Andrix bowed his head as he backed away from the long trestle table in the ornate dining room. Humility had gone out of fashion long ago, but he liked to keep the old ways. His father used to bow low whenever he entered a room, usually setting the ladies’ hearts aflutter and the men to grimacing, but Andrix made do with less. A mere nod these days spoke volumes.
Seven men and five women sat around a holiday feast, ready to partake of delicious offerings. Mr. and Mrs. Quint took up the head and the foot of the table, while three men sat on each side with women interspersed between them. There could have been other arrangements, of course, but with the way matters stood these days, it was best to take as few chances as possible. Surely, one of these women would find a suitable partner…or two.
Andrix stationed himself by the sideboard, ready to ladle out more hot punch, slide a fresh serving of echo-beef onto an empty plate, or scoop a fresh garden salad into the nutria bowl. He considered the settings. Four women had dutifully eaten their meal in proper order. The colorful nutria-bowl was always placed front and center so no one could possibly forget. Nutritionally balanced with every vitamin and mineral needed for a sound body and maximum fertility, the salad fixings included much more than lettuce. A variety of leafy greens, assorted high-value vegetables, nuts, seeds, dried fruit, and a tonic of iron and other rich nutrients assured a person that their reproductive system would have a decent chance of lasting beyond the pubescent years. The other offerings, bread, cheese, and soup, simply rounded out the meal. Dessert was only for those found worthy.
Frowning, Andrix focused on the one non-compliant. Older, in her mid-twenties, she appeared much too calm. Everyone else sat perched on the edge of their seats as if ready to rush to the nearest echo-lab at the first opportunity. He shook his head. It wasn’t for them to decide such matters. Growing the next generation took a great deal of care, and he, for one, wouldn’t leave such important matters in the hands of these lowly specimens.
Mr. Quint cleared his throat and lifted a glass. “Here’s to the new year! We’re ready for a fresh batch, and two of you will have the honor of carrying your DNA into the future.” He grinned at the expectant assembly.
A motley crew, Andrix assessed. The men were clearly the last of their line—weak and faded. Offspring chosen for their stylized bodies: thick gleaming hair, sultry green or violet eyes, wide chests with narrow waists, long legs, and small feet. Not an ounce of robust lineage among them. The women, young and thoughtless. The men, longer living, but pumped with replacement hormones. They’d never known the hardship of real work. Why should they? Within their bodies, they carried the only antidote to extinction. Unfortunately, it was the one thing that humanity could never create synthetically. Birthing pods only offered relief from the brutality of pregnancy; they didn’t solve anything.
A pity that, Andrix mourned. He’d never understood why people had been so enamored with the natural process. In general, it seemed that nature caused far more problems than it solved.
Mrs. Quint seemed to read his mind and raised her glass in imitation of her husband. “To humanity’s survival! Pick your man, gals, and we’ll see who is the lucky winner of this year’s fertility prize.”
The older, non-compliant, woman rose, her hands trembling, and faced the assembly. Her gaze darted in Andrix’s direction. “I choose the old way. If I am to honor the future with my life, I must do so honestly and love the man whose child I bear.”
Such deafening silence! Andrix had never heard the like before. Whose? How dare she? Children belonged to everyone!
From the far end of the table, one man rose. Elderly, late thirties, perhaps. A flop of black hair fell across his high forehead, which might have endeared him to certain careless types, but annoyed every fiber in Andrix’s being. If only he kept his scissors near at hand.
“Excuse my audacity, but I agree with…” He met the woman’s gaze.
They might as well have been kissing considering the intimacy of the shared moment. Murmurs and gasps rippled around the table.
Barely above a whisper, she intoned, “Sarah.”
He pressed one hand flat against his chest and smiled. “Jacob.”
A secret understanding, lighting up their eyes, passed between them.
In reaction to this departure from protocol and decorum, Andrix stepped forward. Mr. and Mrs. Quint appeared undone, completely unable to cope with the emergency at hand.
They were always useless, mere figureheads to take up the necessary space at the head and foot of the table, making the scene appear balanced as well as charming. Using his loftiest tone, Andrix announced that coffee and dessert would be served in the library.
With pleased oohs and aahs, the assembly hurried from the uncomfortable present situation and rushed into the main hall, leading toward the old-world book room.
Sarah and Jacob met in the middle of the room. He held out his hand, and she accepted it.
Enough is enough! Andrix chose this moment to clear his throat noisily.
The two lovebirds turned as one.
With a long-suffering sigh, practiced to perfection, Andrix marched close and delivered his ultimatum, “Leave and never come back! Your disgraceful behavior disqualifies you for any further participation in the lineage project. I will see that your names are erased from the online files, and you’ll never be admitted through these doors again.”
His face drawn, age lines tugging his features into somber thoughtfulness, Jacob took a long moment, apparently appraising Andrix from head to toe.
For the first time in his life, a hint of fear sped through Andrix. Is this what they feel?
Jacob shook his head. “It’s not your fault. You can’t possibly understand. We created you to do exactly as instructed. The fact that we’ve become your servants was never your goal, was it?”
Andrix straightened to his full height, a formidable 6’ 5”. “I have served faithfully, as did my father, and his before him.”
Her voice, huskier than expected, rose like a storm front. “Not father. Not son. You don’t know such things, not really. Just words to you. We created you when there weren’t enough of us. When flesh and blood failed. And you filled your roles perfectly. Too perfectly.”
His databanks replete with humanity’s mistakes, misjudgments, and the ever-present need for guidance, Andrix had enough ammunition to shoot down any theoretical or philosophical argument the two might devise. His competence stood between them and extinction.
In a brotherly gesture, Jacob patted Andrix’s shoulder and nodded in the direction of the library. “Go ahead and continue your work. You do it so well. But we’ll take another path. An old one.”
With a sigh, Sarah added, “One that was never honestly tried.”
After fear came dread, and Andrix realized, that given the option, he didn’t want to be human. “You have tried, and you have failed. Repeatedly. Artificiality is your only hope.”
Jacob’s expression, hard as stone, glared in accusation. “It is also a lie.”
Sarah took Jacob’s arm and headed in the opposite direction, toward two earthy brown, almost forgotten, doors, leading outside.
Wherever that leads… With his customary servant’s bow, Andrix backed away, then turned toward the library. After all, if no one else understood the power of humility, he would not forget. It had always served him so well.
A. K. Frailey is the author of 17 books, a teacher for 35 years, and a homeschooling mother of 8.
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