When you're young, it's easy to think that lifetime partnerships start in nightclubs. Two strangers with compatible organs meet each other under cover of dim lighting, which conveniently hides their defects. And some partnerships do start that way, but as you get older you realise the probabilities were never high. Most breeding pairs meet each other through work, either directly or through work's social side. The great thing about work is that you meet people repeatedly, so you don't have to make judgments about them based on the way they dance.
That's how I met my wife, Danielle. We both work in the same factory, making microchips for computers. It's important to have nice eyes if you want to pick up somebody in a microchip factory, because every other part of your body is hidden. Microchips are very sensitive things, a single speck of dust in the wrong place can destroy them. That's why they're put together in a cleanroom. Our cleanrooms are a thousand times cleaner than a surgical theatre. Makes you wonder. We get less viruses inside our factory than the average hospital. No cockroaches, no rodents, no living things of any kind. As humans we are able to exert that level of control over other species. The dirtiest things allowed inside our cleanrooms are ourselves, and boy, are we dirty! So we have to wear specially designed coveralls, called bunny-suits, and surgical masks, and latex gloves, and the only bits showing are our eyes. So when I first saw Danielle in a cleanroom she was full of oriental mystery; an Arabian princess in flowing robes and veil, seducing the outside world with the glossy depth of her huge brown eyes. Believe me, she has gorgeous eyes. But Danielle wasn't wearing black, she was covered head to foot in a white polyester bunny-suit.
She's climbing into her suit now, and I'm watching her. I'm especially interested in watching her today because she's climbing into it naked. I'm told there's a microchip factory in Japan where everybody is nude beneath their bunny-suits. Sounds like fun. Except they're also forced to wear Dan Dare space-helmets and respirators and walk around looking like astronauts. Not so good. Here in Scotland we don't take it as far as the Japanese. We breathe air through masks like surgeons, and wear our ordinary clothes underneath our suits - teeshirts and jeans - but not today. I'm nude too underneath the tight-woven man-made fibres. Today is a special day.
With her bunny-suit still unzipped and her breasts and sweet little lotus-cave showing, Danielle slips on her hood and pops the poppers closed around her neck and chin. Then - all the time her eyes on mine - she zips up the suit and hides the delicatessen away. She sits on the stainless steel bench that separates the real world from the clean world and tugs the slip-on booties over her canvas plimsolls, gossamer snow-boots over bowling-alley shoes. Those ultra clean feet swing round to the clean side of the bench. She dons a surgical mask to protect the clean air from the filth of her lungs, and with practised ease snaps on a pair of latex gloves.
"Are you ready?" she asks, even though I've been waiting a full minute.
I nod. I am very ready.
There's a real world out there, beyond the factory walls, and we're both great fans of it. Almost every week we go walking somewhere, the more remote the place the better, and we do have remoteness here in Scotland. I love the feel of the wind rippling through my hair and mud on my boots and the touch of tree bark and the sound of a stream. And the grandeur of snow-capped mountains, and the taste of the first well-deserved beer after a long country walk. And the sound of rain on the flysheet, nicely external but so close, as we drift off to sleep in each other's arms.
We have a computer at home - this is the age of technology after all - and a modem and an Internet account, but we don't use them. This is our compromise. We appear normal and technical, but don't act it. Computers have no soul. It took me a while to realise that, but they are soulless mechanical contraptions. A spoon or a spade or a bicycle is more endowed with spirit. When we first started dating, I tried to convince Danielle of this, and wasted my time because she already knew. Almost all women know. It's only men who get fooled into thinking that computers are special somehow, wildly different to a door-handle or a vacuum cleaner or any other mechanical contraption. Women are rarely fooled.
A few weeks into our relationship, as we strolled back into a car park on the outskirts of Fort William, I explained this theory of soullessness to Danielle. She growled sexily and kissed me hard on the mouth. And I guessed I'd reached that point where the man loses control of the relationship and the woman takes over, deciding whether she's going to love you forever, gently, irresistibly, in all ways. She took to me to her flat and cooked seventeenth century food, which blew my conceptual head away, and showed me forty-two pictures of sunsets and asked me if I'd ever felt my body passing through a leyline - which I hadn't, though she's since taught me how. And then took me to bed and blew my head apart in a different way.
