Future Tense

“The Wait”

Read a new short story about a future in which a government tracks all of its citizens.

A collagelike illustration depicting: the letter B painted on a brick wall, a flying plane, an info booth and ticket, a hummingbird near a hand holding a watercooler cup, a watercooler near a clock and a stack of cups, and a board showing the number 347.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

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.

Translated by Emma Törzs.

National Institute of Citizen Registration and Geolocation
Ground Floor. Waiting Room B.
10:33 a.m.

When the bell chimes for the next appointment, you raise your eyes from the book you weren’t really reading in the first place. 347. You’re next. You shut the book, a poetry collection you brought intentionally because it lets you open any page and read a few verses before losing the thread and looking back up at the screen. Half an hour you’ve been sitting in this room. More than two since you showed up for your appointment at the Registry. Four since your bus arrived at La Central del Norte. Even adding all this up, it feels like the last half-hour’s lasted longer than the entire trip since you left Morelia.

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You open the book to double-check the numbered slip of paper you’ve been using as a bookmark, then go back to staring at the screen. For the umpteenth time you verify that yes, you’re next. You can’t quit bouncing your legs or opening and closing the book; keeping still feels like an impossible task. Your interface has no signal inside the Registry so there’s no way to distract yourself, and you put away your book and head toward the back of the room where there’s a watercooler. You’ve got a full bottle in your backpack but need something to do with your hands and feet, an action that’ll have a tangible result.

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Should you be worried? This should’ve been a simple process, something you could do online, but ever since you tried the first time, it’s been one obstacle after another. Two weeks went by without word from Víctor before you gave into the worry that had been eating at your mother since he hadn’t reached out on her birthday. At first you were simply annoyed that he’d forgotten; annoyed that despite your reminder, he apparently couldn’t take one minute out of his busy life to call home. But as the days went by and all your calls went first unanswered, then stopped connecting entirely, your mother started insisting that you request his pin location. To appease her, you contacted his best friend in Mexico City, Magdalena Ortiz, a woman you hadn’t spoken to in years, and finally agreed to log in to his Registry page, though you knew Víctor would be annoyed when he found out. The only reason he put you down as an emergency contact in the first place was because you’ve always respected his privacy.

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Theoretically, getting his location should’ve only taken a few minutes: Enter your identification number and your access code. But each time you tried, the system threw another error at you. After numerous attempts to speak to a human being instead of a machine, it turned out that there was nothing to do but come directly to the main Registry office in Mexico City. The only available appointment for the month was this one, Tuesday at 8:45 in the morning, and only because someone canceled at the last minute. With so little notice you could only request one day of vacation time, and even that was a hassle, because everyone in the office thought it was overkill to come all the way here just because someone wasn’t answering their messages. But here you are, to placate your mother. You’ll only be in the city for 15 hours. You’ve already got your return ticket on the last bus—again, the overnight express—to Morelia.

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Thanks to your all-nighter coming in, you made it to the Registry with plenty of time to spare. The manila folder you brought holds both the originals and copies of your appointment confirmation, your ID, Víctor’s ID, Víctor’s birth certificate, and triplicates of the request form duly filled out in blue ink, but you’ve been here for two hours already and still haven’t gotten any answers. In fact, all you have are more questions.

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When you turned in your papers at the first window at 8:30, 15 minutes early, you took it as a sign that the process would be swift and the results would prove once and for all that your mother was simply paranoid, that the whole thing was a misunderstanding you and Víctor would laugh about together in a few months’ time. The young woman behind the counter looked over your documents, typed something on her computer, and frowned. You should have realized then that it wouldn’t be so easy.

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“One moment,” she said, and slipped behind a glass door. You watched her pick up a phone and when she returned, she said she’d had to call her supervisor, el encargado, because the file you were looking for was sealed. Was this where the wait had begun? Or had it started long before you noticed? Maybe by the time you made it to the Registry, you’d already been waiting for weeks and hadn’t known it. You spent 40 minutes in a room very much like the one you were in now, just as cold, with the same uncomfortable orange plastic chairs, watching other people whose cases were actually moving forward.

