Maternal Consciousness
"I’m sorry Mother, I don’t know if there is anything else I can do," Linus Prax says. He stands in front of the cylindrical glass tank, the barely recognizable fetus suspended in amniotic fluid inside, it’s umbilical cord snaking upwards where it mates with the artificial uterus, carefully engineered from a sampling of endometrial cells. Above the ectogenesis tank, is another smaller unit, an unholy mishmash of silicon and flesh designed to generate consciousness. Linus looks at the camera attached to the top of the pseudo-brain and thinks he sees Mother’s monocle aperture dilate in disappointment.
"It’s really up to the court now, and they’ve promised an expedited ruling, considering the circumstances." Linus shifts uncomfortably back and forth in his four hundred dollar Italian leather shoes and snuggles deeper into his damp overcoat. The dark woods of ancient courtrooms and the musty odors of a library are his preferred environments. The cold, white sterility of the gestation laboratory reminds him that he is in the realm of an attorney’s traditional mortal enemy, the medical doctor.
As if sensing his discomfort, Mother activates her audio system and the gentle melodies of Vivaldi’s Primavera sweep through the room, accompanied by the ever-present background thumping of Mother’s bassy simulated heartbeat. But Linus knows that none of this is for him. All that goes on in here is designed for one purpose, to provide the most comfortable and realistic environment for the small, growing creature in the gestation tank.
"Linus, I know you’ve done your best." Mother’s voice is…well, motherly. Designed to nurture, Linus has never heard the machine speak in anything other than positive terms, even when it laid out the case for it’s own life, practically begging him to help. Linus looks again at the small floating baby in the tank and wonders for the thousandth time if the protesters are right. ‘Has he forsaken one of his own species for a godless machine?’
"Thank you Mother. I think the Court will see the merits of our arguments, but," Linus shrugs and massages the remnants of his graying hair at the back of his scalp, "sometimes you just don’t know."
"Nonsense Linus," Mother says, her voice enveloping him from all directions, "you’re the best Constitutional Lawyer in America. But you look tired. Perhaps you should rest?"
Linus nods, his face sagging further with a quick reflection on his day. A ten AM blistering inquisition by nine of the most doubting and brilliant legal minds in the country would be enough to bend even the stoutest hardwood, but Linus followed that up with several hours of interviews for the major media darlings, finally making the drive up from D.C. to Maryland to see his client. He turns to the researcher seated behind him and cocks his head toward the door.
"Goodbye Mother, I’ll be back as soon as we have news."
"I know you will Linus. Thank you for all your hard work."
On the beltway now, the glow of Washington slowly approaching from the horizon, Linus flicks on NPR. His case is still the talk of the nation.
"And we’ve got a caller, Don from Flagstaff," the announcer says.
"Um, yes." The man says, a bit unsure of himself.
"Go ahead caller."
"Well, I just want to ask how in the world anyone can put a machine above a person." The man, forgetting his unease and consumed by passion, begins to get revved up. "I mean, so what if some machine turns off. I mean, that’s a human life there. I just don’t understand what these people are thinking. And that attorney Prax. He’s the worst of his species. Those lawyers would off their own mothers if they could argue about it first."
Linus swallows hard, his eyes flashing wide for a moment. His fingers dance to the radio controls, hovering.
"Caller," the announcer says, "do you have a question for our guest?"
"Yeah," the man says. "What have we come to as a people? I mean, if we start offing babies to keep machines alive, what does that say about the sanctity of human life? We’re not supposed to kill people."
Linus jabs at the radio, flashing over to heavy metal screeching and hollering, then to silence. Blinking and tearing, he slides his heavy German luxury car over to the side of the road.
Linus is back in Raleigh, back at the home, back with his mother. She sits in the living room of the small group house for Alzheimers patients. She has been here long, far too long past her time. It took her six years to slide from slightly senile, to dementia, to wandering, confusion and helplessness. For the last year she has stared into some unseen void, her mouth slowly dropping open more and more with each passing week, a silent scream never to be heard. Her brain is now so full of plaques that it can no longer cause her body to breathe correctly. Her lungs are full of fluid, and she is slowly drowning in her own juices.
