The Cheshire Woman
"Ms. Otten, how nice you meet you in person. I'm Sterling Washburn, your guide for the passage. Won't you sit down and connect? How was your trip? How do you feel?"
He stood aside and let the well-groomed woman stride through the doorway that hissed closed behind her.
"A little nervous," she said, taking a seat in the guest's gel chair. "Naturally, I've heard about C/R But I've never been. . ." She hesitated.
"Of course. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. Everybody says the same thing. I've been with Central Reproduction for 79 years now--80 years this January -- "
"Thank you. As I was saying, I think most of our clients say that very thing when they walk through the door."
Lauren smiled. When Sterling was sure she had taken the weight off her feet, he sat in the upright chair next to her and activated the console on the table before them. The light in the office dimmed to a the spectral reds of a desert sunset. The woman's seat accepted her mass, moulding to the contours of her body, making contact with most of her major chi nodes.
"Most people are a little nervous at completion. It's nothing to be ashamed of. Your records say you like sunsets. I hope this is acceptable to you."
"It's beautiful," she said. "Is he here?"
"Yes," said Sterling. He pressed his palm on the console. Waves of statistics passed before his eyes as the Communial Nexus flashed the data into him through the nodes in his body's chi fields. "And he's looking quite well. We're just about ready. I will need to ask you a few questions before we can begin. I hope you don't mind. It's protocol."
The woman wrung her hands, slapped them into her lap, and sighed quickly. "I didn't think I'd be this nervous."
"It's natural," said Sterling. "Please connect. Let's review the paperwork first. Have you signed the 'notification of risks' and had it approved by counsil?"
Lauren put her hand on the touch plate on the arm of the chair coupling her chi with the Central Nexus.
"It was the first thing," she replied. "It should be on top of the file. I had it approved by C/N authority, oh, about two--three years ago. Seems like forever."
Sterling manipulated the file through stimuli from his mind. He thought to move his hand and the files riffled in his head like physical paper. He couldn't find the document but he knew it would have had to be there for the woman to get through the process to his office. He set a search demon to locate it and continued.
"I'm sure it's in there somewhere. Let's move on. Have you completed the 'assignment of rights and property'?" The document flashed before him. "Oh here it is, can you see it?"
"Yes," she said. Sterling examined the neural document. It had been signed by Ms. Lauren Otten, witnessed by her attorney, and approved by the state board of governors.
All of Ms. Otten's rights as a citizen of the human race of planet Earth had been assigned to her son. Her access to communal property, both physical and intellectual, would transfer to him upon her completion.
"It looks in order," said Sterling. He kept his voice low and even. Glancing sideways he smiled at the young woman in the chair. A glint of wetness shone on her forehead. Without hesitation he called up a mild breeze and the sound of a distant waterfall.
"And here's the permit for completion," said Sterling. The document flashed into view as on the mental screen inside his head. The woman brushed a hand across her forehead and took a deep breath.
"Can't I see him?" she asked.
"Yes, Lauren. In a moment," and using that as his entre, "I hope you don't mind if I call you by your given name. By the way, what name have you given your son?"
"Alexander," she said. "I always imagined my son to have the qualities of . . ." She stopped.
"Of Alexander the Great? That's a fine name. One with character. Unlike the original, your Alexander will find the eternal life of the Gods. He'll live to conquer all of the ignorance, the doubt, the uncertainty humans endured in those days. And I can tell by the genome you've picked for Alexander that you're leaving us with a worthy contributor. Society will owe you a great debt, Lauren. How does that make you feel?"
"Strange," she said. "I feel. . .I feel elated. Joy like fire in my chest aside sadness, an emptyness big enough to engulf everything I know."
Sterling let a dry breeze from the room's environmentals pass over them. With a thought he summoned the sound of a bird overhead. The sound brushed against the woman. A tear rose to her eye and she wiped at it with her hand.
"You can abort at any time, Lauren," said Sterling, quietly. "You don't have to go through with it. Alexander will remain safe with us--indefinitely if necessary--until you're ready. Please excuse the boilerplate, I know you've heard it before but it's worth my reminding you life is the universe's most precious gift. No one of us has the right to ask another to accept or decline it. You have a right to it for as long as our technology can keep us all functioning. Only you can make the decision to pass it to another. And only your offspring has the right to accept it from you. It's the balance we must preserve, and the greatest gesture that person's life be terminated by their child. It's right. It's all we have."
"I know," said Lauren. "It's just so sad."
