Future Tense

“Burned-Over Territory”

A new short story about a future in which everyone receives universal basic income—but it’s not enough.

A woman looks out at a swarm of surveillance drones.
Doris Liou

Each month in 2018, Future Tense Fiction—a series of short stories from Future Tense and ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives—will publish a story on a theme. The theme for October–December 2018: Work.

I’m halfway through a plate of soggy risotto, giving my opinion about the Project Approval Framework, when my phone buzzes. I thought I’d muted notifications. I’m tempted to check the alert, but 30 faces are watching me, all Members, some from Zardoz House, the rest from other Houses around Rochester. We’re at a table made from reclaimed wood, which is covered with food and drink. It’s freezing. Everyone’s wearing sweaters, hats, coats, scarves, mittens; I’m in a blue blazer over a T-shirt, jeans, and leather boots. My hair is buzzed into a crew cut, and even though it makes me feel like an ass clown, I’m wearing makeup.

A videodrone hovers near the credenza, 5 feet from my prettified face, streaming this Chat ’n’ Chew live on the Federation Bulletin. Twenty-thousand Members are watching me. Zardoz House is one of the First Five, and me getting invited here is a pretty big deal. The Federation is in a political frenzy. The Voting Period closes next week, and Joan McGee, incumbent Chairperson, an Artist, is probably going to win, but I’m within striking distance—I would be the first Universalist Chair—and I’m not going down without a fight.

A roller suitcase with robotic legs
Doris Liou

My phone stops buzzing, and I sigh with relief. “Over the last six months,” I say, trying not to let my teeth chatter, “I’ve been invited into hundreds of Houses from Rochester to Davis. And whatever so-called faction I talk to, I hear the same story. All of us have been screwed by the World. We wouldn’t have joined a House otherwise, right?”

“Damn right, Viola,” Marlow says.

Marlow is an old friend, the one who invited me to Zardoz. He’s a Universalist, like me, and part of a not-so-secret network of recovering addicts. Our stronghold is the old Opioid Road, the so-called Burned-Over Territory, from Albany, New York, to Columbus, Ohio. We stick together. We give a shit. We participate. We were, after all, there at the founding, helping make the Federation what it is today. McGee and her stuck-up allies are trying to rewrite history, to erase us. That, anyway, is what I want to tell the crowd.

Instead, I say, “Now McGee … ” Someone hisses, and I wave to quiet them down. “Now McGee’s campaign slogan is ‘Let’s Make Some Improvements.’ ” Derisive laughter. “She says she just wants to make the Federation a better place to live. To let Members ‘keep a little extra of what they earn.’ To make the Project Approval Framework ‘a little more rigorous.’ But her ‘little’ proposals, well, they make you wonder, who exactly is the Federation being improved for?”

“For the Artists,” says a man wearing an Activist pin.

“It’s bullshit,” a Universalist adds.

It’s nice to hear ideological rivals agree on their dislike of McGee. I raise my finger, about to make a point, when a blond man in a peacoat interrupts me.

“No it’s not,” he says. He’s an Artist, of course. Not everyone here is a supporter.

“Shut up, Steve,” the Activist says.

Steve doesn’t shut up. “If we didn’t give up all our outside income to the Federation, we could fix the goddamn boiler.”

Marlow rolls his eyes. “We filed a Help Ticket.”

“Seven days ago. Why the hell are we giving them our Basic?”

“If you want to keep your tremendous ‘outside income,’ ” someone suggests, “the door’s right there. Go find—”

“Maybe,” Steve interrupts, “if you didn’t waste—”

“Hey now,” I say, collecting the crowd’s attention. “Steve, I hear what you’re saying.” I look into his eyes and smile warmly, and he’s surprised I’m not arguing with him. “You’re making a serious point. If I hear you right, what you’re saying is, you work hard, and you want the quality of your life to reflect that hard work.” Despite himself, Steve nods; I’ve roped him into my empathy trap. “Your feeling is valid, but we also have to be careful not to bring class divisions from the World back into—”

My phone buzzes again, and a dozen other phones and specs and tablets buzz, and I lose my focus. Members look at their devices. They’ve received an alert, the same one I’ve gotten.

“Damn.” Marlow holds up his phone. “Viola, look … ”

“What is it?” I whisper.

McGee.”

