The Department of Alterations
Read a new original story by Gennifer Albin, who's debut novel Crewel comes out on October 16th from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In “The Department of Alterations,” the women of Arras are expected to fall into assigned roles, serve as loving wives, and provide healthy children into the world's tapestry. But perfection comes at a price and not even the looms of Arras can manipulate away every problem in the fabric of life. Something Karoline Swander knows all too well. She has a respectable job, an important husband, and she's about to commit treason. In a world woven of secrets, Karoline seeks a back-alley tailor for a sinister procedure, but she can't escape from her own tangled web of lies.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Farrar, Strous & Giroux editor Janine O'Malley.
The tailor trailed his fingers across Karoline Swander’s stomach in a way that felt too personal, but she didn’t object. Instead she sucked in a breath and held it, waiting for him to be done. She stared at the cement ceiling and wondered how he could operate in an area so close to Romen’s busy metro center.
“You must be desperate,” he said, not bothering to spare her feelings.
“I’d prefer if we didn’t talk,” she said in a quiet voice.
“Whatever works for you, sister,” he said. He came into view, peering down over her, smiling a bit too much. “As long as you have the credits, that is.”
“I didn’t bring credits,” she said.
The tailor stepped back and raised his hands.
“No, wait,” she said, struggling to sit up and lower her blouse at the same
time. “I brought this.”
She held out a pearl necklace.
“How sweet. A gift?” he asked, taking it and examining each gem carefully.
“Does it matter?”
“It does if you stole it,” he said.
“No one steals in Romen,” Karoline said automatically.
This made him laugh. It was a wheezy, low chuckle that was more mocking than amused. “No, not in our fair metro.”
Karoline didn’t respond to this, she just watched him. She was here after all, breaking the law. It was no longer impossible to believe others might do the same.
“Is it enough?” she asked.
“It’ll be fine,” he said, pocketing the strand. “But for that, I can’t guarantee it will work.”
“But they’re real,” she protested.
“And hard to move. Don’t worry. This isn’t easy, but I can do it.”
Karoline hesitated. She could still leave. Her husband would never notice the
pearls were gone. “Have you done this before?”
“This? No. But I’ve done worse.”
Somehow she didn’t find this reassuring.
“So, you don’t want your husband to know that his—”
“No.” She interrupted him. “Of course not. Will he realize?”
“Relax,” the tailor said. “I just assumed. When someone shows up with
valuables and not credits, it’s because they don’t want someone to know. And when women show up, asking for alterations, you can bet their husband is that someone.”
“You said you didn’t do this often,” Karoline pointed out.
“Not this. But most women don’t want what you want. Similar problem, similar fixes, but very different results. In fact, you’re lucky, I just had one earlier. Only reason I can do this now.”
Karoline’s stomach turned over. She supposed the material had to come from somewhere, but she didn’t need him to elucidate further.
“Your husband isn’t going to ask questions, is he?” the tailor asked.
She thought of yesterday’s supper and the pinched face her husband had made when she told him about her trip to the clinic. He’d never bothered to come to a clinic appointment. He hadn’t been tested. The doctor had made it clear the problem was Karoline’s alone. The memory of her last visit at the clinic swam to mind unbidden.
“Doctor.” She hesitated on the title. “Could the problem be with my husband?” The older gentleman gave her a sharp look. “I doubt that, Mrs. Swander.”
“I don’t think he cares how it happens,” she told the tailor. None of them do.
“That’s what they all think.” He handed her a small mask. “Put this on.”
Karoline didn’t ask questions. She wouldn’t be marked variant. As a minister’s wife, she should have the connections to get on a reweave list, but her husband was adamant that adoption was not an option. Nor was he willing to use his influence to get her advanced treatment. He was simultaneously barricading her and pushing her forward, and the psychological discord of it all sent her nerves into a violent tantrum. As the oxygen seeped into her mouth and nostrils, she felt herself calm.
“There you go,” he said. “I’m using a touch of stimulant in that to keep the valpron from knocking you out flat.”
Normally she would have objected to this, but she felt so nice. The calm spread through her limbs, curled into her fingers and toes, and left her placid and yielding on the table.
“Let’s see if we can make your husband happy,” he said, lifting her shirt up and running his hands over her bare flesh. Karoline didn’t mind at all now, but the tailor’s insistence on bringing up her husband turned her mind to the previous evening.
She had decided to bring the topic up to Max at the dinner table before he retired to watch the stream. But conversation was a struggle, choked by indifference. She didn’t care much about the inner workings of the local minster’s office. Or their boring politics. Except when they involved policies regarding medical release or procreation standards. But he’d stopped bringing those topics up. He did not appreciate her impassioned views on the matter. Almost as much as he didn’t appreciate her faulty womb.
However, the longer she waited to persuade him, the less time he might have to exert his influence on the advisory committee.
“I saw Dr. Powell today,” she said. She laid her fork down. She hadn’t eaten a bite anyway. Max had either not noticed or decided not to comment.
“Yes?” he asked. Interest colored his face. He was listening to her.
Karoline held her breath, knowing how quickly his expression would change. She savored his alert eyes for a moment. “He is passing my files to the advisory committee to get approval for further patching.”
