GlitterShip

Episode 74: “Best for Baby” by Rivqa Rafael

June 17, 2019

Best for Baby

by Rivqa Rafael

When I jack in, I shove the plug into its socket harder than I should. The disconnect–reconnect tone combination sounds; the terminal is as grumpy as I am. Who wouldn’t be? I’ve been kept back late in the lab to finish a job. Which was stolen from me. By the person who asked me to do this, as a “favor.” Who also happens to be my supervisor, so I can’t say no.

I load up the interface, drilling straight down to the zygote’s chromosomal level. Hayden’s been a bit careless, like he always is on the rare occasions he actually gets in the wet lab. I get to work, fixing his mistakes. Back in my body, I’m grinding my teeth and hunching my shoulders. Before I sink deeper into the VR, I take some deep breaths and roll my shoulders the way Lena showed me. Her yoga obsession has fringe benefits for me—my body needs to be relaxed if I’m going to do my job properly. Just for a moment, I’m back in our living room with Lena coaxing Kris and me to stretch with her. It’s enough to refocus me.

For all that it’s a science, there’s an art to working in the interface. The prion scalpel is tiny—obviously—and delicate; it needs to be handled with care, the type of care that only comes from being completely in tune with your neural implant and the system it’s connected to. It’s something Hayden seems to lack. Keeping my movements graceful (thank you, Lena), I begin to repair the damage. In here, I’m both the pipette and the hand depressing the button; I’m the prion scalpel; I’m the machine. The translation overlay is just a guide; I’ve been able to recognize bases by shape for a long time now. When I started, I thought I’d never remember the sequences, but I know our most common mods by heart now.

[Full story after the cut.]

 

 

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode 74 for June 17, 2019. This is your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you. Today we have a GlitterShip original, which is available in the Autumn 2018 issue that you can pick up at GlitterShip.com/buy, on Gumroad at gum.co/gship08, or on Amazon, Nook, Kobo, and other ebook retailers.

If you’ve been waiting to pick up your copy of the Tiptree Award Honor Listed book, GlitterShip Year Two, there’s a great deal going on for Pride over at StoryBundle. GlitterShip Year Two is part of a Pride month LGBTQ fantasy fiction bundle. StoryBundle is a pay-what-you-want bundle site. For $5 or more, you can get four great books, and for $15 or more, you’ll get an additional five books, including GlitterShip Year Two, and a story game. That comes to as little as $1.50 per book or game. The StoryBundle also offers an option to give 10% of your purchase amount to charity. The charity for this bundle is Rainbow Railroad, a charity that helps queer folks get to a safe place if their country is no longer safe for them.

http://www.storybundle.com/pride

Our story today is “Best for Baby” by Rivqa Rafael, but first, our poem, which is “Aubade: King Under the Mountain” by Tristan Beiter.

 


 

Tristan Beiter is a poet and speculative fiction nerd originally from Central Pennsylvania. His poems have previously appeared in GlitterShip, Eternal Haunted Summer, Bird’s Thumb, and Laurel Moon. When not writing or reading he can usually be found crafting absurdities with his boyfriend or shouting about literary theory. Find him on Twitter @TristanBeiter.

 

Aubade: King Under the Mountain

by Tristan Beiter

 

I wake to the crackle of the thousand-year hearth
in the center of the room, to the bells tolling.
Never church bells, but the deer harness hanging on the wall.

I stretch towards his space, removing my earplugs—which
I have taken to wearing since even the tomtes snore something terrible.
Luxuriate in the furs: big piles of wolf pelts and

bear skins that make up our bed under the intertwined
roots of these seven great pine trees which are our roof, warm,
with the wind through them and older than even Klampe-Lampe,

who has risen already and left. But he’ll be back soon.
I can see the pile of battered, burnished gold and silver, still
waiting to bedizen him, bracers and torcs and earrings

and necklace upon necklace—careless ugly riches
that have lasted generations of trolls living hundreds
of years, all mounded up and displayed on knobbled bodies

and in untamed hair. I pluck my earring, bracer, heavy silver
beads from the ground and put them on. When he returns, he’ll
carry me in his left hand to the throne room under the mountain.

