Want to keep reading?

You've reached the end of your complimentary access. Subscribe for as little as $4/month.

Aready a Subscriber ? Sign In

Music to My Ear

Alora prepares to begin her career in a world where birth and genetic engineering determine your future

Alora sighed and twirled her mocha-colored curls through her fingers. She glanced at the large wall clock in front of her, hanging above the door to the grand office in which she sat. Half past eleven, it read.

Her heart lurched inside her. Had it really been half an hour? Her stomach rolled over inside her and her vision grew spotty. Desperately, she grabbed the edge of the mahogany desk, its edge digging into her palm. She fought to remember the breathing techniques she’d been taught: 1, 2, inhale, 1, 2, 3, exhale. Slowly, Alora refocused and regained the sunny disposition she was supposed to have.

Wary now, she checked the clock again. Yes, it read 11:30. She sighed. The Chancellor was thirty minutes late to the meeting. And on her first day too. Alora rolled her eyes— though she knew she shouldn’t scoff at someone so powerful—and reached across the desk for the intercom. It turned on with a buzz, and a Secretary downstairs picked up.

“Yes, madam?” asked a crackly voice.

“I am inquiring about the punctuality of the Chancellor of Trade, to see whether he is due to arrive soon or not.” She phrased the request as a statement, not a question, as she’d been taught by her father.

“I am sorry, madam. I have no information on the whereabouts of the Chancellor. I shall inform you if I receive further details.”

“Thank you. That will be all.”

With another buzz, the intercom switched off.

Alora rubbed her eyes out of pure stress, though carefully so as not to smudge her makeup, and then looked around the room. The walls were a simple white, and except for her desk, a chair for a visitor, and a bookshelf, the room was sparse. Behind the desk were floor-to-ceiling windows that framed the city beyond. Alora had to admit that despite its dizzying size, Metropolia was a beautiful city. Previously, it had been called New York City, a rather ugly name; however, after the Famine, it had been rebranded as part of the neo- Greek trend. Metropolia was a hub of international trade and society. It was the perfect place to build a company, like Alora’s father had.

Her father. The thought caused her vision to go spotty again, and before she could stop it, Alora was pulled into her memories.

Eliezer Bennet had been a great mogul in his day. He had built his company, PROvide, from the ground up, developing new, safe sporting equipment for the Athletes. Of course, he didn’t do the actual designing—he wasn’t meant to—but he was the face of the company. Now he was nearing the end of his days, reduced to a weak old man.

Alora remembered when she was little, asking him why he had to die someday. “Plenty of people are altered to live longer, Papi,” she’d told him. They were sitting on the sofa in their penthouse, watching the sun go down over the city.

“I know,” he’d said. “But I can’t.”

She’d looked up at him with her big brown eyes. “Why?”

He wouldn’t meet her gaze. “That’s the way it is. The company needs to move on. You know that you will run the company after I’m gone; you’re meant to.” Then he had looked down at her. “And you’ll do a great, great job!”

Not long after, her schooling had begun. She’d been homeschooled, as most children were, so as to fit her needs. She had learned some science, and how to read and write and do arithmetic, but mostly she was trained to be a Director.

And here she was, fourteen years old, in the final stages of her training. Today, after all, was her first time directing. She was to have a meeting with the Chancellor as practice for running the company. That was not to say the meeting wasn’t real; it was indeed about exporting equipment to Europe.

Her first time directing, Alora thought, and Papi wasn’t there to see her. He was sleeping on the sofa at home, his body trying to fight off a genetic disease he wouldn’t survive. That was the way it went.

Alora felt tears brimming in her eyes and was brought back to the present by the ringing of the intercom. Reminded that she couldn’t break down here, Alora brushed the tears away and pressed the intercom.

“Yes?” Her voice sounded shaky.

“Madam, I have just received word from the Chancellor’s Secretary.”


“He regrets to inform you that due to an unexpected conflict, the Chancellor will not be able to make your meeting.”

Alora almost breathed a sigh of relief. She was in no condition to have a meeting. “Thank you for the information.”

“Oh,” she added, because she knew it was the right thing to do, “please relay to the Secretary that he should make rescheduling a top priority.”

