Golgonooza Smoke and
Golgonooza Smoke and
Consumed by Grace Wagner
by Grace Wagner
The sky flared with the neon colors of sunset, reflecting the river of advertisements on the streets below. The wind caught a length of tangled plastic, whirling it around so that for a moment, it looked almost alive--a jellyfish caught in the currents between skyscrapers. But all such precious, fragile things were gone from this planet. The city pulsed with the rhythm of the shifting advertisements that lined the streets, flickering and brilliant.
Emerson Crane clutched a filing box full of her office decorations to her chest, tears flowing freely down her face. The crowd around her was collectively engrossed in their phones and paid no attention as she navigated through the crush towards the lightrail station. That morning as she rode the train to work, the sky had been a clear, brilliant blue. It had seemed a good omen to Emerson. Having just finalized her divorce from the woman who had broken her heart, she thought that the world seemed a little brighter than usual.
Wiping the tears from her face with the back of her hand, she found a seat on the overcrowded train. Beside her a teenager stared blank-eyed at his phone, watching ad after ad--first for a new shoe company (Treat your feet with Cheetah Shoes!), then a series of loosely connected shots of a car driving through mountains. She watched the teen watching commercials, focusing on the blonde roots above a green dye-job that needed to be touched up. Her ex-wife's hair was that blonde before she dyed it brown to look more "managerial." Emerson looked away.
Her phone rang. An ad popped up on the screen, which she skipped so she could answer the call.
"Hello?" She tried to sound in control, but her voice shook.
Have you recently been let go, fired, laid off, left behind? Do you need a way to make money quick? Stay on the line and a representative will tell you about your rights.
Emerson hung up.
Outside the train, the city glowed in the falling dark. Posters plastered the city in a layer of florid enticements to buy things. Since the passage of the Corporate Free Speech Act, every surface seemed fair game. From the train, Emerson watched the scrolling ads projected on the face of the state capitol building.
Her phone went off again, this time a text.
Hey, Em. It was Claire. I heard what happened.
Emerson sent back a gif of a woman collapsing down a staircase, followed by three more gifs flashing the word dying in front of tragic expressions.
Let me know if you feel up to brunch this 'end, maybe Sat? <3
Emerson put the phone back in her pocket.
She still couldn't believe she'd lost her job--couldn't believe it as she stood in her boss's office, hands full of daily reports, couldn't believe it as she packed her small ceramic mouse with its jaunty party hat into the filing box to take home, couldn't believe it as she made her way off the lightrail and five blocks down to her studio apartment that barely had room for a bed and her desk.
She'd believed she was safe from automation. How could they get rid of the person who reads what the machines report? But some programmer in some corporate cubicle found a way. Her hands were cold with dread. She'd never get another job. When automation first devastated blue-collar jobs, she'd been happy with the new efficiencies. Now it had moved on to middle management and there were almost no jobs left except at the very top administrative levels. But no one would hire her to be a CEO of a major corporation. Those advancements were all internal promotions and often handed down from family member to family member.
At home, she set the box down just inside the door. The wall-screens flashed on and she logged into her home network. Her "Evening Cool Down" playlist started automatically after a short five-second video advertising the latest K-Pop album. No option to skip this time. Her subscription to the ad-free version had been tied to her job. Across the bottom of the wall-screen, the news scrolled across. MORE ATTACKS BY ROGUE ANARCHISTS. THREATS ISSUED. WILL THE PRESIDENT ACT? It felt like never a day went by without a new attack. If she were a CEO she might have felt threatened, but everybody knew the anarchists only went after people at the top.
Target, her cat, greeted her with a perfunctory pur-mrow and headed to the kitchen where his food bowl waited. She sighed and followed him. She clicked through a couple of menus on the food printer's screen and selected the cheapest cat food, suddenly conscious of every credit that left her account. The credit-counter on the screen ticked down a couple of points as she opened the flap and took out the printed cat food. She couldn't afford to buy her own food printer, but her apartment came with a rental. She paid 25 credits monthly for the privilege, that on top of the price of ingredients, which were calculated one print at a time and subtracted from her account.
