Victor Robert Lee
“Okay, double the nutrient beta concentration, switch to zilex psychotropic cocktail, then give a three-phase radiation pulse—no more than thirty seconds.” Heath barked the commands impatiently. He was way, way behind schedule on this batch of floating heads. “And get the fruit fly guy in here again—the drosophila whiz. Tell him to meet me in my office, pronto.”
Heath was closing the blinds when Tadao came in. “It’s too damn bright,” said Heath. “Doesn’t the janitor know all the far UV and cosmic crap comes right through this glass?”
Tadao said nothing as he stood twirling a lock of long blond hair around his index finger.
“Look, this batch of heads hasn’t mutated fast enough,” Heath said. “They were doing fine at the embryo stage, all the way up to puberty at eight days, but the thought streams we registered were disappointing. Banal, the creative guys said. So we’re trying to pick up the pace before their neuroglia and the brain architecture lock up in adulthood. You’re supposed to be an expert in making genes do tricks. Got any ideas?”
“Well…at this stage I don’t think another radiation pulse will do much good,” Tadao said, speeding up his hair twirling. “I’m not a brain guy, but at this late stage, I…I suppose a physical disruption might…force an adventitious reorganization of cortical circuitry, if done under the right perceptual umbrella. But I’m not a brain guy.”
“You mean we should give the cabbages—the floating heads—a whack?” Heath was known around the farm as mister no-nonsense.
“Well, I would be gentle about it. Who knows what they feel.”
“Look, Tadao. Won’t a whack just wipe out a few cortical fields, or more, I mean gork them, and set us back two weeks until we can raise another cohort of sprouts? You know how many contracts we have now. And the ova microinjection lab is backed up.”
Tadao looked a bit squeamish, thinking about the whacks, and the pressure he was under from a hot-tempered big boss.
“Yes, Doctor Heath. This may be a bad idea. But something I read…in a research journal from way back—there was a kind of paralysis or palsy or some such. Yes, they called it cerebral palsy. It was brain injury at birth. Many of them developed motor or mental problems, or both. But a small percentage, don’t ask me why, turned out to be savants. Limited savants, but quite…special. And isn’t that what we’re selecting for, just a few imaginative oddballs out of a batch of hundreds or thousands?”
“Yeah, but we use mutation and selective pressures to evolve imagination on this farm. Not brute force.” Heath rubbed his palms across the armrests of his chair.
“Yes, sir,” Tadao said, timidly. “But couldn’t we say, um, that mutation is just another form of disruption? There’s chemical disruption, too, like the broths the cabbages—the heads—float in. I suppose physical disruption…I mean, we’ve already evolved their itsy bodies down to little bitsy stems. Of course, with only a couple hundred of them in the broth, you’d have to disrupt them each in a different way, to hope that at least a few would yield some knockout marvelous imagination streams. But good gawd, once the glia lock up! The whole crop will just end up in the fertilizer tank.” Tadao’s nervous squirming now gave the appearance of a little dance, with his hands trying unsuccessfully to find a perch on his hips.
“You have a point,” Heath said, turning more contemplative and drawing his finger across his mustache, which was emerald green, a trait his mother had paid extra for, since it was not included in the standard gene palette. “But the disruptions won’t be genetically imprinted, so we won’t be able to carry over the most useful ones for later reproductive cycles, or even keep the ball rolling with clones.”
“Of course that’s right, Doctor Heath, sir. Just like back then. Those palsy people produced perfectly normal, I mean ordinary, progeny. But I suppose…I suppose you could keep track of the little blows, the whacks—exactly where they were placed, with the force vectors precisely measured—to know which disruptions gave the fruitful results. That, of course, would have to be supplemented by a standard scanning series to exactly localize the injury…uh, disruption…for later implementation on another set of heads. I hate to say it…” Tadao was suppressing a smile with a smirk, thinking of the implications.
“Go ahead,” Heath said.
“Myself being trained in rapid-cycle genetics…yes, some say an expert…I hate to say it, but if it worked, you might not need genetics at all, only a few…whacks. Reproducible whacks, of course. But you really need a brain guy. I’m not a brain guy.”
Heath gruffly thanked Tadao, who was relieved and slightly titillated by his own original thinking. Heath watched him skipping down the corridor with a finger twisting his hair, and wondered for the umpteenth time how homosexual genes had survived evolution in spite of being antithetical to reproduction. Another scientific puzzle, he thought, but he was grateful for the creative results and had hired as many of Tadao’s type as he could, even though they commanded higher wages and plenty of perks.
The brain guy was a woman: O’Leary, in a white coat, who sat down in the chair across from Heath’s desk. He’d heard she was carrying on with a young image-capture technician in the visual creations section—a mere technician, and an archivist, even worse. She could do a lot better, Heath thought, especially with that accentuated gluteal curvature her parents had picked out for her.
Heath approached the subject gently, asking how to quickly goose a little more imagination from this late-stage crop.
O’Leary was crisp: “What’s the product?”
Heath hesitated. “It’s a soft porn, multiplatform, high-plot-content string-’em-along series. We promised something original, spicy, kinky but not too kinky.”
“You can dial up the hormones. I guess it’s all males,” she said clinically.
“Let me see,” Heath said. He pulled the ova injection chart to his face. “No, thirty-three percent female.”
“And they’re all in the same broth? All in Syltro A? You’re kidding!” O’Leary was visibly offended.
Heath fidgeted. “Yeah, they are, but of course they were segregated up to puberty.”
