Unison Sparkby Andy Marino
Everyone is obsessed with Unison, the social network that knows you better than you know yourself. Everyone who can afford it, that is. Living beneath the vast ceiling that separates Eastern Seaboard City into rich topside and poor sub-canopy zones, fifteen-year-old Mistletoe can only dream of logging in and has to make do with technological… See more details below
Everyone is obsessed with Unison, the social network that knows you better than you know yourself. Everyone who can afford it, that is. Living beneath the vast ceiling that separates Eastern Seaboard City into rich topside and poor sub-canopy zones, fifteen-year-old Mistletoe can only dream of logging in and has to make do with technological hand-me-downs.
Worlds collide when Ambrose Truax, the privileged heir to the Unison empire, wanders into the dangerous sub-canopy streets and Mistletoe saves him from suspicious, uniformed men. They soon discover that they share eerily similar dreams, hinting at a significant past.
Together, Ambrose and Mistletoe begin to unravel the mystery of their identities and learn that they're pawns in a bigger game: the Unison 3.0 upgrade, a whole new kind of Friendship.
Marino keeps the story moving with archetypal characters, multiple and diverse settings, a lightning-fast pace, and a firm footing in teens' fascination with social networks.
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By Andy Marino
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2011 Andy Marino
All rights reserved.
THE GIRL WITH THE BLUE PIGTAIL
Her new name was Mistletoe. On her fifteenth birthday, she announced to her caretaker, Jiri, that she was sick of being called Anna.
He grunted. "Anna's your name."
"Who picked it out?"
"Your mother and father."
"And where are they?"
He raised a bushy eyebrow. "Okay. What do you want to be —"
She read his face: that's crazy. So she added, "Here's how it is: I'll be thinking of myself as Mistletoe, so when you call me Anna, I won't answer. Because that's not my name."
She glared as he rolled his eyes in resignation, the signal that she had won. Jiri plunged his thick fingers back into the hopeless jumble of wires that had once been a genuine pre-Unison computer. Mistletoe went out on the balcony. Lying on her back, she gazed up through the airholes in the plasteel canopy that kept Little Saigon from rising into topside Eastern Seaboard City. She lived with Jiri at the peak of a mountain of makeshift houses that cascaded down thirty stories to the streets below. Their house was wedged so tightly beneath the canopy that Mistletoe imagined she could feel the weight of the city pressing down upon her as she slept.
She rocked her head gently back and forth until her fluffy blue pigtail flattened into a pillow. The airholes were no bigger than Jiri's fist, but if she lay in just the right spot she could watch gleaming cars pass within teeth-clenching millimeters of one another. The hum of a billion commuters herded by Eastern Seaboard City's traffic control system resonated down through the airholes and rattled her insides pleasantly, like the pre-Unison massage chairs Jiri sold at his junk shop. As the afternoon above the canopy faded to crimson dusk, she drifted into an uneasy dream. ...
The room was dim and ice-cold. She was strapped to a slab inside a metal tube the size of a refrigerator. Old-fashioned gunshots, raw and booming, punctuated distant shouts. The thudding of disruptor weapons became frantic footsteps. A gentle voice said, "Don't be afraid, Anna."
Cut to a new scene. She was bobbing jerkily up and down. A snake was slithering across her shoulder. No, two snakes. Three! She screamed and found herself muffled, her face buried inside the folds of a man's greasy, foul-smelling overcoat. She squirmed and he clutched her closer to his chest. The snakes were all around her. She tried to bite the meaty hand. The man cursed in a different language. Jiri! He was running faster than she'd ever believed possible, squeezing her to his body with one hand while the other fired a pistol backward over his shoulder. She extracted an arm and grabbed hold of one of the snakes. It was smooth and metallic, some kind of wire. She felt along its length until her hand reached her forehead.
Her face was sprouting wires.
She screamed and wriggled free of Jiri's grasp, and then she was flailing in empty space. She woke before she hit the ground, sitting upright on the balcony, hands pressed against the sides of her wireless head, panting.
