Presenting: “Exaltation”

Last week, I self-published my second novel on Amazon. Its title is Exaltation. You can order it here. I’m posting the full first chapter here for anyone who wants to check it out.

“Exaltation” is the culmination of 17 months of work for me. A lot of nights, weekends, more than a few early mornings and a lot of silent thinking. I think it’s a big improvement over my first book. I’ve put out both ebook and paperback formats via Amazon’s Kindle platform (which is pretty astounding, by the way).

I also had this sweet cover made!

I would call “Exaltation” more speculative- than science-fiction. Here’s the blurb:

Tasker.
Veteran.
Engineer.
Searcher.

Each of them is on the long journey through dangerous backroads down to the “Drowned City” of mid-22nd century New Orleans. They have but one thing in common: each of them is looking for Query.

None of them is even sure who – or what – is behind the mysterious criminal syndicate. But each knows that Query has what they’re looking for. And it may even be willing to help them – for a price.

A debt migrant, desperate for a better life.

A soldier, reeling from the grief of losing his husband.

An engineer on a mission to avert a war in her homeland.

A refugee worker in search of his lover’s abductors.

As their clando van twists its way through the Tennessee Republic, the Sovereign State of Alabama, the Republic of Mississippi and into the increasingly lawless Louisiana Territory, the four of them begin to realize that their meeting isn’t a coincidence. They’ve each been summoned. Together.

The full novel tops out at around 90,000 words – right in the sweet spot for novels like this. I’m posting the full first chapter below. If you like it, check out the rest!


Exaltation

Part One: Tasker

Against the bottomless black background of the simulation, the dense webbing of light shimmered around his fist. It didn’t matter what he was doing: whether he was delicately threading it, or roughly tugging the stuff through exasperated groans, the fibers flickered and winked in reaction to every movement. Tem was careful not to anthropomorphize this effect. So many other repo divers perceived the reaction of the light personally, as a sort of mocking reproach, which often infuriated the frustrated newcomer. But he wasn’t one of those. The tangled sprawl of pale blue lines, stretching out in every direction as far as he could see, were only logical expressions and connectors, code that was too complex to represent other than symbolically. Suspended in the vastness, like a tiny gnat deep inside a massive spider’s nest of softly glowing silk, Tem took a deep breath and tried to remember his next step.

But there it was again. A heavy droplet of sweat nagged at the edge of his brow, and its ticklish presence made it impossible to focus. It was an unwelcome reminder of the physical world that made him keep forgetting which logical expression he was trying to reconstruct. He sucked in another long, slow heave and tore away one outstretched and stiff hand from where it virtually held a floating pane of code to wipe his brow.

If he was already sweating, it meant dawn wasn’t far off. He checked the contract timer display at the corner of his field of vision. It read fourteen hours straight in-state. The task contract was almost complete, but he needed to finish before dawn, or he’d become a puddle in the morning heat. His focus was slipping. The concentration stims he’d taken several hours ago were beginning to wear off. Should he take another half-tab to get him all the way to the end? He was already one dose over the recommended limit, and any more would make him strung out the next day, never mind whatever havoc it would wreak with his neurotransmitter levels. He hesitated only a second before grabbing one from his pocket and popping it in his mouth anyway.

Seconds after the film dissolved on his tongue, the humid stickiness gathering around him faded again. The ancient, matrixed codebase in front of him set again in sharp focus, like a starry constellation that finally coalesces after staring at it for several minutes. No one else had probably looked at it in decades. And he could see why: it was a colossal pain in the ass. Badly written, redundant, inefficient. Maybe even written without an AI coach. He snorted at the idea. Might as well have been written on clay tablets.

Back in his flow, he flicked his wrist, zooming into a glowing quadrant-cell, and the decisioning pathways flew towards him in a flurry of bright blue light. A tesseract of the root code’s looped dependencies surrounded him, and he flickered on a toolkit lens that automatically listed their boot pathways. Beyond their soft translucent light, floating just out of focus, were his other toolkit items – menus, snippets, and saved detritus of his fourteen-hour-long contract task, all waiting to be activated by his focused retina. He waded through the glowing web around him, piecing together strand by strand the heuristic logic some rogue engineer had probably hacked together slipshod long before his parents were born.

When the task was nearly complete, and he checked the contract timer, 90 minutes had passed. Cracking his knuckles, he made a mental order to the AI to run a script to complete the contract report, ensuring he got paid. As the checks ran, he rubbed his eyes and stretched his bony shoulders. He’d timed the concentration stim uncannily well – things were slipping. He was crashing. Once the AI certified the task complete, he immediately clicked off the immersion creche and pressed his eyes shut.

The creche felt like it was swimming, tumbling through space. He gripped the side handles hard. When he opened them again, the red loci of the creche’s optical lasers were dimming. The canopy’s hinges squealed as he pushed it up and swung his legs out of the cockpit. His knees ached, and he took a full minute for the room to stop spinning. The four immersion creches were squeezed together in the featureless little cinderblock room, which was slowly dimming in the morning light, leaving almost no room for anything else. He eased his narrow hips between the black molded plastic of the couches into the doorway of the room. The grimy bottle water he’d left there last night was warm and stale, but he took long gulps anyway before padding unsteadily over to the basic latrine off the hallway.

When he was done, he walked a few steps down the bare hallway to the porch. He barely heard the rusty storm door banging behind him. Everything sounded tinny; objects around him felt distant, blurry. He ran his hand over the thicket of tight curled hair that was cut close to his scalp and caught himself staring aimlessly out into space, and was later unsure how long he’d been doing so. Aftereffects of the stims. He needed more water.

The electric kettle’s piercing squeal snapped him back again. He shook his head vigorously and turned off the kettle, unsure when exactly he’d turned it on. Focusing intently and blinking forcefully several times, he lifted the kettle, checked the position of his mug with the grounds, and slowly poured the water into it. He’d burned himself this way before. It was sometimes hard to be sure of the exact position of physical objects after a long period in the Plane. Hot coffee on a hot morning was counterintuitive, but it was one of their little rituals after finishing a contract. And besides, it lent a depleted brain some energy.

Outside, the morning sun had already broken over the field out back. Beyond the house’s small lot, blasted scrub bush surrounded a field of fortified sorghum that stretched to the horizon. Rows of solar sills fed trapped overnight water into the drip irrigation hoses that spread out like webs across the cracked, sandy-dry dirt. It wasn’t enough water, of course, but at least it was free. Free water in Alabama wasn’t something you passed up. They had sills in their yard too, like most folks did, and a rainwater barrel that was mostly empty.

The blurry display that had been floating in his peripheral vision gradually melted into focus. It was a calendar, with one day shaded in bright blue. His AI, probably sensing that Tem was with it enough to make sense of the notification at all, was letting him know what day of the week it was. Tem did not particularly care that it was a Thursday, but already knew, without being reminded, what else it meant. He had nineteen days left before his next minimum payment was due.

Nineteen days. And when he got paid out for last night’s task, his account balance would have less than half of what was due.

He pursed his lips, trying to think of something else. Still couldn’t close his eyes without the ground moving too much beneath him. His chest tightened. He tried to sip his coffee, but it was still too hot.

Nineteen days.

A loud belch behind him.

“Mornin’, Tem.” Alice was scratching his crotch through his shorts as he walked on to the porch.

Tem lifted his head at his friend’s deep voice and tried his coffee again, managing a small sip. Alice was still wearing the shorts and brown-stained undershirt he’d slept in.

“Got some grits in the pantry, I think.”

In the morning, Alice’s accent showed itself in the way he slurred words in the back of his mouth. You didn’t hear accents like his much anymore, except in the really old movies. Was Alice’s fake, some kind of affectation, or real? It certainly sounded real. He could really go for some grits.

