I wrote this in 2012. It’s the second story in my collection If the World Ended, Would I Notice.
The court case from 2003 is real. It was called “Toy Biz vs. United States,” and it was the main inspiration for this story.
Wendell could smell everything.
He could smell the teenage girl standing next to the woman ahead of him; she had eaten eggs and maple syrup for breakfast. He could smell that the woman’s skirt hadn’t been washed with the same fabric softener as her blouse. He could smell that someone had recently vomited on the self-checkout register, even though it was five meters away and a Sweeper must have come and cleaned it up since it happened.
The line wasn’t long, but it was slow, everyone taking forever to get their purchases scanned and bagged properly. Wendell peered past the crowd at the self-checkout register. It was an older model, the SC-1006449, far behind the SC-1006500 that most stores were using now. The older one tracked purchases by their scanning codes, their weight, and their images on a low-resolution surveillance camera. The newer ones had a much better camera with an advanced artificial intelligence behind it. Conning the machine into thinking you were buying something cheaper would be easier on this one.
He glanced at Mom, holding her loaf of premium wheat bread. She could probably have peeled a scanning strip off one of the cheaper bread bags, scanned that instead, and saved a few credits without the camera noticing that it was a different product. Of course, Wendell would never have suggested she do such a thing, but he took some satisfaction in knowing how. It wasn’t easy to tell a SC-1006449 from a SC-1006500, but the size of the lens in the camera gave it away. That, and the SC-10065449 sounded different, a higher-pitched hum coming from the machinery inside it.
He stayed close by Mom’s side, ever mindful of the warnings about crowds from safety class at school—child molesters, kidnappers, Alpha Spies. He could smell Mom’s soap and shampoo, could smell that she’d brushed her teeth this morning but hadn’t rinsed her mouth very thoroughly afterwards.
The man who was using the register had bought several bags of groceries, expensive ones like frozen jumbo shrimp and steaks and exotic spices. His suit looked expensive too, black and faintly striped and fitting him so well it had to be custom-made. But his tie was weird, a bright-colored paisley pattern that marked him as eccentric, and Wendell could smell traces of cologne coming from him—an expensive-smelling fragrance, but a bit too flowery to be designed for a man.
He looked like a rich misfit, probably a Colony man stocking up for his trip into space. Wendell watched him with a bit of envy. He was finishing up at the register, piling his full bags onto the cart, and Wendell noticed that the woman and girl in front of him and his mother were next in line.
Wendell waited for them to move forward, prepared himself to step into their place. But the woman was turning to Mom and saying, “You go on ahead, you’ve got only the one thing.”
“Oh, thank you!” Mom gave her sweetest smile and shifted the bag of bread that was getting squashed against her side, starting to ease herself and Wendell through the small space around the woman and teenage girl. The girl muttered, “Dammit, what time is it, we’re going to be late”—very quietly, the kind of muttering where she didn’t let out any air at all. Wendell could only hear the little clicks as her lips and teeth and tongue moved together—just enough to make out the words.
“It’s 5:15,” Wendell answered, and the girl and the woman made identical weird faces at him, eyes wide, eyebrows pushed together around a tight forehead wrinkle.
But after a moment the girl looked away, and the woman gave him a big, lipsticked smile. “What a cute little boy,” she said to Mom. “Must be just about eight years old, isn’t he?”
Wendell shrank back, partly shyness, partly embarrassment that he was going to have to tell her she was very wrong.
Mom broke in before he could answer. “Going on nine,” she said proudly, resting her hand on his shoulder.
He blinked. Mom had gotten his age wrong, and he knew it hadn’t happened by mistake—there was no way she could accidentally be off by that much.
There were two possibilities. The first one was that when she said “going on nine,” it meant something different from what it seemed to mean. That was possible; Wendell was always learning new things about words and language, and he was sure he didn’t know every possible meaning of every phrase.
He could ask Mom what she meant, but he decided not to—because the second possibility was that Mom had a reason of her own for hiding his real age. In general, he trusted Mom’s reasons. If Mom wanted this woman to think he was eight going on nine, then he probably wanted it too.
Mom didn’t say anything as she scanned and bagged the loaf of bread. Wendell clung close behind her as she left the store, so that he wouldn’t get lost in the crowd.
The train ride back home was fast and quiet. Mom said almost nothing the whole way, but as soon as they were inside their apartment, she just threw the bread on the counter and ran into the bedroom. Not her bedroom. His. Wendell opened the bread bag, took out a slice, and carried it with him as he followed her.
