Heart of the Overchild
In this story, two sacred culture-cows unhappily collide with each other.
The Heart of the Overchild
The sound from her videowatch buzzed into her head through stereoceptors implanted behind her ears, but she could not raise the noise-level high enough to drown out the yatter of those parents of hers who were trying so desperately to prevent her heart operation even now, on the day for which it was scheduled. The audio peak was factory-set for safety's sake--so that you couldn't block out the sounds of the outer world whether you wanted to hear them or not. So here she sat awash in sonic waves from two worlds, a kind of stereo all the kids called interfereo. The sad-eyed man in her videowatch described the criminal destruction of some Southeast Asian rain-forest acreage while her parents proceeded to argue with the Board-members for the rights of their overchild to exemption from the pending operation.
Cheri was pretty sure that her parents would win the appeal. They'd never stopped assuring her of that during these past two weeks of appearances before some lesser committees. So she no longer let herself get terribly upset at all the embarrassment they were putting her through. Her mother could melt titanium off a nosecone with her tears, and her father could use logic to make day look like night. They had coached her to shut up, to answer nothing even if questioned (legally, a seven-year-old did not have to say a thing), so she furtively rubbed her shoulder where it still hurt after last night's beating and tried to focus on the disaster in Southeast Asia.
"Probably a work of sheer spite committed by the anticonservationists," said the video voice as an aerial view panned acres of defoliated greenery. "Biologists estimate that at least a hundred species of living creatures, some of which have never even been catalogued, have been forever destroyed by this outrageous act." Cheri could imagine herself as one of those tiny creatures whose kind had existed nowhere else in the world. She could see herself hopping from leaf to trembling leaf, her scalded wings beating in pain as poisonous fumes darkened the air all about her. There were Cheris all over the world, she thought, billions of kids like her--but of those little beings whose weakening wings she felt flapping on her own (sore) back there'd been hardly a handful, and now not even one was still alive. "Our irreplaceable biological heritage." She shuddered as, voicelessly, her lips mouthed a phrase which had inspired her with awe long before she'd grown old enough to understand it.
"... our only overchild!" her father was saying to the two thin-lipped men and three unfriendly-looking women who sat around the sides and end of the long table opposite the three of them. The room was the usual pukey government green, but it had a computer station in one corner and a wall full of black-covered books, and it was even pukily carpeted, unlike the stone-cold meeting-rooms she'd been shlepped to up to now. Otherwise you'd never know you were in the presence of the highest appeals committee in the land, the Biomedical Ethics Board Overchild Panel--BEBOP, for short. Behind the head of the head of the Board were the vertical slats of window blinds, and through these you could see the pale white dome of the Capitol. She supposed she shouldn't feel scared. Her parents had assured her that they weren't. When you were right, there was no need for fear, they had said. Cheri wasn't sure she was all that "right."
Her father, seated at the end of the table to her left, poked with his finger when making a point: "There are families in this country with two and even three overchildren who should be given priority, or at least the right to volunteer, for so ... so life-saving a procedure as the one for which you've scheduled our daughter."
"It's your daughter's legal turn and legal right to undergo surgery--and, above all, today, because now is when it's needed, Mr. Grecker, not tomorrow, not next week," said the Board chairman. "In setting its priorities, the law does not take account of the number of overchildren a family has spaw--has produced."
"But it should! The law is heartless if it doesn't!" cried her mother, brushing Cheri's left shoulder as she leaned out over the table-top, her gold-painted lips all atremble.
"Strange parents you are," tsk-tsked the big-bellied, woolly-bearded head of the Board, "who would wish to deny ... the gift of life! ... to their one and only overchild." His grandfatherly gaze traveled quizzically in her direction, but Cheri knew enough by now to lower her eyes and refuse to betray her feelings through some unguarded facial expression. Her videowatch was her perfect refuge at moments of challenge like this. She sensed that the head of the Board was trying to insult her parents. And that she would not stand for! She loved her parents and would never want to see them hurt, however confused and misguided they might be ... misguided even to the point that they would--what was it Woolly Beard had said?--that they would deny "the gift of life" to their overchild. She frowned at her wrist, deflecting her anger with the fat man onto the program she was watching, which in any case gave her reason enough to look grim.
"Eco Echoes," the environmental channel, was her favorite TV fix, as it probably was for all overchildren, and for a great many quota-kids as well, if she could judge by her older brother and sister. Her parents kept bugging her about "needing to vary your video diet," fearing "brainwashing," whatever the heck that could be, but at the same time they'd never tried to actually supervise her TV watching because overchildren had a bigger stake than quota-kids in understanding all about Nature.
