Mr. Important 1 gestures at her, clears his throat. "And what about…?"
"Oh, her. No, she's just the janitor. She's a litch. She can't even talk."
"Well, then." Important 1 takes Important 2 by the arm. "Shall we discuss…"
Keiya's fingers clench around the handle of the vacuum. One advantage to this position: nobody believes you're listening. Nobody pays attention to a slump-backed brownish girl with droopy-lidded eyes. She's got all the genes that make her look Less Human, according to the Important powers that be. Dark and flat and empty eyes, waylaid by a passing speck of dust, turned down at the edges same as her mouth. All of her face droops. She's like a flower that no one ever watered.
It's not her fault, of course. Problem is Keiya's brain never told her to paste her lips upright if she wants people to be nice. It's the IQ machine. She's been told she'd make a very good robot, all things considered.
Her hair is fuzzy on the back of her neck. A cluster of bees.
The windows of the station reveal an expanse of space that is flatter and blacker than even Keiya's eyes. It's supposed to have depth, but the vacuum—the big one—is so big that it circles back round to look flat again. The universe: one thing as void and useless as she is.
It's a comforting mantra.
Of course Morit has to go and change that.
She's a consultant of something-or-other, bright and cheery and spiky-haired, walks like she's got the world on her shoulders and doesn't mind at all. Woman in a man's shirt and khakis. Well, maybe you can't specify like that. But it's a shirt with buttons and a collar and rolled up at the sleeves. Her wrists are sharp and mobile.
She's wearing rectangular glasses and carrying a clippad, and she sweeps onto the TSS with this Can-Do Attitude to investigate every nook and cranny. Improve every shortcoming! Quality control! That, Keiya thinks wryly, should ideally involve putting me out the airlock. But Morit doesn't even pause, just springs past her to peer wisely at a faulty aero vent.
That's what irks Keiya, at first. No no no, Ms. Quality Control, don't you see. You're supposed to throw me out with the dust. Clean it! Fix it! Dispose of me.
But it's true, even Keiya must acknowledge, she herself is excellent at cleaning toilets.
So she does that. For the rest of the week. By the end of her Friday shift, Keiya is almost forgetting to worry. And then there's Morit, leaning against the wall by the sink, she's wearing jeans and her going-home jacket and Morit is like, "Sooooo."
Keiya blinks up at her pretending to beam lasers out her brain, like, I cannot talk. Have you not noticed that I cannot talk? You are, perhaps, not the sharpest tack in the room, and this room includes me.
"Abya," says Morit. "Don't you have, like, a communication device of some kind?"
Well, sure, she's got her tablet, but it's not like anyone wants to talk to her, and it's too much of a bother to program the right phrases in. The ones she'd use. She starts thinking about the very smallest things she wants to say, and her head spins and she has to lie down.
So, in theory yes. But really, no.
Morit's brow furrows. Morit is clearly not used to this kind of reticence. Keiya thinks, Ha ha. I have got you now. Got for what purpose, to what end, she doesn't know. But it's perversely satisfying, how the first time someone tries to talk to her she's managed to put them off.
"I swear to god," says Morit. "If they haven't given you a keyboard of some kind, I'm going to HR—"
Keiya holds both her hands up. Stop. She reaches into the big pocket, pulls out the tablet, shows it to Morit. Points at the little speaker for emphasis. Yes, I can talk. You're worried about my welfare. She's worried about my welfare, isn't she? Oh, ha ha ha.
"Oh," says Morit, and something unlike worry crosses her face and she backs away. Two steps. "Okay."
Keiya thinks the little quirk above her nose is kind of cute. She has, evidently, flummoxed Morit in a curious way. Without even words. And now Morit is wrinkling her sharp small nose and it's not an unappealing result.
Keiya hits herself in the head at that point.
Morit says "Oh," again, this time with her voice dipping into concern and then to fear, and she backs away further—slowly, slowly, out the door.
Keiya smiles and does a little waltz with her vacuum bot.
Another one bites the dust.
She writes on the computer that night. NO, NO NOSES, ABYA, NO, CRINKLES NO. YOU ARE A CUSTODIAN CLASS III. YOU LITERALLY WEAR A SACK. XX NOT LITERALLY YOU WEAR A UNIFORM THAT IS LIKE A SACK. THERE IS NO. REASON. TO. DO.
