It wasn’t until the ARTWomb arrived on her doorstep that Sprocket started to think she could pull it off.
She had the theory memorised, she had the cultured embryonic cells ready to go, and a 3D printer she’d built herself out of scraps from the wind power plant in Croydon. Nobody would miss a stray drive shaft or cross brace. She hoped.
When the box from eBay came, Sprocket was upstairs fine-tuning one of the ink heads on the printer. It was delicate work and when the doorbell rang she nearly jumped out of her skin cells.
She checked the fine needlepoint, but it seemed unmolested by the sudden jerk of movement. Getting a new one would be a pain in the cooler and she needed four needles in working order to get the cells just so.
Sprocket flicked her welder back into her hand, replacing the tool with her middle finger before ripping her goggles off her head and jogging down the rickety stairs to the front door. Her flat was old and warped with age, but she didn’t need much room. That would change when the baby came.
The delivery bot was making its way back to the street when Sprocket swung the door open.
“Oi!” she shouted. “Don’t even think about it you rusty little shit.”
The bot paused in the driveway. It seemed to debate whether to turn back to her or to keep going and pretend that the flat had been unoccupied. Finally, its metal shoulders dipped in a heavy sigh as it turned back to Sprocket, taking its time to roll slowly along the drive back to the door. Overhead, a ripple of thunder curled through the clouds.
“Bloody right,” said Sprocket when the bot finally got back to her and held out its PAD. She waved her wrist over it. Her serial number came up on screen. The bot’s distended belly belched out the brown package with eBay’s logo on the side, letting it fall onto her doorstep with a heavy flop.
“Have a nice day, sir,” the bot said.
Sprocket gazed down the street, checking for the red and blue cars that tend to trail around her neighbourhood looking for trouble. She pulled the package into the foyer and closed the door on the bot’s face, kneeling down to examine the box as she heard the familiar sound of wheels retreating over gravel as the bot left.
Custom ARTWomb, said the side of the box. Made adjacent to Tibet.
That’s a long way to go for an ARTWomb, but none of the UK dealers would sell to her. Not her fault – the legislation hadn’t caught up with social justice. Sprocket had a job and a flat of her own, which was more than she’d gotten in the first generation, back when people were still iffy about her kind. It could probably still be a few decades before the government would let her kind breed.
The box was only high enough to scrape the bottoms of her knees. It was heavy, but Sprocket’s arm bones were reinforced. She hefted the box up, careful to avoid jostling it any more than it already had been, and carried it through the bare hallway into the mouldy kitchen. She could hear the synthetic placenta sloshing inside the box as she carefully pushed it into the space next to her fridge.
It was too big. If someone were to come in, they would see it. Sprocket took off her jacket and covered the box with it. Yeah, that might do it.
Sighing, she opened the fridge and gently moved some of the petri dishes aside to grab a can of BlasTOff from the back. She flicked open the can with one hand before closing the fridge and jogging back upstairs.
It wasn’t until she was back on her knees in front of the printer with her welder in position in the middle of her hand that she realised she had everything she needed.
There were no more parts to track down, no more cultures to grow, no more waiting required.
She stared at the printer without really seeing it. It just needed a few tweaks and then after that… it would be ready.
Sprocket leaned back on her heels. “Oh,” she said, speaking to no one. Outside, the thunder growled again.
It wasn’t that she was having second thoughts. People always thought that she would have second thoughts. “You’ve lived nearly two hundred and seventy years without kids,” one of her colleagues at the university had told her a few months ago, back when all of this had still been a thought experiment meant to spice up a lunchtime debate. “You’d miss your freedom if you had them now.”
“Won’t it break your heart when you outlive them?” another one had asked.
“Not if they Rebirth like I did,” she’d told him.
But he’d just shook his head. “I wouldn’t wish that on my kid,” he’d told her.
As if Rebirthing were a disease.
Sprocket had outlived her parents, her friends, and everyone she’d ever known – if she outlived her child, whoever they were, she would survive. Thanks to a couple of minor upgrades in 2798, there wasn’t a lot that Sprocket couldn’t survive.
Still, it would be so, so nice to have the company. If her child chose to Rebirth… they could be together forever.
Sprocket shoved her goggles back over her head. She fiddled with the needle on her printer, focussing on keeping it straight. Embryonic cells were finicky and delicate. Sprocket’s printer needed to be equally finicky and delicate.
She swallowed a mouthful of BlasTOff and let the sickly sweet guava taste settle on her tongue, accepting the synth-molecules and sending jolts of pleasure through the neuropathways in her mind. The caffeine would keep her up all night but she hadn’t planned on sleeping anyway. Not when her ears would be constantly strained for the sound of sirens and the beating boots of law enforcement.
