A photo taken in North Philly near the Life Do Grow farm, July 23, 2016

Real Work You Deserve

When you wake up in the afternoon cause you couldn’t get up any earlier

cause your whole body stiff and saturated with toxin exposure and mucous and rash and film and grime

and you’re pushing it on the last of your meds

and you hate dealing with the supplier

and you know there’s gotta be another way

but you’re too overwhelmed that your body feels the way it does…

It’s so much going on…

So it takes you a long time to get up.

Kay sits up on the edge of her bed and groans because she wants to lay back down again. She has been struggling to get out of bed for hours. The mundane force of gravity on the back of her neck feels strong today. She steadies herself with both hands while her head, behind her eyes, between her shoulders, the base of her skull—all throb with the rush of blood pushing through painfully constricted passageways.

Her ligaments are swollen and extremities clumsy with numbness. Her eyes itch and when she rubs them they burn, and she can’t focus them on shit. After she registers the midday’s bleak overcast light, the next thing that takes her attention is the procession of notification shouters lined up for review on her medical bracelet: low balance alert; air quality warning; flood warning; nutrition imbalance; heat warning…

City services closed down for good like seven, eight days ago when Kay’s zip code was officially dissolved and subsequently released from Ellison’s provisional oversight. The five year contract they signed when they took over operations of what used to be the city was not renewed.

Kay takes in a cautious breath until she coughs on the buildup of shit in her lungs and her head aches under another constricted bloodrush of throbbing. She can feel the grime scraping along her lungs, stuck there, multiplying into a colony or some other bullshit she has no way of treating. A year and a half ago she was in a medical study to get an experimental phytoremedial implant—a plant-based integrated structure that could process toxins in the body that the existing systems couldn’t. It was supposed to make it easier to live in “sub-optimal environments,” but yeah, she always having to get these supplemental meds cause the implant alone isn’t strong enough. And the meds half the time make her feel like she’s gonna burst into flames or shit and vomit at the same time… And she still wasn’t sure how much better that was to some of her old disadvantages.

The windows in Kay’s room don’t close all the way, and all three of them—two facing southwest and one east—are missing their storm windows and the air filters. There is pantyhose shellacked over the gaps to keep mosquitoes out, although one or two find their way through somehow and that keeps Kay up at night, laying in wait for them to buzz in her ears so she can jump up and clap them to death. Kay cannot love the mild weather like she used to. So many mosquitoes and ticks with all the other bugs anymore. Bloodsuckers and parasites. It’s bad to get one of their fevers—they can fuck you up, cripple you, kill you if you’re already not doing good.

WARNING: MOLD LEVELS HIGHER THAN USUAL. TIP: IMPROVE LOCAL VENTILATION AND AVOID DAMP AREAS.

The outside panes of Kay’s windows are covered in a fine drab layer of all kinds of crosswinds refinery shit. When it’s sunny it don’t matter, but on overcast days it makes outside seem that much more grey and done for, and it makes her depressed.

Kay is in bed depressed. Her bed is a twin, a thin center-worn foam-type mattress on particle board sitting on top of six plastic milk crates, all different colors and all picked up off the street (where else). Kay likes a firm mattress. Her bed is pushed against the corner wall opposite the east-facing window, so she can get some sun (when it’s ever out). She doesn’t keep curtains on any of the windows, and maybe at some point any voyeur motherfucker could’ve looked in on her, but it’s not like that now. She’s not even sure who all is left living here anymore since the cut off. She stopped paying attention cause what the fuck. Even before, whole blocks and flocks was constantly on the way out, and after, suddenly everyone was jumping on the leave-town train. Rumors that Ellison or someone was gonna bomb everything to the ground, start over, exterminate, and all that type of gossip that’s not at all unfounded. And all this time the zip code was getting more and more plastered with work relocation fliers—that lying shit where some outfit offers room and board, drinking and bathing water, filtered air, and quality-of-life meds in exchange for forfeiting your current residence and all claims to property for an undetermined term. That’s “work” around here. Take the bait. Get out. Kay had had a plan to accumulate credit, stay within city limits, make her way back to her old neighborhood… But she didn’t believe it would get this deserted this fast, and now she’s feeling wild.

She looks back at her flattened pillow and tangled bedsheet with a big exhale.

HEALTH TIP: BALANCE XENOESTROGEN DOMINANCE BY INCORPORATING MORE LEAFY GREENS INTO YOUR DIET. IMPROVE YOUR MOOD AND TRY: ELLY SUPERGREEN SUPPLEMENTS!

Kay flicks the medical bracelet[1]This device has audio/visual settings that can only be heard or seen through intimate proximity. It whispers intimate audio along with the text, which has been engineered to be understood by peripheral glancing. on her wrist, rolls across the bed and reaches for one, a lighter-sized injection gun, and two, a grease-streaked plastic freezer baggie full of corn chips dusted in nutrient powder. She keeps all her important shit like this off the floor and on a rusting industrial stockroom rack—a wire kind she found out in the dump spot at the sinkhole on Cobbs. The rack has five shelves and the chips are on the third—same height as her bed. Also on the rack: all her clothes in a pile, some in a milk crate; a stack of books; toiletries in a plastic neon orange basket; an assortment of bags; and her shoes on the bottom shelf. On the very top shelf is a clear plastic box meant to go underneath a bed that’s not sitting on milk crates, full of pictures and paper clippings and nostalgic plastic things like take-out toys and hair clips. She places the injection gun just above where her pubic hair starts on her lower abdomen and clicks it down into her skin. She feels…oxygenated.

The rest of Kay’s room—the wall and floor space across from her bed consist of a warped plastic tray table with a sun-bleached red plastic rose duct taped to the wall above it, her keys, and her Currency On Pass card sitting in its fraying solar powered charger cover.

The walls in the room don’t look good but she doesn’t really like to get started worrying about that cause who’s gonna fix them? They’re painted two types of off-white and they’re bubbled out or crumbling off paint dust everywhere. There’s a leak somewhere she can’t totally figure out, and it’s musty as hell, but that’s pretty regular. Above the corner where the walls meet there’s a dip with a crack in it. Kay keeps an overworked dust brush and pan in that corner to sweep up what collects on the floor.

A door opens in against the foot of her bed and she likes that cause she can jump out onto anyone trying to come in, although that hasn’t happened yet. She keeps a hammer and a crowbar tucked beside the hinges. On the door knob hangs a plastic bag for trash (so at least the mice can’t get in). The room is small, rectangular, on the top floor of a four story apartment building, shoddy as shit and abandoned at this point. Everything in this zip seemed better off than her old neighborhood back when she first came here, and maybe it still is somehow, but the longer she lingers the more anxious she gets.

Kay sits her back against the wall and eats her nutrient-dusted chips, knowing some food will help her concentrate, even as the chewing exacerbates the tenderness in her jaw from clenching it all night again. She’s gotta go to the store today, baseline, and then figure out her options from there. Cause what if the city does get bombed or gassed or Ellison does a master raid? Well. What do they even want to raid it for at this point? When city government dissolved and handed Ellison the reins they was gonna ‘make the city clean again,’ remediate land, start up hydrofarms, deal with waterways, thruways, sewage treatment, toxic materials and all this shit. But then the story turned into an ‘oh the extent of the damage is greater than our shareholders are willing to back and we unfortunately have to dip so we can concentrate on our other projects’ bait-and-switch. That was after they had stormed in, declared all the autonomous blocks “public health hazards,” and dismantled them at basically gunpoint.

And now Kay depends on Ellison for her meds and her income and her water.

But for how much longer?

A kid with a face like their last coin fell down a sewer pipe stares out the window at a flat grey sky with no sun and tells themself that they need to go the store and not sit here sore and hungry and thirsty all day.

NOTICE: YOUR PLACE OF RESIDENCE IS NO LONGER WITHIN THE COVERAGE ZONE OF ELLISON FLOODBREAK™ PROTECTION. SUBMIT YOUR RESIDENCY APPLICATION TO ELLY HOMESTEAD?

But the cut off…

Like, what if you go out and the stores are all shut down?

What if you get snatched up by scammers?

Why did you think it was gonna be ok to stick around??

The kid feels so sleepy.

A long time ago, when the kid was still really little, there was a few people who took care of her. Even after the raids and everyone had to move to different neighborhoods, Miss Deanna told Kay she could come with her, and they lived with one of Miss Deanna’s old friends on one of the subsidy blocks where the people didn’t try all that anti-scarcity organizing.

Kay is staring out the window, looking down a tunnel to back then. It was so nice. There used to be kids her age, and a big play room in Miss Deanna’s house they all went to. All the empty lots on the block had vegetable and herb gardens in them. There was chickens and special toilets that didn’t use water. They had cleanup days and trash disposal sorted out, and barrels everywhere for collecting rainwater.

The big, big storms were just starting back then. Everything was always flooding, getting contaminated. Their neighborhood did a lot of work to steer the floods away from the area. For years, they’d been figuring out how to replace or convert or reroute all these drains and sections of ground pipes, so that the people could tap some cleaner water from these buried tributaries—and you’d still have to do the treatments on them but at least by then you could drink and wash pretty ok.