Alice didn’t say much else as they went inside and measured out an exact cup into the water heater. Sweat was beading up. Under their energy plan, the cooling system wouldn’t kick on for another few hours, if it did at all. Alice was always talking about paying extra for the next tier, which allowed a few extra hours to control the cooling setting, but as thin as things had been lately, now wasn’t the time. They poured the water into two bowls of instant grits and sat at the little laminate table.

“You gotta go back to your mom’s, brud.” Alice wasn’t looking up at him, but rather scooping steaming white piles of lumpy grits with a pat of imitation butter into his mouth. He scratched the brown-reddish scraggle of beard on his chin.

Tem had just crumbled a patty of sausage over his own bowl of grits. It was textured soy protein, so it came apart in crumbs, not like real pork. Alice’s words didn’t come as a surprise. He slumped in the cheap plastic chair and sipped some more coffee.

“Tasks been light this last two weeks,” he said, glancing up at Alice. Alice wouldn’t look him in the eye.

“That’s it, you know. I’m sorry, Tem. You know how it is. I gotta keep up my payments.”

There was a pause of several beats, as both of them chewed their grits.

“Guy from Talladega, he needs a creche to crash in for a few weeks. Got in some sorta trouble, don’t know. But he’s paying good, so…” His friend shrugged into his bowl again, embarrassed.

It wasn’t Alice’s fault. Tem knew that. The little three-room block house by the road wasn’t much, but Alice paid the installments on it by collecting rent from whoever who could pay. Usually, that was their friends – a few other local guys, and sometimes girls, they knew. At the house, they had a few creches and a fat-band connection to the Plane, which let them scratch out some income tasking. When he could, Alice would get them hired as a crew for big jobs, but usually, they would task up individually, as suited their skills, giving Alice a share as rent. His task last night had finally paid up what he owed Alice for last month.

With twenty billion people in the Plane, there was always demand for Taskers. Taskers got hired for almost anything that could be done in the Plane: menial organization; ghostwriting and promotion; menial technical tasks, like the repo diving Tem did. Some people specialized, others didn’t bother. Virtually anyone with a cheap interface to the Plane could theoretically take part, though many jobs required special equipment or skills, and even they didn’t pay especially well. With the hundreds of millions of Taskers bidding against one another for work, no one made much money. At least with Alice’s immersion creches, like the one Tem had worked in last night, he could bid for somewhat higher-priced tasks, which was something.

For the last several weeks, Alice had been hooked up with a boss in Kunming who’d been sending them steady tasker jobs. It was mostly old database renovation, with a little bit of repo diving for Tem. But that work had seemed to run dry.

Tem shrugged, though he felt the tight grip in his gut clench again. Nineteen days. And now, no creche.

“It’s okay, man. Don’ worry about it. I’ll tell her I’m coming over for a while. When I get some more work, I’ll come back.”

Alice grunted and didn’t say any more. It wasn’t awkward – it was just the way things were. He had his debt, and Alice had his own, like anyone. They finished their breakfast in the quickening morning air. The weather forecast said it would hit 40 Celsius by mid-morning. Instead of taking a nap, as he desperately wanted to, Tem would need to spend the day looking for tasking gigs before heading back to his mother’s place when the afternoon heat began to break.

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In the twilight, he moved slowly down the side of the highway. His feet crunched against the dry dirt in a rhythm that Tem matched by humming the tune to a catchy pop song. When he wiped his face, which was slick with sweat, his kerchief came away with a light tinge of brown dust. The walk from Alice’s was always particularly dusty, since it traced the highway. The first thing he’d do at his mother’s place would be to rinse his face. For a second, Tem imagined a cool handful of water splashing his face. It was worth the cost.

It was several kilometers to his mother’s house, which was in a prefab settlement off the old, pitted highway that traced the edge of the Tallapoosa swamp. Dust rose off the surrounding fields of sorghum and millet, and the only sounds were the low buzz of cicadas awakening in the dusk and dry earth crackling under his feet. Flickering an eye to the side, he briefly considered opening his portal into the Plane. In his low-end lenses, the all-mute toggle lay just within his field of vision, waiting for the smallest gesture to reopen the cacophony beyond it. But just the idea fatigued him anew, which wasn’t unusual after a long night in state. The silence of the walk down the highway was nice – a brief reprieve from the sensory rush of constant connection to the Plane.

His podd, the rice grain-sized chip lodged permanently under cords of neck muscle behind his ear, was an older model. One of the cheapest available, in fact, which was the only reason their Plan had covered it when he’d come of age. It synced with his lenses just as well, though, and reliably updated its firmware every month. It wouldn’t need an upgrade for several years yet, though it was anyone’s guess how he’d pay for it when the time came. Chances were, he’d be stuck with the old one for many years to come. Nothing new there.

He kept walking. Soft crunches of dirt and broken asphalt.

Nineteen days. 

It’s not that he disliked his mother’s place. It’s just that, at 24, he was weary of living there. His hukou wasn’t good anywhere else. To get the residence permit that would allow him to move – to Huntsville, or even Birmingham, or anywhere – he needed a job and place to live there, which of course he didn’t have and probably couldn’t get. So his hukou said Clay County, and that was where he remained. His credentials were, as one resourcing AI had politely put it in a form rejection letter, undistinguished. Advancing beyond Grade 10 wasn’t included in their Plan, and, like always, he and his mother hadn’t had the money to add it. Few folks around there did. After all, if you had the money to pay for extra school, you probably didn’t live in Clay County.

So instead, he’d spent long, hot hours under trees at the edges of millet fields repairing irrigation systems on a few of the farms around the county. He got paid under the table because he certainly wasn’t licensed. He’d search for outdated system schematics in the Plane and fiddle with arcane codebases until the hulking arcs of titanium would move again. Tem could usually get the mechs running for a small fraction of the price of a licensed tech; he could even, sometimes, compromise the mechs’ management controls and unlock advanced features for free. He charged extra for that.

But the growing season was only so long, water was expensive, and mechs only broke down so often. It wasn’t enough work. But it had given him the idea to start tasking. At first, like everyone, he’d only been assigned the lowest-paid jobs that were hardly worth the time you had to put in. As he’d gotten savvier, he’d found one job that he was actually pretty good at, where the pay wasn’t always shit: repo diving.

Repo diving – trawling through the codebases of long-dead programming languages and systems – wasn’t exactly a rare skill, but you could make some income doing it. Lots of zombie code still lurked in long-forgotten corners of the Plane, and it was often cheaper just to hire a Tasker to look into it than an AI with sufficiently high cognition score. After a couple of years at it, Tem’s task ratings were usually high enough to find some kind of work, and he’d developed a simple reuseable toolkit for a lot of simpler gigs. Some bosses simply wanted to know what the old discovered code did; others wanted to revive and figure out how to run it; some had more detailed questions about how the old code worked. Tem had seen code 10, 50, even 100 years old and older. Nothing ever died in the Plane. Ancient stuff, dating back before even the Warmup, still lived on servers – physical hardware! – that could be found if you dove deep enough into darker, forgotten places of the Plane. Which he had.

As he earned skill recognition by the assignment AI, he’d slowly begun winning more contracts. When his birth debt had converted into repayment on his twentieth birthday, he’d been earning enough to make his payments – usually. Most months, he made enough to clear his minimum debt service and pay some rent to Alice for living at the house. Sometimes there was even enough to pay for some real meat or narcotic puffers to pass the time. And other times, there wasn’t.

He turned off the highway onto a gravel road. The turnoff curved over the giant desal water pipe that traced the side of the highway. High, thin trees surrounded him, which he was glad for – as soon as he was in the shade, he took off his hat and wiped his face again. The big rings of prefab modular homes were just down the road on a turnoff. The recycled plastic and cinderblock structures had been plopped down decades ago after one post-Warmup disaster or another as temporary shelters. In the years since, the desal pipe route by the highway had made them permanent.

