In 1974, a PhD genetics expert called Thomas Ford Turner realized that very advanced technologies he was working with under conditions of extraordinary secrecy could, in time, free young Americans from the danger of serving on the battlefield. With hard work, in years to come it was going to be possible to create the perfect soldier, a complex biomechanical hybrid.
He established these criteria for his hybrid:
Deep in an underground facility in Dulce, New Mexico, Dr. Turner began exploiting the benefits of the most secret partnership in the world, and using what he gained from it in fulfillment of his ambition.
On June 13, 1976, he began experimentation using highly accurate gene splicing techniques that were thousands of years in advance of anything as yet designed by human science.
Ten years later to the day, the first of his hybrids was born.
It was terrible now and she was so afraid and not just for the baby. This wasn’t the hospital she’d been promised and Sergeant Walker was no midwife. She wasn’t even sure what kind of doctor Dr. Turner was. They were in trouble with her and were just guessing and there was blood, so much blood, and she was getting real tired, and here it came again, another contraction and despite her ample hips, this baby was big, he was too big, and she screamed and pushed as best she could, but she was so tired.
Then it ended.
“Is it out?” she gasped. But she knew it wasn’t, not nearly, and she cried then, because she thought this was the last day she would ever see and she was scared.
She’d needed the money. Doctor Turner had promised her the finest care. He’d had the face of a liar, that was for sure, with those eyes that always looked aeway. It was like there was something in her face he feared to see. Furtive. His hands were long and white, like a woman’s. She didn’t like him touching her.
She’d answered an ad in SF Weekly. She’d been hungry and she didn’t want to party, and there were no damn jobs for a GDE from Arkansas. She’d come out here because mom had always regretted leaving, and maybe there were boys with some money or some kind of a good job, not like home. They couldn’t all be gay and she was pretty, she knew that. She’d assumed that she could waitress, but it just had not happened. In fact, nothing had happened for her and she was about out of the cash mom had left her.
“Go to San Francisco,” she’d said in her dying days. “I never shoulda left, girl, it was my mistake.”
They had relatives here, supposedly, but she hadn’t found them. Nobody wanted a damn waitress who sounded like she did, a drawling, red-state cracker. So she was living in a four flight walkup she couldn’t afford, eating less and less often, looking and feeling more tired every passing day.
So the ad: Big money to participate in an accredited medical experiment. Safety guaranteed. Major hospital.
More of a major nondescript old building with only one open office, this one. She’d sat in the waiting room with a dozen other girls. Sergeant Walker had interviewed her. Not in uniform. He was a warm, twinkling man who listened well. He’d asked about her friends and associations—none. About her family—none. Relatives—none she could find. Making some gentle joke, he had measured her hips.
He’d asked her, “Are you willing to carry a baby?”
That was the medical experiment? She’d visualized tubes and things.
She had been far from sure, until she heard the money, which was two thousand dollars a month for the duration, plus a five thousand dollar bonus after delivery.
Hired to have a baby, damndest thing. Eighteen grand, doled out two grand on the first of every month in cash, no taxes, no records, plus the little nest egg to look forward to.
It’d be an easy pregnancy, Sergeant Walker had said. Dr. Turner was a genius. The highest level of care throughout. So, yeah, she’d carry their baby.
At first, all had seemed normal. The first trimester had been a matter of coming in, getting ultrasounds and walking out with a purse full of money. And, frankly, she felt that she was blossoming, somehow. She’d feared morning sickness, but there was never any sign of it.
When she began to get big, she walked the streets proudly. They’d given her a gold band, and she wore it. People loved her. Guys were protective. It was wonderful.
But there had been no real hospital and this was not even a decent birthing room and Sergeant Walker was hardly an obstetrician, or even a midwife. It was all dingy and Dr. Turner was like some kind of looming crow or whatever, always asking questions about her private things, urination and whatnot. Disgusting man, those eyes that always avoided hers, those hands, fingers as cold as snakes, touching her. Loathsome.
Now it was the fifth hour of labor, and what had begun as just a little tightness had become a swaggering monster, slamming her spine and tearing her muscles.
