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Beauty and the Baby Beast

Sarah Pinsker is the author of the novelette "In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind," 2014 Sturgeon winner and 2013 Nebula finalist. Her fiction has been published in magazines including Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Lightspeed and in anthologies including Long Hidden, Fierce Family, and The Future Embodied. This is her third appearance in Daily Science Fiction.

She co-hosts the Baltimore Science Fiction Society's Dangerous Voices Variety Hour, a reading series/quiz show. She is also a singer/songwriter with three albums on various independent labels and a fourth forthcoming. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland and can be found online at sarahpinsker.com and on twitter @sarahpinsker.

He was not a cute baby. He looked like a nineteenth-century presidential portrait: all jowls and distrustful side-eye. This was, of course, the reason I was there. Not the presidential part, but the ugly part. I knew it, and his mother did too.
She let me take pictures, which would please my editor. She posed with him, which would please my editor even more. I could see the headline now: "Twenty Secrets About Davina Masters' Baby." Or something like that. Headlines are somebody else's job.
My job is to convince people like Davina Masters to let me in the door with my camera. They usually let me, for a simple reason: I ask. I don't try to break their privacy screens, don't hang out of trees or hide near their cars or stalk them. Sadly for the human race, this sets me apart from the majority of my colleagues.
Anyway, I had called Davina Masters a week after the baby was born, then again a month later. Just the two times. She returned my calls when he was five months old to offer me an exclusive on his public debut. By then, the gossip sites had already consumed all their oxygen on the subject and burnt out on speculation: depending on who you read, the baby was impossibly beautiful or hideously deformed or a clone of the actress herself. None of them had guessed this.
She sat on her white couch, in white slacks and a tank top that said she hadn't lost all her baby weight and didn't really care. I liked that, and the fact that up close I could see drool stains on the couch and the pants. I had always liked her, really. She was a few years younger than me, but a few years older than the wave of Barbie doll lookalikes that had swept through Hollywood in the wake of the gene-mod revolution.
I searched for the most tactful question, so she wouldn't throw me out on my ear. "So, why did you decide not to gene mod him? A new trend?"
She gave me a look I had seen in a dozen movies, haughty and somewhat disappointed. Lines formed around her mouth. I liked that she hadn't had them surgically erased. "He's modded. Of course he is. You think I would risk having a redhead living in a place this sunny?"
I filed that bit of information for another article. There had been a lot of speculation about the identity of parent number two.
"So, then, um...?" I searched for my next question. She was looking at the door now, probably wondering if I should be on the other side. I grasped for something to win her back. "Have I shown you pictures of my baby? She's nine months now."
I usually prefer not to talk about my own family, but sometimes it's necessary. This time it worked. She leaned toward me, her infant scowling at me from her lap. "Meh," he said, his frown deepening. She beamed at him, then reached between the couch cushions and drew out a pacifier. She wiped it on her pants before popping it into his mouth. Sucking on the pacifier, he looked less like a president, but more like a walrus.
"This is Audrey." I said, scrolling through the pictures on my tablet.
"She's gorgeous!" said Davina Masters. "She looks just like Viola must have at that age. Such a face. That is who you modded her on, right?"
"Yeah," I said. "I've always loved her look, and she kind of reminds me of my sister, so I thought, 'Why not?'"
"Would you send me one to show her? I'm having brunch with her next week."
She relaxed into the couch, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I snapped a few pictures, waiting, hoping. A butler brought us iced tea, and we stepped out onto the back patio to drink it. I took a photo of the palm trees framed by her compound wall, then some more of the baby rolling around on a play mat in the grass. I wondered how much it cost to keep grass looking that lush in this climate, and if I'd ever goad her into answering the important question.
Finally, I went direct. "Was Charlie modded on anyone in particular, or did you customize?"
I watched her face. She seemed startled for a minute, then nodded as if agreeing with herself that she had expected to tell.
"My great-uncle Clarence. My favorite relative. I just loved his face. He looked like the grumpiest guy in the world, but then I'd put on a play for him and all the frown lines redrew themselves. I know it looks a little silly on a baby, but he'll grow into it."
I aimed my lens at Charlie again, and he gave me the most withering look I had ever gotten from an infant. I could swear he was telling me where to shove my camera.
"You know what's going to happen next, right?" I asked her.
"These pictures are going to be on all the gossip sites, saying everything I did wrong and what a terrible mother I am?"
I gave her a wry smile. "That, too. But then there's going to be a wave of copycats. Goodbye little ski-slope noses, goodbye engineered dimples. Hello to a million Uncle Clarences."
"Great Uncle Clarence," she said. "I'm counting on it. Do you know how sick I am of acting with all these bland ingénues? I miss character. You understand, right?"
I did. We hugged when I left. From my car, I sent her a photo of Audrey for Viola, and one of Charlie for herself. Then I uploaded to the work server. I didn't know what salacious headline they'd run with my story, but Davina and I both knew the headline wouldn't matter. We'd be rooting for those beautifully ugly babies.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, January 9th, 2015

Author Comments

This story was inspired by a Codex contest prompt and a fabulously distinguished-looking baby that I met the same week. I had fun coming up with a gossip mag style title that the narrator's bosses would have put on her piece.

- Sarah Pinsker
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