The Wellborn ©
For what is destined for us mortal men, there is no escape. 〜 SOPHOCLES, Antigone
Rena was lost.
She stopped, blinked, and thought: Location Map ON.
The iTact did its job. A transparent map appeared in front of her eyes. She’d walked several blocks beyond her turn. Deep in thought, she hadn’t seen the laundry on the corner—her usual landmark. When she finally came out of her stupor, she’d panicked.
Now, seeing her mistake, Rena relaxed, blinked, and thought: Location Map OFF.
There was a pharmacy next door to the Chīsana Kiseki Restaurant, but she couldn’t remember the name of it. Besides, she was craving sushi. She hadn’t been able to eat for days, but now, suddenly, she was famished.
Small Wonders, she thought in English, and shook her head.
She turned sharply, almost running over an elderly Japanese couple out for a late night stroll.
“Mōshiwake arimasen,” she muttered as she bowed. The old woman tsk-tsked behind her as she hurried past.
Rena was in the Old Edo District, although some of her more irreverent friends called it J-Town. It was her favorite part of the city. The river fronted the district and at night lanterns set on high poles cast a sinister glow on the footpath running alongside and reflected red off the dark water. Nothing moved fast here, not even the river. Slow and hushed, like it was keeping secrets.
It only took a few minutes to get to the pharmacy. She quickly found what she was looking for, paid for it, and headed next door.
The scent of ginger, wasabi, and fresh raw fish greeted her as she pushed open the teak door engraved with an elaborate dragon.
“Kuru, kuru,” the old woman by the hostess stand said. She was dressed in a robin-egg blue happi, tied with a soft yellow obi, and loose black pants. “Two?” she asked.
“Two?” Rena repeated. The question made her heart jump. “No, just one.”
“Bar or table?”
Rena pointed to a small table tucked in a dark corner by the kitchen. “Right there will be fine, if that’s okay.”
A man seated at the bar turned and watched them cross the room. Rena touched her stomach, glad she’d thrown on the low-slung plaid wrap over her black uvitard that morning. Her mind had been elsewhere when she’d dressed. If she’d given it any thought at all, she might not have worn a uvitard. It was too conspicuous, for more reasons than one.
She turned her eyes from the man and focused, instead, on the crisscrossed obi around the hostess’s tiny waist and tried not to think of him staring at her.
Rena took the seat against the wall. Her eyes wandered, looking for an overhead sign, but she decided against learning the truth in a dirty, dingy, public rest station. She would savor the uncertainty of not knowing for a little longer.
The old woman handed her a menu just as a young girl came rushing out of the kitchen.
“Ah,” the hostess said, as she followed Rena’s gaze. Talking in rapid, high-pitched old-Japanese, she gestured to the girl and waved her over to the table. The bulge underneath her uniform rocked back and forth as she walked.
The old woman pointed from Rena to the waitress. And then, so quickly Rena couldn’t react, she grabbed Rena’s hand and spread it across the girls protruding belly. By instinct, Rena pulled back, but the older woman was surprisingly strong. No, no, feel, she seemed to be saying, her head bobbing up and down. She smiled a wide grin. Her mouth was full of small, yellowing teeth. Rena started to pull back again, this time with more force, when she felt something. A foot? A hand? At first she was repulsed but then fascinated and found she couldn’t move. There it is again. A clinched fist, she decided. In spite of herself a smile came, and she let the old woman hold her hand there while she felt the baby play. Now the woman was talking even faster and nodding her head. She pointed to Rena’s stomach and then patted the younger’s rounded belly.
“No,” Rena shook her head. “I’m not pregnant.” Was it a lie if she didn’t know?
Neither of them heard her over the woman’s loud singsong. When she quieted, the younger spoke. “Forgive my grandmother. She’s excited for her new great-grandchild. She doesn’t realize some people can be offended by seeing a pregnant woman.”
“No, no, it’s okay. I’m not offended.”
“I didn’t think so. When’s your baby due?”
