Key went to the library on most Tuesdays and Fridays, but ey considered skipping the week ey turned eight. Ey turned over the pros and cons in eir mind, then finally put on eir favorite fuzzy coat and walked the four blocks to the swooping blue-glass structure. Key headed first, as always, for the computers that sat on the gappy spiral arrangement of desks in the circle of the main floor. There were books, in the basement, but although they smelled nice, that had never seemed to recommend them as sources of information.
On this day, though, before sliding into a chair and looking for something eir permissions would open that ey hadn't already studied or deemed uninteresting, Key turned abruptly in eir course. There was a librarian, not far from the side door. Key had always thought of the librarians as being there for the sorts of patrons who liked to check out books, and ey hadn't bothered with them before. But on this occasion, ey wanted to complain about being confined to the tame information on the computer. Ey wasn't allowed to retake the EQ test again for nearly four months or the conceptual sophistication test for five, and that was an intolerable wait even if ey did wind up passing on those attempts.
"Excuse me," said Key, addressing the librarian. She had on a nametag; "Lace," continued Key, remembering a tidbit from something on psychology ey'd read once.
"What can I do for you?" asked Lace, smiling. "Decided you want to go the old-fashioned route and find a book today?"
"No, thank you," said Key. "I wanted to ask about the permissions on the computers. I can't take the tests again for months and I'm getting so tired of what's on my guidelist."
"Oh, I see. What's your guide level?" Lace asked, looking thoughtful. Key told her, making a face. Then Lace asked for eir name, which Key supplied. "There you go," said Lace, tapping a few things on her own computer.
"Huh?" said Key.
"I derestricted your guidelist. The level-appropriate topics will still appear more prominently, but you can get at a wider range now, on the library consoles. Have fun, Key."
"You can do that?"
"If you didn't know I could do that, why did you come to ask me about it?" said Lace mildly. "The guidelists are only weakly-enforced recommendations. I have some discretion over what people use our library for."
"Oh," said Key, a bit stunned by this turn of events. Ey thanked Lace and resumed eir original heading, towards eir favorite computer. They were all the same, but Key's usual choice was the one from which ey could easily see the park across the road.
Ey let the computer scan eir retina, and then went straight for eir modified guidelist. True to her word, Lace had lifted the barrier to Key's further exploration: the bright blue, bolded topics were the ones ey'd read before, but nestled alphabetically between them, in gray, were new top-level topics and even new subheadings to the old ones. Key was reminded of the last time eir guidelist had expanded, but this was a far greater increase - at least four-fifths of the new links were grey. No wonder those tests ey'd failed had been so hard.
Key clicked a new link near the top, with a word ey'd never seen before: "Anesthesia".
"So guess what," Key said to eir friend Trellis when they met at the playground the subsequent morning.
"You decided what you want to be when you grow up?" guessed Trellis.
"No," said Key. "Want a hint?"
"I can guess," giggled the other child, swinging around to hang by eir knees from a bar on the climbing structure. "You're going to have a new sibling?"
"How did - your mom told you that," accused Key. "She had lunch with my mom yesterday."
"Yeah," Trellis admitted. "Is that what you were going to say, though?"
"No. I mean, I was going to tell you that, but that wasn't what I was thinking first. I was at the library yesterday -"
"Uh, yeah, yesterday was Tuesday," said Trellis. Ey grabbed the next bar and dangled from eir arms, then dropped to the ground. "You always go to the library when it's Tuesday."
"And at the library," said Key, "I got a librarian to derestrict my guidelist."
"Wow, really?" Trellis whistled, a feat Key had never been able to duplicate. "So now you can read anything?"
"Not anything. Just up a level. But it's a huge level. There's five times as much stuff now. So I spent all day reading about this stuff they used to have called 'anesthesia'."
"What's that?" asked Trellis. "Or are you not supposed to tell me? I'm not even at your same level."
"The guidelists are only weakly-enforced recommendations," said Key airily, and Trellis snorted. "It was this stuff they used to make pain go away."
"Don't we kind of need that?" said Trellis. "If I ever slam my hand in a door again I want to know about it before it gets all infected and gross and falls off."
"No, it was different. Did you go to the hospital when your sibling was born?" asked Key, and Trellis nodded. "They would've put eir neuro in right then. And then your mom and dad would've gotten copies of eir damage reports until ey passed the first prudence test because little kids are bad about taking care of themselves."
"My mom and dad are still getting copies of Arbor's damage reports. Ey doesn't test very well," laughed Trellis.
