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"But you're the only one, Letitia." Reena Cathcart lay a light, slender hand on her shoulder with a look of utmost sincerity. "You know none of the others can. I mean . . ." She stopped, the slightest hint of awareness of her faux pas dawning. "You're simply the only one who can play the old—the older—woman."

Letitia Blakely looked down at the hall floor, eyes and face hot, then circled her gaze up to the ceiling, trying to keep the fresh tears from spilling over. Reena tossed her long black hair, perfect hazel eyes imploring. A few stragglers sauntered down the clean and carpeted hall of the new school wing to their classes. "We're late for first period," Letitia said. "Why the old woman? Why didn't you come to me when there was some other part to play?"

Reena was too smart not to know what she was doing. Smart, but not terribly sensitive. "You're the type."

"You mean frowsy?"

Reena didn't react. She was intent on a yes answer, the perfect solution to her problems.

"Or just dumpy?"

"You shouldn't be ashamed of how you look."

"I look frowsy and dumpy! I'm perfect for the old woman in your lysing play, and you're the only one with the guts to ask me."

"We'd like to give you a chance. You're such a loner, and we want you to feel like you're part—"

"Bullmusk!" The moisture spilled over and Reena backed away. "Leave me alone. Just leave me alone."

"No need to swear." Petulant, offended.

Letitia raised her hand as if to strike. Reena swung her hair again defiantly and turned to walk away. Letitia leaned against the tile wall and wiped her eyes, trying to avoid damage to her carefully applied makeup. The damage was already done, however. She could feel the tear-tracks of her mother's mascara and the smudged eyeshadow. With a sigh, she walked off to the bathroom, not caring how late she was. She wanted to go home.

Coming into class fifteen minutes after the bell, Letitia was surprised to find the students in self-ordered discussion, with no sign of Mr. Brant. Several of Reena's drama group gave her frosty looks as she took her seat.

"TB," Edna Corman said beneath her breath from across the aisle.

"RC you," Letitia replied, head cocked to one side and tone matching Edna' s precisely. She poked John Lockwood in the shoulder. Lockwood didn't much care for socializing; he seldom noticed the exchanges going on around him. "Where's Mr. Brant?"

"Georgia Fischer blitzed and he took her to the counselors. He told us to plug in and pursue."

"Oh." Georgia Fischer had transferred two months ago from a superwhiz class in Oakland. She was brighter than most but she blitzed about once every two weeks. "I may be fat and ugly," Letitia said for Lockwood's ears only. "But I never blitz."

"Nor I," Lockwood said. He was PPC, like Georgia, but not a superwhiz. Letitia liked him, but not enough to feel threatened by him. "Better pursue."

Letitia leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes to concentrate. Her mod activated and projections danced in front of her, then steadied. She had been cramming patient psych for a week and was approaching threshold. The little Computer Graphics nursie in whites and pillcap began discussing insanouts of terminal patient care, which all seemed very TB to Letitia; who died of disease now, anyway? She made her decision and cut to the same CG nursie discussing the shock of RoR—replacement and recovery. What she really wanted to study was colony medicine, but how could she ever make it Out There?

Some PPCs had been designed by their parents to qualify physically and mentally for space careers. Some had been equipped with bichemistries, one of which became active in Earth's gravity, the other in space. How could an NG compete with that?

Of the seven hundred adolescents in her high school training programs, Letitia Blakely was one of ten NGs—possessors of natural, unaltered genomes. Everyone else was the proud bearer of juggled genes, PPCs or Pre-Planned Children, all lovely and stable with just the proper amount of adipose tissue and just the proper infusion of parental characteristics and chosen features to be beautiful and different; tall, healthy, hair manageable, skin unblemished, well-adjusted (except for the occasional blitzer) with warm and sunny personalities. The old derogatory slang for PPCs was RC—Recombined.

Letitia, slightly overweight, skin pasty, hair frizzy, bulbous-nosed and weak-chinned, one breast larger than the other and already showing a droop pronounced enough to grip a stylus—with painful menstrual periods and an absolute indisposition to athletics—was the Sport. That's what they were called. NG Sports. TBs—Throwbacks. Neanderthals.

All the beautiful PPCs risked a great deal if they showed animosity toward the NGs. Her parents had the right to sue the system if she was harassed to the detriment of her schooling. This wasn't a private school where all parents paid astronomical tuitions; this was an old-fashioned public school, with public school programs and regulations. Teachers tended to nuke out on raggers. And, she admitted to herself with a painful loop of recrimination, she wasn't making it any easier for them.

Sure, she could join in, play the old woman—how much realism she would contribute to their little drama, with her genuine TB phys! She could be jolly and self-deprecating like Helen Roberti, who wasn't all that bad-looking anyway—she could pass if she straightened her hair. Or she could be quiet and camouflaged like Bernie Thibhault.

The CG nursie exited from RoR care. Letitia had hardly absorbed a thing. Realtime mod education was a bore, but she hadn't yet qualified for experience training. She had only one course of career study now—no alternates—and two aesthetic programs, individual orchestra on Friday afternoon and LitVid publishing on alternating weekends.

For pre-med, she was a washout, but she wouldn't admit it. She was NG. Her brain took longer to mature; it wasn't as finely wired.

She thought she was incredibly slow. She doubted whether she would ever be successful as a doctor; she was squeamish, and nobody, not even her fellow NGs, would want to be treated by a doctor who grew pale at the sight of blood.

Letitia silently told nursie to start over again, and nursie obliged.

Reena Cathcart, meanwhile, had dropped into her mod with a vengeance. Her blissed expression told it all. The realtime ed slid into her so smooth, so quick, it was pure joy.

No zits on her brain.

Mr. Brant returned ten minutes later with a pale and bleary-eyed Georgia Fischer. She sat two seats behind Letitia and over one aisle. She plugged in her mod dutifully and Brant went to his console to bring up the multimedia and coordinate the whole class. Edna Corman whispered something to her.

"Not a bad blitz, all in all," Georgia commented softly.

"How are you doing, Letitia?" the autocounselor asked. The CG face projected in front of her with some slight wirehash, which Letitia paid no attention to. CG ACs were the jams and she didn't appreciate them even in pristine perfection.

"Poorly," she said.

"Really? Care to elaborate?"

"I want to talk to Dr. Rutger."

"Don't trust your friendly AC?"

"I'd like some clear space. I want to talk to Dr. Rutger."

"Dr. Rutger is busy, dear. Unlike your friendly AC, humans can only be in one place at a time. I'd like to help if I may."

"Then I want program sixteen."

"Done, Letitia." The projection wavered and the face changed to a real-person simulation of Marian Tempesino, the only CG AC Letitia felt comfortable with.

Tempesino had no wirehash, which indicated she was a seldom-used program, and that was just fine with Letitia. "Sixteen here. Letitia? You're looking cut. More adjustment jams?"

