8am GMT, Thursday 11th September 2130

The Weber family sat at breakfast. 'Real Crispy Rolls' again, joked Jocelyn. But the bacon, the rolls, the juice and the coffee tasted just as good as they would have done in fizz. Better, actually.

'Artificial' food replaced 'real' or 'natural' food between 2020 and 2040. This change was driven partly by population and environmental pressures, and was expectedly resisted by many groups of primitivists. Their concerns were misplaced, however. The word 'artificial' does not do justice to cultured food, which is grown using the same genetically-organized biochemical processes that operate in natural animals or plants. It's just the shapes which are different: at first, there was demand for leg-shaped chicken pieces, fish-shaped Dover sole pieces, and grains of barley. But it is quite uneconomical to manufacture, store and distribute such odd shapes, and more practical shapes soon took over.

Early on - in the 2020s - there were frequent blind tastings of artificial v natural food, and the artificial versions soon began to win, as manufacturers became more adept at fitting taste and texture to human preferences. It wasn't long before new tastes were developed, even better than existing ones, and by 2040 the food industry resembled the perfume industry, with ever-changing fashions in the shape, colour, taste and texture of food.

RCRs of course do not require food as such, except when alimentary functions are deliberately built into them (in some pets, and for early colonial environments, for instance). Although they were bio-electronic in nature from 2025 onwards, tissue maintenance requirements are very simple. It is usually easier to replace tissue body parts on a preventative maintenance schedule rather than worry about complex dietary optimization aimed at longer cell life. Most RCRs are electricity-fuelled, and generate sufficient electricity themselves from photovoltaic coatings. By 2035, an RCR required charging only if most of its time was spent in dark environments. They did however require the equivalent of vitamin pills to provide a minimal supply of elements and compounds required in addition to oxygen and nitrogen (on earth - on other planets the equation is obviously different), and excrete small, pill-like bundles of waste products.

By 2060, of course, RCRs as inhabited by e-clones had become virtual assemblies of software and 'apps' in the cloud, although RCRs as independent physical objects continued to exist in fizz and in solar system and galactic colonies for a variety of purposes.

Eating together is such a basic part of human experience, however, that the shared pleasure of a meal (no cooking or washing-up) maintained its importance in the new cyber-world, and a majority of families choose to stick to time-honoured rituals such as meal-times together.

The family consists of Ferdinand, his wife Aloysia, and their two children Jocelyn (17) and James (8). And James's RCR pet snake, of course, Sidney. RCR pets, so much more satisfactory in every way than their fizz originals, but just as loveable, began to supplant 'legacy' pets in the late 2020s, and by 2040 had completely driven out the original forms, which were represented by their genomes, held in electronic form, of course, for possible use in the colonization of planets. By 2040, therefore, there were virtually no domestic animals other than pet RCRs (although some types of racing animal maintained their position until as late as 2050), while populations of wild animals on the other hand were growing back into the new electric forests which by then covered more than 30% of the earth's land surface.

As a family the Webers are richer than Leonardo through their holdings in CloneCo and KISS, but they have kept very little in the way of assets in fizz: a villa in Puglia near Leonardo's masseria, and a beach-house on Lake Balaton with a small yacht, and have holidays together in one of them whenever possible in fizz.

Now they sit around a table cluttered with coffee cups, dirty plates, marmalade jar, the smell of bacon still in the air, with the satisfied feeling you get when you have eaten well.

"Dad," says Jocelyn earnestly, "Can I ask you a question? About your work?" She knows that he is a senior official with the Assembly and that he is somehow responsible for the content and timing of teenage education; and they have quite frequently discussed policy issues at a general level. But Ferdinand senses that this time is different. Jocelyn doesn't know or suspect that the hierarchy is fully aware of her group's dalliance with BSGX301. It will be interesting, thought Ferdinand to himself (an RCR always maintains an us/them barrier during interaction with others - it's only in more advanced types of RCC that these barriers are broken down) to see how she handles it.

"Sure darling," he says. "Is this a good moment for James to go do his teeth and tidy his room".

"Oh Dad," moans James, "that's ridiculous. There isn't a room and I haven't got any teeth. Breakfast is one thing, but teeth, for crying out loud!"

"No gain without pain," communicates Ferdinand. "Off you go." James slings Sidney around his neck and sullenly leaves the table. They all laugh when he is out of earshot. Of course he is going to chat to his mates in one of their ongoing game environments. Cleaning imaginary teeth indeed!

