Ellipse woke up to the hollow ring of someone knocking on her door. She peeled her eyes open, glanced around the room, and groaned. Right. She was back on the Andra-Media satellite.
“Give me a minute!” she croaked.
The knocking kept going. Somehow, it was more annoying than getting dragged out of bed by the boys. Or maybe that was the nostalgia talking. With another long groan, Ellipse threw off her blankets and rolled out of bed. She glanced down at her clothes and found her white t-shirt horribly wrinkled. She should have put on pajamas last night.
Despite her bedraggled appearance, she dragged herself to the door and hit the button to open it.
A guard stood outside, dressed in the usual black kevlar, and she held a box and a small pile of white clothes in her arms. “You’re supposed to wear these.”
Ellipse scowled. “What if they do not fit?”
“One-size-fits-all,” the guard replied, holding out the clothes.
First of all, one-size-fits-all was a lie, and everyone knew that. Second, Ellipse felt reasonably sure that box held a new watch. She opened her arms, let the guard hand everything over, and tried not to let anything fall to the ground, though it would be nice if she could break that new watch.
“You’re to put everything you’re wearing right now in the trash,” the guard added. “I’ll be back in forty-five minutes.”
Ellipse grunted noncommittally and stepped back. “Sure,” she said. And then the guard walked away, and the door closed.
Ellipse glanced down at the pile in her arms, then at the trash chute next to her desk, and then noticed that she had an exacto knife in one of her pencil holders. She had seen Tejal fiddle with her watch before; she could pull off a little switcheroo.
Excited to be doing something rebellious, Ellipse dumped her new clothes on the bed and dashed to her desk. She slid off her old watch and opened up the box with the new one, and then nabbed her knife. Biting her lip in concentration, she slipped the sharp edge into the crack between the screen and the back cover of her new watch, and then peeled away the cover to reveal the circuitry inside. She grinned. This was actually pretty easy. Ellipse opened up her old watch, switched the covers, and then dropped the new one into the trash chute.
She admired her handiwork—the white cover was annoying, but she could ignore it—and then rushed to clean up and present herself as the perfect little songwriter she once was.
The white clothes fit alright. Ellipse’s trainers would say otherwise, because showing leg muscle was about as bad as having a healthy bit of fat, but really the jumper looked fine. If anything, Ellipse thought she looked like the normal girls she had seen in New York. She smiled at that.
After one last look-over, she heard the guard knock again, and Ellipse took a deep breath. Whatever happened, she would be fine.
Four hours later, she was not fine. The time spent banging away at a piano in one of the sound studios had been fine. It had been great, even. Ellipse’s fingers were rusty, but it was invigorating to be able to play more than one note at the same time again, and the richness of the sound still reverberated in her ears. Her brain kept fussing that some of what she had played sounded like garbage nonsense in Trade Siren, but her ears appreciated the music at least. She could work out kinks in the siren translation later anyways.
Lunch and dance practice were terrible. Gato food, for all that it worked wonders as a slimming agent in earthlings, tasted bland. And even though Ellipse had felt full after eating, her stomach already growled, unsatisfied with what little substance it had pulled out.
She sat on the floor, chest heaving, with her legs almost stretched into a center splits and some skinny blonde man she had never met pushing down on her back with his foot.
“Gosh,” he said, sounding entirely too squeaky and hyped, “you’re really out of shape Elliott. That year away did a number on you!”
Ellipse tried to ignore the way her clothes, damp with sweat, clung to her skin, especially around where the trainer had his foot on her back. She wanted to take a shower. She wanted ice cream or some other kind of real Earth food. Her stomach rumbled, and the trainer pressed harder. Ellipse felt her hamstrings go tight.
“Let’s go!” the man shouted. “You’re not flexible enough until you’re flat on the ground like a pancake! Woo hoo!”
That was entirely too much pep. Ellipse half wanted to reach around and topple the guy. But she restrained herself and tried to straighten her back out. If nothing else, at least she would come out of her time here slightly more limber.
When the trainer had enough of stretching, they moved into acrobatics, and Ellipse found herself terribly thankful for all that bathroom-scrubbing. She caught glimpses of her figure in the mirror as she practiced handstands and backbends, and her shoulders rippled with muscle as she held herself up. They had not looked that strong before.
