A Story of Practiced Evolution
Not long into our current century the world—namely, the United States of America—faced a dilemma hardly imaginable to those nature-flouting radicals with their "Zero Population Growth" pins, and those responsible Daddies who went under the knife with legs spread after Mommy had kid number 2.5. News of decreased sperm count in men of various countries had passed long before, nearly unheard except as punch lines in late night talk show hosts' social commentaries. But that was years before the upward spiking population began to take its graceful, decades-long swan dive.
Thankfully baby making was already a profitable enterprise by this point. What had become nearly impossible using the traditional method was an easily conquered process by technology, that new god of the age. Soon, for a fee normally equaling a year's salary for at least two people, a nice couple could finally alter that sewing room or home office into a nursery—those approved by company board members, of course. For a little extra, the doctors could perform a few minor alterations of their own in hopes that little Susie would have pretty blonde ringlets and a sunny disposition, or that Billy could take up music as a toddler and still smack that baseball out of the park with every pitch.
These private corporations went through some changes of their own, passing through various hands or consolidating and creating an amalgamated name barely pronounceable but darned snappy sounding to the lay person. One man in particular, who made his beginnings with two small businesses—one dealing in refrigerants, the other selling religious paraphernalia—began quietly buying out the corporations. In a few years, Mr. Bill Turner ran the majority of these fertility centers. That name means a lot more today than it did back then.
But this narrator's telling of the tale wouldn't be very interesting. Out here on the East Coast, near the fallen city once called Boston before the ocean rose up to claim a good piece of it, there is very little firsthand knowledge of what actually goes on in middle America. Many of us working for change have never met a New Human. So I pass control of this story on to someone with a quieter pen but more strength in her words—a bona fide cryogenically stored and genetically remastered woman who came to us two years ago from the very nexus of that society.
My task in introducing our new friend is to promise that the events described here are true and factual—though they have been dramatized for a striking effect. The more improbable elements are verified by myself, a witness to the wonders found within this odd little creature. They are strange abilities to be sure, and beg questions of what else has been found swimming around in our genes to be released by a researcher's meddling. Her existence calls for an end to the practices of cryog society. The following text has been penned by the very same person, verified by myself, Ms. A. Lancaster, president of the Alliance of Non-Genetically Enhanced Races (ANGER).
The woman trailing her bare feet in the cool water of the black-bottomed pool was silent even in this place where female voices were permitted. The women's bathhouse was crowded that afternoon, and the tiled walls and floor made an excellent amplifier for their quick chatter. Their voices bounced from those walls to intertwine and vibrate in the air above the women's heads. Unfortunately, they could not possibly appreciate the power this afforded them, even though the men who lived in the building avoided this floor entirely.
The one who had the attention of Vera and her gaggle of acquiescent middle and lower wives sat alone, staring pitifully into the water. The others congregated into small groups, going together through the swinging doors of the steam room or exiting the massage. She was the only lone figure in the crowd. Vera's group of wives sat in lounges against the wall behind and to the left of this strange person, watching her with cannibalizing stares.
Every woman in this room was unclothed—the bathhouse being the only place that they could reveal their genetically perfected bodies outside of their husbands' beds. Jealousies did not erupt over any perceived differences in the flesh laid out for all the wives to see, for physical attributes could not be commodities when all were created equally and flaws were corrected at the genetic level before birth. Rather, the invisible hierarchy among these women was situated by the marriage position alone. By this measure, Vera was the undisputed top woman of this housing establishment.
"I heard she hasn't been the same since the operation. In the head, I mean," Jamie said with an air of authority.
Vera shot her a withering glance, telling Jamie that she was beginning to puff herself up too much. Jamie was a third wife. This was still rather high on their social ladder, but she should never presume to speak before a first wife. The women were not allowed to exercise formal punishments among themselves for these petty usurpations. Such judgement was left to men alone. But the hierarchy was easily enforced through informal means. No third wife, with her already restricted power, wanted to be shunned by the others. Jamie shut her mouth when the women around her glared, looking down at herself in shame.
"She's been odd as long as I've known her. Why else would she be foolish enough to do what she did?" Vera commented.
"Why didn't they just put her down?" asked Sarah. She looked to the leader to reassure that the question was asked of her.
Vera smiled, pleased that her depth of knowledge was being consulted. Her husband was the physician at their housing compound, and she was able to overhear much juicy information. She preened a bit before answering, teasing them by making them wait. "She hadn't yet been implanted for the first time. Now they're just waiting to see if it will take. But I think we already know that she won't bear."
"We do?" Sarah asked, her eyes wide with a confusion that may have been either feigned or genuine. That really didn't matter, as long as it was present and Vera remained the authority.
"Remember Sylvia?" Vera questioned in a conspiratorial tone.
"Oh," the others all sighed at once.