She was pulling the backpack off the top shelf of his closet. Not his little school backpack, but the bigger one he’d taken on the vacation to the mountains last year. She was opening it up on his bed, pulling the binoculars and compass and whistle out of it and tossing them to the side.
“Why are you doing that?” he asked, sitting down on the floor in the doorway and taking a bite of the bread.
“Because of that woman at the store.” Her voice sounded like crying, tight and high.
“Because she thought I was eight?” Wendell said while chewing. “Is that a big deal? Lots of people think I look young for my age.”
“Looking young for your age is one thing.” Mom opened his underwear drawer and pulled out seven pairs of briefs, two or three at a time, and tossed them on the bed before diving into the socks. “It’s one thing if someone thinks you’re eight when you’re ten. Or even twelve.” She took a couple seconds trying to arrange the socks and underwear in a neat pile, but then just gave up and yanked open the pants drawer. “But you’re sixteen, Wendell. Sixteen. That’s too much. It’s too much, and I can’t hide it anymore. From anyone else, or from myself. I just can’t.”
The bread seemed to catch halfway down Wendell’s throat, a dry lump that didn’t want to move. Suddenly he was thinking of all the smells in the grocery store, thinking of the girl’s lips clicking. “This isn’t just about my age, is it?”
Mom sat down on the bed, the pile of socks and briefs spilling against her hip, a short stack of jeans in her lap. “No,” she said. “No, it’s also about you saying what time it was. You answered a question she didn’t ask.”
“But she did ask it. The girl, I mean. She asked it quietly, but she did ask what time it was.” Wendell swallowed, forcing the bread down with a great effort and not enough saliva.
Mom unfolded and refolded a pair of pants. “Did she breathe out when saying it? Or did she just form her lips to the shape of the words?” Wendell looked down at his lap, and Mom sighed. “She didn’t think you could have heard it. You’re not supposed to be able to hear people talk when they talk like that. Most people can’t.” She stood up again, setting the pants down on the bed beside the disheveled pile of socks. “You smell and hear and see things other people can’t, Wendell. And you know machines better than anyone. And you actually look eight years old. I have to force myself to realize it—it’s a different perspective, looking at someone you’ve known forever—but when I think hard about it, you do look eight.”
Wendell stared at his bread for a minute, appetite fading, the swallowed piece feeling like plastic foam in his stomach. “You… you think I’m an Alpha Spy, don’t you.”
How could she think that? His hands leaked sweat into the spongy bread. But all the symptoms were there. And he’d heard stories—he’d thought they were just silly rumors—stories of how Alpha Spies could infect you with nanomachines just by brushing against you on the street, how it took just a few seconds in their presence to start a chain reaction that would turn you into a hypersensitive, computer-hacking, insidious monster who would try to take down the government and the world.
He didn’t feel as if he was dangerous, but all the evidence pointed to the possibility he could become dangerous any moment. A month ago he’d taken apart a few out-of-date smartphones, a remote control and some other junk, and built a pocket-sized recording device that could pick up and re-transmit electronic signals. Just last week, he’d built a little gun that sent out electromagnetic pulses, burning out electronic devices when he aimed it at them. He’d used it to kill three old computers that he’d found sitting in the back of a closet. For fun. How long until he started feeling the compulsion to build real weapons, to kill people?
“When… when do you suppose they got me?” he said in a small voice, not able to meet his mother’s eyes.
She was shaking her head, hands pausing for a moment on the rim of the pants drawer. “No,” she said. “No, it’s not like that.” She pushed the drawer shut and walked across the room; sat down next to him.
“The newscasts, and the movies, and your safety class at school—they’d love for you to think it’s like that.” She ran a hand through his hair. “They’d love to make you think that Alpha Spies are some evil force, trying to infiltrate and corrupt everything, and that they can turn other people into them. But it’s all just rumors and propaganda. They’re not even really spies, Wendell. They could probably be good spies if they wanted to—because of the heightened senses—but they’re just people with a certain condition, a genetic trait that they’re born with. Hundreds of years ago, people treated them as if they had mental disorders, but it’s far beyond that now. Some people are saying it’s a new stage in human evolution.”
Wendell looked up. “But evolution’s supposed to go really slowly. Millions of years.”
