The basement lab is dark, and I’m squinting at the sentence fragments on my screen, trying to arrange them in a way that makes sense. I spend a lot of nights like this lately: sitting in the observation deck with my laptop open to my half-finished thesis and the lifeforms floating in the tanks around me.
Most of them are also unfinished. Even with growth hormones, it takes them a while to develop. The fully grown Lambda units are beautiful, with tight, bright skin like an idol’s. The light shining through the amniotic fluid turns their bodies gold.
The hum of the generators drowns out my yawn as I shut my laptop to check on them.
My thesis advisor is the one who recommended me for this position. I worked in a different lab in Chuuoku for an internship, so I already had basic clearance. They put me through the gauntlet for Lambda, though, a whole battery of questions. Had I travelled outside of the country recently (no, too busy with school), was I dating anyone (again, too busy), had I ever taken part in an anti-government demonstration (didn’t have time, are you noticing a pattern?). I have to pass through the outer wall and several checkpoints before each shift.
I shuffle over to the panel that displays their vital statistics, jotting down the temperature and heart rates on the clipboard hanging beside it. The girl who had her shift before me forgot to set the timer on the lights, but thankfully their circadian rhythms don’t seem to be too disrupted. I try not to hold it against her, which isn't easy for someone with my personality type. They’re still living beings, after all, and we’re being paid to look after their health.
Including me, there are around fifteen people working on the project. Ten of us are in the lab doing dev. Five are on a team specifically dedicated to behavior modification and conditioning. It’s probably a good thing, because I don’t think the same people who grow artificial lifeforms in a tube would be able to teach them how to behave.
I work most closely with Dr. _____ and several other assistants in Development. She is adamant we do not call them clones; it implies the existence of an original, a master copy. Although all of the units are genetically identical, the blueprint is unique. “They are singular lifeforms,” she tells us.
Must be lonely. At least they have each other-- or I assume as much. After they’re cleaned off and sent to Behavioral for conditioning, we don’t see them again.
A slice of light cuts across the floor as the door to Dr. _____’s office opens.
“_____-san, could you grab me a cup of coffee?” she says.
The door closes again.
“Are you hearing her?” I say aloud to the bodies. “I’m not an intern.”
I make a cup for myself, too, and then I go back to staring at my thesis instead of writing it.
As Lambda is classified, I’m not allowed to tell my parents what I do. One day after work I was watching TV with them when an ad came on, and I caught sight of the same cherubic face I spend hours staring at in the lab. He was promoting a drink brand or something. Without thinking, I made a noise and stood up.
“What’s wrong?” my mother asked.
“I-- I feel like I’ve seen him before.”
She looked puzzled. “Yes, he’s a singer. He does fashion too.”
Working on my thesis left me little time to pay attention to pop culture or division battles or whatever. I couldn’t tell my parents the boy dancing around on screen was an artificial lifeform, so I kept my mouth shut.
It was only later I learned it was the rogue unit-- something I’d heard my labmates discussing in hushed tones. Apparently the director was responsible for his placement as a celebrity, but at some point she lost control of him and now he was malfunctioning. I think Development blames Behavioral for the issue and vice versa. There’s no way to know if I was the one to wake him up because they all look exactly alike. Most of the lifeforms' activities after they leave our labs are even more classified, so we only hear rumors.
We have a name for the rogue unit: "Pinocchio." I know, it’s not great. In the lab’s defense, most of us haven’t taken a literature class since high school.
Dr. _____’s voice startles me out of my thoughts. She leans on the doorway of her office, coffee in one hand and phone in the other. “I just had a call from the director. She wants one of the older models taken out.”
“They’re not ready yet,” I say. It isn’t the first time this has happened, but I feel I have to make my half-hearted protest heard anyway.
“I know. They’re wasting my good work.” She glares at the tanks, chewing on her lower lip. “I’ll go down to Behavioral and tell them. You can start preparing it.”
I murmur my assent when she brushes past me.
The process of “birthing” the lifeforms takes around an hour, sometimes longer if there are complications. I choose one that’s been developing for several months and begin switching it over to manual support, delicate work that requires me to monitor the vitals at each step.
Physically, it looks close to my age. They're supposed to be encoded with personalities and other information before birth to speed up conditioning. Not really my area of expertise.
I drain the tank last. The unit stumbles when the glass wall retracts, but I manage to reach it before it hits the floor, folding it into a towel. Their muscles are weak at first. I always wipe them down, thinking of how my parents used to do the same for me after a bath.
The unit leans on my shoulder, shivering, hair sticking to its forehead. This one seems small.
“Your name is Ramuda,” I tell him, as I tell all of them.
After they leave the tank, their lungs are still filled with fluid. The first breath sounds like a gasp.
"That wasn't so hard, was it?" I slide my arms under his to help him find his balance. “Here. You can call me Onee-san.”