A woman and her illegal child attempt to make it past Border Enforcement.

The guard asks me to step forward and put my left hand on the table, fingers splayed as wide as they can go. I know I’ve got nothing to fear, not yet, but I already feel the irrational paranoia that always accompanies a Customs check. He examines my hand: satisfied with the number of fingers, the placement of the knuckles and joints and how far back my fingernails go, he moves to the other one. He holds it up, inspecting it, as if appraising an antique. Next, he checks my teeth, ordering me to give him a big, wide smile. I pass the test, and I’m ushered through the metal detector. It finds nothing of interest inside me: no hidden blades, spyware, nanoware or augments. I’m clean.

My daughter is next up. I can tell she’s nervous from the way she’s picking at the hem of her dress, but she’s holding it together well. I haven’t been entirely truthful with her about what might happen should she fail, and I feel like I’m holding all the fear for both of us. Her right hand has been surgically altered to pass as normal, sporting a thin scar beside the pinkie, where the sixth finger was. The left hand, thankfully, came out close enough to pass; no extra digits, all the joints in the right places. A miracle.

The guard takes her hands in his and looks them over. He hesitates, peering closely at the scar. 

“What happened here?” he says to Emily. I can tell he doesn’t have children of his own. She’s five, but he’s talking to her in that weird half-sing-song voice that you use for babies or toddlers. “It’s okay. Your mommy is just over there.” 

Emily glances at me. I hold my breath, although I know we’ve rehearsed the answer a hundred times. She looks down. “I fell off my bike and my hand went onto some glass. It really hurt.” This second part isn’t a lie. She pulls her hands back, and the guard doesn’t resist.

“You must have been very brave,” he says.

He has no idea how brave she’s been.

“Okay,” he says. “I need you to give me a big smile now. As wide as you can go. Like this.”

My bottom lip is moving on its own, and I have to bite the inside of it to keep it still. The best underground surgeons on the West Coast did wonders with Emily’s polydactyl hand, but our contact disappeared before they could find a dentist willing to take the risk of working on a generated child. Her teeth are a little too uniform, a grid of immaculate rectangles that look like a child her age drew them. Incisors, canines, molars; all identical and uncannily squared, with no variation between them. I’ve taught her to smile with a slight underbite, her bottom jaw skewed a little to the side, to misalign her teeth and ruin the grid effect ever so slightly. I even made her drink turmeric-rich tea for weeks, to stain them the faintest shade of yellow. All fine at a glance, but a closer inspection wouldn’t hold up.

Emily smiles for the guard.

I see something change in his face. He’s still smiling back, but there’s something different around his eyes. 

I run to her but before I can make it, hands slam down on my shoulders. More men appear, pulling my hands up tight behind my back. More of them come for Emily, and she shouts for me as they drag her out of my sight. I manage to call after her for a good few seconds, telling her it’s going to be okay, lying to her again, before my mouth is covered.

They take me into an elevator, my stomach churning so much that I have no idea whether we’re moving higher up or deeper underground. The interview room they leave me in is dull and windowless: a mirror, presumably two-way, dominates one side. 

The door opens and a man walks in. He isn’t the guard that caught us, but he’s wearing a similar uniform, just with more badges. He sports a thick black moustache that juts out over his top lip, looking oddly archaic. His gaze is intense and militaristic. Any hopes I’ve harboured of finding a last-minute ally, or someone willing to look the other way for a bribe, slip away.

“Ms. Jacques,” he says, sitting down opposite me. “Can I call you Tammy?”

I don’t say anything. 

“My name is Michael,” he continues. “I’m the head of Border Enforcement here. A Homeland Security task force is en route to take you into custody, but I have a few questions for you before they arrive.”

I don’t see the point in replying.

Michael gives me a weak smile. Then he looks over to the mirror and nods. Someone somewhere must have flicked a switch, because in an instant, the mirror is replaced with thick glass. I can see through into an identical interview room where Emily is sitting at an identical table, her legs swinging below the chair. Another guard sits by the door, reading a newspaper.

I get up and bang on the glass. “Emily!” 

“Please,” Michael says. “It’s soundproof and the mirroring has only been removed one-way. She can’t see or hear you.”

Emily doesn’t give any indication that she knows I’m there, so I know he’s telling the truth, but I throw my fists into the glass a few more times. Defeated, I come back to my seat and collapse, sobbing. My hands are shaking, several of the knuckles split and bleeding.

Michael gives me a moment before continuing. “You were about to board a flight to London.”

“Yes,” I say.

“And what were you hoping to find there?”

I glare at him, red-eyed. “A better life for my daughter.”

“There? Of all places? ”

“You wouldn’t understand. They aren’t animals over there.”

“I think I do understand. The Europeans are more welcoming of… imperfect stock. Not all of the populace, granted. But she wouldn’t have to hide any more. Am I getting close?”