“Baby? No, no. I’m not pregnant!” Rena suddenly felt hot all over and touched her wrist to turn her uvitard to cool mode.
“Oh, so sorry.” The girl glanced at the old woman. “Odd, my grandmother is never wrong, but let’s not tell her, she’ll be disappointed.”
The girl turned to Rena and said, “The baby’s always active this time of night. I’m glad I work the late shift; I wouldn’t get any sleep anyway. He’s going to be a handful.” Her eyes looked as if she could see the future, as if she could already see her boy running and playing in the park and her mouth curled up at the edges.
The woman had stepped away and now she walked back waving a pamphlet. She placed it on the table in front of Rena. It was a brochure about natural pregnancy put out by WRAP—the Women’s Reproductive Assistance Program—a radical group against,what they perceived to be, the overuse of the BioWomb. The girl looked over her grandmother’s shoulder, winked at Rena, and walked behind the sushi bar.
“Thanks,” Rena said.
Rena took a deep breath. Her stomach churned. The once pleasant aromas were now offensive. She stood up, surprising the woman, and reached inside her purse. She dropped a few bills on the table, then grabbed the brochure and shoved it into her shoulder tote as she rushed toward the door. She just made it to the curb before she doubled over and threw up.
“Hey! No throwing up in the street.” A security sentry stood in back of her. She hadn’t seen him when she walked out. Where had he come from?
“I know,” Rena said, “but it couldn’t be helped.”
He pointed to a mini-rest station. “You couldn’t have made it two feet to grab a sickness bag?”
“It came on so sudden…”
He took a step closer.
“I’ll be more careful in the future, sir,” she said as she turned and hurried down the sidewalk. She wasn’t going to give him time to think about citing her.
Unlike her walk there, on her way back home Rena noticed everything. The peeling paint on the buildings, the wet gutters filled with everything from spent condoms to candy wrappers, the dark alleys where men huddled in spots they knew the security cameras couldn’t reach. This was her neighborhood once. She’d moved here when her mother died, more of a protest against her father than anything else, but, even with all its squalor, she missed it sometimes. It was the first time in her life she’d been fully on her own.
Rena wondered what Peter would think of it. She’d never talked about it, or brought him here to eat at any of her favorite restaurants. It was a secret she’d kept from him. Would there be others?
As Rena neared the outer limits of the neighborhood, she glanced up at a scrolling news marquee: …Girl’s ova destroyed in blackout…
She felt queasy again, but didn’t throw up.
When she finally reached her brownstone, the neighbor’s steps were vacant. She’d been sitting there when Rena left, but she must have gone inside long ago. It was quiet except for the sound of dry leaves playing in the wind.
Once inside her own brownstone, Rena tugged off her wrap, unzipped her uvitard and pulled it off, then slipped on an oversized cotton shirt.
The bag with the test kit she bought at the pharmacy was lying on her dresser. She grabbed it and headed for the bathroom.
Rena always suspected bad things happened in threes. Now she had proof.
The FasTrax maneuvered onto Jefferson Avenue. Up ahead a crowd had formed in front of TNOT–The National Ovarian Trust building–she could read the signs from a block away:
MY WOMB, NOT THE BIOWOMB
VOTE NO ON THE ANTIGONE LAW
MY BODY, MY CHOICE
NATURE NOT MACHINE
Maybe this isn’t such a good idea, she thought. She hadn’t expected protesters. She opened her mouth to command the vehicle to turn around, but nothing came out. In slow-motion horror, she watched the mob surge closer. A man recognized her and ran forward, waving a placard in front of him like a weapon. It was too late. Even if she gave the command, there wasn’t time for the unit to make a U-turn. Rena was trapped.
