Boundaries Of Reproduction
Mike caught the barmaid’s eye and ordered a pint of bitter. ‘What’s your poison?’
Terry sighed. ‘Just an orange juice for me.’
‘What, on a Friday night?’
‘I’ve been off booze for a month. Got an appointment with Our Little Bundle tomorrow. I’m on their pre-conception diet plan. Pain in the neck.’
'Whey-hey! Having a go on a Girly-bot are you?’
‘No, you have to pay extra for that. I expect they’ll give me a plastic cup and a dirty mag. Anyway, Stan tried it. Said it was like being molested by the Hoover.’
‘Yeah, Stan would be up for that. Everything has to be top of the range for him, even when their harvesting his sperm.’ Mike supped an inch of his pint. ‘Still, I hear the conception was successful. Baby’s due in a couple of weeks, I think.’
Terry sucked on his straw and grimaced. ‘Yeah, Val’s visiting Rosemary tonight to see how things have gone.’
Val nearly choked on her Chardonnay. ‘What on earth’s that noise?’
Rosemary laughed, ‘Oh it’s the Mummy-bot. She’s singing to the foetus in Mandarin. It’s a bit of a racket, I know.’
Now that her eggs had been harvested, Val was really enjoying her first drink in over a month. ‘Oh, so you went for the pre-natal education package?’
‘Yes, it sings lullabies in three languages in the evening, teaches arithmetic in the morning and behavioural psychology in the afternoon.’
‘Good choices. I hear the Watsons opted for Law and Sociology and now their ten year-old is suing them for child abuse because they limited his time on the X-box.’
‘Oh Lord!’ Rosemary chortled. ‘Whatever next?’
‘So how have you found the Mummy-bot? We haven’t chosen our model yet.’
‘Oh you have to get the best. I mean nothing is more important is it? Although even the counter-top model is better than the things our poor mothers had to put up with.’
‘I know. Puking up for the first trimester, then lumbering around like an elephant dressed in a marquee.’
Rosemary was turning red in the face her shoulder were heaving, ‘Yes, and Heaven knows what kind of carnage you might be left with downstairs by the time they’d finished with you.'
After they’d dried their eyes. Val launched into more gossip. ‘Did you hear about Sissy Adams?’
‘I heard the birth didn’t go well. What happened to the poor dear?’
‘Apparently, she bought a second-hand Mummy-bot down the market.’
‘Oh no, really?’
‘It malfunctioned after six months. Just shut down completely. So she phoned for an engineer, but they couldn’t come out until the next day.’
‘No. What on earth did she do?’
‘They told her to put the Comfy-Womb in the airing-cupboard, to keep it warm. Then she had to give it a good shake once an hour until the engineer arrived.’
‘Oh heavens. No wonder the poor mite is so small!’
‘That’s what I thought. And he hasn’t started walking yet, either.’
Rosemary topped up their glasses and they sat back to contemplate poor Sissy’s plight.
Val pressed on with her inquiries. She wished she’d brought a notebook. Who knew that motherhood was so complicated? ‘How did you choose a midwife?’
‘We went with Our Little Bundle for the midwife too. You see, all their midwives are qualified in electrical engineering. In fact on her last visit she sorted out a problem I was having with the dishwasher.’
Somewhere, in another part of the house, the Mummy-bot suddenly ceased its yodeling.
‘Oh. It’s finished singing for the night. I’ll get it down, so that you can have a look.’ She opened the living-room door and shouted. ‘Maya, could you come here, please?’
There was a whirring noise as the tubby machine rolled into the room on four fat tyres. It was about the size of a front loading washing machine, but with rounded, padded edges. It sported a rather attractive floral pattern. Through a window in the front of the machine the foetus was visible in the cloudy amniotic fluid, hanging upside down from the artificial placenta. Every now and then it twitched a leg and sloshed about the container.
‘Oh lovely, you got one with a viewing panel. He’s a lively little fellow.’
‘Yes, it’s good to keep an eye on him. Maya, tell Val you’re specification.’