 


 

And now for “Best for Baby” by Rivqa Rafael, read by A.J. Fitzwater.

Rivqa Rafael is a lapsed microbiologist who lives in Sydney, Australia, where she writes speculative fiction about queer women, Jewish women, cyborg futures, and hope in dystopias. Her short stories have been published in Defying Doomsday, Crossed Genres’ Resist Fascism, and elsewhere. She is co-editor of feminist robot anthology Mother of Invention.

AJ Fitzwater is a dragon of repute living between the cracks of Christchurch, New Zealand. Their fiction appears in such venues as Clarkesworld, Lackingtons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Glittership. A collection of their Cinrak the Lesbian Capybara Pirate stories will be out in May 2020 from Queen of Swords Press. Their stranger than fiction can be found on Twitter @AJFitzwater

 


 

Best for Baby

by Rivqa Rafael

When I jack in, I shove the plug into its socket harder than I should. The disconnect–reconnect tone combination sounds; the terminal is as grumpy as I am. Who wouldn’t be? I’ve been kept back late in the lab to finish a job. Which was stolen from me. By the person who asked me to do this, as a “favor.” Who also happens to be my supervisor, so I can’t say no.

I load up the interface, drilling straight down to the zygote’s chromosomal level. Hayden’s been a bit careless, like he always is on the rare occasions he actually gets in the wet lab. I get to work, fixing his mistakes. Back in my body, I’m grinding my teeth and hunching my shoulders. Before I sink deeper into the VR, I take some deep breaths and roll my shoulders the way Lena showed me. Her yoga obsession has fringe benefits for me—my body needs to be relaxed if I’m going to do my job properly. Just for a moment, I’m back in our living room with Lena coaxing Kris and me to stretch with her. It’s enough to refocus me.

For all that it’s a science, there’s an art to working in the interface. The prion scalpel is tiny—obviously—and delicate; it needs to be handled with care, the type of care that only comes from being completely in tune with your neural implant and the system it’s connected to. It’s something Hayden seems to lack. Keeping my movements graceful (thank you, Lena), I begin to repair the damage. In here, I’m both the pipette and the hand depressing the button; I’m the prion scalpel; I’m the machine. The translation overlay is just a guide; I’ve been able to recognize bases by shape for a long time now. When I started, I thought I’d never remember the sequences, but I know our most common mods by heart now.

Finding my rhythm, I begin to work a little faster; I’ve almost forgotten about Hayden and his insistence on getting his grubby hands all over this project. I don’t have forever in here—the zygote needs to go back on ice—but I’m in the zone now and there’s still plenty of time. I’ve got this. Sure, I’m not going to get any credit for it, but Hayden’s going to owe me. I’m logging everything, so he can’t conveniently “forget.” If I play my cards right, this might be the last step to me finally getting a promotion. Goodness knows I deserve one. Maybe Hayden would even back me up.

I zoom out to look back at my work so far, and gasp. Something’s wrong. I should be about halfway done, but it’s like I was never here. No, worse. There are deadly cancer mutations here, lots of them, right where I was working. All types that wouldn’t show up until later in life, too. None of it was here before, and time is short.

 

You had to know Hayden pretty well to pick up his aura of desperation as he talked up the state-of-the-art equipment. PCR machines and centrifuges just look like boxes with touchscreens if you don’t understand what they do, after all.

The couple lacked the air of anguish that infertile couples usually have when they walk through. Or the wonder often displayed by more-than-twos and gonadically incompatible—my heart panged as I thought of what it would take for us, how we’d—stop, it was pointless even to think about it, I told myself for the millionth time. I just worked here; I’d never be a client. Kris had already banned me from talking too much about work. Like me, she was implanted. You grow up knowing your place, not rocking the boat, aiming for what’s feasible. Lena was more willing to indulge me the fantasy; would we split everything evenly, or would one of us provide the mitochondria and the other two a set of chromosomes each? Both could work. I snapped myself out of it. Kris was right about this one; I just wished I could convince myself to believe it as thoroughly as she did.

