Cort eyed the school’s entrance warily; its double doors were gaped open, swallowing children like krill.
He really didn’t want to be one of them.
“We’ve been over this, son.” Melanie adjusted the strap on his breathing pack, jerking his torso around as she cinched it up.
“It’s not a parachute,” Cort said, frowning.
“Don’t talk with your mouth,” she told him. She tugged on the other strap, then lifted his chin to make him look at her. “You need to work extra hard to get along, okay?”
Cort grumbled, but pushed his breathing tube back in his mouth. He tucked a thumb into one of the straps and tried to wiggle some circulation through to his shoulder. Behind him, the pack whirred purposefully, as if doing something. But it was just a prop to help him fit in.
He nodded to his mom, then waved goodbye to his dad, who sat in the car, his mouth a flat line. He didn’t feel like trying to communicate with the machine. He hadn’t been practicing like he should.
Cort turned to the hungry building and sulked off, trying to merge with the flow of Martian kids, blending in before they were all swallowed whole. It took every ounce of effort in his ten-year-old body to look straight ahead. They’d only been on-planet for three weeks, so he still had a tendency of walking around like a tourist, gazing up at the ruddy sky beyond the habidome.
It’s my last year of middle grades, he reminded himself. Next year will be even worse.
Somehow, that made him feel better.
He jostled against a few other kids as the wide column squeezed past the hinged teeth and into the maw. The kids pushed against each other, wading forward, eager to be digested. Cort fought the urge to spit out his stupid tube; he found it hard to breathe through his nose while he was concentrating on it.
He tried to focus on the kid’s backpack ahead of him, forgetting about the breathing so he wouldn’t panic. Beneath a plastic grill, he could see a large fan spinning, just like his. The only difference was: this one wasn’t for show. It actually pushed oxygen somewhere, mixing it with proteins and fluids before circulating the slurry though the kid’s lungs.
Cort felt bile rise up in his throat just thinking about it. He quickly accosted himself for being judgmental, remembering what his mom had said—
Something hit the back of his heel, nearly pulling his shoe off. Cort stumbled, hopping on one foot, and knocked into the kid ahead.
The one behind shoved him. “Watch where you’re going, freak!”
The kid’s voice was perfect. Deep, gruff, and enunciated with crisp precision. Cort didn’t dare turn around and try to reply. It would just make things worse.
When the flow of kids started branching, Cort concentrated on moving with the fewer number, trying to find air, some room to breathe. He used his thumb and finger to pull the saliva away from the corner of his mouth, then wiped his chin with the back of his sleeve. He really wanted to tear the plastic tube out, but impossibly, he was able to resist.
He needed to get in a pod before his head exploded.
Cort followed the masses down another hall, this one lined with individual learning units. He scanned ahead for “unoccupied” lights, but each one was grabbed by one of the other kids, usually a bigger one.
As the crowd thinned, Cort could see an end to the agony—a line of pods with green lights. Two kids wrestled with each other after choosing the same one. Cort slid past and grabbed the next one, practically falling inside before ripping the tube out of his mouth. He sucked in huge lungfuls of glorious air, nearly hyperventilating himself with relief. It had been like a kilometer-long swim underwater, blending in with the fishes.
He bent over, both elbows resting on his knees, and tried to take slower, deeper breaths. Sweat, partly from effort, partly from nerves, dripped off his nose. He rubbed his hands up his face and wiped them off on his thighs.
There was no way he could do this twice a day. Every day.
He wanted to go back to Earth.
The first lesson flashed up on the pod’s screen: a mixture of history and math. It leaned heavily on the Martian perspective, looking for calculations with dates he hadn’t yet memorized.
After a string of ten incorrect answers in a row, it kicked him down to fourth grade history, which just made it harder to concentrate.
Luckily, the next few had a mix of Earth dates, but with a strange bias. He keyed in his answers quickly, watching the clock, and got back into fifth-grade history. Once again, the instructor wanted information he just didn’t have. Cort wiped more sweat from his brow, which just made the keyboard slick. For the next hour, he felt like he spent more time between the two grades than he did in either one of them.