Yeah, her old neighborhood taught the kids all that when they were still small. She understood. Everyone had to learn how to take care of everything to the best they could. Be aware, be resourceful. Kay remembers the grown people would talk about back when there was city trash collection and most of the power lines worked, and in Miss Deanna’s house she’d be like, all you gotta concern yourself with right now is how to collect this water and to clean it or to tell it’s clean. Because even though the pipes had been been no good, none of them was having to buy water until the Ellison rezoning…

A wave of angry, empty-belly nausea washes Kay away from her reminiscing. Her face twisted into a curse.

Fuck Ellison,” she mutters.

Her gaze whips to her COP card. It’s charged. She plucks it out of its charging cover.

LOW BALANCE ALERT… YOU HAVE: FIFTEEN. DOLLARS. AND. THIRTY ONE CENTS. WOULD YOU LIKE TO ADD VALUE? PRESS 1.

Kay is jogging down four flights of narrow, uneven stairs carrying an empty, sour-smelling 5 gallon water jug plus a little collapsible dolly jawn for carting the jug on the way back. Her hair is dark, thick, and braided down on either side of her head. Her fingernails are bit down stubby on blunted, wide hands that bear greyscale tattoos. She is wearing oversized sweatpants with slip-on shoes, a wide leather belt with a machete strapped to it, a boy’s size tee that hugs her rib cage, and a cord necklace made from braided scraps of a bandana that belonged to her father. She comes off dull, crunchy. Her skin lacks luster from the always-overcast sky. She’s only been eating fortified meal packs from the corner store cause they’re cheap and filling, and that doesn’t help her skin either, she knows. Kay is certain the meal packs are drugged with sedatives and other downers that slow your metabolism to “enhance” absorption. But the risk of poisoning yourself from eating anything that grows wild is too high anymore, so.

Kay flicks the medical bracelet on her wrist again to advance the notification queue.

ELLY HOMESTEAD: YOU HAVE… FOUR. NEW MESSAGES.

Outside it’s hard grit and dust. Deep pollen. Kay’s already wearing an air filtration face flap and wraparound safety glasses. It’s bright as fuck under the waves of low clouds. They keep everything that’s stinking, off-gassing, and effervescing tucked right close to the ground, so that the dense air sloughs and slimes itself against every available surface. You get a rash from this shit if you don’t wipe yourself off when you get inside.

FIRST MESSAGE:
HEY, SHAUN, ARE WE STILL ON FOR TOMORROW NIGHT? I CAN’T WAIT TO DIG BACK IN. I’M ALREADY DRIPPING. SENDING THE REGULAR DEPOSIT.

> ACCEPT FUNDS TRANSFER _50 ELS_ FROM _GOE5436_
>DECLINE FUNDS TRANSFER

>ACCEPTED!

A masked up adolescent stands under the tattered awning of a tired red brick apartment building and doesn’t move. Their head pans from left to right and left again, their eyes methodically scanning up and down. Across the street is the wrought-iron gate of the mosque, left open, with a disintegrating laminated sign telling its members where they have all gone. The Christ Mission community center across from it on the next block has a similar sign, with its doors totally locked down and shuttered. The mosque has a school attached to it, and everything on that side of the street, all the brick rowhomes that line up next to the school, it all looks recently lived in. The rowhomes have two stories, with balconies on the second floors and porches on the first. They all look rough but none are collapsed or bear scorch marks. It’s the same kinda rowhomes on the kid’s side of the street. The street itself is this wiiiiide four lane one-way. But the kid doesn’t go down this street anymore. They’re gonna walk straight up 45th where it’s still clear.

NEXT MESSAGE:
HEY SEXY IT’S MELLOW. I UPDATED MY RECEIVER WILL U DO A MIRROR SIT NOW? EVERYTHING’S READY! YOU ARE SO SEXY DON’T KEEP ME WAITING.

> ACCEPT FUNDS TRANSFER _70 ELS_ FROM _MEL2309_
>DECLINE FUNDS TRANSFER

>ACCEPTED!

45th Street has a subtle uphill slope. It has no crashed cars, major sinkholes, downed trees, or fallen buildings in its two disintegrating lanes, so Kay can see straight up the five blocks to where the corner store’s electric blue WATER flag beckons. Kay grips the neck of the empty 5 gallon against her palm and knocks her anxiety one notch down: the water man is open. His WATER flag is one of those slim ten foot tall jawns that looks like it’s dancing when the wind blows. It looks so carefree. Kay caresses the machete handle at her side. Looks left, then right, then left again. Scans the rooftops and notes the blindspots. She starts walking north.

NEXT MESSAGE:
STRUGGLING WITH WEATHER-BASED VERTIGO? ELLY WELLNESS IS CONDUCTING A STUDY AND NEEDS YOUR VALUABLE INPUT. PARTICIPANTS MAY BE COMP—

Kay skips the spam like shooing a fly. Tch. Wish she could figure out how to stop the bracelet from being a fucking snitch.

A searing, hot stench wafts onto her as she crosses the street. Something must be clogged up in the sewers, catching the heat and gassing off, cause even with the mask and shit on, Kay’s eyes are stinging and her sinus cavities are constricting. She feels the swelling in her joints intensify as she walks. Spongier, less reliable. But you know, it’s normal to go outside and get woozy and light-headed. She probably gonna need to drink like a whole gallon with her second dose of meds once she’s back in just to flush this shit through.

NEXT MESSAGE:
xxx
__new listings added 2
__bulletin board
__access 2nite 19:19 EST
xxx

END OF MESSAGES.

Even when Kay was little the city wasn’t shit. It was going abandoned then, like by the city. But people lived in the buildings still. In places where people could live and wanted to live, there were people. Especially around the mosques and churches and temples and community centers, places that people already took care of. For a long time after city services and utilities started cutting off, there was neighborhoods that stuck around, and even some new ones popped up. But this shit now? Even the people you gotta watch your back for moved on. It’s a ghost town. Haunted and near dead. Cities are over. They switched to doing Intentional Integrated Communities™ now. The closest one is Elly Homestead. Same Ellison who dropped that provisional oversight contract a week ago and now waits for the city Kay lives in to rot away. Elly Homestead looks like a fortress. You can’t really see it from here, but it’s the reason Kay feels like she is shriveling into a husk.

The walk up 45th is peaceful. Quiet mid-afternoon feeling—the sun is just past its zenith overhead and all the stray dogs in the hood are sleeping in the shady spots and don’t pay her no mind. Out of all these dogs, only a few really look like street dogs. The rest look more fit and taken care of—only recently abandoned. Kay usually only has to worry about them when twilight comes and they start packing up. That’s why she gotta force herself to get outta bed when it’s still light out.

Everything clears up by the next block. There’s burnt down apartment buildings on one side and on the other, a decrepit brick school building that is partially collapsed from the roof in. Kay takes her usual slow and steady pan of the area as she continues forward, pausing to gaze up at the tops of paulownia and ailanthus trees that have managed to take hold on the still-in-tact upper floors of the school, branches poking out from shattered windows and voids in concrete. The only things she hears are the layered songs of city birds and the dancing corner store signage up ahead.

WATER flap flap
CLEAN WATER flap
flap

She wants the water. Her spit is sour and hard to clear out her mouth. She is gonna fill this whole fucking jug up, maybe try to put another one on the fold-out dolly if she can manage. The arctic blue flag, with darker blue writing in a brisk, icy white outline, beckons her to the possibility.

None of this feels right, though. She hasn’t seen or heard anyone since the other night and now not today on this street either. Her mind jumbles with outstanding checklist items that she’s put off for weeks—get supplies, pack up, sign up for a gig on the bulletin board and be out… But that shit made her wanna sleep every time she thought about it. Stupid.

Kay steps up on the crumbling curb in front of the store. She hears talking. The door is open. A familiar smell that’s both stale and rancid stuffs her nostrils.

“Hello?” she offers, stepping in. The electronic perimeter chime on the door rings and glitches mid-ring.

Behind her mask and safety glasses Kay sizes up two people she never saw in her life in the place where she expected the water man. Hand open next to the handle of her machete, she’s already back in the doorway—another chime on the glitched perimeter bell. She shoots a glance over both shoulders then looks at who she’s dealing with. It’s people from Ellison. They both look relaxed and like they get enough water to drink, like stereotypes of “fit” women from Miss Deanna’s generation. That’s Ellison Style, one of them. The twist is that they’re dressed similar to Kay—nondescript unisex loungewear—except that they are definitely wearing outfits because their clothes are clean, the colors too coordinated, and no doubt ‘thoughtfully engineered’ to be breathable, waterproof, anti-fungal and -bacterial, and temperature regulated. You can just see it in the fabrics. A world away from Kay’s found plastic-blend disposable shit.

“May I help you?” The one says this sympathetically, canting her head while giving up an agonized smile. Kay sneers.

