Marecia Zenan nearly dropped the hamburgers in her rush to get the phone when it rang. “I’ve got it!” she yelled upstairs to make absolutely sure her mom didn’t try to answer it. She knew it would be Jamie, asking for the twelfth time if she had asked her parents’ permission to go to the concert tonight. “Per favore, Jamie,” she hissed into the orb. “You have got to stop calling. My parents are going to get suspicious!” Without waiting for him to respond, she ended the call. Just in time, too. Her mother Lola came down the stairs as she replaced the phone on the charger.
“Who was that, Marecia?” her mother asked.
“No one, mama, just a girlfriend from school.”
Her mother glanced at the plate of hamburger patties balanced precariously on the edge of the counter. “Is dinner ready?”
“Yes, would you mind getting Papa down?”
“Actually, Cia, your father had to step out. Your uncle called. There’s a problem at the office that needs to be taken care of right away.”
Marecia kept her head down as she took a plate off the table she had carefully set. She didn’t say anything as she took away one set of cutlery, one wineglass. Her mother watched, silent as well, as Marecia took the hamburgers to the table. She had made enough for four, but with just her and her mother eating, there would be at least six left over.
Silently, Marecia pulled out her chair and took a seat across from her mother at the long, bare dining room table.
“Marecia, you know work can’t wait – ”
“He promised, mama!”
Marecia thought that her mother was reaching over to take her hand, but they were separated by several feet of crystal table. Lola was simply reaching for the salt. And a lecture.
“Marecia, we’ve been over this before. Sometimes, there are sacrifices that need to be made, for practical reasons. You like all of your stuff, don’t you? And you like private school?”
“Yes, mama.” She knew what was coming next, and she fought to keep her face from showing the smugness she had so carefully hidden.
“Well, nothing is cheap, especially nowadays. We try to give you everything you want, but that comes at a price.”
Spending time with me doesn’t have a price, she wanted to say.
“So, no complaints, okay?”
“Yes, mama. How do you like the burgers?”
Her mother took a sip of wine. “They are alright. You know I’m not into this new-age food like your father is.”
Marecia tried to take dainty bites like her mother, and carefully took a sip of brandy, holding her glass like her mother. Everyone told her that they looked alike, but she didn’t really see it. In her opinion, she looked much more like her father. Same build and colouring, same arrangement of features. But where she had gotten her affinity for family time, she couldn’t begin to guess. Neither of her parents had it.
“Mama, do you love me?” Marecia asked quietly when they were almost done their burgers.
Her mother picked a piece of lint off of her crushed silk dress. “Of course, sweetheart, you’re my daughter.”
“What! How is that an answer? What if I wasn’t your daughter? Would you love me then?”
Her mother stared at her blankly.
“What I mean is, what about me do you love? What if I wasn’t your daughter, would you still love those things about me? What if you were someone else’s mom, and I came over to your house? Would you love me then?”
“That’s not rational. You can’t love somebody you don’t know, caro.” Lola did stand up this time, to come over to Marecia’s side of the table with an offering of solace. But Maercia was already past this.
“May I please be excused?”
Lola’s comforting smile dangled off her lips, and finally fell. “Yes, of course. Make sure you get your homework done. I’ve got that conference, so I will probably be downstairs all night.”
“Yes, mama. Good night.” She considered giving her mother a hug, but an awkward moment passed and Marecia simply turned and ran up the stairs.
Her little brother’s door was open. “Hey, Orlando,” she called softly, leaning against the frame. He was sitting on the floor, reading a pamphlet about remote tracking satellite missiles. He always looked up the most random stuff. “I’m stepping out.”
He crossed his arms. She could see the smile he was trying to hide. “Marecia, I’ve seen this movie. Nothing good ever happens to the girl who sneaks out.”
Marecia laughed and plopped down next to him. The concert would start soon, but at the moment she wanted nothing more than to hold her brother. He was the only one in the family who would spend time with her no matter what he was doing. “Yes, but in these movies the girl always gets a smoking hot boyfriend, and then in the end, the family learns a lesson and all is forgiven.” She put her arms around him and achieved one heartfelt squeeze before he managed to wriggle out of her grasp. Well, he was a little old now for her to hold him. But she remembered being six and insisting on feeding him. Although she had never had to do much insisting – her parents were usually all too happy to give up the chore in order to rush off to some business meeting or another. He was always such a good baby.
“Marecia, I’ve changed my mind about my birthday party. I want to be a pirate.”
