Here’s Chapter 1 of our novel Kea’s Flight.
I was five years old. I grew too fast, moved too much, used up every calorie on fidgeting and running around. Every day at lunch I sucked the tube empty of nutrient fluid, poked my tongue into its tip until nothing remained of its flavor, ate my whole energy bar in four bites and licked every molecule of taste from the wrapper that it came in.
I didn’t understand the system that rationed food based on body size, or the flaws in that system that resulted in underfeeding for some students and overfeeding for others. I just knew that I was still hungry after meals.
“More,” I demanded of anyone who might be listening, one day when my stomach felt so empty that the meal only whetted my appetite. “Give me more. Now. This wasn’t enough. It wasn’t even nearly enough.” I waved the empty energy bar wrapper around at the roomful of students, none of whom seemed to care.
At that age, despite my vocabulary, I possessed only a shaky understanding of how communication worked. I’d been punished for things I said, even when I spoke in an empty restroom or re-ed room, and so I’d never developed the idea that people had to be present in order for me to talk to them. I spoke whenever I wanted, whether or not the person I addressed were anywhere nearby. I didn’t know that the surveillance was what made me audible to people I couldn’t see, and that only certain BGs could hear me through it.
“More. I want more food.” I couldn’t see any BGs right then, but I knew there were always some patrolling the lunchroom, walking up and down the aisles keeping an eye out for any problems the bots couldn’t handle. Someone had to be close enough to help.
A boy nearby was dawdling, taking forever to eat his energy bar. Two whole bites’ worth of it were just sitting there uneaten, and it had been bigger than mine to start with. The boy wasn’t skinny like me. He had extra fat on his sides and his neck that wiggled a little as he moved. It wasn’t fair.
“You. Give me that bar now.” I walked toward him, reaching out for his food. “I’m still hungry. They gave you more food than me, and you don’t need as much. So give it to me, right now.”
He made eye contact, curious, holding out the bit of energy bar as if to ask me if that were really what I wanted.
Beep. Beep. Beep. One of the cafeteria robots rolled towards the boy, taking away the morsel. I looked at the bot expectantly, wondering if it would correct the unfairness and give it to me. But it simply opened a compartment in the front of its body, inserted the food, and then grabbed the boy and held him down. A tube emerged from just above the compartment; one of the robot’s steel claws helped push the tube up the boy’s nose and down his throat, force-feeding him the now-dissolved energy bar. The high-tech lubricant-anesthetic mix that coated the tube didn’t do much to keep the boy comfortable; he thrashed horribly. Then he was back in his chair, wiping his mouth in distaste, and the robot was at rest again.
I felt my face screw up into a wrinkled knot, anger burning at my limbs like an itch. The discomfort in my empty belly exacerbated my mood toward some too-close tipping point. I was hungry, and he wasn’t, and he was the one who had been given more food. A five-year-old’s over-sensitive perception of justice was wearing hard on my control.
And then Screen Man was there, one of several BGs assigned to patrol that section of the cafeteria, and right now the most likely human authority figure to be able to help me. “Screen Man, give me more food. I’m hungry and my food was not enough.” I stared up at him, challenging him, my finger pointing at the boy who had just been force-fed. “If the robots can give him extra food that he doesn’t even want, then they have to give me enough food, don’t they? I’m hungry. My stomach is almost all empty. My food wasn’t enough, Screen Man.”
“Karrie, you need to not call me names like that,” he warned, his voice thick and smooth and sticky-sweet.
I glared. “You don’t call me names like that! I’m Karen. Not Karrie. And I’m hungry. I need more food.”
His bulbous bald head shook back and forth, the small tolerant smile on his face not changing. “What do you say?” he crooned.
I squinted my eyes. Was he asking me what I’d said? I’d spoken clearly; how could he have failed to understand me? I repeated myself, enunciating every word to perfection. “I am hungry. My food was not enough. Give me more food.”
He shook his head again. I could recognize condescension all too well, even when I didn’t know the word for it. His singsong voice vibrated at a frequency that caused my eardrums actual pain, even as it simultaneously insulted my intelligence. “No, that’s wrong, Karrie. What do you say?”
I knew what I’d said—he had no right to tell me I had quoted myself wrong. “I said my food was not enough,” I insisted, almost shouting. “And I’m hungry. And give me more food.”
Screen Man knelt down and put a hand on my shoulder. His fingers were scratchy, and he smelled like soap and sweat and robot grease mixed together. “No, Karrie. You say please.”
