Xori had agreed to meet Nixter only when he realized that she had spent the last few credits and had literally nothing else to go on for the monthly cycle. In fact, when she tabulated her savings from last annual cycle, there was indeed too little to go on. Even if she included begging and stealing. On a diet that was now basically soda, and the cheapest fast food that she could scavenge, Xori’s clothes had grown enormously large. They were grubby and worn out. They hadn’t seen a laundry machine in a very long time.
It wasn’t too bad, reaffirmed Xori to the pale reflection in a broken mirror. At least she didn’t sweat so much, so her clothes didn’t stink too often. The large dark circles comfortably nestled her eyes, sagging her sallow malnutritioned skin. Xori wished her blankets would do the same. She made an effort to clean herself up somewhat, and found that the credits she had stolen last night had been stolen away from her. Oh well, she would need to work some more on that. But for now, she earnestly hoped Nixter would be able to offer her a job. She desperately needed one, and only the suppressed hunger inside her knew how painful that desperation was.
Some semblance of civility came back to her, what if Nixter asked her to share the price of a meal or a drink or something? Even at a shady joint, anything beyond entry cost an upward of five credits. But then, she wondered, Nixter was the one who arranged for this meeting, so he should likely have planned the expenses. Besides,given how soft a character Nixter was, he might never dare to ask a lady to pay on his behalf.
It was strange how she never reached out to Nixter. A former colleague and perhaps the only person who wavered dangerously close to the label of “friend”, Nixter had always been supportive of her. She felt that she was getting too dependent on him, and the awful realization that he may have misunderstood their friendship to be something more dawned on her so she broke off all contact. She had no room in her life for things like that. In all her correspondences with Nixter, she tried to pretend that something like this had never happened and she still maintained that it was an eminently forgettable episode of her life.
Xori tried to dust off her large sweater, which was comfortably older than her. She looked around the little makeshift room she had made. It was still very quiet, so Xori could tell that the neighboring residents of the slums wouldn’t be able to hear her or watch her go out. At any rate, one of those rascals had stolen her five credits anyway. But were they really hers? Xori didn’t bother to ask morality and ethics of the situation. I’m poor enough to forget these things, said Xori to herself. She found it comforting in a way that her life had only been reduced what she thought were the core necessities: food, shelter, code and maybe an occasional luxury – a puff or two didn’t hurt.
Xori latched the heavy bolt securely with her fragile hands. It was something she’d done too often once she discovered that rodents and children had bitten off some of the wires in her room. Her computer beeped gloomily as she left. Xori sighed into the cold dawn, and the mist clouded up the air before her. The cold bit into her skin, but she had to walk, because she couldn’t afford to pay for any alternative transport. Besides, it was easier to steal from random pedestrians in the street. Xori was once the shy introvert who could never see anything beyond her code, but the driving need for sustenance had shown her what life was about.
Xori remembered how angry her family had been when she ran away from college in order to pursue programming as a career. You’ll never get a job, they said. Everybody can write any kind of code these days. Nobody pays for any utilities, or even computers. You should apply yourself to better things. Their insistence had driven Xori to write code late into the middle of the night when she knew that nobody was watching her, judging her. Oh, you write code? How is it any different from the rest of the world’s program? Why should I pay for your application when I can write better ones myself? Programming was now an outdated career.
But Xori enjoyed it, for whatever it was worth. She still loved writing and compiling her own applications and designing her own projects. As is with every programmer, they have their own style, their own taste, and Xori’s was almost exquisite. There were times when she had written hacks for Nixter, and that was when he had come across her true talent. Even then, he had encouraged it only as a side-hobby. Nobody will pay for software in a world where anyone can generate, create and execute an idea almost effortlessly.
Nixter, who was a history afficionado, would often compare programmers to writers and historians. There was a time when their skills were greatly valued until their methodology became too mainstream and it was hard for them to sustain a career through one of them alone. Which was why Nixter had dropped out of the game early, or timely as he would say. Xori had stayed on, and she intended to stay on until either her computer or she died. As projects became rare, the credits she would charge per project also increased, and that turned away many customers who were soon finding free and easy options. But passion alone is not sustainable and so here she was trying to present her surviving self before Nixter, trying to make a point. Trying to not want a job, when she would have died for one.
Nixter was very well-dressed, and he sat with the casual air of someone with credits. Someone with a career. If Xori didn’t know him, she would have thought he was ideal target to steal from. A little bit of snobbery and prim behavior, a lot of upper-class acculturation and Nixter had evolved from a code-writing punk to someone with a respectable job like a sustainable energy scientist.
