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Asimov's Science Fiction Analog Science Fiction & Fact

Act One
by
Nancy Kress

Nancy Kress has won one Hugo and four Nebulas, most recently for “Fountain of Age” (Asimov’s, July 2007). She is the author of twenty-six books, the latest of which is Steal Across the Sky (Tor, February 2009). Nancy spent the autumn of last year in Leipzig, Germany, teaching at the university there. Her SF course was organized around the concept of deliberately invented future societies. In “Act One,” a future society is also invented—although not by changing political and economic considerations. Other ways may be more effective . . . 

 

 

“To understand whose movie it is one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo.”

—Joan Didion

I eased down the warehouse’s basement steps behind the masked boy, one hand on the stair rail, wishing I’d worn gloves. Was this level of grime really necessary? It wasn’t; we’d already passed through some very sophisticated electronic surveillance, as well as some very unsophisticated personal surveillance that stopped just short of a body-cavity search, although an unsmiling man did feel around inside my mouth. Soap cost less than surveillance, so probably the grime was intentional. The Group was making a statement. That’s what we’d been told to call them: “The Group.” Mysterious, undefined, pretentious.

The stairs were lit only by an old-fashioned forty-watt bulb somewhere I couldn’t see. Behind me, Jane’s breath quickened. I’d insisted on going down first, right behind our juvenile guide, from a sense of—what? “Masculine protection” from me would be laughable. And usually I like to keep Jane where I can see her. It works out better that way.

“Barry?” she breathed. The bottom of the steps was so shrouded in gloom that I had to feel my way with one extended foot.

“Two more steps, Janie.”

“Thank you.”

Then we were down and she took a deep breath, standing closer to me than she usually does. Her breasts were level with my face. Jane is only five-six, but that’s seventeen inches taller than I am. The boy said, “A little way more.” Across the cellar a door opened, spilling out light. “There.”

It had been a laundry area once, perhaps part of an apartment for some long-dead maintenance man. Cracked washtubs, three of them, sagged in one corner. No windows, but the floor had been covered with a clean, thin rug and the three waiting people looked clean, too. I scanned them quickly. A tall, hooded man holding an assault rifle, his eyes the expression of bodyguards everywhere: alert but nonanalytic. An unmasked woman in jeans and baggy sweater, staring at Jane with unconcealed resentment. Potential trouble there. And the leader, who came forward with his hand extended, smiling. “Welcome, Miss Snow. We’re honored.”

I recognized him immediately. He was a type rampant in political life, which used to be my life. Big, handsome, too pleased with himself and his position to accurately evaluate either. He was the only one not wearing jeans, dressed in slacks and a sports coat over a black turtleneck. If he had been a pol instead of a geno-terrorist, he’d have maybe gotten as far as city council executive, and then would have run for mayor, lost, and never understood why. So this was a low-level part of the Group’s operation, which was probably good. It might lessen the danger of this insane expedition.

“Thank you,” Jane said in that famous voice, low and husky and as thrilling off screen as on. “This is my manager, Barry Tenler.”

I was more than her manager, but the truth was too complicated to explain. The guy didn’t even glance at me and I demoted him from city council executive to ward captain. You always pay attention to the advisors. That’s usually where the brains are, if not the charisma.

Ms. Resentful, on the other hand, switched her scrutiny from Jane to me. I recognized the nature of that scrutiny. I’ve felt it all my life.

Jane said to the handsome leader, “What should I call you?”

“Call me Ishmael.”

Oh, give me a break. Did that make Jane the white whale? He was showing off his intellectual moves, with no idea they were both banal and silly. But Jane gave him her heart-melting smile and even I, who knew better, would have sworn it was genuine. She might not have made a movie in ten years, but she still had it.

“Let’s sit down,” Ishmael said.

Three kitchen chairs stood at the far end of the room. Ishmael took one, the bodyguard and the boy standing behind him. Ms. Resentful took another. Jane sank cross-legged to the rug in a graceful puddle of filmy green skirt.

That was done for my benefit. My legs and spine hurt if I have to stand for more than a few minutes, and she knows how I hate sitting even lower than I already am. Ishmael, shocked and discerning nothing, said, “Miss Snow!”

“I think better when I’m grounded,” she said, again with her irresistible smile. Along with her voice, that smile launched her career thirty-five years ago. Warm, passionate, but with an underlying wistfulness that bypassed the cerebrum and went straight to the primitive hind-brain. Unearned—she was born with those assets—but not unexploited. Jane was a lot shrewder than her fragile blonde looks suggested. The passion, however, was real. When she wanted something, she wanted it with every sinew, every nerve cell, every drop of her acquisitive blood.

