Ever since Diotech Corporation released the first artificial womb—a safe and convenient new way to birth human babies— controversy for the cutting-edge product has risen as swiftly as the demand. For Rickar Hallix, however, the biomedical engineer who invented the womb, life has become steadily worse. When Rickar stumbles upon a possible defect in the latest batch of product, he suddenly finds himself thrust into the center of the endless, cut-throat battle between corporate greed and the security of human life.
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About the Author
Jessica Brody knew from a young age that she wanted to be a writer. She started "self-publishing" her own books when she was seven years old, binding the pages together with cardboard, wallpaper samples and electrical tape. Brody graduated from Smith College in 2001 with a double major in Economics and French and a minor in Japanese. She went to work for MGM Studios as a Manager of Acquisitions and Business Development, and then, in 2005, she quit her job to follow her dream of becoming a published author. Brody is the author of two novels for adults--The Fidelity Files and Love Under Cover--and the young adult novels The Karma Club and My Life Undecided. Jessica's books are published in over ten foreign countries including the U.K., France, Germany, Czech Republic, Russia, Brazil, China, Portugal, and Taiwan. She now works full time as a writer and producer, and currently splits her time between Los Angeles and Colorado.
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The Human Engineer
By Jessica Brody, Goñi Montes
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Jessica Brody
All rights reserved.
The baby let out a piercing wail that seemed to slice the air in half. The engineer looked up from his desk in the middle of the solitary lab and stared at the image playing on his wall screen. An extraction nurse was swaddling the screaming infant in a white blanket before placing it in the arms of the awaiting mother.
The mother's white designer suit was freshly pressed, her makeup thoroughly applied, her hair professionally styled. She looked like she just stepped out of a fashion stream. As she held the baby tightly and pressed her dark pink lips to its forehead, a single tear streamed down her powdered cheek.
The engineer fidgeted with the tiny red pill on his desk, rolling it back and forth under his index finger.
"I just never thought I'd ever have my own flesh and blood in my arms," the woman whimpered, her eyes never leaving the infant's face. The cams zoomed in, getting a close capture of the baby's stunning blue eyes. It had stopped crying and was now gazing back at its mother.
"Thank you, Diotech," she said quietly. "Thank you."
The engineer took another long swig from his glass, emptying the contents down his throat. The smoky brown liquid itched and burned on its descent, but the relief he felt—the quieting of the angry voices in his head—was almost instant.
The Memory Coders could keep their receptors and computers. Dr. Rickar Hallix had his own methods of memory manipulation. Although his, admittedly, weren't as long term.
He lifted his finger and stared down at the small red capsule on his desk, like a fallen warrior stares at the sword that is about to slay him.
Do it, one of the voices said, returning with a vengeance despite the copious amounts of alcohol in his system. End it now. It will be painless. It will be quick.
Don't, another argued. She wouldn't want it.
"She doesn't have a say," he wanted to argue with the voice. "She didn't stay around long enough to have a say."
He allowed his gaze to float back to the wall screen, watching the woman's smile broaden as the infant wrapped a miniature finger around her own.
He closed his eyes, trying to imagine her face in the scene instead. Her arms wrapped tightly around a baby they had made together. Her smile.
But as the alcohol took over his system, the image swam, blurring and swirling like water around a drain. He opened his eyes. The mother was no longer on the screen. Instead he was staring at Mosima Chan, the perky news anchor who had covered the story.
"Limone Therber was kind enough to allow her baby's extraction to be captured by our news crew," Mosima was saying. "She is one of the many mothers opting to utilize the artificial womb manufactured by Diotech Corporation in place of a natural childbirth."
The screen filled with a capture of the womb. The engineer recognized it as the stock publicity footage that Diotech sent to all the feed stations. A three-dimensional view of the product he had spent the better part of his life perfecting.
He'd nearly given up so many times for so many reasons. Lack of progress. Lack of money. Lack of inspiration.
It wasn't until the president of Diotech learned of his plight, offered him a cushy salary, a team of assistants, more laboratory space than he could ever want, and access to the research funds he so desperately needed, that his dream finally came to fruition.
