Such as It Is

When our daily batch of fertile eggs from the Talos biofab unit arrives, I always move the trays into incubators while Ahimsa stays in the brooder to tend to the hatchlings. She was in charge of removing empty shells, keeping the station tidy for our steady stream of exhausted arrivals. Welcome to the world, robins, such as it is. We’re not supposed to assist in any way, but Ahimsa can’t help herself. If she hears pecking but sees no progress, she moves things along with a crack. As I was leaving for the incubation suite, I saw her hold an egg up to her ear.

“Let’s let nature take its course,” I said. Being born requires great stamina on the part of the chick, who has to relentlessly peck and push to open the shell. When it rests, which it must, we hold our breath, knowing some barriers are insurmountable. If there is no chick after twenty hours from the first pip we’re told to discard the egg. 

“What nature?” she said, with a snort. “Which nature?”

I have no answer to that. Nature hasn’t been natural for ages. Ever since the Extinction Emergency, more than a century ago, when the sun’s radiation damaged the world’s gene pool, regeneration has been in the hands of Talos, our intelligence manager. Humans could not have survived otherwise. Nothing could have. The robins, like us and every other living thing, down to the smallest fleck of plankton, need genetic modifications that allow us to live in an environment vastly different from the one in which we evolved. If we’d let nature takes its course back then, we would not be here to argue about it now. Still, in rewilding programs, we’re told to stick to nature’s old script as much as we can.

 “If they can’t fight their way out of their shells,” I told her, “they’re not going to make it out in the world.”

“I can’t watch one struggle and die because of a bit of stubborn shell, Esaura. I won’t. What if that’s the only challenge it has to overcome and I didn’t do anything about it?”

Oh, honey, there are going to be so many more challenges than that, but I let it go. Eggs needed to be incubated. When I was done stacking the trays, I adjusted the humidity and returned to the hatch room. But as soon as I opened the door I could tell there was a problem. Ahimsa was hunched over, staring into her cupped hands, her forearms resting on her pregnant stomach. 

 “What’ve you got there, Ahimsa,” I asked, as if I couldn’t already guess.

She cracked open her hands like an egg, revealing a damp hatchling, a bit of shell still attached to its head. Baby robins are not cute. They have transparent skin and no feathers, and this one was lopsided to boot, with only a pimpled stump where a wing should be.

“Poor thing,” I said. In spite of genetic assistance and screening, deformities still slipped through. It’s tough to take. You can’t help but think of those old images from the Emergency, when defects were extreme and species-wide. It’s hard for Ahmisa, who has a powerful bond with all living things, even plants. There was a time she’d only eat fruit and vegetables that dropped off their stems. Our marriage almost didn’t survive, nevermind her body, but now she’s eating harvested food, even meals produced in the biofabs as long as they’re vegetable-sourced. We couldn’t have initiated a pregnancy otherwise. 

“I’m going to name him Bennu,” she said. “Can you find an intensive care box?”

“It’s a bit soon for a name, isn’t it?” We haven’t even talked about one for our own baby. It’s hard to think too far into the future. 

“He’s fine, except for …” and lets her sentence trail off. We’re supposed to euthanize deformed chicks and send them to Talos for genetic dissection, but Ahimsa refuses. If a hatchling is alive, no matter what shape, it stays and we care for it for as long as, well, for as long as. And then we ship it to Talos. Most never survive more than a few hours in spite of Ahimsa’s heroic measures, but a few go on for weeks as high-maintenance pets. They’re fed pureed worm with a syringe, and if they fly at all, it’s into walls. They live for a while but never thrive. I warn Ahimsa not to get too attached, and then I get too attached. Our joy in helping to replenish the earth is mixed with the sadness that comes with working with any mortal creature. And yet, at other rewilding facilities, survival rates are not nearly as good as ours. The robin was an early success, so there’s been time to work most of the bugs out. 

“I’ll find a nest, but let’s do a genoscan first so Talos knows.” 

