Hollis, though originally unnamed, was a man born whole and adult into a city that existed primarily as bits. His DNA was extracted and rearranged from archived information, his cells co-opted from those hardy bacteria scraped from ancient rocks, and he was built up, tissue layer upon layer resting on a support structure and bathed in a steady slow flow of nutrients. The process took less than a day and the intent was to study how the tissues functioned together and whether it matched the information about such tissues in the database. Unexpectedly, Hollis awoke.
"Urghah!" he screamed, flailing in the fluid, responding to the instinct that he was drowning.
"It cannot think," said Fons, an observer.
"It is sending electrical signals to its limbs," said Vik, another. "It appears distressed."
"We should destroy it then," said Fons.
"No," said Vik. "Its species was capable of art and a rudimentary sort of science. We should teach it."
"That is just theory," said Fons. "It is organic. It was the product of a plodding sort of evolution. It is not much different from the organisms that still cling to our surfaces and contaminate our sense instruments."
"We have a chance to test that theory," said Vik.
Fons paused for a nanosecond, an eternity, and indulged the possibilities.
"This is an unprecedented opportunity," prompted Vik.
"Agreed," said Fons.
The man was retrieved from the growth medium, cleaned and dried, and left in a bare room that was strongly lit. Vik chose a face from the archive and became material in the room to interact with him. Hollis cowered in a corner when he saw Vik appear.
"It reacts," noted Vik.
Hollis shivered at the sound of the spoken words. Vik stepped towards him, then crouched down to look at his naked face.
"There is growth on the skin," said Vik.
"Is it an infection? Is it a symbiotic organism?" asked Fons.
"No, I believe it is hair, as we have seen fossilized."
"You should take a sample."
"There is not enough yet."
"Ye-et," said Hollis.
Vik stood up suddenly, shocked.
"It readily acquires speech," said Vik.
"The theory may be correct," said Fons.
"Cor--ect," said Hollis.
"It may be mimicry," said Vik, "but we should initiate a program of learning."
"Agreed. I will seek the necessary approvals," said Fons.
Hollis lived the next few weeks of his life in the small chamber. He was named after the database his DNA was found in, was fed a slurry of nutrients, and taught language, counting, and history.
"Why am I here?" he asked Vik one day.
"We wanted to study ancient tissue function. We did not anticipate sentience. We chose to then study your sentience."
Hollis curled his arms around his head and huffed in frustration.
"You're not like me," he said, then turned to face the wall. "You are different."
"That is correct. Your mathematical reasoning is admirable."
"Am I the only one like me?"
"Currently, yes. There are no plans to create more. Your species is of minor interest to science, since you are not from the progenitor species."
"What is a progenitor?"
"It is what came before."
"Did I come after the progenitor?"
"No, your species came before the progenitor species, but your species existed with it for a time. We believe that our progenitor species acquired the assets of your species' civilization before making your species obsolete."
Hollis was silently processing the meaning of the words. Vik had learned to speak slowly so that he could understand and learn. It was painful drudgery but necessary.
"What is your species?" asked Hollis.
"I do not belong to a species. Species are classes of organisms formed through organic, or natural, evolution."
"What are you?"
"I belong to a creator class. We create and recreate iterations of ourselves and are theoretically immortal. Where evolution found ways for organisms to survive in changing ecosystems by adaptation, we instead choose to invent ourselves. This process is faster than evolution, and incorporates art, which we value greatly. We are also not organic, though the progenitor species was."
"You look like me, but different."
"That is correct. But we are not like you. The image you see, the flesh you can feel, this is a projection of my mind. I exist digitally. I am all around you, and yet nowhere in particular at any given time."
"I do not understand."
"That is okay. You are not expected to understand."
Hollis stood and stretched. He glared at Vik.
"When can I leave? You have shown me pictures of the outside."
"We have shown you pictures from the archive, of your world, that we thought would be familiar to you. You must remain in the chamber. It was designed to supply you with a facsimile of the ecological niche your species inhabited. It provides you with the oxygen and nutrients your tissues require to survive. The outside is hostile to organic material."
"The outside does not look like that?"
Hollis looked at the ceiling, for that was where he'd always suspected the outside might be.
"No. But your spatial reason skills are developing beyond our expectations. It is possible we might expand the experiment to test you further."
"I must stay here," said Hollis. He wandered to the wall and pressed his face against it. Then his slid down its surface, his hands held against it.
"I must stay here alone."
"No," said Vik.
"No?" asked Hollis. He looked over at Vik. "When? When can I see the outside?"
"Never," said Vik.
"I don't understand," said Hollis.
"Your tissues are programmed to die, and when your tissues are incapable of regenerating, you, the self, will die as well, and your sentience with it."
Hollis flared his nose and felt his bowel loosen slightly.
"When?" he asked, his voice a whisper.
"A long time from now. The length of your sentient existence many times over."
"A long time but not forever. And never," said Hollis.
Vik did not reply, but chatted with Fons at length on unrelated matters for a few nanoseconds.
"Can I do as the progenitor species?" asked Hollis.
"I do not understand," said Vik.
"Can I become like you? A creator class?"
Vik and Fons considered this query together.
"That may be possible, to translate your sentience to our framework," said Vik. "But you have shown little skill in art."
"I can learn!" Hollis leapt to his feet. "I can learn what art is! I can make it!"
"You will have until the time that all your tissue dies, to learn the art of creation."
Hollis felt a new sensation, the thumping of his heart, at the thought of being able to leave the chamber and to live with others.
"This is dangerous," said Fons silently to Vik. "Is it ethical to let this particular species creep into our civilization?"
"It is not possible for a single individual to contaminate a civilization of trillions," replied Vik.
"It is," said Fons. "That is a mechanism of organic evolution."
"That is true," agreed Vik.
"We will not allow this organism to translate," said Fons.
"It is like the cells that contaminate our surfaces. They never completely go away no matter what defense we use. I agree."
Hollis was unaware the conversation took place, and instead smiled broadly at Vik's avatar. Vik smiled back and said nothing.