By DL Shirey
Dillon Baumgartner stopped before a portrait, one in a row of two dozen along the wall. Each was spotlit, in a thick, ornate frame, yet none had nameplates. Identification wasn’t necessary; Baumgartner recognized the faces. They were among the most affluent men and women in America.
“I thought these were photographs,” he said as he fussed with straightening the visitor’s badge pinned on his lapel. “They’re oil paintings.”
The young man, Cooper, according to his official badge, slowed his walk, but didn’t stop. “Photographs of oil paintings, actually. The originals were gifted to our benefactors, to show our appreciation,” he said, “This way, please.”
A tall door ended the long hall, and Cooper paused. He straightened his tie, swept a blond curl back into place, then knocked. When a voice answered, Cooper opened the door, allowing Baumgartner to enter first.
“Your two o’clock, Dr. Martingale.” Then Cooper said to the visitor, “May I offer you some coffee? Or water?”
“Thank you, no,” Baumgartner answered.
Dr. Martingale was standing, hunched over a control console. She clacked at a keyboard below a dozen small video screens, typing with two index fingers. She thumbed the return key.
Martingale turned and offered her hand. “Welcome.”
Both were in their 60s. Baumgartner seemed tense, his face drawn, cheeks sallow. The unnatural darkness of his hair did more to show his age than hide it. Dr. Martingale, on the other hand, had a relaxed, rosy complexion. Her long brown hair had little gray, except for one vivid, white lock that seemed to defy her natural color. Pinstripes suited the former, with the latter in a lab coat over a conservative, burgundy skirt suit.
Martingale continued, “They have free range on the grounds. This may take a few moments.”
The monitors flicked from scene to scene, pausing momentarily on different camera views in multiple locations. There were exterior shots of finely manicured lawns bordered by a high fence, interiors showing an exercise paddock, then a therapy pool, then a feeding room. Each video view had something in common, there were one or more creatures milling about.
To the sound of a dull chime, the text [Searching: H3JJDx617] blinked on one monitor. The big, black rectangle above the small screens came alive with the same image, now captioned [Subject Verified: H3JJDx617]. The view pulled closer, in past trimmed hedgerows and stately oak trees to a group of six individuals. They seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the sun. Four were leaning against the fence, two were lying on the grass, all were bald and naked. Each wore a neck collar.
“Which one is ours?” Baumgartner asked, “They all look the same.”
Close scrutiny would have revealed different facial structures, body frames and skin color, yet Baumgartner’s comment wasn’t uncommon; each human was thin, hairless and externally de-sexed.
“These are all about the same age,” Martingale explained. “They seem to cluster by age group, we think because they were raised together. We often bring family members together, but that isn’t as strong a bond. They are more comfortable with familiars than they are blood relations.”
Martingale two-fingered the keyboard. Even she could not tell them apart without help from the software. The camera pulled in on one, and with it, a crawl of data consumed one-third of the big monitor.
“That’s your harv,” Martingale coughed at her own inaccuracy, “Of course I meant Mr. Dickerson’s. Bio-I.D. verified, harv H7JJDx616, leased to J.J. Dickerson, schedule seven.”
“Seven, yes. That’s what I want to talk to you about,” said Baumgartner.
“One moment. Let me call an attendant.” Martingale bent over the keyboard again.
A yellow jumpsuit trotted through one monitor view, jump-cut to another, then another. The attendant was a woman, no taller than the five-foot aluminum pole she carried. Super-short dreads bristled from her head, the same burnished color as the leather strap that looped out from one end of the pole. She appeared on the big screen and approached the group, slowing to a walk.
The pack was wary, rising to their feet, but not panicking. As the woman moved among them, the harvs sidled away, eyes bright with expectation, or apprehension, it was hard to tell. They were watching her hands.
One hand set the pole against the fence, the other one disappeared into the jumpsuit pocket. Out came a baggie full of mango chunks. There was no audio, but by the look on the attendant’s face she was saying something pleasant or soothing. She had maneuvered H7JJDx616 away from the others and presented an orange chunk in her open palm.
