"Cela! Hey, Cela, come take a look at this. My God, you're never going to believe it!"
I heard Kane's call from the kitchen. I was busy selecting a menu for our evening meal, but the stunned disbelief in his voice made me switch off the auto-chef and head for the lounge.
"Believe what?" I asked, but instead of answering Kane gripped my arm and pointed to the Server-screen.
"Look--a Proc-permit! After all this time, a Proc-permit! Can you credit that?"
My jaw dropped. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I'm sure." Kane pressed the remote, the screen brightened and the letters doubled in size. "There, read it yourself."
I read it twice, and after the second scan allowed myself to believe that Kane was right. The document had 'Special Delivery Priority Mail' printed in bold letters across the top. The words below announced that Kane Barton Jackson, identity number 5682001497, and Cela Serena Jackson, identity number 9847107325, were the winners of the Draw which took place on21 July 2335. The recipients were advised that their selection entitled them to procreate and give birth to one live infant within a period of twelvemonths. Small print warned that if the couple failed to present themselves sat the Procreation Centre within seven days, the privilege would be withdrawn.
I flipped onto the nearest couch. Kane sat down beside me. For a few seconds we just sat there, staring at the server-screen, and then he turned and asked, "So... what do you think?"
I blinked. "What do you mean? What's there to think about? It's what we've always hoped for, isn't it?"
He hesitated. "Well, yes, but that was when we were first married. Things have changed since then."
"In what way?"
"Well, let's face it - we're not as young as we used to be."
"We're not too old to have a baby," I pointed out. "Our names would have been removed from the Pool if that was so. The Law is very strict about that."
"I know. But, we've been married for over ten years."
I could feel my exasperation growing and found it difficult to keep my voice even. "What difference does that make?"
His voice took on an earnest tone. "A big difference. Look at it this way, Sweetheart. We're settled in our ways, got just about everything we ever wanted - good jobs, this house, the lakeside cottage, and the shuttle, Betsy, Bonzo, and Kitty. A baby, at this stage, would change everything."
Betsy, Bonzo, and Kitty were the best models money could buy. Kane and I had paged through the catalogue and spent long hours calculating whether we could afford them, but in the end had decided to go for the best. We'd had no regrets. Betsy was not only smaller and lighter than old-fashioned domestics, but moved so quietly one hardly noticed she was there. Bonzo was a golden retriever, so well constructed it was almost impossible to tell he was not a real dog. Kitty, a blue-eyed Siamese, came from the same factory.
Kane put an arm around my shoulders, drawing me close. "I'll go with whatever you want, Sweetheart, but I want you to think things over carefully before you make up your mind."
I shook my head vehemently. "There's no need to think. I know what I want. I want..." That was as far as I got before he placed a finger on my lips. "Hush. Hush. I want you to listen to what I have to say before you make a decision as important as this. Will you do that?"
I was disappointed to find that Kane wasn't as enthusiastic as I was about the permit, but common sense told me it was only to be expected. Men were different from women. They lacked maternal instinct. And, besides, hews cautious by nature. He liked to turn things over a dozen times before reaching a decision. But he loved me, I knew he did, and it wouldn't do any harm to hear what he had to say. So I nodded and gave him a small smile."Okay. Go ahead."
"I know you want a baby, Honey. I know it's been on your mind since the day we married, but I don't think you realize the implications, or just how much it would disrupt our lives. That's what we need to talk about."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you'd have to give up your job for a start."
I tossed my head. "I know. I'm fully aware of that."
I liked my job at the Library. I liked the people I worked with, I liked browsing through old books and manuscripts, and there was satisfaction in knowing that converting all that data to micro-chips and preserving it forever, was a worthwhile job. It would be a wrench to give it up, but staying home to look after a baby would more than make up for it.
"Babies cry and need their nappies changed," Kane went on. "They need to be fed every few hours. They're messy little devils. And when they grow older they run around breaking things."
"I know. I know." And I really did know because although I'd never actually held a real, live baby in my arms, I'd read enough about them. That was what I enjoyed so much about my job. There was plenty of time to read, and a mountain of books to choose from - ancient books, written before the Catastrophe. And piles and piles of magazines. The ones I liked best had titles such as, 'Mother and Baby', 'The Toddler', "Your Baby', and 'Baby Talk'. They contained articles about how to cope with temper tantrums, potty training, bedwetting, sibling rivalry and breastfeeding, to name but a few. I found a book written by a man called Dr. Spock most fascinating of all, and read it from cover to cover at least six times.
Kane's voice cut into my thoughts. "I'm making a suggestion. It's only a suggestion, Sweetie, so don't get in a state. But I'd like you to think about it for a few minutes."