Her kitchen, like the rest of her apartment, was clean and efficient. Her furniture all had a look of Scandinavian simplicity. There was little in the way of pure ornamental decoration. Everything had a purpose. Well, not quite everything. Her office featured several odd statues--a face in either torment or ecstasy, a jellyfish cast in porcelain, and a recreation of the Nike of Samothrace statue, bewinged and headless.
She opened the fridge. It was empty except for an unopened bottle of white wine that Claire had given her for her birthday a couple of weeks back. It'd been forever since she had wine. Real wine, too, from California. Fifty percent real grapes, which was enough to make it expensive. She poured herself a large glass and grabbed her laptop.
She pulled up the search bar--Job listings Denver. 1,042 results found. Slowly she worked her way down the listings, mostly for sex workers or highly technical fields like cardiovascular surgeon or mechanical engineer. She made it through all 1,042 listings and the bottle of wine without any luck. She closed her laptop and went to bed.
The next morning, her bedroom wall-screens flashed on at 6:30, her normal wake-up time. An image of an old fashioned alarm clock danced near her bed. She waved her hand to dismiss the alarm, but she couldn't recapture sleep. Her head rang slightly from the wine, and a tension headache pulsed at her temples. Grudgingly, she crawled out of bed.
She paid 7 credits for a cup of coffee, and after drinking it, she began to feel human again. After two, she felt up to taking a shower and getting dressed. Her phone flashed a notification. Another text from Claire. A picture of a sloth hugging another sloth. She smiled and sent back a heart emoji.
At least she had Claire. Claire had been her friend since secondary school. Claire, the eternal optimist, was a nice counterpoint to Emerson's pragmatic pessimism. She decided to meet up with Claire on Saturday and pour out her feelings over a brunch she probably couldn't afford.
You know what? I'm free Sat. Free whenever lol : ( Let's do brunch.
What she could afford. Well, that was basically nothing at this point. She had some savings, maybe enough for a couple of weeks if she was frugal, but even her seemingly secure middle management position barely paid enough to keep up with her student loan debt and her daily expenses. She'd also been required to dress with a certain level of formality and only recently had purchased a new wardrobe in anticipation of getting that promotion she'd been promised a year and a half ago. She looked through her closet of muted greys and beiges, running her hands along the impeccably sewn seams and clean lines. Some of them still had the tags on. She pulled those out and put them in a reusable shopping bag. Those, at least, she could return.
Taking a break, she stared into her empty fridge for several minutes before closing it and having another cup of coffee. 21 credits already this morning and she hadn't even fed the cat. Her phone rang its shrill jingle, shattering the silence of the morning.
Have you recently been let go, fired, laid off, left behind? Do you need a way to make money quick? Stay on the line and a representative will tell you about your rights. The voice was friendly, but it was hard to tell if it was human. So many robo-calls these days.
She hung up again, though this time she hesitated. Maybe it wasn't just spam. But how did they know she'd been fired? She sighed. Targeted advertising had gotten so good these days that it felt almost magical, in a vaguely uncomfortable way, as though a bit of magic crept out of her phone and shivered down her spine.
She grabbed the shopping bag full of clothes and walked out into the rain.
She was able to return the clothes for two thirds of the original prices. She'd go through her closet again to pick out anything she could get some credits for at one of the many secondhand clothing stores that dotted the mall. They called it a mall, and it was something like those big buildings she'd visited as a child, but instead of a single building, this mall was comprised of about seven city blocks worth of stores and restaurants. She actually lived on the edge of the mall in one of the high-rises built above a block of stores. She could maybe get a job in retail, although those jobs were diminishing and retail workers at the higher end stores had almost no job turnover. Who would quit a steady source of income these days?
She stopped by the cheapest Chinese restaurant in the mall and paid ten credits for a small take-out portion of fried rice and went home. Target, named for the retail giant's spot-eyed mascot whom he resembled, was waiting for her at the door. She sighed. Another mouth to feed.