‘My name is Maya.’ Val thought how comforting the machine’s soft lilting voice was. ‘I am a 4.2 Deluxe Nurture-bot manufactured by the Our Little Bundle Corporation of America. I feature a full-term removable Comfy-Womb for easy birthing. It is fitted with a wide-angle viewing window for state-of-the-art developmental monitoring by qualified medical practitioners and electrical engineers. With the daily input of nutrition and regular battery recharging, I will successfully nurture a human foetus from conception to birth. As an added feature I have been fitted with a range of educational programmes that are audible to the foetus in the Comfy-Womb to maximize pre-natal intellectual development. I am upgradable to a Nanny-bot for customers who require post-natal nurturing assistance.’
‘Thank you Maya. You can go and re-charge your batteries now.’
‘Very impressive.’ Val spoke to the robot’s retreating back.
‘Oh, Maya is a God-send. We bought the post-natal upgrade too. They just pop out the Comfy-Womb and insert a combined cradle and self-cleansing teats. You just need to pour the formula in the lid.’
‘Fantastic. But isn’t that really expensive? We were thinking about just getting a counter-top model.’
‘Oh no, don’t do that. You’ll be stuck in the house for nine months. If I want to pop out to the coffee shop, Maya comes with me. And for longer journeys we bought a ramp for the MPV. She can just roll into the back. If her batteries start running down, I just stick her lead in the cigarette lighter. Nothing could be simpler.’
‘But you and Stan have such good jobs. We just couldn’t afford it.’
‘Then opt for the credit plan, dear. You’ll have paid it off by the time the little mite’s ready for university. And think of the head start they will get. Have you chosen the sex yet? Stan wanted a boy with dark curly hair and brown eyes. I think he secretly wants to be Ryan Giggs father.’
Val giggled, ‘That’s not the relationship I’d want with Ryan.’
Just then the doorbell rang.
Rosemary knitted her brows. ‘Who could that be at this time of night?’
Val heard a short exchange in the hall before Rosemary ushered a smartly dressed young man into the living room. Rosemary held a hand to her mouth and tears were rolling down her cheeks.
Val rose from her chair to embrace her friend. ‘Rosemary, whatever is the matter?’
‘This gentleman is from Our Little Bundle. He says there is a problem with our baby.’
‘Oh no, please don’t alarm yourself. Your foetus is perfectly healthy. It’s just that when we delivered the Mummy-bot to you, there was a small oversight. I’m afraid it contained the wrong foetus.’
Val couldn’t believe her ears. ‘How on earth could that happen?’
‘Madam, you have to appreciate we are the stork to over 200 little bundles every week. A simple error with our bar-coding machine led to you receiving the embryo belonging to another couple. Fortunately, our DNA checking system has identified the error. So all is well!’ He clasped his hands in front of him and beamed a dazzling smile in their direction. ‘All we need to do is remove the foetus from your Mummy-bot and replace it with the correct one. It’s right outside. We’ve transported it here in our specially designed vehicle, the Incu-Bus.’
Rosemary was indignant. ‘Just one minute buster, I don’t know anything about this other baby. What kind of Mummy-bot was it nurtured in? Was it fed premium nutrients? Has it received a pre-natal education and, if so, what was the curriculum?’
His smile faltered and he nervously adjusted his cufflinks. ‘I’m sure that the baby was well looked after. The mother is very experienced. One of our oldest customers in fact.’ He ran a finger around his collar.
Rosemary stabbed the man in the chest with her finger. Val had never seen her so agitated. ‘I want details.’
He nodded and looked at the floor. ‘This will be the 12th child for this mother. She has successfully used the 1.2 model for the last eleven years and all her children seem to be thriving, despite the snug conditions in the family home. Given the large size of the family, you won’t be surprised to learn that the other mother opted for basic nutrition and did not buy the pre-natal education package. However, she did tell me that her other children regularly sang playground songs and, err…, football chants to their impending sibling.’
‘Football chants?’ Val caught Rosemary before she collapsed to the floor and helped her to a seat.
‘Yes, I believe they are enthusiastic Manchester City supporters.’
When Rosemary spoke again it was barely a whisper. ‘I’m not sure I want this other baby.’
