Clyde, a junior drone operator, adjusted the contrast on his screen and peered closer. He spotted the target, confirmed its identity, and double checked his conclusion with the cheat-sheet hidden in his sleeve. His fingertips hovered between the two buttons and then, with more confidence than he felt, he hit fire.
Deft, Clyde's only female friend since childhood, leaned over from the adjacent workstation, "You met your quota already?"
"Sure." Did that sound too cocky? He owed Deft big time. He didn't want to come across as anxious either. Why was it so hard to project the right impression? Without Deft's help, Clyde would never have been accepted into the program. His group, the latest intake of Regulars, were on a three-month trial. "A-a-and you?" he stuttered.
"Relax." Deft grinned. "I'll finish up in the next half hour. Wait for me at the level one cafeteria. I'll introduce you to more of the Regulars. You need to make friends of your own."
Clyde, a big-boned, bulky young man, put his pudgy hand on the palm-reader and switched his workstation to sleep mode. He knew it had recorded his stress levels throughout the morning, every heartbeat, every tremor, and every shred of dread.
He headed to the central bank of elevators radiating out to every habitable section of the biodome complex. He kept his shoulders loose and tried to blend in with the others. This was the third day of his first week of the three month probationary period. If he could make it to Friday without messing up, maybe he'd be in with a chance.
He joined a crush of Regulars--the rank for all new personnel on probation--in the voice-activated glass elevator cube but remained silent. No point in advertising his stutter too soon. All of them looked perfect, none of them an ounce overweight. No one had diabetes in here.
A tall young woman with disproportionately tiny teeth chattered to her female companion who wore an ocular enhancer. Could a blind woman understand her external beauty? Did she sense everyone staring at her? He tried not stare too but couldn't help notice her athletic physique, clear skin, and full kissable lips. When the doors swept open, he tuned into their conversation.
"I think the level one cafeteria has the best food choices," Tiny Teeth said. "That okay with you, Hestia?"
"Fine by me."
The two women moved in tandem. Clyde followed in their wake several steps behind them slowing his pace to a casual saunter. He didn't want them to think he was tagging along uninvited.
This section of the biodome, for socializing, provided a floodlit view of the outside terrain. Clyde had read about this inhospitable area of Dartmoor, windswept granite outcrops, tufts of purple heather, and swaths of thorny yellow gorse. His home was in the north of England. He had never traveled further south than Birmingham.
Choosing a comfortable sofa aside from the diners, Clyde waited for Deft, one of the original good guys, solid, upstanding, and trustworthy. She never let him slide, always pushed him forward.
Diners glanced in his direction. They all seemed to know each other. As usual, in any technical arena, the females out numbered the males. Clyde shifted in the seat. He couldn't put on any more weight. He must continue the diet and not jeopardize his position. How long until Deft finished? Always meticulous about her work and dedicated to her career. Already she'd been promoted to Rank Two before she'd reached her twenty-fifth year. Clyde had attended the ceremony like a substitute brother when he was still slim enough to pass for normal. Witnessing Deft receive her stripes in front of that vast crowd of well-wishers had made Clyde determined to succeed. He wouldn't allow his ordinariness to hold him back.
If only he could make his mother half as proud.
Deft had engineered Clyde's path by intervening at a pivotal moment in 2079 before he reached the age of majority.
"Your choice, Clyde. What do you want? Stay here hiding like a hermit or forge ahead and grab a chance at your dream. I did. You can too."
Easy for her to say with all her advantages.
"It's up to you, Clyde. I'll support you. There's no finer career. I'll recommend you to Captain Finn."
Deft had been as good as her word. A reference from a serving Rank Two officer carried weight with the admissions board.
Waiting all those months to hear whether he'd be accepted drove Clyde wild with anticipation. He couldn't let Deft down now.
If anyone found out about Deft's finagle, they'd both be thrown out. What were the penalties for fraud? Clyde would lose his only opportunity of living his dream life as a drone operator, but what about Deft? She'd lose her career too. What could be worse than a dishonorable discharge?
