Palo Alto Weekly 33rd Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Adult

My Sweet Allele

By A.A. Norton

About A.A. Norton

Aimee A. Norton is an astronomer who works at Stanford University researching the Sun's magnetic fields. She also writes poetry and enjoys the parallel ways in which physics and poetry compress big, experiential truths into small spaces. She is an editor for The Astrophysical Journal.


I love science fiction. The inspiration for "My Sweet Allele" came to me twenty years ago. I knew that speciation, the evolutionary process by which populations become distinct species, could occur quite rapidly. I also knew that the number of Caesarean section births was increasing rapidly in many countries. The situation begged the question: what happens when the human birth canal no longer limits brain size? This story is one answer to that question.


Judge's comments

Welcome to the cowardly New World where racially-compromised pregnancies are summarily "cancelled"; where a potent and addictive thistle brew supplants recreational alcohol; and where a new mongrel breed called Banes — part traditional human and part cranially super-sized master race — are relegated to a semi-skilled workforce. Not just an evocation of some distant dystopia, My Sweet Allele is a fresh fiction, science-based, current and disconcertingly believable.
— Tom Parker

The first Collum child was born in Brazil to the twelfth woman in a lineage of Caesarian births.  C-section rates had risen higher over time. Some countries, like Brazil, made C-sections mandatory. As the size of the birth canal no longer limited the size of the human head, a gene flipped and a new species of human was born. Well, actually, several genes and a few alleles flipped. The speciation was surprisingly quick.   

The first Collum baby died of a broken neck. The second one died, too.  But the ones who lived became dozens, became hundreds, and in the blink of an epoch, Collums were the new ruling class.

Their large brains allowed a logic and abstraction of which I, Sylvia, could only dream.  I was an old-fashioned human known as a Julian.  Julians had laid their power at the feet of the more intelligent Collums. Not without plenty of bloodshed, mostly from the veins of Julians, but that is another story.

Dr. A drew blood from Mrs. M.'s arm and handed me the sample. Mrs. M had the big braincase of a Collum: wide forehead and skull bulging at the sides. In contrast, my forehead was low, my head narrow. My brain volume was smaller by a third.

Dr. A. did tests to determine if this fetus comformed to pure-bred Collum standards. He was old enough to be my father, wearing the doctor's blue uniform and blue neck brace to keep his big, Collum head stable.

As a medic, my job was to prep and operate the equipment. I'd been lucky to get this job three months ago.

"Ensure head circumference is on target for minimum size" Dr. A said to me.  A Collum newborn should average a forty-six centimeters head circumference at full-term.

He moved the transmitter over Mrs. M.'s belly. She stiffened. Collums didn't like to be touched.

I pinpointed the front and back of the cranium and entered the data. In answer, a high trill. This was the machine's "all good" noise. Baby was a Collum.              

"Test for ARGHAP11" Dr. A requested. Meanwhile, he and Mrs M. held a conversation with eye movements that I couldn't understand. Fine control of their eyeballs was a Collum communication tool. Julians called it 'eye-speak'. I found it freaky. Some Julians could understand parts of it but couldn't replicate it.

I spun the blood sample to isolate maternal plasma.  It took a minute to detect fetal DNA and determine if ARGHAP11, the Collum-specific gene that controlled cranium size and growth rate of the brain, was present.

The fetus should also have blood type C with the antigen unique to Collums. If any of the three tests were negative, the child wouldn't be pure and the pregnancy was cancelled.

"Don't stand too often now" said Dr. A. to his patient. This must have been spoken for my benefit, as he could have used eye-speak. "Gestation energetics from now on are detrimental to you. You'll need daily intravenous feeding."

The way Dr. A. gave instructions, out loud to include me, confused me. Was he simply being polite?

I saw Mrs. M. acknowledge nonverbally. Her etched, silver-plated neck brace shone in the morning light. 

Neck braces were a precaution for Collums since they carried five percent of their body mass in their heads. Neck musculature hadn't evolved in sync. The braces were also a status symbol, a false piety, as if to say  "What a burden to carry around this distinguished cranium."  I had no pity for Collums.  In fact, I was happy that their necks broke more easily than mine.

I paid attention to everything Dr. A. did. After only a few months working, I'd seen about a hundred C-sections. I could probably perform one.

