The v-copter raced eastward, as if fleeing the disappearing sun. Its massive propellers hurled us back toward the sprawling estates of Buckhead. It had been a long day, but I had no interest in going home.
The v-copter crew consisted of one pilot and one steward. The pilot was redundant—the machine flew on its own. Human assistance was only required in emergencies. The steward, however, was a busy man. His passengers were the demanding sort. They wanted the things they were accustomed to back home: comfortable temperature, proper humidity, refreshments of soil-grown fruits, stim-water. The badge on the steward’s uniform said his name was Peter; his skin and accent made me suspect he’d been renamed by his employer to suit the sensibilities of the passengers.
There were five of us ensconced in plush leather seats in the rear of the aircraft. I sat closest to the cockpit, my long legs pulled onto the oversized swivel chair. This seat was the only thing I’d insisted on during the whole trip, because it was necessary for what I had to do. The chair, and getting to know the pilot.
Macey had mocked me for introducing myself to the crew when we got onboard. “Why are you always consorting with the help, Jenn?” she had asked after my first foray into the cockpit, just before we took off, not bothering to lower her voice. “I’m doing what I can to integrate you into society, but you aren’t helping yourself. You just can’t shake your father’s roots, can you?” She had shaken her head with exaggerated gravity. The delicate strands of her perfectly straight silver hair shimmered like the ocean in sunlight when she moved her head, the glittering beams passing over that perfectly symmetrical face like a cresting wave. A magnificent platinum pendent that resembled a roughly cut ancient Chinese coin hung from her neck on a matching chain band. Elegant and striking, just like Macey.
I’d forced myself to giggle rather than growl, as if I thought she was funny. Of course, Macey’s opening salvo was a signal for the rest of her gang to join in. They had—enthusiastically.
My three other dear classmates from the Wiggins School each possessed hair, faces, and bodies nearly as perfect as Macey’s—Buckhead had an array of skilled alterators. My shoulders were a bit wider than the other girls’, my legs a bit longer, my face not as symmetrical. My hair was a natural sand color rather some dazzlingly enhanced shade. I wouldn’t have used a skin sculptor even if my father could have afforded one. To the crew, I’m sure we all looked alike: A bunch of rich North Atlanta girls traipsing about the country in Macey’s dad’s aircraft.
“Really, how much longer, Peter?” Macey complained, her voice like a hummingbird with a piece of wood stuck in its throat. She had a pair of sim-goggles on and spoke toward the ceiling.
“About twenty minutes, Ms. Freder,” the steward told Macey a bit too quickly. I buried a grin behind my hand.
“Jenn, can you tell your friend up front to step on it,” chimed the drawling voice of Wilma Morris. She had a glass of real orange juice in one hand and a plate of French cheeses in front of her. You look happy enough enjoying Macey’s luxuries. That’s what I wanted to say, but instead I smiled and forced another giggle. I hated the sound of myself.
Streaks of gold ran from the corners of Wilma’s brows into her scalp and through her pitch hair, which was pulled back in a tight tail. She shot an approval-seeking glance at Macey, then stared at me with haughty eyes.
“You know what, Wilma, I’ll see what I can do,” I said in the mocking voice of these girls of privilege. I’d mastered that tone over the past five months, just as I’d mastered the rest of my persona.
I went to the galley and poured myself a cup of coffee, adding a cube of precious sugar to the brew steaming in its ivory ceramic cup. The smell was rich, intoxicating. It was soil-grown, of course; nothing fabricated was served on this aircraft. I brought the coffee with me as I walked the few steps to the cockpit. The door was open, and the pilot was facing the flight displays. My back blocked everyone else’s view as I stood in the narrow corridor. I flicked the tiny white capsule hidden in my sleeve into the cup. It disappeared into the dark, steaming liquid.
“Captain Reynolds, do you have a moment?” I asked. We both knew he wasn’t doing anything except watching the autopilot and trying to look busy. I guessed that he was desperately bored.
“Oh, of course, Ms. Ansel,” he said, shifting uncomfortably as I entered. The last vestiges of light were draining from the sky, and the primary illumination in the cabin came from the instrument lights.
“I told you, please call me Jenn.” I flashed a fake smile. In a conspiratorial whisper, I added, “I’m a soldier’s kid, remember?”
