By Matthew James Seidel.
BOOK I: Zenith
10 minutes 38 seconds
10 minutes 37 seconds
Sixteen-year-old Francisco Abeda’s hands were shaking. His right leg was pumping up and down. His knee produced a steady dull thump-thump-thump every time it hit the underside of his cheap, once bright blue, now broth-colored, desk. He sniffed for the thousandth time as he reached for the least-used tissue he could dig out of his bulging pockets. He could feel the other students glaring at him—he had had colds before during tests but this was the most annoying yet. Francisco had literally not stopped sniffling and blowing his nose since he sat down. And this was no ordinary test.
Four months before Nathan O’Maly set off a bomb in the Victor Zife Art Museum, the students gathered in the windowless Room 4b of Opportunity School 522 in Zone 9 of Subsector 7H in Sector C were taking the final exam of their five-month-long basic game programming course. Anyone who wanted to work for the major game companies in Zenith had to pass—the course had actually been designed by programmers at these companies to ensure that students were being taught only and everything they would need to know as future collaborators. Many young people in Zenith first aspired to work on games like Coliseum or one of the Escape from Earth! games because they imagined making games must be the most fun job imaginable. Later, those who showed promise were motivated by their parents, who pushed them relentlessly, saving up for any tutoring or extra classes that might improve their children’s chances. The pay for collaborators wasn’t high, but it was still better than most of the jobs in Sector C. Someone working consistently for a game company could just afford to give their parents a reasonably comfortable life when they got too old to work and pay most medical bills. At the very least, they could keep them out of the elder care and appreciation centers, where the typical lifespan for “distinguished guests” was three months.
Francisco Abeda was not that intelligent or gifted when it came to programming. It was only thanks to his remarkable work ethic and more than a little luck that he had managed to pass every assignment so far. Francisco knew the other students considered him beneath them. He didn’t mind. He even agreed with them. But he needed to qualify for the highest paying jobs possible. His father had recently been diagnosed with a lung disorder after working so many years in the tunnels. The family was already just scraping by. Francisco had already started taking jobs identifying objects on a screen to help, but it wasn’t enough. Someone needed to start earning serious points, and both of Francisco’s siblings had failed this course. Now, it looked like Francisco was about to fail, too.
He blew his nose loudly, almost exaggerating the sound to spite the other students who continued to glare at him as if he wanted to have a cold, as if having to listen to him blow his nose was more inconvenient than actually having to keep blowing his nose. Then he ran the program again, hoping, somehow, the bug would be fixed.
But every time Francisco wanted the character on the screen to swing his sword, only the arm moved. The sword just hovered in front of him, waiting until the arm pulled back and his hand once again took the hilt.
He looked up at the giant time display on the wall.
10 minutes 16 seconds
Francisco took another seventeen seconds to try and find the mistake. But when he saw the minutes left change to a single digit, he knew he had no choice.
Francisco shuffled out of his chair, which was attached to the desk itself. He bumped into a student on his left, who shoved him back into the side of his desk with surprising force. Francisco ignored the ache in his side, along with the huffs and groans from every other student he passed on his way to the teacher’s desk.
He stood for a moment, expecting the teacher to say something. But he didn’t. He was immersed in whatever he was reading on the GoldenPad attached to the desk by a long chain.
Francisco could barely hear himself, but he didn’t want to distract others by speaking too loudly. No one was supposed to talk at all. Francisco was irritated by how angry they all were about his cold, but he couldn’t help that. Talking was different. His voice might break someone else’s concentration at a pivotal moment, someone who needed to pass this course as much as he did.
So, a little louder, but still softly, he repeated, “Mr. Ortega-Rucenio?”
The teacher continued reading.
He looked at the clock.
9 minutes 14 seconds
Francisco took a deep breath. He had no choice.
He had spoken in a normal tone of voice, but after three hours of near total silence it sounded like an explosion. Francisco could feel how furious everyone was without turning around to face them. But it did get the teacher’s attention.
Before he even looked up, Jorge Ortega-Rucenio instinctively pressed two keys on the GoldenPad he was reading, which instantly changed the screen to make it look like he was in the middle of writing something work-related. When he saw it was Francisco, he was momentarily relieved. Then he saw the boy’s hands were shaking at his sides.
Jorge didn’t ask what was wrong or look at the time display. He immediately sprang to his feet and ran to Francisco’s desk, sitting down before Francisco himself got back.
“What’s wrong?” Jorge asked, already scanning the code.
“Th-the sword, it won’t move I mean swing when like when the arm…”
Jorge ran the program, tried to swing the sword, and knew the solution a second after he saw the problem.
“It’s easy,” he said, launching into the simplest, most concise explanation he could come up with. “You know how to do that, right?”
“I think so…”
Jorge jumped out of the chair and patted Francisco on the shoulder as he sat down.
“You’ve got time. Don’t worry.”
And for a while Francisco didn’t worry. He was certain he knew how to solve the problem–he felt foolish the solution hadn’t occurred to him earlier. If he was right, he should be done with minutes to spare.
But two minutes later the sword was still not acting the way Francisco wanted it to. Worse, when he tried to fix it again, the program wouldn’t even run. A list of errors filled one side of the screen. The incomprehensible strings of letters and numbers read like a death sentence.
Francisco didn’t need to ask for Jorge’s help. Jorge had been watching Francisco, and everyone else, since returning to his seat. When he saw Francisco’s leg start bouncing up and down again and the grimace on his pale, sweaty face, he raced to the desk, ran the program, and read the error messages without even speaking to Francisco.
“I-I don’t know what I—” the boy stammered.
In trying to fix the problem, Francisco had created a much more serious one.
Jorge kept his voice steady. “It’s okay…you still have...”
They both looked up.
6 minutes 2 seconds
Francisco was on the verge of tears.
“You still have time,” Jorge insisted. “You know how to fix this, I’ve seen you fix problems like this before, you just…”
But Jorge could tell Francisco wasn’t listening. He was in a full blown panic. Jorge doubted Francisco would have been able to follow even the simplest instruction in this state.
Jorge knew as well as Francisco how important passing this course was, and that even though he had done everything else right, a few tiny mistakes were about to ruin everything. There were only two possible outcomes for this exam, pass or fail, and failing it meant failing the entire course.
Francisco’s hands and leg, which had been quivering almost non-stop since he first discovered the problem, slowed down until they finally came to rest. The boy had given up. This did tamp down some of the adrenaline that had been driving him nearly insane and he could watch the time counting down with passive dread instead of terrible anxiety. But Jorge knew from experience these small comforts would not last long.
Jorge looked again at the time.
5 minutes 54 seconds
He hurried back to his desk and took out his personal GoldenPad from his bag. He typed furiously as now his leg began bouncing up and down, his knee producing a steady dull thump-thump-thump. But his hands remained steady. After two and a half minutes, he suddenly switched to the GoldenPad he had been using, the one meant for whatever teacher was currently using the classroom. It had a program that allowed him to monitor all his students’ screens to ensure they were doing whatever they were supposed to be doing. The students knew their teachers could watch them and assumed it was purely to keep them from being distracted. But it was meant to monitor the teachers, too. Every school’s principal had a GoldenPad that tracked how well every teacher was tracking their students’ GoldenPads. A teacher who didn’t keep their students from visiting a website or writing a message, even if only for a second, could be fired and replaced within an hour.
Teachers’ GoldenPads also had a lesser known and even lesser-utilized function. They could take control over a student’s GoldenPad.
Francisco was playing out one dour scenario after another in which he had to tell his parents he had failed the course when he noticed something odd. Lines of code were being erased from his screen. His first response was amusement. He almost laughed. Then he felt nothing because what did it matter if his GoldenPad had decided to go crazy? He was going to fail anyway. It felt appropriate that his program had become not only sentient but suicidal.
Then he realized what was going on.
He watched the new lines of code Jorge wrote appearing in sudden blocks of text. He was typing too quickly for them to register one digit or letter at a time. Francisco didn’t understand most of what Jorge was writing. He was using functions and calling up libraries he had never heard of before.
He looked at the time.
2 minutes 3 seconds
Francisco’s eyes darted from the time to his screen to Jorge over and over. He had no idea if Jorge would be finished within ten seconds or a hundred. All he knew was that Jorge would fix the problem.
He knew that until he looked up at the time and saw only one minute remaining. That’s when it occurred to him that Jorge might not be able to fix the problem in time, that it might take just a few more seconds than he had left.
Every second Francisco watched pass felt like a knife’s edge pushing that much harder against his skin. He felt almost as panicked as before, though now helpless, too.
Jorge cursed under his breath. Francisco only noticed because he was paying such close attention to him. What did that mean? he wondered. Did that mean Jorge was stuck on something, too?
He was still typing.
Jorge raised both his hands up and let out a long sigh. Francisco didn’t relax, however, until Jorge met his gaze, smiled, and nodded.
When the time reached 0 all the GoldenPads froze. The code automatically uploaded to the cloud where people the students would never meet would test the programs, deciding each student’s future.
Francisco’s leg stopped bouncing and his hands stopped shaking. But he did start to cry. Other students nearby assumed it was because he had failed. Most disdained him for crying—after all the noise he made while they were trying to work he hadn’t even managed to pass. A few felt pity. But only one knew he was crying from sheer relief because she had been watching Jorge, too.
“How’d you do it?”
