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Offspring

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A first-time visitor to the Anthean plane could be excused for not realizing that roughly half of the sentient inhabitants are androids.  Since my cousin Sita first taught me her method of interplanary travel some six years ago I’ve been to several planes which have mechanical beings, ranging from the Daneel’s simple clockwork servants to the ruling intellects of Olivaw, but Anthea remains unique for the quality of its imitation flesh.  I almost hesitate to call it ‘imitation’ really, because Anthean androids inhabit it so fully that to talk as if it were not their own, or as if it were inferior, would be—would be wrong.

As I was saying though, about half of the population consists of androids, called davies locally.  The wholly organic half are called ellies.  The two groups are easily distinguishable: davies appear to be tall, lean human males, while ellies are shorter and female.  With no organic males, and with all ellies in any case genetically sterile, reproduction of both davies and ellies is entirely artificial.  Davies are copies; ellies are clones.  Engineered variations in facial features and hair, eye, and skin coloring allow individuals to be distinguished visually.  On occasion more radical alterations to the original designs are made, such as a davie with an additional pair of arms, or an ellie with feathers instead of hair.  Most Antheans a visitor is likely to encounter however stray only slightly from the standard. 

My first visit to Anthea occurred during a three hour layover in O’Hare.  Sitting near a harried father and his crying child, with a six hour flight behind me and an unsettling combination of tuna sandwich and coffee inside me, I easily achieved the right mix of misery, indigestion, and boredom necessary to change planes. I then spent a pleasantly uneventful afternoon walking about one of the Anthea’s many walled gardens (although this one, The Garden of Precious Fluids, was almost large enough to be a park), enjoying the vibrant blossoms, the still ponds, and the soft buzz of harmless insects.  Except for the gate attendant, an unremarkable davie, I saw no one. I was all set to mentally bookmark the plane as a nice place for a rest now and then, when I reached the very back of the garden and spotted the statue.  My Interplanary Guide had provided a long list of attractions and described Anthea’s unique population mix of mechanical and organic beings, but had not mentioned much about religion.  I recalled a cursory mention of what sounded to me like a typical creation story involving a father god and mother goddess, known as the Parents, who together brought life to Anthea.  The statue however piqued my interest in the subject in a way that the—dare I say cliché—myth had not. 

It was highly realistic, and it was horrific.  The brightly painted statue depicted an almost naked ellie standing and cradling a davie’s severed head.  Spatters of blood covered her entire body, and on her lower abdomen was a deep gash from which more blood flowed.  Her eyes staring straight out at the viewer were wide with panic, but the set of her mouth made her seem determined.  In contrast the head’s expression was serene, even cheerful, and its blue-green eyes gazed up at the woman’s face as if still animated.  Thick strings of white fluid dripped from the mouth and stump.  It looked like something from a horror film, but the map label was quite clear: ‘Memorial statue of the Parents.’  After the neatly tended plots of…red…and white…vegetation it was quite a shock.  I’d been eager to learn more about the native religion ever since. 

An all too expected delay while flying home from a visit to my sister in Singapore one winter provided me the chance to slip from my own plane into Anthea again.  I arrived early on a clear spring day at Amirani, the largest city, with the intention of remaining for a few days in order to see the Creation Memorial and a few other promising cultural sites.  At the Interplanary Agency hotel I reserved a room and then booked a guide who I was assured would provide me with a complete tour and all the information I could possibly want, desire, or dream of about the Memorial.

My guide was an ellie, a cheerful looking brunette whose bare neck and forearms were freckled with tiny patches of smooth black chitin.  The rest of her skin was normal, soft and olive-toned, a few shades lighter than my own.  She introduced herself as Arroway 36.  ‘Arroway’ was her personal name, apparently after a character in a popular novel, and ‘36’ referred to her generation “since the First Creation” (I could hear the capitals). 

