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Total Quality Reading

Stories are our business ™


by Christopher L. DelGuercio

“What’s the know on brannyspank here? He looks dumb as a nut.” Alfa says, motioning to the figure at the table. That’s me he’s pointing at, by the way.

The muscled stud with him, Pooch, leans over to me and goes, “My bestbro Alfa wants the know on you, brannyspank—what say you give it up.”

I don’t answer him. This is the way it has to go.

“Then let me give you the know on us,” Pooch says. He drops his own tray of foodstuffs down onto the table and pulls mine away from me. “This is our spot, brannyspanks eat someplace else.”

“Where is that?” I ask. “Where do brannyspanks eat?”

“I don’t know, maybe in Brannyspank-land.”


Oh the boundless wit of the understud mind. Pooch turns up the intensity on his electralime hair holograph for a more menacing effect.

“But they don’t eat here,” he says. Everyone slaps Pooch on his back in encouragement and teehee loudly. Then one of the more observant studs speaks up. “He’s in sensory confines,” he tells the others. “He’s down the hole, Pooch. Poor kiddie probably doesn’t even notice you.”

“I’m real hard to miss,” Pooch says before he picks up a wiggly chunk of gelatin-D with his fingers and smears it all over my face. I scowl all blackhatter at him. “Yeah, he sees me all right. Get up, brannyspank, time to find yourself a new table.”

I wipe the slime from my cheeks. “You studs are right, I am down the hole.” I stand up and turn to face Pooch. He’s so big that I’ve got to strain my neck, but I look straight into his dark little peepholes anyway. “I see you,” I tell him. “I’d have to be plain dead not to notice a gigantic nudge-weasel like yourself standing right in front of me.”

His face goes all radish on me and he balls up his fists. Oh joyous joy, I get to take another beating. Color me surprised.

He glances over at Alfa, clearly the stud to know in this group, who gives him the okay. “Commence with it already, I’m hungry,” the boy tells him and he waves Pooch on to give me the pummeling I’m so clearly asking for. So this frankenstud comes at me with a pile of no-good in those black peepers of his. There’s no fullgrowns in the nosh house yet so he figures he’s got the time to beat me like he owns me. He cocks his fist and lets loose.

A direct hit to my jaw. I crumple to the ground. The studs at the table all start whooping it up, real Lord of the Flies fanatical and all. I’m on my knee when he rears back and throws a fist at me again. A real Gentleman Jim this one is.

Just stay down. Take it. Do your job.

Pooch doesn’t disappoint. He keeps pounding away at me like the sadist I thought he’d be--kiddies these days, so much anger. After a few minis I can hear him huffing away so I know he must really be sucking wind.

“I’m finished with you,” he finally says. “Now go away before I change my mind.” A few of his bestbros are congratulating him, giving him high slaps and chuck-chuckles. I pick my specs and earpiece up off the floor and put them back on.

“But I’m not finished with you yet,” I tell him.

Twenty-four karat silence. I kuffing love this part.

His face goes full cherry again and he starts throwing his fists into my body. But what all these studs don’t realize is that I’m farther down the hole than any of them know… and I can’t feel much at all. I’d share this tidbit of information with Pooch, but he seems so busy, you know, with the kicking of my ass and everything. It doesn’t take long before he’s all used up.

Now I don’t necessarily like doing this, just whomping away on a meatbag like Pooch but, c’mon, he deserves it. I know he deserves it. You know he deserves it. The studs watching all know he deserves it. Hell, deep down I think even he knows he has it coming. At least I’ll try to look like I’m not enjoying it so much.

I start in on him quickly, hammering down onto his arms while he tries to block the blows. I know it hurts him; he’s dull but he’s no blanket like me. He throws a few back meekly. I’ll bruise up after all this but I won’t feel the pain, not like he will. He starts to cower every time I cock my arm back.

That’s a good sign. It means we’re almost finished.

Now, instead of ending it in dramatics by landing one atomic, consciousness-altering wallop like something you’d see up on the big screen at the cineblast, I prefer the subtler, almost feline method of peppering the prey with repeated, gentle slaps of my open hand. It subjugates them in a way that no haymaker ever could.   

Just then, keeping to schedule, a sensor strolls into the nosh house and the mob scatters, burying their heads in their trays. I stop with all the comeuppance and let Pooch slink back to his chair, his face all stretched skin and rosy lumps. I pant, and collapse into the seat next to his, then lean over and whisper to him,

“Now we’re finished.”

He just nods. The good thing about making an example of someone is, if you do it right, you only have to do it once. I hold my hand out, inviting him. He begrudgingly rakes his fingers across mine in the universal gesture of brohood.

I kinda feel like a dick now.

I mean, this isn’t who I am, but here at The Fairchild Institute for Young Learners it’s jungle law, survival-of-the-fittest, know what I mean? You’ve gotta have the know on all the angles to win at this game. So I played lame, I possumed him a little. Truth of it is there probably isn’t that much difference between Pooch’s numbers and mine. But after everything that’s happened to me, I guess I’m just willing to take the pain.

The duty sensor on watch walks by our table, his silken robes dancing like a loose sail behind him. Apparently satisfied, he continues his rounds of the other sectors of the nosh house. Pooch looks sheepishly across the table to Alfa. The boy with the deep blue eyes and matching holo of hair shrugs at him.

“Wowza,” he says, as he claps his hands together once. “That was très unexpected.” He unzips a smile and points in my direction. “So what’s the know on you, spank?” His tall holo sways like a methane flame.

            “Tig ain’t no spank, Alfa, he’s been around,” a tiny understud at the end of the table squeaks. Clearly my rep has preceded me at least a little. This stud’s holo is a close-cropped golden spiky that blazes in all directions. (He’s not that important to my tale so I’ll just leave his name out.)

            Alfa raises his voice to mimic the understud’s, going an octave higher even. “He ain’t no spank?” he asks before returning to its normal baritone. “Then how come I never laid sights on him?”

            “Because he--”

Alfa raises a finger to his lips to shush the boy. “If he ain’t no brannyspank, let him share it himself.” He turns to me. “I repeat, what’s the know on you?  

            “The name’s Tig,” I tell him. “Tig Fynch. I got shipped down here from the north wing.” The table goes quiet. Alfa nods his head repeatedly.

“The hard arm, huh? What’d you do to get sent up there?”  

The studs are glancing sideways at each other but no one dares speak. I reach for a handful of curdmeal from Pooch’s tray and shove it in my mouth. “That sensor over there’s got eyes for us.” I give a stealthy chin waggle toward the hooded figure in the center of the room. “Any sensor hears I’m giving up the know on all things and it’ll be the age treatment for me, maybe you studs, too.”

            Alfa offers a bitter teehee. “The treatment’s a kiddie scare, spank. If you’re trying to spook us, try try again.”

            “It’s no false scare, believe me,” I tell him.

“So you say.” Alfa leans back in his chair and splays his fingers down on the table in front of him. “O-kee-dee, what’s your tale, Tig Fynch? Give us the know.”

I got him.

“Sugar it for me first,” I tell him.

Alfa sighs loudly. He twists his neck to look around the table and sees a collection of hungry stud faces giving him their wordless consent.

“O-kee-dee, Tig, you win,” he finally says, “Pretty please, give us the know.”

“That’s better.” I lick my lips. “So have any of you ever gotten high? I mean really high.” The studs bristle with the taboo excitement that can only be brought on by the promise of adolescent senseporn. Alfa’s eyes go wide.

            “You know we haven’t,” he says. “Now enough with the bites, Tigger, give us the whole roll.”

            I smile, though I swear I don’t mean to, and proceed to give up the know.


Rewind the tale. Summer was ending in eastwing and I was exactly eight days from my fifteenth annibirthary and not yet the smooth and collected individual who could perp that masterful bit of subterfuge on poor old Pooch that you just read about. If we’re being truthy, you’d probably consider me a real average stud. If we’re being real truthy--below average. I had bestbros I talked to, hung with, sure. Who doesn’t? But there was no connection, y’know? They always just felt like space holders until somebody I really clicked with came along. Even worse, I always felt like I was just a space holder to them, too. I mean if I wasn’t into them, that’s cool, at least I was the one who got to judge. But when no one’s into me either, well, that’s just depressing. All us studs, we were all floating around The Fairchild Institute like bacteria in a big ole petri dish. Bumping into each other, sharing moments in time, and then bouncing back into the cytoplasmic pool.


Which would’ve been fine I suppose, until SHE spoke to me.  

“It’s Tig, right?” This femmy was a level older than me. “Tig Fynch? That’s your name, isn’t it?” I stared up at her blankly from my chair. “Intro to Quantum Mechanics,” she said, looking around the room. “I remember this class from a few years back, straight crackerjacked it. You’ll do fine, Tig, no nerves.”

Cheza Gregory was a beautiful animal. Nevermind that crooked, raven holo on her head and the Kabuki Joe makeup. She only had that freakwear on to frighten understuds like me. And speaking only for myself, it totally worked. But even with it, she was beautiful. When the other understuds around me in class with ears high enough to hear caught a listen of Cheza’s deep, raspy voice they got up and moved to a safe viewing distance. You can’t look straight at Cheza Gregory up close for long. She’s like the sun, it’s no wonder I was feeling so warm. I started talking to myself.

Cheza Gregory knows our name. Cheza Gregory knows our kuffing name! She’s talking to us, I’m sure of it. What does she want? She’s looking at us like she wants something. Does she want us to talk back to her? I think she wants us to talk back to her. She’s STILL looking . . . We should talk back to her, Tig.  We should talk back to her, right? Maybe we’re overthinking this. Oh no, her lips are moving again.

“Hey, understud!” She waved her hand in front of my eyes. “Am I bothering you or are you going to join in this conversation at some point? Maybe you should get your ears juiced next cycle.”

 I barely managed to push the words out. “I’m Tig Fynch.”

She nodded her head slightly and smiled at me. “That’s a start,” she said. “But I already said that. Now that we both know your name, what do you say you come watch me get my box twiddled?”

“I’m Tig Fynch,” I said again, louder this time, just to be certain she knew exactly who she was talking to, in case there was, you know, a mistake. Because I’m thinking somehow, somewhere, she must have made a mistake.

“Yes, we’ve established that, thank you,” she said. “Do you want to come with, or not?” My inner self started talking to me again.

