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Love bytes

Chapter One


Digital bulletins line a hallway crowded with students. The bulletins advertise upcoming events like Junior Prom, a dance no one, not even my boyfriend has asked me to.

Not the time to dwell on that.

Dylan and I should have come earlier, before the benches were taken.

I sit with my knees to my chest, my right foot tapping against the hard cement floor. Screens cast a blue glow on my platform shoes. Outside of the buzz of milling students, the hall’s bare, with nothing but the occasional bench to sit on. Polished to the last angular panel.

We all wait for the same reason: details for the Warren Enterprises internship.

“Do you think they’ll update the screens before lunch?” Dylan asks from my left.

I elbow him. “You can skip the PB&J just this once.”

Even after sitting for over a half hour, my heart pounds like I’ve been on my virtual bike.

Any minute now.

He smirks and wraps an arm around me, so I’m enveloped in his musky aftershave. “Relax, Sutton. It’s not like the recruiter will show up to demand a code challenge right here and now.”

You never know.

Dylan’s a wonderful guy and has been for the two years we’ve dated, but he wants to be an engineer because his dad expects it; this is my dream, not his.

With thousands of applicants a day, Warren Enterprises has the highest pay, the best benefits, the widest range of jobs, and the coolest campus. And no layoffs. It’s as sturdy as our solar highway, with just as many branches.

Even if we don’t get the importance of this, our parents do. Dylan’s dad made sure he understood by taking him to the Shacks, the place where people wind up when they’re denied the jobs offering higher salaries. For Dylan’s family, only big salaries will do. And Dylan’s dad will use his influence to get Dylan a job, hopefully alongside me.

Dylan prefers playing games over coding them, but that’s not a job—not according to his dad. But coding games is better than coding other kinds of software, though game design is one step more competitive. Maybe two.

As for my mom, she cares less about what I do and more about whether I’m successful doing it. She has a lot of opinions on what’s needed to succeed. While I don’t want to end up in the Shacks, I’ve dreamed of building games since I was a kid.

I’m here for me.

They could have offered this opportunity to any other high school, and my gut clenches just thinking about missing out on this, even though there’s no telling what the requirements will be.

My hands twitch as I adjust my drawing pad on my lap. When we arrived, I started a dragon sketch with my smart pen to calm myself. Now, the creature takes flight beneath my fingers. With Dylan beside me, my usual characters are a subject matter no-go. I don’t blame him. In his place, I wouldn’t like him sketching fictional crushes either, even if they aren’t actually crushes. They’re just people shaped for the worlds I’ve drafted for my games.

What I don’t tell Dylan is that sometimes, when my parents fight, when my friends get asked to dances that I haven’t been asked to yet, or when I’m stressed, I sketch my characters. They look back with eyes that understand. They see me better than anyone else does, and they never disappoint because I created them.

I sweep my pen outward and orange and red dragon fire stretches into the edge of the screen. The vibrant colors, the movement…

Any changes? I look up. No.

I return to my drawing. Moving to the spikes at the top of the dragon’s head, I add a whimsical purple fade. Why not? My pen responds to the pressure at the point.

Then I pause again to re-check the bulletins.

A kid with knobby knees slows as he passes the screens across from me, his eyes lingering on my blonde pigtails and floral hair ties and finally resting on my sparkly shoes. I meet his gaze and he stops.

His cheeks redden. “Sorry,” he mutters, “you just don’t look…” His voice trails off as he gestures to the other students, most of them boys. The girls among them are smart enough to blend in. Then he shuffles forward to find a place on the floor.

I ignore him, though my mom would point out the same thing. Nobody looks at me and sees engineer.

“You’re over-stressing this,” Dylan says. “Let me help.” He draws out a deck of playing cards from his pocket, shuffles them, cuts three decks, and lays two out on the floor. Someone nearly steps on the cards as they pass, but Dylan sticks out his elbow, forcing them to give us a wide berth.

I chuckle and shake my head. He knows how to secure his place in the world.

He fans out one small deck. “Pick one.”

Smiling despite myself, I choose a red two of hearts and stuff it into the middle of the pile where he can’t possibly find it.

He collapses the deck, stacks the three separated piles, and flips through them. Then he reaches for my hair, and tucks a strand behind my ear. My ear burns as he retracts his hand, a card tucked between his knuckles.

Why’s he so hot when he does that?

We met at a pool party, then again at a junior high dance. He wore fitted, WearTech smart clothing, the designer kind, and asked if I was the girl who splashed him at the pool.