Max’s eyes faded back down to his plate and he continued eating. Once he might have offered a halfhearted condolence.
“He thinks we should consider getting on a reweave list,” she continued.
This time when he looked at her, his eyes blazed. “That is not an option. You may tell him that.”
“I don’t think it would make a difference. If we aren’t approved for further patching—”
“We’ll keep trying.”
“Without the patching . . .” She stumbled over the words. She didn’t want to finish the statement—didn’t want to tell him there was no hope. “Could you speak with someone at the office?”
“And admit to them that you can’t have a baby?” he asked. “I’m embarrassed enough.”
It wasn’t the first time he had voiced his shame over their familial status, but it still sucked the air from her lungs, leaving only the ache of future tears in her chest.
But she’d caught his attention now, and this time he continued, his rage spilling out. “I’ve already kept you away from enough events that people expect me to announce your pregnancy. If you would at least dress like the wife of an official, I wouldn’t have to worry about their assumptions. You should hear what they whisper about you, about me,with what they have seen of you.”
“What do they whisper?” she dared to ask, but then immediately regretted it as Max’s fists curled into balls.
“You know what they whisper about men who don’t have children. Even having a wife doesn’t put those rumors to bed, especially a wife who looks like you.”
He left her then, disappearing into his den. Karoline didn’t let the tears escape as she washed the dishes. She’d long ago perfected the art of keeping them imprisoned there. The only thing worse than not being able to cry would be allowing him to see her do it. When she had finished the work, she slipped into the master bedroom and sat on the edge of her bed. Her eyes wandered to his bed, adjacent to her own. She hadn’t had to make it in weeks. The sheets were crisp, tucked neatly under the mattress, and the comforter smooth. He slept in his study except when he came to her.
She tried not to think about that as she undressed. Her skirt fell quickly from her waist as she unbuttoned it. She hung it and her wool blazer on a hanger and then placed the suit in the closet next to a dozen nearly identical dress suits. It faded into the others, as muted and bulky as the rest. Karoline slipped her hand past the suits and drew a dress out, pushing the suits away to stare at it. It was canary yellow; she recalled the last time she had worn it. How long it had been since she had worn anything so bright! Anything that sung with life. Then she pushed it back into the depths of her wardrobe and shut the door.
“This is going to sting a little and then it will itch, like you’re being tickled.” The tailor’s voice drew her back to the makeshift clinic. She appreciated him keeping her informed, but she closed her eyes so she wouldn’t have to see what he was doing.
“How did you find me anyway?” he asked. “Nice ladies like you don’t usually know how to navigate the grey market.”
She tried to speak, but the oxi-mask muffled her voice. He pushed it up. “That should be enough anyway.”
“A woman from my neighborhood. She has connections.” She let the word linger without going into details.
“What’s her name?” he asked.
Karoline didn’t like the way he was pressing her for more information. “I thought I could expect some anonymity.”
“Sure, but I need to know my friends,” he said.
“Her daughter is in my class. She had an older sister who always seemed a bit . . . off.” Karoline thought this was a nice way to put it. The girl’s sister had been strange, standoffish, but bright. Karoline had guessed she was keeping a secret. Not only because of the girl’s oddities, but because her mother’s face contorted with fear when Karoline mentioned testing during a parent conference.
“And this mother trusted you enough to just point you in the direction of the grey market?” He didn’t believe her, but Karoline didn’t care.
“Women are understanding about these things,” she said.
“I suppose.” He ignored her after that, turning his attention back to his work.
Her belly prickled. The itch tickled, but she didn’t want to laugh. Tendrils of pain seared into her skin and lingered, bursting into raw flames when they crept too close together, until her torso was on fire. It was more intense than he had led her to believe. She wondered then how Meria had known where to send her. If she’d done this once, too. If she’d been one of the women who sought out the tailor for more sinister purposes.
But Meria had two children. Two fair-faced girls. She had no need of a tailor, and yet, Karoline had been correct in her suspicion. She wouldn’t have had the courage to seek her out if it hadn’t been for the telebound. She would have chanced anything, with anyone, after that.
She barely heard the girl’s farewell as she was lost in her own thoughts. The telebound had come to her at lunchtime. She didn’t need to open the sealed memo the secretary had delivered to her to know what it said.
“Mrs. Swander,” the girl called again.
She blinked and met the girl’s gaze.
“Have a nice weekend,” the girl said brightly. Karoline nodded and attempted a smile. She failed, but Amie bounced out of the room with her classmates without noticing. Karoline watched as the girl’s fair curls disappeared from sight. Once she had been like that—bubbly and eager to earn the approval of her instructor. Karoline didn’t delude herself into thinking the girl liked her. As with so many others her age, Amie probably believed instructor approval would gain her an advantage at the testing. But Karoline knew it didn’t. She couldn’t tell the girls that though.
She couldn’t tell them that they weren’t special and that none of them would escape the monotony of Romen, the well-oiled capitol of Arras’s Western Sector. It wouldn’t matter anyway. Every girl thought she was special until she was dismissed. Karoline felt a fleeting moment of satisfaction at the thought. It wouldn’t be long before the girls understood the nature of monotony. The crippling oppression of sameness.
