Pride and Joy

By Gustavo Bondoni

Myrna signaled that she wanted to get off.

The driver eyed her in the mirror, his face registering surprise, “Whatcha want to get off here for?” he asked. “There ain’t nothing around.”

It was true. This stretch of Highway 25, fifteen miles south of the ghost town of Socorro, New Mexico, was just as desolate as any other, yet her GPS informed her that they were almost on top of the dirt road that led to the base.

“Just let me off,” she said.

The driver grunted, pushed a few buttons, and brought the vehicle to a halt. “It’s your funeral.”

As Myrna descended, a blast of hot desert air hit her like a physical force, but she paid no attention to it. She also ignored the beating of the sun, a blazing presence straight up in the sky. She wasn’t unprepared for the weather. She soon had a broad-brimmed hat in place, and the comforting weight of a gallon of water inside her backpack pressed into her shoulders as she watched the faded hover bus disappear into the distance, its air-cushion floating effortlessly over the cracked and pitted concrete. Both the vehicle and the road reminded her of how badly infrastructure had suffered during the war.

But she couldn’t just stand there all day. She might have plenty of water, but she also had a five-mile hike ahead, and her GPS had been detuned for civilian use, so it was accurate only to within a few hundred yards. It might take some time to find the trail she wanted, even assuming that she’d been given the correct coordinates.

So Myrna moved. She walked to the south for five minutes before admitting she’d gone the wrong way. After retracing her steps for a further seven minutes, she was rewarded by the sight of the dirt road, nearly invisible as it disappeared into the desert. A rust-colored path in a rust-colored waste, identifiable only because it was slightly lower and less rocky than its surroundings.

The base was down this trail, five miles from her current position. It was definitely a good thing she’d brought plenty of water.

She began to walk.

She remembered that, a few years earlier, when the hospital came into view she nearly turned back. Nine months had given her time to reflect, time to think, time to regret what she’d agreed to do. She knew it was impossible, that the government had chipped her so they could find her at a moment’s notice if they needed to, and that there was no sense in trying to make a run for it, but, God, how she wanted to try.

Myrna entered the hospital older and wiser than the idealistic girl who’d decided she would do anything to help the Southwest Confederation to win their war of secession. She had offered to make the greatest contribution: she’d rented her womb for the Perfect Soldier Program. She’d been so confident of final victory that she’d wanted to do her part in creating the men that would ensure its future. They had California and Silicon Valley. They had cheap labor from Mexico. They just couldn’t lose.

All that had been nine months earlier, before she’d felt the life growing inside her, before she felt the baby moving in her stomach, getting larger every day. Before she’d understood that this swelling in her abdomen might soon be gone, but what it represented would be part of her forever.

She was well aware what she’d agreed to. She knew that the privileges and monetary rewards she’d been enjoying since the insemination had been given only because she’d agreed. But none of that mattered now. She couldn’t give up the baby.

A nurse, forewarned of Myrna’s imminent arrival by the chip in her arm, met her at the reception desk and smiled warmly.

“Miss Jones. Welcome to Sacred Heart.” The nurse put a hand on her stomach. Her uniform identified her as an Air Force Sergeant. “How long ago did your water break?”

“Maybe twenty minutes. But…” Myrna didn’t dare say anything more.

The nurse hurried her into a pre-labor room, asked her to undress, and helped her into a bed. The other beds in the room were invisible, hidden behind partition curtains.

“A doctor will be by to see you in just a minute,” the nurse told her as she turned to go.

Myrna suddenly, impulsively, gripped the nurse’s arm.

“I don’t want to give up the baby,” she said. “I’ve changed my mind. I can’t do it.”

The nurse’s smile barely flickered, “Of course, dear. It’s perfectly natural that you should feel that way. But you have to understand that genetically modified humans like your little boy,” she patted Myrna’s stomach, “require special care.”

“I can do it. I’ll take whatever specialized training courses I have to. But I won’t give up the baby. I just won’t.”

The nurse smiled again, a compassionate, reassuring gesture. “I’ll tell the doctor about your decision and see what I can do to help.”

Relief poured into Myrna, leaving her drained and exhausted. “Thank you,” she sighed.

The nurse turned away, walked to a small table against the wall, and returned, holding two small green pills and a glass of water. “Here, these will help with the pain. We’ve found that the genetic modifications make labor more painful than normal.”

Myrna took the proffered pills, swallowed, and washed them down. Thirty seconds later, blackness overcame her.

