The next day at school, I showed up with a bandaged head. Grandma had done her best to treat my injury. Our story to Grandpa was met with some skepticism, but in the end, I think we convinced him. Now I was getting looks from all the other students as we filed outside to eat lunch. They must be thinking those GEE kids are physically inept; that we only use our brains, not our bodies. Well, they’re wrong.
I found a suitable bench under a scrubby tree. That was the only shade for most of the “playground” area where we had our noontime meal. I sat down and was flanked by Rory and Suz. We commenced opening our little lunch containers and digging through to see what Grandma packed us. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught movement coming from the right. Since most of the school kids treated us like we didn’t exist, it shocked me to see a very large boy approaching. Was he here to bully us?
He stopped in front of me. “What happened to your head?” he asked in a tone of voice that led me to believe that he wasn’t the smartest one in the school.
“I, uh, hit it on a workbench at home.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
I studied him for a moment and came to the conclusion that this was probably the dumbest kid in the entire school. He appeared to be close in age to me, but was twice my size. His short brown hair lay in greasy streaks on his head, and he had dull brown eyes. “Yes, I’m going to be just fine.”
“Oh, good.” He thrust his hand out at me. “I’m Dagwood Hogg: H-o-g-g, like the big pig, but with another g at the end.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” I said, not readily taking his hand. He kept it pointed my direction until I finally relented. His hand felt rough and meaty. This kid evidently did a lot of farm work. “I’m Jonah Blackburn.”
“Are you guys those GEE kids?”
“Yes, we are,” Rory replied with a mouthful of sandwich.
“Wow, that must be cool. I’d like to be smart someday.”
“It helps being born that way,” Suz snapped as she collected her things, and left.
Dagwood sat down in the space vacated by Suz. “Was that your sister?”
I rolled my eyes. “Unfortunately.”
“How old are you, Dagwood?”
“Ah, well, Suzette is seventeen.”
“She’ll be graduating this year, huh?”
“Yes,” I replied, trying to eat lunch.
“How come you guys don’t come to class with us?”
“We’re too smart,” Rory said.
“So what do you do all day?”
“Mrs. Graham is teaching us.”
“She’s a nice lady. What is she teaching you?”
“Stuff about the Great Separation.”
“My Uncle Bob died,” Dagwood said, seemingly disjointing the conversation.
“Sorry to hear that,” I replied.
“No, no, he died in that war, the big one.”
“He died fighting in the war that caused the Great Separation?”
“Uh huh.” He fiddled with his fingers. “A ro-bot killed him.”
I decided not to say anything about being tied to the family that built battle bots. This kid was big enough he could do some serious damage if he was sufficiently angered. Instead, I decided that maybe his lack of brains but substantial brawn could be beneficial. “Dagwood? Why are you here?”
“Why did you come over to us?”
“Oh, I thought you looked lonely and might like to be friends…I mean I’m not super smart and all, but I thought maybe you wanted a friend because you’re new here.”
“That’s very kind of you. Yes, I’d like that.”
He stood and clapped his hands several times. “Goodie!”
The first bell rang, signifying that we had ten minutes to finish eating and to get to class. “Hey, Dagwood?”
“I gotta eat lunch and get to class. Can we talk after school?”
“Sure, sure. I’d like that.” He turned and took a few steps away before looking over his shoulder. “See you later!”
“Bye,” I said, trying to bolt down my food. I watched him jog happily off toward the humanities building. “That was interesting.”
“That guy is really dumb,” Rory said, finishing his lunch. “And he decides to pick us to make friends with.”
“No, he may not be bright, but he’s big, and that might be a good thing.”
“Oh, so you think that by hanging around someone that’s big and strong, that we won’t get picked on?”
“I’m hoping that’s the case, but if not, I’m sure he’d be there to finish whatever fight we end up in.” I stood and brushed the bread crumbs from my jeans. “Besides, it looks like he needs a friend or two as well.”
We headed off to our “broom closet” classroom and found Suz already seated. She had a sour look on her face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Ugh, that boy!”
“What about him?”
I sat down. “Sorry to tell you this, sis, but not everyone in the world is as smart as us.”
“Why didn’t they do an aptitude battery test on him while he was still a developing fetus?”
“Cause maybe they don’t have that technology here?”
“What? You’ve got to be kidding!”
About that time, Mrs. Graham shuffled into the room and plopped down in her chair. “Children,” she said in a firm, yet calm voice that was never raised above a normal speaking volume. We fell silent and gave her our attention. “Today we will discuss some of the laws of the Outer States.”
“I have a question,” I said, raising my hand slightly. The question had been burning inside me since last night, and the throbbing bump on my head wouldn’t let me forget.
“Are bots illegal here?”
She sat back in her chair, laced her fingers, and took a long breath. “It was the bots that caused the downfall of our civilization.”
“So are they banned here?”
“Let me put it to you this way: if someone has a need for a bot, for instance, to do some heavy manual labor, they must apply for a permit, pay a substantial sum, be approved by the state review board, and if approved, purchase a license for a bot which must be renewed every year.”
“That sounds like a lot of work,” Rory commented.
“It is. And that’s how the Outer States have dissuaded the commonplace use of bots. If there are people who can perform the task, they should be considered over an inanimate object.”
“But bots can do so many things that people can’t,” Suz piped up. “Like dangerous jobs.”
“Yes, and there are some bots working in the nuclear industry power plants.”
“I meant like cooking and cleaning.”
Rory and I couldn’t help but burst into laughter. I began to wonder who was dumber: Suz or Dagwood. Although I was confident Dagwood had his redeeming qualities, Suz was another story entirely.
“Hey!” Suz retorted.
“Chil-dren,” Mrs. Graham said firmly. She was clearly irritated with our little tiff.
“She started it!” I said, pointing a finger.
The room fell silent for a few brief moments. I looked out the tiny window and saw dark clouds. “Is it going to rain?”
“I hope so. It’s been dry here for too long.”
“Why don’t they just adjust the climactic generator?” Rory said.
“Because we have no such technology.”
“You mean to say they can’t make it rain here when they want?”
“No, Rory, we can’t.”
“Well that’s silly. No wonder it’s so brown and dusty here.”
“We’ve not had a good rain for nearly five years. And if our crops fail, what will the people of the Inner States eat?”
Suz waved her hand. “Oh, we’ve lots of food there.”
“Yes, perhaps, but do you know where it comes from?”
“The grocery store, of course.”
Mrs. Graham leaned forward slightly. “And where does the grocery store get it from?”
I watched my sister’s mouth slowly fall open. She didn’t have a clue.