4. A Bright, Red Dress

2055, September 1st
Collapse + 6 years

Winnie pressed against the glass door of the Redding assembler station. Her breath fogged the glass as she cupped her mittened hands around her eyes to peer inside. The door was locked, as it wasn’t eight o’clock yet, but the lights were on. Wendy should be in there. Winnie tapped the glass frantically.

From the backroom, Wendy appeared, a middle-aged woman dressed in the assembler station uniform bearing the Lakiran Humanitarian League logo. Winnie jiggled on her toes and pantomimed shivering. Grinning, Wendy unlocked the door and ushered her in.

“I figured that dress was yours,” Wendy said.

“Is it ready yet?”

“Yes, yes. It’s done. It’s in the back.” Wendy led Winnie past the help desk to the back room, where rows of assembler machines hummed away building products for the town. The room always smelled of oiled metal mixed with the pungent acetone and ammonia smell given off by the reclamators along the side wall. The room looked like an office, but it made Winnie think of an old laundromat.

In the back, Food Ready assemblers filled canisters with pastes. The rest were earlier models, making everything from laundry detergents to carbon steel silverware. The station was only open from eight to five, but the machines never stopped running. Most assembly orders were necessities that shops or suppliers needed for distribution, but the townsfolk were allowed to submit their own print requests online for a price. The machines would take the orders as they came available, and a notification would be sent to the submitter when their orders were ready to be picked up.

Winnie had woken this morning to find her order had started during the night. It always took days for her, since her requests required one of the fabric-capable machines, and those spent most of their time assembling basic clothes for distribution.

There it was, in a bin beside the other clothes. Winnie knew it immediately as the only bright red object in the room. She picked it up. The dress unfolded neatly. No wrinkles. The synthetic WaferMesh fabric was resistant to that, as well as stains.

“If you’re going to change into that here,” Wendy said, “you better hurry. You’re late today.” She glanced at the wall clock. 7:53. And it was as a ten minute walk to the high school.

“Yeah, I know. I’ll be fine.” Winnie hurried to the employee bathroom and shut the door. She shucked away her winter wear, carefully hanging each piece up on the door hook. She stuffed her clothes into her backpack, then donned the dress. Standing before the mirror, she corrected the frills.

It fit perfectly. Awesome. Fabrics sometimes expanded after printing, so measurements in the Assembler Studio app didn’t match up with reality, but the developers were getting better about that. The frills looked fine too. They ran from just beneath the breast down to the hem of the dress. She twirled, and they fanned out, giving her body a corkscrew look, then fell right back into place. Again, perfect. Anyone who wasn’t experienced with the Assembler Studio could never have gotten that right. The fabrics plugin was still beta quality. It didn’t crash all the time anymore, but its physics simulation was pathetic. When she ran it, the frills fluttered about like a palsy-stricken sea anemone.

She threw her winter gear back on and headed out.

“Don’t I get to see it?” Wendy asked as she passed.

Winnie draped her coat off her shoulders and spun.

“Goodness, girl. You sure a young lady your age should be wearing that?”

“I’m sixteen, Wendy.”

“My mother would never have let me wear something like that when I was your age.”

“My mom hasn’t seen it.”

“You’re still going to freeze out there.”

“No I won’t. It’s the new WaferMesh.”

“If you say so. I don’t want you getting in trouble at school about that.”

“I’ve worn worse.”

Wendy chuckled. “That you have. Run along now. You’re late enough.”

Winnie sprinted to school. Cold wind whipped under her coat. Goosebumps broke out over her bare legs. Maybe Wendy was a little right, but it wasn’t that bad. This was the warmest winter yet since the bombing. And California winters were certainly a far cry from the bitter death Washington State offered.

Everyone had been so against the relocation. The Lakirans had said they wanted to collect all the surrounding pockets of survivors into a more centralized location “for defense and infrastructure”. The town had thought they were pushing their weight around, but it really was for the best. Besides being warmer, Redding was an actual town, not a paltry collection of survivors growing vegetables in their houses and scavenging nearby towns for parts. There was an honest-to-goodness hospital here, with fresh, plentiful supplies. And there was a school—not a schoolhouse where all kids from ages six to eighteen collected together—but a school, with a curriculum, and a basketball team, and a cheerleading squad with weekend practices that took too much of Winnie’s time.