Sylvia had been quite a scandal. Somehow she had slipped past the inspectors and been allowed to reach adulthood with some parts missing. The strange behavior observed by the other wives finally had made sense when the physicians discovered that she wasn't fully female inside. The women now sat back smugly. Of course, it had to be some naturally occurring flaw in her system to make her act in a less than perfectly feminine manner. If she didn't conceive and had to be put down, then all would be explained.
"They should know soon enough," Vera said, loud to make sure the woman heard, "that this is one freak best put out of her misery."
Vera stood, the others popping up behind as though tied to her by a string. Jamie stayed back a moment to let the others walk forward first, being properly chastised for her outburst. She saw the woman at the pool look up as they came near her, and her eyes met Jamie's for a split second before moving to light on Vera. Jamie felt cold when that gaze touched her, and her flesh broke out with goosebumps. She was relieved when the woman's eyes shifted away.
Suddenly Vera jumped into the pool, her sharp scream cut off by the water as it flowed over her head. Jamie hadn't been watching when it happened. She had been staring instead at the dark eyes of the woman sitting at the pool's edge. Her gaze flew to the spot where Vera had landed, the water still splashing up from her impact. The line of women following laughed immediately, thinking Vera was playing a joke. They watched her waving form at the bottom of the pool, waiting for her to surface.
For several moments, nothing was said as they stared through the water at Vera, who wasn't coming up. She looked as though she were crouching down there, her face pointing up at them and bubbles flying from her open mouth. Jamie thought she might be screaming. She glanced back at the strange woman, who was staring at the surface of the pool again, a serene expression on her face.
"She's not coming up," Sarah said, her voice not as much frightened as it was dazed. "Why isn't she coming up?"
The bubbles stopped rising from the depths of the pool, and Vera's arms flailed lazily. Her mouth and eyes were open wider than they ever had been, and that was saying something. The women stood as though they were the ones slowed by the weight of enveloping water, silently peering down with brows furrowed in consternation over this unusual development. Jamie gasped, suddenly struck by the realization that Vera might actually drown with the bunch of them watching stupidly.
She shoved past the others and threw her body down beside the edge of the pool, the hard tile floor slapping her bare breasts and unripe belly painfully. Her arm plunged into the water up to her shoulder and she reached for one of Vera's outstretched arms. The water was actually very shallow; the pool meant for swimming laps. Jamie didn't have to reach very far to grab her.
But when she pulled, Vera didn't move. Jamie grunted and yanked with all her might, but the other woman wouldn't budge. Then Sarah was landing beside her and taking Vera's other arm. There were screams erupting behind them, and then echoing all around as the rest of the women finally learned the seriousness of the situation. After another moment, the weight they were pulling against lightened considerably, and Vera popped up with the buoyancy of a cork.
Jamie and Sarah hauled her out of the water, Vera falling to her knees and coughing violently. She lurched forward, vomiting water onto the pretty violet tile mosaic decorating the floor. The women practically crushed her with their effort to touch and examine her to determine that she was in actuality alive and uninjured. Vera pushed them away angrily, spurring any effort to assist her to her feet. She was still coughing, her chest feeling heavy and hot as air was forced through it once again.
"Vera, what happened? Are you all right?" Sarah asked in concern.
Vera waved her away, stealing a look at the freak still sitting near the pool. She swore she had been pushed into the water, and then held down at the bottom by a hand on each of her shoulders. But she had opened her eyes and seen only the shadows of people standing above and well away from her. She had been losing consciousness when someone grabbed her hand and started pulling her up. The stark terror of that moment was the deepest, most vile emotion she had ever felt in her life. She had been sure that she was going to die.
Jamie watched Vera stalk away, flinging droplets of water in all directions as she went. There was a look of fear in her eyes that was foreign. This experience would quiet her—for the moment, anyway. But she would steer clear of the strange woman, of that Jamie was sure. Jamie secretly wished that the woman really would be put down, even though she had earlier sympathized with her plight. She knew the strange one had been involved with what just happened, even if she could not truly fathom how. Their lives could be normal again only when this woman was taken away like Sylvia had been.
* * *
This was their sixth repossession today, and Rich was exhausted. These twelve-hour shifts were murder. He and his partner Andy got along well enough and never ran out of things to talk about. That was important. But sometimes the man's ugly face was just too much to take after so many hours of looking at it. Then there were the beans he was fond of eating for lunch. The van got to be embarrassingly close quarters in the late afternoon.
They were following the prescribed route to the Shelter. The sun passed through the branches of the trees leaning over this suburban street and cast their bleached reflections across the windshield of the van. These houses were mainly empty. They were the old quarters of the university faculty, when this prestigious school ran the human engineering labs of the city. But the school closed down a few years after Turner Manufacturing, Inc. took charge of the population maintenance. Now they were occasionally used as security barracks. There were few eyes available to view the Product Liquidation logo painted in bright blue across the side of the white van as it passed on tires that whispered across the cracking pavement.
