My boot hits him in the nuts at the same time as the flash goes off, but it’s too late. The Virus has already taken my picture. He was aiming for Fatima, but I pushed her away just in time. I sideswipe his legs and topple the Virus over while he moans in agony from my kick to his groin.
“Nobody takes my picture, you freak!” I stare at his tattooed face. There’s something familiar about the snake inked around his eyebrow, but I can’t quite place it. We’re in the underground parking garage at school, and the fluorescent lights shade everything ugly. I crouch down and flip the Virus onto his stomach, bashing his nose against the pavement.
Ever since I was little, teachers have warned me about Viruses. They’re paparazzi scumbags whose sole purpose in life is to destroy privacy and expose secrets. I’ve never seen one in person until today.
“Hand me your belt,” I tell Fatima. I hold the Virus in place by grinding my knee into his back while Fatima slips off the cinch from her black spandex uniform. I wrestle the man’s arms behind me with both hands. Surprise, surprise—security doesn’t show up until I’m already hog-tying the bastard.
“You’re not so special now, Vestal!” the Virus says as they haul him off.
Until about two minutes ago, I was a Vestal postulant. A blank slate. An Internet virgin. There were no images of my moniker floating around cyberspace. My parents had never blogged about my every poop. It had been planned that way from the beginning. They had castrated my virtual identity for the promise of a better life.
In one week I’m graduating from Tabula Rasa. Today was my chance to shine while I’m interviewed by companies. Only nobody will want me now.
With one flash of his thumb camera, that jerk destroyed my life.
“Don’t worry,” Fatima says, helping me to my feet. “You’ve still got a face that can sell soap. I knew it the first time I saw you. Your skin’s your best feature, and that hasn’t changed.”
The sound of the security gate opening drowns Fatima out. We watch as a white car enters the Tabula Rasa garage. A flash of sunlight taunts me before the gate closes. All my life I’ve lived in this twenty-story fortress of protection. Today was going to be my first day in sunshine, being interviewed by bidders.
But that Virus ruined it all. How the hell he snuck in, I’ll never know.
“You’re the girl next door,” Fatima says, a bit louder. “Couture might not want you, but the average American will.”
I nod because I’ve heard it all before. Not everyone can be the seductress. I’ll never be like Fatima, I don’t begrudge her that. A clear face, green eyes, and brown hair are what I have to work with, and that’s fine. But there’s no fixing a picture of me on the Internet.
“It’ll be okay, Blanca,” Fatima says again.
But we both know that isn’t true.
For a Vestal, a clear Internet history is the most important thing. Without that I’m nothing. Our elusive privacy is what makes us valuable.
I’ve watched our class shrink from two hundred eager postulants to a graduating group of ten. The infractions were usually unavoidable: their memory was spotty, their temperament was bad, or worst of all, they turned out ugly. But once in a while, somebody was thrown out because of an online transgression.
Everyone left is bankable. Ten perfect human specimens who could sell you anything.
Even Ethan, with his poufy hair and scrawny build, is a sure thing. He wears glasses now despite his perfect vision, and goes around in bow ties and suspenders. “Nerdy but in a good way,” the teachers say. “This one’s going high-tech.”
Beau can write his own ticket too. He’s six feet tall and can out bench-press every other guy in the group. America will drool.
And then there’s Fatima standing next to me. With her dark eyes and svelte figure, she’ll have her choice of any fashion house.
I had been hoping to sell cosmetics. That’s prestigious too, and I really had a chance. But nobody will bid on me now. The auction is a week away, and I’m ruined!
“Blanca?” A woman approaches us right as a dark black limousine pulls through the gate. “That car isn’t for you. Good luck with your interviews, Fatima.”
Fatima waves at me sadly and slides into the vehicle.
“Let’s get this disaster under control,” says the woman as the limo drives away. Her billowing skirt makes her look ethereal in the shadows of the parking garage. I have never seen her before. But she’s wearing white like our teachers and has a platinum cuff, so of course, I follow her.
She takes me to a room on the twentieth floor of Tabula Rasa that boasts a wall of windows. “Darkened for privacy,” says the woman when she sees my apprehension.
