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But she was apprehensive about her own future. Although her memory was hazy, she knew that something had gone wrong at her own Production. It was clear that no one else had ended up with a wound. She had tried, somewhat shyly, to ask the others, those who had produced more than once. But they seemed shocked and confused by her questions.

“Is your belly still sore?” Claire whispered to Miriam, who had been in the recuperation place with her.

“Sore? No,” Miriam had replied. They were sitting beside each other at breakfast.

“Mine is, just where the scar is. When I press on it,” Claire explained, touching her hand gently to the place.

“Scar?” Miriam made a face. “I don’t have a scar.” She turned away and joined another conversation.

Claire tried again, carefully asking a few other Vessels. But no one had a scar. No one had a wound. After a while, her own ache subsided, and she tried to ignore the uneasy awareness that something had gone very wrong.

Then she was called in. “Claire,” the voice from the speaker announced at midday while the Vessels were eating, “please report to the office immediately after lunch.”

Flustered, Claire looked around. Across the table was Elissa, a special friend. They had been selected the same year, both Twelves at the same time, and so she had known Elissa through her school years. But Elissa was newer here; she had not been inseminated as soon as Claire. Now she was in the early stages of her first Production.

“What’s that about?” Elissa asked her when they heard the directive.

“I don’t know.”

“Did you do something wrong?”

Claire frowned. “I don’t think so. Maybe I forgot to fold my laundry.”

“They wouldn’t call you in for that, would they?”

“I don’t think so. It’s so minor.”

“Well,” Elissa said, beginning to stack her empty dishes, “you’ll find out soon enough. It’s probably nothing. See you later!” She left Claire still sitting at the table.

But it was not nothing. Claire stood facing them in dismay as the committee told her of their decision. She had been decertified.

“Gather your things,” they told her. “You’ll be moved this afternoon.”

“Why?” she asked. “Was it because . . . well, I could tell that something went wrong, but I . . .”

They were kind, solicitous. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“What wasn’t my fault?” she asked, aware that she shouldn’t press them but unable to stop herself. “If you could just explain . . . ?”

The committee head shrugged. “These things happen. A physical problem. It should have been detected sooner. You should not have been inseminated. Who was your first Examiner?” he asked.

“I don’t remember her name.”

“Well, we’ll find out. Let’s hope it was her first error, so that she will have another chance.”

They dismissed her then, but she turned at the door because she could not leave without asking.

“My Product?”

He looked at her dismissively, then relented. He turned to another committee member near him at the table and nodded to the papers in front of her, directing her to look up the information.

“What number was it?” the woman asked him, but he ignored the question. “Well,” she said, “I’ll check by name. You’re—Claire?”

As if they didn’t know. They had summoned her here by name. But she nodded.

She moved her finger down a page. “Yes. Here you are. Claire: Product number Thirty-six. Oh yes, I see the notations about the difficulties.”

She looked up. Claire touched her own belly, remembering.

The woman returned the paper to the pile and tapped the edges of the stack to make it tidy. “He’s fine,” she said.

The committee head glared at her.

“It.” She corrected herself. “I meant that it’s fine. The medical difficulties didn’t affect it.

“You’ll be fine too, Claire,” she added, affably.

“Where am I going?” Claire asked. Suddenly she was frightened. They hadn’t yet said she was being reassigned. Just decertified. So she would no longer be a Birthmother. That made sense. Her body had not performed that function well. But what if—? What if decertified people were simply released? The way failures often were?

But their reply was reassuring. “Fish Hatchery,” the committee head told her. “You’re being moved there. They need help; they’re short of workers. Your training will start in the morning. You’ll have to catch up. Luckily you have a quick mind.”

He dismissed her now with a wave of his hand, and Claire went back to the Dormitory to gather her few things. It was rest time. The other Vessels were all napping, the doors to their cubicle-like rooms closed.

He, she thought as she packed the few personal items that she had. It was a he. I produced a baby boy. I had a son. The feeling of loss overwhelmed her again.

Three

You’ll be issued a bicycle.” The man—his name-tag said DIMITRI, HATCHERY SUPERVISOR—gestured toward the area where bicycles were standing in racks. He had met her at the door, unsurprised by her arrival. Obviously he had been notified that she was on her way.

Claire nodded. Confined to the Birthing Unit and its surrounding grounds for over a year now, she had not needed any kind of transportation. And she had walked here, carrying her small case of belongings, from the Birthmothers’ area to the northeast. It wasn’t far, and she knew the route, but after so many months, everything seemed new and unfamiliar. She had passed the school and saw children at their required exercise in the recreation field. None seemed to recognize her, though they looked curiously at the young woman walking along the path at midday. It was unusual. Most people were at their jobs. Those who needed to be out and about were on bicycles making their way from one building to another. No one walked. A small girl with hair ribbons grinned at Claire from the exercise routine, and waved surreptitiously; Claire smiled back, remembering her own beribboned days, but an instructor called sharply to the child, who made a face and turned back to the assigned calisthenics.