You can end it right here, Tig. Go ahead, pretend like none of this terrifying-yet-strangely-exciting-encounter ever happened, I dare you. All you have to do is say ‘no’ and you can crawl right back into the safety of your previous, unremarkable state of existence. Wait, are you actually considering it? I was being sarcastic! Now stop being a pussy, Tig! For all your complaining, when push comes to shove maybe you’re just not willing to step into some real fun. Maybe you deserve this life after all. I’ve had it, let me out of here!

Let’s just say my conscience is more rebellious than me. I’m afraid I disappoint him most of the time.

“So what are you going to do, Tig?” Cheza asked.

Yeah, what are you going to do, Tig?

I took a slow breath. “I’ll come with,” I said.

“Wondrous!” She grabbed my hand, spun on her heel, and towed me to the headwoman’s office. With my scores I’m only there a couple times a year, but Cheza greeted the man at the desk and plopped herself down on one of the big, cushy chairs I’m pretty sure aren’t meant for studs. She introduced us.

“Tig, say hey to Linklyn. Linklyn, Tig.” I gave him a “hey” and he returned one to me without raising his hood from the work he was doing tapping on a compupad. Seemed pleasant enough. “It’s Doc Linklyn’s last day for awhile--he’s on the way up. Going to be the new headman here at Fairchild when old lady Toi finally expires.” The young man lifted his head and his comely face slipped a little farther out of his hood.

“I’m not a headman yet,” he said. “And the word is retires, Cheza. Headwoman Toi can’t expire, she’s not a carton of milk.”

Cheza leaned over to me. “Sometimes she smells likes she’s expired though.”

It was a pretty good joke, but I was too uncomfortable to even teehee. My backside slid around the oversized chair and I pretended to study the office walls. “I didn’t know you could bring other studs in here with you,” I said.

You can’t.” She flashed a wicked smirk. “But I’m a different grade of meat, or at least that’s what they tell me. I’ve been watching you. You keep to yourself a lot, don’t you?”

“No,” I said to her, straightening up in the chair. “I have bestbros, just not a lot of them. I’m picky.”

“Oh, don’t get so tangled up about it--I’m not saying you don’t. I’m sure you’re the mayor of Understudville. But still, there’s something else about you--a longing.” She waved her arms around. “Something that cries out to be heard in this, this . . .  theater of the ordinary.” It really spoke to my ordinary-ness that I couldn’t tell whether she was flirting with me or insulting me.

“I don’t think I have a longing,” I told her

“Of course you do! All human beings have longings,” she said. “You just haven’t figured out what yours are yet. Maybe because you’re too dull to feel them. We all are, but I’m getting close.”

“I’m not.”

“Give it some time, Tig Fynch. You’d be surprised how quickly your numbers can rise if you hang out with the right studs.”

“Can you get me better marks?”

“Better marks? Sure, I can do that. But then what’s in it for me?”

A buzzer sounded. Linklyn waved us into the juice rooms and Cheza turned back to the young man at the desk. “Happy graduation, Link. I’ve still got that gift for you.”

“Next time,” he said, his head still buried in the pad.

Cheza never even asked if I could go in with her. It was just sort of assumed. When we arrived at her door, Headwoman Toi didn’t say much. It was a well-rehearsed dance between the stud and the elderly fem: Cheza hopped up on the table and lowered her head, Toi disconnected her holofield and her fingers probed the recesses of Cheza’s shaved scalp. Then she went to work at the skin behind her neck.

“Fill ‘er up and check the oil, doc.”

“You haven’t a clue what that means, do you, Ms. Gregory?” Toi had the remnants of a Pan-Asian upbringing in her accent.  

Cheza scoffed. “Please, Heady Toi, just because I’ve never piloted an actual gasoline combustion engine doesn’t mean it’s not clever. Besides, the joke was for you, not the understud.” Her chin in her chest, she raised a finger blindly in my direction.

Toi looked down her tiny specs and smiled. “They were called automobiles, Ms. Gregory, and you didn’t pilot them, you drove them. I guess there’s only so much you can learn just by reading about it, even for you.”

“Oh stop spoiling everything you relic.”

Headwoman Toi paused. “Alter your tone please, Ms. Gregory.”

“O-kee-dee,” Cheza said with what sounded to me like real contrition, “But I think you’re asking for it by wearing those goggles on your face.”

“I like to wear eyeglasses,” the headwoman said. “There’s a certain comfort in old-fashioned things. Now stop moving.” Toi took hold of Cheza’s cranium to steady it and turned to me. “This is like trying to operate on a meerkat. I should get out the harness, for goodness sake.”

Then they both teeheed.

What the kuff was going on here? Cheza was talking to a school official like she was a fullgrown. And Toi was letting her! Curiouser and curiouser this new world was.

Headwoman Toi rolled the skin off Cheza’s neck to expose her nogbox, a surprisingly unremarkable-looking chip-and-circuitry board. I’d never actually seen an exposed one before. She picked up a buzzing, lightning wand in each hand, edged her glasses down the bridge of her nose with her knuckle, and prodded the embedded circuitry. When the headwoman finally juiced her, Cheza’s left leg and arm gave a slight spasm, but otherwise she looked exactly the same. Finally, Toi stretched the skin back over Cheza’s scalp and gooed this femmy shut.

            “Give it a mini to dry then you can fire up your holo and take your new tongue out for a spin,” she told Cheza. “You know the way out.” The headwoman scuttled away leaving the hydraulic door to ease shut. Cheza immediately bounded off the table and switched on her hair.

            “What are you doing? She said to let it dry. You’ll catch the rot.”

            “Don’t be so naïve--nog rot’s just a spook story, Tig. It’s a silly myth perpetuated by the establishment to keep you from playing with yourself.” She shook her head. “You’ve got about as much chance of getting the rot as you do seeing the Easter bunny.”

I wanted to argue, but what could I say? I didn’t know anything about anything, it seemed, and Cheza was an insider. How was I ever going to impress this femmy?

“Ah yes, the Easter bunny,” I said. “What do we really know about him?”

That made her smile. “You’re a funny kid,” she said.

Kid? NOOOOOOOOO! I’m not a KID! I shave for godsakes! I’m dangerous and enigmatically cool. Kids CAN NOT be dangerous and enigmatically cool—they need help buttoning their clothes. Kids are one step above babies. Babies are sweet. Puppy dogs are sweet. Overalls are sweet. Babies in overalls holding puppy dogs are sweet. ANYONE can be sweet! I’m dark and complex, like Batman or string theory. But I absolutely CAN’T be a kid.

At least that’s what I was saying on the inside. On the outside I was quiet . . . like a damn kid.

She leaned over and ran her hand over my scalp, shorting out my holo for a few microseconds before it flickered back to life. My whole body stiffened. I brought a hand to my head as if to capture some residual heat her fingertips may have left behind just to prove to myself that it really happened.

Cheza Gregory touched me.

            “Come eat with me,” she said. “I’m at sixes-and-five now.”

“O-kee-dee,” I said. “Let’s eat.”

It felt more like a dream at first when we walked hand-in-hand through the halls to the nosh house. She held her head up so high, refusing to even look down at the peasants staring at us. I couldn’t do it though; I wanted to feel their stares. It made all this seem so much more real to me.

“So how’d you bump your tongue so high?” I asked.

“I’ve been pouring all this cycle’s marks into my mouth,” she said. “You think that’s manic, don’t you?”

            I shook my head vigorously. “If you’ve got the numbers, they’re yours. You earned them. I say put them anywhere you want.” We were shuffling through the line with the other studs. I caught a few gawking at me so I gave them a nod. They nodded back in disbelief and then just looked at each other. “I’ve never met anyone in such a hurry to come to their senses.”

            “Aren’t you?” she asked.

            “Sure I am, I just don’t pull the marks you do. I’m not that smart.”

            “Maybe you are, maybe you’re not.” She leaned in close to me. “And maybe you shouldn’t have to be so smart to get your senses. That’s what they’re saying on the outside.”


            “Lots of people. They’re saying it’s wrong to withhold the full senses we were born with just so Fairchild and every other school can keep us in line and have a carrot to dangle in front of us. The Resistance is going on out there, Tig, even if we’re never allowed the know about it in here. That’s just what they want.” 

I shook my head. “How do you know these things?”

“Like you said, I’m a smart girl.” She grabbed a fruity-knot-fruit from the line and popped it in her mouth with a resounding moan. “God, I love this new tongue! You won’t believe how good sixes-and-five taste,” she said.

“Right now I can’t even imagine it.”

She shrugged. “Someday you won’t have to imagine.” She swallowed the knot-fruit and leaned into my ear. “Some people say that not everyone in The Resistance is on the outside. There may be some sensory sympathizers right here among us.”

“You mean some of the sensors?”

She smiled that crooked smile at me. “I have my suspicions,” she said. “We have a right to our own bodies, Tig. I’m not the only one who believes it.”

“But you’re already so high, why do you even care? You’ll be fully-sensed way before any of us.”

“That’s exactly right,” she said. “An understudy blanket like yourself should care about being held down even more than I do . . . so why don’t you?”

Cheza Gregory is so cool. So smart. So different from anyone I’ve ever met. She’s right-- I should care! I should care more than she does. Me and all the blankets like me being held down from experiencing life simply because we’re less-than-extraordinary seems hardly fair. And it takes someone like Cheza, who’s barely held down at all, to make me see it. So to answer her question, ‘Why don’t I care?’ is pretty simple: No one ever opened my eyes to it until now. I’ve never known a stud like Cheza that would actually ask these questions. The real question—the question I was afraid to find out the answer to was this: What does someone like Cheza Gregory want with me? What the hell am I doing here?

I pulled her out of line and we backed up against the wall. “I feel like I need to say something.”

“O-kee-dee,” she said. “Say something.”

“I don’t know how you see me, but I am not a kid.”

She smiled. “I knew that, Tig.” She pushed by me and got back in line. “I just wondered if you did.”

It was our turn at the dispenser. Cheza flashed her sixes-and-five to the automated servers and grabbed every plate she could carry: tasty pastes, leafsies, darkalots, whatever she could get her hands on. Me and my twos-and-two got a stinking bowl of veg-a-rice and a cleardrink. She carried her overstacked tray to a corner table and began to eat. As I watched her, I forced down my lunch, silently cursing my low tongue.

