‘What year were you born in?’ she asks me on our first and only date.
I tell her.
‘Oh,’ she nods very slightly, with a shy smile. ‘Hinoeuma. That explains it.’
I check my translator. Hinoeuma: Japanese for Fire Horse.
What intensity? I could have asked. But now I notice I’m the one doing all the talking. Maybe it’s that. I ask her something else instead.
‘What’s a Fire Horse?’
‘It’s a sign of the Chinese zodiac,’ she says.
‘Intense sign, then?’
‘Very. Fire Horses tend to be good leaders. Righteous, but also lovable and very persuasive.’
‘That’s good,’ I say, trying my best to smile.
‘But they also tend to be a bit loud,’ she almost whispers. ‘And ill-tempered.’
‘Really. There’s a saying about it. “The Fire Horse devours its parents.”’
I shrug. ‘My parents are long dead, and I certainly had nothing to do with their demise.’ But the thrill is gone now.
We talk a bit more, say our goodbyes politely, and she gets up and leaves, as quickly as if she has a real flaming horse snapping at her heels. I stay there, nursing my drink. Damn, I need to stop using dating apps. Or maybe just update my profile? But the Company keeps track of all our movements. If I try to override the official configuration, they will be the ones snapping at my heels.
At least she didn’t flinch when I told her my age. People tend to do that when they find out that they’re on a date with a cryosleeper. Can’t do anything about that: I need the job. Still haven’t paid off my debts after five years, subjective – which, with all the interest accrued in twenty-five Earth years, is a very hard task.
I’m going to be sixty in a few days. I don’t want to spend this birthday all by myself.
The next date, though, doesn’t give me much hope.
‘Gosh, it must be hard,’ she blurts, overly excited and with all the subtlety of a rhinoceros in a china shop. ‘To be frozen for years just to travel from one system to another. Wow!’
Fuck. A cryophiliac.
‘Fuck yeah.’ I wasn’t going to give her the pleasure of answering any other way.
But she apparently loves my improvised response. She snorts. I hate when people snort. Makes me think of pigs.
Speaking of pigs, I’m famished. I could eat a big bowl of krill now, but a pseudopig would be much better. I’ve heard that the Sarawak Station flesh vats produce the most delicious ones. But they can cost you an actual pound of flesh. I’m not going to sell my meat for a meal.
I listen to my stomach and give a lame excuse to jump off this particular bandwagon. I don’t have enough money to pay for a nice dinner for myself, much less for someone I don’t know, and don’t want to know.
‘Nice belly, girl.’
‘That’s a first,’ I say, immediately pissed off. What’s her problem? Fat phobic much?
‘Have you ever thought about renting it out?’
I leave the fucker talking to herself.
My profile is very clear on that. Don’t have children, don’t want them. Do I have to draw a picture? I’m here to fuck. The last thing I need is to be fucked with.
But time between missions can be boring. And I’m feeling very lonely.
I meet Deepak for drinks at our usual bar at 6 p.m. station time, as we do whenever I’m back home. I miss the old guy a lot. When we worked together aboard the Rover, we could always count on each other for a few laughs after a hard day’s work. But a few years ago, he managed to get transferred to a desk job on Arcadia Station, my current home, so we still get together, and even after a couple of years away on my last mission, we start talking like we’ve never been apart. Which is exactly what happens today.
‘It could be worse,’ Deepak says after listening to me whining about not getting laid in a very long time, both subjective and objective. ‘You could still be on Earth.’
I try not to shudder. ‘True enough, I could.’ I say, looking into the glass of child’s piss that passes for beer here. ‘How are things there now?’ I haven’t been on Earth since I came to work for the Company.
‘I can show you if you want.’
‘No.’ I take another sip . ‘Go point your probes elsewhere, you perverted android.’
Deepak smiles without a hint of humour. ‘You know I find that term speciesist. Synthetic is more appropriate,’ he says, taking a sip of his gin and tonic. ‘You should have this instead.’ He holds the shitty glass up like its some prize specimen. ‘Much better.’
‘You don’t need to consume anything, right? So why drink at all?’
‘I like to taste things. Why do you humans drink alcohol if you don’t need to consume it to live?’
I just laugh.
‘Some people drink to forget. But you don’t forget.’
