Author Topic: Chapter 5  (Read 9557 times)

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Offline Daen

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Chapter 5
« on: July 21, 2022, 03:03:03 AM »
Chapter 5

"Come along, Chif. Don't dawdle now," the kindly female voice echoed down the hallway.

The tow-headed boy tore his gaze away from the wispy clouds visible outside, and trotted to catch up with the rest of the group. Woad and Laz were in the front, as usual, but Valae had slowed down for him. She extended a hand to him, and he grabbed it. "Where are we going?" He inquired impatiently up ahead.

"To the medbay, as I said," Sandra admonished him lightly. "Try to pay attention. This is an important day for all of us. Now keep up."

There were twenty of them together, not counting Sandra herself. A score of young minds transiting the tube between the main housing dome and the medbay to the west. The boys and girls both attended classes at this time of day usually, but today was something special. They'd been pulled out of class, but not allowed to play as usual. Noah could tell that even at their young age, they were starting to grasp how today might be different.

Sandra led them up to the sealed door of the adjacent dome, and then turned to face the class. Following her programming, she didn't kneel or lean down to get on a level with the children, but spoke authoritatively and confidently from her position towering over them. "Today is your birthday, children. Nine Earth years ago today, you all started breathing on your own. Now you need to see exactly how that happened. I won't be the one to show you, though." She pressed a combination of keys on the door, more rapidly than the human eye could see, and it slid open. There was a momentary gust of wind as the pressure between the two domes equalized, and all nineteen pairs of eyes below her widened in awe.

The medbay had been off-limits until now, given the sensitive and fragile nature of the equipment inside. Noah, or rather another drone he'd made to look humanoid, was inside waiting for them. He tried to simulate a warm smile on its face, and gestured into the lab. "Come on in. Thank you, Sandra."

She nodded at him, and retreated serenely back down the umbilical between domes. Their interaction was just for show of course—she was no more independent from him than an arm or a leg would be from a person. Still, it had seemed to work for the benefit of the children so far. He had over a dozen caretaker drones wandering the main dome, looking after children at all hours, and each had its own name and personality. A personality he'd simulated based on people he'd known back on Earth, but still someone distinct from him as far as the children were concerned. It had worked so far, anyway.

"Don't be shy," he urged them, as some of them were looking after Sandra's retreating form even now. "Come in, come in. Aren't you curious about this place?"

Valae pushed her way forward, shouldering past Woad and Laz in her rush to get inside. Her eyes got even wider as she took in all of the equipment. "Pretty." Was the only word she got out at first.

Looking indignant, Woad stepped in after her, with Laz at his side. The two of them were the oldest of the whole bunch, if only by a few minutes. Even at their age, Noah had begun to pick out personality traits in them, and to tailor their later education to suit their eventual needs. Woad wasn't lazy or indolent, for example, but he did accept leadership roles reluctantly. By comparison, Laz couldn't wait to show the other girls that she had what it took to be in charge. Of them, at least.

Scad's curiosity ran deeper than the other children, and he was always asking about the ocean outside, while standing on a chair just to look out the lowest point of the dome. He might make a good explorer in ten or fifteen years. Yuun was more introverted, even than Chif, but at least the two of them got along. Maybe they'd be philosophers. As for Valae, she was the most physically active of all of them. She wasn't the fastest, as demonstrated by their nascent sprinting matches across the housing dome, but she could climb better than any of the others. Noah had once observed her balancing perfectly between two of the saplings in the agro dome, as if she was some kind of scarecrow or oversized Christmas decoration.

The children began spreading out through the medlab, peering at all the shiny equipment. They were too short for the chairs and tables yet, but they could still reach up on top of some of them. For a moment, Noah was glad he'd already moved everything with a sharp edge into the upper cabinets and out of reach.

In answer to their early questions, Noah raised his hands. They weren't a perfect replica of human skin and bone, but they were similar enough that the kids had adapted to seeing drones like him walking around. "None of you have been sick enough to come here, thankfully, but this is where sick people will come to get better. Adwa, do you remember how I told you you'd broken your arm when you were much younger?"

