Maximum Light

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By the middle of the twenty-first century the worldwide fertility rate has declined nearly eighty percent. No one knows why. Now the average age in the United States is fifty-four, and children are treasured and spoilt by those lucky enough to have them and coveted by the vast majority who can't. Maximum Light is the story of three people from different sections of this very different American society. Nick Clementi is seventy-five years old, a doctor, and an advisor to the Congressional Advisory Committee for ...
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Overview

By the middle of the twenty-first century the worldwide fertility rate has declined nearly eighty percent. No one knows why. Now the average age in the United States is fifty-four, and children are treasured and spoilt by those lucky enough to have them and coveted by the vast majority who can't. Maximum Light is the story of three people from different sections of this very different American society. Nick Clementi is seventy-five years old, a doctor, and an advisor to the Congressional Advisory Committee for Medical Crises. Shana Walders is twenty-six and has just finished her two years in the National Service Corps. Cameron Atuli is twenty-eight, a principal dancer with the National Ballet, and has willingly had a portion of his memory removed; what it was and why he did it, he doesn't know. In her last days of National Service, Shana witnesses something so horrible that it is immediately brought to the attention of Clementi's committee, but so shocking that even the committee would like to believe that it can't be true. And what Cameron can't remember may be the key to the mystery.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Maximum Light is a complex, thought-provoking novel set in a future where most of the human race has become sterile, and a handful of desperate people conduct forbidden experiments in genetic engineering.
—Don D'Ammassa
Bookman News
A suitable candidate for best book of the year.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set in a near-future world beset by a declining birthrate and chemical pollution, where children are cherished not only for their increasing rarity but also for their earning power (a quarter of the American population is over 70), Kress's (Beggar's Ride) new novel finds the Hugo- and Nebula-winning author (for the novella "Beggars in Spain") again pitting social activism against wrongheaded or shortsighted thinking. The story is related by three intertwined narrators: Shana Walders, a teenager whose dearest desire is to enjoy an army career; Nick Clementi, an elderly, terminally ill physician who hopes to be allowed to die peacefully and with dignity; and 22-year-old Cameron Atuli, a gay ballet dancer who, for reasons integral to the plot, has had his memory wiped. These disparate individuals come together after Shana accidentally discovers monkeys that have had human faces "vivifactured" (genetically grafted) onto them. Though illegal, these creatures are highly prized in a world where healthy children are frighteningly rare and genetic research (the only apparent cure for much of society's ills) is against the law. Kress's plot moves briskly and her premise grips, but her characters' interactions with government agencies come off as unrealistic or simplistic at times, and the novel's moderately happy ending seems forced. (Jan.)
VOYA - Meg Wilson
Maximum Light provides a grim look at America's future, specifically the year 2034. The aging population and severely decreased birth rate, due to chemicals interacting with human neurotransmitters, have changed society drastically. Young people are considered a pampered national resource, the elderly their huge burden, and infertility drives couples to extreme measures to find children, or child-substitutes, to love. Illegal "vivifacture" labs have found a nasty niche in the black market, stealing fertile reproductive organs and attaching cloned human faces and hands to live chimps-anything to provide desperate parents with children. Told from three separate first-person points of view, the story moves at a rapid pace. Shana Walders is a tough young chick eager to join the Army, but held back by her youthful brashness. Profanity, implicit sex, and 2034 slang help to define her character; however, Shana is a very dynamic character who comes of age and matures by the end of the book. Cameron Atuli is a homosexual ballet dancer who has had part of his memory erased. Dr. Nick Clementi is a "moldy oldie" doctor who is determined to call the government's attention to the real cause of the infertility crisis. Their stories intertwine in a complex, intriguing mystery which Kress brings to a satisfying conclusion. Science fiction fans will enjoy this creative, original glimpse into Earth's future. Young readers who do the math will catch the irony that they are the "moldy oldies" in the society of 2034. Because of the complexity of the plot, scientific and medical vocabulary and concepts, and maturity of the characters, I would recommend this adult novel for older YAs. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses, Will appeal with pushing, Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
Locus
"Maximum Light is a marvelous workof SF, at once thrilling suspenseful, intelligent, and profound. Don't miss it."
The Denver Post
"Kress is an expert at realistically looking at how we might alter our species in exciting and interesting books. She brings original, diverse characters together to explore these important issues."
The Edmonton Journal
"Kress has made a name for herslef in the '90's... Maximum Light is a good, fast read, with a serious point to make about the biological consequences of our politician's and busineses' continuing denial that pollution may be destroying our genetic heritage."
Chronicle Science Fiction
"Kress has created another of her richly conceived futures and some unique and interesting characters to act as our guides into the world of her imagination."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812540376
  • Publisher: Doherty, Tom Associates, LLC
  • Publication date: 1/15/1999
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 4.25 (w) x 6.75 (h) x 0.65 (d)

