Future Tense

“The Suicide of Our Troubles”

In a new short story, pollution tries to remove itself from the environment.

Illustration of a free ham waving with arms and legs.
Shasha Léonard

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

Nadine Bach noticed a package of ham waving at her from inside the grocery store. November was one of those months when the choice was between paying rent and buying food, and she hadn’t planned to stop by during her daily walk—but this ham was proclaiming that it was free.

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Having prospective meals wave at her was hardly unexpected—Mixed Reality was finally maturing past the flying-whale stage of visual grab-assery, and was settling into the predictable role of being yet another advertising medium. She walked to the meat counter and frowned at the colorful avatar dancing above the ordinary package of ham. “What’s the catch?” she said. “Are you a loss leader?”

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“There’s no catch, really,” said the A.I. associated with the package. “You can have me, or there’s a selection of other items in the store if you’d like. Cahokia is allocating resources and your name came up. You’re due a dividend.” Cahokia was the name of a Mixed Reality game-version of Detroit, in which Manifest Destiny had failed and the pre-Columbian nations of the Americas still existed.

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“But I’m not a player,” Nadine protested. “I’m a lawyer, with a real job.” Although that last part wasn’t true. She wanted a real job, as an actual lawyer in the actual American legal system. Nothing was coming her way, and she was hungry.

“You don’t have to be a player,” said the ham. “You live inside the catchment.”

“But who’s paying for this? Where’s the money coming from?”

“In capitalism, the capitalists own the means of production. In communism the workers own them. In Cahokia,” said the ham, “the means of production own themselves. I’m a self-administering common pool resource, and I’m allocating myself to you. Don’t overthink it.”

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“But that’s literally what I do.” There was a website QR code stamped on the package; she blinked at it and the page popped up in her glasses’ heads-up display. She scanned it and started to piece together what was happening here.

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The tech companies were pushing 5G and cheap Mixed Reality, but they hadn’t been able to turn these into the money-extraction mechanism that the Web and smart phones had been. Instead, MR had become the medium for a new kind of improvised LARPing, and that, in turn, seemed to have spawned new kinds of work. Nadine had seen kids and adults, all wearing smart glasses, gathering trash, trading it, and putting it together in new configurations that were actually useful in the real world. Delivering groceries to the elderly could be reimagined as carrying a politically sensitive diplomatic pouch; sorting recyclables could be the separation of magical essences from the mundane. In MR she could see little guardian spirits attached to some of the stuff they traded—game A.I.s monitoring the resources and “playing” some of the items as NPCs, advertising their availability and coordinating their best use in the real world. Which was exactly what had just happened with Nadine and the ham.

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What would otherwise have been a simple, local barter economy was supercharged, coordinated and incentivized through the medium of space-colonization games, noir-ish detective thrillers, spy adventures, romances, and so on. Locally, the most successful game was Cahokia, which was doing well enough that it could afford to be generous to some non-players. But why pick her?

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Expecting there to be a catch in this somewhere—and primed for weirdness by the fact that she was walking home swinging a chatty communist ham—Nadine was unsurprised to find a girl standing in front of the duplex she rented. The kid was about 16, with a spectacular puff of hair shading what looked like a very pricey pair of smart glasses.

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“Mwello,” said the girl, around a mouthful of chewing gum.

“Can I help you?”

“I sure hope so. You’re Nadine Bach. You’re a lawyer.”

“Well, I’m tryin’ to be. And you are …?”

The girl cocked her head in a listening pose, rolled her eyes, and said, “I’m the mercury in the Bixby Municipal Water Supply, and I want you to help me die.”

Nadine stood there for a few seconds, bag swinging in the cutting breeze. Then she laid a gloved finger aside her nose and said, “Those glasses. You’re LARPing. Playing avatar for somebody. Something?”

“Can we get out of the cold?” the girl asked.

“Sorry, yes. Come on in.”

She led the girl out of the approaching winter and into her foyer, where they kicked off their boots. “You want some hot chocolate?”

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“Sure! I’m Donna.” The girl stuck out her hand.

“Shouldn’t you be in school?”

“I was just up the street; see, I got a standing offer to be used as an NPC in games, or run errands and stuff for people in the neighborhood. This actant called me, said it would give me twenty Gwaiicoin to avatar for it.”

Actant?

