Children are a commodity few women can afford. Hopeful mothers-to-be try everything. Fertility clinics. Pills. Wombs for hire. Babies are no longer made in bedrooms, but engineered in boardrooms.
A quirk of genetics allows lucky surrogates to carry multiple eggs, to control when they are fertilised, and by whom—but corporations market and sell the offspring. The souls of lost embryos are never wasted; captured in software, they give electronics their voice. Spirits born into the wrong bodies can brave the charged waters of a hidden billabong, and change their fate. Industrious orphans learn to manipulate scientific advances, creating mothers of their own choosing.
The Female Factory, cowritten by Lisa Hannett and Angela Slatter, is available December 12th from Twelfth Planet Press. From Australia’s near-future all the way back in time to its convict past, these stories spin and sever the ties between parents and children. Read an excerpt from “Vox” below!
‘We’re listening,’ Nick said, his cold fingers squeezing the blood from Kate’s too-warm ones. Attention turned inward as the doctor brought up charts on his computer screen—the number of fertilised eggs she’d have implanted, the placement of needles and injections, legal definitions of when ‘life-proper’ began, the probable outcomes, the sentences for soul sacrifices—Kate knew they’d be parents soon. Sitting up straighter, she bent her left arm slightly and imagined cradling their newborn. Adding a crook to her right arm, she pictured another child there. With their poor luck at conceiving, it seemed unlikely they’d have more than two. Two would be nice, she thought. Two we could afford. They’d have each other, friends from birth, and we—she couldn’t control her grin—we’d be a family.
It wasn’t as easy as Kate had hoped, not as easy as Dr Goodman’s soothing tone had made it seem. The procedures and treatments chewed through their insurance and then their savings (fees for consultations, fees for preparation and storage, fees for preservation, fees for scans, fees for pathology and, finally, fees for every cycle of fertilisation, every cycle of injection) and by their fourth attempt, their bank account was stretched further than their nerves.
They’d been given a tablet of their own—well, loaned—to record the ins and outs of their attempts: Kate’s temperature, Nick’s temperature, duration of coitus, position, the combination of vitamins she’d taken that day, how active she was, what she’d eaten. Every morning, and twice nightly, she answered an endless series of invasive questions so Dr Goodman could keep track of their progress. And each time Kate logged in she couldn’t help but tap the Results tab; and each time her heart fractured a little more when she heard the machine’s voice, sweet yet neutral, kind but uncaring, tell her there was ‘no change, no success.’
Ground down, their pockets almost picked clean, there was one last attempt left to them before they were broke, and broken.
But this time, somehow, it worked, though eight weeks had to pass before they would know anything for sure. Eight tense weeks, which Kate spent reconciling herself to a life without children, doing her best to convince herself it was better this way; she could only care for so many things at once. With kids, what love would she have left over for Nick? How could she continue to dote on the objects around her? She’d almost persuaded herself, was almost quite sure she believed, when the little voice on the tablet changed its tune and instructed her to make an appointment with the doctor at her earliest possible convenience.
Dr Goodman finally—finally—gave them the good news, and they were stunned. Quietly disbelieving, they smiled dumb smiles, each waiting for the other to say something first. At last, Nick whooped and hugged Kate while she giggled, covering her face with her hands. So happy, they listened with only half an ear to the tablet in Goodman’s office as it fairly sang the legal terms for their pregnancy, their rights, responsibilities and obligations. Immediately, Kate loved the cheerful voice, and marvelled at what wonderful things technology could do, imagining how the girl who pronounced those guidelines so carefully and clearly could’ve been an opera singer one day if…
For a split second, the thought gave her pause—the idea that this voice came from an orphaned soul, one of those not chosen—but then she shook her head, chastised herself for being such a downer, on this, their happiest day. Even so, she switched off the radio in the car on the way home, switched off her phone, while Nick rushed out to the hardware store to spend their last dollars on paint for the baby’s room. It was only for a while, just a very little while, that even the most dulcet of electronic tones struck a sad note deep inside her.
Kate would never admit she didn’t enjoy being pregnant.
It wasn’t just the morning sickness, although that was bad enough, or the gradually expanding number of unattractive elasticised pants in her wardrobe. It wasn’t just the incontinence. It wasn’t just the hyper-alert sense of smell that meant she could tell if Nick farted at the other end of the house, or that its stench set off the vomiting. It wasn’t just the grinding in her hips every time she walked, or the sense that her centre of gravity had shifted forever. It wasn’t just the walking determinedly into one room then forgetting what she came for. It wasn’t just that maternity leave meant no grown-up conversations until Nick came home at the end of the day. It wasn’t just Nick patting her arse and whistling the Baby Elephant Walk as she lumbered down the hall. It wasn’t just her feet growing a size and a half.
It was the voices.
The chorus of tiny voices that kept her awake at night, all the voices of the lost children’s souls, all the voices she’d heard during the day from the devices she’d interacted with. All the voices that had once belonged to someone, somewhere else.
“Vox” excerpted from The Female Factory © Lisa Hannett and Angela Slatter, 2014