Ever since Diotech Corporation released the first artificial womb—a safe and convenient new way to birth human babies—controversy for the cutting-edge product has risen as swiftly as the demand. For Rickar Hallix, however, the biomedical engineer who invented the womb, life has become steadily worse. When Rickar stumbles upon a possible defect in the latest batch of product, he suddenly finds himself thrust into the center of the endless, cut-throat battle between corporate greed and the security of human life.
This short story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Janine O’Malley.
The baby let out a piercing wail that seemed to slice the air in half. The engineer looked up from his desk in the middle of the solitary lab and stared at the image playing on his wall screen. An extraction nurse was swaddling the screaming infant in a white blanket before placing it in the arms of the awaiting mother.
The mother’s white designer suit was freshly pressed, her makeup thoroughly applied, her hair professionally styled. She looked like she just stepped out of a fashion stream. As she held the baby tightly and pressed her dark pink lips to its forehead, a single tear streamed down her powdered cheek.
The engineer fidgeted with the tiny red pill on his desk, rolling it back and forth under his index finger.
“I just never thought I’d ever have my own flesh and blood in my arms,” the woman whimpered, her eyes never leaving the infant’s face. The cams zoomed in, getting a close capture of the baby’s stunning blue eyes. It had stopped crying and was now gazing back at its mother.
“Thank you, Diotech,” she said quietly. “Thank you.”
The engineer took another long swig from his glass, emptying the contents down his throat. The smoky brown liquid itched and burned on its descent, but the relief he felt—the quieting of the angry voices in his head—was almost instant.
The Memory Coders could keep their receptors and computers. Dr. Rickar Hallix had his own methods of memory manipulation. Although his, admittedly, weren’t as long term.
He lifted his finger and stared down at the small red capsule on his desk, like a fallen warrior stares at the sword that is about to slay him.
Do it, one of the voices said, returning with a vengeance despite the copious amounts of alcohol in his system. End it now. It will be painless. It will be quick.
Don’t, another argued. She wouldn’t want it.
“She doesn’t have a say,” he wanted to argue with the voice. “She didn’t stay around long enough to have a say.”
He allowed his gaze to float back to the wall screen, watching the woman’s smile broaden as the infant wrapped a miniature finger around her own.
He closed his eyes, trying to imagine her face in the scene instead. Her arms wrapped tightly around a baby they had made together. Her smile.
But as the alcohol took over his system, the image swam, blurring and swirling like water around a drain. He opened his eyes. The mother was no longer on the screen. Instead he was staring at Mosima Chan, the perky news anchor who had covered the story.
“Limone Therber was kind enough to allow her baby’s extraction to be captured by our news crew,” Mosima was saying. “She is one of the many mothers opting to utilize the artificial womb manufactured by Diotech Corporation in place of a natural childbirth.”
The screen filled with a capture of the womb. The engineer recognized it as the stock publicity footage that Diotech sent to all the feed stations. A three-dimensional view of the product he had spent the better part of his life perfecting.
He’d nearly given up so many times for so many reasons. Lack of progress. Lack of money. Lack of inspiration.
It wasn’t until the president of Diotech learned of his plight, offered him a cushy salary, a team of assistants, more laboratory space than he could ever want, and access to the research funds he so desperately needed, that his dream finally came to fruition.
“Although the product was controversial at first,” Mosima was saying, “demand has risen dramatically over the past few months as more and more doctors are recommending ectogenesis as the safest birth option for their patients. Embryos grown in the artificial womb are given the best nutrients and care, while parents can continue to live the lifestyle to which they’ve grown accustomed. Limone Therber says she was able to travel, drink, eat anything, and never had to worry about the adverse effects on the growing infant.”
“I was able to relax.” The footage cut back to a capture of the mother, laying her now-sleeping baby to rest in a crib. She turned to the cams. “Knowing my baby was gestating safe and sound in the womb.”
“Deactivate screen,” the engineer barked. Limone Therber’s face disappeared as the wall dimmed to a muted gray. He didn’t need to watch the rest of the archive. He had the whole news story memorized.
He rolled the pill into his cupped hand and glared down at it. So much power—so much conclusiveness—condensed into such a tiny object.