"Although the product was controversial at first," Mosima was saying, "demand has risen dramatically over the past few months as more and more doctors are recommending ectogenesis as the safest birth option for their patients. Embryos grown in the artificial womb are given the best nutrients and care, while parents can continue to live the lifestyle to which they've grown accustomed. Limone Therber says she was able to travel, drink, eat anything, and never had to worry about the adverse effects on the growing infant."
"I was able to relax." The footage cut back to a capture of the mother, laying her now-sleeping baby to rest in a crib. She turned to the cams. "Knowing my baby was gestating safe and sound in the womb."
"Deactivate screen," the engineered barked. Limone Therber's face disappeared as the wall dimmed to a muted gray. He didn't need to watch the rest of the archive. He had the whole news story memorized.
He rolled the pill into his cupped hand and glared down at it. So much power—so much conclusiveness—condensed into such a tiny object.
"Give me one reason," he whispered into the dimly lit lab. "One reason I shouldn't end it all now."
He knew the desperate plea was the only way to bring her back. The only way she would speak to him. But he had to mean it. She would not reappear for empty threats. She didn't appreciate being toyed with like that.
He closed his eyes and waited.
Her response came three harrowing minutes later. In the darkness behind his eyelids, from the depths of his grief, she spoke to him.
"Me," she said breathily. Ethereally. Like wind in the trees. An echo in space. "I have always been your reason. I will always be your reason."
His eyes snapped open. His fingers closed tightly around the capsule. With one decisive yank, he pulled his desk drawer open and dropped the pill inside, slamming it closed again with a bang.
He refilled his glass and took another long pull before stumbling over to the small cot he kept in the corner of the lab and collapsing onto it. The brown liquid sloshed over the side of the glass, soaking his shirt, but he didn't care. The smell of the liquor could only help his general odor.
He'd been spending more and more nights in the lab. His apartment in the Residential Sector was too cold. Too sparse. Too saturated in the memory of her perfume.
As he lay on the cot, he prayed that sleep would come quickly tonight. But the moment his body and thoughts settled, the shadows on the walls started to flicker, beginning their nightly invasion.
They moved ominously toward him, like darkness creeping into his vision, constantly approaching but never getting any closer. It was an optical illusion that even his engineer brain couldn't comprehend.
He blamed the alcohol. He blamed the voices in his head. He blamed himself for never being able to swallow that damn pill.
But more than anything, he blamed her.
* * *
Rickar awoke to a ping on his Lenses. The sales director was waiting to speak to him. He checked his reflection in the lab's bathroom mirror, straightened his hair, pulled at his gaunt cheeks, and finally unrolled his DigiSlate to initiate the connection. He hadn't changed his clothes—or even left the lab—for the better part of a week. He glanced down at his grimy, soiled garments and carefully angled the Slate upward so that only his face was in the frame.
A few seconds later, Director Polnat appeared on the screen. He looked flustered. "Rickar," he bellowed. "I need you at the plant by ten."
The engineer took note of the time flickering in the periphery of his vision. 9:45 am.
He'd never make it.
"What's the problem?" he asked the sales director.
"We're ramping up production. We just received two-hundred thousand new womb orders and we need to double our output speed."
Rickar blinked. "Double? But the machines are at max capacity as is."
"We brought in ten new machines last week. Their first outputs are coming off the line today. That's why I need you there. Make sure everything is running smoothly."
Rickar fought the urge to roll his eyes, knowing he was still on cam. He was a biomedical engineer, not an operations manager. Didn't Diotech have specialists for this kind of thing? But he also knew that, truthfully, he had nothing else to do. The womb had launched into the marketplace over a year ago and apart from overseeing a few updates and remodels, he had yet to come up with a new project. He'd told Dr. Alixter, the president of Diotech, that he was busy with several very exciting prospects, but that was a lie. The engineer spent his days drinking, watching archived news stories and documentaries about his product, and pretending to look busy behind closed doors. It was an art he'd mastered rather quickly.
But what else could he do? The artificial womb was his life's work. His piece de resistance. He'd never thought about what he would do once it was complete. He supposed he never fully believed it would ever be complete.