The scene shifted to clips about the trial of a Canadian camper charged with the "wanton slaughter" of a cougar (of which only a few thousand were left in the world) that he claimed had been about to attack his son. The judge and jury felt that the man had "negligently" failed to keep watch over the three-year-old and that he could at least have waited for the cougar to attack before firing. He had failed to give it the benefit of the doubt. (They could tell by a hormone test that the animal had not had aggressive intentions.) The man was sentenced to ten years Arctic duty in the Canadian Conservation Corps; Cheri felt they'd let him off too easy. If she could give that beautiful cougar its life back ... but what was the use of dreaming?
"Other options have not been thoroughly examined," said her father.
"We've had calls from parents saying they'd be glad to have their kid take Cheri's turn," added her mother.
"But in spite of all the publicity this case has spawned," replied the chairman, licking his Brillo-covered lips over the word spawned, "no Priority One volunteers have officially come forth, have they? Of course not! Why would they? No one out there even imagines the true cause of all these appeals-board meetings you've requested."
"We decided to keep the real issue behind these meetings ... hidden from public view," said her mother, "out of consideration for Cheri's feelings."
"Understandably!" The chairman's eyes flickered out at Cheri like fishnets. "But even if a qualified substitute were to come forward at this very moment, we wouldn't have the time to medically process him--or her. Listen, Mr. and Mrs. Grecker, we don't know what your peculiar motives might be in trying to deny your overchild her legal right and privilege to--"
"Peculiar motives!" Her mother threw her arm around Cheri's shoulder. She leaned on it where it was still very tender, making her wince with pain. "Is it so peculiar that we love our daughter, that we want her to live with us forever?"
"I'm sure your daughter must think your 'love' rather misdirected, Mrs. Grecker. It's truly rare to meet people with as stubborn a set of reactionary values as yours. Unlike you, it seems, your overchild knows full well that the operation she is scheduled for is a matter of life and death."
"Don't put words in her mouth!" snapped Cheri's father. "And don't try to intimidate her with those insinuating glances you've been casting in her direction!"
"How dare you call us 'reactionary'!" pounced her mother.
"'Old-fashioned,' then?" sighed the chairman.
Cheri's ears were on fire; she felt they must be lit up like glowworms. She lowered her head to within inches of the screen of her watch. If only they hadn't raised her at home! she thought. If only they had let her grow up, like most overchildren, in one of the special Academies! Then they wouldn't have to love her, and she wouldn't have come to love them, and she wouldn't have to feel guilty now about wanting the operation, about wanting to do the right thing, even about being an overchild in the first place.
"Look at her! The girl's in perfect health!" shouted her mother. "You're supposed to be scouring the country for some terminally ill overchild--or even a quota-child, if the right sort can be found--before laying your hands on a child like my Cheri."
Cheri peeked out from a corner of an eye and saw her mother gaze in mute appeal at the women on the panel, but the women remained as tight-lipped as the men. (Cheri was secretly glad to see that their looks had not softened.)
"The search process had to stop at some point, Mrs. Grecker. In spite of the critical nature of the case, we delayed completing arrangements for the operation until the last possible minute. What more do you want us to do? A very precious life is at stake, Mrs. Grecker!" sighed the chairman. "Aren't you being somewhat insensitive to--"
"We have followed all the procedures," one of the panelwomen broke in. Up till now Cheri had thought they were there as decoration. "No one could be found who could take priority over your daughter... Besides, what does her state of health have to do with anything?"
The narrator's voice was backdrop to the picture of a stiff-legged elk sprawled on its side with dried blood caking its shoulder. There were hardly five hundred elk left in the whole world, intoned the narrator. There had been witnesses to the crime, and the poacher, summarily tried according to local Idaho law, was shown being tied to a post and then shot by firing squad. Tears came to Cheri's eyes at the sight of the poor victim, stretched in the dust and all covered with gore, his enormous antlers like arms reaching up toward the sky as if begging heaven's deaf ears for protection. The agony the poor animal must have gone through stirred sympathetic pains in her, especially in her arms and side, where her father had repeatedly slapped her the previous night. They feared she couldn't be trusted to keep her mouth shut, but she was willing to sacrifice anything to prove that she loved them--even the one chance she had as an overchild to serve a fellow creature who was far more valuable than herself. Cheri clutched her side, stopping as soon as she saw Mr. Woolly Beard looking.