“Give me one reason,” he whispered into the dimly lit lab. “One reason I shouldn’t end it all now.”
He knew the desperate plea was the only way to bring her back. The only way she would speak to him. But he had to mean it. She would not reappear for empty threats. She didn’t appreciate being toyed with like that.
He closed his eyes and waited.
Her response came three harrowing minutes later. In the darkness behind his eyelids, from the depths of his grief, she spoke to him.
“Me,” she said breathily. Ethereally. Like wind in the trees. An echo in space. “I have always been your reason. I will always be your reason.”
His eyes snapped open. His fingers closed tightly around the capsule. With one decisive yank, he pulled his desk drawer open and dropped the pill inside, slamming it closed again with a bang.
He refilled his glass and took another long pull before stumbling over to the small cot he kept in the corner of the lab and collapsing onto it. The brown liquid sloshed over the side of the glass, soaking his shirt, but he didn’t care. The smell of the liquor could only help his general odor.
He’d been spending more and more nights in the lab. His apartment in the Residential Sector was too cold. Too sparse. Too saturated in the memory of her perfume.
As he lay on the cot, he prayed that sleep would come quickly tonight. But the moment his body and thoughts settled, the shadows on the walls started to flicker, beginning their nightly invasion.
They moved ominously toward him, like darkness creeping into his vision, constantly approaching but never getting any closer. It was an optical illusion that even his engineer brain couldn’t comprehend.
He blamed the alcohol. He blamed the voices in his head. He blamed himself for never being able to swallow that damn pill.
But more than anything, he blamed her.
Rickar awoke to a ping on his Lenses. The sales director was waiting to speak to him. He checked his reflection in the lab’s bathroom mirror, straightened his hair, pulled at his gaunt cheeks, and finally unrolled his DigiSlate to initiate the connection. He hadn’t changed his clothes—or even left the lab—for the better part of a week. He glanced down at his grimy, soiled garments and carefully angled the Slate upward so that only his face was in the frame.
A few seconds later, Director Polnat appeared on the screen. He looked flustered. “Rickar,” he bellowed. “I need you at the plant by ten.”
The engineer took note of the time flickering in the periphery of his vision. 9:45 am.
He’d never make it.
“What’s the problem?” he asked the sales director.
“We’re ramping up production. We just received two-hundred thousand new womb orders and we need to double our output speed.”
Rickar blinked. “Double? But the machines are at max capacity as is.”
“We brought in ten new machines last week. Their first outputs are coming off the line today. That’s why I need you there. Make sure everything is running smoothly.”
Rickar fought the urge to roll his eyes, knowing he was still on cam. He was a biomedical engineer, not an operations manager. Didn’t Diotech have specialists for this kind of thing? But he also knew that, truthfully, he had nothing else to do. The womb had launched into the marketplace over a year ago and apart from overseeing a few updates and remodels, he had yet to come up with a new project. He’d told Dr. Alixter, the president of Diotech, that he was busy with several very exciting prospects, but that was a lie. The engineer spent his days drinking, watching archived news stories and documentaries about his product, and pretending to look busy behind closed doors. It was an art he’d mastered rather quickly.
But what else could he do? The artificial womb was his life’s work. His piece de resistance. He’d never thought about what he would do once it was complete. He supposed he never fully believed it would ever be complete.
“To be perfectly honest,” Rickar started to argue. “I’m on the brink of a huge breakthrough here, I’m not sure I can get away.”
But Polnat did not look convinced and Rickar was worried he was starting to get a reputation around the Diotech compound. He scratched at his neck and tried to recover. “It’s almost ten already. I don’t even think I could make it on time.”
“I’m sending a hover. It’ll meet you at the archway of the Medical Sector in five minutes. You’ll be at the plant just in time.”
Rickar sighed and signed off the connection. Apparently, this wasn’t a request. It was an order. He glanced down again at his unkempt appearance and dirty clothes.
Flux, he thought wearily, now I actually have to shower.
The hovercopter dropped him at the back of the manufacturing plant. Diotech had many plants scattered around the world. Rickar was grateful that, at least, this one was closest to the compound. He could have easily had to travel to South America.