"I wanted to talk with Dr. Rutger but he's busy. So I'll talk to you. And I want it on my record. I want out of school. I want my parents to pull me and put me in a special NG school."

Tempesino's face didn't wear any particular expression, which was one of the reasons Letitia liked Program 16 AC. "Why?"

"Because I'm a freak. My parents made me a freak and I'd like to know why I shouldn't be with all the other freaks."

"You're a natural, not a freak."

"To look like any of the others even to look like Reena Cathcart—I'd have to spend the rest of my life in bioplasty. I can't take it anymore. They asked me to play an old lady in one of their dramas. The only part I'm fit for. An old lady."

"They tried to include you in."

"That hurt!" Letitia said, tears in her eyes.

Tempesino's image wavered a bit as the emotion registered and a higher authority AC kicked in behind 16.

"I just want out. I want to be alone."

"Where would you like to go, Letitia?"

Letitia thought about it for a moment. "I'd like to go back to when being ugly was normal."

"Fine, then. Let's simulate. Sixty years should do it. Ready?"

She nodded and wiped away more mascara with the back of her hand.

"Then let's go."

It was like a dream, somewhat fuzzier than plugging in a mod. CG images compiled from thousands of miles of old films and tapes and descriptive records made her feel as if she were flying back in time, back to a place she would have loved to call home. Faces came to her—faces with ugly variations, growing old prematurely, wearing glasses, even beautiful faces which could have passed today—and the faces pulled away to become attached to bodies. Bodies out of shape, in good condition, overweight, sick and healthy, red-faced with high blood pressure: the whole variable and disaster-prone population of humanity, sixty years past. This was where Letitia felt she belonged.

"They're beautiful," she said.

"They didn't think so. They jumped at the chance to be sure their children were beautiful, smart, and healthy. It was a time of transition, Letitia. Just like now."

"Everybody looks alike now."

"I don't think that's fair," the AC said. "There's a considerable variety in the way people look today."

"Not my age."

"Especially your age. Look." The AC showed her dozens of faces. Few looked alike, but all were handsome or lovely. Some made Letitia ache; faces she could never be friends with, never love, because there was always someone more beautiful and desirable than an NG.

"My parents should have lived back then. why did they make me a freak?"

"You're developmentally normal. You're not a freak."

"Sure. I'm a DNG. Dingy. That's what they call me."

"Don't you invite the abuse sometimes?"

"No!" This was getting her nowhere.

"Letitia, we all have to adjust. Not even today's world is fair. Are you sure you're doing all you can to adjust?"

Letitia squirmed in her seat and said she wanted to leave. "Just a moment," the AC said. "We're not done yet." she knew that tone of voice. The ACs were allowed to get a little rough at times. They could make unruly students do grounds duty or detain them after hours to work on assignments usually given to computers. Letitia sighed and settled back. She hated being lectured.

"Young woman, you're carrying a giant chip on your shoulder."

"That's all the more computing capacity for me."

"Quiet, and listen. We're all allowed to criticize policy, whoever makes it. Dignity of office and respect for superiors has not survived very well into Century Twenty-one. People have to earn respect. That goes for students, too. The average student here has four major talents, each of them fitting into a public planning policy which guarantees them a job incorporating two or more of those talents. They aren't forced to accept the jobs, and if their will falters, they may not keep those jobs. But the public has tried to guarantee every one of us a quality employment opportunity. That goes for you, as well. You're DNG, but you also show as much intelligence and at least as many developable talents as the PPCs. You are young, and your maturation schedule is a natural one—but you are not inferior or impaired, Letitia. That's more than can be said for the offspring of some parents even more resistive than your own. you at least were given prenatal care and nutrition adjustment, and your parents let the biotechs correct your allergies."


"So for you, it's all a matter of will. If your will falters, you won't be given any more consideration than a PPC. You'll have to choose secondary or tertiary employment, or even  . . ." The AC paused. "Public support. Do you want that?"

"My grades are up. I'm doing fine."

"You are choosing career training not matching your developable talents."

"I like medicine."

"You're squeamish."

Letitia shrugged.

"And you're hard to get along with."

"Just tell them to lay off. I'll be civil . . .but I don't want them treating me like a freak. Edna Corman called me  . . ." She paused. That could get Edna Corman into a lot of trouble. Among the students, TB was a casual epithet; to school authorities, applied to an NG, it might be grounds for a blot on Corman's record. "Nothing. Not important."

The AC switched to lower authority and Tempesino's face took a different counseling track. "Fine. Adjustment on both sides is necessary. Thank you for coming in, Letitia."

"Yeah. I still want to talk with Rutger."

"Request has been noted. Please return to your class in progress."

* * *

"Pay attention to your brother when he's talking," Jane said. Roald was making a nuisance of himself by chattering about the preflight training he was getting in primary. Letitia made a polite comment or two, then lapsed back into contemplation of the food before her. She didn't eat. Jane regarded her from the corner of her eye and passed a bowl of sugared berries. "What's eating you?"

"I'm doing the eating," Letitia said archly.

"Ha," Roald said. "Full load from this angle." He grinned at her, his two front teeth missing. He looked hideous, she thought. Any other family would have given him temporaries; not hers.

"A little more respect from both of you," said Donald. Her father took the bowl from Roald and scooped a modest portion into his cup, then set it beside Letitia. "Big fifteen and big eight." That was his homily; behave big whether eight or fifteen.

"Autocounselor today?" Jane asked. She knew Letitia much too well.

"AC," Letitia affirmed.

"Did you go in?"



"I'm not tuned."

"Which means?" Donald ask.

"It means she hisses and crackles," Roald said, mouth full of berries, juice dripping down his chin. He cupped his hand underneath and sucked it up noisily. Jane reached out and finished the job with a napkin. "She complains," Roald finished.

"About what?"

Letitia shook her head and didn't answer.

The dessert was almost finished when Letitia slapped both palms on the table. "Why did you do it?"

"Why did we do what?" he father asked, startled.

"Why are Roald and I normal? Why didn't you design us?"

Jane and Donald glanced at each other quickly and turned to Letitia. Roald regarded her with wide eyes, a bit shocked himself.

"Surely you know why by now," Jane said, looking down at the table, either nonplussed or getting angry. Now that she had laid out her course, Letitia couldn't help but forge ahead.

"I don't. Not really. It's not because you're religious."

"Something like that," Donald said.

"No," Jane said, shaking her head firmly.

"Then why?"

"Your mother and I—"

"I am not just their mother," Jane said.

"Jane and I believe there is a certain plan in nature, a plan we shouldn't interfere with. If we had gone along with most of the others and tried to have PPCs—participated in the boy-girl lotteries and signed up for the prebirth opportunity counseling— why, we would have been interfering."

"Did you go to a hospital when we were born?"

"Yes," Jane said, still avoiding their faces.

"That's not natural," Letitia said. "Why not let nature decide whether we'd be born alive?"

"We have never claimed to be consistent," Donald said.

"Donald," Jane said ominously.

