© Author Leonid Kaganov, original russian text here
© Translated by Maria Saltykova
Stan Ruzhenko kept twisting the pen over and over, till the rubber band started getting wound pretty tightly. His hands grew tired. His deskmate, fat meanie named Eugene Popov, watched him askance. 'If my nose starts itching,' Stan thought, 'I won't be able to scratch it.'
Naturally, his nose started itching at that very same moment, but he had to bear it and keep twisting the pen while holding onto the ruler with his other hand. The itching was growing intolerable... But Stan clenched his teeth and told himself, 'The Space Major would bear it!'
When Ms. Olga got to explaining the third problem, the rubber band was wound as tight as it would go. The catapult was ready.
'Hold the ruler in place for a minute,' Stan whispered to his deskmate.
'Are you nuts? You want us both to get detention?' Eugene turned away.
'I'll kick your butt during lunch break if you won't help me!' threatened Stan.
Eugene ignored the threat, so blackmail had to be used.
'Or else I'm gonna tell Ms. Olga you went through her desk drawers!..'
'Did not!' Eugene exclaimed indignantly.
'Well, I'll tell her you did anyway.'
'That's not fair!'
'Do I care?..'
Eugene looked pitiful. Still, he hesitated. So Stan took a lungful of air and raised his chin, as if about to stand up and make an announcement. That did the trick.
'All right, all right! Where do I hold it?' Eugene whispered hastily.
Stan indicated the other end of the ruler. Eugene stole a look at Ms. Olga, who was blabbering away at the laserboard, put aside his pen and tablet and held the ruler down with his elbow. Stan finally let go of the ruler and scratched his nose with great relief. Then he reached under the desk and took a hommy out of his bag. As if feeling something fishy was up, the hommy twitched its nose this way and that and moved all of its paws rather nervously. Stan carefully placed it into the paper sling of the catapult. The hommy offered no resistance.
'Stanislav Ruzhenko! What are you doing there?' Ms. Olga barked, peering at him.
'Taking notes,' Stan answered quickly.
Ms. Olga croaked in her nastiest voice. 'What notes? Have you solved the equation?'
'I'm working on it...'
'Well come out and solve it on the laserboard!'
Stan peered at Eugene, gave an apologetic shrug and headed for the laserboard. Eugene remained at the desk, frozen into place. His elbow was still holding down the wound catapult. He watched Stan go with agony in his eyes.
The equation was spread in all its ugliness on the laserboard. Stan took the laser marker from the teacher's hand and stood still, hesitating.
'Where's the variable?' Ms. Olga croaked.
Stan uncertainly pointed the marker at the lowest line.
'Ruzhenko, you're begging to be left behind for a year! Now, show me the numerator if you will.'
Stan paused briefly, then pointed at the upper part of the line. Disgust on Ms. Olga's face told him that once again, he'd guessed wrong.
'Who will help him?' rasped Ms. Olga. 'Ah, I know, the deskmate will. Eugene?'
'The numerator is to the right!' Eugene said frightfully.
'You ought to stand up when you answer!'
'I'm sorry,' Eugene said, but didn't stand up. 'The numerator is to the right, x minus thirty two...'
'Stand up when you are talking to the teacher!' Ms. Olga roared.
Everybody turned to look at Eugene. Silence filled the room. Eugene sighed and stood up slowly, succumbing to imminent doom. The released ruler swished and vibrated abruptly, rapping on the table. The hommy rocketed, nearly touching the ceiling, flew across the entire room, squarely hit a heavy curtain, and clung to it with all of its six paws. It was something like what Stan had planned, but certainly not at a moment like this...Dust motes pirouetted about the curtain. The hommy looked down and shrieked. A wet spot appeared beneath it on the curtain, probably because of fear. Everybody burst out laughing.
Ms. Olga had to tap her pointer three times before silence was established.
'Eugene Popov, take your hommy, your things, and get out of my classroom!' she shouted.
A strained silence settled. Stan's eyes dropped. The visage of the Space Major, stern and frowning, suddenly appeared in his mind. In a theatrical pose, with one hand behind his back and the other clutching the serrated handle of the atomic gun dangling from his belt. The collar of his spacesuit was casually open, exposing his thick and sinewy neck. His laser eyes burrowed through Stan, nearly melting his shirt-buttons.
'I am the Space Major, the sentry of the Galaxy!' croaked the Space Major. 'And you are nothing but a coward! You are worse than the Space Weasel!' The image disappeared. Stan felt quite ashamed. He sighed and raised his head.
'Ms. Olga, It's my fault. It's my hommy.'
