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       Sisters, p.1

           Greg Bear
 
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Sisters


  Sistersby

  Greg Bear

  But you're the only one, Letitia." Reena

  Cathcart

  lay a light, slender hand on her shoulder with a

  look of utmost sincerity. "You know none of the others can. I

  mean..." She stopped, the slightest hint of awareness of her

  faux pas dawning. "You're simply the only one who can play

  the old--the older--woman."

  Letitia Blakely looked down at the hall floor, eyes and face

  hot, then circled her gaze up to the ceiling, trying to keep the

  fresh tears from spilling over. Reena tossed her long black hair, perfect hazel eyes imploring. A few stragglers sauntered down

  the clean and carpeted hall of the new school wing to their

  classes. "We're late for first period," Letitia said. "Why the

  old woman? Why didn't you come to me when there was some

  other part to play?"

  Reena was too smart not to know what she was doing.

  Smart, but not terribly sensitive. "You're the type."

  "You mean frowsy?"

  Reena didn't react. She was intent on a yes answer, the

  perfect solution to her problems.

  "Or just dumpy?"

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

  "I look frowsy and dump.,,'! I'm perfect for the old woman

  in your lysing play, and you're the only one with the guts to ask

  me.' '

  "We'd like to give you a chance. You're such a loner, and

  we want you to feel like you're part--"

  "Bullmusk!" The moisture spilled over and Reena backed

  away. "Leave me alone. Just leave me alone."

  "No need to swear." Petulant, offended.

  Letitia raised her hand as if to strike. Reena swung her hair

  again defiantly and turned to walk away. Letitia leaned against

  the the wall and wiped her eyes, trying to avoid damage to her

  carefully applied makeup. The damage was already done,

  however. She could feel the tear-tracks of her mother's mascara

  and the smudged eyeshadow. With a sigh, she walked off to the

  bathroom, not caring how late she was. She wanted to go home.

  Coming into class fifteen minutes after the bell, Letitia was

  surprised to find the students in self-ordered discussion, with no

  sign of Mr. Brant. Several of Reena's drama group gave her

  frosty looks as she took her seat.

  "TB," Edna Corman said beneath her breath from across

  the aisle.

  "RC you," Letitia replied, head cocked to one side and

  tone matching Edna' s precisely. She poked John Lockwood in the

  shoulder. Lockwood didn't care much for socializing; he seldom

  noticed the exchanges going on around him. "Where's Mr.

  Brant?"

  "Georgia Fischer blitzed and he took her to the counselors.

  He told us to plug in and pursue."

  "Oh." Georgia Fischer had transferred two months ago

  from a superwhiz class in Oakland. She was brighter than most

  but she blitzed about once every two weeks. "I may be fat and

  ugly," Letitia said for Lockwood's ears only. "But I never

  blitz."

  "Nor I," Lockwood said. He was PPC, like Georgia, but

  not a superwhiz. Letitia liked him, but not enough to feel

  threatened by him. "Better pursue."

  Letitia leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes to

  concentrate. Her mod activated and projections danced in front

  of her, then steadied. She had been cramming patient psych for

  a week and was approaching threshold. The little Computer

  Graphics nursie in whites and pillcap began discussing insanouts

  of terminal patient care, which all seemed very TB to Letitia;

  who died of disease now, anyway? She made her decision and

  cut to the same CG nursie discussing the shock of RoR--replacement

  and recovery. What she really wanted to study was

  colony medicine, but how could she ever make it Out There?

  Some PPCs had been designed by their parents to qualify

  physically and mentally for space careers. Some had been

  equipped with bichemistries, one of which became active in

  Earth's gravity, the other in space. How could an NG compete

  with that?

  Of the seven hundred adolescents in her high school

  training programs, Letitia Blakely was one of ten NGspossessors

  of natural, unaltered genomes. Everyone else was the proud bearer

  of juggled genes, PPCs or Pre-Planned Children, all lovely and

  stable with just the proper amount of adipose tissue and just the

  proper infusion of parental characteristics and chosen features to

  be beautiful and different; tall, healthy, hair manageable, skin

  unblemished, well-adjusted (except for the occasional blitzer)

  with warm and sunny personalities. The old derogatory slang

  for PPCs was RC--Recombined.

  Letitia Brown, slightly overweight, skin pasty, hair frizzy,

  bulbous-nosed and weak-chinned, one breast larger than the

  other and already showing a droop pronounced enough to

  grip a stylus--with painful menstrual periods and an absolute

  indisposition to athletics--was the Sport. That's what they were

  called. NG Sports. TBs-Throwbacks. Neanderthals.

