Red-haired Mother, with her sharp nose and freckled chest, leaned low over the hydroponics channel and declared that the dead plants were Girl23’s fault.
“When I was your age, I planted tomatoes too,” said Red-haired Mother. “But I forgot to refresh the nutrient supply in the water stream.”
“Yes, that’s right. I forgot to add nutrients,” agreed Father. Girl23 thought of him as Short Chubby Father, and she wasn’t too fond of him. “We had just left Earth, and one of the astrogators let me hang out with him and watch the stars. He was teaching me navigation, and I went every free minute I had—”
“And I totally forgot about my plants and they died,” finished Mother. “Just like yours did. But I learned a valuable lesson about responsibility.”
Girl23 looked up mutinously. “I didn’t forget.”
“Now, now,” said Mother. “Protesting is natural.”
“I wouldn’t admit it at first either,” said Father. He looked at Mother and they smiled.
Girl23 scowled and crushed her gardening glove in her fist. She wanted to scream: “I didn’t forget my plants, you idiots! Something clogged the drain and they got waterlogged!” But she kept her temper in check, because otherwise Red-haired Mother would start in on Childhood Sequence #112 (remind Child of the time you lost your temper and broke your handheld; follow with the admonition that anger is Unharmonious). Girl23 was thoroughly sick of Childhood Sequence #112. She was also sick of Red-haired Mother, but she had another three months before a new one would be assigned to replace her.
Father eyed the crumpled gardening glove and said hastily, “It’s good to make mistakes, Daughter. That’s how we learn and grow . . . and you know we love you no matter what.” It was Standard Reassurance #1, but unlike some parents, Girl23 knew he meant it, in his clumsy way. It wasn’t his fault that parenthood was a six-month shift where people rotated in and out before they could learn anything that wasn’t in the manual. Father patted Girl23’s head, then turned to Mother. “Say, Marie—speaking of our childhood, did you hear the news about The Child?”
Mother picked up one of the limp yellow plants and dropped it in the compost. “Daughter and I were busy going over Algebra this morning,” she said. To Girl23 she added, “I would help you with hydroponics, but I lost my knack as an adult.”
“It’s okay,” muttered Girl23. Normally, she would protest that she didn’t need Red-haired Mother’s help, but Father was trying to steer them to Childhood Sequence #202, where adults discussed important news as a distraction technique. Usually this was deadly boring, but not if it was about The Child.
Girl23 hoped Mother would play along so she could find out more. She was pretty sure she would—this Mother did everything by the book.
“So you haven’t heard?” Father prompted.
“No—what’s happening to him?” Mother said.
“They’re pulling him out of stasis,” said Father. “We’ll all get to finally meet him, and they’re going to record him becoming an adult. Record his whole life. So we can have more than just childhood in common. We will always be able to share his memories, and learn from his mistakes. We will understand each other in true and perfect harmony.”
Girl23 dropped the tomato plant she was pulling. “Record him forever? His whole life? Are you serious?”
“Serious as the broken arm I fractured on the ceiling of the Zero-Grav chamber,” said Father.
“Boy, that hurt,” said Mother.
Mother and Father touched their left arms, remembering.
Girl23 ran down corridor M-12 with her gardening gloves still balled up in one hand. Record him. Record him! She charged past a cluster of grownups holding cups of coffee, startling them. One laughed. “I once bowled over a physicist on B-35,” he said, and then they all laughed, remembering. Girl23 ducked into a systems maintenance closet, slid the door closed, and threw herself onto the floor.
It was bad enough to be the only kid on ship. It was worse that she was being recorded. All the adults on board, from seventeen to eighty, had been vat-grown with a single imprinted childhood. The Child was a sickeningly perfect paragon who killed his plants but learned responsibility, who broke his left arm in the Zero-Grav but learned caution. The process kept kids from getting in the way, and shared memories promoted harmony and understanding, traits the colony was big on.
Then, forty years ago, Psych had decided it would be good for the women to have a female childhood to remember, to counter the inevitable dysmorphia of climbing out of a vat at seventeen and suddenly discovering you were a woman. (There was a numbered process for that rehab too.) Thus the parade of Girls, and Girl23 was not insensible of the honor and duty of her position.
