Chapter 8 - Bex
I return to my room, lay down on the bed and fall asleep almost immediately. A few hours later, a chime wakes me. I blink the grogginess from my eyes and glance at the wall display.
Evening classes begin in five minutes
I put on my learning glasses and sign in. This time I’m not late. Madison and Noah are sitting in the same spot as before, away from everyone else. Madison sees me looking and gives me an icy stare. I turn away as the girl who scolded me yesterday for talking too much appears in the seat next to me.
“Hi, I’m Bex,” she says.
“Fumie,” I reply, introducing myself.
“So, Fumie, do you have a giant brain?”
I can tell from Bex’s smile she’s joking but don’t understand what she means.
“Yesterday in class you knew about Newton’s law even though we haven’t been taught it yet.”
“I grew up in Japan,” I say, telling her the same story I told everyone else. “We learned it in school last year.”
“Wow, Japan. You’re so lucky,” she says. “I’ve never even been out of the city. Can you speak Japanese?”
“I went to an English school,” I lie.
“But you must know some Japanese,” Bex insists. “Say something.”
The only Japanese I know is what little I remember from summer school when I was eight and a few basic phrases my grandmother taught me. I blurt the first thing that comes into my head, “Toire wa doko desu ka?”
“What’s that mean?” she asks.
“Where’s the toilet?”
Bex laughs. “Good to know, but I’ll never have a chance to use it.”
“Maybe you’ll go to Japan someday.”
“People like me don’t go to Japan,” she says. “It’s about as likely as you discovering time travel.”
I don’t know what people like me means, but her joke about time travel hits a little too close to home. I change the subject and ask, “What floor are you on?”
“But there are only eighteen floors here.”
Bex smiles at my confusion. “Just because we’re in the same class doesn’t mean we’re in the same group home. I’m in number sixteen on Haight Avenue. Which one are you in?”
I try to remember what was on the plaque by the building’s entrance. “Number thirty-nine on Kirwood Street, I think.”
Bex sighs. “Ah...The Palace. You’re so lucky.”
“It’s not that great,” I mutter.
Her eyes widen in disbelief. “What are you talking about? Anyone here would take your spot in the blink of an eye. I know I would.”
I think about the dingy hallway and my tiny room—and the guard downstairs with all the cameras. If this is a palace, I can’t even imagine what her group home must be like.
The same teacher as yesterday appears on the stage down below. I turn and ask Bex, “What’s his name?”
She gives me an odd look. “Sinclair, I think, but you know he’s not a real he, right?”
It takes me a second to get what she means. “Right…I knew that. What level is he?”
“A three,” she says. “All the teachers are threes, except for the multimedia and creative design course. They’re fours, but don’t get your hopes up. We never get that class.”
“Child Services says it’s a waste of resources since none of us will ever be a Creator.”
“What’s a Creator?” I ask, and then quickly add in case she wonders why I don’t know, “We didn’t have them in Japan.”
“Creators work with the AIs to make the high-end sims,” Bex says. “Supposedly it takes years of specialized training to become one, and you have to have some kind of one-in-a million ability.” She looks at me and rolls her eyes, “I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t have any one-in-a million abilities.”
“That makes two of us,” I say drily.
Sinclair tells us it’s time to get started. I watch him take a book out of his black briefcase and flip through the pages like he’s reviewing his notes. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was human.
“Why don’t we have real teachers?” I ask Bex. When she furrows her brow like she doesn’t understand what I mean, I add, “You know, people teachers…humans.”
Bex scoffs and says, “If they don’t want to assign us level fours, what makes you think they’d ever give us a living, breathing person?”
I shrug, but I don’t understand why they wouldn’t. Teachers weren’t exactly rare in 2019, and based on my experience at my old high school, I’d say pretty much anyone could become one.
Sinclair looks up and says, “Let’s get started. Today, we’ll be reviewing Euclid’s proof.”
Ugh…doing trig is one thing, but geometry proofs are the worst. When I groan out loud, a chime sounds and the red demerit light on my dashboard blinks. Just perfect. Another demerit, and it’s only my second day in the group home.
“Self mode on.”
* * *
At the end of class, Sinclair assigns homework on the reciprocal trigonometric functions: cosecant, secant, cotangent. He also announces there will be a pop quiz tomorrow. I glance up at Noah, who looks distinctly worried.
Bex turns on chat mode and groans. “How are we ever going to use this?” she asks. “I mean seriously, talk about useless. When was the last time you used the cosecant function playing a sim?”
I grin back at her. “I know. It’s not like you can slay a dragon with a cotangent.”
“Or kill a Framandi with a secant.”
We both laugh. I’m surprised how good it makes me feel. It’s nice to have something in common with someone, even if it’s only a video game.
“Are you any good at it?” I ask her.
“Do you mean Journey to Thisavros?”
“I’m one of the best,” she says without even the slightest hint of modesty. “I played it every day all through middle-school and had the highest score in my building and the third highest in the entire city.”
“Do you still play?”
“God, no!” Bex says, looking embarrassed. “It’s a kid’s game. I haven’t played it in at least two years. What about you? What’s your favorite sim?”
I’m not about to tell her Journey to Thisavros is the only sim I know. Or that the one and only time I played it, I lasted less than two minutes.
“Uh, I don’t have a favorite.”
“You should try Mutiny on the Hispaniola,” she says. “It’s a strategy-adventure sim. There’s a treasure map and a one-legged pirate named Long John Silver who leads a mutiny and tries to steal the map from you.”
“Sounds like fun,” I say. “Have you read the book?”
“What book?” she asks.
“Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Seriously? It’s famous.”
