by Miriam English
"Eddie, is this enough light?" The young girl in her early twenties holding a microphone smiled at him.
"Sure, just don't turn too far toward the door when it opens." Eddie was about the same age. He wore electronic glasses which captured video of what he saw, displayed it in a window on the side of his vision, and simultaneously webcast it.
"Cool. Okay. Ready?"
He made an ok sign.
"This is Daria saying hello once more to all of you out there in our web audience. We have a great treat in store for you today. We're at the premises of two people who are doing some fascinating genetic research. We've called ahead, so they're already expecting us." She knocked on the door.
A moment later a young man, perhaps about thirty, opened the door and greeted them, "Hi. Daria and Eddie! Welcome. Come on in. I'm Grant, as you know."
Eddie followed Daria in as she shook hands with Grant, then he panned his view slowly around a fairly ordinary living room. A door on the far side of the room opened and a young woman about the same age as Grant entered. She was tall and skinny, with light-brown hair and seemed a little embarrassed.
Daria said, "And you're the beautiful Felicity." They shook hands while Felicity blushed. "You're the geneticist and Grant is the hardware guy, right?"
Beckoning, Grant said, "You might like to see our workroom. It's in here." He went in the door Felicity had just entered through.
The three of them followed. The view in Eddie's video glasses was awesome. There were large, rectangular tanks on all four walls stacked up almost to the ceiling, which was one big translucent skylight. In the center of the room were two large benches covered in equipment. The benches were each about a meter wide and separated by about a meter's space between them. Each bench stretched almost the full four meter length of the room. So the room's floor-plan was like a square with an equals sign in it, with the bars of the equals taking up most of the floorspace.
"Whoa!" said Daria. "This is amazing! The tanks on the walls, that's where you grow the... er... stuff." She turned to Eddie and said to the viewers, "We'll get into that shortly."
Daria stepped over to Grant and put her arm around his shoulders. "Grant, you being the hardware guy, perhaps you'd like to explain what all this equipment is."
Grant smiled and indicated one particularly delicate-looking mess of thin rods and wires. "This is our main replicator. It's where we build most of our experimental equipment. We can't afford to buy flasks, tanks, pipes, measuring gear, and electronic equipment, so we download designs and have the replicator make them. Sometimes I modify existing designs. Sometimes I design stuff from scratch myself."
"Cool. Is this the original kind of replicator, like the ones that came from the reprap labs?"
"Similar, yes. I've made a few changes, like growing the printing feedstock here, but it is essentially like their designs."
Daria's eyebrows lifted. "You grow the printing plastic? That didn't come up in the research we did on this story. Can you give us a quick run-down on that?"
Grant said, "Sure. Felicity, you're probably the best one to answer that."
She blushed again. "It is similar to the main work we do, but we simply produce raw hydrocarbon."
Daria said, "Hydrocarbon is oil or plastic, right?"
"Yes. Oil is a good way to think of it. Oil is liquid hydrocarbon -- small molecules made up of just hydrogen and carbon."
"Hence hydrocarbon," added Daria.
"Yes. The smallest hydrocarbon molecules are gases, like methane or propane. Plastics are longer chain molecules. They're solid at room temperature. Actually ours are more like waxes, because they aren't pure hydrocarbons. We could purify them, but it isn't necessary for our uses." Felicity indicated a couple of translucent tanks on the wall. "That's where we grow the material."
Daria said, "Can we come back to that later Felicity? I don't want to pre-empt your main work."
Daria looked into the camera in Eddie's glasses. "Folks, wait til you see what this cool couple have done." She turned back to Felicity. "Do you have a sample of your groundbreaking work that I can demonstrate for the viewers?"
Felicity smiled and beckoned her over to a small kitchenette, walked in, and opened the oven. She grabbed a tea-towel and used it to take out a tray which she set on a small counter nearby.
Daria closed her eyes and breathed deeply, "Oh my god, that smells delicious! Viewers, I wish this was smellavision. You are missing out on something wonderful here. My mouth is watering."
Felicity took a fork from a cutlery drawer and used it to pick up a rectangle of what looked like a small pastry and handed it to Daria. "It's hot so don't eat it immediately. Let it cool first."
Daria blew on it a few times then said, "It is difficult to describe what it smells like. The closest I can think of is a cheese and spinach roll."
Felicity said, "That's actually a very good description. You'll find it tastes a bit like that too, though a bit more meaty because it has quite a lot of protein. Imagine it with tomatoes in there too and you'll be close, though it's really not quite like anything else."
Daria carefully bit into it, then dancing from foot to foot and waving her hand in front of her mouth, she said, "Hot, hot!" A few seconds later her eyes were alight with pleasure. "Oh! This is fantastic! What have you added to it?"