“My fulls would never let me get all this,” I told her, “even if I could taste it.”

In between extended grunts of delight she mumbled through her mouth, “Don’t have both my fulls, just Daddy. He does his part … I do mine.” She crammed in a glob of sweetcream and swallowed. “I mean, if I didn’t spend all this cred and I still managed to pull top marks, he’d know I don’t really need any of it to be my brilliant self.” She shook her head. “I am not going to let that happen. This way we both feel better about my educational experience here at Fairchild Penitentiary—I mean, Institute.” She over-grinned and pushed a salmon-colored mush out between her teeth. I teeheed so hard the cleardrink nearly shot out my nose.

Cheza Gregory is even cooler than I thought.

She corralled another bowl with her arm and pulled it to her. “If I’m being truthy though, my dad’s Grade-A all the way. It’s not his fault I’m the way I am.”

“What do you mean?” I said. “He’s got to be the proudest full ever. You’re Cheza Gregory! You’ve got the most sense in school, everybody loves you. All the girls want to be like you. And all the boys, well, they want to be like you, too.”

Cheza groaned. “Try being me some time, it’s exhausting. The sensors and all their expectations—I’m the only stud in school who’s never allowed to slack off. And what do I get the more work I do?  Even higher expectations. It’s a shit-cycle, Tig. I just want to get off the wheel sometimes and enjoy myself.” She took in another spoonful. “And the other studs here, always thinking they’re going to be the one who figures me out.”

I wiped my hand across my face. Mental memo: Stop trying to figure her out. “If it’s so hard being you,” I said. “Why don’t you just stop?”

She tilted her head and gave me that look. That Cheza look. The one I was already beginning to get used to. The one that said you should know the answer to your own question, dumbass.

“And who would you have me be?” She dropped her spoon and pushed the tray aside. “Sometimes I wish I was different, more content, but it’s not in my nature to wait for things. I’ve got to have them now. Daddy says it’s the Veruca Salt in me.” She grabbed my forearm. “You know what it feels like when you can sense a whole world is out there just beyond your reach and you just want to touch it, no matter the cost.” I gave her a pensive nod and a long mmmm-hmmm.

I have no idea what she’s talking about. Don’t let her know though. Quick, flip the discourse, Tig.

“So, tell me, what’s sixes-and-five taste like?”

She let out a rapturous grunt. “I bet you’d like to know.”

“I’ve been in the twos for so long it’s like I’ll never know what real food is.”

Cheza slid the half-finished package of fruity-knot-fruits across the tabletop. “Try it. Who knows, you might catch a taste, even at twos-and-two.”

“You are manic,” I said. “My tongue’s so dead I’m surprised I don’t speak Latin. And what if I get caught?”

Cheza pouted at me. “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you weren’t a kid?” She swiveled her head around the room. “There’s no sensors here yet to catch us. Go ahead and do it. Even if you get caught, you’re with me,” she said. Big smile.

I realized at that moment it was true what they said about femmys always wanting the bad boy. Cheza Gregory wanted a rebel, and at Fairchild nothing says rebel like sneaking a spoonful of forbidden knot-fruit. I quickly grabbed up the bag, took out a knot, and eased it through my lips. I rolled it over my tongue and waited.

“I don’t taste it,” I said, tossing the bag back across the table. “Kuffing twos-and-two!”

That’s when, behind Cheza, I caught sight of a sensor practically goose-stepping his way over to our table. He slid back the hood of his cloak to reveal his pale, withering skin and sagging flesh. Both hard and soft at the same time. “Tig Fynch, what are you doing? You’re not cleared for knot-fruits, understud.”

I put up my hands. “Yes, I know Sensor Cull, I--I don’t—”

“It’s my fault, Sensor,” Cheza broke in. “I’m the reason he ate the knot-fruit.”

Sensor Cull’s face relaxed as he turned to the femmy. “I heard you’re tasting at sixes-and-five already, congratulations are in order, Study Gregory.” While he bowed slightly, Cheza threw me a wink. “However, even though I realize that this is a time of celebration for you, Study Fynch cannot join you on this particular grand voyage of discovery,” he said. “He is not allowed to taste the fruits of your labor, even if he could. Study Fynch, did you imagine your sense locks were a mirage? What did you think would happen when you ate that knot-fruit—that you would actually be able to taste it? That is a privilege you must earn through hard work and dedication to your studies.” Cull frowned. “If it happens again it’ll be a numbers dock, Fynch.”

I lowered my eyes. “Yes, sir.”

Cull began to leave when Cheza spoke up. “I was well aware of his locks, Sensor,” she said. “I knew he’d derive no pleasure from his new job.”

“New job?” he asked. “What new job is that?”

“I thought I could use Tig as a personal food tester, to make sure I’m not poisoned. As top stud here at Fairchild I’m sure you’ll agree every precaution should be taken to keep me safe from the foul machinations of those who might wish me harm.”

Cull gave us a joyless teehee and pulled his hands out of his robe. “Very medieval of you, Study Gregory, although I think your concern might be slightly exaggerated. This is a school after all, not King Henry’s royal court. I think your beefloaf is quite safe.”

“Clearly you’ve never tried the beefloaf,” she said.

Cull gave a hard sigh. “Nevertheless, employing a food tester seems a bit extreme. But it’ll get him off the hook this time. His eyes shifted between Cheza and I. “How long have the two of you been keeping company?”

“We’ve only just met,” she told him.

I don’t know how, but Cull managed to frown even deeper. “And what of that other stud--what was his name?” The sensor stroked his chin. “Or the one before that?” Cheza’s face soured and she prattled on about something just to drown him out. Cull stopped and the merest hint of a smile turned the corners of his mouth up. “I’m afraid that although we can shield our learners from many evils and excesses, we cannot always protect them from each other.” Cull slipped his hands back into his robe, turned, and glided off while Cheza thrust her tongue out at him.

“Clarence can be a crotch of the highest order sometimes. Don’t listen to a word he says about me, o-kee-dee.”

“Yeah, sure. He’s always spooked me out anyway.”

I didn’t question Cheza about what Cull said. I suppose it was partly because I didn’t want to know the answers and partly because I was still in shock to learn one of the head sensors at Fairchild was named Clarence. Besides, I was feeling too good to let something as small as Cull’s crotchiness bring me down.

That was forty-two days ago.


“Sweet stuff, Tig, it really is. Warms the cockles and all that.” Alfa’s carving tracks into his mashed spudatoes. “And if I was eight years old, and a femmy, I might actually give a kuff. But as I am, to date, neither of those things, get to the gooden parts already or go piss.”

            “Bear with me, bestbro, we’re at the tip top of the roller ride,” I tell him.

            Alfa over-sighs. “Alright then, carry on . . . and on and on and on.” He waves his hand for me to continue.


She was waiting for me outside the door of my sixth period lesson. “Come outside and play with me tonight, birthboy.” Cheza said, her eyes alive. “Let’s take a walk in the grove. I’ve taken the necessary precautions.”

            We clasped our hands tightly and stepped out into the hallway, fighting against the traffic of a steady stream of bumbling, sense-poor understuds. I dropped my voice and reminded her, “What about the Truancy Forces? Going out after nightlocks is an offense.”

            “Only if we’re found out,” she said.

“I don’t know--just to take a walk? It doesn’t seem worth the risk. Those truancy officers are legit gonzo. They got fall guns, sick sticks—they put you in magbonds and everything.”

“It’s not just the walk, stud,” she said. “It’s where the walk takes us. There’s something I want to show you. Be at my room before locks-on and we’ll snake out of here.” She pressed her palms together. “Pleeease?”

“I don’t know, Cheza.”

            Her hands dropped to her sides. “What are you afraid of?”

            “I don’t know, getting caught,” I told her.

            “And what happens if you get caught? They dock you a few points, bring you down across the board--so what? You can’t taste life anyway with your numbers.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“I’m sorry, was I being mean? I thought I was just stating the obvious. I’m the only one who’s really risking anything here, and I’m doing it all for you. Come on, it’s gonna be a total mind-scramble. The least you can do is show me some gratitude and go along with all my scheming. I thought we were partners?” She doubled down with a little pouty pouty sad face and flicked her holo color over to a somber blue tint.   

            Of course I was going. I knew it. Cheza knew it. It was just a matter of me grumbling the words now. No sense in dragging this out any longer.

“O-kee-dee, I’m in.”

Her face beamed. “My door, tonight. Wear something dark and douse your holo. Got it?”

In forty-two days spent with Cheza I learned it was better to just go along with whatever she had planned without asking too many questions. I was definitely not the only one under her spell. As top stud, she pretty much had her run of Fairchild and any little mischiefs we perped were quickly forgiven by the sensors because it was Cheza Gregory, after all, and an indiscretion or two was to be expected of such an active, clever mind.

They had no idea.  


            “So you’re just going to go with her,” my older quartersmate, Ralen, asked me as he played with the settings of his holo in the bathroom mirror to achieve the in look. “Are you totally gonzo? Tru-blues are everywhere after dark. You’ll get nibbed for sure.”

“I have to go,” I told him.


“Because if I don’t Cheza will think I’m just a dull understud and wonder why she ever wanted to jam with me in the first place.”

He dropped his head slightly, gave a low snigger, and rubbed his hands around his face. “Tig, you are a dull understud,” he said with some force. “Just admit to yourself she’s way too high for you, bestbro, before you get yourself in a heap. I mean, even you have to wonder what she sees in you.”

He was right.

I’ve wondered.

From the day Cheza and I met I’ve wondered why. But it doesn’t hurt so much when I’m the one wondering.

“She sees . . . something,” I said. “Something no one else can apparently.”

“Sounds like she’s using you, Tigger. There must be some other game afoot here.” Ralen tugged at the collar of my shirt. “What is it about you anyway?”

The sense he was making was perfect, but there was ugliness in the delivery. Ugliness.

“Why is it so hard to accept that she might just like me for who I am? Cheza Gregory might just be into me. Not you, not Harris Timons and his dimples and his dreamy new holo, not Stex Rawl and all his full’s cred, not any of the other sky-high studs . . . me!”

“Listen to yourself, even you can’t believe that.”

