My tomatoes smell so good. They are red and ripe and firm, and I would love to pull one from its vine and bite into it like an apple. But I won’t, because hydroponic gardeners grow vegetables for the city, not for themselves.
“Why do you always do that?” Sorrel 16 stares at my left hand where it’s folded over the edge of the flood table, my fingers dangling in the water. There’s a pH tester on the table--it looks like a fat pen--but I rarely use it.
“Dahlia thinks she can tell the pH balance of the water just by touching it,” Poppy 16 answers for me, leaning around her own vines to whisper as our instructor wanders closer.
“I’m right, aren’t I?” Though my skill doesn’t actually come from touching the water; it comes from watching the plants closely. I’m not supposed to take personal pride in the fact that my tomatoes are the brightest, firmest fruit in our class, but I can’t figure out how not to. The best I can do is try to hide my pleasure from our instructor. And from the cameras.
My favorite of the tomatoes we’ve grown so far are the fat red beefsteaks, just begging to be sliced and layered onto a soy burger or a turkey BLT. But I also have a soft spot for the Italian plum variety and the vibrant yellow pear tomatoes, which are about the size of my thumb but bulbous on one end.
Sometimes I wish I could tell the cooks that tomatoes are not all alike. But my job is not to design recipes or cook food. My job is to grow vegetables. At least, it will be when my class graduates and joins the trade labor division. As members of the hydroponic gardening union, we will grow vegetables for the city of Lakeview. That’s been our fate since before our genome was commissioned by Management.
“Okay, genius.” Violet peeks at me from between her vines. Her station is diagonally across from mine, next to Poppy’s and opposite Sorrel’s in our workstation cube. “What am I doing wrong, then?” she whispers.
Her leaves are curling up at the tips, and her stems have a faint reddish cast. “Magnesium deficiency. Your pH is too low.”
“That’s not possible,” Violet whispers. “I checked the pH yesterday.”
“Check again.” I hand her the pH tester and she dips it into the water in her flood tray. Her eyes narrow and her jaw clenches. I recognize her frustration because I see that very expression in the mirror every single day. Not that I need a mirror to know what I look like. All I have to do is look around the room.
All twenty students in the year-sixteen girls’ hydroponic gardening class have the same brown hair, brown eyes, and fair skin. We are all right-handed. We all have prominent, unattached earlobes and second toes that are longer than the first, and we can all roll our tongues. If I were to step into any of the other trade labor classrooms--electrical, plumbing, cooking, sewing, carpentry, mechanics, landscape gardening, and many, many others--I would see twenty more identical faces and bodies, differentiated from mine only by the bar codes on their wrists and the names on their uniforms. Names like Anise and Julienne. Cornice and Fascia. Gusset and Muslin.
All the girls in the year-sixteen trade labor division were cloned from a single genome designed by a genetic engineer to be healthy, hardy, and smart. And we are.
But some of us are also lazy. Like Violet.
“Dahlia 16!” our instructor, Sorrel 32, calls from across the room.
I freeze as her standard-issue instructor shoes clack closer. Her hand lands on my shoulder and I hold my breath. We’re not supposed to talk to our friends during class.
“These Italian plums are gorgeous! When did you start them?” Sorrel 32 lifts the tag dangling from one of my vines and her eyes widen. “Is this an error?” She taps the date on my tag. “These vines can’t be only six weeks old.”
“They are. I started them on the same day as everyone else.” And she must know that. She’s been in class every day, including the day we started this tomato unit.
“None of the others are ready to harvest.” Her gaze roams the hydroponic greenhouse, skimming tomatoes in various stages of growth. Mine are the most mature. “This is very good work, Dahlia 16.”
“I work for the glory of the city,” I tell her. But inside I am buzzing with toxic pride. Tomatoes are my favorite, and evidently they like me as much as I like them.
When the instructor releases us from our work-study period, I clean up my station and store my supplies; then I duck into the seedling room to check on my carrots and beets. My six-foot row of plants is only a miniature version of what I’ll be responsible for once I graduate, but again, my plants stand out, even in the early stages. Olive 16’s beets look strong too, though.
