I hold my daughter tightly as she disgorges a torrent of thick, jaundiced fluid from her lungs. She spasms in my arms, her body contorting in motions more akin to vomiting than coughing. I push my fingers into her mouth and scoop out what sticky remains I can.
It is late and the lab is quiet, aside from the sounds of Alexia's struggle. Deep within the subterranean compound bare light bulbs illuminate all corners of the room. Harsh white glare glints off the stainless steel frame of the gurney nearby, which I will transfer Alexia to yet again. The light glistens on her slick skin. Her naked body is coated in pale yellow mucus. A splash of it oozes from the tank I pulled her from, splatters across the floor between her birth place and my arms.
I strike her back sharply and a final clump of the sludge bursts from her lips. She gasps frantically, pulling air into these lungs for the first time, her fingernails digging into my side. She hacks, sending spittle flying, clearing her airway, shaking my body. For two minutes this continues, the volume of her lungs so much greater than it had been the first time she'd been born, eight years ago. Finally the wracking subsides and she clutches at me. She wails, and I want to wail with her, even after all these iterations. I’m glad to feel her pain. When the day comes that I fail to cry with her, I will no longer need to bring her back.
I wrap her in a scratchy wool blanket and wait for the terror of rebirth to fade. She looks up at me, clear blue eyes rimmed in red. Her blonde hair is pasted down with the slime, starting to crust around the edges. A newly hatched chick, the shell of her incubating tank abandoned. Her memory will be fuzzy for a couple days. I brace myself for the question. Every single time, that same first question. My chest is heavy--I no longer have hope it’ll be different this time.
"Momma… where's Mommy?" Alexia's voice will be lilting and high by tomorrow, but now it’s still quavering and weak. I am Momma, and Natasha is Mommy. I unclench my jaw with a force of will. Inside my chest, a feeling like glass shards grinding together.
"She's very busy right now. If she leaves her project it will fail, so she can't be here. You'll see her again, in a couple weeks."
The lie was easy even the first time I told it. I do not hate Natasha for necessitating the lie. Childhood is a structure of lies we build around our children to provide them with the shelter they need to grow. Without that protection they would be warped and stunted by the hostility of the human environment. Rather, I hate Natasha for being too weak to build the shelter with me. I am alone and the work is unceasing. Alexia deserves a life supported by two parents. On my own I fail her every day.
But first she must live. I note the time of Alexia's first breath. She's plateaued at approximately 16 days, 10 hours for five iterations. My usual worry is starting to turn to dread.
1 - The Brit
The Arkhipov facility, built entirely underground in a remote corner of the Ural mountains, was meant to provide Marya Kovanich with opportunity for uninterrupted research. A hidden airstrip, revealed for a few hours every six months, allowed for the rotation of the live-in personnel and the arrival of fresh supplies. A small nuclear reactor provided for all their power needs.
Within the sterile confines of the compound Marya pushed Lamarck's discoveries to their limits. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was the first to demonstrate how parents passed acquired characteristics to their offspring. He showed how the primitive giraffes--spending their lives stretching their necks to reach higher fruit--would bear children with necks slightly longer than their peers. Unfortunately nature was slow. Organisms could not pass on their refined genes if they did not survive the refining process. As such, adaptations accrued at a glacial pace, limited to responses to the small fraction of stressors that pushed improvements without going so far as to kill an organism outright.
Soviet cloning advances removed this limitation. A dead specimen could be sampled, its tissue used to grow a copy with the exact genetic code it carried at the time of death. Now massive stressors could push large changes, and the cloning tanks would preserve those changes. Marya, together with her research partner and lover Natasha, was tasked with finding practical applications. While the capitalists poured their resources into ever more complicated computing devices and sterile "integrated circuits", the People of Russia put their trust in living, breathing, biological solutions. Russia's wealth had always been its people, and Russia would invest in its People, not in soulless machinery.
Now, two years since the facility’s opening, Marya Kovanich received her first direct orders. Her exploratory phase was over. Tensions with the Americans were rising and she was to provide the people with a method of surviving catastrophic radioactive fallout.
Immediately she put the facility's nuclear reactor to use. Killing humans was monstrously unethical. In addition, their reproductive rates were too slow for quick results. But the human body was host to thousands of microorganisms, and if one of them could be modified to purge radioactive elements from its surroundings, its hosts could live in an irradiated environment in comfort. She experimented on dozens of bacterial species, harvested from her own body, which she bombarded with heavy radiation daily. They fried under the false uranium sun. Their clones lived again the next day, and went back to the nuclear furnace.
It was four weeks into the project, in the silent hours of darkened lights, that klaxons ripped Marya from sleep. The ear-shattering blast launched her from her bed, sheets tangling her feet. She lurched across her cramped quarters on instinct, mind not fully awake. She tore open the door to Alexia's room. The child’s bed was empty. Her daughter was gone.
Her heart restarted when she remembered that this was an interim period. Alexia died days ago, the bed had been empty since then. It would remain so for another couple weeks. Her daughter was safe, so long as the cloning labs were undisturbed.
Maria spun around, yanked her lab coat from the hook by the door, and rushed into the hallway. She shrugged the coat on as she hurried to the facility’s center, reached back to pull her frazzled dark hair from under it. It hadn’t been lustrous and wavy in a long time. She no longer cared for it, now that Natasha had gone.
The guards saluted as she walked into the control center, the doors hissed open at her arrival. Most of the room was filled with the bulk of the giant BESM computer, rows of metal cabinets stuffed with transistor relays. Three large consoles stood against one wall, racks of blinking lights looming over expansive keypads. There wasn’t much room for humans within, and even less now that anxious techs stood clustered around two men by the monitors. Boris, who had taken over Natasha’s position when she’d left, spoke with Ivan. Boris was a scrawny geek like her, sporting thick glasses and partial to pocket protectors. Ivan took up the volume of two Borises--thick arms, a barrel chest, a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder. His face was lined with the creases of too much war. He caught her eye as she entered and turned away from Boris to approach her.
