Today we're excited to chat with Sarah Fine, author of Beneath the Shine! Read on for more about Sarah and her novel, plus an excerpt, and giveaway!
1. What gave you the inspiration to write the book?
This book is a futuristic (and very loose) retelling of The Scarlet Pimpernel, a 1905 novel by Baroness Orczy that has been adapted for stage and screen many times. My absolute favorite portrayal is the 1982 movie (which I have seen at least a few dozen times ... and pretty much have memorized) starring Jane Seymour, Sir Ian McKellen, and Anthony Andrews as the dashing, hilarious, eponymous Scarlet Pimpernel. The original story is set during the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution. I know that, in light of recent political events here in the US, it might be tempting to think this book is meant as some sort of commentary on what happened in the 2016 election, but it’s important to remember that publishing moves at a snail’s pace and I wrote Beneath the Shine well before that! My goal was to recreate a reasonably plausible French Revolution-type atmosphere in the US fifty years from now, and a gap in technology control and access seemed to be the way to do it.
2. Who is your favorite character in the book?
Percy. My love for that character is pretty much the reason why I wrote the book. He’s a perfect hero masquerading as a shallow fool. In my version, I wanted to make his love for fashion less of an act and instead simply the reality of who he is, because obviously a boy can like a well-cut jacket, flawless makeup, and sparkly purple fingernails and still be a badass. But Percy still constantly portrays himself as unserious and uninterested in politics—until it’s time to get down to business and start saving lives. He also happens to have some fun additional features that are revealed throughout the story ...
3. Which character gave you the most trouble when writing your latest book?
Percy! Getting his voice and internal motivation just right was a challenge, and I was incredibly fortunate to have an excellent editor, Leslie Miller, who helped me refine both his sauciness and his carefully concealed rage in revisions.
4. Which came first, the title or the novel?
Oh, the novel. Coming up with the title was a challenge and definitely a team effort.
5. What do you like most about the cover of the book?
I really wanted some portrayal of a flower, as that’s what a scarlet pimpernel is and the symbol is present throughout the book, and my publisher and cover designer worked patiently with me until we all had something we were really happy with. I adore the way it’s both beautiful and slightly menacing as it hangs over the title.
6. Thinking way back to the beginning, what’s the most important thing you've learned as a writer from then to now?
I’ve learned a lot about the necessity of letting go. Like all authors (I think?) I’m very emotionally invested in each book I write and throw my absolute best into every story. However, once it’s out in the world, I can’t change it or make it better anymore, and I can’t control how it’s
received and what people say about it. So over the last 15 (!!) book releases, I’ve learned that if I want to stay sane and productive, the best thing to do once a novel is published is to avoid, to the extent possible outside of promotional tasks, all reviews, sales figures, etc., and to just put my head down and keep writing.
7. Which part of the writing process do you enjoy more: Drafting or Revising?
I love drafting brand new stories; it’s the reason I write. There’s something ecstatic and magical about the process of telling a new tale. However, one of the reasons it’s so freeing and enjoyable is that I know I’ll have another crack at it come revision time. So while revising can be less crazy-fun than drafting, I do love digging in again to make an already written novel better.
8. What’s up next for you?
I’ve written a companion novel to Beneath the Shine, set in the same world but completely different in terms of story. Uncanny is a YA Westworld meets Girl on the Train, in which a girl struggles to remember what happened the night her adoptive sister fell to her death, and she’s aided in that effort by a sophisticated robot “therapist” for whom she develops some pretty complicated feelings, even as the police, her friends, and some of her family question whether she’s hiding the truth. Uncanny comes out in November, and in so many ways it’s unlike anything I’ve written before. I’m incredibly proud of it and can’t wait to share it with readers.
Meet Sarah Fine!
In a future United States where those who control technology control the wealth, seventeen-year-old Marguerite’s viral video propels a populist candidate to presidential victory on a platform of “tech for all.” But as the mouthpiece of the new leader determined to break the elite stronghold, Marguerite finds herself on the opposite side of the divide in a new high school full of technocrat teens.
When the enigmatic Percy, with his flamboyant fashion sense, sharp wit, and tragic past, takes an interest in her, she is suspicious. But with everyone against her, she needs an ally. Percy is drawn to Marguerite’s passion for the cause, but the legacy of his murdered scientist parents prevents him from letting her get too close.
Soon terrorists strike the capital and technocrat leaders begin turning up dead, and the two must work together to protect both their families and the country. With everyone literally plugged into technology, total domination will take only a flip of the switch. In order to preserve their freedom and the future Marguerite envisions, she and Percy may be forced to pay the ultimate price.
