Arrith had nodded. She must not have been very convincing, however, because her mother had made that small, tight scowl that meant she was displeased. She had also immediately brought her hands up to smooth the front of her already impeccable dress, which was never a good sign. After the imaginary wrinkles were gone, she’d raised her head, given Arrith a smile that didn’t go beyond her mouth, and announced the appointment with the doctor the following morning. Arrith had immediately set down her book and begun asking questions, but her mother had brushed them away, saying that the appointment wasn’t anything to fret over and just “something that needed to be done.”
Arrith hadn’t believed her mother’s words then, and replaying them, she didn’t believe them now. It was an odd thing, when you had to carry around the knowledge that you couldn’t believe everything your parents told you. That didn’t stop Arrith from wanting to believe them, but unfortunately, she also knew she couldn’t.
Swallowing hard, she directed her attention to the doctor’s nametag. Dr. Ferrian. The woman’s eyes moved quickly over Arrith’s face, as if she was trying to guess her thoughts.
“This must all be a bit overwhelming for you,” Dr. Ferrian said sympathetically. Arrith nodded, then reached up and tucked her long brown hair behind one ear as the doctor continued.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
Arrith very nearly replied that she could guess, but held her tongue. Choosing her words carefully, she replied, “Because I’m…different…than the other girls at my school.”
Inwardly, she cringed. She had no desire to discuss one of the most embarrassing aspects of being herself, especially with a complete stranger who didn’t know the first thing about her.
Dr. Ferrian’s smile lessened some as she gave a little nod.
“Yes, dear, but you must know, it’s not your fault.” She leaned forward. “It’s not your fault that you’re different. It’s all to do with transcription and epigenetics and a host of other things that we’re only now getting better at controlling.” The doctor sighed. “Soon we’ll finish perfecting the science that will allow us to rule out any unexpected genetic combinations. But until then, I’m afraid being born is still partly a game of chance.” She shook her head. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
Arrith wasn’t entirely certain what the woman was hinting at, but she knew it wasn’t making her feel good. This must be what it felt like to be a specimen being examined under a microscope.
“If it’s not my fault, then why am I in trouble?” she asked. Arrith didn’t like being in trouble. In fact, she worked very hard to avoid being in trouble. Yet somehow, she still frequently found herself exactly where she didn’t want to be…at the receiving end of a lecture from a stern-faced adult. “Why am I here?”
“Being here isn’t the same as being in trouble,” assured the doctor with a soft laugh. “You’re here because your parents don’t want to see you get into any trouble.”
Dr. Ferrian’s words, combined with a very particular tone of voice, made Arrith feel like she’d said something silly…so silly, in fact, that it had been deemed unworthy of further attention and quickly dismissed. She didn’t necessarily mind when people failed to pay attention to her, but she didn’t like feeling dismissed.
“Now, Arrith,” the doctor opened a drawer in the nearby table, took out a flatscreen, and touched the surface of it. “Did your parents tell you what we’re doing here today?”
Arrith nodded but didn’t return the overly bright smile that spread across the lower half of Dr. Ferrian’s face. It was the kind of smile adults used to try and make children feel more comfortable…as if a forced facial expression would ever help anyone relax.
“They told me I’d be getting a brain scan and doing some tests.”
Dr. Ferrian nodded.
“Very good. That’s exactly right. We’re here to learn more about how your brain works. We know that everyone has a unique pattern of thinking skills, and today we’re going to figure out yours. And,” her smile turned a little more genuine, “in case you’re wondering, none of this involves any pain. No needles, no blood. You might become tired or bored or frustrated, but you won’t experience any actual, physical pain.”
Arrith let out the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and gave a relieved nod. She didn’t care for needles.
“I’m going to start by asking you a very simple question.” Dr. Ferrian’s eyes swept over the flatscreen. “Do you have a best friend?”
Arrith shifted in her chair, suddenly uncomfortable. Why couldn’t the first question have been about chemistry or trigonometry or the deity system of ancient Rome?
“Um, there’s a girl I’ve known since I was little – ” she started to say, but was quickly interrupted.