I clenched my teeth, finally recognizing his words as instructions instead of a request for information. “Please,” I muttered, pushing the word out against every instinct I had except hunger. “Please give me more food.”
He stood up. “No, Karrie, I’m sorry, you can’t have more food. The robots give you as much as you need. You can’t have more than you need, because then there wouldn’t be enough for other children. Those are the rules.”
I let loose a scream then, hurting my own ears, going on and on. I clawed at Screen Man, punched him with all the tiny, malnourished strength I had, until the robot came and pried me away from him.
“You’ve made a poor choice,” he droned, his voice as sweet as ever. “You’re going to have to go to the re-ed room.”
“No. No. No.” My voice ascended to a screech in the middle of each “no,” ending on a sob. I pounded on the robot as it took me away, kicked it, bit it until my teeth hurt, but I could do nothing.
My name is Kea. I was born Karen Irene Anderson, but it was a computer that chose that name. As far as I know, my parents never cared what I would be called.
This part I can only do my best to reconstruct, based on the skeleton of history we were given in class as small children, and the scraps of contraband data that Draz and I managed to collect years later. I gather that it all began in the embryonic stage, when the routine genetic and developmental tests were done to make sure I was going to be a healthy baby. For the most part, the results were good. A physically normal girl. Sandy brown hair, hazel eyes, light olive skin. Probable height and weight in the average range. Better-than-average hearing, and an excellent immune system.
Yet the test also found genes that, under certain circumstances, could be expressed as Asperger’s Syndrome.
It was a diagnosis that had been introduced in the twentieth century and re-defined several times over the years. What I had was just a predisposition, of course. The effect those genes would have on my development was uncertain, but the focus was placed on the worst-case scenario.
The disorder would not be as devastating as low-functioning autism, my expectant parents were told, but it was still on the autism spectrum. I would be slow to grasp social rules, and possibly violent. I might be unable to hold a job. I might be gifted in some extraordinary way, but I would never gain fluent skills in relating to normal humans. Even if I were able to support myself, I would always be, in effect, a nerd.
My parents, under the usual pressure from doctors, government, and society in general, made the only choice anyone ever makes anymore. They didn’t want to raise a difficult child. They didn’t want to risk having to support me for the rest of my life, an expense with which the government certainly wouldn’t help. And in any case, nobody wants to be the parent of the unpopular kid.
So, since genetic alteration is playing God, they simply ended the pregnancy. Which meant that I was removed from my mother, cryogenically preserved, and set aside to be put on a trash scow… in other words, a spaceship bound for a far-off planet that the Terrans had discovered through highly advanced telescopes, deemed livable, and given the tentative name of New Charity III.
At the age of six, I was a secular Inquisition, asking too many questions on absolutely the wrong subjects. “Screen Man!” I called out in Sunday school, looking up from the Gospel of Matthew on my hand-comp screen. “Come over here. This must be wrong.”
Quietly he approached my seat. “Calm down,” he murmured. “Don’t call me that name, Karrie. And you don’t mean ‘wrong,’ you know. You just mean that you don’t understand it.”
I shook my head. “This is wrong, Screen Man. I mean, think about it. In the other Gospel, the Luke one, it said ‘you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ Like, don’t jump off a cliff and expect God to send angels to catch you. It was in the part with the Devil and the temptation, remember?”
Screen Man nodded, massaging my shoulder. “Yes, I remember. But that has nothing to do with this part, Karrie. This is the part about the lilies of the field. You know better than to make a mistake like that. Now be quiet and go back to reading.”
I pushed his hand off my shoulder, my autistic senses outraged, as always, by what I considered an invasion of my personal space. “But look at this!” I said. “He’s saying don’t worry about preparing for the future. He’s saying give all your stuff away and, and, and wander the world and don’t even try to make sure you have a home—just trust that God will give you food and shelter, as if you were a bird or a lily. That’s putting the Lord your God to the test! Isn’t it?”
Screen Man grabbed my hand, pushed it down onto my lap, and very deliberately laid his own hand on my shoulder again. “Karrie, there is a difference,” he said, as slowly and clearly as if I were half deaf. “Jumping off a cliff is testing God. Trusting God to feed and clothe you is simply having faith.”
I tensed, all my muscles and organs seeming to merge together, becoming a tight, solid core. His hand’s rough skin scratched at me through the fabric of my secondhand shirt, and a faint body smell came off him that made my nose twitch. “There isn’t any difference,” I protested in a small cold voice. “Dying from jumping off a cliff isn’t any more dying than if you starve to death or freeze to death. And if you give away all your stuff, and stop preparing for the future, and just trust God to feed you and clothe you, then you will starve and freeze.”
