by Ellen Pace
Anne Fairfax fiddled with the nib of her fountain pen, feigning interest in the current discussion. The various project leaders of the Ruysdael Initiative were gathered around a circular table ensconced by back benches in a lavishly finished auditorium; the smell of grinding steel and embers managed to pervade every inch of the place. Even all the velvet trimmings and cushioning in the board room couldn’t drive away the smell of cooling metal, and the feeling that you were in a place of hard-testosterone driven industry. Rates of female infertility soared in recent years due to the elevated levels of heavy metals present in rainfall and groundwater. There hadn’t been a live birth in the greater London area for eighteen months.
Anne hated the men of the Ruysdael committee. They spoke down to her, their patronising tones justified only by the brute right of superior strength. Anne was party only to the official conferences in the Project. Most were gentlemen of private means, like Stearns and Carlisle, interested only in the potential profit the advancements of the Ruysdael project could garner for their various businesses. Some, like Delaney, were genuine philanthropists. Others still, like her husband Richard and Francis enjoyed the challenges the project provided but treated the project more like a game of trumps rather than a valid scientific endeavour.
The rosewood table was polished to a reflective sheen, and in between the minutes she found herself lost in the infinitesimal imperfections under the glistening veneer. Even for all its faults she imagined it breathing once, drawing water through its being, doing just what it instinctively knew how to do – grow. She imagined it bent with forces of wind, glistening in the gentle sprays under a summer rain. Perhaps she could spend a few weeks in the countryside when this was all done and dealt with, she hated London. Anne’s husband, Richard, entered the boardroom with an eloquent excuse for his tardiness. He grasped for her fingers, and she squeezed them back. For his comfort or mine? She pulled her hand away, folding it neatly under the other on her lap. If Richard noticed the motion at all he didn’t show it; instead he posed a nitpicking little question to the chairman, Dalton. A question that in all likelihood would keep them all there for a good ten minutes longer than they really needed to be.
Replying in his measured fashion, Dalton went on about the latest adjustments to the budget in an amiable but monotone drawl, he elongated his vowels with a tone she would normally have attributed to the echelons of the upper class, but she knew him to be a man of humble means. His was a great mind, calculating and precise, if not particularly prolific. She knew all too well the ridicule her colleagues inflicted on his good name when his back turned. It was once of the reasons she dreaded setting her foot in the place every morning. “Can’t be too long now.” Francis leant over from the back bench to whisper into her ear.
Anne smiled absently, nodding. Just a few more minutes and we can get back to work. Just a few more minutes and I can get away from Richard. Anne wondered if he even noticed she had completely shut him out. She tried to concentrate on the meeting, but the matter under discussion didn’t even concern her division. Anne and her colleagues Francis and Delaney were assigned to Project Delta. Delta was tasked with providing unadulterated hosts for possible procreation, manufacturing human embryos under controlled conditions. The other projects – Gamma, Alpha, and Beta – were concerned with treating the cases of infertility and purifying the water. Anne’s husband was also assigned to Delta division, but at a different workstation.
The gavel pounded suddenly, and a wave like murmur rose in the boardroom. Anne was a little startled she had let her mind wander so far. She allowed Richard to plant a gentle kiss in the palm of her hand before he took leave of her and regrouped with his workstation peers. Francis poked Delaney in his slightly protrusive belly, snickering evilly as he woke with a strangled gasp. Delaney mumbled something about needing his pipe and ambled away, still grumbling to himself.
Anne rose slowly, and when she was quite sure only Francis and herself remained, stretched her arms.
“Should we get back to it then?” asked Francis with a mighty yawn. Anne consented, stooping to gather her files, and followed Francis down the tiled corridors to the gaping blast doors that lead to the Delta division vault. Two benches lined either side of the doors attended by two staff that fitted them with the rubber soles they needed to earth themselves from the great amounts of static energy the vault produced.
“We should send for lunch.” Anne thought out loud, bearing down indignantly on the clumsy attendant that had somehow managed to buckle her left sole upside down.
Francis nodded. “I’d imagine Delaney already did.”
Back in their lab, Delaney had returned to his workstation, and as Anne sat down at hers, the cat they kept, Paisley, curled up underneath her feet, nuzzling her ankles. He was a longhair, quite amusing to behold once he’d worked up sufficient static. A long reinforced window looked down onto the main lab before them; fifty tanks were arranged in tidy circles and partitioned by short trellises. Delaney scurried around between them, and made little adjustments to the individual control panels. He looked like a small hunchbacked kobold to Anne, pottering around in his goggled safety mask. The uterine sacs Delta division had developed could host a fertile human embryo in theory, although they hadn’t been able to successfully implant an embryo that survived more than a few weeks. Three of their ten sacs were currently a host, but they’d not to get their hopes up; Anne, Delaney and Francis had spent three years on Delta project, and had been systematically dogged by tiny success and staggering failures.
