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A Town Divided by Christmas

Orson Scott Card

  Copyright © 2018 by Orson Scott Card

  E-book published in 2018 by Blackstone Publishing

  Cover design by Alenka Vdovič Linaschke

  All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  Trade e-book ISBN 978-1-5385-5687-0

  Library e-book ISBN 978-1-5385-5686-3

  Fiction / Romance / Holiday

  CIP data for this book is available from the Library of Congress

  Blackstone Publishing

  31 Mistletoe Rd.

  Ashland, OR 97520


  When Spunky was invited to a meeting in The Professor’s office, she didn’t know what to expect. She had taken two classes from him, but she didn’t major in genetics or even in a biological field — she was an economics post-doc, shopping for a tenured faculty position somewhere on planet Earth, preferably a place with flush toilets, clean water, and a good internet connection.

  It didn’t ease her confusion when she arrived at The Professor’s office at the same time as Elyon Dewey. She knew him because everyone did. Elyon was that most tragic of personality types: The relentless extrovert with zero social skills. However, he did happen to be a brilliant post-doc in genetics, and he had already co-published two journal articles with The Professor.

  “Do you have any idea what this meeting is about?” Spunky asked Elyon.

  “It can’t be important,” said Elyon.

  Spunky took a moment to process this. “You reach that conclusion because an economist was invited to the meeting?”

  “Well,” said Elyon, whose attempt to phrase things nicely was indistinguishable from condescension, “it can’t be about science.”

  “But it can be dismal,” said Spunky, knowing that the reference to economics as “the dismal science” would sail right past Oblivious Elyon.

  He smiled as if he understood what she had said and got the joke. She might have believed it if there hadn’t been a furtiveness in his eyes.

  Elyon opened the door and stuck his head in.

  “Elyon,” said The Professor from inside his office. “Did you forget our conversation about knocking?”

  Spunky was more than a little pleased to hear Elyon getting called on the carpet. She didn’t hate him, she was simply glad to know that despite The Professor’s apparent worship of Elyon’s intellect — two journal articles? — he knew how annoying Elyon could be.

  “How convenient,” said The Professor. “You arrived together.”

  To Spunky, this was a sign that the Professor had something in mind for the two of them, and that meant that either Spunky would do what The Professor “suggested,” or she would have to hie herself back to the economics department to deal with all the one-up-manship and status wars. From what she now knew about economists, if you weren’t one of the handful of elite practitioners who were respected by the ivory-tower faculty of the University of Chicago, then it didn’t matter what you researched, discovered, or thought up — you would never actually exist in the field.

  The truth was that Spunky had already cut bait with the Econites because she was tired of fending off the suitors who thought that because she was an economist, she would get all turned on by some grad student who told her all his plans to work in finance and make his first hundred million by the time he was thirty or twenty-eight or whatever number sounded magical to him.

  None of them ever bothered to find out whether she cared about money — she was in economics, after all! And it was especially offensive that not one of them ever supposed that perhaps she, also an Econ Ph.D., would reach her first hundred million before any of them.

  So now she had thrown in with The Professor, who had begun as a physicist of some note, then drifted into genetics when the Human Genome Project was just beginning. Now he was the beacon of interdisciplinarity, which meant he almost had to make room for a “genetic economist,” as Spunky once called herself, as a joke.

  It was the scientific equivalent of declaring herself to be homeless.

  And thus, as a homeless Ph.D., she had to come begging at the table of People With Grants, until she somehow tripped and fell into tenure somewhere. Right now The Professor was the likeliest PWG in her life, so here she was sitting beside Elyon in The Professor’s office, waiting to hear her doom.

  “I admired and appreciated Dr. Spunk’s work on genetically isolated populations in the United States —”

  “That was just her dissertation,” said Elyon dismissively, as if research done for a dissertation could not possibly contain any usable results.

  The Professor continued as if Elyon had not spoken. “I have been given a grant for a proposal I created, derived from Dr. Spunk’s work. It seems only right to involve Dr. Spunk in that well-funded project. In fact, I am making her the lead post-doc.”

  Spunky was unsurprised that in the unspeakably unfair world of academic science, she, who had conceived and executed the entire project, was now supposed to be grateful to be included in a project designed to exploit her results. She knew the game well enough by now to respond with, “Thank you,” and then wonder how many more humiliating hoops she would have to jump through before somebody offered her an actual J.O.B.

  “You left us with eleven American communities, between five thousand and twenty thousand in population, where the retention rate has been highest across five generations, and with the highest rate of return.”

  “That sounds like finance,” said Elyon.

  “But in this case,” said The Professor ... and then he gestured to Spunky to explain.

  This was such a delicious moment, to actually get to explain something to the king of condescension himself. “In this case we’re referring to natives of the community who leave for education, military, or employment, but then return before the birth of a second child, so their children remain in the community gene pool.”