“No, they’ll want us to … “ and she paused. “They’ll want him back.” 

“Until we scan you don’t even know if it’s a ‘him,’” – nestlings being impossible to sex. “And keeping genetic information from Talos only harms the species. You can make his life worthwhile if we can get the data and see what went wrong.”

“Don’t say that,” she snapped. “He’s already worthwhile just the way he is. He doesn’t owe anything to the species. Talos can wait.” 

I raised my hands in defeat and went to find an IC nest. It’s dangerous to push Ahmisa. She flirted with the Conclusion movement a few years ago, a group that believed the best way to restore the Earth was to let humans die out. Easy enough. If Talos stopped assisting human regeneration, babies would be born without the genetically modified greenish skin and enhanced lungs needed to survive the degraded atmosphere. During the Emergency, humans perished in mass mortality events until those genes were engineered, and they’ve enabled all the progress that followed. Otherwise, the only survivors would’ve been a handful of elites with access to bunkers, oxygen, and space transport, remnants from a cruel hierarchal system since replaced with equitable governance. I only wished Talos would tinker with human nature directly. With a quick flash of a gene splicer we could be free of greed and megalomania, but that’s not allowed. Even so, when we were getting pregnant, Ahimsa complained that Talos was over-manipulating our zygote, what with all the adjustments needed just for survival. But there’s no other option. We can’t go back to our natural state until we return the earth to its. 

I found an IC box, and Ahimsa lowered Bennu in its warm embrace. She saniscanned her hands and touched her stomach. Our baby. I can’t wait to meet him. Unlike Bennu, I know it’s a him. We left gender to chance, such as what chance there is in the in vitro lab, where they used my bone marrow cells to fertilize one of Ahimsa’s eggs. So much safer than sperm, which I don’t have anyway. Most couples don’t use sperm, even those that have access to it. Testicles are too exposed and vulnerable to lingering radiation. As for the baby, we knew we’d love it no matter what, and gender is such a spectrum anyways, what difference does genitalia make? Then, as soon as Ahimsa saw a penis on the scan, she started worrying that the baby’s core gender wouldn’t align with it. 

“What if he’s really a she, or non-binary, or something we don’t even know about yet?” she asked. 

“It’s not today’s worry,” I told her. There are so many other worries, it’s hard to know where to start.  

Bennu lived beyond a day, then another, and before we knew it, he was all feathered out. We gave him physical therapy to help him walk, but we don’t know what else might be wrong. Ahimsa never scanned him, and I don’t push it. It’s best not to poke at an adder with a sharp stick, as they used to say back when there were still adders. When he no longer needed auxiliary heat, we let him limp around the facility, which is also our home. One of the reasons we applied for this job was so we could live in one of these arbor-shelters, which are engineered with tree DNA to grow out of the ground on several trunks. Using fractal mathematics, the trunks can be programmed to grow an infinite number of environmental niches. A little application of growth hormones here, a bit of judicious pruning there, and we have an exercise room for Bennu, as well as some ramps. The closer we got to the baby’s due date, the more obsessed we were with making our home accessible for a one-winged bird.

“I worry we won’t have time to do all this later,” I said, as I watched Ahimsa flex Bennu’s single wing. 

“We’ll find the time,” she said, and did not look up. 

“I wonder if we should start thinking about the baby’s nursery?” I asked.

Ahimsa stopped rotating the wing and appeared lost in distant thoughts. Bennu looked at me with his dark eyes and blinked.

“Okay, we don’t have to talk about that now,” I said. “It’s time for the last feeding anyway. The worms have arrived.”

Ahimsa placed Bennu on her shoulder and I helped her get up from her knees with a groan. She adjusted her turban, which had slipped forward on her bald head. Talos designs radiation-tolerant fur and feathers for non-human animals, but hair has resisted manipulation. The good news is, Talos predicts the atmosphere will be so improved in a generation or so, that human hair might sprout on its own someday soon, and maybe even stick around. 

