The industrial track-lighting in the Romer Onyx complex always reminded Susan of a piss-yellow color. Her artistic temperament incited her to naming colors that elicited strong feelings in her. Susan’s stomach tightened as it did every time she came to Central Office, which was not every often. Even the smell of the anti-septic hallways brought back a rush of memories that re-ignited anxieties she had buried sixteen years ago.
As a contractual employee, Susan was granted a lot of freedom in her work, and it limited her interactions with other RO staff. Keesha’s voice was always inside her head, reminding her that she had made an ethical compromise.
“You can’t change the inside from the outside,” Susan would tell Keesha. “You have to work change from the inside. And then, we can claim our power from within.”
Keesha was never convinced by this. “Show me when that’s ever worked out for folks like us, Mom. RO will make you believe you’re making changes, but they’re just fooling you into complacency!”
Keesha’s argument always gave Susan pause and a feeling of uneasiness. But she wanted to believe that what she was doing, in the long run, was the right choice. She had to.
Today, she quelled her unease with her excitement that Keesha had finally agreed to take an internship with RO. She didn’t even ask what had prompted her daughter’s change-of-mind. Susan didn’t care. She was just eager to have some time to be close to her daughter.
Susan had developed a variety of ways to quell her loneliness as the girls grew older and farther away from her. She never wanted them to feel guilty about deciding not to go with her to the colonized city. Nor should they, as the children, feel the need to adjust their lives to accommodate the needs of their mother. Their happiness was paramount. She leapt at the opportunity to help Keesha apply for this job painting a mural on the side of the Westborough Town Hall Annex building, as part of the corporate led initiative to “beautify” the blighted urban landscapes and recast them in their RO image. It offset the massive demolition projects RO had been spearheading throughout the rest of the city, leaving its occupants scrambling to find new places to live. What concern were they to the RO grand project?
The air was acrid and cool inside the RO headquarters. Her feet whispered down the carpeted hallways until she reached her destination: The office of Randolph Parks, CEO of Special Projects. She tapped lightly three times with her finger tips.
“Come in!” a voice replied from the other side of the heavy walnut door. She pushed it opened.
“Hello, Susan!” Mr. Parks said standing up from behind his large glass desk. He strode his large six foot frame over and embraced her with both arms.
“Hi, Mr. Parks,” she replied, politely pushing herself back to a more formal distance. “Good to see you, too.” She forced her best smile.
“Susan, it’ been too long. What has it been? Perhaps six years since you’ve been here to say hello?” He thought for a moment and then added, “How is Keesha?”
Susan’s stomach tightened. “Oh, she’s fine. Thank you. But you probably knew the answer to that without having to ask me.” She grimaced a little.
His smile hardened just slightly. “Well, I’m glad to hear things are going well.” He moved back toward the window and looked aimlessly outside.
“Did you …ever …tell her?” The word tell hung heavy in the air between them.
Susan realized she had overstepped her boundaries.
“Keesha says she is looking forward to her internship with me and RO,” She said with genuine optimism. “And no,” she said in a low tone, “I never told her.”
He turned back toward her with a frozen smile. “Good! Well, then. We look forward to bringing her into the fold!”
Susan fought down the bile rising her throat. “The fold.”
“You know, Susan,” he said, pretending to flip through a stack of papers on the edge of his desk, “Without the DNA program, we wouldn’t be standing here now talking about Keesha’s future, at all.”
She knew that without him, and without the funding and technical support from RO, Keesha never would have been born. Sperm donations were expensive. Susan had spent her life saving on becoming pregnant with Naomi and was barely able to pay her rent for months after her birth.
“I know, Mr. Parks. I was very grateful to be selected for embryonic tissue experiment.”
The hope was that RO could grow patented human tissue that was then successfully implanted into a woman’s uterus, and brought to a full term pregnancy and healthy delivery. The idea of genetically modified and patented seeds, successfully mastered in the previous generation led the engineers and technicists to ask themselves, what else could they grow and patent? Could they patent humans, like seeds? From the data they generated at birth, every facet of the human condition could be controlled and monitored.
Susan knew the community would help her get herself the food and housing she and her new baby would need. She had months of mural painting jobs lined up throughout the city, as Interregnum City was still enjoying its renaissance period following the struggle for decolonization. She had a solid safety net.