“But I thought you wanted to be an astronaut.”
“No, a pirate now. That’s what all the kids at school like. Or maybe, we can be surfers. Or movie stars! Or…Oh, I don’t know anymore.” He threw his hands over his face. “What do you think?”
She wrestled him over and planted a kiss on his cheek. “I love you no matter who you are, bambino. I’ve got to go, but let me know what you decide in the morning. We can go shopping for party supplies tomorrow.”
He grinned and wiped the kiss off of his face. “Bring me back a tee shirt.”
She ruffled his hair and stood, closing the door behind her as she stepped back into the hallway. She still had about an hour before she needed to leave, so she took the elevator to the top floor of the house, calling to her wall tablet as she stepped into her room. The screen flickered to life.
There was time for a basic sweep of her ventures before getting ready for the concert. From her closet she pulled out the keyboard she had rigged to work with the tablet. It was at least ten years old, but she enjoyed the feel of it more than the featureless, easily altered screenboards.
Her conversation with her mother replayed in her head as her hands played the keys, guiding the tablet through system checks. Usually, the rhythmic clicking soothed her, but tonight she was too stressed to keep her emotions down.
Her parents acted like they were all-powerful wells of money and happiness. Every day she wanted to tell them that she could buy and sell them as many times as she wanted. But her pride cut two ways: making her burn to rub her finances in her parents’ noses, and making her gleeful that she had accomplished so much without them.
Even though she had completely engineered her father’s “emergency” tonight, her disappointment at his departure was only half-fabricated. Only rarely did she have to find ways to get her parents out of the house, and she always harboured the hope that this time, maybe, they would choose her. If her father had stayed, she would have shredded her concert ticket and spent the night playing board games with him.
She finished the general security and operations check on her primary business website, and turned to the mindless task of answering messages from her clients. Once upon a time, she had enjoyed running ZNotes, her sound tech starter company. Now, she did the bare minimum to keep her parents from thinking she wasn’t looking after it, and dedicated as much time as possible to MCodes.
Her parents were not pleased with her choice of starter company. She knew they had always hoped she would join them in the AI engineering world, or even simple electronic and mechanical engineering. In their eyes, music was risky and too competitive, something to be enjoyed as a hobby. But audio programming had always been more than a hobby for Marecia. Even in preschool programming classes, she had shown prodigal potential in coding and tracking. Her parents should have thanked her, actually, for her propulsion of their AI company. Every time little Marecia was able to bypass security settings and take their satellites for a joyride, her parents were forced to update and upgrade, until Zenan Ingenuity International was the leading technical engineering company in the world. They had helped to design aerotrams, the software for the global vehicular linking system. Marecia, in turn, learned to cover her virtual tracks, and eventually managed to outsmart all of her parent’s technology without leaving a trace. She even had control of the house’s software. It was collapsible and portable, and they didn’t even know that she could command the building to fold to the size of an SUV with the press of a button on an app she had designed for her phone.
As her fifteenth birthday loomed, so did the day when she was to choose and develop her starter company. This was a traditional rite of passage for entrepreneurial families such as hers. She felt sure that she could hold a competitive edge in the programming world, but she realized that she wanted to keep her talent secret. A magician who reveals her tricks is like a can of flat soda. So on the day that she was to choose her business, her father had grudgingly sponsored her to take over SpiderHarmony, one of her cousin’s starter companies. He had liquidated it soon after graduating from music school.
Lola had not wanted Marecia’s first company to be a hand-me-down, but Marecia had been initially charmed by the leftovers of the business. Her cousin was an excellent sound engineer but had the business sense of a wet noodle. She could see how she could clean up the program and improve it, and of course, turn a pretty penny. It hadn’t taken long before she could buy out her father’s share and run the company herself.
As a “hobby”, she sought out victims of the security AI and sold them codes to temporarily bypass the systems. Her parents continued to improve their technology as complaints from other parents came in. Foiling her parents and managing her sound tech company kept her mind off her feelings of abandonment. But as the years went on, she realized ZNotes had reached a success plateau.
Marecia breathed a sigh of relief as she sent the reply to her final message. She glanced at the time. Only fifteen minutes before she had to go. She pulled up the main page of ZNotes and typed the secret message into the search bar. The program took its usual sweet time to verify her identity, and then took her underground to the database for MCodes.
