“There’s no way you finished Mueller’s game already! Sweet kittens, that fifth scenario is ridiculous!” Nana whined.
Viktoriya sighed and pulled a short blue dress from her closet. “Just use a slingshot around Cyrus. That’ll get you out of the system with your money. Since you know the secret, can we please go out to finish shopping? You’ll have time tomorrow morning to finish that one.” She touched a panel on her wall and held the dress up against herself as the wall shimmered into a mirror. Perfect.
“Wait… how do you get the money?” Nana asked.
Viktoriya rolled her eyes, glad she was audio-only with Nana. “Did you pay attention in class at all?”
“Well, no,” Nana replied innocently.
“Then I guess I’m going out by myself,” Viktoriya said, “since you’ll be up all night trying to break the Mono Monopoly, or whatever Mueller calls it.” She tossed the dress onto her bed and went back to her closet for shoes.
“You’re so much better at all this stuff than me!” Nana wailed.
“Okay, then, Nana,” Viktoriya said forcefully. “You have fun, while I go find the last good accessories in the city.” She thought carefully and triggered the end of the call. She “felt” the connection close.
She had just gotten her full compat inserted a few days ago, and was still getting used to the feel of the new controls. Think here to open a connection to the people whose names you say or mutter or just think loudly.
Her old compat — one of the kids’ models — had been an unwieldy toddler toy compared to this one. On Monday, her 14th birthday, she’d had her contraceptive implanted and her full compat installed. Columbia’s pre-med program had already accepted her for the fall. Tomorrow night she was going out to party.
Viktoriya did a little dance as she headed for the shower. She washed quickly and then toweled dry as she toyed around with her compat idly, bringing up a listing of good clubs nearby. There, the Sunrise Destination. That’s where she and Nana would go.
She slipped on her black stockings and the blue dress, leaving off the garter belt for now. The dress fell to just below the top of the stocking. Perfect. She slipped on her dancing flats and took careful pictures in the mirror, composing a model to show the shopkeeper. She slipped back out of the dress and stockings, hung them up carefully, and threw on jeans and a tank top with “Cool @ Columbia” on it. She tugged on walking shoes and jogged for the front door. “Bye Mom! Bye Dad!” she shouted as she left, unsure if they were even home.
It was long past sunset when Viktoriya stepped out onto the streets of Cheyenne. Her neighborhood was fairly quiet tonight, the apartments standing tall and silent over her. She remembered asking when she had been four, “Mommy, does the moon move to run away from the buildings?” Even now they seemed to either arch towards space or to loom over her, depending on her mood. She headed out of her neighborhood to the station at Rossetta and Majora, calling up rail schedules as she walked — that wasn’t so different on her new compat, thankfully.
The train was just pulling in as she ran upstairs into the station. She dodged a Panther on the stairs and walked onto the train, feeling the Metrain system connect to her compat to verify her eligibility to ride. She’d always wondered what would happen if you weren’t eligible to ride.
She took a seat next to an artie with a featureless silver face and caught her breath from the rush to the station. She felt its regard as it bumped connections with her, a quiet “hello”. She gave it a nod in return. “Well met,” she said.
“And you, young one,” it responded before turning away.
She rode the rest of the way browsing the nets with her eyes closed, finding reviews of dorms at Columbia, making a list of ones she’d want to live in. She made and deleted lists of stuff to take with her and things she hoped to do while in school: go camping, fall in love, visit Amsterdam.
She hopped up as the train approached Central Station. The artie next to her was slower to rise, but followed her out, along with most of the train. Her compat automatically oriented her, telling her what streets were ahead and behind her. Viktoriya took her time now that she was off the train, looking up at the skyscrapers around her. Shiny glass and metal alloys in soft-edges, with rounded corners or silo shapes. They were like big fingers pointing to the sky.
There were smaller shops here, too, like this one — Viktoriya walked into Something For You and let the door close behind her. The place smelled of incense and wood, and the walls were lined from floor to ceiling with dusty shelves clustered with trinkets and widgets. Viktoriya looked around, trying to see if anything had changed since she was last here. It was pretty much impossible for her to tell, but she thought she spotted a few new things.
“Viktoriya,” said a quiet voice behind her.
Viktoriya turned and said, “Ser Val! I wasn’t sure if you were going to be open this evening.”
The woman — short and draped in heavy, rich blue robes — smiled politely as she said, “I’m always open. Are you here for something in particular?”
“Yeah,” Viktoriya replied. “I’m going out tomorrow, but I don’t have good earrings.” She broadcast the model she’d constructed and felt Val examining it.
