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NC-17 Outcast

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“Loser. This world should be rid of you.â€

Joi looked up from her desk. Her mother was beaming down at her, her face warm and tender as always. Joi could not express how much she loved her Mum. She was the only person Joi ever saw on a daily basis, and Joi loved listening to her sweet voice. She was such a simple woman, and the simpler and more pleasant she was, the more determined Joi was to become her idea of the perfect daughter.

“Here, have some hot soup, darling,†said her mother. “Are you going out today?â€

“Thanks, Mum, and no, no I’m not,†replied Joi, her head bent, ostensibly over the soup. “Cricket and Thalfay invited me to play with them, so I’ll be here all day.â€

She saw from the corner of her eye her mother heave a sigh of relief. Her hand slipped unobtrusively to her Pocket Device, stuffing it into her pocket. Her mother had the decency not to pry into her online life, but it was an instinctive action anyway.

“Well, have fun with your friends,†said her mother. “I won’t disturb you playing, so ring me up on the Pocket Device if you need me.†Joi watched as the buxom woman left the room and closed the door. She waited a few more seconds before taking her Pocket Device out again and opened it, watching the screen light flash white, and read the ten new messages that had appeared in the past hour.

“People who can’t afford the PD xL Version 3 shouldn’t be allowed to live!â€

“We’re not paying taxes to support barbarians in our society.â€

“Don’t you feel ashamed opening your eyes everyday?â€

The last message was from Thalfay, a person Joi suspected she knew in person, for Thalfay would not fail to send her a message on her birthdays every year, replete with all kinds of unpleasant death wishes. Joi was used to all of these. She lived in a world where everyone had to have the modern, newest technology. Her Pocket Device, originally a pink rectangular gadget, had developed black spots from age, a rare sight in the world. Or at least, it probably was rare. Joi had not stepped out of her house very often, and had no idea what other Pocket Devices had to look. It had appeared as a shiny clean thing when she got it at first, though, the result of her mother’s hard-earned savings over the years as a cleaning lady, and she figured that if people outside changed their PDs every four months, their items probably never had the chance to decompose like hers seemed to be doing.

It was a relief to be alone in the room for a few hours at least, where her mother would think she was socialising. She badly wanted to leave the house, to get away from the suffocating oppression of invisible people, but there had been news again, of a gory death by the riverbank. The corpse had been buried under one metre of snow, and only found a month later by an old man who had been chased out of his house. What was scariest was that the corpse had been found with its organs missing, yet there was not a single incision on its body.

Joi had not minded the mass panic. The streets would be even quieter than before, and she didn’t even mind the biting chilly wind that often struck in December. It was the perfect place to be alone.

In fact, the more she thought about it, the more appealing the idea was. There was nothing to do in her room aside from facing her PD, which was now flashing with an ominous blue light to indicate more messages incoming. People from all over the world were jumping on the bandwagon to hurl insults. She got out of bed, dusted down a coat in her closet, put it on, and slipped out of the room.

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Out in the harsh cold and the chilly winds, Arn was sitting on a bench enjoying a cup of hot cocoa. The streets had been rather quite as of late with several cases of brutal murder, but that never stopped him. He had told his small group of friends he was heading home ahead of them, but in reality he didn't do that at all. Instead he spent that time alone in the cold, bundled in his jacket and beanie covering his black dyed hair.

He pulled out his PD, a rather strange device compared to other people's models. It wasn't really a PD anymore, rather a holographic piece. The bracelet around his wrist, blue and white in color, brought a holographic panel into existence that he could then use like a touch screen PD. The device had other functions, however, it was a prototype.

Arn was selected for the testing program, which paid him as well as allowed him to use the device for the selected period of time. Data on the machine was collected as he used it, and he wrote a product report once a week.

There was one new message that read:


Are you at home right now, or still out and about in this cold?


He ignored the message and cast his gaze to the sky, the white clouds starting to reflect the late evening sunlight. "The sun sets too early in winter!" he complained aloud to himself.

He dropped the panel and it dissipated as he stood from the bench only to find himself looking at a girl he'd never seen before sneaking out of her house it almost seemed.

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The coast was clear. Joi raised the hood of her jacket over her head and slipped out, her soft-soled shoes making soft crunching noises in the snow. The hood largely obscured her peripheral vision, but she was pretty sure there would not be anybody out and about in these times. After all, the national census had concluded that the percentage of people who left their homes had been steadily dipping these past few years, diving below half at the start of this year.

She froze as she heard the sound of a door opening behind her. Could her mother have found out already? She quickened her steps, raising the seat of her trousers to make small running steps, half-tripping and half-shuffling her way out of the snow-covered yard. She repeated this movement for about ten minutes before stopping to catch her breath, satisfied that she should have left a sufficient distance between herself and the house. Her mother was a bouncy woman, not at all athletic, and would take about double that amount of time to catch up to her.

Now came the next question, where was she to go?

It was liberating, the complete silence and desolation of the road around her. At the same time, it was also aimless. Everywhere she went, she knew she would only be greeted by darkened houses, lonely birdsong and the cold, cold wind. There wasn’t anything particularly meaningful to do.

As she surveyed her surroundings, she caught sight of a man. He was sitting on a bench, wrapping himself up in thick layers of clothing, drinking a cup of hot cocoa. She was sure that he had seen her.

An irrational panic welled up in her chest. Why was there a person here? Could he be… was it possible?

Should she run?

In TV shows, whenever people started running, the villains would give chase and more often than not overpower their victim. It was clear who would be the winner here if anyone started running. Maybe she should walk away, gain some distance between them. It might give her just the slightest edge if a chase occurred.

Or maybe he’s just a normal guy, sitting down and drinking cocoa. You’re thinking too much.

It had a point. It couldn’t be such a coincidence that the killer who removed organs from his victims would happen to be right in her neighbourhood, waiting for someone to sneak out of their home in order to take their lives… or their organs. She couldn’t be that unlucky.

Still, no good ever came from talking to strangers. She eyed him carefully. It was probably easy to conceal weapons in that garb. Yes, for safety’s sake, whether he was THE murderer or not, she would just saunter away in the other direction. She tucked her hands in her pockets, gave him one last suspicious look, and walked off, trying to look as casual as possible. She would relax once she was out of his sight.

Her heart was thumping so quickly she wondered if the man could hear it.

He’s just a guy drinking cocoa. He’ll probably not even cast a second glance at me. He’ll just finish his cocoa and walk off back home, and I’ll have been scared for nothing.

She really should have brought her penknife out.

If you’re such a scaredy-cat why did you even get out of the house? You should’ve remained in your room, living out your ordinary life under the protection of your mother, letting your mood be determined by nasty snobbish messages from anonymous “friendsâ€.

