09 | SORRY
The hacker’s words did not cease its resonations in their head, not even after more than a weekend of rest as the quartet waved to Louis and the train door slowly slid shut. Despite not necessarily being on the train, the hacker’s presence in their lives weighed down on their shoulders, as did their school bags. Even Ethan, who had despised the very idea of rendering a morsel of trust towards someone of potentially malicious intent, was beginning to doubt his theory. Something about the things the hacker had entered into the slides just felt so familiar, so relatable, it could not possibly be made up. The hacker, whoever he or she was, clearly knew their pain of being rejected and disregarded.
It was the pain that always transformed into white-hot rage that blinded everything before his vision other than a target and strong bloodlust. It was the pain that pushed Em to tears and towards picking up the mint-green penknife that she hid in her pocket. It was the pain that Eris, being Eris, did not feel and that which Eli got over in ten seconds and reverted back into an idealistic, dreamy state. It was the pain of Lavender, who was locked in an eternal prison of darkness. It was the pain that Joshua, Yan Ling, Michael and every other Error knew very well.
The hacker understood them.
The morning passed in a blur of work, work and more work. But for Eli, the blur wasn’t the swift passing of time, but rather the state of his mind. When he wasn’t running wild, he was spacing out… as he was doing at that precise moment.
A snap of fingers.
Eli blinked, sitting up straight as he asked, very loudly, “Huh? What? Who’s there?”
His gaze shifted and fell on a pair of sky blue eyes. Mrs Lim was leaning over him, the green light of his SmartGlass that teachers used to call on students illuminating the woman’s face. Her dark red lips were pressed into a thin line as she stared back into his face. Eli laughed nervously.
She put her finger-snapping hand down as her sharp voice pierced the air, “Could you repeat for me what I just said?”
The blonde’s eyes widened. Not that question! It was the worst question for someone who had spaced out. Whenever Louis asked him that, he always confessed that he wasn’t paying attention. But this was with Louis, in the CC. Not in the Academy’s Secondary 1.01 classroom, with twenty-nine other students’ eyes on him and a teacher glaring at him. He quickly turned to the SmartGlass screen, attempting to see where the class had stopped—the documents usually had an arrow that pointed at the line the teacher had stopped at—only to see that his screen had been locked by the teacher, the words blurred out. Only his screen.
Say something, you have to say something! Eli knew that even worse than confessing was lying, but something was telling him that confessing was going to let all his fellow Errors down. Poetry, they were doing poetry in class. But what’s the poem about? What are the themes? What does anything in this world actually mean?
“Um… um, I wasn’t... paying attention,” Eli finally blurted, “I’m sorry Mrs Lim! I promise I will pay attention next time! I—”
But the woman just shook her head, her sky blues forming metaphorical icicles to impale the boy with. “Please pay attention in the future, Elijah. You will do a one-page reflection, due at four in the afternoon, on the importance of listening in class today as part of your homework and—”
Eli’s brain, unfortunately, had stopped processing information or considering manners that he usually tried to implement with authoritative figures. The thought of having more homework on this particular Tuesday was enough to trigger an automatic reaction known as interruption. “But I can’t! Today’s therapy day!”
Mrs Lim, in her entire teaching career, had probably never encountered a secondary sector student who had not only been inattentive, but also had the audacity to further disrespect her. The Errors, they had come in like a tornado, a natural disaster set to shatter the serenity of her job as an educator. Children like him were said to be common in old days, but rude, disrespectful children had diminished in numbers ever since the new education had come along. These Errors must be the result of poor upbringing in that horrible place, she thought, exasperated. “Please refrain from interrupting, Elijah. It is extremely… rude and disrespectful to the other party. Now, how does this… therapy day affect your ability to complete one small reflection?”
“We only have it once a month and it takes up an hour and today we have many different lessons for all the subjects and I’m the first one to go! And I—” He protested as soon as each thought flew into his head, only to be silenced by Mrs Lim once again, “Elijah.”
Eli’s flace flushed scarlet as her lips, which were the exact colour of a dried-up scab, opened to speak, “As a student under the World City Academic System, you must learn to manage your time well and do things efficiently. I believe that given your capabilities as proven in the entrance exam, you should be more than able to complete everything productively.”
Eli gulped, fidgeting slightly as Ethan scowled in distaste next to him. The Errors were all well aware of how productive their friend was. Unless Em happened to be in an extreme stage where she thought life was meaningless and there was no point in having an education, or Ethan had absolutely no idea how to do it and was throwing a fit, Eli was always the last to complete everything—and badly, too, since he was constantly making careless mistakes. That bichacho, he seethed, the negativity swirling like a cyclone in his head, she’s antagonising Eli in front of the entire class when it’s not his fault he’s got the shortest attention span in the entire world. Only us Errors get to attack Eli, you shrew!
“Stop fidgeting, please.”
