That's the thing about this city. It looks as perfect as a picture, but what lies under the bright lights is just as sinister as the story behind the fake smiles you see in magazines. The tall buildings stand like enticing beacons, luring you in like a mosquito to a zap trap. The minute the city grabs you, there's no escape. You either rise to the top or you fall down, down below to the very bottom. Sink or swim, my father likes to say. Lucky me, he never lets drowning become an option.
Zion sits above the clouds, and through our glass houses we watch The Bounds fester in darkness. Sometimes, I wonder if they can see the sunlight from so far below, but I don't linger on those thoughts as much as I used to. I know the answer, but feigning ignorance is as close to bliss as I will ever get. Still, I think about the people down there in The Bounds and I ask myself if the mask I wear makes me just as despicable as the others in Zion.
Turning as I look in the mirror, I know wearing one is the only way to survive.
I press my hands over my white dress, the clean frill of peplum like a freestanding flounce over my hips. The path my hands travel curves across my thighs and I take a deep breath. Public appearances make me nervous. This is for my dad, though, and as the protege and daughter of one of the greatest scientists of our time, its a necessary evil I have to face. Sometimes, things like this also make me wonder if breathing in The Bounds would be easier. I know the answer to that too.
"Starling, are you ready yet?" My mother's voice draws me from my thoughts. She approaches with a soft smile, one hand reaching to gently grasp my shoulder. I place a hand on top of hers, returning her look as our eyes meet in the mirror. Her hazel eyes crinkle at the edges, a few wrinkles mark her forehead. Her hair thins more and more every day, but her beauty seems limitless. Despite the gray that scatters throughout her brunette waves, she is still breathtaking in a dress that almost matches mine, and despite hating how much I looked like her when I was a kid, I am glad for it now.
"Almost," I reply, reaching for a glittering hair clip on the counter. My mother takes it from my hand and begins to play with my long hair, sliding the hair piece into the chestnut strands to keep it out of my face.
"Your father is waiting," she says and I nod. We walk out of the bright, white powder room arm in arm, and as we enter the hall, my dad turns to greet us. His smile brightens instantly, his rounded face lighting at the sight of us. My mother kisses him briefly when we reach him, and after a quick embrace, he dotes on me with a hug of my own.
My dad pulls back, and I look up at him as I fix his black bowtie. He wears a fancy black blazer and trousers that match. His dark hair tousles as he moves. He kisses my forehead like he used to when I was a little girl, and immediately, my nervousness vanishes. My dad won't let me fall.
"You twinkle, Star," he says to me with a chuckle. I laugh with him and we start to walk toward the large banquet hall. The entire building is cast in white, a sign of status in Zion. Classical music entertains the guests, and when we enter the room, my eyes meet the podium. Made of clear fibers, it glows with gold sparkles on a stage, and while it should feel exciting to speak to the elite about my research, its almost as if I'm walking to my own funeral instead.
A heavy air makes it hard for me to breathe, but my dad squeezes my hand with reassurance. We walk to our designated table toward the front of the room and take our seats. A few curious eyes look at us. I try my best to ignore them. Dad pulls out his C.H.I.P., the prototype device that holds unlimited possibilities for Zion. I hope it will help the people of The Bounds one day too.
Quickly, I shake my head at Dad and snatch the device from his hands. He pouts at me like a child, his lower lip protruding, but I just roll my eyes and leave the C.H.I.P. on my lap. Mother glances around at the other guests, straightening tall when General Emberson walks our way, his son Xavis at his side. She quickly pats Dad's arm, never looking away from the two men as they move to our table.
"Dr. and Mrs. Reece," Emberson greets with a curt nod, but his gray eyes are cold. He turns toward me, arching a brow as I meet his gaze directly. "And Starling."
He refuses to call me Dr. Reece, but I don't understand why. I look at Xavis who stares back at me, scrutinizing me with every second that passes. I lower my eyes to the table, gripping the C.H.I.P. tightly with my fingers. I don't want either of them to take it from me.
"I'm sure you all remember Xavis. He's helped prepare for your demonstration tonight. We brought an assistant. I hope you don't mind?" I look up as Emberson gestures to the back of the room. Three men in uniform surround another in glowing cuffs. The prisoner struggles, but the guards silence his cry of pain with their large, gloved hands as his body convulses with an electric shock. My eyes widen and my mother covers her mouth, quieting a small disturbed noise. Dad swallows hard next to me, and he turns until we share a look. Fine, white scars, almost like tattoos, cover the prisoner's arms. They signal modifications, an illegal source of augmentation in Zion. I idly rub the back of my neck.
"We did not agree to using a human subject. The tech has not been perfected enough to achieve that level of control." Dad's voice is strong and firm. Emberson frowns, but Xavis continues to watch me. He wears an easy smile now, and as I glance at him, he gives me a wink. I recoil at the gesture, once more lowering my eyes to the table.
