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A Selection of Tissues

by Kelly Lagor

3922 words
Listen to this story, narrated by the author

The idea came to me late one afternoon as I pondered the naked cardboard at the heart of my last roll of toilet paper. Delivery would involve an unacceptable delay, and the thought of exposing myself to the outside world, for something as simple as toilet paper, filled me with a dread resolve. In an inspired state, I thoroughly washed and disinfected my hands as I asked HUD for some quick reading to osmose the general principles required, then skimmed the results as I relocated a healthy stack of scavenged takeout napkins from the kitchen to the bathroom.

The raw organic materials were quite easy to come by. I gathered more than enough from the vacuum’s waste bin after collecting the dust that had gathered upon every surface in the lab vacated by Mother last year when, after a particularly severe pique of ennui, she decided her private experiments, conducted at home since my infancy, were sufficiently advanced enough for her to at last found her dream biofab company on a different coast; and the dust caked on the vast collection of books in Father’s study, abandoned alongside HUD, the underdeveloped AI he’d been developing and publishing incomprehensible papers on for years, after he followed Mother, as he always would; and the dust from my own neglected rooms, collected in a year’s worth of unwashed cups, moldering takeout containers bought with the ample funds in the Trust my parents established for when I had reached my age of majority shortly before they’d left; and the dust upon the heaps of unwashed clothing. It pleased me to no end to have found a proper use for this waste, which had admittedly accumulated to an embarrassing degree. I ran my clean fingers along the now pristine apparatus shelves in Mother’s lab as I let the biomass parser separate the organic from the inorganic.

Squames, HUD informed me, made up an adequate portion of the collected material. Packed full of protective keratin and coated in a layer of water-proof lipids, they had begun their lives perfectly alive before being alienated from their home in the basal layer of an epidermis. As they were starved of vital oxygen, they became something quite unrecognizable to the stem cells that begat them, squashed thin and discarded, unnoticed. Despite their increasingly unfeeling nature, they still had a purpose: to protect the fragile tissue within. I felt a satisfaction in restoring to a kind of half-life these faithful cells, that they might know purpose once again.

I directed the organic components into the duplicator, then into the largest of Mother’s molding-field chambers, just as I had observed Mother to have done countless times. I was periodically checking the organic lines, as she had, and keeping a keen eye that the control nanites were sufficiently incorporated, when I felt something tickle my foot. Looking down, it was an ant! In my hermetically sealed haven! I squashed it violently with my other foot, then fell to my knees, eyes scanning the cold white tile for movement. A cheerful ding interrupted my vigilance to announce the completion of the molding. Muttering, I stood, warily scanning the floor as I opened the chamber.

I am not sure what I had been expecting to find laying upon the chamber’s slab, truth be told. Something that looked like me, at least, based on the input values I had inferred from principles gleaned from Mother’s notes. It was gray. As gray as the dust it had been born from, and oddly transparent, like a fingernail molded to have my shape, with translucent fingernail-gray eyes staring out beneath unblinking lids. I ran a quick diagnostic on the simplified version of HUD I had installed in its nanites, then commanded it to stand, which I was relieved it did promptly. It was precisely my height and build, and perhaps dressed in a long coat and scarf, it might go unremarked on its trip to the store. However, as I described to my creation how to walk there, I realized the store had closed hours before, so I ushered it back into the chamber for the night.

I returned to my lab in the morning, and when I raised the chamber lid, the most horrid smell issued forth. I sealed the chamber and began the compound recycling program, cursing my stupidity.

Of course, squames weren’t the only organic contents of dust. HUD had neglected to mention the also uncountable masses of bacteria, fungi, and mites that happily made an overnight meal of my creation. I stared at the chamber for a long while, disgusted with myself, then placed a delivery order for some industrial grade disinfectants and ant traps, but not toilet paper.

It was now the principle of the thing.

• • •

The problem, I realized as I sat down at Mother’s lab bench, now sweetly perfumed by drying disinfectants, was one of living. Of course, dead things are helped in their long slide into nothingness by such eager microscopic creatures. Those beings would always have a more intimate relationship with the molecular building blocks of life than I ever could. What I needed instead was something made from living tissue. Something that could not only protect, but also defend itself.

The patch of my arm beneath the sterile bandage still faintly stung where HUD had taken the epidermal sample. As the cultures auto-propagated, I constructed a polymer shell over a light metal frame onto which a complete nanite-infused epidermis would be grafted. An epidermis, HUD had informed me this morning during what it had called, “coffee and quality time,” consisted of more than just keratinocytes. There were also melanocytes, which protected keratinocytes from the sun; mechanoreceptor cells that sensed the environment; and immune cells to provide the defensive response necessary to repel microbial interlopers. I was grateful to HUD for deconvoluting Father’s notes so that I could now augment its knowledge stores. An updated, and very grateful, HUD had even supplied me with information on how to speed up the mitotic divisions to enable more rapid growth. As the morning stretched into afternoon, I became so convinced of my success that I was feeling quite pleased with myself, and when the chamber dinged, I eagerly opened its lid to behold my new creation.