But lately that didn’t seem to be enough. The fact that everything was recorded choked her, suffocated her. Oh, her rebellious thoughts were safe enough, too fine-grained to store or remember. But her emotions, her experiences, her activities—knowing that she was being pruned and groomed like one of her tomato plants colored every thought and motion. That knowledge had been too much for Girls 4-7, and also for 14 and 19. None of the others had made it as far as Girl23—they had all failed in various ways. No one held it against them; they were simply wiped and reimprinted with The Child’s perfect, non-neurotic childhood. Girl23 made it through some days on sheer determination not to let the colony down. Besides, they had promised her it was only until she turned seventeen. One more year.
Until a few minutes ago she had believed them.
Girl23 pulled her hair aside and ran her fingers over the tiny slot in the base of her neck. She could feel one edge of the alloy case that housed her chip. A chip that would feed a delightful and well-balanced childhood into every single woman vat-grown on ship. Women who wouldn’t have to go through this. Women who would come out of the vats and live their own life, without anybody turning everything they did into a learning experience.
Anger seized her and she rummaged through the tools in the maintenance closet until she found a metal pin dangling through a metal hole on one of the shelves. She shoved her hair out of the way, and after several failed attempts, managed to angle the pin into the tiny indented button that would release the chip. It snicked out, and she seized it with her fingernails.
It didn’t look big enough to hold her memories, didn’t look significant enough to be every memory that every woman born on the ship would need. She could break it right now and be free.
But she didn’t want to.
It seemed too much like destroying her actual memories, though she knew perfectly well that destroying the chip wouldn’t change anything in her brain. It didn’t matter.
She looked around the storage room. Way in the back she found a small plastic container for housing other disks, bigger disks. She dropped her chip into it, closed it securely, and programmed the front label . . . Tomato Plant Study. Yes, that would do.
It was the first thing she had ever done that no one else would ever know.
A week went by and nobody noticed that her chip was gone. This should have been good, because if nobody noticed, she could get away with it. But instead she was frustrated because it hadn’t changed anything. All the adults were as obnoxious as ever, with their little in-jokes and their stories that they all knew and she didn’t. They had memories she would never know, memories where they said one word—“pineapple” was a particularly common offender—and it was enough to trigger a wave of hysterical laughter.
And she would never know them. There wasn’t going to be a magic moment when she woke up and belonged to that club, a moment when she suddenly fit in. She didn’t have their childhood, and that was always going to make her an outsider. As much as the adults made her mad, she’d been alone for sixteen years and hated that. Now with her chip gone and nothing changed, it occurred to Girl23 that no one would ever understand her. Not until they started imprinting other women with her memories, and it would take years of simulation and debate before Psych could approve that. By the time the first batch of women was actually grown, she’d be dead. Or at least old.
She pressed her forehead against the wall, thinking.
She wanted The Child’s memories so she could fit in. She needed to go back to the tank and be rebooted—Childhood Sequence #999. Therefore, she needed to do something worth rebooting.
She needed to fail.
Girl23 didn’t know how to fail. She’d spent her whole life trying to do what the enormous ship full of adults expected of her. Doing the opposite was bizarre, foreign.
She was supposed to be on her way to study Chemistry with Alicia. She liked Alicia. Alicia had even been her Big Sister for six months, back when Psych thought that would be useful.
Girl23 spun around and marched the other way.
She was deliberately disobeying! At any moment an adult could step out from a corridor and identify her truancy. But she reminded herself that while the adults certainly seemed to know everything about everything, they probably didn’t actually keep tabs on her schedule. She wouldn’t, if she were an adult. Besides, she could be out on an errand. Or Alicia could be sick. Or—
Girl23 sternly reminded herself that her goal was to get caught.
She decided to head for the lounge on M-35, a place she had no business being. It was an area where adults hung out and talked about boring stuff while they drank coffee. Her current Father liked to go there while she was Somebody Else’s Problem. He’d take a handheld of the approved Child Psychology Literature to study, but really he just chatted with the other adults that came there on breaks. This current Father was somewhat lazy.
Regardless, he’d see her, and she’d get in trouble (because he wouldn’t want to be caught slacking), and things would come to a head. It was perfect.
When she got to the lounge there was a huge crowd. Everyone swarmed around one central figure. She moved closer, trying to see.
The boy was tall, with a shock of black hair. He stood with the splay-legged, cautious stance of the newly risen. But only one newborn callow seventeen-year-old would be of this much interest.
