My journey into motherhood began with a protester thrusting her child in my face and screaming, “This is what a real baby looks like!” Her cheeks were venting-rage crimson, her hands clamped around the snot-addled boy, who wailed and wriggled but could not escape his mother’s point.
“Ignore her, Abra,” my husband Ethan said with his usual insouciance, placing a firm hand on my back and navigating me through the hectoring crowd. Already on the verge of tears, I walked past in silence until we reached the Anyborn lobby, with its serene marble floors and corporate polish, where my anguish seemed filthy and misplaced and eventually receded.
We were greeted by a suited man clutching a tablet, who led us away from the din of the protestors and into a glass-walled room with a table and chairs marooned in its centre. A memory of water glistened from the table’s laminated surface.
“I’m Aaron, and today I hope to introduce you to your new child,” he said. His voice was buoyant, well-rehearsed.
“So you’re a matchmaker,” I replied. I gave him what Ethan called my brusque smile: tense lips, a tincture of distaste.
Aaron seemed not to notice. “I see from your file you have a male voucher, so a son is an option.” He nodded reassuringly, his eyes gravitating to Ethan. “But if you choose a daughter you can exchange the voucher for a tax rebate. We can’t do that here, though, you’ll have go through revenue and customs.”
“We’d be happy with either,” I said, squeezing Ethan’s hand.
“Well, I can tell you that our system has generated…” His fingers danced across the tablet. “Thirty thousand Beloveds.”
“Thirty thousand?” I breathed.
“And even that is a tiny proportion of your possible children. It’s daunting, I know, but we have algorithms to assist your choice. They test each Beloved for mental and physical characteristics, then produce a shortlist of twenty.” He elongated the word “characteristics”; in his rhythmic voice it sounded dignified, neutral. “Five sim-hours are included in our initial fee and after that we charge an hourly rate.”
“Isn’t this… you know, illegal?” I asked tentatively. “The shortlist, I mean. Doesn’t it violate the Eugenics Act?” I could still hear a pulse of drumming from the demonstration outside.
Ethan’s hand compressed mine slightly; a rush of air escaped his nostrils. “Honey, they know what they’re doing.” To Aaron, he said, “She thinks she’s a lawyer!”
“No, no,” Aaron said, gesticulating. “It’s a legitimate question. The Act prohibits altering the genetic makeup of a child for reasons other than the prevention of serious disease or disability, but we don’t tamper with your genes here, it’s as simple as that. We think your genes are perfect the way they are.” He gave me a paragon smile, showing me what my brusque smile could have been. “We generate Beloveds from your genes, without interference. Any Beloved could, in theory, be born naturally. We just let you choose which of your possible children becomes your actual child.”
I nodded slowly, unsure how Anyborn really differed from the early gene-editing companies. Memories of the first wave of edited babies were still vivid in my mind. I recalled one advertisement for the service, a professional woman shrugging and saying, “Why proof my memos and not my children?” Years later, an embarrassment of blue eyes, light skin and perfect symmetry filled the nurseries, prompting public outrage and calls for reform. The Eugenics Act was passed, which eased some of the tension, until companies like Anyborn filled the gap in the market and the protests returned.
“People are trying to challenge the Beloved programme in the courts, aren’t they?” I probed.
“Yes, they are,” Aaron conceded, “but we’re confident we can win. And until we know the outcome of the appeal, our service is entirely legal. All the more reason to make use of it now.” He smiled conclusively. “Ok, so you’ve read the T’s and C’s, mostly boilerplate stuff, though I should remind you that you musn’t tell a Beloved they’re a simulation, as that will corrupt their file. It’s a glitch we haven’t quite ironed out yet.” He left a pause to emphasise the point, then said, “Ok, are you ready to meet your bundles of joy?”
Ethan leapt to his feet and clapped his hands, following Aaron to the simulation pods, reclining ovoids of glossy magnolia arrayed in rows. I slid into one of them hesitantly. Aaron shot me a final smile, and then I was sealed into darkness. Text appeared from somewhere, pulsating and white against the blackness, and soon I was faced with a bewildering settings menu. I selected default for every setting and, with a quivering hand, touched “Start”.