"It's about groups," says Jocelyn. "I keep asking myself whether a group is more or less than an individual. Well, we talk about it in the group. A jellyfish is a group, so is a shoal of fish, but they're less than I am, right? Then our group can obviously do more and quicker than any one of us as an individual, at least in intellectual terms. Does that make the group superior? But then what about other types of behaviour?" She hesitated, then went on: "What's odd is that no-one tries to teach us about this. I mean, you must think about it, you know, what will happen in RCCs? There's almost nothing about it on the Web, it's like a brick wall. When we ask the tutor, it just mumbles on about nobody knows. Isn't it time that someone did know?"

"Oh Jos, where do I start?" lamented Ferdinand. "You're right, obviously, but I can't exactly answer the question. I can try to explain why things have got like this, if you like."

Jocelyn created a very expectant hush.

"The problem comes from what you could call the cult of individualism that took over society last century. Because people, grown-up ones, anyway, were dissatisfied with what the State and the Church had to offer in terms of a moral template, they looked for a way out on their own, gurus, meditation, all that stuff, which worked, but it didn't really replace groupedness, it just substituted something else on top. And if you think that we evolved as group animals, which I certainly do, then that was some sort of mistake. There were people who tried to say these things, but nobody much listened to them. People don't want to be told that they're just bundles of group behaviours with individuality painted over on top. And the more they honed their individuality, the less they wanted to hear it. So you have a whole generation of individuals, all the ones with money and power, born between 2010 and 2040, in denial about groupedness, at the same time as they were beginning to migrate into RCCs. Actually they did their best to stop RCCs in their tracks, I suppose they sensed the problem, and that was why there was so much delay in getting RCCs into the mainstream. Really we lost almost twenty years between 2050 and 2070 with RCC research taking a back seat. And where are these backwoodsmen now? They're cluttering up the Assembly."

Jocelyn was giving off receptive qualia, so Ferdinand continued: "People of my generation, that's to say between 60 and 90, we were born between 2040 and 2070, so we grew naturally into RCCs. On the whole we're dominant at what you could call the 'marzipan' level of power, and I'd say that most of us actively want to study group behaviour, so we can see where to go next. The problem, obviously, is that the Assembly blocks everything. It's been doing this ever since 2100. I can't tell you how many times we've suggested research programmes, and they just stand in the way. The system is organized so that you can't really work unless you've gone through the whole qualification process in a particular discipline - what's happening to you now in consciousness studies - so there's no body of researchers in later life who have got the facilities to tackle a subject like that. There have been occasional efforts, but they haven't come to much. Actually, I think it's coming to a crisis - the Assembly is getting older, and we marzipanners are getting stronger, so there has to be a bust-up. When, I'm not sure." He paused. Jocelyn was passive.

"Does that sort of answer your question?"

"Hmmm. I don't know. We want answers, and we're not getting them. We don't dare upset the apple-cart, as you say, it would just wreck our future. But we're getting close to doing something, the same way you are."

"Are there many groups like yours, do you know?" asked Ferdinand, innocently.

Jocelyn gave him a jaundiced, quizzical sort of feeling. "You mean to say you don't know?" she said lightly. "You're not doing your job, then!"

Uh-uh, thought Ferdinand. Getting dangerous.

"Well, I do know now," he said. "It would be really helpful if you could tell me if there are others. If you want to."

"Let me talk to my friends," was all that Jocelyn would say. "It's not my decision. We're a group, you know!"

They laughed, and Jocelyn disappeared, on the way to class.

Aloysia had been sitting patiently through the exchange, all metaphorical ears. This wasn't something they had ever discussed. Ferdinand could feel her questioning him.

"Did you know?" she asked. "You didn't tell me."

"You know I'm not allowed to," pleaded Ferdinand, beginning to wish he hadn't allowed the discussion to start. "Yes, we knew; and they're not the only group. Obviously. We don't know how many, but it's getting serious. What's your take on Jocelyn?"

Aloysia had kept Ferdinand informed about Jocelyn's quite normal, perhaps even slow sexual development. Yes, she had had simulated sex at RCR level, no, as far as she knew nothing had happened in fizz beyond normal petting and kissing. She hadn't had a serious affair either in fizz or in cyber-space.

"But that doesn't make her normal," said Aloysia. "She's super-bright. We knew that; it's why she's in BSGX430. And eight superbrights together can be quite something. It's two years now since she really opened up to me about what they're doing. But they're doing something. I wish I knew what it was."


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