Story Time: Less Than Human

>> Tuesday, December 12, 2023

 I've written lots of stories and published them. Some of them I think are important so I'm going to post some of them here. This particular story can be found in my book, Inner Worlds and was first published on the site, Idiot-Free Zone

 Less Than Human 

The alarm pounded through Maureen Hunter's dream like a hammer, shattering it into a million pieces. As she slammed it to silence and looked at the time blearily through her sand-encrusted eyes—she must have forgotten to take her contacts out again—she groaned quietly. It was her damn project. Why the hell had she agreed to a 7 am meeting after she'd had the meet-n-greet last night with the bigwigs from Washington? Even a brain like hers required more than three hours of sleep a night.
She slipped out of the warm sheets and shivered in the chill her husband insisted was required for sleeping. Scratching her ass, she hurried into the bathroom and grabbed some clothes so she could dress as she peed. No time to dilly-dally. She had just flushed and risen, already wearing pants and a bra when she was halted by a ping behind her and a blue LED on the top of her toilet. What was that for again? Well, it didn't matter. She had a meeting to get to in forty minutes.
She was just brushing her teeth and slopping on deodorant when her phone beeped, that imperious beep that meant high priority. What now? She slipped the blouse that had been puddled around her neck over her shoulders, her arms going into the right holes before she picked up her phone.
The phone message opened to the sound of trumpets loud enough to wake Gary.
"Congratulations!" she read with pixelated confetti and fireworks, "You're going to be a mother!"
"What the fuck!" she screeched in anything but a gratified tone. "Gary, are you behind this? Some big joke?"
Gary was as groggy as you'd expect an accountant to be at 6:20 in the morning. "What?"
"Some damn fool just sent me an email that I'm pregnant. How could they even know it was true? I'm only a couple days late and that could be from overwork. Or PCOS. I've never been regular."
Gary tended to wake faster than she did in the morning and was already looking lucid. "There are sensors in the bathroom. They told you that when we replaced the toilet unit—code requires it."
"I am on the pill. Have been since I was seventeen. I'm the lead on the first human expedition to Mars. I don't have time for this shit. I don't want children—something I told you when we got married—and, even if I did, this is not the time I'd choose. We're launching in seven months. I can't be pregnant."
Her eyes scrolled down through the attendant message as she bit out her words. She threw up a hand. "Some 'Unborn Advocate' assigned to me will be here to discuss with me my responsibilities at 8 am. I won't be here at 8 am. I have a meeting to chair at 7."
"Can you postpone it?" Gary asked, coming to stand behind her so he could read the message over her shoulder. "I hear they're mighty picky about you meeting your advocate. Looks like I have to be there, too. I'll rearrange my schedule."
"You don't go in until 9. That's entirely different." She sighed. "It's probably a mistake. I never miss taking my pill."
"I know. Get the meeting moved, we'll talk to the advocate and hopefully straighten all this out, okay babe?" Gary grinned, the same grin with a single dimple that had won him her number three years previously.
She blew out a sigh. "Fine. I'll work it this morning. But I'm going to give them a piece of my mind. Our schedule is incredibly tight, and I don't have time to get distracted. I'm going to go make some coffee." She tossed her phone into his hands since he still seemed intent and stomped into the kitchen.
"Coffee," she told her Kitchen Helper™, "and make it strong."
The machine beeped and the smooth voice of the Helper said in its soft friendly voice, "I'm sorry, but caffeine intake is strictly prohibited for any prospective mothers. I can make some herbal tea for you and recommend a B-vitamin if you're feeling fatigued."
"You can make me coffee," Maureen said through gritted teeth, "Or I get my tools and turn you into a garbage disposal."
"Mint tea," the Helper said, filling a cup up with steaming liquid that smelled distinctly like peppermint, "is very good for nausea."
Maureen was already fishing through the "junk" drawer for a screwdriver when Gary came in and quietly removed the tool from her hand and gave her back her phone. "I got the same message on my phone. That damn thing is loud. I figured you had calls to make."
"I do, thanks to our faulty and blabbermouth plumbing. Get me some coffee out of this monster will you, or the day will end with corpses. Surely, fathers can have coffee."
