Whenever Nick, over in the workstation across the room, would blurt out “fuck, I got another beheading,” Kenny would pinch the bridge of his nose and sigh and want, more than anything, to say “I don’t care.” Monitors formed a semi-circle in front of Kenny, and his fingers, tips glowing blue with the implants, moved absently in front of them, swiping information—an image, a video, an encoded message on a Reddit forum—into a bucket, tapping the screens to tag the bit and dress it up as an alert for the client it would be routed to. A quick video of militia picking over the aftermath of a massacre in a Cameroonian village, part of the ongoing Ambazonian separatist crisis, tapped, tagged, dropped in a bucket. Kidnapping in Lagos. Attack on a Chinese-run mining camp in Kenya. Tapped, tagged, dropped in a bucket.
It had only taken Kenny four months to fall into this groove, to learn the system, to find a monitor setup that worked for him, to turn off the parts of himself he needed to turn off for when the company’s tech synced with his augments to implant the info straight into his skull. On the train home after work, he was smiling ruefully, because his mind had shot towards one of his early interviews for this gig where one of what he would discover to be his manager’s managers asked if he was cool with experiencing extreme content. Kenny had on his “I take this seriously” face, not because he feared what the question portended but because his law fellowship was in the rearview and his student loan forbearance period was coming to an end and he owed the Department of Education more than his mother’s house was worth. And now he could listen to Nick say, way too loudly so that everyone could hear, “fuck, I got another beheading!” like the MENA beat was somehow uniquely traumatizing. Like the startup didn’t have the same two guys covering Mexican cartels and U.S. gang activity. Like Kenny hadn’t spent the day watching a man dressed in olive green playfully toe a piece of skull belonging to a body at the bottom of a mountain of corpses.
He should have done this before leaving for the day, but he’d wanted to make an earlier express train, so it was only as he sank into the somewhat resistant seat of the train cushion—having been expectorated by the subway—that he set about partitioning his work-related memories of his interaction with the company algorithm and moving them to a secure folder in his braincase. The click and swipe always ended with an exhale, as though, surrounded by these upper-middle class white business people fleeing NYC for the comfort of too-big houses in Connecticut, he could breathe out the day’s agony, reunite his selves, the part of him that thought and the part of him that felt.
But as he prepared for sleep in his tastefully spartan Bridgeport one-bedroom, images swam in tendrils of colored dust of the protest action in Kinshasa he’d witnessed just before shift’s end, the barricades the protesters had set up as the sun set, the bright yellow and orange shirts the young protesters wore set against the blue-black sky, the tail of rainbow fume trailing a tear gas canister that arced through the air. Coughing, screaming, crying.
In a few minutes, Kenny was snoring.
The next morning, Kenny stepped off the elevator and hurried to the in-office kitchen, even as colleagues gathered in the large conference room. The hoverchairs had already been requisitioned and the young and less-young, the tattooed and the plain-skinned, the Augmented and the untouched, lined the walls while Kenny hunted for the bagels they’d been promised in the pre-dawn email.
All that remained amidst the torn paper bags and dying electric slicer were halves of everything but what he wanted and, of course, none of the spreads had retained their labeling.
The chatter on the other side of the glass wall separating the kitchen from the Elysian Fields open area with its picnic benches and metal chairs was dying down, and Kenny saw that the door to the large conference room had swung closed. He whispered a soft, “fuck it,” stuffed a cleanly-sliced half of a raisin bagel in his mouth and, fighting the urge to vomit, hurried to the conference room.
A hologram bust of a balding man with fucked-up teeth appeared against the far wall, shoulders and chest revealing the man wore a black V-neck over what he perhaps hoped suggested a svelte figure.
Kenny entered mid-drone amidst a bevy of figures: volume of notifications delivered to clients by this point of the year, what they were on track to reach by end of quarter, revenue projections, and a whole wastebucket of other things Kenny didn’t give a fuck about. Slipping off his messenger bag and chewing on his tastes-like-cardboard bagel half, he caught Sasha’s eye across the room and smirked around his breakfast. Settled in, he beamed memes he’d come across during his morning train ride into Sasha’s braincase: a distorted photo of a banker in a slim tie and a red ballcap with baked beans spilled on his lap; a photo of a young boy turning away from an old-school computer monitor to glare beneath hooded eyes at the photo taker, the caption reading: “MY PARENTS CAUGHT ME ON PORNHUB AND FORCED ME TO HAVE MY PICTURE TAKEN”; a video of a silver alien dancing in front of a crowd of screaming kids with the text “[crying in spanish]” close captioned at the bottom of the frame.
