A Mother’s Mourning
Patrick T. O’Connor
Clutching the letter in my hands, I try to iron out the wrinkles and dry the tears that have long since stained its surface.
“Don’t fret, your boy has been chosen!” the Rip tells me. “He has been selected to lead a life of selfless sacrifice for the Empire.”
Our people’s highest ideal is sending my son to die, I think scornfully while biting back tears.
“He will be in a position to save us all. Think of it, countless generations will be able to thrive because of your little boy.”
He was right, of course. Wasn’t all of that worth this sacrifice on my part?
Couldn’t I be happy for him? Any other mother would kill to have their child serve such a purpose for our people.
The room is dominated by two large monitors along one wall. Each of them show a different computer-simulated silhouette, with biorhythms, blood compositions, and current health statuses laid out in constantly-updating numbers.
From the ceiling hangs The Apparatus, an eight-limbed marvel piloted by the Empire’s medical A.I. Each limb is equipped with a fully replaceable toolset, optimally designed for this kind of microsurgery. The Apparatus had made the need for a surgical team obsolete.
Two children lie beside each other in separate tanks below the screens, submerged in a nanite-filled gel with masks over their faces. While the tanks look similar, their contents do not. The green-tinted gel tank to the left holds my beautiful and perfect son. Hard black chiton had just come in around his shoulders and brow line, grown from the bones beneath his skin. The other yellow-tinted gel tank holds one of the vile humans that are the prominent species from the encroaching dimension.
Humanity’s experiments into particle acceleration have thinned the multiverse barrier, and if something isn’t done soon, our reality will be subsumed.
A whirring sound fills the room as the human child is scanned. The computer analyzes the data, figuring out the best way to alter my son physically and genetically so that he will look like the human he is replacing. As the computer completes its calculations, nanites are injected into the tank to prepare his body for the Apparatus.
The Rip and I watch the screen, which shows the computer-piloted swarms of nanites gliding through the gel bath before flowing into my boy’s orifices. This process will keep the incidents of scarring low, thus limiting the evidence of the surgical procedure.
The Apparatus descends upon him, the nanites making micro adjustments alongside the machine and numbing nerves as they move across his body.
The surgery fills the room with the audible snaps of bone and I begin to wretch at the sound.
The display shows a separate batch of nanites, color-coded purple, being excreted into the vat. These will be what controls the gene insertion. They are introducing a bacteria-derived protein throughout his body which, paired with a cutting tool, will rewrite my son’s genome such that he will grow up looking like the scanned human–to the best of their computer’s predictive modeling.
As the surgery comes to a conclusion, the vat closes over my boy. The nanite-infused medical gel once again submerges him, working to heal the damage from the surgery.
An unbearable amount of time later, the snap of a lock disengaging echoes through the room, the gel drains out of the vat, and decompressing air hisses as it escapes the chamber. Steam follows from the full-body container my son emerges from. The bright white mist floats and dissipates against the dark grey concrete that makes up the walls.
Coming out of the vat, my child looks foreign to me. The skeletal changes are dramatic since, previously, he had only shared the same height with his target. Before, he had his father’s dark brown eyes. Now, his brow line is significantly reduced, lightening his eyes. Nonetheless it is still large for one of the humans and makes his countenance look cruel. His jawline, which had previously been softly rounded out by his growing chiton, is now square. It gives him an air of authority that one would not expect from a child, and a gravity unfitting my playful little boy. He walks bleary-eyed on unsteady legs and puts his arms around me. Without chiton, his purely pink flesh looks naked and I struggle to keep the image of what he looked like before at the forefront of my mind.
“I will not forget you, mom,” he says through trembling lips, pretending to be stoic like the military leader next to me. “I will come home.”
Next, he would be off for conditioning, a process of integrating the memories of both his target and those of long-term special operations soldiers. By the time he is in the field across the dimensional barrier, his entire life with me will be a tiny percentage of his living memory.
I try to say something encouraging. I want to tell my son that I believe in him, even when so many others have failed this mission. I manage to choke out some vague platitude, but it is not enough. I know I will weep over my pitiful words later, but for now, I try to pull myself together for his sake. I command control of myself as I grip the boy I no longer recognize in my arms.
I will give up my son for the Empire.
“Don’t be sad, mom, I won’t fail, I promise. I’ll be the first not to be taken in by the enemy. I’ll come back to you, no matter what.”
“Thank you, that’s all I can hope for,” I choke out through sobs I’m trying to hold back.
“It’s time,” the Rip commands harshly.
It’s easy to be intimidated by the heavily muscled military figure whose overdeveloped chiton juts out sharply. Soulless black irises meet my gaze briefly. Then, without remorse, he puts an arm on my son, looking like Death come to take him too soon.
I now have only the vague reassurance that we’ll be together again in the afterlife.
“Come on, mom. Don’t you believe in me?” My little boy says, his eyes now dry as he tries to push out of my arms to begin his mission.
I wish he would savor this moment more. We may never see each other again, and yet he is still trying to leave me. With one last squeeze, I let him go. “Of course I believe in you. I trust you to do the best you can.”
“I will, mom!” He shouts over his shoulder, mimicking the marching steps of the Rip.
The doors slam shut behind them, leaving me in the empty, cold lab with only memories of my son and the Apparatus that changed him.
My son’s future now only has two paths: a hero who will likely never return home, or the failed tool of a forgotten civilization.