"Coffee, black," he said obligingly.
"I'm sorry," the Helper said with no noticeable remorse. "Obtaining coffee with the expressed purpose of providing it to a prospective mother is prohibited and comes with a fine and a misdemeanor conviction.
"Seriously?" Gary said, the good humor finally draining from his face. "So I won't get coffee for nine months either?"
"I am not carrying a baby to term. I can't. I have things to do, even if I'm pregnant, which I'm not," she said, sipping the tea absently. "Oh, hello, Peter. I need to move the meeting back two hours at least. Maybe three. What's my schedule look like?"
"Did you say you were pregnant?" Peter choked.
"I did not. I said I wasn't pregnant, and that word better not leave your lips today, Peter, or you'll be collecting unemployment. Is there another time available today?"
"Not unless you make it a lunch meeting. You've got a slot from 11:30-1pm, but that's not going to buy you any friends."
"I know it, but we need to disseminate the changes today and get crew buy-in or it might impact launch. See what you can do about rescheduling. If we have to do it after hours, we'll do it then. Send me an email with the new time."
"You got it, boss. And congrats." He hung up before she could curse him out.
Gary was scrolling through his cell, drinking what appeared to be black tea. "You know, abortion is illegal in this state."
"Then I'll get it done elsewhere. I don't want a child, Gary. And certainly not in the middle of this. Do you realize what it means that I'm heading up this team when I'm barely in my thirties? I'll never get a chance like this again." She finished her tea with a grimace. "And I just can't be pregnant. The pill has a terrific effectiveness rate and I never miss, you know that."
"Yeah, I was checking that and stumbled across something I'd never heard before. You know that, if you take certain other medications it will negate the pill for a time? Didn't you have to take phenobarbital for a while last month?"
"Yeah, when the thermal control system failed acceptance testing. I thought I was going to have a heart attack and that was the only way I could get to sleep but that can't be the problem. That has to be a hoax. How could some drug negate the pill and, if it can, why didn't anyone tell me?"
"I don't know. But this isn't a quack site."
"Well, it was an accident, then. No way they can make me go through with it. You know—you know—what's riding on this, Gary."
"I know," he said softly, but not convincingly.  
That was the end of the conversation for some time as they both did their research on their respective cells. Maureen found herself growing more and more irritated and, to a lesser extent, alarmed. She hated politics, stayed out of it other than trying to ensure anyone she voted for on the national level was going to support the space program. She just didn't have time for all the details and obnoxiousness of politics day to day. She had shit to do.
But what she was reading was frightening. A recent law made it illegal to have an abortion, period. And if she left the state to get it done quietly somewhere more reasonable, she couldn't come back without facing severe penalties, even jail time. How the hell had this happened? Wasn't she a citizen of the states? When did she hand over her body as public domain?
Plus, her brain was the part that was really important. Her research into small but powerful rockets had made a human expedition to Mars possible ten years earlier than predicted. She couldn't afford to be sidelined by a biological hiccup she didn't even want. What did she know about being a mother, except it ate up time and money and would really get in the way over the next few months? There had to be a way out of it.
She still hadn't found it when the doorbell rang.
She rose to her feet with a clatter, tucking her cell into its holster at her belt. "Let's get this straightened out."
She opened the front door and a little man with a pointy nose—with a tiny dimple at the tip—pushed his way into the house without a word. She had no trouble finding the dimple unappealing. "You are Maureen Foster?"
"I am and there's been some sort of mistake. It's not possible I'm pregnant."
"They all say that," he said, opening up a medical kit and unearthing a plastic-wrapped blood draw kit. "Of course, we'll doublecheck but you should know that false positives run less than 2%."
Maureen felt her stomach grow cold.
"Give me your arm."
"Who are you?" Gary asked. "Before you stab my wife, maybe you could introduce yourself."
"I'm Van Ryder and I'm an Unborn Advocate. I'm conversant with the law as well as the medical requirements and restrictions the Host Mother must abide by."
"Host Mother? I'm not a brood mare, you know. I'm a goddamned Ph.D."
