We left Karen exploring the institute in the last episode of her adventures in Lundern. Now we pick up the story with Karen about to be taken on a guided tour…
“Trainees, listen up. We shall begin at the beginning – by which I also mean, the beginning of everyone here,” said Dr. Grieg. Some of the group snorted or chortled or tittered; Karen did not get the joke. Grieg pushed his way through a pair of swinging doors. The sign above them read: ‘Fertilizing Room’. “Are you ready?” asked Grieg. At this signal, everyone, but Karen and Grieg, pulled out their notepads and pencils. Grieg had no need of a notepad. He did the talking. Karen had no notepad. Hiding at the back, she cupped her hand and playacted holding a pencil, hoping nobody would notice the difference.
“As the sign said, this is the Fertilizing Room,” said Grieg, pulling on a pair of clean white gloves, “and this is where life begins.” The trainees wrote this down. Karen pretended to write. The near side of the room was filled with glass cabinets, an aisle running between them. Grieg walked to the first cabinet, and opened its door. “These are our raw materials – our inputs, if you like. They’re the gametes – what’s a gamete?” he said, pointing at a young woman near the front. “Quickly, quickly,” he said, clicking his fingers, but she did not know. “A sperm or egg,” said a ginger freckled lad. “From a male or female respectively,” said another ginger freckled lad, standing alongside the first. They must have been identical twins. “Very good, that’s right,” said Grieg. “Each parent contributes a gamete, and each gamete has half the code needed to construct a new person.” Within the cabinet, there was a rack, with glass shelves stacked from top to bottom. Each shelf was filled with flat circular glass trays, ten wide by ten deep on every shelf. “In this cabinet we keep eggs. You can see each of these have white labels, meaning they came from the wannabe mothers in Lundern’s general population. Whilst over here…” Grieg went to the cabinet on the other side of the aisle, “these eggs have yellow labels. Yellow means they came from our in-house, factory, sources.”
The others were taking notes. Karen bit her lip. Eggs? Human eggs? Taken from inside women? And those ‘in-house sources’ he referred to… were they the women that Karen had seen upstairs? Karen shivered, though the room was warm.
“Will we see the in-house sources later?” asked one of the ginger lads.
“No, Ginger One. They only interact with the doctors assigned to care for them,” said Grieg. “They have no contact with the outside world, to protect them from infections, terrorists, and such.”
“Do you tie up the in-house sources?” asked the other ginger lad.
“Are you sick in the head? We’re not barbarians. We only tie them up when we absolutely have to you, usually after they first arrive. But they soon learn to like it here, Ginger Two.”
“I’m Robert McDonald,” said Ginger Two, “and my brother’s name is Derek…”
“I don’t have time to learn names, Ginger Two! Let’s move on, shall we? Over here we keep the male gametes, the sperm,” said Grieg, walking to a different cabinet. “Whilst the eggs are kept at 37 degrees centigrade, our little boys like it a tad cooler, at 35 degrees. Now, what you really want to see,” and he spoke as he continued down the aisle, “is the process of fertilization itself – how our doctors combine the codes to make a new life.”
Beyond the cabinets, the second half of the room held an array of workbenches and machines. Most of the machines looked like crosses between dishwashers and fridges. Many white-coated staff hunched at their work. They examined glass dishes under microscopes, poked the contents with syringes or other instruments, and shuffled them between machines. They wrote out sticky labels to attach to the dishes, or wrote up their progress in hefty logbooks. Grieg said a lot of things that Karen did not understand, though she tried. He talked about inspecting the eggs, checking for abnormalities, and selecting the best ones from each batch. He talked about washing the sperm, to remove inactive cells and fluid. The trainees took turns to sit with a doctor at his work, watching through a special microscope where two people could observe the same dish. Karen waited until last. “At the back again?” commented Grieg. Through the microscope, Karen saw the round shape of an egg. Then a needle was inserted, and a tiny individual sperm was pushed inside the egg. “And that’s how we achieve fertilization in Lundern,” said Grieg. “With the code combined, the cells now have all the instructions they need to multiply, making more and more cells until we have a complete human being. But what do we call the product of two gametes? Anyone?”