The settlement entryway was a dirt turnout from the gravel that led to a rust-colored dusty roundabout. Narrow earthen streets stretched out to form concentric rings of plastic roofing and long, unbroken gray walls of weathered cinderblock, some of which were painted in fading oranges, pinks and blues. Moving by instinct, he followed the second street to the right. Under the awnings, middle-aged men and women were sitting on cheap plastic chairs outside their homes to feel the evening air.

Every one of them was plugged into the Plane. Their eyes stared blankly out into space, unblinking, expressions slack and vacant. Only if you looked up close would you see the little retinal lenses in their eyes lighting up in tiny specks of white and blue, firing images into their optical nerves to create any number of worlds around them. In the Plane, some of them were talking, watching, playing games, in search of pleasures, being entertained with the comedy or drama series of the day; all of them pretending to be somewhere else, transporting themselves from their nowhere country settlement to a place less like it. Most of them sat there all day, and well into the evening, before biological necessity and hunger drove them to take a break. Most simply plugged in each morning and stayed there until dusk. It was free, and there was more than enough in the Plane to keep a person endlessly entertained.

Seeing them, Tem remembered that he’d missed his favorite Plane simulcast that morning – a hosted show called Mumbai Today. They had good music. But this immediately reminded him, once again, of why he hadn’t been watching it that morning, and his face fell.

Nineteen days.

He traced the street halfway around its bend until he arrived at unit 375-9. The squat, gray section was distinguished by a small fern out front and a few dry flowers beckoning from the ledge of its concrete porch. He stopped for a moment to take it in. The settlement was home, and still felt like home. Yet he regarded it now with not so much familiarity as numbness. He knew the contours of the squat couch where he would sleep that night. He knew his mother’s sighs, and the pains she’d complain about in her legs and neck, and stories she’d tell about her day. He knew he would fall asleep that night with a view upwards out of the back window, where he could see a small slice of the night sky, and wonder, with a hint of bitterness, if he would ever leave Clay County.

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The next morning, he rose early to do the chores.

He shut the front screen door slowly behind him so it didn’t slam and threw some giant plastic jugs in the wheelbarrow. The fresh morning air stuck to his skin within seconds, and as he approached the settlement desal spigot, his forehead was already slick. A line of mostly older women and children stood in a line. As each person walked up and placed their bucket under a spigot, the sensor registered their podd and debited their account the metered rate until their bucket was full.

As he carted the water back to their unit, his shirt soaked in the thickening morning air, he noticed a small crowd gathering near an alleyway between two settlement rings. There was a loud wail, and a familiar grimace on the faces of those who turned and went about their business. After watching for a deflating moment, Tem set down his wheelbarrow and walked across the scrubby lawn to investigate.

Someone had already draped a stained bedsheet over the body in the alleyway. His bare feet, dusted with red dirt, poked out of one end and the body appeared crumpled into a curl that faced one building’s wall. Several empty plastic capsules were littered across the ground nearby, all emptied of their white powdered contents.

As Tem approached, a neighbor of theirs, an older man who was a friend of his mother’s, saw him coming and recognized his unspoken question. Turning away from the ring of people surrounding the body, the man rested a heavy hand on Tem’s shoulder. The man winced and dropped his eyes, shaking his head slowly.

“Deryl,” he said in a low voice, just loud enough for Tem to hear. “The Williamson boy.”

Tem wooshed air through his lips. Deryl was a year older than him and he hadn’t known the boy well, but they’d been acquaintances in the way that all the settlement’s children were.

“His momma know?”

The older man nodded and looked back. The crowd had thinned somewhat, but many onlookers simply leaned against the prefabs to watch what would happen next. It was like that in the settlement – so little happened that even minor disturbances were sources of entertainment.

“Someone went and told her. They’ll need some volunteers for the burial detail later, ‘spose.”

Tem bit his lips and sighed. He rubbed his hands together.

“Aight. I’m around for the next few days. I’ll do it.”

The old man picked up his head and looked Tem right in the eye. He looked like he was on the verge of saying something for a moment, even began to part his lips just a crack, but then seemed to change his mind. Instead, he made a groan somewhere deep in his throat and just looked back down at the ground, shaking his head again and squeezing Tem’s shoulder in his hand.

“You take care of yourself, son.”

Tem knew to say nothing to this except to nod as the old man turned and began walking off. There was nothing else to say, because the story was always the same. Deryl was the fourth suicide in the last 18 months. The pattern of grief was familiar to them, as it was to thousands of other communities like theirs, and each person’s part was well-rehearsed.

Deryl, like Tem himself and virtually everyone else in the settlement, had been born into debt to the AEZ Corporation. The cost of his birth had been charged to a newly-generated account before his eyes had even opened for the first time. Since his mother was unable to cover the cost herself – even today, her own account was still in repayment status – he had been issued the legal minimum allowed by the Sovereign State of Alabama: Plan Base-0, or “b0” as it was referred to derisively in the Plane. Base-0 covered birth, essential vaccines, an entry-level model podd implant and basic schooling instruction from Form 1 through 10. Some places had more expansive requirements, others (though not many) less. For the Base-0 package, his new account was debited 1,250,000 bits at birth, which automatically converted into repayment status upon his twentieth birthday. At that point, he was required to make minimum payments, with interest, until either the debt was retired or he turned 70.

After Tem had turned 20, a year of odd jobs and the better part of three years tasking had let him avoid adding interest to his debt, and even let him shave it down a bit. In this way, he was relatively fortunate. Others, like Deryl, who missed service payments, could quickly find their birth debt rapidly accumulate. Repeated defaults meant additional, compounding fees, and eventually even interruption of one’s Plane access, which was ironically a prerequisite to finding most remunerable employment. When this happened, often in victims’ mid-twenties, the sense of utter futility of escape from one’s birth debt was too much for some to bear. Some, like their friend Tareen, took desperate measures; others, like Deryl, chose even more desperate ones. Tem had helped dig graves for suicides from their settlement since he was a teenager.

Returning to his wheelbarrow, he lifted it and pushed off again towards their unit. As he walked, he opened his account window in his HUD with a flick of the eye.

Eighteen days.

The math wasn’t hard. He needed to start earning if he was going to make his debt payment. Even if he could stand to spend double shifts debugging someone’s shit code in the Plane for the next two weeks, he couldn’t get those tasks while stuck at the settlement. Without access to a creche, he had only one good option.

He’d go talk to Mr. Gulch.

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To the west and south of the brackish Tallapoosa swamp lay wide, brownish fields of bushy, fat sorghum. The fields sprawled out on either side of the broken roads as far as one could see, the flat horizon interrupted only by the occasional metallic glint of a giant ag-mech rolling dumbly through the fields. Six meters high and stretching across dozens of rows at once, the mechs’ manipulator arms repositioned irrigation hoses, sprayed down insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers, analyzed yields, monitored the soil’s relative poverty and much else besides. The arms dangled from the mechs’ lateral beams performing whatever task the onboard AI dictated. Just two of the hulking mechs, rolling unceasingly through the fields, could support hundreds of hectares, never resting as they worked relentlessly day to day, week to week, for months on end.

Adrian Gulch must have many dozens of mechs working across all of his properties. Gulch lived up in Nashville, or at least did part of the year. Tem had never known the man to visit Clay County in person and somewhat doubted he ever had. Gulch was a man with a penchant for corner-cutting, which suited him better to absentee landlording than farming.

He’d first gotten Gulch’s attention back when he’d just finished school and had realized that the mechs near the settlement were inefficiently laying down irrigation lines. Water cost a lot of money, and Tem had figured out a better pattern for laying the drip irrigation that would use fewer water supplies. Gulch had paid him to set up the new pattern in the mechs’ configuration, which had worked, and had probably saved a lot of money.