These two eyed the machinery with indifference. Probably here for mods, and mods only. If they weren’t using a surrogate, I’d drink my Taq polymerase.

“Impressive. How do you guarantee your results, though?” Mom-to-be glittered with diamonds—genuine, I could only assume. Closest I’d ever got to any, anyway.

“As I already explained...” Hayden caught my eye before I could look away. “Perhaps you’d like to meet one of our geneticists? Merav can answer your questions in far more detail.”

Dad-to-be’s suit was so well-cut and so fine, it might even be real wool. His hair was immaculate and he smelled of expensive cologne. His HUD glasses were shiny, a model too new for me to recognize. “That would be excellent.”

Setting my face into a neutral expression, I swiveled on my stool to face them properly while Hayden introduced them as Mr Blake and Dr Ashdowne. The names rang a vague bell and they were obviously capital-I Important, but I didn’t work it out until later. Hayden scolded me later for not standing up, but it just didn’t occur to me. As it was, I was going to have to start mixing my reagents again by the time this interruption was over. “I’d be happy to.” I did my best to distill and explain the years of research into genetic variables, what we could reliably reproduce and what we couldn’t, how we managed successive generations of mods, and how we tested each zygote’s chromosomes before allowing it to progress to blastomere—all non-invasive.

They nodded along as I spoke; I couldn’t tell if they really understood, but Hayden smiled at me, which was a rare occurrence, so I was lulled into feeling grateful.

At some point, they started talking to each other, right over the top of me. They dithered about hair color, wondering whether the stereotypes about blonde hair still held. Did they notice the irritation in my voice as I tried to explain how many other variables might be at play in their child’s success?

“We just want the best for our baby,” Ashdowne said, almost pleading, but there was an edge to her voice that made me think that “best” meant something different to her than it did to me.

“Of course. But this is just the beginning. We can’t control much of growth and development when upbringing plays such a large part. And epigenetics have an effect as well.” Keeping my voice even and patient was hard; there were only so many ways I could say the same thing. “Think of it as... venture capitalism. You’re making the best possible investment with every tool at your disposal, but that doesn’t guarantee that things will work out exactly how you planned.”

Ashdowne nodded, but Blake’s eyes were flinty. “You’re saying our child might crash, and it won’t be your responsibility?”

“I’m saying your kid might dye their hair one day, and that’s not something we can control for. We’re very clear about what we promise and what we don’t. It’s in the contract; I assume you’ve read it. It’s up to you.” Maybe it wasn’t the right PR line, but I wasn’t PR.

They signed the contract.

 

I put the zygote back on ice and try to log into another. This couple only wants one child; that’s part of why they want it perfect. Still, each client typically has more than will be used; we need that margin for error as much as the IVF specialists do. There are four more zygotes. This should be salvageable. But each one gives me an “unavailable” notification. What is going on?

Returning to the first zygote, I allow myself a tiny sigh of relief when I can still get back in. It’s a mess, but I can fix it in time. I think. I set up an extra firewall, the best I can code on the fly. We’re down to the wire here. Last chance to get it right, assuming the other zygotes are gone for good. If this one doesn’t work, doesn’t stick, we’re going to have to fess up and get more samples—if they don’t cancel the contract, which wouldn’t surprise me. I’d heard that Ashdowne had found the induction and retrieval unusually difficult, and it wasn’t fun at the best of times. So much for the Important clients. Fucking Hayden, honestly.

Working in the same order I always do, I begin cleaning up the chromosomes. Again. It’s almost easier this time. The errors are so obvious, it would be comical if it weren’t so dire. As though someone used a pickaxe instead of a prion scalpel.