Have you stopped to consider what you’ve become? You might have started with good intentions and some actual ideals, but now? You’re just a pretty mouthpiece.
The moment the words appear on the screen of my comband, heat blooms across my chest and I feel my pulse rising. I raise my head and stare out the windshield, swallowing the urge to fire back immediately. This troll is trying to bait me. Nothing would make him happier than a public tantrum.
“Marguerite, your biostats have exceeded certain pa- rameters. Are you in distress?” asks the car, Jenny. Back in Houston they didn’t have names—or talk. “Shall I lower the environmental temperature to increase your comfort?” “No, I’m fine.” The internal rotors whir as we rise into the sky. I yawn, and my ears pop. “Just ... tired from everything yesterday,” I add, talking more to myself than to Jenny. And it’s true. Not only did I speak at the president’s inauguration—I got to go to the ball. That’s where I made the vid that’s now being trolled while I was still wearing a designer dress downloaded directly from Hyra Urgon’s winter 2069 collection.
The troll—Fragflwr is the loser’s handle—is right about one thing. I looked good.
I glance out the rear window and see three black Secret Service cars glide into formation behind us. Apparently we’ve been assigned a special altitude that’s reserved for the presidential fleet. A smile finds its way onto my face. Pretty or not, I’m a lot more than a mouthpiece, and I shouldn’t let that idiot’s comment get to me. “There are beverages and light snacks in the cooling reservoir between my rear seats,” the car informs me. “Renata analyzed your consumption and has stocked me according to your preferences.” “That was ... nice of her.” It, really. Not her, but that’s a battle not worth fighting today, especially not with an- other it who also thinks it’s a her. I didn’t want a canny in the house, but Mom said it would be nice to have the help, what with all her new responsibilities, and besides, Renata came along with the apartment and was linked to its central system. When I took in the circles under Mom’s eyes and the slump of her shoulders, no way was I going to complain. Besides, Renata brought me coffee and a croissant this morning as soon as the actigraph in my comband signaled to the house system that I was awake. That part wasn’t so bad. But then she asked me if I was nervous about my first day of school, as if she were my mom or a friend or an actual person or something. All I gave her was a quick shake of my head, using a mouth full of croissant as an excuse not to talk. I don’t share my feelings with robots or other types of AI. I get that cannies are useful, but they’re not people, no matter what AI rights organizations say. They’re not our families. They’re not our friends. And they shouldn’t take jobs from actual human beings.
I’ve seen what happens to the humans in that scenario. “Incoming communication,” Jenny announces. “Elwood Seidel, chief of staff to the president of the United States.”
“You don’t have to read off his full title—” I begin, but then a three- dimensional projection of El’s face fills the space above Jenny’s control panel, as if he’d risen up out of her wiring. “Oh. Hey.”
“So, don’t be angry, but I tapped into Jenny’s biostat monitors, and, well, you seem stressed.”
“Yow. That’s not intrusive at all.”
He rewards my sarcasm with a wry grin that dimples the cheeks of his narrow, pale face. It makes him seem younger than his gray- streaked hair suggests. “I guess I felt guilty for stealing your mom from you on your first day of school.”
“She’s your primary aide, El. It’s an awesome job, and we’re both grateful you gave it to her. She needs—” El clears his throat loudly, and his eyes flicker with anxiety. “Um, yes—so, we thought we’d surprise you.” He shifts to the side, and I realize Mom is right there with him. Her thick, curly black hair is pulled back, and she’s wearing some makeup to cover the ever-present dark circles and to even out her skin. “Hi, babe,” she says. She sounds slightly more upbeat than she usually does, but there’s no smile. There’s never a smile. I’ve been waiting a year to see if it would come back. “You got off on time?”
“And you’re feeling okay about school?” “More like grimly resigned.”
El chuckles. He inclines his head so his cheek is just a little closer to Mom’s. Like they’re a couple or something. I don’t know if she realizes how he looks at her, and I
don’t think he realizes I’ve noticed. “Can’t blame you,” he says. “But I know you understand how important the optics are here. You’re the voice of our youth, Marguerite! We can’t have you hiding away at home with a private tutor, not after we pushed so hard on the education plank. You have to be seen in a classroom. That’s how we spur enthusiasm for the changes we’re going to bring to the system.”
“You can spare me the lecture, El. Going to school was my idea, remember?” I’d actually told him I wanted to go to public school, but then I found out that the entire educational system in the District is private. Figures. “So you think about the optics. I’m going to focus on learn- ing—and speaking out when it’s called for.”
“I would expect nothing less,” he says solemnly. “And you’ve got security there just in case things get rough.”
