The Ballad of Natsumi-Lynn

It was hot the day my wife came back to me from the dead, so hot the smell of the Crap Factory –my pet name for Sanitation Station #3, where I’d once been employed—hung in the air as if the sludge were bubbling up from the ground right there in my backyard. It was an odor to which I was so accustomed that I hardly noticed it all as I sat in the shade of the daisy tree my son Shingo had created, watching a couple of robotic bees trying to make sense of flowers the size of small cars.

“Dad?” Shingo called from the back door, jolting me out of my post-dinner stupor. “Come inside.  I need to show you something.”

“In a minute,” I told him, surprised he’d emerged from his room, into which he retired pretty much every day after school.

I sat finishing my HealthBeer Lite, wondering what Shingo wanted, and one of the bees landed on my arm, the tiny green GlobaCo logo on her back glinting in the sun. I was a little giddy, partially from the beer and partially because Shingo, who had just turned thirteen and rarely deigned to speak to me at all, wanted to show me something. I marveled at the bee, which sat calmly cleaning her antennae. I looked at the tireless little worker and smiled, knowing my face was a tiny bit of information in the data stream billions of gigabytes deep the bees were constantly transmitting back to The Hive, where I worked, tending her swarm. When she was done, I shooed her gently away with my breath and went inside.

The lights were off in Shingo’s room, and it was lit only by his TV Wall, which was tuned to the Pop Idol station with the volume turned all the way down. A young girl writhed, impaled on a wooden stake, mouthing the words to a song that was no doubt about love as colors strobed in the background, lighting the otherwise darkened room with rainbow lightning. Shingo was lost in the projection of a DNA helix that spun slowly in the air in front of his face. He didn’t seem to hear me enter when the door swooshed open, and I stood for a moment, watching my son, amazed at how much of Natsumi-Lynn there was in his fine-boned features. The resemblance to his mother was uncanny, and I thought that it must be a burden to see her face each time he looked in the mirror, the same cat eyes, the same thin lips.

Natsumi-Lynn’s ship had vanished nearly two years before, into thin air, so to speak, though there is of course no air in space. There was no wreckage, no communication from the pilots that anything was wrong; they were just simply gone. She was still officially listed as missing, like all the other first wave space station colonists, but I’d finally given up hope of her ever returning, even though her ship could recycle its air forever and regenerate food for decades.

Shingo’s eyes were trained on the projection, his hand working methodically in the air, rearranging base pair sequences, plucking them out of nothing and inserting them amidst the twisting strands. He spent nearly all his time doing this, but I had never really watched him, as it was all done in the secrecy of his darkened room. The other kids on the block had all wanted IPad implants or LifeLike  human pets for Christmas, but the only thing that Shingo asked for was the  Lil’ Gene Splicer. I figured that it would end up collecting dust in the back of his closet alongside his other fleeting adolescent obsessions, but he’d spent nearly every minute he wasn’t in school with it.

My son, it turned out, was quite a prodigy at gene splicing and base pair sequencing. Shingo had not only mastered the insertion and replication part—frankly, the whole process still baffled me—but had shown a flair for the dramatic and the elegant in his creations. His first project was to make the rose bush in the backyard produce obscenely large bananas. It had nearly landed me in the prison farm when some nosy neighbor had turned us in for violating the laws against private citizens producing food, but the policemen who came to arrest me settled for torching the bush when I offered them a bite of the bananas, which tasted so bitter as to be completely inedible and quite possibly poisonous. His next project was the daisy tree, which had quickly grown larger than our house, energized as it was with the base pair sequences that gave kudzu its furious urge to grow.

I marveled at my son, lost in his work, until I began to feel like I was spying on him, like I’d walked in on him in the midst of some private pubescent ritual. I cleared my throat to announce my presence.

“Don’t be mad,” Shingo said, barely glancing in my direction before turning his attention back to his work.

