The Rancher and the Child
Once again, Robert Kelley found himself at a crossroads with the state of things.
The woman had just calmed enough to where she could breathe, with her husband patting her back, his face as blank as a canvas.
Apparently, she wasn’t happy with the product.
She and her husband, a young couple in their early 30s, had waited for nearly nine months and were assured during each of them that everything was going to plan.
They were seated in the receiving room, glaring at Kelley. Kelley was their Rancher, who had just rolled their first newborn out on a cart. They had looked at the child only once, so their impression, up till then, was only a subjective memory overshadowed by all the hues of disappointment.
“So, what are you going to do about this?” The husband asked.
“I’m sorry,” replied Kelley. “I don’t think there’s much that I can do at this point.”
As a rancher, Kelley’s job was to produce this child for this couple. All the while they sat, he balanced his thoughts between responding to the moment and analyzing all the other ones that led to it.
“Look, Mr. and Mrs. Parsons…”
“My name isn’t Parsons,” said the wife, the words hissing out between her teeth.
“Oh, yes, I’m sorry. Mr. Parsons and Mrs. Jennings. My mistake. Anyhow, Mr. Parsons and Mrs. Jennings, as you are aware, this child is now a fully developed human being, and there’s nothing more that we can do. As you know, we can only modify a fetus as far as its growth in the Gestational Hive. Anything after that will require additional work with an external genetic prescriber, which, as you know, carries a higher degree of risk and cost without the same controlled environment as the hive.”
“So what? Nothing? You’re telling me you’re doing nothing…”
“Marg,” interrupted the husband, who went on to place one hand on her shoulder before refocusing on Kelley. “So, what was it again?”
“Kelley,” he replied.
“Well, whatever it is, you know, this really isn’t how you run a business, especially after something like this. Because I’ll be blunt, this is unacceptable. We paid money for this child. Good money.”
He pointed to the newborn, who was lying on a wheeled cart. For nearly every part of the body, from the shape of his head to the way he slept with even breathing, he was a healthy baby. He was of a purple hue with only a slight shade of the color. That was all.
They had done the prep work, researching the right lab, finding the best fertility rancher, paying the full price for full service, tracking its development on the app, and researching all potential outcomes.
This purple hue was unacceptable.
“It’s understandable, Mr. Parsons,” replied Kelley. “You did pay good money; however, please understand that this is still a human being…”
“But that’s not our problem,” said Mrs Jennings. “That’s not our problem, is it? You’re the ones bound by contract to deliver, not us. We did our research and picked our specifications through the app. We paid for the service. We even paid to monitor the process. We were informed everything was going smoothly, and now this? Oh goodness, not only is this a breach of contract, this is outright fraud! If there’s anybody this child is going to have to blame, it’s you. You and your half-wit configuration monkeys…”
“Okay, hon, knock it off,” interjected the husband. “No need for that. Look, if you break it, it’s on you. This is not our responsibility.”
Kelley ran his fingers through his hair, nodded, and looked to his side with a gesture to his assistant to roll the baby back. He then motioned to a room adjacent to a plastic table, and the three sat down with him on one side and the couple on the other.
He offered them drinks and coffee from the drip, and they took and held onto the styrofoam cups while glaring ahead without taking a sip.
Kelley sat down and folded his hands on the table.
“Mr and Mrs. Parsons. This is not a normal occurrence. Furthermore, the purple hue is merely a skin pigment. To be honest, despite having noted the risks that will come with going the route of hiring a genetic prescriber, I can assure you that for something this insignificant, there really isn’t much of it. As a matter of fact, I am willing to talk with my director about reimbursing you for the operation.”
“Willing to?” cried Margaret. “Like this is some favor you’re doing for us?” She leaned forward, thumping her index finger on the table. “You owe it to us!”
“So it’s settled then?” replied Kelley.
“No!” she said. “We paid for a healthy baby! Not a fixer up!”
“Well, Mrs. Jennings, it is healthy.”
“That’s enough,” interjected the husband. “Look, we just want a full refund. We’ll try again with another Rancher.”
“No,” replied the wife. “Teddy, no! Then we’ll have to start the whole damn process over, and it’ll be another month on top of waiting the full six months of development.”
“Well, Marg, we aren’t getting one today.”
She turned to Kelley, who was massaging his brows with his right hand. “So, what are our options? What can you do for us?”
“Marg, let’s stop this…” interrupted the husband before she forcefully threw her hand onto his mouth.
“You heard my husband. We can leave for another Rancher. And that’s not everything. See, this is a competitive industry, and we know many people. You probably don’t know who I am, but in the social media world, I can bring empires down with a single sentence. So take this as a chance to redeem yourself as a business. What can you do for us? Because I’m going to be very upset if I have to wait another seven months for a child after having paid what we paid.
Also, let me make it clear: I never keep things to myself.”
