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MUSE

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Five friends spread a wide blanket under the voluminous shade of a rain tree. They’re all fourth-year students of the local university, just set free from their classes for the day and prepared to laze in the heat for the rest of the afternoon. As they walk backward, each one holding a different section of the blanket, one is complaining, one is measuring, one is yawning, one is laughing, and one is peeking into the picnic basket behind his feet.

“Team!” Manaow calls. “Pull your end of the blanket.”

Team gives her an ornery look for distracting him from his sacred hunt for chips and says, “I am!”

“You are not, you’re barely holding it—and stay out of the basket!”

Team sticks his tongue out at her and yanks on his corner with just enough force to pull her side out of her hand.

“Team!”

“Hey, Manaow, pull your side of the blanket,” Team says.

“You little—”

“It’s fine like this,” Kong says. “Just set it down.”

To the background hum of grumbling from Manaow, the five of them crouch down and tug at the tartan blanket to flatten it over the grass. Shoes toed off, Pharm walks to the center and places the picnic basket there where it will likely remain under close surveillance until they’re ready to eat what’s in it. Sulking, Team sits on the edge with a huff and ignores Manaow’s smug grin.

Team and Pharm call up a hologram of a beach ball and tap it back and forth, serving to Manaow whenever she makes grabby hands for a turn. Kong and Ting nap, curled on opposite sides of the blanket like parallel commas. Twenty minutes of idle chatter between the conscious pass, and the sun spreads less and less warmth as it sinks closer to the ridges of the city skyline.

Then Pharm says, “Anyone hungry?”

Team flings the volleyball back into his tablet and says, “Yes,” with fervor.

His stomach adds an enthusiastic rumble of agreement.

Pharm opens the picnic basket and passes out collapsible plates and cups. While Team opens them from their pellet-sized containers, Manaow pours in water from the pitcher. By the time Kong opens his eyes and stretches, Pharm’s sandwiches and sweets have been doled out and Team has already consumed everything on his plate in four swift bites.

“Glutton,” Manaow says.

Team ignores her and sprawls on his back in a tableau of agony. “I don’t want to go home,” he says, squeezing his eyes shut. “If I go home, I have to study, and I don’t want to.”

“Aren’t you full of things you don’t want to do today,” Manaow says.

“Shut up,” Team requests.

“Children,” Ting chides. She hasn’t said a word since they arrived at the park, and she’s still curled into a comfortable half-moon with her arm under her head, her orange-tinted sunglasses masking the upper half of her face. “Mommy needs her rest. She had a long day of trying to appear awake in exams she was not prepared to take.”

Kong makes an affronted noise in the back of his throat. Using the convenience of his legs stretched out near her feet, he nudges her ankle with the toe of his shoe. “You should have joined our study sessions,” he says.

“I know,” Ting says, her voice pitched in a whine. “It’s just that I didn’t want to.”

Pharm tells Team, “You don’t have to do much for development economics. She just asked for an outline by Tuesday.”

“But I don’t know what to do my paper on,” Team says. “I don’t even know why I picked the thing I did. I just kind of said the first smart-sounding word when she asked for a topic.”

“What ‘smart-sounding word’ did you go with?” Ting asks.

“Automation,” Team says.

Ting raises an eyebrow over her sunglasses. “Oh.”

“What aspect of it?” Kong asks.

“I don’t know,” Team says, wrinkling his nose. “I mean, automation was a global thing, so I was thinking of maybe how Thailand’s process was unique?”

Manaow clicks her tongue after she swallows the last bite of her sandwich. “That’s too broad. Automation here happened over the course of, like, fifty years.”

“That’s a good point,” Pharm says. “You could compare automation processes in different countries, but every industry handled it differently, so you’d have to stick to one, I think, so it’s not too general.”

“Avoid electronics,” Kong says.

“And medical,” Ting says.

“Transportation, too,” Manaow says.

Team takes a deep breath and decides, “I’m dropping out. Someone hand me my tablet.” He picks up an arm and grabs at the air without much hope.

“What if you cover an industry that wasn’t affected by automation?” Kong suggests.

Team cranes his neck to the side to see Kong around the picnic basket. “I guess,” he says slowly, “but wasn’t everything?”

“Not sex work,” Ting says. She pops a smug nod at them all and says, “Oldest profession. Gotta respect it,” and adds a pair of finger guns.

Manaow grins at Team like a cartoon shark. “I dare you.”

