A Mirror is the worst of all things. I am generally not a believer in absolutes, but I have always held an exception for mirrors. They are bullies of the highest order, robbing you of all dignity and filling you with dread as to what might happen when the two of you next meet. Take the creature staring at me in the mirror: her waist-hip ratio is entirely out of balance, her hair is too red, her skin too pale. The culprits include a trigger happy IRX289 gene, a warped MC1R receptor, and a deadbeat OCA2, respectively.
All these genes have since been tagged and tinkered with to limit the chance they’ll appear in future generations. I say limit because a gene can be studied, catalogued, and rebuilt from the ground up, but mutations will always fight their way to the surface. Red hair hasn’t made an appearance in eighteen years. Not since the G-12s, my generation, but I know if I live long enough, scarlet will rise again. A little persistence is all it takes.
On an average day, the seventh floor is the last place you’d ever find me. The number of mirrors alone is enough to give me nightmares for a month. The dollhouse, they call it, is home to the beauty empire: fashion, cosmetics, fragrances, and pretty much every other line of business on the spectrum of girly stuff I haven’t the mind or the body for. But tonight is different. Tonight could change everything. I need something to wear, and my closet lies in what can only be described as an advanced state of decay.
This ridiculous body con dress won’t do. The only thing it could con me into is a four-week mineral fast and a good cry. I shed the dress like a poison skin, taking great care to avoid my reflection as I undress. Ugh, too late. I give the mirror a defiant kick to make the fight seem a little less one-sided, but the bully wins again.
“Hello? Is someone here?” a voice calls out.
My stomach knots. I thought I was alone. Whoever it is, I pity them. The image of me in my shapers will be a tough one to chase from their memory. I peek over the wall of shoeboxes and relax. The heels of Camilla’s clunky shoes scrape the floor as she maneuvers her supply cart through rows of auto-adjusting baby doll dresses for quasi-grownups, epigastric-baring tops, self-dissolving makeup, and gowns wrapped in 4-D pixels that give the illusion of a gentle breeze blowing flower pedals in your direction.
“Tessa, is that you? You’re not supposed to be in here, hon,” she informs me, tapping the remote in her hand. The computerized image streaming across the floor morphs from mirrored tiles back to fancy marble. “Come on, out you go!”
She pushes her mop at my feet, ushering me to the door. I don’t know why someone like Camilla doesn’t rate a better assignment than cleaning technician. Born into any other family, Camilla could be anything. She’s smarter than 99.89% of the general population, and she’s only 83 years old, barely middle-aged for a coder. Coders – that’s what people call us.
Imagine your family strolling through a giant supermarket, pushing a shopping cart with your name on it. IQ points are on sale, two for one, so they pile a few into the basket. They go down the list: creative thinking, leadership qualities, higher cheekbones and straighter hair. Check, check, and check. Of course, the cart is only so big, so they stick a few items back on the shelf. There goes empathy, sense of humor, and your tolerance for risk. What they have in their cart at checkout is the customized genetic code that will soon be you. The cashier drops you in the bag (a host mother) and nine short months later, they have an upgraded version of you. It’s a bit more complicated, but that’s the gist of being a coder.
Camilla plants the mop in the bucket and stares at me a moment.
“What?” I ask.
“I’ve never seen you wear a dress like that before.”
“Tonight is the G-18 party. For the Aramark merger.”
“I know you, Tessa, your interest in such things is meager.”
“Atherton requested my presence – at his table.”
“Oh, I see. That’s quite an honor.” Camilla glances down at the stack of discarded dresses behind me. “And how many of these have you tried on?”
“Seven…teen. Seventeen. Eighteen, if you rank that one there, but I don’t think it should even count as a dress.”
Camilla picks up the dress, playing her hand along the asymmetric sleeveless vest and the giant ruffled collared. “What fault do you find in it?”
“It’s adequate, if you’re applying for a job as a circus freak,” I reply, a little more severely than I intended, but I’m a geneticist; my eyes have been trained to screen for inconsistencies, not trendspotting.
“I think I know one that will please you.” Camilla smiles and disappears behind a garment rack. The other 18-year-olds find it puzzling, but I enjoy the company of the old ones. They’re more generous with their time, and when they speak, it’s from experience, not something learned by a program.