She must admit, sometimes she really knew how to get to herself.

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Arn watched her for a short while, glancing around to see if there was anyone she might have been meeting. He looked in the opposite direction, taking a sip from his cocoa and thought: Is she meeting someone? It's kinda dangerous to be out here alone.

He adjusted his glasses realizing that he wasn't one to talk either. He came out here to when it was this late alone too. When he looked back, she had turned and began leaving.

Arn was torn on whether or not to be chivalrous and watch after her as well as kill some time, or if it would be better to ignore her like a normal person would. As she moved further away he sighed saying, "Ah what the hell."

With one final chug, Arn finished the drink, cursing that it was still hot enough to burn his tongue, and rushed to a nearby trash can. He tossed it in and almost fell as he spun in the cold snow to catch up to her. In a rather ungraceful form, he jogged down the street, keeping a cautious distance from her and finally called out, "Pardon me miss. Were you meeting someone out here?"

He slowed his jog and came up to her casually. His PD sounded one ping, two pings...Before a third sounded his hand clicked a button on the wrist band and silenced it. 

I don't feel like dealing with you right now. Take a hint.

He smiled at her as he adjusted his glasses again from the rush, then stuffed his bare hands into his jeans pockets.

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There was a voice behind her, shouting out something unintelligible. A gust of rather strong wind had blown in just then, drowning out the sound. It didn’t matter. What mattered was that the man was giving chase.

She was caught off guard. She hadn’t thought of what to do if he really did the unexpected and followed her, and now a rush of adrenaline coursed through her body. In a sudden bout of false courage, she whirled around at him, her fists clenched, trying to look fiercer and more confident than she really was with her knocking knees and her chattering teeth.

“What do you want with me?†she hollered, making sure she stood at a safe distance from him. “Let me tell you, I’ve got my PD set to Quick Dial the police at the press of a button!â€

That was one of the features of the new Pocket Device. She had heard about it on forum conversations. She felt it was unnecessary to let him know she was using a much older model.

She looked more closely at him now. He didn’t really seem as treacherous as she had imagined. In fact, he seemed more incredulous than anything. She felt her cheeks turn warm. Maybe he was just trying to tell her that she had dropped something, and then she went and shouted at him like some lunatic. That was not how one should treat a stranger, unless one was an internet troll.

“Er, I mean, sorry, did you say something just now?†she tried to save herself, scratching her head bemusedly. “I was just a bit panicky, which is why I screamed at you. You know, with all those ghastly deaths, one can’t be too careful, right?â€

She was rambling now out of embarrassment. She let out a dry cough and tried to look perfectly pleasant and calm. Now that she was looking at him up close, how could she have thought he was the killer? He seemed an unarmed, easygoing man who just wanted to drink his cocoa. Murderers certainly wouldn’t be caught drinking hot drinks right before performing something so grisly. He wasn’t even wearing gloves, for goodness’ sakes. She was letting her imagination get away with her.

From behind a house, another pair of eyes watched. The person glared coldly at them, resting his gloved hands against the wall. One of them slid into the pocket of his bulky leather jacket and tightened its grip on something within.

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Arn stared for a long, confused moment after she yelled. When she began rambling about various things, he only caught the former half as laughter came over him. He laughter at her antics for a good bit until finally he got control of himself. "I'm...I'm sorry. I didn't mean to laugh. You were just so flustered it was amusing," he said catching his breath finally.


He shifted against a cold breeze that came by and repeated, "I was just asking if you had come to meet someone. I guess I'm not really one to talk, but it's not often people just come outside in this kind of weather. I thought maybe you had made plans to meet up with someone but maybe I was in the way."


The more he thought about it, the idea seemed a little absurd after she had run from him like that. If she was meeting someone, why would she leave so quickly? Well at least it's killing time. Looking at the innocent girl before him, the way she seemed to make herself smaller and hidden, he couldn't help but think she was rather cute. "If you weren't meeting someone, and this may sound strange, but you wanna spend time with me?"


He rushed on to continue his thought with added gesticulation, "Of course, that is, if you aren't already going somewhere. I mean, if you do have plans that's cool too. I mean, I don't have anything to do, so I could accompany you...I just..."


Arn sighed and facepalmed at his absurd behavior with a girl he'd just met . You're so much smoother than this. Idiot.

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“Meeting someone?†Joi repeated incredulously. Did people still meet other people face to face in this era? “Oh, no, I’m not meeting anyone. Well, I just really wanted to come out for some fresh air. The house can be pretty stifling, you know. I mean, not that I do it very often, just sometimes.†It could be so hard for a socially awkward girl to know the right things to say to fit in.

"If you weren't meeting someone, and this may sound strange, but you wanna spend time with me?"

It did sound strange, but she was past the scared and suspicious stage now. She was a person who relied strongly on intuition, and intuition told her this man was sincere. She could always reject him very nicely.

“You know what, sure! Why not?†she said brightly. All she needed to do was avoid taking out her PD, after all. “And what’re you doing out here? I suppose you’re not meeting someone, but aren’t you, you know, afraid? Being out here alone, what if you get attacked? But I suppose you’re burly enough to fight them off.†She laughed. The man wasn’t particularly burly, but anyone standing with the skinny Joi always looked broader by comparison.

“Anyway, my name’s Joi. I haven’t seen you around before, and I’ve been living in this neighbourhood for years now. Nothing fun ever goes on here, save for the incident that hit the news. I’m not even sure where to take you. I mainly just walk up and down the road and listen to what goes on in other people’s homes. All those video game music and TV shows, the same things in my own home, really.â€

Without knowing it, they had started down the road that she usually took again. The wind had lightened up now, and she was feeling a lot warmer under her coat. It was probably reaching the peak of the afternoon now, when the temperature would rise pretty rapidly. She unbuttoned her coat and slung it on her arm. They were walking in such a leisurely pace that she had forgotten the anxiety and panic from earlier, but it all came back to her when she saw a familiar figure.

“Mum!†the exclamation came out of her mouth before she could hold it back. Her mother was trotting down the pavement ahead of them in flat sandals. She wondered if perhaps her grandmother was in some dire condition. That was usually the main reason her mother would leave the house.

“We should turn the other way,†she said abruptly, immediately whirling herself around and marching determinedly in the opposite direction. Her nervous mind had not yet formulated an excuse as to why she was out without telling her, and having a stranger with her was not going to help her mother’s impression. It didn’t look as if her Mum had noticed that she was not at home; she was striding purposefully, without a hint of fluster in her, so perhaps it wasn’t about her grandmother either. But Joi was certainly not going to hang around to find out.

