Dawna, you sure I can’t help you put away those groceries?”
“Don’t be silly, Dad. You of all people should know being six months pregnant doesn’t make me an invalid.”
“Yeah, but all that grunting when you bend over.”
“Huh. You don’t know where anything goes anyway.” Dawna stuffed the last empty sack into the recycle hatch on the wall. “Besides you’ve done enough by driving Micael to the airport and then taking me shopping.”
“Least I could do for the newlyweds.” Den Forrester picked up two tumblers of grape juice from the automatic dispenser and set them on the table. “Nice ceremony. Your mother would have loved it.” He stared into the tumbler.
She sat down at the table next to him and touched his hand. “Yeah, she would have.”
He smiled. “Too bad Micael couldn’t stay for the shopping honeymoon.”
“He promised me a real honeymoon next year, after the new Vomisa product announcement. Poor Micael, flying back and forth between here and Flatpoint. I hope this trip will be the last one for a while. Then maybe we can live like husband and wife—and baby.”
He took a sip. “Funny how it all turned out.”
She patted her swollen tummy and smiled. “Yeah. My plans were so logical, working as a school dietitian, earning money, dating, then later having a husband, a child, a home.”
“Amber Day got in the way of your plans, eh?” Den said.
“Yeah. It’s not just that. Sure, every human birth is special now. But I really want the baby.” She gave her father a smile. “And so does Micael.”
“I’m glad.” He smiled back. “He sure is passionate about robots.”
“Yes, it is. He’s so proud of Murl. That’s what he calls the prototype. He says it will be introduced to the public February first on one of the national I-port shows.”
Den got up. “Which reminds me. Mind if we check the latest news.”
“No, go ahead.”
He went into the living room and ordered, “News.” The I-port projected Dawna’s default station, Forest Life, then flickered. The Global News Network appeared, showing a male figure against a montage of live action news coverage.
“This is, of course,” the commentator intoned, “the 182nd day since Amber Day, that fateful day in the annals of history. And the world braces itself for the inevitable, but hopefully temporary, cessation of human births. Our staff has been following the pregnancy statistics from around the world closely. With a countdown board we will be able to show you the expected number of human births left in the world at any moment. You see that it stands at 1,300,387 and counting down. As we approach zero, the rate of decline will slow and we will have more accurate figures. So keep tuned to GNN to watch the unfolding drama of the mystery of Amber Day. In other news, researchers at the Einstein School of Medicine have been unable to…”
The doorbell rang.
“Mute,” commanded Den and the I-port sound disappeared. He walked over to the entrance sentinel. The screen showed a tall graying man dressed in a long wind breaker and ribbed slacks. “Who is it?” Den asked.
“I’m Hal Espartero, an administrator at Risen Falls General Hospital. I’d like to talk to Dawna Forrester.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
Den turned to his daughter. “It’s the chairman of the hospital board.”
She nodded her head, so Den waved a finger at the sentinel and it opened the building’s main entrance. In two minutes, the stranger appeared in the doorway where Den stood waiting.
“Hal Espartero. May I come on in?”
“Sure.” Den closed the door behind him.
Hal unbuttoned the top of his coat and reached out a hand. “You must be Dawna Forrester.”
She shook it. “Actually Dawna Forrester Wyman. This is my father.”
He offered the hand to Den. “Hal Espartero.”
“Dr. Den Forrester.”
“Doctor, eh? Medical?”
“Obstetrics. Well, used to be. I’m retired now. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that there’s no future in obstetrics.”
“Indeed. So, retired? Lucky man.”
Den shrugged. “I guess. It takes getting used to.”
“Daddy’s bored. He misses his work.”
“Ah, too bad.” Hal turned to Dawna. “As I said, I’m from Risen Falls General Hospital and we’ve learned of your pregnancy.”
“I’ve already made arrangements with Hale and Hearty.”
Hal smiled. “That’s good. But a… Let me point out a few things.” He paced in front of Dawna. “It’s been six months since Amber Day and we all know that from here on the number of births will be declining dramatically.”
“Yeah. That’s for sure,” Dawna said.
“And all around the world there’s a growing interest in the babies yet to be born, and the women giving birth.” He stopped in front of her. “How far are you along, Mrs. Wyman?”
“Dawna… may I call you Dawna… it’s entirely possible that you could give birth to one of the last babies born for many years to come.”
Den spoke up. “And the reason for your visit, Mr. Espartero?”
“The directors of the hospital feel that human reproduction has become a vital issue, as you can appreciate, Doctor. They feel that it is their duty to share these historic child-bearing moments with the public.” He turned to Dawna. “And I’m here to see if you will join us in that effort.”
“So, you want me to do what?”
“Global News Network has contracted with us and, well, we’d like to make the coverage of the last weeks of your pregnancy and your delivery an exclusive story for GNN. In fact, we’ll deposit 10,000 world dollars into your personal account for that privilege, and $20,000 more to broadcast you giving birth. And we’ll give you another $100,000 if your baby is the last born.”
“Oh, my. Hale and Hearty isn’t paying me anything.”
Den cleared his throat. “I’ll let you two talk.” He walked to the balcony.
Dawna stood up and grunted in the effort. “Wait, Dad.” She followed him. “What do you think I should do, Daddy?”
Den squinted at the hazy horizon. “It’s your body, Dawna.”
“But you used to be in the business. I trust your opinion.”
