Emma smiled down at her tablet. The three medals combined with a dramatic swooshing graphic into a coupon. It was for men’s shoes, but that wasn’t important.
She looked around the street. She had never been down it before. The tablet always showed her a map with the fastest, safest, easiest way to go where she needed to. It smelled, a little, and the shops were old. Maybe it was in a bad area. The application had mapped the bad places out for her, in the under city, anyway. She wasn’t supposed to go to the upper city. She suspected that the upper city didn’t have bad areas. Places she shouldn’t go. She thought this street was in one.
But she needed this medal. Now she had a coupon. She smiled as it filled in its space in her chart, finishing the column. She didn’t use them. What if she went into the wrong shop? What if the coupon was no good? Or she got the wrong thing? The thought of venturing into strange stores made her breath come short, and the cold numbness to spread out from her chest. Collecting them was the opposite of that. It filled her with a kind of peace.
On the way back to her apartment she found some more. They were common, and she had them already, but she could trade those with people from other cities. There was a market where you could post medals or coupons to trade, and you didn’t even have to talk to anyone. It was wonderful.
She climbed up the stairs, feeling the silence falling like snow across her shoulders. When she opened the door the application pinged.
“You were gone a long time.”
“The weather was good. I thought I should go for a walk.”
“That is a very nice idea!” She breathed again. “You must be full of energy. It’s a good thing, too! You have a little backlog of work left to do, and your revision.”
She hung up her sweater, listening to the application outline the chores she had to do. It sounded like a lot. The application had shaved a few minutes off of each task to give her time to catch up.
She took out the window cleaner and towels. She would have to hurry. The revision would be followed by tests. If she failed, the application might have to report her to the Centre. She might have to go back for more courses. They might keep her.
The retention techniques were more complicated than she remembered from her courses. She bent her head over the tablet, practicing the drills until her eyes were sandy and wouldn’t even focus on the words.
“You should sleep now. You’ll need your rest in order to take the tests tomorrow morning.”
She climbed into bed. Moonlight pressed through her blinds, glowing against her wall in bright, silver lines. To her overtired, restless mind they seemed to float unsteadily in midair, as though moved by an unfelt wind. She counted them, until her heart slowed, and sleep approached.
Her fingers found her tablet. It was charging, so she couldn’t bring it closer. Ed’s cat smiled chirpily at her. She smiled back.
After breakfast she sat at her desk. The tablet’s familiar architecture of icons and applications winked out of sight, replaced by a dull black field. Tension coiled around her neck.
Count, she thought. There was no time to count, though. The Centre’s logo flickered to life. Her stomach clenched with fear. She ought to have revised more.
“Good luck, Emma!” the application sang out.
The first question appeared. She took a steadying breath, and began.
There were many that she didn’t understand. There were words and ideas that she couldn’t remember even having seen. But she had to have. She rubbed her eyes and leaned close, trying to figure out with logic what her memory couldn’t supply.
She was in the middle of answering one when the screen went black.
She shook the tablet frantically, slapping the screen. How had it lost power? It had charged all night.
The logo flickered to life, spinning slowly. Below it, a message told her that it was calculating her score.
She stared, blood rushing in her ears.
“I couldn’t finish,” she whispered. “I couldn’t finish.”
Her chair fell over. She backed away, hands twisting together. She’d wasted too much time. She hadn’t been able to learn enough.
The logo spun and spun. She stumbled to the bathroom and was sick in the toilet, until tears came to her eyes. When her throat was raw and her stomach completely empty she backed into a corner, hugging her knees. Cold sweat dripped down her back, chilling her skin until she was shuddering. Her teeth clattered together. As she stared, the sink and the tub and the mirror…everything broke apart, floating, unanchored, senseless. She whimpered, rocking back and forth. They would take her back. She’d be put in the special ward. Among the stars, they said, but there were no windows.
“Please no please no. Please…no…”
Some time later a little of the fear began to release its grip. She wiped her eyes and lifted her head. The bathroom was dim. It was late afternoon. Against the door the blue light of the application pulsed slowly.
She moved stiffly, catching herself on the sink when her legs didn’t work right. She rinsed her mouth and went to retrieve her tablet.
