Something small and rectangular hits her on the forehead, Zhongli Luo unable to see where it falls to the floor due to her upside down position on Rong Jiahui’s bed. She had been focused on the numbers flashing on the screen projected before her eyes, her head swinging comfortably against the bottom of the quilt. Pressing a button on her body watch, the screen turns off, giving her a clear view of Jiahui sitting with her legs crossed on the floor. It’s obvious Jiahui is ignoring her, eyes moving back and forth as she reads something off of her own screen while a slight smirk rests on her face.
Zhongli Luo rolls over, righting herself and picking up whatever was thrown at her. It’s a thin piece of candy, folded lightly into a shiny wrapping. Touching the candy leaves a light powder of residue on her fingers, and she looks back up at Jiahui to see she’s already watching her, eager to see her reaction.
“Is this what I think it is?” Zhongli Luo asks, squeezing the candy between her fingers.
“If you think it’s gum, then you are absolutely correct.”
Voice full of wonder, Zhongli Luo questions, “How did you get this? This hasn’t been seen in years!”
“Jiaze looted some higher officials. Apparently they have boxes of stuff like this just piled into one their rooms on the upper levels.” There’s a smirk showing itself on Jiahui’s face as she says this, making Zhongli Luo's stomach turn in a way she's all too familiar with. Popping the piece of gum in her mouth to have her facial muscles concentrated on something other than erupting into flames, she chews and mutters, “Of course they do.”
As the gum softens, Zhongli Luo can feel it warming on her tongue, belatedly realizing the type of gum this was and the betrayal it was about to ensue in her. Back when people were free to create and sell without being scrutinized, there was all sorts of modifications to original items from the planets they came from. Platters of meat boosting one's physical strength, rice dishes providing bouts of wisdom if they ate the specified amount of grains, appearance changing fruit that was especially helpful when sneaking around after curfew. Confections affected a person on a smaller scale, more in the literal sense of "tricks and treats."
The heat building in Zhongli Luo's mouth tells her this is a fire-breathing gum mod, and that she only has seconds to part her lips wide enough for the fire to escape without burning the roof of her mouth and the outer edges of her lips. Through her watering eyes, she sees Jiahui's smirk round out, softening into a smile Chun Tao insists is reserved only for Zhongli Luo. She thinks Chun Tao is delirious and has been eating too many of Zhao Afu's defective experiments.
Cursing Chun Tao for implanting that deviant thought in her head, Zhongli Luo immediately opens up, spurts of fire bursting out of her. Jiahui is giggling at her and her attempts not to catch her quilt on fire, Zhongli Luo's head sticking out at an odd angle to do so. The fire gradually dies out, the grey smoke occasionally leaking out of her mouth the only evidence of the last few minutes of Zhongli Luo’s misfortune.
Sometime during the fire-breathing, Jiahui had hurried over to the bed to pat out the small flame that had sprouted on the corner of the quilt. She leans against the frame, almost contemplative as she watches the last of the tendrils fade into the air. "Maybe you and I should sneak in there."
Present in the sentence is a challenge, one Zhongli Luo is surely not going to back down from. Jiahui is always doing things like this, making a side comment that spirals into some big scheme because she can't control herself, and Zhongli Luo can't help but follow behind her. Zhongli Luo can't count the number of times they have almost gotten caught by Scopes, the hundreds of glass lenses littering their bodysuits similar to the eyes of insects making it difficult to slip away unnoticed. Scopes were on each floor, even more so the wealthier those who lived on the floor were, patrolling the grounds to keep the peace. Or so they say. Not a single person is oblivious to the exorbitant amount of credits given to Scopes in order to let the wealthy do whatever they please.
People like Jiaze and Jiahui were hellbent on antagonizing the worst of the wealthy, and Zhongli Luo tagged along to ensure Jiahui didn't get sent to the Tanks. Zhongli Luo knew from firsthand experience just how awful they were, and she never wanted Jiahui to step foot in there.
