It is 2088, thirty years since the end of the ten-year Oil Wars.
Sala and Cham live in an enormous overcrowded city that they are forbidden to leave, for their own protection: the world outside the city was contaminated during the wars.
Because the Oil Wars left the city short of energy, everyone has a small chip buried under the skin on their wrists, which measures how many units of energy they use. It also notes where they are at all times, to keep them safe.
The government uses most of the city's energy to build virtual simulations, so that people can experience beautiful places without actually going anywhere. They cannot travel, but there will be no more wars. The city is at peace.
One Year Together
Sala and her friend Niki pushed past the people who had gathered in the rain outside the meat-growing laboratory. They were all shouting angrily, «Work! We want work!»
Government agents had just arrived, so the crowd would soon be forced to leave. Sala was so busy staring that she didn't look where she was going, and stepped into water up to her ankles.
«Urgh!» she said. Her right boot was wet through. «Let's get out of here.»
«What was that about?» asked Niki, as they hurried on down the street. «What are they all doing there?»
«My mom says the packing equipment is broken,» said Sala. Her mom was a scientist in the laboratory. «So they're demanding the packing work instead.»
«And will they get it?» asked Niki.
Sala shook her head. «Mom says the equipment will soon be fixed. Anyway, there are loads of robots doing the work for now.»
«So they're just getting wet for no reason?» said Niki. «What a life! Too many people, no jobs, and rain, rain, rain.»
«Yeah,» agreed Sala.
It was true; life for most people was difficult. But actually, Sala was feeling really happy. It was March 15, and she had been going out with Cham for exactly one year. She could say with her hand on her heart that this year — her eighteenth — had been the best so far. Absolutely. The. Best.
They reached the simulator center, and Sala lifted her wrist to touch a gray screen by the door. The little chip under her skin lit up for a second, showing how many energy units she had left. Everyone was given one hundred energy units a week, and they had to be careful not to use them too quickly. A simulator cost five units per hour, which was a lot — but it was worth it for the escape it offered from the city.
Inside, Niki went to meet some other friends while Sala looked around the busy entrance area for Cham. When she saw him over by the taste-pot machine, her heart jumped. It was crazy the way it did that, even after a whole year together.
«Hey,» said Cham, as she joined him. He smiled and kissed her, then gave her a taste-pot with a spoon: «I got your favorite. Double chocolate.»
«Aww… that's so sweet of you!» Taste-pots were great, because they weren't expensive, but gave you the taste of something luxurious like double chocolate ice cream. There were hundreds of tastes to choose from.
«We have Space 234. Maybe we could go to the beach?»
Sala nodded. «Perfect.»
At Space 234, they stepped inside the little room and closed the door. At once, there was silence: the noise of all the people outside was completely shut out. There was a screen on the wall with a list of places to choose from: places they would never see for real.
Sala chose the Beach illusion, and the walls of the room disappeared. Instead, there was calm blue ocean as far as they could see, under a cloudless sky. Sunlight shone through the trees above, and soft golden sand seemed to lie at their feet. All they could hear were the sounds of the waves and the gentle wind in the trees. It was a really wonderful illusion.
«Fantastic,» said Sala, taking off her wet boots. «I love this simulation.»
They sat down to eat their taste-pots, looking out at the beautiful view and watching the waves roll up the shore. Then, after her final spoonful, Sala reached for her bag.
«I have something for you. A present.»
She gave Cham a package, then sat watching his expression as he slowly opened it.
«Hey!» said Cham. «It's one of your paintings!»
«Yes.» Sala loved painting, but the paints were expensive, so it was something she couldn't do very often.
«Wow!» Cham studied it.
«You like it?»
«I love it,» said Cham. «It's you and me, right? And a waterfall behind us.» He smiled. «Not a waterfall. The waterfall.»
Sala nodded. «To remind you of the day we met.»
«You think I'd forget?» he laughed. «Not a chance.»
Sala would never forget, either. One year ago, on March 15, 2087, she'd been standing in Space 29 in one of her favorite illusions. She was on the top of a cliff looking down at a valley, with fields and forests that went on and on. On the other side of the valley, the white waters of a waterfall flowed over the rocks. It was one of the best illusions available in the simulator, because if you stood at the edge of the cliff, it really felt like you could fall.
And then someone had opened the door, making the whole illusion break up. Sala had been so surprised she'd almost screamed. She'd turned around quickly and seen a boy: about her age but a little taller, with black hair and dark, smiling eyes… Sala had stared. He was gorgeous.
«Oops, sorry!» he'd said. «Wrong space!»
«Oh! That's OK,» Sala had replied quickly. «You can stay here if you want.»
She didn't know where those words had come from. Usually, she was shy with boys. But Cham had come in and closed the door, and they had started to talk. Sala had soon found out that he lived near her, in an earth apartment. He loved the same ultranet games and story-streams as her, and the same illusions in the simulator. Best of all, he made her laugh. By the time they left the simulator, she'd fallen in love — and luckily for her, so had Cham.
Cham put the painting down. «I have something for you, too.»
«Another double choc taste-pot?»
«Nope.» Cham smiled, his eyes shining. «Try again.»
Sala had no idea. «A diamond necklace?» she joked.
«In your dreams!»
«Cham!» Sala giggled. «Don't make me guess!»
«OK, OK,» laughed Cham. «Take a look at your ultranet.»
Sala looked at Cham, and engaged her virtual interface.
«Go on,» Cham encouraged her.
Sala looked up at her interface. The letters PA appeared, followed by the face of a young woman.
«Hello, Sala. This is Pod Adventures,» said the woman, in a friendly voice.
Sala's mouth dropped open. A pod experience?
«Sala, you and Cham are going to swim with dolphins.»
«No!» cried Sala. She stared at Cham. «Really?»
She couldn't believe it. A pod was like a simulator, but a million times better. Your whole body lay inside the pod and it was like your normal life was turned off. In a simulator, it was hard to forget that there were four walls just five or six steps away — but in a pod, you lost your awareness of the world around you. You lived the experience completely.
Cham smiled at her. «Happy?»
«Yes!» Sala had never had a pod experience. They were expensive. She didn't know how Cham could afford it, but he was always so kind and generous — it would be rude to ask. She wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his neck. «Thank you, thank you. You're the best! I love you so much.» The hour on the beach was soon over. Sala and Cham left, and met three friends in another space — Niki, and two boys named Palo and Ding. With five of them sharing, an hour cost just one energy unit each, so they did this often. For the first thirty minutes, they chose the illusion of a big nightclub with a famous band playing. Then they changed to a sunny park, like the ones that their city used to have, and sat down to talk.
«Guess what,» said Ding. «I heard the government has a new idea — about people living in pods.»
«Oh yeah,» said Palo. «Pod Life. I saw something about it, too. But it's not just an idea. It's happening. It's starting really soon — in a couple of weeks, I think.»