She had waited until all the other one hundred and eleven students had left, including Francisco who with tear-blurred eyes mouthed a silent thank you on his way out. Jorge still closed the door before answering.
Jorge chuckled. “I didn’t think anyone else would notice.”
“Everyone else was busy finishing.”
“Why weren’t you?”
“Because I finished with five minutes to spare.” Gabriella’s voice was oozing with pride but, far from making her seem vain, it was somehow charming, probably because she was obviously eager for Jorge’s approval.
“Very impressive, though not surprising.”
He knew that was Gabriella’s favorite compliment of his.
“To answer your question,” he said, sitting back down, “I imported some code from my personal GoldenPad—”
“—You have your own GoldenPad?”
Jorge had forgotten he had kept it a secret, even from one of his favorite students. “Yes.”
“I’ve never heard of a Seconder with their own GoldenPad!”
“It’s a long story…but it’s not mine, not really, it was…given to me,” he said uncomfortably. “Anyway, I imported some code from my GoldenPad onto this one and used that to fix the problems faster than Francisco would have been able to. I hoped I’d be able to fix Francisco’s program without using it, but he…by trying to fix one problem he created a few others.”
“But won’t the people grading the tests see that Francisco used code you didn’t teach us?”
Jorge shook his head. “Trust me. The people who grade these things are paid so little and have so much to do that all they do is run the program and, if it works, that’s all they need to know. They’d never take the time to read the code on every one of these tests, especially ones that work.”
“But what if they do?” Gabriella asked.
“If they do, then someone will eventually figure out what I did and I’ll…face consequences.”
Gabriella suddenly looked scared. “The principal! Can he—”
“—I installed a program on this GoldenPad a long time ago that blocks anyone from tracking or even seeing what I’m looking at. Don’t worry, no one’s going to find out. Unless you tell them, of course.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
“I know. Otherwise I wouldn’t have told you. Now, let me see that practice test I gave you last week.”
Jorge noticed some of the confidence in Gabriella’s face drain away.
“Did you do badly or just badly by your standards?”
She laughed. “Well…let me just show you.”
Gabriella dug out a twenty-five page booklet titled “University Entrance Exam Year 81, Calculus.” She handed it to Jorge, who read through it carefully while Gabriella waited.
“You sure it’s okay that I’m using practice exams from nine years ago?”
“Calculus hasn’t changed in nine years.”
He finished reading after a few minutes.
“You only got three wrong,” he said.
“But I can’t get any wrong!” she replied. “You told me Seconders can’t make any mistakes if they want to get into university!”
“I did, yes, but you still have a few months left before—”
“—What if I get the same questions wrong and they don’t let me in and then I have to take the Bilman and I’ll never get to—”
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. Take a breath.”
Gabriella reluctantly obeyed.
“First of all, worst case scenario, if you don’t pass the entrance exam, taking the Bilman wouldn’t stop you from doing engineering work. The whole point of the test is to assess your personality and what jobs you’re best suited for. You’re one of the smartest students I’ve ever had. I promise you’d get lots of interesting work.”
“But not at any of the university research labs.”
“No,” Jorge conceded. “But second of all, you will pass the exam, and this time next year you’ll be sitting in a real classroom with a real teacher where instead of the hundred students crammed in here with me you’ll only have a couple other classmates. I just looked at the mistakes and I’m telling you there’s nothing to worry about. Go over the calculus material I gave you a week ago. I promise you’ll see what you did wrong. Okay?”
“Here,” he said, handing her a small flashdrive he pulled out of his pocket. “Since we won’t see each other for a couple weeks until my intermediate game programming class starts, I recorded myself in the Z-Verse giving lectures on everything you need to know for the exam. Everything you need to know is here, including lots of stuff like geometry and argumentative writing and history that we haven’t covered as much. Just upload it to your console, and make sure you have your lens activated. The instructions will pop up. Okay? Then our avatars will get to hang out at least.
Gabriella smiled, but only for a moment before it turned hollow and her eyes abruptly became moist with sparkling tears.
“What’s the matter? C’mon now, I can’t have two of my students cry in one day. What kind of teacher would that make me?”
She laughed, wiping her eyes. “I’m sorry, it’s just…it’s weird how sometimes I forget, like I can compartmentalize the exam and how excited I am about it when Mom said…”
Jorge grabbed a tissue from his desk and handed it to her. “What did your mom say?”
“She uh…well my sister she…she got sick and we had to take her to the hospital—”
“Is she all right?”
“She’s okay now, but the doctors said she has this…I can’t pronounce the name of it but she has to take this pill every day now, for the rest of her life. And they gave us enough for two weeks but…”
“But after that you have to pay.”
Gabriella sighed. “Yeah.”
“Is it a lot?”
“Yeah,” she scoffed. “It’s a lot.”
“More than the entrance exam cost?”
Gabriella hesitated. “Half the money we saved for the exam is gone. Gone, just like…” She trailed off, threw up her hands, and laughed bitterly. “And that was just to pay for the first year for the pills. Mom tried to talk to Golden Age about us just paying for the pills weekly, but they’ll only sell it to us on a yearly subscription basis.”
Jorge rubbed his eyes and asked, bracing himself for the answer, “How much do you need?”
“How much is a lot?”
Jorge leaned his head back, not wanting Gabriella to see him wincing.
“Two hundred and thirty, actually. Might as well be a thousand. There’s no way we can get that together in three months.”
“Maybe you could…could raise the money?” Jorge said weakly, knowing if this was an option Gabriella would have already done it.
“We’re trying, but so far we haven’t raised anything on my WishComeTrue page. I mean, there’s thousands of pages just like mine. And if I don’t raise all the money, I don’t get to keep anything I do raise from the site, even if I raised two-hundred-twenty-nine points. There’s a five point penalty fee for not reaching your goal, so I’ll probably lose out on this. I told Mom she shouldn’t have posted that page.”
“It’s okay, I mean, like you said, I’ll just take the Bilman and-and I probably wouldn’t have done that great in university anyway, it’s not like I was definitely going to work at an institute…I should go.”
Still, he wished he had said something before Gabriella, not looking him in the eye, thanked him for the flashdrive and hurried out of the room.
Jorge boarded a train shortly after Gabriella left. He was so fixated on their conversation that he almost missed the train entirely, which would have been a disaster. He had eighty-five minutes to reach the Middle for a tutoring job. He had been tutoring this particular child for two years and never been late once. Yet he knew that if he was late today, he would immediately be fired and a permanent mark would go on his work record.
Jorge knew various routes to the Middle. You had to because of how unpredictable and long some construction projects could be. A few weeks earlier Jorge had found an entire zone blocked off, nearly doubling the amount of time it took him to get home. But of all the routes he knew, this was the quickest and the safest.
It was never wise to let your guard down while on the move. Jorge had been robbed without realizing it until hours later twice and once at gunpoint while nearby passengers ignored them, desperately hoping to be ignored in turn. That is why Jorge never listened to lectures while traveling, no matter how much he hated thinking of all the accumulated time wasted when he could be learning. He once tried to determine the precise amount of time he had been forced to waste before deciding this was a meta-waste of time. Fear of being robbed was also why he always backed up important data on his home system, traveled light, and kept all his belongings in a small duffel bag buckled to his chest. He had become especially paranoid since he had dug up his old GoldenPad a year ago and started carrying it around with him. The cheapest GoldenPads cost two hundred points. This specialized one had cost two-thousand. Anyone would murder him for the chance to sell it. He was still amazed his wife hadn’t insisted he sell it. But she didn’t, and every time he remembered that he wanted to thank her again.
Once onboard the train, Jorge shoved his way through dozens of people, each grumbling as he pressed inward. Jorge used to apologize but had long since stopped. He didn’t want to come off as rude but he decided there was no polite way to shove your way inside a train when no one would move. Not that he blamed them—the train cars were always packed well beyond their supposed max capacity.
The train lumbered along slowly, sparks falling from above every time it turned visible through grimy windows. They would almost be pretty if it weren’t for the awful shrieks that accompanied them, each calling to mind the silent, sleek, capacious buses and trains in the Middle and Center. It was a bitter pleasure for Jorge—remembering what it was like to be able to sit down and stretch out his legs without touching someone else never got easier.
Neither did getting out of the train, which was the only thing more difficult than getting in. Jorge had learned to not push too far inside a train car, otherwise you’d never escape. Jorge supposed it was possible for someone pressed against the wall to get out for their stop, but only if they started planning their route and pushing forward far ahead of time. When he was a child, his father had told him a story about a ghost who had been trying to get off a train for fifty years. Back then Jorge thought it was funny. Since then he hadn’t seen any ghosts, but he had been pressed against dead bodies.
After disembarking from the first train, Jorge walked briskly toward the second. He did not run. That was a sure way to attract attention from the peace officers, who were always looking for a reason to harass Seconders. Not that they needed a pretext. There were always random stops and there was nothing you could do to avoid them. Over a long enough period, getting stopped was inevitable.
Jorge got lucky—a few peace officers looked his way but none ordered him to stop to be searched. He reached the second train, got off that one, hopped on a third, and then walked a mile until he reached a set of stairs that led up to the outskirts of the Middle.
He kept his eyes closed as he emerged, the darkness behind his lids suddenly gold as he emerged into the dome’s artificial daylight. He gave himself the usual six seconds to adjust, slowly opened them and, once he was certain there were no peace officers or anyone else for that matter around to be careful of, he walked the remaining five miles to his destination.
