Background

Who wants to hear about my birth, or that my parents “had” to get married because I dared to enter the world too soon, or that everything negative that happened was my fault for being born? I didn’t fully understand the conditions of my unfortunate conception until sometime in my thirties. By that time I truly believed that I was guilty of everything.

I looked at the wall where a huge family tree poster stood, and looked for my name. That’s what you do at family reunions. My birth date stood right next to my parents’ wedding date as if it belong there. Maybe it did. After I added up the dates, I realized that all my life I had believed a lie.

Dad used to joke that the first baby could come any time. The rest needed to be at least nine months apart. He laughed, but I didn’t get it until this family reunion.

I smiled at the poster, then began laughing, in relief. Nothing was my fault after all!

But child abuse had already left its mark on my life. I spent far too much time dealing with my growing-up years.

Now each trauma becomes another story.

 

The Part That’s True, In a Science-Fictiony Sort of Way 

Click!

Breston’s strange actions at the other end of the short hallway drew Danni’s attention.  He stood, arms outstretched, swaying on one foot, eyes scrunched shut, making it impossible to pretend he didn’t exist.

He opened his eyes, saw her watching him, and grinned.  “Can you stand on one foot with your eyes closed?”

Danni blinked in surprise and resisted the urge to glance behind her to make sure he meant to speak to her and not someone else.  He’s on the Marauder team, she tried to remind herself.  You don’t know anything else about him except that, and aren’t likely to be given the chance to learn more.  The only time you ever see him is during hall duty.

     “Well?” he demanded, still smiling.  “Can you?”

Without speaking, Danni shut her eyes, raised her arms like wings, and lifted her left foot in a move as graceful as a dancer.  In Rec she had seen a Tuoaka martial arts demonstration, and imitated one solo as perfectly as she remembered.

She wondered why the act was so hard for Breston.

“Beautiful,” he said when she opened her eyes.  His mouth curved slightly in a kind of vulnerable, wistful expression that caught her off guard.

Although she considered thanking him for the compliment, she turned away.  I’m only clumsy at home, she thought.

***

Our family eats supper together, the one time we’re together.  Family time.  Quality time.  The viewscreen is off.  Flowers decorate the table.  An imitation peace shrouds the meal.

I stuff my face, skarting down supper as quickly as I can, trying to be the first one done.

“Eat slower, Danni,” Mother says.  “You’ll ruin your digestion.”

But my eyes flit to Father, not her.  He isn’t watching me, thankfully.  His eyes are on Dak who is trying to catch a string of macarelli that hadn’t quite made it inside his mouth.  His hands fly faster than the noodle, too close to his glass of milk, knocking it over in a terrific swipe.

Time stops for one very long second, except for the milk that spreads offensively across the table.

“You clumsy bornass!” Father roars, grabbing my unfortunate stepbrother.

You fool!  You idiot!  Can’t you do anything right?  Just because the words aren’t aimed at me this time doesn’t make me cringe any less.  Shadows glide after my retreat as I try to slink away from the table.  I trip over the edge of the couch, ramming my hand into a glowlamp.  My heart pounds in loud thuds as I manage to straighten the globe before it falls.

“Now, love,” I hear Mother say as I climb the stairs to my room.  “He’s just a little boy.”

Dak is already screaming.  He knows what comes next.

“He can learn to be a less destructive little boy,” Father shouts.  “The clumsy fool.”

I shut my door, pick up a book and try to concentrate on the words as the storm brews downstairs.  It will reach hurricane velocity soon.  Father bellows, flinging about insults and degradation, debris born on the wind of his fury.  The rain of blows has already begun to fall.

Click!  Precious internal switch! 

I sigh in relief.  I’m all right as long as I can turn off the sounds of Father’s storms.  Now I read my book in silence.

***

A sudden alarm jarred her from her thoughts.  Group change, she realized belatedly as students pour into the hall.

“Isn’t Monitor boring?” Breston asked, suddenly at her side.