I’ve had issues with boys in the past, including a two-week fling with a boy who claimed I was “high maintenance” for wanting him to spend time with my friends. Dylan, on the other hand, likes a balance of time apart and time together. He likes parties and game nights, time out on his boat, and with his tennis team. If there’s anything Dylan knows how to do, it’s have a good time.

“One of these days, I’ll figure out how you do that,” I promise him.

His eyes glint. “But you never will.” 

As Dylan tucks the cards away, however, anxiety reinstalls like default software and I look up and down the hallway. Dylan mirrors me.

“We can come back,” he says. “The requirements will still be here, and we won’t have missed the hot food.”

That’s a no for me, but now I’m curious why he wants to leave so badly. Does he have somewhere to be?

I cast him a quick, sidelong glance before returning to my vigilance. “You’re that hungry?”

He gives me a guilty look. “Confession—I didn’t think it would take this long and the guys are waiting for me in the parking lot.”

Of course that’s what he’s thinking about.

“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”

He smirks. “Would you survive without me?” 

“I’d build castles without you slowing me down.”

“Sounds about right.”

I roll my eyes and smile as he walks off, glad he was here to calm me, even if he doesn’t stay till the end.

Just as Dylan starts to leave, Mr. Barton, a short man with balding hair, strolls down the hall. His heels clack in the eager, sudden hush. In one hand, he clutches a chip, in the other, a steaming cup of coffee.

Dylan turns as Mr. Barton passes, and follows him. He makes goofy faces over Mr. Barton’s shoulder and I smile as he grins at me.

No lunch then. Even he can’t resist knowing.

At the bulletin across from me, Mr. Barton stops and plugs in the chip.

We all wait, Dylan at Mr. Barton’s side.

Then the screen flickers and a digital flier displays with the company logo at the top. I stand and scan the words, my eyes catching on key phrases like one opening and if the department that reviews your project is impressed, we’ll invite you on campus for an interview and after your internship, you will receive a grant for the Arizona Institute of Technology.

My palms sweat. The deadline is May 1st, which is only four months away. But a foot in the door at a tech company like this one… it’s why I bust my butt in school. I’ll do whatever it takes.

“Short and to the point,” Dylan mutters at my side again.

I jump at his voice, but he doesn’t look at me. I hadn’t noticed him rejoin me.

Mr. Barton’s smooth cheeks crinkle all the way to his ears as he smiles at the students lining the hallway, all peering at the bulletin in confusion.

“They hardly gave us any guidelines,” a guy complains. “How do we know if our project meets their expectations?” The girl beside him nods in agreement.

Mr. Barton smooths his suit and gestures to the glass screen. “This is exciting, isn’t it?” He must not have heard.

Fewer constraints mean more options, but even as I comfort myself with this thought, no projects come to mind. It needs to be a game, especially if I want to get into the Gamma Gaming division of Warren Enterprises.

An idea will come… right?

As I stand to leave, Dylan takes my hand and I hope he doesn’t notice how slippery my fingers are. Then he pulls until I’m turning into him. His uniformly spiked hair doesn’t have a single strand out of place.

He studies my expression, a wry smile tugging at his lips. “You want to try for it, don’t you?”

Of course, I do. Why else would I come? I suppress the flair of exasperation and pose a different question.

“Well, my dad can’t get me a job when I graduate. Is this not an opportunity you’d try for in my place?”

Creases form between Dylan’s brows. “That’s not how engineering interviews work, Sutton. They have interview panels. I’ve seen my dad lead them.” Like every engineer, Dylan’s dad has the option of working from a home office. “I’m not going to get hired just because my dad’s an engineer. You’re thinking of smaller tech companies, and most of those were snuffed out years ago.”

The bulletin said there’s only one internship.

A weight compresses my ribs.

“You plan to apply too?” I ask.

He gives me a long look. “What did you expect?”

As his meaning sets in, so does my apprehension. We’ll have to compete for it.

It’ll be alright though. If I win, Dylan’s dad will find a way around this. He’ll get Dylan a job. Preferably in the same division. We'll work through this together.

Ignoring my silence, Dylan plows on. “You think I don’t want this, but that’s not the point. I need this as much as you do.” He sighs. “Look, I have to go. The guys have been waiting in the parking lot for an hour. They’re not interested in the internship. But I promised to join them and I still haven’t eaten.”