Her hands flickered through the various tools she needed – a set of channel lock pliers on her left pointer, an allen wrench in her right pinky, and four different kinds of pliers in her right ring finger.
When the printer needle was finally where she wanted it, Sprocket stared at the contraption. There was nothing left for her to tinker with. It was ready.
“Time?” she said out loud.
17:37pm flashed over her eyes. Sprocket pursed her lips. Before she could overthink it, Sprocket took another sip of BlasTOff and pushed herself to her feet, heading back downstairs.
Inside of the fridge were dozens of petri dishes covered in nutrient broth. Swimming in that broth was hundreds of thousands of stem cells she’d grown herself. The base ingredient for her printer ink. She pulled one of the dishes out.
“Hope you’re ready for this world, little Gizmo,” she told the gelatinous mess in the glass. “Because I’m more than ready for you.”
She took a small baggy full of pinkish gel from the back of the fridge. Clutching the baggy and the petri dish to her chest, she half-jogged back upstairs and settled back down in front of the 3D printer. Sprocket slipped her hand under her shirt, ran her fingers over her ab muscles, and pressed down hard on her belly button. Her skin popped off of the cavity in her belly and revealed the small cache of petri dishes she liked to carry with her.
Sprocket lifted the ink flap in the printer and carefully poured her embryonic stem cells into the opening. She slid the empty petri dish onto the printer bed, which was loosely screwed onto the printer – ready to be taken out and replaced with the ARTWomb when the urorectal septum began to form. Sprocket would have liked to do away with the ARTWomb altogether. The nine-month wait would be torture. But babies are too complex for even the most advanced 3D printer. A foetus, on the other hand, was just on the side of possible if a person were willing to bend a few ethics and ignore a few laws.
For a moment, Sprocket paused and listened hard, half-expecting the sound of a chopper coming for her. No one knows, she told herself. She’d used a fake name to order the ARTWomb and she’d grown the stem cells herself. There was no way anyone could know what she was planning. Once the baby grew to a viable size, she’d birth it – and once it was birthed, it would be hers. No one could take it away.
It technically wasn’t illegal. Sure, it was illegal for a Rebirther to get pregnant or carry a child to term. It was illegal for a Rebirther to adopt a child that wasn’t theirs. But there was no legislation against 3D printing a foetus and letting it mature in an artificial womb.
Probably because no one had thought of it yet.
Carefully, Sprocket poured some of the pink jelly from the baggy onto the dish.
A name flashed across her eye and her ear buzzed. She groaned but she reached around to press the button behind her ear to answer the call, keeping one hand on the petri dish and setting it up just so.
“Evening,” she said.
“Evening, Sprocket,” Kestrel replied. “Sorry to call so late.”
Kestrel was on the tenure-track and hardly ever kept regular hours. She was also one of the only OneLifers in the faculty who didn’t treat Sprocket like a science experiment gone wrong. Sprocket had made a promise to herself to never ignore Kestral’s calls.
“No problem,” said Sprocket. “Hold on a sec, will you?”
She slid her pinky over the side of the 3D printer. Holding her breath and sending a prayer to whichever deity was on duty, Sprocket flicked the switch.
It took a moment for the printer to rev up. Then the four needles began to hum, moving too quickly for even her high-speed irises could catch. The motor buzzed as the carriage moved down towards the dish on the printer bed. She watched with her fingers clenched as the carriage twitched and moved, laying down the first lines of embryonic stem cells into broth.
She let out the breath she was holding.
“Okay,” she said, speaking to Kestrel again. “Go ahead.”
“Am I interrupting something?”
“Just the start of an experiment,” Sprocket replied.
“Oh?” Kestrel said. “I didn’t see anything go through ethics approval.”
Sprocket stared at the nutrient broth as it jiggled with the needles stabbing it repeatedly. “It’s just a printing job,” she replied. “Did you need something?”
“Yes!” Kestrel said quickly, as though Sprocket had reminded her. “I was hoping to get your opinion on a grant application?”
“Sure – shoot it through to my PAD. I’ll take a look at it when I’m finished here.”
“You’re the best, Sprocket.”
Sprocket wasn’t the best, but she was the most experienced. She’d worked at Oxford longer than most of the OneLifers had even existed. And boy did they never let her forget it.
As if their ancestors hadn’t dreamed of curing death for aeons before someone finally figured out how to map the brain and put it all on a hard drive. From there, it was a simple process of downloading it into any ARTBody the person chose for themselves. Sprocket was child back when the first human/bot hybrid was Rebirthed. Sprocket’s name had been Emily back then. Little Emily was born a defective OneLifer with heart troubles so bad that she could barely stand without wheezing and clutching her chest. Her parents had signed her up for the Rebirthing program.
