This month’s fiction offering here at Futurismic is a little darker than our last story. In “Glassface”, James Trimarco takes the theme of repressive immigration control and weaves in a story of personal redemption.
It’s moody and noir with a bitter-sweet flavour, and I like it a lot – we hope you do, too.
by James Trimarco
The sun burns off the last of the yellow morning fog as the crane drops the shipping containers onto the pier. The pavement shudders with the deep boom of metal on asphalt, then the sound bounces off some buildings and hits us again, softer now. Then the hook lifts away and we head over for the usual routine.
Mackenzie hauls open the gate on the first container. Inside, it’s dark as a tomb.
“Okay, bionic boy,” he says. “You see anything?”
The joke hasn’t been funny for a couple months, and I let him know it.
“Uh oh!” he shoots back. “He’s cranky—better check his batteries!” When he laughs it sounds like he’s choking. I crawl into the container just to get away from it.
As if I had all this junk in my face because I wanted it there. Nobody wants implants like these. People like the stuff you can’t see, that blends in, and mine look like something out of a TV show on the world’s creepiest spiders. Big red lenses under the eyes, white sensors to the side, and two deep pits near the nostrils.
They make them extra ugly, I think, to punish the guys like me, the ex-traffickers who do it to shave a few years off their sentences. Smart move, really. I buy my own bread, but they don’t have to worry about me having too much fun, not looking like I do. And all for bringing a couple of immigrants over from the flooded zones. The people can’t survive out there, so how do you expect them not to leave? Guys like me help them feed their families, and who’s to say we shouldn’t make a decent living? Now I got a twelve-year contract and a face full of sensors to show for it. But I’m always looking for a faster way out and one day you know I’m gonna find one.
The inside of the container smells of rotting cardboard. It’s so dark I can barely see my hands in front of me. But seeing’s not quite what this is all about. I give the thought-command to switch on the implants and the numbers hit my mind like flies on a windshield. In the beginning, I used to put them in charts like on the front page of The New York Times: temperatures from red to blue, density in patterns of dots, stuff like that. Now my method is more natural. It’s like when I worked for the other side, how I used to know how far a police speedboat was from the harbor. Didn’t have to think numbers; I just knew. The brain still beats the computer when it comes to putting it all together like that. That’s why they still need me.
“All clear,” I say. Mackenzie steps in after me with a pocket-scanner to double-check. He does that now and then to make sure I’m not pulling anything. It always slows us down.
We walk to the next one when he’s done, and I grab a quick smoke while he fiddles with the lightkey. I see the Southside all around us, the sun too bright on the old beer bottles floating in the water, the containers and cranes and piles of sand on piers, the bridge towering like a pyramid over everything. It glows a little in the haze. The windows of the office buildings on the other bank shine like new dimes in the sun. I haven’t been there for years. Not that anyone would stop me, it’s just no one from the Southside ever goes there.
“All right, Glassface,” Mackenzie says. “Guess what comes next.”
Funny guy, that Mac. One day he’s going to push me too far and I’ll swing him right over the edge, his hands reaching for his gun as he spirals toward the old wooden docks down below. But not today. I fire up my gear and get to it. Every box in here has a washing machine inside. That’s a lot of metal, and scanning it’s like chewing through a thick knot of gristle. I’m about to give the all-clear when something funny jumps out.
I climb up into the narrow space between the tops of the boxes and the ceiling. From here the fridges look like grey rectangles in a grid. I probe closer and see weak red splotches of heat like bloody thumbprints. I watch until they pulse. It’s not much. Less than ever before. But it’s there.
“We got heartbeat!”
“How many we talking?”
“They’re so weak, it’s hard to say. Maybe twenty?”
Outside I find Mr. Chu, our tall, sour-faced pier manager, who waits with us as a dock worker in a shiny Honda exoskeleton takes the boxes from the container. Mr. Chu is aging so fast I can practically watch his black hair turn gray around the temples. “East Side Plumbing Supplies,” say the faded black letters on his dirty baseball cap.
He strips some cardboard off the first box, revealing a jagged trapezoid of white enamel. He pulls out a few hunks of styrofoam, then opens the washer’s door. Inside, his knees folded up against his chest, is a man, or what’s left of one. He’s shriveled and dried down to almost nothing. Naked except for a pair of white briefs, shaved head growing into a buzz, brown skin nicked from endless injections and pulled tight as spandex over knobby joints.