“Can I ... not? If you’re so concerned with optics, how’s it going to look if I walk into my new school with armed canny bodyguards? You know the technocrats are looking for a way to paint us as hypocrites.”
El holds up his hands. “Just wanted you to feel safe as you walk into the lion’s den, but if you’re sure you can handle it—”
“El, I spoke to half a million people yesterday from the steps of the Capitol. I think I can hold my own with a few snooty technocrat rich kids.”
El murmurs something soft and reassuring into my mother’s ear. Her brow furrows but she nods. He smiles at her fondly. “I’ll change their orders, then,” he tells me. “They’ll stay outside, and the school’s cannies will look out for you. We had the school’s bots scanned for malware over the weekend, so we know they’re clean.”
“Yay,” I say faintly. “Go help Uncle Wynn make life better for the American people, guys. I’m sure I can man- age a few hours of high school on my own.”
“You can manage anything, Mar,” El says. “Without you, we might not have won the election. We might not even be here.”
“That’s crazy, and you know it.” But I’m smiling now, in spite of myself.
“It’s true, and you know it. So, have a good day—can’t wait to hear how it goes,” El says cheerfully. The screen goes black before Mom can even say good-bye.
I sit back and sigh. I know I can handle this. It might be like walking into a buzz saw, but I know what I stand for. I’ll always have that.
I glance down at the comband wrapped over the sleeve of my tunic, which was downloaded and genned just this morning. You’re just a pretty mouthpiece.
I scoff and lean over so the screen registers my retinas. “And I’m guessing you’re just an unfulfilled, privileged technocrat with way too much time on your hands and no concern for the 99 percent.”
The words appear on the screen. “Send,” I mutter. I really shouldn’t indulge this troll. At this point, each new vid I post gets over a million views a day along with thousands of comments, and not all of them are friendly. I’ve become a pro at letting them slide off me. But Fragflwr has gotten under my skin, and not for the first time. I wish I knew why so I could start to ignore him—her?—like I do all the others.
The reply comes only a second later.
Well, you’re right about one of those things. Maybe two. Okay, three! Brava. Sadly, it
doesn’t change my opinion of you. Was that your goal?
I read the comment twice and roll my eyes. I freaking hate technocrats. “That’s the same smug, condescending crap that made the election such a landslide. You can’t even pretend you care about normal people or even have normal feelings.”
Thanks to your self-righteous babble, I’m laughing right now. Is that normal?
“Oh my god, you are so annoying and stupid. No, don’t send! Log out.” Ugh. I turn to look out the window. I hate giving a troll the last word, but I can’t afford to lose it on my channel. Even if I have no official position in the administration, my words still reflect on Uncle Wynn—I mean, President Sallese. Optics, right? “How much longer?”
“Are you speaking to me, Marguerite?”
“Um, yeah? Who else would I be speaking to?”
“If you use my name at the end of any question, I will be able to respond to your requests without verifying.”
“How much longer, Jenny?”
“We will arrive at Clinton Comprehensive Education Academy at 8:03 a.m.”
“Class doesn’t start until half past!”
“If you prefer, you may sit inside me until you feel comfortable disembarking. I can inform your security detail.”
“No, that’s all right. Jenny.” I press my knees to- gether and draw my arms around my middle, trying to be as small as possible. It’s weird when cars talk about
themselves like that. Sit inside me. Like I’m in their guts, like they’ve swallowed me whole. Where I come from, back in Houston, cars just go where you tell them with- out trying to make conversation, and they roll down the streets instead of soaring hundreds of feet above them. Of course, they also crash all the time because of operating systems and infrastructure that haven’t been updated in two decades, and they’re regular targets for armed gangs and hackers.
It’s going to take some time to get used to this new environment. DC is a world apart from the rest of the country, save for a few other technocrat enclaves. This place is all shine, all sparkle, floating on a constructed cloud of seamless technology and unimaginable wealth. But if I have anything to do with it, someday soon that kind of prosperity is going to be within reach for the ones who live beneath the shine, the ones who have been held down by a greedy, corrupt system for way too long. It’s why we came to Washington. It’s why I fought so hard to help get Uncle Wynn elected. I chuckle to myself— we’re not actually related, but it’s pretty cool that the new president of the United States asked me to call him that. I keep that in mind as Jenny drops smoothly from the sky and lands with a soft thump in front of my new school. I peer at its smooth, curved facade—it looks like an ocean wave viewed from above—the glass reflecting the weak January sunlight. Students are rolling in on wheelboards, and a few are landing in the queue behind the Secret Service vehicles that now offer us cover on
The stares have started. No one can see me yet—the windows are tinted—but I wouldn’t be surprised if they knew it was me. Uncle Wynn doesn’t have any kids, so
who else would show up at high school with a Secret Service detail? The girl who helped convince the American people that it was time to knock these kids’ technocrat parents out of power, and for some of them, out of a job.
