Out Into the World
In the lab, Katherine and her assistant, Helga, ate tasteless pork sandwiches, waiting for the incubator timer to beep. The incubator sounded, and its door clicked open. Helga strode across the room and snapped surgical gloves on sanitized hands with closely clipped, unpolished nails before she removed trays and set them on the lab table. Then she loaded microscopic test tube piglets from each petri dish into syringes. Still seated across the room, Katharine wrapped her fingers with manicured nails around her sandwich and bit it between lips, sparkling with lip gloss.
She thinks she’s supervising me, Helga thought. Even when we were on the same pay scale, I carried the load. Ever since she became director of the Cloning Institute, she’s held me back in animal research. With my reports, she impresses the board of directors, but I add as many words as possible. Eventually, I’ll choke her with my verbosity.
Helga eyed one petri dish marked with a green dot. “What’s this?” she asked.
Katharine swallowed. “It’s special. Make a note. Cheltley Takes ordered all his organs cloned into the same pig. Apprise me about the sow inseminated with that one at the Cloning Farm. Follow the pregnancy and the outcome.”
Helga rolled her eyes at Katharine’s willingness to do anything for a board member, no matter how absurd the concept. “What a waste. The rules of xenotransplantation say, ‘one organ at a time.’ Too many risks otherwise. Knowing him, he won’t even let someone else use the rest of the spare parts.”
Katharine called from the door just before she left. “You know we’ve bent that rule before, but you’re right about the man. Remember last year when Takes denied the five-year-old girl a kidney?”
The two women agreed on one notion: Chetley Takes is piggish.
Helga had wondered why Katharine brought her lunch, disregarding common practice—no eating in the lab. Now she understood. Katharine’s visit was all about the green dot, and her sandwiches were all about her attitude concerning guidelines in general. Helga made a note on the spreadsheet to the head of the Cloning Farm, Mr. Benjamin, and requested extra data.
He’ll be irritated with me for this, she thought. Unlike me, data annoys him. Like me, he loves animals, and we both hate what they make us do to the pigs.
A few months later, Helga grabbed her gadio and read a message from Mr. Benjamin. “What did you do to the piglet you asked me to watch closely?”
“The piglet—I call him Frank—just said “‘momma.’”
Twelve years after the piglet was born, in the year 2043:
When Michael heard his mother’s tea cup rattle, he joined her. In the kitchen, she blinked her moist eyes and started to offer to make him something in the equalizer. Then she said, “You’d better make it. Practice putting in the codes. Tomorrow is Independence Day for you, and you’ll need to make your own food.”
The government’s lawmakers, the Opulent Class, had dubbed the day after a child’s twelfth birthday a day of independence. No child lived with parents as a teen, but instead, the teens went to live alone in an apartment. Society had been organized in this manner for thirty years, now. The Opulent class claimed solitary living was healthier, minimizing transference of germs.
After tomorrow morning, Michael would never see his mother in the flesh and blood again since the rules barred most people from leaving their apartments. Even if he could find a way to visit his mother, it would be stupid. What if he were contagious? Why would he infect the one person who could send credits? Obviously Michael thought, this reasoning represented Opulent humbug. But his mother believed it and preached it to him.
Michael punched in EarlGray/lg, and a steaming cup of Earl Gray tea appeared in the equalizer.
“If you fall behind in your credits, let me know,” his mother said, as she had said so many times in the last few months. “I’ll do extra piece work. I’ll assemble more units, so you’ll have credits. Let me know.”
Michael smiled and sipped his tea. Placing his cup beside hers on the germ resistant counter top, he stretched his arms around her. She didn’t deserve the kind of son he intended to become, the same kind of man his father had been and left her a widow. He hugged her tightly as a silent apology. “You’ve always taken care of me, and I appreciate you want to help.”
His mother’s hug felt like something he’d read about in biology class. He visualized himself as a whale, swimming into a pool of barnacles latching onto him.
Her hug intended symbiosis, but she couldn’t latch on for long. “I’ll always be your mother, even if we’re not living together,” she said.
He couldn’t deny her repetition, her mantra to comfort herself. Michael’s mother handed him a piece of paper. “Add this to your luggage. You must remember to log in with your new screen name tomorrow. Then find me with my screen name. Anonymous . . .”
Michael finished the Opulent tripe, ‘Anonymous accounts are not red flagged. Unknown is safe.’
In the last year, his mother had exposed him to the Opulent propaganda. Monday through Saturday, they listened to the OneNews Reports. These newscasts spewed unrelenting spin. To preserve mankind, the apartments’ filtration system protected against 99% of the germs. If a person lived alone and became ill, they could not transfer the illness. Living as One was safe.
Thirty years ago, pollution had grown so thick people simply called any unfiltered air “unbreathable air.” The Opulent classmen claimed that the buildup of greenhouse gasses could be reversed. If everyone cooperated and stopped moving about in cars and planes, and if everyone stayed in a filtered apartment, someday the air quality would improve.
More spin, thought Michael. More tripe. Oxygen levels in certain areas increased at times, but the newsmen always warned the levels were still not safe enough for outdoor excursions. Progress would be slow. Repairing the damage would take years. Generations, perhaps. Apartment dwellers must cooperate.
Recently, his mother even allowed him to watch the late night Sunday recap of the weekly executions. The intended message was clear: Defiling the environment by trying to escape from an apartment means death for you. Michael had recurring nightmares about one episode. He wished he’d never watched as the RobotPolice drone snatched a homemade air tank and tubing from a young lady. She threw punches for a few seconds, until her muscles went limp. Michael heard eerie music in the background as she struggled to breathe the oxygen depleted atmosphere. For a second or two, Michael did the same, feeling a twinge of nausea from the ScentMaker’s belch.
She passed out, but the camera kept rolling with a close-up on her face. Her lips turned blue, and a sick color spread until purplish veins bulged from underneath her skin, giving the appearance she might crack apart. The music fell silent, and Michael listened as she breathed for another minute or two until she stopped.
Michael read the paper his mother had handed him. Scrawled across the top it read: “You are Mikal. I am WidowPolease.” At the bottom it read, “I’ll always be ‘Mom’ to you. I love you.” At last, she added a bit of the government propaganda. “Remember EEESSY - Earn credits, Exercise, Eat, and Stay Safe, You. It’s EEESSY!”
Mikal nodded. He understood. She wanted him to follow the government’s directives: He should complete his lessons daily on the RobotTutor, listening to every teacher intently, for the teaching system sensed when he’d walked away from it or started to cruise the Internet. He’d lose points if he didn’t answer questions or at least respond with a smiley icon to let the teacher know he understood another student’s answer. Completion of school work daily would gain him almost all the points he needed for the equalizer to make food. If he added exercising on the treadmill, Skyping his mother, posting his thoughts on Facebook, and recommending at least one product to another consumer, he’d make extra points, and he could save a few in case he needed a sick day.
He let his mother believe he’d do all this because he would for a while, at least until he turned fourteen. At that age, he’d be able to apply for jobs, allowing him to go outside. His mother had warned him against opting for vocational work. These were dangerous outdoor jobs, but he didn’t believe all the air had turned rancid. He couldn’t imagine the historical pictures he’d seen with rolling rivers and waterfalls of great heights surrounded by lush green forests had dried into the yellow foliage he saw outside his window. Somewhere he could breathe, hunt, plant, and live.
Whatever he needed to do to find that place, he’d do it, or die in the process.