I reach in and pull him out. It’s easy to see why Mackenzie calls them mummies. The guy’s face looks like something out of National Geographic.
“Can you get an age on this one, Hector?” Mr. Chu asks. That’s my name: Hector. It’s nice to hear someone use it for a change.
I scan the mummy’s teeth for approximate age. But something’s wonky with the biometrics, some static’s creeping in. I look in a higher bandwidth and it clears up. A complicated pattern from the brain, one that goes pulse, pulse, pause, long pulse, long pause, pulse, pause—on and on like that, but changing. I record it until I catch it repeat, then store it in my hard mems.
“Yo! C3PO! Earth to bionic man! You got an age on this little hustler?”
“Nineteen,” I say. “Right about nineteen years old.”
Like I said before, I think they make them ugly on purpose. People turn away when they see them, and after a while you don’t want their eyes on you at all.
I’ll give you an example. The other day I was walking along, out of smokes. I pull my baseball cap down low over my face, then duck into the nearest bodega. But it’s not good enough, ’cause when I ask for a pack of Camel Lights, the lady behind the counter doesn’t move. She just stares at me, the fear on her face as nasty as a roach in the kitchen sink. She even crosses herself, which is the worst.
“Pack of Camel Lights, can’t you hear?”
“Diablo, afuera,” she whispers, her voice shaking as she points to the door. And I do it. I get out. She’s just a little old Mexican lady like my mom was, after all, and the thought of scaring her with my bug eyes makes me sick.
Back outside, I run my fingers across my cheeks. The big red sonar lenses under each cheekbone, smooth as glass plums. The white ones to the side feel like classroom chalk. But the two slits near my nostrils are the worst. The edges wrinkly like old chicken necks. I wish I could just pull it all out with my fingers. But it’s not that easy.
Later, I’m hunched over a barstool in the back corner of Blinky’s, a dingy place I never would have touched before. But it’s usually empty and that appeals to me. There’s Blinky, with his beard and long hair parted down the middle, and a couple of ladies whispering. I sit far away as possible and drink. Soon one leaves and the other one stays behind all by herself. Weird. I see her staring at me out of the corner of her eye. Maybe she’s looking for someone to talk to. Must not have noticed yet. Must be pretty trashed.
I don’t want to think about it, so I call up the pattern I got from the mummy’s head. I sequence it out, then put it through a couple standard decrypt systems that come with my gear. At first I get nothing but scrambled eggs. Then around the fifth try I get ASCII. Bingo.
I see the message with my eyes closed, the same way I see the Samsung mummies in the containers. “Miss being human?” Then an email address at a free service provider: email@example.com.
I’m hoping this means what I think it does when a hand comes down on my shoulder, making me spray Guinness across the bar. It’s the lady who was sitting alone. She stands in the red light of the exit sign. Kind of cute, too, even with that acne around the corners of her mouth. Her dark eyes look out from a round face topped with frizzy black hair, the bangs cut just above the eyebrows. She smiles and her teeth point in slightly different directions but are very white. Somehow the combination is sexy.
I try to smile but the skin bunches up around the lenses. It hurts.
“Are you a policeman?” Her voice is loud and bright with a faint Russian accent.
What a question. “I guess so.”
“I saw a show on TV about men like you. I enjoyed it very much. The traffickers destroy so many lives. You guys are heroes for helping to fight them.”
This little speech rings all the wrong bells for me. I wonder what she wants. Maybe she thinks I can get her hunchbacked parents out of some flooded Transylvanian village. I almost tell her to blow off. But then, I don’t get too many women coming up to me these days. I decide to play along.
“Glad to know somebody appreciates it,” I say. “You know, I found a big batch of them just today. Shriveled up like mummies in the washer-dryers! That’s what we call them, you know? Samsung mummies.”
She gasps and squeezes my arm like we’re in the theater watching Resident Evil Six. And it’s weird because I’ve barely touched another person since they locked me up four years ago—a person who wasn’t hiding in a crate, anyway—and I’d forgotten how good it feels, that little spark that runs between you. It’s tough to let go when she pulls her arm away.
Her name is Yelena, she says, Yelli for short. I tell her to call me Hector. She says all right, if I’ll come out of the corner. She doesn’t like me drinking back there, “Like a spider,” she says. And I follow her into the light, even though the bar is filling up. Seems easier to be out in public if I got a lady with me.