“Okay,” said Kelley. “I will talk with corporate ..”
“Talk?” She interrupted.
“I will talk to corporate, although we cannot speed up the process, mind you. This could risk your child to age at double the speed of a normal product, leaving you with a much lower return for your investment. We can, on the other hand, offer you a full refund. Wait patiently for seven more months, and you will get a perfect child, free of charge.”
The wife looked at the husband. The husband shrugged while shaking his head and let the silence extend for a few moments before speaking again.
“It’ll save us a lot,” he said quietly to his wife. “We could take that trip to Aspen in December.”
“But seven months?” She replied.
“Think of how much we’re saving up, Marg. Be reasonable.”
When she didn’t react in time, the husband scooted his seat forward.
“On the house, right?”
“Right,” Kelley responded. “Free of charge. And I can direct my assistant to get it started right this second.”
“Brilliant,” said the husband while looking at his wife, who, given by her sudden silence, seemed to concur. “It’s settled then. Get it to us in 7 months without charge, and we’ll call it square.”
“And three years’ worth of credit,” said the wife.
“Three years of credit?” Said the husband.
“Three years of credit for the best genetic prescriber in town should we want anything done, on top of what we ordered. Three years of credit in addition to full reimbursement.”
“Okay. Full reimbursement and three years of credit.” Said the husband. “That’s our full charge.”
“I,” Kelley took a deep breath. “That’s good. I’ll make it happen. But, Mr. Parsons and Mrs. Jennings, what about the one in question?”
“The one in question?” Asked the husband.
He gestured towards the entrance where earlier he’d ordered his assistant to wheel away the baby of a purple hue.
“Again,” the husband said with a shrug. “I don’t see how it is of our concern.”
“Sir,” said Kelley. “We’ll do what you asked. But might you know of someone who could take him? Or maybe, might you be willing to expand your own family by taking him in?”
The couple could only stare blankly.
“It’s a desperate situation, really,” he continued. “You see if this child doesn’t find a home with anyone…”
“Then you take him to the agency, put him in foster care,” interrupted the wife.
“Yes, but recently, it’s not been that simple. The Foster Care system is overwhelmed because of the lack of interested couples. You see, it makes little sense to adopt when you can so easily create one for yourselves these days. And nearly anyone who can afford to raise a child will more likely want to create one of their own kin, especially when you can modify it. And as we all know, children who grow up through the agency…”
He hesitates. “They become what our people in academic circles call ‘social determinants.’ You probably know what I’m talking about.”
“Criminals,” said the husband. “Thugs. Gangsters.”
“Yes, I suppose that’s the more colloquial way of saying it,” replied Kelley. “That’s why the agency is no longer accepting more children, and as a result, the company…”
He paused as he gathered himself, and the couple looked on, glancing at each other every so often. The husband let out a light chuckle with a shake of his head, and the wife continued with the same unwavering glare as if waiting for him to say something to piss her off.
“The company has asked us to process them.”
He waited, as if hoping for a reaction from the couple.
He received none.
“Again,” said the husband. “Not our problem. Our only problem is we paid for a child that came out defective, and now we’re giving you a chance to redeem yourself.”
He then shifted his position into a forward posture.
“You know, I’m getting the impression this isn’t the first time it’s happened to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, just judging by your reaction to it, it looks like you’ve had to do it once or twice before. Unlike my wife, who couldn’t give a rat’s ass about current events, I follow the news. I know it hasn’t been long since the Agency shut its doors. Yet here you are, sweating out of your ass about terminating another one of your products. I would glean that you must’ve done it before to feel this way.”
Kelley didn’t respond.
“You know,” continued the husband. “If you wanna go far in business, Mr. Kelley, I think it’s best to be a businessman. Not an activist. Your job is to produce goods and services to sell.”
They got up and began to leave, and as they shuffled out of the front door, the wife turned back around.
And they were gone.
“We’ll be back in seven months. Get it together this time, and we’ll keep our mouths shut.”
Kelley’s main office was three blocks away from the delivery center.
It was like any corporate office of the time: a large carbon fiber desk, a ceiling made of light panels, the drone of the air conditioning, that faint metallic smell, a series of monitors both on the desk and plastered to the walls, screensavers on display with the corporate logo and a slew of text written underneath.
13 million and thriving.
13 million units have been produced since the company’s inception.
Kelley quickly changed the display with a wave of his fingers on an external trackpad.
“That your dog?” asked his assistant, Karl, who was pointing to a miniature dachshund that made up his desktop background.
“No,” Kelley replied. “Just a therapy photo.”
They were both sitting with a soda pop apiece on a set of recliner chairs that the previous steward of the place had left.
“I’d get a few myself,” said Karl.
“Why don’t you?” Asked Kelley.
“Why should I?” he replied. “I’ve got wonderful kids.”
“How are they?”
“Developing nicely. Last week, they wrote their first words.”
