Draft of Chapter 1 for my forthcoming science fiction novella, “Labor”

Chapter 1: Trademark on a Scream

Aiden was disruptive, perhaps … not because he was innovative exactly,
but because he borrowed ideas from one industry and trademarked them
in another.  His first million came from a simple idea, trademarking a
scream.  Conservatives called it pornographic and disgusting; liberals
called it capitalistic, cliché, a laugh track; but couples continued
to request it as the soundtrack of choice for their birthing
experiences.  But I must apologize.  I am getting ahead of myself.

You see, Aiden played with electric cars as a child. Indeed, he was
fascinated by them and as an adolescent would pore over the car zines
on his iPad, learning every detail of the industry.  As a teen he
began his own electric car video blog in which he did 45 second
summaries of the most recent innovations in electric car tech.  After
one of his videos covering electric SUVs went viral, he caught the
attention of Vedra Industries who offered him a deal right out of high
school to be the official vlog for their new, all-electric sport
utility vehicle, the Vedra Climber.  Aiden’s family, not being
wealthy, encouraged him to take the offer, which he did without
hesitation.  So Aiden skipped college and went straight to work from
home, doing what he loved in a vlogging studio funded by Vedra.  The
aha moment came when he began focusing on the cottage industry of
trademarked engine noises.  Ever since the landmark court case in
which Valetti Auto had been forced to pay millions in settlements to
cover up the tragedy of the silent Valetti, electric car manufacturers
had turned to musicians, sound effects masters and voice actors to
create sound profiles for their vehicles that would meet a number of
human needs.  Among them was of course safety, but no one really
wanted a siren on every vehicle.  Traditionalists love a the throaty
sound of an engine, and most settled on some form of this sound for
their cars.  There were some creative interpretations that were
publicly acceptable in the same fashion, perhaps, that creative cell
phone ring tones and car horns had been tolerated in the past.  And
thanks to new technologies in sound trademarking, many small time
sound creators were effectively making a fortune off of just one good
track.

Right about that time there was also a breakthrough in home 3D
printing technologies.  People had been printing prostheses,
prescription and illegal drugs, car parts, you name it, for quite some
time.  The new frontier in 3D printing was in introducing new “inks”
and dimensions.  It really wasn’t much of a leap for Dr. Jim Phelps,
of Johns Hopkins, to merge in vitro fertilization science with 3D
printing to create what he dubbed the synthetic birthing canal.  This
“SBC” was initially seen by some as a step too far towards playing
God.  And yet, there was a tremendous market for it.  For one, risk to
the child and mother was infinitesimal.  By contrast, traditional
birth carried with it all sorts of risks that eventually would become
tantamount to child or spouse abuse to even consider.  If a mother or
father mentioned at a garden party that they were considering
traditional birth, they could anticipate awkward looks and in certain
regions, sometimes whispered slurs of “baby killer”.  Traditional
births were therefore done in secret with the help of religious
communities who specialized in that sort of thing.  An additional
benefit of the new technology is that it enabled couples to extend
gestation time for up to 21 months and thus meet legal requirements
for a termination of pregnancy much later than was traditionally
allowed.  Women’s rights groups hailed this as an advancement, and
anti-abortion groups called it infanticide.  The SBC also came with
attachments which allowed for a couple or group to “plug in” for a
procreation experience.  This option spawned a whole new area of
obsession for some who saw the impregnation experience as something
that could or should be shared by a community.  Some models of the SBC
could be worn in stylish front or back carriers so that the
anticipated birth could be celebrated with others.  Like the electric
car, innovation was opening up new ways of sharing human experiences,
and in some cases people still wanted to have something of the past
included.

Aiden anticipated, rightly, as he saw the technology develop, that
there would be a market for a traditional human sound experience with
the SBC.  A silent birth, to him, sounded just as unsettling as a
silent sports car.  What most of them would want, he imagined, was not
the actual sounds of birth, at least not at first.  They would want
some idealized version.  It could probably be sampled from real birth
sounds, but would need to be reimagined and sanitized, by someone
untainted by the actual experience of having done it, by someone who
could imagine the perfect birth experience.

Aiden’s first foray into the idea of creating a birthing soundtrack
required visits to a few of the aforementioned religious communes,
where he sampled sounds from 72 births over the course of 15 months.
He was horrified at what he saw.  The long hours of groaning, panting,
pleading, and weeping at once turned his stomach and rocked his
emotions.  It changed him.  It also changed his idea of what birth
should be.  Real birth was an experience so far removed from the
modern world, where suffering and waiting had been nearly eliminated.
Women in these communes sometimes chose to undergo traditional
practices of “laboring”, a word that had become arcane to common
language.

After some manipulation, he came up with what he thought was the right
combination of anticipation leading to desperation, turning to agony,
ending in joy.  It was created in blissful ignorance, but somehow
managed to land directly on the bulls-eye of what people wanted.
Couples would go in for their birth consult and be offered a
catalogues of potential tracks to choose from, only to say in unison –
“Aiden” which was slang for birth track 45 in the standard birth sound
library.

