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art by Tim Stewart

Boy Seeds

Over the past twenty-nine years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 250 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her first novel, The Thread that Binds the Bones, won a Stoker award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Nebula Award in 2009. Her middle-school novel Thresholds, the first in the Magic Next Door series, was published by Viking in August, 2010. Its sequel, Meeting, will be published in August, 2011. Nina does production work for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She teaches a short story writing class through her local community college, and she works with teen writers. She lives in Eugene, Oregon. For a list of Nina's publications: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

Most of Noma's study friends were growing their own boys with the new Vampire, Werewolf, or Wizard Seed kits. Her best friend Celestine invited Noma to the grow room in her family compartment to take a look at a half-grown vamp.
"I specified the golden hair and dark eyebrows," Celeste said, "but he opened his eyes for the first time yesterday, and they're this weird greenish color. I ordered sky blue. Skies were blue, right?"
"They look that way in the history holos," Noma said. Noma glanced sideways into Celestine's eyes, which were the blue they had always called sky.
Celeste turned toward Noma, and reflected grow-light flared in her eyes. "What?" she asked.
Noma shook her head and rubbed sweat from her forehead. The wet air was thick with the smell of grow matrix, acrid and sour. The grow room sweltered under too-bright lights; its dark red walls were beaded with water. It was small, a standard-sized room for growing things that didn't need a lot of space. Noma and Celestine barely fit into it with the boy; the tending station was designed for one person. "Can't you turn on the blower?"
"Not while he's growing. He needs this atmosphere," Celeste said.
Noma squatted and stared at the naked boy rooted in the growth matrix. He was still in his chrysalis, a membrane containing him, binding his arms to his sides, and cloaking him in a glistening layer of cloud. His face had fae eyebrows, straight lines that started at the bridge of the nose and aimed above the ears, like an interrupted V. The features were perfect, just like the vamps in the trancies. Noma leaned closer, staring into that perfect face with its slender nose and full red lips. The rows of dark eyelashes fluttered. The eyes opened. They were larger than human eyes, almost anime eye-size, and they were a strange pea-paste green. She leaned away from him, bumping Celeste. "Eww. Did you buzz the dispensary?" Noma asked.
"They said they'd send someone to collect and replace him if I wanted, but I'm kind of curious now. Once he hatches, the warranty expires, though, and I'm stuck with him. I think I have a couple more days to decide. What do you think, Nome? Want one like this? Or are you going to be a traitor and go to the wolf or wizard side?"
"You know," said Noma, "I don't think I want anything that's going to bite me. Did you see Betula's neck in soshe class yesterday? Owie." She wiped more sweat off her forehead. Her sleeve wicked the liquid away, but that didn't relieve the heat.
"You don't want to design your own, do you? Crayola did that, and look what she ended up with--that green hairless water thingie that slobbered constantly and couldn't converse."
"I'll use the Help tools," Noma said. The vampire was staring at her. His lips parted, and a pointed tongue flicked across the upper one, slicking the inner side of the chrysalis membrane. "Ewwie. I'd buzz the dispensary, Cel. Eww."
Noma stopped in the station's communal room and plugged into the general dispensary. "Boy time," her account reminded her.
"Shut. Up," she said. But really, that was why she had plugged in. All the girls her age were experimenting with boymaking. If she kept ignoring the option, it would trigger attention from the regulators. She'd had that experience already when she was five and wouldn't play with the minihumans. She was supposed to design family groupings for them and make them procreate, but she couldn't get herself to tackle the project. All the other girls finished playing with their minihumans in half a year, but Noma had to do community service for nine months, cleaning out the hydroponics lines, which, as one of her mothers noted, wasn't exactly equivalent service or training.
Noma hadn't opted for a pet at eight, either, not until the regulators sent her scary messages. Then she got a snake, because it was very low maintenance. Not that any of the made-pets took much work. Still, she was glad she had picked something that didn't do or need much, something she didn't even like. Most of her friends cried when their pets had to be recycled. Noma had never bonded with the snake. Instead she had developed programs that would take care of it without her help.
Noma's three mothers had muttered about the pet project, which was supposed to train girls to take care of smaller beings in preparation for parenthood. "Teach them they can lose what they love," Mora said to the other two. "Like that's what girls need to learn at eight or nine. Why don't one of you get on the education committee so we can shift some of these policies?"
"I'm not doing it," said Anti.
"Not interested," said Ilera. "You're the one griping about it. You do it."
But of course Mora never did. Her strength lay in complaining.