“Already now? Aren’t they only a year and a half each?”
“The Rancher we went to had an enhancement option for this. We took a whole lot of them too. Math by three, helping with taxes by 8, they’ve learned to feed themselves through the bottle already, you know? This technology, I tell ya.”
“Happy for you,” replied Kelley quietly, and he took another sip of his soda and sat back in silence, looking on as if in contemplation.
Kelley paused and hesitated. “You think we can convince the Agency to take one more?”
“No luck with the Parsons?”
He shook his head. “Parsons and Jennings. They want their baby as white as tissue paper.”
“I mean, they’re a good-looking couple. Don’t they deserve what they want? The baby of their dreams?”
“It’s just a little purple, Karl. He doesn’t have horns coming out of him.”
“It’s not what they asked for.”
“I get that. But is it enough to send something to the processor? I told them they could take it to the prescriber and that we’d cover the cost, but even that wasn’t enough. They wanted something new, unaltered. I mean, are we really going through with this, Karl? Taking a life because it didn’t come out perfect on the first try?”
“You sound very old school there, Doc. But it’s basic economics. Customers are royalty. You know that.”
Kelley nodded and got up to walk towards his desk, where he pulled out a bottle of bourbon.
“Have one with me, will ya, Karl?” he asked as he poured two glasses. “Cause I don’t think I can think about this sober. Not entirely.”
“Anyway, I could be of service,” replied Karl, and they clinked their glasses together, Kelley proceeding to empty his with one swig.
“Say, what’s gotten into ya?” Asked Karl. “You seem overly emotional about this. Everything okay up there?”
“No, everything’s fine,” replied Kelley. “It’s just, ever since we had to put down that other case..”
“The one with that dad?”
“Yeah, that crazy fuck. The one where we had to do the deed because it looked too much like the mother. That one. It’s had an impact on me for some reason.”
“Hey,” said Karl. “I get it. It was rough. But look, you kept your professionalism about it, and you got it done. It’s just business, Doc. It’s just business. Now, I’m going to take your lead.”
He swallowed his glass and set it down hard.
“And I’m going to be a good assistant and get in touch with the processor. Once we have an appointment, this time, I could take him myself if you want. I know it’s out of my pay grade, but I’ll do it for you if it makes you feel better. Just work it out with them so they wouldn’t mind, will ya?”
Kelley nodded. “Thanks. If you could do that, it’d be great.”
Karl poured himself another glass, threw it back, and made his way to the door.
“Let’s get this over with, Doc,” he said as he paused at the entrance. “Then we can get ahead of it with the leadership team.”
Kelley didn’t respond. Instead, he was looking at the image of the dog.
The next day, as Kelley was heating his lunch in the break room, Karl came back with the baby. He had a solemn look on his face as he sat the bassinet down and took a seat.
“Don’t assume anything yet,” he said as he pulled out a small bottle of water from his pocket and began unscrewing the lid. “I’ve got some bad news.”
Kelley didn’t respond. He was staring at the child, who was, by now, wailing, albeit inaudibly, given the way the bassinet was designed.
“The processor,” Karl began. “They’ve got some moratorium going on.”
“What moratorium? Over what?”
Karl took a sip of water. “Sabotage, or something like that. Don’t ask, boss. I went, and there was this security guard.”
“What’d he say?”
“What I told ya. ‘Sabotage, do it yourself.’ Well, I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.”
“Do it yourself?” Kelley stopped chewing, sat back, and stared blankly past his half-eaten plate of baked ziti.
“That’s right,” Karl started walking towards the refrigerator. “Take the thing and throw it down a flight of stairs. Easy peasy.”
Kelley shook his head. “You talk like you’ve never processed a person before.”
Karl shrugged. “It’s barely conscious of its own existence. If you had to feel sorry for somebody, feel sorry for the guy who is conscious; he’s going to die. Extra suffering. Society would be better if everyone were just bred to do what they needed to do without caring about life or death. Make it so much easier on the market.”
“Market,” Kelley repeated to himself. For some reason, it gave him a great feeling of unease whenever he heard it uttered, something else that had changed in him since sending his first child to the processor.
“Look,” said Karl. “Processing is easy. These little guys can’t move, can’t struggle, and will take anything you give it. Just stick it with a little cyanide and be done with it; I’m sure upper management can give us some from the pharmacy.”
Kelley didn’t respond. He tried to resume eating but found that he’d lost his appetite, the fork suddenly weighing a little more than he’d remembered.
“What’s the problem? Cause, you know, if there is a problem, I suggest you fix it quick, ’cause’cause we’ve got that client tour tomorrow, and let me tell ya, these guys are the feds, so they’re gonna tear the place apart for shit. I mean, unless you bring it home, they’re gonna find it. And hell, you thought the Parsons were ugly with the purple baby; these guys have a lot of choices when it comes to Ranchers.”
