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a short story

by Anna Tambour

I am an only. My sister is a samer to my brother. Of course, Tommy has been the top of us three since he could speak, even though I'm two years older. Lucy is three years younger than I, and I've been at the bottom of the heap since she could speak - as you would expect.

At least I'm not a one-and-only, as people who try to be nice always say, but that doesn't help. I know I've screwed up my parents' lives. They wanted to be professionals. They wanted six - three sets of two - the recommended, and of course preferred choice for all professionals.

Now it's just a part-time job for them in an almost amateur, definitely gray classification - almost as bad as what professionals scoff at as "SJOHs" (Single-Job-Only-Hobbyists).

I feel bad for my parents. They worked so hard, read everything there was, went through the PPTS (Professional Parenting Training Scheme) run by the Department and cosponsored by all the important companies. When they got their certificate of graduation, they could quote the Handbook, clause by subclause and footnote.

They applied. Just the application to apply process took 18 months.

Now you might think that the huge range of personalities in good positions is a reality. But the truth is, it's almost impossible to register an original combination, and the range that you see is really different labels for the same few. That's why they stress easy me-too's as the only pragmatic avenue for prospective professional parents, unless you have clout.

When the gene craze took over in the early part of the century, this was thought to be the simple answer to efficiency. But it was soon found that, while the easy stuff like health could be dealt with, the important stuff - personality - was as elusive as Thomas Edison's improved lightbulb. Maybe when we're dead they'll have it down, but at the moment, despite what you are told, it's just too expensive for the bulk of society's needs.

That's why lobbyists pushed for the SNP (Semi-Natural Program). As most lobbyists are from industry (and incidentally, also ex-Department), the program is now the only avenue that provides legal, standard product at maximum cost-efficiency. And it was the Semi-Natural Program, Scientific Branch, two subsections down, that my parents went for, to have me.

Perhaps the roots of my parents' failure drank in too heady a mix of nutrients, as their ambition was too tall a plant for most.

For their first - me - they went for "Scientific, Subclassification: Creative Diverse." Cynics said, "You might as well try for 'New Personality,'" which should have rung alarm bells.

The lifestyle dreams first visualized by my mother, and then shared by my father, obscured any possible troubles that threatened their project. The house that they would have as part of the package, the access to an upper strata of entertainment, even people on another level - all this made them more sure of their plan. Plus, they looked forward to the postbirth part of the parenting jobs they would have. Their work requirements for my classification for the first years excited both of them much more than a standard me-too ever could have.

On the advice of the helpful Department staff, they were put in touch with Crowley Tithern, ex-Department assistant to the head. Mr. Tithern emanated total confidence. It was just a matter of a few months wait, and some rule-following. Easy as pie. And the matter of his fees and expenses, paid up front, please.

Once Mr. Tithern got my parents through the initial stage of permission to proceed, it was only Mr. Tithern himself who could guide them through the exact procedural specifications. Because of the frequency of spec changes, the nitty-gritty of my actual production was not in any handbook, but rather in the trail of sub- and interdepartmental memos, not actually available to anyone outside the Department.

During this time, Mr. Tithern had frequent call conferences with my parents to relay the instructions "straight from Bob," as he called the project manager for my Division. My parents wrapped their lives around the specs as much as two vines around the only pole in a flat field. No matter how inconvenient or painful, or downright embarrassing for both, they followed the procedures. I've heard them reminisce about my father's fertility treatments and his amazing whiskers. And he told my mother about what IVF used to be like, and they both laughed over how romantic it seemed compared to what they both went through. But still, they had a vision and a common will to make it a reality.

It was the greatest day of their lives, they tell me, when I was born. They were elated that, after all the mental stress and physical pain, I was produced.

They sent Mr. Tithern a bottle of champagne to thank him (even though he had been paid extremely well), and spent all the time they could staring at me in my crib those first weeks. With the confidence of old hands, they were ready to launch immediately into number two (a samer of me, of course), but couldn't yet, because Mr. Tithern was on his annual vacation.