Across the Central Plaza, she caught a glimpse, in the Dwelling area, of the small house where she had grown up. Other people would live there now, couples newly assigned to each other, perhaps waiting for . . .

She averted her eyes from the Nurturing Center. It was, she knew, where the Products were taken after the birthing. Usually in groups. Early morning, most often. Once, sleepless at dawn, she had watched from the window of her cubicle and seen four Products, tucked into baskets, loaded into a two-wheeled cart attached to the back of a bicycle. After checking their security in the cart, the birthing attendant had ridden off toward the Nurturing Center to deliver them there.

She wondered if her own Product, her boy, number Thirty-six, had been taken to the Nurturing Center yet. Claire knew that they waited—sometimes days, occasionally weeks, making certain that everything was going well, that the Products were healthy—to make the transfer.

Well. She sighed. Time to put it out of her mind. She walked on, past the hall of Law and Justice. Peter, whom she had once known as a teasing older brother, would be inside, at work. If he glanced through a window and saw a young woman walking slowly past, would he know it was Claire? Would he care?

Past the House of Elders, the place where the governing committee lived and studied. Past small office buildings; past the bicycle repair shop; and now she could see the river that bordered the community, its dark water moving swiftly, foaming around rocks here and there. Claire had always feared the river. As children they had been warned of its dangers. She had known of a young boy who had drowned. There were rumors, likely untrue, of citizens who had swum across, or even made their way across the high, forbidden bridge and disappeared into the unknown lands beyond. But she was fascinated by it too—its constant murmur and movement, and the mystery of it.

She crossed the bike path, waiting politely until two young women had pedaled by. To her left she could see the shallow fish-holding ponds and remembered how, as younger children, she and her friends had watched the silvery creatures darting about.

Now she would be working here, at the Hatchery. And living here too, she assumed, at least until . . . until when? Citizens were given dwellings when they were assigned spouses. Birthmothers never had spouses, so she had not thought about it until now. Now she wondered. Was she eligible now for a spouse, and eventually for—? Claire sighed. It was troubling, and confusing, to think about such things. She turned away from the holding ponds, made her way to the front door of the main building, and was met there by Dimitri.

That night, alone in the small bedroom she’d been assigned, Claire looked down from her window to the darkened, surging river below. She yawned. It had been a long and exhausting day. This morning she had awakened in her familiar surroundings, the place where she had lived for so many months, but by midday her entire life had shifted. She had not had a chance to say goodbye to her friends, the other Vessels. They would be wondering where she had gone, but would likely forget her soon. She had taken her place here, been issued a nametag, and been introduced to the other workers. They seemed pleasant enough. Some, older than Claire, had spouses and dwellings, and left at the end of the day’s work. Others, like herself, lived here, in rooms along the corridor. One, Heather, had been the same year as Claire; she had been a Twelve at the same ceremony. Surely she would remember Claire’s Assignment as Birthmother. Her eyes flickered in recognition when they were introduced, but Heather said nothing. Neither did Claire. There was nothing really to say.

She supposed that she and the younger workers, including Heather, would become friends, of a sort. They would sit together at meals and go in groups to attend community entertainments. After a while they would have shared jokes, probably things about fish, phrases that would make them chuckle. It had been that way with the other Vessels, and Claire found herself missing, already, the easy camaraderie among them. But she would fit in here. Everyone welcomed her cheerfully and said they’d be glad of her help.

The work wouldn’t be hard. She had been allowed to watch the lab attendants, in gowns and gloves, strip eggs from what they called the breeder fish, anesthetized females. A little like squeezing toothpaste, she thought, amused at the image. Nearby, other attendants squeezed what they told her was “milt” from the male; then they added the creamy substance to the container that held the fresh eggs. It had to be very precisely timed, they explained. And antiseptic. They worried about contamination, and bacteria. The temperature made a difference as well. Everything was carefully controlled.

In a nearby room lit by dim red lights, she had watched another gloved worker look through trays of stacked fertilized eggs.

“See those spots?” the worker had asked Claire. She pointed to the tray of glistening pink eggs. Claire peered down and saw that most of them had two dark spots. She nodded.

“Eyes,” the girl told her.

“Oh,” Claire said, amazed that already, so young and tiny that she could hardly think of it as a fish, it had eyes.

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