We headed for the brooder room, hand in hand. The feeding schedule is every four hours throughout the day, starting as soon as the hatchlings are dry. It’s unbelievable how much they eat. Fourteen linear feet of worms each in the first two weeks alone. We spread writhing masses of them on screens over each brooder, where they fall into voracious beaks. 

“Why?” Ahimsa asked, holding a squirming, liver-colored worm in the palm of her hand. “Why do they have to eat something so alive?”

We have this conversation a lot. “It’s their diet,” I told her. “These are the same bio-fabricated worms that are rewilded for them in the world.”

“They like berries too,” she said, and placed the worm on the edge of the pile, as if giving it a chance to escape. 

“They can’t survive on berries,” I said. “If Talos designed them to be vegetarians, they wouldn’t be robins anymore. We’re trying to replace what was, not create new species.”

“Who are we to say what a robin is, or how it’s supposed to look or act? These birds are so genetically different from ‘natural’ robins, they can be anything at all. None of us is natural anymore, so why conform to old rules?”

“Because it’s the way back. It’s what we owe the Earth.”

“Pooey,” she said. 

I turned off the brooder room lights so the birds could go to sleep and stop thinking about food for a few hours. “Sleep tight, robins,” Ahimsa said, and we stood for a moment listening to them settle down with a few confused chirps. The red heat lamps glowed in the darkness, and it was finally quiet in the facility. Time to finish up with the best part of our day. When the hatchlings are a few weeks old, looking more like birds than fetuses, we move them from their brooder to one of the exterior fledgling cages, where we teach them to fend for themselves, placing food farther and higher each day until they fly. Then we set them free. We do this after sunset, so the birds can get their bearings before exposing themselves to predators. Talos was reporting success with hawk rewilding, so, you know. The robins are encoded with GPS, so we can track their progress. Darkness insures it doesn’t end in minutes. 

The cages are attached to the back of the facility, for direct access. Our arbor-facility is its own carbon pump, so we don’t need to bring oxygen with us. But since we are far from the  city with its regulated atmosphere, it’s always a good idea to wear safety hoods and cloaks over our tunics, which make us look a bit like birds ourselves. Above us, on the rows of perches, the robins are roosting, muttering in their sleep. They are handsome now, with speckled brown coats and orange breasts. 

“Let me,” said Ahimsa. She pressed a button and the roof netting rolled open. At the same time, audio recordings of robins began playing in the trees, singing of the world. The birds shook and flapped their wings and looked around. One flew up into the night sky, then another, and suddenly the whole flock took off in a loud flutter. There are always a couple who can’t figure it out and we moved them along with brooms. “Goodbye, robins,” I said. “And good luck.” Since this was the season of lengthening days, this batch will probably go through the motions of mating and producing eggs. Whether they are viable is another question. Like us, most of their engineered genes are not heritable, but there are always some surprise adaptations. Evolution is slow, but not immobile. The stats for reproduction in the wild aren’t great, but considering it wasn’t too long ago that robins only existed as a smudge of DNA stored in the MoonArk, it’s amazing they were here at all. 

Then again, it’s amazing we were here at all. 

Ahimsa and I held hands and looked up as the robins disappeared into the night and settled in the branches. When I see or hear a robin out in the world, I think, we did that. We helped make that happen. 

As our due date got closer, Ahimsa spent more time with Bennu, combing his feathers and cheering him along in his bumbling walk. She still refused to scan him, but since it looked like he was going to live, I wanted to know if there were any other issues to watch for. If Talos wanted him back, I could override the request. I hoped. So one morning while Ahimsa was out, I scanned him. His chromosomal data appeared on the screen, including the fact he was a he. Then a message: “There is nothing wrong with this robin except for the wing. It is a random aberration, not a heritable trait. Would you like us to send the material to regenerate it?”

I heard a door slam. “Ahimsa,” I called. 

“What?” She came up behind me, and looked at the screen. “I thought we agreed we weren’t going to scan him.”