"Whatever," said Key, motioning towards the swings; Trellis followed readily, and soon they were pumping themselves high into the air. "So the neuro isn't a natural thing. They don't know how to make it so we're born with them yet. And for a long time they couldn't even make them in the first place."
"So people would just have to - what, look real carefully in the mirror twice a day to make sure they hadn't hurt themselves?" scoffed Trellis. "Come on, I'm not at your level, but I'm allowed to read about evolution. Even animals can tell when they're damaged. Our ancestors would all have been dead in a minute if they couldn't."
"What the neuro does isn't just to tell you when you're damaged," said Key. "It tells you that instead of letting you feel what they used to call pain. We only call damage "painful" now because we don't have any use for the old meaning - except veterinarians; they still use it technically because animals don't get neuros."
"Okay, so - what's the techy vet sense of pain?" asked Trellis.
"I don't know," admitted Key. "It's just some feeling that nobody liked, so they invented neuros and got rid of it and now we have damage reports without that feeling, instead."
"That's weird stuff, all right," said Trellis. "I wonder why it's at that high a level, though? I mean, if they didn't have neuros, that means none for kids either, right? So kids used to know about this stuff and actually had to feel it."
"Yeah, it's kind of weird," said Key. Ey started to slow eir swinging, dragging eir shoes, but caught a foot wrong on the ground and pitched forward onto eir face. Ey was promptly made aware of the shallow scrapes on eir cheeks: an awareness that was only unpleasant inasmuch as it meant that ey had better interrupt eir playground visit. "Now I have to go home and disinfect these," ey grumbled. With a little twist of the attention, Key's neuro let eir awareness of the injuries fade to the same background importance as the snugness of eir shoes, and ey started for home to clean up the scrapes. "I'll see you later, Trellis."
"See you, Key," said Trellis, still swinging.
Key went to the library on Thursday. Ey waved to Lace, but headed straight for eir favorite computer and picked up where ey'd left off on the articles about anesthesia. Ey was quite absorbed for the first hour or so, when ey was jolted out of this reverie by a bewildering chapter heading: "Moral Resistance to Anesthesia".
Key's first thought was that this was a pun of some kind, although ey couldn't think how. Puzzled, ey read on, and found that it was no such thing. There had really been opposition to the soothing of pain with even the most harmless of drugs, and not all of it was practical concerns about long term health.
"There were," read the screen before Key's bewildered eyes, "critics who argued that pain was an essential component of the human condition."
Eir first reaction was to dismiss those critics as obviously insane. Everybody, it had been made quite clear in eir earlier reading, hated pain, and this wasn't uninformed prejudice - there were no neuros; no one was lucky enough to escape every injury and disease; they knew what they were arguing to keep. But then - Key emself didn't know what it was. Ey'd never felt it. Maybe ey was missing something important.
Key backed up out of the anesthesia articles and looked up information on neuros. Ey found what ey was looking for soon enough. They could be disabled (and - ey checked carefully - turned right back on again). Eir derestricted access let em follow a path right to the tailor-made pixel code that, when ey looked at it, would turn off the neuro; there was a corresponding restoration page, but Key didn't want that one yet. Ey clicked the first link and verified eir identity again. An array of colors flared briefly onto the screen. It didn't feel like anything. Key reached up to eir face and pulled at one of the half-healed scrapes.
Ey couldn't help but emit a yelp and jerk eir hand away. The sensation partly subsided, but it didn't vanish completely. Desperately, ey tried to push it into the background with the familiar twist of awareness, but it didn't respond - that too was a function of the neuro. Key reached forward to the screen, staring anxiously as it loaded the second pixel code and restored power to the merciful implant. Immediately, the scratches registered only the familiar awareness that they were there and might warrant action from Key. Ey dismissed that. Ey wasn't curious at all about the scratches. Ey was gaping open-mouthed at the screen, which minutes earlier had told em that people - people without neuros, who had felt exactly that - had wanted it. Had wished it on other people. Had, knowing as they must have that they might eventually need surgery themselves, chosen to guarantee that in such a case they'd experience that. More of it than Key had. The scratches were small. Doing surgery on someone like that... Key started navigating back to the article ey'd been in the middle of. Maybe they'd had these people committed. Maybe they'd all been clapped away to receive such psychiatric treatment as had been available back then, the moment this insanity had manifested itself.
Before Key had made eir way back to the page, ey felt a hand on eir shoulder. Ey looked up - it was Lace. "Are you all right, Key?" asked the librarian.
