March coughed, and he cleared his throat as he exhaled fog into the air. He bunched himself up in his rough old coat and moved forward, among the dull buildings and gray sky. Despite the massive dome over the city it was cold here, a result of the air circulation systems which sent blasts of cold air from the harsh outside world in howling gusts down the streets and alleyways of the Coldborough. The winds filled his ears with their endless rumbling drums and mournful whistles. The sparse grass, tall and yellow and poking through the many cracks in asphalt, was bent prostrate in the direction of the wind’s travel. Sand and trash blew by, and March shut his eyes against them, still feeling the sting of tiny pebbles and blinking them away as he quickened his pace. His job was at the edge of the dome, at the research facility built into the rocks upon which the dome rested. In the maze of concrete tunnels with their humming bright lights he toiled away for most of his days, working on the Automation project. In the distance he could see several green shapes, and he watched them to see what they were doing. Hopefully they would not see him, or if they did they would not want to cross the distance. The Novus had been creations of the Awful Things, born of their shameful coupling with men. At least, that was what was written in history books. March had happened upon the notes and schematics in the archives at work, researching the pre-war data vaults for his research into the New Worker Program. He stumbled upon test results and formulae which had hinted at engineered beings created in laboratories. Nothing identified them by name, but by description – scaly, aggressive, and reptilian – he guessed at what they were. After March had read the file, he closed it and quietly put it back. It was better not to ask questions or contradict what was said officially. The Novus existed, and they were ferocious and hostile toward any who weren’t of their kind. The research did prove valuable, and advanced the research into the project considerably. Mercifully the Novus seemed uninterested in him, more interested in squawking at each other as two Novus seemed to be circling each other to fight. March looked away. Best to just go about his business and head home. He had some things he wanted to do anyways. His own apartment was in a light red stone building stretching nine stories into the air. The top three floors had smashed windows and crumbling holes, with a gash as though cut by some giant knife. Only the bottom six floors were lived in. March’s apartment had once been a home for young Tens, during the brief bohemian zeitgeist when the Coldborough was considered desirable. In those days, all the homes had been leveled and tall apartments erected on their spot so that the Tens might pretend to be impoverished and live in the relative harshness. As they always did, the Tens moved on, and the area fell through the ranks: Nines tended to avoid things the Tens abandoned, always trying to get ahead on the trend, but eights were eager. But when Tens decided the place had a stigma of being poor, and people realized it would drop their rank, it declined rapidly until Twos like March moved in. Across the way marched a line of Ones and criminals, shuffling like a vast millipede into the winds and swirling sand. A guard in dark gray watched them from beneath a darkened facemask while he held a shotgun in two hands. Ones were miserable and ugly men, short and squat, all of them walking downcast. March hated ones. He reached the door to his building with a relieved sigh and pulled on it, rewarded by a small whine. The door was metal with a glass panes, and so shattered by small rocks and other objects carried in the wind as to barely be able to see through it. The door style was impractical, but that was in its way a testament to what the tens had wanted: they would replace the door every day if necessary. A woman sat in the lobby, on the shredded and uneven lounge couch, impatiently looking at an old magazine. She was heavyset and short haired, and she looked angry. Then again most women looked angry when they were in Coldborough. She bore a ten on her shirt proudly. It was an odd fact that women who wore their tens displayed tended to be the nastiest, as if the display of it was enough. March had never met a Ten, or a male Ten at least; all females had been classified as Ten. It made some sense, as in the early days of the dome repopulation was key and only the best should be allowed to mate. It also ensured that women would stay in control, so the Awful Things (whatever they were) would never attack again. Apparently some men had allied with them, and it nearly destroyed the world. March bowed at the woman – as he had been taught. It would be very bad if he showed a woman disrespect; a single bad interaction could drop you a whole level. If they found reason to say that it was sexual assault, it meant instant incarceration. “Is there anything I can help-” March started. “Get lost,” she snapped, flipping a page in the magazine as she worked her legs anxiously. March bowed. “S-sorry…” “Just go,” she said with irritation. March hurried away with another bow, clenching his teeth. Bitch. Some women could be so awful. He hoped she didn’t decide to go after him. He walked up the stairs, his feet echoing down the chamber as he headed to the third floor. He heard footsteps in a loud rumble coming the other way, and he knew who it was by the sound. Tread was the building super. He was shorter than March, typically covered in grime or dirt from tending to the aging building as best he could. It was a losing battle, and sadly March knew Tread could do much better if he had had access to better tools. “Hey March!” He shouted, wiping his hand. “How was work?” “Well enough. Yourself?” “Shitty. Literally. Someone flushed a goddamn hairbrush in 216,” he said. “What a pain in the ass that was. I had to take the whole toilet off…” “Yuck,” March