Meera threw the headset down onto her bed and threw open the window. The room was too hot again – somehow, there was just never enough ventilation. The noise of the city far below did its best to flood the room, but it was a long climb. There were people down there, a lot of them, but she hadn’t needed to deal with them for months. They were just little lights to her now, a soothing mood board. Another screen to stare at.
She reached over and plucked a cigarette from a packet someone had dutifully placed on a nearby table. Pressing it with her thumb, she cracked the filament inside and it lit itself. No matches or lighters here, no, they were verboten. But then, so were the cigarettes themselves, and still they came in her care packages. The price tags were always attached as well, hastily scrawled notes just to remind her how much the things would cost on the black market.
Today’s cigarette would have required a mortgage.
When it was done, she flicked the remains out the window and watched it dance in the air currents for a while. The updraft sent the butt up to the top of the dome – she could just about follow it that far – before disappearing off into the night. She felt calmer watching it escape. Someone would find that butt one day, it was the closest she could manage to a message in a bottle.
The headset buzzed insistently from its place on the bed, blue light flashing from the screens inside. Another meeting. Another pointless meeting. And yet, she was expected to be present, as always. The window would stay open for this one, perhaps in her melancholic rage she might gesticulate herself out of it and finally be rid of it all.
A girl could dream.
She tapped the wrist sensors out of standby mode and slid the headset back on. The blare of the screens burned her eyes for a moment as they ran through their calibration cycle and then there she was, in her apartment again.
The Virtual had long been her space. Her real apartment was luxurious – father had seen to that – but apart from the cigarettes it wasn’t hers. Things would just show up with the care packages, furniture and clothing that she never ordered just taking up space, multiplying. One day, she was sure, she would drown in the damn stuff, swaddled to death by consumer goods purchased to assuage a guilty conscience. But in the Virtual? That was space she controlled. If it was there it was because she wanted it there.
Apart from the notification panel. That had been her one concession.
The walls of her apartment in the Virtual were lined with multipurpose panels. Most of the time they were devoted to beautiful photographs – landscapes or puppies, that kind of thing – with a roaming window for watching video files when the mood took her. But they were always soured just a little by the notification panel, hardcoded to make sure it was in the corner of her vision at all times. Important business bollocks could happen at any time, and she had to be sure she saw it.
Right now, the panel was warning her that a meeting was indeed in progress, aggressively bold text instructing her to click to join the call. She did and was greeting with the avatar of a member of the board – it was impossible to tell which one, she had never managed to learn their names.
The man was mid-spiel when she logged in. There was a lot of bureaucratic garbage about profit shares and market control. He kept repeating the name of the company as if those in the call were unaware of who, exactly, they worked for. As if there was anyone alive who wasn’t aware of Singh-Xian Air and Power. Or, indeed, anyone alive who didn’t work for them in some manner or another.
‘Ah, I see the chairwoman herself has joined us,’ the man said, cutting his self-aggrandisement short. ‘It’s a pleasure, Miss Singh.’
Meera nodded and put on her best smile. ‘Please, don’t stop on my account. I’ll catch up.’
It was an empty gesture. The men who ran the company barely had it in them to stop talking about themselves for long enough to welcome her to the calls at the best of times. By the time she had sank into her chair enough to get comfortable, he was already back to singing the praises of the company and himself. Such a tedious and pointless endeavour. What did it even achieve? What did any of this achieve?
Another notification slid into view.
Bored yet? 😉😉😉
She tapped it open and an instant messaging panel snapped onto her view. With a gesture, she expanded it to cover most of the meeting. A message sat waiting for her.
X: I’ve been here from the start and it has suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucked so bad omg
Minimising the window for a second, Meera took the time to scan the room properly. There she was, sat on the far side of the table and winking at her like a pantomime character with something in their eye. Hard to miss, yet Meera had managed it somehow. There was a skill she could put on her CV.
Bringing the window up again, she replied.