“RFGH is a good hospital.”
“But why should they pay me so much? It can’t be that embarrassing.”
“They don’t care about your embarrassment, Sweetie. There’s big money in this for them. It’s not only a battle between WNS and GNN for coverage of the last few births. The hospital, the doctors—they all want part of the fame and glory. I’m sure all the pregnant women around the world are getting such offers. So you just need to ask yourself if you need the money.”
“I see.” She thought a moment, then returned to the living room. “Mr. Espartero, are they going to have a camera man hounding me all the time?”
“No, no. They’d do one or two short interviews with you at the most and then there would be the exclusive, close-up coverage in the birthing room.”
She sighed and paused a moment. “Where do I sign?”
* * *
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
Micael moved his fingers over the video control console located in the center of the sparsely appointed communications laboratory. “Okay, Yuri, the tapes are loaded. Murl’s optics are locked in. Check status.”
Standing one and three quarters meters high, Murl, the prototype robot, looked like a mannequin modeling forest green tights with silver-gray bands at the wrists, ankles, collar and waist. The hands had a full complement of fingers, including humanlike thumbs, the feet resembled black ankle boots. The bald head, like the hands, was a softer shade of green. The face had perfect, nondescript, unisex features—big eyes, small lips, a small straight nose and square chin. It was a pleasant face that would have been handsome as a man or attractive as a woman. Across the chest was an oblong metal plate that bore his name.
Yuri Chenkov stroked the programming monitor with his finger, reassigning various parameters. “I’ve coordinated the pathways. The assimilation circuits are in step. Set and ready.”
Micael tapped the console. “And start.”
Lights flitted around Murl’s head as he sat immobilized in a steel frame and staring into a viewscope. A strobing distributor was clamped to the nape of Murl’s neck so his eyes could make sense of the multiple video signals. Pulsed audio from the twelve programs he was watching was fed into his aural portal through a single cable attached to the console. The information abstracting circuits and the long-term memory banks were peaked by “hormonal gates” developed and patented by Vomisa engineers.
Yuri relaxed in his chair. “Dr. Wyman, how do we know these old movies Murl is viewing really represent what a typical robot will need to know in the real world?”
Micael rolled his chair next to Yuri’s. “It’s not so much what he will need in the real world, but what will constitute deep-seated memories; virtual experiences that’ll make him affable, obedient and dedicated without hard coding everything. A few weeks of this should saturate the lower stem neural net components.”
“You trust the psych group’s experience sampling?”
“Sure. But don’t forget, this is just a jump start for Murl. Once he gets out into society, he’ll quickly add to his repertoire. But this baseline—call it his subconscious—will provide him with a foundation to abstract and integrate new memories. He’ll gather many unique experiences to develop his own personality. These will all get blended into long-term memory.” Micael poked Yuri in the arm. “By the way, take off your shoes and socks.”
Yuri obliged. “That is why you had the memory integrator modulated by the information abstractor and adaptation capacitor. That basically causes memory consolidation and loss of detail. In other words, forgetting.” Then he thought a moment. “Why am I taking off my shoes and socks?”
“Useful forgetting.” Micael adjusted the video time-sync. “That’s how Murl’s holographic memory differs from the artie’s pure logic-arrayed neural nets. Components of experience must recur in memory to maintain recall thresholds. Otherwise, they get recycled through the integrator, and with each pass detail is abstracted. Just like in humans. If we don’t bring an experience into our thoughts once in a while the memory gets foggier.” He paused and eyed his barefoot assistant. “Static electricity. Shoes and socks have been causing us some problems.”
Yuri nodded in understanding. He wiggled his toes. “What about the effect of secondary reinforcement? You know, like pain or emotion which heighten the retention gradient. Couldn’t these be incorporated into the intergrator?”
“I’m afraid our robots won’t have any of that. At least not the way we’ve configured them currently. They certainly won’t respond like people when gauging how important a situation is. But Murl is the Model T. Maybe some day these machines will gain other human traits, like curiosity, purpose, caring. Who knows? Maybe even a kind of morality.”
“You are a dreamer, Micael.”
“Maybe.” He gave Yuri a big grin. “In any case, we’ll avoid showing him violence or cruelty. And when we do show him violence, it will be clear that it’s non-adaptive behavior. He’ll logically see that retaliation is a human reaction, that violence, in general, is a pointless response. But we’ll just have to wait and see. How the information we’re putting in will interact with all the rest of the circuitry and programming is too complex to predict with any precision.”
“You’re saying violence is illogical?” Yuri leaned back, his arms crossed behind his neck. “What about defending oneself?”
“As a response to a real threat, maybe. Violence can promote the survival of one individual who in turn may produce another individual.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
“Violence can come from fear. Do you think fear is illogical?”
“I think fear is part of the biological armor, engineered by the laws of evolution to help preserve an individual’s life. And with the individual surviving, the species is preserved. But that’s not the case with robots—they’re not biological.”
“I see. Since a factory will produce the robots, their survival as a species doesn’t depend upon any individual surviving. So we don’t have any reason for building fear into them.”
“Right,” Micael answered. “Nor violence.”
Now Yuri seemed puzzled. “So we don’t care if these robots are abused and destroyed? That they have no motivation to protect themselves?”
