13070 words, novelette
2020 Finalist: 2020 Aurealis Award for Best Science Fiction Novella
Hong Kong, China – 2098 AD
I was nine when my second-mother’s mother died.
Shortly before her death, Schoolteacher Shumin took me to visit her. We took the monorail and got off at the last stop, on the northern outskirts of Hong Kong. The sky was gray and low. Damp air drew beads of sweat from my neck.
“It smells like leaves up here, Shumin!”
Shumin didn’t reply. She waved down a car. Gripping my hand painfully tight, her ragged nails digging into my skin, she ushered me into the back seat.
“Tuen Mun Hospice for the Elderly,” Shumin told the car.
She pressed me close to her side as the car wended through dusty streets. I tried to lean as far away from her as I could. Shumin was too warm and smelled like mothballs.
The car let us off in front of a set of white gates embossed with the name of the hospice. Shumin spoke to someone through a speaker. I ran my fingers along the edges of the hard gold characters. Traditional Han Yu and English, one on top of other: the same thing, written two ways. I closed my eyes, memorizing the sharp, unwavering shapes, mouthing the words as I touched them.
The speaker replied to Shumin, and the gates rolled back. We struggled up a steep driveway to the entrance.
The hospice smelled like bleach and urine and flowers. A man in a white gown came forward to shake Shumin’s hand, and mine too. He gave us plastic gloves and plastic shoe coverings, explaining that they were to protect us from infections.
“Is he a nurse?” I asked Shumin in a loud whisper.
“Why do we need protection? Aren’t we supposed to be stronger than them?”
“We keep our germs with us, and they keep their germs with them.”
She tugged me along impatiently.
We walked through a common room. The far wall was lined with square windows that let in big beams of wan light. There were old people slumped on couches wearing augmented reality visors, old people sitting in wheelchairs staring at the wall, and old people sitting at tables being fed by nurses. I looked down at the floor. The wooden boards were speckled with hundreds of little whorls: black, beady, unblinking eyes. I tried to tread on as many as possible with my squeaky plastic-covered sneakers.
We went down a darkened corridor. Ambient lights flicked on and off as we passed. The nurse touched a panel on the wall and a glass door slid back with a hiss.
A gush of stale air fanned my face. The room was stifling.
My second-mother’s mother was almost invisible beneath a mountain of blankets and pillows. In the dimness of the room I could only make out her small, clawlike hand, and the outline of her broad nose. She was snoring gently.
“Lian,” said Shumin. “Go and greet your Erma.”
I walked to the side of the bed. Now I could see that there was a plastic tube running into her left nostril, and another tube plugged into her arm, and several stickers on her temples and chest. All the tubes and lines ran into an electronic console on the far side of the bed.
I bowed my head. “Good morning, Erma.”
She didn’t stir.
I looked at Shumin. She was standing against the far wall, her back stiff, her mouth in a flat line. I turned back to my Erma and touched her hand. Papery skin, a sallow ash-brown, stretched over bird bones. I remembered my Erma as I’d seen her last year, at my second-mother’s fortieth birthday dinner. Then, she had been a stout woman in brightly dyed linens, her skin like roasted chestnuts, her gray hair braided away from her crinkled face.
I rubbed the back of her hand with my gloved fingers. “Good morning, Erma. It’s Lian.”
Her eyelids lifted, and milky irises found my face. A light lit them from within. “Lian,” she said in a hoarse voice. “How good of you to visit your Erma here.” She dissolved into a fit of coughs. I filled a cup of water from a jug by her bedside and lifted it to her lips. She could only manage one sip before she lay back, wincing, and shook her head. “No more.”
“Are you in pain?” I asked nervously.
“Just a little, Lian.” She exhaled through cracked lips, fanning my face with the smell of sour plums. “It’s good of you to come. Does it frighten you to be here?”
I shook my head, even though the hospice did make me feel uneasy. “I know everyone must fall sick and die.”
“Everyone must die one day, that is true,” murmured Erma, her eyes flickering under drooping lids. “But I think you will never have to know this sort of pain. This deep pain that only comes from your body betraying itself. That’s why they first started making jigsaw babies, you know, Lian. To cut out the cancer genes and stop us from passing them on to our children.”
She had used a taboo phrase, but it seemed insignificant in this stale, dark room where everything was slowly ending.
“You are different from me,” I said, tentatively. “You are not a . . . a . . . you were born the old way.”
“Oh, yes. My parents made me in a bedroom, not a lab.” A brief cackle escaped her lips, and I caught a glimpse of the old Erma—the Erma who hid lollies in her sleeves and pulled funny faces behind her husband’s back. I didn’t like this withered, sour-smelling Erma. My eyes grew hot with unshed tears, but I fought them back. Shumin would scold me later if I cried.
I tried to imagine Erma’s conception. We’d learned about it in elementary science. Her father would have put his sperm inside her mother, and a baby would have seeded and formed naturally, spontaneously.
Some of the other kids at school said the old ways were wicked ways, but I didn’t think Erma’s parents or the rest of the old generations had been evil—just different. Primitive. Clumsy.
“Did you grow up with your mother and father?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. We lived in an apartment in Kowloon, with my older sister and my two younger brothers. Children’s Centers hadn’t been invented yet.” She glanced at Shumin, who was a statue in the corner. Erma had always been vocal about her dislike of Children’s Centers. She’d even sent a couple of letters to the local newsblog. Children should be raised in homes, not reared like mice in labs and churned out like spare parts on a production line . . . !
My second-mother had tried to explain to her the benefits of the Children’s Centers—healthcare, nurturance, socialization, education. It took the role of parenting away from amateurs and gave it to professionals. “Besides,” my second-mother had added, “Who would raise a girl like Lian? Her first-mother, second-mother or third-mother? Or one of her fathers?”
“They’re all gone now,” Erma continued. “My father died of throat cancer when he was eighty-nine. My mother’s brain faded, and we took her off life support the day after her one hundredth birthday. My sister had ovarian cancer—she died in her sixties. One of my brothers died of an antibiotic-resistant infection, five years ago. The other committed suicide. Do you know what that word means?”
“Yes.” Some of my classmates would shout “suicide!” when they were too tired to run any further in a game of cat-and-mice. I saw a stern look pass between Shumin and Erma.
Erma’s fingers fluttered against my plasticky palm. “Are you learning lots of things in school, Lian?”
“Yes,” I told her. “I got into Advanced Programming this year, because I scored really well in Basic Programming. I’m second out of all the nine year olds at the Center. I can’t beat the number one guy though. Someone told me his primary donor is a robotics professor—she programmed the latest generation of splicing machines!”
Erma was staring at the ceiling, so I pushed on.
“In Applied Tech, we’re learning about bioengineering. Did you know they’ve made trees that can grow into the shapes of tables and chairs, really fast, so you can grow a whole table in one week? Also, we’re watching a program about the Mars missions. Once we finish, we get to design our own spaceships! I don’t like Social Studies—it’s boring. We’re studying the European Union. Did you know there are some countries that choose not to use modern technology? Why would anyone do that?”
Erma continued to blink up at the ceiling. I thought maybe I’d said too much and she’d stopped listening. But then she wet her lips and said, “I’m not sure, little pea. Maybe they thought they could be happier that way.”
I nodded, but I didn’t really understand. How could they be happier if they didn’t have the technology to fight off dangerous infections, or to make themselves smart enough to understand the world? They would always be one step behind everyone else.
“You’re a very clever girl, Lian,” Erma said softly. “Cleverer than I ever was. You’ll become a very clever woman, and you’ll achieve great things. But do not be proud. We are clever for many reasons: our genes, our nutrition, our caregivers, our schools. Sometimes, our hard work.”
I frowned. Confusion and hurt knotted in my chest. “I’m not boasting. Second-mother always says I can be anything I want to be, if I work hard enough.”
“Yes,” muttered Erma. “Just remember to be humble.”
Spittle pooled in the corner of her lips. She was pushing words out of her crumbling body, trying to leave something of herself in this world. Suddenly, I loved her and pitied her and reviled her, all at once.