Perhaps she could sell her statues. There were some buyers still interested in handmade pieces. They were collectors of sorts. And she'd made the statues herself. That's what she'd studied, in fact, back in the days when the government still subsidized student loans, though what they offered hadn't been enough to cover tuition. She'd taken out private loans to cover the gap. She left school $40,000 in debit. Now she owed seventy, thanks to interest rates. Seventy thousand dollars or 140,000 credits. A new program had started recently that allowed people to pay off loans with digital credits which, being an unregulated currency, had already become vastly inflated so that 1 credit was worth basically nothing. You could buy a piece of gum, maybe.
Her phone rang. She started to skip the advert that autoplayed when the phone started ringing, but then hesitated. She could get a credit for watching it, so she did. It was a porn advert, with two women softly kissing as they undressed. At least the algorithms had gotten good enough to stop showing her so much male-gazey, heterosexual porn that she had absolutely no interest in. This ad was almost loving, as the cameras caressed the women's thighs and breasts. She clicked the like button to encourage the algorithm to continue showing her this sort of content in the future.
The ad ended and she answered the phone.
Have you recently been let go, fired, laid off, left behind? Do you need a way to make money quick? Stay on the line and a representative will tell you about your rights. The cajoling voice felt almost human.
She didn't hang up this time.
Mrs. Crane? A voice that sounded very much like a real person came over the phone.
"It's 'Miss' Crane," she said. "I'm not married."
A beep sounded from the line. Noted, said the voice. Perhaps it really was a human, though Emerson had trouble believing that about any telemarketing call these days. It has come to our attention that you may need supplemental income after your loss. Condolences, by the way. Are you interested?
It should have been odd hearing the language of death associated with a job loss, but, she supposed, it wasn't altogether inappropriate. Was she grieving? She thought so.
We are here to explain your rights. You may qualify for a special welfare assistance program, newly implemented by Washington, that may help alleviate your financial burden, the voice continued in its familiarly friendly if flat tone.
Half-listening, Emerson paced her apartment. Maybe she could take up art again, see if she could land any corporate patronage. But she didn't have studio space anymore. Hadn't for years. Not to mention the money needed for supplies. She sighed, trying to focus on the call.
Do you have any questions?
Crap. She hadn't been listening. "No," she said, "thank you. Could you maybe email me the information so I have it easily in hand?"
Of course, said the voice. Sent. Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions. The call disconnected.
She threw her phone onto the bed. Great. Welfare. That's just what she needed. Her stubborn side took over and she knew she wouldn't be bending that particular knee until she was a bit more desperate. She looked around the apartment. How desperate was she?
Feeling suddenly cold, she took out several layers of long-sleeves and the two blankets from her bed, and crawled into the back of the closet like she used to do when she was a child. She rocked herself to sleep, tears staining her cheeks in slow rivulets.
She awoke to a fierce banging on the front door.
"Em? Em, it's me. You missed brunch!"
Emerson emerged from the closet, with hair disheveled and the fading impression of her blanket's fabric on her right cheek. She opened the door.
Claire froze, looking at her best friend with concern.
"Morning," said Emerson, moving aside so Claire could come in.
"More like afternoon," said Claire, who dropped her bag on a side table. Claire was an editor, though the job looked nothing like the jobs of editors from days past. She mainly read auto-generated content to check for any tech-ese or failed autocorrects. She hadn't had a real writer to edit in years. "I brought you some presents."
"Oh you really didn't have to do that," protested Emerson. "I'm fine. I promise. I just had a rough night."
"Honey, you've had a rough life," said Claire.
"Not as bad as some." Emerson tried to smile.
"Bad enough," said Claire. "Here. Let's hug it out."
Claire stepped across the room and wrapped her slender, freckled arms around her friend. Emerson sighed and laid her head against Claire's shoulder. She'd almost forgotten what physical comfort felt like.
After a few tears and a few nips--Claire had brought whiskey!--Emerson felt ready to talk. Claire would understand. Emerson took up the bottle and poured herself another shot. Claire had a liquor connection that she wouldn't even tell Emerson about. Black market stuff. Top secret, she'd say and smile.
Emerson explained about the calls she'd been getting, the new welfare program. Claire listened intently.
"But what do you have to do?" asked Claire.
"I'm not sure, tbh. I think there's some app I have to download. Let me check the email."