Blondie wore a pained look as he watched, like he could not decide if the new bulk was a good thing or not, because on the one hand, she could accomplish cooler flips with that muscle. On the other hand, earthling intergalactic superstars were supposed to fit the still-prevalent standards of earthling beauty that demanded smallness.
Ellipse received a granola bar afterwards, and she ate it in the dance studio while Blondie talked to the guard from earlier. They talked as if she was not there, and Ellipse encouraged them by sitting on the ground, back towards the pair. Still gnawing on her granola, she made her face go slack and listless and watched them in the mirrors.
All four walls were covered mirrors, so nothing done in this room was beyond Ellipse’s view, even with her back turned. The guard handed over a few sheets of paper with columns of numbers on them, which Ellipse decided was her training regime, and the trainer glanced over the sheet with a loud hum.
“Is that how they want to present her?” he asked. “I mean, why not go for something more lively? She has all the skills for something more in the k-pop line of things. Andra is already more western.”
“Don’t shoot the messenger,” the guard mumbled.
Blondie looked over his shoulder at Ellipse, and she immediately dropped her eyes to the ground to ensure he did not figure out she had been watching. “I mean, I get that she’s never been the super cutesy type, but I’ve seen her in publicity training. She wouldn’t be awful with that angle. And, well, it helps that she’s more Asian-looking than Andra.”
The guard shifted into a more casual stance. “Just follow the program, dude. I don’t even want to think about that girl doing cutesy k-pop stuff. She’s so quiet and gloomy outside of the whole songwriting thing.”
Squinting at the papers, the trainer scowled. “More cardio it is, I guess. Darn. I was hoping to get her back into hardcore dance moves. She’s so much better at that than Andra.”
“Perks of starting them young, I know.” The guard stepped around Blondie and put a hand on her hip. “Hey Elliott. Finish your granola already. You have a knowledge retention test in like five minutes.”
The granola might be the last thing Ellipse ate for hours, and she wanted to save it, but a harsh look from the guard had her scrambling to stuff the whole bar into her mouth. She stood up and stretched her shoulders, and then followed the guard from the room.
As she padded down the curving, metal hallway, Ellipse thought about how the boys had seen her. She was quiet and gloomy here, or at least she had been before, and the publicity team wanted her to adopt a stage persona that did not stretch too far from that, if the trainer’s words were anything to go by. And then she considered something new: how did she want others to see her? Whatever message she put into the world with Tejal and Focci’s invention, it would decide the universe’s first impression of the returned Elliott Bei.
The guard opened a door to a dimly lit room with a single computer and gestured for Ellipse to walk inside. As the door slid shut, the guard followed her inside and took a seat behind her. “I think this is supposed to last like two hours. When you’re done you get dinner.”
Pursing her lips, Ellipse looked to the computer, and then back at the guard. She looked less intimidating when lit by the blue light of the computer screen. Somehow the blue softed the sharp bones in the guard’s face.
“Come on,” the guard groaned. “Just get on with it.”
Ellipse sat and tapped the icon in the center of the screen to start the test.
It was grueling. Ellipse got a few physics questions that she definitely had not known before meeting the boys, but aside from that, she felt stupid after each subsequent question. She felt certain she had gotten very few right, and her head ached from staring at the screen for so long. Her stomach was crying again, because the granola had not been enough food.
She ignored the final scores when they popped up, too tired to even glance at another number. Her eyes kept fluttering shut, and she let her feet drag as the guard pushed her back into the hallway. Hopefully, Ellipse would never have to go back into that tiny room, though she suspected she would do her homeschooling there.
“You look like death,” the guard commented. “Do you want to stop by a bathroom to wash up?”
Yes. Please. Ellipse nodded and tried to look as pitiful as possible.
“The next one we pass, you can go in.” And then the guard moved forward, and Ellipse trudged after.
It was not long before the guard shooed Ellipse into a bathroom. Ellipse admired the white tiles and sparkling mirrors and silently thanked the excellent janitors who kept the place up. She had never managed to get the fold generator bathrooms so clean.
Fingers aching, she turned on a faucet and leaned over. She splashed a bit of water over her face and blinked at her reflection. Ugh, she really did look bad. Her eyes were dull already, slightly sunken into their sockets. It might have just been the lights, but her skin was greyish instead of bright and tanned. Ellipse sniffled, bent over, and splashed her face again.
It would be the same thing tomorrow.