The Shelter hadn't changed location in all these years. It was deemed better to keep it out of sight and away from the common citizens. People were still an excitable species, even after so much time and effort had been put to correcting their unacceptable flaws. They could watch the executions on their televisions each night and mass hysteria was avoided. But if they saw the actual creatures that were to be disposed of in the flesh, then their silliest of emotions often took over. There were researchers still considering the value of such sentiment in the new human race.
The woman behind the wire-mesh separating the front of the van from the back was a quiet one. Sometimes the fear got to them and they started screaming and crying. Fortunately the vehicle was outfitted with soundproof glass. Since the women were already en route to the Shelter by this point, they weren't punished for the infraction. In consequence, the two men were part of a rare class that saw women at their most disagreeable state. It wore down on a person.
Andy, behind the wheel, glanced into the rearview mirror at her. He started chuckling. "Hey," he said, "check this out."
Rich turned to look over his shoulder, and saw her sitting where they had left her in the center seat, her spine ramrod straight and her hands clasped neatly between her knees. But her eyes had gone funny, wiggling from side to side in her head like she was having a convulsion or something. He waved a hand at her to gain her attention, but she didn't respond.
"You think we should stop?" he asked.
He didn't know the procedure for something like this. There were specific rules for medical emergencies like bleeding or constricted breathing, but he could hear her breath going in and out of her like clockwork, and the rest of her sat as still as before. Rich looked back at Andy for approval. He always knew what to do when something crazy happened.
"Nah," Andy said, reaching up with one hand to pick his nose casually. "We're almost there. She's fine."
Rich settled back in his seat. After a moment, he started laughing. Andy glanced over at him in question. "Did you see the executions last night on the tube? That woman fighting the gas, crying for her mother?" His laughter grew louder as he remembered it.
"Man, she was a nongen, didn't you know that?" Andy scoffed. "They have, like, different expectations than real women."
"I had no idea she was nongen. She didn't look it."
"Yeah, well, she wasn't a total pig. That's what confused you."
They were passing through one of the few agricultural areas of the city, the fields devoid of crops and filled with weeds that pulsated in the faint breeze. The road was newly paved here. It was in effect the driveway of the Shelter, for no one else used this throughway anymore. The gray and unremarkable building could not be seen from here, but the van was a short five minutes from reaching their destination. Rich envisioned himself popping open a can of his favorite soy drink and plopping himself down on the couch to vegetate in front of the tube until it was time to go back to work.
The silence was contented a few moments, the woman and her possible problem forgotten, before Andy once again looked in the rearview mirror. This time he swore loudly, and the speaker sitting primly on the dashboard buzzed him for his violation. "Watch it, Rich!" he shouted.
Rich turned over his shoulder but saw only a blur as the wire mesh bulged out toward him. The woman had come up to the front of the van and crouched directly on the other side. He stared in awed disbelief as the divider flew out at them. The sound of screeching tires and the jolt of the van impacting something were the last sensible things before he was shoved forward and through the windshield.
* * *
Colonel Adam Hicks had been appointed to run the security efforts of the city by the old man's own grandson. There were better than two hundred Turners running the cities throughout the country. The old man had ten wives before he was done, and sixty-two children. There were fewer restrictions on propagation back then, before the mess was discovered. Individual women weren't allowed so many impregnations anymore.
He was still called Colonel even though he had moved to the private sector along with the rest of the civilized country. A skinny, nervous old man, he had shriveled considerably as he aged. But his voice was as loud and cruel as it always had been. It struck the fear of God into all who were at the receiving end of it.
That evening a report disc was placed on his desk and he was briefed on news that he never expected to hear. He listened quietly, viewing footage of the battered van and dead repo men. The driver had just tallied his final violation of the Purity of Language Act and would have faced the repossession of one of his own wives, but there was little worry of that now. His property would be dispersed among the lower echelon of blue-collars, who could afford only used women to wife anyway.
Hicks slammed his fist angrily on his desk. The men standing before him cringed in terror. One was security manager at the Shelter, the second one of his own immediate people. But the three weren't alone in the office. Turner himself was probably watching the proceedings from his own quarters, the ornery bastard.
"What the devil happened out there?" Hicks demanded. "A woman does not cause an accident like this and stroll calmly away like she's enjoying a day of shopping! Where is the live footage?"
The two men exchanged glances. "The cameras were destroyed, sir," his man said. His name was Smith.
"All of them?" Hicks asked, shocked.
"Yes, sir," Smith sighed. "As you can see from the report, she was a…well—" he started stuttering, and Hicks felt his blood pressure go up in that instant.
"What? What is she?" he shouted.
"A second daughter."
Hicks pushed himself back away from the desk, giving the man a long, considering look. "How is that possible? I thought they were all destroyed twenty years ago," he said, his voice much more subdued.
The reason individual women were no longer allowed to have so many children was due to that very creature. Multiples born of the same woman began to take on very strange traits—uncontrollable traits that had yet to be fully explained. The old man of course had had his own idea about the situation, which is why the laws had all been redrawn thirty years before. Mass restriction of all female citizens, before the Eve Complex (as the old man had been fond of calling it) ruined the entire society.
