Though she had been young at the time, Claire remembered when Peter, her brother, had moved on to higher education. Maybe Peter had even learned biology in school. But then he had been transferred over to the law buildings, for his clerkship and studies.
The hallways were familiar, and she found the biology classroom without difficulty.
“I had intended to return these,” the biology teacher told her, handing Claire the rolled-up posters. “Would you please tell him that I didn’t realize he would need them back so soon?” He sounded slightly annoyed.
“Yes, I’ll tell him. Thank you.” Claire left the teacher there at his desk in the classroom and made her way down the hall toward the front door. She glanced into the empty rooms. School hours had ended and the children had gone to their various volunteer jobs in the community. But she was familiar with some of the rooms, and she recognized a language teacher who leaned over a desk, packing things into a briefcase. Claire nodded uncertainly when the woman looked up and saw her.
“Claire, is it?” The teacher smiled. “What a surprise! What—”
But she didn’t continue the question, though the look on her face was curious. Certainly the teacher would have remembered her selection as Birthmother, and clearly a Birthmother had no business in the school, or in fact anywhere in the day-to-day geography of the community. But it would have been extremely rude to ask why Claire was there. So the teacher cut off her own question and simply smiled in greeting.
“I’m just here collecting something,” Claire explained, holding up the cylinder of posters. “It’s nice to see you again.”
She continued down the hall and out through the front entrance of the education building, and took her bicycle from the rack by the steps. Carefully she attached the bundle of papers securely to the holder on the back of the bike. Nearby, a gardener transplanting a bush glanced at her without interest. Two children on bicycles pedaled past quickly, rushing toward something, probably worried about being late for their required volunteer hours.
Everything was familiar, unchanged, but it still felt odd to Claire to be back in the community again. She had not ventured far from the Hatchery before this, just the short excursions with her coworkers. Over there, she thought, looking down the path she had ridden to get to the school, I can almost see the dwelling where I grew up.
Briefly she wondered about her parents, whether they ever thought of her—or, for that matter, of Peter. They had raised two children successfully, fulfilling the job of Adults with Spouses. Peter had achieved a highly prestigious Assignment. And she, Claire, had not. Birthmother. At the ceremony, standing on the stage to receive her Assignment, she had not been able to see her parents’ faces in the crowd. But she could imagine how they looked, how disappointed they would have been. They had hoped for more from their female child.
“There’s honor in it,” she remembered her mother saying reassuringly that night. “Birthmothers provide our future population.”
But it felt a little like those times when they had opened the dinner delivery containers to find that the evening meal would be grains prepared with fish oil. “High vitamin D,” her mother would say in that same cheerful voice, in an attempt to make the meal seem more appealing than it really was.
Claire biked away from the education buildings and hesitated at the corner, where several paths intersected. She could turn right and ride past the back of Law and Justice, straight along that path, and be back at the Hatchery in a few minutes. But instead, she continued straight, then turned left, so that the House of the Old, surrounded by trees, was just ahead of her. She turned right here and slowed her bicycle near the Childcare Center, steering carefully around a food delivery vehicle being unloaded. Then she made her way straight ahead toward the Nurturing Center.
It was surprising, she thought, as she approached the structure, that she had never spent volunteer hours there as a schoolgirl. She had worked often at the Childcare Center, and had enjoyed the time playing educational games with the toddlers and young children, but infants—they were called newchildren—had never interested her. Some of her friends and age-mates had thought the little ones “cute.” But not Claire. From what she had heard described, they were endless work—feeding, rocking, bathing—and they cried too much. She had avoided doing her hours there.
Now, planning how she would present herself at the entrance to the Nurturing Center, Claire realized that she was excited, and a little nervous. She rehearsed what she might say when she went inside. To ask for Sophia would be foolish. Sophia would probably barely remember her; they had not been particular friends. But why else would she be appearing there, asking to enter?
Well, Claire decided abruptly, she would lie once again. Against the rules. She knew that. Once, she would have cared. Now she didn’t. As simple as that. And it was just a small lie.
She wheeled her bicycle into the rack where several slots had been left open for visitors. Then she disengaged the rolled posters from the carrier and took them with her to the front door. Inside, a young woman sitting at a desk looked up from her papers and smiled at her. “Good afternoon,” she said politely, peering at Claire’s nametag. “Can I help you?”
Claire introduced herself. “I’m a worker at the Hatchery,” she explained. “We have these extra posters explaining the life cycle of salmon. I was wondering if you could use some to decorate your walls.”
