Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

Breeding True
    by Orson Scott Card

Breeding True
Artwork by Dean Spencer

The artifact wasn't moving anywhere near as fast as light. It had blipped into the Asteroid Collision Detection System two years before anybody noticed that it was going the wrong speed and the wrong direction. Any native solar system objects whose trajectory would aim them straight at the Sun would have been swallowed up billions of years before. So this thing, this "cometoid," had to have come from outside the system. That made it interesting.

Long before it could get inside the orbit of Venus, an Asteroid Mover (AMV) was sent on an interception course. It wasn't long before estimates of mass and analysis of albedo and spectrum made it clear that this was not a natural object at all.

There was a brief flurry of wild speculation, based on the weirdness of an alien artifact being sent toward the Sun instead of toward Earth. Was it a starkiller? Were the aliens using a superweapon to make the Sun drop into a red giant sequence that would wipe out all life on Earth? Or would it accomplish the same effect with a superflare?

None of these. The crew of the Asteroid Mover found that it contained no weapon, no machinery of any kind beyond what was needed to keep it on a sunward course. As the pilot of the AMV said: "It isn't a message in a bottle. It has no passenger and no cargo. It didn't even bring a sack lunch."

The artifact offered no resistance when the Asteroid Mover changed its trajectory to whip it around the Sun and send it toward the spot where Earth would be six months later -- except a degree or two above the ecliptic. There, an Asteroid Catcher (ARV) intercepted it and brought it toward the Moon for further study.

But before it reached the Moon, everything interesting on the alien object had already been transmitted to Earth, where the combined efforts of cryptologists, computers, and scientists from every discipline revealed that the tiny markings etched all over the inside of the vehicle -- so small they had looked like mere texture to the AMV's crew -- contained a long but simple message.

It was a listing of the entire human genome.

Upon closer examination, it was found to be slightly different. The changes were not in the genes that coded for normal human variations, like height, hair color, or other hereditary traits. Instead, there were deletions of a few dozen small sections, and even fewer new sequences in other locations.

When the decryption was demonstrated to be accurate, attention turned exclusively to the genetic alterations. Discussion centered on various topics:

Alien methodology. How did the aliens get the human genome in the first place? Did they locate one of our early probes, like Voyager, and find some human DNA somehow preserved in the cold of space? And then, in order to understand what the genes coded for, did the aliens figure out how to grow various humans from the genetic material they had? How could such humans grow up without any human culture or language to bring them to a full expression of their genetic potential? Or was the alien technology so advanced that they could run a reliable simulation of every process directed by the human genes in every cell, without ever growing an actual human organism?

Alterations. Were the alterations an accidental misreading of the genes they were working with? Were the original genes broken or distorted, so that what they sent us was an attempted reconstruction? Or were the alterations deliberate? Were they offering improvements to the human genome?

Genome or Individual? Was the genetic code meant to be a general statement about the human genome? Or was it meant to be the code that would produce a particular individual, missing some human genes and with new ones inserted?

God or Devil? Some religious groups became convinced that this genetic sequence was the Second Coming of Christ -- and the fact that both X and Y chromosomes were offered was taken as a sign that we could take our pick as to which sex we wanted Christ to express this time around. Others thought that if this genome were used to create a living individual, he or she would be a bodhisattva or some other divine manifestation. Inevitably, there were also those who were certain that the aliens wanted us to cooperate in our own destruction by bringing the Devil to life, using this altered genome.

Alien Invasion. Maybe the aliens inserted enough alterations in their proposed new genome that any individuals created using it would act as, or even be, members of the alien species. The only way this invasion could take place, of course, was if humans were so stupid as to create living organisms with this genome, in which case the human race really would prove itself to be too dumb to live.

What Will It Do to Us? Despite the warnings by those who believed in an alien invasion, everyone quickly came to believe that someone, at some time, would inevitably try to create a living expression of the altered genome. There were elaborate containment schemes, so that any such humanesque organisms could be raised inside the highest-security compound ever built. On the other side, there were those who said, "If someone actually created such an organism, it would be a baby. It might be an enhanced baby, or a deformed baby, or a defective baby, or a nonviable embryo from the start. But these genes would try to build a baby."

What Kind of Person Would Choose to Give Birth to a Monster? It was "giving birth" that was the first sticking point. Within a few years, six different laboratories in as many different nations demonstrated that this genome could be constructed and that, if it replaced the DNA in a newly fertilized ovum that had not yet divided, it would develop into a completely normal-seeming embryo.

At that point, politicians, jurists, ethics panels, and, in one spectacular case, violent protestors intervened, and the resulting embryos were destroyed.

The reactions generally fit into two categories:

1. Oh, what a loss to science!

2. Whew! That was a close one!

"If the aliens want to give us a message, they should deliver it in person," said one pundit.

"If they come in person," said another, "we can reply by blowing them to hell."

Reading and listening to the commentaries on the matter, you would think that the whole kerfuffle about the alien-altered genome was over.

But of course the alien genome existed on thousands of computers, and thousands of scientists found the alien genome tickling the back of their mind. They had not forgotten it, they would not forget it, and with or without funding, they could not rest until they knew the answers to all the questions.

That's why geneticist Audny Ostergard married obstetrician Sunkanmi Zuo. Using the facilities at a fertility clinic where they both had privileges, they created six embryos in vitro, all containing, not their own genes, but the alien genome. Four of them they kept for possible later use. Two of them they implanted in Audny's womb -- a male and a female, because their discussion of which sex to choose ended with Sunk quoting, "Male and female created he them; and blessed them, and called their name Adam, in the day when they were created."

"We are not naming the boy Adam, and certainly not both of them," said Audny.

"If they develop properly and are born, we can decide on names the way any other married couple decides."

"And how is that?" asked Audny.

