The sun is blinding the first time he sees her. The sun is blinding yellowwhite, its brilliance magnified by the reflective buildings that span the horizon. The air fairly shimmers with the oppressive heat and he's sweating, even with the carefully controlled cooling system in place in this building block. The balcony doors are shut, but the shutters still haven't been closed by the manager, so he's squinting out the window, avoiding both the vidscreen and the comscreen as much as possible. And then he sees her.
On the tiny balcony adjacent to his, she's lounging on a dilapidated chair. Her legs are stretched in front of her, skin dark and bare and with the faintest sheen of sweat, and he wonders how she can be in the heat. Then his eye catches the arch of her feet and the knobbiness of her knees and the pointiness of her elbows and the ladder of her ribs. Then he's only wondering how she's avoided all the prescribed vitamins and meals.
He has to attempt his keypad several times before the damn door opens for him. (One too many times fiddling with it has broken it, but mechanics would spot the fiddling and then he would disappear.) The heat settles over him, but the heat is common, too common, so he keeps on breathing. It's only one step, two step, three, before he's at the railing; when he leans against it, it feels sticky against his skin. Looking down makes the building drop away, only balcony after balcony after balcony combined with the blur and the hum of searchers in the space between this building and the next.
Carefully, he glances over. He's not seen her in any of the Friend Sessions. He only goes the necessary once-a-month requirement, but there are eight a month, and there are any numbers of times she could have gone. He tilts his head, takes her in. She's not wearing any of the trash that is constantly advertised, yes, but she could be normal. Her eyes are covered by mirrored sunshades and her mouth and cheekbones are free of paint and her hair is a wild riot of curls, but she might be normal.
He shifts, railing burning his arms. There's a moment where he thinks about going back inside, thinks about simply locking himself away with his careful lines of connection to others like him and his careful avoidance of everything and his careful plans of escape. He thinks about turning away, but instead he shifts again and carefully says, "Hey."
Slowly, her face turns in his direction. She looks at him and he looks at her and there is nothing but the distant buzz of the searchers. Finally, in an even voice, she asks, "Did you want something?"
He tries to think of something, some easy lie to give her, but he can't, so he simply goes, "Not really. Just wanted to say, 'Hey.'"
They look at each other for another moment. Then her brows furrow together. "Strange."
People don't say, "Hey." People don't meet on balconies. People meet in Friend Sessions in their building blocks and drink the latest drinks and eat the latest foods with each other and have sex that means nothing and chatter about nothing. "I suppose," he agrees.
There's the sudden drone of mechanical buzzing and a searcher, silverbright in the sun, floats up. His fingers tighten around the railing (something that may just be unnoticed by the censors, but still something to let out that anxiety; he's never learned the art of being still), but other than that, he remains as he is; he hasn't done anything (lately) and none of his connections have disappeared, none of their spots raided, but he remembers being a kid and people simply disappearing, names turning into hushed whispers and faces becoming faded memories. The thing flicks its lens to both of them, hovers there for an indecisive minute, and then it continues floating away, buzz buzz buzzing.
He looks back to her. Her pose is the same as before, but now her palms are pressing firmly against her thighs. A normal wouldn't do that, he reasons. A normal would laugh and talk and most likely shoo a searcher away; normals have no secrets and so no reason to fear the searchers.
"I'm Drey," he says. "Would you like to come in?" It's simple, this, but the words, repeated only from distant memories and scavenged books, feel heavy on his tongue.
She stands, pads across the balcony on bare feet. "I'm Yana," she offers and climbs over the railing.
She reads, he discovers.
He usually goes for keyboards, keyboards and screens and scrolling lines of code, something that can help him in his plan of maybe-one-day-escape. He can go for all the technology he wants, but he remembers his childhood home—a real home, not just a building block—and he remembers shelves full of books. He remembers his mother reading books at his bedside and his father staring at the newspaper, but he also remembers his father frowning at the television and his mother sobbing into her hands. He remembers that they disappeared.
They sit hunched in the corner of the kitchen, Yana quietly whispering stories to him.
They meet again and again.
Out on the balcony, she lifts her shirt and slides a book out from underneath, slides it out and into the small space between them. They skim the pages, mouths moving along with the words.
In the kitchen he spreads his hands, fingers tracing the air to try and show his technological world. Yana tries to follow, but sometimes she has to pause him and she moves her hands with his, trying to navigate the dizzy whirl of code.
They see each other and murmur hushed words; one day, prose and poetry, the next, code.
That time rolls around again, and Drey has to unstick his fingers from his keyboard. He has to go to the comscreen and type in his ident number, so the main door will unlock and the elevator will take him down to the ground floor. When the elevator doors ding open to the Friend Session, he can hear the low drone of noisy people.
His heart is thumping hard against his chest as he inputs his number at the main doors and his match is revealed. He ignores the shrieks of laughter and the too-bright, too-blank smiles as he sits in his space; then his match—always the same, too, probably in some higher up's hopes that they'll want to be joined—saunters up.