We talk a bit and she’s bursting with questions. She wants to know what the mummies look like, what we do when we find them, whether they ever wake up and talk to us. She’s clearly after something but I’m too drunk to care. If she’s some kind of Russian mafia looking to pick my brains, I say let her pick. Maybe she’ll find something.
After a while, though, I get tired of talking about it. I ask her if she goes to school or anything and she says yeah. She studies nursing, but she’s not into it. Just doing it for the money.
“I’ll be always in demand,” she says. “But I wish I was studying something more creative. I love to take pictures of people, portraits. That’s what my father did. He was a great man. He and my mother died coming to this country. They were trafficked.”
“Oh.” It feels like a gust of winter cold has just blown in the door. Even Blinky shakes his hairy head.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“It’s all right, really,” she tells me. “It was a long time ago. You want a cigarette?”
“Please.” And then, probably because I’m drunk, I say, “I wanted to buy some before but the lady wouldn’t sell me none. She called me the devil right to my face.”
We go outside and stand under the blue light bulb that’s the closest thing Blinky’s got to a sign. She hands me a cigarette and lights a match. I take a puff and keep talking. “You wouldn’t think six doodads in your face would make that much difference,” I say. “But they do. People turn their heads. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll need to hide someday and it’ll be a guy like me comes and finds them.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Yelli says, puffing smoke through her nostrils in a trick I’ve never seen a woman pull before. “I like the way they look.”
Now there’s a line I just can’t swallow. She must be working for someone. I close my eyes and scan her up and down. No hidden metal or wires or circuits. Just snaps and buttons and bobby pins and two hoop earrings that jitter and dangle. Cool blue skin over warm red flesh. I’m still scanning when I feel her lips brush against me. Her tongue slips inside my mouth. I put my hands on her shoulders and watch the heat build up around my fingers.
“What do I look like when you do that?” she asks me, but I don’t know how to describe it. She kisses me again, then pulls back. She reaches up to run her fingers across the lenses.
“Hey!” I snatch her hands away. “What’s that?”
I don’t want anybody fooling around with me there. But I don’t want to tell her no, either. So I stand under the blue light, feeling her fingers trace the shapes of the lenses while the air slides in and out of her throat. Finally, I can’t take it anymore. I’d ask her to come home with me, but it’s late and I’m on the docks in the morning. I get her number and save it to my hard mems.
Then I’m alone, walking home in the darkness that no longer bothers to keep secrets from me. I see every rat on the block, every warm body on the other side of a brick wall. It’s nice, in a way, to see all that, the way it feels good to have a friend let you in on a secret. But they’re not secrets I’m supposed to know and they weigh me down like all secrets do. I’m jealous of Yelli, with her eyes that don’t turn on the lights all the time.
I send a simple message to shanghai05. Ten hours later I get a reply from someone named Carlton Li, wanting to meet me at the corner for coffee. I wait a while, smelling the sea salt and rotten wood, and when he shows up, he’s not what I expected. Chinese, yeah, but younger and slimmer then I thought he’d be, more like a college student than a seasoned traficante. He smokes Parliament menthols and spits on the sidewalk. Of course we don’t go for coffee. Instead we walk to a potholed alley leading up to an abandoned pier where huge weeds shelter a couple of dirty mattresses.
“You know what I want from you?” Carlton asks.
“I can guess.”
He spits. It’s his way of telling me take your best shot.
“You want to make an arrangement,” I say. “I let certain shipments through and you guys pay me off. Help me get these precious stones off my cheeks.”
Carlton smiles. When he spits on the pavement, it sounds like the slap of a bullet on the water. “Close, Mr. Fernandez. But you’re thinking like a two-bit hood from the Southside. Which is natural because that’s what you are.”
I shut up and give him a stare.
“We’re professionals. We don’t want you to sneak a couple shipments under the radar. We want to study your systems. Give us full access, let us see exactly what those lenses can and can’t do, and we’ll arrange to have them removed from your body when we’re done. Then we’ll fly you to the country of your choice and pay you a couple hundred thou to get you started.”
“If they catch me, they’ll fill my head with so many circuits I’ll be blowing fuses.”
“You won’t get caught. We guarantee it.”
I stop to think it over. But only for a couple seconds.
“How do I know you won’t screw me?”
“We’ll do what we can to win your trust,” he says. “How about a third of the money up-front?”