It hadn’t taken long to figure out how to circumvent the mech manufacturer’s security protocols, and after that, he’d continued doing jobs for Gulch, updating and tweaking the mechs’ software in ways that weren’t exactly above board. When Gulch wanted to try new plots of fortified marijuana and ultrahemp, Tem had gone looking in the Plane for pirated instruction sets that told the mechs how to plant, tend, water, fertilize and harvest the crops.

Soon enough, Gulch was hiring Tem to service the mechs on his properties from time to time rather than pay for a technician to travel out from Atlanta. When Gulch needed something, he’d leave Tem a message simply stating the desired growing schedule, the product code and a curt demand to get started quickly. He didn’t bargain on price. Presumably they both knew that anyone with the right skills could do what Tem did, so there was no negotiation. It didn’t really matter where you were – Gulch could’ve just as easily hired some tasker out in Sino-Mongolia or the Andean Collectiva to tamper with the mechs’ programming from afar. Choosing Tem was as much a matter of convenience for Gulch as anything else. So Tem took the work and didn’t complain. Working on Gulch’s mechs didn’t make him rich, but it was something, and the pay beat the most basic tasking jobs.

Tem let his AI compose and send the letter informing Gulch that he was looking for work as he carried water back to his mother’s unit. It didn’t need to be personalized, only polite, and sufficiently solicitous. He hated actually reading those letters, with their fancy words doing the necessary bowing and scraping to ask for a job, so let his AI do it for him and gritted his teeth. Off in the grass beyond their unit, a few of the settlement’s feral cats lounged, and there was the sound of a rooster crowing in the distance behind their unit. The acrid smell of burning trash wafting from some backyard carried in the heavy, humid morning air.

As he poured the water into the unit’s cistern, his mind wandered, as it so often did, to Birmingham. He had visited once before, years ago, on a short shopping task for one of the local landowners to buy parts. It was mesmerizing in a way that he still thought about: the giant buildings, the modern streets, the view portals. He’d seen all these before in the Plane, of course, but never before in person – their hard, tangible realness was astounding. His temporary transit pass hadn’t allowed him into the downtown core, but even the neighborhood where the ag-mech equipment vendor’s shop had been was breathtaking.

After agonizing over it, he’d risked almost not making that month’s debt payment to make two personal purchases. One was a cup of ice cream – the real kind, with full cream and real milk, butter pecan, which melted in his mouth as he ate quickly outside, the sun warm and hazy even in March, a temporary extravagance that he hadn’t regretted for a moment. The other was a decorative skin for his Plane avatar from a hip Birmingham designer that he’d loaded on his account immediately and hadn’t removed since. It was sleek, with clean white lines and a small St. Andrew’s cross on the breast, and a swoop of black extending up the back and down one sleeve. It was more an athlete’s avatar skin than a repo diver’s, in truth, but it didn’t matter. It was rare, a nice thing, and more importantly, it was really and truly his.

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Gulch’s reply appeared in his inbox while Tem was in the Plane, wandering idly through an open-air arcade in Abidjan that he’d never viewed before. He had a job for Tem. Three ag-mechs, all within a half-day’s walk of his settlement. He wanted Tem to defeat and disable their permissions settings, presumably so he could use them to plant some newly pirated crops. The pay was insultingly low, Tem knew, because his old boss was taking advantage of his lack of options. Not that it mattered.

Looking longingly at the arcade, Tem sent immediate acknowledgement of the message and accepted the contract terms. He figured he could finish the job in about two weeks, and the payout would just put him over the amount necessary to clear his payment. Something relaxed inside him, only just a bit, as he realized he was going to be okay.

His AI helpfully informed him that it would be a two-hour walk to the first ag-mech site, and that it would be wisest to start about thirty minutes before dawn, which would allow him to avoid walking in the high morning heat. Tem, his avatar frozen in the Abidjan market, felt a dull ache as he realized he’d need to be up in fewer hours than he would’ve liked. He knew he should really go to bed and get some sleep before the long walk to the job site.

Instead, after barely a moment’s hesitation, he keyed in a command and watched as the Adjamé market dissolved around him.

It was replaced by a sweeping visual of the great Shivaji Terminus of Mumbai at dusk. Jacaranda and bougainvillea poured over the heavy bronze stanchions in the crowded, sweltering pedestrian zone that started at the Terminus and led all the way down Gandhi Road to Wellington Fountain. The famous Mumbai simcast was better experienced in an immersion creche, like those at Alice’s place, but also worked on plain old lenses like his, though the images all looked a bit flat and lacked the other sensory elements.

Along the world famous route, you could look up at the glittery apartment terraces built into the seawalls that towered around the famous urban peninsula. The greatest of the subcontinental megopolises, bursting with color and light, Mumbai was packed with the cosmopolitanism of wealth. Twenty-meter-long holoscreens along Gandhi Road showed realtime ‘casts from the fashionable shopping districts of each of its sister cities, Shanghai and London, Abidjan and Buenos Aires, as well as from the grand promenades on the Olympus Ring high above them. High fashion houses, museums and the imposing diplomatic consulates of giant corporations lined the faux-brick street, and street food vendors sold small cups of pressed sugarcane juice and panipuri.

For a while, Tem wandered through the pedestrian strip, as he had many times before, staring up at the sleek edifices around him. Oh Mumbai – City of dreams! Great striving watcher of the Arabian Sea! Since his podd lacked a full sensory suite, he imagined what its markets and streets really smelled and tasted like. He pictured himself as if born Indian, a true Mumbaikar, navigating those streets with the confidence and savoir-faire of one with many tantalizing paths to choose from.

Yet even this usual favorite failed to revive him. Soon, he ended his session and his surroundings faded away into the drab gray of his mother’s home. It had been dark outside for several hours, and the only light was a low glow of an LED lantern in the kitchen that he’d left on. The contract term was set to begin just after sunrise, a couple of hours away.

Muting his Plane feed, Tem inhaled deeply and stared at the wall, studying its worn texture of rough-edged concrete. He stared listlessly for a long time before he was able to sleep.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

Under the brim of his hat, Tem could taste his own sweat. He swabbed his brow with his kerchief, which was already soggy wet. The cracked road was mostly loose dirt and clay, with a few surviving streaks of stubborn, ancient asphalt, and this stretch was half-speckled in the dappling shadows of the low pines lining the shoulder. He hadn’t seen a soul since leaving the settlement before the sun rose, as his AI had reminded him. His boots crunched along the gravel and dirt and his straw hat whistled softly when the breeze picked up; the only other sound was that of sparrows dueling in the wide open sorghum fields beyond the treeline.

As a diversion, he activated a few of the Plane’s news channels. Live hosts appeared on screens floating in his HUD, inviting him to enter the full-spectrum simulcasts they were hosting on updates from the refugee war in Bangladesh, the Kamchatka crisis, European football. At the UN, diplomats were bickering over who owned the last outcroppings of Greenland. There was a special report on the NASA expedition ship bound for some unlucky moon of Jupiter. It had apparently cleared the asteroid belt, which Tem interpreted must be significant in some way, though he wasn’t sure how. Another channel had a human interest story about a refugee processing center in eastern Oregon where migrants had adopted a family of tame foxes while they applied for entry into the Idaho Territory.

He reached the base station about thirty minutes later. The ditch between the two giant, flat fields was partially shaded with brush and a few low trees whose growth was stunted from the poor water. The small base station was below a young hackberry tree, a knee-high cylinder half-buried in the ground and wired to a solar panel up on a pole. It probably controlled three or four mechs in the vicinity by remote, receiving and passing on commands from the manufacturer’s AI for whatever instruction set the grower had purchased. Setting down his backpack, he sat under a nearby tree and snapped an augment to his podd behind his ear. It was time to get to work.

