It's hard for me to think straight when I'm fixing Yumi's hair. I get fixated on the way it curls down her back, and how I can run my fingers through that liquid silkiness without catching on hidden tangles. It's so black, like the night sky, and and the brush stands out against the mass of waves like a beacon. Yumi's new synthetic hair is nothing like the cheap, dull wigs I must don to hide my bald scalp and my identity. It is so much more advanced than anything I could dream to own, and I almost hate my sister for not appreciating its costly splendor the way I do.
Yumi perches on the rickety stool in front of me, her gorgeous hair flying under my fingers as I twist it into intricate patterns and then unravel it again, unsatisfied with my work. Her new red dress curves around her, hugging her hips and arms and swirling around her slim legs; her silver earrings glisten under the fluorescents. When she catches my gaze in the mirror's reflection, she smiles nervously and tugs at her dress, smoothing away imaginary wrinkles.
She's flawless, but when I tell her so, she looks away from the mirror, quickly.
"The song is all that matters."
Of course it is, but not for the reasons Yumi believes. The famously complicated Sleeping Song is my way inside The Circuit, a popular nightclub. Yumi's been practicing the song for years, preparing for her debut night as a Songstress. My fingers pause their work on Yumi's hair and I press my lips shut for the hundredth time to keep from blurting out that I've lied to her ever since I learned what she was performing.
I lead her to the transport that will take her, with a blank expression. My stomach stirs in nauseating circles. She will leave, and this web of deception I've been spinning for months will finally be played out to perfection.
Yumi turns and glances anxiously at me. A faint frown creases her perfect brow.
"Will you be alright all alone, Jane? Kendra should be back soon."
I wince as her name passes Yumi's lips. A hot sting fills my vision, but I refuse to cry.
My passionate surrogate mother was the only one who knew exactly what I was and didn't care. I loved her for that. She took me in when I was nothing, and built me into a sassy, quick-thinking bad-avatar. When she vanished, I hacked into her records, and learned the horrible truth behind her disappearance. She’d been executed for treason against the High Council.
She is dead, but for some reason Yumi's chip is still programmed to think she's alive- almost as if it's in denial that she's gone. Yumi believes the lies I feed her about Kendra's whereabouts, and now, unknowingly, she has given me a way to escape.
“I'll be fine," I say and it's the truth. I'm always fine. She's in the transporter tube now, looking like a rose flowering against the stark whiteness of her surroundings. She smiles, and squeezes my hand once, even though she cannot feel the sensation of touch the way I can, and then glass slides around the tube, and she is gone.
The flat is enormous without her. Everything seems too still, as if the slightest motion on my part will set off an alarm. I won't miss it when I'm gone.
I pad over to my walk-in closet and lock myself in, barricading myself from the rest of the world. It's painted pale green, unlike the white of the rest of the flat, and the tart scent of lemon spray hits my nostrils as I step inside. Light from a long florescent directly above me, illuminates the room.
Wigs of all lengths, styles, and colors, hang on hooks, awaiting me. The rows of drawers that line the walls are filled with uniforms- disguises for me to don. Kendra used to steal them for me so that I could roam around the city without being discovered.
It’s a rather unnecessary precaution, although I enjoyed her gifts. The city is almost always empty of Rebooted. There’s no need to go outside when transporter tubes reside in every home. They’ll scan you and take you wherever you need to go. It’s all very efficient and dandy, unless you're me.
I’m corrupted. A human, through and through, without wires or implants. Technology doesn’t work on me. I can’t even open a door on my own. To its sensors, I am invisible.
I can’t be tracked, monitored, or recognized by any scanner in The System. According to a world of perfect Re-booted people, who gave up their flesh in return for memory chips, immortal bodies, and perfect synthetic hair, I shouldn’t even exist. I guess I didn’t get the memo.
I choose a wig- a short brown piece I've worn on several occasions, and slip it on, tugging it down to my ears. I pat it down to make sure that it fits securely. Tonight I'll be playing the role of Kevin, a nondescript, nonexistent musician playing at The Circuit. I don't have a mirror, but I've donned my disguises so often that I don't need one.
I slip out of my gray dress and exchange it for a dark suit and tie. I'm too short and small to wear my ordinary flats, so I shove my feet into a pair of heeled loafers and apply heavy cosmetics, transforming my features into those of a young male. Swish, and dab, swish and dab. This plan had better work. I’m not ending up like Kendra.
I don't have an instrument. I realize it too late after walking halfway across town only to stand helplessly in front of the nightclub. Bright, flashing lights blink from the club's entrance, and upbeat music fills the air. I shiver. My breath comes in white puffs, as I stand outside, not sure what to do next.
