The devil in the detail

The father-to-be sat one afternoon, hunched over the screen, working a wooden toothpick from one corner of his lips to the other as he considered the options. There seemed too many. The down-payment had cleared, the funds were showing in the account balance, and money was, thankfully, no object for them. They’d met each other when they were students, fallen in love, stayed together; then, after those first carefree years, decided sensibly that they’d wait until they were financially secure before thinking about having children. The careers and cars and houses that followed had all got progressively bigger. Now was the time for thinking.

His wife and he had agreed on a boy; she’d readily conceded to this to have the edge on the final say elsewhere, as was her bent. He didn’t mind. She had a well-thumbed list and now held it in front of herself with assertive reverence as she wandered into their bedroom office and peered over his shoulder. “So, how’re you getting on? What’ve you picked so far?” she asked.

“Well,” he paused, blinked. “A boy, obviously.” She nodded, sat down on the spare bed next to the sleeping cat, smoothing the crinkled A4 sheet out over her jeans as she looked down at it, listening. He continued: “The basics. I’ve gone for medium height, medium build, green eyes like ours. That doesn’t make much difference to the price so far; all those are default values, really. It’s the mental side that I’m pondering; it’s like a restaurant menu where everything looks good but the right combination is the difference between a good meal and a great one.”

“Mmm, ok-ay,” she said, leaning forward and examining the screen, her eyes narrowed. “I think you should up his build. I’m not saying that I want a son that turns out like Arnie, but I do want him to grow up to be imposing, strong. And we can afford it, remember?” He duly moved the slider further to the right. The animated figure rotating on the left of the screen bulked. He twiddled the slider, made some related adjustments to its facial appearance: an almond-shaped face, slightly more bouffant hair. She nodded. “A clever child that’s built for success, a born leader, driven – that’s what we want. Someone that stands out. Top sets at a private school, Oxbridge education, a career at the top. We always said that this kid is worth investing in, someone to be proud of.”

He dragged more sliders across to the right: intelligence, perspicacity, confidence, charisma, astuteness. They moved fear to the left. She pointed out various other desirable traits, glancing down at the list she’d assembled based on management handbooks and notable biographies: ambition, vision, humour, courage, focus. “Stoke up the aggression too,” she pointed at a slider set at midway, “I think it should be higher.”

“Higher?” he queried, “I thought that, if anything, it should be lower. Think of those terrible twos, what a little devil he’ll be to manage!” He remembered the point in his own early childhood when he’d revelled in the sudden discovery of his dad’s critical vulnerability to a well-aimed haymaker. The thought of history repeating itself did not appeal to him.

“It’s worth it,” she countered, prodding him in the arm, “he’s going to need aggression to climb the ladder. Sometimes you’ve got to be ready to knock the person off the rung ahead of you, especially in this dunce-laden kakistocracy. We’ll just have to teach him how to use it proportionally and responsibly so that he doesn’t end up like you were when you were a little kid. I’ve seen that family video where you ran up and punched your poor dad in the balls. Persuasion and rhetoric too – the sliders above it,” she said, “same principle. You never know, he might want to go into politics.” He made a face. “He’d have got those attributes genetically anyway,” she said, smirking, “I just saw you moving aggression back as I was talking. Put it up!”

He did so. She was probably right, but he was looking forward to those jumpers-for-goalposts trips to the park just a little bit less now. “His baby-face looks a bit bland,” she said. “Can we see what he’d look like in his twenties?” He obliged, the figure on the screen ageing as he clicked the timer forward. They dithered for a while over grown-up facial hair and follicle density. They scrolled down. “Ooh,” she said, “now we’re talking. Here’re the good ones. Skin first. No-one’s white or brown anymore, we’re so passé,” her palms circled inwards as she gestured at their achingly unfashionable natural skin-tones. “Did you know that Lillith went for a red skin for hers? At first I wondered if they’d had some kind of terrible kitchen accident, but he’s absolutely adorable. It’s the colour of energy, passion and action as well. Very purposeful. Mind you, not the particular shade they went for – too rusty for my liking – it’s better to pick something bright, the way you would if you were choosing a new car. Crimson stands out a mile. You’d never lose a child like that.”

“Unless you were in a car park,” he noted. “But we’d probably find him by heading in the direction of the tantrum noises. Red matches,” he observed, “the colour of anger too.”

“It doesn’t match green,” she replied archly, “you need to change his irises. Something distinctive. Yellow?” They changed the irises to yellow.

The additional extras were where the company earned their money. The opportunities available to the incipient generation were astounding: the past generation’s dreams were the future’s reality.  He’d already picked the wings, broad appendages that folded down unobtrusively along the run of the spine when not in use. They cost ten grand more than the ones that were webbed between the arms and body, but they agreed that those might be a handicap on windy days and would rather spoil the line of a tailored suit. The tail that accompanied the wings curled up neatly and came at a discounted rate – it promised better balance and stability during physical activities, whether in the air or on the ground. They’d done the maths: without needing to use a car for short journeys, the capital investment needed to start life with built-in carbon-neutral transport would pay off once their offspring came of age.  He had already filled out the form to claim the future carbon credits. The writing was on the wall for car manufacturers; the man had seen that writing from a way off and had shifted his stocks and shares to gene-sculpting companies long ago.

They were nearly there, but the horns proved to be a sticking point. He argued for the biggest set available, prominent and bison-like– they just seemed to fit better with their overall design. If they wanted a dominant, striking appearance, then why hold back? But in the end they went for smaller nubs, spiralled like a ram’s, agreeing that they were more aesthetically pleasing: imposing without intimidating. She sealed the argument by pointing out that it’d save on the costs of replacement pillows and that a lad with spiked horns was never likely to get played up front as a target man for the English national side. He concurred that both were fair points.

Finally, he ticked off the terms and conditions without reading them and clicked ‘complete’. His inbox pinged and the screen flashed up a confirmation. The bio-printer started to rumble, startling the cat, which uncurled in alarm and slithered swiftly down the stairs, hissing to itself. Rubbing his hands together, he raised his eyebrows at his wife. The by-now-well-chewed toothpick still hung from his lips. “Well,” he said, “we’ve got an hour or two before he arrives… But we’ve missed something though: we haven’t decided on a name.”

“Oh,” she said, “no, we haven’t. We’d talked about everything else. If it was a girl I’d have gone for Lucy. What do you think?”

He clicked back to the confirmation email and studied the picture again. Their boy looked familiar somehow. Suddenly, he felt a surge of inspiration: “Nick. I think he looks like a Nick.”

“Yes,” she said, “we’ll call him Nick. It suits him. Nick’s a good name.”


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