“Let’s head over to the back of that building, where we’ll be out of sight,†she added, keeping her voice low as she pointed to something that looked like an abandoned warehouse, on the corner of an abandoned 4-way traffic junction. “I’ll explain everything later.†It happened to be at the blind spot of anyone walking along the pavement, and they could stay there for a few minutes to ensure she was safely gone.

What a piece of rotten luck this was. Joi rolled her eyes. Why couldn’t her mother just remain at home like on any other day?

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Arn was rather enthusiastic when she agreed to his invitation. He listened to her go on about various things, not really stopping to give him time to speak. He didn't mind much regardless of the feeling like he was being pulled around suddenly. Arn simply walked with her and smiled until she seemed to panic at the appearance of who she claimed to be her mother. Befiore he could ask any questions she began to drag him away, Even when she dragged him behind the building he remained silent until finally they stopped. 


Any number of things were running through his mind as he stood there with Joi, a girl whom he'd just met moments before and was now hiding behind an abandoned building with. What's with this kind of situation? It's like an anime or something. I've gotta lay off those a little He thought at first, then he strayed to other things. 


Why did she drag me away from her mother? Did she sneak out after all? Just how old is this girl anyway? She can't be more than sixteen or seventeen now that I look at her. Man I feel like a pedophile or something now...But she's kinda interesting. I haven't said hardly anything to her, yet she just kept on talking. She even dragged me here. Maybe she doesn't get out all that often or something...




Arn cleared his throat and took a moment to collect his thoughts as he pulled his beanie off and stuffed it in his jacket pocket, letting his straight black hair fall out as he shook it. "So, I guess I should say my name is Arn, but um, you don't really get out too often do you? I mean, I guess things aren't like they used to be, but still, you don't seem like you get much company," he said pulling her attention away from the stress of her mother.


He couldn't help be see that as suddenly rude. "Erm...sorry if that was rude. I just kinda said what I thought I guess," he admitted with a goofy smile while fixing his hair as a habit.

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“… um, you don't really get out too often do you?â€

It was a very innocuous remark, on hindsight, but for some reason it made Joi blush as though her façade of normalcy had just crumbled before her.

“Yeah well, you’re right,†she admitted with a sigh. “I may as well tell you the truth since you’ll probably find out sooner or later, and I don’t particularly approve of lying anyway. Here, take a look at this.†With some reckless fervour, she took out her Pocket Device and showed it to Arn. He probably didn’t even recognise it.

“It’s a PD,†she elaborated. “I’m not sure if you used it, many years ago. The truth is simply, my family’s too poor to afford new models, for… whatever reason. And so I don’t have many friends, partly because I’m not even at the same level of tech to have simultaneous video calls, or pop-out avatars, and all the new stuff. To add to the insult, its OS is even incompatible with the newest features, so I’ve got friends that lost touch with me for this reason. So it’s really hard to maintain friends like this, and all I’ve got are faithful fans who send me anonymous messages all the time.†She opened her PD, making a move as though to show him, then thought better of it and flipped it shut again. “Some even send me a whole lot at once, just so that my PD would crash from the overload, I suppose. My Mum doesn’t know any of this. She thinks I still have friends, and so whenever I sneak out she thinks I’m just locked in my room having amazing conversations.†She looked at Arn curiously.

“What about your family?†she asked. “Wouldn’t they worry about you being out in the streets? That’s really why I’m hiding from my Mum anyway. I don’t want her to worry about me roaming around outside. She’s a worrywart. I guess your family’s alright with you? Oh and er, your hair’s okay, you know.â€

She blushed again at the last remark. That had been inappropriate, but she had never seen someone so preoccupied with hair before, not that she had met many guys. Her mother cared about her hair, but not to the extent of touching the strands and smoothing it out repeatedly. Perhaps it was a sub-conscious thing, like talking apparently was with her. Goodness, she sure had talked this stranger’s ear off. It was rare that somebody would stand around and listen to her for so long after all.

Though now that they were on the topic of hair, his hair was pretty well-kept indeed. She had always found people with black hair looked especially clever, and his strands were particularly neat and obedient, unlike her own, which curled out at strange angles and became frizzy whenever the weather got the least bit humid.

She stepped backward, almost stepping on a smouldering cigarette butt discarded at a corner, smoke still wafting out from it, forming trails of rings billowing in the air.

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"Oh. Uh...Hehe. I just kinda do that out of habit. I don't remember when I started, but now I just can't stop," Arn replied forcing his hands away from his hair while he was conscious about it.


Instead he put his hands in his pockets trying to figure out whether to comment on her PD or say something about his family. It didn't take long to sort that out though. He wasn't close enough to this girl he'd just met to really bother her with his personal life like that. Instead, he chose to take the other route. "That is a pretty old model. I remember using it for maybe three or fourth months before the ZeronX10 model came out. The model that replaced that one in the big rave for what's knew," he explained, uncertain as to her extent of her knowledge.


He had been up to date on PD's since he was sixteen. He kept every model as well in a collection, marking the date it was release, the date he received it, and the date he set it aside for a new one. "I actually have one in my collect at my apartment. It was really decent for it's time though. Not a bad piece really, just old now."


His PD beeped again and his had shot to his wrist, silencing it yet again. "Sorry. That's my PD. I..."


Maybe I shouldn't talk about this thing. She doesn't seem to happy about what she has.


Rather than continue, Arn changed the subject, noting the recently lit butt and glancing around out of suspicion, then said, "Well, don't worry about your PD right now. I'll listen to you talk and we can have fun without all that technology and PD stuff. It's still early in the day after all. I live a town over. Came here by train earlier so I don't really know what we can find to do like you said, but you can lead the way and we can do whatever. I'll even pay for a train ride if you feel like going elsewhere."


Now you're really a pedophile. Maybe I should ask how old she is before I end up an accidental kidnapper. No, I'm a safe person. I know I wouldn't do anything like that regardless. Though, she is still pretty cute. Wait, wouldn't that make me a lolicon?


Arn shook his head at himself, forcing himself to focus on reality rather than his own thoughts. He adjusted his glasses on his nose and started walking slowly in hopes that she'd follow away from any possible danger. "So how old are you anyway? Well, I guess it isn't polite to ask the age of someone you just met though is it? Been a while since I met someone like you though," he said imply that she was special in a good way without thinking.


"Er, not that there is anything wrong with you. I mean, just like...well..."


Arn rubbed the back of his neck trying to put his thoughts into words, but failed miserably and sigh heavily. "Nevermind. I'll just shut my trap," he said with a quick glance back at her, hoping she wouldn't see it.


