Their marriage had withstood the test of time. They were five years in, and in that five years they’d traveled, attained promotions and purchased a few extras they never thought they could afford. This was enough for five years and then it wasn’t. So on her thirtieth birthday celebration, sometime between appetizers and dessert, they concluded it was time to start a family.
They went about it in the usual fashion. They read books, talked about parenthood with other expectant couples. Those going through it for the first time spoke of the love that brought them to this sacred place. Those going through it for the second or third time told them horror stories, but the horror stories always ended with the couple saying they wouldn’t have it any other way. They babysat overnight for his brother and sister-in-law, a touch and go experience, but they managed. After all these activities, they registered, and in a few weeks a letter came with their appointment and further instructions for what they must do to prepare for their visit to the Barn.
The letter thrilled and terrified them. Their decision had suddenly become real and real anxieties arose. Would they be good parents? Would they have enough time, energy and resources to give a new being all that he or she needed? Would they satisfy the biological, neurological and physiological testing of the Barn’s strict protocols. And one more question arose, an enjoyable one, one that ramped up their anticipation. What kind of choices would they get in the creation of their unique being? The Husband couldn’t help wanting a boy and maybe it might be nice if he—or she, for it could be a she—took after him in some way, in looks or in skills. A leaning towards engineering might be nice. The Wife stated that she didn’t care about those things, and girl or boy, she just wanted their child to be healthy, but privately she admitted there were some features she preferred. They filled out the survey and sent it back in. The Barn would consider their answers but must follow the protocols established by the Universal Species Distribution Accord.
The drive to the Barn took two hours, hours which the couple passed with their lips pressed tightly against all the questions that could not be answered. Was it enough to have done what they had to prepare? Or was it a hollow exercise meant to artificially bolster their failing confidence? Somewhere along the journey, they both came to the same unspoken conclusion. They did not know what they were doing and had no business pursuing the course of action to which they now hurtled.
The transition from congested city to glorious countryside passed unremarked upon, but had a calming effect. The beauty of pasture land was something neither had ever experienced in life, though they had seen this type of sprawling nature in books, swaths of flowers and waving wheat, the dazzlingly blue skies and the chubby puffs of clouds. It was as though they were a real living part of the images in the government moving picture archives.
The Barn itself looked like an ordinary barn of the type used long ago, a reassuring presence and a symbol of bounteous fecundity. It was made of simulated wood planks painted red. Two windows, framed in white, almost touched the roof. The door was an open mouth below the two windows which functioned as eyes in a surprised but delighted face. How nice to see you! We are glad that you are here!
Inside there was nothing of the Barn’s homey welcome. Row after row of glass petri dishes rested in steel trays which rotated to ensure optimal ultraviolet exposure from the brilliant circles of light overhead. Big Xs broke up the smooth tiles on the floor, drainage vents to catch the run-off from the sprinkler system. This was the nursery, explained the staff member who met them at the door, which turned out not to actually be open to the untamed elements, but covered with a thick felt-like material for filtering out impurities.
Not wanting the staff at the Barn to easily discern the shameful truth of their unsuitability, they did their best to present a cheerful confidence they did not feel. They smiled when they shook hands with the white-coated doctors, adopted a posture of nonchalance when these same doctors waved wands up and down their bodies, telling them to turn this way and that, to raise an arm or spread out a leg as the wands passed over and under, intimately checking for defects. Remarkably, they passed.
In the small consultation room, the Wife asked, “When will we know ours is ready?”
“Whoa now,” said the Doctor in a folksy, friendly tone. “There’s a lot that happens first before we get to that. This is just the initial evaluation.” He smiled at the couple. It was not a scold. He had dealt with many excitable bonded pairs who had asked this very same question.
“Who gets to decide on the type of offspring, you or us?” asked the Husband.
