Like a rental bike returned with a tire puncture, Ark woke up in a stranger’s apartment.
He tumbled off the sofa bed and the house immediately began streaming news to his retinal slate from an extreme dog show satellite channel. Surfacing into his own brain from cognitive storage made him queasy. He staggered toward the ensuite bathroom and clutched the doorframe aggressively. The suite was mauve and dim and smelled like yesterday’s fish sauce. The older man he’d woken up with allowed his irritable pink face to surface from the blankets.
When Ark felt stable he went around the room picking up his things. His back hurt between the shoulder blades. The passenger had dressed him in a sleeveless basketball jersey and cut-off jean shorts like some lo-res 90s heartthrob. American fetishist? He struggled the shorts on and muttered curses.
“You don’t have to run,” the older man said perfunctorily.
“What’s your address?” Ark called a rideshare on his slate and checked his messages. Dilani sent him a covert warning text: Where you at, buddy? The notes he set to alert passengers that their twelve hours in his body were almost up were lined up near the edge of the screen, all unread. He emptied the slate and dashed off omw to Dilani.
The older man said, “It’s six fucking AM, what are you, a commando?” Then he named an address in a part of town he wouldn’t have lived in if he had an age-appropriate career. Not that Ark really had room to judge him. Then his puffy eyes narrowed. “Were you borrowing?”
“I wasn’t,” Ark said. He wondered if this was the first time this guy had been woken up by a suspiciously good-looking hookup skittering out of his dingy suite at an ungodly hour of the morning. “Kind of the point.”
The guy’s expression flashed from contemptuous to shifty. Ark bounced by the door waiting for the city car to answer his request. “You better not have given me anything,” the guy said.
“Spare me, dude,” Ark said. It was always STIs they were concerned about and not the bioethics.
The guy pursed his lips and his mouth opened with a spitty click like he wanted to say something. But Ark’s slate peeped. “My car’s on the way,” Ark interrupted him.
“Uh, yeah, see you around,” the hookup said blandly.
Ark ducked through the laundry hung up in the kitchen and opened the door onto an outdoor fourth-story landing. The sky was delicately bright. A deep-fry shack vented sick-smelling air just above the hookup’s door. From the tsunami sirens the city piped a tinny recording of extinct morning birds. Beautiful sunny Port Wait-Here; built generations ago for strays from smug, gated nations on garbage in the Pacific, accumulating garbage ever since. A cluster of Superpure adherents in their shimmering ultrasilver robes drifted past the mouth of the alley, and one of them gave him a judgy look, probably sensing his aura, which he assumed was corrupt as hell.
On the street, mopeds, rickshaws and the occasional black rideshare car streamed by. Ark played 6D-mahjong in his slate until the rideshare decelerated into the spot in front of him. His heads-up noted him for good measure. You have one co-rider, it warned him.
He had half a mind to knock its window and wait for another car, but the person in the backseat rolled down the window a slice. Dilani raised her shaved eyebrow ridges at him. “Hey, Arkansas.”
“Fuck you,” he said. He slid into the car beside Dilani and knocked on the inside of the window to tell the carbot to get moving. He was a marginal member of Dilani’s polycule through a girl in data nursing he hooked up with sometimes; a comfortable medium social distance to be from your trip supervisor. She shaved everywhere her body grew hair and had a sleeve tattoo of the kite festival at Colombo Pride.
“What’s the view?” Dilani said. She passed him a can of guava juice from the car’s minifridge and he only realized how low his fluids were when he chugged it in ten seconds; Dilani silently passed him another.
“I feel fine,” Ark said. He bent over to tie his shoe. Dilani viciously yanked the jersey up his back and he yelped, “What the hell?”
“Jesus, honey,” Dilani said.
Ark suddenly realized. “He did not get me a tattoo.”
Dilani smirked, then looked appropriately horrified for a second, then the smirk fought back onto her face. “It’s a ‘Don’t tread on me’ flag.” Before it sunk in she added, “No apostrophe.”
The boss was going to fucking drown him.
Sufficient Aggregate operated from a respectable office above a respectable plaza and had been carefully scrubbed from every directory and signage. It wasn’t even in the carbot’s map; Dilani had to direct the car to the organizational alignment office in the unit below. The straight-toothed proprietor of that establishment was talking with a client in the plaza as Ark and Dilani got out of the car, and he made a huge effort not to look at them.
