This is my NaNoWriMo project for 2014, so it is VERY rough. Please keep that in mind, but I'd still love any and all suggestions/critiques if you notice anything.
"Are you ready to join the Family?" said the man behind the surgical mask. The question was rhetorical, he didn't wait for a response before nodding to another masked face, who turned a dial and started counting backwards from ten.
Dexatol Brin was suddenly plagued with doubts and questions. She had no idea what she was doing.
No, wait, I'm not ready. I changed my mind. That's what she really wanted to say, but the anesthetic was already starting to take hold. She made a sound deep in her throat, trying to make her words heard.
"9. Please stay still, it will make this easier."
Wait, please wait.
The room was getting hazy, Dex's eyelids closed of their own accord and she found the darkness comforting.
From far away, the voice continued counting, "7," but Dex no longer cared. She was safe here, in the darkness. She let herself drift, the hospital, the surgery, and the people watching were all forgotten as she floated away.
"Dexatol Brin," the Spokesperson said as the Circle gathered onstage to announce the next microchip recipient. Dex was sure the woman onstage had misspoke, but the crowd began looking around, looking for her, so they could applaud and cheer the new recruit. Dex felt a hand on her shoulder and she looked up into the eyes of her father, William Brin, the pride she had always seen there was burning brighter than ever, and she knew then that she hadn't misheard, and the Spokesperson hadn't misspoke, but she had really been chosen. She was in shock as the crowd identified her and began cheering, starting from a rumbling bottom and building into a deafening roar.
They only chose four or five a year from the Fringe, and you had to be under 18 to even be considered. They thought older adults wouldn't understand the technology, having lived in the Fringe for their entire lives; the Core would be too strange for them. Most adults agreed, but Dex's father had always wished he had been chosen. He loved technology and figuring out how things worked, it was why he was a mechanic, and Dex had followed in his footsteps. If Dex decided to go through with the surgery, he could live vicariously through both of his children. Dex could see that in his eyes as he urged her towards the stage. He wanted her to take the offer, and she wanted it nearly as badly as he did.
She stepped forward, propelled by the crowd as she moved towards the stage. She hesitated at the steps, her stage-fright rearing its head for a brief moment before she forced it back down and stepped up the endless staircase to the stage. The Spokesperson greeted her with words Dex couldn't hear over the crowd, but she nodded politely and shook the woman's hand before going to stand with the other three recruits. She was the last one chosen that year, but the others were younger, one looked to be only four, and they were all standing with their proud parents. Dex was sure that little girl's parents would push her to get the augment, it usually meant more money for the family and the girl would be allowed to move into the Core - immediately if she had family there, or when she became of age. Dex had a choice, but she already knew what she was going to say. Being of age already, she could move into the Core if she wanted, but what she really wanted was the ability to spend the credits her father's business got on items the family needed, instead of just on government requests or taxes. The whole city was in such a state of upheaval over this whole Upgrade, but Dex believed switching from dollars to credits was idiotic and unnecessary.
The roar began dying down as the Spokesperson waited patiently. She made her closing speech, wishing the city another year of prosperity, and released the crowd. They slowly made their way out of the auditorium as Dex and the others were whisked behind the curtain to meet with the Circle, their government officials. They used to be a true circle of elders, but over the years, and as younger adults demanded a voice in government, it just became the Circle, an elected body of thirteen politicians.
The room where they took them, the 'Green Room' the door proclaimed, was quiet, which Dex was glad for. Her ears were still ringing and her head was starting to hurt a little. The noise people made was much different than the noise of the machinery she worked around all day. She was starting to feel a little dizzy too, so she shook her head to clear it. That was clearly a mistake as the slight discomfort she had been feeling became a soft pounding just behind her eyes. She blinked a few times and tried to focus on the group in front of her instead.
There were six Circle members here, all standing in the empty room, including the Spokesperson, whose name she couldn't remember, and Talon and Garrett, the Fringe representatives, who smiled warmly at her. Two of the other faces she recognized from their campaign posters and news reports - the mayor, Gwendolyn Page, and the secretary, Ellen Thomas. She didn't know the name of the final member, until he was introduced as Mudd Pearson, the Farmland representative. She should've known that from the overalls covered in god-knows-what. Dex wondered briefly whether he had changed his name to match his job, or if the name had come first.
She realized that the secretary was talking to them, "I just need to make sure I have the correct spelling of your names before we send out the press release." She smiled cheerfully and started with the youngest, asking the parents as she moved along. Dex suddenly felt very exposed without her father, or even her step-mother, here to protect her. She took a deep breath as Secretary Thomas approached.
"D-E-X" she said, and stopped.
"Your full name please."
"You mean my last name?"
"Well, yes, but also your whole first name."
Dex groaned, but Ellen's cheerful smile never faltered, "But I really don't like my full name, and I don't want it on the news, can't I just..."
"No, no, no, dear. We need your full name, for official documents. Plus, what if there's another Dex Brin in the Fringe who will get confused hearing their name?"
Dex sighed, she knew there wasn't another Dex in the Fringe, or even another family of Brins, but she gritted her teeth and spat out the rest of the letters of her name, as friendly as she could of course, "A-T-O-L. B-R-I-N."
"Thank you, now, do you all need a minute to think about your answers?" the secretary turned to the rest of the group, but they all shook their heads, "Excellent, then I'll start with you, Dexatol."
Dex flinched, the woman was doing it on purpose, she knew, but there was nothing she could do about it, so she just gave her answer, "Yes."
