In the last episode of Karen Zipslicer’s adventures, our heroine was following Grieg and the trainees on a tour of the Institute, and had just left the ‘Fertilizing Room’…
Above the next pair of doors, the sign read: ‘Implantation Room’. Grieg carried the tray with the blastocyst, the egg which had been fertilized five days ago. “At last!” he said sarcastically, when Karen arrived at the end of his headcount. The others had gathered around Grieg. He sat in front of an apparatus, in which a brownish-pink ball was held in a mesh below a steel ring, like a basketball stuck in a net, except the ball was slightly smaller, and it looked like it was made of flesh. “This is the best part,” said Grieg, “the implantation.” He pointed at the flesh-ball. “Though this looks like an ordinary ball, this was not made for sport. This is the single greatest invention in Lundern’s history – the artificial womb.”
“You implant the blastocyst in that?” asked Ginger One.
“Precisely.” Grieg used another microscope to collect the blastocyst in a syringe. He lifted the syringe way above his head, and said “are you watching?” He then paused for dramatic effect, and swung his arm downward, stabbing the syringe into the flesh-ball, and pushing the plunger down. Karen gasped. Others clapped. “This artificial womb will do everything that a woman’s womb can do, whilst ensuring no pollution gets into the growing child, the chance of disease is minimized, and there’s minimal fuss to society. And it’s all perfectly controllable.” Karen did not like the sound of that.
Grieg took the flesh-ball from the net, and juggled it from hand to hand. He passed it behind his back, and threw it over his shoulder, whilst the trainees looked aghast, only to catch it again, then spin it on one finger. “It’s perfectly safe – so long as I don’t drop it on the floor. And if I do, I can always make another.” He attached a sticky label to the flesh-ball. The label named both mother and father. “Now follow me,” said Grieg, passing through the double doors at the back of the room.
The next room was small and bare, and dimly lit by a single red bulb. Grieg passed the ball from hand to hand, as the trainees squeezed in. “Let the door close behind you.” Grieg waited, allowing everyone’s eyes to adjust to the scarlet darkness. He performed a headcount, then opened the next door, nodding to the sign above: “can you all read that sign? Answer yes or no, all of you!” Everyone said yes, including Karen. “Good, I don’t want you blundering around in the next room, because if you get off the beaten track, you’ll get a big dose of…?”
“Radioactivity!” said some of the frightened trainees.
“Precisely. So be sure you can see where you’re going, if you’re coming in.” The sign said they were entering the ‘Maturation Chambers’.
“As our embryos develop in their artificial wombs, they become rather like photographic film,” said Grieg, rolling the ball from one hand to the other. “They can only stand red light.” The crimson illumination accentuated Grieg’s demonic features. “Where does this one go?” asked Grieg. Karen turned in the direction that Grieg had spoken. She was startled, as a dark figure loomed, right next to her. Karen had not noticed anyone there. “Follow me, sir,” said the figure, which was a podgy woman with a miserable Eeyore donkey voice. Eeyore walked ahead. Grieg followed Eeyore. The trainees followed Grieg, with the Gingers up front, Karen at the rear. They passed glass cabinet after glass cabinet, containing flesh balls suspended from thick rubber tubes, immersed in jars of transparent fluid. The cabinets hummed. Some of the flesh balls had changed shape. They were elongated, thicker at the base than the top, with an outline of arms, legs, and heads visible under the surface. “It’s incredible science, yet so simple to reproduce,” said Grieg, “no pun intended.” He opened a cabinet with a jar full of clear fluid, but otherwise empty. Grieg pulled down a rubber cable from the top of the cabinet, and jabbed its sharp metal point into the ball. “This tube carries away the waste material, and supplies the necessities of oxygen and nutrition. The baby develops into its sac, and is suspended in this protective fluid, like so,” and he plopped the ball into the jar. “And then things get really interesting. Show us some of the good experiments,” said Grieg, to Eeyore.
Eeyore waddled through the labyrinth. It baffled Karen that anyone could navigate this murky maze. Tagging along at the back, she put her hand on Whiteley, feeling the comfort of his presence. He was sleeping again, lucky animal. Eeyore stopped at some of the most interesting “yellow-label freaks,” as she put it. One was fed special hormones to increase strength whilst reducing intelligence. Another was manipulated to become a deep sea diver, by starving him of oxygen. A third was undernourished, to make her grow small, so she could work in confined spaces. “Now for one of the specials,” said Grieg. Eeyore took them down a dead-end. But it was not a dead-end. Eeyore pushed against the wall at the end. It swung open. Inside, the group found themselves standing on a balcony. They overlooked a lead-lined room beneath. The room was filled with buzzing; the source of the noise was hard to pinpoint. A jar, with an artificial womb, stood on a podium in the centre. A man positioned a machine, rolling it in front of the jar. He wore a helmet with a visor, and the rest of him was dressed in thick leather. His machine looked like an anglepoise spotlamp, attached to a car engine, attached to a telescope, on tricycle wheels. He twisted and extended the lamp, pointing it at the artificial womb. Then he looked through the telescope. He readjusted the lamp, then checked through the telescope again. When satisfied, he took a vial of luminescent powder from the front pocket of his apron, slid open a compartment on the side of the engine, and poured all the powder inside, like he was putting washing powder into a washing machine. Then he pressed a button, and stepped smartly behind a full-height lead shield. The humming got louder, and higher in pitch, then suddenly stopped. Karen’s ears continued to ring, though there was absolute silence. “There’s nothing else to see,” said Grieg, “because the radioactivity is not visible to our eyes. But let me tell you, we blasted that baby with a huge dose. It’s very exciting work. Selective breeding, by matching mothers to fathers, is doing a lot to improve our species by picking and refining the most desirable human traits. But if we can discover how radioactivity alters the codes inside humans, we’ll be able to design people like never before. They’ll be super-people, if you like. Current mutation experiments are crude, and the test subjects always die, but we owe it to future generations to conduct this research. And with our in-house yellow-label supply, we’ve always got plenty to experiment with.”
The back of Karen’s mouth tasted metallic. She felt she was going to be sick. Karen closed her eyes, and bit her bottom lip. “It’s okay, I’ll be out of here soon,” she whispered to herself.
Grieg led them away. Karen remained at the back, shuffling her feet in her ill-fitting pumps. Her knees felt weak. Her mouth was full of bitterness. She was sure she would vomit, but fought the impulse. Karen turned down a quiet aisle of cabinets, to be alone. She leaned her forehead against glass, eyes closed, breathing shallow, sweat on her brow. When she opened her eyes, she found herself looking at a baby, suspended upside-down in its jar, almost ready to be born. Born: the B-word. She steadied herself. A man in a white coat emerged beside her. He seemed to step out of nowhere. Had he been watching her all along? The deep red light robbed Karen of her sense of depth. She was disoriented, unsure of where the walls were, even as she stared right at them. His deep-set eyes were in shadow, but the light showed lines etched into his brow, and gaunt, sharp cheekbones. There was compassion in his voice. “You’d better not fall behind,” he said. “It takes a special kind of sight, to explore the recesses of this chamber.” As his face drew closer, Karen saw more of it. The shadows over his eye sockets had hidden vision-boxes over both his eyes. He tapped one with his forefinger. She arched her neck back. “Yeah, you’re right,” she said, “I don’t belong here.” Composing herself, she felt pity for him. He was another of Lundern’s fabricated monsters, roaming its dungeons. Wiping one hand across her forehead, she followed the sound of Grieg’s pack, scribbling notes and gossiping about the ‘wonders’ they had seen.