"This one obviously wasn't, sir."
"Well, this place is just going to hell, now isn't it?" Hicks said, and the speaker on his desk buzzed righteously. He paused a moment to collect his thoughts. "We've got females born without uteruses, with third nipples, and full sets of teeth. What's going on at that cryogenic storage facility, hmm?" Hicks asked sarcastically.
"I wouldn't know, sir," Smith answered.
Hicks sighed. "Where was she headed?"
"East; toward the nongen settlement. As you saw in the report, her image was captured by several streetcams."
"Well, that's just great. She makes it there, and we'll never find her," Hicks said, his fury returning. "I want you to take as many men as you can get. You go down there, and you find that creature, do you hear me?" His voice was rising with each word.
"Yes, sir!" Smith answered smartly.
"I can't believe we're still dealing with the mess those experimental morons made," Hicks muttered to himself.
He returned to his troubling thoughts. Thirty years earlier it was common practice to work multiple embryos out of single ova. It kept costs down with fewer harvesting surgeries on the women, and the population disaster had them procreating at a feverish rate. But after those monster female babies started appearing, women were allowed just one female infant from one excised egg. Male babies hadn't been catching any peculiarities. It was the women who were dangerous. The old man had a long scriptural document proving why this was the case, but Hicks wasn't particularly interested in that account. This was deeper than simple sorcery.
This woman was twenty-four according to the report he'd just viewed a few moments earlier, and repossessed when her body rejected implantation of the embryos so carefully cultivated by the scientists at the Center. She should have been destroyed long ago, with all the others. How she escaped notice for so many years was beyond him.
Hicks jumped up from his chair and leaned over his desk. "I want you to kill her on sight. Forget all the whining they'll give you at the Shelter about studying the specimen to avoid future calamity. Do you have any idea how much damage she could do before she's done? I want her dead, Smith. Do you understand?"
Hicks glared at the man as he left the office, then uttered a heavy sigh and sat back down. He had no idea what was happening to the city these days. Once upon a time these things were controllable. Now they had chaos comparable to those barbaric nongen settlements. It was as if a plague had descended upon them. He opened the top drawer of his desk and peered at the heavy black leather-bound book found in every room in the city. It was sacrilege to say such a thing, because this was God's own society they had created, but he often wondered if they weren't being punished for some large infraction. He remembered the stories his mother had told him before he was sent away to live at the Compound with the other young boys—about toads falling from the sky, and the oceans turning to blood.
But glancing up, he could see the camera at the corner of the ceiling bearing down, watching even him. He wasn't held to the same regulations that the women were, but there were cameras like these in every room, corridor, and street corner in the city. Sometimes he imagined that those things were reading his mind, and not just his movements. Hicks closed the drawer firmly, and set about the business so rudely interrupted by the news of the woman escaping.
* * *
Diane was weeding her flower garden when the disheveled creature that appeared to be a woman stumbled into her yard. Lenny was sleeping in the house, and he was like the dead when he slept, so she couldn't count on him hearing if she shouted for him. But in the next moment as she watched the stranger shuffle toward where she was kneeling in the dirt, Diane's immediate fear fell away.
"Are you injured?" Diane asked, standing.
Dark brown eyes regarded her curiously from a dirty and bloodstained face. The woman was cut on the forehead above her left eye, and the wound had already closed over with an ugly scab. She didn't stop when Diane spoke to her, but continued forward in her sliding gait. Diane had an urge to take a few steps back, especially when she saw that the mass of blood spattering the woman's clothing could not possibly be her own. Then the stranger held out her arms and finished her journey by clinging to Diane's middle like a frightened child, and she melted in surprised warmth.
She had the stranger washed and dressed in some of her own clothing before Lenny rolled out of bed. He always slept too late on his days off. Diane was trying again to clean the rest of the grime off the woman's face when he strolled into the kitchen. The bath had removed the dirt from her body. But her hair and face didn't seem to be repairable. There was a sticky substance, like tar, coating her hair. The woman must have been rolling in a street somewhere.
"Good afternoon, lazy," Diane said cheerfully. She sat before the stranger at the table, scrubbing her face with a blackened wash cloth. The woman allowed the ministrations without protest, or even a sound.
Lenny didn't respond, only stood near the doorway in his underwear and shirt, staring at the two of them. "Who is that?" he finally asked.
"I found her this morning. She doesn't talk; I don't think she can. But she seems to understand what I'm saying to her," Diane explained. She stopped what she was doing and looked over at her husband.
Lenny shook his head in exasperation and took a few steps forward. Diane noticed the woman tensing slightly as he did so. "Yes, but who is she?" Lenny repeated.
"Well, I don't know. I just told you that, weren't you listening?" Diane asked, rolling her eyes.