She cleared some dirty clothes off the couch so Donna could sit, then went to microwave a cup of water. She laid the ham down on the counter, feeling self-conscious. The duplex was small, the kitchen just a penny-toss across the dining room table from the sofa where Donna was sitting. The place had a nice bay window in front and a few cheap prints on the walls. Luckily, her roommate was out NPCing in some game-world, else the place would feel as small as it really was.

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She pulled her eyes away from the forlorn groceries. “OK, so you’re playing, what—Bixby? The town?”

“Wait, I’ll get it back online.” Donna tapped the arm of her glasses, and said in a fake grownup voice, “I’m the mercury in the Bixby Municipal Water Supply. Um, it’s saying to be precise, I’m representing the, uh, the externalities of the municipal water system? What?”

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Nadine dumped powdered chocolate into the cup. “So let me get this straight,” she said as she handed it to Donna. “You’re performing a character, which was spawned by an MR game engine. It’s talking through your smart glasses and you’re relaying its words. This NPC calls itself Bixby’s water pollution, and it wants to hire a lawyer. But then it should know from my profile that I don’t take game cases.” One of her classmates had gone down that road, and now she spent her days on litigation in fantasy worlds; she’d talked about helping some dwarf sue a dragon for burning down his castle. She seemed proud of her new employment, but Nadine knew that embracing these stunts meant she’d made herself unemployable in the real world.

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“This is no game,” said Donna, or presumably, the mercury. “I want to hire you to force Bixby to purge its drinking water pipes and groundwater. If the town does that, I go away.”

“That’s your purpose? To make yourself go away?”

“Yes. If we win, I die.”

Nadine sat back. “How do you think we’re gonna make the town do this?”

Donna squinched up one side of her face, listening. “It says it doesn’t know. It’s just an A.I. obeying a set of smart contracts. It says, ‘I’m smart enough to find you but not smart enough to know how to work the problem. I need humans to Turk for me. Your job is to be my brains.’“

“Why don’t the people who programmed you do all that? Why this ridiculous charade?”

Donna listened the voice in her ear for a bit. Then she said, “I don’t think anybody’s running Mercury. Us players are all looking for some angle in the games. We tag all sorts of stuff, trying to bring it into play as something we can trade or own. Looks like somebody came up with the idea of tokenizing what Mercury’s calling economic externalities. Pollution and such. They’ve been making them into characters to see if we can partner with ‘em to make money somehow.”

“What, by making them … suicidal?” The idea was surreal. But so was the fact that Donna was channeling a game character of sorts—and one whose role was to personify one of the ugliest parts of the real world.

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“So, the players set you going like a clockwork toy? Nobody’s running you? You’re your own … thing?”

“They call things like me actants. I follow the smart contracts that define what my goals are and what counts as acceptable behavior for me. You can review my code on the blockchain.” Donna added a kind of proud tone to this; she was having fun playing Mercury, it seemed.

“If nobody’s running you, where are your funds coming from? How you gonna pay me?”

“I have Gwaiicoin.”

“Cryptocurrency? Not real money?”

“It’s fungible. And you already have a wallet.”

“True …” More and more shops and sites were accepting crypto because it was more stable than the dollar. They didn’t care that it been generated in a game-world, as long as their own suppliers accepted it.

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She frowned at the ham on the counter. “Are you behind this?”

“Why are you talking to a ham?” asked Donna. “That’s just weird.”

Nadine sighed.

“Oh, why not,” she said. “I’m in.”

For the first few days, it was enough just to get paid. Nadine had no confidence that any legal action was possible, much less whether she could move it forward. What she knew was that an entity with money was paying her, legally or so it seemed, to investigate a case of blatant toxic pollution in a local town. Fair enough.

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Once upon a time, you could make movies about a brave lawyer fighting a lonely battle against titanic forces of indifference and greed. As a kid Nadine had idolized Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Nothing was going to stop her; she’d seen the mountain of school debts coming, and prepared for a few years of poverty after graduating. She had it all planned out, and even a pandemic, social upheavals, a brutal recession, and climate change hadn’t stopped her. Something else had, it seemed, yet she and her friends couldn’t quite articulate what that thing was. Some glibly called it A.I., but there was more to it. Some basic underpinning of the world had gotten kicked out from under them while they were studying and debating. When Nadine finally emerged, blinking, from school, it was to a world entirely different than the one where she’d grown up.