Key didn't answer, just looked up at Lace with huge, confused eyes.
"I'd feel responsible if you were disturbed by something that I released to you," Lace said. "The computers forward access logs to the central library records. I can see what you've been looking at, if I need to."
"I was reading about anesthesia," said Key.
"And that made you scream?" asked Lace.
"Sort of," Key said.
"Did you turn off your neuro?"
"How did you know?" asked Key, staring at the librarian.
"Just a guess," said Lace, smiling faintly. "You got it back on?" Key nodded. "Good."
"Did you do it too?" Key asked impulsively. Lace didn't answer, but the little frown on her face told Key enough. "Do you know," ey continued eagerly, "why there would have been anybody who didn't want anesthesia?"
"It's hard to imagine, isn't it? There was similar opposition to neuros, when they were invented," said Lace.
"But that doesn't make any sense. Why would anybody who knew what it was like want it to keep happening? How could somebody feel something that awful and not want to make it go away forever?" Key pleaded.
"It's a mystery to me," said Lace. "Maybe it's a matter of being used to it."
"But they can't have gotten really used to it, or it'd stop working as a damage report," protested Key.
"A matter of thinking it's normal, then," amended Lace. Key got up out of eir chair, shaking eir head, and headed for the door. "See you tomorrow," Lace called after em.
"You did what?" exclaimed Trellis, after Key had joined em at the playground and related the events of the morning. Trellis was so surprised that ey nearly slid off the seesaw.
"You heard me," Key said.
"I want to try!" Trellis cried, reasserting eir hold on the seesaw handle and pushing off. Key, accordingly, descended.
"No," said Key emphatically. "You don't. Trust me. You really don't."
"You did," Trellis said.
"And now I know better. Are your parents still getting copies of your damage reports too? I'm telling you it's awful and you should never do it."
"They are not. I passed the prudence test when I was four. A month before you did, so there."
"You're five months older than me," said Key. "Anyway, just don't. You can't get at it until you pass more tests, anyway."
Trellis sighed. "Fine. Hey, when your mom went to the doctor about your new sibling, did you go?"
"Yeah," said Key. "Why?"
"When it was Arbor, my parents left me with your mom, remember? And I asked my dad why and he said he didn't want me confused about anything, which was kind of not helpful in the not confusing me department, so anyway - I wanted to know if you knew what goes on that they wouldn't have wanted me there for."
"Umm..." Key considered whether there was anything unsuitable for small children that ey'd encountered. "The doctor did ask my mom if she wanted a boy or a girl."
"They did? But nobody does that anymore."
"I guess somebody must," said Key. "I didn't know they still asked about it, though, I figured they just assumed you'd want a regular kid unless you told them different. It might have been just the one doctor."
Trellis shook eir head. "It's really weird they even let people do that still. I don't even know what I want to be when I grow up now. It's not like my parents would have known before I was even born. What do you want to be?"
"Dunno," said Key.
"I'm tired of see-sawing," announced Trellis. "Let's go to your house and make cupcakes." Key acquiesced, and the rest of the afternoon passed in a haze of flour.
Key was at the library when ey heard about the accident. Ey was taking a break from the academics, and instead simply playing solitaire and poking around at news. It was the latter activity that led em to the headline: "Mishap at Power Plant Leads to Radiation Poisoning of Local Child". In the two lines of summary between that headline and the next was Trellis's name.
Key touched the headline automatically, only managing to focus eir eyes on the text after eir mind caught up with the title. Trellis had visited the plant to watch the machines at work. Easily a hundred children went there every week, but usually with official tour groups, and there had been none that day for a reason. Trellis had ignored or misunderstood the signs, probably had to climb over some guardrails - but of course there was no one in the building to spot em and tell em why the place was deserted except for scrubber robots. And someone had forgotten to lock the door.
Key didn't bother to log out. Ey just bolted.
The hospital was only three blocks from the library, and Key was fast. A nurse held em up briefly near the entrance, but eventually supplied the room number. Trellis's parents and sibling were already there, and didn't object to Key's presence.
Trellis was awake. Ey cracked a smile when Key came in. "Did your mom go find you at the library or something?" ey asked.
"No, I saw it on the news."
"I'm glad you're here," said Trellis.
Medicine had advanced considerably since the era Key had been reading about.
It had not advanced enough.
