Each family unit was allotted two children, one of each gender, and she had been the younger. They had waited several years after receiving Peter before they had applied for their girl. So Claire had never known an infant or a small child well.
She asked her coworkers, trying to make it a casual question, at the evening meal. “Do any of you remember getting your sibling?”
“Sure,” Rolf said. “I was eight when we got my sister.”
“I was older,” Edith said. “My parents waited quite a long time before they applied for my brother. I think I was eleven.”
“I was the second child in my family,” Eric said. “Anyone want that last piece of bread?”
They all shook their heads, and Eric took the last slice from the serving plate. “My sister was only three when they got me. I think my mother actually liked little children.” He made a face, as if the idea mystified him.
“That’s what I was wondering about, actually,” Claire explained. “Is it, well, usual for people to become really fond of newchildren?”
“Depends what you mean by ‘fond,’” Dimitri said. The head of the entire Hatchery operation, Dimitri was an upper-level worker; he was older, and had studied science intensively. “But you know, of course, that infants of any species—”
He stopped and looked at the rest of them, at their blank expressions. “Didn’t you study this in evolutionary biology?” he asked.
Finally, at the silence, he chuckled. “All right, so you don’t know. I’ll explain. Infants are born with big wide-spaced eyes, generally, and large heads, because that makes them look appealing to the adults of the species. So it ensures that they will be fed and cared for. Because they look—”
“Cute?” Edith interrupted.
“Right. Cute. If they were born ugly, no one would want to pick them up, or smile at them, or talk to them. They wouldn’t get fed. They wouldn’t learn to smile or talk. They might not survive, if they didn’t appeal to the adults.”
“What do you mean by ‘any species’?” Eric asked.
“Well, we don’t have mammals anymore, because a healthy diet didn’t include mammal, and they detracted from the efficiency of the community. But in other areas there are wild creatures of all sorts. And even here, people once had things they called pets. Usually small things: dogs, or cats. It was the same in those species. The newborns were—well, cute. Big eyes, usually. Animals don’t smile, though. That’s a skill unique to humans.”
Claire was fascinated. “What did people do with ‘pets’?”
Dimitri shrugged. “Played with them, I think. And also, pets provided company for lonely people. We don’t have those now, of course.”
“Nobody’s lonely here,” Edith agreed.
Claire was quiet. She didn’t say this, but she was thinking: I am. I am lonely. Even as she thought it, though, she realized she didn’t really know what the term meant.
The first buzzer sounded, meaning time to finish up. They began to stack their trays. “Rolf? Edith?” Claire asked. “When you got your siblings—and they were infants, with big eyes, and big heads, and so they were cute . . .”
Both of her coworkers shrugged.
“I guess,” Edith said.
“Did you think about them all the time, and want to hold them and not ever leave them?”
They looked at Claire as if she had said something preposterous, or unintelligible. She hastened to rephrase her question. “Or maybe I meant your mothers. Did your mothers cuddle your siblings and rock them, and, well—”
“My mother worked, just like every other mother. She took very competent care of my sister, of course, and she took her to the Childcare Center every day,” Rolf said. “She wasn’t a cuddler, though. Not my mother.”
“Same with my mother and my brother,” Edith said. “My father and I helped her to take care of him, but both of my parents had very demanding jobs. And I had school, of course, and then my training. We were all happy to drop him off every day at the Center.
“We took great pride in him, of course. He was a very intelligent infant,” she added primly. “He’s studying computer science now.”
The final buzzer sounded, and they all rose to go back to work.
I must put Thirty-six out of my mind, Claire told herself.
But she found it impossible. Each day, at her microscope, examining the embryonic salmon for flaws in their structure, Claire looked at the large dark spots that were their primitive, unformed eyes. She imagined that they were gazing at her. It was clearly impossible. Those murky, glistening orbs were not capable of vision, not yet; and there was no intelligence within the quivering blob, nothing that craved affection or even attention. But she found herself reminded, again and again, of the pale, long-lashed eyes that had looked up at her briefly, and of the small fingers that had encircled her thumb.
She began to dream of Thirty-six. In one dream, she wore the leather mask again, but they handed her something to hold. It moved tentatively in her arms, and she clasped it tightly, knowing it was he, not wanting them to take him away, weeping behind the mask when they did.
In another, recurrent dream, Thirty-six was here with her, in her small room at the Hatchery, but no one knew. She kept him hidden in a drawer, and opened it from time to time. He would look up and smile at her. Secrecy was forbidden in the community, and the dream of the hidden newchild caused her to wake with a feeling of guilt and dread. But a stronger feeling was the one that stayed with her after that dream: the excitement of opening the drawer and seeing that he was still there, that he was safe and smiling.