A fluttery, nervous feeling lurched up in her as she realized. There he was, him. Him. Amidst that crushing, pressing pile of ravenous adults.
The ship’s charter encouraged harmonious behavior, which included not elevating any one person above another. But this was The Child. Of course everyone wanted to meet their past, the author of all their childhoods. Even the ones that were hanging off on the sidelines, pretending to go about their business, wanted to meet him.
He looked bewildered. All this adulation must be strange to him. He’d been a nobody before, one child in a sea of children, one of the many chipped to find the perfect childhood to use. How odd to wake up and find yourself so popular—but then, he must have been well-liked before, to be chosen as The One.
He saw her. She was half-hidden behind a tall chair, trying not to be obvious, trying not to press in with the others, but he saw her. With imprinting and the required adjustment period, women never came out of the vats until they were nineteen, and Girl23 looked young for her age. Of course he noticed her.
“Hang on,” he said, and disentangled himself from his fans. She cringed as he drew everyone’s attention her way, but then she remembered that she was trying to get into trouble.
“You must be the Girl. The doctor told me about you.” He grinned at her, and it was like a bit of grow light flashing through all the fluorescents.
This was her chance. She could say anything to him. Ask him if he hated his chip, tell him what it was like to follow in his footsteps, ask if it was better to have only one mother or if it was the worst of all possible worlds.
But the thing that came out of her mouth was, “What does ‘pineapple’ mean?”
He looked at her curiously. “It’s a fruit, I think. Why?”
Her annoyance rose sharp and fast. “Fine, you won’t tell me either? That’s just mean.”
He grinned. Maybe this was a game; maybe he was teasing her for fun. The thought made something flutter inside. “They said you were interested in plants. I think they meant obsessed.”
“I’m not obsessed,” she said. She changed the subject. “Are they really going to record your adult life too?”
“Looks like it.” A strange flush that passed over his cheeks, even though he spoke easily enough. Did he not want to be recorded either? He looked down at her. “What do you mean by ‘pineapple’?”
“It’s one of your memories. The adults all say ‘pineapple’ and then they start laughing.” She shrugged.
He looked blankly at her. “I vaguely remember asking for pineapple once in the cafeteria. I’d read about it. The ship didn’t have it. That’s supposed to be funny?”
“I guess so,” she said. It seemed strange that The Child himself didn’t even know the adults’ jokes. How could you not fit in when everyone looked up to you? When everyone kind of was you?
Behind him, a stubby figure approached.
“Oh, crud,” she said. “Short Chubby Father.” She slid sideways, keeping herself hidden from short Father’s line of sight. “Listen. I’m sick of being recorded. I took out my chip and hid it and then I skipped my lesson. I thought maybe if I was bad enough, they’d tank me. Do you think that would be pretty bad?”
The Child laughed. “I hid my chip three times before I figured out that the one they stick in our neck is a decoy.” He cocked his finger at her like a gun, a gesture a lot of the adults made. “It’s a standard part of growing up.”
“Oh. Great,” she said, thoroughly annoyed by his laughter, by the information, by her inability to do anything new. “Childhood Sequence #500, I bet.”
The Child looked puzzled.
Short Chubby Father popped out from behind The Child and took her arm, a big smile on his round face. “Finally, a chance for Childhood Sequence #604!” he said. “I’d thought we’d never get there.” He waggled a finger. “You’ve been too well-behaved.”
“What are all these sequences?” said The Child.
Father grinned. “Obviously you remember when we skipped English. Stupid Mrs. Blowski and her lame sentence diagrams.”
“Yes,” said The Child faintly. “Of course we skipped English . . .” He looked at short Father as if he were a puzzling tomato plant, dead of some uncertain cause.
“The parental response to that behavior is a teaching lesson, or what—back in our childhood—we called punishment. Number six-oh-four, right you are!” Short Chubby Father pointed a finger at her like a gun and mouthed “Bang!”
The Child shook his head as if trying to clear it. He nodded at Girl23. “Sorry,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll like number six-oh-four.”
Girl23 did not like #604 one bit. It turned out to be scrubbing the sludge out of the water purification and recycling unit. They drained whichever half of the room she was working on, but it was hot and damp, and the sludge felt like it was seeping into her pores. It smelled like chemicals and her hands turned red and pruney instantly. Worse, it had a thousand tiny crevices to scrub with a small brush, and she couldn’t even get her back into it and work out her annoyance because the wall-filters were too fragile. She had a week of it to do, two hours each morning—all for skipping one class. She wondered if they’d planned to dole this punishment out in stages, and that she’d ruined that plan by not getting into trouble. Thus, all the punishment at once—and the filters were particularly gross, as if they’d been waiting for her.
