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A Touch of Scarlet
    by David Steffen

A Touch of Scarlet
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

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 buildings.

"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 something else.

"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?"

I nod.

"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 each other."

"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 their thoughts.

The apartment we share is nice enough, in its lonely way. It has two rooms. A bedroom with two narrow beds, a television, drawers, kitchenette, and other furnishings. And a bathroom. My eyes are drawn to the beds, small and separate. When I was younger we would sleep wherever we wished in our great room, curled up against each other in warm clusters. As we approached adolescence they weaned us off of this contact, to help us prepare for the life of a citizen, but touch is still something I associate with comfort and reassurance and I crave it now more than I ever have.

"Can we move the beds together?" I ask. "Just for a little while?"

"No," they say. "Adolescents are given many concessions to help you find your place. Mentors are allowed some concessions as well, but that's too much. I would be sent to euthanasia, and you would be assigned a new mentor."

"For touching? That's horrible."

Mentor pursed their lips. "You speak too freely, Child. Such would not be tolerated in a citizen. Opinions are reserved for proposing and voting on laws. Expressing them in any other venue is a crime, punished by euthanasia."

"You would send me to euthanasia for that?"

"It wouldn't be my choice. Everything we do is monitored by Arbiter, the AI that enforces the legal system. Citizens who break the law are highlighted in red until they are collected, and Arbiter produces news bulletins to inform citizens and adolescents about crimes and other events of note. All crimes are punished by euthanasia. If we tolerated lawbreakers, they would rot our society from the inside out. Instead, their resources are reinvested in society, to encourage positive growth."

"Who makes the laws?"

"Every citizen in the world votes to determine changes. It's a true democracy. In a year you'll be a citizen and will be able to vote, too. Until then, you'll be able to see the legal proposals come through. I've got your filter set up to keep your feed quiet for now, so you don't get too overwhelmed. All you have to do to adjust it is to hold your hand in front of your face and hold your index finger and thumb out like this, spread them out to turn up the feed, bring them together to turn down the feed."

I try this, and my vision immediately is overlaid with text.

==FACT: The youngest citizens are the most plastic thinkers, able to incorporate new ideas and concepts. ASSERTION: Citizens under the age of twenty-five are our most valuable voters. PROPOSAL 177720: The votes of citizens under the age of twenty-five should count twice. COUNTERPOINT: With age comes experience.==

"That will never pass," Mentor says. "You can always spot the proposals written by new citizens. When you vote you can also vote to flag a proposal as frivolous--if a majority votes it down and a majority marks it frivolous, then that person can't make another proposal for a year."

==Proposal 177720 failed and marked as frivolous.==

"There's so much to learn," I say. "Am I a quicker study than the other adolescents you've mentored?"

"You are my first and last," Mentor says. "Citizens rotate jobs every year throughout their whole lives, so we each can only ever mentor one adolescent. If you'll excuse me, I am tired, and I'd like to take a bath before retiring.

I lie in bed and watch proposals scroll across my vision, and listen to the sound of the bathtub filling, and then the sound of Mentor singing a song, in tones high and clear. When they are finished with their bath, they retire to their separate bed and are soon snoring softly.

The bed is too big. Sleep is a long time coming.

"How many adolescents are there?" I ask, taking a bite of my apple. I have not eaten much, too distracted by watching the animals and the citizens. Today we are at a park, having a picnic in the short grass. It has taken quite a bit of practice to get used to open spaces, but it is now a source of wonder rather than a source of anxiety. Citizens pass by on every side, always walking alone. The trees whisper in the wind. Birds sing in the trees, often in pairs. Squirrels chase each other from branch to branch. Do the animals wonder why citizens isolate themselves?

"I don't know," Mentor says, lying on the blanket. "I'm sure I could find out if I had to."

"I'm just surprised I haven't seen any others. Do you mentors make a schedule to make sure we never meet anyone else in the group?"

"No schedule. We pass adolescents all the time, but you can't see them."


"You know how I look gold to you, how dangerous or criminal things look red? It's another visual trick like that. Adolescents can't see other adolescents--there's a blind spot and your brain fills in the space. When you become a citizen you'll see the adolescents. Do you see the citizen sitting on the bench to our right?"

"An adolescent is sitting to their right."