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At first you entertained yourself by thinking about what you’d say to Víctor the next time you saw him. How could you be so thoughtless, look at the mess you got me into. You weren’t surprised to learn that something was out of order with his file. If he hadn’t been living with Jian these days, they’d have cut off his power a hundred times by now. He could never keep a grip on all of life’s little chores, and you couldn’t trust him to remember any commitments that weren’t directly related to whatever project he was obsessing over at any given moment. He’d been like this since you were kids, since he’d first learned how to use a computer, as if part of his life took place only between lines of code, in a universe no one else could ever enter. Víctor was lucky. Back when he still lived in Morelia, you and your mother had taken care of all his practical matters, and when he moved to Mexico City to study, he’d lived first with an aunt and then with Magdalena and other friends in an apartment near Copilco. And now it was Jian who took care of him. Sitting in that first waiting room, you pictured the two of them on some beach in Nayarit doing a tech-fast without thinking about the worry it might cause your mother, and you got angry with him all over again.

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When el encargado finally appeared, he went back over your papers, produced another form for you to fill out and sign, then scanned it and asked you to sign once more with your pin, so there’d be a digital record. When you passed your wrist across the scanner, the ding of location seemed to echo through the whole room, though you knew only you could hear it. Without offering any details, el encargado gave you a new appointment number and told you to go on to waiting room B. When you asked for an explanation, his reply was vague. They needed authorization to access the sealed file. A matter of routine. Nothing more.

Now you drink from the little paper cone, which is quickly dissolving beneath your fingers, and study the tattoo on your wrist: a hummingbird you got when you were 15 to cover the scar from the pin. These days they’re so small they don’t leave a trace, but in 2022 the technology was still new and left its mark on everyone. Víctor had never covered his up, though it had been trendy to do so when he was in high school. He always blamed you for this. He said he remembered the day you’d gone to the hospital together to get your chips, a few months after pin use had been approved in minors under 10. He’d been 8. You were 4. He described the white walls, the sounds of the machines, the way you’d howled when they’d injected you. “Emilia screamed like they were killing her,” he always said. “And after that, it was my turn. I passed out on the table as soon as I saw the needle, and to this day I can’t cope with them.”

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You’ve heard this story so many times that you could almost swear you remember the cold needle, the viscous liquid, the bruise that formed around the puncture because the nurse had hit a vein. The images aren’t real, but every time they come to you, you have to swallow the feeling that you can’t trust your own memories.

When you got to waiting room B, they gave you a whole new form filled with questions that seemed designed to test you, because they asked for information the Registry already had. When was the last time you saw this person? “Christmas,” you wrote, then immediately started doubting yourself. The normal thing to do would’ve been to check your own log and find the last time you and Víctor were in the same house, but that was impossible with no signal, so you’ve spent the past half-hour going over your answers, convinced you got one of the questions wrong and it’ll delay the whole process even more.

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You return to your seat and reflexively open a window on your interface to check your messages before remembering that you don’t have service. Your last text is still unanswered. It’s a message to Magdalena telling her you made it to Mexico City; the two of you had arranged to meet this afternoon in Víctor’s apartment. In theory you’ve got plenty of time, but it feels like you might spend the rest of your life in this room. You close the interface and force yourself to open your book again. You’ll read for a while, you’ll keep yourself busy, you’ll quit staring at the clock.

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That’s when the chime sounds for the next appointment.

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348, window 3.

National Institute of Citizen Registration and Geolocation
Second Floor. Cubicle 4.
11:45 a.m.

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The heat is a weight at your back. You’ve already tried to open the windows, but they’re sealed shut, and when you cracked the door, an administrator sitting just outside told you that unless you needed the bathroom, the door had to remain closed. So you’re sitting at the only corner of the table that’s out of direct sunlight, your head resting on your jacket. In other circumstances you’d be falling asleep, since you barely got four fitful hours on the bus last night, but you’re jittery with nerves and you know that even if you close your eyes, you won’t be able to rest.

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You check the time again. Scarcely 10 minutes have passed since they left you alone. None of the administrators who’ve been questioning you over this past hour were able to tell you how long you’d be here or how long you’d have to wait this time. In fact, aside from telling you that Víctor’s log is incomplete, that there’s no record at all of the past seven months, no one’s given you any information. They don’t have the clearance to answer your questions.

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Is this an error, or did someone purposefully manipulate your brother’s data? What does it mean? Should you be worried?

