Chapter Nine: Stephi
The elevator had broken down. It would only be a matter of mild concern for me, if it weren’t for how Stephi and I were in it.
“When did you become so uncouth?”
“I didn’t. If I did, I would have let loose an F-bomb. However, “(shoot)” is a natural reaction of anyone who finds themselves stranded between floors in an elevator.”
“I wouldn’t label that as a natural reaction.”
“You know what I mean, Pykkie.” There was a positive aspect to this, which was that since the elevator blocked transmissions from the airborne recorders – “hoverbugs,” the techies dubbed them – the media wouldn’t be able to listen in on our speech. Therefore, Stephi was free to speak as familiarly to me as she wished, without others wondering how she apparently knew me so well.
I switched the subject, as the current conversation was heading in no clear direction. “Is it simply my paranoia if I wonder why the elevator decided to malfunction just as we, of all people, were inside?”
“Please stop stating the obvious. It’s redundant.”
“It wouldn’t be thought of as obvious to most, Stephi, and those are the part of the population that I have been associating with the most, recently. Also, I can’t comprehend why you would call it “redundant,” although I do understand your implied meaning. Oh, and… this is why it’s impossible for us to have a proper discussion.”
“Again, Pykkie, you’re stating the obvious. However, you do raise a good point, which would be the question of who, exactly, is behind this mechanical failure. Someone who has the security clearance to access the mechanics of the elevator and the knowledge to tamper with it wouldn’t be some random saboteur, I believe. In that case, they would no doubt have attempted to simply cut the cable. Luckily, as this is one of the entrances to our headquarters, we have a thorough list of every employee here. If they do indeed work here, which seems likely, then it would be, to use a cliché, a piece of cake to track them down.”
“That’s reassuring. In the meantime, however, would you be able to repair this elevator to at the very least be able to bring us down to the next floor?”
“I’m wearing a dress.”
I exhaled, irritated by her stubborn modesty. “I’m offended that you would accuse me of being one of those perverts that your sister always dates.”
“That has nothing to do with the matter, and I’m quite certain that you’re well aware of that. It’s simply that I believe that that would be considered indecent behaviour.”“What would you like me to do, then? I know next to nothing about mechanical systems, and you surely don’t expect me to give you my pants, do you?”
“That would depend on how desperate you are.”
“I would have wondered what happened to you if you agreed. However, that’d mean that we’re stuck here until someone realizes we’ve disappeared.”
“That would be very soon, if it weren’t for how you didn’t mention where we were going to anyone, and when we would return.”
“How long do you estimate it’ll be until the elevator is fixed?”
“It would be at most two minutes, Stephi, if you were willing to do the task.”
“You’ve made that quite clear. In that case, then, we should find some task to occupy ourselves with, instead of simply sitting and arguing.”
“Seeing as there’s only the two of us here, that seems rather difficult.”
There was a long quiet, with only the noise of voices from outside the steel walls, as we surveyed each other from the two opposing corners of the cramped space.
Stephi finally broke the increasingly oppressive silence. “We really should do something.”
“There is nothing to do. That is, there’s nothing to do besides speak to each other, and frankly, I doubt either of us is very interested in that.”
“I agree….” She trailed off, and then, out of nowhere, burst into a coughing fit.
“Stephi?!” I lunged towards her. She appeared to be having a seizure, though that couldn’t be the case, as she didn’t have epilepsy, and coughing was in no way associated with seizures.
“Pykael…” she mumbled. She stared at my face with a tender expression that sent a wave of longing for our old relationship washing through me. I angrily chastised myself. I could reminisce about the past later; Stephi was ill, and being the only other person present, I was the only one who had a chance of bringing her back to health.
“Call me Stephi Lee… only people I know well call me Stephi…” The words pulled at a memory.
I eyed Stephi Lee Cheinn warily from one end of an apartment. By some strange twist of fate, the two young PopCon scholarship students had somehow ended up renting a shared apartment with each other. Perhaps our managers had arranged it; many of the public seemed to think so. However, if they had, I’d never been informed of it. In fact, I’d only found out that I’d be living with her two days ago. I’d been furious, obviously, and I guessed she had felt the same way. She was one of those PopCon who simply didn’t participate in Contests, and tried to live a relatively “normal” life – the reason why she had a last name, when PopCon were never given one. Now, being the genius she was, she was going to university, which few PopCon ever did. There was no point, after all, when you couldn’t use theories and the like in the Contest.
Stephi Lee always sided with the anti-Cons on matters, even though she couldn’t be proved to be one herself. In her eyes, I would probably be one of her worst enemies.
Me, I was worried that she’d make me decide to reveal my participation in an anti-Con conspiracy to her, and that the media would catch me saying it. That made this one of the worst arrangements ever.
“Look, Pykkie,” Stephi Lee snapped, her voice dripping sarcasm as she said my nickname, “I don’t like you. I don’t like your kind. I don’t see myself as a PopCon, so don’t think of me as one either. I don’t care how other people see you; try to brainwash me into a mindless Contest drone and I’ll break your pretty little face.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. It definitely wasn’t the first time someone had spoken to me in such a rude way, but unlike the others before, she wasn’t actually trying to be rude; she just didn’t care how she sounded, as long as she got her point across.
