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Nancy Kress

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NOTHING

HUMAN

 

Nancy Kress

 

Golden Gryphon Press • 2003

 

 

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this novel are either fictitious or are used fictitiously.

 

Copyright © 2003 by Nancy Kress

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA Kress, Nancy.

Nothing human / Nancy ress. — 1st ed.

p. cm.

ISBN 1-930846-18-5 (hardcover: alk. paper)

1. Global warming—Fiction. 2. Genetic engineering—Fiction.

3. Human-alien encounters—Fiction. I. Title.

 

PS3561.R46 N68 2003

813’.54-dc21 2002154974

 

All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law. For information address Golden Gryphon Press, 3002 Perkins Road, Urbana, IL 61802.

First Edition.

For Charles, Always

” I am a man; nothing human is alien to me.”


Terence Africanus, c. 190-159 B.C.

 

PART I: KEITH

 

“Some alien blessing

is on its way to us.”


W.S. Merwin, “Midnight in Early S
pring”

 

CHAPTER 1

 

April 2013

 

He wrote:

There are things you cannot get your mind around. You go to school, grow up, go to college and law school, get a job. You marry, love, fight, divorce, make partner, marry again, divorce again. People you know have children, or career changes, or deaths. Every change in your life feels enormous at the time, and in the context of your life it is enormous, cataclysmic, life-altering. But not unexpected. Other people around you are experiencing these same things, rich people and poor people, famous and obscure, quietly or with maximum theatrics. Each cataclysm, you see as you get older, is just part of the normal pattern of life. Disappointing or exhilarating, at least what happens to you is universal. Possibly even banal.

Then something happens so far off the expected, outside the pattern, the ordinary turned into the unthinkable, that your mind simply rejects it. It cannot be. It isn’t happening. Impossible. No way.

Like the aliens.

Or Lillie.

He looked at the paper, and tore it up. The lame paragraph didn’t even come close. What had happened couldn’t be expressed in words. There were no words.

Of course, that had been the whole point.

 

September 1999

“I’m pregnant,” Barbara said, and grinned at him like a six-year-old who had just tied her shoelaces for the first time.

Shit.

“Don’t look like that, Keith,” she said, her voice already trembling. Then, with a sudden show of what passed in her for anger, “Just because you’re my brother doesn’t give you the power to judge me.”

“Of course it does,” Keith Anderson said. “Don’t spout these mindless slogans at me. Everyone has the right to judge actions according to belief and practicality. It’s called ‘using good judgment.’ “

Her eyes filled with tears, and Keith willed himself to patience. Softly, go softly. Be a good brother. She had always gotten upset too easily, even when they’d been small children. He knew that. Barbara was emotionally fragile.

So how was she going to cope alone with a baby?

He reached for her hand across her tiny kitchen table. Outside the dingy apartment window, someone on Amsterdam Avenue rattled garbage cans and cursed loudly. Cabs honked incessantly. “Tell me about it, Babs,” he said gently.

Instantly her tears evaporated. “You know I always wanted children. Then the years somehow went by and things happened and … well. You know.”

Keith knew. Her first husband the non-working narcissist happened, and her second husband the just-barely-this-side-of-the-law bankrupt happened, and a string of disastrous love affairs happened, and so Barbara was thirty-six and working as an office temp and, apparently, pregnant.

“Who’s the father, Babs?”

“That’s the best part. There isn’t one.”

“A virgin birth,” he said, before he knew he was going to speak. Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.

Barbara laughed and ran her hand through her short brown hair. It stood up in spikes. “No, an anonymous sperm donor. No man to interfere with us, bully us, upset Lillie and me.”

Lillie.
Already this fetus was a person to her. Keith braced himself for the argument ahead. But she anticipated him.

“I know what you’re thinking, Keithers. But that’s taken care of, too. This fertility clinic took five of my eggs and fertilized them all, then chose one that doesn’t carry the genetic marker. The baby won’t get breast cancer.” She and Keith were both carriers; their mother had died of the disease.

When he remained silent she added, “I’m being very careful of Lillie. Yes, I’m positive it’s a girl, I had the amnio. I wanted to know.”

“How far along are you?”

“Three months already,” she said proudly, standing up and turning sideways. “I’m starting to show!”

She wasn’t. Skinny as always, impulsive as always, improvident as always. Keith looked around the cramped apartment in the bad neighborhood that was all she could afford. Paint peeled off the walls. He glimpsed a roach crawling in the dim crevice between stove and refrigerator. Outside the grimy window, kids who should have been in school sauntered along Amsterdam Avenue in the mellow sunshine.

“Barbara, how did you afford the
in vitro
fertilization? A woman in my office told me it took her and her husband three tries at nine thousand dollars a pop.”

