“Mpendulo: The Answer”

A new short story about growing up different—really different.

A young man and woman stand close to each other, face to face, while wearing protective masks.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Each month, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—publishes a story on a theme. The theme for January–March 2019: Identity.

Mpendulo:

“What a load of bull,” Thomas says.

Our classmates roar with laughter, as Thomas had intended. We were sitting in Classic English Literature discussing an old novel wherein some young clones create art they hope will be selected for a prestigious gallery. It turns out, though, that the true purpose of the gallery is to demonstrate their humanity. That revelation prompted something of a philosophical discussion.

“So they drew a bunch of crap just to prove that they had souls?” my friend Alex had asked. “I mean, how can art prove anything like that?”

Mrs. Stanley deflected the question back to the class. Thomas, the clown that he was, raised his hand to speak. As he did so, his warm body turned toward me ever so slightly, making our knees brush. “If their art was any good, it showed that they understood love, that they weren’t sociopaths or whatever,” he said. Then he muttered his aside.

Mrs. Stanley pretends she doesn’t hear him as laughter fills the room. When he turns back to face the front again, his gloved hand brushes mine. I have to stop myself from jumping out of my seat.

Mrs. Stanley waits until the class settles a little, and then tries to keep the discussion rolling. “Do you agree with Thomas, Mpendulo? Were they trying to show they understood love?”

My throat is dry as I look around the sea of students garbed in the drab brown linen of juniors. While Thomas plays to our classmates, I prefer to stay unnoticed. Out of habit, I pull my sleeves down over my wrist, ensuring that the “L.E.” tattoo is covered. From my first day at Genesis High School, Mother had taught me to keep it hidden.

The whole class looks to me at this point. The color of the school uniform does my dark skin no favors, but somehow seems to highlight the magnificence of Thomas’ brown eyes. I catch a glimpse of those eyes burning through my blouse, heating up all of my flesh. I force myself to focus on Mrs. Stanley’s question.

“No, ma’am. I think that the art was not to prove something about them, but rather to give them something—a slice of what it is to be human.”

I know I’m right, but the class seems unhappy with my reasoning. How could these people create other humans with the sole purpose of killing them later for their organs? We all know people walking around with 3D-printed organs inside of them. We can’t conceive of one person letting themselves be sliced open and their organs given to another, let alone a whole government being party to it.

Well, I can conceive of things that the rest of them can’t. But I wouldn’t dare let them know that.

As the class continues talking, Thomas keeps staring at me. I make a point to keep my eyes unsmiling. Normally, the mask annoys me because of the way it fills with cloying, warm air. But just then, I am grateful that the mask conceals the fact that Thomas is making me blush. Again.

According to Mother, the masks and gloves are unnecessary relics from before, when the Doomsday pandemic swept across the globe, hopping from airport to airport and radiating outward. Flights were eventually shut down, but that wasn’t enough to contain the yet unknown virus. “Fear drove us all mad,” said Mother. “That’s when they introduced the Zero Tolerance to Human Casualties policies.”

A month ago, I had no idea who Thomas was, and now he is all I can think about. A month ago, before I turned 13, I had never even left the farm, either. Mother said it was for my own protection, but I didn’t understand—at least not then.

The discomfort of discussing the humanity of clones, while hiding the tattoo that marks my identity, becomes too much to bear. So I keep my head down for the rest of the period, making sure not to catch Mrs. Stanley’s eye.

It’s a relief when all of our devices began to ping with the same holographic notification: next period. As I stand, Alex catches my eye. “Have you seen Kuda today?” she asks. “Nobody’s heard from him all weekend.”

I turn to the empty space a few seats from me. I hadn’t seen Kuda and couldn’t say I was sorry for it.

“Shit, Mpendulo, are you all right?”

I must have some strange expression on my face, because Alex looks worried. But I can’t explain the feeling to her. Even though we’re friends, she wouldn’t understand what happened. Only Thomas can.

PING! This time, it’s only my device. Normally, a holographic message would appear in the space above my device, but not this time. I touch the screen, bringing up two words from Thomas:

Say nothing.

Speak of the devil.

Khethiwe:

My mother named me Khethiwe because she thought I had been chosen to do something important, but I never felt particularly chosen for anything, until now. Whenever I’d pictured the end of the world, I imagined a singular event exactly like this virus. They honestly could have come up with a better name for it than Doomsday, but who am I to argue?

Nobody in my world took note when it first started all the way out in Asia, but one day I was helping my aunt clean her employer’s kitchen and listening to the radio when the announcer declared our land to have experienced its first infection. The disease mainly attacked our immune systems, like HIV, but was much worse because it was airborne.

