I felt a pair of soft hands slide over my eyes and knew it was Glen before he even spoke. “I hope you haven’t made plans for this Freitag night,” he said, showing off his knowledge of ancient languages. “I’d like to take you out.”
I smile and gaze into his round, bistre eyes. “Where to?”
He gives his eyebrows a mysterious waggle. “Somewhere special.”
“Hasta viernes,” I said, showing off my own command of languages that had once been widely spoken, but had long since disappeared from the earth. Glen leaned down and kissed me on the cheek, then sauntered off to do his own studying.
After that, it was hard to concentrate on my studies. Glen and I had both been so busy lately, preparing for our detail examinations, that we hadn’t had time to go anywhere together, unless you counted quick lunches on the Green, surrounded by our other sixth term friends. And I did not count those at all. But studying was our lives right now. Our scores would determine our detail placements, and those would determine the paths for the rest of our lives.
Glen didn’t seem to take the exams as seriously as I did. Of course, he had a lot less to lose. His parents were both placed in Detail 1, the most important, influential positions in Oberon. His family had money, status, and connections that my Detail 4 family only dreamed of having. I was so flattered when he’d begun to show an interest in me during our second term of academy, since high-detail jacks like him don’t usually notice low-detail girls. But he claimed to be in love with my mind, and pursued me until I agreed to be his pair.
Right away, I was swept. Glen turned out to be intelligent, witty, and charming — a lethal combination. I didn’t have any choice but to be swept. Lately, however, something inside me had begun to hesitate when he told me he loved me. Now that I knew him so well, I could also see the cracks in his smooth, polished surface.
Glen owned an heirloom guitar — a real guitar, made from actual wood. He’d impressed the other students, and even some academy officials with his ability to pluck the strings and produce beautiful music. But one day, I’d discovered that he wasn’t playing it at all. His hands made clever strumming motions in rhythm to a high quality recording, which played from a device hidden in his pocket, the music streaming out from a speaker built into his shoe. It was just one of many small tricks he played to sharpen his image of he ideal jack, worthy of maintaining his place in Detail 1. I tried not to think about it, to instead focus on his better qualities, like his ability to think up creative algorithms to solve complex issues, or the way his mouth curved when he observed something aesthetically pleasing, like the gentle lines of the new resident building in South C, or the plump, purplish tomatoes hanging from the plants on the academy’s rooftop garden. But though I went through the motions of being his pair, something inside me had frozen, keeping me from giving my all, expressions of love painted on my face like the antique porcelain dolls at the Museum of Human History.
Though my mind raced with curiosity, I forced myself to focus on my studies until the evening chimes floated across the academy campus. Then I ran to my quarters to change clothes and tame my short, wispy curls into a manageable twist. I had no idea where Glen planned to take me, so I played it safe with a comfortable elegant slacks and a top edged with colorful embroidered flowers.
“You’re joking!” I said when he told me the address of our mysterious date. “We’re taking the express?”
“All the way to Titania,” he confirmed. We parked our solar scooters next to the station, then rode the air lift up to the express platform. My heart thudded against my chest as we boarded the sleek machine, which could be powered to travel almost as fast as a rocket, but was often slowed down so that passengers could enjoy the scenic vistas outside the windows. I had only ever ridden the express twice, due to its cost, and only at night. So I’d never seen what lay beyond the windows.
The express glided out of the station, and Oberon faded behind us as we flew toward Titania. Glen relaxed as though he’d made this trip dozens of times. But I pressed my face against the glass, eager to see a world that was unknown to me, except for brief mentions in digibooks.
“What is that?” I frowned at the cluster of squat, square buildings in the distance. They were the same hazy brown color as the foreign sky outside — nothing like the slender towers and clean, blue sky inside of Oberon. The whole cluster had a shabby, thoughtless air, like whoever built them had no concept of aesthetics.
Glen looked over my shoulder. “Those are the Outers,” he said, his voice grim. I said nothing. We did not often mention the Outers, as their very existence was somewhat taboo. A society of miscreants, criminals, people who were unable to thrive within the bounds of a civilized community. Every once in a great while, we’d hear of someone who had committed an act so heinous, that they were deemed beyond the help of the usual redirection and counseling, so they were banished to the Outers.
I shivered and pulled my gaze away from the window, not daring to look again until the train came to a stop inside the walls of our sister city, Titania.
Glen’s surprise exceeded my expectations. He took me to an air skating rink, which very preme among the academy students. You strapped on a pair of wheel-less skates and hovered around a smooth, glowing rink on a cushion of air. I had never been, due to the high cost of traveling to Titania, but I had good balance and physical skills, so I was gliding around in no time, even keeping up with Glen.
Afterward, we went out for dinner at an authentic Old Western restaurants, which served foods like chili and fried chicken and hamburgers, some made with real meat! I looked at Glen, shocked, as he took a bite of something that was cooked with the flesh of an actual fowl. But he just grinned and offered me a bite. I made a face. I wasn’t that adventurous.
After we’d eaten, Glen did something else unexpected, and so old-fashioned, that it fit right in with the themed restaurant. He handed me a small box, then crouched down on one knee on the floor.
“Glen!” I looked around, blushing. “What are you doing?”
His eyes gleamed. “Open the box.” I did. Inside sat a slender silver ring, set with a tiny, round stone that caught the light and sparkled with every color. “It’s called a diamond,” he said, and slipped it onto my finger. “Very, very rare.”