* * *
Today, six months later, Mistletoe sat on the balcony with her back against Nelson, the rickety scoot she'd rescued from Jiri's junk shop. In the city above the canopy, Nelson was probably some rich kid's discarded toy. Down in her teeming subcanopy neighborhood, he was a treasure worth protecting with her life. The four electrostatic ion lifts on the underside were top-of-the-line ESC craftsmanship. Her friend Sliv had replaced the clattering transmission and aligned the steering. She rarely let the scoot out of her sight.
"I had the dream again last night, Nelson."
The scoot sat silently. It didn't have A.I. components and couldn't hear or respond. Conversations between Mistletoe and Nelson were heavily one-sided.
She sighed and looked through the clear plexi door at Jiri hunched over a tattered old instruction manual, squinting and sounding out the words to himself. She had seen other foreigners read Western English like that. But she had never seen anyone take notes like Jiri, like he was recopying the entire thing. His method seemed ridiculous, but she had never asked him about it, just placed it in the category of things they would never discuss. Since the bad dreams had begun six months ago, that category had grown steadily. Secrets seemed to breed more secrets. And there had always been something hurried and on edge about the way Jiri talked to her, as if he would rather she just kept things to herself. So, most of the time, she did. Her latest secret was a present from Sliv, a necklace with a silver charm of three interlocking gears. He'd never given her anything before, and she'd been too surprised to thank him. She kept it hidden beneath her shirt. The tiny gears inhabited the scooped-out hollow where her collarbone met her throat.
She watched Jiri scratch his mustache and turn the page. He was too busy to notice that she had spent all day out on her scoot without checking in. She hugged her knee to her chest and prodded her shin — bruised from squeezing between a stalled transport bus and a spice-import cart. Tender, but not unbearable.
Across the walkway that swung beneath the canopy, a young couple was tending a fire. Mistletoe waved, but they, too, had no time to spare for her and didn't even look her way. She lay on her back, blue pigtail cushioning her head, and stared up through the holes. She wondered how many other kids were doing the same thing. Every time she imagined other kids, she imagined them with her exact thoughts and ideas and questions. She glanced down over the edge of the balcony at the endless jostling masses below — Little Saigon was like a ripe grape with mushy insides too big for its skin — and despaired. Because what did it matter what she thought about anything? She was a speck, a tiny particle who would live and die staring up through a hole while the world went about its business as if she had never been born.
As she often did when she needed a new train of thought, she pictured Aunt Dita, the only person who ever took her to do anything fun. It was Aunt Dita who helped her pick out just the right scent for her pigtail, jasmine and rye, and helped her dye it blue with mashed-up roots. And it was Aunt Dita who snuck her topside into UniCorp Park's Designated Young Person Recreational Zone, where there were scoot-ramps and a free Unison simulation that was supposedly just like the real thing.
Unison: the grand culmination of all human social networks. BetterLife. The Mass Hallucination. However it was marketed and advertised, it barely mattered to Mistletoe. She couldn't afford the hardcoded ID that allowed access to topside Eastern Seaboard City, much less a coveted Unison login.
Angry curses exploded from inside the house. She turned her head. Jiri slapped an ancient cell phone twice with his huge hand, then threw it hard against the floor. Like all subcanopy residents, he had to try several battered old cells to pick up the faintest of signals, and she always watched the scene — big frustrated man, tiny helpless phone — with puzzled amusement. He picked up another one, pressed a button, and started yelling.
"Yes, but — yes. Is what I said. Of course I am at home, it is where ..." His shoulders slumped as he lowered his voice. "Now? Yes. Okay. I understand. Ma buh."
He looked out through the plexi, ashen-faced, and did not seem to see her. She waved. Something was wrong. She opened the door.
His eyes snapped down to hers. "Come inside. Shut the door. Stay here."
"Stay inside, Anna." He looked so distraught she didn't bother to correct him, just watched as he squirmed into his overcoat and patted the pre-Unison handgun in the pocket. He thought she didn't know about it, but he was always absently tapping it through the fabric. "I come back later."