S: I’m sure it’s important bullshit, right?
X: Maybe. If you get to actually have a say in the company with your name plastered all over it.
X: Like omg just let me DO something, you know?
X: I know it pisses you off too.
S: Lauren. Chill. Just do what I do and deal.
X: By living in the internet and smoking yourself to death?
S: Yes. It’s great.
X: I’ll try that sometime.
X: Been down to ground level lately?
S: You know I haven’t.
X: I went down yesterday to see Johnny.
X: You haven’t lived until you’ve had sex in an alley behind a sham-kebab shop.
X: The smell is revolting. It really adds to the experience.
S: 🤢 overshare!
X: Babe! You’ve got to get out more.
X: We’re expected to be disappointments.
X: Might as well enjoy it 🎉🎉🎉🍆🧅
X: (The onion signifies the smell)
Meera couldn’t help but laugh. She could count on her fingers the amount of times she had actually met Lauren in person, and all of those had been from before they had been shipped off to the moon together, but she was the closest thing she had to a friend. More money than sense, of course, but then Meera had the same flaw so it was no wonder they clicked.
Lauren was a premium bullshit artist. There was no Johnny, there couldn’t be; like Meera, Lauren had an army of security guards around the clock, working for her father. She had no reason to believe that Lauren’s bodyguards were any less strict than her own – visiting the ground would have been just as off-limits to her as it was to Meera, even before the riots.
God, the riots. She had forgotten about them again, the privilege of living thousands of feet above the ground. They never came up in the board meetings. It was always some abstract term like problem customers or legacy contractors. Strip away the humanity, maintain the income. Father had always loved that sort of language. She wondered which garbage phrase he had invented for her.
Redundant lineage coefficient.
Reserve gene avenue.
Worthless idiot sent to fucking space to get her out of my goddamn life and why couldn’t she have been as good as her amazing brother who went to Harvard did you know he went to Harvard and he was a really big deal there and it didn’t even take a bribe to get him in that’s how good he is you know he really is the apple of my eye unlike his utter let down of a sister who couldn’t find her own arse with a team of cartographers I bet she doesn’t even know she’s on the fucking moon now what with being too busy browsing the internet and drinking Japanese whiskey.
The last one may have been a bit long for purpose.
She wanted another cigarette, just to spite him. Guilting daddy into buying her that one vice was the best “fuck you” she could manage. Knowing she was up there, smoking away on a world where his company controlled the literal flow of oxygen? There had to be some sort of irony there, some quirk of reality that made his blood boil just a little whenever he looked up, as hers did whenever she saw that blue marble in the sky.
The meeting was building to its crescendo. They would call on her soon to give her symbolic ascent to their work; a pat on the head from the constitutional monarch. She brought up the auto-transcribed minutes and scrolled back through the last few exchanges. Price hikes, security concerns, extortionate brownouts in one of the other domes, nothing unexpected. All Good Business.
It would have made her sick if she could muster the energy to give a shit.
X: You got more meetings after this?
X: Blow them off. I wanna show you something.
X: Like in the street.
S: Not gonna happen.
X: Come on! Like you haven’t snuck out before???
X: You’re like 25!
X: Be fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnnnnnnnn
The headset was making Meera sweat again, and Lauren’s whiny brat act was hardly selling her on anything. But she was due a rebellion. It had been, what, a month since the last one? All that had been was writing “fuck you, dad” on the window in lipstick, and yet it had brushed away some of the cobwebs.
Cobwebs were fine for the most part – the more sluggish her brain was, the less processing power she had to truly think about how shit her life was. Sometimes you need to get out the duster, though, to really get into the corners and brush out all that shit, to wake up a little and come up with some tortured metaphors on how to get through the day.
S: Will it take long?
X: As long as you want it to take 😉 😉 😉
S: We’ll see.
X: eeeeeeee that’s a yes!
Meera smiled again. Lauren’s joy was infectious, even via text. She was a bad seed through and through, which was exactly what Meera needed right now.