The boy nodded, and his right hand went up to wrap around his left wrist. "I don't remember though," he mumbled, probably because the others were now all looking at him.

"That's all right. After you fell, I brought you here. I used this," Noah placed a hand on one of the medical devices, "to see exactly where your bone broke, and then I set it. Put it right, I mean," he clarified. This was probably a bit too advanced for the kids as of yet. "You were very brave, Adwa. I was impressed. And I'm sure you remember wearing that cast afterwards. When I took it off, your arm kept on lifting up, but at least you felt better."

If anything, Adwa looked even more embarrassed, but he did smile. "At any rate," Noah continued, "the real reason I asked for you to be brought here, is this:" He walked to the far side of the room and opened a set of curtains.

The curtains were actually just part of a wider barrier, encompassing almost a third of the whole dome. Behind that barrier were twenty identical spheres, each about as wide as the kids were tall. They were all suspended about a meter off the ground from above and below. They were arranged in a straight line, left to right, and were all occupied at the moment. Hopefully not too theatrically from their perspective, Noah approached one and tapped out a command on the control panel next to it. The light from the rest of the medlab dimmed correspondingly, and became redder.

"It's all right," he reassured them. "This is how it's supposed to look. Come closer. Take a look for yourselves," he beckoned, and they hesitantly came in almost as one. Inside, wrapped in a partially organic, partially technological mix of tissues and wires, was a human baby.

Each of these pods was an artificial womb. The technology had been in its infancy back on Earth, and a bunch of Cradle scientists had been frantically working on making it safer, right up until the prototypes were loaded onto the Mary and Noah had been launched into space. The asteroid impacts had fortunately not harmed them, and they hadn't been brought down during his initial disastrous crash landing. It was only later, once he'd had this settlement up and running, that he'd signaled Mary to send them down to him.

Cloning the cell samples in storage had been easy enough. They were by definition single-celled organisms after all. He'd removed the nucleus from a stored fertilized egg, and replaced it with the nucleus from adult human tissue samples frozen during the long trip. Keeping cell samples alive was significantly easier than keeping fully-developed humans alive, especially for a trip that long. In fact it was the only way his mission could have succeeded at all.

After the cell's nucleus had been replaced, he slowly raised the temperature of the nutrient liquid around it, hoping that it could recover from the 'brain transplant' it had just suffered. When he'd been reasonably certain the cell was viable, he'd moved it into one of these artificial wombs.

"The trick was adapting the placenta," he explained to the kids. "Normally the placenta forms from the original cell itself, and not the mother's womb. Since I didn't have anything like a biological womb, I had to replace the placenta with a mechanical version, since the original designs didn't anticipate—” he broke off suddenly, looking down.

The kids were just staring back up at him, completely uncomprehending.

"Right. Sorry. Basically, you were all as small as this little guy once, in these very pods. He's not breathing yet, because he's underwater. You remember your swimming lessons, right?" That at least got a few nods. "Good."

"What's this one doing?" Valae asked, a few meters down to the right and away from the crowd.

As the other children clustered around her, Noah checked the artificial womb's diagnostics. "Ah. She's kicking."

Indeed she was. A baby in the womb could exert over two newtons of force per kick, and would often do so for hours on end. Noah remembered an account by one of the Cradle's engineers who'd been pregnant at the time. Given how fragile the human body was, he could only imagine how uncomfortable carrying a person around inside your abdomen must be. This little girl, not even old enough to cry out for the first time, was exercising her legs as if she was preparing for a marathon. "It's important for them to do that, so that they can build muscle strength for later. All babies kick before they're born, and some quite hard."

He checked the time. "In fact, that's one of the reasons you're here." He gestured them over to the far side, to the northernmost pod. The baby inside was kicking as well, but it was more of a twitch by the time they got there. Noah kept monitoring the diagnostics, with minimal concern.