Camilla dances her way back over, doing a reverse spin while holding a gown beneath her chin. No straps, smart fibers programmed to make the surface appear like cascading rain. Striking. Elegant. Panic-inducing.
“Now this a dress that refuses to be ignored,” she declares, swaying to the music in her head.
“That’s Darien’s dress.”
“You really think Darien will remember a dress she wore on some runway walk two years ago?”
Darien certainly isn’t afraid of mirrors. She’s the girl in the picture that first drafts (it’s what we call non-coders) bring their cosmetic surgeons when they lose their battle with the mirror and decide they need to look like someone else. Darien – my younger sister, a G-13. If she found the courage to wear it, maybe I could too.
I swallow my fear and wiggle my way inside. Camilla taps the dress with a stylus until the pixelated fabric darkens from a champagne color to coral pink, before settling into a deep crimson. She twists my hair up into braided ribbons and slips a shimmering necklace around me. A few more pixel-taps to lighten my fingernails and lips, and the look is complete.
When Camilla reactivates the mirrored floor tiles, I look like scorched amber. I pivot and immediately stumble. “Adjust heel height,” I command, bringing my sling backs closer to the floor. “Don’t you think it’s a little too… red?”
“Dear, it’s who you are. You can’t hide from it.” She plants her hands on my shoulders and gazes down at our shared reflection. “Look at you, so beautiful. You know how many girls out there would kill to look like you. To think like you. To feel what you feel.”
Not many in this family. If only I hadn’t been born a Tearcatcher.
The hallway feeding into the ballroom is cramped. All the Tearcatcher girls, from youngest to oldest, stand in line, waiting for the party coordinator to motion them down the grand double staircase. The G-16s begin their awkward descent, inching down to the main entryway, fingers clutching the bannister. Why they make the six-year-olds parade around in high heels and ball gowns, I’ll never understand, though the guests in the ballroom below seem amused, their giggles and applause spurring on the tiny debutantes.
A suit-clad boy from the Aramark family creeps his way down the opposite staircase, pausing at the bottom just long enough for the Tearcatcher girl to loop her arm through his, before escorting her into the party.
I stand in a cluster of other 18-year-olds, not saying much. Though we were all born on the same day, we’re not much like sisters. There were no tea parties or princess-themed birthday celebrations. The day we turned five, we all went to work, our job assignments determined pre-birth.
We all belong to Tearcatcher manor, one of the five most powerful coder families on the east coast (if you can even call us a family, we operate more like a corporation). Tearcatchers have our fingers in every part of society: finance, entertainment, fashion, consumer products, and most importantly, biotechnology. We’ve monetized the very blood in our veins, turning it into pharmaceuticals, sensory boosters, and gene therapies we sell to the first drafts, who wait in line for days just to get a sliver of the power embedded in our DNA.
The party coordinator points in my direction. I glance around at the others. Maybe he was motioning for someone else.
“You, red. You’re up!” he barks.
My heart hammers in my chest. Mouth dry, ears ringing. I smooth out my dress with trembling hands. Come on, you can do this. Just breathe. Shoulders back, chin up. The first step is unsteady, and already I regret not lowering the heels even more. Everyone’s staring at me. Did my dress slip down? I can still feel the tape Camilla stuck around my chest itching my skin, so that can’t be the issue. How she talked me out my shapewear, I still don’t know.
The steps beneath my feet were cut into the underside of the staircase, so when viewed from down in the ballroom, they look like upside-down stairs. I’m starting to understand how they feel. This isn’t my normal life. I work in a lab twelve hours a day. The whole world is upside-down tonight.
After what feels like a longer descent than Kilimanjaro, I reach the bottom and relax. My escort gives me a wink and a faint smile. We link arms and march off to the ballroom. His name is Tristan, he says, coolly sweeping his hair from his chiseled face. Tall and slender, the Aramarks must have added an extra copy of the HMGA2 variant, among other genes. You couldn’t object to a single inch of him really, from a scientific point of view.
To me, he feels like January 47. That’s just a thing that coders do. It’s difficult to explain to a non-coder, but we’re more intuitive than normal people, forcing our brains to quantify the world – people, events, feelings – in oddly specific ways. I perceive sound in ribbons of color and faces as precise coordinates along a map in my head made up of numbers, letters, and dates. Not every coder is the same though. My sister Desiree would probably classify Tristan as a feeling of pressure in her subclavian artery, while Camilla might say he gives off the aura of burning leaves. I wonder how Tristan experiences me.