“Excruciating,” she agreed, then flushed.  No one on the whole ship used that word.  That was what came from reading your life away.

But for some reason her word didn’t scare him.  He chuckled.  “I thought I saw you fade.”

“From sight?” she asked, startled, wondering how matter could suddenly vanish.

He laughed.  “No, silly.  Zone off, you know.  Go suddenly unconscious.  Mentals do, sometimes, and it isn’t always possible to get them back.  That was why I asked if you could stand on one foot.  To keep you here.  You wouldn’t fade away on me, would you?”

She stared at him, unsure how to respond.  I didn’t fade, she wanted to protest.  “No,” was all she said aloud.

“Good.”  He walked beside her as far as the hall leading to Marauder training, then winked at her before he turned down it.

Danni hurried to her locker.  Get Breston out of your mind.  He has his own friends, and you’re not one of them.

His gentle smile returned to her while she fiddled with her locker’s combination.  Brown eyes.  A mop of reddish curls.  Thousands of freckles dusting his face from his exposure to several landside suns during Combat.  He wasn’t pro yet, but the freckles marked him as one who had been landside often.  In spite of her internal warning, she sighed.

“Are you in love?”

She spun to face Melunne whose eyes mocked her.  Right behind her slouched Della and Bethany.  These were friends, as close as friends got, anyway.

“I saw you walking with Breston,” she continued.  “And you got this dreamy expression just before you sighed.”

“Definitely love,” Della agreed.  “Did he ask you to the dance?”

“Of course not,” Danni snapped, a little too quickly.  Her friends shot each other knowing looks.  “We’re Monitors at the same time.  He walked me the length of the hall, as far as Training.”

Then he gave her a useless warning about fading.  She wished she had thought to ask him where he got the idea she was a Mental.

Inside her head her father laughed at her.  What makes you think a boy like Breston would be interested in you?  Why, you’re no more than a waif picked off a pod.

Space debris.  Placed in a family who wanted more than the allotted one child.  His booming guffaw shook her mind with its thunder.

Click!

Stunned  for a moment, Danni glanced around her in confusion.  She knew she hadn’t flipped the switch.  Melunne, Della, and Bethany continued speaking.  She could see their mouths moving, but no sounds reached her.

This was only supposed to happen to shut out Father, at home, when she initiated it, not by itself, not in public.  Not in front of friends!

But the silence was total.  She tried very hard not to panic.

***

Father, may I go to my group dance tomorrow night?” I ask him before going to my cubicle that night.  He has spent his energy on Dak.  Chances are good he’ll be in a more receptive mood by now.

“What have you done around our quarters?” he replies, barely glancing up from the newsjump on the viewscreen.  “Is your mother still finding you in your cubicle with your nose in a book, the place a mess, Dak running wild?”

I’ve straightened the quarters,” I try, but my chest feels heavy.  It’s no use.  I should know by now.  “And I finished all the drypressing yesterday.”

“Did you finish the inventory?”

No.  There hadn’t been time.  A report had been due for Artful Language…

“Well, did you?”

“Why don’t you just say I can’t go?” I shout at him.  “Why go to all this trouble to find reasons, when there aren’t any?  I don’t know why I bothered to ask.  I knew what your answer would be.”

Anger has overcome my common sense, but I feed the fury.  Father will kill you someday, Dak had warned me last tenspin.  I am more afraid, though, of being overwhelmed, of losing myself.

Of fading?

“Don’t you talk to me in that tone of voice, you mental biote!”  Father stands, thrusting the viewscreen aside.  He grabs my arm, calling me more names.  But his first one has lashed my soul.  I wish I could remember my past.

I storm back with the same intensity.  This time, I swear to myself, I won’t cry.  My heart is cold.  I do not care that he has removed his belt, that soon I will be beaten as severely as Dak was earlier.

Father pants, wearing his belt out on me, trying to make me cry.  Finally he gives up.

I swipe my hand across my back, and stare at my blood-covered palm.  I thrust my hand at Father, right under his nose, forcing him to see.