Eli was jolted back into reality as he quickly exclaimed, “Yes, Mrs Lim!” and plopped back into his seat in the fourth row in the classroom—all of the regular citizen kids had chosen to sit nearer the teacher’s table on the ground floor, on the front rows. The Errors had never seen lecture theatre-style arrangements for a room and in their thrill, had wanted to climb right to the very top on the first lesson a few weeks ago. But before they could even plug their SmartGlasses into the linking port of the table, Mrs Lim had called them to sit closer down on their current seats instead.
Eli pouted slightly as a new task appeared on his student dashboard.
“Don’t be such an Error, Kayla!”
Kayla slapped Tammy on the back playfully as the two girls exploded into giggles about another of Kayla’s lame jokes. Behind the girls in the lunch line, stood the quartet, who were less than impressed.
“Seriously?” Em hissed, “So ‘Error’ is now synonymous with ‘idiotic bimbo’?”
“Honestly, I’m not surprised. Of course, Ryn being a complete bit—witch is not enough, everyone else just has to join in and antagonise us. Bryan, that idiot, just said ‘systematic error’ super loudly when I walked past,” Ethan added, “He sure wasn’t talking about sources of error in experiments.”
“Wait, wait, what are the sources of error again?”
The other three gave Eli a look, as usual, while they collected their trays of food. They were just heading over to their class table when-
Ethan’s tray scattered onto the floor, the food contents tumbling across the canteen. A series of ’ohhh’s spread through the crowd as people watched the spectacle and Ethan stood there, his hands curling into fists as soon as the momentary shock that had him frozen disappeared. His food was gone… because someone had rammed into him from behind.
His lunch was gone. The only good meal of the day was gone, wasted! And whoever did this was going to pay—
“Ohmygod, I am so, so sorry!”
“Brielle?” The other three Errors cried out in surprise as the golden blonde-haired beauty rushed over, her rose gold jewels glimmering with guilt. “Evans,” Ethan raised his voice as the golden girl’s posse began to gather, some shaking their head in dismay. “Watch where you’re going! You ruined my lunch!”
“I’m so sorry for running into you, Ethan! I’ll buy you another one!” Brielle exclaimed contritely, pulling out a SmartGlass mini from her pocket, something that the students were allowed to use during lunch break; something that the Errors had never owned before. For whatever reason, Ethan just got even angrier. Maybe it was how Brielle had enough money to solve everything; maybe it was how everyone was gawking at this spectacle or the wicked grin etched across Ryn’s face—whatever it was that was angering him, it was doing a perfect job, sweeping any hint of reason out of his brain and replacing it with a vicious inferno that only craved chaos and destruction.
It took all three kids to pull Ethan back just as he took a large stride towards Brielle, his eyes blazing, ready to lunge. The golden girl of the school flinched, her face visibly paled as the crowd let out gasps of outrage. “Ethan, control yourself,” Eris spoke, including an edge of firmness in her voice as she tightened her grip around his arm as he strained and pulled, their black wristbands clicking against each other.
“Yeah, she’s going to give you free food! Calm down!” Eli agreed as he tugged at Ethan’s other arm, trying his best to keep his tray balanced on one hand. Ethan seethed as his common sense slowly returned and wrestled free of their grip, still glaring at the fearful blonde. He was so incensed that he wasn’t even bothered by how the crowd were staring at him in the way that he hated the most—like he was a monster.
Em had positioned herself in between the citizen girl and the male Error, attempting to reassure Brielle that Ethan wasn’t about to murder her… until her emerald eyes narrowed at the person who had pushed through the crowd, hurrying over to the front.
“Oh my goodness! Ethan, it’s just a lunch. It can be easily paid back; you don’t have to attack Brielle because of it!” Ryn exclaimed as she rushed to Brielle’s side and whispered an ‘are you okay’ to her, the latter nodding quietly. The entire canteen of students were now focused on them, whispers spreading through the crowd as they nodded in agreement to her words.
“He is not going to attack anyone,” Em forced a smile onto her face, every civil word spoken to the brunette sharp as her penknife. Honestly, give me a bitter gourd any day and I would pick it over dealing with her, Em thought as Ryn smiled back, equally civil and fake.
“I see. It just didn’t really seem like Ethan here had any self control at all. He looked like he was ready to, I don’t know, beat Brielle to a pulp! Right, guys?” Ryn asked in a manner that was almost melodramatic. This time, however, there was no fear in the students’ eyes as they regarded Ryn. Instead, they agreed, ’Yeah!’s and ’Exactly!’s echoing within the crowd.
Ethan gaped. Em made an indistinct noise of disgust. Eli frowned as Eris recognised that Ryn was using the argument that the Errors—or rather, just Eris herself—had used against Ryn in their very first encounter.
“In case you were not aware prior, I will now announce this for all of you to hear: Ethan has anger issues. It is precisely the reason why he is an Error. Em exhibits signs of what was once bipolar disorder. Eli has trouble staying still and paying attention. I have no emotions. If our conditions have caused you all distress, I apologise on behalf of my fellow Errors,” Eris deadpanned loudly for everyone in the canteen to hear. Ryn merely raised a brow.