“Yes, madam.”

“That will be all.”

The intercom buzzed off, and this time Alora allowed herself a sigh as she sank back into her chair. She’d expected to feel calm and at peace now that she didn’t have the meeting, but part of her was sad. For all its stress, she liked directing, liked being in charge. And she was good at it. Of course she was designed to, just like Athletes were designed to play sports and Secretaries to schedule appointments and answer phone calls, but that didn’t bother her. It was the way of life.

She wasn’t exactly sure why she’d brought her briefcase, since it wasn’t as if she was going to paint (she wasn’t an Artist) or write poetry (she wasn’t an Author) but all Directors carried briefcases, and it gave her a feeling of power.

Alora pulled up her monitor to see what paperwork she had left and was relieved to find nothing to do. Paperwork, however important, was tedious, and Alora did not feel it was something she was good at.

Alora stood up, stretched, and walked around her father’s office— no, her office. She walked over to the windows and stared out at the city. Its gleaming buildings reflected golden light onto her light-brown face; the city was so beautiful in the midday sun. Sometimes Alora could hardly believe it had been born from such tragedy—the Famine, the story of which all children were told:

More than 100 years ago, when genetic engineering was first introduced, people were ecstatic. But they were reckless. They changed so many traits, and with such frivolous intentions, that they endangered the population. The scientists were not careful and through their engineering unleashed one of the deadliest genetic diseases known to man: the Famine.

Over half of the world’s 7.6 billion people were affected. The Famine made it so the body could not process food or water. Without treatment, 3.8 billion people perished in a little over three months. Countries were devastated and families upon families were ruined. The only people to survive carried a rare, recessive allele that did not have the Famine. They went about rebuilding the world, and because no one with the Famine survived, its inheritance factor was eliminated.

Scientists were more careful this time and slowly reintroduced genetic engineering. People were assigned traits and did what they were best at instead of being allowed to choose at random whatever traits they wanted. There was never again an epidemic as powerful as the Famine. The End.

It was a horribly sad story, Alora thought, but there was nothing she could do about it. Besides, without it, she wouldn’t be alive and Metropolia wouldn’t exist. She wouldn’t have this life, where everything fit exactly and the world ran smoothly.

Alora was distracted from her thoughts by the ringing of the noon bell across the street at the symphony building. The windows of her office were soundproof, so Alora never heard the symphony practice, or any other noises on the street, but the bell was loud enough that its vibrations went straight through the glass.

Alora decided to go out for lunch since she had nothing to do in the office. She retrieved her blazer from the back of the door and pulled it on over her white blouse. She grabbed her briefcase from beside the desk and left the office. She wasn’t exactly sure why she’d brought her briefcase, since it wasn’t as if she was going to paint (she wasn’t an Artist) or write poetry (she wasn’t an Author) but all Directors carried briefcases, and it gave her a feeling of power.

Alora pressed the button for the elevator and the doors swung open. She entered and began the thirty-floor descent. Somewhere around the fifteenth floor, a man entered the elevator. Seeing his sandy hair and bright-green eyes, she assumed he was a Wilmer, part of the famous Accounting family.

“Miss Bennett,” he said to her, “please tell Mr. Bennett I hope he gets well soon.”

“I will,” Alora replied politely, though her heart felt a pang of sadness. It was no secret Eliezer Bennett wouldn’t survive; this illness befell all Directors when they got old, and none lived.

Soon the elevator reached the lobby. Alora told the Secretaries she was leaving for lunch and then walked outside.

It had been a while since Alora’d been outside in Metropolia during the day. She always came to the company with Papi around seven in the morning, had her lessons in an empty conference room with her tutor, then watched Papi work so she could learn how he ran meetings. They would leave around six, when the sun was going down.

During the day, Metropolia was busy with tourists, residents, and employees bustling about, and vendors and street Artists selling their goods to passersby. Alora was astonished by how loud it was as well. Beneath the streets, there was the continuous hum of the trains kept from before the Famine, and on the streets, the typical din that comes from crowds.

The one noise that was lacking was that of cars. Cars had mostly been forgotten while the world was being rebuilt and really only existed in rural communities. The main methods of transportation in big cities were, if not walking, biking, or taking the train.