I was assessed monthly as a part of the Product Quality Control/Human Resources program. By month two, when my gurgling fit the template as much as if the template had been designed for me, my father reached Mr. Tithern at his office.

"Now just hold your horses, George," Mr. Tithern drawled in his genial way.

"Edward passed the TD40, one hundred out of one hundred, Mr. Tithern," my father said.

"Yes, you told me that already, George, but the Department likes you to have a pause after the very first. Do you want to go against recommended procedure? I would strongly advise you to wait for one year. For first-timers like you who are not professionals yet, it doesn't look good to be too precipitate."

When my father started to quote the manual - that technically it was supposed to be no problem - Mr. Tithern sighed.

"I can see if I can get the ball rolling for you if you really want. But I'll have to start filings for you through the Exceptional Circumstances Program, if you really insist."

This program wasn't mentioned in any manual my father or mother had ever seen, but that sigh was enough to make my father back down, even if he thought it was just another silly thing to discourage my parents from becoming professionals.

Still, time itself was a hurdle that was tolerable, so my parents jumped over the days in eagerness, enjoying the pass-rate of each test.

I was gurgling to plan, moving my limbs to plan, focusing, sucking my toes. The whole baby thing to plan. When I began to talk at four months they were pleased. When my first words were "mama, dada," they were thrilled. Exactly to spec.

I wasn't a talkative baby. That would have been off-plan. I watched and listened - mostly listened, as I was meant to.

It would be unlikely for you to know a semi-natural of my classification, being that we have low socialization requirements, and indeed, are designed to function most effectively in anthro-free environments. So I'll bring you up to speed regarding our developmental stages.

These are the specs for my classification: Full adult vocabulary at four. Tech-grade reading at five. Streamed into an industry subclassification by seven, and by thirteen, fully fledged, working to designated capacity - as a team member finding new uses for company products.

One other thing I'm sure you don't know (I only found out by accident in one of my research forays). Accelerated growth was played around with for all classifications just a few years ago. There was such a hue and cry that it never went further than Accellera's first success. The threat to diversity was truly terrifying. Only with full developmental and socioeconomic diversity can there be a balance maintained for healthy marketing - and developmental stages are the most important excess production sinks. So that's the reason my body lags my brain in such annoying ways, and that most twenty-first century children of natural and semi-natural types are just that - children.

So for me, day followed day as I learned in my care pod. My parents plugged in the teaching modules, and the screen smiled down at me for the prescribed hours. Sound took meaning, shapes took meaning. I learned from everything. When my parents were home, the screen was off, and through the thin walls of the apartment, I listened to everything my parents said, no matter what room they were in.

My nursery doubled as a home office for my father, and he kept his papers on a desk by my pod. During the day, I used to pull myself up the sides and hang from my hands clutching the top rail. Those papers fascinated me, but were also a source of deep frustration.

One night shortly after my fourth-month birthday, there was a full moon - the white walls of my room were lit, and the puny night-light was almost lost in the room's glow. There was a big unfolded colorful piece of paper on the desk, and I pulled myself up to look at it for a long time.

The next morning, my father came into the office to see me before work, and picked up the piece of paper. I thought he was going to put in his case, but my mother said something from down the hall, and my father dropped the paper on the desk. That day, they forgot to load the day's lessons. So all day, I played at holding myself up in my pod, looking at that paper.

I was happy when my father came to see me when he came home from work. I always liked to see his face. I smiled my slobbery gummy grin, and pulled myself upright in my crib. I pointed as well as I could to the top paper in the pile on his desk.

"That calculation in the middle panel is wrong. The dosage should read, 'four milligrams,'" I said. I'm not sure how much he could understand, because I couldn't pronounce s's then, and had never said a four-syllable word before.

My father looked funny and sat down.