“What is the situation?” Marya asked.
"Two guards have been found dead, the bodies look to have been dragged into a janitorial closet."
The implications of ‘dragged’ were clear.
"The bodies were still warm. The intruder is still about."
"An intruder? That’s impossible! This facility only known to the highest officials!"
"I pulled a 7.62mm bullet from one of the men myself,” Ivan replied. “We don't use that caliber. My instincts say the British. MI6 agents love the Walther PPK.”
Marya's heart leapt into her throat. MI6 here was a disaster. They would steal the research she'd been so carefully cultivating. They would destroy the tanks, kill her daughter. They would murder them all, given half a chance.
"Find him!" she hissed. "By any means! He cannot live!"
Ivan's eyes flashed brief annoyance, but otherwise he remained professional.
"Lockdown procedures are already in place,” he stated. “The exits are sealed, and soon we’ll begin the sweep--"
He was interrupted by the muffled thump and accompanying tremor of a distant explosion. Marya glared at him. He turned to scan the facility schematics mapped onto a full wall of the control room--six maps, one for each floor of the underground complex. Each room was labeled, and by each label a tiny lightbulb protruded from the wall. Just now the bulb beside "Armory" was flashing rapidly, indicating damage.
"He will not escape from there." Ivan snapped her a salute and stomped from the room. He bellowed for men once in the hall, calling them to his side by name, but left the two guards at the door.
Marya studied the map herself, sucking at her front teeth. She forced her spine straight and her mouth tight--the appearance of command was vital, regardless of the pained liquid feeling in her bowels. What was she supposed to do now? There was nothing to do but wait, staring at a map that told her nothing. She wracked her brain for contingency plans, possible failure modes and vulnerabilities. She must not lose control.
The Brits were dangerous--they'd never killed off their nobility. Long before Lamarck, ancient societies had stumbled upon simple rules that crudely took advantage of evolution. They restricted governing and warfare to an elite class, and expected intermarriage within that class. The nobles. This ensured that genetic alterations that gave advantages in combat were preserved and passed down, rather than diluted with genes that optimized farming or banking. Militarily, these societies outperformed those without a noble class.
When the nobles grew decadent and abusive, the French and the Russians eliminated their noble lines. The English had preserved theirs, and still recruited their officers and special operatives from those august ranks. Centuries of selective adaptation had produced a killer elite. Even during lulls between wars the nobility continued to duel amongst themselves, and spent extravagant amounts of leisure time hunting foxes or other game. Dispensing death was literally in their genes. While her guards would empty entire magazines of ammunition in an attempt to hit a man, an MI6 agent could put a bullet into someone's eye at a hundred paces, while running.
Her brooding was shattered by the thunderous chatter of automatic weapon fire just outside the door. A single extended burst rang out, hammering at her ears. One of the guards outside flopped across the doorway like a sack of meat, blood seeping from his punctured uniform and pooling around him.
Marya stared, speechless, and before she could think to react an absurdly over-dressed English man jumped the body--a pistol gripped in one hand, a commandeered Kalashnikov in the other. He pointed the weapons at them and quickly scanned the room. Then he relaxed, and smirked. Every Russian hand was raised in surrender. He kicked the body back into the hall without looking at it.
"Well, well," he drawled. "Looks like the fox has found the hen house." His Russian was excellent, if strongly accented. His idiom didn't translate well. With a casual motion he dropped the AK, thumbed the sliding door closed, and moved the pistol to his right hand. Mayra shrunk away, eyes darting to the map. The armory was the most distant room, Ivan would not be back for some time. The MI6 agent strolled into the room, toward the command console, waving them back with his gun. He tracked blood as he walked, the heel of his left shoe leaving a series of wet, red treads across the floor.
Marya tried to breathe as quietly as possible. She edged back until she was pressed against a computer cabinet. To her left Boris stood rooted to the spot. The agent eyed them coolly.
"I have some work to do here, so if you would all stay back and keep quiet, I shan't have to kill you." He flashed them a cocky smile, all sharp teeth and genial charm, then swung his pistol back at the door and fired twice into its control panel. It sparked as it died, and the door immediately slid into the wall and locked open. That was a standard security feature. The external doors worked in the opposite manner--any damage to their control consoles would lock them shut. A piercing alarm filled the room, its wailing drowning out the klaxons, and the light by "Control Center" on the wall map began flashing frantically. The agent frowned.
"Bugger. Looks like I'll have to do this the messy way." His gun was somehow already pointing at them, he swung his head around to match. "Good-bye, Doctor Kovanich."
Marya's heart stopped, her scream hadn't even made it to her lips when the pistol flared, jerked in the man's hand, and spat a single copper-coated fragment of lead. It punched through Boris's chest, boring a hole through his heart, and exited from his back in a spiral of blood. It hadn't even nicked a rib. Boris looked surprised as bright red spilled from his chest and back, flowed down his pristine white coat, splattered the floor. His eyes said what she thought--"But I'm not Kovanich." Then he collapsed.
Marya looked up, uncomprehending. The British agent was tearing at the bullet-proof cover over the big red button, cleared marked "SELF-DESTRUCT! DO NOT PRESS!" He knew her name. Knew that Kovanich headed this facility. But he'd shot Boris because… because he was a man? Did he not know that the Socialist Republic did not harbor his medieval views of leadership?
She forced down the relief threatening to flood her body. She was alive now because an English nobleman couldn't imagine a woman being anything more than an assistant. His regime was doomed. The British may have a few centuries head start, but they were crippled by their regressive traditions. The combined efforts of the free and equal Soviet People would race past them in a matter of decades.
The agent managed to lever the protective shell from the switch at last. A countdown display above it was poised at 15 minutes, 00 seconds. He tossed her a quick glare, all arrogance and contempt, then slammed his hand down on the self-destruct button. 100,000 volts of electricity coursed through him as his body completed the circuit between the metal plate on the floor and the metal button he’d just pushed. The lights in the facility dimmed to almost nothing, the whir of the ventilation system dropped off, cut out by the sudden massive power drain. His body spasmed violently for several seconds, smoking, and the smell of burnt hair filled the room.
