Abruptly, the training became more intense.
Ma did not smile at you anymore. Her corrections to your behaviors were constant and brusque. Once she yelled because Little Sister stumbled when stepping off the perch she had made out of your back. Little Sister sniffed once before sitting on the floor and crying. Ma had to shock her to get her to stop. Little Sister pulled herself back up, using your arm for leverage. She stood next to you, her eyes and nose dribbling. Training continued. You bungled your series of cartwheels, collapsing down hard on your knees. Ma yelled at you too. You screamed back, a long, unwavering line of sound. You expected the buzzing shock under your skin, and when it came, you laughed. You laughed until the pain grew unbearable. Once you were curled up on the mat, your knees folded to your chest, the buzzing finally stopped.
Conditions did not measurably improve.
Visitors came to watch you train, though it seemed that they were actually more interested in watching Ma. They frequently drew Ma aside to speak with her. During these conversations, Ma nodded, her face open and receptive. After these conversations, her face set in sharp, firm lines.
When you made mistakes, the room tensed. Flustered, Ma would grope at her waist for the little box that issued the tonal commands. She would provide the commands to you a second time. If you performed the movements correctly, the air in the room lightened. If you got them wrong, one of the visitors would take over training. Ma would stand, displaced, at the edge of the room.
And then, you were no longer training alone with Ma anymore.
One morning, you were marched with the others into a new room. This change of venue was initially quite confusing. You stopped by your normal training space, expecting Ma to come and open the door. She did not. Instead, Papa Boy ran into you, knocking you to the floor. He pulled you back to your feet and patted you on the back as one of the trainers whistled at you to hurry you along.
Once everyone was in the room, one of the trainers pressed a series of buttons that were embedded in the wall. Then, with a strange humming, the room moved and changed. Platforms—little circles, jutting rectangles, and large flat squares—extended from the walls and grew from the floors. The other children climbed aboard their gliders. When you moved toward the glider that was clearly intended for your use, Ma pulled you to her side, wrapping her hand around your shoulder. She tried to hold Little Sister next to her as well, but she wiggled away. After making sure Ma wasn’t going to attempt to retrieve her, she turned her back to you to watch the others fly between and across the platforms.
You weren’t sure how they knew what to do because no commands had been issued. Then, you realized. They were being allowed to play. The massive unfairness of this burned deep in your chest. Little Sister must have felt the same. She ran back to you, her face furrowed in anger, and clutched at your arm, her fingers boring sharp little holes into your wrist. She turned to Ma and opened her mouth to speak but stopped. Ma was biting her lip hard enough that a small line of blood was dribbling down her chin. Little Sister said nothing.
Eventually, the other children were called to attention. Commands were issued to one group after another. Each group performed flawlessly. They were brilliantly, beautifully perfect, and you could not stop watching them. Ma had to snap her fingers right in front of your face to get you to turn away. It still took you a while to come back to yourself. Before you were fully aware of what you were doing, your feet were already positioned in a glider, and Ma was placing Little Sister on your shoulders.
When Ma gave you the signal, you turned the glider on. With the next signal, you slowly moved the glider forward. The command to stop came when you reached the platform at the center of the room. You stepped off the glider and knelt down. Little Sister scrambled from your shoulders. Everyone else was frozen in place, so they were all able to watch while you and Little Sister clumsily completed two cartwheels and three somersaults. You knelt down again, and Little Sister climbed back up your back, her cold, bare feet taking two steps up before curling on to your shoulders. You wrapped your hands tightly around her ankles and walked with her to the front of the platform.
And then it was over. The trainers were smiling. One and Two clapped. You weren’t sure why. Ma hugged you when you returned to her. You stood stiffly in her embrace. Little Sister hid behind you, so Ma couldn’t reach her.
That evening in the bunk room, you climbed onto MJ’s bunk and tried to express to her the beauty of her performance. You could not find the right words.
“You were good. Very good,” you said.
MJ stared at you, her head balanced in the palm of her hand. Then, she offered you a small, vague smile and patted you on the cheek.
“You were very pretty,” you said.
She lowered her arm, so her face collapsed into her pillow. It seemed, oddly, that she didn’t care that she had created something perfect. You glanced around the room. The other children seemed completely unfazed as well, lying on their beds or on the floor, alone or in pairs, playing with their toys like they hadn’t been part of something extraordinary. This was unfathomable.
There had been so few good moments, it was impossible to understand how the others could be indifferent to what they had produced.