McGee is on the screen, her red hair newly and expensively cut, her freckled cheeks pink. She’s wearing a sleeveless gray dress and red pumps, holding forth to a standing-room-only crowd. There’s something familiar about the footage. My brain can’t sort it out.

“That a recording?”

“It’s happening now.”

“McGee wasn’t scheduled to do a Chat ’n’ Chew today.”

“Viola,” Marlow says. “That’s Pimento House.”

A sneak attack.

I put down my fork. “I … I gotta go.”

“But we’re right in the middle of—”

I stand up, and 30 faces turn to me. Everyone knows. I pull my phone from my blazer. Hundreds of messages jam my inbox. Damn. I’m breathing fast. Am pushing through the dining room, the living room, the mudroom; am putting on my trenchcoat and hat; am out the door.

I’m surrounded by winter dark, my frozen breath visible. Snow has started coming down in a serious way. I walk from Zardoz House down a quiet residential street, a degentrified Rochester, New York, neighborhood. Almost every house other than Zardoz is boarded up, burned, gutted. The street is pockmarked, hasn’t been paved for the better part of a decade. Rusted gas-powered cars, some abandoned, some home for indigent squatters, line the road. I park on the avenue, which is still being maintained by the city. I walk and brood. I feel furious but also guilty.

When it was founded, the Federation wasn’t supposed to have adversarial elections. There weren’t supposed to be factions, but factions quickly formed. Artists want the Federation to be separate from the World, to focus on the individual creative projects of Members. Activists want the Federation to become a platform from which to save the World. We Universalists, meanwhile, want the Federation to eat the World. The way it’s supposed to work, candidates are supposed to get spontaneously drafted by the community. The way it really works is when you make it known you’re running, Members invite you to Chat ’n’ Chews. You visit Houses. You answer questions. You give a campaign speech, though you never call it a campaign speech. Campaigning is what your opponent does. You, you’re just chatting, and maybe someone just happens to broadcast your visit. The Federation pioneered the art of passive-aggressive politicking, but McGee has perfected it. Somehow, she got herself invited to Pimento House—to my house—at the very end of the Voting Period, on the night I was invited to one of the First Five. She’s at my House, right now, and 30,000 people are watching her on the Bulletin, watching her humiliate me, live.

When I get to the avenue, I’m confused for a second. A big robot soup-kitchen truck, operated by some effective altruism distributed autonomous charity, is selling discount meals to the city’s indigents. Hundreds wait in line, clutching their National Basic Income cards. I spot my van across the street. It turns on when I get close, its headlights bright. Its door slides open. My phone says it’ll take two hours to get from Rochester to Ithaca. If I’m lucky, I’ll make it back before McGee is finished.

If I’m lucky, I’ll get the chance to kill that bitch live on the Bulletin.

When I joined the Federation, I was in a bad place. I’d been kicked out of my vocational high school, one of those charter “code boot camps” popular back then, for unruly behavior. For a while, I trained robots to do home reno work, and then a roofer robot splat fell on me. That’s when my drinking and drug use got really out of hand. Six months out of recovery, methadone pump in my arm, LoJack on my ankle, I was at the end of my rope. I’d run out of friends willing to let me couch surf, couldn’t get a job. I had nothing but my Basic.

One day, I got a weird message. Someone from my Narcotics Recovery Group—a woman named Grace Zenebe—invited me to visit her. We weren’t supposed to contact each other outside the Group, but Grace said she wanted “to catch up.” To be honest, I didn’t much like her. The machine learning court had forced me into my NRG after my arrest (long story). Grace had gone into recovery voluntarily. She’d gotten addicted to sleep suppressors during her senior year at Cornell and treated the NRG as a form of personal therapy.

During meetings, she complained about her parents, and she seemed especially interested in telling me about her personal problems. Worst of all, she was part of a weird cult, kept talking about being “a Member of the Federation.” Took me a couple weeks to figure out she wasn’t talking about Star Trek. Still, when her message appeared in my inbox, I accepted her invite. I’d get a meal, I figured, and—though she was annoying, though she was in a cult—she was hot, and I hoped we might hook up. When I arrived, I walked up to her House and opened the door; it was unlocked. When she saw me, she hugged me like we were old friends. Her smile—bright, welcoming—floored me.

Vee,” she said, “It’s so wonderful to see you!”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, definitely.”

