Althea-310 waited for class to begin, sitting in a neat row with her nine sisters. They’d spent the morning on their floor of the Althea dorm twisting bright ribbons into their hair, and all ten of them had a different color winding through otherwise identical dark curls. Althea-310 had chosen lavender. Althea-316 had wanted lavender, so they’d agreed to draw sticks, but Althea-316 still scowled three seats away with her blue ribbon, even though it had all been fair and she didn’t have any reason to sulk like that. As the sisters casually communed while waiting for class to start and their emotions mingled together, Althea-316’s resentment threaded through them all like a faraway hum. A Gen-290 Althea had admonished them for inviting the conflict into their group, but Althea-310 overheard the older woman comment a few moments later how she’d secretly laughed about it all.
“They should use white, like our generation did,” she’d said. “It’d be so much simpler. I guess it’s something Altheas have to learn on their own. I just thought the Gen-310s would have it figured out by the time they were fifteen. We certainly knew better.”
Althea-310 didn’t care what Altheas were supposed to learn. She liked the way the silky colors fell down her sisters’ backs, a rainbow in an otherwise boring classroom. Anyway, she felt pretty. Lavender really was nicer than blue.
The sisters’ nine faces all turned in Althea’s direction as they sensed the pride coming from her, and Althea-311 gave a small shake of her head, a silent warning. Althea clasped her hands together and focused on tamping the feeling down. It would only make things worse with Althea-316, and there were other things to worry about today besides ribbons.
Vispera’s town council had told the class there would be a test. They were to expect a visitor, someone who was part of a new research experiment that would make the three communities better. Though Althea had a hard time imagining that Vispera, or even the other two communities, could be any better than they were now.
A Gen-290 Samuel walked in brusquely and put his books on the desk up front. It was Samuel-299, who wasn’t actually a teacher, but a Council member and also a doctor at the clinic. So the experiment to make the community better was something medical. That was odd, however, since genetic modification meant that, in three hundred years, no one in Vispera had ever had so much as a cold.
The Samuel’s gaze passed quickly over the ten Carson brothers in the back, their feet spread lazily in front of them, taking up as much room as possible. The younger versions of himself, the Gen-310 Samuels, filled the middle row. Then he took in the front row of Altheas, their posture straight and hands folded on their desks. He shook his head at the different colored ribbons in their hair, smiling absently.
“You Altheas,” he said. “Always up to something.” He fiddled with his books, acting strangely nervous for a Samuel. “I know the Council talked to you some about what we’re doing today,” he said, perching on the edge of the desk. “You need to meet someone. He’s going to be part of our class from now on, part of our community, and if things go well, you’ll see a lot more of him. Now, understand, you’ll find him . . . different. But I expect you all to behave and be polite.”
Althea had no idea who the Samuel would want them to meet. And what about the test? Althea had spent last night with her friend Nyla-313 quizzing each other on history, so a medical test would be a disaster.
Althea liked working with Nyla-313. Nyla was learning in the labs how to engineer clever little oranges spliced with wild seeds so they tasted of cinnamon, and she would bring her experiments to Althea for their study sessions. Also, the Nylas never teased Althea about the scar on her wrist, and Nyla-313 often told her she shouldn’t bother hiding it. But while Althea enjoyed the colored ribbons, she didn’t like her scar. When it wasn’t covered, the eyes of those in the community landed on the smooth line of white skin circling her wrist, and she hated how they’d inevitably say, “Oh, Althea-310,” as if all they needed to know about her was that she was the sister born with the defect, the one who’d needed a replacement hand grown separately in a limb tank. She used to wonder why she hadn’t been eliminated once it was discovered. It must have been apparent while she floated in the tanks, months before she was born. But it would have shown up too late to start creating another Althea. It had happened before, usually through accidental death, that a model’s generation had only nine people instead of ten, but it caused a lot of discontent, even some disruption. That must have been the reason she hadn’t been eliminated.
Now all the studying they’d done would be for nothing. This was all very unusual; they never strayed from the curriculum. Maybe Samuel-299 had brought in someone from one of the other communities, maybe from Copan or even all the way from Crooked Falls. Maybe even an Althea. Althea had always wondered how the Altheas in Crooked Falls might be different. Was their penmanship as elegant as the Vispera Altheas’? Did they cut their hair shoulder-length, like the Altheas in Copan? Maybe there was another Althea out there who was born with a defective right hand and also had a scar like the one around her wrist.
But it couldn’t be an Althea from Crooked Falls, of course. The Samuel had said him. It was probably just another Samuel, then. Althea sighed, realizing the ribbons were probably going to be the only real excitement of the day.
Samuel-299 paused at the door before stepping out, his brow creased, his voice plaintive. “Remember, just . . . be kind.”
When Samuel-299 returned, a boy entered behind him. On seeing him, the row of Samuels collectively sucked in a breath. A Carson huffed an incredulous laugh. Every Althea reached a trembling hand for the hand of the sister next to her until their fingers wove together in an unbroken sequence. Althea communed with them, feeling their emotions as she felt her own. Every sister and brother communed in small, subtle ways all the time when they were close together, as did everyone in Vispera, but in moments of stress or fear, it was important to seek a strengthened connection through touch. Her sisters’ collective effort to calm one another coursed through her like liquid. It was warm, seeming to fill her limbs. She exhaled as, little by little, the shared anxiety eased.
The boy fidgeted miserably. He ran his fingers through his hair, then pushed his hands into his pockets. Althea tried to figure out his age. She thought he was probably fifteen, like the rest of them. He looked scared, but no one stroked him or tried to comfort him, no one held his hand to commune, not like the brothers and sisters did for one another.
His eyes glanced from student to student, quick and nervous. He looked like he might be somewhat intelligent, but it was hard to tell. Even...