'Both of you get out then!' growled Ms. Olga, her voice remaining the same. 'Ruzhenko, I'd like to see your parents tomorrow. And I'm seating you next to someone else, starting next lesson. I'm going to put you next to...' she cast a look across the classroom, '...next to Anna-Maria Pushkina!'
'I am not sitting with a girl!' said Stan firmly.
Anna-Maria Pushkina snorted and rolled her eyes, making it very clear she despised the very idea of sharing a desk with Stan.
'Stanislav, you still here?' Ms. Olga sized him up as if she had only just noticed him. Get your stuff and get out! Out!'
* * *
Stan moved his chair as far away as possible from Anna-Maria, sat facing away and stared pointedly in the opposite direction for the first half of the lesson. Anna-Maria took no notice of him either. But there was nothing to do, so Stan sat up straight, took his ruler and placed it across the desk.
'This is the border,' he said. 'This here is my territory, over there's yours.'
'Find someone who cares.'
Anna-Maria was shuffling through the contents of a little box and paid Stan no heed whatsoever.
'Trespassers forbidden,' Stan warned her. 'You cross the line, you get a noogie!'
'Quit bugging me! D'you like me or something? ' she hissed through clenched teeth.
'Moron!' Stan said indignantly and turned away for a long time.
Soon enough he grew bored of doing nothing. He looked at Anna-Maria askance and pushed the ruler a little in her direction. She noticed nothing, for the box occupied most of her attention. Stan pushed the ruler a little farther and looked at her expectantly again. It was only then that Stan noticed what she was busy with. She was looking at a hommy in its little cage. It was a beautiful specimen of its kind, with a white belly, blue fur, four paws and two little wings covered with white silky feathers. 'Yours can fly?' Stan wondered. Anna-Maria said nothing. She was stroking the hommy between its wings with her little finger; there were tears in her eyes. The hommy moved its paws around slowly and constantly tried to curl up in a ball.
'It's pupating,' Stan stated with conviction. 'See how sleepy it is?'
'But it's only two months old,' Anna-Maria sobbed.
'Well, sometimes they pupate before their time,' Stan proclaimed with the superiority of experience.
Anna-Maria sighed quietly, closed the box and sulked.
'It's pupating, pupating, nothing you can do!' Stan mocked. 'Are you gonna share or gobble it up all by yourself?'
Anna-Maria's shoulders were shaking ever so slightly. Stan realized she was crying.
'Oh come on...' he said in reconciliation. 'It's just a hommy. You'll make another one.'
Anna-Maria looked up. Her eyes sparkled with tears through her long bangs.
'It was so pretty! I'll never make one like this one again,' she cried. 'I haven't saved the code!'
This was Stan's moment of stardom. He squared his shoulders, squinted his eyes and spoke in his best Space Major voice.
'No fear! I can hack the code for you!'
'You mean it?' Anna-Maria's eyes looked hopeful.
'Piece of cake,' said Stan. 'You'll see.'
'I'll get some spit from the hommy and just stick it into the hatcher. Spit has whatchamacallit, epithelium cells in it... Every cell has the code in it.'
'That's not gonna work!'
'Maybe not in your hatcher it won't. In mine it will!'
'I have a seventh generation hatcher,' said Anna-Maria, clearly offended. 'Daddy got it for me in North Korea!'
'Well there you go, that stuff's never gonna work,' Stan smirked.
'Ruzhenko!' Ms. Olga growled. 'You manage to get distracted no matter where I put you! Anna-Maria, will you quit all that chit-chatting?! Sitting there cooing like lovebirds, I swear!'
The class exploded in a burst of giggles. A shout of 'Love and marriage, love and marriage' followed with 'here come babies in a baby carriage!' came from the farthest row, and everybody burst out laughing anew. 'Watch out, they are going to make kids!' More laughter. Stan felt his ears burning a fiery red. He wished the earth could swallow him up.
'Eugene Popov, shut your yap!' Ms. Olga furiously banged the pointer on the desk. 'None of you have to stay in the class if you don't like it! Anyone who's not interested in today's lesson can go outside. Straight to the principal's office!'
Once again, silence was established. Ms. Olga scoured the class with her burning gaze much like the Space Major with the laser crosshairs of his atomic gun. Having made sure that order has been restored, Ms. Olga turned to the laserboard again. Anna-Maria wrote on her tablet, "You're positive you can make me a hommy just like this one?" and pushed it in Stan's direction. He drew himself up proudly and wrote, "I can make any kind if I feel like it!!!"
"Can you make one that won't pupate in three months?"
"How??! Tell me!"
"Later! She is watching us!!"
'Pushkina and Ruzhenko! Are you passing notes back there? Ruzhenko, up and repeat what I've just said to the class!'
* * *
They left the school together. Stan ran in circles around Anna-Maria, kicking an empty soda bottle.
