UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
You can always get what you want
The timing couldn’t have been better for Emma, a retired 65 year old workaholic who had watched the world and its biological opportunities fly past from the corner office of a shiny Dallas high rise. The problem was never money, her being an executive VP of sales and all, but rather one of government. The little foreigners in lab coats had made astounding progress over the past twenty years, enough to meet her exceptionally high standards, but the pessimistic hacks filling review boards and scientific committees just wouldn’t get out of the way. But now there was a very real chance to obtain something that satisfied her each and every whim perfectly, something she desired and therefore, by definition, required. In the office Emma was known for getting what she wanted.
For her husband Harold the timing was not inopportune. Retired from a power career as a prosecutor following a nasty (but warranted) ethics investigation, he found himself with little to do but golf, struggle through crosswords, and monitor the state’s predator website as head of the neighborhood Crime Watch program. With Emma loudly and relentlessly redecorating, replacing floorboards in the foyer with faux Italian marble from China and building a koi pond on the back terrace, Harold was amenable to change, given it was quiet.
So the dreadfully deep recession of ’09 and ’10 (which touched even them, temporarily interrupting the landscaping) offered up a most welcome opportunity. The President, a skinny man who to Harold’s surprise “spoke english quite well,” opened the floodgates to pent up innovation. A hastily passed law allowed tax breaks and other incentives to companies willing to “harness emerging technologies and drive the innovation of the 21st century”. It wasn’t long before Emma received the email that would change everything forever.
The pitch from Embryonic Research Resources was bold and confident, a powerful reminder of the unfettered market Emma so greatly admired. Send the visionless dolts out to pasture, she thought while sitting in front of the flat screen in her redesigned office, and good things like this can happen. Here are the real men we need, the modern-day Magellans that once made this country great. Emma clicked on the Yes We Can button without hesitation, knowing that Harold would share in the excitement. Given the threat of more remodeling in the pipeline, he didn’t really have a choice.
* * * *
The sleek Aeroliner picks up Harold and Emma on a muggy, overcast Texas day and whisks them off to the ERR headquarters on the outskirts of Boston. The soup outside is no match for Emma’s buoyant thoughts, which cut through the gloom with a rapid fire succession of possible baby names. This, she thinks while staring out the window, really is a bold and brilliant new day unlike any that have come before. Lost in thought she barely notices the time passed as the plane touches down a few hours later.
They’re greeted on the tarmac by a short man in a dark suit with jelled-back hair who presents himself as Robert, a “reproductive specialist.” Robert smiles, congratulating the pair on a brilliant decision, and escorts them toward a glass building, all the while raving about recycled materials and the green benefits of natural lighting. Though reluctant to believe things without first inspecting the evidence, a quality common to those involved in the law, Harold whispers to Emma that it does seem to be a slick and modern operation.
The trio strolls through a lobby filled with teakwood couches, modern art, and potted palms and enters a small conference room offering a generous view of the Boston skyline. Robert offers refreshments, which his guest decline, still sated by the Chilean sea bass served on the jet. The group gets down to business.
“Okay,” Robert chimes, “let’s review the items you chose online and then get to the good stuff”.
Emma shifts to the front of her seat and claps in tiny, excited pats. Robert, somewhat uncomfortable with his wife’s giddy enthusiasm, rests his elbows on the glass table and locks his hands into a prayer pose. Glancing around the room he muses on how different the setting is from a usual Sunday morning in the church back in Dallas.
“So,” Robert continues, glancing at the flat screen monitor before him, “we decided to go with the Olympic athlete sperm grown in a rat.”
Harold’s sharp intake of breath draws Robert away from the screen. He smiles sheepishly and says, “As I am sure you’re aware of, given your particular...fertility circumstances...this is the best option for screening out unforeseen...developments, shall we say.”
Emma nods her head silently, thinking that maybe she should have shared more information beforehand. But, what’s done is done, hindsight is 20-20, and so forth.
Robert smiles and starts working his reassurance magic, a requirement for success in the business.
“Our labs screen for and remove any and all proteins responsible for obesity, MS, hair-loss, depression, and any other affliction one could imagine. Trust me, this is gold medal stuff we’re talking about.”
Robert slides a sheaf of papers toward Harold. The stack is filled with medical studies, testimonials from happy clients, reports on cutting edge research underway. And, at the bottom, small print disclosure forms. Harold dons a pair of wire-framed bifocals and pages through the pile while Robert continues.
“So, Emma, I see here you’ve decided to go with the climate controlled mechanical womb. Good choice.”
