A/N: Another story from Abundance. This one is earlier than The Man of His Dreams and later than "Not at all Like Paco." (oddly, that's true both in story chronologically and in when they were written. Which is to say that this story was mostly written a while back and I'm just cleaning it up and uploading it now)
The Prospect Road
Part One: Getting out of Gate
1. Testing Out
Until Mickey was twelve he had no idea he was bound for trouble. He had every reason to think he was headed for an office job in Hallow: the greatest success he could imagine. He was smart, and he was ambitious, which counted for something: and he was well-behaved, which was what really mattered if you wanted to get out of Gate. That's what they said in school.
"You can be the smartest little brat in Gate, but you won't get anywhere unless you follow the rules," the teachers said, over and over, in one variation or another. Mickey followed the rules. He wanted to get somewhere. To get out of Gate. To go where there were jobs beyond the crews, the mines, the fabricos.
He was special. Not even a third child, he was a fourth: his parents had not even asked for ovulation meds for him, they had been solicited, on the basis that his brother and sisters were doing so well. His parents were perfect Gate citizens: they worked, they broke no laws, they tended their home and took all their turns in the block committees. He seemed to live up to his promise. He was a fast learner. He learned his math and his history and his manners. But he didn't learn his place.
He had learned that he wasn't supposed to be too eager. He wasn't supposed to say "Why is the sky blue in the story books when it's pink in real life?" He wasn't supposed to correct the teacher's math. He wasn't supposed to bring to school with him a long list of questions about birds. If he wondered about the way they flew over in great dark crowds, or what the bird deflectors really did, or why the Esperanza Highway was the only road allowed and its conduits the only transmission of power and communication . . . if he discovered a pattern in the number charts . . . he kept it mainly to himself, and only brought it up very carefully. He did not show off. The other boys didn't like showing off, and they punished him for it. Most teachers didn't like it, and they punished him too, in their most appropriate way -- they ignored him. So he'd learned to act like it didn't much matter to him, while carefully doing everything right, giving all the right answers, doing all the work. For two years, from nine to eleven, he had hit his stride: he had the same teacher those two years, and she liked him, and gave him encouragement.
Then she gave him the results of the general test they took at the end of the year.He had scored really well. They had sent him the whole report and he could tell by the raw score that he was eligible for the high school program and even, maybe, Gate College and a two-year vocational certificate, or more, something beyond Gate.
He went off to Riparian Camp along with the other twelve-year-olds. On the bus Kieran pushed him up to the window and jabbed him in the ribs. "Showoff," he muttered. "You going to show off for the Altagracia girls? Or maybe the boys?"
He'd tried various strategies for this kind of situation before, and the one that worked the fastest was not answering. He gazed right into Kieran's eyes and didn't blink. Kieran punched him and turned away.
Mickey thought about what Kieran had said about the Altagracia kids. Maybe there would be kids from outside Gate there. Boys and girls who could tell him how it was in the world beyond Gate, maybe even beyond Hallow. Those Altagracia girls -- Kieran mentioned them because a lot of the people from the Altagracia Valley were Ranchistas. The Ranchistas supposedly spent their days playing around and dancing at work, but then they were supposed to have built the Esperanza Highway and the University at Banner and most of the bienhydros --water systems, much more comprehensive than mere dams and pipes -- on which the delicate structure of the terraformed world depended . They were supposed to be excessively friendly but impossible to understand. Their personal morals were suspect. They were supposed to be really different, those Ranchistas.
Different might be good. If it was different from Gate. If it wasn't hunkering down and pretending you didn't know anything and didn't want to know anything. If it would get him to a place where other people cared about birds as much as bird deflectors, and where he could apply the exciting, shiny new mathematics he found in the obscure reaches of the modules. Anyplace but Gate would do, even Hallow, where Gate boys like him had to walk a narrow line to keep from going to the "correction" at Three Pines.
Riparian Camp was mandatory, but Mickey looked forward to it. He'd come to Riparian Camp one other time, when he was six. It had been scary to leave the civilized residential blocks of the mining town where he lived and plunge into the wilderness of camp. But he liked the Riparian Camp instructors. Back then there had been a big emphasis on singing "The Land and The Water" and other sentimental songs -- at least one of them, he still remembered, was all about birds. All kinds of birds, and the roles they played in the managed environments of Abundance. Camp was the place where the Biomes Authority took over from the local communities for a bit and exerted some pressure to make sure all the inhabitants of Abundance learned some basic principles and values.