“Obviously, I can’t bring it home,” he thought out loud. “Could be perceived as theft.”
“There’s always the black market,” Karl said with a chuckle.
Kelley hesitated for a long while before finally deciding. “No. No problem at all. I can deal with this,” he said. “Just need some cyanide from a pharmacy, right?”
“I can hook you up, boss,” said Karl, between bites of leftover steamed dumplings. “Just let me know before the end of today.”
Kelley thought about it. “Nah, don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.”
Instead of responding, the rancher sat back up and continued forking the pasta, eventually finding it in himself to stick a piece in his mouth.
It wasn’t even all that purple.
Just a smudge of redness like certain people would look after standing too long in the sun without sunscreen or drinking too much alcohol; a smudge of redness with a quick toss of blue, but practically unnoticeable when held up close. For Kelley, it was never easy to tell the true color of people. After all, everyone looks a defined shade from afar, but it is always a complex mixture upon closer examination.
And at that moment, when holding the child in his hands, all he could perceive was a healthy newborn human boy: a head of hair, brown, like that of his parents and thin, perfectly stenciled eyebrows that curved around the eyes that were perfectly round with green pupils and curled lashes.
Although only a few days old out of the chamber, he was closer to 8 months when adjusted to the time out of gestation (should he have gone through a biological birth). He was able to smile and sit, play and laugh, babble incoherently, and grab at anything within view. In fact, at that moment, he was holding onto his lanyard tightly and pulling it towards his mouth.
Kelley pulled the lanyard away, and the child began to cry, so he offered him an empty bottle of water instead, the only item he deemed safe enough to give that was sitting on his office desk.
The baby grabbed the bottle and began sucking on the cap. He banged it against the doctor’s hand and would occasionally shriek with glee, as if letting loose like pressured steam.
Kelley held the baby in one arm and a syringe in the other.
He held the syringe away as the child turned his eyes to it and proceeded to grab at it, his tiny arms stretching the left half of his body forward to reach.
He was almost successful, too, the tips of his fingers touching Kelley’s palm. He’d held it there to see how far the child would get.
It was something amazing to the rancher, the way the infant had figured out how to maximize his reach in such a manner. Surely, it was a simple act of subconscious thinking for any sober person, but it seemed so much more monumental for something so young.
He held the syringe further, and the child wriggled onto his lap, standing while holding onto his arm and tapping those tiny fingers on his wrist.
Kelley let out a chuckle. It was the first time he’d ever interacted with a baby in such a way.
The current hour had given up to the next, and he was nowhere close to completing the deed. He was to have left thirty minutes prior and will now likely have to catch the late train.
How he wished he could drop the child in the office and leave. Maybe, by luck, he’d return the next day to a corpse.
But for some reason, such a thought sickened him.
“It’s just a product,” he said to himself, over and over, the phrase changing ever so slightly with each iteration.
“He’s just a product.”
“He’s a product.”
Kelley tried again, for the dozenth time, to raise the needle to the neck.
He inserted the syringe. The child cried savagely.
He left the office shortly, a child in tow; the syringe lying on his desk, its contents full.
He kept the child in a hibernation pod with a full stomach for the night. In the morning, he planned to put it in the noise-canceling capsule and hide it under his desk.
He kept watch over it on the way home with a monitoring app on his phone, swaying back and forward, keeping a hand over it so that nobody around him would notice.
And all night, he kept watch over the app as the child slept.
The baby was lying on his front, his head turned left. Despite this, he could make out the delicate little line that was his left eye, gently shut, and a few strands of hair now touching his brow.
For as far as he could remember, in all his time in this industry, he rarely looked a child in the eye, doing so only to inspect it for a final quality check before handing it over to the customer. In fact, his time spent interacting with infants was limited, as the majority of the process dealt with the growth of the fetus. In fact, he would spend more time behind a computer screen monitoring a series of metrics for each product, making sure they developed properly, than watching them as they floated in their cylindrical vats (or Gestational Hives) with a biosynthetic tube connected to the naval.
Everything was just business, optimizing and building humanity in a way that his ancestors could have never dreamed of before the perfection of ranching.
Then, there was the moment when everything changed.
There was that moment when he found himself holding a baby of 8 months outside of a processor, unable to move, its little hand pulling his shirt and sobbing in a way where it almost looked to be begging.
It was to be a simple process, so they said. He was to walk up to a station inside the building, an opening to a conveyor belt with a set of infant seats stacked neatly to the side. He was to strap the child to a seat and insert it through the opening, and the child would ride the belt through a largely automated system where it would be processed before being thrown into an incinerator.
From there, all he would have to do was pay at the register.
All completed without needing another human soul.
He recalled the rest of the place being empty. Not many ranchers missed requirements these days. Competition was fierce, as the process and technology had evolved to become quick and painless for market entry, where, in many cases, all one would need is a certification and a couple of power outlets to set up his or her own franchise. In fact, he was certain that his corporation would have taken his license away after the first time it happened if it weren’t for his ability to outpace every other branch in sales year after year.
