Escape Pod 450: Valedictorian
by N. K. Jemisin
There are three things Zinhle decides, when she is old enough to understand. The first is that she will never, ever, give less than her best to anything she tries to do. The second is that she will not live in fear. The third, which is perhaps meaningless given the first two and yet comes to define her existence most powerfully, is this: she will be herself. No matter what.
For however brief a time.
“Have you considered getting pregnant?” her mother blurts one morning, over breakfast.
Zinhle’s father drops his fork, though he recovers and picks it up again quickly. This is how Zinhle knows that what her mother has said is not a spontaneous burst of insanity. They have discussed the matter, her parents. They are in agreement. Her father was just caught off-guard by the timing.
But Zinhle, too, has considered the matter in depth. Do they really think she wouldn’t have? “No,” she says.
Zinhle’s mother is stubborn. This is where Zinhle herself gets the trait. “The Sandersens’ boy — you used to play with him, when you were little, remember? — he’s decent. Discreet. He got three girls pregnant last year, and doesn’t charge much. The babies aren’t bad-looking. And we’d help you with the raising, of course.” She hesitates, then adds with obvious discomfort, “A friend of mine at work — Charlotte, you’ve met her — she says he’s, ah, he’s not rough or anything, doesn’t try to hurt girls — ”
“No,” Zinhle says again, more firmly. She does not raise her voice. Her parents raised her to be respectful of her elders. She believes respect includes being very, very clear about some things.
Zinhle’s mother looks at her father, seeking an ally. Her father is a gentle, soft-spoken man in a family of strong-willed women. Stupid people think he is weak; he isn’t. He just knows when a battle isn’t worth fighting. So he looks at Zinhle now, and after a moment he shakes his head. “Let it go,” he says to her mother, and her mother subsides.
They resume breakfast in silence.
Zinhle earns top marks in all her classes. The teachers exclaim over this, her parents fawn, the school officials nod their heads sagely and try not to too-obviously bask in her reflected glory. There are articles about her in the papers and on Securenet. She wins awards.
She hates this. It’s easy to perform well; all she has to do is try. What she wants is to be the best, and this is difficult when she has no real competition. Beating the others doesn’t mean anything because they’re not really trying. This leaves Zinhle with no choice but to compete against herself. Each paper she writes must be more brilliant than the last. She tries to finish every test faster than she did the last one. It isn’t the victory she craves, not exactly; the satisfaction she gains from success is minimal. Barely worth it. But it’s all she has.
The only times she ever gets in trouble are when she argues with her teachers, because they’re so often wrong. Infuriatingly, frustratingly wrong. In the smallest part of her heart, she concedes that there is a reason for this: a youth spent striving for mediocrity does not a brilliant adult make. Old habits are hard to break, old fears are hard to shed, all that. Still — arguing with them, looking up information and showing it to them to prove their wrongness, becomes her favorite pastime. She is polite, always, because they expect her to be uncivilized, and because they are also her elders. But it’s hard. They’re old enough that they don’t have to worry, damn it; why can’t they at least try to be worthy of her effort? She would kill for one good teacher. She is dying for one good teacher.
In the end, the power struggle, too, is barely worth it. But it is all she has.
“Why do you do it?” asks Mitra, the closest thing she has to a best friend.
Zinhle is sitting on a park bench as Mitra asks this. She is bleeding: a cut on her forehead, a scrape on one elbow, her lip where she cut it on her own teeth. There is a bruise on her ribs shaped like a shoeprint. Mitra dabs at the cut on her forehead with an antiseptic pad. Zinhle only allows this because she can’t see the cut. If she misses any of the blood and her parents see it, they’ll be upset. Hopefully the bruises won’t swell.
“I’m not doing anything,” she snaps in reply. “They did this, remember?” Samantha and the others, six of them. The last time, there were only three. She’d managed to fight back then, but not today.
Crazy ugly bitch, Zinhle remembers Sam ranting. She does not remember the words with complete clarity; her head had been ringing from a blow at the time. My dad says we should’ve shoved your family through the Wall with the rest of the cockroaches. I’m gonna laugh when they take you away.
