Sam stands at the one-way mirror in Observation Room Twelve. To anyone who doesn’t know him, he would seem indifferent. His hands are in his pockets and his posture is relaxed. His breathing is calm. He’s betrayed only by the fact that he hasn’t moved in seventeen minutes.
He hadn’t planned to stay here so long. He’d assumed he’d go straight into the Meeting Room. But Kara got there first, and something about the tenderness in her face and the way her body already seemed to curl protectively around the baby in her arms arrested his hurry. And so, here he stands, soaking in the sight.
“Have you ever witnessed a First Meeting?”
Sam shakes his head without turning around. He’d noticed Sandra in a darkened corner of the room as soon as he came in, of course, but he’s here for personal reasons, not work. He’d hoped she would remain silent, leave him in peace. No such luck.
She joins him at the window. He keeps his eyes trained forward, doing his best to ignore the intrusion. She doesn’t grant him that luxury.
“We really ought to make it part of the orientation process for employees. It’s a powerful moment, even when you don’t have the emotional connection that you do in this case.”
He gives her a sidelong glance.
“Why are you here, Sandra?”
“Maybe I was thrilled that two long-time friends finally got their Match. Maybe I wanted to be the first to congratulate them.”
He grunts. “Right.”
She laughs. “You know, that’s one of the things I’ve always admired about you. You’re direct. To the point. There’s no hope of beating around the bush with you. I’ll try to match that directness now.” Her smile fades, and she takes a breath before continuing. “There’s cause for concern regarding this candidate.”
She has his full attention. Whatever he’d been expecting, this isn’t it. He tries to keep the alarm out of his voice.
“The PPP?” It’s highly unusual for a child with a problematic Personality Prediction Profile to make it to a Match—most of the time, such things are caught pre-Emergence – but it’s been known to happen on occasion.
Sandra shakes her head. “No, the PPP came back fine. The candidate does have a high potential for some undesirable traits—intractability, defiance, impulsivity, that kind of thing. They’ll need to be monitored and managed, but you and Kara have been trained for this kind of thing. Nothing you can’t handle, especially if you seek proper treatment early on.”
He tries to think what else might warrant her concern, but comes up short. “What, then? It can’t be the MDI.”
She dismisses that one with an indignant snort. “We haven’t had a candidate with the risk of a malignant disease for more than six years. You know that as well as I do.
“No, it’s nothing like that. Are you familiar with the Parent-Child Relationship Index?”
He shakes his head.
“I didn’t think so. It’s still in Beta, and knowledge about it is mostly limited to the team of people who are working on it.” She pauses, then continues in what Sam thinks of as her “public relations” voice. “The PCRI is the future of Predictive Science. Developed by a team of historians, geneticists, psychologists, social scientists, and others who are on the cutting edge of their respective fields, the test is designed to . . .”
“Sandra. Please. Cut the spiel and just tell me what you know.”
Her mouth twists in a sheepish grin. “Sorry. Old habits. It’s a defense mechanism, I suppose. Easier to face the hard stuff when I can hide behind the jargon.”
When he doesn’t smile in return, she takes a deep breath. “Basically, the PCRI is designed to predict the quality of the relationship between the parents and the child once the child reaches adulthood. It’s similar to the PPP but it takes a lot more into account—the parents’ predispositions, cultural and economic factors, projected societal conditions, that kind of thing. The goal is to catch what the PPP misses, to provide prospective parents with some degree of certainty about their decision to bring a child—and not just any child, but the specific candidate they’re Matched with—into their lives.”
He absorbs this information. It doesn’t surprise him that Genetic Pathways has been working on such a thing. It is, after all, their mission statement: to take the risk out of human relationships. Or as much of it as possible, anyway.
“I take it this child’s PCRI is problematic?”
“Our models show that there’s a 53% chance that your and Kara’s relationship with her will be ‘estranged’ or ‘highly strained’ by the time she’s twenty-five.”
Sam blinks. He pulls out his phone and scrolls through the photos he received with the Match notification, photos that project what the child will look like when she is three, ten, fifteen, twenty. He tries to associate the words “estranged” or “strained” with the smiling face on his screen, but it’s as though the two come from separate universes. His brain can’t make it fit together.
He squints up at Sandra. They’re about the same height, but somehow, in his mind, she has always been taller than him.
“How much do you trust these models of yours?”