In the elevator, Dilani tilted her head to give Ark side-eye. “Don’t try to hide it from him. Let me do the talking and I’ll try to keep you out of trouble.”
“No offense, Dil, but I’m going to flip if he tries to blame me for this.”
“Of course he’s going to blame you. You think he’s going to piss off a client? Clients don’t get blamed for anything.”
“So let me into the ride logs! I’ll go find the client. As an independent citizen.”
Dilani gave him a withering look and the elevator opened. The secretary looked up with a jolt from the cam screen she was using to adjust her circle lenses. “You’re back!” she said, then looked from Dilani to Ark, and her smile dimmed. “Looks like you want to see Mr. Carnation.”
She pressed a button to open an entrance behind her. Only a door if you could call a featureless rectangle of blackness a door. Even after so long working here, the sight of Carnation’s office made Ark bite down on shudders. Dilani led him fearlessly into the black—she disappeared as soon as her foot went over the threshold, some cheap trick of mirrors, Ark was sure. Pretty sure.
The secretary chirped, “Good luck!” and closed the door behind them. Ark reached out to his side a few inches to make sure Dilani still existed, brushed her wrist with accidental gentleness, snapped his hand back to his side.
After a second, a zither tone went down Ark’s spine, and Carnation’s hologram, created by the invisible maze of lasers and mirrors in the dark call-chamber, flickered into existence in the middle of the room. Ark happened to know from experience that there was a pane of glass between them that would zap you if you, say, slammed into it on your way to approach your boss to stand up for your labor rights. There was some consensus in Ark’s wing of the Aggregate that the short, handsome, graying man on the dais out there, currently adjusting a cuff on his rose-pink suit, wasn’t calling in from a mansion in New Zealand at all, but had actually destroyed his body and digitized himself in the 80s to exploit an obscure tax loophole.
“Good morning, Dilani, Arkansas,” he said. Ark assumed his feelings about that were made known by the analysis Carnation doubtlessly ran on their microexpressions every sixteenth of a second. “What a surprise to see you here.”
“Ark, take off your shirt,” Dilani said. Carnation’s left brow twitched. Ark obeyed, pursing his lips, and Dilani turned him.
“Ah,” Carnation said. When Ark turned back around, Carnation’s expression was very smooth. “Say, that’s unfortunate.”
“I can get him to pay for it,” Ark blurted. Dilani hissed. “Just let me into the ride log and I’ll find him myself.”
Carnation’s right brow twitched. “We do love to see employees taking initiative,” he said, with a pleasant smile. “But how about you let me deal with this one, tiger.”
Ark decided to shut it.
“Lucky for you,” Carnation said, “we have access to a technician in Indonesian Mindanao. I’ll go ahead and schedule the appointment. The price of pork-based New Skin is actually considerably lower than the price of tattoo removal.” Ark cringed. “They’ll come pick you up next week. In the meantime you stay in your apartment and work on your abs, kid.”
“I don’t want a new back,” Ark said.
“Well, that’s what we’re paying for. Now, if you get the money for a full removal procedure, I don’t care where it comes from. But we don’t have that in the budget. Is that okay, Ark?” Carnation said, with immense concern. “You can always keep the tattoo. Many of our employees in this situation just rave about their new jobs at the two-star ride clubs in the lower harbour, once they get used to the smell.”
“Oh, no, your plan sounds great,” Ark said. He nodded and thought about how resigned he was. Just in case Carnation had some kind of telepathy he didn’t know about.
“If you win the lotto and want to change our plans, give it to the secretary. Otherwise, I’ll have the boys call you. Best of luck, Arkansas. Keep on working hard.”
Outside, Dilani turned to speak to him, but Ark was already headed for the stairs. “Where are you going,” she said.
“Just out,” Ark said. He didn’t turn back so he didn’t have to see her eyes narrow.
The client’s hookup turned out to work at a do-it-yourself candy store. It was the spookied-up girl working the fry shack next door to the apartment who named his workplace; she said the hookup came in practically every day to hit on her. “He’s got a citizenship on the mainland,” the girl said, “so watch yourself.”