"By letting the relatives fight over the names until we give up and name one baby after the street where the hospital is located and the other after the month in which they're born."

"The hospital is on Medical Street," said Audny.

"I've heard worse names," said Sunk. "Or we could change hospitals."

But they wouldn't change hospitals, because Sunkanmi Zuo had to be the only physician who ever saw the babies' ultrasounds. There was a strong possibility of physical anomalies, and they couldn't afford questions. Or blood tests. Because if it became known that Audny was carrying not one but two "alien babies," courts and legislators and mobs and assassins were likely to feel they had a right to decide whether the babies would be allowed to live.

There were no physical anomalies. Every ultrasound showed perfectly normal babies, except that they grew just a little too rapidly and seemed ready to come to full term more than three weeks early. "So they sped the kids up a little," said Audny. "I don't mind getting rid of this enormous belly and all the backaches and vomiting and everything else in eight months rather than nine."

"Do you think ...," said Sunk, and then trailed off.

"Do I think? Often," Audny replied.

"Doesn't matter."

"Say it."

Sunk grinned. "Do you think anybody will notice if the children don't look like a combination of an extremely blond woman and a thoroughly black man?"

"I think that strangers will assume that the children were adopted and be polite enough not to ask."

"And people who know you actually gave birth?" asked Sunk.

"I've already thought about this and, depending on how they look, racially speaking, I'll tell them that the babies were hatched in vitro and either the ova or the sperm were from a donor. Since they really were hatched in vitro -- but no, Sunk, that was not what you were going to say, because you weren't grinning when you said, 'Do you think.'"

Sunk fell silent, and then smiled a little. "What we never decided is whether our marriage is a science project or ... a reproductive commitment."

"You mean whether it's a real marriage."

"We've been so careful about the babies that we haven't even ... and I don't know if ..."

"The babies will need two parents, and that's the exact number we have, one of each gender in order to provide both of them with the proper role models," said Audny. "Are you planning on divorcing me?"

"What I was wondering was if we would ever possibly have ..."

"Sex?" asked Audny. "Oh, early and often, as soon as the babies escape from prison."

"Babies of our own," said Sunk.

It was Audny's turn to be thoughtful. "Why don't we see how this first pair work out?" she finally said. "It's conceivable that these two might be so demanding or ... difficult ... that it wouldn't be right to have a ... an ordinary child grow up in their wake."

"You almost said 'a human child,' didn't you?" asked Sunk.

"Maybe," said Audny. "I don't think I knew what I was going to say."

"Are we only going to pretend to other people that we believe these children are human?" asked Sunk. "Or do we really believe it?"

"We don't know yet," said Audny. "That's what we're going to find out. And because of confirmation bias, we can't even trust our own conclusions because we may seize on any evidence that supports what we want the truth to be."

"And what do we want the truth to be?" asked Sunk.

"Truthful," said Audny.

"Do we want the children to be human? Or ..."

"We want what every parent wants," said Audny. "For the children to be brilliant, beautiful, healthy, and much more successful than we were, so they can take care of us in our old age."

"That's a fair answer," said Sunk. "The reason I asked is just that as the time comes closer, I'm finding myself feeling less and less like a scientist and more and more like a ..."

"Dad," said Audny.

"We can't raise them to be proper humans if we don't love them," said Sunk.

"Well, that experiment has been performed millions of times, and many unloved children have grown up to be good people."

"We can't be happy if we don't love them," Sunk said.

"Maybe we can't be truly unhappy unless we love them," said Audny. "We'll see, won't we?"

"Do you think we're the only ones?" Sunk asked.

"Who love their children before they're even born?"

"Who are giving life to the altered genome."

"For all we know, there are already a thousand two-year-olds and one-year-olds with the alien gene expressing itself," said Audny. "Or none. And if there are others, they don't know about us."

What Sunk could not say aloud, though he was sure it had occurred to Audny as well, was the real question: If these children are dangerous for some reason, what is our exit strategy? How do we end the experiment if it's too successful in all the wrong ways?

What do we do if we regret that these children were born?

Whatever the genetic differences might be -- and except for unusually rapid mental and physical development, nothing had yet shown up -- raising March, the daughter, and Cal, the son, was a joy for both Audny and Sunk. The kids weren't perfect -- their early dexterity and balance meant that there was no such thing as "out of reach" or "child-proof" -- and it took awhile for them to sleep through the night.

Sunk thought that maybe they never slept through the night. They had simply learned to remain quiet so their parents would sleep. He once confessed this thought to Audny by asking, "What do you think they do, while we're sleeping?"

"They sleep," she said, but being a very bright person, she understood at once what Sunk was getting at. "What do you think they're doing, studying Internet porn?"

"Or looking up UFO sightings," said Sunk.

"I've never seen any evidence of their getting out of bed," said Audny.

"Nor have I," said Sunk. "I was joking, you know."

"I believe that you want to believe that," said Audny. "It's natural to worry."

"They aren't showing us what the altered DNA is doing," said Sunk.

"Here's what I think," said Audny. "The aliens who made that vessel and sent it toward the Sun have been sending identical vehicles for at least fifty thousand years. Maybe every couple of centuries, or whatever time interval makes sense to them. Only when we had the technology to intercept it would we have any chance of making children like Cal and March."

"Interesting, but not provable or disprovable."

"I haven't gotten to the relevant part yet," said Audny. "Here on Earth, there was interbreeding with Neanderthals and Denisovans --"

"The alien genome was clearly modeled on African samples, which never had them."

"I've read all the same reports as you," said Audny. "What we can't know is how many other mutations and alterations have affected all human DNA, after the aliens got their sample."

"Anything is possible," said Sunk.