‘Yes. I drink because it’s there.’
‘That’s pretty lame. A cheap G&T is not Everest.’
‘Whatever. Anyway, you humans consume too much.’
In front of me the latest babe is talking. I sip my drink.
‘You know they are giving a big bonus to those who serve as surrogates, right?’ the babe said. This one looks like an old-fashioned French intellectual, with her square-rimmed glasses and short no-nonsense hair. I’m not interested in this talk, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to spend my birthday alone. So I play along.
‘Who’s giving it?’ I try my best fake-interest expression. ‘The Company?’
The babe gives me an enigmatic smile. She has a mouth to die for – very kissable.
‘You didn’t hear that from me, but it’s a secret group.’
‘Damn, girl,’ I say, almost laughing. ‘If it’s a secret, why are you telling me?’
Another mischievous smile. If she wasn’t so interesting, I’d get up and leave right now. But I’m sure she’ll sell me something. Maybe we can work a quid pro quo? Bring it on, then.
‘You want to go back to Earth, don’t you?’
‘Who told you that?’
‘Your profile,’ the babe touches her glasses and activates the augmented reality function, which quickly projects a lo-rez holo between us. ‘Look at those pics: in this one you are leaning against a tree, and what a gorgeous light here, huh? Was it taken on Earth?’
‘No, that one was in Beta Eridani’s dome. They have an amazing filter that turns their sunlight the same wavelength as Sol seen from Earth.’
‘And that one?’ she goes on, like she didn’t hear me or simply didn’t care for the explanation. ‘Eating a big, luscious, red apple?’
‘That one,’ I smile and complete my very short but effective pitch, ‘is in the profile because this is my best naughty face.’
‘Naughty as fuck,’ she smiles, oozing horniness from every pore. I’m pretty much sold now.
‘And then you deduced that I wanted to go back to Earth,’ I say.
‘That was the impression I had, all right. Am I wrong?’
I sip my gin-and-tonic. Damn, Deepak is right. Fucking good.
‘Been away a long time now. I have no living relatives there. I’d rather live in an Earth-like environment instead of the real thing. Better air and food, you know.’
‘And there are lots of good places around which are better than the cradle of humankind,’ she said. ‘The Company will give you a reasonable retirement package to buy a housing unit anywhere, right?’
‘Provided that I can pay my debts, yes.’ I’m getting gloomy again. ‘Besides, it will take me a long time to retire.’
‘What if I told you that the belly bonus is just an early retirement?’
The holos change right on cue. Advertising material with the Company’s logo. I take another sip of the G&T and recalculate the odds of having sex that night. It’s not looking good.
Some of the images are so technical I can’t make heads or tails of them: pie charts, customer satisfaction research reports, everything as well designed and edited as the recruitment literature I received when I applied for an off-Earth position. Since that happened, objectively, a long time ago, I can only assume that they have now reached the apex of design. Or are the Company’s designers cryosleepers too?
Anyway, the bottom line of the whole sales pitch was that I had everything to gain by acting as a surrogate mother and nothing to lose: I would be taken care of for the whole duration, I wouldn’t keep the baby, and the so-called belly bonus would be enough for me to pay all my debts and retire in a year.
This was really good. Too good to be true.
‘OK, what’s the catch?’
The babe shrugs.
‘No catch. This is the real deal. But things can get better. If you can help recruit at least two more surrogates, there’s a hefty finder’s fee which I think will be to your liking.’
‘Are you for real? I mean, you know how to use your words.’ Including some that are a bit old-fashioned. ‘What year were you born in?’ She might not be regular ship material, but who knew the skills the Company would want to keep on ice over the years?
‘I’m older than you, apparently,’ gesturing at my thirty-one-year-old complexion. She looks like she is in her late thirties, and I can’t let it go.
‘Objectively or subjectively?’
‘Do you really have to ask?’
She turns off her glasses and takes my hand.
‘Any more questions?’
‘My place or yours?’
The sex was great.
‘I was not aware the Company was involved in this,’ says Deepak, giving me the standard blank synthetic look.
‘An illegal scheme?’
‘Not quite. Where there is profit there is no illegality. It is practically the Company’s alternative motto. On the other hand, even if it was illegal, they wouldn’t let us participate. That kind of thing is kind of taboo for us, as you know.’
