Eyelids flutter open to reveal brown irises staring through me.
That’s unusual, but not unheard of — blanks are supposed to be limited to autonomic brain function only.
The eyes twitch into focus, seizing upon me.
That definitely isn’t supposed to happen.
My gaze slides over to the instrument panel—
The blank’s brain is lit up like — like mine. There’s activity everywhere. Even the neocortex.
I take a few steps away from the blank’s pod, hoping my presence was artificially stimulating her.
The eyes follow me.
I look from her face —as young and as flawless as gene pruning can make it — back to the instrument panel, eliding the red, covered switch between them. Her MCA — mean cortical activity — is three SDs past the baseline.
That’s a Quality Incident.
I check the other pods in her lot. The blanks all look similar — fraternal, not identical siblings. The others have MCA readings in the noise range. So not a contaminated lot. Just a freak accident.
I take several more steps, crossing to the other side of the blank’s pod.
Her eyes follow me.
Who am I kidding? This is way more than a QI.
The blank’s MCA is still increasing. Soon — within minutes — it will breach the TOA, the threshold of awareness. Then she’ll cease being the company’s property and become a clone — a legal person.
Except the fetal pod will auto-abort before that happens. Company policy is clear. We produce blank humans for use in commuter transporters and select medical applications. No clones. It’s boldface and capitalized in the manual:
TERMINATE IF MCA REACHES 50% OF TOA.
My problem blank is at 48% and still rising.
I watch, feeling ill, as the number creeps upwards. I’ve never had to clean up after an auto-abort before. I’m not looking forward to it.
The girl continues floating peacefully. I look from her face back to the readout — 51% now.
Why hadn’t it aborted?
My eyes stray to the switch. The pod must be malfunctioning. I’d never heard of that, but it must happen. That’s why there’s a Product Quality Rejection Switch.
The company manual notes that, until the TOA is breached, blanks aren’t aware of self or anything else — no emotions or sensations, no hopes or dreams. They aren’t people in any meaningful sense. So long as we can prove that MCA had never surpassed the TOA — we monitor MCA continuously from the embryonic stage onwards — termination isn’t murder. Just disposal of non-conforming product.
But company policy is poor proof against desperate eyes imploring me for a chance at life. The same chance I got for free by virtue of originating in a womb rather than a pod.
My eyes return to the toggle switch, covered by a red plastic guard to prevent accidental activation. They don’t like us to call it the kill switch, but we call it the kill switch.
Its operation is described by the company manual in soothingly clinical terms: “Upon activation of the Product Quality Rejection Switch, the Fetal Pod’s Synthetic Amniotic Fluid is flooded with deep penetration topical anesthetic to induce a coma. Once vital signs indicate successful coma induction, the pod is flooded with a non-depolarizing neuromuscular muscle relaxant to induce respiratory and cardiac arrest.”
It’s not like that, though. They’d shown us — pod techs who might have to dispose of “non-conforming product” one day — what really happens. The pod drains of fluid and the blank sags against the cylindrical wall, its slack features flattened grotesquely against the transparent polymer.
The manual is clear on another point. Any employee who, through ignorance or negligence, fails to dispose of non-conforming product in accordance with company procedure is wholly responsible for the resultant liability.
There’d be lawsuits. This girl had dozens of genetic donors, but they’d sold reproduction rights only. The company could use their genes to make blanks, but not clones. That required procreation rights. Every one of those donors would want damages and none would want custody.
They’d go after the company for the money — I have little enough to spare, and I’ll have less if the company fires me — but they’d go after me for guardianship. It made sense. A corporation can’t be a parent; only a person can.
I’d be penniless, jobless, and responsible for a brand new woman-child.
But I wouldn’t be a murderer.
A company-sponsored ethicist spoke to us once. What made murder wrong, she said, was extinguishing another being’s hopes and dreams, revoking its awareness and erasing its memories. A blank had none of those things. It was an empty shell.
The blank’s eyes track me as I lift the kill switch’s guard.
I look away, thinking it will be easier.
I rest my thumb on the switch. The company had countless empty platitudes to help its pod techs through this moment. I recite every one I can recall.
This is not a person, fetus, or potential person. It is a collection of genetic material collected for a narrow and specific purpose.
My duty is to the donors who have entrusted me with their genetic material.
Unilateral procreation is an usurpation of one of humanity’s most fundamental rights.
It is a gross violation from which no one benefits.
Least of all the blank, an industrial accident with no parents and no place in society.
I look at her eyes.
They look back at me.
R. Keelan is a writer and programmer living in Canada. He writes fantasy, science fiction, and software for medical devices. His work has appeared in AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review and hospitals all over the world. Find him online, on Twitter and Instagram as @R_Keelan, or on Facebook as @R.Keelan.Writer.