Credit: TONYC

In memory of r/milliondollarextreme

Kindle reading is comfier. Get the e-book on Amazon (also a blurb here).

I.

Caleb held the round blue tablet between his thumb and forefinger, rolling it back and forth deliberately and gazing through numb eyes at the letters PM engraved in its chalky surface. The thought of not taking it was both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.

The front door slid open, shunting him out of his trance, and he jolted up at the sight of Tiffany in the doorway. It was already four in the afternoon, and Caleb was gripped by a familiar shame at how he’d spent his day. Schizophrenic flitting from one thing to the next, in and out of VRD, playing video games, scrolling down the infinite list of Type™ posts, sulking, his brain growing more scattered as the minutes and hours slipped away.

Tiffany sat beside him on the couch and kissed his cheek. “Hey,” she said, “are you going to take that or just look at it?” Her breath, which smelled of processed sugar, brushed against Caleb’s face, and he smiled at her.

“Hey, yeah” he said, reaching for the glass on the coffee table and throwing the tablet to the back of his throat. The water flushed the medication down his tubes. Tiffany switched into VRD and Caleb watched her mouth fall ajar and her eyes go blank as they lit up a soft blue. Even in this undignified state her authentic beauty went some way to rescuing her. Her long, glossy brown hair and rose-colored cheeks made Caleb feel hideous by comparison. His thinning hair had receded into a pitiful wispy tip on his pale forehead and deep blue-grey circles drooped beneath his eyes.

Seeing how pathetic VRD made another person look, however, was sometimes enough for him to think twice about switching in himself. On this occasion he studied the living room for something else to occupy his attention while Tiffany caught up on her feeds. His mind, as it often did, went to the mysterious ingenuity of the higher humanity that cocooned him. The unit’s opaque sheen — its ultra-smooth white walls, its furnishings with perfect round edges, its impossibly-slick devices betraying not a clue of their inner workings — hid the ghosts of a million technological breakthroughs within. After some time, he looked back at Tiffany.

“Tiff, Tiff.” She heard him but didn’t respond. “Tiff,” he said, louder. She switched out of VRD and raised an eyebrow at him in mock irritation. “How was your day?” Caleb asked.

“Good,” she said, exhaling. “Except that kid Mo who’s been acting out. He snatched a toy from one of the girls today and manically oppressed at her.” She paused with regret in her eyes. “You know, it must be hard for him, because his dad is Security, so he sees how a guy can behave without the medication. It’s probably really confusing.”

“His dad follows the same laws as the rest of us. Why would him being an Alpha affect the kid?”

“It does, I’ve seen enough to know that. Even when a guy is the most law-abiding saint in the underground, that testosterone usually still emanates from them. It definitely influences their kids, subconsciously or something.” Tiffany’s eyes had been possessed by an animal lust she hardly bothered to hide. Caleb sometimes wondered if she fantasized about being with an Alpha, but he suspected she found the idea too unsuited to the life of idle, unquestioned comfort she craved. “How about you, how was your day?” she asked, massaging his hand with sympathetic fingers.

“Same old, I don’t know where the time goes.” He trailed off and looked towards the kitchen. “You hungry?”

“Starving.” Tiffany lifted her head and raised her voice. “Speak, grab me mac and cheese and banana soymilk.” The shimmering silver robot lying dormant on the kitchen floor sprang to life, its electromechanical arms and legs unfolding out of a cube shape into a full humanoid form. “Coming right up,” the bot’s chipper female voice responded as it moonwalked across the linoleum floor. It leaned into the food storage container, pulled out a plastic tray labelled MACARONI & CHEESE from the heated meals draw, then turned to the right, bent down, and reached for one of the bottles marked BANANA-FLAVORED SOYMILK in the cold drinks draw. It swiveled, lifelike, and placed them on the coffee table by Tiffany. She tore apart the cellophane lid, pulled out the clear plastic fork and sunk it into the soft pasta, which was glued together by luminescent yellow-orange cheese.

“I’ll have the same, please,” Caleb said.

“Coming right up.” The bot went back to food storage and collected Caleb’s meal while Tiffany took a protracted gulp of creamy yellow liquid.

“What will they do with that kid, Mo?” Caleb asked through a mouthful of sticky macaroni.

“He’s only six. Usually they just stick to the curriculum, keep teaching them about positive masculinity, and they get ironed out. If that doesn’t work after a few more years they’ll test him at a higher dosage. One way or another.”

Talk of ‘the curriculum’ and ‘positive masculinity’ gave Caleb flashbacks to the subtle horror of School™ and made his chest shudder. “But he could still turn out to be an Alpha, right? I mean, his dad is.”

“I don’t think that has much of a bearing. Usually the aggressive boys who have to be given special attention or up-dosed early on don’t end up becoming Alpha material, because it takes too much out of them.” Caleb thought back to when he’d been tested for Alpha suitability, a mere formality, and cringed. They ate the rest of their early dinner in silence and Tiffany ordered the bot to throw the empty packaging down the incineration tube. She stretched her legs out across the couch and rested them on Caleb’s lap. “Oh man, I’m so tired,” she said, yawning, and escaped back into VRD.

Caleb stared into the black nothingness, too awake for nodding off to be a realistic possibility. Tiffany lay noiselessly beside him, snug in the bed’s silky covers. He switched into VRD and radiant multicolor exploded into his field of view. A news headline popped up in the top right-hand corner of the display, “Major patch to AI speech sensor networks rolled out”. He tapped ‘Read more’.

“July 14, 2080 — A major patch has been installed on the AI speech sensor networks in all underground cities across the Corporate Coalition of North America. The patch includes updates for the detection of 62 humorous, aggressive and lustful male speech patterns. Tap here to see a full list of the additions. The Coalition remains fully committed to the improvement and maintenance of all AI speech sensor networks, now in their fourteenth year of operation. The speech sensors continue to aid the Coalition in its mission to make the underground cities as safe, tolerant and equal as possible for all citizens. The Coalition appreciates the ongoing support of citizens of all genders who believe in building an inclusive and welcoming society.”

Caleb switched out of VRD and watched the floating colors in front of him fade until he was returned to pitch darkness. The news story made him think back to when the sensors had first gone live in Under-Toronto, when he was thirteen. Back then they were little more than a joke, tricking their rudimentary algorithms almost like a game. No one could have imagined what they’d become, even if they were outraged by the precedents being set by the Coalition. But the AI quietly got smarter, then even smarter. It eventually got so smart most men gave up trying to trick it and instead began to fear it. Some even went as far as welcoming the law that made the hyper-addictive Posimasc™ mandatory for underground men in 2070, preferring that to the idea of gritting their teeth and biting their tongues for another clear-headed day under the pitiless ear of the sensors. The Coalition had, quite literally, had the last laugh.

Caleb, however, for the first time in the ten years he’d been taking it, could see a faint light at the end of the medication’s dark tunnel. Why, he had no idea, but he couldn’t deny it was there, and the feeling he’d sooner or later have to make a decision one way or the other was growing stronger. He turned to face Tiffany and wrapped his arm around her lightly, feeling the warmth radiating from her plump, smooth flesh. She twitched, agitated, and elbowed him away. He twisted to face the other way, curled up in the sheets, and closed his eyes.

II.

“That is the finest filet mignon you will ever taste, I guarantee it.” Taverick leaned forward, fastened his hands and watched White chew on the juicy, undercooked beef. White nodded in his direction with a glance of aloof approval.

“The marbling is exquisite,” Taverick continued. He looked down past his large crooked nose at his own steak with a smug satisfaction. “Amazing, isn’t it? Optimally cultured for maximum tenderness and minimal cooking loss. What a time to be alive.”

White swallowed and kept nodding with a semi-vacant glaze. He was barely paying attention, instead consumed by deeper-than-usual concerns about that night’s show. Eventually he snapped back into the room and met Taverick’s calculating green eyes. “Would you have her on again?” he asked.

“I believe I would,” Taverick said after a brief hesitation. “She’s hugely popular with the thirteen to thirty-five female demographic.” He looked at White with a hint of suspicion. “Did you enjoy the interview? Adorable, isn’t she?”

White sipped his red wine, cut another piece of steak, and held it against his tongue so he could fully experience its succulent saltiness. He didn’t know why he still let himself be hopeful after someone like Heavana had been on the show. Some guests set the bar so low he couldn’t help but think the executives might finally decide things had gone too far. But he should have realized by now it was never enough; the more inane, the more ridiculous it was, the more the underground lapped it up and the more the executives loved it. “I suppose,” he finally answered.

The table went quiet. The clear night sky was semi-visible in panorama through the wall-length mirrors encircling the private restaurant on the ninety-third floor of Los Angeles’ KMnet Tower. The restaurant, in which White found himself dining with Taverick and two of his insipid minions, was awash in sharp fluorescent light, and the air conditioning system’s peaceful hum was interrupted only by the clatter of stainless steel against bone china.

“She’s incredible, Heavana,” said Melissa Cho, the nasally, petite Chinese woman Taverick had recently made head of programming. Taverick looked at White, seemingly to gauge his reaction, and White sent a polite smile in Cho’s direction.

“Yeah, she’s so cool, and empowering too,” said Shanice Johnson. Taverick had been smart to make Johnson head of diversity and inclusion when the previous one retired a month earlier. Her mind was warped in just the way such a role demanded, and her protected status as a black woman gave her the social advantage of being able to do no wrong and deciding when others had. White looked across at her civilly, at the oversized afro that served as a distraction from the hollow eyes behind her designer silver-rimmed glasses. When he looked back at Taverick his face had been stripped of its menacing veneer of friendliness, replaced by a stern professionalism. “We have another first-timer on the show tomorrow, Angelica Myers,” Taverick said. “She’s built quite the reputation with young people across the country simply by using Speak and Type to condemn toxic masculinity and advocate our use of Posimasc underground. We believe the time has come to give her a shot at the big time.”

“OK, sounds good,” White said. He’d seen enough of Myers to know she fit the Coalition’s agenda like a glove, as if she had consciously sculpted herself into the ideal Coalition mouthpiece. White downed the remainder of his wine, dabbed his mouth with his napkin and pushed back his chair. “One more thing before you go, Alexavier,” Taverick said. “I spoke with President Zhing earlier. She wanted me to tell you she is delighted with the direction the show has taken. She went as far as saying she now considers it one of the Coalition’s most important programs. She asked me to congratulate you personally on the viewership growth, and assured me the President’s Office has full faith in the show as a vehicle for positive underground messaging.” He paused and examined White’s face. “As the old saying goes, with such great power comes great responsibility. The President informed me that her office will be taking a more hands-on role with the show, just to ensure it aligns as tightly as possible with Coalition branding.”

“Good to know, thanks for keeping me up to date,” White said with as much sincerity as he could muster. Trenton Taverick had proven himself to the President as a shrewd and ruthless leader of the Coalition’s VRD media monopoly, and, at least on the outside, a staunch believer in the social justice tales it spun. Perhaps his crowning asset to Zhing and the Coalition, White supposed, was the single-minded manner in which he kept artistic or ethical considerations from tainting the delicate ideological narrative. Beyond those observations White didn’t know all that much about Taverick, considering they were now in their thirteenth year working together. He was in his late-fifties, with slickly-styled grey hair that swirled up and over at the front like a plunging wave, and occasionally spoke with pride about his voluntary decision to genetically brown after the Civil War. He was well-studied, perhaps better than anyone White knew, in the burgeoning academic field of cultural Marxism, and had been a major investor in the development of the underground speech sensor networks, which had since made him tremendously wealthy. He carried himself now like a man who relished in wielding the magic wand of absolute power.

“Right, everyone, I’ll see you tomorrow,” White said, rising to his feet. As he made for the exit he could feel Taverick dissecting him, almost as if his glare was torching holes in the back of his suit jacket.

White puffed out a gasp of frustration as his Spark Model 14’s auto-closing doors whirred shut. The car pulled out of KMnet Tower’s parking lot onto the quiet, orderly streets of downtown Los Angeles and White fought against a masochistic urge to relive his day. The morning meeting with his team of scriptwriters, fifty self-obsessed hacks, each tussling to put the cherry on top of the perfectly sterile joke-by-committee. The pretentious air of importance in the studio before the show, the detached misery etched blatantly on his face that somehow no one seemed to notice. Seeing Heavana up close, the cracks in her plastic surgery, her makeup off gassing its putrid odors, the flagrant dishonesty as seen inches from her face. Another day simulating the same emotions, plugging the same platitudes.