Clyde watched the rolling screen of menu choices above the serving area of the cafeteria. His stomach grumbled. Nothing but healthy options here, and no desserts, not so much as a sugar cube of sweetness anywhere in this dome of perfection, the epitome of ideal living. His view was interrupted by Tiny Teeth. She pushed her lunch tray onto the table. Hestia came too, and the women sat opposite each other.
"Want to join us?" Hestia said.
"Thanks, but I'm waiting for a friend."
"Wait with us," Hestia said. "Make some new friends. What's your name?"
"Clyde Turner." Leaving the sofa, he approached Hestia and inserted his hand into the open space between them without thinking. Her hand rose and found his. Hers was small, smooth, and warm. She gripped him firmly and a smile spread across her pretty face.
"I'm Hestia Rosenthal."
"Back in a minute," Tiny Teeth said, her eyes raking Deft’s body with disapproval. "Got to speak to Sandi about the nutritional society's social tonight."
Hestia waited a moment as if listening to Tiny's departure. "I'm glad you came over. I wanted to talk to you about something."
"Yes." Her hand slid across the surface of the table until she hit the sugar-free ketchup, snapped open the lid, and sniffed the contents. "About this morning's shift."
"What about it?" He hovered, unsure whether he should sit. He'd burn more calories if he stood. He watched her hands navigate her plate, and then snake a glistening spiral of ketchup over a pile of roasted vegetables. She returned the bottle to almost its original spot.
"I don't want you to think I was spying on you." She smiled to herself and licked her lips in an unconscious gesture. "Or that I'm criticizing you in any way, but something you did caught my attention. I don't want to get you into trouble."
He swallowed. Her fingers found his forearm and wrapped themselves around the cheat-sheet under his shirt-sleeve.
"Don't worry." She loosened her hold patting him like a docile dog. "The thing is, I think you accidentally hit fire instead of hold."
"What makes you say that?" How could she know? Could he have hit the wrong button?
"I'm not psychic.” A reassuring smile spread across her face. “Each button makes a different sound. Whoever your target was, if in doubt, you should have hit hold and allowed for further evaluating and monitoring."
"They're lit by color. They don't beep or buzz or make any sound. I don't know what you're talking about. In any case, I didn't make a mistake." He hadn't stumbled or stuttered a single syllable. Why was it so easy to talk to her? Was it because she couldn't see him? Because he felt free from criticism? "I'm sure I hit the right one."
"Perhaps you hadn't eaten enough. Maybe that influenced your judgment, but I'm sure you hit the wrong one."
"How?" She couldn't know which button he intended to hit, nor if he'd chosen in error. "You're seven workstations away from me."
"Glad you can count." She giggled. "Or rather, glad you wanted to count. Sometimes I think I'm invisible." Several expressions fluttered across her face. "Anyway, I hear stuff that other people tune out. I've already learned everyone's sound style."
"Yes, but sound is only one component of the landscape. I could tell you the number of decibels, the intensity and pressure of sounds, but that wouldn't help you understand because you don't have the same frame of reference as me."
"I don't suppose I do. I can block out everything. Nothing distracts me. Does everyone have a sound style?"
"Yes. Like the woman next to me, she holds her breath for about ten seconds every time she has to hit fire. The guy next to her has a brighter screen than any of the others. One over from him is Candy Girl, her dashboard's slider ratchets when she moves past seven. Next comes Rodeo Boy. He's always adjusting the height of his chair."
"I noticed that too. His shadow flickers up and down on my left."
"Snapper, she chews gum. Likes diabetic sour-apple best, a sickly smell, and stores the used pieces on the underside of her armrest. Fidget is next to her. Then there's Deft, then you."
"What's Deft's sound style?"
"Deliberate, controlled, and patient. No hesitations. Her monitor crackles on a three-second loop. She's not fixated on the number of hits. Unlike us, she has nothing to prove."
"How come you know her name but not the others'?"
"We've been friends for years, or rather, she's friends with my older brother. I give new people nicknames until I learn their real names. Makes them easier to remember." She whispered in a jokey tone, "by their ticks yea shall know them."
"You're quota obsessed. Got to be the best. Got to make the cut, or you'll go crazy."
"To me. I don't know if anyone else noticed. I expect we're all desperate to win. Who'd want to work in maintenance or tech? Besides, I couldn't. Got to have perfect vision for those jobs."
