Authors: Ferrett Steinmetz
Cut the Cord
, my beautifully bold trailblazer
And to Amy, my entertainingly excellent experimenter
I'd like to tell you girls that parenting isn't quite this hard
But it is
he Morehead Youth Soccer League
met outside the local Wendy's before heading to the first scrimmage of the season, so the kids could load up on Frosties while their parents scrawled out their kids' league applications. The coach sat regally in her red vinyl booth, the parents lining up to place their forms before her; she scrutinized the waivers to ensure the kids' emergency contacts were duly filled in.
Statistically speaking, Paul thought, Morehead was the safest place in America for Aliyah to pretend to be a normal child.
She'd begged him:
I can keep my magic under control, Dad. I don't even
to do magic, I swear! I know your political rallies are important, they're making the world safe for us 'mancers, butâ¦ nobody takes their kids to a speech that ends in tear gas and SMASH squadrons. We're always on the run, so I hardly ever meet anyone my own age â and when I do, they never see me, just my magic.
Can't I play soccer? In disguise? So I can have a social life somewhere?
He'd remind her how badly the government wanted to capture her, to capture
of them, and that the pro-'mancer rallies were only safe because he and his Project Mayhem allies planned them out months in advance. Showing up in hostile territory, among families who hadn't been vetted, with only a handful of bodyguards to protect them? That could get them captured and brainwashed. And Aliyah would go quiet and say she understood, butâ¦
Late at night, he'd see her holed up under the covers with an iPad, watching video blogs of teenaged girls' manicure tutorials. She'd trace her fingertips across the screen, whispering their words back to them fondly, as if speaking
them created a connection that substituted for being
On Aliyah's thirteenth birthday, Paul and Imani had agreed to let her try out for a soccer league.
She'd hugged him for an hour.
Still, Paul had used his bureaucromancy to triangulate the neighborhoods located furthest away from SMASH garrisons; he broke into government registries to find the cities with the lowest numbers of registered anti-'mancer weaponholders, comparing his population density charts against anti-'mancer polls.
Ultimately, he had narrowed his choice down to one of seven cities where Aliyah was least likely to be kidnapped if her magic showed. He then spent another three weeks mired in deep analysis before Valentine had finally thrown a dart at his map and picked the closest safe town.
Morehead, Kentucky, it was.
Still, as his wife Imani pushed him in through the door of the Wendy's, he felt uneasy leaving Aliyah in front with the other girls. She'd used her videogamemancy to reskin herself, hiding her burn scars to look like any other exuberant young black teenaged girl, but had refused to change her wild tangled curls.
“Those curls are
, Dad,” she'd told him. “I'll hide my magic â but I won't change my skin color or my hair. The girls there have to see some of who I
am â or we might as well not be friends at all, right?”
right. But those curls were routinely plastered on the
New York Times
, her picture placed next to every op-ed asking whether 'mancy should be regulated instead of simply making 'mancers illegal. Aliyah was the youngest 'mancer in what remained of the world â and though he'd tried hard to convince America that he and his daughter were human beings, worthy of the Bill of Rights, he'd barely budged the needle away from “brainwash them all.”
One of the girls stopped bouncing a soccer ball and moved to talk to Aliyah. Paul froze: maybe this kid had recognized Aliyah's hair. Maybe Aliyah would forget to introduce herself by her fake name. Maybe a parent wouldâ¦
“Did we really need the wheelchair?” Imani whispered, as she pushed Paul through the entryway.
As expected, people turned to stare when the handicapped person showed up; Paul tugged his hat down, hiding from their pity.
walk, you know,” Imani told him pointedly.
“I can limp.” Paul wiggled his artificial foot, hidden beneath layers of videogame pseudo-skin; the disguise not only covered his bladelike titanium foot with a spongy sneaker, but it masked his normal Greek swarthiness beneath a dark African-American skin tone that matched Aliyah's natural look. “If they see a girl with
curls, accompanied by a father with
infamous limp, they'll know who we are.”