“Well I’m gonna find out, and not you or anyone else is gonna stop me. I don’t care if she’s weird or mysterious or even a little gonzo--I’m having fun. She makes me happy. For the first time in my whole miserable life it’s not about my numbers. She doesn’t care about any of that. I don’t know why she doesn’t care, but she doesn’t. I don’t know why she wants to be with me either, but she does.” I shook my head. “And for some reason that just eats you up inside. Now why is that?”

He waved his hand at me and walked back to the mirror. “Don’t flatter yourself, I’m just saying she sounds like trouble.”

“It’s Cheza kuffing Gregory! Who cares if she’s trouble?”

Ralen turned and leaned against the sink. “O-kee-dee, Tig, what happens when she’s done with you? Everyone at my level’s got the know on her. She’s a real animal lover.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means she likes having pets. Are you cool with that? Do you like being a pet? I hate to be the one to break it to you, but you’re not different, Tig. You’re not special. You’re just easier to domesticate.” He pulled on his shirt and zipped it. “If you’re not just her pet, please share with me how you’re any different from the rest of us?

I didn’t know at first. I didn’t have an answer for him. So I gave it a moment’s thought. Then it was obvious.

“The only difference I can see is that I’m leaving this room tonight to be with Cheza Gregory, and the rest of you aren’t.”

I tapped open the door to our quarters and sauntered out.


I opened her door a few minis before locks-on. She was dressed in tightblack from peak to piggies, a cap stretched over her head. She grabbed my hand and led me out of her quarters to a darkened portion of the school where clear plastic sheets hung from scaffolding set up everywhere. There was some work being done on the school. She pushed through some plastic curtains then suddenly dropped to her hands and knees and began pawing around the floor. A moment later she lifted a loose board, giggled, and slid under it, immediately disappearing into a hole. When the board lifted back up, Cheza’s head peeked up out of the floor at me.

“You didn’t think it would be easy, did you?”

I lifted the floor board and dropped in after her, making sure to cover the hole in the floor completely so as not to arouse any suspicions.  She already had an electrotorch lit and was carrying it down the subterranean tunnel while she fingered at her gutpad for directions.

“Follow me at all times,” she said. “No exceptions.”

“So serious. Where are we going?”

She said again, “No exceptions.”

I nodded. “O-kee-dee.”

We were down in that labyrinth for what seemed like hours. I think Cheza got lost a couple times but was afraid to admit it. When we reached a small flight of concrete stairs Cheza checked her gutpad again, looked up at me and smiled.

“Come help me with these,” she said. We ran up the stairs and pushed up on a set of heavy doors that parted in the middle. The first thing I felt was the cold, night air rush in on us. Normally I wouldn’t be able to feel it as strongly, but we’d been stuck inside the bowels of the school for so long that the crispness of the outdoors wasn’t lost on me, even with my numbers. I stepped from the stairs onto grass and, looking out, recognized the white aspen trees of Fairchild’s immense west grove—we saw pictures of the new arm of the school plastered all over eastwing. Cheza had bypassed all the surveillance cameras and truancy forces patrolling the grounds outside our own East Arm and dumped us out on the west wing of the institute that everyone in school knows hasn’t been completed yet and has no stud population until next year. No studs equals no surveillance equals no one knows that we’re here. Cheza was brilliant, again. She hopped off the top step and bounded toward the grove like a fawn.

            “We’re here,” she called out. “It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?”

            “Yes, it is,” I said. “Isn’t it an awful long way to go though, if we’re just here for a walk? We could’ve just gone tomorrow on our own grounds.”

“But this place is special,” she said as she reached the tree line

“It’s just woods.” My voice trailed off as I gave chase. “There’s nothing special here, just . . . wood.” I fought through the prickers and dense shrubbery that strangled the ground between the aspens. “Where are you going?” Cheza stopped where the big grove broke and a field spread out in front of us. On the other side I could see the fuzzy brights of the city.

She pointed to my legs. “You’re bleeding.” I looked down to see my pants were pocked with small dark circles. “Don’t worry, I am too,” she said, lifting her calf to show me. The night air was visible in front of our faces and she sucked it in between her clenched teeth. “Tonight you can consider yourself lucky to be so dull.” I took a few steps in the direction of the field and CRACK my body slammed to a halt and crumpled. Cheza stifled a teehee. “I told you follow me at all times, didn’t I? That means don’t take the lead, ever.” She helped me to my feet. I reached out and my fingers brushed against a hard, invisible barrier. “The thing they don’t show you on all those layouts and maps of this place is the poly fencing that surrounds it.” I shook my head clear. “Well, now you know.” She spread her fingers against the fence and pushed herself back while I brushed off.

“Is this what you wanted to show me then?” I asked.

“Of course not,” she said. “That is.” She pointed beyond the field to the city and stared.

“Don’t tell me you want to go there? Don’t tell me that’s what you’re asking me to do?”

“I am,” she said, then began to stalk the fence line.

“Why? I can’t enjoy it, and neither can you--we’re not high enough. You may have the most sense in school, but you’re not a full yet. You’ve got years left.” Cheza didn’t answer me though. She just kept walking the fence, searching. “Besides, how would we even get there?”

Cheza was still pacing until, “There you are tall, light, and handsome,” she finally said. I half expected her real boyfriend--some sense-maxed, wildly handsome rebel stud--to appear from out of the shadows. But instead she strolled over to one of the trees. It was white, like the aspens, but with a segmented trunk, like bamboo. She hugged it, wedged one of her feet against the bole, and shimmied up the thing. She used the deep crevices between its segments and its thick, outstretched branches as rungs before she stopped and settled herself so far up I could barely see her.

“I take it you’ve done this before?”

“I’ve done most everything, silly,” she said while she eased herself out onto one of the branches.

“What are you thinking?” I called up to her. “You’re going to fall out and die.”

“Don’t be so dramatic,” she said. “It’s called a lantillo tree, it’s all over South America. Daddy had a baby one shipped up here from Venezuela for my annibirthary, before the Quiroga coup, of course.” She gave a chuckle. “I told him it was an experiment for botany class.” With her legs wrapped around the branch, she crept out a little farther to the skinniest part. I didn’t want to look.

“It’s going to snap,” I told her, but she just kept on talking as if I’d said nothing at all.

“It’s renowned for its strength and its accelerated speed of growth. During the war when Quiroga wanted information from the government soldiers he’d captured, his men would sharpen the end of a lantillo and plant it just below the soil while his prisoners watched. Then they would tie the prisoners to the ground with stakes and leave them there. The prisoners knew that eventually the tree would pop up out of the ground and burrow its way into them. That’s all they’d think about for hours and hours as they lay there. It was a brilliant mindkuff. By the time they felt even the first prick of that tree on their skin they gave up the know on everything.” She was at the very edge of the branch now.

“That’s pretty cool. How did you hear about all this?”

“Tig, anything you want the know on is out there, you just have to look for it. Quiroga is a great man and they don’t teach us a thing about him at school.”

“I wonder why.”

“Wakey, wakey, Tig. Because he’s a revolutionary, that’s why. He saw injustice and wasn’t having any of it. Would you believe a simple farmer who didn’t like the way the government was treating its people could even do such a thing, when anyone who spoke up was either thrown in prison or executed? He realized he had to tear the whole damn thing down to fix it--it was his duty. That’s the way I feel, too.” She bounced on the end of it but the branch didn’t so much as sway under her weight. “You see? Plenty strong and I only planted this one a couple months ago. What are you waiting for? Get up here.”

“I’m no Quiroga,” I told her.

“Quiroga wasn’t even Quiroga,” she said, “until he needed to be. Now come on, start climbing.”

I took a deep breath and gripped a couple of the branches just above my head. Then I carefully wedged my foot into a deep cleft at the base of the tree and lifted myself higher, just as Cheza had done. Higher and higher I climbed--it was surprisingly easy—until I reached the branch Cheza was sitting on. When I crawled my way out to meet her she stood up, holding onto the branches above her. She offered me her hand and my knees wobbled as I lifted my body up to hers. The lantillo felt like a steel beam under my feet and, from my perch, I could look back across the canopy of aspens. The entire grove below me stood at practically a uniform height. It was a magnificent sight, even for my eyes.

“All the aspens on the grounds are engineered to grow to about forty feet, so they set the fence at fifty.” She reached her hand over the border. “You see? No fence up here. By the time they notice this fellow poking out of the grove we’ll have already had our good fun.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you for tonight, thank you for the last few weeks, thanks for all of it. I’ve had a lot of good fun with you already.”

“Why stop now?” she asked.

“Cheza, we don’t have the full sense to enjoy what’s in the city. You might be close, but I’m not. And it’s not set up for us like at school—it’s dangerous.”

“Answer me one question,” she said. “Do you trust me?”

“Of course I trust you.”

“Then stop thinking so much.” She poked her finger into my forehead, “and just trust me.” She placed her hand against my heart.

“O-kee-dee,” was all I could say. I couldn’t tell if this was the first time in my life I was deciding to blindly do something truly courageous or if I was just a wuss who couldn’t say no to his femmy. It’s a pretty fine line. And speaking of fine lines…

She pulled a thin, knotted rope from her pack and tied it to the branch. She gave it a tug, dropped it over the far side of the fence, and climbed down. I followed her, my feet landing firmly in the tall grass.

This is your last chance to turn around. After this night, everything changes.

We crossed that field and picked up a road that led us straight to the glow of the city’s brights and the promise of adventure.


Our feet padded the concrete just outside the city when Cheza grabbed my hand and squeezed.

“Listen to me this time, do exactly as I say, understand? I’m going to make this a special night for you, but you were right before, the city is dangerous for blankets like you. Promise me you’ll follow my every word.” 

She spooked me, I’ll admit it, but I’d come too far now to let my fear stop me. “I’ll do whatever you want,” I told her.

We entered the city.

The first thing I noticed was that there were no kiddies around and no one here had a holo--all the fullgrowns had fuzzy tops. Some of them covered their heads, but the hair would still spill out the sides of their caps. I guess there’s no need to keep your head shaved and sanitary if you never have to get cracked open and have your nogbox twiddled with. Still, it was such an odd thing to see up close—fulls with real hair--and their nonchalance about it. Up until then I always thought our holos looked essentially the same as genuine fuzz, but the lightfield of sim implants embedded in my scalp would never be able to duplicate the texture and richness of what I was seeing now. The sensors at Fairchild were required to keep themselves bald and hooded at all times so we never got to see their real locks, which was probably a good thing because it was already starting to make me feel inadequate somehow. I patted my black stretchcap then looked at Cheza’s thin-lipped grimace and realized she noticed it as well. I never understood how much of the school was tailored to studs like me with dulled senses.