"And everything is also ridiculously far-fetched," said Audny. "How could there be a complete, usable gene sample in a probe that has been moving through vacuum for at least a hundred years? But how could, and why would, the aliens take a sample of human DNA from Africa before any dispersal of Homo sapiens, preserve it, and then send it back to us mostly unchanged? Are they trying to correct errors? Expunge the other hominids from the genome? Did they make us in the first place? This is all nonsense."

"Except for the bits that aren't," said Sunk. "But I know what you're saying. Maybe our children are what the human race was meant to be. Certainly they represent what the first humans looked like. Somewhere between Malay and Dravidian, perhaps leaning toward Australian."

"It would be a shame to wipe out the traces of Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA that the Europeans and Asians picked up."

"That's the flaw in our thinking right there," said Sunk. "Who says the aliens want to replace present-day humans? What if this is more like reintroducing an ancestral strain, an heirloom human ..."

"And now you're making my point," said Audny. "Just when I was about to abandon it."

"Why, when we know these children so well, are we still thinking that they pose some kind of danger, or that they're meant as a replacement for our species?"

"They are our species," said Audny. "Compared to the differences between humans and chimps -- which are very nearly trivial, percentagewise -- the difference between us and the children is almost nonexistent."

"They went to a lot of trouble to etch the genome into the interior surface of a spacecraft they then threw at the Sun," said Sunk.

"And now we're watching the success of their effort. And as far as either of us can tell, their purpose was to give us wonderful children. Who sleep through the night."

Sunk had to laugh and concede the point. Because if it were possible, he loved March and Cal even more than Audny did, and despite his close observation for three years, he had found nothing wrong with them. They were verbally gifted, but seemed to be introverts, able to remain still and listen to other people, without any need to inject themselves into the conversation.

Even though Sunk had no evidence, he kept thinking that the kids understood far more than they said, and that they knew how to say far more than the vocabulary they chose to use in front of their parents. This was paranoid thinking, he knew, but he noticed that Audny also tended to avoid talking over the heads of the children the way most parents did. Because neither one of them had any idea just what level of conversation, if any, the children would be unable to understand.

"We're terrible parents," said Sunk one day. He was thinking that good parents didn't spend so much time and effort trying to find something horribly wrong with brilliant, happy, healthy children.

"We're wonderful parents," said Audny, smiling. It was quite possible she knew what he meant and didn't think it mattered.

This brief conversation took place when the children were both four. Sunk and Audny had decided against preschool because the Cal and March were already reading at a third grade level -- or higher. The activities at the preschools they visited were obviously far beneath their children's level. Now their debate was about home schooling versus tutors, because there was no school prepared to deal with March and Cal.

One reason was their astonishing ability to hear even the faintest conversations and distinguish the words from background noise. Audny and Sunk had been alone in the kitchen, with Cal playing outside and March in her bedroom. But the moment Audny said, "We're wonderful parents," they could hear March's door open and the clattering footsteps as she ran to the kitchen, flung open the door, and loudly asked, "Do you know what I think?"

"We will when you tell us," said Audny, a little annoyed at yet another reminder that there was no privacy in this house.

"It's just a conversational opening, my love," said Sunk. "What do you think, March?"

"I think you are wonderful parents. Cal and I both think so. We're learning all the most important things about being human from you, and you really ought to have children of your own very, very soon."

Neither Audny nor Sunk had the faintest idea how to answer. They had decided not to tell the children they were not genetically related to their parents because that would raise all sorts of impossible questions. Yet it seemed that somehow they knew.

"We have children of our own," said Audny. "You and Cal." She patted her abdomen. "I carried you in here."

At this point Cal wandered in from outside and began to noodle on the electronic piano, picking out tunes that implied an understanding of complicated harmonic relationships. But Sunk was sure Cal was listening. In fact, he wondered if Cal had somehow known that March was going to bring up this topic and he wanted to listen. It seemed likely that they had discussed it beforehand.

"Don't lie to us," said March. Us. So she had noticed Cal come in and considered him to be part of her side of the conversation. "We know what we are."

Audny stiffened. "And what is that?" she asked.

"Thanks for not pretending that we're normal, Mom. We know we're not. We know about the alien spaceship and the human genome etched inside. We know that we're the result of a reconstruction of that genome which you got implanted in you so you could give birth to us."

Sunk and Audny could only look at each other, then at March. "It's interesting to hear you speak in a voice we've never heard before," said Sunk.

"We both speak the same language as you and Mother," March said to him.

"English isn't our native language," said Audny.

"It's the only language you speak to each other," said March. "And you speak it very precisely, like the scientists you are. With an elevated vocabulary. Did you think we wouldn't learn to talk that way?"

"We knew you would eventually," said Sunk.

"We're trying to pass for normal," said March. "But when you decided against sending us to kindergarten we knew that we had failed."

"Until this conversation," said Audny, "you hadn't failed quite so spectacularly."

"Because it wasn't necessary to talk at this level until now," said March. "Cal and I discussed this and even though we've been given strict ..."

When her voice trailed off, Sunk looked quickly at Cal. Had he given her some signal? No ... his eyes were on his own fingers on the keyboard. Only now he was using various fingers from both hands to improvise music much more complicated than he had ever played before.

"What is it you've been strictly instructed not to say?" asked Audny.

"And by whom?" murmured Sunk, knowing they could hear his almost subvocal question.

"We're not the first children to be born from this genome," said March. "The earliest ones are several years older than we are, and you know what that means."

Sunk wanted to ask how they could possibly know any of this, but Audny held up her hand to stop him. "I wish we did know what it means," said Audny, "but we don't, because we don't know anybody else who's raising children like you. So the only things we know about your development, we've learned from watching you."

"We do everything earlier than human kids," said March.

Sunk hated hearing her speak of other kids as human, as if she did not regard herself as one of them.

March seemed to sense something -- his breathing? A slight stiffening of his posture? -- and said, "I meant regular human kids."

