Lois McMaster Bujold, "ETHAN OF ATHOS"

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CHAPTER ONE

The birth was progressing normally. Ethan's long fingers carefully teased the tiny cannula from its clamp.

"Give me hormone solution Ñ now," he ordered the medtech hovering beside him.

"Here, Dr. Urquhart."

Ethan pressed the hypospray against the circular end-membrane of the cannula, administering the measured dose. He checked his instrumentation: placenta tightening nicely, shrinking from the nutritive bed that had supported it for the last nine months. Now.

Quickly he broke the seals, undamped the lid from the top of the canister, and passed his vibra-scalpel through the matted felt of microscopic exchange tubing. He parted the spongy mass, and the medtech clamped it aside and closed the stopcock that fed it with the oxy-nutrient solution. Only a few clear yellow droplets beaded and brushed off on Ethan's gloved hands. Sterility obviously uncompromised, Ethan noted with satisfaction, and his touch with the scalpel had been so delicate that the silvery amniotic sac beneath the tubing was unscored. A pink shape wriggled eagerly within. "Not much longer," he promised it cheerfully.

A second cut, and he lifted the wet and vernix-covered infant from its first home. "Suction!"

The medtech slapped the bulb into his hand, and he cleared the baby's nose and mouth of fluid before its first surprised inhalation. The child gasped, squawked, blinked, and cooed in Ethan's secure and gentle grip. The medtech wheeled the bassinet in close, and Ethan laid the infant under the warming light and clamped and cut the umbilical cord. "You're on your own now, boy," he told it.

The waiting engineering technician pounced on the uterine replicator that had incubated the fetus so faithfully for three-quarters of a year. The machine's multitude of little indicator lights were now all darkened; the tech began disconnecting it from its bank of fellows, to take downstairs for cleaning and re-programming.

Ethan turned to the infant's waiting father. "Good weight, good color, good reflexes. I'd give your son an A-plus rating, sir."

The man grinned, and sniffed, and laughed, and brushed a surreptitious tear from the corner of one eye. "It's a miracle, Dr. Urquhart."

"It's a miracle that happens about ten times a day here at Sevarin," Ethan smiled. "Do you ever get bored with it?" Ethan gazed down with pleasure at the tiny boy, who was waving his fists and flexing in his bassinet. "No. Never."

Ethan was worried about the CJB-9. He quickened his pace down the quiet, clean corridors of the Sevarin District Reproduction Center. He was ahead of the shift change, having come in early especially to attend the birth. The last half hour of the night shift was the busiest, a crescendo of completing logs and signing off responsibilities to the yawning incomers. Ethan did not yawn, but did pause to punch two cups of black coffee from the dispenser in the rear of the medtech's station before joining the night shift team leader in his monitoring cubicle.

Georos waved greeting, his arm continuing in a smooth pounce on the proffered cup. "Thanks, sir. How was vacation?"

"Nice. My little brother got a week's leave from his army unit to coincide with it, so we were both home together for a change. South Province. Pleased the old man no end. My brother's got a promotion— he's first piccolo now in his regimental band."

"Is he going to stay in, then, past the two years' mandatory?"

"I think so. At least another two years. He's developing his musicianship, which is what he really wants anyway, and that extra slew of social duty credits in his bag won't hurt a bit."

"Mm," Georos agreed. "South Province, eh? I wondered why you weren't haunting us in your off-hours."

"It's the only way I can really vacate—get out of town," Ethan admitted wryly. He stared up at the rows of readouts lining the cubicle. The night team leader fell silent, sipping his coffee, watching Ethan over the rim, disturbingly silent after exhausting the small talk.

Uterine Replicator Bank 1 was on-line now. Ethan keyed directly to Bank 16, where the CJB-9 embryo dwelt.

"Ah, hell." The breath went out of him in a long sigh. "I was afraid of that."

"Yeah," agreed Georos, pursing his lips in sympathy. "Totally non-viable, no question. I took a sonic scan night before last—it's just a wad of cells."

"Couldn't they tell last week? Why hasn't the replicator been recycled? There are others waiting, God the Father knows."

"Waiting on paternal permission to flush the embryo." Georos cleared his throat. "Roachie scheduled the father to come in for a conference with you this morning."

"Aw ..." Ethan ran his hand through his short dark hair, disarranging its trim professional neatness. "Remind me to thank our dear chief. Have you saved any more wonderful dirty work for me?"

"Just some genetic repairs on 5-B—possible enzyme deficiency. But we figured you'd want to do that yourself."

"True."

The night team leader began the routine report.

