Still Life with Silicon
rating: +14+x

There is a peculiar sort of hot and dry here in the summer in north-central New Mexico, the kind that bakes lungs with every inhale and expels a bit of the soul with every exhale. At this elevation, every nose tends to bleeding, every pore tends to withering, every eye to stinging, tears fizzled away by the natural processes of pressure, heat, and relative humidity. The whole basin here, nestled in the western embrace of the Sandias, is a sun-drenched testament to the will of humanity to cling, white-knuckled, to any stone or sandbar in the current of the entropy of the universe upon which it can gain any purchase whatsoever, and replicate, and in its fashion thrive and create and make things it calls beauty and love. Looking down from the mountains, Albuquerque seems to have washed ashore as a seed on the banks of the Rio Grande and stuck fast there and grown, creeping its roots outward, ever outward into the dust — the pounded-small stones of the mountains, ground down by the wind, whatever scant rain or ice divine providence has seen fit to bestow upon them, and one another. It is sometimes called a "semi-desert," this place, in the same way that a person standing atop a cliff and letting a rival, hanging from slipping fingertips, plummet through the vacant, whirling air screaming and howling to a fulminant, shattering death far below, without reaching out, even for one moment, to grasp a begging, pleading hand, is a "semi-murderer."

It is here where humankind, 150 miles to the south, first tore asunder the atom, cracking it as wide open as possible to lick clean the delicious, rich, blossoming, velvet death inside. It is here where humankind, in the intervening decades, created the largest nuclear power station ever built, a festering, fuming heptagram of domes and steam vents and underground bunkers called the ABQ Basin Massive Energy Center, ripping the glowing guts from the Earth and sacrificing them on seven sterile altars to whatever malevolent gods of energy demand such a tax of blood and stone. It is here where humankind, emboldened and empowered quite literally by its pretended mastery of the bonds of the atom, mainlined throughput directly from the Massive Energy Center itself and built the finest and most precise machining, construction, and computing facility in the known universe, the details of the inner workings of which would bring jealousy and confusion in equal measure to alien observers, if such a thing were to exist in our arm of the galaxy.

This place — the MESS Titan Assembly Lab — constructs cybernetic kaiju, humanity's most brilliant technological achievements, and it is here that you earn your keep.

Oh, you, twenty-four years young. You, the optimist, the idealist. You, the prodigy of the biomechanics department at the Combined University of the Southwest. You graduate at 17 and are immediately tracked into titancraft. The world is insatiably, ravenously hungry for the kaiju, which means the world is insatiably, ravenously hungry for people like you. Brilliant people, with creative minds, and with the knowledge and skills to bring their dreams into beautiful, deadly reality.

Immediately upon receiving your diploma, you're snatched up by the same megacorp who ran the university you attended, paid for your schooling, and fast-tracked your graduation — Macro-Engineering System Specialists, typically called MESS. The bland, almost self-effacing nickname serves to whitewash one of the most ruthless corporate entities on the planet. In one notable instance, MESS is rumored to have physically relocated a competitor's main offices overnight through the use of titans, then eliminated them by leveraging third-party proxy contract disputes tied to newly operating from an improperly-disclosed tax jurisdiction. The employees from that company with the best numbers had been subsumed into MESS; the comparatively creamless of the crop were left homeless and destitute, discarded as mere relics and remnants of a disgraced company which had reneged on its financial obligations to investors.

MESS holds a monopolistic stranglehold on the creation of titans in Albuquerque, which is functionally the city's only industry of note aside from nuclear power, and though they have been atrocious to many in the Basin, they have been very, very good to you. You are an attending engineer for only a year — less than half the typical length of time — before being promoted to full engineer. It's six months on that job, fine-tuning the servomotors on the THRESHOLD agriculture titan to achieve a 2.2% increased sweep radius on the harvesting arm, that leads to your promotion to Project Manager. It takes a lot for fully-cybernetic kaiju to square the financial circle of cost-effectiveness over biological models for agriculture, and it turns out that 2.2% is a surprising amount of the gap. In your two years of overseeing the THRESHOLD-A prototype team, sales of the flagship model balloon 16% year-over-year, and despite the accident that happens during this time, it's clear to upper management that you're something special.