responded. “I hate to top off a bad day, but there’s a woman in the lounge. She looks pissed,” March said. Tread nodded with a sigh. “Yeah…I know. The guy in 440 says he wants to transition,” he said. “Transition? For real?” “He said it, so yeah,” Tread said. March thought of the guy in 440. Yost, he thought his name was. A thin man, something of a prankster. “I wouldn’t have guessed he wanted to be a woman,” March said, his brow furrowed. Tread laughed. “No shit. He’s been bragging about how it’s easy street for months. He thinks he’s going to score with girls if he wears panties. Bitch downstairs is gonna see through him in ten seconds and he’s going to get his ass thrown in the pits with the Novies.” “Anybody try to warn him about that?” March asked. “Why? Fuck him,” Tread said. “Look, March: you want to help people out cause you’re decent, but that’s not a good idea with trash like that. You gotta cut guys like him out of your life. All they do is drop your score.” “Well…it’s a shame,” March added. “Guy’s probably just hard up.” “So? Everybody is,” Tread said. “You got a review coming soon, right?” March sighed, feeling butterflies in his stomach. The review would decide his new ranking. Based on his reviews he would make 2.2 this year. It wasn’t much, but it was a start. And yet, he didn’t want to dwell on it. It always made him nervous. They could always go the other way… “Yeah…” March replied with a grimace. “Always make me nervous.” “You got nothing to worry about. You’ll do fine, with your research. Pity us grease monkeys, eh? We’re expendable.” March laughed. “You kidding? Even the Tens need a guy who can fix plumbing. You’re rock solid.” “Yeah…squishy is the word I’d use. Whelp, if you’ll forgive me, I ah…really want to shower after dicking around with that toilet. Have a good night bud,” Tread said. “Sure, see you, Tread,” March called out as Tread thundered past him on the stairs. Tread was somewhat ridiculous, March thought. Nice enough, but he thought he was going to be a Ten someday. March wasn’t really sure what a Ten was like. Movie portrayals tended to make them out to be Olympian gods, but that seemed unlikely given how they had left the apartments and the stories he had heard. The closest March had gotten to a real-life Ten was August, the director of the New Worker project, who was a 9.6. He was tall, broad shouldered, and had a full head of graying hair. He was confident but quiet, even-tempered, more a listener than a talker. One got the impression that he was a man who could move very carefully in a burning building. Tread had no such ability – he was loud and spoke freely. March guessed that boisterousness was not valued in the hierarchy. Tens had thousands of women at their disposal in giant harems. Nines were able to get a woman’s attention on occasion, and it fell off rapidly after that. A Two like March had little hope of mating. He could only go onto the streams and pick a Gei$ha to send pledges to in exchange for messages of affection. March walked down the dim hallway and pressed his thumb to the doorplate of his apartment at 311. He was rewarded by a satisfying click, and opened the door, revealing the pale white walls and linoleum floor of his apartment. The back wall was completely windows, and he had a view of the blue skyscrapers of the city, might stone totems that rose from the earth great heights toward the dome. The sky was dimming and lights were beginning to twinkle on. March took off his coat and hung it on its hook near the door. He deftly latched the bolts, breathing a sigh as he heard the last click. He could relax now, or get as close as possible to relaxation as he could. His apartment was sparse but well-kept; this unit had been two rooms of a Ten’s apartment, subdivided for his use into a studio with a kitchenette. His bed lay in one corner, a dilapidated old mattress he had bought from a thrift store, one of the few places that would serve a Two. He washed his face and held a chipped glass beneath his kitchen faucet, drinking the warm water. It tasted slightly of plaster, as usual. He went to the terminal in the corner and waved the mouse, waking it up to his notes. He sat down eagerly. He had a message to write. March had never paid much attention to Gei$has. They were mostly a racket, he knew. Women would post streams and get funds from males eager for the smallest display of affection. It was pathetic and undignified. He had always avoided it. But it was hard, and he got very lonely some nights… It started with just wanting to hear a woman talk. He went to a few of the lewd ones, but they were more depressing than titillating; dead-eyed women reading from a script who wanted to be anywhere else. But it was enough to get him coming back, enough to get him searching, and thinking. He had found Penny late one night. Things had gone well at work – they had reached a milestone in the early phases of the AI training. He needed to blow off steam and celebrate, but he had no real way to do so; Twos were only allowed in a few bars, and most of those were rather dangerous places with Novus skulking around looking for fights. And even so, two bars would mostly have cross dressers and homosexuals as the only dating options. One did not go among Twos seeking camaraderie. He had clicked through some streams, hoping to have a nice fantasy for the night. On a whim he listened to Penny’s stream, and despite himself he was drawn to her. It was perhaps mostly what she wasn’t that captivated him: others recited in a bored monotone, but she was alive with passion. They wore makeup caked on their faces, she wore only a faint trace. They were done up with expensive clothes and hair styles, while she was natural, with plain brown hair and blue eyes. They discussed sex, while she discussed old films from the early Dome period. She was innocent while they were…not. Her insights were not anything particularly earth-shattering, but her passion and delivery was captivating. And