Baby

This story was written for a SF contest with a really stupid title prescribed (which I discarded), and premise that was, though I didn't really appreciate it at first, inherently sexist: Genetic changes so that women had the same physical and mental capabilities as men. (a) That's stupid. We already have the same genes (except women have an extra half chromosome) and (b) just the argument that women were inherently lesser in either physical or mental ability was insulting. Yes, on average, men are stronger, but none of them can carry a child. The argument that one is inherently "superior" is stupid. But my subconscious caught it right away and generated this story which was not only a slap in the face to the premise, but provides a reminder that the issue is far more complicated than many of us appreciate. It is not the first time or the last time, I took something ridiculous and took it to its logical conclusion.

Ella James brushed a hand through her short-cropped hair, then stole a glance through the open room. Everyone sat at a pristine workstation, in skin suits in case they had to enter the clean rooms. Each of her coworkers monitored a different aspect of the chip-making process, and it reminded her of her years sitting on console at mission control, both the concentration and the boredom. But, then as now, boredom meant things were going well.

Of course, when she worked for NASA, the gender equalization laws were in their infancy, and hormone treatments were still an aspect of future standardized healthcare. Dress codes had just barely been unified.

Now, even her sharp eyes couldn't determine the genders of her coworkers, some of whom she'd known for two years, with their clean faces, ubiquitous short haircuts and carefully controlled similar builds clearly visible in the close-fitting skin suits.

"Operator James," her earpiece barked, startling her. "Have you double-checked the sensors for the clean room?"

"They take readings from the atmosphere and feed them directly into the main servers," she answered, confused. "There are no flags on my screen." She touched the screen with her fingertips. "All measurements are reading normal. Humidity 11%, particulate at 0.3%." She stretched her shoulders. Her skin suit was tighter than normal under the arms due to her increased breast size. She found her large biceps brushed them a bit more than she expected and, with their sensitivity, she found it disquieting. The skin suits had more than enough stretch to them but she feared the change in center of gravity would affect her outsized musculature. Headaches would follow soon enough, or so she'd read.

Even though it was required by law, she hoped no one would notice for a few more days. She hated causing a stir.

"After the contamination escape last month in the Eastern facility, management is wanting us to verify sensor values at the sensor location at least once per shift," her boss said through the earpiece.

Overkill, of course, but that was their current mode. "Very well,"

Ella pulled on her skull-hugging hood and tucked in all her hair, then pulled on her gloves made of special material that wasn't prone to shedding. She slipped clean booties over her soft shoes and moved toward the sticky pad that welcomed her into the clean areas, areas where the delicate organic chips were fabricated in as pristine environment as possible. Whole libraries could reside on a chip the size of her pinky fingernail, but only if the environment was totally particulate and volatile free. She went through two air showers, making no sound with her bootied feet. She wore a mask over her entire face to preclude skin flakes and hair from contributing to any contamination. The mask was hot and hard to see through, but better than losing a batch of Q-chips.

Her baggied hand-held monitor showed the parameters from the server. She went in person, pushed the test button on the sensor array, noted the blip on her handhold in response, and then both screen and wall-mounted readouts returned to their original values in total sync. As per protocol, she inspected the assembly line, looking for loose debris or dust but it was as clean as she could tell with the near-naked eye.

She'd pulled off her mask in the second air shower going back, but was deep in thought, though she'd be hard-pressed to say what she was thinking about. That's how she missed him. Her?

"Everything fine?" her boss asked her, dressed in a similar skin suit, face devoid of makeup or really any sign what gender he might be. As the law required.

Ella gasped and clutched her chest, her heart pounding. The sound of the air shower had totally masked her boss' approach. "Oh, yes," Ella said. "You startled me. I didn't see you come up."

"We haven't had a slip up in our lab. I want to keep it that way."

Her boss, Adlis, narrowed his eyes, then studiously kept them above Ella's neck. "Have you been taking your hormone shots? Your gender is becoming apparent and the laws state that, unless you are currently cleared for procreation…"

Wordlessly, Ella lifted her hand, palm out, and removed her glove. In her palm, the inset chip glowed blue. "We were cleared two months ago. I hid it as long as I could."

"Ah," Adlis said in his genderless contralto. "That changes things, of course. I didn't mean to offend you."