The captain beamed at me. As soon as I’d discovered that the pilot was former military, I knew this part was going to be easy. That connection explained my unusual demeanor; it put him at ease. It was even true that my dad was a soldier—he never let me forget that.
“The gang in back is anxious to get home. About how much longer?”
He glanced at a display. “We caught a bit more tailwind than the computer estimated. They aren’t perfect, you know. I’d say twenty-six minutes until we touch down in Buckhead. We’ll return to the Freder estate, of course. I’m sure transportation will be waiting for the rest of you.”
I was running out of time. I kept the smile frozen on my face.
“I put a sugar in this by accident.” I indicated the cup in my hand. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Could I leave it with you? I’d hate for real coffee to go to waste.”
The captain took a quick glance behind me; he probably wasn’t supposed to touch the guests’ pantry. That coffee cost half of a day’s wage, which is why I knew he wouldn’t turn it down. Not when it was gift from me.
“I really appreciate it,” he said, taking the cup. “Coffee was the only decent thing about being stationed in Colombia. The rest was hell. Did your dad tell you how it was? About what happened to us?”
“This is good stuff,” I said, choosing to discuss coffee rather than what my father had told me about Colombia. “Rwandan beans, not Colombian. I’ll let you get back to flying us home.”
I turned, the smile dropping off my face like a falling stone. I paced slowly back to the rear of the aircraft and stood there until one of the others noticed me. I knew they’d want to comment.
“Were you two swapping details up there?” Wilma asked.
I glided over, positioning myself right next to her and her small feast. “I got him to push the pedal a bit more. Be home in about twenty-five minutes.”
“I guess you’ve a bit of pull with someone,” Macey declared, taking off her goggles. She gazed at me with intense cobalt eyes. They’d been indigo last week. “Getting us back quickly is the least you can do. This trip was your idea, and it’s been a disappointment.”
“You said you wanted something unique for Environments class…”
“Yeah, that’s true. Ms. Turnbull is such a terrible bleeding heart. She’s going to eat this crap up. No one will believe we flew out all the way to that frakkin’ Shenandoah protest camp.” Her laugh was cold.
I nodded indulgently. “I think she’ll appreciate that you demonstrated concern and—”
“And in addition to spending time in their awful shanty, I also donated supplies,” Macey interrupted. “You’d better make sure Ms. Turnbull knows that, Jenn. I’m sick of getting a bottom-third rank from her. We’d all better get some kudos after what we went through. Don’t get me wrong—I like your initiative, I just didn’t know it’d be so… filthy.”
I willed my face to keep still.
“Straight with that. Not sure how they’re going to get the muck off my boots. These things cost,” commented Ellen Quinn. She had a mouth like a sparrow’s and hair as red as a cardinal. Her chestnut leather boots were indeed dirty. Poor Ellen.
“Ellen, you wore them to an unauthorized protest camp—in the middle of recently auctioned forest land,” said Nia Timber-Night softly, voicing the sentiments I was holding inside. “And you’re riding a private jet back home. Should you really be complaining about how hard someone else is going to have to work to get your boots clean?”
Nia had addressed Ellen, but she was watching me. Her austerely beautiful face was dominated by penetrating eyes of silken white with ebony at their center. She wore the most elaborate adornments of the group—a golden necklace around her neck, diamond studs in her ears, gold rings on five fingers. For all the good it did her; everyone knew her family was the least powerful of the lot. Her mother was a mere company employee, like my dad. To Macey, Nia was the least important person here—except perhaps me. But Macey was a fool.
Nia’s comment provoked a split second of silence, followed by a chorus of laughter. Her gaze stayed fixed on me, and my heart beat faster. What was she looking at? I put my hands together to keep them still.
“Oh, Nia-the-genetically-superior doesn’t approve of air travel, it seems,” Macey commented, her tone edged. The laughter stopped. “Did the voodoo doctors your mom used to cook you up fix it so you can fly as well? I’d like to see that. They didn’t get your nose right, so I’m not sure I’d trust any wings they installed.”
Nia dropped her eyes to the floor, although her jaw was pulsing. The sound of the engines filled the cabin. The rest of us pretended to be fascinated by it.