Meet the Author

Nancy Kress was born and raised in upstate New York, where she spent most of her childhood either reading or playing in the woods. She earned a bachelor's and master's degree in education, as well as an M.A. in English. While she was pregnant with the second of her two sons, she started writing fiction. She had never planned on becoming a writer, but staying at home full-time with infants left her time to experiment.

In 1990 she went full-time as an SF writer. The first thing she wrote in this new status was the novella version of Beggars In Spain, which won both the Hugo and the Nebula Award. She is the author of more than twenty books, including more than a dozen novels of science fiction and fantasy, as well as three story collections, and two books on writing. Of her most recent novels, Probability Space (Tor, 2002) won the John W. Campbell Award for Best SF novel. Her short fiction has appeared in all the usual places, garnering her one Hugo and three Nebula Awards. Her work has been translated into Swedish, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Japanese, Croatian, Lithuanian, Romanian, Greek, Hebrew, and Russian. She is also the monthly "Fiction" columnist for Writer's Digest Magazine and she teaches writing regularly at various places, including Clarion and The Writing Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She currently resides in Rochester, New York.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Shana Walders


By the time they truck us to the staging area, which is the parking lot of some old church, the train has been burning for two days. It's one of new Korean maglevs that isn't supposed to derail ever, no matter what, but there it is in some DC suburb, burning like a son-of-a-bitch. Carrying some sort of fuel canisters; somebody says that it could burn for a week if the scientist-types don't figure out what to do. Which I guess they haven't, because the area is evacuated and glow-marked, and we jump off the truck a couple thousand feet away from the wreck. Other trucks are bringing in civvies, some of them crying.

"You have entered an area electronically cordoned by the United States Army," the truck is saying over and over. "Unless you are authorized to be in this area, turn around immediately and leave. You have entered an area electronically—" My NS sergeant reaches into the cab and slaps it off. She goes to report in to a regular-army sergeant, so I sort of slouch over to a soldier and say, "On. What we got?"

He gives me that look they all do, the Who-let-you-put-on-a-uniform-and-by-the way-you're-not-real-army-anyway-asshole look. But I ignore that and repeat, "What we got here?" and this time I smile at him, the just-a-hint-of-promise smile, and he don't resist. They never do. I'm a gorgeous kid.

"We're taking the evacuees back in, in twos. For their pets."

"Their pets?"

"Yeah, sweetheart. The army's just one compassionate subrun." He laughs, but I don't get the joke. They got a lot of jokes like that, theregulars do, to keep us NS's on the outside. I don't care. We're going in.

"Got your adrenaline up, huh?" the soldier says. "Your little titties erect?" They're not supposed to talk like that to us—such fragile youngsters like us, just doing the year of National Service we owe our country —but I don't care. I can handle soldiers. And my titties are anything but little.

I laugh, and the soldier moves closer. His eyes gleam. He isn't that old, and not bad looking, but I'm not in the mood. We're going in.

"Shana," my sergeant calls, "over here. You and Joe hand out gear, help the civilians put it on. Send them by two's over there."

"On. You aren't keeping me here, are you?" I say. "Instead of going in?"

The sergeant sighs. They handle us with velvet gloves in the NS, not like at all like the rough stuff in the real army. We're a precious resource, after all, us kids. Fewer of us every year, what with the fertility crisis. It's all right by me. I smile at my sergeant. That smile.

"Oh, all right, you can go in," she says. "But first get some of these people in gear. Fall to."

I fall to, shouting at Joe to bring over two civvies, pulling two hazard suits off the back of the supply truck. The civilians are old, of course, but not real feeble fusties, probably no more than fifty. They climb into the suits with no trouble. The woman, though, don't want to put the helmet on. A lot of people are like that, scared to seal off their heads. Even some NS's. She stands with her gray hair—she don't dye it, God knows why not, I sure would—blowing into her eyes, which are red and swollen.