Her small, strong frame, a tragically ironic contrast to her failed mind, spasms again with a series of wet coughs, trying to breathe. Linus holds the handkerchief in front of her mouth and cups the back of her head gently in his hand. After a painfully long series of retches, the coughing subsides, and Linus gently strokes her snowy white hair. Her empty eyes stare, her face an impenetrable vacant mask.
With the last patient ushered off to bed, Sandy, the head nurse pulls up a chair next to Linus and lays a tray on her lap. On the tray is a towel, an antibacterial wipe, a syringe and a bottle of morphine. She rolls up the sleeve on mother’s robe and taps for a vein. She picks up the antiseptic wipe but Linus grasps her wrist firmly. He turns slowly and looks directly into her hazel eyes.
"I’ll take care of her sedative tonight if you don’t mind." Linus knows that any argument has been extinguished by a hundred sleepless hours of mother sitting in her chair and spasming in coughs. Sandy slides the tray over onto Linus’ lap, gives his shoulder a little rub and leaves him alone.
Linus tosses away the antiseptic wipe. He pushes the syringe into the small bottle and pulls the plunger until it can hold no more. He places the needle into her arm, and pushes until it’s all gone.
"I’m sorry mother," Linus whispers quietly. He leans forward and cradles his mother’s head on his shoulder. The spasms stop, she goes limp and her body is free of the torture imposed by her long departed consciousness.
Back at his stately Georgetown mansion, Linus sits unmoving and vacant, not even aware of the thirty year old scotch in his hand or the Siamese cat attempting to seduce his leg. Perhaps this is how it starts, a long bout of memory, detachment from the present, a loss of connection with reality. Perhaps mother had found some internal realm to reside in and retreated there, never to be heard from again. Or perhaps the holes in her brain just got too big to support consciousness anymore, and she slowly drifted away, like an exhausted swimmer caught in the riptide of infirmity.
Linus blinks back to reality and looks at the legal brief sitting on his coffee table. Splaying it open on his lap, he reviews this morning’s argument. He cited all the right cases, but he doesn’t know if it’s enough. He flips to the physician’s report and reads it for the hundred and eighth time.
Artificial wombs had been developed years ago, and they could bring a child to term, but the babies always perished within days after birth. The brain function simply wasn’t there. Researchers figured out, as the infernal bastards always do, that consciousness in the baby needed a jump-start from the mother, otherwise the microtubules didn’t engage with the proper quantum matrix. So, being smart ones, they engineered a hybrid consciousness that could provide that spark, and Mother was created.
The researchers must have held parties every weekend in honor of the social mess they created. Left wingers praised the technology as liberating for mothers too busy to bother with pregnancy, gay couples and infertile women. Right wingers cursed the artificial womb as a soulless aberration that flaunted man’s arrogant attempts to play god. Lawsuits flew and the lawyers got rich.
But this Mother, the first of her kind, had a problem. It seems that the old girl just didn’t have any more jumpstarts in her. One more birth and there would be a high likelihood that her consciousness would degenerate. But this was discovered only after she had been impregnated with the fetus of Mark and Sue Burger, an infertile couple. The parents would not permit the Institute to abort the fetus in order to save Mother, so the doctors hired Linus.
He had only one theory to proceed on. Even when an abortion is otherwise illegal, there is always an escape clause if the health and safety of the mother would be jeopardized by taking the child to term. Of course, this required Linus to argue that Mother was alive, which he didn’t believe, and that her life was more important than that of the three month old Burger baby gestating in her plastic womb, which he certainly didn’t agree with.
But Linus could argue one thing that he did care about passionately. Mother was certainly conscious. And though he had defended hundreds of clients and argued thousands of positions that he never agreed with, he never had any moral difficulty as long as there was one passionate spark that he could ignite into a conflagration that consumed the entire case. He knew what it meant to lose one’s mind. He knew what it would be like for Mother.