Her husband came up close, leaning over the woman where she sat in the chair and looking down at her intently. She immediately bowed her head, gazing at his feet instead of his face. Her fingers laced together and clenched tightly in her lap. Diane watched this reaction with great interest.
"She's a cryog," Lenny said flatly, standing up straight. Suddenly he was angry, stalking away from them before whirling around and saying accusingly, "Damn it, Di, you brought a cryog into this house!"
"You're a cryog too, Lenny, or have you forgotten already? How can you be such a jerk?" Diane cried. "She's our guest, and I think she's in trouble."
"She's female," Lenny pointed out.
Diane sighed. "Well I know that, Lenny, they aren't that different from the 'barbarians.'"
"They don't just let their females wander off when they have no more use for them. They always destroy them. Someone will be looking for her, and I don't think it would be very good for us if they find her in our house," Lenny waved his arm toward the kitchen around them to illustrate his point.
"Well, I hear your concern, but this matter is out of your hands. She's staying with us," Diane said, her voice firm. The stranger looked up at her, surprise showing on her face. Diane smiled to reassure her. "If you think about it, this is really the best place for her," she continued. "You understand better than anyone where she's coming from, and what to expect from her. We can teach her how to live like us, and then the cryogs wouldn't even recognize her if they do come looking."
Lenny snorted rudely. "It's not that easy. This…person that you see before you is more like a well-maintained machine than a woman. Where she comes from, there are cameras watching every move she makes, every word she says—there are people counting each calorie she eats, every bowel movement, burp, and hiccup she makes. In the city, women aren't allowed to read or write, with the punishment of blindness. Do you think you can just teach her to forget her programming?"
Diane frowned at him. "Well-maintained machine or not, she's still a human being. Human beings can learn, and they can change. I would think you of all people could believe in that."
Lenny sighed when he saw the hurt on his wife's face. "I know better than to demand anything of you," he finally said. "But I wish to voice my objection to this situation right up front."
"Your objection is recognized, but overruled, sir," Diane said, smiling. She looked back at the stranger and grinned.
That early evening at dinner, the three of them sat around the kitchen table with two of them watching the movements of the quiet third. The stranger would eat only very small amounts of food, and politely slid the chicken around her plate with her fork in a valiant effort to pretend to eat it. Diane remembered that Lenny said their diets were very constricted, and she wondered how women in the city ever survived eating like mice. She attacked her meal voraciously, eating three helpings.
"Do you like the food?" she inquired of their guest.
The woman looked up from her plate, cast a brief glance at Lenny, and nodded her head. Diane smiled. "Lenny's a much better cook than I am. We have a deal—the kitchen is his, in case I accidentally poison us."
This statement elicited what may have been a smile on the face of the cryog woman; if one could change expressions without moving any facial muscles. Diane looked at her for a long time, envious of her delicate shape. "You know, you really are beautiful. Almost perfect," she said, and sighed. "I wish I knew your name. I wonder why you can't speak?"
The cryog brought a hand up to her throat, cradling it between her slender fingers, and shook her head. Diane frowned in question. The woman paused, thinking, then quickly brought one finger across her throat in a harsh, slashing motion. Diane gasped in surprise. Lenny spoke up then, saying something for the first time since that afternoon. He'd been pouting after his suggestion had been dismissed. He really could be such a baby.
"Her vocal chords have been severed," he said, then shoveled a forkful of green beans into his mouth.
"What?" Diane cried.
"It's the punishment for speaking out of turn, or insulting an important guest of the household," Lenny explained as he chewed.
Diane's mouth dropped open in shock. "Oh my Lord," she breathed, staring at the silent woman with real pain in her eyes.
"It's done with anesthetic, and laser surgery. It wouldn't have hurt her," Lenny assured his wife, assuming that was what had worried her.
"But she can't talk, Lenny," Diane said. "They took her voice away! And for what—for telling some fat businessman that he had an ugly toupee? That's repulsive, and barbaric."
"I didn't make the law, Di," Lenny defended. "The rules are harsh to keep the order. When they started their genetic meddling, the females didn't respond to the alterations predictably. They have to keep a strict control of the women for their society to function properly."
"That's a phony reason and you know it," Diane snapped. "Turner just wanted his radical politics made into law. If you ever tell me I've spoken out of turn, I'll bite your tongue out," she warned him.
"Wouldn't dream of it," Lenny responded, continuing to eat. "I realize it's despicable. Why do you think I left that place? But what can we do about it by wringing our hands out here?"
The woman watched their conversation with an expression of awe. She gazed at Diane with an admiration that left her flustered, and a little embarrassed. "You're safe here," she told the cryog. "The nongens don't believe in that stupidity."
The cryog slept on the couch in the living room as Diane and Lenny washed the dishes that night. It was early autumn, and the evenings were still very warm. They had the window over the sink open to let the breeze float past them. It was flavored with the scent of Diane's roses. The woman was exhausted, and it was amazing that she had managed to remain awake so long. She wouldn't lie down to sleep until Lenny told her that she could. Now she slept more soundly then Lenny ever did, and was silent enough to make Diane worry sometimes that she had stopped breathing, and quietly died on them.