"Puberty," said Cal clearly from the other room. "Get to the point, Marchioness." It was the name he used when he wanted to goad her or tease her.

Sunk sighed. "Please don't tell me that you're --"

"We're not even five years old yet," said March impatiently. "But some of them are ten and eleven now, and their bodies are maturing. Have matured, reproductively speaking."

Reproductively speaking. Sunk and Audny hadn't thought they would have to do any "reproductive speaking" for at least a few more years. Now it was plain they were already behind the curve.

"And what does that have to do with us having children that are genetically related to us?" asked Audny. Oh, yes. Audny had a way of staying on point.

"While you still can," said March.

"If you still can," said Cal. His playing was uninterrupted.

"What are you talking about?" asked Sunk.

"Some of the other children have been tested," said March. "Their reproductive cells do not replicate the genome from the alien craft."

Again Sunk wanted to demand how they could possibly know this.

"The two of you chose not to look for other parents doing what you're doing," said March. "That was wise -- none of the other regular human parents know about you, either. But many of them know about each other. They know that one of the families -- if we can call them that -- took one look at the genes their experimental children carried in their ova and spermatozoa and killed them."

Sunk couldn't restrain a gasp. Audny burst into tears, though she quickly stopped herself.

"Killed them," murmured Sunk. "Why?"

"We aren't the new species," said March. "Our children will be."

"So what?" asked Sunk. "Any parents who did what we did understood the risk."

"From what we were able to get before they were killed," said March, "their reproductive genes would have produced ... creatures with about ten percent non-human genes."

Sunk knew that this was approximately the percentage of genetic difference between humans and cats.

"It could have been worse," said Audny, and then she gave a laugh that was almost indistinguishable from a sob.

"Percentages don't matter," said Sunk. "What matters is where the new genetic information is. What it codes for."

"'New' is the key word," said March. "Because all of the genome we have is still there, nothing left out. The ten percent new material isn't even attached to any of the normal twenty-three pairs. There are six new chromosome pairs, much shorter than any of the human genes except the Y, but they combine to be the equivalent of an additional ten percent."

"That's very odd," said Audny.

"More than odd," said Sunk. "Where did they come from?"

"Our genes know how to make those six new pairs," said March, "but they don't do it in any of our cells except the spermatozoa and ova. Nobody thought to look at our gametes until the Oldest were caught --"

"The Oldest?" asked Audny. "The earliest-born ..."

"Of our kind," said March.

"Nobody looked at their gametes until they were caught mating," said Sunk. Audry started to protest, but Sunk shook his head. "Whom could they mate with, except each other? The only other members of their species were all twins, genetically. There can't be an incest taboo for them in this first generation."

Audny turned again to March. "Perhaps it's time for you to tell us ..." Then she hesitated.

Sunk finished the question: "How you know these things."

"Well," said March, stealing a glance at Cal. "The parents who know each other communicate in secret encrypted sites on the internet."

"Which you've found and decrypted," said Sunk. "How did you know where to look? You're very smart, but you're only four years old and we never see you messing with the computers."

"Just tell them," said Cal. "They'll figure it out eventually."

"We've figured it out already," said Audny. "You have ways of communicating with the other children that don't depend on technology." Sunk thought it was generous of her to include him among those who had "figured it out already." It hadn't crossed his mind that they had any sort of mental communication, until now.

"We always have," said March. "But we still developed language because the human genome makes us hungry for language. And what we pass to and from each other -- it isn't language. It's more like raw memory. But not completely raw. We select it and send it, just to one or two at a time."

"So you got this directly from the two children who were ..." Sunk could not say "killed."

"No," said March. "We got it from two other children. But they got it from the Oldest before they died, and they passed it on to us raw. We think it's complete, but we can't tell about that. We're still outsiders so they might not trust us with everything."

"We know they don't," said Cal. And now he walked away from the keyboard and came into the kitchen. He didn't join directly in the conversation. He opened the fridge and poured himself some tangerine juice. "Because they never told us anything that would explain why the Oldest were killed."

"We have some ideas, though," said March. "Based on some of the other things we've seen, and based on what we've learned about genes from our reading."

"We think," said Cal, sipping from his glass, "that the additional genes don't affect the physical or mental structure of the next generation. They aren't part of the human genome. They're something else."

"What?" asked Sunk.

"We can't possibly know," said March, glaring at Cal.

"March doesn't like speculating," said Cal, "but I think it's our job as humans to try to anticipate every possibility."

"And a lot of impossibilities, too," said March.

"We don't know if the Oldest actually conceived a child. We don't know if those other genes actually got combined. But I think they did."

"Based on no evidence," said March.

"She's the skeptic on this one," said Cal. "There's no scientific method without doubt, isn't that right, Dad?"

"Hypothesis and doubt go hand in hand," said Sunk. "Without the hypothesis, nothing new, and without the doubt, science gets captured by fads and dogmas."

"So do you think her doubt should keep me from telling you my guesses?" asked Cal.

"Do you believe your guesses?" asked Audny.

"No," said Cal. "But I don't disbelieve them, either. Whatever happened, their own parents killed them. And I mean killed them. Nothing slow, nothing painless, nothing secret. They shot them and they burned them and then they burned down the house around themselves. That doesn't come from mental communication. It comes from police reports."

"Cal's theory is that whatever those extra genes make," said March, "it doesn't stay confined within the bodies of our children. It gets loose. Like the common cold. Or measles, or chicken pox. And then it does stuff."

"What stuff?" asked Sunk.

"Cal's guess," March began.

"I think," said Cal, "that whatever those genes make, some of it got into the parents, they saw the effects in their own bodies, and they immediately acted to kill their children as the source of the infection, and to kill themselves because they were already infected and would spread it further."