I stare, willing the adolescent into sight. Now that I'm focusing on it, there is something weird about that space, something that makes my eyes swim when I try to focus. And now that I'm paying closer attention, I notice that the citizen is turning to the empty space and talking from time to time.

"Can I talk to them?"

"You won't hear them and they won't hear you."

"Why aren't we allowed to interact?"

Mentor hesitates before responding. "There have been troubles in the past. Troubles caused by adolescents gathering and taking advantage of their intermediate status."

"What kind of troubles?"

"When you're a citizen the records will be open to you."


"Enough, Child. When you're a citizen the records will be open to you."

Arbiter can filter out vision, and can filter out sound. Can it filter touch? Could I walk over there and touch the adolescent?

I get to my feet and stride toward the invisible adolescent and their mentor.

"Wait!" Mentor says, rising to their feet and following after me. "Leave them be."

I keep walking, until Mentor takes me by the arm, holding me back. The citizen looks up from their bench, turns to their invisible adolescent, and they walk briskly away, glancing over their shoulder.

"Leave them be," Mentor says. "Let's return to our picnic."

I nod, and allow myself to be led back to our blanket. I continue to think about the invisible adolescent, and wonder. Did their mentor tell them about me, that there was an adolescent trying to reach them?

"What's gender?" I ask, watching the squirrels chase each other. "They talked in the crèche about it being outlawed, but they never talked about what it was."

Mentor seems to focus on something far away, some distant memory. "It's hard to explain to a person in the modern world. You remember learning about animal sex in science classes? People used to be like that."

I make a face. "Like animals?" I'd seen rabbits humping in their terrariums, and had seen the female rabbit produce their litter some weeks later. The thought of two citizens doing that was more than a little disturbing.

"It was never exactly like animals. It wasn't just the sex, at least not on a conscious level, but the differences affected every interaction in ways both subtle and overt."

"I can't imagine anyone ever wanting to have sexual intercourse. It's so. . . animal."

"In this modern age," Mentor says, choosing words with deliberate pace, "it's difficult to remember that we are animals, no matter how we try to separate ourselves from it. A modern person could never fully understand." Mentor blushes darkly.

"Why are you blushing?" I ask. "Wait, have you had sexual intercourse? What did it feel like? Were you male or female? Did you have sexual intercourse with males or females? Was it just like rabbits? How did--"

"That's enough, Child. These are not things citizens speak of. I've said too much already. I understand your curiosity, but if you want to be a part of society you will need to learn to keep it to yourself."

The days pass in a blur, and before I know it, more than a month of my adolescence has gone by. Once I become a citizen, I will be bound by all the rules of society. If I want to have any chance to do anything different in my whole life, I need to do it now. I've been probing Mentor with questions, and I've figured out a way to make mischief. I'm going to try it tonight while Mentor bathes.

They go to the bathroom, right on schedule. As soon as I hear the water running, I check the front door. It's still unlocked. I grab the varnish bucket and the brush I'd hidden under my bed. I pop the lid off the bucket of varnish, and smile at the sight of the red glow shining from within. Self-harm is a crime, and so a single drop of blood makes the varnish glow, even though I am exempt as an adolescent. A touch of red goes a long way.

Mentor's voice rises in song above the running water. Do they know I can hear them through the door? I have never mentioned it to them--I'm sure they would deny it anyway, and if I ask, they might stop. I love the sound, clear and high.

I dash out the door, downstairs, to the alley behind the apartment building. I have between fifteen and twenty minutes to complete the work. I write my message on the back of the building in letters a foot high: "DO YOU EVEN SEE US? ARE WE EVEN HERE? —SCARLET." My heart pounds at this forbidden act, and I feel like time has slowed to a crawl. Surely I must have been in the alley for an hour, but no, it has only been seven minutes. I suppress a laugh at the thrill of giving myself a name, and writing it on the wall for all to see.

As I'm slipping back up the stairwell, the news feed fills my vision: ==Breaking news: An adolescent has vandalized an apartment building, signing the graffiti with a name.== followed by an image of the graffiti I had just made. I can barely breathe from the excitement. I'm an individual in a way that no citizen is allowed to be.