He eyed the massive building in front of him. MagTrucks were lined up as far as he could see, hovering just high enough to reach the loading doors that led into the plant. Labor bots were loading boxes stamped with the Diotech logo into the trucks.
Despite himself, Rickar was somewhat awed by the process. So many wombs being shipped off, ready to bring life and laughter to families across the globe. Finally, a completely safe, convenient, and pain-free way to give birth. Safe for the baby. Safe for the parents. Minimal work for the medical practitioners. In fact, doctors no longer needed to be present for the births. Most parents opted for the less expensive extraction nurse. The labor process now only required the presence of a practitioner certified in the mechanics of the artificial womb. His invention had destroyed one industry, but given life to a brand new one. A much more accessible one. Training to be an extraction nurse took only weeks, not years.
And the childbirth complication rate had dropped to less than .001% for those utilizing womb. Most complications arose from user error or bad genetics. Not from the womb itself.
The engineer’s dream had always been to save lives. Nothing more. He would have given the wombs away for free if he could have. But of course, Diotech would not have that. The price point was high. High enough to make Rickar cringe every time he saw an ad for it on the Feed. But he supposed when you eliminate the cost of the hospital stay and any extra charges resulting from birthing complications, it was right on the money. The patients were paying for certainty. They were paying for life. And you couldn’t put a price on either of those.
Although Diotech certainly had tried.
Now, watching these MagTrucks being loaded up with his product, seeing his dream as such a huge, successful reality, the engineer was suddenly overcome with emotion. He felt tears prick the corners of his eyes and he quickly blinked them away.
Despite this unexpected reaction, he still had no desire to stay here any longer than he had to.
“Let’s get this over with,” he mumbled to himself as he staggered toward the door.
The massive, debilitating hangover was just starting to settle into his temples. He’d left so quickly, he hadn’t had a chance to seek out any Hydrator capsules from the Medical Sector. Now he was berating himself for choosing cleanliness over pain relief.
The hustle and bustle of activity inside the plant only made his nausea worse. So much was happening at once, he got dizzy trying to focus on any one thing. Machines as loud as thunder were working tirelessly to construct each individual womb as labor bots fed materials and parts onto the conveyor belt and monitored the outputs.
“You from headquarters?” A voice startled him and he turned around to see a short man with a pinched face staring up at him.
“What?” he screamed back over the noise. “Is it always so loud in here?”
The man chuckled and reached into his pocket, producing two small earplants. Rickar grabbed the cone-shaped nodules and shoved them into his ears. The noise from the machines was instantly muted, the counter frequency of the earplants effectively neutralizing the racket. Rickar had never been so grateful to hear his own thoughts again.
“Better?” the man asked.
Rickar sighed. “Yes. Thank you.”
“You from headquarters?” he asked again.
Rickar nodded. “Polnat sent me to oversee the first outputs from the new machines.”
The man beckoned for Rickar to follow him. “Right this way. I’m Ivvy Wasser, by the way.”
“Rickar,” the engineer responded. “Dr. Rickar Hallix.” He waited for the recognition. The “What is the creator of the artificial womb doing here?” question. But neither came. Ivvy kept on walking. Clearly, the engineer’s fame did not extend to the manufacturing plants. In fact, he doubted it extended past the compound walls. After all, it wasn’t his name being stamped onto the outside of those boxes.
He’d given over his glory when he’d agreed to bring his project to Diotech.
He tried to assure himself that he didn’t care. It wasn’t about the glory. It was about the people. The families. The babies.
It was about proving her wrong.
Too bad she wasn’t here to see it.
He followed Ivvy through the plant, passing a steel door marked “Authorized Personnel Only.” Rickar slowed his steps, studying the door. He wondered why he didn’t remember seeing it there the last time he’d visited the plant. Had he been so hungover he didn’t even notice?
He was about to return his gaze to Ivvy, still moving steadily in front of him, when the steel door slid open and a scientist in a white lab coat emerged. He didn’t recognize the man, not that he assumed he should. Diotech had countless employees. He certainly couldn’t keep track of all of them. But it wasn’t the man’s identity that was causing the engineer concern. It was the brief glimpse behind the steel door that he managed just before it slid shut again.