"Think about what?"
"About adopting a RoBaby."
I sighed. We'd discussed the pros and cons of adopting a RoBaby more times than I could count. Most of our friends had accepted the fact that there was little chance of them ever winning a Proc-Permit, and had settled for adopting one, or even two, RoBabies. Kane had been keen to follow their example, but some instinct, deep inside of me, would not allow me agree. I did not want a baby made from Nu-plasma and wire and goodness knows what else. I'd grown attached to Bonzo and Kitty in the way one grows fond of a favorite toy, and Betsy was a real treasure, but the thought of nursing a RoBaby made me shudder.
I didn't feel like going over the old argument again, but knew that making a scene would get me nowhere, so I nodded and said, "Okay, I'm listening."
Kane smiled. "Good girl. I only want what's best for us, and there's a lot to be said for RoBabies."
"Such as?" I knew the answer, but asked anyway.
"They're cuddly and cute and smile and gurgle and coo, just like real babies. They cry too, but stop when they're told. They never get sick. They sleep through the night and don't whimper and whine if their mother forgets to feed them. Or change their nappy. RoBabies are smart, much smarter than real children. Most are programmed to talk right from day one. And there are thousands to choose from - all ages, all sizes, little redheads, blonds, brunettes, any color and shape you fancy. If you get tired of the one you have, you can trade it in for a new model." Kane gave me an encouraging smile. "What do you say, Cela? Why not give it a try?"
I shook my head and jutted my jaw. "No, that's not what I want. I want a real baby, a baby that cries because it's hungry, or itchy, or tired, or just wants to be picked up and spoilt. A baby that needs me. Please, Kane, please."
He turned to search my face. "You're sure that's what you want?"
"Quite, quite sure. Oh, Kane, it's what I want more than anything."
He hesitated a moment longer, then bent to kiss me. "Right. That's that then. I want you to be happy, Sweetheart. If you're absolutely sure that that's what you want, I'll go along with it."
I threw my arms around his neck and kissed him right back.
I could hardly contain my excitement when Kane and I climbed into the shuttle and set off for the Proc-Centre the following morning. From my window I could see the city spread out below, a sprawl of houses, each surrounded by an expanse of green. Tree-lined streets crisscrossed the landscape, and here and there I glimpsed a lake set in a spacious park. No smog, no squalor, no slums. Not a high-rise building in sight. It was hard to believe that little more than a century ago, the city had teemed with tens of millions of people, jam-packed together like rats in an overcrowded cage.
It struck me that life might have gone on in the same way forever, if the X-virus had not appeared from nowhere, and decimated one city after another as it circled the globe. I was glad I'd been born in the new world, where such a catastrophe would never be allowed to happen again, but felt a little sad at the thought that so many pleasant things had disappeared with the bad. Like stork-parties and baby-showers and Father Christmas and stockings filled with toys. And nursery rhymes. One I'd come across in the library archive came back, and I began humming it under my breath, "Rock-a-bye baby on the tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock..."
We sped on, skimming trees and rooftops, then a flash of silver caught my eye and there was the Dome. The shuttle shot toward it. As we drew closer I saw the words, 'Procreation Centre' printed in bold letters across the roof. The shuttle slowed, hovered above the parking lot, then the anti-grav clicked off, and we slid into a vacant pod.
The shuttle doors opened. Kane and I stepped out and made our way along a well-marked walkway, through a revolving door, into a large hall. A Robo-receptionist welcomed us. She checked our names and identity chips, punched data into her terminal, produced personalized admittance cards - one for each of us - then escorted us to a room occupied by a distinguished-looking, grey-haired man.
He rose from his desk and held out a hand as we came in. "Welcome and congratulations! It is always a pleasure to meet prospective parents. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Dr. Mendoza, your Genetic Modification Councilor. But, take a seat. Make yourselves comfortable. When you are settled it will be my duty to advise you of all available modifications. We will then record your preferences."
I stared. "Modifications?"
"Genetically modified characteristics. We want to make sure your baby will be adequately equipped to cope with the challenges of the new era."
Kane opened his mouth to reply, but I got in before him. "Thank you, Dr. Mendoza, but we don't want modifications. We just want an ordinary little baby. Isn't that so, Kane?"
Dr. Mendoza's eyebrows shot up, then he leaned back in his chair and regarded me with stern, disapproving eyes. "Do you realize how privileged you are, Mrs. Jackson? Do you know how many couples would give everything they own to change places with you?"
A chill ran through me. The thought that the permit might be withdrawn made me nod, and I stumbled over the words in my haste to answer."I know. I'm fully aware of that. And we're ever so grateful. I can't tell you how grateful."