The sample girl in the pink apron at the door of the shop saw Ark and decided not to offer him one of the cups of sapphire gloop on her tray, so he grabbed one to show her up and realized he didn’t know what to do with it. After a second he tipped it back like a shot, which was a mistake. Spicy blue raspberry.
“Can I help—what in H are you doing here?”
Ark’s face was still screwed up when he turned to see the hookup, also in a pink apron, wheeling a cart of candy boxes. He thought he’d have more time to think of something cool to say. “Can I at least get a cupcake or something?”
“No.” The hookup’s expression curdled. The hookup, Ark realized, thought Ark was here to flirt and was trying to figure out how to let him down gently. “Can you actually get out of my workplace?”
“This is shit,” Ark said, setting the cup of spicy blue raspberry syrup on the shelf.
“Cool, I’m calling security.”
“God, man, listen.” He was actually in big trouble if security found him; Sufficient Aggregate probably paid off everyone up to and including 110 dispatch, and they would not be happy he was here. “Did my client get this tattoo with you? Because I’m trying to get out of here and it’s going to set me back months.” Lies; but hookups loved a rentee with a heart of gold trying to make it out of the life.
“Look…I don’t know what to tell you. I met you—him—at 3 AM; he was stupid drunk. I didn’t notice. What is it?”
“It’s missing an apostrophe.” Ark decided to skip over how drunk exactly his client had been when the hookup brought him home. “Did he say anything to you?”
“Uh, yeah, at some point, probably—”
“I mean about himself.”
“Aren’t you not supposed to know that?”
The samples girl monitored them suspiciously. Ark made prayer hands. “Guy, please. Just this once. I just want to ask him to help me pay for the removal. Pay it forward. Random act of kindness.”
The hookup tutted and sighed. “I mean, I really don’t know. I think he said he was a basketball player.”
“Yeah, that was a fetish,” Ark said, “so not reliable information.”
“I’m thinking! I think he said he had a wife?”
“Lots of guys with wives in this city, actually.”
“Oh, shit, he mentioned the Superpure,” the hookup said.
Ark’s heart leapt. “As in he was in it?”
“Maybe,” the hookup said. “He said he was sick of Truth Committee One. It’s their word for a self-crit session about how, you know, sinful and damned you are so you can be cleansed when the Martians come. Or whatever.”
“Oh, fuck,” Ark said. He knew exactly what Truth Committee One was. And the hookup had no idea.
“You guys good?” said sample girl.
“He’s just going, Equinox,” said the hookup, and gave Ark the same look as when he wanted Ark out of his apartment at 6 AM.
Dilani was waiting outside. Her scalp was red. “What the fuck are you doing,” she said.
“Oh dear,” said a customer waiting for a rideshare on the curb.
“Hey Dil, can we take this elsewhere,” Ark said.
“Fuck you,” Dilani said, but dragged him into an alley papered with advertisements for game jams and local cooking theater, and prodded him so hard he almost stumbled into a wet midden of food packaging. “Why were you in that shop? Did you open the case file?”
He wasn’t going to lie to her. “Carnation said he doesn’t care where the money comes from. Come on, Dil, if I take this modification, next I’m smuggling Aggregate doublecoke onto the mainland in my liver!”
“Well, you don’t crack open the case file and get me in trouble,” Dilani said. “What you do is transfer into trip supervision to pay off your debt like everyone else.” Ark opened his mouth, but Dilani was not having it. “We have to stick by each other! What, did you think you were going to just stomp a cult leader down and get him to own up to borrowing some Portborn queer from the north side, no offense? He’s going to tell Carnation, and Carnation is going to think I let you into the case file! I’ve been watching out for you, Ark!”
“I can convince him!” Ark said. “I can do it, I swear.”
Dilani ran a hand over her bald head. “I’ve been watching out for you and when you need help you run off like some queasy client and throw me under the bus.”
“That’s not it,” Ark said. “Dilani, look, if you want to come then come, if you’re so worried I’m going to piss off the client. Is it true he’s in the upper council of the Superpure?” He knew from her face it was true. “So you think he wants all his little croneys to know he spends his weekends borrowing bodies from insincere Martian sympathizers?”