THE INKY BLACKNESS OF SPACE.
I NEED TO CUT MY HAIR.
She pulls it away from her neck, examines the thick length of ponytail. Black and glossy and dandruff-laden.
You need to wash your hair, also.
It's only cause I pick out the scalp every day.
Don't you tell me what to do!
She laughs in her room, crazy-maniacal laugh she's seen doctors be afraid of, alone at her desk with her feet swinging. Keiya is only 1.5 meters tall.
Nash on the computer screen sways to the beat. Nash is a singer that Keiya admires. She's tall and sleek and golden-skinned, with a ponytail artfully tied and twice the length of Keiya's. You can be robotic neurotic dystopic—your outlook is myopic. The songs are rhythmic and rhymed and words packed close like fried mice in a tin.
Words dense and interlocked, no sound escapes and no syllable unravels. Dysphoric dystonic.
Nash is written down in the medical papers as Keiya's Special Interest.
There are a couple others in there: floorplans, dictionary entries, polar coordinates and the shapes formed therefrom, making things clean.
With the polar coordinates she once spent a day repeating Lemons Lemons Lemons because she couldn't remember the word; when she went home and checked it turned out she meant lemniscates.
The Traveling TSS (Tayagaki Space Station) took Keiya on because they have affirmative action for Persons With Disabilities. Sounds like a Justice, but Keiya knows better: it's mostly a shtick to acquire menial workers. They need people to clean because TSS is a prime tourist destination. Morit is meant to be sprucing it up for the Euer's return in two weeks. The Euer is a Very Important. Keiya is like, hahaha, plz. I've seen him before. Stuffy old snooty man whose nose is always running. Do you need a handkerchief for that, Euer?
It turns out that Morit is on the Committee for Eugenics.
Keiya does her research. Shoulda known that Quality Control wouldn't be the whole story. Morit is a professor of bioethics—new to the committee, recently hired to assuage their moral reservations. She will observe the committee's workings and bring an objective perspective to the table. Objective perspective. Dysphoric dystonic. It fits in well with the Nash lyrics and Keiya laughs, bitterly. Same old story: checks and balances, bioethics like a mask they put on to mime human conscience. Last-minute moral panic, before they decide it's OK to get rid of you anyway.
Not all the Importants are into Eugenics but a lot of them are. You have to be careful these days. Never know when one of em will flip the switch and declare their support. Back in the Litch Guild they used to keep a big chart, ticking down percentages to doom. Is Morit on that chart now? No way to know.
Keiya thinks about telling her—via mail, or keyboard, or Anonymous Performance Review—that eugenicists used to include Homosexuals in their cleansing efforts. But she suspects that Morit already knows that. She suspects Morit has very sensible justifications that put her Philosophy degree to good use.
Mhmm, she looked up Morit's CV. Who doesn't, when a new person enters the station.
Whatcha gonna do when they come for you.
And as for how she knew—well. She doesn't know, for sure. But people broadcast signals with their hair and clothes for Reasons, and she's fairly adept at reading the signals, and Morit's broadcasting crystal clear.
She wonders if Morit has a girlfriend. (Or a boyfriend, mustn't leave stones unturned.)
She hits herself in the head, hard with her knuckles, until her forehead has these indentations and bruises. That happens a lot. She goes to get the docbot to clean her up.
No blood this time though. No shattered mirror.
It's happened once before. There was a lithe smiling bouncy technician with twitchy fingers and rubbery limbs. He was pale-brownish, he had soft wavy hair and light eyes. Keiya needed stitches in her forehead twice. She gave herself a concussion.
Morit is whiteish, her eyes and hair are dark dark brown. She's wiry but solid. Her voice is low and smooth and hyper-educated.
She's kind of worse.
Keiya hates Prettiness, slam slam oh hot damn, rush of blood to the head like she's hanging upside down.
Mr. Technician was cute and he hugged her once unprompted which made her freeze up and scream, and she was very proud afterward, of having driven this one away too. Like anyone anyone anyone else.
Then Morit. Morit will be harder to drive away, because she wants Keiya to talk.