"Besides," I said, "the logic of treatment in that directive is flawed. Wouldn't common sense dictate -"

My father's head wobbled and he fell out of his chair. I was surprised. He didn't seem any more coordinated than I.

My mother must have heard the noise, as she came into the room, and looked awfully worried. She propped him up with difficulty, and after a few minutes, he looked at me.

"Are you questioning standard procedure for treating HBD patients?" he said.

My mother looked at my father like he was having a brain seizure.

"Of course I am," I answered.

And then my father had to take care of my mother.

Obviously, the advice Mr. Tithern gave to my parents was wrong, even though he had just retired out of the public service six months before.

My parents considered suing Crowley Tithern, but that phase lasted only until they dug up his bills, at the bottom of which were clear "all care, no responsibility" warnings amongst all the other stuff that they never read. Then they thought of suing the Department. They asked the confidential advice of Ken Mooresmith - known as a real terrier.

"Noooo," he said, examining the ceiling. "Whatever went wrong, you can't sue the Government. In fact, if you try, be worried about the tables being turned. Why don't you just shut up and try again."

The bill that they got for their half hour with Mooresmith made Crowley Tithern look cheap.

After one more angry session with Mr. Tithern, it was made clear to my parents that they should thank their stars that this hadn't happened in the Social Resource Program. In my stream, extra intelligence was always just classified as excess to requirements, and would not have disqualified me for registration, but in the Social stream, this would have been a product for rationalization. Instead, I would be made legal and given some sort of classification, and they should be thankful. I would have to be kept home, of course. "Of course," my father answered.

With the hard lesson of me, my parents had no more fancy ambition left. Only a determination not to be beaten. They would be professionals, if only run-of-the-mill professionals. They would still get a house, but the social level they could attain and the work satisfaction aspects would be lower than they had hoped.

When I was a year old, my parents tried for number two - this time, without using Tithern.

Tommy was the easiest "me-too" - "Technical, Fully accommodatable." This was the category and level that they had been urged in their course to choose.

It still took time, and a whopping processing fee to the Department (bank checks only accepted). But conforming to the Guidelines was easy.

By the time Tommy was three months old (unusually early, but he showed unusual levels of conformity characteristics), he was assessed as passing. My parents were thrilled, and Lucy followed, naturally as a samer to Tommy.

But it was application renewal time again. An only, first off, was a black mark against them even though followed by what looked so far like a model Handbook me-too and successful samer.

Then, just when they were planning their next set, they found out that their new application would have the same status as first-time applicants with no records. The rules had changed yet again, and my parents knew both money and time were against them.

They resigned themselves to amateur rating forever, and swallowed the failure of my being, with grace. With their prospective jobs now at the highest level each would reach, they both had to forget their valiant project to move themselves up the social scale. Of course, any house, even a pokey one, was only something they could live in while they slept, in their dreams.

I told you that Tommy received his registration in record time, but Lucy's registration number is still pending. Samers always take five years. That's the rules. It used to be worse.

I'm legal, barely. While I don't have a registration number, the Department did issue me with an HR Card that classifies me as C43/204. The C43 is translated as "rural work. population under 5,000. casual. speech-free environment." My parents asked what the 204 meant, and were told, Don't ask. Without a registration number, I might as well be an illegal. My whole family always knew I couldn't stick around long. It's always been a fact among us that when I'm a decent age (ten), I would leave, to go "foraging." The details are my problem, but the reality for them is my disappearance. The stress on the family otherwise would be too great.

When Lucy's registration fully passes, as when all samers are fully registered, the Department issues the parents their Parents Producers Number - theoretically valuable, even if they still have to go to the back of the line to submit for another project. The feeling is that these will be increasingly harder to obtain. My parents have been told that there is some sort of black market for these numbers, but wouldn't know what to do with theirs if they wanted to. But they don't, and know that they're too old now for it to be any good for them, so they've talked about the whole thing like some ugly but old photo to be stored in a damp drawer, curling and forgotten. Still, it's necessary for Tommy's files.