Despite everything, Xori felt a little bit of herself falter. What would Nixter think of her if he saw her like this? The poor have no shame, she told herself. She approached him from behind and tapped his shoulder. He jumped as though a beggar had stained the beautiful textile with the touch of her hands. He registered annoyance, followed by slow shock, followed by a smile as he realized it was Xori. In the one moment that his face split into a smile, Xori was reminded of the boy who used to furiously code beside her, late into the nights, coding just for the heck of it. Indeed those were the good times.
“Xori! It’s been too long!”
It had. That was obvious. Xori stared around awkwardly, sizing Nixter up in the entirety of his being, trying to smile. He had done so well for himself, that he seemed to be from another world altogether. She stood a little apart from him, unsure of whether she should run away. Long periods of isolation and regular life in the slums had made her language coarse, and some of the former genteel Xori resurfaced and reminded her that it was inappropriate to be here.
Then her tummy crunched into her, and the smell of food could nearly make her cry and so she stood there, rooted in terrible silence and awe. Nixter pulled her into a hug, from which she was hesitant. The smell of clean clothes and a well-fed lifestyle permeated through her. Nixter closed his arms around her and was alarmed to discover how thin she had become, and how he could feel the bones in her rib-cage.
“How are you?” asked Nixter.
Xori’s tummy wished to record the momentous occasion by ruining it somewhat.
“Come, let’s get some breakfast,” said Nixter, without asking her what her current diet was, what were the meals she ate and so on. Nixter led her into one of the restaurants she wouldn’t have dared enter, but Nixter steered her through. Clearly, he seemed more than willing to pay for her meal. Xori sat uncomfortably at the edge of her seat, feeling all the more self-conscious. Xori found the shame surprising. It never bothered her when she needed to steal, but now it bothered her to be a civilized human being. Nixter ordered a meal that was fit for three, and politely directed all the dishes to Xori when they arrived. It was an exhibition of self-restraint to not stuff the food into her all at once.
“So how have you been?” asked Nixter, as though oblivious to the sight of her wolfing down on food.
“Alive,” was the concise response.
There was an awkward silence during which neither knew what to say next.
“Still writing the good old commercial code, are we?”
“I am. Can’t say about you. So there’s no ‘we’,” said Xori, gulping down another jam roll.
“I write applications from time to time, as well,” conceded Nixter. “Here, I have a few functional prototypes if you want to see them,” he said, offering her the debug-log from his mini-computer. Xori stared at the device with envy. What was such a powerful computing tool doing in the hands of people who needed it the least? But then, beggars can’t be choosers. As it is, it was mostly UI design, nothing too great from a computing perspective. It was mostly code designed to appeal visually. Nobody wrote real hard core work like they did in the old days.
Xori was not impressed. Some part of her work ethic said that she would rather stay unemployed than stoop to such a boring job. But then her tummy, the memories of the claustrophobic slums and the rodents and the general squalor disagreed. Xori thought she’s show him one of her personal projects now that he was here. After all, she wasn’t prepared to sell her skills without having something to show. Nixter was awed, as always. Xori was good at what she did, which was why she did it.
“Very nice,” said Nixter. He praised her somewhat and then persisted in making some more small talk, the kind which Xori had long-since forgotten to make.
“You said you had an offer?” she asked, hoping not to give away the obvious.
“Well, yes. I have an opportunity that would allow you to write code and allow you to live my lifestyle.”
“I’m listening,” said Xori as she stuffed her face with two more jam rolls.
“So, the offer I have would let you write whatever code you want, and we can commercialize it if you please. You will have the most cutting edge resources available to you at no cost.”
“What kind of resources?” said Xori, her voice still strained from gulping too hastily.
“Any number of visual screens that you’d like, the newest compilers, any technology that you want, top of the line.”
Xori wasn’t too convinced with the vague description. But if allowed her to stay warm, live well and eat food, especially food like this, she wouldn’t mind. She sincerely hoped that it wasn’t going to be a UI design job.
“What kind of projects could I take on?”
“Anything you wish,” smiled Nixter in response.
This was too good to be true. Xori slowed her munching down somewhat so she could think through things clearly. Obviously, with a mini-computer like Nixter’s she would be able to write the kind of code that would re-design operating systems. But then, what about the data security of her old code? What if they expected something from her that she did not know yet?
“Tell me more. Where is this place? What is this firm’s name? What do they do?” said Xori, wanting to know more about this conveniently beneficial organization.
Nixter leaned closer to the table, and Xori couldn’t help but notice that he was carrying a lot of open credits on him. He put his hand on the table.
“You know when we were both back in college and how we would sneak out after college and write code?”
Xori nodded. Those hacks were how she had met Nixter. If she had known that such an organization existed back then, then she would never have to go through this…
“So, I miss those days. A lot,” said Nixter, pausing carefully as he considered his words. “I know you didn’t want to speak to me for a long time after those days..”
For reasons that are self-explanatory, thought Xori, considering a pastry on the table. She would have liked to question the relevance of the past, but then she reminded herself that Nixter always had a soft spot for History.