Now her graceful Sitting-Bull act left Ishmael looking awkward on his chair. But he didn’t do the right thing, which would have been to join her on the rug. He stayed on his chair and I demoted him even further, from ward captain to go-fer. I clambered up onto the third chair. Ishmael gazed down at Jane and swelled like a pouter pigeon at having her, literally, at his feet. Ms. Resentful scowled. Uneasiness washed through me.

The Group knew who Jane Snow was. Why would they put this meeting in the hands of an inept narcissist? I could think of several reasons: to indicate contempt for her world. To preserve the anonymity of those who actually counted in this most covert of organizations. To pay off a favor that somebody owed to Ishmael, or to Ishmael’s keeper. To provide a photogenic foil to Jane, since of course we were being recorded. Any or all of these reasons would be fine with me. But my uneasiness didn’t abate.

Jane said, “Let’s begin then, Ishmael, if it’s all right with you.”

“It’s fine with me,” he said. His back was to the harsh light, which fell full on both Jane and Ms. Resentful. The latter had bad skin, small eyes, lanky hair, although her lips were lovely, full and red, and her neck above the windbreaker had the taut firmness of youth.

The light was harder on Jane. It showed up the crow’s feet, the tired inelasticity of her skin under her flawless make-up. She was, after all, fifty-four, and she’d never gone under the knife. Also, she’d never been really beautiful, not as Angelina Jolie or Catherine Zeta-Jones had once been beautiful. Jane’s features were too irregular, her legs and butt too heavy. But none of that mattered next to the smile, the voice, the green eyes fresh as new grass, and the powerful sexual glow she gave off so effortlessly. It’s as if Jane Snow somehow received two sets of female genes at conception, a critic wrote once, doubling everything we think of as “feminine.” That makes her either a goddess or a freak.

“I’m preparing for a role in a new movie,” she said to Ishmael, although of course he already knew that. She just wanted to use her voice on him. “It’s going to be about your . . . your organization. And about the future of the little girls. I’ve talked to some of them and—”

“Which ones?” Ms. Resentful demanded.

Did she really know them all by name? I looked at her more closely. Intelligence in those small, stony eyes. She could be from the Group’s headquarter cell—wherever it was—and sent to ensure that Ishmael didn’t screw up this meeting. Or not. But if she were really intelligent, would she be so enamored of someone like Ishmael?

Stupid question. Three of Jane’s four husbands had been gorgeous losers.

Jane said, “Well, so far I’ve only talked to Rima Ridley-Jones. But Friday I have the whole afternoon with the Barrington twins.”

Ishmael, unwilling to have the conversation migrate from him, said, “Beautiful children, those twins. And very intelligent.” As if the entire world didn’t already know that. Unlike most of the Group’s handiwork, the Barrington twins had been posed by their publicity-hound parents on every magazine cover in the world. But Jane smiled at Ishmael as if he’d just explicated Spinoza.

“Yes, they are beautiful. Please, Ishmael, tell me about your organization. Anything that might help me prepare for my role in Future Perfect.”

He leaned forward, hands on his knees, handsome face intent. Dramatically, insistently, he intoned, “There is one thing you must understand about the Group, Jane. A very critical thing. You will never stop us.”

Portentous silence.

The worst thing was, he might be right. The FBI, CIA, IRS, HPA, and several other alphabets had lopped off a few heads, but still the hydra grew. It had so many supporters: liberal lawmakers and politicians, who wanted the Anti-Genetic Modification Act revoked and the Human Protection Agency dismantled. The rich parents who wanted their embryos enhanced. The off-shore banks that coveted the Group’s dollars and the Caribbean or Mexican or who-knows-what islands that benefited from sheltering their mobile labs.

“We are idealists,” Ishmael droned on, “and we are the future. Through our efforts, mankind will change for the better. Wars will end, cruelty will disappear. When people can—”

“Let me interrupt you for just a moment, Ishmael.” Jane widened her eyes and over-used his name. Her dewy look up at him from the floor could have reversed desertification. She was pulling out all the stops. “I need so much to understand, Ishmael. If you genemod these little girls, one by one, you end up changing such a small percentage of the human race that . . . how many children have been engineered with Arlen’s Syndrome?”

“We prefer the term ‘Arlen’s Advantage.’ ”

“Yes, of course. How many children?”

I held my breath. The Group had never given out that information.

Jane put an entreating hand on Ishmael’s knee.

He said loftily, hungrily, “That information is classified,” and I saw that he didn’t know the answer.