I stepped back from the bed.
“Are you ready to leave now?” asked Shumin, her voice cutting through the bloated air.
“Soon we will all die.” Erma’s thin voice piped up from her nest of blankets. “All of us old, foolish folk. Why do I feel so afraid?”
My shoulders shook.
“Quiet, old aunty,” said Shumin. “You’re upsetting the girl.”
“Can’t an old granny speak her mind? She’s my granddaughter, not yours. Let her hear something different from her lessons. Lian, come back and see me again, and I’ll tell you even more interesting things.”
Shumin led me out of the room, her fingers digging hard into my shoulder. Then she ducked her head back in and said a phrase, sharply.
A sour taste stayed in my mouth all through the car ride back to the monorail station. My head felt hot and dizzy, as though I was still standing in my Erma’s stifling room, breathing recirculated air.
Shumin talked and talked. “There’s a rule of human nature, Lian—and you’ll see this—that the older generation always thinks their way is best. My grandmother lamented the good old days to me, and I’ll no doubt sing the same tune to my grandchildren. This is an evolutionary flaw that I’ve never understood, for it impedes progress. We must rise above this instinct. We’re told that we must listen to our elders, but no one ever said that we must do what they say.”
I was hardly listening. I sat with my hands clasped in my lap, watching the nav-screen on the dashboard flicker with quiet intelligence, selecting the least congested route back to the Center. A short, sharp phrase echoed in my ears: “You are a disgrace to China.”
My second-mother’s mother died two weeks later. I never spoke to her again.
I have three mothers and two fathers. I’ve examined my genome sequence, on the supercomputers in the National Laboratory in New Beijing. The computer shows you exactly which gene belongs to which parent, and where the DNA was cut and reattached. You can analyze your risk profile for diabetes, cancer, dementia, addiction, and mental illness. If you want, you can look at the genomes of your mothers and fathers, too. Privacy law forbids you from looking at just anyone’s, though. If you want to examine other genomes, you must put in an application to the National Laboratory, citing research, legal, or procreation purposes.
I think I’m reasonably lucky, only having five parents. I guess my donors didn’t have too many risk mutations. Some of my classmates have been spliced together from eight, nine, even twelve donors. I don’t envy them the task of juggling their Chinese New Year dinners.
I grew up in the East Hong Kong Children’s Center. Since the expiration of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 2047, political and economic boundaries between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China have dissolved. The Chinese government places a quota on how many babies are born in the country each year. Too many and the population trends toward unsustainability. Too few and the workforce won’t be strong enough to support its elders.
At my Children’s Center, there were roughly eight thousand children under the age of sixteen. Once you turn sixteen, you’re expected to apply for university or work. If you don’t get a placement by the time you turn eighteen, your future is looking dim. Some of those left behind simply stay on in the Children’s Center for years, eventually taking on menial roles like kitchen worker, or toilet cleaner, or birth mother.
My Erma used to say, “Remember your family.” But the word itself is nebulous and nonspecific. My genetic ancestors are my family. So are my nurses, schoolteachers, and classmates. We refer to royal families; a family of peptides; a family of biological genera; a family of mathematical curves. If you stare at the word long enough, you realize it’s redundant.
From the moment of creation, we were given every chance to succeed. Our birth mothers imbibed a cocktail of folate, thiamine, calcium and magnesium. We were nurtured on a formula of breast milk and immune-boosting supplements. Our nurseries played classical music; our toys taught us colors, numbers, characters and letters.
Sometimes, I pass a nurse in the corridor and a strange feeling wrings my gut, and I wonder if he might’ve been one of them. Had he ever pressed me, as a baby, to his chest, and hummed a wordless song? I’ve combed my memories for any trace of my early caregivers, but all I can cling to is that tuneless, calming hum that makes all the world seem safe.
When we turned five, the nurses passed us on to the schoolteachers. We didn’t like or hate school. It was more that we couldn’t like or hate it, because we didn’t know anything other than it. This was our world: the Center, the teachers, the classes, the supervised breaks.
I wouldn’t say the environment at the Center was cold. There was love there. A restrained, practical love, but not any less for being so. The sort of love that a Chinese father has toward his daughters: unaffectionate but steadfast. A moon orbiting a planet, always keeping a measured distance from what lies at the true center of its movements.
In the same way, we, the children, were the sole purpose of the Center. Everything was done in order that we might prosper, flourish, and become greater than the preceding generation.
Suyin was the first girl in our class to get her menstrual period. We were eleven years old.
It was the middle of world history class. Schoolteacher Pang was explaining that in Japan, today was a special day. The 12th of August was Hana Day, to commemorate the creation of the first genetically spliced baby in 2028.
A laboratory at the University of Tokyo had designed the experiment to overcome a homozygous autosomal recessive trait carried by both parents, explained Pang, drawing a genetic tree on the projector. A third individual donated a gamete with a section of healthy genome, which was stitched by nanorobots into the DNA of the parent sperm and egg. The birth of a healthy baby girl astounded and terrified the world.
“I thought splicing started in the United States,” said Chao, one of the confident boys.
“You’re partly right,” said Schoolteacher Pang. “The US bought the nanotechnology from Japan, but it wasn’t until the 2060s that genome splicing became a proper form of reproduction. Does anyone know why?”
“All the oldies had to die out,” said Chao, and a snicker went around the room.
Pang suppressed a smile. “Yes, there were a lot of dissenters. Religious groups warned that this unnatural reproduction was blasphemous and tragic. Conservatives called it grotesque. Politicians argued about whether it might lead down a slippery slope of genetic enhancement. Sociologists wondered about the impact of genetically engineered humans on parenthood and class systems. Philosophers debated whether Hana could be truly regarded as homo sapiens, or whether she represented the next branch of the evolutionary tree.”
“I don’t think cutting out diseased genes is the same as evolution,” piped up another girl. “It’s just getting rid of the bad stuff, like cancer and diabetes.”
“Tell me how that’s different from evolution, Meixiu.”
Meixiu shrugged. “It’s even better than evolution. It’s not random.”
Pang nodded. “Yes. That’s what many thought too. The mid twenty-first century was the Scientific Golden Age. Research was shared freely amongst the global community. Soon, scientists in the US, China, Japan, Australia, India, Scandinavia, and Canada were setting up programs for genome splicing.”
As Schoolteacher Pang talked, I heard someone sobbing. I glanced at the desk beside me. Suyin was hiding her flushed face in the crook of her elbow.
I whispered, “What’s wrong?”
Suyin gazed miserably down at her lap, but I didn’t understand. Before I could ask again, a nurse entered the classroom and took her away.
“What happened?” I murmured to Jingfei, who sat behind me and always knew what was going on. But Schoolteacher Pang banged a ruler on his desk and threatened us with extra homework if we didn’t stop talking right away.
Fifteen minutes later, the nurse brought Suyin back. She had a gauze bandage around her upper arm, and her cheeks were pink. When the lesson ended, we gathered around her desk.
“So you really got it?” Jingfei demanded.
“Did it hurt?”
She shrugged. “A little. The implant hurt more, but it was very quick.”
“Can we see it?”
She obediently unwound the bandage. In the soft part of her inner arm, there was a small red mark, shaped like an asterisk. The skin puckered up like a kiss.
“Does it really last for five years?”
“Ten years,” said Suyin. “That’s what the nurse said. When the hormones run out it squirts a blue dye under your skin. Then you go to the doctor, and they take out the old one and put in a new one.”
“Do you feel different?” I asked her.
She screwed up her nose. “Not really. It was a bit scary. It felt like a tummy ache, and then I thought I wet my pants. And I had to change into spare underwear in the nurse’s station—yuck.”
“You won’t bleed again, though,” said Chao. “The implant stops that, right?”
Jingfei jumped away from Suyin’s desk and flicked her ponytail. “I don’t want to have an implant. I won’t let them put one in me.”
“Why wouldn’t you want one?” another girl said incredulously. “Do you want to bleed every month?”