It was wrong, the baby was too damn big even for a widesider like her, she could feel herself breaking.
“I need a real doctor.”
“I’m a doctor,” Doctor Turner said for the millionth time.
“I hate you, Doctor Turner. So much.”
Another contraction came, so ferocious that she thought her churning gut would explode the baby out into their damn faces. And then there was another gush of blood, another one.
“I’m sick, I’m gonna throw up, I’m bleeding too much.” Red agony as Sarge held her over a metal trash can full of bloody towels, and she vomited on them, black vomit. “It’s full of blood,” she gasped. “I’m dying, you bastards.”
Turner watched her, his narrow face carefully emptied of expression. Like an executioner.
This was a government thing and this was a government place that wasn’t supposed to look like one.
She tried to shout at him, but all that came out was a whisper. “For God’s sake, get me to an emergency room.”
“You’re fine, Martha.”
“I need a caesarean. Get me a damn caesarean.”
Outside, she could hear the cable car coming up Market, rattling and clanging, and imagine the tourists and the rushing sky and the pearly bay.
Why had she ever thought some jerk who hires you to do a thing like this and pays cash was anything but what he looked like, which was a damn snake? Dr. Turner, the serpent.
Sergeant Walker sat waiting for the next contraction. Turner hovered now, simpering.
“I need a cesarean.”
“It’s going to be all right.”
“I demand an emergency room.”
She could smell her blood and hear it dripping, a lot of it.
Sergeant Walker—Sarge, as he liked to be called—offered her some Dr. Pepper. She spat it out. What were they doing with sodas in a birthing room?
“It’s supposed to be ice cubes,” she managed to rasp, “not this crap.”
“Now, you need it, you need the strength,” Walker said in his drawling voice. He called himself an Alabama boy. Yeah, probably another damn lie. Maybe he wasn’t even military and maybe this wasn’t even a government place. Except she knew different, because even though it only went up two stories, she’d seen that the basement also went down into the fault-ridden depths under the city. Insane, who would go down into a deathtrap like that? If an earthquake came, you’d be buried alive.
Oh, here it came again and God, it hurt, GOD GOD GOD!
What in hell was in her, a damn giant?
He tried again with the soda. “He needs it, too,” he said, his voice now wheedling. “The baby needs his strength, too, Martha.”
“It’s a Dr. Pepper for Chrissakes!” This damn place—it had a rep in the neighborhood. Scary. No sign on it. Just a hard tile lobby and an elevator that took its own sweet time, then these offices, linoleum, steel desks, picture of Reagan on the wall to make it all look official, which was total bs.
Oh, God, it was worse this time, a great, steel wave of agony that started in the depth of her guts and spread with the speed of a flash fire all the way into her throat and even into her eyes, her scalp, the ripping agony, spasmodic, causing her to arch her back, causing the sergeant to shout again, “Push, Martha, push!”
“Damn you, get it out!” Turner screamed. “Get my baby out!”
“We’re killing her!”
A sudden, agonizing lurch, a feeling that she was being shoved backward, then it was as if the world itself had drained out of her.
“Push, damn you,” Turner screamed, his claws clutching, his eyes swarming with fear.
She could not push, not anymore. She was like a dead fish, that was it, a dead salmon lying flat on the butcher block, ready for the gutting.
Oh my god, my god, this is death, this total inability to move. I’m young and I’m pretty and I want boys and I want life. I want life!
She felt movement between her legs and heard a strange sound, the mewling of an ocelot, perhaps, awful. It was a monster, they had bred a monster inside her, she’d known it, and now here it was.
Another wave came, growing and growing until it completely enveloped her, becoming something beyond pain and outside of life altogether, a storm from another reality, a wave made of blood, a rain of tears.
Through the agony, there came silence. Someone was screaming, but on the distance, somewhere along the tattered edges of the world.
She listened to the screaming and imagined gulls out on the bay, wheeling in the sun, their voices echoing with fatality and the vastness of the sea.
At first, it had all seemed so excellent. She’d been able to pay her rent, get a few nice things, eat regularly. She’d wanted to tell her mom, except she had no mom to tell. She still hadn’t gotten her mind wrapped around that. Moms don’t die like that, at age forty-five. Moms get old and get white hair and rock in rocking chairs.
