Plastic Lives

By Tomas Marcantonio

The lab is so white and spotless I feel like every step I take leaves a stain on the floor, like the Tank scientists in their lab coats can smell the sweat of last night’s shift at the bar, like they’re all trying to disguise their disgust.

This is one of the biggest factories on the island. Thousands of tanks spread out in formation before us like combs of honey in an active hive. Yazukama leads me between them, some seemingly empty of life, others with full human forms inside. The foetuses are curled up with their hands pulled into their chests, their umbilical cords twisted and legs bent. Some are completely still, others are stretching out rogue legs or flexing miniature fingers.

“The effects of a lifestyle like yours on a foetus can range from inconsequential to considerable,” Yazukama explains, stopping between two tanks. Six foot three, slender but solid like a willow tree, he lets his long hair fall like a curtain of silk over one eye. “And unfortunately, the scan results suggest some damage to your foetus’ brain cells. It’s impossible to say for certain at this stage how much it might affect the child’s development, but there is the potential for long-lasting damage.”

His velvet-black eyes skirt over me as he speaks, taking in every detail, probably every flaw, while the words trample over me. In the black recesses of every blink I remember Yazukama’s dark eyes above my own, hear his hollow breath in my ear. I picture my child’s brain like it’s a diagram on the wall with arrows pointing out every cell that’s been flooded by quiet glasses of whisky in the dark, by cigarettes, by lock-ins at the bar and the bags of white powder that sometimes went with them.

“Of course, you may continue with a natural birth if you wish, but my position here affords you a great opportunity. This kind of cell damage is something that can be successfully treated in a tank and, at twelve weeks, a transfer is still very much possible.”

My mind flashes back to the protests of the week before. They went just as I expected—natural-borns stood in the rain, chanting at the foot of the wall until the moon was sheathed entirely by cloud. Raindrops ran over their lips and into their mouths as they roared discontent into the charcoal sky. The wall was silent in response, and eventually the wet dogs of the west trudged back to the shining cobbles of the slums to refill their glasses.

“I was with them, you know,” I say. “At the wall. I wanted it all to be over. This segregation, these experiments. Look at them all, Yazukama.” I gesture to the tank-born scientists making their rounds, the tank-born mothers and fathers examining their foetuses with their perfect, empty eyes. “Do they even cry the first time they see their child’s toes, fingers?”

I watch Yazukama’s calm face, his unmoving eyes as he speaks. “As a natural-born, you might not be able to fully appreciate the things we’re able to achieve here. Diseases eradicated, miscarriages averted, the discomforts of pregnancy erased…”

“…And genes manipulated,” I cut in. “Babies picked apart until they’re just shells of who they should be. Height, eye colour, intelligence. There are more important things.”

“Like?”

“Like the bond between a mother and her child. Nine months, sharing one body. Take that away and all you’re left with are mannequins that can breathe. These second and third generation Tanks, there’s almost nothing human left of them.”

Yazukama turns his head slowly to one side but his sharp eyes remain fixed on mine.

“You’ve been across the wall,” I go on, seizing the advantage. “You’ve seen what it’s like in Sector 1. We might not have the opportunities that Tanks have, we might not have the money for all of this, but the people there are real. They’re not wrapped up in plastic like everyone in this damn greenhouse; they laugh and they live, and when they smile there are wrinkles around their eyes.”

“And they drink,” Yazukama says sternly, “and they make mistakes. The economy of this island’s been soaring for years now, Kiki, and it’s not down to the whorehouses and the drunks west of the wall.”

“They’re not the only ones to make mistakes,” I say with a look that cuts right through him. “The Tank That Went Wrong, isn’t that what they used to call you? Your body rejected the genetic manipulations. That’s why you keep crossing the wall, isn’t it? You know there’s something missing here.” I lean in, lower my voice—a final appeal. “You’re not really one of them, Yazukama. That night you came to the bar, the things you said—that lookin your eyes. Those weren’t the eyes of a Tank.”

Yazukamasnaps his eyelashesin my direction. For a moment I think I have him; I picture him taking my hand, leading me out of the New Life building, breaking down the wall himself with his bare fists.

“What I am doesn’t really matter,” he says at last. “All that matters now are your mistakes. The question is, are you going to rectify them?”

His eyes are hollow again, blunted and cold; whatever regret and rebellion lay dormant behind them has now been replaced with that familiar distant emotion, like a faraway star. I turn away to the tanks, watch the foetuses in their hibernation, their eyes scrunched shut as though they can really sense the artificial lights of the lab on the other side of the glass.

I close my eyes, and a single tear forms at the meeting of my eyelashes. It hangs heavily on the lower lashes while I search for the face of my mother. I imagine her rosy cheeks and the melodies of the songs that she sang to her swollen belly. I think of her smile, and the way it wrinkled the corners of her eyes.

Tomas Marcantonio is a novelist and prize-winning travel writer from Brighton, England. His short fiction has appeared in over a dozen journals and anthologies, including STORGY, The Fiction Pool, and Ellipsis Zine. Tomas is currently based in Busan, South Korea, where he teaches English and writes whenever he can escape the classroom. You can connect with Tomas on Twitter @TJMarcantonio.