And it's going well, she's upping her arsenal of Weird Behaviors to the max, she's parroting and stimming and chirping and shrinking into corners—pretending it's a choice—but then comes the day that Morit's waiting for her, microphone in hand, and Morit asks her to take out the tablet and Keiya does, and then Morit points the microphone right at the speaker and says:
"I want you to tell me your perspective on eugenics."
You can be robotic neurotic erotic.
Morit is smiling, so eager, her face all open sesame like this is simple. Like it won't take Keiya several days to compose even a fractured, incomplete response.
Keiya types a single word.
Morit crosses her arms, huffy. "OK, you intensely laconic person." The italics are evident in her voice. Oh my god, Hard Words, sound the alarm. "Let's do this the hard way. I found your writings in the Network database. I want to have a colloquium with you. A proper debate, a meeting of the minds. Look—do you drink alcohol? I'll buy you a drink."
Keiya's eyes are flicking all over the place cause she's been caught, she's been proven, Not A Litch Not Exactly Anyway, Mystery Woman Looks Like a Litch But Types Words, What Do We Do Now—usual headlines of the nondisabled public. She wonders if Morit is looking for a headline, too. A case study, perhaps? Is she here to analyze Keiya's QOL? Litch Declares Her Quality of Life Acceptable, Too Stupid to Know Otherwise...
But Morit is befuddling. Keiya has read her papers, the official positions in her record. Litches should not exist, but it's cruel to kill them. You nip them in the womb, or as children, before they can declare that their lives are worth living. But an adult litch has Human Agency like everyone else, and Morit will support accommodations like a champ.
Keiya can only conclude that Philosophy, as a discipline, is downright loony.
And Morit still gazes at her, bright-eyed. There's a negligible quiver at the back of Keiya's mind, the beginning of an idea.
She types another word. "Coffee."
Morit laughs. It's infectious. Or it would be, if Keiya laughed anymore. "Okay," says Morit, with a tone of conceding defeat, of bowing to compromise. "Coffee it is. Tomorrow? Eleven AM sharp?"
Sharpety sharp sharp. Keiya nods. Sharp like your gotdamn nose, or a mirror fragment she could cut up her face with.
It's true: Keiya used to work for the Litch Guild. She used to spin out impassioned speeches, post them on the database, garner critiques and flamewars and ardent supporters. She used to be a Somebody. Overrated, abya.
And isn't it curious, Morit, that the litches created a Guild of their own? That we've shown ourselves able to mobilize? When the very label you apply to us, litch, seems to preclude that. Litch is derived from leech meaning "drain on society, unproductive, waste of resources". Ballast existence. But we've done things for ourselves, haven't we—and isn't that funny, isn't that odd.
But she doesn't plan on telling this to Morit.
Because, see, herein lies the rub. When they think you're useless, they want you dead. But when they start to consider you useful:
(1) They want you to live.
(2) They want you to stay alive for them. For their inspiration, their edification.
(3) They start doing things like patting you on the shoulder and telling you they've been so privileged to meet you, that you've changed their outlook on life.
And that is why Keiya left the Litch Guild.
Cost-benefit analysis. She may not be up on the details of utility, as Morit is, but she knows intuitively that it's better to be skipped over as a blankeyed husk than it is to peddle yourself as a zoo animal.
The Litch Guild was for litches, but like everything else, the normals made it about them.
Technically, it's a hiatus. Keiya let her license expire, temporarily. She's supposed to go back One of These Days.
But even the thought of repeating her old arguments to Morit fills her with a nameless trepidation and despair.
Only Nash has the answers to these questions. Keiya puts on the track. Stars dazzle outside the window. Keiya smashes her entire body against a bulkhead, trying to shake free of the anxiety, the anxious fantasy.
Nothin we can do babe. The song reads like a portent.
Love me like an enemy these pleasantries this courtesy, you'd kill me in the theoretical but our DOI is just rhetorical, we got the words so perfectly set up they all convinced we're too opposed to fuck, but sooner or later babe the secret'll be out, shut me up and slap me so I know what you're about
Nash gets it. Nash knows where it's at.
Nash is the one who taught Keiya that an echo is stronger than diamond.
DOI stands for Difference of Interest, something that occurs between Importants. That's the formal name, but everybody calls it a Difference of Opinion. It is often the reason behind crimes and misdemeanors. Crime of passion is one thing; crime of DOI, another. The Importants will get into fights all the time over blank frontier lands, over unmined moons and planets ripe for colonization.
