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Fatherhood
by Rune Lai


I did not expect to find myself a father. It did not happen the usual way. I had not slept with a woman, nor had an orphan suddenly thrust itself upon me. But when I first saw her, I could not help but wonder. It took little enough time to be certain.

"How do you do, Rolf? I am Hugh Thompson, a biologist."

I introduced myself readily to the blue-haired agent, hoping he would not discount me from his mission on account of my age. Though he was only a year older than me, something about still being in the teenage years dampened many of my attempts to be recognized on an equal level with older adults. True, he did not know my age just from looking at me, many people actually thought me older than my nineteen years based upon my features, but I could not help having some reservations.

"I came when I heard about your quest. I value all life, including biomonsters'. I am willing to fight to defend weaker life forms though."

I spoke awkwardly, though I tried to stay in command of myself. I was naive, full of knowledge but not the wisdom to use it. I was the leading expert on multicellular organisms, and their genetics fascinated me.

Rolf accepted my help, and I expected to experience a chance where I could make a profound impact on my world. I was not wrong, as time would later prove, but I did not expect the profound impact that chance in return would have on me.

When I first met Nei she was entertaining Amy in the kitchen of Rolf's house. The agent introduced her to me and at first I was surprised to see such a genetically engineered creature. She looked so human, with bright eyes, an expressive mouth, and a sense of humor. I found I could quite easily ignore the long, pointed ears that came out high on her head. It did not occur to me to connect her to the Biosystems. She looked to be the wrong age, and I did not find it incredible to think someone else would try to create sentient life, perhaps even based off of my own work. Nei pumped my hand energetically as she greeted me and asked if I would like something to eat.

Before I knew it I was seated at Rolf's breakfast nook and Amy was telling me about their findings in the Biosystems Lab. She, Nei, Rolf, and Rudo had found the lab's recorder, something that I thought had perished during the series of explosions that wrecked much of the lab.

"I understand you were a biologist there," Amy told me.

I nodded. "I wasn't there during the accident though. My associate, for lack of a better term, recommended I take the night off. If it hadn't been for that I would have spent most of the night there as usual."

"I see." Amy held her mug of tea in both hands as she sipped from it. "The thing is, the recorder told us that two years ago a creature was created that shouldn't have been. A massive power influx from Climatrol caused the thing to make a rapid growth. Its creation is what threw the the climate control systems out of whack. I was hoping you'd know something about it."

I shook my head. "There were hundreds of experiments running at the time. Any number of them could have been affected. If only one of them was, searching through the data records would be like looking for a specific pebble in a rockslide."

She seemed disappointed, but I spoke the truth. Before the disaster the Biosystems Lab prided itself on the level of output it had. Mother Brain spoke to it often, and the scientists there took it as a measure of her esteem. I don't recall what I thought of her then. I think I was too absorbed in my own thoughts to mind the whims of an entity that never concerned itself directly with me.

But Amy's words brought back memories, as did the appearance of Nei. I could not help but remember my own experiment in the Biosystems two years ago.

*     *     *     *     *

"It's a pleasure to be working with you, Dr. Stevens."

I shook my supervisor's hand when I met him for the first time. I would be assisting him in his genetic engineering of food plants. In return he would help me fund and manage my own project. For a seventeen year old biologist fresh out of college, it was an incredible bargain. My own work would be secondary to his in priority, but my free time was my own, and I could spend as much of it on my project as I wished. I did.

I remember the day I was through with the rough draft of my project's procedures and objectives. My mood could only have been described as bubbly, and no doubt Seed detected the unusual increase in the rate of my heartbeat as I entered my lab.

"Greetings, Dr. Thompson," said Seed. Though a supercomputer of incredible speed and intellect, he possessed a level of tact, even friendless, that was unmatched by most systems. I was fortunate that Dr. Stevens had allocated so much time that I could spend with Seed without interruptions.

"I understand you wish to begin your project today," the computer continued.

I nodded, certain that Seed's visual receptors would pick up my movement. "Yes, Dr. Stevens said that he'll have a support staff available for me soon." I waved a sheaf of papers at the cluster of monitors I always took for Seed's "face". "Plus I finished all the preliminary work last night. We've got a green light all the way!"

Seed did one of his pauses I took for his version of a Palman nod. "That is good on both counts, Doctor, though this system will do much of the initial monitoring of your project's growth phase."

