Civil Liberties

For your reading pleasure, a short story I penned a little while ago I thought I’d share here, just for you.
Civil Liberties

The first time I ask Mom for my own neural link she says, “No, son. Isn’t gonna happen.”

“But, Mom, it’s not like – ”

“Dulal, not open for discussion.”

I thought she’d at least ask me why. I watch her for a bit. I feel weird. I want her to listen, but I don’t want to make her mad. I decide I better wait awhile.

Two weeks later, I’m sitting at the table, eating chapatis and bhindi bhaji, and try again. “Please, Mom, I would like my own neural link. Everyone at school has their own.”

“Everyone at school is rather encompassing.”

“Well, lots of kids do.”

“You’re not lots of kids. No, I’m sorry.”

“But –”

“I said no.”

What does she mean by you’re not lots of kids. That she sees me the way – well, that stings. Even though I’m supposed to be a big all-fired secret, the whole station knows what I am. Friggin Pinocchio. Adopted son of a geneticist. Nanoman.

“I’ve got a treat for you,” she says.

“Oh?” I refuse to look at her cause I don’t want her to see I’m hurt. I can hear the clatter of dishes as she loads them into the sanitizer. I scoop up the last mouthful of bhindi and put my plate in the rack. There’s a sunset glow from the holo over the sink. A bluejay zooms onto the branch of the pine. It makes this noise, sort of a fluting sound. I wonder why Mom always has the same half dozen Muskoka scenes.

“What’s the treat?” I finally ask.

“We have to go to the lab for it.”

I feel dinner go sour. “Not another test.”

She drapes her arm around me and squeezes. “No, Dulal, I promise. This is definitely a treat. Bit of a secret, but a treat.”

“Well, why do we have to go to the lab?”

She laughs. “You’ll see. C’mon, gloomy guts. You’re gonna love this.”

I tap in the cycle for the sanitizer, and follow her out.

Once in the corridor we cut through to the arboretum. I like it here, like the soft light, the smell of the pines. Off the path, a guy sits cross-legged on the ground, a hang drum cradled in his knees. It’s amazing watching his fingers dance over the shining metal. It sounds like bells. There’s a woman dancing with ribbon wands and I think of space dust caught on a solar wind. From there we swing off to the right and to the airlock.

“Damn,” Mom says. I look at her, cause I’ve been walking backwards, watching that guy, watching the ribbons and the green light of the trees. I wonder what’s up, and then turn around and see two miners approaching with a woman in a white helmet. “We’ll have to wait,” Mom says. “Must be a problem with the water extractors from Enceladus.” We retreat a few paces.

The outer airlock hisses shut with the trio inside. I watch their hands flap, try to figure out what they’re saying. They move through to the second stage.

“Ah, there, they’re through,” Mom says. “C’mon, our turn.”

We step into the airlock, wait for the signal to move to the next section and take the lift to the research ring.

“Do you miss it, Mom?” I ask, cause I’m still thinking about the guy with the hang drum, and the trees in the arboretum.

“Miss what?”

“You know. Earth. Ontario. The pines you always have on our holos.”

She looks down at me. Lights from the deck levels slide over her face, bright and dark, bright and dark. “What makes you ask that?”

“I dunno. I just thought that maybe you missed it cause you’re not from here.”

She frowns, thinking. “Yeah, sometimes. But the work I do here is so important.” She touches my cheek. “And you’re here. How could I miss Earth for long with you here?” I can feel my face get hot. I look away, out the thick window to the shimmering blue halo from the ice geysers of Enceladus. It doesn’t matter how many times I see that, it’s always amazing.

We take C Corridor when we dock instead of A to her office, each of us going through security checks. The first difference I notice is the walls of green plants, dripping with white flowers and small red fruit. Mom flings out her arms, pointing and grinning.

“Strawberries,” she announces.

I look at her, trying to figure out the big deal. So they’d made a wall of plants. Yeah, that’s a big deal, for sure, but she seems to think this is something I should get excited about. I shrug.

She laughs and picks one of the dangling berries. “Try this.”

“Eat it?”

“No. Play catch with it. Yes, eat it, silly.” She pops one in her mouth. She closes her eyes and sighs as she chews.

I take a nibble of the end of the fruit. Wow! Pop the whole thing in my mouth and chew. Wow! There’s all this sweet juice, and the taste is, well, indescribable!

She laughs again, watching me. “I know, eh? We had samples in suspension and decided they might be a safe thing for our self-sufficiency program.” She gestures to the long corridor of hanging green plants. “They’re easy to grow. We’ve hybridized them, obviously, so they’re self-pollinating, give a high yield, and can tolerate the light conditions here. And what’s even better is they don’t take up much room and can be grown in common spaces, increasing the biodiversity of the station, and the nutritional value of our diet.” She looks back at me. “Cool, huh?”

I have to admit it’s exciting. I pick another berry and chew away. Mom joins me. It’s the best dessert of my life.

A week later I’m studying World Politics at school, the section about civil liberties. And there, right on the tablet in front of me, I find something I can use. These philosophers likeThoreau and Paine, and Vanderkemp and Bhatnagar, are going on about freedom of expression and the rights of humans, and how access to information is freedom for the people. I look up at my classmates. Some of them are staring out into the classroom, like monks in meditation. I’m wondering what it’s like for them to be receiving this same information right into their brains, to be making physical notes with their thoughts. I look back down at the text on my tablet. Freedom of information. Freedom of expression. Civil liberties. I figure I can use that on Mom. But of course what I really want, besides my rights, is to be able to connect with this stuff. I mean really connect, to be the information.

