Electric Soul, Part I

Part IIPart IIIPart IV

(This is a neat bit of near future, science fiction. The entire thing is on the long side, so I have broken it up into three parts. A mere 5420 words to kick things off. Enjoy.)

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? -Mark 8:36

The Lab, 10:35am, Tuesday, June 24, 2087

Morgan looked at me with an expression bordering on shock.  I knew my appearance was lacking, I hadn’t been taking very good care of myself.  At least it wasn’t the dean, or the president of Regeneratix.  It had been raining and Morgan was soaking the entrance lobby, just looking at me as though I were someone else.

“I think you should get your coat and boots off, Morgan,” I said to him, ignoring the look.

“Yeah, good idea,” he responded, hanging his coat and shaking a boot off.

I brought him into my front office and offered him a chair.  I offered him a coffee when we had settled, which he declined; he looked vaguely uncomfortable.

“Mike,” he began, “there’s a lot going on.  I’m not sure where to start, but I figured you needed to hear it before things get ugly.”

Morgan was a really good guy, long time colleague, and about the only person I could kinda-sorta trust.  He actually worked with me in the early phases of the project.  I knew he meant well in coming by, only I had already figured out, or guessed, most of what he was going to tell me.

The university was after me for a few things, really.  They had partially funded the project and I had heavily borrowed some of the physical resources from the school.  Throw in the fact I hadn’t published anything in, well…forever, and you have an angry university.  If I didn’t produce results soon, my options would fall into publishing like a madman and taking a loan to repay the school, or loss of tenure; but the university was the least of my concerns, really.

Regeneratix was the major source of funding and they had already lost patience with me.  If I didn’t give them something to chew on, I would be in all kinds of trouble.  Mostly, they would sue me to death, which I could have lived with; the real problem was the potential for losing my research.  That would have been worse than anything else they could have done, and they were almost in a position to do it.

Another issue that had cropped up before all this was a collection of interest groups who entirely misunderstood the nature and intention of my work.  They wanted it shut down and banned.  Isn’t that nice?  Work that could revolutionise the human race, and they would put a stop to it.  The positive ramifications of success were enormous and it was beyond me why they were so adamantly opposed to it.  PureLife was what the media had dubbed them, and they embraced the title.  Some of the coalition had been on Regeneratix’s back for years over a variety of issues.  I was anxious for them to grow bored with me and move on.

“How bad can it be, Morgan?” I asked.  Morgan’s first name was Sam, but I hadn’t called him that since I first met him.  Seems everyone just calls him Morgan, and he likes it that way.

Morgan rubbed his temples for a second.  “It’s, uh, pretty bad.  I’m not sure where to start, really.  Maybe I’ll have that coffee, after all.  It’s still that same nasty tar you always brewed, right?”

I laughed.  I had forgotten that old machine and the terrible coffee it spat out.  How many cups of that crap did we drink setting up the lab?  Too many.

I got up to fire off a coffee.  “The old beast died about a year ago,” I said.  “I almost had it bronzed.  This new one actually makes reasonable stuff.  I forgot how you take your coffee.”

“Just some cream is fine,” Morgan said.  “Didn’t that old machine come from a second hand shop or something?”

“Nothing that glorious.  It was a yard sale.  I think I paid five dollars for it.”

“You sure got your money worth, even if the coffee was terrible.”

“Coffee is a luxury, no matter how bad it is,” I said to him.  “I hated having to replace the thing, but this new one works well.  It’s almost done, already.”  I slid a paper cup under the dispenser and it started pouring.  I would have joined him, except I was already three cups in and it wasn’t even noon.

“How is your work going, Morgan?  It seems like so long since we’ve properly talked.”

Morgan perked up a little bit.  This delay in his message delivery was helping him relax.  It occurred to me that Morgan, several years my junior, was not the young man I had worked with before.  He had aged gracefully, but he had aged, all the same.  It was a strange thing to notice, all of a sudden, but it struck me.  Where did the time go?

