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“See here?” Using a metal tool, the girl pointed to a discolored, eyeless egg. “This one’s dead.” Carefully she plucked it from the tray with her forceps and discarded it in the sink. Then she returned the tray to its rack and reached for the next one.

“Why did it die?” Claire asked. She found that she was whispering. The room was so dimly lit, so quiet and cool, that her voice was hushed.

But the worker replied in a normal tone, very matter-of-fact. “I don’t know. The insemination went wrong, I guess.” She shrugged and removed another dead egg from the second tray. “We have to take them out so they don’t contaminate the good ones. I check them every day.”

Claire felt a vague discomfort. The insemination had gone wrong. Was that what had happened to her? Had her Product, like the discolored, eyeless egg, been thrown aside someplace? But no. They had told her that number Thirty-six was “fine.” She tried to set aside her troubling thoughts and pay attention to the worker’s voice and explanations.

“Claire?” The door opened and it was Dimitri, the supervisor, looking for her. “I want to show you the dining room. And they have your schedule almost ready to give you.”

So she had continued her tour of the facility, and been instructed in her next day’s duties (cleaning, mostly—everything had to be kept spotless), and later she had had supper with a group of the workers who lived, as she would now, at the Hatchery. They talked, mostly, about what they had done during recreation time. There was an hour allotted each day when they could do whatever they liked. Someone mentioned a bike ride and a picnic lunch along the river; apparently the kitchen staff would pack your lunch in a basket if you asked in advance. Two young men had joined a ball game. Someone had watched repairs being done on the bridge. It was aimless, pleasant chat, but it served to remind Claire that she was freer now than she had been in a long time. She could go for a walk after lunch, she thought, or in the evening.

Later, in her room, thinking, she realized what she wanted to do when she had time. Not just an ordinary walk. She wanted to try to find a girl named Sophia, a girl her own age, a girl who had turned twelve when Claire did. They had not been particular friends, just acquaintances and schoolmates who had happened to share a birth year. But Sophia had been seated next to Claire at the ceremony when they were given their Assignments.

“Birthmother,” the Chief Elder had announced when it was Claire’s turn to stand and be acknowledged. She had shaken the Chief Elder’s hand, smiled politely at the audience, taken her official Assignment papers, and gone back to her seat. Sophia had stood, next.

“Nurturer,” the Chief Elder had named Sophia.

It had meant little to Claire, then. But now it meant that Sophia, an assistant at first, probably by now fully trained, was working in the Nurturing Center, the place where Claire’s Product—her child, her baby—was being held, and fed.

Days passed. Claire waited for the right time. Usually the workers took their breaks in pairs or groups. People would wonder if she wandered off alone during a break; there would be murmurs about her, and questions. She didn’t want that. She needed them to see her as hard-working and responsible, as someone ordinary, someone without secrets.

So she waited, worked, and began to fit in. She made friends. One lunchtime she joined several coworkers in a picnic along the riverbank. They leaned their bikes against nearby trees and sat on some flat rocks in the high grass while they unpacked the prepared food. Nearby, on the path, two young boys rode by on their bikes, laughing at something, and waved to them.

“Hey, look!” One boy was pointing. “Supply boat!”

Eagerly the two youngsters dropped their bikes and scrambled down the sloping riverbank to watch as the bargelike boat passed, its open deck heavy with wooden containers of various sizes.

Rolf, one of the picnickers, looked at his watch and then at the boys. “They’re going to be late getting back to school,” he commented with a wry smile.

The others all chuckled. Now that they were finished with school, it was easy to be amused by the regulations that they had all lived by as children. “I was late once,” Claire told them, “because a groundskeeper sliced his hand when he was pruning the bushes over by the central offices. I stopped and watched while they bandaged him and took him off to the infirmary for stitches.

“I used to hope I’d be assigned Nursing Attendant,” she added.

There was an awkward silence for a moment. Claire wasn’t certain if they knew her background. Undoubtedly there had been some explanation given for her sudden appearance at the Hatchery, but probably they had been told no details. To have failed at one’s Assignment—to be reassigned—had something of a shame to it. No one would ever mention it, if they did know. No one would ask.

“Well, the committee knows best,” Edith commented primly as she passed sandwiches around. “Anyway, there’s an element of nursing at the Hatchery. All the labs and procedures.”

Claire nodded.

“Hatchery wouldn’t have been my first choice,” a tall young man named Eric said. “I was really hoping for Law and Justice.”

“My brother’s there,” Claire told him.

“Does he like it?” Eric asked with interest.

Claire shrugged. “I guess so. I never see him. He was older. Once he finished his training, he moved away from our dwelling. He might even have a spouse by now.”

“You’d know that,” Rolf pointed out. “You see the Spouse Assignments at the Ceremony.

“I’ve applied for a spouse,” he added, grinning. “I had to fill out about a thousand forms.”