The fraudulent technician credentials he’d acquired in a tasker Plane layer the previous month still worked. With access to the base station’s command shell, he began circumventing its instruction protocols. It wasn’t difficult work, but it was just demanding enough of his attention that he needed to focus. He shut off Plane notifications and popped a concentration stim. His pet AI was already displaying the usual set of code management and defense circumvention tools in his HUD. Some of these he’d bought over the years, while others he’d cobbled together himself. They felt as close and familiar to him as a carpenter’s laser measure.

The manufacturer’s management protocol wasn’t difficult to overcome, but he could tell that force-inserting the new instructions would take some time. The new instruction set that Gulch had sent him to install was pirated, of course. Its data model was missing many elements that the mech’s newer management protocol demanded, requiring Tem to spend time manipulating it until commands passed without errors, like whittling a wooden key until it fit a hole. All the while, he had to make sure not to trigger the base station’s security alerts, which would be even more time-consuming and tedious to defeat.

It was high afternoon before the concentration stims began to wear off and the dull ache in his back began to register. After triggering an automated scan process that would take some time, he flickered off his lenses and stood again, stretching and feeling pops in his spine. For lunch, he’d slapped together some thin pieces of pita, slices of textured protein and vegetable spread, and with the very first bite, ravenous hunger overcame him. Concentration stims had the effect of blunting his appetite, and as they wore off, he had to restrain himself from wolfing the meager sandwich down in a few bites.

As he ate, his mind wandered. How much had the water from the roadside spigot cost, where he’d earlier filled up his backpack bladder? A few bits more than one at the settlement desal pipeline, he was pretty sure. He muttered a curse around a mouthful of sandwich, and instantly tallied up the difference in his head, imagining how much he might be able to save by sticking to the settlement spigot. It wasn’t much, even for him, but it was something.

Sixteen days, now.

He knew exactly how much he needed to make to meet his minimum payment due, and just how much he’d have left once he paid it off with the funds from this job. That remainder wouldn’t be slim, but at least he’d avoid defaulting. That would be devastating. Missing a minimum payment would handicap his Plane access and incur fees, which would effectively erase all the gains he’d made on his debt over the last eight months. If he was lucky, more tasking work would materialize. Even enough to get him back to Alice’s place, he hoped, where he could work with a creche for better-paying gigs again. Get back on track. Perhaps, if he was lucky, even save a little.

The AI chirped in his ear – his automated scan was complete. Tem popped the last bit of sandwich in his mouth and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath and clearing his mind. There was work still to be done, and he knew that what awaited him at the end of the day was not a sense of relief at finishing, but a feeling of dull contempt. It was dumb, rote work, and both he and Gulch knew it. On the long walk back along the old highway to the settlement that evening, he would set his AI to browsing for repo diving jobs on the tasker boards again and prepare his invoice to auto-send when he was finished. Each was a mechanical step, systematized and automatic, without any human touch behind it.

After another second of stillness, he turned back to the base of the tree and flickered on his lenses.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

Alice came by the settlement several nights later. Tem had worked on the second mech that day, and mostly wanted to go to bed, but Alice was buying beer and twigs. After dinner, the two of them sat on the scruffy grass lawn near the entrance to the settlement and smoked the twigs that Alice had brought. They weren’t strong – just enough for a strong buzz, really, putting the conscious mind at some distance from what was happening around it. The cicadas were loud and they didn’t talk much as the evening coolness settled in, and bunches of the little kids shrieked somewhere over a game they were playing.

“Kunming fucker went dark on me,” Alice said.

Tem grunted an acknowledgement. With his mind turning in half-speed, it took him a few moments to respond in a languid pace.

“He ain’t the only show out there. Heard about some new repo jobs coming out of Alberta.”

Alice’s turn to grunt. “Ya. Heard that too. Maybe. I hope.”

Tem took a last, long drag on his twig and then flicked it away. “Get me outta here, at least.” Alice nodded.

“Hope so.” He took a short drag. “Guy from Talladega, he fucking stinks.”

They both chuckled at this, and, each seeing the other laughing, began to giggle uncontrollably. It took several minutes before they were able to settle down, no longer remembering what had been so funny about the man from Talladega, and how he smelled.

Catching his breath, Tem cracked his knuckles and watched some fireflies dance at the edge of the settlement, where the treeline began just off the dirt turnoff into the settlement. Kids were shrieking at the other end of the big roundabout, either catching crickets or playing a game.

“I just…” Tem began, and then inhaled deeply and wondered what he meant to say. In his current state, his mind moved more slowly, perhaps with more deliberation. Alice rolled his head Tem’s way, waiting. Tem furrowed his brow, and then continued.

“You think it’ll always be like this?”

Alice rolled his head back, looking out at the darkening roundabout. He didn’t say anything for a while.

“I don’t know, brud,” he said, slurring his words so they came out as one, languid half-grunt.

Tem chewed his lip for a second.

“You ever think about Tareen? I do.”

He heard Alice take a long breath in thought. They didn’t often talk about their old friend, especially since his disappearance.

“Yeah,” he finally said, “‘course. But,” he went on slowly, shaking his head a little, “going clando, brud. That’s…”

“I know,” Tem said. That it was dangerous hardly needed to be said; that it usually meant cutting all ties with your life behind, lest some inspector algorithm associated your new identity to one that had gone dark, was probably more than his best friend wanted to point out.

Another b0, like the rest of them, Tareen had gotten fed up a few years ago and somehow sought out a contact with one of the gangs that offered fraudulent permission set adjustments. After indenturing himself out to a gang out of Atlanta, a local affiliate of one of the global criminal syndicates called Red Path, he had been fitted out with a whole new set of permissions, the integrated record of educational and credential completions in one’s Plane account. Though AEZ’s permission set ledger was said to be mathematically impervious to tampering, Tem himself had seen what Tareen’s new set claimed: new parentage, an invented family background; full, enhanced schooling through Form 14 and university credentials from Ole Miss, complete with the iconic red-and-white institutional badge; apprenticeship tokens in mesh layer engineering and Planar spectrum analysis. Advanced stuff. With an enviable new permission set like that, he’d been quickly approved for a hukou first in Birmingham, and then up in Nashville itself, and had been offered jobs at a few investment and consulting houses there. He’d moved right away and never looked back.

“Maybe Tareen’s living all right now. Worked somethin’ out, you know? No debt. Workin’ for himself. Living in a city somewhere. Nice life. He’s free.”

Alice shrugged and spat.

“Yeah,” he grunted, “or maybe they kept him alive while they auctioned off his organs.”

This was not hyperbole. No one was sure exactly what had happened to Tareen after he’d been caught, but theories varied widely. Word had filtered back to the settlement that some partner at his firm had become suspicious when he’d met the new mixed-race boy with the deep country accent in person. Like everyone in their settlement, Tareen had untreated, medium-hued brown skin and spoke the Spanish-English mishmash of their part of Alabama, both of which would have made him stand out at a company like that, where white skin and high English were prerequisites in all but letter. Maybe Tareen had slipped some slang into a conversation, even though he’d presumably been careful; or, just as likely, maybe one of the partners was simply suspicious of anyone brown. Whatever it was, someone had sent an inquiry to AEZ, and the company’s support AI had turned up evidence of permissions tampering. Tareen had nearly been arrested, but Red Path had managed to get to him first. The gang did not simply write off debts that easily.

“We wouldn’t know. Shit, brud,” Alice spat, “shit ain’t fair. Everyone got their debt, ‘cept for the b1s, b2s, all them. ‘S just how it is. They got theirs, we got this.”

Tem said nothing and let the moment pass, but then Alice snorted loudly.

“Freedom,” he muttered, and then he spat, a thick wad of mucus that Tem could see sail through the air against the light down in the roundabout. Alice shook his head slowly as they watched a young boy back at the treeline clasp a giant cricket between his hands and shriek as he ran back to his friends to show it off.

