Estimated reading time — 4 minutes
Think of a drop of dark red ink falling towards a sterile marble floor. It splashes into a crown and branches into threads of alternating lengths, ejecting droplets into the air. The droplets too skim across the floor, and eventually, the drop is gone. The crown settles in the image of a shining sun, but red, like a plague of rash. The splatter brightens the red at the extremities while maintaining a thicker, darker core in the center. Imagine a face protruding from the core. Then imagine the shoulders emerging. Arms. Now chest. Stop. There it is. We call him Hank.
He is an atypical contiguous single spore issue germinated by the colony seen surrounding him. Picture half a man implanted to the corner of a room, the blood vessels arcing out from beneath him like bronchi, creeping and thinning as one zooms out. These are called forelegs, and although blood relatives, they compete with each other to wheedle nutrients from the parent pod as self-preserving individuals, coaxing, cajoling, seducing, and sometimes even drugging or coercing what in botanical terms would be the central xylem for their due. It is undying, it is highly resilient, and it is expensive. Growing the fungal colony has helped solve 2 maritime crises, saved the African continent from an unending drought, and salvaged 80% of the world’s timber waste.
The way it is grown is a complex duology. In the first part, a human being volunteers to submit bone marrow and other tissue samples to undergo advanced bioengineering. In the second, the engineered genetic isolate is cultured with plant matter. The setup for this is accomplished during the former stage, where the human samples are retrofitted with numerous enzymes coded to diffuse into the plant substrate in the latter stage, making what’s known among the scientific community as the ‘green goo’. The petri dishes are let sit for 34 hours under intense monitoring for signs of germination. Once the initial polyp sprouts, the node is tested for blood vessel merger, maturation and efficiency. After that, it is replanted in damp carbohydrate-injected soil and left in the dark. Once this point is reached, the spore begins reproducing asexually with its own genetic information. The fusion of proteins involved in this process is analyzed monthly by 6000 agriculture scientists and critics worldwide for unethical practices. Debates are held biweekly to lay down ground rules and, to an extent, insurrect the first system to legally recognize undesired scenarios. This way, the public could rest assured the life-binding is continually filtered of any moral dilemmas.
In one such debate, the vanishingly low probability event of a dominant human allele was suggested. Although the splice is strained 1,000,232 times over to ensure passiveness, the human allele may sometimes emerge triumphant. Under the ‘human’ influence, when two compatible heterokaryotic forelegs of the newly germinating pod compete, they may ‘consider’ collective success a more viable option instead, thereby disengaging from the deathmatch and joining to form a larger dikaryotic foreleg. Once an unsympathetic organism concerned solely with a net survival status, its canny is dulled by an attitude of interdependence. Our social instinct causes this tweak in the symbiosis, and the resulting growth metastasizes, transcending a rather human psychology to a part of the whole colony. This part, if left unchecked, may form a fruiting body. That is Hank. Hank is sentient.
The odds of these conditions aligning dwindle infinitesimally, shaking off a billion or so at each step. The extreme unlikelihood of the scenario caused it to be deemed theoretical, and was dismissed with a “To be revised” prescription.
It has taken Hank 2 years to grow into this office room. An initially captivated staff had to be cleared out by management after receiving a critical number of immutable reports of being deeply unsettled by the sight of “a melting man”. He started out in the unlit agroforestry vault just by the breezeway. Thirst is said to have been the motivator for the ‘migration’, the mechanics of a ‘breadcrumb-trail’ scenario charged the culprit. The water cooler on this floor sits a short walk away from the office area, just before the greenhouse. Employees are known to stagger along this route to and fro in pursuit and consumption of water, and the janitorial department revealed that the area was therefore subject to the most cleaning. In the same pursuit, Hank became the permanent and only occupant of office #238.
The blood vessels—Hank’s pod—are the crop yield of this splice. They boast remedial properties when processed into a serum and injected into the bloodstream due to their ability to distill a targeted molecule. By the same virtue, they can be utilized to retrieve the most nectar out of a flower, for modest example. Some unorthodox methods such as using the product as seasoning in food have been reported to give enhanced results but remain scientifically unverified.
These are pros. They are the benefits the project was intended to produce. They are clear and loud. But the cons are even clearer, and by today’s evening, probably just as loud. And they can be summed up with minimal simplification by the eponymous question.
Hank does not talk but he has been observed mumbling. His eyes barely open and seem to be milky white, indicating subpar vision capabilities. The ears are deformed and functionless as Hank does not respond to auditory cues. His skull is doughy and inflates and deflates like a granule of maggots, seemingly in rhythmic discipline with his breathing, indicating the lungs share an inhospitable space with the brain. However, he has shown tremendous touch sensory competence, which is a note of both marvel and despondency for the world at large.
A senate hearing has been called to address the issue at once. The streets are flooded with rhetoric and judgments. The internet is riddled with support groups, fan-pages and pseudo personality profiles based on what is known of Hank.
They are going to cut him out in 3 hours, and somehow, Hank seems to be clairvoyantly aware of his fate. He has grown restless and the commotion has only made his coping worse. Some are calling it a harvest. Others are saying ‘abortion’. The question is, will Hank be euthanized, disposed of, the paperwork burned, the ledgers closed, the history erased, the dilemma forgotten, the incident buried and piled on with minutia and quibbles, or will he become the first legal subhuman subject of scientific study to live in a glass box for years to come? What are we going to do with Hank?