Judging from the questions they’ve been asking, you can infer that all this isn’t about an error; probably they think Víctor did it himself, which would be no trivial matter. For the first time, you worry that coming to the Registry today might create problems for your brother in the future. After all, as a Mexican it’s illegal not to have a pin. But if that were the only issue, you’d have expected someone to notice earlier. Every entrance in the city has a sensor, and it would’ve been easy to sound an alarm if your brother’s pin disappeared from one day to the next.

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When you came into this room you heard the little ding that indicates a change in location. Every time you hear it you feel a little shiver under your skin, but when you said as much to Víctor, he told you it wasn’t an actual electrical impulse you were feeling, because in reality the pin’s tracking system updated automatically every half-hour—the sensors in all the buildings were mostly a façade to make people feel in control.

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“Appearance is more important than reality,” he said, and ever since you entered this room, you can’t get those words out of your head.

They ran through your mind over and over while the two men asked you questions as they filled out yet another form. Same questions you’d answered earlier, but this time asked in an accusatory tone, as if it were you who’d erased Víctor’s record. They didn’t ask you only about Víctor, but also about your studies, your work, your friends, your motives. For what reason were you seeking access to the records of Víctor Gutiérrez? What was your relationship to him? Why didn’t you deal with it online? How many times did you try? And when was the last time you saw him, again? At one point you thought you might start crying and when you asked why they needed all this information, when you demanded an answer, they said they were verifying your identity and the veracity of your responses. Standard procedure in these cases, to protect the information of everyone involved. After that, they rose from the table and left you here alone.

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Now you can’t stop thinking about it. When was the last time you saw your brother? Christmas, you’d written and answered repeatedly. You cling to the memory of the week he and Jian spent in Morelia. They’d stayed in a hotel because there wasn’t enough space in the little apartment where you and your mother had moved after your grandmother died and your mother sold the house. You remember precisely the first thing Víctor said when he came in: He didn’t like the new couch. You tried to explain that the old one had been too big and didn’t fit, but he kept complaining about the color, and you told him if he hadn’t helped buy it, he could shut his mouth.

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“If you guys need money, just ask,” he said, and you bit your tongue before you could retort that you weren’t going to ask him for anything, that you earned plenty at the marketing agency, that he should quit bugging you. For years now it seemed like Víctor always had money to spare, but you didn’t say anything more about it because your mother called you into the kitchen, clearly trying to prevent an argument.

For some reason, remembering this now doesn’t bring the same rage. Instead of dwelling on all the tensions of that week, you think of the moments you two spent alone, the knowing glances you exchanged over your mother’s head that conveyed more than words ever could, or that time after Christmas dinner when you found yourselves together in the kitchen, washing dishes. You could hear Jian’s voice in the other room, much deeper than you’d have expected from such a small woman, her accent a mix of all the different places she’d lived, telling your mother about a movie she and Víctor had watched the night before. Taking advantage of the distraction, Víctor confessed to you in a low voice that they’d been talking about marriage, but didn’t want your mother to know just yet.

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“Jian doesn’t want to get a pin, so we can’t get married here,” he said.

This seemed ridiculous to you; Jian had lived in Mexico for more than five years, and if she wanted to stay it was only natural to sign up with the Registry. But when you said this aloud, Víctor raised an eyebrow. He’d grown out his hair and it was longer than you’d ever seen it; it hung over his eyes and he kept having to push it out of his face with his forearm because his hands were covered in soap.

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“If it were up to me, I wouldn’t have a pin, either,” he said. “So I get why she doesn’t want one. And the whole visa thing about having to go to the States every six months makes no sense. It seriously doesn’t bother you to be watched all the time?”

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You told him you didn’t think about it much, that it barely ever crossed your mind. In fact, sometimes it was almost useful. Same thing you’d told him a thousand times, whenever the subject came up.

You think about that one summer you visited him in Mexico City, right after you’d finished high school. You had decided to stay in Morelia for university, but even so, as a graduation gift, your mother bought you a bus ticket to spend two weeks with him. The first thing Víctor said when you walked in the door was that you had to turn your interface off, house rules. Clearly your brother was still playing at being a countercultural revolutionary and had found a group of people just as dramatic and paranoid as he was. Unsurprising, then, that he’d gotten together with a foreigner like Jian, who was always complaining about Mexico’s lack of privacy instead of trying to get used to it.