I did know. I actually thought that was the real reason Deepak drank.
People treat synthetics like robots, but the truth is they are sentient creatures like us. The difference is that they do not come from wombs; but who is coming from those these days? Only the people who are really loaded and who want to live exotic lives? I don’t know.
I never wanted to be a mother. But I met a synthetic that did. She died in the Proxima Station uprising.
I don’t know if Deepak was there. We don’t talk about those things.
On the next date, to the babe’s credit, this matter isn’t mentioned. We spend some quality time fucking each other raw.
I never stopped to think much about pregnancy. I never thought of myself as having a maternal instinct; for me, this whole business of melting at the sight of cute babies is a purely biological mechanism, something programmed in our DNA to guarantee the continuity of the species. I don’t know if I would want to have a baby, even if I didn’t need to take care of it.
But, after the babe leaves, I spend some time browsing through the Company material she sent me. It’s all a bit vague. But the early retirement thing seems real.
Working for the Company can be really exhausting.
I remember I started with them because life on Earth was shit. Too much pollution, too much violence, too little money, too little chance of being happy. When Mom died, I didn’t have money for the burial. At that time, the few relatives I had didn’t even show up. So, fuck you very much, right?
My first contact with the recruitment material of the Company was while Mom was dying in the hospital. I pored over the brochures, understanding practically nothing but this: if I agreed to sign up to work for them as an indentured labourer, they would cover Mom’s medical and funeral expenses. It wouldn’t be easy, and most of the time I would have to work onboard an interstellar ship travelling at near relativistic speeds. They also made me watch a short movie about that thing that happens when two twins are separated and one of them stays on Earth and the other travels almost at the speed of light for five years, and when he gets back, he has aged five – but fifty years had passed for his brother on Earth. It was a cool video. Great production values for the time, and it would have been unsettling if I’d had someone I cared about on Earth. But I didn’t, so I signed up the day before Mom died.
Five subjective years have passed since then. In other words, five years have passed for me. Of that time, I’ve spent about three years travelling in cryogenic chambers aboard ships travelling at near relativistic speeds. But twenty-five years for the rest of the universe.
I now have nothing that makes me want to go back to Earth.
But the Company’s material makes it clear that retirement can be used to buy a housing unit in any colony. I would live peacefully in Beta Eridani.
I call the babe the next day.
‘Made up your mind yet?’ Deepak asks. His face is even more landscape-y than usual.
‘Yep,’ is all I say.
He offers me a shot of gin. I shake my head and ask for a sparkling water instead. We sit there, drinking in silence.
The auditorium is very white and clean, smelling of new. I’m not alone: there must be about fifty women there. The tech is serious and straightforward, more bureaucratic than respectful, but I still don’t feel at ease.
‘The procedure is simple,’ the doctor says at the stage, guiding us through the holograms depicting the whole process. ‘You will be inseminated and then the growth rate of the foetus will be accelerated. Gestation should come full term in four weeks instead of the usual thirty-nine. After insemination, absolute rest for forty-eight hours. Then, you will return here for the second phase, with intravenous medications and more acceleration. Childbirth will be induced and painless. After that, those of you on the Gold Plan will be released, whereas those on the Silver Plan will need just two more inseminations.’
I didn’t remember reading any of that in the advertising material.
I raise my hand. ‘Excuse me, but I don’t know about that.’
The doctor tries not to let out an annoyed sigh – but fails.
‘Every patient who gets four more referrals for the program automatically enters the Gold Plan and is exempt from future participation. Those who get two referrals join the Silver Plan, and are asked to participate in two more insemination and acceleration sessions.’
‘And those who can’t get any referrals?’ I ask, already knowing what the answer will be.
‘Those who don’t succeed in getting more surrogates will be asked to participate in at least four more sessions. But don’t worry,’ he says with a forced smile, looking elsewhere in the audience. ‘At any moment during pregnancy, you can present more potential candidates, and thus move to either the Gold or Silver plan.’
I raised my hand again.
‘Is the retirement package for other plans better?’
‘Did you like it?’ Deepak asks the next day. (Of course we met again. We were regular drinking pals; a minor disagreement wouldn’t get between us and our imbibement.)
