Image: Tracy Lee

The day of Team meeting for the spring robot fashion launch, it was raining hard. Other protectorates have man-made precipitation but here in New Cascadia we still have the real thing, from little eyelash dusters, to the full, sideways sliding downpour. I like real rain. I’ve experienced the human-made stuff and it’s just not the same; too uniform, each drop perfect, dries too fast. Plus, it stops. Still, I complain about the rain like everyone else. The last thing we need is for more people to emigrate here. 

I caught a few drops on my palm for luck, then swiped my passport, exited the train and went straight into UAI, where I work as an automaton clothing designer. The Artificial Intelligence part of our old name is becoming an embarrassment as Robata rights laws gain traction in some protectorates, but here in New Cas we are very conflict averse. Maybe it’s the surfeit of yoga PhD professors but people only really care about True Forest. History hardly seems to matter. Few among my schoolmates either knew or cared that some seventy years ago New Cascadia was in what was then known as states: Oregon and Washington (alternate spellings say Ory-gun), distinct localities with their own infrastructure and even political offices. You could drive from one to another, back when there were personal cars. “But who ran the passport checks?” I asked Abe, a grand-elder who lives with Ada, my birth-mother, and me, though she has to pay higher and higher taxes to keep him. “No such thing,” he waved me off. “The world was not so divided, then.”

“How did they travel without bio-markers?”

Abe sighed. We have a similar sigh, though no genomes connect us. “It was so different then, I cannot explain all the differences. Will you trust me? Come to seder and I’ll explain in detail.” No one knows what that word means. My birth-mother, Ada, is supposedly researching this seder (sometimes spelled cheder) that Abe is obsessed with. She is a tenacious, driven person, far different than me. She curated everything about her life, from selecting me and my sister as eggs, to scouring the oldie communes for a perfect grand-elder to adopt. I’m more of a whatever type. That is until I have to deal with my boss, Officer Kren.

We’re not rich but we are comfortable; my birth-mother is actually my birth-mother. The papers are framed in my bedroom, which overlooks a south section of True Forest. I am female, self-assigned. I’m not sure of my exact age, as no one cares about those numbers anymore. I work for UAI, of course. I volunteer at the Tertiary School, where I specialize in literature. I love to read. My other great love, much more secret, is for this self-assigned male named How, who I have known since childhood. I haven’t seen him in many years, since he works at the UAI in Posh Seaboard Protectorate. I doubt he will ever return because all the important stuff goes on in PSR. No one would give a sphincter squirt about us here in New Cas if we didn’t own the last forests. We know we have it very good and are not eager to share that fact with the rest of the world.

I don’t care about politics. I set my vote for progressive and hardly even look at it anymore, though Abe gets excited every fall and always asks me if I’ve punched in. He worries about the oddest things. Still, I often go to him and not to Ada to discuss my problems. Once at the ATM, among all the ads, I got this fortune: Honor Your Elders. I thought about it and decided it was a good idea. One way to honor something is to acknowledge that there is a reason it exists.

The meeting about the spring robot fashion launch had already assembled. My Team was there, though this is a very busy time of year for us and I am fully expecting a credit raise due to progress I accomplished on SOX, the new feline product. It took a lot of effort on my part to get assigned to that unit and I am very proud of my creative work. Just thinking about how much there was left to do gave me a shiver, and fearing my health monitor band would send a report, I slid it under my jeweled cuff. They will send you on health vacay for five reports or over and it’s a total career-killer as everyone knows.

Officer Kren opened the meeting by saying that the past was our strongest trend. Consumers were nervous and wanted an old-fashioned look. They say this every year, as if it is the biggest news. We roll out some virtuals, orders come back less than expected, and everyone tries to pass a levy to make up the difference. Then the Major Sports holidays arrive, and people head for the forest where all is forgotten. For the last few years I’ve stayed around our southern section; it’s just as beautiful and I don’t have to deal with the train traps. Abe and I play cards and I catch up on reading. Everyone is happy except Ada, who urges me to attend these dumb Midsummer orgies I have no interest in. She doesn’t care that no one marries anymore, and though no one notes ages, she keeps track of mine with a daily graph she posts on the neighborhood FactBook. I wish my birth-sister Bea was here to take off some of the heat, but she elected Mars branch and we only talk on her lunar schedule. 

Finally, someone from my Team wrote into air quotes with a question about Easter. They wanted to know what the heck it was. People suppressed groans but I was prepared. I answered that though Christmas is about advanced shopping techniques, Easter, which was once related, had an interesting backstory. Then we presented our designs and wrapped. Mine got upvotes, but then mine usually do. I was headed back to the desk warehouse when I got an alert. I figured it was one I’d set for release of the all-important New Jersey look books, but instead it was an amazing message. 

