By time Toni rounded the twist that held her parents’ home deep in Scientist Sectorate, her feet had slowed, and she was feeling calmer. She paused for a moment to look at her house, sterling gray in the early twilight. The birds were singing their evening songs, and the light on the upper windows was tinged with pink. It looked peaceful. She stepped forward, heart in her throat, anticipating the silence she knew was waiting in just a pace or two.
As predicted, the bird song cut off, like someone had ordered a music tech to stop. Toni looked up at the branches reaching to the day’s last light, and there were three waxwings, staring back at her. They stayed rigid on their branch as she passed.
Just like always. The birds never sang near her home. At least, they hadn’t since the Shews moved in when Toni was four. Sarah had built her new laboratory, and the birds stopped singing.
Of course, no one noticed the lack of birdsong. They were too busy cringing at the incessant crying and chittering of Sarah’s rats, hard at work in various stages of genetic testing protocols.
The noise had gotten so bad that the astronomer next door complained about the shrieks reaching all the way into her turret. TaRAM installed acoustic tiles, which created a concentrated sound field that shunted the noise down, into the earth.
Unfortunately, their neighbor on the other side was a geologist, and he could hear the screeches in his silo.
With both neighbors unhappy, TaRAM was ready to send the Shews back to Caliph, where Anthony already spent most of his time in his own massive underground labs, driving himself and his countless scientists and technicians in their single-minded quest to build the Unity Machine.
His work, TaRAM reminded Sarah, was more likely to achieve its goals, and therefore, more important to TaRAM. The ability to remove the effort from creating Unity, to bring so many soon-to-be-citizens into TaRAM with such ease and efficiency, was too big a project to sacrifice just so she could have a lab in Sherwood.
But Sarah really wanted to live in the residential sectorate, so Toni could live a somewhat normal citizen life. In the end, Anthony came up with an ingenious silencing tech that reversed the objectionable sounds, effectively canceling them out. Their house — their entire three-acre plot — was plunged into silence, and everyone in the Sectorate breathed a sigh of relief … and got on with their work.
Except the birds, squirrels, and other wildlife. They would not return to the homes they had abandoned when the Shews moved in. They went elsewhere to nest and hunt. And they taught their children, and their childrens’ children, and generations beyond, to keep still, and silent, whenever anyone came to or from the Shew property. To hide.
Her mother’s lab had grown over the years, eclipsing both the back and rear entrances of the house. Now, the only entrance was through the laboratory itself. Not exactly hospitable. But that didn’t really matter. The Shews, like most Scientists, were excused from formal hosting duties. Their need for seclusion and quiet was accepted, and they were encouraged to turn their homes into monuments to their careers.
And that’s how Toni came to live in the largest genetics testing laboratory outside of Caliph Research Institute.
Toni breathed deeply as she approached the lab, forcing her lungs to empty completely on the out breaths, and to expand to their extremes on the in breaths. Finally, with one last, deepest-of-all breath, she stabbed her code into the keypad to slide open the door. Holding her breath, she started counting. She could usually delay breathing the icy, sterile air for four minutes and nine seconds, at least. Enough time to make it through the lab to the kitchen.
She crossed the boundary of the reinforced silence-tech that enveloped the lab itself, and felt a physical jolt at the sudden release of a thousand wails from hundreds of species. One cut above all others. Foxes.
Their cries were the eeriest, the most human, and the first ones she always heard on reentry. A screaming red fox sounded like a terrified woman, and when its DNA was milked from its bone marrow, a screaming red fox sounded like many terrified women.
The hall to the main residence was just steps away, but before she could slip through, a single shriek sounded in her right ear. The white raven her mother called Lurch, for his broken-winged flight, sat on his perch in his large cage, one wide, blue eye trained on her.
She stared back at him, imploringly, feeling the oxygen in her lungs being exchanged for carbon dioxide, and the rising feeling of panic as it happened.
But Lurch didn’t look away, and her lungs gave way. Toni took a shallow sigh of a breath, unlatched the box just outside his cage, and pulled out the loaf of bread studded with black seeds. It was half gone already, but she tore a chunk off and handed it to him through the bars.