Taking a Steed was unthinkable—no driver, nearly all of whom were Seconders, would give a ride to another Seconder, and not just because it sent a “bad message” to potential riders from the Middle. It was also impractical. With the recent upsurge in costs, Jorge would barely break even if he took a Steed for the ten miles to and from his student’s house. So he walked, careful to maintain a slouched posture. Walking erect could come off as proud, and no one in the Middle liked to see that. Teenagers in particular were quick to beat up any Seconder they thought was acting like they didn’t know their place. Adults were less likely to attack but, when they did, they were far, far more savage. Teens often just followed Seconders, spitting at them, mocking them, tripping them, pushing, that sort of thing. Adults came with bats and rope.
For the same reason, Jorge never wore good clothes when he visited the Middle, and he pinned the work permit he kept in his breast pocket pinned over his heart, clear for all to see. It was an effective deterrent—would-be-attackers thought twice because, if they wounded or killed a Seconder with a permit, they might be inconveniencing more powerful Shareholders.
During the five mile walk, passing holographic lush trees and a strange mixture of high and low tech, like the elegant Steeds and power stations and wooden fences modeled after images from history books, Jorge tried to remember what he was supposed to teach his student, Sam, this week. Sam’s parents had asked him to teach a number of subjects over the last two years, from physics to writing to Spanish, yes, that was it, he was teaching Sam how to speak Spanish. He smiled, thinking how these half-hour sessions gave him the chance to speak his first language, even if Sam himself was a hopeless student. Speaking Spanish was illegal for Seconders, even in Sector C. Speaking it for any non-work reason in Sector B could get you killed.
Jorge was almost in a good mood when he reached Sam’s house, a two story, resplendent structure modeled, like the rest of the neighborhood, on photos from mid to late twentieth-century North America. Most of the lawn was made up of LED screens displaying dew-speckled grass. But by the front door was a garden, a real garden. Jorge always took a moment to smell the tiny flowers before knocking on the door, though it meant he couldn’t avoid seeing the two signs posted nearby—one that read “We Believe in Seconder Rights” in bold, block capital letters and, on the other, “Love is Always the Answer” written in a flowing cursive.
The front door opened but, instead of Sam’s mother or father, his five-year-old brother answered.
Jorge smiled. “Hi, Charlie! How’s it going?”
“He’s out with his friends.”
“Oh…did he…do you know when he’ll be back.”
“No,” Charlie replied, staring off into another room.
“Well, do you know if your mom or dad left my pay or maybe they left a GoldenPhone? Do you know what a GoldenPhone is? It looks like a little rectangle…Charlie? Are you listening?”
“Uh-huh,” Charlie said, still staring off to the left.
“If they have the pay ready I just need to tap the phone to my wrist-link…I mean, if they know Sam’s not going to be back in time—”
“Yeah, he won’t be back.”
“Wait, so they did tell you?”
“Before you said you didn’t know.”
“So…did they mention anything about the pay?”
“The pay, my pay, did they leave a GoldenPhone that I could—”
“I gotta go bye George.”
Charlie shut the door. Through the window he saw the boy activate his console, stick on the latest Z-Verse ring model—a semi-circle that hooked around a person’s ears and that had two endpoints which attached to their temples—and enter the Z-Verse. Though the boy was still staring towards Jorge, his Z-lens were showing him a very different world. Jorge still half-heartedly waved goodbye. Then he took a deep breath and started back towards Sector C.
The next few hours were dull, but productive. Back in Sector C Subsector 3B Zone 28 Jorge was sitting in a tiny cubicle doing emotion-tagging work, what Seconders called face-work. A face would appear on an old, spotty screen—an adult’s, a child’s, an infant’s—along with a number of words ranging from “happy” to “sad” to “frustrated” to “perplexed.” Jorge had seen over a hundred descriptors during face-work. The workers’ job was to select all the words that applied to the face or, if none of them did, to write in what words they would use.
It was mind-numbing work that only paid 0.01 point per face, but workers were free to listen to anything on their Z-Links they wanted. Jorge took the opportunity to listen to an audio recording of a speech made by a graphene-specialist at the Zife Institute for Specialized Research.
Still, face-work always left Jorge depressed. There was something weird about seeing so many different individual faces while he was unable to see any of the faces of the thousand workers around him, hunched over their own terminals. He wondered what emotions the program might infer from his face.
After four hours Jorge stopped at a replenishment station. There were hundreds of them scattered around Sector C, massive rooms with long tables where workers could sit, rest, and enjoy whatever food happened to be served at that particular replenishment station on that particular day, assuming there was any food left. Sometimes workers arrived at one when the food had run out and before the next shipment arrived. This naturally infuriated them, but most of them just left to find another. Unfortunately, sometimes a worker was already infuriated before arriving, and being told there was nothing left was too much.
Jorge had determined the shipment times for a dozen different replenishment stations to ensure he never lost time searching for food, time that could be used going to another job. He arrived, then, a few minutes before the next shipment was due to arrive. He got in line early and was sitting with a burger and fries only seven minutes after he arrived.
He took a moment to look admiringly at the burger. The latest advances in synthetics were incredible—it really did look, and taste, like meat. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been warmed up for long enough. The center was ice cold. The fries, at least, were decent.
Jorge enjoyed listening to all the conversations that went on in the replenishment stations, or the restaurants, as they were called throughout Sector C. People tended to let their guard down a bit, talk about themselves, their interests, something real. Somehow it was easy to forget that every single other person in the room was a potential rival for a job. Twice Jorge was overjoyed to hear about a small book club that went from one restaurant to another, though he had never run into them yet.
But drowning out the handful of pleasant conversations going on was a man sitting right behind him complaining about everything. One moment he was speaking clearly, more-or-less, about real problems like peace officers abusing workers and the next he was equally enraged over the design of the latest GoldenPhones or the “unharmoniousness” of a bland teen singing group. This last point really seemed to hit a nerve for the man, who slammed his fist on the table every time he said “unharmoniousness.”
Jorge’s ears perked up a bit when he heard him start to talk about teachers.
“It’s a fucking disgrace! All these fucking school principals, they all know that we know they can fire us anytime they want for any reason or no fucking reason whatsoever. They don’t give a shit about us, not a single one of them! And why should they? They know we can’t quit, won’t fucking dare, ‘cause there’s a million more pathetic pieces of shit ready to step in and say please treat me like shit if this guy doesn’t want to deal with it anymore. But the observation reports, those are the worst, the…fucking absurd, that’s what they are! As if getting a good report matters. They don’t save those things. I’ve seen ‘em delete the files an hour later. It’s just a job to keep the observer busy for a while and a way to keep the teachers disciplined as if we weren’t fucking disciplined enough! ‘Cause they know they still have to make sure to do well on the reports because even though a good report means nothing a bad report is a fucking catastrophe! Then they can take away your last month’s pay, like if you’re a bad teacher when you were observed you must have started being bad a month ago, is that the logic? Who fucking knows, probably just higher-up who decided on a month for no reason whatso-fucking-ever. Teachers, that’s not even what we are. You know what we are? Monitors. Guards in a fucking training-camp for prison, for this whole fucked-up maze. Today I got fired ‘cause the whole school went under. Fucking principal was running some kind of scam. He’s still got the points, you know, but now assholes like me are trying to get new teaching jobs but everyone wants ‘em of course ‘cause they’re steady and students are scrambling to find new schools to go to and how to transfer credits and try not to fuck up their lives before they even start…”
At this point Jorge, having finished his burger and fries, turned around, curious to know who the man was talking to and if they were both teachers. If so, Jorge was tempted to talk to them, or at least express solidarity.
But when he turned around he saw the man was alone.
Jorge spent the next two hours in a cubicle twenty miles away from the previous one, saying whatever word appeared on a screen, listening to the computer say it back in a full sentence, and then select whether the computer had A) said the word correctly, B) used it correctly in the sentence, C) Both A and B, or D) Neither A nor D. The computer would keep trying until it both said and used the word correctly. Typically, it took thirty tries.
Jorge’ eyes were starting to hurt, but he knew he still had at least three more hours of work ahead of him, if he was lucky, and all of it would be in front of a computer.
He was halfway to his next job when he saw something terrifying.
Two peace officers were talking, looking mildly relaxed, when a kid, no more than twenty, shoved past one of them. In his rush to get to the train he simply hadn’t seen them. He had undoubtedly bumped into other people along the way, but now he had bumped into a peace officer.
Jorge wanted to cry out, “Stop!” but knew it was pointless. The kid was probably listening to something on his Z-Link. The earpieces canceled everything out. He wouldn’t hear Jorge’s warning and, even if he did, it was too late to stop what was about to happen.
He might have outrun the peace officers if he hadn’t stopped once he reached the train. He probably felt relieved that he’d made the train on time until the two peace officers slammed him to the ground. Everyone around them sprang back, desperate not to be mistaken for an accomplice to someone who, by being slammed down by peace officers, was by definition a criminal.
But things got worse. The kid, still with his ear buds in, didn’t know he had been tackled by peace officers. He assumed he was just being attacked by strangers. So he resisted. Not much, and only for a second, but he did not remain perfectly still, which was the only thing that might have saved him.