That sounds like a deal. He spits again and shoots a predatory look at a passing car. “Don’t try to fuck us, Glassface,” he says. “Don’t even try. And I don’t want you working with anybody else while you’re on this job. I don’t want to risk you getting questioned. I don’t know how much shit you’ve been letting through, but from now on, you’re as clean as a whistle. Got it?”
We shake and a white car pulls up on the curb. Carlton gets in without another word and the car eases off toward the highway.
I meet up with Yelli at Blinky’s a few days after that. It’s a pretty spring day, or what passes for one in the Southside. She wears a yellow sundress with white flowers printed on it, the only flowers I’m going to see around here. I rub her ear between my thumb and fingers. I always liked to do that to women. She giggles, then pulls my hand away.
“Did you find any ‘Samsung mummies’ today?” she asks.
“A few days ago, none today.”
“Mr. Chu says they’re Fukianese, not Chinese. But he wouldn’t be so embarrassed if they weren’t family.”
We laugh, then take sips of beer. I can tell she’s staring at the implants again. I cover them with my hand.
“What do you see when you turn those things on?” she says. “Is it black and white?”
“No, I see things in colors. Not quite regular colors, though. It’s stronger, more pure. Straight to the visual cortex, you know.”
“I wish I could see that.”
“It’s easy,” I say. “Just get caught trafficking and they’ll do you up.” I feel bad after I say this because of her parents. So when she says nothing I keep talking, hoping to cover my mistake.
“Sometimes it makes ordinary sight seem dull,” I say, surprising myself because I’ve never told this to anyone before. “There’s so much information coming in, you can’t believe it. But it’s just information. Regular vision triggers all kinds of feelings. I’ll look up at the bridge and think of all the good times I had up there. Look at a person’s face and think what we’ve been through together. With the implants you only care about the specs: distance, temperature, density. Stuff like that.”
“Yeah,” she says. “I wonder if it’ll always be like that, though. Maybe, if you had strong memories you’d seen with the sensors, it might be different.”
I think of the time I scanned her the other night, how I lingered on her fillings and bobby pins.
She finishes her beer and smiles. “You want to go somewhere with me? Maybe for a walk on the bridge?”
I slap a couple bills on the bar and as she drags me outside, I catch Blinky drawing circles around his ear. Let him think what he wants. I send her in the corner store to pick up a pint of Georgi and we start up the concrete walkway. We see the trucks and cars sweeping past through the steel beams and cables, and every now and then the train rumbles by in a blur of grating metal and flickering lights. The people’s bored faces stare out the windows. They don’t see us, but we see them. We pass the bottle back and forth, wincing at the taste and laughing as we bounce off the railings. We stop at random places to kiss and grope. Warm raindrops come from out of nowhere to splash our faces and drool down our necks. She makes me squat and lean back against the railing. Then she sits on my lap and kisses me hard, her front teeth ramming my incisors.
I like this woman who looks into a face full of implants and sees a man. What I took for Russian mafia probing turns out to be real curiosity, real affection. But I’m still afraid it will melt away, that one day she’ll realize how ugly they are, and then she’ll see me like everyone else does, a creature that hunts in the darkness, a thing to fear and hate. But if I finish my work with Carlton Li, I can stop that from happening. When my contract’s broken and my flight is booked, I’ll come to her door with a pretty face and ask her to come away with me. And maybe, then, she’ll say yes.
“You know I’m not always gonna look like this, right?”
She gives me a deep stare. The raindrops grow fat on the tip of her nose and drip off into my mouth. I want to read her mind so bad I start scanning her brain without meaning to. She giggles and runs her fingers across my face. My dick is so hard it’s painful. She grips it through my pants and the pain stops.
“You’d be the same person, though, right?” she asks.
“Same exact person. Just no bug eyes.”
“I’d miss them,” she says, weird teeth poking out at me through that cracked-up smile. “But I’d like you anyway. I think.”
I find Carlton in a warehouse out in the northeast edge of the city. It takes a while to find the entrance among the fish markets and massage parlors, but eventually I find the broken plastic doorbell and press it down. Carlton comes out and brings me to a simple room where three old Chinese guys sit drinking Coke.
He makes no introductions and we get right down to business. A bunch of metal crates are set up along the wall. I’m supposed to wave my right hand if I see signs of life and my left if I don’t. I shut my eyes and walk up to the first crate. The heartbeat inside is like a hurricane on a weather map. I wave my right hand.
“Good,” Carlton says.