“I don’t know.” Uncertainty showed in Micael’s distant stare. He seemed to be talking to himself. “I’m not anxious to have these complex machines defenseless but we can’t have them harming people either—under any circumstance. I’m hoping they’ll learn to distinguish what is a real danger and deal with the situation logically. We simply can’t have them responding violently, ever.”
The young Russian strummed his fingers on the chair arm. “What about curiosity?”
Micael blinked at the noise. “Curiosity? Maybe you can work on that after we start making some money.” He rose from his chair. “Looks like everything is running fine. We can leave Murl alone until tomorrow. Don’t forget your shoes and socks.”
“Then all we have to do is give him some intensive motor coordination training and he should be ready for his first outing next week.” As Yuri dressed his feet, he noticed Micael had never undressed his. “How come you didn’t take yours off?”
“I’m the boss.” Micael lifted his chin with a smile. “Static electricity isn’t a problem for bosses.”
Yuri tightened his mouth in embarrassment. He pretended not to get it. “Where are you going to take him?”
They walked out of the laboratory and ambled down the corridor.
“I thought I’d take him over to Risen Falls to meet the wife—and maybe by then my new son. If all goes well we should be ready for the big product announcement in four months. Talk about fear. I sure don’t look forward to going on an I-port show.”
* * *
The cool October breeze opened Dawna’s coat and she pulled it over her large belly. “How are you going to get that artie in the car?”
“He’s not an artie,” Micael said in a false gruff voice. “He’s a genue. And his name is Murl. He can get in himself.”
Dawna gave him a small grin, unsure if he was kidding. “Genue? What’s a genue?”
“You know, as in ‘genuine,’ as opposed to ARTI-ficial intelligence.” He led the green figure to the opened rear hatch.
“Huh, I always thought an artie was called that because of the corporate initials. So this is your way of fighting the dominance of the RT Corp?”
“You got it. Now, watch this. Murl, get in the car.”
The genue turned around, bent his head forward, put his rear end on the seat and fell back into it. He was in the car except for his legs which stretched out beyond the door opening.
Dawna laughed at the sight. “We going to drive around with the hatch up, or should we clamp its legs off?”
“Hey, give us a break. Physically, he can do anything I can do. Besides, he responded appropriately to my literal instructions. He’ll need experience to incorporate correct verbal contexts, just as we do.” He swept his hand toward the genue. “Murl, pull your legs in.” The legs bent at the knees with humanlike agility and gracefully swung into the vehicle. The green passenger was ready.
Micael jaunted around to the passenger’s side and jumped in. “Okay, let’s take in some sights.”
She started the car. “How come you call it a he ? How do you know it’s a him ?”
“Because if I called it a she you’d ask me how I know it’s a her.”
Dawna persisted. “Why don’t you call it an it? Then nobody will ask you anything.”
Micael shook his head. “Jeez. I had this same damn discussion at the Vomisa lab, and I should have known it wasn’t going to be the last time.” Micael took a deep breath. “Murl is a male by definition—my definition. Okay?”
“All right. All right. Murl is a he.” She stared out the front window, then looked at him. “You want to drive over to Roda and Jake’s? They just got a new adopted baby girl.”
“I’d rather floss a crocodile.”
She lowered her head and asked again with her eyes.
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
Micael turned away and stared out the side window. He took a deep breath, then consented with the briefest nod. Only she had such power over him.
She smiled. “You can ask Jake how he likes being a papa. Maybe he can give you a few tips—you’ll need them soon.”
“How is it they got a kid so quickly after the in vitro failed?”
“They had applied over a year ago for an adoption. I think that’s about the length of time it takes. But I’m not sure. Roda didn’t tell me the details.”
They entered a treeless community of packed, manufactured row houses. They drove past a monotonous field of doorways and windows distinguished only by a variation of pastel colors. Each residence had a short driveway and concrete apron that served as yard and patio. Dawna pointed at one with a lettered inscription above the front door reading “The Strands.”
She pulled into the driveway.
Roda and Jake, dressed in clashing colors, were sitting in lawn chairs on the patio. Smoke from an old-fashioned charcoal barbecue billowed between them. Not far from Roda’s chair a rustic red crib swung in its tall plastic frame.
As they got out of the car, Roda rushed toward Dawna with open arms. “Ohhh, how is the new mommy feeling? You said it was a boy? What’s his name? Is everything okay?” They hugged. “Come on in. We gotta talk.”
“Fine, fine,” Dawna said. “We decided on Adam. And how have you guys been doing?”
Micael gave a tug on Dawna’s sleeve. “Do you think it’s okay to bring Murl out?”
She patted him on the arm. “Sure, don’t worry. Roda’s not going to bite your buddy Murl.”
Roda did not even give him a glance. “Dawna, so glad you came. Adam, what a nice name. Boy, huh? Isn’t that great. Got to show you our darling little baby girl, Hope. I got her the cutest outfit. Matches mine. Oh, aren’t we going to be a pair.” She took her friend by the hand and led her to the swinging crib.
Jake Strand walked over to Micael as he popped the back hatch for Murl. “Hi, Micael. Can I give you a hand?”
“Oh, hi, Jake. No, he should be able to get out himself. Come on, Murl.”
Murl got out and stood straight while Micael closed the hatch.
“I’m impressed,” Jake said.
“Hello. I’m Murl. Pleased to meet you, Mr. Impressed.” The genue stretched out a hand for Jake to shake.
Jake laughed and shook the cool green hand. “No, no. My name is Jake Strand.”