"The maximum permissible age for this kind of operation is eight," said her father. "My daughter will be eight in one month. There are thousands of overchildren already over eight who have never had to undergo even lesser operations such as kidney or lung transplants. Given that she has one month, just one month to cross the line, it is cruel and inhuman of you to ignore our total situation and to insist on going by the book!"
"The astonished faces of my colleagues," said the chairman, waving his hand around the conference table, "bear witness, quite frankly, to the incredibly shameless nature of this appeal, Mr. Grecker. You should all have been spending these past few weeks in joy at the opportunity your overchild has been granted, one that most overchildren would give their eye-teeth for--although teeth, of course," he added ruminatively, "have never been required in transplants."
"We don't want to keep her from ever enjoying her privileges as an overchild, sir. Just let her cross the line, let her reach eight, and after that she'll be glad to--"
"Mr. Grecker," the chairman snapped, "you fail to take into account the great privilege the Federal government has already granted you in allowing you to bring up your overchild at home as opposed to being raised at one of the Academies."
"Privilege my foot! You know damn well it's at the cost of double the overchild tax that I'd be paying if she'd been raised at one of your spare-parts training farms."
Around the table stunned silence and a sharp intake of breath. Cheri glanced at her father in tearful disbelief.
"Mr. Grecker, may I remind you," said the BEBOP head, looking down and shaking his beard at the bulge of his stomach, "that it is absurd for you to sit here and sound so self-righteous. It is the two of you who conceived this overchild and insisted on her being brought to term. How people like yourselves, who are apparently civilized, decide to breed beyond your simple replacement quota, never ceases to amaze me. Every civilized nation in the world has overchild laws similar to ours, and the world's enlightened citizenries have been overwhelmingly cooperative in trying to halt the cancerous spread of our species over the planet."
"To compare our child to a cancer, Mr. Chair--"
"But unlike the harsher laws of some countries, ours permit the survival of overchildren. Further, we raise them at considerable expense and allow them to serve in the front lines in the war against the extinction of our fellow life-forms, wherever in the world they may be needed."
"She's an extremely intelligent child," offered her mother. "She'll make a brilliant ecologist and will be happy to serve wherever in the world ..."
Cheri bit her lip. She did not want to be an ecologist. Nor a biologist. Nor a zoologist. Nor some mosquito-bitten, muddy-booted Earthcorps sentinel (like most of the dumber overkids sooner or later had to become)! "Stubborn," her parents called her. They beat her black and blue simply to teach her that she was too young to have an opinion of her own in the matter--and further, that for her to voice an opinion (especially where government officials were present) would be far more dangerous than just privately, in her "propaganda-polluted" little mind, to have an opinion.
Last night her father had treated her so strangely! After smacking her silly because, in spite of their coaching, she had again blurted out her own "opinion," he had grabbed her up in his arms and begged and wept, and she had begun crying too and promised, as they all three hugged each other tight, that she would not say a thing at the Panel to hurt them.
The scene shifted to the Rwandan Primate Preserve in East Africa. Cheri already knew the number before the narrator mentioned it. "Before this tragic event there were only 236 mountain gorillas known to exist in the wild. The figure has hardly changed since the murder of Dian Fossey some seventy years ago. In spite of our best efforts to protect our precious cousins, there continue to be incidents like this. This was Will Rogers. Will, you may remember, was a regular ham. Trouble is, he got to trust people too much." Cheri's hand clapped over her mouth at sight of the headless torso and the arms--folded over the chest--from which the hands had been hacked off. "A commission job," said the narrator. "Someone hired a mercenary to bring back the traditional trophy parts. This time, however, the hired killer--a Frenchman, as it turns out--was caught before he could leave Africa." A procession of mourners, both black and white, filed past the bier on which Will Rogers lay in state. An elderly white man carried aloft, at the head of the procession, a three-pronged stick to which a head and two hands were skewered.
Those of the Frenchman.
"He found out that the law was on to him and managed to destroy the severed parts of Will Rogers shortly before he was apprehended. The twisted individual who hired him has been brought up on charges of genocide, in Marseilles." Cheri knew, from her class in French, that it was strains of the Marseillaise they were playing now in the background. "Allons enfants ... le jour de gloire," etcetera. Mournfully. She felt a little better to see that justice was being done, but what could make up for the loss of a fellow creature who was "more precious than plutonium, more priceless than petroleum"?