There was something being constructed back there. Something that looked disturbingly like his artificial womb but nearly four times the size.
His slow steps reduced to a full halt.
Why on earth would they need to build such a large womb? Were they planning to start gestating baby elephants? Horses? Fully grown humans?
The engineer almost laughed aloud at his own crazy thought. He really needed to get more sleep. He had probably just mistaken what he’d seen. After all, he’d only barely caught a peek as the doors were closing. He considered asking Ivvy if he could poke around behind the door, but that would require him to be here longer than he had to.
Most likely it was just a part for one of the new machines, he reasoned and kept walking.
He followed Ivvy into a newly expanded section of the plant where a dozen real people—not bots—were testing each unit that came down the conveyor belt.
“This is the newest batch,” Ivvy told him, pointing to the boxes stacked all the way to the ceiling. “We ran an initial batch of three thousand to make sure the new machines were working properly. Once these are all quality tested, we’ll run the process at top speed and be able to hit our quota by the end of the week.”
Rickar was already beginning to feel tired. He nodded drowsily and watched as one of the testing technicians—a young girl with safety goggles over her eyes—ran a systems check on the womb currently in front of her. The product was smaller than his original design. An oval-shaped synthoglass egg mounted atop a synthosteel construction with a flat monitoring screen attached. Once he’d proven the concept, they’d been able to compact the size. Dr. Alixter, the president, had wanted it to fit on a store shelf, even though, at this point, they were still only available for sale through a doctor’s office.
The womb was currently empty apart from the synthetic uterine wall. The neon-orange amniotic fluid would be added later, when the womb was ready to receive the fertilized egg.
The technician finished her systems test, sealing the open utility panel on the side, and pushing a button to transfer the womb back to the conveyor belt. Rickar watched the object travel to the end of the line where a humanlike labor bot packaged it carefully inside a large box. Then a forklift lifted the market-ready product and transferred it to the top of the nearest growing stack. Meanwhile, another womb had been transferred via mechanical arm to the technician’s workplace.
This is what he was brought here to do?
Any monkey with a Slate could have done this job.
He blinked drowsily and turned to Ivvy. “Is that it?”
Ivvy didn’t seem to understand the question. “I’m sorry?”
“Is that all you need from me?”
Ivvy glanced uncertainly between Rickar and the row of technicians. “I suppose so. Does that mean you’re satisfied with the new batch?”
Rickar waved his hand lazily, like he was swatting at a fly. He longed for his cot. For the quiet of his lab. For another drink. “Sure. Yes. Very satisfied. Well done.”
Ivvy seemed surprised by the speediness of the visit. “Great. Thank you, sir.”
Rickar nodded, trying to stand up a little straighter, even though he could feel the hangover weighing him down like a sack of flour on his shoulders. “You’re welcome.”
He turned to leave, stumbling over his own feet. He spun back around to see if anyone had noticed. Everyone had. So, for good measure, he mumbled, “So . . . um, keep up the good work.”
He was about to turn back again when something caught his eye. He hadn’t noticed it before but behind the technicians was a row of giant screens feedcasting a close capture of the unit each tester was examining.
The third tester from the left—a middle-aged woman with curly black hair that had been pulled away from her face by nanopins—sealed off the paneling of the womb she was working on and transferred it to the conveyor.
“Wait a minute.” Rickar sprang forward, grabbing the unit from the belt and carrying it over to a nearby table. He cleared some clutter away and placed the womb down, bending down and pressing his nose up to the clear synthoglass surface.
“Why is this color off?” he asked no one in particular.
Ivvy was suddenly next to him. “Off?”
“The uterine wall. It’s the wrong shade. It’s too dark.”
Ivvy bent down next to him, their cheeks almost touching. “It’s the same color as all the other products.”
Rickar shook his head. He’d worked with this synthetic tissue for years. He knew what it was supposed to look like and this was not it. “No,” he said adamantly. “It’s not.”
The engineer chewed anxiously on the last of his fingernails as he waited for his computer to spit out the latest test results. Rickar was back in his lab on the compound. The womb he’d taken from the conveyer was sitting in pieces on the table next to him. He’d dissected it and scraped cells from the uterine lining behind the curved synthoglass surface and run multiple tests on it. All of them had come back normal. But he knew something was wrong. He could feel it in his bones.