"So how do you cope? How can you do your checks? Aren't you terrified of hitting the wrong button?"
"I have an audio adapted dashboard. Feeds right into my ocular visor. The rest, finding the right button, I do by orientation. Top one fire. Bottom one hold."
"Don't you ever get them muddled? Forget which one is which?"
"No. The fire one is warmer, don't know why."
He wanted to pay her a compliment, but she'd probably heard all the pat phrases before. How could he praise her amazing skills? Not patronize. He wanted to say something original, above and beyond the usual well-meaning banalities.
She grinned at him, "I'm the most damned fine woman you've ever met, right?"
Clyde lay on his bunk. He shared a dormitory cell with three other new Regulars on subterraneous level five where all the sleeping quarters were housed. To date, he had met and surpassed his quota of hits on each of his three shifts. He had to do better and outshine the competition. Only seventeen positions were available at the end of the probationary period, and one of them was going to be his.
How many darts had he hit home today? Each drone had delivered the shot with precision. How many lives saved because of his shrewd decision-making? When he thought of all those people milling around outside lumbering through life oblivious to his role, it gave him the greatest kick, like a dose of dopamine, better than any high.
Admittedly there were other career choices in the biodome, but none as exciting as drone operator. He couldn't stand maintenance or technical support work. He'd die of boredom. Funny how Hestia felt the same way. He couldn't wait to finish probation. Then, the boss, Captain Finn, would check everyone's figures and make the decision. Who would stay? Who would go? If Finn had to choose between Hestia and Clyde, if they both had the same score, all other things being equal, would he choose her? Who wouldn't choose a slim, efficient woman rather than a dull blob of a man like him?
Deft had said during dinner, when she eventually arrived, that Finn was fierce but fair. Deft was a good judge of character, with great people skills, unlike Clyde. He'd listened to Deft's tips, a user manual on how to stay on the right side of Finn.
"He's a stickler for form so play by the rules. No shortcuts, understand me? He's a black and white guy with no shades of grey. Everyone out there," she glanced at a group of morbidly obese citizenry arriving at the recalibration facility outside, "has to be monitored, managed, and singled out when necessary." Deft tossed a two-toned hybrid apple from one hand to the other. Only the healthiest food ever passed her lips. "And another thing. Finn's on the diversity committee, so keep your prejudice under wraps. And that means steer clear of Hestia--"
"--The visually impaired girl?" Why was she warning him off? Luckily Hestia had left the cafeteria before Deft arrived.
"Visually impaired! You can't call her that. She's an OEP, Ocular Enhanced Person. I've known her for years. She's one of Finn's protégés."
"He's got more than one?"
"Several. He's no kids of his own. I think that's why he takes such painstaking care helping those individuals he identifies as worthy of his attention. She's definitely worthwhile. Wicked sense of humor. Her pranks used to get her into trouble, but Finn's determined to tame her."
"Sounds like a megalomaniac to me."
Deft laughed. "Don't let him hear you say that. There's the right way, his way, and the wrong way. The guy's got standards. Make sure you meet them."
"I shall. How well do you know Hestia?"
"Well enough. I'm friends with her brother. Hestia used to tag along in the summer vacations. That's how I know she's both a tease and resourceful." She squared her shoulders. "Lastly, don't do anything to draw attention to yourself. You need to remain below the particle scanner on this one. Finn's probably got you pegged as Mr. Average. Don't give him any reason to dig deeper."
Everything hung on Clyde's success. He felt uncomfortable and cornered, unable to breathe. Not just his fate, but Deft's too. She'd helped Clyde complete the online application, write his mission statement, and practice his virtual interview techniques.
Clyde hated taking tests. They made him jittery. He always came across as a klutz, tongue-tied, and almost sub-human. Thank God Mum home-schooled him after his evaluation. Then he was five years old and couldn't sit still. He hadn't understood the importance of the figures which would map out his life.
So what if Mum hadn't used a pre-approved, pre-screened, predetermined sperm donor? She had been slim and attractive then. She believed in self-determination. Maybe that's why he couldn't comply, like the other previous generations of non-conformists before him during the Great Sucrose War. Now nobody could sweeten the present or candy-coat the future.
