Dr. Bosworth's bearded face was long and solemn. Ethan shifted, unused to being on this side of the conversation. His stomach slowly sank as the pause continued.
"Please just say it, whatever it is."
The other doctor winced. "I regret to inform you, Dr. Urquhart... that your third son has begun to exhibit a degree of physical deformity due to an error in development."
"I see," Ethan said quietly, suppressing panic. It was rare, but it happened.
"My professional opinion is that the fetus is fully viable, but the defect may have a great impact on his quality of life. As you know, our sperm gene screening equipment is not capable of predicting all possible disorders in the growing fetus and our ability to fix problems past the embryonic stage is very limited."
He waved off the pat speech. "Let me see. Please."
Ethan didn't have to ask - he was the Chief of the Rep Center, and Lance Bosworth worked for him. Ethan had watched over his first son himself, but had decided to take a less direct role in the gestation of his subsequent ones. It had been an unexpected source of stress, to have his own son's life in his hands - and a severe distraction from the rest of his work. He trusted Lance, and had no doubt that he had done the best job possible.
Lance motioned him around to his side of the table. Ethan leaned over to look.
"Oh," he said.
Terrence waved at him from the side building as Ethan opened the front gate, and walked down the path. "Rough day?" he asked.
"There's a bit of a problem with Jacob," Ethan said, sounding calmer than he felt. The older boys were playing with blocky toy trucks in the sandbox but abandoned them for a scuffle just as he approached. They backed off and looked guilty as he harrumphed at them. John and Joseph were both EQ-1 and had warlike dispositions. Not from his side of the family, that. His third and Terrence's first snoozed in a double stroller, looking more typical for their generation.
Ethan's hope of slipping EQ-1 into the population unnoticed had been doomed to failure once everybody realized that the children of the Bharaputran cultures were, for the most part, brown. Athos's reaction to their new, strange sons was mostly bemused, though a few hold-outs had instigated a rush on the remaining original cultures. After all, nobody knew precisely what sort of sons these new foreign cultures would make, and one of the original 200 cultures had been taken out of service after some decades for being subtly dysgenic.
He hadn't personally realized until rather late in the gestation of Terrence's first and so far only son that the late Janine (now culture YR-1 and descendants) must have been even darker-skinned than the Bharaputran donors. His Rep Center hadn't been chosen to hold YR-1, but he'd ordered YR-2 to be cloned off it for the Center when the time came.
People noticed what the Rep Center chief chose for his sons. The early adopter discounts for EQ-1 had expired even before his boys had been taken out of their replicators. It was one of the several reasons he'd abandoned his plan for a matched set and chosen YR-2 for his own third son. The subsequent rush on YR-2 had been only a little more restrained.
His D.A. saw the expression on his face and rolled the stroller towards the door of the main house. Ethan juggled both boys while Joseph ran in, taunting John with a stolen toy. Once all was settled and the toddlers were shut in their play pen, Terrence gave him a hug.
"I can't help but think I failed him," Ethan muttered. He'd been too proud, after succeeding in the splicing project, a flagrant sin he now regretted. The replacement of EQ-1 with a daughter culture had gone perfectly, though Jacob had been from one of the last eggs of the old culture as opposed to the new one. "I was working on the culture. I wasn't paying attention."
"Is he..." Terrence's expression was odd, perhaps recalling his own dead siblings.
"No." Ethan shook his head sharply. "He'll live. I'll make sure of it. He'll never be able to have sons, though."
"Can't you fix these things? He's not yet born. I know the Betans..."
"We're not Betans." It came out curter than Ethan wanted it to. Beta Colony was depraved. There was really no other word for it.
Terrence bit his lip. "Are you going to tell Captain Quinn?"
"No!" The word escaped Ethan's lips before his conscious mind could react. He paused. Terrence was looking at him, a blond eyebrow raised. He thought about how to phrase things, careful about using profanity in front of the children. "It would be asking for trouble."
"I think you should." Terrence clearly believed this, and Ethan's guilt rose. The woman, perhaps, had a right to know. But despite his cautious respect for Quinn, he was reluctant to court exposure to her if he could all avoid it. The holocube he'd sent had been bad enough, the frequent cheeky notes she'd gotten in the habit of sending him worse. Corresponding with her risked his position, it risked Terrence and through him all of Athos, and it risked his sons. He'd seen enough of the galaxy for it to terrify him.
"I... fine." Unable to say no, he sighed, his repulsion to the idea draining out of him to be replaced by fear again. Giving his D.A. a hug, he retreated to his console.
He dug through his archived files, searching for the last brief note he'd been sent from Quinn. Opening a composition window, he hesitated once more. Was it right to tell the foreign female about this, a message she'd surely interpret as a cry for help? The galactics could fix this - but at what spiritual and financial cost? The message would take months to reach her through the usual shady channels, and the census ship needed to get here first. Too, his missive needed to get past the censors.
He hadn't written her a personal note before, just sent a virtual holocube of his children. His lips moved in silent prayer for guidance. How did one write to a woman?
He supposed he'd better start with the basics.
He hadn't thought she'd come herself.
Ethan watched in silent terror as the woman walked across the landing tarmac. Not obviously a woman - her dark hair was slicked back in a manly style, she wore a well-groomed beard, and her voice was deep and resonant. Such alterations, he was sure, were entirely cosmetic. The protrusions on her chest were perhaps compressed, the bulge in the loose pants artificial. Fingerless leather gloves covered her delicate hands.