Screen Man squeezed my shoulder one final time, patted it, and then stood up. “I’m sorry I have to do this, Karrie,” he said, “but you need to learn how to behave.”
He tapped a button on a wristband under the cuff of his shirt. The nearest robot raised its head, taking interest in its surroundings. Beeping and whirring, it headed for me.
“You’re going to the re-ed room, Karrie.”
“No!” I shouted, the injustice a physical feeling throughout my body.
“Yes. You need to be taught how to understand what you read, and think before you speak.”
“What?” I said, panic rising as the robot came nearer and nearer. “No! How can I understand what I read if I don’t get to ask questions?”
“Be quiet, Karrie,” he said, the voice still sickeningly sweet, even and calm and smooth and infuriating.
One pair of the bot’s arms hooked under my shoulders; another pair seized my legs. I kicked and struggled and shouted incoherently at Screen Man.
“You have made a poor choice, Karrie, and choices have consequences.” Screen Man was giving me a look of mild concern, an infinitely patronizing wide-eyed, tilt-headed look. “I’ll see you again after you’ve had some time to think about your choice. Goodbye, Karrie.” Then the robot turned around and I couldn’t see him anymore.
My story isn’t really about removal tech. In all my years growing up on the ship, I was never able to form a moral opinion on it. For me, and for all rems, it was simply a non-issue.
Along with our psychiatric meds, contraceptives had been in our food ever since puberty. Boys got the male version of the drug, as well, to drive the odds even lower. The BGs were taking no chances with the possibility of having more disabled mouths to feed while we were still confined to the limited space of a ship. Even if the total lack of privacy and the constant abstinence education didn’t stop us from getting knocked up, the meds would.
Nobody liked the thought of kids on birth control. It wasn’t even allowed on Earth, for fear it would encourage underage sex. But on the Flying Dustbin (one of my many snide names for this vessel) none of the rems were told what was in their food, so the only ones who found out were hackers like Draz, and hacker allies like me.
For that and many other reasons, I had never thought of abortion or removal as choices I’d ever have to make. That controversial old question had always been just a concept to me. I had come up with arguments, most notably the one that was still on my disciplinary record from the age of twelve, but mostly I had just let the two sides of it rest on opposite shores of my mind. On one side the gross inefficiency (and, one could say, cruelty) of removal tech and the garbage ships; on the other side the indisputable fact that, given Earth’s intolerance for mental disorders, I wouldn’t be alive if removal hadn’t replaced abortion.
The point was moot; I was alive. Earth was millions of kilometers away, and over a thousand years older than when we’d left, thanks to our relativistic speed of travel. Someday, when we all turned twenty-one, we would supposedly reach a little planet called New Charity III and have to build a home there. Then, if I ever had to manage my own birth control, I was confident that I’d be organized enough to do it right… if they would ever let me lose my virginity in the first place.
My objections were all ideological, abstract. I didn’t want the descendants of the rems to keep being ruled by the descendants of the BGs for generations. Whatever laws our planet colony ended up having about reproductive rights, or anything else, I wanted those laws to be chosen by all the people—not just forced by the ruling class because they were the tradition on Earth. The issue in my mind throughout life had not been abortion, removal tech, birth control or any specific moral or religious question—it had been nothing but a caged creature’s urge to get free.
When I was seven, I was making anything I could: drawings of fantasy monsters and imagined alien creatures, fantastical stories and epic poems that went on for pages, tableaux of arranged dolls and toys, frozen in the middle of a battle or an exploratory mission or a love story.
I’d woken up one morning from a dream about a castle built of stone blocks, each one set atop the next one at a slight angle, so that the pillars coiled and twisted; the walls seemed full of natural undulations. Throughout my morning bath, exercise and breakfast, I fidgeted with impatience, desperate to build it out of toy blocks before I forgot what it looked like. When free time came, I rushed toward the playroom, the building plans already laying themselves out in my head.
Nearly there, I bumped into two boys, tall and thick-bodied and heavily muscled, hair in buzz-cuts, standing in my way and not making the slightest move to let me pass.
