Friday, October 31, 2008

A Good Throw

In honor of Halloween, BeforeISleep.net today presents a spooky story I wrote back in 2003. Well, it's the beginning of a spooky story. I never actually got around to continuing it. But looking back on it, it reads pretty well. Shall I keep going?

*

They didn’t even bother to kill the baby before throwing it overboard. The tides would do that, they figured. Babies can’t swim. He’ll just bob up and down a bit and then sink to the bottom. Why waste more resources on an experiment that had already failed?

So they didn’t. Tonight’s submersion was the third in a week, and very likely the first of hundreds. The task fell to Guido. He and the other shipmates had drawn straws, and his was the shortest, so he got to do the dirty work. And not just once or twice; every time. Whenever there were three arms and no legs, or two heads but not a single brain between them, Guido was the official Tossin’ Man. Funny thing, though – he didn’t mind it. The boys decided to draw straws because no one was really begging for the job. They weren’t heartless, after all. Nobody liked to see the babies thrown overboard, and no one really wanted to do it. But it had to be done – Capo explained there was no other way. The first time, Guido was shaking so badly he was barely able to grab onto the kid.

Ah, the first time. No one knew exactly what to expect. The actual toss wasn’t so bad; it took no more than a few seconds, just a short arc from the boat to the waves. No, the worst part was watching the kid, seeing him float there, his baby fat keeping him above water for a few minutes longer than you’d think. No one really wanted to watch, but each man was glued to his spot, hypnotized, watching the fat little head bob up and down until no one could see it anymore.

Everybody watched but two. Soon as he threw, Guido turned his back on the ocean and looked at the Capo. Capo looked back at him, jaw set, eyes wide and unblinking. The two were about ten feet apart, just looking at each other, while the baby screamed behind them. It was the worst sound you ever heard, the doomed baby’s screams. It wasn’t a regular cry. It was as though the baby knew it was going to die, and was begging for its life. Only it didn’t know any words, so all it could do was scream as loudly and painfully as it could, and hope someone would take pity on it and jump into the water after it.

After a few minutes, the painful screaming became a kind of muffled gurgle. Then it stopped.

When the baby really was gone, Guido turned away from the Capo and went down to his cabin. He wouldn’t come out for days; just asked for food to be left outside his door. Strict as Capo was, he didn’t even mind the absence much – even he realized how much Guido must hurt. But then, about a week later, Guido was back at his post as if no time had passed. When the boys asked him if he was all right, he just laughed.

“What do you mean, Angelo, you think the waves are making me sick? I told you, I got used to the rocking weeks ago.”

Alfonso looked around at those who had heard. “No, Guido,” he said. “The baby. The… last week.”

Guido’s eyes grew wide, and he smiled so broadly that the rest of his face seemed to tighten up to make room. “A good throw, wasn’t it?”

Angelo didn’t know how to react. It was one thing to do the deed; quite another to laugh about it. It was a solemn task, a burden to shoulder in the name of progress. No one’s sense of humor should be that twisted.

Angelo half smiled, and nodded his head. Guido nodded back at him, and went back to his clipboards, transferring numbers from one board to the other. Angelo eyed him warily, and slowly turned back to his workstation, adjusting his monitors and firing up the gene program.

It was a few minutes before Guido spoke again. “Did you hear him shriek when I spun him around?”

Angelo and the others looked up. “What are you talking about?”

“It was a good shriek,” Guido said, reliving the moment in his head. “Kind of a laugh. Like we were playing.”

A burly man next to them spoke up. “You didn’t spin him, Guido,” he said in a calm voice. “The baby didn’t laugh. He didn’t know what hit him.”

Guido stared at him. Slowly, the grin faded from his face, but the eyes stayed wide. “No,” he said. “No, I suppose I didn’t. I should have spun him.”

Word spread about Guido’s strange sense of humor, and from that point on nobody brought up the subject around him. When time came to dispose of the next one, Guido was in high spirits. As he stood by the stern, cradling the baby in his arms to stop it from crying, the Capo began to speak.

“Look at the moon,” he said. “Look at the stars!” There was silence as the crew stared at him. Waves crashed against the hull. “Our ancestors used to believe the stars were gods, and those gods could smile upon us, bringing us good fortune if they were pleased” – he looked at Guido – “and bad fortune if they were not. It all sounds so foolish from our modern perspective, doesn’t it? Stars as gods.”

He smiled, shaking his head. “And yet… maybe not so foolish, if you think about it. We have learned so much in just the past few years about how things work. Powers unimaginable have been granted to us, and why?”

He paused, waiting for someone to answer him. No one did.

“Because we were foolish enough to think the impossible!” He turned to Guido. “We were foolish enough to take part in this years-long endeavor, to enhance Nature herself! And, my friends, we are so close. So close.” There were nods of agreement as he said this.