Van barely blinked and had tied an elastic tourniquet around her upper arm. "Whatever. That's not my concern. My only concern is the well-being of the human being you're carrying." He stabbed her with the needle as he spoke and brought up a tiny vial to take the blood afterward.
She winced at the pain. "Well, you're no phlebotomist." She looked him in the eyes and he stared blandly back as she said, "So, I don't factor into this at all, eh? Just carrying a baby to suit you. Well, I don't belong to the state, thank you very much, or you."
Van gave her a sour smile. "I'm sure an educated woman such as yourself has already researched the law. If you are pregnant—and we'll know in a moment—you will carry the baby to term and you will do everything in your power to ensure it's a healthy birth or suffer the legal consequences, which can be quite harsh." He'd released the tourniquet, removed the needle and placed a wad of gauze at her inner elbow. "Hold this up."
"And if I don't want this baby?"
"If you and your husband do not want the child, you have the option of putting it up for adoption. Given your education level, both of you, and your racial profile, you have a good chance of adoption by a worthy couple."
"What if just I don't want the child?"
"You can give up your rights to your husband if he feels differently. You cannot put it up for adoption without his consent."
"So, if I don't want it and he does, I have to basically dissolve my marriage?"
"And provide child support and healthcare until the child reaches eighteen. Or you can choose to rethink your reticence—many mothers do when faced with the inevitable—and raise the child as nature intended."
He had injected the blood into a portable analyzer and pursed his lips until the result popped up on his screen.
"Well, as I suspected, Mrs. Foster, congratulations are in order. You're going to have a baby."
Maureen went through the rest of her day in a black mood. Her husband had not looked her in the eye since Van Ryder had come and gone and had left for work with only a little peck on the cheek.
She told no one at work about her predicament but apparently Mr. Pointy Nose had done so for her so that all the machines at work would not provide her any caffeine with her ID. Since she didn't want to advertise the dilemma to her coworkers until—unless—she had no choice, she was forced to suck down fruit juice, which was the only fluid the vending machines would allow.
The rescheduled meeting went well enough and there were no more crises at work, with the crew and the top managers all agreeing with the changes she outlined, but the pregnancy was a distraction and that she didn't need.
When she stumbled back home after a long, caffeine-free day, she wanted to have a long talk with her husband about their options but he'd already gone to bed. She stripped off her clothing, climbed into the shower, and tried to scrub off the most frustrating day of her life, a day that still reeked of nightmare to her. Her hand slid over her firm tight belly. Inside there was a tiny nubbin of flesh she was building, apparently, smaller than her pinky nail. And she lived in a world that valued it more than it valued her. She had a hard time with that concept.
All week she tried to contact lawyers, do research on her options, but came up dry on both counts. No lawyer would talk to her without her husband at her side—and he had studiously avoided her which didn't make her feel like he was her ally. As for her options, she kept running into the same answer: she didn't have any. From the moment she was diagnosed as pregnant, she was a prisoner of the state, her life, for at least then next nine months, prescribed and controlled. She'd already gone through three physical examinations where she learned that she could have no medicine to address her frequent migraines – only Tylenol in small doses. Where she was told she could have nothing to help her sleep or deal with allergies, where she was told caffeine and alcohol were strictly forbidden and carried jail time if she violated that. "Suck it up," was the advice she was given. Fine enough advice if you wanted a baby, sacrifices that made sense for a hopeful mother, but not for a woman who didn't, who needed to work ridiculous hours to accomplish her dreams going on around her right now.
They noted the scar on her knee, and she told them she'd had knee surgery for a trick knee. Her patella no longer jumped to the back of her leg, but it did give way now and again. She was advised to wear a brace. Right, in a Houston summer for a knee that rarely caused trouble. Ridiculous.