Ah, the accident. A small thing in the grand scheme.

It was a Thursday, you remember. It's funny how the little details like that sear into the folds of the brain, as indelible as a red-hot iron brand. You had come in early to work with the morning engineering team on one of the persistent, nagging problems with the prototype THRESHOLD-A. The team was in Test Bay Four, a cavernous, white-walled sterile laboratory large enough to house several titans at once. THRESHOLD-A was towering over you, six meters high, inactivated while the team bustled about its lowered support arm. The kaiju looked for all the world like a monstrous, steel and copper fiddler crab, four legs supporting the massive saucer-shaped load basket and control assembly, with the frontmost leg adapted into a five-meter-long thresher arm. The harvesting mechanism on the thresher could be swapped at will — it could be a combine harvester for wheat or soybeans, a corn harvester, or an over-the-row harvester for berries. The THRESHOLD-A was even fully waterproof for use in cranberry bogs and rice paddies. Though the arm was called "thresher," it had even more functions than harvest: digging trenches, aerating topsoil, sowing fields, and more were all within its capabilities.

To balance the thresher arm, the model featured a smaller, stubby support arm in front, which extended outward and down to the ground to leverage great sweeps of the harvesting arm. It was this support arm that was giving the team hell — you were repeatedly balancing and rebalancing the titan so that it would stop needing to overcorrect for the weight of the harvesting arm and bringing the support arm down too hard, which could damage fields and shake loose joints and anchors on the THRESHOLD unit itself. The morning engineering team was sixteen individuals, including you as project supervisor. The four least-experienced engineers were tightening the bolts that held the support arm housing to the body of the titan when it happened. Somehow, the thresher arm had come slightly loose on its servomount, and it swung outward in a huge arc. You remember the breeze as the air that it displaced tousled your hair under your hard hat and ruffled your lab coat. As the monstrous arm tore through the air above your head, the kaiju reactivated momentarily to prevent collapse in accordance with its cost- and damage-avoidance protocols, and the support arm lifted and came down with eight tons of force.

Two of the four junior engineers were thrown clear on their hydraulic platforms. The other two were knocked under the support arm as it lowered in the blink of an eye. As the kaiju re-engaged its thresher arm to rebalance, it lifted the support arm from the floor to reposition.

Nothing underneath was recognizable as anything other than a smear of blood and gore. They had each been twenty-two.

Your direct supervisor replied to your incident report with a question: was the prototype damaged? When you confirmed that the THRESHOLD-A was unharmed, his reply message was simple: "Next time, don't bother me with human resource reports."

But you, like so many others in the field, have bigger dreams than agriculture. You have your sights set on the big money — the design and manufacture of entertainment kaiju. As the pinnacle of both sport and spectacle, the massive battling creatures are a multitrillion-dollar industry, their performances collecting cities' worth of capital and their manufacture powering entire economies.

Just four years after the ink is dry on your first contract at MESS, you get your opportunity.

The THRESHOLD-A moves from prototype status to full production just a few months after the accident. Recalibrated and with enhanced programming, it takes the world of agriculture by storm. Rather than needing to purchase a purpose-grown organic kaiju for each farming task, the THRESHOLD-A is a one-stop shop for every step of the process from barren field to autumn harvest. The cybernetic kaiju has other advantages over biological models as well — it is more efficient, less distractible, and less dangerous to human elements in the labor chain. The breathless headlines run the gamut from the sensationalist ("MESS's 'Perfect Robot' Proves Thresh is More") to the demonstrably, flagrantly untrue ("MESS on the THRESHOLD of a Post-Hunger World"), and with each one your reputation at the company burgeons further.


This is your big break.