The white raven gently plucked the bread from her fingers and turned his back, clearly desiring privacy while he ate.
Toni continued toward the residence, eyes fixed on the door. She didn’t want contact with any other of her mother’s charges. As she slid the door shut door behind her, the silence tech canceled the noise, leaving only the pressurized silence of the kitchen.
It really was a relief, the quiet. Too bad it didn’t cancel out the sounds in her memory. Tonight, as on most nights, Toni fully expected to lie in bed, under the clear roof dome, and stare at the sky, straining to hear the animals she knew were only yards away. They were loud, in her memory, and she imagined that they clamored even harder with the silence tech. They were asking for help, to be let out of their cages, out of their mazes, off of the tables where they lay pinned, flayed open.
Toni knew just how they felt.
“Upstairs. My bath.”
The intercom system boomed with Sarah’s disembodied voice. Toni didn’t let the shudder of fear she felt actually reach her muscles. It was always best to be bland, non-reactive, and passive under her mother’s eye.
She climbed the stairs to the second floor, and entered her mother’s suite, directly over her lab, without knocking.
Sarah watched her on her mirror-tech. Toni’s gait was textbook. In fact, she was TaRAM textbook in so many ways — despite her dimunitive height, and her too-pale skin, she had a natural brightness to her looks that was undeniable. She was a heartbreaker. Like Sarah had been, once.
A tidal wave of rage rose up from her belly, and Sarah slammed her fists down. “Now!” she practically screamed, watching Toni hesitate outside the bath’s door.
Toni flinched inside, and took just a quick second more to check her alignment before she entered the steamy room.
Sarah was in the tub, bubbles pillowing her chin.
Toni thought that thought just about every time she saw her mother.
Partly because she could breathe only shallow, short breaths in Sarah’s presence.
But also because her mother was, quite simply, stunning. Even in the bath — or perhaps particularly in the bath — her skin glowed. Where other complexions would be mottled from the steam and the heat, she looked rosy and happy. Her glossy black curls were piled, fetchingly, on top of her head. Her dark eyes were hooded, sleepy looking.
Looks were deceiving.
“Close that door, idiot girl,” Sarah commanded, eyes still half-closed.
Toni did, watching as her mother’s slender, white foot tipped the tap to on. As the hot water flowed, bubbles billowed even higher, releasing a heavy scent into the air: rose, jasmine.
“Some of your last CATs are next week. And your father hasn’t given his permission for your marital alignment. What exactly, are you planning to do with yourself?”
Sarah didn’t believe in small talk. Toni swallowed, but said nothing. There were no words that could result in a better outcome than whatever her mother had planned for this little tete-a-tete.
Sarah smirked, as if Toni had, in fact, answered her.
“That’s right. Nothing. Because either you are, best case, a late expressionist,” her eyes flew open to bore into Toni’s eyelids, which were protecting her downcast eyes, “or worst case, a genetic dud.”
“Either way, you are a disappointment to me.”
Toni chose silence, again, as her answer.
“And you also disappoint your father, apparently. He doesn’t even want to save you from a life of drudgery with a simple marital alignment. And who can blame him? Your genes are perfect in vitro. But in vivo, well… you’re a complete failure.”
The catch in Sarah’s voice was a new twist on the old script, and it made Toni look up, briefly. Her mother looked … confused.
She couldn’t help but speak. “Maybe Father will approve the alignment. There’s still time.”
“Maybe,” her mother mocked as her eyes closed to half-mast and she nestled farther under her bubbles. “If you show even the smallest hint of progress next week, then, yes, he will likely take pity on you and give permission for you to be aligned with Marcus. He’s so … soft-headed when it comes to you. But ultimately, he’s a Scientist — and you’re a failure.”
“I’ll do my best, mother,” Toni whispered.
“Yes, well, I’m sure you will. It just isn’t likely to be enough.” Sarah’s face had turned hard again, her ugly words pruning her beauty.
“With your genes, you should have already had your Career assigned. You should have tested so brilliantly, so early, that TaRAM snapped you into place.”