Pimento House was big and creaky but also cozy. Fifteen people lived here, Grace explained.
Sitting at the kitchen island, I ate two oversize pieces of vegan lasagna, which her housemate Farhad had made. “He’s an amazing chef,” she said. I felt jealous, even though I had no right to be. I grunted and gulped down a mug of black coffee. Grace sipped mate. Soon, we moved to her room and cozied up on her purple futon. She’d graduated a year ago, but her room still looked like it belonged to a student. Aromatic candles covered tables. Economics textbooks and Russian novels lined DIY concrete-block bookshelves. I almost sat on an Ursula K. Le Guin novel—I think it was The Dispossessed.

We got to talking. Well, she got to talking. Since I last saw her, she had decided to become a writer, and when she told her parents, they freaked out. All the major TV shows and video games were written by A.I. these days; there wasn’t much of a future for human writers. Her parents all but disowned her, but she refused to be cowed. She’d already had a few short stories accepted, showed me a magazine called the Sideways Review, which included her story “A Small Hang-Up.” She had even (she was embarrassed to admit) been accepted into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop but had declined the offer. She said “Iowa Writers’ Workshop” like I was supposed to know what that was.

I asked the question she wanted me to ask: “Why didn’t you go?”

“All the most interesting young writers are part of the Federation.”

“Uh-huh.” I hadn’t read a novel since before code boot camp.

“This generation is going to reinvent American literature. The Federation is changing everything that matters—art, music, philosophy.”

Overcome with excitement, she took out a folder from her backpack, and I sighed. I hadn’t been asked to her room to make out but to be recruited. “You know what a Basic House is, Vee?”

“It’s not a cult?”

She smiled. “Not exactly.” A Basic House, she said, was just a group of people who chose to live together. What had happened was, 10 years ago, a network of friends, using an old social media platform, started a conversation about how they wanted to escape the tyranny of the labor market, how they wanted to work on their own projects full time, and so a few hundred activists and artists banded together, bought five dilapidated houses in a degentrified neighborhood in Rochester. Those five—the First Five—formed the seed of the Basic House Federation. In the years that followed, any group that owned a House could join. You gave your biweekly Basic payment to the Federation, and in return the Federation handled food, housing, and the other necessities, negotiating on behalf of the entire Membership with the outside economy. To be admitted to the Federation, she said, each Member of a House wrote up a personal Five-Year Plan explaining what Meaningful Project they would commit to.

I said, “What if my Five-Year Plan is: ‘Play Zombie Fortress all day’?”

“It would depend. Are you, like, doing an ethnography of gaming communities or something?”

“I’m playing because I like killing zombies with a sawed-off shotgun?”

She laughed. “That proposal might need a little bit of work.”

“OK, what if I’m a professional gamer, and I’m raking in money knocking off newbs?”

“Well, if your Project happens to earn you money, your windfall will be, eh, returned to the Federation common fund.”

“I see,” I said. “So, the Federation isn’t a cult. It’s a scam. I give away my Basic, and I’m supposed to trust some Communist bureaucrat to spend my money for me?” Back then, I didn’t know what communism was, but it sounded disreputable.

Grace playfully hit my arm. “You can think of it as a sort of Communist Costco. If Costco happened to own your house and ran its own world-class health care system. It’s called a monopsony. When there’s only one buyer in a marketplace, that buyer has a lot of—”

“I get the idea,” I said, and Grace seemed embarrassed at her own chattiness.

She said, “Vee—” (our arms touching) “—where’ve you been living the last six months?”

“Here and there.”

“You getting work?”

“I tried … ” Tears came. “I really tried.”

“They garnishing your wages or whatnot?”

“What wages? No one wants to give me a job.”

“And the Basic?”

“You can’t live off the Basic.”

She held my hand and waited till I finished crying. “We have a spot in Pimento House. If you wanted to, I could introduce you to my housemates? Sponsor you? Everyone here is supernice.”

“Why me? I’m just some random nobody from your recovery group.”

“I missed you,” she said.

“What?”

“You just … most people in recovery, when you talk to them, they don’t really hear what you’re saying. You’re different, Vee. You really listen. You, like, empathize.”

I wasn’t the person she imagined me to be. I was just better than others at hiding my feelings. When you’ve got a rage-filled homophobic alcoholic dad and a mom with borderline personality disorder, you become pretty good at reading people and hiding your emotions. But I let Grace be confused about me. I was torn. On the one hand, I wanted to run. Grace was being too nice to me. On the other hand, despite myself, I trusted her. And anyway, joining Pimento House definitely beat starving. So I filled out an application, I said in my Five-Year Plan I could help Houses with repairs and renovations, and I met her Housemates. I’d mooch off these suckers for six months, then get the hell out.