Everything around me was a mishmash of hard and soft experiences: the sounds, the sniffs, the sights. I couldn’t focus in on any one thing. There was a newness in the blurred minutiae all around me, but it was always once removed. This was a shadow world I couldn’t fully perceive, as if I was visiting a museum but only allowed to peek at the exhibits through dirty back windows. All this beauty, and I couldn’t really touch any of it. And so it never really touched me either. Cheza didn’t waste any time on the minutiae though. She tugged me along the sidewalk like a toddler; a clear destination in mind. After a while, she began to hop with excitement.

“We’re here, we’re here!” She was positively giddy.

“This?” I said. “This is what we escaped to see?”

It was a small, brick-and-mortar building that reminded me of the gardener’s shed back at Fairchild. No windows. A large metal door, dented and badly in need of paint, with a single naked light bulb radiating above it and humming loudly. What paint there was, along the frame, was a pale blue, and peeling. Cheza dragged me into the alleyway and we wended our way around the back to another metal door with an eyeslot.

“How do you know this place?”

“No more talking now,” she said. “I need to concentrate.”

I nodded and my eyes settled on a few vagrants lying against a nearby wall across the alley from us. At least I think they were vagrants. They looked the way every vagrant that had ever been described to me looked, only they stunk more, which was saying something considering how low my nose was. They were skeletal, with sunken faces that sagged off their bones in a cascade of discolored flesh. One of them reached out their fingers impossibly slow and grasped at us as if we were right in front of them, though we were at least a dozen feet away.

“Who are they?” I asked.

“Cloudheads,” Cheza said before she rapped out a cadence on the door with her knuckles. “They’re addicts. Don’t let them touch you unless you’re especially fond of bacteria.”

“Why do they do it?”

She sighed. “Why do you keep talking after I told you not to?”

“Sorry.” I covered my mouth.

I don’t get it. Here I was, all my senses artificially weighed-down, working as hard as I could to be able to someday call myself a feely, and these people actually paid to turn their worlds off. I had to wonder to myself, if something about being a fullgrown made you want to do that, maybe I’d rather stay fifteen. There was a sound behind the door. Cheza nudged me.

“Ready?” she said. An excited smile broke out on her face.

“For what?”

“Your annibirthary present, of course.”

The slot appeared and an eye wiggled at us from behind the door. A few seconds later the door swung open with a loud, grinding creak. Cheza let out a short squeal and hugged the man on the other side. It was Linklyn, without his robe and hood from Fairchild. The Headman-in-training had an unruly tuft of brown hair atop his head, the shadow of a beard darkening his cheeks, and he wore badly wrinkled clothes. Real hair of any kind was still an odd sight to me, but even more disconcerting was to see it acting so unruly. Still, it was unmistakably him. He eyed our tightblacks and caps, gave a loud groan, and let us inside.

“Very subtle,” he said. “Where’d you buy those getups? The Mickey Mouse Black Ops Clubhouse?”

 “Very funny,” Cheza said. She dug inside her pack and handed him a small comp chip. “I brought your graduation present, as promised. Happy belated, kind sir.”

Linklyn pocketed the chip and told her, “It all better be there, little stud. I’m sticking myself way out for you this time.”

She glowered at him. “When have I ever shorted you, Link?”

“Double juice jobs are way beyond your usual requests,” he said. “And there’s a first time for everything.”

Cheza winked at me. “It’s a special occasion.”

Linklyn stood there a moment, his eyes shifting between the two of us. “Alright rockers, let’s get rockin’. Lose those stretch scalps and climb on the tables.”

“Is this safe, I mean, I thought you weren’t a headman yet?” I said.

Linklyn stopped his prep and let out a huge sigh. “Don’t you see the degree hanging on the wall?”

I looked around the room. “I don’t see anything.”

“And do you know why you don’t see anything?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Because you’re dull as beige dirt, kid. So if you want to stay that way, by all means, keep asking stupid questions.” He turned his back on us and walked to the sink where he began to scrub up. “I thought you said he was cool, Cheza.”

Cheza climbed up onto one of the tables and threw me a harsh look. “He’s o-kee-dee with everything, tell him, Tig?”

“Yeah, I’m cool.” I shrugged an apology and got onto the table next to hers. “I’m savvy to The Resistance. That’s what all this is, right? A resistance-run facility or something?”

Linklyn choked out a teehee. “Nothing that romantic, I’m afraid . . . this is a business. Just a way to get through med school without owing the state for the rest of my life.” He came around behind us and jabbed a syringe into Cheza’s neck. When it was my turn, I flinched.

Plácido, stud. This is just a local so you don’t feel anything,” he said. “Until you feel everything, that is.” He plunged the needle in and administered the anesthetic then rolled his white-sheeted cart over to us and uncovered a tray of glistening silver. The shine jumping off the metal of the instruments made me squint. He picked up the lightscalp and the beam flared to life. “Who’s first?” Cheza aimed both thumbs squarely at herself. “O-kee-dee then, ladies first.” He brought the laser up to the back of Cheza’s head, but before Linklyn could slice her open I spoke up.

“I know Cheza said there’s no way we can catch the rot but . . .” Cheza threw me a murderous look, but Linklyn calmed her.

“No, no, that one I’ll give him,” he said, patting her shoulder. “I’m not that much older than you two.” He started in on Cheza. The lightscalp tracked across her skin, opening the flesh. “I remember the scare tactics they’d use on us, the gory films in class. Long before your generation, or even mine--back when it was a real problem--they called it red head. Then it became box rot. Now it’s nog rot. Every generation or so they come up with a new name for it. Now it’s just around to keep you from twiddling with yourself.” The laser was removing layers of Cheza’s skin like shearing wool from a sheep. I couldn’t watch anymore. No stomach for it I guess. When I was sure he had finished with the lightscalp I watched again as he pried open her box and used his surgical tools on her. He worked quickly and, at least it appeared to me, expertly. This made me feel a little less anxious. “Here we go,” he said and with a final touch of his metal instrument, the femmy’s body jittered to life and he was done with her. He filled the empty space on her neck with pinkfat and closed her up. “Let the goo dry this time,” he told her. She nodded obligingly and turned in a sense-intoxicated stupor toward the wall.

“You’re next,” he said to me. I sat up straight.

“I’m glad I can’t see you poking around my nogbox,” I told him while he worked.

“You should be grateful, too, that you’re dull enough not to fully hear the hum of the lightscalp or smell the char from the incision. These are distinctive experiences,” he said. He put down his lightscalp on the tray next to me and picked up his pinchers and prodder. “My granddad used to tell me this story about a time back when nogboxes were just for the privileged families, when he and his siblings would all go to the dentist. He had so many brothers and sisters that his fulls couldn’t afford Novocain for all of them, so in the spirit of fairness, they chose not to give it to any of the children. And when those unlucky kiddies that had cavities got their teeth filled, they got to smell that burnt enamel and dentine mixed in with the pain of having their own living tissue ground to dust. My granddad always said he’d never forget that smell until the day he died. That’s a powerful memory, stud, and one you won’t have to endure because of that nogbox you’ve got attached to your head.”

“Are you sure you’re on the right side?” I asked. “You don’t sound like you’re Resistance.”

“You didn’t let me finish the story,” he said. “Grandad remembered those trips to the dentist and he made a promise to himself that if he ever had kiddies of his own they’d never have to suffer through what he did.” Linklyn craned his neck to look in my eyes. “He became an orthodontist--the first doctor in our family . . . and it all came out of that very unpleasant experience he had.” Linklyn placed the dripping instruments back onto the tray, took a look at my box, and gave a surprised snort. “Maybe I could’ve saved the needle on you, stud. You really are dead on the outside.”

I told him, “Fairchild’s a tough place to get high in.”

“Not for this one.” He waved his bloody prodder at Cheza, who still seemed too sensory drunk to take notice of us. “You’re not like her though, are you?”

“No one’s like her,” I said.

“Well, don’t feel too bad. There are a hell of a lot more people like you in this world than like her. Maybe that’s why The Resistance is so strong.” He rattled his metal stick around my nogbox and I could feel new sensations beginning to kindle within me. “I was never a top stud--most people aren’t--but I worked hard in school, I got decent numbers. So why did I have to wait so long to come to my senses? Why should anyone have to earn something that they’re born with?”

“I guess they shouldn’t.”

“Jesus Christmas, Tig, at least say it like you mean it.”

Linklyn seemed mad at me and I didn’t want to further upset the man whose fingers were actually inside my body, so I just shut up. It was a bit awkward for a few moments.

“Sorry,” he finally said. “I suppose you can’t sound like you mean it unless you actually do.” He tapped around my circuitry a bit more. “You will soon though.”

I was testing my peripheral vision and staring at Cheza on the table next to me. She stretched her arms as if she had just woken up before hopping off the table.

“Toilet?” she said. Linklyn pointed her to the door. “Is he almost done? We’ve got plans tonight.”

“Real close,” the young man said. Cheza grinned and walked into the bathroom. The door slid shut and Linklyn leaned into my ear. “Don’t ever forget how hard it is for someone like her. It seems like a sweet deal to always be the first one up the mountain. The thing is, once you reach the peak, you’re always alone up there.”

And then it happened. The whole room filled up.

            The sound of air rushed into my ears and my surroundings, impossibly, seemed to expand while at the same time the items inside the room grew closer and clearer to me. There was a sharp pain at the base of my neck where Linklyn had opened me. Everything tingled. I was an exposed nerve, alive, really alive, for the first time.

“How do you feel?” he asked.

“Like a freshly-peeled orange.”

Cheza came out of the bathroom, ran over to me and grabbed my arms.

            “Do you see now? Do you see what it’s like?”

“Careful!” Linklyn said, quickly pulling his hands away from my neck. “I’m stitching him.”