“I hate you,” Sasha beamed back at him, a swathe of dark salt-and-pepper hair swept like a peregrine falcon’s wing over one eye. Her grin fought against itself, and heat bloomed in Kenny’s chest at the sight.
Kenny scanned the room and, though some of the other area sharks swiveled in their hoverseats and effected poses of disinterest, most of them held that attentiveness that showed they’d long since drunk the company Kool-Aid. Sending information on the goings-on of the world to the military, to law enforcement, to search and rescue agents, to media watchers, knowing what was going on in the world before everyone else, that’s what this place, filled with the Best and Brightest™, purported as its mission. A mission cast in the noblest of lights. A mission that netted that hologrammed VP of Strategy a cool $3.5 mil in annual salary and had Kenny and Sasha and other area sharks dosing themselves with Librium and Klonopin every night before bed. The managers, many of them standing, having ceded their seats to the underclass, made sure to look as though they were paying attention, but Kenny knew about their private Slack channel and imagined half a dozen conversations happening among them while the Veep kept on about quarterly targets and new initiatives on the tech side.
“And we’re looking now to expand our finance coverage. So, yes, we are officially in business with the banks. Our finance coverage has been growing, but, as I’m sure you all know, everything is connected. I don’t have to tell you that. The area leads have already been briefed on the changes to coverage assignments and will be in contact with all the team managers to make sure things move smoothly and we can continue to hit our targets. Great work, guys.”
The hologram winked out, and everyone stirred to head to their stations. Kenny caught the eye of his team lead, a skinny, scraggly-bearded redhead named Tucker and nodded to the Elysian Fields, an unspoken “do you have a minute” hanging between them.
“What’s up?” Tucker said once they’d taken their seats opposite each other on the picnic bench.
“I wanna switch to the US bureau.”
“That, or get the company to shell out for more benzos. The resin’s not coming off like it used to.” Resin. What they called the Residual Trauma they took home after eight-plus hours spent watching and documenting the worst days of peoples’ lives.
“Like, the media desk?”
Kenny knew that was a stretch. A Black guy covering Black culture? In this office? He almost scoffed out loud at the vanishingly small chance. “Anything, really. What’s this new finance thing? I can help out with that.”
Tucker dumped a sympathetic smile. Almost like he thought it was cute that Kenny figured the domestic beat less likely to contain horrors than Africa coverage. But Kenny wanted to tell him he knew what he was getting into, and that this would indeed be easier for him. It was much less likely that he would have to watch video of a woman screaming while fending off a machete attack who sounded so much like his own mother.
“Shots fired,” Kenny called out in a lackadaisical voice. Plugged into the Algo, it took him less than a second to scour nearby surveillance footage for familiar landmarks, street signs, the unfortunate state of the sidewalks, the bottle fragments in the street, the angle of the sun’s descent that told him the worst moment in this particular person’s life had happened at 6.32pm EST, 5.32 Central Time. “On Dixwell.”
“Gotcha,” said the area lead from across the room, as Kenny tapped the info, tagged it, then dropped it into the bucket.
As soon as he’d dropped the alert in the bucket to be rocketed off to the client, he moved onto the next thing. The day had mercifully been a bevy of traffic accidents, small home fires immediately put out with occasional forays into even more pedestrian matters. Failing scaffolding here, an uncovered manhole there, a bit of graffiti or vandalized surveillance camera here, drug paraphernalia spotted in a park over there.
“Nothing bad happens to white people,” he said in a private Slack to Sasha.
“Lmao, hold on.” An ellipsis made itself felt in his head as he waited for her to respond. “Sorry, there was just this press conference. This reporter who was supposed to be dead after security services raided his office two days ago just came back in a press conference like BITCH U THOUGHT!”
“There was a brawl in the Ugandan parliament last month,” he wrote back. And just like that, he found himself missing it. The color, the vibrancy, the music of the continent. The Nigerian pop star scandals, the Liberian footballer campaigning for the presidency and the way the crowd erupted in that one video of him descending onto the pitch in his old uniform to play a quarter-hour of that friendly, the memes that proliferated whenever there was load-shedding in the Hillbrow suburb of Johannesburg. Kenny found himself wondering if the massacres and the Boko Haram kidnappings and the occasional summary executions and the brutal protest crackdowns and the university riots were a small price to pay for the joy that thrilled through him at the sight of his people being brilliant and beautiful and hilarious. He’d spent 3x more of his life in the US than in Nigeria, but there were times when no place felt as much like home as Lagos. “It was lit.”
