Jaclyn and the other umbras are sitting over by the librarium eating their lunches by the time I leave class and head outside. I walk over to them in silence. Jaclyn moves over on the bench she’s sitting at and I sit down beside her. I have a synthmeat sandwich in my bag, an apple and an orange with “Grown with PRIDE in Sky City,” and a bottle of purified water, but I don’t feel all that hungry. I don’t really like the taste of synthmeat anyway. I don’t think anyone does.
“I heard what that grot Robert Sherman did in Cook’s class,” Jaclyn says. I don’t respond. “That guy sucks. He’s just terrible. Just a real terrible person.”
“What happened?” Edd Davis asks. I cringe. Edd’s an intense kind of guy. Most of the older umbras that I’ve met tend to keep their heads down. Some of them think that they’re doing a valuable service to the State and to the people around them and say as much, and some of them think that they’re better off not thinking or saying anything at all too much lest they draw unwanted attention. Umbras my age tend to look at the Interface and the Network and all of it in one of two ways: either they have a neat toy to play with that pretty much no one else does or else they think that they’ve been cheated out of a normal life by circumstances beyond their control. Edd doesn’t think either of those things.
Edd basically thinks he’s the next stage of human evolution.
“What happened?” he asks again, and there’s an edge to his voice. I don’t know why. Edd and I aren’t particularly close. I think he just likes being angry and he sensed that there was something here for him to be angry at. Jaclyn looks at me and says nothing, and I sigh.
“We were talking about Frankenstein in Professor Cook’s class, and I expressed some opinions the class didn’t like, and then Robert Sherman called me a freak. It kind of sucked.”
“Robert Sherman’s an inconsequential little grot,” Edd says, and that’s it. No “Don’t listen to him,” no “You’re not a freak,” no “He’s just spitting up the same trash he’s been swallowing all his life.” Nothing to comfort me. Just a big sweeping slightly vulgar proclamation of Robert Sherman’s worth. Thanks a bunch, Edd.
“Yeah,” I say. “He kind of sucks, too.”
Edd smiles, and there’s something mean in his eyes. “Want me to make sure he fails every test he takes for the rest of the year? Or I could go into his files and have him put in remedial classes. Or maybe just get him kicked out altogether.”
I snort. “Yeah, right. You know the Network here is too protected for you to get in and do that kind of stuff.”
He just shrugs. “Maybe, maybe not.”
I shake my head. “Whatever.” I don’t know if Edd’s trying to show off or if he legitimately thinks that offering to ruin someone’s life is supposed to make me feel better, but he’s not helping anything. Thankfully, he gets the hint and he goes back to talking to some of the other umbras.
The other umbras. This is where we sit every day, around the corner from the quad where no one can see us. Where no one has to see us. The State says we’re not supposed to be different, but we are. Even if everything else about our lives were the same as the other students, the fact that we’re here lets us know that we’re different. The way the class goes silent when one of us speaks up lets us know we’re different. It’s a million little things, and it all adds up, and sometimes it feels like all we have is each other. Each other and Jaclyn.
It makes me wish I identified with them more. It just seems like all of them are either resigned to a life of all their decisions being made for them or else egomaniacs like Edd. Or else bitter, like me, I guess.
I look up at all the metal and plastic and glass above us. An opening in the scaffold lets light shine down onto the quad, drawing a stark line between the school buildings and the field where everyone else is. I sigh, take another bite of my synthmeat sandwich, and try not to think about the next period.
Free period. This is when most of the other students go home. The troublemakers serve Pen. The sportsmen will have “optional” practice. The overachievers and the underachievers meet with their teachers. And the umbras, well, we have training. Two to three times a week, depending on the schedule, we all go down to the Network Room and receive instruction in using the Interface, accessing the Network, and all the other things umbras are expected to know. Everyone else gets to go and do whatever they like, and we get a mandatory reminder of how we’re different.
The bell rings, and as one the other umbras and I pack away our things and head into the Administration Building. We walk in silence through the hallways, pushing past crowds of smiling, laughing faces. I half-expect to run into Robert Sherman, because wouldn’t that just be perfect, but I don’t see him. Maybe he’s serving Pen.
Down the hallway, through an unmarked door, and then down a flight of stairs. The Network Room is in the basement level of the Administration Building. Before Year Zero, this was where the school’s records were kept. Then came the efforts to digitize everything, and so they started transferring the records to electronic copies.
And then came the Singularity.
Now the basement holds nothing except for the half-moldering paper remnants of days past, the terminals that serve as a grim reminder of our mistakes, the wires and cables that tell how those mistakes live with us still.
What a perfect place to teach us umbras how to use the Interface. What a perfect place to indoctrinate us into a life of public service, of merging with the machine and manipulating it for the good of all at the cost of the self.
There are more than enough terminals in the Network Room for every umbra in the school, but only one teacher for all of us. I remember the first day I had to come down here, and how shocked I was to see the tired middle-aged man with his thinning hair and his worn eyes and his magisterial robe. I’d never seen a Magister umbra before. It was… troubling.
The Magister waits until we’ve all filed into the room and taken our places at the terminals before greeting us. He coughs, clears his throat, and takes a deep breath. “Good afternoon, children.”
“Good afternoon, Magister,” we say as one. Magister isn’t just a position; it’s an honorific. Those who dedicate their lives to serving the State and take up the title of Magister foresake their previous, public existence. So long as they’re wearing the uniform, they have no identity except for Magister. Badges and insignias on the robe indicate what their specialty is, Law or Tech or Health or whatever, but all Magisters are equal in the eyes of society.
It’s supposed to be the same with umbras, but then, nobody ever uses the word Magister as an insult.
“Today we’re going to discuss Network security,” he says. “The lesson will cover both defending and attacking a Network, as both will be expected of you regardless of what specialization you ultimately find yourself in.” The Magister goes on and on, his words a dull monotone, and I tune him out and start wondering about what Dad and I will have for dinner, and then he says, “I will require you all to stay late to accommodate our extended lesson plan today,” and that snaps me out of it. As one, the class groans. The Magister simply ignores us. “You were born with a unique gift,” he says to no one in particular. “And the time may come when much more is asked of you than simply that you stay put in one place for longer than you’re used to. This isn’t just an education you’re receiving, children. This is training, training for the rest of your life. Not for your job, not for your skills, but for your life. Now, log into the Network and begin.”
We grumble, we roll our eyes, we stick out our tongue at the Magister when his back is turned, but we do as we are told. We ease into the high-backed chairs and slip our hands into the gloves, feel the pinch on our fingertips as the Interface springs to life and begins searching for a system to communicate with. We put on the headband, and that pinches too as it jacks into port all of us have installed in our brain. There’s a sensation of falling, and then eyes shut, and then there we are, our physical bodies left behind and our minds, our mental selves are in the cold, sterile Network.