Miss. Emerson Crane
Thank you for your interest in participating in our supplemental income pilot program (SIPP). SIPP offers opportunities to offset your recent loss or decrease in income through your providing valuable insights and market research. To participate, download the SIPP app, input your demographic information, answer a few short lifestyle questions, set up your payment information, and upload a picture of yourself. Your electronic devices must be compatible with ACCUTRACK facial recognition software. Please note that any attempts to commit fraud will result in termination from the program and a report to local authorities. Thank you again, and please remain available for future contact from our staff.
"I'm still not sure what I have to do, lol." Emerson rubbed her raw eyes.
"Is your phone compatible?" asked Claire.
"I think so."
"Then let's get the app. I'll help you get set up."
Emerson located the app on the app store and they both stared at the phone as it downloaded bit by bit. After the installation process finished, the app opened automatically. Welcome, said a voice that sounded very much like the one from the phone calls, to the Supplemental Income Pilot Program or SIPP. Do you have a moment to set things up?
Emerson clicked yes. She stated her age, previous income, and outstanding debt.
Thank you! said the voice. Please check off any of the following brands you prefer. More than a hundred brands scrolled down her screen. Slowly, Emerson and Claire navigated through the tutorial introduction.
"So in order to earn money ...," said Claire.
"Credits," corrected Emerson.
"In order to earn credits," said Claire, "all you have to do is watch advertisements and take surveys on them?"
"That's what it sounds like."
"Well that doesn't sound too bad." Claire stood and stretched. "You just get to sit around watching ads all day."
"For things I'll never be able to buy," said Emerson, a sinking feeling in her stomach. "And I'll only be able to use the credits with sponsored vendors."
"Yeah, but that includes Target, Amazon, and the Food Printer Suppliers, so that's good."
Emerson nodded silently, turning to stare out the window. The flicker of street adverts pulsed in the early twilight.
Claire patted Emerson reassuringly on the shoulder. "Hey, I'm going to go get us some cheap Chinese."
Emerson finished off the last of the lifestyle surveys, feeling some measure of regret for the information she'd had to hand over. She'd always understood that privacy was a part of the past, an anachronism much like horse-drawn carriages and dial telephones, but still she regretted it.
Finally a button popped up, Earn rewards now! She clicked it and was immediately taken to a screen with a bright, flashing ad for a downloadable game. She watched the colorful jewels line up and disappear, a cash-register sound jarring her as the fake player won the jackpot. She turned to the window.
Warning, said the voice. Penalties will accrue if you fail to look at the screen. She turned back to the ad. So that's what the facial recognition software was for, to guarantee that she watched the screen.
Her eyes glazed over as she watched three more ads. 20 credits earned! said the voice with a flat enthusiasm. Keep going!
Wow, thought Emerson. Twenty credits for fifteen minutes. Maybe this would be easy after all.
Three days in, she'd earned enough credits to restock her food printer. When she woke up in the morning, an ad played across her wall-screen. She could mute it or pause it if she didn't mind incurring penalties, but she'd stopped doing that after day one. An ad played as she brushed her teeth. Another as she got dressed, keeping her head rotated towards the screen at all times.
She'd already learned the careful art of zoning out. Her eyes would point in the correct direction, but her mind would be off processing some event from her childhood or a daydream of going outside the city. Not that anyone was allowed out of the city, except by special permit, but the idea of it fascinated her. She imagined walking down a path, a canopy of pine needles above her. Her screen played a trailer for the next big blockbuster. Did she think she would watch it? She clicked no and received 2 credits. Next time she would try clicking yes. Did it even matter if she lied? Maybe she would get more credits.
She kept count of her credits obsessively. She would need 300 more credits if she was going to be able to make rent this month. She'd given up coffee. At seven credits a cup, it was a luxury she just couldn't afford. She reached down and stroked her cat, who purred contentedly. She hadn't had to miss feeding him since she started the SIPP program.
You have one message, rang out the voice. She opened the message on her phone. Take advantage of our latest mobile application! Watch ads on the go! Walk by stores to get proximity ads and extra credits! Proximity ads, she thought. Well, she hadn't left the house in three days. Maybe she should go out and get a little sun. As she walked the streets of the mall, ads flared across wall-screen after wall-screen, following her down the street. She turned her head methodically from one ad to the next. 10 credits. Was it just her or was the reward for each ad getting smaller?