'I am the Space Major, Ninja of the Universe!' he shouted. 'Bang! Bam! Bam!'
'Cut it out!' frowned Anna-Maria. 'Can you really make an immortal hommy?'
'I am the the Space Major, Master of Good!' Stan nodded. 'I rush to the rescue at the first cry for help! No sweat! All you need to do is download the updated software for your hatcher, and you're set.'
'Where do you download it?'
'You gotta know places.'
'Is there an update for my hatcher too?'
'We'll have to in-ves-ti-gate...' Stan said, imitating his father the best he could.
'Will you help me?'
Stan shrugged, swung widely and kicked the bottle far ahead.
'I am the Space Major, the Sharer of Goodness,' he repeated.
Anna-Maria frowned. 'I don't like the Space Major series. I like the one about Elizabeth the Fairy.'
'Elizabeth is a moron, and her songs suck!' Stan proclaimed immediately.
'No, *you're* a moron,' Anna-Maria snapped.
They walked in silence till they came to the fenced parking lot. There, all of a sudden, Eugene Popov popped out of nowhere. He wasn't alone. His friends, the befreckled Belkin and Kuzya, who was repeating second grade, stepped forward and stood in their way. Stan and Anna-Maria stopped still.
'Well lookie here!' proclaimed Kuzya with mocked surprise. 'It's the bridegroom and the bride!'
'Nice to meet you, I'm Anna-Maria,' Anna-Maria said, hurt. 'We're just talking.'
'Ruzhenko and Pushkina, sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G!' Eugene teased.
'Babies, babies, they're gonna make babies!' Belkin guffawed, swinging his backpack about.
'Popov, you want a kick in the shins?' Stan inquired threateningly, addressing Eugene.
'Try it,' Popov chuckled, but looked at Kuzya and Belkin for backup.
Kuzya and Belkin swaggered in to form a circle around the two.
'Let's go!' Anna-Maria pulled on Stan's sleeve, but he only shook his head slowly.
'The Space Major never retreats!' he said with pride.
'Go home, Pushkina,' Eugene said, grinning. 'We've got to talk to Ruzhenko. You asking for trouble, Ruzhenko?'
He raised a fist and hit Stan on the shoulder. Stan reeled, landing on one knee a few feet away. Eugene approached him, followed by Kuzya and Belkin.
'C'mon, Ruzhenko, who was going to get kicked in the shins here?'
Stan slowly rose with his hand reaching under his shirt. When he got it out, there was a hommy clenched in his fist. Stan squeezed gently and the hommy shrieked, exposing two sharp fangs.
'Stop right where you are!' Stan roared suddenly. 'Approach if you dare!'
'Hey guys, he is trying to scare us with his hommy!' cackled Belkin, but became silent as his eyes met Stan's.
'Come here!' hissed Stan, advancing on to Eugene and swinging his fist around. 'I gave my hommy viper fangs! One bite and you are in for three hours of bloody diarrhea, convulsions, and death!'
Eugene's legs buckled. He stood frozen as he regarded the swinging fist with two protruding fangs, his mouth open. He was sure he was seeing a spray of poison. Belkin was the first to react.
'Run for your life!' he screamed and ducked into a chink the parked cars. Kuzya followed him. Eugene finally came to, turned around, flailed his arms and, wailing desperately, ran after his friends.
Stan vengefully watched them run, then opened his fist and gently stowed the hommy back under his shirt. Then he turned to look at Anna-Maria. There was undisguised admiration in her eyes.
'I am the Space Major, the sentry of the Galaxy,' he reminded to her, scratching his sore knee. 'Bang! Bam! Bam!'
They resumed their walk.
'Aren't you afraid of carrying it in your pocket?' Anna-Maria said at last.
'What do you mean?'
'What if it bites you? With those poisonous fangs?'
'Those are regular fangs. Rat fangs. I lied...' Stan said reluctantly. Seeing Anna-Maria's puzzled stare, he explained, 'I did want to give my last hommy a viper's fangs. I even downloaded the gene sequence from the net. But then I thought, what am I, nuts?'
* * *
The seventh generation hatcher was astonishingly splendid; its brand-new black plastic hemisphere shined magnificently. A row of buttons was located on the front panel, underlining a small screen.
'Yowza!'Stan exclaimed, approaching the table and touching the hatcherin utter admiration.
'Seventh generation,' Anna-Maria said proudly. Then she waved in the direction of her room. 'Wanna see my hommies? I've got twenty three! With wings, with gills, and with horns, and...'
Stan interrupted her.
'Got a manual?' he said, his eyes on the hatcher.
Anna-Maria stood on her tiptoes and rummaged through the contents of a bookcase. 'There's one in English, in Russian, in Korean, in Gaelic and in... um... Tagalog!'