“As was explained in the introductory literature, it is a mutually beneficial and equitable process free of prejudice. We can’t have too many beings with a certain quality or ability, just as we can’t have too few. And of course, we must allow for the occasional evolutionary surprise. We are a research facility as well as a reproductive clinic. The fact that you are here means that you have agreed to all parameters.” He said this in a less folksy tone. The Wife gave the Husband a pleading look and after that he did not ask any more questions that could be interpreted as aggressive.
They were then led off in separate directions for the next series of examinations. First, a stress test involving various gym-like equipment done with electrodes placed on chest, arms and legs. It was very similar to a workout except for the zaps that came through the electrodes. The next test involved chemicals. Liquids sprayed unpredictably upon their face beginning with water and progressing to something which, although not toxic, had a foul fragrance. Finally, a chemical which produced a sensation akin to being sunburned was sprayed all over their bodies. This was for testing their ability to withstand the painful emotional turmoil involved in caring for an infant. The last examination had them running through an obstacle course meant to simulate the endurance it would take to raise the youngling through to adulthood.
But they withstood it all and eventually were brought back into two separate sterile rooms. Dressed only in a transparent sheath, each lay on a flat surface situated in the center of the room. At the command of the sterile garbed doctors visible behind protective glass, instruments came out of openings in the wall. Both the Husband and Wife had been sedated. They hardly noticed when a robotic arm with a rotating pincer whirred menacingly forward to grab a piece of skin. Another robotic arm moved in to slice off the upraised flesh and, almost immediately, a third arm was on the scene to staple and bandage. The whole procedure, after all the rigorous testing beforehand, took less than a minute.
Dressed and seated side-by-side in the doctor’s office, they were again presented with forms. These forms provided extra insurance for the doctors, surgeons and attendants. They would not be held responsible should there be a failure to grow or if the growing in any way exceeded or performed below expectations. The parents, no matter who they were or what combination of sex, species or race, agreed to assume all responsibility. The Barn had done their best to ensure optimal results. The rest was up to the couple.
They signed, for if they had not the procedure would not move forward and the material collected from the couple would be incinerated or, worse, could be used at the discretion of the research team for whatever purpose they so designated.
A stimulant drink took care of any residual drowsiness from the procedure and after draining their glasses they were sent on their way. It would take six weeks before they would know if the parts taken from their bodies had produced a positive result at which point they could tell family and friends that they were decisively and deliriously expecting.
The six weeks passed in busyness, both applying themselves strenuously at work and at play. They went out each night to the brawling stations and consumed as much fire potion as was in their power to consume for they knew that, should the procedure succeed, all their merrymaking would come to an end. It was a sacrifice their friends had told them about. Things are going to change, their friends had warned, but their friends had also told them how this would not feel like a sacrifice, that they would willingly give up this and more. They would give up everything, do anything to ensure the health and welfare of the growing life for which they had assumed a hallowed obligation.
The six-week deadline came and went, producing daily tears from the Wife for every day past the due date. When she wasn’t crying, she raged at the Husband for not picking up his basal coverings and putting them into the maturation receptacle, got mad at the pep up brewer when the black liquid didn’t flow fast enough into her cup, and once she kicked their snuggle varmint, shocking both of them. The Husband was ready to fire up their speedtraveler and break a record zipping over to the Barn to accuse them of tampering with the Wife. He would sick the state’s reinforcers on them, so help me Bezuzala, he said. This was something their friends and family did not prepare them for. This was agony.
Two more weeks passed before the fateful day when the notification came in. Yes, the procedure had been successful. In another month they were to return to the Barn to pick up their offspring.
It was the same red and white building, the same flowers waving gently in the wind, but for them, everything had changed. They were still nervous, but it was nervous excitement, the glow that all expectant parents exhibited. The Wife had to tell the Husband, in a voice tinged with laughter, to be careful driving the speedtraveler. She reminded him that from now on, they must ensure not only the health and well-being of their new life, they must also ensure that their own lives continued to be filled with vitality because now they were called to a higher purpose.