“Shots fired,” the area lead called out again. “North Lawndale.” A pause. “Officer-involved.”
“Gotta go,” Kenny wrote. “Love you.”
He closed the channel before she had the chance to break his heart by not writing it back.
“Don’t forget,” said the mother of Shamir Townsend from behind the podium while camera flash burst in sheen along her cheeks and forehead. “You see all the protests. You see the movement. And God bless all the people making this movement a living, breathing thing. But you see all these people with all these different agendas, all these people—celebrities, even—making speeches. And at the bottom of it all is a dead boy. My son, Shamir.”
Kenny had the press conference playing in the background, in a small window on the monitor to his right. It was important, but it wasn’t breaking. Meaningful content, but not actionable. A month into his stint in the US bureau, he’d found and tagged and bucketed security footage of fully mechanized police, powered by the Algorithm his company had helped develop, rolling into a park and opening fire on what turned out to be a 13-year-old boy who had been using a hairbrush as a play gun. Well after the alert had been sent and the area sharks moved on with the rest of their day, Kenny found himself scouring the Net for more. Hacking into police scanners to find audio records of the seconds leading up to the shooting, tapping surveillance footage from the gazebo, catching trace signals from the nearby mobiles and Augmented witnesses nearby, all revealing pieces of the thing. The police vehicle zooming into view, the mid-sized Crusties unfurling from the doors, limbs uncurling until they’d reached their crab form, then the muzzle flash, continuing as they crept closer until the boy’s body had been riddled with steaming holes.
“You okay?” Sasha slacked him.
The message woke him up, and he noticed that most of the sharks in his area and others had left their desks for lunch.
“They have reggaeton empanadas again.”
He chuckled. “I’m good. Not on the empanadas, I’m def getting some. Just sayin, I’m good. What’s up?”
“Tucker’s been eyeballing you all shift. And lunch has been out for a bit. You haven’t got up yet.”
“I’ll get some.” The presser continued in his earbud while he worked. Mrs. Townsend was talking about the fight for accountability with the algorithmic policing. Just because the algo-engine’d robot “Crustaceans” unit had replaced flesh-and-blood police didn’t mean the police department had shed accountability. And now some public tech advocates were calling on the police to yet again release their source code.
A new message notification blinked in Kenny’s personal inbox. Dread calcified in the pit of his stomach. If it was Tucker, then he’d really be in for it. And he’d have to come up with some way to explain his listening to a post-shooting press conference for an event that happened months ago instead of doing his job.
From Daisy Romero. Subject Line: STUDENT LOAN REPAYMENT PARTY!
“You gotta be fuckin’ kidding me.”
“Shots fired in Rio,” someone from the LatAm desk called out.
Kenny slowly shook his head, smirking. “Sasha, check this out,” he slacked and forwarded to her email. “I need a plus one.”
“What is this?” Through her sensory data, Kenny could smell the empanadas.
“Friend from law school. Her husband’s a banker. If I gotta go alone, I might actually slit my wrists.”
“Okay, okay. But only if you have some of these fucking racist empanadas.”
Smiling, Kenny got up from his seat and shut off the press conference just as Mrs. Townsend was, tearfully grateful, returning to the podium.
The last time Kenny had set foot in Marea, he’d been on the cusp of a career in corporate law. Sunlit lunches with associates and the occasional partner who’d fashioned himself a mentor, where the summer glow glinted off the silver pinstripes in everyone’s suits to turn the room into an epileptic’s nightmare. Everything glistened: the silverware, the clothing, the platinum threaded in blond hair done up in buns, the polished augments that had been made of everyone’s limbs and digits, the antique cards—more ornament than utility—that they used to pay for everything. He could taste the memory of fusilli on his tongue, could feel the performance worm its way into his limbs, so that by the time he got to the backroom, he had to stop himself from walking in like a douchebag.
Dulcet lighting turned every edge in this backroom soft, rounded out the corners of the long table around which sat the revelers, all twenty- or thirty-somethings.
