Life in the Tower was anything but pleasant. Though I’ve never been a fan of my brother’s line of work, I’m glad his connections got us to the twenty-fifth floor. I was getting sick of working in Agriculture. The Farmers refused to teach their apprentices the fineries of the trade. They worried if we figured out how to run the sunlamps and the hydroponics, we youngbloods would take over their roles. They weren’t wrong. Most of us had long grown sick of their verbal and physical abuse.
I was glad to be walking the corridors without fear of mugging or attacks. The panelling was as dirty as it was below, solid food was still scarce and plumbing very unreliable. However, with private SyncPods in the family units, there weren’t as many suspicious figures waiting for their turn in the communal pod hubs. They were free to make a living in the Cyber Plains, working for the Topfloorsmen, while the rest of us continued balancing our earnings between the digital and physical worlds.
Still, I avoided the side alleys. One can never be too careful. On the downside, my travel time was doubled. Maintaining a brisk but inconspicuous space, I told myself not to worry. There had to be reason Maya hadn’t logged in, for a while. Trusting her with the Krystals wasn’t a mistake, I reassured myself. They were our ticket up. Surely she wouldn’t hoard them for herself.
Eddie didn’t know Maya was my reason for insisting we push for the twenty-fifth floor -- if he did, he didn’t show it. Maya was the reason I had savings at all. We had met in the Nursery Plains, and though I was a Single Digit, she’d stuck by my side. Even though she shared the unit’s SynchPod with her parents, Maya still managed to schedule her six hours. Often, I paid extra in the hubs so I’d be online in time.
I don’t remember my parents. It’s been just Eddie and me for a very long time. Since he had access to a SynchPod at work, I now had uninterrupted access to the one in our family unit. My focus hadn’t changed: hunt low tier beasts, strip them down for parts and bring them back to Maya so can turn it into products for sale. She found an odd pleasure in the Tanning, Alchemy and Carving skills that I never understood. Being a member of the local merchant’s guild, she got better rates than me and access to the premium bank accounts. Which meant, all our savings were in her care.
The closer I got close to Maya’s home, the quicker my heart beat. By the time I got to the metal door, my chest felt like it was going to explode, and my temples throbbed. I didn’t know why I was so worried or how my body was reacting in kind. I’d maintained my calm when facing the Great Boar, and when professing my unrequited love to Chaya ‘Bigtits’ Lang.
I buzzed the intercom and was surprised by the quick answer. The Parsons were notorious for taking their own sweet time with the intercom. It was Maya’s mother. I’d last seen two years ago when Maya turned eighteen. The woman had surprised her daughter by buying me a visitor’s pass for the evening. Now, she looked at me like I was a stranger.
“Can I help you?” She asked. Svati Parsons looked alien without her characteristic motherly smile. Instead, the woman wore an almost hostile scowl. I didn’t like this version of her. I’d know her since the Nursery Plains, where she often played the role of a surrogate mother. The woman standing before me wasn’t the Svati I knew.
“Yes, ma’am,” I answered. “I haven’t heard from Maya in a week, just wanted to make sure she’s okay.”
“I’m afraid you got the wrong apartment, kid. There’s no Maya here.”
“You must be mistaken-”
“Listen, when you meet a girl in a plain, always ask for an ID Code. It’s the only way to know you’re not being duped.” She moved to activate the door closing mechanism, but I slipped past her. Life as a Single Digit hadn’t allowed me to grow very tall or hefty. Svati’s annoyance morphed into fear. “What do you think you’re doing? Get out now,” she hissed. Trying to grab at my jumpsuit collar. “I’m going to scream.”
Years of dodging the Farmers’ cane and fleeing with rations from the older boys had made me agile. I had little trouble dancing around the portly woman. The family SynchPod was unoccupied, and everything that said Maya was gone. There were only two chairs around the kitchen receptacle and only two cots in the night room.
“Where’s Maya?” I demanded. She looked more tired than usual. Dark circles lined the underside of her eyes. “Where’s Mr Pasons? It’s me, Rowe. What’s going on, Svati? You can tell me. Please. ”
“My husband is at work, but the neighbours are always listening. Get out now, kid. Or I’m going to scream. No harm has been done. I don’t want you getting into trouble.”
Letting Svati get close to me was a mistake. She went feral once I was in reach. Nails scraped my skin when her hands curled around my neck. Before I could push her off, the once-mother figure jumped onto my stomach, and her weight pushed me to the ground. Svati’s eyes were wild and bloodshot. She reminded me of the jaguar I had hunted the week before. It had cornered me and then pounced. If it weren’t for the several months I had invested in the Brawling skill. The mutated feline would have been the end of me. I used the same move on her, as I’d used on the Jaguar. My legs knees folded under the woman’s stomach. I planted my feet against her pelvis and pushed. I thanked the Farmers once again. Their beatings and unreasonable chores had made me strong. Svati’s claws scratched my neck when she was thrown free.
When Maya’s mother didn’t come after me again, I took a moment to catch my breath and calm my racing heart. I treasured Svati. I hoped I hadn’t killed her. Several minutes passed before I found the courage to check on her. She was a gentle, motherly woman.
Svati thought the dream her daughter and I shared of scouring the Cyber Plains for Krystals and recovering humanity’s lost knowledge was foolish and much too dangerous. She insisted we find a lucrative trade or job serving a Topfloorsmen - there were plenty of jobs mining, crafting or bookkeeping for them across the digital fields, it was safe and secure. I took a deep breath before checking. There was no blood, and she was breathing. If I got reported, it would be for assault at most.
Still, I needed to check the apartment before her husband returned. There had to be some clue of where Maya had gone. I checked the kitchen and around the pod. Maya’s effects were all gone. There was not a thread in the family unit that belonged to her. I checked the night room. The sky simulator was still broken, so I relied on the living room’s light to see. The wall opposite the two lowered cots was smooth and unmarred. Maya’s drawings and sketches were gone. I forced my fingers into the little slit and pulled the retractable bed down. I knew my muscles would complain in the morning, but I didn’t care.
The bed was made, and the sheets were a dull grey. They weren’t Maya’s. I sniffed the pillow. It didn’t smell of her either. There was no sign of her. I was ready to give up, but first I decided to check the HoloScreen planted in the wall. It loaded into its default state, none of her applications or modifications showed. I browsed the files. They were all blank. It was the default setting.
Tears stung my eyes, Maya was gone. Our relationship was platonic, and we didn’t harbour any other feelings for one another, but we still joked about getting married someday. Now she was gone. I punched the HoloScreen, and my fist went through. The image distorted around my hand like it were water. I struck the wall, and it hurt, but I hit it again and again, till an errant blow made contact with the projector, and it flashed off.
Then, I found my clue. At first, I’d been sure it was the tears distorting things, but then I wiped them away and took a closer look. Letters. No. Words, there were words scratched into the plastic behind the projector.
Cme fnd me
CP1264 - Golden Scales
Maya wasn’t gone. I recognised the code, but not the words that accompanied it. I committed them to memory and checked on Svati once again. She was going to be okay - at least physically. After taking a moment to straighten my clothes and hiding the wounds on my neck, I fled.