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I rubbed my wrist with my thumb from the opposite hand, the sensation of soft skin being brushed by smooth metal all too familiar and not nearly as absentminded as I wanted it to be; as if I hadn’t been rubbing my wrist repeatedly since I woke up earlier that morning, actually breaking out of my selected sleep cycle for the first time since I could remember.
I resisted glancing down at the screen that lit up, commanded by my touch and unlocked by the code I’d programmed personally. There was no need to look to see what was written there; what had always been written there, since my birth. The date and time had been ingrained in my mind since my parents told me of its purpose. It was the date when I met my soulmate.
Three hours from now.
You’d think that knowledge would propel me to get out of bed, but my body lay still, unmoving, except for the back-and-forth motion of thumb across wrist.
I ignored the warning that flashed in the back of my mind, sensors signaling my heart rate was abnormally high, alerting me to take precautions. I was surprised my cybernetics hadn’t picked up the pattern, especially in the last week. My thundering heart had become an anthem, catching me off guard with how loud it beat and how excited the rhythm felt.
I swallowed, hard. There was so much hype, so much pressure, built around the anticipation of knowing the exact moment when you’d meet them, yet not knowing the circumstances. Advice on how to navigate such ominous certainty was everywhere and it varied, falling across the entire spectrum of possibilities. On the date your wrist describes, don’t do anything differently and act like it’s nothing special. Or do everything differently, going out of your comfort zone and doing things completely opposite of what you’re used to. Both mindsets always confused me, because they set up the idea that if you weren’t in the right place at the right time, you’d somehow miss meeting your soulmate altogether. Yet that was the most certain knowledge of our society, a fact pulled out of our DNA at birth and infused into our genetic code as a countdown that ticked off on our wrist.
For a society as rigid and cold as Nathapali, we somehow still believed in love.
A light lit up in the front corner of my brain. Blinking once, a small screen projected from my eyes, pulling up my personal terminal and the new message that waited there. Ketra.
It was a weird question to ask, considering my signal had been switched to active the moment I opened my eyes. Ketra, being my closest friend, was part of my personal network, which allowed access to such information. Which meant she wanted to ask me something she wasn’t sure how to ask.
What are you wanting this time?
Her reply was instantaneous. Adventure. Meet me in twenty?
A navpoint appeared on the far left side of my screen. I frowned as I quickly scanned the location and discovered where she wanted to go. Ketra was the instigator of all our misdeeds and I was happy to follow her lead—someone had to keep her out of trouble, at the very least—yet even she had never suggested something so forbidden.
Could be illegal, her next message read.
I snorted. It’s like you want to be dismantled and sold for scraps. You know we can’t.
See you in eighteen.
I couldn’t help grinning, even though I should have scowled at her presumptuousness. At least it’d be a good distraction from waiting for my countdown to expire. I did wonder at her timing, however. The day I’m meant to meet my soulmate and Ketra decides to break into the one building that’s off limits to civilians, since it supposedly contained forbidden relics from Before. It was the most sacred place in all the Celladome, the last link to how life was lived in the past, back when humanity wasn’t connected at all, and science and technology were feared instead of ingrained into everyday life. Since, it’s been abandoned, though guarded on the outside, to protect whatever forbidden secrets lay within. Who was I supposed to meet there? Someone on patrol who we’re forced to persuade not to turn us in with charges of treason? Not exactly romantic.
I closed the message before blinking again, my terminal disappearing from my vision. Pushing myself out of bed, I plot my route to Ketra’s meeting point inside my head, simultaneously storing that data—along with Ketra and I’s last conversation—into the encrypted part of my brain that no one else can access. No use letting anyone else with access to my terminal stumbling upon our latest adventure before it can even begin.
I don’t bother grabbing anything to take with me, nor do I alter my programmed outfit for Thursdays—though I do run metallic fingers through my natural hair, a nervous tick. Thursdays are when my hair is left loose, hanging down far enough that I can make out the silver edges just brushing against my shoulders. I, of course, have no idea what the rest of my face looks like—mirrors were a relic that belonged only during Before and are forbidden to seek out or recreate, it had been decreed—but Ketra has always said she likes my Thursday look the best.
Not for the first time, I wonder if Ketra is actually meant to be my soulmate. She hasn’t found hers yet, either. It’d be weird, at first, but I think we could make it work. But our timelines don’t match up. Her countdown still has two years remaining. Thanks to my privacy programming, she has no idea that mine ends this very afternoon.
It’s always bothered her that I’ve kept my date hidden, especially when the very foundations of Nathapali is built upon instantly accessible, shared information. I’ve worked hard to create the truest definition of privacy where I can and I’m not ashamed to believe the illusions of privacy I create, either. While I’m only a mere speck a part of the grand network that links all of our terminals together, I’m still a speck that’s connected and tuned into that network, so privacy has always been a foreign idea. It’s precious, when obtained.