So, that evening I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor of our common room, trying to download research for an assignment. It’s taking forever. Mom is stretched out on the sofa, tablet propped on her chest. I figure now as good a time as any to hit her with another try. I take a big breath.

“You know, Mom, it’s an infringement of my civil liberties to deny me my own neural link.”

She arches a brow, doesn’t even look at me when she says, “Nice try. And how, exactly, have I infringed upon your civil liberties?”

“You’re denying me my personal freedom of expression and research,” I answer. “I have the right to pursue research uncensored, unmonitored.” That makes her look over at me. The tablet does a horizontal to her belly. In the background I can hear the music shuffle to classical guitar. “You talk about this sort of thing all the time in your work.”

“We can’t afford it.”

“I thought you wanted me to study hard, to learn, to explore,” I say softly, my head down. I think I’ve friggin’ hurt her feelings. Way to go.

“I do,” she says.

“Then we have to find a way.”

“How, Dulal? These things are expensive. And in case you hadn’t noticed I’m not a miner or an engineer connected to the mining facility. I’m just a genetic biologist.”

“Is it because of what I am?” There it is. Out in the air between us.

“You’re my son, Dulal.”

“And I’m a freak.”

That makes her sit up. “Says who?”

“Everyone knows I’m NanoMan.”

“NanoMan? Where did that come from?”

I can’t look at her. If I do I’m sure I’ll cry. “Doesn’t matter.”

She slides down off the sofa and pulls up my chin. I look at the oval of her face and think of an image I’ve seen of the goddess Indra. “You listen to me, Dulal,” she says, her voice not much more than a fierce whisper. “You may not have been created in my womb. But you were completely from biological sperm and my egg. You may have a nano-structure that assists your DNA. But you are all mine. You’re most definitely my son.”

“But the kids all say the reason I don’t have my own neural link is because I’m property, a research project for the station.”

Mom squeezes me tight then. She’s really upset I can tell. “You’re not property. You’re my son. My own flesh and blood. We none of us own each other. It was my choice, my decision, to have a child, to allow that child to have an advantage no one else has. What I gave you is a chance to live in space without all the problems the rest of us have: the bone loss, the circulatory problems. You understand?” I nod. She sighs. “Don’t worry. I’ll fix this,” she says. She gets up. I’m thinking she’s pissed and is going to call somebody, make a public fuss. All her movements are sharp and short. She’s keying something into her tablet, muttering the whole time about idiot bullies and ignorant plebs. I run the back of my hand across my eyes, mad that I’d cried, that I’ve made her upset.

My own tablet warbles then. I thumb the message and gawp, look over at Mom who has her own tears and a frown. I look back down at the message there. It’s a freaking huge sum of money she’s transferred to me. She hasn’t called anyone. She’s done this for me. For me!

“No kidding?” I say. “Wow, no kidding?” I look back to Mom. “But you said we couldn’t afford it.”

“That’s right.”

“But so where does this credit come from?”

“It’s our household budget for the next month.”

That puts me on full alert. “But what will we live off of?”

“I can manage to fudge things for about thirty days with most accounts. Food credits, though, are going to be difficult.”

“Food credits? But –”

“—How will we eat?”

I nod.

“Well, everything we have stocked will be allocated for you, because you’re under-age and if I don’t make sure you’re properly housed, clothed and fed, the station authorities could take you away from me.”

“They’d do that?”

“It’s part of what you called your civil liberties. Children must be cared for. You know very well it’s a big deal for families with children to be allowed to live on the station.”

“So this has nothing to do with Nanoman?”

“It has to do with my son.”

“But what about you?”

“Oh, I’ll manage. I can scrounge some stuff from the lab, eat lots of strawberries,” She flicks a smile. “And people are always leaving lunches in the lab fridge.”

“But that’s stealing!”

“It’s surviving. But you’ll have the link, and that’s more important. What concerns me is paying for our air allotment, because that I can’t juggle.”

“But we can’t survive without air!”

“I know.”

“But that means we’d have to live in public spaces!”

“I know.”

“But that’s illegal. The station doesn’t allow vagrants.”

“I know.”

“But we’d be homeless, Mom!”

“But you’d have your link, and I don’t want you to do without your civil liberties, Dulal. You know you mean everything to me, that I’d walk through fire for you. There are places we could hide out.”

“But they’d take me away from you! Like what happened to Jerry when his mom took that asteroid deployment.” And what rules there might be about me, because Mom had engineered me into a kid who would stand a better chance in space, I have no idea. I try very hard to keep a calm face, to breathe normally, and I want so much to go and hug Mom and hear her say this will all work out. Damn, this is hard!

Decision done. I thumb my tablet. Mom’s vibrates on the table. She picks it up.

“You cancelled the transfer?” she asks.

I nod and run to her. It’s perfectly okay for a guy to hug his mom when she’s upset. I say to her, “I don’t need my civil liberties at the expense of other people.”

She gulps at that and hugs me back, fiercely. But of course neither of us are crying. Not really.

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