Summer 2007 Volume One Issue Three
E Pluribus Human - Rob Hunter
Bingbing. The door chime. "Yes, yes, yes..." Grenadine McKenzie peeled back a cucumber eye wrap, squinted and placed her eye to the peephole. A messenger application stood outside.
"You can call me Dixie." The hologenic girl pouted becomingly and curtseyed, arms outstretched. "Your HappyGram girl." She flickered and held out a packet festooned with fluffy florets of pink and blue. "Somebody is thinking of you," said Dixie. The Personal Services application flushed with a palette of subdued pastels.
"Dixie. Because that is your name," said Grenadine. A bead of syrupy lemon-whiskey residue clung to the rim of a stemmed flute that dangled at her fingertips. "Unusual that you should have one at all -- a name, I mean. What is your system name? Uh, what they called you. Your programmers?" The lines of her mouth softened. The warm tinglies from the morning's mood elevators had crept up Grenadine's spine to rendezvous with the whiskey sour in a place behind her eyes. Ahh, lift-off. She smiled. The HappyGram girl smiled back.
"They named me Ariel. I thought you might like something more straight-up. Girl-to-girl? I'm new. You are my first customer," said Dixie/Ariel.
A nymphet, thought Grenadine, and impudent for an application. "Ariel. That is a lovely name, like a name from the Romances. Dixie is, well... trashy."
The HappyGram girl was not offended. Dixie was watching the lemony droplet quiver, fascinated. "Pretty, you know?"
"Your dribble -- the play of the green and the light." The last droplet of the day's first whiskey sour plummeted to the tufted wool shag of the hall carpet. "Oops!" Dixie held dainty fingers over her face in a gesture of mock horror. The messenger application waited hopefully for a second droplet. None was forthcoming. She wriggled enticingly as she bent to examine the tiny puddle.
"Housekeeping will get it," said Grenadine. This was keeping her from today's streaming. Rights of Spring was her personalized Romance. She stared intently at her nose.
"Nice nose," said Dixie/Ariel.
"It's a nose. People have noses. And I am speaking with an application as though it was a human being."
After a pause Dixie/Ariel piped up, "It takes all kinds to make a world, different strokes, et cetera. E pluribus human, y'know..."
"E pluribus... what?" Grenadine squinted.
"Human, e pluribus human." The girl squinted back at her. "That hormonal? You should get yourself in for a fix."
"I am at least human."
"Lucky you," said Dixie. Giving her too-perfect breasts a jiggle, she winked and thrust the packet forward. "Well... open it and find out. Could be you have a secret admirer."
"Go away," said Grenadine.
"My aren't we cranky today. May I inquire with what part of my script you are having difficulties?"
"Pluribus," said Grenadine McKenzie, "E pluribus human..." Grenadine teetered. "Forget it. Go away."
Dixie disappeared. The gaily wrapped HappyGram remained, floating eighteen inches from Grenadine's nose. Shaking back the embroidered drapery of a caftan sleeve, Grenadine reached out a finger to caress the HappyGram.
"YO, BABE!" a man's voice blared at her, "SURPRISE, YOU'RE PREGNANT."
The warm tinglies made an abrupt U-turn. "Softly!" The voice was familiar -- George? Grenadine looked quickly up and down the hallway; there were no intruder alarms. Yet. A nascent migraine demanded to be noticed. A miniature throb of pain had settled behind her eyes. "Who are you?"
"They always ask if it's really me. And this is you asking? You are our most devoted viewer. Out of millions -- hundreds of millions, according to Personal Services. It's me, Lance Davenport. And I just knocked you up. Isn't that totally mondo boffo? It's a promotional thing, tres cool. Check it out at Century, Ebersol Lystrander."
A craggy male face bloomed before her. The face was a hero's face, Lance Davenport from Rights of Spring. There was an odor of patchouli. "George, that is you?" Divorced five years and this would be his idea of a joke.