Ms. Resentful said, “To date, three thousand two hundred fourteen.”

Was she lying? My instincts—and I have very good instincts, although to say that in this context is clearly a joke—said no. Resentful knew the number. So she was higher up than Ishmael. And since she sure as hell wasn’t responding to Jane’s allure, that meant the Group now wanted the numbers made public.

“Yes, that’s right,” Ishmael said hastily, “three thousand two hundred fourteen children.”

Jane said, “But that’s not a high percentage out of six billion people on Earth, is it? It—”

“Five ten-millionth of 1 percent,” I said. A silly, self-indulgent display, but what the hell. My legs ached.

She always could ad-lib. “Yes, thank you, Barry. But my question was for Ishmael. If only such a tiny percentage of humanity possesses Arlen’s Advantage, even if the genemod turns out to be inheritable—”

“It is,” Ishmael said, which was nonsense. The oldest Arlen’s kids were only twelve.

“Wonderful!” Jane persisted. “But as I say, if only such a tiny percentage of humanity possesses the Advantage, how can the Group hope to alter the entire human future?”

Ishmael covered her hand with his. He smiled down at her, and his eyes actually twinkled. “Jane, Jane, Jane. Have you ever dropped a pebble into a pond?”

“Yes.”

“And what happened, my dear?”

“A ripple.”

“Which spread and spread until the entire pond was affected!” Ishmael spread his arms wide. The ass couldn’t even put together a decent analogy. Humanity was an ocean, not a pond, and water ripples were always transitory. But Jane, actress that she was, beamed at him and moved the conversation to something he could handle.

“I see. Tell me, Ishmael, how you personally became involved in the Group.”

He was thrilled to talk about himself. As he did, Jane skillfully extracted information about the Group’s make-up, its organization, its communications methods. Resentful let her do it. I watched the young woman, who was watching Ishmael but not in a monitoring sort of way. He couldn’t give away really critical information; he didn’t have any. Still, he talked too much. He was the kind of man who responded to an audience, who could easily become so expansive that he turned indiscreet. Sooner or later, I suspected, he would say something to somebody that he shouldn’t, and the Group would dump him.

Ms. Resentful wasn’t anything near the actress Jane that was. Her hunger for this worthless man was almost palpable. I might have felt sympathy for her pain if my own wasn’t increasing so much in my legs, back, neck. I seldom sat this long, and never on a hard chair.

My particular brand of dwarfism, achondroplasia, accounts for 70 percent of all cases. Malformed bones and cartilage produce not only the short limbs, big head and butt, and pushed-in face that all the media caricaturists so adore but also, in some of us, constriction of the spinal canal that causes pain. Especially as achons age, and I was only two years younger than Jane. Multiple excruciating operations have only helped me so much.

After an hour and a half, Jane rose, her filmy skirt swirling around her lovely calves. My uneasiness spiked sharply. If anything was going to happen, it would be now.

But nothing did happen. The masked boy reappeared and we were led out of the dingy basement. I could barely walk. Jane knew better than to help me, but she whispered, “I’m so sorry, Barry. But this was my only chance.”

“I know.” Somehow I made it up the stairs. We navigated the maze of the abandoned warehouse, where the Group’s unseen soldiers stayed at stand-off with our own unseen bodyguards. Blinking in the sunlight, I suddenly collapsed onto the broken concrete.

“Barry!”

“It’s . . . okay. Don’t.”

“The rest will be so much easier . . . I promise!”

I got myself upright, or what passes for upright. The unmarked van arrived for us. The whole insane interview had gone off without a hitch, without violence, smooth as good chocolate.

So why did I still feel so uneasy?

 

An hour later, Jane’s image appeared all over the Net, the TV, the wallboards. Her words had been edited to appear that she was a supporter, perhaps even a member, of the Group. But of course we had anticipated this. The moment our van left the warehouse, the first of the pre-emptory spots I’d prepared aired everywhere. They featured news avatar CeeCee Collins, who was glad for the scoop, interviewing Jane about her meeting. Dedicated actress preparing for a role, willing to take any personal risk for art, not a believer in breaking the law but valuing open discourse on this important issue, and so forth. The spots cost us a huge amount of money. They were worth it. Not only was the criticism defused, but the publicity for the upcoming movie, which started principal photography in less than a month, was beyond price.