Silence, and downcast eyes, were still the best response.
Sarah reached up to the shelf above the bath, groping for her vapor-tech. She brought it to her lips and pulled the silky gray mist deep. As it slowly streamed out of her nostrils, the smoke relaxed her, brightened her mood. That was better. She hated using the addiction tech, but when it came to her daughter, she needed all the help she could get. She had to be so strong to deal with Toni — far stronger than she had ever expected at the outset.
She vaped once more, and sharply exhaled her command. “Take off your clothes.”
Toni’s eyes snapped up to meet hers. Her smile was still in place, but she was shaken.
“You heard me. It’s been a while, and I need to see what we’re really working with here, before you turn seventeen and you’re gone.”
Reluctant, but of course still smiling, Toni pulled her tunic over her head and shimmied her tech-tights down. She carefully folded her clothes and piled them on the counter.
Way too thin, Sarah saw. Toni’s ribs were visible, and her collarbone was sharp enough to make a shadow on her powdery skin. Her long, dark hair fell in uneven waves to her tiny waist. Her thighs and calves looked strong, but the bony outcrops of her knees and ankles were concerning.
Toni’s face burned pink, but she maintained her slim smile and turned to sit on the toilet. Sarah ordered the mirror-tech to siphon off a sample and send it down to her lab.
She should check Toni’s blood, too. Her metabolism was either way too high, or she wasn’t taking in enough nutrition.
“You’re too thin again, girl.”
Finished, Toni moved to stand in front of her, a naked, pathetic smile still stamped on her miserable face.
“You couldn’t sustain a career with a body like that… And if you get what you want,” she spit the word out, “you couldn’t possibly bear children with such a malnourished body.”
Toni’s eyes were frozen, staring at the intersection of four tiles on the floor. A tiny ant entered the crossing and chose to turn left.
Her mother stepped out of the tub and walked toward her. Toni watched her wet feet, and the drop of water that trapped the ant in its very own little watery casket.
“Did you ever think of that?” Sarah whispered, leaning her face close to Toni’s ear so that her steamy, wet curls grazed her cheek.
Toni could barely shake her head, watching the ant struggle and drown.
“For someone who should be smart, you are not capable of thinking clearly. Logic fails you, over and over.”
Toni stayed still, silent, waiting for this to be over.
“You better eat a good meal tonight, and every night for the next week. You have one more chance to do well on a CAT. I expect you to take care of yourself and not waste it.”
Sarah spoke a few commands, and the walls of the bath lit up, taking the meal orders and passing it on to the kitchen.
A maid-bot rolled into the room, handing Sarah a robe and a pile of fresh clothes to Toni. They dressed.
“Eat. Practice your visualizations. I have a feeling that’s your last hope.”
Toni nodded and smiled, turning to the door, finding herself pitching to the left unexpectedly, a little dizzy from the heat and humiliation.
Her name between her mother’s teeth was a curse.
“Hold on. I should take a blood specimen before you eat.”
The girl turned back and stood quietly, smiling, while Sarah turned her right arm wrist up. She snapped her fingers at the maid-bot, who fetched the sample-tech from the counter. Looking for a vein, Sarah’s grip tightened on Toni’s wrist, and Toni felt it go heavy, numb, as if dead. She couldn’t hold it up.
Stay still, quiet, hidden.
Sarah kept the tight circle of her fingers vised. She grunted, irritated, and squeezed those stupid little bird bones, tugging them up, accessible to her needle.
“Look at me.”
When the girl didn’t, Sarah grabbed her jaw with her other hand, twisting her daughter’s idiotic, smiling face until she was forced to look her in the eye.
“Don’t be stupid. You still live in this house. If I want your blood, I get your blood.”
The girl’s eyes were dull as a doe’s. Sarah released her face so she could slap it, hard. Toni’s eyes brightened in pain, and she punched the sample-tech’s needle just under the crease of her wrist.
Neither mother nor daughter moved as the blood welled up into the collection tube.
Sarah flung the limb away and dropped the specimen into the chute for delivery to the lab. The maid-bot daubed Toni’s wrist with a piece of gauze and started to apply a bandage, but Sarah snapped her fingers again, and the maid-bot silently backed into her station by the door.