As I held up the ring, staring in awe, he took my other hand in his. “Sochi, will you share with me?” He asked. I redirected my shocked gaze from the diamond to his hopeful face. Share my life with him? Be his permanent pair and bear children with him? My stomach rose and fell like an air lift. A part of me was tempted to say no, to return the expensive ring. But sharing with him would mean a rise in status. A better chance at Detail 1. Better living arrangements and influence for my aging parents. And besides, there were parts of him that I had grown to love. Maybe, like plants choking out weeds, those parts could overtake the parts I didn’t care for.
“Yes, of course.” I throw my arms around him. When I did, I noticed something strange over his shoulder. A small group of young people wearing dull gray uniforms, cleaning and repair supplies in hand. Detail 4 crew, I thought. But then, one of the jacks looked my way. His jaw was set in a disapproving way, his unusually pale eyes squinted and hard, filled with a coldness like metal. His hands clenched and unclenched, and even from where I sat, I could see how red and chapped they were, from hard labor. I sucked in my breath.
Outers. I had seen them before, in Oberon. Such crews were shipped in, and heavily guarded as they performed their work. Then they disappeared, like puddles evaporating from asphalt. I wondered what this young jack had done, what his parents must have done, to lead him to such a hopeless fate, to live in a place still choked with pollution and illness, where survival was more important than aesthetics, and life barely spanned eight decades.
Gale and I planned our sharing ceremony for six months after exams, to give us both time to gain new jobs after placement. We spent time studying together when we could, though it was easier for me to work alone. At last the week of examinations came and went. On shaky legs, I took my place on stage as my peers looked on, then breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as the officials announced my placement. “Detail 1.”
“I knew you could do it,” said Glen, who had also received Detail 1. Within the next two weeks, we were both granted jobs as junior environmental engineers at Tyros Agency. There was no time to even think about planning our ceremony, as the following weeks were filled with orientations, training, and learning how to be taken seriously as professionals, and not just empty-headed neos.
“This is the environmental control room,” said a bored-sounding employee during our initial tour of the agency. “This is where we monitor levels of gasses in the air. Here is where we track natural plant growth, as trees and plants shift the amounts of gasses and reduce polluting toxins in the environment. And here is where we store data.” I peered through the locked glass case at the rows of tiny compartments. Each compartment held a single round, sparkling stone, not unlike the one on my ring.
“Are those diamonds?” I asked.
The employee’s snorting laugh made me cringe. “Real diamonds are more rare than cats,” he said, referring to the once-cherished human pet that had been abolished from society years before I was born. “These are synthetic storage chips, each able to store enormous amounts of data, which can be read by even the simplest computer systems.”
After that, I clammed up, afraid to ask any more brainless questions that might lower my status in the eyes of my fellow engineers. I quietly listened and learned about ways to keep Oberon’s air and water clean and healthy. My mind flickered to the jack from the restaurant, and the unhealthy conditions of the Outers, and I wondered why, with our advanced technology, they still chose to live that way.
Though Glen and I now lived together in our own luxurious quarters, we hardly saw one another. Our work kept us both so busy, we only had time for a few brief kisses before leaving in the morning, and quick, shared evening meals before collapsing in bed, exhausted. It was hard to believe that we would soon be a permanent pair, since at the moment, we were more like distant roommates.
Three weeks before our sharing ceremony, the world came crashing down. “Sochi, someone is here to speak to you,” said the desk assistant over the phone. “Please report to the front lobby right away.” I blinked in surprise and locked my computer. Who could be here at work to visit me? Was it one of my parents? Had someone been injured? I twisted my ring around my finger nervously as I approached the front lobby.
It was not my parents. A team of security officers stood waiting, their faces stern. Palo Vyer, the head of the agency, stood nearby, and Glen was beside him, his expression filled with worry and doubt. My pulse raced with sudden fear. What was going on? Was Glen in trouble?
“Sochi Desai?” said Palo. I nodded. “You are being charged with theft. A very large amount of data was recently downloaded from agency servers, and the download was traced to you.”
“What?” I stared, openmouthed. “There’s no way! I would never do that.”
“As you know, our agency contains very sensitive data that could be dangerous in the wrong hands,” he continued. But I was so stunned by the accusations that I barely heard what he was saying.
“I swear, I had nothing to do with this!” I tried to twist away as the security officers restrained me, locking my hands behind my back. “Glen, tell them I wouldn’t steal.”
But Glen refused to meet my gaze, his eyes cast downward at his own folded hands.
“It was Glen who told us the truth,” said Palo. “Glen chose to come clean when he realized that his pair,” he spat the word as though it were filthy, “is a spy and a criminal.”
Hot tears filled my eyes. “Glen, no…” But the truth was sharper than a razor. Glen, my charming, clever pair, had conned me, like he conned everyone else. He was never going to become my permanent partner. He had set me up for this fall.
I was silent as the security officers took me away. Silent as they strapped me into an express train headed toward an unknown location. Silent as they handed me a rough, dingy gray uniform to wear. I changed into the strange new clothes, and as I did, I slipped my sharing ring into one of my pockets. The security officers had not noticed the ring on my finger. The slender, silver ring set with a small, round stone, which caught the light and sparkled, and contained the secrets that had the power to transform even the most hopeless of worlds.