‘It’s no free lunch.’
‘Nothing is.’ He pauses – something that’s totally artificial for him, because as far as I know his thought processing is instantaneous compared to ours. ‘Did they tell you where the babies are going?’
‘No. In fact, I didn’t even think to ask.’
Deepak looks at me, but this time his expression is far from neutral. Though I can’t figure out exactly what it means.
I knock back my drink and order another.
Later, I try to set up a date with the babe. A drink for the road – and maybe one last fuck before the procedure. She doesn’t answer my messages, and maybe it’s better this way. She’s probably hustling another girl and getting into her knickers as well. Can’t blame her; I’d probably have done the same thing. But it’s a shame: I really like her.
On my way home, I get a message from the Company. Not a standard notification: this message is to tell me the interest rate of my debt is going to soar by the next time I return from a mission. I can sit this one out and take another ship later: they do the stations circuit every three months, and employee turnover is high, so my chances of getting a job in one of them are big. This surrogate business can grant me an early retirement – I can even do a couple more missions just to get extra money and live a bit more luxuriously. A new life waiting for me on some distant off-world colony. So many possibilities.
You don’t get to make many friends when working onboard a ship.
It was fun in the beginning. On my first freighter, Under Western Eyes, we worked hard, but we also saw a lot of new places all over the galaxy. Planets (with water! Oceans, rivers, lakes, waterfalls! When I left Earth, the whole world had become a landfill, and I didn’t realise how much I missed massive bodies of water until I had the bath of my life in Cabo Celeste), orbital stations (Neue Technik Station is a beauty – at least twice the size of most of the Company’s stations, and definitely much more state-of-the-art). The mining asteroids are pretty much the same wherever you go: most of them are administered by the Diaspora World Consortium, comprised basically of Third World companies, so let’s just say they are not that advanced (though I’ve heard they’re getting good in biotech).
And boy oh boy. How we got laid.
But that was then. Things change. Maybe I’m getting old? The Company pays its indentured labourers counting subjective time, but our usefulness is defined per number of years objective. That is: if thirty-one is usually accepted aboard interstellar ships, sixty most definitely is not. The Company prefers much younger, pliable labourers. Employees willing and able to work more hours a shift and endure rougher conditions. And to receive less money without complaining. Deepak is right: humanity consumes a lot of shit, and priority one for the Company is keeping that supply of shit flowing.
Not that we could complain to anyone else: the Company has a very strict policy allowing no labourers to join unions anywhere it operates; that is, on all the Non-Aligned Worlds. (As if they had unions in the Diaspora Worlds: they have this Consensus thing, where absolutely every fucking thing must be discussed and agreed upon by every fucking member of the group; a model apparently based on indigenous tribes of the Amazon. Thanks, but no thanks.)
On the other hand, they might easily take me on if I can accept a lower salary. It’s not that I have anything to lose, especially if I already have the retirement package. I can drop out anytime I want, after all.
Then again, maybe it’s a good idea to go over the belly bonus situation one more time.
The place is very clean and smells new. The walls are green instead of white. I enter the clinic alone, but as soon as I sign the authorization, two nurses come, sit me down in a wheelchair, and take me to a small operating room. I’m counting back from ten and put to sleep way before I can regret any of this. I hear them tell me the procedure is quick.
But not painless. Post-op is the worst.
I leave the day after, barely able to walk. When I get back to my place, I stay in bed for a couple of days, leaving only to go to the toilet (a lot) and to eat (barely). I’m thirsty as hell, and I drink all the water I can, which is fine, because I start feeling a sharp, thin pain pulsing in my back, slightly to the left. I’ve never had kidney stones, but I remember very well how my mother suffered passing them.
On the third day, I start feeling better, but now it’s hunger, not thirst, that gets the better of me. I open the special app they gave me when I checked out of the clinic and all these symptoms are listed there as being standard for this procedure. The recommendation is to eat moderately, no restrictions regarding quality, but proteins are mandatory.
There’s also a notification on the app: something called a Welfare Fee was transferred into my account. Enough for me to live on pseudopig for the next two weeks. To live on whatever the fuck I want.
It’s only after I blink a few times that I notice the tears welling in my eyes. It’s been a while since I could eat more than ship’s rations.