Dilani said, “Blackmail never works.”
“So what does work? Tell me.”
“If I knew, your trip supervisor would be Jack from Hokkaido and I’d be kicking it on the mainland,” Dilani snapped. She’d gotten so loud that somebody in the building above them slammed their window shut. “Ark, just take your bullshit like an adult! Sometimes you just get fucked!”
Ark kept his mouth closed as Dilani rubbed her eyelids. Finally he said, “Dil, I’m sorry, I really didn’t think about what it would look like to the boss. I didn’t think it could get you in trouble. You’ve done really good by me. If I had thought of it maybe I wouldn’t have…” She nodded.
He was almost reluctant to continue and piss her off. But he wasn’t going to give this up now. “I have to try this, Dil. You know that, right? Let’s just go talk with him. Superpure are weird, who even knows what he’ll say. Let’s find him. There’s only like eight people who live in the Ultimate Sphere, right? So let’s find him and see. If you want to leave so bad, maybe there’s enough money for you too. Right?”
Dilani kicked the flyer into the gutter half-heartedly, deflated. “Blackmail doesn’t work,” she said again.
“So let’s stop playing games and go ask him really nicely,” Ark said.
“Bit late for optimism, Arkansas.” He saw her slate flicker in her pupils as she called a rideshare and his teeth gritted in anger. But when she cleared the slate, just before he could snap at her, she added, “But I’m your goddamn trip supervisor, so let’s go get fucked.”
The Ultimate Sphere floated on the Superpure private island just off the north shore. The people at the harbour let them know what suppliers were headed in that direction. Ark approached a pair of day laborers loading up crates of nata de coco into a rickety copter and told them their employer had just been arrested and the port authority was on the way, which chased them off. Then he and Dilani did the rest of the work. At dusk, they were leaning against the closed hatch in silence and Ark, finally, turned up a list of names of the members of Truth Committee One on some investigative journalism blog. “Any of these sound familiar?” he said to Dilani, transferring the link to her slate.
Dilani groaned. “I think I’d remember if I had heard one of these. He used a fake identity. Great-Enlightenment Kim. Final-Reward Hikita. Eight-Percent-Celestial Amirkhani—-jack fucking pot.”
“What?” Ark said, scrolling frantically.
Dilani fought laughter. “Life-Liberty-and-Happiness Lee.”
Almost before she finished saying it, the pilot showed up behind her, as if from nowhere, wrapped in too many scarves. Taken off guard, Ark opened his mouth to spout his carefully concocted lie about why the laborers had transferred their contract but the pilot just said, muffled through his scarves, “We’re off,” and clambered into the cockpit of his death trap.
Dilani and Ark looked at each other. “I don’t think he noticed we’re different people,” Dilani whispered. Her pupils were dilated, and she kept putting down the beginning of a grin. If anyone was born for the thrill of the heist, Ark should have guessed it’d be her.
The flight was short but terrifying. Dilani didn’t try to dislodge Ark’s clawed hand in the arm of her sweatshirt. The inside of the copter smelled like something burning, and the crates sloshed. Ark dared to look out over the island as they descended, while the smoky night darkened. It was barely an acre of sterile linoleum with only two features: a runway and an infrasilver geodesic dome that shimmered with other colors when light moved over it. When they landed, Ark resigned himself to death for about thirty seconds as the plane screamed down the runway before they came to a juddering stop.
Over on the mainland, lights put their fingers through the steam of the city. The air didn’t smell like garbage for once, but instead it tasted like disinfectant.
A delegation of Superpure held their hoods up against the wind of the propellers. When the front representative let her hood fall back, Ark barely resisted recoiling. She’d let them replace the top of her skull with that silver metal, like some really committed conspiracy theorist’s tin hat. Her smile was serene and supercilious. “We’ll bring the shipment in,” she said.
“The boys’ll help,” said the pilot. Ark looked at Dilani, who just shrugged.
Ark thought he’d have to convince them to take him to Emissary Happiness, but when he looked up and around at the warehouse-sized pantry the representatives led them into, his gaze snagged on the security camera in the corner. He stared into it. Knock, knock.