Within a few weeks, the whole country had begun to panic. Quarantine zones popped up, as did rumors about their terrible conditions. Those who could afford to fled—my employer ran away to Australia. For months now, we’ve lived in fear of one another. Every day we watch daily updates on the screens and see the red-dotted zones of high-infection areas crowd the image more.

I should be afraid of what’s to come. Instead I’m sitting in this strange waiting room. It may be in a rural area and housed on a place called the Farm, but it’s so sterile, clean, and bright—every object seems to emit a diffused light to create a sense of the ethereal. It gives me a sense of calm, until I remember the people outside the Farm—screaming for help to be allowed access to safe grounds. Army tanks keep them outside the parameter.

The whoosh of opening automatic doors brings me out of my thoughts to the 4D projection that’s been sharing the same message since I walked out of the elevator: “Welcome to Life Everlasting, where the future is always possible.” I can’t help but sneer inwardly at this, feeling that they should add “to those who can afford it” to the end of the message. I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want something from me.

A woman in blue, just a girl really, has entered. She smiles her greeting and begins to speak as though we had been mid-conversation.

“We were already doing this type of work for cancer research, but when the Chinese started making HIV-resistant gene-edited human embryos back in 2018, we knew we’d stumbled onto something big,” The name on her tag is Belinda.

She bears pearly whites that sparkle against her black skin, and speaks in the gentlest voice while she hands me a device with some indemnity forms to complete. I’ve filled out a lot of this sort of paperwork over the past year, since I first applied. The mental and physical tests I had to go through were tedious and excessive, if you ask me.

The tests were completed a few weeks ago, almost exactly when Doomsday began. Suddenly, Life Everlasting’s work seemed urgent. The stringent regulations intended to ensure that the research was carried out in an ethical and cautious manner were lifted in the name of science. What Life Everlasting—a name nearly as bad as Doomsday, in my opinion—was proposing could be the answer to Doomsday, and any future viral threat to our society. They sought to develop the perfect immune system, one that could withstand both disease and injury.

The plan was to create the world’s first artificial human embryo, a designer baby made up wholly of synthetic embryonic stem cells, with some kind of tiny built-in machines that could either deliver or self-generate natural cell-based therapies inside the tissue. “Nanoscale molecular machines,” scientists like Belinda would correct me, gently. I can’t say that I’ve come to understand it all, even now, but what I know is that these embryos would grow to be children. If I’m honest, I am wary of what this all means. How did they know what they were really giving life to?

I tell Belinda my fears, but she brushes them aside. “When parents conceive a child, how do they know what it will turn out to be?” Belinda asks as she leads me down a passage. “Some might say we’re playing God. But we prefer to think of it as being his helpers, finishing where he left off,” she says. “Since the beginning of time, humans have been evolving with modern medicine for the better. We beat polio, we learned to transplant organs, we are now printing organs. But our genetics are our weakness.”

Oh hell, I know the rest of this spiel, having heard some version at every appointment since my first interview. In any case, I have little choice but to be here. Since my employer left, I have been without work for weeks, and Life Everlasting promises an answer. My interest turns to a tinted glass door that has been left ajar as Belinda walks ahead. I’m not sure why I do it, but I step through the door, feeling like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole. The darkened room is cold with a chemical scent overpowering my senses. Around me are clear pods with free fluid moving inside them. Floating within these pods are the tiniest fetuses I’ve ever seen, waiting to be implanted in the wombs of women like me.

It’s an incredible thing to witness. It also feels a little wrong.

“Would you like to touch them?” whispers Belinda.

I hadn’t noticed her entering. Her smile encourages me. What I feel when my fingertips touch the pods causes me to gasp. The seemingly smooth, glassy texture is in fact a muscular, firm material that seems to vibrate with a life force.

Nkosi yami, my God.”

“Just his helpers.”

Mpendulo:

As I walk alongside Thomas, “giddy” is the word that comes to mind. I learned it when Mother first allowed me to have ice cream.

I was 5 years old. My friend Themba and I had undergone yet another test in which they stuck needles in us that sent strange liquids into our bodies. A day later Themba was coughing, blood pouring out of her lungs. I was fine. When Mother came to me in the shed the next day, Themba was dead. Tears were flowing from my eyes.

“Why are you crying, Mpendulo?” Mother asked.

I didn’t know how to answer her. “It hurts,” is all I could think to say. I hadn’t cried since I was much younger, when I would fall or when my belly hurt.

