‘Drafting Zoë’, Kelly Jennings

“Of course we can fight it,” Sal said. “This is America. We can take anything to court. Should you, is the question.”

Crow shook his head. “I’m not talking ethics. This is Zoë. I won’t give Zoë up, I don’t care what patriotic spin gets put on it.”

“Ethics, Crow? Patriotism?” Sal raised her fine dark brows. “Who do you think you’re talking to? I’m talking pragmatics. The reason we don’t fight is we won’t win.”

Sal had been the smartest kid in Crow’s school from the day they were tracked, at age four. She and Crow had dominated their cohort, had gone top tier, full net; and both had ended here, in New Orleans, the pond they had spawned from, though for very different reasons. For Sal it was that her father controlled the top law combine in the city; Crow – Crow had been half a year, maybe, from head of Creativity at Quark when Maia, only just pregnant with Zoë, started having faint pains in her upper abdomen. She had refused the nanotropic treatment, which would have required termination. Two months after Zoë’s birth, the cancer finished her.

Crow had promised Maia that Zoë would be his priority. He took the relocation bonus after the Big Melt, moved into the Garden District, and rented the apartment next to Maia’s mother, who knew half the neighborhood and could provide play-dates and French lessons and back-up babysitting. There was a gated park six blocks away. Everything was fine, until Zoë got drafted.

Of course Crow had known the odds. First of all, high intelligence was a prime risk. He and Maia had chosen genetic planning, as who wouldn’t these days, with the insurance costs attached to unscreened infants. The dozen viable embryos had been screened for defects – he had diabetes in his family, she had obesity in hers – and for other traits, such as right-handedness and learning ability. The two keepers were negative for any risk, and carried several of the complexes associated with high intelligence and high productivity. The first embryo planted had taken; the other, which would have been Zoë’s brother if he and Maia had ever decided to try for a second child, was still frozen in the complex in Denver. Crow couldn’t bring himself either to donate or destroy it.

Besides, Zoë had been tested, at a year old and then again at twenty-two months, as required by law. Even without these broad-based tests, Crow knew how smart she was. His job at the University at New Orleans was asynchronous, requiring less than fifteen face-time a week on campus (this being the package he had negotiated for); he did most of his work while Zoë was doing her school, or in the middle of the night, so that he could spend time with her. He knew his child well: talking at seven months, simple sentences at ten months, simple math at a year, complex spatial reasoning by her second birthday – at which time she was already carrying on involved conversations with adults (mostly about dinosaurs and astronomy, true, but still). It took her a while to handle the net, because her small-muscle coordination lagged behind her intelligence, but with Crow working the track, she was using computers from a year old; and by the time she started pre-school, she could handle a track on her own. Crow grew used to passing her study and seeing her tiny form curled in the desk chair that was far too large for her, her headset on, the light of the computer screen flickering over her intent eyes as she researched archaeopteryx or Hopper paintings or the biology of the station at L-5.

But her intelligence was the least of it.

They took walks around the park every evening. These walks were the high points of his day. Zoë would tell him about the sites she had explored, the music her preschool class had learned. He would talk about programs he was working on, or his students. Her observations and questions were often so insightful that Crow found it hard to remember he was talking to a child just past three.

And from time to time, something else happened as well.

When she was very little, before she could walk easily or for a long distance, Crow had carried her in a backpack; she would rest her head on his shoulder and talk drowsily, sometimes falling asleep before they had gotten home. One evening, when she was just past two, she had asked, after a story about Crow’s boyhood, “Was that when we lived in the other family?”

“What other family, sweetness?”

“You know. The family we had before this one.”

For one wild second, Crow wondered if Zoë could be talking about him and Maia, that family they had formed when she had been in Maia’s womb. Could she possibly have any memory of that life?

“What do you mean, sugar love?”

“The one where I had a brother.” Zoë yawned. “And the cat... and we lived by the ocean, and Mama made those paintings... you know.”

Crow had felt cold run through his middle. “Zoë?” he asked cautiously, but she had fallen asleep.

From time to time, she would mention this other family. She liked Hopper paintings, she said, because they reminded her of Mama’s paintings, and once, when she had been cruising the net, she had stopped at a picture of a boy. She said he looked like her brother. “He had a coat like that. Don’t you remember, Daddy?”

It was a blue woolen stadium coat. Crow had never even seen one before except in photographs. This worried him so much that he broached the subject cautiously with Maia’s mother, Destiny.

“Maia never painted,” he said, as if her mother might need to be reminded of that. Maia had been a psychiatrist, studying the effects of certain micronutrients on cloned mice. She didn’t even like to look at paintings, seeing in most of modern art only evidence of brain dysfunction. “What could Zoë be talking about?”