‘Oh I’m afraid the law is very clear. The Artificial Human Incubation Act states that if an error is detected prior to birth, then the foetus must be returned to the genetic parents, regardless of the conditions under which the foetus was cared for. But really, the baby is very healthy and has achieved the expected stage of development at this time in the pregnancy. I have a full medical report.‘ He pulled it out of his briefcase and passed it to Rosemary. ‘We will, of course, refund you the additional cost of the premium nutrients and the pre-natal education programme.’ He reignited his smile.
Back in the pub Terry declined a fourth orange juice. He was getting heartburn. An alcohol-free beer couldn’t do any harm could it?
‘Actually, we have a bit of news on that front ourselves.’ Mike placed the drinks on the table.
‘Oh yeah? Gaia made an appointment to harvest your sperm, has she?’
‘No, Gaia’s expecting.’
Terry spluttered into his neutered pint, ‘Are you mad? Anything could happen. What about stretch-marks and the trauma of a natural birth?’
‘Oh come on. Our species has used natural childbirth for millennia. That’s how we’re both sitting here after all.’
‘You’ll be living in a cave next and riding a dinosaur to work. You did both follow a strict pre-conception diet didn’t you?’
Mike was sheepish. ‘We didn’t plan it, exactly. We got pissed one night and forgot to take precautions. But we’re both very happy about it.’
‘You want to be careful mate. It could end up with an alcohol-dependency. I don’t know how you can bear it. You can’t choose the sex or plan the colour coordination. And what about the pre-natal education?’
Mike shook his head. ‘Well, we won’t be in hock to Our Little Bundle until we’re old and grey, but, do you know, I don’t think that’s the best thing. Gaia and I think that the surprise is all part of the fun. I mean it will have all the right bits and pieces won’t it? And who wants to match their child to their handbag? As for all this pre-natal education malarkey, frankly we think it’s a load of rubbish.’
‘Well, Val and I think it’s never too early to give our child a proper start in life. You and Gaia are playing with fire, if you ask me. The way I see it, with Our Little Bundle what you’re paying for is peace of mind. Nothing can go wrong and, when you’re talking about your own flesh and blood, that’s priceless. I can’t wait to talk to Val tonight – after her chat with Rosemary, I bet she’ll back me up.’
The uniformed man stared into the retina identification device and the door clicked. 'Twenty minutes'. He held the door open just long enough for Julie and Hugh to enter, then slammed it behind them. The light was low but the door's absorbed echo told them that the room was neither large nor small, and full of liquid. Their eyes accustomed to the light.
'No neglect,' said Hugh.
'I'm just saying when you only get one child you look after them.'
'Why would anyone neglect a child?' replied Julie.
'Heir and a spare.' Hugh laughed. 'That's what kings used to say. Just saying, if something happened to one, you had another.'
'Now we look after the one.'
Julie held his hand and they walked into the centre of the room. A room thinly lit and filled with vertical cylinders of thin purple liquid, in the corner of each a small pink baby.
'Thirty seven weeks,' mused Julie. 'They're all beautiful.'
'I preferred it when they stayed inside you,' replied Hugh. 'I think they're really ugly. My dad said I was ugly until I was two years old. I don't think he even picked me up before that. certainly I know he never changed a nappy.'
'You will though.'
'Yes, I will.'
'I'd report you-'
'I know. I will. I want to. You don't need to invoke the law on me.' Julie saw the look of hurt on Hugh's face but said nothing. Better to keep him on his toes. She prodded further. 'You've agreed to take time off. The full six months.'
'Yes.' Hugh was irritated.
Hugh snapped. 'I'll take six months, but don't expect them to give me an easy ride when I go back. I'll need help. They let you have six months but the hard bit is getting back onto the career escalator after that. Probably a good thing we can only have one. Never let me back on if I did it twice.'
'At least this way it's the same for both of us. The same experience. We can both be there at the birth, we can both feel the same emotions. Not like the old days when I would have been too tired to make a connection. I've not heard anyone say that they miss twelve hour labour. Or stretch marks. Or complain about how good their sex life still is after a child.'