I am in bed, pretending to sleep, by the time Mentor leaves the steaming bathroom. They are snoring when the next piece of news comes through: ==Breaking news: Another adolescent has vandalized an apartment building, signing the graffiti with a name== followed by another image. It's our apartment building, the same place where I had painted my message, between the dumpster and the maintenance door. My message is gone, replaced by a new one in glowing red: "I SEE YOU. I AM HERE. WE ARE HERE. —CRIMSON."

Before I can even take another breath:

==FACT: Using loopholes in the current systems, adolescents can communicate with each other. ASSERTION: If this is not stopped, history will be repeated. PROPOSAL 178801: Arbiter should cease reporting any news on crimes committed by adolescents to other adolescents. And Arbiter should cease red-tagging blood if used to write messages.==

I had an effect. I was seen by the world. But more importantly, I am not alone. Crimson's message was left on my apartment building. They must live nearby to have left a reply so soon after. They and their mentor might even live in the same apartment building.

==Proposal 178801 passed, effective immediately.==

The next night Mentor takes their bath at their accustomed time. Is it possible they don't know I wrote that message? The bathtub is filling, the apartment door is unlocked. Is this a test? If it is, I fail.

I try the varnish again, just in case. It glows as long as I leave it in the pail, but the moment I apply it to the wall the glow fades. As it soaks into the dry bricks I can barely tell where I've painted.

There's a thick layer of dirt on the ground here, where it's washed from the streets. If I wrote something there, maybe Crimson would find--

I laugh out loud when I see their message, forgetting for a moment to be quiet. "CRIMSON WAS HERE."

I wipe the message out. If it's escaped notice so far I don't want to leave the evidence longer than I have to. Underneath that I write with my finger "SCARLET COULD BE STANDING NEXT TO YOU RIGHT NOW. GREETINGS, INVISIBLE FRIEND."

I wait as long as I dare to see if I'll see the message wiped away and replaced, just in case. No luck. Even so, I'm grinning like an idiot as I run up the stairs to the apartment.

I enter the apartment to find Mentor sitting on the bed, cross-legged and facing the door, stern expression set on their face. "What you're doing is dangerous."

I bite back a protest. They know. It was a test after all.

"Did you really think I wouldn't know? Arbiter knows everything you do. Did you think it wouldn't share its information with your mentor?"

"I'm sorry."

"Are you?"

I look at my feet. I'm not sorry, not in the least. I don't regret it and I'm not sorry.

"You're not the only adolescent to push against the boundaries. It's a natural reaction when you feel like you're trapped by the choices other people have made for you. I could set the apartment door so you could only pass through when I accompany you. But I won't. I only ask that you take care. You're gambling with life, and not only your own."

Without waiting for my response, they go to bed. I strip and lay in my own bed. I lay awake for a long time, staring up at the dim ceiling, thoughts running in tight circles for hours. Mentor's usual snoring is conspicuously absent, and I wonder if they're as awake as I am, the two of us staring at the walls and feigning sleep, feigning to believe the other is sleeping.

Crimson and I exchange notes for a month and I feel both the thrill of excitement at this illicit connection, and a frustration at how long each exchange takes with only one message each way every day.

Mentor says nothing further about the arrangement, and they are always still in the bath when I return to the apartment, even when I linger too long in the alley. I mouth silent thanks to them every night as I lay quietly in bed.

Everything goes on as if nothing will ever change, as if in nine months even this small interaction won't be possible.

"WE SHOULD MEET," Crimson's note reads.

My reply: "HOW?"

I think of little else while I wait for the next evening, for the time when Mentor will give me my time alone, to find out what Crimson has in mind. When the usual time comes, Mentor is still sitting in bed, reading a book about woodworking.

Fifteen minutes pass, as I fidget and try not to stare at them, try not to point out the time to them, watching the clock count off the minutes. Thirty minutes, and I wait longer.

Thirty-five and my willpower breaks. "I didn't realize it was so late," I say, faking a yawn and trying to keep the nervous energy out of my voice. "I guess I should go to bed."

Their eyes meet mine, impassive, and return to the book.

Another ten minutes pass and I want to shout, to take Mentor by the shoulders and shake them, to run out of the apartment no matter that they are watching. When, finally, Mentor marks their page, sets their book down, and crosses to the bathroom. They turn back, looking at me with an expression I can't quite parse. . . fondness? Protectiveness? "Be careful," they say, and close the door behind them.

