After eight-odd decades most relationships move beyond the physical. My marriage is no exception, so when Lilia decided to give up her humanoid form I did not experience it as a loss. The interplanetary trade ship that is my home and livelihood has also served as her body for the past twenty-seven years. It is an elegant arrangement. I am the face of our business, but Lilia is the genius of navigation and energy management that has quite literally kept us afloat.
Of course, a spaceship cannot hug her child, so I fitted myself with a neural jack to bring Lilia along on this very special occasion.
Today we meet our daughter.
Five years of anticipation have made me jittery with pent-up excitement, but maybe that’s just the extra energy of my wife’s consciousness riding shotgun on my neural pathways. Lilia’s laughter sparkles behind my eyes.
That adreno-cortical overload is all you, Barrett. You are the father-to-be of antiquity, pacing outside the delivery room door.
“If I am the pacing primate, what then, my metal matriarch, does that make you?” I say it out loud even though I don’t have to. I’m still getting used to this.
I am expectant and glowing.
“Don’t romanticize biology, hon. Don’t forget; I was outside the room when my brother was born.”
I’m not romanticizing. And this will be nothing like that. I know I haven’t even met our daughter, but my heart is overflowing with warmth. It’s like the pulse of a solar wind.
I chuckle. It’s so like Lilia to mix the metaphors of her different modes of existence. It still staggers me that the human psyche can absorb these bodily metamorphoses.
Ancient humans would not recognize the difference between my fourth biosynthetic body and their flesh and blood. My brother’s augmentations allow him to run a ranch on Indigo-VIII under six atmospheres of pressure. My wife glides effortlessly through the vacuum of space. Yet despite all the ways I could house my conscious mind, I still don’t know where it came from. We still cannot create life without biology.
It’s been over a century since Lilia and I, each independently and before we had met, made the pilgrimage to Earth to leave our youthful gametes in cold storage. On the day of our wedding we had those genes combined as part of the celebration. But it was only five years ago that we finally had the economic stability to requisition the pregnancy. And yet, despite it all, today feels like the day our daughter is born.
Don’t over-think it, Barrett. There’s no question that we’re about to hold our living, breathing daughter in your arms. Let’s go.
* * *
My boot-heels ring on the polished onyx floor of the Obstetric Centre lobby. The space is replete with cold black stone cut in spare right angles. Stylized holo-images of human development hang in the air above my head obscuring the far-off ceiling. Like shimmering totem poles they rise farther than my eyes can see, casting an unearthly light over the immense dark space. It occurs to me that this is more than decoration. This is a monument to human transcendence. “We have surpassed evolution,” it declares, “risen above it to brush our fingertips against immortality.” A vague feeling of disquiet stirs in my chest.
“Does it bother you that she won’t ever be a baby?”
A baby is nothing more than an underdeveloped human small enough to pass through a birth canal. Who’s romanticizing now?
“My parents felt the utter dependence was part of what made the relationship so unique. They called it bonding.”
That is a circular argument if I’ve ever heard one. You had your parents proved unfit when you filed for emancipation!
“I was ...”
“Mr. Barrett? Mrs. Lilia?”
An omnigendered individual in an impeccable black suit has emerged in time to interrupt our argument. Our neural signatures were recorded the second we entered the building, so its question is a courtesy. I nod assent. It smiles with polished professionalism.
“My name is Saba and I will be your host. Please follow me to Birthing Theatre 57a.”
The corridors of the Centre are labyrinthine and I am glad for Saba’s guidance and the distraction of the tour-guide chatter. There is no time for ridiculous last minute arguments. We pass many departments: Pre-Implantation Genetic Repair; Cephalic Augments Manufacture; even the laboratory where our daughter’s artificial pancreas was grown and implanted.
Inside the birthing theatre the obstetrician pumps my hand vigorously.
“Welcome Mr. Barrett. Welcome Mrs. Lilia. Please have a seat.”
He waves his hand toward a plush settee facing a large panel of tinted glass in the far wall.
“If you would care for a beverage we have a variety of fruit juices as well as stimulants and anxiolytics. Saba will be happy to take care of you. When you are comfortable the birth will commence.”
“Just water, thanks.” I’d love to indulge in a coffee, but I’m already far too jittery.
Are you sure you don’t want an anxiolytic?
Lilia is only teasing me, but I’m annoyed by the jab.
When Saba returns with my water the lights dim. Gentle music suffuses the air as the tinted panel in front of us lightens, and then fades to transparency. Behind the glass floats the silhouette of a child, gloriously backlit by swirling beams of golden light.
“Life: created from life.” A sonorous voice washes over us with ritualistic rhythm.
The back-lighting shifts forward. Details emerge ... delicately tapered fingers ... a cloud of thick dark hair ... the spider-web tracery of myriad neuro-stimulatory leads.
“Life: called into existence by those who come before.”