"Sorry, babe. Can't hear you. This is a one-way. You'll have to contact the office to negotiate any upstream traffic. For an answer? If you're asking if I'm really, really Lance Davenport, you'll just have to trust me." The face digitized, fell apart, then reassembled itself. A line of empty pixels ran across a tanned chin. One eye twitched. "Century, Ebersol -- remember. They've got your name." The sides of the message fell away and became transparent. Pink and blue ribbons spiraled to the floor where they dissipated. "Gotta go. Kissy-kissy."
Kissy-kissy indeed. Not what Lance Davenport would say. Not what a lover, an adventurer, would say. That meant that it probably was George. They had lived together, frequently naked at close quarters, for one week -- seven days, twelve hours and 36 minutes, by Grenadine's count. Cohabitation was nothing like the featureless hygiene of the sex parlor where they had met. They had felt violated. They found one another repugnant.
A smear of squirming images swam across the wall as Grenadine plugged into the Personal Services directory. Her spectacles, she wished she could remember where she had left them. Stainless steel rims glinted at her from under a sofa. She tripped backwards over a polymer tabouret that pulsed with a rainbow radiance -- mood furniture, the latest trend from Personal Services Personal Products boutique. "Shit!" She gave the tabouret a kick that sent it spinning away. Everyone in the Romances was wearing spectacles this year -- very mode nouvelle. Grenadine returned to the terminal where a Personal Services advertising banner fluttered delicately in its own private breeze. The tabouret stopped its pulsing; the sofa glowed cerise with a black stripe.
"Century, Ebersol Lystrander. Please." The corporate site featured cooing moms with their cyber-babies.
Lance Davenport? George, even? It could be worth investigating. What the hell, thought Grenadine. Why not? The migraine symptoms retreated with the application of a mild tranquillizer.
"Yes?" The sales representative smiled a tight-lipped smile of tentative welcome. Highlights shone from translucent depths of perfect skin, perfect teeth -- a stunning effect. The virtual pregnancy pavilion was on the mezzanine, up an escalator, past supporting columns topped off by succulently-bosomed caryatids. Pearlescent rainbows rippled through the letters of Century, Ebersol Lystrander Wants to Have Your Baby as they hung poised over a pair of heavy quartz doors that reflected Grenadine's approach in a golden microfinish.
"Your name, please?"
"You don't have an appointment? Nothing to bother." The woman smiled an understanding, woman-to-woman smile. We are all girls together here, said the smile. Grenadine craned her neck, looking for a hidden light source focused to emphasize the woman's creamy shoulders.
"Name?" The woman smiled again and Grenadine felt blessed.
"McKenzie. Grenadine McKenzie."
"Uh-huh." The woman tapped out a query on a screen embedded in her desktop. "Ah-hah." Grenadine took this to mean the HappyGram was not some practical joke. She stared; the woman shone with an inner light that was, well... inner.
The woman noticed. "Yes, dear, it's all me. Little me. I've had the Makeover." The sales representative articulated a throaty, womanly, sympathetic laugh; they were to be close friends. "The Makeover comes with the pregnancy package."
"I have a concern."
"The cost, of course. Lance Davenport is footing the bill. Rights of Spring, actually. My name is Michelle, by the bye." Michelle handed a blinking tablette across her desk. "A permission disclaimer, is all."
"Lance. Lance Davenport? But..."
"You, of all Rights of Spring's 586 million viewers, registered consistently elevated respiration accompanied by vasoconstriction and an over the top increase in hormone levels and lubricity. No mean feat. Lots of girls are crazy for him. Simply fabulous."
"Me? Out of 586 million?"
"Yes, little you. Don't spend too much time thinking about it, dear. Simply everyone does virtual pregnancy and we've never, ever had a complaint. Satisfaction guaranteed. You know how they are," she said, meaning Personal Services.
"I'll think it over."
"No problem. We'll be here."
Grenadine sat alone at home, miserable. The woman -- Michelle? -- had to be the same age as she, older even.
She returned to Century, Ebersol in the afternoon. Michelle was still gorgeous.
"There are treatments..."