In my work I deal with computers every day. I'm an etch process engineer. When two million pounds worth of chip-building machinery goes wrong, I fix it. I spend my working life surrounded by computers, computers that build chips that go into computers that create the next generation of chip-building computers, the Russian doll idea of one piece inside the next gone digital and gone mad - so I like to spend my free time avoiding them, although that's getting increasingly hard. There are forty microchips in my car, ninety-five in my home if I include the camera. I've got more than my share. Thirty chips exist for every human being on the planet. It's far worse than sheep and New Zealanders.
Great business for our factory, though. Nobody can make too many chips these days. Two years ago we doubled in size, this year we doubled again. We have a brand new cleanroom, ten thousand square metres, about the size of a football field, and tomorrow it will be officially opened by the Secretary of State for Industry, at 11.30 am. That's eighteen hours away.
Danielle and I wish no harm on the Secretary of State and his cutting of the ribbon, we just have our own ritual to perform.
It's eerie walking into an empty cleanroom. It's not really empty, of course. It's packed with machinery; a billion pound's worth - that's right, a billion - of lithography, deposition, implantation, etch, planarisation, wafer cleaning and analysis equipment. This is a dream of Einstein, or maybe Frankenstein, but today, it's empty of people.
My brother once asked me what's inside a microchip. Thanks, bro. The only answer I could come up with is baked lasagne. They're made-up of layers: mince, white sauce, cheeses, pasta strips, herbs and spices. In a microchip the layers are silicon and its oxide and aluminium, spiced with boron and phosphor, and have different electronic qualities - some conduct, some don't, some conduct only when they're in the right mood, which is why they're called semiconductors. All these layers, especially the moody ones, interact with each other in a logical way so you end up with a tiny machine that can perform enormous calculations. My brother then asked me if microchips went well with Chianti. A computer could never have asked that question, unless a human being had programmed it to do so.
"Looks pretty much the same as the other cleanrooms," says Danielle. Her beautiful eyes are darting about, taking in the perforated floor, the honeycombed low ceiling. Hyper-clean air is rushing down all around us, cruising in though the holes in the ceiling and out through the holes in the floor, carrying away the crap that even a bunny-suited human leaves behind. A regular person in ordinary clothes drops about one hundred thousand particles every single step. We really are disgustingly dirty.
Danielle has never been in this new building before. I've been here many times to tune the new machinery. I lead the way. There are white fluorescent lights and no windows. Twenty-two point five degrees centigrade precisely. Always.
"What shall we do first?" I ask. "The epitaxy section?"
Her eyes. It's so different being here with her. I have this theory - I have a lot of theories but this one is the nicest - that irises are full of bristles, full of webs. Little bits of what's seen by the eyes gets caught in them as it enters. So when you look into eyes you can see what they've seen, see little bits of it, bits of debris caught in the radial hairs tunnelling back around the pupil. Danielle's eyes have secret chests of drawers and foreign street markets lodged in there.
Houses and rooms, the places we live, pick up debris in just the same way, the debris of history - that's Danielle's theory and I go along with it fully. That's why we're here in the cleanroom. Buildings, places in buildings, they pick up an atmosphere from what they've seen happen inside them. In a rented room your pick up history; no two feel quite the same even if they look it. When you move into a house you're influenced by what went on there before, whether it was happy or sad. Every room has a history. You can feel it. It's a spiritual thing.
Once, our factory made a microchip in seven days. That's unusual. The lasagne is so complicated it usually takes a hundred chefs more than a month to make it. But we did well. We made a special effort. It took a week. The strangest thing is, pretty much the first step in making a chip is to pattern it - cover it with photosensitive chemicals and pass it through a machine that can see, that can blast it with light through a stencil. Let there be light. And on the first day, too.