I, too, am an unclaimed colony. Morit wants my head and nothing else.
My head for a study? My head for her to play Devil's Advocate? My head for her to crack it open...
She can't fathom it, and she tries until the head in question hurts.
They meet in the station cafeteria but it's awkward as hell since higher-ups like Morit aren't supposed to be seen talking to the janitor. This is some Romeo and Juliet shit, Keiya thinks wryly. She never read the play but everyone knows the gist. They both die in the end.
But anyway, too many cafeteria stares, too much murmur. So they curl up in the hall by one of the big spacey windows, on the wide sill, balancing their coffee on their knees. Keiya sips more caffeine than she's meant to, and tries to convince herself that's what's set her hands to shaking.
(She has tremors, y'know. Her hands are almost always shaking.)
Keiya lays it out for Morit, simple. She has a statement prepared on her tablet. Litch does not indicate lower quality of life. Other people make it harder for us. If society treats us as people, then we will be people. Kindergarten justice but it's hard for Importants to grasp.
Morit listens and asks eager questions and Keiya finds her fingers tripping over each other, can't type fast enough to keep up.
Don't you think it's cruel, to allow children to live as you do? Given the choice, wouldn't you prefer to be cured, at least?
No no no no no no
Sweet naïve Morit. Terribly silly Morit, who thinks Keiya ought to be blipped out of existence, yet asks her the questions like Keiya's opinion on it matters.
There's a moment her head goes all clear like she's back on her meds and she's some kind of zombie, they've taken out her proper neuronal connections, all is disparate and scattered and she can see reality. It's only cause Morit is never like, Keiya sweetheart. Everyone else has been like, Keiya sweetheart. Well-meaning caregivers with ready smiles and hands eternally in position to help. Importants. Near about everyone.
Keiya tells herself: Of all the people you could get tangled up with, this is the least safe.
Except it's fragile, that statement, it will shatter into millions of pieces like the mirror when she smashes her head into it. That's a lie. Mirror smash. Our DOI is just rhetorical.
Morit's ridiculous, abya.
Keiya knows well the danger of getting into habits with others. Habit is a personal, litchy thing—rituals and shoes lined up just so. But Morit's strange argumenty thing becomes a habit. They hang out by the spacey windows and sip coffee and debate, they talk about Keiya's life, theorize, is your life worse than others yes it is but that's others' fault. Morit is quite reasonable and her hands move quick. Fly through the air in gesticulations.
She knows, at some point, it will catch up with her—that there will be consequence. For allowing a normal into her life. For allowing this normal, who sees the hypothetic litch as an assemblage of facts and figures, but who sees Keiya as almost a person.
After the 5th time—traded words and spiraling coffee-heat and the flat blank Big Vacuum outside the window—after that, is when it goes down. Keiya returns to her quarters to find Importants 1 and 2 waiting for her. She doesn't resist. She doesn't even move or cry, as they wrest her tablet from her grasp and throw it in the trash compactor. She goes as limp as a rag doll.
You gotta be prepared. Nothin we can do babe
It's middle of the night when she wakes up sobbing and gasping and can't hardly breathe, lungs giving out like she's been stabbed with an invisible knife. Knife in her brain cause they took away her communication device and it's probs cause she's been talking to Morit, they don't want her talking to Morit, think she's gonna change Morit's mind. But Morit isn't gonna change. That's the sad part. They're afraid of you but you have no power; they see you big and looming like a monster and they take your keyboard, last kernel of defense you've got left.
Cruel and unusual.
She has to go see Morit.
She slips out of her quarters and finds Morit's room number on the station map.
Morit opens the door looking tousled and shoddy but very very awake. She has an alcohol bottle in one hand, is wearing striped pajamas and a giant fuzzy sweater. "I was writing a paper," she says. "For a conference I'm planning to attend. Bit late, I know," and she grins until she notices that Keiya is limp and rocking and staring with distress.
Hey What's Wrong
Keiya holds out her empty hands, trying to mime, except she's shaking all over. Leaflike. Not that we've got leaves up here.
Morit is like "Are You Okay" and Keiya stares at her all, What is Okay, what does that word even Mean, how could I possibly be expected to answer this question. Morit is like, "Oh," and puts a hand on Keiya's shoulder presses down hard and leads her in. Closes and locks the door behind them. She remembered, Keiya thinks through the fizz of her upset. She remembered about deep pressure, no light touches.