“That’s something they made it up to sell pharmas and cheap shit to people like us. They make you believe in it long enough to keep you buying. No one’s free, brud.”

Alice’s voice had gradually become gravelly, as it sometimes did when he smoked a lot. Indeed, he paused to take a slow drag on his twig, inhaling deeply and holding the acrid smoke in his lungs before exhaling in a low billow emanating from his nostrils. His look remained vacant and unfocused, looking past the roundabout and down to the dirt turnoff.

“Some of us,” he continued, “just less than others.”

Tem didn’t say anything. Instead, one thing penetrated the dense fog swirling through his head: eight days. That was how long until his payment was due.

The glowing ledger balance, which would only clear his payment after Gulch paid him, loomed large in his imagination. What came after that, he just didn’t know. Hoping for repo diving work to materialize so he could lowball the bid and earn enough money to move back in with Alice for a while; smoking on the porch in the evening between gigs, watching his debt seem to stand still while his means of keeping it at bay grew more and more tenuous.

Alice was right. It was just how things were.

He didn’t light another twig. Instead, like Alice, he just breathed in the humid night air and watched the trees at the end of the roundabout as they faded into shadows.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

Five more days of hot labor in the fields. Tem was back in line at the settlement desal spigot, a fresh soreness in his back, doing the morning water run for his mother. He wasn’t checked out in the Plane, nor awaiting the Mumbai simulcast. Instead, an anxious nail scratched the back of his brain, stealing his attention away from anything else. His payment hadn’t come through, and there were only two days left.

Two days. Less than 48 hours, he guessed, depending on when payments cleared.

He’d sent Gulch his invoice promptly after finishing the day before, as usual. In the past, Gulch had always paid immediately after his jobs were complete. More than likely, he’d just told his AI to automatically disburse after receiving the proof of work. But it had been nearly twenty-four hours since he’d submitted his proof to Gulch, and still, nothing. The silence gripped him, and he seemed unable to think of anything else. His ledger balance was now low enough that its glowing red numbers couldn’t be dismissed in the bottom of his HUD. Although he knew that he’d be notified immediately if the payment did hit, he checked his full account overview every few minutes. His guts were a tight, churning ball.

“That’s no good, brud,” Alice said, rubbing his scraggly chin in a tiny window in Tem’s HUD as he stood mutely in the spigot line. “An’ you didn’t take the contract from the clearinghouse either.”

Tem shook his head, his lips pressed together in a thin, bloodless line.

“No,” he responded, not moving his lips. What Alice meant was that he didn’t even have recourse to the dispute settlement system in the main tasker clearinghouse. Not that the system would’ve been much help anyway, since most disputes were automatically decided in the favor of the contract bosses.

“And you don’t have your admin access to those mechs no more, huh?”

Tem shook his head again.

“I’m locked out now. Someone else suppressed my credentials. I dunno.” He murmured, berating himself silently for failing to think ahead like that. “And my next payment hits day after tomorrow.”

Alice bared his teeth and let out a slow breath as he absorbed what Tem was saying.

“Shit, man. I’m sorry.” He hesitated for a minute. “Y’know if I could help, I’d-”

Tem didn’t let him finish.

“Don’t worry about it, Al. I know.”

Alice didn’t have the money to help him cover the debt payment. Hanging on to his house was hard enough, Tem knew, not to mention the payments on those creches.

Neither of them said anything for a minute. When it was his turn, Tem bent down and began filling up his bucket. A couple of figures behind the decimal point in his ledger balance vanished. He couldn’t look away from it.

“I’ll talk to you later,” Tem said, and without another word, closed the window. He wanted to vent his knot of anxiety, but he felt the same discomfort about it that Alice probably did, too. He’d already paid up the back rent he owed Alice, which Alice needed to make his own payment on his house. He didn’t owe his mother any money, but everything she had was still tied up in her own debt payments. If Gulch’s payment didn’t hit his account in the next day, he’d slip into default.

It wouldn’t be the first time he’d missed a payment to AEZ. He’d missed one a few years ago too, back before he’d leveled up his repo diving credentials, and it had taken him a long time to clear the penalties. The fees that would be added, plus new interest charges, were bad enough; but having his account slip into Default status, even temporarily, would affect his Plane access level, bidding access for tasker contracts, more. Prospective task bidders would see it denoted on his account and decide not to hire him. A missed payment now, plus fees, would knock him back a year of extra payments at least, maybe more. It would erase the narrow margin where he lived between just scratching by and not.

Lifting the overfull buckets, he shuffled back to his mother’s unit. The heavy load on his shoulders made him unable to walk at more than a snail’s pace, and he had to stop and rest several times along the plywood planks that lay over the mud. He stopped to catch his breath next to the alleyway where they’d found Deryl, and glanced over at where his body had been. There was no sign of it now.

Back at home, he wordlessly ate the millet mush left on the kitchen’s tiny stove. Swallowing his frustration, he composed another message to Gulch. His AI helpfully suggested several edits as he assembled the message, and he agonized over the word choices that would mask his desperation. He was careful to come off as polite and inoffensive as possible:

“if you would be so kind,” 

“I had just noticed that,” 

“at your convenience,” 

… and so on it went.

He read the message three times over before sending it.

He considered joining the Mumbai simcast, or going to another of his favorite Plane haunts: Munich, Buenos Aires, one of the floating neighborhoods of Seattle. Perhaps somewhere he hadn’t visited in the Plane yet. But the musty smell of his mother’s concrete walls was heavy in his nostrils. Simply seeing the images wasn’t enough to transport him today. As a rooster crowed from somewhere outside, a certainty came over him that  he would never know what those places smelled like in person, in the flesh, in the visceral way that no podd sensory suite could recreate. The realization was deflating, like a pinprick in a large balloon that made it wrinkle and slowly sag.

Tem rubbed his eyes and sat on the edge of his mother’s couch, watching for a long time as the boundary of the shadows on the wall slowly shifted. He could get back on the Tasker forums and look for work. There was always something there that would pay. But it wouldn’t be nearly enough – certainly not in the next two days. And probably not ever to fully meet his debt service.

So instead, he rubbed his eyes and lay down on the couch, and thought about Tareen, and Deryl, and the point of going on living.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

When Gulch’s payment didn’t arrive the next morning, Tem spent the day in a miasma of anxiety and rage. He composed, and then re-composed, three more messages to his erstwhile boss with increasingly emphatic pleas to release his payment. The AI flagged each of them, encouraging him in its automated way to sound more cheerful and sanguine. He still didn’t dare say what he really wanted to, as long as there was some chance that there had been some sort of mistake, a simple clerical error or glitch, which had interrupted his payment.

There was no response.

That evening, Alice offered to meet up at the little convenience mart a long, dark walk down the road from the settlement. It wasn’t much of a place, just a row of three small kiosks carved out of freight containers with a gravel pit between them. You could buy watery beer, candy and a basic assortment of pharmas, as well as the occasional exploding firecrackers. When Tem arrived, he kicked a small pile of gravel, scattering it over the packed-dirt lot, and paced and muttered. His account would officially go into default the next morning. He had been taken. Alice halfheartedly suggested some implausible ways for the two of them to take revenge, which they knew was futile. When Tem turned around and punched a tree, raising droplets of blood on his knuckles, Alice gritted his teeth and crossed his arms, swaying and frowning at his friend.

“Fuck it,” Tem said unsteadily as he wiped off his hand, which pulsated with a throbbing pain. He walked over to another of the small kiosks and spent a precious few bits on a couple of tiny white caps. They were not the sleek, branded blue capsules full of finely engineered psychotropics from the kiosk’s top shelf. They were bathtub pharms, out of a grimy canister in the corner, as cheap and potent as their name implied with a corresponding level of purity.

When Alice saw Tem with them, he ran a hand through his scraggly beard. They’d both done pharms like those before, of course, but knew that moderation was key. People occasionally died or cooked their frontal cortexes or lungs from a bad batch.