Sure enough, he’d barely picked up a box before a new representative, with very wide eyes, appeared in the room and led him out, muttering, “Somebody wants to see you.” Dilani just raised her brows at him.
The representative escorted him down the longest hallway he’d ever been in. They were, slowly, getting closer to the featureless silver door at the end of the hall.
This is a terrible idea. The thought didn’t feel bitter like pessimism would have, just weighty with objectivity, like a revelation from a god. He tried to pull up his retinal slate to message Dilani, but something in the dome prevented it from connecting; its loading animation just pulsed endlessly.
What had Dilani said? Just take your shit like an adult? Maybe this had been childish. His type of people didn’t get to leave bad situations. They got to run on the treadmill for as long as possible and then die of exhaustion. Accepting that would have at least made the lumps easier to handle the next time. And if he failed and Carnation found out that he’d been here, he was definitely going to have to get used to the tattoo and the dead-gull smell of the lower harbour.
At the door, the representative pronounced a nonsense password confidently. The door slid open, revealing a square of silver light, the glowing negative of Carnation’s office. Ark didn’t think he’d ever see a room he wanted to enter less.
He squinted as they stepped through the wash of light. On the other side—an upscale parlor in all white furniture. The floor was black tile. A middle-aged guy with a clean ponytail at the base of his neck sat in an armchair. He wasn’t wearing the Superpure robes but a polo shirt with a crocodile on the breast. The guy pasted on the weakest smile Ark had ever seen on a human being.
“Emissary?” the representative said uncertainly.
Emissary Happiness’ forehead was unusually shiny under the lights. Ark hadn’t expected to feel such a wave of hate looking at him. “Thank you for bringing him. Daughter, will you leave us by ourselves for a moment?”
The representative gave Ark an examining look before bowing out. Ark would have much preferred she stay. Lessened the odds he’d end up as #4 on that week’s Men Found Dead on Wait-Here listicle.
“How,” Happiness said, “did you get here? I thought you, your marketer said you wouldn’t, I was promised complete…”
Ark wanted to wait for Happiness to get to the point on his own so he didn’t interrupt the guy, but he didn’t seem to be planning to stop babbling any time soon. Finally Ark had to intervene because his revulsion was clenching his throat so tight he was worried in a few seconds he wouldn’t be able to talk when he tried. “Want to explain why I have a Gadsden flag tattoo?”
The humiliation on Happiness’ face was so complete that Ark felt a sting of secondhand embarrassment for him. “I’m sorry,” he said miserably. “It was completely….” Then, “You don’t know what it’s like here. Everyone constantly watching for what to do….”
“You don’t know what it’s like here!” Ark said, gesturing vaguely to himself, like to his body, or his whole life, or something. “Dude, for one thing, you can’t just go borrowing people and get wasted off your shit. That’s my liver.”
“I never have before,” Happiness said, his shrillness betraying panic. “I thought your agency would cover it!” Too rich to care much about losing his deposit, definitely too rich to care much about reading a contract.
“Turns out they aren’t in the mood,” Ark said. “But now that we’ve met, you’re covering it. Right?”
Happiness put his hands up. “I would love to help you,” he said.
“But my accounts—I don’t have any personal money, you must know that. It’s all in the Pure.”
Nice try. “Except for the seven thousand it ran you to borrow me, huh? That cleaned you out?”
“Committee One, we all sometimes…it helps us stay connected with the people. So we can serve you better.”
“Wow, that’s so nice of you.”
“I can’t get the money,” Happiness said. “That’s not how money works! It would have to wait for the next budget meeting.”
“You’re a fucking cult leader and you can’t appropriate yourself another couple thousand dollars?”
Happiness drew himself up in a performance of anger. “This is not a cult, young man.” Then deflated a bit.
Ark stared at him and saw him all over again. Intense pity dissolved his anger like an enzyme. Suddenly he got Happiness. He’d always assumed people started borrowing because they were looking for physical thrills. But Happiness looked too desperate and ashamed for that, his eyes weirdly wide. Like an animal with a broken leg, mapping out its last few hours. Happiness had hired him out because he missed freedom. Or youth, or something. He envied Ark, or the thing he thought Ark was. If Ark lashed out at him Happiness would just balk at his broken illusion. His misapprehension that Ark knew anything about freedom capped the whole mess off. Ark had sixteen dollars in his savings account right now.
