Part One: Discontent

Exactly twenty-two years ago yesterday, I realized what the ambition of my life was going to be.

The screen on the ID module read:

--Fall Semester Academic Year 2261-2262--

--Today's date: 08/22/2261--

--Please use a fresh, sterile, disposable scraper to collect a fresh DNA sample--

I took a plastic scraper from a container of them, unwrapped it, and harvested a few thousand cells from the inside of my mouth.

--Please insert the disposable scraper with your DNA sample into the green slot--

I did. The slot hummed and clicked as it drew in the scraper

--Thank You--

--Please fill in the fields with your personal information as requested--

I heard my mother talking in the next room, where she and my father were meeting with the college registrar. "No, we have three children. All boys. Edward's our oldest, he's twenty-four. He should be through with his schooling next year. George is our middle child, he's fifteen, and he's not academically ready for college yet, that's not at all unusual. Well, you should know! Richard, the third—the one we're here with today— is, though."

Am I academically ready for college, or am I unusual? Or do you mean both, Mom? I thought.

Because of my mother's chosen faith, she was opposed to excessive medical procedures, such as the normal round of pre-natal tests. This didn't matter during her first two pregnancies. Edward and George were born healthy and whole, without complications. I...was different. It wasn't until she was in labor with me, huffing and panting, that a physician waved a sophroniscope over her belly and said, "Uh-oh."

The doctor advised an immediate caesarian, with a second team standing by to get me into surgery on arrival, but she refused. Served her right; it was a hideously long and painful experience. I wasn't in a hurry to be born. I was never stupid, not even then.

I turned my attention back to the ID module. I was beginning to think I had made a mistake. Not with the ID; with my entire plan.

I should have been happy, that late summer day. It was a day of victory for me. I was beginning college; this was my first day, in fact. My fourteenth birthday was a little over a month in the future.

--First name-- Richard --Last name--Genet-York

My right hand danced over the key fields. My useless left hand lay in my lap, curled like the claw of a dead bird. I had invested a lot of hope in college. I had worked hard to get in as soon as I could—but never given much thought as to what actually being in college would be like.

-- Date of Birth: mm/dd/yyyy--I entered it.

"You're a bore," remarked Amelia, my care-provider, interestedly.

"Excuse me?" I asked her.

"You were born in the year of the boar," she explained. A homonym; she wasn't accusing me of being tedious. She told me what it meant in Chinese astrology while I filled out more of the fields. Gender, grade, course of study, racial identity…

--Distinguishing Characteristics--

How should I put it? A botched abortion …I couldn't put that down! I backed up. Congenital deformity of …No. I cleared the field. Birth defects including… No. I cleared it again. Scoliosis

The first and most obvious malformation was my back, with its hump and its unnatural curve. Next came my left arm; it dangled uselessly, and ended in a hand that was usually clamped into a brace to keep the fingers from growing into a permanently clenched fist. My hand resisted treatment; the braces buckled and broke regularly. I had no control over it at all. My ribcage was more circular than oval in shape. It constricted my heart and lungs, and my stamina as well. Then my left leg was shorter than my right by three centimeters, an almost minor grievance in comparison to all the others, but it made me walk with a painful lurch if I wasn't wearing corrective shoes. Added to that was moon-pale skin, light blond hair, and eyes like ice water—my mother's words—in a face that looked starved, although I was a normal weight for my height.

I continued with the medically correct description, but paused when I heard my father say, "I know people are made uneasy by talk about religion, but we are members of the Church of God's Image. I believe we are, all of us, aspects of God. He chose to make Richard as He did, and so Richard is different than most people. I do not, will not, question Him, nor dare to tell Him He did wrongly. When Richard is of age, if he so chooses, he can do as he wants. Until then… We've done our best to raise him right."

That shows what you know, Dad, I thought as I finished enumerating my defects. I cliked Completeto input them.

--You have exceeded the character limit for this field.--

--Please edit.--

Yes, I thought, as I cleared it again. Someday I will edit, not the description, but the body it describes, until I can write None in that space.

