The Intercity Committee had gone all-out in planning the concert hall. Seat placement was not an issue, as all the seats levitated and followed an invisible, tightly winding circuit through the auditorium. Everyone got to be up front eventually. The stage had three stories made of metal skeletons. Cyrus, the drummer, had his own level at the bottom. Salem and Michael, the singers would be in the middle. And Immer and Uriah, who was the guitarist, would be at the top. Everything, including the seats and the instruments and microphones, glowed or flashed different colours, and even a bit of false fog had been released so that the air was coloured. Marecia took it all in from the ground, waiting in line to get into one of the floating chairs. She was still trying to figure out where she could have met Immer, and drew blank after blank.
Her cell phone rang. Her mother. Surely she hadn’t figured out already that Marecia had snuck out? She let the call go to voicemail, planning to connect to the video stream later to see what her mother was up to.
Marecia rose on her toes and saw Jamie beckoning from further up the line. Since the seats were equal, it didn’t really matter who got on first, but still she got some angry looks as she went to join him. Selonee and Gracie were with him.
“What happened to you?” Gracie gasped, her hand flying to Marecia’s hair.
“The vent!” Marecia replied, staring at her friends with equal astonishment. “How do you guys look so good? I could barely even fit in there!”
Selonee grinned. “Losing your touch, old timer?”
“Come here!” Gracie commanded, rummaging through her giant purse. The fashion first-aid kit, as everyone called it. She produced conditioning spray and an electric hairbrush. After spraying Marecia’s hair, she set the brush to gloss, and it deposited even more conditioner as she ran it through. Then she pulled out a cylindrical brush and pressed “curl”, and within a few minutes, Marecia’s hair was restored. “What would you do without me?” Gracie asked with a sigh. “Now, what to do with your dress? And your shoes!”
“I’ve got a change,” Marecia explained quickly. Gracie would hang her for wearing sneakers to a concert.
Of all things, Gracie had an extra skirt in her bag, because “you never know when someone super cute will run into you with a cappuccino.” So Marecia pulled it on, and it covered the rip in her dress. Gracie did a makeup touch-up, and by the time they reached the platform to take their seats, Marecia looked better than when she had left the house.
Before they were allowed to board, they had to sign a waiver agreeing that Intercity would not be responsible for falls from the seats. Marecia laughed. “I’m sure people are going to be jumping off anyway. Nothing like a fall from forty feet to make your day.”
“Yea, that would be just what we need,” Jamie grumbled as they climbed onto the seats. They joined the seats by the tethers that could be used to keep people together. “You sneak out and end up smeared on the concert floor. What would your mother say to me then?”
Poking his arm, Marecia swung her legs to make the seat rock as it rose. “Don’t be such a baby! It’s just a concert, Jamie. No one’s going to die.”
“That’s not the point! We’re not kids anymore, we shouldn’t be sneaking around!”
“Like sneaking through the warehouse to skip the line?” Selonee asked.
Though the auditorium was darkened, Marecia could still see the flush that rose in his face. “That’s different. I mean, our parents should still know where we’re going. Not how we’re getting there.”
Marecia smacked her lips at him. “Whatever, Benjamin. Look, the concert is starting.”
He glowered at her, and turned his attention to the woman who took the top level of the stage. Marecia recognized her as the band manager, Sandra Cobalt.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she boomed into the microphone. “Welcome, everyone! And thank you for welcoming us to Bari!” Applause. “It is an honour to be invited for the dedication of this new building! Three years ago, nothing was here besides the remains of a much beloved theater. But with generous donations and ceaseless hard work, the space has been reborn!” Sincerer applause. “And now, it is my pleasure to announce that our newest band member, Immer Chapalu, will perform the first song he has written for us, right here, at Intercity Concert Hall! Forever may it stand!”
“Amen!” shouted the people, and Sandra disappeared as Cyrus appeared on the bottom stage, and Michael, Uriah, and Salem took the top stage. Everyone cheered for them, but when Immer came into view on the middle stage, Marecia thought her ears would burst. She couldn’t even hear herself screaming.
“Oh, and guess what!” she yelled at her friends. “I met him when I came up from the vent. He literally just finished this song.”
“What?” Gracie exclaimed, but Immer started talking.
“I wrote this song,” Immer explained, “when I was alone in a quiet room. About an hour ago.” The microphone made his voice all wrong, Marecia noticed with disappointment. It didn’t capture the subtle solemnity, the intelligence, the faint Austrian accent. This voice could have belonged to anyone. “I realized it’s not really all that quiet, is it? There are things you just can’t notice when you’ve got all this other noise going on. This whole other dimension of sounds that contains our entire existence.” A lot of people went awwwww, and Marecia rolled her eyes in the dark.
“I think the changeover shortened his brainwaves,” Selonee whisper-shouted above the crowd.
The band started to play. The beat was reminiscent of Mars Lumograph, who, to the coarse, unartistic ear, arguably had no rhythm. The lights fell over Immer, and Marecia settled into the lyrics after her mind resolved the unconventional sound pattern.
