Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson

Advertisement

Fiction

Sweet Sixteen

Her entire life, Star had known that on her sixteenth birthday, she would choose to be a Tiffany.

She shifted in her seat, rolled her eyes at her home-mom, Martha Peace. “I just don’t see what the point of this is. I know what I want to be. I don’t need to be counseled on my options.”

“That’s not how the process works, dear. You know that.” Martha Peace turned back to her knitting.

Star slumped lower in her seat, because she did know. She would get to make a choice, but so would her moms, and so would the community. And she had to endure the counseling, so everyone could sign off on her choice as being mature and considered. As if she hadn’t been considering for almost sixteen years. As if a sterile conversation and a couple of weeks to consider would change her mind.

The thing was, Tiffanies weren’t needed. They were the girls who were cute, who entertained, who were B-list and gossip fodder. They weren’t like the Marthas, who became home-moms, and raised daughters, and knitted. They weren’t like the Hillaries, who ran school boards and cities and countries, or the Carolines, who worked in physics and astronomy, and drove shuttles to Mars. Most especially, Tiffanies weren’t like her career-mom, Elizabeth Sky. Elizabeths were doctors, and so were never home because they were always dealing with someone else’s more important problems.

Star didn’t care about any of the other choices, or want to hear yet again the official reminder that the restructuring would set her path, but it would be her choice how far she walked on it. When it came time for her restructuring on her sixteenth birthday, she was going to walk into the room, and ask to be made a Tiffany.

A woman stepped through the sliding door. White coat, glasses, hair scraped back from her face. An Anna, Star guessed, but of course she would be, to work here.

“Star? I’m Anna Poetry. Will you come with me, please?”

Star followed Anna Poetry through airy hallways, past frosted glass doors where other girls—girls just like Star, almost sixteen, almost old enough for restructuring—were being counseled by their Annas about their options.

Anna Poetry led Star into an empty exam room. Her competent hands weighed and measured Star, checked her vision and hearing, drew three vials of blood. “The data I’ve just gathered will be matched against your birth profile, and used to help determine what kind of woman you’re suited to be.”

“I’m going to be a Tiffany,” Star said.

Anna Poetry smiled. “That’s an interesting choice. Do you know any Tiffanies?”

“I met one once. When they were filming that Reality at school last year. She was sweet.”

“Is that why you want to be a Tiffany? Because you think they’re sweet?” Anna Poetry made a notation on her touch screen.

“Yes. But also because everyone watches them and loves them and talks about them. I want people to pay attention to me.”

“Why not be a Meryl, or a Hillary, then? Or a Theresa, if you want to be loved?”

“Because those are all serious. Tiffanies are fun.”

Another notation. “Have you discussed your choice with your moms?”

“Martha Peace knows. She thinks I should want to be something useful, like an Anna or a Marie. But I think entertaining people is useful.”

The Anna’s fingers flicked across Star’s file. “Your career-mom is an Elizabeth at the hospital, isn’t she? What does she think of your choice?”

“She likes law, so I think she wants me to be a Sandra, but we haven’t really talked about it. She’s busy. You know how Elizabeths are.”

“We all appreciate the sacrifices Elizabeths make for our health, but it’s very important that she speak with you about this decision. I’ll ping her with a reminder.”

Star didn’t think that would go over well at all, but she smiled and nodded thanks.

“When you come in to undergo the restructuring, you’ll be asked to declare your top three choices, in order, to help align your preferences with the community’s needs. Have you thought about the other two?”

“Martha Peace says I’m a good cook, so I’ve thought about being a Julia. And I like to write, so maybe a Virginia, but I don’t really like being alone, so I’m not sure about that one. Can’t I just write Tiffany three times? It’s the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to be.”

“No, you need to have three discrete choices. If you want to meet anytime between now and your birthday to discuss your options, just ping me. Do you have any other questions?”

“Did you want to be an Anna?” Star blushed. “I’m so sorry. I know that’s a rude question. I’m just worried about the procedure. I mean, if I don’t get to be a Tiffany, will remembering I wanted to, like, screw up the rest of my life?”

“You don’t need to worry. The restructuring is total. When the procedure is finished, your DNA will be so perfectly tuned to your role that you won’t remember ever wanting to be anything other than what you are.”

***

Anna Poetry must have pinged Elizabeth Sky as soon as Star had left her office. When Star and Martha Peace arrived home, Elizabeth Sky was waiting in the kitchen. “I picked up dinner from Julia Cupcake’s.”

Julia Cupcake’s career-mom was also a Julia. Star wondered if Julia Cupcake had wanted to be a Julia before she was restructured, back when she was just Cupcake.

Dinner was delicious, and when it was over, Martha Peace put on a pot of tea, kissed Star on the cheek, and excused herself. Star wished she had stayed. She didn’t know her career-mom well, and talking to Elizabeth Sky always felt like taking an exam Star hadn’t known to study for.

“It’s cruel, what happens. That the decision comes so early,” Elizabeth Sky said.