If the young woman said yes, she realized, she would have some explaining to do to the Hatchery director, who was at this very moment expecting his posters back. But it was a pretty safe assumption that the answer would be no. Who would care about examining the growth of fish? It wasn’t even that interesting to those who worked with them.
And, indeed, the young woman smiled and shook her head. “Thank you,” she said, “but we have specially designed equipment to engage the attention of newchildren. We don’t deviate from the standard means of helping them to focus their attention span and to exercise their small muscles. Everything’s pretty carefully calibrated by the experts in infant development.”
Claire nodded. “Interesting,” she said. “I’m sorry I never volunteered here. I don’t know much about nurturing at all. Do you ever let visitors have a tour?”
The receptionist appeared pleased at her interest. “Never been here at all? My goodness! It’s such a fun place! You should certainly take a look, since you’re here anyway! Let me see who’s on duty.” She ran her finger down a list of names.
“Is Sophia here?” Claire asked. “She was with my age group.”
“Oh, Sophia! She’s such a diligent worker. Let me look. Yes—there’s her name. Let’s see if she’s available.”
Summoned through the intercom by the receptionist, Sophia entered the front hallway from a corridor on the side. She hadn’t changed much since they had both been twelve almost three years before. She was thin, with her hair pulled back under a cap, which seemed to be part of her uniform. Claire smiled at her. “Hi,” she said. “I don’t know if you remember me. I was a Twelve when you were. My name’s Claire.”
Sophia looked at Claire’s nametag and nodded with a small smile of recognition, after a moment. “We don’t wear nametags,” Sophia explained, “because the newchildren would grab at them. But I remember you. I think we were in the same math class.”
“I hated math. I was never very good at it.” Claire made a face.
Sophia chuckled. “I did pretty well, but it never interested me much. Remember Marcus? He got such high marks in math! He’s in engineering studies now.”
Claire nodded. “He was always studying,” she recalled.
Sophia frowned and peered toward the small print under Claire’s name on her nametag. “I forget what your Assignment was,” she said. “Your uniform is . . .”
“Fish Hatchery,” Claire explained quickly. Good. Sophia didn’t remember that she had been assigned Birthmother.
“And so what are you doing here?”
“Hoping to get a tour!” Claire told her. “Somehow I missed out on the whole Nurturing section. And I have a little free time this afternoon.”
“Oh. Well, all right. You can follow along and I’ll explain things. But I have to work. It’s almost feeding time. Come on. Clean your hands first.” Sophia pointed to a disinfectant dispenser on the wall of the corridor, and Claire followed her example, rubbing her hands carefully with the clear medicinal liquid.
“The youngest ones are in this first room.” Youngest ones. That meant the most recent newchildren. Claire thought back, and remembered which of her sister Vessels had been preparing to give birth when she was dismissed. These would be their Products.
“We can’t go in this one without changing to sterile uniforms. But we can look at them.” Sophia pointed through a window to a spotlessly clean area filled with small wheeled carts, many empty. Two workers, a young man in a nurturer’s uniform and a volunteer, a girl of ten or so, were tidying things. They looked up at the window, saw the two observers, and smiled.
“How many newest?” Sophia called through the glass. The volunteer held up four fingers. Then she moved to one of the carts and pushed it closer to the window so Sophia and Claire could see. A card on the side had a gender symbol indicating Female, and the number 45.
“Forty-five?” Claire asked, looking down at the infant, who was wrapped tightly in a light blanket with only its small face exposed. The eyes were tightly closed. “What’s that mean?”
Sophia looked at her in surprise. “Number forty-five. Forty-fifth newchild this year. Just five more to come. Don’t you remember? We all had numbers. I was Twenty-seven.”
“Oh. Yes, of course. I was one of the earliest ones our year. I was number Eleven.”
And she did remember, now that Sophia had reminded her. After age twelve, the numbers didn’t matter much, were rarely referred to. But being number Eleven had served her well when she was young. It had meant she was the eleventh newchild her year—older, therefore, than so many others (like Sophia) who had been later to walk and talk, later to shoot up in height. By twelve, of course, most of that evened out. But Claire could remember being a Five, and a Six, and proud that she was a little ahead of so many others.
“What about the other ones in this year’s batch?” Claire asked.
Sophia gestured. “The oldest—numbers One to Ten? They’re in that room over there. A couple of them can walk already.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s really a nuisance to chase after them.” She started down the hall and turned a corner, Claire following. “Then the next oldest are here.” Another large window allowed the two young women to look into a room where a group of infants crawled on the carpeted floor strewn with toys, while their attendants prepared bottles at a counter and sink against the wall.
“So they’re arranged in groups of ten?”
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