"To be perfectly honest," Rickar started to argue. "I'm on the brink of a huge breakthrough here, I'm not sure I can get away."
But Polnat did not look convinced and Rickar was worried he was starting to get a reputation around the Diotech compound. He scratched at his neck and tried to recover. "It's almost ten already. I don't even think I could make it on time."
"I'm sending a hover. It'll meet you at the archway of the Medical Sector in five minutes. You'll be at the plant just in time."
Rickar sighed and signed off the connection. Apparently, this wasn't a request. It was an order. He glanced down again at his unkempt appearance and dirty clothes.
Flux, he thought wearily, now I actually have to shower.
* * *
The hovercopter dropped him at the back of the manufacturing plant. Diotech had many plants scattered around the world. Rickar was grateful that, at least, this one was closest to the compound. He could have easily had to travel to South America.
He eyed the massive building in front of him. MagTrucks were lined up as far as he could see, hovering just high enough to reach the loading doors that led into the plant. Labor bots were loading boxes stamped with the Diotech logo into the trucks.
Despite himself, Rickar was somewhat awed by the process. So many wombs being shipped off, ready to bring life and laughter to families across the globe. Finally, a completely safe, convenient, and pain-free way to give birth. Safe for the baby. Safe for the parents. Minimal work for the medical practitioners. In fact, doctors no longer needed to be present for the births. Most parents opted for the less expensive extraction nurse. The labor process now only required the presence of a practitioner certified in the mechanics of the artificial womb. His invention had destroyed one industry, but given life to a brand new one. A much more accessible one. Training to be an extraction nurse took only weeks, not years.
And the childbirth complication rate had dropped to less than .001% for those utilizing womb. Most complications arose from user error or bad genetics. Not from the womb itself.
The engineer's dream had always been to save lives. Nothing more. He would have given the wombs away for free if he could have. But of course, Diotech would not have that. The price point was high. High enough to make Rickar cringe every time he saw an ad for it on the Feed. But he supposed when you eliminate the cost of the hospital stay and any extra charges resulting from birthing complications, it was right on the money. The patients were paying for certainty. They were paying for life. And you couldn't put a price on either of those.
Although Diotech certainly had tried.
Now, watching these MagTrucks being loaded up with his product, seeing his dream as such a huge, successful reality, the engineer was suddenly overcome with emotion. He felt tears prick the corners of his eyes and he quickly blinked them away.
Despite this unexpected reaction, he still had no desire to stay here any longer than he had to.
"Let's get this over with," he mumbled to himself as he staggered toward the door.
The massive, debilitating hangover was just starting to settle into his temples. He'd left so quickly, he hadn't had a chance to seek out any Hydrator capsules from the Medical Sector. Now he was berating himself for choosing cleanliness over pain relief.
The hustle and bustle of activity inside the plant only made his nausea worse. So much was happening at once, he got dizzy trying to focus on any one thing. Machines as loud as thunder were working tirelessly to construct each individual womb as labor bots fed materials and parts onto the conveyor belt and monitored the outputs.
"You from headquarters?" A voice startled him and he turned around to see a short man with a pinched face staring up at him.
"What?" he screamed back over the noise. "Is it always so loud in here?"
The man chuckled and reached into his pocket, producing two small earplants. Rickar grabbed the cone-shaped nodules and shoved them into his ears. The noise from the machines was instantly muted, the counter frequency of the earplants effectively neutralizing the racket. Rickar had never been so grateful to hear his own thoughts again.
"Better?" the man asked.
Rickar sighed. "Yes. Thank you."
"You from headquarters?" he asked again.
Rickar nodded. "Polnat sent me to oversee the first outputs from the new machines."
The man beckoned for Rickar to follow him. "Right this way. I'm Ivvy Wasser, by the way."
"Rickar," the engineer responded. "Dr. Rickar Hallix." He waited for the recognition. The "What is the creator of the artificial womb doing here ?" question. But neither came. Ivvy kept on walking. Clearly, the engineer's fame did not extend to the manufacturing plants. In fact, he doubted it extended past the compound walls. After all, it wasn't his name being stamped onto the outside of those boxes.
He'd given over his glory when he'd agreed to bring his project to Diotech.