“Evolution can go really fast, if your environment changes all of a sudden.” Mom got up, her hand lingering on his shoulder for a second before she headed back to the dresser and sorted out seven pairs of jeans. “Look at dog breeders; they can make a whole new breed of dog within a century. That’s evolution, but the—the environmental pressures that are encouraging the evolution, they’re all made by humans. Breeders change their dogs’ environment by selecting the ones to breed, choosing what traits make it more likely to pass on their genes.”
“So what’s changing our environment?” The bread was molding into the shape of Wendell’s hand, like a piece of clay. Impulses to eat it, and to throw it away, clashed inside his mind.
“Technology. Everything’s always changing, faster and faster. Humans are evolving to—to adapt to technology.” She closed the pants drawer and opened the shirt drawer. “That’s why Alpha Spies are so good with computers and machines. That was one of the early traits. Centuries ago their ancestors were already starting to evolve, but they were just sort of proto-Spies back then. They had good hearing and smell, good memories. They tended to be good with machines, or math, or—or systems of any kind, it varied a lot—and they could focus really hard, really thoroughly, on anything they were interested in. They even tended to look young for their age. But it all wasn’t strong enough, yet—not strong enough to scare people.”
Mom sorted through long-sleeve shirts and t-shirts, setting them out alternately in two piles on the bed. “And they had some flaws that balanced it out, back then. As kids, they all started out socially disabled, bad at understanding people. But even then, there were some—some who learned, and grew up to be abnormally good at understanding people, just by seeing people from an outsider’s perspective—just because they were so observant, and had good memories, and were good at figuring things out.” She sat down on the bed again, finding a small spot between piles of clothes, lifting and setting back down one shirt at a time.
“You have that,” she said, “that abnormal skill at figuring people out. Remember at the store, when you realized it was best to stay quiet even though I hadn’t given your real age? Or just a minute ago, when you realized that I think you’re an Alpha Spy.”
Wendell thought back. “I don’t know; that seems like a pretty obvious thing for me to realize. You practically told me.”
“But the thing is,” Mom said, “the thing is, you didn’t get angry. Normal people will get angry if you accuse them of doing something they think they didn’t, or being something they think they aren’t.”
The mattress rose and fell, making soft twanging noises as she reached around and gathered shirts into her lap, picking and choosing, leaving some sitting on the sheet. “Normal people will rage at you for not trusting them, even if you’re a stranger and have no reason to trust them. They won’t look at things from the other person’s perspective. And they certainly won’t consider the possibility that the other person might be right, that they themselves might have—done something, or become something, without knowing it.”
Wendell stared at the crumpled ball of bread in his hand. He wasn’t sure what the feeling was in his belly—hunger or nausea, or a mix of both.
Mom stared at a sweater that was lying across her lap. “Those proto-Spies who had that gift for figuring out people, as well as all the other gifts—they had the biggest advantage, and their genetic line became the Alpha Spies. It was as if a dog breeder was selecting them, pairing up the best ones to mate with each other—except there was no breeder, it was just love. When they met others like themselves, they would fall in love so deeply—just because the relief was so great, the relief of not being all alone in the world.”
She was running her hands across the front of the old sweater in her lap, one of Wendell’s oldest—it was actually a little too small for him now, despite his slow rate of growth. Wendell looked at its shaggy blue surface, its faded patches of color. It was so old that Mom and Dad might even have bought it together, when Wendell was a baby, before Dad went to prison.
“Are… are you an Alpha Spy?” he said, watching her eyes get bright with a surface layer of tears.
She shook her head. “No, my family line is just starting to reach that stage. I’m—maybe you could call me one of the last of the proto-Spies. But it’s happened before, in my family, and in your dad’s. My cousin Donna, and your aunt Abby’s daughter Jillian.”
Wendell’s eyes went wide. “You have a cousin? Aunt Abby has a daughter?”
“Had a daughter.” She pressed her eye against the shoulder of her shirt. “Had a cousin. This is why you have to go, Wendell. This is why you have to leave, tomorrow morning. After people start asking questions, like that woman in the store—it’s just a matter of months before there’s a knock on the door in the night, two tall men in State uniforms, and they take you away in a van with black windows. No one knows where you go. No one knows what happens to you. But it’s required; the State says you have to go.”
Wendell could smell the old shirts, could smell the mixture of sweat with the proteins of the bread in his hand. “That’s wrong. There must be a law against that.”
“There would be, if you were human.”