He rarely logged onto Speak™ during the ride home, preferring instead to reflect alone as he escaped into the peaceful hills of Hollywood. He watched construction bots stacking panes of glass against skeletal metal structures and drones sweeping the sidewalks, going about their business silently, without complaint. The tranquil hum and clean white edges of the Coalition’s techno-utopia had a way of calming his mind. If someone had been shown this future during the bleakest days of the Civil War, or even worse, in the throes of the warming and air toxification panics, they’d surely have never believed it. Domed Los Angeles was, at the last count, two hundred and seventy thousand of the Coalition’s finest — technologists, engineers, bureaucrats, corporate directors — all basking in the closed ecological system that, on the surface, generated conditions indistinguishable from the squandered world. They deserved to be up here, most would argue, because it was their technologies and their ideologies that had saved North America from the destructive cocktail of infighting and failing crops. It was their benevolence that saw the creation of the underground cities, many now stretching hundreds of stories down and miles across, the greatest feats of engineering the world had ever seen. It was thanks to them two hundred million Americans had been saved and given the chance to live in a perpetual peace, against all reasonable odds. And if that wasn’t enough, the Coalition’s three-million strong administration housed them, fed them, clothed them and entertained them. An ingenious arrangement, given the circumstances.

White’s car meandered through the dark, windy roads of the Hills and silhouettes of ostentatious mansions and grand synthetic trees rolled by. The manufactured pristineness did little but make him long for the real world that’d been left behind. He closed his eyes and pictured the roaming bots picking at the bones of the nation’s carcass; long-abandoned towns being substituted by the engines of the new economy: solar farms, domed factories and laboratories for cultured livestock and plant proteins.

The car pulled onto the driveway of White’s home, came to a delicate stop and opened its doors. White shimmied across the leather seat and thrust up onto the sandstone path leading to his front door. He was greeted by the trickle of water fountains and the serene buzz of the bot pruning his hedge. Sometimes, usually on days like these, seeing what he had made it all seem worthwhile, if only fleetingly. Perhaps the deadness of his soul, the horror of living in servitude to a purpose that tore at his every moral fibre, was what it took to provide for a family in this callous world. Perhaps this was the best he could do; at least being part of the Coalition saved him from their laws, drugs and surveillance. The thought soothed him.

White lifted his arms and raised his neck so the bot could slip off his jacket and undo his tie. He turned through the double doors into the living room and Melanie swiveled to face him, beaming with her relentless positivity. She was drinking red wine with her feet up on the plush silk footrest and had shreds of aluminum foil pasted to her luminous silver-dyed hair.

“Oh, hi Alex. I’m on Speak with Josephine.” Josephine’s shrill voice filled the room. “Hi Alex.”

“Hi Josephine, good evening.” White looked at his wife and raised his eyebrows in silent disapproval.

“I have to go, Josephine,” she said. “Love to Mark and the kids. Speak off.” She turned to White, who had slumped beside her on the corner sofa, and pecked his cheek. “Hungry?”

“I’ve already eaten. Speak, just give me a single malt, on the rocks.”

“Coming right up,” the bot responded.

“Speak, I’ll have a chicken salad, please,” Melanie said.

“Coming right up.”

“I saw the show tonight. Heavana, I really like her. She’s great.” White savored a lingering sip of liquor, exhaling with satisfaction after he swallowed it. “How come you’re so late?” Melanie asked.

“Dinner with Taverick. Where are the kids?”

“Upstairs, they’ve been in VRD since they got in from school.” White could feel Melanie studying him, concerned. He looked into her narrow Asian eyes, which were decorated with clownish fake lashes. “You look tired, honey,” she said.

“Long day.” Her red lips formed a wide smile that made dimples appear in her cheeks and she brushed her slim fingers up and down his arm.

“So how was it, meeting Heavana?” White rolled his eyes and took another long sip. “Come on, tell me. Is she really like that, in real life?”

“I know as much as you. Either that really is what she’s like or she was in character the entire time we were together.” White watched the digital fireplace flicker. “I’d prefer not to think about her anymore, if that’s OK. I’ve thought about her enough for one day.” Melanie’s smile turned into a pout. “I’m going to turn in,” White said. “I’ll see you upstairs.”

“OK, whatever, see you in bed.”

White collapsed onto the king-size mattress and closed his eyes. “Speak, lights off,” he said. It was in these rare moments of darkness, when all the lies and distractions had been stripped away, that he felt the spirit of his younger self hovering above in quiet judgement.

III.

Tim wiped the gluey residue of roast beef-flavored soymilk from the blonde whiskers above his mouth. Drops spattered onto the arm of his black and red Galaxy Raiders shirt, which was too short and exposed his impoverished biceps. “How’s the burger, Caleb?” he asked. Caleb studied the standard-issue Coalition Burger Tim had ordered in for him, an anemic green-brown patty smushed between white bread so sweet it made his molars ache.

“It’s good.” Tim watched him chew with a look of moral superiority.

“Those poor grasshoppers. Have you thought anymore about becoming soyan? These soymeals taste so good, and they have all the nutrients you need. There’s no reason to eat insects anymore, plus, one box has the entire recommended daily vitamin D intake.”

“Cool, I’ll think about it.” Tiffany must have seen Caleb’s pleading eyes, because she took the hint to change the subject, turning to Debra with an excited expression.

“Did you hear Angelica Myers is on Alex White tonight?”

“Oh my god, I love her,” Debra said. “We should totally watch it.”

“Sure.”

“She is such an important role model for women,” Debra continued, “and men can learn so much from her too. Especially since that news about the rise in non-Alphas coming off Posimasc. Can you believe that? They just decide they don’t want to take it anymore, and what a surprise, they start acting crazy and going around like people’s feelings don’t matter. It’s disgusting.”

Caleb had listened intently. For his own amusement he imagined the reaction around the table if he revealed his own thoughts about dumping the medication, seeing a fuzzy mental image of Debra’s thunderous face blotched beet red. “Where did you hear that?” he asked her.

“KMnet. They said there’s been a surge in toxic masculinity-related arrests over the past year, and men coming off the medication is the main reason.”

“That’s too bad,” Tim said. “Don’t worry honey, there’s no danger of me doing that. I get the shakes if I go later than lunchtime without taking mine.” Debra’s sharp cackle made Caleb wince, and he caught her eyeing him to assess his reaction to the comment. “Yeah, it sure is addictive,” he said, feigning a smile.

“They know the consequences,” Tim continued. “If they’re stupid enough to think it’s worth putting themselves and others in danger just so they get to live out their twisted idea of what it means to be a man for a while they deserve everything that comes their way. It boggles the mind that there are still men out there who want to be angry and aggressive.”

“I heard a lot of them stop taking it because they want to manically oppress,” Debra said. Tim scoffed at the idea.

“Yeah, all that nonsense about the importance of freedom in comedy as an excuse for them to say the most hurtful, damaging things they can dream up. Give me a break. Seriously, what do they find so hard to understand about being a good person?” Debra bobbed her head in agreement.

“It’s enough that we have to deal with Alphas, and now this,” she said. “The day we no longer need any of them can’t come fast enough.”

“That’s wishful thinking,” Tim said. “I can’t imagine the Coalition ever deciding to get rid of the Alpha prostitutes, for one; that’d be unfair to the women who like using them. And we can’t deny the Alphas still do a lot of good — the techs, the engineers, the security personnel, and so on. It outweighs the bad, I’d say.”

“Yeah, well, that’s one way of looking at it,” Debra said, shriveling in her seat and causing the rolls of flab under her green wool sweater to fold over. “But I still don’t see why women can’t be trusted to take care of those things.” Tiffany had listened to the exchange with a quiet humility. Caleb respected her for not caving to the social pressure to participate in such absurd discussions.

“The show’s about to start,” she said.

“Oh my god, you’re right,” Debra said. Tim, Debra and Tiffany switched into VRD and left Caleb alone at the table full of empty food packaging. Tim’s left eye twitched, a side effect of the improved tear generator in the latest model of the virtual retina display they’d had implanted earlier in the week. Canned applause spilled out from the white buds in their ears. Caleb sighed and tapped his palm to switch in. The VRD6000 edition showed a noticeably clearer image and seemed to have done away with the much-maligned visual warping once and for all. The Coalition had also delivered on its promise to solve the lingering responsiveness issues between the retina display and the palm-grafted remote control. Caleb reclined back and let himself be absorbed by the vibrant colors and sounds flooding his brain.

The journey from Tim’s unit on the eighty-third floor to their unit on the seventy-second floor took Caleb and Tiffany roughly twenty minutes, bringing them across Square 1123F, up three floors to the eightieth and up the express elevator to the seventieth. From there they descended two floors to the seventy-second and walked across Square 1112B to their unit. Late at night in the Squares one invariably passed a few stragglers, usually absorbed in VRD, as well as several of the cleaning bots that came out after hours.

Caleb loathed the mechanical soullessness of the underground, but he was sensible enough to respect the cleverness of its design and the grim efficiency of its operation. The Squares were dominated by projections of product advertisements and Coalition messages in English and Mandarin, predatory splashes of colorful propaganda across otherwise austere white and grey rectangular deserts. The soft drone of the delivery network zipping cardboard boxes through its plastic pipes could be heard behind the bare concrete walls over the fizz of recirculated air being pumped in from the metal grates above.

“That was a fun night, eh?” Tiffany said as they walked. “We should get out and see people more often.” Caleb shrugged his rounded shoulders in a dejected fashion. “Caleb? Don’t you think?”

“Yeah, sure.”

“Well you don’t look like you had a good night. You get like this when Debra’s there, what is it?”

A dull irritation surfaced in Caleb’s gut but scurried away before he had chance to latch onto it; the medication working as it should. “Look, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you want to me say. I don’t know what you think I can say. Maybe we should talk about something else.”

“Whatever, Caleb. You’re such an asshole at times.” Caleb let the comment linger in the air in the vain hope Tiffany would realize how ugly it sounded. She let go of his hand and huffed.

IV.

It wasn’t God-given talent that had given Angelica Myers her shot at fame and fortune, nor was it sheer persistence. She wasn’t exactly a comedian, nor could she reasonably be called a free-minded social activist. She was, instead, to be considered a precisely-manufactured product of the Coalition, a near-flawless embodiment of its supposed values. Her face had been plastered across the Squares of the underground cities, the Coalition lauding her as the latest paragon of virtue in its matriarchal paradise. To the KMnet executives she was merely a tool, to be used like a hammer or a screwdriver. She could have realized this and walked away, and would have, given an ounce each of integrity and self-awareness.

She’d been wheeled out on Tonight with Alexavier White! to make the Coalition’s case for a recently-passed underground law that compelled men to avoid eye contact when passing or standing next to a lone woman in a public space. White tried to listen to her but was distracted by mental digressions of how deeply he despised being in her presence. Studying her face was like picking at a scab. Her eyes, bordered by mascara too thick, were too close together, and her eyebrows were too neatly shaped. Her mouth was too small for her fat, round face, and she pursed her lips in an aggravating faux-feminine fashion whenever she took a moment to think. Sitting across from her behind his on-set oak desk, the tang of her tasteless perfume was like a primitive warning he couldn’t escape from. He tuned back into her voice.

“…and that’s why this ruling is so important for women.”

“So, let’s say a man makes eye contact with a lone woman and he says it was by accident,” White said, making air quotes with his fingers. “Can there really be such a thing as by accident?”

“Absolutely not, there’s no excuse. Men must be aware at all times of the damage they can do to a woman’s psyche, how unsafe and threatened they can make a woman feel. The new law is going to make women feel much more secure in the underground, and men will just have to get used to it.” White nodded along in a way that suggested he was listening in unequivocal agreement. “We mustn’t forget the case that began this debate,” Myers continued. “A woman in Under-New York minding her own business, enjoying a coffee, only for a man to walk past and stare at her with wild lust in his eyes. Was anyone surprised to discover this man had decided it was OK to stop taking his Posimasc? I for one thought we had moved on as a society from such disgusting violence against women. Clearly we haven’t, and so we must continue to punish offenders and call out such actions for what they are: rape.” The sound of ecstatic canned applause broke out in the studio.