Everything on Abundance, except for the base rock and even some of that, was human-created. The climate, the landforms, the habitats, and most of the organisms, were all artifacts of human design, creation, and maintenance. Biomes Authority, created at the same time as the planet's terraforming began, thought it was a more delicate world system than most, and insisted that nobody could live there without a strong commitment to supporting the dynamic homeostasis of the world. To this end, the Authority, whose mandate did not, by charter, extend into the political or cultural development of the world, required every child to attend a Biomes Authority camp for at least two sessions, once in early childhood and once at the edge of adolescence. Beyond that, the charters could negotiate for more sessions. In Altagracia, the children went every year from six to fourteen, and sometimes more. In Gate, if you were very very good, you might get to go to camp a third time during high school.
Mickey intended to win that third visit, at the very least, because going to camp was almost as good as getting out of Gate.
There was nobody from anyplace but Gate at Riparian Camp this time unless you counted the teachers. The teachers liked him because he tried hard and he did all the work. The first two days he was really engaged and excited by his test scores, and the world was his to discover. He followed a teacher around who didn't seem to mind answering his questions about what people did outside of Gate. "You could come to work for us," he said. "We need lots of workers, in the Biomes. What would you like to do?"
Mickey had been thinking about this. He was supposed to have a pretty clear idea by the time he was sixteen. Right now, he had two very different ideas. "I could do math stuff in an office," he said. "I'm pretty good at that. Or I might like to take care of the birds, or study them, or something. The birds are interesting."
"You could do something with both," the teacher said. "You could be a bird scientist and keep track of them. There's a lot we have to know about the birds."
On the third day at Biomes Camp, Kieran and four other boys cornered Mickey before lunchtime. "Fucking showoff," Kieran said. "You trying to be the Chista's girlfriend?" The "Chista" was the teacher, who was from a Rancho Something-or-other in Altagracia, and had that goofy way of talking and smiling all the time. But he took Mickey seriously and didn't slap him down for asking questions, so Mickey liked him.
Mickey forgot himself. "I'm not showing off, you noisy old bird deflector. I'm just finding stuff out."
"Yeah, finding out where he keeps his thing." Another kick, and Kieran was done with him for now.
At bedtime they got him again. "You better act like you know who you are," Kieran said.
On the fourth day, three different people asked Mickey if he had gotten sick over night, because he was so quiet. Two people asked him point blank why he was limping, and the Altagracia teacher found him hiding behind the trucks, "Somebody got to you," he said. "I missed your questions."
Mickey shook his head and kept his peace.
The teacher sighed and said, "You got to really love Gate."
On the fifth day they all went home.
As soon as school convened again, he went to his new teacher with his scores. "Very nice," the new teacher said, in a tone that indicated it wasn't nice at all. "It looks like you can get a place in General if you play your cards right. You might be a cashier."
By now Mickey had learned that you don't push. But he was too excited by his scores to remember. "But I could get into a program," he said. "I looked it up. I've got good grades and a good record and these are really good scores."
The teacher's voice went cold and so did Mickey's nerves. "I'll tell you what. I'll put you up for the Fourteens early. That'll tell you what you can do."
Mickey could tell it wasn't a good thing he was being promised, but his hopes got the better of him and he agreed enthusiastically. The Fourteens were the final test that most Gate kids got. Most of them were sorted out of school and into crew work at that point. But some of them went on. He could go to high school early, maybe, and maybe he'd be so successful there, and maybe he could be an administrator or a scientist like the Chista teacher said, or . . .
What really happened was that he never saw the results from the Fourteens. Months went on in which his teacher was increasingly hostile to him, and the other boys even more so as he tried harder and harder to impress the teacher with his compliance and self-effacing good manners. He never complained about the pressure he was getting from Kieran and his ragger mob. That was one of the rules. Complaining got you in more trouble and he wasn't about to get into more trouble if he could help it.
Finally it was midterm. Midterm transfers had started the year before. Several boys -- the thuggiest, most want-to-be-raggers, the scariest boys, had been transferred to Prep Rehab, and one of them had skipped the step and gone straight to "baby jail." Mickey had been glad to see them go, because they had been real annoyances to him, and threats to his good behavior record. It was hard not talking back when they called him names and even harder staying out of fights when they shoved him against the wall. So Mickey looked forward to midterms for two reasons. More of the raggers would be gone and anyway, Mickey might, just might, go on to Voc Prep or General early. If he didn't, at least there would be fewer raggers to bother him.