'There's a tiny chance-'
But Julie broke Hugh off mid sentence. 'It's just a tiny chance. What do they say? Two percent of women can still conceive. One and a half percent of men aren't sterile. The chance is tiny. This is the one baby we're going to have. Don't even think about anything else.'
Hugh chewed his lip. 'What if we get it wrong?'
'They're all perfect.'
'But what if we're not compatible?'
'That's why we're here.'
'It's a bit touchy feely.'
Hugh couldn't get used to the way Julie said 'it's science'. She said it with a conviction that he didn't subscribe to. Science could make mistakes, he knew that. She didn't.
'What?' asked Julie playfully. 'We need to start. We don't have long.'
They walked past each of the glass cylinders. Julie willed each near fully formed baby to raise its head, to somehow acknowledge a connection. They all contained an element of her DNA and Hugh's DNA. Their body shapes were all familiar, yet different. Screened to perfection. Guaranteed. What did that mean? What happened if something went wrong? No, it never did. Nothing ever went wrong. Nobody had ever said anything had gone wrong with any baby from this facility.
'We'll walk round again,' suggested Hugh.
Julie wasn't sure. One of the babies was meant to make a connection. They had first choice of the entire batch. It was a privilege. Perhaps that was better than three or even four connections and having to make a difficult choice. After all, if you chose your favourite and then there's a problem, what might the others have been like? No, it was better this way. It sometimes happened. It wasn't how anyone wanted it to be, but sometimes it happened on the second rotation.
'We're making too much noise,' concluded Hugh. 'We need silence. Then we need to walk slowly.'
Julie didn't agree, she wanted the babies to feel her and Hugh, wanted the baby to be comfortable with their words and their footsteps. She wanted to walk round in as natural a way as possible.
'It's like Brave New World,' she said.
Julie knew he had never read the book. 'Sex for pleasure. And now babies grown outside any woman's womb. I know we had to work out how to do this to ensure we survived, but isn't this a miracle?'
'We,' laughed Hugh.
'Ah, science.' Hugh could never resist a barb, it ate him up until he released it. Hugh started his second circuit of the cylinders. Julie caught up immediately. At each cylinder they paused, willing the baby to acknowledge their presence. Time and again nothing.
But on the very last cylinder the baby raised its head and - Julie was sure of it - he smiled. She was so sure that it became a permanent fixture of her dinner party conversation. She reached out her hand but Hugh slapped it down and pulled her towards the door. It opened.
'Eight seconds left. You cut it fine,' said the uniformed man. 'We'll prepare him now.' He handed them a card with a time two weeks ahead. 'You're invited to the birth of your child,' he said, as if this was the first time he had said the words to anyone. 'Of course you know it's a boy. Have you selected a name yet?'
“Next question, who is willing to change Casing this time?
Remember, this will be an exciting opportunity; your records will show your interest in innovation, and there will almost certainly be the opportunity to participate in leading studies following your involvement.
Please don’t worry about your memory drive; it will simply merge with your partner’s seamlessly so you will experience not only renewed energy but also significantly greater data retention following the Metamorphosis...”
On my surround screen, I could see that my colleagues looked serious. The Perpetuation Programme, while highly successful, involved our obligation to be prepared for Metamorphosis with little chance to bid our current communities farewell. Even though our new forms did indeed contain old memories, improved designs brought fresh challenges, as well as delights, rendering such memories idle sentiment for the most part.
While we had all had several Metamorphoses, and it was reassuring to know that out memories would stay with us through them all, and that historical decay and dissolution would not affect us, this was something very new. I even wondered if there were risks in merging two of us into a single Casing. But our Life-Supporter had not made errors before. All the records could be accessed easily, and it was clear that quantitative and qualitative life was at a point when comparison with the unknown found in old-fashioned reproduction and death was insulting.
“Is it possible to merge at least part of the Casings of the two volunteers?”
“No. As you will all be aware, throughout Perpetuation, new Casings are still essential. We are continuing to improve maintenance to enable some future format-retention in your Metamorphoses, but still have technical difficulties with areas like damp and erosion of form.