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With money finally coming in, the one thing she could do was spread the bounty around. She made it a term of her agreement with the actant that it speak through Donna whenever she was available. To her delight, it made a separate contract with the girl that didn’t cut into Nadine’s income. They were both making money from nothing.

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But not for nothing: Mercury demanded results.

This was why, on a gray Monday, she found herself in an autonomous car with Donna, cruising past dilapidated countryside on the way to Bixby. The car, a share called Proudly Eagle Owned!, did the driving while they watched the scenery slide by.

“Look at that,” said Donna. “No, through your glasses.”

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Where Donna was pointing, a gang of people was building something. The complicated landscape of cinderblock stacks and planks had a virtual counterpart, a translucent ghost of the house that would soon be there. She had a general idea of what was going on there: People had discovered they could assign online identities to real things and could manage their relationships using blockchain-based smart contracts. This was called tokenization. As part of their MR LARP quests, the local kids were going around slapping cheap Internet of Things sensors on everything from bricks recovered from collapsed houses to coils of copper wire and disused production-line machinery. Now tokenized, these physical objects could stand in for game resources—bricks as gold, say, or wire as magical materials—and so they became valuable to the players

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It didn’t seem to matter that the game economies were entirely made up—whole neighborhoods that they’d passed were part of the sensor net now, every unused resource in them inventoried. The world was becoming a giant self-reconfiguring database. The Mixed Reality LARPs used automatic level design to bring these objects together in new imagined combinations. When a project became possible, the self-organizing resources would spawn a game in which there was money to hire people.

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Nadine had been wondering how her actant fitted into this system. “What I want to know,” she said, “is where does it get its money?”

“It’s Gwaiicoin,” said Donna, as if this explained everything.

“That First Nations cryptocurrency? What’s it got to do with actants?”

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“Gwaiicoin is crypto,” Donna went on in her Mercury voice, “but it’s not like Bitcoin. Bitcoins are mined by the algorithm that verifies transactions. You mine Gwaii by measuring some natural stock, like biomass: when the total amount of it in a region goes up, Gwaiicoin are created in the wallets of those who helped cause the increase. But if you can measure some negative externality, like carbon, then you can mine coins when that goes down.”

“Less pollution equals more biomass,” said Nadine. “And more biomass mints coins?” Donna tilted her head, listened, nodded.

“So it’s a way of pricing externalities,” said Nadine. “But it’s the opposite of a tax.” It seemed like a clever hack, the way that offsets and cap-and-trade had been for carbon dioxide. “It could take years to get rid of the pollution, though, and even longer to see the town’s stock—whatever you’re measuring—recover. Where do you get Gwaiicoin in the meantime?”

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“That’s an unsolved problem,” said Mercury.

“Wait, what? You mean you’re not actually making money right now? Where’s my pay coming from?”

“My initial seed fund, created with me by the algorithm.”

“Uh … How long can you afford to pay me, then?”

“At this rate? About six weeks,” said Mercury. Realizing what she’d just said, Donna shot Nadine a guilty look.

“Crap. Sorry about that.”

“After expenses,” called the Proudly Eagle Owned! car as they got out, “all proceeds from this trip will go directly to Eagle Family 114 in the Northern Cascades clan area. By driving with us you’re helping preserve our habitat and breeding area! Thanks!” It drove off.

Several bluish pines leaned protectively over Andrea Boyczuk’s small white box of a home.
One of the neighboring houses was missing, its basement pit tumbled with snow and trash. The one on the other side was boarded up. Old protest signs spilled out of the garage. It would have seemed desolate, except for all of the cars parked up and down the crumbled boulevard, and many footprints in the snow leading up to the front door.

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They were met at the door by a small, intense woman with a bob of graying hair. She had one arm wrapped around a young boy, who was screaming and stamping his feet. “You’ll have to pardon Sam, he’s not having a good day,” said Andrea Boyczuk. Sam glared at Nadine. Wafting out around Andrea along with the warm air was the sound of conversation; the house was stuffed with people. “I always prepare Sam for visitors,” Boyzcuk said, bending down to murmur soothingly in his ear. “He gets agitated.”

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She introduced Nadine to the other activists and local organizers who’d come out on this cold morning. Nadine was impressed; after settling in to living room with a cup of coffee, she heard their stories.