Jingfei shrugged. “So what if I do?”
“You’re so weird,” said another boy.
“It’s for the best,” said Meixiu, in her falsely mature way.
“What if I want to have a baby the old way?” Jingfei declared.
A chorus of voices shushed her, mine included. “Don’t say things like that! Don’t you know that’s forbidden talk? Do you want to go to court?”
Jingfei giggled and leaped up onto a chair, a skinny little figure of impudence, and flicked her school skirt to give us a flash of her pink briefs. “Maybe the old ways were the good ways!”
A few of the girls shrieked, and the boys yelled at her to get down. “That’s gross, Jingfei! Get down! Stop being so dirty!”
Jingfei got down, smirking to herself.
“They’ll make you do it,” I told her, shaking my head. “Even if you say no.”
She put out her lower lip. “We’ll see.”
I was right, and Jingfei was wrong. Over the next few years, we all got our periods, and one by one we were taken to the nurse’s station. I remember taking my school shirt off and sitting on a medical bed covered with a plastic blue sheet, legs dangling, shivering in my thin singlet. I remember the lurid yellow antiseptic rubbed onto my inner arm, and then the wide-bore needle, pushed under the skin. A sharp pressure; a small ache. The nurse asked me if I felt dizzy.
I shook my head.
The nurse didn’t ask me anything else. There must be a mountain of unsaid words, in the corridors of the nurse’s station.
Jingfei was one of the last. She came to my room one night, crying. I’d never seen her cry before, or again. She didn’t say anything, just crept in sideways through the door, and stood there, trembling and sobbing, mopping her face with her pajama sleeves. I watched her for a moment, unable to reconcile this Jingfei with the brazen, snarky Jingfei who jumped onto desks and flashed her panties. Then I pulled back the corner of my blanket.
She lay down next to me on the narrow bed. I put my arms around her and felt the gauze bandage chafe against my cheek. The smell of antiseptic filled my nostrils.
In the morning, I woke to see Jingfei standing at the window, arms pinned to her sides, hands balled into fists. Against a backdrop of gleaming skyscrapers, she was a flat silhouette. She let out a short, furious howl and slammed her fist into the windowsill. It must have hurt like hell, but she didn’t even flinch.
When she finally turned to me, all the anger was gone. Her expression had become calm, renewed—beatific.
“I’ll see you in maths class,” she said, and left my room.
Gene splicing changed the definition of family.
Most countries tried to preserve the nuclear family by imposing rules. For instance, the two main donors had to be in a relationship and had to agree to raise the child in their home. Homosexual couples and heterosexual or homosexual trios and quartets had already been accessing the technology surreptitiously for years before their partnerships were recognized.
Negotiations about privacy laws and donor visitation rights grew into a complicated legal system based largely on precedent. As surrogate mothers were used more often to carry the baby to term, the working rights of these women had to be carefully established. Even language was affected: some chose to forgo the words “mother” and “father,” replacing them with variants of “primary donor,” “secondary donor,” et cetera.
China was one of the first countries to relinquish the family unit. It had become too complicated; surely there was a better way. The first Children’s Center was founded in New Beijing in 2075, by a group of doctors, psychologists, and scientists. This gave donors the freedom to become parents whenever they wished, individually and autonomously, through an application to the government. Government scientists would examine the genomes of applicants and match them up to create embryos with low levels of risk mutations. The embryo would be implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother, or birth mother, in the Children’s Center closest to the primary genetic donor.
Many other countries followed in China’s footsteps when initial psychological and physical testing demonstrated the well-being of children raised in the Centers. These children were humanity’s future: remarkably healthy, persistent, bright, and inquisitive. The main issue, now, was how to maintain this upward trajectory—how to keep humanity from falling back into old ways.
When the boys were thirteen, they all went on a special excursion.
“What’s going on?” Jingfei asked the teacher. “Why is it so exclusive? Why can’t we go too?”
Schoolteacher Leng, whom we secretly called Lucky Ears, for his impressive earlobes, told her to sit down and start working on her planetary orbits. The boys were going to the hospital for a day procedure, he explained curtly. That was all he would say of it for now, because it was time for physics, not chatting.
A hospital procedure! Jingfei turned and raised her eyebrows at me and Suyin. We both shrugged.
“Well, if that’s the case, we should get a day off lessons too—that’s only fair,” said Jingfei cheekily, but Lucky Ears ignored her.
It was a stale day in the middle of summer. Hong Kong was suffocating beneath a thick blanket of smog. Even after sunset, there was little relief from the heat. I pushed my bedroom window open. Nothing stirred. The air was a warm, stagnant kiss against my face, dense with the smells of fried food and exhaust fumes. I lifted my damp hair, coiled it into a bun, and knotted it at the nape of my neck.
The hum of an engine floated up to my ears. I put my palm-computer down and poked my head out of the window. My room was on the seventh floor. The boys looked like toy figurines, filing out of the omnibus. As far as I could tell, they didn’t look any different. None of them were missing limbs or sporting extra growths.
I thought about calling her using my wristband communicator, but I suspected those conversations were recorded by the Center. If I went in person, they might be able to see me on the cameras, but they could only guess what I was saying.
I padded down the corridor to Jingfei’s room. She answered immediately.
“I’m going to Chao’s room,” I said. “I want to know what happened.”
We knew the hidden paths to the boys’ dormitories. Chao wasn’t alone in his room. His friend Gen was sitting on his desk, swinging his legs wildly. Chao lay on the bed, still fully dressed in his linen trousers and shirt. Jingfei pushed Chao’s legs aside and sat on the bed too. Her pajama top barely hid the shape of her growing breasts, and her loose hair tumbled in a sleek fall to the small of her back. I felt a stab of jealousy. She was becoming a pretty young lady, and she still had the brazenness of her childhood. She crossed her slim legs on top of Chao’s and prodded him. “So, what happened? Where did you guys go today?”
Chao glanced over to where I was leaning against the wall. I slid to the floor in an awkward perch, hugging my arms around my knees.
“Thought they would’ve told you,” piped up Gen, a small-sized boy who liked to wear a cap pulled low over his brow.
“No,” I said. “They didn’t say anything, except you had to go to the hospital for a procedure.”
“I guess we got old enough,” said Chao. “I thought they wouldn’t do it ’til we turned sixteen. I mean, do they really think we’re going to be having sex here in the Center?”
“I’ve heard stories,” said Gen.
“Oh—they sterilized you?” Jingfei gasped.
“God, don’t say it like that,” said Gen. “They cut our vas deferens.”
Jingfei and I looked at each other, wide-eyed. She started giggling uncontrollably.
“Shut up, Jingfei.” Chao rolled away from her. “Basically, we can still do it without accidentally making a baby. And we still make sperm. All men in China have it cut nowadays. And in heaps of other countries too. It’s fair. It’s not just on the women.”
“That’s true,” I said, thinking of the asterisk-shaped scar on my inner arm. “Did it hurt? Was it scary?”
“Nah,” said Chao. “They inject a local anesthetic, and a machine does it. The error rate is less than 0.02 percent, and the whole thing took less than a minute. A human surgeon would take fifteen minutes,” he added, and I caught a glimpse of the debrief they must have received before the procedure.
We were silent for a while. I looked around Chao’s room. His desk was piled with empty packets of fish crackers. In one corner loomed an ominous heap of unwashed socks and T-shirts. His room smelled like mud, sweat, and food.
I ventured, “It’s permanent, right?”
“Yeah, more or less. I’ve heard there is a procedure to reverse it, but it wouldn’t be available at any reputable hospital.”
Gen pulled off his cap, rubbed his hands through his hair, and replaced the cap more firmly.
“You never think about what it would be like to make a baby the old way?” asked Jingfei, breaking the mood with a mischievous grin. She prodded Chao again, several times in the thigh, until he yelled and pushed her away.
“Nah, I don’t really care about that,” he replied. “You can still have all the fun. When I have a baby, I’m definitely applying to be a spliced donor. I don’t want my baby to turn out a freak.”