"Where are you going?"
"Later, I explain." At the door he turned to her again, opened his mouth, hesitated. "If I ..."
"Mistletoe. I forget, always. Stay inside. I see you again later."
The door slammed behind him, and she listened to the hum of the elevator fading down the shaft. She ran to the balcony and located the shiny dot of his bald head among the crowd. He was on foot. Not going far, then. She watched as he elbowed through a trio of yellow- and orange-painted gypsies, knocking one of the men into the ragged procession of buggies and scoots that inched its way through the streets all day and all night. Most people disabled their traffic alarms down here, but some proved frustratingly hard to silence, and Little Saigon was always thick with gentle reminders in a thousand languages to drive slowly and carefully, as if there were ever an opportunity to speed on the choked roads. She glanced at Nelson, then turned back to the scene below in time to catch Jiri disappearing behind a shanty-stack down the block, near the cluttered access road where reprogrammed A.I. transports trucked scrap for junk lords. A few more seconds, and she would lose him for good.
She pulled her orange goggles up from around her neck and suctioned them to her eyes. "No way we're staying here, Nelson."
Her scoot was cold, but she cranked it up and hopped on, slipped her hands through the handle straps, and kicked open a trapdoor in the balcony. She had warmed up Nelson on the way down before — ill-advised, maybe, but not impossible. She felt the soft cushion of energy beneath her as the ion lifts whirred to life. The engine sputtered but hadn't yet caught when she tipped the nose through the trapdoor. The lifts barely kept her off her neighbors' roofs as she half drove, half plummeted down the sloped stack of huts. A woman hanging laundry ducked as the nose of the scoot tore several white shirts from the line, scattering them down the stack.
"Watch it!" Mistletoe screamed over her shoulder. Then the lifts fully engaged and she felt the cushion expand beneath her. Near the base of the stack, she nosed up over the crowded street and gave the side of the scoot a swift, hard kick. Static pulled up strands of hair as she sailed over people's heads. Then the engine turned over and she descended between two staggering drunks with green absynthium stains on their shirts. She skidded hard, ducked beneath their outstretched arms, and bounced around the corner, ignoring their cries to come back. As she cruised alongside the access road, she was suddenly aware that her timeworn engine sounded like thunder next to the eerie silence of the junk transports. The older models still made noise, but the lack of cursing and yelling and laughter gave the entire street — the perimeter of Little Saigon — a solemn desolation that freaked her out. And Jiri was nowhere.
Thank you for your business! said one of the transports.
Keep your eye on the ball, children! said another.
Mistletoe shuddered. Cautiously she eased forward. The transports had been rescued from junk heaps, only to have their A.I. circuitry refitted with mindless programs dooming them to a lifetime of carting endless piles of subcanopy garbage. Where did it all go?
Up ahead she heard sudden bursts of gruff speech: Jiri and someone else.
"Whoa, Nelson," she whispered, and eased up on the throttle even more. The scoot purred. She followed the sound of the voices into a narrow, badly paved ditch that ran between the main street and the junk-transport road. A forgotten path, littered with bottles and ragged gray lumps she didn't want to look at very closely. She cut the engine but kept the lifts engaged, and peeked around a pile of rusting scrap. There, in the middle of the road, was Jiri, standing with his back to her, pointing his black pre-Unison handgun at a stocky ESC police officer with a gleaming metallic arm that narrowed to a glowing tip, which was in turn pointed at a boy of about her age who was dressed better than anyone she'd ever seen. His outfit was holo-fashion, an elegant projection of a sharp new suit in the manner of big-time businessmen from up above. His wispy blond hair sparkled, even in the subcanopy shade. He was clearly a long way from home, and his hands were in the air. He shifted his wide eyes from Jiri to the cop.
"I take him," Jiri said.
"Like hell you do," the cop said casually as the tip of his metallic arm flared orange. And to the boy: "You're going home now, kid."