“I’m not a pretender,” I replied simply.
“Yeah, right. What PopCon isn’t? If you’re gonna be successful, you have to lie. Just look at people like Relle. She manipulates people and stabs them in the back, but people are too in love with her to even realize that they’ve been betrayed. I’m not going to be tricked like all those people. You act all nice, but you aren’t.”
“Stephi, I’m not even going to try to convince you. But I’m sure that if you know me long enough, you’ll see that I really am not a pretender.”
“Do what you want, but you’re not going to convince me. Ever. And don’t call me Stephi. I only let people I like call me that.”
She nodded, acknowledging my apology, and turned to unpack.
“What’re you making, Stephi?” I watched fascinatedly as Stephi Lee, with painstaking precision, soldered small strips of metal onto a small green chip of some sort.
“Stephi Lee,” she corrected.“And it’s for a project.”
“Mind if I watch?”
“Why ask, when you already are?” She grumbled something about “stupid PopCon trying to be polite and asking pointless questions.”
“Are you still working on that robot?”
“It’s a hoverbug.”
“That’s what those hovering bugs are called. The ones that follow you around all day?”
“They follow you around too, Stephi.”
“Stephi Lee. And don’t remind me.”
“My god… What is that, Stephi?”
She didn’t correct me this time. “Something that’ll zap those hoverbugs out of the air if they keep tailing me.”
“I really wish I had something like that…” I swatted at the swarm of hoverbugs that were constantly with me.
“Maybe I’ll make you one.”
“Unlike PopCon, I don’t lie.”
“Finally, yes. I’m hoping to get a patent for this… That’ll blow their minds. A PopCon being an inventor.”
“I thought you didn’t see yourself as a PopCon?”
Stephi shrugged. “You’re not that bad. If there’re others like you, then I don’t really mind the name as much. Just don’t expect me to compete in a Contest.”
“Don’t worry about that, Stephi. That’s something I’d never do.”
“Are you serious? You’re not trying to get me arrested or something?”
“Why would I? And Steph, I’ve told you time and time again. I’m not a pretender like so many of the others. I’m just… me.”
“Okay. So in that case… I was wrong about you at the beginning. I realized that a long time ago. But-”
“I thought you loathed to state the obvious?”
“Right. Sometimes, though, you just have to speak your thoughts out loud because they get too jumbled up in your head.”
“That would be something I do. You, Steph, are different.”
“Not when you tell me that you’re an anti-Con, and that you’ve been keeping this from me for a year and a half.”
“The Con-auts are already suspicious about you. I don’t want to give them something to be suspicious about.”
“I can take care of myself.” She waved her hand to draw my attention to the countless specks that dotted the floor – the hoverbugs that her device had disabled.
“I’m still worried about that, though… After all, you are my girlfriend.”
“Stephi…?” I cradled her head in my lap as I examined her in an attempt to figure out what the reason was for her sudden sickness.
“Pykkie, my throat hurts,” she whispered. “Do you have water?”
I placed a hand on her forehead, and immediately drew it back. It was burning hot.
“What is this…?” I muttered. “I never learned about anything like this…”
“I need water… It’s caught on fire, Pykkie… Help me get water before this place burns down…”
She was hallucinating. It was obvious from how she stared into the space around me, as if seeing something that I couldn’t.
“Don’t worry, Stephi… It’ll be okay… Look, I’ll put the fire out… Just close your eyes and rest.”
“No! You’ll leave! I don’t wanna be alone here!”
“I promise I won’t leave you alone, Stephi…”
“Prove it. Prove you’re not a liar.”
Her mind’s leaping from one point in time to another, and mixing that with hallucinations… what is this?! But at least that means that I can…
I leaned down and kissed her softly. “There. My promise.”
Stephi wrapped her arms around my neck, firmly holding me there as she passionately kissed me back. It was truly as if we had travelled back in time, and we were simply two PopCon in love.
This really isn’t the right time for this… this really, really is not the right time… I firmly told myself, but, as usual, my heart overpowered my head.
After several long, tender moments, she finally released me and smiled.
“I love you, Pykkie…” Her voice cracked, and she coughed again, even more violently than before, hacking up blood.
“Why do you sound so worried about me?” She seemed confused. “I only ate some bad food, that’s all…”
Food? Was her sickness food-related?
“Could she have been poisoned?” I mused. “Although I don’t understand how she would allow that to happen… She’s quite paranoid, after all… It would only take a moment of weakness, though…”
“I feel like sleeping, Pykkie… Hold onto me, will you?” More coughing. “Don’t leave me alone in the darkness…”
I stroked her hair. “Fight it, Steph. I can’t do anything without an antidote, and there’s nothing here I could utilize to mix one…”
“Just don’t let go of me.” Her voice was thin, weak.
“Don’t worry, I won’t…”
And I didn’t, not until they finally came looking for us, what seemed like an eternity later.