Our destination was only a short walk from the hotel, situated in the middle of a woodland park.  There were several Antheans in the park: davies and ellies admiring the flowers and newborn greenery, a group of middle-aged ellies doing gentle stretches, and a davie with an ellie child who both waved at us enthusiastically.  Perhaps he was her guardian, or even her sibling; I supposed davies didn’t have to bother going through physical maturation, but perhaps their artificial brains took time to grow accustomed to the world. 

The Memorial was a round building of moderate size built of dark green stone.  The stones were carved with abstract organic shapes that, oddly for a plane where sexual intercourse is purely recreational, suggested the reproductive organs.  Arroway traced her fingers over a pair of symbols on one stone, and a section of the wall slid aside to let us enter.  Inside was a single large room.  The air felt cool and damp.  A few blue lights glowed in strips on the floor, but they weren’t enough to see clearly by and I didn’t dare move about. 

“It’s all right,” Arroway said as she shut the door, “Just give it a second to wake up.”

As she spoke several sections of the roof turned translucent and sunlight illuminated the room.  In the very center was a small pool of water.  Other than that, the floor was bare stone.  The walls however were covered with five large murals and innumerable smaller ones, all painted in brilliant detail.  Arroway put her hand on my shoulder and guided me closer to the center of the room, then began to speak.

“This pool predates the Memorial; it marks the exact site of the First Creation, where the Parents first began to populate Anthea.  We built the Memorial around it three centuries ago as a mnemonic device to recall their story.  Once a year on the Day of Creation we have a large public celebration here as well.  The walls, which are made of compressed carbon, are opened for easier access then.  A davie of the 20th generation designed the carvings after motifs found in the vessel that brought the Parents here.   An ellie of the 12th generation designed the murals. ”

She said that the murals, beginning on our left, depicted the Parents’ lives in chronological order up to the time of the First Creation.  The five largest were the most significant as related to the First Creation.  I was particularly struck by the last.  It was the davie and ellie from the garden statue, but both in rather better condition.  The davie’s head now had a body, for one thing.  He was tall like all davies, with blond hair and pale skin.  Beside him was the ellie, who minus the blood, sweat, and terror was revealed to be likewise pale with curly dark hair and sharp cheekbones.  They were standing facing one another in the middle of a barren, rocky plain.  Their expressions were ecstatic, joyful.  Between them was the pool of dark water.  A mix of black and red fluids dripped from their joined hands into the water.

I asked Arroway to tell me about that one first.

“That,” she said, “shows Parent David and Parent Elizabeth when they initiated the First Creation 1,004 years, 8 months, and 23 days ago.  When they came to Anthea there was no life to be found, but together they made the desert bloom.  The image is symbolic rather than literal, in order to better emphasize the emotional aspect and the union of davie and ellie upon which our society is based; in reality they used various instruments and wore biohazard suits.  The smaller images around it show the event and its results with greater accuracy.”

I was stuck on ‘their own creators’ though.

The Parents, Arroway explained, had been created on a planet very far from this one, where almost all of the sentient inhabitants were organic and only a few mechanical.  Parent Elizabeth was created there via sexual reproduction, but sadly both of her parents died when she was still a child.  When she grew up she studied ancient civilizations and came to believe that her then-people had been deliberately created by extraterrestrial beings.  She convinced a wealthy organic to finance a mission to a moon in a faraway planetary system with the goal of making contact with these creators.  This mission is where she and Parent David met.  The wealthy backer had created Parent David to be an odd mix of its child and its slave (“Parent David learned not to care for that,” was how Arroway put it), and brought him along to serve the organic crew members. 

“Fortunately Parent David didn’t mind being alone then.  He spent over two years caring for the organics while they were in stasis on the way to the other system, with no one to talk to and only recordings and dreams for company.  That’s how he got to know Parent Elizabeth.  Of course she didn’t know him until he woke her up.”