We turn left into the epitaxy section, with its familiar perforated floors and ceilings, stainless steel tables, everything white or steel, mainly white, and chairs down one side and two epitaxy machines on the other. They look weirder than they sound, epitaxy machines. A section of external sewer from a space station, the junction piece, a broad stainless steel tube with bolted, domed caps at each end and sixteen smaller sewers joining it, all decked out with thin pipes and wires. A cylinder of steel on ten life-support machines.
Epitaxy is not the very centre of a cab rank. It's a way of fattening-up a pure substance. Adding silicon to silicon. It's a kind of growth, like an embryo.
Strange how important silicon is. There is a theory - somebody else's this time - that life started with organised lattice clays. That lattice clay, which keeps itself in a very organised structure, picked up living micro-organisms and accidentally organised them too, so they became a larger organism. Hence life as we know it. And clay, like sand, is basically silicon.
Many millions of years later, our clay-born ancestors became big fans of the substance that formed them and made pottery with it. And now the raw material for microchips is silicon, made from quartz, made from sand - clay's rougher brother. Danielle and I are in the business of organising silicon so it can think, or if not think then at least perform brilliant calculations. Strange world.
We kiss. First through the surgeons' masks, for a laugh, then more passionately with the masks torn away. I pull Danielle's bunny-suit zip down and fondle her breasts, she returns the favour, lower down. We're accidentally scattering dust and dead skin like wedding confetti, but the clean air from the ceiling will sweep all that dirt away. There's nobody here to surprise us and nobody watching, apart from machines. Many of these machines can see. They have cameras to help them perform their tasks, make sure they blast light in the right place, shave off just the right level of roughness, add gold contacts here, not there.
Many of them have a sense of touch too. They know when their probes meet resistance, when they're in contact and when not, when they're touching an edge or a middle. The cleverest know to within an atom, they can feel individual atoms and maybe even tell you what kind they are. The human race has built some truly amazing machines, as much as we're involved, since these days they pretty much build themselves.
Danielle draws back and pulls her zip down as far as it can go. Not quite far enough, in this position. She turns round and bends over one of the stainless steel tables. It's far enough now. I move behind her.
"I'd like to see the lithography section next," she says. "And then etch, because it's your speciality." She giggles, then gasps as I enter her.
I never knew it before meeting Danielle, but there is something deeply spiritual about making love, about two people wildly in love making love. It goes beyond our normal existence, way beyond the power of either one of us alone, or the sum of those two parts. Way beyond such simple calculations, or even the miracle mathematics our little microchips can perform, deep in their spiritless computers.
And that's why we're here, to share some of that spirituality with these innocent machines that can see and touch and in the most basic of ways live their lives as primitive organisms, kind of electronic mudskippers, aware of their surroundings, sensing the microchips that pass through them and which they work on. Our sexual spirituality will embed itself in the cleanroom walls, in the Frankensteinian machinery, in the perforated ceilings and floors, in the stainless steel table that Danielle's leaning over, in much the same way that something unmeasurable embeds itself in the houses and rooms that we live in. That un-named but noticeable history.
When we come to work in this place in the months ahead, it won't appear to us as antiseptic as it looks. There will be some human warmth here, not just bright white walls and shiny steel. We will feel happy here, just as we do in the other cleanrooms, in all the rooms of this factory that we've visited to perform our pleasant ritual.
Maybe even the microchips will pick up a tiny vibration as they pass on through. A few atoms realigned by our earlier presence.
"Yyyyessss," agrees Danielle.
Do we feel like exhibitionists? In a way. Exhibitionists performing in front of an audience of machines. More like tutors, we hope, spiritual and sexual teachers, but exhibitionists too. This is a brand new race we are performing in front of, and there lies the greatest thrill. Very few people realise that computers are becoming a race, an independent life form. We have recognised it and have access to the cleverest, whole rooms full of them, stationary and seemingly asleep, but switched on, receptive to our unorthodox presence, our gift of spiritual history.
There are even computers here that move, real robots. Not the imagined robots of futuristic films, but real robots, here and now. They carry microchips from one machine to another. They have arms to pick up with, concealed wheels instead of legs, and heads that some wise designer gave them to add humanity. They can see too, and follow blue lines painted on the floor to move from one stationary machine to another. A central workflow computer talks to them by radio, tells them where to pick up and where to deliver to keep the thousands of microchips in motion through the myriad of processes.