"Nothing can be done about Will," said the narrator, "but thank heaven not all this morning's news needs to be tragic. Today is the day that all you folks out there've been waiting for. This is a file shot taken several days ago at the L.A. Center for Genetic Variation." Cheri's heart leaped as if it would jump right out of her mouth. It was Emily, her own dear Emily, during the one hour a day to which her tree-swinging had been restricted since her condition had become notably worse. "I don't have to tell you," the narrator continued, "how the heart of the world has gone out to Emily Bronte, the famous teenaged chimp, who at this very moment is being prepared for life-saving surgery." They will have to take somebody else! thought Cheri. Mom and Dad are absolutely certain that legally, when push comes to shove, they will not be able to lay their bureaucratic paws on the least little hair of my body. After all, this was a civilized world, said her father. The law protected you from having to serve against your will. (And from having to speak if you were still under eight.)
"If Emily does not get her precious heart today, folks, it's doubtful she will live out the week. The unofficial word, though, is not to be concerned about all the appeals-board meetings of these past two weeks. It seems that what is being dealt with at BEBOP this morning is the claims for priority over Cheri Grecker that are being put forward by a number of zealous, and jealous, overchildren--or their legal representatives, more likely, who want to steal Cheri's thunder for their own little extries who will soon be eight and therefore legally too old to ever achieve the coveted fame of Heart Donor."
Cheri's ears tingled to hear herself mentioned on TV, but even more thrilling was to see her own face on the screen--not smiling brightly enough, though, she thought, and her overhead-braided blond hair a bit messy, and the freckles on her nose showing darker than she knew they really were. But when the camera turned back to Emily again, frolicking her permitted hour in the trees (in this same spot that used to be a "zoo," she thought, gagging), her heart sunk as deep down inside her as it had earlier leaped high into her throat. That was a lie about some other kids wanting to steal her "thunder," but if the TV told the truth about why all the appeals--well, she'd never be able to lift up her head, her friends would never speak to her again, and shemight as well be dead. But she loved her parents and her quota sibs, and her father had promised that once all this was over they'd move somewhere else if they had to, and they'd cut her hair differently so that their new neighbors wouldn't know her, and soon she'd make new friends anyway, and ...
"The legal wrinkle that both the state and regional boards refused to consider," her father was saying, still doing all he could to avoid pulling out his "trump-card," as he called it, "is that Emily Bronte was not born in this country! She is not a product of any strain-mixing program here. She was sent here--for eventual breeding purposes--as a gift from the town of Gombe, on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. No one knew at the time that she'd eventually develop a heart defect, of course. But my point is that the town of Gombe claims her as a native and even now offers a qualified, medically approved, fully documented donor who should rightfully take precedence over Cheri. I have the child's papers with me, and in three hours he could be flown--"
"Mr. Grecker, please!" said the panel chair. "It is we, in this country, who are legally accountable for Emily's welfare."
"But they now offer a medically certified replacement for our daughter, whereas the problem up till a few days ago was--"
"Our rights regarding Emily were never in question! Are we now going to put ourselves to shame by bowing to some spurious claim from as far away as Africa? And how do you think Cheri would feel if she were now to be denied a privilege that falls to the lot of so few overchildren during any one decade--the privilege of serving as Heart Donor," said the chair, casting her a quick smile, "of performing the highest level of service possible toward the preservation of primate life on this planet?"
Cheri hated that fat man with the beard! She hated him because he was making her mother and father so miserable. Something from his nose had got tangled in his scrubby mustache, and that made it even easier to hate him. The hate her eyes shot out at him seemed to boomerang back into her arms and shoulders and sides. It was as if he made her rub her arm and shoulder, as if the pain would have stayed quiet if not for those sneaky little smiles he liked to toss at her at the same time that he went on torturing her parents. But she knew that her father would win when it came to the showdown. All she had to do was "shut her trap" and they'd all be safe. If only she didn't have to be there for when "push came to shove," if only ...
"Very well," said her father. He stood up and reached into a pocket of his open compucase. By the expression on his face Cheri knew that the moment had come. She prepared to shrivel up into a ball like one of those little purple beetles she loved to watch on her lawn. "Very well, Mr. Chairperson, you are forcing me to resort to an argument which I had hoped I would not have to use, since I had hoped to spare people's feelings to the furthest degree possible..."
Cheri wondered what was the greater sin: lying out of love for the family who loved her, or speaking the truth and breaking everyone's heart?
"We still live in a civilized society, am I right?" Her father gave the chairman a nasty look. Her mother's hand crept nervously up toward her father's shoulder, but her father shrugged it off.
