By Diana Rohlman

"Position?" he asked, patently bored with the endless process.

"Mother," she replied hesitantly , holding out her ID card. A gasp thronged through the room, and all eyes fell upon the commonplace woman, evaluating her in a new light.

"You do, of course, mean a…foster…mother?" the clerk stammered.

"No," she answered, unsure of herself now, "I am a biological mother. I birthed my children naturally." The clerk paled, and he handled her ID card with awe. As she stepped through the first portal, people moved aside, respect written on their flawless faces. She smiled wearily. Everyone was making room for her, a tired, matronly old woman. The contrast was too great.

Her foot faltered, and she firmed her resolve, stepping resolutely through the third, and last portal. Emerging, she stopped, her eyes assaulted by the horrific sight therein. Babies, in various stages of development, floated placidly in mock wombs, some sucking their thumbs, other investigating their tiny toes. Around some of the tanks parents clustered, playing music, and reading to their child ‘in utero’.

Red light limned the tanks, and glinted off the thick plasma solutions, sparking jewel tones that flared briefly, then disappeared. It was unnaturally silent, except for the underlying hum of machinery, and the muffled footsteps of surreptitious aides. The smooth, concrete floor shone dully in the red light, and reflected the wavy motion of the solution in the tank. Weirdly, the entire, cavernous room appeared as though it were underwater.

She licked suddenly dry lips and strode towards the row of desks near the back of the room, disconcerted by the long aisles lined with tanks of babies. Occasionally she brushed by a pair of glowing parents, their faces serious as they played Mozart to the baby, or intoned passages from Moby Dick in solemn, sonorous voices. Finally, she reached the blessedly normal desks. A white-coated, efficient looking woman awaited her. The woman took a surreptitious look at Mrs. Lanyori’s badge, and consulted a thin clipboard before looking up.

"Welcome, Mrs. Lanyori," she said, her voice smooth and pleasant. "If you’ll come this way…" and with a shifting of gears, the young woman swiveled and glided down the narrow aisle, speaking over her shoulder. "You’ll be working in the Human Section, of course," the prototype informed her. "Your references for child-care are remarkable. We have never had a birth-mother working at Geneti-core Children before…" The pleasant voice continued, but Mrs. Lanyori had ceased to listen. Here floated children that parents had rejected. She knew the process. Pro-life activists had succeeded in passing legislation that prohibited the termination of these babies, so development of the children was simply halted. So here they stayed, suspended in time. Many were still tiny fetuses, imperfectly formed. But one child had grown to several years old- a perfect little girl, her brown hair wisping around her small, contented face, eyes tightly closed as she bobbed slightly with the solution in the tank.

Mrs. Lanyori stopped, placing her palms on the glass aquarium. Unaware of the attention, the girl remained motionless.

The robot had continued on without her, but now doubled back, slightly annoyed.

"You won’t be working in this section, Mrs. Lanyori," it said brusquely. "You will be working in Children’s Development, Level 3-"

"What’s her name?" Mrs. Lanyori interrupted. The robot’s eyes blinked rapidly in confusion, producing little metallic Snaps! of sound.

"Her name? She is #547329, biologically two years of age, but she has been stored here for the requisite twelve years. Termination is pending, as the Genetic Bill, Article 7, Section 3, clause 45 requires only that we hold all defects for a period of twelve and a half years. After that, the future of the defects is at our discretion."

"But what’s wrong with her?" Mrs. Lanyori insisted, her hands still pressed to the glass. The robot sighed, but complied, albeit with irritation.

"#547329 was determined to be at risk for Type II diabetes." The question answered, the robot began to move off again, but Mrs. Lanyori was rooted to the spot.

"That’s it?" she murmured, disbelieving. "At risk? Of diabetes?" her voice had begun to rise. "Even if she had gotten diabetes- it is easily curable! She-"

"She carried defective genes," the robot inserted seamlessly. "Her parents did not wish to have a sickly child, and saw no reason to continue the development of this child when they could easily have a healthier child."

"But why did they allow-" she searched for the words, "why did they allow #547329 to continue developing? Why did they not immediately halt the process?" The robot lifted its shoulders in the human equivalent of a shrug.

"That information is not included in my database. Now, if you will please follow me." Numbly, Mrs. Lanyori allowed herself to be pulled away from the tank. Behind her, the little girl continued to float, oblivious to all around her.

