The uterpod convulsed wildly, and somewhere, a muted alarm began to ping.
Even from a distance, Fred F4RB8C3 knew the mutaclone was in distress. Not another! he thought. That'll be the fifth this year! Maneuvering his extensile to the uterpod, Fred shoved the catch basket beneath it, and then examined the figure inside the transparent membrane.
Arms and legs akimbo, a fem mutaclone stared back at him, eyes wide with terror. At the sight of her, five thousand copulation positions tried to crowd into his mind at once, his escoriant simumems intruding, nanostimmed into him during his gestation. He pushed aside the memories.
Where'd she come from? Fred wondered, only factory drudges growing in this sector. Mutaclone drudges, like himself. He pulled up her gestation history on his corn. She'd been recently moved from the escoriant sector, where escort variants were grown to order, this perfect-looking specimen flagged as defective.
Doesn't look defective to me, he thought, in spite of her contortions. Even limbs akimbo, she looked perfectly proportioned, her anatomy visible in all its detail.
Fred considered a sedative. Her flailing jostled the mutaclones all around her. The tough uterpod membrane gave at every jab of her limb, the derma designed to contain but not restrict. He had to do something, the uterpod derma too tough, too resilient, and too elastic to escape from the inside.
Fred F4RB8C3 looked both ways. To the right and left, uterpods extended for hundreds of feet, two walls of glistening pods facing each other with just enough room between them for his extensile lift. Above and below, more pods, his sector nearly two hundred yards tall.
Glad no one was near, Fred pulled out his injectile. The needle looked deadly, its fat, menacing barrel ending in a sharp, shiny point.
Her eyes went wide, and she kicked at him violently.
He pulled the injectile back and took the kick on the shoulder. Without backing or force, she couldn't hurt him. He grabbed a handful of derma and stretched it toward him, then put the injectile point to it and tore.
The uterpod retracted as if in pain and peeled away from the mutaclone, dumping her into the catch basket. A spray of amniofluid fell toward the waste sluice a hundred feet below.
She lay there a moment, gasping and glistening. "Thank you," she said breathily, venturing a glance his direction.
"You're welcome," Fred said. He tore his gaze away, desire and embarrassment sending blood rushing into his face. The front of his allsuit tented from the bulge underneath.
The specimen in front of him looked just as delectable and healthy as any he'd seen when he'd worked the escoriant sector. Escort variants sold for thousands of galacti on the open market, sometimes tens of thousands. And this one was fully formed, all her anatomical features visible through the transparent derma as she'd struggled to escape the uterpod. He knew what some of his coworkers did in the escoriant sector when they thought no one was looking. Product-testing, they sometimes joked.
Trying his best to keep his eyes off her, he maneuvered the extensile back toward his workstation. "Let's get you an allsuit. Got a spare over here."
"Nice of you."
He threw her a grin but tried not to glance. And failed.
"Awful young to be doing this kind of work, aren't you?"
"Born here on the asteroid five years ago. I'm Fred Eff Four Are Bee Eight Cee Three," he said, spelling out his clone designation. She sounds far too alert to have just aborted from a uterpod, Fred thought, bewildered. He docked the extensile, silenced the alarm at his workstation, and stepped to the locker. He handed her the allsuit, averting his gaze.
She took the allsuit and began to dress. "I'm—"
He waited until the rustling ceased and looked at her.
Fear and bewilderment rippled across her face. The allsuit couldn't disguise her alluring curves. She stood five-eight and was generously endowed, possessing a figure that would turn the heads of either sex. She had wheat-blond hair cascading straight past her shoulders, sported a V-shaped face that took the breath away, had a small smile that was warm and inviting, and had large, wide-set, intelligent eyes, their color as blue as amethyst.
Eyes that searched inside for a name. "I don't know who I am."
She has a lot of ease and confidence for not knowing who she is, he thought, admiring her composure. "Your designation is KTX552Y, so your name probably starts with Kay. Why don't you know your name?"
"I don't know." She shook her head. "I know I had one, back when I lived on—" She stared at him.
She's not seeing me, he thought. Her confusion was fairly common, even if her awareness wasn't. "—on Tantalus?" he asked. "I don't think so. You were just aborted from a uterpod. You've never lived anywhere."