“Well, you can apologise all you wish but the lot of you don’t seem very sorry,” Bryan snapped back, giving each of the quartet a glare. Eli frowned sadly, shifting in his position and observing his white school shoes which were already starting to darken into a shade of grey.
Eris placed her tray of food on the nearest table and took two large steps forward, her height providing an advantage as she looked down at Bryan, sapphire eyes icy as usual. He gulped a little but kept his stare as firm as possible, understanding that breaking eye contact would indicate some form of defeat—and Bryan Tang was not about to be take humiliation from an Error.
As such, it was very much a shock to the boy when Eris slapped a hand on her chest and gasped dramatically, still looking him in the eyes but this time with what seemed to be anguish and sadness swirling within. “Oh, my beautiful Bryan! I am so terribly sorry for how we have offended you! Please, please forgive us, kind, dear souls!” Eris exclaimed with more emotion than she had ever displayed in her entire life, making sure to end with the best fake sob sound she could imagine.
Bryan stumbled a step back, eyes wide at her dramatics. The rest of the crowd had ’what-the-hell’ looks on their faces. Eli’s face brightened up as he gave Eris a round of applause for her exemplary acting skills.
Eris then dropped her hand to her side, her expression returning back to her signature deadpan, as did her voice. “I believe that should be enough emotion for you, Bryan. Need I show more?”
Bryan just gaped incredulously at the girl like a fish out of water, apparently too traumatised to do anything other than back away. Ryn responded for him. “Did you just… are we a joke to you?” She sputtered with a humourless laugh.
“Do I look like the kind of person who jokes around? He wanted emotion. He wanted me to look like I was sorry. So I gave it to him, simple as that,” Eris stated. Behind her, Ethan had become much less tense and Em was struggling to hold in her laughter, trying to disguise it as a cough.
“What we want is to know that we can walk through the secondary sector of the Academy without fearing for our own wellbeing,” Bryan argued, “Every day, every day since the beginning of this semester, since the four of you stepped into our school halls, we have been walking on eggshells—”
“Sorry, honey, I don’t see any eggshells on the floor!” Eli snapped back, although knowing that it was an expression. Bryan, to Eli’s dismay, remained unfazed by the snarky-turned-childish comment as he continued, “It’s an expression, Elijah. What I mean is that we are feeling unsafe in the Academy, one of the safest places in the city that we have been around since we were little kids in the primary sector. And do you know why?”
“Well, you already seem to have an answer for that, so why don’t you tell us?” Ethan snarled.
“Indeed, it was meant to be rhetorical,” he responded, a small, smug smile at his lips as he gazed at Ethan. “Ever since you four began to study with us, we have been told by all the teachers: watch your words, be polite, be kind, et cetera. We have had to keep our behaviour in line all the time—and I think we can all agree here that it is exhausting on us. But on top of that, we come here every day and see that no matter what we do, trying to make you feel welcome, you four just don’t appreciate it. We try to be nice, but you push us away. And then today, Brielle was going to the toilet and ran into you. It was an accident and you, Ethan, you wanted to beat her up for that.” The crowd of secondary one students nodded in agreement.
Ryn ignored Ethan’s attempt for a rebuttal and continued, “We have been told that Errors are not below us, but our equals, by our schools and our parents. We have been told that Errors learn to become functional, productive people in the Correction Centre. We have been told to always be understanding towards you, you guys entering a new environment. But, guys, we have limits when it comes to how much deplorable behaviour you can tolerate.” Em could feel the ugly nail marks forming on her palms as she clenched her fists, resisting the urge to say something awful to Ryn—the girl who was channeling her inner SJW (Social Justice Warrior) to sway the crowd to be in support of her once more. Like father, like daughter.
“So do we! Don’t think we can’t see—”
“STOP! Elijah, stop!”
Eli closed his mouth in slow motion as Brielle stepped forward once again, this time looking tired. The crowd too stopped their frantic gossips and whispers about the commotion. Her face crumpled as she turned to Ethan. “Look, it was my fault! Take this,” she pulled Ethan’s hand out and placed her SmartGlass mini in his palm, “And go get a new lunch with the lunch payment app. Just return it to me by the end of today and then we can both get out of each other’s hair for the rest of the year,” she said, before finally striding off towards the toilets.
A robot cleaner glided along the ground from the spot where it was parked towards the mess on the floor as the crowd dispersed, students still giving the Errors unfriendly looks when they sat down at their end of the table.
Ethan didn’t angst about the blatant ostracism, Em didn’t go anti-government, Eli merely tapped his foot against the table leg a few times, not even finding the desire to speak. None of them had anything to say.
Project Correction 2.0 was a failure—and there was nothing they could, or want to do to fix this.