I didn’t watch my spots play. Nor was I there when the FBI, CIA, HPA, etc. paid Jane the expected visit to both “debrief” her and/or threaten her with arrest for meeting with terrorists. But I didn’t need to be there. Before our meeting, I’d gotten Jane credentials under the Malvern-Murphy Press Immunity Act, plus Everett Murphy as her more-than-capable lawyer. Everett monitored the interviews and I stayed in bed under a painkiller. The FBI, CIA, HPA wanted to meet with me, too, of course, once Jane told them I’d been present. They had to wait until I could see them. I didn’t mind them cooling their heels as they waited for me, not at all.

Why are you so opposed to genemods? Jane had asked me once, and only once, not looking at me as she said it. She meant, Why you, especially? Usually I answered Jane, trusted Jane, but not on this. I told her the truth: You wouldn’t understand. To her credit, she hadn’t been offended. Jane was smart enough to know what she didn’t know.

Now, on my lovely pain patch, I floated in a world where she and I walked hand in hand through a forest the green of her filmy skirt, and she had to crane her neck to smile up at me.

 

The next few days, publicity for the picture exploded. Jane did interview after interview: TV, LinkNet, robocam, print, holonews. She glowed with the attention, looking ten years younger. Some of the interviewers and avatars needled her, but she stuck to the studio line: This is a movie about people, not polemics. Future Perfect is not really about genetic engineering. It will be an honest examination of eternal verities, of our shared frailty and astonishing shared strength, of what makes us human, of blah blah blah, that just happens to use Arlen’s Syndrome as a vehicle. The script was nearly finished and it would be complex and realistic and blah blah blah.

Pro or con on genemods?” an exasperated journalist finally shouted from the back of the room.

Jane gave him a dazzling smile. “Complex and realistic,” she said.

Both the pros and the cons would be swarming into the theater, unstoppable as lemmings.

I felt so good about all of this that I decided to call Leila. I needed to be in a good mood to stand these calls. Leila wasn’t home, letting me get away with just a message, which made me feel even better.

Jane, glowing on camera, was wiping out a decade of cinematic obscurity with Future Perfect. I couldn’t wipe out my fifteen years of guilt that easily, nor would I do so even if I could. But I was still glad that Leila wasn’t home.

 

Jane had promised that Friday’s role-prep interview would be easier on me. She was wrong.

The Barrington twins lived with their parents and teen-age sister in San Luis Obispo. Jane’s pilot obtained clearance to land on the green-velvet Barrington lawn, well behind the estate’s heavily secured walls. I wouldn’t have to walk far.

“Welcome, Miss Snow. An honor.” Frieda Barrington was mutton dressed as lamb, a fiftyish woman in a brief skirt and peek-a-boo caped sweater. Slim, toned, tanned, but the breasts doing the peek-a-booing would never be twenty again, and her face had the tense lines of those who spent most of their waking time pretending not to be tense.

Jane climbed gracefully from the flyer and stood so that her body shielded my awkward descent. I seized the grab bar, sat on the flyer floor, fell heavily onto the grass, and scrambled to my feet. Jane moved aside, her calf-length skirt—butter yellow, this time—blowing in the slight breeze. “Call me Jane. This is my manager, Barry Tenler.”

Frieda Barrington was one of Those. Still, she at least tried to conceal her distaste. “Hello, Mr. Tenler.”

“Hi.” With any luck, this would be the only syllable I had to address to her.

We walked across the grass through perfect landscaping, Frieda supplying the fund of inane chatter that such women always have at their disposal. The house had been built a hundred years earlier for a silent-film star. Huge, pink, gilded at windows and doors, it called to mind an obese lawn flamingo. We entered a huge foyer floored in black-and-white marble, which managed to look less Vermeer than checkerboard. A sulky girl in dirty jeans lounged on a chaise longue. She stared at us over the garish cover of a comic book.

“Suky, get up,” Frieda snapped. “This is Miss Snow and her manager Mr., uh, Tangler. My daughter Suky.”

The girl got up, made an ostentatious and mocking curtsey, and lay down again. Frieda made a noise of outrage and embarrassment, but I felt sorry for Suky. Fifteen—the same age as Ethan—plain of face, she was caught between a mother who’d appropriated her fashions and twin sisters who appropriated all the attention. Frieda would be lucky if Suky’s rebellion stopped at mere rudeness. I made her a mock little bow to match her curtsey, and watched as her eyes widened with surprise. I grinned.

Frieda snapped, “Where are the twins?”

Suky shrugged. Frieda rolled her eyes and led us through the house.

They were playing on the terrace, a sun-shaded sweep of weathered stone with steps that led to more lawn, all backed by a gorgeous view of vineyards below the Sierra Madres. Frieda settled us on comfortable, padded chairs. A robo-server rolled up, offering lemonade.