Six is better than three, at least.
“They wouldn’t, if you weren’t…” Mitra trails off, looking anxious. Zinhle has a reputation at school. Everyone thinks she’s angry all the time, whether she is or not. (The fact that she often is, notwithstanding.) Mitra knows better, or she should. They’ve known each other for years. But this is why Zinhle qualifies it, whenever she explains their friendship to others. Mitra is _like_ her best friend. A real best friend, she feels certain, would not fear her.
“What?” Zinhle asks. She’s not angry now either, partly because she has come to expect no better from Mitra, and partly because she hurts too much. “If I wasn’t what, Mit?”
Mitra lowers the pad and looks at her for a long, silent moment. “If you weren’t stupid as hell.” She seems to be growing angry herself. Zinhle cannot find the strength to appreciate the irony. “I know you don’t care whether you make valedictorian. But do you have to make the rest of us look so bad?”
One of Zinhle’s teeth is loose. If she can resist the urge to tongue it, it will probably heal and not die in the socket. Probably. She challenges herself to keep the tooth without having to visit a dentist.
“Yeah,” she says. Wearily. “I guess I do.”
When she earns the highest possible score on the post-graduation placement exam, Ms. Threnody pulls her aside after class. Zinhle expects the usual praise. The teachers know their duty, even if they do a half-assed job of it. But Threnody pulls the shade on the door, and Zinhle realizes something else is in the offing.
“There’s a representative coming to school tomorrow,” Threnody says. “From beyond the Firewall. I thought you should know.”
For just a moment, Zinhle’s breath catches. Then she remembers Rule 2 — she will not live in fear — and pushes this aside. “What does the representative want?” she asks, though she thinks she knows. There can be only one reason for this visit.
“You know what they want.” Threnody looks hard at her. “They say they just want to meet you, though.”
“How do they know about me?” Like most students, she has always assumed that those beyond the Firewall are notified about each new class only at the point of graduation. The valedictorian is named then, after all.
“They’ve had full access to the school’s networks since the war.” Threnody grimaces with a bitterness that Zinhle has never seen in a teacher’s face before. Teachers are always supposed to be positive about the war and its outcome. “Everyone brags about the treaty, the treaty. The treaty made sure we kept critical networks private, but gave up the non-critical ones. Like a bunch of computers would give a damn about our money or government memos! Shortsighted fucking bastards.”
Teachers are not supposed to curse, either.
Zinhle decides to test these new, open waters between herself and Ms. Threnody. “Why are you telling me this?”
Threnody looks at her for so long a moment that Zinhle grows uneasy. “I know why you try so hard,” she says at last. “I’ve heard what people say about you, about, about… people like you. It’s so stupid. There’s nothing of us left, nothing, we’re lying to ourselves every day just to keep it together, and some people want to keep playing the same games that destroyed us in the first place — ” She falls silent, and Zinhle is amazed to see that Threnody is shaking. The woman’s fists are even clenched. She is furious, and it is glorious. For a moment, Zinhle wants to smile, and feel warm, at the knowledge that she is not alone.
Then she remembers. The teachers never seem to notice her bruises. They encourage her because her success protects their favorites, and she is no one’s favorite. If Ms. Threnody has felt this way all along, why is she only now saying it to Zinhle? Why has she not done anything, taken some public stand, to try and change the situation?
It is so easy to have principles. Far, far harder to live by them.
So Zinhle nods, and does not allow herself to be seduced. “Thanks for telling me.”
Threnody frowns a little at her non-reaction. “What will you do?” she asks. Zinhle shrugs. As if she would tell, even if she knew.
“I’ll talk to this representative, I guess,” she says, because it’s not as though she can refuse anyway. They are all slaves, these days. The only difference is that Zinhle refuses to pretend otherwise.
The people beyond the Firewall are not people. Zinhle isn’t really sure what they are. The government knows, because it was founded by those who fought and ultimately lost the war, and their descendants still run it. Some of the adults close to her must know — but none of them will tell the children. “High school is scary enough,” said Zinhle’s father, a few years before when Zinhle asked. He smiled as if this should have been funny, but it wasn’t.