She sat down again. “This clinic, it’s called ChildGive IVF Institute, is on a sliding income scale, very cheap. It’s because they’re part of some test.”

“A clinical trial? Who’s running it?”

“Oh, Keith, how should I know? And it doesn’t matter anyway. Stop sounding like a lawyer!”

“I am a lawyer. How did you learn about the clinic?”

“Ad in the paper. Keithers, please stop.”

Again he fought down impatience. “I can’t. I care about you. Have you thought how you’ll work and take care of the baby, too? Good day care is expensive.”

“Something will turn up, it always does. The Lord will provide. You have to trust in Him more.”

Keith stared at her helplessly. The Great Divide; they always seemed to run into it sooner or later. But was it really religion, or was it temperament? Trust in God was a great excuse for sloth and lack of planning.

So was the knowledge that you had a hard-working younger brother that wouldn’t let you go begging.

It would do no good to say so. Barbara wouldn’t hear him; she never did. And Keith was honest enough to admit that he needed her as much as she needed him. His marriage record was no better than hers. Two failures, and he never saw either Stacey or Meg. He , was childless, worked fourteen hours a day, would have been wary of trying again with a new woman even if he had had the time. At thirty-four, he was already romantically burned out. Barbara was the only family he had, or probably would have. Barbara and now this child.

He gazed at his sister, with her rumpled-up pixie cut and thin body and hopeful face. She wore jeans from the teen department and a T-shirt with a pictture of kittens. A child herself, perpetually.

“Let me show you the baby clothes I bought yesterday … they’re the most darling things you ever saw!” Barbara said, jumping up from the table so quickly that his tepid coffee sloshed over the rim of his cup. She didn’t notice.

Keith mopped up the coffee before she returned from the bedroom with a shopping bag. Then he sat and looked at pink sleepers and a hat with a fuzzy ball on top and impossibly tiny soft white shoes. As she chartered away, he nodded meaninglessly and tried to smile. This was his sister, and she was determined on having this baby no matter what, and the baby would be his only genetic stake in the next generation. His niece.

Lillie.

 

Barbara had an easy pregnancy, which was good because she had no health insurance and could not have afforded many complications. There was no morning sickness, no bleeding, none of possible worse horrors that Barbara insisted on reading about at the public library. She recited them all to Keith, who would much rather have not heard. He took her to dinner every Tuesday, slashing the time out of his logjammed schedule. He sent her a crib from Bloomingdale’s, and he inquired of a tax attorney at Wolf, Pfeiffer about various types of trust funds. The rest of the time he forgot his sister and defended his corporate clients.

He was in court when she went into labor. Turning the case over to his assistant, he drove to St. Vincent’s.

“You can go into the labor room but not the delivery room,” a harassed nurse told him. Keith hadn’t wanted to go into either, but he donned the paper garments and followed her meekly.

Barbara lay on a gurney, her hair plastered wetly to her head and her face sweaty. To his relief, she wasn’t screaming. At least not at the moment.

“Keith.”

“I’m here, honey.” Why didn’t she have a girlfriend do this? He tried to look reassuring instead of resentful.

“Talk to me.”

“Okay. What about?”

“The trial. What is it about?” All at once her face grew very intent. She gripped the sides of the gurney hard enough to turn her entire hands white. Her features contorted so much that Keith hardly recognized her, but still she made no sound. He began talking very fast, hardly aware of what he was saying, sure she was hearing none of it anyway.

“It’s a corporate liability case. I represent the corporation. A worker was cleaning the inside of a mixing machine, which was turned off, of course — “

Barbara gave a long, low sound, less like pain than a weird kind of off-key singing.

“— and he fell asleep. Actually, he was drunk, we’ve proved that conclusively.”

Her face relaxed, became her face again. “Go on, go on, go on.” She closed her eyes.

“The allotted time for the cleaning was over,” Keith said desperately. He would give anything, anything at all, to be back in court. “And the supervisor, my client, called out loudly that all machinery was going to be turned on again, and — “

Her face contorted and she sounded the long, weird, sliding note.

“Go on, Keith!”

“And so they turned the mixer on.” Was this a suitable story to tell a woman in labor? It was not. “The worker was killed. The family is suing.”

“Go on!”

“I’ll give the summation tomorrow morning. The main point is that for liability you must have negligence on the part of the employer, the standard is that of reasonable care — “

“How are we doing?” the nurse said, rescuing him. She did something to Barbara that Keith didn’t watch and, to his intense relief, ordered him back to the crowded waiting room. He sank down gratefully into an orange plastic chair with rips in both arms. People around him jabbered in at least three languages.

It seemed only a few minutes before a doctor appeared, beaming broadly. “Mr. Anderson? You have a daughter!”