But something strange happened. Six months became a year. A year became five. I filled out a second Five-Year Plan and then a third. I went back to school, paid off my debts, got PT for my bum leg, did repair and reno all across the Burned-Over Territory. And Grace and me, well, we fell in love. Got married. Decided to do an ovum merger. That wasn’t the strangest part. I started believing in the Federation. The World was getting more fucked every day, but the Federation worked. With the national indigent population edging toward 100 million, it was a place you could live. I decided we could only be free inside the Federation, but we couldn’t be truly free until everyone joined. Our wealth came from the World, but one day we would cast aside the Basic and the Federation would stand on its own two feet, producing everything it needed by itself, for itself. The Federation can’t change the World like the Activists think; the Federation has to eat the World. That’s what I decided. And now, I’m pushing 40 and running to be Chairperson, fighting the best I know how to save the Federation from those who would destroy it from within.

Weird, huh?

It takes an hour longer than promised to get back to Ithaca. All that time, I watch McGee. Every time I pick up my phone, she’s holding forth, big grin on her smug face, outlining her plans for her next term. Before dinner, she volunteers, “Members should totally be allowed to keep more outside income and here’s why.” She speaks with a Valley Girl cadence. An hour later, between forkfuls of salad, she slips in, “The Project Approval Framework so totally needs to be made more rigorous. If you, like, just want to sit around all day in your pajamas, you don’t need to do it in a Basic House, am I right?” Laughter. Housemates and Members I don’t recognize surround her. I don’t see Grace, and she isn’t answering my messages. Farhad is at McGee’s side. He must’ve been the one to invite her.

Now, it’s no secret that me and Farhad don’t get along. He runs a five-table restaurant in town that caters to University bigwigs. It even got reviewed in the New York Times. If McGee’s reforms were adopted, his disposable income would shoot up. Still, I never imagined Farhad would betray me this way. During dessert, McGee makes a new suggestion: “And, like, I know it’s controversial to say so, but the Member Removal Process is 100 percent a joke. You can’t be kicked out of the Federation even if you’ve committed a felony, you know?” She eats a spoonful of gelato. “Can’t we make the Federation a safe space?”

Was that a swipe at me? I wasn’t convicted of a felony, just a misdemeanor. I stow my phone, too furious to watch more. When the van lets me off, I’m shaking. My suitcase follows me onto the street on mechanical spider legs. I send the van away to find parking. The lot across the street has become a small tent camp filled with a few dozen indigent squatters. Most used to teach composition at the University before their jobs got automated. Now they spend their days working microgigs on their phones.

I’m home. I study the face of the old Victorian. Its yellow siding is stained, its turret cladded by snow. The wraparound porch is covered in junk. Its frosted windows are lit up, decorated with tinsel and strings of lights, and cheerful voices emerge from within. The first-floor windows look like two stern eyes, challenging me.

Before I can go in, a shadow approaches me. It’s a man, an indigent. I don’t recognize him. He’s short, has a well-trimmed goatee, and his hair is pulled back in a ponytail, He’s wearing a CalTech sweatshirt and gray sweatpants and is holding an ancient MacBook under his arm. I’m about to say I can’t help him when I see that he’s wearing a LoJack around his ankle. My ankle twinges where the weight of one just like it sat for 18 months. Irritation melts into pity, and I pull out my wallet.

A speaker
Doris Liou

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he says, “but I don’t want your money.”

I don’t respond.

He says, “You live in this here House?”

I nod, wary.

“You think … you think I could get in or something?”

“Well, we’re full up. But there’s a list of Houses with openings online and—”

“I applied already, three times. Never even got an interview. The rejection letter was like, ‘There are 5,000 applications for every open spot.’ But I have something unique to contribute, you know? I just thought, maybe, if you live here, maybe you got some inside track or something? Maybe you could look at my application and tell me if I did anything wrong?”

I shove money into his hand, and he doesn’t refuse it. “I’m sorry,” I say.

“I’m a skilled programmer. I can do so much more than training coding algorithms all day.”

“It’s not a decision I can make on my own … ” The man glares at me. I dig out one of my cards from my wallet and hand it to him. “Look, admission is a collective process, but why don’t you send me a message, and when I’m in less of a hurry I’ll see what I can do?”