Stan wasn't listening. 'Yowza... Brand new...' he whispered admiringly as he hocked the plastic slip on the screen with his finger.
'Hey, what are you doing?!' Anna-Maria shrieked. 'Put it back, put it back!'
'It won't stick back. Why? You weren't planning on selling it, were you?'
'You jerk!' Anna-Maria cried. 'You broke it!'
'My hatcher has no screen and no buttons, and still it works all right!'
'You broke it!' Anna-Maria tapped her foot.
'I did not break it. I prepared it for serious work,' said Stan sternly and handed her the little plastic slip. 'You can stash this away if you need it.'
Anna-Maria examined the plastic slip for a long time, then carefully put it into her pocket. Stan concentrated on reading the manual.
'I don't know what's so seventh generation about it,' he grumbled. 'At first glance, it is no different from mine...'
'Yes it is!' Anna-Maria stomped her foot again. 'It is, it is, it is!'
'How is it different then?'
'In every way possible!'
'You haven't even seen mine!'
'It's different anyway. Mine has more buttons!'
'Who needs them anyway! To control incubation temperature manually? You can hook it up to the computer and not worry about it!'
'Mine has a chamber that will hold up to two kilos!'
'So what,' Stan said, annoyed. 'What do you need that for? To program ostrich eggs?'
'Maybe!' said Anna-Maria.
'Okay,' Stan said compromisingly. 'Let's surf the net for hatcher software!'
'Dad doesn't let me turn the PC on.'
'What?' Stan was surprised. 'Isn't this your computer?'
'Nope. It's Dad's.'
'It's Dad's, but the hatcher is yours?
'The hatcher is Dad's too...' Anna-Maria said, looking ashamed.
'Your Dad could use a kick in the shins,' Stan said.
'Don't you dare talk like that about my dad!' Anna-Maria was hurt. 'My Daddy's nice!!'
'Don't talk like that!' Anna-Maria stomped her foot in rage. 'Dad said he'll let me use the computer when I'm ten.'
'Ten?' Stan was amazed. 'You're gonna be ancient before you can use that thing!'
'I am not!'
Stan clicked his tongue in thought.
'Fine, have it your way. I'm going home,' he said as he rose, looking at the device longingly. 'Your dad can help you make that hommy of yours...'
'Wait!' Anna-Maria caught him by the sleeve. 'Can't we just wait for my Dad and then do it together?'
'And download the hack for the hatcher together, too?'
'A hack? So it's illegal??' Anna-Maria looked incredibly disappointed.
'Well what did you expect?!'
Stan stuck his tongue out at her with such a mean expression that it made Anna-Maria realize that this software was so illegal that it was, in fact, criminal, and adults, never mind children, who get caught downloading it are imprisoned or exiled, and then talked about on evening news. She looked helplessly at the hatcher, then at Stan, then again at the hatcher.
'And you're positively less than ten years old?' she asked with a glimmer of hope.
'I am no Kuzya!' Stan said, hurt.
'I promised Dad I wouldn't turn the computer on without him...' Anna-Maria looked downcast and actually sobbed. Suddenly, it dawned on her and she caught Stan's sleeve. 'Hey! I am eight, and you are eight, so together we are sixteen, right?'
* * *
Stan stared into the screen. He was off to Stan-land, where Anna-Maria did not exist. Having nothing to do, she paced the room back and forth, fiddling with her hommies. She would sometimes ask Stan a question, but she never got a comprehensible answer and that made her angry.
'Could you please respond when I'm talking to you?' she cried and stomped her feet.
'Huh?' Stan looked up from the screen.
'I asked, why do hommies live only three months?'
'That's how they're wired, that's their genetic code,' Stan muttered without turning back. He pressed buttons with determination. 'Humans live eighty years, cats live up to fifteen... and hommies live three months...'
'So you don't grow bored of them. When one hommy pupates and dies, you just make a new one. After all, it's only a kid's toy.'
'But they're alive!'
'So? A living kid's toy.' Stan shrugged. 'Like Legos.'
'Why do they turn into a candy bar when they pupate?'
'That's how they morph. The hack lets you turn that option off if you want. Then your hommy will turn into a stinking corpse.'
'But why a candy bar?'
'So that it's good to eat.'
'Why does it have to be good to eat?'
'So that we kids develop a mature attitude toward life and death.'
'Why are we supposed to develop things?'
'Why are you being such a nag? Stan turned to her angrily. 'What am I, the school counselor?'
Anna-Maria pouted. 'I thought you knew everything...'
'Well...' Stan became embarrassed. 'I actually do. But you don't have to be so naggy anyway?'