I don't remember how old I was when I realized this vital truth—which means I must have been very young indeed, but I remember where I was. I was in church, with my parents and my brothers.

The Church of God's Image believes surgery is wrong.

My family belongs to it.

I had to have a lot of surgery when I was born, just to stay alive.

Therefore…. I still remember that cold, sick feeling that came over me. Still remember it? I can feel it still—beginning in my stomach, and coiling down around my bowels and up my throat. Thinking of it wakes that sensation into unhappy life. It will never entirely leave me.

Therefore, my family thinks it's wrong that I'm alive.

And I realized I could not trust them. I was alone.

It's ironic. My parents couldn't deny me the medical care that would keep me alive, but they could and did deny me the corrective procedures that would make my life worth living.

I finally pared down my description of myself to something that would fit on an ID, and cliked Complete again.

I had been naive. I thought that once I was away from home, once I was out of our narrow Imagist enclave, people would look at me differently. The short walk to the Registrar's had burst that particular bubble of mine. Clammy fingers of doubt were plucking creepy, minor-key chords on my tightened nerves, and my stomach was beginning to ball up.

I knew where to lay the blame for part of that uncharacteristic idealism of mine. I had met someone a few months before, someone who had given me hope. It wasn't really fair of me to blame her, all things considered. But when had that ever stopped me?

This is a flashback within a flashback, so you've been warned. Don't get lost.

I was a child, and she was a child…

What did they expect me to do with her? She was a really pretty little girl. Her hair was the color of iced tea, caught in pigtails, and she was wearing a violet tunic with orange and yellow sunflowers on it, matching leggings, and a yellow jacket with embroidered caterpillars marching down the arms. Her name was Primavera.

I could hardly have wished for a cuter little sister, but she wasn't my sister, she was a visitor's daughter. They foisted us off on each other, and I was left to entertain her in our family room. She was six or seven and I was a teenager. So what did they expect me to do with her?

"Why don't your parents take you to have an operation?" She tilted her head and questioned me with her velvet-brown eyes as well as her words.

It was a reasonable question, if a rude one, considering what she saw when she looked at me.

"My parents think God says it's wrong to have surgery," I told her.

She thought about it for a moment. "That's stupid," she concluded.

"I know," I said, with feeling. "Why did your father bring you along?" I had answered her personal question; it was only fair that she answer mine. It wasn't because he had no one to leave her with. Our respective care providers were sharing coffee and gossip at the counter.

"I have panicky attacks when he's not home," she replied, and added, matter-of-factly, "I'm adopted."

"Oh," I said. "Okay."

"I screamed and cried all the time for three days and nights the first time he was away. That was two years ago. I'm not so much of a baby anymore."

"That's good." What else could I have said?

She turned a page in the book I'd given her to look at. Rascal, by Sterling North. I chose it, not because I supposed she could read well enough for it as yet, but it was a special edition with lots of cute pictures of raccoons, and at least she could look at those. It was actually my brother George's assigned reading, for a unit called The Twentieth Century in the Pre-Electronic Period. He was fourteen. She'd been looking at it for almost an hour. I didn't dream the art could've held her interest that long.

George came in. "Where's that book?"

"She's looking at it," I told him.

"Well, I need it. If I don't get halfway through it by Saturday, I can't go to the arena." He leaned over her and reached for it.

"Oh, please, I'm almost done," she pleaded. "Five more minutes. He's finished making the canoe, and I think he has to say good-bye to Rascal."

That got my full attention. "Have you been reading all this time?"

"Yes. It's a really really good book. I'm going to ask my dad to get it for me. Thank you so much—," she said to me, and to George, "and thank you, too. Please, please, please can't I finish it? Pleeeezzee?"

"She hasn't been reading it," he said with disbelief. "Not and almost finished it in an hour. How old is she, anyway?"

"Have you read it before?" I asked her.

"Nope. Never. And I'm seven," she replied, devouring lines and paragraphs with her eyes as she spoke.

"You're shitting me," said George.

She jumped up and dropped the book. "You said the 'S'-word," she cried in loud tones of horrified delight.