He doesn’t like this answer, but he takes my card and wades through the gathering snow to join his comrades in the tent camp.

Off balance, I step up the creaky steps, straighten the sign by the door.

WELCOME TO

PIMENTO HOUSE

JOINED 2045

I look squarely at the security camera and wait for the door to unlock. I reach for the knob, and my hand is shaking. But then I see my wedding band on my left hand, and I calm down. Whatever happens in there, I’ll have at least one ally in the House, one person whose unconditional support I can count on.

Members crowd the entrance hallway. They’re grabbing coats and hats, putting on galoshes, summoning cars or getting ready to brave the snow on foot. I recognize a few Members, and when they recognize me, their faces become alternately ashen and curious. I push through the cluster of bodies, going from the entrance hallway to the living room. The place is a fire hazard. Twenty people are sitting on four couches arranged at odd angles. The light is low, and the air smells of pot. Empty wine glasses and beer bottles are everywhere. Over the House speakers, InfiniteIncome is rapping about deindustrialization, and a video from his new album, Eternal Recurrence, is being projected against one of the white walls.

In the kitchen, I find them.

Farhad is wearing augmented reality glasses, directing an army of helpers, coordinating the effort with a piece of software he wrote for his restaurant. His beard and hair are bound with colorful ties. His Mandelbrot-patterned bandana is soaked with sweat. He’s drying dishes and taking sips from an oversize glass of red wine. InfiniteIncome is now rapping about the racial wealth gap from a spherical speaker-robot rolling around the kitchen island.

Everyone is in a great mood. They’re doing dishes by hand. Our dishwasher has been broken for six weeks, and the Federation-run robot factory in Arizona that’s supposed to make us a new one is backed up six months fulfilling orders—a perfect advertisement for McGee’s platform. And McGee is, of course, helping the dish crew, wearing yellow rubber gloves and a Pimento House sweatshirt over her sleek campaign dress. A few videodrones linger, probably picking up b-roll for her next campaign video.

“McGee!” I say, too loud.

She looks startled and almost drops a plate. “Hey, Viola.” she says. “Awesome to see you!” as if we’re best friends.

“What are you doing here?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I was invited here.”

Farhad steps between us. “Viola, back off.”

“Don’t tell me to back off, traitor.”

“How am I a traitor?”

“You invite McGee into my House.”

Your House?” Farhad says. “First of all, it’s an honor for the Chairperson of the Federation to visit any House.”

McGee says, “Really, I’m the one who’s honored. Pimento is one of the oldest and most storied Houses in—”

“And second of all, I was not the one who—”

“You timed this visit to mess with my trip to Rochester,” I say. “To embarrass me. I was invited to one of the First Five, and you found that threatening.”

McGee frowns her cute frown and steps forward so one of the videodrones can get a good view of her. “I don’t know what I said or did to make you so angry, Viola, but you’ve been impugning my character for months.”

“You want to gentrify the Federation. To erase people you think of as undeserving. Your policies are gonna reintroduce all the poisons of the World into our—”

She holds up her gloved hands. “Viola, please believe me when I say I understand your fears. And I recognize that your history as a recovering addict informs the way you’re hearing my proposals, but—”

“My history as a recovering addict?”

“—it’s so important to me that you accept my good faith and—”

“Fucking bitch,” I say, moving in fast.

McGee gasps, raises her hands to defend herself, and we’re grappling over the counter, and water is filling up the sink, and everyone on the dish crew is frozen, and Farhad moves in to pull me away from McGee, but can’t get between us, and McGee is a head shorter than me but man she’s strong, and we move sideways, and the sink overflows, great sheets of water coming down, and I slip on wet linoleum, and I’m on my butt near the compost bin, and McGee’s hair has been pulled out of its hair tie, and her gray dress is slightly ripped, and her green eyes are on fire, ready for round two. I stand up. My ass hurts. I’m ready too. I’ve already blown the election, so I might as well drag her down with me. If she embarrasses herself, maybe the Activists will win.

“Viola!” comes a voice.

Grace is standing at the entrance of the kitchen. She’s wearing clogs, pregnancy sweatpants, a Federation Review of Books T-shirt, Artist pin on her shirt. One of her hands, its nails bright yellow, rubs her huge third-trimester-big belly. Her eyes are puffy, as if she has woken up from an uncomfortable sleep or has been crying. Her presence makes me realize how shamefully I’m acting. Farhad turns off the faucet; he and his helpers start mopping up the spilled water. My mind finally lets me hear what Farhad was trying to tell me.