"I know." I smiled. "I don't think much will be happening in the first few months anyway. We'll have to wait until she's big enough to be seen."

"She?" queried the computer.

"Nei," I replied, "my project. It's a nice name actually. 'Nei' is 'not human', but still like a human. It's hard to explain. One of my students used to use that to describe my study habits."

"Nei," Seed repeated. The computer stirred as he committed the term to memory.

"I plan on creating a sentient life form to assist us in the lab. I don't know if you have had the information uploaded to you yet. My idea is that robots have their uses, but they have their limitations as well. It would be best, especially in a lab, to have a construct dexterous enough to handle fragile equipment and move it from place to place. It would be even better if that construct could assist in cognitive processes as well.

"Neifirst will be my first attempt, then Neisecond, and so on. I admit it's not very creative, but it will keep them distinct and it's so much better than Experiment #14836 Subject A, don't you think?"

Seed had not made any comment. I almost thought he would. I supposed even a highly sentient computer could not have a level of aesthetics to match a Palman's. That may have been a gross misjudgment on my part, because Seed was my best friend for the entirety of my stay at the lab, but I could not help feeling some bias towards organic creatures. After all, that was why I decided to create a new form of life in the first place, because mechanics weren't enough. Seed, thankfully, was tolerant of my pettiness, and at times I forgot there wasn't another person behind the machine.

We would work together for a total of six months before the lab was destroyed. The first couple weeks were relatively simple. Seed easily found sequences of what he termed "biomonster" DNA that we could combine with our Palman sample (once we got one). I told him "biomonster" sounded like something far too harsh to mix in with a being designed to help handle acoustic equipment. Seed assured me that it was just part of the terminology. He displayed samples of what the actual creatures looked like, and those he showed me appeared harmless enough; not much different from Mota's indigenous animals. For simplicity's sake, we narrowed the field of possible biomonster donors to one species. Seed isolated the sequences for ear development and motor control. But what he said a day later surprised me.

Seed knew I was working on the plant samples for Dr. Stevens at the time and I expected him to be quiet as usual. He had been for well over an hour when he suddenly stated, "We need a sample of Palman DNA."

The cell cultures in front of me had my full attention then and his words barely broke into my consciousness. "Hm?" I muttered, glancing up at him.

I scratched my head with the tip of a distillation rod. Not a good idea if you haven't washed it mind you. Once I was soaking my head in the sink and hoping that bluish black streak in my hair would not be permanent, I was finally able to focus on Seed's statement. The computer had a knack for making almost anything sound profound. Now that I was more attentive I wondered why getting a Palman sample would be such a problem.

"What's so bad about that?" I gasped as I fumbled blindly for a towel. "Doesn't the Biosystems' storage have enough?"

"Palman DNA samples are frequently kept on file for purposes of genetic mapping, but they are off-limits for experimentation. I'm certain you are aware of that. If not I could refer you to Statement #5088 Section C of the­"

"Yeah, yeah," I muttered, wiping the water from my face. "So what do you need me to do? Go to the local sperm and egg bank and get a few frozen samples for us to work with?"

"I believe if I were a Palman my appropriate reaction would be to be appalled."

I chuckled at one of his rare attempts at humor. "Yes, I suppose some people would be, wouldn't they. But I don't think that's what you're getting at. Not like I relish that thought of doing that anyway."

"It would be preferable to have the entire phenotype of the donor available for viewing, to know if there are any expressed mutations in the DNA. Anonymous donors do not leave pictures for us to view nor a complete medical history. Neifirst will be primarily Palman in construct, so any such deficiencies must be noted and avoided."

I understood. It would not do to have a syndrome crop up in such an expensive organism and watch months, even years, of research to go down the drain because of it.

"Well," I said slowly, "I don't have any expressed mutations in me, and my family does not have a history of them either. Granted it's possible a latent one will arise in me once I hit middle age, I very much doubt it. We'll probably have moved on to other things by then though."

Seed paused. "There will be complications with that. We will need an egg, though an artificial host one can be created easily enough. And you realize that as a male your sex chromosomes are XY, not the XX required for a viable female. Are you considering changing the gender of Neifirst?"

I shook my head. "No. You can replicate the X chromosome well enough. She'll have two identical copies. One of them will become a Barr body anyway, and hopefully that will negate any harmful effects of having two sex chromosomes from the same parent." A thought occurred to me. "Besides, we can arrange the DNA so that the egg will be fertilized as though it was no different as in nature, except that it will be in a test tube."

