Switch couldn’t remember the last time he had been able to sit through an entire class without being asked to leave. He could blame it on the teachers who hated his guts; he could blame it on his classmates who picked on him for every little thing; he could even blame it on the fact that he always seemed to know the right answer to every question. But those were just the easy excuses that Switch had been able to come up with. The real reasons, Switch suspected, were far more complex and much less easy to explain away.
Today was no different. Switch had been sent out of his math class because he had corrected his teacher.
“What’d you do this time, Switch?” came the bored voice of his one and only friend in the entire world.
“Hello, Iris,” Switch said, turning his head up to meet her eyes. “The usual. Mr. Robinson doesn’t like it when he’s wrong.”
Iris sat down next to him with her back against the dingy lockers. Switch badly wanted to tell her not to touch the disgusting lockers, but he didn’t. She would never believe him. To her, they looked pristine; probably painted in every color of the rainbow, if he knew her well enough, which he did.
Her Cypher Co Implant let her see the world in the best possible light, and Iris’s parents were rich, so she had all the latest mods: Color changers, night vision, tactile sensory enhancers, even olfactory mods. Switch guessed that being close personal friends with Seth Besos, the CEO himself, afforded Iris’s family a few luxuries.
Iris had offered to share some of her mods with Switch, but he had always declined. Each time, Iris would look at him funny, and each time, Switch would bite his tongue. He was dying to tell her the truth, but he wanted to live to see his eighteenth birthday next month, so he brushed her off, claiming he was content with what he had. Iris just assumed he had some base model of the implant, given to him at birth.
When a baby is born anywhere on the Continent, Cypher Co pays a visit to the happy couple. Based on their status in one of the four class systems, they’ll be given modification options for the Implant that will be inserted into the neck of their new bundle of joy.
Class Ones got everything. They were the richest people living on the Continent: Cypher Co board members, CEOs of major companies, lawyers, those sorts of people. Iris’s people.
Class Twos’ options were a bit more limited, but they still lived very comfortable lives in their dream worlds. Class Twos were the governing bodies of each of our cities, with the exception of Cypher City, which was run entirely by Cypher Co. Class Twos were the administrative officials; anyone in charge of mid-level companies, really.
Class Threes were the workers of the world: teachers, nurses, grocery store clerks, fast-food managers, anyone barely scraping by on minimum wage.
Class Fours were the bottom of the barrel. Switch’s people. The poor. The sick. The elderly. Anyone who couldn’t pull their weight on the Continent. But even they were given the base model Implant at birth. Something Switch had never been privy to, not that he even wanted it. Not usually, anyway. Sometimes he wondered if it would have been easier to go through life turning a blind eye to all the devastation that he saw around him every day; all the horrible things that humans had done to this planet in the name of science and progress.
It is against the law to refuse the Implant, but why would anyone refuse when they got to see the world as a bright and shiny place, full of blue skies, eternally lush trees, and pretty colors.
Switch was born exactly six thousand, five hundred, and forty days ago. That was exactly how long Switch had been able to see the world for what it really was. Switch had no Implant. He was born under the cover of darkness in the middle of the desert; hidden away in an old mining ghost town for exactly one thousand, one hundred and ninety days. Day one thousand, one hundred and ninety-one was the day his parents left him alone. Switch was too young to understand what had happened to them; three-year-old boys weren’t typically too concerned with much beyond mud puddles and sandcastles. His grandmother had taken him in after that and had done her best to help him assimilate.
It had taken him a while to learn to go along with the fantasies of the people around him. Even those with base Implants saw the world as a lush, green, and immaculately clean place. The mods only served to enhance or change the colors of inanimate objects such as the lockers that Iris and Switch were staring at right now.
Back when Cypher Co had first developed the Implant, there was a certain amount of pushback from the Realist Zealots, but the majority of the Continent’s population was happy to become blind to their dying world.
Switch’s eyes were wide open to the devastation around him. The grass was dead and crunched under his feet when he walked; the few scraggly plants that had managed to survive were limp and lifeless; the lake was brown and toxic; the sky overhead was choked by smog. Switch had never seen the tops of the skyscrapers that dominated every block of Cypher City, the capital of the Continent.
Switch often wondered what other people saw when they looked around them. He had asked Iris on occasion, but only about the small things that could easily be explained away as having a base model Implant. She had described the glass and steel skyscrapers as glittery in the sunshine; the grass as thick and springy under her feet; the trees as full of leaves with butterflies flitting around them almost constantly. Switch had had to bite back a laugh at that. Butterflies were carrion insects, they fed on dead things. Switch didn’t need an Implant to see the butterflies, too. Nasty little creatures.
“You know, someday you’re going to have to learn to trust me,” Iris said, putting a hand on Switch’s knee.
He stared down at it, frowning until she removed it with a sigh.
Switch pushed his hair out of his face. “I do trust you,” he said.
Iris snorted. “No, you don’t. I’ve never met your grandmother. I’ve never been to your house. I’ve never even seen the inside of your locker.”
Switch squinted at her. “You want to see my locker?”
Iris’s chocolate brown eyes brightened, her curly mess of hair bobbed up and down in her enthusiasm. “Yes!” She clapped her hands excitedly.