“The fuck is Akil at?” She is ready to be out from the door. The one looks a little confused, then acts like she’s checking her internal files and goes, “Oh, A-keel. Right. I’m sorry, I had him mixed up with Saíd who rents WATER RESOURCE convenience on 5th and Somerset.” Kay thinks Somerset? We nowhere around there, yo. The fuck??

“So, A-keel was having some trouble finalizing the renewed terms of his next leasing period—it’s really common, actually. He decided to apply for work coverage as a way to transition out of the contract legally. So he’s out right now touring the work facility and we’re obligated to manage the property until he reaches a decision.”

They took it from him, Kay thinks. Now the other one starts in.

“Looks like the perimeter has you as—“ The lady states Kay’s whole legal name and account number out loud. “Is that information correct?”

The lady doesn’t say it but Kay hears the rest of that too-familiar consent barrier in her head. That by verifying her name to account it legally acknowledges her participation and continued subscription to Elly NAME Services and all its requisite data collection. Kay draws in a measured breath and looks elsewhere.

“Yeah, that’s correct.”

“Miss Peñafiel, I totally understand how frustrating it’s been during the recent transition. Improved service is on its way, and I see you’ve already started the pre-application process for Homestead.” The lady says this with enthused relief, like things are gonna work right out.

“Totally,” says the first one, smiling to her colleague then to Kay. “Reproductive Phytoremedial implants are super effective and a huge gain for a residency application.”

Kay is looking at them like what the fuck and says nothing. She sure did sign that residency application but now they’re in her face calling the RPAP implant a gain for her residency app? Like, a good look to have? Kay thought getting the goddamn RPAP—it ain’t no IMPLANT, that’s for sure—was done for a redeemable residency contract. Kay, standing there in front of these two demons, snatches down the reins on these racing thoughts and sets her face straight.

“So can I not buy water from here anymore?”

“That’s awesome you asked about that because as part of A-keel’s lease transition we’re contracted to provide his current customer base with a 10-day water supply and 10% off coupon to your first month on a pro-plus Water™ plan.” The lady acts like this is a great opportunity.

“Then what?” Kay, still in the doorway, sets off the glitched entrance chime for the nth time.

“Then WATER VALUE convenience will be shutting down this location. See, the building itself is in need of a lot of repairs, and the practice that really makes the best sense is to demolish the entire property and start over with up-to-date materials.”

Kay knew this overly friendly bitch was never gonna add ‘…but actually, not around here.’ She takes a quick look around to shake off the anger surging through her already tensed body. Shaking her head to herself like she shoulda been left this area but it happened so fucking fast and now she’s here in this trap.

“Miss Peñafiel?” the other one chimes in.

“What.”

“You seem tense. I understand that this may be sudden news. That’s actually why I’m here with Lena today. I’m an evaluator,” she says like she’s talking to a child who doesn’t know big words yet, “with one of the Elly Wellness divisions. A different one than the folks who did your RPAP.”

“Okay.” Kay is livid that she can’t bring herself to run away. Whatever the fuck this bitch was gonna say next was gonna be a set up. Yet she stood there frozen, her face tightening itself into an enraged mask of a pleasant listener.

“It’s a brand new program,” she starts setting up the pitch. “But rather than, you know, starting completely from scratch, our division is starting with RPAP recipients.”

Kay says nothing. She has no interest in feigning the tell-me-more impatience of a curious consumer. Ellison’s whole ethos was to always “start from scratch” since the things that came before it (e.g. cities) were impeding an expedited route to new world view progress.

“This is a work opportunity. For individuals doing remarkably well with their RPAPs, who are interested in getting the real work they deserve.” The lady says this last part all emphatic like wow, finally recognition will come for being such a good boy, and Kay’s one eyebrow pitches itself down at the magnitude of bullshit this lady here is peddling. There’d never been dignified work opps from these chupacabras. Only lying, violence, robbery.

“What’s your department called?” Kay maintains a low, unfriendly pitch in her voice.

“I’m actually not able to divulge that information but—“

“The program, then. What’s the program called?”

“Ah,” the lady laughs awkwardly, not used to being interrupted during her sales pitches, and recomposes herself. Her condescending, sympathetic listening expression remains steadfast through it all. “Of course. The Environmental ReEvaluation Initiative is our latest directive and a joint initiative between Elly Wellness, my top level division, and Elly Delivers, our distribution division.”

Kay raises both brows and wags her head at the lady like yeah, go on already.

“So, I’m not able to divulge full details to the general public, but what I can tell you is that a core component of EREI”—she says this like e-ray—“is the deployment of what we’re calling Surveyors. Surveyors will be out-in-the-field operators who survey targeted areas and collect environmental data. For their participation, Surveyors will receive a generous stipend towards Elly Wellness resources, as well as an advanced, modern Wellness integration and upkeep plan.” The lady leans in like now she’ll share a secret. Kay is still in the doorway.

“Surveyors additionally will have all outstanding debts relieved once their introductory period and first successful workload clears, with options for permanent residency in Elly Homestead or a recognized residence of choice.”

Kay takes a moment for all the implications of the pitch to sink in. She takes a slumped step out of the doorway and into the store finally. The greasy 5 gallon had been getting tough to keep hold of. In this moment her vision and her hearing narrow in on another time when she had been in Akil’s store before, shooting the shit about yeah the weather or how bout this or that thing finally came down, all the while making light of the unseemly, degrading subject of when it’d be time to leave from here cause shit was too much. And here Kay was with Akil gone, like why he ain’t say nothing about the lease renewal. Or more pressing—what level of danger was Kay really in with these two automatons here and Akil so easily whisked away?

The first one starts up with the customer service act again as Kay sets the 5 gallon down in the middle of the store.

“Let me get this taken care of,” the lady offers politely, hands outstretched in a disarming, poised little gesture, finally grasping the jug into her manicured possession. Kay makes a passive sound as this happens. Maybe it’s the pent-up rage spontaneously leaving her body. Her head begins to droop. Her gaze lowers. She becomes an unresponsive post. Another part of this old store.

Akil’s was only ever open in the daytime. It was dim and cramped with boxes and jugs, but it felt like a relative’s house. He had made ingenious little rigs and repairs everywhere out of anything that could be repurposed, mostly old ad signs for candy bars, wakefulness drinks, one-shot health supplements, and shit like that. He had remade a branded display rack from a long-defunct snack company into one for selling his own home-made chips, and now that was empty, and Kay has never seen it empty before. She looks around slowly, gaze caressing whatever it lands on. She knows this will be her last time in here. And with that acknowledged she straightens back up into the present, alert and receiving all perceptions now, here is this freshly dangerous place.

The first lady is punching in data to the water pump terminal behind the counter. Nobody says anything. Just the sound of rushing water hitting the plastic jug. Then the ‘filing complete’ chime jingles out from the terminal. Kay shakes out the folded up plastic dolly she had kept under arm up till now. The two demons watch her in expectant silence. Kay didn’t want to say anything—anything at all to egg on this… evaluator. But Kay knows she hasn’t finished her pitch yet.

“So you’re here to offer me a job?” Kay says flatly.

“Yep!” the evaluator affirms with a you-got-it chirp.

“How do I apply?”

“All you have to do—“

Kay is zoned the fuck out again. She’s not ready. The phrase leaving the lady’s mouth is a curse, guaranteed to end in an ‘offer’ she knows will be more degrading than she is currently prepared for.

“What’d you say?” Kay chops her mid-sentence. The evaluator acts out another awkward laugh.

“It’s a recruitment. I have this travel pass into Homestead that’s good for one month from today’s date, and you come into our offices to complete a more thorough evaluation process. You’ll be able to consider the full breadth of the program from there and make a decision about whether or not you want to join us. No pressure! How’s that sound?”

Kay draws in a practiced, steady breath and sucks her teeth for a beat, considering what if she just bolted right now? Would they catch her? Shit, they already caught her.

“Yeah. I’ll consider it,” she answers quickly, thinking time to get the fuck outta here.

“Great,” the other one says. Kay isn’t paying attention to who’s talking anymore. She starts going through the motion of making the water payment.

“Water’s on us today, Miss Peñafiel.” The one tries to lay her hand on Kay’s outstretched fist, but Kay slides it away before they even come close to contact. “We so appreciate your time today. We hope you’ll find some personal value in our offer. We loaded you up with the premium Water™, as a sample of what you’ll have access to in our program.”

Kay stares back at their friendly masks, where Akil the waterman should be, in this dingy, falling apart, abandoned quadrant of a wholesale abandoned city.

“What’s the travel pass?” she croaks, hoarse, voice unwilling to work now. A smile, wicked, pleased, belonging to a trainer of dogs or small children, blossoms on the evaluator’s well-fed and glowing expression. She puts a plastic-sealed packet on the counter, gives it an encouraging pat, then pushes it towards Kay, who looks at her, then it, then her again. Kay lets it sit there while she loads the 5 gallon onto her dolly, tugs her youth large tee out of her armpits and back down over her ribs, and rearranges the contents of her sweatpant pockets. Then she takes a half-step over, swipes the packet off the counter, and puts it in her pocket without looking at it. Kay doesn’t look at the two women again.