He looked forward again hoping she wouldn't think anything bad of him because of his misplaced words. A quick thought came to him and while Joi was behind him, he pulled up the sleeve of his jacket and pressed firmly an a small button on the side of the PD bracelet that put it into a hibernation state for the time being. It wouldn't be bothering him anymore while he escaped the world with Joi for a short time. However short it may be, it was still better than returning to his house, and the family he lived with.



(I like this RP T.T)

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Joi’s eyes couldn’t help shifting towards Arn’s PD everytime it rang. It had a hi-tech-sounding ringtone, and her inferiority complex only grew even more. She forced herself to look away from it and listen to Arn, but he talked in a peculiar rambling sort of way.

She smiled. He didn’t seem to be able to socialise very well. Somehow that made her feel more at ease, that there was someone else with difficulty fitting in in this society.

“Oh, yes, I can pay for myself,†she said, opening her PD to check its credit balance. Enough for 1 train ride, but not the return trip. With a blush, she shut the device again and put it in her pocket. She hadn’t realised she was that penniless.

“My age? Oh, I’m 21,†she said, “though I know I look really young. I just… never grew out of my teens, I suppose.†She laughed. When Arn said he had not seen anyone like her, she had assumed it referred to her youthful looks. Thinking again, though, maybe he meant he had never seen someone as poor as her. Her face darkened and she looked down.

“I wouldn’t mind going somewhere else,†she said. “I kinda want to get away from this place too. I don’t believe I’ve left the town for ages.â€

But I’ve got to be home before Mum comes back, of course.

She felt a bit too weary to think of that right now, though, and promptly pushed the thought to the back of her mind.

“Let’s just take the train to wherever we want then!†she said brightly, suddenly picking up energy and running to the train station.

The station was only a ten-minute walk away from her home. It was, like everywhere else, quite secluded. The air-conditioners were still working, though, and had evidently been installed back in the time when there was always a multitude of commuters packed into the place. Joi shivered at the unnecessarily cold wind they emitted now. She had nearly forgotten how to tap her PD for entry through the ticket barriers, and needed to play with a few orientations of her device against the scanner before the automated barriers opened with a clang.

“The train comes once every hour now,†she said, pointing to a sign. “The next train should be here in twenty minutes. Let’s take a seat first.†She sidled up to the nearest bench.

The only other person on the platform was a man, slumped against the chair, an unlit cigarette in his mouth. Most likely the smoke detector hadn’t let him in with a lit up cigarette. The man turned to look at them, and she quickly turned away, though she could see from the corner of her eye his intent stare. Perhaps he was astounded that there were people other than him in this place. She hoped it was only astonishment anyway.

“Back in the old days, my mother used to tell me, there were always people out and about, and nobody liked taking the train because it’d be crowded and cramped,†she noted to Arn. “But gradually technology made everything possible at home, and nobody had to leave the house anymore, and so public places weren’t frequented much. But of course now with the serial killings even fewer people dare to go out. She hasn’t let me go out on my own for weeks now. You’re lucky you still get to be out on your own. It must feel very free.â€

Without any considerations. That was a life Joi liked. Being able to do anything without being judged by other people, or even being watched. She didn’t care for being around people at all, especially when they made her the target of insults, of course. But she didn’t care about that either, really.

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Arn was surprised to hear Joi was actually twenty-one, but very relieved at that same time. Twenty-one? Really? Looking at her it seems almost impossible, but then again. Who am I to judge someone else? Either way, I'm a little relieved now. Don't feel so bad about taking her with me now.


​Arn waited patiently for Joi to manipulate her PD with the train system to get the ticket for her ride, then he quickly revoked the sleep mode on his PD to scan it. His ticket was approved and the money was removed from his account, then he quickly put the PD to sleep again and moved to the bench with Joi. Arn caught the glare from the one other passenger for the train and made a quick note of the unlit cigarette, hoping dearly it wasn't connected to the lit one he'd seen outside before. 


Arn purposefully took his seat to place himself between her and the stranger and faced Joi more, ignoring the man as much as possible. You’re lucky you still get to be out on your own. It must feel very free. Arn frowned slightly at her statement. Free? Not exactly what I'd call freedom, but it was something close at least. Everything else could come later. Arn pushed his worries aside and finally spoke again, though quieter than before. "So where do you want to go? I live in Joutin, so I'd prefer we not go there. Kinda defeats the purpose of leaving everyone. What about Traukkil? It's much more lively over there. More people actually go out in the bigger cities like that, so there should be things for us to do. I go by there every so often for whatever reason," Arn rambled.


Assuming Joi had no arguments, Arn searched for a conversation starter and only managed a simple question. "So do you like winter? The cold, the snow, the frigid air," he asked, unconsciously toying with his hair again.  


(Pardon the weird names and lack of content. Trying to figure out what to do from here ;)

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Traukkil? Joi had never been there. She and her mother didn’t go to big cities often, for things were expensive. The idea that Arn went there every so often awed her. She nodded eagerly. She was going to see the place for the first time!

“Oh, no, I don’t particularly like winter. I’m fine with all the seasons, really,†she shrugged noncommittally in answer to his question. “Cold winters can be hard, though, when you don’t have ample central heating at home. You can’t clean up some corners of the house because you’ll freeze if you stay there for too long, and so once spring comes along it’ll be really grimy and I’ll be batting insects all day.†She laughed. “You wouldn’t know what I’m talking about, I suppose. The problems of poverty.â€

The awkward note was stemmed by the arrival of the train. Both of them and the other man got on. Joi sat silently, enjoying the whooshing breeze of the high-speed train as it caused her hair to flap around. They reached Traukkil in fifteen minutes. The man also got off at the same stop.

Joi could not resist a cry of surprise when they stepped out of the station. There were people outside! Buskers lined the road, performing stunts like juggling and singing. A young boy, running and staring intently at his glimmering PD at the same time, brushed past her leg into the station, his father running behind him in tow. She bent down and rubbed her leg discreetly. It had been so long since anyone had bumped into her on the streets, she wasn’t used to the feeling anymore.

Even though she had been amazed at the number of people at first, it wasn’t really that much of a crowd on second glance. The news about the serial murders had spread into the cities as well, and restaurants were still seeing only a quarter of their seats filled at lunchtime. She was really more interested in the roadside stalls, though, selling snacks like corn in a cup and chicken wings.

“I can’t resist chicken wings when I see them!†she declared, sprinting up to a stall where chicken wings were proudly displayed in a case, their greasy skin reflecting the light off the sun. She licked her lips.

“Here you go, I bought three for you too!†she said, handing a plastic bag to Arn. “And three for myself. That should make a decent lunch. What attractions are there here? Is there an amusement park? Or a museum?â€

She could feel her PD vibrating in her pocket. Her mother might be home now, and wondering where she was. She did her best to ignore it. Today was a special day; she would forget everything about her mother and rude people and her life back home.