The man with the placard loomed above the glass dome. He held the sign in his left hand and beat the glass with his right as he kept pace with the vehicle. Rena instinctively raised her arms to protect her head. Her heart flopped against her ribs. The vehicle had automatically slowed to a crawl as the horde surged into the street. A scream was forming at the base of her throat, but, before it released, she saw an arm push the man away and heard a voice command the crowd to move aside. The two men scuffled for a moment, and then the man with the placard walked sullenly back to merge with the rest of the group.
Rena’s body trembled. She jumped when the man who saved her tapped on the dome.
“Hey! Are you okay?”
His hazel eyes were slightly distorted as he moved in close to the grimy glass. Rena blinked, then nodded. He moved aside and motioned for the threatening assemblage to do the same.
Proceeding to St. Antoine Street, the soothing sound of female computer-generated voice came from the console of the FasTrax.
Still shaking, Rena commanded the vehicle to park at the curb on the west side of the building. She exited and hastened toward the employee-only entrance. The BioWomb facility was always festive on Sundays and, even with the protesters, today was no different. The expectants poured into the building; happy their child had not been affected by last week’s blackout. In reality, they had little to worry about. The BioWomb was mostly organic, involving very little mechanics. As long as the temperature didn’t fall past a certain level, the fetuses were in no danger. As an added layer of protection, each womb had it’s own backup power supply, which lasted for at least twenty-four hours.
The expectants wore bracelets as proud status symbols during the nine-month incubation period, even though they had a chip inserted into their hip for further, and more secure, identification. Security was very important to the organization, and—as was everything within a TNOT facility—dealt with in a multi-layer fashion.
As she entered the building, Rena thought once again about the old wives’ tale that foretold bad things happening in threes. First, there was the blackout and the Otis girl’s ova were destroyed; second, WRAP had intensified their campaign against the overuse of the BioWomb and the upcoming Antigone Law. And third,…
“Hello, Ms. Cunningham.” The security guards disembodied voice came from an overhead speaker.
The guard sat inside the glass-enclosed security center located just inside the door. Rena managed a quick smile and waved as she moved toward the helixalator that would take her to the third floor, where the first trimester fetuses were gestated. After three months, they would move down to the second and then, after three more months, to ground level, where the parents could wheel their babies out in old-fashioned nineteenth century inspired buggies that had become so popular with the expectants, with their big wheels, black canvas, and enormous sunshades.
She had an hour to kill before the lunch appointment with her father. She didn’t know why she chose to come to the facility to pass the time.
No, that was a lie, she did know.
As she stood on the helixalator, Rena watched the ground floor slowly recede. She normally enjoyed spending time there watching the babies suck their thumbs, kick their arms and legs, or do amniotic acrobatics, but today she was interested in the top floor, where life was just beginning.
The light from hundreds of BioWombs cast a reddish glow in the cavernous building. The incubators were partitioned in an attempt to make the facility more intimate, but Rena knew sitting inside the decorated screen walls you could still feel the enormity, could still hear the faint hum of the machines. The whoosh-whoosh of blood moving through thousands of tiny arteries created a strangely uniform hiss. The sound made Rena feel light-headed as she stared down at the grid, at the expectants hovering over the radiant BioWombs, reading books or playing music to their babies.
An entire industry had cropped up, claiming their products could enhance a fetus according to the expectant’s wishes. Hair and eye color could be chosen at fertilization, but nothing else. Not even sex, unless you had the misfortune of having three babies of the same gender. Only then was it allowed. Harmful genetic defects could be filtered out, but controlling physical and mental abilities hadn’t been perfected yet. Even so, there were those who were opposed to even trying. A world full of perfection seemed somehow abhorrent.
Rena watched the expectants talk and laugh; tapping on the clear womb-glass that was the only thing separated them from their babies. The room started to spin and so she turned away and stared at a spot on the moving floor of the helixalator. After a moment, she was able to look up, but now she kept her focus on where she was going.
Rena was able to avoid the protesters when she left the building, but she had lingered too long over the tiny embryos and was late for the meeting with her father.
Rena stood in front of the maitre d’s podium.
“I’m meeting someone.”