“You sure you know what you’re doin’?” Alice asked, as his friend plunked himself down with a jolt under a tree. The glare from the kiosk’s LED lights nearby made the sweat on Tem’s dark forehead glisten in the fading evening light. Not answering, Tem curled one leg below him and began crushing the handful of tiny caps into the thin metal pan they’d come with.

“I got a right…” Tem paused as his lip began to shake, before squeezing them together. “Got a right to live like anyone else, don’t I?” He spat the words, his hands shaking so he almost spilled the last few crumbs of the caps in the pan, which he held between thumb and forefinger. The crushed white powder was light and powdery.

He looked over at Alice, who was crouching next to him, and raised his eyebrows. Alice knew what Tem wanted. His friend’s eyes were watery and red. After a moment’s hesitation, Alice reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out the finger-sized plastic tool, and looked at it for a few long seconds before meeting Tem’s glare.

“You sure, Tem?”

Tem exhaled a few sharp breaths through his nose.

“Gimmie that fucking thing,” he said, snatching it out of Alice’s hand. Alice didn’t object.

Instead, he watched Tem click a button on the tool until a tiny blue flame erupted, and he cooked the underside of the little metal pan. In seconds, the white powder was a clear, faintly silvery liquid. Tem clicked off the flame and drew in the liquid with a little dial on the side of the tool, filling the reservoir and being sure not to miss a single drop. Then, he turned it around and placed it on the inside of his arm, near the joint. A light on the shaft blinked and then lit blue, and the inside of Tem’s arm seemed to flinch for a second before going slack. Then, a tiny manipulator needle flashed out of the plastic shaft and plunged directly into the fat, curved vein in the inside of his elbow.

In seconds, the furrows in Tem’s face went limp. Alice reached out to hold Tem’s forearm and the injector multitool as his arm went lax until the reservoir was finished and the needle automatically retracted back in. Tem’s eyelids drooped closed, and then fluttered open halfway. His head nodded, and then picked back up, looking over at Alice.

“Got a right…” he seemed to lose the last word, as if it were a big cotton wad that filled his mouth and got trapped in his jaws.

“Got a…” his mouth hung open as he trailed off, and his lips moved a few times as if to complete the phrase, but no sound came out. His chin nodded on to his chest. Alice watched for a long time, until a thick drop of drool escaped Tem’s still bottom lip and dripped languidly on his shirt.

Alice tucked the injector tool back in his shirt and, hesitating only for a moment, reached out and brushed something off of Tem’s forehead, where his dusty sweat was slowly drying into a smudge. He looked around the yard. Then he turned around and sat next to Tem, reclining against the tree and feeling his friend’s body lean gently against his as his mind left his body for a while. Alice looked up at the stars for a minute and then closed his eyes, letting the warm evening breeze pour over his face.

<><><><><><><><><><><><><><><>

The half-broken straw bench on Alice’s back porch was scratchy under his sheek as he began to stir awake. He lay there for a long time, even after regaining consciousness, waiting for the sounds of the morning to stop echoing through his brain.

As far as the aftereffects of cheap pharms went, brain echoes weren’t bad. He braced himself as best he could before daring to crack his eyes open and grimacing at the bright morning sun pouring through the scrub brush at the back of the little lot. He’d been stupid to take as much as he did. Especially right into the vein. Stupid, and dangerous. He shut his eyes again and fell back into the black pit he’d woken up in.

Some time later, when he opened both eyes fully, his AI had helpfully informed him that his account was officially DELINQUENT. His Plane avatar status window was marked with a telltale red asterisk, and his account balance hovered near zero. His Plane access immediately felt different – he’d been throttled. It was temporary, he knew, but easily the least of his problems now. There had still been no reply from Gulch.

He’d been sitting, staring into the middle distance and waiting for his mind to come into focus, when the back door opened. Alice emerged, rubbing his eyes. He had been working a forensic registry reconstruction job on some low-level AI corral in Brazil these last few days. Alice noticed him sitting up on the bench, and gave him a weary nod before clicking on the electric kettle for coffee.

“You’re back,” Alice said, like he was making an observation on the weather. Tem saw him pour the instant coffee grounds in two mugs, and didn’t say anything. “Been two days,” Alice went on. “If you weren’t up by tonight, was gonna start gettin’ worried.”

Alice filled the two mugs and handed one to Tem, who accepted it wordlessly. Alice’s eyes were struck through with the thick, angry veins that were the side effects of stim tabs wearing off. He rubbed his eyes and yawned, and the two of them sipped their instant coffee as the early morning began to warm. The first beads of perspiration were budding on Tem’s temple when he first spoke.

“I’m just sick of it, Al.”

Alice snorted through his nose.

“I know.”

Tem shook his head.

“No, I mean…” he exhaled sharply and sniffed, grasping for the words for several beats. “I’m just… fucking sick of it,” he finally managed.

This time, Alice didn’t respond at once. He only looked out at the dry tangle of bush at the edge of the small yard, separating them from the rasping field of millet beyond. He sipped his coffee.

“I know,” he said, this time in a lower voice.

Tem felt his eyes ache a little and sat silently, looking out at the lot with Alice, until the feeling subsided.

“I been thinking of going away.”

Alice sighed. This again. The two of them had talked about leaving Clay County before – maybe even Alabama itself. But they always reached the same conclusions: the options were few, and all of them bad.

The most practical issue was how to get very far in the first place. Neither of them held a hukou for anywhere else but Clay County, and there was just no feasible way to obtain a different one. The application fees were high, but more importantly, a b0 account would invite especially close scrutiny from any issuance AI. Without a valid permit to their destination, most transportation options were automatically closed to them. The superhighway monitor AIs would detect any commercial vehicle passenger without a valid permit connected to their account. Air and train travel was out of the question for the same reason.

The only plausible option was bribing one of the drivers of a backroads clando van to look the other way. The clando vans honeycombed through the spotty and broken dirt trails of the countryside, the abandoned remains of rural roads that the states had long since abandoned. The chief drawback of the clandos was not just that they were slow. Their routes and spotty enforcement of regulations also attracted a clientele that made them dangerous, too.

But the fundamental problem never changed: their birth debt would always follow them. It was linked to their Plane accounts, which were linked to their DNA itself. Their payments due would still appear on their account, wherever they happened to be. There was no escaping the cold logic of accounting.

That left two options: tampering with one’s account or leaving it behind. The first of these was what Tareen had tried doing, with help from the Red Path syndicate. Illicitly tampering with your account’s permission set was high-risk and expensive enough to be uncommon – and its success rate wasn’t clear. Tareen’s was a cautionary tale that automatically occurred to them both.

Which only left leaving his account behind entirely.

“Colombia,” Tem said slowly, carefully rolling the long “Os” through his lips.

Alice shifted on the edge of the table where he sat and didn’t say anything, though whether out of confusion or exasperation, Tem couldn’t tell. Since revolutionary socialists had taken over in Bogota and had declared forgiveness on birth debt a few years back, the country had become one of the most sought-after destinations for debt migrants in the Western hemisphere. It was a more substantial economy than Bolivia or Ecuador or one of the remaining Caribbean island fiefdoms which had outlawed the practice, and for that reason, the intensity of the international reaction had been harsh. Blockades, sanctions, and other timeless sabre-rattling of creditor powers towards debtors.

After taking a long sip of his coffee, Alice grunted.

“Can’t go overland. Too dangerous.”

Tem turned to look at his friend, who was slowly twisting a pinchful of hair at his chin between two fingers and staring intently at the splintered porch floor. He’d mostly expected Alice to try talking him out of the idea – again. But perhaps Alice understood that something had changed now.

Alice exhaled slowly through his nose.

“Only way to go is get smuggled in. ‘At’s probably the best way. Get yourself on a drone ship or something.”

