Future Tense

“Yellow”

A new short story about navigating ever-quantifiable risk.

A couple hugs each other in a dimly lit room. On a table next to them, a phone lies face-up and lets out a yellowish-green light, which illuminates them.
Illustration by 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.

By the time Tara returned from the protest, SafeT gauged her Wellness at 60% and Chase felt sick. For the last two hours he’d watched the number on his phone’s app tick down, from safe green to warning yellow: 87%, 74%, 60%. On his newsfeed, masked chanters waved signs before the wire cage shielding the five megapipes that breached the marshy shore of Lake Michigan. Each pipe was owned by a consortium of Lakes United companies. Their great steel veins wormed the city, bearing water from LU to the drought-scarred West and South, whose nations paid more per acre-foot than Milwaukee’s citizens ever could.

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On the feed Chase hadn’t been able to see Tara or the sign she’d painted that morning: Our Lake, Our Water. What he had seen were the security corps of at least three consortia, clumped beneath their ever-circling camera-drones, bull-horning the chanters that they were risking corporate slander. If arrested, they’d be hauled off to one of the consortia’s private prisons. There they could be coerced into confessing they were linebreakers, guerillas who spliced pipes to siphon off clean water to Milwaukee neighborhoods that couldn’t afford consortia prices. Protestors sometimes returned from these prisons. Linebreakers never did.

don’t worry, they’re not arresting today, Tara had texted. there’s too much real press, not just the consortia drones.

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Fingers numb, Chase had tapped SafeT to view the breakdown of Tara’s Wellness aggregate into its individual components: risk of arrest (15%), risk of indictment (20%), risk of job loss (27%), risk of injury (31%).

seriously. don’t worry.

He worried. Even when she had texted home in 30 and he’d cleared her route in the SafeT map—low smoke risk, low contagion risk, 93% chance of safe arrival—his jaw only eased when she stepped through the door. Tara’s thin face was ferocious, cheeks red against her yellow hair. Black grease spotted her strong hands. Over the decade they’d shared, he’d watched age sharpen her into herself. Now, impassioned, she was fiercely beautiful. He almost forgot her yellow number, until she saw him, and her smile sagged.

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“Oh love,” she said wearily. “I was fine.” Tugging him away from his monitor, she glanced at his phone before hooking him in a hug. She held her hands out to avoid smearing him with gunk. “It pegged my Wellness at 60%? Liars. I was never close.”

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Tara believed the conspiracy theory that the consortia monitored SafeT, juking it to deter protests by making participating in them seem more dangerous. Chase always felt mildly accused by the theory, since the consortium that included his employer owned SafeT and its affiliated risk assessment tech. But he did not want to fight about it again. “Was there a sootfall?” he asked, touching her greasy hands.

“Oh. Um, yeah. It wasn’t dangerous.” In the mid-’20s, the West’s drought, unstaunched even by pumped Michigan water, had leapt the plains to Wisconsin. The Northwoods had been burning for a decade now. “I was fine. Everything was fine. Please trust me.”

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Chase hid his face in her neck and tried to be reasonable. Tara was an engineer for Milwaukee Hydro, which processed the water sucked out by the big-five pipes before sending it west. Its consortium, Community Union, owned the smallest pipe and was constantly fending off attempts by the other four to bribe or shame it out of business. As the only co-op among the big five, CU couldn’t afford a security force or prison, so had to tolerate its employees’ occasional slander. As long as Tara did nothing crazy—the hardcore stuff, like linebreaking or sabotage—she was safe.

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Besides, SafeT wasn’t infallible. It only digested the info you fed it, as Chase did every day for work. Tara never fed it anything, so of course it couldn’t take her precautions into account.

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“I’m just glad you’re safe,” he said.

He felt her hug tighten, then relax as she understood he wouldn’t press her. Her voice went bright and determined.

“I was checking the weather on the way home. You know Orion will be visible tonight? I want to see it. While you’re at work this afternoon, I’ll bus up to Whitefish Beach to scout a good spot. Then tonight we’ll head out. We can make a picnic of it! Wait—” she began as he raised his phone reflexively and tapped. Locations, unlike people, had simple risk calculations. Whitefish Beach: risk of contagion (13%), risk of smog (33%), risk of unrest (67%). The assessment flashed yellow: overall safety, 75%.

