You divided your life into sections. In your head, everything was neat and orderly. (Still, there were anomalies that defied categorization.)
Training occurred every day.
It began in the morning when the when the light from the windows was white and cool against the walls and lasted until the afternoon when the light glowed pale yellow.
Initially, you spent most of your time reviewing what you already knew.
Then, Ma gave you new skills to learn. You practiced these skills until you were so bored that your mind wandered toward violence. One day you deliberately toppled yourself and Little Sister from a glider and sent it soaring into the wall. Its destruction was beautiful. Little Sister squirreled away a portion of the wreckage in her shoe.
Angel and the halo-haired girl (whose name, it turned out, was Fly) began training with you. You and Little Sister learned to perform in tandem with them. Occasionally, you faltered. But your failures were unimportant to Ma unless a tour of As was present to watch you. Then, she seemed to take your inability to perform perfectly as a personal humiliation.
Oddly, though, the audience, unlike Ma, was not disturbed by your mistakes. Every time you fell and accidentally injured each other, they would press their faces closer into the glass, their mouths tilted upward with delight.
It didn’t not take long before Ma caught on. She started giving you commands too fast for you to follow. Failure was guaranteed. The hot sickness of embarrassment became your constant companion in training. You did not, you DID NOT like to see them laughing. So, you focused all your energy on memorizing the sequence no matter how fast it flew at you. When you did misstep, you were pulling the others up (grasping at arms and hands and shoulders and hair) and attempting the maneuvers again before Ma could even play the tones.
Fly didn’t like being laughed at either. Her response was slightly different from yours. One afternoon, Fly sat down on the mat and refused to move. Little Sister glanced at you before sitting beside her. When Ma tried to coerce them into moving, Little Sister tried to bite her. You stared at them. You realized that you had a choice. You grasped Angel’s shoulder and the two of you performed your parts without the girls. Your execution was perfect.
You were all shocked anyway.
The performances occurred every other day.
After the first fifteen or so, you were able to tune out the noise of the crowd. After the next ten, you could pretend like they weren’t there at all. The sound of the applause changed into the sound of a brief and sudden rainstorm. The clamor of their voices changed into the sound of the wind in the grass.
This imagining made the performances both more and less tolerable.
Sometimes you were so entranced by the images in your head that you would miss your cues. A brief shock would be applied, and then you would remember where you were. Your visions of tall grasses and falling rain were replaced by the cold metallic platforms and elastic floors that smelled nothing like real earth.
The first time you were called down from your dream, you wept silently throughout the rest of the performance. You were still crying when you reentered the glass tunnel. Little Sister held your hand all the way back to the living quarters. She tried to crawl into your bunk with you later that evening. You rebuffed her. You did not want comfort. You wanted to hold on to your melancholy. It reminded you of home.
Sometimes the people in the crowd would drop objects into the arena. The most common object you found were clear bags with bright, yellow lettering on them. They would fly into the arena, slightly crumpled from being clutched tightly in small fists. These bags were gathered surreptitiously, shoved under shirts and into shoes. Everyone had a collection of them, pressed under mattresses, hidden in sheets, placed lovingly under pillows. Honors went to those who had collected the most. These collections were sacrosanct. The only fights in the quarters occurred when collections were tampered with or when bags were stolen. Angel lost a tooth for messing with Fly’s bags. He, apparently, didn’t like that she had one more than he did.
When you were lucky, other objects found their way into the arena. Once, MJ came away with a soft, heart-shaped, stuffed thing. It became a shared object. Everyone got it for an evening.
But no one loved that stupid ragged heart like Little Sister did. You gave her your night with it. The others followed your lead. She slept with it tucked underneath her chin. Then, she brought it with her to training.
You know Ma must have seen it. Little Sister had no ability to be subtle.
She let Little Sister keep it. You never liked Ma so much as you did in that moment.
The fight room was shuttered off for fifteen days.
When the room was finally reopened, everything had been changed. The mats in the room had been moved out. A black table occupied space in middle of a room. You discovered that the table was for the small holographic toys you had been given ages before. Everyone had already grown bored with the toys, so they were thrown on the table and then ignored. The holographic animals tumbled and played while no one watched. Eventually, they burned themselves out, and the table was littered with small black ovals that no longer did anything at all.
Along the walls, seven small panels of buttons had been installed. Each panel turned on and controlled a different game. Some of these games were similar to those you had played at the first facility. There was the one that required you to copy symbols in the correct order, the matching one, the one with the gears, and the drawing one. New games were present as well. The first involved finding your way out of complicated mazes. In the second, you had to figure out how to outsmart a series of opponents. In the final one, you had to shoot a series of projectiles at increasingly smaller and faster moving targets.
Evenings were spent attempting to master each game. Scores were visible to everyone. It did not take long before you possessed the highest score on each one. The games, you found, were far too easy.
So, you spent most of your time with the drawing game. You liked building worlds in miniature. You liked being able to control every detail and having the option of changing something with the flick of a finger.
Papa Boy and MJ had their favorite games as well. Papa Boy spent all his time with the maze game though he completely ignored its objective. He would wander around in room after room, pacing along the imaginary walls. MJ focused her efforts on the target game. She did not attempt to hit any of the targets. She bounced holographic projectiles off walls and watched where they hit. They both had the lowest scores on their respective games. Neither of them seemed to care.
Meanwhile, in your corner, you built your worlds, spindling towers upward and then destroying everything with a quick mashing down of your hands.
Everyone swapped and shared words and helped build something new out of the scraps of the old. But no one shared their real names—the names that had come with you from home. You kept your name close, embedding it in the space between your heart and lungs, so you could feel it in the beat of your blood and exhale it with each breath.
Still, the names you gave each other, the names that were based on your place in the hierarchy or on your appearance, were more than sufficient. These names were honest and fitting. You were Little Brother and Little Sister, Papa Boy and MJ, Angel and Fly, Freckles, Echo, and Fuzzy, Blue and Sun and Curly. From these names, you created something approaching (but not quite like) a family.
You learned some of the As language, too.
The trainers had a habit of saying what they wanted you to do while also giving you the tonal commands. You learned their words for “no” and “yes” and “stop” and “go” and “stand” and “faster” and “slower” and “turn” and “straight” and “again”. You liked knowing these words. You liked the strangeness of them on your tongue. You liked the way they were shaped in your head. You liked that you knew something that they believed you didn’t.
You listened hard to pick up more words, and you waited for the right opportunity to reveal your knowledge. You waited and waited, but the right time never seemed to come, so one morning, when you and Little Sister were training on the gliders and Ma requested that you slow and turn, you said in her tongue, “No, faster, straight.”
She froze, and her eyes followed you as you pressed the gilder forward. You stopped it near the wall and hopped off. Ma grabbed you by the shoulders and said, “Again.” You repeated the words. She shook you, hard. “No,” she said. “No.”
“Yes,” you said.
She hit you on the side of the head with her open palm. “No,” she said.
“Yes,” you said.
She hit you twice and then stepped back, her eyes wide, and pressed the button at her hip to shock you. She didn’t let up until black tendrils crept into your vision.
She bent down next to you. “No,” she said.
You did not speak her words again. Still, your vocabulary kept growing. One day, you assumed, it would prove useful.
Until then, you could keep the words locked inside yourself.
Or you could teach the others.
The others proved to be excellent pupils.