The fellow who'd left the door unlocked was charged, tried, and sentenced to have his wages garnished for the rest of his life for the benefit of Trellis's family; his employers, for their part, moved him to a job that consisted entirely of paperwork. Trellis's parents offered Key a share of the money, which ey turned down; they offered em a few of Trellis's belongings, mostly decorations that could be expected to last for the rest of Key's life, which ey accepted.
Ey stayed in eir room for a week straight, staring at the porcelain bird and the stack of variously-sized glass cubes and the posters of the album artwork from Trellis's favorite musicians. Key's mother brought em meals for the first five days; after that, she stopped, and ey grazed on some snacks ey had stashed under eir bed until they ran out and ey was obliged to go down for dinner. Eir mother tried to engage em in conversation about what to name the baby, far in advance though it was. She stopped trying when Key snapped that perhaps she could name em Trellis.
Key stayed in eir house for almost a month. Finally, eir mother picked em up bodily and deposited em in the front garden, then locked the door behind her. Key sat beside the tomato plant until informed by eir neuro that sunburn was beginning to be a concern, and then, finding the house still closed to em, trudged to the library.
Lace was sitting behind her desk. She smiled at Key when ey came in, but furrowed her brow slightly at the stony expression on the child's face.
The computers held nothing of interest for Key. Ey walked over to the librarian. "My friend is dead," ey said baldly.
Lace's eyes went wide, and she got up and came around from behind the desk to give Key a silent hug. After a little while, Key hugged her back, and started to cry.
Noting the puzzled supervision of the other patrons, Lace stood up and took Key's hand to lead em into a staffroom. "My mom," choked Key when the door had swung shut behind them, "wants me to cheer up and go back to normal. She won't let me back in the house yet because I've been in there for a month."
"Everyone takes different amounts of time to start functioning again, after losing a loved one," said Lace carefully.
"Ey's dead. Ey's never going to start functioning again," said Key. "Ey was just a kid."
"Yes, people often find it particularly sad when children die," Lace agreed.
"And it was a stupid accident," said Key.
"Having no time to anticipate it can make it seem worse."
Key looked suspiciously at the librarian. "You sound like you're trying not to say something."
"A little," admitted Lace. "Now isn't a good time..."
"No, say it," demanded Key.
"I can't say it directly, or it wouldn't make any sense," said Lace. "Tell me - if Trellis had lived to be very old, and so had you, and ey'd still died first, of old age - say at a hundred and twenty, if you like - would you have been happy?"
"What kind of stupid question is that? Of course I'd be sad. Ey'd still have been my friend."
"But then ey wouldn't have been a kid, and it wouldn't have been a stupid accident," said Lace. "You'd have known it was coming - hardly anyone lives to be more than a hundred and twenty."
"But ey'd still be dead," said Key.
Lace nodded. "Did you know," she said, seeming to change the subject, "that there was a time when scarcely anybody lived to be eighty, let alone a hundred and twenty?"
"Yeah, of course - medicine got better. Things like anesthesia," said Key bitterly, associating that research with Trellis's death by mere proximity.
"Right," said Lace, gracefully ignoring the second part of Key's utterance. "And now people often live to be a hundred and twenty, and one made it to a hundred and forty-three, and that's been how it is for a long time now. Why do you think that is?"
"I guess people just don't get any older than that," said Key.
"It used to be that people just didn't get any older than eighty," Lace pointed out.
Key frowned. "Just spit it out, whatever it is."
"You know that there are restrictions on what you can read on the computer. Did you know that's true of everyone?"
"But if you pass all the tests, then..."
"If you pass all the tests," said Lace, "then you get the highest access level that anyone has - which doesn't let you read everything. There are certain things that are not considered appropriate avenues of research."
"You said the guidelists were pretty much just suggestions," said Key.
"Weakly enforced ones, at that," said Lace, "which is why I can talk to you about this."
"Except you're not, you're just sort of dancing around it."
"All right, then - a long time ago," said Lace, "some people thought that what we ought to be doing was working on how to make people live longer - even forever."
"Forever? But we can't do that," said Key. "People don't live that long, and anyway, then we'd be overpopulated."
"We don't, but perhaps we could," said Lace. "As for overpopulation, well - I'm sure you can think of a dozen solutions."
Ey probably could have, but turned eir face away. "We can't do it. People aren't supposed to be immortal. They're supposed to be born and grow up and get old and die."
"And now you know," murmured Lace.
"I don't know anything. You're no help," groused Key, and ey pushed eir way out of the staffroom to content eirself with mindless electronic amusements.
"How somebody could feel something that awful and not want to make it go away forever," murmured the librarian, but Key didn't hear her.