Several Rebooted mill about, their perfect bodies draped in elegant gowns and smart suits, immune to the cold. One wanders up to the scanner at the entrance, and is immediately greeted by an automated voice allowing him access to the club. Life’s so much easier with open doors.
A young Rebooted woman about my own age hovers just outside, twirling her synthetic hair around a finger and eyeing all available males within a 20 meter distance. I catch her gaze, and give her my best smoldering smile. I hate myself. She gives me a coy look and swings her pony tail over her shoulder with an elegant shrug.
"Hello," she purrs, eyeing me.
"Hello, Beautiful.” I drawl, throwing up a bit in my mouth. “Do you happen to know where the musician's lounge is?" I swivel right and left with a confused crease in my brow. "I'm playing here tonight and I don't want my boss to know I'm late.” I lean close in a conspiratorial whisper, breath tickling her ear. “Is there any way you could get me in without alerting the sensors?"
She frowns slightly, and my heart races. She’s seen that I’m a instrument-less fraud. But then her smirk deepens and she beckons me with a crooked finger.
"This way, Honey." she says, leading me into the club by way of her own chip. She scans it twice to simulate she’s brought a guest, earning her 1600 megapoints for her next visit to the Circuit. The doors slide open, and we’re in.
Bless eager girls. I let out a quiet sigh of relief, and twist to avoid writhing bodies as I trot after my guide. Her hips sway as she walks and I notice that her heels are leopard print.
"I'm Rebecca," she tells me, as if it's important. I nod, not listening as she rambles on about music and the newest novelty chip available at the club.
"-You plug it into your banks and it takes you to a virtual reality that existed before the Plague." she spins around suddenly and runs her hand seductively along my shoulder. "We could explore it...together."
The music swells and then dies away, and a spotlight falls onto a stage at the front of the dark room, illuminating a tall, elegant figure in a flowing red gown. Yumi.
I shove past Rebecca and maneuver my way through throngs of people until I am hiding near the back of the stage. My heart thuds in my chest as Yumi opens her mouth to sing the song of my freedom.
A beautiful, hypnotic tune pours from her lips and fills the room. I let out a breath I didn't know I had been holding. The Sleeping Song is working its magic on the Rebooted. Everyone shudders, and their heads droop to their chests. They sway back and forth, completely under Yumi's spell.
Yumi's voice spirals through octaves, leaping and diving and hitting notes I hadn't believed possible. I inch backwards until I'm clear of the throngs, making sure to stay out of Yumi's sight. If I stand perfectly still, I blend with the crowd, but I’m not taking any chances.
Tonight, I’m skipping out of this world. All I need is an active chip to allow me access to the city gates, and I’ll be gone- nothing more than a deleted file in their memory banks. Any Rebooted would call me crazy. It’s said that outside lies the still active Virus, ready to infect any idiot who set foot beyond the city’s sterile walls. I'm an idiot who doesn't care.
My gaze finds a victim. Rebecca. She slumps, head down, enthralled by the music. Lights fade from her optical sensors. She has gone into sleep mode. I inch over to her, keeping my head down, and fumble at the back of her neck, searching. My fingernails hook into the tiny slit, prying her panel open.
I slip Rebecca's still-warm chip into my pocket and step back. Time to make my getaway. I glance up at Yumi. She has no idea how much I’ll miss her. When I'm gone, I'll never see her again, or get to talk with her, or run my fingers through her hair. All my life I've been alone, but without her, I'll be lost. I've never told her that. I hope she knows it anyway.
Suddenly I'm tripping backwards, stumbling over a cable in the ground. I hang helpless in someone's arms, and they are solid, and real, and warm. Two rough hands grasp my waist and spin me around. A pair of blue, sunken eyes glare into mine.
"Bloody robot." the young man hisses, as though I automatically deserve to be throw off a building. A knife glints in his white knuckled hand, sharp and deadly, ready to plunge into my chest. I stare into the eyes of my captor breathlessly, trembling all over. How is he not in sleep mode like the rest?
"Don't look at me like that." His knife raises a fraction. Blonde dreadlocks frame his face. My breath catches as he speaks again. "Don't act scared. Your lot can't feel squat."
His words hit me in the gut. Your lot. My hands are curled in his shirt, and I snatch them away as though I've been burned.Time slows down and my mind swirls with thoughts that I cannot comprehend. He isn't Rebooted. I’ve spent years thinking I was extinct. That I was unique in my existence, and would die that way. My mouth drops open as I stare at him. Well halle-damn-lujah. I’m not the last after all.
He peers closer at me. Frowns. Jerks my wig. It topples traitorously to the floor. His eyes widen at the sight of my bald, bared head and his words are a whisper. "You're...human?"
I slam my elbow into his face, ignoring the spray of blood, and rip myself free.