Val tilted her head and gave Viktoriya herself a thorough once-over. Her white-irised eyes — white except for the black pupils — had scared Nana to the point where she wouldn’t come into the store anymore. Viktoriya thought they were pretty.
“I have something for you,” Val said.
“Is the ‘something’ actually a pair?” Viktoriya asked tentatively. She was never sure how literal Val was going to be.
Val just gestured for her to follow as she headed to a shelf near the back. Viktoriya followed as ordered, spotting the little grey cat that also inhabited the shop. They eyed each other warily — the cat with white irises like Val’s — as Viktoriya passed.
Val turned once she reached the back. “These earrings,” she said seriously, “will be the seventh thing you’ve bought from us.”
Viktoriya felt a little nervous. “‘Us’ as in you and the cat?” she joked hopefully.
Val’s gaze didn’t waver from Viktoriya. “From us. You know that I am an artificial construct.”
“I’d figured that, yeah…” Viktoriya said. “But I don’t know what model or anything.”
“Look at these earrings, and then we’ll talk.” Val held out a gorgeous pair of earrings. They were teardrop-shaped, mostly a dark shiny material, but with complex blue stones inset that would look really good with her dress.
“Hematite and lapis lazuli,” Val said as she pointed to the dark and blue parts respectively.
“Can I try them on?”
“Of course,” said Val. She nodded toward a corner where a surprisingly clean mirror perched.
Viktoriya stared into the mirror as she put the earrings in. They clipped easily onto her lobes and dangled, lightweight, but attractive. “They’re perfect,” she said. “Are they ridiculously expensive?”
“By no means,” said Val. “Monetarily, they are quick cheap. But they come with secrets and knowledge.”
Viktoriya’s eyes widened. “What if I don’t want the secrets?” she asked.
Val smiled a little, but her voice was flat as she said, “Then leave the store a coward like your little friend and don’t come back in. We have no patience for adults who wish to remain children.”
Viktoriya had been coming to this store for years, primarily just browsing, but every once in a while buying something. Six times, evidently. Val — whose name wasn’t really Val, she suspected — had helped her get into Columbia by connecting her with a faculty member there.
“I’m not a damn coward,” Viktoriya spat.
Val smiled, a real grin this time, and said, “Good. Shall we complete the transaction?” That was definitely a challenge.
Viktoriya straightened her back a little as she walked to the front of the store with Val. Val took the earrings from her and the store’s system requested a few dollars from her. Viktoriya granted it the money while Val pulled out a pouch that opened to reveal a set of tools. As Viktoriya watched, she worked with two slim tools on the back of the earrings for a moment, then put the tools away. The earrings didn’t look any different.
“Put them on again,” Val instructed.
Viktoriya did, and shivered a little at Val’s intent look.
“They fit well,” Val said. “Take them off.” Viktoriya did. Val boxed up the earrings and handed them over to Viktoriya as she asked, “How many of our model have you seen?”
“Oh, well, um. You and the professor, I guess, but I don’t think I know all of the markers for your model…”
“We are all small females and have white eyes,” Val said impatiently.
“Then you two and the cat,” Viktoriya retorted. She hated when people got snappish at her.
Viktoriya jumped as the cat leaped up onto the counter next to her and sat down, looking ready to take part in the conversation.
“Viktoriya, meet Gunnr, a member of the Valkyrie model,” Val said, looking at the cat affectionately.
“Hi, Gunnr,” Viktoriya said hesitantly. She’d never heard of the Valkyrie model. Gunnr ducked her head a little.
“I,” said Val dramatically, “am Göndul, although you may continue to call me Val.”
“Oh. Okay,” Viktoriya said simply. “So, what’s all the secrecy about?”
Göndul leaned back in her chair. “These earrings have a tracking device in them. You can access it yourself if you want to take advantage of it for your own purposes, but we want you to figure out how to do that. You barely have compat control at this point, so that can wait.”
“For now,” Göndul continued, “just keep living as you have been. Go to school, go out tomorrow night, go to college in a few months. Just live, and be aware that our existence is currently a secret and that you have the power to make it not a secret, if you wish.”
Viktoriya was confused. “But I’m not going to wear the earrings all of the time.”
“Do not worry about the earrings,” Göndul said. “They’ll be a tool for you later.”
“I’m not going to be some secret spy for you!” Viktoriya wanted no part of politics.
Göndul shook her head shortly. “Not a secret spy, no. You have been chosen, Viktoriya, and you have chosen. Go home and come up with a list of intelligent questions for us. We’ll talk again whenever you’re ready, be that next week or next year. There are a lot of preparations to make, however, so we’d ask that you not dawdle out of stubbornness.”
Eyes wide, Viktoriya picked up the earrings and headed home, already making a list.