“A zygote,” said Ginger Two.
“That’s right, Ginger One,” said Grieg.
“I’m Ginger Two.”
“Does it matter which one you are? Now, the cultivation dish for the zygote is filled with yummy ingredients that zygotes love to feed on.” Grieg listed them, and the trainees wrote them down. Karen did not recognize the names of the ingredients, except for glucose, which she knew was a kind of sugar, and vitamins, which she knew were meant to be good for people. Then the dish would be placed in the ‘tank’ for five days. From the outside, the tank looked like a safe, and a brawny white-coated man was responsible for logging every deposit and every withdrawal from the tank, including the three dishes that Grieg removed so the trainees could examine them. Under the microscope, the first dish contained a zygote which had divided into two cells, the second had divided into four cells, and the last, which had been in the tank for five days, was divided so many times it was impossible to count all the cells. “And what do you we call an embryo that has developed this far?”
“A blastocyst,” said Ginger One.
“Correct, and in the bad old days, the poor blastocyst would have to attach itself to the wall of the mother’s womb – a risky activity for both mother and would-be child! But thanks to our modern techniques, we’ve eliminated such dangers. Now we control everything. For every thousand healthy blastocysts, we create nine-hundred and ninety-nine healthy children – much better odds than Mother Nature!”
“What about cloning?” asked Ginger Two.
“Why am I not surprised that you asked that question?” said Grieg.
Ginger Two looked blank. He turned to Ginger One, who said: “because we’re identical twins?”
“You mean, you’re clones,” said Grieg.
“No, we’re identical twins,” insisted Ginger One.
“That’s the same as a clone,” said Grieg.
“No, it’s not,” chipped in Ginger Two.
“A clone is a new human made by copying another human’s code. Hence, you’re obviously clones. Or, to be precise, one of you is a clone of the other. Which one is it? Are you the copy, Ginger One?”
“We’re not clones, because neither of us is a copy of the other. Our zygote split naturally.”
Grieg looked disgusted. “You mean, you’re genuine identical twins? Created by accident, inside your…” and he gulped heavily, “…your birth-mother?”
A number of the trainees looked sickly, or shocked, at the word ‘birth’. Grieg apologized for using such vulgar, but precise language.
“Yes, we were born in the Periphers,” said Ginger One.
“Stop using the b-word,” said Grieg.
“The b-word? You mean ‘born’?” said Ginger One.
“Stop it, I said. Don’t use that word. There’s young ladies present. You’ll make them faint. It’s bad enough that the two of you are both freaks and immigrants, without repeating the words B-O-R-N and B-I-R-T-H all the time. You must be aware that… that… that all B’s have been banned in Lundern, for the sake of women’s health and equality, and for the sake of a healthy and productive populace in general.”
Karen was glad to be at the back. If she had a real notepad and pencil, she would have dropped them by now. In Lundern, they really made babies in a factory… and this was the factory. That explained why they employed storks, like Cecilia, to deliver them.
“Can you tell us when cloning would take place?” asked Ginger Two, returning to his original question.
“We don’t do cloning here,” explained Grieg, tight-lipped. “This isn’t one of our larger production facilities. Cloning is used for mass production of basic human stock, which will be used for labour, so the quality of the product isn’t so important. And we use cloning for animals, of course.”
“What’s the problem with the quality of clones?” asked Ginger One.
“There’s too many errors in the copying process. Our clones are poorer copies of the original than you are of each other, even though clones are made by design, whilst you two were an accident. Errors in copying mean the code is degraded, and the resulting person is… sub-optimal. But now we’re falling behind schedule. Let’s press on.” Grieg flounced away. The trainees hurried after him. For a moment, Karen was left behind in the Fertilization Room. Slowly and silently, all the white-coated doctors, turned from their work, to face Karen. Spooked, Karen hurried out as well.