A new story from Mary Anne Mohanraj’s Jump Space universe is a fantastic way to round out November — although it may leave you wanting more… ~ Julian and Fran, November 19, 2023
by Mary Anne Mohanraj
It ended with expulsion. That’s what happens when you try to cheat, and cheating was exactly what Anju was doing, kneeling on the floor of the headmaster’s office, trying to jiggle open a lock with a hairpin. She bit back curses at the hairpin, which kept slipping out of her shaking, sweating hands, tinkling as it landed on the tile floor.
Anju winced at the sound, which seemed far louder than it should, even louder than her pounding heart. Then she wiped her palms on her sari, picked up the slippery hairpin, and bent to the task again. She’d been trying and failing for at least thirty minutes, but a good mother doesn’t just give up when it’s hard, not when her child’s future depends on her efforts.
Behind the lock was a drawer, and in that drawer were the test scores, the critically important test scores. Her Rohit’s scores were there. Rohit, sunny as a summer’s day, sweet as milk toffee, funny like a monkey from the old stories. Just the thought of his smile made her own lips curve to match. He was her perfect son, her little prince—but Anju was clear-sighted enough to know that Rohit, sunshine of her heart, had probably not received a high score.
He was only four, but if he didn’t score in the top 10 percent, he wouldn’t be accepted to the accelerated program. The zamindars and business leaders and technologists and doctors were all products of the accelerated program. That’s what Mari Aunty said, and she had lunch once a month with the leading ladies of their taluka.
Sproing! The lock popped, the drawer opened, and in an instant Anju’s sweaty hands were deep in the stacks of folders, pulling them out, spreading them on the floor. She didn’t have much time—Mari Aunty had agreed to watch Rohit, but only until the evening news came on. Anju had set a timer in her chip, and a little glowing green counter projected the minutes disappearing. Thirty minutes left. Twenty. Fifteen. Her breath came faster.
Thank all the little gods that they’d been graded! Ah, there was Rohit’s; he’d done reasonably well. But not well enough—seventeenth out of a hundred and two. Fated for the regular program, and even if Anju’s best friend, Sumathy, sang its praises, and claimed her daughter was doing so well there—well, Sumathy had to, hadn’t she? She’d spent so much to send her daughter to this school instead of the public preschool, had taken on a second job to afford the fees. It wouldn’t do any good for her to admit the truth now.
Thank all the gods they’d administered the tests with paper and pencil—the headmaster had said it would be better for the children than taking the tests on tablets. Anju had brought a pencil—could she simply erase Rohit’s name, and another child’s, and switch them? But which child? Anju felt a guilty pang in her gut as she contemplated condemning someone else’s child to the regular program . . .
. . . but oh. There, among those who’d scored near the very top, was Ramini. Bedi’s daughter, who had undoubtedly gotten every gene mod that would help her succeed. Extra height; tall people tended to be evaluated more highly. Darker skin, to seem more intelligent. Probably tetrachromatic receptors in her eyes so she could see a hundred times as many colors as normal; that had surely given the child an unfair advantage on the color-sorting part of the test. And perfect memory—with Bedi as her mother, that was a given.
Anju and Bedi had gone to school together for years. A & B, inseparable. Running through Kaveri’s nascent woodland grove in primary, picking up stones and fallen branches, careful not to disturb any living thing that might be doing important work, contributing to the terraforming effort.
In secondary, A & B had shared a tablet, dutifully memorizing the history of the Founders, setting dates and facts to music to help them stick in their heads.
Fleeing persecution, they built themselves a ship,
Seventeen Families came together to take a trip. . . .
Anju had the better voice, but Bedi remembered everything, as if the words scrolled in front of her eyes. Anju accused Bedi once of being gene-modified, to have that perfect photographic memory. One of their worst fights, and she could still remember the shock on Bedi’s face. “My parents would never take that kind of risk, tinkering with my brain. Why would I lie to you? It’s just inherent genetics, I swear!”
Anju had pretended to accept Bedi’s words. Maybe she wasn’t lying; maybe Bedi’s parents had done it without her knowledge or consent, slipped some extra credits to the medtech when Bedi was still no more than a cluster of dividing cells. They had plenty of credits, after all, direct descendants of one of the Founding Families.
Anju stared at the papers in front of her, Ramini and Rohit, side by side. Ramini had every advantage in the worlds. Anju would simply be righting a wrong if she erased the two names and switched them.