Sala was curious. «I haven't heard anything,» she said. «What's it all about?»
«It's like a pod experience, but you stay in for much longer,» explained Ding. «They've developed these special pods that you can actually live in. They connect your body to them and look after it for you — your food, your muscles, everything. So you don't need to move. You live there. Inside the pod.»
«Live there!» gasped Sala. It was one thing to have a pod experience — but to stay inside the pod was something else. «For how long?»
«I think they're saying two years, at least,» said Palo.
Sala's mouth dropped open. «But who would want to do that?»
«People who want to earn money and energy units,» said Ding. «They give you both while you're in there. And you get to study, I think.»
«Yeah. They've designed special study programs,» explained Palo.
Sala frowned. «But we already study virtually most of the time.»
«This is at another level, I guess. They're saying that the study programs in the pod will make you much more employable when you come out.»
«And they actually pay you?» Niki's eyes were wide.
«Yes,» said Palo. «They really want people to do it. It will save space and energy, they say.»
«Oooh, strange!» said Niki. «But interesting, too.»
«I'd hate it,» said Sala. «Can you imagine?» She looked across at Cham. He was quiet, just listening. It was unusual for him. «Living in a pod. Urgh!»
«You sound like your grandmother,» joked Ding.
Sala laughed. «Maybe.»
Actually, Ding was probably right. Sala's grandmother remembered life before the Oil Wars, when people could travel freely and see other parts of the world. Now Gran believed in encouraging people to enjoy the real world, instead of constantly escaping to the simulators or the ultranet. She'd made her own garden on the roof of their apartment, and she was always up there. The rest of her family jokingly called it her «Real Space.»
The Fruit of the Wild Rose
When Sala and Cham left the simulator center, it was dark, and still raining. To get home quickly, they stepped onto one of the fast-moving walkways that stretched in all directions across the city.
As they traveled, towering blocks of apartments rose up high all around them. Most of them had at least forty floors above ground — these were called «sky apartments.» Below ground, there were often another ten floors, for «earth apartments.» The government had started building under the ground long ago, because the land inside the city was so limited.
Sala and Cham stepped off the walkway near their apartment blocks, and as they did so, someone knocked Sala's elbow, then held her arm for a second.
Sala turned quickly: a young woman stood there. She was maybe a year or two older than Sala and Cham. She had a hat pulled low over her face, so it was partly hidden, but Sala could just see her green eyes.
The woman reached for Sala's hand and slipped a small package into it. «Give this to your grandmother,» she said, and then turned away.
Sala's mouth dropped open. «Sorry? What… Wait!»
But she was too late. The woman had already jumped back onto the speeding walkway. It carried her away rapidly, and in no time at all, she'd disappeared.
«Who was that?» asked Cham.
«No idea.» Sala stared down at the little package in her hand. It was made of clear plastic, and inside, there was some kind of small dark red fruit. It looked old and dry. Sala frowned. She'd never seen anything like it before.
«Must be something for Gran's garden,» she said.
«Yeah, that makes sense,» Cham agreed. «Well, I guess I'd better go. Mom's expecting me.»
Sala put her arms around him and kissed him.
«Thank you so much, again,» she said. «I've had a great time, and I can't wait to go swimming with dolphins.»
«Good,» said Cham. «And thanks for my painting, too. I love it.» But his voice sounded strange… distant, almost.
Sala frowned. She remembered how quiet he'd been with their friends. Usually, Cham had plenty to say, and loved making everyone laugh.
«Cham is everything OK?» she asked.
«Yes, yes,» he said. «Why?»
«You seem worried about something.»
Cham seemed to hesitate.
«Is it your dad?» Sala asked. «Is he looking for work again?» Cham smiled, and shook his head. «No, he's helping fix the equipment at the meat-growing laboratory, actually, and getting reasonable money for it. Honestly, it's nothing. I'll see you on the ultranet later, OK?»
They'd been standing under one of the shelters at the entrance to the walkway. Cham kissed her, and before Sala could say anything else, he turned and ran out into the rain.
Sala watched him go, puzzled. It's nothing, he'd said. She wished she could believe him. But it was odd. All at once, she was sure that something wasn't right.
She turned and ran down the street to her apartment block, and soon she was in the dry and rushing upward in the elevator. Twenty… twenty-five… the floors passed by so quickly. With a loud beep, the doors opened at floor sixty-three: the top. Sala walked out, and the screen on the door of her apartment recognized her, and let her in.
«Is that you, Sala?» called a voice from somewhere above. «Yes, Gran. Are you in the Real Space?»
«Of course,» called Gran. «Come on up!»
Sala smiled to herself. It had taken years for Gran to make her garden because it was so difficult to find soil or plants, but she had made some soil with rotten vegetables and fruit, and slowly found bits and pieces here and there. Now she spent as much time in the garden as possible, even when it was dark or raining. It was tiny, but full of life; Gran was managing to grow all sorts of plants. At night, little lamps shone, and mirrors reflected their light.
Gran was bending over a tomato plant, but as Sala entered, she straightened up slowly. Sala could see from her face that it hurt her to move like that. Her back was often painful from when she'd been injured during the Oil Wars, so she almost never left the apartment these days.
Sala greeted her, then held out her hand. «Gran, I have something for you!»
Gran frowned. «For me?»
Sala nodded, giving her the small plastic package. «I think it must be something for you to plant.»
Gran looked down at the strange gift, and to Sala's surprise, her face went deathly pale. For one awful moment, she thought Gran might even fall over.
«Gran! Are you OK?» Sala put an arm around her, and made her sit down on the little bench that looked over the city.
Gran's lips were trembling. «Where… Sala, where did you get this?» she whispered.
«A woman gave it to me. On the walkway. Well, just off the walkway, really. I think she must have followed me. Why? What is it? What does it mean?»
Gran didn't answer. Instead, she turned the package over, looking for a way to open it. She broke it down the middle, and the little dried fruit fell out into her hand.
«It's a fruit of the wild rose,» she said in a low voice, touching it carefully. «And the thing is… wild roses don't grow in the city.»
Sala frowned. «So, where did it come front?» Gran, still pale, said nothing.
Sala was thinking fast. «You don't mean… it came from outside?»
Sala had never seen anything from beyond the city. Everything they ate everything they used — it was all grown or made within the city's limits. What's more, there was a force field at the city boundary that was impossible to cross: there were alarms there that sensed your wrist chip before you even got close, and then government agents appeared in seconds to arrest you. They did not want anyone going into the contaminated world beyond — it was much too dangerous, they said.
The color was beginning to come back into Gran's face now. «Wild roses used to grow near our house, when I was young,» she told Sala. «Before the Oil Wars.»
«Your house near the beach?» said Sala. Gran was always talking about how she'd lived by the ocean when she was a child.