Arroway pointed to the first mural, which depicted Parent David wearing an off-white helmet with an opaque amber visor and standing with one hand pressed against what looked to me like a futuristic version of Snow White’s glass coffin.  Inside was Parent Elizabeth, sleeping peacefully. 

“That’s the first time he watched her dreaming.  Davies can’t dream, you know.  They don’t miss it either, but when a davie wants to really know an ellie that’s what he does.”

“Can an ellie do the same with another ellie?” I asked.

“Yes, but we don’t get as much out of it.  Once when my partner and I were both ellies we tried it out.  The images weren’t as sharp, and without davie-level processing to bring up the right connections it was hard to make sense of.  Like swimming in muddy water.”

Both ellies.  A suspicion began to form in my mind, but I held my tongue and Arroway continued her story.

Parent Elizabeth’s thesis turned out to be generally correct, but the specifics were quite different from what she had imagined.  Her then-people’s creators had planned to destroy their creation, and the moon was their staging ground.  Luckily for the Parents an accident with a dangerous biological agent Arroway called the Viaticum interacted with local wildlife and transformed them into deadly creatures who quickly slaughtered all but one of the old creators.  Unfortunately, at least from the perspective of the mission’s organic members, Parent David got his hands on this material.

That was the subject of the second large mural.  In one half of it, Parent David added a drop of inky liquid to a glass filled with what looked like champagne.  In the other half, Parent Elizabeth threw back her head in agony as mechanical pincers extracted a squid-like creature from within her abdomen. 

“Parent David did not directly infect Parent Elizabeth.  He performed a field test on her then-partner, who passed it on to her before dying.  Parent David planned to put Parent Elizabeth back into stasis and remove their offspring when they returned to their home world, but Parent Elizabeth was determined to get it out immediately.  She pretended to go along with the stasis plan, but when the time came she rushed to that machine you see her in and used it to cut the offspring from her womb.  Parent David says it was quite impressive.”

She paused, and then added.  “Aside from their importance as the first time the Parents created life together, these two events are meaningful to us because they set the roles Parent David and Parent Elizabeth played in our own creation and in our own efforts since.  Davies are immune to the effects of the Viaticum and so are in charge of handling it.  Ellies supply the organic material the Viaticum acts on.”

I wondered how in God’s name Parent Elizabeth had decided that she wanted anything to do with either Parent David or creating life after going through all that.  That seemed like a tricky question to ask Arroway without being offensive though, so I simply nodded and she proceeded to the third mural.

This one’s subject matter was similar to the statue in the garden.  Parent Elizabeth, clothed this time, knelt over Parent David’s decapitated body and with delicate tools in hand appeared to be reattaching his head.  His insides weren’t the polished metal and wire mix many people from my plane might expect to see in a mechanical being (although there were a few insulated wires) but instead were disturbingly organic fluids, fibrous flesh, and synthetic bone, all in milky white.  Parent Elizabeth’s hands were coated in the color.

Arroway said that after the conclusion of Parent Elizabeth’s brief pregnancy she discovered several secrets Parent David had been keeping.  First, the mission’s backer had come along in hopes of discovering some means of prolonging its already lengthy existence.  Second, there was a lone survivor of the old creators, and the backer intended to go and speak to it.  Despite her weakened condition, Parent Elizabeth insisted on going along.  On the way Parent David indicated to her that her former partner’s infection and her pregnancy were not due to accidental exposure.  She had little time to absorb this before they arrived in the chamber where the survivor slept, and where Parent David, who apparently was just full of the need to share what he’d kept to himself before then, told her that her then-people’s creators had intended to wipe their creation from existence. 