Only Jorge watched the peace officers restrain their suspect, a phrase that covered everything from being put in handcuffs to being choked to death with a cable. No one else did. Jorge didn’t blame them. It wasn’t easy to watch someone suffer, let alone murdered. But even if there was nothing he could do, it felt wrong that no one should bear witness, that a life should be snuffed out without anyone noticing. Or maybe it didn’t matter. Regardless, he watched out of the corner of his eye as the peace officers restrained the kid until he was dead.
Then he went searching for his next job.
Jorge arrived home at 9:00 p.m. and immediately deactivated the work notification app on his Z-Link wristband. It had been feeding him a steady stream of images of lists all day of possible jobs. The lists were always updating as jobs appeared and disappeared as they were taken. The constant rushing around and pushing through crowds was bad enough, but having to fixate on the lists projected from their Z-lenses—lists that blurred together when two or more people got close with their own lists projected from their Z-lenses—was the worst part of all. It was disorienting when Jorge was able to finally turn off the lists and focus on one, single, undivided reality.
He couldn’t wait to see Teamina, but, as he expected, she wasn’t there. Work was as random as it was for her as for Jorge or any other worker. Occasionally they tried to arrange times to meet but, even then, if there was a chance to make a few extra points, they couldn’t say no.
Their compartment was made up of four rooms. The entrance opened into the tight kitchen, filled with pots, pans, utensils, and more all handed down by either Jorge’s or Teamina’s parents. At the end of the kitchen were three steps that descended into the living room. It contained a couch, a screen embedded into the wall, and a virtual reality pad in the corner, similar to the one Charlie had been playing on earlier but smaller. Opposite one blank wall were two narrow doors that led to the bathroom and the bedroom. The bedroom was relatively large, but so was the bed Teamina’s grandmother had passed down to her. It had been a nightmare taking it apart and lugging the whole thing into the compartment. It barely fit, so in order to get into the bed they had to climb up onto it as soon as they passed through the door. Even after five years, Jorge still forgot and banged his knees at night. All in all, though, the compartment was one of the better ones on Block 2 of Zone 7 Subsector 11A. They had lived with another couple in their last compartment. Before that they lived with a family of five.
All the gray walls were bare, but they could do nothing about that. Technically they could change the drab paint color or affix something physical, but if they had to move they would have to spend points to undo the changes, and just filling in holes could cost a week’s work of pay. It just wasn’t worth it, especially since, with the Z-lens, it was possible to see any decoration you wanted. Virtual photos or paintings or wall designs cost points, too, but not as much, and they could be sold back for at least half-price.
Jorge and Teamina didn’t have any virtual decorations, though. Jorge had offered to buy Teamina a virtual painting once, but she instantly shot down the idea. They had a long conversation during which they realized, to their delight, that they both disliked the idea of spending money on unreal objects. They promised to only ever get each other solid objects but, in four years of marriage, had only bought each other a handful of gifts. There only ever seemed to be just enough points to pay for utilities and rent, one to their block landlord and another to the zone administrator. And when there was a little extra, they always put it in savings, each afraid the other would think they were being irresponsible if they spent the points on something frivolous. Besides, the savings account was a kind of joint-gift. When they opened the account they agreed they would use it to support their children one day. They nicknamed it the baby account.
Seven years later, the amount was still pitifully low. They didn’t mind, though. The question of whether or not to have kids had become so frustrating that it was useful to have an excuse for why they had to put it off, as if they had no choice. Both knew, however, that having children would solve the points issue—Golden Age paid a high up-front bonus to new parents and a stipend after that which increased 50% with each additional child. It hadn’t always been this way, but the Department of Population Control was concerned about how few children were being born. Fewer children meant fewer workers in the long-term, so they decided to offer a financial incentive. The bonus and stipend covered all the necessary costs children would bring, with a little left over for the parents, who typically spent it on luxuries they never would have been able to afford otherwise. Since the bonuses and stipends were offered, the population had increased at just the right amount from management’s perspective.
For Jorge and Teamina, the fact that they would get points was a problem. Neither wanted to have children for financial gain, but when all the workers were always on the brink of ruin, it was impossible not to think about the potential points. The bigger, and even more intractable problem, was that neither felt much hope about the future, and it felt wrong to bring a child into the world when they had no hope about the world they would grow up in.
Jorge and Teamina had talked about it a hundred times. Then they argued about it a hundred times, each of them frequently switching sides but never, unfortunately, at the same time. By now they had established an unspoken agreement not to talk about children at all. They comforted themselves that they were still very young. But Jorge couldn’t see how to resolve any of their concerns, no matter how many years they waited, without actively trying to address them. Still, they avoided the subject, along with the even more sensitive subject of donating sperm or eggs. The Department of Population Control had long offered a small amount of points for sperm or egg donors, but for some unknown reason that amount had tripled a few years ago. Now tens of thousands of people were trying to donate. But not Jorge or Teamina. They were uneasy about the sudden increase in points being offered to donors. Even if they knew their sperm and eggs would lead to beautiful children being born and adopted by loving workers, however, their hopelessness held them back. Jorge was glad, at least, they both agreed neither would donate, even if it was rooted in shared pessimism.
Yet for reasons Jorge refused to analyze, he frequently put in points to the baby account.
Jorge paid a quarter-point so that a slot in the kitchen wall opened up and pushed out a bottle of water before snapping back shut. He often wondered if there was a way to break open the slot or keep it open, maybe allow him to get access to more than just one bottle at a time. But workers had heard for years about people who tried this and ended up being banned from living in any compartment anywhere. Whether these stories were true was irrelevant. The fear of having to live in the cold tunnels, at the mercy of criminals and peace officers, was enough to keep any sane person from trying.
He sipped the water slowly, savoring every drop. He was more tired than hungry, so he sat on the couch for a while, doing nothing. Jorge hated doing nothing, but after what he’d seen, what he’d been dwelling on ever since, he couldn’t muster the energy to read anything useful.
Twenty minutes passed. Teamina was still not home.
Jorge hated to be in the ZVerse when she got home—he worried it made it seem like he hadn’t really been eagerly waiting for her to return. But after looking at the time, he decided he had no choice. Jorge quickly turned on his GoldenPad, finished what he had been reading this morning before Francis interrupted him, and then put on his old Z-Verse ring.
As soon as he spoke the words, “Enter ZVerse,” the compartment was gone.
“Strange traveler, I see the weight of a great burden beneath thine eyes. Well do I recognize it, for I carry the same burden.”
The NPC was old, with wispy hair and a gray beard. His armor was faded and worn from too much use. But he was spry–even with a slight limp, he was able to keep up with Jorge’s avatar.
“A dark terror has invaded my homeland to the west. A fell beast they say, full of wroth and devoid of pity. Many are the brave souls who have arisen to strike back against this terrible foe. But alas, none who have contended with the beast in mortal combat have returned save but in broken forms hidden in caskets carried back by faithful friends to spare their already grief-stricken kin from such a gruesome sight.”
Jorge looked around the village. “That’s too bad.”
“Aye,” the NPC continued, nodding gravely while Jorge continued scanning the mixture of NPCs and player-avatars roaming the streets of Bresol Town. “‘Tis a tragedy without end that has consumed my homeland. And I, willing as I am, know I can better serve my people by seeking out a champion than by fighting myself and only further feed the insatiable enemy.”
“Yeah, look, I’m—”
“Thou art strong and young, yet bear the scars of blood-soaked experience. Will thou not ride west with me and save my people from this accursed darkness?”
Jorge sighed. “I wish I could help you out…but see him? I’m sure he’d help you out!”
The NPC went as quickly as he could over to the other avatar. Jorge heard him say, “Strange traveler, I see the weight of a great burden…” before rounding a corner and seeing the apothecary’s shop.
Along the way, Jorge passed dozens of others dressed in medieval garb. The NPCs and avatars controlled by players like Jorge were indistinguishable except for a tiny blue ball of light hovering over their heads. He was careful to say excuse me and try not to shove past any other players’ avatars, but he was almost as courteous to the NPCs. Even as a child Jorge had never been able to think of them as anything other than people. Technically, the avatar he was controlling right at that moment was just as much code as anything else in this virtual world. The only difference was that his avatar, just like every other player’s avatar, was self-aware. Jorge knew the body he was walking around in, experiencing the world in, was not his body, but the sensors in the ring that connected to his brain made that distinction meaningless. Scores of philosophy books had been written debating the ontological implications of this fact—Jorge was content just to treat NPCs with basic respect. In contrast, most had no problem treating them like mindless code. They would have used the massive sword Jorge carried—which he’d found after killing the Wolf King, Bane of Desenra—and cut off the old soldier’s head. Maybe that’s what the other player he had foisted him onto had done, but Jorge liked to think that he found someone willing to help him out.
A person’s real name was inextricably linked to their avatar—using any name other than the one Golden Age had on file was illegal and punishable by up to ten years imprisonment. But anyone in Sectors C and B were free to alter their appearance any way they liked. Some of the people he passed had made drastic alterations, giving themselves scales or fangs or made themselves enormous. Jorge suspected they thought, based on his own avatar, he was pathetically unimaginative. He preferred to think he just liked being himself, though his avatar was admittedly much taller and muscular.
Jorge was almost to the apothecary’s shop when someone tapped him on the elbow.
“Good morrow, me lord.”
He turned around, prepared to politely refuse whatever new quest he was being offered. But his fake smile fell a little when he saw the little red ball of light hovering over the scuffed, barefoot child’s head.