I found myself in a mid-range restaurant. Waiters milled at a respectful distance; people ate lunch at other tables, their conversations quiet and unobtrusive. Sitting across from me was a teenage boy with a nest of hair wisping around his ears. He gave me a brief, unresolving smile and then proceeded to fidget with his napkin.
“Do you know who I am?” I stuttered.
“My biological mother, right?” the boy replied. He looked up at me for a moment, then back down at the napkin. “I’m Levi,” he offered.
“I like that name.” I exhaled carefully, suddenly conscious of a body that wasn’t really there. “Look,” I said, deciding to level with him, “I know you don’t know me, and it’s a bit weird that I’m your mother, but let’s just chat about anything. No pressure.”
He nodded and seemed to ease into his chair slightly, though the napkin still twitched in his hands. Aaron had given me a list of questions to help us get to know each other. I had cringed when had I read it, confident I was more imaginative than an insipid corporate script, but now I scoured my memory for them, asking him about his favourite books, TV shows, even his favourite colour. Levi seemed more comfortable answering simple questions and he gradually gained confidence, occasionally asking about me.
As the conversation progressed, I started to see my teenage self in him, in the gentle nervousness of his eyes, the tightness of his face, the ruffle of his nose. His features, his mannerisms, they all sparked memories of my adolescence that I had ignored for many years. I remembered sitting in my bedroom trying to cry but unable to summon the tears. I suddenly felt certain I knew his intimate secrets as if they were my own.
“You know, I had a pretty rough time when I was your age,” I said.
“Yeah. I started having these weird feelings.”
“Hopeless. Like there was no future.”
Levi stopped fidgeting and looked at me, a note of caution in his eyes. I had a moment of panic, convinced he somehow knew I was an imposter. I forced myself to continue. “I was doing ok at school,” I said, “so that wasn’t it. I had friends and family, but it didn’t make any difference. I still felt hopeless. When I told my mum, she said I had a good life and I shouldn’t complain. Her parents survived the camps, liberated from Buchenwald in 1945, so the next two generations grew up not being able to complain about anything, you know?”
Levi smiled. It was a small, clipped smile, but enough to melt away the suspicion in his face. I realised it was a precursor, a progenitor, of my brusque smile, and I was gripped by an urge to protect him from whatever was waiting to turn his smile into mine. “Have you had neurointervention?” I asked.
“I did, last year, and it helped a bit, but then it came back again just as strong.”
I nodded. “I know the feeling. You can’t enjoy anything, no matter how much people try and pamper you. You can’t sleep, you’re tired during the day, and then you feel guilty that…”
I trailed off when I saw that Levi was crying, slow, silent tears surreptitiously caught with a flick of his napkin. “I don’t understand,” he said, his voice wavering with each word. “It’s like I’m not made properly.”
“Oh, sweetheart,” I said. The word slipped out, but Levi didn’t seem to mind. We sat there in silence, which wasn’t entirely uncomfortable, until a disembodied voice in my head informed me the simulation was coming to an end.
“I wish I could stay and talk more.”
“You have to go?”
“Will you come back?”
I froze. Had the simulation glitched? Was he supposed to ask me that? “I’ll try,” I managed. I stood to leave, but couldn’t resist placing a hand in his, locking my fingers into the moist warmth of his palms. The verisimilitude of the simulation was uncanny. He felt like flesh and blood, smelt like deodorant and clothes plucked from a bedroom floor.
I left the table and walked through the restaurant door, trying to keep my dizziness at bay. There was a piercing light and I awoke gasping in the simulation pod, the door opening to reveal the sharp light of the Anyborn conference room.
Ethan was waiting for me in the consultation room, teeming with excitement. “Abra,” he said. “It was incredible.” He enclosed my hand in his and shook it vigorously.
“Before we get excited,” Aaron interrupted, “I have an apology to make to you, Mrs Adelman.”