Only Collums had the legal right to Cesareans.  Once they became the ruling class, Julians and Collums lived in segregated communities. Many rights that had been shared were now privileges only of the Collums.           Julians didn't touch Collums or eat together. Julians gave birth the old fashioned way. To give a Julian a C-section was against the law.

As I sterilized the equipment, I moved to the window. I saw the garden and several Julian servants. I saw the shuttle glide into the lane past the garden.  The shuttle was noiseless, as were the Julians that stepped out to serve the Collums. 

One Julian caught my eye, a young woman who worked for Mr. and Mrs. M. She had dark, curly hair and long legs. As she got closer to the house, I looked again, because she was really pretty. She had a sway in her back and a bulge in her front. I wondered if she was pregnant.

One of the first things to be outlawed after the Collum ascendency was the reproductive union between Julians and Collums. Ruling classes, after all, like to keep their power.  Another law, going back quite a bit further in time, is that the forbidden is also desired.

* * * * * *

Work was finished. My house was quiet this evening. I watched birds through the windows in the high dusk. I heard families talking and the smell of cooking oil.

I thought about Lila while trying not to think about Lila, which is how I spend a lot of time. She was probably dead but I couldn't give up hope. Maybe she was alive, living in the next town, or masquerading as a Collum in the Capital.

I put another disk of sweet thistle under my tongue, promising myself it would be the last for the evening. 

The full story of Lila is a blur lost in childhood but certain memories remain. Mom is wearing a blue dress, no longer working in the Capital at the Collum's house. My hand is on her belly. I feel little jumps under the dress. "Hiccups", my mom says. She looks at me, drinking me in with her eyes.

"You're going to have a sister. Her name will be Lila." Mom said.  "Will you help me care for her?" I nodded. Lila would be our baby.

This memory is merged with another one. A warm, slick feeling. A night full of sounds. A yelling most disturbing when it slacked into silence.

My mother died giving birth to Lila. I was five. What I didn't understand then, I understood all too well now. Lila must have been half Collum and half Julian, which is to say Lila was an illegal. She was a Bane, as half-breeds are called. The father was likely a Collum for whom my mother worked.

Since Bane children have a high chance of larger heads than Julian children and Julians are not allowed to have C-sections, my mom died trying to get her through the birth canal.

The thistle dulls the sharp edges of this memory. I'm tempted to have another disk, to dull the world into a crystal now. No past. No future.

I've never met a Bane. If a Julian and a Collum mate, as is forbidden, then death by unsuccessful labor is rightful. So say the Collums.  I know better. 

Night came to my window. The brightest stars blinked into view.

"Remember" I can hear my mom say "the sky is never too busy".

My mom is my inner voice. I wonder if she'd approve of me right now. Would she tsk-tsk me for taking thistle?

There was a knock on the door in the other room. I froze.

The thistle made my thinking sloppy. The knock came again.

I opened the door. There was a young Julian woman, slumped, clearly in labor.  A man was by her side.

"Please" he said, "help her."

I didn't know who she was, or where she came from, but there was no law, and no amount of thistle, that would make me turn her away.

We carried her into the house. She moaned with a rising pitch, as if sound itself could split open her womb.

"How long has she been in labor?" I asked.

"I don't know.  I found her like this."

I needed to make sure this was what it looked like. I grabbed his shirt. My voice went quiet and low.

"Why did you come to me? Why isn't she at the Julian care center?"

I knew the answer but needed to hear it.

"I'm not the father! Don't you understand?" His hands waving around, useless. "She's my sister."

Then she said, clear as day "My child is a Bane.  Please help me."

I grabbed the sweet thistle from the cupboard. "Give her six. Crush them in water."

Alcohol. Knives. Towels.  Sterlized. Was I really going to try this? I needed a vacuum tube. A wound closure. The uterus was probably ruptured. I found a rubber tube. It'd have to do. 

C'mon, Sylvia, you don't have to do this, I said to myself.  But the other voice, my inner voice, spoke louder, Oh, yes you do.

I'd paid attention to Dr. A., but watching was different than doing. The alternative was unthinkable though, to let this woman and her baby die. She made the gutteral, animal noise again.

"Lie down." I cut her clothing away.

"You'll need to keep her quiet. If this is going to work, I need your help."

I lifted the knife. What was I doing?

The man grabbed my arm. "Thank you" he said, pleading with his eyes.

The superficial layer of skin gave way, opening like zipper, showing a white, fatty layer underneath.

She screamed and jerked. The knife jogged down a centimeter, making a new cut  where I had not intended.