“Right, so your travel fob is valid from today till thirty days, is only valid for you, and contains some longer form information reiterating what we discussed today.”

Kay’s leading foot is already out the entrance. She throws up the back of her palm in a final gesture. A yeah, I got it, and gets the fuck out of there.

The face mask is back up. The shades are back down. Kay is outside the officially haunted corner store. Haunted because she’s been visited by vampires who have shattered her understanding of what to expect as ‘regular’ from here on out—an overwhelming hyper-sensation that has rendered her psychic defenses useless and leaves her very soul in peril, she feels. Kay has never moved a 5 gallon so quickly. Her single-handed grip on the dolly and the bottleneck is GETTHEFUCKOUTTAHERE tense until the bony kid looks down and finds blood smearing out from her index finger. Alarm. A ragged slice from a jagged edge on the 5 gallon’s cap. She can’t feel shit though. Her body is roaring GET OUT GET AWAY FROM HERE KEEP MOVING FAST FAST FAST BUT DON’T RUN JUST MOVE FAST GO.

Halfway down the 45th street strip Kay almost falls going over a broken slab of asphalt and catches her wound a second time on the same the jagged cap edge trying to keep the 5 gallon on the dolly. She lets out an aggravated squeal at this loss of control, and stops right there. All the sudden she’s overheated and clenching her teeth against panicked tears of frustration gathering in her eyes. Can anyone even see her though? Anyone she cares or has to be worried about? The street dogs pay her no mind.

She reaches into her pocket with her good hand and fingers the plastic-sealed fob as she swallows her worked-up spit down. It feels really for real. Pristine. Smart. This and the premium water. It’s too much. Her stomach constricts and then she’s dragging the dolly and everything down the street weeping, a miserable and cursed soul marked by the horsemen or whatever ghost story—she can’t get any of it straight right now. Kay misses Miss Deanna, the old neighborhood, when she felt little and it was okay. It’s the end of days official and it’s got her suffocating in a windstorm of what’s real, what’s even possible; how she don’t know nobody anymore and it all seemed okay till right now when the Ellison jawns showed up and let her know that they hadn’t forgotten about not one corner of this dying rotting city. And definitely not her. They knew where she was. They came for her. Because of her fucking Reproductive Phytoremediation Assistance Procedure implant??

Kay makes it back to the smoothest patch of sidewalk near the brick apartment building where she is staying, where the janky dragging racket of her dolly makes the least echo. She is sniffling and panting as she approaches the entrance. And somewhere nearby, a big striped mosquito with an imperceptible ID swatch on its thorax hovers after the trails of a heat signature, belonging to a biped whose pheromones have been augmented by a surgical procedure into something both less and more recognizably plantlike… Till the latch of a weighted metal door clicks open, then closed, and the trail terminates behind it.

sunset views from the fourth floor in southwest philly

It started raining. First humid and earnest, then thick and committed. Steady rain means flooding means dread. What’s gonna come down this time? Will we get sick? Will we have to leave again? Will the ways we go and rely on still be good? Those are the questions adults had taught Kay when she was smaller. Now she was alone and sitting on the edge of her little bed staring into oblivion. The 5 gallon water jug was still on its dolly, touching her toe. Once she was through the ordeal of hauling its forty odd pounds up the four flights of stairs and into her muggy room, she sat her shoddy, underfed body right down and picked up the exhausted weeping that started back on 45th street. She had to leave. She had to get out of this place. She has to.

It rained.

Kay felt so so so sleepy. She really had to go to Ellison now? Where else could she go? She couldn’t dip out to somewhere? (Where? How? She couldn’t even remember where to get the supplies she needed and it was just one of her.) Would Ellison come for her if she didn’t show up? What did she have time for and could she bring herself to even do any of it? She couldn’t focus. She couldn’t move. She didn’t get her meds. She was whimpering. Then groaning.

Outside it was heat lightning. Oblivion.

The shaa-shaa of increasing rain.

The heavy lightning started up in the twilight. Soundless whipcracks of electric light flooded out the growing shadows of dusk. Kay was wide-eyed holding herself, standing by her windows looking out at the sky. Her pupils dilated and shrank between the flashes and the dimness, while rumbling became thundering that became deafening overhead blows, and crackling bolts that made the heart race. Kay scanned the area for things caught fire or missing or scorched in an instant.

The sun was nearly set and its departing red rays shot across the underbellies of clouds, huge and dense unbroken fronts that undulated, the underside of a wave for sure. The world beneath the wave was pitched fuchsia. Everything that could glowed fluorescent ultraviolet pink and everything that absorbed light seemed chemical reactive and incorporeal, until the lightning made it like daytime again and her pupils were massive in its split-second washes.

It was getting tense now. Rainwater was splattering down battered drainpipes and rushing through the streets. Blocked drains gathered more debris around their ever-growing islands. The wind began to pick the rain up and slap it against whatever it could. It beat the sides of her building and its windowpanes with arrhythmic tempo, blowing through every hidden crack, whistling and clambering with a keen. Kay held her hands behind her back, stock still, and forced herself to draw breath all the way down into her stomach, preparing for a sudden arrival of water; the horror of it freely cascading down the walls or through the roof, and the boundaries of this hiding hole of a building giving way above or beneath her.

The sun and its rays were all the way down now. She realized she was swaying. She didn’t have anything to eat since the last of those chips. It had been an entire day. Kay was losing her focus on a world in indigo while her mind recalled the scene in Akil’s water store, stuck in a loop that watched the fob transaction over and over—the recruiter’s hand (baby smooth, spotless, manicured nails) as it fell onto Kay’s scuffed up 5 gallon and moved it to the filling station; the bizarre, unwarranted smile as she filled it, like what’s really in that water actually. Kay felt a wave of nausea join her swaying. She wished she had a chair in this room. She swallowed, tried to blink her eyes back to focus on the here and now, and couldn’t. What she got was dim boundless color and roving shapes. Her body was locked in place and she struggled to amass the energy to move its incredible weight. If she had a chair she’d drag it right up to these windows so she could still keep tabs on the storm. But she didn’t have a chair or a stool or anything like that. In one slow motion Kay turned away from the flashing shuddering windows and lurched forward, fingertips outstretched for the rumpled landscape of her overworked mattress. She rolled over to her back, arms spread out like a crucifix, mouth open panting in time with her racing heart.

B-BLOOM!!

Her limbs jerked as an overhead explosion reverberated the air. The hairs on her skin were electrified., and for a fleeting moment she felt stupidly contented that she was sheltered from the storm.

BLOOOM!

Another one right on top of her! Several more strikes rocked overhead, ripping apart the sky in their passage. And in the drone of rainfall that followed she thought, yeah, storms don’t give a shit about tiny fucking people. It would be fine if it swept her away tonight…

Kay sat up in bed suddenly and looked out the windows. The light was all different. Outside the wild downpour carried on, but the lightning and thundering were absent. She started looking around. Everything felt misplaced and off. Her heart rocked in her chest, struggling to push blood up to her head fast enough, and it hurt and her eyes burned and her skin itched. A grey sky with a surreal, flowering haze colored the room, washing her whole body in novel pink-orange light.

I thought…
I was just thinking about…
The sun already set…
That was just the clouds?
I fell…

Then the whisper from her medical bracelet called, its procession of alert shouters requesting her usual inspection.

WARNING…
NOTICE…
HEALTH TIP…

Nothing new, nothing new.

ELLY HOMESTEAD: YOU HAVE… TWO. NEW MESSAGES.

FIRST MESSAGE:
I DON’T APPRECIATE THE SHADY SHIT. NICE TRY.

> REFUND – SERVICES NOT RENDERED _70 ELS_ TO _MEL2309_

>REFUNDED!

> HOW DOES MARKETPLACE PROTECTION WORK?

“FUCK, yo.”

NEXT MESSAGE:
SHAUNA, I JUST GOT A MESSAGE FROM AN ELLY REP THAT YOU’RE GOING TO WORK FOR ONE OF THE NEW RECLAMATION INITIATIVES. CONGRATS! MISSED YOU LAST NIGHT. BUMMED TO SEE YOU GO. I’D LOVE TO GET IN ONE LAST SESSION. LMK. -GOE

Wow. Kay missed both her client calls. Adrenaline pumped throughout her body now. She felt sick. It was like seven in the fucking morning. She was down 70 els. Her stomach was tight and empty and she couldn’t catch her breath or take a full inhale cause her heart was poun-ding. Kay grit anguish through her teeth, groaning, and squeezed her eyes shut. These fucking vampires got her so stressed out that she didn’t get what she needed, passed out, missed her gigs, and now it lost her money? And they went and found her clients and told them that she would be working for their “reclamation initiative” when Kay made no such agreement?

The rain droned on.

Kay sat there in her heavy, heavy body and felt the driest tears begin to fall down her face. The sun’s rising pink light phased into pallid, diffuse brightness. Thunder rumbled in the far distance. She couldn’t believe it was another day.