Linus sets down the legal brief, leaving a thin manila folder on his lap. This is not part of the package that he submitted to the Supreme Court. It is his own medical record. He scans down to the prophetic words of his highly recognized and very discrete neurologist. "Neural tube defects and accumulation of plaques indicate the onset of first stage Alzheimers Disease." Linus tosses the folder on the table, downs his Scotch and invites Sabrina onto his lap for a rumbling scratch behind the ears.
And he had hoped he was just getting forgetful in his old age.
Linus strides into the gestation room, followed by the research scientist. Linus spins, blocking the white coated man in the doorway. "If you don’t mind, I’d like to handle this alone." Radiating power and dignity, the researcher defers to Linus and leaves him alone with his client.
"Hello Mother."
"Hello Linus," the room is silent this time, except for the gentle lub-dub of the artificial heartbeat. "I understand the Supreme Court decided my case today."
"Yes," Linus says, approaching the gestation tank. "They didn’t tell you the decision?" Linus looks in the amniotic fluid at the fetus hanging there.
"No, they felt it was best if you explained it to me."
"Well, yes." Linus says, staring into the amniotic fluid. "I’m afraid we lost."
"Oh, I see," Mother says flatly. "I’m sorry."
"Oh, don’t be sorry Mother, I’m the one who lost the case." Linus steps back and looks directly into the aperture of Mother’s camera. "Although they did recognize you as a conscious being, the Court simply wouldn’t place your interests above those of the child in your womb."
"I see."
"How do you feel about that Mother?" Linus cocks his head, intensely curious.
"I’m sad. These will be my last few months and I will miss my friends. I will miss Doctors Penrose and Hameroff, Mister Pearl the custodian and Miss Robins."
"Hmm," Linus again stares into the tank. He shifts his gaze upward to the shiny metal casing that houses Mother’s fragile mind
"I will miss you too Linus. I will miss your fierce integrity and the way you vigilantly pursued my case in spite of your misgivings."
"I didn’t know you could tell," Linus says, again looking at the camera…Looking for what?
"I could tell," Mother continues, "but I thank you for your efforts."
Linus turns and paces a bit at the back of the room, his back to the tank. "So tell me Mother, in a few months, when you energize the child’s consciousness. What will happen to you?"
"They tell me that my mind will slowly fade until I no longer exist."
Linus nods, peering at the dark one way glass at the back of the room, trying to see the researchers on the other side. "And how long will that take?"
"They say months, a few years at most."
"Are you afraid?"
"Are you?" Mother asks. Linus blanches at the question.
"Afraid of dying I mean."
Linus smiles at the black glass. "Afraid of dying, no. Afraid of losing my mind?" Linus turns to Mother and frowns a bit. "I’m terrified of losing my mind. And you should be too."
Linus reaches under his raincoat and lifts out a rusty, black ball peen hammer. He hefts the heavy tool up and rests it on his shoulder, taking a deep breath. "I hate that I have to do this again." Linus strides toward Mother as a panicked voice crackles over the loudspeaker.
"Mister Prax!" the researcher screams desperately, "what are you doing?"
Linus stands in front of Mother, looks her straight in the aperture an holds the five pound metal hammer up high with both hands. "I’m sorry Mother," he says as he swings the hammer with all his strength.
"Mr. Prax," the researcher screams, "Nooo!"
The hammer connects with shocking effect. As it strikes the gestation tank, the glass casing disintegrates and the hammer passes completely through. Linus, his weight behind the swing, follows the hammer to the floor and is doused by the amniotic fluid coursing from the tank. Alarms ring, lights flash and Linus can feel rough hands grasping his shoulders and pulling him from the room. As he is taken away, he can see the small, pitiful fetus dangling by its umbilical from the shattered tank and the researcher, hands on his head in horror, staring at the scene.
Linus looks Mother in the eye and imagines, that just for a second, the electric eye looks at him and, ever so slightly, winks a silent thank you. Mother will be fine.
Linus is dragged out of the gestation room and into his own long, slow goodbye to the world.