“What am I not being mad about?”  I asked, trying to strike a friendly but still parental tone, like the parenting advice websites I’d consulted had suggested. My wife’s death had cast my own parenting incompetency into the light. I longed for the natural connection she’d had with him, forged, I guess, in the womb, but I could never hope to achieve it. My own relations with Shingo following his mother’s death were tinged with formality, as if there was some sort of fault line widening between us. I touched his TV wall, turning it to a live feed of the sun rising over the earth from the Mir III, where Natsumi-Lyn and the rest of her team had never arrived. The morning rays washed out the projection of his model and he looked at me, annoyed.

He held up a hair brush, one I’d kept in the bathroom I’d shared with my wife long after I’d moved the rest of her things that I hadn’t dumped into the matter recycler into the attic. “I found some of her hair,” he said. “Just promise me you won’t be mad.”

Of course I was mad. The instructions were clear: This toy is intended for use only on plants. It is unlawful to use this product to engineer any manner of animal or human life. Shingo and I talked about that on Christmas morning. Despite the warnings, there were supposed to be safeguards that made it impossible to use the Lil Gene Splicer on animal DNA. But Shingo told me he had gone to the Deep Web on the TV Wall and figured out a way around it, something to do with substituting alternating base pairs in sequential order, which I understood about as thoroughly as I understood the inner workings of the bee control computer systems I managed at work, which is to say not at all.

“It’s really quite simple once you understand that DNA is a universal code that translates into the same protein language no matter what kind of organism it comes from,” Shingo said. “It’s the protein that…” here he launched into a mini-lecture that might as well have been in Latin for as well as I understood it. I was caught between paternal pride and the desire to turn him over my knee and spank him like in those ancient parenting texts.

“Get to the point,” I said finally.

“I figured out how to grow her,” Shingo said. I wanted to pull him into my arms, this poor boy who missed his mother so much he’d come up with some make-believe plan to bring her back, but the stilted space that had grown up between us rendered such a display out of the question.

“Son,” I said, searching for the words. He wouldn’t look at me, just stared past me to the TV Wall, where the MIR III spun slowly in space. If Natsumi-Lyn’s ship had made it there safely, Shingo and I would be on our way to join her by now, making our way with the other families on a five-month journey across the black expanse of space. “I miss her too. But you can’t do it,” I said finally. “It’s…”

“I’ve already started,” he said. “In the arboretum.”

“You have to get rid of…” It? Her?

“It’s too late for that,” he said, still watching the Mir spin.

The arboretum was a tiny alcove room in the center of our house, with doors on three of its four walls leading to Shingo’s room, my bedroom, and the kitchen. It had been Natsumi-Lyn’s sanctuary; she liked to sit in the sun beneath the glass ceiling, studying for her spaceflight simulator tests, surrounded by the plants she loved but could never keep alive. I hadn’t set foot in the room since she’d gone missing except once to clean out her dead flowers.

Maybe it was just because he’d genetically engineered his plants for life indoors, but Shingo obviously possessed a green thumb that neither his mother nor I had. The walls of the arboretum were covered in ivy with leaves the color of roses, and in the corners stood sky-blue sunflowers that turned their seeded faces toward us when we walked into the room.

“She’s over here,” Shingo said, something about the sound of his voice making a little knot of dread in the pit of my stomach. He pointed to a bush dense with green-black leaves in the center of the room. One wilted bloom hung from the backside of the bush, the petals which had once been soft yellow turning brown like Koffee – stained paper. Shingo parted the leaves on the plant and showed me his strange fruit. It was an infant, tiny and curled into a fetal ball, the stalk of the plant growing right out of her belly button, the wilting bloom attached to the crown of her down-covered head. She was an impossible thing, alien and with the slightest tinge of green to her skin, but when she looked at me with those unknowing, almond-colored eyes, there was no mistaking that it was our Natsumi-Lynn.

*  *  *

Sometimes I caught Shingo watching the unofficial news. There is something innate in the children of his generation, some instinct for gadgetry, and he is able to program the TV Wall to find the deep net feeds it is designed to hide. A lot of parents’ circuits would fry if they caught their children watching anything unofficial, but I am not most parents. Curiosity and some degree of skepticism about the world is healthy, I think. Back before Natsumi-Lynn got me the job at GlobaCo, before Shingo was born, I used to watch the unofficial news, too.