I glance at my wrist.
Two hours and forty seven minutes.
A message pops up in my terminal. I blink it open.
Twelve minutes. Don’t be late!
I leave my apartment with a knot in my stomach and I can’t tell whether it’s from excitement or terror.
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37 minutes and counting.
With a little more than a half hour to go, I was not expecting to spend the time before almost meeting my soulmate following Ketra’s beaconing blue hair through a sewage drain. Just like I hadn’t expected to spend the last two hours doing what felt like recon work as we watched the guard rotation for over an hour in order to find the perfect window to sneak in. Which, she’d neglected to tell me, would be going through sewage drains. She’d done research, which made me wonder how long she’d been planning this little rendezvous.
The sewers hadn’t been used since Before, so the path was dry. Yet the smell lingered and was more unpleasant than my imagination concocted. I still didn’t understand what Ketra was so determined to discover. Yet every time I tried to message her, she responded with the same mantra:
It’s the unknown, Cora. We’re not meant to know.
So we’re going to find out.
We reached the ladder leading to the sewer’s exit—and the “hidden” entrance into the abandoned building—just as my counter reached ten minutes.
This way, Ketra messaged, climbing up the ladder.
With another brush of thumb to wrist, I followed.
I watched as Ketra climbed and then pushed open the door, before disappearing into darkness. Quickly behind her, I pulled myself up and into the building, leaving the door open. Ketra stood a few feet away from me, her face not bothering to mask her disappointment. A quick glance around the room told me why.
There was nothing.
The room was large and covered in dust, but other than the small particles that littered the ground and floated in the air, we were the only inhabitants in the room.
That can’t be it, Ketra’s message flashed in front of my right eye.
Maybe it is.
They wouldn’t guard this place for nothing.
What were you hoping to find, I wondered. There were doors, multiple on each side. I spotted them the same moment she did.
You take right, I take the left?
I didn’t like that. We don’t need to split up.
We may not have time for another option, Ketra said. Alert me if you find anything. Meet back here in fifteen if you don’t.
She ignored me, walking over to the opposite side of the room. She opened the door, glanced back at me, winked and then went through it, shutting the door behind her. I glanced down at my wrist, unlocking it with my thumb. The familiar interface shimmered into view.
The alert went off in the back of my head again.
INCREASED HEART RATE. PLEASE ADJUST.
I ignored it and walked over to the first door on the right. It opened up into a hallway, which ended directly to my right. Turning left, I opened each door as I passed, discovering that every door simply led back into the room Ketra and I entered in from. Eventually, the hallway ended with a set of stairs that only went up.
So I climbed.
The next four floors were identical to the first, so it was easy to weave my way in and out of doors. I walked up to the fifth floor, where the stairwell finally ended. If there was anything to be found, it had to be here. The nothingness was confusing. I had to agree with Ketra. Why would they be so concerned about guarding nothing?
I began making my way down the hallway, opening doors as I passed them on my right. I peeked inside and found the same: a large, empty room. Yet I continued walking down the hallway, if only so I could tell Ketra that I was thorough and not lie about it. I opened the last door, glanced into the empty room, before shutting it behind me. What a waste of—
Where the hallway should have ended—where all the hallways ended—was a door.
Without hesitation, I opened it.
Standing directly in front of me, almost nose to nose, was another person, looking just as shocked to see me as I was to see her. Without moving—especially since she hadn’t, either—I quickly took in her appearance, both all at once and every little detail.
Green eyes, angled up. A nose, too small for her face and freckles that bordered it. Thick lips, frozen in a straight line. A silver plate interrupted the right side of her neck, showing off only the beginning of her cybernetic implants. From her tight clothing—all black, pants and a tank top—it was easy to see which parts of her had been upgraded. Right arm. Left leg. Entire torso. Throughout her entire body, the wires that helped her terminal run and kept her connected to the network were visible, silver road maps that pulsed to match her heartbeat.
I think my favorite thing about her was her silver hair, falling just to her shoulders.
I blinked, opening up my terminal. She did the same, which was a good sign. Maybe she’d be willing to communicate. Yet as I searched through new contacts within the vicinity, there was no one listed, aside from Ketra. I frowned, which she mimicked. I cocked my head to the side, surprised.
Then, she did the same.
I took a step back, as did she. I took a step forward and she approached at exactly the same moment.
I reached out to touch her face, but my fingers were stopped by a smooth surface, their metallic tips matching up directly with hers.
A quick, vibrating sensation pulsed on my opposite wrist.
I glanced down at it, the countdown still visible and left unlocked from the last time I had touched it.
0:00:00, it read.
My head snapped back.
There was no one else there.
There was only me.