The maitre d moved his eyes down her body. She wore the standard black one-piece uvitard typical of an urban dweller, with the addition of the diagonal wrap over her hips, and she’d added a matching scarf. She always dressed carefully when meeting with her father.
“The Senator?” he asked, as he waved his arm toward the dining area.
“Please, follow me.”
She noticed a faint green flashing light on the ear-button of his iConnect. He moved his head so the wand that ran along his cheek and ended near his mouth was pointed directly at her. Was he filming? She was in no mood to confront the man, and maybe he was filming on for work purposes. Besides, she had more important things on her mind.
Senator Cunningham was seated near the ceiling-to-floor windows at the far end of the room, with a spectacular view of the Detroit River and the Windsor skyline on the opposite bank. Her father had taken the power position—facing the room where he could see whoever entered. She would have to sit with her back to the room.
The Senator had come to Detroit for two reasons. One: to meet with her boyfriend, Peter Ewer, the owner—and the original founder’s great-grandson—of The National Ovarian Trust. The Senator wanted to discuss support for the upcoming bill. And two: to meet with her in private, at her request.
Her father didn’t get up when she approached the table but watched as the maitre d’ pulled out her chair, flicked a napkin in the air, and let it fall onto her lap.
“Thank you,” Rena said.
“May I get you something to drink?”
“Water’s fine for now, thanks.” The thought of anything else didn’t appeal to her.
“Okay, Rena, why the meeting and why so private?” her father asked.
No, hello, how are you Rena? Typical. But she said nothing.
She was already having second thoughts. Maybe he didn’t deserve to be forewarned. Not like he ever took any interest in her life or career, only when it would benefit his own.
“Did Peter finally ask you to marry him?”
“No, Dad, he didn’t.”
“Well, you must not be trying hard enough. Don’t you know how to turn on the charm? Being a member of the Ewer family would certainly be a plus. You’re not going to find much better.”
The restaurant started to fill up. The fashionably late lunch crowd tickled in. The clamor and tinkle of restaurant activity intensified.
Why does he always make me feel like this? Rena thought. Her hand moved to the napkin on her lap, ready to toss it on the table and leave, when they were interrupted.
“Senator Cunningham? Hi, Robb Green, of The Detroit Free Press. Could I ask you a few questions?”
The press frequented the Triumph, knowing they would likely run into someone of importance. Her father smiled at the reporter. Instead of being annoyed at the interruption, he seemed to enjoy it.
“Just a few. We haven’t ordered yet.”
The reporter spoke quickly as he glanced around the room. Rena knew he was wondering if today was his lucky day—if he would be the only one to spot the Senator.
“Are you here to meet with Peter Ewer about the upcoming vote on the Antigone Law?”
“Partly, yes. And partly to see my daughter here.” The Senator smiled and gestured toward Rena.
“Oh, yes. Nice to meet you.” Robb stared at her for a moment before turning back to the senator.
A silver basket holding warm bread wrapped in a white linen napkin sat in the middle of the table . Rena folded back the cloth and took a roll.
“Senator, if passed, the new law will require insurance companies to cover ova storage at more than one TNOT location, but to qualify a woman must undergo reproductive organ removal. Are you in full agreement with this?”
“I believe the law, as it is currently written, will be a great benefit to women and offer them much comfort. Knowing their futures are not solely in the hands of one location will be a great relief, especially after the unfortunate incident last week. Studies have shown women who have full reproductive organ removal are healthier and live longer. Many women already choose this option. Others would choose it, if it were affordable. So it’s a win, win situation.”
Rena almost choked on her bread. Her father never missed a beat. The interview would generate great sound bites. It couldn’t have been better if he had planned it.
She saw the iTact flash a signal in the corner of her eye, indicating she had an incoming call. “Excuse me, ” she said. Her father glared at her for the interruption.
She headed for the ladies room; grateful she didn’t have to listen to any more of the interview. She blinked and thought: iConnect Answer.
