1: Draiden

Draiden stared down at the artificial flowers that sprang from the glass pot placed beside the grave. Perhaps the grave deserved more than a pot of artificial flowers, but real flowers were rare and never wasted on something as trivial as marking a grave. Yet he believed his mother deserved more than some factory-manufactured, synthetic replica of nature. She deserved the real thing.

He heard the slam of a door from down the hill, but didn't turn to see who had pulled up until he heard a voice call his name.

"I knew I'd find you here."

Mikky pulled up beside him, dressed in her usual gold and blue garments. Blue and gold were a current obsession of hers, winning over the orange and black one that had been last month's fashion statement. Her hair was a mass of bright, neon blue curls, and her eyelashes matched. Her eyes flashed a glittering gold, which went with her Mark perfectly. Her dress was harlequin, alternating between the exact hue of her hair and her eyes.

Something else was different about her. She'd been gone for three days on one of her "vacations," which were actually just trips to the body modification labs. After looking over her for a few more seconds, Draiden determined that her lips were bigger beneath the blue lipstick.

"How do you figure?" Draiden asked, looking out across the graveyard. Graveyards were a bit of luxury now; space was so valuable, too valuable to waste on a bunch of dead people. However, his people tended to cling to whatever bit of luxury they could acquire, and a proper resting place for his mother seemed to be one of them.

Mikky followed his gaze across the grassy knoll to the blossoming cherry tree by the picket fence. It wasn't a real cherry tree, of course. It never produced anything but those synthetic pink flowers. Draiden wouldn't have known it was fake if he hadn't made repeated trips and found that its appearance never changed.

"You've been acting weird all month."

"My mother just died," Draiden muttered.

"Yeah, well, of course," Mikky snorted. "She's my mother too, you know. But it's been a month. Don't you think it's about time you get back to life? All you do is mope around and visit this depressing grave. Your friends are starting to ask me what's up with you. Me."

"Why is that so strange?" Draiden's friends, as much as he liked them, seemed to have developed infatuations with his sister the moment she hit puberty and got herself every girl's favorite birthday present: a pair of new hips and breasts.

"I think you should see a head doctor or something."

"I don't need medication. Or implanted memories. Or anything. I don't want anyone to tamper with me, okay? Is it so strange that I'm sad about this?"
Mikky pouted, then looked down at the ground. "Mom always liked you more than me."

"That's ridiculous."

"No way. Obviously your head has been up your ass the fifteen years since I've been born." She rolled her sparkly gold eyes. "I always frustrated her. Especially these past few years. She hated the idea that—gasp!—I wanted to attract boys."

"She didn't hate the idea of you attracting boys. She hated all the modification shit you put yourself through."

"Look, I've only done what every other girl does. Perfect height—5' 6"—, bigger boobs, wider hips, tinier waist, bigger eyes, eyelash extensions, a little nose and lip surgery, a skin polish—sheesh, I don't know of any girl who hasn't gotten those done." She sent a glare at me. "You got a bunch of stuff done too."

Draiden shrugged. True, his height had been lengthened from 5'8", what he was last year, to his current 6'2". His hair, which had once been dirty blonde, now grew in platinum. He had artificial muscles put in; afterward, he was dissatisfied to learn that they only looked like muscle and didn't operate like real ones. He had some of his bones strengthened with some steel and silicon plates, but that was only after he'd broken his leg from jumping out of a second story window. He had eye mods done so that now his eyes were ocean blue instead of boring gray. Plus he'd gotten the standard skin polish and they'd cleaned up his ugly Roman nose. However, he'd stopped all the modifications once they'd fixed his height. He no longer was thrilled by seeing a new reflection every month. He was still ashamed of the false scar put on his left pec, which was a half-assed attempt to charm girls. Mikky still teased him about it, but he left it on because it wasn't like anyone saw it after his break-up with Kiba six months ago.

"Face it. She just didn't like me as much."

"You're being stupid. She was our mother. She loved both of us equally."

"Maybe. But she always treated you better. Defended you when you did dumb ass things. Punished me when I did the same."

