The ache behind Toni’s right eye was not going away. It was gathering strength, and specificity — and it threatened to bloom into an ice pick of doom if she didn’t do something about it.
It wasn’t wise to touch her face during class, but she did anyway, pressing her fingers to her eyebrow to relieve the pressure. She wondered whether she could reach into her pouch for her pain-tech without being noticed, and instantly saw an image in her mind of the slim device perched on the edge of her sink at home, right where she’d left it this morning. No help there.
“Toni. Hand down.”
Mrs. Thomas stared up at her from her lectern in the center of the classroom. Her face was brilliantly lit from the center of her holographic lesson, which she had paused. Even with the darkness of the theater all around, she knew exactly where every single girl in Last Stage Marital Alignment and Home-Tech Class was sitting. And she definitely knew where Toni always placed herself — in the top row, on the side of the theater closest to the main exit, right on the aisle.
Toni dropped her hands and tipped her chin to its most pleasant angle in order to smile at Mrs. Thomas. It was a grimace inside, of course, but she could feel that on the outside it seemed in alignment.
“I’m sorry,” Toni said as musically as she possibly could while a bird was pecking out her right eye, “I didn’t mean to indicate disinterest, of course.”
Mrs. Thomas was still staring, waiting for Toni to break form. Toni held herself in alignment, and finally, slowly, blinked, to indicate that she was submissive. Plus, it gave her eyelids just the tiniest stretch, which in turn stretched her brow.
“As I was saying,” Mrs. Thomas said, clicking her teach-tech while still holding Toni’s eyes as she continued her lesson, “the Marital Alignment is still important, although less so than it used to be.”
Toni and her classmates all tilted their heads to the right as the hologram in the center of the class started to spin — a carousel of scenes from TaRAM’s history flashing by as the teacher sped through her notes. There was an old-timey couple getting a marital alignment in a small building with rows of benches and colored windows with pointed tops. Then, a couple setting sail on a ship while crowds waved from the shore. As the scenes became more modern, the people did, too — everyone started to look more and more like each other, and their dress simplified and streamlined. The smiles stayed the same, though. Everyone looked happy to be going through marital alignment. Everyone looked like they were excited about their future, and the future they were building for TaRAM.
Toni’s smile deepened as she watched the happy couples. Likely she would also be getting a marital alignment, as she had planned since Marcus had first asked her, when she was ten. There were still plenty of challenges ahead, but they would be worth it. She allowed herself to relax, slipping into the familiar daydream of her and Marcus, aligned, living in their own Seventeen Twenty Home, and breeding. It would be heaven, to be alone, with Marcus, finally.
So she could breathe freely. So she could be herself. At least, most of the time.
“And what IS the Genetic Exchange?” Mrs. Thomas asked, pausing her session for a pop quiz, scanning the rows of fresh faces for a victim.
Toni opened her mouth to answer without being called, but caught herself just in time, biting her lips closed as Mrs. Thomas called on Kelsey Whistle to answer. She had the answer memorized, of course, as all of them did. But she shouldn’t answer, not this time — she could feel that strange upwelling happening inside her. It was a lifting feeling, a rush of nervous excitement, that brought with it a tidal wave of words. And not only the answer wanted, expected, or needed, but also much more. More answers, more insights, more advice. More freakishness that she could not explain, that she had to hide.
Because no one knows the answer to every question asked. That is decidedly not normal.
Kelsey had finished her recitation of the Genetic Exchange description from the Good Citizen’s Manual, and a raucous spontaneous Discussion had erupted. Girls were straining forward in their seats, pumping their clasped hands up and down in their laps, and even slightly interrupting each other as they whispered out the rules for setting up a Genetic Exchange.
Mrs. Thomas indulged their enthusiasm with a slight sigh and a lean against her podium. She turned up the lights over their seats and scanned the rows of faces, turning herself all the way around so she could see every girl, checking them for alignment.
“Girls, settle, settle, settle,” she reminded them, her own beam radiating her pleasure at their enthusiasm.
But as engaged as many were, there were just as many girls sitting with faces frozen in pleasant expressions of interest, sitting straight with their backs not touching the back of their chairs, clasped hands, widened eyes — but nothing to add. These girls knew they were likely never going to be maritally aligned.
Half of them had CAT scores that would ensure them a career, which meant they would have no time to care for children. These girls would serve the future of TaRAM through their work, and their genes would live on in the TaRAM library, to be used if they had some value to the citizen association. But the responsibility for raising their offspring would be someone else’s, and they likely wouldn’t even be informed if they ever had any genetic descendants.
The other half of the frozen-faced girls had scored very differently. Their skills were suited for manual labor, and their genetic codes were undistinguished. These girls would also serve TaRAM through their work, but it would be repetitive and difficult, and they would be scheduled for Final Day as soon as their bodies showed signs of break down. They would never have a family.
If Marcus didn’t maritally align with her, Toni would be in their category. She felt their inner misalignment as if it were her own. Was it her own?