Their lab was quite small; Anne’s workstation was the regulatory control panel, which monitored the Ph level, temperature, and various other factors in the tanks. Francis developed the nutrient feeds which would nourish the embryo, and the fluids which would surround the egg. Delaney monitored fertilization, playing around most of the day with human sex cells of disputable origin. No one had ever dared ask where he’d acquired his resources, as they were seemingly infinite.
“I think we may have something here.”
Francis cracked his knuckles. He held up a small marked phial with an odd twinkle to his eye. He set it down carefully on Delaney’s workbench. The door to the lab floor opened and the mechanical din of the generator filled every corner of the lab for a moment. Delaney scuffled up the spiral staircase with a worried look on his face.
“Has there been a power surge, Mrs Fairfax?” he asked anxiously. “I could have sworn I smelt a small electrical fire… and the control panel on four won’t respond.”
Anne punched a request in on the panel. The printer whirred and grunted into action and pressed out a series of boxed letters and numbers on a card. Her eyes skimmed over the reading. An abnormally large amount of energy had passed through the Delta Project conduits in the last three hours. Anne’s eyes wandered over the rows of tanks through the window before them. Richard and his collective were moving between their arrays on daily rounds. It did indeed look like a power surge, but she couldn’t isolate the source from here. Anne exchanged glances with Delaney, and passed it to Francis.
Francis scrutinized it closely. “Perhaps the meter went faulty,” he concluded. “Best to be absolutely certain though, why don’t you run the request again?” He said, bringing out his tobacco pouch. Anne agreed, and quickly tapped in the command again. She should have thought of that. Another card whirred out. A review by both Anne and Francis confirmed the reading was identical.
“We’d have missed if it happened during the meeting,” said Anne.
Delaney cursed under his breath and shuffled out quietly, his rubber soles making a slightly amusing tune as he squeaked down the corridor and out of sight.
“Request a breakdown of the power reading from the main conduit please, Francis.” Anne said sourly, turning back to the panel. Happy for the task and a chance to briefly escape her fouling mood, he vanished almost instantly. Anne was left to her own thoughts. The combed head of Dr. Richard Fairfax bobbed between his rows of tanks at the far end of the lab floor. Anne could imagine the smile beneath the mask as he chatted to his colleagues, the years had been kinder to his face than most, and yet the waxy smirk he always wore to work annoyed her; the corners of his mouth lied, his eyes were dead. Would he still visit those humiliations upon her tonight, despite her revulsion? She grudgingly tolerated the clumsy intrusions of his lust because she was barren, so she had failed him. It was her penance. Richard turned in the distance and noticing her, waved pleasantly. She returned it, thankful that the distance veiled her expression. Anne wondered how much longer she could bear it. The cat mewed expectantly, rubbing up against Anne’s leg.
“That’s right darling, lunchtime soon.” She bent to scratch behind his ears. He purred appreciatively.
“Mrs. Fairfax?” Delaney ambled back into the lab with the same musical shuffle.
“Pardon me; I didn’t hear you come back.”
Anne turned to face him as he went to the bureau at the back of the lab and reached for a tall flask of brandy. Francis returned with the reading and presented it to her before pulling up his chair and joining Delaney. Anne picked it up, twisting an errant skein of auburn hair between her gloved fingertips.
“Tank thirty-four. That would be in Richard’s array,” she said to no-one in particular. Tucking the strand behind her ear decisively, she strutted through the open door clutching the punch-paper, still warm from the press.
Her rubber soles thudded on the steel latticed floors as she strode down the hall into the foreman’s office. He was sitting behind his desk, and he looked slightly annoyed as she swept in. Anne thrust the report into his unwilling hands. He peered at her, his eyes two pinpoints of clear blue behind tinted spectacles and a nose peppered with tiny growths.
“Yes, we know, Mrs. Fairfax. The excesses of station D have been evaluated and accounted for.” His tone was careful as he answered. He handed he paper back to her and adjusted his spectacles. Anne’s eyes flashed with sudden anger.
“It ruined some of my equipment.”
“I’ve already heard. Your colleague has already placed an order for replacement parts. There’s nothing more to be done about it.” The director smiled and politely dismissed her with a wave. Anne’s knuckles whitened. She spun round and stormed out.
Both men turned to face her nervously as she stomped back in.
“That was humiliating,” she said.
“I thought I’d mentioned I already reported the damage,” said Delaney.
He patted her gently on the shoulder by way of apology and returned to his workbench. Anne slumped ungraciously into her chair.