"Lighten up, Reece. What's wrong with a little trial and error?" Emberson doesn't understand but his words make my hands tremble against the C.H.I.P. in my lap.
"No. I will not."
"Yes, you will."
I look up again as I feel eyes staring at me. Emberson and Xavis look smug, but Dad bites his cheek. His hands shake under the table like mine do, and I grab one of them to hold it steady. With a squeeze, I remind him it will be alright. We designed C.H.I.P. to help, not harm. I won't let them ruin this.
The music falls silent before Dad retorts, and all eyes turn to the stage. President Lennox stands in a floor length gown, white like my dress and mother's too. Her blond hair hangs passed her breasts and I awe at her gold jewelry. She sparkles under the lights. Her voice caresses all our ears, and before I know it, Dad gestures for us to stand.
We walk to the podium together, and the imprisoned man stands to the side. Dad will speak first, so I stand close to the handcuffed prisoner instead. He labors with his breaths, each one heavy and short as if he can't catch it. He stares at me, spits at me, and I glare at him in return. His eyes molten as they watch me, and I get momentarily lost in their depths.
"C.H.I.P," Dad says and holds up the small black box I stole from him at the table. "Computerized Handheld Information Portal. It's smaller than a cellphone but way more powerful. One thought is all it takes. You only have to link into the network."
He gestures to his watch, a contraption he designed for this specific purpose. C.H.I.P. fits on the face of it once Dad attaches it. He winces as the hidden piece under the watch sinks into his skin, connecting with his nerve skeleton.
"Artificial Intelligence. Computers. Remote technology." Dad looks over at me and the scarred man beside me. "If it has a computer chip, you can finally speak to it and it will reply."
Dad looks back at the crowd. The sounds of various personal electronic devices ring around us and I grin proudly.
"The impressive part is not what I can do with your belongings. With C.H.I.P., our lives become simpler. We can push the limits of technology, and work our way to build an even more advanced civilization." Dad falls silent, his head hanging low for a moment. "A time where clean air isn't just for Zion. An era where we can employ a group of robots to purify The Bounds and the land beyond. A period of growth and expansion, opportunity and prosperity, of ---"
His microphone falls silent. Emberson claps loudly from his seat, the only elite standing in the room. "You know that is not why we asked you to present your prototype, Dr. Reece. Test it on the lowerling. He spits on your daughter. Don't you think he deserves it?"
Dad raises his chin, protectively pulling C.H.I.P. closer.
"What Dr. Reece has failed to disclose to you is that not only can his handheld portal control your personal devices, it can control you, too." General Emberson gestures to Dad with his hand. "Come on, Doctor. Tell them."
Dad fumbles and I hold my breath. "Theoretically, I suppose it could. Really, those with computerized modifications would be most at risk."
The people of The Bounds. Their illegal augmentations made them fierce in this continued war we fight. It was their only way of survival. Their homes are unclean, their air thick with carcinogens and metal dust. Space in Zion is limited. Not everyone can live here.
"Show them, Doctor. Have our wonderful assistant break free of his bindings. Show us how powerful it is." Emberson looks purposely to his right. I follow his eyes and notice more uniforms lining the wall. Each has a weapon, and they're centered on me.
"It hasn't been tested. I don't know if it will work!" Dad shakes his head, frantic.
"Then it doesn't work." The threat is there behind his words. If it doesn't work, our family will be cast aside. Perhaps even into The Bounds ourselves.
Dad gives me a look. He doesn't want C.H.I.P. to work. I nod encouragingly. Stepping behind the handcuff man, I place my hand on his shoulder to stabilize myself. He can't hurt me and he knows it.
"Move." I nudge him forward, pushing him toward Dad and away from his guards. None of them move with us. The sound of my heels echo through the room. We pause feet before my father.
"You're going to be fine, but I hope you're a good actor." I whisper to him, and the man turns his head, eyes narrowing in confusion. I stand still beside him, but behind my dad and the podium, my fingers press along the man's side.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Dad says with a shaky voice. "I have never attempted to do this before but…" He presses a button on the side of the device, and the computer asks for instruction. "Remove handcuffs."
Except my eyes glaze over. The pulse of sensation that ripples through me is exhilarating and wild at the same time. It feels like I'm living in a separate world, one built with neon lights and data flowing in tangible segments all around me. Dad and I have experimented countless times with it, but I am amazed whenever I tap into what we call 'the network'. Neither of us thought it possible, but with my special brand of augmentation, I can control nearly anything.
Dad's command falls short and I redirect it elsewhere. Nothing happens and my hand slips from it's spot against the man's side. He remains still, watching me out of the corner of his eye, and when I start to unthaw, he begins to flail wildly. The elite gasp and Dad pulls me away. The guards descend. Emberson looks displeased.
Before the man is beaten to his knees, he looks at me again. I'm not like the others. I'm modified like he is, and for a brief second, I see hope in his eyes.