"Cal thinks the aliens who designed us included a weapon to wipe out regular humans like you. Or to sterilize them. But regular humans still have the will to survive, individually and collectively. And you're our parents. We love you, we want you to survive."

"The parents of the Oldest were scientists like you," said Cal. "They wouldn't have flown into a rage about the incest or the pregnancy --"

"If the Oldest got pregnant," said March.

"And the new organisms --"

"If any," added March.

"Couldn't have made them murderously and suicidally insane because an infectious agent like that wouldn't propagate long enough to do anything."

Part of Sunk was proud of the kids for coming up with all this sophisticated reasoning. Part of him was terrified for exactly the same reason. Mostly, though, he was frightened because what if Cal was right? Sunk looked at Audny, unwilling to speak his thoughts aloud in front of the children, yet unable to be sure what to say without her counsel.

Maybe she took his glance as confirmation of what she had already decided. Maybe she thought he was leaving it up to her. "We're not going to kill you," said Audny to the children.

"Thank you, Mother," said March. "What worries us is if, when we get older, maybe something we do might accidentally kill you."

"I'm glad you think of that as a bad thing," said Sunk.

Audny gave a tiny laugh. Sunk looked at her again. "Not sure what you meant by that," Sunk said.

"I meant, 'Ha,'" said Audny.

"Who knows what we'll think when we reach puberty?" said Cal. "I've read a lot about adolescence and that's a kind of insanity, too. For all we know, the Oldest knew exactly what they were doing, and meant to do it."

"We're a long way into these speculations now," said Audny.

"It's not entirely speculation," Sunk reminded Audny. "March and Cal know the Oldest from the inside out."

"You think they're not telling us everything they know?" asked Audny.

"Of course they're not," said Sunk. "But what I meant was deeper inside. Genetically speaking, March and Cal are those first two children."

"Twins are different from each other," said March. "Even identicals. Same genes, but different fingerprints."

"Different personalities," said Cal. "But the rush of hormones at puberty turns us all into monsters."

"Let's say you're completely correct," said Audny. "I mean Cal. Your guesses. Suppose that these extra genes code for a disease that attacks traditional humans."

Traditional. Yes, that was better than "normal," thought Sunk.

"Maybe the word 'attack' isn't the right one," said Audny. "Maybe it does intrude in the human body the way disease agents do. Like viruses, maybe, plugging themselves into the nucleus of every cell they can break into. But does that mean that the ... aliens mean to destroy us?"

"Maybe the parents of the Oldest acted too quickly," said Sunk. "Motivated by fear rather than evidence. Maybe they wiped out this 'infection' because of what it might do."

"There are augmented children like us who aren't living with their parents," said March. "Some are in foster care, some in orphanages, some in non-scientist families who don't know that the children they adopted had the alien genome. Only two sets of twins were broken up, so the rest of them all have a potential mate. It's going to happen. They're going to mate, some of them, anyway, and whatever the parents of the Oldest were so afraid of will get loose."

"Everybody keeps promising that we won't mate," said Cal, "but vows of chastity aren't famous for being universally kept."

It was as if both kids were strangers. "You've been hiding from us for years," said Sunk. "Hiding how you really talk, how you really think."

"It seemed ... prudent," said March. "We saw how you seized on every sign that we were more advanced than other kids our age. We were afraid you'd ... ask too many questions."

"Oh, we would have," said Sunk. "And you know we'll ask them now."

"Yes," said March, looking resigned. "But we don't want you to die."

"And we don't want you to kill us," said Cal.

"Running away isn't an option," said March. "We may look like six-year-olds instead of almost-five-year-olds, but that's not enough. Nobody's going to let us wander around without stopping us and turning us over to the police or child services or something."

"For all we know," said Cal, "the extra genes are like an inoculation against all diseases. It may allow traditional humans to live to be five hundred. Or to think to each other and share memories across vast distances the way we can. It might be a good thing, but it scared the parents of the oldest."

"You have a plan," said Sunk. "You wouldn't have brought this to us if you didn't have a plan."

"Well, yes," said March. "It's the same plan that all of us decided on. But we don't know if --"

"Nobody thinks that any of their parents will go along with it," said Cal. "But I think you might. I think you will."

"And your plan is for us to have children who are genetically related to us," said Audny.

"That's part of it," said March.

"And part of it is quitting your jobs and moving to some really isolated location," said Cal. "A private island would be best. Where we can grow all our own food and generate electricity and everything, without any contact with the outside world."

"Quarantine," said Audny.

"Cal and I won't come near each other until we know what happens when other kids mate and aren't murdered and burned," said March. "Right now coming near each other that way seems like the most repulsive idea ever, but, you know, hormones. So all we can promise is that we'll wait."

"If the extra genes wipe out the human race, or sterilize everybody, or something," said Cal, "you two should already have a couple of traditional human kids."

"Hopefully a girl and a boy," said March.

"In case we need to start the human race over," said Audny dryly.

"Well, yes," said Cal.

"In case we decide," said March, "that for the sake of traditional humanity, all of us augmented kids need to ... go."

"We don't think it's right for the aliens to decide to replace Homo sapiens with whatever we are," said Cal.

"But they didn't," said Sunk.

"They embedded extra genes in our children's reproductive cells," said Audny.

"Yes, and those genes will do whatever they do. But the aliens didn't hold a gun to our heads and make us have these babies," said Sunk. "We chose."

"We chose without knowing what we were choosing," said Audny.

"And we knew we didn't know, and still we chose," said Sunk.

"The whole human race didn't choose," said Audny. "Just us."

"Us and all those other parents who had augmented children," said Sunk. "How many?"

"Almost a hundred pairs," said March. "But there might be more who, you know. They're just lurking. Listening but not sending anything."

"It seems to me," said Sunk, "that everybody who could have created examples of the alien genome did it. And they all chose to create both sexes. Am I right?"