Keith felt too wrung out to correct her. He merely nodded and smiled, shuffling his feet like an idiot.

“Your wife is doing fine, she’s in Recovery. But if you go to Maternity, you can see the baby. Through this door, down the corridor, take your first left.”

“Thank you.”

The babies lay behind a big glass window. There were only two of them. Keith pointed to the crib labeled ANDERSON and a masked nurse held up a bundle wrapped in pink. Again Keith pantomimed smiling and nodding until the nurse seemed satisfied.

The baby looked like a baby: reddish, bald, wrinkled, wormlike. All babies looked alike. Keith tried to think what he should do next, and hit on the idea of buying Barbara some flowers. He escaped to the gift shop, breathing deeply with relief.

With any luck, he’d make it back to court before the judge adjourned for the day. With any luck at all.

 

April 2013

The aide had just left. Lillie lay on her bed in New York-Presbyterian Hospital as she had lain for three weeks now, unmoving. Unseeing, unhearing. Although Keith wasn’t sure he believed that last, and so he talked to her whenever he could make himself do it.

“How are you feeling today, Lillie? You look good. Mrs. Kessler put a red ribbon in your hair. I told her red was your favorite color.”

He sat down at the little table beside her bedside and pulled out a pack of cards. It helped if his hands were occupied. Helped him, that is. There was no help for her.

Nof
a conventional coma,
the doctor had said. If a nipple was inserted into Lillie’s mouth, she sucked. At least that eliminated any need for an IV. She jumped at sounds, closed her eyes at light. But nothing woke her. She didn’t use the toilet, didn’t respond to anything said to her, didn’t move voluntarily. No one had ever seen anything like it. Interns trooped through the room daily. Machines scanned every corner of Lillie. Conferences were held. Lillie harbored no viruses, no bacteria, no parasites, no cancers, no blood anomalies, no nerve or muscular degeneration, no concussion, no endocrine malfunctions. No one could explain anything.

Keith shuffled the cards and began to lay them out. “I used to play solitaire on the computer,” he told her companionably. “In law school, when I couldn’t stand to study a second longer. I liked seeing those little red and black cards snap into their rows when I clicked on the mouse. Very satisfying.”

Lillie lay inert, a physically healthy thirteen-year-old dressed in a blue hospital gown and red hair ribbon.

“Funny, though. Once during a boring weekend at somebody’s beach house, a weekend it did nothing but rain, I tried to play with an old deck of cards I found in a dresser drawer. And the game wasn’t any fun. It wasn’t the solitaire itself I liked, it was the neatness and quickness of the computer moving the cards. Click click.”

There was no computer here. Keith could have brought his handheld, but if he did, he’d probably work. He didn’t want to work when he visited Lillie, didn’t want to get so absorbed in the law that he forgot about her. If that were possible.

“Red nine on the black ten, Lil.”

Someone came into the room. Keith clicked a black eight onto the growing column and looked up. At the expression on Dr. Shoba Asrani’s face, Keith got to his feet. Dr. Asrani held a printout in her hand.

“Mr. Anderson, this is a new article from a Net list serve. It describes a patient case, brain scan and PLI and DNA chart. All the same anomalies.”

No one had done a brain scan or PLI or DNA chart on Lillie when she was born. No reason: she was a normal healthy infant. And anyway, PLI and DNA charts hadn’t been invented yet. The human genome was still being sequenced. Things were different now.

Asrani took a deep breath. “Things are different now. There’s another one like Lillie.”

 

August 2001

Keith had the biggest trial case of his career. He’d been working on it with a team of assistants for months, which meant that gradually he’d seen less and less of Barbara.

BioHope Inc. had developed a genetically engineered soya bean with strong pest resistance, good adaptability to soil variety, and dramatically high bean yield. The plant had the potential to thrive in Third World countries. The United Nations had expressed strong interest, the World Health Organization had given the bean its imprimatur, and several governments were interested. Mechanisms were being put in place to distribute seeds free, courtesy of three international charitable trusts, in Africa and Asia. Agriexperts estimated that hundreds of thousands of lives would be saved from starvation.

Then a volunteer in the American clinical trial of the soya bean went into convulsions and died.

The investigation showed that the woman had neglected to tell BioHope that she was allergic to Brazil nuts. A gene from the Brazil nut genome had been spliced into the new soya bean to make methionine, an essential amino acid which soya beans lacked. The dead woman’s family sued BioHope.

“I never expected to know this much about Brazil nuts,” Keith said to his office friend, Calvin Loesser, when they met in the glossy halls of Wolf, Pfeiffer.

“You lined up good expert witnesses?”

“The best. Did you know that the Brazil nut, technically called
Bertholletia excelsa,
is related to the anchovy pear, which makes good pickles?”

