The Soft Confessional
The phone’s about to ring.
I know this because I can feel the electrons rubbing together. It’s strange, the level of clarity you can reach when a strange moony-eyed woman is holding a gun to your head. She’s dressed in wrinkled business clothes; her entire posture seems to be held together with spit and prayer, crumbling before my eyes in stop-motion.
And I wasn’t even supposed to be here today.
“I need to get the phone,” I tell her, as calmly as I can possibly manage. The phone goes off right on cue. She still jumps, barely stopping herself from squeezing the trigger.
“No funny business,” she hisses. I nod, reaching out for the receiver. It’s Jane from finances.
“Donny, we have a Code Orange,” she says in her usual, controlled tone. Code Orange is company slang for ‘crazy person with a gun in the premises’ “I need you to lock your door, sit down and keep real quiet, okay?”
“Yeah, that ain’t happening,” I mutter and hang up before Jane has had time to process what I just said. “Sorry about that,” I tell the woman with the gun. Her eyes have gone wide as saucers.
“It’s okay. This will only take a minute,” she says, pointing the gun at the mess of xeroxed instruction manuals, stacks of cardboard boxes stenciled with meaningless esoteric jargon that ring my screen-less workstation. “I just need to get into the nursery.”
I blink, very slowly, trying to make sense of the situation. Then, it dawns on me. “You want to get into the Crib? What the hell for?” The last couple of words stream out of me in a high-pitched, near-hysterical tone. The Crib is the place where we store the artificial wombs; the lightless, depressing little hole where we pretty much get to play God in.
“Just do it,” she hisses, jabbing the gun at me. I slowly make my way to the desk, fish out my keyboard from the foundation of my take-away carton ziggurat. The cartoon auroch from the De-Meat packaging gives me a Disney ‘don’t do it, Donny’ look. I punch the code into the keyboard, releasing the first dozen security locks from the Crib’s reinforced vault door, then move in to get my keycard from the filing cabinet.
“Easy now…” the woman mutters when she sees me reach my hand into the depths of the cabinet.
“Okay. Okay,” I breathe out slowly, fighting against the pressure in my bladder. My fight-or-flight dial has opted for the better part of bravery and is now dinging ominously in my head. Carefully, I pull out the keycard and hold it up so she can see it. “Master keycard. We can’t make it in without it.”
The woman leads me out of my office and we trek down the squeaky white corridor, toward the reinforced steel door. Time begins to slide away from me, seconds translating into frantic heartbeats. We’ve got another three dozen thumps before the time-lock resets and I have to go back and do it all over again, but I can’t risk breaking into a sprint. I don’t know much about guns, but you don’t have to be an expert to tell when someone’s desperate. We reach the keycard slot with sixteen thumps to spare. Pressing my eye against the retinal scanner, I punch in today’s 10-digit code without a hitch for the first time since forever. With a gentle machine-whistle, the Crib’s security door slides open. The soft hiss of classical music spills out from the interior. Liszt’s pizzicato trills snake out into the building. The people at R&D swear by the New German School when it comes to easing the gestation process. ‘Brain fertilizer’, is what they call it.
“Get some lights on,” the woman says. “Why is everything pitch black in here?”
I stop myself from going into a tirade about the theories on the harmful effects of halogen lighting on gestating infants, move away from the regulation night vision goggle shelf and instead fumble in the dark for the emergency lights switch. A rosy imitation dawn creeps into the Crib, seeping in through concealed LED strips. The Crib’s rosy bounty blossoms from the darkness, rows upon rows of egg-shaped artificial wombs coming into view, their spotless metallic surfaces shining like rows of freshly-pilfered fish-eggs. The woman gasps at the sight of it: the cruel metal contours of each device; the sleek, featureless interfaces made from mirrored glass, the hell of knotted wires, intake and outtake tubes snaking out across the floor.
“What the hell is this?” she asks.
“It’s the Crib. This is where…” I stutter, looking for anything other than the usual ‘we keep our baby-makers’ then finally say: “…where the magic happens.”
“Which one is R#3710?” she says, squinting against the red glare, trying to divine the identity of each artificial womb. “Let’s get this over with.”
Leading her across the rows of machinery, I look for row R, column 37, position 10. She looks it over, squinting at the numbered plate. The machine is identical to the others, each of these cast in Vietnam from parts made in Taipei, the entire thing assembled by Waldos toiling across a vacuum-proof factory line in the outskirts of Hiroshima according to plans laid out by Swedish engineer-kings.
“Are you sure this is it?” she asks, looking me over. Her eyes are almost shooting daggers into my back. I nod and she says “Okay, abort it.”
“What?” I stutter. Something cold and hard thuds into my stomach. “You can’t be serious.”
