NOTE: “Bipinnaria” was featured in November 2018 on the Tales to Terrify podcast. It’s about 13 minutes long, so if you want to have nightmares, give it a listen. The link is at the end of the story.
Nelson heard his baby speak for the first time at seven weeks. It was earlier than expected, but a pleasant surprise, a gift. If he went all the way to full term it meant thirty-five joyous weeks spent getting to know her.
He’d uplinked all of the books from the popular Know Yourself, Know Your Baby, written by the architects of the procedure, all the way to the twenty-fifth edition of old reliable What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Communication would be basic at the beginning, but she was already speaking.
He’d expected the first words would come as a question. You come into being and you’re full of questions, right? Who am I? Where am I? But she hadn’t asked a question at all. Just a quiet comment, a tiny voice that said warm. Warm! A simple expression of contentment, adorably mundane. Oh, how he loved her already.
Naturally he’d spoken back, yammering on excitedly like a teenager in a flock of teenagers, asking questions at a thousand miles an hour, as if he were the one who’d just been sparked into existence. The girl had remained silent, happy to float in his cozy amniotic until she felt the need to further the conversation.
Nelson came awake two days later to a flutter of kicking. My, she is strong. So had he been earlier in life. He thought about heredity, how he wished she could have all of his best attributes and none of his less desirable traits. She would get all of them, of course. That was how this worked. The gestation was all about introducing her to the good and the bad of who they both were.
“Nelson?” Her second word.
He sat up into his stack of pillows. “Clara.”
“I like it. It’s like I chose it.”
“I’m so glad,” said Nelson, glowing. “So, hello. What’s it like in there, kid?”
“Not too cramped?” He forced a nervous chuckle.
“Well, I don’t think so. I’m not used to anything else.”
“Good point,” he said, patting the sheets, unsure what to say next.
“So,” said Clara, “I think I’m only going to be awake for a few minutes. Where do you want to start?”
Right. The books all said that fetuses slept often and hard, so the windows for embedding would be narrow. Nelson scrambled for the notebook at his bedside and folded it over, donned his readers. He skimmed the topics he’d thought were most important to cover. It all seemed like such nonsense now. Lodged somewhere deep in his brain, the instincts hardwired by evolution said the world should be her teacher. But then what would have been the point of living twice?
“Ah, okay, so, number one: you’ll have a temper you need to get control of. It took me years to learn that things shouldn’t make me nearly so angry as they did. So that’s the first think I wanted to make you conscious of going in. I want to get the time back that I missed being pissed off.”
“What do you get mad at?”
“Uh.” Suddenly he was self-conscious.
“Come on, Nelson, let’s have it.”
“Alright. People who don’t say thank you when you do something nice for them. Say, let them go in front of you when you’re waiting in line and they just breeze on through like it was their spot all along. It’s just rude.”
“That makes me furious! Who would do that?”
“Yeah, I know. Drives me crazy,” he said. “So, you’ve got to get control of that early. It’s a waste of time and energy, okay?”
“I’m mad just hearing about it.”
“You see my point.” He went down the list. “Ah, okay, make friends in every setting. At school, at work. Introduce yourself to perfect strangers. You’d be surprised where friends can come from.”
“Why wouldn’t I make friends?”
“Seems obvious, doesn’t it?” His working life came to mind. Decades spent going somewhere fast, no time for socializing. All capped by a retirement party and deafening solitude. “People get caught up in their ambitions. You think others will wait. They won’t. And then it’s too late.”
“I think I’m getting tired.”
“Oh, uh, alright,” he said, closing the notebook. “Well, talk to you soon? I…I love you.”
God, did he love her. Deeply, with every fiber, he loved her. He knew utterly that he would do anything for her. Give his own last breath. He loved her like one would love a child. As the one carrying the baby, this new procedure hadn’t altered those feelings, they were human nature. He didn’t care what the books said.