'Did you find that hack yet? '
'Yup, it's downloading,' Stan said, typing away on the keyboard. Then he paused. 'But it won't work as such, your hatcher is protected. It says here you've got to disassemble it and take a jumper out.'
'Disassemble it?! No way!' Anna-Maria yelped. 'My Dad will bite my head off!'
'Not if he doesn't find out.'
Suddenly, Anna-Maria came up with a solution.
'Let me get out of the room so I don't know what you are doing.'
Stan nodded. 'All right then. I'll call you back when I've put it back together. Just get me a flat screwdriver.'
'A kitchen knife will do.'
'Hey, are you sure you won't break anything?'
Stan sized her up.
'I am the Space Major, the Lord of the Orbit,' he reminded her.
* * *
Anna-Maria opened the cage, and a small egg, laced with bluish fur, rolled out into her hand. Anna-Maria examined it, but it was solid: no head, no paws, no tail.
'Oh great.' Stan said as he looked over her shoulder. 'It pupated. It takes them only three hours to pupate. It'll be a candy bar by morning...'
Anna-Maria sobbed, draped a sleeve over her eyes and broke down in tears.
'Is there...' she cried, 'is there nothing we can do?'
'Nope, nothing at all,' Stan shook his head. 'It has no mouth, no saliva, no blood, nothing to extract a cell from. It's gone'
'What if we cut it in two?' Anna-Maria offered through tears.
'It's not a candy bar just yet, it'll feel pain.' Stan shook his head. 'I once cut one of these in two, and it was twitching.'
Anna-Maria buried her face in the sleeve and cried bitterly.
Stan shook her by the shoulders. 'Hey now, cry baby! Stop that!'
'Waaaaah... We did all of that for nothing! ...' Anna-Maria sobbed.
'Calm down, don't cry,' Stan tried to persuade her. 'That's a mighty good hatcher you have there, you could hatch a baby elephant in this hatcher of yours if you like.'
Anna-Maria stood still. She looked up from the tear-soaked sleeve.
'A baby elephant?' Her eyes sparkled. 'A real baby elephant? To ride to school?'
Stan peered at the hatcher in thought.
'A baby elephant that size, that I don't know about...' he said in hesitation. 'I'd have to do lots of research. We won't get it to live at only two kilos anyway, it'd die... Though if we program a fast-growth rate... Hmmm.'
'Awww...' Anna-Maria pouted again.
'We can grow a baby donkey, that's for sure. All you need is a sample of saliva. Or a puppy. And I saw a cool pet dragon on the Net, already done. We could download the code, but it'd take hours.'
'A pet dragon? What else could we hatch?'
Stan sucked on a thumb, pondering. Anna-Maria watched him with impatience. At last he pulled his thumb out of his mouth, regarded it with passing interest and wiped it on upholstery.
Anna-Maria batted her eyelids in excitement. 'A human? A real human?'
'No, a plastic one!' Stan stuck out his tongue and made a face.
'I want a pet human,' Anna-Maria cried. 'Just think about it, we could have our very own little human!'
'Easily,' Stan said. 'If there is enough memory in the computer. I've already downloaded the last Genome editor, it's a 6.0!'
'But it has to belong to both of us,' said Anna-Maria sternly.
'Sure,' Stan agreed.
'A girl! So she could look like Elizabeth the Fairy!'
'Yuuuck!' Stan made a face and pretended to feel sick. 'If we're hatching anything, we're hatching a soldier! He can be like the Space Major, with rocket nozzles for legs and lasers for eyes! But how are we going to do the laser eyes?'
'Elizabeth! Elizabeth!' Anna-Maria cried and clapped her hands. 'We'll dress her up to look so cute and she'll look at me with her adorable eyes! And I'll say, ooh, what a beautiful girl you are! And she...'
'Lasers for eyes!' said Stan firmly. 'A brave man! In a red spacesuit! He'll command space-ships!'
'No, he won't!'
Stan gave her a stern look.
'Okay, have it your way. We'll just sit here and wait for your Daddy to come home,' he leaned back into the chair, his leg dangling.
'You are such a meanie!' Anna-Maria kicked the chair and started crying bitterly.
Stan rolled his eyes and smiled knowingly to the ceiling as if the Space Major was watching him, and turned to Anna-Maria.
'Okay, okay, stop whining,' he said, sighing heavily. 'We'll make a girl, all right!'
Anna-Maria looked at him with her eyes happy though wet, and sobbed.
'All right,' Stan repeated as he waved his hand patronizingly.
'Well, if you insist...' Anna-Maria said, 'if you want it so much, let's have a boy.'
'I'll tell you what--let's flip a card to make it honest?' Stan suggested.
She rummaged through a drawer and produced an old credit card.