He took a sip of water and waited. His hangover had vanished the moment he’d rushed from the lab with the confiscated product in his arms. Or maybe, it had simply been shoved to the back corner of his mind, ready and waiting to reappear and torment him stronger than ever once he’d gotten to the bottom of this mystery.
His computer beeped. He looked at the screen. His stomach instantly clenched. His blood pressure shot up as the results confirmed his intuition.
The discoloration. He now knew what was causing it.
“Connect me to Ivvy Wasser, plant manager,” he barked at the screen. “Mark the transmission request as urgent!”
When the plant manager’s squished face appeared a moment later, Rickar wasted no time. “I can’t explain now but whatever you do, do not allow any of those wombs from the new machines to be placed on the MagTrucks. Do you understand?”
“What?” Clearly he did not understand.
“Shut down all production until further notice. Every machine in that plant has to be inspected. Do not allow any products to leave the warehouse.”
There was a long, uncomfortable pause and then Ivvy said, “Sir, I’m sorry. But those units have already been shipped out.”
The blood drained from the engineer’s face. He could see his gaunt, pale image reflected back to him in the bottom corner of the screen. “How many?” he asked, his mouth dry.
“Three thousand, sir.”
Despite the controlled climate inside the Owner’s Estate, sweat poured from Rickar’s face, pooling at the base of his neck. He ran his hand over his forehead and tried to stay calm as he spoke to the dark-haired woman standing across from him.
“I don’t think you understand,” Rickar spoke slowly. “This is a matter of life and death. Three thousand deaths to be exact. I need to talk to Dr. Alixter now.”
The woman’s patience was slipping. It wasn’t hard to see. “And I already told you I would pass along the message.”
Rickar shook his head. “No. No messages. I need to see him in person. Those products need to be recalled immediately.”
The woman smiled politely. “I am Dr. Alixter’s personal assistant. I can assure you that he will be made aware of the situation. Now I urge you to return to the Medical Sector and I will ping you when the president has time on his schedule to meet with you.”
She reached for the panel to open the front door, ready to usher him out of the foyer. The engineer stuck out his hand, stopping her. He reigned in his aggravation and forced himself to smile. “What is your name?” The syrupy quality of his voice made him cringe inwardly.
“Crest,” she said, matching his artificially sugary tone.
“Crest,” he echoed. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say next. Was he going to try to sweet talk her? Flirt with her? The idea of him attempting to flirt with anyone almost made him chuckle despite the gravity of the situation.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to decide what to say next because just then, the president himself, descended the stairs behind her. “What is going on?” Dr. Alixter asked politely.
Ignoring all common decency, Rickar shoved past Crest. “Dr. Alixter,” he called desperately. “I must speak with you. It’s a very urgent matter.”
“I’m sorry, Doctor,” Crest said helplessly behind him. “He wouldn’t leave.”
The president flashed a smile and waved his assistant away. “It’s quite alright. Thank you, Crest. Dr. Hallix, why don’t you join me in the salon?” He gestured toward a room off of the main foyer and Rickar followed him. Once through the door, Dr. Alixter swiped at the wall panel, sealing the two men inside.
“Would you like a drink?” the president asked, walking over to a crystal flagon and matching glasses. Rickar did a double take. Those were not synthetic. Those were made of real crystal. He was sure of it. And he couldn’t help but wonder how much they must have cost.
The engineer declined the president’s offering with a firm shake of his head. The truth was, he was dying for a drink, but he couldn’t afford to lose his focus now. “I’m sorry, sir. There’s no time. Three thousand artificial wombs have just been shipped from the plant and you have to call them back immediately.”
Dr. Alixter seemed to freeze for a moment before setting the flagon of dark brown liqueur back on the tray. He turned to Rickar and smiled. “And why would I do that?”
“The new machine,” Rickar explained, trying to keep his arms from flailing as he spoke. “It’s leaking some kind of chemical into the synthetics. I noticed that the color of the uterine lining was off. I ran some tests and the toxicity level was far outside normal levels.”