“It could be better,” he said.  “The lab results just haven’t been consistent enough for me to move forward yet.  I’ve refined a few things for the next set of tests.  I’m hopeful this will put me over the top and I can begin testing on human subjects.  I’m overdue to lecture and I haven’t taken a sabbatical since I was tenured.  If that bloody Chinese lab wasn’t right behind me, I might be able to relax.  I just can’t let them beat me to a solution.”

I set his coffee in front of him.  I was pretty sure Morgan was still working on the replication issue with synthetic nerve cells.  The synthetics were good, but didn’t regenerate or replicate, at all.  Early attempts to have them replicate went badly, often spawning cancerous, synthetic nerve cells.  If I remembered correctly, and I wasn’t sure I did, Morgan was three or four years into working out a solution.

“You must be pretty close, by now, so I wouldn’t worry too much,” I said, sitting down across from him again.  My front office was fairly tidy, other than vacuuming and dusting being overdue.  I kept nothing of importance there, except the coffee maker.  The walls were bare and I only kept a few dated magazines and journals around for general interest.  As I thought of it, I realised they were the original chairs and desk I had started with.

“Thanks for the coffee, Mike,” he said, taking an eager sip and smiling.  “Yep, much better than before.  And, no, I’m not too worried about that Chinese lab.  They started up after I did and a lot of their early results turned out to be, well…exaggerated.  They’ve been more cautious since then, but I still wouldn’t trust their science for a while.”

When he mentioned the Chinese lab and fudgy results, it came back to me.  It was a total embarrassment for the Chinese, in general, and the lab was a laughing stock for a long time.  Apparently, several other labs couldn’t repeat their published work and several international NGOs came close to pulling their recognition of that lab, altogether.  From what I had read, it seemed like they had published some questionable stuff prior to that final incident.

“Me either,” I reassured him, “and that’s my point.  That lab has a credibility issue that will take a million years to shake.  They have set the bar pretty high for themselves.  Nobody’s going to accept anything but perfect results from them.”

“Yeah, but I still can’t afford to let them close the gap, even if it’s bigger than I think.”  He paused and sipped his coffee again.  “I guess I should get back to why I’m here.”

“The university, Regeneratix, PureLife, and my strange conduct,” I interrupted, thinking it would set him up nicely.  “Is that it?  Unless there’s been a major change, I am aware of those troubles.”

“Just so you know, Mike,” Morgan said, looking tired and old again, “I’m not here in any official capacity.  No one sent me.  I really am here as a friend.  This place was the last major project I worked on before I was tenured, and I would hate to have it end badly.  That’s why I’m here.”

“Okay,” I told him.  “Go on, then.”

Morgan looked uncomfortable, but went on.  “I know you are aware of what’s going on, but I’m more worried about where you are at.  You look like hell, Mike.  I’m guessing you haven’t been sleeping much, lately.  You’ve missed practically all the university business for over two years.  When did you last use your office at the university, Mike?  It can’t have been in the last year.”

“I’ve been working out of this location for a while, they know that,” was all I could think to say.  It was essentially true.  The fact I had all but ignored the university for a year or more was definitely something they hadn’t expected.  My work had taken over, but it had to be that way.

“Mike,” he said, exasperation showing, “it’s not about the university or the department.  We don’t need another old sweater at an undergrad wine and cheese, and we sure as hell don’t need another opinion in our mindless department meetings.  That’s all a bunch of shit that goes on without you, anyway.  It’s about showing your face once in a while.  You got on well with the department guys, you always did.  If you showed up, maybe talked about your work, or even just asked about their work, the heat would be a little less.  Do you follow me yet?”

I followed him, but he didn’t understand the full extent of my situation.  There were things he didn’t know.  I didn’t have the heart to give him a canned response; he said he was coming on his own, and I trusted that much.

“Morgan, do you trust me?”

This caught him off guard.  He was probably expecting me to defend the importance of my work and the value to science, and crap like that.  I knew the whole trust thing opened a can of worms, but I had little to lose, and a funny feeling Morgan might have a place in my work again.

“Mike, why do I have the feeling there’s something funny going on here?” he finally uttered.

“Probably for the same reason that you just answered a question with a question,” was my response.  “Listen, Morgan, I know how things look from the outside.  The knives are freshly sharpened and pointing straight at me.  Whatever time I have left to work with is precious, and I can’t be hampered by external forces.”  I got up and started making myself a coffee, more for something to do than a desire for coffee.  “You want another one?”