"I forgot to tell you today, with all of the excitement," she told Lenny, taking the wet plate he offered her to dry. "But my period started this morning."
Lenny, such a beautiful man, hid his disappointment well. But she could read him better than anyone else, and saw his shoulder sag slightly. He didn't say a word. Diane felt the sting of tears bite her eyes as she turned away to place the dry plate back in the cupboard.
"I can't help but think that if you'd stayed there, you'd probably have twenty children by now," Diane finally burst, crying.
Lenny dropped the cup he was washing back into the sink and took her by the shoulders. She felt the soapy water on his hands soak through the thin cotton of her shirt. "We'll just keep trying," he said. "I won't let you blame yourself when it's my fault. And don't pretend that I'd even consider living in that damned place. Look what it already did to her."
Diane stopped, wiping her face with one hand and sniffling. "Do you think we even have a chance out here on our own?" she asked. "For all their faults, the cryogs certainly are having plenty of babies the way they do things."
Lenny sighed. "I don't know. What I do know is they've made a lot of sacrifices, and I don't think they'll understand what they've traded away for a very long time. Until then, we can just keep trying, the old-fashioned way."
"I will have a baby," Diane said fiercely.
"I've never doubted it. Why don't you let me finish here, and you go get some sleep. You're running yourself ragged, getting up at the crack of dawn like you do," Lenny teased her.
"I don't get up at the crack of dawn, I just wake up before noon," she quipped.
The next morning, Diane was sitting with the cryog in the kitchen, the odor of breakfast still hanging in the air around them. Lenny was at school, where he taught a thin crowd of children. Diane was once a teacher as well, but had volunteered to be a part of the layoffs when the staff started to outnumber the students. She spent time growing food instead, another production that was beginning to slow in the settlement. If she couldn't grow children she could grow food for those that did live here.
The woman watched with interest as Diane carefully drew each of the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet on a piece of paper with a pen she had dug out of their ill-used desk in the living room. She left space beneath each letter for the woman to draw her own. It had occurred to her in the night that one thing she could teach the cryog that would forever set her apart from the others was how to read and write. Then the woman could communicate with them; tell them her name, and who she was.
She had already convinced the cryog that they should cut off her hair, which was still tangled with black tar. That had been a frightening prospect to the woman, but she finally acquiesced. It didn't take long at all, the way Diane wielded a pair of scissors, and the cryog seemed amazed by the shorn brown locks clustered around her head. Her fingers were continuously finding their way up there to touch the thin sheath barely covering her skull. Now she sat beside Diane at the kitchen table, not really understanding what she was up to. Diane knew this, because she was sure the woman would react rather harshly to what she would soon ask her to do.
"There," Diane said as she finished with the letter 'z.' "Each one of these symbols is a letter of the alphabet," she said, pointing to each in turn. The woman watched her mouth move as she spoke instead of the paper beneath her finger. "We put them together to make words, and then those go together to make sentences. Here," Diane offered the pen, "copy the letters and I'll tell you their names as you go."
The reaction was as dramatic as she expected. Lenny had warned her late the night before that the cryog would not consent to learning as easily as Diane had decided to teach her. The woman leapt to her feet, the chair falling backwards to strike the floor behind her. She ran to the other side of the room, her eyes wide as she searched the ceiling. Her breath came fast and heavily, and Diane could almost swear that she heard the woman's heart pounding from across the room. The terror on her face was almost too much to bear.
"No," Diane said. "There are no cameras in this room. No one's watching you." She stood and walked toward the cryog. The woman cringed away from the hand holding the pen, and Diane put it down on the counter. "The civilization is not going to crumble if you take that pen," she promised. "And you aren't going to explode into a thousand pieces." She stepped forward and put the woman's face between her hands. "Nothing will hurt you here. Will you trust me?" she whispered.
There was some spark of understanding in the brown eyes that looked into hers, and Diane leaned forward to kiss the cryog's cheek. She was like a child, and Diane knew that was what endeared her so much. She took the woman's hand, grabbing the pen again with the other, and led her back to the table. The cryog righted her chair, a look of apology on her face, and took her seat again. The hand that held the pen when Diane pressed it against its palm shook too hard for her to ever draw a straight line.
"This first letter is 'a.' Just copy what I've done. Here, I'll help you," Diane put her hand over the cryog's, and after a long effort, a wobbly-sided letter 'a' appeared beneath the first one.
Now the woman smiled, and this time it was a real smile, showing two rows of perfectly straight and even white teeth. The cryogs hadn't overlooked a thing when they created their citizens. "Now, that wasn't very hard at all, was it?" Diane asked.