“Names are a problem,” Micael apologized. He took the genue’s hand as they walked to the patio. “He still has a little trouble walking on rough ground, but he should be all right on this concrete, I think. ”
A few steps away, Roda had picked up her baby from the crib and handed her to Dawna. “Here’s my little bundle of joy.” The soft brown face surrounded by pink blanket stared into envious eyes.
“Ahhh, isn’t she cute,” purred Dawna as she rocked Hope in her arms. “Roda, you didn’t tell me she was brown. I expected a little freckle-faced redhead like you.”
“They were all out of strawberry, so we took chocolate.” Roda poked Dawna in the arm and giggled. “But she’s the sweetest thing.”
Jake came to her side in supportive pride. “Yes, she means so much to us,” Jake said. “We’re so…”
Roda took over. “…lucky to have her. It’s kind of ironic. We found out we were getting her on the same day the Amber Day thing was discovered. Isn’t that something? First everyone’s having babies and we can’t? Then all of a sudden nobody can and we get one?”
Dawna smiled. “Don’t forget, me too.” They both laughed.
“By the way, Jake,” Micael asked, “have you people at the observatory found out anything new on what caused Amber Day?”
“Not really. It appears that an enormous cloud of something passed over the Earth and that it was moving at 83,000 kilometers per second. It had no measurable mass and exhibited no energy flux. Magnetic charge appears doubtful. It might have interacted with the nucleons of the nitrogen atoms in the atmosphere causing the sky’s amber cast. From what I hear it had no effect on any other life forms, as far as we know. Just humans.”
Roda broke in. “My friends in the bio lab where I used to work say the problem is right down at the chromosome level. They think it should be an easy fix, though. With all the new money the government is putting in this field, five to ten years at most.” She poked Jake. “Go turn the steaks over. I don’t like them black.”
Micael looked at Dawna who warned him with her eyes. He was cool. “I dunno, Roda, but I heard that even cloning won’t work.”
“So. Who cares about cloning? I agree with the lab guys—we can fix the main problem. Hell, I think I’d like to go back and join them.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
Micael replied, “That’s part of the problem—the talent just isn’t there anymore, ever since human fertility research became a no-no.”
A loud sizzle erupted when Jake flipped the steaks.
“Okay, I’m optimistic,” Roda replied. “Maybe the top talent isn’t in human fertility now, but biologists working in curative genetics are close enough to it. There may have been a lull in the science of human embryonic development, sure, but it doesn’t take that much to gear up again. Do you realize in three short months how many laboratories in the world are already working on human reproduction? And the number of bright people flocking to the bio labs?”
“That certainly sounds encouraging,” said Dawna. “But what if they can’t fix it? What if Hope and Adam belong to the last generation of humans? As they grow older how will they grow food? How will they produce clothes and other things? Think what will happen to the standard of living.”
Micael lit up. “I’d guess we’d need another form of intelligent being to do all those things for people.” The breeze brought the smoke from the barbeque around to him and he coughed.
“Like who?” huffed Roda. “Aliens from another galaxy?”
Micael pointed at his green companion with an open hand. “No, I mean genues, like Murl here.”
“That green machine is going to serve all the needs of humanity? A damn mechanical device?” She laughed. “I haven’t seen one that I’d give a donut for. And even with a good one, it’s just a crutch. We don’t need them.”
Jake gave her a dirty look and shook his head. He turned to Micael. “Tell us more about these genues, like Murl here.”
“Well, genues are the newest robots from Vomisa Corp—to be announced and introduced on the market probably around the first of the year. Notice, fully articulating legs and arms.” Micael’s pride showed on his face. “He’s got the latest servo-muscles, new high density chloro-skin, sub-micronic processing. He’s far superior to the arties. He’s just come from experience training at the university lab, giving him much of the basic information he’ll need in order to function.”
“Really. What kind of information?” asked Jake.
“Well, we gave him a variety—you know, a little history, some culture, but a lot of human situations, mostly through old, nonviolent movies. Basically, we imprint him with primary experiences.”
Roda clicked her teeth. “Seems like a lot of trouble to make idiot robot waiters. And fancy ditch diggers, and…”
Micael cut her off. “Genues will be more than waiters and ditch diggers. They’ll be able to do a lot of things current arties can’t.”
“Oh sure. Maybe they’ll become doctors and lawyers.”
Jake pointed at the smoking barbeque. “Looks like the steaks are almost ready. Genuine cultured meat protein. Not that imitation soy stuff. Got plenty. You’ll stay for steaks, won’t you?”
Dawna replied, “Yes, that would be great, wouldn’t it Micael?”
He turned half way. “Sure. Fine.” Then back to Roda. “Don’t you see, he’s more than a robot. He has…”
Roda waved her open hand at him. “Stop already. I know. Logic circuits, massive memories, integrated rat shit—so what, who cares? They won’t feel happiness, hope, and love. They won’t have the imagination, the free spirit, the fire of life. They’re fricking machines.”
Jake coughed. “Roda is a…”
“I know, a humanist,” Micael cut in. “But let me finish. Genues can help humans. They will do more than just give answers and expert advice. They’ll have self-stimulating memories and they’ll be able to react to unique situations. They’ll have a primitive thinking mind.”
Roda shook her finger at him. “We already have humanoid beings with primitive minds. They’re called men!”
Jake to Dawna. “Fresh asparagus, too.”