Clyde had fought against vaccination and kicked up a storm. The evaluators stopped trying to test his vision. Besides, his eyesight was great, his hand-eye coordination was unmatched, and his fine motor skills were excellent. However, his overall score was borderline. Mum had said the tests weren't sacrosanct and didn't believe the results. She opted out of the system. They traveled north to the Highlands of Scotland, sparsely populated with scattered authority.
How was she coping without him?
When Clyde had received confirmation of his probationary position in the biodome, they celebrated with a huge bowl of fresh salad, but he'd heard Mum crying later that night. Mothers. She'd worn her happy face when she waved goodbye at the network transporter terminal.
"Stick close to Deft," she had said. "Follow her lead. I love you."
Without Deft's expertise, Clyde would never have been admitted to the biodome and that was a fact. He wouldn't be inside spotting potential victims. Instead, he'd be outside, one of the targets. Everything Clyde had achieved was down to Deft.
The following day, Clyde worked frenetically through his morning shift when a neon-yellow message flashed across his screen: "Please report to Capt. Finn in #840 level C immediately." Clyde swallowed and glanced at the other Regulars. None of them appeared to have received a similar message. What had he done wrong? He left his workstation with as little fuss as possible.
Hestia smiled when he walked past. Her hands never left the dashboard. Had she heard him? Did she recognize his footsteps? Did she know it was him? Did she care?
Once he reached the corridor, he sniffed his armpits. Sweat? Did that tip her off? Was his safe-suit malfunctioning? As if he didn't have enough anxiety already.
After several false starts, Clyde found his way to the correct office. By then his nervousness had been overtaken by breathlessness. He should have visited the gym and kept up his fitness regime. He stood outside the door for what seemed like several minutes and wiped his brow with his non-absorbent sleeve. Was anybody watching him?
The door opened automatically without his intervention.
Captain Finn stood ram-rod straight, a backlit silhouette, behind the desk in his monochromatic office. He did not smile. He did not speak. For every second that ticked by, their safe-suits measured and recorded every vital statistic of their health, Clyde's rising, Finns' falling.
"Hi." Clyde's breath caught in his throat. Don't stutter now. He took a deep breath and took a run at another couple of words. "I'm Clyde." The captain seemed taller and broader than during the Regulars' introductory tour. "You wanted me?"
"Captain Finn does not want you," Capt. Finn said. "However, Captain Finn did command your presence. Come in and sit."
Mystified, Clyde did as ordered. Why was the captain talking in the third person? Unnerving. Clyde was close enough to see the captain's eye color--lead-grey. Was this the same cheerful man who gave them a pep talk from the podium on their first evening? Clyde read the captain's name badge to make sure he hadn't made another mistake. He hadn't.
"Aren't you going to ask Captain Finn why you're here? Have you guessed?"
"I've no idea."
"Captain Finn oversees Regulars' work product and reviews output. Yesterday you made an error which was flagged. Disaster averted. Explain how you came to make this mistake?"
"I ..." What mistake? Which mistake? He couldn't think of anything he'd done wrong. He followed the instructions to the letter, even consulted his cheat-sheet to guarantee a flawless performance. Had Hestia been right?
"You must, in the future if you are to have a future here, ensure that targets are confirmed according to the parameters laid out in the diabetic code. No guess work. Does Captain Finn make himself clear."
"Yes, Captain Finn, Sir. Now, there must, on no account, be any repeats of this near-miss. Captain Finn has his eye on you. Henceforward, your work will be supervised by Rank Two Officer Deft, the promising young woman who recommended your posting. You would do well to follow her example, just as she has followed her mother, a decorated officer from the Great Sucrose War." He paused and touched the five gold stripes on his sleeve. "Understand that further errors, no matter how minor, shall directly affect your career trajectory, as well as hers. The health and well-being of all is of paramount importance. This is more than a job, this is a vocational calling."
Clyde heard the door open behind him. Captain Finn stood in dismissal. Clyde wanted to defend himself, but could think of nothing pertinent to add. Bile burned the back of his throat. Who was he by comparison to Deft with her noble lineage? Her family had lead the charge against the sugar barons before the Great Sucrose War. Clyde was nothing but a fatherless, third-rate, imposter.