Switch pointed to the one directly in front of them. To Switch it was rusted and graffitied with so many inappropriate phrases that he couldn’t tell what they said any longer, and mercifully so. “What does it look like?” he asked Iris.
She was so used to these kinds of questions from Switch that she didn’t even hesitate to answer. “Yours is green, like the color of the grass on a still morning. This one,” she pointed to the one to the left of his, “is yellow like a sunflower. And this one,” she pointed to the one on the right, “is pink like my hair.”
Switch snorted. Iris’s hair was black like his, but he didn’t tell her that. “Well, go on. Open it.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “Don’t you have a passcode to protect your stuff?”
Switch gave her a droll stare. “Do I look like I can afford a passcode?”
“You could if you let me help you,” she said tiredly.
“Just open it,” he said rolling his eyes.
He watched her struggle to open it, his smile slowly growing wider the more frustrated she got. He decided to show her some mercy and got up to help.
One swift kick was all it took to make it pop open.
“It’s empty,” Iris said, sticking out her bottom lip in an adorable little pout.
“Yup,” he said proudly. “Happy now?”
“You’re such an ass,” she said smacking him playfully on the arm.
“What are you two doing out of class?!”
They both jumped and turned quickly to face the screeching voice of the Headmaster, Mrs. Krain. She was striding toward them on her large, stumpy legs, her pea-green suit straining against her ample form.
“What color is her suit?” Switch whispered to Iris.
Iris snorted and coughed to cover it up. “Green,” she whispered out of the side of her mouth.
“Hm,” Switch hummed. Mrs. Krain must have gotten the new mod blocker for her Implant. He’d heard Cypher was planning to launch the new line for Class Ones and Twos. If Switch were in her shoes, he’d want all the mods he could get to keep everyone from seeing her as a great big bullfrog, but that was just him.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Krain,” Iris said sweetly. “I have a bathroom pass.” She held up a plain brown block of wood with the word “Toilet” scratched into it. Switch wondered what everyone else saw when they looked at it, but now was not the time to ask.
“Then I suggest you get back to class now, Miss Beckman. You clearly no longer need the restroom.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Iris said quietly and shot Switch a sympathetic look just before she rushed off toward her classroom.
“Mr. Robinson sent me out,” Switch told Mrs. Krain with a shrug. “I’d be happy to go back, but I don’t think he likes me very much right now.”
“Is there anyone left at this school that you haven’t offended in some way, Mr. Mosi?”
Switch shrugged again. “Probably not.” He smiled proudly at her.
Mrs. Krain sighed tragically at him. “Well, if you’re not going to be in class, then you can come with me. Miss. Rahal’s class just dissected cats and someone needs to clean up the mess.”
Switch wrinkled his nose. “Can’t you just wish it away? Turn on your mods and pretend it doesn’t exist?”
Mrs. Krain frowned at him. “That’s not how it works, Mr. Mosi and you know it.”
Switch didn’t know it, but he nodded as though he did.
She marched in front of him silently, all the way to the science wing. When she pushed open the doors to the biology lab, the smell hit Switch like a slap in the face. Mrs. Krain didn’t react at all, no doubt her olfactory mod was working its magic, but Switch didn’t have that luxury. The stench of formaldehyde and death hung heavily in the air. Switch pulled his t-shirt up over his nose, but it didn’t lessen the smell enough to keep him from gagging.
Mrs. Krain handed him a pair of gloves, a dirty rag, and a sponge, then wheeled over a bucket of foggy, tepid water.
Switch wrinkled his nose at the sight of the water, which was no doubt crystal clear to Mrs. Krain. He thanked his lucky stars that his grandmother had allowed him to be vaccinated before starting school. He didn’t even want to begin to contemplate the infections he could get just by touching that water.
“Well, what are you waiting for, Mr. Mosi? Get started. The next class is in thirty minutes and I expect you to be finished by then.” She started to leave, then turned back just before crossing the threshold. “And try not to get kicked out of your next class, Mr. Mosi.”
“I’ll do my best, Mrs. Krain,” Switch said with a small salute.
Switch surveyed the mess before him and fought back the urge to be sick all over the floor. He’d just have to clean that up, too. He dipped the rag into the water and began wiping down the metal tables. Their surfaces were pitted and scratched from years of boredom and mistreatment by the countless students who had used them over the years. Switch snorted at the juvenile etchings of the more private parts of the human anatomy. He wondered vaguely if the kids could see these crude etchings, or if their Implants removed them by default, smoothing the surfaces for them until they chose to etch something new in its place. He had always been a bit curious about that particular modification. Could the kids see what they were drawing? How long did it stay in their field of vision before the Implant took over and erased it for them?
He shook his head and continued wiping the tables. Once he had finished, he moved on to mopping the floors. Mercifully, he had found a bottle of bleach under the sink and dumped the entire contents into the bucket. The glorious sting of the disinfectant in his nose brought a smile to his face and new pep to his step. He hummed softly to himself as he finished up the floors.
The bell sounded just as he was dumping out the disgusting brown water, and his peers began shoving their way inside to sit at the newly cleaned tables.
“You’re welcome,” Switch grumbled and left the room without a backward glance.