The waiting room was all soft edges and comfortable furniture, nothing like the sterile compartments they had experienced on their first visit. The Wife relaxed, letting the ambiance of the room fully embrace her, but the Husband found that he could not sit still. He examined a collage of pictures on the wall opposite which displayed beaming parents holding up their wondrous creations. Many different species, but each offspring beautiful, precious, and one could see from the expressions on the parents’ faces, deeply loved and cherished.
A door opened up in the wall with a hushed swish and a staff member trundled in with a cart trimmed in frilly lace on which rested a shallow bowl. A soft melodious sound came from the bowl and this sound was as a siren call for the Husband and Wife. How amazing, how entrancing, how beauteous was the voice of their precious offspring. The air around them misted with a delicate scent. It was a mixture of pheromones blended from each of the three to ensure family bonding, but the Husband and Wife needed no such chemical inducement. They were already in love.
“Would you like to hold it?” asked the attendant standing next to the cart. She lifted the bowl which contained a dark earthy mixture of essential nutrients and in the center, a small waxy green nubbin. The Wife cradled the bowl, hugging it to her chest. The Husband’s smile, as he cast his eyes lovingly down at the growth in the Wife’s arms, was as wide as a sunbeam.
“Here is a booklet we’ve prepared. Inside are basic instructions. Should you need more guidance, we’re just a phone call away.” Success had softened the beadledom of this severe institution with its tests to pass and all its hoops to jump through. Now everyone was completely on their side.
It was the first day the Wife would be soloing. She had volunteered for the first half of their shared maternity leave. At the door, cradling the bowl and rocking softly, she kissed the Husband goodbye. The Husband leaned down to offer a farewell to his little sprout, a gentle touch on the topmost part. To his amazement and delight, the sprout responded with one of its sounds, a sweet musical vibration. The Wife smiled reassurance to the Husband. She had this.
Until around three o’clock in the afternoon when the musical chiming that had been charming the Wife all day turned into the clanging of a large pair of cymbals. She could hardly believe that one so little could raise such a ruckus and frantically flipped the pages in the Bank’s booklet for an answer. When your growing shoot begins to clamor make sure it has plenty of water. After making sure it has plenty of water and the substratum below the bowl hasn’t become wet, all should be well. If your shoot continues to clamor, try singing to it. She ran to the sink and filled up a bottle, ran back to her sprout. It drank the whole thing but, after finishing, returned to the giving off of the sharp keening noise. She stuck a finger in the substratum. It was wet. Now what? Back to the booklet.
When the substratum dampens, you need to change it with the reserve material that came with your sprout. Had the Barn given them any? She seemed to recall a bundle of things they had stuck in the trunk, the trunk they had forgotten to empty, the trunk on the speedtraveler the Husband had driven to work.
With the bowl in her arms and the sprout contained inside it still keening, she swiped the screen on the touchcom. It took forever,about seven dingbots, for the Husband to pick up. When he did she could barely hear him. He was equally deafened.
She calmly and rationally shouted her explanation over the noise their offspring made. She told him about the forgotten substratum in their speedtraveler and he promised to check. He said he’d call around and ask one of their friends in the meantime if they could swing by with some surplus from their own stash. In the meantime he tried singing over the phone.
At once, their sprout quieted. It leaned in towards the touchcom as if to be nearer to the dulcet tones of its father. The Husband’s singing had the opposite effect on the Wife, who had tried singing to their sprout without success. She became squeezed between two feelings, gratitude that something had worked, and jealousy that it was the Husband who had managed it.
When her turn was over, the Wife had gotten better at caring for their shoot, but she was relieved to be returning to work with its clear and easily understood methods for determining success or failure. At the end of her first work day, having received no frantic phone calls or messages of any sort from the Husband, it was confirmed. Their offspring was a Daddy’s boy. She would have to get used to it.