Delaney scooped up a small stain on his Petri dish and smeared it gently on a slide underneath his microscope with a little click. Delaney was well accustomed to her sometimes fiery temperament, and had found the best way to work around them was to ignore her. Francis lit a Bunsen burner to warm his brandy glass.
“If it’s in Dr. Fairfax’s’ array, why don’t you ask him for an explanation?” he ventured, feigned ambivalence in his voice. As he predicted, Anne threw her arms in the air dramatically and declared she was going to lunch. Francis waited until he heard the blast doors slam before he exhaled.
Richard was late coming in that night. The clock in the hall outside the bedroom she reluctantly shared chimed its tones of midnight. Her eyes were shut tight in pretended sleep, and she was only aware of a vague presence at the foot of the bed. He’d been at the lab, of that she was certain. The smell of sulphur was overwhelming. His footsteps paced slowly to the door, being careful not to stir her. Outside a horse stamped the cobbles impatiently. He wasn’t staying then. Anne’s chest heaved with relief, she would be spared tonight.
The following morning was cold and bitter; the dirty grey sky seemed to hang dangerously low over the rooftops, threatening to swallow them in its greasy bulges. The hansom clattered over the streets on its course to the Ruysdael building, a towering block of dark granite in the distance. The morning air was particularly fetid, so Anne slid the window shut. Richard teased her fingers gently with a puzzled innocence, as though they were novel playthings he’d found resting on his lap.
“I’ve arranged a little surprise for you, at the lab.” He said quite suddenly. A boyish smile she thought she’d never see again played onto his lips. Anne’s eyebrow raised into a quizzical slant.
“That’s kind of you.” She said sweetly. What sort of surprise? Perhaps he’d replaced the equipment his station had blown with that careless power surge they caused the previous day. Something thoughtful but mundane. Francis had finalized a new solution late yesterday, and they’d had to wait until today to see if implantation occurred in one of the walls of their sacs. Thankfully they’d had frozen samples in storage; otherwise they’d have to bite their nails for at least another two days. She mentioned this to Richard by way of conversation, but his eyes were distant. Richard had seemed pleased with her response, and wore a vague smile on his face the rest of the ride to the lab.
Richard had allowed her to stop in at her workstation to check in on their progress. Francis had worked through the night, carefully monitoring the ratios of nutrients in the control tank, and Delaney had inserted the embryos in the other two. Anne glanced down at the service panel on tank three, the broken unit. Small trails of black streaked the brass finish. That wasn’t it then. Richard watched her as she inspected it, oblivious to the damage it had incurred. They took their leave of them, Anne explaining she would be back later, a little sorry not to have been able to stay and share in their latest triumph.
Richard’s pace quickened as he led her down the gallery that branched out onto the larger Station D. He exchanged brief greetings with his peers, and took her down to the floor gate. Anne had never been down to the lab floor before, not even in her own station. Access was generally limited, a precaution against unnecessary contamination. Richard fitted a mask onto Anne, snapping the buckles into place hurriedly. He was getting more excited by the minute. He punched the large button that opened the gate door, and affixed the umbilical cable that would allow her to breathe. Ushering her out onto the lab floor, he strode directly to tank Thirty Four.
“You mustn’t speak a word of this to anyone, not even the director.”
Anne assented with a quick nod. She was getting impatient. Richard leant down to the service panel and flicked on the light. Anne hesitated as she peered into the murky depths of the tank, and with escalating horror she made out the contours of a female form silhouetted on the under light. A porcelain foot pressed against the glass, childlike in its daintiness. She traced her fingers along the greasy glass, watching the toes curl in the gentle spasms of sleep. The gentle current from the filter blew her hair into serpentine strands, fanning them gently in the pulsing silence of the water. Nervously she rapped a knuckle on the glass, jumping back as the woman jolted suddenly. Cataract blue eyes trembled open to regard the figure before her. The woman began to manoeuvre through her watery cage to get a closer look at Anne. The bile in her throat ebbed and a poignant sadness replaced it. Anne could feel nothing but sympathy for the creature before her. What lunatic endeavour was this?
“She’s wonderful isn’t she?” Richard gushed proudly. Anne found words had deserted her. Was this a vagrant they had plucked from the street? A hapless young woman from the workhouse? No. The bile crept back up her throat. A knobbed cord of flesh curled from her naval to the nutrient supply plug. They’d grown her. Richard had created life where she could not.
“She only has a life span of four or five years. If we could impregnate her now, she would be able to carry a child to full term before she expired.” Richard had taken her speechlessness for admiration rather than abject horror. Expired. The word sounded strange to her.
“We’ve done it.” Richards’s voice rang with unadulterated delight. He drew Anne to his side, oblivious to the fact that she was not sharing in his joy.
“Would she be ready to receive a fertilized egg?” Anne managed, trying to regain her self-control.