She was entranced by the look of happiness on the cryog's face. Such an expression was possible, of course she realized that. But Diane had been beginning to wonder if the woman would ever learn to allow someone to see what she was feeling. She had to express her emotions just for the sake of having them, if only to remind herself that she was human, after all. As Diane watched the beauty of the artificially perfected creature seated before her, a cloud passed over the cryog's face. Her eyes had shifted to the right, and stared over her shoulder.
Diane frowned and followed her gaze. She hadn't acknowledged the noises coming from outside, merely dismissing them as normal sounds of this crowded area. There were always people shouting and running around the house, and she was so accustomed to it that it never bothered her anymore. But now she saw that something really was happening outside, and it wasn't just a bunch of young adults having fun. She saw the uniforms of the cryog police force as a group of them hurried down the street, breaking off two at a time to push their way into houses.
"Oh, goodness," she whispered.
There was a sudden tinkling sound coming from inside the cupboards like the glasses were shivering against each other. There were a lot of men coming this way, but not nearly enough to cause such a vibration. Diane turned back to the cryog, who had already stood from her chair and was now trying to press herself into the wall.
"They're here for you?" Diane asked, disbelieving. The cryogs never deigned to set foot inside the nongen settlements. She never would have expected them to come so quickly to find just one person. The woman nodded, her fear a sadly natural shroud around her face. "We have to hide you," Diane decided, hurrying over and taking her by the arm. "Come on."
There was a closet in the hall just outside the living room, and this is where Diane took the cryog. They didn't have enough time to go upstairs, for she could see the men already running up their yard through the small panes of glass in the front door. They moved fast and efficiently. The two officers knocked, a mark of civility that frankly surprised Diane. She pushed the cryog behind the coats and clothing hanging in the closet and closed the door. The two men stood straight when she opened the front door.
"Yes?" she asked in a cool voice.
But their politeness ended at that moment, and they shoved their way into the house. Diane fell against the wall next to the stairway when one of them stuck his hand in the center of her chest and pushed her away. The door banged open and then bounced back with the force of his kick.
"Hey!" she shouted. "What the hell do you think—"
But the one who had pushed her reached down and grabbed her jaw with one hand, squeezing painfully and shaking her head to make her stop speaking. "Shut up, bitch," he said.
The second one was already walking through the house, searching the kitchen first, and then coming back into the living room. They both glanced up the stairs. "Go up and check," the first one ordered, and the second man easily mounted them.
"You have no right to come in here like this. The Treaty of Interspecies Relations says that—" Diane knew that she shouldn't have said anything again, but her anger got the better of her. She always got angry when she was afraid.
The cryog officer backhanded her, the blow hard enough to make her head fly back against the wall. Diane saw tiny sparks floating before her eyes, and felt blood ooze from her burst lip. Unfortunately, the cryog woman must have had a temper to match hers, for there came a crash across the room. The closet door opened suddenly, and she emerged. When Diane's vision was righted she saw the woman take a few steps toward the cryog police officer, a look of fury on her face.
"David!" the man shouted. "She's here!"
He had looked away from her in that brief instant it took him to tell his partner the news, and so didn't see the lamp sitting next to the couch suddenly hurl itself through the air at him. It smashed to pieces upon hitting him in the head, and he grunted vaguely before slinking to the floor. His body made a thick and satisfying sound as it struck. The seemingly innocuous cut on his forehead bled lavishly. He remained still, unconscious. Diane stared at him in horror, not comprehending what she'd just seen.
By this time the second man had come halfway down the stairs, running. But for some reason he tripped, fell forward, and landed hard on the floor a great distance away. This hardly incapacitated him though, and he lurched to his feet, looking wildly around to see what happened. He saw the cryog woman and rushed at her. Diane jumped to her feet but was too far away. He took the woman by the throat and picked her up, meaning to throw her.
When Diane reached them she kicked at his leg behind the knee, and he lost his balance. He dropped the woman and turned back toward her. "You nongen pigs never learn," he hissed. He reached forward, but stopped, a startled look crossing his face. His hands flew to his throat, and he started gagging. The sound was horrible, a rough choking noise that made Diane think something was in there tearing it up. His face turned scarlet and he fell to his knees, clutching his neck.
Diane hurried to the cryog woman and put an arm around her waist. She didn't appear frightened at all, but rather very calm and content. She helped her stand and moved her away from the man on the floor, who was struggling mightily against whatever ailed him. When they were at the open door, the noises behind them stopped. Diane turned her head over one shoulder and saw him lying flat, apparently dead.
"Let's go to the school. It's nearby, and there's a lot of people there," Diane told the woman, who merely followed her lead.
In the streets the cryog officers were rioting, throwing people out of their homes and tossing their belongings about. There was something about the woman that had them frantic to find her. Diane's mind questioned what she had just seen in her house, and for some odd reason, the thought that the woman had caused those things didn't seem so farfetched. Who knew what the cryogs would cause once they started playing with the smallest parts of human beings, correcting what they believed to be mistakes?