I recognized them: two members of a pack of students who went by the uncreative name “The Gang.” Last year they’d teased me and beaten me up more than once. One of them used to stand in front of a robot and obscure its vision while another tormented a victim, a strategy that delayed punishment and maximized the amount of abuse they could inflict on someone. The surveillance computers would eventually notice the violence and send another bot, and the first bot would eventually take the Gang member to the re-ed room for blocking its view, but that would give his partner in crime a few extra minutes before the bot sent by the surveillance comps could reach him.
And now here were two of them, right in front of me. Right in my way, cutting off my path to the playroom where the building blocks were.
“Move,” I said, too impatient to be afraid, too stubborn to walk around them without a confrontation. “I was going this way first, and you have no business moving into my way.”
They leered down at me from their superior height, each of them at least a head taller than I was… they probably got a lot more food, I thought resentfully. The one on the left cracked a lazy smile. “What are you in such a hurry for, anyway, little shorty?”
“I’m little because I use up my food by actually doing stuff,” I shot back, “instead of just standing around making life hard for other people. Right now I’m going into the playroom to build a castle, with wavy walls and snakey pillars.” My mouth just kept going, every grandiose thought spilling out unchecked, one endless sentence with only the briefest of pauses. “And it’s going to have a big tower with a coily spire, and a room in the tower with four big windows, and it will reach up half a meter taller than me, so I’m going to have to stand on a chair to do the finishing touches, and it’s going to be two meters wide and two and a half meters long, with a big oval courtyard in the middle, full of trees made out of little blocks, balanced so precariously that anyone who touched them would knock them down, but nobody will be allowed to touch them, because the castle will be such a masterpiece that the BGs will put a fence around it to protect it, and anyone who tries to get through will be put in the re-ed room forever. And when we get to the planet…”
The boys broke down laughing, clutching their stomachs, their faces wrinkling like wadded-up sweatshirts, hanging onto each other to stay upright. Laughing as if I merited no other vocalization, as if talking to me were the most pointless thing in the universe.
Still, they didn’t seem to be making any move to attack me. Maybe they’d gotten sick of getting themselves put in the re-ed room; maybe they’d decided that hurting people wasn’t worth the punishment.
From my perspective, for that matter, fighting them wasn’t worth the time lost. “Fine,” I declared. “Laugh at me. And when my castle is built, everyone will remember you as the ones who laughed at it, and everyone will laugh at you for the rest of your lives.” I turned to the side, making my way around them.
Or trying to. As soon as my path diverted, they moved to the side, instantly, faster than I could possibly move… and they were blocking my way again.
My face started to ache. I knew that if I let myself lose control, I’d go to the re-ed room.
I raised my eyes up at them, glaring. Then, without so much as turning my head, without giving any sign I was about to move, I dashed sideways as fast as possible.
They were faster. Once again they were right in front of me, blocking my path. Were they that much stronger, did they have that much better reflexes? Were they magic? Could they teleport? I wanted to build my castle, damn it!
“You had better move out of my way,” I announced, folding my arms. “If you don’t, I’ll tell, and you’ll get in trouble worse than you could ever have imagined.”
“Oh yeah?” said one of the boys, a grin on his lips, looking as if his fit of laughter could return any second. “Who do you think you’re going to tell?”
I looked around, wondering where the nearest BG was. Then I saw. There was Screen Man, behind them and to the left, about three meters away. “Come over here!” I yelled. “Teacher! Screen Man! Come here!”
He approached, hands clasped behind his back. “What’s wrong, Karrie?” he murmured, his mouth a tight smile, bending over a little as he came near me.
“Those guys,” I said, pointing at the Gang members. “They’re standing in my way, Screen Man, and I can’t get to the playroom to build the most fantastic castle that’s ever existed.”
Screen Man set a big, heavy, scratchy-skinned hand on my shoulder. “You need to stop calling me that name,” he said, his voice like something warm and sticky running into my ear canals. “And what do you think I should do about it? They aren’t hurting you, are they?”
“They’re blocking my way,” I insisted. “They won’t let me go to the playroom. That does hurt, Screen Man, even if it doesn’t hurt my body.”
“Walk around them, for goodness’ sake.” He was almost laughing, even though his face still looked sympathetic.
“I can’t. They move into my way every time I try.” I was reaching the point where my muscles cramped with the urge to hit or kick something. “Take them to the re-ed room, Screen Man. They’re the most terrible people in the history of this ship, and they deserve it. You’ll see when I build my castle! It’s going to be so very, very beautiful, you’ll see how horrible they were to try and stop me!”