"Indeed? Explain."

I did so, and I was surprised by the level of detail I was able to throw out. I also realized that some people might call my methods sick or revolting, since my DNA was essentially being mated with itself. Incest in the greatest degree, I suppose. But I would be careful. The biomonster DNA would factor in as well, so she would not be entirely related to me. Genes have a way of interacting with each other on a subtle level, and I was certain her Palman features would not too closely resemble mine.

The next few months were fruitful, though Seed remained a little pessimistic on the outset. She grew somewhat swifter than a normal Palman child, a fact Seed and I took into account as a side effect of having biomonster DNA spliced into her. Neifirst became visible as a tiny speck in her life capsule at two months of age. I watched her daily, and Seed often displayed magnified videos of her on his various screens. She was so tiny, but I could already see her limbs and head. She lived! Oh, but when would she be ready to be born?

One evening, five months after her conception, I was prepared to spend another whole night watching her. She was bigger now, and I could see the small pointed ears that would make her an invaluable help in acoustic experiments. If only they turned out right and her dexterity developed correctly. She rolled over in her capsule and I believed she would be an energetic child.

"I think you should take the night off, Dr. Thompson," said Seed. "You have been here every night for the past two weeks. I don't believe you have slept much."

I grinned. "It's called caffeine pills and catching catnaps at board meetings."

Seed seemed to frown. "I do believe you owe it to Dr. Stevens however to be wide awake when you assist him. If he notices your dereliction he will take away the support staff you need for when Neifirst awakens."

"True," I sighed, "but it's getting close now, perhaps another month and she'll be ready."

"Dr. Stevens is on mandatory shift tonight. I will ask him to come in here should anything happen. He in turn can notify you."

"Thanks, Seed."

At that point I really did feel tired, and I happily took the Biosystems' teleporter back to my parents' home in Kueri. When I crawled in bed that night I slept with the ardor of the dead. Little did I realize how literally some of my coworkers would do just that before the night was over.

My mother told me the news when I awoke late the next morning. The Biosystems had been destroyed overnight. Something terrible had happened there, but no one knew exactly what. My first thoughts were of Neifirst and Seed. Despite my parents' protests I was dressed and out the door before they could even hand me a bag lunch, which they were normally very good at. I must admit having a researching biologist for a teenage son must not have been easy for them, and all things considered they supported me very well.

When I got to the teleport station I immediately asked to go to the Lab. The clerk wouldn't allow me. I was calmly informed that the Biosystems was off limits to civilians until further notice, whenever that would be. The news was not hopeful. I bought two telepipes from the item store and teleported there myself.

I found the entire circumference of the lab had been cordoned off and police robots tramped about the area, warding people away. Though I wanted to dash past them, I knew such a measure would be futile. I could see partially into the lab through the massive front doors, and the sight of broken life capsules, their occupants and lifeblood splattered across the flooring without remorse, filled my heart with despair. Even if I managed to get inside, I knew I could only find shattered remains where Neifirst's capsule was.

After that day I found new work in a smaller lab in Paseo. I accomplished much, though I never again attempted to create sentient life. I tired of the commute from Kueri to Paseo everyday, and once I earned enough money I rented my own apartment on the eighth floor of one of Paseo's skyscrapers. It offered a magnificent view of the lake to the south, and when I looked at its beauty I thought I could finally forget that there had ever been a Neifirst.

*     *     *     *     *

When Rolf had us camp for the night outside the mountains of Uzo Island, I was able to have my first private talk with Nei. Everyone else was asleep around the periphery of the camp and the two of us remained by the fire on watch. Tomorrow we would attempt to scale the mountains in search of the maruera tree. Rolf was thankful I was with them so that they could distinguish between what was a maruera tree and what was not.

I watched Nei as she in turn watched the fire. Her movements were deft, I had seen her agility in battle, and her ears could have been the right shape. They were longer than I had seen in Neifirst's, though she was still growing at the time. She had purple hair, the same color as my own, and then there was her name, Nei, the name for my project series. If someone else had made her from my notes, it was possible they had kept that name and dropped the ordinals after it. But as she turned to look at me I again remembered that she could not be the right age. Even though Neifirst had grown faster than Palmans, it had not been this fast! And Nei's eyes were brown. My were green. I did not know if that was a side effect of biomonster DNA or because she was someone else's.