“It’s probably just something she dreamed,” Desi said. “Or saw on the net. Kids Zoë’s age don’t have very settled perceptions of the difference between what is experienced and what is only learned about, honey.”

But there were also other odd events. “Don’t forget your backup,” Zoë told Crow one day as he was leaving for work, and that afternoon his system had crashed. If he hadn’t run the backup, he would have lost weeks of work. And her babysitter said, if something was lost, just mention it to Zoë.

“Zoë,” she would say, demonstrating, “my blue bracelet.”

No matter where the missing item was or how long it had been lost, Zoë, after a moment’s abstraction, would go right to it.

“Billy’s choking,” she told her pre-school teacher one day. When the teacher checked Billy he was fine, playing calmly with the blocks – but at recess the teacher saw him pick up a small stone, and before she could reach him, it was in his mouth. She had her First Responders Certificate, of course, she said, reporting this to Crow, all the teachers at the school did, but if she hadn’t been watching him special, she said, and shook her head.

“How did you know Billy was going to choke?” Crow had asked, on the walk home with Zoë. “Did he... maybe he’s always putting things in his mouth, and you knew he would sooner or later?”

“Maybe,” said Zoë.

Coincidence. Crow knew that. What about all the times Zoë had said things and nothing had happened? No one ever remembered those times, right?

Except the whole week before he had gotten the post about the draft, Zoë was so gentle with him.

“Daddy,” she said, while he was tucking her in. “Everything is going to be fine.”

“Of course it is,” he said, surprised. “What do you mean, sweetie?”

“Just remember.” She turned onto her side and popped her thumb in her mouth.

She was four years old. She hadn’t sucked her thumb in months and months.

The draft was essential. Everyone knew that. With ninety-eight percent of the iceberg underwater, what was the use of training people to be really good at analyzing the visible two percent? No real-time mind could possibly manage the data that rushed daily through the web: email, IMs, scats, posts, RPGs, blogs, pinpoint feeds, chatlines, bugs, creepers, phones, agents, the thousand other sources of data, it all had to be accessed and analyzed, determinations had to be made based on everything, or the country’s security forces might as well be making decisions based on tea leaves.

Experiments in AI had, so far, gotten nowhere. Sure, a program could be written to do something that looked like judgment – decide that this or that bit of data was probably something a human agent should see – but that computer was always going to be using the judgment that had been programmed into it; it was never going to be able to shift its knowledge as events shifted, to make intuitive leaps. That required a human mind. And human minds were slow.

Except for human minds that had been integrated into a computer: borgs, slang said, but this was misleading. The human didn’t become part of the machine, or the machine part of the human. Instead, the human mind learned to think with the computer with which it was interfaced. It learned to use the computer, and the entire web, as though those were extensions of its own mind: as an amputee learned to use his artificial hand, only the artificial hand was not as good as the organic hand had been, and the interfaced computer made a human mind able to work far better than any non-integrated mind: able to work on multiple levels, scanning vast amounts of data faster than any normal human mind could read a single sentence, and then make valid decisions about that data.

It was the only way the country could be safe. Everybody knew this. If they did not know it, or wished to argue, the terror wars of the previous century could be cited, and were cited, as reminders.

“For Christ’s sake,” Crow argued at Sal, “she’s four years old!”

“Fifty-two months,” Sal corrected. “Two months over the minimum age for conscription into Intelligence. Look, I didn’t vote for the guys, and I don’t like the law, but so far the courts don’t agree with me. In matters of national security--”

Crow had voted for the guys, as it happened, though not for their security positions. He’d voted for them fiscally, and because of their opposition to social engineering. But what was this, if not social engineering?

“Fifty to seventy months is the optimum age for integration,” Sal said, telling him what he knew already. How could he not know it, in his field? “The earlier integration is attempted, the more likely it is to be successful. After sixty months--”

“I’m being punished. I’m being punished for my genetic responsibility, for taking care not to produce a child that would be a burden on society. If I had sat her in front of a vid all her life, let daycare raise her, no way these people would want her. They’re penalizing me for being a good parent and a good citizen!”

“From a legal point of view,” Sal said, “she’s not your property, and this has nothing to do with you. In fact, from a legal point of view, the state is providing you with a benefit, by relieving you of the responsibility of provisioning her to the age of fifteen.”

Fifteen was the earliest age parents could legally require children to emancipate these days; but responsible parents continued supporting their children through graduate or professional school, and Crow had certainly always planned to, and besides –

“That’s hardly the point. She’s my child. I love her. She’s all I have, Sal!”