"There are limits," Donald expanded, smiling placation. "We believe those limits begin when people try to interfere with the sex cells. You've had all that in school. You know about the protests when the first PPCs were born. Your grandmother was one of the protesters. Your mother and I are both NGs; of course, our generation has a much higher percentage of NGs."

"Now we're freaks," Letitia said.

"If by that you mean there aren't many teenage NGs, I suppose that's right," Donald said, touching his wife's arm. "But it could also mean you're special. Chosen."

"No," Letitia said. "Not chosen. You played dice with both of us. We could have been DDs. Duds. Not just dingies, but retards or spaz."

An uncomfortable quiet settled over the table. "Not likely," Donald said, his voice barely above a whisper. "Your mother and I both have good genotypes. Your grandmother insisted your mother marry a good genotype. There are no developmentally disabled people in our families."

Letitia had been hemmed in. There was no way she could see out of it, so she pushed back her chair and excused herself from the table.

As she made her way up to her room, she heard arguing below. Roald raced up the stairs behind her and gave her a dirty look. "Why'd you have to bring all that up?" he asked. "It's bad enough at school, we don't have to have it here."

She thought about the history the AC had shown her. Back then, a family with their income wouldn't have been able to live in a four-bedroom house. Back then, there had been half as many people in the United States and Canada as there were now. There had been more unemployment, much more economic uncertainty, and far fewer automated jobs. The percentage of people doing physical labor for a living—simple construction, crop maintenance and harvesting, digging ditches and hard work like that—had been ten times greater then than it was now. Most of the people doing such labor today belonged to religious sects or one of the Wendell Barry farming communes.

Back then, Roald and Letitia would have been considered gifted children with a bright future.

She thought about the pictures and the feeling of the past, and wondered if Reena hadn't been right.

She would be a perfect old woman.

Her mother came into her room while Letitia was putting up her hair. She stood in the door frame. It was obvious she had been crying. Letitia watched her reflection in the mirror of her grandmother's dressing table, willed to her four years before. "Yes?" she asked softly, ageless bobby pins in her mouth.

"It was more my idea than your father's," Jane said, stepping closer, hands folded before her. "I mean, I am your mother. We've never really talked about this."

"No," Letitia said.

"So why now?"

"Maybe I'm growing up."

"Yes." Jane looked at the soft and flickering pictures hung on the walls, pastel scenes of improbable forests. "When I was pregnant with you, I was very afraid. I worried we'd made the wrong decision, going against what everybody else seemed to think and what everybody was advising or being advised. But I carried you and felt you move . . .and I knew you were ours, and ours alone, and that we were responsible for you body and soul. I was your mother, not the doctors."

Letitia looked up with mixed anger and frustration . . .and love.

"And now I see you. I think back to what I might have felt, if I were your age again, in your position. I might be mad, too. Roald hasn't had time to feel different yet; he's too young. I just came up here to tell you; I know that what I did was right, not for us, not for them"—she indicated the broad world beyond the walls of the house—"but right for you. It will work out. It really will." she put her hands on Letitia's shoulders. "They aren't having an easy time either. You know that." she stopped for a moment, then from behind her back revealed a book with a soft brown cover. "I brought this to show you again. You remember Great-Grandma? Her grandmother came all the way from Ireland, along with her grandpa." Jane gave her the album. Reluctantly, Letitia opened it up. There were real photographs inside, on paper, ancient black and white and faded color. Her great-grandmother did not much resemble Grandmother, who had been big-boned, heavy-set. Great-grandmother looked as if she had been skinny all her life. "You keep this," Jane said. "Think about it for a while."

The morning came with planned rain. Letitia took the half-empty metro to school, looking at the terraced and gardened and occasionally neglected landscape of the extended suburbs through raindrop-smeared glass. She came onto the school grounds and went to one of the older buildings in the school, where there was a little-used old-fashioned lavatory. This sometimes served as her sanctuary. She stood in a white stall and breathed deeply for a few minutes, then went to a sink and washed her hands as if conducting some ritual. Slowly, reluctantly, she looked at herself in the cracked mirror. A janitorial worker went about its duties, leaving behind the fresh, steamy smell of clean fixtures.

The early part of the day was a numb time. Letitia began to fear her own distance from feeling, from the people around her. She might at any minute step into the old lavatory and simply fade from the present, find herself sixty years back . . .

And what would she really think of that?

In her third period class she received a note requesting that she appear in Rutger's counseling office as soon as was convenient. That was shorthand for immediately; she gathered up her mods and caught Reena's unreadable glance as she walked past.

Rutger was a handsome man of forty-three (the years were registered on his desk life clock, an affectation of some of the older PPCs) with a broad smile and a garish taste in clothes. He was head of the counseling department and generally well-liked in the school. He shook her hand as she entered the counseling office and offered her a chair. "Now. You wanted to talk to me?"

"I guess," Letitia said.

"Problems?" His voice was a pleasant baritone; he was probably a fairly good singer. That had been a popular trait in the early days of PPCs.

"The ACs say it's my attitude."

"And what about it?"

"I . . .am ugly. I am the ugliest girl . . .the only girl in this school who is ugly."

Rutger nodded. "I don't think you're ugly, but which is worse, being unique or being ugly?" Letitia lifted the corner of one lip in snide acknowledgment of the funny.

"Everybody's unique now," she said.

"That's what we teach. Do you believe it?"

"No," she said. "Everybody's the same. I'm . . ." She shook ner head. She resented Rutger prying up the pavement over her emotions. "I'm TB. I wouldn't mind being a PPC, but I'm not."

"I think it's a minor problem," Rutger said quickly. He hadn't even sat down; obviously he was not going to give her much time.

"It doesn't feel minor," she said, anger poking through the cracks he had made.

"Oh, no. Being young often means that minor problems feel major. You feel envy and don't like yourself, at least not the way you look. Well, looks can be helped by diet, or at the very least by time. If I'm any judge, you'll look fine when you're older. And I am something of a judge. As for the way the others feel about you . . .I was a freak once."

Letitia looked up at him.

"Certainly. Bona fide. Much more of a freak than you. There are ten NGs like yourself in this school now. When I was your age, I was the only PPC in my school. There was still suspicion and even riots. Some PPCs were killed in one school when parents stormed the grounds."

Letitia stared.

"The other kids hated me. I wasn't bad-looking, but they knew. They had parents who told them PPCs were Frankenstein monsters. Do you remember the Rifkin Society? They're still around, but they're extreme fringies now. Just as well. They thought I'd been grown in a test tube somewhere and hatched out of an incubator. You've never experienced real hatred, I suspect. I did."

"You were nice-looking," Letitia said. "You knew somebody would like you eventually, maybe even love you. But what about me? Because of what I am, the way I look, who will ever want me? And will a PPC ever want to be with a Dingy?"

She knew these were hard questions and Rutger made no pretense of answering them. "Say it all works out for the worst," he said. "You end up a spinster and no one ever loves you. you spend the rest of your days alone. Is that what you're worried about?"