'If we get the bar code, it's a boy!' Stan said. 'With laser eyes!'
'And if we get the bank's insignia, it's Elizabeth the fairy!'
Anna-Maria threw the card high up into the air.
They watched the card swoop under the sofa in a circling motion.
'It's a boy!' Anna-Maria cried excitedly from under the sofa.
'Cool!' Stan nodded. 'Get the egg, I'll spit in it!'
'Why you?' Anna-Maria sounded hurt. 'I want to spit in it too.'
'Because we need the genes of a boy,' explained Stan.
'That's not fair!' Anna-Maria stomped her foot. 'We had a deal! You said it would belong to both of us, so we both have to spit!'
'I just don't see how it can work that way...' Stan said, puzzled.
'Well, how do parents have kids?'
'I don't know,' Stan confessed. 'I guess that Dads get sons, and Moms get daughters.'
'Aw, come on! All children come from their mommies' bellies!' Anna-Maria said in a preachy voice. 'That's where her hatcher is.'
Stan regarded the round black hatcher in hesitation and shook his head.
'I'm absolutely positive,' Anna-Maria said, sounding very sure. 'Only Mom has the hatcher.'
'Mom once told me that children are found on Google.'
'I don't know,' Stan admitted.
'I think your Mom was just joking!' Anna-Maria said. 'Because all Moms have hatchers inside. I'm sure.'
'Then where do you get baby boys from?' Stan inquired sarcastically.
'Well, probably Dad spits into Mom when they kiss,' Anna-Maria suggested.
'Oh, yeah! That's it!' Stan remembered. 'I saw them press their lips into each other's and stand like this in a movie!'
'That's rather disgusting,' Anna-Maria frowned.
'Exactly,' Stan agreed. 'But we'll do it the mature way. So first you spit in there, and we scan your gene sequence, then I spit and we scan mine. Then we merge them.'
'I just remembered. There's this Merge Male and Female Code option in the hatcher. I'd been wondering what it was for.'
'Cool!' Anna-Maria clapped her hands and ran to fetch the egg.
She returned, looking disappointed.
'We are out of hommy eggs!' she whined.
'Well, don't you have regular chicken eggs?'
'Will chicken eggs do?'
'Did you think hommy eggs are different from chicken eggs, silly? They're the same chicken eggs, except they get painted up pretty and treated for germs. So they come in brand-name packaging and cost way more.'
'So a hommy will hatch from a chicken egg?'
'A hommy will hatch from any egg, you just need software that doesn't block stuff. Just make sure to pick a big egg. Do you have regular chicken eggs or the GM ones?'
'We have the Extra Chicken GM eggs! Two pounds a piece, for egg salad.'
'Perfect! We'll need three eggs, a big one for the human, and two regular, and make sure they're hard-boiled.'
'Why?' Anna-Maria inquired.
'We'll cut them in two, spit in the middle and put them into the hatcher. It won't scan our spit without the egg. Stupid machine.'
'Oh, okay!' Anna-Maria nodded and ran to the kitchen. 'I am good at boiling eggs!'
* * *
It appeared that working out the genetic code for a human was harder than it had seemed. The first problem occurred when Stan put the egg with his saliva into the hatcher and tried to scan the genome. It had never taken much time even on so slow a PC as Stan's, but possibly this time the code was more complicated. The Genome editor buzzed and buzzed, the little sandclock cursor on the screen indicated that it was working. Stan dangled his leg, looking around. He was clearly anxious about something. His eyes caught sight of the cable, and something made him pluck the Net cable out of the plug.
'Why?' Anna-Maria was surprised.
'Saw it in a movie,' Stan muttered.
He couldn't really explain why he cut the Net access. Then the scanning was completed, the PC squeaked angrily and displayed a red-label warning on the screen that read, 'Human genome experiments are strictly prohibited! Your actions have been reported to the United Church Emergency Response Team.' Stan looked at Anna-Maria meaningfully and smiled sarcastically. A new message appeared then, 'Connection Error! Please check the cable!'
Stan turned the silly computer off, then back on. He easily found a crack for the Genome editor and installed it. He scanned his genome once again, with the cable plucked out, but it was an unnecessary precaution then, because the Genome editor did not mind.
He had to put a lot of work in merging the codes. It took him a long time to read up on chromosomal mechanisms. At last, he found what he was looking for. It appeared that the gender of live creatures was dependant on a special Y-chromosome. Who would have thought that! Hommies had no gender. The only thing he couldn't figure out was how to give the human laser eyes. After several attempts he managed to make bone pupils, but the PC warned him that the creature won't be able to see. Stan undid it.
'This sucks!' he proclaimed. 'This is not a worrier, it's a slug or something!...Let's give him the fangs of a viper, at least. I'll download the code...'