In those days I was feeling pretty bad about things. Natsumi-Lynn was in training at the GlobaCo Spaceflight Complex, and she was gone most of the day every day. Just two years into our marriage, I’d lost my job at the crap factory when GlobaCo took over sanitation and mechanized the workforce. One of the wonders of life is how paunchy, plodding me, who always carried the faintest fetid whiff of my job wherever I went, had managed to win the heart of Natsumi-Lynn, who was compact and beautiful in her way, sharp enough to be in training to fly spaceplanes to the Mir and back. I was sure there was no way she could still love me, jobless and clingy, and I knew in my guts that she would be thrown into intimacy with some fellow spaceplane trainee. I imagined him, my rival, to be tall and square of jaw, with a fine salt-and-pepper grizzle to his perfectly trimmed beard. I was resigned to the idea that she would leave me, powerless to do anything about it until the job freeze thawed.

I began talking about all of this to Shelika-Liu, a woman I met at the KoffeeMat, where I would go to pass the endless afternoons of Natsumi-Lynn’s training. One day she invited me to her apartment and made me lunch, sandwiches with some berries she’d bought on the black market. She offered them to me casually, as if she trusted me instinctually, even though they were quite illegal, and it felt I was being inducted into some kind of shadowy secret society. Of course I was scared I’d get E. Coli or some other archaic disease eating fruit virtually straight off the bush like some kind of monkey, but Shelika-Liu laughed at my naïveté and pressed one of the blackberries between my lips with her fingers. It was soft and taut like a nipple and it burst in my mouth like nothing I had ever tasted. I made love with her on her unmade bed, in the light of the moon feed on her TV Wall, and the memory of it is infused with the tart, sweet taste of those blackberries.

Shelika-Liu and I had lain in the digital light of the moon for so long that the glare of the sun was jarring when I left to walk back to the downtown apartment Natsumi-Lynn and I lived in during those days. As soon as I stepped back out into the daylight, the flood of illicit thrill and turgid sexual instinct receded, washed away by the weight of the sun and replaced by terror and dread. Surely Natsumi-Lynn would find out what I’d done. I’d gone and thrown away the only thing I had in one desperate, reaching moment. Was that a fever starting or just the heat of the sun on my brow, unprotected because I’d left my hat at Shelika-Liu’s?  Had I gone and contracted Salmonella from those grubby berries given to me by a woman I barely even knew? Would the doctors who puzzled over the diagnosis find evidence of the illegal fruit in my guts?  If I wasn’t sent for a stint in the prison farm, the permanent mark on my record meant I would never get a company job. Natsumi-Lynn would finally have all the reason she’d ever need for leaving me.

Or, perhaps worse than all that, she would just know.

But she didn’t know, and my guts accepted the strange fruit without complaint. I was putting the breakfast dishes in the matter recycler when Natsumi-Lynn came in from work. She was crying, something about failing a zero-G test and having to retake it, and she ran straight to our bedroom, collapsing on the bed. I took her tiny, strong-muscled feet into my hands and began to knead them, whispering reassuring words that sounded empty to me but seemed to help.

“I couldn’t do it without you,” she said. When I was done with her feet, she pulled me up to her face and breathed into my neck in the way that she did when she wanted more than just a nuzzle. I obliged, fearful that she’d taste the juice of those berries on my skin somehow even though I’d taken two showers.

Afterwards, what had happened with Shelika-Liu seemed remote, something like a dream. I vowed I’d never do it again, and I made the same vow every time I left Shelika-Liu’s apartment after that, sometimes three or four times a week. She fed me well during those afternoon trysts: plums with skin nearly the color of her own, carrots and onions straight out of the ground, something called collards that tasted like bitter flowers and earth, whatever she managed to pick up from her mysterious connection. How I wished that I could share those plums and carrots and onions with my Natsumi-Lynn, who’d only ever eaten things from boxes and packets and plastic jars. But of course such a thing was out of the question. She’d leave me for bringing contraband into the house and jeopardizing her career before she’d made even one flight.