“What is it? What’s wrong?” I said anxiously.
“Well, you were supposed to be paired with the second Beloved on our shortlist, but I’m afraid there was a small error.”
“What do you mean? Who was I paired with?”
Aaron scrolled down his tablet. “Number twenty-two thousand, four hundred and two.”
Ethan laughed and shook his head. I struggled to comprehend what Aaron was saying. “You don’t mean Levi?” I asked.
“I apologise on behalf of Anyborn,” Aaron said, his affability now replaced by an air of formality. “Let me offer you a free simulation.”
“I appreciate the courtesy,” Ethan cut in, “but I don’t think that’s necessary. Abra, I met the most amazing girl. She’s top of the shortlist. Her name is Eva. Honey, I think we’ve found ourselves a daughter.”
“Ok, but should we at least consider Levi?”
“Number twenty-two thousand and whatever? Are you kidding?”
“I just thought…”
“Please, just meet Eva with me, then you’ll see.”
Before I could respond, Ethan took my hand and led me back to the simulation pods. He handled me into one of them, and as I lay back my body was weak and flaccid. He planted a kiss on my forehead that felt like a pin in a cork board. I could still feel Levi’s clammy hands in mine as the simulation began and I walked back into the restaurant to meet Eva.
Sure enough, she was delightful: intelligent, charming, emotionally wise beyond her years. Ethan asked about all her achievements–exams, hockey, drama club–and showered her with praise. As I watched him fawn over her, I couldn’t help but think her life was already so full of love and ambition, so complete. I almost felt bad at the prospect of removing her from such a life, like she didn’t need me, maybe even didn’t want me.
After the simulation, Ethan enthused about Eva, much to Aaron’s delight. Ethan sensed my reticence and agreed to postpone the decision until the following day, but he spent the rest of the evening explaining why Eva would be the perfect daughter. I listened in silence. I tried to find reasons not to rush the decision, but Ethan picked them all apart.
Eventually I agreed to sign a contract for Eva. I couldn’t maintain my unease in the face of Ethan’s enthusiasm any longer, it just made me feel like I was the one holding us back from our future. The next day we returned to Anyborn to complete the paperwork, and afterwards Ethan whisked me off to a restaurant to celebrate. I tried to enjoy it, to get excited about our new family, but as I watched Ethan across the table, I saw visions of Levi. Curls of phantom hair, the suggestion of a nose twitch, a faint ghost that seemed to flicker in and out of being.
I started to feel better when we visited the hospital and saw Eva taking a human shape. She was a delicate, tranquil creature floating in a cylinder of translucent amber. We went to see her every week, discussing the minutiae of her growth, listening to her delicate heartbeat, marvelling at the tiny bulb of her head. Our world was re-centred, and everything else faded into the background. After nine months of waiting, my joy untouched by the physical tribulations of pregnancy, Eva was delivered screaming with life into our arms.
She started crawling after three months, walking after seven, talking after nine. In parent meetups I sat in a circle of cooing mothers and fathers, watching their children flop around the room, surmising what each gargle and shuffle meant for their progress. I made a few friends in those groups but lost touch with them when circumstances no longer held us together. I went back to work and adorned my desk with photos of Eva and Ethan. It was one of those years that bent the rules of perception: grindingly slow at the time, quick as a flash looking back.
I didn’t think much about Levi during that year. His digital form was replaced by the material reality of soiled nappies and sore nipples. Then one morning we received a letter from Anyborn reminding us that our account, which I assumed was long closed, had one simulation credited. The freebie Aaron had offered us. I thought nothing of it at first, shelving the letter and tiptoeing to the bathroom to clean my teeth before Eva awoke from her morning nap. I looked at myself in the mirror and dropped my toothbrush to the tiled floor. After months of recognising Eva in my reflection, I finally saw a flash of Levi.
I washed my toothbrush and went to check on Eva, keen to lose myself in my daily routine. But soon images of Levi started creeping up on me. On my way to the park I saw some of his curls on a young man’s head. When I was out with friends, I saw him sitting in a restaurant, awaiting my return. I realised how long it had been since I’d seen him and was suddenly desperate to know how he had changed, so I could give substance to the lost years.