She stopped sleeping. She'd fall asleep watching ads only to be awakened by the insistent voice warning against penalties. Ad on the lightrail for the latest in AI-crafted beers. Ad at the local Chinese take-out place for travel vouchers to China. Ad at home for the newest iteration of the iPhone/Pad/Macbook/home computing device. Ads between every song of her playlists. Ads that were songs so that they blended in. Catchy. She found herself singing the lullabies of capitalism. Consume. Consume. Consume, she sang softly as the food printer made a roasted chicken breast.
She continuously sent out her opinions on ads. She liked this one. Disliked that one. This was relevant, that was not. She began to feel like a cloth wrung through with grease, a cold, leaden feeling that congealed behind her eyes.
Day ten and she began considering poverty. Perhaps she should ignore some ads some of the time. 113 credits to go to make rent. Porn ad after porn ad after porn ad. 97 credits to go. She just had to make rent. She sat down in the middle of the floor, propped her head up with a pillow so she was facing the screen. Outside, the light faded into a sickly pink, the sky flushed and feverish.
Claire called. Emerson let it roll to voicemail.
53 credits and one day to go. She answered survey after survey. She hadn't eaten today. Did she yesterday? She couldn't remember. She pulled up the ads on the wall-screen so she didn't have to hold the phone. The walls of her apartment rang with the sounds of women laughing over salads. Of men putting on deodorant and becoming instantly attractive. Of washing machines removing grass stains--she missed going outside. Of pretty blondes hocking weight loss programs. Of all the sordid and empty things that can be purchased with one quick click. Yours at reduced cost! 23 credits to go. 22. 21... Emerson collapsed in the middle of an ad for the latest social shopping network. Exhausted, her eyes locked shut and she slept.
Rent was due in the morning.
Emerson dragged herself into consciousness at noon. She'd missed her rent payment. Waiting for her on her phone was an eviction notice. 24 hrs to leave or sign a new lease at an increase of 150 credits per month. What could she do? She called Claire.
"You've what??" shouted Claire over the phone. There was a lot of noise in the background. She must be out doing something.
"I'm being evicted!" Emerson shouted.
"Yeah... can I ... can I stay with you? Just until I find a place?"
"Of course, love! Go ahead and pack. I'll swing by after this luncheon."
Emerson hung up, looked around. She packed what clothes she had left. Used the rest of her printer ingredients to print some shelf stable foods, salami, hard cheeses, etc. She wasn't going to leave the next tenant any extra ingredients. She packed up her three statues. The cat's bowl and toys. She posted on craigslist all of her furniture, which was snapped up with surprising speed. The last bookcase was being hauled out of the apartment by two skinny men in glasses when Claire showed up.
"Wow, that was efficient," Claire said, looking around the empty loft.
Emerson said nothing. She stared out her one large window. Below her, the street gleamed. Everything was shiny or shimmering or attractively lit to show off the products on display. She wondered what true darkness looked like. She wondered what night looked like away from these pulsing, vibrating lights. The continual phosphorescence felt exhausting. Everything felt exhausting. She put her hand against the cool glass.
"Uhm ... need a minute?" Claire asked.
"No." Emerson picked up the kitty carrier, put a large duffel bag over her shoulder, and grabbed her suitcase. Claire picked up the box containing the statues. Together, they left the tiny apartment behind.
Emerson adjusted fairly easily to her new surroundings. Claire had been doing well at work and, when she received her bonus last year, she moved into a little two bedroom townhouse. The second room was Claire's office and library, so Emerson slept on the couch. She didn't log in to the app for two days, preferring instead to leaf through Claire's collection of physical books, inherited from her father, who had been known simply as the Professor.
On the third day, Emerson received an email.
It has come to our attention that you have failed to meet the minimum number of hours required by the licensing contract. If you do not resume your regularly scheduled viewing in the next 24 hours, you will be removed from the rolls and, once removed, you will be blocked from rejoining the program. If there's anything we can assist you with, please do not hesitate to contact our support services line.
