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The Year's Best Science Fiction
Ninth Annual Collection
By Gardner Dozois
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1992 Gardner Dozois
All rights reserved.
BEGGARS IN SPAIN
Born in Buffalo, New York, Nancy Kress now lives with her family in Brockport, New York. She began to publish her elegant and incisive stories in the mid-seventies, and has since become a frequent contributor to Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, F & SF, Omni, Writer's Digest, and other major markets. Her books include the novels The Prince of Morning Bells, The Golden Grove, The White Pipes, and An Alien Light, and the collection Trinity and Other Stories. Her most recent book is the novel Brain Rose. Upcoming are a novel version of the following story and a new short story collection from Arkham House Publishers. Her story "Trinity" was in our Second Annual Collection; her "Out of All Them Bright Stars"—a Nebula winner—was in our Third Annual Collection; her "In Memoriam" was in our Sixth Annual Collection; her "The Price of Oranges" was in our Seventh Annual Collection; and her "Inertia" was in our Eighth Annual Collection.
Here, in what may well be her single best story to date (high praise indeed), she takes us to the near future for a hard-hitting, provocative look at the uneasy social consequences of difference.
With energy and sleepless vigilance go forward and give us victories. —Abraham Lincoln, to Major General Joseph Hooker, 1863
They sat stiffly on his antique Eames chairs, two people who didn't want to be here, or one person who didn't want to and one who resented the other's reluctance. Dr. Ong had seen this before. Within two minutes he was sure: the woman was the silently furious resister. She would lose. The man would pay for it later, in little ways, for a long time.
"I presume you've performed the necessary credit checks already," Roger Camden said pleasantly, "so let's get right on to details, shall we, doctor?"
"Certainly," Ong said. "Why don't we start by your telling me all the genetic modifications you're interested in for the baby."
The woman shifted suddenly on her chair. She was in her late twenties—clearly a second wife—but already had a faded look, as if keeping up with Roger Camden was wearing her out. Ong could easily believe that. Mrs. Camden's hair was brown, her eyes were brown, her skin had a brown tinge that might have been pretty if her cheeks had had any color. She wore a brown coat, neither fashionable nor cheap, and shoes that looked vaguely orthopedic. Ong glanced at his records for her name: Elizabeth. He would bet people forgot it often.
Next to her, Roger Camden radiated nervous vitality, a man in late middle age whose bullet-shaped head did not match his careful haircut and Italian-silk business suit. Ong did not need to consult his file to recall anything about Camden. A caricature of the bullet-shaped head had been the leading graphic of yesterday's on-line edition of the Wall Street Journal: Camden had led a major coup in cross-border data-atoll investment. Ong was not sure what cross-border data-atoll investment was.
"A girl," Elizabeth Camden said. Ong hadn't expected her to speak first. Her voice was another surprise: upper-class British. "Blonde. Green eyes. Tall. Slender."
Ong smiled. "Appearance factors are the easiest to achieve, as I'm sure you already know. But all we can do about 'slenderness' is give her a genetic disposition in that direction. How you feed the child will naturally—"
"Yes, yes," Roger Camden said, "that's obvious. Now: intelligence. High intelligence. And a sense of daring."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Camden—personality factors are not yet understood well enough to allow genet—"
"Just testing," Camden said, with a smile that Ong thought was probably supposed to be light-hearted.
Elizabeth Camden said, "Musical ability."
"Again, Mrs. Camden, a disposition to be musical is all we can guarantee."
"Good enough," Camden said. "The full array of corrections for any potential gene-linked health problem, of course."
"Of course," Dr. Ong said. Neither client spoke. So far theirs was a fairly modest list, given Camden's money; most clients had to be argued out of contradictory genetic tendencies, alteration overload, or unrealistic expectations. Ong waited. Tension prickled in the room like heat.
"And," Camden said, "no need to sleep."
Elizabeth Camden jerked her head sideways to look out the window.
Ong picked a paper magnet off his desk. He made his voice pleasant. "May I ask how you learned whether that genetic-modification program exists?"
Camden grinned. "You're not denying it exists. I give you full credit for that, Doctor."
Ong held onto his temper. "May I ask how you learned whether the program exists?"
Camden reached into an inner pocket of his suit. The silk crinkled and pulled; body and suit came from different social classes. Camden was, Ong remembered, a Yagaiist, a personal friend of Kenzo Yagai himself. Camden handed Ong hard copy: program specifications.
"Don't bother hunting down the security leak in your data banks, Doctor—you won't find it. But if it's any consolation, neither will anybody else. Now." He leaned suddenly forward. His tone changed. "I know that you've created twenty children so far who don't need to sleep at all. That so far nineteen are healthy, intelligent, and psychologically normal. In fact, better than normal—they're all unusually precocious. The oldest is already four years old and can read in two languages. I know you're thinking of offering this genetic modification on the open market in a few years. All I want is a chance to buy it for my daughter now. At whatever price you name."
