The Natural Order of Things

As her infant daughter faces death, a mother must decide whether to upload the child's consciousness into a robot body.

When a child is this small, it’s hard to find a vein. Their arms are too small for the needle to hit easily, and there are only so many places a nurse can insert an IV line. I pray my daughter’s veins won’t collapse every time we switch treatments.

Despite all this, Rachel is a happy baby—but a bored one. I wake up on a cot next to her hospital-issued crib, and she rolls over and smiles at me.

“She shouldn’t be able to do that yet,” my mother tells me. I hold those words to myself, long after Mom is gone, whispering them like an incantation that will save my daughter. She will do impossible things if I just believe as hard as I can.

The house is empty when I come home. Rachel’s father is gone. Chris left soon after we brought her home from the hospital. There’s nothing left of him, though the chaotic reminders of a sick baby litter the space. Piles of laundry smelling of sour spit and milk-sweat. A thermometer on the floor by the toilet where it fell when her fever spiked. Mold growing inside a half-finished bottle of baby formula, forgotten after the subsequent trip to the emergency room.

I don’t know how I ever brought her home to this; there was only ever enough house here for me.

I count each one of Rachel’s fingers and toes, just as I did after she was born to be sure they were all there. Her chubby fingers wrap around my thumb and squeeze.

The doctor knocks on the door and enters. He’s papery-white, a half-shade lighter than his coat, and Rachel cries every time she sees him, so I am quietly grateful that she is asleep. His mouth moves, speaking words that are still new to the rest of the world, let alone to me.

My daughter is going to die, but her mind can be preserved by putting it somewhere else—it’s too much for me to understand. They don’t know what is wrong with my child, but they’re already asking if I’ve thought about her options when she dies.

“I need to talk to my mother.” I shake my head over and over until he gets the point and leaves, shutting the door. I should call Chris, but I can’t begin to imagine what he’d say if I did.

So I don’t.

I pick up my phone and text Mom.


Me: Hi Mom.

Mom: Your father and I were just talking about you.

Me: Only good things, right?


The pause is too long, so I fill it.


Me: The doctor is asking me about Rachel.

Mom: Do they know what’s wrong? Do you get to bring her home soon?

Me: No. I mean, I don’t know yet. They haven’t said.


How many times did Mom say Rachel would “catch sick” because I didn’t breastfeed long enough? That I don’t hold her right? That I swaddled her too tight and how can a baby learn to crawl if she can’t even move her arms? I’ve spent many hours wondering which one thing was the thing. The one that sentenced my daughter to death.

Staring at the phone, I see three dots. Mom’s thinking.



Mom: Okay, hon. Anything we can bring you?


What can she possibly bring that would help? A book? Spa socks? I smudge a tear off my cheek.


Me: Doctor’s here. Gotta go.

There is a peace in the hospital that Rachel and I never found at home. I’m tired, but it’s not the bone-tired of standing on concrete floors all day selling jeans and being nice to people. Today, the IV is sticking from a spot on her head so the little pink cap she’s been wearing is gone. I’m still allowed to pick her up for a few minutes at a time. Masked, of course, but I can still smell the faint whiff of powder from the black fuzz of her hair as my mask rustles against it.

These are the best times, when it’s just me and her. I rock her close to me and imagine that our heartbeats are keeping time. She gurgles and coos, her mouth not quite making syllables or laughter.

I think about what the doctor said. She could live forever. Her body wouldn’t be flesh, but he said it would be similar. A type of synthetic plastic that warms to the touch. A place for her brain to continue growing after her physical body fails. I don’t really know how it works, and he’s too impatient to explain it fully, stares at me like I should be grateful for the opportunity. Her generation might be the one to finally colonize other worlds–just not in the bodies they were born with.

Would it be so bad for Rachel to give up the body she was born with? One she’s only known for a few short months? One she’ll never remember having?

I rock her, and I think.

During Rachel’s first IV, her piercing, panicked screams unnerved me. The nurse, frustrated, made me hold her down and told me to comfort her. They were high, shrill screams like nothing I’d heard before—Rachel’s face turning red and angry, her fists wriggling and trying to break free of my grip. I cried, gulping words of apology as the nurse fumbled with the needle and the gauze. And that was how it went every time…but only for the first few weeks.

Rachel greets the doctor with the thousand-mile stare of a war vet, lying still with arms and legs that no longer protest what happens next.

He moves her legs, checking the tubes and wires that stick from her head and arms, slipping a finger into the back of her diaper and peeking. I walk away, preferring to look out the window while all this happens. Mom says it’s ridiculous—an infant doesn’t need her privacy—but the truth is, I need to step away from this invasion.

He comes over to me after a while.

“I’m going to put her on oxygen. Have you thought any further about the procedure?”

Thinking is all I do.

“It’s not a bad option,” he continues.

“I don’t understand how you put an infant in a robot body.”

He smiles like I’ve said something funny.