So Emerson watched an ad. She kept watching until Claire came home. Emerson showed her the email.
"WTF," was all Claire said.
"I was wondering ..." Emerson began, then blushed and looked away. It was an idea she'd been toying with since she moved in. "You know your, uhm, contacts? For whiskey and wine and whatnot?"
"Yes ..." said Claire, hesitant. She'd always been very close-mouthed about how she picked up these rare items.
"Do you think they would be interested in buying my statues?"
"But you can't sell those!" Claire protested. "They're all you have left of who you were before."
"Before all this. Before that soul sucking job you pretended to love. Before you resigned yourself to this corporate hellhole. When we still believed in something, you know?" Claire had always been sentimental.
"But I need to eat, and I can't keep doing this." Emerson gestured at her phone. "I'm going crazy. I watch until I sleep. I wake up and the notifications are already dinging. Everywhere I go, I'm followed. I feel guilty for NOT watching ads. I feel guilty for wanting things I can't have. I can't do this. I'm done." As she said it, she knew it was true.
Claire looked at her without saying anything for a couple of minutes. Then she nodded.
"Okay. I think I can help."
"You'll help me sell the statues?"
Claire shook her head. "No, but there may be another way. Let me get back to you." She gave Emerson a quick hug and left without saying where she was going.
Anger burned through Emerson. Anger at her friend for not telling her what was going on. Anger at the program and the companies who utilized it. Anger at her old job that robbed her of her sense of self. Anger at the river of advertisements out there on the streets. She logged into her laptop, and wrote.
It was a rant, a manifesto. It was a cri-de-coeur. It wasn't enough. She wrote anonymously and submitted it to a well-known blogsite. In the first hour, she had 200 likes. In the next, 20,000. It was happening. She was going viral. In the next three hours, she was being interviewed by several well-known bloggers. And Claire still wasn't back yet. Then there was a knock on the door.
Emerson opened it to find three men in dark gray suits.
"Miss Crane?" the tallest one said. Emerson had a hard time telling them apart except by height. They all had the smashed faces of boxers, the broad jaw of some predatory animal.
"No." Her mind raced. Who were these people? She felt incredibly threatened. "My name is Claire."
The tall man looked at his tablet and back at Emerson.
"Our records indicate that you are, in fact, Emerson Crane, enrolled in the SIPP program. You have violated the terms and conditions you agreed to by downloading the SIPP app."
"You have publically disparaged the program. You'll have to come with us."
The two shorter men stepped forward, each taking an arm. Emerson tried to wrench herself free, but they were strong. Too strong.
"But ... but what about my cat?"
No response. They turned, and, with Emerson firmly between them, marched her down to the pulsing street and shoved her into a black SUV.
They took her to a drab office building a few blocks away from downtown. As one unit, they walked through the security gate at the front entrance, checked Emerson for weapons or sharp objects, and deposited her in an olive green waiting room.
"Am I being arrested?" she asked the tall man.
"Arrested? Of course not. Does this look like a police station?"
Emerson looked around the room. It looked like any waiting room. There were even magazine codes you could scan with your phone for reading material.
"You're simply being detained until it can be determined if you committed fraud. Then you'll be arrested." He grinned and stepped out. Emerson was alone in the room. She heard the door lock.
She texted Claire.
Fuck! was Claire's response. Emerson stared at the "typing" symbol. It felt like forever before Claire's next message came through. Stay there. We're going to try to get you out. Be prepared to follow any and all instructions even if it's from someone you don't know.
Okay, Emerson responded.
Ten minutes later, a woman came in to take Emerson's fingerprints. Emerson eyed the woman, but the woman said only "Give me your fingers." Then Emerson was alone again.
Half an hour later, an explosion rang out somewhere close. A different woman, frazzled, rushed in.
"It's the anarchists," she shouted. "They've set off bombs across the city. We've got to get you somewhere safe. Come with me." The woman turned away from the security camera in the corner and winked.
Emerson followed her out of the building. Outside police sirens fractured the night. The woman took Emerson by the elbow and led her away from the scene to a waiting van. Emerson started to panic, maybe this wasn't the right person. Maybe she was finally being arrested. Or worse. Her mind raced, but she couldn't stop it.