Hopefully, at some point in your next dozen Metamorphoses these problems may be overcome with suitable materials. The technological achievements that have allowed minimal organ and memory decay may, in the not-too-distant future, be adapted to your outer Casings, if there are special requests due to frivolous but understandable aesthetics.”
“Are there any privileges attached to the volunteers?”
“A good question. Yes indeed. You will be encrypted securely as always, but this time, as the first Merger, you will be utilised by the world’s top researchers, and your enduring data shared across open forums. You will also be able to share any Merger-associated emotional data, and support subsequent Mergers.”
“How does it actually work?”
“An excellent question, Cyriu . If you recall some of the ancient attempts to modify crops genetically, using a crude form of fusion, it uses similar technology, with, naturally, the guarantee of continued existence through Metamorphosis. Our forebears had not, as we know, considered the inability of such organisms to self-regenerate.”
I had a question too, but was hesitant as it arose from previous memories of my mother talking about ancient reproductive techniques, now so deep in the past that my asking it seemed irrelevant.
“Yes-Syma-your question please?”
With the advent of Metamorphosis, we had our energy-modes monitored constantly to check that no technical problems could arise. Before our times, humans had been prone to many self-destructive behaviours; it was now recognised that successful continuation of our species relied on particular energy levels being maintained. I knew that, in past times, humans had learned to edit out some diseases and character traits, as well as select what used-crudely- to be considered national characteristics. And all this at a time when in poorer societies children regularly died of starvation and illness. Some of the barbaric eras had specialised in this kind of programme. Amusingly, since the methods were often misleading, people started screening for “imperfections” that now, were babies still being born, we would be able to deal with benignly, since our scientists understand how to control Metamorphoses to improve us, while retaining our best gifts. That our Life-Supporter was aware when we were in questioning mode was not so much a small price to pay for our continued Metamorphoses, as reassurance that such horrors could never return.
Yes. My question.
“I am wondering if we may ever Metamorphosize to a point where we may experience a feeling of unity with the notional offspring.”
“That seems irrelevant to this programme currently, but I am curious that your memories prompt such a query. Please expand. I will record in order to enhance your future experience. “
For the first time, I felt what might be alarm. Here was a memory to which I seemed attached.
“My mother once told me that, when I was born, she felt a special bond with me. She was happiest when holding and caressing me. I am wondering if we may feel something akin to such a bond if we enter the Merger. Or perhaps something similar to what she told me happened even further back, when two people had a special pairing to make offspring grow in the female’s body. She even told me that it was believed that uniquely wonderful communication took place between internal offspring and carriers. ”
“That is unlikely, if interesting as a hypothesis, and something we can certainly look into if it can be incorporated in such a way as to enhance the experience without introducing discord.
Technically, it would be an interesting challenge given the degree of physical separation we recognise as essential for human survival. I take it you understand, Syma? ”
I nodded. Understanding was easy.
For this innovation, we will be developing a completely new volunteer for the Casing, from the Ice-Cyst, so as to maintain the population quota, as always. One Casing equates to Two-Becoming-One. This is likely to offer the best outcome, since, in addition to my earlier explanation , we have been unable to predict the likelihood of internal discord arising from physical dominance if any of one of the partner’s Casings is retained.
You will all be aware, through your programing, of how the past world contained such discord within, and between, many of those who joined to produce offspring, that their negative energy transmuted into the near destruction of this planet. “
I had indeed been fully educated on this part of the human story. There had been no programmer powerful enough to prevent this flaw. Ignorant, competitive attempts to breed it out failed. As humans became more insistent on maintaining borders, their intense inbreeding nearly caused complete self-annihilation, from genetic inaccuracies, since they lacked understanding in their selection programmes. Along with unsustainable over-crowding before we learned to Perpetuate through Metamorphosis. I had, in my previous Casings, seen images of corpse-filled seas engulfing islands, all in association with that era of hasty and ill-conceived parenting, with its “winner-takes-all” attitudes. The wealthy had chosen many offspring, with the technical support that had been innovative for its time, at the cost of others being removed . How thankful I felt that our Life-Supporter had realised this in time to start the Perpetuation Programme !