I'm seven now. Lucy is four. And tonight, my parents are a bit worried. They're in bed now, but I'm in my room with the light on, so I can talk to you.

When we all came home after eating, they all sat down to watch the Thursday Night Comedy Show. Every minute or so I could hear their laugher in time with the show. I was sitting at the table near the kitchen, as usual. My parents never liked me to disappear into my room, as it was unnatural. I don't remember what it was that I'd just thought through. I've got several interests at the moment, but I limit myself to two developments an evening. More than that, and I tend to get a little excited and mumble a bit to myself, and the effect on the family is too great.

They were laughing. The show was halfway through. I know because that sequence where people do funny things with their bodies was on. A man stuck quarters up his nose last week. For days afterward, Tommy tried unsuccessfully to store dimes in his ears. His current ambition is to be on that show one day.

I'd looked up momentarily, between projects, and someone was pulling handfuls of loose skin from his face.

Tommy was beating his hands against his chair, making choking noises. This was his favorite part.

My parents chuckled a bit condescendingly. They'd hoped to be above this, but missed.

Lucy got out of her chair and wandered around the back of the room, pacing with her head lowered. This was the first time in her three years of viewing that Lucy had ever taken her eyes off the screen for longer than it took to sneeze. My mother got of her own chair to see what was wrong. My father turned around in his big chair, his eyes steady, his forehead creased up the middle. Tommy suddenly found his own lap fascinating.

The show laughter, like a museum clock, ticked on.

My mother stopped Lucy in midpace, and gave her a cuddle. "Her forehead feels a bit warm," she said, and my father got up from his chair.

"Come on, honey," he said to Lucy. "It's a big school day tomorrow. Why don't I tuck you into bed with a story?"

"Daddy -" Lucy said, as my father scooped her up in the air with a "Weeee."

My mother got up and made a slow rush for Tommy, hitting her knee against the sofa on the way. Tommy was already out of his chair, and my mother and he sang the "Better with Beacon" ditty loudly all the way to his room, where she was unusually chatty putting him to bed, and Tommy was unusually ready for sleep at that hour.

Over the din, Lucy opened her mouth again, but she didn't have to yell, because my father put her down, and put his head down close to hers.

"Let's play whispers," he said.

"Daddy," Lucy whispered, but she looked cranky at all the interruptions.

"What if, instead of the man pulling at his face, the show showed the people laughing at the man who pulled his face."

"Why would they show that, honey?"

"Because it would be funnier," Lucy said. She put her thumb in her mouth, something she quit doing when she was six months old.

My father was still as an old tree.

Lucy's thumb came out of her mouth with a pop caused by a gust of tinkly laughter. "And Daddy, what if the people watching -"

"Oooh," he scratched his head like Mr. Monkey, Lucy's favorite character. He looked at his watch like it was a bird that just flew onto his wrist. "It's ice cream time again."

Ice cream is Mr. Monkey's favorite food, and Lucy's too, but it didn't work. In fact, her chubby face mottled.

"Daaddy. Lissen. What if the people watching -"

My father knelt in front of her again, and took her hands. "Lucy. It wouldn't be funny."

She took her hands out of her fathers and folded them in front of her chest, grown-up style. "Why? You don't know."

I caught my father's eye.

"Why don't we find out what silly Edward has been doing?" he suggested. That was the private fun the family - actually Tommy and Lucy - had daily. I'd tell them briefly what my projects were that day, and my parents would lead the laughter.

It wasn't at me. It was with me they said - but also - it's the family joke program, for no one else. Tommy and Lucy knew this was so, and obeyed. If Tommy were older, he would have beaten me up, but reserved his interactions to laughing with me when our parents were around, and at me, with Lucy or by himself.