Star blinked. She had been expecting a lecture. Confused didn’t begin to cover how she felt. “If deciding now is cruel, why don’t we get to wait?”

“Because the restructuring doesn’t always take, if we wait longer. Up until sixteen, it works, and works perfectly. After that, the DNA becomes resistant. The process only takes in bits and pieces, and you can have someone with the ability of a Julia forced into being a Hillary. It leads to all the pain and frustration restructuring was designed to avoid.”

“I had always thought that we had the procedure when we turned sixteen because that was when we were old enough to decide.”

“No. It’s because that’s the last possible moment when you are still young enough for choice to be possible. I just wish it could be later, so you had more time to know yourself.”

Here it comes, Star thought. The lecture about how being a Tiffany was a frivolous choice, how if she were more responsible, more of a grown up, she would choose to be a Marie, or a Scholastica, or something equally boring.

“I wanted to be a Tiffany,” Elizabeth Sky said.

Star sloshed tea across the table. “Anna Poetry said we don’t remember what we wanted to be after the restructuring.”

“That’s true. Unless you get your first choice. Then they leave your memory intact.”

“But if you wanted to be a Tiffany, how do you remember that now?”

“My career-mom had a conversation very similar to this one with me before I went in for my restructuring. She was a Rosalind.”

A geneticist. Like the ones who would make up a vial full of Star’s new DNA as a sixteenth birthday gift. Like the ones who designed the restructuring to begin with.

“What did she tell you that made you change your mind?”

“That she wished I could have had the time to be all of the things I wanted. I knew I didn’t have that time, but I thought maybe if I became an Elizabeth, I could find a way to let the choice happen later. For other girls.”

“Why do we have to choose to get restructured at all, then? Can’t I just be a Tiffany?”

“The process was designed to blend desire and ability with need. Things don’t work if everyone is a Meryl and no one is a Martha. And you know what happens when I try to cook,” Elizabeth Sky said. “What if I had wanted to be a Julia?”

Star snickered.

“Exactly. So the choice is the price we pay for happiness, for a functioning community. It’s an easy price, I think. I just wish it could be paid later.

“I failed in my hope, Star. I couldn’t give you any more time. Because of that, Martha Peace and I are giving you our votes. Since you have to choose now, we want the choice to be as much yours as we can make it. Happy birthday.”

***

Both of Star’s moms went with her on the day of her restructuring, her sixteenth birthday. She hugged and kissed them. Martha Peace wiped a tear from her eye, and told Star how grown up she looked.

“Do you know what you want to be?” asked Elizabeth Sky.

Star nodded.

“Then be her proudly.”

Star wrote down three names on her touch screen, then stretched out on the bed. After a time that seemed both like forever, and not nearly long enough for the rest of her life to have been decided, Anna Poetry came in with the pressure syringe full of Star’s future.

“You look very calm,” Anna Poetry said. “Are you ready?”

Star was. Anna Poetry pressed the syringe to her shoulder, and Star closed her eyes.

When she awoke, Rosalind Star remembered that she had once wanted to be a Tiffany. Maybe, she thought, every girl did.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Kat Howard

Kat Howard

Kat Howard is the World Fantasy Award-nominated author of over 25 pieces of short fiction. Her work has been performed on NPR as part of Selected Shorts, and has appeared in magazines including Nightmare, Clarkesworld, and the Journal of Unlikely Cartography, and a variety of anthologies. Her novella, “The End of the Sentence,” written with Maria Dahvana Headley, is available from Subterranean Press. You can find her on twitter as @KatWithSword and she blogs at strangeink.blogspot.com.

7 Responses »

  1. Wow, this story reminds me so much of the TZ episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” but where the TZ episode was all about “for your own good and the good of the community” and all the girl wanted was to be herself, which at best is confusing – this story’s protagonist embraces the system except she wants to be someone other than what others think is in her best interest. I felt this treatment was much more in line with how it really might be in the future. And in the end this means the choices are more understandable and ultimately a surprise.

    You can’t help but like this much calmer less over the top dramatic telling of a classic theme.

    Paul Cole
    Beam Me Up podcast

  2. Just wanted to say I think this is a really neat and original take on themes usually seen with clones in these sorts of genetic engineering tales. The way predetermination-through-genes becomes a choice, rather than something one’s automatically saddled with, was, I felt, a very nice way to play with the themes involved.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this. I love this style of satire where you see a people try and fix a problem we deal with every day. It makes you question the value of fixing our flaws versus the risk of never socially or technologically moving forward. Well done!

  4. That was an enjoyable read.
    Thank you.

  5. This was a very good read! As a geneticist, I often dislike the way my field is portrayed in science fiction, but this was a charming take. Thank you so much!

  6. “When she awoke, Rosalind Star remembered that she had once wanted to be a Tiffany. Maybe, she thought, every girl did.”

    This resonates. The desire to be in the spotlight, thwarted by the need to do what is necessary.

    Lovely to see the change in the character.

  7. Very Margaret Atwood-ish… in a good way, though. A decent read.

Leave a Response