“I can’t find me little sister, sir.”
“Oh, that’s…I’m sorry.”
“She ain’t but four years big. Wandered off, she has. Ruby Martinez is her name.”
“Never heard of her. Sorry.”
“Might you help me ask these fine folk for help, sir?”
“No, I have to go.”
“What ‘bout Dylan Grayson? He’s a friend of me mum. Think she might be with him.”
“Sure you won’t do me a kindness?”
“I wish I could but I have to go. There’s a fell beast in the west I need to take care of. Been causing a huge problem.”
“Well, good morrow, then.”
Jorge nodded as cheerfully as he could. Then he milled around, waiting until the child was out of sight before continuing on into the apothecary’s shop. Once inside, he went up to a large, ruddy-faced man on one knee, peering at the herbs and roots on display. There was a blue ball of light over his head.
“Hi,” Jorge said.
“I was wondering…a friend told me you’re the man to ask about a room.”
The man slowly stood up. Still looking at the herbs and roots, he asked, “A good friend?”
“I’ve known him for a while.”
“I’ve known him for five or three or no eight years.”
“That’s nice. I…” He momentarily panicked, especially when he saw the flash of distrust in the man’s eyes when he turned after the silence hung a little too long. “I…oh, right, have you given out rooms?”
“One or four, yes four years.”
“And how many rooms do you have?”
“Five or one.”
“Great. Uh…oh, do you know if anyone will be coming around here later?”
The man froze for a moment, as if he had died. Then life returned to him. “In about five minutes I’d say.”
The man gave a curt nod. Then he knelt down again and picked up one of the roots.
Jorge walked until he was some distance from the apothecary. Then he said, “Exit current game.”
The world of Realms of Creation vanished and his avatar was suspended in a white emptiness filled only by spinning Golden Age logos rising in irregular patterns from below until they were so high they were out of sight. A screen soon materialized with a list of options. After a few steps, when asked to input the chatroom he wanted to be connected to, he typed 53814451 and selected Enter.
After being in the white void, it took a moment for Jorge’s eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness. Eventually, he was able to just discern the contours of the hallway and the closed door at the very end.
It looked like he was in one of those haunted house games his students introduced him to. Every step emitted a long, high-pitched creak. His short walk was so loud that, by the time he got to the door, there was no need to knock.
A slot opened and two eyes scrutinized him.
Jorge bent low so the person could see the blue ball of light over his head. He didn’t need to bend low, since this avatar, unlike the one in Realms of Creation, was an exact copy of his real self.
The slot closed, a lock turned, and the door opened.
Inside Jorge saw a gathering of twenty or so men and women. The room, while dilapidated like the hallway, was richly furnished with a ruby-red carpet, ornate chairs and couches, and a roaring fire that illuminated some faces and hid others in shadow. Jorge walked in warily and chose a spot along the back wall to lean on. While the others talked, he took one of the books out of the nearby bookcase built into the wall. The pages were blank. Annoyed, he thought over the scientific report he’d finished reading earlier until someone near the center of the room stood up.
“All right, everyone, I think we can start. Welcome. For anyone who’s new here, my name is Mark, and I want to remind everyone to only use first names here. We like to establish a degree of trust by using first names but full names, well, we all can’t be too careful, right? Okay. So our first speaker is a very special guest. He’s currently running for a seat on the Superior Labor Board of Subsector 4B and he’d like all of us to vote for him.” Mild laughter. “Seriously, though, I’m thrilled to have him here, I think he’s got a lot of great ideas, he’d make a great labor board representative and…I should really let him do the campaigning, c’mon up Gordon!”
Jorge watched everyone applauding. Normally he would have, too, but tonight he just didn’t feel like feigning enthusiasm.
“Thank you. My name is Gordon Selker—yes, I’m breaking the first-name only rule, but if I’m here asking for your vote I think you deserve to know my full name. Plus it’ll make it easier to actually vote for me,” Selker said with a smirk. “Now…Mark is absolutely right. I would like all of you to vote for me. But, what’s more important is that I want you to vote for me. I want you to feel excited about voting for me because of what I can do for you. And I realize not all of you live in my zone. Maybe none of you are! But that’s the point. Superior boards aren’t like the local labor boards, where you can’t influence anything beyond your own zone. I’ve been doing that kind of work for ten years. Zone 1 of Subsector 4B, born and raised. I’m proud of the work I’ve done there advocating for workers, fighting to raise the minimum point wage, pushing to make the public transit we all rely on free to use. That’s not the case everywhere, but it is in Zone 1 Subsector 4B and that’s because me and my colleagues fought like hell to arrange it that way with the corporate reps. We’ve negotiated deals that have made life significantly better for my neighbors, and I want to do the same thing on a bigger scale now because, let’s face it, things need to fucking change, am I right?”
People responded with sounds of approval, from words to grunts to scattered applause.
“Things need to change! Because I am tired of hearing about workers not getting paid because of a glitch. I’m tired of rents going up while point wages go down. I’m tired of obscene medical bills, of never knowing whether a school is going to still be there for your kids tomorrow. I’m tired of peace officers harassing us, profiling us, abusing us with impunity. But what I’m really, really tired of is not enough people with the power to do something caring at all. Because believe me, there are people on these boards who don’t give a shit about you, your families, nobody. They are in it for the steady pay, the perks, and the power. Golden Age knows parasites are drawn to these positions. We all know that—it’s why labor board reps have such a bad reputation. Just say the word rep and people sneer. They say they’re all the same, in it for themselves. And yeah, some are. But there are plenty more who are in it for the right reasons, and we need more of them on these boards. Now, I’m not perfect, and as a person I’ve made plenty of mistakes. But as your representative, I would be listening to you always. I wouldn’t be the one making decisions. You would. You all would. My record shows that’s how I’ve done things in the past and that’s how I’d do them on the superior board if you’ll do me the great honor of placing your trust in me and voting for Gordon Selker this Election Day. Thank you.”
Everyone applauded again, except for Jorge.
Mark stood forward again beside Selker. “Thanks, Gordon. So here’s the deal. Gordon’s running against an incumbent with a lot of friends and a pretty tight campaigning machine. It’s not going to be easy for him to win, which is why I suggested that he go on a tour of backrooms like this one and ask for our endorsement.”
“And, sorry, Mark, can I just say that I hope all of you are proud of what you’re doing here. You’re all taking a risk being here tonight. Golden Age hates these backrooms. We’ve all seen the junk they put out claiming entering them will ruin your VR set or it’s all just a scam to hack into your savings or that they can track who goes in and out and a lot of other nonsense. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s not illegal yet. But people like you keep coming, week after week, to talk freely about anything you want and, yeah, I just want to say I admire that and I hope you do, too.”
“Thanks, Gordon. Always glad to hear someone say I should admire myself.”
Jorge groaned and considered leaving while the others laughed. Many, he knew, were probably doing so just to be polite. But they were still laughing.
“Like I was saying, Gordon’s on a tour right now, going from one backroom to another to try and win support. Of course, no endorsement here is binding, but I’d ask that any of you who value the freedom of thought and expression this backroom has offered to respect whatever decision we make as a group. So I move that we put it to a vote and go from there, unless anyone has any questions for Gordon? No? Last chance. All right, I make the motion. Is there a second?”
“Second,” said someone.
“So moved. There’s…nineteen of us, so how about we just do a voice vote?”
“Is that a motion?” asked someone.
“Because it has to be an official motion.”
“I know, Manny. Yes, it’s a motion.”
“Second,” said Manny.
“All right, all in favor of this backroom endorsing Gordon Selker for Superior Labor Board of Subsector 4B say ‘Aye.’”
Everyone else called out, “Aye.”
Mark and Selker were the first to look towards Jorge, followed a moment later by everyone else.
Only a few seconds passed, but it felt a lot longer, particularly for Mark and Selker.
“Okay…” Mark said. “The motion to endorse Gordon Selk—”
“One second, Mark,” said Selker, stepping towards Jorge, who remained leaning against the wall. “Would you mind telling me your name?”
“If there’s anything you want to ask me, or if you have any criticisms I’d love to hear them. I’m not here to dodge hard questions.”
Jorge felt all eyes fix on him. It had been a long time since he had been the center of attention anywhere, but it didn’t make him uncomfortable in the slightest.
“That’s all right.”
“Really, I’m happy to talk about any concerns you have. Anything.”
“I’d rather not.”
“It’s just…” Selker puckered his lips, thought for a moment, and then said, more to the room than to Jorge, “I’m honored to receive this backroom’s endorsement. I don’t take your votes lightly. But whatever the reasons you have, Jorge, for wanting to keep my opponent in office, I guarantee you there are plenty of people out there with the same reservations. So even if you decide to vote for Olson, fine, I respect that, but by giving me a chance to…address your concerns or, at the very least, find out what they are, frankly, knowing that will help me be a better representative if I do win. Plus it may turn out that what you think is a difference between us is really just a misunderstanding, which is my guess since we’re both workers and we’re on the same side. Don’t you think?”
“Listen,” Jorge said, irritated as much at himself as Selker, “I wasn’t going to vote at all…but putting aside whatever reservations I have, I don’t think backrooms should be asked to endorse anyone for anything. This is supposed to be a place for free discussion without worrying about being spied on by peace officers, where we can say things like fuck Victor Zife or the Church of You is a disgusting scam. If we start holding votes for things, pretty soon we’ll turn into a board ourselves and get bogged down in bylaws and rules when the whole point is we’re free to say whatever we want.”