“Oh,” she said. “Oh.” We looked at one another, and then at Bennu, sitting on the floor. We didn’t know such a thing was possible. Talos had gotten pretty good at regenerating limbs and some organs, mostly for humans, but a wing! 

“I love Bennu the way he is,” Ahimsa said, and picked him up. “But I think he would choose two wings if given the option, don’t you think?”

“I think we’d all choose two wings if we could.”

The truth was, if it weren’t for the human legacy of environmental damage he might’ve been born with both wings to begin with, so it was up to us to help nature along. The syringe arrived that night, and Ahimsa cradled Bennu while I gave him a shot on his pimply bump. It would take a few weeks for a fully-feathered wing, and after that, physical therapy, and who knew? Maybe even flight. In the meantime, Ahimsa finally started nesting. We stimulated branches for a nursery, then went to a biofabrication facility to create a crib, baby tunics, and diapers. We signed up for birth classes and started practicing breathing exercises. Ahimsa didn’t want any pain killers, not even resonator relief, for fear the baby will get sluggish. She wants to avoid a C-section, but if necessary, that can take place at home as well. Hospitals fell out of favor during the Emergency. Everyone was sick and dying, so a building dedicated to the sick and dying lost all meaning. Medics come to the home for just about everything, and prepare a robotics operating theater there if need be.

As Bennu’s wing grew, we ramped up his PT. When the wing filled out, we encouraged flight, but he was fearful and hesitant. I told him if he learned to fly, it didn’t mean he had to go. We could find a place for him here, forever. He looked at me and blinked.

One morning, two weeks before her due date, Ahimsa woke up all crampy. I let the ob-medics know, and they told us to go about our lives and keep them in the loop. We did our chores slowly, like walking on eggshells, and got through the day without escalation. After dark, we put on our cloaks and went out to a fledgling cage, where a graduating class slept. The moon was full and bright and we could see every intertwined tree branch in the reforested land around us. Dappled light fell on the ground. The air smelled like pine and wet earth. It was all so lovely. Off in the distance we heard the soft hoot of a rewilded owl, another miracle of science and human perseverance. I pressed the button and we watched as the roof netting rolled back and the birds slowly woke up and took off. 

“Oh, hello,” said Ahimsa. Bennu had flown up to her shoulder, pretty much as high up as he had ever gone.

“I forgot to shut the door,” I said, but before I could grab hold of him, he was gone, flying straight up and out of the cage. 

“He’s not ready,” Ahimsa cried. “He’ll die.” 

We grabbed lights and headed into the woods, searching the branches. But it was too dark, and he was so small. We went back inside. Ahimsa was sobbing as I activated Bennu’s GPS. He was not far from the facility, although we didn’t know if he was alive. The GPS could be in the stomach of the owl. We packed up some worms and love to lure him back. 

Or not. Ahmisa started pacing. “Something is up,” she said. 

I called the ob-medics, and then I contacted the biofab to send workers in the morning to do our chores. Cucco and Lullina, the ob-medics, arrived within the hour. They wheeled in a surgiscan and sterilized the guest room, just in case. They set up a table in the corner of our bedroom, and then they made tea. Cucco handed Ahimsa a warm, aromatic cup, and Lullina shuffled a pack of cards. I encouraged Ahimsa to sip the tea and she relaxed, somewhat. I sipped and relaxed not at all. I rubbed her back with each contraction, and through the night we labored and waited, labored and waited. The tea kept coming. Cucco and Lullina scrambled some eggs around midnight. Ahimsa and I passed. Once in a while one of them stood up and pointed a scanner in Ahimsa’s direction.

“Fantastic,” Cucco said, looking at the screen in her hand. “The baby’s heartbeat is nice and strong. He’s taking these contractions in stride.” 

Then they went back to their card game. Once in a while we were distracted by their laughter and clink of glasses. I don’t know what they were drinking. Not tea. 