Her eyes widened. She had never quite thought those things through. Now she really hurt.

"Everybody out there is choosing beauty for their kids. They're choosing slender, athletic bodies and fine minds. You have a fine mind, but you don't have an athletic body. Or so you seem to be convinced; I have no record of you ever trying out for athletics. So when you're out in the adult world, sure, you'll look different. But why can't that be an advantage? You may be surprised how hard we PPCs try to be different. And how hard it is, since tastes vary so little in our parents. You have that built in."

Letitia listened, but the layers of paving were closing again. "Icing on the cake," she said.

Rutger regarded her with his shrewd blue eyes and shrugged. "Come back in a month and talk to me," he said. "Until then, I think autocounselors will do fine."

Little was said at dinner and less after. She went upstairs and to bed at an early hour, feeling logy and hoping for escape.

Her father did his usual bedcheck an hour after she had put on her pajamas and lain down. "Rolled tight?" he asked.

"Mmph," she replied.

"Sleep tighter," he said. Rituals and formulas. Her life had been shaped by parents who were comfortable with nightly rituals and formulas.

Almost immediately after sleep, or so it seemed, she cameabruptly awake. She sat up in bed and realized where she was, and who, and began to cry. She had had the strangest and most beautiful dream, the finest ever without a dream mod. She could not remember details now, try as she might, but waking was almost more than she could bear.


* * *


In first period, Georgia Fischer blitzed yet again and had to go to the infirmary. Letitia watched the others and saw a stony general cover-up of feelings. Edna Corman excused herself in second period and came back with red puffy eyes and pink cheeks. The tension built through the rest of the day until she wondered how anyone could concentrate. She did her own studying without any conviction; she was still wrapped in the dream, trying to decide what it meant.

In eighth period, she once again sat behind John Lockwood. It was as if she had completed a cycle beginning in the morning and ending with her last class. She looked at her watch anxiously. Once again, they had Mr. Brant supervising. He seemed distracted, as if he, too, had had a dream, and it hadn't been as pleasant as hers.

Brant had them cut mods mid-period and begin a discussion on what had been learned. These were the so-called integrative moments when the media learning was fixed by social interaction; Letitia found these periods a trial at the best of times. The others discussed their economics, Reena Cathcart as usual standing out in a class full of dominant personalities.

John Lockwood listened intently, a small smile on his face as he presented a profile to Letitia. He seemed about to turn around and talk to her. She placed her hand on the corner of her console and lifted her finger to attract his attention.

He glanced at her hand, turned away, and with a shudder looked at it again, staring this time, eyes widening. His mouth began to work as if her hand was the most horrible thing he had ever seen. His chin quivered, then his shoulder, and before Letitia could react he stood up and moaned. His legs went liquid beneath him and he fell to the console, arms hanging, then slid to the noor. On the floor, John Lockwood— who had never done such a thing in his life—twisted and groaned and shivered, locked in a violent blitz.

Brant pressed the class emergency button and came around his desk. Before he could reach Lockwood, the boy became still, eyes open, one hand letting go its tight grip on the leg of his seat. Letitia could not move, watching his empty eyes; he appeared so horribly limp.

Brant grabbed the boy by the shoulders, swearing steadily, and dragged him outside the classroom. Letitia followed them into the hall, wanting to help. Edna Corman and Reena Cathcart stood beside her, faces blank. Other students followed, staying well away from Brant and the boy.

Brant lowered John Lockwood to the concrete and began pounding his chest and administering mouth-to-mouth. He pulled a syringe from his coat pocket and uncapped it, shooting its full contents into the boy's skin just below the sternum. Letitia focused on the syringe, startled. Right in his pocket; not in the first-aid kit.

The full class stood in the hallway, silent, in shock. The medical arrived, Rutger following; it scooped John Lockwood onto its gurney and swung around, lights flashing. "Have you administered KVN?" the robot asked Brant.

"Yes. Five cc's. Direct to heart."

Room after room came out to watch, all the PPCs fixing their eyes on the burdened medical as it rolled down the hall. Edna Corman cried. Reena glanced at Letitia and turned away as if ashamed.

"That's five," Rutger said, voice tired beyond grimness. Brant looked at him, then at the class, and told them they were dismissed. Letitia hung back. Brant screwed up his face in grief and anger. "Go! Get out of here!"

She ran. The last thing she heard Rutger say was, "More this week than last."

Letitia sat in the empty white lavatory, wiping her eyes, ashamed at her sniveling. She wanted to react like a grownup—she saw herself being calm, cool, offering help to whoever might have needed it in the classroom—but the tears and the shaking would not stop.

Mr. Brant had seemed angry, as if the entire classroom were at fault. Not only was Mr. Brant adult, he was PPC.

So did she expect adults, especially adult PPCs, to behave better?

Wasn't that what it was all about?

She stared at herself in the cracked mirror. "I should go home, or go to the library and study," she said. Dignity and decorum. Two girls walked into the lavatory, and her private moment passed.

Letitia did not go to the library. Instead, she went to the old concrete and steel auditorium, entering through the open stage entrance, standing in darkness in the wings. Three female students sat in the front row, below the stage level and about ten meters away from Letitia. She recognized Reena but not the other two; they did not share classes with her.

"Did you know him?"

"No, not very well," Reena said. "He was in my class."

"No ducks!" the third snorted.

"Trish, keep it interior, please. Reena's had it rough."

"He hadn't blitzed. He wasn't a superwhiz. Nobody expected it."

"When was his incept?"

"I don't know," Reena said. "We're all about the same age, within a couple of months. We're all the same model year, same supplements, if it's something in the genotype, in the supplements . . ."

"I heard somebody say there had been five so far. I haven't heard anything," the third said.

"I haven't either," said the second.

"Not in our school," Reena said. "Except for the superwhizes. And none of them have died before now."

Letitia stepped back in the darkness, hand on mouth. Had Lockwood actually died?

She thought for a mad moment of stepping out of the wings, going into the seats and telling the three she was sorry. The impulse faded fast. That would have been intruding.

They weren't any older than she was, and they didn't sound much more mature. They sounded scared.

In the morning, at the station room for pre-med secondary, Brant told them that John Lockwood had died the day before. "He had a heart attack," Brant said. Letitia intuited that was not the complete truth. A short eulogy was read, and special hours for psych counseling were arranged for those students who felt they might need it.

The word "blitzing" was not mentioned by Brant, nor by any of the PPCs throughout that day. Letitia tried to research the subject but found precious few materials in the libraries accessed by her mod. She presumed she didn't know where to look; it was hard to believe that nobody knew what was happening.

The dream came again, even stronger, the next night, and Letitia awoke out of it cold and shivering with excitement. She saw herself standing before a crowd, no single face visible, for she was in light and they were in darkness. She had felt, in the dream, an almost unbearable happiness, grief mixed with joy, unlike anything she had ever experienced before. She loved and did not know what she loved—not the crowd, precisely, not a man, not a family member, not even herself.