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He felt her shoulders tense. Guilt soured his throat. Did she think he wouldn’t check? Or maybe she had already checked, and had hoped his relief at her return would make 75% seem reasonable. Once they had been what the kids on the dating apps called a 70/80 couple: safe but not-too-safe, hitchhiking to the edge of Nebraska’s heat-zone for a glimpse of the Milky Way, pawning their health credits to afford a telescope. Lately Chase was only comfortable when his Wellness topped 90%. Tara had not assessed her own in two years, which was longer than the last time they’d seen the stars.

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“But Whitefish Beach is near a pipe junction,” he said. “SafeT says high unrest. Is there a different protest going on there? If there’s something you haven’t told me—”

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“It’s not even close to where they—we were this afternoon. Check, if you like.” Her voice was tired, and a little sad. “I thought you’d want to see Orion.”

“I do. But couldn’t we try tomorrow?”

“This is the first day the smoke has lifted in two years.”

He watched her watch him, her face strained. Before he could answer, she added quickly, “That’s exactly why I’m going this afternoon, to ensure it’s safe. You can even follow me on SafeT. If the beach dips below 75%, tell me and I’ll come back. And if it stays there, we can go tonight. Is that OK?”

Chase breathed slow, trying to exhale his way to reason. Over the past five years, Tara had learned that inviting him to anything below 80% overall safety, whether protest or adventure, was futile. She no longer cajoled him or leaned on their love as an excuse. In response, he’d agreed not to stifle her with worry. She was trying. He could try, too.

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He leaned forward to kiss her dry cheek. At the very least he could prove he wasn’t paranoid. If he wasn’t the same man she’d married, well, no one was the same after 10 years. The world wasn’t the same.

“OK,” he said.

He met her eyes, saw the wince before her answering smile. “Thanks,” she said.

He watched her kneel to shove an extra sweater into a backpack. Outside, the bleached sun of late winter beat feebly on the city. Above their single window’s clean square of glass, the sky was filmy blue. Tara was right: It was clearer than he’d seen it in years. Some freak Canadian wind must have scythed down to slice through the smoke from a continent of fires. On the salt-grey streets below, people sipped air over their masks, as if they trusted its cold purity to scatter that year’s flu (a bad one: 5% hospitalization rate, 0.2% death rate, 83% overall safety).

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Tara stood, stuffing her hair into a toque. Her smile brightened the little pricks of red on her chapped cheeks. He felt as he always had with her: an interior being, a cave dweller, marched briskly into the light.

The clench in his chest unwound suddenly into a flood, and he caught her in a hug as she was turning to leave. He clung, gritting his teeth as he did when he could not find words to match the strength of his feelings.

“Love you,” he whispered, and bit back, be safe.

When she was gone, Chase spun back to his monitor. He had 10 minutes before work started. His pulse beat in his jaw, and his eyes would not focus. How soon could he reasonably text Tara to check in? What if she didn’t respond?

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He couldn’t advise clients in this state. To calm himself, he swiped his feed to the mindless gameshow Would You? In the popular import from North Atlantic, contestants were asked to choose between a set of contextless risk percentages, each representing an unknown task. The higher the risk, the more money they got for completing the task on camera. Chase enjoyed watching the great reveal, when contestants learned exactly what they’d signed up for. It helped put his own fears into perspective.

Today, a tired-eyed man was grimacing as he waited to discover what lay behind the 30% overall safety he’d chosen. Rick was a home nurse for a wealthy family in New Dixie. He wanted his daughter to attend college abroad—code for Pacifica or North Atlantic or Canada. Rick had not let the network show pictures of her during his introduction, which was code too. Chase watched the wet ring of sweat around his lips.

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The music blared. The screen scrolled: 30%: Drink a Cup of Runoff! On the close-up, Rick’s jaw was stone. The host held out a glass; behind him flashed a grey pic of the Bronx estuary, waves frothed with yellow foam. The man nodded, and took it.