The meeting concluded and she gave them the appropriate pat on the head as required, every compliment a little violation of her agency as a human being. Again, she threw the headset down onto the bed, narrowly avoiding the passing thought that it might be worth hurling the damned thing out the window.
Another cigarette, another glance at the world below, and she was centred once again. It was becoming harder to deny that she needed better coping mechanisms.
Composure regained, she set about working out how to slip her bodyguards. There were three ways out of her room: the main door, a fire escape, and an emergency shuttle lift to the extraction pad on the roof – all three were alarmed and locked unless a bodyguard was accompanying her. There was always the vents, of course, but the logistics of living on the bloody moon meant that the vents were full of whirling turbines to pump the air around the entire dome – she’d be shredded before she could get very far.
So, what did that leave? Luring the guards out on a small walk and ditching them? Doable, but not easily.
She crossed to her wardrobe and pulled out her gym gear. Yoga pants, sports bra, hoodie, and, most importantly, a wrist strap to carry her portable terminal for the Virtual. Lower res than the headset she used in the apartment, but that wasn’t much of an issue considering she almost never went out.
The gym was special, though. The press back home needed its sacrifices, and corporate image demanded that everyone in the Singh-Xian family be very photogenic. Once a week, Meera had to put on an impromptu fashion show around her apartment so that dear old daddy and the board could propagandise the company in all the rotten tabloids. It would get all the wrong press if she wasn’t in perfect shape, naturally.
She changed quickly, and yet as soon as she slipped the hoodie over her head there was a knocking behind her, not on the door but the window. Peering in at her, with a bright smile flashing from under a shock of pink hair, was Lauren. Her nose was pressed flat against the glass, her eyes trying to scan the room through the polarised glass.
Laughing, Meera leant out the open window. ‘What the hell are you doing?’
Lauren was stood on a window washing rig, clipped to the safety rail by a single nylon rope. At the sound of Meera’s voice, she snapped her grin towards her.
‘Taking you on an adventure,’ she said. ‘Say hi to Johnny.’
Meera had missed him at first. Lauren took up a lot of space visually – bright colours and big personality – but Johnny was quite the opposite. His skin was egg-shell white, a bush of black hair, dark eyes and even darker tattoos. He was hovering around the controls for the rig, taking in the scene from under his eyebrows and absent-mindedly chewing on a thumb.
So, he was real after all.
‘Hi, Johnny,’ Meera said. He nodded. ‘So, what’s the plan?’
Lauren waved a hand at Johnny and he drove the rig closer to the window. ‘The plan is: get in, bitch, we’re going on an adventure.’
‘That’s not really a plan,’ Meera said, clambering over the window ledge and gingerly down into the rig.
‘Please,’ Lauren said, taking Meera’s arm and guiding her down safely. ‘This is how all good stories start, right? The princess sneaking out of the castle and running down into the filthy city to meet her prince charming.’
‘Are you seriously telling me you’re taking me to meet some guy?’
‘Kinda? Lauren, I’m going back inside –’
Meera reached up for the window but Lauren grabbed her hand, her voice suddenly a lot lower. ‘It’s not like that. Please. He wants to make a deal.’
‘What sort of deal?’
‘I don’t know. He’s a friend of Johnny’s and he says it has to be with you and it has to be today…’
‘Well that sounds one hundred percent super sketchy.’
‘I guess,’ Lauren said. ‘But Johnny vouches for him. Right, babe?’
Johnny shrugged. It did little to reassure Meera. That said, it was something to do. Would it end in her murder? Perhaps, but she could take care of herself and, besides that, it wouldn’t take the bodyguards long to notice she was missing and track her down.
It was a horrible, stupid, dangerous risk. But, today at least, she was utterly fucking sick of playing it safe.
She clipped herself to the safety rail and peeled Lauren’s hand off of hers. ‘Fine. Let’s go have an adventure.’