The main webpage was nothing special. The text was festive and attractive, with a picture of a sunflower in the middle. There was some generally bogus information on MCodes, introducing it as a code-analysis program that could help detect internet threats. This was her cover story, in case the government ever got a hold of her. Without the correct digital fingerprint and passwords, they would never get past this plain website. At the top, there were three search bars. In the first, she typed in “simple solutions”. In the third, “last resort.” She didn’t have time for a full sweep, so she left the second one blank, and pressed “search all”. She watched the code pour onto the screen like water from a rock. She always loved exposing websites and programs like this, splaying their naked forms before her, easily manipulated to do her bidding.
She only had time for a cursory glance before checking her notifications. There were the usual requests that her program had sorted by priority, and a complaint from one of her employees somewhere in the United Nations of America. Peru, she figured. There had been a problem with his deposit.
Marecia would deal with it later. She was interested in the progress of one of her more lucrative deals, someone who wanted her to sell her most prized skill: permanent malware. The viruses she usually sold had time limits, and their expiry erased any wisps that would lead to MCodes. However, Gracie had told this big buyer, codenamed the Fiancée, that Marecia had developed a way to exterminate the fingerprint without damaging the virus. After much argument, Marecia agreed to pursue the deal, but she always felt as though she was going against her better judgement. Technically, the program was still a prototype, but it was a promising prototype. She just had to hold him off until she was sure it would work. Otherwise, she could be jeopardizing the whole company.
And there were also the implications of what such a permanent, untraceable virus could mean. Without the fingerprint, it could be easily replicated without her knowledge. Marecia had no idea what the buyer wanted to use the code for. She had a feeling it was for more than stealing cars or hijacking elevators.
There was a flicker on the screen as someone else logged on to the mainframe. Gracie. Marecia sighed, and opened the chat link Gracie was shoving at her. I’m coming, she typed, and closed down the site before Gracie could see that she was checking the Fiancée’s status. After pulling up the security camera stream in her father’s office to make sure he hadn’t changed his mind and was coming home early, Marecia set about preparing for her night out.
Pulling on the dress she had picked out weeks ago, she applied her makeup in the way that Gracie had made her practice over and over. When she looked in the mirror, she looked much older than she expected. She smiled at her sophisticated and daring reflection in the mirror, grabbed her bag, and jumped out the window.
Though she snuck out on a regular basis now, the freefall through the dark never failed to unnerve her. And she always wondered if this time, she would miss the trampoline, or even worse, land on one of the metal poles that supported the protective netting.
Avoiding impalement, she landed in the middle, bouncing wildly into the netting a few times before getting herself under control. If her parents could see her now, she thought as she unzipped the netting and scooted off. They would surely have more than ten minutes worth of words to say to her.
She had her sneakers on for the subway ride, and made sure her overcoat was done up snugly around her. The last thing she needed was somebody recognizing her as a minor and alerting the subway satellite again. She had barely been able to explain her last debacle to her mother.
She could barely contain her excitement. This was finally happening! After a month of careful preparation, including downloading a virus onto her father’s computer at the office that would put him conveniently out of the house all night, along with hacking her mother’s communication account and rescheduling her big conference for tonight, she was finally going to the concert of her dreams. She only wished her brother could be there. As the years passed, she wished it more and more.
The reliable old subway came to a stop twenty minutes later in the heart of Bari. It would have been a five minute walk to the concert hall, but all the grains of dirt on the sidewalk seemed to have turned into people. She couldn’t take two steps without being bombarded by five pairs of elbows and at least one foul oath. At last she reached the side street leading to the old warehouse behind the hall. Luckily, she was still able to find the hole in the fence in the dark. It had been three long years since she had sneaked in this way, but all those nights of breaking in with Jamie, Gracie, and Selonee came back to her instantaneously.
Modern Musical would christen the music hall tonight. It was open for the first time since it had been bombed three years ago. The bombing had been petty, but it had been enough to collapse all three floors and take out an entire wall.
Back then, the building had been a cinema, and the warehouse had stored all the snacks and miscellaneous supplies. Gracie’s brother used to work there, and he would bring her along when she was younger and he was stuck babysitting. Naturally, Marecia and the rest of her friends ended up playing with Gracie in the warehouse, and discovered a way to sneak into the movies. They climbed onto one of the conveyor belts that took food through an underground tunnel and into the cinema kitchen. They couldn’t ride the belt all the way, of course, but had to pull themselves through a vent in the tunnel that took them to a conference room. Sometimes the conference room had been in use and they had to stay in the vent for hours. But it kept their boring, rule-abiding lives from congealing in their veins.