Claire didn’t tell them that she had not attended the last two ceremonies. Birthmothers did not leave their quarters during their years of production. Claire had never seen a Vessel until she became one. She had not known, until she had both experienced and observed it, that human females swelled and grew and reproduced. No one had told her what “birth” meant.

“Look!” Eric said suddenly. “The supply boat’s stopping at the Hatchery. Good! I put in an order quite a while ago.” He glanced down at the riverbank, where the two youngsters were still watching the boat. “Boys!” he called. When they looked up, he pointed to the watch on his own wrist. “The school bell is going to ring in less than five minutes!”

Reluctantly they climbed back up the bank and went to retrieve their bikes. “Thank you for the reminder,” one said politely to Eric.

“You think the supply boat will still be there after school?” the other boy asked eagerly.

But Eric shook his head. “They unload quickly,” he told the boy, who looked disappointed.

“I wish I could be a boat worker,” they could hear one boy say to the other as they set their bikes upright. “I bet they go lots of places we don’t even know about. I bet if I were working on a supply boat, I’d get to see—”

“If we don’t get back on time,” his friend said nervously, “we’re not going to be assigned anything! Come on, let’s get going!”

The boys rode away toward the school building in the distance.

“I wonder what he thought he’d get to see, as a boat worker,” Rolf commented. They began to tidy up the picnic and to pack away the uneaten food.

“Other places. Other communities. The boats must make a lot of stops.” Eric folded the napkins and placed them in the basket.

“They’d all be the same. What’s so exciting about seeing a different hatchery, a different school, a different nurturing center, a different—”

Edith interrupted them. “It’s pointless to speculate,” she said in her terse, businesslike tone. “Accomplishes nothing. ‘Wondering’ is very likely against the rules, though I suppose it isn’t a serious infringement.”

Eric rolled his eyes and handed Rolf the basket. “Here,” he said. “Strap this on your bike and take it back, would you? I have to do an errand. I told the lab chief that I’d pick up some stuff at the Supply Center.”

Rolf, attaching the basket to his bike by its transportation straps, commented, “It might be nice to travel on the river, though, just for the trip. Fun to see new things. Even,” he added facetiously, “if you haven’t wondered about them.”

Edith ignored that.

“Could be dangerous,” Eric pointed out. “That water’s deep.” He looked around, making sure they had collected everything. “Ready to go back?” Claire and Edith nodded and moved their bikes to the path. Eric waved and rode off on his errand.

Even if it might be against the rules, some kind of infringement (it would be hard to know without studying the thick book of community regulations, though it was always available on the monitor in the Hatchery lobby, but there were pages and pages of very small print, and no one ever bothered to look at it, as far as Claire could tell), there would be no way for anyone to get caught in the act of wondering, Claire thought. It was an invisible thing, like a secret. She herself spent a great deal of time at it . . . wondering.

Pedaling back, she rehearsed in her mind, silently, how easy it would be to say in a casual voice, “I have to run an errand.” How she could slip away—it wouldn’t take long—and ride over to the Nurturing Center, to find Sophia and ask some questions.

Four

Then the occasion came.

“I just realized that the biology teacher never returned the posters I let him use,” Dimitri said irritably at lunch. “And I’ll need them tomorrow morning.”

“I’ll go get them,” Claire offered.

“Thanks.” The lab director nodded in her direction. “That’s a help. There will be a group of volunteers starting indoctrination, and the visual aids make things easier.”

They were eating in the Hatchery cafeteria, six of them at the same table. There was no assigned seating, and today Claire, balancing her tray of prepared food, had made her way to an empty chair at this table where the director was already sitting with several technicians. He was talking about a set of demonstration posters that he liked to use when there were visitors being given a tour of the facility. The biology teacher had borrowed them and they had not yet been returned.

“Notify the school. They’ll have a student bring them.” One of the technicians had finished eating and was tidying his tray. “And they’ll chastise the teacher,” he added, with a malicious chuckle, as he stood.

“No need,” Claire said. “I have another errand over that way. It’ll be easy for me to stop by the school.” That wasn’t really a lie, she told herself. Lying was against the rules. They all knew that, abided by it. And she hadn’t made it up, the other errand she had mentioned. She only hoped no one would ask her what it was. But their attention was elsewhere now. They were crumpling their napkins, looking at their watches, preparing to return to work.

It was her chance to look for Sophia.

Her stop at the school was brief, and the biology teacher didn’t recognize her. Claire had never studied biology. At twelve, when the selections were made and the future jobs assigned, the children’s education took different paths. Some in her group—she remembered a boy named Marcus, who excelled in school and was assigned a future as an engineer—would continue on and learn various sciences. He had probably completed biology by now, she guessed, and would be studying higher mathematics, or astrophysics, or biochemistry, one of the subjects that was whispered about, when they were young, as incomprehensibly difficult. Marcus wouldn’t be in this ordinary school anymore, but in one of the higher education buildings reserved for scholars.

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