“No, I’m fine, Mike.  Listen, if there’s more to this, just tell me.  Maybe I can help.”

I got the machine going and turned to him.  I ran my hand along my cheek and was suddenly conscious of a three or four day beard.  It was probably that long since I’d showered, too.  It occurred to me that Morgan might be a harder sell than I thought.

I started to laugh.  “Morgan, old buddy, I must look like a mad scientist, right now, but you are right.  When my work is finished, you’ll understand.  Perhaps you are the wakeup call I have needed for a while.”

“Now you’ve really lost me,” Morgan said blankly.

“I know.  I’m probably not giving a good account of myself, either.  Listen, what does your schedule look like over the next few months?  Do you have any spare time?”

“I’m not crammed at the moment,” he quickly replied, “but I think you need to understand something first.”

“If it’s a money thing, I can’t spare much, but I do have a small reserve,” I said, partly thinking out loud.  “I would probably just give you the lot, if you can spare the time.”

“It’s not that, Mike,” he said emphatically.  “There are some developments you don’t know about.  It’s partly why I came here.”

My coffee was ready, and I sipped at it before I sat down.  “Go on, then.”

“The university has probably sent you a ton of mail lately, so I won’t trouble you with the paper trail,” Morgan said, that aged look coming back.  “They are coming for the borrowed equipment.  They have approved plans for an advanced study wing and most of your big ticket equipment is involved, but they will take it all.  The wing is supposed to be ready by the start of the January term, which means they will need it in place by November, sometime.”

I was glad I had sat down before he told me.  The timing was brutal.  I had put years into my work, and was within a year of readiness for final testing.  It was late June, and I was faced with making it happen in four or five months.  This was not good.

“I could try for an extension,” I said, sounding more desperate than I intended, “even if it is a long shot.  They’ll be hard pressed to have a facility up and running even if they had the equipment now, so what loss would a few months be?”

“I was at the meeting last night, Mike,” Morgan explained.  “The move is pre-emptive.  The word is that Regeneratix is getting really close to pulling the plug on this place.  The department is worried the equipment will get tied up in the legal crap that follows.  If they can get it out early enough, it’s less likely to become lost.”

“There has to be a way around this,” I muttered.  “I’ve put too much time into it now.  The equipment isn’t even up to date, anymore.  I have made some modifications to keep it updated, but even the latest stuff is three or four years past its prime.”

Morgan leaned forward in his chair, speaking firmly now.  “There is a chance to salvage something from this, if you’re interested.”

“What do you mean?”

“Okay, right now you are in deep.  Something hasn’t been working out for you, and you think you’re close.  That’s great, but you have said that a few times too many, lately.  Whatever is happening is probably not worth publishing or you would have done that.  Sound about right, so far?”

“I’m still waiting for the salvage part,” I said, still coping with the foreseeable loss of my project.

“It’s coming, Mike, really.  The thing is this.  Right now, if you fight this equipment thing to the bitter end, and Regeneratix doesn’t see anything from you and so on, then you are finished.  You’ll be sued for everything you’re worth, probably lose, and odds are good you will have your tenure revoked.  If you’re really, really lucky you might be allowed to stay and lecture until you die, and how lucky would that be?  So here is the salvage bit.  A couple of the other profs, the dean and myself have a potential plan.  It’s nothing firm, just something that works for everyone, and the details would be a cinch.”

“I thought you were just here as my friend,” I cut in.  “Now you’re making an offer from the department.  What are you pulling here?”

“They don’t know I’m here, Mike, so don’t get the wrong idea about this.  I’m not actually making you the offer, it hasn’t been agreed to and the details are far from figured out.  What I’m saying is: you still have allies inside the university, and if you are cooperative there may be a way to come out of this with your career intact.”

“All right,” I said, finishing my coffee without tasting it.  “Approximately what does the preservation of my career look like in this unofficial, incomplete deal?”