She hated scrubbing, and she hated even more knowing that her delinquency had been planned—hoped for. Someday all the women would remember how they disobeyed the schedule and were punished. And Short Chubby Father had been lying in wait all this time with his manual, ready to apply this punishment when she finally rebelled. She was irritated to discover that she was predictable. It made sense that the adults were, since they all had the same background. But she was different.
She was cleaning a stubborn bit of green-black slime off of one of the filters when she heard the door slide open. She knew who it was without looking up and was suddenly nervous. She’d seen the adults hanging on him, being obnoxious. She wasn’t like that. So why was she nervous? Logic told her it might have something to do with being the only teenage girl on the ship—and he was the only teenage boy, really. The other recently detanked boys might physically be the same age as him, but they didn’t count. They were adults, and they’d gone through the whole detanking and reintegration process, something The Child clearly didn’t need.
Well, except the physical therapy part of it. She eyed how he stood splay-legged, arms spread to keep his balance. He’d been tanked longer than anybody ever had. But even if he walked funny, he was the only one who could really understand her. It was like she only had one chance to be cool.
Still, three whole days before he came to check up on her? So not cool. He should’ve come much sooner. He might be the coolest person on the ship, but she was sort of the second coolest, so there.
She looked up at him and said, “I see you’re tired of your fans.”
He kicked at the sludge. “When I was ten, I thought being famous would be cool. By the time I was fifteen I knew it would suck. And it does.” Kick. “What can I ever have that’s me again? Everyone knows everything about me. Broken arm? Check. Name of teddy bear? Check. Stupid time I ran up to the wrong mother? Check.”
“Oh, I did that,” said Girl23. “I was too little to know what rotating mothers meant. I ran up to the old one, and she was off-duty, hanging out with some guy who was not any of my fathers. Is that what you did?”
He peered down at her. “You really don’t know. No, I just had one set of parents. It was old school. But I guess there was some lady who looked like my mom from the back, so in front of a whole crowd of people I ran up and grabbed her legs and shouted ‘I pooped all by myself!’”
“Oh.” Girl23 couldn’t help it—laughter broke out.
He kind of grinned, but then he ducked his eyes and studied her sludge-covered brush. “I found out why pineapple’s funny,” he said. “Do you want to know?”
A hint of red crept up his neck. “Apparently the grown-ups turned it into slang for asking someone if they want to have sex, since it doesn’t exist. ‘Let’s go see if the cafeteria has pineapple.’”
“Oh,” she said. She didn’t want to embarrass him more, so she scrubbed some. Finally she said shyly, “So do you have a name, besides The Child?”
“Yeah. They wiped it from the recorded version to keep it more generic.” He kicked the wall. “It’s Nick. I dunno if I can get anyone to use it though. They just talk about me as ‘us’ all the time.”
“Nick,” she said.
“When I was little there were other kids around too. They mostly called me Bang.” He cocked a finger at her and mouthed the word. “But now . . .”
“It’s not so cool when everyone else does what you do,” she said. She felt clever for realizing that, and she wondered if there was something magical about being not-yet-adult that made them immediately understand what was cool and not, even when no one told you. “A nickname,” said Girl23. “I want a nickname too. Something sharp and flashy, like Bang.” Heck, even Nick was sharp; better than Girl23. And then, shyly, “Will you give me one?”
He considered for a moment. “Yeah. I will. But I have to get to know you first.”
“I’ve never done anything particularly flashy,” she said. “Not like you and your hijinks. Not like the time in the antigrav chamber.”
“Why’d they pick me?” he burst out. “There were a dozen other chipped kids left by the time we made it to sixteen.”
“Because you were perfect,” she said, thinking of all the Girls who hadn’t made it, thinking of how hard she’d tried and tried.
“But I wasn’t.” He shook his head wildly. “They hang the embarrassing memories on me, and laugh and walk away, but they clutch at the good ones and take them from me.” He kicked one of the protruding ridges of tiled metal. “It was better before I was tanked. Everything was mine. I don’t want all my best memories to be theirs too.”