She bites her lip. “It’s hard to say. The PCRI has been in development for seven years. We’ve been running it on Match candidates for four. Obviously, that isn’t long enough to test our predictions against real-world results, which is a part of the reason it’s still in Beta. The FDA won’t allow us to release it to the public until we can prove its validity. But our experts have cross-checked their methodology with others in their fields and they assure me the test is trustworthy.”
“How confident are they?”
She shrugs. “They’re confident. You’re a statistician. You know how these things work.”
“Have you had other children with poor scores?”
“Sure. It’s rare, of course. Such things are usually dealt with pre-Emergence. But the occasional problem still pops up. The PCRI was developed to catch those last few cases.”
“What do you do with those ‘last few cases’?”
“Until we reach full release, we’ll continue to let the Matches proceed as normal. The prospective parents aren’t informed that the PCRI was run—they don’t even know the test exists. But we tag them for close observation and follow-up in the future.”
“Their happiness isn’t your concern, I take it.”
Sandra winces. “That’s not fair, Sam, and you know it. Until we’re given the proper approvals, my hands are tied. I probably shouldn’t even be sharing this information with you.”
“So why are you telling me, then?”
“Well, technically, you work for me, so it isn’t a breach. I could make that argument, anyway, if the wrong people started asking questions. But it’s more than that. We’ve known each other a long time, Sam. I care about you. I care about Kara. I care about your future together. I figured you would want to have all the information before making your decision.”
He nods. A decision can only ever be as good as the data you put into it, after all.
In the Meeting Room, Kara shifts the baby to one arm. He’s surprised to see her pull out her phone with the other; she has these ideas about technology and children, about how they should be kept apart. She holds the device above the child, clearly taking a picture, and then begins to type.
Something about the tilt of her head and the smile on her face reminds him of their first meeting. The details are clear in his mind, all these years later: the strawberry-shaped birthmark at the corner of her mouth, just begging to be kissed; the bright yellow halter-top dress she wore (“Such a sunny color!” she’d said later, after their third date, when he’d commented on its prevalence in her wardrobe); the way she laughed at herself when she splashed spaghetti bolognese on that same dress. Their Relationship Success Predictor had put them at 93% and, so far, they’ve avoided that dreaded 7% chance of failure. Would he have gone on a second date if their RSP had been only 80%? What about 65%? 47%? Would it have been worth it? What would he have missed?
His phone buzzes. A photo of a sleeping infant—of his sleeping infant—pops up on the screen, accompanied by a text.
Where are you? Come meet our daughter!
“Beautiful baby,” Sandra murmurs.
Not taking his eyes from the screen, he asks, “What would you do?”
“Honestly? I don’t know.”
He rolls his eyes. “Helpful.”
She puffs out her cheeks in exasperation. “Look. I don’t want to see you hurt. What you and Kara have—it’s special. And back before we had the knowledge we do today, one of the greatest causes of emotional pain and stress in romantic relationships was the difficulty of raising problematic children.” She pauses. “But it all boils down to how you assess risk. For starters, the test might be wrong. There might be something about this candidate that is causing the numbers to do funny things: we ran the PCRI for her with ten different potential Match parent sets, and yours was the best of the bunch. My experts swear by the results, but it does cause one to question, doesn’t it? Even assuming it’s accurate, it’s just a prediction. You still have a 47% chance that everything is fine, that you go on to live perfectly happy lives with this candidate.”
“Those aren’t exactly amazing odds.”
“Let’s assume the worst does happen, just for the sake of argument, that she walks out of your life when she’s an adult.” She shakes her head. “I’m not supposed to say this kind of thing—after all, we’re in the business of promising happiness and perfection—but who’s to say you wouldn’t have a million beautiful moments in the meantime, good memories that you wouldn’t want to trade away, despite the pain?’ She gestures toward the window. “Kara’s obviously already bonded with her.”
He considers this. How do good memories stack up against the risk of a broken relationship, a broken heart? He wants data, solid numbers to work with. How can he possibly make such a decision on his own?
“Would you tell her?”
“Officially? No. She doesn’t have the proper approvals.”
It’s a long time before she answers.
“Unofficially, it depends. If you aren’t going to keep the candidate, you have to tell Kara why. For the sake of your relationship, and to ease the pain it would cause her. If you’re going to accept the Match, and the risks associated with it, then no. I wouldn’t tell her.”
“You would make the decision for her, then?”