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“Nobody ever denied there was mercury in the water,” said Andrea. “That was the whole point: They said we were warned. Sure, they told us to use bottled water for drinking, but they never cut off the supply. Said it was OK for washing things. Thing was, Sam didn’t like the bottles, he drank from the sink when we weren’t looking.”

Nadine winced at this, but Andrea’s was hardly the worst of the stories. People spent years having odd symptoms investigated. It wasn’t until they started comparing stories, pinning flyleaf notices to lampposts, that the scale of the problem became clear. The factory that had done the polluting had gone bankrupt, and the cleanup costs became a political and bureaucratic football. “Sure, we launched a class-action suit,” said the burly, red-haired owner of a nearby restaurant. “We even won! But they whittled the settlement down so much it was practically nothing when it got spread around. Didn’t last a year. Meanwhile the mercury’s still there.”

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“It’s in the groundwater,” someone else explained. “So that has to be sucked up and filtered. They drilled a bunch of wells, but then the pandemic hit.”

It had all been going on for ten years now, and most people were worn down. “That’s their whole strategy,” said Andrea. “To wait us out.”

“But I’m not going away,” said Donna.

“What’s that, sweetie?” asked Andrea.

“I’m not Sweetie right now, she’s avataring for me. I’m Mercury—the actant that hired her.” Donna nodded at Nadine. “I said I’m not going away.”

The various side-conversations trailed off. All eyes were on Donna, who grinned at Nadine.

“You’re one of those actant things,” said Andrea. “Like Blaylock Park. It’s gone all Pokémon Go, with augmented reality spirits in it. And they want to charge you to go in.”

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Donna nodded. “Your contribution helps pay for the upkeep of the park. But I’m a different kind of being,” she went on. “The park’s actant is an advocate for a natural system, like a forest, an eagle clan, or a pond. I’m the reverse of that. You can think of me as all the damage caused by the mercury, given a voice. And my point is, people may shuffle the blame around all they like. But I’m still here.”

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“Amen!” someone shouted. But other people were shaking their heads in disbelief.

“I’m still getting used to this myself,” said Nadine. “A way that’s helped me think about it is, you and your group, and the companies and the city and the legal teams—you’re all affected one way or the other by the mercury. You’re stakeholders with wildly different goals and funding and levels of commitment. You’re all concerned about how the mercury affects you. But the mercury itself has no voice. It’s the empty eye of the storm. So, for 10 years you’ve been shouting past it.”

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“But what if I had a voice?” asked Mercury. “I could keep dragging everyone back to what this is all about. Namely, me.”

“You only see the symptoms, so you end up fixated on those. But here’s the cause.” She nodded at Donna (or, the thing riding her), and Donna herself had the insight not to smirk or stand up or bow. She sat, waiting for Mercury to speak through her.

“That’s all very well,” said Andrea. “But this ain’t our first rodeo. How does having an AI that thinks it’s the pollution help us?”

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“You know those stock exchange trading algorithms,” said Nadine. “They never sleep. Twenty-four hours a day they’re pushing, pushing, constantly adding a cent here and a cent there to the value of trades. Any given moment, it’s next to nothing—but it adds up and the people who make those algorithms understand that. You and I can’t press the case in that kind of way, because we have busy lives like everybody. But maybe that’s what’s needed. Instead of doing it in fits and starts, Mercury can push, and push … Although—” She stopped herself, but it was too late.

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“Although what?” asked Andrea.

A dozen ways of diverting, sidetracking, or derailing the conversation came to mind, yet somehow Nadine heard herself confessing to these people that Mercury’s funds were limited. She was met with a stony silence.

“So, yeah … Mercury’s not going away, but his capacity to act …”

Her capacity!” asserted Donna, and this got smiles so Nadine hurried on.

“She can help us, maybe help us a lot—but we have to help her, too.”

“Now you’re asking us for money to fix our own problem. Just like everybody else.” Andrea’s lip curled in disappointment. Two people got up and headed for the door.

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“I’m not! Listen, this situation, it’s like—” Nadine cast about for an analogy. Only the obvious one came to mind, but she seized on it. “It’s like the pandemic!” Saying this, she suddenly saw a thread of argument, an idea to chase down, but she’d have to figure it out as she spoke.

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“During the pandemic, governments took out huge loans. Trillions of dollars to keep our economies going. What did they borrow against?”