I call Deepak. Let’s have a fucking feast, my friend.
I spend the next day throwing up.
It’s not food poisoning. I feel sick, but I also have the strangest feeling, like something is gnawing on my insides. When I lie down, I can feel the tiny teeth. Of course it’s not possible, but the sensation is all too real.
What did they put in me?
I call the clinic. A voicemail directs me to the app. I can’t get help from there.
I take a deep breath and wait. I take a huge dose of painkillers from my cabinet, fuck the clinic and their recommendations.
The pain comes and goes like a tide. Every time I feel it coming on, I brace myself and grind my teeth in anticipation. But I don’t want to go to the clinic. In the briefing, the doctor also said that it would be much better if they could have us spend the whole gestation there, and I don’t want that. But the pain is almost too much.
I remember my mother. Another thing she suffered from was cancer.
I decided to call the babe. I don’t know why. Maybe I need a shoulder. After all, it was her fault; so why should she be spared my pain?
But nobody answers. She is apparently offline, which is very unusual, for the Company doesn’t usually allow its employees to go off the grid. But she might be in the same predicament as me.
On day eight, I go back to the clinic as scheduled, for the next dose of the acceleration drug. One of the nurses told me it was actually a fast-acting, hi-octane cocktail. She even told me the names of two or three of the drugs on it, information that is wasted on me: I always hated Chemistry classes and don’t know anything about substances. Aside from hangover meds.
After the dose, I was wheeled to a recovery room, where five other women were waiting, each at a different stage of recovery, some moaning softly, some vomiting heavily. They put me next to the door, luckily, where I can get some air. There is this girl on my left, a very skinny girl but who looks like she has swallowed a balloon. She sweats, sometimes swears (a lot), but other than that, is pretty quiet.
‘First-timer?’ she asks me, trying to smile between rounds of expletives.
‘It’s not that bad,’ she says. ‘You’ll get used to the pain. Besides, the meds here are really good, they keep you on a low threshold. Almost like a buzzing in your ear. Irksome but not really painful.’
‘You know your pitch,’ I say, trying not to smile but making an effort to appear nice. ‘I’m sold.’
She doesn’t catch the irony – so few people do these days.
‘Not my first rodeo. I used to work here as a pitcher.’
‘Only as a pitcher? Meaning you don’t need to get pregnant?’
She stops for a moment, taking a deep breath and resting her head a bit before going on.
‘Not necessarily. But the gains are exponential if you can pitch and act as a surrogate.’
‘Can you do the other way around?’
‘Sure! That is, I think so. I can’t remember meeting anyone who did this, but I’m sure it’s perfectly doable.’
Then we stop talking. The meds are good, but not that good.
The next day, Deepak comes to visit me at home. He never does that.
‘I should be the one to ask you that,’ he says. ‘Since you won’t be able to drink alcohol for the foreseeable future, I took the liberty of bringing some chai.’
‘Which I’ll probably throw up.’
‘You’re a bit pale. This will help you feel better.’
I think of cracking a joke about how he could behave like a mother or an aunt without ever having parents or relatives, but that would be in very bad taste, so I refrain. Besides, I’m exhausted as fuck. I let him in. He goes straight to the kitchen and starts boiling the chai in the hotplate.
‘And how’s the process going?’
I tell him everything.
‘Maybe you should talk to the other surrogates,’ he says. ‘Don’t they have a group or something like it that you could join?’
‘I thought of it, but I only have one contact.’ He already knows about the babe, so I don’t have to tell the story all over again.
‘Want me to do a search?’
‘No. Later, at work. I can access the complete directory from there.’
Deepak was one of the few synthetics that didn’t work aboard ships. In the past, they were usually very discreet about it, to the point of hiding their true identity from the crew, except for the captain and the mate. After the uprisings years ago, they got more leeway to choose where they wanted to work. That’s why he could get out, as soon as he was allowed. If he got flak from the crew, I never noticed. But then again, I kept most of it to myself.
We chat a bit and then he leaves for work. I sleep like a log, for the first time in a week.
I spend the second week alternating between feeling fine (but never great) and feeling like crap. Then on day sixteen, as predicted, suddenly it’s all gone. I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time, better even than before the procedure. I was told that I would only need to go to the clinic one more time for the next dose of the acceleration drug before giving birth after another two weeks.