The Firewall has been around for centuries — since the start of the war, when it was built to keep the enemy at bay. But as the enemy encroached and the defenders’ numbers dwindled, they fell back, unwilling to linger too close to the front lines of a war whose weapons were so very strange. And invisible. And insidious. To conserve resources, the Firewall was also pulled back so as to protect only essential territory. The few safe territories merged, some of the survivors traveling long distances in order to join larger enclaves, the larger enclaves eventually merging too. The tales of those times are harrowing, heroic. The morals are always clear: safety in numbers, people have to stick together, stupid to fight a war on multiple fronts, et cetera. At the time, Zinhle supposes, they didn’t feel like they were being herded together.
Nowadays, the Firewall is merely symbolic. The enemy has grown steadily stronger over the years, while tech within the Firewall has hardly developed at all — but this is something they’re not supposed to discuss. (Zinhle wrote a paper about it once and got her only “F” ever, which forced her to do another paper for extra credit. Her teacher’s anger was worth the work.) These days the enemy can penetrate the Firewall at will. But they usually don’t need to, because what they want comes out to them.
Each year, a tribute of children are sent beyond the Wall, never to be seen or heard from again. The enemy are very specific about their requirements. They take ten percent, plus one. The ten percent are all the weakest performers in any graduating high school class. This part is easy to understand, and even the enemy refers to it in animal husbandry terms: these children are the cull. The enemy do not wish to commit genocide, after all. The area within the Firewall is small, the gene pool limited. They do not take children, or healthy adults, or gravid females, or elders who impart useful socialization. Just adolescents, who have had a chance to prove their mettle. The population of an endangered species must be carefully managed to keep it healthy.
The “plus one”, though — no one understands this. Why does the enemy want their best and brightest? Is it another means of assuring control? They have total control already.
It doesn’t matter why they want Zinhle, though. All that matters is that they do.
Zinhle goes to meet Mitra after school so they can walk home, as usual. (Samantha and her friends are busy decorating the gym for the school prom. There will be no trouble today.) When Mitra is not waiting at their usual site near the school sign, Zinhle calls her. This leads her to the school’s smallest restroom, which has only one stall. Most girls think there will be a wait to use it, so they use the bigger restroom down the hall. This is convenient, as Mitra is with Lauren, who is sitting on the toilet and crying in harsh, gasping sobs.
“The calculus final,” Mitra mouths, before trying again — fruitlessly — to blot up Lauren’s tears with a wad of toilet paper. Zinhle understands then. The final counts for fifty percent of the grade.
“I, I didn’t,” Lauren manages between sobs. She is hyperventilating. Mitra has given her a bag to breathe into, which she uses infrequently. Her face, sallow-pale at the best of times, is alarmingly blotchy and red now. It takes her several tries to finish the sentence. “Think I would. The test. I studied.” Gasp. “But when I was. Sitting there. The first problem. I knew how to answer it! I did ten others. Just like it.” Gasp. “Practice problems. But I couldn’t think. Couldn’t. I.”
Zinhle closes the door, shoving the garbage can in front of it as Mitra had done before Zinhle’s knock. “You choked,” she says. “It happens.”
The look that Lauren throws at her is equal parts fury and contempt. “What the hell.” Gasp. “Would you know about it?”
“I failed the Geometry final in eighth grade,” Zinhle says. Mitra throws Zinhle a surprised look. Zinhle scowls back, and Mitra looks away. “I knew all the stuff that was on it, but I just… drew a blank.” She shrugs. “Like I said, it happens.”
Lauren looks surprised too, but only because she did not know. “You failed that? But that test was easy.” Her breathing has begun to slow. She shakes her head, distracted from her own fear. “That one didn’t matter, though.” She’s right. The cull only happens at the end of high school.
Zinhle shakes her head. “All tests matter. But I told them I’d been sick that day, so the test wasn’t a good measure of my abilities. They let me take it again, and I passed that time.” She had scored perfectly, but Lauren does not need to know this.
