By Nick Olivo
“Fuckin’ A, seriously? You ordered the fisherman’s special again, Zach?” Gino asked as the automatic doors closed behind him. “Never thought I’d miss the smell of industrial antiseptic.”
Zach peeled a thick strand of seaweed from a dinged up wooden crate and tossed it into a bin marked ‘incinerate.’ Chunks of rotted wood and small scraps of oceanic flora dotted the stainless-steel worktable, and the typically pristine, sterile environment of their workroom reeked of low tide.
“Salvage brought this in last night,” Zach said, breathing though his mouth as much as possible. “Cargo ship went down last month, took them a couple of weeks to find it, they did, now here we are.” Zach scooped up the tablet with the work order on it from the table. The cold light from the overhead fluorescents reflected off its screen, sending a white afterimage streaking through his vision. He blinked it away and passed the tablet to Gino, who took it as he tucked his smokes and lighter into his lab coat pocket.
“So, lemme guess,” Gino said. “Now they want one of those fancy DNA scans.”
“Yep. Any object that has DNA-encoding will be replicated, anything that doesn’t goes to Pam in Payables for reimbursement.” Zach put on a fake smile and did his best impression of the corporate spokesman. “Here at Ashton & Smith Insurance, we’re committed to getting your treasured possessions back to you as quickly as possible.”
“Ya know, my uncle Carlo used to make a mint scamming insurance companies. He’d have a hard time doing it today. If even just a tiny piece of a precious trinket gets recovered, they send it to us, boom, they’ve got it back.”
Zach shook his head. “Seriously, Gino? You’re looking at this from the crime angle? He pointed at the tablet Gino held. “There’s DNA in that thing with its manufacturing data encoded into it. All the specs, all the schematics, all the data you’d need to reproduce it. We pop it onto a replicator, and we’ve got another one,” Zach snapped his fingers, “like that. This is easily the coolest technology that’s been developed in our lifetime, don’t you feel just a little bit excited about working with it?”
“Bro, this is just a job. I punch in, I do work, I punch out, they give me money every other Thursday. This isn’t anything thrilling for me. I didn’t get all stoked about this stuff in school like you did.”
Zach had studied all the concepts at the university enthusiastically, but had washed out of the program when he couldn’t keep up with the math part of the curriculum.
Realizing he may have hit a sore spot, Gino changed the subject. “So what are we looking at?” he asked, fishing through the crate.
Zach snapped back from the classrooms, from the shoulder-slumping failures in calculus and trigonometry. “The manifest lists a bunch of antiques—tribal masks, statuettes, ceremonial weapons—some old guy’s collection of weird shit. The whole shipment was heading from London to Boston when the boat went down.”
Gino frowned. “Christ, Zach, DNA encoding just started, what, ten—fifteen years ago? Nothing in here is going to be replicable.”
Zach switched back to his corporate voice. “It’s company policy to check every item for the possibility of replication, thereby preserving our customer’s property and keeping premium costs low.”
Gino sighed. “All right, I’ll fire up the scanner.” He wrinkled his nose as he added, “Think I’ll grab a can of air freshener too.”
“Item eighty-five,” Zach said. “Some sort of ceremonial knife with a broken blade.” He set the wavy bladed dagger onto the scan plate.
Gino was seated at the scanning terminal, elbow propped on the table, head resting on his hand. He pressed a button. The scan plate flashed red three times. “No DNA replication data detected,” he said flatly, placing the knife into a plastic bin.
Zach ticked a box on the tablet and brought up the next item. “Item eighty-six. Shattered pottery fragments.” Onto the scanner. Button press. Three red flashes.
“No DNA replication data detected,” Gino said around a yawn, before the scan had given its first flash.
Zach ticked the box and reached back into the crate. “Item eighty-seven. A broken statuette of a…” Zach trailed off as he tried to classify what he was looking at.
Gino turned to Zach, idly pulling his lighter out of his pocket and flipping the flame on and off. “That a dog?”
“Maybe? The head’s missing, but I think the paws are too big for a dog. Might be a lion?” Zach pursed his lips. “We’ll just say it’s a quadruped.”
“Whatever,” Gino said, setting his lighter down on the desk and taking the statuette from Zach. “All right, scanning and no DNA de—”
Gino and Zach both stared at the solid green light coming off the scan plate.
“It has DNA.” Gino said in disbelief. “How does it have DNA?”
Zach regarded the stone statuette. It was a dull green, flecked with red. He cast his mind back to geology class trying to place the mineral. Bloodstone? Yeah, that was it. To Gino he said, “Dunno. Is the scanner on the fritz?”
Gino took one of the items that had registered as negative before and rescanned it. Three red flashes. He put the broken dog statuette back on the plate. Solid green again. “Scanner’s working just fine.”