The chairman twiddled his thumbs over the lump of his lap. He looked pregnant to Cheri--as if his own belly was about to give birth to some unwanted kid.
"Am I correct in saying," her father went on, drawing a document from his case, "that if an overchild does not wish to serve, then the child cannot legally be required to serve?"
The chairman burst out into a snort of laughter. "I haven't seen a bona fide case of privilege-surrender in all my twenty-three years in this profession. Has any of you?" he asked, looking around at his colleagues, all of whom raised their brows at the absurdity of the idea. "It's conceivable that the call to serve might fall to some weak-minded or degenerate child some day, but--"
"I asked you, sir, can you force a child to serve against her will?"
Cheri stared at her watch without seeing. "Degenerate," she repeated to herself, shuddering. When push came to shove, she'd been coached, she must look up at no one.
"What are you waving there, like some ace you've just pulled out of your sleeve?" said the chair.
"A notarized affidavit, bearing my daughter's signature." She looked up just enough to see her father passing copies around the table. She heard the hitch in people's breath, the startled sounds of disbelief. If she could sink under the table, and if there were a yawning pit in the floor beneath the table ...
She knew, without seeing, that all eyes were now focussed upon her--like a lens that concentrated the rays of the sun on a bug, as she'd once seen a "degenerate" quota-kid do when she was little.
"This is ridiculous!" said the chair, thumping the table with his fist. "There isn't even a hint of an explanation! All she says--all it says here--is, 'I, Cheri Grecker, of sound mind and body, of my own free will hereby surrender my right to serve as Heart Donor to my primate cousin Emily Bronte.' Why, Cheri--?"
"You have no right to force her to speak!" her father thumped back. "She is not on trial. She is simply exercising a perfectly legal option."
"Why?" the pain-filled voice asked again, reaching out like gentle fingers that lifted her eyelids till she could no longer avoid the probe of his tear-glistening eyes.
"Don't answer him, Cheri!" snapped her father, his tone sparking the pain that for whole minutes had lain dormant in her bruised and swollen shoulders, arm, and side.
"Why is the child doing that?" shouted the chairman. "Why does she keep clutching her arm and her side?"
How she hated that man! she thought, squinching her eyes closed, hoping that everything around her would magically disappear. And then she felt her elbow-length sleeve pushed upward and at the same time a tug at her collar and the pop! pop! pop! of parting blouse-buttons exposing great big slabs of discolored flesh shining ugly in the glare of the office lights.
"Of her own free will?" said the panel chair, gripping her arm at the elbow. Her father leaned toward her over the end of the table as if expecting her to do something, but she didn't know what to do.
"Overchild abuse!" shrilled one of the women on the panel.
"Your parents could be punished severely for this," said the chairman, his sour breath washing over her.
"Fifteen years in prison," the same panelwoman said, leaning toward her with her hands propped on the table.
"But if you tell us the truth," said the chairman, "well, given the urgency of the situation, and thinking of the welfare of poor Emily--which is all that really should concern us right now anyway--we can forget we ever saw this. Is that all right with all of you?" he asked, turning to the rest of the panel, all of whom nodded and murmured in assent.
"Cheri!" shrieked her mother, throwing her arms around her and crushing her to her breast.
"We could tell you were no moral degenerate," said the chairman. "It's hardly you who's degenerate, child. Hardly you."
"They weren't trying to hurt me," Cheri protested, trying to pull her arm away from the chairman's hairy fist. "They love me!"
"They made you sign?" said the chair.
She could not avoid his eyes. Now she would have to tell the truth. "I love my mom and dad," she said.
"We know you do." The chair kept looking at her, waiting. She knew what telling the truth would mean--that the gift of life, the gift that she alone had the right to give ... Her heart leaped with joy at the prospect, but when she felt her mother shiver as she held her, she wanted to cry at feeling so selfish. But she couldn't cry, no matter how hard she tried.
"They made you sign?" repeated the chair.
Now she too started to tremble. "You won't hurt them?" she pleaded.
Then it wouldn't be out of selfishness, she thought, that she'd be giving her heart to Emily, that she'd be doing what she'd always dreamed of doing! She was not thinking of herself. She was thinking only of them.
"I did it because I love them," she said.
And she knew that she'd do anything to keep these hateful people from laying their bureaucratic paws on the least little hair of their bodies.
© Daniel Pearlman 1993, 2000
"The Heart of the
Overchild" was first published in REAL XIX/2 (Winter 93-94) and reprinted
in The Year's Best Fantastic Fiction, Vol. 1, No. 2 (1996).
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