“And they always will be, if they keep recording you,” she said. It probably wasn’t the best thing to say, but it slipped out.
His fists tensed and suddenly he climbed up on the tiled ridge that separated the part of the room she was cleaning from the undrained water on the other side, balancing on his wobbly calf legs. The ridge was rounded and slick with sludge that she hadn’t gotten to yet. “I hate them all. Hangers on. They take from me. This is mine. This moment is mine.” He walked on the high ridge above the tank, his arms spread wide.
She admired his balance and she thought of the broken arm. “You’re not as clumsy as they say you are,” she said.
He turned, irritated. “Can’t you be the one person who doesn’t bring up all my memories?” But turning around had off-balanced him. He tried to steady himself, but his toe caught a pipe, and then she saw him fall as if in slow motion, hanging for a moment in the air before he splashed into the tank.
She shouted and grabbed for him, but he was too far from the side, and she was too short to reach far enough over the ridge. Fresh out of the tank, he didn’t have the muscles to swim. He was flailing and sinking. Girl23 ran to the panel by the door and pounded on the controls. Through a combination of vague memories from her safety courses and blind luck, she managed to drain the tank. The ship would probably have to ration water for a while, but she doubted anyone would hold it against her.
She helped him climb back over the ridge, watching the mixture of humiliation and anger on his face. He climbed out on shaky legs, spat water onto the floor, coughed, then coughed so forcefully his whole face reddened as he strained. Between gulps of air he said, “That’s mine. All mine.”
And she stared at him until he looked up at her, not knowing what to say, and then suddenly his expression changed, and he doubled over again gasping with laughter. “Mine,” he chortled, “All mine . . .”
She laughed and threw down her scrub brush. “C’mon,” she said. “I’m tired of being punished. I want to show you the ship.”
His face was still wet, still red, and his clothes were dripping. He moved toward her and she leaned back, unintentionally, unsure of his motives. But he just took the small towel she had been using to dry her hands and started running it over his skin and clothes. “I’ve seen most of it. It hasn’t changed too much, except where they’ve moved the walls around in 8G.”
“Oh.” Of course. Dumb. But no— “No, I want to show you the Hydroponics Bay,” she said. “I know the updates there are new because all the newborns come in and say ‘Holy cow, look at this.’ They don’t do that about other things.”
“Really . . . ?” he said, and his eyes lit up and she understood, because oh did she love the Bay. She grabbed his damp sleeve and dragged him down the corridor, down to her favorite spot on the ship. They ran past a group of coffee-clutching adults, who, chuckling, all said, “Do you remember when I . . .” and they tore down the corridor to the Hydroponics Bay and she banged on the plate to open the door and, laughing wildly, pulled him into the room.
Nick stopped and stared.
“It was never this grand before.” He moved in, reaching out to touch the plants gently, as though he was afraid they’d disappear from under his fingers. “It was never this full of green.”
And you care, she thought. You love the plants just like I do. And some of your love rubs off on everyone in the ship, and they all come in here and stare in awe. It’s not enough to make them stay for good, and as they reintegrate they find their love of astronomy or cooking or nursing. But first they all come, flush with your memories, and their jaws hang open in a small rush of wonder.
“Come see the genetics lab,” she said.
Nick followed her, touching leaves with tender fingers, the towel draped casually over his damp shoulder. “Wait. Didn’t you have tomatoes?”
“The drain clogged and they got waterlogged,” she said. “I composted them and I have to start over. I haven’t messed up like that in ages.”
“Or they did it,” he said sagely. “You have to mess up, you know.”
Anger flared. “And they would be so stupid, wouldn’t they, to drown them and then accuse me of neglecting them!” She stomped to the back of the bay, where the lab was. It was nearing lunchtime and the room was empty. Just as well, she didn’t want to see Tessa and William—whom she liked—fawn over Nick. Nick was hers in some inexplicable way; they understood each other.
She wasn’t technically allowed to be in the lab on her own, but she didn’t care. She’d failed childhood by trying to be their perfect child. But here was Nick and he was brave, he was bold, and it was like she was standing on a tiled ledge above a tank of sludgy water when she said, “Let’s make a plant.”
He didn’t ask if they were allowed. He sat down in the chair next to her. They were alike and she was brave like him. They had to do things to get in trouble for. They had to make their own memories. They were the doers.
She called up the program that she had seen Tessa use. “What sort of plant should we make?”