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When you said all this during that Christmastime conversation, Víctor snorted, and you realized he was restraining himself; instead of launching into a sermon, he switched the subject back to marriage. He told you about all the other options he and Jian were considering.

Packing up their things and disappearing hadn’t been on the list.

During the interrogation, the administrators had asked you various questions about Jian, and until then you hadn’t fully been aware of how little you knew about her. She and Víctor had met at an international festival in the Zócalo where she was working as a volunteer in the Korean section, and right from the start you knew it was serious because Víctor texted you about her that very night. Two months later they’d moved in together. You’d always assumed this was because Jian needed housing and Víctor needed someone to take care of him, but in truth you never asked. That was more than four years ago.

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Jian Kim. There was no trace of her, either. When you tried to call her three days after your mother’s birthday because Víctor still hadn’t answered, you realized you had no way to find her. Her interface was disconnected. Your messages bounced. You didn’t have her email address and since she was self-employed giving private Korean lessons, there was no way to contact her through work, either. At the time these things hadn’t worried you, they’d scarcely registered, but now you keep wondering how it’s possible that she’s been dating your brother for so long and yet you don’t know where she was born or how to get in touch with her parents. When the administrators asked, all you could tell them was that she was from a seaside city in South Korea and that you’d written to the embassy and had yet to receive a reply. You didn’t mention that Jian had left her country at 18 to study in Australia and, as far as you knew, had neither returned to Korea nor ever wanted to return. From your few conversations, you’d gathered that she’d lived in many different countries before coming to Mexico, had learned Spanish in Argentina, and was accustomed to moving without ever putting down roots. Until she’d met Víctor.

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Had she decided to move yet again? Had your brother followed her? It was possible, but why would he leave without warning, without saying anything to anyone? Without even calling your mother on her birthday? When you’d finally gotten in touch with Magdalena a few days ago, you asked her when she’d last seen Víctor and she told you it had been over a month since she’d heard anything from him, though he had a tendency to disappear when he was working on a difficult assignment. You asked if she’d go to his apartment just to be on the safe side, maybe spare you a trip to Mexico City, but the day before yesterday she’d called you back while she was leaving Víctor’s unit to say that there was no sign of him or Jian, and the downstairs neighbor had told her it’d been a few weeks since he’d heard them moving around.

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“I’ve been worried something like this might happen since New Year’s,” she admitted. “But we should wait to talk about this in person.”

You let out an exasperated breath. Your brother and his friends had always been so paranoid.

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“Let me know what day you’re coming to the Registry and we can meet here in the afternoon,” she said. “Do you have keys?”

Now you open the outside pocket of your backpack and slip your hand in to touch the extra set of keys Jian gave you over Christmas. Questions crowd up inside you. You look at the clock again. Twenty minutes. You start to wonder if you should ask for the bathroom, at least to splash some water on your face and get out of this hot room, which is dulling your senses. Before you decide, the door opens behind you.

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“The director will see you now,” el encargado says. You gather your things and follow.

Lincoln Park, Polanco, Miguel Hidalgo
1:50 p.m.

You sit on the first bench you find, rest your elbows on your knees, and take a deep breath. You practically ran out of the Registry, relieved to be released, but trembling. The only thing you know for sure is that there’s no way of knowing where your brother is—and that if they find him during their investigation, it will be to punish him for tampering with his log. You should call your mother and tell her what happened, but you don’t know where to begin, what to say. Should you tell her that there’s been no record of Víctor for the past seven months? That there’s no way to find him or find out if something’s happened to him? That before you left the director’s office to fill out more forms, she told you they were going to open an investigation?

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“To level with you, señorita,” she’d said, “these things happen. There are people who prefer to avoid the system, people who’ll do whatever it takes to get lost. We can look, but our resources are limited, especially when it comes to searching for people who don’t want to be found. In the majority of cases, they show up again on their own. Anyway, here’s my number if anything comes up—anything, OK? Text me whenever, no problem. I promise we’ll let you know as soon as we close the investigation.” When you reached for the card she offered, she used the movement as an opportunity to take your arm, and a chill ran through you. “Above all,” she said, “the best thing a family can do in a case like this is to keep out of it. Let us take care of everything. Alleged data manipulation is a delicate matter. You wouldn’t want to make it worse. Best to let us do our jobs.”