Outside water roared through the sinking streets, streaked blood green, gleaming iridescent stain, filth brown. Streams of it shot from small let-thrus, and there was no traversable path currently above its deluge. Kay had watched a lot of storms blow through and this time it occurred to her that Ellison must watch them too somehow. Do they track where the water goes? What it travels through? What it carries? What it destroys with its relentless volume?

Maybe that’s what this “opportunity” was about.

A sobbing teenager took a corner of their tattered bedsheet and blew their nose into it. Rubbed their eyes with two balled fists, and continued to hyperventilate while staring empty-eyed out the windows before them. After a while, they lolled their head back and looked around the room, peering at the cracks, flakes, and paint sags of the walls and ceiling, attempting to sense with only the very edges of their visual periphery, as if looking straight on would invite collapse.

The water stayed outside. The room was still sound.

Kay cracked open the temporary seal on the 5 gallon and knelt down to slurp the water from its bottleneck. She had to leave this place.

an ad on the placemat for south philly's Melrose diner, 2018

At first the walls to the Ellison tower were the invisible kind, with the cell vibrators and the nauseators. And the people inside could still look out onto the poisoned land and foreclosed city downstream and speculate on the greatness of their immediate surroundings’ new freedom project. Then the people outside began to perform political suicides and other barbaric acts of protest, and the physical walls went up.

The inside of the walls displayed uplifting images of rugged futures, murals by local artists, and other self-congratulatory distractions, so that the insiders could still contemplate a grotesque redemption myth, that their luxury containment was part of something bigger; the start of a process that would reimagine society itself. Hey, they made a lot of tough decisions and serious sacrifices to stay there on the inside, and they didn’t think they deserved to be subject to the maligned behavior and hateful, self-induced harm of the idiots outside who continued to refuse perfectly fair relocation opportunities.

This line of thought did not account for the waves of scammers and recruiters that ran through the city neighborhoods in years prior, incarcerating people on employment opp scams and quik credit 4 medical research trafficking heists. Two winters ago Kay trekked out to the nearest Ellison customer service outpost with a folded up one-time-use participation flier in her pocket, hoping to god this Ellison Revitalize™ Initiative was real and she wasn’t about to get raped and chopped by some scammers like a fucking chump. Now she was back gripping the same paint-chipped railing walking down the same narrow flight of high-incline cement steps, to a familiar basement level door, marked in too-small type-size, RWUD, which Kay read in her head as “are-would”—Real Work You Deserve. It matched the patronizing red logo on the travel fob, now fished out of her pocket and blinking off a light event. The featureless metal door winked back and the fob vocalized a firm ‘Wait Here’ request. Kay lifted the thing to eye-level, unhappy with her ignorance of its capacity, and suddenly felt urged to look behind her up the steps. No one.

This is where they come to escort you into the tower itself, she thought, looking at the door’s range of scratches and surface warbles where larger dents must have been inflicted. Her moped was parked in the complimentary camouflaged security shed upstairs. She stood in a pair of faded black work pants cuffed to ankle length, with her youth large tee tucked into the waistband and what looked like a high-density plastic sack of a backpack. The unmarked surveillance eye on the door watched her oscillate between dead-staring at the bottom of the door with her hands in her pockets and taking one out to fiddle with a knot on her braided cloth necklace. Somewhere a set of queries combed their databases for the door’s memory and registered her as a Known Quantity. Last timestamp she was logged as a Non-Compliant Alien (NCA) and Biological Potential Environmentally Impacted (BPEI), with added notation for Reproductive Risk (RR). Now the databases amended NCA for Cooperative External Registrant, and RR for positive RPAP, the Reproductive Phytoremedial Assistance Procedure. The door updated the network of other doors at other borders, so that all the guard doors would now take less time to recognize her.

When the door opened Kay’s bodily perceptions snapped to a hyper-vigilant state and everything began to happen around her with a great slowness. It was one of the recruiters from before. She stood in the bunker-like doorway looking full of purpose, well-rested and well-fed. Her skin seemed almost a little wet, like she had just been exerting herself, but she was wearing a fully tailored catsuit with incorporated heels and lapels and everything. The recruiter said hello, asked Kay to state her full birth-assigned legally binding name, and then said, great, now I’ll take back that travel fob. Her arm in the catsuit looked extra sculpted and poised when it extended. The elbow jut out with a coy spring and the palm was smooth and expectant. Kay watched the recruiter’s fingers wrap around the fob—clean and even fingernails so carefree pink, an uncanny contrast to the stoic and fatherly presence of the RWUD logo in her hand. Then they walked through the door and down three more flights of narrow stairs, where at the bottom waited a wheeled transport with three compact passenger seats and a broad-shoulder, flat-chested person in the operator’s chair. The person watched Kay approach as soon as she hit the bottom step, sizing her up in a way she was well acquainted with ignoring. Watch this person is one of those tower guys that always wants a greeting sim and never books, Kay thought to herself.

“How’s it going,” she offered to the operator. The flat-chested person, looking at her like one might regard a roach on the sidewalk, took a strong sniff then wrinkled their nose.

“You ride in the front,” came the recruiter’s voice behind her. Kay bugged her eyes, took a beat, then climbed in. The flat-chested person watched her sit down, and Kay looked back at them like, so you not gonna say nothing? A strong fragrance, narcotically sweet, wafted off of their clothes as she sat down. Their expression remained unchanged, bored as shit, and Kay felt her own tightening into a glare.

She knew what the fuck she looked like. She knew she had dandruff between her braids and bad breath and her clothes stank of mildew and sweat and body. She knew this person was trying to see all her tattoos without acting like it. She saw them look at her yellowed, missing teeth when she spoke. She saw them look at the raggedy rucksack on her back, full of everything she was willing to risk bringing along with her into this gauntlet. She knew that, here, all her plans for the future rested in the hands of motherfuckers like this, who had no idea what respect was, and that they would now have power over her in unknown, new ways.

“Pshhh.” The operator finally blew a laugh through their teeth and turned away to engage the transport engine. Kay turned her frozen glare ahead, clutched the backpack against her chest, and took the first of many long silent breaths.

The operator drove Kay and her chaperone through a mind-numbing progression of underground distribution tunnels. They were well lit. Not abandoned. Not sewer pipes. Not derelict subway tunnels during low tide. Everything was finished and level. Properly reinforced and wired. Demarcated with high-visibility graphics. Wide enough to fit a transport riding on either side and then some. She noticed all this and felt a repeat sensation like she had all these thoughts in this order before, and is anything gonna be different now this time? Another terse exhale.

“Please take this now, Miss Peñafiel.” And the evaluator was leaned forward with her hand out again, presenting a light matte yellow hexagonal pill. Her tone suggested that this was a thinly veiled threat type of situation. So Kay turned around and took it. It went down smooth and easy, with an unexpected fizz at the end, and made her feel warm and flushed for a few gushing moments afterward.

A span of time passed. Passage through the tunnels. A repetition of rhythm, the transport hov-hummering across slab flooring.

“What’re you gonna do with this one,” the operator finally struck up with the evaluator. Kay’s internal expression bugged.

“Miss Peñafiel is here to consider the prototype Surveyor program under the Environmental ReEvaluation Initiative,” came the evaluator’s guarded yet conversational response. Kay felt her whole body clench down on itself, horrified that the lady just gave out all her business like that.

“Surveyors, huh,” the operator smirked. Blending with the hum of the tires, their lower register voice continued, “Surveying what?”

“I’m sure you’ll find out soon enough, Micah,” the recruiter quipped, and they stopped talking. Kay’s mind was racing—they clearly worked together, she didn’t know where she was and they did, and is this a trafficking heist after all? Adrenaline began to course through her body as she frantically mapped out survival options when, very gently, there came a warm breaking sensation, like water over a rock, and she eased back into her seat, unconcerned. You know, anything could happen… And… probably nothing bad, she thought stupidly. Her body—she hadn’t noticed till the onset of this conflicting reaction—was very relaxed, almost aroused, bearing emanating waves of ever increasing euphoria. And so she sat there, blissed out and hooked on the rhythm of the transport engine, unable to address her previously very urgent sense of alarm and unease.

Then Kay realized that she was being seated down into a totally different vehicle, enclosed, oblong, with no apparent driver, and when and how long ago did she get there? There were two rows of padded seats with a tasteful moss green/blush purple color scheme and arranged in differing configurations: two chairs facing one chair that had a small convenience table dispensed from its armrest; two chairs facing two chairs as a booth; a row of single chairs that could be swiveled in any direction. And though Kay couldn’t place it, it smelled nice and fresh and ‘natural’ inside. The evaluator promptly sat across from Kay, folded her hands over her lap, and stared into the darkened reflection of one of the vehicle’s panoramic windows. The transport operator was there too, sitting across the aisle taking long, leisurely looks and short glances between Kay and the evaluator. Kay was sweating profusely—a bad smelling sweat, too—heart thump slow pump-pumping under a heavy body hyper-awareness, not wanting to fall asleep but feeling like she was about to pass out anyway, and IS this a scam? Where are they? The nice vehicle hummed and clacked along.