Ong stood. "I can't possibly discuss this with you unilaterally, Mr. Camden. Neither the theft of our data—"
"Which wasn't a theft—your system developed a spontaneous bubble regurgitation into a public gate, have a hell of a time proving otherwise—"
"—nor the offer to purchase this particular genetic modification lies in my sole area of authority. Both have to be discussed with the Institute's Board of Directors."
"By all means, by all means. When can I talk to them, too?"
Camden, still seated, looked at him. It occurred to Ong that there were few men who could look so confident eighteen inches below eye level. "Certainly. I'd like the chance to present my offer to whoever has the actual authority to accept it. That's only good business."
"This isn't solely a business transaction, Mr. Camden."
"It isn't solely pure scientific research, either," Camden retorted. "You're a for-profit corporation here. With certain tax breaks available only to firms meeting certain fair-practice laws."
For a minute Ong couldn't think what Camden meant. "Fair-practice laws ..."
".... are designed to protect minorities who are suppliers. I know, it hasn't ever been tested in the case of customers, except for red-lining in Y-energy installations. But it could be tested, Doctor Ong. Minorities are entitled to the same product offerings as non-minorities. I know the Institute would not welcome a court case, Doctor. None of your twenty genetic beta-test families are either Black or Jewish."
"A court ... but you're not Black or Jewish!"
"I'm a different minority. Polish-American. The name was Kaminsky." Camden finally stood. And smiled warmly. "Look, it is preposterous. You know that, and I know that, and we both know what a grand time journalists would have with it anyway. And you know that I don't want to sue you with a preposterous case, just to use the threat of premature and adverse publicity to get what I want. I don't want to make threats at all, believe me I don't. I just want this marvelous advancement you've come up with for my daughter." His face changed, to an expression Ong wouldn't have believed possible on those particular features: wistfulness. "Doctor—do you know how much more I could have accomplished if I hadn't had to sleep all my life?"
Elizabeth Camden said harshly, "You hardly sleep now."
Camden looked down at her as if he had forgotten she was there. "Well, no, my dear, not now. But when I was young ... college, I might have been able to finish college and still support ... well. None of that matters now. What matters, Doctor, is that you and I and your board come to an agreement."
"Mr. Camden, please leave my office now."
"You mean before you lose your temper at my presumptuousness? You wouldn't be the first. I'll expect to have a meeting set up by the end of next week, whenever and wherever you say, of course. Just let my personal secretary, Diane Clavers, know the details. Anytime that's best for you."
Ong did not accompany them to the door. Pressure throbbed behind his temples. In the doorway Elizabeth Camden turned. "What happened to the twentieth one?"
"The twentieth baby. My husband said nineteen of them are healthy and normal. What happened to the twentieth?"
The pressure grew stronger, hotter. Ong knew that he should not answer; that Camden probably already knew the answer even if his wife didn't; that he, Ong, was going to answer anyway; that he would regret the lack of self-control, bitterly, later.
"The twentieth baby is dead. His parents turned out to be unstable. They separated during the pregnancy, and his mother could not bear the twenty-four-hour crying of a baby who never sleeps."
Elizabeth Camden's eyes widened. "She killed it?"
"By mistake," Camden said shortly. "Shook the little thing too hard." He frowned at Ong. "Nurses, Doctor. In shifts. You should have picked only parents wealthy enough to afford nurses in shifts."
"That's horrible!" Mrs. Camden burst out, and Ong could not tell if she meant the child's death, the lack of nurses, or the Institute's carelessness. Ong closed his eyes.
When they had gone, he took ten milligrams of cyclobenzaprine-III. For his back—it was solely for his back. The old injury hurting again. Afterward he stood for a long time at the window, still holding the paper magnet, feeling the pressure recede from his temples, feeling himself calm down. Below him Lake Michigan lapped peacefully at the shore; the police had driven away the homeless in another raid just last night, and they hadn't yet had time to return. Only their debris remained, thrown into the bushes of the lakeshore park: tattered blankets, newspapers, plastic bags like pathetic trampled standards. It was illegal to sleep in the park, illegal to enter it without a resident's permit, illegal to be homeless and without a residence. As Ong watched, uniformed park attendants began methodically spearing newspapers and shoving them into clean self-propelled receptacles.
Ong picked up the phone to call the President of Biotech Institute's Board of Directors.
* * *
Four men and three women sat around the polished mahogany table of the conference room. Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief, thought Susan Melling, looking from Ong to Sullivan to Camden. She smiled. Ong caught the smile and looked frosty. Pompous ass. Judy Sullivan, the Institute lawyer, turned to speak in a low voice to Camden's lawyer, a thin nervous man with the look of being owned. The owner, Roger Camden, the Indian chief himself, was the happiest-looking person in the room. The lethal little man—what did it take to become that rich, starting from nothing? She, Susan, would certainly never know—radiated excitement. He beamed, he glowed, so unlike the usual parents-to-be that Susan was intrigued. Usually the prospective daddies and mommies—especially the daddies—sat there looking as if they were at a corporate merger. Camden looked as if he were at a birthday party.
