I began writing this story when I was sixteen. I had something important to say, but could not think of any better way to say it than through story. Soon, I became discouraged with my own work (as I so often do) and put it away to develop on its own. A few years ago, I rediscovered it during a bout of cleaning and found that I was, at last, ready to nurture it into maturity. And so, here you are: My own little brain child, who at last is ready to share her message with you.
For brevity’s sake, I will post this story in five parts to be read serially. I do hope you will read them all and share with me when you reach the end.
The Sacrifice (Part 1)
With unprecedented delicacy, Mrs. Mendall’s sixth-graders crowded around a glass tank at the front of the classroom. Previously, upon the introduction of a ferret as a class pet, the poor beast’s cage had been unfairly jostled and rattled as the students fought to see it before immediately returning to their seats, bored. Now, though, the same children were orderly, even polite, in their viewing of the tank and its inhabitant.
Whispers of awe and speculation simmered, fluttering from the lips of the students and hovering hot on the polished sides of the tank, ephemeral moths that spread foggy wings before fading to nothing.
“Can I see?”
“It couldn’t be!”
“My brother said that they do this really neat lab with a real huma—”
“That tiny speck?”
“That could be it!”
At last, all could glimpse the inside of the tank and they stood in fascination, but then, the bell rang overhead, summoning the students from their trance and sending them back into disorder as they searched for their seats at the meticulous ranks of tables that lined the room.
With the final sounding of the bell, Mrs. Mendall, strode in, welcoming her students as she tossed a half-empty paper cup of coffee into the wastebasket without looking. Her greeting was as mechanical and practiced as her disposal of the cup. “Welcome back to school, ladies, and gent—”
She caught herself, then.
“Students,” she finished instead.
Most students were seated and those defiantly lounging against the tables immediately sunk into their seats under the steely-eyed gaze of Mrs. Mendall. One child, though, lingered by the tank, so close that her nose left a smudge that remained when her breath died away. As if she didn’t see Mrs. Mendall’s glare, she slowly drifted to a seat in the front row, scrunching her nose to keep her oversized glasses from sliding off.
“You’ll have another chance to see what’s inside the tank when the period ends,” said the teacher, scanning her roll sheet.
“I can’t see it,” murmured the girl. “I can’t see inside it very well at all.”
“That’s perfectly alright,” said Mrs. Mendall over her tablet, glowing with the photographed names, faces, and pronouns of the students before her. “Bethany, is it?”
The girl nodded, pushing her glasses farther up on her face, which was nearly the same translucent shade as the breath and smudge she left behind on the glass of the tank. Bethany herself was something of a breath of air: thin, pale, and sliding in and out of focus like morning mist. Mrs. Mendall’s brow creased for a moment as she looked between the girl in the photo on her roll sheet and the girl before her, who had lost all of the healthy pinkness that blossomed across the cheeks and lips of the former, same girl. She would have to speak to the school nurse later.
“That’s perfectly alright, Bethany,” she said, resuming her practiced manner and clipped tone. “I myself am quite surprised anyone can see what is in the tank. Can anyone guess what it is that we are talking about? What’s inside?”
The class did not move. Mrs. Mendall continued taking roll, scanning for each student and raised hands. Though bubbling with rumors and anticipation only moments before, now no student dared stir. Mrs. Mendall tried again. “Bethany has already given us a good hint: the occupant of this tank is one of the smallest objects visible to the naked human eye. Does anyone want to have a guess?”
The tank was hot under the scrutiny of twenty-seven pairs of curious eyes, all straining to see the impossible thing within. Finally, a red-haired girl in the front raised her hand.
“Yes—” a quick consultation of the roll sheet “—Amelia, is it?”
“Of course—” a quick note. “Mel?”
“Is it an egg?”
“Close! It’s a bit more than that…does anyone know now?”
The class was silent, although all every student leaned forward in his or her seat, intrigued by what they’d only really discussed in whispers, blushes, and jokes but was now actually, really before them: impossible but on display, a marvel.
“Nobody?” Mrs. Mendall tsk-tsked through a plastered smile. “And here I thought you were to be my brightest sixth-graders yet!”
Mel raised a hand and ventured: “It starts with the letter Z?”
“Good,” said the teacher. “You have the right idea. If you look at the screen, you can see a magnified photo of exactly what we have here in this incubator: a fertilized egg, a zygote.”
She clicked through slides. “Now you might have heard of this lab from older friends or siblings, so I hope you are excited about it. This is a very—” practiced italics emphasized the ‘very,’ as though addressing infants “—special activity indeed. Can anyone tell me what they know about this project and what it might be accomplishing?”
This time, a few hands waved in the air as whispers flit about the classroom, sharing memories of big brothers and sisters refusing out of a sense of secretive superiority to share the most interesting details of the project that had so enraptured them in years past. Mrs. Mendall watched with a satisfied smile; this lab had always been popular with the students. It had been conceived several years ago upon the school’s increased funding for the STEM department and its subsequent purchase of a pair of the most groundbreaking inventions of modern technology: the “Class Mother 2029 Artificial Womb.”
A boy in the front row of tables whined like a puppy, his hand so far up in the air that it drew him along with it like a fish on a line. Another student coughed impatiently. Bethany coughed for real and her table partner shot her a look of concern.
Mrs. Mendall called on the fishing line boy. “Yes?”
“This is the experiment where we get to see the pre-birth developmental phases and we get to grow a real, actual—”
“Yes, yes,” the teacher held up a hand, cutting him free from the line and dropping him back into his seat, breathless and disappointed. Several students giggled at their abashed peer.
“Evan,” supplemented the boy.
“Of course. You’re quite right, Evan.” The students shuffled in their seats uncomfortably as Mrs. Mendall proceeded to inform them that as they had spent a large portion of the last year studying human anatomy and were themselves growing and changing by leaps and bounds, it seemed fitting to participate in a simulation of these systems in real-time. Flipping off the overhead lights, she directed the twenty-seven pairs of eager eyes toward the incubator and began to explain the workings of the Class Mother 2029 Artificial Womb. The machine’s larger content—a thin, watery sac—glowed a fleshy hue in the dim room. In the silence, the students’ ears prickled as they detected the pulsing and rocking of this heated, bag-like structure. Some could even detect, veiled by the plastic womb, the faintest ghost of the CM2029’s precious ward.