First a sniff, then the harv plucked the mango into his mouth. He was dexterous, despite having cuticles of soft, pale skin instead of fingernails. The harv licked the juice from his thumb, rolled his eyes and smiled. All gums.
The woman placed another piece of fruit in her palm and pocketed the baggie. From about her waist she unclipped a leash, showing it and the mango to the harv. Her hands teetering back and forth like scales of justice. H7JJDx616 offered up its neck and the attendant fastened the leash to the collar. The harv was rewarded.
“As you can see, your harv is in good hands,” said Dr. Martingale. “Biometrics confirm it is developing as planned, quite healthy.”
“I appreciate that, but you do understand that because the thing is so healthy, it will only add to my client’s frustration?” Baumgartner looked nervous, pulling at the cuffs of his silk shirt so they peeked precisely one-half inch from each sleeve of his charcoal suit. “This is not my area of expertise. I usually handle Mr. Dickerson’s corporate affairs.”
“I understand he is not well enough to make the visit himself. I’m sorry.”
“His schedule is no longer flexible.” Baumgartner fixed his most lawyerly stare-down on the doctor. “Four hours, three times a week. He rarely has time or energy to do anything but run his businesses.”
“I understand completely,” said Martingale, “I’ve personally contacted Mr. Dickerson and received his permission to consult his physicians.”
“Yes. Stage 3B kidney disease is a terrible, terrible thing. However,” Martingale dispensed with her bedside manner, “I was assured that Mr. Dickerson’s dialysis, while inconvenient, can be maintained indefinitely.”
“My client would rather not.”
“But it was your client who opted for a Schedule Seven. At a minimum we recommend growing an additional harv every three years, for the very reason you are here today.”
“Back when Mr. Dickerson began using your services, a seven-year term was all he could afford.” Baumgartner smoothed back his hair. “But times have changed. Now he is happy to pay any and all fees associated with early harvest.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way, Mr. Baumgartner. This harv is not of age. It may not be your area of expertise but you should know the law. The Supreme Court set 21 as the age of automatic consent, and this one is…” Martingale consulted the monitor. “Will be 19 on March 12th. My hands are tied until 2053.”
“But the older one died prematurely,” Baumgartner pleaded.
“Authorized termination, if I remember correctly,” said the doctor. “We have Dickerson’s signed affidavit for voluntary euthanasia.”
“That one got leukemia. It would have been useless for the transplant that my client needs now.”
“Precisely why we performed retroactive gene manipulation on all three Dickerson harvs currently in stock,” Dr. Martingale said, her attention drawn to flickering fluorescents in the room behind the glass wall to her left. “This one will be good to go in 27 months.”
The room beyond the window was bare. There was one entrance, a rubber wedge on the floor kept the door in the open position. The harv peered in, sniffing the air. Alarmed, his head snapped back, then he stepped aside as the attendant pushed past. She dropped her end of the leash and walked to the center of the room. When the baggie reappeared, the harv crept up beside her.
“Looks 21 to me.” Sarcasm coated Baumgartner’s voice.
“The law is quite clear,” Martingale snapped, then took a deep breath. “Forgive my indignance. The government mandates legal age for harvest, not us. If we bend the rules now…”
The unfinished sentence made Baumgartner’s eyes light up. “We’re not asking to bend the rules. I thought, perhaps, an exception might be made. Surely you’ve had cases that merit special consideration.”
“Does Mr. Dickerson have Alpha Level clearance from the military?”
“Then I’m afraid he will need dialysis until the harv’s 21st birthday. Unless another donor can be found.”
“We have already secured a position high on the donor list, but that involves waiting as well.” Baumgartner withdrew a phone from inside his jacket. “Mr. Dickerson has authorized me to give you this message. Is your screen accessible?”