“…and I didn’t even know if you were alive or not. Believe me, you have no idea how thankful I was that you replied to my message.”
I didn’t really have a choice, thought Xori, munching on the cake, looking for any excuse to avoid eye-contact. It’s not as shameful as you make it seem. You’ve done worse. You’ve stolen hard-earned credits from fellow beggars. Why does it make you so awkward to seek a job? Xori wished he would end his historical detour soon and move the conversation back to pressing matters.
“So, now that you’re here, and you’re still writing amazing code, I was asking you to come join me.”
“Are you offering me a job?” asked Xori, cringing immediately inside. She had blurted out too soon. She would frighten him away. He would now know how desperate she was for a job and might take advantage of her vulnerability. But then again, it was better him than anyone else who would abuse her skills. He, of all people, at least appreciated good programming skills.
“I’m….I’m asking you to live with me. I’m asking you to marry me.”
Xori choked on what she was eating. In a hasty effort to get her water, and somehow explain himself for the faux pas, he launched into a great comparison of the pros and cons of his proposition. Xori managed to swallow whatever it was she was eating and then wrung the table napkin in extreme discomfort.
“You don’t have to answer me right away,” said Nixter gently, letting her have her space, turning red with embarrassment at the fact that he had surprised her so much.
Xori fidgeted some more with the idea and her napkin. Indeed, it would be a great life. Food, access to everything she had ever wanted. Why, given time, she might even evolve into a real lady in Nixter’s company. But then what about her independence? Nixter obviously expected a huge emotional commitment and Xori was unsure if she could search within the depths of her to provide it.
At least he didn’t ask you to love him, reasoned Xori. But then, he might as well have, because he expected that to happen eventually. It’s not that he’s not like-able, mused Xori, it’s just that I can’t feel the same way because I have so much more code to write in my life. Nixter didn’t have to explain the pros and cons of the situation. Xori had lived in poverty long enough.
“….Live with you?” Xori didn’t even dare to utter the words that had followed.
“Yeah,” nodded Nixter helpfully, wondering if she might actually consider him this time. The last time, he had been young, immature, and incapable of supporting her, especially the hobby that she so adored. But now he had grown up and he was waiting to hear an equally mature response from the object of his affections as well.
Xori stared at the empty plates in silence. Was that what all the food was for? To get her to acquiesce? Had he thought he could buy her with the lure of a better life? But then, wasn’t she the one who had woken up in sheer desperation?
Nixter was momentarily occupied by the fact that he had to now pay for the meal as they were almost done. Xori noticed that he tucked his credits into the upper pocket. If she could have two or three of them, she would be ready to live out the next annual cycle. Then she looked at the person in them. He had promised her an entire lifetime. What did a lifetime mean to someone who had lived from hand to mouth for so many years?
“I’ll……I’ll need some time to think about it,” muttered Xori inaudibly. She had to repeat it so that Nixter could hear it over the clamor.
Nixter did not know how to feel when she said that she would leave. How would he ever find her? What if she said no? But he momentarily put those thoughts to rest as Xori pulled in for a hug. She was so weak and fragile, she might even need medical care, but where could she afford it? Should he offer her money? What if she thought he was trying too hard to influence her decision?
“You’ve been a good friend, Nixter,” were her departing words. Xori then walked slowly, carefully and deliberately to the nearest transport. In the shadow of the vehicle, she took off and once more Nixter was staring at empty air.
When Xori felt that she had run a distance far away from him, she paused to count the credits she had stolen from Nixter’s coat as she had hugged him. There was enough to relocate to a new city, to buy the new computer she had always dreamed of and maybe even snag an elite customer or so, who wanted some custom application on the side. It wasn’t too bad, she wondered as she returned back. In a weird way, it had been thoroughly productive, but then some part of her objected to how she was treating Nixter as a person in all of this. What about his needs? And his proposition?
Xori began to pack together all her meagre belongings. She was going to carry all the data she had compiled and all her previous code, but she couldn’t bear to carry the decade old view screen with her. With the credits that she had, she might even be able to buy a new one. She was soon scheduled in for the earliest transport out of the city and spent the rest of the day making herself untraceable, especially to Nixter, who might have law enforcement searching for her. Only the other children in the slums and the rodents would know that she was gone. To he rest of the world, she might not even have existed, had it not been for her brilliant executables.
When the wind from the rushing transport touched her recently clean face and hair, and for the first time Xori smiled spontaneously, she watched the city’s skyline race away from her. She was leaving all this behind. Dirt. Filth. Desperation. Nixter. She allowed herself to feel a tinge of sadness and hoped he would understand.
“I’m sorry Nixter,” she sighed to the wind and the lonely falling tear was whisked away into the night.