Talking and not talking
Jacinto wanted to be touching Mickey all through the whole thing. Mickey ore or less gave him the choice of sitting right next to him, bodies almost touching, or sitting farther away and holding his hand. Currently he seemed to have chosen the sit-close option, because Mickey's hands were free to tie themselves into knots. Apparently these Juvenile Victims guys saw nothing strange about this. Mickey thought maybe they were Valley people after all, Ranchistas like Jacinto or something else. They sure couldn't be from Gate. That was comforting.
Nothing else much was. The chair in the room that Miranda found for them became uncomfortable after maybe ten minutes and they didn't let him up for a break for at least another fifteen. And the questions they were asking were - despite being superficially similar to the ones Miranda asked - much more humiliating. They seemed to agree with Jacinto's theory that he had been raped, but Mickey was unconvinced just because of these two new authoritative opinions. What he knew was that he had given in, over and over, and that he would again, if it meant he could get away from Gate. Worse: he had given in even before he knew he could get out. He'd probably do that again too.
They wanted to know more details about the conversations Mickey had had with authorities like Lennie and the counselors at Prep Rehab. It was hard. On the one hand, some things were so clear that it made him ill to even think about them sideways. But exactly who said what and when was difficult. He remembered what Miranda said about memory, and he said "I'm not sure," so many times that he thought they would get angry.
But they didn't. And Jacinto didn't say anything.
Finally they were finished "for now." At least they did not seem to be promising him days and days of meetings like with Miranda. He asked them what would happen next. "Like do I have to go back to baby jail for the break?"
Fernando Wong - the one who had sat on Mickey - grimaced. "It would be very difficult for you to go to Gate at all before your majority at this point. If you want very much to see your parents, a visit can be arranged. But this situation . . . you should know that Trinh and I have some emergency powers, and the discretion to declare an emergency. And we think you are an emergency. Which means that we can have your custody transferred on an temporary basis. Which we're doing as we speak. We feel that your best interests are served by having the school take primary custody. They already have secondary custody of all of you while you're at school. So there's no stretch there.
"What you have to understand though," he continued with a stern look, "is that your case will be reviewed in the proper process. This will take a long time. You may find some alterations in your circumstances if the greater committee thinks it's in your best interests."
Mickey thought that Fernando Wong liked that phrase "in your best interests" very much. And he didn't like the idea that they could transfer custody away from the school again at some unnamed time in the future.
Jacinto apparently could only keep quiet for so long. He had questions. "What does that mean about break? And Mickey's ankle bracelet? And which majority are you talking about? And could the committee decide to send him back to Gate?"
Trinh smiled. "That's a lot of questions," he said. "Good ones, though. Which majority is one of the questions for review, actually. For now we're going with full majority - twenty-five - because of the question of physical protection. "
Mickey choked. Did that mean they could tell him what to do for almost ten more years? They seemed all right just now, but what if they turned out different? What if there was a Lennie in that batch?
Trinh shook his head. "Mickey, even if the review settles on twenty-five, it will not make much difference. Remember, it's the Biomes Authority School we're handing custody to most likely, and the usual route for students of the school is to go directly to work for the Biomes Authority when they graduate anyway."
"There's still something creepy about it," Jacinto said.
"Life is creepy," Mickey said, with a bravado he didn't feel.
"What about the other questions?"
"We don't have the answers to all of them. The school will most likely decide what will happen at break. Nobody's going to send Mickey back to Gate at this point. The ankle bracelet will come off as soon as we get the code. As of" he consulted the corner of his writer and then fixed Mickey with a look, "two hours ago, you're not any kind of detention client. You are a student and a ward of the school. Like you ought to have been for several years already, from the sound of it."
"You can't come here till you're fourteen at the very minimum," Jacinto said, mournfully. "The usual age is sixteen."
"There are other schools," Trinh said. "But it doesn't matter now. Thank you for asking Mickey's questions for him. I believe we wore him out." Mickey nodded dumbly.
"You should probably go join your group," Fernando said. "They're probably getting in trouble for not listening in class, or cutting class."
"Not them," Jacinto said. "They're making sure they get every detail down for us."