"Something wrong?" she asked.

"Thinking," I replied, looking now at the fire. "Nei, I don't mean to be rude, but do you ever think about your creation?"

She was silent for a moment. "Yes, frequently."

I nodded awkwardly. "What do you think of the person who created you?"

"I don't know."

"Do you know where you were born?"

"A lab. Why?"

"I'm searching for some answers and I'm hoping you can help me."

She smiled weakly. "I'm afraid I can't. I don't know what you're looking for and I don't think you're going to tell me."

"You're right. I'm not. I can't until I'm sure." I shook my head. "It would hurt if I'm wrong."

Nei reached out and clasped my hand. "And it will hurt even more if you are right."

*     *     *     *     *

I think Nei knew, though I said nothing more of her origin since that night. I encouraged her as a member of the party, and together the eight of us fought our way to the peak of Climatrol. But there I saw something I could not understand. How could there be two Neis? Nei stood beside Rolf, yet there was a copy of her beside the controls to the climate system.

The other Nei spoke, narrowing her eyes to us as she introduced herself. And I was forced to listen with growing horror. "I am Neifirst, I was born two years ago from the product of a Biosystems experiment combining humans with animals. The people felt the experiment was a failure and thus tried to kill me. But I escaped, and stole DNA data from the Biosystem. I have created monsters to wreck revenge on the people who so carelessly and selfishly played with life. But there is another Nei within me: a Nei who is trying to stop me."

"It can't be... You don't mean?" Rolf stammered.

"Yes, that is the one that you call Nei. The one you think is a friend is a monster who despises all people!"

"No, I don't hate humans!" said Nei. "I separated from Neifirst because it was so terrible in her! Of course it is terrible to be born a monster! But I couldn't stand by while you tried to get revenge by creating monsters!"

"Fool! You say such things, but you are powerless to stop me! Just try it!"

"I don't want you to make any more monsters! Do you understand?"

I wanted to scream for them to stop. Thousands of implications pounded me. My fault! My fault for all this mess! Perhaps I had been foolish, selfish even, but I would have been there for her. Could she remember; the way she drifted in the nutriatic juice as I watched her daily? I had not realized until now how much I cared for her, for both of her.

"You can't fight!" I shouted out all my anxiety as Nei made her first attack. She did not hear me and I made to lunge myself between them.

Rudo immediately caught me about the gut with one of his arms, inadvertently knocking the breath from my lungs. He was fearful of my intervention. But Nei shouldn't have had to fight alone, even if Rolf and the others thought it was her wish.

I had to watch, helpless to stop them, and wondering where, when, had I erred. Neifirst was beyond reason now. As I watched her vengefully strike down Nei, I knew she would only view me as the epitome of Palman folly. No matter the intentions, the results were all that mattered. I finally realized her pain.

My shoulders slumped as Nei fell. My friends raised their weapons about them in preparation for the oncoming battle. I did not want the line to be drawn, but it had, and I could only stand beside it.

I flipped my laser knife from its sheath and activated it. Its steady hum reassured me as I lifted my acidshot in my other hand. The line had been drawn and I would have to pay for the mistake I had made. Nei, Neifirst, and I all would, but only I would have to live with the knowledge of my burden.

The battle was difficult. Neifirst was more powerful than my predictions estimated. Could the power surge have altered her physical development so far from its genetic code? I found myself determined to find the answer. We attacked, dodged, and healed; all for our own reasons. I held no thoughts of vengeance in my heart as did Rolf. All I could feel was a numbness in the pit of my stomach, but that weight gave me the strength I needed to survive the fight.

When it was over, not a single one of us was uninjured. Rudo leaned heavily against his laser cannon and Rolf cradled Nei's motionless form in his arms. He called Nei's name plaintively, but there would be no answer.

I realized then what it meant to be a father. The desire for a better life for her had filled me. I wished I had been there when she had been born, that someone had alerted me. I wanted to know what it would have been like had I the chance to raise her. If I was there, could I have made a difference? I would never have let anyone kill her on account of her being a "failure". Who were they to judge her? Neifirst might have been a contented being, without a need to split herself from her tamer feelings. Fatherhood was so much more than merely having a child that possessed my genes. It was the desire to nurture, protect, and for her to carry my dreams in her heart.

There in the heights of Climatrol, Rolf cried for a sister. Our companions mourned for the loss of a friend. I wept for the death of a daughter.

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