A counselor came into class and called his name. He didn't look encouraging but that was nothing new. He followed the counselor through the pinkly glowing hallway. He looked around the office curiously: he'd never been there before. Usually only the miscreants came here. It was unusual to come in to the office because you were good.
"Teacher says you're an ambitious boy," the counselor said.
Mickey nodded slightly. He didn't dare agree too eagerly.
"You want to go to a program? What did you have in mind?"
Mickey kept very still and didn't fidget while he worked out the best answer. "At Ripa Camp they said there was a program for bird scientists. Or something in the offices."
"You want that? That's admirable," the counselor said, and Mickey had to think twice as to whether admirable was a good thing or a bad thing because the counselor's tone of voice wasn't helping any.
"You have a problem, right here," the counselor said. "You're not doing math at the required level."
"I get good grades," Mickey said. "I did good on that test."
The counselor shook his head. "You did all right on the Twelves but you're a year behind in the Fourteens."
"But isn't that good? Because that was last year. I wasn't supposed to even take them for two years. Doesn't that show I'm ahead by a year? I could handle whatever I had to."
The counselor frowned and Mickey shut up.
"We're going to have to do something with you," the counselor said. "You're not ready for General or Voc Prep, and you're chafing at the bit here. That's trouble in the making." Mickey didn't disagree out loud. " There's a place for you, though."
Mickey sat up. Where was he going to go? He'd heard of a bright kid being shipped off to some fancy school in Hallow. Maybe they'd do that for him? He was bright. And good, he was really good.
"You'll start the second term at Prep Rehab," the counselor said.
"Some students make the transition to General from Prep Rehab," the counselor said. "I won't lie to you. It's hard to do. There are a lot of distractions. You'll be tempted to join up with the raggers. But if you work hard and watch your step, you'll get good marks and be eligible for a transfer. It's really the only place for you to go right now."
Mickey's mother was unsympathetic when he told her he was going to get a midterm transfer to Prep Rehab. "I told you not to act like that," she said. "You go into that place like you own it, of course they're going to send you away."
"Mami, I did everything they told me to do. I kept my mouth shut. I did good on the tests. It's completely unfair."
"You told them you were going to be a Hallow. You never tell them crap."
"I didn't. I just --"
"You talk back like that at school?"
Mickey shook his head. "No, Mami."
His father didn't take it nearly so hard. "So he'll be on a crew. It worked out okay for us, didn't it? We're doing okay."
"He's in trouble and he's headed for more trouble," his mother said. "It's going to make things hard for the other kids, too. I almost wish I hadn't got that ticket." She meant the ticket that got her the ovulation meds to bear a fourth child.
"There'll be a place for him, sweetie, don't worry," Mickey's father said. There was a chronic labor shortage on the planet, because it had only been settled for a few hundred years and there really wasn't much immigration any more. It wasn't that large a number of people who wanted to live their lives as a scientific experiment, an art project, or a social statement, which is what the communities of Abundance mainly were. Except Gate and Hallow. Gate was a resource for Hallow: Hallow was an act of prayer.
But the labor shortage didn't mean that Biomes Authority was going to let the communities expand more quickly. Each charter project got a supply of ovulation medications that would allow them to grow at the same rate, set by the Biomes Authority. Because Gate belonged to Hallow, Hallow administered the ovulation medications like everything else. Hallow made sure that more babies were born, proportionately, in Gate. Their own growth needs were met by siphoning off the best and brightest from Gate. Which is why Mickey thought he had a chance to get out.
"You know what, Mami? I wish you hadn't won that ticket myself. Then I'd never be born and I'd never get treated this way."
Mickey retreated to his room and listened to the loudest, most miserable music he could find. He touched his watch --a fancy new one, laminated to his hand, the only raggerish thing he had. It had been a birthday present from Luz, his favorite cousin, who had said, "Mickey kiddo, you can afford a little style -- nobody's going to keep you in Gate just because you have a decent watch."
He used that watch now to call his cousin and told him what was about to happen to him.
"It's all over now, kiddo," Luz said. "Make up your mind to be really, really good, and you'll get on the regular crews. Otherwise it's the rock digesters for you."
Mickey failed to see how the rock digesters were worse than the regular crews, but when he said so, Luz laughed at him.