Jacinto was right, to a point. The others had gone to every class and taken copious "Mickey-style" notes (that's what they called them). But they hadn't been on their best behavior, as they mobbed their teachers at the beginning and end of each class to demand the whereabouts of Mickey and Jacinto, which none of the teachers could provide, naturally.
They caught up with their group just outside the dining hall. It was supper time. Mickey and Jacinto had been interviewing all day. But when they saw their group, but had not yet approached hearing range, Mickey pulled Jacinto to a stop. Jacinto stared at Mickey's hand grasping his arm with confusion. "What?" he asked,
"They know some of the stuff already. But I don't want them to know the rest. Okay?"
Jacinto frowned, even more confused. "It's not like the things you said today were any worse than what everybody imagined," he said. "And none of us are used to keeping secrets."
"You kept a secret for me before," Mickey said.
"Yeah, and I had to break the secret in a short time," Jacinto said.
"It's just the details," Mickey pleaded. "I don't want people to look at me and know that about me. I don't want them to have ammunition when they're pissed off at me. I want -"
"Nobody's going to throw it in your face, guy. Believe me."
"Nobody would do it today."
"Nobody will ever do it if I have anything to say about it."
"Nobody will ever do it if you just don't tell them all the details."
Jacinto sighed. "Okay, I'll go against all my upbringing, but you owe me a thing."
Mickey flinched. Not now, not after Mickey trusted -
"Not that kind of thing. I'm not like that!" Mickey couldn't tell whether Jacinto was angry or frightened that Mickey might be thinking he was capable of those things.
"What kind of thing, then? And hurry up, they've seen us."
"You have to have a casual conversation with each of the other people in our group that's not about our project and not about schoolwork and not about Zip. At least one a day."
"You're kidding me."
"Nope," Jacinto said smugly.
"Blackmail isn't your strong suit," Mickey muttered. And then the group was on them and they were hit with a barrage of questions and urgent declarations.
The catch-up session was longish because everybody was nervous and twitchy and inclined to squabble over details. Mickey was preoccupied and his notes weren't all that good. But they dragged through it and Mickey thought he was on his way to bed. But Jacinto caught his eye and mouthed "conversation?" and Mickey found himself trying to figure out what to talk to anybody about, and who he could waylay when everyone was so clearly exhausted and headed for bed.
Georgie might be the easiest, he thought, so he turned to him and just started talking about the first thing that came to mind.
"What kinds of birds live where you come from?" he blurted.
"What? We're done for the night, Mickey, we don't have to keep on thinking about the project."
Mickey frowned. "Not about the project, I was just thinking about birds -" he wasn't really but it was something he knew how to talk about -"and I wondered what birds live in the Valley."
Georgie thought for a moment, his head cocked to one side. "I don't actually know," he admitted. "I could look it up."
"No, you don't have to. I was just talking."
Georgie shook his head. "It's okay, Mickey, you don't have to."
Mickey gave up. All Jacinto said was that he had to have a conversation, not that the conversation had to work or make sense. He saw Jacinto across the common room, laughing apparently at nothing, and he was pretty sure that Jacinto had heard the whole exchange.
This was confirmed when Jacinto blocked Mickey's way to his bead. "That wasn't a conversation, but it will do as a first attempt," Jacinto said. "Did you never talk to anyone about anything in Gate?"
"Not if I could help it," Mickey said.
"So were you always that shy or just after -" Georgie entered the room and Jacinto dropped the question.
"I'm not shy," Mickey said, "I'm just careful."
Georgie slipped into his bed, saying, "Don't worry about me, guys, you know I sleep through anything. Do or say whatever you want."
Mickey whispered to Jacinto, "No you don't."
"I wasn't going to," Jacinto said. "I said I'd keep your secrets."
Mickey jumped when he heard Georgie muttering, but he was just sleeptalking: he was already out. Jacinto stepped aside and Mickey dragged himself off to bed.