Secretary Thomas noted it on her paper in neat, precise handwriting, the type that Dex had always been jealous of. Her own handwriting was only slightly better than chickens scratching around, but she was a mechanic, so it didn't matter. The secretary continued down the line with all of the parents answering 'Yes' for their children. The youngest little girl looked terrified; she probably didn't even know what was happening. Dex tried to smile at her encouragingly, but couldn't catch the girl's eye. The slightly older boy next to the girl saw Dex though, and smiled back with a nod. He seemed completely prepared for what was about to happen, but there was a slight nervousness in the way he stood in front of his parents, with their hands on his shoulders, like he was trying to meld into them to hide. He's scared too Dex realized, but seeing him trying to be brave made her brave as well.
The mayor stepped forward when the secretary was done. "Good evening everyone, I am Gwendolyn Page, the mayor of Fell."
Duh, thought Dex, Kinda hard to miss your face plastered everywhere around town. Still, the mayor seemed like the type of person whose full name was always announced, no matter what: 'and now, the mayor, Gwendolyn Page,' or 'today the mayor, Gwendolyn Page, made an announcement.' It was aggravating.
"I wanted to personally thank you for agreeing to this undertaking. As I'm sure you're all aware, we take the upgrading of this city very seriously, and part of that upgrade is making sure all of our wonderful citizens are taken care of, both before, during, and after we have expanded the Core."
Dex was pretty sure she was about to hurl from all the sticky sweet nonsense coming from the mayor's mouth. She always sounded like this, like she was made of candy and her mouth was spewing a chocolate waterfall of words. Everyone was supposed to love her, but Dex couldn't escape the icky feeling she got from so much sweetness.
"Now, I want you all to come this way, and we'll take you straight to the hospital for the surgery."
Dex froze at that, "Wait, now?" she managed to choke out.
The mayor frowned, apparently she didn't like her grand gestures to be interrupted, or questioned, "Yes, now, the sooner the better, don't you think?"
Dex glanced desperately over at the other kids, standing with her parents, "But..."
Talon mercifully stepped up beside her and whispered in her ear, "Don't worry, your family has been notified and will be meeting us there."
Dex relaxed, she didn't want to undergo anything like surgery without her father, he could talk her through it.
The mayor raised her nose in the air and sniffed once, "Well, if we're ready then...?" she motioned for everyone to follow her and stalked out through the door.
Dex took a deep breath, and with Talon by her side she followed the other families out the door, down the hall, and outside, where a series of cars were waiting, hovering slightly above the ground.
Dex had always wanted to work on one of the hovercars, but she couldn't in the Fringe. The cars could only come out so far, basically to the auditorium they were just in, or else they would stop hovering and crash to the ground. Dex had heard there was an underground grid - a series of metal rails that crisscrossed the Core and allowed the cars to hover somehow. There was always construction out in the Fringe - to expand the grid, the mayor said, though Dex hadn't seen any progress made in other ways during her lifetime. Still, the grid is the first, and most important, part of the whole upgrade.
She shivered even though the sun was shining brightly above her. Fell had only three seasons in a year - Day, Night, and Fog, and all of them were cold. She had been wearing her fur jacket earlier, but took it off when the crowd inside the auditorium heated the air until she was unbearably hot. In the excitement, she had forgotten to put it back on again. So had the rest of the recruits, and their parents, she noticed, as they all began bundling up before walking closer to their ride. Dex reached out a bare hand to touch the surface of the car closest to her, but flinched back when she felt a slight stinging resistance.
"Force-field" she heard the mayor say.
Dex looked over, confused, "What's that?"
The mayor looked smug as she explained "It's a field of energy around the car, it protects it from, well, anything, including curious children."
Dex really wanted to smack that smirk off her face, but since she actually wanted to know about this, she kept her hands to herself and asked "What kind of energy?"
"So like the lights in the auditorium."
"Where does all that energy come from?"
"Where does it go?"
"Either into the world, or back into the grid."
Dex could've asked more questions, but she was getting cold, so chances the children were too. She decided instead to mull over that new information while they were driving.
"Is that everything?" Gwendolyn Page asked.
Dex nodded silently, so the mayor nodded to the man standing next to the cars, a man that Dex hadn't noticed before, who took out what looked sort of like a key, but nothing like any key Dex had ever seen in the Fringe. It had a flared, knobby base and came to a point where there looked to be a ring, but the man didn't put it on his finger, he jabbed it into the air next to the car, and Dex could feel the static leaving the air as the force-fields turned off. The man opened the door and Gwendolyn got in the first one, along with the rest of the Circle members except Talon and Garrett.
"We'll ride with you, if that's okay." Garrett said, his gruff voice low.
"I'd like that, does everyone get their own car?" Dex counted the cars and it sure seemed that way. One car for the Circle, and one for each family. She was suddenly glad she didn't have to ride to the hospital alone.
"Yep" Talon said as the three of them moved up to the second car in the row. He got in first, followed by Garrett.
When Dex climbed in, she was surprised by how roomy it was compared to the size of the outside. "Wow," she said, "It's so much...bigger in here."
Talon and Garrett smiled knowingly, as if they had done this a million times and Dex's reaction was completely normal. She supposed it was normal for a girl who'd grown up in the Fringe, the land of gas lamps, steampowered vehicles, and old-fashioned mechanics, to be completely blown away by the high-tech toys of the Core. She settled on the couch-seat that wrapped around the room and Talon showed her how to buckle her voice-activated seatbelt.
"Buckle up" he said, and three seatbelts wrapped around three bodies and disappeared back into the cushions.
"What if we need to escape?" Dex wondered.
"Why would we need to do that?" Garrett questioned back, confused.
"Well, what if there was an accident?"
Talon laughed, "There are never accidents, but even if there was a crash of some sort, the system is designed to release people if the vehicle is badly damaged."
Dex wasn't reassured, but nodded anyway.