"It's my cat," she says, almost like she's apologizing to me. "Widdy. Short for Kitty-Widdy, embarrassing as that is." She smiles at me, almost begging. For what? I don't know her cat from dogshit.

"Please put on the helmet, ma'am," I say. I'm getting a real kick out of sounding in charge, even if I'm really not.

"When I left the house to go shopping, Widdy only had a little water left in her bowl," the woman pleads. "And that was two days ago!"

"Yes, ma'am. Please put on the helmet."

"I was out shopping. I wasn't even at home when the train derailed!"

"Yes, ma'am. The helmet, ma'am."

"I...can't."

"Then please remove your suit, ma'am, so someone else can wear it to rescue their pet." I'm making this up as I go along. I love it.

"I...can't. What about Widdy?" She looks wildly around, like maybe there's somebody else to go rescue Widdy. I guess she don't see nobody, because suddenly she jams the helmet over her head. I reach out and seal it for her. Behind the faceplate, she's crying.

I hope I never get that scared of life.

I point toward the regular army, and she shuffles off in that direction. Joe and I pull two more sets of gear off the truck and the sergeant sends another two civvies shuffling toward us. This time they are moldy oldies, barely strong enough to pull on the damn suits. All around the church parking lot, NS teams are suiting up civvies. I watch carefully, the whole procedure, to be sure I know how to work it so I actually get sent in. I'm holding my sergeant to her promise.

Hanging over the parking lot is a huge holosign with the usual government garbage: SHARED RESPONSIBILITY: TOGETHER WE STAND. Shimmery holo people of all different ages, holding hands and smiling at each other like morons. Suddenly thick clouds of black smoke blow in our direction, blotting out the sign. I don't put on my helmet unless I absolutely have to—I'd rather soak it all in undigitalized—but for a moment I can't see the signs, the trucks, the civvies, the fancy stained-glass window in the front of the church, with its blue and red figures of some ancient saints older than rocks. The smell is awful—like burning tires mixed with rotted garbage. Then the wind shifts and the smoke blows in the other direction.


* * *


I don't get to go in until afternoon. They let the regular army do it for hours, truckload after truckload of civvies, probably to be sure it's safe for us precious little NS's. Us kids have to do a year of National Service to learn selfless dedication to the good of the group, blah blah, but nobody wants us to get killed. By noon, when nobody's been blown up and the eight regular soldiers are due for rotating breaks, they let u s have a turn. I'm right there with the first bunch.

I'm paired with a soldier who, behind his faceplate, looks in his forties or fifties, a career soldier, all business. We jump in the back of a truck with eighteen suited, scared civvies all thinking about their dogs and cats and parakeets. The truck rumbles along toward the burning wreck.

The soldier briefs me. "Nobody goes in closer than eight hundred feet. Nobody. This lot swore they all lived farther away than that, but they could be lying. You escort your charge in and out of the house. They get four minutes, you time it. Grab the pet and out. Nothing else, this is just about pets. If they can't grab their animal in four minutes, out anyway. By force, if you have to. They even teach you kids to use your stun gun?"

"Yes, sir," I say, ignoring the insult.

"Just the pets," he repeats. "No money, pictures, terminals, furniture, jewelry. And don't fucking get yourself injured."

"No, sir." I flash him a big smile. He stares at me a minute, then looks away, his mouth twisted in disgust. I don't care. I'm too damn happy.

The smoke gets worse, and pretty soon we can see flames. That train is burning like the hell the preacher used to try to tell us about, when I was in the government school. Another glow marker, waist high, with the field set to bright yellow, snakes along 800 feet from the maglev track. The houses beyond the marker are standing, all right, but I wouldn't bet much on that if any fuel canisters blew. What is that stuff, anyway? Probably some long unpronounceable name only stewdees would care about.

We stop about a hundred feet from the marker. Eighteen civvies, three soldiers, three NSs. The sergeant gets the first six civvies off the truck and running toward houses, each civvie with a soldier or NS. Some of the civvies could barely shamble along. Mine is never going to win any marathons, but he moves pretty fast for a mosstooth. I trot along beside him, parallel to the marker glow. Other pairs disappear into the smoke in other directions, or into houses, which are the little row-jobbies you get in places like this. I see one soldier-with-civvie come out almost immediately, followed by a big dog barking its fool head off with doggie joy.