“But would you say she’s your best friend?” The doctor stared at her expectantly.
Arrith’s eyes darted around the room, and she wished the right answer would come to her…or that her life was different enough to make producing the right answer easier. Finally, she shrugged. “I…guess.”
“What’s her name?”
“Helda. Helda Ebenling.”
“Well, unfortunately, she didn’t say the same thing about you.”
Arrith blinked in surprise, and Dr. Ferrian continued.
“I contacted your teacher and had him administer a brief questionnaire to everyone in your class. It was presented as part of a research project, so don’t worry – no one knows it had anything to do with you. The questionnaire asked everyone to select three things they enjoy doing for fun and to write down the name of their best friend.” The doctor gave Arrith a sad smile. “And, unfortunately, no one wrote your name down...not even Helda Ebenling.”
Arrith drew in a slow, deep breath, not sure how to respond. She’d learned by now that when she wasn’t sure of the right thing to say, the best response was usually silence.
Dr. Ferrian spoke again.
“When was the last time you were invited over to spend time socializing at someone’s house?”
“I…don’t remember,” Arrith replied softly.
“Probably because it’s been so long,” nodded the doctor. “Long as in, months.”
“Well, so what?” Arrith snapped. The words came spewing out with more force than she had intended, but they held more hurt than anger. “Even if I’d been invited, I doubt I would have gone, so it’s really not that big – ”
“Exactly!” Dr. Ferrian pounced on her words like a mongoose striking a cobra in a book Arrith liked. “You most likely wouldn’t have gone. And that’s just as much of a problem as not being invited somewhere in the first place.”
Arrith sighed irritably, feeling as if she was letting down a complete stranger. She didn’t like that anymore than she liked caring about what this woman thought of her and her social life…or lack thereof.
“Doing too many other things takes time away from my schoolwork,” she explained, even though she knew it was mostly a waste of her words. “Everyone wants me to get good grades, don’t they?”
“Good grades, yes,” replied the doctor, placing special emphasis on the word good. “But your grades aren’t just good, dear; they’re excellent. Far above average…above everyone else’s.”
“I work hard – ” Arrith started to say, but the doctor interrupted.
“Do you? Do you really work hard?” Her eyes locked onto Arrith’s until the girl finally dropped her gaze to her feet. “Because I think you spend so much time reading because you like it, not because you’re working extraordinarily hard to perform as well as everyone else.” The doctor’s voice became quieter. “In fact, I don’t think you need to study much at all. You could probably not study for a course and still do better on an examination than everyone else in your class. Better than students who spent hours studying.”
“I didn’t ask to be this way,” mumbled Arrith, her eyes filling with tears that she desperately hoped she could keep from shedding in front of this horrible doctor.
“Of course you didn’t, sweetie.” Dr. Ferrian’s voice was immediately friendlier. “None of this is your fault. That why we have to help you. Before it’s too late.”
Arrith wanted to ask what it would mean for her if they were too late, but she was afraid of what the answer might be.
“So, what do the tests tell you?” she asked instead. Hopefully changing the subject would help calm down the emotions that threatened to explode from inside her chest.
“They tell us what parts of your brain are functioning at optimum levels and what parts need adjusting. Just some very minor fine-tuning,” explained the doctor. Her voice held no more emotion than if she’d been talking about rearranging the furniture in the room of a house. “Do you know what I mean when I say ‘optimum level,’ Arrith?”
“The level that makes me most like everyone else. Where my…the things I’m able to do…are all within the range set by the Equality Protectorate.”
The doctor nodded, seemingly pleased at the answer.
"Before the Equality Protectorate, there was no one to govern the differences between human beings." Her eyes widened slightly. "Imagine, Arrith...people were born and there was no way of knowing how similar or different to everyone else they would ultimately be. They grew up, and there was no agreed-upon method of monitoring their cognitive abilities. There were no standards for how the brain ought to work. And we saw what leaving people to their basic human nature got us." She shook her head disgustedly. "Wars, famine, poverty, suicide, human trafficking, orphans, discrimination...all because of inequality. All because of what is built into the genetic code."