Chandeliers hovered at regular intervals over the revelers and right in the aureate cone cast by the center chandelier sat Daisy, née Lockwood, now Romero. Right next to her, with his arm draped over her shoulder and a single lock of shining black hair swaying over his Roman forehead was the presumed Mister Romero. He looked like a former law school classmate. Had the sparkling, corporate smile, the figure of a guy who gets up at six in the morning to work out so that by eight he’s in the office, and the physical ease of a man swiftly acclimated to new money.
Golden light bloomed on Daisy’s face when she saw Kenny, then beckoned him over. She made a show of clearing out a space next to her. As soon as Kenny set off, Sasha held his arm in her hands and pulled herself close. Together, they made their way, the others on Daisy’s side of the table scooching out on the plush leather seating to allow Kenny and Sasha to slide in.
“She’s cute,” Sasha murmured in Kenny’s ear. “You hit that?”
“Careful, Sash,” Kenny murmured back, grinning. “You see that rock on her finger?”
“That’s not a rock, Kenny. That’s a fucking meteor.”
“You’re drooling, Sash.”
“Hi!” said Sasha, reaching over Kenny with her left hand and catching Daisy’s. “Sasha. I work with Kenny.”
After a stunned beat, Daisy shot Kenny a look as though to say well done. In the next instant, her face was all politesse and she tugged her husband’s shoulder. “Hey, babe, this is Kenny. We went to law school together.”
Babe gripped Kenny’s hand in his. “Pleasure, man. Thanks for coming.”
Daisy glared a warning at her husband.
“Oh, shit. Juan. Name’s Juan.”
“That’s better, babe.” She pecked Juan on the cheek.
“Where’d you find him?” Sasha leaned in to whisper.
“Some POC mixer. I was at a different law firm. They had this event. You know the deal. Kenny and I used to go to those all the time. Room full of power bottoms about to make too much money.” When Daisy said that, Sasha arched an intrigued eyebrow, as though to ask if Daisy really talked like this. Daisy angled her face to Sasha. “Kenny was the best part of these things. Only time corporate law didn’t feel like living through some lifelong horror-comedy.”
“What does he do?” Sasha asked, somehow with a glass of wine already in her hand.
Daisy took a beat before saying, “Banker.”
Sasha made a yikes face. Kenny’s expression turned porcelain.
“But we balance it out,” Daisy said, rushing in. “I’m at a civil rights firm now, so that balances it out.” A sympathetic smile ricocheted between the three of them. “I mean, you know, Kenny. You know what it’s like. The debt. Gets to be the biggest number in your life and you have to hold off all sorts of stuff. Life decisions and whatever. You have to kill your dreams and ambitions and your hopes, just so you can get your head above water.”
“There’s also indentured servitude,” Kenny ribbed, wiggling his aquamarine fingertips.
“Oh, God,” Daisy whispered.
“I mean, they package the message as ‘tech this’ and ‘innovation that,’ and they do take a chunk outta the debt with the lease on my body, but it’s literally the least invasive way to go about paying that stuff off. Look, everyone’s got augments. Mine are just free. Fact, they’re freer than free.”
“But, Kenny, that means you can only work for approved employers.”
Kenny snorted. “List is big enough.” He shifted, made more space for Sasha, for backup. “Tell me about work. Fightin’ the good fight.”
“Wish you were down here in the trenches with me?”
For the briefest of instants, Daisy’s mask faltered and a darkness swarmed beneath the skin of her face, like shadows fucking, and Kenny caught a glimpse of how haggard the work made her, how much whatever it was she did taxed her. A hungry part of him saw the pain and sought it out. “Tell me about it. Really.”
Daisy sighed, eyed Kenny and Sasha. “Well, since the police went Algo, lotta people stopped making wrongful death lawsuits. Imagine trying to fit a Crusty into the witness stand. Can’t bring an algorithm to court, and what’re you gonna do when you convict? Put a fucking robot on desk duty? Sometimes, though, you can get a payout. It’s never enough. Especially for an officer-involved shooting. No amount of money’s ever going to bring back a son or a brother or a father or a sister or whatever, but it’s money. It’s better than nothing. We all know the Algo’s not perfect. Everybody does. But a 13-year-old boy gets shot in a park and all evidence points to police misconduct, but the Algo told those toasters to do it. They’re not gonna admit to a malfunction. That would mean recalling all the units they spent dozens of millions of dollars to pay for. So,”—she shrugged—“the Nuremberg defense. ‘I was just following orders.’”
