Better

They knew having a baby would change their life, but how much were they willing to change to keep their child safe?

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I

We decided to get better when we found out we were pregnant.

I was never interested in getting upgrades. They might be helpful, I thought, but I had no reason to change. I wasn’t perfect, but I was good enough. You were skeptical of all the flashing lights and touchscreens, which seemed more vanity than improvements. Most upgrades were marginal advances over whatever they replaced; it was hardly worth the cost and surgery to become only slightly better.

Seeing the positive results of the pregnancy test, suddenly thinking of a family for the first time, upgrading no longer felt like such a bad idea.

We weighed the benefits against the risks. We surveyed our many faults. You imagined your bad knee slowing you as you chased our child around the playground near our home. I pictured myself scheduling doctor’s appointments, playdates, and family vacations with the tap of a finger, a few commands to an internal computer, instead of tracking everything on the calendar we taped to our fridge. It seemed the difference between an abacus and a smartphone: next to the upgraded parents, so would we.

We went in for our first appointment later that same month.

II

We both had areas to improve. All the late nights of coding left you with early carpal tunnel, and just thinking of lifting a child made your wrists ache. You did not want to worry about your grip failing at the wrong moment.

I wore thick glasses growing up, then switched to contacts in my 20s. Squinting at screens all day at work only made things worse. I imagined waking in the night and fumbling for my glasses, or watching from a deck chair as our child played in a swimming pool, afraid to join in and risk losing my contacts in the water. I knew about LASIK, of course, but learned that newer procedures could bring my eyesight far past 20/20.

We found an upgrade center near our house and scheduled appointments for a Friday afternoon. A quick consultation, a stack of paperwork, a few thousand dollars. Thirty minutes trying not to flinch as lasers shined in my eyes. Two technicians working on your arms as you stared at the parking lot outside, too squeamish to watch. It was quicker than visiting the dentist.

After a weekend of recovery, your old wrist guards joined my contacts in the trash.

As we began to better ourselves, our child formed and grew. The baby was not a baby yet, more zygote than fetus, still weeks from writing its presence into the world. We discussed its journey like the reports of an explorer moving through strange lands. Now it was stitching chromosomes into place. Now it was forming a brain, a spine, a heart. Tiny eyes and hands. All of it smaller than a grain of sand.

The early years were the most important, we knew. One slip, one drop, one ill-timed glance away could lead to disaster. The slightest mistake might cascade down decades.

Our first upgrades were a nice start, but fixing poor vision and strengthening weak wrists were more corrections than improvement, adjustments that brought us only back to normal. If we wanted to be good parents, if we wanted to protect our child, we would need to be much better. We would need to be perfect.

III

Over the next few months, we installed all the common upgrades one by one, as if completing a series of homework assignments. You cured tinnitus with a set of synthetic eardrums, banishing forever the ring that overtook your hearing. I added expandable metal plates to the soles of my feet, then reinforced my arches with fiberglass bands. Soon I could walk for an entire day without stopping every few miles to sit.

Hunching at a desk all day gave your back cricks only a chiropractor could twist free. I pulled a muscle in mine moving a few years ago, and still spent a few weekends each year flat on the couch. With a few quick injections, technicians added titanium powder to strengthen our spines. Buttons beneath our lowest vertebrae sent electric currents up our backs to magnetize the metal, locking the upgrades in place. With the upgrades active, we could carry three times our bodyweight.

We cut away inefficient parts to become less biology-dependent. I installed a computer in the palm of my left hand; swiping the flex-screen, I made calls, sent emails, and accessed parenting videos much more quickly than powering up a laptop or tablet. You replaced two molars with porcelain-encased sensors that sent nutrition information about everything you ate and drank to your phone in real time. Our new fingertips measured the body temperature and heartrate of whomever we touched, scanning for danger.

Our child swam larger in the black and white ultrasound images as we improved. We collected printouts at every appointment and created our own flip-book. Still months away from consciousness, our child was performing a complex ballet. Blood cells cohered into a network of nerves, organs, and muscles. A skeletal structure formed underneath translucent skin. The unique whirls of palms and footprints etched onto tiny hands and feet. The hair, eyebrows, and fingernails we would see every day. A small heartbeat already echoing through our thoughts.

IV

We watched videos of full replacements online instead of sleeping at night. Swimmers with flipper extensions somersaulted through blue oceans, nimble as dolphins. Skiers cruised pitch-black slopes, their night vision showing the trails clear as day. Climbers traded hands for icepicks, feet for crampons, and raced like giant spiders up the frozen waterfalls. A man who lost both legs in a car accident made his third ascent up Mount Everest, while simply walking up a stalled escalator might leave us both out of breath.