Bex shrugs and says, “I don’t remember the last time I read a book. Maybe when I was little. I don’t know anyone who reads. Sims are so much better, don’t you think?”
“Sims and books are different,” I say diplomatically. “I like books because they let you use your imagination.”
“Who needs imagination?” Bex says. “That’s what Creators are for.” She looks up at her dashboard. “I’ve got to go. It’s lights-out here soon, and I still need to wash up.”
“See you in class tomorrow?”
She blinks out of existence, leaving me alone in the auditorium. I start to remove the learning glasses but stop when I realize Escalante might be able to answer some of the questions I have. She said I could call on her whenever I wanted.
There’s no warning, and just like the last time I’m suddenly sitting in an empty classroom. Escalante is standing in front of me with her back to a chalkboard filled with today’s lesson.
“Yes, Fumie? Do you require help with your homework?”
“No. Can I ask you questions about other things?”
“Of course. You may ask me questions about anything.”
“Why do they call this The Palace?”
“I’m sorry, Fumie,” she says. “I do not know what you mean by this.”
“I mean the group home I’m living in.”
“Fumie, as far as I am aware it does not have a name other than The California Department of Child Services Group Home #39.”
“Are all the group homes the same?” I ask, wondering if the answer to that question will explain why Bex called this The Palace.
“No, Fumie. There are many differences.”
“One difference is the size and number of floors. Other differences include the location and materials used in their construction. It will take me fifty-nine hours and seven minutes to explain all the differences. Would you like me to start?”
Argh…This is hopeless. Noah was right. She’s just a useless level three. I wonder if all the AIs are like her? I decide to ask her something else.
“Escalante, would you tell me about the Sprawl instead?”
“Certainly, Fumie. The Sprawl, also known as the Public Assistance Residential District, is four point two miles east of Child Services Group Home #39. It has a registered population of 31,654,325 with an estimated two million additional unregistered inhabitants.”
“Who lives there?”
“Residents of the state requiring public assistance.”
“Why are they called sprawl-rats?” I ask.
“I am unable to answer that question, Fumie.”
“I am not familiar with the term sprawl-rat. Twelve minutes remain until lights out. Would you like help with your homework?”
Frustrated, I dismiss Escalante and she blinks out of existence. As I take off the learning glasses, there’s a single quiet knock on my door.
“Fumie, are you there?”
I get up from the desk and open the door expecting him to be all contrite and apologetic about Madison, but he doesn’t even bother with a hello. He just beams a bright, happy smile at me and says, “Will you tutor me again?”
Annoyed, I cross my arms and glare at him. “After what Madison said this morning, give me one good reason why I should.”
“Because I really need your help, Fumie. If I do well on tomorrow’s test, Kamila said they’ll let me go on Friday’s EE.” Noah looks at me with sad puppy dog eyes. I feel my anger deflate like air leaking from a balloon. I’m such a sucker, I want to kick myself.
“Where’s the EE to?”
“The Planetarium at the Academy of Sciences,” he says. “Have you been?”
I wonder what he would say if I told him the last time I went to the Planetarium was more than a hundred years ago. “Once. A long, long time ago.”
“What was it like?”
“Imagine that,” Noah says, grinning. “An educational excursion that’s educational.”
A smile creeps onto my face. I want to stay mad at him, but I can’t. “When do you want me to tutor you?”
His eyes light up. “Really?”
“Don’t make me regret it.”
“Never. How about tomorrow morning while Madison is at the Simatorium? We can study in your room again,” he says.
That didn’t work out so well the last time, but it’s not like we have a lot of options. “Okay, but you have to do something for me first.”
Noah bobs his head up and down. “Anything.”
“I have a bunch of questions, and if they’re stupid, you can’t make fun of me.”
“Fumie, I would never make fun of you. What do you want to know?” he asks.
He sounds sincere, and I gaze at him, wondering how he can be both nice to me and friends with someone like Madison.
“Why is our group home called The Palace?”
“Who told you that?” he asks.
“A girl in class.”
“The one you were sitting beside?”
“She’s probably a sprawl-rat,” he says. “I don’t know for sure, but I’ve heard their group homes are more run-down than ours.”
“What do you mean ours?”
“People like us who aren’t from the sprawl.” Noah looks at me like I should know what he’s talking about.
Realizing I’ll get more information if I stick to the I’m from Japan story, I shrug. “Sorry, I don’t know what you mean. We didn’t have a sprawl in Japan.”
“You’re lucky,” he says. “The sprawl is crowded and dirty, and the people living there take Simatope and sit around playing sims all day long.”
I think about all the kids I saw in the Simatorium downstairs. “That doesn’t sound that different from here.”
“No one here is a Simatope addict,” Noah says defensively.
We both freeze as a door opens further down the hallway. It’s a girl I haven’t met. She steps into the corridor and stares at us for a moment before she goes into the washroom.
“It’s lights out soon,” Noah says. “I better get to my room.”
“Wait…I’ve got one more question.”
“The riots. Kamila said a lot of kids live here because their parents were killed during the riots.”
““It’s just a bunch of boring history,” Noah says. “It was a long time ago.”
“People were upset about the AIs taking their jobs, and when the government wouldn’t do anything about it, the Megacorps were forced to step in and help.”
“What’s a Megacorp?”
“A big multinational company. They’re the ones who built the Sprawl and paid for the group homes.”
Noah stops talking when the girl comes out of the washroom. When she goes back into her room, he says, “I can’t afford another demerit. I’ll come find you after breakfast tomorrow and tell you more, okay?”
I nod, and he surprises me with a quick hug. “Thanks, Fumie. You’re the best.”
Stunned, I watch him walk away and disappear into his room. It was just a friendly hug. Don’t read too much into it.