Dil was right; blackmail wouldn’t work. None of this guy’s delusional or desperate followers cared what he’d done. But he was embarrassed and he wanted all this to go away, and he cared about feeling like a good person. Sucker.
“I know this is a long shot. But please, man, there must be somebody who can access the money,” Ark said.
Happiness shook his head.
“You’ve never doled out some emergency cash,” Ark said. Tried to crunch up his disbelief into a tone close-enough to desperation.
Now Happiness hesitated. He was wearing down. “Only to the neighbourhood churches,” he said finally, reluctantly. “And people on their membership rolls.”
Ark suddenly got a feeling. Not a good feeling or a bad feeling. If anything a feeling that said with reservation, well, here we go. “So if I joined the Superpure, you would say…”
Happiness just said, very weakly, “Hmm.”
Ark and Dilani didn’t make it back to the mainland until around 3 AM, when Dilani learned that the rideshare grid to her neighbourhood was browned out. “Come crash at my place,” Ark said. They were both tired enough to flop onto the same mattress together. When Ark woke up with Dilani drooling on his chest he decided, though with affection, that this whole trauma bonding thing was a bit overrated.
There were two messages waiting for him in the slate as he cracked open a window to smoke out of it—the kind of perfunctory window installed to halfheartedly satisfy zoning requirements, only just big enough for his arm and the joint. Outside, dead birds sang and a busker played experimental zither on a street corner to claps and occasional jeers.
The first message came wrapped in infrasilver, which made his eyes hurt. Lester, the message started. Ark tsked at the sight of his legal name; a benefit of a country with bad record-keeping was that it was easy to leave a name like Lester behind. He was already thinking of finding something new. The whole American theme was going sour.
I have requested that the financial department of your neighbourhood church immediately forward the full cost of a laser-based tattoo removal procedure to the Sufficient Aggregate under the guise of a charitable donation from your long-time spiritual community.
Awesome, but Ark already knew the catch was coming.
In order to do so I have personally enrolled you as an honorary member of your Superpure chapter at the Seeking Enlightenment rewards tier. You will have to attend twenty hours of community service a month to maintain your membership…
There it was.
…but you will also receive a monthly allowance of three hundred dollars from upper leadership. I hope this is sufficient incentive for you to remain an active member of our movement and see what we can offer you. I sincerely hope you find some kind of peace through this opportunity. When I was a young man, and Ark stopped reading.
He didn’t get to enjoy the thought of an extra three hundred dollars for even a second, because the second letter was from the Aggregate. And it was stamped with an encryption signature Ark hadn’t seen before. A bright pink one. Ark exhaled smoke and ran his tongue over his teeth, avoiding it.
Dilani groaned as she rolled from the bed. “Where’s your bathroom?” she said.
“Only other door,” Ark said. “Hey,” he said after another second, and she paused in the middle of grinding sleep grit out of her eye. “Do you want three hundred dollars a month?”
“What?” she said.
He was embarrassed. “I get it through the Superpure. I’m doing fine right now, I’ll save up a cushion for the first few months. But I don’t need the rest. You want to buy tickets to the mainland, right? Go to some tech-support college in Bolivia or whatever?”
“Ark,” she said. “I couldn’t…that’s a lot of money.”
“Well, if you don’t want to accept a gift you can also do my community service,” Ark said, and sucked his joint like a long-suffering soldier.
“They want you to do…” Dilani said, then started laughing, and laughed all the way to the bathroom door.
Ark had no excuses left, and anyways, his anxiety was going down a little bit. He opened the second message.
The letterhead contained a classy graphic of a carnation that slowly bloomed and unbloomed. The message wasn’t signed. It just said: Strike two, kid. But when you hit strike three, there are places in corporate for salespeople who know how to take initiative.
Ark snorted, rolled his eyes, deleted them both. Out on the sidewalk, the zither man finished his cover of …Baby One More Time and the crowd clapped. Ark set down the joint so he could clap too. Apparently it was loud enough that the zither man looked over his shoulder and, with a rotting and genuine smile, threw up a peace sign toward Ark’s window.