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Sophia nodded. “Five rooms, and ten in each, when we have our full fifty. Right now we still have a few newborns due to come in. Then, when we reach fifty, no more till after the next Ceremony.” She waved cheerfully at the volunteer putting the bottles into the warming device, and the young girl grinned and waved back.

“Then, of course, after this year’s fifty are assigned, we start fresh, after the Ceremony, with new ones coming in gradually. It’s like a little vacation!”

“It’s a while, still, till the Ceremony. But you almost have the full fifty?”

“It’s timed, over at the Birthing Unit, so we don’t get a batch of newborns late in the year. Parents being given newchildren don’t want brand-new ones.”

“Too much work?”

“Not really. You saw, a minute ago—those newest ones? They mostly sleep. But it’s a lot of responsibility, keeping everything sterile. Also, you can’t play with the new ones. Parents like to play with their children when they get them.”

Claire was half listening. Thirty-six, she thought. Her Product had been number Thirty-six. She had kept the number firmly in her mind.

“So next is the third ten?” she asked. “Let me think. One to Ten. Then this group is Eleven to Twenty. The next group will be Twenty-one to Thirty, right?”

“Yes. Over there, across the hall. I usually work with that group. I’m going to have to go back in, in a minute, to help feed.” Claire glanced through the window that displayed Sophia’s group of infants, who were dangling in swings suspended from the ceiling, kicking their bare feet against the carpet. A male attendant was changing one on a padded table. He noticed the girls and pointed meaningfully to the large clock on the wall. Sophia opened the door a crack, and Claire could hear the gurgles and giggles as the infants “talked” to one another. She smiled. She had not thought of newchildren as being appealing, not at all. But there was a sweetness to these little ones, she had to admit. She could understand why new parents wanted ones they could play with.

“I’ll be right in,” Sophia was telling her coworker. “I’m giving a tour. “Or”—she turned to Claire—“we could stop here. There’s only one more group, the next to youngest. They’re not that interesting. Want to come in and play with these? You could feed one if you want.”

Claire hesitated. She didn’t want to seem oddly interested in a particular group. “You know,” she told Sophia, “I’d really like to peek at the last group, just so I can say I’ve seen them all. If you don’t mind?”

Sophia sighed. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she told the uniformed man, who had placed the newly changed infant back in a swing and was now taking small bowls of cereal from the warmer.

“Over here,” Sophia told Claire, and led her to the last room in the corridor.

“So these would be, let me think, Thirty-one to Forty?”

“Correct.” Sophia was clearly eager to get back to her own charges. “Next to newest.”

“May I go in?” Claire was looking through the observation window. Each small crib held an infant, and two attendants were propping warmed bottles on padded holders beside their heads so that they could suck.

“I guess.” Sophia opened the door and asked. “We have a visitor. Could you use a hand for this feed?”

A uniformed man smiled. “How about two hands? We can use all the help we can get!”

“I have to get back to work with my own group. But I’ll leave her here with you.”

“Thanks, Sophia. It’s been good to see you again.” Claire smiled. “Maybe we could get together for lunch or something?”

“Yes. Come back anytime. Best is when they’re napping, though.” Sophia gave a brief goodbye gesture and returned to her own assigned room.

Claire entered timidly and stood watching as the final bottles were distributed. “There,” the attendant said. “Everyone’s been served. Now we have to check from time to time and make sure they’re all properly placed. Of course they’ll yell if they lose hold of the nipple! Won’t you?” He glanced down with a smile at one of the infants who was industriously sucking at the milk. “And then one by one we pick the little guys up and pat their backs till they burp. Ever done that?”

Claire shook her head. Till they burp? She couldn’t even imagine it. “No.”

He chuckled. “Well, you can watch. Then, if you want to give it a try—”

He lifted one of the infants from its crib. Claire moved forward and saw the number. Forty. She glanced around to see if the numbers were in order. But the little beds were on wheels, and seemed to have been placed randomly. As she watched, the attendant took Forty to a rocking chair in the corner and sat down with the little one against his shoulder.

The other attendant, a young woman, leaned forward over a crib with a sniff, and said suddenly, “Uh-oh! Thirty-four needs changing!” She wrinkled her nose and pushed the crib over to the changing area. “You’ll have to finish your bottle after I clean you up, little girl!” she said with a chuckle, and lifted the infant to the table.

Claire noticed, then, that each small crib here was also tagged with a gender symbol. She made her way past the little beds, glancing in at the infants, some sucking serenely on their milk, others gulping lustily. Suddenly one in a crib marked male let out a shriek, then switched to a loud wail.

“I don’t need to ask who that is!” the man said, continuing to pat and stroke the back of the infant he held. “I recognize his voice!”