"Have you ever been to Planck-on-Arcturus? It's a beautiful place. Classic light spectrum, endless silica beaches washed in fresh water oceans. There are sports if you want physical training. Wonderful library. They've six research positions open for anyone wishing to be trained in astro-biokinetics. They're setting it up as the next SETI outpost."
"SETI. . .," said Lauren. She coughed.
"You don't believe in extraterrestrial intelligence?"
"How long have we been searching? Five hundred? A thousand years? We've extended our own lifetimes. We can travel to the stars in our local cluster. We know the chemistry and physics of all the known planetary masses. There's nothing, Mr. Washburn. There's nothing in this infinitude but us. The sooner we learn to accept that, the happier we'll all be."
Sterling tapped his fingers on the chi connection plate. In secure mode he riffled through Otten's files searching for anomalous behavior. There was no evidence of psychiatric modification in her record.
"You think I'm crazy," she said. "I can see it in your face."
"I hope you understand," he replied. "I couldn't let you pass if I thought you weren't making a conscious, logical, and unemotional decision."
"I'm conscious and logical," she said. "I'm ready to complete my life. I'm ready to proceed to the next step--whatever it is. Mr. Washburn, you've been in this business a long time. Has anybody ever contacted us from beyond? Do we have any data?"
Sterling shook his head slowly. "Perhaps it's a mystery that will persist as long as we do as a species. I know of no confirmable observation of consciousness after completion. There are the parapsychologists. Maybe you'd like to study that?"
Lauren signed. "No. It's not for me. I don't believe any of it. But I know there's something out there for me. I can feel it."
Sterling searched her travel and work records. She had visited all the largest systems. She had studied the hard sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. But her most notable contributions had been in literature, having written over 1300 novels, seventy plays, and 120 books of poetry.
"Have you ever gone on an archeological dig?" he asked. "I hear they've found evidence of. . ."
"I've done all I care to do," she replied. "Doesn't the Central Reproduction think I've done enough? Check my record. I've contributed. I've studied. I've been everywhere and done everything I care to do. I'm bored, Mr. Washburn. I need to take the next step. Is that not conscious and logical?"
"You understand I have to ask you these questions," Sterling said. "If we were to allow you to complete without being completely certain you were confident of your decision, we'd be performing a disservice to society. Ulma Bajernee stopped her own completion with only moments to spare and went on to discover the Vishnu superstring complex at the center of the galaxy--all because her counseler asked her if she had ever visited the astrophysics complex at Regulus. It sparked her interest."
"I've been there," she replied. "I knew Ulma. She was remarkable." Sterling ordered up another breeze and shifted the spectrum of the interior lights further to the violet. The search demon returned with the completed notification of risks document. Sterling noted it, and filed it.
"Can I get you a drink? Something to eat?" he asked her.
She shook her head. "I'd like to see my son, please."
Sterling smiled. "Okay." He made a few mental commands and the clear tube materialized into view from behind a disappearing holographic wall. The naked body of the man floated lifelessly in the clear nutrient. A narrow tube ran from his navel to a harness of wire that ran out of sight above him.
"You've done a good job designing him," said Sterling. "He looks very rugged. He'll take the years well. We've registered his mental capacity at 120 percent above nominal for the genotype. It looks like you've been studying your Kellerman."
"I did a 30 year stint with her in the Andes studying the remnants of the native cultures there. She had some wonderful ideas for improving learning capacity. I'm glad they've been proven." She tried to get out of the chair, but the seat restrained her. A look of panic crossed her face.
"Please stay seated for just another moment," said Sterling. "We'll let you out when we've completed the necessary certifications."
"I want to touch him," she said.
"You will. Just a few more questions."
She settled back, resigned.
"It so happens Kellerman is looking for another research assistant. Would you be interested in returning to the Andes?"
"No--listen, I'm finished. How can I make myself understood in a way that will shorten this process? This life is a wonderful life. We do whatever we please whenever we please it. Peace, study, adventure, it's all so wonderful. But I don't believe it's the true human condition. Back in the old days, before we discovered the complete human genome, before we knew how to regenerate bodies and extend life without bound, before these things people died of natural causes. Life, birth, death--these were hardly our decisions to take. That was the human condition. Not this metered existence we've given ourselves. People need change. We were meant to live, give birth, and move to the next plane--whatever it is--or isn't. Do you understand me?"
Sterling nodded. He had heard it many times before.