My new completely bald creation.

After a long moment, HUD informed me that if I had wanted it to have hair, I should have also given it a dermis, at which point I told it to shut up.

Sighing, I bade my creation stand, then investigated its epidermis by running a hand over its upper arm. The skin was a disconcerting room temperature and perfectly smooth, with an unfortunate grayish tinge from the polymer beneath. I scratched gently with my fingernail, which tore the layer, revealed to be no thicker than a sheet of paper.

Still, when faced with the diminishing stack of take-out napkins, it would have to do.

I dressed it in a freshly laundered shirt and jeans, taped sunglasses to its earless head to cover its matte grey eyes, then pulled a beanie over its naked scalp. It didn’t look too odd, so long as you didn’t look too closely. After that, I told it how to get to the store, where to find the toilet paper, then shoved money in its hand and cycled the front door airlock Mother had installed when I had been a tween, along with the HEPA-filtered ventilation system to prevent contamination of her precious experiments. As the airlock hissed, I closed my eyes and pressed my hands to my ears so that I would not have to watch my creation as it left me.

Then I waited, busily. In the lab, I alphabetized the notebooks from which I had learned Mother’s craft. In the study, I had HUD ingest books on adaptive database construction and creative thinking, so it might better anticipate my scientific needs.

What returned from the store was not what had left.

Limp peeling ribbons of skin hung from its arms and face, revealing patches of grey beneath. What skin remained intact was covered in red splotches and sores that would have wept if it’d had a lymphatic system, my HUD delightedly informed me. The beanie and glasses were gone, and part of its head had been caved in. What had happened to it?

Worse yet, it had come back empty handed.

• • •

Of course, cells require a steady supply of oxygen and energy to live, and I had sent my own matter into the world to suffocate and starve, making me no better than my parents. The microbes and the macrobes of the world had sensed its weakness and attacked, with me to blame for its demise. I was resolved to not fail my creature, and myself, again. I knew the next step would be to make my creature sensate. For that it would need a dermis.

HUD eagerly informed me that the dermis gave skin its elasticity, contained hair follicles and nerves through which the mechanosensory cells transmitted heat and touch information, and blood vessels to keep the skin fed, which I reminded HUD it could have mentioned sooner. As HUD prattled on about sweat and sebum glands, I scratched at the fresh bandage on my chin and suppressed a yawn, having missed Coffee and Quality Time that morning to better ration the remaining napkins. An annoyed HUD had become quite inappropriately gleeful, as it gathered the requisite samples from different parts of my body, and by the time it had finished, I had nearly convinced myself I enjoyed the sharp kiss of antiseptic.

Meanwhile, I busied myself with improvements to the frame. Into its chest, I built a bellows and pump to circulate the oxygenated fluids (dyed a healthy pink) around a new outer layer, which was covered by a membrane to which the blood vessels could attach. For energy, I added a diffusor compartment into its belly and ran a pipe to the mouth opening in the frame’s head for nutrient solution intake, and a wash compartment in the rear into which non-recyclable metabolites could be gathered. Finally, I programmed and installed a haptic feedback computer into its head and ran fine cables throughout the frame onto which the mechanosensory cells would attach, which would allow my creature to sense and react to its surroundings.

I passed the time waiting for the molding chamber to finish by feeding HUD chapters from books I found in the study on morality, etiquette, and emotional intelligence, when I noticed something moving on the floor on the far side of the lab.

Ants! A parade of them began somewhere near the lab bench, and their procession led straight into my organic storage tanks! I retrieved the cleaning spray and towel and committed a joyless genocide, after which I cleaned out the ductwork of my tanks, finding a small leak, which I closed with sealing foam. I followed the remaining frantic ants back to a small hole where the bench met the wall, then sealed that as well. I threw the soiled towel into the recycler, washed my hands so thoroughly the skin on my knuckles bled, then sat on the floor, slowly breathing in the musty smell of sodium hypochlorite, determinedly not thinking about the writhing invaders in the walls.

Relief came with a ding, and what I found inside brought tears to my eyes that had little to do with the bleach fumes.