Kay woke up with that same heavy body feeling, her groggy awareness ambling out from the recesses of a deep, drugged slumber. And as she awakened, adrenaline began to course its way through her body, the familiar heart palpitations of nerve-wracked anxiety picking right up with it. Except it broke again and, like last time, her distress washed away into non-concern. She took in a slow, deep breath and smelled her own stinking sweat and felt its residue grime on her itching goose-bumped skin, and the fleeting sensation that she had experienced this before. She just couldn’t put the details of it all together right now.

Kay looked down at herself. Both her arms were palm up resting in a neutral position on wide soft armrests made of some non-porous wipe-clean material, and following the lines of her body she found that she was laid up in some sort of elaborate recliner. Her head and neck, legs and lower back, even her feet were all nestled into molded cushioning that seemed to cradle her whole body in some optimal position. Then she noticed the white noise and that when she inhaled the air felt… smooth and sweet to breathe. She opened her mouth for a long big yawn, and realized too that there was no hot, sticky film between her lips and teeth. The inside of her mouth felt smooth and unirritated. Someone had hydrated her?

The room didn’t just smell good, either. It felt nice to be in. Soft lighting draped the room from hidden fixtures nestled in overhead corners, and the walls had a twilight lavender hue that seemed to glisten when her gaze left them. A narrow, decorative side table, in appearances made of some chic concrete composite, stood proudly across from where she was held, bearing a capsule-shaped vessel of water, its singular matching cup acting as the lid. And above that hung an oversized framed picture—a painting or a manipulated photograph, she couldn’t tell. It was ugly and disrupted everything else that the room achieved in putting her at ease. Muddy purples and sallow reds alongside wasted greens, and absolutely no strong, vibrant colors. A cityscape, the tops of tall buildings clustered in towards each other at odd, conflicting perspectives, their ground origins obscured by their own towering heights. Small people, their varied complexions the same as the buildings, dotted the rooftops in t-shirts and jeans and hung out of windows, some of them riding in a cut-away rendition of the very vehicle she had last knowingly been in. Everyone had manic smiling expressions, like they were fighting to contain the unspoken wit of their can-do personalities, under threat of explosion if someone didn’t notice them in time. And in the center, a garish block of poison red letters: THIS IS HOME STEAD. With a smaller proclamation underneath: People You Recognize Who Also Recognize You. The words bulged out emphatically wherever she looked, as if they protected the rest of the image from scrutiny.

That’s when she looked around at the little room she was in and remembered from that time two years ago—she’s already under observation. Someone’s gonna come in soon and start talking at her about consent and risk and liability and shit. And then, despite all the fear in her body, she’s gonna say yes to it all, cause they keep non-permanents docile in the tower walls using all kinds of nervine sprays and mood-altering fragrances. Motherfuckers. She had forgotten about all of that till here she was back in their clutches again. Her body heaved as one does on the verge of weeping, and again, the anguish evaporated and she found herself instead blankly looking around the room, waiting. A bird on a perch in a beautiful darkened enclosure.

Then the top corner of the door blinked from purple to green. Kay had another fleeting body memory of adrenaline panic that morphed into a disabling pang of shame, then numbness. She sat unmoving and waited for the door to open. They entered quickly in, then to the side, as if opening the door too wide would reveal an undue amount of information from outside. Three people dressed like professionals of the same trade, each wearing greige open lapel jackets over periwinkle catsuits, each with supported breasts and dewy skin and hands tucked casually in their broad front jacket pockets. One seemed older, wearing swept-back salt-and-pepper hair that fell past their shoulders. The other two donned similar styles, hair jet black and slicked brown. What was behind this aesthetic of looking damp and just-sweating all the time, Kay didn’t know.

“Miss Peñafiel, good to see you awake,” the salt-and-pepper said. “How do you feel?” they leaned in closer with a sympathetic lilt, wearing a tight smile not unlike the people from the poster. Kay opened her mouth slowly, but she had nothing to say. “Still groggy?” She nodded. “Well that’s normal. Nauseous? Feel like you’re gonna throw up, need to use the bathroom? You feel all right?” The person listed off the questions with an affected drawl of care, looking at Kay as one does a sick child or someone in recovery. She shook ’no’ and looked at the other two in the room, who likewise merely observed the pair from behind the elegant shadow of that soft lighting overhead. Kay’s gaze wandered back to the one in front of her, who was reviewing a panel beside the recliner that Kay hadn’t realized was there. Nobody introduced themselves or offered any explanations. “Ok, then Miss Peñafiel. Welcome to your stay with us. Someone will be in with your meal, and then the project director’s team will be by to bring you up to speed.”

The salt-and-pepper turned to the other two and made some expression Kay couldn’t see. Their faces shifted in acknowledgement and the one closest to the door turned towards it. Its top corner blinked from purple to green once more, and came silently ajar. Then they filed out in the same way they entered, and this time Kay noticed a brighter, bluer light peeking in from the narrow opening (outside? a hallway?). The door closed without a sound. The lights overhead brightened for a moment and then very slowly came down. Kay was compelled to let out a long exhale that seemed to coincide with its pace. And before her thoughts could turn to any self-reflection or line of questioning related to her visitors, she found herself wrapped up in a wonderful scent carried by the gentlest of billowing breezes, soft and purple. She closed her eyes and thought happily about the meal that was to come.

When she woke up again, the door was just closing and she found beside her recliner a table just large enough to hold the covered tray, which now fixated her gaze. Kay felt very refreshed and eased of mind. She found it easy now to move her limbs and the rest of her body, and for the first time sat up in the recliner, whose smooth material creaked languidly. She felt comforted by its sound, as if this was an old, reliable chair she regularly sat in. Curling her legs under her (where were her shoes, she did not care), Kay pulled the table closer and removed the tray cover. Wow. Her cheeks tightened with a flush of saliva. A constellation of small bowls and trays, one with a swirling hot broth soup full of savory mushrooms and tender squash, another with fresh greens tossed with sliced root vegetables and glistening slices of fruit, a dish with a steaming scoop of earthy looking mixed grains, and so on. There were lacquered chopsticks and a ceramic spoon. There was a tall, heavy glass of cool, sweet water. There were three plump strawberries arranged next to a biscuit topped in cream. Kay ate slowly, sampling each small dish as it beckoned to her, stopping to close her eyes and breathe, relishing the flavors and sensations that filled her mouth. When Kay finished the last bite, she emptied the glass of water, of which she had saved half for the end of the meal. The gentle, fragrant breeze was blowing again as Kay sat back in her recliner, smiling, running her tongue over her gums and teeth. The soft lights had risen and dimmed again, and she once more exhaled happily as the room’s twilight walls seemed to glisten in time.

• • • •

“Looks like the RPAP’s been suffering chronic overload, Dr. Orne.”

“Yes, you can see the dimorphic flux on his outward genitals is quite progressed. This is good, though. We hypothesized results like this from the field.”

“Would you say that’s the cause for the retarded feminization we’re seeing, as well, doctor?”

“Mm, I suspect that has more to do with the patient’s base state upon arrival. His reported age conflicted with severe developmental delay in the body, and testing revealed genetic birth defects passed on through both parents, compounded by long-term exposure to a variety of the usual hazards. I know it seems like an excessive complication of variables, Nat, but really, we need someone like this for the research.”

“Amazing. Although I wish I could wrap my head around the type of person who would choose to have a child in proximity to that much direct environmental risk.”

“Well, Nat, we’re not here to judge. They’re our most plentiful research subjects, after all,” the doctor smiled.

“Doctor, the patient.”

Kay was coming to. It was bright as fuck. She was on her back and couldn’t see the lower half of her body because it was behind a curtain, and she had to strain to see that much because it felt like she was on a declined slope as well. The conversing voices that had awakened her were silent. She wiggled her toes or tried and called out hello because she was confused and angry, like where the fuck and when the fuck did she get into this position. Is this the project director or was she drugged through that too? Then a person and a hovering blue octahedron—a diamond?—the size of a football crossed the threshold of the curtain and came into view. The diamond stressed her out bad. The person had extremely slick and shiny looking lips, as if under a reflective smooth-touch coating. Was that makeup? Kay stared stupidly, horrified. Then looked at the spinning diamond, whose planes were began to cascade a colorful gradient.

“You prefer to be addressed as Miss Peñafiel, is that correct?” a chipper voice asked. Kay looked pleadingly at the person, unable to register if their lips were moving or what, wondering if she was all woken up yet or naw. She couldn’t respond, only swallowed back some phlegm in her throat and then looked fretfully over at the diamond.

“I’m Dr. Orne’s Neuro-Amplification Terminal.” The diamond spun around. “Dr. Orne is the program director, and I’m her assistant. I believe you were informed by the other project techs that we would be seeing you after your meal. Do you remember that?”

Kay stared on.