She sat up in her bed, hugging her knees, wondering if anybody else was awake. It seemed possible she had never been awake until now; every nerve was alive. Quietly, not wanting anybody else to intrude on this moment, she slipped out of bed and walked down the hall to her mother's sewing room. There, in a full-length cheval mirror, she looked at herself as if with new eyes.

"Who are you?" she whispered. She lifted her cotton nightshirt and stared at her legs. Short calves, lumpy knees, thighs not bad—not fat, at any rate. Her arms were softlooking, not muscular, but not particularly plump, a rosy vanilla color with strawberry blotches on her elbows where she leaned on them while reading in bed. She had Irish ancestors on her mother's side; that showed in her skin color, recessed cheekbones, broad face. On her father's side, Mexican and German; not much evidence in her of the Mexican. Her brother looked more swarthy. "We're mongrels," she said. "I look like a mongrel compared to PPC purebreds." But PPCs were not purebred; they were designed.

She lifted her nightshirt higher still, pulling it over her head finally and standing naked. Shivering from the cold and from the memory of her dream, she forced herself to focus on all of her characteristics. Whenever she had seen herself naked in mirrors before, she had blurred her eyes at one feature, looked away from another, special-effecting her body into a more acceptable fantasy. Now she was in a mood to know herself for what she was.

Broad hips, strong abdomen—plump, but strong. From her pre-med, she knew that meant she would probably have little trouble bearing children. "Brood mare," she said, but there was no critical sharpness in the words. To have children, she would have to attract men, and right now there seemed little chance of that. She did not have the "Attraction Peaks" so often discussed on the TV, or seen faddishly headlined on the LitVid mods; the culturally prescribed geometric curves allocated to so few naturally, and now available to so many by design. Does Your Child Have the Best Design for Success?

Such a shocking triviality. She felt a righteous anger grow—another emotion she was not familiar with—and sucked it back into the excitement, not wanting to lose her mood. "I might never look at myself like this again," she whispered.

Her breasts were moderate in size, the left larger than the right and more drooping. She could indeed hold a stylus under her left breast, something a PPC female would not have to worry about for decades, if ever. Rib cage not really distinct; muscles not distinct; rounded, soft, gentle-looking, face curious, friendly, wide-eyed, skin blemished but not so badly it wouldn't recover on its own; feet long and toenails thick, heavily cuticled. She had never suffered from ingrown toenails.

Her family line showed little evidence of tendency to cancer—correctible now, but still distressing—or heart disease or any of the other diseases of melting pot cultures, of mobile populations and changing habits. She saw a strong body in the mirror, one that would serve her well.

And she also saw that with a little makeup, she could easily play an older woman. Some shadow under the eyes, lines to highlight what would in thirty or forty years be jowls, laugh lines . . .

But she did not look old now.

Letitia walked back to her room, treading carefully on the carpet. In the room, she asked the lights to turn on, lay down on the bed, pulled the photo album Jane had given her from the top of her nightstand and gingerly turned the delicate black paper pages. She stared at her great-grandmother's face, and then at the picture of her grandmother as a little girl.


* * *


Individual orchestra was taught by three instructors in one of the older drama classrooms behind the auditorium. It was a popular aesthetic; the school's music boxes were better than most home units, and the instructors were very popular. All were PPCs.

After a half hour of group, each student could retire to box keyboard, order up spheres of countersound to avoid cacophony, and practice.

Today, she practiced for less than half an hour. Then, tongue between her lips, she stared into empty space over the keyboard. "Countersound off, please," she ordered, and stood up from the black bench. Mr. Teague, the senior instructor, asked if she were done for the day.

"I have to run an errand," she said.

"Practice your polyrhythms," he advised.

She left the classroom and walked around to the auditorium's stage entrance. She knew Reena's drama group would be meeting there.

The auditorium was dark, the stage lighted by a few catwalk spots. The drama group sat in a circle of chairs in one illuminated corner of the stage, reading lines aloud from old paper scripts. Hands folded, she walked toward the group. Rick Fayette, a quiet senior with short black hair, spotted her first but said nothing, glancing at Reena. Reena stopped reading her lines, turned, and stared at Letitia. Edna Corman saw her last and shook her head, as if this were the last straw.

"Hello," Letitia said.

"What are you doing here?" There was more wonder than disdain in Reena's voice.

"I thought you might still . . ." She shook her head.

"Probably not. But I thought you might still be able to use me."

"Really," Edna Corman said.

Reena put her script down and stood. "Why'd you change your mind?"

"I thought I wouldn't mind being an old lady," Reena said. "It's just not that big a deal. I brought a picture of my great-grandmother." She took a plastic wallet from her pocket and opened it to a copy she had made from the photo in the album. "You could make me up like this. Like my great-grandmother."

Reena took the wallet. "You look like her," she said.

"Yeah. Kind of."

"Look at this," Reena said, holding the picture out to the others. They gathered around and passed the wallet from hand to hand, staring in wonder. Even Edna Corman glanced at it briefly. "She actually looks like her great-grandmother."

Rick Fayette whistled with wonder. "You," he said, "will make a really great old lady."


* * *


Rutger called her into his office abruptly a week later. She sat quietly before his desk. "You've joined the drama class after all," he said. She nodded.

"Any reason?"

There was no simple way to express it. "Because of what you told me," she said.

"No friction?"

"It's going okay."

"Very good. They gave you another role to play?"

"No. I'm the old lady. They'll use makeup on me."

"You don't object to that?"

"I don't think so."

Rutger seemed to want to find something wrong, but he couldn't. With a faintly suspicious smile, he thanked her for her time. "Come back and see me whenever you want," he said. "Tell me how it goes."

The group met each Friday, an hour later than her individual orchestra. Letitia made arrangements for home keyboard hookup and practice. After a reading and a half hour of questions, she obtained the permission of the drama group advisor, a spinsterish non-PPC seldom seen in the hallways, Miss Darcy. Miss Darcy seemed old-fashioned and addressed all of her students as either "Mister" or "Miss," but she knew drama and stagecraft. She was the oldest of the six NG teachers in the school.

Reena stayed with Letitia during the audition and made a strong case for her late admittance, saying that the casting of Rick Fayette as an older woman was not going well. Fayette was equally eager to be rid of the part; he had another nonconflicting role, and the thought of playing two characters in this production worried him.

Fayette confessed his appreciation at their second Friday meeting. He introduced her to an elfishly handsome, largeeyed, slender group member, Frank Leroux. Leroux was much too shy to go on stage, Fayette said, but he would be doing their makeup. "He's pretty amazing."

Letitia stood nervously while Leroux examined her. "You've really got a face," he said softly. "May I touch you, to see where your contours are?"

Letitia giggled and abruptly sobered, embarrassed. "Okay," she said. "You're going to draw lines and make shadows?"