He recalled standing at his check-out booth alone for nearly an hour. He could feel the child still grabbing his shirt, the tenseness in the muscles as he placed him into a child seat, the sudden heat in his eyes as the child stopped screaming when it disappeared down the conveyor belt.
Nothing could feel as lonely, nothing he could imagine. Nevermind the emptiness of the facility, it was just the fact he could so unceremoniously do what he did without another soul present to tell him he was wrong.
That moment. Everything changed from then onwards.
But as he turned his monitor off and set it aside to catch some sleep before having to wake up in a few hours, he couldn’t help but wonder if it was something more.
They looked like federal people. Black suits and pins.
They were taller than him. This was to be expected.
They didn’t have much of a demeanor, not pleasant nor stern. It was as if everything was routine, just another rancher to inspect.
He was sitting with them, two women and one man, in the office with a collection of his staff and a guy from corporate named Sandy, who was also wearing a suit and tie, although his demeanor was slightly more easy-going, and he wore his necktie loose.
Karl was in his standard uniform, purple scrubs and a bandana, but he sat as if at attention, each hand to a knee.
“So, as mentioned in my email, we’ve performed a volume assessment based on your last five-year period.”
By now, most of the formalities were done. The taller woman, the chairperson of the group named Perry, was speaking.
“It looks good, Mr Kelley. You have an impressive production record, outpacing the national average, and a long track record of doing so year after year.”
She scooted closer, held up her hand, and proceeded to count off her fingers.
“Higher than average numbers for returning customers, online search hits, annual profits, staff retention, and facility quality metrics. Now, of course, higher than average doesn’t mean the best. It just puts you in the running, and as you know, we have a large contract with a demanding order with demanding requirements. That’s why I want to focus on another metric that stood out to me that has given me a pause for concern.”
“What’s that?” asked Kelley.
“Making sure you meet requirements. It appears that there was a case not so long ago where you had to dispose of an order, correct?”
“And, in an updated ledger, it appears you had another case just yesterday. Now, I can trust that this, too, has been taken care of?”
He paused a bit, then nodded.
“Good. Well, I believed it to be a cause for concern, but with a function with your other numbers, it’s not a showstopper for me. Nobody’s completely perfect yet, not until we start regulating orders more. Or move away from this diversified approach to ranching.”
“I agree,” said Kelley whilst lightly nodding.
“Were you modified to be a rancher?” She asked.
“No,” he replied. “I wasn’t produced with a purpose in mind. I guess you could say that my parents should’ve had a bit more regulation?”
“Maybe not,” she said. “Given your performance. And how have you been able to do all of this without being produced for ranching?”
“Their selections that affected my abilities happened to match the job. I don’t know how. It’s a stroke of luck, I guess. Don’t ask me what my parents had in mind, but I know it wasn’t for this. Then again, with automation, there isn’t much to this job anyhow. Just business sense.”
With that, Kelley stood up. “Are you all ready for the tour?”
The chairperson nodded. “Absolutely. When you’re ready.”
The first part of the tour was uneventful; it was apparent that the inspectors knew how the process worked and had seen enough of these labs to require much explaining.
So Kelley spent most of the time answering questions more so related to his history at the lab and sending Karl away to collect any artifacts they requested.
He showed them the intake room, where prospective clients would sit at specialized modules and spend up to an hour selecting all of the attributes they wanted in their baby.
“We do things a bit differently at our facility,” he said. “Where other places will have them take as much time as needed, we cap it at an hour, and we use a single line queueing system to feed the twenty or so intake modules. Additionally, we designed each intake module to be a room rather than a booth. We found that customers appreciated it more.”
“How come?” asked the younger man, who looked to be the most junior in the trio of federal prospects, given how he always stood behind the other two and did most of the writing.
“We don’t know. They don’t know either. We’ve given them surveys. They’ve all ascertained that they appreciated the rooms, but none of them could answer why.”
The younger man shook his head, thought about it, and decided not to write anything down.
“Anyways, we also offer more options and the ability for them to customize their requirements through natural language.”
“And I’m guessing you use an advanced language model for that?” asked the second most senior member of the trio.
“Not advanced. People don’t get very creative with what they want their kids to be, generally speaking. Their requirements are nearly always in lockstep with what was expected of them. In fact, when you look at all the requirements given over time, they almost always coalesce tightly around the mean for any given period.”
“Which is why the dispersed model works,” said the younger federal prospect, his eyes perking up before retreating to his tablet after catching a hard glare from the other two.
“Shall we continue?” said the tall senior woman.
“Certainly,” said Kelley. “Next, we have genetic encoding and synthesizing.”
