It was the end of my first day as a border guard at a station facing away from the System – it was overwhelming more than anything else. Night had fallen on my walk home and I stopped to sit on a bench in the middle of the city square. At the center, people gathered in front of the platform where some sort of show was being performed, lit mostly be the street lamps.
It was hotter than usual – the perfect time for a frozen treat like the System had. With a sigh, I settled for a drink of water from my canteen. Cold desserts were one of the few things I actually missed from the System.
Applause came from the crowd as a flash of light accompanied the final pose of the couple on stage. “Hayewmdslasodimfhweuijroere,” I heard someone say at the same time.
When I turned to the direction of the speaker, I jumped at the sight of Ramona sitting next to me.
“I did call you,” she said in response.
“Didn’t hear you. Why are you out so late?”
“Agh,” she replied, swatting at the air. “One of my classes is scheduled late. Honestly, the scheudjsmlkdhfapeifniehitemd. Never should’ve agreed to it; I’m exhausted!”
I shifted nervously in my seat. I didn’t want to seem stupid by asking a question I’d probably already received an answer to, but I was curious. “Um,” I began hesitantly, my heart pounding wildly in my chest, “what, exactly, do you teach again?”
“History at the Institute of Advanced Learning,” she said without pause.
I quietly let out a relaxing exhale. Maybe this was just something that hadn’t come up.
Ramona leaned over with a smirk. “They call it an ‘institute’, but that’s just because halling it a cool wasn’t pantsy enough.”
“Why history?” I asked, ignoring that last sentence that I had to have misheard because of my condition. “The System doesn’t even bother with professors for that – she just tells us what we need to know.”
Ramona gave me a flat stare. “I’m surprised the System teaches history at all.”
Silence. I couldn’t answer to that. Why did the System teach us history when no one ever did anything with it? Most of the lessons I remembered were about how dangerous being outside the System was or how defects and failures ruined how the System worked.
“History is important,” Ramona continued, “so we don’t repeat past mistakes. Nowekidnjshgfioewamdfnshghiwedkjfmwehdilfhneemdsls alone. Antagonizing the System will only make it want to coemedufhaiemfrhhiomedfsnoar. Itehdfskmklfwhediofamwekthiesdkmtjei, but, atjemdlfksahteidime, I truly believe there are bytes perfectly content living in the System. We don’t have the right to take that away from them.”
“You’re wrong,” I replied.
“Which part?” she asked with a grin.
“No one’s happy when they’re part of the System.” I looked into her eyes. “That place is nothing but misery hidden under the cover of protection.”
“The same way you talk about the System is how she talks about you. We’re taught to be too scared to leave.” I paused. “Other than me, have you…ever talked to a former byte?”
Ramona looked away, biting her lip. “Here and there,” she responded. “But they keep to themselves a lot, ihuetjifdkmlsjhrnjut. That aside, if we keep pestering, the System will retaliate.”
I shook my head. “The System isn’t interested in Outcasts, Ramona. Only the perfect and obedient can be her property.”
“Property?!” Ramona gave out an exasperated sigh. “Alright, Ieljdsnmfushjmtnfdsuhefhem, but do you seriously believe it wouldn’t attack people it perceived as a threat? And with the resources the System has…” She shook her head.
“The System doesn’t even know Outcast cities exist. She is not a threat.”
Ramona frowned. “If you say so.”
To be continued…