Draiden couldn't remember that, but remained silent.

"Come on." Mikky wrapped a hand around his elbow. "Let's go home."

"I'd rather stay. Ulric said he'd pick me up in another five minutes anyway."

"Well, sure. But try to cheer up, 'kay? I don't think these weekly visits to the cemetery are doing wonders for your personality." She reached up and touched his chin with her thumb and pointer finger, as if saying 'chin up'. "Others have it worse than us."

Then she turned and headed down the hill, tripping twice in her ridiculous heels.

Draiden continued to stare at the gravestone. This was actually organic—pure marble, just as his mother had always wanted. She told him once that she wanted to erode and wash away with time, because no one should be allowed to live forever, either in spirit or in memory. Eventually, she would have to let go.

"Palaces were once built with marble," she told him. "Even the memories of the most wealthy, the most powerful, the most influential, were doomed to erode away."

"I'll be dead before you go, Mom," Draiden told the stone, running his fingers over the smooth surface. "And maybe our stones can erode away together."

His line of depressing thoughts were interrupted by soft footsteps behind him. He turned and faced Ulric, his chauffeur.

His father and Mikky were always mystified by Draiden's relationships with the help. It was his mother who had taught him to absolutely respect everyone, even those in such a poor class as Ulric. His mother had chosen Ulric as Draiden's chauffeur when Draiden was ten. Despite all the rumors that plagued this working class, Draiden never faulted his mother's decision. Ulric was a good, humble man who continued his mother's wisdom even after she was gone.

"Have you finished your conversation with your mother, sir?" Ulric asked. He was an older man, probably around forty-five, aging well for someone who could never afford the body modifications that kept Draiden's father looking not a day over thirty. His skin was dark and leathery, his eyes a dark mahogany that reflected kindness. He had only one body modification, paid for by Draiden. His teeth had once been crooked and yellowing, perhaps a genetic problem that ran in his line. Now, thanks to doctors and Draiden's contributions, his teeth were white and straight and perfect.

"I wasn't really talking to her."

"Hmm. I always talk to my mother."

"Your mother doesn't have a grave, I thought."

"No. But she's always with me." Ulric smiled a bit, the wrinkles in his face multiplying with the expression. "Just as yours is always with you."

"It doesn't feel like it."

"You're simply not trying to reach her hard enough."

"I'm not exactly sure how you try to reach someone who is dead."

Ulric tapped his nose. "It's a sense you have to born with, I suppose. Anyway, sir, I had better be getting you home. Dinner will be served soon."

Draiden's eyes lingered on the small, blue gem-like dot just above Ulric's brow. Draiden had the same, only his was a shimmery gold. It was actually a glorified form of enamel, such as the kind that protected teeth, genetically altered to appear as a certain color. The color was passed down through family lines and could not be altered legally.

Ulric cleared his throat, and Draiden returned his gaze to Ulric's.

"Very well. Let's go."

They both strode down the hill to the waiting black sedan. The passenger pod was longer than in a normal car, though perhaps not as long as his father's. The two fenders, separated by a space about as wide as the passenger pod and connected only by a cylinder which protected the front axle, were also longer than normal. Draiden had never considered his family's transportation unusual until Ulric drove his usual car to work one day. In the Blue District, all the cars were half this size and twice as old. It had made Draiden feel a little guilty ever since.

Ulric took the wheel and Draiden slipped into the back seat. The bright sun was blocked by the heavily tinted windows. Ulric started up the car with an electric purr and they were off, weaving away from the cemetery and away from his mother's only lasting, physical mark.

Draiden and Ulric did not talk during the short ride. When Ulric pulled the car up by the house's front steps, he slipped out from behind the wheel and opened Draiden's door. Usually Draiden opened his own door, but he succumbed to protocol whenever he was within his father's sights.

Ulric nodded at Draiden as he left the car. "Have a good evening, sir."

"Thank you, Ulric. You too."