When the Mathory lesson concluded, he had a few minutes to relieve himself in the suction potty before the next course. He was hoping for Englo-Bio, but got Poli-Theism instead.
He groaned to himself. Not only did he hate politics, he could never tell the Roman and Greek gods apart. He tried his hardest to stay out of third grade, but it was no use. The political structure of Mars made even less sense to him than Earth’s. And why teach this stuff anyway? It’d be eight years before he could vote!
He read the questions and typed in his best guesses, his concentration waning and waxing.
Had he known recess was up next, he would have at least enjoyed the opportunity to breathe freely, unmolested.
At the end of the Poli-Theism lesson, Cort’s morning report flashed up, along with a list of the people it would be sent to. He wondered if his mom would be one of those doting and bored parents, waiting on the real-time status update for everything their spawn were up to.
He looked at his dismal performance and hoped the report would get flagged as spam and never be delivered. In a smaller window, an instructor popped up and informed them that it was recess, a map underneath him showing directions to the gymnasium.
Cort immediately felt the urge to use the suction potty. He wondered if he could just stay in the pod, if anyone would notice. The sight of the three cameras mounted to the testing wall provided the answer. Not a good idea.
He took a deep breath and inserted the tube, trying not to think about breathing through his nose. The door behind him popped open on its own; he turned around to see the opposite wall disgorging a line of students. In the pod directly across, a mane of blond hair spilled around a face—a face as pretty as one can be with a tube pumping oxygenated fluid into it.
Cort smiled, but the flash of niceness was lost in a sea of passing kids. He waited for the flow to weaken before moving out into the hall and trailing along with the other stragglers.
The games were already underway when he arrived in the gym. The sounds of metal clashing against metal drifted up from the pit, the kids along the balcony leaning forward to look down through the glass.
The upper level looked completely full, so Cort followed some kids heading down a flight of stairs. They came out in an identical room—a large, rectangular donut of a balcony overlooking the gym’s pit—and the kids ahead of him took the few remaining spaces.
One of those spaces had been right beside a wild mane of blond hair. Cort felt his heart thumping in his chest. The girl turned, shifting her chair over, as another boy took the space beside her.
Once again, their eyes locked. Cort felt his breathing constrict even more. He started to wave, but someone knocked into his back, sending him sprawling forward. Scrambling to his feet, he rushed to join the kids moving down another level, his cheeks burning with embarrassment.
The nearby spots were already taken on the lowest level. That was fine with Cort, he wanted to sit on the other side. He fought the urge to run, and shuffled as fast as he could, working his way around the balcony. He ignored the clashing of the large robots beyond the glass.
On the other side, he took one of the empty spots directly across from the girl. He could look up through the glass and see her blond hair waving as she concentrated on the action below.
He had to tear his eyes away to view the action. Dozens of robots clashed across the parquet floor of the gym, each one controlled by a team of kids.
He looked at his controls. He’d been assigned to the green team, left leg. Cort saw his robot immediately, but the lower-level seat meant it was hard to gauge the overall action. He grabbed both his sticks as the AI relinquished control of the green bot’s left leg, handing it over to him. Pushing and pulling on the two sticks, he did his part in keeping the thing upright, watching his display for instructions from whoever controlled the head.
The stress and exertion forced him to hold the tube with his teeth, breathing around it and through his mouth. He did his best to not be a hindrance. Cort wasn’t very good at bot-ball, but at least he could keep his side of green team upright, not tripping over anything. He even had a few good plants while the right leg got some good shots off. It wasn’t bad playing a support roll, especially since he didn’t make a fool of himself.
In the first fifteen-minute period, they got two shots on goal and did adequate damage to the yellow bot. Everyone received the exact same score, of course, but Cort kept his own tally and thought his team had done well. Not that he would say such a thing. Not on Mars.
When the horn sounded, signaling the first intermission, Cort glanced up to catch the girl’s attention, maybe see which team she’d been on.
But she was gone.