Then I remembered his depression, as crushing and draining as if it were my own. I lay awake in bed, my mind overflowing with questions. What if his depression got worse as time drew on, as mine had throughout my teenage years? What if his thoughts got darker and darker? How had I ignored this for so long, rejoicing with Ethan in the miracle of our new child while Levi was suffering alone, without his mother?
“My sweetheart,” I whispered into the darkness as Eva and Ethan slept.
Less than a week after receiving the letter, I went back to Anyborn. I expected the protesters to be waiting for me, peering in judgement, but there wasn’t a placard in sight. The front of the building seemed cleaner, scrubbed of protest, laced with flowerbeds and encroached by coffee shops. The appeal against the Beloved programme was still going through the courts, but despite this uncertainty, Anyborn had become the new norm.
I met with Aaron and rushed through the motions, signing forms and waivers and climbing into the simulation pod, all the while rehearsing my explanation to Levi. I found our restaurant amongst a list of locations and tapped a button that said, “Recall previous meetings.”
As I was transported to the restaurant, I felt my heartbeat roll through my body, my back slicken with sweat. And suddenly there he was, sitting at our table, his frame blown up into manhood but sporting the same shock of boyish curly hair. The moment I saw him my prepared speech, calibrated to justify myself to him, to cycle deftly through every emotion I had felt in the last few days, vanished from my mind. He circled the table and hugged me, leaning awkwardly into my lap.
“I’m sorry,” I said. He didn’t reply but held the embrace for a long while.
This time no ice breakers were necessary. We talked for hours in one of those intense, meandering conversations that ranged over countless topics and didn’t stop for a single beat. I was greedy for detail, asking him about his childhood, his Bar Mitzvah, his school, his future. I was so engrossed in our conversation that when the voice in my head announced the end of the simulation, it took me a moment to accept the world outside the pod as real. I wondered what would happen if I took Levi by the hand and rushed him out of the restaurant.
I visited him once a week after that, carving out time between work and Eva. I told him about his sister, describing their similarities, the way her smile was just like his (but a touch more symmetrical, though I didn’t mention that). I told him about her pictures, how her drawings were constantly improving. Levi glowed with pride.
I didn’t tell Ethan about the meetings; I slunk off on secret trips to Anyborn, building a repertoire of excuses. I planned to talk to him eventually, but he was always busy or not in a receptive mood. At home, on long afternoons when Ethan was at work and I was looking after Eva, I wanted to tell her about Levi too.
I followed the appeal challenging the legality of Anyborn as it went through the Supreme Court. I sat for hours with the court’s website open in front of me, obsessively refreshing the page. It was decided by a majority that the programme was not in violation of the Eugenics Act. There was an explosion of criticism, with commentators accusing the court of fetishizing the letter of the law and ignoring its spirit. To me, their voices were drowned out by relief that I could see Levi again.
As the sim-hours piled up, Aaron warned me it would be increasingly difficult to avoid compromising the simulation. More and more details of my real life seeped into our conversations. Levi was asking questions and it was getting difficult to contain the illusion. I made the decision then to talk to Ethan, to beg him to consider having another baby. I prepared my arguments, spending days figuring out how to sell the idea, approaching the task with the rigour of a lawyer. By the time I decided to do it, I had memorised my submissions and recited them on my way home from work. I walked through the door and found Ethan hunched over his laptop with our Anyborn account open in front of him, his face as taut as a compressed spring.
“What the hell is this?” he said. The laptop page showed only a column of sim-hours and an invoice, a tally of my relationship with my son, a running total of his worth.
“What have you been doing, Abra?”
“I haven’t been paying for it from the joint account,” I said. “It’s from my savings.”
“It’s not about the damn money,” Ethan scoffed, angry I’d misinterpreted his point. “What do you have to say for yourself?”
