On the morning of Hana’s first day at the new school Dabon handed her a lunch bag and said: “Make sure you talk to at least one person today. Just say ‘Hi, my name is Hana, what’s your name?'”
Hana made a sour face, so Dabon added: “Otherwise, how are you going to make any friends?”
Hana wanted to make her father happy so she promised solemnly that she would do as he’d suggested. He was just trying to be helpful, she knew, but he really had no idea what it was like to be a kid in school. You didn’t just go up to random people and introduce yourself. Only a huge dork would behave like that.
At the start of the first class Hana’s new teacher made her stand up, and said: “Class, this is our new student, Hana. I hope you’ll all make her feel very welcome.”
The other students looked at her curiously. Then Hana was sent to her seat, and she sat without saying anything or even moving very much for the rest of the class.
The good thing about the new school was that the recreation grounds were really big. At Hana’s old school there was just a square yard bounded by a chain-link fence, so at breaks the kids were all stuck in there together, and if you wanted to get away from someone you couldn’t. The new school’s grounds were in the shape of a donut with the school building in the middle. Hana spent the first break exploring, and she was delighted to find that if she walked around the outer perimeter it took the entire 15-minute break just to go around once. No-one would be able to tell that she was just walking; wherever she was, it would look like she was walking purposefully toward somewhere else.
At lunch time Hana walked with trepidation into the cafeteria, her lunch bag clutched in one hand. It was noisy. There were rows and rows of kids sitting at long white tables, talking, laughing, eating. She knew that this was the moment when she should follow Dabon’s instruction to introduce herself to someone. Andy said that being able to get along with people was just as important as getting good grades. If she didn’t talk to someone she would be letting both of them down.
She walked slowly past the rows of tables. No-one looked at her. She walked until she came to the last two tables, at the very back of the room. One was empty, it was the only empty table in the cafeteria. A funny-looking robot was stood next to the table. Its base was a plastic box on wheels, but it had a torso, head and arms made to look like a person. Hana recalled seeing the same robot in her classroom earlier, or one like it. She supposed it was for washing the floors or something like that. She’d never seen a cleaning robot with a head and arms before.
She sat down facing the wall and the robot, with her back to the rest of the cafeteria. She slowly unpacked her lunch and started eating.
Someone said: “Hi, I’m Steffinn. What’s your name?”
Hana whirled left and then right. There was no-one there. The kids at the next table sat with their backs to her, talking to each-other.
The robot was waving its arm at her.
“Did you think I was a carpet-cleaner or something like that?”
Hana looked again over one shoulder and then the other, before finally fixing her gaze on the robot.
“You mean you’re not?” she asked.
“I’m in your class,” the robot said, “I’ve got Hayson’s disease, that means my muscles don’t work and my real body has to stay connected to a machine so I can breathe. I got the robot body so I could go to school and stuff. My real body can see everything the robot sees through a monitor, and my nerves are connected so I can move my arms. My robot arms I mean, not my real arms.”
Hana had never heard of anything like that, except in comic books.
“You’re lying,” she said.
“No I’m not,” the robot replied.
“No-one has a robot body,” Hana said.
“I do. It’s new technology. I was in the newspapers, you should do a search on me. My name’s Steffinn Alhock.”
Hana considered this for a moment.
“OK, I believe you,” she said.
“You didn’t search,” the robot protested.
Only he wasn’t a robot really, Hana thought to herself. He looked like a robot but really he was a boy named Steffinn.
“I don’t have a console on me,” Hana explained, “but I believe you because you told me to search. You wouldn’t have said that if you weren’t telling the truth.”
“Oh,” Steffinn said. “Well you should do a search on me anyway, sometime. I’m famous. I was in all the papers.”
“OK,” Hana agreed.
“Hey!” a loud, nasal voice exploded from behind her, “it looks like the carpet-sucker’s got a girlfriend!”
Hana forced herself to sit perfectly still, resisting the urge to turn and look at the kid who was shouting.
Another, slightly less loud but no less obnoxious voice rang out: “They’re going to get married and have lots of little babies.”
The first voice replied: “Yeah, baby carpet-suckers!”
A gale of laughter erupted behind her.
In that instant it became clear to Hana that her new friend Steffinn represented the absolute lowest of the low in her new school’s social hierarchy. If she stayed friends with him, she would lose any chance of ever being popular.
But realistically, based on past experience, that chance had always been very slim.
Fuck it, Hana thought.
She rolled her eyes and said, quietly so that only Steffinn would hear: “What a bunch of idiots.”
“Yeah,” Steffinn agreed. “Do you like Ice Wizard?”
“It’s pretty good,” Hana replied, unphased by the sudden change of topic. “Lynn the Assassin is my favourite though.”
“Ice Wizard would beat Lynn the Assassin in a fight,” Steffinn declared.
“No way,” Hana replied immediately.
“Ice Wizard has magic powers,” Steffinn argued, “Lynn the Assassin is just strong and stuff. She has martial arts training but she doesn’t have any magic powers.”
“Lynn the Assassin has Spirit Wolf,” Hana rebutted.
“I’m talking about a one-on-one fight.”
“Even in a one-on-one fight Lynn the Assassin would have Spirit Wolf. She always has Spirit Wolf. They’re soul-bonded.”
“That’s not as good as Ice Magic though.”
The argument continued until the bell rang for afternoon classes.
Later that day Hana was on her way home when she found her path blocked by a little girl of about six, on a scooter. The scooter was painted bright sparkly red and looked brand-new, and the girl’s sandals were sparkly silver, creating a bright clash of colours. The girl went up and down the same section of sidewalk, frowning in concentration as she pushed off furiously with one foot, working to build up as much acceleration as possible. Her black hair fanned out crazily in her wake. She was going surprisingly fast and Hana didn’t think the little scooter looked particularly safe, but the girl showed no sign of tipping over.
Hana looked up and down the street. There were no adults anywhere to be seen.
Suddenly Hana understood why Andy and Dabon had wanted to move to this neighbourhood. It wasn’t just because the new house was bigger and the shops and the schools were nicer, it was because the rules here were different. Here the little kid on the shiny new scooter was perfectly safe; no-one was going to shove her over and take the scooter, which is what would have happened in the old neighbourhood.
Hana thought about Steffinn: he would have been stripped and sold for parts in twenty minutes at her old school. It wouldn’t even be murder, it would just be theft, or property damage. Steffinn wouldn’t be able to exist there. But he could exist here.
Even the mean kids here weren’t all that mean. They yelled at you, but they didn’t hit or throw things.
It turned out that the rules that Hana had lived by her whole life, that she had considered to be immutable laws of nature, could be re-written simply by travelling a few kilometers.
When Hana got home Dabon greeted her at the door and asked her how her day had gone. Hana replied:
“It was OK. I made a friend. His name is Steffinn. He likes comics. He thinks Ice Wizard is better than Lynn the Assassin, but in spite of that he’s a pretty nice person all in all.”
Dabon’s eyes twinkled in amusement. “I’m very happy to hear that, sweetling,” he said.