Over the next seven months, Clara grew, demanding ever greater detail on all that Nelson had learned in life, navigating the embedding process without his having to steer. Analytical, she versed herself in the nuance of all manner of circumstances, role-playing different ways of handling situations Nelson had experienced firsthand, and questioning the paths he’d taken. Her rabid desire for knowledge and information was a sight to behold. He was proud of her, the effort she’d invested, and of how prepared she would be when he rekindled within her around age ten. Knowing Clara, she’d probably tap in at eight.
His body was tired, exhausted by the physical burden of pregnancy on top of his advanced age. He felt the pinch of guilt in hoping her birthday would hurry on up and bring some mercy. Nevertheless, his heart was brimming. The books predicted this, advising that it was important to guard against such feelings. That they were merely the result of a “false stimulus,” neurons shooting off somewhere in his forebrain, provoking an attachment. The progeny is not your child, they had warned. Ludicrous. Of course Clara was his child. How could he not be completely in love with her? He scoffed at the books, flouted their advice.
The obvious downside to Clinical Resurrection was the necessary death of the progenitor (“parent” had connotations). In order to get approval, the architects of the procedure, something they called Bipinnaria, had to give assurances that it wouldn’t turn into a cloning enterprise. So they authored a pair of gene edits: a rather violent hatching drive, and a razor-sharp fetal talon on the palm with which to execute it. Akin to a reptile’s egg tooth, it would assist the breach, eviscerate the progenitor, and then promptly shed. To give birth to yourself, you had to be willing to die. That was the price of immortality.
Nelson felt a change at week thirty-nine. The books and doctors said it was coming but that didn’t make him ready for it. What preparation was there for something that could only be done once?
Clara’s movements intensified. The uterine flailings became unapologetic, even brutal. It was painful, but as with any parent, Nelson’s only concern was her distress. He sang to her the songs of his mother, “I See the Moon,” and “When you Dream,” but they did nothing to calm the titanic fits that left his ribs aching. Her appetite too was ravenous, and he devoured every food she craved, happy to please her as he gorged past his limit.
Nelson didn’t sleep much over those last weeks. Part of it was Clara, ever more active and demanding. But his love for her had swollen his heart to bursting. She was his child if ever there were children, and he was her father. The truth of it was etched onto the nucleus of his every cell. And it was misery. He was abandoning her.
Lying on his side with a pillow between his legs, Goodnight Moon drooped in his hand as he dozed. A sensation, a gentle stretching of muscle, spread from his diaphragm to the base of his stomach. He woke, knowing what was happening, needing to feel it again to be sure. A deliberate up and down on the elastic walls of his uterus, like a blade drawn flat over the honing strop.
The stroking had begun. All of the books ended here, detailing the soft, metronome caress of tiny knuckles that presaged labor. Nelson put his physician on call. He would have about six hours before Clara rotated her hands palm up, putting the talon a gesture away birth. It was at this point that most progenitors headed to the hospital to be put under so as to avoid the last part. Not Nelson. He didn’t see how anyone could go and knock themselves out before they welcomed their child into the world.
It was just like Clara to cut labor in half. Nelson groaned as the stroking grew firm and insistent. An inexorable thing had been set in motion. At any moment, a manmade string of code in her DNA would tell her it was time. The claw would rent the path.
“Clara?” he gasped. “I know you are coming. It’s okay. I love you.”
“Roll onto your side.”
Some months earlier, Nelson had researched the namesake for the procedure, Bipinnaria. It was starfish larva. A photograph showed a translucent speckled blob, and he’d laughed, wondering what on Earth it had to do with Clinical Resurrection. When the entry came to the growth cycle, he understood. A tiny armed node deep within the juvenile starfish slowly consumes its own soft body. When the blob is gone, the fish is ready for the open sea. Clara had taken of his body, sure. It was his mind she had consumed.
A great gushing flooded across the bed. The pain, if indeed there was any, suffocated beneath his heart’s elation. Clara was here! He loved her as she erupted. His arms, limp as they were, tried to touch her. A tunnel of black swept inward to a beatific face that he could not reach.
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