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Linus Hoppe sat on the third level of the Zip, pinching his nose. The other passengers seemed oblivious to the vanilla fragrance that permeated the train car, but Linus couldn't get used to it. The sickly-sweet odor clung to his clothes and, worse, made him feel ill. He knew that something had to be done to cover up the foul-smelling vapors emanating from the subterranean Industrial Zone, but why had vanilla been chosen? Linus couldn't help wondering if the senior managers of the Trans-Urban Company had ever ventured into the transportation system since they'd decided to install the air fresheners.
The train glided noiselessly through the tunnels. Beyond the windows, there was nothing to see for miles, just darkness dotted at regular intervals by the glow of the small light fixtures on the tunnel walls. Back in the early 2000s, the train used to emerge into the open air right after leaving Paris. But today the regulations were much stricter, and any potential blight on the landscape was buried deep underground. The old railroad tracks had become places where people went for leisurely strolls.
Linus flipped open his pocket computer. The trip to his suburban station lasted twenty minutes, giving him ample time to go over the day's courses.
"Hello, Linus, my little cookie!" the computer blared unexpectedly.
Linus quickly lowered the volume as several people turned to look at him. He smiled at them, slightly embarrassed. Once again Chem had played one of his practical jokes. Not a day went by without Linus's hacker friend tampering with his programs. This time the joke was harmless, but the other day Chem had nearly wrecked Linus's touch-sensitive screen.
"Honestly, Chem," Linus had said to him, "why don't you target someone else?"
Chem had laughed into his scarf. "Anyone else would beat me up!" he'd said. "You're the only one at school who still has a sense of humor!"
Linus sighed. Chem was right: ever since the beginning of the year, the mood in school had deteriorated daily. Students glanced at one another suspiciously, they worked furtively in their own little corners, and classrooms were like battlefields. Not that there was any physical violence; after all, no one wanted to get expelled from the system. Instead the attacks were underhanded, with countless wounds to self-esteem, strings of petty intrigues, psychological bruises, and mental aggressions. In this arena, humor was definitely out of place.
"They're scared stiff," Chem kept grumbling to Linus. "The end-of-year exam is driving them all crazy."
Linus could relate. The end-of-year exam was all he could think about too. In three months, he was going to be tested by the Great Processor. The outcome would determine his future. A score of 150 or higher guaranteed he would remain in Realm One--where his life would barely change. He'd continue living at home, with his parents and his sister, Mieg, who had scored 185 two years before, and he would pursue his studies in the city. Later on, he'd receive fantastic bank loans to buy a house in the Protected Zone, and he'd be promoted to a position of responsibility, as his parents had. A score of less than 150, on the other hand, would have consequences he couldn't begin to imagine. One thing was certain: he would have to leave his home in the Protected Zone.
But Linus knew he had nothing to fear. With minimal effort, he was always among the top students. He had never had any problems with his teachers, had never been reprimanded, and had hardly ever been absent. According to his parents, the exam was a mere formality.
Still, Linus thought, accidents happen.
For several months, the word accident had been popping up in his thoughts regularly. The word didn't refer to a concrete reality; it simply sprang to mind unexpectedly, simultaneously frightening and tempting, much like a plane ticket to an exotic destination.
Having been completely absorbed in his thoughts, Linus realized he no longer had time to go over his courses. The train would be stopping in five minutes. He shut down his computer.
"See you soon, Cookie!" mumbled the synthetic voice.
Linus couldn't help smiling. Chem was an unbelievable prankster, but in spite of his jokes, he was also the best friend Linus had at school. The trouble was that by overplaying the rebel, Chem risked not being admitted into the best realm. Everyone knew that insubordinates were sent to Realm Three, where they endured a special treatment--one that involved a mixture of iron discipline and bullying. The ones who knuckled under were reevaluated, with the luckier ones reinstated in Realm One. As for the others, no one knew what became of them. But the teachers' threats had no effect on Chem's attitude. He persisted in folding his arms and smiling arrogantly. When Linus expressed worry, Chem boasted, "I can do whatever I want with the Great Processor. Don't forget, Cookie, I'm a computer genius! If I choose to, I can bust its circuits!"
Looking out the window, Linus caught sight of the halo of light from the approaching station. He shook his head. Of course, Chem was bragging. No one had ever succeeded in outwitting the Great Processor.
Linus buttoned up his jacket, put his computer away in his backpack, and headed to the first level of the train. The doors swished open and Linus stepped out onto the platform. No more vanilla scent here. He could breathe through his nose again. Relieved, he swiped his ID card through the slot at the gate.
"ID: Linus Hoppe. Authorized access into the Protected Zone. Good evening," said the electronic voice at the gate. Making his way through the crowd, Linus headed toward the elevators.
"Hey, Linus!" a familiar voice called to him from behind.
It was Mieg, his big sister, coming home from school too. She caught up with him, smiling and happy as usual. Over her long curly black hair, she wore a red hat with the insignia of the HIA, the Higher Institute of Architecture.
"Did you have a good day?" she asked, kissing Linus on the cheek.
"Not particularly good or bad. There were no fries at the cafeteria, poor Iona got another lousy grade in biotech, that moron Rodrigo made Marny cry, and Chem fiddled with my programs again. Routine, as you can see."
Mieg frowned. "You're very blase for a fourteen-year-old!"
Linus shrugged. The elevator had arrived. They were pushed along by the crowd cramming into it.
"Unlike you," Mieg said, "I was very excited the year of my exam. I worked hard, but it was fascinating. You don't seem to realize how much it's worth the effort."
Linus looked down at his feet and all the feet around his. From the shoes alone, he could tell that the people surrounding him lived in the Protected Zone. Theirs was the simple, clean, and comfortable footwear of the elite.
"Are you listening to me?" Mieg asked, slightly annoyed.
"Sorry, I'm tired."
The elevator doors opened. Again, Linus let himself be carried by the flow of humanity, happy to breathe the cold, dry air outside.
"You'll take a restorative bath when we get home," Mieg said, adjusting her hat. "Then I'll make you one of my tasty vitamin-enriched shakes. Okay?"
Linus nodded. He started walking along the edge of the sidewalk, his nose in the air. Between the bare branches of the trees, he saw that the winter moon was rising. Everything was quiet. The only sounds were the clicks of window shutters being rolled down, the mewing of a cat, laughter, and the notes of a piano coming from an artist's residence.
"There's no better place on earth. Don't you agree?" Mieg murmured as she noticed that Linus's mind was elsewhere.
They walked the rest of the way in silence, each appreciating the artificial serenity of the Protected Zone.