Claire looked at the number on the crib that contained the howling newchild. “It’s Thirty-six,” she told him.

“Of course it’s Thirty-six!” the man replied, laughing. “It’s always Thirty-six! Pick him up, would you? See if you can get him to stop screeching.”

Claire took a deep breath. She had never held an infant before. The man, watching her, sensed that. “He won’t break. They’re quite tough, actually. Just be sure to support his head.”

She leaned down. Her hands seemed to know what to do. They slid easily under him, and found the way to hold his neck and head. Gently Claire picked up her son.

Five

Nothing changed. Claire’s life didn’t change. She woke each day, showered, donned her uniform, and attached her nametag: CLAIRE. HATCHERY ASSISTANT. She went to the cafeteria, greeted her coworkers, ate the morning meal, and began her assigned tasks. The superiors at the Hatchery were pleased with her work.

But at the same time, everything was different. Her every thought now was on the newchild she had met only once, had held for a moment, whose light eyes she had gazed into briefly, whose curly hair had touched her chin for too short a time. Number Thirty-six.

“Have they chosen the name yet?” she had asked the young woman attendant, who was re-propping the bottle for the female one she had changed and returned to her crib.

“For this one? I don’t think so. They don’t tell us, anyway. We never know their names until they’re assigned.”

Each newchild was given to his assigned parents at the Ceremony that would take place in December. Their names, chosen by a committee, were announced then.

“I meant this one,” Claire explained. She had taken an empty rocking chair, and moved back and forth now with Thirty-six, whose loud crying had subsided. He was looking up at Claire.

“Oh, that one. He might not even get a name at the next Ceremony. They’re already talking about keeping him here another year. He’s not doing well. They call it failure to thrive.” The young woman shrugged.

“Actually, he does have a name lined up.” The man returned the infant he’d been burping to the crib, re-propped her bottle, came to where Claire was, and looked down at Thirty-six. “Hey there, little guy,” he said, in a singsong voice.

“He does? How do you know?” The young woman looked surprised.

The man took Thirty-six from Claire, who relinquished him reluctantly. “I’ve been concerned about him,” he explained. He looked down and made a funny face, as if encouraging the unhappy infant to laugh. “I thought it might make him more responsive if I started using his name. So I sneaked into the office and took a look at the list.”

“And?” his assistant asked.

“And what?”

“His name is—?”

The man laughed. “Not telling. I only use it in secret. If it’s overheard? Big trouble. So I’m being careful.” He jiggled the infant in his lap. “It’s a good name, though. Suits him.”

The woman sighed. “Well, it had better perk him up before December,” she said, “if he wants to get a family. And right now,” she added, looking at the wall clock, “it’s going to be naptime soon, and we haven’t even finished the feeds.”

They had forgotten Claire was there. She rose from the rocker. It was true; the time had passed quickly. “I have to get back,” she told them. “I wonder: Would it be all right if I visit again?”

They were both silent for a moment. She realized why. It was an odd request. Children volunteered at many different places; it was required. But after the Assignments, after childhood, people worked at their assigned jobs. They didn’t visit around, or try out other things. She tried to come up, quickly, with an explanation that seemed logical.

“I have a lot of free time,” Claire said. “It’s a slow time of year at the Hatchery. So I wandered over today to visit Sophia. You know Sophia; she works down the hall, with the next older newchildren?”

They nodded. “Twenty-one to Thirty,” the man said. “That’s Sophia’s group.”

“Yes. Anyway, she showed me around a bit. And I can see that you can use an extra pair of hands from time to time. So I’m just offering to help out. If you’d like me to, of course.” Claire was aware that she was talking very fast. She was nervous. But the pair didn’t seem to notice.

“You know,” the man said, “if you wanted to do it on a regular basis, make it official, I think you’d have to fill out some forms.”

The young woman agreed. “Get permission,” she added.

Claire’s heart sank. She could never do that, never fill out official forms. They would identify her immediately as the Birthmother who had been reassigned.

Thirty-six wiggled and wailed. The man carried him to his crib and propped his bottle, but the wailing continued. The man patted the thrashing legs in a vain attempt to soothe him. He looked over at Claire with a wry smile.

“But come on over when you have free time,” he said. “Just on a casual basis.”

“Maybe I will,” Claire said, keeping her voice light, as his had been, “if I have a few moments sometime.”

She turned and fled. Thirty-six continued to cry. She could still hear him as she left the building.

Now she thought of nothing else, of no one else.

Six

It felt very strange, to have this feeling—whatever this feeling was. Claire had never experienced it before, the yearning she had to be with the newchild, remembering his face—how the solemn light eyes had stared at her, the way his hair curved around at the top of his head and lifted into a curl there, the wrinkling of his forehead, and his quivering chin before he began to cry.

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