Zach was already typing on the tablet. “Quadruped statuette tests positive, replication will be performed.”
Zach had seen pictures of early 3D printers in his science textbooks—many of them could only create plastic items a foot or so in size. The behemoth machine that sat in the replication room could make stuff as big as a car and from virtually any material. He keyed a code into the pad to the left of the door and a hissing sound came from the mechanism. “Doors are locked,” he said as he ticked a box on the pre-print checklist. In his corporate voice, he added, “Nothing will interfere with the recovery of the customer’s dear treasures.”
Gino grunted and turned on the main power switch while Zach checked the connections to the raw materials tank.
“Still can’t get over how this thing can just pull raw atoms out of nowhere and turn them into shit.”
“Trace element recombination,” Zach said, quoting a physics textbook he’d practically memorized. “Anything into anything. And it all saves the company money.”
“Maybe we could have it print us some gold bars,” Gino said with a grin.
“That’s currency manipulation, and the last guys who tried that wound up in jail for life,” Zach replied. He rapped his knuckles against the metal of the tank. “Tank’s good to go.”
“This shouldn’t take long, maybe two minutes, something that small?”
Zach set the statuette on the replication panel. A green light appeared on the monitor to his left, along with a progress bar showing the DNA read process. “Probably less than that. We’ll replicate it, send in the final paperwork, and then we’re outta here for the night.”
“You’re speaking my language. Gonna clock out, head down to the club, aw yeah.” He did a sort of dance move in his chair. “You?”
“I’ve got some reading I need to do.” He’d found a math book online that claimed it had teaching techniques specifically created for people who struggled with math. The free sample chapters alone had clarified radical equations and logarithms, concepts that once mystified him.
Gino smirked at him. “Life of the party, aintcha, Zach?”
Zach only shrugged in response. If he could just get a grip on the math stuff, then maybe he could be the person designing these machines instead of just running them. All those things he’d memorized—element names, physical concepts, the whole shebang—he’d finally be able to really use them, finally able to become an honest-to-god scientist.
“DNA sequence read and ready for replication,” came a woman’s voice from the computer.
Zach pressed the print button. Names of chemicals and molecules scrolled across the screen faster than he could read – all the stuff the machine needed to recreate the item. The array of print heads descended from the ceiling, spun into their necessary configuration and began laying down the first layer of material.
“Hold up,” Gino said after a few seconds. “What’s it doing?”
On the screen, NaCl was displayed in a box marked “Currently Printing.”
“It’s printing salt,” Zach replied. “A circle of salt.”
“The hell for?”
Zach tapped the escape sequence a few times, trying to cancel the print. The keys were getting warm under his fingers. “No idea. Maybe the sequence is corrupted. Yow!” The keys were now painfully hot to the touch. Sparks shot out of the connections to the monitor, and the display shifted from a crisp, full color image to a sickly yellow one. The overhead lights dimmed, then went out.
The backup lights came on a few seconds later. The replication machine seemed unaffected by the brown out, the print heads whirring as they laid down more material.
“Phase one complete,” the computer cooed. “Phase two commencing.”
On the print bed, a circle of salt about six feet in diameter had been drawn, and the Currently Printing box flickered on screen long enough for Zach to read the words calcium carbonate.
Chalk? Zach wondered. What’s it need chalk for?
The print heads shifted their configuration, making small, quick, precise movements. “What’s it doing now?” Gino asked.
“Looks like it’s writing letters.”
“Fuck language is that?”
“No idea.” Zach stared at the monitor, yellow glyphs appearing onscreen mere moments before the replication machine drew them on the print bed. They weren’t letters from any alphabet he’d seen. Something about them reminded him of alchemical symbols he’d seen in a paper that documented Isaac Newton’s search for the secret of transmuting lead into gold.
The image on screen blurred, then vanished as the monitor rendered only horizontal lines of yellow. Zach slapped the side of the monitor a few times to no avail.
The printer needed less than fifteen seconds to complete the ring of symbols within the salt, and then the computer chirped, “Phase three commencing.” Its voice distorted and warbled as it added, “Ia, ia, cethenful tai sha.”
“Fuckin’ A, Zach, shut it down!” Gino’s voice was shrill.
Zack dashed to the main power switch across the room and wrenched it down. The printer heads kept spinning. “You suck,” he whispered to the switch.
Gino ran to the doors, which refused to acknowledge his existence. “Help, open up!” He stabbed at the dead keypad next to the door, trying code after code.
“Gino, take a breath!” Zach called as he ran back to the terminal and pounded on the keyboard. An “Append to Print” dialog appeared, then vanished. No, I don’t want to add to the thing, I want to stop it. More sparks erupted from the monitor terminal. “Gino, try your cell—call Joey down in maintenance.”