We trot on. And on. Where does this guy live? We're almost at the end of the houses. Beyond are just big gray windowless buildings, warehouses or factories or something. There wouldn't be any pets in those. Would there?

All of a sudden the civvie puts on a big burst of speed. Son of a bitch! He's away from me before I can get out my stun gun, which I hadn't been expecting to even need. Not to rescue a fucking kitty! The mosstooth races away from me and right through the glow marker. When I follow him through, there's a brief burst of pain in my chest, but nothing my suit can't handle. We're inside the explosion zone. I'm gaining on him, but not by much, when he runs into the nearest big gray building.

And locks the door behind him.

I waste precious seconds pounding on it like some kind of stewdee. Then I run around the outside of the building. In the back is a loading dock, but it's locked, too. So is the emergency exit. How come these people had time to lock everything up tighter than a religious virgin?

Then I see my guy running out of a little side door. He don't expect to see me, clearly, since he almost runs into me. Which is how I get a good look at what he's carrying in his arms.

And I don't even draw my stun gun. I'm the one stunned. It's like I can't even move.

Until I realize what's going to happen next. Has to be. The guy has already disappeared into the smoke—he knows where he's going, all right, and how much time he has to get there. I don't. But I start running for everything I'm worth, away from the windowless building, and every second I'm farther away is a gift, a present, a fucking miracle. Another second I'm alive.

The building blows.

I dive behind somebody's brick barbecue—by this time I'm back among the houses—and crawl inside. It's got a metal cover to keep rain off the grill, because the grill is jammed with terra cotta dishes and wooden spoons and shit for cooking. The terra cotta shatters and rains down on me, but otherwise I'm okay. I cover my head and wait and, sure enough, the building explosion ignites the closest of the train cars and it blows, too.

Poisons. Toxins. Radiation? What is the stuff in those canisters?

I don't know and it wouldn't help me if I did. I'm screaming my throat raw until I notice and make myself stop it. The noise all around me is like the end of the world. The black smoke makes it impossible to see my own knees, even though I'm crouched so that my face is jammed up against them. I'm pretty sure I'm going to die. If all the train cars blow, I'm probably going to die.

But they don't, and I don't.

From the sound, only one car ignites, and I ran away from that direction. I can't remember if I ran back through the glow marker, out of the explosion zone. I didn't feel no marker. I don't feel nothing for a few more minutes, except the fact that I'm fucking alive. Then I crawl out of the barbecue pit and stand, wobbly.

My helmet switched itself to virtual vision, for better resolution. Around me it looks like a war movie, something from the action in South America. Houses burning, houses fallen down. The gray building just isn't there no more. Only rubble, and smoke, and noise that rings in my ears like it was far away instead of practically on top of me.

I wobble my way between the fires and back toward the staging area. Somewhere I've lost my direction because I approach the church parking lot sideways, from between two houses on its east side.

The parking lot don't even look real.

Old people everywhere, some still in suits without helmets, some out of suits, everybody smeared with soot so you can't tell if they're black or white or purple. And pets. A dead cat lying on the pavement, with a woman wailing over it, tears streaming through the wrinkles on her face. A live puppy, one foot crushed but wagging its tail like Christmas morning, while another rusty fusty cries over it. A big Labrador retriever racing around in circles, barking and barking. Cats spitting at the Lab. Vets with medical scanners crouching over dogs. A geezer holding an empty dog dish, just standing there gazing at it, never moving a muscle. The regular army soldiers trying to load the civvies back onto trucks: "It's not safe here, sir. Get on the truck immediately. Leave the dead animal, please—"

Nobody listens. Vid crews maneuver their robocams, people wail and shout. And closest to my side of the parking lot, a huge sooty parrot digs wicked claws into the shoulder of a grinning man who don't even wince, the bird squawking over and over, "Access granted. Here we go! Access granted. Here we go! Access granted—" And in the distance but coming closer, the scream of more fire-fighters and equipment arriving by air.

My sergeant spots me. She's crossing the parking lot at double time, and she glimpses me between the buildings and stops dead. Her face changes completely, and I know what I'm looking at. Relief. She thought I was dead, and that she was the one who lost a precious NS, and that she would have to pay for that real hard and real long. Only here I am, alive. Never mind that no civvie isn't with me—the civvie isn't nineteen years old and a national resource.

"Walders!" she snaps at me, and I know just how upset-relieved she is. Usually they call us by our first names. "Report in!"