Bridget and Belinda came over to us before they were called. “Hello!” Jane said with her melting smile, but neither girl answered. Instead, they gazed steadily, unblinkingly at her for a full thirty seconds, and then did the same with me. I didn’t like it, or them.

Arlen’s Syndrome, like all genetic tinkering, has side effects. No one knows that better than I. Achondroplasia dwarfism is the result of a single nucleotide substitution in the gene FGFR3 at codon 380 on chromosome 4. It affects the growth of bones and cartilage, which in turn affects air passages, nerves, and other people’s tolerance. Exactly which genes were involved in Arlen’s were a trade secret, but the modifications undoubtedly spread across many genes, with many side effects. But since only females could be genemod for Arlen’s, the X chromosome was one of those altered. That much, at least, was known.

The two eleven-year-old girls staring at me so frankly were small for their age, delicately built: fairy children. They had white skin, silky fair hair cut in short caps, and eyes of luminous gray. Other than that, they didn’t look much alike, fraternal twins rather than identical. Bridget was shorter, plumper, prettier. From a Petri-dishful of Frieda’s fertilized eggs, the Barringtons had chosen the most promising two, had them genemoded for Arlen’s Syndrome, and implanted them in Frieda’s ageing but still serviceable womb. The loving parents, both exhibitionists, had splashed across the worldwide media every last detail—except where and how the work had been done. Unlike Rima Ridley-Jones, the Arlen’s child that Jane had spoken with last week, these two were carefully manufactured celebrities.

Jane tried again. “I’m Jane Snow, and you’re Bridget and Belinda. I’m glad to meet you.”

“Yes,” Belinda said, “you are.” She looked at me. “But you’re not.”

There was no point in lying. Not to them. “Not particularly.”

Bridget said, with a gentleness surprising in one so young, “That’s okay, though.”

“Thank you,” I said.

I didn’t say it was okay,” Belinda said.

There was no answer to that. The Ridley-Jones child hadn’t behaved like this; in addition to shielding her from the media, her mother had taught her manners. Frieda, on the other hand, leaned back in her chair like a spectator at a play, interested in what her amazing daughters would say next, but with anxiety on overdrive. I had the sense she’d been here before. Eleven-year-olds were no longer adorable, biddable toddlers.

“You’ll never get it,” Belinda said to me, at the same moment that Bridget put a hand on her sister’s arm. Belinda shook it off. “Let me alone, Brid. He should know. They all should know.” She smiled at me and I felt something in my chest recoil from the look in her gray eyes.

“You’ll never get it,” Belinda said to me with that horrible smile. “No matter what you do, Jane will never love you. And she’ll always hate it when you touch her even by mistake. Just like she hates it now. Hates it, hates it, hates it.”

 

It started with a dog.

Dr. Kenneth Bernard Arlen, a geneticist and chess enthusiast, owned a toy poodle. Poodles are a smart breed. Arlen played chess twice a week in his Stanford apartment with Kelson Hughes from Zoology. Usually they played three, four, or five games in a row, depending on how careless Hughes got with his end game. Cosette lay on the rug, dozing, until checkmate of the last game, when she always began barking frantically to protest Hughes’s leaving. The odd thing was that Cosette began barking before the men rose, as they replaced the chessmen for what might, after all, have been the start of just another game. How did she know it wasn’t?

Hughes assumed pheromones. He, or Arlen, or both, probably gave off a different smell as they decided to call it a night. Pheromones were Hughes’s field of research; he’d done significant work in mate selection among mice based on smell. He had a graduate student remove the glomeruli from adult dogs and put them through tests to see how various of their learned responses to humans changed. The responses didn’t change. It wasn’t pheromones.

Now not only Hughes but also Arlen was intensely intrigued. The Human Genome Project had just slid into Phase 2, discovering which genes encoded for what proteins, and how. Arlen was working with Turner’s Syndrome, a disorder in which females were born missing all or part of one of their two X chromosomes. The girls had not only physical problems but social ones; they seemed to have trouble with even simple social interactions. What interested Hughes was that Turner Syndrome girls with an intact paternal X gene, the one inherited from the father, managed far better socially than those with the maternal X functioning. Something about picking up social cues was coded for genetically, and on the paternal X.

Where else did social facility reside in the genome? What cues of body language, facial expression, or tone of voice was Cosette picking up? Somehow the dog knew that when Hughes and Arlen set the chessmen in place, this wasn’t the start of a new game. Something, dictated at least in part by Cosette’s genes, was causing processes in her poodle brain. After all, Hughes’s dog, a big dumb Samoyed, never seemed to anticipate anything. Snowy was continually surprised by gravity.

