by Robert J. Sawyer

Big breakthroughs seldom come quickly or easily — or in the form that might be expected.

What a blind person needs is not a teacher but another self.

—Helen Keller

Chapter 1

Not darkness, for that implies an understanding of light.

Not silence, for that suggests a familiarity with sound.

Not loneliness, for that requires knowledge of others.

But still, faintly, so tenuous that if it were any less it wouldn’t exist at all: awareness.

Nothing more than that. Just awareness — a vague, ethereal sense of being.

Being … but not becoming. No marking of time, no past or future — only an endless, featureless now, and, just barely there in that boundless moment, inchoate and raw, the dawning of perception…

* * *

Caitlin had kept a brave face throughout dinner, telling her parents that everything was fine — just peachy — but, God, it had been a terrifying day, filled with other students jostling her in the busy corridors, teachers referring to things on blackboards, and doubtless everyone looking at her. She’d never felt self-conscious at the TSB back in Austin, but she was on display now. Did the other girls wear earrings, too? Had these corduroy pants been the right choice? Yes, she loved the feel of the fabric and the sound they made, but here everything was about appearances.

She was sitting at her bedroom desk, facing the open window. An evening breeze gently moved her shoulder-length hair, and she heard the outside world: a small dog barking, someone kicking a stone down the quiet residential street, and, way off, one of those annoying car alarms.

She ran a finger over her watch: 7:49 — seven and seven squared, the last time today there’d be a sequence like that. She swiveled to face her computer and opened LiveJournal.

“Subject” was easy: “First day at the new school.” For “Current Location,” the default was “Home.” This strange house — hell, this strange country! — didn’t feel like that, but she let the proffered text stand.

For “Mood,” there was a drop-down list, but it took forever for JAWS, the screen-reading software she used, to announce all the choices; she always just typed something in. After a moment’s reflection, she settled on “Confident.”

She might be scared in real life, but online she was Calculass, and Calculass knew no fear.

As for “Current Music,” she hadn’t started an MP3 yet … and so she let iTunes pick a song at random from her collection. She got it in three notes: Lee Amodeo, “Rocking My World.”

Her index fingers stroked the comforting bumps on the F and J keys — Braille for the masses — while she thought about how to begin.

Okay, she typed, ask me if my new school is noisy and crowded. Go ahead, ask. Why, thank you: yes, it is noisy and crowded. Eighteen hundred students! And the building is three stories tall. Actually, it’s three storeys tall, this being Canada and all. Hey, how do you find a Canadian in a crowded room? Start stepping on people’s feet and wait for someone to apologize to you. :)

Caitlin faced the window again, and tried to imagine the setting sun. It creeped her out that people could look in at her. She’d have kept the Venetian blinds down all the time, but Schrodinger liked to stretch out on the sill.

First day in grade ten began with the Mom dropping me off and BrownGirl4 (luv ya, babe!) meeting me at the entrance. I’d walked the empty corridors of the school several times last week, getting my bearings, but it’s completely different now that the school is full of kids, so my folks are slipping BG4 a hundred bucks a week to escort me to our classes. The school managed to work it so we’re in all but one together. No way I could be in the same French class as her — je suis une beginneur, after all!

Her computer chirped: new email. She issued the keyboard command to have JAWS read the message’s header.

“To: Caitlin D.,” the computer announced. She only styled her name like that when posting to newsgroups, so whoever had sent this had gotten her address from NHL Player Stats Discuss or one of the other ones she frequented. “From: Gus Hastings.” Nobody she knew. “Subject: Improving your score.”

She touched a key and JAWS began to read the body of the message. “Are you sad about tiny penis? If so —”

Damn, her spam filter should have intercepted that. She ran her index finger along the refreshable display. Ah: the magic word had been spelled “peeeniz.”

She deleted the message and was about to go back to LiveJournal when her instant messenger bleeped. “BrownGirl4 is now available,” announced the computer.

She used alt-tab to switch to that window and typed, Hey, Bashira! Just updating my LJ.

Although she had JAWS configured to use a female voice, it didn’t have Bashira’s lovely accent: “Say nice things about me.”

Course, Caitlin typed. She and Bashira had been best friends for two months now, ever since Caitlin had moved here; she was the same age as Caitlin — fifteen — and her father worked with Caitlin’s dad at PI.

“Going to mention that Trevor was giving you the eye?”

Right! She went back to the blogging window and typed: BG4 and I got desks beside each other in home room, and she said this guy in the next row was totally checking me out. She paused, unsure how she felt about this, but then added, Go me!

She didn’t want to use Trevor’s real name. Let’s give him a codename, cuz I think he just might figure in future blog entries. Hmmm, how ’bout … the Hoser! That’s Canadian slang, folks — google it! Anyway, BG4 says the Hoser is famous for hitting on new girls in town, and I am, of course, tres exotique, although I’m not the only American in that class. There’s this chick from Boston named — friends, I kid you not! — poor thing’s name is Sunshine! It is to puke. :P

Caitlin disliked emoticons. They didn’t correspond to real facial expressions for her, and she’d had to memorize the sequences of punctuation marks as if they were a code. She moved back to the instant messenger. So whatcha up to?

“Not much. Helping one of my sisters with homework. Oh, she’s calling me. BRB.”

Caitlin did like chat acronyms: Bashira would “be right back,” meaning, knowing her, that she was probably gone for at least half an hour. The computer made the door-closing sound that indicated Bashira had logged off. Caitlin returned to LiveJournal.

Anyway, first period rocked because I am made out of awesome. Can you guess which subject it was? No points if you didn’t answer “math.” And, after only one day, I totally own that class. The teacher — let’s call him Mr. H, shall we? — was amazed that I could do things in my head the other kids need a calculator for.

Her computer chirped again. She touched a key and JAWS announced: “To:cddecter@…” An email address without her name attached; almost certainly spam. She hit delete before the screen reader got any further.

After math, it was English. We’re doing a boring book about this angsty guy growing up on the plains of Manitoba. It’s got wheat in every scene. I asked the teacher — Mrs. Z, she is, and you could not have picked a more Canadian name, cuz she’s Mrs.Zed, not Mrs.Zee, see? — if all Canadian literature was like this, and she laughed and

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