Rubbing her shoulder subconsciously, Zhongli Luo says, "Only after some time has passed. Jiaze just hit them, and their security is going to amp up for a couple weeks."
Seeing her sense, Jiahui agrees but not without making a face, "Fine. But what ever will we do in the meantime?"
"I do believe there are codes with your name on them that need attending to." Zhongli Luo boots up her screen again, clicking on a series of buttons before Jiahui's watch pings, and her screen flies open involuntarily with the same numbers Zhongli Luo had been staring at earlier. Jiahui lets out a groan, dramatically collapsing to the floor, the screen reorienting itself to her position. Glaring at the screen, Jiahui sets to work, finishing the codes Zhongli Luo had started. Most of their days were spent like this, creating and fixing codes for the ship they were assigned. Other days were filled with roaming about the different levels they were allowed and weren’t allowed on and rummaging through anything they could get their hands on.
For people who were typically watched over by a million eyes, Zhongli Luo And Rong Jiahui went unseen for miles. The only thing they allowed the ship and its officials to see were the codes they periodically sent in, nothing more, nothing less. It meant they flew within the wide radar, but on the outer edges of its range. Due to Zhongli Luo’s days in the Tanks, she had more check-ins than Jiahui, but they were always predictable and within reasonable hours.
Meaning after the period of increased security was up, and Zhongli Luo was visited by Scopes to scan her watch for any suspicious activity, they were ready to set out without a hitch.
Jiahui was practically vibrating at her side as they slid out of Zhongli Luo’s room. The lights in the hallways were dimmed, one glaringly red emergency light flickering every ten light fixtures. The glow casts eerie shadows across the hollow of their eyes, the lower half concealed by the tight material of their body suits. Even in the apple red of the light, the brightness in Jiahui’s eyes is easily discernible, unable to be masked.
Ascending through the first few levels is ridiculously simple, a single Scope left to roam each floor. Once curfew was in place, the majority roamed the upper levels where there was more valuables to protect. They were able to sneak onto the rising platforms, the one-way glass surrounding their way upwards displaying an empty space to those looking on from the outside. Using a code Jiaze designed specifically to not alert the officials to unauthorized scans, the platforms inputs the numbers and shudders to life without a sound.
A small ping issues out from Jiahui’s watch, letting her know there were Scopes in the vicinity. She clicks around on her screen until a layout of the floors they would be searching floods her vision. On the maps are moving red dots, revealing the locations of each Scope on the floors. It’s another one of Jiaze’s codes, painstakingly developed with the help of Jiahui and herself. After Zhongli Luo was caught that one day, Jiahui had made it her mission for it to never happen again. The crinkle of her eyes tells Zhongli Luo she’s grinning underneath the material of the suit, pleased their invention worked as planned.
The doors to the platform open with a hiss of air, a vacant hallway greeting them. Jiahui links a hook to herself and another onto a loop on Zhongli Luo’s body suit, allowing her to send messages through small electrical currents straight to Zhongli Luo without worrying about officials denying access to it. From now on where speaking meant Scopes swooping in on them like vultures to a meal, the link would allow communication between the two of them in an invisible chatroom. Jiahui’s already sent a message, and Zhongli Luo opens it up on her screen.
Rong Jiahui: Proceed left. There’s a one minute gap where the hallway by the platforms is unguarded. It shrinks to thirty seconds and then fifteen the higher we go. Luckily, the floor we are hitting has a beautifully lengthy thirty second gap.
Zhongli Luo shoots her a thumbs up, then follows Jiahui off of the platform. Each room they pass has multiple locks on the outside, along with two separate keypads to input passcodes in. Zhongli Luo can’t help but roll her eyes; such unnecessary precautions for whatever little fortunes they were stocked up with. It obviously couldn’t compare with whatever was hiding on the higher levels, and yet whoever lived on these middle levels put on airs to say otherwise. An impulsive part of her wants to knock lightly on the doors, alert the system and scare the residents inside out of their wits, but she swallows the urge and continues forward.