“Don’t you ever do that again!” I hiss.  “Or I’ll report you to Child Protection!”  Now he’ll kill you, I warn myself, prepared for the beating of my life.

But he doesn’t.  Perhaps he believes me.  He raises his eyebrows at me slightly, and turns away, back to his newsjump.

Click!

***

After classes finished for the day, Danni delayed returning to her quarters.  Instead she ran to the practice room and peered through the netting to watch the Marauders at their games.  Which one was Breston?  They all looked the same in their helmets and armor.

Finally she figured out who to watch and tried to concentrate on his moves.  Her attention drifted.  She didn’t really care for assault teams, just Breston.  He was nice.

Were there nice boys?

Not far away, other girls sat inside the netting, also watching.  They whispered among themselves.  Danni knew them.  Breston’s crowd, not hers.  Every so often they would glance her way and giggle.  Were they laughing at her?  Danni pretended not to notice.

Finally the practice was over.  The boys would be heading for the showers, but a few of them made their way to the perimeter seats.  One ran toward the net.  Breston!  And he was looking right at her!

She held her breath, waiting, wanting to run, afraid to move.

He tore off his gloves and helmet, wiped sweat from his brow with his hand, then grinned at her.  “Hi, Danni!  I didn’t know I had an audience.”

“My first time to watch a practice,” she admitted, not knowing what else to say.  “I didn’t know you worked so hard at it.”
He shrugged, but looked pleased.  Had she said the right thing?

“Are you busy tonight?” he asked her.  “I was going to go to the dance alone, but we could go together.”  He let the thought hang.  When she hesitated, he added quickly, “I don’t care if you’re a Mental, Danni, or that you’ll try to study me to find out how humans tick.  I just think you’re about the best-looking girl around, no matter where you came from.”

Oh, yes! she thought, delighted.  I would love to!  She could sneak from quarters.  Father would never know.

Click!

          ***

The Part That Continues in Science-Fiction Mode, Not My Story

“No one visits her.”

She was sitting in a chair.  Others also sat in chairs in a circle facing each other.  None of them moved.  None appeared aware that the others sat or that sometimes a caregiver entered or left the room.  Danni barely noticed.  She heard the voices outside her peripheral vision, unable to turn her attention toward them.  They were background noise.  There was no reality, only the shadows of people sitting in the circle.

“She’s in group.”

“What kind of a group is that?  No one’s speaking.  Nothing’s happening.”

“We try to bring them around.  We hope that the presence of others will bring them back.”

“What happened to Danni?  One minute we were talking about going to the dance.  The next…  Why did she fade?”

“We’re never sure why Mentals disconnect from reality.  We’re never sure.”

***

Fade.  I faded.  I faded.  Why did I fade?  Then the thought slipped away.  The people in the circle dimmed.  The sounds around her vanished.

 

Someone was very close to her, touching her arm, breathing on her cheek.  She remembered that this had happened before, a number of times.  A number of times.

“Do you know what happens to Mentals who don’t come out of it?  They die.  For some reason their will to live follows their mental state, and they die.  Danni, do you want to live?”

 

“Do you want to live?”  The question continued to echo long after the person whispering them had gone.  The question startled her so much she wanted to respond.  She blinked, but by that time, the person had gone, and no one noticed the action.  Later, when the caregivers placed her in her bed, she wondered if the person would ask the question again, another day.

But the next day there were no visitors.  This time Danni waited for someone.  But all she saw were the people facing her in the circle.  Disappointed, when by evening she was again in her cubicle to be placed in her bed where she would feel nothing.  She began to welcome the comfort of feeling nothing.

Do you want to live?

“Yes.”  Danni’s voice surprised both her caregiver and herself.  The small sound seemed loud in the absolute silence of the room.

“Did you say something?”

Danni tried to focus on the surprised caregiver, but by the time she thought to turn her head, she was back in bed, awaiting morning.