I knew that I had done something good because she smiled, placed a gloved hand on my cheek, and then did something she’d never done before: She hugged me. “Sometimes when people are sad, it hurts so much,” she said, “they cry.” I didn’t understand why that would be so important to her, but she gave me ice cream for it.

“Salted caramel was always my favorite,” Mother said, her eyes shut in bliss. It was the best thing I had ever tasted.

Thomas’ eyes—the best thing I’ve ever seen—remind me of the color of salted caramel.

“Usual place?” he asks as we walk out of class and into the busy hallway.

Lunch time is always eventful here, as everyone scrambles to get the first dishing and best tables. Thomas is holding my hand, actually touching my skin in public. Of course, if anyone were to bother to look, we’d be in big trouble. But they’re all too busy chattering about Kuda, the missing boy. More importantly, just now, it feels so necessary for us both to touch, to truly connect, especially since the events of Friday.

If I told Mother about these new feelings, she would take me to the shed for more tests. I know it’s wrong, but for now, it’s nice that this new thing is my secret.

With a quick glance around, Thomas leads me into one of the quarantine rooms that haven’t been used in years.

“Have you heard from him?” I ask Thomas, not really caring to hear the answer.

“Not since we left him here on Friday.”

I don’t want to talk about Friday, especially not in here, not with Thomas. But we have to.

“Do you think he’ll tell?” I ask Thomas.

At this he shrugs, smiling as he leans into me and pulls my mask up over my head. It dangles in front of my face from his fingers.

“We did nothing wrong.”

A shiver runs down my spine, which annoys me because Thomas is right. Still, Mother’s voice is looping in the back of my mind. For most of my life, she had been saying, “Mpendulo, remember that you were never supposed to exist.” Once, we saw a flash of a news bulletin on the screen referring to leaked documents from Life Everlasting. The very words had become a stand-in for scientific excess. Mother always turned off the screen if I was around, so I wasn’t sure what exactly was going on. But I had the vague, uneasy understanding that people hated Life Everlasting.

“People out there would be afraid of you if they knew what you were, what we did,” she said as she lightly covered the “L.E.” on my wrist. “Just remember that you’re different,” she continued, “but no less human.”

On my first day at Genesis High School, I felt the stares of the other children digging into me as I held onto Mother’s gloved hand through the passages. Seeing some of the older children sniggering, I released it, lifted my chin, and smiled at them before turning away. I felt Mother tense as I let go, but I wouldn’t look her in the eye.

A few minutes later I was walking into my first classroom. I decided that I needed to fit in, to make friends. I reached out my hand to the waif of a girl next to me and introduced myself. She smiled kindly enough and told me her name was Christabel, but she wouldn’t take my hand. I learned later that Christabel had recently survived leukemia and had to avoid contact with people lest she get an infection. Of course, I couldn’t hurt her, but she didn’t know that, and my attempt to befriend her marked me as a potential enemy. Choosing to sit next to Kuda, a tall boy that I hadn’t realized was Christabel’s boyfriend, cemented my status as enemy No. 1. The day didn’t improve from there.

At the end of the day, I escaped to read an e-book alone in a field while waiting for Mother. That’s when I noticed him for the first time. A bunch of kids nearby were playing a game by spinning a holographic bottle and giggling at one another. At the farm, I had seen similar body language from adults without understanding what it meant. Curiously, I began to study their movements, tilting my head this way and that, giggling in their exact pitch and parting my lips ever so slightly like the girls seemed to do. But then I felt, before I saw, that there was someone behind me. So, I turned around, turning red on the inside to find a boy with large, round brown eyes watching me with such intensity that I almost choked on my own saliva.

Thankfully, my vibrating device rescued me with its Ping! A message from an unknown sender popped up to display a spinning bottle and floating hearts. The giggling girls had become louder and when I turned to them, a tall brunette was grinning at me. That was Alex. I was perplexed. The boy had left by the time I turned back to look for him.

Following that, I had very few negative encounters with the other students, so long as I avoided looking Christabel in the eye and kept close to my friends.

“Did you figure it out?” a voice asked me the next day.

I had been so consumed with thoughts about the brown-eyed boy that I hadn’t noticed someone walk up to me in the hallway. When I lifted my eyes, it was him.

“Figure what out?”

“What the kids were doing with that game?” I couldn’t see through his mask, but the smile was certainly in his eyes. If I were pale-skinned, I’d have looked like a beetroot in that moment.

That was how I met Thomas almost a month ago, so I suppose it’s no surprise that we’re standing in quarantine now with our faces barely inches apart.

No, last Friday is not something I want to think about now.