"Captain Finn listened to Hestia's version of events in this matter. Captain Finn does not give second chances lightly. It is because of her intervention on your behalf that you have been granted the opportunity to remain. When you hit the red button, you must be certain of the consequences. Substandard performance is not acceptable. Do you understand what Captain Finn has explained?"
"Yes, Sir," he lied, none-the-wiser leaving than he had been when arriving.
Outside Captain Finn's office, Clyde ran to the nearest restroom, dashed into a stall, and let the door lock. Everything was going wrong. Any minute now they'd check his personnel file, read the data and realize the figures were fudged. Then they'd search for the perpetrator's ID and Deft's imprint would be discovered. She had no hacking skills only a Rank Two's access to the database and clearance to amend records. The evidence was there for anyone to see.
Why did he ever agree to Deft's plan? What was the point of getting himself into the biodome if he didn't have the brain power for deception? He felt like a bad actor in his own life. Why did he ever think he could do this? And that wasn't the worst of it.
Deft's career was doomed too, tarnished by the pipe-dream of an inadequate wannabe. Deft had made it sound like a cinch. Why did she allow herself to be dragged down to Clyde's level? And yet, he'd had such high hopes in the beginning.
Clyde had downloaded the training package at the end of the summer. That was four weeks before he left for the biodome. Mum had thrown herself into helping him conquer the techniques.
"I'll help you every second I have," she had said. "That Deft is the best friend a boy could ever dream of, such a stroke of luck."
Instead of spending his last few days of summer outside in the bright sunshine, Clyde committed himself to the training. He longed to run through the fields bordering the commune before the rains returned: feel the lush forest, smell the firs, see the spots of honey sap, not sit chained to a console. He had no choice.
He practiced every day ironing out the glitches, correcting his false positives with Mum drilling down his timings.
"Come on, Clyde," she had said, passing him a donut sprinkled with artificial powered sugar. "Eat this. Keep your strength up. Try again, you can beat that score. Throw enough mud at the wall, and some of it is bound to stick."
She double-checked his performance in the evenings, guiding him to make better choices and avoid the more obvious pitfalls. She designed the cheat-sheet and made sure it was short and narrow enough to fit beneath his sleeve and lay snugly along his forearm.
"There," she had said with satisfaction. "That'll keep you safe. There're no guarantees. The consoles in the biodome might have a different layout, but this will help you navigate the dashboard." She folded her arms over her thin chest. "What's wrong? I know you can do this. Deft does too. She has faith in you."
"I know, but I'm not sure--"
"--Be sure. This is your chance to join the mainstream." She waved her arms in a pantomime gesture. "You can have a life and put all this behind you." She cupped his face in her palms. "Don't worry about Deft. She'll cover her dirty tracks."
"Why is she doing this for me? What if she gets caught?"
"Don't worry darling. She's far too high on the ladder of success. Mud will never dry on her non-stick arse."
Clyde swiped at his tears. Could he keep this a secret? He had to pull himself together and find Deft. Maybe if they went to the Captain. Maybe if Clyde confessed. Maybe they'd give Deft a second chance too.
Leaving the restroom, Clyde sprinted along the gangway and searched the crowded shuttles for Deft's face. Everyone was on the move at shift changeover. Would Deft have gone to the cafeteria as usual? Could four days constitute a routine approximating usual?
How could he explain what Finn had said? He had to warn Deft. Leaving her in the dark, vulnerable and exposed, was unfair.
At the same time, to admit his mistake to Deft, to see her disappointment and know he was the cause, that was unbearable. Just like when he failed the evaluation when he was eleven year's old.
Mum had tried, but they couldn't remain off-grid forever. Eventually, bureaucracy had caught up with them at one of the few remaining independent communal hubs. The inhabitants wouldn't conform to the sugar ban. They had refused to submit like the rest of the citizenry, and suffered the consequences: sugar access denied, withdrawal of housing allowance, and cessation of welfare benefits. His mother's hidden despair manifested in rage at the testing personnel.