Finally, on Friday, she got an audience with a kindly lawyer who explained she couldn't represent her and why, all reasons she knew, but at least the woman was sympathetic. And then she showed her examples on a handheld tablet, reasons why Maureen needed to follow the law: Anita Danvers, miscarried, could not prove it was unintentional, serving twelve years, her two other children in foster care. Malena Williams sneaked out to get an abortion in her sister's hometown in Delaware—which still allowed first trimester abortions—but she was ratted out by her own husband. Twenty-five years to life. Her husband had already remarried so he had help raising the six children she left behind. Irene Fortner caught an upper respiratory infection that turned to pneumonia, child was born with cerebral palsy. Irene paid with seven years in jail for the crime of getting sick while pregnant. Suzanne Sumner had an emergency aborted tubal pregnancy, and her doctor and she were both serving 25 to life. Melody Ryan serving time for a stillborn son she couldn't justify. Mary Lovelace, child died in utero without known cause, serving time because she went out of state for an abortion rather than carry a corpse for two months. Nina Peterson, twelve, died in childbirth. Her uncle—her rapist—had custody of the child they tore from her dead body.
When Maureen looked up, unaccustomed tears on her face, she saw them on the lawyer's as well. "Melody Ryan has the Nobel in Medicine for her work in helping to find the cure for cancer!"
"They don't care. As soon as someone—some man—squirts semen into her, a woman is owned by those cells if they fertilize an egg. Had a life? Had a dream of your own? Can't afford children? Have no one to help you? Barely scraping by? Have too many children already? Have health problems that will probably get worse if they don't kill you? Raped? A child yourself? None of that matters. You are now less than human, an incubator for another life that is valued while yours is not. And if she's female, she'll face the same. Nothing you can accomplish, no matter how vital and important, has precedence over motherhood, whether you wanted it or not."
"What can I do?"
"Nothing. Take care of yourself. Remember who you are and, if you can, try to get it back after you're through carrying this child. You have a good chance, given your education and standing. Others aren't so lucky."
She didn't feel lucky as she drove home that night.
Gary was waiting for her. "How you doing?" he asked her, dialing her a cup of tea.
"I've been better," she said, trying not to resent him. It wasn't just that he had left her to wallow in her terror all week rather than face it with her. He was also the one who put her in this position, and he seemed unconcerned. She should have been a lesbian and this would have been so much easier. "I'm furious that my life is being yanked out from me and no one will lift a finger to help me. Not even you."
"If I help you break the law, we both go to jail. I don't see the upside to that," he said in that calm way he had when he was determined not to lose his temper—and was generally successful. "I did research every free moment I had this week. I bet you did, too. You can't terminate the pregnancy or go somewhere else to get it done without going to jail and losing everything you've ever worked for." He reached over, picked up her hand, lifted it and kissed it. "Why not just accept the inevitable?"
"That I have to carry this fetus to term? Yeah, I get I have no options. That I have to have a bunch of hardware and supercilious assholes telling me what I can eat or drink until I get the little parasite out of me if I want my life back?"
"You're lucky."
"You're the second one to tell me that today. In what way?"
"Most women don't have health plans that provide guidance. If they break a prohibition and hurt their unborn baby, they go to jail. That's why so many of those convicted are minorities or poorer women. At least you have all the support you need."
"It doesn't feel like support. It feels like a punishment."
"Don't think of it that way," he said, soothingly, starting to massage her shoulders. He always did have great hands. "Think of it as an opportunity."
"Mmm. For what?"
"To start a family," he said, kissing the top of her head. "Just you, me, and the kid."
She jerked around, glaring. "I don't want a family! I told you that before we got married. I have big plans and cooing over an infant and changing poopy diapers isn't part of it. I did enough of that as the oldest of seven. There are plenty of people who want to be mothers. I'm not one of them."
"You say that now, but later on..."
"I'm not a teenager or a fool, Gary. I am a grown woman with my own mind, something I honed so that I could build a life in the field that mattered to me. I know what I want. And what I don't want." She let a tear slip out and hated herself for it. "I thought you were going to be in my corner."
"I am, baby. But wouldn't it be better to see it as an opportunity rather than a burden? This is the natural order of things, after all."
"Not for me. And don't start on about nannies or, heaven help us, boarding school. Being a parent is a commitment of time, blood, sweat, and tears. It's the best thing and the worst thing, I've seen first-hand, and shouldn't be undertaken by anyone on a whim or because it seems like a good idea. If you're not willing to dedicate the next two decades to a child, you shouldn't have one. Too many people who desperately want children have no business raising them. And now we're trying to make people who know they're not cut out for it do so, too? That's insane."