Ethan was almost late for the conference with the father of the CJB. During morning inspection he walked into one replicator chamber to find the tech in charge bopping happily through his duties to the loud and raucous strains of "Let's Stay Up All Night," a screechy dance tune currently popular among the undesignated set, blaring out of the stimu-speakers. The driving beat set Ethan's teeth on edge; this could scarcely be the ideal pre-natal sonic stimulation for the growing fetuses. Ethan left with the soothing strains of the classic hymn "God of Our Fathers, Light The Way" rendered by the United Brethren String Chamber Orchestra swelling gently through the room, and the grumpy tech yawning pointedly.

In the next chamber he found one bank of uterine replicators running 75% saturated in the waste toxins carried off by the exchange solution; the tech in charge explained he'd been waiting for it to hit the regulation 80% before doing the mandatory filter changes. Ethan explained, clearly and forcefully, the difference between minimum and optimum, and oversaw the filter changes and the subsequent drop back to a more reasonable 45% saturation.

The receptionist beeped him twice before penetrating his lecture to the tech on the exact shade of lemon-colored crystal brightness to be expected in an oxygen and nutrient exchange solution operating at peak performance. He dashed up to the office level and stood panting a moment outside his door, balancing the dignity of a spokesman for the Rep Center versus the discourtesy of making a patron wait. He took a deep breath that had nothing to do with his gallop upstairs, fixed a pleasant smile on his face, and pushed open the door with the DR. ETHAN URQUHART, CHIEF OF REPRODUCTIVE BIOLOGY raised in gold letters on its ivory plastic surface.

"Brother Haas? I'm Dr. Urquhart. No, no—sit down, make yourself comfortable," Ethan added as the man popped nervously to his feet, ducking his head in greeting. Ethan sidled around him to his own desk, feeling absurdly shielded.

The man was huge as a bear, red from long days in sun and wind; the hands that turned his cap around and around were thick with muscle and callus. He stared at Ethan. "I was expecting an older man," he rumbled.

Ethan touched his shaved chin, then became self-conscious of the gesture and put his hand down hastily. If only he had a beard, or even a mustache, people would not be constantly mistaking him for a 20-year-old despite his six-foot frame. Brother Haas was sporting a beard, about a two-week growth, scrubby by comparison to the luxuriant mustache that proclaimed him a long-standing designated alternate parent. Solid citizen. Ethan sighed. "Sit, sit," he gestured again.

The man sat on the edge of his chair, clutching his headgear in earnest supplication. His formal clothes were out of fashion and fit, but painfully clean and tidy; Ethan wondered how long the fellow'd had to scrub this morning to get every speck of dirt from under those horny nails.

Brother Haas slapped his cap absently against his thigh. "My boy, doctor—is—is there something the matter with my son?"

"Uh—didn't they tell you anything on the comlink?" "No, sir. They just told me to come. So I signed out the ground car from my commune motor pool, and here I am."

Ethan glanced at the dossier on his desk. "You drove ah1 the way up here from Crystal Springs this morning?"

The bear smiled. "I'm a farmer. I'm used to getting up early. Anyway, nothing's too much trouble for my boy. My first, y'know—" he ran a hand over his chin, and laughed, "well, I expect that's obvious." "How did you end up here at Sevarin, instead of your district Rep Center at Las Sands?" asked Ethan curiously.

"It was for the CJB. Las Sands said they didn't have a CJB."

"I see." Ethan cleared his throat. "Any particular reason you decided on CJB stock?"

The farmer nodded firmly. "It was the accident last harvest decided me. One of our fellows tangled wrong-end-to with a thresher—lost an arm. Typical form accident, but they said, if only he'd got to a doctor sooner, they mighta saved it. The commune's growing. We're right on the edge of the terraforming. We need a doctor of our own. Everybody knows CJBs make the best doctors. Who knows when I'll get enough social duty credits for a second son, or a third? I meant to get the best."

"Not all doctors are CJBs," said Ethan. "And most certainly not all CJBs are doctors."

Haas smiled polite disagreement. "What are you, Dr. Urquhart?"

Ethan cleared his throat again. "Well—in fact, I'm a CJB-8."

The farmer nodded confirmation to himself. "They said you were the best." He stared hungrily at the Rep doctor, as if he might trace the lineaments of his dream son in Ethan's face.

Ethan tented his hands together upon his desk, trying to look kindly and authoritative. "Well. I'm sorry they didn't tell you more over the comlink— there was no reason to keep you in the dark. As you no doubt suspected, there is a problem with your, uh, conceptus."