I hold my breath until I hear the water running, and then I sprint out of the apartment and downstairs to the alley.

Crimson's message: "I AM HERE."

Beside it, I write "ME TOO."

Below that, letters appear in the dirt as if drawn by a ghost. "WE ARE HERE." As the final "E" is drawn I reach out my hand toward the dirt and feel a tingle when my hand touches something above the ground, the soft skin of another person's hand. Crimson's hand, in the flesh. I grip the hand tightly, and I feel it grip me back.

I feel the touch of another hand, and it traces up my arm to my shoulder, and then I feel two arms embracing me in a gesture of clear affection. We sit against the wall, arm in arm, holding each other, hands roaming to arms, to shaved head, to legs, as if trying to prove we are both really there. If I close my eyes, I can imagine them, looking the same as the face and body I see in the mirror.

"I wish we could speak to each other," I say, knowing Crimson can't hear, and I wonder if they're speaking at the same time. If a citizen were watching, how strange we must appear, hands pawing all over each other like blind apes, talking over each other and looking through each other, and trying to form a connection through our constrained interaction.

The moment breaks with the sounds of footsteps pounding around the corner, I turn to see Mentor and another citizen coming into the alley. Mentor grabs me by the arm in a grip that will surely bruise, and pulls me around the corner. Just before we turn the corner I steal a glance backward at the other citizen dragging the invisible Crimson in the other direction.

I pull back against Mentor, and they turn back with a hissed "Don't fight me; I'm saving your life."

I stop resisting. Back in the apartment, we each perch on the edge of our beds. I feel the urge to apologize, but I don't. They wouldn't believe me, anyway.

"Are you happy with what you've done?" they ask.

"Ecstatic," I say honestly.

"I hope you enjoyed it. That will be the last time." I open my mouth to argue, but they speak over me. "It's not my choice any more than it is yours. If the two of you communicate again, in any way, I have no doubt that both of you will be euthanized, and me with you. I warned you about making personal connections. I warned you, but I gave you space to make your own choices, and you decided to ignore the advice I gave you for your own good."

I swallow down what I want to say in response, to tell them that I'll find a way to be with Crimson, I'll find a way to break all of the rules. I don't even care if I die trying. Better that than a lifetime with no connection to anybody. But yelling at my mentor won't do any good. I think about what I can say, what reasoning I can use to convince them. "Why did you take your bath later tonight?"

Mentor only stares at me, jaw clenching and unclenching with anger.

"You take your bath at the same time every night. Tonight you took it almost an hour later, the same night I bump into Crimson for the first time."

"What are you saying?"

"That can't be a coincidence. Did you arrange this?"

Mentor meets my eyes steadily to the count of ten, then drops their eyes. "Yes."

"Why give me that opportunity and then punish me for it?"

"Because. . . I knew there was risk, but. . . I wanted to make you happy." Their eyes flick up to meet mine, and then away again. "I wanted to make you happy so I could be happy through you, so I could know I have done something worthwhile in this miserable life. I cried with joy when you found each other. I never wanted the moment to end. It was a beautiful sight. But people noticed, and people were scared, and I had no choice but to play my role as mentor. If I hadn't, there would be new laws passed by now to be sure all four of us, you two and your mentors, would be headed for euthanasia. I'm sorry I shouted. I am as responsible for this as you are. But from now on, you can't leave the apartment without me escorting you."

I shout in frustration, almost a roar, and I punch the wall. The anger disappears in a flash with the pain and the sight of the red-tinged dent in the plaster.

"It's that kind of anger, that kind of attachment, that people are afraid of," Mentor says.

I lock myself in the bathroom, and cry until the tears are gone. When I come out, Mentor is still awake, waiting for me. "For what it's worth," they say, "I think some people felt a real connection for you. People were affected. You made a mark."

"Making a mark wasn't the point," I say. "I wanted to touch them, to be with someone who might understand me, who thinks as little of a society that won't allow any personal connection as I do."

"I know. It didn't work out like you wanted. And we have all felt those things, though we can't talk about them. But I think you did make other personal connections, even if you didn't know about it. If what you did in that alley had been nothing, they would have just allowed you your indulgence. Tonight you two shook the foundations of the world."