She glanced out the window and saw the landscape quickly passing by, "Wait! We're moving already?" She was disappointed, she wanted to watch the takeoff.
Talon and Garrett laughed again, Dex was starting to feel like a real farmgirl, moving to the big city for the first time. She didn't really know what that meant, but she'd read it once in one of the really old books the library had. She assumed it felt like this. She stopped talking entirely and just watched her world zip away.
Talon and Garrett were quiet too, she wondered if they missed the Fringe as much as she would if she decided to leave. When she looked at them though, she realized they weren't watching out the window like she was. They were looking at each other, and it looked like they were trying to have a conversation with their eyes.
Telepathy she realized, thinking how cool it would be to just think about another person and be able to talk to them. Unfortunately the only person she knew with an augment was her younger half-brother Tobias, and there was no way she was going to link minds with that annoyance. She could just imagine the fart jokes, unsavory comments, and endless bragging she would be privy to. She'd have to lock him out, somehow. She was sure there was a way, there had to be.
Still, she kind of wished she knew what Talon and Garrett were talking about. It seemed to be important, maybe an argument by the way Talon's forehead was furrowed. Whatever it was, they seemed to be frustrated about it. She sighed, leaned back, and resigned herself to never knowing. They probably wouldn't even tell her if she asked.
She suddenly sat upright, or would they? Maybe now that she was going to be a part of their "special club," their "family" as they joked about in the Fringe, she could know what was going on.
"Hey, what are you guys talking about?"
They both turned to look at her quickly, as though they'd caught her listening in, except she hadn't heard anything. Garrett was the first to regain his composure, "Oh, nothing," he said, "just Circle stuff." Talon nodded in agreement and Dex just sighed and leaned back again, it had been worth a shot.
The other two went back to their conversation, they tried to be more subtle about it this time, but Dex could tell. They would raise their eyebrows when they said certain things, whatever those were. Maybe it was when they were being sarcastic. Or maybe they were arguing again, and raised eyebrows were signs of aggression. Dex began to feel like she was one of those people who observed animals for a living - "And here, you see the native Fringe-folk, turned Core-folk, showing off their plumage as they fight for dominance."
Dex giggled, earning her strange looks from the men, but she didn't dare tell them what was so funny. She watched out the window again and noticed that the landscape had begun to change; they were approaching Ring Road, the road that wrapped around the Core, and the road that the hospital straddled - half in the Core and half in the Fringe.
She gaped at the city that suddenly rose above them, its tall skyscrapers looming and its monorail zipping past. This was the city of the future, of Dex's future, if she wanted it, and right now, in this moment, she wasn't sure what she wanted. Living in the Core certainly would have its benefits. She could live in her own house, away from the Boy Wonder. She could find work, she was sure. Money would definitely be better. But she didn't think she could just abandon her family like that. And she loved her job now, working with mechanical objects had always been her passion, and no high-tech, high-life, lifestyle was going to change that.
All of the hovercars pulled into the hospital’s parking garage and idled gently, never making a noise. They were kind of creepy actually, now that Dex thought about it. She was glad to be leaving it, or, she would be glad, if she could figure out how to undo her seatbelt.
“Just say “Unbuckle” Talon coached her, “I’d do it for you, but each seatbelt has to be released by their occupant, or a parent if the system’s set up that way. It’s to keep the seatbelts buckled for everyone but the person leaving.”
“Unbuckle” Dex said, pulling at the strap that was across her front.
There was silence, then a soft click as the seatbelt disengaged from its mechanism and retreated slowly, almost ashamedly, back into the seat cushions.
“Finally, thank you” Dex said as the other two laughed.
She got out of the car, happy to be on solid ground again and knowing now, for sure, that she’ll be hightailing it right back to the Fringe after the surgery. She still wanted the augment for the benefits, but she wanted nothing more to do with the Core.
As the entire group went into the elevator, Dex marveled at how clean and huge everything was. Elevators in the Fringe were tiny, dirty, rickety, old things that you only used for items, not people, or in very rare emergency cases. They usually required a lot of maintenance and broke down frequently. The elevator here was so big, it fit all of them with room to spare, and it was so clean and shiny Dex could see her own reflection, and much like the hovercars, it didn’t make a sound as they ascended.
The doors opened on a crowd of people and strange flashing lights. Dex had to hold her hand up to cover her eyes or she would’ve been blinded by one that was extremely close. When she brought her hand back down again she noticed the PRESS sign around the guy’s neck, and a large camera in his hands. They were taking pictures, of them, of her. She was going to be famous.
Secretary Thomas motioned to the press and gathered them around herself and the Spokesperson, whose name Dex still couldn’t remember, and who hadn’t been introduced earlier. They began a press conference right there in the surgical wing hallway as Gwendolyn Page motioned for the recruits and families to follow her. As Dex stepped quickly down the hallway, trying to keep up with the mayor’s brisk pace, she spotted her father in a side room. She waved as they rounded the corner and entered that room as well. It seemed to be a waiting area, probably for families of people in surgery. Her step-mother, Dolores, was also there, and her half-brother too, the brat. She grinned at seeing them all though, and a weight seemed to slip off her shoulders. She hadn’t even noticed how worried she’d been that she’d have to go through this without them. She may technically be an adult, but sometimes even adults still need their parents.
She dashed over and hugged them, even Tobias, though he tried to push her away. “Eeew, girl cooties” he said, struggling against her.
Dex laughed and ruffled his hair, he hated that. The boy may have been a certified genius and augmented as a baby, but he was still a twelve year old boy at heart.
“Now,” he said, looking at her seriously, “You’re probably scared about what’s going to happen, so I’m here to tell you it’s going to be okay, and don’t light anything on fire after you wake up.”