"So we chose," said Audny. "But we didn't have any right to choose."

"We're not on trial here," said Sunk. "We created our children in a nontraditional way, but we love them and we're a family. And they're amazing. We chose to find out what would happen. Nobody knows what will happen when they have children. Nobody."

"That's my point," said Audny. "It's human nature. It's built into us. We have to know."

"Curious people have to know," said Sunk. "And people who want children are generally those who have the most children. Yes, it's part of human nature. And maybe the aliens knew that and so they laid a trap. But maybe it isn't a trap. Maybe it's the most wonderful thing that could ever happen. And we passed the first test -- we made these kids -- and now we're facing the second test."

"Do we love them so much that we refuse to kill them?" asked Audny.

"Do we trust the makers of their genome to have a plan that's better than anything we could plan for ourselves," said Sunk. "How many parents through all of history have died for their children, if that's what it took?"

"Not that many," said Audny.

"Enough to show that it's also part of the human character," said Sunk. "Even if all the traditional humans die out -- killed or sterilized or whatever -- if it clears the way for children like these ..." He gestured to include both Cal and March.

"But do we have a right to decide for all the other traditional humans?" asked Audny.

"It's not about having a 'right,'" said Sunk. "It's about having a choice at all. It's about having to choose. Who else can decide? These are our children, not theirs."

"We're not technically yours," said March softly.

"You are our children," said Audny, even more softly. "And having children the regular way won't change that."

And then Sunk began to laugh. The others looked at him as if he were crazy. "I think it's time for Cal and March to tell us whether we passed their little test."

March and Cal looked at each other.

Cal smiled sadly.

March just shook her head. "We're not 'testing' you," she said.

"What would we be testing for?" asked Cal. "To see if you loved us more than the whole human race? Or to see if you would sacrifice your own children in order to save the human race from replacement or transformation?"

"I don't know what the test is for," said Sunk. "If I knew, I could have passed it or failed it on purpose. But it feels like a test. Because everything we know about these hypothetical extra genes, we got from you. From children who aren't even five. Children who look six but --"

"But talk like grad students," said Audny.

"Is that a good thing?" asked Cal.

"Not a test," said March. "Not hypothetical. But now I see why the other kids think that none of their parents will go into quarantine. Because they'll all find a way to talk themselves out of believing their own alien children. We're trying to warn you about the alien invasion, but now you've found a story you can tell yourselves so you don't have to do anything at all. It's just a test. They were just testing us."

"They'll look it up on the internet," said Cal. "They'll find the parents who murdered their twins and burned the house down around themselves."

"That won't prove anything," said March. "There's no evidence that the dead twins were augmented humans. They can just tell themselves that we found the news stories and then made up a test using that as part of our setup."

They were all sitting around the table now. Nobody was looking at anybody else. Cal finished his tangerine juice. And then they sat a while longer.

"In for a penny, in for a pound," said Audny.

"What?" asked Cal.

"In for a dime, in for a dollar," said Sunk. "What your mother is saying is, we've already built our lives entirely around having you and raising you. We were already planning on home schooling you."

"We have a lot of money saved," said Audny, "and selling the house will raise more."

"I don't know if we can buy an island," said Sunk, "but we can live in a fairly isolated place. A completely isolated place."

"With an internet connection so we can follow the news," said Audny.

"We can do it, and so we should do it. See how it plays out," said Sunk.

Both Cal and March were young enough that their emotions were written on their faces. March looked relieved. Cal looked happy. Excited, even. "You'll really do it?"

"If you weren't just testing us," said Sunk. "If this is all true."

"But how can you know if we're telling the truth?" asked March.

"We know, because you said so," said Audny, "and because, if it isn't true, at some point you'll tell us."

"It's not a test," said Cal.

"You can't say that," said Sunk.

"But it isn't a test," said March. "How can you think that we'd --"

"We don't really know you," said Audny. "Not since you started talking like this -- how can we know what to think."

"You're missing my point," said Sunk. "I don't think it's Cal's or March's test. But that doesn't mean it isn't a test. It's their test. The ... people out there. The aliens. The gods. Whatever and whoever they are. They sent us the end of the world in a box. We decided to unwrap it and make these children. Now we're deciding to take precautions so that we can have a chance at allowing traditional and augmented humans to live together in the same world. Another choice, after we have more information. But a choice."

"So Dad," said March. "Our conversation, today. You think the aliens planned this?"

"I think they had to know that if we had enough science and technology to snag that spacecraft, decode its message, and then make these babies, we'd also notice the much-larger genetic change in the next generation. And then we'd decide what to do about it. Maybe the parents of the Oldest passed a test, or maybe they failed it. Or maybe there's no pass, no fail, just a fork in the road. They walked down one path, and we're choosing to wait a while longer before we decide what to do. But it's the choice they set before us when they launched that spacecraft. For all we know they don't care how we decide. Whatever kind of human species emerges from this, it's the one that human beings chose. Freely."

"Chose with insufficient information," said Audny.

"There's always insufficient information," said Sunk. "And yet we choose."

It took two months to wind down their professional responsibilities, to buy a small Costa Rican island, and to arrange for their new compound to be build. There was enough money, and while people thought they were making a weird or terrible choice, to give up their careers and go off and live like hermits, like the Swiss family Robinson, nobody tried to stop them and there was no story about it anywhere on the internet.

No epidemic broke out in the world while they were making their preparations. They lived on the island for five years and nothing happened to demonstrate that any part of March's and Cal's story was true. March told them it was because most of the star-born children were holding off on mating after the loss of the Oldest.

But the waiting ended, and this time there was an actual birth to a brother and sister near Mumbai. The baby died almost at once. But somehow the birth unleashed the plague they had feared. It swept from Mumbai throughout the world, killing about half the people it infected.