"There is the Makeover. The Makeover is the Makeover. It is not a treatment, as you say. It is an enhancement. The producers are paying the bill, OK? Rights of Spring? Just sign the form."
"Enhanced? Definitely. Like it?"
Grenadine liked it.
"No injections, no pills, a teensy-weensy implant that stimulates your body's natural resources. A pacemaker for health and beauty. Good for a year. Then you come back. We'll let you know when it's time. Your body does it all -- naturally."
"I understand the first trimester..."
"Mister Century thought how nice it would be to remove all qualms about any, well... embarrassment potential from the equation of motherhood. You get it all -- telescoped, compressed into one easy gestation. And you can do it at home, alone. You enjoy your child from conception, through all those wild and breathtaking teenage years, then a career -- medicine, perhaps. What woman has not daydreamed of saying, 'My son, the doctor'?"
"The first trimester will be..."
"Really?" The woman's reply startled her.
"No, not really," a light, airy laugh. The woman reached to retrieve the tablette with Grenadine's signature. She made an entry. "Just checking your appropriateness as a candidate for maternity."
"Uh, about the morning sickness? I'm a little hazy about..."
"You will be a wonderful mom," said Michelle.
Bingbing. The door chime. "Yes, yes, yes..." It was the Personal Services application with the harlequin tights. Grenadine opened the door.
"Hi again," chirped the hologenic girl, animated and vivacious.
"Another one," said Grenadine McKenzie as she held out her hand.
"Nope. Same as last time; I'm just not new any more. Hey, that Lance Davenport is really, really hot for you," said the PSA.
"Cut the crap and hand it over."
"Hand over... Oh! You thought I had a message for you. That's it," said Dixie.
"That's what?" asked Grenadine.
"The message, silly: that Lance is really, really warm, hot, whatever -- something -- for you and, um..." She reached deep into her cleavage, "I've got a scroll..." From between tiny breasts she drew a cylindrical package bigger than herself. The scroll was four feet long at least and appeared to have the sturdy heft of reality. The PSA drew, and drew and drew. Her costume did not wrinkle or tear in the slightest. A neat stunt, thought Grenadine McKenzie. But then, she wouldn't wrinkle.
"Real parchment. Sheepskin, see?" said the Personal Services app.
"My, aren't we irritable today. Ahem. 'Century, Ebersol Lystrander, the sponsor of Rights of Spring, reports that you are opting to bring the child, our child, to term. This is an accelerated pregnancy; there may be issues. Best wishes, Lance.' That's all."
"Oops, sorry: time's up," said Dixie. "I am only one-way. No replies. Bye now."
Grenadine suspected she was being patronized by a string of computer code in too-tight tights.
Grenadine returned past the bronze and gold revolving doors and succulently-bosomed caryatids to Century, Ebersol Lystrander.
"I understand there may be, uh... issues. Century, Ebersol and Lystrander. Which one will actually carry...?
"Oh, that is a common misconception..." The elegant Michelle laughed, elegantly. She had caught herself making what might be construed as a joke and flushed rose-pink under her deep, marvelous, translucent tan. "Many of our new mothers are curious. Our founder, Mr. Century, actually did carry many full-term pregnancies. In person, supervising the database. But it consumed so much of his time. You surely understand?"
"Of course. I may choose then? Which one..? I'd like to meet him first."
"Ahhh... a traditionalist, the get acquainted cruise. We no longer offer that option. The founders thought..."
"That meeting the mothers of their children ate up too much of their time."
"Of course if you don't want it..."
"I want it," said Grenadine McKenzie.
The first trimester was over, from conception to a fully-formed fetus, in less than a week. Grenadine was called back to the Pregnancy Pavilion for a series of simulated ultrasound views. The virtual baby was a virtual blob -- an elongated oversized head with recognizable limbs surrounded by a coiling umbilicus. It could have been anybody's baby, anywhere. "Doesn't he look just like his father," cooed Michelle.