«That's right,» said Gran. «My brother and I used to play with the fruit. There are tiny hairs inside that make you want to scratch. So we used to play tricks with them: put them in people's clothes. Oh, we had a lot of fun!» Gran laughed gently. «But then… we grew up. And the wars started.»
«So, your brother — that's… Great-Uncle Eston, right?» said Sala. «The one you tell stories about? The one who...»
«Died.» Gran nodded. «After the Oil Wars, I looked for him all over the city, but I couldn't find him anywhere. I've always believed that he died in the outside world, in the contamination.» She rolled the fruit between her fingers. «I haven't heard from him for more than… thirty years. Until — this.»
Sala frowned. «Wait a minute — you think your brother sent the fruit?»
Gran smiled. «Oh, I know it's silly, isn't it? I don't know where it came from. I would love to believe it's front him. But...» She shook her head sadly. «How could it be?»
The idea was crazy. But it was also exciting. «Gran, you never know! Maybe there are places outside the city that didn't get contaminated — where people survived.»
Gran looked out at the view of towering blocks, stretching into the distance. Her mind seemed far away. Then she turned to Sala. «Did the woman say how you could contact her?»
«The one who gave you the fruit.»
«Oh! No. She disappeared.»
«Right. Well, that's that, then,» said Gran. «Maybe someone found it in a dusty corner and thought of my little garden… But it's very odd, all the same.»
She got up and returned to her tomato plants, taking off the dead and dying leaves from the bottom of each one. «So, tell me about your day,» she said, over her shoulder. «Did you have a nice time with Cham?»
«Oh, Gran!» said Sala. «You know we've been together a year today? Well, he bought us a pod experience. We're going to swim with dolphins.»
«Are you?» Gran sounded surprised. «He's such a kind boy. But I don't know how he can afford something like that.»
«I know.» Sala thought of Cham's face when he left her, and felt uneasy. «I don't understand it either.»
Gran threw a handful of leaves onto a pile in the corner. «Well, it's good to be generous,» she said. «And swimming with dolphins is wonderful — although this isn't quite the real thing, of course.»
«You've been swimming with dolphins?» asked Sala.
«Yes. Years ago, before the Oil Wars,» said Gran. «When I went traveling with your grandfather.»
Gran was always talking about the days when she and Sala's grandfather used to travel to distant lands, climb mountains, and go swimming in the ocean. Such adventures had been normal then, but they seemed almost magical now.
«Do you think we'll ever be able to travel like you did?» Sala asked. «Me and Cham?»
Gran looked thoughtful. «Who knows?» she said. «Maybe one day. If we're ever free of these silly things.» She tapped her wrist.
Sala smiled. Gran had a chip buried under her skin like everyone else, but she wore a bracelet to hide it as a small way of protesting about the government's tight control over everyone.
«You're such a rebel, Gran.»
Her gran's eyes danced. «Never give up hope, my love.»
Back inside the apartment, Sala found her nine-year-old brother Apat playing games on the ultranet in his room.
Their mom was still out at work.
Sala went to her own tiny room, and played her ultranet messages. There was one from Niki, but nothing from Cham, so she began a message to him. «Hey,» she said. «Did you get home OK?» Then she stopped. Had he been odd with her? She wasn't sure. Maybe it was silly to think so. Then she thought about Gran's fruit.
Don't mention that on the ultranet, she told herself. If it really was from outside, it could be dangerous to say anything about it. «Please message me,» she finished instead. «I'm dying to tell you a story about Gran. Missing you.»
She began watching an ultranet story-stream. Story-streams were a little like the movies that people watched in the past. This one was very exciting, but Sala couldn't concentrate. The conversation with Gran had gotten her thinking.
Will we ever be free? she wondered. Or will we only ever see the world virtually? Of course, the virtual world was interesting. There was so much you could see on the ultranet or at the simulator center. But afterward, you were still in the city in a tiny room, surrounded by thousands of other people doing exactly the same thing. Was this the best life they could hope for?
A call came in on Sala's ultranet connection, and her heart jumped.
His face on her virtual interface looked worried. «Hi, Sala. Are you busy?»
«Not really. Just a story-stream. Why?»
«Well… I've been… thinking.» The color rose in his face. «Thinking about what?» demanded Sala. So there was something wrong. «Cham, has something happened?»
«No, no, no. It's nothing, really. I just thought you might be annoyed with me, and I didn't want to ruin our day.»
Sala laughed. «When am I ever annoyed with you?»
«You might be this time.» Cham hesitated. «It's just… that pod thing.»
Suddenly, Sala thought she understood. «Cham, I know. You shouldn't have bought us such an expensive present — I mean, it's wonderful, but you don't have enough money. We can get what you paid for this back, I'm sure...»
«But that's the problem,» said Cham. «I didn't pay for it all.»
«It was a special offer — if you bought one experience, you could get another for free.» He suddenly started talking very fast. «I had enough money for one, and you just had to say you were interested in Pod Life. So I thought, hey, yes — that's a great idea, I don't have to actually do it-»
«Stop, stop!» cried Sala. «Slow down a minute.»
There was a second of silence.
«Cham,» said Sala. «Is this the Pod Life that Ding was talking about? The one where you live in a pod for two years?» Cham looked uncomfortable. «Yes.»
«And you said you were interested, to get this special offer?»
«So… are you interested?»
«No! Well, I mean — just as an idea, you know...»
«You didn't say you'd do it, did you?» she whispered.
«No! No, of course not.» He paused. «You said you hated the idea. When we were with the others.»
«Oh.» So that's why he was quiet. Nothing more serious. Sala felt a rush of gladness. «Why would I mind you getting a special offer? It's cool.»
Cham's face brightened. «Phew! So we're OK? And I'll see you at the energy center tomorrow, with Apat?»
«Of course,» said Sala. «See you then.»
As soon as Cham's face disappeared, she suddenly remembered: Gran's story! She'd forgotten to tell him about it in the end.
Sala and Apat arrived at the energy center before it opened, and found Cham already in line to get in. The center was always busy, because everyone was eager to earn energy units. You could run, ride a bicycle, climb, or jump on different machines, which created energy, so then you added the units to your wrist chip. You never earned many, but it was better than nothing — and a good way to exercise, and get out of your apartment.
Sala knew that Apat loved it when Cham came with them to the center, because Cham always joked around with him. The three of them laughed and talked as they waited for the doors to open. Then they were in, and heading to their favorite machines. Apat chose the jumping machines, as always; Cham got onto a climbing machine and was soon halfway up a wall. Sala stepped onto a running machine, and started to run.
After thirty minutes, Apat was still jumping up and down happily, but Sala and Cham took a break and went to the cafe, where a drinks machine made special mixtures of juice and energy liquids.
«I'll buy these,» said Sala. «It's my turn.»
When she came back to their table, Cham was watching something on the ultranet.
«Hey,» said Sala. «Drinks here!»