He looked around as the kids on his level ran for the exit to get refreshments and use the public suction potties. Cort used the time to gather his breath. He watched the kids file out of their level, all in the same direction, clockwise around the glass partition. He turned back to his controls.
The blond girl sat beside him, arriving from the opposite side.
“Hello,” she said through her computer.
Cort reached up and pushed the breathing tube back in his mouth, biting down on it hard. He concentrated on the words, forcing them into the computer. “Nice see you,” he said.
He shook his head, his forehead breaking out in a clammy sweat, and tried again. “Nice to you,” it came out.
The girl looked away, through the glass partition and across the gym’s pit. Her hair—that close—it was like staring at liquid gold. Cort wanted to reach out and touch it, or smell it. He felt dizzy.
“Talk with your mouth,” the girl said through her computer. She looked around to make sure they were alone. “I want to see.”
Cort felt like he was going to wet his pants, he was so flustered and anxious. He looked side to side before pulling the tube out, allowing it to hang from his pack. He turned his head away while he wiped his mouth dry.
“My name’s Cort,” he said, looking back at her. It was all he could think to say.
“Riley,” she said. She stared at his lips. The computer made her voice ring with a sonorous and pleasing tone. Cort wanted to be able to speak like that. But with a boy’s voice.
He smiled at her.
“Did it hurt?” she asked.
“Did what hurt?” Cort glanced up at the balcony above. Some of the kids were returning to their seats, holding colorful refreshment canisters up to their breathing tubes.
“Your first breath,” Riley said. “They say it hurts real bad, and that all Earth kids have to go through it. They say it makes you scream.”
“I don’t remember,” Cort said. He licked his lips, self-conscious of doing the opposite of what his mom had told him.
“It was that bad?” Riley asked. “Have you blocked it out?”
Cort shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I actually don’t remember much before I was five.”
Riley brushed some of her golden hair back. Cort saw one of her ears poking through, white and smooth. It made her look like an elf princess or something equally mysterious and regal.
“And it doesn’t burn? The air?” She leaned forward, staring at Cort’s mouth.
It made him want to cover his mouth with both hands. Or open it up and let her look inside. Or both, somehow.
He shook his head. “It doesn’t burn at all.” He watched the fluid circulating through her breathing tube. “How does that feel?” He pointed shyly toward her mouth. “Is it like drowning?”
Riley’s computer laughed for her. “No, silly, this is how we are even before we’re born. I can’t imagine my lungs empty, the way yours must be.”
The corners of her mouth turned up around a little, a dimple forming in one cheek. Cort recognized it as a smile. And pretty.
He started to say something about her hair, but she cut him off.
“You should put it back in,” Riley said, pointing to her own tube.
Cort looked around and saw the kids coming back from intermission. He put his tube back in and turned to compose something for Riley, concentrating on the words as hard as he could.
“Like our talking,” it came out, the computer voice stilted and awkward.
The corners of her mouth tightened again; she spun out of the chair with a wave of golden locks, then went running around the balcony, back to the stairs.
Cort looked sheepishly down at his controls, which were counting down the resumption of the games.
Time being the only numbers the system kept track of.
“How was school?” Melanie asked.
Cort jumped in the passenger seat, spitting out his tube and trying to get comfortable with his pack pressing into the seat.
“Don’t you know?” he asked.
“I didn’t look at any of the reports.” She put the car into gear and merged with the flow of heavy traffic moving past the school. “I wanted to wait and hear it from you.”
Cort thought about telling her all about Riley, and that first intermission, and how he was going to use the same pod tomorrow, and hoped she’d do the same, except he’d try and walk with her to recess next time, and maybe they’d be on the same team, and she could talk about what it was like to breathe amniotic fluids, and he could blow air through her hair, and let her see what that was like—
“It was okay,” he said, his mind reeling. “I got busted down to fourth grade,” he added, figuring she might as well hear it from him.
His mom reached over and tousled his hair. “I’m sure you’ll be back before you know it,” she said. “Did you practice your talking?”
Cort nodded. “Yeah. A little.”
And he vowed to practice some more that night. Really, this time.