It was convincing. It was contamination. It was his duty to speak up before she stepped off the tarmac and put one foot on uncorrupt soil.
"Hello, Dr. Urquhart. We've been corresponding for a while. I'm Elvis."
"Pleased to meet you again," he managed to say. A few representatives from the general council stood by, but he'd been delegated to handle this, having the most experience with galactics. Quinn had brought a trade ship, of all things. It could hardly be a profitable venture, especially with how fast she had arrived. "I would be happy to host you with my family and talk about the technology import issues we discussed on Kline Station."
"I'd love to see your family." A wink. "I foresee a lot of economic opportunities here. We'll see how this current venture turns out."
One General Council representative cleared his throat. "Our planet is interested in limited trade contact and is certainly willing to discuss further ventures."
"I'd be happy to," she breathed. "But I've been awake for twenty hours and on a jump-ship for weeks and weeks, and I'd like a chance to sleep in an actual bed at some point." She smiled at Ethan. He took it as his cue, and pointed out his lightflyer. They chatted casually as they walked, his mind screaming protest all the while.
Soon she was through his threshold. In his house. The young, blond sonsitter looked up from his book and handed off the four children with relief. The house was otherwise empty, since Terrence and his son were staying with Ethan's father for the duration. No galactic (and especially no female galactic) could be allowed to know Cee was here.
She looked around, whistling admirably. "I thought this'd be a worse pit than Barrayar, but it's really not. It's a beautiful planet."
"It's ours." He emphasized 'ours' a little.
"Right." Was she laughing at him, inside her head? She introduced herself to John and Joseph, who stared at her nervously. They awkwardly said hello. After as short a period a time as politeness allowed, Ethan shooed the boys off.
There was an uncomfortable silence. Ethan bit his lip and went to the cradle in his room.
He gently picked up the boy and carried him past the milk producer in the nursery to Quinn.
"So what's wrong?" Quinn asked, bemused. "Enzyme issues?" She seemed warier of the baby than the older boys. Not much in the way of paternal instinct, clearly.
"Hormone issues," Ethan sighed. "His development's been radically arrested." Jacob needed a change, too - he shouldn't have paid the sonsitter so fast. "Er, excuse me." He could hardly ask a woman to help change a diaper.
Quinn glanced over mid-process. She frowned, then her eyes lit up with realization.
"Ethan," she said with patient hilarity, "that's a girl."
"He certainly is not!" Ethan bristled. He'd had this argument with Terrence too. "I assure you, we check karyotype thoroughly. He's merely undeveloped. It's not the first instance of this sort of thing. They grow up to be men. Moral human beings. Merely... pre-pubescent."
"I expect they actually grow up to be women and you all pretend not to notice."
"Shhh!" His children were still awake. "Don't be absurd."
Quinn was rubbing her beard, trying not to laugh. "You dragged me out here for this?"
"I didn't ask you to come."
"I know. I wanted to. To see the boys. Are there really a hundred sons of mine here?"
"More than that, by now."
"And one daughter."
"I see how this could be a problem for you."
His lips thinned. "Can you help, or not?"
She hesitated. "Ethan... you want to turn her into a boy."
"If you say. Have you ever considered she might want to grow up to be a woman?"
He winced at the language again. "I would hope not. There's no place..."
"Exactly. I don't think there's a place for her here at all."
Was Quinn right? Most of the handful of cases he'd researched hadn't ended well - some had, but many disappeared into the Outlands to escape the moral suspicion of their elders. There had been a murder or two. Most weren't strong enough for the army, and attracted dangerous interest. Surgery worked intermittently well, if at all. The Betans, he knew, could fix the mind and the body. But they could do it both ways, and Ethan had to admit to himself that his son did not react to androgens and was thus outwardly and perhaps even mentally female.
He'd asked Quinn to surrender all her sons to him. Could he give her his... daughter?
They looked at each other.
Elli cleared her throat. "A month or two in a fast courier with a baby isn't my idea of a great time, but I can get her out of here. And if she wants to be a man, eventually, we'll take that as it comes."
"I thought there wasn't any room in your life for children."
"That's still true. I'm an Admiral now, and you have no idea how many people are trying to kill me." Quinn grinned fiercely. "My bounty's topped Miles's, in certain quarters, though I'm not going to tell him. No, I can't take her with the fleet, and Kline Station would be asking for trouble too. Maybe Sergyar. It's not my first choice, but it's secure enough from my enemies and I have some contacts there."
"Do you have a designated alternate?" Ethan asked.
She flushed a little. "...sort of. We hadn't been planning children. If you'd like it better, I could find a male couple to foster out to, maybe on Beta Colony. There's a few I know. They make all their parental applicants go through rigorous screening."
"I would prefer qualified, male parents, yes." Was that so rare? What sort of planet let unqualified people have children? "Religious education is a must."
"Could be arranged for." Elli leaned over and carefully picked Jacob up, holding the baby close to her. With her fatherly beard, the scene was almost charming.
"Aren't you a pretty girl." Her nose wrinkled. "Uh. Ethan, didn't you just change her?"
"I did, yes." Ethan's eyes gleamed. "Welcome to fatherhood, Elli."