By the end of the day, Dara was convinced that Andersen either hated her or thought her completely incompetent—or both. When her shift ended, she somehow managed to smile serenely at the others and wish them a good evening. She wanted nothing more than to flee from the room and dissolve into tears, but she forced herself to walk at a dignified pace, her back straight.
Letizia caught up with her before she made it too far. “Rough first day?”
Her mind cast about frantically for an appropriate response. Somehow, she didn’t think Letizia was offering her a shoulder to cry on, and she finally settled on a bland, “There’s so much to learn.”
Letizia peered at Dara’s face, her expression unreadable. “If you want to make it through this apprenticeship, you’ll need to develop a thicker skin.”
Dara nodded, swallowing hard around the lump in her throat. “I don’t think Head of Engineering Andersen is very impressed with me.”
“If you’re expecting praise, you’re in the wrong place.”
Something clicked for Dara. “You used to be Head of Engineering Andersen’s assistant.”
“Yes, and I will tell you that this program is entirely based on survival of the fittest. You should always be cognizant of that or you’ll pay the price.”
Dara was dismayed. She had thought herself prepared for the reality of the cutthroat world of being a Contributor, but she realized now that she’d had only the vaguest, most childish idea about what that would entail. For the first time in her life, she began to wonder if she was truly cut out for what lie ahead.
They came upon a cluster of people, rendering Dara unable to continue the conversation, though she didn’t really want to at any rate. Letizia had made her feel worse, something Dara would hardly have thought possible. Still, she supposed she ought to be grateful to the other woman. She needed practical information, not a sugar-coated explanation.
I wouldn’t mind a little blunting of the sharp edges, she admitted to herself, and then banished the thought. Letizia was right; she needed to grow a thicker skin.
“It looks like your friend is waiting for you,” Letizia said, pointing at Jonathan. He caught sight of Dara, and his face lit up.
“Yes. He’s walking me home tonight. He and I—”
“Oh, I know. You two have garnered quite a bit of interest.”
Though Dara knew their relationship was fair game for scrutiny, she found Letizia’s observation unsettling because she had no idea just what Letizia meant by it. More than anything else, Dara’s uncertainty whether she could trust her own master frustrated her.
“Think about what I’ve told you,” Letizia said. “You may have blown your first impression, and it may be impossible to recover. Don’t make the same mistakes tomorrow.”
“Thank you for your advice,” Dara replied, trying to compose herself. The two women exchanged a brisk handshake and then Letizia strode off.
“Is everything okay?” Jonathan asked, watching Letizia’s retreat.
She wasn’t comfortable making any sort of personal conversation with Jonathan while they were surrounded by other Contributors. There was no telling who might be listening.
“Let’s head home,” she said, suddenly anxious to get as far away as possible. Straightening her back, she adjusted her bag so that it sat neatly on her shoulder. Jonathan still looked rather concerned, but he said nothing more.
As they exited headquarters, Dara looked through the glass of the dome. She was anxious to think about anything other than her day.
“Dust storms again,” she remarked. The world outside the dome was variegated streaks of brown. Only the other domes, visible here and there through the swirling mass of dirt and debris, provided a bit of color.
“I wonder how Avaris Technology’s new atmosphere regenerator is coming along,” Jonathan mused.
Dara scoffed. “They haven’t had a new product in years. Can you imagine if we’d been born in the Avaris dome?”
“All the more reason to give our all to Magnum. We’re lucky to work for one of the best Job Creators.”
“Yes, we are,” she agreed, swallowing hard. “So, how was your first day?”
“It went very well,” Jonathan enthused. “I’m so fortunate to be working with Head of Logistics Gonzales. His knowledge is invaluable.”
“I’m glad to hear it.” Dara smiled up at him. She was genuinely happy for him but, much to her own shame, she couldn’t prevent herself from feeling a twinge of envy.
“How was your first day?”
“I think I’ll learn a lot this year,” she replied evasively.
He looked at her with a quizzical expression, but he was every bit as aware of the crowd around them as she, and she knew he wouldn’t press her—at least not here and not now.
This time, when they reached her home, Jonathan came in with her. Her parents had invited him to dinner, and delicious smells wafted toward them as they entered the apartment.
“Jonathan and Dara! How was your first day?” Joshua asked, setting the last place on the table before walking over to his daughter and wrapping her in a tight embrace. Along with the usual plates and utensils, Dara noticed four flutes and a bottle of champagne resting in a cooler.
“It was good,” Dara said. She hoped her father didn’t notice her lack of enthusiasm.
“Fantastic,” Jonathan responded.
“I’ll just see if Mom needs any help,” Dara told them. Joshua kissed the top of her head and released her. As Dara walked toward the kitchen, she could hear Jonathan talking animatedly with her father about his day.
“Hey, Mom, do you need a hand?” Dara asked, as she walked into the kitchen.
“Thank you, sweetheart. Could you carry that basket of bread out?” Leona asked, peeking into the oven.
“Roast chicken!” Dara exclaimed.
Leona beamed. “With all the trimmings!”
“I thought we wouldn’t get a whole chicken for months yet. And champagne?”
“Oh, your father and I turned in a couple of our privilege vouchers,” Leona said, as she basted the bird.