“I don’t think introducing a little structure is the end of the world,” Mark said, personally offended. “But I said before that this vote wasn’t binding. This is nothing like a labor board. There’s no way to…enforce decisions or compel anyone to do anything.”
Jorge gave him a faux-puzzled look. “If the vote isn’t binding, what’s the point of the endorsement?”
A few people started muttering. Selker gave Mark a half-second before he had to respond.
“Believe it or not,” he began, “talking to large numbers of voters at a time isn’t easy. We all know the Outer is designed so that there’s nowhere for crowds to gather. Maybe the restaurants, but you never know if those are being watched plus people are there to eat, not hang around. The layout, the unpredictable schedules, it’s all designed to keep us from organizing.”
“Everyone knows that,” Jorge said flatly.
“Which is why anyone who wants to reach voters has to be creative. Yes, I try to go door-to-door or talk to workers one at a time but do you know how few people are ever willing to take time to talk about politics when they could be making points or enjoying a short break? I wish I could talk to every single person in Subsector 4B one-on-one, I really do. But I can’t, so I talk to groups wherever I can find them, and backrooms are the best for that because not only are there groups here but every single person is in a backroom because they care enough to be involved, to engage, to—”
“—Fine, fine,” Jorge interjected. “So you made your speech and now everyone can decide whether or not to vote for you. The endorsement still isn’t binding, so what’s the difference between getting an endorsement when every person here who voted aye could vote for Olson on Election Day and not having a vote and letting everyone decide for themselves, which is what they were going to do anyway?”
“You still haven’t said why you’re supporting Olson,” Selker replied.
“Nice deflection—you really are a politician.”
“You just don’t like politicians? Is that it?”
“Then why support Olson when he’s the perfect embodiment of the status quo people like me are trying to change!”
Jorge paused. He knew if he replied too quickly he would instinctively match Selker’s increased volume. But no matter how annoyed he got, Jorge knew from experience nothing good came from letting a flustered debate opponent get you flustered, too.
“I never said I was supporting Olson,” Jorge answered calmly.
Selker laughed. It was an ugly, mean laugh. He looked around, willing others to join in. Most did without really knowing why, though each found it off-putting and were uncertain about where the argument was going.
“I see,” said Selker. “You’re one of those Nonparticipants.”
Jorge stepped forward, feeling something old inside him stir, a little fire. It felt good.
“I’m perfectly capable of deciding not to vote all on my own.”
“But you agree with them and their ridiculous manifesto, that no one should vote for labor boards?”
“I’m starting to sympathize.”
“Oh yeah? What exactly is it you sympathize with? Please, I’m sure we’d all love to know. Is it the way they tell people voting doesn’t change anything when in reality voting is the only thing that’s ever changed anything? Or is it the way they take for granted things like free public transit or the raised minimum point wage, things people like me fought for? Or maybe how they love to claim the moral high ground but never risk doing anything that might actually help people in tangible ways?”
Jorge shrugged. “You got me, those are exactly the reasons I sympathize with them.”
A few people couldn’t help but chuckle, much to Mark and Selker’s annoyance. Jorge, meanwhile, was shocked at what he’d heard himself say. But like the little fire, which didn’t feel so little anymore, this surge of confidence felt good, too. He felt stronger, bigger.
“You’re just a punk. You’re not taking this seriously.”
“And you’re taking it too seriously!” Jorge shouted. The sudden force in his voice startled everyone into silence. “Let me tell you something. I’ve voted in every single election since I was nineteen. I remember the first candidates I voted for, what they said, how much I believed in them. I really thought they were going to make things better. But they didn’t, not in any significant way. I still voted, though, year after year. A little less enthusiastically but I still did it, because I thought how people had fought for my right to vote and it’d be ungrateful not to and because I believed just what you said, that voting was the only way to change things, and choosing the least worst candidate was the best option. I was actually reading your platform this morning while my students were taking a test and probably would have voted for you, too, except for something I saw later. Two peace officers crush a man’s windpipe and keep beating him even after he was dead, all because he bumped into them by accident.”
Jorge took a deep breath. The rage in his eyes told everyone he wasn’t finished.
“I watched them murder him and thought about all the other times I’ve seen peace officers murder people. Then I thought about all the other awful things I see every single day, like people thrown out of their homes when their landlords decide to triple their rent and have to live out in the tunnels. And then I thought about the whole fucking system, why it’s like this, and what I could do about it? I asked myself if voting really was the best way and if so, why? I looked at it logically. Why is voting good? I decided it was good if the people you voted for would fight to make things better. But then I looked back on all the candidates and had to recognize that most of them ended up doing literally what their opponents at least had the integrity to admit they would do from the beginning. I thought fine, okay, but what if voting is good if it simply stops things from getting worse? That might make sense, except, first of all, things are so awful for so many people that going from intolerable to more intolerable doesn’t seem that frightening, and second of all, not proactively trying to make things better always allows others to make them worse. Doing nothing bad isn’t enough anymore. It…”
Jorge scoffed. “I used to have debates just like this with my parents. I used to argue about how it was important to participate in the political process. They said I was naïve and I said they were bitter. But you know what I didn’t know back then? A lot. Like I didn’t know the transit system, the one you’re so proud to say you’ve helped make free for your zone, at least, used to be free everywhere! Did you know that? Did any of you know that? That’s right. Until thirty years ago it was free for everyone. Then Golden Age decided to start charging us and it’s only been in the last few years we’ve started to see it go back to being free in some places. And that’s what we call a victory! I can’t do it anymore. I’m sorry. I really am. But I can’t be berated every year by politicians who tell me that anything bad that happens is my fault because not enough people voted for the right people and then when they get into office they do nothing and blame us for their cowardice and around Election Day it all starts over again. I’m done. I quit.”
Selker started to respond but stopped when he saw the look on everyone’s faces. Then he reconsidered whatever he was about to say before finally speaking.
“I’m sorry for what those peace officers did. I really am.”
“I believe you,” Jorge said.
Surprised, and encouraged, by the sincerity in Jorge’s voice, he went on, “That kind of…vicious crime without punishment needs to stop. I agree. You know I agree and…Jorge, I’m sorry if I got upset before, but it seems to me that we’re on the same side. We both want things to be better for all of Sector C and I’m just…frustrated at the thought that someone like you who cares would voluntarily take yourself out of the process when you could help people like me reform—”
“—There is no reform,” Jorge cut in, “that would have saved that kid! The system encourages violence and hatred for Seconders. You can’t pass a law that will make peace officers see us as human beings.”
“So you just want to abolish the system completely?” Selker snapped, returning to sounding persecuted and indignant. “Have total lawlessness?”
Jorge groaned. “I’m so tired of that argument. Is that really the limit of your imagination? Either we accept being collateral damage or have the Outer descend into total lawlessness? You can’t imagine creating something better?”
“Maybe, but only through voting.”
“Voting wouldn’t have saved that kid, either.”
“What alternative is there? Tell me. Should we all join the Harinites and start throwing bombs and killing people?”
“Golden Age has thrown a thousand times more bombs and killed a thousand times more people than the ZRA. But you really don’t think they’ve done good things for the Outer? They’ve hacked into the Main Office and redistributed money, they…we’re only able to be here because of them! You really think the backrooms could exist without the program they distributed—for free, incidentally—that identifies peace officers in the ZVerse with those red circles over their heads? One came up to me on my way here! I might have thought it was some NPC offering me a side-quest if it weren’t for the ZRA. No one even believed the peace officers were patrolling the ZVerse until the ZRA proved it.”
“They’re still a criminal organization,” Selker replied.
Jorge threw up his hands. “People have been arguing this for decades. The same points made again and again and again. Golden Age knows it and they know how to play it so they can outlast every controversy no matter how bad things get. Like Doug Doobin. Everyone’s outraged over him shooting those protesters right now. Watch. He’ll be acquitted, people will scream about it, and then they’ll forget. He’ll probably be the director one day.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Selker said, and everyone, whether with nods or muttered yeses, clearly agreed Jorge had gone too far.
“We’ll see. As far as this endorsement business goes, obviously we’re not going to resolve anything right now so, to make things easier, instead of voting nay I’ll abstain. But I want to make one final point. You might be able to persuade me about the merits of voting and to have hope things can be reformed through the system like you say, even if it takes an excruciatingly long time. Except there’s one fundamental flaw in your argument. It’s predicated on the idea that your precious labor boards, or any institution run by Seconders, has the authority to do anything! The best any labor board can do is make recommendations to the Department of Labor Relations. Remy Mardo has ultimate say over what happens, or more likely one of her underlings. You can work all your life putting together some incredible law that would solve all the problems in the Outer or all of Zenith, but after all the voting and debating’s done, the decision will be in the hands of some rich bastard’s kid who’s interning for Mardo to bulk up their resume. We live in a corporation, not a democracy. And you can’t make a corporation into a democracy by voting. Exit ZVerse.”
Late at night, while Jorge was in bed, he heard the bedroom door open softly. It was almost silent, except for one creak at the end that neither Jorge nor Teamina had never been able to stop no matter how slowly they opened the door. Then he heard the thin blanket gently rise and felt the mattress undulating like a wave as a weight drifted toward him.
