Liam didn’t give Emma the chance to protest: he took hold of her arm and pulled her along into the thick crowds, never once hesitating as the corridor tightened around them. Every single available space was taken up by makeshift stalls, wares spread out on the ground over thin sheets, merchants calling out in pidgin English to come look, come buy, come see.
Liam ignored them but Emma was not immune to their calls, could not stop her eyes from straying over, from cataloguing the goods with growing unease. One sign in particular caught her eye. CITIZEN, it said, and underneath was a drawing of a needle with a stylised chip inside.
Fake citizenchips. If they worked, they would grant any illegal access to the Middle and Lower Halls. If they didn’t work. . . . Any breaches of security were dealt swiftly, and without mercy. The mere hint of association with the black market was enough to strip even full citizens of their rights.
“Liam!” Emma hissed, her small fingers digging into his sleeve. “If anyone finds us here—!”
They rounded a corner and left the compressed furore of Chinatown behind them, the corridor widening once more until Liam felt it was safe to let go of Emma’s arm. She stayed close nonetheless, and did not breathe a sigh of relief until they came, at last, to the entrance to Chute 9. There were only three gates, presided over by a lone man in the ticket booth. Exposed wires hung from the ceilings, the lights overheard flickering spasmodically as if on the cusp of burning out.
Emma stepped forward, raising her hand to touch the nearest scanner, but Liam grabbed her wrist.
“I have a travel card,” she protested.
“Don’t touch in,” he said. He walked over to the ticket booth, pulled a wad of paper out of his pocket, and made a great show of counting carefully. Each coloured note had a number on it, and several designs—Emma took a step closer and realised it was paper money.
“This,” Emma said under her breath to Liam, “is very illegal.”
“Paper money is archaic, not illegal.” Finished counting the notes, he handed the entire sum over. “Network connection is so unreliable in the Upper Halls that paper transactions are still commonplace, not to mention—” he smirked “—very untraceable.”
“Illegal,” she repeated, but he didn’t respond.
The ticket man examined the notes, then set the money aside and pressed a button. One of the gates slid open.
Liam hurried her through the gate, down the metal-edged steps to the empty platform.
“I’ll wait with you,” he said, standing close to the wall. “Shouldn’t be long.” The hum of machinery was growing louder, the floors vibrating with the approaching chute.
“You’re not coming?”
“I’m taking a detour.”
Emma paused, flummoxed. “But you haven’t told me anything. Who you are, what the DEI want, and Lilith—”
“I promise I’ll answer.” He glanced over her shoulder. “Just not now.”
Emma turned just as the chute doors opened. The carriage was crowded; a stream of people emerged holding microphones, cameras, notepads. One sallow-skinned man with untidy dark hair stopped at the sight of them and took a hurried photo.
Liam spun her around to face him. “Journalists,” he muttered, pulling her close as the crowd surged past.
He didn’t kiss her—and a part of Emma wondered whether she would have liked him to.
Once the crowds had passed he stepped away with an utterly blank expression, as if her nearness had not affected him. It probably hadn’t, Emma thought, flushing with embarrassment. How was this man—boy, really—getting under her skin, when no one else had before? At school she’d always been the one to prefer the companionship of books, her friendship with Lilith one of very few exceptions. And yet. . . . Liam’s eyes scanned the platform for danger. There was an alertness in his stance, a set to his shoulders which belied his age. It was this discrepancy she found appealing.
“Hurry,” he said, pushing her towards the chute. “Before it goes back down.”
She stopped on the other side of the doorway, turned to face him. “When will I see you again?” The words came out too needy: Emma forced herself to stiffen, to adopt the steel tone she’d use on classmates trying to poach her homework. “You promised to answer my questions.”
“I’ll find you.” His eyes swept over her, lingered on her face. “Head straight home. And remember: don’t touch out.”
Emma had no time to protest—the metal doors were sliding shut. His green eyes glinted through the strips of metal.
“Emma?” He waited till she looked right at him. “Don’t tell anyone about me, or what happened today.”
“Then what am I supposed to say?” she asked, but it was too late; he had already gone, his lean body swallowed by the darkness.
There was no one else in the chute. Emma sank into a seat near the door, legs unsteady as the shock set in. This was it: she was really going home. Her stomach flip-flopped as the descent began, but as the chute picked up speed it was replaced by a sense of weightlessness.
The chute only stopped twice on its way down, doors opening to admit the first stream of commuters heading home. Emma ignored the other passengers, hunching her shoulders and staring at the floor to avoid being noticed. It came as a relief when the chute reached her stop. She shuffled off quickly, swiped her thumb against the scanner as she walked through the gates.
The ten minute walk home passed in a blur. There was so much she didn’t understand about the last few hours that it was impossible to decide where to begin, and her sense of helplessness only exacerbated the situation. She’d need to write a timeline of events when she got home, see if she could draw up any kind of conclusion.
Emma was so distracted it took her three tries to put her thumb properly against the scanner to unlock her front door. She double-locked the door behind her, then stood still for a moment, focused on her breathing. She was home, she was safe. There was nothing else to worry about.
Then she heard someone crying.
Emma walked down the hallway and into the kitchen, where the curved stone walls were painted a deep red that matched the faux-wood countertop. Her mother was hunched over the kitchen table, shoulders shaking.
She looked up at Emma, face red and blotchy and so raw with pain that Emma wanted to look away. “It’s over,” she said hoarsely, gesturing at the scattered pages on the table.
It was the baby application form her mother had painstakingly filled out weeks earlier. Every single page was embossed with the same word, written in red capital letters. Rejected.
“Years of yearning for another child, of petitions and lobbies and every damn thing I could think of, and now this,” her mother said, voice strangled with tears. “Rejected.”
“There, there,” said a voice from behind Emma. “There’s always hope.”
Emma turned around. Leaning against the doorway of the kitchen was a tall, slim woman in a suit, her dark hair tied up elegantly, the curve of her smile instantly familiar.
Lilith’s mother narrowed her pale green eyes knowingly. “Isn’t that right, Emma?”