The Aramarks are a smaller family, not one of the big five, but their DNA houses a rare genetic variation that will add diversity to our family profile. There aren’t many coder families around to merge with; the government only issued a small number of licenses to the highest bidders. Fearful about humanity’s uncertain future if genetic modification was made widely available, the lawmakers then piled on tax after tax, until only the wealthiest few corporations could afford the process. It wasn’t long before their genetically-enhanced legacies grew smarter than the scientists who created them, and the suits who funded them. To make certain our fates remained in our own hands, we wrestled away control from the corporations, rebranding ourselves as families.
“You know, in ancient Rome, red-headed slaves traded at a much higher price,” Tristan says.
An odd thing to say. What does he want me to do? Wash his trousers and fan him with olive leaves? I should probably make some reply. “Is that right?”
“Yes, to have a red-haired slave was a sign of great esteem.” He stops and stares at me, probably at the flecks of gold. My blue eyes are spiked with splashes of gold radiating from the pupil. “What’s that in your eye?”
“I have a mutation at the Eight-HTP pathway.” I’ve explained it so many times, it doesn’t really annoy me anymore. “I have too much pigment in my eyes.”
He smiles, as if fascinated by this. Truth speak, I don’t know whether I’m being mocked or admired. I’m pulling for admiration. We rarely get to venture beyond the gates of the family compound, and even on those few occasions, it’s just a day trip to the shores along the isolated peninsula the Tearcatchers own, and under the watchful eyes of bodyguards. Only family members of high status (the ones who deal in politics, entertainment, and business) are granted the privilege of traveling to the city. It’s been three years since I’ve seen a face that doesn’t belong to a Tearcatcher, and I don’t know how to read this one.
“Tessa!” shouts a shrill voice across the room. A cluster of guests breaks up and the D sisters – Darien, Dominique, and Desiree – come into focus. They want me to come to them, because that’s what people typically do when summoned by the D sisters. I give them a slight nod and turn back to Tristan.
“They’re… um, not coming over here, are they?”
Tristan peers over my shoulder and nods. A moment later, we’re surrounded by blond hair falling at just the right angles, flawless skin, and infinite treachery concealed behind well-practiced smiles. I hate them. My radiant little sisters, they run the family beauty empire like glittering size-zero dictators. Tonight, they are all dressed in white. Not just any white, a pristine white that only comes with a life shielded from the stains of having self-awareness.
“This dress is radiant,” says Darien, the alpha, delicately arranging wisps of hair around my neck. “You look like a bouquet of lovely roses. Red is your color, Tessa.”
Most of Darien’s compliments arrive wrapped in barbed wire. I hesitate before responding, waiting for the cut, but Darien just stands there, keeping me squarely in the crosshairs of her megawatt smile. Her facial symmetry is perfect, even when she speaks. Most people put more torque in the right side of their mouth when they talk. Not Darien. The contralateral neural connections between the left side of her brain and the right side of her face are in exact harmony, making it impossible to read her intentions.
Dominique studies me, her tongue hugging her upper lip. “You know, you look a lot like Darien in that dress, if you added like 30 pounds, an extra chin, and gross red hair.”
Desiree, the only one I can really call a friend, taps my elbow. “Behind every fat girl, there’s a pretty one waiting to break through,” she whispers, fidgeting with her dress straps. “I mean it, Tessa, can you move a little? Your hips are in the way.”
When I say friend, I mean she’s the least pointed in her cruelty. I scoot to my right, allowing Desiree enough space to squeeze between me and Tristan.
“Ew, what’s that smell?” Dominique asks, crinkling her nose.
The high-end perfume Camilla gave me is supposed to roll out in three parts: lavender, tangerine, and marigold. I can already smell the middle notes fading. “Um, it’s called royal blossom, I think.”
“You should go take a shower right now. You smell like a flower bed that homeless people use as a toilet.” Dominique waves her hand in front of her face. “I’ll keep your new friend company while you’re gone.”
“Oh, this is Tristan.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” he says to her weakly. Tristan hasn’t taken his eyes off me since the D sisters arrived. Could he be the one XY in the world immune to their spells? “Would you like to dance, Tessa?”