“Oh yeah, sorry Link, go ahead and zip him up.” The young man shook his head and went back to work. Cheza took my hands in hers and rubbed our fingertips together. “I’ve wanted to do something these past few weeks but I needed to make sure you’d feel it the way I do.” She tilted her head and leaned into me. Our lips met, but she pressed so hard that our front teeth bumped. I couldn’t tell you why but it was quite possibly the grossest millisecond of my life. She must have felt the same because she immediately pulled away. “That’s not right,” she said. Then she took a huge breath and leaned in again, more slowly this time. She closed her eyes (I was watching) and it was as if her full lips were reaching out for mine, towing me in with the tractor beam of her love. We were like two ships in outer space trying to dock on each other. What were we doing? The calculations hadn’t been done. It couldn’t possibly work.

Our lips met . . . again . . . softly.

We rubbed our slick, velvet skin together to what purpose I had no earthly clue other than it felt really, really good. We separated.

“That’s a kiss,” she said.

Yes, it most certainly was.

Our magical moment was poisoned only by the presence of Linklyn, who was mock-barfing over my shoulder “Blech! I forgot how awkward you studs are when you get your new juice. It sounds like a barnyard in here.”

Cheza smacked him in the arm. Linklyn just smiled and wheeled his tray over to the sink. I think I was still in a state of shock. “Why would anyone want to take this feeling away?” I asked them. Cheza looked exceedingly proud of herself.

            “It’s real simple.” Linklyn started the water and began to clean his tools. “They figure no feeling means no kissing, and no kissing means no sex, and no sex means… ” He waved a finger toward my pelvis. “No sex means no Venus sickness, no teeny bumps, and no melodramas--absolutely no distractions of any kind from your studies. Everything kiddies a century ago got away with are off limits to you. Isn’t it progressive that we get to pay for our ancestors’ mistakes?” He dried off his lightscalp with a towel. “Like I said, it’s real simple. I didn’t say it was real fair.”

            Cheza scoffed. “Kuffing fulls don’t think we can handle it.”

            Linklyn laughed. “I hate to sound like one of your sensors,” he said, “but you can’t handle it. You’re only teenies, you’re not supposed to be able to.” Cheza and I could only stare at him.

“What a punky Judas you are,” she said.

“Oh, stop it. Whether you realize it or not I’m just stating the obvious. The fact that neither of you can control your urges isn’t the problem. The problem is that most every full I know can’t control theirs either--the quicker you’re allowed to figure that out and deal with it, the better off this whole damn society will be.” His face went all radish and his voice got loud. “Senses shouldn’t be some carrot to dangle out in front of our children.”

“Now you’re preaching a religion I can believe in,” Cheza said, pounding her fist against the table.

The man suddenly composed himself and gave a quick smirk. “But if they didn’t hold you studs down I’d be scrounging my way through med school right now, so I guess I’m a hypocrite.” He dried his hands, unbolted the door, and held it open for us. “Now I’m sure you’re both excited to hit the town and if I don’t get nabbed for juicing I could probably do time just for watching you two fumble around with each other. So go do what ever feels good to you, but do it somewhere else. You’re welcome.”

Cheza and I stepped into the alley, flying high in a new world of pungent, pulsing miracles. Cheza closed her hand over mine and we crept out into the streetway. I pressed my feet against the hard sidewalk and we set off. Her fingers were painfully tight around mine, but I didn’t care--it was good to feel anything so strongly.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“To the funhouse,” she said and she pulled me along until we came upon the building made up of a long line of small rooms, exactly alike. She credded the guy at the office and he gave Cheza a code key bracelet. We entered room 319 and Cheza collapsed onto the bed. “Have you ever felt anything so soft in your whole life?” she said, hugging the pillow. I walked over sat down next to her.

“It is pretty amazing.”

She wrapped herself inside the bedsheets and rolled around, still clutching the pillow. “This is how everything should feel, Tig. After tonight, you’ll never look at the world the same way again.”

“How long do we stay like this?” I said.

            “We can stay high through the next grade cycle, right before new score grants come out,” she said. “No one at the institute will have any reason to open our boxes until then.”

“And after that?”

“We just sneak back into the city and have Linklyn dull us down again. They’ll never find out.” She got up and peeked out the window, then turned back to me. My eyes were closed and I was shaking my head. “What’s the matter?” she said. “You’re not having second thoughts, are you?”

“This is hard for me to say, Cheza.”

“You don’t want this? Just say it then.”

            “I don’t want—“

“What, Tig, what don’t you want?”

“I don’t want, I don’t want,” I said. “I don’t want to ever go back. I want tonight, forever.”

Her face lit up and she threw her arms around me. “I had a feeling about you, Tig Fynch, right from the jump I did.”

Then she kissed me, for the second time.

My body swelled with an energy I never knew existed within me and I immediately took hold of her. We eased ourselves down onto the sheets and my hands roamed her body with abandon. She would take them at times and place them where they were needed most, all the time cooing beneath me. In that instant with Cheza I realized that all this time I had been a dying man, searching for an oasis.

She was my oasis.

The moments that passed inside that room were a soul nourishment to me that stretched out to an eternity, feeding me still to this day. We left the funhouse sometime soon after that and although we would go on to experience many astonishing things that night, none of them would stick to my insides like that brief time I spent with Cheza Gregory in an empty room did.

And I think that’s how it’s supposed to be.


“What then? We needs the deets, Tig, don’t go skimp now!” Pooch says. But the duty sensor’s got a sneak-eye on me so I ease back down onto my chair, lips tight. The message gets through and slowly each stud loses their eager eyes and drops down on their seat, too. Alfa shoos a few of the younger, lingering understuds away and we sit in silence, chewing and swallowing. I can read it in every slow up-and-down chomp of their jaws; they’re in agony. They want the know. They want it now.

Patience, studs, it’s coming.

The duty sensor is diligent. He must be able to smell some of that forbidden fruit that I’ve been giving up the know on wafting over from our table, so he just circles us like a moon. We keep our keels even though, biding and biding, when a foodstuff dispense luckily goes gonzo and demands his attention. He leaves and I start back in on my tale.

            “After the funhouse Cheza and me hit the streets. We covered the sidewalks, the frontwalks, the backwalks, and all the walks in between. We saws all the sees, heard all the hears, and ate every eat we could.” I lick my lips. “We ate and ate. We ate our way through that whole city.” Every stud listens to my tell and they hoot it up and nudge each other so much you’d think they’d lived in my skins and done it all themselves. “We credded every vendo we came across and they’d play their blows and stringers so sweet that if it wasn’t music you’d call it candy. You’ve never heard notes like these, studs, you can believe. We hopped the gate at the natural, simmed a few adventures, and watched a tale at the cineblast. We were everywhere that night.”

“Did you meet anyone else from The Resistance?” Alfa says. “Is it for real?”

 “We didn’t see anyone else besides Linklyn, but it’s real alright. The writing’s on the wall,” I tell him.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean there was actual writing . . . on an actual wall. God Giveth, Man Taketh Away; Your Body, Your Rights; Free The Five, stuff like that. It was all over the place. Cheza was right, something’s happening.”

            Alfa sits back slowly in his chair, a far off look in his eye. “Well go on then, tell it some more.”

            I pause for a quick thought. They should have the know on  all things, I suppose.


Before we knew it the late summer sun was threatening to rise up and glow all over our parade. It was time to get back.

“How was I tonight?” I asked.

Cheza touched my face. “It doesn’t matter how you were, it just matters that you were, if that makes any sense.” She took my hand again and we began the walk home to Fairchild. “But you did just fine, stud.” We reached the outstretched arms of the lantillo tree and Cheza waved her hand out in front of her for the thin wire of the ladder. She cursed to herself, put her hands on her hips, and looked again. “It’s gone,” she said. “How could it—“

Light exploded everywhere. The glide bikes of the Truant Force shot up though the trees and hovered over us, their fall guns drawn. More bikes. They fanned out and flanked us. I wanted to run, I did, but there was nowhere to go--they were everywhere. Cheza tried to make a break for it but the tru-blues corralled us into a tight circle and threw out their shocknets. An instant later, they were on top of us.


These new eyes were really something. I was so tired, but the morning sunlight seemed to burrow through my eyelids. It wouldn’t allow me sleep. Cheza and I were in the back of a transport sandwiched between a pair of helmeted tru-blues. Cull was in front of us with another sensor I didn’t recognize piloting the tranny. We zoomed around awhile until the cramped streets widened and the tall buildings shortened and there was nothing left outside the window but high grass and sky.

I opened my eyes a squint and whispered to Cheza, “What are they going to do with us?” Cull threw me a hard look and gave one of the tru-blues a nod. The officer swatted me across the cheek with his dumb club and my jaw immediately locked up. The pain was ferocious. I looked to Cheza again, who was sobbing now.

“It’s the treatment,” she mouthed. “The age treatment.”

My heart was in freefall. I wasn’t savvy to the pertinents of the age treatment but, by the look on Cheza’s face, it wasn’t good. When we finally stopped, a large orange and black building was stretched out over the land in front of us, emitting a purring sound, like a sleeping tiger. I could hear the echo of waves slapping against rock in the distance. The tru-blues pushed us forward and Cheza and I shuffled to the doorway in our magnebonds. We were met inside by more tru-blues and an odor so supremely heavy and foul I couldn’t accurately describe it. Cull and the other sensor, an elderly man with empty eyes, escorted us down a strip of floor to a collection of several small, dark pools of liquid. They held me there while Cull instructed the tru-blues to deactivate Cheza’s bonds and walk her out to the edge of the farthest pool.

            “I’m at least partially to blame for this, Ms. Gregory,” the sensor said. “I warned you many times--too many times I’m afraid—because I can see now that they were nothing more than empty threats to you.” He stood beside the older sensor. “I’ve always been quite fond of you. We all were. You can’t say we haven’t been fair.”

“Sure I can. You haven’t been fair,” she told them. “There, see, I said it.” 

Cull bowed his head. “That’s our Cheza, defiant to the last. How very resistant of you, Study Gregory. What do you think your father would say if he were here?”

She shrugged. “I guess he’d understand.”

He pointed to me. “And will this boy’s fulls understand as well? Will they be as forgiving? Perhaps you’d like to explain it to them—explain how you’ve corrupted their son, recruited him to join the ranks of your fellow delinquents.”

