Friends?

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    "With no help from you!" Quincy tossed her hand away. He couldn't get the image of Jess from seconds before she cut him lose out of his mind. The appearance of Aaron, his face as calculating on the matter as if he were deciding between two creamers or one, served only to fan Quincy's fire. "Or you!" He took an unconscious step towards the mastermind of the plot, only to be met with a stern hand on his chest. Jess shoved him back with the ease of an Augmented laborer, the pride of Greenknoll. Quincy supposed he should be grateful she didn't snap his arm in two.

    "Your piece had the intended effect," Aaron mused. Quincy puffed a curl of hair from his face, recommencing his stride along the side of Path 50 to his residential block.

    "Yeah, my life for early dismissal. Even trade," he said. Aaron's grey-green eyes wandered somewhere in space, as if totally inattentive. Quincy knew he was calculating something.

    "We wanted to draw attention. Your stunt may not have made the news, but it did concentrate the Rangers' lens even more than we hoped, right where we hoped. Security is down twenty percent in Roseyard," Aaron rattled. Only now did his eyes focus on Quincy's, his obvious lucidity so uncommon it was eerie. "We can begin even sooner than we thought."

    "How soon?"

    "Three weeks." Those words brought the idea to life. A chance- at least a hiccup in the system that might lead to a chance- could be three weeks away. That, or three more misguided young rebels would lay dead in the street.

    "It's no secret that I didn't like you," Jess said after a while, "But I'm starting to understand. It's your... everything. You don't fit, I'm sure you've heard before. Makes you... unexpected. Aaron said it would be months before they let up on Roseyard. Then you had to go and paint Strand in flames on that billboard and whatever-the-hell-else you did to be standing here right now. They must think there's a psycho on the lose!" Quincy fell backwards to the moment, as if in a dream, when he'd screamed eat shit into Bolt Ranger spotlights.

    "You don't think there is?" he said. Jess flashed him a serpentine smirk.

    "I think we could be friends." The word struck an off-key note on the strings of his mind. Friends?
    "You will hear from us," Aaron said, even more businesslike than before, "Try not to be Downshipped before then." Just as Jess and Aaron had appeared, they folded back and melded with the shadows of the trees. Quincy knew they lived on the other side of the thicket, but it made the ease with which they lost him no less terrifying. He wondered if they felt the same about his escape from the Rangers.

    Strand had done its best disguising the steel platform of the Tower's Terra Layer as the grassy floor of a woodland, but for the advertisements. Just over the wall of trees that closed off Path 50 from the residential blocks around it, a fluorescent sign glowed words Quincy had seen many different places. On storefronts. Above offices. Find Your Fate. The sign echoed the creed of the biological engineers that made the Tower a possibility, the reason humanity endured. It was a double-edged blade that most people in Strand's great Tower never felt the sting of: Get Fit, get Augmented, earn your keep in the Terra Layer, or even climb the ladder to the Venter Layer with a brain like Aaron. For difficult Fits, though, the Nether Layer goes from nagging thought to inescapable threat. If you can't serve the system, you'll be removed from it, as one of Quincy's stricter Instructors had put it, like the wild men. He shivered at the memory of that dark landscape beneath the service walks.

    "You missed the train!" The soft spark of words caught Quincy so off-guard that he nearly threw a fist. In the seconds it took his eyes to focus on Elly, his fingers unclenched.

    "What in the..." he started harshly, but the way she smiled, even while he prepared to berate, her robbed him of the motivation. "I wanted to walk home anyway."

    "I notice you missing off the train sometimes. Do you walk home with your friends often?" The word sounded even stranger coming from Elly. Jess Carobb, future construction worker, and Aaron Tumelli, likely to be her corporate benefactor- friends?

    "Mostly alone," Quincy said, wondering what interest a good egg like Elly could have in it. "Lets me think... what are you doing out here? I saw you on the train."

    "You the only one allowed to think here? Early dismissal and all... I don't usually have this time." Quincy realized, for someone who'd been Fitted at this stage, the day would be full of training and tests. Maybe, he thought for the first time, free time isn't such a bad alternative. After all, Elly hadn't thought of any better way to spend hers than on Quincy.

    "So, with all this time on your hands, what are you thinking?" he prodded, fishing for a trigger to fire her off in the other direction, possibly crying.

    "I'm thinking..." she hesitated, "It's strange we've been neighbors for eighteen years and I've never knocked on your door." It was not often that Quincy was left reeling. That he was silent, like now. "Even stranger that, after being inseparable for so long, you stopped going to see Leon. That you stopped going outside hardly at all. Quincy... what happened to you?"

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