“It looks like this.  You agree to hand over the equipment without making a fuss, no stalling or anything.  You help install it at the campus and start training staff and students for a few years, at least.  There’s no reason you might not be given some sort of formal position within that wing, God knows you have the experience.  The lab work and equipment contribution of the last million years would essentially be a write off for the school, but they can try to fluff it up.  Anyway, I’m sure you could cobble together something to publish from your years here.”

“And what about Regeneratix?” I asked, feeling a headache coming on.

“That is the tricky part,” Morgan said, “and it’s why nothing official has being proposed to you, yet.  The department wants you to accept full liability for that side of it.  Technically, their involvement is separate from Regeneratix and the equipment was only left in your care, not actually donated.  It would bankrupt you, but I can’t see the department going along with this, otherwise.”

This is where Morgan was in the dark.  He didn’t understand a couple of things, at least not properly.  The deal was fair enough, on the surface, even though it torpedoed years of work at the last moment.  I had stalled before, said I was close to something, sure, but now it was true.  The real problem was much deeper.  I had deliberately misrepresented my work to them and the university.  I might be able to fudge up my notes enough to con the department, however, Regeneratix would recognise that I had been doing my own thing, even if it was pure gold for them, anyway.  In addition to bankruptcy, I would probably face a few years of jail time, which would also end my tenure.  I would be lucky to get a job cleaning test tubes in a discredited Chinese lab, if I made it that far.  Wiggling out of so many tight spots had made me good at it; unfortunately, I had become so good I also knew when there was no wiggle room left.

“Not that I want to seem ungrateful,” my dry, old lecture voice began, “but what if I made one last counteroffer, something that would be legally ironclad?”

“It would have to be pretty amazing, Mike.  What would it be?”

“I’m not even sure I could pull it off, but let’s say I made a onetime contract with both the school and Regeneratix.  It would look like this: I would be given another year with the status quo, that’s my part.  The university would be guaranteed the equipment, after that, with no legal holds or leans from Regeneratix.  Regeneratix would be given first dibs on the results of the work.”

“Sounds pretty light,” Morgan said, sceptically.  “What if the work falls through?  The department might be happy with their equipment back but Regeneratix will want something more, I would guess.”

“At this point, if the work amounted to nothing, which it won’t, then I would walk away from the school and work for Regeneratix at a reduced rate.  It would never pay off their losses, but it would mitigate them.  They could play it to the investors as a continuance or something.”

“From the rumours and rumblings I heard at the meeting, you have run out of good will with the execs at Regeneratix, so the idea sounds pretty thin.  I just don’t think they trust you.  If you could produce a summary of your work, it might help…but even then.”

“Yeah, it’s thin.”  I wasn’t sure what else there was to say to that.  Regeneratix had all but cut me off.  I might have allies at the university, but I knew there were none left at Regeneratix.  I was in deep with them.

“Mike,” Morgan’s voice snapped me out of my sudden pensiveness, “are you okay?”

“I’ve been better,” I replied.  The bones of a plan started to form in my mind.  It was sudden and desperate, though full of potential.  “Morgan, when do you think they’ll actually come for the equipment, assuming they want it in place by mid-November?”

He sat back for a moment.  “Well, Mike, I would assume the actual move itself would take a few days, maybe a week at the most.  That would put the move in late October or early November.  What does it matter?”

“It matters a lot,” I returned quickly, thinking out loud again.  I could cram some of the work and get meaningful results, the rest would be risky.  “Morgan, what does your schedule look like in mid-October?”

“You’ve asked me about my schedule twice, now,” Morgan said, pulling out his phone and fumbling with it for a moment before looking up at me again.  “Right now, October could be better.  I can probably rearrange some things if I knew what you had in mind.”

I knew what I had in mind; I didn’t know how to approach him with it.  “I would need a couple of days from you, that’s it.  This is pretty sudden, so I don’t know which days yet, but I could confirm by Monday, if that’s okay?”

“Yeah, that would be fine, Mike,” the old-looking Morgan confirmed.  “You know they might come for the equipment early, right?  I was at the meeting, but the brass doesn’t always do what they say, so anything could happen.”

“I know, Morgan,” I sighed, “but leave that to me.”