Marya hadn't really expected anyone to fall for that.
2 - The Russian
Marya squeezed her eyes shut in frustration. Uri Pushkin peered over Marya's shoulder with a clipboard, tapping his pen in a steady rhythm. He was one of Russia's senior auditors, reporting directly to the Kremlin, and undoubtedly both his parents had been paper pushers of some sort. Administrative work ran in his blood, just as scientific work ran in Marya's. Both Marya’s parents and all four grandparents had scientific or academic careers.
Natasha didn’t have quite the pedigree that Marya did, her paternal grandparents had been simple farmers. This was unfortunate, as they had decided that Natasha would carry their child. She was the more maternal one. She had a desire to carry the child that Marya couldn’t quite understand, but was grateful for. To compensate for Natasha’s less refined genetics, they had chosen one of the greatest scientific minds in Russia as the donor to father Alexia. He boasted intellectual ancestors going back three generations on his father’s side, and two on his mother’s.
Normally the nature of sexual attraction prevented such a concentrated genetic accumulation of one skill. As often as not a great banker may marry a great poet, rather than another great banker. The adaptations that parents had accumulated through a lifetime of labor were diluted in their children through the mismatch between skills. Not even the Brits had avoided this problem with their Noble class, as only the men were allowed to fight. Invariably much of the genetic progress was lost.
The Soviet People were systematically destroying these impediments. All careers were open to both genders, so finally great male warriors could be paired with great female warriors to produce truly startling children. The government encouraged and subsidized marriages between those in similar fields, particularly between the most skilled. It would not be long until the glorious shining children, and the children's children, would inherit the earth.
In the meantime, the knowledge that Pushkin was likely among the best paper-pushers in the motherland didn't reduce the face-clawing irritation of his bean-counting by a single jot.
“No,” Marya forced through clenched teeth, “We are not on budget. I dipped heavily into the research ledgers to pay for the repairs. It only seems balanced because we put Boris’s project on hold for two months after his death. We need an increased research budget to make up that shortfall. And now that our secrecy has been compromised we need far more guards.”
"And what do the people get for this lavish expenditure of their wealth?" Uri asked. "We have not seen any returns yet. Your facility has a capitalist's appetite, and nothing to show for it."
Marya rose from her seat and spun on the little man. She glared into his old eyes, hidden behind thick glasses. She stood almost a head taller than him, the harsh lights glinted off his liver-spotted skin.
"You want to see results? Come with me and I’ll show you what we've done, even under such hostile conditions!"
She turned and walked from the office. The left side of her lab coat flared out behind her. The right side only shifted slightly, weighed down by the semi-automatic pistol in her coat pocket. She’d taken it off the dead agent, it went everywhere with her now.
The auditor scurried to catch up. She needed to keep him distracted, keep him from digging too far into the numbers. The MI6 attack had been a blessing and a curse--the resulting chaos had allowed her to bury over a year of financial malfeasance, but it had brought unwanted attention down on them. Alexia was unauthorized work. It wasn't cheap cloning a human child every month, and hard to hide those expenses.
"You'll be happy to note that we can reduce our senior research headcount by one," she spoke over her shoulder, "I've taken over all of Boris's projects and he won't need to be replaced." This had consolidated her power. She needed it to keep some of the more idiotic junior researchers quiet. The security grunts were told that Alexia was a government-approved project, but the research staff knew better. Some of them had to be bribed, others threatened.
They rounded a corner, approaching the upper labs. "This first project has been underway for two years, and is nearing completion. To the left, through those first doors, you'll find we--"
Marya's voice caught as Natasha's flowing blond hair flashed across the hallway, darting into a door on the left, a single streak of glorious color in their drab surroundings. No, not Natasha's, she'd been gone for months. Alexia’s--the tiny spitting image of Natasha, from her fine blond hair to her stubby toes. Heat flared through Marya's body and suddenly her labcoat seemed constricting, suffocating. Had Uri seen that? He must have. Hell and damnation, he’d seen Alexia. Tightness closed around Marya’s throat. There were no children on record in the facility. They would take her daughter away, shut down her project.
A grim resolve rose from deep within, clearing the tightness in her throat. They were almost at the elevator doors. Still unrepaired, they yawned open over a dark five-floor fall. Uri would have a tragic accident. The poor man wasn't watching where he was walking. It was unfortunate that the People had lost someone of his skill and breeding, due to simple carelessness. She tensed her shoulders, planted her feet.
Uri walked directly into her and nearly fell to the floor, fumbling his clipboard. The man really hadn't been watching where he was walking, and peered up at her with a flustered look. Marya blinked at him incredulously. He hadn't seen Alexia?
"Why have we stopped?" he asked, "Are we here?"
"Yes, right this way," she recovered quickly and waved open the doors to her right, pushing him in.
"I thought we were going left?"
"What? Oh no, left is the women's lavatory. Come along." Faintly she heard what might have been a young girl's giggle. Unacceptable. Alexia had been told not to leave her room while the auditor was here. She didn't realize the lives she was risking by playing like this.
And yet Marya knew she wouldn't punish her. Alexia had only a few days of health in every iteration, and Marya couldn't mar those. Afterwards came the quick decline and degeneration. She would have to find some other solution.
"Here we have…" Marya looked around the room to orient herself, "Doctor Yu’s cartographic microbes." She led him to a wide metal table. Preserved under glass was what appeared to be a pig’s heart, if it had been made of soap flakes. It looked weightless, and apt to crumble at the slightest touch. The walls of the object were so thin she could see into the heart itself, but not quite all the way through it.
"Dr. Yu’s microbes permeate an organic substance and map it out.” she explained. “They then recreate the structure with thin cellular scaffolding. Any organic substance can be mapped. This pig’s heart is the largest organ thus recreated.” That was a lie, the heart was smaller than a human child’s brain. “We’re still verifying that it’s an exact duplicate.” Another lie. Alexia was proof enough that the duplication was exact.