I don't talk to Mentor for a month. They continue to play their role as expected, telling me more about the world, predicting which laws will be passed and why, reprimanding me when I do something wrong. And, spitefully, I do wrong as often as I can, introducing myself as Scarlet, asking opinions of everyone I meet, asking their ages, and whether they've ever thought about sex. Against my better judgment, I am impressed at Mentor's patience with me, when I am working so hard to push back against them. But each time I act out Mentor apologizes calmly to the offended, reprimands me, and we move on our way. I wonder if they'll stop taking me out entirely, but if anything our outings increase, as if they are testing my resolve.

I wake to the shifting of my bed, as Mentor sits on the edge. Drowsy, I roll toward them and open my eyes, staring at them blearily. They place a hand on my lower leg. Even through the blanket, my leg feels hot from the unaccustomed touch.

"I remember when they made euthanasia the punishment for all crimes." Mentor's eyes are fixed on the wall to the side of the bed. "My parents voted in favor of it--'Once a criminal, always a criminal,' they said, and 'Better to use the resources on law-abiding citizens,' they said. That was back when children still had parents, before the crèches. I never had children, though I was married. We had talked about having children, but I wanted to wait until we were both out of school. We were separated a year before I graduated, when the law against families took effect. We haven't seen each other since." Mentor pauses, taking a deep shaky breath. "I don't even know if he's still alive. Everyone had the option to choose euthanasia over compliance. God knows we lost more men with that law than women. Both he and I believed in life after death--private discussion of spirituality with spouses was still legal. I hope we were right about life after death. I hope we meet again after we're both dead, both wearing the faces we knew each other by."

"Why are you telling me this?" I ask, the first thing I've said to them in a month.

"I have never believed it was right to be forbidden any connection with each other. I have never believed it was right to outlaw names. I've spent most of my life trying to forget those things I took for granted, those things that are gone forever, but you have reminded me. I wanted you to know that you've made more than one connection." They smile, watching me silently for a moment and then say, "Sleep well, friend." They squeeze my leg, a gesture I don't know how to interpret, and then they are gone, into the bathroom.

I am left reeling from this unprecedented sharing, which would be illegal between two citizens. As the sounds of a filling bathtub start on the other side of the wall, and their voice rises in song, I feel the urge to burst into the bathroom and tell Mentor something they don't know about me. But I don't even know what that would be. Mentor has all of the information that has ever been documented about me. What can I give them in return for their gift of sharing?

I think and think, but there is nothing, literally nothing that I could share. Could I express my appreciation in some other way? Some way to make them understand what their sharing means to me? The water stops running, and still I think.

My retinal display comes alive with information. ==Breaking news: Mentor dead by own hand.==

My heart pounds in my chest. I realize that Mentor has stopped singing. How long had it been since I heard the water running? The news couldn't be about my mentor, could it? There must be thousands of mentors in the world, no reason it would have to be mine. I rise from bed, each step seeming to take a million years, as the news feed scrolls more information.

==Breaking news: Dead mentor corrupted by their rebellious charge, details forthcoming.==

I push open the bathroom door, so slowly, afraid to look. When I do, the truth is unmistakable. Mentor's face looks so peaceful with eyes open above the bathwater, but they do not glow golden anymore; they are red. I might almost think they are only enjoying a blissfully restful moment in the bath, if it weren't for the glowing red water as well. One arm hangs over the edge of the bathtub; written on the arm in black marker is the phrase "I AM CATHERINE".

==FACT: Citizens born before the modern abolishment of gender and sex and family have significant and lifelong mental disorders from trying to cope with modern life. FACT: These mental disorders manifesting in mentors encourage rebellion in adolescents, which in turn encourages these mental disorders, a vicious cycle. FACT: These incidents are on the rise as these older citizens approach the maximum age of society. ASSERTION: The only way to end the destructive cycle is to remove these un-modern citizens from society. PROPOSAL 179891: All citizens above the age of sixty years old shall be immediately euthanized.==

My legs wobble beneath me and I lower myself to the floor, hiding the luminous sight over the lip of the bathtub so that the only evidence of the death is the glowing red arm and a bit of a face over the edge of the tub. My eyes burn from unshed tears but I can do nothing but stare at the blank side of the bathtub, disbelieving what I had seen within.

