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«Ethan of Athos», Lois Bujold

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For those who listened in the beginning: Dee, Dave, Laurie, Barbara, R. J., Wes, and the patient ladies of the MAWA.

CHAPTER ONE

The birth was progressing normally. Ethan's long fingers carefully teased the tiny cannula from its clamp.

"Give me hormone solution C now," he ordered the medtech hovering beside him.

"Here, Dr. Urquhart."

Ethan pressed the hypospray against the circular end-membrane of the cannula, administering the measured dose. He checked his instrumentation: placenta tightening nicely, shrinking from the nutritive bed that had supported it for the last nine months. Now.

Quickly he broke the seals, unclamped the lid from the top of the canister, and passed his vibrascalpel through the matted felt of microscopic exchange tubing. He parted the spongy mass, and the medtech clamped it aside and closed the stopcock that fed it with the oxy-nutrient solution. Only a few clear yellow droplets beaded and brushed off on Ethan's gloved hands. Sterility obviously uncompromised, Ethan noted with satisfaction, and his touch with the scalpel had been so delicate that the silvery amniotic sac beneath the tubing was unscored. A pink shape wriggled eagerly within. "Not much," he promised it cheerfully.

A second cut, and he lifted the wet and vernix-covered infant from its first home. "Suction!"

The medtech slapped the bulb into his hand, and he cleared the baby's nose and mouth of fluid before its first surprised inhalation. The child gasped, squawked, blinked, and cooed in Ethan's secure and gentle grip. The medtech wheeled the bassinet in close, and Ethan laid the infant under the warming light and clamped and cut the umbilical cord. "You're on your own now, boy," he told it.

The waiting engineering technician pounced on the uterine replicator that had incubated the fetus so faithfully for three-quarters of a year. The machine's multitude of little indicator lights were now all darkened; the tech began disconnecting it from its bank of fellows, to take downstairs for cleaning and re-programming.

Ethan turned to the infant's waiting father. "Good weight, good color, good reflexes. I'd give your son an A-plus rating, sir."

The man grinned, and sniffed, and laughed, and brushed a surreptitious tear from the corner of one eye. "It's a miracle, Dr. Urquhart."

"It's a miracle that happens about ten times a day here at Sevarin, " Ethan smiled.

"Do you ever get bored with it?"

Ethan gazed down with pleasure at the tiny boy, who was waving his fists and flexing in his bassinet. "No. Never."

Ethan was worried about the CJB-9. He quickened his pace down the quiet, clean corridors of the Sevarin District Reproduction Center. He was ahead of the shift change, having come in early especially to attend the birth. The last half hour of the night shift was the busiest, a crescendo of completing logs and signing off responsibilities to the yawning incomers. Ethan did not yawn, but did pause to punch two cups of black coffee from the dispenser in the rear of the medtech's station before joining the night shift team leader in his monitoring cubicle.

Georos waved greeting, his arm continuing in a smooth pounce on the proffered cup. "Thanks, sir. How was vacation?"

"Nice. My little brother got a week's leave from his army unit to coincide with it, so we were both home together for a change. South Province. Pleased the old man no end. My brother's got a promotion—he's first piccolo now in his regimental band."

"Is he going to stay in, then, past the two years' mandatory?"

"I think so. At least another two years. He's developing his musicianship, which is what he really wants anyway, and that extra slew of social duty credits in his bag won't hurt a bit."

"Mm," Georos agreed. "South Province, eh? I wondered why you weren't haunting us in your off-hours."

"It's the only way I can really vacate—get out of town," Ethan admitted wryly. He stared up at the rows of readouts lining the cubicle. The night team leader fell silent, sipping his coffee, watching Ethan over the rim, disturbingly silent after exhausting the small talk.

Uterine Replicator Bank 1 was on-line now. Ethan keyed directly to Bank 16, where the CJB-9 embryo dwelt.

"Ah, hell." The breath went out of him in a long sigh. "I was afraid of that."

"Yeah," agreed Georos, pursing his lips in sympathy. "Totally non-viable, no question. I took a sonic scan night before last—it's just a wad of cells."

"Couldn't they tell last week? Why hasn't the replicator been recycled? There are others waiting, God the Father knows."

"Waiting on paternal permission to flush the embryo." Georos cleared his throat. "Roachie scheduled the father to come in for a conference with you this morning."

"Aw…" Ethan ran his hand through his short dark hair, disarranging its trim professional neatness. "Remind me to thank our dear chief. Have you saved any more wonderful dirty work for me?"

"Just some genetic repairs on 5-B—possible enzyme deficiency. But we figured you'd want to do that yourself."

"True."

The night team leader began the routine report.


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