After the impact misogyny had been recognized to have had on a pivotal United States presidential election, and the view that discrimination in the workplace had been deeply ingrained, new laws had been adopted that required all personnel, not actively procreating, to have a specially designed hormone cocktail that gave men a bit of apparent breast and helped women grow muscles in much the same way men did. Facial hair had been strictly forbidden for all but small businesses and makeup and gender specific clothes had been prohibited to preclude mistreatment.

She'd always found it ironic that the laws that changed how gender was viewed and addressed at the workplace had been a direct result of the stupidest, most corrupt, most sexist President in modern American history. A number of laws had fallen out from that truncated Presidency: conflict of interest, corruption, transparency, independent review, press honesty and completeness. He had changed things more drastically than any President before or since. Ella James had often wondered if that was a comfort for him during his stay in Leavenworth.

Proposals had been made to adjust mental acuities but there was not enough data proving genetic links. More studies concluded, well within a generation, that, if children received no different treatment from birth, there was no statistical difference in any field of academics. Some parents had even opted not to know their own child's gender and special nurses were used. Automated baby changers/bathers were becoming popular.

There were undoubtedly many pluses, but much of the individuality she'd grown up with was lost. Though, admittedly, now that people had to get to know each other, the rates of violence had dropped precipitously. And the advantages weren't limited to women.

This radical change also helped actual transgendered employees, gay employees, and managed to eliminate the stigma for same sex marriage as people took that same thinking outside the work place. Few couples, nowadays, could be definitively pegged as heterosexual. Racial and religious stigmas still existed, but it was harder to make the argument when just genderless appearance erased misogyny almost overnight.

One of the other side effects was universal pregnancy prevention as becoming pregnant—or impregnating another—required coming off the hormone regime. And, being excused from the hormone treatments could only be cleared legally by screenings prior to having children not unlike the screen that had once been limited to potential adopters.

Pregnancy, however, made gender neutral efforts moot…unless, the process was shared by all. "I'm sorry."

Adlis sighed, but quickly added, "Of course, you haven't done anything wrong. Two months, you say? I'll have the empathy suits prepared. Fortunately, we don't have physically demanding jobs and can readily adjust." Adlis sighed again. "I hate when the random symptom generator gives me morning sickness, though. Here's hoping."

"I managed to avoid it," Ella said, hoping that would help.

"That does improve the odds," Adlis said, with a smile. "What is it your husband does now?"

"High rise construction," Ella said.

"Oh, my."

*

"Damn it, Bryce. I know it's not your fault, I mean, yeah, you're as entitled as the next person to have a kid. But still, we just finished one for Peterson who had her baby six weeks ago. I had to take a nausea pill for four months! Four months! Do you know how much harder this job is with a seven-month belly in front of you? And barfing?" The foreman, Rawler, was fuming.

"Peterson—" Michael Bryce, Ella James' husband, said, but was cut off.

"Yeah, I know Peterson did it, but now we've all got to do it, too. Again. It's stupid to make the husband wear an empathy suit on the job and then affect the whole work place."

"You know, women have been dealing with all this at the work place for generations," Miller said.

"Did I ask you, Miller? I mean, why are you even part of this conversation? Overkill! That's what it is, overkill!"

"Let me guess, you blame the liberals?" Miller said. Bryce was pretty certain Miller was female but she was taller than the foreman, Rawler, by a head and was the best welder they had. She loved to needle Rawler.

"Hell, no, I don't blame liberals. This is all backlash from that ass and his party's rampant extremism. Damn fools never learned a thing from history. Never heard of Robespierre? But it's still stupid."

"Robespierre? I'm impressed, Rawler."

"Smartass. Anyone can read, y'know. Isn't that the point of all this nonsense, not to judge people by their appearance?"

Miller grinned. "Touché. You remind me why I married you."

"Stop distracting me. I'm talking to Bryce here. Explain to me why a husband, balancing on metal girders thousands of feet in the air, needs to wear an empathy suit for a wife in a nice cushy office somewhere."

"But I won't know what it's like…"

Rawler cut him off with a gesture. "Yes you do. You wore one just six weeks ago, but at least she was actually here and pregnant. This is just silly."

"It's the law," Bryce said.

"Yeah, I know. Even with the best intentions, everything can be taken too far. Here's hoping I don't get morning sickness again."

The handheld symptom generator dinged.

"Sciatica! Damn it, Bryce!"


Stephanie E Barr

Stephanie E Barr

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