They have motion sensors to make sure they don't accidentally collide with humans. When a human walks in front, they politely stop and wait till the path is clear again. Right now they're spread around the room, fully charged and ready for work, patiently waiting.
"Nyuuuurghhh," groans Danielle. Who knows if they can hear her, or sense the rhythm of my motion, the smooth circling of my buttocks? I like circles. Danielle likes circles too. There are infinite variations on circles, their speed, their shape - flats and bumps added to their edges in an ever-changing sensual version of music. The straight piston pump is purely for adolescents. And yes, sometimes we are adolescents.
All these machines are female. They are mothers and this building is a womb. Out of it come the young - brand-new microchips. They barely need us. In another generation they will have done away with the need for human involvement. Already they design their own insides, a process far too complicated for us to deal with. Every process is automated, all that etch, lithography, deposition, implantation, and the movement of half-finished products between machinery too, thanks to those very polite robots.
All we do is tend them, look after their needs. If they break down we fix them. We give them a hand with tasks that are less routine, require unusual dexterity. But every year they take over more and more themselves. They demand less from us, and inevitably they will not need us at all. But we will still need them.
Inside these productions machines are the most powerful
computers, the best microchips, the cream of the room's offspring. They design
and build themselves, their own chips, their own insides. This is called reproduction.
That's why Danielle and I know they are a species.
Danielle begins to shiver and to wail for the unpronounceable god of the non-epiphany. I like that unconstrained, fundamental noise. We both take great pleasure from our ritual, great physical pleasure. We make romantic love too, but this is not one of those occasions. This is a technology fuck. One of many variations. We do not communicate much as we make love, little more beyond the contact of our pelvic kiss, which is overwhelming. It is enough to know the other is there. It doesn't need to be confirmed by speech or even by the touch of hands. Our togetherness is clear and to confirm it would question it.
We even try to think similar thoughts as we make love. Now there's enhancement. Making love with similar mindsets, a communion way beyond the ordinary. Danielle too is thinking about all this machinery and its separate life, its reproduction, the self-sufficient life it will soon lead. Though perhaps she is thinking less about it now as the shivers grow stronger. I feel her contract. The god is loud-hailed. That is the way of our species, that the genders get pleasure in different proportions. As a male I rarely reach the unthinking stage, though it does happen. Sometimes I feel envious, clitoris envy, but it's envy with a smile.
These machines around us will never feel pleasure in their lives. Even if they are programmed with it, they will only recognise it as a state, a mode, they will not feel it for real.
Will they feel envy at not having our pleasures? And will it be a resentful envy, like the poor have for the rich when surrounded by them in cities and on TV? Only if they are programmed with that emotion. And we will surely want to program them with our emotions, somebody will want to, whether it's a good idea or not, simply because it can be done. That is our history with technology.
Some of the microchips built here will be used in hospitals to extend the lifespan of man. Others will be used on the Internet to deliver the world's pornography, allowing millions to jerk-off. These machines are already involved in our race's sex life, bless them, but in an incomplete way, missing emotion and partnership.
And we are thinking about them even as we make love, Danielle and I, in their presence, in their view, this important race we are both involved with, and which we hope to influence, in some imperceptible way, with our powerful, spiritual act of love. So futile that it's laughable. But fun, and it will at least make this sterile, robotic place far more tolerable to work in, for us and maybe for our colleagues too, if they're sensitive to history.
Many are. Some even know we're tending a separate race, that we have already become the aliens within the ultra-clean walls of this factory. They see it every day, so it becomes obvious. But hardly anybody knows outside.
"Wake up!" I shout.
Danielle isn't fazed. We are that much in harmony right now. In any case, it's part of our ritual. I shout this as we make love in every new cleanroom, in more and more new cleanrooms as the years go by. She knows exactly what's running through my mind. "Wake up," she repeats, softly.
She knows I'm not shouting at her. I'm yelling at the world outside.
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Copyright Andrew Starling 2000 www.foxglove.co.uk