“Your performance was poor,” the application said.
“I didn’t know the words. The concepts…”
“I gave you material to revise. All of the test material was covered.”
She covered her mouth, tamping down on her panic.
“I can help you,” the application said. “I can explain to the Centre.”
The flood of relief stole the strength from her knees. She sat abruptly.
“Will they let me take the test again?”
“I’ll take care of it, Emma. Don’t worry.”
“Thank you. Thank you for helping me.”
“I’m here to keep you safe.” Emma nodded, even though there was no one to see. “Maybe you should stay close to home for a little while. We can practice. Everything will be all right, Emma.”
Her heart seized. She took a shaking breath. “Even the baking class?”
The application was silent. Was it asking someone? Was it calculating?
“It would cause questions if you stopped. It’s part of your routine. Your routine is important. We’ll keep your head down. I’ll help you.”
Everything would be all right. The application said so.
She studied more. She went back to the revision notes. The things that she thought weren’t there suddenly were, and she berated herself for missing them. She caught up on her chores, putting every effort into it, especially the corners. She made food, and tidied, without looking at the medal game at all. If she hadn’t been distracted by it, and sneaking around — lying to the application — she would have performed well on the tests.
The chat application, though…She could look at Ed’s cat icon and it would make her feel that electric, effervescent bubbling all over again.
The whole day of the baking class she had to be strict with herself. Her mind kept turning to the date, worrying and thinking about it. She was so distracted by her daydreams while eating lunch that the application had to prompt her to wash her dishes. She took care with her clothes. Something to bake in, and something to eat dinner in. There was a ruffled dress, last worn for her university graduation. She had meant to give it to charity or recycle it, but the application suggested she keep it for special occasion.
She could be careful at the baking class, and stay tidy. She had an apron.
“They might think it’s strange if I don’t go to the student gathering after. I know how important it is for me to have some socialisation.”
She refolded her apron while waiting for the application to respond.
“So it is! Please be home by eleven.”
That would be enough time, she was sure.
She was still uneasy, a bundle of nerves swirling in her stomach. When she saw Ed waiting by the door of the Education Centre her heart jumped to her throat. Her clothes were really nice. A dark blue shirt under her leather jacket, that went nicely with the pile of blue curls falling around her face among her own blond. Her eye makeup was orange and gold, like a sunset. Emma looked down. Her dress was not that fancy, after all.
The walk was empty. A cool wind scattered leaves at her feet. Bubbly excitement began to rise in her, mixed with a little fear, suddenly unsure. Her feet were glued to the pavement.
Ed came down the stairs, hands in the pockets of her jacket. Her confidence gave Emma strength. Ed didn’t even hesitate, kissing her under the humming light, until Emma wanted to laugh. She timidly touched a blue curl. It didn’t feel real. It was pinned in somehow.
“What are we making today?”
“Ah. I have an idea.”
“For not making muffins.” She took Emma’s hand. “We could just go get something to eat now.”
“Not go to class?”
“I’m good at cutting class.”
“But…” She reminded herself that her end goal was another lie.
Ed swept her away before they could be seen, to a restaurant that served pasta with a kind of cheese that she’d never had before. The dining room was crowded with old, mismatched things, and the waitstaff were dressed in old-fashioned costumes. She wanted to look at everything at once.
“Is it too much?”
“It’s very filling,” she admitted.
“I meant the- Food. Yeah.”
Emma woke her tablet. “There’s a medal for it! You need three.”
Ed leaned over. “Have you been doing nothing but playing that game? How did you get so many?”
She shifted uncomfortably.
“I walk a lot.”
“I walked so much when I was looking for work.” Ed sat back, her sunset eyes shimmering in the warm light. She already had pretty eyes. The makeup made them even prettier.
After dinner they walked along an outdoor mall. Part of it was below them, like a canyon, and part rose above them like mountains. All of it was covered by a crystalline roof high above, pretending to show a bright blue sky with puffy clouds. The shimmering light and glass and mirrors made it all seem like a palace, with the night wind swirling through from one open end to the other. Water from a fountain far below leaped even higher than their heads, confusing the wind even further. When they paused so that Ed could find her tablet she reached out her hand over the empty space, wiggling her fingers in the mist.