Grenadine dialed a cup of green tea and sank down into deep upholstery before the virtual display that covered one wall. The herbal aromas confused the sofa: it flashed a sputtering of spring greens, then went transparent. It was the second trimester. At every audience, as Century, Ebersol Lystrander called the mother-child bonding visits, David had been older... lately with a distinguished hint of salt-and-pepper at his temples.
"David?" After a scarcely noticeable processing lag, her son assembled himself.
"Some tennis?" David was swinging a racquet. Last week he had been absorbed with his model airplanes. He wore tennis whites and entered through a set of those floor-to-ceiling French doors from Rights of Spring.
"My, aren't we manly today."
"Yes, mother. I am thirty-five after all. We are the same age now." David leaned against a rococo doorway framed by a riot of gilded cherubs. Behind him in gelatinous focus were a deer park and a terrace with topiary animals in pots.
"Could you call me by my name? Grenadine?"
"Grenadine. I shall call you Grenadine." A subroutine hiccoughed into an auxiliary logic loop. "Century, Ebersol Lystrander has found that, even -- no, particularly -- in virtual birth, a bonding is desirable," said David. "Very desirable. The mu-opioid receptors in the brains of our mothers are generally quite strong in the pleasure department. 'E pluribus human,' as we say at Century, Ebersol. Voilà -- we bond. Isn't that nice?" David looked up; it was Grenadine's turn.
"We are, joined..." Grenadine felt the steamy warmth of the tea between her cupped hands. The mood sofa leapt with a palette of roseate sunset purples before settling into a muted taupe.
"In love. Just like a mom and her new baby."
Before what would have been her third trimester, David stopped coming.
Michelle was wearing a see-through crepe du chine frock slathered with lilacs. "If you'll pardon me for mentioning it, dear, you look edgy," she said with honeyed concern. "Shall I schedule you for a tweaking?"
"David? Oh, David." Michelle clucked understandingly. "As I recall you measured high in attachment parameters. Ah, the mother-child relationship: so very classical: a baby, a small human, pops out and you are a Mom."
"David has stopped coming to me."
"Not to worry -- there is a statistically insignificant likelihood that we would come up with an inappropriate pairing." Michelle projected empathy. "Believe me; it's hormonal." She tapped an entry into her tablette. "There."
"He'll be back. We'll tweak the database -- perhaps a soupçon of Lance Davenport." Michelle gave her a knowing wink. "We join our mothers' pleasure senses in a feedback loop with the baby's character engine." The unfastened V of her crêpe du chine frock spilled open to expose an even allover golden skin tone. "And you can always cancel at any time."
Lance Davenport reached for a cigarette, down to the floor where an open pack lay between two tumbled champagne flutes. "Did you realize..."
Grenadine McKenzie lay exhausted. After their lovemaking they were alone together with nothing to say. A hand caressed her thigh, exploring. She tried to catch the hand, stroke it, caress it, direct it to her breasts. It was her hand. Leftover bits and pieces of David tingled along her cerebral cortex, causing her toes to twitch.
"Ah, got it." Lance thumbed the tip of a retrieved cigarette to an intense, glowing ember. "Did you realize... uh, pardon me." Lance prefatorily guided a post-coital bubble of phlegm away from his larynx. He coughed.
Grenadine gave herself a playful squeeze. "Yes?" Anything to fill the silence.
"...that the New World has no resident hedgehogs. They are all imported. Porcupines -- imported like fine wines. Imagine that. And do you know how porcupines make love?"
"Wha...?" She had heard the same joke every time before. Grenadine decided to have Personal Services check into her connection protocols.
"...VERY carefully," Lance Davenport laughed -- silken, smooth.
Her implant noted a fluctuation in Alpha rhythms and the terminal popped off.
"Porcupines. Hilarious." Lance digitized into random pixels.
The terminal rebooted and the PS shopping banner fluttered, waiting. Grenadine smelled tobacco and tasted her fingers. "David?" She corrected herself, "I mean, Lance?"
"I am here, mother. Mother?"
"Smoking is bad for you."
Dixie the Personal Services application was at her door. Grenadine held the door open a crack and peered warily through. "Not now. Go away. No messages."