Imani removed his hat to ruffle his hair. “This is a small town. They won't expect the world's most dangerous 'mancers to show up here. Even if they did, you're now disguised as black instead of Greek â and though I remain gloriously black, these itchy wrinkles you have festooned me with make me look a decade older. All that'll give Aliyah away today is a father who's so tensed for incoming SMASH squadrons he'll set everyone else on edgeâ¦ so may I suggest you lighten the hell up?”
He smiled. Imani always cleaved through his bullshit. So did Valentine.
That was why, he supposed, Imani was his wife and Valentine was his best friend.
“I'll try,” he promised. She steered him closer to the coach, who spoke animatedly with a mother who she obviously knew from previous seasons.
“You made your best plans. Now pack away that paranoia! Look, we're getting in line to file paperwork! What better way could you spend a day?” She turned to Valentine. “Speaking of enjoying the day, will you
look up from your phone?”
Unlike Paul's complete makeover, Valentine hadn't disguised herself overmuch â she'd pointedly reskinned her
tattoos with gratuitous Confederate flags and Dixie guns, and exchanged her usual darkly gothic cleavage-baring dresses for cut-off Daisy Dukes and a low-cut Charlie Daniels T-shirt, but she was still a curvy, hefty brunette. The local fathers snuck guilty glances as she swivel-hipped by.
Though it was a little weird seeing her without her boyfriend Robert at her side.
Valentine walked up to them, playing videogames on her phone, navigating through the Wendy's crowd without looking up. Her expression, however, was concealed behind wraparound sunglasses. A SMASH team had shot out Valentine's left eye, and all her videogame reskinning couldn't restore her lost vision.
“What, pray tell, am I missing by keeping my nose in a game?” Valentine asked, thumbs tapping away. “The rampant excitement of parents changing diapers? The ebullient
joie de vivre
of young boys playing punch buggy?”
“I hope,” Imani said, dropping her voice low, “that you'll stop playing games once Aliyah gets onto the field.”
For a woman in her early thirties, Paul thought, Valentine did the disgusted
huff better than any teenager. She lowered her sunglasses to peer over them at Imani, cocking her head as though she couldn't quite fathom how she and Imani
failed to understand each other despite five years on the run together.
“Have you ever played a game of
PlayStation FIFA Soccer
“You know I haven't.” Imani didn't play videogames except to teach Aliyah; she'd considered them a waste of time before her daughter had become a videogamemancer. Imani had never quite understood how her daughter, who she'd envisioned becoming a Yale corporate lawyer like her dear old mom, had become so obsessively entangled with
that her videogame love punched holes through physics.
“Well, the reason Aliyah chose soccer is because
is the most tedious fucking game in the entire universe. There are no fiery trails streaking behind the ball, no fireworks bursting overhead when someone scores a goal â nothing to spark Aliyah's fertile imagination into magical outbursts.
is a perfectly ordinary replication of a perfectly ordinary game made for perfectly ordinary people, and as such
will only survive this impending tedium by defeating all comers at
Imani blinked, disappointed. “Aliyah seemed so excited to play soccer.”
“She's excited to fit in with someone who's not us.” Valentine directed Imani's gaze through the front window. A group of kids had gathered around Aliyah as she told some crazy story; the girls smothered giggles with their hands. Yet whereas every other girl clutched a soccer ball, Aliyah's sat on the ground. “She'll tolerate the soccer.”
“Two reasons.” Valentine ticked them off on her fingers. “First, Uncle Robert can't make it, because he's prepping a local safehouse. He'd been doing soccer drills with her. So she needed at least
of us here.”
Depending on who you talked to, Robert was either Valentine's boyfriend (as he described it) or her lover (as she described it) â a former Fight-Club-o-'mancer who'd outgrown his Tyler Durden persona to become the thoroughly non-magical, hyper-competent security chief of Paul's organization.
“And the second reason?” Imani asked.
“Because Paul's paperwork magic won't stop an angry redneck's bullet. If Aliyah shits the bed, you guys are gonna need me.”