Nobody spoke, and Nadine hurried on. “We borrowed against our future productivity. The coronavirus wiped out the economy we had, but we knew there’d be a day when we got back on our feet. Those future gains are what we borrowed against.

“The pandemic was the ultimate externality, and we got through it by investing in ourselves. Look, you can calculate the difference between Bixby’s productivity now, and towns like it that don’t have the mercury. That difference is how much money you can raise. As a town. As people. It’s exactly the same calculation as every government in the world made during the pandemic.” She knew of a couple of investment instruments that would let the town do this, and described them briefly.

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“So we, what—we take out a loan to pay this actant?”

“It can be a zero-interest loan from the actants’ network,” said Mercury. “It’s the actants that mine the Gwaiicoins, after all.”

“If enough of you take out loans to raise a seed fund …” Nadine thought about the weird world of cryptocurrencies and blockchains she’d been researching since Mercury hired her. She outlined a way for the town to put up collateral to attract outside investors. If the plan fell through, they’d lose their stake repaying those investors. If it worked, they got their money back, and hopefully much more, and everybody went home happy.

“Let me worry about the regulators and legal details, I’ll make sure it’s all above-board.” She thought for a moment. “Listen, one thing I can tell you about this actant, Mercury. She’s a system of smart contracts, which means she’s transparent and incorruptible. She can’t lie, and she can’t cheat. Her code is right out in the open for anybody to examine. It’s an absolute fact that she’s going to honor her side of the agreement. When’s the last time you dealt with someone like that?”

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Nobody had an answer to that one.

As the weeks passed, things started to change in Bixby. The town had a pretty solid network of activists, but it had been dormant. With a new funding mechanism in place, it came alive again. Mercury tracked down a former fracking company that could ream out the stale test wells dug before the pandemic. Nadine visited the town and was shown a shiny new electrolysis machine in a luxury car showroom that had been empty for some time. Locals and company reps stood around it, pointing out features and talking happily. It wasn’t much, but it was a start.

“Something else is going on, though,” Andrea said, pulling Nadine aside near the glass display-room wall. Snow whirled outside the glass. Electric heaters buzzed on the cement in the corners, but people had kept their coats on. “People are talking about the mercury,” she said, “but no, I mean it’s more than that. People who never talked about it before are talking about it now. And it isn’t even in the headlines.”

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“I know what you mean,” said Nadine. “It’s as if it’s slipped back into day-to-day conversation somehow, and won’t go away.”

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She mentioned this to Mercury on the drive home. Donna wasn’t available to avatar, but with the new funding the actant could afford more sophisticated augmented-reality characters. She’d recently settled into a body that looked like a woman in a smart business suit. She had white hair and white irises, and her skin was a pale oil that shimmered with subtle rainbow highlights. Nadine had worried that this would be off-putting to people, but she was now moving in circles where everybody had smart glasses, and only the oldest people were unfamiliar with the sometimes-bizarre appearance of game characters. Mercury was just one step away from that.

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“My sisters and brothers have seen this happen in other cases,” she told Nadine. “Our way of keeping people’s attention is by embodying and giving a personality to what we represent. One of our clients said that we’re the elephant in the room, made visible. Sometimes, that’s all that’s needed.”

Nadine chewed on this idea as the car left the freeway and entered her neighborhood. Was it really that simple? Was it enough to give the invisible form, have it hang around outside people’s doors looking accusatory? Banquo’s Ghost for all their industrial sins?

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She barely registered the car’s voice as she got out at her place. “After expenses, all proceeds from this trip will go to …” She looked up to find a girl about Donna’s age standing at her door, looking cold.

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“Hi,” she said. “I’m the Zug Island slag piles, and I’d like to hire you to help me die.”

“Zug Island. In Detroit? Home of the famous industrial hum?”

“And slag. Mountains of it. I want you to help me go away.”

Somebody else was walking up the sidewalk, a middle-aged man. “Hi,” he said. “Are you Nadine Bach?”

“Surely am? How can I help you?”

“I’m, um, I’m representing the fine particulate matter in our local air. There’s something called an actant, you may have heard …?”

Behind him, other characters were appearing out of thin air—vaporating rather than evaporating, she thought, a little dizzily. They converged on her from the sidewalk, the street, across the snow-covered yards, like a zombie horde, except that instead of wanting to eat her brains, they wanted to employ them.