When they first met, her name was Zidra and her hair was electric green, styled in a short spikes. Sometime after that, to go with the changing advertisement season, her name changed to Ryk and her hair went dark brown, long and wavy and shiny; her eyes went from blue to yellow and her skin from palewhite to orangetan. Now, as she walks up, he sees that her hair is bright blond, cut in a tiny bob; her skin is some shade of peachygold, her eyes bright red; when she smiles, he sees purple gems dotting her canine teeth.
"Drey!" she coos and leans in to give him a faint brush of sticky lips against his cheek.
"Hello, Ryk," he tries. It's always awkward for him, always always always because he remembers Before and he imagines how this should be and he has his few acquaintances on the network who he can have conversations with.
Ryk pulls a face at him. "It's Triangle, now, dearie," she simpers. "Haven't you followed the latest trending?" Her grimace gets a little more exaggerated and Drey has to hold back his own sneer. "I know you never do, hon, but I really think it's time for a new name. And a new look." And then she giggles. Giggles. He's starting to remember why he only does this once a month.
Triangle puts a drink—something that's a swirl of red and yellow—into his unresisting hand, perches in the chair next to him, and starts to chatter on about nothing, occasionally sipping at her own drink. He nods in the right places, pulls out a smile every once in a while, and tunes absolutely everything out. When enough time passes, Triangle takes his empty glass, sets in on a table with hers, and grabs his hand.
The room in the back isn't soundproof and he can hear others. Her skin is perfectly unflawed, too soft under his hands, and he can't imagine the surgeries she's had to have had to get it this way. She smells of oranges and she is warm and this—this is nothing but what a normal is supposed to have.
Triangle gives him a wave and a smile when he leaves, but he feels vaguely sick, uncomfortable and wrong in his own skin. He breathes deep and heads back to his own block.
A day later, he sees Yana. She's been carefully (carefully, oh so carefully, so a searcher won't ever see her at this) rereading a book and she paints the story in the sky with her hands. She's smiling the tiniest bit as she talks, dark eyes alive and bright he hasn't seen in anybody in this time or place, and all her words are lost as he simply watches.
He's sitting at the computer, typing out some new code, when a pop-up appears with a bing. It's Senzreal and his stomach is twisting as he reads.
New route, it says. (Nothing there about how this world is a prison or how they all want to fucking escape. Nothing there because they know better than that. Better to be obscure, be vague, than to disappear without a trace.) There's a file attached to the words and he pulls it up and devours it down.
New route, Senzreal says, and it definitely is a new route. A new possibility. A new escape. (He's had so many botched attempts already; it's a wonder that he hasn't been caught. Others have been caught, vanished from earth and space, but they're all scraping for that one chance to get out.)
Drey leans close to the screen and starts planning, starts memorizing.
They're squished together on the balcony, the ground still sun-warm beneath them even though the sky is now dark. There haven't been stars for years, but there is the faintest glow of the moon, far out of their reach. He's staring at the bare curve of Yana's shoulder, wondering if the skin there is soft.
"Yana," he finally murmurs. There's a small questioning noise in response. "Have you…" He stops for a moment, just staring at the curve of her cheek, the bow of her mouth. This is dangerous territory. Yana's eyelashes brush her cheek when she blinks and her chest moves when she exhales and he starts again. "Have you ever wanted to escape?"
Her mouth quirks up. "Of course," she whispers. "Who doesn't?"
His eye gets caught on the sharp edge of her collarbone. He feels warm all over, but it's nothing like what he feels with Zidra-Ryk-Triangle. "Where would you go?"
Her words, they are slow, thoughtful. "I'd get away from the city, if that's possible. Just start walking…and not stop until I hit the ocean."
Drey has seen images of what the ocean was Before. Blue—sometimes with green, sometimes with purple—, wide as the picture can expand, deep and far and so removed from now. He wonders what it would feel like to step into brown-gold-white sand, what it would feel like for the water to lap at his calves. "The ocean," he muses.
Yana lets out a muffled, breathy laugh. "That's probably the only place away from these damn building blocks."
Looking at her, Drey wants to smile. "Come with me," he says. "Come with me and we'll go to the ocean." Yana stays quiet. No answer and Drey feels heat starts to crawl along his skin, itchy-hot. His words start coming faster, panicked now. "We'll get out of here. I know of a way. We'll gather things together and we'll just start walking. We'll get the hell out of here, never have to see a fucking building block again, just you and me—"
"…What?" He can't quite hear right, not with the way his pulse is thumping so loudly.
"Okay." She lets out a long, slow breath. "You and me. Getting out of here."
Carefully, he takes her hand. Her palm is hot and dry against his and it is better than any feeling he's had with—with anybody. "We can do this," he whispers.
Her fingers curl around his, squeeze tightly. "You and me," she repeats and glances at him, a small smile curling her mouth up.
A week later, when the too-bright sun has disappeared behind dusk, Drey climbs onto Yana's balcony. She's there, waiting. They both have bags on their backs, foodstuffs and liquids and clothes and first aid and tech. When he stretches out his hand, she takes it easily. They twine their fingers together and start climbing down.