“Please tell me when you are ready to disembark, Marguerite,” says Jenny. “Your security team is assembling.” Sure enough, four cannies have gotten out of the Secret Service vehicles. They wear suits complete with black col- lar bands, all formal, but I would never mistake them for human. Their movements are too clean and purposeful, no fidgeting, no faltering, no plucking at their clothes or scratching a random itch. And their eyes scan the horizon smoothly instead of skimming the surroundings in short,
nimble bursts like humans’ do.
Brian Zao, our failed president of the last eight years, whittled the number of government employees down by 70 percent, replacing people with these walk- ing, talking, thinking automatons. The way I heard it, it was about reducing government debt and waste, something my parents’ generation cared a lot about. The savings were supposed to go to people like my friend Orianna’s parents, a nurse and a lab technician whose jobs had been replaced by machines. Orianna’s family is still waiting, along with millions of other unemployed Americans, to see increases to the meager subsidies the government pays to people like them. But Zao’s plan didn’t work, because it was never about them in the first place—it was about his friends the tech moguls. He did a hard push to strip regulations that controlled and limited the use of cannies and other AI and then gave sweet deals to the tech companies that create them, so the number of people knocked out of jobs increased
faster than the budget to retrain them or even keep them from starving.
I would think there would be families like that in DC, since Zao gutted the federal employee ranks, but I haven’t seen poverty like we had back home since I left the campaign trail. Maybe those folks were forced to move somewhere cheaper than this luxurious technocrat enclave. But the Secret Service in particular is chock full of cannies, as I’ve come to realize in the last few months. They’re perfect for bodyguard work. They’re bulletproof. They don’t sleep. They operate to perfection according to their protocols. Emotion never clouds their judgment.
And now they’ve arrayed themselves on either side of Jenny’s door, which slides up and reveals me like a yolk in an egg. I’m sure my new pals here at the Clinton Academy would love to stab me and see if I burst. With that happy thought in mind, I plaster on the smile that has carried me through at least a hundred rallies, a thousand speeches, and a historic election night. In the last year, I’ve learned to smile while lights are glaring and people are screaming. I can even smile when they’re throwing things, if I have to. My smile breaks only when I think it will help me get my message across, when minds can be changed.
These people don’t get to see me break. I climb out of the car and smooth my hands over my new clothes. As my body heat rises, they give off the floral odor infused into the genned fabric. It’s nice, but it’s not really me. I hold my head high as I nod politely at the Secret Service machinemen. “Thank you. I’ll be fine from here.”
One of them, with a blond scrub of hair and blue eyes, steps forward. “We received the updated protocols from the chief of staff. We will remain outside the building,
but we will be monitoring via the academy’s central surveillance system.”
I glance up at him. He’ll see it all in his head, like cannies do, silent and still until it’s time to move. “Okay. I’ll see you guys this afternoon.”
I take a calming breath. I miss my dad, who always used to walk me to school. I miss my mom, the way she was before he died. I miss home. Even though we were poor, and despite the hopelessness when one more parent lost a job, the city crumbling around us, our simmering rage at knowing we had been forgotten, I had real friends in Houston, and I could use one now. But I can’t lose my temper. I can’t say the wrong things. This is bigger than me—it’s about my generation and fighting for each person to have a place at the table. Stay focused, Mar. Be your best self.
The Secret Service canny inclines his head, precise and smooth, then he steps aside, revealing a clear path to the security check at the front entrance of my new school.
That path turns out to be more of a gauntlet.
Chapter Two Marguerite
As I walk, students gather on either side of the path, standing in crunchy brown grass. Every single one of them seems to have a Cerepin, the premier tech of the 1 percent, made right here in DC by Fortin Technology. These $10 million devices hit the market a few years ago—a breakthrough in intracranial computers. Small black nodules gleam on everyone’s right temple, and each of them wears special implanted lenses that allow streaming visual data and vid capture. Sensors thread into the users’ ear to manage audio. Chips implanted in their fingertips allow them to project or record themselves. A microscopically thin filament actually slides into the brain stem to enable health screening and the monitoring of vitals. All of it is tailored to the user’s biological profile and powered by the body’s own bioelectricity, so there’s no need to worry about parts degrading or a drained battery. Users are automatically sent emergency help when their biostats warrant it. They can be located when lost. They are never alone, never in the dark, constantly updated.