He blinked. Of course he was human—if his mother was human, he must be. You couldn’t give birth to something of another species. “What do you mean?”
Mom sighed, a sigh with the vocal cords involved, the kind that sounded angry. “Alpha Spies were legally ruled to be non-human, centuries ago—in a court case in the year 2003, before Alpha Spies even existed.”
Reality was twisting in loops that couldn’t exist, like one of those M.C. Escher paintings in the ancient history museum. That sentence didn’t make any sense, made the opposite of sense—but Mom wouldn’t say nonsense at a moment like this, so all Wendell could do was wait, keep asking questions until enough information came out for him to piece the big paradoxical puzzle together. “What happened in the year 2003?”
“The records of it are old. And confusing,” Mom began. “But it seems there was some story, some work of fiction, something with characters in it who were—mutated humans, with all sorts of strange—powers.” She set the old sweater aside, and picked up some of the newer ones, laying them in the bottom of the backpack. “And some company made toy figures of those characters, for fans of the story to play with. They shipped them all over the world, paying taxes whenever they crossed a border. But there was some archaic law saying that the taxes were higher for a doll than for a toy.”
When the shirts filled the bottom fifth of the backpack, she started stacking pants on top of them, moving like a machine that couldn’t admit it had feelings. “In their law books, a doll was defined as a figure that—that represented a human being. A toy was a figure of anything else. So there was a court case, to decide what the tax would be, on these figurines of powerful mutated humans. To decide whether they were dolls or toys.”
Comprehension was forming. “To decide whether—powerful mutated humans—were human or not,” Wendell murmured.
Mom nodded, pressing down on the layer of pants to flatten them. “In 2003, no one thought it would set any precedent for actual human rights. At the time it was just a little fight over money. The people who wanted to pay lower taxes on shipping the toys—they ended up being the winners of that fight. But when the Alpha Spies started to evolve, the State dug up the court case, and used that case law as an excuse.”
“To treat Alpha Spies as—not human.”
She nodded again. “If it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else. They would have taken any excuse they could get. They did take lots of other ones. Every time an Alpha Spy committed a crime, they made it into a media event, saying it was a mental disease that caused violence. Every time Alpha Spies had trouble in school, getting distracted by their hypersensitivity, or getting bored by classes that weren’t at their level, it got publicized as a drain on the education budget. By the time everyone knew what an Alpha Spy was, the State had made sure the masses were ready to accept—that these sorts of mutants were legally—something other than people.” Her voice was breaking at the end.
Wendell’s legs were starting to tingle from sitting on the floor, and he stood up, enduring the ache that came on as blood flowed back into them. “So they’ll come for me,” he said, hand crushing the bread into fragments that fell to the carpet. “They’ll come and take me.” He looked up at her. “But you said a matter of months. You don’t know when they’ll come. So you must not be packing for me to leave with them. You must be packing for me to leave some other way.”
“You’re right,” Mom said, laying the underwear and socks in the top of the bag, one at a time. “As always, you figured it out.” She stopped for a second and took a deep breath that sounded jagged like a series of terraces, one breath on top of the next. It took her a few seconds to stop the shaking. It was barely visible, but Wendell saw her shaking for a moment, her limbs vibrating like his electric toothbrush.
“After your aunt Abby lost her daughter Jillian, she got involved with a lot of underground groups that were trying to find children who’d been taken away. Remember about six years ago, when the Javier Children’s Health Fund was being investigated?”
Wendell nodded. He recalled some news stories, full of ominous but vague language. Something about a charity that was suspected of doing something illegal involving children. It hadn’t made much sense to him at the time.
“She’d hoped the Javier Fund really was rescuing Alpha Spy kids, but apparently they weren’t—at least, they didn’t get shut down after the investigation. As far as I know, she never found anyone who was actually bringing children back. But along the way, she found a group that was trying to prevent more children from getting taken. And she shared that secret with me, and that’s where I’m taking you tomorrow morning, Wendell.”
“You’re sending me away, to stop me from being taken away?” He stood still in the middle of the room, afraid to walk closer to her, afraid to go farther from her.
“Yes—yes, it sounds crazy when you put it like that. But this way I’ll—I’ll know you’re safe, at least.” A tear finally escaped Mom’s left eye, sliding to her chin and dripping off. “It’s posing as a private orphanage. They have a hacker who will forge IDs for you, give you a new name, give you an age that matches your appearance better. Eventually they’ll find a good new family for you. But you’ll have to act like an eight-year-old, Wendell. A normal eight-year-old. No getting perfect scores on all your math assignments. No building electromagnetic pulse emitters in your bedroom. No answering questions you’re not supposed to hear. If you’re lucky, you’ll become legally adult—according to your false papers—before anyone starts to get suspicious of you.”