"I'm bored. I don't know how to say it without sounding psychotic, but I'm tired of this life. The only adventure left to me is completion. I've learned all I care to learn. I've contributed all I care to contribute. Society has wrung me dry of spirit. The only act of value I have left to perform is to pass this life to another, to feel his love, and to move on. Doesn't that make sense to you? I know you will probably deny me completion now. I can feel a 200-year analysis coming on."
Sterling made a few mental commands and stood. The seat released Otten.
"You make perfect sense, Lauren," said Sterling. "There's only one valid argument for completion. We can't accept any other. Your application for permission to complete is approved. Congratulations." He offered her his hand and she took it in a trembling hand. The corners of her mouth turned up slightly.
Sterling motioned sliently to the side. The spectrum of the room light shifted to dark violet. The ceiling melted to a holographic mat of stars. The walls faded, yielding to an expansive desert horizon. Two vertical cylindrical chambers appeared before them. Inside one the body of the son she had created floated motionlessly, buoyed on the potential for life. The other tube was open, sliently yawning to be filled. Strains of music floated on the thin desert breeze. She had chosen the music several hundred years before.
Lauren Otten stepped toward the tubes.
"Can't I touch him?" she asked.
"You will," said Sterling. "Step forward, into the chamber."
She took a hesitant step.
"Will it hurt?"
Sterling spoke calmly, assuredly. "I wish I could guarantee a painless completion, but I can't. None of us has returned to say what it was like. The process is simple. The tube will fill with a catalyst. A chi-field disassembler will move all the motive energy from your body to your son's. The empty body will be disassembled to constituent elements and recycled to the environment."
The woman shuddered and crossed her arms. She looked at the empty tube, her jaw tightening. Then she turned toward the floating body. As Sterling watched, her features softened. Her arms fell to her sides. Her mouth opened slightly as if she were about to speak but couldn't remember what she wanted to say.
"Remember, Lauren. You can abort at any time. Society has fulfilled its responsibility to you. Your life is in your own hands and we can reverse up until the last quantum is transferred."
She inhaled deeply. "Ironic. I've never felt so alive."
Sterling nodded. Something else he'd heard many times.
"I just step inside? How can I feel him if I'm inside?"
"It's symmetry," said Sterling. "You will give your life force to him. You'll feel him when it happens. That much we do know. It will work. It always does."
Lauren stepped into the tube, examining the walls of the clear chamber as the portal faded closed behind her.
"You can abort at any time," Sterling said again.
Lauren smiled. A laugh escaped her lips as a tear touched her cheek.
"Wish me luck," she said.
"Bon voyage," said Sterling. "You're about to take life's most cherished journey. Many of us you leave behind envy you."
Her eyes closed slightly as the machine activated. Next to her the tube drained and the body floated to the bottom of the tube with the descending surface of the liquid. When his feet touched the bottom of the chamber his eyes opened. His legs tensed to bear his weight.
The young man turned his head and see the woman beside him. She smiled as the liquid level rose in her chamber, her face beaming in the artificial night.
"Hello," she said. "Hello Alexander. I'm your mother." She pressed her hand against the side of the chamber.
The man touched his forehead to the crystal wall confining him, his eyes opening blue and wide, the muscles in his body rippling as they activated for the first time. He opened his mouth soundlessly. The muscles in his face tightened as he pressed himself against the wall of the tube toward her.
"Be free. Be happy," said Lauren. Her eyes closed as the liquid rose in the chamber. "I remember my father." She stopped. Her arm dropped to her side. The young man reached as if to catch it, but was stopped by the barrier. He pressed his palms and face to the wall as her body faded in the night. Lauren looked upward, eyes closed, mouth pulled to a wide smile as she faded to elements. "Its so beautiful, Alexander. Beautiful Alexander. . ."
The woman in the tube beside his vanished.
"Hello Alexander," said Sterling. He made a few mental commands and the walls to the chamber faded. The young man took his first steps toward Sterling, glancing alternately between the counseler and the place where his mother had been.
"We have a lot to do, son," said Sterling. "Your mother enrolled you in 200 years of elementary classes in Antarctica, 50 years of advanced studies in arts and sciences on Gamow-on-Regulus, and another 100 years of society studies in the Andes with Professor Kellerman's people. She's taken good care of you."
The young man stared into the artificial distance. "I can still see her," he said. "I can still see her smile."
"Of course you can," said Sterling. "You always will."
c 1984 by Joe Mastroianni