She woke on a hard cot in a small room. The single window was a thin slit, high in the wall, which let in almost no light. The door, a sturdy metal affair, was locked from the outside.

And the swelling of her stomach was gone. They’d taken her baby.

The sky was deep blue, but her world was a dusty, reddish gray. By the fourth mile, Myrna was no longer willing to expend the energy necessary to keep her gaze forward. In consequence, she’d spent the last mile looking into the dust-covered, stony ground of the path in front of her.

She concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other, careful not to stumble on a rock or a depression. It was very possible that she wouldn’t be able to walk back. And after her water ran out, that would mean death.

It didn’t really matter, though. If there was nobody at the base, she wouldn’t have much reason to go on living.

Myrna lifted her head and, for a fleeting moment, her hopes soared. About a hundred yards ahead, at the bottom of a shallow depression that had been hiding it from view, stood a large, squat building. The uninspired architecture and lack of decoration other than myriad communications antennae marked it as a government building of some sort. It was surely what she’d gone there to find.

But as she approached, any hope was crushed. The gate on the tall fence hung open, one corner buried in the dirt and only one hinge keeping it from collapsing altogether,

The building itself wasn’t much better off: the windows were shattered, the paint was faded, and the façade marred by shallow pits. Bullet holes? Myrna felt the final spark of optimism collapse under the weight of the reality facing her. She collapsed onto the sand and sat there, just staring at the building, as desperation sent tears streaming down her cheeks. She could feel them leaving muddy tracks in the dust on her face.

Her sorrow was so great that she remained there, immobile for two full hours before her shocked subconscious managed to get the message to her brain that something was not quite right about the scene. And it took her even longer to understand what it was.

There was a light burning behind one of the cracked windows.

She remembered what happened after the hospital. It seemed to Myrna that she’d been in the cell forever. The monotony of the four two-tone walls — gray on the bottom, dirty white from shoulder level upwards — was broken only by the steel door, the bed, the toilet, and the basin. Twice a day, a tray holding some kind of nutritional paste and a glass of water was pushed through a drawer in the door. Sometimes it was accompanied by a change of sheets for the bed or a clean coverall or a bar of soap or some other item of personal hygiene for Myrna herself, but that was all. The cell was too small for meaningful exercise, but she wouldn’t be getting fat on the meager food allowance anytime soon.

She knew she was getting weaker, and she knew she was going crazy, but no amount of screaming at the walls brought human interaction. She practiced talking to the toilet, and to the basin, even imagining that each had distinct personalities, just so that she wouldn’t forget how to do so.

She was sleeping more and more, and felt her mind slipping slowly. She knew that the sheer despondency was beginning to kill her. She decided to stop eating. She had reached the point in which she didn’t bother to get up anymore when the banging on the door in the middle of one night woke her.

She screamed and screamed. The violent clanging was something she hadn’t expected, something alien and menacing, and she was terrified. She hid her head under the covers, whimpering after the raggedness of her voice made screaming impossible.

A final clang was followed by a different sound: the tortured screaming of metal on metal. A noise which her memory told her was that of a door opening on rusty hinges.

And footsteps, approaching. Heavy boots, by the sound of it. A man’s voice.

“It’s all right now. You can come out. You’re free.”

But Myrna didn’t trust herself to move. She couldn’t remember the last time somebody had spoken to her. She felt a hand pulling the sheets off her face, so she covered it with her hands. And when her hands were carefully but firmly pried away, she shut her eyes.

Eventually, seeing that she was not being harmed, she risked opening them a crack. A huge figure, wearing some kind of reflective goggles and breathing audibly through a filter, loomed over her in the darkness. A figure from the horror movies of her childhood.

She screamed hoarsely and bit the arm holding her hands.

The figure quickly immobilized her again, and she felt a slight prick on her exposed neck. She lost consciousness almost immediately.

Myrna awoke to see another face, this time that of an old man, hovering in front of her, but that was not what immediately captured her attention. First, the reality that she was in an enormous room flooded with harsh white light, reflected painfully back at her from the bright cream-colored walls. Chromed machinery sparkled in the light, and she trembled at the sheer bigness of it all. Emotions welled up within her: joy at being in such a big room, such a beautiful, enormous free space. She began to cry and moved her hands to wipe the tears away, but found herself restrained. She was tied to her bed by a white ceramic fastener with LEDs glowing on the surface.

“I’m sorry about that, dear,” the old man said, smiling sadly and wiping her face with a soft towel, “but the report from the incursion team said you’d bitten one of the soldiers. If you promise to behave, I’ll release one of your arms.”