The boy didn't flinch or say a word. Mistletoe idled her scoot. She felt light-headed. The bravado of men like Jiri and the cop made her nervous. Every day she tore through the streets of Little Saigon and witnessed all kinds of human ugliness. And her dream had told her that Jiri and his friends were killers. Or kidnappers. Or both. Deep inside, she believed it. She had a brief, jarring memory of wind howling in her ears, of being clutched to Jiri's chest as he ran. Shooting, screaming, dying. And for what? She thought that maybe even the men themselves didn't know. Maybe they did it for the act itself, for the sickening head rush, the ear-popping high before the crash.
Suddenly she saw a second cop's head rise slowly over the top of the scrap heap, saw this cop raise her own metallic arm — disruptor, Mistletoe remembered — and aim at Jiri. With blank determination, Mistletoe kick-started the scoot over the top of the rusty pile. She heard herself yell something incomprehensible, a choked-back scream. The side of the scoot grazed the second cop's head as she ducked, surprised, and fell. Jiri didn't flinch, but the first cop blinked and turned toward the scrap heap. Jiri managed to squeeze off a quick pop-pop-pop before the cop's arm flashed bright orange and Jiri's skull and spine appeared briefly through transparent, cell-scrambled flesh. A second later he looked normal again. He swayed slightly and watched as the cop collapsed. Then he turned and caught Mistletoe's shocked gaze as he sank to his knees.
Mistletoe felt bile rise in her throat. What had that disruptor done to Jiri? She watched in a stupor as he opened his mouth and raised his eyebrows pleadingly. Then the life went out of his eyes and he fell forward onto his face.
Her mind was blank but for one thought, distant and spare and clean: Aunt Dita is my protection now.
A series of meek coughs snapped her out of her daze. The well-dressed boy was kneeling among the three fallen adults. She pulled up beside him.
"Can you walk?"
He kept his eyes on the ground and managed a shrug.
"We can't stay here," she said. Jiri's ancient weapon had been deafening. People would be along to investigate. Other cops, coming to find their fellow officers down. Not something she wanted to stick around and answer for.
"Get on," Mistletoe said. This time the boy looked at Nelson, then at her for the first time. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. She read his face: that thing? The scoot was tiny, rusted, a hundred years old. Rich Boy probably never traveled in anything less fancy than one of those sleek articulated frame cars she watched through the holes in the canopy.
"Get on." She grabbed for his shirtsleeve. Her hand passed through the projection of navy blue fabric and brushed the tight breathable material of his skinsuit. Ten feet away, the second cop began to stir. The boy swallowed once — she watched the lump in his throat move up and down — and jumped on the back of the scoot. Their combined weight strained the lifts, and Nelson protested with an angry whirrrr. The boy put his hands cautiously around Mistletoe's stomach and sneezed as her thick, scented pigtail tickled his nose.
They cruised past a steady stream of oblivious transports. Mistletoe envied their brainless detachment — would it be so bad? Did they remember things from their former lives as A.I. units? Suddenly she felt sick and stopped the scoot. In the final seconds of his life, Jiri had looked at her, and his eyes were full of pain. She retched. The cop's weapon had done something horrible to his insides. She rested her hand on the side of the access wall and threw up again.
"Are you okay?" the boy asked.
She answered with a choked sniffle, wiped her mouth, and kicked the scoot into gear. It lurched forward up a ramp to the street level, where a group of ragged little kids were throwing glitchy holo-dice against an empty crate. All at once, the familiar chaotic sounds and smells of Little Saigon blended with the noise of Nelson's engine. She sped through the middle of the dice players and maneuvered expertly through the crowd, crossed the street, and dismounted at the base of a shanty-stack a few blocks from her own. She was conscious of how close they were to the scene of Jiri's death, and her street instincts told her to go up, always up. She was also conscious of the fact that, behind her, the boy was trying so hard not to cry that his body was twitching in surprisingly violent jolts. She didn't want to look, or she would burst into tears. Her nerves felt raw and exposed.
Excerpted from Unison Spark by Andy Marino. Copyright © 2011 Andy Marino. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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