Non-litches can learn, ha ha.
When Keiya slumps in the puffy armchair and manages to make her hands convey what happened, They took away my tablet took it took it you said you'd go to HR, hah, Morit goes to her room and comes back with another tablet which she shoves into Keiya's hands, no questions asked.
"Isn't that yours," Keiya types.
Morit shrugs. "I can find another somewhere. It's criminal, what they did."
Criminal, she says, as though the law is relevant.
Morit the Eugenicist, who would have Keiya dead, but who doesn't say I would never take away your tablet because she doesn't have to say so. Keiya knows.
Keiya wonders what it means for her to see Morit like this, past midnight when Morit's hair is all messed up and she's loopy with sleep deprivation and pajamaed. Maybe it's weird. Maybe it doesn't count because Keiya is a litch. Maybe it's not a scene clouded with intimacy because Keiya is a litch.
She can only hope.
"So," says Morit, one night when it's got a bit late for philosophizing and when Keiya has, at long last, accepted that drink—if only just to prove she could. If only to see the shocked face of the bartender when he receives her ID and discovers, no, he's got to sell alcohol to a litch, even if he thinks Morit is her caregiver of some kind and she's dumb as a brick. Gotta let the excess population get drunk.
Or tipsy, rather.
Morit is adorably flushed, spinning out ten-dollar words in every sentence, rambling and stumbling like the Philosopher she is. What a sophist, baby. You're all talk no action. Because action would mean your hands at my throat and you literally ready to snuff me out of existence, just like you promised in your monograph.
Oh, excuse me. My toddler throat. My past theoretical throat. Forgive me, if it's hard for me to understand the difference.
But philosophers don't know what words mean. No idea that symbols on a page have bearing in reality. Keiya can speak and speak and Morit will still crinkle her nose at her, confused.
Morit sees Keiya the person and she sees the word litch, and they are two circles in her head with no contact. Venn Diagram whose middle is empty. Lemniscate, cut through the center.
Keiya wishes she could be flattered.
She's just waiting honestly for this to break and blow over so she can get on with her silent life. Keiya doesn't need memories of her time with the Guild. This is dangerous. Morit calls her, unknowingly, back to her old occupation, and nothing we can do babe no way around that.
If I'm a strumpet you're a whore / Tell me what you waiting for
Tell me what you're waiting for.
"So, what's one of these things?" Morit asks, half-slurrily, crazy eyes and lopsided grin, tilted the same angle as her glasses. She always starts with a So. "You were saying, there's things where you do conform to stereotype, you seem like a litch, and then there's litch qualities that impact you in unexpected ways. Give me an example, abya?"
Keiya laughs, leans forward to slam her fingers on the keypad. "So." Echoing again. "We litches with my particular diagnosis. We've got a habit, we walk on our toes. See what that means…" She draws it out, amused by the need to explain toe-walking to an outsider. Heh heh. Secrets of the Trade. The trade, then, is a life of obscurity and humiliation.
"In short," says Keiya, "I can walk really well in heels."
Litch Woman Not Supposed To Be Capable
Mystery: Litch in Stilettos Takes Station By Storm
She's like, I own a zillion pairs. I can show you if you want. It's not even speech it's this gabbling confession blurted out of her tablet without clear intent. She's riding the edge of a dangerous thought into sheer ruin.
You open your closet. You're like, ha, hang on a second. With the keyboard. Morit puts her hands in her pockets and waits in the living room of your quarters, leaving you in the bedroom to struggle with the shoes. They're pretty damn high like four inches and you're otherwise still clad in your bag of a janitor's uniform. Ridiculous. But your hips can sway and you convince yourself for an instant you're a woman.
Okay, you type, come back in.
Morit's wearing a tie, loosened. You hate her. She raises her eyebrows and does that, Oho, thing people do. Like, Indeed I was not expecting that. Satisfaction curls low in your gut because you have succeeded—you have surprised her. Heh. Victory is ours. Litch pride. Or something.
You walk across the room and give a sort of celebratory, flourishy flap. You're perfectly on balance.
Morit is chuckling like she got the answer wrong on an exam and she's just now finding out why. You stumble into her space. She catches you by the shoulder. Your faces are in kissing distance whatever whatever and then she draws back and sits down on your bed, with a thump.
