Authors: Veronica Rossi
For Luca and Rocky
hey called the world beyond the walls of the Pod “the Death Shop.” A million ways to die out there. Aria never thought she’d get so close.
She bit her lip as she stared at the heavy steel door in front of her. A display screen read AGRICULTURE 6—NO ENTRY in flashing red letters.
Ag 6 was just a service dome, Aria told herself. Dozens of domes supplied Reverie with food, water, oxygen—all the things an enclosed city needed. Ag 6 had been damaged in a recent storm, but supposedly the damage was minor. Supposedly.
“Maybe we should turn back,” Paisley said. She stood beside Aria in the airlock chamber, nervously twisting a strand of her long red hair.
The three boys crouched at the control board by the door, jamming the signal so they could exit without triggering an alarm. Aria tried to ignore their steady bickering.
“Come on, Paisley. What’s the worst that could happen?”
Aria meant it as a joke, but her voice sounded too high so she tacked on a laugh. That came out sounding mildly hysterical.
“What could happen in a damaged dome?” Paisley counted on her slender fingers. “Our skin could rot off. We could get locked out. An Aether storm could turn us into human bacon. Then the cannibals could eat us for breakfast.”
“It’s just another part of Reverie,” Aria said.
“An off-limits part.”
“Pais, you don’t have to go.”
“Neither do you,” Paisley said, but she was wrong.
For the past five days, Aria had worried constantly about her mother. Why hadn’t she been in touch? Lumina had never missed one of their daily visits, no matter how engrossed she was in her medical research. If Aria wanted answers, she needed to get into that dome.
“For the hundredth—wait, thousandth—time, Ag 6 is safe,” Soren said without turning from the control board. “You think I want to die tonight?”
He had a point. Soren loved himself too much to risk his own life. Aria’s gaze rested on his muscled back. Soren was the son of Reverie’s Director of Security. He had the kind of flesh that only came with privilege. He even had a tan, a ridiculous upgrade considering none of them had ever seen the sun. He was also a genius at cracking codes.
Bane and Echo watched at his side. The brothers followed Soren everywhere. He usually had hundreds of followers, but that was in the Realms. Tonight just five of them shared the cramped airlock chamber. Just five of them breaking the law.
Soren straightened, flashing a cocky smile. “I’m going to have to talk to my father about his security protocols.”
“You did it?” Aria asked.
Soren shrugged. “Was there ever a doubt? Now for the best part. Time to turn off.”
“Wait,” Paisley said. “I thought you were just going to jam our Smarteyes.”
“I’ve been jamming them but that won’t give us enough time. We need to turn off.”
Aria brushed a finger over her Smarteye. She had always worn the clear device over her left eye and it was always on. The Eye took them to the Realms, the virtual spaces where they spent most of their time.
“Caleb will kill us if we’re not back soon,” said Paisley.
Aria rolled her eyes. “Your brother and his theme nights.” She usually cruised the Realms with Paisley and her older brother, Caleb, from their favorite spot in the 2nd Gen Lounge. For the past month, Caleb had planned their nights around themes. Tonight’s theme, “Feeding Friend-zies,” began in a Roman Realm where they’d feasted on roasted boar and lobster ragout. Then they’d cruised to a Minotaur feeding in a Mythology Realm. “I’m just glad we left before the piranhas.”
Thanks to her Smarteye, Aria had kept daily visits with her mother, who had followed her research to Bliss, another Pod hundreds of miles away. The distance had never mattered until five days ago, when the link with Bliss broke.
“How long are we planning to stay out there?” Aria asked. She only needed a few minutes alone with Soren. Just long enough to ask him about Bliss.
A grin broke over Bane’s face. “Long enough to party in the real!”
Echo pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Long enough to party in the flesh!”
Echo’s actual name was Theo but few people remembered it. His nickname suited him too well.
“We can shut off for one hour.” Soren winked at her. “But don’t worry, I’ll turn you on later.”
Aria made herself laugh, smoky and flirtatious. “You better.”
Paisley shot her a suspicious look. She didn’t know Aria’s plan. Something had happened to Bliss, and Aria knew Soren could get the information from his father.