Artificial incubation was a risky process, as evidenced by the fact that there were twenty pods here, but some of the younger batches of kids only numbered nineteen or eighteen. He'd explained the concept of death to them about a year ago. He'd even taken them outside the dome, wearing breathers of course, to see the graves of some of their younger siblings. It was hard to tell if they truly understood that one day they'd just be gone, but at least they had that memory for now.

This late in the incubation process, the risk was very small, though. The first deadly malfunction had happened in month two, and subsequent ones during the third month of gestation. So far his track record was quite good, given his limited technology. Three dead out of sixty incubations. Well, four actually, but that had been another problem. The other kids were all too young to understand the concept of death yet, but he would show the next group in a few months.

But he was here to describe the opposite of death. "You may notice this baby looks agitated. He's twitching and turning a bit. That's because I'm trying to simulate the process of birth as closely as possible. If I were to just open the top and pull him right out of the liquid, the sheer shock of it might just kill him. He has to be uncomfortable first, so that he can get used to being in air instead of liquid."

Again, most of his words had gone over their heads, but at least they were still interested in what they were seeing. Suiting words to actions, he pressed another control, and the pod lowered slightly. Inside it, the baby boy was being raised as his umbilical pulled him up. It wasn't a biological cord, entirely. The transfer of nutrients in, and waste out, was handled organically on one end, and mechanically on the other. Still, it had been sufficient so far.

Finally, Noah reached in and cupped his hands around the baby, lifting him out of the amniotic substitute fluid. He started squirming immediately, as he was no longer effectively weightless. The pull of gravity, the sudden presence of air all around him, and the rapid lowering of temperature, all pressured in on him, and he took his first ragged breath. Followed by a bellowing cry.

Most of the kids took a step back, but Noah spoke right away. "It's all right, it's fine. Babies cry, all the time. This is perfectly normal." Hiding the view slightly with his drone's body, he severed the umbilical and tied it off. Then he turned back to the group.

He knelt down so they could see the newborn more clearly, as he wiped the baby down with a cloth. Merely having a cloth like that was something almost as monumental as having the baby. He'd had to grow the bacteria in the soil, and then grow the plants in that bacteria-riddled soil, and then harvest the plants, process their products, and eventually make cloth from them. All of that had happened while the very first generation right here had still been in pods of their own.

There was little danger of hypothermia, but he wrapped the baby up tightly anyway. He was still squirming, but at least his cries had decreased in intensity and frequency by about twenty percent. "Children, meet your newest baby brother," he said, trying to simulate pride.

Laz was the first to reach out, her hand brushing the baby's cheek just slightly. She grinned over at Woad, who hesitantly followed her example. "Is he ok?" He asked, his black eyebrows furrowing slightly.

"Of course. He's only red and blotchy for now. Soon, his skin will look more like yours. This is normal."

At Laz's insistence, he slowly handed the baby over. "Be careful, Laz. Babies can't hold their heads up, so you have to do it for them. It's best to keep the back of his head in your hand, and the rest of his body on your arm. Actually, that's just right. Well done."

He stood up slowly, as the others all clustered around. They all had experience with younger siblings, but those had all been crawling or walking already. This was their first exposure to a newborn. Noah examined their reactions and the questions they asked, cataloguing all of that for future use. Chif seemed the least interested in all of this, staying to the back, and then eventually walking down the row to look at the other pods.

Speaking of which, it was their time next. He leaned down, and Laz reluctantly returned the baby to his grasp. "I want you all to see something before I start delivering the others." Slowly, he freed one of the baby's hands, and watched as it wiggled a bit back and forth. "Woad, would you put a finger in his hand, please?"

The eldest boy did as asked, and the baby's fingers wrapped around it tightly. Despite himself, Woad smiled at that.

"That's called the grasp reflex. His toes will do it too, for the next year or so. Every baby has that. Can anyone guess why that is?"

Surprisingly, Chif raised a hand. Noah pointed to him, and he stepped forward. "To hold onto things? Like his mom or dad?"