Thin arms wrapped around his chest. Soft palms cooled the tops of his hands. The lightest kiss touched his cheek.
Jorge smiled but remained asleep. When he woke up she was already gone.
Before leaving his compartment, Jorge checked the fridge to see what groceries he needed to order. He put his order into his Errand App and thought wistfully about how when he was a kid you could pick up your own groceries. Now you could only get groceries for others—workers checked to make sure other workers limited themselves to picking up whatever the app instructed them to. Jorge had to admit, it was a clever way to commodify yet another facet of life and even get worker support for it. It did mean more jobs and points, after all.
Next Jorge taught at a school thirty miles away from the one he’d been at yesterday. Then he moved on to a Game Help Center.
Workers at these help centers monitored different games and fixed any errors that came up. Most of the young players had no idea these help centers existed. Golden Age spent an enormous amount of effort convincing people that all the bugs that got fixed were done by AI, not people. Even verbal answers to their questions were supposedly coming from AI—every worker’s individual speech was translated into one, bland voice. They had no idea that all the content in their games came from workers like Jorge at separate Game Design Centers. Many adults didn’t know, either since, besides being hidden away, relatively few workers were allowed to take jobs at either help or design centers. Workers had to pass a number of tests, like the one Francisco had struggled. Jorge felt sorry for him. The boy was so eager to make games but he had no idea what the process was actually like. He had no idea how the big games worked. The so-called indie-market was not much better. Workers had been stripped of their ability to express themselves artistically there, too, albeit in different, more subtle ways.
Still, Jorge did not regret helping Francisco. He could not bear seeing the boy’s dream die and, on a more practical level, the pay was good. It was just a matter of getting work in this small, but extremely competitive area.
Jorge scanned the list of available game-related jobs every day. But they disappeared as soon as they materialized. He managed to actually get one maybe every three or four days. A benefit of having to select such jobs quickly was he had gotten faster at picking less competitive jobs, too. All programmers in Sector C had remarkable reflexes.
That afternoon the first job he took after a quick stop at a replenishment station was one of the highest-paying, yet strangest, jobs for Seconders—Demonstration-work.
Jorge activated the console and put on a Z-Verse ring much like the one he had at home. Instead of entering a game, however, he entered a barren, abstract plane similar to the empty menu screen minus the Golden Age logos. He then explained to the void what information he was willing to teach the network. No one knew what practical purpose Demonstration-work provided. Jorge knew it must be related to machine learning, but it was strange that they were willing to pay workers to do everything from work on high-level math problems to the most minute, personal memories, like the aroma of a grandparent’s coffee or descriptions of what it felt like to win a video game. The computer provided a desk with a blank screen for workers to write on. Whatever workers wrote on it, along with what they said into an old-fashioned microphone, would be uploaded. They could request anything else and it would instantly appear. All Jorge asked for were some books, a pencil, graph paper, and a chair.
About an hour into his work, Jorge heard someone behind him clear their throat.
He spun around. A tall, muscular man in a dark, stained sweater, fraying pants, and steel-toed boots was looming over him. He was bald, with eyes almost as dark as the stubble on his cheeks that hadn’t turned gray. His nose was bulbous and seemed off, like it had been broken and reset many times. Something about him seemed hard, dangerous. He was clearly strong, but it wasn’t that which gave Jorge this impression. It was something else, the kind of ineffable quality he had seen in criminals who, though not as big or strong as some, knew how to inflict damage.
“Um…Administrator, is there a uh…am I doing something wrong?”
The man snorted. “Do I look like an administrator?”
Jorge smiled nervously. “Not really, but I thought only site administrators had access to uh…to individual demonstration rooms.”
“Usually. My name’s Katulfsky. Mind if I have a seat?”
“No, I mean, sure.”
“Could you order me up one?”
“What? Oh. Request second chair.”
A chair identical to the straight-backed wooden one Jorge was sitting on appeared.
“Nah,” said Katulfsky, “something classy, comfortable, you know what I mean?”
“I figure my avatar might as well live it up when I’m in the ZVerse if the real me’s gotta deal with the real world out there, am I right?”
“So…how about that chair?”
“Oh! Request…executive chair deluxe C.”
A black leather rolling chair with a wide, supportive back replaced the other chair. Katulfsky sat down, and leaned back and forth before spinning around.
“That’s more like it! Love the name, too. Let’s you know this isn’t just some piece of shit executive chair. It’s not even a deluxe. It’s a deluxe C. Was there an A and B before this one?”
Katulfsky shrugged. “Doesn’t matter I guess. ‘Cause it sounds good, doesn’t it? Deluxe C, like they worked out all the kinks in the other models so now you know your ass is in good hands. I’m gonna have to remember that name. I’m always looking for a nicer chair when I’m in VR, but I don’t know what to request. I could say nice chair but I’d be shopping for hours while the computer gave me one fucking one after another—”
Jorge held up his hands. “I’m sorry, but—”
“Right, we should get started. Unless you wanna change your chair?”
“I wouldn’t be fine.”
“I promise I’m fine.”
“What’d you ask for, interrogation room chair?”
“I just said chair.”
“Huh. Well, it’s your ass that’s gonna be sore. All right, so, I hoped we could have a little talk.”
“A couple things. Starting with your speech in that backroom last night.”
“Speech?” Jorge sputtered, “I didn’t give a…I wasn’t in a—”
“You did. You were.”
“You must be…I’m not…look, I’m pretty busy now, so maybe—”
“—That’s fine. I get it. Not really convenient, me dropping in like this. I’m happy to come by your compartment later on Block 2 in Zone 7 Subsector 11A…‘course your wife Teamina Ortega-Rucenio might be there and it could be awkward, us talking then. So maybe now is better? What do you think?”
Jorge thought he might throw up. He also thought about how, unlike in games, backrooms, or personal programs, Jorge didn’t have the option of altering his avatar’s sensory inputs to prevent things like experiencing pain. Dying automatically knocked a person out of the Z-Verse, but peace officers were very careful not to let people escape that way.
Katulfsky, seeing the palpable terror on his face, said, “Relax, I’m not a peace officer.”
“You’re not?” Jorge asked skeptically.
“You ever know a gray mask to talk this much before making an arrest? Besides, look at me.”
“You could be undercover.”
“Why bother if I know all this about you? But tell you what. Leave, take out your GoldenPad, and connect to the console. Run the code you use to tell if someone’s a peace officer, you know, the code that makes those little red balls appear above their heads. If I don’t have one by the time you get back, you’re fine. If I do, you’re already fucked, anyway.”
“I’m not supposed to connect my personal GoldenPad to the system.”
“You’re also not supposed to run ZRA code and then attend a backroom meeting where you said fuck Victor Zife and the Church of You is a disgusting scam, so I think we’ve established you’re okay breaking rules. I agree with you, by the way, about Zife and the Church.”
Jorge took a deep breath. “Okay. Wait, how do you know I have a GoldenPad?”
“I’ll give you two minutes. After that you won’t see me until I pay a visit to your house whether Mrs. Ortega-Rucenio’s there or not. Got me?”
“Good. Two minutes starting…now.”
Jorge tore off the VR set and did as Katufsky commanded. He was so focused on getting back within two minutes that he didn’t feel scared or nervous. He felt as focused as when he had been fixing Francisco’s program.
Forty-five seconds later, after he had hidden the GoldenPad in his bag, he was back with Katufsky. There was no red circle of light over his head.
“Damn, that was fast! Thought it’d take you at least a minute.”
“Assuming you aren’t a peace officer,” Jorge said, feeling the smallest degree possible less tense, “who are you? What do you want?”
“I told you. I’m Katufsky and I want to talk about your speech.”
“Because I agree with you. I agree with everything you said about why the labor boards are useless and why workers are never going to change things by playing Golden Age’s fucking games.”
“I am. That mean you’re scared again like when you thought I was a graymask?”
“No…not as much.”
Katulfsky smiled. “Fair enough. I can work with that.”
“But I don’t want to join.”
“I’m not asking you to join the ZRA.”
“But…you do want something from me.”
“I want you to join a workers’ union.”
“No no, no that’s…that’s nice of you but I’m not interested in…”
“What? Not interested in what?”
Katufsky’s laugh was more like a bark. Jorge flinched.
“Not interested in politics? Don’t fuck with me, Jorge. I’m being direct and honest here so don’t be an asshole and lie.”
“I’m not lying.”
“I didn’t just happen to be in the same backroom as you. Seth’s had the ZRA monitoring you for five years.”
Jorge felt dizzy. “What?”
“Someone’s been attending all the backrooms meetings you do, too, ever since you started going to them…what was it, a few months ago?”
“Wait, you were—”
“—There? Yeah. This week it was my turn. First time, actually. But don’t worry. You didn’t miss me. No one could see me there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s get back to the part where Seth’s been keeping an eye on you and that’s not by accident.”
“But why me?”
“Seriously? I admire the whole humble thing but you don’t think Seth would be interested in one of the, what, sixty, Seconders to ever get into the university? What were you studying again? Something with a g?”
“Graphene,” Jorge whispered.
“Right. You worked in the Institute for Specialized Research, right?”
“As a student…I mean, I helped out…”
“Specialized Research…sounds innocuous doesn’t it? Nice vague name.”
“I wasn’t involved in any—”
“What is graphene anyway?”