Micael flushed. “Hey, don’t be surprised if someday…”
Dawna interrupted. “Micael, eh… why don’t you come and hold little Hope.”
He finished his sentence in his head. “…your daughter makes love to one.” Dawna was right. No use arguing with Roda. He looked at his wife and gave her a reassuring smile. Then he took the baby and rocked her for a moment.
As he swayed with the baby his mind was still defending Murl. He glanced at his genue, then said to everyone, “Murl can rock the baby, too. Want to see?”
Roda shook her head.
Jake poked her. “It’ll be okay,” he said under his breath to her.
Dawna pressed a smile and shrugged.
Roda turned her tight face to Jake, then sprung it loose with a laugh, “I’m sorry I got so hot. I was rude. I go on sometimes and I don’t mean to. Yeah, go ahead. Let’s see your robot rock little Hope.”
“You be careful,” pleaded Dawna, more to Murl than to Micael.
Murl opened his arms and accepted Hope.
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
“There. Rock gently,” Micael said stepping back, his hands stretched out toward Murl.
The baby lay on the genue’s left arm with his right one providing minimum support to the legs.
Everyone smiled. Everyone watched. Roda edged forward clutching the sides of her blouse. Dawna inched toward Micael. Jake put his hands in his back pockets and nodded. The steaks of genuine cultured meat protein puffed and sizzled. Murl swayed with the human bundle in his arms. Baby Hope cooed. The breeze kicked up the napkins on the table. Everything seemed perfect.
Then a willowy cloud passed in front of the sun and a soft shadow slid across the patio.
Murl moved his head a quarter turn toward Micael and uttered in a monotone, “Left lateral ulna servo losing counterpoint restraint.”
It sounded like nonsense to everyone but Micael. He jumped toward Murl to take the baby, but it was too late.
Murl’s left arm quivered, then snapped upward. The baby was catapulted into the air.
Dawna shouted, “Micael!”
The airborne infant rotated in a free fall, its trajectory aimed at the smoking barbeque. Micael made a dive, stretching out his arm. His hand caught, then bobbled the baby. At the same time his shoulder bumped the barbeque, upending it. He fell to his knees. The baby glanced off of Micael’s arm and hit the concrete. The glowing charcoal lumps bounced in every direction. One landed on Hope’s leg. She let out a high shrilled cry. Micael reached out and brushed it into the grass.
Dawna was there first and picked up the screaming baby. Roda pulled Hope away from her and put the black spot on the tiny leg to her cheek.
Micael, who was kneeling on a sizzling steak, got up and slapped at his leg. “Is she okay?”
With the baby clutched in her arms, Roda walked up to Micael glaring, teeth and fists clenched. Her anger left her speechless. Then she turned to Murl. She lifted her leg and blasted the flat of her foot into Murl’s pelvis as if she were kicking in a door. The genue flew backward, bounced off the plasti-brick porch, and fell to his side. A weak sound came from inside the green figure. “I’m sorry.”
“Take your damn robot and get the hell out of here!” Roda spun around and marched off with her baby.
Jake followed, stroking her back. “It’ll be okay.”
Dawna grabbed Micael’s hand. “Come on, let’s go. I’ll try to patch things up later.”
* * *
“This is Thursday, February 1, and I’m George Ling Makluski bringing you the news from around the world and from around here. Today, the 323rd day after Amber Day, we have two stories about new beginnings. From the GNN network we will be bringing you the latest on the last human births. We’ll hear how an expectant local woman at the Risen Falls General Hospital may be the mother of the last baby born for some time to come. And from our roving Boyd Lelcocq we’ll have a story about a new robot to be introduced by the Vomisa Corp. We’ll be joining GNN shortly, but first let’s go to Boyd on the university campus. Boyd?”
Micael stood twisting his hands together next to his green companion and a handsome, well-dressed reporter outside the Syn-psy lab. Murl stood motionless holding a book Micael had commanded him to read, The Enchanted Loom by Robert Jastrow. The square-chinned reporter had on a miniature I-port over his right eye wired to a small audio plug in his ear. Micael and the reporter all stood opposite a stout man with headphones and a small Hi-3D-camera. Boyd played with the edges of his jacket while Micael tried to rehearse his remarks against mental images of Dawna, pregnant and six weeks late. The thoughts of each were interrupted by the stroke of the cameraman’s arm and a flash of a small red light.
“This is Boyd Lelcocq reporting from a place where great minds, working with profit-seeking companies, can often give rise to great advances. Today we have an example of this cooperation. The Vomisa Corporation of Flatpoint has joined with the university staff here in Risen Falls to produce a remarkable achievement in robotics…” The reporter turned to his left. “…and standing next to me is the chief project engineer at Vomisa, a brilliant young man, Dr. Micael Wyman. Will you introduce us to your friend?”
Micael crushed the fingers of his left hand in his right. “Ah, yes. This is M…Murl, a genue.”
“Genue? That’s a new one,” said Boyd. “So, what makes Murl so unusual?”
Micael wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, then put one hand on Murl’s shoulder. “Well, ah, he’s the latest product from the neural memory with photo-form, I mean chloro-form, skin and he walks with… see… and Vomisa’s introduction has…” He gulped and stared at the camera. A billion people stared back.
“I understand that Murl can actually think and reason. Can I ask him a question?”