Both care-providers looked over at us. Primavera pointed at George. "He said the 'S'-word," she repeated.

"George, please watch your language," admonished Nina, our own care-provider. "Sorry," she said to Primavera's child-minder.

"Did he put you up to making like you read it?" asked George, as the two women returned to their conversation.

"No," she answered, darkly.

"Prove it," challenged George.

I picked up Rascal, and opened it to the crease where he had let it sit on its face for three weeks. "Could you read this out loud, please?" I handed it to her.

She said, "Certainly," with great dignity, and began: "He allowed me to live my own life, keep pet skunks…." She read fluently and easily to the break in the page. She had read it, all right.

"Another brain," said George with disgust. "You two even have the same damn look on your faces. You can finish it. There's no point in me reading it now." We ignored him.

"What do you like best about it?" I asked her. I was curious; how deep was her understanding?

"Rascal, of course. And that it was all real. I wish kids could still go all over the place safely, and that there were more woods, and water you could just drink out of creeks. The way people used to live. I liked that." Pretty—no, very sophisticated, considering. She was only seven.

"Would you mind trying to read some of this?" I handed her my book.

"The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli." She pronounced the name correctly. Well, her name was Primavera Visconti. She was of Italian descent, whether born or adopted. "Niccolo Piccolo." She liked the sound of the rhyme, and repeated it. "Niccolo Piccolo. Is it a fairytale?" she asked.

"No. It's not fiction."

She took it and read from the page I was on. "—One can be hated as much for good deeds as for bad—." She stopped at the end of the sentence, and looked at me with distress. "I know all the words, but I don't understand the sentence. I didn't know that you could—not understand if you knew the words."

"That's okay. It's a tough book. I only read it first a few months ago, myself. You'll understand it when you get older."

"Oh. How old were you?"

"Not quite thirteen."

"Okay." She went back to reading Rascal.

"Looks like you have a girlfriend, Richard," jeered George. "Maybe you can get her to—," and he suggested something obscene.

She turned her face up to look into his. "Just because I'm six doesn't mean I'm ignorant. He wouldn't make or ask me to do that, because he's not a slimy pervert, and if I met somebody who was, I'd scream until his ears bled. Like this." She jumped up, threw her head back, and let out a sound of nearly superhuman pitch and volume.

It brought both care-providers down on us. George made his escape, Primavera was swept off to the bathroom, and I took the opportunity to talk to Nina.

"Do you know whether her care-provider has been looking after her long?" I asked her.

"Over two years. Mister Visconti's not married right now, so he wants her to have the same people around as long as possible, for stability."

"Do they know why she has panic attacks when her father's away? And how old is she, six or seven? She's claimed both."

"She's a plague orphan. She has a fear of abandonment, and her records were lost in all the disorder, so they had to approximate her age. There are thousands like her. She's lucky. She's alive, and she's adopted."

"It's strange talking to her. I don't know whether to talk to her intellect or her age."

"Hon—a lot of people feel the same way about you. You're doing all the right things. She loves to read. And talk. Just take her as she is. It'll be okay."

She came back and sat down to finish Rascal.

I looked around for my book. It wasn't on the sofa, or the table, or even in the room. George had pulled one of his favorite tricks again. He had taken it when he left, and he had undoubtedly put it in a place where retrieving it would be taxing and painful for me. At the top of the third floor stairs, probably. Climbing one flight of stairs made my heart pound and my head swim. Climbing two could, and sometimes did, make me pass out. I felt a spasm of anger. Then I looked at her.



"Could you do something for me, please? Can you run quick up those stairs, and then up the next flight, and see if my book's up there? And bring it back if it is?"

"Sure!" She jumped up and was all the way up the first flight before her care-provider noticed. In seconds, she reappeared, and ended by leaping from the bend in the stairs to the floor, shaking the room when she landed. She grinned at our worried faces, and gave me the book. Then she went back to her seat.

I didn't know why, but there wasn't that distance between her and myself that was always there with other kids. Maybe it was because I was so much older that I seemed more like an adult than a peer. Maybe she had really good manners. Maybe it was because she wasn't brought up Imagist, or because she was so intelligent.