I approach them hesitantly, unaccustomed to the glass. I see a tiny patch of sky surrounded by glowing billboards. On every rooftop is an advertisement featuring a face I already know. Vestals stare down at me from all vantage point, hawking perfumes, cars, and weight-loss supplements.
“You’ll be up there too, Blanca. There’s still hope.” The woman stands at my elbow.
I peek and study her this time. She’s fortyish with blue eyes and a heart-shaped face. I know she’s a Vestal because of her white outfit, but I don’t recognize her.
Weird. I know all the Vestals. Everyone does.
The hydraulic doors hiss open, and we both turn to look. The Tabula Rasa headmaster enters in a swirl of white cloak.
“Blanca,” he says, “you have a problem.”
“Yes, Headmaster Russell. I’m sorry, Headmaster Russell.”
“I don’t know how you let this happen.” He strides to the enormous windows, holding a manila file folder. None of the Tabula Rasa faculty are permitted computers, including Headmaster Russell.
“You mean you don’t know how you let this happen, Russell.”
I brace for impact. Nobody talks to Headmaster Russell that way and gets away with it. I know that better than anyone. He grits his teeth. “Security is being questioned as we speak. Sit down, Ms. Lydia. Please.”
“I will not sit down.” Ms. Lydia’s stare could cut glass. “Not until you apologize to Blanca. She deserves better, and you know it.”
There is audible silence. Headmaster Russell rubs the golden cuff on his wrist. “Blanca, I’m sorry that this happened to you.” His eyes don’t meet mine.
Ms. Lydia snaps her fingers.
Headmaster Russell clears his throat and tries again, this time meeting my gaze. “I’m sorry that I let this happen to you. I should have protected you better. I will do everything in my power to make sure you are still harvested at the auction.” Then he turns to Ms. Lydia who stands resolute and icy. “Are you satisfied?”
“Perhaps.” She shrugs. “Let’s see what’s in the folder.”
A few moments later we are seated at the table in the center of the room. Headmaster Russell shows us the picture of me that is now plastered all over cyberspace. I fight back tears.
first look at newest vestal, the caption reads. Then there’s me executing a roundhouse kick, my hair flying back, and my face a perfect mask of rage.
“This is what we are dealing with,” says Headmaster Russell.
“It could be worse.” Ms. Lydia presses her lips together. Right then an old-fashioned phone hanging on the wall rings. “Well, Russ? Aren’t you going to answer that?”
Headmaster Russell jumps to answer the phone. I can hear him say “Blanca” and “photograph,” but that’s it. My future is muffled as he whispers into the receiver.
Ms. Lydia extends her hand to me. Her touch is very cold, but her shake is firm. “My name is Lydia. I’m the elected agent of all Vestal graduates. I lead the Tabula Rasa board of directors.”
“What was your company?” I ask. I still don’t recognize her. But I notice her platinum cuff. That means she was top pick.
“I didn’t have a company. I went Geisha.”
I try to keep my face blank. Really, I do. But what she said is so shocking that my eyes widen for an instant. Ms. Lydia notices.
“It’s not as bad as you think,” she says. “Maybe it’s better. There are many ways to be a Vestal, and they all have honor.”
“Of course,” I answer. “It says so right in the Vestal Code of Ethics.”
Most Vestals leave Tabula Rasa with major corporations, but on rare occasions they enter contracts with private individuals as Geishas.
Nobody wants to go Geisha. Giving up privacy for another person’s pleasure is creepy. Selling out to a company is so much better.
Headmaster Russell hangs up the phone with a loud click. He smoothes his cloak over his barrel chest. “Blanca has five bidders,” he says. “That picture has whipped up a frenzy.”
“Good,” says Ms. Lydia. “You’re redeemed.”
I’m not sure who she’s talking to, but I brave a smile anyway.
Barbelo Nemo founded the Vestals fifty years ago after the Brain Cancer Epidemic rotted humankind via cell phones. Bluetooth scanned sensitive neurons. Wi-Fi washed over weakened gray matter. Before the medical community realized what was happening, millions of people were dead.
Scientists promised finger-chips were the solution, but Barbelo forged a different path. Why risk another tech-induced health crisis? Barbelo set Vestals apart and kept us safe. Eighteen years of schooling at Tabula Rasa behind lead-lined walls, and then twenty-five years of service to the Brethren. We have a sacred duty to remain digitally pure.