As children, within the family unit, they had been required to tell their dreams each morning. For single, working members of the community, like those at the Hatchery, the requirement was set aside. Occasionally, at the morning meal, one of the workers would recount an amusing dream. But there was none of the discussion that had been part of the family ritual. And Claire kept her new dreams private.
But she felt restless now, and different, in ways that she didn’t understand. In keeping with the demands of her new job and its meticulousness, its constant analyzing, she tried to examine her own feelings. She had never done so before, had never needed to. For Claire’s entire life, her feelings had been those of—what? She searched in her mind for the right descriptive word. Contentment. Yes, she had always been content. Everyone was, in the community. Their needs were tended to; there was nothing they lacked, nothing they . . . That was it, Claire realized. She had never yearned for anything before. But now, ever since the day of the birth, she felt a yearning constantly, desperately, to fill the emptiness inside her.
She wanted her child.
Time passed. It became mid-November. She was busy with her work. But finally she found a time to return to the Nurturing Center.
Hello again!” The man’s greeting was cheerful and welcoming. “I thought you’d forgotten us!”
Claire smiled, pleased that he recognized her. “No. But it’s a busy time at work. It’s been hard to get away.”
“Well,” he agreed, “it’s almost December. Lots going on.”
“Especially here, I imagine.” Claire gestured to indicate that she meant the entire Nurturing Center, not only this one room, where the lights were dimmed—it was just past the midday mealtime, and the newchildren were all napping. She and the man spoke in lowered voices. In the corner, his female assistant was quietly folding clean laundry that had just been delivered.
“Yes. We’re getting them all ready. Apparently the assignments have all been made. I haven’t seen the list yet.”
A sudden thought struck Claire. “Do you have a spouse? Could you apply for a child, and then—I suppose this would be against the rules, but—could you choose the one that would be assigned to you?”
He laughed. “Too late for that. Yes, I have a spouse—she works over at Law and Justice. But we already have our complete family: boy first, then girl. And it was quite a while ago that we got them. I was just an assistant then. No clout.”
“So you didn’t even hint at which ones—?”
He shook his head. “Didn’t matter. They match them pretty carefully. We’ve been very satisfied with ours.”
A sound from one of the cribs caught his attention, and he turned. It grew louder: the fussy whimper of an infant. Claire could see a small arm flail.
“You want me to get him?” the assistant asked, looking over.
“No, I will. It’s Thirty-six again. Of course!” His voice was resigned and affectionate.
“Could I?” Claire asked, surprising herself.
“Be my guest.” The man made a joking gesture toward the crib. “He likes being talked to, and sometimes patting his back helps.”
“Or not,” the woman in the corner interjected wryly, and the man laughed.
Claire lifted the restless newchild from his crib. “Walk him in the hall,” the man suggested, “so he doesn’t wake up the others.”
Holding him carefully, she carried the wriggly, whimpering bundle out of the room and walked back and forth in the long hallway, jiggling him against her shoulder so that he calmed slightly. He held his head up and looked around with wide eyes. She found herself talking to him, nonsense words and phrases, in a singsong voice. She nuzzled his neck and smelled his milky, powdered scent. He relaxed in her arms, finally, and dozed.
I could walk out of here, Claire thought. I could leave right now. I could take him.
Even as she had the thought, she could see the impossibility of it. She had no idea how to feed or care for an infant. No place to hide him, despite her tempting dream of the secret drawer in her room.
The man appeared in the doorway, smiled when he saw that the infant was asleep, and beckoned. “Good job,” he whispered when she approached.
They stood in the hallway together by a window that looked out across scattered dwellings and the agricultural fields beyond. Two boys rode past on bicycles, and the man waved, but the boys were talking eagerly together and didn’t notice. The man shrugged and chuckled. “My son,” he explained. She watched and could see the boys turn left where the path intersected another just past the Childcare Center. They were probably going to the recreation field.
“You’ve got just the right touch,” the man said, and Claire looked at him questioningly. He nodded toward the sleeping infant she was still holding.
“He hardly sleeps. Classic failure to thrive. So they’ve decided not to assign him to a family at the Ceremony. We’re going to keep him here another year, give him a chance to mature a bit. Some newchildren do take longer than others. Thirty-six has been very difficult.
“I take him back to my dwelling at night,” he explained. “The night crew here has been complaining about him. He keeps the others awake. So he spends nights with my family.”
He reached for the infant and Claire relinquished him reluctantly. As she passed him from her arms into the man’s, she felt something. She pushed the blanket aside and looked at a metal bracelet encircling one tiny ankle.