When I get there – very slowly and carefully, because now I have a five-months-pregnant belly, as far as I can tell, and I walk like a goose – the waiting room is mostly empty. There’s only one girl there, the skinny girl I had met in the recovery room. Now she looks like she swallowed a basketball.
‘Everything OK?’ I ask.
She gives me a tired little smile.
‘Much better. I will really need a rest after this little monster is born. It’s a good thing that we’re hospitalised here for the next pregnancies. I don’t know if I could bear to go through all this again alone.’
‘What? We have to stay here?’
‘Yes. Unless you’re on one of the special plans.’ She shrugs. ‘I think it’s their way of ensuring no one gives up. But you know what? I think it’s great. The babies are theirs, right? This is on them. Fair enough, if you ask me.
Then she’s called to the exam room.
I spend a few more minutes there, alone, thinking. I try to call the babe again, but I know she won’t answer.
I can’t do this.
I leave and call Deepak on my way home and tell him what I had just heard from the skinny girl.
‘I was just going to call you,’ he says. ‘There’s something you should know.’
We meet in another bar. Bugs everywhere, he says.
‘I might have the answer as to why your “babe”, as you are so fond of calling her, hasn’t answered you.’
And he shows me.
Her death certificate is official, Company issue. She died the day before I went to the clinic for the first treatment. Causa mortis: massive heart failure.
I was shocked. She was young. If she’d also undergone cryosleep, she couldn’t have been much older than me, objectively. The Company was supposed to take good care of its labourers.
‘Wait, there’s more.’ And he pulled other files. Many other death certificates.
All of them women. I was sure I could recognize at least two from the first meeting.
And all of them from heart failure.
‘This is probably code for something else,’ Deepak says. ‘Unfortunately, I have no complementary data. But I suspect foul play.’
‘I do not have an answer. Maybe the acceleration drugs? I had never heard of this procedure before. You could be guinea pigs in an experiment. You know what guinea pigs are, right?’ He has that empty vista face again. ‘I can show you if—’
‘I know what the fuck guinea pigs are. But what proof do we have that they are really dead?’
‘How can we be sure that they’re not being held against their will in the clinic, to fulfil their contract to the end?’
He looks at me with something close to pity.
‘I traced the logistics. The bodies’ routes to cremation and disposal are well documented, complete with video feeds. The Company is meticulous, as you know. The only thing they are probably lying about is the cause of death. And maybe not even this: they could have had massive heart attacks, but they may be omitting info regarding what caused all of them to die in the same way in such a short period of time.’ He pauses. ‘What do you want to do?’
‘Can I undo this?’
‘I don’t see why not. I can’t do the procedure, because I have no training. I can contact someone who can, though.’
The person he contacts is also a synthetic. She regards me with a far more clinical expression than even Deepak at his coolest; but she’s a med tech, after all.
‘This will be tricky,’ she says. ‘I’ll have to use alternative methods.’
I wince. Just felt something kicking inside. No, scratch that: something chewing me from inside. I can really feel the teeth now, more than ever. The bites are getting stronger.
‘Can’t you use an autodoc?’ I ask her.
‘No autodocs. They transmit all their data live to the Company’s mainframe. You don’t want that: Company response teams are very fast and extremely efficient. Come, let’s get this done quickly.’
We are deep inside the innards of the station – Deepak had taken me to a freight elevator that descended deeper than I thought possible. I stopped counting on the 12th level below. Our destination was a maze of old containers, repurposed as stalls for selling everything from food to not-quite-legal-but-affordable medical services. Nothing that I hadn’t known about before. Fortunately, my current pay grade is good enough to keep me afloat. But I had sunk to those lows before. I never thought I would be there again.
The med tech leads us further down. This time we take the stairs at the end of the level. I’m feeling sick. My body seems to get heavier with each step. I haven’t been able to keep down solid food for the past six hours. Maybe I should have taken the meds in time? But it’s too late now. They are probably searching for me.