He furrowed his brow, leaned back and crossed his arms. Then grinned and cocked a finger at her. Bang. “Something carnivorous.”
Her fingers flew as she showed him the program, showed him how they could combine the stored genetic information in the lab, run simulations on the computer before trying something in the reality of the incubation chamber. It was barely even a complete plant when he asked how they turned it from a computer simulation into an actual plant.
“In the chamber,” she said. Then, like stepping off an antigrav cliff, she asked, “Should I hit Create?”
He grinned. “Duh.”
She hit the button.
“Now we look through the window.” All they would see at this juncture was microscopic cells being combined, of course. But they looked in and saw nothing, not even moving servos. Girl23 studied the extra panel on the outside of the room. “Oh, I think I have to adjust this,” she said. She remembered Tessa talking about cranking the heat up and down, and there was some program she ran over here to tell it to make its own adjustments, and she thought that program was named BetaGrow, and when she typed it in the machine took it.
“Is it supposed to catch on fire like that?” said Nick.
She looked through the window with a sinking stomach and saw a column of flame.
“Oh, crap,” she said.
Which was, of course, when Tessa and William returned from lunch.
The scientists leaped into action to stop the blaze. The inside of the incubation chamber was black and charred and when they opened the door a wave of gray smoke billowed out and suffocated the room until it was sucked up into the upper air vent. William pulled on his hair and despaired of all their current and future projects as only a die-hard scientist could.
Before Girl23 could explain anything her Parents were there, along with the Psych doctor she usually talked to about homework, and then suddenly everyone important on the ship surrounded her.
They discussed her as if she were a plant, and suddenly there was consensus that this called for Sequence #999, and she knew what #999 was.
Girl23 didn’t want to be wiped.
She wanted her own memories.
But the more hysterically she cried, the more disturbed they got—who was this entity that screamed and cried and threw a fit? Normal people didn’t do those things, and somehow no one remembered the fit that The Child had thrown when he was nine and found out that he wouldn’t get to see planetfall in his lifetime.
The experiment had failed and her chip wasn’t going to be used and suddenly she was in the Newborn wing, kicking and screaming, and they were dragging her to a tank, and Tessa’s voice was reassuring her that she’d be back on her feet and in the lab before she knew it, but next time it would be better, oh so much better.
Red-haired Mother was nowhere to be seen—far away lest anyone connect her with this utter failure of a Girl, but Short Chubby Father was still at his post, looking distracted and saying “Oh, Daughter, this will be better in the long run.” Behind him was Snub-nosed Mother from long ago, the only Mother she had ever loved, railing at the powers that be— “What is so wrong with her that you have to do this? I thought you understood that not everyone comes in one-size-fits-all—” and the tubes and wires were arranged and her arm stuck up with needles and she was in the jelly and the lid was being closed. Way off in the distance she saw a man dragging Nick away, but their eyes met and she tried to call out “M-12 storage room!” but her lips were already numb and her fingers, toes, and throat, were falling away, failing her, dissolving into grainy colors, then silver, then white.
It was white for what seemed like days, until she thought she would lose it, and surely it had been white forever and would always be white.
Then she saw the face of a boy in a silvered mirror, and she was that boy, banging with a rattle. No, no, remember, remember, he was, and where was his one and only mother . . . ? But the boy returned, insistent.
Surely she had always been the boy . . .
It was the soundest sleep he had ever had. He woke to a white room with a soothing picture of a train rumbling across green hills. He knew it was a train, though he had never seen a train or hills, and he had certainly never seen that picture. He tried to move, but his muscles were weak, too weak to pull him upright. Had he clumsily hurt himself in the Zero Grav again? He’d been so much more cautious after the broken arm . . .
A nurse appeared at his bedside, followed by a doctor, and the doctor he suddenly did remember, though it seemed like it was in a dream. “Felicia Anderson,” said the doctor. “Your name is Felicia Anderson.”
He shook his head. “That’s a girl’s name . . .”
The doctor was flashing a penlight in his eyes. “Check your memory. You’ll find that as a female you received the standard memory adjustment package. You should have memories of spending three months in Psych getting used to being female and making a smooth transition. There is always a little adjustment left at this stage, but we expect it to be minimal.”
“I remember . . .” she said. Now that the doctor said it, she remembered these new memories of waking up for healthy Psych adjustment, and behind that all the normal childhood stuff, like the broken arm. But behind that—something else? “I was a girl . . .”