Don’t wonder, Toni reminded herself sharply. It was never a good idea to ask a question, even of herself.
Sileagh Faris was sitting directly across the classroom from Toni, staring directly at her. Toni met her gaze and wondered — and then stopped herself again.
Wondering was a terrible thing, the worst. Wondering always led to a question, which led to an answer, which led to knowledge that she couldn’t share, couldn’t forget, and couldn’t bear having. So, Toni never wondered, about anything. Or anyone.
Sileagh was still watching her, her pleasant face framed in dark curls, her perfect breasts and slim waist draped in form-flattering gold and platinum cloth. Her smile widened as Toni returned her gaze, and despite herself Toni was impressed.
Sileagh Faris was one of those girls who looked pretty at first, if a little too regional, which her slightly too-dark skin, and her curls that were a little tighter than ideal — but when she smiled, as she did now, she wasn’t close to pretty.
Sileagh was a great beauty.
Toni basked in the warmth of the attention from this new classmate, who had started at Sherwood Education only months earlier, but had made a comfortable place for herself in the young citizenship right away. She was rumored to be a robotics adept on her CATs, which wasn’t surprising, given her genetic background, and the fact that her parents were two upright, solid tech engineers, and her four older brothers were all in similar careers.
But since she’d come to Sherwood, she hadn’t impressed as much, and when her CAT scores were posted, no one had cause to be jealous — because they were completely average. Her career prospects were diminishing as her seventeenth birthday approached in two weeks, and she wasn’t yet matched to anyone for a marital alignment, at least not publicly. Her genes were clearly valuable — though not as valuable as Toni’s were — but she clearly came from good stock.
Toni steeled herself to stop allowing her thoughts to wander, to just stay present and enjoy this moment of unexpected connection. Even the fanged worm that was munching on her eye was beginning to relax.
He went right back to work, though, when Sileagh reversed her beaming expression to a glower and a glare and a mouthing of three words:
I. Hate. You.
Toni’s own smile faltered, just for a second, before she managed to look away and refocus her attention on the discussion. Just in time, too, because Mrs. Thomas was looking her way.
“Toni,” Mrs. Thomas said, and Toni relaxed herself as much as possible, to counteract the tears she felt rising, as they so often did, to pool at the base of her throat, ready to gush up and out at the slightest tension.
“Toni,” Mrs. Thomas repeated, “Why is Marital Alignment reserved for fewer of us in the Tech Age than was usual in the Nostalgic Age or the Superstitious Age?”
Toni glanced at Sileagh again, and was relieved to see that her face was back to its mildly pleasant expression. She looked, if anything, bored. Toni begged the sculptor pressing his thumb into her eye socket to stop for a moment, and gathered her focus. She had to answer as a student, not as a weirdo. She could only say about half of what was tumbling out of her mouth.
And she had to sound pleasant while she did it.
Which was really hard, which Mrs. Thomas somehow knew — or she wouldn’t make a point of asking her a question every single class. She was sure to get sloppy, sometime, and Mrs. Thomas wanted to be the one to catch her. Well, she only had one more month to go before her seventeenth birthday, when her education would end, and her adult life would begin — hopefully with a marital alignment, and not with a career, or manual labor.
Toni could tell her face had the right expression, and her posture, straight but flexible, was good. Her hands were loosely clasped in her lap. She looked like she was in alignment — she FELT in alignment. So, she could do this.
“We simply don’t need it anymore,” Toni responded.
“In the pre-tech ages, we had less control over TaRAM’s genetics. We didn’t know who was contributing which traits to the gene pool, or how they did it. We had to use marital alignment as a tool to experiment, to see how different codes came together and expressed themselves in real life. Sometimes, marital alignments resulted in offspring that were less than desirable, so hard choices had to be made. Some marital alignments were dissolved in order to try new ones.
“But it’s more difficult to bear children later in life, particularly when you’ve already had several, and complicated emotions are involved in raising offspring. Those necessary decisions were often quite painful for those involved, and enforcement proved difficult. As we’ve learned more about how specific genes express themselves, we’ve been better able to make sure that marital alignments only happen between people who carry complementary genes — breeders who will mate well.
“Also, we’ve been able to bank genetic codes in our vaults, making it possible for people like Kelsey, for instance” — she smiled at Kelsey Whistle in the first row at the center of the class — “to serve TaRAM with her most important talents, rather than be taken up with childbearing and caring for twenty years. Marital alignments just aren’t necessary when you have more control over genetics. They’re more of an inconvenience for the citizen association, really.
“Unless, of course, you’re a perfect match,” she finished.
Which I am, she thought behind her smile. I have to be a perfect match for Marcus. Or I do not know what I will do.
Mrs. Thomas pressed her lips into a sour smile and nodded slightly.
“Not quite the way it is written in The Manual, but it will do.” She clicked her teach-tech to start her presentation again, and the sculptor picked up his icepick and positioned it just behind Toni’s right eye, searching for just the right angle to strike.