She got up and began to pace as she did when she was worked up. No, no no! She didn't want to commit to something like that. She knew what she wanted! "It's not for the weak of heart. The rest of your life is changed. Wanted to go to Macchu Picchu next year? Forget it. Gotta a concert you want to see? Can't get a babysitter. Nothing wrong in the world with taking on that kind of dedication if that's what you want. I don't. I want my own life without curtailing it back with responsibilities I didn't choose. And I don't see a reason in the world why I shouldn't have it. My life and dreams are worthwhile all by themselves and they don't involve my reproductive organs."
"I won't give the baby up for adoption," he said quietly.
"Won't you? Gonna give up your career in accounting to take care of it? Are you that dedicated?"
"Don't be absurd."
"Oh, giving up an accounting career when there are literally thousands of accountants within a stone's throw of here is absurd but asking me to toss my career away is fine."
"I'm not asking you to..."
"I want to be on the next expedition to Mars, Gary. I've already put in the paperwork and got the preliminary approval to join the astronaut corps. You'd be raising that baby alone. Is that what you want?"
"Of course not. But you're already leading the charge here on the ground and I've totally backed you there. Isn't that enough?"
"No. But it wouldn't matter if I was the manager of the local fabric store. I shouldn't be pushed into motherhood if it's not what I want. How can we value children so little that we insist that people who don't want them have them? Why do we insist the least responsible of us take on parenthood, easily the most responsible job out there? Damn it, kids deserve parents who want to be there, who knew what they were in for, who chose that kind of dedication. Kids deserve someone who isn't going to spend the rest of her life thinking about what she lost because she had a child."
"Is that your final word?"
He looked up at her, no sign of his dimple. "I'll move out this weekend. When the baby is born, I'll take custody. I'll work out a child support agreement."
"Yeah? Make sure you deduct the nine months of involuntary incubation and permanent damage you're getting in the deal."
"Ryder said you had to cut back on your hours."
"You and Ryder can both fuck off." With that, she slammed past him and into her bedroom.
The nightmare caliber of her life increased over the next weeks, only it was feeling more and more real. When she ignored Ryder's strictures, she found her managers had been informed and her hours were cut to sixty. She had no choice but to delegate, including activities she trusted to no one but herself. After a few more weeks, the morning sickness kicked in, but not just in the morning. After several meetings interrupted by a run to the restroom (and once, a trashcan), she asked for anti-nausea medicine but it was refused unless she lost enough weight to endanger the baby. Even with her hours curtailed, she began to feel exhausted and caught herself nodding in other meetings. At this rate, she'd end up snoring.
Gary moved back in, advised by his lawyer—apparently fathers could talk to them without the mother's involvement—that divorce proceedings were best not pursued during pregnancy if he wanted the baby and that his case would look much better if he had "supported" his wife during her gestation.
Though when she thought of support, Maureen didn't think of someone who pouted half the time in silence and who tried to cajole and browbeat her into changing her mind the rest of it.
Her PCOS—the reason she'd been on birth control since she was a kid—drove an early test for gestational diabetes. Which, somehow, she had. So, sugar was eliminated from her diet and Gary took to monitoring her food choices at home and tattling on her when she veered from her "diet."
Things came to a head halfway through month two. Still nauseous, she was brought to her boss' office and told that her subordinate would now be leading the program. Her protests fell on deaf ears, even if her boss looked sympathetic. They'd been informed that Maureen could not travel out of state as a precaution and that made the coordination the next few months impossible. They hoped she understood and would still provide insight when her hours allowed it. The letter, rejecting her from the astronaut corps was waiting for her when she came home.
Everything she had ever wanted had been taken away by an unwanted blob of flesh inside her no larger than her thumb. She wept all night.
Her face was still swollen when she rose for work the next morning. What did it matter? She didn't bother with makeup, braided her hair and left, in her usual work clothing, complete with flat shoes. There was no need for maternity clothes yet.