Most importantly, the town had internet, an amenity Winnie had given up as a relic of the pre-bombing days.

Wednesdays was school assembly day. After three classes, the student body collected in the auditorium. Winnie found a couple of her fellow cheerleaders. Before sitting, she twirled, giving them the full effect of her dress.

“Oh, pretty,” said Bethany.

“You like it?”

“I do,” Lexie said. She and Bethany felt the frills. “That’s really thin.”

“Do I get one?” Beth asked.

“Yeah. It’ll probably be ready by Friday. I made yours blue.”

“What about me?” asked Lexie.

“You can buy yours once I put it up on my site.”

“That’s not fair.”

“Beth gets one because she’s going to help model them for me.”

“I can model.”

“Okay. I’m doing it this Friday. I can probably get you a lime green dress if you give me your measurements.”

“Ew, no. Why can’t I have red? Don’t you think I’d look good in red?”

No, Winnie thought, Lexie wouldn’t. “You would, but I need to model different colors, and I’m red. I’m paying to get these printed.”

“But you’re the one with the website making money.”

“I’ve got, like, five hundred followers. It barely covers my expenses.”

Not entirely true. These past months her subscriber base on her assembler public library page had nearly doubled. She was making decent pay now, even if most of her sales were from her novelty socks. She was still happy to used funding as an excuse. Lexie was a good friend and a fellow cheerleader, but she didn’t have a body that would sell clothes. Bethany did however, and she was tall, which made a good alternative to Winnie’s short stature in the online examples.

Winnie’s mother, after many discussions about decency, had finally agreed to let Winnie post pictures of herself and her friends modeling clothes, so long as no picture included their faces—another good excuse for Winnie. Bethany had a good body, but not a great face.

The speaker system came on. On the stage, Principal Myers called for everyone’s attention. Winnie sat with her friends. Myers made announcements. The basketball team won North West regionals. The drama club was starting a new play and was looking for people to audition.

While Myer’s spoke, Winnie’s friends poked around on their devices. Winnie’s tablet was an older model that she couldn’t hide it in her lap like her friends could. With her site picking up though, she could soon afford a newer model that her mother’s market job could never afford. In the meantime, she was left gazing off during assembly.

She noticed someone new sitting on stage with the faculty. He was at the end beside the Dean of the Disciplinary committee. His hair was trimmed short in a style popular in South America. His suit fit him perfectly. Winnie could see seams along the shoulder, which mean the suit was hand-crafted fabric as oppose to machine-assembled texture. Even if it were made from Environmentally Adjusted Cotton, it would still be astronomically expensive. Cotton could still be grown in only a few places around the world. Suits like that were only available in the heart of the empire.

He looked directly at her. His eyes didn’t skirt the crowd at all, as though he’d known she was looking. Winnie snapped her attention to Bethany’s phone. Principal Myers made more announcements. Winnie glanced back. The man was still watching her.

“And one last thing,” Principal Myers said. “We have an education inspector with us today from the empire.” He gestured to the man who still stared at Winnie. “You might see Mr. Matthews sitting in on a few of your classes. Be courteous. Answer any questions he might have.” He turned to Mr. Matthews. “Do you have anything you’d like to say?”

He glanced at the principal and shook his head.

“Okay then. In that case. Assembly is over.”

Everyone stood and filed toward the auditorium exits.

“Does anyone else think that inspector is creepy?” Winnie asked.

“Who?” asked Bethany.

“The guy Myers just announced.”

“Oh. I wasn’t looking.”

“He was looking at us though. I think he was looking at me.”

Lexie glanced at him. Matthews was in conversation with the Dean of the Disciplinary committee. “You’re the only one wearing a bright red dress.”

“Oh, yeah. I guess so.”

As they were leaving the auditorium, Winnie glanced once again. The man was definitely looking at her.

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