Prologue

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Year 2099

She knew this day would come and had been preparing for it for months. Now that it was finally here, she just hoped everything would go according to plan. Even though she had rehearsed the following sequence of actions in her head a thousand times, the margin for success was slim.

Operating on pure reflexes, she entered her bedroom and frantically began shoving several items into her satchel. It was late at night and she kept the lights off to remain inconspicuous, but a small glimmer of light pouring in through the window enabled her to see.

After gathering the items she needed, she cautiously approached the window. While remaining snug against the wall, she carefully parted the curtains with her fingers, allowing just enough room for her to peek out and make sure it was clear. From the window of her second-floor apartment, her eyes scanned the grounds below. Fortunately, they had not arrived yet.

With no time to waste, she aggressively tossed the window coverings aside and yanked up on the old window frame until it opened enough to allow her bulbous belly to slip through. Once outside on the emergency staircase, she grabbed the rusty railing and quickly descended down two flights of stairs. The moon barely provided enough light for her to see, but she managed.

At the bottom of the second set of stairs was an eight-foot drop to the back alley. She hesitated a moment before making the leap, but then went for it. Like a heavy bag of sand, she hit the ground with a thud. Her knees gave out on impact and she went down hard. Her left arm hit the ground in an attempt to brace the fall while her right arm scooped across her belly to minimize the severity of the shock. She emitted a noise that sounded like a hybrid of fear and anguish. The fall had definitely rattled her, but she kept moving. After an arduous nine months of trying to conceal her pregnancy from the rest of the world, she was certainly not willing to give up that easily.

Clutching her stomach with both hands, she hobbled down the street, breathing heavily, searching for a place to hide. She knew the consequences of being caught having an unsanctioned baby meant she would be arrested and her baby would be stripped away from her. Despite what a lot of people thought, the world was not so perfect.

The streetlights illuminated every corner of the street so she darted into a dingy alley and rested against a brick wall. With her back against the building wall, she slid down into a sitting position and stared up at the starry sky. She began a series of breathing exercises to calm herself down. That was one thing she knew without having to plug in.

Breathe, breathe, breathe, she kept telling herself. She knew the baby would be coming any minute since her contractions were occurring less than two minutes apart.

She fought with it for as long as she could, but she was just delaying the inevitable. The time had now come to deliver the baby herself, right there in the unsterile alley. For this, she would definitely need to plug in.

She quickly took out her access pod and plugged it into the port on her forearm. The holographic screen awaited her command. “Look up… how to... deliver... a baby,” she muffled in short staccato breaths.

“Data found,” a pleasant synthesized voice responded.

“Download… data,” she commanded.

“Downloading data, approximate time… one… second,” the voice said again. A moment later, a green light indicated the data transfer was complete. “Download complete. Your storage capacity is almost full.”

She let out a horrific scream and prepared to deliver her baby. Her brain sifted through her newly acquired knowledge and selected the first step. A competing thought entered her mind and reminded her to continue the proper Lamaze techniques. As she laboured on the cold cement, her natural endorphins kicked in and flooded her bloodstream. This, combined with her deep breaths, made the pain somewhat bearable. Maybe I should’ve just turned myself in, she thought for a brief moment. She pushed those thoughts aside.

The sound of synthesized sirens blared in the background, letting her know she didn’t have much time before they arrived.

She reached into her bag and pulled out her proximity cleanser – a portable sanitary device that emitted an electrical pulse, killing germs and bacteria instantly within a short radius. She flipped on the switch and gave the device a tight squeeze. A flash of light burst out in all directions and simultaneously emitted a low-pitched echo. The light and sound occupied only a fraction of a second and then dispersed. With her hands now completely sanitized, she reached into her bag, pulled out a blanket, and laid it on the ground as neatly as possible given the situation.

Breathe, breathe, breathe, she reminded herself as she tried to regain control of her breathing. It was too much to ask for deep breaths at that point. The baby was surely on its way any moment. She would have to settle for short shallow breaths.

“AAAAHHHHH!” she cried out in agony. “Oh my god – oh my god… just relax, breathe,” she said out loud to herself.

Most women preferred to use artificial wombs instead of giving birth the natural way. Avoiding the burdensome effects on the body was just one benefit. The other advantage was a machine would nurture the fetus under the most optimal conditions possible, ensuring it received the ideal amount of nutrients and stimuli. That was a luxury she could not afford.

She was all alone, giving birth by herself in a dark and barren alley. Ironically, if she were to throw a stone in any direction, she would likely hit someone with vast amounts of medical knowledge.

“AAAAHHHHH!” she screamed out again.

So far, she was following the instructions perfectly – slow steady pushes in between contractions. She reached down and could feel the top of the baby’s head as it emerged from the crowning stage. She continued to push and felt as though she might pass out from the pain, but she somehow summoned the strength to endure. A few deep breaths and pushes later and the baby’s head fully emerged. She took one last deep breath and gave a final push, and the rest of the body slipped out. She let out a huge sigh of relief and began to cry. The baby, now lying bare in the crisp night air, also began to cry.

She wrapped the baby up in the blanket and laid it gently against her chest. She would have to deal with the umbilical cord later. For now, she just wanted to savour the moment. Her first time giving birth was a success, despite being under less-than-optimal conditions. She was exhausted, but proud, holding her beautiful baby girl.

An instant later, two ominous shadows stretched down the long alley. She cast her gaze down the alley toward the figures. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but when they did, she saw two uniformed guardians standing with their backs to the light, creating a glow around their dark silhouettes. Judging by their massive frames, she figured they were at least 6'5" each. The two guardians shined their lights on her. She had barely enough energy to turn away from the bright lights. Her face was moist with sweat and she looked like she had just been through an ordeal.

“Come with us please, madam,” one of the guardians demanded.

The guardians assisted her to her feet and helped her into the guardian transport vehicle. “Where are you taking me?” she asked worriedly.

“You are under arrest for the violation of the Child Rearing Act.”

One of the guardians activated his precision laser cutter, causing a tiny blue beam of light to protract from the small handheld device. It made a faint humming noise, which grew louder as he brought the device closer.

“No,” the woman pleaded.

One of the guardians held the baby while the other one used the device to effortlessly cut through the umbilical cord.

“Where are you taking my baby?”

“This baby has now become a reclaimed citizen of the Union and will be given a proper upbringing.”

“But I can give her a proper upbringing!” she pleaded.

“Unfortunately madam, that is not for you to decide.”

The woman was secured in the back of a transport vehicle and the doors were sealed shut. The baby was placed in a second vehicle where medics checked its vital signs. Both vehicles hovered for a moment and then silently took off into the night.

The faint cries of the woman could be heard as she screamed in the back of the vehicle. “Give me back my baby!”

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