“Our grandparents weren’t freaks,” I said bluntly, and although I hadn’t meant it as a joke, both Gen and Jingfei chuckled.
“True.” Chao rolled onto his side and propped his head up on one arm. “But they wouldn’t be able to survive in our world, you know? Our brains need to be faster and sharper, to process all the information that comes at us. Plus, it would be unethical to bring a natural baby into the world, when we have the tech to get rid of diseases.”
Unethical. That was a strong word. A moral judgment. Had he come to that conclusion himself, or was he spouting an opinion he’d heard on a webcast?
“Maybe,” I said. “Are you saying that jigsaw babies have better lives?”
“Yeah, of course. Think about what Schoolteacher Mun was saying in biology class last week. Life without things like Fragile X and Down Syndrome is better than a life of illness. Just look at the studies done on the Children’s Centers. Every other country wants to copy China.”
I shrugged and put my chin on my knees. “I don’t know. You sound sentimental, Chao. We’ve grown up in a Center, so of course we want to think that our way is best, and that we’re the best. Who knows what sort of studies they show us? Don’t you ever think about the countries out there that do things differently? Maybe there are natural-born children living in family homes, just as happy and smart as we are.”
“Well, why don’t you travel overseas and look at these other places, and come back and tell me what you see? I’ll bet you a thousand yuan that in a few years, the splicing tech will be everywhere. Other countries just haven’t caught up to us yet, Lian. You’d be blind to deny that genetic engineering is the future.”
We were both irritated.
“Relax, both of you,” said Jingfei.
I went to the window, breathing heavily. The city looked so big. We were four little people in a little box of a room, inside the bigger box of the Center, in a city of boxes. Suddenly, it seemed so funny that we no longer bled or ejaculated, and we could reproduce with our minds rather than our bodies. An odd laugh welled in my belly, bubbling like broth from my lips.
I was seventeen years old when I left the Children’s Center.
Shortly before I moved away, they arranged for me to meet with my birth mother. I did not really want to do it, but it was customary: a chance to say thank you, to hand over a token gift. It seemed garish and meaningless. Here, have a jade figurine, to repay you for carrying me in your womb for nine months, letting me deform your body, and pushing me out of your vagina.
I’d seen the birth mothers around the Center, although they usually kept to their own wing. Simple women, some Chinese, some immigrants from the Philippines or Indonesia or Bangladesh, they drifted around in groups of two or three.
My birth mother’s name was Deepa. She was Pakistani, and thirty-six years old. She would have borne me when she was nineteen. She looked nothing like me. She sat across from me, her coarse black hair pulled into a braid, her deep-set eyes gazing hesitantly at me from above a high nose. Her hands, which were the warm brown of coffee, were folded tightly on the table. I realized she was nervous.
I glanced over my shoulder helplessly as the office administrator closed the door, leaving the two of us alone in the meeting room. There was a pot of tea on the table, and two china cups. I sighed.
Deepa continued to glance at me, furtively and wondrously, in a way that made me feel halfway between a princess and a specimen.
I reached for the pot of tea and filled the two cups. I lifted mine to my lips—too hot. I blew on it impatiently.
Deepa took the other. “Thank you,” she said, in a foreign lilt. Her Cantonese intonations were all wrong. “Congratulations on your university placement. I’m very proud of you.”
I suppressed an automatic thought: you had nothing to do with it. “Thank you, Deepa.”
“What will you study?” she asked.
“Anthropology.” Seeing her perplexed expression, I searched for simpler words. “Studying the different ways that humans lived, in the past and the present.”
“That sounds very interesting,” said Deepa. “Will you study in Hong Kong?”
“Yes, the university campus is on the northern outskirts of Hong Kong, not far from Shenzhen. In our final year we have the chance to study overseas.”
“That’s very exciting.”
We sipped our tea. It was a rich Tieguanyin tea from Fujian province with complex, nutty layers. I noticed that Deepa was struggling with the tiny cup. The fingers on both her hands splayed outwards, and her knuckles were swollen and knobbly. She had rheumatoid arthritis. Immediately, I wondered if she was a jigsaw baby or a natural-born. Almost as soon as the question came to me, I knew I could never ask her.
The silence became unbearable.
“Your dress is beautiful,” I said, gesturing. Her garment was made of thick silk in a brown hue, edged with gold embroidery. “Is it from your home country?”
Her face brightened. “Thank you, but no. One of my friends here at the Center made it for me.”
“Oh, I see.” I wondered briefly what sort of friends she had. Then my mind raced ahead to other matters—I had to move out in a week, and I hadn’t found furniture for my new dormitory; I was already behind on pre-reading for my course; and Jingfei wanted me to help her with an overdue assignment . . .
Deepa was saying something about her hometown. “ . . . rural area in the northern part of the country, north of Islamabad, close to the border with Afghanistan. It was a long drive to the nearest city. Big mountains looked over our village. In winter, the mountains wore gowns of ice. The boys in our village grew up to be either farmers or soldiers. The girls . . . ” She hesitated and trailed off.
I tried to recall a map of Pakistan, to place Islamabad somewhere on it. But I only knew it as a shapeless land, somewhere southwest of China, beyond the Himalayas.
“Do you miss your home country?”
She finally met my gaze. Her eyes were thickly fringed with lashes and oddly flat. “No,” she replied.
Was she lying? I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to ask. I didn’t want to sit in this tepid room with a strange woman, pretending to share a bond with her. She didn’t understand me, nor I her.
I glanced surreptitiously at my wristwatch. Less than ten minutes had passed.
I withdrew a velveteen pouch from my pocket.
Deepa’s face fell for a split second, before she concealed it behind a soft smile. Handing over the gift signaled the end of the meeting.
I’d chosen the jade and gold bracelet with care, visiting two merchants before selecting one that was simple and tasteful, with high quality stones. It had cost nearly two thousand yuan.
My birth mother accepted the pouch without opening it, aware that it is impolite to examine a gift in front of the giver. Our fingers touched. I flinched involuntarily from her gnarled hands. I noticed that she had several large paper cuts on her palms, and I wondered what sort of work she did, now that she was likely too old to bear more children without significant risk. Packing boxes? Sorting files?
We stood and bowed to each other. Deepa wished me success in my studies.
“Thank you,” I said, and hesitated, wondering if I should clarify what I was thanking her for. But I didn’t. I bowed my head again and slipped out of the room.
My second-mother was an entrepreneur; my third-mother, a professor of linguistics. My first-father was a tax accountant. My second-father was a homemaker.
My relatives often commented that I was most similar to my first-mother, who was a chemist. Secretly, I relished the comparison. My first-mother was coolheaded, brisk and practical. Whenever we spoke, she would tell me exactly what was on her mind. She did not mince words.
After I left the Children’s Center, I saw less of my mothers and fathers. I moved onto the university campus near the border of Shenzhen. Once a year, at Chinese New Year, I would catch the monorail back to Hong Kong City, and go about my duty of dinners. Five family dinners, one after another, with five different parents. Updating my mothers and fathers on what I’d achieved in the previous twelve months. Mingling with siblings that weren’t really brothers or sisters.
I eventually lost touch with Jingfei. She moved to Wuhan University to study history. We stayed in contact for a while, chatting online for the first few months. We spoke about taking a holiday together: a tour of England and Scotland, to learn Western history. Gradually, our chats grew further and further apart. Jingfei had a new group of friends and a series of boyfriends. I, on the other hand, tended to make only professional contacts at university. We never took our Western holiday.
Sometimes, I replay the last video chat we had. We were twenty years old. It was a mundane conversation. We discuss Jingfei’s boyfriend’s physical flaws and which instant noodle flavor is the best. Jingfei gets a phone call from a lecturer, so we end our chat. There’s a note of melancholy in our voices as we say goodbye, as though we both know the end of our friendship has arrived.