Alora hardly knew where to go. She had walked to the nearest intersection but had no sense of direction, no sense of which were the best places to go. Had she been in the arts, she thought, she might have gone to a museum, either to write about the works or to become inspired. But because she was a Director, she had no eye for observing art, and the idea would have been foolish.

She might have gone to the stock exchange, where at least she knew what to expect and what to do, but she had no noteworthy excellency with numbers, something that was expected if she were to visit there.

In all honesty, Alora thought, as she stood on the corner of the street, chilled in the autumn breezes that swept by, she was most comfortable at the courts. Lawyers and Judges were somewhat similar to Directors; they made arguments and compromises and had a sense of authority. However, Alora wasn’t sure if the courts were open to the public, and as she needed to have an unblemished reputation, she didn’t want to be caught in a moment of ignorance.

Alora decided to stop by a café on the corner. She weaved her way through the lines of people to a table. Its wooden top shifted and creaked as Alora laid her briefcase on it. She sat on the wicker chair and waited there, not hungry, but not wanting to leave. She drummed her fingers on the table out of habit and slowly fell into a half-sleeping stupor.

Alora was woken by a voice nearby.

“Allo, there!” it said to her in a cheerful tone.

Alora looked up, trying not to seem as though she’d just been half asleep. She blinked. The person in front of her was rather short, with red hair. “Hello,” she responded politely, remembering her manners.

The man (she knew it was a man now) sat down across from her. “You don’t mind if I sit here?” His accent was strange, most likely from somewhere in Europe.

“Oh, no. It’s fine,” Alora replied, trying to figure out why he might want to sit with her. Was he a Businessman who’d made a deal with Papi?

“Are you Miss Alora Bennett?” he asked

“Oh, yes,” Alora said, somewhat taken by surprise. “How kind of you to recognize that.”

“Yeah, well, you and your father look something alike. Same nose.”

With great effort, Alora avoided touching her nose. It was true that while Alora had been modified to have brown hair, eyes, and skin, her nose looked like her father’s.

“Ah, thank you,” she said.

“Now, might you introduce yourself?” Alora was not afraid to assert her power as a Director to this little man.

“Ah, yes. I forgot myself. I’m Connor Powell.” He made a small, sitting bow. “First violinist in the Metropolian Symphony.” He looked rather proud, then added, “From Central Europe, originally.”

So he was a Musician. That made more sense. Often, Alora saw the symphonists leaving their building on lunch break around this time of day.

“Quite impressive,” Alora admitted. Alora had been to the symphony once or twice when her father was meeting with a potential client—taking a client to a performance was a show of grandeur—but that had been a while ago. “And to what do I owe this pleasure?” she said to Powell.

“Ah . . .” he faltered. “You see, your father, um, used to make some donations to the symphony and, um, we would like to renew that.”

“I see,” Alora mused, struggling to maintain a calm façade as she felt her heart beat faster. What was she to do? She couldn’t tell him yes without her father’s permission since she was still in training, but she didn’t want to say no.

Alora swallowed. “As you can tell,” she told Powell, forming her words carefully, “Mr. Bennett is not well today, and I am afraid I cannot authorize such a request. I can deliver the message to Mr. Bennett, however, and he can decide.”

Alora held her breath as she waited for Powell’s response.

“Ah, okay . . .” He seemed just as uncomfortable and began to stand up. Alora followed him. “I’ve, ah, got to get back to the symphony but, ah, if you could deliver the message?”

Alora nodded. They shook hands and Powell left.

She longed to have the grace of the conductor as he led the symphony through the mysterious forest of music. She wished to be a violinist, to feel the vibration of the instrument tucked under her chin.


Alora buried her face in her hands. That’d been so humiliating, she thought. But she thought that was the best way to handle it. She stayed in the café for a bit longer and then left as well.

Now she was back on the street again. The midday sun was strong and warm, but chilly winds still flew through the city.

Unsure of where else to go, Alora began to walk back toward her office. The bells tolled one o’clock at the symphony, and Alora flinched at how loud they were. And then, just before she entered her building, Alora heard it: music.