The teachers were initially resistant to their request to present first, which Mickey found alarming: didn't they care at all about the possible fates of his groupmates? Ernesto delivered the final go-ahead, though, saying "We didn't want to look like we were endorsing it if they wanted to take Mickey. And now Miranda says that the committee has definitely ruled that you can't be taken at this time, so it doesn't matter. But then we thought that somebody has to go first, and your group seems to be prepared, so you get the slot even though we don't think you need it."
So they had the first slot on the first day of presentations. And they didn't know what anybody else was doing, so they had to only hope that their approach was acceptable. Mickey was given the job of explaining how their statistical method worked. As soon as he mentioned the Zip-Zap -Zero game the other students started laughing, and they barely stopped during the whole presentation. Mickey was unnerved but Jacinto kept squeezing his elbow. It was a puzzling gesture but somehow, knowing it was meant to be reassuring made it so.
And when he had explained the method, Ernesto said, "It seems to me your group has reinvented Ouandellian regression."
Sosa, a teacher of statistical methods, differed: "I think Lashen, myself."
"An interesting discussion, which we should probably put off."
After Mickey explained their analysis, Carlos and Georgie demonstrates their mapping and a very pretty 3-D model showing the more tantalizing ways the data was interacting. Jon and Jacinto presented the "further research" questions. Willis moderated the question and answer period.
Somewhere in all of that Mickey forgot to be embarrassed, forgot to be terrified, forgot that he didn't know how anybody ever did anything. And as they prepared to stand down and return to their places, and Jacinto's hand fell away from his elbow, Mickey realized that he had forgotten to be unnerved by Jacinto's touch as well.
It was hard to pay as close attention to the other presentation of the day, since all Mickey wanted to do at this point was to race around the quads in the altogether squealing like a baby. A phrase appeared in his mind out of nowhere: like professionals. And he remembered that Fernando and Trinh from the Children's Welfare Committee thought it was not only possible, but proper and probable, that he would stay here at the school, and, graduating, go on to work with the Biomes Authority for his whole life.
A long ways from a the future he had been signed up for against his will, back in Gate, of signing up repeatedly for one kind of crew work or another, hoping that his record would not keep him off the crews. A long ways even from what he had dared to hope for when he was a little kid, when he thought he might get so far as a high school education and a job in an office.
This was really big.
Walking away from the classroom, Mickey couldn't keep his mind on one track. He kept buzzing around among the birds and the regressions and the weird project about new organisms in the Saline Hot Springs and the other group's project about pollinators and synchronization: and then he was looking at the Prospect branch road - in his mind - and the whole continent laid out for him to see and to understand: and Jacinto and all his group and how they pulled this thing off together and the birds. Mickey put some effort into following the conversation of his group, but really they sounded just like the interior of his brain and it was just hopeless to make a coherent progression of their words. They were all intoxicated with triumph - but more, with simple relief.
And a bit of a vacuum. For weeks they had been living inside this project. All their other classwork had seemed only to be in service of the project. Even Mickey's extra math had seemed so, because when he was working on it he was always thinking whether the new topics had any relevance to the Zip strings. And sometimes they did. But now the project was over, and in only a few days, most of the group would be going home for a month. Mickey refused to think about it. Except it would be thought of whether he would think about it or not, a nauseating shadow in the bright busy vision of his dancing brain.
Without really discussing it, it seemed that they had decided not to head for their room, but to go instead to the demonstration riparian, stopping briefly at the snack machines on the way over. There was a purpose-made picnic area on a green bank, with rocks artfully shaped and placed to provide table and chairs. Sometimes students' parents would visit and the families would have awkward lunches here. Today, as the pink haze of the sky began to darken, Mickey's group fell onto the carpet of herbage, drinking Paisley Water and eating green crisps. Mickey let the conversation roll over him now, giving up all pretense of following anything. It felt good not to be on the alert. He tensed a little as he realized that he really was relaxed. But that tension died away, leaving only this feeling of contentment.
Jacinto, already lying on the ground next to Mickey, moved closer and rolled on to his side so his face was in Mickey's. Mickey noticed with a detached satisfaction that he didn't jump away, that he could tolerate Mickey being this close. For now.
Jacinto whispered, "We have a deal, remember. I'm not talking, so you have to."
