Loo-Macklin studied the chamber relentlessly. Despite every attempt to make the setup look as natural and unaffected as it had been for Birthing Nuel females thousands of years ago, he quickly noted a number of alterations not made to the cavern by nature.
There were slick areas set in both the ceiling and side walls, one-way glass, behind which monitors and machinery were likely concealed. Cave formations concealed transmission lines and conduits for substances other than electricity. There was nothing primitive about this Birthing site, despite its appearance. Vast obstetrical technology was hidden everywhere, ready to watch, monitor and assist if necessary. It seemed like a lot of equipment to aid one birth. The reason for it would become clear soon enough.
He asked Naras Sharaf about it.
“You are correct in assuming that the appearance of the place is more designed than real. The mental health of the mother is every bit as cared for as the physical.
“That pool, for example,” he gestured over the barrier, “appears to be a backwater of this underground stream. In fact, the pool water is heated some thirty embits warmer than the stream flow. Warm water in a sheltered place was the preferred spot for giving birth among our primitive ancestors. There are no warm springs on this world, however. So we help nature along a little.
“Everything you see before you, even to the shape and appearance of the midwives clustered around the mother, has been designed to provide her with the maximum comforting, psychologically as well as physiologically. Notice the color of the formations, the shape? They are not natural either.” That surprised Loo-Macklin. He couldn’t tell them from the real cave formations.
“Chosen by the mother, for her family will pamper her all she wishes. A Birthing is a great event in any family.”
Loo-Macklin strained to obtain a better view while at the same time making certain he kept well out of sight. He was also aware that the psychologist Chaheel was devoting considerably more attention to Loo-Macklin than to the Birthing in progress across the stream.
He’d been the subject of studious attention on numerous other occasions. The fact that the eyes now concentrating on him were not human didn’t trouble him in the least.
The lighting in the cavern was even dimmer than the usual faint haze the Nuel preferred and he had to work to see anything at all.
There was a quickening of activity among the many attendants surrounding the site. Tentacles moved efficiently; to prepare, to help, to do whatever was necessary to ensure that things ran smoothly.
A great shudder passed through the object of all this attention. There was no warning, no series of intensifying contractions as there would have been in a human female in the same situation. A vast, gurgling sigh issued from the swollen bulk and then the enormous body heaved several times, like a huge bellows.
Suddenly there was a flurry of activity in the water of the pool and a corresponding rush by the Nuel attendants. Loo-Macklin could see dozens of small shapes thrashing on the surface, churning the once placid pool to foam. The attendants needed every one of their tentacles to aid the young to the surface so they could breathe.
An oceanic origin of quite recent development had been postulated for the Nuel by human xenobiologists, but until now there had been no proof for it. Cephalopodian shape and exterior construction was not proof enough.
Loo-Macklin noticed that the cilia of the young Nuel grew as much from the sides of the body as from underneath. As the young matured, the cilia would shift until they gave support to the form, acting as legs instead of oars.
And still they tore at the water even as dozens were carefully, lovingly moved to shallow bassinets of warm water. As their heads were lifted into the air, they emitted a sharp whistling. It filled the cavern with a snapping sound as if a million castanets formed a background to the whistling: the sound of dozens of tiny beaks biting at the air.
“This is our secret.” Chaheel Riens spoke softly. “Not all females can give birth. This selective sterility is an evolutionary development designed to hold down the population. We have tried to adjust it to suit our wishes but cannot.” Coming from the finest bioengineers alive, Loo-Macklin thought, that was a sobering assessment.
“Furthermore,” the psychologist continued, “those who are capable of delivering young can do so only once in a lifetime. But a single female can give birth to as many as fifty healthy Nueleens.”
It explained so much about the Nuel, Loo-Macklin thought as he watched the newborns being moved out of the cavern toward hidden incubation areas. The stability of their population, the extended families, which formed the basis of the more complex and, to humankind, absurd form of interworld government, and the exaggerated courtesy the rare Nuel trader showed to a pregnant female of any species.
“No wonder birth is spoken of with such veneration among the Families,” he said to Chaheel Riens.
“You understand then why the process is treated as such an event, far more so than among your own kind,” the psychologist replied. “Truly, a miscarriage, as I believe it is called among humans, is cause among us not only for unhappiness and mourning but for great despair. The female in question is finished forever as a mother, again unlike most of your kind.
“A miscarriage among us is the tragedy of whole families with relatives lost. Indeed, a whole family is never born. A series of miscarriages threatens the stability of a community’s population and, in primitive times, its very survival. As soon as pregnancy is confirmed, it is treated with the utmost attention.
“We find your obstetrical procedures careless and indifferent,” he added, “though you no doubt consider them as modern as your computers. We could save eighty percent of those humanettes, those infants who still perish in childbirth.
“Of course,” he added, bitterly sarcastic, “no human female would allow a Nuel attendant near her body, much less her sensitive regions, no matter how experienced the attendant or benign its intentions.”
Loo-Macklin noted that each newborn was carefully cleaned with a variety of substances before being placed in its individual bassinet. The young seemed vigorous and active, much more so than human newborn at the same stage of development. That was only natural, given the comparative infrequency of Nuel birth. He’d been counting steadily while listening to Chaheel Riens. There were thirty-eight young so far, all seemingly quite healthy.
He remarked on it to Naras Sharaf.
“Yes. Once the young are free of the mother’s body, the survival rate is excellent. In primitive times it was much less so, of course. Now few perish in the pools or from postnatal disease.”
There seemed to be a hundred attendants swarming around the pool now, caring for both the newborn and the exhausted mother; cleaning, taking temperatures, preparing bassinets, reciting litanies … a host of tasks. In addition, one was aware of all the activity taking place out of sight behind walls and one-way panels: the flurry of physicians attending to each newborn, the recorders monitoring health, the special equipment controlling with precision temperature, light, the circulation of water. There was even a special group preparing names for each of the thirty-eight children.
The support facilities for this single birth put those of the most modern human hospital to shame. The efficiency and scope of the operation fascinated Loo-Macklin, though not quite for the reasons Naras Sharaf suspected.
“Everything is so thorough,” he murmured. “There seems little room for mistake. It’s like a starship, full of backup systems for its backup systems.”
“Which is why nearly every newborn survives,” said Naras Sharaf proudly. “Thousands of years of necessity have taught us how to optimize everything for a successful birth. The process is expensive, traditional, and very effective.”
“Quite a production,” Loo-Macklin admitted. He glanced at Naras. “Tell me: is the process controlled from start to finish by certain families, the way a branch of the Si is responsible for Intelligence? Or is it divided among all the families according to those who do the best job of it? I’m not talking about the rituals but the products involved; the monitoring equipment, the cleansing liquids, the schools that train the attendants, that sort of thing.”
“Efficiency is a matter of competition, though there are some old, venerable favorites for certain items, such as the water salts mined on Veraz. You should be familiar enough with our commerce by now to know this, Kee-yes.”
“I always want to make sure.”
Naras Sharaf seemed slightly disappointed by the man’s questions. “As always, you see in the highest glories of nature only a new path to potential profit.”
“That’s never troubled you before.”
“Indeed and truly not,” confessed Naras. “I’ve profited much by my association with you, far more than I should have without it. Yet still after all these years I…”