Sal made a note on her pocket. “I can tell you right now, Crow, that if we do take this to court, you better not say anything like that. Unnatural burden of attachment, that’s what that’s called. No adult has the right to expect a four year old child to be his sole emotional support.”

“Oh, but they have the right to expect a four year old child to be responsible for national security?”

“I’m not saying you’re wrong. I’m saying we won’t win.”

Court systems had been streamlined after the Big Melt: Sal was able to get them a prelim the next Monday. The hearing was the Monday after that. By six days after he had started the process, Crow knew he had lost.

As a last ditch effort, and something he knew could not succeed – Sal assured him of that – he asked for a face meeting with the judge. Sal accompanied him to the office on the fourth floor of the courthouse. The judge, only a little older than Crow, had intent precise eyes.

“Zoë’s more than her ability to process information,” Crow argued. “I know that’s what you want her for, and I know that’s important work, but what about the rest of it? She loves to swim, she sings like an angel, and,” Crow swallowed, to keep himself from saying, I love her. Not only would that not help, it would count against him. Sal had made that clear.

“The state has a right to demand certain sacrifices of its citizens in its own defense,” said the Judge. “That’s been supported by our courts for generations.”

“Yes,” said Crow. “Yes, but... this is different. Asking an eighteen year old to defend his country when we’re at war is not the same as asking a four year old to give up her life because the country might be at risk from terrorist activities.”

“I can see a sentimental difference,” said the Judge. “Not an actual one.”

“What about...” Emotion would not help. “She’s all I have left of her mother. The kids they do this to only last about twenty years, and almost none survive disengagement. If you take my baby, she’ll never have the chance to grow up or have children of her own. I won’t have grandchildren. Everything Maia and I had will be ended.”

“It’s not only Zoë we require the sacrifice from. Besides, I understand there is another embryo?”

Crow stared at the Judge. “If you think I’m going to go through this again. So you can steal my child again.

“Of course that’s your decision. I can only rule on the law as it stands. The law is clear on this point. You are, of course, allowed an appeal.”

One appeal. And such appeals nearly always failed: the reviewing judges were allowed only a certain percentage of reversals a year, and tended to be extremely conservative due to that fact.

“I love her,” said Crow, finally, hopelessly.

The Judge stared back at him. “We all love our children. Why do you think we do this?”

Zoë was due to report at seven the next morning. Crow thought of fleeing. New Orleans was a long way from Greece, the nearest country that opposed drafting minors; but he could hide, maybe long enough to get Zoë past the seventy-month mark, after which integration usually failed.

But hide where? And do what? Without his identity clip, he would not be employable anywhere in the States, and very few places elsewhere. He would not be able to collect charity, either, and though he had cruised a few sites about undergrounds, places in Utah or Idaho where people lived outside the Net – well, he would not know how to find such enclaves; and how would he from travel from New Orleans to Utah without using his code?

“Besides,” Zoë said, as he was sitting thinking of desperate things he could try, “Besides, Daddy, that would be wrong, wouldn’t it?”

Crow looked at his daughter, colt-slim, her soft hair curling around her perfect skull. They would drill holes in that skull. Shatter that perfect frame. “Would it?”

“Of course,” Zoë said, her dark eyes clear and intent. “If other children need me to help protect them, shouldn’t I do it?”

“Zoë,” he said, helplessly.

“Shouldn’t I?”

“You’re a little girl, sweetie. We’re supposed to protect you.

Zoë studied him. “You can’t be integrated,” she pointed out, cautiously, as if this might be some trick he was trying to play on her. “You’re too old.”

Crow began to cry. She climbed up onto his lap and hugged him, the sweet weight of her body, the scent of her hair irreplaceable. The only thing that mattered in all this world.

“It’ll be all right,” she said.

“Zoë,” he said, and did not go on. Because what could he say to her? That it wouldn’t? First, it was the last thing she needed to hear; and second, of course it would. What was one little girl, in the vast history of the planet? Everything. And nothing. A sentimental difference.

She fell asleep in his arms, her sweet warm weight. Sometime about two in the morning, he decided.

He rented the rail space with the code of one of his former students. He absolutely knew it was wrong; and furthermore, knew it would not work; but it was all he could think to try. He took them east, and then into Ohio. At a station in Cincinnati, he bought a ticket for Canada, hoping the federals would think him that uninformed.

From the station, he took a cross-town rail, one that still took coins, and then another bus into Kentucky. He carried Zoë in her old backpack the two miles from the Kentucky bus stop toward the next rail station. She was really too big for the backpack, and before he had gone half a mile his shoulders ached fiercely. Zoë, who had not asked a single question during the entire trip, not even where they were going or why, rested her head on his shoulder and sucked her thumb.

“Daddy,” she said, when they were almost there. “I’m sorry.”