  All the beautiful PPCs risked a great deal if they showed

  animosity toward the NGs. Her parents had the right to sue the

  system if she was harassed to the detriment of her schooling.

  This wasn't a private school where all parents paid astronomical

  tuitions; this was an old-fashioned public school, with public

  school programs and regulations. Teachers tended to nuke out

  on raggers. And, she admitted to herself with a painful loop of

  recrimination, she wasn't making it any easier for them.

  Sure, she could join in, play the old woman--how much

  realism she would contribute to their little drama, with her

  genuine TB phys! She could be jolly and self-deprecating like

  Helen Roberti, who wasn't all that bad-looking anyway--she

  could pass if she straightened her hair. Or she could be quiet

  and camouflaged like Bernie Thibhault.

  The CG nursie exited from RoR care. Letitia had hardly

  absorbed a thing. Realtime mod education was a bore, but she

  hadn't yet qualified for experience training. She had only one

  course of career study now--no alternates--and two aesthetic

  programs, individual orchestra on Friday afternoon and LitVid

  publishing on alternating weekends.

  For pre-med, she was a washout, but she wouldn't admit

  it. She was NG. Her brain took longer to mature; it wasn't as

  finely wired.

  She thought she was incredibly slow. She doubted whether

  she would ever be successful as a doctor; she was squeamish,

  and nobody, not even her fellow NGs, would want to be treated

  by a doctor who grew pale at the sight of blood.

  Letitia silently told nursie to start over again, and nursie

  obliged.

  Reena Cathcart, meanwhile, had dropped into her mod

  with a vengeance. Her blissed expression told it all. The

  realtime ed slid into her so smooth, so quick, it was pure joy.

&nbs
p; No zits on her brain.

  Mr. Brant returned ten minutes later with a pale and

  bleary-eyed Georgia Fischer. She sat two seats behind Letitia

  and over one aisle. She plugged in her mod dutifully and Brant

  went to his console to bring up the multimedia and coordinate

  the whole class. Edna Corman whispered something to her.

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

  "How are you doing, Letitia?" the autocounselor asked.

  The CG face projected in front of her with some slight wirehash,

  which Letitia paid no attention to. CG ACs were the jams and

  she didn't appreciate them even in pristine perfection.

  "Poorly," she said.

  "Really? Care to elaborate?"

  "I want to talk to Dr. Rutger."

  "Don't trust your friendly AC?"

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

  "Dr. Rutger is busy, dear. Unlike your friendly AC,

  humans can only be in one place at a time. I'd like to help if I

  may."

  "Then I want program sixteen."

  "Done, Letitia." The projection wavered and the face

  changed to a real-person simulation of Marian Tempesino, the

  only CG AC Letitia felt comfortable with.

  Tempesino had no wirehash, which indicated she was a seldom-used program, and that was just fine with Letitia.

  "Sixteen here. Letitia? You're looking cut. More adjustment

  jams?"

  "I wanted to talk with Dr. Rutger but he's busy. So I'll

  talk to you. And I want it on my record. I want out of school. I

  want my parents to pull me and put me in a special NG

  school."

  Tempesino's face didn't wear any particular expression,

  which was one of the reasons Letitia liked Program 16 AC.

  "Why?"

  "Because I'm a freak. My parents made me a freak and

  I'd like to know why I shouldn't be with all the other freaks."

  "You're a natural, not a freak."

  "To look like any of the others---even to look like Reena

  Cathcart--l'd have to spend the rest of my life in bioplasty. I

  can't take it anymore. They asked me to play an old lady in one

  of their dramas. The only part I'm fit for. An old lady."

  "They tried to include you in."

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

  Tempesino's image wavered a bit as the emotion registered

  and a higher authority AC kicked in behind 16.

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

  "Where would you like to go, Letitia?"

  Letitia thought about it for a moment. "I'd like to go back

  to when being ugly was normal."

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

  Ready?"

  She nodded and wiped away more mascara with the back

  of her hand.

  "Then let's go."

  It was like a dream, somewhat fuzzier than plugging in a

  mod. CG images compiled from thousands of miles of old films

  and tapes and descriptive records made her feel as if she were flying back in time, back to a place she would have loved to call

  home. Faces came to her--faces with ugly variations, growing

  old prematurely, wearing glasses, even beautiful faces which

  could have passed today--and the faces pulled away to become

  attached to bodies. Bodies out of shape, in good condition,

  overweight, sick and healthy, red-faced with high blood pressure:

  the whole variable and disaster-prone population of humanity,

  sixty years past. This was where Letitia felt she

  belonged.

  "They're beautiful," she said.