It had taken her parents months to save the vouchers, and they had done so with the intention of treating themselves to a night out in honor of their twentieth wedding anniversary. “But you must have used all your vouchers!”
“It was worth it,” Leona said, her voice firm. “Today is a very special day. Besides, your father and I were thinking of putting in some extra hours anyway, so that we can brush up on our skills.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Dara launched herself at her mother and squeezed her firmly.
“Ooof,” Leona laughed. She took her daughter’s face in her hands. “We’re so proud of you. I hope you know that.”
“I do,” Dara assured her. Her stomach twisted even further at the thought of letting her parents down.
Fortunately, her mother was so caught up in her good mood that she didn’t notice her daughter’s anxiety. “Good. Now, could you take the bread out to the table and ask your father and Jonathan to sit? I’ll be right out with a salad.”
They made lively conversation as they shared the delicious meal. Dara had tried champagne once before, two years ago on New Year’s Eve. Her father’s superior had given it to him as a gift, and her parents had allowed her one small sip. Most wine grapes had succumbed during the Great Famine, when thousands of plant species had gone extinct. Though a few varieties had been saved, they had proved very finicky, and the agricultural engineers of Zhang Agritech Systems were still trying to figure out how to genetically modify the plants so that they would thrive in the domes’ hydroponic gardens. As a result, wine was quite rare.
As they drank the champagne with a dessert of berries and custard that had no doubt cost many more vouchers, Dara savored every sip. Between the food and the conversation, the tension in her shoulders eased, and she began to feel better about her day.
Jonathan helped her with the dishes while her parents discreetly retired to their study, affording Dara and Jonathan some privacy. She made tea, and they settled on the family room couch to discuss their day.
“You seemed kind of disturbed when we left headquarters today,” he said, an expression of concern on his face.
“I’m competing against Ryan LeTour and Javier Gutierrez,” she replied.
He winced. “Shit.”
“Exactly,” she sighed.
“It doesn’t matter. You’re better than both of them, you know you are. It’s going to be you, I know it.”
“If I make it that far, you mean.”
“Look, I’m not going to lie and say it won’t be rough for you—we both know it will be. But you can’t let them psych you out like this or you might as well hand it over to them.”
She bristled, but knew he was right. “You know what Ryan is like, Jon. He’ll do everything he can to ruin me.”
“I know you’re worried, but maybe this is for the best.” His expression softened as he looked at her. “I’m not excusing LeTour, you know that. I’m just saying that this is part of life. Facing adversity now will give you the skills you need to thrive.”
“I guess,” she replied grudgingly.
“You’re going to be put through the wringer. To pretend otherwise would just be denial. But you can do this, Dara, you can.” He squeezed her hands insistently, until she looked up at him.
“I just had a rough day,” she confessed. “Andersen is so...exacting. I’m afraid he thinks I’m an incompetent idiot.”
“You’re always so hard on yourself. I’m sure it’s not nearly as bad as you think it is,” he insisted, kneading the tense muscles in her neck.
She closed her eyes and let out an appreciative groan. “I don’t mean to whine. You know I like a challenge. He’s just...different somehow. He has this way of studying me that makes me feel like he’s measuring up all the ways in which I’m inferior. Maybe he should have had a career in Quality Control,” she joked half-heartedly.
“My dad says Andersen is one of the hardest superiors to please, but when he is pleased his subordinates reap the rewards.”
“Really? Actually, that makes sense. Letizia is so young, yet she works very closely with Andersen, and she told me that she used to be his assistant.”
“Is that so? Well, then it’s doubly fortunate for you that she’s your master.”
“I guess so,” Dara said, with some reluctance in her voice.
Jonathan stopped massaging her neck and leaned forward a bit, meeting her eyes. “What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. I mean, Letizia is so hard to read. I’m not sure how she feels about me.”
“It won’t be long before she realizes how talented you are.”
“Thanks. It’s just that... Never mind. Maybe I’m overreacting.” Her inability to explain her worry to him frustrated her. He was so reasonable and logical that it made her doubt herself.
“I think you may be,” he said gently. “Look, you’ve worked hard to get where you are, and I think you’re just afraid that you’ll make a mistake—but that’s ridiculous. By the time your apprenticeship is over, I bet Andersen will wonder why he ever thought Letizia was anything special.”
Dara couldn’t help but smile at that. “I don’t want to trample all over her in my quest to cement my position.”
“Of course not, but we both know we can’t forget that everyone is competition. No matter how much you like someone, there will likely come a time when you’re going to have to fight them tooth and nail for the position or recognition that you both want.”
Jonathan wasn’t saying anything Dara hadn’t already heard countless times from her instructors, her parents, and her fellow classmates. Still, there was something kind of unsettling not just about the words, but also the intensity with which Jonathan spoke them.
“I’m sure everything will look better in the morning, after a good night’s sleep,” she said. The words sounded lame to her ears, but she was eager to change the subject.
“That’s the spirit,” Jonathan said approvingly.
The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough, but Dara was glad when Jonathan left. She was exhausted, emotionally wrung out from her difficult day, and she wanted nothing more than to sink into her bed and fall asleep. But when she lay down, sleep eluded her. Instead, her mind kept whirling with thoughts of the mistakes she’d made.