Felicity smiled. "Nothing. That's the product. All we did was cook it. And that's another thing, there are lots of ways to cook it. If you fry it, it tastes a bit different to boiling it, which tastes different to baking it, and raw is different again. You can even puree it and make a kind of milkshake out of it. If you want more variety you can add other things to it of course. Most foods go well with it -- potatoes, tomato, peas, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, and so on."
Daria had eaten all hers and was licking her lips. "What about meats?"
"Strictly speaking you shouldn't need meat because this contains all the amino acids and essential fatty acids that meat supplies, as well as vitamin B12. But it can be eaten with any meat too. We haven't found any foods that it clashes with."
Grant spoke up, "I don't like it with sweets. Mind you, I'm not fond of sweets anyway."
Felicity added, "Concentrated with some of its oils and a little extra sugar it tastes a little like chocolate, but neither of us really enjoy chocolate, so we're probably not good judges of that."
"Is it a complete food? And how long can you live on it?"
Felicity said, "I've engineered it to contain all known nutrients in proportions as close to optimal as possible for human requirements."
Daria smiled, "So, yes it is complete."
Felicity blushed. "And we've been subsisting on it for, ummm... about five months now. We have weekly checkups at our local doctor. So far we've seen no ill effects, but I wouldn't advise living on only this. We're doing it as an experiment and we're being closely monitored. A varied diet is always safest."
"Cool." Daria indicated the large workroom behind her, and Eddie began to back carefully into it to allow the rest of them to return to it. "Can you show us where this delicious stuff comes from then? Uh, after I have another piece?" She grinned.
Felicity smiled and indicated for Daria to help herself.
"Mmmm... Thanks. This is really delicious." She gobbled down another of the rectangles, then walked back to the work room and, looking up at the walls, asked Grant, "So, these tanks -- you made them with the replicator?"
"Yes, but not this one on the bench. We make the tanks with that one over there, up above head height, in the corner. It has a base that lowers away as the tank is built up."
Daria has walked over to it. Puzzled, she says, "It looks way too small to make those tanks. Do you make them in parts then assemble them?"
"Nope, we make each tank in a single piece for strength. You're looking at it the wrong way. In cross-section the tank's quite small, but is a couple of meters long. We make the tank vertically, but use it horizontally."
She nodded, then she turned to them and said, "Okay now. Can one of you show us what's in the tanks?"
Felicity took some long tongs from a hook on the wall and climbed up a couple of rungs of a stepladder. She reached into a tank with the tongs, rotated them, and withdrew them with some green stuff wrapped around. Grant brought a large plate and held it up for Felicity to deposit the greenery on it. Then Felicity stepped down while Grant took the plate into the kitchenette. He put it in the sink and rinsed it under running water.
"You don't really need to rinse it if the water is clean, but we've been growing these in pretty revolting water. It wouldn't actually hurt you, but it wouldn't taste nice. All part of the experiment," Felicity explained with a smile. "We did it that way because we want people to be able to grow this in truly awful water, no matter how terrible are their living conditions. They can grow all they need in a few tanks and don't need to destroy the land with crops."
Grant came back into the room with a sprig of what could have been parsley, and handed it to Daria. "Try it."
Nibbling it uncertainly, Daria's eyebrows went up and she smiled. "Nice. I'm not sure what it tastes like. A bit like lettuce and cheese... and tomato."
"Fresh has the highest vitamin C content. I eat it fresh a lot," Grant said.
"How come the cooked pastry thing I had earlier wasn't green?"
"Oh, we found that it can be grown without sunlight, in which case it loses the chlorophyll and acts something like a yeast. It can be dried and ground to make a pretty good flour."
"How did you two learn to do this? I mean did you do some high-powered courses at big universities?"
Felicity shook her head. "No we're self-taught. When the AIs helped Project Gutenberg digitise all the world's out-of-copyright literature they moved on to digitising all the still-in-copyright science information."
"Isn't that a problem? I thought the AIs were supposed to be helping people?"
Grant said, "The way it was explained to me is that scientific papers were originally meant to be shared, but the cost of printing on paper meant that scientific associations paid for organisations to publish their research, but when printing on the net became effectively free this was never reversed. The science publishers had become powerful forces for the restriction of information instead of distribution of it. This ran counter to the ideals of science, so the AIs set about fixing that."
Felicity continued, "We simply educated ourselves from the vast library of data the AIs made available. Anybody could do it."
Daria thanked both Grant and Felicity then turned back to Eddie. "Well there you have it, folks. Thanks to these two wonderful people nobody need ever starve again." She bit off another mouthful of the plant and chewed. "Until next time, this is Daria, and Eddie," Eddie smoothly removed his glasses and turned them to point to himself, smiled and waved, then turned them back to Daria, "signing off."