Chase’s monitor dinged. Shaking his head, he closed Would You? and opened his work screen. At least he and Tara were not that desperate.

He brought up that day’s client. She was a mother with stage-three cervical cancer. Radiotherapy had a success rate of 60%, but there was an 80% chance it would bankrupt her family—a 98% chance if she had to leave work, which meant losing insurance. Chemo was slightly less effective as a treatment (50% success), but cheaper (65% chance of bankruptcy). Chase’s job was to contextualize these numbers, offer comparisons, make recommendations. He drew a deep breath. The mother was brave. She tried not to break down on calls. But his was not a service you turned to if you still had other options.

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Chase didn’t like the work, but it was secure. His employer, Medestimate, was the biggest shareholder in Health Solutions, the consortium that owned the largest of Milwaukee’s five pipes, along with SafeT. For the last six years it had been targeting Community Union, trying even harder than its competitors to buy out CU’s water rights. When Tara had gotten her job with CU, he’d joked, “Guess you’re married to the enemy now.” She hadn’t laughed.

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On the side of his screen, Medestimate’s program continued blinking through his client’s assessment. Its risk calculator was one of the originals from which SafeT had been developed, before SafeT grew so popular Health Solutions had spun off a separate corporation to manage it. Chase had used some version of SafeT for years longer than most people he knew.

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He didn’t like to think about how it had changed him. Was it visible on his face? When he clicked through photo albums from a decade ago, he did not look freer to himself, except insofar as everyone young looked free. The year he and Tara had married, they’d pooled money from their shitty office jobs and rented a lakeside cabin on Rose Island, at the tip of Wisconsin’s sharp-nailed thumb. That summer, an alewife die-off had coated the beach in putrid surf. Fumes washed their windows. They had to wear masks, even inside. But the stars had been magnificent.

Here, a midnight selfie from the trip: in the camera’s white flash, Tara’s purple buzzcut and wide, wry grin; his sheepish moue at his wormy mustache. Behind and above, the Summer Triangle blazed. They’d both tugged down their masks for the shot. He’d worried most about the mustache.

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Once he had been better about worrying. In the old days, when the world still seemed fixable, he had even tried to change things. When the country had split six ways and the fascists taken the South, he and Tara had marched in Chicago. When their new nation, Lakes United, had privatized everything from schools to septic, they’d worked long hours organizing Milwaukee’s neighborhoods into co-ops. When LU’s biggest corporations had formed consortia with their own laws, police, and prisons, they’d joined the monthlong sit-in on the Magnificent Mile. They had tried so hard.

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But the citizens who’d moved to LU from the other disunited nations embraced its identity as a corporate haven with a bare-bones government. The ones who didn’t mostly couldn’t afford to leave. And those who stayed to fight had little leverage. The consortia that ran LU were just too powerful. They possessed what no other former U.S. nation did: vast reserves of fresh water.

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Chase still cared—of course he did. But nothing he or Tara did seemed to matter, and the world had only gotten worse.

He knew this objectively, because SafeT let him track it. The app was the latest and most successful in a line of risk-assessors that were first popular in the ’30s. Developed by health insurers like Medestimate, they initially offered a list of specific risks: death by a hundred common accidents, injury by a thousand more. As the assessors expanded to other industries—banking, education, agriculture—their variables grew more complex. Everything was a risk; every risk could be quantified, with increasingly greater accuracy by better-informed assessors. Plugged into your thermostat, they beeped if you used too much gas. At work, they estimated before your boss did whether you were worth keeping. If Chase and Tara had had a car, the assessors would have graded their driving. They were compatible with everything.

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A few years after the assessors had expanded from insurance to everywhere, personal risk-aggregators appeared. These distilled hundreds of variables down to your Wellness: a single convenient percentage, as SafeT’s ads put it. Most people used SafeT now, even outside Lakes United. It was, after water, LU’s top export.

As SafeT’s influence had grown, Chase had learned that as a white, middle-class guy who worked from home, his Wellness rarely fell below 80%. He was not proud of the number. As his job had taught him, you could live for years as a 99-percenter, and still the freak crash, the fire, the illness, or any other accident could slice your life in half, until you sat on a fuzzy call swallowing tears before your children, wondering what you could sell to afford survival. Your number wouldn’t protect you. Still, as the years passed, he’d found he was most comfortable when his own remained above 90%.