Haas looked up. "My son."

"Uh—no. I'm afraid not. Not this round." Ethan inclined his head in sympathy.

Haas's face fell, then he looked up again, lips compressed with hope. "Is it anything you can fix? I know you do genetic repairs—if it's the cost, well, my commune brethren will back me—I can clear the debt, in time—"

Ethan shook his head. "There are only a couple dozen common disorders we can do something about— some types of diabetes, for example, that can be repaired by one gene splice in a small group of cells, if you catch them at just the right stage of development. Some can even be pulled from the sperm sample when we filter out the defective X-chromo-some-bearing portion. There are many more that can be detected in the early check, before the blastula is implanted in the replicator bed and starts forming its placenta. We routinely pull one cell then, and put it through an automated check. But the automated check only finds problems it's programmed to find—the hundred or so most common birth defects. It's not impossible for it to miss something subtle or rare—it happens half-a-dozen times a year. So you're not alone. We usually pull it, and just fertilize another egg—it's the most cost-effective solution, with only six days invested at that point."

Haas sighed. "So we start over." He rubbed his chin. "Dag said it was bad luck to start growing your father-beard before birthday. Guess he was right."

"Only a set-back," Ethan reassured his stricken look. "Since the source of the difficulty was in the ovum and not the sperm, the Center isn't even going to charge you for the month on the replicator." He made a hasty note to that effect in the dossier.

"Do you want me to go down to the paternity ward now, for a new sample?" asked Haas humbly.

"Ah—before you go, certainly. Save you another long drive. But there's one other little problem that needs to be ironed out first." Ethan coughed. "I'm afraid we can't offer CJB stock any more."

"But I came all the way here just for CJB!" protested Haas. "Damn it—I have a right to choose!" His hands clenched alarmingly. "Why not?"

"Well ..." Ethan paused, careful of his phrasing. "Yours is not the first difficulty we've had with the CJB lately. The culture seems to be—ah—deteriorating. In fact, we tried very hard—all the ova it produced for a week were devoted to your order." No need to tell Haas how frighteningly scant that production was. "My best techs tried, I tried—part of the reason we took a chance on the current con-ceptus was that it was the only fertilization we achieved that was viable past the fourth cell division. Since then our CJB has stopped producing altogether, I'm afraid."

"Oh." Haas paused, deflated, then swelled with new resolve. "Who does, then? I don't care if I have to cross the continent. CJB is what I mean to have."

Ethan wondered glumly why resolution was classed as a virtue. More of a damned nuisance. He took a breath, and said what he'd hoped to avoid saying; "No one, I'm afraid, Brother Haas. Ours was the last working CJB culture on Athos."

Haas looked appalled. "No more CJBs? But where will we get our doctors, our medtechs—"

"The CJB genes are not lost," Ethan pointed out swiftly. "There are men all over the planet who carry them, and who will pass them on to their sons."

"But what happened to the, the cultures? Why don't they work any more?" asked Haas in bewilderment. "They haven't—been poisoned or anything, have they? Some damned Outlander vandalism—"

"No, no!" Ethan said. Ye gods, what a riot that fabulous rumor could start. "It's perfectly natural. The first CJB culture was brought by the Founding Fathers when Athos was first settled—it's almost two hundred years old. Two hundred years of excellent service. It's just—senescent. Old. Worn out. Used up. Reached the end of its life-cycle, already dozens of times longer than it would have lived in a, ah," it wasn't an obscenity, he was a doctor and it was correct medical terminology, "woman." He hurried on, before Haas could make the next logical connection. "Now, I'm going to offer a suggestion, Brother Haas. My best medtech—does superb work, most conscientious—is a JJY-7. Now, we happen to have a very fine JJY-8 culture here at Savarin that we can offer you. I wouldn't mind having a JJY myself, if only ..." Ethan cut himself off, lest he tip into a personal bog and wallow in front of this patron. "I think you'd be very satisfied."

Haas reluctantly allowed himself to be talked into this substitute, and was sent off to the sampling room he had first visited with such high hopes a month before. Ethan sighed, sitting at his desk after the patron had departed, and rubbed the worry around his temples. The action seemed to spread the tension rather than dissipate it. The next logical connection . . .

Every ovarian culture on Athos was a descendant of those brought by the Founding Fathers. It had been an open secret in the Rep Centers for two years and more—how much longer could it be until the general public picked up on it? The CJB was not the rst culture to die out recently. Some sort of bell curve, Ethan supposed; they were on the up-slope, and rising dizzily. Sixty percent of the infants growing cozily, placentas tucked in their soft nests of microscopic exchange tubing in the replicators downstairs, came from just eight cultures. Next year, if his secret calculations were borne out, it would be even worse. How long before there was not enough ovarian material to meet growth demand—or even population replacement? Ethan groaned, picturing his future unemployment prospects—if he wasn't ripped apart by angry mobs of ursine non-fathers before then. . . .