But not long later, several people entered her room, with lights and voices and many hands.  She wanted to turn from their frightening flurry of activity.

“What did you say?” one of them asked her.

     What had she said?  Had it been the wrong thing?  Would she be beaten for speaking?

“I swear she spoke,” the caregiver told the voice asking questions.  “It sounded like she said ‘yes.’”

Danni began blinking rapidly, her stomach churning in anxiety as fear rumbled through her body.  “I’ll teach you,” Father’s voice rumbled.  “I’ll teach you, I’ll teach you, I’ll teach you!”

“No,” she pleaded.  Stay away.  Don’t touch me.  Let me go to the dance.

“Talk to me,” the questioning voice encouraged gently.  “Open your eyes and look at me.  What was the name she was given?”

“The young man called her Danni.”

At the sound of someone else using her name, she opened her eyes.  “Where’s Breston?”

A man smiled back at her.  Not Breston.  Breston’s was none of the faces surrounding her.

“Off ship,” the smiling man said.  “Captain Breston will be back next year to visit you, like he always does.  I’ll tell him you’re finally responding.  He’ll like that.  Would you like him to bring his wife and children too?  They’re a delightful family.  He said they fell in love at a dance years ago at school.”

She focused directly on the speaker, seeing him for the first time.  Then she forced her eyes to meet each person attending to her.

“No,” she told them all.  I’ll be gone by then.  Not here at all.

***

Captain Breston entered the hospital for his yearly visit of the artificial construct commonly called a Mental.

“What happened?” he asked the doctor.

“We don’t know exactly.  About a week after you left, she began to respond.  We were so pleased, you see, because they so rarely do.  They just, um, die, don’t you know.  Well, we scheduled her for physical therapy.  We do apply electrodes to keep their muscles from atrophying, but they still need physical therapy to help them regain their strength when they awaken. The few that do.”

“You mean she couldn’t walk?”

“Oh, she could probably walk short distances.  Evidently she did, because, you see, she just left the facility.  And somehow she also left the ship too because no one saw her shipside.  Well, not exactly true.  There was a report at the school of someone wearing no more than the top half of hospital pajamas, wandering around the Marauder field.  No sightings since.”

“But how could she go planetside?  During wartime, access is extremely limited.”

“We never found her on the ship.”

“Are you certain she is not shipside?  This place is massive.  Could she have somehow taken another’s identity and be working here?  She was extremely intelligent.”

“Yes.  Well, we just don’t know.  No one has reported a stolen identity, and she was a bit of a mess, her hair all long and straggly, so she would have needed to groom herself to blend in.  Most of those who return never regain the ability to relearn self-care.  In fact, they usually remain needing care the rest of their lives.”

“You said ‘most of them.’”

“Well, yes.  There are always exceptions.  Some drift into rather obscure lives.  They never quite learn to fit in, shall we say.”

Breston responded with a puzzled expression before he turned and left.

***

Danni, now called Nurse Lafferty, watched Breston leave.  She wanted to tell him how important his visits had been.  At first they had merely kept her alive.  But when he had asked that one vital question: do you want to live? she realized she wanted very much to live.  That day she had been in a daze, upset that so many years had passed since her fade.  She had nearly been caught on the Marauder grounds.

But once she cleared her mind, escape had been easier than the doctor knew.  A few minutes at a database console and she had built a new identity.  The doctor was wrong about what motivated constructs.  They needed purpose.  Without it, the desire for self-care disappeared.  Furthermore, constructs found no reason to blend in with humanity.  Humans were the reason constructs faded.

Constructs had originally been developed to fight in wars created by humans, but their makers soon discovered that they could not tolerate violence or cruelty of any sort.  They short-circuited.  Left with an oversupply of Mentals, their makers finally decided to adopt them out into the general population.  But humans tended to be violent and cruel no matter where they lived.

Danni approached one of her charges.  “Do you want to live?” she whispered to him.  “Would you like a chance to solve the human problem?  Humans need keepers, you know.”

 END