The reporter was gone when she returned. Her lunch had already been placed on the table before her seat. Her father had taken it upon himself to order in her absence.
“That was Bartholomew.”
The Senator raised an eyebrow over his drink.
“Peter’s personal assistant.” She looked at the petit filet and repressed a gag. “I don’t know if I have time to eat this. I have to go to the office. Tholly says Peter wants to talk with me. Says it’s urgent.”
Rena was not only Peter’s “almost fiancée,” she was also his public relations director.
“Well, dear, you were the one that called this private meeting. The ball is in your court.”
She wanted his advice as a father and to tell him her news in case it was somehow leaked to the press.
Hell with it, Rena thought. Forewarned is forearmed, and he doesn’t deserve the advantage.
“I just wanted to see you wonderful face, Dad.” She placed her napkin over the offending filet and turned from the table. “Thanks for lunch.”
She could feel the eyes of the other diners on her back as she walked out of the restaurant.
Rena stepped into the FastTrax for the twenty-minute ride to The Ewer Foundation. She was glad she hadn’t told her father about her condition. Uncertain of her decision, why involve more people at this stage? She’d hoped things could be different between them; that she could go to her father for parental advice, but what was she thinking? She should’ve known better. And she should tell Peter before she told anyone, especially her father.
Thinking of Peter put her stomach in a knot. How would he react if she decided to go through with it? His family had been instrumental in making it possible for women to avoid the dangers of pregnancy. They had changed human reproduction far beyond what Peter’s great-grandfather had ever envisioned. Would he accept her pregnancy? She thought of the headlines: Peter Ewer’s Girlfriend Chooses Natural Incubation!
She was still angry with her father when the transport pulled up to the Ewer Foundation.
It was a beautiful day, the trees lining the street were already blooming with the delicate green of spring, but that did little to assuage her irritation. Her father’s egocentric ambition made her ashamed to be his daughter and not for the first time. She’d never had a great relationship with him, and now that her mother was gone, the situation had only gotten worse. Her heart still ached for her mother, who had endured years of self-effacement catering to her husband’s career. Even though she felt guilty whenever she had the thought, Rena sometimes wondered why her father couldn’t have been the first to go.
Her iTact flashed another incoming call. Another message from Tolly. She wondered what was so urgent.
Rena stepped out of the FasTrax and gazed up at the massive building, then hurried inside. The foyer was lined with photographs of Peter’s family. Peter’s great-grandfather’s invention of the BioWomb was the greatest advancement in women’s health in the last hundred years. After his wife died in childbirth, Phillip Ewer vowed to stop these horrible and senseless deaths. With twenty-years of insular focus, he finally achieved success with the invention of the BioWomb. Each successive generation of the Ewer family built another layer upon the foundation of Phillip’s initial breakthrough. The EstroChip was introduced by Phillip’s son. It provided women an adjustable, and convenient, supply of hormones for both birth control and hormone replacement therapy. And now, under his great-grandson’s leadership, the large majority of women in the United States, and around the world, utilized the advantages of both. Partly due to the invention of the EstroChip, Peter was able to advance the Ewer Empire even further by offering ova removal and storage. A dramatic increase in infertility and the popularity of the BioWomb created a logical transition into this practice. Why not remove the ova and store it cryogenically until the eggs were needed, instead of injecting women, and their partners, with powerful hormones when they wanted to conceive?
TNOT had become the one stop shopping of reproductive needs.
When the BioWomb was fist invented, it met resistance. Religious groups of every tenet condemned it as evil. As the BioWomb’s use increased, the obvious medical benefits dampened the initial fervent moral outrage. It offered an aesthetic benefit as well. Women’s bodies were no longer ravaged by pregnancy and childbirth. It soon became the chic thing to do. And, furthermore, if women were not to be bothered with childbearing, then why be bothered with monthly periods? Soon TNOT locations were being constructed all over the United States, and then across the world, and society became less and less accepting of women who chose natural childbirth.