“I’ve told you before. The body will feel natural to you—think of it as synthetic, not robotic.” He pats my hand when he says it, a rote attempt at sympathy. “Her body will still breathe, and she will learn to use it, much like she’s learning to use her biological body right now. As she grows older, the body can be upgraded.”

Upgraded. There’s the key word. What happens when she’s outdated? I hug my arms to my chest.

“Insurance will cover some of it,” he says. “It’s still an experimental process, but your parents might help you. Many of our families that choose this option have been able to crowdfund it—it’s a good option, especially with a child as young as Rachel.”

I can feel the yes burbling up inside of me—I don’t want to lose her yet. I’m not ready. But his words hold me back. Experimental? What does that mean? How does he know this will work?

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t have long to decide,” he pronounces before he leaves me alone with my fears.

“We’ll pay for it,” is the first thing Dad says. He and Mom are crowded around the screen, their faces squished together before Mom shoulders Dad back.

“Chris should be paying for it—where’s that bastard been during all of this?”

As she rants, my thoughts drift. Is this a choice I can make on my own? What rights does Chris have? Does a father have to pay child support for a robotic—excuse me, synthetic—kid?

“We set up a CareFund for you. Your great-aunt Jen said she’d donate a hundred dollars.”

Dad chuckles derisively. Mom elbows him.

“A hundred dollars. Wow.” I try to sound enthusiastic but fail.

“You two,” Mom says.

“Mom, I don’t think a hundred dollars is going to cover much. The coffee, maybe.”

“You know she’s on a fixed income.”

“I’m sorry.”

I am sorry. Sorry that it’s come to this—asking my relatives to empty their savings and dig spare change from their pockets. What happens as Rachel grows up? How often do we upgrade her body to keep pace with other children? What if I lose my job, my insurance?

I want to ask my parents all these things, but I know Dad would shut that conversation down. They’ll bankrupt themselves to keep Rachel alive. So will I. And it would be worth it to watch her grow up, right?

I haven’t heard Rachel’s laugh in a long time.

“Sweetheart, don’t make this choice about money. Think about her quality of life.” Dad says. I end the call.

That night, I receive an email from a distant cousin. Clearly, Mom had sent out the CareFund website to everyone in her address book. I haven’t talked to Jared in years. His email is full of recriminations and a bunch of language about God. He insists that prolonging Rachel’s life would be against the natural order of things.

The natural order of things? In the natural order of things, I die first.

But the words stick with me. Even as she cries and chokes in the middle of the night, bringing forth an army of pale green scrubs and white coats to attend to her.

The natural order of things.

Quality of life.

Yet no one can tell me what happens after we die.

Or what happens if you can’t stop living.

I no longer spend my nights listening to Rachel breathe.

I tap on the screen of my phone, consuming information about people who made the choice to download their children. There isn’t much, since the technology is still in the early adopters stage and none of the downloaded children have grown up. A few adults have made the choice, but for them it’s different. An infant can’t consent.

This choice shouldn’t be so hard, I know that. I should be agreeing to anything that would prolong her life, but as I watch her slip further away each day, I wonder if that’s what she would want. If she even knows she wants anything other than for me to cradle her and to sing to her.

Rachel can barely coo tonight. I hear a tiny little hiccup before the monitor chirps and the nurse comes to take her from my arms. It’s happening more and more now, and our time together is growing shorter as the days go longer.

What do you buy a child for Christmas when she has a robot body? The doctor keeps insisting that it’s her last, only chance. My parents call every day to reassure me that she will be loved. Everyone is rooting for her now, but I keep thinking about how hard it was to find someone to loan me $20 for formula when my check ran short. What happens when it’s no longer a matter of life or death? What will Rachel need that I won’t be able to provide? And what happens, to both of us, when I have nothing left to give?

I’m holding Rachel when the end starts.

She’s so weak that I don’t prop her on my knee anymore. I hold her against my chest like when she was first born, my palm cradling the back of her head and neck so she doesn’t have to hold it up. Her breath is slow, then fast, then slow as I rest my cheek against her forehead, the two of us rocking. Her monitor starts emitting the shrill note of alarm.

Rachel whimpers when it starts and I rub her back, singing without words. I can’t remember any. Again, faces I don’t know flood into the room. Arms are reaching for the two of us, mouths jabbing questions at me about consent—telling me that if I want her to live, I have to choose now. She’s shuddering in my arms, quaking away the peace between us, and I move away from them all until I feel the cold cement of the wall against my back. This isn’t how it ends. It can’t be.

“Go,” I say. A nurse approaches me, her arms outstretched.

“Go away!”

Rachel is crying as I scream, her tiny voice fading as the nurse turns to leave. It isn’t because she’s reassured. It’s because Rachel has no more voice to give. The room empties as quickly as it filled. No doubt the nurses are running for the doctor. No one wants a lawsuit.

“I love you.”