Exiled to an empty space
With only the sounds that I make
And I stop
But the silence tiptoes to life
A subsonic landscape
A shy, hushed world
I can hear time fading
I can hear the world turning
I can hear God breathing
In empty space with me.
Another soul approaches
The muted creatures retreat
The frightened flora flee
I banish the intruder
From dark quiet, life returns to me.
I can hear time fading
I can hear the world turning
I can hear God breathing
In empty space with me.
And then the Armageddon
Of peacefulness forgotten
The small-voiced creatures
Flicker out like candles
A loud and noisy grave.
A subsonic landscape
A shy, hushed world
But I tiptoe back to life
And I stop
With only the silence I can make
Obscure in a garden of quiet.
Lonely, but never alone.
“I call it Hollow Breath,” he finished.
Marecia blinked as she noticed the sudden, all-consuming silence that had settled over the endless room as Immer sang. It was just like in the song. At first, it was silent, but then she simply became more aware. Breathing. The whirring of the fans above them. She thought she could even hear the thrumming of the magnetic amplifier.
It was that quiet.
And then the microsonic world was obliterated in the explosion of applause that shook the air.
“Not bad for a rookie,” Jamie admitted. Laughing, Gracie punched his arm.
“You hear that?” she asked him.
“I hear a bet being won! I told you Immer would fit in just fine with MMs fan base.”
He twisted his lips. “I only owe you some snacks from the bar. Don’t get too excited.”
Marecia’s laughter caught in her throat as she realized their seats were floating closer to the stage. Somehow, she was certain that Immer’s eyes had found her. As the seats floated past, he waved, but everyone waved back. So he couldn’t possibly be acknowledging her, right?
He traded places with Michael, who had taken over the keyboard for Immer’s number. The concert went on, the band playing the songs they had written for their earlier performances. Marecia had listened to recordings on the internet, of course, but there was something magical about hearing the songs firsthand, feeling the bass like a second heartbeat. A beat that she shared with a couple thousand other people. When intermission was called, she wasn’t sure if she would be emotionally strong enough to walk to the bar. Her legs shook as she stepped off the floating seat.
Gracie tsked at her. “You’re falling apart again, Marecia,” she accused. “Come with me.” Marecia followed the other girl down a hallway. Gracie pushed through a door that led to an empty storage closet, not the bathroom as Marecia had expected. Uh-oh. Gracie had seen Marecia checking on the Fiancée.
A couple was making out in the closet, but they quickly left in a flurry of blushing and explanations. When they were gone, Gracie turned to Marecia, who braced herself.
“How’s your cousin?” Gracie asked.
“Fine,” Marecia answered wearily. Though they were alone in the room, they still spoke in codenames. They could never be too sure about who was listening. “He hasn’t been doing much.” Gracie referred to ZNotes, about which there was rarely news.
“Any news from your fiancée?” Marecia mentally prepared for Gracie’s self-righteous deluge of advice.
“We’re still working out the details. The ring isn’t ready yet.”
It didn’t close the conversation as she had hoped. Gracie was apparently out for an argument. “But he made you another offer. He said he would take over production.”
Marecia couldn’t keep her anger out of her voice. They had been arguing for the past two months. “Gracie, we can’t just prostitute ourselves like that.”
Gracie drew Marecia into a corner of the storage room. She dropped the code talk. “Marecia, how can you assume it’s prostitution? How do you know what he wants the virus for? You don’t care how other people use the basic malware.”
“Yes, but this is bigger than basic malware, and you know that as well as I do. If it falls into the wrong hands – ”
Gracie snorted. “Please! What are you, some sort of tech saint? It’s just a code, and you know that you can always keep track of it, fingerprint or not. Think of how rich we could be!”
Marecia had thought about it. But the problem was, what could she do with the money? There was nothing she could buy that required so much money without her parents wondering how she could afford it. As far as they knew, ZNotes was petering and Marecia was poor and looking for a new business. Gracie’s parents could care less what she did and what she had to hide, but Marecia knew that her parents were bound to find out about MCodes if she suddenly started flaunting her riches.
“It doesn’t matter, Gracie. Have you thought maybe we should recycle, or drop the project altogether?”
“What’s wrong with you? We’ve been working on this for two months!”
That was the last straw. “We? What we?” she demanded. “I’m the one who created the Ring program. I’m the one who writes the codes and manages everything. All you do is get on my case about customers!”
Gracie looked injured, and Marecia instantly regretted what she had said. As Marecia’s apprentice administrator, Gracie was the only human being that Marecia knew personally who also knew about MCodes. But Gracie needed to remember her place. The Fiancée made Marecia nervous, and she was on edge.
“I won’t prostitute the project,” she repeated. “It’s too powerful.”
“Well, what were you planning on doing with it? What use would you have for something like that?”
Marecia started to answer, then bit her lip. How could she tell Gracie that she was planning to use the Ring to infect the world’s major internet-based nerve centres? That she planned to take down ZII’s satellites and communication lines? Once she had completed the malware, her parents would never have to “step out” again, and they could perhaps finally start acting like a family.