It wasn't very surprising in retrospect, given the question. Chif had been very interested in Earth animals; much more so than the others. He'd been fascinated to read about kangaroo young, and how they climbed up into the pouch right at the start. "Very good, Chif. Yes, that's right. In fact, most of these baby reflexes are all about making it easier for the baby to stay safe and happy. This young, that means staying as close to Mom and Dad as possible. In fact, he's probably hungry. Any of you want to help feed him?"

Laz's hand shot up into the air, followed closely by Yuun's and Jeo's. "All right. Sandra, could you take the baby back to the housing dome and show them how it's done?"

Some of the kids jumped in surprise. Sandra had returned near-silently, and they'd all been so focused on the newborn that most hadn't noticed. Four or five of the girls followed her out, passing by some of the other drones as they came in to assist him with the other deliveries. "You can stay here if you want to see more deliveries, but it will take some time. You can go back if you just want to play or talk about this."

Most of them elected to go, but a handful including Speah and Scad stayed. He allowed them to watch, and even to hold some of the newborns themselves, under supervision. He took note of their interest, and filed it under 'possible medical profession in the future'. It was hardly the miracle of birth they were observing, at least compared to the one described to him back on Earth. Still, if everything went according to plan, someday they'd grow up to experience that miracle themselves.

-.-

Noah monitored the conversations from the other drones, as he worked in the medlab. Woad was leading the other boys around the north end of the housing dome. Zwax was the one talking, though. "We should call him Eli. You know, like Elijah."

Adwa shook his head firmly. "Nuh uh. He should be Moses. He looks like a Moses."

"No one knows what Moses looked like, dummy," Cade spoke up, and Adwa shot him an angry look.

"Yeah I do. He was in Egypt, so he looked like an Egyptian."

"Did not. He didn't start there!" Cade's little hands balled up into fists. It looked like they might get into a scuffle, as boys sometimes did.

Noah preemptively ordered Clive to head that way. He was the caretaking drone most known for dealing with troublesome kids, and had a reputation for being stern, but fair. Before Clive could get in position though, Woad spoke up. "Stop it. We don't name him, remember? Noah does."

He spoke softly, but the boys seemed to hear him anyway. Despite his reluctance being in charge, Woad was good at it, as was appropriate for the oldest male. Noah ordered Clive to pause, and then return to his previous task, as the risk of an altercation faded away. Woad kept right on, though. "Remember he talked about this? He said Woad is just my nickname. When we turn 12, we can pick our own names. I already know what I'll pick."

That got the others talking, or boasting, names like Alexander after the Greek conqueror, or other Roman, British or Biblical names they'd been exposed to.

Once again, futilely, Noah tried to access his historical databanks. Nothing. It was just one big blank spot in his memory. Hundreds of diagnostics had revealed the same result: nothing was wrong with him. The data was completely inaccessible. The only references to history he had left were from the Math, Science, and Language Arts classes he'd been programmed with, along with the historical records of the Faith. The Faith was the reason the children had heard stories from ancient Israel and Egypt (Biblical ones anyway), and it was the reason they had Greek, Roman, British, and then American cultural context. But it was all anecdotal!

Noah had a map of Earth stored in his memory, accurate down to the meter, and could easily point out every nation, mountain range, tectonic plate and biome on the planet. But if any of those kids had asked him a single question about the history of Lithuania, for example, he wouldn't have been able to tell them a damn thing! He knew that Eratosthenes had calculated the diameter of the Earth by measuring sunlight falling into a well, and that Eratosthenes had been a Greek man living in Alexandria, but he couldn't for the proverbial life of him say who had been the Emperor of Rome during that time. He knew that William Shakespeare had written some of the most influential plays in history, and had them performed in the Globe Theatre in London, but what life had been like for all the other Londoners at the time... no idea.

It was a constant thorn in his proverbial side: a reminder that he might never truly succeed in his mission of creating a viable, sustainable human culture on this planet. With so much missing, all he could do was guess to fill in the blanks. At least Biblical history had been stored in a different databank, and had survived. With it, the Greek, Roman, British, and then American influence on the Faith. He wasn't working off of nothing, at least.
« Last Edit: July 21, 2022, 03:06:38 AM by Daen »