I wished we were taking contractions in stride, but I got more anxious with every one. The hours went by. Ahimsa rested a bit between the pain. She woke up, screamed, then fell back to sleep. I got no rest. I hated myself for not carrying the baby myself and sparing Ahimsa this hell. Before dawn, the contractions abruptly got much stronger and we were thrown into a dark, tight space. The pain was so intense with so little time in between contractions that Ahimsa couldn’t catch her breath. I couldn’t breathe for her. I couldn’t make it go away. I forgot all about the baby and just wanted it to end.

“This can’t be normal,” I said. 

“You’ve got to break a few eggs to make an omelet,” Lullina said, and looked at her cards.

“How about some pain-killers?” I asked.

“No!” said Ahimsa, curling up like a burnt feather.

“Let’s see.” Lullina stood and pointed the scanner. “Hmm.” She gave Cucco a look. 

“This baby needs to hustle,” said Cucco, who came over with a jar and massaged a hormonal compound onto Ahimsa’s scalp. “Let’s see if this relaxes things.”

“No,” said Ahimsa, pushing her hands away. “I want a natural birth.”

“Death is natural too,” Cucco said. “Let’s let the ointment do its job.”

I took Ahimsa’s hands in mine and she glared at me while Cucco continued massaging. Lullina lit up some sort of herb that filled the room with a buttery scent. Then she made more tea. “Toast?” she asked, and I passed.

They went back to their card game, and from there it went from hard to impossible. The ointment made the contractions more powerful but not more productive. We were in a prison of pain and exhaustion. Ahimsa had no strength. She seemed far away and I couldn’t reach her. I wiped her forehead with a cool washcloth. Cucco put on some music that sounded like rushing water and I wanted to explode. Ahimsa felt no need to push and labored intensely to no avail. Nothing was happening. I felt a weariness I have never known. I lay on the bed staring at the ceiling of tightly woven branches.

“This isn’t working,” I said. “Do something. Do anything.”  

Lullina scanned, frowned, and pointed towards the sterilized room. “Let’s move in there.” 

“What does that mean?” I asked. “Are we going to have a C-section?”

“No!” cried Ahimsa. “I can do this.”

“Let’s get you under the surgi-scan, just in case,” said Cucco, helping Ahimsa up from the bed. 

 “The baby’s not in a great position.” 

“I’m not going in,” said Ahimsa, and she pulled away from Cucco before I could grab her. Lullina, standing by the door, looked up too late from her scanner, and Ahimsa ran right out of the room and down the hall.

“Follow with the surgiscan,” Lullina said to Cucco. “I’ll bring the steripack.”

Cucco disappeared into the sterilized room and Lullina and I ran down the hall. Ahimsa was gone. She wasn’t in the kitchen or the living room. Lullina checked the bathroom and closets. If Ahimsa had gone outside without protection, we were in trouble. Would she really put the baby at risk like that?

“I know where she is,” I said, and Lullina followed me to the hatch room. The heat tables were empty, warming up for the pipping eggs that would be arriving soon. Cucco came running behind, wheeling the surgiscan in front of her. We heard crying, and found Ahimsa on her hands and knees on the floor, by the window. 

“It’s going to be okay,” I told her, but I didn’t believe it for a minute. Cucco began sterilizing the space around us with vapor. 

As Lullina and Cucco set up the equipment, I got down on the floor with Ahimsa. She leaned up against me and we both looked outside. The sun was beginning to show some pinkish light in the distance. The leaves were in bud and the Earth seemed to pulsate with life. I wondered if I was hallucinating. Ahimsa was in a state of transcendent consciousness where her suffering had transformed into acceptance of her approaching demise. It was a place I could not follow, and I felt doomed to die alone. I heard the nestlings over in the brooder room begin to waken, and listened to our replacements outside on the dock unloading the morning’s worm delivery. Overhead, birds were singing, not just robins, but sparrows and wrens. Maybe even Bennu. I hoped he’d survive and learn to love the world while he could.

As Lullina arranged the surgiscan, Ahimsa looked up at me. “Robin,” she said. 