Which, of course, he was. Susan grinned at him, and was pleased when he grinned back. Wolfish, but with a sort of delight that could only be called innocent—what would he be like in bed? Ong frowned majestically and rose to speak.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think we're ready to start. Perhaps introductions are in order. Mr. Roger Camden, Mrs. Camden, are of course our clients. Mr. John Jaworski, Mr. Camden's lawyer. Mr. Camden, this is Judith Sullivan, the Institute's head of Legal; Samuel Krenshaw, representing Institute Director Dr. Brad Marsteiner, who unfortunately couldn't be here today; and Dr. Susan Melling, who developed the genetic modification affecting sleep. A few legal points of interest to both parties—"
"Forget the contracts for a minute," Camden interrupted. "Let's talk about the sleep thing. I'd like to ask a few questions."
Susan said, "What would you like to know?" Camden's eyes were very blue in his blunt-featured face; he wasn't what she had expected. Mrs. Camden, who apparently lacked both a first name and a lawyer, since Jaworski had been introduced as her husband's but not hers, looked either sullen or scared, it was difficult to tell which.
Ong said sourly, "Then perhaps we should start with a short presentation by Dr. Melling."
Susan would have preferred a Q&A, to see what Camden would ask. But she had annoyed Ong enough for one session. Obediently she rose.
"Let me start with a brief description of sleep. Researchers have known for a long time that there are actually three kinds of sleep. One is 'slow-wave sleep,' characterized on an EEC by delta waves. One is 'rapid-eye-movement sleep,' or REM sleep, which is much lighter sleep and contains most dreaming. Together these two make up 'core sleep.' The third type of sleep is 'optional sleep,' so-called because people seem to get along without it with no ill effects, and some short sleepers don't do it at all, sleeping naturally only 3 or 4 hours a night."
"That's me," Camden said. "I trained myself into it. Couldn't everybody do that?"
Apparently they were going to have a Q&A after all. "No. The actual sleep mechanism has some flexibility, but not the same amount for every person. The raphe nuclei on the brain stem—"
Ong said, "I don't think we need that level of detail, Susan. Let's stick to basics."
Camden said, "The raphe nuclei regulate the balance among neurotransmitters and peptides that lead to a pressure to sleep, don't they?"
Susan couldn't help it; she grinned. Camden, the laser-sharp ruthless financier, sat trying to look solemn, a third-grader waiting to have his homework praised. Ong looked sour. Mrs. Camden looked away, out the window.
"Yes, that's correct, Mr. Camden. You've done your research."
Camden said, "This is my daughter," and Susan caught her breath. When was the last time she had heard that note of reverence in anyone's voice? But no one in the room seemed to notice.
"Well, then," Susan said, "you already know that the reason people sleep is because a pressure to sleep builds up in the brain. Over the last twenty years, research has determined that's the only reason. Neither slow-wave sleep nor REM sleep serve functions that can't be carried on while the body and brain are awake. A lot goes on during sleep, but it can go on awake just as well, if other hormonal adjustments are made.
"Sleep once served an important evolutionary function. Once Clem Pre-Mammal was done filling his stomach and squirting his sperm around, sleep kept him immobile and away from predators. Sleep was an aid to survival. But now it's a left-over mechanism, like the appendix. It switches on every night, but the need is gone. So we turn off the switch at its source, in the genes."
Ong winced. He hated it when she oversimplified like that. Or maybe it was the light-heartedness he hated. If Marsteiner were making this presentation, there'd be no Clem Pre-Mammal.
Camden said, "What about the need to dream?"
"Not necessary. A left-over bombardment of the cortex to keep it on semi-alert in case a predator attacked during sleep. Wakefulness does that better."
"Why not have wakefulness instead then? From the start of the evolution?"
He was testing her. Susan gave him a full, lavish smile, enjoying his brass. "I told you. Safety from predators. But when a modern predator attacks—say, a cross-border data-atoll investor—it's safer to be awake."
Camden shot at her, "What about the high percentage of REM sleep in fetuses and babies?"
"Still an evolutionary hangover. Cerebrum develops perfectly well without it."
"What about neural repair during slow-wave sleep?"
"That does go on. But it can go on during wakefulness, if the DNA is programmed to do so. No loss of neural efficiency, as far as we know."
"What about the release of human growth enzyme in such large concentrations during slow-wave sleep?"
Susan looked at him admiringly. "Goes on without the sleep. Genetic adjustments tie it to other changes in the pineal gland."
"What about the—"
"The side effects?" Mrs. Camden said. Her mouth turned down. "What about the bloody side effects?"
Susan turned to Elizabeth Camden. She had forgotten she was there. The younger woman stared at Susan, mouth turned down at the corners.
"I'm glad you asked that, Mrs. Camden. Because there are side effects." Susan paused; she was enjoying herself. "Compared to their age mates, the non-sleep children—who have not had IQ genetic manipulation—are more intelligent, better at problem-solving, and more joyous."
Camden took out a cigarette. The archaic, filthy habit surprised Susan. Then she saw that it was deliberate: Roger Camden drawing attention to an ostentatious display to draw attention away from what he was feeling. His cigarette lighter was gold, monogrammed, innocently gaudy.
Excerpted from The Year's Best Science Fiction by Gardner Dozois. Copyright © 1992 Gardner Dozois. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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