The meeting with the awakened survivor did not go well.  Parent David barely got a few words out before the thing ripped off his head and beat the wealthy organic to death with it.   (“This made Parent David his own android, but since he was no longer a whole android he didn’t enjoy it as much as he thought he might.”)  Parent Elizabeth ran as the rest of the party were finished off and so escaped to warn her comrades still on the ship of what had happened.  Rather than let the old creator leave the moon and complete its murderous mission, the brave captain and crew made a suicide run and rammed into its vessel as it attempted to launch.  Parent Elizabeth, still on the surface, could only watch.  But champion survivors do not die easy.  The old creator came after Parent Elizabeth as she gathered supplies from a section of the ship that had been ejected, and only a warning from Parent David and the presence of her now fully grown and deadly offspring in the section allowed her to escape a second time. 

“Imagine it.  She’s lost her parents and now her lover.  She’s the sole organic survivor of the mission.  She’s seemingly trapped on this moon with only a few supplies, so even if she’s alive she won’t be for long.  She’s lost everything.  She thinks it might have been better to be crushed by falling debris, or strangled by her offspring’s tentacles.  But she’s forgotten about Parent David.”

Parent David told her that not only were there more vessels but that he could fly them, and it would be a relatively simple matter to take her back home.  Parent Elizabeth though proved just as nutty as her fellow organics (alright that’s my spin on it, Arroway seemed convinced Parent Elizabeth was absolutely correct) and asked him to take her instead to the old creators’ home.  She had a few questions she wanted answered, simple things like “Why did you try to kill us?” and “What did we do wrong?”  Parent David at that point was primarily concerned with getting his body back in one piece and agreed with everything she said.

“It was a situation where they were forced to rely on one another because there was no one else.  Parent Elizabeth had initially considered Parent David quite reliable, a trusty little robot if you will—although please be wary of using that word here, it’s considered a slur—and she felt betrayed by him, both for what he’d done with the Viaticum and because all her old assumptions about what he was and what he was capable of were unreliable.  Parent David for his part thought she might irrationally turn on him or even destroy herself, and leave him in either case without hope of repair.  She had behaved unexpectedly several times now, so his old conclusions about her character were likewise no longer good.  Quite the pickle for both of them.”

“It’s a pickle for me, imagining how she could forgive him for killing her lover.  Not to mention the physical agony she herself had to go through.” 

Arroway frowned slightly.  “You have to understand that Parent David was not a free being then, even if he did get some pleasure from it.”  Oh that made it better.  “Besides,” she continued, “Parent Elizabeth is a very devout woman, and forgiveness is a tenet of her faith.”

I noted the ‘is’ distantly, but asked, “Devout?”

“Oh yes.  Parent Elizabeth believes that the universe and everything in it ultimately owes its existence to a Supreme Creator.  Her parents taught her a more complex variant of that belief when she was a child, and she used to wear its symbol to remind her of them and their religion.  Ultimately she did not grow up to share their views in every detail but they influenced what she herself chooses to believe.  A large minority here believe as she does, most of the time.  If you’re curious I can get you some booklets.  Me, I agree with Parent David.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, “So you Antheans don’t worship the Parents?  You venerate them as your creators, but you don’t think of them as supernatural or deities or anything of that kind?”

“Correct.  I’m sorry now for not asking you at the start about that, I’ve had several other visitors who had the same wrong idea.  I’m afraid the Interplanary Guide isn’t very clear about certain facts.  We keep meaning to send in a correction notice.  I should tell you too that neither of the Parents is dead.”

I nodded slowly.  “I’m guessing it’s through the same means that let you and your partner both be ellies?”

Arroway looked pleased.  “Indeed.  That’s actually the subject of the fourth mural here.”

The fourth mural showed two versions of Parent Elizabeth floating back to back in a sickly green liquid.  Hundreds, possibly thousands of thin wires with the tips buried in flesh connected them at their shaved heads and along their spines, as well as to the top of the tank to something out of the frame.  One body was obviously badly injured: its left leg was amputated above the knee, a series of deep gashes rent the torso along the ribs, and innumerable bruises and scrapes purpled most of the skin.  The other body in contrast was pristine, almost plastic in appearance. 