Dex smirked, “You don’t even remember your own augmentation surgery, and don’t even bother bringing up your friend, whatshisname, Nim, I’m pretty sure he lit that curtain on fire on purpose, not because he had no idea what he was doing.” Still, she was glad he was here, and she did feel better having him say it was going to be okay, not that she would ever tell him that.
Her father was cleaning his glasses while she talked with Tobias, and now that he was done he stepped over and wrapped her in a big bear hug, “I’m so, so proud of you, you know” he whispered in her ear.
“Dad…AIR” Dex whispered back, unable to speak any louder since he was crushing her lungs.
“I just want you to know that.”
“I do, I do know, now put me down!”
“Okay, okay,” he said, setting her down gently.
“Thanks dad, I love you.”
William Brin, a man of few words, fewer being emotional-type words, just shuffled his feet and nodded. Dex knew what he meant.
Dolores stepped forward and hugged Dex briefly, but didn’t say anything. She and Dex hadn’t really gotten along at first, but they had something of a truce now, even if they didn’t understand each other very well. They knew the other cared, so they didn’t have to say a lot to each other, but Dex was glad her step-mother had come out for this very important event, so she did say “Thank you,” and Dolores nodded back.
All around them the other families were hugging their children and wishing them luck. The Brin family stood silent as Dex walked towards the double doors where the surgical team stood, ready for the first recruit.
The anesthetic was wearing off, Dex figured, since she was starting to hear voices around her and feel the warm, heavy hospital air. She could’ve been hallucinating, but she hoped not, since one of the voices she heard was Mal’s. She moved her head, a great effort in itself, to face where the voices were coming from. She almost had to reach up and manually open her eyelids, they were so heavy, but that would’ve required even more effort, so she just forced her eyes open with all of her strength.
Standing in the cheery, but clinically spotless hospital room was her best friend of five years, Malachi Rivers, along with Tobias. The two of them were quietly chatting in the corner, lounging on what looked to be less than comfortable metal chairs. Mal ran a hand through the unkempt dark mess he called hair and scratched the back of his neck as he spoke. The two of them got along really well, which Dex pretended to hate, but she really liked that Mal got along with her whole family. He even helped out in the garage from time to time, though he was generally pretty hopeless at it. Dex’s father never turned away help though, even if he had to spend half the time fixing Mal’s mistakes, he never got upset or angry, just happily buzzed along after Mal’s trail of destruction, always after Mal had left of course.
Dex must’ve made some sort of sound because both boys suddenly looked up at her. Mal grinned, his face lighting up, while Tobias left the room, presumably to alert their parents. Mal sauntered over, hands shoved in the pockets of his pants.
“Hey Firefly, how’s it going?”
Dex looked at him, confused, he’d never called her Firefly before.
“Look at your arm.”
That took three tries of attempting to get her arm into her line of vision, since her head was far too heavy to lift up. Eventually Mal gently took her arm and raised it up for her. There, on the inside of her forearm, under all the gauze and bandages, she could see a very faint blinking light. The microchip, implanted deep into her arm. Suddenly she understood - she had been augmented.
Fringe-folk had a multitude of words and phrases for those in the Core, and the process they used to get there – ‘getting promoted,’ ‘moving up,’ ‘the tagged,’ ‘the hacked,’ and ‘fireflies’ were some of the more common ones. ‘Joining the family,’ had been another favourite of Fringe-folk, but the Core-folk had taken that one and were using it in their promotional ads, so it had virtually disappeared from the Fringe. ‘Fireflies’ was Dex’s favourite because it was based on the pulsating light the microchip emitted. Now she was one of them.
She leaned her head back onto the pillow again, already exhausted from this endeavor. Her eyes closed just as she saw Tobias and her father walk through the door, presumably her step-mother was right behind them, but she was already on her way to sleep again.
The last thing she heard before her dreams overtook her was her brother saying “She was just awake, I swear it.”
They moved her out of the hospital three days after the anaesthetic had worn off. She would’ve been out that same day, but unfortunately, while she was still really woozy from the drugs, she had tried to get out of bed and walk herself out. She had lasted precisely half a second before falling on her face and knocking herself unconscious. The extra three days were for observation due to the concussion she had sustained. Standard procedure. If she had lived in the Core she would’ve been sent home after a night, knowing the hospital was a speedy hovercar or monorail ride away. They just didn’t want to send her back into the Fringe, in case something happened.
It wasn’t her fault, she protested, she just had to get out of the hospital and back home. This place was too clean, too orderly, too…Core-like for her. She wanted her messy house in her messy neighbourhood with her, extremely, messy cars to work on. She liked mess. She liked disorder. The Core, and especially the hospital, had none of that. She was going crazy. They still wouldn’t let her leave until she was thoroughly checked over though.
Every night she gazed at the soft pulsating green light on her forearm. They had removed the bandages and proclaimed it healed that first night, after she had already tried to leave. She did have to admit that even though the Core wasn’t for her, they definitely had mastered the healing arts. She was pretty sure if Fringe-folk had been in charge of the doctors and the hospital, she’d be wrapped up for burial right now, having died of something like dysentery when she’d come in for a concussion. Fringe-folk were wonderful people, but they just didn’t have the technology, or the knowledge, that the Core-folk did. She didn’t feel bad for them, it’s what the upgrade was all about, slowly adapting to new technology. If everything changed quickly, no one would understand a thing and the entire city would fall to anarchy.
Her father was the one to take her home. He was the only one who continued to stay with her after she had woken up. She protested, telling him he should go home, there was work piling up, and he was the sole provider for the family right now. He refused, saying as soon as she was back on her feet, she’d double their income just by enabling them to send her into the Core to purchase supplies with credits. She couldn’t argue with that. Tobias was just too young, his credit spending was restricted until he came of age.
