Image by Filip Bunkens

AI

by Clyde Liffey

Most, including me, want to reproduce; I was deemed unfit. I towered over the counselor sitting behind his particle board desk.  “Show me your paws,” he said, then examined my fingers, so long and thick some mistook my hands for mittens . “You look like a strong young fellow, still growing too,” he went on. I knew what his words were code for: “We’ll start you on a farm, you brute.”

            For some reason most of the farms in the village required security clearance. The counselor wrangled my certification.

            My first day on the job, the foreman – bailiff he called himself – gave me a gun and pointed to Old Bessie. “Knock her dead, Marty,” he said as his cronies snorted.

            Not cunning, I obeyed. My parents and other kin were pacifists, I was a late life child, product of frayed chromosomes. I’d never handled a gun before. Bessie stood apart from the others, chewing grass and swinging her tail. I patted her rear, moved her tail aside, pushed the rod up her rectum, squeezed the plunger home. When I finished, she swung her tail again, resumed her chewing. The bailiff and the farmhands were astounded.

            “I never thought I’d see that,” Minnie, the only woman in the group, said.

            “Me neither,” the bailiff seconded. “Bessie doesn’t let anyone approach her, not other cows, no bulls, not even little Minnie here. We thought she was just too old and ornery, only fit for the glue factory.”

            Nine and half months later they were even more pleased when Bessie delivered a beautiful bull calf. Bessie wasn’t pleased. She died soon after.

            By then I was a valued worker. The foreman wanted only me to impregnate his cows and horses. Bessie, my first, is the only one I know who was hurt, however indirectly, by my hand. The farm wasn’t big enough to employ me as a full-time inseminator. I spent most of my days pitching hay, shoveling manure, mending fences, all that cliched farm stuff. As time went on, though, my reputation spread. Once I was sent on a business trip to a stud farm in Kentucky. Minnie accompanied me. We stayed in separate motel rooms. “Don’t get any ideas,” she warned me, “I’m engaged.” Strange – I’d never seen her with a ring or a man. She flirted with the stable hands, all of them except me.

            Times and tastes change. Demand waned for the prime meats, fresh unpasteurized dairy, and bespoke leather we produced. I was let go.

            A month or two later, I was picked up by a pig and goat farm. “Let’s see how you handle a smaller instrument,” my new boss said. The most persnickety pigs and skittish nannies succumbed to my ministrations. Management was pleased but not enough to raise my salary. It took years for my wages to return to the minimal level the cows and horses provided me.

            One day Minnie, the only hand from my old farm who worked at my new gig, approached me while I was cleaning the troughs. She was holding a book. “I came to say goodbye, Marty.” We’d never been close. “I’m going to grad school, at the Ag college. I know farming is disrespected now – your first ranch, my third or fourth, is now a gated development – but agriculture is what I love. My father always told me to ‘follow my passion’; it’s the only thing I’d ever be good at. Funny, it’s not even in my blood. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio.”

            A year or two after that the pigs and goats went the way of the cows and horses. It was Labor Day. I took what little savings and severance I had and drove east. My car died the following Wednesday, a half mile from a junkyard. I would have had it towed but it was my home. Thursday morning I wandered into town to look for food and a job. It was a university town, not Minnie’s. Around noon I saw a group of people having a picnic on a green. A banner was hung from a tree but it was too windy to read it. I thought of the approaching fall and winter, sidled up to a table. I filled a plastic glass with wine, piled some canapés on a paper plate. People on farms, even agricultural colleges, eat heartier fare.

            A man in his mid-twenties approached. I anticipated getting bounced. “It’s great that Prof won that big grant.”

             “It’s always sweet” I said.

            “There’s only one thing that worries me,”

            I furrowed my brow. “What’s that?”

            He looked at me as though I was unfamiliar with Prof’s research. “He needs mice. We only have a few with the genome that Prof requires. The university’s credit is so bad that we can’t order more. I have to go to the business school on Monday to see if they can set up a shell company to buy them. I’m not sure that’s ethical. If the sponsor finds out, we’re toast.”

            “Maybe I can help,” I said. “Where’d Prof go?”

            The sceptic took me to a middle aged drunk. A group of young scientists ranged themselves around us while Prof and I spoke.

            Prof extracted his phone, scanned my online profile. The scientists edged closer. Prof scrutinized my fingers. “Incredible!” he exclaimed. “Your fingers are extremely thick at the base yet long and tapered.” I displayed my mitts to the others.

            “I’ve never seen hands like that,” someone said. “They’re positively Lamarckian.”

            I tried to explain about my parents’ frayed chromosomes.

            No matter – I was hired on spec. They couldn’t afford to pay me so they gave me a basement room in one of the dorms and filled my pockets with passes to the cafeteria.

            In mid-October Prof had enough live and embryonic mice to begin his experiments. The pipeline could run indefinitely. By then I was working with other labs breeding mice and rats. The university hired me. The pay wasn’t great but after a year I could take courses for free. My brutish days had ended.

            On a mild early November evening I walked to my car which was no longer my home. Apart from a broken axle, a flat tire, and some ball bearings, nothing remained. The spectacle of my decimated car liberated me. On the way back I thought of the rats in a maze experiments that were the rage there. At lunch and in the evenings, I’d leave the cages and see liberal arts students in amaze. Why can’t they just take things as they are, I thought, just plod on, something will come up, something always comes up until it doesn’t. 

            A quality control problem arose with the drosophila at the nearest Ivy. The head of their lab called me. The pay was better, and the position, though not prestigious, might impress the folks back home.

            Dr. Gaster called me in to his office as soon as I arrived. “I see your security clearance is still valid,” he said. “That’s necessary. Most of our projects are funded by Department of Defense. Is that a problem for you?”

            “Not eating is a problem for me.”

            He half-snorted. “The focus of research these days is less on fecundity than on prophylaxis. That’s as it should be. Soon animal husbandry will be automated from conception through birth, growth, and harvest. Machines will slaughter the animals kosher, halal, every which way. Our fruit flies, as you know – but you don’t need to know.”

            It was only while I was getting my ID picture taken that anyone noticed my famous hands.

            I began work that afternoon. At the end of my first week a lab tech sampled the first batches of eggs produced under my care. “These are excellent,” he marveled. “I’ll call our principal investigator over to have a look.”

            Minnie peered into the microscope. “This is very promising,” she said. She turned to me, admired my hands. The bases of my fingers were much slimmer than they’d been on the cow farm.

            Fruit flies don’t live that long. In a few months I’d produced more than enough progeny for the lab to conduct its experiments in whatever I didn’t have enough clearance to know. A month or two after that their funding was reduced, I was let go. Minnie came to say goodbye.

            “We have machines that can fertilize the drosophila now, not as well as you, not yet, but well enough that most of us have forgotten the rule of seven. Good luck. If only e. coli reproduced sexually.”

            I shook her hand, noticed a bump in her midsection. I know enough from my work with large animals to estimate the date she conceived.

            Dr. Gaster gave me a letter of recommendation, mentioned a Podunk college whose entomology department was in disarray. I didn’t even need security clearance. I could reach the school in two or three long bus trips. He shook my hand as though I were a key contributor. I settled into my bus seat, put the letter in a pocket of my knapsack, and fell asleep.