Oh, who cared about that, her mind was wandering, she was in trouble here, she wasn’t able to tell them how much…or maybe she had told them and they didn’t care.
Turner’s face was like a moon hanging in a winter sky. Lonely night sky, sky of loss. He went off across the room with Sarge, and they talked together, arguing. Sarge’s face was practically purple, Turner’s like gray, dead smoke.
She wanted to cry out, she wanted to tell them again, but it was just too hard to talk now. Her eyes closed, she did not close them. She felt as if her skeleton was sinking out of her skin, sinking into the echoing underground halls beneath this place.
Oh, remember the trees on summer nights, waving in the moonlight? Remember Taps being played at the base at eleven, echoing across the silence of the town. Life in profound America, deep ordinary life.
Her great regret was never to have known love. No boy had ever pined for her, sung to her. He had talked, Doctor Turner, about her pregnancy like it was something to do with a machine. He’d described it as ‘an insertion.’ He had told her that she wouldn’t feel any pain, and that was true, not when he slid the plastic syringe in that had the semen in it. Whose was it? Classified. She had not asked if it was human, hadn’t dared to, because if he’d said no, she would have headed straight to the nearest abortion clinic, and his money be damned.
On that first day, she’d walked out of this place with twenty fifty dollar bills in her purse, and the first thing she’d done was to go to a diner and get the ribeye.
Within a few weeks, her body had begun to change. It had been like some sort of dark miracle, the way the pregnancy grew within her. Every day, she had to go to the facility and be examined by Dr. Turner with his fast eyes and his long hands. She came to feel sick on getting in the stirrups for him, and to loathe his gloved touch.
Once, she’d gone down instead of up and the elevator had opened on a white corridor, clean and modern, totally unlike the building above. There had been something humming—deep hum—and she had realized that it was another elevator, this one in the far wall, with a sealed steel door, an elevator that must go very deep indeed, down into the faults and below them, even.
Then an MP in a uniform so starched that she could smell it had appeared out of nowhere and gently pushed her back into the elevator.
“What is this place?” she’d asked. He’d put his finger to his lips and closed the door. She’d gone up and done her appointment. She hadn’t asked them anything because she knew they wouldn’t tell her. But the next day when she came, she had seen that the “B” button had been replaced with a key.
She had dreamed that the baby was talking to her, a fat little boy talking and talking, his toothless mouth at once that of an infant and an angel. She had dreamed that the baby had opened the book of life, and had told her, ‘you must die for me.’
Now she knew that it was true and she wanted to cry but she was too weak. She was thinking of that book, and the great day it depicted, when golden light had flooded the world and she had found a lane to the land of the dead.
She hated the baby. The baby was only little, it was nothing, nothing at all, and she was a young woman who had never tasted love, and she must taste love before she left this life, she must!
Sarge tried to take her hand, but she made a fist and he drew back. She wanted to spit at him, to scorn him for his tears.
The disintegration of her body was not painful. Rather, it took the form of a growing silence, and a sort of light, aimless floating. She was a leaf, she was a balloon, a feather. She knew that she could no longer feel her legs. She knew that the odd music she was hearing—discordant, empty of melody—was the sound of Dr. Turner and Sarge shouting at each other.
She saw but did not feel the sheet being thrown aside, saw the baby being lifted away from her, and the sergeant cut the umbilical cord with a pair of scissors in his shaking hands, and then lift the baby high.
The baby, she realized, was looking at her. It was not crying. It was not all wrinkled like most newborns she had seen. Rather, it was fully formed and its eyes were open. It gazed at her, and she heard in her heart and her soul, the voice of the baby. It was a soft voice, almost a whisper, a voice as soft as the fluttering of a hummingbird’s wings, and it said, ‘Mother, mother, mother’ again and again and again, and she understood that this was its song and her song, too. She thought, ‘What is this thing? What has come out of me?’
The sergeant took her free hand and laid it upon the baby’s head.
Love seemed to flow between her hand and the pulsing, warm skin of her baby, a wave ancient and deep, the secret wave of motherhood, and it rose high within her, and carried her swiftly away into its mystery, and the mystery of death.