They strode through glaringly white hallways, and through grand concert halls, where serious-faced teenagers diligently practiced a wide variety of musical instruments. Every child was silent. There were no whispered conversations, no furtive elbow-jabbing, no loud laughter. They swept through the genetics lab, where anxious parents watched on computer screens as their child’s DNA was assembled, one nitrogen-base after another at incredible speed. Scientists laughed jovially as they selected certain genes per the parent’s requests, and tossed aside others. Whole genomes appeared on the glowing screens, and with a tap of a key, the phenotype was suddenly tossed up on the screen. Gorgeously molded babies pivoted slowly, their features morphing and shifting fluidly as the technology of Geneti-Core simulated their features at age one, five, ten, twenty, and fifty. Dismayed parents help up a peremptory finger and stabbed at the offending feature of their as-yet-unborn offspring. Patient scientists keyed back to the waiting genome and singled out the defective genetic sequence, pulling it up. A, A, G, C, T, A, T- letters scrolled across the screen in a dizzying line. Fingers tapped keys, and the sequence was changed. An entire life shifted with the push of a plastic letter key. Another flick of a finger, and a child’s face was saved forever into the computer database.

They passed by the cafeteria, where children stood in long, quiet lines, their trays held in still hands. Music was played in the cafeteria- Mrs. Lanyori recognized the classical strains- it was Rachmaninoff. And none of the children made comments; there was simply silent, passive acceptance.

Finally they reached Children’s Development, Stage 3. The robot held open the door for Mrs. Lanyori, and gestured her in.

"Please proceed to Door #17, and enter. Mr. Selvick is expecting you." The door closed, and Mrs. Lanyori was alone in a room littered with toys. To her left a baby gurgled happily as he attempted to shove a rectangle through a triangular hole in a plastic toy. His mother watched delightedly, then reached out and gently helped her son. Mrs. Lanyori felt a smile beginning. This was natural. This was right.

Door #17 opened, and Mr. Selvick looked out expectantly.

"Mrs. Lanyori? Please, come in." Reluctant to leave the scene of domesticity, Mrs. Lanyori walked towards him, her steps dragging slightly. He welcomed her in, and firmly closed the door behind her, shutting out even the sounds of the baby giggling.

"I must confess that I was surprised to hear of someone your age coming back to work," Mr. Selvick said, motioning her to a chair. "I was even more surprised to learn that you were a birth-mother. To be honest, I’ve never met a birth-mother. Believe me," he added obsequiously, "the pleasure is mine." Mrs. Lanyori smiled slightly, but her eyes avoided his, gazing instead at his sumptuous office. Pictures of newborns in heavy silver frames adorned his mahogany desk, and a gold paperweight held down a thick stack of creamy, textured birth certificates, all bearing his name in an illegible, but decidedly important, scrawl. The carpet was plush, thick and soft. A heavy Rolex encircled his wrist, and he held in one hand a rich leather folder, with Geneti-core’s logo tooled in silver on the front. Mr. Selvick noticed her distraction, and paused for a moment, then continued, hardly stopping to draw breath. "As a birth-mother, you have worked with newborns. Most of our clients do not wish to receive their children until they are trained. Toilet-trained, you understand, able to sleep through the night, etc." He waved his hands dismissively. "Tantrums and the like are not to be permitted. It will be your job to train the children that come under your care as to what is acceptable, and what is not." Mrs. Lanyori stared at him in astonishment.

"Teach a child not to cry when he’s hungry? To stay silent when he’s cold? Or when he’s angry? Or hurt? What you ask is impossible, Mr. Selvick." Mr. Selvick permitted himself a small chuckle, then looked at Mrs. Lanyori slightly condescendingly.

"You do realize that all our children have undergone extensive genetic recombination? We actually construct the DNA of the children, choosing only the best, most advantageous genes for the baby. " Mrs. Lanyori listened with horror. There would be no funny quirks, irrational idiosyncracies, nothing different about these children. She choked down a sudden surge of nausea, her mouth working before she could speak.

"Then, the children are genetically programmed to cry less?" Mr. Selvick beamed happily.

"Exactly! Your job really is to be a maternal figure, to hold and cuddle the children, but only when they have been good. Hugging a child after it has been bad will only damage the child in the long run. It will place less importance on being scolded, and will begin to learn that it can get away with certain things. Thus you, as the primary care-taker, must ensure that the children are punished fairly, even rather harshly. We must weed out negative tendencies in these children. Our clients are looking for the child they constructed, not some bad-mouthed, outspoken, rude, ill-mannered-" he ran out of adjectives and stopped to breathe. He smiled apologetically at Mrs. Lanyori. "Well, I’m sure you understand." She inclined her head. She certainly did understand. Mr. Selvick rubbed his hands together briskly.

"Well. Any questions?"

"Just one," Mrs. Lanyori ventured. "What happens to the children that parents reject?"

"Oh! You mean the defects?" Mr. Selvick asked carelessly. "They are held for the minimum time requirement, and then terminated."

"Terminated?" Mrs. Lanyori asked, knowing full well what he meant.

"Yes. We remove life support from the defect. If the defect continues to live without the life support we are required to raise it, but, luckily, that hasn’t yet happened. Why do you ask?" Flustered, Mrs. Lanyori gripped her purse tightly, but managed a smile.