“Wait, you said a 13-year-old boy got shot in the park?” Kenny could feel Sasha tightening next to him, wine glass to her lips, her whole body urging Kenny to be careful.
“Yeah, Shamir Townsend. The firm’s been repping his mother on a wrongful death suit against the city, but really it’s just a play for the payout. This stays between us, k?”
Kenny shrugged. “Who am I gonna tell?”
Daisy relaxed. “It’s all fucked anyway. Poor people end up paying for this shit anyway.”
Sasha had leaned in but was making herself unobtrusive. “What, the city jacks up taxes?”
“Worse. Tax assessors overvalue homes in poor neighborhoods and undervalue properties in rich ones. So you got properties in, say, North Lawndale and Little Village in Chicago paying double the property tax rate than people living in Lincoln Park or on the Gold Coast. It’s like that everywhere. And that’s not even the fucking worst of it.”
Kenny couldn’t tell what his face looked like, but he knew he was trapped, enthralled, horrified. There was something different to this, though. This wasn’t instant. It wasn’t video. It wasn’t media. It wasn’t surveillance footage of an act. It wasn’t audio of an ongoing riot. It was a deeper injury. A drawn-out thing. Not a stabbing, but a knife drawn slowly along the skin.
“When you have to budget more for police tort liability, you have less for lead poisoning screening for poor children. Violence prevention initiatives, after-school programs, mental health clinics. All gone. Budget cuts.”
Kenny was too rapt to say anything. Sasha shook her head. “But these settlements, they’re millions and millions of dollars. The police don’t have to pay?”
Daisy snorted. “Police departments set aside a small slice of their budget for misconduct settlements. If the price is more than that, city’s on the hook. Not them. B’sides, it’s the city that pays for the robot.”
Sasha couldn’t stop shaking her head. “That’s fucked.”
Daisy exhaled. “Yeah.” And Kenny saw that face and knew there would be no more, not from Daisy. It hit like the comedown from a new drug, the bottomless despair, the instant and incessant hunger, the shame of it all. A moment later, everyone seemed to come to their senses, awake from whatever reveries or bromides or hungers they’d been trapped in, wiping the daydream from their eyes and seeing each other naked, and in swept Sasha calling out far too loud, “I am so hungry I could fuck a zebra right now.”
While the room lit up with laughter, Sasha caught Kenny’s gaze, and Kenny smiled what felt like an apology, and Sasha winked back a “you’re welcome.”
They were all supposed to be having fun.
In what felt like only seconds, the plates of fusilli arrived.
Holo-paint turned the walls of the conference room into open pasture with simulated wind blowing simulated stalks of wheat in mechanically precise rows far into the distance over verdant hills framed against an azure firmament. A glance overhead showed a sky the same shade of blue with cotton-colored clouds threaded through it.
Kenny and seven other sharks sat in hoverchairs around an oblong table while, at the head of the room, stood a white finance dude in shirt-sleeves rolled to the elbows and an Aryan-as-fuck face.
“I trust you all have had time to digest all the info on yesterday’s session about bonds, yeah? Pretty intro stuff, I know, so I’m gonna just jump right ahead into municipal bonds and—”
One of the sharks raised a hand and switched her voice software from Portuguese to English. “Why are we focusing on cities? This says they’re high-risk investments. If the city does a…bond…and they go bankrupt, they can’t pay it off. So our client loses money.”
“Good point, Fernanda. Except, under a lot of these state laws, the cities we’re focusing on can’t go bankrupt. What our clients are looking at is essentially guaranteed money…”
Kenny tuned the finance dude’s voice into background noise as he tapped and swiped through the hyperlinks in the material, scanning until he hit a page on something called “cat bonds” with a picture of what looked like a half-submerged city, roofs poking out like stepping stones through highway-wide rivers of blue. Risk-linked securities…sponsors…investors…triggered…industry loss index…
A random throwing-out of terms, data points, no constellation. Just a mess of jargon and a picture of a neighborhood destroyed by a hurricane.
At that, Kenny sat up in his seat and tuned back into the lesson. “What?”
The finance dude stopped for a second. “You have a question, uh, Kenny, is it?”
“Yeah.” The finance terms swirled in his head like detritus in the funnel of a tornado. Then came the dinner party at Marea earlier that week and tax assessors and property value and police and Shamir Townsend. And he felt himself just on the cusp of an understanding. An epiphany that promised a pattern. “Uh, you were saying something about shootings?”