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Tara was convinced that the consortia had bought their way into SafeT, using it to track users’ phones and inflate locations’ risk ratings as scare tactics. “Why waste money catching linebreakers when you can just frighten them off?” she’d asked. Chase found this far-fetched. But he couldn’t disprove it. At least they mostly didn’t fight about it anymore.

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The screen blinked before him: his client, calling. He realized his heart was thudding, sluggish kicks in a chest that felt thin as paper.

He tapped his phone. Whitefish Beach was 80% now, nearly safe enough, even for him. His pulse eased. how is it?

cold, Tara replied, and sent a picture. The lake’s grey palm balanced a sky of frosty glass. Strangely, there was no trace of the beach itself, or Tara: just air and water. but clear.

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great, he said.

perfect for stars.

great.

xoxo.

He breathed. He flipped on his calm, then his screen. The dying mother stretched her wan, brave smile.

Tara did not text again for four hours.

After the first hour, he sent her an old cat meme, pretending it was new. When she hadn’t read it after a half-hour, he texted her a joke. She didn’t see it either. Maybe her phone had died. Its battery was shot and susceptible to cold, and the company that ran the buses had lowered the heat to prevent people sleeping in them.

He tried not to think of Tara’s friend, a sewage specialist who’d been convicted by Health Solutions for synthesizing a low-cost water purifier and distributing it to the tent towns clumped in the shelter of Milwaukee’s old harbor. Copyright infringement, the consortium had called it, and there was no court to say otherwise. Tara had not seen her for two years.

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On SafeT, Whitefish Beach’s yellow number had blinked up to 85%. He would not panic.

Maybe he really was paranoid. If Tara’s theory were true, the beach must be safe, because if any consortia were targeting it, they would have made it seem more dangerous. 85% overall safety was unlikely to stave off protestors, and certainly wouldn’t dissuade linebreakers. Indeed, it was basically an invitation.

Chase’s neck prickled. He’d never thought of it this way before. Theoretically, consortia could tweak SafeT in the other direction. The illusion of security could be a deadly snare. If the prey was confident their hunters’ goal was to scare them off…

The air in his lungs knotted, sinking to a hard ball in his stomach. What if—

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No, no, he was just being paranoid. Tara’s logic held. If Health Solutions wanted to protect its pipes, scaring linebreakers away was much more efficient than luring them in.

To distract himself, he turned back to his case files. His next client was a woman fighting her insurer to cover surgery; she wanted to take it to court. There was a 55% chance she’d lose. Tara’s face kept intruding before his screen. He saw her eye, burst in a crunched socket; her mouth red; her arms clutching her knees as she rocked in bed and refused to tell him where she’d been. The last time it had happened, the time she promised she’d be safer, she had not touched him for six months.

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hey could you text me back? sorry, but i haven’t heard from you and I’m worried.

When she didn’t answer, he rummaged for her burner phone, to see if the protest group she ran with had mentioned any bad soot drafts or flash quarantines. But the phone was gone. Of course, that meant nothing; Tara usually took it with her these days. Scanning the closed chat groups to which he still had access for whitefish beach yielded little: only a few weather reports about rain and sootfall, and an oddly detailed map of pipe junctions. When he disaggregated the risk factors for the beach, not much had changed: risk of contagion (13%), risk of smog (33%), and an even lower risk of unrest than that morning (40%). The beach’s overall safety number still blinked yellow, an ambiguous warning.

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He thought of Orion, waiting below the horizon, and of Tara’s upturned face in the starlight.

please answer when you get this.

tara?

tara?

When the door finally opened two hours later, she must have seen it on his face, because she didn’t even unlace her shoes. Sliding her bag to the floor, she knelt by his chair to hug him, again bending back greasy hands. “My phone died.”

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Waves of heat flushed him. “Glad you’re OK,” he managed.

“Are you OK?”

He hunched in her arms and didn’t answer. The ice of fear in his chest was melting into giddy anger—unfair, he knew. Still, she could have just stayed home.