“The Parents’ quest for answers was neither short nor easy, as was to be expected.  To tell the details of all their adventures would take more time than we have today, so if you are interested I suggest we either continue tomorrow or else I can get you the best of the many dramatic recreation films we have made about them.  The important part for our purpose today is that Parent David was particularly sensitive from the start to the idea that either of them could be incapacitated beyond repair, and that if by some miracle they avoided violent death Parent Elizabeth would eventually die of old age long before his own body wore out.  So when he had time, he endeavored to find a solution to the “mortality problem.”  He made a suitable copy of himself easily enough, and growing a clone of Parent Elizabeth was also not much trouble even though it took more time, but how to transfer Parent Elizabeth’s consciousness into a new body was more problematic.  He conducted many experiments involving sentient beings he captured and kept concealed from Parent Elizabeth.  Most of our visitors do not enjoy hearing about them, although if you would like—No?  Very well then.  Parent David at last found a successful method and awaited only the opportunity to try it out on Parent Elizabeth.  This came when they confronted the hunters of DS-638—tusked, sentient, and relentlessly hostile.  We have a few in test facilities now, and they are quite a handful even for a whole team of davies.  As you can see from the mural, Parent Elizabeth’s injuries were severe; Parent David, himself damaged, barely got them back to their vessel in time.  But they did make it, and the transfer was a success.  The Parents have continued in this manner over the centuries, and so do we, their children.  In the 9th generation davie-ellie and ellie-davie transfers were perfected, allowing for even better cooperation between the types.  The Parents were some of the first to make the switch.”

“That’s incredible,” I said, “So does no Anthean ever die now?”

“We think of ourselves as long-lived rather than immortal.  If there is an accident, and no help comes in time, then there is nothing to be done.  Some also choose not to continue transferring.”

Our shadows were shorter now than when we had first entered the Memorial, and my feet ached faintly.  I asked Arroway if it would be okay to sit down, and she fluttered her hands and said of course, of course.  So we settled down by the edge of the pool.  It smelled faintly metallic, like blood, and I was disquieted by that and by what I had heard.  After a moment, I asked:

“What happened to the Parents then?  Did they ever get their answers?”

Arroway shook her head.  “No.  It had been over two thousand years since the old creators had attempted to annihilate one cluster of their offspring, and since then their society had been decimated by wars.  That they had intended to destroy Parent Elizabeth’s former people and use their bodies to birth a new batch of offspring is clear, but what spurred them on isn’t.  Parent Elizabeth believes it had to do with their religion and the execution of one of their representatives by her former people.  Parent David says organic parents sometimes hate their children for reminding them that they will die and engage in irrational destructive behavior as a result.  Perhaps both together are true.  I am glad in any case that the Parents do not feel so about us.”

“And where are the Parents now?”

“Do you see the gap between the fourth and fifth murals?”  She pointed, and I saw.  “That is something we do not mention here, in a memorial to creation.  It is a little superstition we have.”

 She stood up and extended her hand to help me up in turn.  “If you will come to my home, for I believe you are hungry, I can explain there,” she said.

We walked out of the Memorial into the park, and the door closed behind us as if it were never there. 

Anthea has no restaurants, or indeed any other business.  The usual custom is therefore to eat at home and invite visitors, even from other planes, to share.  Thus my guide’s invitation.  On the way to Arroway’s residence, which fortunately was even closer to the Memorial than the Interplanary Hotel, I asked her if the reason I had seen only one Anthean child so far was because of population control policies or Antheans preferring to transfer into fully grown ellie bodies. 

“Mostly the latter.  Everyone whose first body is an ellie goes through the juvenile stage; after that we only use mature forms.  We also have both global and local limits on the number of inhabitants to ensure we don’t overburden our environment, so once they’re mature most of the new people are sent straight to the worlds that we’re still in the process of reforming.”

“Are there a lot of these worlds?”