Soren shifted his thick shoulders like a boxer stepping into a ring. “Here we go, Glitches. Hold on to your pants. We’re shutting off in three, two—”
Aria startled at a shrill ringing that came from deep within her ears. A red wall crashed over her field of vision. Hot needles of pain stabbed into her left eye and then spread over her scalp. They gathered at the base of her skull and then shot down her spine, exploding through her limbs. She heard one of the boys swear stiffly with relief. The red wall vanished as quickly as it had come.
She blinked a few times, disoriented. The icons for her favorite Realms had disappeared. The messages in the queue and the news crawl in the lower part of her Smartscreen were gone as well, leaving only the airlock door, which appeared dull, filtered through a soft film. She looked down at her gray boots. Middle Gray. A shade that covered nearly every surface in Reverie. How could
seem less vibrant?
A sense of loneliness crept over her despite being in the crowded little chamber. She couldn’t believe people lived this way once, with nothing but the real. Savages on the outside
lived this way.
“It worked,” Soren said. “We’re off! We’re strictly meat!”
Bane hopped up and down. “We’re like the Savages!”
“We’re Savages!” Echo yelled. “We’re Outsiders!”
Paisley kept blinking over and over. Aria wanted to reassure her, but she couldn’t concentrate with Bane and Echo blasting around in the small space.
Soren spun a manual release bar on the door. The chamber depressurized with a quick hiss and a rush of cool air. Aria looked down, stunned to see Paisley’s hand clasped to hers. She had only a second to absorb the fact that she hadn’t touched anyone in months, since her mother left, before Soren slid the door open.
“Freedom at last,” he said, and then stepped into the darkness.
In the shaft of light that spilled out of the airlock chamber, she saw the same smooth floors that ran everywhere in Reverie, but these were coated with a layer of dust. Soren’s footprints stamped a trail into the gloom.
What if the dome wasn’t secure? What if Ag 6 crawled with outside dangers? A million deaths in the Death Shop. A million diseases might be swimming in the air rushing past her cheeks. Inhaling suddenly felt like suicide.
Aria heard beeps from a keypad coming from Soren’s direction. Tracks of lights flickered on with a series of loud clicks. A cavernous space appeared. Farming rows stretched back as even as stripes. High above, pipes and beams crisscrossed the ceiling. She saw no gaping hole or other signs of wreckage. With its dirty floors and solemn quiet, the dome simply looked neglected.
Soren jumped in front of the doorway, bracing the frame.
“Blame me if this turns out to be the greatest night of your life.”
The food grew from waist-high plastic mounds. Row after row of decaying fruits and vegetables spread out around her in endless lines. Like everything in the Pod, they were genetically designed for efficiency. They had no leaves, and needed no soil and little water to grow.
Aria plucked a withered peach, cringing at how easily she’d bruised the soft flesh. In the Realms food still grew, or pretended to grow virtually, on farms with red barns and fields under sunny skies. She remembered the latest Smarteye slogan,
Better than Real.
It was true in this case. The real food in Ag 6 looked like old people before aging-reversal treatments.
The boys spent the first ten minutes chasing each other down the aisles and leaping over the farming rows. That turned into a game Soren dubbed “Rotball,” which consisted of pegging one another with produce. Aria played for a while, but Soren kept aiming for her and he threw too hard.
She took cover with Paisley, ducking behind a row as Soren changed the game again. He lined Bane and Echo against the wall execution-style and then fired grapefruits at the brothers, who just stood there laughing.
“No more citrus!” Bane yelled. “We’ll talk!”
Echo put his hands up like Bane. “We give, Fruit Reaper! We’ll talk!”
People always did what Soren wanted. He had priority in all the best Realms. He even had a Realm named after him, SOREN 18. Soren’s father created it for his eighteenth birthday a month ago. Tilted Green Bottles played a special concert. During the last song, the stadium flooded with seawater. Everyone had transformed into mermaids and mermen. Even in the Realms, where anything was possible, that party had been spectacular. It had set off the underwater concert craze. Soren had made caudal fins sexy.