638 36 3

Getting into the Positron Project won't be a slam dunk.They aren't inter‐ ested in just anyone, as Charmaine whispers to Stan on the bus that's picked them up from the parking‐lot collection point. Some of the people on the bus can't possibly make it into the Project, they're too worn down and leathery, with blackened or missing teeth. Stan wonders if there's a dental plan in there. So far there's nothing wrong with his own teeth; lucky, considering all the cheap sugary crap they've been eating.

Sandi and Veronica are on the bus too, sitting at the back and nibbling on the sackful of cold chicken wings they've brought with them. Every once in a while they laugh, a little too loudly. Everyone on this bus is nervous, Charmaine especially. "What if we get rejected?" she asks Stan. "What if we get accepted?" She says it's like being picked for sports teams when she was at school: you're nervous either way.

The bus trip goes on for hours, in a steady drizzle; through open coun‐ tryside, past strip malls with plywood over most of the windows, derelict burger joints. Only the gas stations appear functional. After a while Char‐ maine falls asleep with her head on Stan's shoulder. His arm is around her; he draws her closer. He too dozes off.

He's awake by the time the bus stops at a gateway in a high black‐glass wall. Solar generation, thinks Stan. Smart, building it in like that. The group on the bus wakes, stretches, descends. It's late afternoon; as if on cue, mellow sunlight breaks through the clouds, lighting them in a golden glow. Many are smiling. They file in past the seeing‐eye boundary, then

through the entrance cubicle, where their eyes are scanned and their fin‐ gerprints taken and a plastic passcard with a number on it and a barcode is issued to each of them.

Back on the bus, they're driven through the town of Consilience, where the Project is located. Charmaine says she can hardly believe her eyes: everything is so spruced up, it's like a picture. Like a town in a movie, a movie of years ago. Like the olden days, before anyone was born. She squeezes Stan's hand in anticipation, and he squeezes back. "This is the right thing to do," she says.

They get off the bus in front of the Harmony Hotel, which is not only the top hotel in town, says the neatly dressed young man who's now in charge of them, it's the only hotel, because Consilience isn't exactly a tourist destination. He herds them into a preliminary drinks and snacks party in the ballroom."You're free to leave at any time,"he tells them,"if you don't like the ambience." He grins, to show this is a joke.

Because what's not to like about the ambience? Stan rolls an olive around in his mouth before chewing: it's a long time since he's had an olive. The taste is distracting. He should be more alert, because naturally they're being scrutinized, though it's hard to figure out who's doing it. Everyone is so fucking nice! The niceness is like the olive: it's a long time since Stan has encountered that muffling layer of smiling and nodding.Who knew he's such a fascinating dude? Not him, but there are three women, obvious hostesses, they even have name badges, deployed to convince him of his own magnetism. He scans the room: there's Charmaine, getting a similar treatment from two dudes and a girl. Her slutty hooker friends from Pixel‐ Dust are in that group too. They've fixed themselves up, they even have dresses on.You wouldn't really spot them as pros.

Throughout the evening, the crowd gets thinner - a discreet weeding, Stan guesses. All those with bad attitudes, out the Discard door. But Stan and Charmaine must have passed scrutiny, because here they still are, at the end of the party. Everyone remaining is given a room reservation, for later. They also get a meal voucher, with a carafe of wine included, and another young man steers them toward a restaurant called Together, just down the street.

There's an old‐fashioned tune playing in the background, white table‐ cloths, a plush carpet.

"Oh, Stan," Charmaine breathes at him over the electric candles on their table for two. "It's like a dream come true!" She picks up the rose from their bud vase, sniffs it.

It's not real, Stan wants to tell her. But why spoil it for her? She's so happy.

That night they stay at the Harmony Hotel. Charmaine has two baths, she gets so turned on by the towels. Less so by him, Stan guesses; but still, she comes across for him, so why complain? "There," she says afterwards. "Isn't this better than the back seat of the car?" If they commit to the Positron Project, she says, they can kiss that horrible car goodbye and good riddance, and the vandals and thieves can tear it apart, because they themselves won't need it any more.

The Heart Goes LastWhere stories live. Discover now