He leaned forward and smiled. "Good. Well then, let me to give you some advice. If your pregnancy was allowed to take place haphazardly, without modification and constant supervision, there's a risk the baby might be born with a malformation of some kind. Or mentally impaired. Do you really wish to take that chance?"
This time Kane got in before me. "Of course not. We'll do whatever is necessary to make sure our baby is born whole and healthy." He turned to me. "You agree with that, don't you, Cela?"
I nodded. A malformed baby was the last thing I wanted.
"Very sensible," Dr. Mendoza exclaimed. He punched a button on his keyboard, then looked up and smiled. "We have a new cell-regeneration implant. Would you like me to add that to your list of requirements as well?"
"What effect does it have?" Kane asked.
"It enables the baby to repair damaged cells the moment an injury or infection occurs. It means, in effect, that your child will never get ill, and if injured, will recover in a very short time."
"Sounds good," Kane said. "What do you say, Cela, shall we include that as well?"
I hesitated, and for a moment thought of saying no, but it seemed such a sensible thing to agree to. After all, how could any mother deny her child good health when it was in her power to ensure it? Besides, I was conscious of Dr. Mendoza's eyes on me. "Okay. Put it on the list."
"Now, what about the sex of the child?" Dr. Mendoza asked. "Would you prefer a boy or a girl?"
I didn't mind one way or another and would have preferred to leave it to chance, but Kane's face lit up, and for the first time showed a spark of enthusiasm. "A boy. I would really like a son." He turned to me, brows raised, a question in his eyes. "That's if it's okay with you?"
I shrugged and gave him a smile. "Fine. That's fine with me."
Dr. Mendoza pressed another button, then turned his attention to the next item on his list. "Intelligence. There are various levels to choose from. We don't recommend below average, but you may choose average, above average, superior or genius. Each level is categorized by universally accepted IQ ratings. What is your preference?"
Kane's eyes opened wide. "Do you mean... that if I request it... my son will be a genius? Is that really possible?"
"Most definitely," Dr. Mendoza assured him. "Our geneticists have made wonderful progress in the last few years. Would you like me to add super intelligence to your list of requirements?"
I could feel a headache coming on, a bad one, and there was a strange, high-pitched buzzing in my ears. I wanted to scream, "Stop. Do you hear me? Stop. It's my baby you're talking about, and that's not what I want. That's not what I want at all." But I clenched my jaw and pressed my lips together because Kane's hand reached out to touch mine, and because Dr. Mendoza had turned to stare at me again. I would not give him cause to think I was crazy. Kane must have taken my silence for agreement, because he answered for both of us.
"Definitely. Top of the range intelligence is an absolute must."
The next item on Dr. Mendoza's list was 'Physical Appearance'. He pushed a form across the desk and instructed us to fill in the blanks indicating our choice of hair color, eye color, skin tone, as well as a number of other details. After that came, 'Temperament'. And after that, 'Athletic Ability'. There was more, a whole lot more, but by then my mind was reeling and I was finding it difficult to concentrate. Kane, on the other hand, seemed to be enjoying himself. I left it all to him.
Dr. Mendoza smiled as he closed the file. "Now sit back and relax while I go over the procedures that will have to be carried out, step by step, before the infant is delivered."I could hear his voice, droning on and on, but his words were too technical for me to grasp, and I only caught an odd phrase that made any sense. "... a small operation to harvest the egg ... completely painless ... fertilized in the laboratory ... DNA ... Critical period..." And then at last, "When we are sure the embryo is viable, it will be implanted into Cela's uterus."
"And that's it?" Kane asked.
"Not quite. The baby's development must be monitored very, very carefully. Various medications and stimuli must be applied at specific intervals. It will be necessary for Cela to visit the Centre twice a week for the first three months, three times a week for the next three, and every day for the last trimester."
I frowned. "Stimuli? What kind of stimuli?"
"At first simply recordings of your voice - lullabies, stuff like that, all very soothing."It was a strange concept, but one I rather liked. "Will the baby be able to hear at such a young age?"
"Oh yes. No doubt about it. And don't forget your infant is destined to be a genius. He will assimilate speech-patterns and comprehend basic mathematics from a very early age."There was more, something about chemicals and metabolism and the effect of radiation and supersonic sound-waves on brain development.
Dr. Mendoza must have seen the blank look on my face because he broke off in the middle of a sentence and chuckled softly. "There - that's enough for today. And don't you go worrying about the details. All you have to do is make an appointment with our receptionist and follow instructions. Leave the rest to us. We'll take care of it all for you."