The next three contain nothing but plastic popcorn, and I raise my left. I keep on walking, waving one hand or the other. The signals get fainter until I find one like a whisper in a crowded room. No heat, hardly any rhythm. I start to raise my right, but then it disappears.
“I saw something,” I say, “but then it cut out.”
Carlton swears and flashes a lightkey at the crate. The door swings open and a body tumbles out. No heartbeat.
“He’s dead,” Carlton says.
I look at the body. Another kid, nineteen or twenty years old, his face already stiffening. It’s twisted, what these people are doing. You’ve got to do what you can to get them across the border, but this crosses the line.
“We were experimenting with the bottom limit for body functions,” Carlton tells me. “With this one, we went too far.”
“That’s disgusting,” I say.
“What’s that?” he growls. “Don’t forget how you got into this, Fernandez. You’re a trafficker, too. We all heard about the shit you used to pull.”
“We never let nobody die for some… experiment.”
Carlton translates this for the older guys and they shout something back.
“They say, if you don’t want people to get killed, you should open the borders,” he translates. “They say the people from the flooded zones have no choice.”
I have to laugh. “I should open them? My parents were Mexican, chico. They were trafficked across the border in a put-put truck filled with plastic forks and knives. Don’t tell me about no border.”
Carlton shrugs. “You want this job or not?”
The next two crates are empty. But as soon as I wave my left hand, the Cantonese conversation roars to life. Carlton opens the crate and pulls out a shriveled raisin of a guy. He starts running different medical scanners over him and the man twitches. I can see his heartbeat now, not sure how I missed it before. He’s alive as the day he was born.
I sit with Yelena at a table in her backyard. She brings out two glasses of iced tea on a platter. Ever since my mom died a year ago I’ve done everything for myself, so it’s nice to have someone bring me tea. Very nice.
“Thanks,” I say.
She pulls the frizzy black hair out of her eyes and smiles. For a while we drink in silence. I hear some birds chirping but can’t spot them so I shut my eyes and scan. Sure enough, the red splotches of heat appear in the branches of a nearby tree.
“Hector? Are you listening to me?”
I blink my eyes open. It’s confusing, switching back and forth like that. I feel a headache coming on. “Sorry.”
“I need to ask you a favor,” she says. “It’s serious.”
“Some cousins of mine, from Ukraine. I told them not to do it, because it’s too dangerous. And you know how I hate the traffickers. But they insist. They’re coming anyway. And I want you to-”
“Their ship is coming in on Wednesday. The Flag of Bulgaria. They’re in crate 11-E.”
For a minute I don’t speak. Part of me wonders whether she was always leading up to this, if the laughter and fun were all for show, just to get me to this place. But another part of me loves this woman, who was good to me when no one else was. Letting a few of her people through is the least I could do.
But it’s not that simple, because if Carlton Li finds out, I’m through. And how long will she want to look at a face full of implants? She can tell me all she wants how much she likes them, but every time she looks at me I wonder what’s in her head. What does she think of, when she sees the light glitter on the glass? Hawks and vipers and spiders? Everything else that hunts and kills?
She’s waiting for me to say something. “I thought you hated trafficking,” I say.
“I do.” She pulls a shaky breath in through her lips. “But my cousins didn’t ask me. You don’t know how bad things are over there.”
“I do know,” I say. “But they keep an eye on me down at the docks. I’ve got a partner that double-checks the boxes when he feels like it. And I don’t even know if I’ll get assigned to that container.”
“I understand,” she says. “Will you do the best you can, though?”
I tell her I will.
I never wanted to be doing this. There was another scan specialist who was supposed to handle these containers. But he gets called out to testify in court at the last minute, so I find myself standing in front of 11-E. I know her relatives are in the boxes and I know she loves her family. But when I reach a hand up to my face and feel the cold lenses under my eyes, I can’t turn back. I can’t give up the chance to feel human again.
“We got heartbeat!”
I try to look at something else while it happens, but I can’t stay focused. I hear Mackenzie joking on his walkie-talkie, see the pier workers in their exos carrying boxes out of the container. They rip one open and find a man hidden in the mattress inside. The traffickers have cut a stick-figure shape out of the stuffing and slipped his body into it. He looks like a Viking, tall and red-bearded. He’s waking up fast, too.
