[ you are not special. ]

THERE WAS A STRAY THREAD ON THE HEM OF PAIGE'S SKIRT. She knew what her mother would say: "if you don't touch it, it won't get worse." Usually, she said things like that about her acne, which all the residents her age had. "It's nothing to be ashamed of," he mother always reminded her, even though she had heard the speech so many times before, "Everyone has them."

She knew that. She, like every one of the other hundred-and-four members of her cohort, had exactly twelve units of acne on her face, in accordance with the Statutes of Equality. The number of units would drop to nine next week, when she received her Age-16 pills at Peace Week registration.

Paige was excited for Peace Week, thrilled to receive her Community Role, eager and nervous all at the same time. She had faith that the Queen and her Council would place her in something that fit her well, of course; the Council was wise and composed of Elders and past Queens, and every role assignment it had ever given out was received with genuine pleasure.

It was best not to worry. Paige sat on her hand to keep herself from toying with the thread.

The bench was comfortable enough; it felt smooth under her palm, and the sensation made her forget altogether about the dangling thread. The air was calm and dry – no hint of rain tonight, it seemed. Paige felt it was appropriate for the night before the Ritual. The new year, after all, was a continuation of the same life, not a shedding of an old one, with the Ritual being the night before the new year. She would have her Community Role next week and the next year she would have her Match Assignment. No rain, no need for redemption – after all, humanity had long done away with religious nonsense. She would have her fair chance to live and thrive, just as everyone had had the chance to do before her since the Great Immortality War of 2025, in which humanity had nearly wiped itself out. Avarice, she knew, was the reason. Redemption had long been achieved.

She drew a circle in the sand with her foot.

The brightness that the stars provided was comforting, like a night-light in the blanket of darkness. Then again, Paige liked the darkness – it was warm, to her, and it gave her space to think.

Think. About what? She didn't need to think about anything. She just needed to trust that she could help contribute to the common good.

And she would.

"You've got a thread there," came a familiar voice behind her.

Paige turned around to find her best friend, Mott, standing there. Immediately, her mouth relaxed into a wide grin, and she stood up at once to greet him with the standard familiar greeting: a kiss to each cheek. "I know," she said to him, "I've been trying not to touch it."

"No?" he said, coming to join her, and they both sat down on the bench, "Why not?"

"I can cut it when I get some scissors."

"What's the fun in that? We get new clothes next week, anyway."

Mott grinned back at her, freckles standing out brightly under the moonshine on his nose. Paige had always liked how his bright green eyes had a mischievous sparkle to them, always admired Mott's tendencies to cause small bits of trouble for the amusement of the whole community – like keeping a banana peel after breakfast and placing it on his hair to pretend like he'd dyed his hair blonde. Paige remembered when he'd done that back when they were ten. Now, his bits of mischief were limited to the containment of his home – the Peace Enforcers didn't like small-scale troublemakers when they were old enough to be nearing their Community Roles – but Paige still enjoyed his jesting nature. He was enough of a daredevil for both of them, and she was enough of a goody-two-shoes to make up for it. They balanced each other well.

For a moment, Paige considered arguing against him. She figured that he was right: it didn't matter. But this was her best skirt, and even if she was going to receive new clothes, she wanted this one to be pretty. It was clean, flawless with the exception of the stray thread. Every stitch had been perfectly arranged, and if she were to yank this thread out without cutting it carefully off, the entire skirt could unravel.

But he reminded her that next week, the skirt would be put into recycling and she would never see it again anyway, and all of the threads would be carefully unraveled by an operator and resupun into new fabric and it would become a new skirt or a hat or perhaps the very tablecloth she would be using at her table during Peace Week next year when she received her Match Assignment. It didn't matter.

Her fingers, which had been toying with the thread for a while, closed around the thread and gripped it tightly to rip it off. The thread pulled some more of itself away from the skirt for a while, then finally snapped after bunching together the hem of the skirt. Part of the hem fell loose. Mott laughed.

"World didn't end, did it?" he said.

Paige shook her head. Her braid fell in front of her chest and bits of hair fell apart from it. She was sure she was a perfect mess, but Mott's smile encouraged it, and Paige knew that a little harmless fun wouldn't prevent her from getting her Community Role next week.

"Not yet," she said. "We'll find out next week, I s'pose."

Mott put his arm around her and gave her a reassuring squeeze. "You'll be fine. They'll make you a Schoolteacher or an Administrative Assistant or something of the sort. Nothing too dangerous, they'll keep you safe."

"And you'll be a Pilot, won't you?"

"God be willing."

Of course, Paige knew he didn't actually mean 'God.' It was something of an ironic statement, something funny and lighthearted, goodnatured. Old-fashioned but well-humored. He meant that he knew. They'd both be surprised if he weren't a Pilot. They figured the whole community would be shocked. It was 'in the cards,' as their ancestors would have said.

Still, it was comforting, to be there, under the stars, with Mott. Paige liked him and the way he seemed to make everything feel smooth and easy. No pressure, nothing. Pressure was what had caused the war that had almost wiped out humanity. Pressure did things that no one approved of anymore.

It crossed her mind that Mott wouldn't be a bad person to have for her Match Assignment. She would be sure to tell one of the Elders if she got the chance within the next year.