Dr. Alixter looked alarmed. But he lowered himself calmly into an armchair and gestured for Rickar to sit across from him on the sofa. He did.
“This is quite disconcerting,” the president agreed, taking a sip from his drink. “I can see why you are so concerned. Tell me, what would be the side effects of these toxins?”
Rickar felt himself relax somewhat.
He believes me. This nightmare will all be over soon.
He took a deep breath. “Well, a number of things really. But the most likely result is that the toxin will hinder the development of the fetus’ alveoli—” he paused, searching for recognition on the president’s face. “The alveoli are the terminal ends of the respiratory tree—”
“I know what an alveolus is.”
Rickar swallowed, admonishing himself. “Right. Well, anyway. I fear that the toxins in the uterine wall will mutate the DNA responsible for developing the lungs. When the baby is born and tries to take its first breath, the alveoli won’t inflate and the baby will suffocate. The extraction nurses would have no way of stopping it. Even a doctor wouldn’t be able to diagnosis it from outside of the womb. No one would know there was a problem until the baby was born and . . .” he paused to suck in a hitched breath. “And . . . died a few minutes later.”
Dr. Alixter nodded, his expression grim. “That is serious. And what, in your professional opinion, is the likelihood of this scenario?”
The engineer stammered. “I-I-I don’t know. Ten percent. Maybe more. Maybe less. But we can’t take that risk. They have to be recalled and every machine has to be shut down and tested for the toxin.”
Dr. Alixter seemed to disappear into his thoughts for a moment, before finally responding. “You’re absolutely right. We cannot take that risk.”
Rickar nearly collapsed under the weight of his own relief. “Thank you, sir.”
“No,” the president said emphatically. “Thank you, Dr. Hallix. Your keen perception and diligence might have just saved three thousand innocent lives. Not to mention the reputation of this company. Diotech owes you a great deal.”
The engineer bowed his head humbly. “I’m just doing my job, sir.”
The president stood up and Rickar did the same. “I’m getting on the phone to Director Polnat right now and getting this handled.”
Rickar couldn’t help but smile as he walked toward the door.
Dr. Alixter unsealed the exit and patted the engineer on the back. “If you need anything else, just ask Crest. She knows how to get a hold of me.”
Rickar stepped into the foyer. A moment later, he turned back to thank the president again, but the salon door had already closed.
“Can I order you a hovercart back to the Medical Sector?” Crest was suddenly in front of him. Her voice sounded kind and accommodating but her face betrayed her. She was still annoyed at his persistence. But he didn’t care. Lives were saved today. This woman’s displeasure was a small price to pay.
“No, thank you,” he said quietly. “I think I’ll walk. It’s not too hot.”
She escorted him to the door and seemed none too happy to seal it behind him.
The engineer stepped outside into the pinkish light of the early evening. He breathed in deeply, the thin desert air suddenly smelling sweeter, the breeze tickling his skin.
He started down the manicured walkway that led to the rest of the Residential Sector. He never even heard the footsteps behind him. He never even saw the shadow approach. The darkness came without warning.
The memory coder was already at his terminal, readying his workspace when the unconscious subject was delivered to the adjoining room and placed in the chair. He wasn’t supposed to be on call tonight but the request had come straight from the top. It was marked urgent but he’d received very little information about the assignment.
Internal Diotech employee.
Memory alteration requested.
The automatic restraints activated around the man’s wrists, securing him into the chair and the coder went to work locating the subject’s nanosensor signal and linking it to his system.
Metadata filled his screen within seconds.
Name: Dr. Rickar Hallix
Occupation: Biomedical Engineer
Location: Medical Sector
Marital Status: Widowed
The last piece of information gave the memory coder pause. He studied the unconscious man through the synthoglass wall.
But he was so young.
The coder suddenly felt a strong desire to peek into the memories of his past—beyond whatever he’d been summoned here to do—and find the story. No doubt it would be there. The brain doesn’t like to forget. Even though sometimes the mind yearns to.
The intelligence director appeared behind him, making him jump.
“Director Raze,” the coder acknowledged him sharply, as though he were addressing a general in the army. He knew Raze preferred it that way.