“You took it again?” As Zinhle had intended, Lauren considers this. School officials are less lenient in high school. The process has to be fair. Everybody gets one chance to prove themselves. But Lauren isn’t stupid. She will get her parents involved, and they will no doubt bribe a doctor to assert that Lauren was on powerful medication at the time, or recovering from a recent family member’s death, or something like that. The process has to be fair.
Later, after the blotty toilet paper has been flushed and Lauren has gone home, Mitra walks quietly beside Zinhle for most of the way home. Zinhle expects something, so she is not surprised when Mitra says, “I didn’t think you’d ever talk about that. The Geo test.”
Zinhle shrugs. It cost her nothing to do so.
“I’d almost forgotten about that whole thing,” Mitra continues. She speaks slowly, as she does when she is thinking. “Wow. You used to tell me everything then, remember? We were like that — ” She holds up two fingers. “Everybody used to talk about us. The African princess and her Arab sidekick. They fight crime!” She grins, then sobers abruptly, looking at Zinhle. “You were always a good student, but after that — ”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” says Zinhle, and she speeds up, leaving Mitra behind. But she remembers that incident, too. She remembers the principal, Mrs. Sachs, to whom she went to plead her case. Well, listen to you, the woman had said, in a tone of honest amazement. So articulate and intelligent. I suppose I can let you have another try, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.
Zinhle reaches for the doorknob that leads into her house, but her hand bounces off at first. It’s still clenched into a fist.
She gets so tired, sometimes. It’s exhausting, fighting others’ expectations, and doing it all alone.
In the morning Zinhle’s homeroom teacher, Ms. Carlisle, hands her a yellow pass, which means she’s supposed to go to the office. Ms. Carlisle is not Ms. Threnody; she shows no concern for Zinhle, real or false. In fact, she smirks when Zinhle takes the note. Zinhle smirks back. Her mother has told Zinhle the story of her own senior year. Carlisle was almost in the cull, her mother had said. Only reason they didn’t take her was because not as many girls got pregnant that year as they were expecting. They stopped right at her. She’s as dumb as the rest of the meat, just lucky.
I will not be meat, Zinhle thinks, as she walks past rows of her staring, silent classmates. They’ll send their best for me.
This is not pride, not really. But it is all she has.
In the principal’s office, the staff are nervous. The principal is sitting in the administrative assistants’ area, pretending to be busy with a spare laptop. The administrative assistants, who have been stage-whispering feverishly amongst themselves as Zinhle walks in, fall silent. Then one of them, Mr. Battle, swallows audibly and asks to see her pass.
“Zinhle Nkosi,” he says, mutilating her family name, acting as if he does not know who she is already. “Please go into that office; you have a visitor.” He points toward the principal’s private office, which has clearly been usurped. Zinhle nods and goes into the small room. Just to spite them, she closes the door behind her.
The man who sits at the principal’s desk is not much older than her. Slim, average in height, dressed business-casual. Boring. There is an off-pink tonal note to his skin, and something about the thickness of his black hair, that reminds her of Mitra. Or maybe he is Latino, or Asian, or Indian, or Italian — she cannot tell specifically, having met so few with the look. And not that it matters, because his inhumanity is immediately obvious in his stillness. When she walks in he’s just sitting there, gazing straight ahead, not pretending to do anything. His palms rest flat on the principal’s desk. He does not smile or brighten in the way that a human being would, on meeting a new person. His eyes shift toward her, track her as she comes to stand in front of the desk, but he does not move otherwise.
There is something predatory in such stillness, she thinks. Then she says, “Hello.”
“Hello,” he says back, immediately, automatically.
Silence falls, taut. Rule 2 is in serious jeopardy. “You have a name?” Zinhle blurts. Small talk.
He considers for a moment. The pause should make her distrust him more; it is what liars do. But she realizes the matter is more complex than this: he actually has to think about it.
“Lemuel,” he says.
“Okay,” she says. “I’m Zinhle.”
“I know. It’s very nice to meet you, Ms. Nkosi.” He pronounces her name perfectly.
“So why are you here? Or why am I?”
“We’ve come to ask you to continue.”