Eventually Shelika-Liu invited me to come with her to meet her contact. Though I never asked her what she did for a living because I didn’t want to know if she was a food dealer, she always had a lot of money, and she told me I could pick out whatever kind of fruit I wanted, that it was possible there might even be some strawberries, which she assured me tasted nothing like a Strawberry PopIdolTart. She showed me a video on some unofficial news feed about a private farm being raided by a GlobaCo SWAT team and urged me that I could never tell anyone about what I saw when I visited the farm. She even joked (at least, I think she was joking) that I’d have to be blindfolded on the way there.

I was excited to go, as the whole thing was charged with secrecy and a clandestine air, but I never did. That same night Natsumi-Lynn came home from training bursting with news. She’d passed her Zero-G training with flying colors and had managed to get me an interview with the NanoBee division. Her flight instructor, who had connections all over the company, had agreed to put in a good word for me. GlobaCo, after all, prided itself on family and loved nothing more than bringing whole families into the fold. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, afforded me only because my wife was a rising star in the company’s space program. I never went back to Shelika-Liu’s apartment, and I avoided the KoffeeMat, and I never saw her again.

I never watched the unofficial news again, either, and now, fifteen years later, I worried that Shingo’s curiosity might jeopardize my career. I didn’t want to get called into Mr. I’Chang-Smith’s office because our house’s IP address had shown up on some questionable register. But Shingo assured me that he’d installed some kind of scrambler something-or-other for his TV wall and could watch whatever he wanted and never have to worry about anyone knowing. He seemed to know what he was talking about, so I let it go, figuring it was just a phase.

And like most things with him, it passed. Since I got him the genetic modification kit, he’d barely watched the TV Wall at all, and when he did, it was either Pop Idol or the computoon about the farting cow in the zoo. And farting cows never hurt anyone.  Aside from hastening the Great Climate Shift, I mean. But that had been under control for decades, thanks in part to GlobaCo’s Clean Meat division. Some of the old folks complain that the steaks and chops grown in the factories don’t taste as good as those cut from the flanks of living, breathing, shitting cows and pigs, but such nostalgia isn’t just disgusting, it’s illogical. Where would we be without synthetic MeatyMeat? How would we feed the world’s population without corn modified for pest resistance? Starving, that’s where. Or we’d still be poisoning ourselves dumping cancerous pesticides and herbicides all over our crops, which is just where we’d be if the chemical wing of GlobaCo had won the Corporate Civil War.

And I’d be out of a job.

*  *  *

In the months that followed, Shingo and I nurtured our baby, pruning the leaves away from her face and feeding the roots of the plant with GlobaCo brand Flower Food. By September she’d grown so much that the branch which bore her bowed to the floor and she lay stretched out across the room, nearly five feet tall, a fully grown teenager. The flower that had crowned her lovely head had long since withered and detached, leaving just a faint scar beneath her onyx-black curls. At Shingo’s insistence, we’d gone into the attic and brought down Natsumi-Lynn’s clothes and dressed her in a gown loose enough to allow for growth and fixed her hair, trying, finally with some small degree of success, to style it the way Natsumi-Lynn did, in short waves around her face.

Though she did not speak beyond toddler-like murmurings, she followed us around the room with her eyes, and we’d taken to eating our meals in the arboretum with her. Often when I went to wake Shingo for breakfast, I’d find him asleep on the floor, curled up next to this teenaged doppelganger of his mother, clutching her like a giant teddy bear, and it was impossible in those moments to think of the whole thing as anything short of a miracle.

By the time the NanoBees had been recalled for their winter hibernation and reprogramming, our busiest time at work, the new Natsumi-Lynn was fully grown. Aside from the faint greenish hue to her skin and the few tiny, lacy leaves that sprouted from her ankles, she looked just like the Natsumi-Lynn I’d married fifteen years before, young and fresh-faced and quite beautiful. She even smelled like my Natsumi-Lynn, though with a faint underlying floral odor reminiscent of gardenias. One night after Shingo had gone to sleep in his room, I drank a six-pack of HealthBeer and went into the arboretum. I’d intended only to tuck her in for the night, but I was very drunk, and I began to cry when she looked up at me with those beautiful, vacant eyes. I cried like I hadn’t cried since I’d held Shingo in my arms while we watched the space fireworks they’d shot from the MIR III in memory of the lost colonists.