"Much more than that," Leroux said.

"He'll take a video of your face in motion," Fayette said. "Then he'll digitize it and sculpt a laserfoam mold—much better than sitting for a life mask. He made a life mask of me last year to turn me into the Hunchback of Notre Dame. No fun at all."

"This way is much better," Leroux said, touching her skin delicately, poking under her cheeks and chin, pulling back her hair to feel her temples. "I can make two or three sculptures showing what your face and neck are like when they're in different positions. Then I can adjust the appliance molds for flex and give."

"When he's done with you, you won't know yourself," Fayette said.

"Reena says you have a picture of your great-grandmother. May I see it?" Leroux asked. She gave him the wallet and he looked at the picture with squint-eyed intensity. "What a wonderful face," he said. "I never met my great-grandmother. My own grandmother looks about as old as my mother. They might be sisters."

"When he's done with you," Fayette said, his enthusiasm becoming a bit tiresome, "you and your great-grandmother will look like sisters!"

When she went home that evening, taking a late pay metro from the school, she wondered just exactly what she was doing. Throughout her high school years, she had cut herself off from most of her fellow students; the closest she came to friendship had been occasional banter while sitting at the mods with John Lockwood, waiting for instructors to arrive. Now she actually liked Fayette, and strange Leroux, whose hands were thin and pale and strong and slightly cold. Leroux was a PPC, but obviously his parents had different tastes; was he a superwhiz? Nobody had said so; perhaps it was a matter of honor among PPCs that they pretended not to care about their classifications.

Reena was friendly and supportive, but still distant.

As Letitia walked up the stairs, across the porch into the door of their home, setting her keyboard down by the closet, she saw the edge of a news broadcast in the living room. Nobody was watching; she surmised everybody was in the kitchen.

From this angle, the announcer appeared translucent and blue, ghostly. As Letitia walked around to the premium angle, the announcer solidified, a virtual goddess of Asian-negroid features with high cheekbones, straight golden hair and copperbronze skin. Letitia didn't care what she looked like; what she was saying had attracted her attention.

"—revelations made today that as many as one-fourth of all PPCs inceived between sixteen and seventeen years ago may be possessors of a defective chromosome sequence known as T56-WA 5659. Originally part of an intelligence enhancement macrobox used in ramping creativity and mathematical ability, T56-WA 5659 was refined and made a standard option in virtually all pre-planned children. The effects of this defective sequence are not yet known, but at least twenty children in our city have already died. They all suffered from initial symptoms similar to grand mal epilepsy. Nationwide casualties are as yet unknown. The Rifkin Society is charging government regulatory agencies with a wholesale coverup.

"The Parental Pre-Natal Design Administration has advised parents of PPC children with this incept to immediately contact your medicals and design specialists for advice and treatment. Younger children may be eligible to receive wholebody retroviral therapy. For more detailed information, please refer to our LitVid on-line at this moment, and call—"

Letitia turned and saw her mother watching with a kind of grim satisfaction. When she noticed her daughter's shocked expression, she suddenly appeared sad. "How unfortunate," she said. "I wonder how far it will go."

Letitia did not eat much dinner. Nor did she sleep more than a couple of hours that night. The weekend seemed to stretch on forever.


* * *


Leroux compared the laserfoam sculptures to her face, turning her chin this way and that with gentle hands before the green room mirror. As Leroux worked to test the various molds on Letitia, humming softly to himself, the rest of the drama group rehearsed a scene that did not require her presence. When they were done, Reena walked into the green room and stood behind them, watching. Letitia smiled stiffly through the hastily applied sheets and mounds of skinlike plastic.

"You're going to look great," Reena said.

"I'm going to look old," Letitia said, trying for a joke.

"I hope you aren't worried about that," Reena said. "Nobody cares, really. They all like you. Even Edna."

"I'm not worried," Letitia said.

Leroux pulled off the pieces and laid them carefully in a box. "Just about got it," he said. "I'm getting so good I could even make Reena look old if she'd let me."

Letitia considered for a moment. The implication, rather than the meaning, was embarrassingly obvious. Reena blushed and stared angrily at Leroux. Leroux caught her stare, looked between them, and said, "Well, I could." Reena could not argue without sinking them all deeper. Letitia blinked, then decided to let them off this particular hook. "She wouldn't look like a grandmother, though. I'll be a much better old lady."

"Of course," Leroux said, picking up his box and the sculptures. He walked to the door, a mad headsman. "Like your great-grandmother."

For a long silent moment, Reena and Letitia faced each other alone in the green room. The old incandescent makeup lights glared around the cracked mirror, casting a pearly glow on the white walls behind them. "You're a good actress," Reena said. "It really doesn't matter what you look like."

"Thank you."

"Sometimes I wished I looked like somebody in my family," Reena said.

Without thinking, Letitia said, "But you're beautiful." And she meant it. Reena was beautiful; with her Levantine darkness and long black hair, small sharp chin, large hazelcolored almond eyes and thin, ever-so-slightly bowed nose, she was simply lovely, with the kind of face and bearing and intelligence that two or three generations before would have moved her into entertainment, or pushed her into the social circles of the rich and famous. Behind the physical beauty was a sparkle of reserved wit, and something gentle. PPCs were healthier, felt better, and their minds, on the average, were more subtle, more balanced. Letitia did not feel inferior, however; not this time.

Something magic touched them. The previous awkwardness, and her deft destruction of that awkwardness, had moved them into a period of charmed conversation. Neither could offend the other; without words, that was a given.

"My parents are beautiful, too. I'm second generation," Reena said.

"Why would you want to look any different?"

"I don't, I suppose. I'm happy with the way I look. But I don't look much like my mother or my father. Oh, color, hair, eyes, that sort of thing . . . Still, my mother wasn't happy with her own face. She didn't get along well with my grandmother . . . She blamed her for not matching her face with her personality." Reena smiled. "It's all rather silly."

"Some people are never happy," Letitia observed.

Reena stepped forward and leaned over slightly to face

Letitia's mirror image. "How do you feel, looking like your grandmother?"

Letitia bit her lip. "Until you asked me to join, I don't think I ever knew." she told about her mother giving her the album, and looking at herself in the mirror—though she did not describe being naked—and comparing herself with the old pictures.

"I think that's called an epiphany," Reena said. "It must have been nice. I'm glad I asked you, then, even if I was stupid."

"Were you . . ." Letitia paused. The period of charm was fading, regrettably; she did not know whether this question would be taken as she meant it. "Did you ask me to give me a chance to stop being so silly and stand-offish?"

"No," Reena said steadily. "I asked you because we needed an old lady."

Looking at each other, they laughed suddenly, and the charmed moment was gone, replaced by something steadier and longer-lasting: friendship. Letitia took Reena's hand and pressed it. "Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome." Then, with hardly a pause, Reena said, "At least you don't have to worry."

Letitia stared up at her, mouth open, eyes searching.