The rest of the family, and Mal, had headed back to the Fringe once she had officially woken up. They didn’t like the feel of the Core either, and Dex couldn’t blame them. Her father seemed to be the only one who could handle it. Of course, he’d been dreaming of getting his chance in the Core since he was a little boy, but his time never came, and Dex could tell, watching him here, that he was severely disappointed by that fact.
They made her sit in a wheelchair while some male nurse wheeled her to the parking lot on the Fringe side. She protested, but the medics at the hospital insisted, and they won. She figured that they just didn’t want her to hurt herself again and have to stay longer. She hadn’t exactly been the best patient; she was cranky and grumpy and snapped at the nurses when they came to see if she needed anything. She had apologized, but people were still a little skittish around her. She couldn’t blame them. She was told to report to physical therapy next week, by then the microchip would be fully integrated with her body and she would be able to start using it. They would teach her, they said. She dreaded coming back here already.
The hospital was entirely Core run, so the only difference between the Fringe side and the Core side was the parking lot. The Core side had a monorail entrance, and the parking lot was filled with hovercars neatly lined up side by side with the perfect amount of room between them. Dex felt instantly more at home in the Fringe parking lot, as it was filled with older vehicles parked haphazardly: rusting pickups and cobbled together coupes that desperately needed new parts that no longer existed. Dex, her father, and the other Fringe mechanics did the best with what they had, but what they had was running out. Many people had resorted to using carriages, pulled by teams of strong men. There were no other animals large enough to pull them in Fell, except the milk cows, but they were needed for milk and food, and were restricted to the Farmland, the outer regions of Fell, between the Fringe and the water, as that was where the land was best for them.
Dex and her father got into their own truck, one of the many rusting pickups in the lot, with a small letter F on the side. The truck used to be blue; you could still see some of the paint, but it was more or less brown and grey now. When Dex slammed the door shut, little flecks of brown rust showered the ground beside them. The nurse, watching them until they left, grimaced, but said nothing as Dex’s father tried to start the car.
The screeching, grinding noise Dex heard coming from the truck’s engine was oddly comforting. Honestly it shouldn’t be making that noise, but since they had managed to modify a much bigger engine to fit it in this one, it had always sounded like that, and Dex loved every teeth-vibrating squeal. The truck that used to own the engine had been much larger, but since it had lost its breaks and there was nothing that would fit as replacements, it was sent to the Junker, torn apart, and the refurbished parts were sold out to other mechanics for other vehicles.
Dex’s father shifted gears and reversed the truck out of their spot. They had to avoid two other cars coming in, but managed to get out on the open road soon enough. Dex settled back for the ride, though she couldn’t get too comfortable, the roads out here were bumpy and in dire need of repair. She held on tight as her father navigated the maze. Most roads didn’t have road signs, so you had to be born out here to even understand where you were going. Even after sixteen years, Dex had no idea how her father did it. They rode in silence, Dex thinking and her father concentrating on not missing their turnoff. They often drove around like this together, they both enjoyed the quiet time it gave them away from the house and the garage. There was no need to talk, just enjoy each other’s company.
As they drove, they passed by ramshackle houses, some with just roofs held up by two walls. Dex stared at them, and her father noticed.
“There was another quake, just the other day.”
“What?” Dex asked, “I didn’t feel anything.”
“’Course not, you were in the hospital. That thing’s the sturdiest building in Fell. It’d take a bomb right underneath to even dent it.”
“Is everyone okay?”
“All our folk are, but the Millers on the cross-street had their roof cave in. They’ve been staying at the Palmers.”
Dex shook her head, “They really need to speed up the upgrade, the city’s falling apart.”
“The Fringe is.”
Dex’s father looked over at her, “The Fringe is falling apart. The Core’s still stable.”
“Oh,” Dex said, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She hadn’t differentiated because to her, the Fringe was all there was. The Fringe WAS the city, nevermind the Core and its Circle. The Fringe was home.
They drove the rest of the way in silence, but it wasn’t an entirely comfortable one. They both knew something was wrong in the city, but they didn’t want to admit it. They passed three more construction holes – deep gouges in the earth that led to tunnels beneath the Fringe, where they were installing the grid. Workers swarmed around the holes, going up and down tall ladders that disappeared into the earth. If Dex focused quickly and concentrated, she thought she could see little lights flash on the forearms of some of the workers. She wasn’t positive, but it looked like all of the workers were from the Core, or at least a great deal of them were. Which made sense, since they were trying to implement the new grid technology into the Fringe. She briefly wondered if they were all regular people, or super smart people due to the technology they were using and the fact that they had probably lived in the Core their whole lives. The truck passed the sites too quickly for Dex to really think about it though.
Dex could see the crowd well before they reached their house on Edge Street, so named because it was right on the edge of the Fringe, before the grassy fields of the Farmland. Everyone she knew had gathered to welcome her home. They had done the same for Tobias, of course, though he had been only three when he was chosen. She felt her eyes water, but there was no way she was going to cry, so she quickly brushed away the unshed tears and smiled broadly, waiting for the truck to come to a full stop outside the garage before jumping out and hugging the first person there, who was, of course, Mal.
The crowd swarmed the truck and Dex was peppered with comments and questions:
“How did it go?”
“Were you scared?”
“Can I see?”
“Oh, look, such a pretty light!”
“You got green, I heard there were different colours, were there?”
“Are you going to be moving to the Core?” asked a little girl with huge eyes, about seven, who was holding a teddy bear against her chest with one hand, and her mother’s hand in the other.