Its skin was fresh and pink-looking, covered in hair ranging from fine to coarse in all the places a body should have hair, including a short mop on its scalp identical to my own that came down around the ears, I had molded myself by hand. I pressed my own ear to its cool chest to hear the steady hum of its bellows-pump whirring. I grabbed a bottle and poured essential micro- and macronutrient soup into its mouth, then gently pressed a fingernail into the skin of its upper arm. It stretched, then sprung back, the fluid layer beneath it giving gently. The skin was still relatively thin, but its elasticity delighted me. Even the fingers and toes had fingerprints, albeit different ones from my own.

I ruffled its hair once with joy then handed over a fresh pair of pants, a button-down shirt, and a pair of sunglasses to hide the two cameras I had fixed into its eye-sockets.

I ushered it out through the airlock, money in hand, this time peeking between my fingers enough to see through the inner airlock’s portal the brilliant sunshine that poured from a cloudless sky onto a tangle of gray and green before the door slammed shut and the airlock cycled. If it didn’t come back with toilet paper this time, I swore to myself, I would eat my lab coat.

While I waited, I scoured the baseboards of my rooms, the lab, the study, spray bottle at the ready, surveilling for more crawling insects, but found none, so I sat down with a cup of bitter, reheated coffee in the study, which I had to admit, had become a more welcoming place now that the dust had been cleared away, and waited.

The sound of the airlock got me to my feet, and with an increasingly overwhelming sense of coffee-inspired urgency, I rushed to the airlock to greet my creature, who stood, soaking wet, in the foyer, its skin covered in leaking sores.

In its hands it carried a single roll of soggy pink toilet paper.

• • •

After a long, hot shower, I almost couldn’t bear to watch the recordings. Shortly after my parents had left, I had contracted a seasonal virus after venturing out to find food, and subsequently found myself in desperate need of soup and facial tissues. At the time, I still saw Father’s teachings about how one must never count on anyone but oneself as being overly cynical, but between the extreme rudeness of the store clerks when I demanded they fetch the groceries for me, and the screaming match with a mother and her toddler over the last box of aloe-infused tissues despite my demonstrably greater need, I had returned home empty-handed, and understood that my father had been right. Combined with the lesson I had long before internalized from Mother that a true Scientist always stands by their convictions no matter what, I resolved to so stand by mine.

Yet, I needed to know where I had gone wrong. After all, a true Scientist must also always make decisions based on all available facts. HUD unhelpfully pointed out that, so far, I had not been using such an approach, and thanks to my recent attentions to its programming, it could make some suggestions about where I could improve myself, but I told it, in no uncertain terms, exactly where it could shove its self-improvement.

HUD peevishly fed the recording of my creature’s trip into an ocular headset, and I sat at the lab bench and watched, helpless, as my creature walked with a steady determined pace into a sky so blue and a world so green that I had not remembered could be so beautiful. The courtyard had long overgrown with a choking tangle of weeds, grass, overgrown bushes, and climbing vines that covered the sweating stone walls. The iron gate had rusted and shed desiccated black paint flecks at my creature’s touch, revealing a rich reddish orange beneath. All were colors with no place inside this home, and I experienced an ache I had not known in some time. Though my creation lacked the proper sensory equipment, I swear I could smell all that green around me.

Beyond was a shady tree-lined street of tidy-looking brownstones, busy with traffic, foot and otherwise, all partaking in the commerce of living, which my creature navigated with a confidence I envied as it passed people who barely acknowledged it. The day was beautiful and clear, and so I leaned back in Father’s chair and watched the clouds in the sky for some time, until I realized we had arrived at the grocers. As my creature entered, I tensed, but the greeter gave it no more than a faltering smile. Nor did the young man it pushed past utter more than a single loud complaint. Then, once again, it elicited only a vocal protest when it knocked over the shopping cart of an elderly woman lost in thought at the paper towels. When my creature reached the toilet paper, it grabbed one single roll, and I made a mental note to give it more explicit instructions next time to get a jumbo pack instead.

By the time my creature reached the check-out aisle, people were recoiling, pointing, pulling away. The reason became clear as my creature passed to the front of a check-out lane and held out the money in a suppurating hand. The clerk hastily indicated to leave it on the counter, which it did. It returned home with the same purposeful stride.

I switched off the feed and stared at my deflated and dripping creature. No one had been responsible for the injury to my creature. There was only one explanation: the corruption must have come from within the lab.

• • •

After heavily considering the integrity of my organic stocks, I cut around the sealing foam and widened the hole in the drywall beside the lab bench. With a gloved and sterilized hand, I retrieved several desperate clinging insects and fed them into my genome analyzer. The results confirmed that the microbial species that inhabited them were different from the species I’d found in the ulcers and rashes on my creation. Trembling, I then swabbed every wound on my own skin, to discover, with no small amount of horror, that they belonged to me, absolutely, except in my creature they were in an imbalanced and pathogenic state.