'Are you nuts?' Anna-Maria hit him on the hand. 'He might bite his tongue and die! Let's give him wings instead. We've got some beautiful wings code saved on the disk. When Dad and I designed...'
'Okay, okay,' Stan said reluctantly and entered a sequence. 'Na-aw, that won't work. Check it out, it says: 'Full-scale redesign of psychomotor and nervous system required. Approximate time 9 hours. Proceed?'
Stan and Anna-Maria exchanged looks. No one wanted to wait nine hours.
'Let's at least make a star on his temple, like Elizabeth the Fairy has!' Anna-Maria whined.
'Yuck!' Stan frowned, but obediently ran the birthmark applet and started drawing a star.
'It's all crooked! Let me do it!' Anna-Maria cried as she pushed him away to gain control of the keyboard.
Soon, the star was ready. Stan turned the image of the human a few angles and put the star on his forehead.
He was distraught. 'This really blows!' He nearly cried, although the Space Major wouldn't have approved of this. 'We were going to make a hero! And all we get is a regular human with regular genes!'
'Well who said our genes are regular?' Anna-Maria argued. 'My Mom told me that my ancestors were Vikings. Vikings were heroes.'
'Did they have laser eyes?' Stan perked up a bit, though he sniffed now and then.
'They had ships and big iron knives they slashed their enemies with!'
'Cool! Did they have red spacesuits too?'
'Sure!' Anna-Maria said, after a second's hesitation.
'My ancestors are Slavs,' Stan said. 'Were they heroes?'
'Sure thing! They fought the Vikings and rode horses!'
'Cool! We'll make him a horse,' Stan said and blinked away the tears before someone noticed he'd cried. 'A horse is no problem.'
The computer gave a little squeak.
'Yaaay!' Stan jumped up and down as he read aloud, 'Genome has been adapted for incubation. Mode: fast. Please place egg into the incubation chamber and press any key to proceed.'
Anna-Maria ran to the kitchen and brought a huge chicken egg the size of a large pear. Stan put it into the incubation chamber and closed the lid. The genetic code took a long time to write; lights were blinking. The scanner couldn't find the maternal kernel at first, and then it was busy killing germs and bacteria. Finally, the PC beeped and the incubation started.
'Ooouch,' Anna-Maria gasped, looking at the display. 'Nine weeks?! That's an eternity! Why not six days like the hommy?'
'It's the fastest mode available.' Stan was baffled. 'After all, a human being is more complicated than a hommy. Maybe it'd be quicker in my hatcher,' he added slyly.
'Yeah, right!' Anna-Maria sounded hurt. 'My hatcher is seventh generation!'
'Listen,' Stan became worried. 'Won't your parents notice that the hatcher is occupied for so long?'
'Dad won't make hommies unless I ask him to. But the lights...'
'Let's cover them up with black tape,' Stan offered. 'Then your dad won't notice.'
* * *
Stan and Anna-Maria were waiting impatiently for the big day. Anna-Maria had been telling him that sometimes she thought she heard strange noises coming from inside the hatcher, though she wasn't sure. Finally, the day came. After school, Stan and Anna-Maria sat by the hatcher and waited. At long last, the hatcher clicked and the lid opened. Warm, sourish steam emerged from inside. Stan leaped to the hatcher, lifted the lid and backed away. Anna-Maria looked from behind his shoulder and her face fell in surprise. There was a small baby lying in shell chips in the incubation chamber. It twitched, kicked its legs and cried out in a piercing voice.
'What an awful sound!' Anna-Maria winced, placing her hands to her ears. 'Hommies never squeal like this!'
'Some hero this is, ' said Stan, disappointed, as he poked it with a finger. 'Naked and all puckered up and wrinkled. And where's the spacesuit?'
The baby kept squealing, showing no inclination to stop.
'Do we need to feed it maybe?' Anna-Maria wondered.
Stan took a bag of HommyChowTM and poured some yellowish bits onto the baby, trying to drop some into the open mouth. The baby coughed and squealed even louder.
'This is awful. I guess we got something wrong,' Stan muttered.
'It's so ugly!' Anna-Maria made a wry face. 'Take him home, Stan, my parents will be come back soon.'
'I can't,' said Stan, shaking his head. 'My grandma's home. She'll have a heart attack if I bring it home.'
'Maybe we could take him to the zoo?' suggested Anna-Maria.
'Sure, they'd kick us out of school in seconds for that!'
'You think they would? Hmmm...' Anna-Maria pondered. 'Hey, I've got an idea! Let's cover up its mouth and take it to the attic. We'll figure out what to do with it by nighttime. Can you come out and meet me tonight?'