If it weren’t for Tabula Rasa, I’d be tech-addicted like everyone else. I’d expose my private thoughts to total strangers. I’d be too engrossed in my finger-chips to pay attention to my friends. I’d judge people by scanning their profile before I met them in person. I wouldn’t buy anything or go anywhere unless the Internet told me it was a good idea. I would let my finger-chips rob me of forming real relationships with the actual people who matter in my life. What’s worse, I wouldn’t know I was ruined. I’d willingly give up my humanity one byte at a time.
But as a Vestal postulant, I’m sheltered from that. Chaos swirls around us, but Vestals are constant. We are loyal. We keep secrets. We remind the world there is a better way to live. Because we are so trustworthy, the public buys anything we sell.
No wonder corporations lust for us.
It’s been seven days since the Virus stole my picture, and I’ve made it to the auction after all. I’m sitting on stage with the other Tabula Rasa graduates, safe inside the lead-lined walls of school. The Harvest is minutes away. We’re about to auction our purity to the highest bidder. In front of us are Silicon Valley elite. Many of them are flexing their palms, frustrated that their finger-chip connections won’t work.
Fatima’s hand is on my thigh, and my hand covers hers. Sweat trickles down my back, tracing the curve of my spine as I arch my shoulders in perfect posture. I curl my toes inside their black leather boots, trying to release the pressure.
My whole education, my entire existence, has led up to now.
This morning I woke up in the metal bunk bed of my cloister. In a few days I’ll move to my new home, the Vestal quarters of my business sponsor. I’ll represent a company, a product, and a lifestyle. The world will follow my life through carefully released images. Whatever my company chooses to share will become my new identity.
Where I eat, who I date, what I do. It will all be for one purpose— to sell my company’s products.
I’ll never beg my friends to like my pictures. Total strangers will hang on my every word. I’ll be a Vestal, and millions of people will care about who I am.
Even better, I’ll have a family. Older Vestals will be my mentors. I’ll join their manufactured family in print, media, and billboard campaigns across America.
If I’m lucky, the company will have at least one Vestal in their roster close to me in age. Hopefully a guy. Preferably one who looks more like Beau and less like Ethan. I’ve been waiting eighteen years for a boyfriend, and he had better be good.
“Fatima,” the announcer says. My best friend squeezes my hand and winks at me. Then she walks to the stage. She’s gorgeous, like always. Ever since we were little, I always knew Fatima would be the top pick. Fatima has a body that can sell anything. She’s smart too. It will say that in her portfolio.
But when Fatima stands up there at the podium next to Headmaster Russell, there is only a shuffle of papers in the audience. Heads are bent over still placards. Fatima glances back at me with panic.
No one is bidding.
A woman wearing a white suit scrambles on stage and grabs Headmaster Russell’s arm, whispering into his ear. It’s Ms. Corina, from charm and deportment. She doesn’t appear so polished now.
Ms. Corina points to me, and Headmaster Russell looks too. Then he cringes.
“There has been a change of plans,” he announces to the audience. “Bidding on Miss Fatima will wait. Bidding on Miss Blanca will begin.”
Fatima gazes at me from across the stage. I know what she’s thinking without her saying one word. Fatima’s the seductress, and I’m the girl-next-door. She’s the one people drool for, not me.
I try to smile placidly, like Charming Corina taught us. But watching the audience freaks me out. I’m used to the black uniforms of students and the white robes of teachers. Now all I see is the ambiguity of color.
I try to focus as Headmaster Russell says something about my education.
“Poetry, literature, music,” he says. “Blanca is the perfect package. She’s well versed in the seven liberal arts and entirely ignorant about science and technology. A Vestal Virgin for the modern age.”
Headmaster Russell regards me with dark eyes. Then he turns back to the sea of faces. “Blanca’s the perfect image for your company. Born and bred in Nevada and groomed right here at Tabula Rasa. Let’s start the bidding at five million dollars.”
A deep breath. I fight to be calm when I see arms shoot up and numbers wave. But I don’t think about the auction or my impending future. I think about my past.