With the help of the map on Jiahui’s screen, they are able to avoid the Scopes, passing through empty hallways and using their suits to coat themselves in a layer of invisibility to hide in spaces between the walls. The glass lenses on the Scopes’ body suits see right through them, and they breath a sigh of relief each time the Scope proceeds past them.
On each level with the one minute gap, they’ve had to wait in the previous hallway for the Scope to pass before boarding the platform. They’ve finally come up to the level they were aiming for, the level starting the thirty second gaps. Zhongli Luo scans her watch at the code reader, stopping the doors from opening and exposing them. She glances over at Jiahui and patiently waits for any information, watching the quick agitated movements of her eyes read across her screen. Before the message is sent, Jiahui looks over her screen to Zhongli Luo who was waiting to catch her eye, her eyebrows quirking up in question. Zhongli Luo shakes her head, making sure to crinkle her eyes up in a fake smile and flashes a peace sign, curling her two fingers mockingly. Squinting, Jiahui returns to her screen to add a few choice words and sends the message with a threatening look in her eyes.
Rong Jiahui: Why must you act cute in a situation that clearly has no room for it. I’ll bite you.
Bringing a hand up to her mouth, Zhongli Luo blows a kiss to Jiahui who repeatedly shakes her and refuses to look at her. Zhongli Luo doesn’t let up, only scooting closer towards Jiahui, the enclosed space of the platform leaving no room for Jiahui to run. Panic seems to set in for Jiahui, and she hurriedly accepts the next kiss Zhongli Luo blows, grabbing it out of the air and placing it over her heart. Satisfied with herself for lightening the mood and successfully getting Jiahui flustered, she moves her eyes away from Jiahui’s fluttering eyelashes back to her screen.
Rong Jiahui: The room is the farthest away from the platform. Not ideal in any situation but it’s one of the only rooms free of people tonight, and it’s not close enough to the room Jiaze looted last time for it to arouse suspicion. There’s double the amount of Scopes on the level, so let’s be quick about it, alright?
This time, Zhongli Luo nods, moving her arm towards the code reader to open the doors, but a hand at her wrist stops her. She looks back, seeing long fingers wrap around her and then Jiahui’s averted gaze. Seconds later, another message comes in.
Rong Jiahui: I think keeping physical contact this time is in our best interest. Messages take too long to send, but my hand can yank you out of harm’s way in a flash. Is that alright with you?
Just nodding this time didn’t seem like enough of an answer, so Zhongli Luo sends a message of her own.
Zhongli Luo: Of course. I trust you.
Jiahui blinks, taking in the two sentences on her screen, then slides her hand lower until it rests in Zhongli Luo’s. There’s no time to think about how warm she is, even through the layers of their body suits. The round of Scopes had just passed into the next hallway five seconds ago, so Zhongli Luo opens the doors and lets Jiahui pull her through.
Zigzagging through the hallways leaves her a bit dizzy, the number of Scopes overwhelmingly more than before. The map on Jiahui’s screen is flooded with the red dots, and they almost seem to be moving at twice the speed too. They’ve had to constantly keep activating the invisibility of their suits with how many times Scopes have walked in from the other end of the hallway just as they entered. Zhongli Luo can feel her hands sweating, thankful her suit is in between her and Jiahui’s hand.
Finally, the room they were searching for comes into view. Zhongli Luo inputs the four passcodes of this door rapidly, hoping she hadn’t stumbled on a number anywhere. There’s a second of silence before they let out a beep of assurance, Jiahui rushing to undo the tens of locks on the door. Three red dots are rounding the corner when Jiahui shoves Zhongli Luo into the room, snapping the door shut. The locks on the other side relock themselves, and the three red dots walk pass without pause.