Genetic encoding wasn’t performed in any specific room or location as it was mainly done through a cloud platform, where the data would be stored, analyzed, and translated into a specialized programming language that would, in turn, translate into a series of genetic sequences. The sequencing will then be completed with additional data to complete the fetal structure before being returned to the lab.
In synthesizing, the returned sequencing would be used to create specialized artificial stem cells using a process called bio-printing (where synthetic material would be layered and molded into the various components of the cells using a microscopic needle). Artificial embryogenesis, the process following, would see that the stem cells are induced to differentiate into the structure of an embryo.
Most of this two-step process was done automatically and monitored through a specialized platform, which Kelley was able to show the visitors through his tablet PC. For the most part, the trio didn’t seem all that interested in this portion, the processes and technologies they’ve seen many times before.
“Karl can provide you with a quality log after this tour as well as an audit history,” said Kelley after explaining the process, showing the visitors the inventory displayed on the monitor. “You should find it on par with guidelines.”
“But I do have some questions about your quality assurance,” asked the chairperson.
“Certainly, but shall we visit the chamber first?” Asked Kelley.
They proceeded into a facility through a walkway and came upon a vast space with hundreds of rows of glass vats, each with a fetus in varying states of development. They were floating in a clear fluid and attached to artificial umbilical cords that ran out of the vats and into a rectangular device next to each contraption, and they were each covered with many patches of varying colors.
“These are our gestational hives. Each comes equipped with wireless sensors,” said Kelley. “All the vitals are collected and sent to the cloud and fed back to the platform.”
As they made their way amongst the aisles, he opened his tablet PC to a decorated screen of a dashboard of many graphs and a table against a black backdrop.
“Yes,” said the chairperson without looking at the device. “You can put that away. I’ve seen enough of these. I’m wondering how you tag these units. With those?”
She pointed to a fleet of drones that buzzed around the space like flies, some equipped with two extendable robotic arms with mechanical hands at the ends and others with a needle so thin that they disappeared at the ends. Over and over, like bees in an orchard field, they flew in and out through an opening near the edge of the roof and lower into the vats, which would automatically open and close for them as necessary to perform whatever function they were assigned, from injecting the fetuses to tagging to nudging them into position.
“Ah yes, the Hybro-nurse,” he replied.
“Hybro-nurse?” She repeated to herself.
“It’s the system that operates these drones. We have about fifty of them, and we’ve got more in the backlog.”
“And they do the tagging?”
“Oh yes, that and a whole lot more.”
“You don’t say?”
Two of the drones, one of each type, floated towards the group and remained hovered above his palm, which he had extended as if offering a landing pad.
He pointed to the one with mechanical hands.
“This one is for stabilizing the fetus. Its padding is specially designed using an enhanced compound of neoprene that will keep it from infecting or irritating the fetus’s skin. Additionally, it’s programmed to accurately measure its finger pressure so that it doesn’t harm the body.
The needle is for injecting the vectors that instigate growth at predetermined speeds as well as extracting cells. Also, quite obviously, the hands are for stabilizing.”
“Two thoughts,” said the senior woman. “First, I’m assuming that the extraction is for Quality Assurance?”
He nodded. “Yes. Quality assurance. With each cell, we can simulate what the infant will look like upon completion and can match this against what was in the requirements. Additionally, we would be able to validate temperament, IQ, predispositions for certain activities, and other behavioral requirements received from intake. Little do you know, the testing for these social-behavioral attributes is usually bypassed or completed with haste by other ranchers, given how these things don’t present themselves until later in life, far past the warranty period for most offerings. But we show the proof in the pudding, so to speak. We want our customers to trust us.”
“So what went wrong?” Asked the chairperson. “Based on what you told me, why did you end up with two defective products?”
“Scale,” he replied. “To accommodate the increase in business, the folks up in corporate reduced the gestational time maximum from three quarters the speed of biological gestation to just half, so as to meet demand. Although it sits at the minimum gestational time frame for a viable product, it nevertheless caused some strain on my part of the process.”
“Your part?” Asked the chairperson. “When everything is automated?”
“Not everything,” replied Kelley. “You see, as it’s such an imprecise science to determine what is correct and what isn’t when it comes to whether a child is correct or incorrect, it’s up to me to inspect each defect that may arise. From there, I would determine if it warrants corrective action or if what looks to be a defect is actually something the customer had in mind, especially when it comes to something outside of the baby’s physical features or something that wasn’t specified in-depth.”
“But wait, doesn’t the customer get a print out of what the baby will look like?” asked the chairperson.
“Sure, the customer walks away with a printout of what their child will look like. But it’s all from a distance. Look closer at any person’s face beyond what the human eye could capture from an image, and you’ll see that there are countless nuances to each face and countless number of ways they could vary that are invisible to our eyes. Well, to the eyes we have today.
All of these nuances, the system is able to catch. Is the nose half a millimeter too wide? Is an eye brown or a dark hue of orange? To us, such things are trivial, but to the system, it’s millions of lines of code.”