Envy is a child’s emotion. Our city’s fortitude depends upon the strength of all its members working together--even those of us who just grow vegetables--and Lakeview will be better off if both Olive and I are good at our jobs.
Yet I want to be the better gardener.
I try to shake that thought, but I can’t dislodge it. I want to be better at tubers than Olive is, just like I wanted to be better than all the others at grains, vines, and legumes. And not just for the glory of Lakeview.
Whether it’s shameful or not, I feel a sense of satisfaction when my produce is obviously the best in the class, but not because I’ve provided the city with the best vegetables I can grow. I’m pleased because the best vegetables I can grow are better than the best vegetables anyone else can grow. It’s a strangely self-indulgent gratification.
Being the best feels good.
On the tail of that treacherous thought, I realize I’ve been looking at Olive’s plants for too long. Whoever is monitoring the camera feed might have seen my envy and realized that it is driven by personal pride.
Quickly, I check the pH balance of the solution in my carrot flood tray; then I return everything to order and head back into the classroom.
Poppy is waiting for me by the door so we can walk to the cafeteria together. Instead of the green gardening apron with poppy 16 embroidered at the center, she’s now wearing the green classroom jacket with poppy 16 embroidered over her heart, because after lunch we have a four-hour block of academics. She’s holding my jacket as well, but before I can take it from her, Sorrel 32 steps into my path.
Our instructor smiles at me. “Dahlia 16, Management would like to see you.”
My throat tries to close around my next breath.
“I’m sure you have no reason to worry,” she says. “They’ve probably just noticed those beautiful Italian plums!”
Sorrel 32 is very nice, but she doesn’t know that I studied Olive 16’s beets too long. Or that jealousy might have been clear in my expression when I looked at them.
“Now?” My voice sounds breathy and insubstantial.
She nods. “You’ll be given a late pass, so you’ll have time to finish your lunch with the next class.”
I see faces that are different from mine all the time, but I’ve never sat at a table surrounded by people who don’t look just like me. I will stand out.
Nerves trace the length of my spine, but there’s no question that I will obey the summons.
I take my jacket from Poppy and she looks almost as anxious about walking to the cafeteria by herself as I am about crossing the common lawn on my own. Students are encouraged to stay in the company of our identicals to maintain our sense of identity and reinforce our purpose and position in the city’s structure.
Lakeview is comprised of five bureaus, each with distinct responsibilities. I am a student member of the Workforce Bureau, which is further divided into the trade labor and manual labor divisions. The Arts Bureau provides Lakeview with music and art, including the murals gracing the walls of all the academies and the sculptures dotting the common lawn at neat, measured intervals. The Specialist Bureau gives us medical personnel, scientists, and engineers. The Defense Bureau trains soldiers for the protection and fortification of the city, and the Management Bureau ensures that everything runs at peak efficiency, with as little waste as possible.
I eat, bunk, work, and learn with the other trade labor division year-sixteen girls. And we’re really very fortunate that there are so many of us. I feel sorry for some of the smaller units because so few of the faces they see on a daily basis match their own. It must be hard for them to know where they belong.
Though the clink of utensils and the buzz of conversation call to me from the cafeteria down the hall, I head for the bank of elevators. As I step inside the first to open, I realize that I’ve never been in an elevator alone. I’m the only one leaving the academy in the middle of the day, and when I cross the first-floor lobby I feel strangely conspicuous and exposed.
Outside, a class of landscape gardeners is busy pulling last month’s flowers from the amorphous flower bed winding around the side of the academy, under the supervision of their instructor. The gardeners are light-skinned boys with freckles and brown eyes, crowned by short, dark brown waves. The familiar names--Aspen, Linden, Oleander, Ash--stitched onto all their uniforms end in the number 13.