  Elyon narrowed his eyes. “Surely you’re not going to expect me to spend time on something as trivial as inbreeding. The verdict is in — it’s bad and we’re against it.”

  “This isn’t an inbreeding study,” said The Professor. “It’s something much more subtle. It’ll require a gee-woz.”

  The term he pronounced “gee-woz” was an acronym: “Genome-Wide Association Study,” or GWAS. Both of them knew the word well, because it was the ultimate research fishing expedition. The idea was to run hundreds or thousands of complete genomes through a massive computer data search, looking for correlations of genetic markers. Such studies had helped identify some of the many markers for cystic fibrosis, and Spunky knew of dozens of GWAS projects already in progress.

  But they were all medical, looking for genetic factors associated with susceptibility to certain diseases.

  “So it is inbreeding,” said Elyon.

  “So it is not inbreeding,” said The Professor cheerfully. “Dr. Spunk, perhaps you can tell our skeptical friend what we might find in the genomes of people who live in one of your genetic isolates.”

  “Near-isolates,” Spunky corrected him. “There are no true isolates in North America ...”

  The Professor nodded and waved a hand in acquiescence.

  Spunky realized that this was a test. She had done the research identifying almost a dozen near-isolates, communities with minimal intake of genomes originating elsewhere, but had she thought deeply about what might be discovered?

  She had. She proceeded to spend about ten mi
nutes describing things she had thought of. Finally she reached the one that made The Professor lean forward in his chair. “It’s possible that there’s a ‘homebody marker,’ one or more genes linked with a tendency to remain in the native community or return to it.”

  “A xenophobia gene,” said Elyon.

  “Absolutely not,” said Spunky. “This study excluded communities that have a history of persecuting move-ins, and deliberately includes several communities with a high percentage of people who left and returned. It’s the returning that makes me think we might find a homebody marker, if it exists.”

  “They can’t hack life in the big city so they run home,” said Elyon.

  “With that attitude,” said Spunky to The Professor, “how can we possibly find anything?”

  The Professor held up a hand to calm her. “His attitude won’t matter because he won’t be meeting anybody,” he said. “He’ll be the one doing the genome analyses.”

  “So you expect me to do data entry?” asked Elyon, as if he were being assigned to latrine duty in the dysentery ward.

  “That will be part of your duty,” said The Professor, “though I recommend that you use the quick and easy chip method that takes very nearly no time at all.”

  “Well of course I’d use the —”

  Again The Professor talked over him. “Elyon will be available to help you take samples in large-number situations, but you’ll be trained in taking uncontaminated samples in one-on-one interviews,” said The Professor.

  Spunky understood. “Because people in these towns are likely to be suspicious of strangers.”

  “We sent out mailers and emails to selected people in every town you listed in your dissertation,” said The Professor. “We’re sending you to the town with the highest favorable response rate.”

  “Which is?” asked Spunky.

  “Good Shepherd, North Carolina,” said The Professor.

  “Sounds insanely religious,” said Elyon.

  “And which religion does not sound insane to you?” asked The Professor.

  “Atheism,” said Elyon.

  “So in case you’re wondering why I’m keeping your contact with our subjects to a minimum,” said the Professor, “please keep this conversation in mind. These are people from the Carolina hill country — the Appalachian Mountains, to be precise.”

  Spunky was relieved that he pronounced “Appalachian” correctly: ap-a-LATCH-un, not the northern affectation ap-a-LAY-chun.

  “Please note the pronunciation,” said The Professor.

  “Pronunciation of what?” asked Elyon.

  The Professor looked at Spunky, and she gave him the eyeroll he was clearly expecting.

  “I’ve noticed that people tend to like and trust Dr. Spunk pretty near immediately,” said The Professor.

  “People like me fine,” said Elyon.

  “I’m so happy that you’ve found such people,” said The Professor. “But I believe them to be rare as hen’s teeth.”

  “How many weeks will I have to be there?” asked Elyon.

  “That depends on how quickly Dr. Spunk establishes rapport with the community. Because our goal is to get every genome into the database.”

  “Ten thousand people?” said Elyon, incredulous. “Where’s our support staff?”

  “You are each other’s support staff,” said The Professor.

  “What’s our real cutoff?” asked Elyon. “What’s the number where you say ‘Good enough’?”

  “One hundred percent,” said The Professor.

  Elyon was doing all the objecting, but Spunky was just as skeptical.

  “Don’t underestimate Dr. Spunk’s ability to establish good relationships with strangers,” said The Professor. “All I ask of you, Dr. Dewey, is that you not muck it up.”

  Elyon was outraged, of course. But Spunky wasn’t inclined to intervene, because she had exactly the same low expectations for Elyon as The Professor. To her knowledge, Elyon had established something between a feud and a cold war between himself and half the grad students in every field in biology, not to mention the umbrage and hostility he routinely created in a shadow of loathing around himself.