Abruptly it fell away. She withdrew her hand guiltily.
The sound of voices filled the vacuum of sound. After a moment she heard instruments, like violins. She peered over cautiously. Not far from the fountain a makeshift stage was set up, and folding chairs in front of it that were already full of people. A small group of musicians were off to one side. Even the discordant notes from their warming up sounded pretty. They trailed off and a group of elegantly dressed people took to the stage.
Ed leaned against the railing beside her.
“Is there always music?”
“Not always. And sometimes it’s pretty bad.”
This music didn’t sound bad at all.
“Is it all right?” she asked, filled with sudden fear. There were security guards near. “Will they chase us away?
“Those people are staying,” Ed said, pointing across to the opposite walk. “We’ll be okay.”
At first every twitch from the guards made her jump, but other people gathered, too, so she began to think it would be safe. Her attention turned to performance. They sang in groups and duets, the notes flying into the bright, glittering heights. She clutched Ed’s hand, smiling so much that her face ached.
Finally a man stepped forward. The applause trailed off, and the instruments began a new song.
It was only him, standing straight and tall. His voice filled the whole of the space, making the air tremble. It seemed to her that he wasn’t even in a shopping mall anymore. Wherever he was, he swept her up to take her with him. She was happy and sad at the same time, so full of the light of it that she thought she must be floating, face hot with tears.
The little audience rose to its feet, applauding.
Ed put her arm across Emma’s shoulders. It seemed natural to lean against her, sniffling against her shoulder, apologising.
“It’s all right, Em. It was a beautiful song.”
“What was it?”
“I don’t know. Except it was opera.”
“It was the most wonderful thing.”
She wondered what the words meant. The tune still danced in her mind, airless and perfect.
The fountain roared to life. They started off, Emma wiping her face again, embarrassed.
“I have to be home by eleven.”
“We have a couple of hours. What would you like to do for-“
Emma, still full of music and mad with light, kissed her right there.
“Ahh!” Ed laughed. “Really?”
“Is it giving you the wrong impression?” She stepped away, comforted when Ed took her hand.
“What’s the wrong impression?”
“If it’s too soon, I must have loose morals.”
“Our morals match each other just fine.”
Ed took her to a hotel. Emma had never been in one before. The air was chilly and stale, smelling strongly of cleaners, and faintly of how a street smelled after strangers passed. She stood in the centre of the floor, wiggling her toes in the rough carpet. On the wall a large mirror reflected the pale, wide-eyed oval of her own face back to her. She looked surprised; she didn’t look unhappy.
Emma felt Ed step up behind her. She searched for the awkward discomfort Wyn always stirred. Instead, as soon as her hands touched her shoulders, Emma felt all of the things that the instructors in the class told her that she should. She shivered, wonderfully. What Wyn worked so hard for, Ed did with no effort at all, and she was eager to do the things that she had to do with Wyn. Obviously it wasn’t quite the same. It was better. It was perfect.
And she could rest in her arms, and make all the small talk that she was supposed to. Everything came so easily. It didn’t matter that the sheets were scratchy and pillows hard. Ed felt wonderful.
Finally she stretched. The window was completely, deeply dark.
“What time is it?”
Ed fumbled for her tablet. “A little after ten.”
“I have to go home.”
Ed moaned. Emma worried, but it seemed to be exaggerated, since she let her go to get dressed, lounging amongst the sheets until she absolutely had to get up.
“This was loads better than baking,” she said, zipping up her black pants.
Emma watched as she searched for her bra. It was black and lacy. The contrast against her skin was startling. She imagined how the line between them would feel.
“We could just come here. Next time.” She felt light-headed. She should go to baking class. The application had arranged it.
“And cut class?”
Emma took a deep breath and nodded. “Will you get into trouble?”
“Suze might be sad that she doesn’t get any more cookies.”
“I can make some. So she doesn’t get mad at you.”
“Aw, Em. You’re so sweet. Don’t worry about it. It’s just baking.” Ed kissed her. “We’ll come here. I’ll bring snacks.”