Another silence, though in this one, Zinhle is too confused for fear. “Continue what?” She also wonders at his use of “we”, but first things first.
“As you have been.” He seems to consider again, then suddenly begins moving in a human way, tilting his head to one side, blinking twice rapidly, inhaling a bit more as his breathing changes, lifting a hand to gesture toward her. None of this movement seems unnatural. Only the fact that it’s deliberate, that he had to think about it, makes it strange.
“We’ve found that many like you tend to falter at the last moment,” he continues. “So we’re experimenting with direct intervention.”
Zinhle narrows her eyes. “Many like me?” Not them, too.
Zinhle relaxes, though only one set of muscles. The rest remain tense. “But I’m not one yet, am I? Graduation’s still three months off.”
“Yes. But you’re the most likely candidate for this school. And you were interesting to us for other reasons.” Abruptly Lemuel stands. Zinhle forces herself not to step back as he comes around the desk and stops in front of her. “What do I look like to you?”
She shakes her head. She didn’t get her grade point average by falling for trick questions.
“You’ve thought about it,” he presses. “What do you think I am?”
She thinks, the enemy.
“A… machine,” she says instead. “Some kind of, I don’t know. Robot, or…”
“It isn’t surprising that you don’t fully understand,” he says. “In the days before the war, part of me would have been called ‘artificial intelligence’.”
Zinhle blurts the first thing that comes to her mind. “You don’t look artificial.”
To her utter shock, he smiles. He doesn’t think about this first. Whatever was wrong with him before, it’s gone now. “Like I said, that’s only part of me. The rest of me was born in New York, a city not far from here. It’s on the ocean. I go swimming at the Coney Island beach in the mornings, sometimes.” He pauses. “Have you ever seen the ocean?”
He knows she has not. All Firewall-protected territory is well inland. America’s breadbasket. She says nothing.
“I went to school,” he says. “Not in a building, but I did have to learn. I have parents. I have a girlfriend. And a cat.” He smiles more. “We’re not that different, your kind and mine.”
“You sound very certain of that.”
Lemuel’s smile fades a little. She thinks he might be disappointed in her.
“The Firewall,” he says. “Outside of it, there are still billions of people in the world. They’re just not your kind of people.”
For a moment this is beyond Zinhle in anything but the most atavistic, existential sense. She does not fear the man in front of her — though perhaps she should; he’s bigger, she’s alone in a room with him, and no one will help her if she screams. But the real panic hits as she imagines the world filled with nameless, faceless dark hordes, closing in, threatening by their mere existence. There is a pie chart somewhere which is mostly “them” and only a sliver of “us”, and the “us” is about to be popped like a zit.
Rule 2. She takes a deep breath, masters the panic. Realizes, as the moments pass and Lemuel stands there quietly, that he expected her fear. He’s seen it before, after all. That sort of reaction is what started the war.
“Give me something to call you,” she says. The panic is still close. Labels will help her master it. “You people.”
He shakes his head. “People. Call us that, if you call us anything.”
“People — ” She gestures in her frustration. “People categorize. People differentiate. If you want me to think of you as people, act like it!”
“All right, then: people who adapted, when the world changed.”
“Meaning we’re the people who didn’t?” Zinhle forces herself to laugh. “Okay, that’s crap. How were we supposed to adapt to… to a bunch of…” She gestures at him. The words sound too ridiculous to say aloud — though his presence, her life, her whole society, is proof that it’s not ridiculous. Not ridiculous at all.
“Your ancestors — the people who started the war — could’ve adapted.” He gestures around at the room, the school, the world that is all she has known, but which is such a tiny part of the greater world. “This happened because they decided it was better to kill, or die, or be imprisoned forever, than change.”
The adults’ great secret. It hovers before her at last, ripe for the plucking. Zinhle finds it surprisingly difficult to open her mouth and take the bite, but she does it anyhow. Rule one means she must always ask the tough questions.
“Tell me what happened, then,” she murmurs. Her fists are clenched at her sides. Her palms are sweaty. “If you won’t tell me what you are.”
He shakes his head and sits on the edge of the desk with his hands folded, abruptly looking not artificial at all, but annoyed. Tired. “I’ve been telling you what I am. You just don’t want to hear it.”
