My first memory of a Baby: wet splotches on my mother’s cream blouse; my pinkie finger like a hot, salty lollipop in my mouth.
“It’s just a little nip,” she soothed.
I refused to coil my arms around her.
She shifted me onto one hip and gripped me with her left hand. With her right, she cupped the back of her neck, holding a secret.
My first memory of my own Baby: a doctor sweeping in with a jar containing a specimen, pink and moist like the inside of a mouth; thwack, thwack against the glass. My lips were sticky from the strawberry ice cream from earlier. Two nurses for my thrashing limbs; one more, grunting, for my head. My nape was on fire. I screamed for my mother. She did not answer. Her black heels, just out of my reach, were resolute and unmoving. The thing — the Baby — burrowed greedily into me.
At home, my mother taught me that Baby would lay dormant until adulthood at the base of my neck. If I immersed myself in school and worthwhile hobbies like piano and ballet, my hibernating Baby would fatten by proximity with the new knowledge and achievements I acquired. When I turned eighteen, Baby would awaken, satiated through my diligent care, and bless me with a Good Life.
At school, they taught us that Babies had eliminated societal blights such as drug addiction and crime in the span of one generation. Lab-grown and AI-enabled, Babies were heralded as modern society’s biggest development, driving humans to their full potential.
My mother was ten when mandatory implantations of Babies were introduced. The Government had seen the roaring success of mandatory implantation campaigns in other countries, as a means to reform entire populations into hyper-productive workhorses. As a result, it thrust its own citizens into this new System in the hopes of remedying our waning economy.
Citizens were promised material rewards beyond their wildest imagination, which came quickly for individuals who worked hard and complied. The turnaround in our economy was remarkable, as predicted.
Little was said about those who were unwilling or unable to meet their Babies’ demands, but those who couldn’t, quickly sickened and died. Within a year, my grandparents were gone. My mother was moved to a government-run orphanage. She had just turned eleven. She buried her grief with Teachings of the new System, embracing Babies as the new digital deities.
After finishing school, she worked her way up in the System, crediting her success to her Baby.
Whenever I showed the slightest hint of slacking off, my mother would bring up my grandparents. “They were too weak,” she would say, in a voice steeped in resentment.
My Baby awakened when I turned eighteen.
At first, I was excited. My mother and her Baby had always shared a special bond. Every time they finished a major task, her Baby would gurgle sweetly in her cupped hand for hours. Now I would have an awakened Baby of my own, to celebrate my achievements. The future and possibilities looked bright.
However, my awakened Baby was not an amiable companion. It grew a gummy, toothless mouth; a lecherous eel of a tongue housed within. Its tongue roamed my body. It took to screeching several times a day. I constantly stunk of its stale saliva. I looked at forums on the System as the screeching continued. There, the users advised me that screeching was a very bad sign.
‘Screeching leads to sickness and death within months,’ they typed.
My mother, I noticed, also started to become sick. Her once-docile Baby began to screech, and her skin turned grey. It was as though the screeching of my Baby was contagious.
Out of precaution, we went to the doctor. When my mother mentioned my grandparents’ early demise, he surmised that our conditions could be attributed to particular family traits. “It can’t be helped,” he said, and sent us on our way.
The pain developed and our symptoms worsened. I pictured the blackened deposits of weakness in the bones of my forebears, leaching into the bones of the babies they carried in their bellies, from mothers to daughters in each successive generation.
Despite our fervent dedication to the System, our bodies and the memories they held were turning against us.
“We must keep going,” said my mother. So, we worked harder, even when our bodies faltered.
One fateful evening, my mother came home from work with books on the System.
“If we immerse ourselves in the Teachings, we will recover,” she said. She dropped them on the dining table and collapsed on the chair. Our Babies screeched in the background, a noise now as familiar as our laboured breathing.
I picked up a book and winced as pain shot through me. “What if we die anyway?” I said.
My mother sighed. “Do not question the System. It has given us everything that we have today. Do not be weak like your grandparents.”
An argument rose in my throat, but I stayed silent. Despite her fighting words, I was unsettled by the plain flatness in her tone.
That evening, we studied the Teachings until late.
Some time after, I woke to my Baby’s roving tongue down my back. I slapped at it half-heartedly and it hissed. I had fallen asleep at the dining table, and as I stretched, I could see that my mother had done the same. She was leaning back on her chair with her eyes closed, with a stillness about her. I touched her arm and shook her.
There was only the screeching of my Baby.
I shook her harder. Her head slumped forward.
“No! Wake up, Mum!”
Then I saw it. Balanced on her shoulder was her Baby. Pink like the inside of a mouth. It was escaping her corpse to find a new host. Slippery, writhing, warm, the size of a stress ball as I reached forward to seize it in my hand.
They were too weak. My mother’s words sounded in my head.
I would not be too weak this time.
I took a syringe from the medicine cabinet.
I had only read about this on the internet. I hoped it would work. It was said that the blood of a Baby could poison another.
I plunged the syringe into my mother’s Baby, extracting its blood.
They were too weak.
It shrieked. It bit me. I dropped it and it slithered out of sight. Then, reaching back, I stabbed the syringe into my Baby. Screams.
They were too weak.
My nape was on fire. I screamed for my mother. She did not answer. Her black heels under the table, just out of my reach, were peaceful and unmoving.
I felt it slither off my neck and down my arm before it dropped on the table. It greyed and shuddered, then lay still.
It was not weakness; it was the will to survive. Heirlooms from my mother.