Much later, someone tells me that Jingfei left China, had a child with a white man, and lives on the coast of Ireland. I’m not sure if these are anything more than rumors. From time to time, I’m taken back to the night that she came to my room sobbing. The memory has an addictive quality to it: one of those that you relish, because it’s both familiar and unsettling. I remember her face, in the glow of the hall light, sunken with grief, twisted with wrath. I remember the bed cocooning us from the world, and her thin body shaking against mine. I can still feel the strange mixture of terror and anticipation that settled over us in a quiet web.
I am twenty-six, and in a bar.
The air stinks of sweat and beer. A cacophony of noise washes over me. They are playing twentieth century American music videos on the holoscreens. A woman in an astronaut costume dances on a stage illuminated with candy canes and rainbows. The subtitles are nonsensical.
I wrestle through a sea of warm bodies to reach the bar. Somehow, I have collected a piece of chewing gum on my shoe and a sticky patch on my elbow. A man in a gray suit with gold-capped teeth grins at me and asks me if I want some raff. I shake my head.
“Drink?” the bartender yells.
I glance back at my table, where my colleagues are waiting, and hold up two fingers with a questioning look. One of them cheekily puts up three fingers in reply. I smile and order two jugs of a crisp, pale Japanese lager.
The jugs are pushed across the counter. Now for the treacherous return journey. I have already come to terms with the fact that my silk shirt will not survive the night. I detour around a pack of girls who are gyrating to the American beats, and dodge a tall fellow arguing with someone in his earpiece. I’ve almost made it to the safety of the table when a voice calls my name.
I turn around, beer sloshing. A man about my height stands a few paces away. A red Bayern Munchen cap shades part of his face. I don’t recognize him at first. Then, his lively eyes meet mine from beneath the cap’s brim, and something in the mannerism jogs a long-buried memory.
“Gen?” I say incredulously.
The last time we saw each other was at graduation. By then, we weren’t close friends, and we didn’t keep in touch throughout university. I’d heard that he went overseas to study. He certainly looks like a foreigner now. In that bright hat, with his shaggy hair curling over his ears, he stands out from the crisp, restrained Chinese men around us.
“I thought it had to be you,” he grins. “Here, do you need a hand with those?”
“No, no.” I turn and put the beers down in front of my colleagues with an apologetic smile.
“Who’s he? An old boyfriend?”
“A childhood friend,” I say, unsure if I’ve chosen the right words.
“Hurry up, then. Don’t keep him waiting.”
“Buy him a drink, too! Something strong!”
I walk over to Gen and he holds out his arms. I’m surprised by the warmth of his hug. Is this a Western thing, to hug without hesitation, without thinking about the end of the hug? I pull away.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I say, exactly at the same moment he says, “It’s been, what, ten years?”
“It’s too noisy in here,” he says. “Let’s go outside.”
We escape the fog of pounding music and sticky air, into the brisk, neon night. We stand in an alley, leaning against brick walls, facing each other. The noise of honking cars comes to us distantly. Behind Gen is a vintage comic shop, decorated with posters of busty cartoon women. The white eye of the moon looks down at us. I relish the sensation of goose bumps rising on my skin.
“Nine years,” I correct him. “We graduated at seventeen.”
“That’s right.” Gen pulls his hat off and runs his hand through his hair. I must have seen him do the same thing a hundred times as a child. His hair is parted in the middle and so long that it almost reaches his collar. “God, nine years. What luck, running into you on my first night back in Hong Kong.”
“This is your first night back?”
“In nine years? You didn’t come back once, to visit your mothers and fathers?”
He shrugs. “No, I guess I didn’t.”
“Where did you go? Europe, wasn’t it?”
“Germany. I studied social sciences, then worked as a teacher in different schools, in a few different countries. It was a good time. I saw a lot of new places, met a lot of new people.” He turns his lively eyes upon me. “What about you?”
“I’ve been here,” I say. “Plodding along.”
“Anthropology, right? At graduation, you said you wanted to learn about people.”
I’m surprised he remembers. I stare at the poster behind him. A curvaceous woman with blue skin and orange hair stares back at me. There is a fierceness and seductiveness about her that sends a shiver of fear through my body. “I changed degrees.”
“Oh, what happened?”
“I transferred to biology in second year.” On the tip of my tongue is the reason I give everyone: I prefer the sciences to the arts. But then I say, “My first-mother wanted me to do something more grounded.”
“Did you like biology?”
“What do you do now?”
I smile at him. “I’m a geneticist.”
“Lian, a geneticist.” A mirror-image smile spreads over his face. “Do you like it?”
“I do.” I picture the clean surfaces of my laboratory and the methodical pages of my notebook. “My research group searches for risk genes related to intelligence. Each gene we identify allows the next group of children to be smarter. It’s exciting, you know, to be doing something that makes a tangible difference.”
“Sometimes I think about how mad it is that I went from being a jigsaw child in a Children’s Center, to a jigsaw adult making more jigsaw children.”
Gen laughs. “It is a little mad. Everything’s a little mad.”
“I’m jealous of you, Gen.”
“Seeing other places.”
“Where have you traveled?”
Gen blinks. “Not at all?”
“I haven’t left China.”
“You’re kidding,” says Gen, leaning back against the wall. “That needs to change.”
I study him covertly. In his T-shirt and jeans, he exudes ease. I search for the subtle paunch around the tummy sported by many Chinese businessmen, but Gen’s torso is lean. He looks like he’d be as comfortable foraging in bushland as he would in a classroom. I imagine him running a cross-country ultramarathon, from Germany back to Hong Kong. Next to him, I feel soft and stagnant.
“Why’d you come back, Gen?”
A siren blasts, somewhere in the city. Gen crosses his tanned arms across his chest, and then uncrosses them. “I missed China,” he says. His voice is thick with defeat. “I didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to live somewhere else, to forget this place. But as soon as I stepped off the plane today, I felt it in my bones. Even though the buildings look bigger and stranger now—this is still my home. I can’t escape it.”
I absorb his sadness, observe it, but don’t quite understand it. “It’s good to know your roots,” I offer.
He nods. We both look up at the latticework of city lights, and the moon beyond.
“How long will you stay?” I venture.
“I’m not sure yet,” he says, and he gives me an intent look that sends another shiver of fear down my spine.
I remember walking back to my university dormitory one evening after a late class. It was the middle of winter, and the sun had already set. A young student, about my age, darted out from behind a building and spat on me. “Alien jigsaw,” she hissed. She wore a thin red armband that marked her as a protester, one of those people who rejects new technology out of a misguided and backward morality. I don’t think the incident affected me too much, but I always wondered how she knew I was a Center child. Perhaps it was something in the way I moved.
It was a tense time. In 2105, thirty years after the first Children’s Center opened in New Beijing, an international research group published an epidemiological study. The study looked at crime rates in countries that had adopted genome splicing and Children’s Centers, such as China, Japan, Norway, Sweden, and the Korean Nations, and compared them to countries in the European Union and the United States, where genome splicing was widespread but social regulation was minimal.
The group found that crime had decreased in countries that adopted both splicing and Children’s Centers. Crime rates were not much changed in countries with less regulated genome splicing. The authors argued that highly regulated social structures were necessary for social progress with such rapid developments in genetic nanotechnology.
But then, a second research group reexamined the data and published additional findings that unsettled the global community. Although crime rates were lower in countries with socially regulated genome splicing, the crimes that did occur were remarkable for their high levels of premeditation, bizarreness, and violence.
Academics, policy makers and laypeople pounced on these secondary findings. Perhaps tailored reproduction focused its attention too heavily on eliminating physical illness, without sufficient consideration of mental illness. Perhaps impulsivity as a trait was downregulated by the splicing and socialization process, leading to criminal acts that were more premeditated. Psychologists began to study the characteristics of children in Centers, looking for signs of callous and unemotional traits, decreased empathy, and disordered attachment. Initial results were inconclusive, which only generated further speculation.
It was in this climate that I graduated from the East Hong Kong Children’s Center. We were the new version of human, patched with an upgrade that hadn’t had all the bugs ironed out. We were a little different, a little special. A little scary.