"Remarkable!" Uri nodded and ticked something on his clipboard. "However I fail to see the practical applications. Cloning is already a proven technology. And this is not what you have been tasked with producing!"
Marya's hands twisted into clenched talons of frustration. The fool! She held the keys to life itself. She could make a reproducible copy of anyone's brain. Never again would a freak accident or an assassin's bullet cut short the work of a great mind. She could make Comrade Stalin proof against death itself.
Her right eye twitched as she forced her hands to relax. No, this man would not be told. When she was ready she would present her findings to Stalin in person. When she neutered Death, defeated mankind's last great adversary, even the capitalists would come crawling to Russia's feet. The corners of her lips twisted upwards and she struggled to contain a grim laugh. They hate us, and yet we will save them. We will save everyone.
Until then, she still had this paper-pusher to deal with.
"Fine. Come with me."
Marya led them from the room, through the double-doors and turned right. Several meters in front of her Alexia was kneeling on the floor, drawing on the wall with a crayon. Marya almost gasped aloud and spun around, hands flung out. Uri was just stepping from the room. She rushed forward and pushed him down the hall, back the way they came.
"Wait," he protested, "isn't this the wrong way?" He craned his neck to look down the hall.
Drop bears. She could lead him into the room with the drop bears. They were still wildly uncontrollable and would tear him to pieces in a minute. So unfortunate, he took a wrong turn looking for the bathroom. She raised her arms to force him forward.
"Or maybe not, I do get turned around in these underground lairs." He gave up trying to look around her body. She wasn't extraordinarily large, but the lab coat widened her frame, and he was extraordinarily small. He shuffled forward as she lagged behind, breathing shallowly.
Twice now. Unbelievable. She swallowed and stepped to him, careful to stay between him and Alexia--should he happen to turn around--until they were safely down a side corridor.
Several minutes later they stood in the main laboratory. The room was in use, several techs milling about trying to look busy while staying within earshot of Marya and her guest. They pretended to look into microscopes, or fiddled with the controls of the cloning tanks, or scribbled numbers in notebooks. A deep hum pervaded the room, coming from the wide far wall. Marya took Uri towards it.
"You can't tell by looking," Marya said, "But this wall is heavily shielded, plated with several centimeters of lead. If it wasn't, the radiation from the other side would sicken you in a matter of hours. If you were exposed to it for more than a few days you would start to develop tumors and open sores. Within a few months you'd be dead."
A severe-looking door punctured the wall, gunmetal grey, with the large latch lever and locking dog-wheel normally found on submarines. A view slit was set at eye-level, closed with a sliding cover four centimeters thick.
"Behind that door is your radiophage. Take a look. A few seconds through the view-slit won't hurt."
Uri approached the door reluctantly. He rested his hand on the bolt at the end of the cover and glanced back at Marya. She gave him a smirk and cocked her head. He turned back to the door, hesitated, then slid the cover from the glass view-slit.
Brilliant red light burst from the space beyond that door. It shone fiercely, flooding over the grey of the lab with a brilliance the color of autumn leaves set alight. It was steady, unwavering, and dazzling as a bottled sunset. For an infinite moment all movement ceased, and the world was shining crimson. With a jerk Uri slammed the cover back into place and the lab dropped back to dull tones. Finally every chest fell as every held breath was slowly exhaled.
"What… what was…" Uri spoke, but he hadn't turned away from the door. His hand still rested on the slit cover.
"The bacteria absorb a lot of energy, in the form of ionizing radiation. They thrive on it, needing no other food supply, but even so it is far more than they can absorb. The excess energy must be released in some way, or it will destroy them. In this case, it is converted into bioluminescence. Prodigious amounts of it. That is the red light you saw."
"That is stunning." He turned to face her, eyes wondering. "You have succeeded then?"
Marya shook her head.
"Not yet. We are still working to find a way to integrate the bacteria into a living host. This strain is immediately attacked by our test animals' immune systems and destroyed in a matter of days. We're only halfway there."
"Nonetheless," Uri replied, "I think the People can continue research in this vein. Your expenses will have to be curtailed a bit, but-" He stopped, and his eyes shifted to something past Marya. "Hello… who's this?"
Marya's blood froze solid. She held her head stiff and turned on her heels. The room moved around her and Alexia swung into her vision, drifting from her periphery into her focus. She stood in the doorway, eyes shining, smiling meekly.
Marya staggered back one step, then another. This was it then. Her hand crept into her coat pocket, her eyes darted to Uri's face. There were witnesses… those here now knew Uri had to die. No point in being clever. Her hand closed on the pistol in her deep labcoat pocket. The Walther PPK. The others would have no doubts about her resolve now. This action would speak louder than a hundred threats.
"There aren't any children listed at this facility." Uri said. The question was implicit in his statement. Marya met his eyes and wondered at the lightness in her head, the feeling of weightlessness like that when stepping off a ledge. Free, and helpless. Her palm was already slick with sweat. She flicked off the safety and tightened her grip on the gun. It was time.
Marya didn't look back. Her arm trembled as she began to pull the gun from her pocket.
"Alexia!" scolded a nearby man, crossing to her in three long, loping strides and sweeping the girl into his arms. "Papa told you not to bother us in here! You'll get me in trouble with Doctor Kovanich!" The man was young, probably a technician. Marya didn't recognize him. His hair was dark black, but his eyes matched Alexia's blue. He held her tightly and turned to Marya, looking deeply chagrined.
"I'm so sorry," he said, lowering his head, "I promised this wouldn't happen." He looked at Uri Pushkin. "I accept full responsibility. I told Doctor Kovanich that her transfer was approved, but the paperwork is still processing. But my daughter, she has no one else, now that her mother... she..."
And Alexia, as if on cue, started crying. She struck the strange man with a closed fist, pulling from his arms, but he pulled her tight and hurried from the room, making shushing noises the while. He cast Marya an anxious look as he left. Marya smiled faintly and dropped her hand back into her pocket as subtly as she could. She had only pulled it out to the wrist.