Team turns his head to the other side and stares up at her without bothering to create an expression on his face. “What?” he says, listless.

“Do your paper on how automation affected the sex industry!“

Ting tilts her head and says, “Well, wait. That’s not what I said. The sex industry was definitely affected by automation. Take the whole rise of ’adult video designer’ as a career, for one. I meant literal human sex workers. There’re always technology gimmicks—sex robots and connection toys and whatever—but I think human sex workers are always going to be more in demand than not.”

Team says, “I don’t know much about them, though,” with an ornery edge. “I’ve never been to one. They’re really expensive.”

“Save part of your B.I. like every other horny person on the planet does,” Ting says.

Team makes sure his face is expressing how much he wants to do that.

“Come on,” Ting says. “You swim and eat chips. There’s no way you spend all of your basic income every month.”

“Ahh!” Manaow sighs, grabbing her tablet. ”I want to do my paper on this now!” She pulls up a hologram map of the nearby area a little too enthusiastically and Kong startles when a restaurant passes through him. “Oops, sorry, Kong!” She claws the map back to a smaller size and laughs as she pinches the map toward her to get the perspective to move farther down the street. “I know there’s at least one good parlor nearby I could go to for research.”

Team glares at her and kicks through her hologram. “Hey,” he says, “it’s my topic.”

“Well, you didn’t sound like you wanted it,” Manaow says. She moves her tablet and map pointedly out of his reach.

“I do! I just said I haven’t been to one before!”

“Well, I can help you out there,” Ting says. “Manaow, voice thing.”

Manaow thumbs the voice command on her tablet.

Ting says, “Go to The MUSE Parlor.”

“In which city?” the tablet’s AI asks.

“This one,” Ting says with a roll of her eyes.

The map blurs with a burst of speed and stops in front of a massive skyscraper covered in black glass on Sukhumvit Road.

“I thought for sure that you’d been to one before, Team,” Manaow says, narrowing her eyes. “Weren’t you gonna go for your birthday one year?”

“They’re expensive,” Team says again.

“I’ve never been either,” Pharm says.

With an emphatic grin, Team leans across the blanket to ruffle Harm’s hair. “Of course you haven’t! You’re only a li’l kitten.”

“Don’t underestimate him,” Ting says, amused. “I bet he’s a secret sex kitten.”

In a tone of scandalized shock, Team squawks, “Ting!”

Team claps his hands over Pharm’s ears and glares extra hard at her on Pharm’s behalf.

“Hey,” Manaow says, frowning at the broad hologram hovering above her tablet. “It won’t let me in.”

Sure enough, no amount of manipulation will force the map to go beyond the elevator in the lobby. With her pinky nail, Manaow writes the script for ’Enter The Muse Parlor’ into the air of the hologram and sends it off into the tablet with a swish of the wrist. A brief red pulse encapsulating the entire map indicates that her request to see the location has been denied by the network.

“I thought all public businesses had to be map-accessible?” Kong says.

“Ah,” Ting says, pursing her lips. “I guess this technically counts as advertising if they show people what’s inside. Sorry, I never looked them up this way before.”

“Ugh,” Manaow says. She punches through the image of the elevator doors and sulks. “Stupid legal loopholes.” She keeps punching, but it starts to look like the batting of a tired cat going through the motions. “You can look at sex parlors in other countries, right?” she whines.

“Yes,” Pharm says.

Team’s gape is immediate, his mouth already open to say, “Yes,” as well.

Ting’s grin is slow.

“Go to one in New York,” Pharm says as he stifles a yawn. “I think by U.S. law they all have to show the main areas of the parlor, just not the private rooms.“

Manaow makes a happy sound and scribbles New York sex parlors into the hologram. The map blurs into unrecognizable shapes for an instant, the effect representing the sheer distance they’re “traveling“ across, then a full-color aerial map of New York City appears, covered in hundreds of blue dots with names printed alongside them.

“They have a whole different physical culture there,” Pharm says. “Like, the percentage of people in the States who use a parlor for their first time is less than fifty, but in other countries it’s closer to ninety.“ He points to one of the dots labeled ’The Matchstick’ and says, “This is the one that indie movie was based on last year.“

“I love that movie,” Manaow says, breathless.

“You don’t even know what movie he’s talking about,” Team says, eyeing her.

“I don’t care,” she replies, heart-eyed.

As Manaow explores the gleaming marble lobby of The Matchstick, Pharm says, “I like watching documentaries about the sex industry. Automation and the work crisis actually ended up doing a lot of good for it.”