Gino’s eyes were huge as he fumbled his phone out of his pocket. “Yeah, yeah. Joey’s a good idea.” With shaking fingers, he tapped out Joey’s number. “C’mon, bro, pick up.”
The voice that answered wasn’t Joey’s. “Gino Esposito,” it said. The voice was old, ancient. And deep. The kind of voice that belonged to someone who’d seen everything—who knew everything. It was loud enough that Zach flinched back from it, even though he was seven feet from the phone.
Gino stood frozen, phone raised, eyes locked on the print bed. Blood began to run from his ears and the whites of his eyes filled with black. “It’s coming for us, Zach,” he whispered in a flat voice. “It’s coming.”
Zach ran to the window, looked down the ten floors to the dark street below. His breathing was coming in short gasps and he forced himself to slow down. The window. They could go out the window. The window didn’t open because OSHA or some bullshit, but fuck that. He grabbed the chair and slammed it against the glass. It rebounded and cracked him in the forehead.
Stars exploded in his vision as he hit the floor. “Gino, give me a hand,” Zach said as he struggled to his feet. Gino stood mesmerized, phone still raised.
The print heads whirred and spun, and Zach saw paws the size of dinner plates had been printed, and legs as thick as his waist were rapidly being assembled.
A part of him, the part that had always been fascinated by science, noted the gray-green hues of the skin, the five toes, each ending in a claw, the redundant layers of muscle being affixed to the bone.
A more frantic, more primal part of him took control then and started screaming. Whatever this was, it was several dozen notches above him on the food chain and he needed to get out now.
He slammed his fists against the door, pulled at the center seam, bending his nails backwards as he fought to get purchase.
The print heads were spinning again, reconfiguring themselves, building a structure to support the torso as it was added. Thin lines of molybdenum spiderwebbed across the print bed creating a sort of shelf for the starting layers of the torso.
Zach grabbed the phone from the desk. The line was nothing but crackling static, and beneath that, a faint, deep voice. “Zachary Tyler,” it said.
Zach flung the phone away. And now, impossibly, the torso was done, a hulking frame covered in corded muscle and a thick hide. The detached part of Zach mused that the statuette hadn’t really done this thing justice.
He turned back to the flickering monitor. The elements in the tank were depleting at an extraordinarily fast rate. Maybe the machine would run out of atomic material? Whatever this was, it needed a lot of complicated molecules. No, he realized, the tank wouldn’t run out, but maybe he could cut the supply of material going to the replicator. Hurling himself forward, he grabbed at the pipe leading from the tank. It was nearly three inches around and freezing cold to the touch. Too cold. He cried out as he pulled his hands away, leaving bits of his palms frozen to the pipe.
He staggered back to the terminal, mashing the keyboard. The “Append to Print” dialog displayed again. A desperate thought occurred to him, and he managed to type H twice and click OK before the box vanished behind wavy yellow lines.
With the torso done, the neck was materializing before his eyes. Zach didn’t want to see its head, didn’t want to see its face, but couldn’t tear his gaze away. He stood, hands bloodied and hair disheveled, staring at the spot where he knew its eyes would be. They were printed mere moments later. And as he gazed into those eight red eyes, he heard its voice, the voice from the phone, clearly in his mind.
“Gino Esposito. Zachary Tyler. Release me.”
A wave of… something crashed against Zach’s mind, and the world spun. He staggered and managed to catch himself on the edge of the desk. Something warm and wet ran from his ears and his hand came away red when he touched his neck.
Closer to the beast, Gino moved forward, eyes blank, jaw slack, and scuffed the salt circle with his foot.
The fog cleared from Zach’s mind just as the beast lunged at Gino. The zoologist in Zach noted that nothing that big had any right being that fast, and that claws shouldn’t be able to rend flesh so easily. The teeth, which weren’t visible as the jaw and lips were printed, were like hundreds of needles. Gino’s screams only lasted a second.
Above the beast, the print heads continued their work, seeming to spin in empty air as they created what Zach appended.
The creature looked up, Gino’s entrails hanging from its mouth. “Zachary Tyler,” the voice came again. Zach fought back a scream as he snatched Gino’s lighter from the desk and snapped it open.
The replication room exploded in a ball of pale blue flame.
“Jesus, what a mess,” Cabe said as he and Kathy read through the incident report.
“I’ve heard of operator negligence before,” Kathy said, “but explosive levels of hydrogen being appended to a print? What were they thinking?”
Cabe shrugged. “Doubt we’ll find out. Security footage from that lab completely cut out just as they started the print process.” He closed the report and set it neatly aside. “And in the meantime, we need to finish processing the claim they were working on. Did anything survive the blast?”
“Just this,” Kathy said, holding up a four-legged statuette. “It’s broken, but it tests positive for DNA data.”
“Well then, let’s take it to replication station number two and get to work.”