"How dare you condemn a little boy. There's nothing wrong with my son. He's perfect in every way that counts."
"We understand your concerns, Madam, but his future depends upon an accurate evaluation. This means he'll be better able to prepare for appropriate community work as an adult."
"But he wants to be a drone operator. That's his dream."
"And that's how it's going to remain, a dream. We need community operatives. People to service the obesity epidemic. He'll enjoy a perfectly adequate lifestyle suitable for someone with his talents, taking account of his deficiencies."
"In your world he's deficient, in my world, he's a fucking genius. Didn't you see his gaming scores? Manipulating that device faster than a card shark."
That was the trouble. Mum didn't see his short-comings. Couldn't understand the new system of strata sifting imposing order and uniformity. In Mum's opinion, isolated from the rest of the world, everything panned out but you couldn't sugar-coat the truth. As soon as he broke away from her cocoon, insurmountable hurdles appeared from nowhere. He had to conform, had to fit in, had to make this work.
"Hey Clyde. Over here." Deft strode through the throng of Regulars. "What's up?"
"Can we go somewhere quiet?"
Deft guided him to a semi-lit sensory room, and threw herself onto an over-stuffed whole-body supporter. Clyde remained rigid with his back to the door.
"Relax," Deft said. "This is one of the only rooms that doesn't continually monitor your health. See?" She swept an arm around the room. "No scanners. Your weight, blood sugar, and body mass index is a secret in here. What's wrong?"
"Captain Finn summoned me." He gave Deft the brief version.
Deft rolled upright and sunk her feet into the deep-plush, purple carpet.
"I'm so sorry, Deft." Clyde watched his friend's face for a flicker of emotion, any emotion, but her expression remained unreadable.
"We always knew this was going to be your downfall, Clyde. Your mum's cheat-sheet isn't up to the job. What options do we have?" Her brow furrowed. "We must cover our tracks. We're going to have to think of something. And we need to find a fix for the future, something subtle. Any ideas?"
Clyde swallowed. Maybe everything would be okay. Of all the reactions he expected from Deft, this cool acceptance wasn't one of them.
"I have no ideas." Clyde's mind blanked, frozen by fear.
"I wonder why Hestia vouched for you?"
"I don't know that either."
"Perhaps she's sweet on you."
"On me? Why, when she could have anyone she wanted?"
"Don't underestimate yourself, Clyde." She thumped a fist into her palm. "In fact, we should go and find her now."
"Why? I know she squealed to Captain Finn, but I'm sure she didn't mean any harm. You're not going to punish her or anything, are you?"
Deft pulled a face. "I would hate to live inside your head."
Deft tapped her hand-held tablet and pointed at the roster listings. "Hestia's off-duty until three." She touched the locator. "I messaged her. She's expecting us."
"What did you tell her?"
"Everything. If anyone can fix this, it's her. She's in her pod, number fifty-seven on M wing."
"Pod?" he stepped onto the moving walkway. "Why isn't she in a dormitory like the rest of the Regulars?"
"High-risk Regulars are placed in individual pods near the medical unit. Their pods are scanner free. Instead, their bunks monitor their vitals during the night, much more efficient. And here we are. See the green M?"
"What's high risk about her?"
"Didn't you read the latest global bulletin? She's a classic post-war case. Hepatitis-J, non-infectious, obviously."
"I wish they still kept them quarantined." Hestia had touched him on the arm, patted him. Had he caught it from her? Did everybody know her diagnoses? Was that information confidential? Should Deft have told him? Hestia had said she felt invisible. Did people shun her for that reason? "I don't believe half of what they tell us. You can't trust global announcements."
Deft stopped outside pod 57 and turned. "Listen to yourself. Such prejudice. That's what the bulletin's designed to negate. You can't catch Hepatitis-J, it's genetic. We've more than enough survival problems without worrying about straw dogs."
Clyde followed Deft into Hestia's pod.
"You were quick," Hestia said but didn't turn toward them. "Take a seat. I'll be with you in a nanosecond."
Deft sat on the bunk, Clyde leaned against the wall, and they both watched Hestia fit a lyre back into its velvet lined case.
