“Aha! I can feel the problem.”

The CloneTech engineer was squatting with his arm plunged up to the shoulder into an access valve in a thick plasteel pipe, “Unprocessed biomass material blocking the filter.” He was staring into the middle distance as he spoke, concentrating on the movement of his unseen fingers, but his words were presumably for the benefit of the trainee engineer standing awkwardly nearby.

“Ya see,” continued the elder man, “you can stare at diagnostic readouts and quote optimum mixture ratios all day…” There was a throaty gurgle as fluid drained from somewhere to somewhere else within the dark chamber of metal cylinders and interconnecting pipes. “But sometimes there’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty.”

He withdrew his arm from the pipe with a squelch, stood triumphantly and handed something to his subordinate. The trainee took it without thinking and instantly regretted it. He looked down at the cold, wet mass in his hand: matted hair, rotting fatty tissue, bone fragments and … was that an eyeball? He gagged as he poured the grue into a nearby bucket. The engineer continued,

“Not been serviced for months. That’s the problem with these budget-end clone-formers. The capsuleers buy em in for their entertainment industry then just expect it all to work indefinitely.”

He idly cleaned biomass slime from his arm as he stared around at the dizzying network of tubes and vats surrounding them. “They operate on the principle of reusable biomass but sometimes bits clot quicker than the anticoag filters can deal with.” He tossed his dirty rag into the junior engineer’s bucket. “Now close that access port and purge the system through.”

As the apprentice followed his instructions and entered the appropriate commands into the portable control terminal, he offered a query;

“What I don’t get Guv, is that this cloning array is property of a corporation of five capsuleers. But the logs show they are outputting over fifty clones per week. Are they committing suicide after every meal or something?”

There was a hiss and rumble as machinery juddered to life and the purging process began.

“Don’t be simple, boy.” the senior man mocked, “They not teach you anything at Tech School anymore? These are just ‘social’ clones.”

The younger man looked blank. “Social clones?”

“Yeah. These are far lower quality than the actual clones that capsuleers spend most of their lives in. They’ve got lots of limitations, like range and lifespan. They just use these as extensions so they can effectively be in more than one place.”

The trainee frowned, struggling with the concept. His mentor sighed and tried to explain again.

“Right, well you know that capsuleers use state-of-the-art cloning technology to enable them to survive the unsurvivable, don’t you? Good. And that when they’re controlling their ships from their pods, they do it with their minds? Okay.”

“Well whilst they’re doing all that they also have sophisticated ways of contacting each other. Sometimes they are physically in their pods for weeks or months, so they’ve devised a way of mentally stretching their legs and socialising. They have ‘channels’ that they meet up in to plan and discuss, or sometimes just to relax.”

“You mean like a meeting room or a bar?”

“Exactly. But the clever thing is, they are still really in their pod, somewhere out in space, whilst at the same time, part of their consciousness is also controlling their social clone sitting having a beer and a chat.”

“But surely that’s dangerous. Their minds are controlling a battleship in combat whilst they’re also drinking in a bar? That’s just ridiculous.”

“Oh I agree, but it happens. It’s weird to see too. I’ve watched a capsuleer in a bar go from being all animated and talkative to suddenly shutting down, dead behind the eyes, cos the main consciousness is needed elsewhere in some space battle or maybe in another channel. They can run multiple social clones in theory.”

“Why don’t they just talk to each other over subspace comms like normal people?”

“Well I’m sure they do that too, for fleet operations and stuff, but ya gotta remember, money is no object to them. Your year’s salary in the currency of your home planet is probably less than one of their Interstellar Kredits.” the engineer casually inspected a noisy pump as he spoke, before clubbing it into silent operation with a large wrench, “Besides, the social clone is just the bells-and-whistles option. Some podders stick to more basic holographic simulations, virtual reality client interfaces or even just a basic text interface. It’s down to their personal preference. But most ‘channels’ provide an actual physical location to be populated and they have sophisticated wetware integration suites to allow every type of connection to link together.”

“So you’re saying the reason that this cloning facility is being pushed over capacity is because the capsuleer friends of this corporation might be flying a ship on the other side of the galaxy and just decide to pop in for a quick chat in a social clone which is then biomassed as soon as they’re done with it?”

A series of amber lights on the terminal display suddenly blinked green as the purge cycle ended and the biomass recycling chamber returned to optimum functionality.

“Exactly. One minute they’re discussing interplanetary politics, the next minute their big toe is in your bucket. It’s a funny old world, eh? Shall we go to lunch?”