“I couldn’t agree more,” White said. “There’s one other thing I want to bring up while we’re on the topic, and that’s the underground surveillance. We’ve all been encouraged by the progress that’s been made with the speech sensors, but what about eye tracking technology? I know some people will have a hard time coming around to the idea, like they did with facial expression detection when that was still being debated, but if it can help enforce this new law isn’t it worth taking a serious look at?”

“Any technology with the potential to make the underground a safer place should be looked at seriously,” Myers said. “That’s what progress is all about.”

White loosened his tie and sunk into his black leather dressing room chair, caressing a glass of single malt whisky on his lap. The youngish KMnet reporter who’d been sent to interview him about the Myers appearance had a dark brown fringe that stretched past her eyebrows and three freckles that made a triangle shape on her right cheek. White might have found her attractive, in an offbeat sort of way, if it weren’t for the irredeemable ghastliness of her blind allegiance to the Coalition. Her accent, too, had that obnoxious affection caused by too much time spent in Californian media circles.

“That was a powerful discussion,” she said. “Why do you think women consider Angelica such an inspiring role model in today’s world?” White shuffled in his seat as he mapped out an answer in his head.

“She’s not afraid to speak out about the issues that held women back for so long. It’s hugely inspiring, and gives other women the strength to stand up and fight against male violence and oppression.”

“What do you say to those women in the underground who call her a misandrist?”

“They must not understand what she stands for. Angelica believes in the progressive values of our society, and simply that all people should love and respect each other. There’s nothing controversial about her belief that diversity, inclusion and tolerance are cornerstones of our civilized way of life. She believes in doing what’s right, which is building a world free from male brutality and hatred.”

The reporter switched into VRD to check her list of questions. “You mentioned diversity and inclusion. On that subject, what do you make of the controversy surrounding Anton Trivers today? He hijacked an interview to speak out publicly against his lack of creative control in directing Galaxy Raiders VII, suggesting the casting equity quota, as he put it, diluted his artistic vision. Can he hold onto any hope of a future in the film-making industry after such a non-inclusive statement?”

“I know Anton well,” White said, grimacing. “At least, I thought I did. Maybe, if he apologizes sincerely for his comments, there could be a path back to public acceptance for him in the future. Right now, though, this is about listening to those he hurt with his careless words and reinforcing a more positive and equal message for society.” Such hollow responses once had White bracing in anticipation of the reporter’s skeptical reaction, but thanks to the herd-like insanity so deeply ingrained in this generation of journalists they’d long since flown under the radar.

“Going back to the show tonight, do you think Angelica’s appearance will go down as a milestone in the fight for women’s rights?”

“The whole team can be proud of tonight’s show. We have an amazing platform from which to shine a light on a wide range of issues related to social justice and human rights. If the underground sees tonight as a milestone for women, then that makes me and the team feel immensely honored.”

“Thank you, Mr. White, that should be enough. I’ll get this edited and the interview will be online in a few hours.” The reporter tapped her palm, stood up and held out her hand. “It’s been so nice to meet you. Keep up the great work.” White stayed in his chair but leaned forward to grab her hand. He watched her leave and disappear as the dressing room door slid closed. A deflated sigh came out of him, and he took a stinging gulp of whisky. “Speak, lock door,” he said, resting his elbows on the hardwood dressing table and massaging his forehead. The new email tone played in his ear. He switched into VRD and saw the email had been sent to the Corporate Coalition Leadership inbox. The subject: “Taking back our future.”

White bolted up in his chair. The sender’s real name had somehow been replaced by a pseudonym, HumorIsHuman. He hadn’t seen an anonymous online communication for twenty years, and now, out of nowhere, was one sitting in every mailbox of the Coalition’s elite. He opened the email and began reading in delirious expectation.

“How could we not be infinitely grateful?” it began. “After all, we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for your benevolent machines. We are forever indebted to you for relieving us of the responsibilities and indignities of human life. It’s warm and cozy down here, like being carried in a loving mother’s womb.

“The only problem: every day more of us realize we’d rather die than live in a nation spluttering along on the life support of your regime. You’ve made us into little more than domestic animals, stripped of our agency and self-worth. But we are waking up, wising up to your evils, and fighting back. Your regime has carried out the worst crimes against humanity ever committed, crimes which show no sign of abating. Thus, we are left with no alternative. Revolution is taking root in the underground’s soil.” The words sent a chill down White’s spine.

“How, you ask? What about the technology that tracks our every move? What about Posimasc? In your false sense of security, you have forgotten that the human spirit can never be crushed entirely. Eventually, it always fights back, lashes out at its oppressors. What’s more, it only takes a brave few to inspire revolution. Now we have found ways around your systems of control, a revolution is brewing. In time we’ll grow powerful enough to overthrow your rule. When you feel the full wrath of what we’re building you’ll wish you could undo what you did to us. Be assured there is nothing you can do to appease the revolutionaries, but there are decisions you can make now to prevent your execution after the uprising. These are our demands:

“(1) The speech sensor networks must be disabled and plans to introduce further artificially-intelligent surveillance technology abandoned. Begin with the removal of sensors in citizen units.

“(2) We reject the ideology that the data wipe of 2060 — the ‘Great Wipe’ — was necessary in erasing “persistent problematic historical notions and ideals.” The freedom to share and study history, philosophy, religion and other subjects on our own terms must be returned to underground citizens.

“(3) The Offense & Criticism Act of 2064 is a direct assault on the constitutional American value of freedom of speech, designed explicitly to control and subdue men. We reject the ideology of the ‘superiority theory’ as it relates to humor, that humorous and critical speech is dangerous, and that the innocent act of male laughter should be considered ‘manic oppression’. This law must be repealed.

“(4) The Toxic Masculinity Act of 2065 is a calculated, merciless neutering of the male spirit. We reject the ideology that ‘traditional masculinity’ — defined by your regime as men displaying aggression, unsolicited lust, stoicism and competitiveness — is inherently harmful, and believe your model of ‘positive masculinity’ is designed to weaken and disempower. This law must be repealed.

“(5) Posimasc turns its users into mere husks of the men they should be. We demand that all men are made exempt from taking this medication and that its production cease.

“We advise that you begin the process of meeting our demands immediately, even if only out of a selfish fear for your own lives. We appreciate it will take time to fulfil our demands, so will accept the publication of a timeline detailing plans to-”

White’s VRD went dark. Seconds later the display flickered back to life. The message had vanished, replaced by two words: “[Message redacted]”. White’s earbud beeped, “System malfunction,” read the subject line of the new email. He opened it. “Please disregard communications from user HumorIsHuman. The user account has been terminated and is under Coalition investigation.”

V.

Caleb glared at the Posimasc™ tablet on the coffee table, simmering in a hazy rage, tired of being trapped in the same infinite thought loop. The time had come to do something without thinking at all. He burst up from the couch, grabbed the medication and dashed to the bathroom. The tablet tinged against the toilet bowl a couple of times and plunked into the water, which then swirled away and swallowed it whole. Caleb’s initial fear gave way to a rush of elation. He allowed himself a giddy smile, then calmed himself with a sequence of long breaths. Passing the impossible first hurdle meant opening up a new world of problems. Now he had to be sharp, alert and inconspicuous, starting right away and never letting up. He figured it would be about a week until the medication began to wear off and, if he wasn’t intensely careful, Tiffany noticed his change in behaviour or signs of the withdrawal symptoms, or some stray comment he made tipped off the sensors.

He moved back into the living room and pulled up the Offense & Criticism Act in VRD. Without Posimasc™ as his auto-pilot he’d need daily reminders of what the Act forbid if he was to have any hope of staying in line. He skimmed the text and the most well-known section stood out in bold type: “Male underground citizens performing the act of manic oppression and/or using language — verbal, written and/or body — intended for unauthorized humorous effect shall be liable to arrest and rehabilitation.” He bookmarked the text and navigated to the Toxic Masculinity Act. It began, “Male underground citizens exhibiting toxic masculinity, as defined by the Corporate Coalition of North America as behaviour that threatens the safety, harmony and equality of underground cities, shall be liable to arrest and rehabilitation.” He skipped through the dense legalese and paused on a sentence that caught his eye. “Male underground citizens, except those exempted by Alpha status in specific circumstances (detailed below), are prohibited from participating in activities such as weightlifting and competitive sports, as well as attending male-only gatherings and other events traditionally considered ‘masculine’ at the Coalition’s discretion.” He bookmarked that too, switched out of VRD, closed his eyes, and inhaled and exhaled methodically to try to slow his pounding heart. The unmistakable whoosh of the front door sliding open interrupted his meditation. Tiffany was home.

Alexavier White’s basement was his sanctuary. It was the only place he could let down his guard and luxuriate in the fading glow of the past, free from the persona he’d crafted to thrive in the Coalition’s brave new world. He’d had the ceiling sound-proofed and installed a biometric verification scanner on the entry door. He needed a place to relax, he’d told Melanie, and she had no reason to suspect anything more. It was, however, where he kept his most prized possession: the old computer he got for Christmas as a child. Coalition members had been allowed to keep their personal data in 2060, but creeping social pressure eventually made possession of non-Coalition Cloud content taboo even for them. One day Melanie asked him to throw out the computer, for the kids’ sake. White packed it in the car, promising to take it to the incinerator, then snuck it back into the house and hid it in the basement, where it now sits whirring away among an old tattered couch and the discarded furnishings from Melanie’s ‘interior designer’ days. The contents of the computer’s hard drive were simply too precious to be squandered; White’s copies of the thousands of books, songs and videos — comedies, stand-ups, films, TV shows — could well have been among the last that existed.

Long-forgotten stand-up comedy specials had been his go-to for years down in the basement, but recently he’d gone back to reading the history books that had been collecting dust in the nether regions of his C: partition. He hadn’t cared much for history before the Great Wipe, but something about the Coalition’s desire to cover it up had made it irresistible. He read voraciously about the Civil War he’d lived through as a kid, sympathizing with the losing side the more he learned. He also showed keen interest in books that described how the Chinese Empire rolled in to restore peace in 2042, and gorged on theories about how the East Asian culture of high-tech government control allied with the burgeoning leftist authoritarianism of America’s techno-elite to dismantle the quasi-democratic system and replace it with an AI-assisted dictatorship. One book, which he couldn’t remember downloading, explained how anti-white male sentiment — which picked up steam in the 2010s and intensified from there until it became murderous — gave birth to the popular ‘genetic browning’ movement.

That night he was reading an essay about the causes and effects of the global cyber-balkanization that took place in the 2050s, but the email from HumorIsHuman was nagging at his brain and he couldn’t focus on the words. Who sent it? Was the underground really plotting revolution? He turned off the monitor in quiet exasperation and saw his face in its reflection. He tried to avoid himself seeing himself because it reminded him too harshly of what he’d become. Genetic browning had had a peculiar effect on his appearance; his chiseled face shape and cider-colored hair were clearly traits of a white man, and the patches of blonde in his beard contrasted awkwardly with the darkened skin. His eyes darted to the photo frame on the desk, as if the picture of him and his old friends Hancox and Ramsell would soothe the pain. His face was fuller then and the crow’s feet and heavy bags hadn’t yet formed around his eyes. He also hadn’t yet become a suit-wearing Coalition shill, and that was painfully evident in his jocular expression. Not many people remembered that version of him, he suspected. To most, the Alexavier White looking back from the computer screen was the one he’d always been. He couldn’t complain about that — shedding his true self was the choice he’d made and had gotten him to where he was — but it still hurt.

VI.

“Have you lost your mind?” Tim’s voice shook and a rash of red spread across his pale cheeks as he asked the question. Caleb was asking himself the same thing. It was two weeks since he first flushed his daily dose of Posimasc™ and the life had flowed back into his body and spirit. Tim’s unit was no place to be in this clean state of consciousness, but the urge to try to rescue his old friend had grown too strong.

“I’m just saying, don’t you ever wonder if we’re being lied to? We’ve had to take everything they tell us as gospel, because there’s never been an alternative. There are questions I want to ask, tons of questions, but I’m not allowed to ask them. Don’t you have questions?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Tim said, glancing at the sensor fretfully. Caleb looked through the plastic lenses of Tim’s black-rimmed glasses into his panicked beady eyes.

“Look, I get it. I respect what the Coalition does for us, but think about it, why aren’t we allowed to question what’s right? And why can’t I even ask that without risking arrest?”