“Ting shouldn’t have taught you that word,” Team says mournfully.

Manaow rolls her eyes at him. “You need a boyfriend, Team. Or another hobby. Swimming’s not keeping you busy enough.”

“Do the parlors in Thailand use membership cards?” Pharm asks. “Or is that only in Japan?”

Team opens his mouth to express silent disbelief, then closes it, then opens it again to repeat: “Membersh—”

Ting slams her hand down on the blanket, eliciting a jump from everyone else. She smirks, clearly pleased to have their attention back, and when she removes her hand, they all look at the gleaming silver card she’s put down.

Team eyes her with suspicion. “How long have you had that in your hand?”

“A while,” she says. “This is my membership card to The MUSE Parlor.”

“Jealous!” Manaow gasps. She abandons the hologram entirely and moves across the blanket to scoop up the card and hold it delicately in her hands. “It’s so shiny!”

Kong casually takes the card from her, turns it over, nods, and returns it to her. Then he continues eating his khao tom mud one-handed, a portrait of unbothered amusement.

Team picks up the card next, but he doesn’t see anything written on either side, just a shimmering coat of silver. “Is there a chip in it or something?” he asks. He offers it to Pharm who shakes his head with a smile.

Ting beams and folds her legs, leaning forward until she can prop her elbows on her knees. “So,” she says, visibly delighted to explain, “MUSE is a really, really exclusive parlor. You can’t even apply for a membership card.”

Team becomes uncomfortably aware of Manaow holding her breath beside him, her hands clasped under her chin like she’s listening to a sacred guru impart some cherished wisdom. He sees Pharm sip water from his cup and shoot a fond smile at Kong, who offers a small grin in return.

Team decides to appear uninterested as well, but he keeps his mouth closed so he can listen.

“You can only get one—” (Ting tucks some hair behind her ear and preens while she pauses for effect) “—if you’re selected.”

Manaow manages to take a shallow gasp, even though she doesn’t seem to have breathed in recent memory, and then her hand darts out like an asp to snatch the card back from Team. While studying it with almost reverent excitement, Manaow asks, “How do you get selected? Did one of the specialists choose you? Are you dating one? How does this work? How do I get one?”

Team, staring at her all the while, tells her, “Calm. Down.”

Manaow blows a puff of air at his bangs, unrepentant, and chants at Ting, “Tell me, tell me, tell me!”

“You get one from a specialist,” Ting confirms. “My friend works there, so she gave me one. I don’t know how many they get to give people, but it can’t be more than, like, three, I’d guess? So they only give them to a select few.” She flips her hair with pride. “Applause, please.”

Manaow obliges. Pharm and Team add a few wry claps. Kong looks on with absolute neutrality.

“So what’s the card do?” Team asks.

“Basically lets you jump the line,” Ting says. “I can contact my friend for you and she’ll help connect you with a specialist after you sign up. She doesn’t take newcomers, unfortunately. Or men. Oh, and you’ll have to pay the first time rate—first time, not first timer—but you won’t have to wait months like most people.”

Manaow rubs between Team’s shoulder blades with a coo. “Lucky you,” she says. ”Finally, huh?”

Team rolls his eyes and pushes her away by the face.

“Wanna see the specialists?” Ting asks them, eyes sparkling.

“YES,” Manaow says.

“Why doesn’t this sound like academic research for a paper anymore?“ Kong wonders aloud.

“Silence, killjoy,” Ting says, pointing at him.

Kong smiles and returns his attention to his own tablet.

As Ting changes the hologram to a vast gallery of beautiful clothed people, the park lanterns come to life. As they’ve been discussing this vaguely educational topic, the sun has begun to set in earnest, leaving the park decidedly darker than when they arrived. The glow from Manaow’s tablet hologram is probably visible from a distance at this point.

Team says, “This doesn’t involve audio, does it?” with a cautious look around them. “None of them, like, demonstrate, right?”

“No,” Ting says, rolling her eyes. “That’d be advertising, which would be illegal.”

Team says, “Oh, right.”

“Okay, here,” Ting says. “Who do you like?” She’s arranged the models into a horizontal wheel. With a swipe of her finger, the small hologram models go whirling by until Team reaches out to poke one at random. It freezes in place at once, and Team studies the clear eyes and clever smile before him.

“He’s cute,” Team decides.