Eight more months in Entertainment, Structure and Assembly. Driving bolts. Welding seams. All you see is parts of titans shuffled in and out of your engineering lab, until every living and mobile thing in your real, actual life is just parts to you as well. Birds reduced to arcing, rotating wings and snapping beaks. You watch a video of a cockroach in slow motion and you're struck with how the front legs drag the body and the rear legs push to shove the creature forward. The people in your life, distilled into articulated joints and gnashing jaws, wagging tongues, and slick, slipping eyeballs.

But you're good at what you do, and the parts you build and refine work better and harder and smarter than they did before you improve them. You're so good that you climb the ranks of Entertainment just like you did Agriculture. It isn't long before you're signing paperwork to grant you access to MESS's most covetously guarded proprietary construction secrets. First, it's the HFSMA — the Hyper-Flexible ServoMotor Assembly, allowing for much more realistic and flexible motion in battle-kaiju joints and limbs. Then, it's the Structural Nano-Mesh, reinforcing the bodies of the kaiju with intricately-woven carbon nanotubes that additionally serve as sensory conduits, providing real-time haptic and proprioceptic feedback to the cybernetic minds of the titans.

In order to fine-tune your understanding of how those minds work, you submit a request to the Computing Core Laboratory for a tour, so you can see how MESS's cybernetic brains are created. Only a handful of people in the world have ever seen the inside of the Core Lab, much less the process of creating the computing cores themselves, so you're sure it's a fool's errand, but your curiosity overcomes your pessimism and you decide to try.

Your first request is swiftly and immediately denied, almost certainly by an automated process.

Your second request, two months later, is denied as well, but this time it takes a few days.

Two months after that, your third request is approved.

"First time down here?" a man in a crisp lab coat says to you on the elevator to the CCL. He's surrounded by three heavily-armed security personnel, each of which is cybernetically augmented, and each of which is at least six inches taller than he is.

You nod. Your heartbeat is threatening to burst out of your throat, and your hands are slick with sweat as the elevator descends deep into the guts of the Assembly Lab.

"I thought so. I know you're not CCL, and you seem too fresh for any of the other lower labs," the man says. He must be in his fifties, with greying hair and glasses — actual eyeglasses! — framing his slate-grey eyes. He holds out his hand for a shake, and you oblige, despite the mortification you feel at your nervous sweating. For whatever it's worth, he doesn't bat an eye at the dampness of your palm. You notice his hands are smooth and soft. "Pleasure to meet you. I'm Byron Adams. I'm one of the directors down in the Core Lab." Of course you have heard of him — Byron Adams is one of the foremost names in cybernetics.

"It's an honor," you manage to choke out between the dry and crackling kindling your vocal cords have suddenly become. Again, however, the man seems unfazed by your nerves.

"I think I saw the memo about you visiting today. Down here from Structure and Assembly, right? You must really be doing something right up there," Director Adams says. "You're in luck. We have a core in that's about 25% complete, so we're working on stimulus mapping today. It's probably the most interesting part of the whole process."

You clear your throat before replying. "I can't wait to see it, Director Adams," you say.

The elevator doors open and Director Adams leads you down a nondescript hallway. It's a straight shot from the elevator to the Core Lab. You're surprised at how normal, even boring, everything seems down here. The floor of the hallway is linoleum tile, and the walls are painted an unobtrusive beige. The doors to the Core Lab, however, are steel with bright red enamel and the block letters "CCL" stenciled on them in yellow, and they are flanked by two more huge, cybernetically-enhanced armed guards.

"Here we are," Director Adams says, and he presses a thumbprint scanner, inputs a code into a touchpad, and undergoes a retinal scan, after which the doors finally open.

The inside of the CCL is dimly lit, to allow for greater clarity on the vast array of high-definition screens and holographic projections that make up its informational output. The doors close behind you, and your eyes take a moment to adjust. Half a dozen engineers are sitting at displays or working at readouts, carefully monitoring them for information. Director Adams takes a seat at a massive console abutting a cylindrical glass tank. The tank itself is close to ten meters in diameter. He motions you over, and you gladly oblige, unsure where to begin to decipher what you're seeing.