"Got to go home now," Reena said. She squeezed Letitia's shoulder with more than gentle strength, revealing a physical anger or jealousy that ran counter to all they had said and done thus far. She turned and walked through the green room door, leaving Letitia alone to pick off a few scraps of latex and adhesive.

The disaster grew. Letitia listened to the news in her room late that night, whispers in her ear, projected ghosts of newscasters and doctors and scientists dancing before her eyes, telling her things she did not really understand, could only feel.

A monster walked through her generation, but it would not touch her.

Going to school on Monday, she saw students clustered in hallways before the bell, somber, talking in low voices, glancing at her as she passed. In her second period class, she learned from overheard conversation that Leroux had died during the weekend. "He was superwhiz," a tall, athletic girl told her neighbor. "They don't die, usually, they just blitz. But he died."

Letitia retreated to the old lavatory at the beginning of lunch break, found it empty, but did not stare into the mirror. She knew what she looked like and accepted it.

What she found difficult to accept was a new feeling inside her. The young Letitia was gone. She could not live on a battlefield and remain a child. She thought about slender, elfin Leroux, carrying her heads under his arms, touching her face with gentle, professional admiration. Strong, cool fingers. Her eyes filled but the tears would not fall, and she went to lunch empty, fearful, confused.

She did not apply for counseling, however. This was something she had to face on her own.

Nothing much happened the next few days. The rehearsals went smoothly in the evenings as the date of the play approached. She learned her lines easily enough. Her role had a sadness that matched her mood. On Wednesday evening, after rehearsal, she joined Reena and Fayette at a supermarket sandwich stand near the school. Letitia did not tell her parents she would be late; she felt the need to not be responsible to anybody but her immediate peers. Jane would be upset, she knew, but not for long; this was a necessity.

Neither Reena nor Fayette mentioned the troubles directly. They were fairylike in their gaiety. They kidded Letitia about having to do without makeup now, and it seemed funny, despite their hidden grief. They ate sandwiches and drank fruit sodas and talked about what they would be when they grew up.

"Things didn't used to be so easy," Fayette said. "Kids didn't have so many options. Schools weren't very efficient at training for the real world; they were academic."

"Learning was slower," Letitia said.

"So were the kids," Reena said, tossing off an irresponsible grin.

"I resent that," Letitia said. Then, together, they all said, "I don't deny it, I just resent it!" Their laughter caught the attention of an older couple sitting in a corner. Even if the man and woman were not angry, Letitia wanted them to be, and she bowed her head down, giggling into her straw, snucking bubbles up her nose and choking. Reena made a disapproving face and Fayette covered his mouth, snorting with laughter.

"You could paste rubber all over your face," Fayette suggested.

"I'd look like Frankenstein's monster, not an old woman," Letitia said.

"So what's the difference?" Reena said.

"Really, you guys," Letitia said. "You're acting your age."

"Don't have to act," Fayette said. "Just be."

"I wish we could act our age," Reena said.

Not once did they mention Leroux, but it was as if he sat beside them the whole time, sharing their levity.

It was the closest thing to a wake they could have.


* * *


"Have you gone to see your designer, your medical?" Letitia asked Reena behind the stage curtains. The lights were off. Student stagehands moved muslin walls on dollies. Fresh paint smells filled the air.

"No," Reena said. "I'm not worried. I have a different incept."


She nodded. "It's okay. If there was any problem, I wouldn't be here. Don't worry." And nothing more was said.

The night of dress rehearsal came. Letitia put on her own makeup, drawing pencil lines and applying color and shadow; she had practiced and found herself reasonably adept at aging. With her great-grandmother's photograph before her, she mimicked the jowls she would have in her later years, drew laugh lines around her lips, and completed the effect with a smelly old gray wig dug out of a prop box.

The actors gathered for a prerehearsal inspection by Miss Darcy. They seemed quite adult now, dressed in their period costumes, tall and handsome. Letitia didn't mind standing out. Being an old woman gave her special status.

"This time, just relax, do it smooth," said Miss Darcy. "Everybody expects you to flub your lines, so you'll probably do them all perfectly. We'll have an audience, but they're here to forgive our mistakes, not laugh at them. This one," Miss Darcy said, pausing, "is for Mr. Leroux."

They all nodded solemnly.

"Tomorrow, when we put on the first show, that's going to be for you."

They took their places in the wings. Letitia stood behind Reena, who would be first on stage. Reena shot her a quick smile, nervous.

"How's your stomach?" she whispered.

"Where's the bag?" Letitia asked, pretending to gag herself with a finger.

"TB," Reena accused lightly

"RC," Letitia replied. They shook hands firmly.

The curtain went up. The auditorium was half filled with parents and friends and relatives. Letitia' s parents were out there. The darkness beyond the stagelights seemed so profound it should have been filled with stars and nebulae. Would her small voice reach that far?

The recorded music before the first act came to its quiet end. Reena made a move to go on stage, then stopped. Letitia nudged her. "Come on."

Reena pivoted to look at her, face cocked to one side, and Letitia saw a large tear dripping from her left eye. Fascinated, she watched the tear fall in slow motion down her cheek and spot the satin of her gown.

"I'm sorry," Reena whispered, lips twitching. "I can't do it now. Tell. Tell."

Horrified, Letitia reached out, tried to stop her from falling, to lift her, paste and push her back into place, but Reena was too heavy and she could not stop her descent, only slow it. Reena's feet kicked out like a horse's, bruising Letitia's legs, all in apparent silence, and her eyes were bright and empty and wet, fluttering, showing the whites.

Letitia bent over her, hands raised, afraid to touch her, afraid not to, unaware she was shrieking.

Fayette and Edna Corman stood behind her, equally helpless.

Reena lay still like a twisted doll, face upturned, eyes moving slowly to Letitia, vibrating, becoming still.

"Not you!" Letitia screamed, and barely heard the commotion in the audience. "Please, God, let it be me, not her!"

Fayette backed away and Miss Darcy came into the light, grabbing Letitia's shoulders. She shook free.

"Not her," Letitia sobbed. The medicals arrived and surrounded Reena, blocking her from the eyes of all around. Miss Darcy firmly, almost brutally, pushed her students from the stage and herded them into the green room. Her face was stiff as a mask, eyes stark in the paleness.

"We have to do something!" Letitia said, holding up her hands, beseeching.

"Get control of yourself," Miss Darcy said sharply. "Everything's being done that can be done."

Fayette said, "What about the play?"

Everyone stared at him.

"Sorry," he said, lip quivering. "I'm an idiot."

Jane, Donald, and Roald came to the green room and Letitia hugged her mother fiercely, eyes shut tight, burying her face in Jane's shoulder. They escorted her outside, where a few students and parents still milled about in the early evening. "We should go home," Jane said.