Myrna nodded, still not trusting herself to speak.

The man gestured, calling up two orderlies in bright white to stand beside Myrna’s bed. Once they were in place, he pulled a remote out of a coat pocket and fiddled with it. The clasp holding Myrna’s left arm opened.

When Myrna raised the arm jerkily, the orderlies tensed but didn’t interfere, and they relaxed as she got control of her movements and used the hand to wipe away her tears.

“Hello,” she said to the old man. His kindly face inspired no fear, no further reason to remain silent.

He smiled, with genuine emotion this time, and motioned for the orderlies to retire. “I’m glad you’re with us,” he said.

“Who are you?” she asked. “Where am I?”

“My name is Henry Seagrave. I’m a psychiatrist working for the US government. My job is to make certain that political prisoners receive the treatment they need to be released back into society.”

“The US government?”

“The war is over, Miss Jones.”

“So we lost.” It wasn’t a question.

“In a way, everybody won. The US is one country again, although we’re still trying to figure out what to do with occupied Mexico. And you should be happy about it. You were slated for life imprisonment on charges of treason to the Confederation.”

Life in that tiny room? And for treason? Why would they accuse her of treason? She’d done everything, given everything to help the Southwest and keep the lifestyle alive!

And then, forced by circumstances, she remembered what she’d made herself forget for all the years that she’d spent in the cell.

“Where’s my son?” she asked, frantically clawing at the restraint holding her other arm, shaking the bed violently. “I have to see my son!”

Dr. Seagrave simply shook his head and pushed another button on his remote. Myrna felt her frenzy fade into a soft drowsiness, followed by sleep.

As Myrna stepped into the gloomy interior of the building, a voice emerged from the darker depths, “Ma’am, I’m afraid you can’t come in here. This building is government property.” A woman’s voice, sounding sad and forlorn, and perfectly suited to the shadows and run-down surroundings.

“I’m here for my son,” Myrna replied, ignoring the warning and walking further into the room. She stopped in front of the woman’s figure and waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. “If you want me to leave, you’ll have to shoot me.”

The woman laughed, a hollow, defeated sound. “I wish I could, but they didn’t even leave me a rifle to shoot coyotes with. And human predators aren’t really an issue. The only reason they didn’t lock me up with the rest of the Confederation prisoners is that someone had to look after the children. Someone familiar.”

Myrna could now see the other woman clearly. At first, she thought her madness was returning, that she’d grown paranoid and delusional in her captivity. But she soon realized that what she saw was the truth. In front of her, haggard and older, but unmistakably the same person, stood the nurse from the hospital. The nurse that had betrayed her.

Cold fury shot through her and seemed to resonate with something within the building. Her hair stood on end, and she knew, without knowing how she knew, that if she tried any violence, she would die. She got hold of herself and tried to focus.

“Are the children still here?” she asked, finally.

“Some. Most of them couldn’t take it. The lucky ones are buried out in the desert. The rest are upstairs, slowly dying one by one. And to think that they were our big hope to win the war. Our supersoldiers.” The woman shook her head bitterly.

“Is my son up there?” Myrna couldn’t believe that the boy could be dead. Not after all she’d been through.

“How should I know? None of the children were identified. They were training to be soldiers, not cute little Jimmies and Johnnies.”

“Don’t you remember me?” Myrna asked desperately.

The nurse moved closer. After studying Myrna for a while, she said, “No, I don’t, but I’ll give you some free advice. The kids up there aren’t normal. They don’t look like normal six-year-olds, and they don’t act normal, either. You’ll be disgusted by what you see, and they’ll pick that feeling up, right out of your mind. And that will be bad for them. So, if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for them: go away.”

“No. I need to find my son.”

“You’ve never seen him. How can you possibly believe that you’ll be able to recognize him, even if he is alive?”

“He’s my son. I’ll know.” Myrna brushed the nurse, who made no effort to stop her, aside and headed for the stairs.

The woman at the desk was trying to be helpful, but was having a hard time, mainly because Myrna had used up her entire store of patience in the succession of frantic days since being released from the mental institute and was not in a very friendly mood.

The doctors had finally realized that she was as well as she could be, and wouldn’t get any better until she obtained some closure regarding her son, so considering that she was unlikely to be a danger to herself or to society they’d authorized her release.

She’d immediately used the money the government had given her to catch the first flight to Washington D.C., and began her search. She went from desk to desk, from officer to officer, refusing to leave until help was promised or obtained, until another piece of the puzzle was fitted.