For the moment, she still had her nice, close parking spot and it was a short walk to her office. Even so, a biker startled her when she stepped of the curb and her knee chose that moment to give out.
She tried to catch herself but lost her balance and ended up sprawled on the roadway, her hand and knee badly skinned. When she tried to get up—and people ran to help her—her ankle was unable to hold her weight.
Someone called for an ambulance and, again, she was given no choice. It was on the way to the hospital only blocks away that someone noticed she was bleeding between her legs.
She was wheeled in frantically, doctors and nurses hovering over her belly, trying to save the embryo inside it but it was too late. Its placenta had already detached, its processes shut down though no one could say whether that happened before or after it had lost its source of life—herself.
Doctors disappeared as quickly as they'd come, leaving her to bleed in a big thick pad no one used any more but hospitals. She hated that she felt a little sad. Fucking hormones. Worse, she hated that this was yet another thing she had no control over. The administrator came by to tell her she would be discharged as soon as they'd finished the paperwork. Gary did not answer the phone or her text message. Prick.
When her door opened without a knock, she started from her doze, hoping to see Gary. Instead it was needle-nose Van Ryder, carrying a clipboard and a voice recorder. "Ms. Foster, I hear you managed to kill your own child," he said by way of greeting. "I'll be recording our conversation."
"It wasn't deliberate!"
"They all say that, sometimes with bloody hangers in their hands. What happened?"
"I stepped off the curb, lost my balance and went face-first to the pavement. I didn't feel anything with the pregnancy, just my knee and ankle."
Van scribbled on his clipboard. "Were you stepping on your trick knee?"
"Well, yes, but..."
"And did it give out?"
"Only for a second. Usually I can compensate but I was distracted by a passing biker."
He scribbled some more. "Were you wearing the brace that was recommended?"
"No, I wasn't. That thing is uncomfortable and it's August in Houston. I think it does more harm than good."
"But it might have prevented a fall that just coincidentally terminated the pregnancy you have repeatedly told everyone you don't want."
Maureen felt fear well up in her throat and swallowed it back down, tasting the bile. "It was an accident."
"I didn't do this on purpose. I don't hurt myself—that's insane—and if I ever would contemplate it—which I didn't—I wouldn't use a stupid unlikely method like this."
"Easy enough to say. I have heard from your superiors that you were pulled off your project yesterday due to your pregnancy. That seems like a pretty powerful motive."
"It might have been if I'd been thinking that way. I doubt they'd hand it back no matter what, even though the pregnancy is over, so I don't see it as any motive at all. I will admit it made for a sleepless night and a distraction."
Needle-nose turned off the recorder and rose. "I'll consider the matter after I speak with the father of the dead child. After I've heard his story, I'll decide whether to turn this over to the cops."
"What could he know about it? He wasn't there!"
But Needle-nose was already gone.
When Maureen finally got a taxi home, she was unsurprised to find the house empty, her husband's things gone. Nor was she surprised to be awakened the next morning by cops coming to take her into custody. Negligent homicide was the charge, a sop from Needle-nose. Six years instead of twenty. Probably because her skin was white.
After posting bail, she returned to find a petition for divorce and was greeted, via email, that her job was suspended until the charges had been settled.
Was there no end to the nightmare?
Six months later she found out for sure. "Guilty as charged," she heard with a smack of a gavel. Convicted for falling down and spraining her ankle—which still hadn't healed completely.  Maximum penalty, six years, which she got.
Two years later, she sat, listless, in her isolated cell. She'd heard—it was all over the news—of the spectacular failure of the first manned mission to Mars, due to an oversight she had in her plans to look for and correct. But, of course, no one looked at the plans of child killer. The rattle of keys let her know lunch was coming. Not that it mattered. Most trays were sent back untouched. Why bother?
"I don't know why we bother to feed monsters like you," the guard said by way of greeting. Usual guy, then. "People like you make me sick. You're less than human."
She thought of what she'd built for herself, what she'd dreamed, all the potential she'd had that had been thrown away through no real fault of her own. Because someone else impregnated her and she was no longer given even the courtesy and power extended to corpses.
Less than human. So, she had discovered.




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