The man shouts something I don’t understand. Then, when one of them tries to cuff him, the viking guy throws a punch at his face. Maybe he’s never seen what exos can do before, because the worker catches his arm in mid-punch, gives it a twist, and I hear the bones snapping like a bundle of dried-out sticks. The Ukrainian falls straight to the asphalt.
Before I can say anything, someone behind me screams. The other Ukrainians are waking up. I hear the sound of tape tearing away from cardboard and a woman bursts out of a box. She’s blond and blue-eyed and looks nothing like Yelli, really, yet something about the angle of her eyes and the acne around her mouth makes me think they could be sisters.
The woman glances around, taking in the situation. She makes a small, sharp cry. Then she leaps past me like a football player trying to break through a defensive line. I grab for her but she squirms away. She runs for the edge of the pier, throws herself off the edge and I’m diving for her feet when a pair of hands snap around my waist. They’re big hands, beefed up with exos, and it’s no use fighting against them.
Mackenzie comes and looks over the edge. I can hear the lady splashing around and crying down there. He takes out his gun and fires. There’s no scream, just a long cycle of echoes from the shot.
“You almost went over the edge for her,” Mackenzie says. “You think one of them is worth that? You just keep working here as long as I have. Wait ‘til you’ve sent ten thousand home. They’re not worth the water content of their bodies, Glassface.”
Mackenzie gives me a week off work and all I want to do is go home, turn off the lights, and curl up in a ball. But then the phone rings and it’s Carlton Li. He sounds chipper. He’s found me a doctor he knows who’s ready to fix up my face the night after.
For a moment I’m not sure I still want this. I can’t expect Yelli to come with me now, not after what happened to her cousins. And my pretty face won’t be worth nearly as much without her. But I’ve worked too hard for this to say no, so I make an appointment with Carlton’s guy.
The doctor is a French-Algerian with a broad bald head and purple bags under his eyes. I can’t even imagine what else this guy has worked on, what cuts his scalpel has made. But I get in his van anyway and he drives me to an abandoned factory outside the city, where he’s set up a makeshift lab in the basement. We’ll do the surgery here, he says, so the GPS chips in the implants can’t be traced to his address. He sets up a bed in the back, and all the right machines, so I lie down and breathe the gas.
Before I pass out, I close my eyes and scan with everything I’ve got. I see a group of squatters cooking something around a fire a couple floors up. One of them has his arms around another. I wonder if they’re immigrants, if they’re speaking Spanish, if they’re in love. I wish I could walk up there and share their fire, maybe have a cup of beans. But they would take me for the devil, I remember, and then the gas kicks in.
I wake up with a jagged pounding in my nose, like a wasp got trapped up in there and stung me a hundred times. The doctor hands me a mirror. I scope out the narrow eyes and the stiff black hair. I see the smooth brown cheeks where white scars, thin as human hairs, spell out words in some strange foreign alphabet.
When the doctor asks me how I feel, I say I’m great. This is not quite true. It’s like some part of my mind got tangled up with those wires and is rotting with them in the trash. I watch a flock of geese fly by in the window and it feels like watching a film with the sound turned off, a frustrating lack of information when you know there should be more.
It takes about three weeks for the pain to die down. I live in the doctor’s lavender-painted guest room, eating instant noodles and vitamins, and watching TV. The shit has hit the fan at work, of course. My phone itself is in a trash compactor miles away, but I still check my messages from Carlton Li’s encrypted line. First Mackenzie called, then Mr. Chu, then a parole officer.
They must have seized my apartment and car by now. I’m going to have to be fast about getting out of the country. Otherwise I’ll get roped back in and they’ll make an example of me, stuff my head full of sensors until there’s no room for anything else.
“Where do you want to go, Glassface?” Carlton says.
Argentina, I tell him. Or Turkey or Thailand. Someplace warm, with lots of new things to take pictures of. A place she would like.
I should go straight to the airport and head out, but I don’t. Instead, I walk up to Yelli’s house and ring her bell. When she sees me, she makes a face I’ve never seen before. A kind of empty, polite look, like I was here to inspect the house for bedbugs. Then she swallows and gives me a tiny smile.
“Hector,” she says. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“Yelli, I’m sorry.”
She shakes her head. “Sorry about what?”
“About your cousins,” I say, stumbling over the words. “I could have helped them but I didn’t. I was working on this.” I point to my face.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
I figure it’s time to let her know. “I’ve been working with this Chinese group, helping them find a way to trick the scanners. I promised I wouldn’t let any shipments through because they didn’t want me getting in trouble. That’s why I couldn’t help you out. I’m sorry.”