I try to be present to the ritual. I try to focus on the significance of the words, but now I can see her face and all else is lost to me. It is no surprise, nevertheless I am in awe; she looks so much like Lilia once did.
“A child: entrusted to the care of the wise.”
The array of silver leads detach from her body and snap backward out of sight. The music rises to a crescendo as the glass swings outward letting a wave of liquid surge forward and sink into the floor. The child’s eyes snap open, green flecked with gold.
“Arise child. Go forth into your parents’ world.”
As though programmed she steps forward placing her naked foot on the stone floor. For a second I am elated. For a second my daughter is walking into my open arms, but then her small leg gives way under the weight of her body and she collapses like a controlled demolition. Bone cracks sickeningly against wet marble. Her head rests in a spreading pool of blood.
My ears are assaulted by hysterical disembodied screaming. Lilia’s panic rips through my throat: so strong, so visceral that it has hijacked my voice. I am dumbstruck, nauseous, frozen, but my body is jerking forward, limbs flailing. Numbly I register white coats converging over the heap on the ground as the room fades to black.
* * *
The nausea is the first sensation to return.
I am lying on the settee. The obstetrician’s pale face is swimming in front of my eyes.
“Can you hear me Mr. Barrett?”
I nod. My head is ringing.
“Mr. Barrett we were forced to perform an emergency extraction of your wife’s person a few minutes ago. We —”
“Where is she?”
“Mrs. Lilia is currently recovering in a library data kiosk — completely intact, but shaken of course. You, Mr. Barrett, are lucky to be alive.”
“It seems your wife inadvertently gained control of your body. I don’t think she knew your own strength. She nearly —”
“No. What happened to my daughter?”
The room is as comfortable and empty as when we arrived. There is no water, no blood that I can see. And no child, alive or ... otherwise.
“This never ...” He pauses and clears his throat. “This has only very rarely happened in the long history of the Centre. It is too soon to say definitively, but it is most likely that your daughter did not interface adequately with her prenatal education program. It would explain why she was unable to walk. She did respond to the prompt to step out of the incubator though, so she may not be a complete blank ...” His voice trails off.
“A complete blank? What is that supposed to mean?” Every muscle in my body is tensed and it is only by great effort that I keep my voice even.
“I apologize for the jargon. What I meant is that she may still have absorbed some language, some of the images of you and Mrs. Lilia uploaded for imprinting purposes. She may not have been merely sleeping through the five years of gestation. Her brain may or may not be akin to the relatively blank canvas of an ancient neonate.”
“So she’s alive?” I’ve been skirting the question, but I have to face the answer.
“Yes, of course. Her cranial fracture has been repaired and she has been sedated until such time as Mrs. Lilia and yourself decide how you wish to proceed. Should you wish to restart the process, I assure you that the subsequent pregnancy will be performed free of charge.”
“Restart? Free of charge?” I am incredulous, spluttering. Logical thought processes disengage and all I am left with is a righteous fury rising into my throat. The obstetrician’s face drains of what little colour it had and he will not meet my eyes.
“She called me Daddy, for God’s sake! Is this a factory? Is my daughter just a failure in quality control you’ll have to explain away? Your headache of the week? Look at me. Look at me, Dammit!”
He does, but there is no regret in his expression to satisfy me, only pity.
“Your daughter never spoke, Mr. Barrett. I’m sorry.”
“I know what I heard. Just because you—”
Saba has silently appeared at my elbow and interrupts the flow of accusations.
“Would you care for a glass of Fizzazolam sir?”
I stare at the hot, bubbling medicated soda in its stylish crystal stemware and all at once, the tenuous, hopeless, ridiculous nature of the situation hits home. Control. I have no control. The professionals, ultimately, have no control. We, creators of electric blue beverages and preprogrammed children, have no control.
I burst out in gales of laughter. My gut aches with it. Tears course down my cheeks. My emotional dam has broken and the tension, anger — even centuries-old guilt — is flowing out of me in one cleansing deluge. The doctor and Saba look away nervously as I bend double trying to catch my breath.
Finally, I regain my composure. I straighten, pluck the proffered beverage off Saba’s tray, and let it slip through my fingers to smash at the obstetrician’s feet. Crystal shards spray across the perfect onyx floor forming a glittering, beautiful chaos like the star-punched black of space.
“Gentlemen, I need to talk to my wife. Thank you for your services doctor. M. Saba, escort me to the library if you please.”
* * *
Legacy Joy stacks blocks on the floor of the living room while Lilia sings a deceleration lullaby through the comm-net. After much debate we have decided to maintain the ship at Earth Gravity one. Even so, Legacy is getting braver. She stands up to her full height, appraises the tower of blocks, and claps her perfect hands.
It’s still her only spoken word, but clear as a bell.
Laura Lee McArdle writes in Winnipeg Manitoba. Her story, “Aliens, Eh?” appeared in AE #2.