==PROPOSAL 179891 passed, effective immediately.==

Surely I was only hallucinating. This was a nightmare, just a horrible dream from which I would awake and knock on Mentor's door so they could comfort me.

==FACT: Adolescents, though not old enough to be fully responsible for their crimes, may take undue advantage of their transitionary status to corrupt their mentors. FACT: Anyone could become a mentor as part of the standard job rotation, so everyone is potentially vulnerable. ASSERTION: Mentors, and society in general, should be protected from these corrupt adolescents. PROPOSAL 179892: Any adolescent whose mentor dies must be taken for immediate euthanasia.==

Maybe Mentor's wonderful sharing was only part of the dream, but if that was true, then so be it. Anything would be better than this.

==Proposal 179892 failed.==

A hand touches my shoulder and I jump in surprise. I hadn't heard anyone come in. I look back and up, into a glowing golden face.

"Call me Mentor," they say.

The world spins around me for a moment. I think it's all been a hallucination after all. My head turns toward the bathtub and they take my cheek in their hand, gently turning it away.

"We should leave and allow others to take care of the body," they say.

Of course. The mentor who had once been Catherine is dead and gone, but I am still an adolescent and I still need a mentor. This is the replacement.

I nod and allow them to lead me by the hand out and into their car. Soon we are zipping along the freeways, probably to some other adolescent housing facility. Away from the body of my mentor who had once been Catherine. Away from Crimson.

==FACT: The recent upswing in antisocial acts was started by one adolescent, the one who called themselves Scarlet. FACT: This trend shows no signs of slowing. ASSERTION: If something isn't done to correct the trend, society may fall into ruin. PROPOSAL 179893: An example should be made of the adolescent who started this with a public execution by fire.==

I look at Mentor. Mentor looks anywhere but my face. "I didn't kill my mentor. You know that, right? If I had known I would have tried to stop them. Catherine made their own choice."

Mentor meets my eye for the briefest moment, then their eyes dart away again.

==Proposal 179893 passed, effective immediately.==

The car decelerates, rerouting to some new destination.

"Did you vote yes or no?" I demand. "Look me in the eye, and tell me what you voted."

They meet my eye, defiant and wary. "I will never tell you what I voted, Child. No citizen ever will."

"You have to let me go," I say. "I didn't do anything! Catherine made their choice."

They flinch at the use of the name. "The citizens have decided," they say. "I am only carrying out the will of the people."

I shout in frustration, a big noise in the small space. I want to strike out at them, at anything, but I have no target. Mentor isn't in control of the vehicle, and I couldn't damage the vehicle with my bare hands.

==Breaking news: In just a few minutes the antisocial adolescent who uses the name Scarlet, who caused the death of their own mentor, will be executed as an example to others who would act against society itself. Physical attendance is restricted to a small group, but the live feed will be fed unconditionally to all citizens and all adolescents who are not at the event.==

The car pulls up to the front gate at McLawson's sports arena. There is no traffic. A dozen or so citizens wait for the car at the curb.

==Breaking news: Fifteen citizens have broken the law by telling others their ages or by choosing names. These citizens will be collected for euthanasia.==

I try to slip past them, but they grab my arms, then my legs as I struggle to get free of them as they carry me into the stadium.

==FACT: Murdering Scarlet will solve nothing. ASSERTION: This is wrong. This is wrong. PROPOSAL 179894: Stop the execution of the adolescent. COUNTERPOINT: It can't be wrong. It's the law.==

I stop struggling. It's doing no good anyway. The citizens carrying me say nothing.

==Proposal 179894 failed.==

==Breaking news: Fifty-seven citizens have broken the law by telling others their ages or by choosing names. These citizens will be collected for euthanasia.==

At the center of the stadium they have already constructed a pyre, ready to burn. A wooden pole thrusts up from the center of a platform, with wood piled up all around the base. This is where I will die.

==FACT: My name is Catherine this is wrong. ASSERTION: Stop stop stop. PROPOSAL 179895: Stop this now! My name is Catherine! Save Scarlet, vote yes!==

The citizens lift me onto the pedestal and pull my wrists behind my back and around the pole, binding them with rope.

==Proposal 179895 failed.==

Mentor speaks, their voice quavering. "If you apologize now, if you swear to never do any antisocial act again, there is still time for the voters to reverse their decision."