"You see that chute?" he interrupted, pointing toward the floor. A narrow strip of concave sluice drained amniofluid and other detritus that sloughed off the twelve hundred mutaclones in this sector. "I'm supposed to send you down that chute. All aborted mutaclones go down the chute. You think you've lived 'cause the uterpods infuse pseudo-sensory simumems through nanostim tendrils into your brain. But it isn't real." Although she does seem remarkably alert, he thought, keeping it to himself.
"And the simumems give the mutaclones a sense of past," she added, "each memory tailored to the environment where they'll be serving. I know because I'm a doctor of—" she stared at him, that bewildered look taking hold of her face again.
"What, rocket science?" He snorted at his own joke. "Look, just have a seat, and when my shift ends, I'll take you over to the escoriant sector. They'll know what to do with you."
"Escoriant? An escort variant? Do I look like an escoriant?"
The equivalent of calling her a whore. She did have the face and body of a goddess and would fetch a steep price at open auction. What was he supposed to say? "Your gestation history tells me that's where you were transferred from."
"Oh, I see." Her ardor deflated, and she glanced around.
"You'll stay put for another hour?"
"Of course," she said matter-of-factly. "Oh, uh, thanks, Fred."
He smiled. "You're welcome. All right if I call you Kate?"
"Sure," she said, giving him a brief smile.
"Pleased to meet you." He gave her a bow and a grin. "Got to clean up," he said, gesturing up toward the uterpod where she'd been hanging. He engaged the extensile, lifting himself back to the now-limp and -empty uterpod, the derma hanging slack.
He maneuvered the extensile in between the full uterpods to get at the placental stem. The collar came away easily, and he inspected the nanostim base for damage. None visible, but just to make sure, he ran a bioscan. Some contusions from the abrupt withdrawal, the nanostim filaments having infiltrated the mutaclone's nervous system. Usually, a struggling mutaclone triggered the uterpod to withdraw the filaments to avoid such damage. When they didn't, placental stems were damaged and had to be replaced. Under the placental stem was the sector wall, ribbed with conduit. Soft slurping accompanied the peristalsis as the conduits pumped nutrients to the uterpods. Other conduits pumped waste out to the recycler. Silvery bundles of nanostim filaments crossed conduits like filigree.
The collar and empty uterpod derma went down the chute, the biomatter recycler reconstituting every bit of waste. Fred pulled back to look over his handiwork. On his corn, he scanned the vitals of the surrounding uterpods. The neighboring mutaclones hadn't been damaged by the aborted mutaclone's struggle, other than some slight bruising.
Most were factory drones, in a variety of shapes and sizes, tailored for specific tasks. The one beside him was a hulking male with six arms sprouting from his back. Two short, squat legs could hold him in place for twenty hours at a stretch. The vestigial penis and scrotum would remain infantile, his gonadotropin output genetically restricted.
Fred maneuvered the extensile away from the wall, checking his corn for any latent vitals out of range. No signs of distress. He breathed a sigh, the number of aborted mutaclones far higher in his sector than normal, especially this late in gestation. Inviability was far more common at the zygote stage, just after fertilization. The gene jockeys bragged in the lunchroom about colony extermination, propagation across cell lines, mutavariant anomalies, and RNA reticular recombinants. Fred didn't need to know all that. They hadn't even trained him in cardio. Either the mutaclone lived or died, and this late in gestation, heroic resuscitation wasn't a priority. A glorified mutaclone sitter in all I am, he thought.
Peering toward his workstation, he didn't see Kate.
Where'd she go? he wondered, sending his extensile that way.
He could just imagine the recriminations, seeing the newsvid headlines: "Escaped escoriant rampages through asteroid mutaclone facility." He'd surely be fired. There'd been talk about him, of course. He was a rarity, one of the few aborted mutaclones working in the sectors, nearly all the other workers having been successfully extruded from their uterpods or having emigrated from Tantalus. Most of his peers who'd lived through their gestation could be sold on open market. Aborted mutaclones might be sold thus, but only as refurbished or reconditioned, and the company barely recouped its costs. It was unusual for workers to intervene and take abortivariants home to rear as their own.
Fred was one such abortivariant. Five years ago, he'd wriggled out of his uterpod prematurely and had fallen toward the chute for recycling. A swift extensile maneuver by Greg, the sector monitor, had stopped his slow, asteroid-gravity fall with the catch basket.
Maneuvering the extensile back to his workstation, Fred leapt to the platform and peered out the door to see which way she'd gone, but to no avail.
He sighed, wondering what he'd tell his father, Greg.