“Sevan,” Raze said with a nod, referring to the coder by his first name.
“When was the breach?”
“Dr. Alixter believes it was earlier this morning. The engineer visited one of our manufacturing plants and believes he discovered a flaw in the latest batch of artificial wombs.”
Sevan’s hands—which had been flying over the controls, preparing for the initial download—halted abruptly. “And was there?”
The director didn’t answer right away. “Probably not.”
Then why are we altering his memories? the coder couldn’t help but think. He kept the question to himself, though. He was smart enough not to question the intelligence director.
But somehow, Raze felt the need to answer anyway. “The man, unfortunately, was paranoid. And he drank. It didn’t make for a good combination. We simply can’t delay production at the whim of a delusional drunk. Especially with the demand as high as it is.”
“How much am I taking?” he asked, initializing the memory download.
Another long, heavy pause. It made Sevan squirm anxiously in his seat.
“Today’s memories should be sufficient,” the director replied.
“And the others?”
Raze cocked his head to the side. “Others?”
“You said he was at the plant. There’s a chance he could have shared his findings with the employees there.”
Raze’s tongue stabbed at the inside of his cheek. “Yes,” he drawled. “I suppose you’re right. Scan the memories and report back your findings. We’ll take it from there. But as far as the engineer is concerned, he woke up this morning with a raging hangover and slept most of the day.”
“I’m on it, sir.”
The director turned to leave but something changed his mind. “And one more thing.”
“Dr. Alixter wants to do something about his drinking. He’s worthless to this company as is. See what you can do about that, hmm?”
“I’ll try to find the root of the addiction—the darkness that’s responsible for his pain—and remove it.” Even as he said it, Sevan already had an inkling of what it would be. Widowed at age thirty-seven? That would lead anyone to drink.
“Very good. Ping me if you run into any trouble.” Raze started toward the exit once more. This time, it was the memory coder who stopped him.
“Sir?” Sevan knew he should keep his mouth shut. He knew it wasn’t his place to question the director’s orders. But his chest was constricting at the thought that he might find more than just paranoia and delusion inside the engineer’s head.
“What if he’s right?” he finally brought himself to ask.
“About what?” Raze’s voice was clipped and impatient.
“The wombs, sir. What if there’s a faulty batch? What if—”
“That will be all, Sidler.” The director switched from first name to last name, indicating that Sevan had definitely reached too far. Had overstepped his bounds. He bent his head and got to work, focusing on the memory files filling his screen faster than his eyes could keep up.
He silently scolded himself for being reckless. For letting his heart speak louder than his head. This was the way it was. The way it always has been. Director Raze gives the orders and the employees follow them.
Regardless of what he found in these files—regardless of what the engineer believed he had discovered—Sevan was determined to do his job. He wasn’t a supply chain manager. He wasn’t a product tester. He was a memory coder. And he would do what he did best.
Ten months later . . .
The engineer was in his lab when the news story came over the Feed. He was researching his newest product development, which he was only weeks away from completing. He glanced up at the screen that covered his entire wall and watched Mosima Chan’s solemn face as she delivered the details.
“An unexpected infant death has been reported today in Boston, Massachusetts. The baby, a boy named Jessan, was gestated in a Diotech-manufactured artificial womb and died only minutes after birth from, what medical examiners are preliminarily referring to as, lung failure. The infant was rushed to a nearby hospital but emergency room doctors were unable to resuscitate him. Further investigations are being made into the cause of death and the womb itself, which the doctors believe may have been defective.”
The Slate the engineer was holding slipped from his fingers and clattered noisily to the floor.
“Increase volume,” he commanded the screen.
A woman, dressed entirely in black, with dark purple shadows under her eyes, spoke weepily to an on-site reporter. “I don’t understand. He was fine. All his levels were fine throughout the entire gestation period. The extraction nurse couldn’t . . . didn’t . . .” She broke off, unable to continue. A man—presumably her husband—appeared in the frame, wrapping his arms around her.
The screen cut back to Mosima in the studio. “This news comes at the pinnacle of the artificial womb’s vastly growing demand. The Surgeon General’s office has issued a statement, assuring the public that they will be thoroughly investigating the womb in upcoming weeks to re-verify its safety.”