there was a kindness, a warmth in how she spoke of her viewers. He had watched and enjoyed it, and spent the night watching recordings of her streams. And he spent the next night doing it. And the night after. And soon he found she occupied his thoughts during the day at work, and when he lay in his bed and shut his eyes to sleep. After a month of this, he had resolved to send her a message and make contact. He decided to do it on a Friday night, so he could stay up late to work on it. Tonight was the night. He would do it now. “Hey Penny,” he typed. It was hard to think of what to say at the keyboard. All through the day he had expounded within his head, weaved words that would strike her fancy and get her attention. But in the act words escaped him. He forced himself to type, and the words began to flow easier. Soon it was going well. Maybe if he did well enough, he thought, he could even get a meeting with her. It wasn’t so far fetched. It was how he was born after all; his mother had run a cooking stream, and his father had been a three who had come up with a dish which she tasted and enjoyed. She had granted him a visit, and he was the result of it. He was a testament to his father’s greatest moment. He wouldn’t make his father’s mistake, at least; he would wear protection. But he was getting ahead of himself. Very ahead. The message took him the better part of an hour to type, mostly just some general outlines of his research into the Archetypes of the early dome period films. She had mentioned an interest in it a few times and he had done some research on her themes. He looked over his message. He had gauged based upon his research that most of the early films were state produced, and that the plots formulaic, in which the female protagonist, aided by a well-meaning but bumbling male, would confront and heal a female villain character who had been harmed and driven evil by the wicked act of a male. The goal of such films was clear; to reinforce the idea in the populace that they should be wary of male instinct and action and accept female leadership. To the war-shocked people who had gone through the brutal tyranny of the Awful Things, it was doubtless a necessary message. He read over it a few times, congratulating himself on the wording, and then, when he didn’t gauge it could be improved anymore, he clicked the send button. His inbox chimed and he saw it: the wonderful name Penny. His heart leapt. Could she have read it so quickly? With a shaking hand he opened it eagerly: “Hey March! Thanks for writing! I love getting mail from you and my fans. You are all so great! If you’d like to hear or read more of my thoughts on old movies, pick up my book at <itp://stremehub.str/link/product/AaaAawerj/main.mup>. If you aren’t supporting me through PatronagE (but would like to), you can do so at <itp://patronage.cur/pennygreeen>. Much hug! Penny” March sighed, his heart still thumping. Okay, he thought. An automated response didn’t necessarily mean another response wasn’t coming. She would read it. She would love it. The mail did have a good point, however: she might be more inclined to read from a donator. He took a deep breath. Donating was a big step. He had hoped he might make contact with her first, make sure it wasn’t a scam and that she was a real person and not some virtual construct. If she accepted, he would have to declare it in his taxes and to the police – part of stalker laws. He had enough in his balance, and she didn’t ask for much. In fact, he was quite well off money-wise. It helped when most businesses wouldn’t serve you. Of course, if she didn’t accept, that would need to be reported too, but few people would refuse money. Some of the more popular, ‘glamour’ girls would, but not a girl like Penny. He considered for a moment, then clicked the link for the PatronagE. His heart was racing. This would be a big step. He entered in his information and his account info. He clicked the submit button. The message returned a second later from PatronagE: “Denied.” His heart sank. He read onward. “Your PatronagE donation has been refused by the holder. Reason: Citizen Ranking not sufficient. Note you are required by law to report refused donations to police within 48 hours or be considered in violation of statute D123-3444: Reegan’s Law.” The words were like a slap across the face, and somewhere he thought he could hear laughter. With a sigh, March closed the browser window. In his excitement for contact he had forgotten who he was, and his place. He looked at the pile of notes he had written, and the draft on the screen, and he felt a deep, abiding sense of disgust and shame. Not only would this be reported to the police, it would also be reported at work. Instead of the shame of sending a woman money, they would know that she had refused it. People would laugh at him behind his back if he were lucky, or to his face if he wasn’t. Penny had seemed so approachable, so different. He cursed himself for his stupidity. It was ridiculous. He knew better. But the cocktail of hormones did things to your brain; after all, if the idea of mating was insanity, why not be insane for a sliver of a chance? Better to risk it from the body’s perspective, risk humiliation and perhaps worse, than let fruit wither and die on the vine. He crumpled up the papers on his desk. He needed to purge it all. Destroy it. Move on. He had to rise in the ranks. A three may not have much chance in society, but he had a better chance than a two, and a four a better chance still. There were even prostitutes who would sleep with threes if you paid them enough. And who knows? Maybe Penny would accept his donations… The key was not to sit around. The key was to work. In two days he would appear before the review board. He took out his work machine and powered it up. If he could get some progress on the New Worker project, it would go well for him at the review. He took a deep breath and looked over the notes. Time to get to work.