She turned around to face the symphony. Music poured out of it. It had been so long since Alora had heard real music. It wasn’t even a piece of music, just a tuning note, but it sent a warm feeling through her chest. Before she knew what she was doing, Alora had walked over to the grand oak doors of the symphony and walked into the empty, magnificent lobby. The floors were lushly carpeted in such fine materials that Alora bent down to feel how soft they were. The walls were smooth, polished stone, and marble columns lined the way to the grand staircase.

The symphony had stopped tuning now and began its scales. Alora raced up and down the stairs as the notes of the symphony rose and descended. She was sure she’d never felt this good, never had her cheeks flushed with such great joy and excitement. Then Alora remembered herself. She was a Director; this was no place for her! She did best in offices, striking deals, and compromises. Music had no place in her life.

Alora was about to leave the building when the symphony began its warm-ups. Just simple patterns, and yet they drove Alora back up the stairs and into the Great Hall. Before she knew what was happening, Alora was on the top balcony of the darkened concert hall, her eyes trained on the illuminated stage that lit up the symphony.

She watched with a fiery, longing passion in her eyes and an ache in her heart. She longed to have the grace of the conductor as he led the symphony through the mysterious forest of music. She wished to be a violinist, to feel the vibration of the instrument tucked under her chin. But mostly, she could not keep her eyes off of the piano and the pianist. The way the Musician’s fingers danced so delicately over the keys, like a fairy sprite on this magical adventure, was enchanting; Alora placed her fingers on the seatback in front of her, trying to mimic the pianist as she flew through the notes.

And with one culminating note, the warm-ups drew to a close. The sound of the symphony echoed in the Great Hall.

Alora paused, drawn out of the magical moment. What was she doing here? She couldn’t be here. She needed to go back to the office. But it was like warring with the ocean; one could only fight the tide for so long. And so the waves of Alora’s ocean pulled her back into the deep sea of music.

Now the symphony was beginning to play actual pieces of music. They stopped often to fix mistakes that had been made, but to Alora, the blemishes were unnoticeable, simply part of the flow of the piece.

Her heart was like a bird; it soared high in the clouds, feeling the exhilaration of flying during the fast movements, and it dove down to earth, skimming the water and the ground, taking in the majesty of the world, during the slow movements.

Alora did not know how long she sat in the Great Hall, but it must have been hours because eventually the rehearsal ended and the symphony left, leaving Alora in the dark without their music.

Alora was sure nothing could ever again make her experience the thrill she had felt while listening to the symphony, and she decided she had to make her own music, had to know the feeling that came from creating such a beautiful, wrenching sound.

Quietly, cautiously, Alora made her way down from the balcony, through the silent, empty hall, to the stage. For a moment, she just stood there on the conductor’s podium and imagined what it would be like to conduct, to control the symphony, to hold the audience captive with the force of music.

But that was not what she was there for. Alora tiptoed over to the side of the stage where the piano stood. Nervously, she sat down on the bench. The hard wood felt foreign to her, but also—right. As she’d seen the pianist do, Alora carefully lifted the polished wooden cover off the keys. And there they were. The keys. Stunningly simple white and black keys, so little and yet capable of so much.

This is it, Alora thought. Her heart beat fast in her chest as she pressed a white key down. The sound emitted was high-pitched and clear, but sharp and tangy. It was nothing like the sweet song the pianist had made.

Still, nothing could dampen Alora’s joy. She, Alora, had made a sound! She had made music!

Alora tried to copy the motions of the pianist as she swept across the keys. The noise was discordant and cacophonous and shocked Alora into a revelation. Of course she didn’t know how to read the notes the Musicians played; she didn’t even know how the notes worked, didn’t know what they were. She could never be a good Musician; she wasn’t supposed to be one.

And yet the sound of music, even the jerky sounds made by her own hands, filled Alora with wholeness. Music was her place in the world; she had felt it through her whole body in the joy she felt listening to the symphony. Music completed her, Alora felt, in a world where her heart was caged and tamed.

Music freed her and made her truly alive.

Anya Geist
Anya Geist, 13
Worcester, MA

Keira Zhang
Keira Zhang, 11
Los Altos, CA