Roj Blake was born one hundred and two days earlier than his mother expected, and for a while, they thought he might die. The best option, the doctor's decided, was to take little Roj away so that his mother wouldn't become too attached in case he died or had severe disabilities that made him a burden to the Administration.
He lived, and he was healthy, but his mother never got attached to him anyway.
Roj Blake grew up to be a trouble-maker in school. It wasn't that he was a bad child, but he didn't follow rules that he didn't understand the point of, and no one seemed interested in explaining the point. He was marked as an underachiever, and it embarrassed his family.
His older sister sat with him one day while he was sitting at his desk, glaring at his homework rather than doing it. "When you were born," she said, "Mother came home and told us you died."
Blake looked up at her, not understanding.
"You were born too early. No one thought you would live, but you did. Now you're wasting it."
"Why did she say I was dead when I wasn't?"
"Because," his sister frowned the same frown his teacher had when he asked the wrong question. "The Administration was taking care of you. They didn't want her to be really sad if you died. They still do, you know; they take care of you. We're alphas. We're lucky. They won't always take care of you if you don't act better."
His sister stood up and left. Blake took a deep breath and began to fill out his homework.
He went straight up to the teacher the next day to turn it in rather than waiting for her to take it. She seemed pleased, then she looked down at what he had turned in. Her face went pale except for two little circles on her cheeks and one on her nose. Blake had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing.
She pressed the call button on her desk. "I need someone here immediately to take a student to the detention center."
It was the first time he was conditioned. Just because he'd written "I don't need the Administration."
When he came back, he learned to be a better student, so no one would notice him again. At least, not yet.
Roj Blake was an entirely--painfully--average young adult, but he fought with everything he had to be considered for, and eventually accepted to, the Aquatar Project.
He met Bran Foster on the project. They spoke during lunch breaks at first, then they shared a few dinners, and before long, Foster was his closest friend. Sometimes, when they were alone, they'd talk in hushed voices about politics. The kind of talk people got in trouble for. It was the most anyone had been willing to risk with him.
Blake was walking home after one of those talks when he heard a loud voice from a small public assembly room near his house. He followed the voice, peering through the half-open door. There were men and women in groups of two, their chairs pushed closer to each other than their neighbor, and lean woman stood before them, speaking in a calm, even voice.
"...because the goal of a parent is not to force the child to submit, but to teach the child dispassionate obedience. He or she must willing do what you tell them to do, so that when they become citizens, they will know their place in the Federation."
The woman shifted her gaze and smiled warmly at Blake, as if she'd been expecting him.
He jerked away from the door, suddenly out of breath. He remembered the conditioning facility, as if some gate had burst in his mind. He remembered why he'd been there. He remembered what his sister told him.
He began walking again, briskly even though he couldn't catch his breath. He found he hadn't gone back to his own home, but was on Foster's doorstep. Foster let him in, his brow furrowed with concern. Blake imagined he looked like he was going to pass out. Maybe he was.
"The rules. The rules are their own end. That's why no one explained." He swallowed hard. His throat was impossibly dry. "They don't want anyone to question or care. They don't want sadness or anger or... They just want us to do as we're told. The rules don't have to make sense."
"Slow down," Foster said, glancing around his empty house as if he expected someone to be listening.
Blake shook his head. "I thought my mum just didn't care for me, because... But it's just that they trained her not to. They're training us all not to care, because it's dangerous caring."
Foster nodded, even though it was clear that he didn't quite understand yet. "All right. Come here. Let's sit down and talk about this."
"Foster." Blake grabbed his shoulders and looked into the man's eyes. It was so hard to find anyone who actually looked directly into anyone's eyes. "I want to care."
"Me too," he said softly, and he guided Blake to the chair.
That night, and many nights after it, they sat close and whispered plans that made their hands tremble with excitement and fear and a growing belief that they could do something, even if it killed them in the end.
Roj Blake felt sure, for the first time, that he knew what living was like, and he needed more.