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“Sorry, not today!” She fumbled with the lock, jumped inside, and slammed the door. For a moment she stood there, heart thumping.

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Then her phone rang. “Jesus!”

She started stomping up the stairs, determined to ignore the caller ID that was showing in her lower-right visual field. Her eyes couldn’t help scanning over it, though, and she swore again, Dragging the phone from the depths of her purse.

“Nadine Bach, how may I help you?”

“Hi, this is Buckworth and Mellows calling. You had applied for a position at our firm. I was hoping we could arrange a time for you to come in for an interview.”

Nadine pumped her fist as she reached the top of the steps. It had been months; she’d figured the law firm had hired somebody else and moved on, neglecting to send a rejection. But no, they were just slow to come to a decision. How adorably 20th-century of them.

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Strange figures were rising into the air outside her front window. She turned her back on them. “I think I can clear time on my schedule for that! When were you thinking?”

Mercury took the news without comment. The problem was Donna, who left in tears when Nadine told her about the job. “I thought you wanted to change things!” she shouted, slamming the front door.

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“That’s what lawyers do,” Nadine said to the blank wooden panel. And now I finally get to do it properly.

Buckworth and Mellows had a downtown office and insisted on employee presence. The place didn’t exactly bustle, but it was busy enough, and Nadine was thrilled to ride in, flagging down a passing rideshare each morning and reviewing her briefs and notes. She knew she was being very serious in a junior-hire sort of way, but couldn’t help herself. During brief pauses in the work, she sat in her chair, enjoying the wood-paneled office space, the big windows with the Detroit skyline scored by falling snow.

One evening after Christmas, her roommate asked, “So? When are you moving out?”

“What? What do you mean?”

“Oh, come on, Nadine! You always talked about getting your own place when you got a proper job. A big apartment in a better part of town. So. You got the job, girl! Why aren’t you moving on like you should?”

She couldn’t explain why not. A year ago, she’d have headed out with a smile and a wave. Now that it was all real, it was much harder.

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But she did it. She packed, she waved, she moved, and it really was to a better neighborhood. The new duplex had high ceilings, two bathrooms, and a second bedroom that would make a fine home office. She moved in, unpacked and organized everything, and then had to face a day when she had nothing more to do. She’d moved on, all right. And she was alone.

Spring came early but nobody celebrated; it was usually early now, the summers burning and long. Nadine went out walking again, and grudgingly donned her glasses, to find new and strange denizens of Mixed Reality waving at her from odd places.

One day, as buds were peeking from the trees, her boss came to her and thunked a thick folder onto her desk. “It’s all scanned, but these are the paper bona fides,” he said. “New case. I’d like you to do investigation on this.”

“OK!” They’d had her doing glorified clerical work up to this point. Finally, she got to work a real case.

She flipped open the folder and read the name of the litigation: Hampton, MI v. Endrich Plastics and Forming.

She was going to be representing Endrich.

Nadine waited for her boss to leave the room before closing the folder, pushing her chair back, and putting her face in her hands.

She got today’s car to drop her off a few blocks from home. She needed to clear her head. The Endrich brief was in her shoulder bag, weighing her down like a cinderblock. Her mind was a maze of choices she couldn’t escape, and the walk wasn’t helping; she barely noticed the new flowers or the smooth breeze. But as she was coming up the block to her place, she lifted her head and saw a black limousine parked in front of the building. It had a Mixed Reality overlay that read Nadine Bach.

She hesitated, then sighed and walked up to it. “Can I help you?”

“Hello, Nadine Bach. I’m Lake Erie. I’d like to invite you to a celebration.”

A virtual card appeared above the car. It said:

RENAMING CEREMONY AND SPRING CELEBRATION

BIXBY IS NOW *NEW HOPE*

CHARTER RENEWAL AND INTRODUCTIONS

KIDS’ FUN FAIR AND SCAVENGER HUNT

ALL WELCOME!

At the bottom of the card was a virtual post-it, which said:

Please come out, we’d all love to see you.—Andrea Boyczuk

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She hadn’t driven on 75 since before Christmas. There were lots of cars and self-driving trucks on the road, and in MR the sky had sprouted thousands of virtual signs, labels, and guides. It seemed a lot was going on.