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Breath held, you shook her off to put the card inside your book of poetry before letting her usher you back to the waiting room.

And now? There’s a gentle breeze and the birds are singing all around you. A few steps away, a man is selling chips, gum, water and soft drinks. The anxiety thrumming below your skin and in your stomach feels out of place on such a calm day.

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The vibration of a text distracts you. Magdalena. She says there’s been an issue at work and she has to leave later than planned. Would it be possible to meet up in el Centro? In a second message she sends the address of a café by the Zócalo, followed by How’s 6? You look at your watch. That gives you lots of time. Even if Magdalena can’t come, you need to go to Víctor’s apartment. Until you do, until you see the emptiness for yourself, you’ll keep imagining him there; his disappearance will never feel entirely real.

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You open a map and type in the address. It’s a real trek. To get all the way there and then to el Centro will take quite a while, but it’s the first idea you’ve had that feels like moving forward. You double-check to make sure the house key’s still in your backpack, stand up, and start walking to the metro.

Francisco del Paso Trancoso #134,
Unit 4, Balbuena Garden, Venustiano Carranza
2:30 p.m.

As you fit the key into Víctor’s latch, you think about how you weren’t allowed to lock doors in your grandmother’s house. In fact, not a single room even had a lock. One day when Víctor was 14, you two were alone in the house, your mother and grandmother probably off at the market. The sound of a hammer brought you out of your room. Víctor had bought a lock and, since he didn’t have a drill, was nailing it to the door and wall. The shouts from the ensuing argument reverberated throughout the house that afternoon. You don’t remember anymore how he and your mother went from fighting about the lock to debating the pins—probably when he started arguing his right to privacy.

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Your mother told him he didn’t understand what things had been like before, when she was young and had to share her location with her friends, always telling them where she was going, what she was doing, letting everyone know everything because a girl alone couldn’t be trusted not to end up as another number in the statistics of forced disappearances. Long before the Registry, people had made their own social tracking system to protect one another. Privacy had been a luxury—and a vulnerability—that they’d been willing to sacrifice.

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Back then it didn’t matter what you were against, or what you’d done. It was a question of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No reasons, no explanations, and nobody to protect you. If you didn’t come home one day, only your loved ones would look for you, with posters, texts, videos. Time would pass. If they were lucky, you’d show up in a grave somewhere; or you’d simply vanish, leaving behind no answers. The pin came about as a guarantee of protection, born from the desperation of those same people who’d tried to look out for one another—the same people eager to share their coordinates and create a trail that could be followed so no one would be left unfound.

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“The problem is that they handed over all that power to the government,” said Víctor. “They turned it into a bureaucracy.” This wasn’t the same fight he’d had at 14, it was years later, after he’d developed the skills to debate your mother without ending up in a shouting match. “The problem is that people forget the pin was created as a tool so we could find each other ourselves. We forget this—and now everyone walks around thinking they’re protected. We’re just relying on the government, which has often been the culprit.”

By then our mother would let him go on for a while, quoting statistics and ranting critiques until she ran out of coffee, at which point she’d pat him on the arm and say again, “You don’t know what it was like back then.”

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Standing in the living room of Jian and Víctor’s apartment, surrounded by their things in a place it’s obvious they were inhabiting until quite recently, you can’t help thinking about all these conversations as a single, continuous one. Moving as if propelled by his words, you leave your backpack on the table and go into the kitchen. It smells bad, organic waste rotting in the trash can, and when you open the fridge you find that most of the vegetables are shriveled and blackened. There are Tupperwares of leftovers and a flat, half-finished soft drink. From there your movements become more frenzied. In the bedroom you open the closets and drawers to find them full of folded clothing, you search for the latest utility bills, you convince yourself that the book lying abandoned on the couch is proof that they were only just here, that they had no plans to leave. Finally you get on your knees to move the piece of wood beneath the bathroom cabinet, where you know there’s a little hiding place. You’re startled to find a small box that holds not only both their passports, but 50,000 pesos, cash.

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You stare at the little photo of your brother and feel the urge to weep. This apartment holds no answers, either. You don’t know what you hoped to find here, maybe a note or a clue to his and Jian’s whereabouts, something that would tell you once and for all that they’re on that beach in Nayarit, that they’ll come home someday, but instead there’s only this claustrophobic silence and the smell of food left to rot.