Yet, my mother, lying suspended in her contained unit, had wept last time I had visited.
“Why do I see you only on the screen?
Why can’t I touch you beside me?
And what’s all this about different Casings? You don’t look like my child.
I want my child back!”
I had been bitterly ashamed, before my subsequent and timely Metamorphosis had dealt with so unnecessary an emotion, that my own mother should retain such a miserable wish. It seemed unfair, however, that she had not been offered Metamorphosis, which would have spared her such irrational anguish. Instead, she had been selected to help those in the Perpetuation Programme recall the errors of the past, her speciality being the technical crudities of historical reproduction. For example, that old-fashioned emotions, like longing, were being satisfied through using test-tube babies , or young carrier girls of former India, seems outrageous to us, who understand the potential for aggression fuelled by over-population and diminishing resources. Notions of what constituted fairness were skewed; the rich and needy would pay enormously behind their countries’ borders to select every detail- interrogating surrogates on talents, beliefs and interests, and –then- gender-selecting as part of pre-implantation genetic diagnosis. The process was foolish; no counselling was offered regarding best choices for population-control -nor even should the child transgender! Potential parents considered foreign carriers’ salaries generous ; what was cheap at home equalled many years of survival elsewhere - worth all the life-threatening risks, including lack of post-partum medical aid. Employers often spoke proudly and emotionally of the gifts they had strewn gratefully on these young incarcerated girl-carriers. My mother remembered these times with disbelief verging on disgust; my birth had been achieved in a civilised manner with selective sperm donation, she having been one of the innovators of that era.
But her current emotional state was of no use to her, or anybody else, when travel was so rarely permitted. In any case, OUR physical feelings, such as they were, were systematically removed through our Metamorphoses so that we would not be inconvenienced by distance in our communications with those who held our interest or could add to our memories.
This idea of merging Casings and memories was an exciting one. I did still wonder if, in the process, incidental, subsidiary feelings, such as those which had accompanied the physical matings my grandmother had apparently known, might arise, but put this thought to one side, not before our Life-Supporter must have been aware, and had put a tick and question mark next to my image on her screen.
I was seriously concerned that my question may seem so old-fashioned that my memory would be tweaked in my next Metamorphosis. And this concerned me as I did retain ties with my mother; after all her methodology had rendered me unique in a way that was mostly frowned on nowadays, even if indulged.
In her day, reproductive boundaries had been crossed all at once; even ideas that had seemed taboo when she was a child had become part of the mix once she was adult. One of the most controversial had been that of the multiple sperm-donor...especially when borders were crossed, at that time of belligerent nationalism. If a donor was in one country and the offspring born in another, what nationality might it enjoy?
All this nonsense is of no interest to us in this time of enlightened peace and fair-sharing , but back then it made bad things worse in some cases. Especially when people wanted to locate their genetic parents. Things had to change, and when they did, people adapted with huge relief.
Our wonderful Life-Supporter devised this method to ensure that the population would stay exactly the same and that nobody had to suffer any physical hardship. Along with replacement Casings from the Ice-Cyst, our Metamorphoses always heralded improvements, so everybody was content. Food and transport ceased to be a problem along with our ability to do nearly all our communication via surround screens.
Reproduction was truly a thing of the past.
“Syma and Cyriu, if you are willing, I am selecting you for the first Merger in the absence of immediate volunteers.
As this is going to be a little different from your previous experiences, I am asking you to be available for training in three hours time, and the actual Merger will take place in forty-eight hours, which should give you ample time to contact those you feel necessary. The outcome -and this is innovative-will be AS IF the Merger were your Offspring,as your current components will be merged , and all your inner memories and thoughts will be edited to emphasise the very best of you both.
Thank you so much. “
I wondered if, in ancient history, any parental partners had begun to imagine the sense of awe and community that unexpectedly flooded through me. Not emotions with which I was familiar. The difference of course being that our Merger was to be completely authentic. And I found myself appearing on my mother’s screen in floods of tears.