“We can’t go around asking and saying whatever we want. Our speech has consequences. If we can prevent our words from hurting people and causing problems, why wouldn’t we?” Caleb sighed and gazed at the white tiled floor while he strained for an explanation.

“What if the Coalition did let people speak, though? Maybe we could make something better than this, somewhere men didn’t have to take Posimasc and we didn’t need all these rules and all this secrecy. It would be harder and messier, but wouldn’t it be worth it?”

“I can’t believe you’re even bringing up the medication. It’s been done, there’ve been studies, endless studies. I’m perfectly happy taking it and so should you be. I mean, Caleb, it’s 2080 for god’s sake. Only a hateful man would still be questioning Posimasc.”

“You never ask yourself why we have to take medication that stops men being what they were born to be? What about the Alphas, why does the Coalition get to decide which men in the underground have high value to society?”

“You know the answer to that. We can’t all be Alphas, think how ridiculous that sounds. It’d be a constant threat to the safety and equality of the underground. Whatever privileges men gave up, it was for the greater good in very difficult circumstances.” Caleb’s hazel eyes were fixed on Tim like stone.

“You’re missing the point I was trying to make.”

“Caleb, I don’t know why I’m even engaging in this preposterous conversation. You’re going to get us both arrested if you carry on. Maybe it’s best if you just leave and stay away until you’ve calmed down.”

Caleb sighed. “You’re so naive, Tim,” he said, struggling to contain the fury growing inside him. “You’re so lazy and defeatist, and you have no faith in humanity. What if I believe we can be good without sensors and drugs and prisons? What if anything else is doomed to collapse in chaos, including this bullshit Coalition? It might feel nice and safe now, but this isn’t going to last, you know. It can’t last, the whole thing is built on sand.” Tim’s lips quivered as if Caleb had physically attacked him.

“You’re asking for it, this is getting picked up for sure. You’d better leave.”

“I’m sick of being a coward and a sheep, just lining up and lying down and taking it. That’s what we’ve done our whole lives. Let’s see what happens if I speak my mind, just one time.”

“Get out of this unit now,” Tim said, pointing with a trembling thumb at the door behind him. “And don’t speak to me until you’ve got your head-”. The front door slid open and Caleb and Tim dashed their heads in its direction. Two burly Alphas wearing dark blue Coalition Security uniforms and holding laser rifles stood in the doorway, and a military drone hovered in front of them.

“Officers,” Tim said, the sound of desperate pleading in his tone. The drone hovered towards Caleb while the officers watched from the door with their rifles trained on him.

“Caleb Thompson, you are being placed under arrest by the Corporate Coalition of North America,” the drone said in a monotone voice. “Get on your knees and put your hands on your head.” Caleb complied. When the drone was feet away it stopped, aimed at Caleb’s left arm and fired a dart that wedged deep into his flesh. He began to feel lightheaded, then lose consciousness. He caught a glimpse of Tim watching the scene unfold in motionless terror, looked back at the officers, and collapsed onto his side with a thud. “Suspect ready for evacuation,” he heard the drone say, distant and foggy as if spoken in a dream.

VII.

Caleb, bleary-eyed and groggy, took in the unfamiliar surroundings, a small square room enclosed in grey concrete walls, occupied by a table with a white plastic sheen and three spartan chairs all bolted to the ground. In the corner, to the left of the door, a military drone lay inanimate with its black lens focused on him. “DO NOT MOVE. DRONE ARMED WITH TRANQUILIZER,” read the sign above. Caleb tilted his head to peek through the door’s window. All he could see was another wall. He tapped his palm to switch into VRD. “VRD deactivated,” read the display. He switched out and poked at the puncture on his left arm, which had been treated with some kind of gel that made the skin around it harden. The door slid open and two women walked in and sat across from him. One was a bulky, intimidating black woman, who had knotted hair and a fixed accusatory expression. The other was a slender, mousy Chinese, whose front teeth were too big for her delicate face.

“Caleb Thompson,” said the black woman. “I’m Detective Jones and this is Detective Zhao.” Caleb stared at her blankly.

“Do you know why you’ve been detained?” she asked. Caleb let out a gasp of air and clenched his eyes. He’d once been told the Coalition had a tendency to be lenient with first-time offenders, their way of maintaining a façade of fair and compassionate rule. He now hoped more than ever that was true. “I don’t know what came over me,” he said, “I promise it won’t happen again, I’ll keep my thoughts to myself.”

Jones glanced at Zhao and back at Caleb. “Mr. Thompson, you should not be having such thoughts at all, and most certainly should not be voicing them. Your behaviour was highly unusual and in breach of numerous laws.” She leaned in closer to Caleb with a look of empathy that seemed false. “Is there anything we should be aware of? Any changes in your life? Anything we can help with?”

Caleb took some time to answer, avoiding her gaze while he thought about what to say. “Honestly, I’m fine, everything is fine.” Jones leaned back and folded her arms.

“Mr. Thompson,” she said, “in the event of such outbursts it’s standard procedure to ask if you’ve been keeping up with your medication.” For the first time since awaking a rush of panic ran through him.

“Yeah, of course.” Time froze in the noiseless room as the two women studied him. Finally Jones spoke.

“Mr. Thompson, since this is your first offense, we are letting you go with a warning on this occasion. We will, however, be keeping a close eye on your behaviour. Any further offenses will place you at risk of being prescribed an increased dosage and possibly time in rehabilitation. Before we let you go we’ll need to take a urine sample to ensure the medication is still reacting as it should. Please proceed to the sample collection cubicle down the hall.”

Jones rose to her feet, keeping her eyes on Caleb. “Drone, deactivate,” she said. Zhao stood and the two women left the room, the door closing behind them. Caleb composed himself before walking out into the hallway, which was long and barren, the only notable features being the drones placed symmetrically along the left-hand wall and dozens more doors on either side stretching into the distance. Directions were printed on the wall outside the door. The arrow to SAMPLE COLLECTION pointed west. Caleb scanned the wall for a direction to an exit, unsuccessfully, and made his way through the corridor until he arrived at the door marked SAMPLE COLLECTION. It glided open and he walked in. A red light greeted him at the back of the empty white booth, and beneath it a hole opened up in the concrete. A mechanical arm pushed out a wide glass tube and the light turned green. “Caleb Thompson, please urinate into the tube,” said a robotic voice from above. Caleb unzipped his pants, aimed his penis into the tube and urinated. When he ran out he shook off, zipped his pants and stepped back. Way to sign your own death warrant, he thought. The light turned back to red. “Thank you, Caleb Thompson.” The door opened and he walked back out into the hallway to find a hovering drone waiting for him.

“Follow me,” it said. It led him down the hallway, through a door, across another long hallway, and through a door that opened out onto a shuttle platform, then stopped and faced him. “Shuttle will arrive in two minutes,” it said. The time passed with the drone’s lens and barrel pointed at him and the shuttle eased onto the platform as promised. “Proceed to Square 1112B,” the drone said. Caleb took a final look at it and stepped on board appreciatively. The brightly-lit carriage had rows of plastic orange chairs along each side and was occupied by four other passengers. He sat across from a well-groomed, muscular black man, who looked lost in thought and didn’t seem to notice his presence. “Next stop, Corporate Coalition Security, area 2B,” said an announcement from the speaker above. Caleb’s earbud beeped, new message. “VRD reactivated,” it read. Then another beep. “Estimated travel time to Square 1112B, 18 minutes.” He rested his back against the hard seat and shut his eyes.

“Yo, white boy!” Caleb opened his eyes and saw the black man’s warm, broad smile inviting him into conversation. “You look like you got something troubling you.” His accent had a Caribbean twang and faint cracks in his dark skin aged him in the late thirties. Caleb smiled back uneasily and turned away, but from the corner of his eye could see the black man was still staring at him.

“When I got shit troubling me I work out. Do 50 push-ups right here on this shuttle and I guarantee you will feel better, instantly. You have to let go of that nervous energy, man, you’ll get too caught up in your own head otherwise.”

Caleb brushed off the advice with a smirk and analyzed the black man’s physique. His skin-tight blue tee shirt hugged his pectorals and dark red veins streamed across his bulging biceps. The expression on the black man’s face made Caleb realize he’d been caught looking. “I was just wondering,” he said with a tinge of embarrassment, “are you allowed to have muscles like that?”

“Brother, as long as I don’t step out of line this is exactly how they want me.” Caleb realized then that he was probably speaking to an Alpha prostitute, the first he’d seen with his own eyes.

“Is it true what I heard about you guys? The laws, are they different?”

“A sensor is a sensor, brother. Don’t listen to those myths, we follow the exact same rules as you guys. We get away with a little more in the brothels, sure. If we didn’t the chicks wouldn’t be interested, know what I’m saying?” Caleb nodded and the black man looked around at the other passengers. “Where you headed?” the black man asked.

“Home.”

“I saw you get on at the Security stop. You don’t look like you work for the Coalition though.”

“They just released me, long story. I said some things I shouldn’t have said, but they let me go.”

“Shit, so that’s what’s troubling you. What’s your name, brother?”

“Caleb.” The black man leaned across the carriage, held out his hand and Caleb grabbed it, enjoying the warmth and strength of its firm grip.

“Tyrell James, but people call me Ty. I’m heading home too, just coming back from getting my annual STD immunization shot over at the Alpha facilities.” They looked away from each other and a thick silence clogged the air. After some time Ty moved closer until his face was inches from Caleb’s. His breath smelled strongly of artificial mint and his expression had become stern. He spoke with a low, careful voice. “Listen, this’ll seem forward, but hear me out. I got something to share with you, if you’re interested.” Caleb’s ears and eyebrows perked up. “Why don’t you go home, get yourself cleaned up, and come over to my unit tonight?” The proposal rattled Caleb and he tilted his head back to get some space.

“We just met.”

“I know, but trust me. No pressure, brother.” Ty moved away and Caleb gawped into his magnetizing eyes. He’d already given the urine sample, so he figured he might not have much left to lose.

“Where do you live?” he asked. Ty’s wide grin returned. He switched into VRD, faced Caleb and his retinas flashed.

“There, I just added you, the unit number’s on my profile.” The shuttle slowed to a smooth stop and the doors hissed open. “This is where I get off,” Ty said. Before he stepped off he stopped and looked back at Caleb with the same affectionate smile he’d opened with. “There aren’t too many of us left, brother. See you later.”

VIII.

“Open front door,” Caleb heard Ty shout from inside his unit. Ty was stood by an assembly of strange hardware strewn out on the desk against the living room’s far wall, holding a can of protein juice and grinning at Caleb. The hardware included a foldable device with buttons and a screen that was connected to a larger flat screen labelled SAMSUNG by a thick black cable. Both appliances were connected by more cables to an orange and black box on the floor, which had the words BLACK & DECKER printed on its side. None of it, Caleb could be certain, was from the Coalition’s product catalogue.

“What is this stuff? Where did you get it?” Caleb’s nerves made his voice wobble. Ty didn’t answer and instead kept grinning proudly.

“Caleb, take a seat.” He approached Caleb, placed a hand on his back, led him to the couch, and sat on the chair opposite. “Relax, brother, there’s no need to be nervous.” Caleb loosened into the soft cushions. “First, we need to work out if we can trust each other,” Ty continued. “Let me start by telling you I’m armed.” A lump formed in Caleb’s throat and he managed to squeak out an “OK.”

“I’ll get right to it,” Ty said. “What if I told you there was a way to stop the sensors working?” Caleb narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean? As in, stop all the sensors working?”

“No, as in just the sensors in this unit, for example.” Caleb looked at the sensor in the wall, which was right where he expected it to be, looking the same as any other in-unit sensor with its small, round black microphone. He looked back at Ty with skeptical eyes.

“Well, is there?” Ty looked back at him with a grave expression and nodded slowly. “Why would you trust me with that information?” Caleb asked with a disbelieving tone. “How do I know you’re not a Coalition agent? It’s a bit of a coincidence, you appearing right after I get released.”

“I guess that’s up to you to decide.” They locked in tense eye contact until Caleb faced away and shook his head incredulously. “There are scramblers that disrupt the sensors,” Ty continued, “and I have one.” He held up a round, dark blue gadget — about the size of a ring — between two fingers for Caleb to see. “This thing blocks out all sensors within a thirty yard radius.” Caleb leaned forward to analyze the object. “You want proof,” Ty said, “how about this?” He looked at the sensor and smirked. “President Zhing is a stupid fucking cunt.” Caleb squirmed at the statement.