He shook himself from his depression. Something would be done before things came to that pass, surely. Something had to break.

The worry made an ominous bass note under Ethan's pleasant routine for three months after his return from vacation. Another ovarian culture, LMS-10, curled up and died altogether, and EEH-9's egg cell production declined by half. It would be the next to go, Ethan calculated. The first break in the downward slide arrived unexpectedly.

"Ethan?" Chief of Staff Desroches' voice had an odd edge, even over the intercom. His face bore a peculiar suffused look; his lips, framed by glossy black beard and mustache, kept twitching at the corners. Not at all the morose pout that had been threatening over the past year to become permanent. Ethan, curious, laid his micropipette down carefully on the lab bench and went to the screen.

"Yes, sir.”

"I'd like you to come up to my office right away."

"I just started a fertilization—"

"As soon as you're done, then," Desroches conceded with a wave of his hand.

"What's up?"

"The annual census ship docked yesterday." Desroches pointed upward, although in fact Athos's only space station rode in a synchronous orbit above another quadrant of the planet. "Mail's here. Your magazines were approved by the Board of Censors— you've got a year's back issues sitting on my desk. And one other thing."

"Another thing? But I just ordered the journal—"

"Not your personal property. Something for the Rep Center." Desroches' white teeth flashed. "Finish up and come see." The screen blanked.

To be sure. A year's back issues of The Betan Journal of Reproductive Medicine imported at hideous expense, although of the highest degree of interest, would scarcely make Desroches' black eyes dance with joy. Ethan scurried, albeit meticulously, through the fertilization, placed the pod in the incubation chamber from which, in six or seven days' time if things went well, the blastula would be transferred to a uterine replicator in one of the banks in the next room, and zipped upstairs.

 

A dozen brightly labeled data disks were indeed neatly stacked on the corner of the Chiefs comconsole desk. The other corner was occupied by a holocube of two dark-haired young boys riding a spotted pony. Ethan scarcely glanced at either, his attention instantly overwhelmed by the large white refrigeration container squarely in the center. Its control panel lights burned a steady, reassuring green.

"L. Bharaputra & Sons Biological Supply House, Jackson's Whole", the shipping label read. "Contents: Frozen Tissue, Human, Ovarian, 50 units. Stack with heat exchange unit clear of obstruction. This End Up."

"We got them!" Ethan cried in delight and instant recognition, clapping his hands.

"At last," grinned Desroches. "The Population Council's going to have one hell of a party tonight, I'll bet—what a relief! When I think of the hunt for suppliers—the scramble for foreign exchange—for a while I thought we were going to have to send some poor son out there personally to get them."

Ethan shuddered, and laughed. "Whew! Thank the Father nobody had to go through that." He ran a hand over the big plastic box, eagerly, reverently. "Going to be some new faces around here."

Desroches smiled, reflective and content. "Indeed. Well—they're all yours, Dr. Urquhart. Turn your routine lab work over to your techs and get them settled in their new homes. Priority."

"I should say so!"

Ethan set the carton tenderly on a bench in the Culture Lab, and adjusted the controls to bring the internal temperature up somewhat. There would be a wait. He would only thaw twelve today, to fill the culture support units waiting, cold and empty, for new life. Soberly, he touched the darkened panel behind which the CJB-9 had dwelt so long and fruitfully. It made him feel sad, and strangely adrift.

The rest of the tissue must wait for thawing until Engineering installed the bank of new units along the other wall. He grinned, thinking of the frantic activity that must now be disrupting that department's placid routine of cleaning and repairs. Some exercise would be good for them.

While he waited, he carried his new journals to the comconsole for a scan. He hesitated. Since his promotion to department head last year, his censorship status had been raised to Clearance Level A. This was the first occasion he'd had to take advantage of it; the first chance to test the maturity and judgement supposed necessary to handle totally uncut, uncensored galactic publications. He moistened his lips, and nerved himself to prove that trust not misplaced.