“Miss Peñafiel,” Dr. Orne stepped closer, her voice a pitch lower, “We have you on our evaluation table right now. That’s why you’re partially behind the curtain. I hope that’s all right with you. It lends a bit of privacy to candidates such as yourself during our examination process.”

“I can’t move,” Kay finally slurred out. The doctor chuckled and nodded back.

“That’s to be expected. It makes our job a little easier,” the doctor winked. “Well, Nat tells me that you’re an excellent candidate for the Surveyor pilot program. Your RPAP is functioning as intended—” Then, Kay found herself thrust into the operation memory of her Reproductive Phytoremedial Assistance Procedure: The surgeon arms pulling back the privacy curtain and the jarring confrontation of her own body below. Her stomach, hips, thighs, spread and suspended under a painful blue-cast light and distressingly bloated under thin layers of viscous looking, strangely humming compression material that seemed pushed to its limit and ready to burst. Someone told her it was a skin wrap and put her out again. The next time she woke up her pelvis and lower back and bowels ached so deep that she felt like a kid’s action figure whose legs had been popped off their string. She felt like she fucked up. They kept her splayed out inside a clamshell type chamber for days. Said she could expect aches and pains for the next couple months while everything settled in, and if she passed the post-procedure check-ups in the next ten days she’d be able to get outta here and start working. “—And do you have any questions about the benefits associated with the program?” Kay struggled to get a glimpse of the curtain again.

“My RPAP is done?”

The doctor chuckled again. “Miss Peñafiel, your RPAP has been functioning for almost two years. Did the project techs prep you at all?” and the doctor was suddenly closer to Kay than she wanted, crouched down and looming overhead while the Nat diamond hovered above. “You’re here to join what we’re calling our Surveyor pilot. It’s a multi-faceted, multi-stage project designed by myself under the supervision of the Environmental ReEvaluation Initiative. I’m also the designer of the RPAP mechanism. Now, the role of the RPAP in the surveyor pilot, I’ll get to in a moment. One of the core objectives of the Surveyor pilot itself is to assemble a group of highly specialized individuals who are trained in new land and asset appraisal techniques. Surveyors will be responsible for sample collection of soil, water, and air vectors, as well as geographic, populations, and climate survey reporting.

“The benefits to you, the surveyor, are several fold. First, we provide elite-tier Wellness care. That includes Water™, supplement regimens, corrective programs, and top tier recreational allowances guaranteed for the duration of the pilot. Now, even if the pilot doesn’t move on to the next phase of development you still come out with a lifetime positive investment change. This is where the RPAP comes in. You’re familiar with the purpose of the procedure—implanting a seed structure that catalyzes a fundamental system-wide tissue transformation, which simultaneously corrects and replaces a living but malfunctioning or beleaguered system that would otherwise be catastrophic to shut down. And you’re also familiar with the data reporting and network capabilities that the RPAP provides from the cellular level. The Surveyor program expands these capabilities into a complex, interlocking, body-wide network—we will facilitate the integration of novel, optimally functioning systems into your current network of environmentally impacted organisms, which comprise the body unit itself.

“This integration essentially acts as a body prosthetic. Your embodied quality of living will improve, while providing us with valuable survey data. Combined with the quality of life package on offer—the wellness plan and housing options—we consider this to be a considerably rare and comprehensive opportunity.”

“Yes,” the diamond chimed in, “The procedure into the prosthetic is very similar to that of the RPAP’s—a surgical procedure of short duration, with an extensive growth and guided, monitored recovery process while your dysfunctional systems are gradually replaced by new material.”

“Correct.” Dr. Orne continued. “So you’ve already been through this process before with the RPAP, Miss Peñafiel. If you join our Surveyor program, this process will occur on a body-wide scale. All systems.”

All systems…

All systems…

Gradually replaced by new material…

The words rung in Kay’s head.

• • • •

An exhausted looking kid in a room with no windows sat laid up in a partially reclined bed chamber, head lolled off to one side, their clouded eyes fixed ahead at a thin, curved rectangular interface that hung suspended before them. Quickly changing colors projected onto their zoned out expression. Two identical palm plants flanked the head of the bed, undulating gently in a wind of mysterious origin. Audio from the interface screen wafted out from their decorative pots, maybe even the leaves themselves. A salacious, slooshy rubbing sound filled the room, layered with moaning voices and a vulgar sort of synthesized background music.

“I’ve never known such a glucose pig. It’s one thing to be thick and strong, it’s another to split your stem. I thought you were handsome; but look at you, you make me sick!” An out of breath baby doll voice spat. The moaning and slopping sounds picked up against a now deflating, anti-climax soundscape.

Kay’s pupils felt over-dilated again, maybe they were. Whenever she tore her focus away from the screen her eyes throbbed. Her whole face stung. Her sinuses were constricted so tight that the coursing of her own bloodstream felt painful whenever her heartbeat quickened.

“To think I crawled all the way down the hall to share a pot with a pastry dough-head whose brain can’t even break out of a circular queue,” the same baby doll voice cried.

Kay couldn’t move. It was the end of the first week after her prosthetic operation under the hands of Dr. Orne, and she was supposedly in the middle of growing into the prosthetic. But it felt like shit. They set up the room around Kay to respond to eye gestures, which is how she changed the channel away from the glistening drama, Digital Pistil, in search of something less disturbing. Oh, a behind-the-ass view of someone receiving an oil massage with a corner overlay of the recipient’s face as it happened. The slooshy sounds were more rhythmic than the last show and somebody was whispering in the audio. This was…relaxing and…stimulating. But as this point Kay felt wholly overstimulated, exhausted, and hence pissed off. She couldn’t go anywhere, though, and all they had for her was this non-stop stream of bullshit, so it was that or shutting it off to deal with the myriad agonies of her transitioning body.

Supposedly she was in a special rehabilitation ward of Ellison’s Flagship Wellness Hospital, but so far she had yet to see any other ‘patients’ or even any other room but hers. Project techs wearing Wellness logos would come in and out, so Kay decided she couldn’t be bothered yet to stress over how true that was or not. Whenever the techs showed up they would comment on whatever she was watching, as if it said something about her personally. One time she used the provided sight-to-speech keyboard to ask who made this shit, and the tech proudly rambled off an elevator pitch praising the programming content as some hallowed achievement of cultural production from their social division, Ellison Life. Kay asked if there was anything that wasn’t produced by Elly Life available, and the tech laughed like Kay was flirting with her and left the room.

She switched the channel back to Digital Pistil right as one of the characters hurled itself to a sexy death while the other watched with disaffected satisfaction. Kay’s eyes bugged as she exhaled sharply. The screen shut off. She looked down at herself, felt her sludgy consciousness stirring inside. Calibrative insertables jut out from all over. They had her housed in another clamshell type bed that reminded her of blister packaging on old toys. If she looked down through the barrier cover there were arms, nipples, ribs, torso, a belly button, pubic hair, thighs, legs, toes. Apparently all hers. It was her body, they kept saying, but her body was covered with tattoos. Then she would look harder and find where distinct lines of ink had now grown mottled and diffuse. Her hair had fallen out. A dull, prolonged aching emanated in waves from within. She looked at the right hand, palm up with hair-thin orange-headed needles sticking out all across it, watched it do nothing, and for the umpteenth time reassured herself away from the verge of hysteria that this had been a good idea. She closed her eyes, dampening the recently developed throb that rocked her vision and made her eyes ache. This prosthetic body shit better be for real.

There were nightmares where she woke up with tears streaming from her eyes, chest tight, trying to scream from inside her stiffened body, surrounded instead by the project techs who wouldn’t touch her and who berated her with questions on repeat until she finally got calm enough to use the sight-to-speech keyboard to respond. In the nightmares, she would wake up in her old apartment and find her body covered in flesh-eating bacteria, to the point that whole pieces of her would fall off as she tried to move. In the nightmares, she would be walking down a familiar road and her body would crumple in on itself, becoming a part of the rotting forgotten city. In the nightmares, she would simply dissolve away. And when she woke up for real in the Elly rehab bed, the same deep thudding ache would continue on uninterrupted. ‘Am I dying?’ she asked a tech one time, who pressed her lips together and looked back at Kay with one of those fuck-off customer service smiles and said, “Well technically we determine your status as a functioning complex system in development, so no,” before walking away.

The dull ache intensified over the following days. The project techs began to show up whenever Kay had been uncontrollably crying for some time, telling her this was progress, this was good, she was starting to strengthen her facial movements that made crying possible. It hurt so bad. It felt like all the bad things that had happened to her in life previously were crawling out from the depths of her cells and off-gassing out of her as the prosthetic continued its takeover. One of the times she was crying, she began moaning unintelligibly for Miss Deanna, Miss Deanna, and the project techs soon appeared with big smiles and congratulatory remarks. She was speaking again! Great job!

They wouldn’t tell her exactly how long she’d been in there, and her memory was all fucked up, dazed. She had trouble keeping track of time. There weren’t any windows, just timed light events meant to mimic circadian cycles or some shit. She began to ask where Dr. Orne was. Each time, the techs reacted like she was being rude and then over-patiently replied that the doctor was busy conducting other evaluations. Kay’s mind would race at what that even meant, if there were others, where they like her, what was going on?? Then one day after morning meal, Dr. Orne and that grotesque spinning diamond, NAT, showed up by her bedside.