“Ah, yes, yes.” Micael made a stab at composure, then backed up a step. “Go ahead.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
Boyd paused a moment and put his hand to the I-port on his eye as if distracted by something he saw in it. Then he asked Murl, “Are you smarter than a Macromite IV phase-net computer, Murl?”
Murl did not move but replied, “I don’t know.”
Micael’s mouth fell open. “Ah, well, ah, not that smart. We didn’t want to make the genue computer-smart. First, ah, we used most of the internal head-space in him for experience memory. Second, our research poll told us people wouldn’t want a robot a whole lot smarter than themselves. If they wanted super smarts they would just use a computer. Genues are servants, and…and…like, people substitutes.” Not extremely articulate, but getting better. Yet why didn’t Murl answer? We’ve talked about this before.
“Interesting,” Boyd said to Micael, then he turned to Murl again. “Okay, exactly, then, who would buy a being like you?”
Murl responded, “I don’t know.”
Micael’s heart skipped a beat. He jumped in, his eyes bouncing from the genue to the camera. “Ahhh, say a construction firm. Or a transportation company. Actually any business where specialized but boring tasks need to be performed. Another potential field is in personal service. Genues make excellent servants. They can perform all household duties, such as cleaning, cooking, gardening, and even baby sitting.” What’s with Murl, anyway. He could answer this question too. Something’s wrong here.
“That’s great.” The reporter again was absorbed by the miniature I-port, communicating with the station. After a few seconds he asked, “Murl, how about energy? What do you use for fuel? Do you eat food?”
Once again, “I don’t know.”
“Nothing? Almost nothing at all,” Micael said. “He runs on sunlight. Actually on any kind of light—but sunlight is better. He doesn’t even need oxygen. His photoreceptive skin generates an internal current that is stored and used as necessary. He also has a small battery that can be charged through dermal induction. But most of the energy is from light. The entire thing is a closed, catalytic, superconducting, recycling system.”
“Sounds like a mouthful,” kidded Boyd. “Say, are you sure Murl can answer questions on his own?”
“Yes, yes. Go right ahead.” We might get lucky.
“Tell us, Murl. Do all genues look like you?”
“I don’t know.”
Boyd looked at Micael.
“I… I really don’t know what the problem is here.” He stared at Murl. “But yes, basically. However each genue’s face will have slight deviations from the standard mold. You might not notice the difference between any two genues right off, but if you became familiar with several you could tell them apart easily. And their voices are also intentionally slightly different.”
“Very interesting. You probably know we have another story brewing about the last babies being born. My station tells me that one of the women now ready to deliver in Risen Falls is named Wyman. Any relation, Micael?”
“Yes, Dawna, she’s my wife. Ready to deliver? Oh, my, we have to go.”
“You mean you may be the father of the last human baby?”
Micael’s mind was now halfway to the hospital. “No, I AM the father. There’s no maybe about who the father is.”
“I beg your pardon?” said the reporter. “What do you mean?”
“You said I may be the father.”
“Yes, of the last baby.”
“It couldn’t be anyone else. That’s what Dawna told me.”
Murl spoke up. “There has been a miscommunication here, Micael. Mr. Lelcocq was not questioning whether you may or may not be the father of a particular baby, in this case the last one born. Rather he was assuming there was some chance that Dawna’s baby could indeed be the last born in the world. From the context, it does not appear he did not assume you sired Dawna’s baby, but rather that you did and would be its father with a special distinction. Yet there is a chance that Dawna’s baby will not be the last to be born, in which case you may not earn such a distinction.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
Boyd’s eyes opened wide. “Now that was impressive.”
“Yes, that’s right,” Micael said with some relief. “We’ve got to go. Got to go.” He grabbed the genue’s arm. “Murl, let’s ramjet out of here.”
The camera zoomed in on Boyd Lelcocq still looking amazed at his departing guests. “Looks like the robot can run pretty well, too.”
Dawna lay in the obstetrics ward of Risen Falls General Hospital, experiencing that best and worst of pain known as labor. She noticed Hal Espartero, the administrator who came to her apartment, being interviewed by Timberlie Amagatsu, a reporter from GNN, right outside her room. The two of them stood in front of the camera trading comments and gesturing with their hands. Dawna then looked at an old flat-screen I-port hanging over the nurses’ station and saw the two of them again. They shook hands and Hal left the camera’s view. She turned to see him in real life going down the hall.
She could hear Timberlie on the I-port. “For those of you who have just tuned in, we’re here in Risen Falls General Hospital awaiting the birth of Adam Wyman, one of the last known eleven births in the world. Over here is the expectant mother.”
Dawna saw her profile appear on the screen. She glanced at the camera now aimed at her, gave a quick smile and turned back to the I-port.
“Folks, I’ve just had a report, courtesy of WNS, that Mrs. Dolgorukova in Moscow has just had her baby, a 3.8 kilogram boy. And in Bonn, Frau Oetinger also delivered. However, I’m saddened to say the baby Oetinger did not survive.” He paused and bowed his head as if he cared, then continued. “In fact, four out of the last fourteen deliveries have ended badly. But perhaps that’s to be expected with late term pregnancies. In any case, this brings the GNN world birth count down to nine. Just nine more human births left in the world.”
An artie stepped up behind Dawna waiting for instructions. A human nurse bent over and asked quietly how she was doing. “I think they’re about a minute and a half apart,” she answered.
A boisterous female voice came from down the hall. “Dawna, how are we doing?” Dr. Adel strode toward her dressed in her pale blue gown and head cap.