Sandra hesitates, then nods. “Sometimes, that’s the kindest thing you can do for somebody. To take the burden on yourself.”
He considers this, uncertain of whether this is sound advice.
Sandra studies him for a moment, then sighs.
“Look, none of this is easy. You should go in there. Meet the child. Talk to Kara.”
As he turns toward the door, her voice follows him.
“And Sam? I’ll be here for you and Kara, whatever decision you make.”
Sam enters the Meeting Room and Kara turns toward him, her eyes shining.
“There you are! Come and meet her. But shhh. She’s asleep.”
He creeps toward them and places a hand on his wife’s shoulder, then looks down into the child’s face. Sandra was right. She is a beautiful baby. To his surprise, however, he feels nothing. He had hoped for a moment of clarity, a blinding jolt of emotion—joy, perhaps, or even revulsion—that would guide his next steps. Instead, he’s left with only a yawning uncertainty, a vast question.
Kara stands and, before he knows what she’s doing, she places the baby in his arms.
“There. Hold her. Just like that.”
He takes a deep breath. “Kara, love, there’s something I need to tell you . . .”
She places a finger over his lips. “Shh. Whatever it is, it can wait. You’re meeting your daughter for the first time. Enjoy it.”
He hesitates, then nods, searching the baby’s face for whatever it is that has so enraptured his wife. It’s the first time he’s held an infant, and, as though she senses his uncertainty, the baby wakes. For the briefest moment, her clear gray eyes seem to be regarding him with the same kind of scrutiny he’s giving her. Then, she settles back to sleep.
The encounter moves him. While he still doesn’t feel the rush of emotion the promotional brochures promised, something stirs in him: a recognition that this child in his arms is a bundle of raw potential with a future all her own. In all his work with numbers and statistics and tables, the candidates being Matched have always been an abstract concept. But this child—this child is alive and real.
They stand in silence for several minutes until finally Kara whispers, “Isn’t she perfect?”
He looks down at the tiny shape in his arms, at the dark eyelashes just brushing the soft cheeks, at the way the blanket rises and falls at each breath. He looks deep into the eyes of the woman he loves more than life itself. For a moment that feels like an eternity, he wavers, torn.
Then, with a quick glance at the mirror on the far side of the room, he nods.
“Yeah,” he whispers back. “She is.”
Lyn Blair says
Beautiful story, so well written and I loved the message. Perhaps a glimpse into our technological future…yet with all the promises and predictions of medicine and technology, life really does come down to the humanity in people. We make the choices and determine the outcomes. And our love for one another makes all the difference. You can’t measure, weigh, limit or quantify love. As a variable, it is infinite.
Jennifer Palmer says
Thank you for your kind words, Lyn! This is high praise. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and that it spoke to you.
Jaya Avendel says
Love the interesting and potentially helpful feel of this story so ripe with the pitfalls and decisions that come with such a service!
Jennifer Palmer says
Thank you for reading, Jaya, and for your kind words!
Elizabeth Reeves says
Ah, to “take the risk out of human relationship!” But such is the grist for growth. Your writing brought laughter and tears. Thank you, Jenn.
Jennifer Palmer says
Thank you for reading, friend! So glad you enjoyed it.
Dorinda Priebe says
This is a story that glimpses our future selves while holding on to the emotions and circumstances of our current conventions. It’s sweetness lies in the topic ~ the innocence of a brand new baby.
While I struggled with putting everything of the exposition in the correct place in my mind, the description of the stories’ background helped me gain perspective. How could this important detailing be included in the body of the writing, perhaps uncovered, or discovered in a more crisis point, shocking way?
You left us appropriately wondering what would happen next, applying in our minds both our desire for a happy ending and what twists could occur if Sam chose to apply his newfound knowledge?
Well done, this is an intriguing premise.
Jennifer Palmer says
Thank you for reading and engaging with my story, Dorinda, and for taking the time to leave your thoughts! I appreciate it.
Speculative fiction is a tricky genre; providing the information the reader needs to understand while avoiding being too explanatory and/or remaining true to the world is a balance that can be hard to get right. Thank you for pointing out where things didn’t quite work for you.
Absolutely arresting writing as always, JP. I love how you dive into these futuristic possibilities and then return to our ancient and fallible humanness. You bring up the relevant questions and remind us of who we can be.
Jennifer Palmer says
Much love to you, JKM! Thank you, as always, for your kind words and support!