Someone else answers for me, “She would love to.” I look over my shoulder and see Conrad standing behind me. “But Atherton has asked for Tessa’s company at his table. Perhaps, later though?”
“Yes, of course, later,” Tristan says, nodding with deference. Conrad has that effect on people. With his long black hair, he doesn’t look much like the other 45-year-olds. The part running down the middle of his hair is razor straight, just like the precisely cut lines of his beard. And that face he always wears, like he’s pleasantly stuck in a daydream, you wouldn’t expect it from a security expert. Especially not one entrusted to protect Atherton himself.
Conrad holds out his hand. “Shall we?”
“Don’t rude speak, Conrad, we were talking with Tessa about the sudden reversal of her poor fashion choices,” Darien says, positioning herself between me and Conrad. “Why don’t you come back in a few minutes when you’ve learned some manners?”
“And will you be the one to tell Atherton he can wait, or should I?” Conrad asks, cutting her down with his stare. That’s what three copies of the OXTR gene with a G allele will do for you. I call it the bad-ass gene. Wish I had it.
“Thank you for rescuing me, kind stranger,” I whisper as Conrad leads me away from the D sisters.
“You don’t want to dance with that handsome young man?”
“Dancing tends to draw attention.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing.” He winks at me. “That dress is having all the fun.”
I smile at the floor, trying to keep my breath even so my chemical transmitters won’t spill all the blood to my cheeks. Conrad escorts me to the main party room. Two swarms of dancers in neon body paint (one steeped in yellow, the other in blue) wind across the stage up front. Each group arranges themselves in a double helix pattern, before merging into one larger ribbon. The stage carefully tilts forward, until it’s nearly vertical, giving the partygoers a bird’s eye view of the new blue and yellow DNA strand.
The crowd launches into applause as fireworks stream into the air, bursting into mists of green before dissolving in the air. Not just any green – every green. Every shade of green on the visual spectrum, from blue to yellow, in perfect sequence. The guests tilt their heads back to inhale the falling vapor. Veridian 48 or 49, from the smell of it.
Atherton sits at a center table orbited by reporters, entertainers, and family ambassadors. Atherton Tearcatcher, our nine-year old family CEO, has requested my company. It can only mean one thing – it’s finally my time to make a contribution to the new generation. In just a few months, one of the G-18s could be crawling around the nursery with a little piece of me written on her chromosomes. I won’t be the one to birth her or raise her even (we have specialists for each function), but in many ways, she’ll still be mine.
Atherton spots me among the crowd and waves me over. Conrad pats my hand before letting go. Deep breaths, Tessa. No reason to be intimidated. This is the kid who once vomited in your hair when you held him in the nursery. I probably shouldn’t bring that up, he’s rumored to have a violent temper. I say rumored, because he’s always been cordial with me. Business-like, but always cordial. He’s three generations newer than me. At 497, his IQ dwarfs mine by over 150 points. Atherton is intuitive, unburdened by self-doubt, and sees connections where I see none. He thinks and speaks with an efficiency I can’t even begin to grasp, yet he’s never talked down to me.
“Good evening, Atherton” I squeak.
“Tessa,” he says, rising from his seat. “Please, join me.”
A woman wearing a silk robe covered with dragons grudgingly surrenders her seat, and I slide in between them. Now that I look closer, she may have happily given up her seat, but it’s difficult to tell. The brightly-colored mask painted on her face distorts her features, giving her an angry hue.
“This is Yousheng, the world’s finest mezzo-soprano,” he proclaims, the rhythm of his speech hiding the youthfulness of his voice.
“You flatter me, Atherton,” she says, possibly blushing.
“Flattery negates us both. I truth speak and I am never wrong,” he says dryly, as if it were just a statement of fact.
The meal in front of me has been 4-D printed to look like a blooming orchid.
“I took the liberty of customizing your dinner. Persian Rhizaria, your favorite algae, I’m told,” he declares, watching closely for my reaction.
“That was thoughtful, but I don’t have much of an appetite.”
“You must at least try it. Rhizaria always tastes sweeter when accompanied by the higher frequency sounds. Yousheng, would you mind gracing us?”
“Oh, no, she really doesn’t –”
Atherton cuts me off, “That is her purpose, Tessa.”