«Sorry,» said Cham, looking back at Sala hurriedly. «And thanks. Climbing is thirsty work.» But there was something odd in his voice again, and a strange expression on his face. «What were you watching?» asked Sala.
«Oh, nothing. It's just annoying. Stupid messages.»
«Who from?» Sala was surprised.
«From the Pod Life people. Because I said I was interested.»
«Can't you just get rid of them?»
«Well, yes.» He bit his lip. «But I've read a lot of them and… they kind of make me think. Maybe this Pod Life thing wouldn't be so bad, after all. You can earn a lot of money for it — a real salary, like your mom's.»
Sala stared at him. «You're not serious?»
He reached out for her hand. «Hey, don't look at me like that. It's just an idea. I mentioned it to Mom last night and… well, she surprised me. She was really enthusiastic.»
Sala's mouth dropped open. «So you were thinking about it!» she cried. «You were thinking about it the whole time!»
«I wasn't! You don't understand -»
«Last night, you said it was just to get the second pod experience!»
«It was -»
«It doesn't sound like that.» Sala banged her drink down. «You've read the messages, you've thought about it, you've even talked to your mom -»
Cham spread his hands. «Sala, please. I'm only talking. Honestly, I don't know what your problem is.»
«What?» Sala stared at him. «You're thinking of leaving me for two whole years and you can't see the problem?»
They had never argued before. Ever. When Sala got home with Apat, she felt sick. She managed not to say anything in front of her little brother, but Gran could see at once that she was upset.
«Something is wrong, isn't it?» asked Gran, as they sat in the Real Space. «You look very pale.»
Sala explained everything-about the special offer, and their conversation at the energy center.
«I was so upset. We argued, and I told Apat we had to leave early,» she finished miserably. «Gran, I can't believe he's even considering it.» Her eyes filled with tears. «Two years!»
«It's normal to consider things, Sala. It doesn't mean he'll actually do it. I'm sure he loves you, but you can't blame hint for thinking about the future. You have to remember that his situation is different from yours. Think about where he lives. It costs a lot to live in an earth apartment — you need constant lighting and heating. And when there's so little work available, most people have no hope of changing their lives. They're trapped. Your mother is in a very unusual position, you know — Cham's dad only gets bits and pieces of work now and then. So Cham probably needs to think about the future more carefully than you.»
Sala thought for a while. It was true, her family was very lucky, and she sometimes forgot that. Her mom was a food scientist in the meat-growing laboratory, developing different kinds of meat from just a few animal cells. It meant that she earned a regular salary, unlike Cham's parents, who were always worrying about money. That was how Sala and her family were able to live in their rooftop apartment.
«You're right. I need to say sorry. Thanks, Gran.»
«Any time.» Then Gran hesitated. «Um… you didn't see anyone else today, did you?»
«No… it was just me and Apat, and Cham.»
«I mean… well, I suppose I'm silly to ask. I mean the woman you saw yesterday. The one who gave you the fruit.»
«Oh! No.» Sala's thoughts had been so full of Cham and Pod Life that she'd almost forgotten about it. «Do you honestly think it came from outside?»
Gran stared into the distance for a moment, deep in thought. «Well… there's nowhere in the city for wild roses to grow. But of course it can't have come in from outside… unless...» She waved her hand. «Oh, don't listen to me.»
«But I love listening to you!»
Gran smiled. «Well, I suppose I'm thinking that maybe, just maybe, there is still life in the outside world — and maybe someone from that world has found a way across the city boundary.»
It was an extraordinary idea. Sala thought of all the places she'd visited in the simulator. Some of them were really beautiful, but you couldn't really explore them because you were still in a little room with a time limit. How wonderful to think that there might still be a different world out there — a world where you could do all those things for real!
Sala went back down to her room and sent Cham a message.
«Hi, Cham. I'm really sorry I got so angry,» she said. «It was stupid. Can we talk? I'll come over, if you like.»
Then she waited for his reply. Five minutes went by. Then ten. Fifteen. Sala bit her lip anxiously. What if he wouldn't forgive her? She had really shouted at him, and now she felt awful. Of course, Gran was right. She couldn't judge him for considering Pod Life. She was in the wrong, and now she'd probably ruined everything.
She sat on the edge of her bed, worrying. She tried to think of something else instead. The mystery woman: Who was she? How did she know about Gran? She wondered when she would see her again...
A message — from Cham! His smiling face, saying simply: «Can you come to mine?» Sala's heart flooded with happiness. Forgetting about the woman, she jumped to her feet and rushed out. It wasn't far to Cham's apartment block, but another storm had gathered. The skies were heavy and gray as stone; Sala heard a clap of thunder. Too bad, she thought.
She arrived just as the rain began to pour, and lightning flashed across the sky. She dived through the doors and jumped into the elevator. Down, down… nine floors down, she stepped out into a different world. It was so quiet and calm: a world the storm couldn't reach. At Cham's door, she stood by the recognition screen and waited.
The door opened. Cham stood there, his arms open, and Sala rushed into a huge hug. Hand in hand, they went inside the apartment. It was a bit smaller than Sala's, with no windows — and no garden either, of course. Cham's parents had furnished it nicely, and there were plenty of lights to make it bright. But it was crowded because Cham had two younger sisters, and Sala knew they all hated living deep underground — especially Cham's dad Tian.
«Do you want me to put the hologram on?» asked Cham. «No one else is around.»
One wall of the apartment was just plain white, with a hologram you could turn on and off. There was a choice of lifelike views in 3D — not as clever as the illusions in the simulator, but they did help the family to forget, at times, that they lived deep under the ground.
«Don't use any energy units for me — I'm not bothered,» said Sala.
Then she and Cham both began talking at once.
«Look, I know I was wrong -»
«Sorry, I don't want to -»
They both stopped, and laughed.
«I don't want to argue again,» said Sala. «It was horrible. And I want to know more about this Pod Life thing.»
«OK… if you're sure.»
«Go for it.»
«Right. Well, they say it's a huge study opportunity. You learn things in a completely different way because your whole body is involved. You don't just learn the ideas. You actually experience them.»
Sala frowned, trying to imagine it.
«Then the other thing is, you get loads of energy units,» Cham carried on. «Because you're just lying in the pod, they're able to store all the heat energy that your body creates. Then you get it all back as energy units when you come out. And they pay you, too. Or your family instead, if you want.»
His voice was full of enthusiasm, and Sala began to feel uneasy. It all made too much sense. Then she thought of Gran.
«But Cham,» she said, «what if there was a better future — something completely different?»
«What do you mean?»
«Well, it's just… you know that fruit the woman gave me?»
«What about it?»
«Gran said she thought it had come from… outside.»
«Outside what?» Cham looked confused.
«The city, of course!»
Cham's mouth dropped open. Then he threw back his head and laughed. «That is the craziest thing I've ever heard!»