He wasn’t the one who invited McGee into Pimento House.

He wasn’t the traitor.

We move in silence, Grace half waddling in her clogs. Her feet have been swollen lately. Her back hurts all the time. Our Housemates give us space as we climb to the second floor. Grace is dejected. She has been dejected a lot lately. The past year has sucked for her. Her mother dying from cancer, the lukewarm reception of her second novel, the tribulations of a difficult pregnancy—every week has brought new problems. And I’ve been a less-than-supportive partner, on the road for months. I hoped the baby would solve our problems. Before the campaign season got going, we even toured child-friendly Houses in wine country, away from the tent camps, away from the decimated infrastructure of the stagnating cities. A vineyard near Seneca Falls even extended us an invitation to join. We laughed at the thought of two teetotalers helping to operate a Federation vineyard. But I was wrong. The baby won’t save us. I abandoned her when she needed me, and she lashed out.

We climb a second set of stairs and arrive at the turret office. The turret is Grace’s domain. She’s House Accountant and also does all her writing here. She writes longhand and has boxes full of index cards where she composes elaborate notes. The big metal desk in the middle of the room is covered with her notebooks and printouts. We sit on the purple futon, near the window, moved here from Grace’s old bedroom years ago.

Tears crawl down my face. “I’m so sorry.”

“Look,” she says. “I’m the one who should apologize.”

“I wasn’t … I should have … ”

“I should have told you about Joan.”

“I understand why you didn’t. You wanted to hurt me.”

“No, silly. I would never want to hurt you. It’s just, we ran into each other at a Chat ’n’ Chew at Riot House and—”

“You were at that one?”

“Yeah, and we got to talking and it happened super last-minute, the arrangements. And I told myself you knew.”

“What?”

“We told you Joan was coming last week, and when you didn’t respond I thought it just … I don’t know … ” I check my inbox; it’s true. “I guess I convinced myself you didn’t care. At some level, I knew you missed it, but you were away, and I was afraid to message you again. I’m sorry I hurt you.”

“I do feel hurt,” I say, “but I understand why you did it. I get that you’re mad at me.”

She narrows her eyes. “I’m not mad at you.”

“I’ve been away. I’ve been a bad partner.”

“You’ve been campaigning. Where else would you be?”

“But if you’re not mad at me, why would you invite her?”

“Because I support her.”

“What?”

Grace sighs. “Joan is right. The Federation is falling apart. We need to make changes if we’re going to survive. It’s crazy. We, like, live in the middle of an open-air homeless shelter, while every month Farhad is pulling in thousands of dollars from—”

“Don’t talk to me about Farhad.”

“Forget Farhad, then. I got a job offer.”

“What?”

“I was asked to help train the writing algorithm for the next season of Zombie Fortress.”

“Since when do you care about video games?”

“I would be writing, sort of. Helping make stories.”

Over the past 15 years, Grace wrote two long novels. The first, a philosophical adventure about automation and underemployment, was well reviewed. The second, an experimental novel about climate change refugees, didn’t do nearly as well. The second book would (I tried to reassure her) just “take more time” to find its audience. She’s supposed to be working on a third book, a set of linked stories about the heat death of the universe.

“You’re supposed to be writing your book,” I say.

“My last book was read by, like, 50 people.”

“You said you were going to ‘change American literature.’ ”

“Look, I’m 38, and I’m … I’m tired of feeling responsible for the proclamations of my younger self. I just want to help machine learning algorithms tell stories people enjoy. Fun stories.”

“You want to make video games? OK, you can submit an addendum to your Five-Year Plan. People do it all the time and—”

“That’s not the point, Vee. I turned down the job.”

“You’re not making sense.”

“I was too ashamed to tell anyone about the offer.”

“Why?”

“The job paid well. Really well.”

“And?”

She says, “And I’m sick of these Federation taboos against working in the labor market. Would it be so bad if I make a little money and keep some of it for myself? For us?”

“You don’t sound like yourself.”

“I just … when we were touring Houses, I realized I’ve been living here since I was in college. If I’m going to be living in a Basic House when I’m 60—”

“You want to leave the Federation?”

“Listen to me. I love the Federation. I want to stay in the Federation. But if that’s going to be a viable option, we need to make the Federation better. We need to make improvements, just like Joan says. We’re growing too fast, letting in too many people too quickly and—”

“I can’t believe what you’re saying.”