Uri looked from the vacated doorway to Marya with a quizzical expression.
"Is it safe for her to be here?"
"It’s safer than the city. Our dangers are known and controlled. And she has nowhere else." She was amazed at how steady her voice was. She held on to the solid metal weight of the gun, let it ground her.
"Yes… Why did she call you Momma?"
Marya shrugged. Her pulse quickened and she put her finger back into the trigger-guard.
"Everyone defers to me. Maybe she picked up on that. She's been calling me Momma Kova for weeks."
"Hm. Well, our strength is our children. I don’t wish to insult the great intellects gathered here, but child education is a tricky thing, yes?" Marya stiffened, then braced herself for what she had to do. "I believe I can find a way to expand your budget a bit, to allow the hiring of a tutor. Do you have spare living quarters?"
She nearly choked holding back the gasp of laughter that tried to burst from her chest. She relaxed her arm, let her death-grip on the pistol grow slack. A tutor would mean one more person to keep subdued, one more vector to keep controlled. But she could deal with that later. The Kremlin would have their man back, and he was bringing them a glowing report.
I watch my daughter as she floats in a tank of liquid sunshine. She does not breath yet, that will come tomorrow. Now she is still, her eyes closed, her hair drifting about her head in a golden halo. Her skin has just begun growing, it is so thin it’s still transparent. I can see the diminutive pink musculature below, and the veins a webwork of lapis lazuli.
It is quiet. Not silent, it is never silent in the complex. There is a warm hum of machinery. Distantly, fans push fresh air through the vast ducts. Occasionally water gurgles through pipes. It is the quiet of a living thing slumbering. I’ve turned off all the lights I can. From the doorway comes a dim spill of light from a remote hallway bulb. The interior of the lab is brushed with the glow of a muted yellow sun. The incubation tank’s lights are never shut off. They glitter and refract through the liquid, illuminating Alexia, and washing the lab in shimmering amber waves.
Sixteen days and ten hours of life. At least it’s better than what we had at first, back when there was a “we”. I had delayed too long in taking a tissue sample from Alexia. I didn’t want to clone a brain-dead child, or an infant in the body of an eight-year-old. That would not be Alexia, it would be someone new who was growing up with her DNA. So I waited until we were sure that the cartographic microbes could fully map out a human-sized brain, and reproduce its connectome scaffolding. By then Alexia was so weak she couldn’t feed herself.
Natasha was with me at the start. Together we could move mountains. Together we would change the world. But neither of us had been ready for how quickly the cancer came back. I had thought it was horrifying the first time, watching our child crumble from a vibrant ball of curiosity to a wasted skeleton in three months’ time. After the first resurrection Alexia had only two days of good health. Then her body folded, succumbing fully to the leukemia after eight days of struggle. I knew how hard it would be, but even I couldn’t think for days afterward. Couldn’t feel. I barely ate. Natasha took it even worse.
I place one hand on the glass of the incubation tank. It is warm, thirty degrees. Alexia’s nutrient bath is held at body temperature, and though I know she cannot perceive anything yet, I am comforted that it is a pleasant embrace.
Natasha left before the leukemia was cured. Even though Alexia was getting better. Every iteration she lasted longer, her body fought harder. It was working and Natasha left anyway. The weight of the work is just enough to crush me slowly on my own. Every month I slip a little further down the slope, straining against the boulder that we’d pushed so far. I see the centimeters I lose, and if I could only push a bit harder I could regain them.
Now the leukemia is gone entirely, defeated by Alexia’s refined body. I have hopes that she’ll never have any form of cancer in her life. But Alexia’s system still crashes after approximately 394 hours. There is a flaw in the neurological template. Something went wrong, something that cascades into complete biological failure. Something that eludes me, and damns me.
I don’t remember how many iterations it’s been since the sixteen-day-and-ten-hour plateau. I could check in my notebook, but I don’t bother. I should be systematically hunting down the error. Controlling for variables, forming hypothesis and eliminating them methodically. I should have several tanks running at once, and reams upon reams of notes filled with comparative graphs, data analysis, post-mortems.
But I have an entire facility to administer, a research directive from the Kremlin, and a sick child to care for as a single mother. I don’t want to feel grateful for the weeks she is dead, weeks that I can sleep more than four hours a night, weeks I don’t have to feel guilty for going to the lab. They are cold, and empty, and precious and sweet. Plums picked too soon, chilled and sugared.
I have stopped taking any but the barest of notes. I have stopped trying to divine patterns from results. I simply make alterations and run another iteration, and hope. I’ve thickened the neural scaffolding. I’ve thinned the neural scaffolding. I’ve altered the incubator’s nutrients more times than I can count. I’ve spliced foreign genes into Alexia’s DNA--my genes, other’s genes, virus genes. Lately I’ve been splicing in genes of animals from around the lab. She is slightly different each time, I don’t know what I’m growing, but I cannot stop until I have my daughter back. I am desperate and flailing and I will never, ever give up on Alexia. The sun will burn down to a cinder before I let my daughter stay dead.
In the hall two pairs of footsteps approach, clapping in unison on the bare floor, pass the door to the lab and continue on, receding in echoes. The night watch on patrol. I let my hand drop from the glass, leaving a smudge of oil. The facility breaths, and I breathe with it. I realize this isn’t science anymore. This is madness.
3 - The Americans
Marya’s eyes flared open and she jerked upright. The glowing hands of her bedside alarm clock showed approximately three o’clock. What had woken her?
From somewhere distant she could hear muffled popping noises--sharp staccato beats. They swelled, stopped, resumed--erratic. Then the bed shook, the floor shook, the whole room shook, with a bone-deep bass vibration. An explosion somewhere. She’d been woken by the previous one.
Marya flung her sheet aside, jumped to her feet. She swung her heavy lab coat over her shoulders, the one weighed down with a thick inner layer of quilted nylon and interwoven aluminum plates. She pocketed the Walther to the sounds of soldiers running the hall beyond her door. They yelled out as they approached.