I am sorry to say that this is where we leave off for lesson three… I
will see you again on Thursday at one pm for our next installment of
“the history of technology” “vis-à-vis” … and yet “via” technology.
Please pardon my silliness… I have a bit of a thing for good old
fashioned words.  Ever heard the word “new-fangled”?  I love that one!
See you soon Adam!

The tweed and elbow pad clad tutor on the other end of the call
visibly shook with a chuckle just a bit before the screen indicated he
had hung up.

“Dad?…”

Adam leaned back in his chair and looked to his left to peer through
an open door and two walls of glass to see his father’s office on the
other side of the house.  He touched the screen of the wall in front
of him.

“Dad?”

Aiden answered the call.

“What’s up Adam?”

Adam pushed back from his desk and swiveled to look across the house.
His father had done the same.  They could see each other, about 50
feet apart across an open space, in separate glass rooms; and with the
call on, they could hear each other through the house speakers almost
more clearly than if they were in the same room.

“I just finished lesson three of HOT101 and they were talking about
you.  I thought I knew all this stuff already, but it sounds weird
hearing it said like in one story, you know?”

“What do you mean?”  Aiden’s head cocked to the side a bit.  Adam
swiveled back to his desk so he could see his dad’s face on the screen.

“I just mean… I know the reasons why you said you did it, and more,
because we’ve talked about it before.  Professor Lawrence seems to do
a pretty good job, I think, of getting some of the important stuff in
there.  He said you were horrified, though.  Was that right? Seems
kinda strong”

“Horrified?  At what?”  Aiden asked flatly.  He already knew what Adam
might say and anticipated that this conversation would require more
energy than his workday should allow.  He glanced away from his screen
at his phone which was buzzing on his knee with incoming tweets.

“At real birth.”  Adam felt himself beginning to sweat.  He hadn’t
really wanted to talk about it with his dad, but curiosity always
seemed to get the better of him when opportunities presented
themselves.

“Why did you and mom have me natural?”  If it was so horrible, why did
you put her through that?  I could have died, right?”

“Thank God you didn’t and thank God she didn’t.”  Aiden looked into
the screen at his son’s eyes. “Come on over here.  Let’s grab a
sandwich and I’ll answer any questions you have.  Can you get a beer
from the fridge for me?”

“Sure Dad – just a min.”

Adam stepped out of his room and took a left down some steps to the
atrium where there were potted ferns and a rustic farm table.  A steel
refrigerator with a hand carved rail handle was tucked underneath the
staircase.  He grabbed a beer and a coke, then tuna, pumpernickel
bread and mayo.  After quickly making the sandwiches, he set them on a
plate with an extra plate underneath and tucked two napkins into his
back pocket.  With the drinks in his right hand
and food in the left, he jogged up the opposite set of stairs to his
father’s office.  The door slid open automatically and Aiden pushed a
rolling chair over to his son in welcome.

“Thanks bud!”

“Sure thing.” Adam shrugged it off. “I have to say Dad, this history
of technology class is so weird.  He started with the wheel in lesson
one and we are already doing SBCs in three.  Somewhere in lesson two
things really sped up.”

Aiden had a bite of tuna sandwich in his mouth.  Swallowing
thoughtfully, he took a sip of his beer. “Time has been like that.
Things have been speeding up ever since I was born.”

“Born. So weird, right?  What does it mean anyway, to be born?  It’s
so arbitrary.”  Adam picked up his coke and peered over it leaning
back in his chair, anticipating that this comment would get a reaction
from his dad.

“I don’t think birth is arbitrary at all,” Aiden stammered, “And I
don’t think life is arbitrary either.  The difficult thing, legally …
and technically, is agreeing on what the two have in common.”  He had
lost his appetite for tuna but was suddenly wanting a second beer as a
backup in case the first one dried up too quick.  He looked at his
phone to see the time – 2pm.  He frowned and looked up.

“Why’d you do it Dad?  I could have died, right?”

“Really, the odds are quite good, and have been for quite some time,
plus there are other benefits to traditional birth, for your mom. Have
you asked her about it?  She might be a better one to discuss these
things with.  You know she was the one who insisted it was the right
thing when I was on the fence.”

“Really?”  Adam was surprised.  He was aware that there had been some
complications on her third birth, for his sister, Leila.  “Does she
regret not having Leila the safer way?”

“We have no regrets son.”

“Was it horrible?  Is it?”  Adam recalled the time he’d snuck into his
father’s sound lab.   No one knew it, but he had listened all the way
to the end of track 45, with morbid curiosity, to know where all the
suffering led.  To Adam it had sounded like the worst kind of torture
chamber he could imagine.  With the last ecstatic scream, timed
perfectly to the SBC crowning moment, the track transitioned to a Zen
sighing sound that would be drowned out by the first cries of the
baby.  Without knowing why, he’d found himself curled up on the floor,
weeping softly until the soundtrack of sighing noises subsided and the
room became silent.