“Yes, those are robins,” I said. “I’ll look for Bennu soon.”

“The baby’s name,” Ahimsa said, with mad-looking eyes. “Robin.” 

 “Robin,” I said. Of course. 

When the surgiscan panel was arranged right above Ahimsa, Cucco turned it on. Lullina lifted up Ahimsa’s tunic and rubbed anesthesia on her stomach, and a bit under her nose to make her woozy. A laser dropped from the panel and made a blood-less cut across Ahimsa’s stomach. Another laser unzipped the uterus and she went limp in my arms.

“Is she okay?” I asked, and Lullina sucked in her breath. She and Cucco assisted rubber robotic arms in yanking opening the incision, and suddenly all I saw was red. “Should there be so much blood?” I asked, and no one answered. Suddenly a half dozen arms released from the panel and there was a flurry of activity.

I was losing her. I was losing them both. What were we thinking? What insane ethicist decided that humans must go through this bloody hell instead of safely biofabricating fetuses in labs like other species?

“Isaura,” said Lullina. “Listen to me. Ahimsa has a ruptured artery. We’re going to remove the uterus with the baby to stop the bleeding.”   

Ahimsa was no longer responsive, and I couldn’t speak. A storm of robotic grippers and clamps descended from the panel and into the incision, and then a frightening moment of silence. In that fathomless eternity, in which I knew I would never return, Cucco hold up a wet, crumpled human who let out a little cry. He made it. Suddenly Robin was in my arms, still attached by the cord, as Cucco oversaw the mechanical devices as they cauterized arteries and removed the uterus with its placenta. Lullina rubbed a little substance on Ahimsa’s arm and she came to. I placed our small, slippery person on her bare chest. “We did it,” I said.

“Good job, people,” Lullina said, as she threw a blanket over him.

“Something’s gone wrong, hasn’t it?” Ahimsa said, examining her baby.

“Robin is fine,” I said. “You’re fine. But they had to remove the uterus. It’s all okay now.”

“My uterus?” she said, clutching Robin as she stared down at the blood-stained battlefield of her body.

“I’ll carry our next one.” I said, bravely. Ahimsa snorted, and went back to counting fingers and toes. 

“Talos can generate another uterus,” said Cucco. “I’ll scan this one for them.”

“What would we do without Talos?” said Ahimsa, kissing the top of Robin’s head. “That wasn’t a very natural birth, was it, baby?” 

“Nature’s not all birdsong and blossoms,” Lullina said. “It’s a violent game of chance.”

“What’s that?” I asked, and touched fuzz on Robin’s greenish scalp. “Hair? Is that hair?”

“Look at that,” said Cucco, sealing up Ahimsa with a bandage designed to regenerate incision cells. “The human body’s trying to find its way back.”

We heard hundreds of baby robins start screeching over in the brooder room. Our replacements must have arrived with the worm cart.

“I hope Bennu is okay,” Ahimsa said, looking out the window. 

“He’ll be fine,” I said. “He had you as a mother. We’d better move back to our bedroom. They’ll be in here soon with the day’s eggs.” 

Cucco moved the surgiscan away, and Lullina leaned over us with a genoscanner. “Let’s have a quick look at his genome first,” she said and I held my hand up. “Not now,” I said, not wanting to know if anything’s wrong. “Not today. Talos can wait.”

I looked in Robin’s face and he looked at me and blinked. I tucked the blanket around him and helped Ahimsa into the wheelchair Cucco had brought over. We all looked out of the window, a reconstructed woodland of soul-breaking beauty. “Welcome to the world, Robin,” I said. “Such as it is.”

About the Author

JoeAnn Hart is the author of the prize-winning fiction collection Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, the crime memoir Stamford ’76, and the novels Float, a dark comedy about plastics in the ocean, and Addled, a social satire. Her novel, Arroyo Circle, is forthcoming from Green Writers Press in October 2024. Her work often explores the relationship between humans, their environments, and non-human creatures.

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