The whole world is at their fingertips.
The first Cerepins came out when I was ten. I remem- ber my dad was so enthused—he did all sorts of research to try to figure out if he could get one.
If he’d been able to afford one, it might have saved his job—and his life.
I walk with purpose toward the entrance. I’m going to get a Cerepin soon—Uncle Wynn promised. That is, if he can get Fortin Tech to cooperate. Their CEO, Gia Fortin, donated a billion dollars to the campaign of Uncle Wynn’s opponent and spent countless millions on a smear campaign against Uncle Wynn himself. It was in full swing when I joined the campaign during the primary, and only got worse in the general election.
Gia Fortin is evil. I wish I could have seen her face when we won, when she realized all her money had been flushed down the toilet. To my left, a girl snickers. “God, it looks like she styled her own hair.”
“In the dark,” says another.
“Ugh, what’s that smell?” asks a third. “Rancid wannabe.”
I don’t look. I just keep walking.
“Oh! Did you see that one video of her where she fell up the steps? Hang on—”
I can’t help it. I glance over and see a tall blonde in a shiny, high- collared coat draw her finger along the round surface of the nodule embedded in her head, then tap it. Next to her, a curvy girl with silver eyelashes and silver- streaked dark hair goes still for a moment, then doubles over, laughing.
“That’s hilarious. Let me send it to Lara and Hannah.” She, too, draws her finger over her Cerepin nodule, then taps it.
Finally I reach the door. I hold up my arms so that the school’s security cannies, which are older and look less humanlike, scan me for contraband. Having none, I’m allowed into the academy’s soaring atrium. There are kids sitting at tables on either side of a broad, curved staircase that leads up to the second floor. Some of them are chatting, but others seem lost in their own heads, staring at the tabletops or floor. These kids have the most outrageous shoes, and their clothes are obviously custom-genned. I can tell by the fit and style—there’s no way these were mass downloads bought at wholesale fabgen facilities like the kind we had back home. I see a guy with slicked- back hair and thigh-high boots, his nails filed to points, and a girl with a shaved head and an outfit that looks like it’s made of bloody bandages. So weird, but I guess money can buy you just about anything. Most kids are a little more toned down, though a lot of them sport little sparkly diamond-dust tattoos on their cheeks and necks. In Houston we had temp knockoffs, and they made our skin itch like crazy. My blood starts to boil as I think of how much money went into my classmates’ school outfits and how it could have been put to better use.
Be your best self, Mar.
Using my comband, I pull up the map of the school and my schedule. My homeroom’s on the second floor, so I make for the steps—and almost immediately stumble. The girl who made me trip flips her shiny sheet of brown hair over her shoulder as she bounces past. Her arms are at her sides, but the middle finger of her right hand is extended, pointed at the ground yet clearly meant for me. Oh, this is crap. I’m not going to be bullied.
“Excuse me,” I say.
She stops. Looks over her shoulder. “Are you talking to me?”
I walk forward with my hand outstretched, offering to shake hers. “Yeah. I’m Marguerite Singer. I’m new here. And you are?”
She snorts as she looks down at my hand. “Oh, sorry. I have a feeling I know where those hands have been, and I’m determined to stay disease-free.”
My hand drops to my side. “Is this really how you treat new students? It’s not very nice.”
She gives me a bemused look. “Of course it’s not how we treat new students. It’s how we treat destructive haters. Like you.”
“That last bit was kind of obvious, Bianca,” drawls a boy who is leaning against the wall, narrow hips cocked. Whoa. Even in this sparkly, stylish crowd, he stands out. His lips shine with gloss, and his pale skin is perfect—not a zit in sight. I think he might be wearing blush? His blond hair swoops up from his forehead like a cresting wave and glitters under the light like it’s flecked with metal. His clothes are a riot of color and prints that somehow go together perfectly—and he’s wearing a jacket with tails, like he’s from the 1700s or something. He looks totally out of place and time but completely at ease. He also looks vaguely familiar, but maybe that’s because he reminds me of an anime character, all exaggerated lines and sharp eyes—which are focused on me.
“Obvious to all of us, maybe,” Bianca says, turning to the boy. “But we all know she’s a bit slow without her scripted talking points, Percy. I wanted to help her along.”
Oh, here we go. There has been a rumor for months that Uncle Wynn’s campaign wrote out scripts for my vids and all I did was read them off a screen. “Just a pretty mouthpiece,” I mutter.
Percy tilts his head to the side as he watches me, as if I’m an animal in a zoo. I shoot him a glare. Interesting or not, he is definitely not on my side.