"I was enjoying myself," Mickey said. "Now you've reminded me and it's a lot like work, trying to think of something to say."
"You could start by talking about what you were thinking about."
Mickey shook his head. "There are no words," he said.
"I think I know what you mean," Jacinto said. "It's pretty amazing. You just want to do it again and again for your whole life."
Willis kicked Jacinto. "What the hell? You're talking about sex now of all times?"
"No," Jacinto and Mickey said together. "I was talking about the project," Jacinto said. "The way it all came together at the end even though we didn't have any answers. It was a beautiful thing anyway."
"That's what you think today," Carlos said. "Another week or so we'll all start thinking about how we could have done it better."
"I already am," Georgie said cheerfully.
The next day Trinh and Fernando were back and Mickey had to duck out of a fascinatingly eccentric presentation about the engineering of epigenetics in long-term habitat planning. A wave of sick apprehension crashed over him as he walked through the halls. They promised he wouldn't have to go back to Gate. They promised. Whatever the news would be, it wouldn't be that.
There was a committee of people in the little room where Mickey found himself. Miranda, Trinh, Fernando, and some other people Mickey had never seen before. As he took the seat indicated to him, he wished he'd had the foresight to drag Jacinto with him again, instead of the bravado that had him slipping out of the classroom with barely a comment to his group, and that only because he had had it drummed into his skull that he should always communicate his destinations to his group.
Fernando went over Mickey's case. Mickey couldn't follow it well, which seemed telling, considering that he had actually lived though all the bits that Fernando was laying out in some arcane order of his own. It wasn't a sequential order of events. But there appeared to be some sort of Zip string to the way the anecdotes were strung together - some kind of association which was not obvious and which Mickey was going to be required to describe and expand on. He left his writer in his pocket, but only just. As it was, he was still a little bedazzled from the presentation of the day before and he was almost hallucinating the Zip string he would make of this order of events, blazing in bright colors across a metaphorical projection screen in his mind's eye. But he was not distracted. No: he was hyper-alert, turning over every word and phrase and sentence for its ultimate meaning and clues to his fate.
Then there was discussion. Mickey supposed they must mostly be Ranchistas originally, because they carried on that weirdly formal discourse with the carefully-timed smiles and earnest expressions. Mickey's pulse was racing now, because it was pretty clear they had come to some kind of conclusion. But there were more questions, this time to his great relief not so intimate as before. Some of the questions were scary: "What would you do if we said we thought it was not in your best interests to continue here?"
Mickey said he couldn't imagine that it would not be in his best interests to continue at the Biomes school. "This is the best thing that ever happened to me in my whole life." And Trinh had the temerity to laugh when he said that.
"Your life will be much longer than this," Trinh said. "Plenty of room for further best things."
Miranda said "There are similar programs at the Spine and at the Kelp station, and even a couple on Heimisch. Would you consider a further removal, to get you away from bad memories?"
Oh. That was all. Not a threatened return at all. Just more options. He didn't need more options. He was in the right place, at least for now. He struggled for a way to say this, but Fernando relieved him of the necessity. "It's a trick question," he admitted. "Nobody expected you to want to transfer into a different program. But if you did, we would have done what we could to accommodate you. It's part of the restitution package."
"Restitution." Had they explained this? Mickey had felt so alert and aware during all this palaver, he was almost certain he couldn't have missed that. The bright vision of the Zip string unraveled ad Mickey worried on that thought.
Trinh stepped in for Fernando. "We're calling it restitution because there's an effort underway to get Gate and Hallow to pay for schooling, therapy, and material support until you reach your majority. Full majority," he added before Mickey could ask. "It makes no difference to what you'll be doing or what is done for you, but there's a certain satisfaction in seeing them pay up. There's a further investigation going on as well, but we're not burdening you with the politics."
Mickey nodded dumbly. He looked around. They were waiting for him to ask questions now, he thought. So he asked one.
"Where am I going for break?"
A/N: Fifteen months since the last update. Sorry. But I had (and continue to have) certain problems with this story. I'm afraid this chapter will seem like it's all bark and no bite, but there it is.