A pain flickered in the engineer’s chest. It started as a pinpoint. A prick of fire. But within seconds it had spread like a cancer. Infecting every inch of him, until he was practically doubled over in agony.
The ache was familiar yet foreign at the same time. It was almost as though he had been expecting this. As though he had dreamt it numerous times. An inexplicable omen that he couldn’t fathom into logic.
His knees buckled beneath him and he gripped the sides of the table for support.
It was his fault. It was all his fault.
He invented that womb. He murdered that baby.
“A spokesperson for Diotech has already denied all blame for the infant’s unexpected death,” Mosima continued.
The image shifted again and a man Rickar recognized as the head of Diotech publicity appeared in front of a podium. “What happened today was both tragic and devastating. But I can assure you that no product leaves our warehouse without undergoing a rigorous testing procedure to guarantee quality and safety. Unfortunately, however, we have no control over what happens to the items once they leave our warehouse and are taken into the hands of Swick Worldwide, the company contracted to transport all of Diotech’s product to the marketplace.”
The grieving mother returned. She was sobbing now. Her body convulsing. “I will find out who is responsible for this,” she said directly to the cam, directly to him. “I will find out who killed my son.”
“Deactivate!” the engineer’s weak voice shouted at the screen. The Feed flickered off, returning the wall to simply a wall. But he swore he could still see the outline of the woman’s face. The bloodshot rims of her swollen, puffy eyes. The accusation in her stare.
He went back to work, trying to funnel his thoughts into his research. He was so close to finishing this product. So close to having something new to show Dr. Alixter. To proving he was more than a one-trick pony. All he had to do was focus.
But as the afternoon wore on and the night crept in, the engineer found it harder and harder to silence his mind. To silence the sound of that woman’s sobs.
Finally, he gave up and collapsed onto his cot.
The pain. It was too much to handle. He felt a desperate, yet unfamiliar craving for something strong to numb it. Something liquid to wash it away. But he never kept alcohol in the lab. It would be dangerous and unprofessional.
As he lay on his makeshift bed and stared at the ceiling, the engineer noticed that the shadows on the wall appeared to be moving. He sat up with a start.
What was that?
Is there someone here?
He activated the overhead lamp and glanced around the room.
He was alone.
And yet, when he lay back down and extinguished the lights once more, the darkness seemed to dance. An eerily familiar routine that he swore he’d never experienced before.
He shut his eyes tight, jamming his fists into the sockets.
Go away, he pleaded desperately.
But the shadows did not listen. They crept dangerously closer. Never ceasing and yet somehow never reaching him. All the while, the mother’s grief-stricken moans echoed in his reckless thoughts.
I will find out who killed my son.
He could still see her face so clearly in his mind. Except now, she was here with him. She was standing beside his cot. She was looking down on him.
I will find you.
He jumped up and scrambled across the lab, invisible hands wielding invisible swords stabbing him with every movement. The moment he arrived at his desk, he crumpled like an empty sack. He reached for the center drawer, whimpering, tears streaming down his face. He wrenched it open and searched blindly until his fingertips brushed against the smooth surface of the capsule.
He scooped the tiny pill into his hands and stared at it.
“Give me one reason!” He shouted. “One reason I shouldn’t end it all now!” He didn’t know who he was talking to—the deactivated wall, the mother in mourning, some higher power?—but he felt the need to say it.
Something compelled him to ask.
Minutes passed but there was no reply. He wasn’t sure why he’d even expected one.
In a way, he was relieved by the silence. It was easier this way. Easier not to have to argue. Not to have to fight for what he knew was the only answer.
He slipped the capsule into his mouth.
“Please,” he begged. “Give me a reason.”
Once again, there was only empty silence in his head. A void where he swore a voice once lived.
He tossed his head back, letting the small messenger of death slide into his throat. He felt it scratch and claw and squeeze its way down. He felt it settle in his stomach cavity, releasing its poison.
He prayed it would be fast.
It was the first prayer he ever remembered being answered.
“The Human Engineer” copyright © 2014 by Jessica Brody
Art copyright © 2014 by Goñi Montes