She didn't care that I was funny-looking.

I was intrigued by that. Also, here was the first kid I had come across who could read anything like as well as I did, once I allowed for the age difference. Now that I knew what her reading skills were like, there were a lot of other books I could have given her to keep her busy, but it seemed like talking with her would be much more interesting. So that was what I did, once she finished the book.

Talking to a child so young, however intelligent, wasn't something I was at all familiar with. It proved easier than I thought. She wanted to play, and for her that meant pretending. We made up a story together, and acted out the events. She set us out in the woods of centuries before, surviving off the land, surrounded by animals, beset with dangers. It wasn't sophisticated, but it was fun. A table with an old sheet over it became our shelter inside a hollow tree.

God, but she was an active child! Jumping up and running around, leaping over things and crawling under others. Her jacket became, in turn, a net for fishing, a blanket for sleeping, a bandage for make-believe injuries, a carry-sack, a pair of wings—I got almost as wrapped up in play as she did. It would have been fun to be able to do that when I was her age.

When the jacket became wings, she climbed up onto the back of an armchair, and the whole business tipped over and crashed into a houseplant. Everything hit the floor, spilling dirt, and little girl, blood, and tears, all over. The care-providers swooped in again, and after a quick clean-up, the only damage was a ripped jacket sleeve, a knocked-out baby tooth that had been loose anyway, and a few broken palm fronds.

That tumble scared the shit out of me! When she and the chair were toppling, the thought that flashed through my head was—don't let her be ruined! I couldn't get there in time to catch her.

In so short a time, I had come to care enough for her to be afraid for her. And based on what? A few words? That she'd run up some stairs for me?

Then she wanted to find her tooth for the tooth fairy, and though the sweepings were carefully searched, they couldn't find it. They concluded that she had probably swallowed it. Wrong. It was in my pocket.

I still have it, that little nubbin of ivory with a core of garnet-brown blood. A souvenir. What does The Golden Bough say about sympathetic magic, that something that was once part of a person is always part of them?

Her care-provider decided that Primavera should calm down, have a snack, and then do something quieter for the rest of the afternoon. I settled down with The Prince again, and I was deeply engrossed when she finished eating and came over to sit down with another book. On the sofa. Right next to me.

I was leaning on the right arm of the sofa, on my right side of course, leaving my unhappy left side, the deformed side, vulnerable and open. She dove violently onto the sofa, like a guided missile, and I had a brief moment of terror, knowing how bad it would hurt if she were to crash into me—but instead she snuggled in against me as lightly and gently as a butterfly landing on a flower. It was an action without hesitation, self-consciousness, or reserve.

I came near to crying when she did that. It was so nice. She smelled of baby shampoo and peanut butter, and she was so warm and solid….

My life had not held many moments like that, moments of unstudied, spontaneous closeness and physical contact. My mother only showed me any signs of affection when there was a camera pointed at us. Yes, the care-providers dispensed hugs as they did their duties, but it was part of their job, they were trained and paid to do it, and I knew that from a very early age.

And here was this little girl, happily cuddled up against my bad side, with no ulterior motives. Just because she liked me, because she wanted to be close to me.

I was frozen in place. I didn't dare move. I didn't want it to end.

There was nothing overtly sexual about it. This wasn't about sex. I wasn't anything like sexually mature, let alone Primavera. Nor would I have ever done anything to hurt her or frighten her, I didn't want to change and ruin how everything was, right then….but with a sickening ache in my gut, I could suddenly understand molestation, understand how someone, starved for friendly contact, could misinterpret a child's actions, and go too far. I did not want to think about anyone hurting this child.

I don't know how long we sat that way. Not long enough for me. Every now and then, she'd look up from her book and smile at me. She was even cuter with a gap where that tooth had been.

Any hope I had that her father—and therefore, she, too—might become a regular visitor was squashed when that afternoon came to a close. When he came to collect her, accompanied by my parents, the mood was tense and unfriendly.