Kenny rushed in to save himself with an explanation. “I do a lot of security stuff. Law enforcement-related. Traffic, crime. I blanked for a second. What were you saying about shootings?”
“Oh, just in terms of stuff to watch out for. Anything that could cause a liability suit. This is all complex stuff, but it’s just background. Help to inform your decision-making. You just need to watch out for the stuff you’re already watching out for and ping one of us in Finance so we can jump on it and do our thing.”
“Oh.” Kenny tuned out again and tried to focus on the pattern just out of reach. All bright nodes and non-existent edges. Like trying to trace astral constellations in an afternoon sky.
“Shots fired,” Kenny called out with renewed vigor. “Cudell Park.” He knew his voice was too loud, like he was listening to music and trying to have a convo at the same time, but he couldn’t help it. In one tab, he had the Mrs. Townsend press conference replaying and, on another tab, he had news of the settlement the city had offered the family—$2.2 million USD—and in another, the reading materials on catastrophe bonds. All this, he tried to keep hidden in tiny incognito-mode browser windows he knew the company was monitoring anyway. Research, he would tell them. Hurricanes, forest fires, all stuff they were supposed to be tapping and tagging and bucketing anyway. It still took him a moment to remember to loop the finance guys in on the security stuff, a quick tag or a Slack or whatever. Sometimes, the notification would switch to a different alert bucket altogether right in front of him or he’d see finance fingerprints on something he’d already bucketed.
He opened another Slack channel and @’d one of the analytics people. “Hey, can you do a quick data pull for me?”
“What’s up?” came the reply.
“Can you get me a sheet of the domestic shootings we notified on with finance?”
Then glowing ellipses until, a few seconds later, he received a link to a GDoc.
While he tapped and tagged and bucketed, he scanned the data, murmuring to himself, “officer-involved, officer-involved, officer-involved…” A pause. “The fuck?”
“Yo, Sash,” he DM’d in another Slack channel. “Yo, all my shootings have finance on them. Is that weird?”
“I dunno. Is it?” Glowing ellipses. “Sorry, gotta bounce. Working a factory fire.”
“Cool.” He bit his lip.
He waited until his train hit the above-ground stops to call Daisy.
“Yo,” he beamed to her phone.
“Hey! What’s up? It was so good to see you the other night!”
Kenny smiled, realizing he’d forgot he was supposed to be polite. “It was good to see you too.
Congratulations. On, like, everything. I’m so happy for you.”
He could feel her blushing at the other end. “Look, Daze, I got a question.”
“Hope I got an answer.”
“Where does the money come from?”
“Money? For what?”
“For the settlements.” Kenny pulled himself back, tried to slow down. He felt himself on the edge of it. So close. “It can’t be the city. $2.2 million for one settlement, but there’s gotta be like how many a year? Some of these places are paying out, like, $147 mil a year. And we’re talking smaller cities. All for officer-involved shootings.” For much of the ride, he’d tapped into municipal records, news stories, past alerts, all using his security credentials against protocol, credentials that, tied to his augments, gave him the same access as a federal government employee. “Is it banks?”
“What are you saying?”
Kenny gulped. This was the new part, the less-formed part. The almost-pattern. “The cities are floating bonds, I think. To pay for the settlements.”
“From who? Goldman Sachs? J.P. Morgan?”
“But…but how? Why? Cities have the shittiest credit ratings. How is that a sound investment?”
“Fees. Interest. The banks get paid every period off the interest and handling fees and all of that.” He reminded himself to lower his voice. “And…and I checked the state laws. The cities that have the most shootings, they’re in states where it’s literally against the law for them to go bankrupt. I think, to pay off the one bond, they issue another. I don’t think the cops are malfunctioning. I think…I think the banks are getting paid off of these shootings.”
Beeping sounded. Another call. Sasha’s ID blinked before his eyes. “Shit. Look, Daze, I gotta go. Ask Juan about it.”
“Wait, but—” Dialtone.
“Hey, Sash, what’s up?”
“Kenny, can you come over?” Her voice was sorrow-soaked.
He sat up in his seat. “Sure, yeah, what’s wrong?”
“You up for some trauma bonding? Having trouble leaving work at work today. Can you come?”
Greed, hunger, lust, guilt all warred inside him. He hoped that Sasha heard only the right kind of eagerness in his voice when he said, “Yeah, I’ll be right over.”
