A Touch of Scarlet
by David Steffen
At the age of seventeen I leave the crèche for the first and final time, and enter the world
of citizens. Of course I had gone outside on acclimatization runs, but since all the children had
always stayed roped together, it wasn't the same. The space outside the crèche is much too big,
stretching in every direction forever and I feel like I'm going to fall into the sky and never stop
falling, up and up and up.
The golden aura catches my eye, the aura marking out my mentor from the line of
identical citizens waiting for their new charges to emerge. The color grounds me, gives me
something to focus on besides the wide open. For my whole life colors have been used to
highlight the good and bad. Golden for good, red for bad. Even though I'm aware of it, it's so
deeply ingrained that it's an automatic response. I am grateful for the stability of gold.
"Hello, Citizen. You may call me Mentor," they say.
I stiffen. "Shouldn't I call you 'Citizen'?"
Mentor laughs. "I understand it's disconcerting. You must refer to all others as 'Citizen,'
as you were taught. But for your year of adolescence, I will be nearby at all times, to help you
adjust. The name facilitates this interaction."
"Why did you call me 'Citizen'?" I ask, self-consciously touching my bald scalp that
distinguishes me from the citizens with their uniform shoulder-length hair. "I'm not old enough
to be a citizen, yet."
"You are no longer a child and not yet a citizen. I will call you 'Child' or 'Citizen' based
on how well you are fitting one role or the other."
I focus on Mentor's golden glow and let their words blur together. Our teachers said the
world used to be full of colors, everything had some color or another, but that our retinal
implants filter colors out to help with color conditioning. It must have been horribly distracting
in the world before. How would you know what to think of things?
The world outside is quiet, much too quiet, after the cramped and chaotic life inside.
Inside, children of all ages are held together in small holding areas, babies and toddlers and near-adolescents alike. Outside, each citizen is alone. All the citizens look the same, slim bodies,
shoulder-length dark hair that makes me feel self-conscious about the bald scalp that marks me
out as an adolescent. They smile at me as they draw near, each citizen entirely indistinguishable
from the last.
They lead me to their car parked near the entrance to the crèche. Compared to the other
cars in the lot it is absurdly large, made for two instead of one. We climb into the seats, face to
face, and the car pulls out and onto the freeway. I breathe a sigh of relief to be in a smaller space.
I stare out the window at the huge buildings reaching up to the sky, the sheer number of citizens
zipping alongside us in their one-person cars. The sun sets to the right, backlighting tall
"Can I ask you a question?" I say.
"Of course. You never need to ask permission for questions. I am your mentor. I am here
to answer questions."
I'm not used to this kind of one-on-one attention. In the crèche, there were always two
citizens in a room full of mixed-age children. It was only quiet when the children were sleeping,
and you could never speak to a citizen for more than a moment without them being distracted by
"The citizens who taught us sometimes mentioned the time before, but they never said
much, only to say that I should be glad I never had to see it. What was so different?"
Mentor looks at me for long moments with a blank expression. I'm not sure if they are
angry at my directness. I am about to apologize and withdraw the question when Mentor replies.
"You prefer to get right to the heart of things, do you?" They smile, but it isn't a happy
smile, exactly. It has a tension to it, a bitterness. "The time before was a time of horrors. Citizens
killing citizens for any kind of difference. Do you remember learning about auto-immune
disorders in science class?"
"Humanity has an inborn tendency to classify other individuals and define them each as
'like me' or 'not like me'. In the early days of the species, this was an important survival trait,
because it allowed a human to quickly separate friend and foe. In modern humanity, it proved
destructive. Humanity is an organism, and this trait encouraged parts of the organism to attack
"I don't understand what you mean by differences between people," I say.
"Any differences. Humans will split into groups from the most trivial trait. Difference in
skin tone, color of eyes, gender, belief in things no one can prove. All of these are sources of
conflict. All of our laws are meant to enhance the health of the organism that is humanity. Our
species had to exist in a much more difficult fashion for tens of thousands of years until our
technology was advanced enough to allow for an entirely peaceful world. Be glad you were born
now, in this golden age."
The bitterness in Mentor's voice seems even more pronounced in that last statement.
They do not seem inclined to say any more, attention directed out the window. I leave them to