Your contribution had been so silly and useless in comparison. You wish you did not have to do your inane tricks with Little Sister. You wished your body could bend and curve and turn like MJ’s or Papa Boy’s could. You wished you could fly like they could. One day, maybe, you could learn, but the seeming impossibility of this task generated a pool of disappointment in your chest.
Two days later and the training venue shifted again.
You were marched to a set of double doors that you had never seen before. They slid open to reveal a corridor built of glass. Everyone else looked up when they walked into the hallway. You looked up too.
You squinted up at all the blue above you. Understanding came slowly. You could see the sky. You could feel the sun. Suddenly, you realized that you hadn’t felt warm since you arrived at the facility. You held out your arms, wanting to absorb all the warmth you could, wishing you could store it up and haul it out later when you curled up in bed at night.
One of the children started to sing. You did not recognize the song, but hearing it made you feel happy. You had not felt happy in a long time.
Two played a signal to get you to line up again. He had to play it four times in succession before you all obeyed. You walked through a second set of glass doors.
You were outside.
The ground you walked on felt squishy and soft. You stomped your feet down once and again and nearly toppled over. When you looked up, you could see that the outdoor space was filled with platforms of different shapes placed at different levels. When you studied it more closely, you could see that this space was an exact mirror of the inside space where you had been practicing for the past two days.
Then, a golden-haired blur bounded past you. Angel was leaping, one careless step after another, around and between the platforms. Three other children followed him, giggling. You looked around. The halo-haired girl was spinning around in circles with her hands clasped and raised above her head. MJ had placed herself in the middle of the space and stood, looking upward. Papa Boy lay on the ground at her feet.
Little Sister slapped you hard in the back and took off running. You chased after her. The feeling of warm air in your lungs was good. Having the space and the freedom to run was good. If you didn’t think too hard, you could almost forget where you were.
Eventually, the play was halted, commands were given, gliders were mounted, and training commenced. None of the movements were any different from what you had done inside, and yet everything felt different. There was wind and sun and echoing sounds. You watched the other children slide across in and out of shadows. You watched them balance on their hands, flip over to their feet, turn somersaults in the air, and zoom and twist around each other and the blocky obstacles. You watched until time came for you to participate. You imagined that, in the open air, your movements appeared to be more—more watchable, more beautiful. You could not know if this was true, but you wanted it to be so.
There were seven other practices outside. The feel of the wind and the sun became less of a novelty.
Then, once you had grown accustomed to the new schedule, it changed.
The bells didn’t ring until far after the normal waking time, and when you were finally marched to training, you were encouraged to walk slowly and meander in and out of line. You were taken to the room with the training equipment but were given no immediate instructions.
It was only by chance that you happened to look up to the windows that circled the top of the room. There were As—children, like you—pressed up against the windows. The trainer, Four, waved to them. Several of the children waved back. Four pressed a little button on her shirt and began speaking. At first, you thought she was speaking to the other trainers. It became obvious that she wasn’t. You looked up again. She was talking to the crowd outside the room. You weren’t sure how they could hear her, but it was clear that they could. You could see them laughing, hear their faint applause.
You did not watch them for long. The trainers divided you into groups and started to give you commands. They were not challenging. The crowd seemed pleased nonetheless.
One group of As after another was paraded through. The children all pressed their hands up against the glass and peered down, pointing at one group or another, pulling adults (their parents, you realized) forward to see what they saw. Watching them made you suddenly, inexplicitly sad. You looked away.
The rest of the day was equally confusing. Nothing happened at the right time or in the right order. You were fed in the training room, and, in the early evening, when you were usually taken back the living quarters, you were instead marched to the doors leading to the outside space. Once the doors slid open, you could see that there were As, so many As, perched on the walls around the outdoor space. You could hear the cacophony of their voices. Once they saw all of you, standing in your neat little lines in the tunnel, their voices boomed louder, the sound pressing down against your head. You imagined the ground swallowing your feet and ankles, your knees and hips.
It was even louder outside. You had to concentrate to block out the noise. Little Sister clung to you, her face buried against your back.
You remembered nothing of this first performance. You know you and Little Sister must have performed your part just fine. Ma was not upset when you were brought back inside. She just appeared tired. Still, she kissed each of you on the top of the head before you were returned to the bunk room.
That night, you dreamed of the outdoor space. You were the only one in it. You were flying on a glider, and you kept rising up and up, ringing around the high walls. Finally, you reached the top, and you could see out. But there was nothing there. Nothing but dark, purplish-gray water that lapped lazily up against the walls. The rest of the world had disappeared. You flew out over the water, going farther and farther and faster and faster, skimming over the surface. But there was nothing, no matter which direction you flew.
You woke up screaming.