Shaking my unease with a quick shrug, I say, “Sure.”

I can’t ask Dylan to back down from racing for his future any more than I’d appreciate him asking the same of me. But if I want to build games for a living, this is my chance, and I can only hope our relationship is strong enough not to let competition divide us.

Chapter Two


While the rest of the school ogles over internships, I say screw them.

“The windshield, Axel!”

In the school parking lot, I swing the front of my hoverboard up, riding the air like I would a wave. I twist my board so it sweeps across the parked car’s windshield in a wide arc.

Dylan pauses on his board to watch. “You make me look bad.”

Good. He needs to see that I belong here.

Grinning at the glint in Dylan’s eye, I twist the board around in time to catch a nervous edge in Eli's smile. Despite Eli’s agitation, he raises a fist in support, the faces of our friends behind them blurring too much to distinguish.

After the world adopted self-driving taxis, our school started renting parking lots to charge taxi batteries and fund school sports. And what better thing to do with quantum-locked cars on a magnetized parking lot than to hoverboard over them?

When Dylan let me borrow his dad’s beta model of the new Radix hoverboard, this activity hatched in my brain and became our favorite pastime. We turned a parking lot into a next-level skate park. We can ride taxi-ramps as long as the school administration doesn’t find out.

The muscles in my legs scream as I return for the same sweeping motion. Each movement flows like a dance step as I shift my weight.

A shock of magnetic energy propels my weight upward and Dylan hoots, but the energy must be too much. The glass cracks beneath me. Then my windshield-ramp shatters. Bits of glass pelt the leather interior and a few loose shards roll down the side of the car, plinking as they hit the parking spaces. The solar asphalt shifts, black nanotech particles absorbing the glass like wet tar swallowing diamonds.

 But the windshield doesn’t self-repair—probably shouldn’t expect it to, but everything had always gone so smoothly before.

I stare, gathering my wits as I return my board to hovering at ground level, though my heart plummets somewhere beneath my toes.


As I turn to my friends, my palms sweat and I think I’m going to be sick. I’m sorry… Dylan’s face drains of color. Eli’s already running, his braids bobbing over the tops of the taxis.

Dylan snatches the board from my grasp and stuffs it into his bag. He doesn’t need to explain why. I don’t blame him. It’s his spare, registered to his name. If I’m caught, they’ll tie him to the crime and he won’t want to up his chances of indictment.

With his board secured, Dylan runs in the opposite direction, the added weight of two boards slowing his pace.

Then, the rest of our friends disperse until there’s only the chink of glass as another shard falls to the seat.

I shake myself, forcing the stupor from my limbs as I sprint toward the school, my muscles already burning as they carry me as fast as I can move them. Sucking in breaths, my lungs compete with the beat of my feet. Half the parking lot still separates me from a place to hide.

With the alert systems in place, it’s only a matter of time before the incident lands on the principal’s desk from a furious taxi service CEO or some other executive with deep pockets, breathing down the school’s redbrick neck. And when they discover who did it, our parents will be informed.

If I accessed the camera recordings and deleted the evidence, they might never find out. It would require discovering where the recordings were kept, and what protected them. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

The school’s front doors slide smoothly open as I rush through, nearly slamming into a girl as she waves goodbye to someone in a taxi. “Hey!”

I grip her shoulders, steadying her, and slip past. “Sorry,” I mutter.

Joining the throng of students, I try to blend in, though kids on all sides cast me sidelong glances as I pull my hood back.

With teachers and principals likely scanning the hallways for mischievous perpetrators, it’s always a good idea to not look guilty. So I take a deep breath.

A girl a year younger than me, wearing floral perfume, winks. “Hey, Axel,” she says, dipping one shoulder in greeting. She’s attractive enough to make me pause, accepting her flattery with a quick look.

I offer her the grin of a guy who has everything he needs, and more friends than he cares for. It’s taken years of gameplay to form the person this girl sees.

“Hey,” I say in return, though I don’t remember her name.

As I settle into my usual act, I stand taller, the compliment of the girl’s attention making it feel natural. My shoulders relax, and if my legs didn’t remember the tension of my hoverboard, I might have been able to forget the broken glass altogether. “I like your necklace.” Except my gaze travels past her heart-shaped pendant to the open hallway over her shoulder.

If I make it to the computer room, I could track down the recordings. Maybe I’ll beat the school administration to them. It’s worth a shot.

The girl blushes as she fiddles with her chain, and I wince as I brush past her.

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