“Where did you get that?”

“Easy, brother. Before I tell you anything else, I need you to tell me something. I’m going to ask a very simple question and you have to answer honestly. Do you take the medication, yes or no?” Caleb hesitated.

“I don’t see why that would-”

“It’s a simple yes or no question.” Caleb looked at the sensor again and exhaled deeply. Ty appeared totally relaxed, as if he could have waited hours for a truthful answer.

“I started flushing it about two weeks ago,” Caleb finally said.

Ty’s eyes glistened at the admission. “You have about three days before the urine sample is verified and they come for you,” he said.

“What will they do?”

“If they catch you, they’ll put you on a dose that’ll be way harder to stop taking.”

“So what do I do?”

“We’ll get to that. I know you have a lot of questions, and we won’t get through them all in one evening.” Ty swiveled to face the desk. “Let me tell you what this junk is, since that’s the first question you asked.” He pointed at the SAMSUNG screen. “That’s how people used to watch things before VRD.” He pointed to the smaller device next to it. “That’s a laptop computer. It kind of works like the VRD tapper, but allows you to store your own files. It connects to the television through this HDMI cable so I can watch files from the laptop on the bigger screen.” He tracked the cables to the orange and black box with his pointing finger. “That’s an electricity generator that works with the old-world plugs for these devices. I smuggle in gasoline to power it, which is hard to come by, so I can’t use this stuff much.” He turned on the big screen and it showed the same screen as the laptop, a cluster of icons against a black background. He drifted his finger over a small pad on the laptop, which made an arrow move across the screens, and pressed down on it several times. “Watch this.” An old video of a scowling white-haired man holding a microphone appeared on the screens. They watched for several minutes as he told highly offensive and critical jokes that made the audience manically oppress. The video absorbed Caleb’s attention. It was vicious, but brilliant, unlike anything he’d ever seen.

“What is this?” he eventually asked.

“That’s George Carlin, one of the best comedians of all time. This video is from 1999.” He closed the video and flipped down the laptop lid.

“How did you get it?” Caleb asked.

“I’ll tell you everything in time, brother.” Ty’s elusiveness was becoming increasingly frustrating. Caleb thought back to the scrambler and realized Security would have arrived by now if the sensor could hear them. “How many people have scramblers?” he asked.

“Not too many. They’ve been around for a couple of years, but they’re scarce. I’ve had mine for about six months.”

“And you won’t tell me where you got it?”

Ty slanted forward in his chair and looked at Caleb with serious, threatening eyes. “I need to find out if I can let you out of here and live to tell the tale, first.” He leaned back and eased up. “That’s enough for one day. Go home, get some rest, and think about what you’ve seen. If you want to keep going, come back tomorrow. I’ll message you. Speak, open front door.”

Caleb watched the front door slide open. He didn’t want to leave but saw he was being given no other choice. “One more question before I go,” he said. Ty heard him out. “There’s something in all this that doesn’t make sense: why do you care about me?” Ty’s smile revealed his large, gleaming white teeth.

“Like I said, brother, there aren’t many of us left.”

IX.

White’s earbud beeped, new audio message. “Speak, play message,” he said, hearing the request bounce off the white porcelain and echo around the high ceiling bathroom.

“Alexavier, join me in the executive room A-S-A-P,” said the voice of Trenton Taverick.

“Speak,” White said, “enter room KMnet Executives.”

“Alexavier, are you alone?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Melissa and Shanice are here too.”

“What can I do for you?” White asked.

“Did you happen to see the anonymous diatribe that found its way into the Leadership mailbox a couple of weeks ago?” White sat up in the warm water and clenched his teeth in nervous excitement. At last the email had been acknowledged. He’d begun to wonder if the Coalition’s top people had elected to sweep it under the rug. He composed himself and let the foamy bathwater settle before responding.

“I read most of it, it was redacted before I could finish.”

“Good. Well, there have been some developments. The man who sent the message has been detained by Coalition Security. They were able to follow a trail of data back to his unit in Under-Chicago. His name is John Glick, a middle-aged Caucasian, a brilliant man, needless to say, but a man with total disregard for Coalition law.” Taverick gave White a moment to process the news. “What Security found in Glick’s unit was almost beyond comprehension. Old hardware, thousands of pre-Wipe files, dozens of hacking applications, stacks of homemade electronics. They’re still trying to figure out what much of the software and hardware does, how it works, and indeed how he acquired the means to build them. I’ve been informed that one of the items found in his unit may be a prototype for a device that interferes with the speech sensors. It would, of course, be catastrophic for the Coalition and our underground citizens if such a device was created and distributed.” Taverick paused again. “What we know for sure is that Glick found a way to encrypt comms across our infrastructure, hence his ability to send the email. The nature of the encryption technology means progress in decoding it is slow and arduous. The key evidence in what’s been decoded so far is ties to some kind of mutinous organization in Under-Toronto, but nothing concrete has been found. We don’t yet know how much truth there was in Glick’s claims in the email, but due to their seriousness, as well as the materials recovered in his unit, we are treating this threat with the utmost urgency.”

“OK, that’s-” White said. He bit his tongue and submerged his body back into the water when he heard the euphoria in his voice betraying him. “Where do I fit in?”

“We fear that Glick’s communications were so well scrambled that the time it will take to uncover more leads leaves the Coalition in significant danger. Therefore, we have made the decision to put out an appeal for information across the underground cities. We believe it’s worth the risk of alerting more, let’s say, odious elements to the existence of a possible criminal uprising. Data indicates your show is currently sitting top of the citizen trust index, so the President wants you to put out the appeal.” White’s earbud went quiet. “Does that all make sense?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” said Taverick. “See you at five then. Speak off.”

White watched the bot draw out a fresh bottle of 24-year single malt scotch with a humble precision from the back of the kitchen cabinet. He snatched the bottle and tumbler from its mechanical arms and made his way to the basement door, activating the biometric scanner with his thumb to unlock it. As he neared the bottom of the stairs he heard laughter coming from the tinny speakers of his computer and froze in terror. How? Who? He peeked his head around the corner at the bottom of the staircase and saw Tobias sitting on the couch and the face of Louis C.K. on the monitor. White rested his head against the staircase wall and tried to bring himself back to a calm state. Part of him felt relieved it was Tobias who’d broken in — it could have been a lot worse — but he couldn’t begin to imagine how he’d adequately explain what his twelve-year-old son had found. He turned into the basement gingerly and Tobias twisted his head and pouted at him with shattered, bloodshot eyes. White sat beside him on the couch and placed the whisky bottle and glass down so lightly they didn’t make a sound on the mahogany coffee table.

“What is this?” Tobias asked, sniffling. “Why is he saying these things?”

“How did you get in here?”

“We’re worried about you, dad. You’ve been spending so much time down here lately, and we never get to see you anymore.” Laughter from the speakers caught their attention and White leaned forward to power off the computer.

“What did you see? How long have you been down here?”

“Long enough.” Tobias looked at White with puppy-dog eyes that demanded justification for what he’d gone through. “Why do you have this stuff? Are you sick?” A tear trickled down his pale brown face and White hung his head.

“No, I’m not sick.”

“So why do you have this stuff?” Tobias began to blubber and White drew in a despondent breath.

“There’s a lot you don’t know about me, and there’s a lot you don’t know about the past. I don’t know how I can possibly explain it in a way that would make any sense to you.” He stared at the black screen mournfully. “That man you were watching, many people used to love what he did. His jokes made them feel less lonely and pathetic as human beings because they could relate to what he said, to his flaws and his depressing and unpleasant thoughts.”

Tobias yelled through his tears. “But it was evil! Why would anyone love that?” White fought to stay cool in the face of his son’s ire and grappled with the question.

“Well, we used to believe something could be funny just because it was funny, meaning it made you la — manically oppress — usually. It didn’t matter who it offended, what it criticized, or who said it.”

Tobias stopped crying and squinted his eyes as if he were trying to wrap his head around what his dad had told him. “That must have been crazy, so many people must have got hurt.” White laid a comforting arm around his son’s back. “Were you like that guy, dad?” White hesitated, then nodded slowly. “What happened? Why did you change?” Tears welled up in White’s eyes, blurring his vision, and a bulge surfaced in his throat.

“I’m a coward,” he said. The confession hung in the air like dense smoke. White looked at Tobias with pleading eyes. “Can you keep all this between us? I’m sure you understand why.”

“OK, dad.” Tobias dug his head into White’s chest and sobbed into his navy wool bathrobe. “What about the things I saw? Should I be like that guy on the screen?”

“Just try to forget about it. We live in a different world now, and it’s best you don’t know about the past. You mustn’t come down here again, you understand?”

“I won’t.” White picked up the whisky bottle, poured a large glass, took a mouthful and stroked his fingers through his son’s wavy chestnut hair.

X.

“You’re acting weird.” Tiffany examined Caleb with a look of desperate concern. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m fine, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No, something’s not right, you’ve barely spoken to me for a week. Now you won’t even look at me. How long is this going to last?” Caleb looked up into her brown eyes.

“Tiffany, I’m fine, honestly.” He was playing an increasingly risky game. Hiding the effects of the medication wearing off was getting harder, and with the urine sample worries and his fixation on the mysteries of Ty his attention was entirely absorbed. He felt guilty about how his detachment was upsetting Tiffany and had thought about ways he might be able to come clean, perhaps take her to Ty’s unit, tell her everything without the sensor listening and hope she understood. He didn’t want to hurt her but he realized now he’d done that the moment he flushed the medication the first time.

“Whatever,” Tiffany said. She spun away from him, sulking.

“I’m going to Tim’s tonight,” Caleb said, bracing himself. Tiffany turned back and glared at him.

“You’re running off to Tim’s again, when I’m trying to save this relationship. Do you care about me at all?”

“It’s not about you, or us.”

“It is about us, because I’m saying we have problems that need addressing and you don’t care.”

“It’s not that I don’t care, I just-” Caleb’s earbud beeped, new message, Ty. He switched into VRD. “Caleb, come on over,” it read. He switched out and saw that Tiffany’s face had become furious.

“See, you don’t give a shit,” she said.

“No, it’s not- I just, I got a message. Sorry, I have to go. Speak, open front door.” He shot up and strode purposely towards the door. “Fuck you, Caleb,” he heard Tiffany scream from the couch. The sound of her weeping was drowned out by the soft hum of the Square.

“Caleb, come look at this.” Caleb walked over to the desk, the front door closing behind him, and looked at the object Ty was cradling. “This is a book,” Ty said with a proud grin. “It’s made out of paper, did you ever see paper?” Caleb shook his head with wide eyes while he watched Ty leaf gently through the pages. “This particular book contains the wisdom of a man named Friedrich Nietzsche, who was from a place called Germany, thousands of miles from here. He wrote it about two-hundred years ago.” Ty closed the book and held it up so Caleb could marvel at its alien cover. The words Thus Spoke Zarathustra were printed above a painting of a man looking out from a rocky precipice over a sea of fog.

“Where did you get it?”

“I’ll tell you soon, brother.”

“What does it say?”

Ty looked at the book with an air of profound respect. “Many beautiful things. It speaks to your soul, makes you feel alive, powerful and strong.”

“Can I read it?” Ty chuckled and put the book down on the desk.

“One step at a time, brother, one step at a time.” He turned to Caleb, reclined in his chair and folded his fingers across his chest. “So, I guess you didn’t rat me out. Not this time, anyway.” He chuckled again and Caleb sat on the couch opposite.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what you told me, and showed me,” he said.

“Yeah, it hits pretty hard.” Ty’s mind seemed to drift off. “Hey, let me show you something else.” He stood up and walked over to Caleb. “Lift your arm up.” Caleb raised his arm and Ty brushed his fingertips against his armpit in a gentle up and down motion. Caleb’s arm jerked down and he giggled hysterically, and Ty laughed and moved away.

“I haven’t felt that in years” Caleb said.

“The medication dulls it, but it looks like yours came back already. Congratulations.”

“I guess that shit is good for something after all, I hate being tickled.” Ty burst into hearty laughter and wiped a tear from his eye, then his face turned to stone and he leaned into Caleb’s space. Caleb was struggling to keep up with Ty’s relentless shifts in tone, but at least now he was sharing more.