Ulric went back to the car and drove away. Draiden sighed and climbed the thick glass steps to the front door, which, was only thirty minutes away from locking itself shut. At six, the security system would revamp and it would require vocal ID to get anywhere near the mansion. The reasoning was that criminals only attacked at night. Draiden didn't see the reason for such tight security. The criminals had to make it past three heavily guarded checkpoints to even make it into the Gold District. There hadn't been a single crime in years, at least crime that didn't involve fraud or some other corporate disaster. All the criminals in the Gold District carried a briefcase and wore a three-piece suit.

When Draiden stepped into the foyer, he removed his shoes by the door and looked around at the checkered synthetic marble floor and one-ton chandelier before heading up the twirling staircase. His foot had touched the fourth step when a reprimanding voice behind stopped him.

"Where have you been?"

Draiden turned and looked down at his father, Volchen. Volchen didn't look much like either of his children, but that was always typical. They had all been modified so much that it would be a miracle if there was any outstanding resemblance. Mikky had gotten her original strawberry blonde hair from him, but even that had been covered up by the blue curls she adopted now. Volchen was tall, trim, and athletic, half from his diet and exercise and the other half from surgery. He and Draiden's mother had made a stunning image, the poster parents for a Level Gold family.

"I just went to see Mom."

Instead of softening, Volchen's feature's hardened. "It's been a month, Draiden. A little more, I think."

"So? She was your wife, for Peight's sake. Why am I the one who's so upset?"

Volchen's face turned even stonier. "You need to spend more time with your schoolwork. You graduate in a month."

"I'm doing great in school."

"With your grades, perhaps. You've dropped out of Young Entrepreneurs and International Relations, two clubs essential to securing yourself a comfortable future."

"My father is Volchen the Great. Mom's reputation wasn't too shabby either. Everyone knows that a kid's connections determine their 'comfortable future'. I think I'm home free."
Volchen just glared at him. Volchen had never really been an intimate father, but ever since his wife Meredia's death, he'd become a real dick. Mikky thought he was paranoid, that Dad had always been a hard ass. But there was no warmth left in those hard, crystal blue eyes. It was almost as if Draiden had stopped being his son and had become another inferior to step on.

"Connections are nice, but the track record is important as well. Tomorrow I want you to reenter both YE and International Relations. And I want a signed slip and note to prove that you did it."

"Dad—"

"I'll hear no more of it. And tomorrow there will be no visiting the cemetery. You will come straight home and do your school work. Maybe later you can go out with your friends."

"So I can stay out late with my friends but can't see my own mother's grave?" This was getting a little sick.

"A boy your age can't dwell on misery. Not only does it hurt your future, it hurts your present. Mikky is faring well. I'm not so sure about you."

There was no point arguing with the man. Draiden groaned and climbed the rest of the stairs, then shuffled down the hall to his room.

"Welcome, Draiden," the room chirped as he collapsed onto the bed. "Would you like a drink?"

"No," Draiden said into his pillow. It came out muffled and unintelligible.

"Would you like a drink?" it repeated.

"No!" Draiden snapped, lifting his head.

The room was silent a moment, then asked, "Would you like a snack?"

"No. I don't want anything. Just shut up."

The great thing about a computer was that its feelings could not be hurt. Draiden snapped all sort of horrible, nasty things at it just because he could. The computer voice was just as cheerful after his tirades then before them, so he didn't think his mood registered. If it did, the computer simply did not care.

"Television on," Draiden ordered, and the panel of Smart Glass that covered most of the opposite wall flickered to life.

"Whix Connecticut looked particularly fabulous in her green satin dress last night, and her humble reply to her Entertainer of the Year award charmed audiences worldwide—"

"Ugh. Channel 934, please."

His favorite humor skit flashed on, played by several cartoon characters who lived in Level Yellow. He watched the family battle out a petty argument for a half an hour. Then the light above his door dinged.

"Enter," he told the visitor.

The door opened to admit Rhodes, one of the maids. She was only a few years older than Draiden, but the sadness in her eyes claimed she was at least forty. She, like Ulric, had a blue Mark in the center of her forehead.

No one in his family knew her name but him. His mother had known, of course, and Volchen had always chided her for being silly.

"They're just servants, Meredia."

