Maria has been in the waiting room most of the day. She expected to be, and she brought a lunch with her. But it was only the leftover rice. She ate it hours ago. A screen on the far wall carries news of the vote, but Maria keeps her eyes out the window. She watches dotted lines of traffic inch through the smog outside. She doesn’t want to see the news. She doesn’t even want to think about it. No matter what happens, someone is sure to blame her son for it.
Another hour passes, and Maria’s eyes slowly close. When she opens them again, there are two men there. They have their backs to her watching the screen. Maria recognizes the one on the right. He’s not the prime minister, but he’s somebody. He’s always on the news.
“So have you met this kid?”
“No, sir. No one has.”
“What, like ‘no one’ no one, or no one under Gascoigne?”
“No one at all. They keep him in an isolation chamber. It’s part of the process.”
“A what chamber?”He snorts. “Jesus. It’s all so bloody mystic voodoo witch doctor if you ask me.”
They watch the screen as the one from the news, Hastings, drinks a coffee.
He shakes his head. “Five hours till the damned vote . . . They couldn’t have done this a week ago, a month?”
“It’s more accurate the closer you get, that’s what they said.”
“And more useless.” Hastings growls. “What’s the point of seeing the future if you’re already bloody there?”
They stop talking as someone passes them going out to the elevators.
“It should be one of our kids in there.”
“Our kind. Do we even know which way his parents vote?”
“He’s in the care of the state.”
“What, like an orphan?Jesus.”Hastings snorts. “Biggest vote of my life, and they leave it to a kid out of the bargain bin.”
Maria keeps very still, her eyes closed to look asleep.
“Do we have a plan for if this kid predicts against us?”
“Yes, sir. It’s file three in your drive.”
“Alright. I want Henry on the line the moment this kid rules. We’ve got too damned much riding on this.”
Maria hears them moving. She glances up and freezes as one of the men looks sideways at her. He doesn’t do anything, though. He doesn’t care. They leave the waiting room for the interior, in the direction of her son. Maria sits there alone with the news talking to empty air and daylight dying out the window.
Down the corridor and deep into the tower, Maria’s son, Noah, lies in a chemically-induced fugue state. He is hooked up to tubes and cranial patches, small nodes and data ports. The room around him is dark and warm. Only a few essential buttons light up the black like distant stars.
A woman stands over him. She is dressed all in black, barely visible in the dark room. Even her face is hidden. She checks a data port just behind Noah’s ear and disappears again. Quick and quiet so he won’t notice her, so that she makes no imprint on his thoughts.
Nanobots swim beneath Noah’s skull like fish under the ice. They have been there since before he was born, looking after his synapses, inhibiting their pruning and reorganizing them, establishing a structure laid out in four years of computer modeling. Making a mind that had been unfit for a normal life into a great gift for all mankind. A world, a future without a foot put wrong.
Outside the isolation chamber, a small crowd of people watch the prediction unfold on a bank of screens. Video and data readouts monitor every aspect of Noah and his neural activity. His enlarged synaptic webbing cycles through an unknown number of iterations unfolding in the multiverse, an infinite series of possibilities all turning into inevitabilities and then into realities, all playing themselves out with only this small boy to witness them. A child too young to understand the meanings of the messages.
In the observation suite, three doctors monitor Noah’s vitals and the mixture of chemicals flowing through his brain. A chaotician and a probability statistician calculate and recalculate the different potentialities. A child psychologist and a semiotician stand by to interpret Noah’s responses and render his verdict. Behind them all stands a group of men in suits, everything about them polished to a shine.
The chaotician confers with a doctor. One nods, then the other. The doctor turns back to the room. “He’s ready.”
A man speaks out of the back corner. “Wake him up.”
The psychologist and the semiotician pull hoods over their heads to hide their faces. They enter the isolation chamber like thieves into the temple.
Maria jumps at noises coming down the corridor. She freezes like a rabbit as half a dozen men in suits charge through the waiting room.
“What the hell does a three-year-old know about the world anyway?”
“The statistician said there was an eighty-two percent potentiality of that outcome, sir. Eighty-two percent.”
“That means there’s an eighteen percent chance this kid is wrong then.”
“No, sir. Not exactly. It’s not that simple.”
“None of this matters, gentlemen. The only thing that matters is that when people hear the outcome they’re going to vote no.”
Hastings smacks his fist against the wall. Maria snaps her eyes shut as the other men glance her way.
“Then we can kiss all this bloody goodbye, can’t we?” He swears, then, louder, swears again.
“Bruce, calm down. We’ve planned for this. File three in your drive, remember?”
“It’s going to take a hell of a lot more than a file to beat that kid, Giles. A hell of a lot.”
