Don’t mind the cold. Don’t mind the dark.
Jean Allen
Imagine a city. A huge city, the size of New York. And now imagine it, completely dark.
Oh sure, you’d still be able to see. You could still make out the small lettering on the rusted industrial coffee machine, you could still find your way by the faint, fragile glow of the towers, you could still switch the cold fluorescent lights on and everything would be okay. You could find your way through the deserted streets of concrete and metal and dust under the illumination of the huge billboards plastered on the side of the commercial towers, but it was still lacking in something real. Something to make you think people could ever live here.
Now imagine a tower, stretching for hundreds of floors, the entire building painted in the same soul-crushing, neutral shade of gray. Imagine concrete platforms jutting out of the higher floors, imagine bustling shops selling factory-produced products.
And on the forty-seventh floor, imagine a small restaurant, with a fading sign out front saying “emerald diner” in shaky lettering, with walls covered in green paint that has seen better days, and fake-tile floor covered with dents and scratches and marks from the thousands of people who had walked into the tiny diner.
Imagine red plastic chairs and matching tables, with tiny computers embedded into the tabletops, and imagine the occasional person coming in, sitting down, ordering a coffee and scrolling through social media, pretending everything was okay, pretending everything was like the old times, and imagine a bustling back room full of ovens and people, all in uncomfortable green uniforms, and in the very back the manager’s office, where nobody had dared to venture, the hope of getting a raise was so inconsequential compared to the fear of those iconic words: you’re fired.
And in the middle of all this, imagine a girl, roughly twenty years old, with shoulder-length blonde hair and a scratchy green uniform, with inquisitive chocolate brown eyes darting around, a girl who looked like she had been beaten down, put through every trial imaginable, but was still going to get up, still going to fight, never going to quit.
Her name was Jean. And at the moment, she was frustrated out of her mind.
“No, miss, we don’t have ‘actual turkey’ from ‘actual turkeys’” She explained for the umpteenth time.
“But this is supposed to be an Old Times style diner!” The woman Jean was arguing with protested. “And the Old Times had turkey!”
“We have turkey, ma’am.” Jean started to explain.
“Yeah, but it’s not real turkey!” The woman protested.
“What do you mean, real turkey?”
“It’s not from a bird!! It’s just- it’s just chemicals!”
Jean sighed. “That’s because there are no turkeys in Helios.” But of course, the customer was always right. “However, I can offer you a replacement.” She gestured to the turkey in the bin in front of her.
“And wherezat from?”
“Um … the Center Food Corporation, I think?”
The lady made a disgusted look, sneered and said “if that’s all you have.”
Jean forced a smile onto her face. “For here or to go?”
As she stuffed the sandwich into a flimsy plastic sack and bid the troubling customer goodbye as she heard the bing over the loudspeaker that signified her day was over. Jean collapsed onto a chair and sighed. Sixteen hours a day. Seven days a week. Zero thank yous.
She picked up her paycard and started twirling it between her fingers, pondering the day.
Suddenly, she heard a buzzing sound. Smiling, she held up her palm to face her. The bright blue electronic display on her palm lit up.
Avery Perez, said the display. Jean grinned. Maybe today wasn’t so bad. She tapped the display.
“Jean,” came Avery’s voice.
“Ave.” Jean replied.
“Hey. What’s up?”
“It’s been a long day.”
“How so?”
“Let’s see. I’ve had someone come in and demand all the coffee in the restaurant, another interrogate me about the origins of our deli products, and one person who sat down at one of the tables for six straight hours, scrolling through the Center Newsfeed and not even order anything.”
“Eesh. That bad, huh.”
“Yeah. And paycheck’s not until tomorrow- I don’t even know if I’ll have enough money for the fare home.” Jean said, picking up a sanitary wipe and scrubbing down the first table.
“Well, if it’s that bad I can always-” Avery started.
“Don’t. You. Dare. I’ve got this.” Jean said, not wanting to have to use Avery as a crutch again.
“If you’re sure.”
“I’m sure.” Jean said, throwing the table wipe into the disposal bin. She walked over to the wall and hit a button that shut off the fluorescents and plunged the diner into total darkness.
“Anyway, I gotta go.” She said as she switched the door sign to “closed” and walked outside, onto a huge concrete platform.
It was cold. So very, very cold. Jean felt herself silently wishing that she had spent her limited extra wages on a jacket instead of yet another palmphone upgrade.
The sky was black as night. No stars or moon or indeed, anything but the inky black void above. Jean wrapped her arms around and shivered, desperate to conserve heat as she stepped over to the skinny silhouette of a device that would call over the taxis. Jamming the red button on the side with a shaking fist, Jean shoved her hands into the back pockets of her bright green Emerald Diner pants.
Suddenly, she heard something from behind her.
Thump. Scrape. Thump. Scrape.
The sound of a clunky, heavy hunk of solid metal, being dragged across the frozen pavement. The sound of a person who had been put through way too much.
It was a borg.
There were too many people afraid of borgs. Jean tried not to be, tried to remind herself that they were just people, like you and me, but it was hard, especially when you’re confronted with one in the dead of night, with nothing but a wagecard and a pounding heart.
The borg limped over to Jean with his face obscured by a threadbare hoodie, and she tensed up, but then he- Jean assumed it was a he- passed right by her and hit the button on the Taxi Call, the one Jean had hit just seconds ago.
Non hostile. She sighed with relief, and then the taxi pulled up and she ran over.
Jean had seen pictures and descriptions of Old Times taxis, on the Centerweb and on the few books left, and they were some of the most hilarious things she had heard about. Instead of sleek metal bullets zipping across webs of rails, they were funny-looking things, bright yellow and with- get this- human drivers. As if you could trust a person to steer anything without ramming it into the nearest tower.
She got into the taxi. It was a Model Delta, and an old one at that, with the slightest red stains of rust beginning to show through its no longer shiny metal exterior.
At least it was still bulletproofed. It would have to be bulletproofed if you were going to get anywhere near Ground Floor. She stepped inside, and faced the terminal in front of her, entering her destination.
Residential Tower 55, Third Floor, she typed, sticking her wagecard into the jack on the side as it made the 20-credit deposit. And with that, the taxi shot off like a bullet, zipping its way through the maze of towers and rails as it brought Jean to her destination.
Finally pulling to a stop at Tower 55 with a painful screech, the door of the taxi opened, and Jean heard a robotic female voice recite “thank you for choosing Center Corp Taxi Services.” Ignoring the message, she stepped out of the taxi and onto the Third Floor platform, walking in the first, unlocked door. She dug through her pockets. Wagecard. No. Smartwatch shoved into her pants pocket for some reason. No. ID. Yes! Jean swiped the ID, and the locked Third Floor door opened with a satisfying click. She turned the handle and went inside, facing a long, gray hallway with dripping cinderblock walls. Striding down the hall, she made a couple of turns, and came face to face with her unit. Or at least would if Avery wasn’t in the way.
“Hey.” He said, grinning and throwing his arms out.
“Hi again.” Jean said, a slight smile dancing across her face. “Didn’t you just call me?”
“So seeing you in person is suddenly against the law?”
“No, but-” Jean said. “Can I at least get to my apartment? You’re kind of blocking it.”
“Oh.” He said, fake hurt. “I see how it’s gonna be. You’re telling me to get out of here.” He said, heading back down the hallway to his own room. “Just forget it! Forget I said anything!” He continued the fake-insulted act before finally bursting into laughter at his own acting.
Jean chuckled as she unlocked the room. He was always joking, not that it was a bad thing. Anything to lend a little light to the dark, depressing land of Helios.

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