The first time they’d fucked was during a spell of downtime on the second of a two-day al-Shabaab terror attack on a hotel complex in Nairobi. Day One, Kenny, blanketed in the paranoia fog that shrouds the recently jobless and newly hired, had been more locked in than he’d thought possible. Security footage, open calls from people trapped inside the buildings, terrorist channels online, to the point where he could feel his own torn dress shoes trying to step as softly as possible down bloodied corridors covered in pebbles of glass. He could hear the sporadic gunfire, the tearful, whispered phone calls, the online posts calling for help, giving as brief a room description as possible, the message saying that a poster’s phone was dying and they were unAugmented, unConnected. Then nothing.
And the following morning, he’d broken down on the train, one of those commuters wrapped in their own private sorrow while everyone went about the business of trying to make it to work that day. Things had slowed down on Day Two of the attack and Sasha had found him weeping in the office lactation room and he grasped for her, hungered for her, until they’d spent themselves with the quiet urgency of the hidden and hiding.
“Sash, this lighting is bisexual as fuck,” Kenny said, laughing, as he entered.
She was on a couch hugging a pillow, hair scattered over her face, smiling meaningfully through smeared mascara.
“I brought red for you and grenadine for me. You got Sprite? Ginger ale? Anything sparkly and see-through?”
“Come here,” she murmured, and Kenny obeyed because of that thing in her voice, and she pulled him onto her, and he vanished to himself until she said, “Kenny.”
“How you doin’?”
Kenny blinked, confused. “I…I’m fine. I’m good. I’m here for you.”
She smiled, and something in it pushed Kenny back so that he moved to the opposite end of the couch. For a long time, they occupied the couch like that: he at one end and she lounging at the other. “You figured it out, didn’t you.”
“Don’t worry, Ken.” She waved a finger around her. “I got a Blanket. We’re not being watched. Nothing’s tapped.”
“What are you talking about?”
“The banks, the shootings, you figured it out, didn’t you.”
Kenny’s eyes widened. “You…you know?”
“You know that the new clients are making money off officer-involved shootings? Is that why they signed us?” His head spun. “Wait, fuck. But…but we’re also signed to local law enforcement. We do their algos. Wait.” His whole body felt leaden. “Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck. No. Fuck.”
Sasha’s face was sympathetic but marble-solid.
“Sasha! We’re programming cops to shoot Black kids so that banks can make money!”
He stood suddenly, paced back and forth. “We can’t go internal. We…we have to do something. Your old journo friends. We have to tell them. We have to.”
Sasha shook her head, and the look in her eyes had turned a new shade of sad.
Dull pain filled the space beneath Kenny’s skin. Made him leaden.
“Who’ve you told?” she said softly.
“Sasha.” There was hard warning in his voice when he said her name. “Sasha, what is this?” When she didn’t answer, he glared. “What are you, their agent? Like, a spy or something?”
“Ken, you used security credentials out of the office. You kept office materials in personal storage.”
“Only publicly accessible stuff, Sasha! I would never—”
“But we touched it, Ken. Once we touch it, it’s ours.”
“Who else have you told?”
“How long were you watching me?”
“It’s government, Ken. Or, government-adjacent. We’re always watching you. You know that.”
He collapsed into a La-Z-Boy and sighed. “Well.” Suddenly, it all felt funny. Hilarious. And he could not stop laughing. “Well, fuck me.” When he settled, “So what happens now?”
Sasha shrugged. “Nothing. We just wanted to check. We know what this work does to people. And not everyone wants to take advantage of office resources.”
“What, fifteen minutes of guided fucking meditation before I head into a Boko Haram attack?”
She chuckled. “Yeah, that.” She scratched her head, and somehow it looked like the most attractive thing Kenny had ever seen her do. “Look, I’m just doing my job. We’re all just doing our jobs. Fucking student loans.”
“Yeah. Fucking student loans.” He felt himself grow distant, something forming in him, and he wanted to be away from her before she could see it fully take shape. “Look, I should go. You good?”
She nodded again.
“Cool. Don’t worry, just going home. Although y’all are probably having me followed anyway, right?” He said it laughing, but he meant it to hurt. Then he left and did as he’d said he would. The commute from NYC to home was a practiced choreography, an easy enough pattern for the police—powered by the algo his colleagues had built—to learn.
© 2020 by Tochi Onyebuchi, Originally published in Made to Order: Robots and Revolution. Reprinted by permission of the author.