Rhodes never seemed to expect them to know her name. It had been hard to retrieve her name when she first started working for them at fourteen, simply because she was so damn quiet. She rarely lifted her eyes from the floor, and her posture was always uncomfortably stiff. One time he had caught her off guard in the kitchen, chatting loudly and amiably with another Level Blue maid. He'd never seen her smile before, and it complimented her plain face very well. However, the moment she'd seen him, the smile vanished and she became painfully somber and sad once more.

"Dinner is served, sir," she said, nervous hands clutched in front of her.

"You didn't have to come up and get me. You could have just rung up," Draiden said, motioning to the small light on his television screen that always would light up yellow when dinner was served.

"I was just cleaning in the room over," Rhodes murmured in a voice over a whisper. Then she ducked her head and scampered away.

Sighing, Draiden stood. He figured he should dress for dinner.

"Room, I need a suit."

"Color preference?"

"No. Just something."

Seconds later the closet produced a sleek gray suit with lime green cuffs and lapels. The shirt beneath was the same color, with a dark blue tie. Draiden grabbed the outfit and slipped into it quickly, then shoved his feet into a pair of black dress shoes. He took the elevator to the first floor, which was a simple platform that blended in with the floor, a circle only large enough for a man of about his breadth. When he planted both feet firmly on the platform, the platform dropped down inside a clear tube until it became level with the first floor. A door in the glass tube swung open and he strode into the dining room, which had an entrance right next to what Mikky called the "Tube Elevator."

Mikky was already dressed and sitting at Volchen's right side. She was decked out in a gold evening dress with blue border. Her hair had switched from neon blue to a more serious, navy blue. Her eyelashes were at least two inches long, brushing her eyebrows when she raised her eyelids high enough.

"Hello, Draiden. Dress in a hurry?" she asked, smirking.

Beside her sat one of her friends, whose name escaped Draiden. He did notice the Silver Mark on her forehead, however, and wondered where Mikky had picked her up. Volchen didn't seem so excited about the fact his Gold daughter was associating with a Silver, but despite their lower status, Silver's had a good reputation for being successful and smart, so he did not out rightly complain. The Level Silver girl was decked out in a fishnet dress over top of a rainbow slinky dress, which seemed to ripple and change colors ever five minutes. She had not had as many body mods as Mikky, but Draiden very much doubted that her rack was real. Her arms were too thin, her neck stretched. Her hair was a mess of green and blue spikes, each tipped with hot pink. Her eyes were different colors, one being all warm colors (red, orange, yellow) and the other being cool colors (blue, green, purple). Even without her Mark, she would be distinguished as a Level Silver: the Artists.

"Draiden, you remember Perrywinkle, don't you?"

"Er, not really."

"Good evening, Draiden." Perrywinkle nodded at him. Silvers always had the strangest names.

"Hi."

"Well, sit down, Draiden. We've been waiting for you," Volchen grumbled.

Draiden did as he asked. Volchen clapped, and three maids in uniform slipped through a hidden door, carrying trays of steaming, expertly cooked goods. Draiden dug into the roasted chicken without delay. Perrywinkle was a bit pickier about what she ate, avoiding anything with meat. Mikky indulged herself as well, while Volchen didn't appear to share their appetites.

"Oh, Draiden, I didn't tell you this, but Kiba stopped by when you were hanging around graveyards," Mikky muttered.

"Yeah. So?" Draiden tried to hide how much this particular fact bothered him.

"Apparently she's worried about you. Worried about you in a way that may mean she's willing to take you back."

"If she thinks I'm going to come crawling back to her, she's very mistaken."

Volchen nodded sharply. "Good idea, Draiden. Never did approve of that girl much. She seemed like a schemer."

"She's always been nice to me," Mikky said, tearing into a chicken leg with her teeth. She never did have many table manners. "And she's gotta be the prettiest girl in school."

"There's rumors everywhere about that family of hers," Volchen continued, as if Mikky hadn't spoken.

"Yeah. Her mom married a Silver." Draiden rolled his eyes. Perrywinkle didn't seem to take much offense by the conversation, because her expression didn't change. "Big deal. She was born with a Gold Mark, so lucky her, right? No big deal."