By the time I finished lightly telling Lucy and my father my evening's projects, he chuckled, just like at the face-puller. Lucy laughed her tinkly little girl laugh. She'd forgotten her thoughts about the show.

With a tickle-tickle session all the way down the hall, Lucy was easily put to bed. I gathered up my papers and went to my room, and a few minutes later my parents came in to kiss me goodnight.

Their room is next to mine. It is now three o'clock in the morning, and I can still hear them talking.

Tonight was Friday Drama of the Week on Channel 7. A big treat for Tommy and Lucy, as it's the night to stay up late till the movie finishes.

This one, "Disaster at Sea," had been advertised for weeks, and we'd come home from eating in time for my father to make a bowl of popcorn, and my mother to hand out big checked handkerchiefs to Tommy and Lucy, and arm both herself and my father with a box of tissues. They all had a last trip to the bathroom, and the movie began.

It was about a ship that sank with most of its passengers. Everything had been going fine. My parents each had a pile of used tissues beside them, and my father was blowing his nose, my mother making little sobby noises. Tommy was bawling so loud that my father had to up the sound to hear the screaming.

Lucy started laughing. "Look at that silly woman," she pointed. She opened her mouth to say more, but rolled off her chair onto the floor, unable to watch, she was giggling so much.

My father clicked the screen off, but Tommy had already left for his room. In less time than it would have taken to fetch it from the closet, my mother had the fever strip against Lucy's head. Her mouth tightened as she read, "Normal."

My mother put Lucy to bed, and it took a while before she joined us again at the table.

My father looked at me, and his eyes asked. My father is a doctor. My mother is a human resource assessor.

"Flu?" I offered, and my mother laughed mirthlessly before he could even second my suggestion.

"Good try, you two, but she's not just minor aberrating. I've never seen anyone go this far. Except Edward."

"What happens to your reports, Grace?"

"Minor aberrators go for treatment, then return to unit. Serious cases like Lucy's lateralizing, I just report. I've never asked..."

Suddenly my mother couldn't talk. Only blubbery sounds came out, as her face crumpled behind her hands.

Saturday night now. Lucy and I spent it playing in my room. While the laughter reached out from the living room, I was to do my bit, amusing her with a report of my day's projects.

She didn't laugh. Not only that, but on the second project, she offered a solution I'd thought of myself, but discarded.

Tonight my parents' laughter was so perfectly in synch with the program that it was hard to distinguish, except that I know my father's little snort, and it was particularly sharp, and my mother coughs at the end of her program laughs.

Tommy pounded his chair and made his choking noises as usual, but maybe a bit more uproariously.

I put Lucy to bed myself, after reading from her favorite storybook. But she didn't finish any of the memorized phrases, or sing the song at the end.

Tommy was in bed by nine. When my parents walked, hand in hand, back to the living room, I followed. They were waiting for me at the table. My mother primed my father to be ready, but now I was the expert. I knew more about full personality peels than even my mother. After all, she was not meant to be exposed to them any more than Tommy. But, for me, finding them somewhere constituted the bulk of my hopes for my future.

I told them the bad news. Part of the shock was the fact that it just couldn't happen. My parents had followed every Guideline to make both Tommy and Lucy. Pending registration of samers was viewed as a time-and-money costly hassle - a clunky administrative hurdle. Just more money for jam for the Government, and a way to keep the public service union happy. No one seriously contemplated a samer not being a samer. This time no one could blame the Department. Not with a me-too.

"Just how infectious is it, Grace?" my father asked.

My mother shrugged stiffly. "I don't know. Never had a chance to find out."

It's Monday night now. My father visited Lucy's preschool this morning. "Lucy has an attack of something viral," he told her teacher. "I'm keeping her home until I deem that she is not infectious."

Mrs. Bradley was very pleased with my father's social responsibility. She said she wished all parents would be as considerate. And she gave my father a coloring book for Lucy to work on.