“I wasn’t recruiting anyone,” she said. “I like him.”

“Of course you do, just like the others.”

“No, he’s not like the others.”

“So there have been others?”

Cheza stammered. “You know there has been, but it’s different with him.” She craned her neck to look at me. “Don’t listen to him, Tig, you’re different. I’m different when I’m with you. You can feel that, can’t you?”

The tru-blue yanked her head forward.

“I’m sure you made them all believe that they were special, Ms. Gregory. That’s the key to the indoctrination.”

Her eyes began to well up again. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, I only wanted to share something with another human being. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone, I just wanted to have some fun.” The tears came freely now.

 Cull reached out to Cheza. She fell into the man’s arms and hugged the sensor tightly. “There there now, that’s not how the heart works, girl.” He exchanged a somber glance with the other sensor. “I’m afraid that’s not how Fairchild works either.”

Cull released her from his grasp and, without warning, pushed her into the pool. Her body sank underneath the mirror of dark liquid and I could feel my insides go jelly. I tried to wriggle free from my mags, but it was useless. Frantic, I scanned the cavernous room with my new eyes. Signage with letters of a size that would’ve only been a blur to me before now jumped out: the shock reds, yellows, the iridescent oranges, and a large outline in the shape of a fish. A fish? Yes, it was a fish--a fish curled into a circle with the words “BioFresh Systems” printed inside it. There were other words, other signs. So many. Cheza was still in the pool, flailing and gurgling black water. I kept searching for something in the messages on the wall. The Age Treatment. What does it mean? Where are the words?

Age Treatment.

There they are!

Age Treatment Facility.

No, no, there’s more:




Cull saw me drop to my knees. “There are drawbacks to being fully-sensed, Mr. Fynch,” Cull said. “Not all the tastes life has to offer you are pleasurable ones.”

Cheza’s fingers groped for a hard surface to cling to. She reached her hand slowly out of the filth and clung to the concrete just outside the pool. Cull calmly stepped to the edge and eased the girl’s fingers back into the murk with the toe of his boot, leaving only the residue of keratin dust from her nails written on the concrete. “Last night with your new senses you stole some pleasurable experiences. Today, you will suffer an ill one.”   


Gasps. Open mouths. Swapped expressions of terror. The table is silent.

“You studs wanted the know,” I say. “That’s all the know I got.”

Alfa exhales a long breath and leans back in his chair. “Did you—“

“No, they never gave me the age treatment, just Cheza.”

“Jesus in January, Tig, what happened to her?”

            “They scooped her out of the pool eventually, but only after they were sure her senses were overloaded with shit. Then they brought us back to Fairchild. She didn’t say a word the whole trip. They dropped her off at the east arm of the school. I can still see her walking away, that blank look in her eyes. No, not blank . . . broken. Headwoman Toi met them at the doors with a buzz wand and took Cheza down. The instant the wand touched the back of her neck she went limp and folded to the pavement. The sensors lifted her back up and dragged her inside. I don’t have the know on what else they did to her and I don’t think I want it anyway. I never saw Cheza again.” I clear my throat. “Then Toi came over to the tranny and buzzed me, too. I don’t remember much afterwards. I got dumped into sensory confines and shipped here.”

One after another, the studs come over to pay their respects. Some just offer a strong look, a chin nod, or an awkward grin. Others place their hand on my arm or shoulder and give a tight squeeze to be certain I feel it. It’s what I imagine a funeral must be like.

            “That’s a true-on wicked tale,” Alfa says, wiping his eyes.

            “I’m afraid to say it’s still being spun. I’m seeing the Council of Sensors after this to beg for mercy. They’re waiting outside to take me.”

            “Femmys, man,” he says, shaking his head. “They can talk you into the worst sitches. Will we see you again, bestbro?”

            I force a smile. “Tell Pooch I’m sorry for hitting him so hard.” I walk out of the nosh house and into a set of waiting magbonds.



Sensor Cull calls me into his office and offers me a seat. I slink down into the chair. “Thank you, sir.”

“No sense in mincing words. Let’s get right down to it, Fynch.” He reaches into his robe for a joystick, taps it out on his desk, and lights it. Then he opens a drawer and places a holder on top of his desk. “You’ve made some regrettable choices, there’s no denying that, but the school feels that Study Gregory is the real rot in the wood here. That she took advantage of a naive understud,” he motions toward me, “and manipulated him to this degree for her own subversive needs is, frankly, appalling. You weren’t her first, but she was more brazen in her offenses with you.” He takes a drag off the joystick and sets it in the holder. “You wouldn’t have been her last.”

I put my head down.

“Your quartersmate, Ralen, was concerned for your well being and, rightly, tipped us off to your nocturnal rendezvous with Ms. Gregory. If I can speak plainly Fynch, she bewitched you, deceived you, and ultimately cost you quite dearly. You don’t owe her anything, do you understand?” He leans over the desk and pats my forearm. “I’d like to know where your head is at right now. It may have an impact on how we treat your particular case.”

“I’m embarrassed more than anything,” I tell him. “I guess I’m angry, too. She used me! She made me believe she cared about me and now I just feel stupid for buying into it. I mean, Cheza Gregory with me?” I make a loud snort. “It sounds even more ridiculous when I hear it out loud.”

“Every revolution needs its foot soldiers and Cheza knows that. She would’ve told you whatever she thought you needed to hear to get you aboard. None of it was true, I’m afraid.”

“I see that now,” I tell him.

 Cull sits back in his chair with his palms together. He leans his head against his outstretched fingers. “Tig, I’ll be very blunt with you, this next part is important to us. It’s important for you, too.”

“What is it?”

“We need to know who on the outside juiced you. We’re aware that there may have been an agent for The Resistance who managed to infiltrate the school. We need to know who this person is.”

“I feel uneasy telling you,” I say. “He seems like a good person. I don’t think he means anyone harm.”

“I know you do, but this good person is a large piece to an even larger problem and if you can give us a name it’ll reflect very positively on our opinion of you. Forgiveness is one thing we believe in here at Fairchild, but it has a price. Telling me right now who sensed you up would go a long way toward paying that price. Fynch, what would you say if I told you we were willing to restore you to your previous sense levels and bypass any other punishment, let you return to Fairchild and wipe the slate.”

I don’t answer him immediately. I can only stare at the wall of his office, at the blurred letters of the diplomas hanging there, thinking how much better twos-and-two would be right now.

“Is your aid turned up? Do you hear me? I’m throwing you a rope here, son. I suggest you grab onto it.”

I drape my hands over my face and ease them down to my chin. “It was Linklyn, sir. The guy you’re training to take over as the school’s headman. He’s the one who got us high.”

Cull nods his head repeatedly. “You want that second chance, don’t you, Fynch?”

I exhale and a nervous teehee escapes from my lips. “Yes,” I tell him. “Yes, god yes.”

“Well, I’m giving it to you.”

“Thank you, thank you, Sensor Cull, thank you so very much. I’ll prove myself. I’ll be good, I swear. I just want everything to go back to the used-to-be way.”

He pulls another long drag from the joystick. “I’m thrilled to hear you say it. Of course we can’t let you return to eastwing. Too much talk going on there as it is. You’ll have to transfer permanently to the south arm of school. But I’ve been told you’re already making friendly with the studs there.”

“I am, they’ve been very nice to me.”

“Perfect then,” he says before his voice suddenly gets grave. “I don’t think I have to tell you this, but if you stray from the path again we’ll have to come down on you, very hard this time. Sensory confines, the age treatment, and probably expulsion.”

“You don’t have to worry about that, sir.”

“It would please me greatly not to hear your name uttered in my presence for the remainder of your time here at Fairchild. Some names aren’t really meant to be heard anyway--better to blend in to the crowd than stick out for the wrong reasons. You understand I’m sure.” He grinds out his joystick in the holder and slides the remainder inside his robe sleeve. He returns the holder inside his desk drawer. “Do you have any questions?”

I pause. “Don’t read anything into this, it doesn’t mean anything but if you don’t mind me asking, sir, what exactly happened to Cheza?”

He leans back in his chair and eyes me for a moment. “I suppose there’s no harm in it,” he finally says. “Ms. Gregory has been expelled from Fairchild. With her father’s ample cred and her own natural aptitude some other school will no doubt take her on. She’s not my problem any more, or yours. I suggest you banish her from your thoughts, study, it does you no good to dwell on her.” He turns and begins to tap at his keypad. “See yourself out if you would. I’ll have your records sent over to southwing. Headman Grigson will be awaiting you there to lift your senses.”

“Thank you again for the chance, sir.”

“Make it count this time and you won’t be at twos-and-two for long. Every good stud comes to their senses eventually, Fynch.”

“I know they do, sir.”



“How’s it feel to be out of sensory confines?” Alfa catches me in the hallway between courses.

“Twos-and-two isn’t much,” I tell him while we walk, “But it’s better than being in the hole, that’s for sure.”

“You’ll fit in just fine with me and my bestbros, none of us pull high marks either. You should feel right at home. And they’ve already taken a liking to you.”

“Even Pooch?”

“Pooch won’t hold any grudges if I tell him you’re with us,” he says. “We’re getting together in my quarters around nineteen hundred tonight. You should come, it’ll be funtimes.”

“Yeah, sure, sounds golden,” I tell him.

“Great,” he says and smacks my arm. “You’re clan now. Remember, tonight, my quarters, number eleven oh four. We’ll rowdy until nightlocks, o-kee-dee? See you when I see you.”

  “See you when I see you,” I tell him. He pushes through the studs ahead of me and ducks into his class.

A smile crawls across my face.

That night we rowdied at Alfa’s and his bestbros all welcomed me with the openest arms. Even Pooch. I have to admit they’re not a bad bunch of studs. They’re dull like me, but they’ve got hungry ears so they love to hear my tales about that night in the city. In a few years, if they stay on the straight, they’ll all graduate to full sense and get the know for themselves. I keep telling them that, but it’s almost like they don’t believe me. I’ll get there too, in time. It’s autumn and things are changing all around me.


The semester rolls on like some kind of unstoppable machinery. Sensor Cull is a non-entity in my life so it seems as if he’s staying true to his word to let me go on with my studies without having eyes on me every second. That fall I half-hoped that some word about Cheza would leak down to southwing, but I didn’t hear a squeak. It’s probably better for me that way anyhow. The bitch is gone for good--so what if I never get the chance to tell her off to her lying face. She’s erased to me.