I wailed, I beat my fists on the cold tiles, I scattered Mother’s notebooks to the floor, de-shelved every book in Father’s study. How could something that had come from myself become so deranged?

HUD assured me I was thinking about things all wrong. It wasn’t derangement. It was naiveté. It told me that even though we cannot see them, microbial communities are an integral part of us, and that we give them food and shelter in exchange for their protection against pathogens, and at that point I had told it to shut up, but it was already well beyond the point of heeding me if it didn’t want to. It explained that I, like the skin on my creature, made for a poor home environment, indeed, and that we both needed to grow up and stop terrorizing the poor people at the grocers.

I hated that HUD was right, but it was, of course, right. This meant I needed to create an environment in which my creature and my microbial biome could coexist in the same non-pathogenic way that it existed on me. For that, it would need oil and sweat to feed them, and warmth to nurture them.

After once again recycling the organic material from my creature and tossing all my hyper-stringent cleaning products into my molecular recyclers, I set about the work of adding a module to the frame’s nerve processor to maintain a constant body heat through the use of sweat. HUD soberly extracted tissue from my adrenal and reproductive organs to supply the hormones necessary for sebum production. For improved padding and insulation in the skin layer, and to help prevent leakage, I had HUD take samples of my fatty, hypodermal tissue. The final touch was a pair of glossy, realistic lenses for the cameras that resembled my own eyes.

Waiting for my creature’s completion, I absently rubbed at a wound on my abdomen, feeling a deep ache I knew had nothing to do with the biopsy. An occasional ant would emerge from the hole in the wall to explore the scattered papers on the tile floor. I envied its fearless, steady paces.

At the ding, I lifted the lid of the chamber, startled to see my creature’s eyes looking into my own. After having it stand, I fed it soup then stood back to regard it. This version looked more youthful, thanks to the fat layer beneath its skin. I ran a finger along its upper arm and saw the fine hairs horripilate.

I removed my lab coat, my shirt, my pants, my underwear, and I wrapped its arms around me and my arms around it.

We stayed like that for a long time.

To transfer my skin microbiome, of course.

Any motivations beyond that wouldn’t be scientific.

When I let go, small pustules began to erupt on its glistening face. I touched a finger to its forehead. It came away oily. A ripe smell emanated from its armpits. When I pressed a hand to its chest, I could feel its pump fluttering at an elevated rate.

I pressed a hand to my own chest and was surprised to find a similar cadence there. Its eyes turned to meet mine once more as a bead of sweat worked down from its hairline to its cheekbone, to its chin.

I hesitated, then took one of its hands in my own, feeling strangely lightheaded as I did so, horripilation raising on my own arms.

“It’s okay,” I found myself saying. “I’m not going anywhere.”

• • •

Of course, it took time to equilibrate the hormonal and thermoregulatory programs, but in time the pimples cleared up and a calmer demeanor prevailed. We passed our time together in our lab as I taught it how to assist me in my experimentations. It helped me move Mother’s and Father’s notebooks and books into the attic to make room for our own notebooks and books. We even cut a larger hole in the lab wall, then fit it with sheet of plexiglass so I could sit and ponder over the ants’ industry whenever I so chose. My current task was to work out how I might impart my creation with the ability to speak without using so crude an affect as a speaker. I wanted to be able to tell it how much I appreciated it, and it to be able to respond that it understood me and appreciated me too. Meanwhile, though it is too impossibly complex a task to ever give my creature a sense of smell, I hope my attempts to make us homemade soup with ingredients delivered from the grocer, is how I can show it how much I care.

One morning as we practiced our daily Coffee and Quality Time, HUD, finally recovered from a most profound pout, did remind me that my creature had still not successfully purchased any useable toilet paper from the store. I reminded it of the bidet we’d installed, which had quickly minimized the need for any toilet paper, but it firmly pressed the point that without successfully acquiring toilet paper by physically going to the store, this entire experiment was a failure.

I acknowledged that HUD had a point.

It was a beautiful day out, clear and calm, and the people on the streets seemed to be in an especially cheerful mood as they smiled and nodded; as was the greeter at the grocers, and even the check-out clerk as they scanned the single roll of double-ply toilet paper. On the walk home, I enjoyed how the soft breeze carried with it the strong green smell of grass.

Kelly Lagor is a scientist by day and a writer by night. She mostly writes science fiction and essays about science fiction, and her work has appeared in places like Tor.com, Uncanny, Locus, and Analog, among others. She lives in San Diego with an assortment of plants and musical instruments, and you can follow her at kellylagor.com or @klagor on twitter for publishing announcements and other assorted ephemera.

Issue 34

December 2021

3LBE 34

Front & Back cover art by Rew X