After two months their progeny reached a new stage of development, a milestone as the booklet called it. It had grown a tiny hand. They gave it a name, Pankaja, which means “born of mud,” a transliteration of the Sanskrit, and they sent out an avalanche of images through all communication channels. Their happiness had increased ten-fold. Their child was a miracle.
In another month the swollen bud of another tiny fist began to appear exactly opposite the first. Another round of images flooded the communication pathways. Wasn’t he the smartest, the cleverest, the most handsome little flower they’d ever seen? All politely agreed whether or not they thought so.
Another three weeks went by. Another swelling appeared. This was to be expected, the normal progression towards the next milestone and eventual harvesting of a fully grown, fully developed (in their case) human child. But this time they waited to send out images, for with each passing day it became clear to the couple that their offspring was developing, not a foot which would eventually grow a shin, knee and thigh, but another hand.
There was nothing in the booklet that addressed this type of unusual development, no reassuring instructions, no guidance as to how to respond. In all their late night worries, their trials and tribulations of figuring out how to care for their precious sprout in the early days of its existence, they had never called the Barn. Now they did. They called the information hotline and started babbling at once to the automated receptionist who asked them to call her Heather.
“He’s got an extra hand!”
“This isn’t covered in the booklet!”
“Whatever shall we do?”
All Heather wanted was to have them answer “Yes” or “No.” When they had worn down their litany of catastrophe they understood, answered with the required response and reached one of the doctors.
“I agree with you. It isn’t covered in the booklet. But if you refer to line 137 on page 364 of your contract in part B under, ‘Ephemera,’ you will see a list of temporary conditions. The extra hand should shrink and eventually fall off of its own accord.”
“But why does it happen in the first place?” asked the Wife. She had the residual guilt that all mothers share and can be summed up thusly: whatever unforeseen misfortune her child experiences in life, it is always and forevermore her fault.
“Sometimes when one or the other contributor to the seedling has, shall we say, unusually robust genes, it manifests as an outgrowth such as your child is experiencing. Or, in the mixing of the genes, some protein gets turned on. It is impossible to know for certain, but I have never heard of something like this not resolving with a termination of the extra appendage. Please don’t worry.”
Robotic Heather broke into the line. Their time with the doctor was at an end. The couple hung up and although not entirely satisfied, tried to do what the doctor advised, which basically amounted to telling them to wait and see.
But waiting and seeing did not result in any kind of comfort. Not only had the hand not shriveled and fallen off in the time they waited, Pankaja had grown another hand, bringing the total up to four. “Four hands!” the Husband joked, “Just think how much our son will be able to get done in one day!” He had meant to lighten his Wife’s load. She glared at him. In all other ways, Pankaja was developing nicely. He had the pleasing plumpness that all babies show at one time or another. He had a head, complete with eyes nose and round puckery lips. He could blow bubbles with those lips and when he did, each pair of hands met in a clumsy clapping. When he was happy, which was most of the time, he made a gurgling sound that ended in a pleasing bell-like peel. He had learned to laugh. Wasn’t that also one of the milestones? But his parents did not send out messages and no one received any videos in emlets or over the touchcom.
Pankaja continued to exhibit a cheerful temperament and he continued to grow hands. He had two located on either side of his torso, two more grew out of the front and back while a third pair existed lower down where legs had been expected. A bud on the left side of his neck was hopefully regarded by his parents as an indication of illness, but ended up being another hand. By the time five nubs developed on this neck bud, growing into fat wiggly fingers, they demanded some answers.
“What are you feeding it?”
“He’s not an it, he’s a child and his name is Pankaja,” said the Husband.
“And you followed the protocol to the letter? No substitutions, no generic brands of the substratum? Did you add something to his water bottles? Sometimes new parents learn something from other parents and then in an effort to help their sprout grow quicker, mix in an additive.”
“You’re making it sound like this is our fault,” said the Wife.