“Did Professor Lawrence touch on the concept of ‘labor’”?

“He mentioned it.  But in my other history class we are studying labor
camps, so, to be honest, I don’t really see anything good in using
that word.  I mean, if it is good in any way, then it is the wrong
word for it, you know?”

“I know what you mean.  Words are a bit slippery like that.  They
don’t always mean what they should.”  Aiden took the last swig of his
beer and stared inwardly at the green bottle.

“Guys” … the voice came from the walls.  “Have you guys eaten already?”

“Yeah mom,” Adam said, a little louder than he needed to.  Despite the
clarity of the house intercom, his mom always tended to miss words
when they used it.  She said it was because she needed the human
connection – to look people in the eye. That always made Adam shrug at her, in a semi-understanding and less than semi-caring manner. “We’re having a man to man chat…. Dad says you might be a better one to ask about…uh, most of it.”

Aiden smiled sheepishly at his son from behind his desk.

“Don’t be hard on your dad, Adam” his mom’s voice chimed in, leaving
little bandwidth for Adam’s conscience within his internal dialogue.
“You can come over here and chat after I get your sister down for her
nap.  Or we can go for a walk if your dad doesn’t mind keeping an ear
open for Leila.”

“Yeah, sure.. no problem,” said Aiden. “He’s all yours.”  He seemed
just a little relieved.

Adam laughed, “Can I get you another beer dad?”

“I’m, good… I’m just, well, you know, a little awkward about certain
things I guess”  He was looking past his son, through the window at
the top of a tree.  Light was shifting through the tree.

“I get it dad. You’re introverted I think. I just don’t understand why
an introvert would become a famous vlogger.  How did that happen?”

“I’m a maven I guess – pretty good at going deep on a few things.
Those are the things I have a lot of confidence to talk about, and
then there are other things…. Things I don’t know a lot about, but I
feel…. You know?  I feel a lot about them, without having a lot of
facts, and it makes it hard to talk about things.  I got so used to,
from a young age that is, used to talking about certain things with
authority… in my voice – about electric cars and stuff.  And then the
SBC came along and I saw this opportunity … like it was so obvious to
me …. Like it was a fact, and I just did it.  But then I met your mom”

“At the birthing center.”

“Yes.  She was a holistic nurse.  She told me all this stuff that I
didn’t know anything about, and I couldn’t think it through.  There
were too many unknowns.  But I felt….”

“Felt what?”

“I felt….” Aiden stared at the light in the trees and seemed to be
lost for words.

“What dad”

“I just felt.”

Just then a text appeared on the wall in a faint lime green.  It read:

“Leila is asleep, come over. we’ll walk and talk”

“That’s my cue!” Adam said with a grin and swiveled out of his chair
to his feet.

“OK bud … I will see you a little later.  You know I really appreciate
you talking to me. A lot of sons don’t talk to their dads like this.”

“I know, right?” quipped Adam as he ducked out the door and bounded
away down the atrium steps.  His mother’s office was on the other end
of the house, through the atrium on the first floor, down a cool blue
glass hallway decorated with 3D translucent water drops running down
the walls as though one were walking behind a waterfall.  The
background sound was a synthesis of rain storm, nightingales, loons
and distant thunder.  It was his mom’s favorite motif for the first
floor when Leila was napping.  It made Adam want to find a corner and
lounge on a beanbag chair with a book. She was doing just that,
sitting outside the baby’s room in a slipcovered loveseat, reading
Jane Eyre. Lisa looked up at her son with a seasoned smile.

“Let’s go!”

“Mom, I do have a little work to do later, and another class this evening.”

“On what?”

“Literary devices.”

“Cool. Which ones?”

“Well, it isn’t on the syllabus, but Prof. Panza says he wants to talk
to us about frametales.”

“I haven’t heard of that one,” she said, with genuine interest.

“I’ll let you know how it goes.”  Adam shrugged his usual shrug.

“So, should we walk towards town, or do you want to get out a bit?”

Adam knew his mom always preferred to walk away from town. “Your pick” he said.

“I was thinking we could walk towards town, since I know you like to
stop in to Joz if we get that far.”

“Well that would be awesome.  We’d have to walk quick to do that, get
in and out, and still make it back for my class.” He knew she was
trying to soften him up, but he wasn’t sure why.

They stepped out the back door of the house and through the back yard
which was was a small manicured plot with potted plants and
vegetables. The path they were on was a 20 foot slate walk leading to
a pedestrian track just beyond a white picket fence.  On the track,
cyclists and joggers were commuting in both directions, clad in tight
fitting athletic fabrics of all colors.  Predominantly the runners
wore silver and metallic blues, the colors of the Joz brand.  The
cyclists wore brighter colors, including pastels and neons with
angular patterns or social icons.  Hanging a left on the track, they…

To be continued

 

***

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