When I was done with my blubbering, I talked to her. I told her that I was scared someone would find her. I was not sure what they would do to me if they found out what I’d done in creating her (of course I would have to take the rap for Shingo, if I could fool their brain scans) but at the very least they would take both of them away from me. I told her that it was my fault for letting Shingo go so unsupervised, that I was a terrible parent, even after I’d promised her that I’d take good care of him until we finally met her on the MIR when phase IV was complete. I told her things I’d never even told the real Natsumi-Lynn, or anyone else. I told her I hated Mr. I’Chang-Smith so much I often lulled myself to sleep at night with thoughts of piercing his shiny skull with one of the screwdrivers we used to take the bees apart. I told her I was scared that I would trip and fall in front of the train on my way to work or come down with cellular sclerosis, leaving Shingo to grow up in one of the factory orphanages. I told her that I loved her. Finally I told her everything about Shelika-Liu and felt positively flooded with relief, the guilt wrung out of my chest like dirty water from a rag. She just looked at me with those unknowing eyes, and I buried my head between the soft pillows of her breasts and went to sleep.

*  *  *

When Mr. I’Chang-Smith called me into his office during the height of the bee hibernation software reboot, I was sure that he knew about Natsumi-Lynn. She was present in every moment of my life, the thought of her running like some stray program in the back of my mind even when I was away from her at work. The thought of what Shingo and I had done gnawed at me. What had we created? Some brainless vacuous monster in the guise of our beloved wife and mother? Surely, I feared, we would be found out. Perhaps a stray NanoBee, too damaged to navigate its way home, had found its way inside our house and transmitted images of her back to The Hive. I was sure that the gig was finally up when Mr. I’Chang-Smith smoothed his blue-dyed mustache and slid a PADD across the desk to me, saying there was something we needed to talk about. I took the PADD, expecting to see a picture of me curled up beside Natsumi-Lynn, her cheeks wet with my tears.

Shame and terror rose inside me in equal measure until I thought that I would break down crying right there in the office, a Level II violation in itself. But it was just a performance review. My numbers were down, though still within acceptable parameters. “You’re doing good work,” he said in his unctuous way, “but you can do better. Why do you think the batch processing numbers are down? Anything going on at home? We could schedule you some time to talk with the Counseling Department? Or maybe Reassignment?”

I didn’t want to be reassigned. I’d only gotten the job in The Hive because of Natsumi-Lynn, and it was better than anything else for which I might be even marginally qualified. Certainly the pay was better, and I was expecting Natsumi-Lynn’s housing subsidy to dry up any day now, whenever they decided to officially declare her dead, and I was worried about paying the mortgage on my pay alone, even working at The Hive.

Of course the reason my batch numbers were down was because I was living two lives. I was always on edge, expecting someone to find out about the horrible thing that Shingo had done, the thing that had brought us so much happiness. But I mumbled something about getting accustomed to the new software protocols and trying to cut back on Koffee, and soon I was on my way back to work, Mr. I’Chang-Smith’s hand lingering a little too long on my back as he patted me out of his office. I tried to put Natsumi-Lynn out of my mind and concentrate on the NanoBees coming down my line, culling all the ones with visible wing damage and deactivating those which buzzed and flopped feebly, somehow having stayed charged through the deactivation cycle.

The next day was a Tuesday, my day off between rotating shifts. After Shingo left for school, I took my MeatyMeat Bacon Breakfast Pops into the arboretum to have breakfast with Natsumi-Lynn, as had become my custom. I’d sit and eat, talking to her about my day, about Shingo’s grades at school, showing her pictures of me and Shingo with the real Natsumi-Lynn, holding up household items and saying the names like she was a toddler learning to speak while she sat there blinking. Her murmuring had recently taken on a new insistence, and once I even thought she’d said my name.

It was beginning to sink in that at some point, our fruit, at once strange and familiar, was going to ripen. I went to her like I would to her sick bed, kissed her gently asleep at night like everything was normal, but in my darkest hours I lay awake wondering just what Shingo had done.  Had he grown a Meaty Meat simulacrum of his mother destined to become little more than an animated hunk of guileless flesh in the image of our exquisite Natsumi-Lynn? Or would she ripen into a real person, capable of thought, of speech, of love and all the other beautiful and terrible things of which human beings are capable? I didn’t know which was worse, or what we were going to do with her either way.