“OK, so this is what I’m going to tell you. Did you see Alex White last night talking about the guy who got arrested in Chicago, and the stuff they found about a possible rebel movement here in U-T?”

“No, I don’t watch that show anymore.”

“Well, it’s real, the movement.” Ty tilted back in the chair. “That’s why I have all this crazy old shit. The guy in Chicago, he invented the sensor scrambler and had people smuggling them to cities across the country on Coalition vactrains. Some dudes here got hold of a few and used them to start secretly organizing and digging tunnels from a unit at the east end of the twenty-seventh floor. They knocked out the bedroom wall and dug out with whatever tools they could get their hands on. It was just one small cave at the start, an empty dirt hole, and they would hang out there. But they got more and more ambitious, and as more men joined the caves got bigger and more complex. Eventually they tunneled right through to a secluded part of the surface. Meanwhile through Glick — the guy in Chicago — they’d made contact with some Coalition people who were sympathetic to their cause and started bringing them stuff like guns, books, televisions and laptops with illegal files. Yeah, turns out they still have a ton of that old stuff up there, fucking hypocrites. Anyway, then they started giving them stuff like couches, chairs, tables, lamps, beds even — anything that’d make the caves more comfortable. Most people who had scramblers smuggled the electronics back to their units, but others took to living in the caves, only coming back into the city to stock up on food and other Coalition supplies.” He paused and gave Caleb a penetrating gaze. Caleb could hardly believe what he was hearing. “The ‘Comedy Caves’, they call them. An old friend got me in about eighteen months ago. There’s a few thousand of us now.” He spoke softly for effect. “And that, brother, is why I invited you over. We’re always on the lookout for people who belong with us.”

“It doesn’t make sense,” Caleb said. “How have you not been caught?”

“You’re right, one wrong move and it’s all over. Every decision we make is life or death, and that’s the one you have to make now. I’m offering you the chance to be part of something momentous.” Caleb kneaded his trembling fingers through the tatty hair on his chin.

“What if I said no and ratted you out? It only takes one guy doing that-”

“That’s the risk we have to take. So far no one’s said no. You can see it in a man’s eyes, when he’s one of us. I saw it in your eyes on the shuttle. But you’re right, if you want to leave now and rat us out, there’s nothing I can do to stop you. It wouldn’t work if we asked guys to join, they said no, and we then forced them to join against their will. And it’s not like I could just kill you. Well, I could, but I wouldn’t.”

“What if I was a Coalition spy?”

“Caleb, we’re aware of the risks. The top guys trust my judgement, they let me bring people in, and they vet the new guys. That’s all we can do. For all we know, the place could be teeming with spies already, and the Coalition’s information appeal won’t make things any easier. But we believe in this enough to consider the risks worth taking.” Caleb tightened his eyes and rubbed a hand across his forehead.

“How was it even possible to get this thing going? Whose idea was it?”

“From what I know it was a bunch of comedians. It started out as a way for them to do their jokes, like they did in the old days, then it gradually became a place for men to just do whatever men do, without the Coalition breathing down their necks.” His expression became profound. “It’s pretty great, Caleb. It’s given a lot of men a real shot at a life worth living.” Caleb stared at the ground and picked at the loose skin around his thumbnail.

“They’re going to come for me in a couple of days, after they test my urine sample.” Ty grinned as if Caleb had solved a riddle he’d given him.

“If you join us you can hide out in the caves for as long as it takes them to stop looking for you. You wouldn’t be the first to do that, they do eventually give up the search. When you do go back, to get supplies, you’ll have to cover your face and stay silent, unless you can get hold of a scrambler. Do you live with anyone?”

“My girlfriend.”

Ty let out a solemn groan. “It’s up to you, Caleb. Go back, let them put you on a higher dose and hope your girl forgives you. Or come to the caves, hide out and…” Lose Tiffany. Ty didn’t need to say it. Caleb reflected for several minutes while Ty waited with a respectful patience. When Caleb finally lifted his head and looked into the whites of Ty’s eyes, the sorrow etched on his face answered for him.

XI.

Ty had told Caleb to meet him at Unit 66 at the east end of Square 682 on the twenty-seventh floor, right out to where the Coalition had set the eastern underground city limit. Caleb walked through the Square cautiously, keeping an eye out for anything unusual, as well as any novelties that might be found at an extremity of the city. Neither surfaced.

“Psst, Caleb.” He turned to see Ty’s imposing figure in the Café™ doorway. “Get in here, bro.” Caleb scanned the Square and walked towards him. “Come on in,” Ty said. The Café™ was fuller and more lively than Caleb had come to expect, and the aroma of freshly re-varnished wood competed with that of roasting synthetic coffee beans. All but a few of the patrons were men, and the sound of their guarded chatter purred over the vending machines.

“We don’t meet right outside the unit,” Ty said. “This place is rigged with a scrambler. If any Security comes in, just stay cool.” He kept an eye on the Café™ entrance as he spoke. “The caves entrance is actually in Unit 42. They’ll check you when we go in, nothing to worry about, standard procedure. I told them about your situation, with the urine sample.” He analyzed Caleb, who was shifting his eyes around the men sneaking cagey glances at him. “You OK?”

“Are these guys OK with me being here?”

“It’s cool, man, they know my face.” Ty switched into VRD and switched out seconds later. “OK, let’s go.” Caleb followed his lead out of the Café™ and they moved through the Square to the entrance of Unit 42 and waited. The door skimmed open and revealed a stocky bald-headed white man standing by the bedroom door, dressed in black and nursing an old-fashioned rifle. Aside from his presence nothing would have given the living room away; it was lightly furnished with typical Coalition catalogue fare. Ty and Caleb approached the guard and he switched into VRD, switched out and nodded his large potato-shaped head at them. Ty nodded back and the bedroom door opened. As they walked in Caleb felt his breath shorten. The bedroom’s back wall had been knocked out, opening up into a cavern about ten times the size. Jagged grey rock stood in stark contrast to the bedroom’s pristine white right angles, and the extension was littered with mismatched furnishings — chairs, chests, makeshift beds, hanging baskets, metal tools and rugs laid out in a sparse patchwork. At the far end were two thick wooden doors, one carved with QUARTERS, ENGINEERING & STORAGE and the other with STAGE & COMMON AREA. Four black-clad men stood on watch, each holding the same rifle as the bedroom door guard.

Caleb, growing more nervous, tailed Ty through, and the man standing by the door marked STAGE & COMMON AREA moved its rusted metal latch and pushed it open. The next room was smaller. Four blue plastic chairs sat around a scuffed-up wooden desk and there was another bolted door at the far end. The two men waiting inside held up a palm and pointed to the chairs. Caleb and Ty sat and the two men sat opposite.

“Name,” said the larger one, staring at Caleb with cold eyes. The gruff voice suited his square jaw.

“Caleb Thompson.”

“Unit.”

“Unit 9632, off Square 1112B.” The man switched into VRD.

“Requesting remote access to VRD of citizen Caleb Thompson, Unit 9632, Square 1112B, Under-Toronto.” Caleb switched into VRD and an authorization prompt popped up.

“Access granted.” The room fell quiet for several minutes, punctuated only by the soft patter of the man’s thick fingers against his palm.

“Clear,” he eventually said. The other man stood.

“Remove all your clothes,” he said. Caleb looked at Ty, who bobbed his head in approval, then stood, yanked off his shirt, and paused briefly before pulling down his pants and underwear. The man walked around the desk and stood beside him. “Arms up,” he said. Caleb lifted both arms and the man tickled him, making him giggle and jolt his arms back down. The man then reached around to tickle his sides, and Caleb couldn’t stop himself thrashing his arms across to protect them. Finally the torture stopped and the man returned to his chair.

“Get dressed,” the other man said. Caleb was comforted by the warm embrace of his clothes. “No VRD inside. I disabled your tapper temporarily, just in case you got tempted. You are permitted trial entry to the common area. All new members are closely monitored until an appropriate level of trust has been established.” The other man walked to the door and unbolted it. Ty stood and walked toward it, and Caleb stayed close behind, dipping his head to the two guards.

The common area was a vast, vibrant hollow. Caleb gaped in astonishment at what must have been five or six hundred men talking, laughing, playing, exercising and relaxing. Some of them looked skeletal and disheveled, with long hair and beards and tattered, stained clothing, and others were pristine, like Ty, slickly groomed with buff physiques. At the far end, through the mass of bodies, Caleb could make out a wooden stage surrounded by rows of benches and tables. The rest of the cave was a semi-organized jumble of chairs, mattresses, blankets, pillows, lamps, draws, shelves, storage chests, weightlifting equipment and wooden cases full of books. There were also televisions, laptops and generators, set up like those in Ty’s unit. Along one part of the left-hand wall were racks of weaponry, mostly more of the old-fashioned rifles, as well as handguns and shotguns. Caleb clung to Ty as they made their way into the bustle. As they passed one case full of books Caleb read the text on several of the spines: Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, FC, Industrial Society and its Future, Julius Evola, Ride The Tiger. Nearby canvases of lazy picnics by lakes and cabins in tree-dense woods hung precariously by string on protruding stone.

“Nearly there,” Ty said. “I want to show you something.” They reached an open space roughly in the center, where a six-foot-plus wooden carving of a man on a marble base was surrounded by a dozen or so potted plants on an exotically-patterned rug. “That’s Jared Barnes, a hero of the caves,” Ty said. “One of our guys carved it.”

Caleb read the inscription on the marble. “Jared Barnes, comedian, freedom fighter and co-founder of the Comedy Caves.” He soaked in the carving’s detail. Barnes was made to look tall and thickset, with an overgrown beard, untidy hair and loose-fitting pants.

“Have you met him?” Caleb asked. Ty shook his head.

“He trusts very few people. He lives in a private area of the caves reserved for the founders and top guys, and I don’t think he comes out too often.” The sound of applause broke out from the benches at the far end. Caleb turned to see a man standing on the wooden stage. “Come on, let’s get a seat,” Ty said. They rushed to the benches, found a place to sit, and the crowd hushed. The man was a comedian, like the one Ty had showed Caleb on the television. He was stick thin and had a shock of thin blonde hair. As he told his jokes the men on the benches laughed rapturously. The laughter was infectious and before long Caleb joined in. The comedian’s material mercilessly mocked the Coalition elites and the medicated men and confused women of the underground. Caleb found it relatable in a way he’d never before experienced; at times he clapped in emphatic agreement, at others he laughed so hard it made his abdominal muscles throb. When the comedian left the stage to an ovation another man burst on to replace him. He was squat and wore faded light blue jeans that were too long for his dumpy legs.

“Jake Canterbury, awesome as usual,” he said, and the crowd applauded again. “OK, time for something a little different. This one should stoke the fire in your bellies. Please give a warm welcome to Duncan McGee!” McGee took to the stage and scrutinized the applauding crowd with a stern, hypnotic gaze. He was barrel-chested and had deep wrinkles ingrained in his freckled face.

“Together we have exposed the corruption of the evil technocrats who rule over us,” he said with a raspy, booming voice. “The censorship, the control, the abuse of power…but we have each made the choice to not be afraid. We have said no, we will not be reduced to the status of house cats!” The crowd cheered. “One day, one day soon, we will have grown strong enough to step out from the shadows of these caves and put an end to the madness of the soulless, cynical machine in which we are imprisoned! These people hate us, they hate the true spirit of humanity.” His voice had grown louder and angrier. “When we take the fight to them it will get ugly, but no matter how ugly it gets, we will never forget our duty, we’ll never forget why we fight.” He composed himself and lowered his voice. “Make no mistake, brothers, the loss of John Glick is a setback, but in the end it will make us stronger, because our anger is what fuels us. We’re now in more danger than ever before of being discovered, and I want you all to know that if they do find us I’ll be standing right beside you and fighting.” Men in the crowd had taken to their feet, clapping and cheering as if possessed by a mad spirit. Caleb sensed streams of hot blood coursing through their veins. He understood why they were moved by McGee’s words. Ty, though, looked unimpressed. “Come on, let’s head out,” he said when he caught Caleb observing him. Before Caleb had chance to protest he was scurrying behind Ty to the exit, the crowd’s roars fading into the distance.

XII.