Emma beams and quips, “Who wants to spend months getting back into shape?”
The two laugh as Harold puts down the forms and rejoins the proceedings. Robert clicks the screen and starts waving his hands theatrically as an audio clip spits out a quiet drum roll, which quickly rises to a crescendo and finishes with a crashing symbol.
“So, it’s time for the big choice...boy or girl?”
“Girl,” Emma screeches, while Robert stares blankly at a painting on the wall.
“Allrighty then,” Robert chuckles, “and for your bonus genetic feature?” All clients choosing the premium ERR package get one genetic upgrade. Some choose towering height (produced by spliced bamboo genes), aiming for a future basketballer, while others pick extended frequency hearing (culled from barn owl genes and expertly inserted into the embryo) in hopes of raising a rock star.
Emma, as usual, knows exactly what she wants. She juts her chin forward assertively and says “Sight!”
Robert checks a box on the screen and arcs his hand through the air with a grandiose stroke, like a magician.
“Golden eagle or barn owl?”
“Eagle,” Emma replies, “definitely the eagle...it’s the national symbol for god’s sake.”
* * * *
Eight months later the ERR jet shuttles Emma and Harold back to Boston. A technician in a spotless white lab coat hands Emma a dozen roses and escorts the couple through the lobby and down an escalator to a germ-free room bathed in lavender light. Emma and Harold gaze at a row of football shaped metal contraptions lining the wall while the tech locates their unit number on his clipboard. Clear tubes splay out from the mechanical wombs, sending fluids of various colors to the unseen biological Control Center. Apart from a quiet humming emanating from the bank of machines, the room is still and noiseless. The tech extends an arm toward unit #2 and asks Emma to “do the honors.”
Harold readies his I-Phone to film the event. Nearly all their friends and family insisted on him sending instant video of the Byrth™ to Dallas. No one back home wanted to miss this pioneering, monumental event.
Emma steps forward, gently opens the door, and stands motionless. The roses drop from her hand a second before she passes out. When her body falls out of the way the viewers in Dallas see an otherwise normal child with a dagger-sharp, curved beak arcing out from just below its eyes.
* * * *
Harold tries not to revisit the piercing shriek of Beak Boy, as he’s come to be known, while he sits in an office waiting for his lawyer to finish reading the disclosure agreements. The sound was earsplitting, a high pitched wail that ricocheted off the walls as he stared with shock into the mechanical womb. Someone (most likely Tony, Emma’s pimply live-at-home cousin) recorded the video and posted it to You Tube. Instantly, the world was invited to gawk at the new horror that had entered Harold’s life.
The calls from bottomfeeders came within hours, shortly after the ERR jet dropped him off in Dallas free of charge in a desperate attempt to avoid a lawsuit. Entertainment Tonight, America’s Wildest Videos, and People all clamored to be the first to interview Beakie Senior, his new media moniker. Reporters swarmed through his suburb and blocked his driveway, forcing Harold to escape down a side street in the middle of the night and race away with the media in pursuit, like OJ (the first time). Emma wasn’t with him – after regaining consciousness she fled the building and disappeared into the city to god knows where, since then remaining incommunicado.
The lawyer, generous enough to squeeze in Harold between incessant calls from a besieged developer of condo-hotel-mall casinos, grunts and lowers the papers in his hand. His brow creases in consternation as he points to a line and starts reading.
“Section VII, Part D, Force Majeure: EFF is excused from liability if some unforeseen event beyond the control of EFF prevents it from performing its obligations under the contract.”
“You’re telling me they’re using that mumbo Trump tried in Chicago? Harold stares at his lawyer in disbelief and contemplates getting a new one.
As if reading his mind, the lawyer says, “You’ll get the same answer everywhere. Can’t find a greater Act of God than the world of reproduction. And, I should note, a billion dollar company with aggressive investors won’t back down easily.”
The lawyer grimaces and says, “I’ll try, but it won’t be quick...or cheap.”
Harold grabs his cell, thinking that he’d give anything to be someone else at this point. An air-traffic controller in the early stages of dementia, an anger management counselor with a short fuse, a stuttering speech therapist, anyone but the recipient of a gift from mad scientists and their unwitting accomplices. He stabs a call-back number and gets the guy from Entertainment Tonight.
“I’ll do it for a million.”Thomas Sullivan writes short stories from his home in the Pacific Northwest. His writing has appeared inTwisted Tongue Magazine, Gloom Cupboard, Bad Idea Magazine and Lit-Up Magazine among others.
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