The woman raises the gun in the air and lets off a shot. It thunders inside the enclosed space of the Crib, probably setting off all kinds of silent alarms all over the place. I hold my palms up, held toward her. “Look, I can’t do that. No matter what you think is going on here, we don’t just…”
“Just cut the power. Take out an intake valve. Jam a screwdriver in its guts,” she says. I can see her lip trembling, the gun shaking in her hand. How long until the police show up? Too long, I guess. And that’s without me getting dragged into a hostage situation. Staring down at the bottomless pit that’s the handgun’s barrel, I take a deep breath and assume the calmest, most reasonable tone I can muster.
“We don’t terminate here. We have an option to stop the gestation, in the event that a child develops some unwanted mutation, some genetic disorder if it goes against the contract but that’s it…”
“What’s the option?” she says, her eyes veering to the mirror-screen, its glowing touch interface festooned with arcane feedback sigils “And give it to me in English.”
“We…” I manage through gritted teeth, clenching my fists so hard my knuckles ache. “I can manually drain the amniotic fluid. That kills the semipermeable placenta and cuts of supply to the umbilical cord. It takes a while,” I add. The woman points the gun down for a moment. I catch a glimpse of her shoes (high-heels; crumbled, worn down) then her face (twisted, wavering).
“Do it,” she tells me. I can see she’s getting cold feet. She probably came here thinking it was going to be as simple as flushing the toilet. On my knees, I produce my portable toolkit, rifle through my Allen key ring and begin pulling the front of the chassis apart. “I hope it takes long enough for him to see it.”
I don’t dare say a word. Removing the plating, I reach inside the machine’s whirring guts and fumble a while. She keeps talking. “You know how they say that a baby can keep a marriage from falling apart?”
“Preaching to the choir,” I mumble as the womb’s plates whir, almost silently, producing a plexiglass-shielded blue button from its insides like one of those nuclear doomsday interfaces you’d find in a campy Cold-War era drama. Say what you will about the Swedes, but they got flair to spare.
“There’s a name for it, SIDS. Ever heard of that? Apparently sometimes, babies just…die. The doctors told me it was nobody’s fault. Not that that helped any,” she mutters, staring into the blue blinking light. Her nostrils flare at the sight of it. “She went limp in my arms, just like that. I felt her tiny heart stop.”
The look she gives me makes me forget she has me at gunpoint for one second. I try to do something, anything that will help. I’m not big on handling emotional crises, but I’d risk a hug under the circumstances. She mistakes my move for some clumsy attempt at sleight of hand, slaps my arm away with her gun. The blow is clumsy, but nearly snaps my wrist. “I swear to God I’ll shoot.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I mutter, biting back the pain. Sobbing uncontrollably, she struggles with the casing. When she can’t find a purchase, she brings the gun butt down on it, again and again until it cracks. Using the nozzle like some crude digging tool, she snaps bits of it away, making enough room for her to reach two fingers inside.
“Screw you. You don’t know anything. You didn’t get dumped for some whore that would give him a goddamn tube-baby with designer genes! He didn’t even come to the funeral! I had to carry that tiny pink casket! They wouldn’t even let me see her face!” she howls through the sobs, reaches for the button, smashes her fingers into it. There’s a two-second delay and then it happens: the womb stops, the blinking lights recede into the blackness. The mirrored surface of the glass begins to recede, an ink blot in reverse leaving behind a sheet of curved, transparent glass. She stops, paralyzed as the soft bounty that bobs inside the pool of amniotic fluid comes into view, connected into the pink, nurturing wall by a silky cord. The child turns with infinite grace like a tiny comet, eyes blinking away sleep to gaze at the world of the quick. Their eyes lock together for a while. Its tiny fingers grasp at the length of umbilical, tug at it like a plaything as it makes a sharp turn in comforting freefall.
It’s a dirty trick, but it does the job.
“Stop it. Don’t let it die,” she tells me, shaking all over. I get down on my knees, pretend to fumble around in the artificial womb’s machinery. I maintain the pretense of averting some catastrophe. The blue button was simply intended as a means to commence safe mode in the event of the infant requiring immediate surgery. If I had chosen to go along with it, she never would have had to see the child. When I get up, she has her head pressed against the glass, her entire body wracked with sobs. The gun clatters to the floor. This time, she doesn’t slap me away when I lean in to hug her.
When Jane and half the city’s SWAT force burst into the Crib, she lets me lead her to them. “Thank you,” she mutters, as they drag her away. Her name’s Christine. I savor it at the tip of my tongue, staring into her eyes as they drag her away.
“What did she want?” Jane asks me when I’ve finally snapped out of my reverie, just as the horde of coverall-clad technicians burst into the room to assess the damage. I decide against letting her have the full story. This is between me and Christine.
“How the hell should I know? I wasn’t even supposed to be here today.”
Konstantine Paradias is a writer by choice and a member of the SFWA by compulsion. At the moment, he’s published over 100 stories in a bunch of languages and has written, edited and posed for videogames, screenplays and anthologies. People tell him he’s got a writing problem but he can, like, quit whenever he wants, man. His latest book, Sorry, Wrong Country is published by Rooster Republic Press.
Image: Flickr / Ali Catterall
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