She had no idea what the conference room had been turned into, but supposed there was only one way to find out.
Marecia had – legally – paid for her Modern Musical ticket, and so had her other friends. But this way, they could bypass the first lineup.
She pulled open the door to the warehouse that Gracie had unlocked the day before. When her brother worked there, she had stolen a key, and used it to get in all these years even after he quit. Marecia expected the warehouse to smell like old popcorn or candy or something, but it just smelled like cleaner and mildew. The walls were bare, and everything was covered in dust. Through another door, she found the short-term storage room, with the conveyor belt and the big blue switch on the wall. She could see the footprints in the dust on the conveyor where her friends had already gone through a half-hour earlier. Flipping the switch, she listened to the familiar whirring hum, and watched the belt disappear into the wall like a snake’s tongue.
She hadn’t counted on growing several inches, though. She saw that she couldn’t ride cross-legged as she had used to. Lying flat on the dusty old belt was her only option. She pulled up the hood of her overcoat to protect her hair, and climbed aboard.
It was like travelling back in time. A gentle dip as the tunnel went underground, a relaxing rise as they entered the hall. She ran her fingers overhead, feeling for the vent. She missed it altogether, the first time around, but the conveyor was slow enough that she could army-crawl back and try again. Getting up there was harder than she thought it would be, since she was lying down. By the time she pulled herself into the narrow space, her dress was ripped, and her hair had come free.
So much for being sophisticated and daring. At least the hall would be dark.
A running shoe was lost as she climbed out of the vent. She bit down her scream of frustration. Finally, she had made it.
The conference room was relatively untouched, except that all the seats had been removed. The stage and the big screen were still there. On that stage, Gracie and Selonee had pretended to be movie stars accepting awards.
“It’s good to be back,” Marecia breathed.
“Where did you come from?” someone exclaimed.
Marecia’s legs nearly gave out. Half-behind one of the stage curtains someone was hidden. The person rose to his feet and strode over to where Marecia stood paralyzed. Shocked, she blinked several times, not believing her eyes.
“You’re – ”
“Is no place safe from crazed fans?” he interrupted, his soft voice crusted with patronizing annoyance. His German-Austrian accent came out a little. As one of the few European states that refused to change their official language, their accents remained obvious. “I don’t know why these guys keep their concerts public. Invitation shows are so much classier.”
Breezily, she shifted tones. “You’re that new kid, right?” she questioned. “Glimmer, the one who stole Hilem Crane’s girlfriend.”
He crossed his arms. The annoyance deepened, but now he looked defensive, at least. “It’s Immer. And I didn’t steal anything. Except maybe their style, when I left.”
“Got kicked out, you mean.”
“Who are you?”
“As if you care.” She turned and attempted a dignified, half-shod walkout, shaking out her rat’s nest hair.
He strode ahead of her. “Wait!” he insisted, blocking her way. She raised her eyebrows at him. How classy. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I came here for some quiet. I wasn’t expecting anyone to…come up out of the floor.” He tried to say it lightly. She just sighed. There was no way to make her arrival sound normal.
“Sorry to interrupt. What were you doing in here, anyway? Your crazed fans await.”
He held up a tablet. “I haven’t finished my song yet. I managed to get out of it for the first few concerts, but the guys insisted that I needed to contribute to the album before I can become a full member of the band. And they said I do this city, since it’s the christening of the hall and everything.”
Modern Musical, along with many other alternative bands, usually wrote their tour songs while actually on tour. It was traditional for the first concert of the tour to be composed of songs from a previous album, with one song that had been written no more than a day before the performance. Then, after leaving each city, the band wrote a new song for each subsequent concert to replace one from the old album. Marecia had been thrilled to find out that Bari was ninth on the European tour list. It would still be torture waiting for the last eight songs to come out, though.
“Well, you better get on it,” she advised. “Showtime in twenty-five minutes.”
“Wait, Marecia – ”
“Have fun!” Slipping past him, she merged into the sea of people heading to the auditorium. Once she was sure she was out of earshot, she allowed herself an excited squeal, and bounced at the thought of telling her friends that she had met Immer Chapalu. He was perhaps not as handsome as the magazines made him out to be, but she certainly had no complaints about his looks. And his eyes. And that voice, that she had listened to in Mars Lumograph songs for years. He made everything sound musical, even her weird name –
Wait, how had he known her name?
She stumbled to halt, or tried to, anyway. She couldn’t go back and demand an explanation, though. The human undertow swept her away.