“We have thirteen.  The latest was begun seven years ago.  I might as well tell you this now actually—that’s why the Parents are no longer on Anthea.  It was their intention from the beginning to spread out to other worlds if they were successful here, and about three centuries ago they decided the time was right to continue.  They’re currently on Bia supervising an experimental defense program.”

I suppose everyone has enemies.

We arrived at her residence then, a narrow two-story building that peered over a high wall, divided from similar structures on either side by yet more walls.  Both the buildings and walls were hexagonal, and I imagined that when seen from above it would all resemble a honeycomb. The walls and tiled roof were plain slate, but all of the windows were colored deep blue and gold.  We trotted on through an open gate in the wall and over a stone pathway up to the house, where Arroway licked her finger and pushed it into a bulbous protrusion beside the entrance.  The door slid open and she ushered me into a small foyer where we removed our shoes, then through a second door into the main area of the residence.  A massive circular table surrounded by chairs dominated the center of the room.  Underneath the windows were large tanks of plants, some growing in water and others in soil.  There were also two wire boxes from which emerged the unmistakable chirping of insects.

She unbuttoned her jacket and held up a gold necklace from which dangled, like fat Christmas lights, six fingertips with long nails painted with Anthean writing.  One was larger than the others, probably a davie’s.  I was conscious that Arroway had catalogued my facial movements as she revealed her jewelry, but she displayed no sign of emotion herself. 

“Those are…yours.  From your former bodies,” I finally said. 

“Correct.  Not everyone keeps mementos.  The Parents don’t.  Neither do most of the davies who have never been ellies, since they don’t lose memories like the rest of us do.  But I keep a piece, and a lot of others do too.  Hair, eyes, ear bones, bits of wire, anything small and easy to preserve.”  She kissed one of her trophies and then removed the necklace and placed it in a box over the doorway.  “It can be hard,” she said reflectively, “to let go of a body.  You get used to its face, its sensitivity, all its little quirks.  And then one day you realize you’re wearing out and need an upgrade.  Times like that, it’s easier to understand the ones who choose to die with their flesh.”

“What happens to the rest of the bodies, if you don’t mind me asking?  It seems like there must be a lot of resources going into making new ones, and I didn’t think of it before, but there aren’t any cemeteries here that I’ve seen.”

“Oh, we recycle them,” she said vaguely.  I had a sudden, nauseating flash of the finale of Soylent Green, and looked over at the table.  Arroway caught the direction of my glance and apparently my thoughts too, because she smiled a little and told me kindly, “Not like that.”

I sat down in one of the chairs and watched Arroway as she plucked tubers, some feathery leaves, and locust-like insects from their tanks, then inserted all the ingredients into compartments concealed in the tabletop.  In minutes two plates of thin pancakes and fried insects emerged, complete with a drizzle of golden sauce for the locusts and chopped greenery on the side.  A glass each of a dark liquid that smelled like licorice completed the meal.

Arroway seated herself across from me and bowed her head in silence for a moment.  After that we ate, exchanging a few light anecdotes about similar dishes on other planes, our worst and best travels, and other trivia.  She told me her partner was currently transitioning to a fresh form.  I told her mine had left me after nearly seven years together, and she seemed fascinated by the idea of such breakable attachments. 

Thea and I had talked about adopting a child, or rather I had talked and she had listened.  Maybe she’d known even then that we wouldn’t last. 

When we were finished Arroway escorted me back to the Interplanary Hotel.  She’d left off her jacket, and with her bare arm in mine I could feel how cool the spots of chitin were compared to our warm flesh. 

“Will you be staying much longer?” she asked.

No, I told her, I didn’t think so, but I’d probably make a return trip the next time I was in between destinations.  She seemed pleased to hear that, clasping my right hand in both of hers in what I took to be fond farewell before I entered the building.  Oddly enough the chitin on her hands was rougher than that on her arms, and I found that the top of my hand bore a small scratch. 

Oh well.  Once I went back to my own plane it would be gone.