The apartment’s air was pinking. Outside, the blue sky had faded to a thin honey. Just above the corner of a condo blinked a pale dot: Venus, rising. Holding her face neutral, Tara stood and shucked her sweater. Chase watched her, telling himself there was no point, she was home and safe and that’s what mattered.

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Then, as she walked towards the kitchen, she stumbled on the little pack she’d brought with her that day, which she’d had for years and had accompanied her everywhere: their first date, their honeymoon, and every protest. It did not move as her foot hit it, but resounded with a thick metallic clump. She froze at the sound. Straightening, she turned to look at Chase, her face guilty, caught out, as if expecting accusation. He didn’t know what she thought he was charging her with. So, he only said, “You didn’t have to go.”

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“I came back safe.”

“But you might not have.”

“Did SafeT tell you that? How much have you been checking it today?” Her voice was nervous, with a touch of irritation.

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Heat filled his face. What could he say: I thought up an even stupider conspiracy than yours, and even though I can’t prove it’s true, I’m still afraid it will kill you? Shame swept over him. Below it, ice spidered back up his throat. “It’s not worth it, Tara. They’re just stars.”

“Did SafeT tell you that too?”

They looked at each other. Her face was pained and weary, his stiff as a locked jaw. It was an old pose. If they held it another minute, the incipient fight would sink like water into the ground.

They held. The crisis passed.

“Just stars,” she said. “Right.” She looked down, away from him. “I need to eat something.”

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She shuffled out to the kitchen. On her way, she pressed a tired kiss to his forehead.

He remained behind in the evening’s falling shadow, his face lit with his phone’s blue-white glare. They had not yelled, at least.

When she returned, her hands were clean and she was holding her winter coat.

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Very calmly, she said, “I’m still going tonight. You don’t have to come with me. But I’m going.”

His heart sank. “You’re leaving already? You just got back.”

“I want to get a good spot.”

“Tara.” He flipped open SafeT. Whitefish Beach: 90% overall safety, its number now a cheery green. It should have reassured him, but his own theory beat in his throat. “Could I ask you not to?” And then, hating the self-pity that drove him to it, “For me?”

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He could hear her breath quicken, though her voice remained calm. “Your app says it’s fine.
What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s just—a bad feeling.”

“Isn’t the whole point of your risk assessors to take feelings out of it?” She smiled painfully. “You can’t be afraid of everything, Chase. If you are, then they’ve already won.”

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Chase looked down. Silence hung between them. In his palm, the green number blinked. Nothing was ever certain, Tara told him sometimes, nothing ever 100% safe. Maybe it was true: SafeT had ruined him. But now that he had it, he couldn’t not use it. What kind of a partner would he be if Tara died running a risk she could have avoided? Though he was not much of a partner anyway, these days.

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Before him, on his work monitor, shone the woman with the 55% chance.

A tinny ring buzzed his headset: She was calling. He switched on his video. In the background he heard Tara filling a thermos with coffee, clanking around in the backpack. She sounded as if she was preparing for work, not stargazing. But he did not turn. Face bland, he told his client her options, and comforted her when she started to cry. He heard the front door open, hesitate, then click slowly shut.

Like a coward, he did not look up.

After the call ended, he watched sunset go velvet in the window. When the light was navy, he opened his phone’s Sky app and held it to the glass. The screen showed what constellations hung behind the light. Slowly he swept it across the horizon: Polaris, Rigel, Betelgeuse, Orion’s red fist. Orion, Chase remembered, was hired by the king of Chios to save his people from wild beasts terrorizing their island. In response, Orion swore to kill every beast on Earth. It was just safer that way.

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It was not until she’d been gone an hour that he realized Tara had not stopped to charge her phone.

hey, he texted.

hey, she replied immediately, and he knew.

He couldn’t tell where she was, so he should not have risked calling. He remembered, too late, what the combination of his text and her tools jangling in her backpack might reveal to any watching consortium drone. Protestors returned from the prisons; linebreakers never did. But a white reckless heat, fear or anger, was filling his throat. He thought of her greasy hands, her guilty wince. He’d already texted: Any consortium would know where she was, if it wanted to. He dialed.