Bianca’s eyes are unfocused now, and her fingertip is sliding over her Cerepin nodule. “Oh, here it is. Have you seen this one?” She taps the nodule. “It’s a compila- tion of all the times she got nailed by protesters. Paint, fruit, oh, there’s pee!” Her laugh is like breaking glass. “I’m even in one of them—it’s from the rally over in Arlington last summer.”
Percy continues watching me.
“Must be nice, having instant access to the entire Mainstream in your head,” I say to Bianca, since she’s the most obnoxious. “There are so many important, useful things you could do with that privilege instead of trying to tear other people down.”
Bianca rolls her eyes. The swirling diamond-dust tat- too that resides along her collarbone winks at me in the light of the atrium. “Maybe I think it’s important and useful to put conceited, greedy social climbers like you on notice—I’m capping every move you make, so there’s going to be a record. You’re not the only one who can stream a vid.”
And unlike me, she can do it with a blink of her eye— the lenses connected to her Cerepin will do the rest. She can even boost it to the Mainstream so her followers can watch us live—my dad went on and on about the possible uses, including letting other humans remotely witness lectures, groundbreaking surgeries, weddings, personal disputes, or accidents. He said it even has a feature that instantly coms for police assistance when it detects vio- lence or danger approaching.
But Bianca is using it to try to intimidate and hurt me, because of course.
“Go ahead and cap, Bianca,” I say. It’s a great reminder to me that I have to be on at all times. “And please stream all of it. Your followers might need to think about how many American people have either lost or can’t get jobs they need because they don’t have Cerepins and can’t compete with the cannies, and yet this amazing technol- ogy has a price that no average American can afford. I’m happy to raise their awareness. They might want to think about the income inequality that—”
“I’m sorry, what?” She’s fiddling with her Cerepin again. “I was too busy watching a video of you showing off your wretched dance moves.” She gives me a lacerat- ing fake smile. “Is that what attracted sleazy Sallese?”
My cheeks burn—now she’s talking about a vid I posted before everything happened. Me in my old life, innocent and clueless and happy. For some reason, I glance over at Percy, the fancy boy who’s still leaning against the wall. He’s still watching me, still wearing a smirk, like he’s just waiting for me to lose my temper or fall apart. He doesn’t know me at all. “You’re trying very hard to be mean in an effort to upset me,” I say. It’s working, but I’m stronger than that. The movement is bigger than her. “But no matter how hard you try, you won’t change the fact that Wynn Sallese won the election, and he’s our president now. It won’t change my belief in his agenda or my understanding of just how badly everyday Americans need an advocate after what eight years of greed and cor- ruption have done to this country.”
“Of course you won’t stop believing in him—you have to do whatever he wants to hang on to your free ride,” Bianca says. She taps out a little rhythm on her nodule. Several other kids get up and amble over. She must have just messaged them or something. Bianca puts her hands on her hips. Now she’s blocking my way to the steps. “I’d like to introduce all of you to Marguerite Singer,” she announces. “As she has told us in vid after vid, she comes from a humble family and a humble place.” The pitch of her voice swings from high to low, all drama and mockery. Her full lips pout, and she bats her gold-flecked eyelashes. “Because of this, she feels entitled to have everything for free, and she thinks other losers like her should have it just as easy as she does. She got lucky when she attracted the eye of the man who would be president. He scooped her out of the crap pile where she was living, and as long as she’s his dirty little girl, he’ll be her sugar daddy.” She skims the tip of her tongue along her lips, all suggestion.
“Got lucky?” I ask in a trembling voice. “You think I’m here because I was lucky?” Rage spirals up my back- bone, turning it molten. “And how dare you—”
“Dirty little girl.” A stocky boy with sandy blond hair and a red jeweled collar band has come to stand next to Bianca. He lets out a giggle. “I love it. Can we call her that, B?”
“I think we’ll have to, Winston.” Bianca doesn’t take her eyes off me. “I’ve already forgotten her actual name.” “I don’t care whether you remember my name. Because I represent the millions of Americans out of work and trying to support their families. The government subsidies are enough to get by, but by that I mean barely survive. So what do your fellow Americans do, Bianca? They numb the pain however they can. If that doesn’t work, they end it.” I swallow hard, because the lump in my throat threatens to steal my voice.
“They don’t know how to keep their children safe. They don’t see themselves as having a future.” My fists are clenched, but I’m speaking quietly enough that several of the kids around me tap at their ears, probably upping the volume on their auditory chips. “You don’t have to remember my name so long as you remember that.”