Arrith didn't argue with Dr. Ferrian’s statement but neither did she fully accept it. Something about it seemed wrong. Or not wrong, perhaps, maybe it felt more... incomplete. Like something was being left out that could change the meaning of the facts the doctor had just stated. Something that could be important to know.
Unfortunately, Arrith didn't know what that something was, and she wouldn’t very well figure it out sitting here in silence. Sighing, she did what she usually did in situations where she was confused. She nodded and concentrated on pasting an interested, unquestioning look on her face.
"Now we know the exact ranges within which people function best," continued Dr. Ferrian. “We know the range people’s intelligence needs to fall in for them to be the ideal mix of productive and happy. We know how many friends a person needs to feel supported and to function optimally…more specifically, how many social interactions they need each day to avoid being too introverted. Thankfully, if nothing else, we now know how to ensure everyone feels just as loved, just as cared for, just as special, as everyone else."
She looked at Arrith as if they were agreeing upon something terribly important.
"By making people equal, we've made them happy. Safe. Productive. Society has never been more stable than it is now, untouched by the extremes at either end of what used to be a bell curve."
She said the last sentence as if she didn’t expect Arrith to have any idea what she was referring to, but Arrith did. She’d read a book about statistics a year ago. She hadn’t understood all of it, but she recalled the rising and falling swoop of the bell curve diagram. Apparently at one time, things like intelligence had existed along a broad continuum, ranging from very high to very low and including everything in between. That had changed with the rise of the Equality Protectorate. Among other changes they’d made, they had ushered in a new era of thinking abilities. Now, they could be represented a flatter, rectangular shape. Instead of tails that gently sloped into infinity, there were two sharp edges on either side that ended harshly, making them easy to fall over...a fall from which there was no coming back.
Arrith swallowed hard. She didn't want to go over the edge and be a societal misfit, an outcast, someone incapable of being equal to everyone else. Sure, some of it didn't make sense to her, but what did she know? She was only fourteen. This wasn't like one of her favorite novels from a bygone era, where the heroine had special abilities or powers that set her apart and marked her as different but ultimately contributed to her saving the village, the day, or even the whole universe. Those were just stories, and there was a reason they were outlawed and kept hidden under broken floorboards in a back corner of her closet.
"Can you imagine?" reiterated the doctor. "Living in a world like that?"
For just a moment, Arrith let her mind run, imagining a world full of inequality...a world where some people had all the money and others had none. A place where some people had beautiful voices and others couldn't sing a note. A place where some people were more athletic than others, danced better, ran faster, climbed higher, had better natural balance, than others. A place where some people were incredibly smart and others weren’t even able to speak or dress themselves or be left unsupervised. Some people would have lots of friends, and others wouldn’t have any. Some people would be lucky enough to be happy while others would be miserable, for no other reason than that they came into the world with different sensitivities to certain chemicals inside their skulls.
The doctor was right...such a place would be a terribly unfair place to live. Since unfairness was the same as unhappiness, it would therefore be a miserable place to live, as well.
Although...Arrith blinked a few times, trying to keep up with where her mind suddenly seemed to be heading. What if – the barest hint of an idea began to take shape. Arrith felt as if everything she'd read and seen and experienced in her admittedly short life was suddenly coming together. Slowly, the pieces settled into place and formed something that hadn’t been there before. Something new.
What if, instead of being despised and even feared, differences were celebrated? What if people who couldn't dance gracefully found pleasure in watching the movements of those who could? Or composed music for them to dance by? What if those who couldn't tell an A flat from a G sharp enjoyed listening to those who could sing without effort? Or created beautiful costumes for them wear while performing? What if those who were naturally gifted in something like mathematics had jobs where people who weren’t good at mathematics could hire them? What if people who liked to read and learn were allowed to know as much as their brains were capable of handling, without anyone thinking they were weird? What if their knowledge was welcomed and they were encouraged to teach others who didn’t learn as easily or know as much?
There would still be inequality, yes, but the meaning of it would drastically change how people thought about it.
And in that moment, at the realization of such a possibility, Arrith felt something inside herself shift.
What would it be like to live in such a world, indeed?