Beyond the flower beds, another instructor leads a class of little girls with dark skin and poufy curls down a curving sidewalk toward a playground at one end of the common lawn. Movement to my right catches my attention, and I turn to find four large black-clad soldiers from Defense patrolling the common lawn in synchronized steps. Beyond them, a shiny black car rolls down the street, following a special thick, metallic-looking strip of paint called a cruise strip, which guides all the city’s vehicles. In the front seat, two men in suits--obviously Management--read from their tablets, tapping their way through menus and messages as the car takes them to work.
Everyone has somewhere to be and something to be doing. Including me. So I swallow my fear and head down the curving path toward the gate leading out of the training ward.
I’ve spent my entire life in the training ward, splitting my time between the Workforce Academy and my dormitory--first the nursery, then the primary, and now the secondary dorm. And though I’m less than two years from graduating, I’ve never even seen the residential ward, where my identicals and I will live as adult members of the Workforce Bureau. In fact, I’ve only been outside of the training ward twice.
At the gate, a soldier named Eckhard 24 watches while I hold my arm beneath a scanner. The red light passes over the bar code on my wrist, and an electronic voice reads the directions that appear on the screen. “Dahlia 16. Proceed to the Management Bureau.”
“Do you know which building that is?” the soldier asks me.
I’ve never been to the Management Bureau, but I saw it once. It’s the smallest of the bureaus, because Management requires relatively little personnel. There are so few students training to be managers that their academy is only three stories tall.
By contrast, the Workforce Academy is the biggest building in Lakeview. It has to be. While there may only be twenty girls in all of the year-sixteen Management class, there are five thousand sixteen-year-old trade labor students who share my face.
Which is why it feels so odd to be leaving the training ward without a crowd of them around me.
The soldier presses a button, and the gate slides open with a heavy scraping sound. “Thank you for your service,” I say as I step out of the training ward.
“Your work honors us all,” he replies.
The gate slides shut behind me and I relax a little as I pass the Hydroponic Gardening Center, where my identicals and I will work when we graduate. Poppy hopes we’ll be assigned to the grains and grasses unit, because it’s the most spacious, but I hope we get vines and climbers. Or anything other than tubers, really.
Beyond the HGC are the Medical Center and the Arts Center. Then I come to a neat row of bureau headquarters in what must be the heart of the city.
The Defense Bureau is a featureless concrete building, squat at only two stories high but broad and deep. The Workforce Bureau is a utilitarian structure of steel and windows, and beyond that stands the Management Bureau, a narrow tower of mirrored glass reflecting sunshine back at the rest of the world as if it’s the actual source of the life-giving light.
I jog up the steps and into Management headquarters, then hold my wrist beneath one of the scanners in the lobby. The red light moves over my bar code, and that same electronic voice reads the onscreen instructions.
“Dahlia 16. Proceed to Suite 4C, room 27. Gardening manager Cady 34 is expecting you.”
I step into the nearest elevator, where my image stares back at me from the mirrored doors, and for a second the reflection feels like company. When the doors open on the fourth floor, I step into a white-tiled lobby, where a sign directs me to the left, for Suite C, home of Management’s gardening unit.
I knock on the door labeled 27 and a woman’s voice calls for me to come in.
Cady 34--and everyone else from her division, obviously—-is a petite woman with light brown skin and dark eyes.
“Have a seat, Dahlia 16.” She gestures to the pair of chairs in front of her desk.
I sit in the one on the right, my palms slick with nervous sweat.
“Your instructor tells me that your produce is consistently among the best, not just in your class but in your entire union.”
I blink at her, surprised. Sorrel 32 is obviously pleased with my work, but standing out too much--even for a good reason--is never advisable. Anything that breaks from the norm threatens the efficiency of the system as a whole.
“Sorrel 32 has nominated you for consideration as a future instructor. She believes that your skills could better benefit the city by teaching others to grow food at a higher quality than by growing food yourself. Do you agree?”
I can’t remember another adult ever asking my opinion. This is a test. It must be.
My heart races. I don’t know the right answer.