“So you think Fortin Tech should just give the Cerepins away to these people?” asks Bianca, suddenly more vicious than before. “You think the billions they poured into research is worth nothing? That sleazy Sallese should be able to barge into their facilities, take the ’Pins, and hand them out on the street? You think businesses that develop or use cannies should be pun- ished for wanting to be successful and efficient? You think we should live in the past, because things were so much better then? You act is if all these people are left on the street to starve, when in actuality they’re sitting on their couches all day, eating chips and getting fat off our parents’ tax dollars!”
“You’re so out of touch, it’s scary,” I tell her.
“And you’re so brainless and classless that you’ll wrap your arms—and legs, probably—around anyone who promises you a better deal.”
“Ah, Bianca, when the appallingly sordid becomes your go-to attack, you’re doing it wrong,” says Percy, finally shoving himself off the wall. The tails of his coat flap against the backs of his thighs as he saunters forward. “You’ll have to be a bit savvier if you want to knock our Marguerite off message.”
“Is that a challenge?” Bianca asks.
“It’s just ... you’re using more of a club,” says Percy. His eyes glitter as he looks me up and down. “This job calls for a scalpel.” “Cut it out,” says a voice I haven’t yet heard.
Percy turns to someone behind me and arches one eyebrow. “Literally?”
“You know what I mean, Percy. Quit egging Bianca on.”
Standing just behind me is a girl with brown skin, white hair, and white eyebrows. She’s dressed in all white, too, a crisp tunic and pants. Subtle but elegant. Obviously super expensive. Her dark eyes look past me and focus on Bianca. “We’re not bullies. Stop acting like one.”
“Actually, Anna, Bianca is a bit of a...,” Percy begins, but the white-haired girl holds up her hand, and his mouth twists into an amused smile. With a flourish of his hand—one that draws my eye to the lacy cuffs and ruby cuff links at his wrists—he cedes the floor to the girl in white.
Anna moves to stand next to me. “This isn’t the way to prove a point,” she says to Bianca before turning her head and speaking to the other students who have gathered around. “We’re all upset about this, but it’s no excuse to act like jackals.”
“Come on, Anna,” Bianca says, her lip curling. “You know I’m just saying the things everyone else is thinking.” “Thankfully, no, you’re not,” says Anna. “How about you step aside and let Marguerite walk to her homeroom in peace, instead of making us look like the soulless mon- sters more than half the country already thinks we are?” Kids are backing off now, tossing hateful looks at me over their shoulders. Bianca rolls her eyes when she sees her audience abandoning her and blows a kiss at my new white-haired friend. “You’ll bulk up your shoulder
muscles, toting this extra baggage.”
Anna doesn’t say anything, but her jaw works beneath her skin, and her eyes are wide and steady on the mean girl. A classic shut up shut up shut up look. Hmm.
Bianca puts up her hands in surrender. “See you to- night?” she asks.
“Maybe,” Anna replies. “Mom may want me home.”
Bianca sighs. “I know. Dad said it might not be safe on the streets now that Sallese is bringing all sorts of low- class trash into the District. The beatings, people being attacked just because they have Cerepins. Dad says it’s only a matter of time before we’re rounded up and—”
Anna groans. “Stop. Just stop.”
“Fine. Whatever.” Bianca looks toward Percy, as if she’s wondering if he’s leaving with her, but he’s not looking in her direction.
He’s looking in mine—I can see it out of the corner of my eye. I’m not going to return his gaze. Out of all the people in this scene, he’s the one I can’t figure out. With one last eye roll, Bianca pivots and heads up the steps, dragging the stocky blond guy—Winston, I think she called him—along with her.
Anna looks over at me. “Our parents work together.
I’ve known her all my life.”
“Okaaaaay.” Once I’ve given Bianca a respectable head start, I trudge up the stairs with Anna next to me. Percy falls in behind us. I resist the urge to glance over my shoulder at him—it seems better to ignore him.
“She’s usually nice,” Anna insists. Percy laughs quietly.
Anna drops her head back, looking tired. “Well. Nicer.” “Yeah,” I say. “She seems like a sweetheart.” “Everybody’s just intimidated by you.”
“Right. They seemed absolutely terrified.” If Anna hadn’t shown up, I might have needed the Secret Service after all.
Anna starts to respond, then seems to think better of it. “I’m sure I can find my homeroom on my own, even without GPS in my head,” I tell her, holding up my com- band. “You don’t have to be the welcoming committee.”
“It’s okay. My mom told me to look out for you. But I’d have done it anyway. Someone has to.”