“So,” he continued, “I will ask you what I asked Guido: Now that we are so close to realizing this wonderful dream we share, do not turn away in disgust at some of the more… unfortunate aspects of the program. Some of you have voiced concern about our chosen method of disposal. I have explained to you that it is the most… humane… option available. But even my assurances have left some of you unconvinced.”

He looked down at his boots, which glistened in the moonlight. “I can offer you no more assurances, so I will offer you a possibility.” He looked up. “Our science tells us stars are nothing more than balls of burning hydrogen. But what if our science is only half right? We scientists are very good at explaining how things work… but why things work? That, my friends, is for the priests. Why do the stars shine? Perhaps the gods are behind it. And if the gods really can bring us good fortune, then think of this not as a disposal – but as an offering.”

He motioned to Guido, who walked toward the water and lifted the baby above his head. This one was an exceptionally odd result. All its limbs were intact, all internal systems present and functioning normally. Indeed, aside from a slight ridge on its frontal cranium, a casual bystander might notice nothing amiss. Yet the deformity quickly becomes clear to anyone who tries to interact with the child. From the beginning, the instruments measured absolutely no brain activity, even though physically, the organ was in perfect condition. All his organs were perfect. His brain was large, his heart strong. His blood circulated and his lungs functioned normally – indeed, every system worked.

Every system but the most important: its consciousness. Amazing, Capo once intoned, how the aspect that is the most important, the most definitive of being human, is not recognized in the textbooks. Circulatory system, respiratory system, reproductive system – and yet no awareness system. Without that, a human is just a collection of machinery. It might function, but the resulting product is less a human being than a flesh-and-bone robot.

We may produce many like that, he told his crew. The technology to clone parts is not necessarily the technology to clone the sum of the parts. We will end up with parts. If we’re lucky, they will be arranged in a manner fitting a human being, and in appropriate numbers. Anything grander… will require a miracle.

As yet, no miracles had been granted. There was such hope over this one – he was as beautiful a clone as Capo could have imagined. He looked just like the picture Capo had placed on every display’s desktop. Sans beard and moustache, he was the spitting image of Capo himself – about 50 years younger, of course.

But his mind was empty. There were no cries when they cut it from its mother’s womb. It was, for all intents and purposes like a brain-dead child. A brain-dead child who should not have been. Perhaps this one will help show the men how humane our disposal process really is, Capo thought.

Guido stood, looking out over the waters. It was a calm night, but a storm was on its way. In the distance the sky was gray with impending doom, angry clouds rolling toward them, slow and confident. He turned the baby so it faced him, its large blue eyes open, yet strangely distant. Guido looked out at the two dozen men circling him, and smiled. He looked back up at the baby, still held firmly above his head, and smiled even wider. With a great heave and a loud yell, he hurled the creature into the sea. It splashed as it entered the peaceful waters, and disappeared under the water. Within seconds, it had bobbed back up, its face holding steady just above the surface.

Guido leaned over the stern, looking down at the baby, disbelieving. “Start crying!” he yelled.

“He won’t,” Capo said quietly. “He doesn’t react, you know that.”

“Not to stimulus in the lab, but this is different! The sea is stronger.”

“And the baby’s mind is just as detached as it has been for days. He feels nothing.” He turned to the crew, his voice louder now. “You see? He feels nothing! He will be swept away to a peaceful end. Those who can feel can tell no difference between this” – he motioned to the water – “and their mother’s womb! The submersion is quick and completely painless. A simple sleep that ends their troubles and ours.”

Guido had a look of disgust. “Damn shame,” he said. He turned from the sea and stormed down the steps.

Capo and the other men stood in place, watching him go, listening to his footsteps. When, in the distance below them, they heard a cabin door slamming, they turned back to the sea. The baby was farther out now, about thirty feet away, still silent. He was being carried away at a meandering clip by the light current, and he seemed neither to notice nor to care. The night was cool and beautiful, bright stars dotting the sky, undimmed by human dealings. The light breeze was becoming stronger, and the baby was quickly carried twice as far out. Far to the east, the crew saw flashes of lightning, and many seconds later heard nearly silent rumblings. Capo turned from the sea and walked to the stairs, descending below. One by one, the crew turned and followed.

The silent baby was a hundred feet out now, barely visible. And still, it bobbed up and down in the water, as the waves grew taller and the ship began to rock.

* * *

2 comments:

Di said...

Okay I admit it - I didn't read past the first paragraph. Not in the mood for a dead baby right now :( BUT I know your writing and I think you are a great writer and should not only continue this story but also write the next Great American Novel. And thank me in the forward for my constant and unwavering encouragement ;)

SaffronButterfly said...

I like it! Normally I don't go for dead-baby stuff either, but this reminds me of Island of Dr. Moreau (and Frankenstein)

Very cool - I'd love to read more.