Just before the tension became unbearable, Macey smiled, wide and bright and fake. “Come on, Nia. I’m just teasing. You should know that old bloods like Wilma and I are just a little jealous of your test scores. You certainly turned out great. But we’re wary of change in the South—we honor lineage and tradition here.” She shot a quick but deliberate glance at me—the other pauper aboard. “Most of the other genetically engineered fixer-upper types don’t amount to anything. No proof at all of superior performance. Clearly, they didn’t test you. And luckily for us, you’ll be helping with our essays on this little trip. Jenn speaks so highly of your work, and I know Wilma has really appreciated what you’ve done on the school council this year. You’ve really earned your invitation.”
“Yeah, Wilma says you’re a total suck-up who tries too hard,” Ellen interjected, her lips drawing into a straight, knife-edged smile. “Just like you’ve been doing with Macey all trip.”
Macey wiped Ellen’s expression away with an imperiously arched eyebrow. “I think it’s wonderful to have you along with us, Nia. Ellen likes to put on airs, but her mother was once a social climber, just like yours. She fakes her accent and colors her skin, to hide what she is. Yes, Ms. Quinn married well, but no one forgets anything in Buckhead.” Ellen’s face couldn’t have been redder if she’d been slapped. “You’re doing the right thing, Nia. We don’t make it easy for new blood around here. And if you really have been made smarter and faster than the rest of us, I’d better make sure we’ll be friends, right?”
Nia smiled at Macey’s mockery and Ellen’s resentment. Her grin wasn’t as wide as Macey’s, but it was just as fake. “I’ve always thought of you as a friend, Macey. I hope that isn’t too presumptuous. And I’m grateful for the invitation.”
Macey waved an elegant hand, as if pushing any past unpleasantness from her presence. “Anyway, that camp guy, what was his name? Smithers. He was falling all over himself about the water purifier we gave him.” She laughed contemptuously. “I got a vid of that. We must make sure Ms. Turnbull sees that footage.”
Captain Reynolds appeared from the cockpit, interrupting the conversation. “Peter, please cover the autopilot for a moment.” He ducked into the lavatory; his stomach was probably heaving by now.
As the steward made his way toward the front of the aircraft I bumped the flimsy table in front of Wilma with my knee. Her orange juice spilled onto her lap, the glass rolling onto the floor. She jerked upward in shock, sending the cheese plate tumbling to the ground as well.
“Jack-of-A’s,” she shrieked.
The steward moved like a cat, distributing clean-naps and kneeling to clean the floor all in less than three seconds. The rest of the girls quickly inspected their own precious garments, then stared down at the mess as if their stupefied gazes might somehow help the clean-up.
“I’ll get some towels from the other bathroom,” I muttered for the benefit of anyone who was listening.
I didn’t go the lavatory; instead, I went into the cockpit and shut the door. I peeled off the transparent film wrapped around my forearm and placed it onto the control display, stretching it all the over the co-pilot’s controls as well. The surface turned completely black as the coating attached. I smoothed its delicate surface with the palm of my hand, then tapped the corner, just as I had been instructed. A nearly perfect facsimile of the display appeared on the film. I spun out of the cockpit, grabbed a towel from the unoccupied bathroom, and rushed back to the main cabin.
“You’re a frakkin’ disaster, Jenn,” Wilma raged. “Clumsy and plebeian. I don’t know why Macey puts up with you. Oh, that’s right—I do know.”
“Enough,” Macey hissed. “One of you is clumsy and the other is very uncouth. I’ve got to put up with both, it seems. Or maybe I don’t.”
Wilma’s face glowed crimson. Her left eye twitched, but her mouth stayed shut. Macey’s eyes bored into my own. The message was clear: Don’t make me stand up for you again. Macey thought she owed my dad, so I got access to privileges. But there was a limit. I dipped my head the fashionable way that the rich of Buckhead did it.
I offered no apology. Macey had taught me that. If you’re better, you don’t need to say you’re sorry.
“My mom always says it’s not a party until something’s broken. I guess it’s a party now,” Ellen said.
“I can’t wait to get home,” Wilma declared.
I sat back down and looked out the window at the night outside. My veins had fire in them, and it was a challenge to sit still. But in the window, a girl with a wide, satisfied smile stared back at me.