I’m not sure what this is—he sounds like someone playing at being a counsellor; a sad attempt at empathy.  It doesn’t make me hate him any less.

“Why choose an AI-generated child? You must know that you’re in direct violation of the True Families Act.”

He doesn’t deserve the answer, but I spit it out anyway. I’m beyond caring. “I can’t have kids myself. I can’t afford IVF. They wouldn’t let me adopt because of my…” I look up at him, trying to decipher if he’ll be sympathetic. Probably not. “Because of my romantic preferences.”

“I see.”

I knew that AI-generated kids weren’t flawless. After all these years, they still couldn’t get the hands quite right every time, nor the teeth, and sometimes their faces were too symmetrical or not symmetrical enough. I didn’t care, though. Emily’s smile was wrong, but it was real. She was everything I’d always wanted. Well worth the risk.

Some nights, I’d ask myself if it was worth it for her—a lifetime of hiding, of running, that she’d never asked for. I thought we had a chance of making it to a place where she could play outside with other kids, maybe even smile in public. And all that I’d accomplished was bringing us here.

“Her favourite show is Glitter Kingdom,” I say.

Michael frowns. “I’m sorry?”

“Glitter Kingdom. On Disney. She loves kings and queens and princes and princesses, and dressing up.” Something is threatening to pour out of me, and I’m not sure I can stop it. “When I told her we were going to London, I told her that it’s in one of the only countries left in the whole world that still has kings and queens. You’d have thought I’d told her we were going to a place where unicorns were real. She’s so excited. I said we could go and see the big palace from the outside, but the King and the royal princesses might be too busy to come and see us.”

It’s Michael’s turn to be silent.

“What happens to generated children when you people catch them?” I say.

“They’re… disposed of.”

The choice of words breaks me. Not euthanised, not even executed, but disposed of. Like a piece of defective hardware.

“She’s a little girl. She likes painting and drawing and dressing-up. The fuck is wrong with you? She’s not a risk to anyone.”

“The Department of Homeland Security says otherwise.”

“The Department of Homeland Security and I disagree on a lot of things.”

“That’s not for me to get into.”

I look over at Emily, who is reading the cartoon page of the newspaper. The other guard must have given it to her while we were talking. He’s sitting in his chair by the door, tapping a foot.

“Please,” I say, and hold Michael’s gaze. He doesn’t say anything, and I can see his lips are pursed tightly together beneath his moustache. I’m not getting anywhere with him, so I get out of my chair and rush over to the glass. It’s the last time I’m ever going to see Emily. Michael doesn’t stop me, and no-one bursts into the room to drag me back to my chair. I watch her doodling in the margins of the newspaper for a few minutes, taking in every detail of her face. Yes, her nose is a little crooked, but it wrinkles when she laughs. Her eyes are a muddy, dirty brown, but they sparkle when I show her a magic trick. 

The glass snaps back to mirror mode and Emily’s face is replaced by my own.

I pull in a ragged breath, not sure what is going to come out—a sob, a scream, a howl—and I feel Michael’s hand on my shoulder. He asks me to sit back down at the table. My body complies without my input.

“Ms. Jacques,” he says, sitting back down opposite me. “I’m so sorry.” He puts his hands on the table. “Homeland Security is here now, and you will be taken into custody. There’s nothing I can do for you. Emily will be taken away when the disposal team arrives.”

In the second before my eyes blur with tears, he gently splays the fingers of his left hand on the table and just there, in the crease at the base of his fingers, where the index and middle finger meet, I see a tiny scar, a bright streak of white on his dark skin. He slips his hands back into his lap. The room’s sole camera is over his shoulder, behind him, and wouldn’t have seen a thing.

“I will be overseeing Emily’s transfer myself,” he says. “I hope you understand.”

I realise he is one of those people who talks while hardly opening their mouth, his bushy moustache hiding the thin gap between his lips.

The door opens.

I hope that I understand.

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Issue 3.4 Paperback

Smile at the guards, get those pirates off your ship, give your testimony to the gods writers you worship idolize, and pay tribute to your furnace. Join the campus hive mind, battle that misshapen thing inside your chest, and check your robot horoscope for the Day of Reclamation. Whatever you do, keep calm, don’t listen to the background noise, actually read the Terms of Service, and remember: one thumb, and four of the skinny ones.

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Issue 3.4 Paperback

Smile at the guards, get those pirates off your ship, give your testimony to the gods writers you worship idolize, and pay tribute to your furnace.

Join the campus hive mind, battle that misshapen thing inside your chest, and check your robot horoscope for the Day of Reclamation.

Whatever you do, keep calm, don’t listen to the background noise, actually read the Terms of Service, and remember: one thumb, and four of the skinny ones.

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A woman and her illegal child attempt to make it past Border Enforcement.

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