How was coming to New Cascadia for a meeting.

Now my heart was pounding like a drum. I ran into the toilet and put my health monitor under the hand-dryer so Personnel would just think it malfunctioned. I wanted to sing and dance and also call Melba, Concourse, Sweetbyebye and Filia and jump up and down and scream with them. Rushing out of the toilet I almost bumped into Officer Kren. She eyed me coldly and wanted to know where I had gotten my Easter information. I wanted to tell her I read about it, but to make it sound more trustworthy I just said I’d heard it as a rumor.

“From your family DNA archives?”

No. “Maybe that was it.”

“I don’t think so, Dea. In fact, your comments have confirmed my suspicions. So, you’ll be glad to hear that SOX is off your schedule.”

I stood there, dumbfounded.

“But I initiated that line! I have so many ideas for…”

“Off. That is the final word.”

“Are you saying I’m relinquished of employ?”

“Of course not. You are a valuable member here at UAI. But management has long seen you as more in the financial, rather than creative sector. You are good with money, yes?’

“I’m not!”

“Don’t be arrogant. It doesn’t become you. The move to Loans and Cost Crisis is immediate. Please move your desk, clear your air comments and report to that expertise this after time.”

“Officer Kren.”

“Your health monitor wasn’t just now sitting under the laser-dry was it?”

Then alerts pinged again. How was on the move.

 

 

At home that night I refused dinner and sat in my room, drawing hats to try and calm down. How could the whole world collapse in a single moment? I wasn’t a cool designer anymore. I was relegated to some warehouse, miles from green view, where mostly self-enforced males with terrible haircuts sat and looked at ancient monitors that were like stuck to tables. I wasn’t going to last a week. 

Ada came in with some kind of brown water, in it floated a sphere.

“What is that thing?”

“I don’t know. A recipe for ball soup that Abe requested. I don’t think robata-to-order made it right.”

“You shouldn’t use that service, mom. They send those parts over here and don’t even bother to assemble them correctly or give them any volition or barely a cloth covering.”

“It’s very reasonable.”

“Not for them.”

Ada sat on my futon. I turned my back to her and pretended I was going into fugue state. But my mother is hard to fool. She seems like she’s taken classes or something in mind control. Meanwhile I could hear Abe hovering around on the other side of the door.

“I just want to be left alone.”

Ada didn’t budge. 

“You’re not a child anymore, Dea. You’re…”

I gave her a look because she was about to say my age again.

“How is coming to New Cascadia.” That’s what I wanted to say but instead she spoke first.

“I invited Gzsleb and his family to dinner. Midsummer is coming and I just know he’d invite you. Why not wear one of those stunning new robes you designed? Dea, you make everyone else look good but do nothing for yourself.”

Ugh. Just what I needed. You know what they say, one circuit goes, they all go.

I went to work at Loans and Cost Crisis and let me tell you, it was just as bad as I suspected. I wasn’t the only person who’d been assigned there for no apparent reason, though it was certainly diverse. There was every kind of bio-marker, Indian, Asian, African, Native, a vast array of various gendered. Some were a whiz at financial doings, but others were hopeless day-dreamers who just drew pictures of sections of the forest. I would say we skewed smart, and what to order for lunch was a surprisingly big deal, but other than that what qualifications that had gotten us assigned to this hell hole remained a mystery. I sometimes ate lunch with a rebellious bunch of them who did nothing but argue and downvote each other. They were oddly mesmerized by my Easter story, and captured every word in a new, secure air quotes system they’d invented while being stuck there. They said these stories needed to be archived against the coming day, though they never said coming for what.

I dropped body mass, which at first delighted Ada, and then bugged her. The folks in my new department had shown me an easy way to turn off the health monitor, so she had to take my word I was meeting personal-care requirements. One of the members of LC&C did offer to wash my hair, but I’m not sure their motives were sincere. 

The only person I could tolerate was Abe. Formerly he’d followed a pretty set routine, breakfast, a card game with cronies waiting for their cryo and then inserting himself into classic movies before an early bedtime. But this seder thing had energized him. He sent me to collect random stuff from True Forest like bones, wild horseradish, clumps of herbs. He said it was for a plate that told a story, which was kind of crazy because that talking dinnerware had only been a fad for a while. 

“Just tell me the story,” I said, holding up leaves and grasses from the basket I’d taken into the forest that morning. As I raised each one, Abe shook his head.

“It is told during one night. We will need a glass, a special cup, I just remembered.”

“Is someone else coming?”

“No, this is for someone who isn’t there.” He reached for the basket and took out a piece of wild river onion, tasted it and then made a face.

“That’s confusing. Don’t eat that one, Abe, it’s very bitter.”