«Well, Gran doesn't seem to think so...»
«Come on, are you joking? Your gran is fantastic. I love the way she talks about the past and all that. But that fruit — someone must have found it in a closet or somewhere.»
«Well… maybe,» said Sala. «But who would have sent it without a note? Gran thinks… she thinks maybe it came from her long-lost brother. My Great-Uncle Eston.»
«From her brother?» Cham paused for a second, then laughed. «But I mean… come on… an old dried fruit?»
Sala studied his face. He wasn't taking Gran's suggestion seriously. He truly didn't believe the fruit came from another world beyond the city boundary — and she couldn't really blame him. This was the only world they were ever likely to experience. Apart from the virtual world, of course… She decided that they needed to talk about something different, because she'd come here to make things better, not worse.
«I wish someone else in your family could do the pod thing,» she said. «Your dad, maybe. I can see that all those units and the extra money would be useful. You could move out of here. Your parents could rent a sky apartment instead.»
Cham nodded. «My dad couldn't do it, though. It's for people our age: seventeen to twenty-one.»
There was a silence. Sala realized now that Cham was ambitious. He wanted to get on in life. She would never want to prevent that — there were so few opportunities to succeed. But she hated the thought of losing him.
«Sala,» said Cham, «you know I'd love to help my parents. When I told Mom about it, she looked so hopeful I thought she'd cry. It was awful. But I don't want to leave you.»
His words made Sala feel ashamed. Cham had so many things to consider, far more than her.
«I just wondered...» Cham hesitated. «I know what you said before, but… would you think about doing it with me?»
He asked her gently, but his words still came as a shock. Until now, Sala hadn't even thought about doing it herself. She wanted to tell Cham right away that she hated the idea. But then she thought of her Gran, and what she'd said about Cham's situation. Sala needed to consider this, at least.
«So… how would it work?» she asked. «If we were both in a pod, how would we be together?»
«I'm not really sure,» Cham confessed. «But I think it's like another world. A virtual world where we can see each other and talk and everything. So at least if we were both doing the same thing, it would almost feel like we were together.»
It was a few moments before Sala spoke. Then she looked at Cham and smiled. «Well, we're going to have a pod experience together, right? Then we'll know how it feels. We can think about it more clearly afterward.»
Swimming with Dolphins
«So, when are you going to the pod center?» asked Niki.
«You lucky thing! I'd love a pod experience.»
It was Monday, and the two friends were riding the walkway home from college. They only attended one day a week; on the other days, they studied virtually, on the ultranet. Studying at home helped with overcrowding, used less energy, and made teaching easier: well, that's what the government said.
«Tomorrow afternoon,» Sala told her.
«I'm jealous!» Niki said. «In fact, I've been looking into that Pod Life thing that Ding told us about. It sounds great. I'm not old enough yet, though. You have to be seventeen and I've still got two months to go.»
Sala looked at her friend. Another one! The news had spread about Pod Life, and other students had been discussing it all weekend. Many seemed to see it as a serious choice.
«Really?» she replied. «Has everyone gone crazy?»
Niki laughed. «Not at all. Think of all those energy units! Why don't you like the idea?»
Sala frowned. She was still looking forward to the dolphin experience. That was exciting. But whenever she thought about lying in a pod for months, her stomach seemed to turn over and over — in spite of what she'd told Cham.
«I suppose it seems to me like losing control,» she said.
«Well, I guess you're not the only one who's afraid.»
Sala was a bit offended. «I'm not talking about being afraid. I like to be independent, that's all. The government controls us enough already. I'd rather be free than in a pod.»
«But isn't that the point?» suggested Niki. «Once you've got all those energy units and extra money, you are free. More free than you were before.»
«Not really,» said Sala. «And two years of your life is a high price to pay.»
«Pod Life is the future, Sala.» Niki sounded very confident. «In a few years, everyone will be doing it. I don't want to be left behind — do you?»
«Well, no, I guess not.» Sala looked away. They had almost reached Sala's exit, so she gathered her things together and said goodbye to Niki. But as she stepped off the walkway, she felt a hand touching her back.
«Did your grandmother like it?» whispered a voice.
Sala looked around, and gasped. It was the woman who had given her the fruit.
«Yeah… uh, yes,» she managed to say. «She did. But who are you? Where did it come from?»
«You'll find out soon. I'll see you again.»
And then, just like the first time, the woman stepped quickly onto the walkway and was soon lost among the crowds.
It was maddening. What was going on? Was it some kind of game? Sala wondered whether to tell Gran, but there was nothing new to say. Gran was so excited; it would be awful if this was all a cruel joke. I'll see you again, the woman had said: well, then, there was really nothing to do but wait.
The following afternoon, as Sala walked up and down in her little room, waiting to go with Cham for their pod experience, she had a strange feeling in her stomach. Maybe this was how it felt to go on a real journey, she thought. You were excited and you couldn't concentrate on anything else, but you were also a tiny bit afraid. In a good way.
From far down on the ground floor, Cham sent a message: «Ready when you are!»
Sala rushed down, and they set out on one of the fastest walkways to the pod center, talking happily. Now that they were actually on their way, it was all so much fun.
«We're like explorers from the past,» she said.
«Yeah. Heading out on an expedition!» Cham laughed.
«Maybe there'll be more than dolphins.» Sala let her mind go wild. «There'll be tigers and other dangerous animals and… and… snow!»
«Take it easy, crazy girl!» said Cham. «In the ocean?»
«But who knows what there might he under the water!» laughed Cham."
«Oh! Don't say that,» cried Sala. «I'll worry about it and then I won't be able to swim.»
«Can you swim?» asked Cham, curiously.
«Um, no. Can you?»
Cham shook his head. «No. But that's the fantastic thing. Everything is possible in a pod.»
They left the walkway at the nearest exit to the pod center. The building was enormous, higher even than the tallest apartment blocks. Sala had seen it before, of course, from a distance — but she'd never been so close to it.
«Wow!» she said.
«I know,» said Cham. «Come on. This is it.»
The door recognized that they had tickets, and let them in. Inside, the lights were so bright they were almost blinding, and there was a constant soft noise of people working on computers. All the technicians wore white coats; they looked serious and professional. One wall was invisible — all you could see was a huge 3D hologram advertising Pod Life.
They didn't have long to wait. A friendly young woman called Zee guided them to their pod area.
«These are your body suits,» Zee told them. «You can change over there.» She handed them each a slippery, silvery suit and pointed them in the right direction.
Sala and Cham each went into a little room and Sala put on her suit, made a neat pile of her clothes, and carried them out to Zee. Cham was already there, looking more gorgeous than ever in his silver suit.
«Good,» smiled Zee. «Let's go, shall we?»
She led them toward a row of strange-looking pods that stood vertically. Sala frowned. Would it really feel like she was swimming with dolphins in one of those?