“Stop interrupting me. I hate when you do that. Look, I get that the World is going to shit—the Stagnation has been hard for everybody—but the Federation isn’t a substitute for the welfare state.”

What welfare state? When they ‘gave’ us the Basic, they took everything else away.”

“What I’m just saying is, we can’t absorb all the World’s addicts, homeless, underemployed, and mentally—”

“You’re the one who brought me into the Federation.”

“Of course I did. I liked you. You were great. Are great.”

“If you had to do it again, would you?”

“What?”

“Would 38-year-old Grace still invite the person I used to be into Pimento House?”

Grace hesitates. “That’s a totally loaded and unfair question.”

“But it’s a question I’m asking you to answer.”

“You’re impossible sometimes, Vee. You came into the Federation during a very different time. You’ve seen the changes, just like me. You’ve met the sort of people I’m talking about. We’re not a federation of halfway houses. We’re—”

“I hear Artists talk about ‘those sorts of people’ all the time, and it’s always code for ‘those unworthy people.’ ”

“You don’t really believe I think that, do you?”

“You’re the one who told me the Federation was a model for a better world.”

“A model for that better world—not the World itself. It doesn’t make sense to just, like, unilaterally make everyone in the World a Member and then say our work is done. The point is to show what’s possible if we work together, helping every Member do the slow, careful, deliberate work of personal transformation and self-improvement. It’s not enough to survive, Vee. We should make something nice in this life.”

“You … you voted against McGee during the last cycle.”

“I changed my mind.”

My Grace wouldn’t change her mind, not that way. She can’t mean what she’s saying. I wipe away my tears. My phone buzzes. I should ignore the alert but can’t help myself. It’s my Election Dashboard. Somehow, in the past half-hour, I’ve pulled ahead of McGee. On the Federation Bulletin, I see what has happened. Both McGee and me, we’ve bled supporters, but McGee has lost more than me, and I’ve gotten unexpected support from Activists and Independents. They like my aggressive defense of the Federation. The Bulletin discussion boards are a bloodbath.

“Look,” I say, showing Grace my phone.

“What?”

“I’m in the lead. I think I might win.”

Grace sighs. “Congratulations?”

“I’ve worked so hard to get here. Is that all you can say?”

“Is this the conversation you want to have right now?”

“What I want to know is, why you don’t believe in me?”

“Look, Vee, you know how much I love you.”

“But you don’t love my success.”

“What are you talking about? I think Joan is right, and you’re wrong. It’s not about you—it’s about your ideas.”

She looks out through the window, across the street, at the tents being buried alive by snow, and her eyes fill with a new wave of tears. Across the street, cooking smoke rises into the night. Protected by a blue tarp, an indigent group—men, women, children, old folks—huddle around the man who approached me outside, watching something together on his MacBook, laughing. I see now what has come between me and Grace. This has been the view from her office, every day, for years, and my dear, sensitive Artist wife can’t handle the visible signs of the World’s long Stagnation.

But I know I can fix what is broken between us. We can’t all face the truth, but it’s my job, the job of people like me, to face the ugliness outside so others don’t have to. We’ll move to a child-friendly House. She’ll have the kid, have a nicer view from her window, finish her book, and in time she’ll come to see things my way again. I’m ready to forgive her, too, for stabbing me in the back, but only if she’ll finally recognize that I’m right.

Sitting on the purple couch, looking into her big, brown, wet eyes, I’m sure she will. Yes, together we’ll enfold this blight into our warm embrace, dispel the World’s despair, build a new World, a better World, one where people can finally care about one another, a World where the Federation will be universal, and all of us—to the last person—will be Members.

Read a response essay by Sebastian Johnson.

Previously in Future Tense Fiction:

Mika Model,” by Paolo Bacigalupi
Mr. Thursday,” by Emily St. John Mandel
The Minnesota Diet,” by Charlie Jane Anders
Mother of Invention,” by Nnedi Okorafor
Domestic Violence,” by Madeline Ashby
No Me Dejas,” by Mark Oshiro
”Safe Surrender,” by Meg Elison
A Brief and Fearful Star,” by Carmen Maria Machado
The Starfish Girl,” by Maureen McHugh
When We Were Patched,” by Deji Bryce Olukotun
Lions and Gazelles,” by Hannu Rajaniemi