The pain is so intense the past few minutes contract into moments. I am holding on to Deepak and he helps me through a door as the med tech motions for us to hurry up. It’s an incredibly clean room that smells of cheap disinfectant. Now I’m getting cramps both in my arms and my legs. Deepak and the med tech help me strip off my clothes and lay me down on a bed in the centre of the room.
‘This clean room is isolated,’ she says. ‘I’ll scan you now. If they put some tracker on you, the scanner might set it on, but the signal won’t pass through these walls.’
‘And, if it does, it will be jammed in a way that they won’t know where it is coming from,’ Deepak adds.
Nothing of this is of any consolation to me, but I’ve made up my mind. And the pain is much worse. I can only nod.
The next few days pass in a blur, like the short accelerated editions of propaganda films in the Company shows us every time it needs to feed us some important information quickly. First, the med tech had scanned me. I did have a tracker, yes. She couldn’t get it out, but she could inject nanobots into my bloodstream to disable the device while she prepped me for the procedure.
The problem was that the Company had considered this possibility.
Then blacked out.
And now I wake up in the Company clinic. Alone. In restraints.
A nurse comes right away. He runs a quick scan over my belly.
‘Vital functions of the foetus are a bit less than optimal, but we’ve put you on an IV of the meds you neglected to take before,’ he says, not looking up at me as he taps at the screen of his scanner. ‘You should have let us know you weren’t feeling alright.’ I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic.
‘How?’ My voice comes out hoarse. ‘How did I…?’
‘The doctor is going to see you soon. You can ask him.’ And she leaves.
The doctor comes – much later – to see how I’m doing. Or rather, how the thing that gnawed at my womb is doing. But whatever this thing is seems to be asleep now.
‘The cocktail is at 100% now,’ she says after doing a quick check. ‘A few more hours and you’d have died. Did you know that? It’s a good thing that those synthetics,’ she utters the word with clear disgust, ‘tried to turn off the tracker. Doing that set off an EMP that shut down your brain functions immediately. An attenuated signal, just enough to put you into a light coma. The synthetics weren’t so lucky: the EMP fried their brainware. Good riddance, I say.’
I never learned the name of that med tech. But Deepak was my friend. Neither of them deserved to die.
I try to speak, but the doctor simply adjusts the IV drip and I fall quickly to sleep.
When I wake up, I’m not alone any more. I’m in a bigger room with five other pregnant women. All sleeping peacefully, and all wearing devices that look like tiaras. Right away I know what they are: all ships in the Company had synaptic disruptors to induce coma – better and cheaper than anaesthetics. But the models I remember seeing about the Rover and the Western Eyes were much cruder contraptions with their circuits and wires visible. These disruptors are sleek and chrome, beautiful even.
I don’t feel pain. But I try to look at my feet and the huge belly is in the way.
Only then do I notice a tech and a nurse at my bedside. The tech is holding another tiara, and I know this one’s for me.
‘Ready for your first delivery?’ the nurse says. Before I can answer, the tech puts the tiara on my head.
The next time I wake up, the baby has already been delivered. A boy, I’m told, and a very healthy specimen. I am in good shape too. Or rather: at least I’m not dead like Deepak, the babe, and all the others.
Nobody asks if I want to see him. And I don’t. I’m moved to a single room. The next day, a nurse visits me.
‘You need to stay here for another sixteen weeks, maybe a little longer, to fulfil the contract. But you have the option to be sedated through most of it, for a small deduction from your retirement package. You’ll be out of here in no time.’
I don’t need to think. I just want it all to end as soon as possible.
‘Please,’ I say. ‘Bring the disruptor.’
Working for the Company can be really exhausting. ∎
Fábio Fernandes has published several books, among which the novels Back in the USSR (in Portuguese), the collection Love, An Archaeology and the steampunk novella Under Pressure (both in English). He translated into Brazilian Portuguese several sf novels, including Neuromancer and A Clockwork Orange and co-edited the anthology We See a Different Frontier (UK), and the anthology Solarpunk (Italy). Formerly reviewer for SF Signal and slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.
Dante Luiz is an illustrator, art director for Strange Horizons, and occasional writer from southern Brazil. He is the interior artist for Crema (comiXology/Dark Horse), and his work with comics has also appeared in anthologies, like Wayward Kindred, Mañana, and Shout Out, among others. Find him on Twitter or his website.
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