She went unconscious. 

I cut through the fatty tissue, but not deep enough.  It took me three more tries. My sweat dripped into the wound.

Now the yellow of the connective tissues needed severing. It felt like cutting strings. Then lastly the muscle.

This was taking too long.

I pointed to the syphon tube.

"You'll need to remove fluids," I told him, "both amniotic and junk from the baby's mouth. Suck when I say so."

I cut a narrow slit into the uterine wall, placed the tube in.

"Now!" I urged. He did, but very little fluid was drawn out. Her water must have broken ages ago, the tube was blocked, or the uterus ruptured.

Mother Nature! Exactly whose mother was she? She wasn't taking very good care of this poor woman.

I was alone in getting this child's big head out into the unwelcoming world.          

* * * * *

The next day, I started towards Mrs. K's house. As a Julian, I had to use the back entrance. Dr. A. would be at the the front door. 

The shuttle ride had taken forever. It was only forty minutes from the Julian settlement to the Capital. But leaving the mom and new-born Bane at my apartment, not knowing if they'd survive, made it feel longer.

I needed to get to Dr. A's bag and get back home.  Unfortunately, this would take me all day and I might be caught.

The Bane child was alive, miraculously.  When I wrenched him from the near-coffin of his mother's pelvic bones, his heartbeat was no stronger than the flutter of a moth's wings. He hadn't breathed in lustily but breathe he did.  Luckily, he kept breathing. He even sucked. 

The sucking made the young mother stir briefly but she was weak. Half of her blood was lost.  I barely managed to keep her insides inside her.  Fluid had gotten into her intrauterine cavity. An infection had started. 

Despite this, I felt good. Even though I was an official criminal.  I'd reversed time, gone back to my five year old self, saved a woman like my mother, saved a baby like my sister, put the Sun back in the sky, hung every star in its place.

I had done for some one what no one had done for Lila.

No doubt, I was high on endorphins still. It was a matter of time until I was caught.  Yet, I felt purpose. I  needed to get to Dr. A.'s bag where I could steal medicine for the mom's infection.

I had several supplies already that were needed; a newborn neck brace and a few day's worth of Collum infant drink.

I knocked at the back door. A Julian servant let me inside.

"The doctor is waiting upstairs" she said.

Through the long hallway, up an elevator, there was Dr. A.

He and Mrs. K were deep in eye-speak. I could see her legs, his back and his bag on the floor.     

"Ready for your assistance, Sylvia" said Dr. A.

I brought the equipment forward and unpacked it.

I hadn't met Mrs. K.  She was older with severe features. Her red neck brace looked menacing.   

"Prepare for head circumference measurement" he requested.  I prepped the scanner.

I captured an image. He entered the data. A high trill signaled "all good" from the machine.   The ARGHAP11 test was fine for a Collum child. The blood type was type C.     

All I wanted was get to Dr. A's bag.  My lack of sleep kept me unfocused.            

I began sterilizing the equipment. Mrs. K left the room. I was suddenly shocked when Dr. A. grabbed hold of my wrist.

"By what mother!" I swore.

I tried to pull my arm away, but he held on and looked at me, full in the face, with his dark Collum eyes and sizeable skull.

A Collum was touching me.  My employer no less. 

My nervous system responded. A current went through me. Our touching was scary. At the same time, I found myself thinking opportunistic thoughts. Use him. Get the medicine.

His look was confusing.  What did he want?

I decided to risk it. Clearly, all was not what it seemed.  "I know someone in need of the Collum-cillin you carry." I said. "Can I have some?"

He weighed my words, then sighed. "You were not randomly assigned as my medic. I chose you." 

"Why?" I frowned. The day became more disorienting.

"I know how many Julians are dying with Collum babies inside them.  I want to help."

"Good" I say, but it sounds angry.

"After your mother…" he falters. "I … Please, I know more about you than you realize." 

"You. Know. Nothing." I say with venom. I grab his supplies, spilling the contents. I look for the Collum-cillin. He grabs my arm again to get my attention. Then slowly retrieves the drugs, hands them to me.  He realizes how much danger this puts me in.

"Please," he said "Before you go, let me show you something."

He took a syringe, looked at me, then drew blood from my vein. He mixed the sample with the antibody serum, held it up. Type C.

The light shifted in the room. I was not who I thought I was.          

I was a Bane.

I always had been.     

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