“And then I can see you again?” It was becoming more real every second: the idea of a new life, a new name, a new age, a new family. It made the blood all run to the center of Wendell’s body, hiding from the world, leaving his hands and feet cold.
“Yes.” Her tear ducts overcame her efforts at control, and all of a sudden her face was wet all over, and Wendell could clearly smell the tears, emotional tears that smelled different from the ones she shed when her eyes were irritated from cold air or onions. The backpack had fallen sideways on the bed and she was on her knees beside him now, her arms around him, smelling and sounding like misery. “Yes. Then we’ll see each other again, Wendell. But not before. It would be too big a risk. Until you’re twenty-six—eighteen by your false papers—I’ll be just another mother with a missing child. And it will hurt. But I’ll survive, and you’ll survive, and we will see each other again, someday.”
Wendell lay awake in his bed, thinking about the sounds he heard that nobody else could hear, thinking about seven-thirty in the morning when Mom would wake him and they would ride the train to the orphanage. Mom had said it was next to a big retail store, and it had an entrance in the alley between the two buildings, so it would be hard for people to notice her dropping him off. She would have to report the missing child to the State, later, but she would tell them he’d gotten lost somewhere else, to reduce the chance of tracking him to where he really was.
Mom said missing children were rarely found, because the State didn’t put much effort into it unless the parents had lots of money. But Wendell saw flaws in her reasoning, gaping like holes in his mind’s eye, scary holes that the two of them could fall into and get lost.
He was an Alpha Spy. Mom had said it was only a matter of time before the State came looking for him. If so, they might be preparing to take him already.
If he vanished right before they planned to take him, it would look too suspicious. He wouldn’t be just another missing child, he’d be a missing Alpha Spy, well worth the expense of tracking him down. There was a good chance they would see him and Mom, on surveillance cameras, and in the testimony of witnesses, and figure out exactly when and where he had gone.
And then Mom would be a criminal, locked up in a penal colony like Dad, and the secret orphanage would be exposed for what it was, and Wendell couldn’t even begin to guess how many people would suffer because of it. Every new child added to this orphanage was putting its existence in danger. It was a brave venture, but it was a stupid one, unsustainably risky. Mom was risking so much, just to give him a little chance at freedom.
It was touching—Mom loved him more than the safety of hundreds—but it was unreasonable, it was dangerous. He couldn’t sleep with the thought of that risk in his mind. He couldn’t sleep thinking of Mom in prison.
When he’d been very small, he’d asked about his father, and Mom had told him, “He’s an astronaut.” Wendell had grown up with dreams of his dad soaring through outer space, exploring foreign planets. But eventually he’d had to find out that Dad was in space as a prisoner, in a cell on a penal space station, orbiting some barren planet a long, long way away.
He had asked Mom why Dad was there, and she had said, “He read the wrong books. He visited the wrong websites. He talked to the wrong people. He didn’t hurt anyone, Wendell, but morality doesn’t work that way anymore. Some people used to say it was okay to do what you wanted, as long as it didn’t hurt anyone. But no one says that anymore. Morality isn’t what helps people and doesn’t hurt them. Morality today is whatever the State happens to like.”
After finding that out, Wendell had dreamt a few dreams of flying into space to rescue his father, but realism had won out. It was hard to get a position on a spaceship. You had to be rich and powerful, or related to someone who was.
If only he’d been born into a Colony family, he thought, clutching at the blankets around his chin. Mom had told him stories of wealthy families who got fed up with the status quo on Earth, and paid ridiculous sums to fly away on starships and build new homes, new nations, somewhere else. They were usually former State officials, beginning to see the evil in what Earth had become. Although they disagreed with the government, no one tried to stop them—they were bringing the State a lot of money by paying their way into space, and once they were gone the State didn’t have to worry about their dissident views anymore.
If Wendell had had the good luck to be a Colony kid, he could be on another world right now, a world where the government didn’t come in the night and kidnap Alpha Spies. A world where he was human because his mother was human. A world that made logical sense.
He started feeling cold all over, despite the blankets—sweating cold with the beginnings of an idea.
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