"Not just that," Volchen growled. "They say her mother's having an affair now."

"With a Yellow," Perrywinkle suddenly said. "Yeah, I've heard that rumor."
"I have little issue with a Silver. That's only one step down. But two steps . . . it never ends beneficially. Marrying people in your own caste seems like the best option. After all, you have so much in common with those in your own caste. Let the Yellows marry Yellows. They're all intellectuals—doctors, lawyers, teachers and such. Silvers are the artists, the actors, the singers, the musicians. It makes sense for them to marry each other. Blues are the laborers, the working class. I believe that a miner will have most in common with a waitress and a maid, not an artist or a teacher." Volchen sniffed. "Tell me what a college professor will have in common with a Gold woman. Nothing, that's what. The Yellow man is probably only interested in her money, her status."

"Look, Kiba isn't the one dating a Yellow man," Draiden interrupted. "Nothing is really wrong with Kiba. Except, of course, that she's manipulative and a liar."

"I think you're the one who's the loser of the relationship," Mikky shot. "I see nothing wrong with Kiba. I see lots wrong with you."

"Since my sister has such an accurate opinion of me."

"Of course. I've known you longer than any other girl." Mikky took a large bite from the roll she snatched from the basket.

Draiden rolled his eyes. "Look, stay out of my business with Kiba, all right? I'll deal with her."

"By deal with her, do you mean ignore her existence until you hope she gets the message and leaves you alone?" Mikky smirked.

"No!"

"Oh come on, sib. You are the least confrontational person I know. I guess you and Kiba were opposites in that aspect, right? Isn't she a drama queen or something? Always fighting with all the girl cliques to stir up a war." Mikky rolled her eyes.

"You're best without that girl," Draiden's father muttered.

"Holy Peight, would you guys just shut up about her?" Draiden pleaded. "I get enough of it from my friends at school."

"Why? Are they mad she dumped you?"

"They're happy she dumped me. They thought she was a thick-headed leg-spreader."

"Isn't that the whole reason you dated her?" Mikky asked in amusement.

"I will not tolerate conversation like this at the dinner table, especially in front of your guest, Mikky. I don't care what you whisper and murmur about in the halls and at school, but please refrain from doing it front of me." Volchen sniffed and ate a bite of roasted chicken.

Mikky only smiled and returned to her food. Draiden felt like disappearing like the food on everyone else's plates. He looked down at his spread and gulped. With all this talk of Kiba and not visiting his mother's grave, he wasn't hungry anymore.

"Daddy?" Mikky began.

"What is it, baby mouse?" he asked. Baby mouse had always been his nickname for her. When she'd been very young, she would sneak into the kitchen and steal food without anyone noticing until the next morning. With age she only grew craftier and, according to Draiden, peskier. She had also shared Draiden's grayish-blue eyes at birth, which had a color much like that of a mouse's fur.

"Well, I just wanted to ask you if I could bring another guest to dinner tomorrow. A . . . boy guest."

"Hmm?" Volchen looked up from his meal.

"You see, um . . ." Mikky twisted a napkin in her small hands. Draiden glared at her. This insecurity was all an act. Mikky was an actress and family and friends were her audience. The thrill was all about who she could deceive and how well. Unfortunately Volchen, as smart as he was, had not yet seen through his daughter's acts. "Well, there's this boy I like and I think he should meet you first so that we have your approval."

Draiden snorted so loud that everyone turned to stare. When he caught Mikky's acidic glare, he cleared his throat and pounded his chest.

"Sorry. Choked on a bone."

"Go on Mikky."

"Well, can he come over for dinner tomorrow? I really think you'd like him."

Draiden rolled his eyes. This whole "approval" thing was a joke. He'd seen Mikky and this boy just behind the school last week, his hand up her shirt, her tongue down his throat, both so oblivious to the fact that everyone was dashing away to work the wheels of the gossip machine. Mikky was no innocent fifteen-year-old. If she wasn't careful, she was going to take Kiba's title of school leg-spreader.