  Yet this was the longest that Spunky had ever been in the same room with him, and she was beginning to see that while he was insufferably arrogant about his own abilities, he was easily hurt. He didn’t know, apparently, that The Professor routinely goaded everybody, in the firm belief — often stated — that people don’t do their best work without serious quantities of competitiveness and adrenaline, which were most cheaply produced by anger, resentment, and fear.

  “You don’t have to do this, of course, either of you,” said The Professor, which was his way of making sure they understood that they did have to do it. “And from what I’ve heard about Good Shepherd it will help you both greatly if you arrive there with a lot of Christmas spirit.”

  Elyon looked at him as if he were insane. “I’m a Jew,” said Elyon. “I don’t even have Chanukah spirit.”

  “Then stay out of Spunky’s way, because she even decorates her car for Christmas.”

  That was the end of the meeting, which The Professor signaled by starting to type something into his computer while refusing to answer or even acknowledge any of their questions or, in Elyon’s case, objections.

  Spunky convened a second, smaller meeting in the corridor, about twenty paces from The Professor’s door.

  “Let me make sure I understand the division of labor here,” said Spunky.

  “I do all the science and you do all the selling,” said Elyon.

  “It’s my job to persuade people not only to let us take swabs and spit, but also to fill out long and detailed questionnaires on medical matters, which will be easy enough, and also on personal matters, like why they moved out and back in, or why they think so many grownup children stay in Good Shepherd to raise their own families.”

  “If that’s multiple choice, will ‘they’re all lackwits’ be one of the options?” asked Elyon.

  “Yes,” said Spunky. “But that one will be hidden away in their average high school grade point average.”

  “They’ll lie,” said Elyon.

  “No, Elyon. You would lie because you pride yourself on the near perfection of your grades since kindergarten. But because most actual humans don’t care, my guess is that almost none of them will actually remember, which is why I’ll ask them for permission to access their school records.”

  “This is a Russian doll of endlessly nesting research into the lives of people who were chosen for their lack of ambition and achievement.”

  “That positive attitude of yours is going to carry us right through this,” said Spunky.

  “Well, you write your questionnaires and I’ll find out what equipment I can bring with me to analyze the samples once you get them.”

  “I will indeed write the questionnaires, which you will read carefully to make sure they’re clear and apt for our purpose. And you will physically take all the easy samples — the people who don’t need persuasion to be part of the study.”

  “The scutwork, you mean,” said Elyon.

  “Yes,” said Spunky. “Because this is not one of those high school team projects where one person does all the work but everybody takes the credit.”

  “I know,” said Elyon. “I’ll be doing all the science, while you’ll be going out and making friends like a supercharged elf.”

  “You do understand the concept of irony, don’t you, Elyon? You do know that The Professor was teasing me exactly the way he was teasing you.”

  “He wasn’t teasing me,” said Elyon, “he was torturing me. And how exactly did you decorate your car for Christmas?”

  “Last year I lent my car to Rajam while hers was in the shop, and she let her boyfriend drive it when they were out on a date. He was drunker th
an they knew, and drove them through the Christmas decorations on the lawn of the house next door to The Professor’s. My car ended up festooned with a combination of Santa, Wise Men, Rudolph, and the Baby Jesus, along with strings and balls of little twinkly lights which had their own batteries, so my car looked quite festive when it was towed to the garage. Dozens of people, including The Professor, texted me pictures of the car and then posted those and other pictures on Facebook.”

  Elyon looked at her with a blank expression, saying nothing for several seconds. Then he said, “Was Rajam all right?”

  “She and her boyfriend walked away without injury. Apparently a lawn ornament of the baby Jesus is a very forgiving thing to crash into.”

  Elyon nodded. “When we move to Good Shepherd, a town that lives like a stinking blister on the ass of North Carolina, we are not sharing either an apartment or a car.”

  “True,” said Spunky. “You will have an apartment large enough to hold all your equipment and computers, while I rent a cubbyhole somewhere. And I will have a car so I can range all over the town, while you will be close enough to everything you need to do that you can walk.”

  “If you get a car, then I —”

  “You get whatever the budget will justify. If you don’t like my decisions, by all means get me kicked off this project from hell.”

  “If I tried that he wouldn’t fire you, he’d fire me.”

  “Elyon,” said Spunky, “twice in this conversation have you given me grounds for hope.”

  “It was unintentional,” said Elyon.

  “First, when I told you about how Rajam’s boyfriend trashed my car, you actually asked me if Rajam was hurt or not.”

  Elyon looked at her blankly.

  “And the other grounds for hope is this: You recognized that if you tried to get me fired, you’d be the one they’d drop. Both of these show that you have some measure of understanding of the behavior of other human beings.”

  Elyon nodded slowly. “I see. You think those are both good things.”

  “I think they suggest that you have some amount of empathy.”