“I didn’t know that,” Cal said.

“Or that the Brazil nut meat is exceptionally rich in oil?”

“I didn’t know that either,” Cal said, starting to edge away down the hall.

“Or that less than half the people allergic to nuts in general are allergic to tree nuts like the Brazil nut?”

“Keith …”

“The point is,” Keith said quietly, “that the genetically engineered soya bean would probably only kill about ten people a year worldwide and would save hundreds of thousands of people from starving. Conservative estimate.”

Cal stopped edging down the hall and looked lawyerly alert. “You can’t put that in your summation. If you say that even ten people will die, the jury will turn against your client.”

“I know. But weigh it out, Cal—ten quick deaths or hundreds of thousands of slow ones? Maybe, over time, millions.”

“Too coldly calculating for a jury to respond to.”

“I know,” Keith said again. “But if it were me, I’d vote in favor of the engineered nut. Ten people is a fair sacrifice to aid millions. What is it, Denise?”

His secretary said apologetically, “I’m sorry to interrupt, but your sister is on the phone and she says it’s urgent.”

Keith sprinted to his office. “Barbara? Are you all right?”

“No,” she said tremulously, “I’m not. Keith, I’m sorry to bother you but I can’t… I can’t do it. I can’t!”

“Do what?”

“Any of it! I just can’t anymore!” She burst into hysterical weeping.

Keith closed his eyes, calculating rapidly. It wasn’t a day heavy with appointments. On the other hand, it was raining hard. Taxis would be hard to get. “Babs, I’ll be there as soon as I can. Just sit down and wait for me to … where’s Lillie? Is she all right?”

“I can’t do it anymore!” Barbara cried, and now Keith heard Lillie yelling lustily in the background, screams of rage rather than pain.

“I’ll be right over. Just sit down and don’t do anything. All right?”

“All … right…”

At her apartment he found Barbara sobbing on the sofa. Lillie, seventeen months, sat and played with a pile of what looked like broken toys. The apartment reeked. Lillie, dressed in only a diaper and food-stained bib, reeked more. Every surface including the floor was covered with unwashed dishes, baby clothes, pizza cartons, and unopened mail.

Lillie looked up and gave him a beatific smile. Her eyes were gray, flecked with tiny spots of gold.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Barbara sobbed. “I just can’t do it anymore.”

But somebody had to do it. That much was clear. Keith, well aware that he hadn’t the faintest idea how, picked up the phone. Within an hour he had a very expensive Puerto Rican woman from a very expensive temp agency bathing Lillie, clucking disapprovingly at the apartment and murmuring comments in Spanish.

Barbara ignored the cup of tea he made her. “I’m just no good at being a mother, Keith! It’s terrible, I’m a complete failure, poor Lillie …”

“You’re not a failure,” Keith said. Was she? He really didn’t know if this was normal. He could easily see how it might get overwhelming, a job and a child… . But didn’t thousands of women all over the city do it every day without collapsing like this? Impatience warred with compassion, both flavored with guilt that he, Keith Anderson, did not have to face this every day.

“I hit her,” Barbara said despairingly. “I can’t believe it, but Lillie wouldn’t stop crying, she
wouldn’t…”

“Drink your tea, Babs, while it’s hot.”

“I can’t believe I hit her!”

He stayed until Mrs. Perez had left and Babs was asleep. Then he carried Lillie from her crib in her tiny, stuffy bedroom into the newly cleaned living room. Clumsily Keith undressed his niece. She stirred but didn’t wake. He examined Lillie carefully. No bruises, no burns, nothing that looked either painful or suspicious. Grateful, he redressed Lillie and put her back to bed.

He had just returned to the living room when Barbara came out, calmer now, in rumpled blue pajamas. “I’m so sorry, Keith.”

“You can’t help it, honey,” Keith said, not knowing if this was true or not. “It will be easier now. I’ve hired Mrs. Perez to come twice a week to clean and cook and just sort of take care that things are going smoothly.”

“You’re so good to me,” she said, sitting in a corner of the sagging sofa and tucking her feet under her. Her voice had a softer purr. So this was what she needed: someone to shift the burden onto. She had never been strong enough to carry her life alone, even when that life had been less complicated than it was now.

“So what kind of big case are you working on?” Barbara asked. He heard the envy in her voice. “I know it must be something exciting.”

Keith thought of BioHope. Of the genuinely struggling, starving mothers and children the engineered soya bean was supposed to save. Of the American volunteer who had died eating the bean.
“Ten people is a fair sacrifice to aid millions,”
he’d told Cal. But what if one of the ten were Barbara, leaving him with Lillie?

“Keith? What is your case about?”

“Nuts,” he said.

 

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