Tem looked back at the yard. The cicadas had woken up, and their buzzing met the creeping sun that poured across the patchy, dry scrub. He took another sip of his coffee and blinked away some more of the fog in his brain. What Alice was saying was what he himself had learned in various investigatory searches in the Plane. Getting to, and through, Texas, across Mexico and Central America all the way down through the perilously narrow Panamanian isthmus to Colombia was out of the question. Even if he somehow managed to get that far south, the isthmus itself wasn’t much more than a long, highly fortified double seawall, and crossing it illicitly was essentially impossible. The newscast vids were full of stories of the clustered camps of Northern refugees enduring the timeless human misery of thousands of desperate people with nowhere to go.

“New Orleans,” Alice said, as if finishing a thought.

Tem grunted with a slight upwards intonation, asking him to continue.

Alice stopped stroking his beard and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his akimbo knees, frowning into his coffee.

“The port there. I heard a lot of talk in one channel that there’s smugglers workin’ there who get people on ships headed down to South America.” He shook his head. “Still. It’s tough.”

Tem tilted his head, his AI automatically conjuring up volumes of information on New Orleans. Most of it, he already knew. Nola, the “Drowned City,” the earliest and arguably most famous of the coastal cities that had succumbed to the rising tides. They had set up giant seawalls around Manhattan that had saved at least part of the island; hardened foundations in Miami to create a new island metropolis in the surf; Seattle was famous for its whole floating neighborhoods. New Orleans, though, had been too early, when some people had still not known what to do about the rising ocean; or worse, pretended to ignore what was happening at all. The city and much of its outlying areas had been swallowed by the sea shortly before the coup that marked the beginning of the Interregnum and all that followed it.

Most of the Drowned City that remained was below the water line, for which it had become famous. Waterproofed in cheap polymer plastics and mildly toxic crystalline spray, the city had persisted in a hived maze of underwater structures that had grown up in the wreckage. There were extensive tunnel complexes and even reclaimed buildings that had somehow survived the submersion. Below the inky, polluted expanse of what had been Lake Pontchartrain, hundreds of thousands now lived in a largely underwater city.

The city was also famous for its lawlessness. The Texas Republic had claimed Louisiana as a territory ever since the government in Baton Rouge dissolved – that much Tem remembered from school. But no legal authority actually exercised power in most of the territory, and least of all in the wreckage of the old city. In that vacuum, the syndicates had made sure that the ports and oil platforms continued to operate, unrestrained by government, as long as they paid up. The city was a smuggler’s haven. Every manner of commodity passed in and out, and the city reverted to its old ways of centuries past: a port city of the timeless mold, swarming with people trying to make a quick buck or spend one; merchants, smugglers, laborers, hustlers, gamblers, seamen, thieves and migrants alike. Money, both big and small, flowed throughout the city in ways seen and unseen.

It was a place a person could go to disappear. And this appealed to him very much.

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After telling Alice about his idea, the two of them had worked out a plan as best they could over a few days, and then told no one else about it. The fewer people who knew exactly where he was going, the better. If the authorities queried known associates about his whereabouts, truthful ignorance would be the best weapon.

Because of this, Tem simply told his mother he was going away. She cried, not only because she was sad to see him go, and worried for him, but also because she understood. Leaving her cramped, concrete settlement unit for what he expected would be the last time was one of the hardest things he had ever done. As he walked alone in the still-dark morning hours down the broken old highway towards the rendezvous with his ride, Tem wept to himself.

With a few discreet Plane inquiries, Tem had made contact with a clando van that was scheduled to pass through not far away. Its course would eventually bring it to New Orleans. It made for a long trip, but the contact had been clear that they intended to avoid the hard border checkpoint at Mississippi, and that the driver overlooked permit scans. Tem was allowed one small bag he could carry. No luggage.

In preparation, Alice helped him prepare a location masking layer for his account registry. Blocksum registry repair was a specialty of Alice’s, and it was a skill that lent itself easily to work that skirted very close, but did not technically qualify, as outright account tampering. The masking layer scattered his account geo-stamp into garble, which most AI systems interpreted as simple corrupted data, which could have any number of innocuous causes. It wasn’t a permanent, or even very reliable, fix – sooner or later, monitor AIs in the Plane would detect his corrupted account location, and try to determine it by other means. But at least it meant he would be able to travel for a time without his hukou raising any alarms.

The day before Tem was to leave, Alice helped him install the masking layer. When they were finished, Alice had hugged him. It was not something the two of them did, and Tem was caught short for a moment, the sheer physicality and scratchy warmth of his best friend’s face near his own a small shock. But Alice had always been like this – fiercer, Tem thought, the one who always survives, and lives to tell others about the wisdom he has seen. The thought of this moved something deeply inside him, and he held Alice tightly in return, aware for what seemed like the first time that they might never see each other in person again.

The next morning, he’d left the settlement and walked for two hours to the nondescript intersection of one narrow, country road with another. Orange-red light was just beginning to glow over the horizon when Tem heard the low drone, turning into deep rumble, of the van. He could see the clattering brown pile of metal and plastic sheet far off down the road, weaving around eroded gullies and large rocks in the road, speeding up where it was clear and braking where it had no choice. Tem stood up at the side and waved his arm, making sure the driver saw him, until a flash of high beams signaled acknowledgement.

Minutes later, the van whirred to a stop near him. The driver did not emerge, but instead revved the engine in neutral and cast down an annoyed look. Tem hurried around to the side to climb on, and noticed the large figure in the passenger seat watching him. His eyes were hidden behind dark reflective lenses, even though the sun hadn’t even come up yet. He looked like security, though Tem wasn’t sure if he felt any more secure. Inside the van, the passengers mostly seemed to be dozing. A white face caught his momentary attention in one row, and a girl with skin even darker than his in a blue headscarf. Three guys were grouped in the back, all asleep and two leaning on each other. Tem climbed on and took a seat next to the girl, placing his small bag between his feet and then tugging the door closed. It shut with a loose slam that he was sure would wake everyone, but didn’t.

The driver – skinny, impatient, clearly stimmed – was looking at him in the rear view mirror. Tem nodded and authorized the payment in his HUD, and without a word exchanged, the driver looked back at the road and gunned the engine again. They began to pick up speed, rumbling west down the highway. That’s when Tem noticed the new message notification. It was from Alice. Tem focused on it, and Alice’s avatar filled the little window in his HUD. The message was hard encrypted with the keys that the two of them shared.

“Found something might be useful for you,” he said. “Heard chatter about the group operating down in New Orleans that controls a lot of the… services you’re looking for. You need to go down to a place called the ‘Mouille Quarter.’ Folks you’re lookin’ for are the local affiliates of Query. They’re some syndicate. You don’t wanna go tooting that around, obviously, but they probably won’t be real hard to find. Good luck, brud.”

Tem took this in. Mouille Quarter. There wasn’t much information about it in the Plane – or at least in the sections he scanned. Tem guessed it was one of the underwater neighborhoods. Query, he barely knew more about. He gathered that it was a little like Red Path or the Harcourt Boys or the Zetas, the other major syndicates, but could find little additional information. No one really knew where they were based, or who they were. They worked through hired local affiliates, through whom their power and influence were known, as were their reach. Which might be useful for international smuggling.

Closing the message in his HUD, he took a deep breath and watched the pine forest rush by the van windows. The road he’d approached on had already disappeared behind them. Soon, kids back in the settlement would begin lining up at the desal pump to fetch water. He’d asked one of the neighbor kids to do so for his mother, and she’d agreed. He couldn’t shake the sinking feeling of neglect for leaving her behind. Alone. Still, at the same time, another part of him was unfurling. He looked ahead at the road as the van swallowed it up, bumping and rocking as they rumbled onward, the callused road spilling out in a ribbon of possibility in front of them.