“You are a smart and beautiful young woman, Dea. Very caring of others. You remind me so much of some people in my past life group a long time ago. They didn’t make it and yet here you are. And now you have problems at work, yes?”

Instead I told him about How, that I had first been getting alerts but then they had stopped. 

“Interesting,” said Abe, “But what do you think of this one that your mother has selected? The family is rich, please don’t hold that against them.”

“I know they own their own house, but it isn’t the extreme wealth that’s really the problem. It’s just that Gzsleb is like fake rain, uniform, everything so perfect and if he ever has tears, they will dry too fast.” I have no idea why I said that. He seemed like a perfectly nice guy who happened not to be How.

“Wait, his name is Gzsleb?”

“The G is only hinted at.”

“How is it we arrive at names again?”

“They’re earned.”

I swept the grasses into the basket to take them to university compost and Abe stopped me and took out the wild onion and put it on his plate.

“No, remember that one was bitter.”

“Exactly. Perfect for this meal.”

 

The next day at work one of my co-workers came up behind me and put his hands over my eyes. It wasn’t very pleasant, but I thought maybe something the employees of this department did to cheer each other up. They spun me around until I felt quite nauseous and told me to open my eyes and there stood Melba, Concourse, Sweetbyebye and Folia, looking so stylish they were like a bunch of those flowers that people used to hide when climate change deniers ran free. 

Sweetbyebye hugged me and grabbed both my hands and said, “I’m just stealing Dea for a sec, guys” and the five of us strode down the halls, giggling and hanging onto each other like old times. 

“Where’s Officer Kren?”

“She’s busy ruining Gaiety Day!”

We went into the desk warehouse. My emotions were mixed because the bustle, the busy hum, even the smell of the place made me so homesick. On the other hand, it felt great to see how far the Team had come on SOX, who sat adorably in the glass container breathing away. Concourse showed me how the accordion sequence I’d developed was now giving off that authentic noise. 

“What’s up next?” I said. I felt as invested in the feline fashion line as if I was still working on it. I mean, I’d spent all last summer on the claw spread alone.

Folia and Sweetbyebye exchanged looks.

“Come on, just tell me,” I said. “What difference can it make now? I’m doomed anyway.”

Folia had been blocking the monitor and now she stepped away to reveal Officer Kren’s bio-signature scrawled all over the project manifest.

“It’s not possible!” I shouted. “I made that! I did that work.” 

“People in finance can’t get named inventors,” Melba said. “They passed the law last week while everyone was glued to the end of the TV show. Everyone knows the work is yours, but the credits still go…” their voice trailed off. 

Just then I got air quotes from Ada, describing some new recipe I was supposed to be picking up the ingredients for and I hugged everyone goodbye, the joy having gone out of the day like bubble cycle puncture.

“I have to go, we’re having a seder.”

“Isn’t there a pretty high tax if the food doesn’t follow one of the five specified health plans?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “So far it’s a ball in broth and some wild onions. I doubt anyone is going to eat any of it.”

Melba engulfed me in a warm leg and arm hug. “It’s better that you’re hanging out, away from the glare, Dea. These purity tests for bio-markers are never gonna survive legal challenges but some passports have been removed and it’s annoying as can be for folks, trying to get them reinstated.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. But at least my friends were still my friends.

Back at home, Abe was sitting in the bar in Casablanca, which was typical when he was in a festive mood. I joined him and ordered a lemonade and put down the bag of ingredients I’d been told to bring. An avatar came up and brought me an Ingrid robe, one I had designed for a long-ago line, which was nice. I bet Bea arranged it from Mars. Abe had a stack of bark with squashed bugs on them; we used to find whole rooms of those, playing around in True Forest when we were kids. I’m glad I grew up here, when beauty was everywhere and for everyone.

“These are the Haggadah I mentioned,” said Abe. 

“I think that’s Madrone bark.”

“It’s a book. I couldn’t have afforded such an antique myself, but I still have good friends from the commune who copied some by hand.” I saw they were attached together and that the bug squashes were tiny letters.

“Wow! Where is Maxwell House?”

“No one knows, maybe a Lost Tribe. They were early printers of this sacred text. Now we can have seder tonight. I have four copies.” He wriggled his eyebrows, as if the number significant. Then he turned to *Sam* and said, play it, play Hava Nagila. Dea, please set the table for four.”

And this was why when we sat down at the table there was Ada and Abe and me.

And How.