“Do you think you will ever cook claypot rice without burning it?” I ask, peering into the bowl of charred tofu, pineapple, vegetables, and rice.
Gen elbows me aside. “Hey, hey. Didn’t I order you out of the kitchen? It tastes better when it’s crispy. Now out. You’re supposed to remain horizontal until the food is ready. You’ve had a long day. Put your feet up.”
Smiling, I refill my glass of white wine and retreat to the couch. I’m only a few paces away. The apartment is a typical Hong Kong space: twenty meters square, a single room subdivided into corners for cooking, eating, lounging, and sleeping. It’s enough for the two of us. I kick my shoes off and tuck myself in amongst a pile of cushions. Within a few minutes, Gen joins me, carrying two bowls of fragrant rice.
We eat silently, watching the day’s news flicker across the projector. World leaders convening at an emergency environmental summit in New Delhi as an extreme heat wave mounts over South Asia. The summit was stormed by farmers begging for more resources to sustain their crops. A violent shooting in Malaysia, thought to be driven by genetic discrimination, the perpetrator targeting natural-born protesters who resisted government-mandated sterilization. A video update from one of the Mars colony celebrity families, holding a second birthday party for their son James, a genuine Martian.
Gen turns the projector off and pours us another round of wine. We lie on the couch for a long while. I play a little game with myself, where I try to make no noise, no movement, and think no thoughts, for as long as I can. I’ve played this secret game ever since I was a child. I sometimes wonder, if I’m not doing anything, then what’s to say I still exist? Then, of course, I catch myself thinking this thought, and I lose the game.
Gen strokes my hair, starting at the top of my forehead, to the crown of my head, and down to the nape of my neck. Warmth fills me from the top down.
“Gen,” I say.
“Can you hum a tune?”
“Mm. Something gentle and low.”
He starts to hum a sort of lullaby. I burrow into his voice. The dips and eddies wash over me, tugging me into a swelling tide. I close my eyes, trying to find that elusive place where the whole world seems safe and peaceful. But Gen’s humming is too brisk, and his melody too lively. It’s all wrong. I squeeze my eyes tightly to fill my vision with squiggly lines.
“It’s my birthday next week.”
“Yes, I know. I haven’t forgotten.”
“I’m turning thirty-three.”
“A significant number,” I say, with dramatic flair. “A lucky number. Life upon life.”
He wriggles out from beneath me, so that he can look me full in the face. “Lian, I’m ready to have a baby.”
“Oh, what?” I sit up, almost knocking him off the couch. “I didn’t think you’d—really? You want to submit an application?”
He licks his lips and pushes his long hair behind his ears. “I want to have a baby with you.”
“You want us to submit a joint application? I guess I could do that. I hadn’t really thought about becoming a mother yet. But you know the National Lab doesn’t guarantee joint parentage.”
Gen looks at me.
“Oh, Gen. No. No way.”
I know where this has come from. He’s been hanging out with odd acquaintances from overseas, people on the fringes of society, discussing controversial, anti-government topics. Over the past few months he’s talked about finally taking me to Europe. Once or twice, he joked about booking a one-way ticket.
“Lian, I thought maybe we could think about it.”
“That’s not something I would even consider.”
Disappointment darkens his face.
“It’s hardly even feasible,” I say. “I’d have to have my implant removed. For you, it’s even more extreme. You’d need surgery to reverse the procedure. No surgeon in China will do that for you. And that’s only the beginning. What happens during the pregnancy? Where will I live? What doctor would look after me and deliver the baby? Do you want me to fly to Egypt or Bangladesh to pop out our baby? Do you want to have a Chinese baby in a third-world country? Have you even considered this?”
“I just wanted to talk about it with you,” says Gen. “I thought you’d be a bit more open-minded about this.”
“It’s not about being open-minded. What you’re suggesting is illegal!”
“In China, yes.”
“We are Chinese,” I say flatly.
Gen rolls his eyes and sighs. He says nothing for a minute. Then, in a lower tone, he says, “Do you remember the stuff you said when we were thirteen?”
“What are you talking about?”
“That day us boys came back from the surgery. We were in Chao’s room. Remember? It got a bit heated, and you brought Chao down from his high horse. You said, ‘There are countries out there that do things differently from China. There are natural-born children living in homes, just as happy and smart as we are.’”
“That was twenty years ago, Gen. I hardly remember what I said.”
“Your words really stayed with me, you know, after that night. They stuck in my head, and I haven’t been able to shake them, even twenty years on.”
I lower my glass. “Well, that’s a bit silly. I was thirteen. I had no idea what I was talking about. I hadn’t even left China—and I still haven’t! Chao was probably right, and I was wrong.”
I can’t stand the way Gen is looking at me now—like I’ve peeled off a mask to reveal a devil’s face. I turn away from him. There’s nowhere to escape to in this tiny box of an apartment.
“So, you don’t believe what you said back then?”
“I think it’s selfish to have a natural-born baby when tailored reproduction is offered to us on a silver platter.”
“I don’t see a platter. I see gruel being forced down our throats.”
“There’s no need to be melodramatic.”
“It’s about choice, Lian! Freedom. For fuck’s sake.”
“I choose not to have a child peppered with risk mutations.”
“Our grandparents were fine.”
I stand up and pace around the cramped space. Four paces, left turn. Four paces, left turn. Four paces, left turn. There’s nowhere to go. I’m assaulted by memories of my grandparents dying of cancers and infections, racked with pain, shriveled to bags of bones. I remember my Erma, in that stifling room in Tuen Mun Hospice, overrun with tubes, exhaling her life in slow, sour breaths. I don’t want that sort of death for anyone, let alone my child.
“I can’t talk to you anymore,” I say. Without looking at Gen, I open the door of the apartment and walk out, slamming it behind me.
After that day, I begin spending more time at work, obsessing over the next breakthrough in identifying risk mutations. Gen begins spending more time with his anti-government friends, drinking and talking until late in the night. I wonder if he’s met another woman, but I can hardly muster up the appropriate jealousy.
One night he doesn’t come home. I watch the news on the projector. There was an anti-splicing protest in Shenzhen that afternoon, and fourteen protesters were arrested by the Chinese police. The protesters are being held overnight for questioning.
I go to the wardrobe and take out all of Gen’s belongings: clothes, shoes, palm-computer, earpieces. I put everything into a suitcase and leave it in the hallway outside the apartment.
When I get home from work the next day, the suitcase is gone. In its place is a red cap, propped against the door. Gen doesn’t return. I put the cap in the bin.
My failure is plastered across the newsblogs for all to see.
HORIZON GROUP BLUNDER: THREE YEAR OLDS FAIL IQ TEST
Private research giant Horizon Group’s genetic modifications at the East Hong Kong Children’s Center have backfired in an embarrassing turn of events. The three-year-old children with Horizon’s upgrade have tested nearly 4 IQ points lower than comparable cohorts. The modification was designed to increase children’s intelligence, but appears to have had the opposite effect. This news has shocked the Hong Kong community and the Chinese government.
“This grave mistake will jeopardize the comfortable advantage that Horizon Group has held in winning government contracts over the past decade,” says scientific adviser Professor Xi.
My name is not mentioned in the article, but it’s enough to make me burn with humiliation. I can’t read on. I dig my palms into my eyes, hard enough that white flashes of light sear my vision. Shame crackles on my skin. How could this have happened? We’d spent a year reviewing the literature, a year running computer simulations, and another year testing the modification in simians. It was supposed to be another triumph for Horizon Group.
One of my research assistants has already scrutinized the study and sent us a deflated video message. The results of the intelligence test are unequivocal. On average, the three year olds with the modification introduced by Horizon Group tested 3.7 points lower than children at the Northern and Western Centers, and 3.4 points lower than children in previous cohorts. Our only hope is that they might make up the lost points later in childhood. It’s a thin hope.
The receptionist is doing her coffee rounds. She pauses over me. “Lian? What will you have today?”