"I've been thinking about the problem," she said. "Pass me that orange pillow. You're up to your ears in molasses on this one."
"Can you help?" Deft asked, handing her the pillow. "You were always good at wriggling out of situations, casting the blame elsewhere if I remember correctly."
"Finn's your biggest problem and I don't see him falling for a honeytrap, not that I'm volunteering for that role."
"We don't need you to extract secrets, Hestia. Just the opposite."
"Hiding Clyde's kind of incapability isn't easy, as I'm sure you realize now. You need a method of disguise, some foolproof system that always works."
"Right," Deft said. "What is that?"
Clyde chimed in, "I'm still mystified how you knew I'd made an error in the first place."
"Don't call it an error," she said. "You're too hard on yourself. You're doing your best here, just like everyone else."
"But I'm not like everyone else."
"But how did you know?"
"You have a tell, like poker players. When you identify a target, or think you have, you lean in closer smothering the light from the screen. And, your seat creaks when you perch on the edge like a diver on the tip of the board."
Clyde closed his eyes and listened to the silence, trying to imagine what she had sensed. Could she have identified all those different elements from him?
"Like I told you before," she continued, "it's not magic. Give me your hand."
Clyde did as he was told. Hestia took his fingertip and stroked it with her fingertip. "Do you feel those indentations from the lyre's strings? I should use a pick, but I don't. They say I'll lose sensitivity, but I haven't. It won't happen overnight, but if you practice, you can learn to see by touch too. These little fingertips can tell you everything you need to know. All you have to do if carve a nick into the fire button, you'll be set for life."
"What if I have to change workstations for some reason?"
"You need to learn to lie too, or rather, use people's foibles to help yourself."
She patted the pillow on her lap. "See this? How do I know it's orange?"
"Because I asked Deft to pass me the orange pillow. She's no reason to try and trick me, at least today. So I know it's orange. You can do the same. Ask someone something innocuous, like, 'does this fire button feel sticky to you?' And then watch them."
Deft grinned. "You've just saved us from a very sticky end. Thanks, Hestia."
"We should celebrate," Clyde said.
"I've got some contraband." Hestia reached under her desk. "Candy bar anyone?"
"I should report you," Deft said tearing the wrapper.
Clyde bit into the dark chocolate and felt it coat his tongue and slip around his teeth.
"God that's good." Deft stuffed the wrapper in her pocket. "I've not tasted anything as good as that since I was a child. Where did you get them?"
"My Mum sends me a care package. Inter-unit packages aren't screened. One of the advantages of having a high-ranking mother. She buys them on the black market. She's got the same sweet-tooth weakness."
"I've heard about the black market in chocolate," Clyde said, "but I didn't think anyone would be able to smuggle it in here. How do you get away with it? The scanners will spot your blood-sugar spike."
"No, I drink lots of water, avoid the bunk's monitors, exercise like crazy and sleep on the floor for a few hours."
"I told you she was sneaky," Deft said. "We'd better volunteer for an afternoon outside the dome if we don't want to get caught ourselves."
"You can take the emergency exit from my window," Hestia said, "and slide straight down to the recalibration facility. Maybe you can help the latest intake of diabetics. Must be pretty grim to be grabbed off the streets for compulsory rehabilitation."
"The decision is not made lightly," Deft said. "Our quotas can't catch them all, too many. Even with the total ban on sugar, obesity's still on the rise. Our drones shoot them with insulin, but we're fighting a losing battle."
"Don't worry, Clyde," Hestia said. "If anything goes wrong and you are kicked out, you can always go and work in the bootlegging business. I've got underground contacts there."
"Because it's the black-market," she said, showing her chocolate covered teeth. "No one will care if you're red-green color blind."
Madeline McEwen [she/her] has enjoyed publication in a variety of different outlets both online and in traditional print.
Her fiction and non-fiction focuses primarily on disabilities [ableism] and humor.
She has numerous short stories and a few stand-alone novelettes. Her latest short story, "Stepping On Snakes," appears in the Me Too Anthology edited by Elizabeth Zelvin published by Level Best Books, and "Benevolent Dictatorship" published in Low Down Dirty Vote Volume II edited by Mysti Berry.