We repaired weary joints with carbon-fiber implants. Reinforced wires wreathed our muscles. Subdermal sensors communicated with our home to raise the lights and temperature as we entered a room and then power everything down again as soon as we left. Magnets in our wrists vibrated to tell us our distance from each other, erasing the worry of becoming lost in crowded markets, grocery stores, and shopping malls.

You upgraded your entire right hand to a better model, one that would never tire, fumble, or shake. Gyroscopes whirring silently inside your new fingers coordinated movements so fluid most would never guess the hand synthetic. I traded my left eye for a powerful computer. Facial‑recognition software cross-referenced each stranger I passed against police databases to glow halos only I could see that told me their level of threat.

Still the pregnancy raced onward. Our internal clock, our countdown hurrying toward the day our child would emerge soft and pink and vulnerable into the world, ticked steadily louder. Suddenly every television show centered on a robbery, kidnapping, or murder. Our newsfeeds overflowed with missing children. In the videos of distraught parents we watched, in the articles about shattered families we emailed each other, we saw only our futures.

V

Our child grew from the size of an eraser school children use to scrub errors from workbooks to nine inches long, and nearly two pounds. In our new ultrasounds, we learned his gender, and even made out individual fingers and toes. The videos we watched told us measuring his brainwaves would show the same patterns of sleep we cycled through each night, dreams and all. We learned to lower our voices after dusk.

We fed capsules of slow-release vitamins and supplements into body ports grafted to our sides. Our chemical levels balanced, we no longer needed coffee each morning. We stayed focused all day, fell asleep quickly each night, and slept soundly until dawn.

Microchips near our hearts waited to dispatch ambulances the instant we suffered heart attacks, seizures, or strokes. A body-wide network of batteries captured the kinetic energy our movements created and recycled it to power our upgrades, making us nearly self-sufficient.

One month before the birthdate, doctors implanted microprocessors the size of aspirin tablets directly into our brains. Once we recovered, we no longer felt the upgrades strung throughout us as blank spots, areas on our internal maps uncharted and remote, but as pieces of ourselves instead. Like they had been there all along.

The implants would be our last procedures before the birth, however. We were both disappointed. We were better off than when we started, but still so far from perfect. We had so much left to do. But ready or not, our child was restless to enter the unsafe world.

VI

Afterward, we would replay the day over and over, trying to pinpoint exactly when everything went wrong.

Was it the drive to the hospital, swerving to stay on the updating map our GPS promised was the fastest route, that bumped something loose? Or during labor, as we moved through the final steps? The birth, perhaps, in a tangled umbilical cord, a sudden lack of oxygen, a spreading infection? Or was it foretold long ago by a defect in our genes, a problem in our chromosomes, an irregularity passed down into a miniature heart?

Later, we learned it happens more often than people think. One in every 200 pregnancies, according to some estimates. Most parents never find out what went wrong during the slip from mother to the world that left their baby quiet and still, spreading their silence to everyone in the delivery room.

My upgraded eye saved image after image. Your fingertips downloaded the exact feeling of our motionless baby’s weight. We would access those files hundreds of times over the next few months. We would watch the videos on our computer screens, our mobile phones, the backs of our eyelids as we waited for sleep each night. Replaying the pictures, we examined in slow motion the moment that stopped our hearts.

In the video our child is perfect in every way: tiny fingers curled toward his palms, eyelashes delicate above his closed eyes, his face furrowed as if in sleep. Perfect, except for his stillness. Even years later, watching for the thousandth time, we lean toward the screen. We hold our breath. We almost give up hope. But then a tremble moves through him. His eyebrows draw together. His small head rocks from side to side and he gasps in one long breath. His eyes open. In the moment before his cry unfreezes us, we relive it again: what no amount of technology will ever replace.

Featured image: Shutterstock.com

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Comments

  1. I think the real surprise of this story is that instead of some dark tale of how technology is a poison to humanity, or some anti transhuman fable – we are given a mirror. No vision of doom; only the realities of today and yesteryear. Technology – in our own era- is a comfort against the unknown. Technology can repair and replace worn out organs, and even improve upon nature’s designs. Technology – in the hands of proud parents – will record and photograph countless special moments for millennia to come. But even with the countless ways technology can improve or “perfect” our quality of life, the most miraculous thing of all remains life itself.

    Technology enshrines life. It does not replace it. It does not belittle it. Technology – as this story depicts – does not need to be feared.

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