White’s earbud beeped, an unwanted disruption to his morning ritual of drinking Indonesian single origin coffee and reflecting quietly over the lush Hills from his faux-Roman third-floor balcony. He switched into VRD; the email was from Taverick, the subject: “CLASSIFIED DOCUMENT”. “Enter Speak after reading,” read the email, and attached was a document named ‘Rebel faction discovered in Under-Toronto’ authored by Jim Bernstein. White opened it and began reading.

“Following the recent arrest of John Glick in Under-Chicago, my team followed a trail of evidence to a rebel faction organizing in a network of compromised Cafés in the east end of Under-Toronto. The Cafés were fitted with devices matching the prototype found in Glick’s apartment, which, as suspected, tamper with speech sensor functionality. Disguised as a sympathizer of the movement, I was able to make acquaintances in the Cafés, one of whom informed me of a tunneling operation reaching beyond the confines of the underground city. After some time spent befriending the subject he invited me to visit. Upon gaining access, I discovered a primitive network of caves frequented by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of non-medicated male citizens, all of whom appear to be participating in continuous, deliberate and voluntary violations of the Offense & Criticism and Toxic Masculinity Acts. The cave’s inhabitants have acquired a substantial arsenal of archaic weaponry, including automatic assault rifles, as well as contraband electronic equipment and illegal historical documents. I was informed that these items were smuggled in by Coalition sympathizers via a tunnel connection to the surface. Some citizens told me they are living in the caves permanently. Many of the inhabitants are of Caucasian descent, and I made acquaintance with several genetically-browned members who told me they are “re-identifying” with their “white Western heritage” in the sanctuary of the caves. In each of my three visits I observed highly offensive comedic performances, featuring content of extremely poor taste, hateful social commentary, unregulated criticism of both the Coalition and other citizens, and the presentation of ideas of a conspiratorial nature. In most cases this content was met with universal and uninhibited manic oppression from the audience. Furthermore, some of the men participated in organized violence and competitive sporting activities, and I witnessed radical calls to action against the Coalition, which they unanimously consider a tyranny. Based on my findings, I recommend an urgent and forceful raid of the caves, with the full expectation of an armed and dangerous response. Sharing of any details in this message is strictly prohibited and punishable under Corporate Coalition law.”

White closed the document and entered Speak. “Enter room KMnet Executives,” he said.

“White,” Taverick said.

“Yes.”

“You read it?”

“Yes.”

“The raid is going ahead at 9pm. Assuming everything goes to plan, we are running the story on tonight’s show, OK?

“OK.”

“Good. Speak off,” Taverick said. White switched out and flinched when he saw Melanie standing over him. She was wearing heavy make-up and a light blue dress that had a whimsical sunflower pattern.

“You ready to go?” she said.

“Yes dear.”

The artificial heat and light was a poor substitute for the real sun, but a substitute nonetheless, and White was thankful for it. He raised his face so the imitation rays hit his cheeks, then surveyed the guests in Hancox’s backyard. He wondered how they’d each react to news of the raid later that night. They’d feel a tinge of worry, discuss the wretched sinfulness of the men involved for a few stray minutes, then it would be forgotten, just like the horror of the scorching sun was forgotten after the domes had rendered it harmless. White listened to the burgers sizzle as Hancox flipped them.

“They’re smelling good!” Ramsell said.

“You know it!” Hancox said.

Ramsell turned to White, stretched out his legs, and rested his beer bottle on his pot belly. His white hair glistened in the shrill light. “Life’s good, isn’t it? We’ve got our families, friends, the heat is on, this beautiful backyard.” White smiled, nodded politely and took a sip of beer. It had gone warm and flat. He watched his kids splash each other in the kidney-shaped pool and saw Melanie gossiping with the other wives under the oak gazebo.

“Yeah, we sure have it good,” said Hancox, who’d overheard Ramsell. “Just think, you could be down there, munching on insects and guzzling corn syrup. Instead we have these gorgeous slabs of beef, these delicious beers. You better believe life’s good.” He tossed three burgers into buns, handed one each to White and Ramsell, slumped on the vacant patio chair and tore off a huge chunk of meat and bread with his front teeth. The creases in his dark brown forehead danced to his exaggerated chomping. “You guys ever think about how lucky we were to end up here?” he continued, admiring his backyard and gazing up at the dome’s semi-transparent roof. “I mean, just think about the last fifty years in this damn country. Who in the 2030s would have dared predict all this? They must have thought the world was ending.”

“I’m sure people stayed hopeful,” Ramsell said. “They wouldn’t have been able to achieve what they did if they hadn’t.”

“I get you. Sometimes I wonder where that hope got them though. I know it’s comfortable down there, but they’ve lost so much.”

“They haven’t lost anything they needed. I’m sure they’re grateful just to be surviving. Not only that, they don’t have to work and we give them everything they want, shot through the tubes straight into their units, beamed right into their retinas. I don’t know what more they could ask for, given the circumstances.”

“Sure,” Hancox said, staring contemplatively into his empty beer bottle. “You ever think about the Civil War, wonder about what the other side fought for? All that stuff about preserving the original vision of America, its freedoms, morals and culture. Those guys didn’t want the domes, the underground cities, the AI, they thought it was time to face up to the mess the country had made of itself, rather than just hide from it like they accused the other side of doing.”

“They were hateful radicals.”

“Maybe. It didn’t matter in the end, the Chinese decided for us. The rest is history.” Hancox’s new beer bottle fizzed as he pulled off the cap.

“The Chinese did the right thing, they saved us. What else could we have done?”

“I don’t know, I just can’t help wondering how things could’ve turned out if people had cared more about their liberties and what our ancestors laid out during the Enlightenment. They knew the Chinese were about censorship, surveillance and dictatorship — they knew that all along — but they still sided with them the minute things got tough.”

“It was the only way, you must know that. Don’t forget, they had no idea the sun was going to warm up as fast as it did, or that the air was going to become that toxic.”

Hancox’s eyes were pained and his teeth were grating, as if he was holding himself back from speaking freely. “What about the republic of our founding fathers? Were they right to just give up on it, replace it with this faceless techno-corpocracy that runs on little more than algorithms and platitudes?”

“The constitution ran its course. It’d become a sham anyway, the whole reason the country was falling apart. No one in their right mind would have said that old nonsense was the best way to deal with the situation. They needed order and efficiency so they could save as many people as possible. It was no time for arguing about politics or speaking of rights and ideals.”

“Where does it end, though? When would the Coalition ever admit it’s gone too far? And even if it did, how could it be stopped now? Take the past twenty years alone; some would say the Great Wipe was the most totalitarian move in the history of-”

“Jamie-,” Ramsell interrupted.

“I know, I know, I’m just saying, the sensors, the laws, the medication, when will it ever be enough? When will the Coalition decide the underground is as safe and stupid as it needs to be to make sure no one down there ever questions anything, they all just obey and consume until they drop dead?

“You’re being unreasonable. Look at the crime rates underground, it’s virtually at nil, a total miracle. Something had to be done about toxic masculinity. We just had to accept it and do something about it once and for all, and we’re all better off as a result.”

“Yeah, I don’t know. What do you think, Alex? You’re staying quiet.” They both looked at White expectantly.

“I stay out of these conversations. With my job all it takes is one person overhearing me say the wrong thing and I’m done.”

Hancox let out a disappointed chuckle. “You can talk to us though, right? It’s not like we’re going blabbing.” White smirked sheepishly. “I remember how you used to be,” Hancox continued. “You wouldn’t have stayed quiet about this shit when we were kids. You weren’t scared to speak the truth. You were funny as hell too, man. I know you had to adapt, we all did, but listen, we don’t have to go around pretending we magically became new people just because the Coalition came along.” He stared into White’s eyes with a sinister grin, like he was looking at his soul. “I know you’re still fucked up,” he said.

“Come on, that’s not fair,” Ramsell said. “I think you’ve had one too many beers.”

“Ah, he knows I’m playing.”

“Guys, I have to get going, big show tonight,” White said. He downed the last of his beer, stood up and placed his hand on Hancox’s shoulder. “Thanks Jamie, the burger was great, the house is looking fantastic.”

“Look, now you made him leave,” Ramsell said. Hancox tilted back his head and laughed with an open mouth.

“No, it’s not- really, it’s a big show tonight. I’ll see you guys later, enjoy the rest of the day.”

XIII.

Caleb’s second time getting into the caves had been straightforward; the guards verified his identity in VRD and he was in. When he and Ty entered the common area they were greeted by the sight of two bare-chested men fighting in a makeshift circular ring formed by hundreds of cheering spectators. Caleb watched in near disbelief as the fighters, one of whom looked somewhat bigger and stronger than the other, grappled on the floor, which was covered in blood and sweat. The smaller man wriggled free and stumbled to his feet, only for the larger one to stand too and elbow him in the cheekbone after dodging a tired right cross. He plunged to the ground and dark red blood spurted out of his face. The men at the front of the crowd rushed in to protect him while the victorious fighter raised his arms in the air. Soon after the crowd dispersed and a state of relative calm returned to the caves.

“What was all that about?” Caleb asked, turning to Ty with wide open eyes.

“Fight night, I guess we missed most of it.” Seeing the men in combat had touched a virgin part of Caleb’s soul, giving him a similar feeling to the one he had listening to McGee the night before, a sort of bubbling, visceral rush of energy.

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” he said, “why did we leave during that talk last night? It was interesting, I wanted to hear what he had to say.” Ty seemed irritated by the question.

“Listen, brother, the way I see it is, we’re here to become better men, we’re here to laugh, to create, to learn, to be among like minds who care about what it means to be a man. The problem with folks like McGee is they make dudes feel like this is about going after the Coalition and causing a revolution, but it’s not, and even if it was, we wouldn’t stand a chance.” He paused, looking pensive. “We have a good thing going here. If we allow ourselves to get too riled up we’ll do something stupid and make it all for nothing. What we’re doing is enough. This isn’t about toppling the Coalition, it’s about building a new world outside of theirs. That takes time, effort and patience, it takes having honor and an unwavering belief in our values. It takes accepting that we probably won’t even be around to freely enjoy the fruits of what we’re creating. The people who want a quick-fix revolution just aren’t ready to accept those challenges, because it’s much easier to go out in a blaze of glory than truly gear your life towards higher, noble principles.”

Ty’s words made Caleb feel a wave of shame at how easily McGee’s words had induced a seething anger in him. “So, this is all we can do?”

“This is it, brother.” A roar came from the benches near the stage and Caleb turned to see a man emerging onto the wooden platform. He and Ty made their way over and took a standing space behind the benches, where a good portion of the men in the cave had gathered. It was another comedian. He had a crooked nose and a weak chin that was trying to grow stubble. His style of comedy was different — not exactly better or worse — to the comedian Caleb had watched the night before. The jokes relied on him speaking quickly and anxiously, whereas the other had been assured and measured in his delivery. One of his bits was an extended sequence in which he savagely impersonated a medicated man taking orders from and grovelling to his girlfriend. Another was a side-splitting rant that ridiculed the Coalition’s incessant endorsement of voluntary homosexuality as a means to, as they termed it, “depressurize the atmosphere of lust for females among the male population”. The comedian repeatedly said the Coalition was trying to turn him into a ‘faggot’. Caleb thought the word sounded funny; every time the comedian said it he giggled. He wasn’t exactly sure why it was so hilarious, perhaps it was the crispness of the ‘ət’ as it bounced off the ‘g’, which itself punctuated the satisfying ‘fæ’ with a delicious punch. The crowd lapped all of it up, laughing and applauding wildly.

From where Caleb was standing the laughter’s volume almost drowned out the bang that came from the common area entrance and reverberated through the cave. He swiveled his head and saw billowing clouds of smoke and chips of wood and rock scattered on the ground. Before another thought entered his mind most of the men around him were already up and moving. Among the shoving mass of bodies he felt Ty’s giant hand tugging on his arm. “Move!” Ty said, dragging Caleb further from the entrance. They pushed through the dispersing crowd to the closest free table and Ty tipped it over so they could skid onto their knees and take cover. Caleb peeked over the table and saw a line of Security military drones that had become visible through the clearing smoke. Through the manic shouting dim fragments of a machinelike announcement came from the entrance. “…on your knees, hands on your… quarantine in effect.” Caleb dropped his head back below the table.

“What the fuck is going on?” he yelled.

“Just wait here! Keep your head down, they’re not shooting.” Ty watched the scene unfold, still and alert like a hawk. “Oh fuck,” he said.