#

The Office of the President of the University Of Toronto, 6:40pm, Wednesday, June 25, 2087

     The place hadn’t changed.  I was told they updated it slightly after the fire in ’26, but actually tried to keep the same look.  For as long as I had ever known it, the office was stuffy and boring.  Sitting across from me was the man himself, University of Toronto President Carl Jones.  Carl was a little guy, maybe 165 centimeters tall with a thin frame.  He was also into his eighties, though I couldn’t remember how far in.  He was something of a university hack, finally given his current position after years of service in various roles.  There was a rumour he actually didn’t want the position at the time, accepting it only because the next probable candidate was an idiot, and old Carl wouldn’t abide that.

     I met Carl shortly after I came to U of T.  It was unusual, but we shared an interest in older movies.  When the film study, or some other arts department, put on an older show I would try to make it out.  I was new at the school, and this gave me a chance to mix and enjoy a decent movie.  Carl wasn’t president at that time, of course, and I forget what his position was when I first met him.  We didn’t have much in common outside of the movie thing, but on that we really clicked.  So, two or three times per year, pretty much up until I started my project with Regeneratix, I would meet up with Carl and a few other profs and enjoy a movie, often chatting with them afterwards.  I had dealings with him after he became school president, mostly relating to the lab, and I’m sure my movie connection didn’t hurt.  Our relations in last few years had become strained as the lab work ran on without results; I had taken to avoiding contact as much as possible.  Carl sat in his usual, rigid way, gazing blankly at me.  He wore a grey sweater over a cheap collared shirt.  The little bit of white hair remaining on his head was kept short and functional.

Carl may have been more figurehead than proper executive, but he was reasonably bright and I had pushed things right to the edge.  It was going to be an awkward meeting with no room for fancy footwork.

The secretary had already left for the day, so I had let myself in.  Carl had been polite in seating me, but there was tension between us, I was sure of it.

“So, Michael,” he quietly began, clasping his hands together on the desk, “to what do I owe this honour?”

He’s opening with light sarcasm, I thought to myself, not a great start.  Don’t get me wrong, I had it coming.  Carl had been quite patient in the early weeks and months before I completely dodged everyone; and more, he had been slow to get after me, the proof being that I was still operating.  All that deserved a few jabs.  I just needed to keep things short and sweet, and get the hell out.  I had deliberately come late to avoid dealing with anyone else, and that had worked out well.  I even stopped by my office, which had been partly converted into storage space for office supplies and hard copies of miscellaneous files.  A year or so away will do that, I guess.  I did catch a few memos posted electronically regarding the new research wing Morgan had mentioned.  Seems they were moving fast on it, so I had to stay ahead.

“I am here to speak with you directly,” I said, trying to sound serious without being too formal.  I suddenly missed the casual nature of our film discussions.  “I have several things to work out and figured it would be easiest to do it in person.  I know I’ve been unavailable, maybe even evasive, but the work is very time intensive.”

“I’m not sure how sympathetic I am to your workload, Michael, but please continue,” Carl spoke quietly again.  He was very still, watching me very carefully.  I don’t know why it bothered me, but it did.

“Okay, here is the situation,” I said, leaning forward slightly.  “I noticed the plans for a new science wing and the type of work that will go on there.  I know that some, maybe all, of the equipment I’m using will be shifted over.  I’m not going to ask for that to be put off or anything.  All I need is to have the equipment until the end of October.  Everything I have worked on can be finished, by then.  That’s it.”

“I’m not quite sure what to say,” Carl sighed gently.

“Say yes.”

“That may be out of my hands, Michael,” Carl returned.  “You know that.”

“I know that.  I also know you have a lot of influence over what happens, even if you don’t have the final say.”  I wasn’t sure where this was going.  Part of me wanted to laugh at myself for even thinking this might go smoothly.

“Fair enough,” he almost laughed.  “Michael, you’ve changed.  You are not nearly the fellow I knew years back.  When this project of yours came into being, I was nearing my retirement.  I hadn’t the slightest notion I would become president, but here I am.  This project of yours has become troublesome, on several levels, and I’ve grown tired of the whole thing; including your antics.”

“Carl, listen–,” I tried to interrupt.