I launched into my argument. We had always discussed having more children, and a brother would help Eva’s development too. I described Levi’s sensitivity, his empathy, his discreet intelligence, perhaps mythologizing him a little. Ethan looked at me incredulously, shaking his head, wearing that closed expression I knew so well. The arguments I had prepared so studiously now seemed flimsy and ridiculous, even selfish, like a child begging at her father’s feet.
“He would be good for us,” I pleaded. “You would love him, Ethan, I know you would.”
“Of course I would love him, but that’s not the point.”
“What do you mean it’s not the point? Then what is the point of having children?”
Ethan’s lips went white. “Now you are wilfully misunderstanding me. I mean I don’t want our children to be left behind.”
“What does that mean, left behind?”
“It means that companies like Anyborn are here to stay. They’re legal, that’s been established now. Look around you, Abra. In education, grades are increasing more rapidly than ever. Athletic attainment, physical skills of every kind, they’re all shooting up. And it will continue. We can’t bring Levi into that kind of world, it’s not fair on him.”
“But we’re still the same, you and me. And the Eugenics Act is in force. People supported it, for god’s sake. They voted for it!”
“That may be, but it’s happening anyway. The Eugenics Act didn’t stop it and neither can we. All we can do is try and keep up.”
“But I don’t care, Ethan. I don’t care about any of that. I love him. I already love him.” Tears streamed down my face, propelled by the release of an inner tension: the admission to Ethan, and to myself, that I loved Levi.
“It’s a simulation, Abra,” Ethan said, his voice hitting a new note of exasperation.
“It’s a simulation of a real child, a child we could have. Your face is a simulation when we talk on a video call, if you want to get logical about it.”
That comment infuriated him. “Abra, you’re being short-sighted. You love Eva, don’t you?”
“Of course,” I snapped, recoiling from him. “What kind of question is that?”
“Just listen, will you? I mean you love her just because she’s yours. You would love all your children, no matter who they were. So then why don’t we just pick from the shortlist and you would love that one just as much as any other?”
“Because I love Levi,” I insisted in a quivering voice.
“Yes,” Ethan said methodically, “but you’re not seeing my point. Your love for Levi–if that’s what you’re calling it–is no stronger than it would be with any other child. He is one of an infinite number of children we could have, and your love for any of them would be just as strong.”
“I don’t know what to say, Ethan. You’re wrong. You’re just wrong.”
“This has gone on long enough,” he said more firmly. “We need to have that file deleted.”
“What do you mean, deleted?” I was awash with adrenaline. I could hear crying from the other room, but it sounded distant and garbled.
“We need to have that genetic sample destroyed. So you can get some closure.” My legs wobbled and I swayed from side to side. “Sample? You mean Levi?
You can’t do that!” I had no idea if he had the right–it had never occurred to me to find out–but it felt so callous, so dehumanising, that he couldn’t have the right.
Eva wandered into the room, rubbing her eyes and looking up at us with quasi-comprehension. She knew we were arguing, that something was wrong. “Eva,” I gasped, kneeling beside her and clutching her shoulders.
“Mama,” she said, tangling a sticky hand in my hair.
“Eva, I want to tell you something.” Ethan shot me a threatening look. “You have a brother,” I spluttered.
“Abra, what in god’s name are you doing?” he demanded. “Have you lost your mind?”
“His name is Levi. He has curly hair. He knows about your pictures, I’ve described them to him. He knows all about you.”
“You need to get out,” Ethan said, his impassive expression beginning to crack with rage.
“Of our house? You can’t kick me out.”
“Then I’ll go. And you take Eva or I will, I don’t care. I just need you out of my sight right now.”
I marched into my bedroom to pack, shocked by how easy it was to leave. I needed to be away from Ethan, away from the house where Levi wasn’t welcome. I packed my things and dragged the case towards the door, feeling shaky and hollow. Ethan watched me with crossed arms, planted to the spot, the muscles on his forearms bulging. He picked up Eva and held her close to him. As I walked past the two of them, I saw the resemblance with him in her face, in the wide, quizzical eyes, and where there should have been affection there was a moment of spite.