The doctor and nurse were stiff, watching her warily. “You are a girl,” he said. “Rather, a woman. You are Felicia Anderson and you are to spend time today with PT and in Psych. You’ll be on your feet before you know it.”
Felicia put a tentative foot over the side of the bed, then the other. Sitting up made her feel woozy, as the blood rushed around to strange places. Everything felt so weak . . .
She slid to the floor, trying to stand; balanced on wobbly ankles and knees for a few seconds. The doctor and nurse caught her before she could collapse to the floor. Eased her back into the bed.
“Just practice moving your limbs before you try to go anywhere,” the doctor said. “Cruz, stay with her.”
It was so strange. Standing, she felt attacked by two sets of memories. One told her she was too short, too female. Her balance was wrong. The other told her she certainly was a girl, but she was too tall, too heavy in the wrong places. She seized at those memories. They kept slipping away from her, though at the same time there was a vividness, an honesty to them. She was a girl, a very special girl, a girl who had a purpose and who never did anything wrong . . .
“I killed my plants!” Felicia said suddenly. The nurse looked relieved. “Yes,” he said. “You killed your plants. You forgot to add nutrients and they died. But you learned responsibility.”
Felicia remembered a row of yellow moldy plants, waterlogged and dead. But she looked at the nurse’s relieved face and didn’t say anything about that. “I learned frustration,” she said. She had been angry, and there was sabotage . . .
“Yes, very frustrating,” the nurse agreed. He had Felicia extend her fingers, move her arms. “It’s one of The Child’s key memories. We learn a lot from it.”
The Child. Yes. But she had two sets of memories and both sets told her that people usually only had one. The earlier memory, the crushed memory that she could feel in her muscles, in her bones—that memory told her that most people’s memory was of The Child.
She replayed those vivid moments that seemed most recent. Plants dying. A corridor. Preparing to take out her chip. But why had she done that? She backed up. The chip, the corridor, the plants. The Child waking up.
The Child. A tall boy whom she felt a kinship with in both sets of memories, as though she understood him and he understood her. Maybe everyone felt that way, but something in the back of her mind repeated: Go see The Child.
All trails ended with him.
She found him at last in the Hydroponics Bay. She should’ve looked there first, because he was standing at the back, his hands stuffed in his pockets, looking sideways up at her. She remembered now in her bones that that meant he was nervous, and she also remembered a time when she didn’t know that, though she couldn’t remember any more of that memory.
He was tall, as tall as she remembered being herself, in those memories were she was him and she broke her arm and killed her tomato plants and ran giddily through corridor B-35 with a length of blue cord for a tail, knocking grownups down. She smiled ruefully at that memory, just as the grownups did. And suddenly she remembered she was a grownup, but she was still looking at him, and looking at the globe he held in his hands.
“It’s for you,” he said. “It’s for you, Flash.”
“They told me Felicia,” she said, and she took a step towards him.
“You told me once you wanted a nickname. And when you set the lab on fire, it just sort of came to me. Flash. I think it’ll suit you.”
She paused, trying to remember the fire. Instead, she remembered something else. “Your chip.”
“Gone,” he said. “I convinced Psych to record a more modern adulthood, that mine was too outdated. The future won’t see us.”
He was smiling, and she pressed her fingertips to the cool surface of the globe, collecting his offering with shaky hands.
The globe contained a tiny plant, smaller than her hand. It balanced on a miniature column, its roots threaded into chutes for food and water. It was blue and coiled and had a bud-like head with a fringe of white. She reached in through the top of the globe. The plant writhed and snapped.
“It bites?” she said, even as she reached for it.
“Only strangers,” he said. “It knows me; it should know you too, even though it hasn’t met you . . .”
She put one cautious fingertip to the tip of the bud, and the flower pressed itself against her skin in an evergreen kiss. “Even though it hasn’t met me,” she echoed, and the breath of her awe stirred the white fringe.
“It remembers you,” he said, and he held the globe as the plant purred and nuzzled her hand. His eyes were kind and mischievous and as blue as the bud. “I let it smell your chip. It remembers you, Flash.”
His eyes were her own, and yet not her own, and Flash knew she was entirely ready to find out exactly what that difference meant.
She cocked a finger at him. “Bang,” she said.
© 2012 Tina Connolly & Caroline M. Yoachim