“No, Michael,” he shot out sternly, “enough.  I was not in charge when this lab was set up, and that’s fine.  I could care less about cutting another ribbon or smiling for another photo in front of the latest, greatest school building.  I am here to keep things moving along properly, and I intend to do just that.  I have stood back and let this lab of yours run its course, without interference, for a couple years more that it had a right to.  Now, this company you’ve taken funds from is upset about a lack of return, and who can blame them for that?”

Carl paused, adjusted his glasses slightly and continued.  “I’m not a science type, but I respect the sciences a great deal; and while this represents a relatively small commitment of university capital, I cannot be irresponsible.  I have been advised that most of the equipment in your care has as much as twenty years of meaningful use left.  That may not make this new wing a cutting edge lab, but it lays down a foundation that can be updated over time.”

“I’ve got no problem with that, Carl.  All I ask is that you let me wrap things up.  After that, I will help prep the equipment for transit and even set it up in the new wing.”  I knew what was coming.

“Normally, if any of this can be called normal, anymore, I would have no issue with granting you the additional time.”  Carl was starting to ice up, so the roadblock was about to be set.  “The concern, now, is that millions of dollars, even factoring depreciation, are tied up in a lab that might have legal action taken against it very soon.  This private company you’ve crawled in with seems to share my opinion that you’ve extended your work for too long without results.  I haven’t fully explored the legal side of this situation, Michael, but I know how it could go and I don’t care to have millions of dollars tied up in court for years on end.  That equipment has twenty years of potential value left, and I don’t care to squander it in legal limbo.  The earlier the equipment is back on university property, and out of your hands, the better.  The piper has played your tune, Michael, and you know what happens after that.”

That wasn’t so bad.  I knew the Regeneratix thing would be the major hurtle.

“That’s completely fair, Carl,” I quickly responded.  “I can see that I’ve stretched things out and done wrong.  I know what the equipment represents to the university and I won’t jeopardise it further, so hear me out.  If I can get you an assurance that Regeneratix will leave the equipment be, at least until November or so, will you leave it with me to wrap up my work?”

He squinted at me, just slightly and only for a second, and I knew I had him.  What else could he say?  The new wing probably wasn’t even cleared of whatever it was currently housing, so it would take a while to be readied.  If I took away the risk of losing the capital, what else did he have to lose?

“Michael,” he said, propping his chin up on his clasped hands, “can I ask you something personal, completely off record?”

“Sure, Carl.  What is it?”

“When this project is done, this biological computer thing, what are your plans after that?”  Carl changed his tone in the asking, but his edge was still there.

“It could go a few different ways,” I said.  “I could win a Nobel Prize, or I could end up broken and poor.  Right now, I’m rushing the completion of it all, but I will finish.”

“A Nobel Prize?” he seemed shocked.  “I thought we already had computers made with living tissues?  Are you sure you’re not dreaming a little too hard, Michael?”

“I don’t want to get technical, but the computers we’ve made to date are made with living tissues, but not from living tissues.  It really is a big difference.  And if I’m dreaming too hard, well, so be it.  A lot of science would never get done without someone dreaming.”  If Carl really knew the full extent of my work, he would have something else to dream about.

“What would be the problem with setting up your work in the new wing?” he asked me.  “Then it wouldn’t matter when you moved it here.  Odds are good that we won’t have it all ready for January, anyway.  Why not finish up here?”

That was a heck of an olive branch.  The complete, honest answer was more than I could afford to reveal, so I gave the incomplete, honest answer.  “Carl, the equipment is set up for my project and it would be a major setback if I had to suspend it, even for a few weeks.  It would erase a couple years of my effort, at least.  Even if I could reset it all, Carl, I would need exclusive access to the equipment.  That wouldn’t work in a research wing.”

“A pity,” Carl said, not quite sounding disappointed.  “I must be a fool, Michael, but I will do what I can to leave the equipment in your hands provided the university gets the appropriate legal assurances.”

“I appreciate the confidence,” I said, trying not to sound too happy.

“Don’t thank me,” he said, giving me that hard look again.  “If you don’t produce this time, it will be the end of your career, and there will be nothing I can do to prevent it.”

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