An answering yell from further down the hall, muffled by distance so she could just barely make out:
“Americans! South lab!”
There was a mass of swearing as the soldiers ran past and down the hall. Marya swore silently with them. She yanked open her door and turned toward the command center, the immediate first stop, considering her options as she strode.
The Americans had an ideological commitment to the alternative evolutionary theory proposed by Charles Darwin. The inherent cruelty of that theory offered the only moral justification for capitalism. Even the British had politely allowed Darwin’s name to fall into disuse, and picked up the biological tools provided by Lamarck's masterpiece. The Americans refused. Without the excuses of Darwinism, their evil would have no shield.
Darwinism disallowed genetic reverse transcription. Darwin claimed that changes in an organism’s body were purely physiological and could not be reflected in the organism’s genes. A woman born with genes for mental feebleness could never overcome that heritage with study and work, she was stuck with those genes for life. More importantly--she could never ensure stronger genes for her offspring. She was cursed to only ever contribute genes for feeble-mindedness to any children she had.
That belief was what lay at the root of capitalism’s rapacity. In the real world, the righteous are rewarded. Those who worked hard would reap exceptional children. Through sweat and effort man could raise himself up to ever greater heights.
In the Darwinist’s vision, this was not the case. Children would inherit genes that were a permutation of what their parents had been born with, regardless of how much or how little their parents did in the interim.
That wasn’t even the worst of it. It was entirely random if the genetic inheritance would be better or worse than that of the parents. And it was impossible to determine which offspring had inherited superior genes and which had inherited inferior genes in a laboratory. No codex yet existed that would identify some DNA sequences as desirable and others as defective. This led to the true horror of Darwinian Capitalism. The only strategy that could move a population forward was excess reproduction, followed by a culling of the inferior offspring. The new generation must by necessity fight over the inadequate resources left. They were pitted amongst each other to winnow out the most fit. The strongest of them--the smartest or brawniest or fastest--would survive, seizing enough resources to live and to support their own children. Those unlucky enough to have been born with weaker genes would die before they could reproduce. Starvation. Disease. Violence. Wretched deaths. There was no refining of genes through effort. There was only the purging of the weak. A remorseless process, red in tooth and claw. Only through a harvest of slaughter could society be advanced.
They euphemized this “selection”.
The Lamarckian effects of implementing the Darwinian model were, of course, observable in the Americans’ genetic makeup. The increased aggression of the parents was transmitted to their children. The ruthlessness of the Americans was legendary. They could not be moved to pity or remorse. American agents may not have the inbred skill and finesse of the British, but their feral drive more than compensated for it. The halls of Marya’s facility would be awash with blood before this day was over.
As she stepped into the control center it was obvious she had not come to this conclusion alone. Grim-faced men and women acknowledged her with barely a nod, dread in their eyes. Ivan’s lieutenant Sergei stood leaning over the closed-circuit monitors, punching buttons to switch between various cameras with one hand, holding a radio receiver in the other. His face glistened with a damp sheen. The facility map on the wall beside him was a field of flashing bulbs. Every floor held at least two rooms that had been hit, including…
Marya’s heart stopped. No. The edges of her vision darkened, her focus tightened, until all she could see was a single outlined room on the wall. The tunneling of her vision brought the map inches from her face. The light by Cloning Lab 2 was blinking rapidly. Alexia’s lab.
Marya spun on her heel and raced down the hall. Behind her someone called her name, the sound losing itself in the complex, ricocheting off the walls. All she heard was her footfalls, shoes slapping the ground. Her heartbeat, pounding in her ears.
The room was a disaster. Smashed glass, scorched walls, overturned desks. In the center of the room the large cloning tank sat wrecked, one side caved in by a blast. Thick vitreous fluids oozed down its side and pooled around its base. Marya rushed past it, not allowing herself to look at the half-grown thing still clutched within. It was little more than a partially-fleshed skeleton at this stage. It couldn’t survive outside the tank, couldn’t even draw breath. She could start again in Lab 3 tomorrow, if the backup cortical matrix was intact.
She dashed to a corner of the darkened room, the overhead lamps shattered. Twisted metal blocked her path--a crumpled gurney, a fallen rack of shelving. She scrabbled at them with bare hands, wrenching them aside. The wreckage banged down behind her and she was down on her knees amid the shattered glass, frantic, pulling at a small steel door. A door like that on a safe, a door which should not have goo seeping out from under it and yet it did, it did…
Her hands shook as she swung the safe open. Inside, a jungle of jagged glass and jaundiced slime, streaked with tiny rivulets of red. A mess of spongy pink matter in tatters--shredded, smashed, smeared. It seeped.
Marya slowly stood up, in a daze. The room spun, she steadied herself with a hand on a counter. Observed herself vomiting, clenching abdominal strain, loose liquid spilling from her lips. She wiped her mouth with the back of one hand and staggered back to the broken body in the wrecked clone tank. Maybe she could still…
No. The body had been pulped by the explosion. Her hands pawed at the corpse, the world blurred, and somewhere she could hear a high keening, a disbelieving shrieking that came in inhuman waves. It didn’t sound like the sort of noise a human should be able to produce.
Unable to breathe, she staggered from the room. The floor floated beneath her, the walls lurched from side to side. It seemed like she should be doing something. There was something that was expected now, that honor demanded she must do. Alexia was gone, and she had been so close. But now there was nothing to be done. Except there was. Why wouldn’t it come to her?
Marya’s eyes focused and she realized she was back in the control center. A tech was looking at her apprehensively. The lieutenant was still leaning over the monitors, speaking into his radio. She couldn’t hear was he was saying. All that emitted from his mouth was a sort of low buzzing sound, in the rhythms of human speech. Another deep rumble shook the floor. The map-bulb by the Diesel Backup Generators flared to life. It occurred to her there was something she could do. Marya took in a deep breath and walked to the reactor controls.