She stared at the telebound and then she crumbled it up and threw it in the recycle bin.
No one bothered to say hello as she exited the academy. She had few friends among the other instructors. Several of them were much older and it was not easy to gain entrance into their exclusive gossip circle. The younger teachers spoke awkwardly when she visited the lounge, tiptoeing around stories of their infants and toddlers. She had stopped taking lunch there two years ago. Now she ate at her desk while the girls were in the cafeteria.
Outside the academy, elms, still green with summer leaves, yawned over her head, blowing slightly in the September breeze. Autumn would arrive soon and the world would turn yellow and then brown until it all withered and fell away. She hated that season. It made no sense to bother with it when the Guild could simply advise the Spinsters to keep Arras green and alive. But then, she reasoned under her breath, maybe that wasn’t possible. She was proof that even the most invasive loom technology could not ensure perfect order.
“Have they tried other options?” the tailor asked. “I see evidence of scarring.”
“Yes,” Karoline said. Needles flashed through her mind. Cuffs that bound her to a cold, metal bed. But as aggressive as the fingers were that explored her, as many hours as she spent under the blinding light of the clinic’s lamp, she’d not seen any results. The doctor’s words flashed through her mind:
“You’re young, but not as young as we would like to do more extensive patching. At this point, I need to get approval for further treatment.”
He hadn’t bothered to look up from his digifile.
“Well, they don’t do things like this there. Not yet,” the tailor murmured.
She felt something then. Agony clawed out of her and she gasped in pain, but he only reached up to pull the oxi-mask back over her face. His fingers left crimson on the plastic mask. She could see it just over her nose.
It occurred to her then that it was too late. She couldn’t turn back from this now. She’d asked a man to alter her, and now her blood was on his hands.
It was the last thought that passed through her mind before the padlocked door to the clinic slammed open. Karoline’s natural instinct, despite the calming gas, was to leap up, but when she tried, she felt wrenching pain in her lower half. He wasn’t done with the procedure, and her movement only yielded a glimpse at the tailor’s macabre handiwork.
Guards filtered carefully into the room, and the tailor raised his hands. His eyes met hers and accusation pooled behind his widened irises. At first she didn’t comprehend the look, but then understanding crept in. How could he think she had something to do with this? When she needed his help so badly?
“Deniel, you’ve got quite the mess here.” The voice was smooth and colored with amusement.
“Give me a few minutes and I’ll clean up,” the tailor offered.
The guards surrounded him then, cuffing his arms in fast, fluid movements.
“It would be easier to rip you, but frankly, we can use your skills,” the official
“Like I’d work with you, Patton,” Deniel said.
“I wasn’t asking you.”
Karoline tried to comprehend what was happening. She was caught. She’d be imprisoned, maybe even altered for deviance. Or worse. She felt hands on her then. They weren’t the practiced fingers of the tailor. She struggled against the searing sensation pinning her at the waist to see medics patching her up. She wanted to cry out for them to stop. To let him finish. But the mask was over her mouth.
A face blurred to life above her, and she had to blink against the guards’ bright handlights.
“Is this your wife?” the official asked.
Karoline didn’t turn to look for Max, but she heard his voice answer affirmatively.
“But I didn’t know she was up to this, Ambassador Patton,” he said.
“I’m sure you would never sanction something like this, Minister Swander,” the ambassador reassured him. “You do understand that I can’t overlook this deviance though?”
“Of course,” Max responded. He wasn’t going to question the orders of a superior, particularly those of Cormac Patton.
Karoline’s scream broke through the mask, startling several medics, but it only made Cormac laugh.
“Bit of a troublemaker.”
“I suppose,” Max said.
“You won’t have to worry about her anymore,” Cormac said. The two men watched as the medics moved her to a cot and carried her out of the hidden clinic. She never stopped screaming.
“But I’m a senior official, I’ll need a wife.”
“Oh that can be arranged,” Cormac assured him. “I’ll need you to go into the clinic. Fill out some paperwork. Get a few tests.”
“Can we—” Max hesitated “—keep this quiet?”
“I promise you won’t have to worry at all,” Cormac said.
Max released a long breath and smiled. Cormac nudged him gently toward
the door, and he followed the medics into the transport.
Cormac stood for a long time alone in the cold cement room, surveying the
makeshift surgery table and the spots of blood that still pooled there. Finally he cocked his head to activate his complant. “Hannox, the issue is resolved. The wife can be removed, but just rework the husband. Make sure he’s lost in his grief. No need to waste another healthy woman on him.”
Hannox’s voice vibrated his ear. “And the metro? Protocol One?”
“Unnecessary,” Cormac answered without hesitation. “This wasn’t the taint. The citizens of Romen need a lesson. Mrs. Swander’s accident will work nicely.”
“And if the other traitors aren’t identified?” Hannox asked.
“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Cormac said, climbing the steps out of the grim clinic. “You can’t hide in Arras for long.”
“The Department of Alterations” copyright © 2012 by Gennifer Albin
Art copyright © 2012 by Goñi Montes