“Oh hey, look, it’s the man from just now,†she said abruptly, pointing at the man in question, who had lit up his cigarette at last. Hands in his pockets, he was strolling into one of the restaurants, but a waiter came up and gestured to him, probably asking him to smoke outside. Joi averted her gaze just as he turned around to throw the cigarette on the ground outside.

… Except he didn’t throw the cigarette away. She snuck another glance back as the man crouched furtively out of sight of the waiter, and affixed a small device on the wall. He grabbed the cigarette from his mouth and with the burnt end, drew a shape with the ashes right beside the device. Joi strained her eyes to see it, but it was impossible to distinguish from the distance.

The man stood up and walked away.

“How weird,†she observed aloud. “I wonder what he drew, and what’s on that device screen.â€

The man seemed to have vanished, leaving only the device and traces of cigarette ash on the wall, as if he was leaving a sign to someone.

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Arn smiled at the way Joi ran around like a little kid in a candy store, or maybe at a fair. He couldn't tell which, but he was happy just for the fact that she was enjoying herself. He watched as she bought from a vendor, his eyes carefully watching how the vendor treated Joi, as well as watching many other things that took place all around. When she brought back some food for Arn, he gladly accepted and ate with her.


She did say she only had enough to pay for one trip. I hope she isn't killing her money for the way back. She might not have a choice, but I don't think she'd be too enthusiastic about accepting my money.


When Joi mentioned the man from before, Arn watch along and followed the man until he was out of sight. He could tell at first glance what the machine was, but couldn't see anything on the screen from the distance, and his gut told him it wasn't anything good. He' d been involved in a few troubles before and didn't want Joi mixed up in something. After licking his fingers off from one of the wings Arn said, "Well, there is a museum here in town, and an amusement park I think, but I've never been there before," he said pretending he hadn't heard he comment about the man


Still, he couldn't help one more glance of interest in it before adjusting his glasses. Arn flashed a grin at Joi saying, "So which would you prefer, or maybe something else is to your liking? I...erm...I mean I don't really know what you like of course. I'm just putting things out there that couples would enjoy."


Arn pushed his hand over his mouth as if he'd just said something completely taboo and started awkwardly trying to fix his "mistake". "I mean, not that we are a couple or anything. Of course not. I mean, well, your cute and all, so it's not impossible of course, but...Like...ugh..."


What am I saying?! She's just going to think I'm crazy now. I should just shut up before I do or say something else stupid in front of her. Man, what a moron. 

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Joi had a bizarre feeling that she was in some kind of TV drama, and now was the scene when the male lead was going to confess to the female lead that he liked her. In those scenes, though, a distraction would happen to change the subject, or the female lead would drastically misunderstand and the “moment would be goneâ€, as her mother loved to lament.

“Why is this girl so stupid? It’s obvious the man likes her!†her mother would say, slapping the armchair in frustration. Joi didn’t usually stay to see what happened next. The dramas had always struck her as being too unrealistic. And yet, watching Arn stutter cutely now, she was reminded of those scenes. Was she supposed to take this as a sign? But what if she was wrong? And even if she was right, what could she say? That she found him interesting too?

She blinked. Where did that come from? She hadn’t thought of it till now. What did she think of Arn, precisely? She tried not to look like she was staring at him, but her cheeks felt embarrassingly warm. All the scenes on television told people what not to do, but nothing guided her on what to say when people said things like that!

“Er… the museum sounds great,†she blurted out feebly, feeling deflated the moment the words escaped her mouth.

She could almost imagine her mother slapping her forehead.

The museum in town was some kind of an art museum. It showcased ancient traditional art, when people still painted on canvas, and then moved quickly on to digital art on large mounted screens. Joi marvelled at the vibrant colours and creative designs. If only she could draw like that.

“Do you draw?†she asked Arn as they passed an exhibition of painting tools, from the paintbrush to the modern tablet.

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"Draw, yes. I've dabbled some before when I feel rather artistically inclined, but I have no talent for the stuff," he said as they gazed upon a massive digital display of a bladed goddess and armed demon engaged in battle. 


Arn liked art, but much of the art on technology was more fascinating to him for the fact that he could enjoy the higher tech. His personal set up was rather advanced, but with limited funds, he couldn't afford some of the monitors and setups he'd find in the city. As they moved on to the next piece he said, "Really my talent lies in technology. I have what some have called a natural gift for coding and such of that nature. I find it fun and intriguing how things function. The electricity flows into and it's alive, but some much happens on the inside that people don't realize. And then there is coding. All the different programs and data, and of course binary. It's all so vast and..."


Arn stopped himself realizing he'd gone into a bit of a tirade about his love of technology. He adjusted his glasses again and said, "Sorry. I'm sure you don't want to hear about all that."


"oh no, it's all very interesting, hearing what you do. I wouldn't have guessed looking at you."


A compliment? rather back handed I think,, but I'll take it still. From her, it sounds to sweet to me an insult anyway.


The two of them walked and talked for a short while, getting a bit closer until Arn came across a certain panel. The image wasn't what caught his attention though. Underneath the table was a black device. As they passed by Arn glanced around a moment to make sure no one was watching, and he grabbed the thing and ushered Joi a little passed the place. "Look. It's just like the thing we saw that guy using before. It's not a message though. Some kind of encrypted puzzle or something," he said looking at the scattered numbers on a digital grid.


There were two ports on the device, one labeled Export/Import, the other was a headphone jack. I probably shouldn't be too involved in this though. I could end up causing...


"Can I see it?" Joi asked rather enthusiastically. 


Arn handed of the device, which was more like a tablet of sorts with the touch screen display on the front, the whole thing cased in a protective case to keep it from harm. "I was really curious about this thing from earlier, but now even more so. Why is there a second one here? And what's it even for anyway. What's on this thing?" she said aloud as if talking to herself entirely while looking at the thing.


"If I'm correct, it's a Gyote code, but the only way to solve this is to know the base pattern, which is based on a number sequence predetermined by the maker. Well, there is always just hacking past that," he mused aloud while searching his mind for what he'd read about Gyote codes, which wasn't too much.


It was old and outdated as far as new technology went, but that made for a harder puzzle since it was no longer widely used. Arn was rather surprised by Joi's interest in something like that though. I didn't take her to be the curious type. I pinned her more as the shy, stay out of trouble girl really. Bleh, I need to stopping thinking about her like that. Hmm, but does that mean I'm interested in her? I mean I don't really know her. We just met after all, but...