  "They didn't think so. They jumped at the chance to be

  sure their children were beautiful, smart, and healthy. It was a

  time of transition, Letitia. Just like now."

  "Everybody looks alike now."

  "I don't think that's fair," the AC said. "There's a

  considerable variety in the way people look today."

  "Not my age."

  "Especially your age. Look." The AC showed her dozens

  of faces. Few looked alike, but all were handsome or lovely.

  Some made Letitia ache just looking at them; faces she could

  never be friends with, never love, because there was always

  someone more beautiful and desirable than an NG.

  "My parents should have lived back then. Why did they

  make me a freak?"

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

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

  "Don't you invite the abuse sometimes?"

  "No!" This was getting her nowhere.

  "Letitia, we all have to adjust. Not even today's world is

  fair. Are you sure you're doing all you can to adjust?"

  Letitia squirmed in her seat and said she wanted to leave.

  "Just a moment,” the AC said. "We're not' done yet." She

  knew that tone of voice. The ACs were allowed to get a little rough at times. They could make unruly students do grounds

  duty or detain them after hours to work on assignments usually

  given to computers. Letitia sighed and settled back. She hated

  being lectured.

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

  shoulder."

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

  "Quiet, and listen. We're all allowed to criticize policy,

  whoever makes it. Dignity of office and respect for superiors

  has not survived very well into Century Twenty-one. People

  have to earn respect. That goes for students, too. The average

  student here has four major talents, each of them fitting into a

  public planning policy which guarantees them a job incorporating

  two or more of those talents. They aren't forced to accept

  the jobs, and if their will falters, they may not keep those jobs.

  But the public has tried to guarantee every one of us a quality

  employment opportunity. That goes for you, as well. You're

  DNG, but you also show as much intelligence and at least

  as many developable talents as the PPCs. You are young,

  and your maturation schedule is a natural one--but you are not

  inferior or impaired, Letitia. That's more than can be said for

  the offspring of some parents even more resistive than your

  own. You at least were given prenatal care and nutrition

  adjustment, and your parents let the biotechs correct your

  allergies."

  "So?"

  "So for you, it's all a matter of will. If your will falters,

  you won't be given any more consideration than a PPC. You'll

  have to choose secondary or tertiary employment, or even..."

  The AC paused. "Public support. Do you want that?"

  "My grades are up. I'm doing fine."

  "You are choosing career training not matching your

  developable talents."

  "I like medicine."

  "You're squeamish."

  Letitia shrugged.

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

  "Just tell them to lay off. I’ll be civil.., but I don't want

  them treating me like a freak. Edna Corman called me..." She

  paused. That could get Edna Corman into a lot of trouble.

  Among the students, TB was a casual epithet; to school authorities,

  applied to an NO, it might be grounds for a blot on

  Co,man's record. "Nothing. Not important.”

  The AC switched to lower authority and Tempes
ino's face

  took a different counseling track. "Fine. Adjustment on both

  sides is necessary. Thank you for coming in, Letitia."

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

  "Request has been

  noted. Please return to your class in

  progress."

  "Pay attention to your brother when he's talking," Jane

  said. Roald was making a nuisance of himself by chattering

  about the pre-flight training he was getting in primary. Letitia

  made a polite comment or two, then lapsed back into contemplation

  of the food before her. She didn't eat. Jane regarded her

  from the corner of her eye and passed a bowl of sugared berries.

  "What's eating you?"

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

  "Ha," Roald said. "Full load from this angle." He

  grinned at her, his two front teeth missing. He looked hideous,

  she thought. Any other family would have given him temporaries;

  not hers.

  "A little more respect from both of you," said Donald.

  Her father took the bowl from Roald and scooped a modest

  portion into his cup, then set it beside Letitia. "Big fifteen and big eight." That was his homily; behave big whether eight or

  fifteen.

  "Autocounselor today?" Jane asked. She knew Letitia

  much too well.

  "AC," Letitia affirmed.

  "Did you go in?"

  "Yes."

  ' 'And?"

  "I'm not tuned."

  "Which means?" Donald ask.

  "It means she hisses and crackles," Roald said, mouth full

  of berries, juice dripping down his chin. He cupped his hand

  underneath and sucked it up noisily. Jane reached out and

  finished the job with a napkin. "She complains," Roald finished.

  "About what?"

  Letitia shook her head and didn't answer.

  The dessert was almost finished when Letitia slapped both

  palms on the table. "Why did you do it?"

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

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

  US?"

  Jane and Donald glanced at each other quickly and turned

  to Letitia. Roald regarded her with wide eyes, a bit shocked

 
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