“Baby, you don’t have anything to be sorry about. None of this is your fault.”

“I should have told you.”

“Honey,” he started, and then asked, “Told me what?”

“About Steben. I thought maybe it might be different. Sometimes it is different. You know, like with Billy.”

“Who’s Steven?” asked Crow cautiously. It had started to drizzle, and he was drawing curious looks from people slicing past him on their rails. No one walked anymore, except for exercise, and they were crossing a business/industrial zone.

Zoë was sucking her thumb again. “Do you remember Mama?”


“Not the other mama, not the one who painted... this mama. From this family.”

“Your mother? Maia?”

“That’s her,” said Zoë drowsily. “She says it’s okay. She says you should tell them you had temp – temporary sanity. She says when you get out, you should marry another mama. She says get up again, or else no one wins.”

“Zoë,” said Crow helplessly, because this was just impossible. “Are you saying – Sweetie, mama is dead. She can’t tell you anything.”

“She says this way I’m part of the machine. And maybe I can change something. She told that part to me,” Zoë added, “that part’s not for you. She says it’s important. What am I supposed to change, Daddy?”

Crow would have argued further, but then he saw the man standing in the rain outside the train depot door. He slowed his walk.

“She didn’t tell me that part,” said Zoë, and slipped her thumb back in her mouth.

Crow stopped. The man by the door stepped forward. Crow was trying to decide whether running would do any good at all when another man appeared behind him.

“Give it up, Professor,” he said, putting his hand on Crow’s elbow. “We’ve got thirty guys around this depot. No matter which way you go, you’re caught. And none of us want Zoë to get hurt in the struggle. Do we?”

“Like you care about her,” said Crow bitterly.

“Professor, she’s the most important person in Kentucky right now. Bar none. Do you think we’d tie up two hundred federal agents to catch your sorry ass?”

Crow could think of nothing to say. His back hurt, his shoulders hurt, he was so tired he could barely think. After a moment, unable to help it, he began to cry again. Zoë, her head still resting on his shoulder, patted him gently with her free hand.

The man behind him lifted Zoë away. When Crow turned to face him, he was not at all surprised to read the man’s name plate on the front of his flak jacket: G. Steben, Federal Draft Enforcement.

“Hi, Steben,” said Zoë.

“Hello, honey,” said Steben, slightly surprised. “I’m sure glad to see you.”

“My daddy didn’t know what to do. He’s really nice. He just got upset.”

“Don’t worry about that, honey,” said Steben. “Don’t you worry about your daddy.”

He was a decent man, Officer Steben: he put Zoë in the van before he let his men put restraints on Crow.

Sal talked him into pleading temporary insanity, though personally Crow thought Zoë had been right, temporary sanity was more like it. He got three years of Service, teaching computers in the Workfare schools. It was hard, hopeless, pointless work. But it kept him in computers, and, more importantly, online: through the web was the only way he could talk to Zoë anymore. He talked plenty to her over the next years, and after he was released from Workfare, and took the job with Stream, a lower level job than his job with Quark had been, but paying nearly as well, and after he met Hunter, and married her, and had two children with her, one of their own, and the other the embryo he and Maia had frozen.

I keep wondering what Mama Maia wanted me to change, Zoë sent to him one night – he still did most of his work at night, and he still worried non-stop that the draft might get his two remaining children: Mary was just four now, and little Eli was twenty-two months, both of them as smart as Zoë, though he had been doing his level best to keep both of them off computers as much as he could. He encouraged them to indulge their artistic talents instead. It must have been something to do with what happened with me and you, but I can’t see what.

Crow read the words, and let his fingers touch his keyboard. As a condition of his parole, he was forbidden to send or suggest treasonous concepts.

I mean, she sent, what else can the nation do? Someone has to integrate with the system. Snail thinkers just aren’t fast enough. It’s not like this is a bad life. I know I probably won’t survive disengagement, but living this way, integrated, it’s like living fifty or sixty years for every year you out there live, so it’s not a bad deal. No one over seventy months can integrate. Anyway, what other option than the draft is there? I give up the life I had, so that all the world’s children can keep theirs – that’s a good trade, isn’t it? And no one is going to willingly surrender a child to this job. So what else could the country do, except the draft?

Something else, said Crow. Find something else. Because someone should find some other way. And so long as everyone has decided there is no other way, no one will ever look for any other way.

He clenched his fists, and then opened them, and carefully his hands moved on the keyboard: It’s an interesting problem, isn’t it? Whether other options exist? Someone should look into that.

One second for Zoë was like an hour for him. He wasn’t surprised when her answer came right back:

Yes, she sent. Someone should.

© 2010 Kelly Jennings

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