Khethiwe:

“They’re shutting us down,” says Belinda.

She’s only just walked in, but her habit of starting a conversation halfway through is something I’ve become accustomed to. It’s been eight months since my first visit to Life Everlasting. It’s difficult to believe how much I’ve come to rely on Belinda during this process.

The first few tries didn’t work. During that time, the Doomsday panic was calming, with the preventative measures put in place through the Life Prolongation Act seemingly working. Synthetic babies who could withstand virus, bacteria, and injury alike had seemed a good idea when the world appeared to be ending. Now the noisemakers had found their voices again.
The pleading civilians outside the Farm’s fences had been replaced by violent protesters, demanding that all work on these experiments cease.

“To seek to create human life from that which is not human, is a dangerous thing,” I remember one opposition party member saying.

It was the same arguments as before. Those who were pro-life questioned the disposal and mistreatment of the unsuccessful babies. Others argued that the implants were not human, that they would be something other, something that might not even be considered people under the Constitution. Honestly, it got stupid. “Would they even pay taxes?” someone had posted on social media. As for me, the dramatic improvement of my quality of life made it imperative that I avoid too much introspection. But that had changed, a fact I had hoped to tell Belinda today, until I learned that everything had fallen apart.

“They’re shutting us down,” Belinda repeats. “We can’t fight them any longer.”

“So what will you do?”

“Well, Life Everlasting will continue its work with already accepted IVF and genetic modification protocol,” Belinda seems to sigh deeply with these words. “Perhaps synthetic stem cells were too great a leap for now.”

“What about the successes?” I ask, timidly. They don’t tell me much about what’s happening outside of my own womb—sometimes they don’t even tell me much about that—but logic says there must be other candidate carriers whose implants have been successful.

A look that I can’t quite place crosses Belinda’s face. But just as swiftly, it’s replaced with the inscrutable expression I’m used to when she’s about to discuss difficult matters.

“We’ve had no successes as yet, Khethiwe.” Then she took a step closer to whisper the last part, “Not officially.”

“But what if … ”

“Khethiwe,” she says urgently. “I’m required to report everything discussed in this room.”

Dumbly, I nod as I follow her eyeline to my hand, which is resting on my abdomen. I will need to stop doing that.

Mpendulo:

It could be my imagination, but even Thomas’ lips taste like salted caramel. Is that possible? I can hear Mother telling me to stop, but my time alone with Thomas is too special, too rare.

His hand brushes against my leg, causing me to jerk back. A flash from Friday intrudes in the moment.

“Leave me alone, Kuda,” I’d said in this very room, while Kuda stared at my legs.

I couldn’t understand how a day that had started with Thomas had led to this. Kuda was not backing away—he was stepping closer. I felt rooted in position near the bed. Where was Thomas? We’d agreed to meet in the quarantine room after school. Kuda should not have been here.

The problem had started earlier in the day, when I had just left Alex and Thomas to head to my physical education class. Typically, very few students would partake in this period since the teachers couldn’t have cared less. As for me, I would have been happy to join the rebellion, but Christabel was seated among the mutineers. While she acted politely to my face, her friends did not.

I was the only girl on the VR soccer field. Kuda was dribbling circles around me and showing off to the rest of the class. I’m no novice in VR gaming, soccer being no exception. Soon enough, I anticipated his next move. Claiming the ball from him was easy, scoring a goal even easier. I should have known that was going to be a problem. Soon, my actual face met the ground with a hard crunch.

I must have blacked out for just a moment. When I awoke, Kuda was squatting above me with a look I couldn’t place. I realized with horror that my shirt sleeve had revealed my tattoo, but couldn’t tell if he had seen it. Thankfully, the school nurse arrived soon, bringing with her enough commotion to distract everyone.

Hours later, I was still nursing my already-healing bruises as I walked into the quarantine room, worried about what Thomas would think of my appearance. It was just moments before I heard the door open again and turned to find Kuda standing in front of me.

“Go away,” I said, feigning apathy. There was that look again and then suddenly, Kuda grabbed my tattooed wrist, smirked, and twisted it.

Khethiwe:

To bring a child into the world is a beautiful thing, and my child was no different. I gave my child a name the moment I held him.

“Where’s the father, Khethiwe?” my Aunt Sylvia had asked.

“It was the virus, Anti.” One of the benefits of Doomsday was its stigma, which prompted people to ask fewer questions. She didn’t push harder, but she also began to steer clear of us. It didn’t matter, though, because my child was perfect and from the beginning, knew only love.
That’s why I can’t seem to figure out where I failed.