Fortunately, he seems to be interested in explaining. "Look here," he says, pointing up at the tank. Suspended in a clear fluid, and surrounded by dozens of mechanical arms of varying shapes and sizes, is a six-meter-long brain. You dig back into your memory for information on the brain from your neuroanatomy classes at CUS. Despite its size, the shape of the brain is remarkably similar to a human brain — though elongated, and with a relatively less-developed frontal lobe. "This is Decimator's brain."

You barely manage to swallow a sound of surprise. Decimator had recently been retired from the South Australia circuit — it was the most successful biomaterial deathmatch kaiju of all time, winning fourteen championships straight before finally being defeated in a famously Pyrrhic victory by the Lightning Langoustine the previous July. You are certain that this brain represents the largest single accumulation of biological material in the entire facility. "You're kidding," you say, stunned.

Adams lets out a soft laugh. "No, not kidding at all," he says, "and what a victory it was when we managed this purchase. I'll spare you the details, but this brain represents the biggest investment MESS has ever made." He gestures to one of the displays on the console. "This is the readout for the Core Stamping Device. Essentially, the way this works is, we directly one-to-one map the structure of the biological brain through scans, and the Core Stamping Device assembles and programs the brain from the map we create in a single step, in real time." The display shows a series of mechanical arms soldering and sparking against a device you surmise to be the Core. You look up and across the room, and you see the actual device itself, suspended in the air around the Core in question, with two engineers watching its progress. The Core is folded and pleated like a living brain, but made of metal and plastic, and the cybernetic arms jerk and twitch all around its surface, stamping neural pathways into the cybernetic brain that match the same pathways in Decimator's.

"So Decimator's brain is alive in there?" you ask.

"As alive as ever," Adams replies, "and thinking and feeling exactly as it did while it was in Decimator's body. Well, except of course, it has no body now."

You feel saliva begin to well up in your mouth, and your stomach churns briefly, as you imagine what it feels like to be a brain removed from its body.

"We will recreate the body in cybernetics — well, you will — and then we'll improve on the natural form until its weak spots are removed," Adams continues. "Then we'll debut in Phoenix. I suspect we'll be unstoppable. But here, no, look — we're starting stimulus mapping."

The arms and devices in the tank slowly lower like a nightmarish crown of chrome thorns around Decimator's suspended brain. Two small probes extend outward, then thrust into the brain's folds in the temporal lobes. Adams adjusts something on a control device, and you see Decimator's brain scan light up with color, two bright orange and blue blots aligning with the placement of the probes.

"Pain," Adams says with a hint of joy in his voice. "Such an important response. Such a powerful stimulus for survival, and we are the first to map it into cybernetic brains. Encoding pain correctly takes thousands and thousands of repeat stimuli — eight hundred hours, sometimes more." The arms on the Core jerk and twitch robotically, frantically connecting the microscopic neural pathways together to match Decimator's pain response. "The number of cybernetic kaiju that have destroyed themselves against their foes because they had no immediate negative response to damage or destruction to parts of their bodies… who have broken their own jaws or shattered their own claws in combat by pushing too far, or too hard, without pain to tell them when to ease back. That time is over now."

The probes plunge into the folds of grey matter again, and again, and again. Pain. Pain. Pain.

You see Director Adams smiling in the glow of the light from the console. You swallow your rising sick back down as you watch the Core Stamping Device write the pain into tiny silicon neural circuits in the folds of the Core.

You watch it for ten minutes. Twenty. Forty. The flashing of the neural scan lights up over and over as the probes cause pain in different parts of Decimator's brain, mapping to slightly different parts of the body each time. Director Adams is grinning broadly. You know the questions to ask — about integration of nanomesh inputs and responses from the Core, about compensating for disparities between organic and cybernetic joints — and he loves to teach you about the work they are doing, making an unstoppable cybernetic deathmatch kaiju wholesale from the brain of the greatest organic one of all time.

Eventually, you're smiling too.

You're part of the future now.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License