He paused. “In other words, most of who we are individually, the world will never see. But still meaningful.”
“I beg your pardon?” asked the chairperson.
“Anyways, the faster incubation led to shorter intervals between defects, and as I wasn’t used to the pace, it caught me off guard for a period. That’s all.”
“Oh,” she paused, slightly nodding. “Okay, well, like I said, you’ve proven your worth. Quantitatively, the numbers show it. No need to dwell on it. What will we see next?”
The next hour went by rather quickly. Delivery was, by and large, a relatively straightforward process, given that most of the more involved stages were completed.
It constituted the fully formed child (8-9 months after birth when adjusted to biological delivery) being taken from the gestational hive and fed a formula to awaken its senses before being washed, dressed, and placed in a hibernation pod as it awaited product presentation. After that, upon customer acceptance, the child would be taken home.
“And that’s really it,” said Kelley as they walked back to his office. “Now, shall we discuss requirements?”
The visitors took a seat, the chairperson crossing her legs and swiping her tablet P.C.
“I sent you a copy a week ago. Had you time to review?”
“I did,” Kelley took his tablet P.C. and swiped it towards a large monitor towards his left side. The screen lit up with a display of a dozen fully naked adult humans. They were lined up in two rows, six to each, and consisted of nine men and three women, and were very well-muscled with long limbs and compact torsos. Under each figure was listed a role.
“And you wanted one hundred of each,” he added. “According to your RFP.”
“Yes. As you know, the defense budget was increased this year, and we’re looking to deploy a fresh new line of service members to send to our territories overseas, predominantly in Southeast Asia. This will be a very long-term contract where you will, if we move forward with you, be one of three sole providers. As you can imagine, your corporate administrators will be quite happy to accommodate such an expansion. Am I right, Mr…”
“Keital,” said the man from corporate, who had been, for the majority of the tour, soft-spoken, looking up only a few times from his tablet P.C. to answer a question or two when asked. “And yes. We will provide the needed resources for expansion. It could be an expansion of the current facility or oversight over two of them in two different localities, but nevertheless, Mr. Kelley will be given an expanded role in the operation of this new relationship.”
Kelley felt his eye twitch. This was his first time hearing of this, and he knew the role would come with a substantial boost in pay.
“And why, may I ask, the variation?” He asked after a brief pause.
“The specs and design reasons are confidential. But all twelve of these were designed and signed off by all levels of the joint chiefs of staff, so all you need to know is that they are very deliberately designed for their purposes, and that is all.”
“So 1200 personnel to start?”
“Yes, by the middle of next year. The dates are specified in the RFP.”
Kelley looked to Karl, who was sitting further towards the back. Karl shot him a thumbs up, and Kelley nodded toward the chairperson.
“We can accommodate it.”
“Good,” said the chairperson. “I know I have one more company to visit, but I can all but certain say that they are not even half of your operation. Therefore, we shall keep in touch- what’s that sound?”
Kelley froze. A creeping feeling of freefall began forming in his gut.
“It sounds like a cat,” said Karl, and he stood up and ran out of the room to follow the sound.
“A baby?” said the youngest of the trio of visitors. “I mean, that’s a baby for sure.”
The noise-canceling bassinet he hid the infant in had only so much power to share between the white noise it played to swoon the child to sleep and the noise-canceling function to mute him while awake. The power cord must not have been plugged in completely.
Of all the times.
He immediately got up and sprinted towards his office, hoping to get there before anyone else.
Instead, he saw Karl in the hallway, holding the child upright in front of his face as if handling a wild animal.
The rest of the group caught up.
“Oh,” said the chairperson.
She said nothing more, only nodding and looking at her associates. They, too, were silent, only dropping their devices to their laps, their eyes widened, the young man with his lips in a tight smile as if holding back a laugh.
The man from corporate was seen taking a seat on a bench, his head shaking back and forth slowly.
Karl walked over and handed the child to Kelley, and the child was smiling ear to ear at the sight of him, the hue of his skin appearing more purple than it ever looked before.
The chairperson left, saying nothing other than, “We’ll get back to you when we’ve made a decision.”
Then, a day later, Kelley received a notification from corporate stating that they had lost the contract. The reasons were not made clear, although, to him, it was obvious; nobody in the history of the industry would’ve wanted a child looking like that, and no rancher would’ve created it intentionally.
They had stormed out after a simple glance from afar, a mistake so hideous it made no sense to continue.
His position at the company was now tenuous. He could sense the boardroom talk as they took everything into account. The missed contract worth tens of millions over ten years, the purple child, and his conduct insofar as hiding it.
Where he would go next, it all depended on his value.
“You probably won’t be working in this line of business for a while. I’ll tell you that much,” said Karl.
They were walking towards the subway station. For most of the trip, they were silent, Kelley swaying more than usual as earlier he had made a stop at a small restaurant for a bottle of cabernet.