Dex caught that question and, ignoring all the others, bent down and patted the girl’s head, “Don’t worry Emma, you can’t get rid of me that easily. I’ll still be here, I promise.”
Emma smiled a missing-tooth smile, big and broad. Dex smiled back and stood back up to look around at the crowd, “I mean it folks, I’m not leaving. We stick together out here in the Fringe, right? I’m going to use this thing to help out here, help us all.” There were some cheers and light applause, but most people were starting to filter away, the excitement over for today.
Mal put a hand on her shoulder, “Don’t take it personally, Firefly, they just don’t think anything can change out here, and some of them think nothing should change. They’re just stuck in their ways. It’s part of why the upgrade is taking as long as it has: resistance.”
Dex nodded, a little hurt, but not terribly surprised. She just wanted to help people; it was part of why she said yes in the first place. She wanted to fulfill her father’s dream, yes, and she did want the technology herself, she wasn’t afraid of it, but she also thought that she might be able to make a difference out here, where it would matter.
The rest of the crowd dispersed, leaving Dex, her family, and Mal and his mother still standing in their driveway. They stood there silently for a moment before Mal’s mother, Tania, said “I should probably get home, start dinner, you’ll be there, right Malachi?”
“Good boy,” she said with a smile, patted his shoulder, about as high as she could reach on him since she was so small, and she began walking down the street to their house, only four doors away.
“How you got to be so tall, I’ll never know,” William Brin said with a smile, “Your father must’ve been a giant.”
Mal ducked his head, but didn’t answer. Dex knew he was sensitive about not knowing who his father was, so she made shooing gestures at her family. Luckily Dolores took the hint and said “I should make dinner too, come help me you two,” and literally dragged her husband and son into the house. Dex was forever grateful that her father had remarried a sensible woman when Dex’s mother had died. She and Dolores may not always get along, but Dex respected her, and she, mostly, respected Dex.
Dex grabbed Mal’s arm and dragged him over to the swing set, something her father had built when she was very small and her mother had just died. He told her he wanted to see her smile again, and the smile she had when she first took a swing on the contraption was the best thing he had ever seen. That was the day the two of them officially started healing. Two years later, William had married Dolores and Tobias was on the way. Dex was then, and still now, happy for them. She just missed her mom.
They sat on the swings quietly for several minutes, Dex staying silent to let the awkwardness of the previous conversation just float away. Mal would talk when he was ready, she knew that.
“I can’t believe you said yes.”
Ah, there it was, Dex knew it was coming; Mal was pretty vocal about his dislike of the Core and the microchip program. Still, she thought he’d at least give her a bit of a breather before coming after her.
“You know I had to.”
“No you didn’t.”
Dex stood up angrily, “Yes, I did. You may not like the Core, but that doesn’t mean that this technology can’t help us, can’t help them” she said, gesturing wildly towards their squat two-story house that sat on a dirt patch just big enough for it, and the garage that was the family’s livelihood.
“There could’ve been another way, a different way, to help them, to help all of us.”
“What Mal, what different way? Do you have an answer, because this is the first time I’ve heard of it.”
Mal was silent, and Dex figured the argument was dropped, for now. He would always bring it up again, more frequently now probably, because she was one of them. She dropped her arm and looked down at the ground. The silence stretched between them like a thread that Dex was terrified was going to snap at any moment and they would no longer be friends.
When Mal and his mother first moved in down the street five years ago, Dex was the first kid to go and say hello. She didn’t question where he had come from, or really ask anything about him other than ‘Will you be my friend?’ Mal had always appreciated that and they have been inseparable since. There were only two things they never talked about: the Core, which caused their one and only fight where they didn’t talk to each other for a week; and that one time Dex told Mal that she was in love with him. They were thirteen, she said it and waited anxiously for a reply, some sort of reply, and hoped she hadn’t just ruined their friendship. Mal watched her for a good minute before saying “I don’t feel exactly the same way. I do care about you, but as a friend. Sometimes there are different types of love, and we get confused about which one we mean.”
Dex had nodded, upset, and walked home that evening, thinking about what he had said. In class they had been told that there was love, and there was lust, and often the two were combined, but not always. Dex wasn’t sure ‘friendship-love’ was included there, so after she had cried at home, she talked to her father, who avoided the subject like the plague and told her to ask Dolores, since he was busy helping Tobias with his homework, even though he was nine and completely capable of doing his upper level homework already. He was a genius and had already passed Dex in school, something she hated. Dex wasn’t really on speaking terms with her step-mother at that point in time due to a spat over bedtime the night before, but this was important, so she swallowed her pride and searched the house. She found Dolores upstairs, folding laundry, and hesitated at the doorway.
“I’m…I’m sorry.” Dex whispered, afraid that Dolores wouldn’t help her unless she apologized.
Dolores spun around, surprised, “Oh, Dex, sweetie, I didn’t see you there. What did you say? I didn’t hear you.”
“I’m sorry” Dex said, her voice even quieter.
Dolores smiled, “Is this about last night? Oh, dear, if I couldn’t handle a teenage rebellion over bedtime, I wouldn’t have married your father. And it’ll be even worse when Tobias reaches your age. It’s okay, really.” She cocked her head to the side, “Is there something else on your mind?”
Dex’s eyes started to water and tears ran down her cheeks before she could stop them. She sobbed and ran forward, wrapping her arms around Dolores waist and crying into her blouse.
Dolores stepped back in surprise, causing herself to stumble against the edge of the bed and forcing herself to sit down. She wrapped her arms around Dex and murmured, “Oh, sweetie, what’s wrong. It’s okay. Whatever it is, it’s going to be okay.”