I shake my head. I won't destroy the only good thing I've created. I won't betray Crimson that way. They gag me with a strip of cloth.

==Breaking news: Eight hundred and ninety-nine citizens have broken the law by telling others their ages or by choosing names. These citizens will be collected for euthanasia.==

Mentor uses a butane lighter to set fire to an oil-soaked rag atop a thick stock of wood. Where in the world did they find a torch on such short notice, I wonder, an incongruous and unimportant thought. The flame burns brightly, encompassed by Mentor's golden nimbus.

Mentor steps forward, and hesitates. Long seconds tick by. They could have lowered the torch to the kindling a dozen times by now.

==FACT: This is wrong. ASSERTION: Shitshitshit! Please don't make me do this. PROPOSAL 179896: I can't do it, I can't do it, I can't do it, I can't do it. Anyone but me. I can't do it and watch them burn and know I did it. COUNTERPOINT: It can't be wrong. It's the law.==

Mentor's hand trembles ever so slightly, their eyes are locked on mine.

==Proposal 179896 failed.==

Mentor expels a held breath, drops their head at this notice. They reach the torch out, only a foot from the kindling, draw it back, raise their hands as if in surrender. "I can't do it," they say, and their golden glow is replaced with red.

==Breaking news: Three-thousand five-hundred and four citizens have broken the law by telling others their ages or by choosing names. These citizens will be collected for euthanasia.==

Other citizens rush forward. One takes the torch from the citizen who is no longer my mentor, who is only a criminal. The criminal is led away by guiding hands for euthanasia, for defiance of the law.

The new torchbearer puts the torch to the kindling without hesitation. The kindling lights immediately. I scream against my gag, but when I draw air the smoke fills my lungs and I battle to breathe at all. As the heat quickly hits me, as the flame begins to lick my legs, I see colors, colors I have no name for, hundreds of colors.

==FACT: Stop the execution, stop now. ASSERTION: Nownownow! PROPOSAL 179897: Stop!==

I have never imagined such intense pain. The moments of the voting seem to stretch on forever.

==Proposal 179897 passed, effective immediately.==

Pained screaming fills my ears and rough hands touch me all over. I can't see anything, and all I want is a clean breath and a cessation of pain. I hit the ground hard, and others land atop me. Everything goes dark, and then I know nothing.

I awake trying to scream. Harsh fluorescent light floods my sight for a moment and my scream becomes a fit of coughing that tears at my throat. I struggle to control my coughing, to quell the pain. Darkness edges in from the corners of my vision. I struggle for air, terrified of the dark and the pain and what if this is the end and my last moments will be spent alone and breathless.

Something brushes the back of my hand, light and tentative. I clutch at the source of the touch and find a hand. Fingers to fingers, palms to palms. This is my anchor. If I can keep my grip, I will live.

The fit abates. Coughing turns to wheezing. Someone is saying over and over, "You are alive. You are safe. We are here. We are here. . ." I tremble as the terrifying moments pass into calm.

I blink away the last of the darkness and the world returns to me. Someone leans over me, focusing their attention on our clasped hands. A bare scalp gleaming in the bright light. An adolescent. Their grasp is warm and strong and smooth.

They look up and our eyes touch. There is no red. Not in their face, and not in our hands.

"Are you all right?" they ask. "Is the pain. . .?"

I shake my head and squeeze their hand. My throat is raw. My legs and back are in agony. But this. . . I have been starved for this. Compared to this, the pain is nothing.

"Scarlet," they say. Their cheeks flush. "It is good to finally see you. We are here for you now, we are all of us here and. . ."

We are here. They had repeated that over and over while holding my hand. "Crimson?" I croak. Impossible, but I dare to hope. . .

They squeeze my hand again. "You changed everything, Scarlet. Arbiter muted your feed to let you rest, but proposals have been passing all night long. So many I lost track. . ." Crimson swallows, and repeats. "You changed everything."

Crimson blushes, even deeper this time. Crimson's dark cheeks aren't golden, but they instill a comfort both familiar and new. "I'd like to give you a hug," they say. Their voice cracks. "But I don't think you'd thank me for it."

I raise my arms to welcome their embrace.

It hurts, but I don't complain.

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