“Good afternoon, Miss Peñafiel,” the diamond chirped. This time its uniform cool blue surface undulated a gradient color wave.

“Yes, good morning, Miss Peñafiel,” the doctor continued. Kay, having no one to actually talk to, and still overly reliant on eye expression to communicate, found herself reluctantly opening her mouth. Her tongue crept out and hung there on the edge of her teeth and lip, then closed back up. The doctor gave a sympathetic cant of her head and crossed her arms. “Well, Miss Peñafiel, I don’t mean to upset you but I’ve been hearing from the techs that you’ve been having difficulties with your prosthetic. Would you agree with that?”

Kay’s mouth cranked back open and hung that way while her eyes focused intensely at the doctor.

“Gnnyes.”

“Hm. I was told that you were speaking but I can already tell it’s a great strain for you, Miss Peñafiel. To be frank, I think now that we should’ve transitioned you away from the sight to speech keyboard much earlier, and perhaps could’ve uncovered that you were having trouble before my scheduled visit today. I had hopes that we would start the next stage of your recovery today, but now I see we’ll have to reevaluate the timeline.

“…long… how—”

“Nothing terribly off-schedule, Miss Peñafiel. I’ve cleared my agenda for the day so I can look over your outputs and queue something up. Expect to see me again after your evening meal. Do you have any other questions for me?”

“…n-o.”

“Great. I’ll see you later then.”

“Hang in there, Miss Peñafiel!” the diamond added. Dr. Orne was already out of sight. Kay watched the diamond leave, breathing heavily for the effort it had taken to get the words out. She had been trying to ask how long she had been in there, how long the overall process was projected to take originally, what any expectations of her progress had been since nobody was yet to tell her anything, and a million other quips and questions, but the doctor didn’t give a single fuck, she could tell. And now she had to pee, and they had taken away her keyboard, and she was supposed to press this button on the side of her bed but she could barely summon the force into her hand to do anything but caress its smooth matte texture. And as she realized that she could sense the texture of the button, another sensation registered of a relieving warmth spreading luxuriously beneath her, and she smiled as she began to weep once again.

• • • •

“Wake him up.”

“Already, Dr. Orne? We’re still waiting for confirmation that the packets successfully reached their destinations.”

“Nat, what did I tell you last time? Resuscitation can occur even when assisted restructuring is in progress. We’ve already lost enough time as it is.”

Dr. Orne’s ever-revolving Neuro-Amplification Terminal hovered in silence for a beat longer, before a wave of affirmative lights washed over its flat surfaces and the small array of surgeon arms and companion technicians mobilized around their subject.

And then there was pressure and strong sensation and noise. Kay’s eyes fluttered open to see a petite robotic arm pulling away holding a cotton pad smeared with puss-colored residue. Her vision was blurry and she wanted to wipe her eyes but couldn’t, stuck attempting to blink through whatever had seeped in.

“Just a moment, Miss Peñafiel, we’re still getting you cleaned up.” One of the project tech’s voices. Kay could just tell it was the nicer one out of the bunch because of the vocal fry. A cool, wet sensation struck her skin. Wiping motion. This time there was the subtlety of human articulation—the tech herself was scooping into the corners of Kay’s eyes with the pad and holy shit she could feel feel feeeeel all of this. The kid’s eyes shot open as soon as they were clear. The tech seemed pleased with herself, already busy undoing the straps holding Kay in place, and wow the kid was holding their hands in front of their face rotating their palms back and forth and checking that all their digits could flex and articulate (and they could!).

“What the fuck…” Kay muttered in amazement, moving and looking around. The world was not as she remembered; the colors were off. Or like, hyper saturated. Or like, just crystal. Very crystal.

“Congratulations, Miss Peñafiel. It looks like you can already tell that the procedure was a success. Dr. Orne was able to identify that you had started to reject your prosthetic, and we had to do an unscheduled emergency procedure.

Reject my prosthetic?? Kay thought to herself.

“But this is great. We were really worried for a second there! You were Dr. Orne’s favorite candidate for the pilot and it would’ve been a shame if it didn’t work out.’

“Didn’t work out?

“Come with me, Miss Peñafiel,” the tech went on, ignoring her. “We’ve got to get a bowel movement out of you and see how your mobility is unassisted, and then it’s on to the next one!”

• • • •

The next stage of Kay’s “recovery” as Dr. Orne had put it, saw her moved over to a secluded and heavily monitored dormitory-esque building that she never saw the outside of and where every door and surface had a data collection device of some kind. She couldn’t travel along its warm sunrise colored corridors unless she was accompanied by what she began to call her handlers, who herded Kay through her daily activities according to exacting timed schedules.

They started her off in the coordination pools and orientation chambers, progressing her over to toxicity neutralization bars and temperature resistance fields. They ran her through tactical planning sims—identifying unsafe structures, evacuating imminently hazardous areas, methods for assessing size and distance (all skills Kay was taught from childhood, but that they only marveled at for how quickly she ‘picked up’ the training). She had visits with acupuncture-chemists and psych-engineers, instructional walk-throughs on how to self administer regulatory drugs in the field and how to identify when it was time to get a professional check-up. They made her meditate. They told her which sensations to ignore and which to pay attention to. They gave her dirty water to drink and took samples of her piss.

As her proficiencies blossomed, Kay forgot her earlier indignities and began to accept that the prosthetic body shit was for real. They were training her, for one. And for two, she felt better off than before—she could inhale fully without that wet cough, she could bend up and down without shooting pain, she could eat more than a little at a time without diarrhea, she had an appetite! And though no one treated her much differently, she cared less now that she could walk and talk. Kay had little time to reckon with the fact that she looked like a different person, that she wore freshly washed dormitory clothes that smelled like herbs, that her hair was shorn and her tattoos all but faded away. Shit, at least she still had human pattern body hair—she’d overheard one of the techs lamenting that hair was so gross but that it was required for data collection—but did she even have body odor anymore? They made her wash twice a day for data collection, and she was yet to tell.

One day, when Kay was coming up out of the brownwater submerge pool, there was a stranger waiting by the room entrance with a sole tech-handler. A large, barrel chested person with dense thighs and solid posture, standing barefoot in a pair of Elly swim briefs. Kay pulled herself out and stood on the pool’s edge looking openly at the stranger. They recognized each other. Kay watched the stranger’s detached, wintry gaze strain with a flicker of shame then longing, and suddenly found herself striding forward, ignoring the handler with her palm out for a handshake.

“My name’s Kay.”

The stranger blinked, paused to look into her a beat longer, then clasped her hand with gusto. The handler jumped.

“Braga. You’re from up Godfrey way?”

“Yeah…” Kay’s lips began to purse towards a grin. Braga squeezed her hand tightly.

“Yeah, I remember you. You used to be that smartass kid always getting tatted on Xaime’s stoop.

“Where—“

“I lived the block down, but I’d always walk up Mascher to the corner store and pass y’all kids by. Listen, I dunno how I look—you probably don’t remember me—I was a forgettable guy. But you don’t look any different to me.”

Kay found herself smiling wide, looking this person up and down, holding onto their big hand, unsure if she was constructing a memory or had found one, and anyway their accent was all she needed.

“This is a hell of a place to run into an old neighbor,” she offered finally, letting go of their hand. “You a Surveyor now, too or what?”

The double doors opened with a whole therapy crew that must’ve been Braga’s, their bodies angling tensely upon walking into an occupied room with not one but two Surveyors. Braga was immediate to follow Kay’s eyes. One of the techs was already complaining into her device about a mis-assigned room schedule.

“I guess we’re not supposed to share facilities,” Braga said plainly, turning back to her.

“I guess not.” Kay rocked gingerly back on one heel, preparing to leave but unsure where. Braga’s mouth parted to say something, gaze dropping to the floor before rising back.

“I didn’t think I’d see anyone like you here.”

“Me neither,” she admitted.

Then one of Kay’s regular techs scurried into the room spouting apologies to the others. She called over to Kay, “Miss Peñafiel, as you can see there’s been a glitch in the scheduler. You’ll have to collect your gear and come with me so this team can use the room.”

“Miss Peñafiel,” Braga uttered, looking at Kay. “They keep telling me that…you…almost died. And, that once you’re caught up to the rest of us, we’re gonna form a unit.”

We?? Once I’m caught up?? Wow, they don’t tell me shit in here!”

Braga responded with a sad, knowing chuckle.

“Miss Peñafiel,” her tech urged.

“Yeah, well. I heard we just waiting on you and then we outta here. So hurry up,” Braga winked.

“Miss Peñafiel, please.” Her tech was holding out a grey towel and had already gathered up her other gear, and was actively ushering her out of the door now. Kay plucked the towel from the tech’s hands and pulled it onto her shoulders.

“You just wait, I’m coming.” she smirked, pointing to Braga, and walked out.

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