The first time you had the feeling there were things you didn’t know about your brother was that summer you came to visit, on an afternoon when a storm kept him and his friends from going out and you all stayed in the apartment. More than anything else you remember the noise: There were so many people, the rain whipping against the windowpanes, and someone had turned on the television and raised the volume on some cartoons nobody was watching. When somebody offered you a drag of a joint, you tried to catch Víctor’s gaze, but he was talking with Magdalena and paid you no attention. You never told him how surprised you were by his life in the city, so different from the life he’d led with you in your grandmother’s house. While he and his friends talked about all the ways the world needed to change, your memories of that afternoon grew hazy.

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Unlike them, you weren’t used to smoking, and you kept losing track of time or getting the giggles. You ended up lying flat on the floor staring at the ceiling and letting the noise wash over you, listening to them talk without trying to join in, without taking them seriously. Víctor became suddenly animated and launched into a long monologue on the different methods of unplugging, different ways to get around the Registry system. Among all the chatter his voice was comforting in its familiarity. At home he’d often made these kinds of speeches, but the longer he went on, the more this one started sounding different, because all his friends agreed with him. While he spoke, your eyes landed on Magdalena, who was nodding and smiling at everything he said. This wasn’t the first time she’d made you feel self-conscious; a few hours earlier you’d tried imitating the carefree way she smoked and had nearly choked yourself. You haven’t seen her since that summer, and when you think now about the brief conversation you had on the phone, you know that your Víctor is very different from hers, and hers is different in turn from the Víctor who lived here in this apartment with Jian. Suddenly you feel completely out of place. You realize that from the moment you got here, you’ve been waiting for the door to open and for your brother to appear as if nothing had happened.

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Where does waiting settle in the body? Right now you feel it in your stomach, but you fear that over time it will solidify until it’s lodged there, stuck, forever.

Sitting on the floor of Víctor’s bathroom, you activate your interface and open your own page on the Registry app. Carefully you type Víctor’s number into the search bar. You already know there’s no data on his location for the past seven months, so there’s no way his visit over Christmas will show up. Still, you need to see for yourself. Sure enough, when the page finally loads, there’s no indication that the last time you saw each other was five months ago; officially, not a single trace remains of that visit. Looking at the date in the Registry gives you chills: The last time you saw each other officially was over a year ago, April 15. Your mother’s birthday.

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You do a final sweep of his apartment. You still have five hours before you have to be back at la Central del Norte but you can’t stay here, you’d rather go straight to el Centro, killing time on public transportation and wandering aimlessly before you meet up with Magdalena. When you open the door to leave, two things occur to you. The first is that there’s no location sensor on the door; you never heard that familiar ding when you came in. The second is that you didn’t see Víctor’s computer anywhere. In fact, you didn’t come across a single electronic device. From the threshold you turn back to scan the room.

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For the first time, you feel watched.

San Ildefonso 55, Lower Floor, Centro Histórico
6:30 p.m.

When you first met Magdalena, you were convinced she and Víctor were dating, or would end up dating eventually. Not only because of how they acted around each other, but because it seemed impossible that Víctor wouldn’t be into her. Back then, Magdalena—with her ripped jeans and half-bleached black hair—seemed almost like a promise of who you could become in the future. All those years, whenever Víctor talked about her, you remembered her sitting on a stool beside the window, smoking and laughing, backlit by the sun. You’re sure Víctor knew how mesmerized you were by his best friend, but he never teased you about it. He simply invited her along to all your plans the week you visited, and when you told him they’d make a good couple, he laughed in your face and told you to pay more attention.

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Despite how long it’s been, you recognize her the moment you see her sitting on the patio of the café. The crop tops and ripped jeans have been replaced by a business suit and glasses, and her hair’s now completely black, cut to her chin, but the way she lets out a breath of smoke slowly, while she thinks, takes you back to that summer.

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“Are you sure you didn’t see his computer?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Maybe he had it hidden somewhere, though I don’t know why he’d hide his computer in his own house. You know Víctor, he likes having it within reach, and he always leaves it in the last place he used it.”