I’m wincing, I realize, just looking at these errors. I’ve never seen so many cancer mutations in one place. Forcing my body to relax, I get back into my rhythm. This is definitely within my capabilities to fix, and with the logs I have running, maybe I’ll get some recognition for it. Maybe even that bonus Hayden had hinted at, even though it’s seeming less and less likely that it’ll be him authorizing it.

My firewall pings; someone’s trying to log in. Hayden.

“That firewall is going to look very suspicious to the auditors,” he says, using a private channel on the company comms.

“Standard protocol when there’s a security breach, which there certainly seems to have been. I hope you’re looking into it, Hayden?” I’m pretty sure he isn’t, but I choose my words carefully, aware that my logs will pick this up along with everything else.

 

Hayden added me to the team officially, and I had to sit in on endless meetings when I should have been doing real work. He assured me that it would be worth it; that there were bonuses for jobs like this. That is, jobs for billionaire corporate royalty like Oliver Blake and Penelope Ashdowne. So I did my best, and that seemed to be good enough. From what I could tell, they liked having an “expert” on board, even if they didn’t actually listen to me very often.

But then one day, Hayden was in the meeting before I arrived, chatting to “Oliver” about the stock market and complimenting “Penelope” on her outfit. After all these weeks, I was still calling them by titles; Hayden had said it was important I was respectful. That didn’t seem to apply to him, though. He ran a hand over his sleek hair, as though checking it still hid his neural implant. “Oh, Merav, didn’t you get my memo? I really need you on that rush job. I’ll take this from here.”

“But—” I bit my tongue quickly. Hayden was my supervisor and he was within his rights to do this. Outside the room, I checked my work datapad.

I hadn’t missed any messages.

 

“Oh, this doesn’t look like a security breach to me. Seems like an internal error.”

Staying quiet, I carefully roll chromosome 19 back up while I think through my options. There’s no way an audit would incriminate me; my logs are streaming as they should. What is Hayden playing at? “Have you checked on the zygotes in meatspace?” I ask finally.

“Some kind of lab mishap. Terrible, isn’t it?” So that was why the other zygotes were “unavailable,” with this one only missed because I’d been working on it.

My heart thunders in my chest. “That’s going to suck for whoever made that mistake. What’s worse, do you think, the docked pay or having to apologize in person to the parents?”

“Tough one. Sure is a shame for that person.”

“Still, one zygote is better than none.”

“Fuck me, you’re actually trying to fix it,” he says. It takes me a second to notice he’s swapped to socmed comms, the one that’s supposed to be the most secure on the market. No logging options at all.

“No, I am fixing it. It’s my job.” Frantically, I switch to loudspeaker mode, and my datapad to record ambient sound. It’ll catch all the lab noises as well, but it’s the best I can do. The red light blinks at me; I allow myself to exhale and return to the chromosome I was working on.

Instead of replying, Hayden changes tack. “You have a long-term girlfriend, don’t you?”

“Two, actually.” In ordinary circumstances, I’d enjoy flustering Hayden with that. It’s not a secret and we encounter plenty of polyamorous folk in our line of work, but I’m completely unsurprised that he hasn’t paid attention. But I’m too stressed and wary to enjoy the moment.

“I, ah, huh.” He falters for a second; I hear skepticism that I, of all people, could possibly have not just one but two lovers. But he’s clearly a man on a mission and plunges on. “Ever wanted a baby of your own? The… three of you?”

I finish up the short arm of chromosome 2; no colon cancer on my watch. “We might adopt one day, if we can afford it.”

“What if you could, though? Have a biological child, I mean. You’d want to?”

“I don’t want things I can’t have. Waste of time.” I borrow Kris’s words for this lie, but it’s hard to imagine a person I’m less interested in having this discussion with than Hayden.

He does this fake laugh, short and barking. “Lots of other things to spend that money on anyway, right?”

“Sure, if you had it.” Just a couple more silent mutations and I can move on to cleaning up the epigenetic layer. Time to work out the end game. “What’s this about, Hayden?”

“What if I told you there was better money in just… stopping now, if you know what I’m saying?”