Tommy was told that Lucy was sick, and to keep away from her. Also, not to talk with his friends about Lucy's virus, or he would have to stay at home, too. Tommy liked meeting his friends at school more than anything else, so could be relied on to shut up.

My father canceled all his appointments for the week - easy with a virus in the family. My mother called in sick.

We met, the three of us, at the table after Tommy's bus picked him up. Lucy was in bed surrounded by her stuffed animals. My father had given her some spiked cherry syrup. She'd sleep for the day.

"When can you take her?" my mother asked. They were holding hands, my father's face as wet as my mother's.

"Now. As soon as you'd like," I said.

"Do you think we should move?" my father asked me.

"It would give Tommy the best chance. At least he's got his registration number. Somewhere new, you could be just an amateur couple with one registered. There's enough of those around."

My mother looked at my father. "Do you think we could bring it off, George?" She didn't look like she could.

"Yes, if we go to, say, a place like where your folks were born - someplace really hick. Like where Edward is registered to work. Or instead, we could try a big city. Maybe I could get a hospital job. We'd have to live -"

"Lower, I know that George," my mother cut in, a bit high in the voice. "I've already thought of all that. It's Tommy I'm worried about. Suppose he tells."

"Look, Grace," my father answered, but then ran out of words.

They looked angry with each other. And then they both looked to me.

If they weren't so flustered, it would have been obvious. "Tommy hates being left out of anything," I reminded them. "He goes to school just to see his friends. He thinks I'm embarrassing. He doesn't want me to drag him down, so his friends don't even know I exist. The only time he thinks of me is when I'm around and he can have fun at me. He'll feel the same with Lucy if you tell him to, but you won't have to tell him what his friends would think if they knew about his brother and his sister. He wants to fit in more than eat."

Both of my parents sat back in their chairs. They knew Tommy. His conformance was still model-perfect, even to his reaction to Lucy's strangeness. My father gave my mother a kiss on the cheek and smiled. "He was a successful product."

My mother leaned over awkwardly to put her head on his shoulder. "I'm sure you're right."

It was settled. I would take Lucy within a few days, just enough time to make sure Tommy looked down on her at least as much as he did me.

In the meantime, I would formulate my plans. The hardest thing was my parents getting used to the idea of losing Lucy. They'd had years to come to terms with me.

Lucy is still in the unaware stage, and it would be too dangerous to break that until she's far enough away (on some pretext up to me to figure out).

There was a good deal of crying this morning and early afternoon. My parents consoled each other in their bedroom while Lucy dreamed in her drugged sleep, and I sat at the table - and thought.

At 3:30, as usual, the bus rumbled past our house, and at 3:32, Tommy banged through the front door and threw his bag on the floor. He always made for the fridge, but today he detoured to the table and took a chair.

The skin around his left eye looked like a bruised banana. "Edward, why is everyone at school so dumb?"

We talked for a long time. The door to my parents' room opened but Tommy didn't notice. I made a hand movement, and the door shut again. There was a new confusion of noise from there. But again, it didn't catch Tommy's attention.

About 8 p.m., I fed Tommy, and shortly after, put him to bed.

Then it was time for my parents.

When I told them about Tommy, my parents looked at each other angry-faced.

"Is it you or me or both of us, Grace?" my father said, putting both of their thoughts into words.

I figured we'd find out soon enough.

"Get some sleep," I said and I kissed them both.

I've got a busy night ahead. Tomorrow, I'll have to take them all. I have to admit, I'm kind of excited, even though I don't know where we'll all end up. But once they've all peeled, I might find those people I need who can think.

© Anna Tambour 2000, 2001.
This story first appeared in HMS Beagle: The BioMedNet Magazine, Issue 92 (December 8, 2000), and
is reprinted in Anna Tambour's Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales &, published in September 2003 by Prime; ISBN: 1894815947.

Monterra's Deliciosa & Other Tales & by Anna Tambour
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