And I do. I wobble forward, on knees made of water, and not because I almost died. Not because I lost my civvie, either, and fucked up the first hazardous-duty NS assignment I ever got. My knees wobble because I have to report in, a full report, including exactly what I saw the running civvie carry away with him. And I don't know, can't even imagine, what will happen to me after that.


Chapter Two


Nick Clementi


It's the same dream. I sit beside my mother by the duck pond, throwing our lunch to the ducks. "See, Nicky, the babies swimming behind their mommies! If we were duckies, you'd swim right behind me and Jennifer and Allen." "I want to swim in front of Jen'ver and Allen!" I say, and my mother laughs. She is very young herself, and beautiful, sitting barefoot on the grass. The ducks fight over the bits of peanut-butter-and-jelly, and quack and shrill and shriek and become my wrister.

I rolled over in bed and said, "Reception."

"A call, Dr. Clementi," said the MedCenter computer in its pleasant, androgynous voice. "Code Four. Mrs. Paula Schaeffer. Complaints are: tingling in left leg, lethargy, irritability. Instructions, please?"

"Schedule a visit in the morning," I said, probably as irritably as the would-be patient. If the computer decided the call was a Code Four, it could wait. Tingling in the leg could be anything, was probably nothing . Lethargy, irritability—Mrs. Schaeffer always had those, as far as I could see. She was 87 years old, for God's sake, and it was two o'clock in the morning. Did she expect to be dancing a jig and planning a party? But they were all afraid everything meant a stroke.

The wrister had woken Maggie. "Nick? Do you have to go out?"

"No. Just another Fretful Fossil." Our private name for them—even though we ourselves were both in our mid-seventies. Or maybe because. Joke about it, taste it, get used to it in small silly references to other people, and it will be easier to live with. Mithridates, he died old.

Maggie rolled to nestle, spoon-fashion, against my back. Buttons on her nightdress poked into my skin.

"Your clothing is attacking me again."

"Sorry, love." She shifted position.

"Not good enough. Take it off."

"You're a dirty old man, Nick." And then, "Nick?"

It was going to be a good one, a hard one. I could feel it.

She was light and sweet in my arms. In her forties and fifties Maggie had gained weight, a hot exciting cushion underneath me, but in her sixties and seventies it had all come off again, and I could feel her delicate bones. And that fragrance—Maggie always had a fragrance to her, a unique odor, when she was ready. She was ready now. Her thin arms tightened around me, and I slid in, and it was indeed one of the good ones.

"Oh, nice, nice," Maggie said, as she had said for fifty-one years now.

"I love you, Maggie."

"Uhmmmmmmm...oh, yes, Nick, just like that."

She always knew what she wanted. For fifty-one years, I've been grateful it was me.

Afterward, the wrister rang again. Maggie dozed, one leg flung over mine, a stray white curl tickling my nose. I must have slept, too; morning light filtered through the curtains. Maggie woke and shifted. "Damn it, why can't they let you sleep? Don't answer it; it's probably just a tingling in Paula Schaeffer's other leg."

"Unlike what's tingling on you," I teased.

"Don't answer it, Nick."

"Reception," I said to the wrister.

"Probably a tingling in Paula Schaeffer's eyelashes."

But it wasn't. It was Jan Suleiman, clerk for the Committee, and a long-time friend. Often Jan made sure I heard things some people would prefer I not hear. I listened, and slowly sat up, staring into the darkness across our bedroom.

"Nick?" Maggie said. "What is it?"

When the call was finished, I told her. I always told Maggie everything, even things I should not. She was absolutely trustworthy. I told her about my remaining patients, about the economic struggles of the Doctor s for Humanity Volunteer MedCenter, about the political struggles at the Congressional Advisory Committee for Medical Crises. There was only one thing I hadn't told her yet, and I would, when the time was right. So no w I repeated to her what had been allegedly seen yesterday, in the maglev explosion northeast of the city in Lanham. Then I held her for a long minute before getting up, and dressing, and calling a car for the ride from Bethesda to the Hill.


* * *


The permanent Congressional Advisory Committee for Medical Crises met in an anonymous and unpretentious office building. There were good reasons for this. First, there were so many Congressional Advisory Committee s in these days of perpetual crisis that the government buildings were always full of anxious huddles of legislators, scientists, lobbyists, military officers, bureaucrats, toxicologists, industrialists, educators, doctors, economists, and activists. But an anonymous office building was also less likely to be watched by the press, who would be premature at this point. Everybody thought so, except me. I thought the press was long overdue.

