Stumbling through the throng of students, Lillie wore her hair over her face like a protective shield. Numb and raw, she pin balled from one body to another as she swam against the tide of the crowd. Averting her eyes from the panorama of stares, like a child she believed that if she saw no one, no one would see her.
It had been a week since she had lost all of her Flirt and she felt listless. Something in her had died and she didn’t care. Nothing mattered any more. The technicolour had returned to black and white.
She didn’t mean to but she caught sight of Ben. Look away, look away but her heart wanted the pain. Her eyes didn’t disappoint. Tears welled up as she watched him lean into the new girl next to him and whisper something. The girl laughed. Loudly. Something about that sound suddenly struck Lillie’s heart. She recognised it immediately as a moment of Flirtation. Of letting someone in. An instance of vulnerability. Mottled with pleasure. A feeling of hope. Of possibility. Of being alive.
Lillie ran. It was all too much. The pain; the helplessness, the anger inside that oscillated between grief and guilt. She couldn’t let them do this to anyone else. Stripped bare. Forever exposed. She had to do something.
Pulling herself together, she went in search of her friends. Audrey was chatting with Lucy in the sports hall. They welcomed her with open arms. You’re finally ready aren’t you? Lillie nodded.
Lucy was raring to go. I’ve been watching them and that trust fund kid, the cute one, is somehow involved. His Dad works in Silicon Valley. Has the technical know-how at his fingertips. We need to find him.
He wasn’t hard to find. He was in the bar, buying a round of drinks. Make mine a double said Audrey, sidling over to him. Lucy sat on his other side and switched on her best smile. Lillie tried to join in but without any Flirt, she looked ridiculous. She persevered. She was going to do this. What did they say at Flirt School? Flatter. That’s right, flatter. I hear you’re quite the tech pro, she said. He laughed; are you trying to flirt with me? Lillie blushed. He paused and studied her. I know you, he said. Skin prickled. You’re Red’s latest victim. He looked deep into her eyes, so deep that Lillie squirmed. Awkward. A pause, then…I’m sorry about that, he said. You were just a name when she asked me. His stare burned into her. Intense. Fervent. Maybe I wouldn’t have if I had met you. Lille felt herself heating up.
Lucy broke the moment. Red? Who’s Red? The trust fund shrugged. I don’t know; it’s just something we call her. We? There’s a group of us who hack for people like her. People like her? She’s not the only one? Trust fund laughed. Of course not, this place is teeming with them. We transfer, dig, anything they ask us. He laughed, proud. Lucy found herself shaking. Arsehole. You know you’re screwing with people’s lives don’t you? You sit here so smug, as if you’re playing a game. This is real. She’s real, pointing at Lillie. Look at what you’ve done to her. Lucy trembled with anger. Audrey put her arms around her friend and held her. You’re worse than them, Lucy brawled. Wait till the authorities get their hands on you.
Trust fund looked away. Something stirred in him. Guilt? Sadness? Remorse? He looked at Lucy. You can report us if you like, he said. Though our families will find a way of getting us out of it. They always do. He paused, then turned to Lillie. I really am sorry. Genuinely. It’s all just been names to me…data…nothing more. You wouldn’t understand but I was doing it to…he hesitated. The bravado and arrogance in him slowly dissipated. Lillie stared at him. Yes, why do you do it? You don’t need to. You have everything. What could you possibly get out of this? Trust fund bit his lip and looked in to her eyes again. Is everything enough?
Lillie thought of her parents. They settled on enough. She thought about the Flirt allocation. That was meant to be enough. Until she lost it. Actually, taken from her. It wasn’t her fault. She was the victim here, she needed to remember that.
What is it that you are looking for, asked Lillie? Does it even exist? Trust fund thought for a moment, then nodded. I felt it once, he said. The first time I got into real trouble. The first time I came alive. He smiled to himself. Maybe that’s why I do it.
Lillie understood. She had felt it once too. Last night. When he had looked at her in that way. When she had come alive.
Lillie grabbed trust fund’s hand. I think we can help each other. Lucy, eyes wide, started to protest but stopped when she saw Lillie’s stern look. You definitely owe me, Lillie continued. Big time, added Lucy. Hey steady on, trust fund laughed pulling his hand away from Lillie’s in mock jest, we’ve only just met. Lillie found herself going red again. I’m kidding, he smiled. Tell me. He looked deep into her eyes with such intensity that she had to look away. Get a room, murmured Audrey. Lillie threw an angry glance at her. Trust fund took back her hand. I’m sorry, we’re just teasing. Tell us.