"Who is this boy?" Volchen asked indifferently.

"His name is Joika Fecha."

"Ah. Fecha. Is his father Kinah Fecha?"

"Yes, sir."

Volchen nodded. "Good family. Good purebred family. Very well. You may bring him. How old is this Joika? Sixteen?"

"Uh, seventeen."

"Try nineteen," Draiden muttered under his breath. Fortunately his muttering went unnoticed and unheard. He should have stepped in like a good older brother and prevented the relationship, but he knew Mikky. Nothing would stop her from what she wanted most, especially her older brother.

"Very well. Dinner will be at six, like always."

"Oh, thank you, Daddy!"

"Why do you only call me Daddy when you want something?"

Mikky gave him that innocent little girl smile that was never sincere. "Force of habit, I guess."

Volchen rolled his eyes and returned to his food. Mikky turned to whisper things to a Perrywinkle that had remained silent through the majority of the meal. Draiden pushed his food around his plate. Not only was he not hungry now, he was feeling a bit nauseous. Memories of his sister and that Fecha kid probably did it.

77777

Giff came to school with new eyes the next day.

Draiden was lying on one of the couches in the Major Lounge, the nicest lounge at school. Sometimes there was even a pianist in when no one wanted to play their own music on the stereo. There was a bartender who mixed drinks, but only a maximum of two. This was school, after all, and they couldn't promote more drinking than necessary. Draiden had used up his two drink minimum in his hour break, and instead nursed a nuclear green drink he didn't know the name of. All he knew was that it tasted damn good.

"Giff, what is . . ." Draiden sat up when his friend entered the room. Giff was the most conservative of his friends, dressing in bland colors and doing as few body mods as possible. He hadn't needed height adjustment—he was a perfect six-foot-one. But until now, he's stayed true to his boring brown eyes. Now they flashed neon purple. "Hey! You got those eye mods you were talking about!"

"Yeah." He rubbed his eyes and sank down into a couch across from Draiden. "They're itchy."

"That goes away in a day or two. Man, that's steaming."

"Thanks. Purple looks okay?"

"Not my favorite color, but I don't think that determined your decision, right?"

Giff sighed and slumped. "I just wanted to be a little different, 'stand?"

"Yeah, I 'stand. But you still got that shitty brown hair. When are you going to change that?"
"Joreese likes my shitty brown hair."

Draiden rolled his eyes. Giff was dating Joreese, a quiet, secluded girl who rarely came out of the library. She never looked Draiden in the eye when she talked to him and she was known for being really strange. For some reason, Giff was crazy about her. Neither Draiden or his other pals could understand, but they didn't bother the guy. He was happy, and that was the only thing they cared about.

"Wonder if she'll like the eyes?"

"She said she liked my old ones."

Draiden shrugged. "I think the purple ones are better. More . . . I don't know. You know how guys will fix up their cars, give it a paint job, and jazz up the shell?"

"Yeah."

"I think the mods are the same thing. We can change and steam up everything we got, so why not? I mean, why choose to look like some lower caste Yellow or Blue when you can be the dude that catches everyone's eye?"

"I guess." Giff didn't seem that thrilled by his new mods. Draiden remembered the first time he had changed his eyes at age twelve, which was when it became legal to get mods. He couldn't stop looking in the mirror at his irises, which were designed to flicker like flames.

"Well, I got class in five minutes," Draiden sighed. "The eyes are great, man." Draiden stood and gave him a strong pat on the shoulder. "See you later, maybe? My dad—um, well, I decided to join back up with the Young Entrepreneurs again."

"Really?" Giff looked up. "I thought you were out for good."

"I decided that I should get back to life, you know? And I've got friends in the YE, so why not?"
"Okay, but don't move too fast, all right? I mean . . ." Giff didn't say it, but it was implied. He had wanted to say, I mean, your mother just died a month ago.

A fresh, cool expression feel over Draiden's face. "Don't worry about me, man. I'm fine. Level."

"Level," Giff repeated dubiously.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm level."
Giff nodded, but peered suspiciously as Draiden left the lounge.