“Go to your room, practice your visualization for 20 minutes. Then go downstairs and eat, and practice AGAIN for another hour. Go to that silly Mandatory Romance Evening, come home, and go right to sleep. If you score average again, it will not be my fault.”
Toni left, still pressing the gauze to her wrist, still smiling that fake-alignment smile.
Sarah ordered some simple, comfortable clothing from her closet, and a nutrition liquid to be sent to the laboratory. Sliding open the panel in the dome of the roof, she lost herself in the night sky’s spangle of stars. When the heat of the bath finally dissipated into the cool dark, she took a deep breath of night and headed for her lab.
Downstairs, she glided past her daughter, who was sitting at the kitchen table, eating a full meal of roasted meat and greens. A body-bot was standing next to her, monitoring her progress.
Toni paused, fork halfway to her mouth, and trained her heartbreaking smile on Sarah.
“Mother, thank you for dinner. It’s wonderful.”
The child was so irritating. How could she be so perfect, and yet so very, very ordinary?
Sarah snorted her disgust, refusing to return the smile. There was no one from TaRAM here now, and if the bots reported her — so what? Her work was far too important to TaRAM to take her out of commission for a Realignment. She turned and punched in her code for the lab.
Relief. The cacophany of her subjects at work always gave her a thrill. The frenzy of all of those genetic codes interacting, riding their exquisite rails to their natural conclusion … it was exhilarating.
She snapped on the mirror tech to monitor Toni’s progress and set her animals through their paces. As the rats made their way through mazes, pressed their buttons to make things appear and disappear, and sang snippets of songs she had taught them, she noted Toni making her way up to her room.
Sarah acted fast, turning on her mirror-tech’s microphone and snapping “I’ll be up in an hour to help you get ready for the MRE.”
She watched, fascinated by Toni’s reaction to her voice.
Having frozen mid-step on the stairs, Toni waited until she heard the click of the microphone turning off before shivering a little and continuing up the stairs. Sarah kept watch, until Toni was in her room, sitting with the headband activated.
Stay quiet, stay still, stay hidden.
Toni sat with her visualization headset fastened onto her scalp and listened intently to the something deep welling up from the bowl of her pelvis.
She kept her vision as free as possible, focusing on a mirror-tech that had been intentionally switched to off, it’s black screen offering no visual stimulation. She stared right at the surface of the tech, with great effort, keeping herself from looking through it, to the space beyond.
She was in such a tricky balance. She couldn’t score too well on next week’s test — that would put her in running for a career. And she couldn’t score too badly — or her father wouldn’t approve her marital alignment. She had to score just well enough to encourage him to give her a nice life. And not a tick better.
And so, she had to practice, tonight, keeping her mind from seeing anything important. The CAT next week was all about seeing and visualizing — all types of sight were important to TaRAM. She had to keep from being accurate in colors, shapes, sizes, microscopic and macroscopic vision. And she had to be especially careful about not letting anyone know that she could see things that weren’t actually there.
It was harder than ever, though, with so much to think about from the day.
The wolver’s face.
Stay quiet, stay still, stay hidden.
Marcus staring down at her, skepticism stamping his face.
Her mother’s hands, hard and bony, knuckles pressed white as she drew back the plunger on the sample-tech, drawing the blood from Toni’s wrist.
The meal, that tasted like salt and grease and betrayal. The body-bot pinching her upper arm every time she paused too long, failed to redrape her napkin in her lap, took too big a bite.
Her mother’s expression, examining her as if searching for mold on a piece of cheese.
The screams of the rats when she opened the door.
And — no stop it stop it stop it — a glimpse of Lurch, blue eyes opened wide, neck craned, wings stretched to balance he clings to the top of his cage. He opens his mouth, as if to say something, just as the door slides shut behind her mother, heading up the stairs, to her room.
Toni shook her head, refocusing on the surface of the mirror-tech, but a voice spoke, even as the vision disappeared.
“Just a little longer. When things change, they will change quickly. Be ready.”