Still, I could see the other committee members' point: much of the press still dealt in inflammation and hysteria, especially about the aftermath of the Tipping Point. They had a lot to answer for, although they probably never will.

But the main reason for the anonymous office building was the secret tunnel system from the anonymous parking garage two blocks away.

They built for secrecy a decade ago, when they could afford to build at all. Well, they had to. It was right in the middle of the Tipping Point, when the looming financial crisis of the US government wasn't merely looming any more, and the slow worldwide decline in viable sperm suddenly wasn't slow anymore, and the backlash against genetic engineering weren't just theoretical anymore, and the coming bankruptcy of elderly entitlements wasn't just coming anymore: it was all here. Along with the riots and the tax rebellions and the genetic laws and the entire destructive chaos of the Tipping Point, those two painful years before the president use d martial law to restore order. A lot of otherwise unreticent people don't say what they did during those two years. In Washington, some of them used secret tunnels to do it.

A few blocks before the parking garage, I saw the child. This wasn't a good part of Washington, which had so few good parts left. Litter blew between the buildings, some of which had burned down, more of which were boarded up. The May night had been mild, and old people slept on sidewalks and fire escapes and in doorways, wrapped in coats and blankets. It was a city of the elderly—like practically every other city.

One in four Americans was over seventy. There were only 1.4 taxpaying workers to support each "retiree," even with the wretched non-living-level subsidies most elderly received. The number of "very senior citizens, " those over eighty-five, had quadrupled in the last fifty years. The global birthrate was less than twenty percent of what it had been a century ago. In some countries it had dropped to five percent. In the relative absence of children, the world had grown old.

We drove past the huddled sleeping forms. Past the holosigns, the most visible aspect of Project Patriot, bright cavorting shadows whose captions urged SHARED RESPONSIBILITY and THE SOCIAL CONTRACT=YOUR GUARANTEE OF A GOOD FUTURE! Past the broken bottles and drug discards and human shit—the usual. Plus, of course, the rats, bolder and more aggressive than rats had ever been in the entire history of man. I knew why, but no on e on the committee would let me tell them.

And in the middle of the early-morning street, dressed only in a pink tunic, a brown-skinned toddler with huge dark eyes and long black hair topped with a crisp pink ribbon.

"Stop the car," I said to the driver, who was already screeching to a halt, as startled as I was. This did not happen. Washington was at the bottom of America's regional-variation curves in sperm count—the bottom for motility and normalcy and volume—and thus for birth rate. Artificial conception, in all its varieties, was still too expensive for most couples, now that the health-insurance industry had crashed. And cloning, that had once seemed the hope of the world, had turned into a bitter joke.

You could clone worms, frogs, sheep, elephants. But not humans. A cloned, unfertilized human egg obediently divided five times, into thirty-two cells. And then it went on dividing, instead of first gastrulating in the first of the many crucial folds that lead to cell differentiation. In cloned eggs, no cell differentiation occurred. Ever. You ended up not with bone cells and skin cells and muscle cells but with a monstrous ball of cells all the same, the homogenous mass growing more and more huge until somebody killed it. Researchers attributed this to subtle disruption of the embryo's chemical polarity gradients, although nobody had yet f igured out the exact mechanism. They only knew the results. Cloning could not provide the infants the world craved.

And so children were scarce and precious; they were not allowed to turn up half-naked and alone in the middle of filthy streets. Especially not children with no visible birth defects. There were a great many infertile couples who would kill for this little girl.

She looked up at me without fear, and put two fingers in her mouth.

"Hello," I said, through the powered-down window. Beside me, the driver drew his gun. Children as bait were not unknown to the truly desperate. "What's your name?"

"Rosaria," she said around the two fingers, and started to cry. I got out of the car.

"Why are you crying, Rosaria?"

"Abuela din't dress me." She lifted the edge of her tunic to show me her naked legs and genitals. Hastily I pushed the cloth back down again. If this got caught on robocam...HILL SCIENTIST CAUGHT MOLESTING CHILD.

"Where's Abuela now, Rosaria?"

She pointed down a side street. The driver said, "Sir...I can call Child Protection..."

"Do that. And the cops." But meanwhile Rosaria was tugging on my hand and crying. "Rosaria, we have to wait for some people to come before we find Abuela."