“Marguerite, I care about my classmates, even when they’re acting like idiots. Don’t even think about it, Lara.” She lightly shoves away another girl who was about to collide with me. “We don’t need vigilantes coming in and firebombing our school because they think you’re being bullied. One tearful video from you and—” She makes a little explosion sound.
She holds up a hand. “I saw what happened in Silicon Valley.”
Not my best moment. Some protestors threw a bucket of pee on me as we headed into a rally. Wynn’s security quickly got me inside, where I sat in the women’s bath- room and fed a vid to the Mainstream, gagging on the stench, my hair dripping. It had just become a habit at that point to tell everyone what was happening to me at the moment it happened. Plus, I was scared and frazzled and needed the comfort of the strangers who’d become family. But this time, my vid got more than just views and comments—Uncle Wynn’s supporters went on a rampage that lasted for days. When they were finished, some of the Valley technocrat enclave’s nicest neighborhoods were nothing but smoking ruins. “I didn’t want that to hap- pen, and neither did the president. He called for calm.”
“Mm-hmm. And that fixed everything right up.”
My fingers grip the banister, anger turning my knuckles bloodless. “So basically, you’re being fake-nice right now to save your own ass?”
“No, I’m being real-honest right now because I want you to understand where I’m coming from.”
My eyes flick to her Cerepin. I wonder what it’s doing for her right now, and for all these other kids who have them, too. I bet they can see the tiny beads of sweat on my upper lip. I bet they can hear the frantic swish-thump of my heart. And I bet they’re still hoping I lose it and embarrass the president. After a deep breath, I smile at Anna. “I’d like to understand, Anna. We’re all a part of this country. Everyone has a perspective. President Sallese believes that, and so do I.”
Behind me, Percy snickers. “I don’t know about you, Anna, but I totally get the appeal.”
His condescending drawl is getting under my skin, making me itch with irritation. “You’re very good,” he says when I finally turn to look at him. “Much better than I thought you’d be in person, on the fly. I think I’m jealous.”
Anna rolls her eyes. “No you’re not, Percy. You have almost as many Mainstream followers as she does.”
“Oh, stop flattering me. It’s not even close.” But he looks like he’s eating it up.
I look him over with new suspicion, my brain churn- ing as it tries to identify him. This is where a Cerepin would come in handy—instant facial recognition that automatically opens a person’s Mainstream mention results and social feed. “Did you campaign for the technocrats or something?”
Anna chuckles, but Percy looks horrified. “Lord, no. I’d rather have my teeth pulled. Politics.” He shudders, but then his blue eyes flash as he looks me over. “I must say, though—I’m not a huge fan of Hyra’s, and I thought her winter collection was positively provincial, but your ensemble for the inauguration was divine. I did think it skewed young for you, but I suppose they wanted to project innocence.”
I’m opening my mouth to ask what the heck he’s trying to project with his ridiculous outfit when Anna’s head jerks up. She stops right there on the steps. “Accept.” After a few seconds, she says, “Excuse me,” and jogs up the stairs.
Percy looks down at his fingernails, filed square and polished dark purple with a deep rich sheen, like a night sky. “Probably an incoming com on her Cerepin from Mommy dearest. Poor Anna’s family is under siege, new threats daily. It’s had a rather devastating effect on her social life, I’m afraid.”
“What? Why are they being threatened?”
He stares at me incredulously, then breaks into a wide smile, as if he’d just gotten the punch line to a joke. He inclines his head toward Anna, who is at the top of the staircase, frowning as she stares into space. “You really don’t know who she is, do you?”
“I don’t have a Cerepin to give me all the answers.” “Then let me help you out.” He joins me on my step and nudges my shoulder with his in a conspiratorial way. “You have just made the acquaintance of Anna Fortin.” There’s that smirk again. He looks like he thinks this whole situation is hilarious. “You may have heard of her mother?”
Crap. Gia Fortin strikes again. “She said her mom told her to be nice to me,” I mumble.
“Ah. Well. I’m sure a political animal as cunning as yourself can puzzle this one out. This”—he tugs at his cuff—“is why I stick to fashion.” Each of his cuff links is a flower, as it turns out. The rubies are the petals. “Slightly less likely to result in bloodshed. Shall we?” He offers his arm.
I gape at him.
He lays his palm over his chest. “You have slain me with a glance.” But his expression is one of barely restrained laughter. “Welcome to DC, Marguerite. The city is at your feet.” He glances down at my new boots, and I am suddenly very aware that I’ve already managed to scuff them. He is smiling as he meets my eyes again and leans forward to whisper, “Do watch your step.”
Beneath the Shine
By: Sarah Fine
Release Date: April 18, 2017
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