Calmly she switched every control rod to manual, then took hold of the large central dial and began turning it counter-clockwise. Unheard over the sounds of combat, the control rods retracted. The temperature gauge began to rise, then stopped, as the system compensated by boosting the coolant flow. Marya moved to the wall of breakers and flipped every switch on the fourth floor. The pumps died and the temperature resumed its rise. Now the backup generators would have activated, completely beyond her control unless she could physically destroy them. Fortunately the Americans had done that for her, and sealed their own doom.
The nervous technician came over, eyes darting from her to the reactor temperature gauge, to the breakers, then back to her. She noticed he was the same man who'd scooped up Alexia during Uri Pushkin’s audit, to cover for her. Back when there had been an Alexia to scoop up.
"Doctor Kovanich, what are you doing?" he asked.
"What does it look like? I'm taking the reactor critical."
The tech went completely white, she watched the blood draining from his face over mere seconds.
"But we’ll all die!"
"Better for us to die than for the Americans to escape with this research. What we have here can alter the course of the next world war. It can’t fall into their hands." And they killed Alexia. They would never see daylight again.
"We have not lost the facility! They will be repelled, we don’t need to die!"
"If they take the control center, the meltdown can be halted. We have to act before they have it. Are you willing to risk the future of all of Russia? Of all free socialist people?"
"But it’s too soon!" His eyes had taken on a wild gleam now, his voice a desperate strain. "Stop this now! You’re killing us for nothing!"
The tech stared at her wide-eyed, then made a lunge past her, reaching for the breakers. She shoved his hand away, stepped to block his path. His other hand swung up, caught her above the eye with a blow that sent her into the wall. He bulled passed her but she threw out a hand, ripping at his face, nails catching flesh. A choked roar escaped him and he slammed his shoulder into her body, pinning her, one hand flailing at her ribs. She tore at him, gripped one ear, her other hand fumbling at her coat, fighting into the pocket admit the thrashing.
And then the cold steel was in her grasp, she pressed it to his abdomen through the cloth as he hit her again, pain exploding across her side. Her hand clenched and the metal spasmed, spitting. The tiny detonation was muffled by their bodies. Mostly by his body. He jerked, as if shocked, but didn't let go. Marya loosened her finger and pulled the trigger again.
His body shuddered with the second shot and he pulled away, looking at her in wonder. A mix of disbelief and surprise. She yanked the gun from her pocket, rested the barrel against his sternum, and fired a third time.
Even as he fell Marya was turning from him, to the lieutenant by the monitors. His brow was furrowed in confusion but his hand was at his hip, pulling his own pistol from its holster. Marya's gun was already drawn, she pointed it at him and fired in one motion. Then again, and again. The first shot went wide but the second took him in the shoulder and the third took a chunk of his face with it. He went down in a twist, sending an arc of bright red blood over the floor and monitor panel. Marya took three quick steps to him and put one more bullet into his back.
She scanned the room, pistol ready. Only one person remained, a scientist by the name of Vera. She held her hands up above her head, palms out, and pleaded with her eyes. Marya paused. But everyone here was as good as dead anyway, and she didn't need further complications. She shot her as well. The slide locked open, and Marya dropped the empty gun.
Marya turned back to check on the reactor controls. The whole world jumped violently, the floor throwing her across the room, an ear-splitting boom shook her core. She crashed to the floor on her side, several cabinets of the computer coming down around her.
This was not right. It was too soon. And she was still alive. She jumped to her feet and rushed to the console.
The temperature had stopped rising, and she saw now the pressure gauge was dropping rapidly. Something had ruptured violently. A steam explosion, it would have had to be massive to tear open the reactor containment. Which meant the fuel rods would be scattered now, too dispersed to chain into a nuclear reaction.
The radiation counter, however, was maxed out and obviously past its limits. Marya smiled. The graphite moderator was exposed and burning, and spewing radioactive particulates into the air. No one here would live beyond the next few days. Even if the Americans escaped, they would never live to deliver Marya's stolen work. This was better than a quick, explosive death. This was the death they deserved--days of agony as their insides turned to jelly and ran from their bodies. Blistering, skin-flaying burns. Internal swelling and hemorrhaging. Yes. This was justice.
Marya crouched down and pried the lieutenant’s pistol from his grip. It was heavier than the Walther, and held two extra rounds. She would only need the one. There was no reason for her to die the same screaming death as the Americans. She sat down, barely registering the sound of gunfire erupting nearby, maybe on the next floor. It no longer mattered.
Perhaps her data would survive for the recovery crews to find. Certainly her radiophage would thrive in the irradiated environment. Others could continue where she left off. She may not have a daughter to continue her line, or loved ones to mourn her passing. But the legacy of her work would alter the nature of humanity, and shape the face of the world for centuries. Not many people could say that. It would be selfish to ask for more.
She put the gun in her mouth and closed her eyes.
I lay a damp washcloth over my daughter’s forehead, hoping to make her last hours more comfortable. I know from experience her fever will not break before she dies. She lies on the bed, shivering under her blanket, face glistening with sweat. Her eyes flutter but she no longer murmurs words, she doesn’t have the energy. Her lips part and twitch as she tries to say something into the darkness. I sit beside her on the bed and take her hand in mine. It clenches feebly.
“It’s ok. Don’t try to talk. Momma’s here again.”
Her head lolls to one side. I readjust the washcloth. We exist, together, for a time uncounted.
After years or seconds or something in between her hand relaxes and her shivers subside. Her breathing is ragged but regular, and she sleeps. I watch her for a long moment before I take the cloth from her head and stand up. I will have to go back through the main bedroom to get to our private bathroom--one of only four in the complex--and re-wet the washcloth. Natasha will be there. I consider waiting until she goes to sleep. But that would be something she would do. I am stronger. I take one last look at Alexia, then look away and harden my eyes.