Yousheng clears her throat, humming a few notes to loosen her instrument, before gliding to the stage.
“The evening is a great success,” I say softly, trying to shake off all the attention. “You must have worked very hard to make it so.”
“This merger is important to our family. There was a great deal of competition for the Aramark genes. The right DNA must be selected from both sides.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I reply, my knees trembling.
“That’s why I want you to pee in front of cart diving for the great teams.” That’s what it sounds like anyway. Atherton’s saying something else now, but Yousheng just hit the A two octaves above middle C, washing out his words entirely now. Behind her, the chorus streams in riding Arabian leopards, the kind with all the fight bred out of them. Now they’re just big spotted kittens.
I point to my ears and shake my head. Atherton leans in and shouts, “I said, I want you to be in charge of archiving for the G-18 project.”
Now would be a good time to edit my reaction, but I feel like I’ve just been kicked in the stomach. “Archiving? Is this a joke? You want me to be a gene librarian?”
“I thought you would be pleased. It’s quite an honor to be the archivist for a merger of this stature.” He pauses to study my eyes. “I see, you thought you were being selected as a contributor. The misinterpretation is regrettable.”
“What? No, of course not, that’s ridiculous.”
“Lying negates efficiency. Truth speak.”
“I should get to make a contribution like everyone else.” I shudder at the sound of my own words. Less emotion, Tessa, logic speak. “My DNA is a strong match with the Aramarks, especially at the LTR retrotransposons. I can show you the data.”
“I’ve seen all the data, Tessa, and I understand it better than you. Your compatibility score isn’t high enough. As far as this merger goes, your generation is obsolete. The project is strictly G-13 and higher. Young ones only. Your technical skills will still be an asset to the family.”
And it finally hits me – I am an old one. I feel too nauseous to string together any more words. “I have to go.”
“Wait, Tessa, there’s something wrong with your –”
I push myself out the chair before he can finish, hoping for a quick escape, but a crowd has begun to assemble around me. I back pedal to the stage, where two aggressively-bred vines cultivated from the southeast wall of the estate grow out of the floor, intertwining in mid-air to form an arch under which Yousheng steps to deliver her big finale.
But for some odd reason, the crowd’s attention is not directed at her; all eyes fall on me. A few gasps ripple across the room. Followed by pockets of laughter, rising in pitch, as more and more guests settle around me. My hair fell apart, didn’t it? Lipstick smudged? “What?!”
A woman responds by tilting her fork at my dress. No, it can’t be, not the dress. My eyes swing down to the crimson dress Camille had spent so much time packing me into. Only now, it’s no longer crimson – the fabric has faded into completely see-through pixels.
Naked before the crowd, the chart-topping nightmare of my greatest hits collection.
Is this real, or did I just inhale too much of that Veridian mist? I look down again, but my pale, hideous skin remains exposed. What happened? How long has… Who would… Why is this… Just, why? Every blemish and skewed line and extra pound I intended to work off. All of it on display for the whole room to see. Step right up, boys and girls, and have yourselves a look.
The gene to make a person invisible has yet to be invented, yet still I stand there, unable to move or even cover up. The eye makeup Camilla decorated me with claims to be smear proof, but I can feel it streaming down my skin. I can feel my pupils growing wider, along with the blood vessels in my face, burning my cheeks red. The middle notes of my perfume are fading, the base notes finally kicking in as the crowd swells around me.
Humiliation isn’t fatal. I won’t die, but I will be stuck here in this spot until I do something. I lift my gaze away from the floor and look into each of their faces. It’s the only armor I have left. The more polite ones, those not delirious with laughter, make gestures to hide their reactions. Shoving appetizers between their gleaming white teeth to hide their disgust or covering their delicate laughs with diamond-laced fingers. Others have skin too well-constructed to reveal anything at all. The faces all blur into one beautifully-warped facade.
Someone slides a jacket around me. I turn and see that it’s Conrad, the only face in the room showing any real concern. Yousheng hits her final note, cuing designer rose pedals to rain from the ceiling. Darien slides up behind me and picks one out of my hair.
“Hey Tessa,” she whispers. “I slipped a little virus into your dress back there in the ballroom, just so you don’t forget – never wear my clothes again, you scarlet bitch!”