Until now, I had no idea I came from Nevada.
Were my parents still in Nevada? Were they scanning the news feed on their palms at this very second? Were they trying to guess which name was mine, eagerly anticipating their cut from my sale? My parents were going to make a lot of money off me.
But my so-called parents aren’t important. All that matters is right now: the bidding war. So many people shout that Headmaster Russell appears stressed. He uses the sleeve of his cloak to wipe sweat off his forehead.
“Thirty million? Do I hear thirty-one?” he asks. That’s when I feel the skin on my arms prickle. Companies won’t pay that much for a Vestal. But private individuals do.
“Thirty-one-and-a-half?” Headmaster Russell asks loudly. Another arm goes up. Then another. “Thirty-two? Thirty-two going once? Going twice? Sold,” says Headmaster Russell, banging the gavel. “Sold for the highest price ever paid in Vestal history. Sold to Mr. Calum McNeal for thirty-two million dollars.”
And just like that I’ve gone Geisha.
A middle-aged man stands. His hair is brown but graying and longish around the ears. He’s smiling so hard, it looks like he’s going to burst.
I’m finally wearing white, but I don’t feel like I deserve it. Instead I feel dirty inside as I stand with my fellow graduates around the Pool of Purity. My unlit candle weighs heavy in my hand, and I nervously finger its waxy edge. Everyone has been sold to a company but me. Fatima won’t make eye contact.
“On this the most private of nights,” Headmaster Russell says, “we celebrate the blessing of one more class of Tabula Rasa graduates. The brothers and sisters who came before you surround you with their guidance and welcome you to our ranks.”
I feel their presence before I see them. Older, experienced Vestals step from the shadows and flank us in a larger ring. Together we form two concentric circles, our billowing white robes hovering over the pavement, reflected in the water.
“The candle please.” Headmaster Russell turns to look at Ms. Lydia, who stands nearby.
She is beautiful in the moonlight, her heart-shaped face a mask of serenity. When she reaches out her candle to touch his, the sleeve of her gown slips down below her elbow, exposing her platinum cuff against creamy skin. “The beacon of light,” she says. “We are a sacred fire that will not burn out. Those who came before you welcome you into our Brethren.”
Soon the flame is passed from candle to candle. The dark circle of Tabula Rasa graduates illuminates in a warm glow. When Fatima tips her candle to mine, she struggles to smile. She hasn’t spoken one word to me since the auction. My harvest price was double hers. But I know that’s not the real problem between us. It’s because I’ve gone Geisha.
Headmaster Russell’s voice is solemn. “Vestals are a beacon in a dark world. We alone stand together. We are living sacrifices for all that is pure and all that is sacred.”
An older Vestal steps forward with a silver tray. Nine golden cuffs sparkle in the candlelight. The single platinum cuff beckons to me. I am the top pick.
Ms. Lydia selects a golden cuff. “It is time for the vows. Master Ethan, do you solemnly swear to uphold the Vestal order?”
“I do,” says Ethan, stepping forward.
“Will you consecrate your body? Will you promise to never be marked by ink, stain, piercing, or technology? Will you give your highest self to our cause?”
“I promise,” says Ethan, holding out his arm.
Ms. Lydia snaps the golden cuff on his wrist.
“And now, for the sealing,” says Headmaster Russell, who approaches with a small blue flame. There is total and utter silence for this, the most sacred part of the ceremony. Headmaster Russell singes the metal, searing it shut. Ethan’s golden cuff now marks him for life. The whole world will forever know he is a Vestal.
The sealing happens eight more times until finally, I am the only graduate who remains.
Ms. Lydia picks up the platinum cuff and holds it to the light. “There are many paths a Vestal can take, but one thing is constant. The world relies on us. We are the last guardians of private living. When we sell our reputation, it is with purpose and thought. We do not give it away freely like the masses of humanity. To be purchased privately is a holy act within itself.”
My tears start when she says this. They roll down my cheeks, washing away the shame. It’s like a window has opened in my heart, releasing all the pressure. I feel joy again. Joy and pride for being a Vestal, no matter what.
This is my time. This is what I have lived for. When Ms. Lydia snaps the platinum cuff on my wrist, it is the happiest moment of my life.