Switch walked the halls slowly on his way to his next class. He didn’t care that he was already late; Switch was going to get himself kicked out of this class, too. Miss Hollis shouldn’t even be teaching English Literature. She was almost always messing something up. It was even harder to hold his tongue in English than it was in Math.
He waltzed into the classroom with his hands in his pockets, smiling at his bored-looking classmates.
“Mosi,” Switch said automatically, then looked up with a frown at the older woman standing before him who was definitely not Miss Hollis. “Who are you?”
“Mr. Mosi. I am Mrs. Roads. I will be your substitute for the rest of the week while Miss Hollis recovers.”
Switch stared at her blankly. “Substitute? Recovers?”
“Clearly you are in need of this English class, Mr. Mosi. Sit down, please.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said and hurriedly sat down in the only empty seat at the front of the class.
Switch squirmed uncomfortably as Mrs. Roads read from a tablet that projected their new assignment onto the board in front of them all. He much preferred to sit in the back so that he could see all of his classmates. This seat at the front left him feeling very vulnerable and exposed.
A smack on the back of his head confirmed the feeling. He turned angrily, expecting to confront one of the school thugs. Instead, he met the eyes of Mercado, the only other person in this school as hated as Switch.
“What?” he whispered irritably.
“Miss Hollis is sick,” Mercado whispered.
“I gathered that, thank you.” Switch turned back around, but Mercado smacked him again.
Switch ignored him and raised his hand. “Mrs. Roads, Mercado is interrupting my learning. I need a new seat.”
Mrs. Roads looked up from her tablet with a pinched look on her face. “I’m sure you can work out your differences after class, Mr. Mosi. Until then, keep your hands to yourselves, gentlemen.” She went back to reading from the tablet and Switch went back to paying no attention.
He had just finished a very detailed carving of a nose in the middle of his desk when the kid next to him mumbled something unintelligible under his breath. Switch peeked at him with a raised eyebrow. The kid mumbled something again and Switch turned his whole head to stare at him.
“Are you making fun of me or something?” he said blandly.
The kid tried to answer, but it was unintelligible gibberish. His eyes practically popped out of his head and he clutched at his throat, gesturing toward the door.
Mrs. Roads nodded, looking very alarmed. “Excuse me, class. Read from your own tablets - Chapter Four - until I get back.”
As soon as the door closed behind Mrs. Roads, the kids set their tablets down and started talking over each other.
“What’s wrong with Matt?”
“Why was he talking like that?”
“Did that happen to Miss Hollis, too?”
“Is that why she’s not here?”
“But Matt’s a Class Two. They’re not supposed to get sick anymore.”
“Maybe he just swallowed a bug,” Mercado supplied.
The kids all laughed uncomfortably at that, but Switch just stared at the door, his mind racing with multiple unlikely possibilities.
“I’m going to go find out what’s up,” Switch announced, rising from his seat.
“Have fun getting in trouble,” called one of the Class Three girls from the back corner of the room.
Switch rolled his eyes. They all thought they were the rebels, but Class Threes were the forgettables. With nothing special enough to set them apart and not enough money for cool mods, they were all the same in Switch’s eyes.
Switch stuck his head out the door to make sure no one would catch him, then sprinted down the hallway toward the office. There was a nurse’s office for the younger Class Three and Fours who hadn’t been fully vaccinated yet. The human body could only take so much, even with Cypher Co’s monumental advancements in eradicating every major plague that used to ravish the Continent. That was where Switch guessed Matt and Mrs. Roads would go.
He heard the gibberish before he even reached the office, but what he heard stopped him in his tracks; there was more than one person in there, clearly distressed.
Just a Class Four five-year-old with a cold, he reasoned, listening hard. Or, maybe a few.
Leaning his ear toward the door, Switch looked around to make sure he was still alone.
“This is the fifth one today. There’s nothing I can do for them here,” said the soft voice of the nurse, Miss Jenkins. “I’m not even sure what’s wrong with them. They shouldn’t be behaving like that.”
Switch sucked in a sharp breath and leaned harder against the door.
“That’s a classic sign of a stroke, but these are kids, and some of them are Class Twos at that.”
“Should we send them to the labor ward?” Mrs. Roads asked. The only hospitals left in Cypher City were where the women went to have their babies. There were some rudimentary hospitals in Class Three cities for those who worked in factories. Injuries were still fairly common among the Class Threes and Fours.
“Maybe there’s a Class Three doctor that will know what to do, though I haven’t even seen anything worse than a cold here in over a year.”
Switch had heard enough. This wasn’t good, but there was nothing he could do about it. He wasn’t a doctor or a nurse, he was just a high school kid.
Switch quietly slipped away and headed back down the hall toward his class. The gibberish and shouting seemed to follow him, as though they were coming from almost every classroom he walked past. This was much worse than just a few kids, something else was happening here.
The buzzer sounded, signaling the end of classes for the day. Switch sighed with relief. Finally. Another day done. Only one hundred and thirty-one days to go.
“Switch! Switch!” Iris shouted, shoving her way through the crowded hallway.
He waited for her and they left the school building together.
“Did you hear what happened to Mel and Angie?” she asked breathlessly.
Switch hid his alarm. “No, what happened?” he said, trying for nonchalance.
Iris looked at him funny before answering. “We were all just reading on our tablets when Mel started screaming that she couldn’t see. It was terrible. We all thought she was joking at first, but she was so panicked that we realized she was telling the truth. Then just as quickly, she calmed down, said it came back and was okay again. I mean, she was still really freaked out, but at least it only lasted a few minutes.”
“Woah,” was all Switch could think to say.