How many late afternoons had she and Kelley spent walking through Green Square Park, laughing at how her tall and lithe form was growing to resemble a Q tip with a basketball growing out of the middle.
More than a dozen times he said, “Susan. You know how I feel about you.” He’d let the tips of his fingers brush hers as they walked. “Why don’t we make this a family thing, huh? You and me? I love Naomi like she were my own already. How could I not love this little one inside you right now any less than I do her? Or…you?”
Susan would blush. Kelley was a smart, strong, and honest man. She cared for him, but kept her mind from entertaining the idea, since she knew it could never happen.
“Oh, Kelley,” she sighed, as dogs and children raced across the grassy lawn and stopped directly in front of them, causing them pause mid-stride on the walking path. “You’re my best friend. But I don’t want romance. Not right now. I want to raise my girls. I want to go see what’s out there, you know, beyond the limits of our community.” She needed a believable cover. Kelley was not an easily swayed man.
“You’ve been out of here, travelling a whole bunch” he retorted. “You’re not sheltered. And I would never stop you from going wherever you want to go. You know that. I could stay and watch the girls, even” He was making a hard sell.
“I don’t know, Kelley” she said, squeezing his fingers a little tighter. He smiled. “Let me think about it,” she promised.
She had been thinking about it now for 15 years. And Kelley waited faithfully for the day she’d change her mind. She would never be able to tell him the real reason. She could never tell him about the deal she had made with RO in order to have Keesha.
In exchange for being given a healthy embryo which led to birth of Keesha, Susan had to agree that moments after her birth, they could implant Keesha with a chip that would enable them to track and collect data from her. Psychometric data that tracked her brain functioning, her chemical balances, her blood pressure, pulse rate…every biometric or sensory piece of information ceaselessly and painlessly flowed from Keesha into the data base at RO.
As part of the exchange, Susan was also required to work for RO. But Susan had never told Keesha, nor Kelley, nor anyone about this. The RO experiment had been top secret. So, instead she told Kelley, “I want to see more of the world out there,” forcing her best poker face. Kelley was not easily fooled and so she avoided further discussion of the matter. If she wanted to have Keesha, she would have to give up Kelley. She made the deal and tried never to look back.
“Mr Parks,” she asked him after a long silence as he continued to shuffle through papers as if she were not still standing there.
“What happened to the other women? What happened to them and their RO babies? How come I never see any of them here? Or anywhere else?”
His smile faded and his face became expressionless. She had pushed too far.
“You know I can’t discuss other subjects of the study with you…or with anyone else for that matter,” he retorted, sharply.
“I’m sorry, sir. It’s just that …,” she reached for something, “I am so grateful to have Keesha. And I would love to know that other women were as lucky as I have been.”
He nodded with silent acceptance. She had to dig herself out of this awkward moment. Too many questions were dangerous. The less she stuck her nose into RO business, the safer she could keep Keesha. When the girls were old enough, and she and Naomi insisted on staying in Interregnum City even after she moved out, Susan was quietly relieved. Her plan had worked; her plan to get Keesha as far away from RO as possible. But years of loneliness were getting the better of her. She missed her daughters. So how could she say no when Keesha herself volunteered to spend eight weeks with her? The maternal desire was too powerful, and it drowned out her gut fears.
She said good bye, walked carefully down the labyrinth of hallways, and gasped for air as she swung the rotating doors from the front lobby out onto the front steps of the building.
As Susan walked toward her car, recovering from her meeting with Mr Parks with every step, Mr Parks was on a very important phone call. He stood at his office window, looking down below as she scurried through the parking lot.
“Yes?” a voice said on the other end of the phone.
“We have her.” Mr. Parks replied.
“Are you sure? This could easily blow up in our faces.”
“It’ll work. Trust me. Remember the golden rule: You bring your enemy into the tent if you want to eliminate them. It’s easier to take them one of you than it is to eradicate them by force. Disappear people through co-optation. Dissuade change by making people forget what they were asking for in the first place.”
“Okay, then. But you’d better be right.”
“I always am,” Mr. Parks said, and then he hung up the phone.
Susan turned the key in the car’s ignition, took another few deeps breaths, and smiled to herself. “What could go wrong in eight weeks?” she convinced herself. It would be great.