Today, Robert Peterson (who you may remember from The Hanging Tree) is sharing some YA sci-fi that, according to him, draws inspiration from Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, and the 1975 action movie Rollerball. Enjoy!
By Robert Peterson
When I was a baby, my mom let my head slip under the water during a bath. It was only for a second. One instant she was holding me by my shoulders, the next I was submerged and helpless, water squirting up my nose, and when mom yanked me back above the surface, I started crying so hard my eyes swelled shut. That’s what she told me, at least.
I have nightmares about it all the time. I never thought those nightmares would come true, but they have, now, years later as I look up at the churning surface of a roaring river, a summertime moon rippling through the waves as the water whips me along like a rag-doll, my limbs as useless as they were when I was a baby.
Ever since I was a baby.
Don’t worry. This time around, I know not to breathe underwater, but my chest is already aching from holding in my breath, and freezing water keeps spraying up my nose and into my mouth. Any moment now, I’ll have to cough.
And then that’ll be it for Laurie Everett, high school genius. That’ll be it for Laurie Everett, inventor. That’ll be it for Laurie Everett, athlete.
Athlete. I’m not an athlete. I’m a joke. One big joke for everyone at the party, including my twin sister. Helen, I know you hate me, but I can’t believe you murdered me in front of everyone.
The moon just winked out overhead. It’ll all be over soon.
The following IRC exchange was recovered from a magnetic-platter hard drive that had been in operation since the late 21st century.
When Intersol agents discovered the drive, which was being housed in an underground server farm in the Martian colony New Nashville, a zero-out command had already been executed. The agents disengaged the drive before the zero-out was complete.
Intersol agents have reason to believe that one of the participants in this chat may be the Darknet hacktivist known only as Mr. Chalk.
The world’s biggest fan of Omegaball is just a stupid, deformed, crippled little girl who’s about to die. The river tossed me up to the surface a moment ago, long enough for me to gulp down a breath.
Postponing the inevitable.
Postponing what I deserve.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. You never should’ve taken those risks, Laurie. You know this. You told yourself over and over: It feels better to avoid the risk than to take it and fail. Or get rejected. Like you did tonight. I’m glad it’s coming to an end. I can’t imagine the look on her smug little face — the face that should’ve been mine. The body that should’ve been mine. I don’t deserve any of this!
Yes, you do deserve it. Every bit. Every frozen moment before you die alone, you deserve it, because you’re just s stupid, deformed, crippled little girl.
No. That’s not true.
It’s not entirely true, because when Helen and I were waiting to be born, something went wrong. Twenty-six weeks in, and we both came out — me a minute earlier — and while she cried and screamed and squirmed, I just sat there. They thought I was a stillbirth, but then my eyes moved.
“They danced,” my mom always told me.
What a joke. My whole life is a joke. I don’t blame Helen for hating me. The way I acted, even before the procedure. The cheering, the games, the sweaters, the fight songs, and all the orange, orange, orange. It’s no wonder she laughed and sneered at me.
Oh, Helen. I’m so sorry.
No, I’m not.
God, how long have we been fighting? Since we were born, really. But it got so much worse this year. Fighting over the same guy, even though it was never a fight. Fighting to see who’d be class valedictorian, even though we didn’t know we were both up for it.
We fought about other things, too. The Darknet. Chyrons. Bolting. Mindbending.
Yes, it always comes back to me and Omegaball.
Everything that led to this moment — me, in a river, about to die — started at an Omegaball match.
Chicago versus Detroit. The day before Valentine’s Day.
I knew they were looking at me.
They kept trying to avert their eyes, but it was like I was a speedboat leaving a wake through the crowd. We arrived half an hour before kickoff like always — dad, Helen and I — and as we crept under the stone ramparts of Soldier Field, swerving around hot-dog vendors, my dad waving away smartpaper game programs, the reactions of passers-by varied. Some of them smiled at me. Fine. Some of them spotted me from across the walkway and course-corrected around us so they didn’t even have to avert their eyes. Like they could catch “being paralyzed from the neck down” just by looking at me.
But the ones who pissed me off the most were the ones who stared.
I could spot them easily. They’d stop mid-step, their arms floating down by their side. Some of them were fundies, muttering prayers at the poor, sorry, motherless family with the girl in the motorized wheelchair. Some of them talked about us at full volume as we passed by.
“It’s too much for her her.”
“Why would he bring her here? She’s just going to get hurt.”
“You think the mother would say something. Where is she?”
Hey, I’m paralyzed, not deaf.
None of them knew anything about me. One lady heard my grunts and wheezes, and I swear, her eyes misted over. Give me a break, lady. Did you know that every time I grunt, my chair moves right, and every time I wheeze, it turns left? That’s how I designed it.
Another old lady must’ve noticed the resemblance between me and Helen, and it was like someone told her Santa Claus wasn’t real. Listen, I get it. It must’ve been tough to look at Helen, who’s gorgeous, and then at me, who was strapped into a wheelchair with an oxygen tube crusted to my nose with dried snot, my head lolled to the side like my neck was broken, but you don’t know anything about me.
None of you knew that every O-ball Sunday was like Christmas morning for me. None of you knew that our dad had to take us both to the match, because the last time he left Helen alone, he got home to find his furniture in the front yard and his datadisks in the dishwasher, with Helen passed out in a sea of red cups, her breath reeking of Tennessee sour mash.
None of you knew that I was a genius. I designed every inch of this wheelchair, from the smartscreen interface that helps me speak, to the six articulated wheels that crawl over any terrain like a caterpillar.
None of you knew that I hadn’t missed a Dreadnoughts home match since eighth grade, when my mom first took me, and I saw the ‘Noughts stream into the sphere while 80,000 fans in tangerine jersey-sweaters screamed and cheered.
None of you knew that eighteen months ago, dad had to tell us mom died.
And finally, none of you knew that I had secrets. Lots of ‘em.
For example: I wasn’t just at Soldier Field to watch an Omegaball match.
I was there to play in one.