Arlen found the genes in dogs. It took him ten years, during which he failed to get tenure because he wouldn’t publish. After Stanford let him go, he still didn’t publish. He found the genes in humans. He still didn’t publish. Stone broke, he was well on the way to bitter and yet with his idealism undimmed—an odd combination, but not unknown among science fanatics. Inevitably, he crossed paths with people even more fanatical. Kenneth Bernard Arlen joined forces with off-shore backers to open a fertility clinic that created super-empathic children.

Empathy turns up early in some children. A naturally empathic nine-month-old will give her teddy bear to another child who is crying; the toddler senses how bad the other child feels. People who score high in perceiving others’ emotions are more popular, more outgoing, better adjusted, more happily married, more successful at their jobs. Arlen’s Syndrome toddlers understood—not verbally, but in their limbic systems—when Mommy was worried, when Daddy wanted them to go potty, that Grandma loved them, that a stranger was dangerous.

If his first illegal, off-shore experiments with human germ lines had resulted in deformities, Arlen would have been crucified. There were no deformities. Prospective clients loved the promise of kids who actually understood how parents felt. By six or seven, Arlen’s Syndrome kids could, especially if they were bright, read an astonishing array of non-verbal signals. By nine or ten, it was impossible to lie to them. As long as you were honest and genuinely had their best interests in mind, the children were a joy to live with: sensitive, cooperative, grateful, aware.

And yet here was Belinda Barrington, staring at me from her pale eyes, and I didn’t need a genetic dose of super-empathy to see her glee at embarrassing me. I couldn’t look at Jane. The blood was hot in my face.

Frieda said, sharply and hopelessly, “Belinda, that’s not nice.”

“No, it’s not,” Bridget said. She frowned at her sister, and Belinda actually looked away for a moment. Her twin had some childish control over Belinda, and her mother didn’t. “Tell him you’re sorry.”

“Sorry,” Belinda muttered, unconvincingly. So they could lie, if not be lied to.

Frieda said to Jane, “This is new behavior. I’m sure it’s just a phase. Nothing you’d want to include in your project!”

Belinda shot her mother a look of freezing contempt.

Jane took control of the sorry situation. Sparing me any direct glance, she said to Belinda, “Did anybody tell you why I want to talk to you girls?”

“No,” Belinda said. “You’re not a reporter.”

“I’m a movie actress.”

Bridget brightened. “Like Kylie Kicker?” Apparently Arlen’s Advantage did not confer immunity to inane kiddie pop culture.

“Not as young,” Jane smiled, “or as rich. But I’m making a movie about the lives that girls like you might have when you’re grown up. That’s why I want to get to know you a little bit now. But only if it’s okay with you.”

The twins looked at each other. Neither spoke, but I had the impression that gigabytes passed between them. Frieda said, “Girls, I hope you’ll cooperate with Miss Snow. She—”

“No, you don’t,” Belinda said, almost absently. “You don’t like her. She’s too pretty. But we like her.”

Frieda’s face went a mottled maroon. Bridget, her plump features alarmed, put a hand on her mother’s arm. But Frieda shook it off, started to say something, then abruptly stood and stalked into the house. Bridget made a move to follow but checked herself. To me—why?—she said apologetically, “She wants to be alone a little while.”

“You should go with her,” Belinda said, and I didn’t have to be told twice. These kids gave me the creeps.

Not that even they, with their overpraised empathy, could ever understand why.

In the foyer, Suky still lay on the chaise longue with her comic book. There was no sign of her mother. The other chairs were all mammoth leather things, but a low antique bench stood against one wall and I clambered painfully onto it and called a cab. I would have to walk all the way to the front gate to meet it, but the thought of going back in the flyer with Jane was unbearable. I closed my eyes and leaned my head against the wall. My back and legs ached, but nothing compared to my heart.

It wasn’t the words Belinda had said. Yes, I loved Jane and yes, that love was hopeless. I already knew that and so must Jane. How could she not? I was with her nearly every day; she was a woman sensitive to nuance. I knew she hated my accidental touch, and hated herself for that, and could help none of it. Three of Jane’s husbands had been among the best-looking men on the planet. Tall, strong, straight-limbed. I had seen Jane’s flesh glow rosy just because James or Karl or Duncan was in the same room with her. I had felt her hide her recoil from me.

Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me.” How often as a child had I chanted that to myself after another in the endless string of bullies had taunted me? Short Stuff, Dopey, Munchkin, Big Butt, Mighty Midget, Oompa Loompa, cripple. . . . Belinda hadn’t illuminated any new truth for anybody. What she had done was speak it aloud.

Give sorrow words”—but even Shakespeare could be as wrong as nursery chants. Something unnamed could, just barely, be ignored. Could be kept out of daily interaction, could almost be pretended away. What had been “given words” could not. And now tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, Jane and I would have to try to work together, would avoid each other’s eyes, would each tread the dreary internal treadmill: Is he/she upset? Did I brush too close, stay too far away, give off any hurtful signal . . . For God’s sake, leave me alone!

Speech doesn’t banish distance; it creates it. And if—

“Bitches, aren’t they?” a voice said softly. I opened my eyes. Suky stood close to my bench. She was taller than I’d thought, with a spectacular figure. No one would ever notice, not next to the wonder and novelty of the twins.

In my shamed confusion, I blurted out the first thing that came into my mind. “Belinda is, Bridget isn’t.”

“That’s what you think.” Suky laughed, then laid her comic book on the bench. “You need this, dwarf.” She vanished into some inner corridor.

I picked up the comic. It was holo, those not-inexpensive e-graphics with chips embedded in the paper. Four panels succeeded each other on each page, with every panel dramatizing the plot in ten-second bursts of shifting light. The title was “Knife Hack,” and the story seemed to concern a mother who carves up her infants with a maximum amount of blood and brain spatter.

Arlen’s Syndrome kids: a joy to live with, sensitive and cooperative and grateful and aware.

Just one big happy family.

 

But sometimes the universe gives you a break. The next day I had a cold. Nothing serious, just a stuffy nose and sore throat, but I sounded like a rusty file scraping on cast iron, so I called in sick to my “office” at Jane’s estate. Her trainer answered. “What?”

“Tell Jane I won’t be in today. Sick. And remind her to—”

“I’m not your errand boy, Barry,” he answered hotly. We stared at each other’s comlink images in mutual dislike. Dino Carrano was the trainer-to-the-stars-of-the-moment-before-this-one, an arrogant narcissist who three times a week tortured Jane into perfect abs and weeping exhaustion. Like Ishmael, he was without the prescience to realize that his brief vogue had passed and that Jane kept him on partly from compassion. He stood now in her deserted exercise room.

“Why are you answering the phone? Where’s Catalina?”

“Her grandmother in Mexico died. Again. And before you ask, José is supervising the grounds crew and Jane is in the bathroom, throwing up. Now you know everything. Bye, Barry.”

“Wait! If she’s throwing up because you pushed her too hard again, you Dago bastard—”

“Save your invective, little man. We haven’t even started the training session yet, and if we don’t train by tomorrow, her ass is going to drop like a duffel bag. For today she just ate something bad.” He cut the link.

My stomach didn’t feel too steady, either. Had it been the Barrington lemonade? I made it to the bathroom just in time. But afterward I felt better, decided not to call my doctor, and went to bed. If Jane was sick, Catalina would cancel her appointments. No, Catalina was in Mexico . . . not my problem.

But all Jane’s problems were mine. Without her, I had my own problems—Leila, Ethan—but no actual life.

Nonetheless, I forced myself to stay in bed, and eventually I fell asleep. When I woke, six hours later, my throat and stomach both felt fine. A quick call discovered that Catalina had returned from Mexico, sounding suspiciously unbereaved. But she was efficient enough when she was actually in the country, and I decided I didn’t need to brief Jane on tomorrow’s schedule. That would buy me one more day. I would take a relaxing evening. A long bath, a glass of wine, another postponement of talking to Leila. The industry news on Hollywood Watch.

The local news came on first. Ishmael’s body had been found in a pond in the Valley.

“. . . and weighted with cement blocks. Cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the head, execution style,” said the news avatar, a CGI who looked completely real except that she had no faulty camera angles whatsoever. I stared at the photo of Ishmael’s handsome face on the screen beside her. “Apparently the murderers were unaware that construction work would start today at the pond site, where luxury condos will be built by—”

Ishmael’s name was Harold Sylvester Ehrenreich. Failed actor, minor grifter, petty tax evader, who had dropped out of electronic sight eight months ago.

“Anyone having any information concerning—”

I was already on the comlink. “Jane?”

“I just called the cops. They’re on their way over.” She looked tired, drawn, within five years of her actual age. Her voice sounded as raspy as mine had been. “I was just about to call you. Barry, if this endangers the picture—”

“It won’t,” I said. Thirty years a star, and she still didn’t understand how the behind-the-scenes worked. “It will make the picture. Did you call Everett?”