«You just walk in,» Zee explained. «And then, when everything is attached, the pod moves into a horizontal position, so you're lying down.»
«Here goes,» said Cham, his eyes shining with excitement. «See you in an hour, Sala!»
«Sooner than that. You'll see her in the pod,» remarked Zee.
Zee guided Sala into her pod; the door closed, and she could feel the cool metal attachments touching her face and her body suit. Whoosh. All at once, she was floating in warm, clear water. A gentle wave splashed her face. She licked her lips and tasted salt. She was in the ocean!
Above her, the sky was a perfect, cloudless blue. In one direction, a golden beach was just visible, with the tops of green trees beyond it. In another direction, the ocean stretched out into the distance. Cautiously, she tried moving her arms and legs, and found that it came naturally. She could swim!
It was such a lovely sensation. She grew braver, and began to swim more rapidly toward the beach.
Then she heard a noise. Click-click-click-click-click. Wheeee!
The sound was traveling through the water. And there it was again. Wheeee! A loud, clear whistle, right by her ear. Sala turned her head, and gasped. She couldn't believe it — she was face to face with a beautiful gray dolphin. It opened its mouth, and Sala felt sure it was greeting her.
The dolphin whistled again, then turned away, its back making an arch in the water. It disappeared under the surface for a moment, so Sala looked around.
And there was Cham. He was swimming toward her with a dolphin on either side of him.
«Sala!» he called.
She waved excitedly. «I think they want us to follow them!»
Sure enough, the dolphins set off, their smooth, strong bodies sliding through the ocean. Sala and Cham swam with them for a while — further out into the ocean first and then back toward the beach. When the water became shallower, the dolphins began to swim lazily in circles.
Floating gently, Sala looked down into the water's depths. «Oh, wow!» she cried. «Cham! Look!»
There, below the surface, were hundreds of multicolored fish. Blue, red, yellow, orange, purple, silver, and gold.
«Gorgeous!» breathed Cham.
They watched as the fish moved slowly between the waving ocean plants, silent and peaceful in their watery world.
While Sala and Cham were watching the fish, the dolphins carried on making a huge variety of sounds — whistles and clicks and strange, wild calls. It was magical.
«They're talking to us,» laughed Sala.
«Or singing!» Cham suggested.
Sala rolled onto her back and lay floating, staring up at the sky. It was so perfect here. She wondered about the land in the distance. Maybe it was an island. An island with fruit trees and birds singing. A place of calm and beauty and peace.
She began to swim again, next to Cham. He held on to a dolphin's tail and it began to play with him, pulling him along much faster than he could swim. Sala did the same with another dolphin and they had a lot of fun, diving down through the water and back up to the surface with a splash.
Then the biggest dolphin moved toward Sala and pushed her with its nose. She looked deep into its eyes, and reached out to touch its face. Its expression was so wise. Time seemed to stop. I'm connected to an ancient time and place, thought Sala. This was such an intelligent, sensitive creature, who seemed to know exactly who she was.
And then she heard a voice: «Your hour is almost over. Your pod is about to move back into a vertical position.»
The ocean disappeared. Cham disappeared. There was nothing at all. Then the pod moved, and Sala was standing again. She tried to move her arms, but they were trapped. She wanted to fight, or run, but she couldn't lift her legs.
«Help! I'm -» she began.
«Sala! Sala, it's OK,» said someone.
White, gray, silver… Shining glass. Then a face she had seen before. Zee's face.
«Hey, Sala,» said Zee, her voice soft and calm. «You're back. No need to worry. Did you have a wonderful trip?»
Sala tried to breathe more calmly. It was OK. Nothing wrong. She was back. The attachments came off and she walked out of the pod, her knees trembling. She touched the silvery suit. It was completely dry.
No water. No ocean. Just sensations. A wave of shock hit her. It was all too much. She buried her face in her hands, and burst into tears.
Fifteen minutes later, Sala was dressed in her own clothes again, and was sitting next to Cham near the changing rooms. She was still feeling a bit shaky.
Zee brought them a high-energy drink. «Here you are. Drink this. And take your time,» she told them. «It's normal to feel a little strange when you first come out.»
«I don't feel strange,» said Cham. «Fantastic, more like! That was the best thing I've ever done in my life. Unreal.»
«It was unreal, all right,» remarked Sala weakly.
Cham laughed, and then looked at her anxiously. «But you did enjoy it, right?»
«Oh yes. It was… extraordinary.» Sala paused. «Much better than I expected, to be honest. When the dolphins started playing with us, it was out of this world.»
Cham's eyes danced. «Yeah, really great. And I loved it right at the end, when that big dolphin came up to you and lifted you out of the water.»
Sala frowned. The big dolphin had only touched her gently, and looked into her eyes. «He didn't lift me.»
«But I saw him do it. That's odd.»
Sala felt puzzled. «Yes. I mean… it was you in there, wasn't it? Your voice sounded a bit different, but apart from that...»
«Sure it was me,» said Cham. «I guess they take a 3D picture of you inside the pod, and then they create an avatar.»
«But an avatar isn't ns. It's an imitation of us.»
Cham nodded. «Yes, but it's controlled by our thoughts. And we were in the same virtual space together. You remember following the dolphins to see the fish, right?»
«And then the dolphins were making all that noise, and we laughed about them talking to us -»
«Singing!» Sala nodded.
«So it was you. And me. Us.» Sala felt a bit better.
«We were communicating through our avatars,» said Cham «It's so clever.»
A bit too clever, said a voice in Sala's head: they'd been together, and yet not together; they were able to talk to each other, but sometimes experienced things separately. It was confusing, and a bit frightening.
She stood up and stretched. Her legs had stopped trembling, more or less, and she wanted to get out of there. «Can we go?»
«OK. I'll just finish this.» Cham swallowed his drink hurriedly, and they waved goodbye to Zee.
As they passed the enormous hologram wall by the entrance, Cham put his arm around Sala. She wished they could just go back to normal now. But on the walkway home, he didn't talk as much as usual. He looked out over the city and seemed to be thinking deeply. It worried Sala. There was a big conversation coming, and she wasn't looking forward to it.
They were almost home when Cham turned to her.
«You know what,» he said. «If I didn't have you, I'd sign up for Pod Life, I think.»
«Yeah. I thought it was cool. But… we want to be together, right?»
«And you're the one with doubts about it, so you should decide. I would do it — but only if you want to do it, too. If you don't, that's it. We won't.»
Sala stared at him. «But… what if I say no?»
«You just said you'd like to do it.»
«Not without you,» repeated Cham. «Look, I trust you, Sala. You'll make a good decision, I know you will.»
Sala looked at Cham's face. She loved him so much. They'd never had to make a big decision like this before, and she wished with all her heart that he wasn't making her choose. But she could see he was only being fair.
«All right, Cham,» she said slowly. «I'll think about it. I promise.»