“You have a brother, Eva!” I screamed in her little face. She wailed and sobbed while Ethan tried desperately to close the door on me with his free hand.
“You have a brother!”
Months later I was sat with my barrister, Geoffrey, in his chambers in Chancery Lane, looking absently at his collection of leather-bound books. There were shelves and shelves of them, climbing the walls and circling the office, a genealogy of case law stretching back centuries. As I looked at the books I half-listened to Geoffrey explaining a case about a woman called Helena. I almost didn’t catch her name; she was so lost in the jargon of procedure and doctrine. I wondered how many other Helenas were between the covers of his books, real people trapped in a prison of legalese, unable to translate their tragedies to the world.
“In Helena’s case,” Geoffrey was saying, “the court found that her ex-husband’s consent was required to use the frozen embryos.”
“But Levi isn’t an embryo,” I said. “I’ve met him. I know him.”
“I understand. All I’m saying is that precedent doesn’t work in our favour here. That’s the way it goes with the law sometimes. That’s why we’ve been arguing that times are changing, and the law should change with them. Hopefully the judge will agree, but we’ll find out tomorrow.”
Earlier that day I had spoken to Levi, struggling to explain the situation to him without violating my Anyborn contract. I told him there were some legal issues I had to sort out, that I might not be seeing him for a while. He nodded understandingly, but I had no idea what he made of my vague explanation. I was on the verge of tears, knowing it might be the last time I ever saw him. When it was time to leave, I held him close until the last second of my sim-time.
On the day of the hearing, Ethan was sitting in the courtroom with Eva in his lap. He didn’t make eye contact with me. We hadn’t spoken about our marriage since I left; we’d barely spoken about anything. I took a seat next to Geoffrey and glazed over as I waited for the judgment, watching lawyers, clerks and journalists fuss around the courtroom.
Geoffrey gave me a nod as the judge made his way to the bench and everyone rose from their seats. A sickly feeling came over me when he began to speak. At one point he said that Levi wasn’t a person in the eyes of the law–in my periphery I saw Ethan nod in agreement–and I struggled to contain my anger. Just when I began to despair, the judge finally described my relationship with Levi in terms I understood.
“It is not the role of this court,” he said, “to adjudicate the human heart. I cannot say the appellant’s relationship with the simulation is of no value, and thus I think it engages Mrs Adelman’s right to her private and family life. Mr Adelman also has that right, of course, and in conflicts of this kind, the law traditionally has insisted on the consent of both parties to bring a child into existence. In this instance, however, the appellant already has a relationship with the simulation, and in my view, the pain of permanent separation outweighs Mr Adelman’s claim to full control of his own genetic material.”
The judgment met with murmurs, whispers, the rustle of notes, as if something momentous had happened. Geoffrey smiled and put a hand on my shoulder. In the corner of my eye I saw Ethan look at his lawyer in disbelief. The judgement continued but none of it registered. I waited for it to be over so I could rush to Anyborn and bring Levi into the world, where he belonged.
My signature was erratic when I signed the contract for Levi. Aaron was his usual self, giving me the same patter that he had given us with Eva, acting as if nothing had changed, as if he hadn’t been following the case in the news.
“We’ll get the sample to the lab immediately,” he assured me.
“So I won’t be able to see Levi after this? In simulation, I mean?”
“I’m afraid not. The sample will go to the lab, then the hospital.”
I hesitated. I had promised to tell Levi if my legal trouble was resolved; I couldn’t leave him in limbo. “Can I see him one last time?” I asked.
“Sure,” Aaron beamed. “I’ll bill you when you’re done.”
I climbed into a pod and was transported back to our restaurant. The clinking glasses and idle patrons now instilled a powerful sense of nostalgia. I tried to commit every detail of the place to memory so I could carry it with me; so that one day, when Levi was grown, I could take him to a restaurant just like it.
“You’re back,” Levi gushed. “What happened with your legal problems? Can you still come and see me?”
“We can see each other as much as we want from now on.”