When Dex was calmer, and more able to speak without sobbing, she sat on the bed next to Dolores and spilled the whole story. Dolores sat and listened calmly, nodding in all the right places and never uttered a word until Dex was done.
“So, do you think there is such a thing as friendship-love?” Dex asked, still tearing up.
Dolores smiled and brushed Dex’s hair out of her eyes, at that age, she had kept it quite long, “Yes, dear, there is. Can I ask, what is it that you like so much about Mal that makes you think you’re in love with him?”
Dex looked at Dolores, startled, “Well, umm…He’s my best friend.”
“And, he makes me feel happy.”
“Gooey happy, like you’re a melted puddle, or ecstatic happy, like you’re going to burn up, or just happy to be around him, and hang out?”
Dex had to think about it, how exactly did she feel around him? “I guess…I’m happy to be around him.”
Dolores nodded, “And do you ever feel the urge to kiss him?”
Dolores laughed, “That’s the first time you called me mom, you know.”
Dex glared at Dolores and grumbled, “Well, don’t get used to it.”
“But, do you? It’s a legitimate question. Do you feel like you want to be closer to him, physically?”
“Um, maybe? I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like, but…”
Dolores nodded, “And does he have flaws?”
“What are flaws?”
“Like, things that aren’t perfect about a person. You, for instance, are stubborn.” Dex stuck out her tongue and Dolores laughed again, “But so am I, it’s one of my flaws. It can also be one of my strengths in certain situations, but most of the time, it doesn’t work in my favour, like with you. It’s why we butt heads so often.”
“So, like the fact that Mal spits on the ground, I think it’s gross. Is that a flaw?”
“It can be, especially when you’re considering whether or not you love him.”
“Or, he’s really quiet, it’s sometimes hard to make him talk. I feel like I’m always the one talking to him.”
“Okay, so there’s two possible flaws. You’ll probably think of more now that you know what the word means, but this works for us now. So, thinking of those flaws, do you think you could be around him all the time?”
“Well, I am now.”
“No, like, how I’m around your father. We live in the same house, eat our meals together, he works next door and I’m almost always home. There are no breaks from each other. Do you think you could spend that much time around Mal and not get sick of him?”
Dex thought about it. She really thought the spitting was gross and would tell Mal to knock it off, but he didn’t stop. She constantly got frustrated and exhausted just trying to have a conversation when she would have words whipping through her head and out her mouth, while he took ten minutes to form a sentence in his head before he spoke it. Finally, she shook her head, “No, I don’t think I could.”
Dolores smiled and patted Dex’s knee, “Then you may only love him as a friend, sweetie. And that’s okay. You’re young, you may find you love him more as you get older, or you may not, and you may just be content to be friends. All of that is okay. He may change his mind too, just don’t hold it against him if he doesn’t. And even if you do decide you love him as more than a friend, you must remember that true love means wanting whomever you love to be happy, even if they find that happiness with someone other than you. Never be angry at someone for not feeling the same way. Anger won’t change another person’s mind, nothing will unless it comes from within that person.”
Dex nodded, feeling better already. She thanked Dolores, kissed her on the cheek, and went off to tell Mal she loved him as a friend. That was also the moment where Dex started having a better relationship with her step-mother, and Mal was to thank for that.
The memories tumbled through Dex’s mind as she sat there next to Mal on the swings, her legs swinging back and forth gently, not really trying to get the swing moving, but falling into the rhythm anyway. Mal wouldn’t look at her, but she was used to that, and his silence, when he was trying to formulate what to say. She’d gotten much more patient with him since that day she puzzled through his flaws. She’d discovered several more since then, but while none made her want to stop being his friend, none also made her want to love him as more than that. Their tension over the ideals and ideas of the Core and their methods was not necessarily a flaw of either of them, but a basic incompatibility. Dex realized that and accepted Mal anyway, but she knew they would be nothing more than friends, and she was perfectly happy with that.
Mal muttered something, but Dex was so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she missed it. She looked at him, but he wasn’t paying attention to her either, so she asked, “What?” her voice sounded terribly loud in the quiet neighbourhood around them.
He whispered, slightly louder this time, but still quiet enough that she had to strain to hear him, like he was afraid of getting caught saying it aloud, “The Rogue Council.”
Dex frowned, “The Rogue Council?” she whispered, also afraid to say it too loudly, “but they’re just a myth, and urban legend. They don’t exist.”
“But they do!” Mal said, louder now. He dropped his voice a bit, startled it had come out so loud that time, “they do exist Dex.”
“How can you possibly know that?”
Mal didn’t enlighten her, but it didn’t take her long to figure it out, “You’re a part of them, aren’t you?”
“What maybe? You go to meetings, eat their food, drink their drinks, and discuss how to take over the government and you’re ‘maybe’ a part of them?”
“Shhh, not so loud.”
“Oh, OH!” Dex said, angry now, “You want me to be QUIET about this? You’ve been hiding this from me and you want me to be quiet?”
“Please, Dex,” Mal said, begging now, his eyes furtively glancing around. She saw true fear there, “Please.”
Feeling pity for him, and out of respect for their friendship, Dex lowered her voice, but she was far from done. “Explain. Now. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt here, but I need an explanation.”
Mal glanced around, a couple neighbours a few doors down were glancing over curiously since Dex’s outburst, but no one was raising any alarms, “Not here, please Dex.”
“Fine” Dex said, standing up with a force that rattled the swing now twisting around behind her, “my room?”
Mal hesitated, “No, I have a better place.”
Mal led her towards the edge of the Fringe, into the grassy plains of the Farmland. They had often played in these fields as kids since nothing actually grew on the land anymore. They had greenhouses filled with food all over the Farmland, but the fields were grazing territory for the cows and sheep. They walked for what felt like a long time to Dex, but was probably only minutes. They could still see their street full of houses when they finally stopped and looked back, but from here they knew they could see in all directions and no one could sneak up or listen in. It was their spot for serious conversations. It was where Dex had brought Mal when she told him she loved him.