Marecia couldn’t possibly tell her friend that she was planning on crippling Zenan Ingenuity International, permanently.
“It was just an experiment, Gracie. I wanted to see if it was possible. I only agreed to consider selling it because, you’re right, it could have made us rich. But there’s more to life than money.”
Gracie stared at Marecia for a moment, then pulled her into a hug. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I wasn’t trying to pressure you into anything. It’s just, all those zeroes he offered us!”
Marecia held up a hand. “How many fingers?” she asked Gracie.
“Four, why?” Gracie replied in confusion.
“Just making sure you can still see with all those dollar signs in your eyes.”
Gracie stuck out her tongue. “Whatever, you know the tech better than I do.”
Marecia smiled. Apology accepted, Gracie made minor adjustments to Marecia’s perfect hair and makeup. They returned to Jamie and Selonee.
“All of their songs are like Lumograph now,” Selonee chattered as they stood in one of the twenty-five lines to get snacks. “I’m surprised Michael let things flow that way. He inherited the band from his uncle, and all that.”
“Ancient Ossicles,” Jamie laughed. “My parents still play nothing but that in the house. Immer definitely spiced them up.”
“Hopefully they don’t change too much, though,” Gracie worried. “They’re pretty much the last original band besides Lumograph. Everyone else is just carbon copies of each other.”
Marecia agreed. Modern Musical had different beats, different dress styles. They were a shining point in a sea of uniformity.
“Hey, what about Precious Antimony?” Jamie cut in. “You don’t hear music like theirs anywhere.”
The brass and percussion band was pretty hard core, but largely undiscovered. “As soon as they upgrade their sound tech and digitize their baseline, sign me up for any of their concerts.” Marecia said.
“Oh, please,” Jamie retorted with rolled eyes. “You just want to pick up their project to keep ZNotes from going under.”
Marecia agreed that Precious Antimony’s business would be the only reason to keep ZNotes from deteriorating. But the band was pretty dedicated to contemporary sound, perhaps even more so than Ancient Ossicles had been.
She checked her phone. There were six voice messages from her mother, twelve texts. She was definitely in trouble. Sighing, she decided to listen to the messages, at least, but there was no way she was coming home. Rumour had it that Immer had actually written two songs, and would play the second only at the very end.
Pressing her ring finger to the voicemail screen, she listened, prepared for the worst.
“Marecia, I don’t know where you are!” came her mother’s angry voice. No, not angry. Afraid. “But you’ve got to come home right now! Reformists have been sighted, and the authorities are considering a lockdown.”
Stunned, Marecia listened to the second message. “Marecia, sweetheart, please pick up. You’ve got to come home.”
The next three were pretty similar, and by the sixth, her mother screamed frantically. “Please, Marecia, they’re shutting down transit, there’s been bombings a few streets over. Your father’s on his way and I don’t know what you – ” There was a boom and a crack, and her mother was cut off.
“End of messages. To replay the message, press one. To send a message, press – ” Marecia’s phone fell from her hand.
“What’s wrong?” asked Jamie. They had finally noticed her ashen face. Before she could answer, a rumble of strange thunder shook the floor of the hall, and plaster sprinkled from the ceiling like rain. Everyone went silent.
Suddenly, Marecia was flying through the air, and she realized someone had slammed into her. A moment later, a concrete chunk from the ceiling fell where she had been a moment before. As she stared, a pool of blood spread from underneath it.
She was surrounded by screaming again.
“Selonee!” she shrieked. “Jamie! Gracie!” Whoever had saved her was gone now, and she was in a mix of frantic human soup once again. Who had been crushed where she had been standing? She refused to think about it, and continued screaming for her friends. She couldn’t see anything except people she wasn’t looking for. Somehow, she managed to push through the masses of bodies to one of the exits.
A security guard blocked her way.
“Nobody is allowed in or out!” he shouted at her and the people who pressed behind her. “We’re under attack by Australia! Everyone, please stay calm, and follow emergency protocol that was broadcast last week.”
“Please!” Marecia yelled, although she knew she couldn’t be heard. “Please, I have to get home!” She shouted and screeched until the guard left. Everyone pounded at the door, but it was locked from the outside. They were trapped.
A hand landed on her shoulder, and Marecia thrashed out. But it was only Jamie, rumpled and bleeding from a cut on his lip. Selonee and Gracie were nowhere in sight. In his hand, he held her cellphone, scratched and cracked but still functional. She held tightly to him and dialed home. The phone rang, and rang, and finally, went to voicemail. She tried her parents’ cellphones, with the same result.
Pulling Jamie toward her, she yelled in his ear above the screeching around them. “Where is Selonee? And Gracie?”
He shook his head, eyes empty and dazed. What did that mean? Everyone, things were falling from the ceiling and landing on people, who trampled each other to get to…nowhere, really, every exit was locked. Blood pooled everywhere, streaked everything. It was all Marecia could do to hold on to Jamie, and hope that her other friends were alright.
Nothing good ever happens to the girl who sneaks out.
Marecia clung to Jamie and wept.