The first weeks were the worst. Worrying about whether the embryo would survive kept me awake at night, and the thought that I might lose it, and have to go through the whole process all over again, reduced me to tears. But when Dr. Mendoza announced that the critical period was over, and that all was well, I relaxed and began to enjoy my pregnancy. Shopping for baby garments and nursery furniture and furnishings, took up a lot of time. There was no shortage of goods to choose from, but most were designed for RoBabies, and the real-wool and real-cotton articles I wanted, were difficult to come across.
I searched the library's archive to find micro-books on motherhood, and read them slowly, one by one. Dr. Mendoza laughed when I told him. He made some remark about old fashioned ideas, but I didn't care. I enjoyed reading about 'bonding' and 'how to bathe a baby' and a stack of other interesting topics. Photos of red and wrinkled newborns, with tiny fingers and unseeing, milky eyes, brought a lump to my throat. I could hardly wait to hold my own baby in my arms.
Nine months is a long time, but with so much to keep me occupied, the days flew. I spent long hours at the Centre, more often than not wired to a machine that throbbed and pulsed and emitted strange, supersonic vibrations. Now and again I was given a handful of pills and a glass of some strange liquid to swallow.
Dr. Mendoza kept a check on my progress, and week by week, gave encouraging reports. "Fine. You're doing fine." And, "Bonny little fellow you've got in there." When I became impatient and complained about the discomfort, he gave me an encouraging pat on the back. "Nearly there," he said. "Not much longer now."
The sessions at the Centre grew longer and more tedious. I had no idea what it was all about, and didn't like the idea of bombarding the baby with so much stimuli, but when I expressed my concern to Kane, he only laughed. "Relax. Dr. Mendoza knows what he's doing. Leave it to him."
Then, at last there came a day when Dr. Mendoza looked up from his scanner and smiled. "Time's up. Tell Kane to take the day off tomorrow and get you here bright and early. And remember, there's nothing to worry about. The delivery will be quick and painless."I have no idea what they gave me to drink but it worked like a charm. I went into labor at nine on the dot, and by ten it was all over - no pain, no fuss, no worries, no problems. Kane held my hand when Dr. Mendoza lifted the baby and held it up for us to see. "Congratulations!" he announced. "You have a fine, bonny son."
I stared, feeling my heart swell with pride as I took in the child's blue eyes, blond curls and peaches-and-cream complexion. Perfect! Absolutely perfect. Everything we'd dreamed of, everything we'd been promised. There was nothing red or wrinkled about this baby. He was as beautiful and flawless as a porcelain doll.
I held out my arms. "Give him to me. Let me hold him. Oh, Kane, isn't he gorgeous?"
Kane squeezed my hand. "You bet, Honey, you bet."
Dr. Mendoza held the child closer. I reached out to take him. Then the small rosebud mouth opened. Words came out, each as clear and distinct as a bell. "Mama... Papa... Mama... Papa... Mama... Papa..."
I must have fainted because when I opened my eyes again Dr. Mendoza was not there. Nor was the baby.
"They've taken him to the nursery," Kane told me. "But he's fine. Dr. Mendoza gave him a thorough going over, and he's assured me the child has every Genetic modification we requested. He's perfect in every way."
Tears welled up and spilled over, way beyond my control. "But... Oh, Kane, he's not like a baby at all," I sobbed. "Not a real one. He's like . .. like . . . a RoBaby."
Kane gave a small, amused laugh. "Yes, in a way I guess he is. But that's great. Just think, we won't ever have to worry about him catching a cold, or picking up a bug of any kind." He paused and a thoughtful expression crossed his face. "What are we going to call him? Have you thought of a name?"
"A name?" My head was aching unbearably and my limbs felt numb and icy cold. For a moment I could only stare. Then a name floated into my head, and from far, far away, I heard myself laugh. "Robby. We'll call him Robby. I can't think of a more perfect name."
Kane frowned. "Honey, are you okay?"
I tried to stifle the laughter, but it bubbled up no matter how hard I tried. "Why ... why do you ask?"
Kane's frown deepened. "You're acting very strangely. Not like yourself at all."
"I'm fine," I told him. "Absolutely fine."
And I was, because quite suddenly my head stopped thumping, and I knew everything was going to be okay. More than okay, because I had it all worked out. On our way home from the Proc-Centre we would stop by at theRoBaby factory. And then... and then we would trade Robby in. For a girl. Yes... a girl would be nice. A girl with big brown eyes and dark hair like mine. A girl-baby who would cry. And cry . . .and cry . . .and cry . . .
x x x
I believe that children are our future . . . and our future appears to be text messages. If they could write those as well as Daphne wrote this scary story, that wouldn't be so bad. Agree or disagree on out BBS. -GM