It surprised her that everyone she spoke to seemed to want to help. No one stalled or had her thrown out, but, even so, progress was excruciatingly slow.

The problem wasn’t that what she was looking for was classified, it was that, since the war had only been over for a couple of months, nobody had yet managed to get all the Confederation’s files organized.

The first thing she learned was that the project she’d been a part of had been created to generate humans with a higher capacity for analysis, which would make training quicker and allow them to operate machinery of higher complexity. This objective had been successfully achieved with one subject in a lab, and the call had gone out for volunteers. She’d signed up to be the mother of one of the first “production” soldiers, one of one hundred women who’d been inseminated with modified sperm. The records showed eighty-one live births, of which three had been terminated (the cold-blooded term was from the file, not hers). Two of the mothers had also died in childbirth.

No mention, however, was made of where the children were being brought up, but she’d been directed to the sorting office, a large warehouse where boxes of Confederation paper files awaited analysis, filing, and codification. Another meeting, with a general, this time had gotten her authorization.

The overworked woman at the desk hadn’t been happy to see her when she arrived bearing official papers clearing her to view anything relevant to her case, but had attacked the problem logically and professionally. A check of the information they did have sorted turned up one file describing the children’s progress. It reported that the children had tested analytically normal for their ages over the first three-and-a-half years of life, and concluded on those grounds that the project was likely doomed to failure in that it would produce no supersoldiers.

Nevertheless, the experiment was not terminated because of some secondary findings that were also reported. Despite being unable to raise the IQ of the subjects above that which would be expected of normal children, the modifications to the brain structure caused the children’s brains to become sensitive to both magnetic and electric fields. The report went on to draw a parallel between this faculty and the electric sense owned by sharks.

This, in itself, would have been interesting, but there was more. The electric sensibility allowed the children to sense what another person was feeling, through tiny shifts in the brain’s electric currents and to project their own magnetic fields into other people’s heads — causing the electricity of the affected party’s brain to be disrupted.

When the children had a tantrum, their nurses often wound up dead.

No clue, however, was given as to which of the children had survived — the code numbers had been assigned at random to make them untraceable — or where the facility was located. All they knew was that the file had come from the central confederate office in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“Why are you so interested in this?” the uniformed woman at the desk had finally asked her. It was the first time in three days that she’d talked about anything other than strictly search-related matters. “Are you a reporter?”

“I’m looking for my son.”

The woman’s face softened as comprehension dawned. “We’ll find the place, ma’am. I promise.”

The children didn’t look the way she’d imagined. She thought they’d be tall and thin with elongated foreheads, like the super-smart humans of science fiction, but they were squat, dwarfish, and seemed to have heads that were a little wider than standard.

Their features were slightly porcine, and they looked alike, uniformly dark-haired and dark-eyed. They glanced up without much interest as she entered the room and went back to their toys.

Myrna looked frantically around, trying to feel whether her son was present, but was unable to tell. There might have been fifteen children all told.

“Is this all?”

The nurse, who had accompanied her, nodded sadly.

Myrna rushed forward, got down on her knees, and stared into the eyes of the nearest child. Nothing. No recognition at all.

Doubts assailed her: would she even be able to recognize her son? Or was everybody else right about it, that a son who she’d never seen would be impossible for her to identify? Maybe he was dead.

She ran to the next nearest child. Nothing. The other children, sensing her agitation, were becoming restless.

Another child. Nothing. And another.

She was fooling herself. This wouldn’t work. She’d just have to accept it. But she didn’t stop rushing around.

The seventh child was reading a picture book on the floor, slumped over the pages as if nearsighted. She took hold of his shoulders and pulled up his head.

One look into the boy’s eyes was all it took. A wave of relief flooded over her, and the guilt that had been her constant companion for four years vanished. Looking into the child’s elongated face, she remembered the life that had grown up inside her. And the enormous void left by the guilt was filled by an unexpected, and most certainly irrational, feeling of love and happiness. It was like nothing she could remember feeling.

The child sat perfectly still, looking straight at her with an expression of supreme concentration. And then his features softened, and he gave her a beatific smile.

“I feel it,” he said.

The moment passed, and the smile became the expression of curiosity mixed with the understanding that all children master at an early age, regardless of what they look like.

“Are you my mommy?”

Myrna nodded, and tentatively held out her hand.

The child took it without hesitation and smiled at her again. As they walked towards the stair, and the exit, and real life, he spoke again.

“Don’t cry, mommy,” he said.




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