When Sala arrived home, Mom was back from work, and Apat and Gran were there, too. They all sat down to eat and talk together. It was a delicious dinner — Mom had brought home some top-quality meat from the laboratory, and Gran had added some vegetables from her garden. Everyone wanted to hear about Sala's pod experience, so she described it slowly, giving every last detail. Apat's eyes grew wide as saucers. «Ohhhh. I want to go!»
Sala smiled. «You would love it, Apat. But you'll have to save some money first.»
«That's right,» Mom agreed. «Oh, it's good to see you all and really talk. I've been so busy at work the last few days, I feel I've not been home much at all.»
«Is that because of the packing equipment breaking?» asked Sala. «Niki and I passed the laboratory the other day — there were loads of people looking for work.»
«Yes, the breakdown has caused so many problems,» said Mom. «I feel very sorry for all those people. But we have all the technicians we need. And they keep bringing in more robots.»
«That's what I told Niki.» Sala hesitated. «Mom, I've been wondering what you think of this new thing, Pod Life. You've heard about it, haven't you?»
Mom nodded. «Yes, of course.»
«Is it a good idea?» asked Sala.
«Well, they say they're offering high-level studies, so that's obviously good,» said Mom cautiously. «But living in a pod… it's hard to say. Real life is difficult, but it's… what we have.» Gran nodded wisely.
Sala took a deep breath. «So… what would you say if Cham and I wanted to do it?»
Gran and Mom looked at each other. There was silence. At last, Mom spoke. «I'd ask you to think about the things you love. And the people you'd leave behind. We'd miss you terribly, and I think you'd miss us.» Mom smiled. «I wouldn't stop you, Sala. But I'd be sad. And I'd wish with all my heart that there was something better for you.»
Sala nodded. «Thanks, Mom.»
Then Gran spoke up. «And remember, Sala, maybe there will be something better, one day. There's more to the world than this city, believe me. If that rose fruit came from outside, who knows what may be possible.»
Sala's mom looked uncertain. «I don't think you can depend on that, Gran,» she said. «We shouldn't raise our hopes.»
«No, no, you're quite right. I'm just saying — maybe the world out there is not as terrible as the government would like us to believe.»
Gran said nothing more, but her eyes were shining. Sala realized that for Gran, the rose fruit meant something real; it spoke of a world that Sala could only begin to imagine. And what if — just what if — she was right?
For the next twenty-four hours, Sala tried to think clearly. She had to consider Cham's future, not just her own. The questions went around and around in her head. At last, she knew she couldn't put off her decision any longer, and when she'd finished her studies on the day after the pod experience, she invited Cham to her apartment.
It was pouring with rain again, and his hair and clothes were wet when he arrived.
«Look at you!» said Sala.
«I know,» said Cham, «but I think it's just stopping. Hopefully we can still go up to the Real Space?»
Up on the roof, they talked about all the things that didn't really matter: what they'd eaten for dinner, the weather, Apat on the jumping machine… all to avoid the one big thing they needed to discuss.
Then Sala forced herself to be brave. «I heard that Palo has done the same as you. Got a pod ticket, I mean.»
Cham nodded. «Yeah… so has Ding.»
«So they'll end up doing Pod Life.»
They fell silent. Sala swallowed. This was harder than she'd imagined. «Cham, I've made a decision,» she said, in a rush.
«I thought so.» He played with her fingers, matching them against his. «Go on.»
«You really will be OK with what I say?»
Sala bit her lip. «OK. So… Cham, I can't do it. I'm really sorry. I know it's a big opportunity, but… I just can't. For lots of reasons. I loved the pod, but I'd be afraid of doing it for longer. It was too… strange. And I can't leave Gran and Mom and Apat.» She hesitated. Should she mention the wild rose fruit again? She wasn't sure. But then she opened her mouth and the words just came out. «Also, I know you think it's crazy, but… the fruit thing… well, it's given me hope.»
As soon as she said it, she wished she hadn't.
«It's a little bit crazy,» said Cham. But he didn't laugh.
Sala nodded. «I know. Sorry. It's not really about that… it's all the other things...»
«Look,» said Cham. «It doesn't matter what your reasons are. I know you've thought about it, and I can see you've decided the answer is no. That's enough. I meant what I said.» It was good to hear him say it again so clearly.
«Thank you,» she said. «But you have to be sure, Cham. It's going to be hard. If Palo and Ding sign up… and Niki, too, as soon as she's seventeen… we'll he on our own.»
«We have each other,» said Cham. «What else do we need?» Sala smiled. «A future, maybe?»
«Well, yes.» He laughed.
Sala looked out at the view: nothing but black and silver tower blocks against the cold gray sky. «If there's a better world out there, we have to find it.»
«I love that you're so hopeful.» Cham drew her close, and kissed her. «And I'm so proud of you. It wasn't really fair to give you such a tough decision to make, but I knew you'd be strong enough.»
Sala closed her eyes and kissed him back. It was the first important crossroads they'd come to together. It felt like a moment of magic: they'd never been so close.
A Difficult Choice
«Are you two crazy?» Niki couldn't believe it. «Neither of you?»
«Nope,» said Sala.
«But I thought you loved your pod experience.»
«So what? It was an hour, not two years.»
Niki shook her head. «I'll never understand you.»
«Oooh, I hope not,» laughed Sala.
It was Monday, and Sala and Niki were at college again. A few days had passed since Sala's decision, and she was feeling happy about it. Happy and at peace. Many of the other students still talked about nothing but Pod Life, but she didn't care.
Now, she was sitting with Niki on their lunch break, and thinking about the months ahead.
«I'm counting the weeks until I can sign up,» Niki told her. «But maybe I'd feel differently if I were in love.»
Sala felt herself go pink. «It's not just that,» she protested. All the reasons she'd given to Cham ran through her mind, but how could she explain them to Niki? It was really complicated.
Back at home that afternoon, Sala thought about Niki's words: it was true that because she was with Cham, life felt exciting. She smiled to herself. She'd been about to do some studying, but watching a love story-stream was a much better idea. She chose one that Cham had recommended, about the Oil Wars. Feeling warm and comfortable and sleepy, she thought of Cham, holding her in the Real Space. His arms always felt so wonderful… With the story-stream still playing, her eyes slowly began to shut.
She was asleep when her ultranet began to beep. Maybe it's part of the story, she thought sleepily — but then a light started flashing, and she opened her eyes.
Sala sat up hurriedly, and opened the message. It was from Cham.
«Can you meet me now at the simulator center? I want to talk face to face. Love you.»
Sala splashed some cold water on her face to wake herself up, and then hurried to the simulator center. Cham sent her another message while she was on her way to say that he was in Space 46, and when she went in, he'd already chosen an illusion. He was standing on a rocky seashore, with gray waves crashing in. White seabirds flew close to the surface of the water, fighting against the wind. Sala gasped. It was cold.