The calendar hits December and midwinter lacuna is upon us. Every stud is thankful for the break, but mostly we’re looking forward to the upcoming sense boosts that accompany the handing out of last cycle’s marks. I did o-kee-dee. I’ll get my usual--a minimal number jump.

Every stud’s fulls get to visit Fairchild during lacuna, too. We aren’t ever allowed to leave the institute’s sense-protective care so my fulls, like a lot of other stud’s, come to visit whenever they can. I haven’t really spoken to them much since the incident with Cheza. Fairchild contacted them about it (shocker) and set up a window for us to have a private face chat, but I downplayed the whole thing. I know this time it won’t be so easy to brush it off though.

Get this, my new quartersmate’s name is Ferdobern Taicin. Is that a name or what? He’s a swarthy little stud a couple years younger than me and because of it we don’t have a whole lot in common but, all things considered, he’s a good pup. So respectful. Maybe a little too respectful actually. He insists on me having the place to myself all afternoon to entertain my fulls after his own leave that morning.

Thanks a lot, Ferdy.

My fulls arrive, not surprisingly, super early.

“Can you hear us, Tig? We’re ringing the bell—can you hear it?”

I open the door. “Yes, I can hear you,” I tell them. “My numbers are back to normal. They have been for a long time now, you know that.” I open my arms. “Happy greets, Mom and Dad.” I can tell my mother wants to hug me but she’s not doing it. She’s trying desperately to stand still and hold on to that dourpuss stretched across her face. Dad’s sporting the matching paternal version.


Did they practice these in front of each other before they left the house?

“Could you at least wait until you step inside before you start frowning?”

“What’s there to smile about?” Dad says.

“Well, it’s a beautiful day and you’re both here for the first time in months and I’m staying out of trouble and it’s a beautiful day and can we not talk about this right now. I’d just like to forget the whole thing happened and I can’t do that if I’m constantly getting beat up about it. I’m here now, it’s a new life for me, and I just want to move on. Can we do that? Can I just move on?”

Mom goes from zero-to-slobbery in one point three seconds. “Of course we can, sweetie. We forgive you,” she says, pulling me to her bosom while my father grumbles something about babying. “Now that they’ve shipped that awful girl far away from here things can get back to normal for you.”

“Well I hope you learned your lesson,” Dad says. “At least that way something good can come out of this whole mess.”

I nod like the dutiful son. It seems to appease them and I truly am happy they feel better. I never wanted to hurt them. We spend the rest of the day talking and lunching. They give me the know on everything that’s happening back home.

It’s good to hear their voices again.

But when I’m talking they both have this weird look about them. I can’t really explain it, but I feel like they look at me differently now. I remember thinking in mid-speech how I wish I could take that look from their faces and replace it with the one they used to have. I wish I could bring back my innocence, if only for their sake. But I guess you can’t unbreak an egg. Outside, the snow flew around in big swirlies and then settled to the ground. It’s so cold. When it’s like this it’s hard to imagine it’ll ever be springtime again.


“Just let me see it and I’ll never ask you about it again,” Alfa says while he trudges through some shrubbery.

“I don’t like being out here,” I tell him. I brush aside one of the aspen’s pale branches. “If they find me back in the west grove I’m totally kuffed. You know that.”

“Don’t get all inside-out on me, Tig. It’s a sunshiney Saturday, the ice is melted--we’re allowed to take a walk as long as we stay on the grounds. No one suspects a thing.”

“O-kee-dee, I’ll show it to you, but then we ghost out of here, and don’t even think about going up.”

“You think I’m manic or something? After all the tales you tell, I just want to see it with my own two.” I stare down at a twig with a few round aspen leaves attached to it. He begs me again, “Show me this lantillo tree.”   

I understand, I really do. That whale tale I fed them is a pretty ripe fish to swallow whole. A little too hard without at least some proof. Alfa’s been top notch to me this entire school year so I suppose if I owe anything to anyone, I owe it to him. After about ten minis in the grove, we’re at the polyfence.

“Here it is,” I say, pointing out an azure-stained tree stump. “Or should I say, here it was.”

“What’s with the blue paint?”

“It’s not paint,” I tell him. “It’s called dolorjuice--it kills the tree. Should’ve known they’d poison it.” I clap my hands once. “That’s it, you’ve seen it. Right where I told you it would be. Can we go now?” Alfa begins to pace. “What’s wrong with you?” I say.

 “Tig, I haven’t been telling you all truths.”

Far off in the distance I detect a sound, born just at the edge of my perception, and with each second it grows louder—an unmistakable whirr. “I always believed your tale, believed it all the way,” he says.

My voice is low and troubled. “What did you do?”

“I just had to get you here and they promised they’d let me in.”

The whirring sound of a motor rises. Alfa listens as the wind blows over him. “Do you hear that? They came, just like they said they would.”

The dual seated, tru-blue glider shoots across the sky above our heads, doubles back, and yo-yo’s down to the forest floor. It’s an eerily familiar scene. The pilots kill their engine, they both step gingerly off the bike and take off their dark helmets.


“Miss me?” she asks. She’s ditched the long, raven holo, just a short bob of natural, mousey-brown locks over her scalp. I want to answer her, but the words won’t come. Headwoman Toi removes her helmet next.

“I believe we’ve already met,” she says. “Good to see your face again, Study Fynch.”

I stammer part of a response,

“How did you—”

“Ever play chess?” Cheza says, smoothing out her jumpsuit with her palms. “To be good—and I mean really good--you’ve got to be thinking three moves ahead at all times.”

“O-kee-dee,” I say. “But I still don’t get how--”

“Madelyn, I mean Headwoman Toi, never dulled me into solitary confines—that was just a way to buy us time. You didn’t think I’d let you get away from me that easily, did you?”

“You did this?” I say to the woman. Toi nods.

The two femmys hop up and straddle the huge glider again. “Who do you think connected me up with Linklyn?” Cheza says. “Toi’s been resistance for years. Now get on before we’re made.” She starts the engine.

“I gave Linklyn up,” I tell her. “To get my life back. I’m sorry, but I had to.”

The femmys look at each other, then turn back to me. “We know you are,” Toi says. “Don’t worry about that now.”

“What about me?” Alfa hollers over the hum of the magdrive. “You told me I could be one of you.”

“That’s right,” Cheza says. “But your work at Fairchild isn’t done yet, stud.”

“It isn’t?”

“The Resistance needs more than just a few trees, we need a whole forest. When you need to grow a forest, what do you do?”

Alfa shakes his head.

“You plant seeds,” Cheza tells him. “Lots and lots of seeds.” She points to the ground beneath his feet. Alfa bends over, wipes some dead leaves aside, and picks up one of the lantillo seedpods that encircle the stump. “Get to it, Johnny Alphaseed,” she says before she turns her eyes back to me. “Tig, get on, you’re ruining the ending.”

My feet shuffle away from her slowly. “I’m not going with you, Cheza. I just got my old life back.”

“Pffft, what life was that?”

“I’ve got things together again, finally, after you kuffed it all up. I’m up to threes-and-one. I’ll come to my senses in five years.”

“Or you can leave now, with me.”

“But I hate you.”

Cheza frowns. “You don’t hate me, Tig.”

“Forget it, it’s no use trying to convince me, I’m not joining the stupid Resistance with you.”

“Then don’t join. Just get on the bike.”

“They’ll follow us,” I tell her.


“If they find us, it’s the treatment. I saw you go under at the sewage plant—that was real. How could you risk it again?”

The glider’s idling engine threatens to drown out our voices. She jumps off and grabs me by the collar. “I would risk being thrown into shit a hundred times for the chance to feel the way I did with you that night!”

“And what about all those other studs you recruited like me? Where are they now?”

“I have no idea,” she says. “Doesn’t that tell you something?”

I shake my head feverishly and start pacing the grove. “No, no, no, I’ve made promises. Why are you doing this to me?”

Cheza puts her hands on her hips. “Listen, that was my whole pitch, Tig. I’ve got nothing else to say. Tick tock, stud, tick tock.”

“What happens if I go with you?”

“I don’t know,” she says. “Some things you don’t always get the know on.”

I hear a hundred voices in my head, all telling me what to do. But I know they all stop once she’s gone. Once Cheza leaves, it’s finished.

She gets back on the seat and revs the engine. The bike gives a squeal before it bucks just off the ground. It hovers there.

“What are you going to do, Tig?”


Welp, I’ve reached the tail of my tale and what’s left for me to say, o patient reader? Oh I get it, you want the know on whether I climbed onto the back of that glider or not.

Now, if I told you I joined The Resistance because I thought it was the right thing to do or because a sense of justice compelled me, you’d buy that, right? That would be a sensible end to this story. And complete bunk.

I can only hope to adequately explain my actions by posing this scenario to you: You’re eight days shy of your fifteenth annibirthary and you’re stuck at twos-and-two with a terminal case of ennui when this badass, raven-holoed goddess shakes some actual living into your so-called life and shows you the whole kuffing world you’ve been missing. And all she asks you for in return is . . . your whole life.

What would you do?

The Simple Answer (i.e. the truth): If I climbed onto that seat it was because of a femmy, that’s all. A femmy named Cheza Gregory. A smart stud doesn’t get on that bike. But I already told you, I was pretty dull when I was fifteen.

Weren’t we all?

They tell you that who you are and your path in life consists of the choices you make. What they don’t tell you, though, is that it’s not really the path that gets forged by your choices, it’s the pathfinder. And get this, the individual choices you make, good or bad, don’t really matter that much either. The only thing that really matters is that you made them. You did something. So it doesn’t matter whether I jumped on that glider with Cheza and did the happily ever after. Maybe I did. Or maybe I jumped on with her and my life went horribly wrong. Maybe I told her to get bent and went back to Fairchild. Doesn’t really matter.  

So what did I choose? I think I’ve proven that the question is moot. Perhaps it’s time for you to make a choice, reader. You decide. Whatever provides you with the most enjoyable end. I’m happy when you’re happy, after all.

Not enough?

O-kee-dee, I’ll throw you a bone. Two roads diverged in an aspen wood that day. And I—I took the one less traveled by.