“Which one?” Ting moves to sit next to him and says, “King? Oh, yeah, he’s gorgeous. And he’s really good with first timers.”

“Stop calling me that,” Team says, nose wrinkling.

“Sorry,” Ting says, “‘virgins’, ‘the inexperienced’, ‘the untouched’, ‘the—’”

“How about him?” Pharm interrupts. He’s sitting opposite Team, pointing to a dark-haired man who seems their age and whose smile hints at secrets Team would rather not learn.

“I don’t know him,” Ting says. “I think he’s one of the newbies. Two specialists left in the past year, so they hired two new ones.”

“I like all of them,” Manaow announces. “Kong, you’re not going to look?”

“No, thank you.”

Team’s focus travels across the options. He turns the wheel bit by bit, then stops on someone whose features are so utterly and magnetically captivating that Team suspects they were artificially enhanced for the hologram.

“Ah,” Ting says knowingly, “that’s Win.” Her low tone has Team preparing for disappointment.

“What’s wrong with him?” Team asks.

“Oh, nothing!” Ting says. “He’s fantastic. He’s just difficult to book.”

Just by Win’s looks alone, Team believes her. The wry confidence in his smile, the styled blond hair, the knife-sharp jawline.

“He has three or four regulars,” Ting says, “and he’ll see the occasional member sometimes, but he rarely takes first timers.” She scratches her neck and shrugs. “But you can put his name down if you want. You might be cute enough to tempt him out of his routine.” She takes Team’s chin in her hand and coos at him until Team’s scandalized expression makes her laugh and let him go.

Pharm says, “It sounds like everyone at MUSE is exclusive.”

“Yeah,” Ting says, drawing the word out with clear uncertainty, “so here’s what you’ll have to do, Team: while I contact my friend, you apply with MUSE for a membership. I’ll give you the code for their registration office later. They’ll want your test results with the registration form, and then—”

“You have to take a test before you have sex?” Team blurts.

Once he says it, he realizes what she means, but it’s too late.

Ting ruffles his hair with a laugh. “Aren’t you pure?” she says. “Not that kind of test, cutie.”

“I know what you mean now,” he grouses. “My mouth is faster than my brain.”

“What next?” Manaow asks, then smacks Team’s arm. “Don’t interrupt her again.”

Team pulls a face back.

Ting counts off the next steps on her fingers. “Then you’ll fill out your profile. You’ll make a list of your top five specialists, and then you’ll hear back from one of them within the next twenty-four hours.” She seems to enjoy Team’s disbelief for a few seconds, then adds, “Oh, and there’s a membership fee.”

Manaow says, “Can I apply too?” with her most sincere puppy eyes.

“I think I can only bother my friend so much, so let Team go first,” Ting says. “I want to see who he gets.”

Team nods at Manaow, smug.

“Fine,” Manaow says, sighing. Then she points at his face. “You’re going to tell me everything.”

“Depends how nice you are to me,” Team says, sticking out his tongue.

“Teeeeam,” she croons, wrapping her arms around his arm with a cloyingly sweet smile. “My okay buddy? Decent friend? Ordinary pal?”

Team asks, “Are you even trying?“ while Pharm laughs, Ting smirks, and Kong grins down at his tablet.

They talk a while longer about the details of registering for MUSE, Ting helping Team halfway through the application on his tablet, and then they have a sudden swell of small, blood-hungry visitors itching to feast on them, so they pack up and part ways for the evening.

Team’s dormitory didn’t make any top ten lists in the country, but it has enough bells and whistles to please him. Tonight, after shucking his bag somewhere on the floor to be picked up by the vacuum arm, Team hums to himself as he cleans up in the pre-heated shower, then heads directly for the health panel on the wall in the entryway. His last recorded body temperature—taken on his way out this morning—hasn’t changed much, and a preliminary scan tells him what he already suspected: he appears to have a clean bill of health.

He thumbs the button to request a full scan, then types in the code Ting gave him for MUSE’s registration office. Five minutes later, his good health is confirmed, and his application to MUSE is complete, and the waiting begins.

He brings his tablet to his desk in the bedroom and calls up The MUSE Parlor hologram again. None of the information available clearly communicates what kind of business they are. All he can see are the same specialists Ting showed them earlier and, now that Team’s in a new location, a few vague, shimmering quotations that leap and swirl around the room, slowing down suggestively over his bed.