I rest my face against hers, feeling the soft baby down of her cheek on mine. We dance together for the last time, swaying as I hum, and she calms. Like butterfly wings, her tiny eyelids flutter open, then close, then open again, and her dark eyes focus on my face for a moment before she sighs and closes them a final time.

I sing her all the words I can remember from every song I ever knew. My body grows cold, but hers is colder.

There are consequences, later. Very few of my friends and family will speak to me by the time her coffin is placed in the ground. There is talk of a lawsuit. More than one. After Chris hears she has died, he decides that he wanted a child after all.

In the days that come, I go on. At first, I close my eyes when walking through certain aisles in the grocery store. The calls of friends with children go unanswered. If a woman with a baby boards the bus, I turn my back and push my face against the window so that I don’t have to see it. The pain doesn’t leave, but it changes. One day, I wake up, fold her tiny onesies, put them into a box with the little pink rabbit slippers she wore home from the hospital, and tape it shut. I call my mother, and together we clean my apartment without saying her name.

The next day, I decide to go to the park. Though the air is crisp and cold, the sun is shining. It’s the kind of day I loved to take Rachel for walks. Bundled up in a puffy coat and too many blankets, I’d push her stroller down the sidewalk, checking every few minutes to make sure the little white clouds of her breath were still puffing out. It’s hard not to wish I had the stroller as I walk past other families we once said hello to every day—it would have been some protection from the stares, at least. A couple of the children wave when I manage a shaky smile, but the mothers avert their eyes.

I sit down on a bench, hugging my diaper bag to my chest before I set it down. Even now, I haven’t quite shaken the habit of using it as a purse. Today, it serves as a shield, big enough to keep anyone from sitting next to me.

Children run past, shouting and jumping and playing. A toddler stumbles toward the swings and is swooped up by his mother before he reaches them. I let out my breath, then find myself glancing around at all the tiny faces, looking at other people’s daughters in the stupid, secret hope that someone bottled Rachel without me knowing and dropped her into one of these children. All these children are ordinary children, however, with tears and bellyaches and hearts that beat. I stand up, knowing that it does no good to linger, that there are still lawyers to see and work to do.

Then I see the new child. She must be four years old, at least, but she moves as if she’s just learned to walk. Both her mother and her father are here. Her tiny hands are sheltered by theirs as they walk on either side of her. The three of them take very tiny steps, the father looking over his shoulder every few seconds. The children stop playing to watch them, while their parents buzz quietly to one another, words not loud enough for anyone but their neighbor to hear. One dad even stands up, holding his phone without shame, to snap an image of this clumsy family.

The mother’s hand is clenched around the child’s, and I notice her pointed red nails, sharp and long enough to pierce soft skin, digging into her daughter’s hand. Rachel once bellowed for what felt like an hour when I accidentally scratched her arm with a jagged fingernail. But this girl doesn’t notice. Her skin doesn’t pucker, nor does it bleach with the pressure.

I move a little closer, but not close enough to alarm her parents. The girl’s cheeks are a pale pink but not chapped by the wind. Those cheeks never move, not even when her foot hits a rock and she trips, dangling between her parents’ outstretched arms. Rachel would have laughed, fussed…something. It takes a moment before the child makes a noise that sounds like a sputtering trumpet. Walking over, I kneel in front of her. I know what she is, and I have to see this child’s eyes—I have to see whether she’s happy.

Her father grabs her before I can say anything, pressing her hard into his chest. It would choke any other child, but she remains as she was. The mother looks at me like she knows me, then flees after him as I stand there, hoping for a glance of that little girl’s face. The child’s head bobs up and her eyes open, but she is too far away for me to see clearly. A half-glimpse of the life I might have given Rachel. The phone in my bag rings. I answer, the receiver cold against my ear.

“You took too long,” my mother accuses me on the other end of the line. After a pause, her voice softens as it always does these days. “Are you okay?”

I watch the child and her parents disappear down the hill.

“Yeah,” I say. “I think I am.”

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Issue 2.2 Paperback

In this issue of The Dread Machine, you’ll visit an automated retail hellscape, attend a wild party on Earth’s tempest-ravaged surface, and determine what caused the strange deaths at the AudioSnap building.

See the stars in the prison walls, inherit the sacred responsibility of an irradiated priestess, meet a sinister sommelier, befriend a spider, then attend a macabre art show. Whatever you do, don’t eat the honey, and avoid the child with the robotic toys.

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Issue 2.2 Paperback

Visit an automated retail hellscape, attend a wild party on Earth’s tempest-ravaged surface, and determine what caused the strange deaths at the AudioSnap building.

See the stars in the prison walls, inherit the sacred responsibility of an irradiated priestess, meet a sinister sommelier, befriend a spider, then attend a macabre art show.

Whatever you do, don’t eat the honey, and avoid the child with the robotic toys.

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The Natural Order of Things

As her infant daughter faces death, a mother must decide whether to upload the child's consciousness into a robot body.

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