I pull my face out of my hands. “It’s the same fucking order every day, Ming.”
A colleague at the desk next to me glances across, her lips pressed tightly together. I say nothing. Is there anyone here who isn’t incompetent? Ming stands still for a moment, eyes shining with hurt, and then moves on. When she delivers my coffee ten minutes later, she plonks it down hard enough that foam scatters all over my desk.
I open the folders that contain our simulations and play them, one by one. I scan the permutations and combinations until my eyes are dry. I compare the code to the prototype derived from the research literature. I examine the stitch-points where the spliced codons are brought together.
I’m not sure what I’m looking for. It seems impossible that we could’ve made a mistake. Each of the doctorate students checked the sequence a hundred times. The outcome has to be an anomaly: a completely unpredictable culmination of multiple interactions. A stroke of fucking bad luck.
As I load another simulation, the computer freezes. A fragmented tangle of code spasms on my projector. I can’t believe it. I’m working at Horizon Group with the latest model CPUs and displays. We’re not supposed to have glitches. Blinding heat floods my body, and I’m transformed into a being of light and color, without sound, without thought.
A moment later, I return to my senses. My hands are sore, and my colleagues are staring at me. I glance down. The computer keyboard is broken: the middle split by a crack, and several buttons artfully sprinkled around it. I flex and curl my fingers, unsure if they belong to me.
A chime sounds in my earpiece, followed by a gentle, automated voice. Lian, please attend Project Director Song’s office.
The wary eyes of three dozen scientists follow me as I walk toward the Director’s office. Their fear and pity sicken me. No one says a thing.
Director Song tells me to take the rest of the day off.
My cheeks burn. Leaving work early is a sign of weakness. “I’m not sick, Director,” I say. “And I hope I can prove to you that I’m not incompetent.”
“No one here considers you incompetent, Lian. We all know you’re one of our most dedicated researchers. But you’ve worked hard enough today. There will be more work in the next few days, as we come under increased scrutiny. Rest and prepare yourself.”
“I don’t need to rest.”
“Lian. You bit off poor Ming’s head, and you smashed a computer. Right now, the office is terrified of you. You are not a charged battery. You’re like a six or seven percent—and that’s being generous. Take the afternoon off. Here.” The Director swipes at an icon, and a brief melody sounds in my earpiece. “I’ve given you two vouchers for a nice meal in Tsim Sha Tsui. Take someone out for dinner. Eat, drink. Relax.”
“Director, I’d much rather—”
“We’ll talk tomorrow,” says my boss, and turns away to answer a call on her earpiece. I’m dismissed.
In the end, I eat alone. The vouchers are for a lavish restaurant on the eighth floor of Millennium Tower. The diners are a mix of local businessmen and white tourists. I’m seated at a cloth-draped table, on a plush chair, in front of a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks Victoria Harbour. Late afternoon sunlight coats the water with sparkling diamonds. Cargo ships move ponderously through the dock, bleating in low tunes.
I order a banquet for myself and my imaginary date. Savory snake soup, roast goose with crispy skin, lobster noodles swimming in sauce, chewy phoenix talons, and delicate dumplings bursting with oily soup. Suddenly, I am ravenous. I can’t remember the last time I ate such flavorsome food. The indulgence feels seductive, hedonistic, primal. I imagine how I must look to the other diners: a lone Chinese woman, tearing meat off the bone with her hands, crunching tendons between her teeth, slavering and licking her fingers, spilling sauce down the front of her satin shirt.
After lunch, I walk the old streets behind the glamorous new buildings. Here, the sidewalks carry cracks from a century ago, and loose garbage blusters in forgotten alleys. I have a vague memory of walking here as a child with my classmates, parading in two neat lines, shepherded by schoolteachers. I remember eating fresh egg tarts with Jingfei and Chao and Gen—the bliss of that first bite into the sweet, gooey pastry; the warmth of the last swallow sitting in our bellies for the rest of the day.
A handful of people walk past me hastily, in the opposite direction. Two women pause. “Don’t go that way,” they say. “There’s a protest in the square.”
“OK,” I say, and keep walking.
In less than a minute I’m at the square. A crowd of thirty or so people with thin red armbands are marching around, waving homemade signs. REPRODUCTION IS OUR RIGHT. FREEDOM FROM SPLICING. REAL BABIES NOT JIGSAW BABIES. HORIZON GROUP VOLIATES OUR CHILDREN.
They’re protesting tailored reproduction. I feel a rush of embarrassment for them. What a hotchpotch of characters: young and old, in scruffy clothing. One of their signs has a spelling mistake. Some of them have brought children, who scamper around with little signs. I suspect these are natural-born children, and I observe them with fascination. They each orbit their own adult. The parent-child bond is surprisingly easy to pick out.
It won’t be long before the police arrive. Most of the time, the police let protesters go about their business as long as they’re peaceful.
The protesters light a fire in a metal trash can. One of the leaders, a man in a checkered shirt, tears up articles and newspapers and feeds the fire with scraps of paper. He yells out broad sentiments that make little sense to me. I suspect he is destroying printed copies of scientific studies. I almost laugh aloud at the irony of trying to destroy something intellectual, electronic, and abstract, with a physical act.
A group of young men and women, university students by their demeanor, enter the square. One of them must have made a remark to the protesters, because suddenly the two groups are facing each other. Fists tighten and lips curl. The man in the checkered shirt pushes one of the young men in the chest. There is a scuffle.
“Hey!” I shout, walking over. “Break that up or I’ll call the police!”
The man in the checkered shirt rounds upon me. “Back off, mutated bitch.”
“How dare you speak to a lady like that!” says a young man.
Checkered-shirt peers at the pin on my collar and spits at my feet. “She’s one of them mad scientists fucking up the next generation. She gets no respect from me.”
“Don’t think she cares about the respect of mongrels,” sneers the young man.
A young woman casts her eye over the scrappy mob of protesters. “Disgusting. Bringing natural-born babies into the world. I hope we breed you out in twenty years.”
Another protester, a man with a bulbous nose, lunges at her with fists outstretched. His face is a contorted, ugly mask of fury. A friend pulls the young woman out of harm’s way just in time. Two more friends leap at the bulbous-nosed man. Screams erupt. The two groups have melded into one. I spin around, disorientated. Where did all these people come from? There must be a hundred people in the square!
Someone barrels into me, knocking the air from my lungs. I’m on the ground, knees scraping the concrete. Winded, I drag myself to my feet and search for a way out. I’m surrounded by crying children and wrestling adults.
“Don’t let them get away!” A young man in a university sweater points across the square. “That one tried to punch Yu An.”
“Police will get ’em.”
“Don’t see police here, do you? Come on!”
I’m caught up in the chase. The protesters scatter, but we pursue a handful of them into the darkening streets. I’m running elbow to elbow with the young people, like a pack of wolves, cold wind in our faces. We’re on the heels of three of them, but they split up. We corner one in a blind alley.
It’s the man who lunged at the young woman. He looks to be in his forties, with a leathered complexion. He wears a woolen beanie and a T-shirt that’s too long for his stocky frame. I marvel at his nose, which is swollen with tumorous growths. It’s large enough to be two noses. No spliced child would have such a defect. A wave of repulsion sweeps over me.
“What’s this?” he sneers. “A citizen’s arrest?”
“Prison’s too good for you,” hisses a young man next to me. “You’re a natural-born, no doubt, judging by that beautiful face.”
The man sticks his chin out. “Proud to be. What’s it to you?”
“Scum,” the young man snarls. “No wonder you’re violent and crude.”
“You animals should be exiled,” another says. “You want to drag China back into the dark days.”
He shrugs, but his eyes are wary. “We just want to be free to have our own families.”
“You really want to pass your genes on to a poor child?” someone snaps, and I realize it is me.
Beneath that ridiculous woolen beanie, his expression remains lofty. “Better mine than yours.”