He chose a disk at random, stuck it into the read-slot, and called up the table of contents. Most of the two dozen or so articles dwelt, predictably but disappointingly, on problems of reproduction in vivo in the human female, hardly apropos. Virtuously, he fought down an impulse to peek at them. But there was one article on early diagnosis of an obscure cancer of the vas deferens, and better still one encouragingly titled, "On An Improvement In Permeability Of Exchange Membrances In The Uterine Replicator." The uterine replicator had originally been invented on Beta Colony—long famous for its leading-edge technologies—for use in medical emergencies. Most of its refinements still seemed to come from there, even at this late date, a fact not widely appreciated on Athos.

Ethan called up the entry and read it eagerly. It mostly seemed to involve some fiendishly clever molecular meshing of lipoproteins and polymers that delighted Ethan's geometric reason, at least on the second reading when he finally grasped it. He lost himself for a while in calculations about what it would take to duplicate the work here at Sevarin. He would have to talk to the head of Engineering. . . .

Idly, as he mentally inventoried resources, he called up the author's page. "On An Improvement ..." came from a university hospital at some city named Silica—Ethan knew little of off-planet geography, but it sounded appropriately Betan. What ordered minds and clever hands must have come up with that idea. . . .

"Kara Burton, M.D., Ph.D., and Elizabeth Nai-smith, M.S. Bioengineering ..." He found himself looking suddenly, on screen, at two of the strangest faces he had ever seen.

Beardless, like men without sons, or boys, but devoid of a boy's bloom of youth. Pale soft faces, thin-boned, yet lined and time-scored; the engineer's hair was nearly white. The other was thick-bodied, lumpy in a pale blue lab smock.

Ethan trembled, waiting for the insanity to strike him from their level, medusan gazes. Nothing happened. After a moment, he unclutched the desk edge. Perhaps then the madness that possessed galactic men, slaves to these creatures, was something only transmitted in the flesh. Some incalcuable telepathic aura? Bravely, he raised his eyes again to the figures in the screen.

So. That was a woman—two women, in fact. He sought his own reaction; to his immense relief, he seemed to be profoundly unaffected. Indifference, even mild revulsion. The Sink of Sin did not appear to be draining his soul to perdition on sight, always presuming he had a soul. He switched off the screen with no more emotion than frustrated curiosity. As a test of his resolution, he would not indulge it further today. He put the data disk carefully away with the others.

The freezer box was nearly up to temperature. He readied the fresh buffer solution baths, set them super-cooling to match the current temperature of the box's contents. He donned insulated gloves, broke the seals, lifted the lid.

Shrink wrap? Shrink wrap?

He peered down into the box in astonishment. Each tissue sample should have been individually containerized in its own nitrogen bath, surely. These strange grey lumps were wrapped like so many packets of lunch meat. His heart sank in terror and bewilderment.

Wait, wait, don't panic—maybe it was some new galactic technology he hadn't heard of yet. Gingerly, he searched the box for instructions, even rooting down among the packets themselves. Nothing. Look and guess time.

He stared at the little lumps, realizing at last that these were not cultured tissue at all, but the raw material itself. He was going to have to do the growth culturing personally. He swallowed. Not impossible, he reassured himself.

He found a pair of scissors, cut open the top packet, and dropped its contents, plop, into a waiting buffer bath. He contemplated it in some dismay. Perhaps it ought to be segmented, for maximum penetration of the nutrient solution—no, not yet, that would shatter the cellular structure in its frozen state. Thaw first.

He poked through the others, driven by growing unease. Strange, strange. Here was one six times the size of the other little ovoids, glassy and round. Here was one that looked revoltingly like a lump of cottage cheese. Suddenly suspicious, he counted packets. Thirty-eight. And those great big ones on the bottom—

once, during his youthful army service, he had volunteered for K.P. in the butcher's department, fascinated by comparative anatomy even then. Recognition dawned like a raging sun.

"That," he hissed through clenched teeth, “ is a cow's ovary!"

The examination was intense, and thorough, and took all afternoon. When he was done, his laboratory looked like a first-year zoology class had been doing dissections all over it, but he was quite, quite sure.

He practically kicked open the door to Desroches' office, and stood hands clenched, trying to control his ragged breathing.

Desroches was just donning his coat, the light of home in his eye; he never turned off the holocube until he was done for the day. He stared at Ethan's wild, disheveled face. "My God, Ethan, what is it?"

"Trash from hysterectomies. Leavings from autopsies, for all I know. A quarter of them are clearly cancerous, half are atrophied, five aren't even human for God's sake! And every single one of them is dead."

"What?" Desroches gasped, his face draining. "You didn't botch the thawing, did you? Not you—!"

"You come look. Just come look," Ethan sputtered. He spun on his heel, and shot over his shoulder, "I don t know what the Population Council paid for this crud, but we've been screwed."