"Keiya," she says, "Look, you're not safe. Hanging round me."
You turn into a monster with raging gnashing teeth. Shoulda known.
"I just want you to be safe," she says. "I am worried they will do things to you again..."
Psh, concerned about my welfare. Keiya gnashes her monster teeth.
"Look," says Morit—leaning forward, folding her hands. "There's a implant..."
She doesn't get any further before Keiya is typing as rapidly as she can and the tablet is speaking:
No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no
in an endless string, because really, what did Morit expect. Morit knows Keiya well enough. She ought to know what Keiya will find unbearable.
Morit draws back, concern-pity blooming on her face. When the no's are done Keiya types slowly. Waits for the words to emerge. "You think that's what I want?"
Morit shakes her head fast in exasperation. "No! No, of course I don't! It's just, Keiya, you know what the stakes are here. If you don't accept some kind of reparative therapy, they—they might blank you out. They probably will. You've got too much clout for a litch, so unless they can classify you otherwise, they'll just—want to get rid of you." Her voice breaks on the last few syllables. "I shouldn't have talked to you. We shouldn't have started—whatever this is." Hand-movement sloppy and vague.
Well that's your fault aint it, thinks Keiya sourly.
She merely shrugs, like it doesn't matter. Shoulda known. Nothing you can do. Should've assumed from the start, this wouldn't work.
Nothin we can do babe
What you can do is finish the picture.
Like, once Morit leaves, you can wrangle yourself into an outfit befitting the heels, sway back out to the station bar. You can get trashed and return to quarters then lie back on your bed sideways with your feet on the floor, in your shimmery skintight dress that's printed with lollipops, fishnet stockings, hair sparkles and a face full of makeup, and jerk off with your stilettos still on. You think that's gross, huh. She wonders what it's like for people who are allowed to do these things.
Dance around your room sans coordination, singing along to Nash's most violently sad songs. Crash into a lamp and don't bother to set it upright.
Litch Can Sing But Cannot Talk: Hoax???
Science Declares Speaking and Singing Use Very Different Brain Functions. But Can We Trust Science?
She wonders what it's like to be a person, a woman, who is allowed to be in this situation and it's letting off steam it's didn't work out the way we thought it would, it's my girlfriend dumped me or I dumped my girlfriend, she was fucking eugenics on the side. And then you'd get sympathy. The crowd would go, Aww, Keiya, I'm so sorry. Your girlfriend is a sack of trash. And she'd go, Hey! I work with trash for a living. That's an insult to my chosen discipline.
But Morit had never even even even.
Together was not a word they'd dropped in this story.
A romance conducted in asides and ellipses, a love story that never was. She's full of words on how to describe it. Not so sure how to do anything but file it away in a memory box, hope the procedure blots out the details.
She's counting on that.
Of course they do blank her out. Keiya's not sure how they get the legal permission to do this—or if they even bother, anymore. It's a selective erasure of memory, just the stuff that Morit may have told her. Just so she don't have the encyclopedic knowledge of the preps for the Euer and whatever she's heard while janitoring her way round the place. It's cool. Not like she was planning a conspiracy anyhow. Keiya doesn't have the organizational skills for a coup.
Course you gotta be strapped down and your head put in one of those things and bright lights white walls blah blah. Arms bound with thick leaden cloth. Spread like an angel. Keiya is compliant. She's always been a patient like that, so good so good, with the nurses and caregivers cooing at her like an obedient pet.
The doctor motions. Keiya spreads her arms wide.
I, too, am an unclaimed colony.
They strap her down to the machine. She slams her head back, closes her eyes.
If you're the mantle I'm the core / Tell me what you waiting for
Tell me what you waiting for
Foolish mortals. You underestimate. Echo is stronger than diamond.
When she wakes up she will whisper it, the words of Nash still present on her lips, hovering and perfectly preserved—Tell me what you waiting for—and Morit will be in the corner of the room, arguing with the doctors. Her voice loud and clear and persistent. They will meet eyes, Keiya and Morit, and Morit will smile her grin crackling joy to see Keiya awake, alive, remembering a little, and Keiya will tell herself, sternly: You are never to speak to that woman again.
What a stupid thing to think.