Arn shook the thoughts away as they exited the exhibit back into the lobby. "What do you want to do now?" he asked toying with his hair again, hoping that whatever it was she didn't want to head home so early yet.

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"Oh no, it's all very interesting, hearing what you do. I wouldn't have guessed looking at you." For some reason, Arn’s face took on a confused expression after Joi said it, and she realised too late that what she said could have been taken another way. The moment had passed for explaining herself, though, for they had moved on and Arn was now pointing out a curious object on the wall.

“You’re right, it looks just like that thing from earlier!†she said, instantly forgetting her embarrassment. It was a Gyote code, or so Arn said. She peered closely at the screen, which looked like a bunch of jumbled numbers. He spoke casually about hacking past it, as though it were the easiest thing to do. He really was a computer whiz indeed. They reluctantly set it aside, though (or maybe she was the only one reluctant), and left the building. Arn turned to ask where she wanted to go next.

“Mm, even though it’s been fun over here, I do think I ought to go home,†she said thoughtfully, noticing his crestfallen face. “It’s getting late, and much as I enjoyed sneaking out, I’m very sure my Mum’s going to file for the police if I’m still not back. Today’s been fun, though! And we can still meet again. Of course, if you’re free and all.â€

Not that she really wanted to go home and face all the chaos she had caused. She would much rather be irresponsible, but she was bound to need to go home someday, and the later she dragged this, the more trouble there would be for her. Besides, she really didn’t want her mother worrying. More wrinkles would appear over her face. She had caused enough distress for her Mum already.

She started heading for the station.

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"Wait!" Arn said and grabbed Joi's arm, not forcefully, but enough to stop her before she managed to run off.


She went rigid for a moment then turned to look at him curiously. "Is something the matter?" she asked almost hopefully.


"We should exchange contacts. How are we going to get together if we can't get in touch?" he said letting go of her arm.


He pulled up his sleeve far enough to reveal the PD cuff around his arm and tapped a button on the side. An audible sound indicated the release of sleep mode and he tapped on the small screen on the cuff, calling up an interactive hologram for the PD. After a moment, he had a screen for contacts for a new entry.




That was all he had entered and waited for her to give him the rest to enter with a smile of assurance. She hesitated a moment, slightly intimidated by the PD he was using, but the look in Arn's eyes reassured her and she took a step in, happily typing in her contact. It was three sets of four numbers.




That completed the space provided and Arn took the projection back and saved it. The screen suddenly glitched a moment and began to flicker for a few seconds before coming back under control again. Not again. Stupid prototype keeps glitching up. Of course, not like I expected anything else from a product not even finished yet. Best report this tomorrow at work again.


After a few more tweaks to the system, Arn pulled up a new message and sent one to the new contact


To Joi:

This is Arn. I had fun today. ^.^ Feel free to add me to your contacts list ; ) In fact, please do


"There we go. I sent you a mail so you'll have my contact. Now we can talk whenever you want to, or meet up if you don't mind seeing me again sometime" Arn said with a scratch of his head, hoping he didn't sound too pushy.

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The cheesy smile that had plastered itself on Joi’s face disappeared momentarily when she reached her doorstep, replaced by a sense of trepidation. Her mother’s shoes were placed neatly but visibly on the shoe-rack; there was no mistaking that she had returned home. She took a deep breath and opened the door as quietly as possible.

Her Mum was watching the TV. She turned when Joi came in and grinned.

Joi took a moment to come to terms with what was going on. Her mother, who should be worried to death by her unreported disappearance, was instead reclining on a couch watching television, and just grinned at her as though nothing had happened?

“You’re back, Joi. Go and take a shower,†said her mother, turning her attention back to television. Not even a question of where she had been. Joi was getting more and more confused. She nodded hesitantly and headed to the toilet. A shower, that was what she needed indeed. The warm water would bring some sense back into her head. She was probably brain-frozen from being out in the cold.

The warm water did make her feel a lot better, but did little to resolve the questions burning in her mind. She wisely decided not to pursue them – it was a miracle that her excursion had not wrought terrible consequences – it was in her best interests to let things stay this way. She whipped out her PD and sent a short message to Arn: everything’s fine. Mum isn’t anxious or anything.

The news came on at dinnertime. Joi had had a lot of snacks outside, and was pecking at her food fussily when something on TV caught her ear.

“A body was discovered in the Art Museum of Traukkil at 12.13 pm today, hidden behind one of the exhibits. Police estimate that the death occurred within 30 minutes before its discovery.â€

“The murders are still occurring, how scary!†her mother commented. “It’s fortunate we don’t go to Traukkil often. You weren’t anywhere there just now, were you?â€

“No, not at all,†Joi immediately said, her hand trembling under the table. She recognised the place where the body was discovered. They had passed through the corridor almost right before the killing happened; she recognised the panel that she and Arn had passed through. Why, it was where they had found the tablet!

The camera flitted away then, so she could not tell if the tablet was still in its original spot. Surely the police would have found it though, whether or not it was relevant to this incident. The idea that she had nearly been at the scene of the crime wiped away what little appetite she had remaining, and she got up to wash the dishes. All along her mind continued racing. Just who was it who has died, and who killed him? And does that mysterious tablet, and the man we saw, have anything to do with it?

That night, she covered her patched-up quilt over her face and tried to sleep, but the exhilaration and tension of today was unbearable. She stuck a hand out from her quilt, felt for her PD on the bedside table and opened it.

â€Hey Arn, did you see the news today? What do you think about it?" She read through the brief message again, nodded in satisfaction and pressed Send. He would surely know what to do.

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Arn watched Joi leave on the train, knowing all too well that he was supposed to be on the same train to get home. Instead, Arn sat outside waiting for the next train to come, which would be another hour still. As the day carried on, the air grew colder and Arn pulled his beanie out of his pocket where he'd stuffed it before and settled it on his head. To pass the time, he began playing games on his PD. Around the time the train popped in, Arn received a mail. 


From Joi:

everything’s fine. Mum isn't anxious or anything.


To Joi:

That's good. Wouldn't want any trouble.


He smiled slightly as the train pulled into the station with a chilling gust of wind. He canceled out the hologram game he had been playing and pulled his coat tightly about him, then climbed into the train as everyone else did once the doors opened. It was a ride that felt like an eternity as the train bumped and clanked along the tracks, stopping at each station to let others on and off. Finally it reach his stop at Vemeral Station.


He departed from the train and muscle memory carried him back to his apartment. It was a decent place in a fairly large city. Not as big as Traukkil, but certainly not small. The apartment was on the second floor of a massive complex going up several more floors, each floor better than the last. His was of a decent size and well furnished. The sun had already begun to set when he arrived, but rather than going inside, Arn pulled up his PD screen again and checked his missed messages as he rode the elevator up one floor. 


