggs went to work the next day and the day after, trying to tell himself one thing and then another, trying to explain, to let himself off the hook, but never really able to do so. In fact, while he wanted to get away from the entire thing, from encoding biology into digital form, the project went into the next stage, and in a way Briggs couldn't quite explain, he was almost exhilarated by having a chance to do more of what was causing him such terror. Maybe, he thought, I can find a way to put some of this to rights.

The next stage for Galapagos was to produce creatures more like humans than the originals were. The imperatives of the market for these new models seemed to be working like natural selection, and often Briggs wondered whether he was in charge or merely encoding the markets. Surely, though, some of the nasty jobs the next, more advanced versions would be required to do would involve violence. These were the worst jobs, the ones that most people didn't want to do. For instance, the new creatures were going to have to be good with handguns, just as they were going to be required to understand more complicated orders. And there were other items that the market seemed to want: the ability to deceive, to bide one's time, to do all the morally suspect things that people have always had to do, but which made them feel dirty. The creatures had to be versatile, able to understand the way to do often mischievous work--whisper campaigns, say--or to pose as something they weren't. Law enforcement was interested in using them to buy illegal drugs, of which there were many these days. Too many police officers were getting killed with traditional methods. Of course, the company knew there would be a black market in these creatures, too, but the truth was that this just meant the profit margin would be greater. Far greater.

Copyright 2002 by Craig Nova