He tried to assure himself that he didn't care. It wasn't about the glory. It was about the people. The families. The babies.
It was about proving her wrong.
Too bad she wasn't here to see it.
He followed Ivvy through the plant, passing a steel door marked "Authorized Personnel Only." Rickar slowed his steps, studying the door. He wondered why he didn't remember seeing it there the last time he'd visited the plant. Had he been so hungover he didn't even notice?
He was about to return his gaze to Ivvy, still moving steadily in front of him, when the steel door slid open and a scientist in a white lab coat emerged. He didn't recognize the man, not that he assumed he should. Diotech had countless employees. He certainly couldn't keep track of all of them. But it wasn't the man's identity that was causing the engineer concern. It was the brief glimpse behind the steel door that he managed just before it slid shut again.
There was something being constructed back there. Something that looked disturbingly like his artificial womb but nearly four times the size.
His slow steps reduced to a full halt.
Why on earth would they need to build such a large womb? Were they planning to start gestating baby elephants? Horses? Fully grown humans?
The engineer almost laughed aloud at his own crazy thought. He really needed to get more sleep. He had probably just mistaken what he'd seen. After all, he'd only barely caught a peek as the doors were closing. He considered asking Ivvy if he could poke around behind the door, but that would require him to be here longer than he had to.
Most likely it was just a part for one of the new machines, he reasoned and kept walking.
He followed Ivvy into a newly expanded section of the plant where a dozen real people—not bots—were testing each unit that came down the conveyor belt.
"This is the newest batch," Ivvy told him, pointing to the boxes stacked all the way to the ceiling. "We ran an initial batch of three thousand to make sure the new machines were working properly. Once these are all quality tested, we'll run the process at top speed and be able to hit our quota by the end of the week."
Rickar was already beginning to feel tired. He nodded drowsily and watched as one of the testing technicians—a young girl with safety goggles over her eyes—ran a systems check on the womb currently in front of her. The product was smaller than his original design. An oval-shaped synthoglass egg mounted atop a synthosteel construction with a flat monitoring screen attached. Once he'd proven the concept, they'd been able to compact the size. Dr. Alixter, the president, had wanted it to fit on a store shelf, even though, at this point, they were still only available for sale through a doctor's office.
The womb was currently empty apart from the synthetic uterine wall. The neon-orange amniotic fluid would be added later, when the womb was ready to receive the fertilized egg.
The technician finished her systems test, sealing the open utility panel on the side, and pushing a button to transfer the womb back to the conveyor belt. Rickar watched the object travel to the end of the line where a humanlike labor bot packaged it carefully inside a large box. Then a forklift lifted the market-ready product and transferred it to the top of the nearest growing stack. Meanwhile, another womb had been transferred via mechanical arm to the technician's workplace.
This is what he was brought here to do?
Any monkey with a Slate could have done this job.
He blinked drowsily and turned to Ivvy. "Is that it?"
Ivvy didn't seem to understand the question. "I'm sorry?"
"Is that all you need from me?"
Ivvy glanced uncertainly between Rickar and the row of technicians. "I suppose so. Does that mean you're satisfied with the new batch?"
Rickar waved his hand lazily, like he was swatting at a fly. He longed for his cot. For the quiet of his lab. For another drink. "Sure. Yes. Very satisfied. Well done."
Ivvy seemed surprised by the speediness of the visit. "Great. Thank you, sir."
Rickar nodded, trying to stand up a little straighter, even though he could feel the hangover weighing him down like a sack of flour on his shoulders. "You're welcome."
He turned to leave, stumbling over his own feet. He spun back around to see if anyone had noticed. Everyone had. So, for good measure, he mumbled, "So ... um, keep up the good work."
He was about to turn back again when something caught his eye. He hadn't noticed it before but behind the technicians was a row of giant screens feedcasting a close capture of the unit each tester was examining.
The third tester from the left—a middle-aged woman with curly black hair that had been pulled away from her face by nanopins—sealed off the paneling of the womb she was working on and transferred it to the conveyor.
Excerpted from The Human Engineer by Jessica Brody, Goñi Montes. Copyright © 2015 Jessica Brody. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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