“Although she ages at an accelerated rate she ovulates as a normal adult female would, we need to introduce the other… catalyst” Richard chose his words carefully. Anne shuddered at the sudden mental image. All these years failure had dogged her team, and Richard had succeeded. His victory was eloquent; instead of aping the conditions required for life he’d taken the bare roots into his own hands and let them flourish unhindered.
“This is marvellous.” Anne admitted.
Richard turned the light off, and led her back to the lab gate. Not a word, he reminded her. Not even a whisper, she assured him. There are ethical complications to consider. Of course she understood.
Anne thought the first day would be the worst, having to face her colleagues and mimic the normal paces of her working day in the knowledge that their endeavours were ultimately futile when weighed against the staggering proportions of Richard’s accomplishment. But as the days wore on, the hammering sensation of worthlessness only escalated. Richard’s colleagues had begun to treat her as a peer of their own, a comrade bearing the blessing of the great secret, and less like the useless appendage Richard had insisted on marrying so many years ago. Once, this might have brought her some comfort, but she felt like a traitor to her own cause.
Francis’s new solution was showing great promise; their control embryo had sustained steady development. Previously they’d only been able to sustain growth for twenty one days, but their latest experiment was twenty five days old. Anne surveyed the readings with a minor resurrection of interest. Francis sought her approval with the expectant eyes of a child, gawping almost stupidly at her.
“Excellent work.” She congratulated him with a smile. She knew the terseness of her voice spoke in another language to Francis. They’d had their hopes dashed far too many times to give themselves over to wishful thinking.
“I figured out what caused that power surge last month.” Francis scooped up the cat as it tried to scurry under his chair. It let out a pathetic mew in protest. Anne scolded him, reaching for the brandy bottle on Delaney’s desk.
“What were you saying about the surge?” she asked, watching him tease the cat’s nose with its own tail.
“There’s some bare wiring beneath the lab floor in places, so tank Thirty Four discharged all its fluid in one go, the overflow would probably reach the current.” Francis explained.
“We should probably bring that up at the board meeting tomorrow.” Delaney commented, glancing up from his work briefly.
She thanked Francis for the information, and stared at the sepia liquid swirling around in the glass. Who would have been on the lab floor that morning though? Richard jealously guarding his prize? The room was blasted with sudden noise as Delany went down to the lab floor to do his hourly rounds and the smell of sulphur crept its way into her nostrils betwixt the brandy fumes. An idea dawned on her, and her throat tightened as she realised the implications. Richard hadn’t touched her since the last board meeting.
The next day seemed to crawl by. Anne counted the minutes as they rode into work together. Would she have a chance to slip away and hide? Richard as always seemed preoccupied with his own thoughts. His gaze was cast far into the distance, as though he refused to rest his eyes on the Ruysdael building. The hansom pulled into the space before the main entrance and they dismounted. Richard walked her into the main atrium, and assured her he’d see her at the board meeting, and went to join his colleagues. She cast her eyes about the gathered crowds waiting for the meeting to begin; thankfully no-one had seen her yet. She stepped into the elevator and politely asked for the service level.
Anne waited in the generator tower, in the belly of the giant brass beast. She could see the whole array of tanks; fifty flickering sepia lights like a blazing mandala in the shadows. The hydraulic engines crunched and pulled apart, emitting small whistles of steam as they fornicated in the humid darkness, the ground beneath trembling with every groan and grunt. Ten past nine. If Richard came at all, he would be here soon. The anxiety churning inside her brought everything into a twistingly sober focus. The blast doors thudded open in the distance, sending a tremble throughout the whole lab. Richard’s staccato footsteps echoed over the din of the generator. Her mouth was dry; she licked her lips in silent anticipation. He paused to adjust a setting on one of the outer tanks, and then made his way to tank Thirty Four. He pressed his face to the glass and observed the woman within. Something stirred in the depths; residue clouded the glass momentarily, and a hand reached outs though to embrace his own. Richard removed his coat and set it aside, and began unfastening the buttons of his shirt. She knew what came next, and the very thought was revolting. Panic exploded inside her; she turned to run but found her arms held by two men, faceless with their safety masks on. Pain blossomed in her neck as they yanked out the needle. She quickly succumbed to the sickly sweet darkness.
She awakened, without alarm. Warmth enveloped her and she was weightless. Anne’s head pounded with the after effects of the drug, but the pain seemed distant and irrelevant. She groped blindly until she found the hand of the other she knew to be there. The fingers laced with her own, they were long and spidery like those of a woman; the grip was innocent and unashamed. Just like a child, she thought. The understanding crept into her sluggish consciousness, but the balmy heat dismissed all notions of distress. She drew the woman into a gentle embrace and let herself drift back into oblivion, carried away by the lulling throb of tranquillity.