One of the quotations is the popular slogan, “Nothing is more seductive than word of mouth”, that’s been used by thousands of parlors across the globe for decades. While prostitution is legal in Thailand, there’s been no rush to overturn the law against advertising it, which has led to many parlors cheekily using the phrase “word of mouth” somewhere in their materials to let people know what they are and the kind of services they offer.

Occasionally, a restaurant will use it by mistake to awkward results.

Like most people curious about sex, Team spent a significant portion of his youth exploring parlor holograms. He liked the ones overseas best, the ones with layouts he could explore freely, even though the more obviously sexual areas—private rooms, BDSM equipment, toys, and product names—were almost always kept out of sight or blurred. The mystery of those blocked corridors and closed doors and glazed shelves had Team’s imagination running wild, and he spent a great deal of energy fantasizing to fill in the gaps.

Throughout his teens, he listened to stories from older classmates who were either old enough to visit the upscale, heavily regulated parlors with classy reputations, or unscrupulous enough to venture into the brothels that don’t ask for ID or test results and endure regular drone raids.

Team told himself he would go to a parlor the day he turned eighteen, just like so many of his friends.

But when his birthday arrived, he spent it at the shore with Pharm and Manaow instead, eating cake and swimming until he felt the skin of his back crisping under the glare of the sun. He told himself next year. Next birthday. It had to be an occasion to justify the expense, after all. He put aside a little of his B.I. every month and privately called it his First Time Fund.

Then he spent his nineteenth birthday in bed with the flu drinking soup fetched for him by Ting and counting on the notes Kong promised to take for him. When he felt better, he decided, Next year for sure.

A week before his twentieth birthday, Team remembered to send in a reservation request to the parlor he’d had in mind for the past five years, only to find that they’d closed.

His twenty-first birthday, he just didn’t bother.

And now he’s months away from his twenty-second birthday, with only a few heated kisses with a couple of boys from high school under his belt, and a much keener desire to experience more than that. If he can’t find someone to date, he’ll do what everyone does and finally get this First Time thing over with.

And he’ll get some good research for his paper.

His tablet says, “Message received.”

“Open it,” Team says.

“Your registration with The MUSE Parlor has been accepted.”

Team grins, leaning on his desk to read the text on the screen along with the AI voice.

“The next step,” it says, “will be your profile and requested specialists. Would you like to complete this section audibly or manually?”

“Audibly,” Team says.

“Name, please.”

“Team.”

“Formal name, please.”

Team drops his chin in his hand, dead-eyed. His tablet AI knows his formal name, his date of birth, the circumference of his fingers, the number of his eyelashes, everything. It also knows how to annoy Team and does it weirdly often.

“Teerayu Siriyothin,” he says, flat.

“Would you like your exact age visible to the specialist, or in a bracket?”

“Uh. Either.”

“You must choose one of the options.”

“Ugh, fine. Um. Bracket, I guess.”

“Your age will appear as ‘open bracket, twenty to twenty-five, closed bracket’. Is that all right?”

“Can I say I’m, like, ninety-nine?”

“No.” There’s a curt end to the word that Team doesn’t think he’s imagining.

“Touchy,” he snickers. “Fine, the twenty-to-twenty-five thing is okay. Can I skip to the specialists part?”

“Please list your top five specialists.”

Team licks his lips and says, “Win.”

“Are you starting from your highest priority?”

Did he sound that urgent?

“Yeah.” Team pulls up Win’s hologram from the gallery and spreads his fingers to zoom closer to his face. “Can I just list him? Will that increase my odds, do you think?”

“You must list five, as some specialists may be unavailable.”

Team rolls his eyes. “Fine.” He swipes around the gallery moodily, careful to avoid the women. “Uhh, wait, what was his name.” He rubs his temple and snaps with his other hand. “The guy—black hair, really pretty?”

“There are thirteen exact matches. Would you like to see their models all at once or one at a time?”

“Yeah, okay, I deserved that.” Team pushes his chair back onto two legs, searching his memory. It was definitely one syllable, and— “Wait, it was a royalty thing! Is there a guy named, like, Prince?“

“There is a King listed.” A hologram of the beautiful man with the clever smile from earlier opens next to Win’s.

“That’s him!” Team says. “Um, okay. Put him second.”

“There are three remaining slots.”

Team gives his tablet a stink-eye. “I know how to subtract two from five.”

“Would you like suggestions based on your two selections?”

Team blinks. “Oh. Yeah, actually, thanks.”