“Where’s the kid again?” asked Karl.
“No, he’s back in his pod.”
“You know,” said Karl. “It might help your case if you got rid of that thing. It’ll probably just slide as a part of one of your two errors rather than becoming a whole new one altogether. You still got that needle?”
“Yeah. I do,” replied Kelley.
“Of course you do. Why would we be in this mess if you don’t?”
It was brushing upon midnight, and the last train was taking longer than usual, courtesy of the usual late evening schedule. The two men sat on a bench, an e-cigarette apiece, exhaling and watching condensed clouds of moisture vanishing within seconds of meeting the evening backdrop.
For Kelley, the tobacco had helped him sober up. Karl didn’t seem the least bit out of the ordinary.
“Karl,” Kelley started after a few minutes of silence. “Would it hurt my case if I were to adopt?”
Karl just continued to stare ahead. “I don’t think anything will hurt your case, buddy. But why would you want to?”
“I don’t know,” said Kelley. “It’s just a thought.”
“You’re not talking sense, friend,” said Karl. “Do you want a child of your own?”
“Would you want it to be purple?”
“Then why would you throw your money away for something you don’t want?”
The platform rang, and the subway was coming in from a distance. They were already into the first six minutes of the day, and the buzz from the wine and the haze from the tobacco had calmed him to where he could barely remember what he was in trouble for.
He never answered Karl. He didn’t know how to. Here was an infant who might become a child and then a man; no expectations, no personal gain, just the hope that someone else gets a chance at life. That was all, but for him, that was enough.
Karl wouldn’t understand. He, for certain, didn’t, and it was plain as day that nobody would, not in this era.
“Good night, friend,” he said before getting onboard. “Thanks for exposing me yesterday.”
Karl chuckled. “Looks like I did some good.”
The door closed.
On the way back, he noticed an advertisement directly in front of him on the transom directly above the window. It was for a competitor.
10 million and thriving.
7 million and thriving. 19 million and thriving. Every ranching company, every ad.
Adding every one of these from every company up, you get 13 billion.
13 billion and thriving.
What is thriving? Humanity or business?
He named him Spiro.
Spiro was a cartoon dragon in an advertisement selling insurance, and the children would laugh at it every time they passed it when walking to the subway station.
For Kelley, it had nothing to do with his hopes and dreams for the child. It had nothing to do with how he would be received by the public. It had only to do with the way the child would laugh at that silly cartoon, the bulging eyes that were too large for the head, the tongue that would wrap around the nose, and that puff of smoke coming out of its nose.
Spiro was two years old. By then, he was standing, running, or rolling but never walking. He loved the outdoors and nearly all things that flew, ate ketchup out of the bottle but gagged at ripe tomatoes, and was always disappearing into empty boxes he could fit in no matter how filthy. His favorite toy was a random metal rod Kelley had picked up from his attic that he’d use to bang against the floor and anything else that would produce noise.
He liked to roll down hills, especially the one next to their apartment, where the grass was trimmed daily and kept a perfect green, never mind what was in the grass, and always wanted his hand held when walking on a beach.
His favorite words were “birgie” and “wagie”. Kelley still hasn’t figured out what they meant.
And he liked to stare at people, but always with a grin pulled across his face, no matter the reaction he’d receive.
And, of course, he was still very purple. But for most of their days, Kelley had practically forgotten about it.
Today is his first day at a daycare.
They are sitting together in his car, Spiro in a car seat, Kelley trying to unfasten the restraints using his smartphone.
It was never lost on Kelley what the rest of the day would entail: the daycare teacher picking him up and handing him to someone else so that she could pick up the next, the disdain wrought upon the faces of these caretakers as they awaken him to join the others, the very high-level details they will present of his day as if scripted.
“He was great. Thank you.”
The restraints came off. He lifted the boy out of the vehicle and set him standing on the ground. The boy wanted to run, but Kelley had him by the shoulders.
“Hey buddy, one moment alright?”
He wanted to tell him something.
“I promise you, it’ll be just a second.”
Before setting his boy into the reality that is the world, now, as they stood at its gates, he needed him to know.
“You’re alright, son.”
He was staring into his crystal blue pupils.
“Now, you listen to me. You’re not purple. You’re not good or bad, a success or a defect. You’re not anything anyone ordered from some menu in a lab.”
The boy was obviously confused. He pulled him closer.
“You’re loved, and that’s all that matters.”
His office is on the fifteenth floor; he’s now a process designer with clients ranging from anything other than ranching, making half of what he used to back at the lab, and he saves every dime he could spare so that his son may go to trade school.
He uploads a photo of Spiro to his desktop. It’s a photo of his first day at the daycare. He will change it many times as the boy gets older throughout his lifetime, too.
Sporting events, graduations, vacations, all the firsts that make up a life; one lived as a human being and nothing less.