"We have to stay here and find out if she's all right." Letitia pushed away from Jane's arms and looked at the people. "They're so frightened. I know they are. She's frightened, too. 1 saw her. She told me—" Her voice hitched. "She told me—"

"We'll stay for a little while," her father said. He walked off to talk to another man. They conversed for a while, the man shook his head, they parted. Roald stood away from them, hands stuffed into his pockets, dismayed, young, uncomfortable.

"All right," Donald said a few minutes later. "We're not going to find out anything tonight. Let's go home."

This time, she did not protest. Home, she locked herself in her bedroom. She did not need to know. She had seen it happen; anything else was self-delusion.

Her father came to the door an hour later, rapped gently. Letitia came up from a troubled doze and got off the bed to let him in.

"We're very sorry," he said.

"Thanks," she murmured, returning to the bed. He sat beside her. She might have been eight or nine again; she looked around the room, at toys and books, knickknacks.

"Your teacher, Miss Darcy, called. She said to tell you, Reena Cathcart died. She was dead by the time they got her to the hospital. Your mother and I have been watching the vids. A lot of children are very sick now. A lot have died." He touched her head, patted the crown gently. "I think you know now why we wanted a natural child. There were risks."

"That's not fair," she said. "You didn't have us . . ." She hiccupped. "The way you did, because you thought there would be risks. You talk as if there's something wrong with these . . . people."

"Isn't there?" Donald asked, eyes suddenly flinty. "They're defective."

"They're my friends!" Letitia shouted.

"Please," Donald said, flinching.

She got to her knees on the bed, tears coming again. "There's nothing wrong with them! They're people! They're just sick, that's all."

"You're not making sense," Donald said.

"I talked to her," Letitia said. "She must have known. You can't just say there's something wrong with them. That isn't enough."

"Their parents should have known," Donald pursued, voice rising. "Letitia . . ."

"Leave me alone," she demanded. He stood up hastily, confused, and walked out, closing the door behind him. She lay back on the bed, wondering what Reena had wanted her to say, and to whom.

"I'll do it," she whispered.

In the morning, breakfast was silent. Roald ate his cereal with caution, glancing at the others with wide, concerned eyes. Letitia ate little, pushed away from the table, said, "I'm going to her funeral."

"We don't know—" Jane said.

"I'm going."


* * *


Letitia went to only one funeral: Reena's. With a puzzled expression, she watched Reena's parents from across the grave, wondering about them, comparing them to Jane and Donald. She did not cry. She came home and wrote down the things she had thought.

That school year was the worst. One hundred and twelve students from the school died. Another two hundred became very ill.

John Fayette died.

The drama class continued, but no plays were presented. The school was quiet. Many students had been withdrawn from classes; Letitia watched the hysteria mount, listened to rumors that it was a plague, not a PPC error.

It was not a plague.

Across the nation, two million children became ill. one million died.

Letitia read, without really absorbing the truth all at once, that it was the worst disaster in the history of the United States. Riots destroyed PPC centers. Women carrying PPC babies demanded abortions. The Rifkin Society became a political force of considerable influence.

Each day, after school, listening to the news, everything about her existence seemed trivial. Their family was healthy. They were growing up normally.

Edna Corman approached her in school at the end of one day, two weeks before graduation. "Can we talk?" she asked. "Someplace quiet."

"Sure," Letitia said. They had not become close friends, but she found Edna Corman tolerable. Letitia took her into the old bathroom and they stood surrounded by the echoing white tiles.

"You know, everybody, I mean the older people, they stare at me, at us," Edna said. "Like we're going to fall over any minute. It's really bad. I don't think I'm going to get sick, but . . .It's like people are afraid to touch me."

"I know," Letitia said.

"Why is that?" Edna said, voice trembling.

"I don't know," Letitia said. Edna just stood before her, hands limp.

"Was it our fault?" she asked.

"No. You know that."

"Please tell me."

"Tell you what?"

"What we can do to make it right."

Letitia looked at her for a moment, and then extended her arms, took her by the shoulders, drew her closer, and hugged her. "Remember," she said.

Five days before graduation, Letitia asked Rutger if she could give a speech at the ceremonies. Rutger sat behind his desk, folded his hands, and said, "Why?"

"Because there are some things nobody's saying," Letitia told him. "And they should be said. If nobody else will say them, then . . ." She swallowed hard. "Maybe I can."

He regarded her dubiously for a moment. "You really think there's something important that you can say?"

She faced him down. Nodded.

"Write the speech," he said. "Show it to me."

She pulled a piece of paper out of her pocket. He read it carefully, shook his head—she thought at first in denial—and then handed it back to her.


* * *


Waiting in the wings to go on stage, Letitia Blakely listened to the low murmur of the young crowd in the auditorium. She avoided the spot near the curtain.

Rutger acted as master of ceremonies. The proceedings were somber, low-energy. She began to feel as if she were making a terrible mistake. She was too young to say these things; it would sound horribly awkward, even childish.

Rutger made his opening remarks, then introduced her and motioned for her to come on stage. Letitia deliberately walked through the spot near the curtain, paused briefly, closed her eyes and took a deep breath, as if to infuse herself with whatever remained there of Reena. She walked past Miss Darcy, who seemed to glare at her.

Her throat seized. She rubbed her neck quickly, blinked at the bright lights on the catwalk overhead, tried to see the faces beyond the lights. They were just smudges in great darkness. She glanced out of the corner of her eye and saw Miss Darcy nodding, Go ahead.

"This has been a bad time for all of us," she began, voice high and scratchy. She cleared her throat. "I've lost a lot a friends, and so have you. Maybe you've lost sons and daughters. I think, even from there, looking at me, you can tell I'm not . . .designed. I'm natural. I don't have to wonder whether I'll get sick and die. But I . . ." She cleared her throat again. It wasn't getting easier. "I thought someone like me could tell you something important.

"People have made mistakes, bad mistakes. But you are not the mistakes. I mean . . .they weren't mistaken to make you. I can only dream about doing some of the things you'll do. Some of you are made to live in space for a long time, and I can't do that. Some of you will think things I can't, and go places I won't . . .travel to see the stars. We're different in a lot of ways, but I just thought it was important to tell you . . ." She wasn't following the prepared speech. She couldn't. "I love you. I don't care what the others say. We love you. you are very important. Please don't forget that."

The silence was complete. She felt like slinking away. Instead, she straightened, thanked them, hearing not a word, not a restless whisper, then bowed her head from the catwalk glare and the interstellar darkness beyond.

Miss Darcy, stiff and formal, reached her arm out as Letitia passed by. They shook hands firmly, and Letitia saw, for the first time, that Miss Darcy looked upon her as an equal.

Letitia stood backstage while the ceremonies continued, examining the old wood floor, the curtains, counterweights, and flies, the catwalk.

It seemed very long ago, she had dreamed what she felt now, this unspecified love, not for family, not for herself. Love for something she could not have known back then; love for children not her own, yet hers none the less. Brothers.




* * *


Originally published in Tangents (author collection), Warner Books, © Greg Bear 1989.


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