Jorge rubbed his forehead, though massaging it was doing nothing to relieve his pounding headache. “It’s an…ultrathin substance that when combined with a substrate can—”
“Never mind. Seth said it was really important and that’s good enough for me. You’re also the only Seconder to get expelled from the university, did you know that?”
“Yes,” Jorge replied as he exhaled and shifted in his chair which was starting to feel constrictive, like he had been shoved into a shrinking cage.
“And that was five years ago. Why was that again?”
“Well, whatever it was, it got Seth’s attention, which is not easy to do, believe me.”
“Look, I appreciate…I don’t want to cause anyone any problems and…I just want you to leave me alone, all right?”
“Jorge, relax. No one in the ZRA wants to hurt you. I told you, we want you to join a worker’s union. Start one or two, also, if possible. Do something to help the workers in Zenith. Don’t you want to do something that’ll actually make a difference, like you were saying last night?”
“I don’t know how many ways I can say this, but let me be very clear. We are not asking you to pick up a gun, to be bomb a building, kill anyone, nothing like that. You’re not a soldier. We know that.”
“But the worker unions, they’re part of the ZRA, aren’t they?”
Katulfsky leaned back and considered his answer carefully. “Yes and no. They’re more like mutual aid networks, ways workers can help each other out. It’s vital that we build a sense of community in the Outer, which isn’t easy. But we’re doing it. There are over three hundred unions already.”
“Seth says there’ll be double that by the end of the year. But they have other functions, like education. Unions get literature to worker, pamphlets, books, films, things that explain the way things are and how they got that way. We have access to the data from every public library in Zenith and most of the private ones, too. Sometimes these workers end up joining the ZRA, but that’s their choice. The ZRA is smaller than you’d think and we like to keep it that way. We want only real soldiers, people willing to do whatever it takes. But it’s…Seth explains it better, but it’s about fighting on all fronts. The unions, they bring people together, wake them up, teach them what they need to know, how to resist, legally or otherwise. The ZRA is about taking extreme action when necessary, keeping the higher-ups scared. The goal, though, is to make the ZRA obsolete.”
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s put that aside for now. Here’s the bottom line. What I know is that you’re one of the few Seconders to ever get into the university and you got kicked out for some reason that Seth likes. Oh, and you were in the debate club, right? And wrote for the university paper?”
“And in the top ten in the nanotech department,” Jorge said wistfully.
“Shit, top ten. But after that you laid low, got married, and didn’t really do much interesting until a year or so ago you started illegally downloading political material, hacking into the university library, and eventually going to backrooms, though I heard you hardly ever said much. Guess I just came on a lucky night, huh?”
“You know you didn’t stick around to find out who to talk to and what to say to go to the next meeting.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to go to that one again.”
Katulfsky nodded. “Good idea. Not one of the people there last night has the guts to do anything real. Least of all that one asshole you were yelling at.”
“I didn’t mean to yell—”
“Jorge, you were right, what you said about this being a corporation, not a democracy. Things are not going to change because a few people get elected to boards that have no actual power. It’s going to take a movement, an army, something that can actually stand up to Louis Gern and all those fucking graymasks out there who hunt people like you and me down every single day. You know the ZRA has done more to shake things up in Zenith in the last few years than anyone ever has before. We’re got momentum. And we know a lot more than they think we do. We’re better connected, we have…shit, just think about the program, the one that identifies graymasks in VR. You talked about that yourself last night. They still haven’t figured out how we did that. They don’t know that we’ve figured out how to be totally invisible, either. Which is what I was last night in the backroom with you. And if you think that’s good, you have no idea what’s coming next.”
Katulfsky grinned from ear to ear. “Another year or two, you won’t even recognize Zenith.”
He abruptly stood up. “You’re going to get a message with a chatroom number after I leave . If you’re interested in hearing more, go there anytime before midnight. Someone will be there to answer any questions you have and explain what your options are if you want to get involved.”
“And what happens if I don’t?”
“Nothing. And nothing will change for you or anyone you care about. But for what it’s worth, I think you should hear us out. The way you were talking last night…you didn’t strike me as someone who’s happy to just sit on the sidelines. You sounded angry. I get it. I’m angry, too. I just didn’t know what to do with it until I met Seth.”
It looked like Katulfsky was about to exit when he clapped his hands together.
“Oh! Shit, I almost forgot to pay you!”
“Pay me? For what?”
“We’ve been talking for a while, and even though we’ve been in here, you’ve been disconnected from the server. Well, you’re still connected, but not being paid…don’t ask me, I’m not one of our tech guys’ that are going to make sure there’s no trace of the code you just put in from your GoldenPad. Don’t worry, there won’t be any evidence that anything unusual happened.”
“You mean you’re going to…compensate me for work time I lost?”
“We’re revolutionaries, Jorge, not assholes. Besides, if we don’t look out for fellow workers, what the fuck kind of revolutionary workers’ army are we? So how’s…two hundred points sound?”
“Two hundred…! That’s—”
“Absurdly more than you would have made? What can I say, Seth likes to be generous with stolen money. Stolen from Sector A, of course. And untraceable.”
“Thank you! I…I don’t know…”
“Our pleasure. Good talking to you, Jorge. I hope we see each other again.”
“Bye,” Jorge said. The word sounded awkward but he wasn’t sure what else to say. Then he cried out, “Hold on!”
“Could you…give me thirty more points?”
Katulfsky laughed. “One second you look like your head’s gonna explode because I gave you two hundred and now you want thirty more? Never heard of someone negotiating with the ZRA before.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“No, no, I’m impressed, so don’t go apologizing now. Tell you what, here’s fifty more. Now think about what I said. I think you could really help your fellow workers.”
“Thanks, but I’m really not sure if—”
“Don’t underestimate yourself.” After giving him a long, serious look, Katulfsky added, “I get the feeling you’ve been doing that for a long time.”
With that he was gone. And when Jorge checked his account balance he really was two-hundred and fifty points richer.
Around six, Jorge entered his compartment. Teamina was just about to start eating a bowl of meatballs and spaghetti.
“Jorge!” The fork fell from her hand and clattered onto the table. She sprang up and ran toward him. He was rushing towards her, too, so their hug was more a collision than an embrace.
He buried his face in her curly dark hair. He could feel her neck beneath the curls. He hugged her just enough that she let out an, “oof” before he let her go and they both laughed.
“You’re crushing me!”
“Not that much.”
“Yeah? Here, let’s see how you like it!”
Jorge waited a few seconds.
“Did…did you start crushing me yet?”
Teamina let go with a huff. “Get me a drink, jerk.”
They ate quickly, as always.
“I feel like synthetics are tasting better lately.”
“I’m sure there’ve been some advances.”
“But I always wonder if this really tastes like what spaghetti and meatballs tasted like. On Earth, I mean.”
Jorge laughed. “How would anyone know that?”
“They couldn’t, but don’t you ever wonder?”
“I was wondering how they might have improved the synthetics.”
“Hey, did you finish listening to that band’s album, the one I told you about?”
“What? Oh, no I…”
“No, I just haven’t gotten to it yet.”
Teamina narrowed her eyes and jabbed her fork toward him. “You get one more day.”
“You know,” he said, “you’d come off more intimidating if you didn’t have sauce all over your mouth.”
“One more day,” she repeated. She wiped her mouth with a napkin and, more seriously, said, “Listen, I’m so glad we got to eat together—”
“—But you’re going to leave.”
“Just till nine or nine thirty.”
“Yeah. That’s where I was last night.”
“I get driving a Steed at night but it’s still early. Kids aren’t going to be wandering around looking for parties yet.”
“I got a tip someone’s throwing a big party in a rich neighborhood. Birthday or something, I don’t know.”
“I get it.”
“I’m not being sarcastic. I really get it.”
“Okay. You finish up, I’m gonna take a quick shower.”
“Can I come, too?”
Teamina sighed dramatically. “Then it won’t be a quick shower.”
When he heard the water turn on, Jorge waited another few seconds before turning on his GoldenPad. He had just deposited the two hundred thirty points into Gabriella’s WishComeTrue page and the remaining twenty in his and Teamina’s baby savings account when the water turned off.
She emerged a few minutes later in totally different clothes. Nice, but not too nice for Sector B. But he wasn’t paying as much attention to her clothes as to her face. He loved the way her face looked right after a shower, the way her skin glowed, the way her hair looked even darker, but especially the way her lips gleamed, drops of water clinging to them.
“Any chance you’re going to be around tonight? Like when I get back?”
“I was going to try and get some sleep. There might be some work between midnight and three to do some Coliseum game design stuff. Looks like it’ll pay a lot.”
“Hey. I’m gonna miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too” she said. “Try to get some sleep.”
“As in don’t illegally download some book and read instead of sleeping.”
“Or play one of those dumb fantasy games.”
“Okay, okay. I just want you to make sure you’re getting enough sleep.”
“I’ll go right to bed after you leave. Okay?”
“Good. But, uh,” she said, caressing his face, “¿tal vez más tarde podrías despertarte, solo por un rato?”
Jorge kissed her. “Quizás.”
At the door, she called back, “¡Hasta luego!” But she was careful not to speak too loudly after making sure no one else was around who might hear and report her.
Teamina left, believing Jorge when he said he was only going to sleep while she was gone just like he believed she was going to work as a driver in Sector B.
They were both lying.