From Father:

Where'd you go?


Are you meeting someone? In town?


When you get home, bring the booze.


Hey, did you hear me?


Jace, answer your damn phone!


I said bring me booze dammit!


You'd better be home with the good stuff you sorry excuse for a child!!!


Arn sighed and shut the screen down as the elevator pinged and the doors opened for his floor. He stepped off and went to his apartment door, then stood outside for a good ten minutes. Inside he could already hear the loud sounds of the television blasting from the living room and the occasional sound of his drunk father moving around. I can't stay out here all night. I'll freeze. 


With a deep breath, Arn opened the door, knowing his father wouldn't have the sense about him to lock it, and went inside as quietly as possible. He took his shoes off by the door and closed it quietly, noting his father on the couch in the living room. No way to get to my room without his seeing me.


Arn strode confidently into the living room and past his father, who spoke out to him. "Hey, did you get the booze? I texted you to get some while you were out, since you didn't let me know where you were going," he asked.


"I told you I was going out with some friends for a while. And I never got any messages. Besides, you know I'm not going to spend the money on that. I don't know how you even manage to get more alcohol sometimes. I'm going to my room. Good night," Arn said bluntly then moved to his room, closing and locking the hefty door behind him before his father could make a move.


It didn't take long to hear the screams from his father about his ungrateful he was and how he was just being a shit head and should be a better son. Arn cast his jacket and beanie off onto a rack on the wall and he immediately plopped down into his expensive rolling chair. It was one of the few things he splurged on that didn't count as computer tech. It did go with his set up though, and if it was for that, he would spend the money needed. With flying hands, Arn turned on the six sub-monitors, the large flat screen in the center, and the six linked CPUs that comprised the main force of his super computer. The sound or whirring fans and surging electricity sounded as the whole system booted up, then within the minute, the whole system was ready to work. 


The first thing he did was check his notifications from an icon in the bottom corner right of the main monitor. There was a page long article posted about another murder, this time in Traukkil, just after him and Joi had left the museum. There were a few other articles about it, but nothing he didn't already read. He mostly skimmed through for images. After sorting through the rest of his mail, Arn put on his head phones and began playing a list of piano music that he'd recently gotten into and called up a file titled Click-Finish-Install. 


When it opened, the sub-monitors began running through different sequences and the programing results appeared on the main screen. After about five minutes, the results came back with all greens, and Arn began working on the remaining script that needed to be written. The file was almost complete, and not errors had been detected yet, so Arn was getting excited to see the completed version. As he used the system to speed through various routines, a messaged popped into the corner of the main screen.


From Joi:

Hey Arn, did you see the news today? What do you think about it?


Arn stopped writing script a moment to reply, checking the time at 12:38. 


To Joi:

Yeah, I read it on the internet. Kinda scary considering we were right there too. I think though that maybe that thing we found today might have something to do with it. Did you happen to keep it when I gave it to you?


He stopped and thought a moment, knowing he shouldn't keep working for too much longer into the night.


To Joi:

If you did, maybe we could meet up some time and have a look at it. Do you usually stay up this late though? 

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The thing. Oh! Joi rummaged in her bag and took out the device they had taken from the museum. It rested lightly on her palm, looking deceptively ordinary. The screen was blank. She tried pressing a few buttons but nothing happened. Did it need charging? She shrugged and put it back in her bag, unsure what to do with it. She felt like they had just stolen something from the museum.

She went back to replying to Arn.

“No, but I couldn’t sleep after what happened today. It was a lot more overwhelming than how I usually spend my days. What about you? And yes, we should meet up sometime. Whenever you’re free, really.â€

She turned her attention back to the device. She remembered the strange series of numbers on it. What was it doing there? Was the man from today somewhere at the museum now, searching for it? Arn had thought it had something to do with the murder, which made her even more scared. Would he go to any lengths to retrieve it back? She unconsciously drew her quilt even closer to her chin.


The first thing that struck her the next day was that her mother was definitely different. The aroma of pancakes wafted readily from the kitchen as she walked down the hallway. Her mother was standing near a plate of pancakes, an apron wrapped around her. She looked the same, but Joi’s mother would never make pancakes for breakfast. They had had ready-made cereal all these years and never deviated even for special occasions. Joi eyed her mother warily as the woman smiled at her. Did robotic drones programmed to look like human beings exist outside of science fiction? It was such a ridiculous thought, yet the suspicion refused to leave her mind as she settled quietly down and ate a forkful of pancake. It tasted good, which further reinforced her suspicion for some reason.

“How was last night’s sleep?†asked her mother. Why would she ask a question like that?

“Fine,†she answered abruptly and turned to look at her PD almost anxiously. Would Arn call her out today? She was dying to ask him what he thought of this, even though he would probably tell her she was just being paranoid. Or would he? She had a hunch he would listen to her story and trust her at least. Should she ask him out? No, she decided not. She would wait. He might be busy.

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From Joi:

No, but I couldn't sleep after what happened today. It was a lot more overwhelming than how I usually spend my days. What about you? And yes, we should meet up sometime. Whenever you’re free, really.


To Joi:

I usually stay up late to work on personal projects in my free time. I take jobs during the day to pay for things usually, though I should probably head to sleep now anyway. Talk to you tomorrow I guess.


With that Arn closed out the chat box and continued working on the project for another half hour, head full of all things related to this program. He finally reached a stopping point and ran a check on the script he'd just written using another system he'd created before. While that ran and check the web for anything knew or interesting, he received an E-mail from one of his connections about a job. It had all the details he needed and was very brief. Just like him to give the bare minimum of information. 


It held the time, 10:45 A.M. the next day, the address, the job request to clean up someone's system, and the amount of pay. Arn replied immediately to confirm and accept the job. His new script came back green and with a job on hand, he shut down the program and put his whole computer into sleep mode for the night. He crashed into his bed and was soon drifting in a sea of dreams and rest.




The next morning he woke early at 8:00, before his father would be up tending the hangover, and at his meager breakfast, showered, combed his hair out, did what little work out routine he managed each morning, and then he left the house around 9:30. As he round the elevator down he shot off a mail to Joi.


To Joi: 

I have some work to do this morning, but if you wanted to meet up I'll be in Traukkil around 11:15. Also, bring that thing if you are going to come. I'd like to have a look at it while we're together.


Arn looked at the text on the device a moment and said aloud, "I sound so much more suave and collected through mail than I ever will in person."


Arn took the train to Traukkil and just as promised, he arrived at an apartment with two minutes to spare, just as he'd hoped. He knocked on the door and a younger male answered. "You must be here about my computer. Come in," he said, clearly glad he didn't have to leave the house.