Yumi's song is still haunting the air, thick and heavy and beautiful. Her eyes are closed reverently, deep in concentration as I sprint past the still bodies of the Rebooted, heart pounding wildly, and fling myself at an exit. The doors won't let me out- they don't recognize me. I fumble in my pocket for Rebecca’s chip. My pockets are empty. No. No. No No.
Without a Rebooted chip to scan, they'll only open in an emergency. I pace the room frantically, desperate to find a way to escape before the Corrupted and his knife catch me. My gaze lands on a shot of oil which lies forgotten on the bar by its owner. A fairly terrible plan clicks into place in my mind. If the doors only open in an emergency, I'll create my own.
Hastily, I snatch it up and scan the room for the tell tale wires running directly to the stage that control the lights. I can hear my pursuer panting as he weaves through the immobile bodies, hunting me. I inch towards the stage, my feet too loud against the tiles of the floor. The wire cables run all along the stage and coil in piles on the floor. I sink to my knees. Free the wires. Free the wires. I must free the wires and create a spark before I'm found.
"You!" Heavy, pounding feet thud across the floor. They're too near, and I've only freed one of the wires from its cable. A hand clutches at my shoulder and tugs hard. I stumble, yelp, nearly dropping the oil. With a frantic yank, I free the second wire. Electricity leaps.
"What the hell are you do-?" my adversary starts. I grin and drop the shot. It shatters on tile. Sparks ignite with the liquid and the world explodes. The hand on my shoulder vanishes with a cry.
I sprint, I gallop, I fly away from the fire climbing higher and filling the room. A siren wails, lights flash red, and the doors slide open. Before I can slip through and escape from it all, Yumi appears in front of me.
I skid to a panting halt, still filled with adrenaline. She's trembling all over, her body shaking spasmodically. Her eyes are all but drained of power, and yet they widen in recognition. I stare in horror at my sister. My wig is gone, and I stand naked and exposed before her. She reaches for me in a daze, red lips parting.
"Jane- what are you doing here?"
"Yumi, we need to leave," I gasp. There’s no time for explanations. The Circuit is burning. I grab her elbow. "Come on- we need to get out of here before-"
Her eyes turn dead, cold, empty as her system jolts, whirs, and shuts down. Her red dress spills around her like a pool of blood, and her head snaps to the side, exposing sparking wires. A knife hilt juts from the side of her pale neck- a familiar, horrible knife that only moments before was brandished at me.
My world stops. I sink down beside her in horror, bleating her name frantically stuffing her wires back into their position as the fire blazes around us. No- not Yumi- not Yumi. My mind replays the words over and over again. Tears spatter the floor as I desperately try to put my sister back together again.
Thick, deadly smoke invades my lungs, and I choke and gag, but refuse to leave Yumi's side. Heat closes in from every side. Her beautiful dress catches a stray spark and flames devour the fabric. I beat at it frantically, yelping in panic. I hate fire as much as anyone, but at least I don’t melt the way the Rebooted do. I have to get her out of here before she’s engulfed. My throat is raw and my vision blurs. If I don’t alert the rescuers to us, she’ll die.
“HELP!" I cry, no longer caring who finds out what I am. "HE-”
“Dammit! Shut up unless you want to join her.” my pursuer growls, appearing at my side. He grasps the knife handle and jerks it out of Yumi’s neck. I raise my rage-filled, tear-streaked face to his.
"Go to hell."
He snorts and kicks at her dress, fanning the flames into an inferno. The beautiful hair I’d brushed until it shone, ignites. Her eyes stare blankly at the sky as skin melts down her cheek. I fight past the flames, sobbing, desperate to drag her to safety, but it’s useless.
I pull back, trembling. I can’t see straight. Everything’s red. Images of Yumi’s melting body bombard me. I launch myself at him, delirious with fury.
“You murderer. You son of a cyborg. I’ll-”
“Look out!” he yanks me out of the way as the heavy spotlights above groan and collapse inches from where I’d been crouching. His dirty, rough palm slaps across my mouth, smothering my screams.
As the Circuit blazes, I'm dragged, fighting and cursing into the night by my sister's murderer. I twist and bite down hard, tasting his blood in my mouth, and smell the sweat soaked heat on his skin. I hope I leave a scar.
His curses echo after me as I break free, flying into the night. Tears blind my vision. In my sweaty, ash streaked fist, I clutch my sister’s charred memory chip, and in my raw, blistered heart, I clutch revenge. I’ll kill him. I’ll destroy him. I keep seeing him kick up the flames around Yumi's body, ensuring her death.
My lungs scream at me, but I put on a burst of speed, determined to reach the gates before news of the Circuit fire breaks out. I'm not about to let Yumi's murderer take my place as the last human left on Earth.