His tablet AI moves Win and King to the side of Team’s desk, then presents Team with six other hologram models that Team observes without much interest. Now that he’s settled on Win, any of them would be a disappointment. None of them have their entire personality in their cocky smile, and none of them look like they’d be as much fun to be around, or…as hot to have sex with.

“Just, uh, put down the three with the least amount of experience.” If he can’t have Win, at least he won’t be patronized by some veteran specialist who’ll think he’s ridiculous for having practically zero experience.

“The specialist request section is complete,” the tablet says. “Would you like to finish the rest of your profile now or later?”

Team pulls Win’s model back to the center of his desk and turns it around, tracing the slope of his shoulders with his eyes. “Now’s fine,” he says.

“Preferred kinks?”

Team’s chair crashes back to all fours.

“Huh?!”

“Shall I leave this section blank?”

”Yes! Fuck.”

“‘Fuck’ is not a listed kink in The MUSE Parlor database. Shall I enter it?”

“I hate you sometimes.”

The next day is a rest day, but Team already has plans with his friends that will prevent him from what he’d rather be doing: asking his tablet AI every seventeen seconds if he has any new messages from MUSE.

“You’ll tell me if I have one, right?” he asks, lying on his bed with his head hanging backward off the end of it.

“Yes,” the AI says.

“Do I have one now?”

“No.”

“How are you going to let me know?”

“I will say, ‘Message received’, unless there’s a different notification alert you’d like to assign.”

“You won’t say it’s from MUSE, right?”

“I do not give sender’s information unless requested.”

“Okay, good.”

After an average lunch of miso-flavored noodles from his dorm’s kitchen panel, Team meets Pharm and Manaow at the nearest movie park. He doesn’t remember what they’re seeing, but it never matters. The spectacle of movie parks haven’t waned for Team ever since he was little, lying on his back in the middle of a park while holograms tell vivid stories overhead.

They spread Manaow’s comfiest blanket on the neatly trimmed grass, sit side-by-side in a neat row, and wait for the dome walls to rise up from the chamber underneath the park and close overhead. Pharm did a report on the whole process last year for their applied automation class, and ever since, Team has paid much closer attention to it.

“Check again,” Manaow says, poking Team’s shoulder.

“I’m not sitting in the middle if you keep doing that,” Team tells her.

“Check! Again!” she insists, grabbing his arm and shaking him with dramatic emphasis.

Team allows himself to be shaken, but he tries to project absolute exasperation with every iota of his being in protest.

“Manaow, don’t make him throw up on the blanket,” Pharm says. He keeps nibbling on a pounded rice cake dusted with coconut that he made, apparently enjoying the natural cloud formations above in peace and serenity despite the brutal, unprovoked violence going on beside him.

Since they met at the park entrance, Manaow’s been asking Team question after question about MUSE. When she asked who he listed, he made the mistake of telling her the truth. He made the mistake of saying, “I put down Win and four other guys,” in exactly those words, and then suffered Manaow’s feral smirk.

“So you really like Win, huh?” she asked him. “No wonder you’ve never had sex before. I’ve never seen anyone like him at our university.”

Now, just to make her stop, Team stabs the voice activation button on his tablet and says, “Any new messages from MUSE?”

He stares Manaow in the eyes, waiting for the denial.

“Yes,” the AI says.

Team processes Manaow’s gasp first, then registers what the AI said.

“Wait, really?”

He turns the tablet around and Pharm sits up, peeking over one shoulder while Manaow shrieks over his other one.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Team demands, calling up the message box and sifting through the topmost letters. “Where is it?”

“On April 18th of this year, you requested no notifications while you’re with friends.“

Team finds the MUSE insignia on a letterfront and flings it up, heedless of whoever around them is paying attention. The bright afternoon sunlight makes the hologram transparent at a distance anyway. “Not like you’ve canceled notifications when I’ve been with friends any other time this year,” Team mutters.

The AI doesn’t offer a defense for that.

“Open it, open it!” Manaow chants, pulling on his arm.

A chime sounds around them, and the dome walls for the movie screen lift out of the grass, a gentle whir belying their enormous size. As the amount of sunlight diminishes, Team’s hologram letter brightens. Hastily, he pinches his fingers to make it smaller and less visible to the people around him.

The AI says, “Would you like me to read—”

“Shh!” Team hisses.

He, Pharm, and Manaow read together, and he knows they’ve reached the same point simultaneously when he hears Manaow say,

“Wow, even P’Win’s signature is sexy.”