As I walked into the arboretum with my breakfast, I was struck by a moment of panic. Natsumi-Lynn was gone, the stalk that had borne her stretched, brown and dried like an umbilical cord in the dirt on the floor. I heard a whimpering noise behind me, and I turned to see her hiding amidst the rose-colored ivy climbing the wall, a look of animal fear in her eyes. In that moment I wanted only to hold her in my arms, to comfort her and protect her from the world into which we’d brought her. It was the same urge I’d felt when the real Natsumi-Lynn would wake in the midst of her terrible dreams about dying in space, the sheets wringing wet with her sweat and twisted around her body like a tourniquet. But when I moved toward her, she hissed like a cat and scrambled away, trying to climb the ivy covering the opposite wall until it broke free from the bricks and she fell back to the floor with a wounded cry and cowered in the corner.

I sat on my haunches near the bush on which she’d grown and marveled at her for a moment, making what I hoped were soothing, reassuring noises. We sat that way, looking at each other for a few minutes, until she began sniffing at the air and eyeing my Breakfast Pops. I held one out to her, the way one would to a wary cat, and she inched forward to snatch it from my hand and gobble it down.

“Hungry girl!” I said to her when she’d eaten the second one, and she seemed pleased at the sound of my voice, a peal of laughter escaping her lips. When she’d finished the Breakfast Pops I brought her another round of them and a box of SynthApple Juice. I had to teach her how to drink from a straw, which I did by mimicking the action, and by the time she’d finished the juice, she was comfortable enough to allow me to stroke her hair. Soon she lay her head on my shoulder and fell asleep, breathing softly on my neck, and I sat watching her sleep long after my arm went numb, afraid to get up and break the spell.

She awakened some time later, and we passed the entire afternoon talking and petting one another. I babbled on and on about who she had been, or rather, who the previous Natsumi-Lynn had been, and finally she pointed to herself and said “Sumi? Sumi-Lynn?” It was quite a feat, and in my excitement, I leaned forward and kissed her, deeply, on the lips. To my surprise, she didn’t recoil from me, but rather leaned in, as if kissing me that way was something she’d been born to do, woven right into her DNA.

Her lips bore the taste of my own Natsumi-Lynn, and I pressed them harder to mine and reached to cup her breast in my hand. I was clumsy and out of practice after two years of grieving chastity, and I pawed at her like a fumbling teenager. She returned all my advances in kind, pushing her mouth into mine so roughly she bit my lip hard enough to bring blood. In the middle of it all, Shingo, home from school, burst into the arboretum from his room just as she tore the buttons on my shirt, the soundproofing spell of the insulated walls giving way to the relentless cacophony of the Pop Idol station spilling into the room.

“Get off her!” he yelled, and Natsumi-Lynn jerked away from my arms and bolted out the door into his room. I tried to soothe her, to lure her back into the comfort of the arboretum, but she ran from the pounding music and pulsing lights of Shingo’s room into the hall, through the living room. She recoiled from the TV Wall there, where the MIR spun silently, and ran straight for the front door, which shwooshed open and spilled her out into the world. Her gown fell off of her as she crossed the front lawn, and she loped, naked and stumbling, on her unsteady legs, all the way to the fencewall that separated us from the street. She ran back and forth along the orange metal wall until she tired herself out and then sank to her knees in the corner and gave a mournful howl.

I walked over to her slowly, warily, as if she were a puppy that had been hit by a car, one I was scared would snap out at me and bite me despite my efforts to help. I stopped before I got to her because I had no idea what I was going to do. I looked back at Shingo, watching me from the porch and looking frightened, more like a little boy than the sullen man-child he’d somehow become. A look of what I like to think was understanding passed between us, and he came into the yard beside me. We stood together, looking at our Natsumi-Lynn, this woman we’d fashioned for ourselves out of genetic raw material and our bottomless longing. I think both of us saw what was to come stretching out before us in that moment, and we both knew that she would run away from us over and over again, and that we would forgive her every time.