Dr. Sarina Karinova blinked the fatigue from her eyes and looked again at the genalysis.
I hope this is some sort of mistake, she thought. A primary care physician who'd originally specialized in recombinant development and propagation, Sarina knew what she was seeing.
But didn't believe it, even after checking a third time.
The genalysis before her exhibited the allele smoothing common to mutaclone gengineering.
Dr. Karinova didn't want to see what she was seeing. Premier Colima Satsanova had asked her to examine her twenty-eight year old daughter, Tatiana, because she'd recently looked listless and detached. So, as a matter of course, Dr. Karinova had run a full panel of tests, including a genalysis. Which she was looking at now.
The lab must have mixed up the samples, the Doctor thought.
Long stretches of genetic ribbon exhibited the kind of smoothing that mutaclone cells lines had been subjected to rid them of recessive genetic traits. As the human genome had developed, it had incorporated multivariate sequences to encode responses to plagues, diet, disease, climate, and numerous other environmental hazards. All species encoded their survival strategies into their genes. The oldest chromosomes from the loblolly pine on old Earth were seven times longer than the human genome sequence. A species that had survived for three hundred million years, the loblolly pine bore in its labyrinthine genome how it had survived thousands of pestilences, including insects, molds, fungi, bacteria, viruses, and lichens. For each, the loblolly pine had articulated in its genes just what countermeasures the pine had taken to combat these herbicides, encoding those responses to help future generations fight off similar infestations.
Just as the human genome had. In addition, in doing so, the human DNA had incorporated weak recessives whose cumulative expressive potential sometimes manifested in maladaptive syndromes, such as schizophrenia, autism, Down syndrome, or fragile-x. Some conditions were actually incorporated into the mutaclone cell lines, such as hypogonadotropism, resulting in restricted gonad development. Small testes and ovaries helped to increase docility and compliance.
When mutaclone production had started, gengineers had pinpointed genes known to be problematic and had either resected that gene—removed the offending sequence and tied the two ends together—or had replaced that gene with its healthy recombinant. This "smoothing," as it was known generally, had sharply reduced the incidence of abortivariants. With the advent of nanostim neuraplants, which inculcated protective coping factors such as antianxiolysis, the viability and integration rates easily topped ninety-nine percent.
In the final years of her doctoral program, Dr. Sarina Karinova had taken a year's residency at a Genie-All asteroid clone production facility, to see if that field was what she wanted to specialize in. She'd been revolted at their treatment, and had elected to pursue general practitioner. But the yearlong exposure to mutaclone production had given her enough background to say definitively that the genalysis in front of her was a mutaclone genome, not a normavariant.
She glanced at the clock. Eight twenty-five. The lab was certainly closed by now, and she'd have to get them to retest the sample in the morning. I'll send them a trake-mail, she thought. "Trake message to Natalia Filipova, Statlab Kaspi. Natalia, I've got some anomalous results on the sample I sent you this morning, specimen OLGS562. Can you verify the sample and rerun the genalysis? Thanks much for doing so." She set the delivery for Natalia's arrival at work, not wanting to disturb her at home.
"Log off," she traked to her office computer, and she watched as it closed its feed to her corn. She sighed at how late it was.
Sarina then traked her wife, knowing she was supposed to have left her clinic an hour ago. I'll have to apologize again, she thought to herself, staying over at work far too often.
I'll order her a dozen mutaroses, Sarina thought.
She ordered up a bouquet on her corn, and then tidied her desk. Grabbing her valise, she stepped from her office and headed toward the rear entrance. She was sure to be accosted by waiting patients if she didn't take the back entrance, the clinic a busy place during normal hours. The waiting room was dark and empty now, the doors closing at seventeen hundred.
At the rear entrance, she traked up a hovertaxi, the sky a deep indigo, the two moons of Tantalus hovering full just above the Premier's palace to the east. Sarina's wife, Anya, an astrophysicist at the Royal Ukraine Observatory atop Mount Mithridat, had often smirked at humanity's ingrained inclination to designate the direction the sun rose as east and where it set as west, no matter what world they colonized. But that too was as inculcated into the human psyche as the desire to reproduce. I'll wager we'll someday find an allele where that's articulated, Sarina thought.
The hovertaxi hissed to a stop in front of her, and she stepped inside. "Home," she traked. The taxi biometricked her face to obtain her address. It lifted and swung into traffic, its autonav guiding it surely and swiftly to its destination.