“No, it won’t.He’s already beaten. You know as well as I do, the facts don’t matter in a vote anymore. They haven’t for decades. The only thing that matters is ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ So all we need to do is make sure that kid’s a ‘them.’ That should be easy enough for you, shouldn’t it?Get in front of the cameras and stir up your base. Give them whatever reason you want. Claim bias, claim that the process was flawed. Hell, claim it’s all part of some deep state conspiracy. It doesn’t matter. All that matters is us versus them. Easy. Nikolai’s already drafted the talking points for you.” Giles gives the other men a satisfied smirk. “Open file three, and calm down.”
They start walking again out toward the elevator.
“And the riots?We should get security here.”
“Don’t be an idiot. We’ll look weak. Like we’re worried.”
“Fine. But get our people out.”
Another hour passes before Maria can see Noah. As she waits, Hastings appears on the muted news feed. He stands beneath a flag and gestures like a leader. Maria turns her face back to the window. The sun has sunk between the toothy, black spires of the city, and the sky has deepened to red behind it. There’s a feeling in Maria’s chest like a moth caught in a jar.
Without looking up, Maria gathers her coat and joins Felicity at the door.
“Noah’s doing just fine. He’s asleep now, waiting for the medication to flush out. Do you want to come sit with him? I still have some of the data ports and the respirator hooked up, but it’s just to keep an eye on him. He’s doing really well.”
Maria takes a deep breath and fixes her hair. In the isolation suite, Felicity raises the lights enough for her to see Noah. He’s there on the bed, a small shape inside a sleeve of black material, tiny lights and panels on him that Maria will never understand. His face peeks out like the moon. She puts a hand on his ankle so he’ll know she’s there. His body feels cold so she gently rubs his leg. She whispers to him. Her beautiful little boy.
When the doctors told Maria there was a problem with her fetus, they’d offered her this chance to save him. Maria wonders now, not for the first time: if she’d had her son’s gifts then, would she have made that decision differently?
Felicity gets a chair out of the corner and sets it by the bed. “I’ll leave you two alone and come back when he starts to wake up, okay?” She pats Maria on the shoulder on her way out.
Maria grabs her hand.
She doesn’t look up. She did it without thinking. She’s glad she did it, though. If she’d thought about it, she might not have had the courage.
“They are going to hurt my son.”
“What’d you say, Maria?”
Maria clears her throat and says it loud enough for Felicity to hear. “They’re going to hurt my son.”
Maria starts to say it again, but then she feels Felicity’s other hand on her shoulder.
“Who is, Maria?”
“Maria, no one is going to hurt Noah. Why would they do that?” She squeezes Maria’s hand. “Hang on.”
Felicity drags another chair to the bedside. She leans forward to make contact with Maria’s lowered eyes. “What’s going on?”
Maria tries to start again. She has trouble making sense in English when she’s upset. “The vote, it will go wrong. They will blame my Noah.”
Felicity chuckles. “Maria, no one is going to blame Noah. He did wonderfully today. He helped a lot of people. He helped us all, alright?”
“No.” Maria shakes her head. “Hastings. He was here. I saw him in the waiting room. He will convince the people my son made the wrong choice.”
Felicity doesn’t speak for a moment. One of the machines in the room beeps. “Maria, I don’t think he can do that. People are smarter than that.” She frowns. “They are.”
“No.” Maria swallows. “They will believe him.”
“Maria . . .” Felicity holds Maria’s hands in both of hers. She is trying to understand, but she doesn’t.
Maria looks at her now. “Will you help me?”
“Give me my son back.”
Felicity just watches her. Maria cannot read her face.
Maria steps out into the street, clutching Noah to her chest. He is wrapped into her coat, still sedated and limp as a sack. Lights across the alleyway shine like searchlights through the smog, but there is no one there. No one lives at street level anymore.
Maria adjusts her air filter on Noah’s face. It’s too big for him. The smog creeps in around his cheeks. Maria frowns and adjusts it again. It will have to do. Holding him in her coat tight against her body, Maria takes off into the dark.
Felicity hadn’t understood what Maria was asking of her. All she saw was a worried mother who had nothing to worry about. But because she didn’t understand she didn’t argue. She humored her. She signed Noah off for ten hours of “attachment leave” so Maria could have him home during the vote. She let Maria check her own son out like a library book.
In the street, Maria tells herself she would have attacked Felicity if she’d had to. She doesn’t think she actually could have done that, but it doesn’t matter now. She will not be bringing Noah back in the morning, not ever. She never should have made this bargain.
Down the street, old Chinese women wade through garbage piled like snowdrifts at the feet of skyscrapers. They wear filters and gloves, high waders and frayed conical hats, and they stop to watch Maria rush past. They gaze up together at the earthquake thrum of transports passing overhead. Then they go back to work balancing salvaged plastic in overstuffed sacks, one on each end of the yokes across their shoulders.