"I beg your pardon?" asked Dixie.
"David should, not you. Be here, that is. Now go away. Wait. Do you know...?"
"That this is a follow-up call? Sure do. All part of the service," said the harlequin girl.
"No. No. I have seen him -- David. We have been... together. And he doesn't look anything like Lance Davenport. Or George. There is something wrong."
"Sorry, limited connectivity and that query is off-script."
"David..." said Grenadine.
"What?" asked the PSA.
"I have always liked the name David. That is all."
"Lucky you. And don't forget Personal Services has a full line of personal products and deep, deep discount prices." Dixie bowed in the direction of Grenadine's terminal. The terminal popped on. The Personal Services advertising banner shimmered discreetly. "Being what I am, I am inclined to the technical."
"Let's go shopping," said the PS banner.
"Here's your follow-up message: 'Century, Ebersol Lystrander regrets it has had to refuse you further audiences with your child. He is dead. Naturally, peacefully.'" The hologenic girl appeared to consult with someone off-camera, outside her field of focus. "In his sleep, I believe."
Grenadine stared vacantly at a place a few inches from her eyes, waiting for words of comfort, anything.
"Standalone apps are expected to be self-correcting," Dixie went on after a programmed pause. "If I have displeased you, if you are happy or unhappy, in any way, with my performance, there is a number."
A yellow text enclosure expanded across the girl's forehead: "How'm I Doing? Let Me Know." Coordinates flashed followed by a series of numbers.
Grenadine rode the escalator to Century, Ebersol's mezzanine, past the golden caryatids atop their columns. The sales representative almost smiled as she looked up. Her business frock, gladiolas today, fell open, an invitation to reflect upon her perfect body.
"Boys..." said Grenadine. She was haggard and hollow-eyed.
Michelle's mouth tightened; this must be a common question.
"The baby was always a he, a him. You always said he."
"Because women are mothers, men are the children. It is easier for a woman to watch the aging and death of a son than a daughter: Jung, Freud... somebody. Mr. Century believed this strongly."
"David. Where is he?"
"Oh, David is dead. We turned him off. Consider the alternative: nine months from a fertilized ovum to a viable fetus -- Nature's way. This is not progress. We are not cave women."
"But the baby dies."
"The baby never lived, dear girl. And you can call me Michelle." She had already introduced herself, thought Grenadine -- Michelle had forgotten her. "And ah... David's character traits are back in the database to be available for our next mom."
"David, my David."
Michelle nattered on, glistening-fresh. "Chin up: self-doubt, guilt, inadequacy could have only led to mental distress for you and your offspring, poor little innocent thing. Century, Ebersol has carried you safely to term."
"My David. You killed him."
"Well, yes. In the full flower of his manhood. Fulfilled. He is done with and we turned him off while you, you..." she leaned forward confidentially "...have only begun. You will have had the Makeover, plus yearly booster visits for the rest of a long, long, young and, and..." Michelle paused as though searching for the right word for a transcendent experience. "...a fully realized life."
"We were... together."
"Of course you were, dear. Some mothers find it hard to let go. So in the third trimester we try to get our moms less involved. Most only get to watch. There is a risk of attachment. You surely understand. We have the mother's interests at heart here at Century, Ebersol..."
"I have a contract."
"Read what you sign, dear. There is a self-protection override. Century, Ebersol Lystrander has fulfilled its contractual obligation and carried your baby to term: a peaceful natural death which you might have found disturbing. We saved you this."
Grenadine snuffled. "I am so sorry." Tears were running down her chin making small plash, plash sounds on the floor.
"The grieving, this will pass." Michelle put a comforting arm about Grenadine's shoulders. "It is only natural. Like David's death."
"I am ruining your carpet," said Grenadine. She snuffled again and began to hiccough.
"Perhaps a hormone booster," offered Michelle.
"Perhaps," Grenadine hiccoughed through her tears. A bubble of snot burst from her nose and an airborne droplet settled on Michelle's sculpted clavicle where it glistened, beckoning.
- END -