“What?”

The drones spoke again, this time louder. “Failure to comply will be met with the use of deadly force.” Caleb looked over the table and saw men kneeling out in the open with their hands on their heads, facing the drones. Others had armed themselves with rifles and taken cover behind the furnishings. “Hold your fire!” Caleb heard one man shout. “Ready to engage!” said another.

“Failure to comply will be met with the use of deadly force,” said the drones.

Ty pushed Caleb down by the shoulder and raised himself up further. “Don’t fucking shoot!” he screamed at the top of his voice, cupping his dark hands around his mouth. “Do not fucking shoot!” His voice was flooded by the sound of clattering gunfire and Caleb stuffed his fingers in his ears to muffle the deafening pops. A thunderous rattle resonated from the entrance through the cave and Caleb heard cries of agony and the sound of metal and wood being punctured and ripped apart close by. Ty flew backwards as if he had been slammed by a hurtling train. A gush of red streamed out of his forehead and trailed behind him as he collapsed onto his back, pupils rolling above his eyelids.

“No!” Caleb said, squeezing his eyes closed in reaction to the sight of Ty’s limp body. The rattle persisted until the men’s gunfire and screams died out. When it stopped an ominous silence filled the room, and Caleb opened his eyes and looked at Ty’s lifeless face in horror.

“Failure to comply will be met with the use of deadly force,” said the drones. Caleb built up the courage to slowly lift his head from below the table. The men who had got to their knees were still alive. Everyone else was dead, covered in blood, some with limbs torn from their carcasses. Two of about a dozen drones lay flat on their sides with sparks fizzing out of them, and the others had begun to creep forward into the cave. Caleb ducked below the table and listened to the drones draw closer. The shuffle of footsteps came from the entrance, and soon after a man’s voice bellowed out. “Coalition Security! Down on your knees, hands on your head!” Caleb adjusted his stance to kneel and raised his hands to his head. He shut his eyes and noticed the frantic throbbing of his heart. The Security officers worked their way through the cave, barking orders at each other and the surrendering men. “Confirmed neutralized” and “confirmed secured” they said repeatedly, their voices drawing closer. Caleb felt the presence of a drone hovering beside him and a prick stabbed his left arm. He became drowsy and crumpled onto the cold floor, staying conscious just long enough to see the murky silhouette of a Security officer standing over him.

XIV.

White watched on from behind his on-set desk as the agitated ensemble of KMnet showrunners, producers and executives hurriedly prepared to go on air. Huge lights bathed the set’s fine oak furnishings and glistening red and blue backdrop. Sweat dampened the back of White’s fine cotton shirt. Taverick, sitting motionless in the executive booth above, had tense eyes fixed on him. For a split second, among all the commotion, the thought of going off script and making a statement that would throw the Coalition, the underground and his own life into disarray crossed White’s mind.

A showrunner, an elegant Chinese woman White had only ever seen wearing the same tight-fitting dark blue suit, walked onto the set. The long bony heels of her shoes made a clacking sound against the hard black floor. “Mr. White,” she said, “we are ready. The raid was a success and our story is straight. We’re on air in one minute.” White nodded dispassionately and watched her walk off set. The crew took their positions and an anxious hush came over the studio. “Live in three, two,” the head producer called out. White stared down the camera lens with a grave expression and read the prompter.

“Hello and welcome to Tonight with Alexavier White! This evening we bring you breaking news from Under-Toronto, where the Corporate Coalition of North America has carried out a successful raid on a malicious faction of non-medicated male citizens operating from an illegal cave network outside the underground city. Earlier this evening, Security military drones breached the caves and neutralized the threat, doing everything they could to prevent loss of life and injury. Surviving members of the criminal group are being transferred to detention centers across the state of Ontario for interrogation. The suspected leader of the operation, a Caucasian named Jared Barnes, is among those detained.” White waited for the prompter to catch up. “This hate-based organization was using technology designed to disrupt the speech sensors, and had smuggled in firearms and other illegal equipment given to them by above-ground Coalition connections, who Security teams are in the process of apprehending. Members of the group were participating in extreme violations of Offense & Criticism and Toxic Masculinity laws, committing reckless acts of brutality and manic oppression. I’d like to take this opportunity to praise the Security intelligence operatives involved, whose courageous work in Under-Toronto uncovered and eradicated this parasitical movement before it was able to cause significant damage. On behalf of the entire nation, I also thank the Security officers who risked their lives by entering the caves to secure the area and detain the suspects. Such bravery is what allows the overwhelming majority of good citizens to go on living in equity, harmony and respect.” White paused for effect. “People of the Corporate Coalition of North America, if you have any information you believe may be related to the organization in Under-Toronto, or any other illegal gatherings across the country, please contact Security immediately. With that, we bring you a statement from President Cherry Zhing.”

The face of the President appeared on the studio screens. Her hair was shorter than it was the last time White saw her, and looked like it had been cut with a bowl placed over it. Her bright red lips were pursed and her head was tilted up slightly, injecting what she was about to say with an aura of consequence. “Citizens, as a nation we value nothing more than inclusion, empathy and tolerance. The group of males discovered in Under-Toronto tonight brazenly went against everything we stand for. I am relieved to announce that the threat they posed was dealt with as safely and cleanly as the situation allowed. As a result of these developments, we have made a commitment to strengthening Security apparatus throughout the underground cities. In case there are men out there who still need reminding, hatred and violence will not be tolerated in any form. On behalf of the Corporate Coalition of North America, I wish you a pleasant evening. In AI we trust.” The screen went dark and the prompter instructed White to smile.

“OK, folks,” he said, “let’s get on with the show.”

XV.

Caleb squinted and shook his head in an effort to focus his blurred vision, and writhed instinctively when he felt the tight straps around his wrists and ankles. The room was similar to the one he’d been held in three days earlier, with the same stationary drone in the corner and the DO NOT MOVE sign above. He dropped his head back against the plastic chair and exhaled despairingly when the memory of what had happened hit him. Before he had chance to collect his thoughts the door zipped open and two Chinese women walked in and sat opposite. The one to his left had pristine straight black hair and a rather cute button nose, and the other was decidedly unfeminine, with butch hands and unpleasant acne scars across her pale face. They both observed Caleb with critical eyes.

“Mr. Thompson,” said the woman sitting to his right, “in light of tonight’s events we just rushed through the urine sample you submitted a few days ago.” She gave Caleb a chance to respond, but he chose to stay quiet. “Why did you stop taking the medication?” Caleb looked past her with a forlorn stare. “Our data indicates you stopped taking it around three weeks ago. Is that accurate?”

“Yes,” Caleb said. The woman to his left switched into VRD and tapped commands into her palm.

“How did you become involved in the illegal gathering?” asked the woman on the right. Caleb pondered his options, and decided telling the truth was the only one that made any sense.

“I met someone who invited me to visit. Your drones killed him.” He shuddered as he spoke the words that made Ty’s gruesome death real. “Tonight was only my second time. I had no intentions of harming anyone.”

“Mr. Thompson, I’m sure you understand that your very attendance in the caves and participation in the activities occurring within were inherently harmful.” A wave of hopelessness washed over Caleb. “Who was he, the man who invited you?” the woman continued.

“His name was Ty James.” Tears brimmed his eyelids.

“How did you meet him?”

“On a shuttle. He started talking to me, then asked me to come to his unit.”

“Tyrell James, black male, Under-Toronto, prostitute,” said the woman in VRD. “Confirmed deceased tonight at 9:26pm.” Her words made a blast of vivid anger rise up in Caleb.

“I don’t understand why your drones killed him,” he said, his hands and feet straining against the oppressive straps. “He wasn’t attacking. They didn’t kill the other men who surrendered, so why did they kill him?”

“We cannot confirm the details of the events, Mr. Thompson. The drones’ targeting technology is extremely advanced, however it cannot always account for the possibility of stray bullets or shrapnel in dynamic combat situations.” She paused and narrowed her eyes. “Please remember that we are asking the questions, Mr. Thompson.” Caleb blinked to clear the water from his eyes. “Besides, whatever Mr. James told you, we can only assume it was of a slanderous, deceptive and offensive nature. Now, moving onto why we’re here, it’s obvious to us that your dangerous behaviour is a direct result of temporary non-medication. In such circumstances we consider whether a higher dosage combined with time spent in rehabilitation could be enough to help offenders reintegrate into civilized society. In your case, based on your clean record prior to this recent outburst of criminal activity, we have decided on a five-year rehabilitation period to be served under strict medical supervision. Assuming you maintain a record of good behaviour, you will then be free to re-enter Under-Toronto on probation.” Caleb listened in grim defeat as his fate was revealed. More than anything he was angry with himself for being so careless after dumping Posimasc™, for being swept up in the fantasy of the caves, for daring to believe the Coalition could be so audaciously deceived.

“Mr. Thompson, do you understand the conditions of your rehabilitation?”

“Yes.”

“Good. You’ll be transferred to the rehabilitation facility immediately. First, however, you’re permitted to send one voice message to a person of your choosing, to inform them of your absence. You’ll have no communication with the outside world during your rehabilitation, so we advise you to make full use of this opportunity.” The straps around Caleb’s wrists loosened and he pulled out his hands gratefully. “You have five minutes to compose the message and await a response.”

Caleb switched into VRD. “Send voice message to Tiffany,” he said, and the voice message application opened and began recording. “Tiffany, you probably saw the news tonight.” He paused, looking for the right words. “I got mixed up in it. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I swear I didn’t want to hurt anyone.” His voice cracked. “They’re sending me away for five years. Please try not to worry about me. I love you. Send message.” Tiffany came online. Seconds passed with Caleb seized by agonizing tension, then she went offline. He watched and waited with dwindling hope for her to come back and respond.

“OK, Mr. Thompson, that’s five minutes. Thank you for your cooperation. Drone, escort citizen to ward 967.” The drone sprang to life and hovered towards Caleb. A dart lodged in his left arm and his consciousness slipped away.

Epilogue

Caleb swirled the hot cup of coffee-flavored soymilk and the gooey liquid folded over itself decadently. A repeat of the previous night’s episode of Tonight with Alexavier White! played on the Café™’s holographic screens above while the handful of customers sat mute with their eyes lit a dim blue, every so often getting up to collect beverages and snacks from the vending machines.

Looking out, eyes vacant, from the front window over the Square, Caleb was lost in thought about how little had changed underground during his time away and the two years since his release. He thought about Tiffany and his old life and about Ty and the caves. He thought about the endless drudgery of his time in rehabilitation and the unconditional love of his parents, who took him in when he got out. The Posimasc™ was beginning to wear off. This time he would be more careful, he told himself over and over.

A man walked into the Café™, collected a drink from the vending machine and sat down. Caleb watched him stare into space and blow periodically on the frothy liquid. He had long, scruffy blonde locks and a snub nose, and looked a few years younger than Caleb. Something about him was engrossing, perhaps the unmistakable humanity in his eyes, the apprehensive way they shifted around the Café™. He reminded Caleb of the day he met Ty on the shuttle, and made him feel as though Ty’s spirit and the spirit of the caves were alive in the air. Without thinking, he stood up, walked over to the man and sat across from him. The man examined him uneasily. “Can I help you?” he asked.

“Sorry to bother you.” Caleb leaned in and whispered. “It’s just that I don’t see many people in here who aren’t constantly zoned out in VRD, so I thought I’d say hello. You having a good day?”

“Who wants to know?”

Caleb held his hand out across the table. “Caleb.” The man analyzed the hand with suspicion, then clutched it hesitantly.

“Josh,” he said. Caleb looked up at White’s loathsome face on the holographic screen above.

“Great, isn’t he?” he asked Josh with a mischievous grin.

“Sure, I guess,” Josh said, smirking back but at the same time scrutinizing Caleb’s eyes.

“I just heard him talking about those caves they found here back in 2080,” Caleb said. “About how awful that whole thing was. I sure hope nothing like that ever happens again.” He took a sip of soymilk and gave Josh an almost imperceptible wink. Josh’s smile grew wider and hopeful. “Don’t you?” Caleb continued.

“Of course,” Josh said, “that’d be terrible.” He scrunched his cheeks and put his hand over his mouth, as if stifling laughter.

Twitter: @adamwinfield

Blog: Palimpsest

Blog: palimpsestaw.wordpress.com