“He’s on his way.”

“Don’t say a word until both he and I get there. Not a word, Jane, not one. Can you send the flyer for me?”

“Yes. Barry—was he killed because of my interview?”

“There’s no way to know that,” I said, and all at once was profoundly grateful that it was true. I didn’t care if Ishmael was alive, dead, or fucking himself on Mars, but Jane was built differently. People mattered to her, especially the wounded-bird type. It was how she’d ended up married to three of her four husbands and the fourth, the Alpha-Male Producer, had been in reaction to the second, the alcoholic failed actor. Catalina, Jane’s housekeeper and social secretary, was another of her wounded birds. So, in his own perverse way, was her trainer.

Maybe that was why Jane had ended up with me as well.

But I could tell that neither me nor Belinda’s cruel words were on Jane’s mind just now. It was all Ishmael, and that was good. Ishmael would get us safely past our personal crisis. Even murder has its silver lining.

 

As the flyer set down on Jane’s roof, I saw the media already starting to converge. Someone must have tipped them off, perhaps a clerk at the precinct. An unmarked car was parked within Jane’s gates, with two vans outside and another flyer approaching from LA. Catalina let me in, her dark eyes wide with excitement. “La policia—”

“I know. Is Everett Murphy here?”

“Yes, he—”

“Bring in coffee and cake. And make the maids draw all the curtains in the house, immediately. Even the bedrooms. There’ll be robocams.” I wanted pictures and information released on my schedule, not that of flying recorders.

A man and a woman sat with Jane and Everett at one end of her enormous living room, which the decorator had done in swooping black curves with accents of screaming purple. The room looked nothing like Jane, who used it only for parties. She’d actually defied the decorator, who was a Dino-Carrano-bully type but not a wounded bird, and done her private sitting room in English country house. But she hadn’t taken the detectives there. I could guess why: she was protecting her safe haven. Catalina rushed past me like a small Mexican tornado and dramatically pushed the button to opaque the windows. They went deep purple, and lights flickered on in the room. Catalina raced out.

“Barry,” Jane said. She looked even worse than on comlink, red nose and swollen eyes and no make-up. I hoped to hell that neither cop was optic wired. “This is Detective Lopez and Detective Miller from the LAPD. Officers, my manager Barry Tenler.”

They nodded. Both were too well-trained to show curiosity or distaste, but they were there. I always know. In her sitting room Jane kept a low chair for me, but here I had to scramble up onto a high black sofa that satisfied the decorator desire for “an important piece.” I said, “You can question Miss Snow now, but please be advised that she has already spoken with the FBI and HPA, and that both Mr. Murphy and I reserve the right to advise her not to answer.”

The cops ignored this meaningless window dressing. But I’d accomplished what I wanted. Dwarfs learn early that straightforward, multisyllabic, take-no-shit talk will sometimes stop average-sizers from treating us like children. Sometimes.

Officer Lopez began a thorough interrogation: How had she arranged the meeting with the Group? When? What contact had she had between the initial one and the meeting? Who had taken her to the meeting? Who else had accompanied her? When they found out that it had been me, Lopez got the look of a man who knows he’s screwed up. “You were there, Mr. Tenler?”

“I was.”

“You’ll have to go with Officer Miller into another room,” Lopez said. He stared at me hard. Witnesses were always questioned separately, and even if it hadn’t crossed his mind that someone like me was a witness, he suspected it had crossed mine. Which it had. If law-enforcement agencies weren’t given to so many turf wars, the LAPD would already know I’d been in that grimy basement. Or if Lopez hadn’t fallen victim to his own macho assumptions. You? She took a lame half-pint like you to protect her?

“Everett is my lawyer, too,” I said.

“You go with Officer Miller. Mr. Murphy will join you when I’m finished with Miss Snow.” Lopez’s formality barely restrained his anger.

Following Officer Miller to the media room, it occurred to me—pointlessly—that Belinda would have known immediately that I’d been withholding something.

It seemed obvious to me, as it probably was to the cops, that Ishmael had been killed by the Group. Narcissistic, bombastic, unreliable, he must have screwed up royally. Was Ms. Resentful dead, too? The bodyguard with the assault rifle? The boy who’d guided us through the warehouse?

The Group was trying to combine idealism, profit-making, and iron control. That combination never worked. I would say that to Officer Lopez, except that there was little chance he would take it seriously. Not from me…

Be sure to read
the exciting conclusion
in our March issue,
on sale now.

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"Act One" by Nancy Kress copyright © 2009, with permission of the authors.

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