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“Chase?” Her voice was worried. “What’s wrong? Are you OK?”

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“I thought your phone was dead.”

She went silent. It lasted so long he worried she would hang up, but was also reassured that if she didn’t, she would not make excuses.

“No,” she said at last. “I’m sorry, Chase.”

“You’re a—” He cut himself off, in case the call was monitored. Paranoid, he was so paranoid. “How long?”

“Not that long. A few months.”

“Fuck, Tara. Why didn’t you tell me?”

He could hear the pain catch in her voice. “I wanted to tell you. I wanted to show you, tonight. But you wouldn’t come.”

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“So that was a test?”

“I didn’t want it to be. I thought—I really thought you’d want to see the stars.”

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He felt himself sinking into his chair. The heat spread through him, carving him hollow. So this was how it began; this was what the fracture felt like. He saw Tara’s wind-chapped face turning away from him, her eyes dark with the scornful pity no love could survive. It did not matter how long she’d been linebreaking. That she had never told him she was considering it meant she no longer trusted him—not only to stand beside her, but even to keep her secrets.

A dull pain arched up his back. He felt like a raging monster, blinded by its own rank fear, swinging his arms while Tara strode bravely away from him, toward life.

“Can you at least tell me where you really are? Are there many of you? Is it safe?”

Through the phone, a broad roar of wind drew the scene for him: Tara on blue sand before black waves, torching a hole in a pipe’s steel flank as the winter constellations flared overhead. Her team knelt around her, real partners, brave ones.

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“It is near Whitefish. I didn’t lie about that. And yeah, it’s a big job. As for safety—well, you should check your app for that.” He heard the barb in her voice, and could almost see her flinch after. “I’m sorry. Now I have go. Please don’t call again.”

“Love you,” he whispered, before she hung up.

love you, she texted back. And then, a second later: orion really is beautiful.

He sat staring at his phone for a few minutes. Then he opened SafeT.

95%, blinked Whitefish Beach: perfectly green, impossibly safe. He clicked the disaggregator for risk of unrest: 10%, the lowest he’d ever seen it. An acid surge of fear rose in his throat. He swallowed it, and it burned in his stomach beside the fury. He could not tell if he was angrier at Tara or himself.

Outside his window, night was striding over the city. Though Chase could not see him behind the buildings, he knew that somewhere the Hunter was raising his spear.

Tara was smart, he reminded himself, smart and skilled and quick. She was not reckless, like some linebreakers. She would do her job quietly and get out. The consortia didn’t know where she was, and were likely too distracted with the protests up at the big-five pipes to be monitoring Whitefish Beach. She would be fine.

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His mouth was dry. He needed a distraction.

He switched his feed to the North Atlantic channel. A new Love Gamblers was out—one of those catch-the-cheater shows, not Chase’s favorite, but it would do. Most hook-up apps now included risk assessments. After rigging these, the show followed cheaters as they tried to romance their own aggrieved spouses under a false photo and promise of a 95% discreet encounter. Sometimes the cheaters were too smart to take the bait. “No one’s 95% discreet,” one savvy woman scoffed. More often, though, they leapt eagerly into the trap.

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Today’s guy was doomed, Chase saw immediately. He watched the man’s stubbly, oversized face peer at his phone. “95%!” He watched him meet his own wife at the restaurant. He watched the reveal, the explosion. He watched the post-mortem interviews with the guy’s friends and boss, who shook her head and said solemnly, “I just don’t know. We’re a family company.” Chase recalled that it was often bosses who initiated these set-ups, as pretext for firing troublesome employees or shaming them into quitting. The employee’s marriage was secondary, beside the point.

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In the painful hollow of the day’s memories, something echoed.

He thought of the consortia drones circling on his newsfeed. Tara was right that Health Solutions would never use inflated SafeT ratings to lure linebreakers to its pipes, just to turn around and throw them in prison. Why bother when it was easier to deflate the ratings and scare them off? The prisons were a scare tactic too. Chase had never really thought about it—it frightened him too much—but most consortia likely saw linebreakers as more of a nuisance than a threat.

Linebreakers were irritating, but a consortium’s real enemy was its competition.