“God damn you, Turner.”
“It was an uncontrollable hemorrhage.”
“It was murder and you know it.”
“Nobody could have saved her.”
“The hell. I’m gonna report this to Washington.”
“You’re gonna do as you’re told.”
The baby began to squirm in Sarge’s arms, then to cry, its screwed-up face turning red.
“Hold it still.”
Turner had taken the disk from its case. He was careful not to bring it close to the metal of the stirrups. Nothing must disturb its magnetic field, not in the slightest.
The baby wailed.
“Left temple,” Turner said.
“I know,” Sarge muttered. He didn’t think it was right. He’d never thought it was right. He had broken every rule in the book to reach the Senate Intelligence Committee, because this was evil. It was unholy. Project Inner Iron was one thing—a soldier genetically modified for extreme toughness. But this Zinc Finger program was not right. This was technology from hell. It was alien technology, he knew it damn well.
“Okay, I’m applying for a transfer, then.” He looked down at their lovely girl, at her ivory skin and gray lips, at her eyes gazing into nowhere. What a waste, what evil.
And god in heaven only knew what was going to happen to this little boy in his arms. He wanted to take him home and find a wetnurse for him and bring him up. Foster him out to some good family, at least, give the poor little thing some kind of a chance.
The baby was red now and moaning as if in grief, moaning and squirming, a tiny bit of life struggling hard, poor damn little thing.
Turner moved the gleaming metal disk close to the baby’s temple.
“This is history in the making,” he said.
He pressed it against the naked scalp.
At first, nothing happened. After a moment, Turner blanched. Good. Because this was two billion dollars worth of baby here, and, the bastard’s precious career would be over if it did the best thing for itself, which was to just die right now.
Then the screaming stopped. The baby’s eyes, previously screwed shut, opened wider than they had even at first, wider than any newborn’s should. An expression of impossible calm came into its face.
“Oh, my God,” Turner said. All in wonder, he reached out his shaking hands. Sarge pulled the baby away.
“No,” he said. “Not you.”
“Okay, I christen this infant Mark Bryan. Mark because you’re the first, Bryan because it’s a name that hasn’t got a thing to do with any of us.” Then he addressed the baby. “Alright, Mark, can you hear me?”
The infant was silent and still. His eyes followed Turner’s finger as he wagged it back and forth.
“Can you speak? Do you know who I am, Mark Bryan?”
Something happened that had never happened on earth before, as a newborn infant, in a whispered, barely audible voice said the first word that any newborn had ever uttered. The baby said, “Father.”
Sarge was thunderstruck. Struck silent. He looked down at the pitiful ruined madonna, then up at Turner, then at the baby. What kind of monster had he created?
“That’s right,” Turner said to Mark Bryan. “That’s very good.” His voice bubbled. Veins pulsed on his temples. “Now I am going to hold up some cards, and you will repeat what you see. Do you understand?”
Sarge could feel the tiny heart beating, could see in the eyes a terrible thing, a mind where there should be no mind. If he had the courage, he would kill this baby right now. But what use? Turner would simply have him brigged and grow another.
‘Horse,’ the infant whispered as Turner held up the first card. ‘Duck. Foot. Orange. Airplane.’
Each word was like a blow to Sarge’s soul. This poor creature!
“It’s viable. Very viable.” Turner smiled, his face bright with an almost boyish glee.
Careful tears slipped from the baby’s careful eyes. Slowly, though, they sank closed, for this was, after all, a newborn.
“I am going to transmit the code,” Turner said carefully. “You be very careful with my toy.”
“This is a baby!”
“Oh, no. Don’t go down that road. Because this is not a baby. This only looks like a baby. This is an immature biological device.”
Turner left Sarge with the little thing sleeping in his arms. He rocked back and forth, singing softly, ‘Low, low, breathe and blow, wind of the western sea,’ the same lullaby his father had sung to him.
Finally, the only sound in the room was the long, wracking sobs of Sergeant Walker.
The baby slept for only a few moments. Then it opened its eyes, and watched in silence, the weeping man