Screens wink on as Maria passes them. They are hooked up to motion sensors. Cracked and filthy, no one maintains them anymore. When they light up, they change the colors of the smog. Reds and blues and billowing yellows. Distorted sounds of Hastings pounding the podium and telling crowds the kid is not a good kid. His parents were druggies and gangbangers. There are images of people rallying somewhere not big enough to hold them all, images of kids with hoods and masks, of police with armor and shock sticks. The same pictures replicated again and again, chasing after Maria.
High above the tube station is a bridge. Protestors there are pouring out of the tower blocks to march on the police. Maria hears chants and shouts and smashing sounds. Bottles hit the streets around her. They burst against the concrete, scattering small diamonds of glass. A tenement on fire lights up the windows of the buildings around it.
Maria gets the tube to the east end. She and Noah are nearly alone in the car. Only an old man there, Greek or Turkish, dressed in a muddy, hi-vis coverall. He’s slumped over his own belly with his head bowed and his eyes closed. His body rocks with the movements of the car, but he doesn’t go over. Maria watches him, certain the next jolt will spill him to the floor.
Maria has her hands full so she kicks the door with her foot. She glances up the corridor and down, and she prays Ramon is there. Somewhere a baby cries through a wall.
The door opens. “Maria?”
Maria pushes past Ramon into the darkened hallway. From somewhere deeper in the flat comes the sound of a newsfeed, the rally shouts of “Bar-gain bin! Bar-gain bin!” She follows it and finds the kitchen, a square room of laminate tiles and winking fluorescents. Four or five other men sit there. They watch the screen until they turn to look at her. Maria lays Noah gently onto a countertop. She makes sure her coat hides his body before she turns around to face her cousin.
Ramon looks confused but not angry. “O que está acontecendo?”
“Eu preciso de você para me tirar da cidade.”
“O que?” He chuckles, bemused. “Por quê?”
Ramon stops smiling. He shakes his head. “Can’t do it, Maria.” He looks over at Noah wrapped in her coat. “What is it, you in trouble?”
She grabs his chin to get his eyes back. “How soon then?”
He frowns. “You got money?”
She gives him the same frown back. “You know I don’t.”
Ramon shrugs and holds out his hands. Maria knows the other people in the room are watching them. Their heads swing back and forth like a ping-pong match.
“Everyone wants to get into the city, Maria. You’re the only one wanting to get out.”
Maria feels her foundation eroding. Give her time, she will go over. “I need help, Ramon. Please.”
Ramon looks back at Noah.
Maria goes to her son. She stands in front of him to block the other eyes in the room. She doesn’t trust them. She doesn’t want to trust Ramon, but right now it isn’t up to her. She pulls back the tail of her coat and looks at Ramon. She watches his face change as he sees the black grafts and the data ports, as he sees who her son is.
When the results of the vote are declared, Maria is sitting in a cramped bedsit somewhere near the old city docks. A part of her had been ready to call the whole thing off, to take Noah back in the morning before she went to work. But only if the vote had been a no. On the bedsit’s screen, she watches Hastings raise his fists and beat the air. Whatever comes next, deserved or not, the people have asked for it.
Ramon will come in an hour to move them somewhere, a place where they can rest awhile or get something to eat. Once the lab reports Noah missing, they will need to move every couple hours, but eventually Ramon will arrange a way out for them. A hold in steerage, the cavity of a bulkhead, something. When Maria entered the city, she spent seven hours laying down under the floor of a haul freighter, packed in and sweating with thirty-six other people. The way out will be easier, though. No one else wants to get away, at least not yet.
4 a.m., and the government starts to come apart. There’s a report on the newsfeed that the prime minister will resign in the morning. When people wake up, they’ll be shocked. They will wonder how it went wrong and what they have done. They will want someone to save them, and they will want someone to blame. Hastings can’t save them, so he will blame her son. They all will.
Maria looks over at Noah lying next to her on the sofa. They can blame her son, but they will not have him.
Noah’s asleep now instead of sedated. Ramon says he knows someone who can remove his data ports. Maria knows that person will not be a doctor, but she can’t get Noah out looking like he does now. She reaches out and touches his ankle. She feels the warmth in it, and she speaks to him in Portuguese. “I won’t let them get us.” She wonders if he knows what will happen to them.
It doesn’t matter, though. Even if they catch her now, she knows she never could’ve done anything different, not and still be his mother. She’d squandered too many choices over the years, and too many more were taken from her. This one was hers to make, though, and she made it. The only thing Noah could tell her now is what price she’ll pay.
Sooner or later, there will be a noise at the door. She’ll jump and freeze, her heart will stop, and she’ll wait until either Ramon or the police come into the room. Until then, she turns away from the screen and watches her son. Her and her beautiful little boy, together for whatever is to come.