Zhongli Luo and Jiahui stare at each other, and almost burst into sweet laughter, the rush of adrenaline filling their heads with its heady beat. Zhongli Luo’s face hurts with how hard she’s smiling, letting herself enjoy the satisfaction of this small victory for the moment. Once Jiahui walks away from the door, Zhongli Luo takes in their surroundings as well. The room is twice as large as hers or any one of her friends’, filled with too much furniture and walls that are covered in all sorts of decorations, not a space to be seen. It’s all art, relics from the past and newer ones from upper class people, the ones who had the option to spend their lives doing what they wanted and not what the ship wanted. There’s a few family photos interspersed, two fathers and their multitude of children; Zhongli Luo can’t keep track of how many there are. As she’s surveying the walls, she makes it to the first door, one of the only ones in the room not filled with some sort of decoration she couldn’t even begin to describe. Behind her, she hears Jiahui opening her own door, and she takes that as her cue to open the one in front of her.
It’s spacious, but unlike how the main room is cluttered, its furnishings are sparse. Confusion tilts her head as she takes in the single couch for two and the table with four chairs around it. The wealthy were known for being lavish to the point that even the ship’s regulated body suits were adorned with all sorts of illicit accessories and upgrades. For a room to be so bare set off alarm bells in Zhongli Luo’s head. She carefully starts to examine the room, checking for trip wires and hidden lasers by keeping an eye out on her screen. There’s no blips to tell her of any traps, but she continues to watch her step, lightly tracing her hand on the walls to keep her steady.
Then the wall beneath her fingers disappears. Her arm sinks in up to her elbow before she jerks it back out, staring speechlessly at the wall in front of her. It doesn’t shake or fizzle out like most holograms do, the radiation waves of space usually too strong for the holograms to stay stable. When she pokes a finger at it, it remains the same, not even a ring of static around her finger due to her body’s interference. The wall feels like it could swallow her up at any time, and Jiahui would be none the wiser.
At that moment, Jiahui walks in, patting her own back with glee to express the loot she’s hidden in the expanse of her body suit. Seeing that Zhongli Luo doesn’t return the gesture, she strolls over, wondering what’s the matter. Zhongli Luo can’t find it in herself to speak, deciding to just show her. Steeling herself, Zhongli Luo steps into the wall, hearing the surprised yelp escape out of Jiahui.
But making noise becomes one of the least of their problems. Behind the wall is a room massive enough to hold the ship's dining hall. The physics of it boggles her mind, the height and width of the room going way past the dimensions of the floors surrounding it. Rows of tables fill the space, each containing lines of banned weaponry she’s only seen in the textbooks on her screen. Ray guns of all sorts, explosives, and the simple handheld ones that could be concealed under their body suits. Zhongli Luo shudders at the thought of battles with these things, the amount of damage it could do to the people, the ship, their society.
Jiahui comes staggering in, knocking into Zhongli Luo who hadn’t moved. She grips at Zhongli Luo’s arms, righting herself against her. Jiahui tries to get Zhongli Luo’s attention, but she shakes her head, instead pointing out to the tables. Following her line of sight, Jiahui lets out another word of surprise, her woah too loud in the grandiose of the room
Zhongli Luo: There’s no way… Out of all the rooms we could have picked…
Rong Jiahui: We shouldn’t be here. You’ve heard the stories of what they do to rebels. Let’s just go with what I have and never speak of this to anyone.
Of course, Zhongli Luo agrees. If either of them got caught with this knowledge, forget being sent to the Tanks; their entire families would be shot out into the void of space.
Their fingers intertwine, already trying to back out of the room when a person materializes midway through the room. And then another, and another, until a hundred or so people are standing at the tables, observing them with calculating eyes.
They try to run, but they bump into a pair of solid bodies directly behind them, blocking the entryway completely.
A voice carries over the numerous amount of tables and the destruction they hold, lilting with a song they were not privy to. Not yet anyways.
“Why, hello there. Care to join us?”