It would be difficult to navigate their way to the school. There were more police than she thought, and they were hassling every person they came across. There were nongens stumbling about with bloodied faces; having been beaten. The two women hurried down the street, trying to avoid the cryog men. Suddenly it was like a war had begun in their neighborhood. Then the shots began to fire, and Diane threw them both into the grass of a neighbor's yard.
"I can't believe this. They're actually going to kill us," Diane said.
It was true. A nongen man started pushing a cryog officer who had taken his daughter by the hair to drag her from the house and into the street. The cryog kicked her away, pulled a gun from his belt, and shot the man point blank in the head. Diane cried out in spite of herself. She'd never seen anyone killed before.
Someone grabbed her leg and she was dragged a short distance away from her companion. Diane was turned over onto her back and staring up into the face of one of them, the barrel of his gun shoved close. He pointed it down at her head, and she saw his finger moving to pull the trigger. She didn't even have time to close her eyes to avoid seeing what would happen. The gun was pulled from his hand, and he fell away with a scream.
Diane lurched to her feet. She glanced at the body, a trickle of blood at the corner of its mouth, and then turned to look for the woman. But the cryog was walking away from her, down the street and toward the bulk of the cryog police.
"Wait!" she shouted. The cryog either didn't hear or didn't listen. Her walk was purposeful and determined. Diane wasn't sure she wanted to watch what would happen next.
Lenny ran past the open houses of the families who lived near them, jumping over fallen furniture and other debris that now littered the street. He had come after it was all over, even though he hurried here as soon as he heard something terrible was happening. It had ended that quickly. The dead were nearly all cryogs, wearing the uniform he was very much familiar with. Most didn't have a mark on their bodies, but already wore their final deathly pallor.
"Diane!" he shouted when he finally saw his wife. She crouched over a small child lying in the street.
She looked up, her face red with tears. But she was uninjured. He breathed a sigh of relief and pulled her up into an embrace. "What the hell happened?" he asked.
"They came for her. She's—she's not normal, Lenny, and they knew it. They were willing to do this just to get to her," Diane sobbed. He saw that it was Ben on the ground, the young boy who lived next door. His parents had waited seven years to finally conceive.
Lenny looked around himself grimly. There was a lot of damage, and people were wandering around their homes with dazed looks on their faces. He couldn't tell how many of them had been killed, for the cryogs littered the ground like paper that had been tossed into a high wind. Then he saw her; the woman. She stood nearby, watching them cautiously, as though not sure of how they would react to her.
"She did this to the police?" he asked. Diane nodded. "They'll send more after her. She can't stay here."
"I know," Diane said. She gazed at the cryog woman, her tear streaked face softening. "And she does, too."
* * *
They gave her food and a first aid kit. A map would have done her no good, so Lenny spent some time explaining to her some of the areas she would have to avoid. It was nearly dark when the three of them stood to the east of the settlement. A crow sat high in the branches of a nearby tree, cawing down at them continuously as they made ready for her to depart.
"There are more nongen settlements to the East; a lot of them pretty isolated. The cryogs abandoned their cities that way after the ocean crested. You'll have to be careful though, they aren't very trusting of strangers," Lenny explained. "But the others may give up on you if you get far enough away from their cities."
The cryog nodded. Her face wore a stern expression of complete concentration and determination. One renegade streak of black tar had survived high on her forehead, marring its perfect skin. It made Diane want to cry again.
"I have one more thing," Lenny said, pulling something out of his pocket. Diane saw that it was the pocketknife his father had given him. It was the last thing he owned that had come from the city he left behind. "Remember what I told you about disguising yourself, if you have the stomach to do it. It may become necessary."
Diane must have missed that conversation, but seeing the woman palm the knife, she could imagine what he might have told her. The cryogs were physically perfect, without outward flaws of any sort. She didn't know whether or not the woman would be able to actually mutilate herself, but if the circumstances were critical enough, Diane knew she would.
"Be very careful, though. Don't do anything too drastic," she spoke up. The woman glanced over at her and shook her head.
"You should get going," Lenny said. "They're working pretty damned fast."
He put out his hand for her to shake, and she stared at it for a long time, shocked. She finally accepted it, openly pleased to have been given common ground in this small way. But Diane wasn't merely shaking hands. She pulled the cryog into a full embrace, squeezing her tightly. The woman broke out first, leaning back and smiling. She reached up and put a hand on Diane's belly, touching it gently. It was fairly clear to her what the cryog was telling her with the gesture.
"Thank you," Diane said.
They watched for some time as the lone figure walked away from them, entering the trees to avoid the well-traveled highway. Diane wasn't surprised to find herself crying again, but Lenny was. "She'll be fine. I have a feeling she can take care of herself," he said.
"I know. I just wish I could have kept her here with us," Diane answered. "Do you think there are any others like her?"
"I hope so," Lenny said so fervently it made a choked laugh burst from her throat. "The cryogs will be the fathers of their own destruction."
"Then good riddance to perfection," Diane said.