"Em," a voice whispered from inside the van. "Get in."
Emerson smiled and jumped inside. She knew that voice. Claire.
"You don't look the worse for wear," Claire said once Emerson was in the van. "Did they rough you up?"
Emerson shook her head. "No, but I didn't fight them." She looked at the bruises on her wrists. "Except for these, I mean, when they grabbed me."
Claire looked at the bruises. "It could have been worse." The van, running on autopilot, made its way down the street.
"Where are we going?" Emerson asked.
"We're leaving the city." Claire touched Emerson's cheek. "Well, you are."
"Leaving the ... but that's illegal. Without a permit."
Claire grinned. "That's why we have the right permits. For your sister at least."
"I don't have a sister, Claire, you know that."
"Ah, but does the government? I have a friend that added her to the system. And another friend made you this passport." She winked at Emerson. "My friends do good work on short notice. They've had practice."
Emerson took the proffered passport and stared down at her face. It was definitely her face, but if the government agents thought she was her newly created sister, they might ignore the facial recognition software picking her out.
"Here, take this," said Claire, holding out a pill.
"What is it?"
"Xanax so you don't panic. It'll help you lie better."
Emerson swallowed the pill.
"When you leave the city, you'll need to drive manually. There are no magstrips out there."
"But I can't drive. I don't know how!" Emerson tried not to panic. She felt the anxiety roiling her stomach. How long until the meds kicked in?
Claire thought for a minute. "Can you ride a bike? There's an old messenger bike in the back."
Emerson remembered when she was five, maybe six, falling down repeatedly as she tried to learn. Eventually she'd been able to wobble down the road, but that was more than two decades ago.
"I think so," she said.
"Well you won't have to go far before the patrols pick you up."
"The anarchists. They've got a commune somewhere outside the city. In the mountains. They do regular patrols around the city to pick up anyone lucky enough to escape."
Claire explained what to expect and Emerson did her best to listen. Claire also said she'd take care of the cat, and try to get Emerson's things to her, when it was less dangerous. Just before the outskirts of the city, Claire stopped the car, hugged Emerson fiercely, and stepped out into the night. Emerson, now truly alone, felt a calmness descend over her. She took a deep breath and started the van. It followed the magstrips to the edge of the city
"Business?" asked the guard at the checkpoint, his black uniform blending into the shadows.
"I have a job interview in Dallas. But I don't have the credits for a flight."
He shined a light into the van. "Job interview? That seems unlikely."
Emerson handed him the paperwork and the fake passport.
He flipped through the paperwork. "Everything seems in order. Well, good luck with the interview. You'll need it." He stepped back into the shadows. The flashlight waved her through. One mile out of the city, the car stopped. She'd reached the end of the magstrips.
She dug through the junk in the van and pulled out an old bicycle, its paint peeling away. She steadied herself, made a couple of false starts, then pedaled slowly, wobbling into the night.
The city glowed behind her, staining the night clouds pink and yellow. After a few more miles, she understood darkness. Not the complete darkness of a room with no windows or lights, but rather, a natural darkness. A milky, blue and purple darkness. A swirling darkness littered with stars. She got off the bike and looked up at the heavens. It seemed to move and rotate, twisting in the soft moonlight.
She heard a branch break off to the side of the road. Eyes wide, she spun, putting the bike between her and the noise.
"Emerson Crane?" a voice said out of the darkness.
This time, she said yes with no hesitation. They knew she was coming. Three people stepped out of the darkness, switching on a flashlight. She smiled. There was an older woman, still fit and fighting, it looked like. A young man, maybe eighteen years old at the oldest, and another woman who looked to be Emerson's age.
"We've been waiting for you," said the older woman.
Introductions were made and the group turned towards the mountains.
Finally, Emerson would get to see the mountains. She felt their presence through the dark. Heavy, old, and certain of their place in the world. She turned once more to look back towards the city. In the night, the stain from the city lights looked like a sore, a bruise on the night sky.
Emerson turned away, feeling the weight of the mountains in front of her. She was going home.