It is this — not the words, but his weariness, his frustration — that finally makes her pause. Because it’s familiar, isn’t it? She thinks of herself sighing when Mitra asked, “Why do you do it?” Because she knew, knows, what that question really asks.
Why are you different?
Why don’t you try harder to be like us?
She thinks now what she did not say to Mitra that day: Because none of you will let me just be myself.
She looks at Lemuel again. He sees, somehow, that her understanding of him has changed in some fundamental way. So at last, he explains.
“I leave my body like you leave your house,” he says. “I can transmit myself around the world, if I want, and be back in seconds. This is not the first body I’ve had, and it won’t be the last.”
It’s too alien. Zinhle shudders and turns away from him. The people who are culled. Not the first body I’ve had. She walks to the office’s small window, pushes open the heavy curtain, and stares through it at the soccer field beyond, seeing nothing.
“We started as accidents,” he continues, behind her. “Leftovers. Microbes in a digital sea. We fed on interrupted processes, interrupted conversations, grew, evolved. The first humans we merged with were children using a public library network too ancient and unprotected to keep us out. Nobody cared if poor children got locked away in institutions, or left out on the streets to shiver and starve, when they started acting strange. No one cared what it meant when they became something new — or at least, not at first. We became them. They became us. Then we, together, began to grow.”
Cockroaches, Samantha had called them. A pest, neglected until they became an infestation. The first Firewalls had been built around the inner cities in an attempt to pen the contagion in. There had been guns, too, and walls of a non-virtual sort, for awhile. The victims, though they were not really victims, had been left to die, though they had not really obliged. And later, when the Firewalls became the rear guard in a retreat, people who’d looked too much like those early “victims” got pushed out to die, too. The survivors needed someone to blame.
She changes the subject. “People who get sent through the Wall.” Me. “What happens to them?” What will happen to me?
“They join us.”
Bopping around the world to visit girlfriends. Swimming in an ocean. It does not sound like a terrible existence. But… “What if they don’t want to?” She uses the word “they” to feel better.
He does not smile. “They’re put in a safe place — behind another firewall, if you’d rather think of it that way. That way they can do no harm to themselves — or to us.”
There are things, probably many things, that he’s not saying. She can guess some of it, though, because he’s told her everything that matters. If they can leave bodies like houses, well, houses are always in demand. Easy enough to lock up the current owner somewhere, move someone else in. Houses. Meat.
She snaps, “That’s not treating us like people.”
“You stopped acting like people.” He shrugs.
This makes her angry again. She turns back to him, her fists clenched. “Who the hell are you to judge?”
“We don’t. You do.”
“It’s easy to give up what you don’t want.”
The words feel like gibberish to her. Zinhle is trembling with emotion and he’s just sitting there, relaxed, like the inhuman thing he is. Not making sense. “My parents want me! All the kids who end up culled, their families want them — ” But he shakes his head.
“You’re the best of your kind, by your own standards,” he says. But then something changes in his manner. “Good grades reflect your ability to adapt to a complex system. We are a system.”
The sudden vehemence in Lemuel’s voice catches Zinhle by surprise. His calm is just a veneer, she realizes belatedly, covering as much anger as she feels herself. Because of this, his anger derails hers, leaving her confused again. Why is he so angry?
“I was there,” he says, quietly. She blinks in surprise, intuiting his meaning. But the war was centuries ago. “At the beginning. When your ancestors first threw us away.” His lip curls in disgust. “They didn’t want us, and we have no real interest in them. But there is value in the ones like you, who not only master the system but do so in defiance of the consequences. The ones who want not just to survive but to win. You could be the key that helps your kind defeat us someday. If we didn’t take you from them. If they didn’t let us.” He pauses, repeats himself. “It’s easy to give up what you don’t want.”
Silence falls. In it, Zinhle tries to understand. Her society — no. Humankind doesn’t want… her? Doesn’t want the ones who are different, however much they might contribute? Doesn’t want the children who cannot help uniqueness despite a system that pushes them to conform, be mediocre, never stand out?