His first years of learning to walk and speak were glorious, driving the memories of Belinda to the furthest recesses of my mind. Now and then, some headlines about the re-emergence of Life Everlasting’s synthetic-human experiments would pop up in my news feed. Claims that the government had turned a blind eye to the work being done there during the Doomsday crisis. At some point, 724 News released documents from one of those whistleblower websites—accounts from people who claimed to have seen these synthetically created babies with their own eyes even after the experiments were officially shut down. The documents were pulled from the website and never authenticated, but the damage had been done anyway. Suddenly, rumors about babies with tattoos on their wrists were rampant. Of course, this was particularly outrageous because tattoos had been outlawed as part of the Life Prolongation Act due to the risk of disease transmission.

So I stayed away from the Farm. With the money I had been paid, my child and I could afford to stay in hiding. Nobody, not even my child, needed to know the truth.

Unfortunately, the money eventually ran out, forcing my return to work. The child often came with me. But a month ago, I was deep inside one of my employer’s homes cleaning when the bloodcurdling scream of my child silenced the house. Outside a glass door, a bird lay on the ground with a broken wing.

“Is it dead?” my child—now a teenager, but still sweet in my eyes—asked.

“No, it’s just in pain. Shall we save it?”

We took it home, and for months, we gently cared for the bird, taking turns to feed it and change its splinter. I knew that it would likely not live for very long, but I couldn’t stand to break my child’s heart. To my surprise, the bird thrived. We named it for my now-deceased aunt. I didn’t think bird Sylvia would ever be able to fly again, but it seemed content enough. Then, one day, when it was my turn to feed it, the cage was empty.

“Where’s Sylvia?” I asked.

“She flew away.”

How was that possible? I would have left it alone, but something has been niggling at the back of my head. I remember the words I last heard at Life Everlasting, 13 years ago.

It is a dangerous thing to seek to create a human being from that which is not human.

“Tell me again what happened to Sylvia, my love,” I say, my hands trembling, a few days later.

Thomas tilts his head, then shrugs as he gets ready for his first day at Genesis High School.

“I don’t know, Mom. She probably flew away,” he looks up at me with his large brown eyes.

Mpendulo:

I couldn’t say when Thomas had entered the quarantine room, or how Kuda came to be in the condition he was in. But I was grateful and frightened. Thomas was not done with the task at hand.

“No, Thomas,” I pleaded, pulling him away from Kuda.

We were both standing over him, struggling to catch our breath. The room that once held so much promise had begun to suffocate me. A memory was screaming in my head.

“Do you know why you can’t leave the farm yet?” Mother had asked me repeatedly.

“To see how long I can survive boredom before I start causing trouble?” I responded, only half teasing her.

I had heard the story of the Doomsday crisis many times and could recite it by heart. I was special, the only success born out of an experiment called Life Everlasting, that sought to improve the genetic coding of humanity by removing the parts that made it weak. I was supposed to be the next step in human evolution so that human beings would survive the next great pandemic. But then the crisis was over.

“People have short memories,” Mother said.

Thirteen years ago, when the government got cold feet around the experiment, it demanded that all implanted embryos be disposed of. Officials called it course correction. Life Everlasting complied publicly, but Mother, and perhaps others, had already been implanted successfully. To ask science to forget what it knows and stop moving forward is to ask the honeybee not to defend its colony. Publicly, Life Everlasting refocused on other areas of biotechnology, while secretly, I was born.

“You are no less human than they are, Mpendulo,” Mother had said, “The time will come when people out there are ready to know that.”

Last Friday, as I was staring down at Kuda, it struck me that my enrollment in Genesis High School was similar to the concept of the artwork in that book we had read. It wasn’t a way to prove my humanity, but rather, to give me a human experience. My tattooed wrist was throbbing where Kuda had twisted it. Kuda knew what I was, and so he attacked me. Who else would he tell? Would Alex turn against me, too? I turned to look at Thomas, wondering if he knew what I was.

I know what you’re thinking, but we when we left Kuda he was basically OK. So why hasn’t Kuda been at school?

Read a response essay from Sarah Elizabeth Richards, a journalist who writes about reproductive technology.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
Safe Surrender,” by Meg Elison
A Brief and Fearful Star,” by Carmen Maria Machado
The Starfish Girl,” by Maureen McHugh
When We Were Patched,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Lions and Gazelles,” by Hannu Rajaniemi
Burned-Over Territory,” by Lee Konstantinou
Overvalued” by Mark Stasenko
When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis,” by Annalee Newitz
Thoughts and Prayers,” by Ken Liu

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.