“No, no. I’m just mentioning it because it has been known to happen. Parents get notions sometimes and they go against established, legitimate scientific precepts, so I had to ask. What else has Pankaja been doing besides growing hands?”
The Husband and Wife took turns describing their son’s achievements. Pankaja was evacuating his waste in the usual fashion. They had pinned on a traditional diaper around his non-traditional limbs. He was eating with his mouth and had even started to do some “pre-talking” making many expressions of “de-de-de,” “ba-ba-ba” and “mu-me-mu.” He was still occasionally emitting his bell sounds, but they had become less frequent.
“Look, I know you don’t want to hear this, but it sounds like little Pankaja is ready to harvest.” After a few moment’s pause the doctor continued, “Try and think of his unusual development as an ability, not a defect. As you may recall, differing abilities were part of our package.”
The Wife became angry. She had been posting on pinbats where other parents cited their own strange tales. “There’s a group forming. Have you heard about it? A group that’s protesting against you people.”
“Merely rants. Everyone signs the same forms. But there is one thing you can do. You can always try again. We’ll even give you a discount. Bring in Pankaja and we’ll incinerate.”
The Wife slashed the touchcom closed. They would never do anything so vile. There was nothing more to do than to accept the situation.
And as the Husband and Wife strove to come to terms with the way their offspring had developed, Pankaja grew. His stem became a spindly stalk, barely able to support him, and certainly offered little nutrition. They had no choice but to harvest and so they did. Free from the bounds of his bowl, Pankaja began to pull himself up. Though he could not walk, if placed next to a low-lying table in a special chair, his many hands worked in an orchestrated frenzy building fantastic shapes with blocks. Even the tiniest block was not beyond his prehensile control.
“Our boy has the makings of a first-rate architect,” said the Husband. The Wife looked up from her intelliscreen, smiled and returned to her work. While the Husband concentrated on childcare, taking over as soon as their nanny left for the day, she’d been absorbed in some sort of research project, tapping and swiping late into the night. It wasn’t something she said much about.
Until one day as Pankaja was playing with his blocks, she came out of their bedroom and handed her intelliscreen to the Husband. There was a procedure. It was a risk. She wanted them to try it.
The article described an operation with no guarantees. The extra appendages, after the amputation, could grow back. The desired ones many not grow in at all, despite the growth medium which needed to be applied three times a day to the four desired stump sites and the suppression gel to the other remaining stumps. Their child would have to take injections for the rest of his life and the injections could have unforeseen effects on his behavior. Physical, emotional and intellectual functioning could be forever compromised. Despite all these risks, the Wife tilted her head up to the Husband offering shining hopeful eyes. It was the same eager and loving expression she had worn on her face almost a year ago on their evening out. In the mind of the Wife, the procedure offered Pankaja a chance for a future, but the Husband wasn’t so sure.
“It sounds to me like you don’t want your son to get the best chance at life he can get!” she shot at him.
“I guess I’m just worried about what could happen if he goes through it. I love the little sprout, just as he is.”
“And I don’t?” She saw the doubt on the Husband’s face and her voice softened. “Think of him as an adult when we’re old and grey and he’s out in the world. Yes, he has talent, but even if he became a world famous inventor, would he be happy? We accept him as he is, but would others? And after we die, what then? Will he have found a companion that also loves him just the way he is? I don’t want our son to be alone.”
He had not considered all these things. In the days that followed, he reviewed them. Was he being selfish, loving Pankaja the way he was now? Depriving his son of a future and the chance for a normal existence simply because he was afraid? After much discussion and many complex emotions surfacing on both sides, they came to agreement. Pankaja would undergo the procedure.
Bright lights paled their son’s naked green skin. The echoes of the cymbal sound trailed on the edges of his very human cries. Pankaja lay beneath a white sheet awaiting surgery. His hands were strapped to a board. Big round tears sprang from his eyes. His parent’s each held out fingers near the straps and their son gripped them as the doctor began administering anesthesia. Their child would be firmly asleep throughout the whole thing. He would not suffer. And in a little while, the injections and the stump balms would do their jobs.