Martindale pressed a button on the bottom of the large monitor and nodded her head. Baumgartner poked his phone and the big screen went black for an instant, replaced by the image of a man’s arm. Laying palm up, pale flesh was bared from the shoulder down to a thick, gold bracelet. Swaths of adhesive tape held two tubes in place, blood flowing in and out, regulated by a machine behind the plush armrest. The camera pulled back revealing an older man in glasses. It was hard to tell if the man was small or the tall-backed leather chair was overly large. He was dressed in a royal-blue smoking jacket. Thinning, white hair was combed forward on his shiny pate as he concentrated on a book in his lap, one from the many volumes, in matching bindings, on the bookcase behind him. The medical equipment seemed utterly foreign in the warm light of the elegant room. He looked up and leveled his eyes at the camera.
“Hello Patricia. Sorry I couldn’t be there in person, but, as you can see, I am indisposed at the moment. And will be on a regularly-scheduled basis.” His free hand covered his dimpled chin, as if in thought, then his palm moved down, pinched at his jowls, before returning into his lap.
“I am quite sure, if you are seeing this, that you and my attorney are at an impasse. I will spare you a maudlin plea, although I need you to know that my quality of life has been and will be severely diminished by this confounded contraption.” Dickerson sighed and removed his glasses for emphasis. “I’ve come to realize that your company provides a great service, one that cannot be fully appreciated until something like this happens. Your efforts need to be rewarded, so I’ve decided to make a substantial donation to your firm—not in cash, that would be crass. I’ve secured ownership of the adjacent property, some 80 acres, that will allow you to expand your facilities as you see fit. With it, you—”
Dr. Martingale slapped the volume button and the screen went mute. “I do not need to hear the rest. The answer is no.”
Baumgartner screwed his lips to one side and proceeded. “The land is worth ten times your annual operating expenses. If you don’t want to develop it, you can always sell it.”
“I’m sorry,” she said, “the answer is still no. The principles under which we operate are absolute. I do not have the moral authority to allow you or any of my clients early harvest, no matter how generous the offer. And I— oh!”
Dr. Martingale jumped. The harv had pressed himself against the window, staring, not at the people inside, but at the video monitor. On the screen, the camera pulled in to a close up of Dickerson’s face. The harv’s fingers trembled slightly as he covered his mouth, the hand rubbing against his smooth, dimpled chin, coming to rest on his naked sternum.
“Hey there,” Baumgartner cooed and knelt by the window.
The harv immediately backed off. The attendant tried distracting him by shaking the baggie of mango.
“You know, I wasn’t expecting it to look like this,” Baumgartner said, “I’d imagined a younger version of Mr. Dickerson. Like his college photos.”
“The internal organs are all that matters. The exterior has been engineered for safety; without teeth and nails they can’t harm themselves or others. No body hair makes them easier to clean, and the lack of genitals—well, it doesn’t take a scientist to tell you why we did that.” Martingale laughed.
“It does look healthy,” said Baumgartner, “Can I at least tell my client that this one will be in tip-top condition when we harvest its kidneys?”
“God willing. After all, harvs are people, too. They are subject to latent genetic abnormalities or diseases that evolve after incubation. Despite our care and controlled environment, nature will still take the course she wants.”
“Which is why you terminate at 30,” Baumgartner said.
The doctor nodded. “Indeed. Organs show the beginnings of degradation by then.”
“Can I give my client any further recommendations?”
“Again, I would suggest a Schedule Three. Mr. Dickerson is how old?”
“If we begin growing harvs every three years, he will be, uh, 84 when the first crop comes in. We’ve had successful harvests for clients well into their 120s. Provided they maintain their Schedule Three, of course.”
“Of course.” Baumgartner clarified, “Until then, our other two harvs are, what, twelve and five?”
“That’s right. And please convey my sympathies to Mr. Dickerson. I hope you understand my position.”
“I do. “Baumgartner shook her hand. “I’ll be in touch about the Schedule Three.”
“Very good.” Dr. Martingale rapped on the glass to alert the attendant that they were finished.
In the room beyond, the harv looked up at the window. His gums bared for a moment, then he returned full attention to the attendant. She had the last of the orange chunks on an open palm, while her other hand inched toward the leash.
About the author: DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies from Truth Serum Press and Literary Hatchet. Find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.
This post has already been read 1000 times!