Barghest II – Chapter 2

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Building Character

 

Hour 1000, Day 7, Year 2141

Burner, noun. Slang. Individual who flees the Sol System to avoid mandatory military service.

    Ex. When the Home Guard caught the burner, he was sentenced to ten years of hard labor in a corporate mining colony.

As far as first days at school, it had not gone as poorly as others in Clara Maker’s memory. She had sat through homeroom without incident. Second period was a math review quiz, which kept the entire class busy at their own desks. She only had science left, then she could sit with her older cousins at lunch. After that was foreign language, communications class, and programming. The school was small, and most of the kids had been there forever. She knew everyone in every class, and they knew her. There were only a few that still tried to bully her. Unfortunately, two of them would be in science.  It started before she even sat down.

“Check it out. Little Miss Minty came back to school.” Larissa always instigated. Clara rolled her eyes but did not bother responding as she found a seat off to the side. She counted to herself, one, two, thr-

“I thought for sure she would have to stay home and grind wheat or something. Isn’t that what you hippies do, Minty Maker? Do you have the ‘net up at your place? Or did your dad ban you from that too?” There it is, Clara thought. It was always somewhat vindicating when people acted the way she expected. Brady following Larissa’s lead was typical. Clara pressed her lips tightly together. Responding would just make them tease more.

“Nothing to say? Oh, that’s-”

“Enough, settle down,” the teacher interrupted mildly as he entered. Roll call went fast, and then he was sliding information from his tablet to the wall at the front of the room. “A.I., dim the lights. Everyone listen up. We are still two weeks behind in the lesson plan and standard tests are scheduled in two months, so we are going to move quickly. Pay attention, take notes – and for pete’s sake, Brady, try to read the material this semester.”

There was light laughter in the room as the lights went down and the teacher began to speak. Clara did her best to ignore the spiteful glances Larissa was still shooting her. “As you all know, genetic research, as it exists today, was pioneered by Dr. Melissa Whitman. It was her breakthroughs in gene identification algorithms that allowed the precise mapping of many disease-causing characteristics in our DNA.”

“Maker’s DNA,” Brady taunted quietly. Nearby students laughed. Clara had to give him points for dedication, but he lost them for lack of creativity. His insults hadn’t changed much since fourth grade.

“You can see listed here, and on page 478 of your text, some of the more common genes that have been removed via embryonic therapy. Of course, the research did not stop there. Genes for eye color, muscle build, and even height have all-” the teacher continued, but Larissa’s whisper cut through the back of the room.

“Missed that one, didn’t you Maker? You’re lucky they found a desk short enough for you.” Clara bristled a little. She wasn’t that short. She was one point six five meters, which was pretty tall for a female of Asian descent. At least, she wasn’t short compared to unmodified girls of Asian descent; Clara was below average for her class and the world population. Only by eight centimeters, but it was enough to be noticeable.

“-strongest supporters for restraining widespread gene manipulation. Often, legislators at the time quoted scientists over ‘hidden genes’ and resistances that often were disguised as disease. A good example of this is sickle-cell anemia and malaria. Although the insurance industry – it was entirely private at the time – played a key part in curbing the use of non-medical therapies, there still exists an important minority that believes the ‘junk DNA’ so many parents had removed from their progeny may have a purpose in the future. Perhaps even protect us from a new disease. Let’s take a look at the technique used to select for desirable traits – this will be on the test…”

“I bet if you look up junk DNA on the net, there’s just a picture of Maker there,” said Brady. He was loud enough that the whole class heard, and many began to laugh. The teacher even looked up with a frown.

“At least my parents had enough genes to work with, Brady,” Clara said hotly. “I’m sure your doctor had a hard time finding two pairs that weren’t alike. But that runs in your family, doesn’t it?” Shocked silence fell over the room, and Clara almost regretted saying anything. It was a small town. Everyone knew everyone, for generations. And everyone knew that Brady’s great-great grandparents had been second cousins. It wasn’t something talked about openly, especially among those who considered good genes a prophecy of success. Which was pretty much everyone. Giggles broke out in the room and Brady turned bright red.

“Both of you. Principal. Now.” The teacher left no room for argument. Maker slid out of her seat and grabbed her tablet. She was sure she would be kicking herself for not keeping her mouth shut, but at the moment she felt rather proud. Brady, she thought, meet your glass house.

Larissa whistled as she walked past her desk. “Careful how brave you get, Minty. I’d hate to see what might happen to that pale little face if someone decided to break your nose.” Her whisper was quiet, only Clara heard her. It sent a little rake of fear across her belly. That made her mad.