“And I can meet Eva?”
“The next time we see each other, she’ll be there, I promise. She can’t wait to meet her brother.” Levi broke into a smile. It was big, toothy, uninhibited: perhaps it wouldn’t turn into my brusque smile after all.
Then the smile disappeared from his face. I searched his expression for an explanation for this sudden change but found none. “Sweetheart, what is it?” I said. “You’re not feeling down again, are you?” I realised he was looking over my shoulder, and turned around to see Ethan standing over me, hands clasped, eyes narrowed, chewing his bottom lip.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” he said with mock courtesy.
“What are you doing here?” I gasped, looking frantically between Ethan stifling his fury and Levi shrinking in fright, their father-son polarity starker than ever.
“So this is Levi,” Ethan said, looking the cowering boy up and down. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to my son?”
“What’s going on, mum?” Levi stammered.
“Ethan, why are you here?” I asked in a hoarse whisper. I could feel my breath going awry, panic starting to build. “The judge said…”
“I have every right to be here,” Ethan declared. “They’re my genes and I can do what I want with them. The Anyborn account is in my name as well, you know. Can I use my own account? Is that alright with you? Will you allow it?”
I flinched as flecks of spittle showered me. Ethan shook with rage as he shouted, and meanwhile Levi watched the scene unfold with deepening confusion. “I’m stopping it,” I said, getting to my feet but realising I had no idea how to control the simulation.
“Stopping what?” Levi asked. “What’s going on?”
“Yes, Abra, stopping what?” Ethan crowed. “Why don’t you tell the boy the truth? That’s what a good mother would do. And you’re such a good mother, aren’t you?”
“No!” I cried. I grabbed Ethan’s arm; it was stiff and burning hot. “Ethan, please don’t, I beg you.”
Ethan shoved me out of the way. “You’re a simulation, Levi,” he said. “That’s all you are. A simulation. You are just one of an infinite number of our possible children.”
Levi’s face registered something. It wasn’t understanding–he couldn’t possibly fathom what was going on–but a moment of doubt, a crash of uncertainty that snagged something in his coding. For a moment he froze, his face semi-sentient, no longer quite alive. He looked at me, a child’s plea for his mother, begging me to catch him as he fell between two planes of existence.
“Levi..” was all I managed before he vanished from my life.
I gave Levi a burial of sorts, a headstone and an empty coffin tucked away in the cemetery. I visited every day. Often it was my only trip out of the house, the only thing for which I was prepared to run the gauntlet of prying eyes. When Ethan killed Levi (or deleted his genetic sample as the papers reported it), we became household names overnight. I was a gift to the media, a wellspring of editorials and opinion pieces. Some claimed I put the soul back into motherhood in an era of eugenics; others saw me as an over-sentimental joke, the woman who walked out on a real daughter because of a possible son.
Geoffrey said Ethan couldn’t be prosecuted under criminal law. If simulations weren’t people, then deleting them wasn’t murder. He suggested I sue instead. A civil court awarded me fifteen thousand pounds in compensation. That’s what I was left with, a lump sum to replace my baby boy.
I couldn’t face Ethan again. Geoffrey negotiated a custody arrangement with Eva and she passed between us through intermediaries. I tried to focus all my energy on her. Sometimes she asked after her brother and I told her he was at school, or out with his friends. I knew I couldn’t lie forever, but I couldn’t resist maintaining the illusion for her sake, and for mine, just a little longer.
As time passed, as Eva went from strength to strength, as the population got taller and stronger, as more people were squeezed into the same model of humanity, Levi started to feel less real. There were nights when I woke up in a sweat, not sure if he had ever been real. I thought about all the things Ethan said to me. He said I would have fallen in love with any of the simulations, any of my possible children. That was one thing he was right about, of course. I imagined all of them, my infinite family, each of whom in some possible world was just as real as Eva. I thought of them in their endless variety, in their vibrance, in their joy and their pain. They were out there somewhere, I could feel it, alone in their separate, unreachable orbits, calling out for their mother.