The classroom bustled with pre-class noise. Silence pervaded as the professor walked in and headed for the white board. Who wants to go first with this week’s assignment? Lillie’s hand went up. Surprised, the professor gestured for her to come down. Taking a deep breath, Lillie stepped forward.
Heart racing, pulse deafening - like the time she walked into the party in search of Ben - Lillie began. Aristotle stated that justice was the correction of what is inequitable, she started. We live in a community where a small group controls us by manipulating our Flirt. I was one of those victims, deceived by what I thought was a genuine interest. Lillie turned her glance towards Ben. He looked away. Lillie continued her attention on him. Did I deserve it, she asked? Did I do something wrong? Some of the students in the class started shaking their heads in sympathy. The professor frowned. This was no place for self-centred ramblings; must be stopped. Lillie turned to the professor. Your daughter, Abigail, was another of these victims. She froze at her daughter’s name, visibly softened and then nodded for Lillie to continue.
My Flirt was stolen from me by two people. They’re here in this room right now and they know who they are. Some of you also know who they are but haven’t done anything about it. Maybe you’re scared, maybe you’re hoping that someone else will deal with it. I don’t hold it against you. I understand. Maybe I would have done the same.
They’re not the only perpetrators. There are others out there. Playing with the system for their own good. Manipulating us for their own gain. For what? So that they can come alive with the Flirt of others? So that they can feel power over us? It always comes back to power. Power in the hands of a few, while the rest are left helpless. Don’t you think it’s time to make a change? Don’t you think it’s time we took our stand?
Someone in the back stood up and started clapping. Another joined. Then another, until the whole room, apart from Ben and Red were on their feet clapping. Both recoiled and tried to leave the room but were soon barricaded in.
Lillie put up her hand to silence the room. What should we do about them? Should we take away their Flirt? See how they like it? The whole room erupted into a roar of war cries, shouting for justice, crying out for blood.
Lillie beckoned trust fund down from the back of the class. He strode to the front, opened his laptop and brought up his screen on to the class projector. With a nod from Lillie, he typed something and the profiles of Ben and Red sprung up on the big screen. One tap and their Flirt counts clicked down to zero. Rapturous cheers rippled around the room.
Lillie gestured for quiet. Yes, we can bring them down, she said. Yes, we can pay them back for what they’ve done to us but they’re not the only ones to blame. We should actually feel sorry for them. They’re the victims here too. They’re simply pawns of a system where control is presented as a virtue. Are we better off for having our Flirt limited? Are we making better choices because of it?
Murmurs around the room grew louder as Lillie’s words made their impact. Lucy and Audrey scanned the crowd and nodded to each other in satisfaction.
Maybe it’s time we put our fingers up at those really in power and take back control, cried Lillie. Maybe it’s time we were responsible for ourselves. Who’s with me?
The voices around the room crescendoed into a rebel yell. Fists punched the air and people started stamping their feet. Lillie turned to trust fund and nodded.
If you are with me, we all need to do it together, she yelled. We need to shut down this system one by one. We can all do it, if we put our minds to it. We can all do it, if we do it together.
Trust fund darted up on to the professor’s desk. He revelled in the buzz and passion stirring up around him. He addressed the crowd. Turn on your Flirt countdown, he boomed. Close your eyes and picture the escape symbol on the left hand corner of your screen. Press it for ten seconds and then let go, he shouted. Quickly imagine the control button on the right hand corner and drag it to the bin. Don’t stop now, keep going. Drag it. Drag it until it disappears.
Suddenly various profiles of the various students appeared on the big screen with red disclaimers across them stating Flirt disabled. One by one they popped up, splashed with red. Red after red after red. Lillie looked around the room and saw that someone was live streaming this act of rebellion. Lucy and Audrey ran over and hugged Lillie. It was happening. They were making their stand.
Trust fund came over to them, a look of excitement shining in his eyes. Thank you, he said. They’re coming. They know what we’ve done. It feels great….but we need to go.
Grabbing Lillie by the hand, he dragged her out of the room, down the corridor and pulled her into a waiting car. Drive, he shouted at his driver as the distant sirens grew louder. They suddenly burst into laughter as they squeezed each other’s hand. We did it. We really did it. A look passed between them. Lillie blushed and pulled away. Trust fund smiled and took back her hand. You were great, he said. You were fearless back there. Lille smiled back. She felt something stirring inside her. An instance of vulnerability. Mottled with pleasure. A feeling of hope. Of possibility. Of being alive.
She laughed. Are you trying to flirt with me, she asked? Yes, he replied. I am.