“I’m ready if you are,” Dawna answered between deep breaths.
“There is time, yet.”
Timberlie Amagatsu continued to talk. “So ladies and gentlemen, the moment is drawing near, here in Risen Falls. Dr. Adel, the attending physician has just arrived. Maybe we can get a few words from her.”
The robot started to push Dawna toward the birthing room. Dawna looked over her shoulder and saw the doctor talking to Timberlie. The artie turned the rolling bed into the room and two human nurses helped her upon the delivery table. Another cramp gripped her as her feet were fitted into the stirrups. She closed her eyes from the pain, but her ears began to pick up the prattle of Timberlie again. Dawna twisted her head to the left and saw a close-up of tangled hair on a large I-port screen positioned at the rear of the room. She turned her head to the right and was startled by the red light of a camera two meters from her face. Behind it were dozens of silhouettes crossing each other against the light of the glass door. She wished Micael were here.
She stared at the ceiling, listening to the dull sounds around her. She felt a monstrous turmoil in her bowels. She imagined her baby kicking and clawing to free himself. Then she fought the panic—the urge to scream out and reach down and pull the baby from her womb. Now a momentary respite and she drank the air, trying to remember her father’s instructions. She noticed a nurse standing over her who had given her something through the IV line. Her eyes could make out Dr. Adel moving into the room with Timberlie Amagatsu not far behind.
“While we were talking to the doctor, five more deliveries were made around the world, only two of which were successful. And now we’re down to just four,” announced Timberlie. “Bixten in Nampa, Idaho; Hanes in Manchester, England; Quirino in Manila; and, of course, Wyman here in Risen Falls. We will keep you in touch with all the action whenever it occurs. Let’s quickly take thirty seconds for these commercial messages.”
As Micael drove toward the hospital along the congested urban streets, Murl’s head moved back and forth, his eyes trying to focus on all the shapes and objects that sped by. And he glanced at Micael’s driving movements correlating them with the motion of the car.
“I don’t understand, Murl. How come you kept saying that you didn’t know to the reporter’s questions? I know you know the answers.”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
The genue studied the way he moved the steering wheel as they turned a corner. “Yuri Chenkov told me to reply in that manner. He said that if I didn’t, static electricity would build up.”
“Damn, I should have known. Yuri’s payback for the shoes and socks thing.”
“I don’t understand,” Murl said.
“Yuri was playing a joke on me… Oh, just forget it.” He shook his head. “Right now I’m more concerned about how Dawna is doing in the hospital. I just want to be with her.”
Murl watched Micael’s feet plying the brakes, then the accelerator. “Are you needed to help in the delivery of your child?”
“Not really—the doctors and the hospital handle all that. But Dawna will be happier if I am there. After all, Adam will be our child that we made together.”
Although the genue was not capable of self-initiated thought, his observations could trigger a request for information if his perceptions did not coincide with facts he held to be true. His notice of Micael’s driving motions produced such an instance, and he asked, “Why are you maneuvering the vehicle? Doesn’t it pilot itself?”
“No, not on these urban streets. Too much congestion,” he answered. “What really worries me is that she’s been pregnant forty-six weeks—going into her forty-seventh week. That’s not right, is it?”
“Do you wish me to inquire about the subject on the vehicle’s information port?”
“That’s a good idea. Go ahead.”
Murl addressed the auto’s I-port and gave the search terms. He scanned the gigabytes that were returned from ethereal channels. “If these facts about human gestation are accurate, forty weeks is considered normal, and doctors do not let pregnancies go beyond forty-four weeks for fear of fatal results. Furthermore, there is no precedent for a forty-six week pregnancy. I would conclude that Dawna’s pregnancy period is quite extraordinary.”
“You think so?” He looked at the genue. “What am I saying? Of course you don’t think so. You’re just drawing a conclusion from the facts.”
He ran through a red light. Horns honked.
“Is there an exception to the red light rule?” Murl asked.
“No. I mean, yes. Never mind. Murl, there are dozens of women at this stage. What is going on?”
“It depends on what you mean by on,” Murl said as he watched Micael’s foot push down on the right floor pedal. The action seemed to correlate with the sudden acceleration he felt.
The camera still pointed at Dawna but the red light was off. Must mean I’m not on the air. An artie stepped up to the bed and with jerky motions raised a small moist towel to her brow and wiped it. This is taking too long.
Dr. Adel and two nurses continued to watch the I-port, mumbling among themselves.
“This is J.C. Stowe at Nampa Woman’s Hospital just outside Boise, Idaho…”
Dawna turned to the I-port. There was poor Miss Bixten’s vagina exposed to billions of people in 3-D with a head poking out. Jeez, that’s me.
The announcer continued. “And as you can see, Basil Bixten is coming into the world. Let’s see if he is alive. The doctors are doing something to the baby. They’ve taken him over to some kind of machine. And here come some more doctors into the room. It doesn’t look good, folks.”
Timberlie Amagatsu’s voice jumped in. “Okay, we’re back, live from Risen Falls. We wish the Bixtens our best, but now we’re down to three. And we’ve got some news from Manila. So let’s go to Manila.”
Dawna groaned. She stared at the I-port. Mila Quirino’s vagina filled the screen. The camera pulled back. Mila was struggling and yelling, the doctors and nurses trying to restrain her. A head appeared between the legs. The doctor glanced up at an I-port screen. “Not yet, Mila! Not yet! Wait for the other two!”
