“Multiplication Tables” Science Fiction by Travis Flatt

“Kayla, come up to the front,” says Ms. Ngo, our STEM instructor.

I stand and smooth my purple uniform, then slide up the aisle toward the hovering screen. In the children’s section of the Light Sail, the gravity is set to Earth’s, and I feel heavy–heavy physically and heavy with worry at the prospect of facing twenty grinning twelve-year-olds. Sharp children, elite children: children selected from my ex-planet, a burnt planet where my mother died among the stranded billions, probably screaming and dashing about in a chaotic–

“Kayla, please balance the expression.”

My attention is wrenched back to the sterile, white classroom, and several classmates giggle. I blush and stare at the orange digits balancing in air. Last night, my father and I played a concerto for the Gold Council; I was tired afterward and didn’t study. 

I begin.

“That’s incorrect,” says Ms. Ngo, and she swipes her hand over the corner of the screen,  refreshing the expression to moments before my erroneous attempt. This delights my classmates. This week we began algebra, but Thomas Cunningham told me last night that the Gold class is already onto trigonometry.  “Sit, Kayla. Remember class: the order of operations is ‘PEMDAS’–parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, and subtraction. Can anyone tell me what Kayla did wrong? Raise your hands.”

***

After school, two Blue Uniforms–security and custodial caste–march me to a tiny, white, box-like room that I’ve never seen before and then leave me inside to wait. Soon, a booming voice fills the box: “Kayla Carr. You’ve been struggling with mathematics. Your Selection Examination indicated no deficiencies. Did you cheat, Kayla Carr?”

Inside the box there’s a hiss. My breath rushes out. “No,” I  gasp.

“Kayla Carr–what is twelve multiplied by eighteen?” The wall in front of me splits and slides open, revealing space–black, endless space–speckled with countless stars. I can just make out a thin membrane of plasma holding out the deadly cold. I feel the back wall slowly inching forward, pushing me toward the membrane.

“Twelve multiplied by eighteen,” the voice repeats.

Desperate, I mentally multiply. “Twelve by twelve is one-forty-four,” I think, “And then six times twelve…” The wall has pushed me halfway out. I thrust a hand forward to feel the plasma partially mold around my hand. It’s freezing, but it doesn’t break.

“216,” I shriek.

The membrane grows sturdier, and I feel the wall retreat behind me. “Correct.”

***

That night, I meet my dad outside the Gold Council hall. He holds my violin and his cello. He looks worried. “Where were you?”

I break into tears. Dad sets his cello case down and drops to meet me eye-to-eye. “What’s wrong, baby?” he wipes the tears off my cheeks with a dark thumb. I throw my arms around his neck.

“I had a bad day… at school.”

He squeezes me. My violin digs into my back, but I don’t care. “Well, that’s okay, baby. We’ve got to go play. Let’s go meet Yvet and play.” Yvet is our pianist.

On Earth, before the Light Sail left for the colonies, we were both in the L.A. Philharmonic. I was the youngest first chair in history–thanks to my dad. He taught me from birth; he can play anything–any instrument.

The Gold Council is eight old white men. They always eat noisily while we play. So far as I’ve seen, they’re the only ones who get solid food on the Light Sail. Dad and I eat nutrient gels and powders.

Dad is upset tonight: he’s stiff on Schubert’s piano trio. It throws Yvet off. When we finish, the Gold Council doesn’t offer their usual, cursory applause. Elder Cunningham, the youngest of Elders, stops us at the door. “I’d like the Carrs to stay.”

Yvet is out the door, but my dad and I slink back to our chairs. The Gold Council hall isn’t white and smooth like the rest of the Light Sail: it’s covered with soft, amber rugs and deep honey-colored carpet. The walls are lined with tall bookcases. Their table sits raised a few carpeted steps above the rest of the room.

“Mr. Carr,” Cunningham says, gnawing on a greasy chicken bone; he’s a big man, always greasy with food. “Who taught your daughter on Earth?”

“Her mother and I. Her mother was a nurse.”

There’s muttering around the council table. Then, Cunningham says, “We didn’t need those. Only doctors, and–” he’s gesturing around with the bone, “–the Red Uniforms assured us they’d have those goddamn robots finished by now.” When he says “robot,” I think of Mrs. Ngo. The kids say she’s holographic.

My father is kneading his hands in his lap. “But Kayla went to public elementary school. And made excellent grades. We just thought, with all the rising crime–”

“Mr. Carr, where did you go to university?”

Modest, and looking at his Purple Uniform shoes, my dad says, “Julliard, sir.”

A Gold Councilman sitting next to Cunningham brings up a small screen in the air, and gestures with bony fingers to summon a picture of dad with text. This new Councilman confirms: “Julliard.” 

Cunningham makes a dismissive gesture with the chicken bone. “Girl, go study. Mr. Carr, you have some business with these men.” Without my noticing, the two Blue Uniforms from this afternoon have appeared in the Council Hall, and they follow us out. As I leave, I watch them marching him down the white hall. Over his shoulder, he glances back at me, confused.

***

When our pod door slides open late that evening, it isn’t my father. Instead, a Red Uniform scientist comes in and stands beside our holographic table. Living pods are tiny, so as I sit on my bed, the Red Uniform and I are very close. “Kayla, your father isn’t coming back.”

I sit stone-faced.

“I can play you the video if you like,” he says.

I shake my head.

“We don’t allow children to live alone, so we’ve devised a new living arrangement.” He scoots further into my room, and a young woman walks in. She wears a purple uniform and carries a cello case.

She smiles and waves. “Hi.”

“Who are you,” I say. She looks a bit like my mother.

“I’m Tamara.”

My mother’s name was Tamara.

The Red Uniform nods. “Our science team has learned a lot about genetics, and, well… Tamara is a combination of you and your father’s DNA.”

I choke back a  yelp. Tamara keeps smiling. I crawl back on my bed and say: “Is she a holograph?”

“Organic,” the Red Uniform says. “We developed cloning before the Light Sail left Earth. Well, ladies, I’m going to let you two get to know each other.”

The Red Uniform scoots around behind Tamara; our door hisses open for him. He leaves us alone. I sit there staring up at myself. Staring up at my new mother.


Travis Flatt lives in Tennessee. His stories appear in Ripples in Space, Bridge Eight, and other publications. 


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