'Probably,' Stan said. 'Is your attic locked?'
* * *
A huge moon, yellow and swollen like an egg sunny-side up, hung above the city. Stan peered from the bush, whistled and was about to hide again as the window at seventh floor opened and Anna-Maria appeared in sight. She quickly waved her hand and disappeared again. A minute later, the intercom beeped, signaling that the door was open. Stan sneaked into the entrance and climbed to the seventh floor on foot as he was afraid to use the elevator.
Anna-Maria was waiting for him at the apartment. She was wearing a winter coat atop her white nightgown, slippers on her feet.
'You're going to go like this?' Stan wondered.
'If I start looking for clothes, Mom and Dad will wake up. Let's go!' Anna-Maria took him by the hand determinedly, and they quietly walked up the stairs.
The attic door was half-open. It was silent and warm, and it smelled of summer, of damp wood, of pigeons. Anna-Maria turned on a torch on, and they crept into the attic.
A paper box stood in the farthest corner. Inside, on a bedding of crumpled newspapers, lay the human baby. Its eyes were closed, and its little body looked bluish. Anna-Maria trained her torch on it.
'Touch it!' she said in a whisper.
'No, you touch it!' whispered Stan.
'Are you scared?'
'Come on, touch it!'
Stan carefully leaned and poked the baby with his finger. Its skin was awfully cold.
'Should we wrap it in the newspapers?' asked Stan.
'It's not dead, is it?' Anna-Maria pointed the torch at the baby's small pale face. 'Pick it up and check!'
'Why me?' Stan rebelled.
'Well, you're the Space Major, the fearless hero, remember?'
Stan sniffed, cautiously slipped his hands into the box and picked up the small body.
'Is it breathing?' asked Anna-Maria.
Stan carefully lifted the body to his ear.
'I don't know,' he said. 'I don't think so. Or wait, maybe it is... '
'Is it warm?' she touched the baby before Stan could answer. 'Well, he's a little warm. Oh, look, it's blood! Pigeons must have pecked on his leg... the poor thing!'
Stan put the baby back into the box and stood up. 'If he's dead, it means we need to bury him.'
'What if he's not dead?'
Stan pondered it over. Anna-Maria looked back and raised the torch.
'I have an idea!' she said. 'Let's place him on a plank and let the river carry him! That's how the Vikings treated their dead. He'll be a Viking hero!'
'Cool!' Stan said.
* * *
They stood on the granite parapet of the wharf, on the steps that descended to the water. Stan used a wood chip to clean the plank of pigeon feathers. The plank was brown and blotted, they found it in the attic. Anna-Maria was holding the baby. Stan thought that Anna-Maria looked very pretty in moonlight, dressed in her white nightgown and a thick coat, with a small bald baby clutched to her chest, with the quiet splashing of the water in the background. There was a star on the baby's temple, not quite the one they had drawn, but clearly visible nevertheless.
'I sometimes think he's breathing... but when I listen closer, he's all quiet again...' Anna-Maria said thoughtfully as she lowered the baby onto the plank. 'What should we call him?'
'Hero,' Stan said, letting the plank onto the water. 'Our hero.'
'Okay. Let him sail.' Anna-Maria smiled.
The plank treaded the water peacefully, and the rocking motion made it seem that the baby moved its arms around. Stan leaned, about to push the plank forward, but Anna-Maria took him by the sleeve.
'Wait! It'll be prettier this way!' she uncoiled the cord of the torch from her wrist, turned it on and placed it onto the plank near the infant.
'Excellent!' Stan smiled and pushed the plank forward.
The plank started to float away. Stan and Anna-Maria stood hand in hand, staring at the water until the ghostly light shrank into distance.
'Well, I guess we can go home now,' Anna-Maria smiled with relief and huddled.
'Yeah,' Stan nodded. 'I'll see you off.'
They walked up the granite steps, crossed the boulevard and went into side streets. The city was quiet and empty, except when the first sweeper-bot moved by, cleaning the street, buzzing and blinking a yellow light. Stan and Anna-Maria walked in silence, holding hands and smiling. Sometimes they would stop and watch the moon when it appeared between the buildings.
When they walked up to her house, Anna-Maria turned to Stan and looked him in the eyes, serious.
'We're not telling anyone about this, are we?'
'Surely not,' Stan confirmed.
'Cheer up,' said Anna-Maria. 'When we grow up, we'll make a new baby. A real hero!'
'Surely,' Stan nodded. 'Or a real fairy.'
They stood a while in awkward silence, then Anna-Maria suddenly kissed him on the cheek, turned around and hopped for the entrance. It didn't seem like a shameful thing to Stan at all. Possibly because nobody had seen it?
2003, Russia, Moscow