That was before the legislation caught up, before the rioting started, before people started questioning the ‘humanity’ of beings who couldn’t die.
How can we truly live without mortality? the newscasters had asked each other behind their shiny desks, beneath lights so bright that they made each wrinkle stand out and pockmark their skin. How do we explain bot bodies with human minds to our children? Where do we fit into this brave new world?
Rebirthed humans were still frowned upon, over two hundred years later, though the legislation was slowly catching up. Sprocket had seen enough of the world and studied enough history to know that more changes would come. Slowly, painfully, but eventually.
She often wondered how Emily – the flesh and blood Emily – had felt about the download. She was eighteen when her mind was converted to ones and zeroes. Had she understood the magnitude of what was happening? Did Emily’s parents miss their flesh and bone child when the girl passed, not three years after her consciousness had been downloaded, or had Sprocket been a good enough likeness for them to forget the difference? Had they cursed themselves for it on their respective deathbeds?
“By the way, did you finish that book I sent you?” Kestrel asked.
Sprocket pulled herself out of thoughts of her past life and smiled, though Kestrel couldn’t see her. “A bit romantic for me,” she replied.
“Well, asexuality is underrepresented in most genres,” Kestrel replied. “But what did you think about the story?”
In the petri dish, Sprocket could just make out the microscopic outline of a foetus. Gizmo’s outline. She frowned and thought that maybe it was about time she came up with a better name – after all, not everyone liked techslang as a moniker. Should she wait until it was old enough to choose its own name?
No, she decided. If she did that, she might wind up with a kid named ‘Cat Pee’.
“The story was good,” Sprocket told Kestrel. “Though I think it’s a bit obvious that the author was a man. ‘My breasts hung free beneath my tunic’ – what woman is that preoccupied with her tits?”
Kestral laughed. “I’d be wondering what I was thinking to leave the house braless.”
“It’s not freedom. It’s back pain.”
Sprocket listened to Kestral laughing herself out. Kestral was over thirty, single and childless, as all tenure-track women are told to be. Sprocket wondered if Kestral had ever wanted children. She’d never asked. But then, she wasn’t staring down the barrel of eternity like Sprocket was.
Sprocket stared at the printer as it wove out the beginnings of a tiny C shape in the petri dish and remembered the day that they banned Rebirthed conception. Even if she’d had a uterus installed in the artificial body that her consciousness wore, she would never have been allowed to use it.
“Listen, I’ve got to run,” Sprocket said to Kestral. “I’ll take a look at this grant app and get back to you.”
“Cheers to that, Sprocket.”
She hung up. Then she crouched down at the side of the 3D printer and watched it work.
Hours dragged by. Sprocket didn’t move except to take sips from the BlasTOff can, and when it was finished she crumpled it up and jammed it into her mouth. Her stomach’s reCycle function would make short work of it.
She kept her eyes on the petri dish, zoomed in so that she could see the foetus being built cell by cell. The closed neural tube, the anterior and posterior horns, and the beginnings of a spleen were visible.
When the arm buds were fully printed, she would run down to the kitchen for the ARTWomb. Once the foetus was attached to the artificial placenta, she’d need to give it a little jolt of static to get the heart going. After that…
After that, she would be a mother.
Sprocket reached out to stroke the 3D printer gently. She felt like she should thank it, but it wasn’t sentient. Yet. She could make it sentient – it would be a simple matter, really. But if there was anything she’d learned over the years, it was that an artificial heartbeat did not a being make.
Little Emily’s heart had barely beat at all, but it had still counted for more than Sprocket’s did now.
Little Gizmo’s heart would beat organically. Politicians and people on the street might be able to tell Sprocket that she was less than human but her child would be one-hundred percent organic.
She kept stroking the printer, murmuring encouragement that it couldn’t hear, running through all of the parenting books she had stored in her library-chip. Rain began to beat against the window.
“We’re gonna be fine, kid,” she said, leaning forward so that the foetus’s tiny, unmoving heart could hear her. “I can’t wait to meet you.”
Author’s note: I mean… we can 3D print meat… and humans are… meat with feelings… and foetuses don’t develop their brains immediately… so if we can just figure out a way to print with stem cell ink then… maybe?
Also, I reckon that we’re going to start legislating against technologically enhanced humans as soon as they get too common. As a species, we’ve become a lot more likely to react against the other, even – and sometimes especially – when the other was once one of us. So it’s likely that folks will not be too chill with people like Sprocket once it’s too late to take those technological advancements back.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