Screen Man tilted his head, a look of long-suffering patience on his face. “Karrie, you need to calm down and relax,” he murmured, the words “calm” and “relax” drawn out into long droning sounds. Then he turned to the Gang members. “And, boys, you need to stop teasing Karrie. We don’t pick on people smaller than us, do we?”
The boys snickered and ran out of sight around the corner of the playroom. Screen Man patted my shoulder and started to walk away.
I headed back toward the playroom—and found my way blocked again. As soon as Screen Man had turned his back, the Gang members had returned to their previous position. I dodged to the side; they outdodged me once more. One of them stuck his tongue out at me.
“Screen Man!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
He turned around and walked back to me. “Karrie, this is my second warning about calling me that name. What is the problem now?”
“The boys are blocking my way again,” I said. “They came back as soon as you went away. Punish them for it! They need to go to the re-ed room for hours and hours and hours! If you don’t put them in the re-ed room for it, they’ll never stop doing it.”
He looked at me levelly. “They are just teasing you, Karrie. If they were doing something really bad, the robots would have come and taken them away by now.”
“The robots aren’t smart enough! The robots can’t tell that what they’re doing is bad!” I yelled. “Those boys are picking on me. They’re making me mad on purpose. It’s an evil plot, Screen Man. They’re trying to make me so mad that I’ll hurt them, and then I’ll go to the re-ed room, when they’re the ones who started it. They’re trying to make the robots be unfair!”
Screen Man shook his head, stroking my shoulder. “Maybe they’re teasing you, maybe they’re trying to get you mad—but don’t let them get to you, or you will be the one who gets in trouble. You have a choice, Karrie. Don’t give them what they want. When other kids pick on you, just ignore them. Otherwise you’re encouraging them.” He emphasized the words, drawing them out, long and slow and clear, as if he were teaching them to me, as if it were the first time I’d ever heard them.
That was it.
I bit him. Hard and deep, my teeth digging into his scratchy, smelly hand until it spasmed, until I could taste the salt and iron of his blood, running across my tongue. Only then did I let go, spitting onto the floor, gagging, coughing.
And for the first and only time ever, I broke the sweetness of his voice. He was screaming, yelling, shouting off a litany of words I’d never heard before, but I knew they were swear words from how he said them. His hand swung through the air more purposefully than I’d ever seen it move before, and struck my cheek with a blow that stung the skin and jolted the bones.
For the first and only time, a teacher had actually slapped me—on the face, on purpose, and hard. Usually teachers who wanted to cause me pain just called a bot to take me to re-ed. Being carried by a robot always resulted in a few bruises, no matter how cooperative you were, and I usually struggled like crazy. A blow from the hand of the teacher himself was something I’d never experienced before. In retrospect, looking back on it years later, I was shocked.
But at the time, I barely noticed. I was conscious only of the fact that he was yelling at me, for once, in the voice he would use to yell at an opponent his own age, swearing as if another BG had punched him in the gut. For one moment, in his eyes, I had been an equal adversary. That was all that I thought of, even as the robots came and took both of us away.
They were simple robots, programmed, among other things, to break up fights among the rems and bring the violent individuals to be disciplined. They didn’t distinguish between a violent rem and a violent BG—perhaps it had never occurred to their designers that a BG might be violent. It took Screen Man all the influence he had to get himself out of the re-ed room, and I was sure he never got over the embarrassment.
That’s all it was, though; embarrassment and a few robot bruises. On the Flying Dustbin, hitting a student wasn’t enough to ruin a teacher’s career. He even kept working with me for a few more years… years he spent doing anything and everything he could to try and make me normal.
He lectured me the time I punched the barber machine for cutting my hair. He scolded me in sex education class, when I asked too many questions about birth control. And he personally walked me to the re-ed room when I wrote my infamous essay at the age of twelve.
Overwhelmed by the difficulty of keeping me focused on things he considered productive, he searched for anything that could calm me and curb my energy. The closest thing he found to an outlet was digging out his old chess set and teaching me to play.
I loved it. It became an obsession. I would demand to play chess for hours, with teachers, with other students or with myself. It was futile in Screen Man’s eyes, though, because I refused to play by the rules he taught me.
I came up with new sets of rules—dozens of sets of them, all just as workable as the original ones—some complicated, some simple, some for just one player, some for two or three or even eight. It frustrated me to no end that the rems and BGs didn’t want to take the trouble of learning all of them. I retreated into my own world, avoiding other people whenever possible, playing chess only by myself, on the miserably simplified game program that came with my hand-comp.
That is, until I met Draz.