I recalibrate the scalpel and begin clearing the methylation around the DNA; there’s way too much, because of course—Hayden fouled up everything he could. “No, I don’t know what you’re saying.”

“Jesus, are you stupid, or are you being deliberately obtuse?”

I take my time replying. I’m working, after all, and this part is fiddly. “You’re going to have to explain yourself either way.”

He only hesitates for a moment. “I know some powerful people. People who have an interest in seeing Blake and Ashdowne suffer.”

“They’re last names now? You were such pals.” Methylation is at regulation levels now. Next, I sculpt the histones to the shape that centuries of research has determined to be ideal. Working quickly, I correct the errors to the surrounding proteins. A perfect zygote.

“You know what your problem is, Merav? You have no idea how to play the game. You think hard work is rewarded. It isn’t. You have to be daring. Take a risk. Not as though the modded are ever going to give us a hand up, right?”

 

That first meeting. “You’ve got one of those implants, I see,” Ashdowne said, eyeing the side of my head, where my undercut showed off the neural implant. Like my early adopter parents, I was proud of my body hacks and what they could do. No gen mods in the world can tune you into tech like an implant can. Wearables? VR headsets? Ha.

Blake dragged me back to reality. “They’re illegal if you’ve been modded, aren’t they?”

“Yes. Unfair advantage to have both, right?” I struggled to keep the sarcasm from my voice. A thousand years on my salary, and, by inference, my parents’, wouldn’t be enough to pay for mods. I might like my implant, but I didn’t like being treated like dirt for having it.

Hayden was all polite formality. “Merav’s implant allows her to interface directly with our machinery. We couldn’t do what we do without our ‘planted staff.” Hayden was quite willing to keep his implant covered to keep the clients happy, and he was pretty enough to get away with it.

“Ah.” His expression didn’t change, but the sneer was evident anyway.

“We just bought that little company that makes this brand, remember, dear?” Ashdowne raised an eyebrow at her husband. “Whatever it takes to get the best.”

“That’s right!” Hayden said. “You get what you pay for in this industry. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. If you’ll come this way? You haven’t seen the clinic yet.”

And then they were gone, leaving only the scent of cologne and perfume.

 

They’d deserve it. They would. They care as little for me as a person. For a terrible, shameful second, I’m tempted. I imagine it; going off the grid, doing illegal mods for the rest of my life. Holding a baby, my baby, our baby, in my arms.

I zoom out and look at the zygote in its entirety. Regardless of how horrid this baby’s parents are and my dead-end job that undervalues me and underpays me, after I’m done, doctors and nurses will make every attempt to give this tiny clump of cells the chance to become a person. And these days, they tend to get it right, especially with a proven surrogate. The mutations that are left won’t kill this child, only make their later life a misery of radiotherapy and chemo. Teach the parents empathy? I don’t think so. In an instant, it’s clear what I need to do.

“You’re right, they want us right where we are.”

He chuckles with relief. “I knew you’d come around.”

“But I’m pretty sure assaulting their offspring isn’t going to change that.” I terminate the call with Hayden and send everything to head office; the logs of my work on the zygote, all of today’s communication between the two of us. Everything. Highest level alert, coded “suspected bioterrorism”; that should take care of it. They’ll deal with him better than I can.

“Time check,” I command the interface.

“Five minutes, twelve point four seconds.”

It’s enough time. Carefully, making sure not to introduce any last-minute errors, I unwind one 3p25 and fly up to OXTR. Just a couple of small changes are enough; a haplotype here, a couple of extra copies of an allele there, and I’m done and zipping the chromosome back up.

It’s a tiny change; there’s so much beyond one gene at play here. Goodness only knows what kind of methylation, and socialization for that matter, lies ahead for this kid. But the way I see it, a little extra empathy never hurt anybody.

 

END

 


 

“Best for Baby” is copyright Rivqa Rafael 2019.

“Aubade: King Under the Mountain” is copyright Tristan Beiter 2019.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library.

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Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a reprint of “The Chamber of Souls" by Zora Mai Quýnh.