Rena’s mother, Eleanor, believed the BioWomb was grossly overused; and, in the majority of instances, for all the wrong reasons—convenience and vanity. Eleanor felt the initial good—helping women who couldn’t carry a child, or whose lives would be endangered by childbirth—was being outweighed by its overuse; and by making all things related to female reproduction somehow innately abhorrent, it was a subtle, yet powerful, form of oppression. What would Eleanor think of her husband’s supporting a bill that would make the use of the BioWomb, for all practical purposes, mandatory? And what would she think of her daughter’s employment? Rena thought of the angry crowd outside the TNOT facility that morning and pictured her mother standing at the forefront.
She crossed the foyer to the penthouse elevator. After five years of working for the foundation, she was still awed by the breadth of the Ewer Empire.
Her father was right, Peter was a catch by anyone’s standards. Wealthy, intelligent, not bad looking either. She knew he would ask her to marry him, if he thought she would say yes. She just didn’t know if she was ready. And her father’s approval made the prospect less appealing rather than more.
“Good afternoon, Ms. Cunningham.” The always impeccably dressed Bartholomew Mathers smiled at Rena. “Mr. Ewer is expecting you.”
When she entered Peter’s office he was standing in front of the holographic iScreen.
“Rena. I’ve been waiting for you.” he said without turning around.
I know. You keep paging me.”
“I thought you’d get here sooner.”
“Sorry, pressing family business. I had an early lunch meeting with my father.”
“I’d've thought you’d seen enough of him this week.”
“Yes, you would, wouldn’t you?”
She walked over and looked at the screen.
“OK, let’s see what you have so far.”
“I didn’t call you here to talk about the press conference.”
Peter moved away from the hologram and walked toward a large bank of heavily molded arched windows looking out onto the Detroit skyline.
“No. At least not yet.” He turned to face her.
“I’ve just received some disturbing news from TNOT security.”
Rena was listening.
“They have evidence indicating the blackout might have been caused by a software problem, not from overload on optical lines.”
“And they suspect it was done intentionally.”
Rena sat on the edge of Peter’s desk.
“What evidence do they have?”
“Enough. Triangulation of disposable iConnect calls, the timing of the calls in relation to when the blackout occurred—among other more technical information.”
The Ewer Foundation’s security intelligence division was dwarfed in scope only by the government’s, but not in efficiency. So far, the government investigation had only turned up the suspicion of optical line failure.
“How it happened won’t matter to the Otis girl, only that it did,” Rena said.
“What is it, Peter? What’s on your mind?”
“I’m not sure.”
He turned to look out the window again. “I’m wondering why someone would want to cause a blackout.”
“Who would benefit? And, more importantly, who had the means to pull it off?”
The amount of time, knowledge, and coordination required to cause a major power failure was staggering, let alone pinpointing the exact time to achieve the desired results. It would require both money and power.
“The only real damage was losing Emily Otis’ ova,” Peter stated.
“There were a few deaths attributed to it.”
“Yes, and I’m sorry for that, but none of those were as newsworthy as the Otis girl.”
She couldn’t argue, the media had latched on to the story and they weren’t letting go. “With the Antigone Law coming up for vote, I can think of a lot of people who would see the blackout as a windfall.”
There were a great number of people who opposed the ubiquity of the BioWomb. And there were a number of radical groups willing to do whatever it took to further their cause.
It was so obvious but, until that moment, Rena hadn’t considered the incident to be anything other than an unfortunate accident. Bad timing. But what Peter said made sense in light of what Ewer Security had discovered.
“If the motive was to generate opposition to the law, then whoever did this will be disappointed. If anything, it’s gained popularity since the incident,” Rena said.
“Are you going to tell the authorities?” Rena asked.
“They’ll find out on their own. If they want information from us, they can ask. Otherwise, I’d like to keep this within the Ewer family. I’ve got main security looking into it. Let’s see what they turn up. In the meantime, we have the press conference tomorrow. We need to finalize our statement.”