“Angie, though, that was even crazier. She started talking all kinds of nonsense. Like she couldn’t remember how to form real words. She just kept talking gibberish and clutching at her throat.”
“That happened to Matt, too. That Class Two in my English class.”
“No way! A Class Two? Mel and Angie are both Class Threes, I just assumed it was something going around their districts, but a Class Two. Are you sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Matt did the same thing Angie did. Started talking funny then grabbed at his throat and ran from the room. Oh, and we had a sub today, too. Apparently, Miss Hollis is out sick. Who gets sick anymore?”
“Woah,” Iris said, picking up her pace in her excitement at the mystery. “You know what this means, right?”
Switch had no clue, but he was saved the trouble of asking as Iris started talking again immediately.
“One of Cypher’s mods must be faulty! I wonder which one it is. Do you think I have it, too?”
Switch’s mind was racing at all the possibilities, quickly discarding most of them as nonsense.
“It would have to be something a Class Three could get, though. That narrows it down some. They can’t afford all the fancy stuff. But that also means it is one of the more common ones, so you could definitely have it.”
“Or!” Iris said excitedly. “They could be experimenting on Class Threes! Testing out new mods that aren’t ready for Class Ones and Twos.”
Switch pursed his lips, thinking. “Cypher wouldn’t experiment on kids, would they?”
“I mean, maybe they needed the money?”
“But Matt’s a Class Two, remember? He doesn’t need the money.”
“Maybe he wanted to be the first one to get some super cool mod. He’s pretty vain. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities.”
“Yeah, that’s true, but I’m still having a hard time believing it.” Switch scratched his chin. “What color is that?” he asked, hoping for a distraction. He was pointing at a bus stop bench. To him, it was a faded blue, oxidized and chipped everywhere.
“Red,” Iris replied automatically. “Why? What color do you see?”
“Blue,” he said simply. Iris probably didn’t even know what oxidation meant, let alone what it looked like.
“Cool,” she said flippantly.
Even after three years as her friend, Switch was still amazed that she thought it was the most normal thing in the world for them to see the exact same object in different colors and conditions.
All Switch could see when he looked around this city was concrete, metal, and bare trees, completely devoid of life. The ground beneath the dead trees was patched with crisp brown grass and fake flowers, covered in the dirt and grime given off by the cars and busses that choked the streets. Cypher City went completely electric decades ago, but the Class Three and Four cities couldn’t afford to. Their cities were still filthy and decaying. They couldn’t see any of it, but Switch could. There was nothing glorious about any of it.
He looked up at the smog-choked sky, wondering if there was a connection between this and what was happening to the kids. Cypher Co had been playing god for a long time now, maybe they were finally reaping what they’d sown.
“Have you ever thought of turning off your mods, Iris?” Switch asked her, still looking up.
“No,” she said incredulously. “Why would I ever want to do that?”
Switch shrugged. “To see the world the way I see it.” He hoped that that was a vague enough answer.
“I don’t think we’re all that different, Switch,” she said, putting a hand on his arm.
He snorted and stopped in his tracks. She stopped too, looking confused.
“Careful, Iris. Your Class One is showing,” he said sarcastically.
Iris threw up her hands and walked ahead of him. “Fine! I have no idea what it’s like to be a Class Four. Happy?”
“No,” he admitted honestly, jogging to catch up. “But is your life really all that much better with all the mods you have? What good does it do to see that bench in any color you want? What possible benefit is it to the rest of the world?”
“I don’t know,” she said. She was getting irritated, Switch could tell, but he was tired and worried and she was his only friend. He didn’t want anything to happen to her because she had all these insane mods messing with her brain.
“It’s not beneficial to anyone. It’s vanity,” he pressed on, finally unburdening himself of all the pent-up frustrations that had been building all day; his whole life, really, if he was being honest with himself.
“Okay, Switch, but what harm can it do?” Iris challenged.
“Harm?” Switch asked, raising his eyebrows at her. “Are you seriously asking me that question?”
“What is wrong with you today, Switch?”
“Nothing, sorry. It’s just so weird that kids would be stroking out at school. Stuff like that’s not supposed to happen anymore. Not with Cypher Co in charge.”
Iris sighed audibly. “I know. It’s super scary.”
They walked in silence toward Iris’s home up in the Class One district. Switch always felt uncomfortable walking these streets. He felt like he always had eyes on him, judging him for hanging out where he didn’t belong. He knew Iris’s father hated that they were friends. He didn’t approve of Iris slumming it with a Class Four.
“I’m hungry,” Iris announced.
Switch chuckled breathily. “Think Suzie’s will let us back after last time? Their burgers are so good. I couldn’t help myself.”
Iris laughed. “Well, climbing on top of the table to announce it probably wasn’t the best idea.”
“Those tables were disgusting. My shoe prints weren’t going to make them much worse.”
Iris frowned at him and Switch clenched his jaw when he realized what he’d just let slip.
“Their burgers are so messy,” he said quickly. “Most of the sauce probably dripped all over the table by the time we finished them.”
Iris nodded and gave a little “hm” in response. Switch didn’t think he’d gotten away with it, but luckily Iris decided not to press it. He needed to be more careful, especially around Iris. He couldn’t afford to let his comfort with her make him careless. He was quite literally a dead man if Iris’s father ever found out the truth about him. Being a Class Four was bad enough, but having no Implant at all was a death sentence, and Switch preferred to stay alive.
“Let’s just grab something at my house,” Iris said. “I need your help with my English assignment anyway.”
“You know, you could try actually reading the books, then you wouldn’t need me to explain everything to you.”
“Where’s the fun in that, Switch?” she said playfully and skipped up the hill toward her house’s gate.
Switch shook his head and followed after her at a much more subdued pace.