“You soak them in the same hormonal bath and now you want sex streams? And you call this a research outfit? You’ve got to separate them again and turn up the testosterone in one bath and the… Do you need me to get into hormonal differences, like male and female?”
“Look, O’Leary, this is a new type of contract for us, outside our bread and butter.” Heath was now sure he didn’t want to know what she would think about Tadao’s little whacks. He pursued a different tack: “OK, we put them back in male-versus-female hormonal broths. What other options do we have, even as a last resort?”
“Well, there’s always the perceptual inputs; maybe the heads haven’t gotten adequate stimuli. I’ve already complained to the stimulus squad that they’re not poking at the brains’ touch nuclei enough. Some probing like that could be relevant for generating erotic streams, don’t you think?” The corners of O’Leary’s lips curled upward ever so slightly.
“But the perceptual umbrella guys are so hard to get moving,” Heath said. “For them to come up with a new raw stimulus stream would take weeks, at least. We should get rid of the whole lot of fools and just feed in random satellite channel samplings. I know for a fact there’s not a single McChen cop film or Rhidonna number in the perceptual guys’ whole data hose.”
“I can’t stand either one,” O’Leary interjected before Heath rolled on.
“Any other ways we can shake the pot, stir things up?” he asked, trying to hold his gaze away from O’Leary’s curves. “We need some flashes of pizzazz out of these guys. And girls.”
“Male versus female...you could...I don’t know why we haven’t tried this before, at least I don’t think so, unless it was by mistake.” O’Leary leaned forward in her chair, her face pinched with intrigue; purple and orange braids draped over her radiation monitor badge. “Suppose we put some of the males in the female broth and, you know, vice versa, and then with a subset, switch them back and forth. How long for each exposure, that’s the question. You really need an endocrine guy for that. But wait: how much time before the glia lock up?” Now she was on the edge of her seat.
“Uh, six days, maybe seven,” Heath said ruefully, with a long exhalation.
“What? Six days? Whoa. You’re asking for a miracle. I’d say the only hope is the hormonal switching. Unless you can diggle some more time out of the client.”
“It’s a defense contract, for the troops who are way up there in orbit, and lonely.” Heath circled his hand above his head. “And you know what the financial penalties are with them.”
O’Leary rose from her chair. “You’ve got a hard nut to crack. Excuse me, but I’m late for a consult on a molecular brain scan series—a head that was pinned against the broth efflux grate. There was a lot of damage, but the guys in stream capture are going hog wild with the creative mess it’s spewing out. This single imagicon could make, I mean make, five contracts at once. But it’s gotta be quick. Once those glia lock up, I mean, adult phase…well, I don’t need to tell you. Good luck!”
It was now apparent to Heath that O’Leary would likely be the one assigned to assess the scans of Tadao’s little whacks, if he went ahead with that plan. It concerned him because she might not approve of it, but after a moment’s thought, Heath decided that O’Leary was, in the end, a team player.
“What’s up?” he said to Clarisse, his secretary, who had just come in and was frowning.
“Dr. Zelko has called three times from Field Seven. They still haven’t had a thought stream that shows promise. The capture thugs are complaining.”
“Tell him to turn up the touch nuclei probes and corresponding sensors. I’ll be down in a few minutes.” Heath sighed as he got out of his chair and pulled his white frock around to cover the erection O’Leary had given him.
Down at Field Seven, Heath gave Zelko the orders for his last-ditch plan: “Segregate the heads into multiple pools, infuse with switched male-female hormonal factors over five days. On days two, three, and four, position subset groups for randomly varied physical disruptions, recording all vector topologies of the blows, and press three heads from each subset against the efflux grate for periods of one, three, and seven hours, marking the affected cortical fields for subsequent scanning.”
Zelko liked intricate protocols, and all these commands made him grin, but for this recipe he said he’d need more technicians as well as a mechanical guy to position and operate the titanium hammers that would provide the whacks.
“Get ’em now, hombre,” Heath said, and Zelko grabbed his phone.
Norquist, the mechanical guy, was a little uneasy with his task the next day, and as he oriented the heads for their little whacks he said to the cameras mounted on the ceiling, “Do you think they know we’re here?” And he initially objected to being the one to hold the chosen few against the efflux grate, because of the accumulating radiation exposure to his hands as he manipulated the positioning rods while the scanners recorded coordinates. But in the end Norquist was promoted, because Heath got what he wanted, and more. They even captured several S&M and gender confusion streams that didn’t suit the contract but just might tempt the same client later, or lead to entirely new avenues of diversification.
In his exultation, Heath declared to Clarisse, “I am always astounded by the powers of the human mind.”
“You call those cabbage heads human?” Clarisse pressed her chest against Heath’s shoulder as she leaned over to see the video screen he was watching. “And besides,” she added, pointing at the screen, “I could have thought of that.”
A few months later, Norquist, the mechanical guy, received a rambling message from a laser specialist friend based on one of the far-orbital military stations. The laser friend had just downloaded a flick. “It was scary, man…the face was yours, man…your face on a woman with a body to die for. But what they did to her… Hey, dude, you OK down there?”
About the Author
Victor Robert Lee has lived and traveled extensively in East Asia, South America, and the former Soviet states—territories that serve as settings for his fiction. His current reporting from the Asia-Pacific region can be found in The Diplomat and elsewhere. He is the author of the literary espionage novel Performance Anomalies, described by The Japan Times as “a thoroughly original work of fiction.”