The fifty percent death rate was shattering to economies and governments, and the whole world got caught up in so much chaos and suffering, violence and loss -- in short, history -- that they couldn't keep track of it all from their island.

But as the dust settled, there was a rising optimism, because the survivors were changed. They didn't get sick anymore. They weren't just immune to that particular plague -- they no longer got sick at all. Not even food poisoning. Not even senile dementia or any of the other uncurable diseases. Perfect health.

"The disease was meant as a gift, then," said Audny.

"Who knows what they meant," said Cal. "Who cares what they meant. We meant to live on this island, and we're alive. You have two natural human children, and they're alive, and you're alive. That's what we meant."

"What do your friends tell you?" asked Sunk. "I mean, your twins. The other augmented ones."

"They aren't speaking to us," said March, "and we aren't speaking to them. They were getting too controlling. They were pressuring us to make a baby and infect you -- even though none of the babies born so far has lived more than a few minutes."

"Some of them even tried to get somebody to force their way onto the island," said Cal. "But it didn't work, because even though they're really smart, they're still young, and most adults are just trying to rebuild their lives."

"Eventually it will work," said March. "Eventually they'll come."

"And when that happens," said Sunk, "either your mother and I will live through it, or not. And the other children."

"You say that as if you don't care how it turns out," said Audny.

"I care," said Sunk. "But I also know that the outcome is beyond our control. What do we gain by delaying? Jump in with both feet and take our chances."

"No," said March. "You might die. The odds are that half of you will die."

"We're going to die eventually," said Sunk. "Whoever lives through the disease will live a long time, though. And if we all live -- and why shouldn't we? -- then we can travel freely. You can live up to your full potential."

"Until we find out," said Cal, "what the next generation of monster children are like."

"Every civilization lasts only until they reach a generation that no longer wants to do whatever it takes to keep the civilization alive," said Audny. "Haven't you read history? I'm not afraid of your children or their children or their children's children's children."

"They'll all choose to do what they choose to do," said Sunk. "As we did. As you did, and as you will in the future."

March leaned against the doorjamb, looking askance at her brother. "If it's all the same to you," she said, "I'm not going to let a committee decide whether I'm going to mate with this buffoon."

"The desire to reproduce will get stronger," said Audny.

"Curiosity, too," added Sunk.

"But perhaps the other children will have a better chance of survival if they're more mature when the disease comes," said Audny. She did not have to say: And perhaps Sunk and I will have a lower chance of survival, being older.

March and Cal watched the growth of Audny's and Sunk's natural children, Nels and Beleza, with fascination. Each of the markers of a normal human childhood was seen with delight. The first grasping of the hands, the first attempts to balance on the feet, pushing up from the floor, rolling over, sitting. March and Cal played with the babies frequently.

Played, but there was also an element of testing. "What do you think?" Audny asked March one day, as she played with Beleza.

"I think that it's a beautiful thing, to watch babies learn to be human."

"Are you playing with Beleza?" asked Audny.

"Am I invisible?" asked March.

"I mean, are you playing or testing?"

"Both at once," said March. "And also helping and teaching her, exercising and strengthening." She let Beleza sink back to a sitting position and let go of the baby's hands. Then she took her mother's left hand and held it in both of hers. "We have the human instinct to play with babies," she said. "Isn't it a good thing that we love infants that have the human genome? Doesn't that bode well for the two species' ability to get along?"

It did, yes, Audny knew. But it did not bode well that March regarded Nels and Beleza as members of another species, instead of a variant of their own.

March got pregnant when Nels was five and Beleza was four. Not sure when in the pregnancy the infection might appear, they all monitored each other's health minutely. In the interest of science, they also kept weekly ultrasound records of the gestating baby and wrote down every observation.

Labor began after only seven months of pregnancy, but the baby, a daughter, was nearly the size of a regular full-term infant. Cal was at March's side, with that highly concentrated, faraway look that by now his parents recognized as the sign that he was in communication with others of his generation.

"Don't puncture the birth caul," said Cal. "That's the mistake the others made, we think."

The warning was necessary, because the baby's entire body was completely enclosed in a tough, thick sac of seemingly impermeable membrane.

"She can't breathe through that," said Audny, unable to keep the anxiety and urgency out of her voice.

"The others couldn't breathe without the sac," said Cal. "If we don't try something different, ours will die, too."

The placenta soon delivered, and on the assumption that its role was finished, Sunk tied it off and cut the umbilical cord. The sac was already hardening as he weighed the baby and then scanned her. "Look at this," he said, showing the scan to the others. "There's a yolk in there, I think."

"This next generation might have a head too large to deliver at full term," said Audny. "A flexible sac that turns into a kind of eggshell allows the baby to be born much younger, with a smaller head, without cutting short the gestation time."

"Especially if air can osmote through the eggshell," said Sunk.

Audny sighed. "But it gives March no baby to hold or bond with."

Cal shook his head. "We've already bonded with her."

Not with language, but mind to mind, Audny and Sunk understood at once.

"She'll tell us when she's ready to come out," said March wearily from the delivery bed. "One way or another."

For three months March and Cal took turns sleeping with the egg nestled close to their bodies. The baby inside wriggled, stretched, kicked -- and the egg had enough resiliency to show some of the movement. Then, at last, the pressure grew too great for the eggshell, and it split where the little girl was pressing hard with her feet.

"She's too big for the shell now," said Cal, as he tore the egg open the rest of the way.

Sunk was relieved when the baby's face emerged from the fluid and she took a great gasping breath and then cried out. This was, at last, the completion of her birth, after ten months of gestation, partly in utero, partly in ovo. She was definitely human in appearance, though she was the size of a largish one-year-old and her head was almost adult-sized.

"I'm here," said the baby. "What's my name?"

March and Cal embraced her and each other, weeping with joy.