She touched his arm. «Cham.»
Cham pulled Sala toward him. «Thank you for coming,» he whispered. «I'm sorry.»
«Sorry for what?»
«It's my dad.» Cham's voice broke.
«Your dad? What's wrong? Is he sick?»
«No.» Cham looked out over the rough ocean. «It's his work.»
«But I thought you said he was helping fix this problem at the meat laboratory,» said Sala.
«He was,» said Cham.
«So they decided not to fix the old equipment. They've brought in a new design instead. They'll never need him again.»
Sala was puzzled. «Why?»
«They've put in new nanobots that stay inside the equipment and check everything, every day. They find problems even before they've happened, and fix them.»
Sala began to realize why this news was so awful. Cham's dad Tian knew how to fix the old equipment: that was his job. He hadn't done anything else for years. If this was happening at the meat laboratory, it would soon be happening everywhere, and he wouldn't get any work at all.
«My mom is really upset,» Cham carried on. «We're low on energy units already, so it's hard. Dad came home with the news yesterday afternoon, and he and Mom have been really depressed ever since.»
«I'm so sorry,» she said. She felt awful. Sorry just wasn't enough.
Cham nodded. «I know. And the thing is...»
He stopped, and Sala realized what he was going to say.
«Pod Life,» she said.
Cham looked desperately miserable. «You guessed.»
«Sala… I don't have a choice.»
«There's always a choice.»
«Tell me, then!» he demanded, suddenly sounding bitter. «Tell me what else I should do.»
«We'll find something.»
«Like what? Like what, exactly?»
Sala's mind was racing. If only she'd seen that woman again...
«We don't know yet. But I'd really miss you — and so would your family...» She bit her lip.
«I'll be doing it for my family,» Cham pointed out. «You can see that, can't you?»
Sala nodded. «Yes. Yes. Sorry.» All at once, she was trembling. Trembling from the cold, and from the shock, and from unhappiness. She sat down and hugged her knees.
«Sorry, Sala,» said Cham. «Let me change this horrible illusion.» He went to the screen on the wall, and changed the scenery to a sunny park. Then he came and sat next to her. «Sorry for getting angry. I'm not angry with you. Especially not with you. I'm just angry with life.»
«It's OK. I know.» She looked at him. «So, is that it? You've decided? For sure?»
Cham was silent for a moment. «Like I said, I don't know what else to do.» Then he turned to her. «The only thing I can ask is this: if I do Pod Life without you, will you still be here for me when I come out? Can you wait two years?»
His words felt like an earthquake breaking open their lives. Sala started to cry. It was too cruel. She rested her head on her knees and let the tears flow.
At last, she looked up. «Cham, you have to do what's right for you. I'm not going to stop you. And of course I'll wait.»
When she and Cham left the simulator center, it was still only late afternoon, so Sala went to the energy center. All she wanted to do was run. Run and run and run. She ran until she was exhausted — too tired to think anymore.
She wished she could be with Cham, but his family was in crisis; they all needed him more than she did right now. As she walked home, loneliness hit her. This was how it would be, for two whole years… Self-pity rose like a wave inside her.
«Hey! Careful!» cried a man.
Sala hadn't been looking where she was going. She'd bumped straight into the man, who'd dropped a bagful of dried food packets, spreading them everywhere.
«Oh! I'm so sorry!» gasped Sala, and she bent down at once to help him pick them up.
Other people joined in, and the packets were soon gathered together again. As Sala reached for the last one, another hand reached for it at the same time. A thin hand. It touched hers, and Sala saw that it was already holding something: a little paper note.
It was the woman.
«It's you -» began Sala.
«Shhh!» In one quick, smooth movement, the woman pushed the note between Sala's fingers, nodded at her, and then set off rapidly toward the walkway. But Sala wasn't going to let her disappear this time. She rushed after the woman and caught her arm, holding it tightly.
«Who are you?»
«Let me go.» The woman's voice was fierce.
«Tell me who you are first.»
«Do you want to put us both in danger?»
Danger? Sala's mouth dropped open. «Of course not. I just want to talk to you.»
«Then don't say anything else. Turn around and walk away. Give that to your grandmother.» For a second, the woman moved a little closer. «Stay quiet. I'll find you. Soon.»
Sala did as the woman had said: she turned and walked down the street. Then she raced up to her apartment and arrived breathless. She found Gran sitting with Mom, talking and drinking tea; for once, Mom had got home from work early.
«Sala! You look like you've seen a ghost!» said Mom. «What's happened?»
Sala didn't know where to start. She handed the note to Gran. «It's front the same woman,» she said. Then she sat down and covered her face with her hands. «And Cham is going to do Pod Life without me.»
«Oh, Sala!» cried Mom. Then realization crossed her face. «Does this have anything to do with his dad's work?»
«Yes!» said Sala. «Mom, why can't they just use people instead of replacing them with robots and nanobots all the time?» Suddenly, Sala felt more angry than upset. It wasn't fair.
But before Mom could answer, there was a gasp from Gran. She'd opened the note and held it with trembling fingers. «He's alive!» she whispered. «My brother Eston is alive.»
«What?» said Mom, putting down her cup of tea. Sala stared at Gran, who held out the note. Together, Sala and Mom read it.
My dear Malia,
I don't know if yon will ever receive this. I've been trying to send a message for many years, but nothing has crossed the boundary successfully. We know you can't leave your city, but now I hear that maybe messages can reach you, if you are still alive. I hope so.
I want you to know that I have a good, happy life with my wife. Our two sons are doing well, and we have three grandchildren. We have a very nice house near the ocean and there are wild roses in the garden, just as there were when we were young. If you received one of the fruits, you know that this is true, and that it came from me. I still smile when I think of all the fun we had as children, playing on the beach and in the forest. But it also makes me so sad. I miss you, Malia. Here, we are free, and we have beauty all around us, but my heart breaks when I think of you trapped in that city, like a bird in a cage.
Thank those who took the risk to find you. We think we can trust them, but we know that this letter could put you in danger. If you are reading it, be glad: it means there is hope. But please, be careful.
Your loving brother,
«I have to tell Cham. Before it's too late.»
When they had all cried and hugged each other, it was the first thing that Sala thought of.
«Wait.» Mom put a hand on Sala's arm.
«Wait for what? He's about to sign up for Pod Life.»
«We need to think about this.» Mom pointed to the letter. «Please, be careful. Uncle Eston is right — this could all be very dangerous.»
«But we can trust Cham!» protested Sala. «Anyway, he already knows about the wild rose fruit.»
There was a silence.
«I think we need to be cautious,» said Gran. «You can tell him, Sala. But ask him to keep quiet about it.»
«What about his family?»
«No.» Mom shook her head. «We can't spread this news any further. I'm sure Cham's parents are good people, but we don't know them well enough.»