"Oh, no reason. The defects that live- would they then be released out into the world?" Mr. Selvick looked shocked.

"Absolutely not! They carry imperfect genes." His face flushed with the indignity of naturally concieved genes being dropped into the world, seeming to forget that he himself had been born in such an unglorified way. Mrs. Lanyori bit her lip. She could not anger this man. She forced herself to nod politely, and stood, asking where she was to report to. Graciously, Mr. Selvick himself led her to a large, airy room, where half a dozen children sat playing on the floor.

"Good morning, children," he said unctuously, grand benevolence spreading across his fleshy face. The smooth, unflawed, childish faces looked up and chorused, "Good morning Mr. Selvick," their voices unnaturally even and devoid of emotion. Mrs. Lanyori felt a chill skitter up the backs of her legs, twine up her spine, and shudder into her shoulders. There was no cherubic baby fat here, nor any squabbling over toys. ‘Please’, and ‘Thank you’s’ were exchanged in murmured tones. She clutched her purse to her, running her fingers over the uneven, imperfect surface, finding a last vestige of humanity in the loose threads and scarred leather. It was unnerving- they were all little adults. But she forced herself to smile at the children, and take a seat by them. Immediately one rose, carrying a large tome, a look of concentration upon his face.

"We’ve been reading Tolstoy," he piped up, "but we are still experiencing difficulty with several of the words." Mrs. Lanyori stared at him for a split-second, then grasped the book at the same moment that Mr. Selvick leaned down to whisper in her ear.

"We have placed several drones in the classes with the children, to act as role-models, and keep their attention focused. This is Ian- he’s helped raise five generations. Occasionally he will jump in and help you out when he notices a deficiency in the children." Mr. Selvick frowned.

"Why are you still having difficulty with the level of diction?" He addressed the silent children somberly. "I want the reading level to be college-level by next week, and I will take no excuses. Really, I am disappointed. Unless you show me immediate results, I will be forced to suspend your television privileges." Mrs. Lanyori smiled in relief. At least the children still watched TV. But their next words stunned her.

"But the History channel is doing an in-depth program on the military strategy of General McArthur!" Similar protests barraged Mr. Selvick, and he held up his hands in mock surrender.

"Yes, I understand. You all want to see that program. However, your education comes first." Mrs. Lanyori closed her eyes tightly as Mr. Selvick’s voice continued, unstopping, a smooth, deceptive waterfall of sound. What could she do? She was only one woman. An old, tired, lonely woman. Her eyes snapped open, and she stood decisively, sweeping out of the room. Mr. Selvick didn’t even notice her departure. Skillfully she negotiated her way through the pristine corridors, and down the gleaming stairs until she reached the laboratory. Threading her way through the rows of tanks and motionless fetuses, she stood once again in front of the little girl. Minutes, hours later, an aide came to stand next to her, so quiet that she thought him to be a robot. But when he spoke, his voice was husky with emotion.

"She looks perfect, doesn’t she?" Mrs. Lanyori looked at him in surprise. His was the first face to register an emotion- a true, gut-wrenching, tear-jerking emotion as he watched the little girl float, her face so endearingly trusting and naive. Mrs. Lanyori could only nod, her throat too tight for words.

"‘Termination is pending…’" he quoted softly, and left the sentence unfinished, looking at her questioningly.

"If only…" she couldn’t finish the thought. So he finished it for her, carefully avoiding her eyes.

"The adoption of a defect is not allowed, but if someone were to, say, steal the child, and the alarm was not raised for several hours…" Mrs. Lanyori gasped, her fingers grasping convulsively at the glass separating her from her baby girl. Tears slipped down her face.

"All these years…my husband said she didn’t make it. He said that she had died- we never gave her a name- we just had her number." The aide looked at her in sympathy.

"You’re not the first," he said gently. "And you’re not the last." He glanced around quickly, and then his hand stretched out to a small, red button fused into the glass of the tank. Slowly, agonizingly slowly, the button was depressed, and the solution in the tank fell at an alarming rate. Mrs. Lanyori watched, helpless, as her daughter sank with the level of the liquid. The aide waited too, nervous, as the child dragged in her first, tremulous breath. Her eyes opened, and her mouth gaped, ready to squall in protest. Tears were falling openly now, from both adults, as they watched the twelve year delayed birth of a beautiful baby girl. Opening the tank, Mrs. Lanyori reached in and held her daughter. Her perfect daughter.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Diana Rohlman

Diana Rohlman and her dog Narnia, live in Washington. They both enjoy long walk in the rain, and puddle-stomping. Puddle-stomping aside, Diana writes fantasy and science fiction novels and short stories in her spare time. She began writing when she was fourteen, and was published by the time she turned sixteen.

E-mail: drohlman84@yahoo.com>


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