"Abuela fall on the floor!"

I was a doctor. I went with her.

She led me a short way down the nearest side street. SHARE RESPONSIBILITY advised the building graffiti, along with FUCK RESPONSIBILITY! My driver stayed behind, talking on his wrister. I held the child's small hand as we climbed filthy, crumbling steps, through an apartment-house door half off its hinges, up a flight of stairs reeking of garlic and despair. The staircase wasn't equipped with even common reinforced railings and non-skid treads, let alone the aid-summoning sensory monitors that were guardian angels to the elderly rich. At the top of the stairs were three apartment doors, one wide open. Inside, an elderly Hispanic woman lay o n the clean floor, between two carefully darned chairs that had once been bright red. One look at her and I knew I was too late. Myocardial infarction, or burst aneurysm, or any of a dozen other causes of death common to the very old. In her hand she held Rosaria's pink tights.

I knelt before the child. "Rosaria...Abuela's dead. She's not in that body anymore. Do you understand?"

She nodded, although of course she couldn't understand. But she had stopped crying. Her big dark eyes were very soft, like the fur of black kittens. From behind the red chair she plucked a Grandma Ann doll, one of the toys distributed as part of Project Patriot. The young must be taught early to embrace the old. Rosaria clutched the doll tightly.

"Sweetheart, who else lives with—"

"Aaeeehhhaaaeeee!" A cry of anguish from a huge Hispanic woman hurtling through the door. "Abuelita! Aaeeehhhaaaeee!"

I stood up and stepped back.

The woman, who looked in only her early twenties, collapsed beside her dead grandmother and began wailing. She wore factory coveralls, stitched DONOVAN ELECTRONICS. After a few moments, I put a hand on her shoulder. "Ma'am..."

To my surprise, she leapt up from the body and whirled on me.

"Who you? What you doing here?"

"I'm a doctor. I found Rosaria wandering in the street, she said her abuela had been dressing her..."

"In the street? You took her in the street?"

"No, I...she came out by herself. After your grandmother—great-grandother?—collapsed, I presume. I was—"

"You wasn't doing nothing! You hear me? We're just fine without no Child Protection!"

"I'm not from Child Protection. I—"

"You just leave us alone!"

She took a step toward me. Her eyes blazed with hatred. She was as tall as I was, twenty pounds heavier, and fifty years younger. I stepped back.

"I find somebody else to watch my Rosaria. You ain't going to take her away to give to some rich bitch whose husband's balls empty and whose test-tube fucking don't take. Bad enough I got to work two jobs to suppor t you old white farts, you ain't getting my child too!"

"Ma'am, you are—" I was going to say, blocking my pathway to the door. I don't know what she thought I was going to say. Her face suddenly crinkled horribly and she swung on me. Caught off balance, I went down, wildly thrusting out my left hand to arrest my fall. My fingers slammed into the floor. I felt two of them break.

Only one punch. She stood there, panting, horror at what she'd just done creeping slowly into her eyes, while Rosaria wailed and neighbors boiled into the hall and the scream of police flyers approached outside.

We looked at each other across the din—of noise, of my hand, of her dead grandmother who was Rosaria's sole caregiver, of her desperate fight to keep and care for her child from the affluent so hungry for it. Affluent for the most part as white as the old people this woman subsidized with nearly fifty percent of her paycheck. The essentially bankrupt government protected children, but did not fund day care. Kids should be cared for by their families, was the national mood. That was the responsible way. And if families couldn't, or wouldn't, care for their children—then give the kids to the rich white couples panting for them.

Still on the floor, I examined my fingers. Although I couldn't be sure without an x-ray, I guessed they were simple fractures. The siren stopped outside. I said softly, "Pick up Rosaria. And let me go tell the cops everything is under control."

She did. Out of fear, or hope, or maybe just not knowing what else to do. She stepped aside and picked up her daughter, who buried her head in her mother's neck and clung hard. I pushed past the scowling neighbors to greet the police, letting my hand dangle casually as if nothing were wrong with it, planning how to tell the cops there was a body here but no foul play. How to tell the Child Protection that, yes, Rosaria had no one to raise her while her overworked, overtaxed mother put in six ten-hour factory shifts a week because she needed the overtime—but that everything was under control, nothing here needed official intervention.

Everything was just fine.


Excerpted from Maximum Light by Nancy Kress. Copyright © 1998 by Nancy Kress. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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