“These Chinese people are the ones that fixed you up?”
I nod and she runs her tongue along her messed-up teeth, putting the details together. “So you never made parole, then. That must be why the cops are driving past here all the time.”
That gets my attention. I move for the door, half-expecting her to slam it shut, to throw me to the wolves then and there. But she grabs my hand and pulls me through.
She slams the door and swings to face me. “Hector, you selfish asshole! Why didn’t you tell me what was really going on?”
“Because you hated the traffickers so much. You would have thought I was a monster.”
She laughs. It’s a funny laugh, all Yelli, high and ragged and world-weary. “Because I hated them so much,” she says, her words juicy with sarcasm. “Right. I guess I haven’t been completely honest with you either, Hector. My father wasn’t a photographer. And he isn’t dead. He’s a trafficker in Bulgaria. My mother, too. They asked me, just before I met you, if I could find a way to help them from here. That’s why I came up to you in that bar.”
“What?” I taste acid behind my tongue. “That’s what I suspected! Right from the start, with your questions and phony lines about how much you liked the way they looked!”
“They weren’t lines. Or, maybe at the start they were, when I thought you were some kind of idiot. But you weren’t. I like the way you see things.”
“And your cousins?”
“They weren’t my cousins.”
But they were still people, I thought. People who kept dying and dying, escaping from one disaster into another. Suddenly the desire to be with someone who can see all of this, who can see it with me and not turn away, becomes a need. And Yelli is the only one who can do that. I walk toward her, put my arms around her. But I notice something moving in the window as I hold her body. A little thing, barely the size of a dragonfly. The sunlight flickers on its metal chassis. A surveillance drone.
I make for the door.
“A camera,” I tell her. “Gotta go. Wait for me.”
Then I’m out on the street. I know they’re scanning for me, watching a thumbprint of red skate along grids and surfaces, tracking my movement from the towers on the bridge. They can see my exact position, while I see only asphalt and dirt, yellow taxicabs honking as they cruise past.
I cross the street, hoping to flag down a gypsy cab or anybody who can take me to the airport. An unmarked van pulls into the factory driveway in front of me. Out jump three guys armed with long gamma rifles, their barrels tapered cones of solid metal. We used to call them “ouch guns” when I was working for the law. Because of how much they hurt.
“On the ground!” says the first cop in a voice so loud it rattles the chain-link fence. As he comes into the streetlight I get a look at his face. A huge lens the size of a compact disk covers his left eye socket and rotates back and forth as he scans me. Implants in various colors and shapes cluster around it. A row of flexible antennae poke straight up out from his skull around his left temple, while his throat bulges with the mass of his voicebox amplifier.
“Get down or we’ll fire,” he says.
I get down on my knees, then put my chest and forehead on the sidewalk. I try to sweep a cigarette butt out of my face and one of the cops kicks me in the ribs. “You thought you could make a dash for it, huh? They’re gonna have fun fixing you up. Bet the holes haven’t even closed.”
They throw me in the back of the van and pull up onto the highway. Through the grated window I see the lights and towers of the city as we speed over the curves of asphalt—the real city, I mean, the one where people live in bright glass apartments and speak English with no accents, where they never have to meet people like Mackenzie, or Carlton Li, or the Samsung mummies. Where they never have to meet me.
I close my eyes and see only darkness. Darkness covers me like a blanket, washes over me like the cold current in the river, shuts me out like a locked security door. I try to set the feeling down in memory, knowing that a different darkness will come soon, a clumsy one that never stops talking, that blabbers endlessly on about everything, and some things I don’t want to know.
It’s a burden, seeing all of that. But I won’t carry it alone. That’s the one thing that keeps me from screaming as they drive me over bridges and duck me through tunnels, bringing me to a place I recognize from the last time I was there. She can look past the sensors and still see the man. No matter how much they give me, she’ll see right through it. She’ll take me in, make me tea in the backyard, then she’ll lean over and ask me what I see when all the light is gone. And when I tell her it’s better than before, I know that she’ll believe me.
James Trimarco is a writer and journalist from Brooklyn, New York. His interest in technology and culture has inspired his participation in projects ranging from an ethnographic study of the souvenir trade at Ground Zero to collaboration with the riot-grrl/dark electronic project Experiment Haywire. He is a member of the speculative fiction writing group Altered Fluid and an editor at YES! magazine.