Imani nodded. Though she'd never understood what bonded Paul and Valentine, she respected their friendship â and respected Valentine's hyper-violent
Grand Theft Auto
-inspired mayhem more.
Valentine's New York City sneer was far too dismissive of the small-town life for Paul's taste â but she'd been the one who'd handed her Nintendo DS to a burned girl trapped in a hospital, thus passing on her videogamemancy to Aliyah. “Besides, I've told Aliyah I'll elbow Valentine whenever she makes a good play. Watch.”
He nudged Valentine in the ribs. She flung up her arms reflexively and yelled, “GO OUR TEAM!”
“See?” Paul said brightly. “I've got her trained.”
Imani snorted, hiding her bemusement behind one manicured hand. Even in her aged pseudoskin, masquerading as a soccer mom, she looked as elegant as the day he'd fallen in love with her.
The last parents finished talking to the coach. Imani pushed Paul into position. The coach, an elderly woman wearing a Wildcats baseball cap, plucked a fresh application off a stack of blank forms.
a feisty bunch?” She fished a pen from her pocket. “Welcome aboard. We'll just need aâ”
But Paul had already placed the paperwork on the table â every field filled out in legible block lettering, the forms stacked in the order they'd been presented on the website, the $35.00 check paperclipped to the left corner.
“Huh,” the coach said pleasantly, flipping through to double-check Paul's work. “
Imani gave their cover story about how they were homeschoolers, and all too used to government paperworkâ
âbut all Paul noticed was the sloppy stack of forms by the coach's elbow, and the big blank space on the top waiver where someone's “Emergency Contact” information should be.
That empty space is no big deal
, he told himself.
This is a small town; everyone knows everyone.
Yet to Paul, that unfilled data felt like a dead child. It was
the coach would be out sick when a kid got hurt. Yet Paul envisioned worst-case scenarios: a kid breaking her neck on the field, nobody knowing who to call, a disastrous medical decision made because nobody could contact Mom in time.
Unlikely, butâ¦ bad things happened.
Paperwork kept records for when good people needed them, he thought. And as he envisioned the empty paperwork, tuning out Imani and the coach, he thought how good it would be for that information to be there, andâ¦
The name on the form correlated to seven babies born at Morehead hospital, but only one of those kids was old enough for the Soccer League. The date of birth matched this child up to one mother, name of Leslie Hornor, who lived in Lakeview Heightsâ¦
An audible noise, like pencils scribbling.
The blank emergency contact field filled itself in.
The stack of forms straightened itself into a neat pile.
Imani coughed â
knew what 'mancy felt like â but the coach turned around, perplexed.
“Did you feel something move?” the coach asked.
“Must be a gust of wind,” Imani said.
Paul gripped his wheelchair, looking away from the forms. That spontaneous magic was why it was so hard to control 'mancers, yet so wrong to imprison them. Few set out to become 'mancers: magic stemmed from relentless obsession. If you believed with a diamond-hard conviction the universe
act a certain way, sometimes it
. You didn't mean to make it do anything, it justâ¦ shuffled out of the way.
The universe moved because the world was better off for the changes you wanted to make. Having all the emergency contact fields in that stack filled out was a minor change, but Paul felt better knowing that all the kids here were as safe as he could make them.
Yet it was also why today's game would be a test for Aliyah. Like most âmancers, Paul had been an ordinary man for almost forty years before his bureaucromancy blossomed â the result of one too many nights working for Samaritan Mutual. Valentine was considered an exceptionally talented 'mancer for sparking in her late twenties. Both had lived as mundanes, internalizing the “normal” way the world worked.
Aliyah, however, had been made into a 'mancer at six years old. Physics had always scurried out of her way. And she kept forgetting the world wasn't supposed to have rainbow roads and showers of gold coins.
Her 'mancy was beautiful, of course, her digitized pixels popping out of mid-air to form what, in a better world, would be considered artâ¦ But ever since the European Broach, the world had been all too willing to murder 'mancers, or brainwash them.