Cold filled his stomach. Tara worked for Community United; many linebreakers probably did, feeling protected by the consortium’s comparative lenience. But it would be very embarrassing for CU if their employees were caught breaking another consortium’s pipe. If the exposé were big enough, CU might find itself in what the financial pundits called an untenable position. What happened to the linebreakers was beside the point.

And Health Solutions owned SafeT.

The cold reached up to close his throat. A big job, Tara had said. Could he have tipped them off? How many times had he checked Whitefish Beach’s safety rating today? How many times had he checked Tara’s Wellness?

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But no, no, he was being paranoid. He worked for Health Solutions. Surely everything was fine. He would prove it to himself.

He switched on his work monitor back on. A yellow alert was flickering across Medestimate’s version of SafeT, informing him he might need to handle several emergency cases tomorrow. Heart skipping, he clicked through for more information. A list of injuries appeared beside their approximate likelihood: risk of tear-gas exposure, 89%; risk of rubber bullet contusion, 65%; risk of hypothermia, 54%. Milder injuries followed. At the bottom of the list, comically, risk of sand burns, 13%. Below the list a note informed him that only 15% of the possible injured would have insurance. CU employees didn’t, as a rule.

Then something red flashed on his screen: a new box, instructing him to report any of the above injuries up the line, directly to Health Solutions headquarters.

Panic roared through him, deafening as the wind from the lake at night, and as unstoppable. His throat filled with shame—of himself, of his theory, of this world he helped keep spinning that backed you into impossible choices and blamed you for fearing them. He would sound like a coward, or a traitor. But it didn’t matter. He had already lost Tara’s respect.

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please listen. I checked safet for the beach and it’s at 95%, but my medical app is telling me to prepare for riot injuries. i think the rating is a trap. they made it look safe so they’d catch you and embarrass CU into giving up their water rights. they don’t care what happens to you. PLEASE get out of there

Fingers numb, he pressed send and waited.

She did not respond.

tara? please tell me you got this. they know. they’re waiting for you, i swear i’m not crazy

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tara, please

His empty screen blinked. She was angry, but she would never ignore him. She must have turned off her phone again.

He glanced at his watch: She’d only been gone an hour and a half. If he left now, he might be able to warn her in time. Then again, he might not. Then again, she might stay, even if he warned her. Unlike Chase, she refused to let them win.

He looked up. In the window, the city’s violet-orange night shrouded the buildings like thick felt. Above, at sky’s apex, navy had become pitch. Snared between skyscrapers, Venus blinked like a tawny eye. He thought of their little cabin in Door County, the stars icy above the lake’s oily miasma. He had seen clearly then, despite the smoke. The world had thickened since.

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95%, blinked the green number.

Somewhere in that violet dark, a Health Solutions corporate SWAT team was probably racing north toward Whitefish Beach, armed with PR spinners, lawyers, drones, and guns. He would be lying if he said he was only afraid for Tara. In every family he’d ever counselled, his clients had accepted their own deaths. They worried only for their children, spouses, friends. He could never be so selfless. Life was dangerous, and getting worse all the time. How could he ignore that?

He thought of his doughy younger self in Tara’s photos, whom he’d despised at the time, but who had blubber to spare. He felt skinless now. It was too late. He was too old, too scared. What did she expect him to do?

100%, blinked the app, green as earth. You could kill every beast in the world, and still it would never be safe.

Rising, he shuffled to the coat rack behind the couch. Pulling on his jacket, he edged through the door. His hand held his phone in his pocket. On the concrete balcony leading to the stairwell, the night air was sharp with cold. It was cleaner than he’d smelt in years, only a slight tang of smoke, funk of lake.

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He wondered what Tara could smell, where she knelt grafting a life-giving branch to the pipe’s thick trunk. Above the buildings, the tall darkness gulfed like a well. Craning his neck north, he squinted, trying to catch Health Solutions’ drones taking position above the beach, preparing themselves for the final coup over CU. But the vast black returned nothing. Higher up, stars glistened.

He looked up at them, faint promises of light, then down the stairwell, black and waiting; then up again. He could stare forever.

Read a response essay by an expert on health economics and predictive analytics.

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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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