Like the scream from the mouth of the mother, the head of the infant burst out of the womb. The doctor came around and bent down between her legs screaming, “Not yet! Not yet!” He put both of his palms on the baby’s head and began to push it back in. “Wait, Mila!” One of the nurses fell across the struggling woman and Mila let out a blood-chilling shriek.
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
Dawna slammed her eye shut. She could not conceive what was going on. A contraction clutched her bowels. The ringing in her ears could not drown out the clanking and tinkling sounds and the grunts and groans of a fight. She peeked through one eye at the I-port and saw the melee in Manila. The doctor was clutching one of Mila’s legs flailing loose from its stirrup while the nurses tried to pull him away from her. The delivery table swung around and there was the infant’s head again. Mila tried to sit up but another nurse lay across her chest. Someone’s hand tried to block the view, but the camera dodged below the outstretched arm and showed two attendants pushing the delivery table, mother and child not yet separated, out of the room. Timberlie Amagatsu re-appeared on the screen.
“Well, you saw it here. That was quite a lot of excitement. We’ll try to get a report as to exactly what happened. So now we’re down to two. Maude Hanes in Manchester England and Dawna Wyman in Risen Falls. The tension is building as I’m sure all of you people all around the world will agree. This is indeed a historic moment. So stay tuned while we take another short break.”
Dawna felt the contractions erupting through the numbness of the medication. This is it. “Doctor!”
“Relax, Dawna.” Dr. Adel she stood at the foot of the table staring at the I-port. “Don’t push. It’s not time yet.”
“I can’t stop it. It’s now,” she said, panting.
“Relax. Don’t push,” Dr. Adel repeated. She beckoned one of the nurses to administer more medication, then she put a hand on Dawna’s head. “Listen to me. You must try to hold it. You and I are going to be rich and famous. We can both use a million dollars.”
The room turned red for Dawna. “They’re paying you a million dollars? You bitch! You’re making me wait on purpose. Those pills you’ve been giving me these last few weeks. This tube stuck in me.” She tried to grab it. “That’s why my pregnancy has gone over ten months!”
Dr. Adel clutched her arm. “Settle down. Take it easy. We’re not alone. They’re all doing it. It’s okay. The drugs won’t harm you or your baby.”
“Are you insane?”
“Everything is fine. Take some deep breaths. Just a few minutes more. We’ve got it made.”
“You’re killing my baby,” she yelled as attendants restrained her.
“Go ahead, nurse. Give her the medication.”
The nurse was reluctant, but after a “Do it, dammit” from the doctor, she began to inject the medicine into the IV line. She leaned in and whispered, “Please, it’s better if you don’t move.”
They all jumped when Micael burst through the doors. Murl followed behind him. Micael grabbed the nurse’s arm and pushed her away. He yanked the tube from its dispenser. “No more drugs!” he screamed.
Dr. Adel waved her arms. “Get out of here. You’re ruining everything.”
They glared at each other.
Dawna moaned, “Micael.”
The doctor reached for a new syringe. “You’re endangering the mother’s life. You’re interfering…”
“No, I said!” Micael grabbed the back of Adel’s coat. “Just deliver the baby.”
Dr. Adel struggled forward, reaching to put the needle in Dawna’s arm. “You fool. We have only one more to beat.”
Micael pulled back on her coat. “Grab her, Murl. Get her away from here.”
The genue wrapped his arms around the doctor and carried her several feet from the table and released her. The syringe fell from the doctor’s hand.
“I’ll sue you for what you cost me.” She waved a fist at him and stomped out of the room.
Dawna groaned. “Micael, it’s coming, it’s coming.”
A nurse who had retreated to a corner came to the table. She looked at Micael with understanding. “I’ll help.”
“Thanks,” he said to her. Then he shouted at the other technicians and news people. “Everybody else out! Murl, close the door and don’t let anyone come in here.”
“Yes, Micael,” the genue replied. After the exodus, he closed the double doors and then grasped the handles in both hands. Through the window, a camera tried to peek over Murl’s shoulder.
Micael put his head beside Dawna’s. “Go ahead, honey. We’ll help you.”
Dawna’s vision bolted up into an imaginary sky to find refuge in the corner of a cloud. She let her body continue its painful task while her mind skipped through wisps of white mist. And then a miracle happened, one that had happened over hundred billion times before—one that might never happen again.
The ecstasy of relief swept over her, and the clouds in her mind took on color, and soft sounds pulled her back from the brink of unconsciousness. She took a deep breath. With eyes still closed she ran her tongue over dry lips. Something warm on my belly. She squinted down toward her feet and saw a wet baby on her stomach.
“Dawna, this is our son, Adam,” Micael said. “He looks just fine.”
Her faced glowed. “I’m so glad to see you, Micael. And you too, Murl.”
In the background they could hear Timberlie Amagatsu. “We’re back from Manchester England where you saw the final event of our coverage. We, of course, offer our deepest sympathy to Mr. Hanes in his loss of both Mrs. Maude Hanes and the baby. So that wraps it up. Don’t forget, you saw it here, the last human births around the world for some time to come, on the GNN information network. In a moment we will check on the status of Dawna Wyman—right after this word from our sponsor…”
Oblivioun's Children — Chapter 2: Sensation
Continue to Chapter 3