Noma tapped the "order boy" glowspot on the dispensary screen. It showed her the most popular options, including the vampires, wizards, and werewolves, right at the top. She could choose skin color, hair color, eye color, and body type, but there wasn't much choice in personalities. She pressed some options and looked at the sample model, shifted colors, rotated the image to see it from behind. She didn't like the vampire boys. The werewolf boys were even worse. The wizard boys didn't have distinguishing marks, which made her wonder. Of course, magic didn't work, so what made these boys different? She checked the specs: Higher in intuitive skills, more able with energy flow tools. Huh?
She tapped the "Vintage" button. Ten years earlier, station girls had ordered shapeshifter boys who could change into animals. Ten years before that, it had been designer skin colors. Before that, boys with varying numbers of arms and legs, even a two-headed option, which, according to the stats, had not been very popular.
All these types were still available, or she could invent her own, but she'd have to take care of what she created for a period of six months, no matter what he turned out like. She remembered Crayola's failure and shuddered.
Maybe if she were careful--
Her mother Anti joined Noma in their compartment's grow room. They both stared at the boy rising from the growth matrix. "Oh, Noma," Anti said, patting Noma's back, "you always find a way to get in trouble, don't you? I wonder whose genes are responsible for that."
"What do you mean?" Noma said, but of course, she knew. The boy she had designed looked too much like Celestine. It hadn't been so obvious in the sample. She hadn't even realized until yesterday, when he opened his eyes behind the membrane and Noma realized they were the exact color of Celestine's, blue as old Earth skies.
Anti's finger hovered over the "Abort" button. "You can always marry her later, if you still like who she is when she grows up, but if you make it this clear now--you kids are so young." She sighed. "What do you want me to do?"
"How can I kill him when he looks like that?"
"If you let him come to term, you'll have to kill him after you get to know him, and that will be worse," said Anti. "You'd be better off doing what you did with the pet assignment. Make something you won't care about. When I had to kill my boy--" Anti hung her head, her shoulders drooping. "Ilera laughed when they recycled hers, but I don't know. I think this might be--" She glanced around and noticed the ever-present monitor eyes.
There was a part of the station so private no one Noma knew had ever seen it, the monitor center, where the regulators gathered all the information from every life onboard and evaluated which way to push for a maximum-health community. Anti sighed, and said, "I think this 'make a boy, then recycle a boy' might be very bad policy."
"What did Mora do?" Noma asked.
"We didn't know her then. She was in a different school. I don't know how she handled it. She didn't keep a picture of her boy in her memory book, so I don't even know what she chose. But I think--" She stared down at the abort button. "You should be the one to press it."
Noma knelt and looked at her growing boy. He stared back, with eyes the color of Celestine's. His face had no expression; he didn't know enough to feel. Something swept through her, familiar and frustrating, a longing for something she couldn't imagine.
The station portals showed vast black sky with glowing stars, the biggest one their sun, but so far away! Sometimes she could see the planets of the system, crescents to the side of the sun, shadows as they moved across its face, small, small, unless she refocused the view and brought them closer. No matter how hard she looked, they were too far away to touch. All any of the people had was the station and whatever recorded memories the regulators would let them experience, and sometimes that wasn't enough.
She touched the membrane enclosing her boy, though all the grow instructions said you should never do that. Its surface was slick, hot, and a little sticky. A black spot grew beneath her fingertip. She jerked her hand back, dismayed, and watched the spot spread. The boy in his sheath grimaced. His mouth opened, but no sound came out.
Noma jumped up and pressed the abort button. The growth matrix parted and the boy dropped back into the vat he had grown from. It didn't hurt. All the instruction manuals said it didn't hurt creatures when they were reabsorbed. All of them said that. But his grimacing face was burned into her memory.
She turned to her mother, who hugged her tight, letting Noma bury her sobs against Anti's breast. "Choose one you won't love," Anti whispered in her ear when Noma's sobs had slackened.
Noma slept first, then went back to the dispensary. She picked a vampire boy, because Celeste had a vampire boy. She closed her eyes to pick the colors and attributes, letting her finger wander over the screen without watching. The dispensary played a chime when she had finished, and she looked at what she had ordered. Dark skin, brown hair, amber eyes, compact body type. Not like anyone she knew. She pressed "select."
She knew she would end up loving him.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 14th, 2011

Author Comments

I wrote this story during one of Elizabeth Engstrom's science fiction short story weekend intensives. Twelve writers plus our leader Liz go off to a rustic retreat on Friday, finish writing stories by Saturday evening, read them aloud to each other, and then we all head home on Sunday. The pleasure of an overnight story is you don't stop for a lot of thought, and then you get strange surprises when you discover what you've written. Later, I did a little tweaking. Often I wonder about my brain.

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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