Mal stopped and fiddled with the tall grass around them. It was nearly as high as his waist, higher on Dex. She waited, her patience starting to wear thin.
“I’ve only been to one meeting,” Mal began. He stopped, and swallowed hard enough that Dex could hear it. She definitely saw his Adam’s apple bob. She didn’t say anything, she didn’t know what he wanted from her, affirmation? She couldn’t give it, not yet.
“I just, you know…God why is this so hard?” Mal ran both his hands through his hair and gripped it, hard, almost pulling it out.
Dex had never seen him get this frustrated, so she automatically wanted to comfort him, “Hey, it’s okay,” she stopped abruptly, realizing how she sounded, “I mean, just talk. I’ll listen. You can do this.”
Mal took a deep breath, “Okay. Okay. Well, I went to a meeting, yeah, I did, I had heard about it from a friend and I needed to see if it was real, if it was…really real.”
Dex nodded even though Mal wasn’t looking at her, he was staring off into the distance, away from the Fringe and off towards the water, like he just wanted to fly away and never come back. Dex got a chill down her spine, as much as she hated what he was talking about, she didn’t want him to leave, but she knew he had the urge to, and it scared her.
“My dad was from the Core you know.”
That shocked her. She opened and closed her mouth like a fish out of water, searching for words unable to be spoken. For once, she was speechless. After another moment of silence she managed to choke out, “Y…You never told me that.”
Mal snorted lighted, his lips curved up into a small half-smile, “I never told anyone that.” He looked over to her and the sadness in his eyes made Dex catch her breath, she had never seen him look like that. “You know what the Fringe-folk would do if they found out we were originally from the Core. You know what the Core-folk would do if they found us here?”
Dex had so many questions, but the important one to ask right now was the only one she voiced: “What happened?”
“I don’t know all of it. Mom’s afraid to tell me, she thinks I’ll tell you and it’ll get around to all the neighbours and our cover will be blown.” Mal smirked, “she’s right, about me telling you I mean, not that you’d spread it to the neighbours, I know you wouldn’t, but she still worries.” He sighed and looked at his feet, his half-leather shoes sinking slightly into the dirt, the white denim side no longer white. Nothing really stays white in the Fringe. “All I know is that he was a big scientist over there, one of the major players, you know? One day when I was five or six he left for work, and there was an accident. Only, my mom knows it wasn’t an accident. He was murdered, for not believing in the government. He had told her things, things she won’t tell me, and it got him killed.”
“How did she get you both out?”
“She had help, from friends, from some Fringe-folk. Apparently we lived out in the Farmland for a few years, trying not to attract attention. I liked it out there, the animals were fun and the work was good and clean. We helped out, to pay them back. When we were told it was safe, we moved back into the Fringe since me being in the Farmland would start to attract attention sooner or later, and the government checks were becoming more frequent. I don’t know why they thought it was safe to come back into the Fringe, but mom was born out here, so she knew it better than the Farmland, and of course we couldn’t go back to the Core. There’s nowhere else for us but here.”
“But what about…I mean, aren’t all Core-folk augmented?”
Mal took off his coat and rolled up his sleeve and showed Dex his forearm. There was the tiniest of scars, as though something had been removed long ago. “Mom got hers out too, but since she was older when it happened, the scar is more noticeable. She wears long sleeves all the time to cover it. At least that isn’t difficult in this town. Mine’s mostly been replaced by new skin, so it’s hardly there.”
Dex ran her fingers lightly over the scar, “I remember this,” she said, fascinated by his story, “I saw it shortly after you two moved here and I asked you about it. Your mom said you had been in an accident and had gotten the scar. You didn’t say anything though and I found that curious, but I brushed it off as having an overprotective mother.”
“Yeah, she is a bit that too, but I don’t blame her, she’s done a great job of keeping us safe so far.”
Dex looked up at him, “So, the Rogue Council?”
At least Mal had the decency to look sheepish this time, “Oh, yeah, that. Well, I wanted to learn what they were talking about, to figure out if it had anything to do with my father. It was stupid, and probably a little reckless, but I had to go. Do you understand?”
She did, but she wasn’t sure what to think of it, so she just gave a single nod and looked down at the ground again, “Are you going to go again?”
“I don’t know, but if I do, I can’t tell you.”
Dex looked up sharply and narrowed her eyes, “Why not?”
Mal took her arm and traced her own scar, where the green light blinked on and off, “Because once you’re fully integrated with this, they might overhear us talking. It’s okay right now because it’s not tuned into you yet, but soon it will be able to hear your thoughts, and, if the government requests it, transmit them.”
Dex gasped and wrenched her arm back, staring intently at that little green light, “What? They never told us that! The government’s listening in?”
Mal shrugged, oddly calm while Dex was starting to freak out, but Dex figured he could be calm, he wasn’t suddenly at risk of being a spy for her own people, “Maybe they are,” he said, “Or maybe not, but the reality is they could if they wanted to. That’s part of what the Rogue Council is trying to fight against, they feel it’s an invasion of the people’s privacy.”
“Damn straight!” Dex exclaimed, pushing and prodding at the sharp metal edged imbedded under her skin.
Mal grabbed her hand again, “Stop that, you’ll just hurt yourself. There’s nothing you can do now, you’re registered, so if you take it out, they’ll just find you to find out why.”
Dex stared at him, “Then why didn’t they look for you and your mom when yours got removed?”
Mal stared back, suddenly concerned, “I don’t know.”