It was a pretty magical night. I couldn’t understand everything that was going on, but because I’ve always been good at languages, I was able to ask Four Questions (I was the youngest at the table) using a household translator. And Hebrew is easy if you know anything about vintage rap music, which of course I now did, having had to endure endless loops of it at Crisis and Loan. We read these crazy stories about slaves and spirits who never came inside or drank but demanded doors and glasses anyway. God was a constant word. My body completely relaxed next to How, who looked fantastic, even better than I remembered him. He sat next to me as if we had been sitting like this forever, and kept praising the food to Ada, referred to Abe as Sir (which was hilarious since I doubt anyone was buying Abe a title, even as a gag gift) and looking often at me, especially when he thought I wouldn’t notice. 

When it was over, no one really wanted it to end, so we sat around talking, discussing things we’d just read. I thanked Abe, for arranging this, and said how much I loved him even if we didn’t share genomes. He frowned at that and started to say something, but Ada interrupted with a fancy tea service. She asked me how it was going with the spring robot launch and then the words just poured out and I told them everything that had happened. Everyone started talking at once, until Ada shushed them and turned to me.

“What do you mean, no credits for your work on SOX? That’s completely illegal!”

I explained that Officer Kren ran the branch like their own little orchard and it just wasn’t worth the fight. Meanwhile How had gone into his message system and was retrieving something from his fancy finger monitor. 

“Is this SOX?” He laid an image out on the table and I bent down and examined it.

“Yes. Or no. It does look like the product but see this claw spread? I worked on that so long, so it would clasp just perfectly. But what are those? They look like detonators.”

How sighed heavily. “That’s exactly what they are. Evidently they’ve taken your work and given it a military application.”

I gasped.

“No. No way.”

How spread his own hands in sympathy. He said a political pack had released it in a super-
secret confidential blast to almost everyone on rumor. I opened my notebook to show him how the proprietary designs had my bio-marker.

“Did you Protec?”

“Of course, I’m not stupid.”

“Those can be defaced.”

“Not mine, I use a decoy.”

“It’s not unusual.”

“Yeah but mine are fake decoys. So, when they’re overwritten, they revert into a second layer and the bio-marker is a lot harder to erase. And it is also hidden.”

How whistled admiringly. “Smart. What gave you the idea?”

My cheeks went pink at his words. “No big deal, really. It’s from these ancient world hats I was studying. Because I’m kinda into hats, as you can see from the notebook. They wore these on shaved heads, for modesty regulations, but then the hats themselves resembled even more beautiful and desirable hair!”

“But they have the prototype and without that…” his words trailed away, we looked at each other and  jumped up at the same time.

“Absolutely forbidden,” said Ada, but How kissed her hand and patted it and said we would watch out for each other.

 

UAI was bathed in brilliant total light, closed for the night. We didn’t exactly have a plan for how to get in but when we saw all those Roomba lined up for the late shift we knew exactly what to do, as if it had been ordained. How crammed his six-foot frame inside one and I wriggled easily into another and we cruised in like a spring breeze. SOX opened one eye as we circled, but I was prepared with shields. I’d been there when that Curiosity module had been installed. 

We circled idly. The thrill and excitement of our spontaneous pilgrimage had started to fade at the reality of the problems before us. How used his pointer to highlight all the security in place while SOX activated and sat up. 

“I just don’t see any way.”

“Look, I have a plan I devised on the way over here. One that will work.” Or not work, or get me fired, or have How deported, causing Ada to lose her job in Hospitality and have to send Abe back for taxes owed. 

Other than that, great idea.

“You could easily leave now,” I said to How. “I’m obliged to present that option.”

“I am in love with you,” said How. “I have been in love with you since we were children and I saw you in True Forest, helping those squirrels.”

“Are you asking me to get married, even though no one does that anymore?”

“Yes.”

I looked at SOX, who is of course a non-sentient enterprise and yet I could swear I heard its accordion sequence start. Then I thought about my plan. I’d been thinking on the way over about the story we’d been reading. They left too fast for the bread to rise. They had bread, but it was still in its new born state. I passed the monitor, scrawled with false bio-markers, and went into the check-in. I used my old key to start it up. No one would have bothered to change codes on such a minor matter. Sure enough, there was the schematic from day one. 

“I have this idea.”

“I think that’s how you got your name.”

We strolled out of fashion lab, right out the front door, ordinary as can be just as true dawn was rising. Then How ran off and came back with some kind of ancient cart that lacked even a simple hoverboard. He started it up and insisted on seating me and the single piece of code that had once been a full-blown feline project sitting in my lap, in full view. Then he took a painting of the whole scene.

“I have a feeling we’re going to want to commemorate this.”

I felt oddly calm and very content.

“What do you think they’ll do when they find out we reversed SOX down to its original  prototype and just walked it out?”

“They should be glad I exposed such a big security breach. The sensors are so sophisticated they can’t even be bothered to detect the past.”

“Very poetic. We could be in a lot of trouble.”

“Me, I could be.”

“We. From now on, it’s we.”

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