A woman slaps him across the cheek. He stumbles back against the wall, more out of surprise than pain. Before he can react, someone else kicks him in the gut. He drops to his knees. The beanie falls off, revealing a patchy head of hair that reminds me of the simians in our laboratory. Suddenly, he seems such a pathetic and useless creature. A glitch in the course of humanity.
White heat floods my body, the color of euphoria or rage.
I stumble backward. Around me, the youths are shouting, but I can’t make sense of what they’re saying. My hands sting and throb. The smells of tinny blood and sour urine fill my throat, and I retch.
The man is crumpled on the ground. A patch of urine stains the front of his trousers. Bloods pours from a gash on his brow and from his slack mouth. I can’t remember if he was missing teeth before. I notice, with an eerie clarity, that his shoes have fallen off and his socks do not match. One is navy and one is black.
“Get out of here!” someone shouts, and my legs obey. I flee through the narrow streets, terrified to look back. My face feels frozen, like the painted wooden masks used in opera shows. I find a subway entrance and stumble down into its tunnels. Everyone is staring at me. They must know what sort of person I am, and what I’ve done, and what I’ve become.
On the train home, all I can see are the man’s mismatched socks, poking out from his trouser legs. Navy and black, alike but not identical. I cover my face and begin to cry—harsh, hard sobs that shake me to the core.
It’s funny how things from your childhood look older and smaller when you come back to visit.
The East Hong Kong Children’s Center has always been a vast, impenetrable presence in my mind. But now, the square building peppered with hundreds of square windows seems forlorn rather than forbidding. The walls are weather-stained. The once-red sign cresting the tower is bleached to a salmon pink. As I step through the revolving doors, my shoes trace a threadbare trail in the rug.
The foyer hasn’t been updated since its inception. On the walls hang photographs of Hong Kong’s cityscape in 1920, 1980, 2010, 2065. The lemony smell of air freshener wafts to my nose, and the scent makes my heart ache. Is this stagnant, faceless place really where I came from? I imagine myself, framed and hung on the wall: Hong Kong, 2089.
The receptionist seems kind. I give her my name, and the reason for my visit, and she flicks a moving map onto my palm-computer.
“Follow the yellow line,” she says.
I walk down gray corridors that are both strange and familiar. Unease fills my bones, a quiet itch on the skin of my soul. The place feels haunted. The childhood spirits of myself, Gen, Jingfei, Chao, Suyin, still dwell here. I try to remind myself that I don’t believe in ghosts.
Children’s chatter reaches my ears. As I turn the corner, I see a class of seven or eight year olds in a courtyard garden, studying plants through their augmented reality glasses. Four schoolteachers guard them like lampposts. I watch them for a while, wondering about their genetic heritage, wondering if anyone has told them that, in a few years, they will be taken into nurses’ offices and doctors’ surgeries for unspoken procedures. The children clump into groups, heads together, chatting eagerly, then break apart and scamper around, only to reform in new clusters. They look happy.
I take an elevator to the third floor and walk across to the staff wing. The yellow line leads me to an empty cafeteria. The noise of clanging pots echoes from the kitchen, where the chefs must be preparing lunch. I pick a path between the scattered tables and chairs and reach the glass doors on the far side of the cafeteria.
The doors open onto a neatly tended garden balcony. Sunshine presses vibrant warmth to my face. Between potted hibiscus and flowing moneywort, a woman in a brown silk dress sits with her back to me, gazing out over the sprawling, steaming city. Her gray hair trails in a braid down her back.
As I approach, I see that the woman is carrying a baby in her arms. She sways, ever so slightly, and hums under her breath. The tune freezes me in my tracks. I stand still, absorbing the low, soft notes. The melody wraps me in a bubble of safety. Suddenly, everything falls into place. The bright sun, drawing life into my skin, drawing color forth from the pink hibiscus. The clanking city, shrinking into smallness beneath me. My birth mother, within arm’s reach, aged and beautiful.
I must have made a noise, because Deepa turns around. Her face has grown thinner in the last twenty years; her body has grown softer and plumper. The baby is a tiny thing, swaddled in cloth and nestled firmly in her arms. On her left wrist is the jade bracelet that I chose in a perfunctory manner from a vendor twenty years ago.
“Lian,” she says at once, her face full of astonishment.
She never expected to see me again. She didn’t believe that I would come to visit her. None of the others returned to the Center. For the first time, I glimpse the sort of grief a mother feels when a child abandons her. The sadness is a punch to the gut.
I kneel at her feet. Deepa watches me, a question in her eyes, saying nothing. I remember my coldness and condescension at seventeen, and I’m ashamed.
I want to confess my sins, but I don’t think she would look at me with love if she knew the person I am now. I wonder if she once held me as tenderly as she is holding the infant in her arms. Then, I realize that she must have. Quiet tears trek down my cheeks, and a strange peace spreads within me.
With trembling fingers, I touch the bracelet on her wrist and grasp her arthritic hand. Her fingers curl gently around mine. Her knuckles are swollen and stiff. I press my forehead to the back of her hand.
“I’m sorry,” I say, unable to meet her eyes. “I’m sorry.”
I wonder if I should explain what I’m apologizing for, but I can’t put it into words. It doesn’t seem to matter, anyway. Deepa rests her gnarled hand on my brow, smoothing away my sins.
The taxi car is stuck in traffic.
I don’t mind. I lean back against the leather seat and gaze out of the window. Glassy skyscrapers climb into the clouds. Animated billboards proclaim the wonders of a new skin revitalization cream, and the ecstasies of the latest virtual reality game, and the necessity of purchasing authentic sapphire jewelry for your loved ones. Pedestrians weave through the traffic, glued to their eyepieces and earpieces, guided by their internal autopilot. Hong Kong has a mad, busy beauty to it.
The dashboard chimes. “Apologies for the delay, Lian. Would you like me to search for an alternative route?”
“No, it’s fine.”
“Staying on course,” says the car. “Would you like to listen to music or a webcast to pass the time?”
“No, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome, Lian.”
My palm-computer is buzzing with messages. From Director Song: Lian, call me ASAP. We need to talk. I’m sure we can iron out whatever issues have prompted this. From my research partner: Lian, what the fuck? We’re two months away from Stage Four trials. Why didn’t you give me a heads up that you were pulling the plug on us? From my doctorate students: Hi Lian, sorry to hear you’ve resigned so suddenly. Can you let us know who will be supervising our projects from now on? From my first-mother: Lian, what’s going on? I heard a crazy rumor that you quit your job? Please tell me this isn’t true.
I skim the messages, but they only fill me with exhaustion. I switch off my computer and my earpiece and enjoy the sounds of traffic.
An hour later, the car drops me off at Hong Kong International Airport. I pass through glass doors into a light-filled chamber with vaulted ceilings. People walk briskly in all directions, barely dodging one another to make a beeline for their destinations. A 3D projector displays a boggling diagram of upcoming flights. A robotic trolley zips up to me, scans my ID, and offers to take my luggage. I decline. I only have a backpack.
I approach the departures counter.
“Where would you like to travel to today?” the attendant asks.
“What’s your earliest flight into Europe?”
“We have a flight into Frankfurt in two hours, or London in three.”
“I’ll take the Frankfurt flight.”
“Great. Will that be one way or return?”
I hesitate, but only briefly. “One way.”
My feet tap out a brisk tune on the shiny floors. Adrenaline thrums in my chest. Is this what is feels like, to defy expectations? It’s terrifying and intoxicating. I picture the faces of my mothers. I line them up. First-mother, second-mother, third-mother. I see their mothers, too. My Yima, Erma, Sanma. And above them, Deepa. I see the utterly perplexed faces of Director Song, my research partner, my students. I see Jingfei and Gen, as I knew them, years ago, young and bursting with passion and determination. I carry them all within me now.
I’m shepherded into a queue to pass through security. Beyond the scanners, vast windows allow a view of the runway. A silver jet rises with a roar into the sky, and a second one follows close on its heels. The roar shakes my bones and fills me with life.
As I take off my jacket for the security scanners, I notice the asterisk-shaped scar on my inner arm. It’s stained with blue dye.