"You can help choose your own name, darling," said Audny. And then, only a little sarcastically, "Can she read yet? Because there are plenty of name lists online."

"Darling's a good name," said the baby.

"She can't read," said Cal. "She's not used to seeing yet, and her brain is only registering two dimensions right now. And she's also too young to decide her own name. She may have absorbed speech in the womb, but that doesn't mean she has as much sense as a kitten."

"I'm much smarter than a kitten," said the baby.

"But you still can't pronounce your Rs properly," said Cal.

"Don't be so critical," said March. "She's very young and doesn't know her own limitations."

"If she has any," said Sunk.

As March and Cal introduced Darling to her body and their house and the island, however, the rest of the family fell ill.

The disease progressed slowly for the first few days, appearing as a cold, with sniffles and sneezes, then a bit of coughing and a tickle at the back of the throat. But then the little ones became lethargic, sleepy, and complained of headaches, and soon Sunk and Audny felt the same symptoms.

"What a relief that it's not more painful," said Sunk, after he took to his bed.

"There was a great deal of pain on the mainland," said Cal. "Maybe you have a mild case."

Mild or severe, Sunk had no way to judge. He was irresistibly sleepy.

Maybe I'll sleep myself to death, he thought. Then this would be the most merciful of diseases.

But the mercy was not perfect, because there were dreams. Some were a recapitulation of memory -- Sunk's own childhood, moments with his parents, his siblings, his teachers, all remembered more clearly than any dreams Sunk had ever had.

Soon, though, his dreams had people in them that Sunk had never met. And soon he understood that many of those people were the makers of the genome. "No," they told him, "we did not make these new children to replace you, and we did not make them to be more like us. We made them to be exactly like you, only perfect. They are the human race, raised to its full potential."

"Why did you do it?" asked Sunk. "And why did you have to put this disease into the genome?"

In one dream, the alien gave a long explanation in language so technical that Sunk could understand only bits of it, until at last he began to waken and realized that all the words were nonsense. Only a dream, he understood. I'm not really talking to the aliens, and so there will be no answers.

But in another dream, they said, "We did not put in the disease, my love; the disease just happens, the way the common cold happened with the last great leap of your genome. The new species wants, at the deepest genetic level, to wipe out all competition. Like secretions from the roots of a plant, to inhibit the growth of plants from the same species. This is my air, this is my sunlight, this is my soil and my water, you will not steal them from me."

There was no dream in which the aliens answered his first question: Why did you do it? Why did you send this new genome to us, engraved into the skin of a hollow ship?

Finally Sunk awoke fully. Awoke enough to feel the warmth of air through open windows, though there was still shade to keep off the direct light of the sun.

"His eyes are open," said Cal.

"Welcome back, Father," said March.

"The others?" asked Sunk.

"You are the last to awaken," said Cal.

"They're still weak, but all are a live," said March. "The plague is released when the gestational sac is broken, and we think that the disease matured inside Darling's eggshell and emerged in a much milder form than the virus from a sac that's broken immediately upon expulsion from the uterus."

"So it causes less harm," said Cal. "But it still may confer all the immunities. When our babies go full term in the womb and the pouch, then humans are not much harmed by the disease, and are powerfully blessed by it."

Cal and March assured their parents that they had already passed all their memories of Darling's successful incubation to their faraway twins. No one had really understood that the sac was an egg, and Cal and March had only guessed it because all the earlier babies had died. Now they would all have a good chance of survival.

March and Cal had been far from Oldest, but Darling was now the eldest of her generation to survive.

Audny soon discovered that the new genome, with the extra pairs of chromosomes, held true in the baby's ova. This new egg-birthing primate species was the end product of this round of genetic change, with March's and Cal's genome being only the intermediate stage.

"Now we'll find out what it was like for you," said March to Audny. "Raising babies that are much smarter than we are."

"You will not find out," said Audny.

March smiled. "We never raised normal human babies, or saw them raised," she said. "So we can't compare."

"We had hundreds of generations of experience and lore to rely on," said Audny, "and suddenly it didn't help us at all. You have no such support. You have to invent it all. And why should Darling be all that different from you?"

Given how troublesome it was to get Darling not to climb on everything that held still, they all agreed that it was a mercy that the levitation and flying didn't begin until she was nearly five.

"We intermediates," said Cal to March one day. "A single generation, before the kinetics. We'll leave no trace in the archeological record."

"We're inheriting a culture that writes and reads obsessively," said March. "We won't be forgotten."

"Why do I feel so real?" asked Cal. "If we're meant only to be a temporary measure, like the lock of a canal, to raise the barge of humanity up one level, and then be left behind --"

"Life is life," said March. "Our children will live on after us, and theirs after them. Each generation's life is different from those before and after, and each is real and good."

"But when we die, our kind is gone."

"That has always been true, generation after generation," Sunk told them wearily. "You make the best of your little life, while you have it. Then everybody leaves you behind. Nothing in the alien genome changed that."

But it did change it. Death was postponed for each of them almost a thousand years, like Methuselah. Each of them lived to see at least ten generations born. Cal and March lived to see the last of the original humans die: Nels and Beleza's generation. And Darling and her siblings lived to bury their parents.

"Why do we bury them?" Darling's seventh-great grandson asked her.

"It shows respect and honor, in a manner that their generation would have understood," Darling replied.

"But all the humans are gone now," said the boy.

"We still speak their languages," said Darling. "We still wear their clothing and live in their houses. Their culture lives on in us."

"Tell me stories of the humans, Grandma Darling," said the boy. "You're the last who remembers them."

"And you're the last who cares," she said.

"Oh, no I'm not," said the boy. "I'll remember all your stories and tell the little ones."

"That is a good use of some of the thousand years of your life," said Darling. "But for now, my dear, fly home."

  Copyright © 2024 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by