“You know what, Larissa?” Clara stopped at the doorway and turned around. She spoke loud enough to interrupt the teacher and made certain everyone heard her. Already going to be in trouble, she thought, might as well make the detention worth it. “For such Grade A livestock, you really are a stupid bitch. I might be short, but I’m still taller than you when you’re on your knees for Brady in the athletics supply closet.”  She spun on her heel and walked down the hall, savoring Larissa’s sputtering denial and the laughter of the rest of the class.

***

“You know better than to rise to the bait of petty insults, Clara Sadako Maker. You should not – ever – use low-class insults to make yourself seem superior.” Clara’s father, Greg, had made her wait for a lecture, one which she knew was going to be bad. The principal had decided that both her and Brady’s comments were signs of genetic prejudice. They had been temporarily suspended instead of getting detention. For cursing, Clara would be out of school an extra day too. It did not seem fair.

But he made her wait for his decision for three hours after getting home. After mucking stalls, watering calves, feeding chickens, and scooping snow off the sidewalk, Clara was exhausted and nervous about what kind of punishment she was going to receive. Her father was nothing if not creative.

“For the next two weeks, you will break ice on all of the stock tanks – by yourself – before and after school. You also will be in charge of supper, not just one night a week, but every night. And you can forget about going to that concert next weekend with your cousins. It is not going to happen.” Clara was trying not to cry, but she could feel the heat building up behind her eyes. She stared at the wall over her father’s head and nodded. The living room rug was soft under her bare feet, and the house smelled like the pot pie he had already put in the oven. “While you are suspended, you will complete all of your assignments, in addition to cleaning this entire house. I want the baseboards dusted and every window sparkling. Oh, and Clara,” his softer tone made her wince. Whatever was coming next would be the worst part. “You will write a letter of apology to both Brady and Larissa. I expect it to be heartfelt.”

“What!” Clara exploded. “You can’t make me do that! They are horrible! They both act like assholes all the time and -”

“Clara!” Greg reprimanded.

“They are! And I shouldn’t have to listen to it! It’s not fair!”

“Of course it isn’t.” His calm statement stopped her cold. “I have told you a thousand times, life isn’t fair. Anyone who expects it to be isn’t very bright. You are better than this Clara, better than those kids who resort to teasing you about your height just so they can feel better than someone else. If you can’t resist saying anything to them, it means that you believe what they are saying, at least a little bit.” He frowned and that was when she did start to cry. He didn’t look angry, he looked disappointed. “You are intelligent, accomplished, funny, and beautiful. If you cannot see those qualities in yourself, Clara, no one else ever will.”

“I’m still not sorry,” she burbled out past choked sobs.

“Oh, baby,” Greg held out his arms and Clara curled up next to him on the sofa. At twelve, she was smaller than average, and she still fit well against her father’s large frame. “Larissa’s mother was a bitch too, she’ll grow out of it.”

Clara laughed, in spite of herself. “What about Brady?”

“Sorry, there is no hope for that boy.” He held her away from him and smiled at her. “You have to brush things like this off, Clara, or life is going to be a series of hurts and disappointments for you.”

“Why didn’t you just have the therapy done, before I was born?” Clara held her breath, waiting to see if he would answer her. Always before he had ignored the question or answered it with other questions about genes and science – anything to distract her.

He sighed. “You are my little girl, no matter what. And I knew there was nothing any scientist was going to do that could make you more perfect than you are. The way you look, that big brain in your head, those are all yours, Clara. No one else can ever get credit for that.”

“Except you and my mother,” she interjected. It was clear who she had gotten her looks from. Her small stature, almond shaped eyes, and black hair were a far cry from her father’s tall, solid build and blonde beard.

“Except us,” he agreed easily. A teasing grin curled his mouth. “And how lucky that you got my incredible sense of humor.” That did make her laugh. Greg Maker told the worst jokes. And the puns were more awful. “Hey, did you hear they fired Ollie from the pickle factory?”

“Ugh, Dad,” Clara groaned, “not that one again. It’s dumb. And gross.”

“Okay, I’ll think of a new one. Go get started on your homework. I have a few more chores, so you’ll need to watch the pot pie and set the table.”

“Do you want dessert?” she asked as she got up so he could put his boots back on and go outside.

“Always,” he said. Clara was picking up her backpack, prepared to trudge upstairs, when her father called to her through the kitchen. “Maybe something with peppermint!”

“Dad!” she screamed back, but she couldn’t help but laugh. It didn’t sound so bad, when he said it.

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