Magdalena nods, then takes another drag of her cigarette and stubs it out in the ashtray. There are two mugs on the table and a piece of half-eaten corn muffin, the first food you’ve managed to get down all day, though eating didn’t help the headache you can feel building. You suspect it’s a mix of exhaustion from what you’ve been through today and discomfort from shutting off your interface. The first thing Magdalena asked when you sat down was if you had it on, and when you nodded, she made a face before asking you to shut it off. This time, you didn’t think she was being overdramatic.

“Last I saw him was about a month ago,” she says. “I figured he was busy. I don’t know. … I didn’t mind, but I had this weird feeling, you know? And when you reached out, I thought, well, finally something’s happened.”

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“Finally?” you say. Your eyes are fixed on the muffin, as if slicing a bite and eating it demands all of your concentration.

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Magdalena lifts her shoulders. “I thought you knew about the Registry; I thought he would’ve told you, I always thought he told you everything. But I guess he wanted to keep you out of it.”

Instead of taking another bite, you drop your fork beside your plate. Suddenly eating feels impossible.

“It’s been years since he started hacking the Registry, since when we were still in college. Not just his file—lots of people’s. The pay was really good, much better than the other jobs he used to work. Some people want out of the system, some people want in; some want to hide, some want to seek. I’m not surprised he finally crossed a line. But I thought they’d deport Jian before something like this could happen.”

You don’t answer because you don’t know what to say. Another memory hits you, from when you were 15 and Víctor picked you up from a party that had spun out of control. In the car home you started crying and confessed that you’d lied to your mother, who you knew would find out as soon as she went over your log. When Víctor said, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” you assumed he meant he’d talk to her or something, but she never even realized you’d lied. It was a clear hint of that hidden life you’d never known to see, though sometimes it broke the surface. How could it be that you talked to him almost every week and still knew so little about him? Was it your own willful ignorance that had stopped you from acting in time? Should you have done something? Started looking for him sooner? Paid more attention to your mother’s fears?

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The coffee cup slips from your grasp. Your hands are trembling. Magdalena seems to read your mind because she takes your hand, trying to comfort you.

“Hey, hey, breathe. Whatever’s happening isn’t your fault, Emilia. Víctor knew what he was doing, what he was risking. He’s no fool, he knew perfectly well what’s always gone on in this country—what keeps going on, though most people don’t want to see it. Just because the numbers appear to be down doesn’t mean it’s not still happening. All this shit about how no one disappears in Mexico anymore is just that: pure shit. But there are other ways. There are people who’ve never stopped looking, groups that can help us.”

You close your eyes and hear your mother as clearly as if she were sitting at your side. She’s telling you about a country where if someone you loved disappeared, you had to go out and search for them yourself, because no one else would do it for you. A country where you had to put up posters, make phone calls, retrace footsteps, knowing that all of it might lead you down one dead end after another. The calendar and clock would lose meaning because time was given over to the wait, measured only in negatives: the hours with no return, the days without answers, the birthdays you couldn’t celebrate. Every question would end in silence and the only thing left would be the search.

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Magdalena squeezes your hand and the contact is the only thing tying you to this chair, to your body, to reality. You think of the director’s words and the hours you spent in the Registry, about your return bus ticket and how you’re supposed to be back at the office tomorrow, about how you should call your mother, although you don’t know what you’ll say to her, about the fact that you’re carrying your brother’s passport in your backpack without knowing why, about the 50,000 pesos abandoned in his apartment, about the log they showed you in the Registry with a blank space where the last seven months should be.

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Víctor’s voice explodes in your thoughts: The last time you saw him, washing dishes together in the kitchen. You see the foamy suds on his forehead and the blue barrette you’d clipped into his hair to hold back his bangs, which he hadn’t taken off all night, but above all you hear the way he’d sounded when he told you about his plans with Jian. His voice a mix between excited and secretive.

In this moment you know without a doubt that you won’t be going back to Morelia tonight. If someone asked, you wouldn’t be able to say when you do plan to return.

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You need answers, and if you have to spend the rest of your life looking for them, so be it.

Read a response essay by Vivette García-Deister, a science professor who studies efforts to deploy technology to identify the missing.

More From Future Tense Fiction

How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” by Tochi Onyebuchi
The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne
Dream Soft, Dream Big,” by Hal Y. Zhang
The Vastation,” by Paul Theroux
Speaker,” by Simon Brown
The Void,” by Leigh Alexander
The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland
Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter

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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