She saw him, gasped out "Daddy!" and flew into his arms. Her face lit up like

seventeen Christmas trees when he came into the room. I looked at him. He wasn't a young man. He was balding, and a little overweight. Not handsome, not godlike. Just a man. But his smile changed his face... So. That was what love looked like. He picked her up and hugged her, and she told him all about her day, showing him where she'd lost her tooth, and then they left.

She didn't say good-bye to me. That showed how important I was. Then she ran back in a moment later.

"Goodbyerichardihadalovelyday." No pauses between the words. Obviously, she'd been reminded about her manners. She ran out again.

And then ran back in again. "I almost forgot. I'm going to be a doctor when I grow up. When I am, you should come see me, and I'll do all your operations on you, I promise. Good-bye." She jumped, got a stranglehold around my neck—fortunately, from the right side—and kissed me on the cheek. Then she was gone.

I didn't see her again until fifteen years later. By that time, we were both completely different people.

--Please focus on the blue dot as your digital image is taken.--

I sat up straight–as straight as I could—and followed the instruction.

So much for the kindness and tolerance of humanity, one little girl aside. I was at college and it seemed like it was going to be unfriendly.

I hadn't even asked to visit any campuses. I had just chosen the most challenging school from those that had accepted me, the one that was hardest to get into. And why?

Out of pride. To show my parents, to say, See! Even if I'm not athletic, not handsome, not popular, not normal, I can do something. I am something. What a waste of effort.

What I should have done, I realized, was visit all the college campuses, or, better yet, looked for schools with higher percentages of very young students. And schools that were accustomed to accommodating those who were different. I could have found the school that would be the best environment for me.

Maybe it wasn't too late. I could go back and look at other colleges. I was still only thirteen, after all. Surely they'd understand—they might even be relieved!—if I changed my mind, even now…

Then I heard my mother say, "Edward has definite leadership qualities, and we want to see him develop them to the fullest. He could very well become the Executive Director of A.L.-Bion one day. The Genet-Yorks are one of the Directorship families—my husband holds our vote now, but Edward will have it some day. We're going to put everything behind him, when the time comes." Sincerity rang out in her voice.


Edward had definite leadership qualities?

Edward as executive director of A.L.-Bion?

Ed only went to class when he needed to get some sleep! Ed had spent three days in the hospital during his freshman year because he'd been drinking way too much. Ed did things like impregnate a visiting exchange student, when he was only sixteen and she was nineteen. The result was my nephew Stephen and an expensive paternity suit.

Edward's life was all about having fun, and his so-called 'definite leadership qualities' consisted of being the most-fun guy around. He would make a lousy CEO. He hated to work.

I was the serious one, the studious one, the one who worked hard.

If they were to put everything behind me

If they were to put anything behind me…

They owed me! They'd let their faith come before any consideration of my health and happiness, surely I had something coming to me.

Everything for Edward, and if anything was left, it would undoubtedly go to George.

Nothing would be left for me.

Well. Fine! I didn't need them. I knew what I would do, what I had to do.

I would become Executive Director of A.L.-Bion.

I didn't know exactly how, but it would take years. I was just starting college, after all. The details would fill themselves in along the way. I would do whatever I had to, and I was in the ideal place to start.

All my doubts, all my concerns and fears evaporated with a hiss, as if my brain was a hot skillet and my wavering a drop of water.

It did not matter if people accepted me or not. It did not matter if I weren't comfortable or happy or content. It did not matter if there was not one human being on the earth with whom I felt any connection…

Wanting things like that was a terrible weakness.

That was a long time ago. Twenty-two years passed, and never, not even for one single day, one waking hour, did I lose sight of that goal.

Yesterday, that dream died forever. Theodore Richmond-Stanley became the Executive Director of A.L.-Bion…

I can't just let go of it silently.

I have to get all of it out, the whole story, and looking over what I put down already, I think I've made a good start.

A/N: Oh, no! Not another fic! Relax, this one is A): already finished, and B) shorter. I hope perhaps to sell this one in the mainstream real world, but I am aware that it needs help. Any you can offer would be most welcome.

Also, if by chance you read my Doom fics--this is Robert Angevin...