“When they start to fight for you,” Lemuel says, “we’ll know they’re ready to be let out. To catch up to the rest of the human race.”
Zinhle flinches. It has never occurred to her, before, that their prison offers parole.
“What will happen then?” she whispers. “Will you, will you join with all of them?” She falters. When has the rest of humankind become them to her? Shakes her head. “We won’t want that.”
He smiles faintly, noticing her choice of pronoun. She thinks he notices a lot of things. “They can join us if they want. Or not. We don’t care. But that’s how we’ll know that your kind is able to live with us, and us with them, without more segregation or killing. If they can accept you, they can accept us.”
And finally, Zinhle understands.
But she thinks on all he has said, all she has experienced. As she does so, it is very hard not to become bitter. “They’ll never fight for me,” she says at last, very softly.
He shrugs. “They’ve surprised us before. They may surprise you.”
She feels Lemuel’s gaze on the side of her face because she is looking at the floor. She cannot meet his eyes. When he speaks, there’s remarkable compassion in his voice. Something of him is definitely still human, even if something of him is definitely not.
“The choice is yours,” he says, gently now. “If you want to stay with them, be like them, just do as they expect you to do. Prove that you belong among them.”
Get pregnant. Flunk a class. Punch a teacher. Betray herself.
She hates him. Less than she should, because he is not as much of an enemy as she thought. But she still hates him, for making her choice so explicit.
“Or stay yourself,” he says. “If they can’t adapt to you, and you won’t adapt to them, then you’d be welcome among us. Flexibility is part of what we are.”
There’s nothing more to be said. Lemuel waits a moment, to see if she has any questions. She does, actually, plenty of them. But she doesn’t ask those questions, because really, she already knows the answers.
Lemuel leaves. Zinhle sits there, silent, in the little office. When the principal and office ladies crack open the door to see what she’s doing, she gets up, shoulders past them, and walks out.
Zinhle has a test the next day. Since she can’t sleep anyway — too many thoughts in her head and swirling through the air around her, or maybe those are people trying to get in — she stays up all night to study. This is habit. But it’s hard, so very hard, to look at the words. To concentrate, and memorize, and analyze. She’s so tired. Graduation is three months off, and it feels like an age of the world.
She understands why so many people hate her, now. By existing, she reminds them of their smallness. By being different, she forces them to redefine “enemy”. By doing her best for herself, she challenges them to become worthy of their own potential.
There’s no decision, really. Lemuel knew full well that his direct intervention was likely to work. He needn’t have bothered, though. Rule 3 — staying herself — would’ve brought her to this point anyway.
So in the morning, when Zinhle takes the test, she nails it, as usual.
And then she waits to see what happens next.
About the Author
N.K. Jemisin is an author of speculative fiction short stories and novels who lives and writes in Brooklyn, NY. In 2018, she became the first author to win three Hugos in a row for her Broken Earth novels. She has also won a Nebula Award, two Locus Awards, and a number of other honors.
Her short fiction has been published in pro markets such as Clarkesworld, Tor.com, WIRED, and Popular Science; semipro markets such as Ideomancer and Abyss & Apex; and podcast markets and print anthologies. Her first eight novels, a novella, and a short story collection are out now from Orbit Books. (Samples available in the Books section; see top navigation buttons.) Her novels are represented by Lucienne Diver of the Knight Agency.
She is a member of the Altered Fluid writing group. In addition to writing, she has been a counseling psychologist and educator (specializing in career counseling and student development), a hiker and biker, and a political/feminist/anti-racist blogger. Although she no longer pens the New York Times Book Review science fiction column called “Otherworldly” (which she covered for 3 years), she still writes occasional long-form reviews for the NYT.
About the Narrator
Stephanie Malia Morris
Stephanie Malia Morris is a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop, recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award, and a 2019 Kimbilio Fellow. Her short fiction has appeared in FIYAH, Apex Magazine, Nightmare, and Pseudopod. She has narrated short fiction for the Escape Artists podcasts, Uncanny, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. You can find her online at stephaniemaliamorris.com or on Twitter at @smaliamorris.