When I step from Alexia’s bedroom into our room Natasha is waiting for me. She sits at the tiny folding table we eat our dinners on and looks up at me with baleful eyes. They are crystal blue, a stolen piece of the open sky which I haven’t seen in months. Her gold hair spills down her shoulders, beautiful even in disarray. I cannot look at her and not see Alexia. If I’m honest, I still love that about her. She stands up in that manner which I know means this will not be a peaceful night.
“A resupply flight is arriving tomorrow,” she says without preamble. “I’m leaving on it when it returns.”
The announcement hits me like a punch to the gut. I want to double-over and retch. Instead I stand my ground and gaze at her silently. I wasn’t expecting this. She can’t go. Not so soon. Not when we were making progress.
“You should come with me,” she continues. “Leave this place in Boris’s hands for a season. Or two.”
“No.” It’s all I can get out at first, all I have breath for, but a growing pressure is building in my gut, hot and roiling. “I can’t leave Alexia. They’d stop the project.”
“Alexia is gone.” Her voice wavers. “Alexia died months ago. You can’t keep doing this. You can’t keep killing her over and over again.”
The pressure condenses into rage and it starts to boil up my throat. I swallow it down and tighten my hands into fists.
“Alexia is in the next room and she’s getting better every month. We will kill this cancer and she will live again.”
“Marya, you have to stop.” Her voice breaks and she’s blinking back tears now. “I barely recognize what you’ve become. I barely recognize what I’ve become. This cycle of birth and death, this constant unending murder of our child, it is destroying you. It is destroying me.”
“I will never stop. Not until our child is returned to us. You can go.” I jab a finger toward her, accusing. “If that’s how weak you are, how little your love means, you can take your bullshit love and leave. I still hurt, and I still care.”
Natasha’s tears well over and I feel a stabbing pain in my chest. It’s overcome by a sense of disgust. She doesn’t get to trump my emotions with her tears. The fact that she’s crying pales in comparison to Alexia’s death.
“Fine.” she croaks, wiping at her face. “I’m going. But I won't allow you to do this to Alexia anymore. It’s m-monstrous, and I’m taking her. All of her. The genetic s-samples, the neural scaffolding--all of it.”
My eyes narrow to slits and I can barely see around the encroaching rage.
“Like hell you are!” I spit. “Get the fuck out of here and don’t ever come back!”
“I m-mean it!” she says, stepping forward, hands clenched to her chest. There’s a fire deep in her eyes, shining past the tears. “I won’t allow you to do keep doing this to her! Killing her! She’s my daughter!”
My hand flies out of its own accord, slaps her across the face hard enough her whole body snaps to the left under the blow. I wouldn’t have stopped it anyway, it feels right. The sound echoes in the room like a gunshot. I step forward, both arms shaking with what must be rage. I can feel my face twist into a snarl.
“FUCK YOU!” I yell. “She’s not YOUR daughter! You think because you pushed her out of your cunt, like some talking brood sow, that gives you special license over her? I’ve been her goddamn mother for eight goddamn years, I have just as much claim to her as you! I love her, she is my life, she is my fucking soul, and you will never take her from me!”
I lean over Natasha, who is still bent to the left with a hand up to her cheek. It flares bright red where I struck her. There is fear in her eyes now, and something inside me hurts to see that from her, from the woman I’ve loved all my life, but not enough to stem the churning fury that’s risen to my chest.
“I won’t let you do this,” she forces out in a choked whisper. “I’ll tell them what you’re doing. It’s unethical. It’s immoral. It’s unapproved and unfunded. They will come down on you like a hammer.”
The washcloth lies forgotten on the floor. My heart thunders in my ears. I step forward and Natasha shrinks from me. I’m not any larger than her, but the storm howling inside drives me on. I continue forward until she’s pressed back against the wall, face turned away, quivering and sniveling. I raise my hand and she flinches as I place one finger on her cheek. I trace a line of tears down her face, then cup her chin and lean in. I press my nose into her hair, putting my mouth right by her ear.
“If you ever say or do anything to endanger Alexia, I will kill you. I don’t care where you are or what it takes, I will hunt you down and murder you. They will find your bloody carcass stripped of all its skin and rotting in a dumpster.” I take a breath. That may not be enough. She’s sobbing quietly now. “And then I will start on your family. First your cousin Petrov, and his blushing bride. Neither will live to see the end of the year. Then your mother, and your father. If they still haven’t caught me by then, I will hunt down both your nieces and drown them in a bathtub. I will continue to murder everyone you cared for until the day they finally catch me, and when they march me to the gallows I will go with a smile on my face, knowing that every last death is on your conscience and not mine.” I pause a moment. “Is that what you want?”
She whimpers incoherently and I hate her for forcing me to become this thing. I clench my hand, digging my fingers into the skin of her jaw. “Answer me,” I hiss.
I feel her tugging her head, and slacken my grip. She shakes her head minutely.
“Then you will never breathe a word of this to anyone, so long as you live.”
I let go of her and step back. She slides down to the floor, weeping. I watch her descend but she never raises her head to look at me, never raises her eyes from the ground. Her hair falls over her face like a veil, hiding her from me. I turn and walk back into Alexia’s room. I close the door behind me, softly.
I stand there for a long time, breathing, trying to calm myself. As the adrenaline begins to wash out of my system my body starts to tremble. My hands shake violently, and I cross my arms to steady them. I can fear hot tears welling up and I squeeze my eyes shut tight. I may vomit. I won’t go back into the main room. I’ll vomit right here if I have to.
Time passes, and I come back to myself. In the other room I can hear Natasha crying and throwing clothes into a bag. This isn’t the first time we’ve had a shouting fight, and no one even bothers to check on us anymore. Maybe this is for the best.
I cross to Alexia’s bed and notice she’s stopped shivering. She lies there serenely. I know what this means, but I still reach down to touch her. Her flesh is growing cool, but I force myself to check her pulse regardless.
I sit down on the floor, my back to the child’s bed, and bend my head over my drawn-up knees. I sit the night by my daughter’s body, waiting for her mother to leave. Tomorrow I will start again.
This story originally appeared in Asimov's.