Arn stepped in and followed the man to the room with a rather decent PC setup while he explained. "Well, in the last few weeks my computer has been running progressively slower. Popups, spam mails, just all around slow. And this week, it's started to randomly crash. I keep getting this error report when it crashes and I couldn't figure out what's wrong. I didn't want to take it to a store and I found your contact."


Arn sat down at the table and booted up the system while the man rambled on for a little bit longer about things Arn had little interest in. Arn was in work mode, and all things not related to this job were mostly ignored. He unclipped his PD cuff and set it beside the CPU, then used a cable he'd brought along to plug into the system. The man had gone silent as he watched Arn. "I'm going to use my PD to scan your pc, then I will probably run a cleaner program that will repair and eradicate any problems. A simple process that shouldn't take more than ten minutes," he explained as the system finished its start up sequences. 


Arn opened his device folder and immediately ran the scan. Within two minutes the scan had already completed and found over six-hundred bugs, misplaced files, corrupted files, adware, spyware, and other malicious content. Strangely they were mostly located in the same file. I had a weird title to the folder and Arn couldn't make any sense of it, but still he performed the job. He went back to his folder and checked the safeguard system he'd put in place to protect his PD from being infected to confirm his safety, then ran a program called RAZE. The program booted and began repairing the system quickly. "I'd suggest you invest in a good virus protection program and be wary of random spam mail and popups. There was a lot on this hard drive, but luckily we didn't have to wipe it clean. Just be careful with what you do on here," Arn said while his worked his magic.


Just as he'd promised, the scanning and cleaning took ten minutes on the dot. He ran another scan to be safe and found no more corruption. Then man paid the sum promised and Arn pocketed the payment immediately. "Thank you for your business and I hope everything works well for you. Have a good day sir," Arn said with a pleasant smile.


He was thanked profusely until he finally left the apartment. "Well now, I guess I have nothing left to do today, he said checking the PD that'd he replaced on his wrist, the cable he'd used safe in his pocket now. He Viewed the messages and found one new mail from Joi.

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Joi couldn’t help looking over her shoulder in puzzlement as her mother smiled and waved genially to see her off. She had not asked where Joi was going, or what time she would be back. It was just as well that Arn asked her out, for she did not feel very safe staying at home herself.

He was waiting for her at the station, a more businesslike look on his face than before, looking down soberly at his PD where her message flashed saying she was arriving. His pocket bulged from a cable he probably used for work, and his shirt and trousers had been cleanly pressed and ironed. Joi suddenly felt terribly childish when she was with him.

“Have you been working in this line long?†she asked, wondering if perhaps she ought to find a job too. Her mother had been worried before, which was one of the reasons she stayed at home, but now that things seemed to be different… she paused in her train of thought, not sure what to make of it. Should she assume that this was going to be a permanent change?

As they walked out of the station, she suddenly remembered the strange device and handed it to Arn as well.

“Do you think this is some kind of prototype for a new PD?†she asked, her eyes widening at the thought. She would never be able to own it, of course, but now she would have held it – even had it with her for a day at least! She craned her neck and watched hopefully for Arn to solve the puzzle. She allowed himself to lean in just a little closer. They were friends now, after all, and he wasn’t a bad person. She could catch a whiff of some kind of cologne he was wearing now. It smelled very mature.

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Arn put his PD screen away as Joi greeted him. Smile adjusted his glasses and stood as she spoke. â€œHave you been working in this line long?â€


Arn took a moment to actually think about this. He couldn't quite remember when he'd gotten interested in technology as a whole, but he could remember enjoying it since he was very young. He toyed with his hair a little while replying. "I guess I've been working unofficially since I was around fourteen or fifteen. Of course, back then it was helping classmates with whatever problems they had and getting a couple bucks for it. I'm with something like a business now through a network of connections. It's not exactly the most open air business like the local electronics store, but we are legal at least. The pay is pretty decent as well."


He stopped messing with his hair that despite it's seemingly unkempt style added a sense of appeal to him and motioned her to his side. "Though business has been better since the recent murders. People would rather have me come to them then having to leave their homes," he said as they left the station. 


Not having had a real goal destination, Arn decided he'd treat Joi to lunch, already starting to feel hungry again after his rushed breakfast. When Joi mentioned the device and handed it to him, he looked over the body of the machine, trying to determine it's origins. "It's not a prototype model. It's a little too basic for that. It looks like an older model actually. I recognize it, but I don't know from where. I can't put my finger on it though."


He clicked the button on the side and the same grid screen from before came to life. They reached a street crossing and Arn stopped saying, "I'm more curious what's on this thing though. I don't think what we find will be anything good. By the way, what happened with your mother?" he asked.


The light turned green for crossing and the small crowd that had formed during the wait pressed forward. Arn grabbed Joi's hand to keep from getting separated and pulled her along through the cross walk, forcing her to keep up with his long strides. "Sorry about this. I'm not to fond of crowds and such," he said as the moved forward."

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“Oh,†said Joi, not knowing what else to say. She obediently kept up with him, which required more concentration than she thought, and so the crossing went by relatively wordlessly. It was only when they had arrived at the other end that she answered his initial question.

“My Mum’s started to, well, not care about whether I go out and what time I come home. She used to ask me a lot of questions and worried about me. And then she cooks me totally different stuff from breakfast. I mean it mayn’t sound like much to you, but she never ever deviates from her routine of doing things.†She shrugged. Listening to herself now, it didn’t sound like much, but she had felt unconsciously that something was wrong.

They had walked a long way from the traffic light, but Arn’s hand was still on her, probably not noticing. She wondered reluctantly if she ought to tell him. She decided against it. Maybe she would pretend she had not noticed too. It was nice, feeling his hand on her arm. It was a foreign touch, too, distinctly different from her mother, who was the only other person who had ever touched her.

Gradually, though, her curiosity about the device outweighed her awkward affection for his touch, and she cleared her throat and suggested he try his hand at decoding it.

“It may help with the case, after all,†she said uncertainly. “We should be assisting with investigations in every way possible. Let’s find a more secluded space so that no one sees us, though. I mean, in case we’re being spied on.†She shuddered with excitement at the idea. They felt like real spies now, even though she was sure the device would turn out to be a dud. But even if it did, well, they had at least been detectives once. She glanced at Arn and wondered if he was looking at the situation in the same light as she was. Was he just as thrilled, or was she just being childish? It was hard to tell sometimes with him. Despite his cute embarrassed mannerisms and his halting way of talking, she thought that there were things about him she still didn’t know well enough.

She took a long look at him. It was probably because of his mystery that he seemed, very much, like an adult.

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