After five hours, they were allowed to see their son in the recovery room. Pankaja had been reduced to a head and torso, the lower half of which was encased in a plastic bag filled with the familiar dark substrate. A mask covered his nose and mouth with a long tube attached to a machine making a sucking sound. His swollen eyes peeked through blue eyelids, half closed. Dark circles bloomed underneath. Both the Wife and the Husband held out a finger and then realized their infant son did not have the means to grasp. Pankaja’s eyelids closed shut. The sucking sound continued. The plastic chairs upon which the Wife and the Husband sat continued to be hard and uncomfortable.
“Here is a packet for you containing the materials you’ll need and instructions for home care. As soon as he’s stable, he’ll be discharged. Don’t worry! You’ve got this. It’s just like starting over, only this time, after a little while, he’ll look just like you.”
Since they hadn’t told anyone about Pankaja’s unusual development, none of their friends or relatives knew about his surgery. This was how the Wife had wanted it and the Husband went along. It made it hard to do everything that was needed since asking for help would mean divulging the secret and they could not afford respite care. They became short with one another, double checking, “Did you remember the 5 a.m. injection?” “Have you made sure to apply the salve to all seven stumps?” And one time the Wife caught the Husband mumbling to himself, “All this and for what?”
But Pankaja did improve. He returned to the cheerful little toddler he had been before, and after a little while new buds formed, a pair on the left at the place for hands and arms. A pair lower down at the place for feet and limbs. And nothing more. The Husband and Wife were overjoyed. The surgery, all they had forced their son to go through worked! The Wife lost interest in the pinbats she had been following and came to the conclusion that all they really were was rants. The Husband began to dream about games of catch in which Pankaja ran and leapt. They measured the growth of these four buds each day, hopeful for the day they could at last resume the steady stream of pictures.
About the time they began to see the stubs of fingers and toes, the stalks that should have continued to develop with elbows and knees coming next began to thin. The Husband and Wife stepped up their efforts and the Wife returned to her research. Was there something more they could do? The words of the doctor’s warnings, not to follow other parents ideas returned, but she ignored them and when she could not find anything new, any new directions, something experimental to try, she grew frantic. It didn’t help matters that Pankaja’s condition continued to deteriorate. His torso thinned, his eyes began to sink into their eye sockets. And most of all, there was no longer the sound of babbling and no peels of laughter came from his lips. No sound at all, except for an occasional gasp when they changed his dressings. Pankaja had gone from a glowing thriving creature to one that was failing to thrive.
This time, it was the Husband who called the doctors. The Wife was too overcome with guilt and grief. And just as at the Barn, forms were cited, the ones they had signed agreeing not to prosecute, acknowledging that there were no guarantees. The Husband said he understood. He reassured the doctor they hadn’t done anything beyond what the hospital had recommended for follow up care. In a voice dry with desperation he asked if there was anything further they could do. No, they were very sorry, but no there wasn’t.
So Pankaja withered as the Wife and the Husband watched, still applying salve, still changing the dressings until it was obvious that their actions had no effect. And at the funeral, friends and family gazed on the serene face of the little boy now at peace, the only part of his body visible in the coffin where he lay. They offered sympathy, telling them they could try again, not the right thing to say, but no one knows what to say at a time like this. “You did everything you could,” someone else said to the Wife who burst into tears.
“Pankaja? I’ve never heard of the name before. How did you come up with it?” said a colleague standing next to the Husband who gripped the coffin’s railing.
“It was my grandfather’s name,” the Husband said. “I wanted him to have something from my family.”
“He has your forehead. And your eyes.” The colleague scrutinized the Husband. “As a matter of fact, he looks just like you.” Then Husband’s own eyes filled with tears. His hands trembled as he released them from their grip. Turning away from the colleague, he let the tears roll down his cheeks.