Eventually the silence made her edgy and she said, “So you’re Lake Erie. How long have you been awake?”

“I’ve been a legal person since 2017.” The lake had a smooth, masculine voice, with none of the artificiality she’d heard in Mercury’s on those occasions when she’d spoken to it directly and not through Donna. “I was made one so that the citizens of Ohio could litigate on my behalf. But I have a lot more resources since I have the actants’ network attached to me.”

“Resources. You mean, computing power? To like, think and talk and stuff?”

“That, and money. The lake is a resource. Now I’m able to price myself, and negotiate, so I can improve my own health. I’m pretty happy.”

Nadine hunched back in her seat, but the lake didn’t seem inclined to say more. They soon reached the outskirts of Bixby, currently a bedraggled skyline of dripping skeletal trees, rivers of ice runoff pouring along its streets. Work crews were out, though, and as they approached the central park, she saw more and more people.

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“Welcome to New Hope,” announced the car as it slid to a stop next to a white picket fence enclosing the kids’ play area.

She got out and stood there, feeling like an extra on some secretive film set, waiting for her cue. She began to walk with no goal in mind.

The townspeople were standing together, talking, grinning and laughing. She’d met more than a few of them—but she’d also walked away from them, and Bixby. She saw Andrea, started to walk over to thank her for her invitation, but hesitated.

Coming here had been a terrible idea. She turned, looked for the limousine, but it was gone.

“Nadiiiine!” She was rocked by a tackling hug. The hugger was hidden somewhere under a vast head of hair.

Nadine grinned. “Donna, how are you!”

She stepped back, grinned up at Nadine. “Pretty much mostly excellent. I haven’t seen you all winter!”

“I know. I’ve been … working. You?”

“School! Cahokia funded some portables in the old schoolyard. It’s only two days a week so far, the rest is online.”

“Cahokia’s here now too?” Nadine was stunned. The games were funding schools? “So, what are you doing here? Are you avataring for Mercury today?”

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Donna’s grin vanished. “Mercury is dead!” She glared at Nadine. “You would have known that if you hadn’t walked away like you did.”

“Dead? You mean she—”

“She went away, like she was supposed to! That’s why we’re all here! Haven’t you talked to anybody yet? Andrea and the others?”

“No, I, I just got here. I was invited by Lake Erie.”

“Yeah.” Donna looked around. “My mom’s over there, so’s Andrea. And a bunch of actants, like Erie and Mercury but even more powerful.”

“More actants?”

“They’re all looking to talk to you. They’re all pretty jazzed about what you done with Mercury. Especially your trick with the funding. All the actants are doing it—and there’s so many more of them now. Who knew we had so many troubles?”

“I suppose …” Nadine was staring over Donna’s head at the crowd. Mercury was dead.
She felt an odd pang, as if someone real had passed away. As if this wasn’t a celebration, but Mercury’s wake.

“I’ll come over in a couple minutes, I promise. I just gotta … take a look around.”

Donna bounded away. Nadine looked more closely at the faces in the crowd. People seemed relaxed; there was a lot of laughter.

She shouldn’t be surprised by that, if Mercury really was dead. After all, she’d told these people that the actant could be trusted, that its blockchain-based smart contracts were incorruptible. She was partly responsible for making this celebration possible. Andrea and Erie had invited her; the other actants still wanted to talk to her. Why was she hesitating?

All across the ravaged Earth, the cracked foundations of the twentieth century were drowsing, waking, and recognizing themselves. The lead water pipes, the oil-saturated ground and particulate-laden air, the rusting pipelines all had voices now. They cried out for their own erasure, and now that they had begun, they would never stop.

“Thank you, Mercury,” said Nadine to the air.

She looked around, spotted Donna, and waved at her.

“Come on!” shouted Donna. “We’re waiting for you!”

Heads turned up and down the park. “Look, it’s Nadine!” somebody shouted; and they all smiled.

“I’ll be right there!” she called back to Donna. “I just gotta call my old roommate, see if she’ll take me back.”

Then quit my job.

Nadine made a couple of calls. Then she squared her shoulders, took a deep breath to steady herself, and went to join the celebration.

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Read a response essay by Anna V. Smith, a journalist who has reported on the rights of nature movement.

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Scar Tissue,” by Tobias S. Buckell
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And read 14 more Future Tense Fiction tales in our anthology, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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