Just so we’re situated here, you’re the reader. I’m your heroine, Ellipsis, a reader too but of a different kind, a threatened breed, almost obsolete, competing with 12 trillion people for work in the Single System System (SSS). It’s crowded. We’re busy. There’s no time for introductions really. Forgive me if I’m terse, curt, abrupt. That’s just how it is. How we live. Welcome to my world.

Take the hero’s journey with me anyway. It’ll be worth it. You’ll see return on investment — that’s ROI in biz-buzz, which is actually what I need to calculate right now. Maybe you can help. Here's the deal. The boss wants trees and I'm on a gig reducing biz texts, so ROI is on my mind, yields. What I want is info, to know if the Lovesport exists. The Lovesport, if it is, is a semi-secret maybe-fake employment competition held on the famously awesome campus of MoreCorp Silicon, allegedly. The boss, Daisy, is from the place where this game’s played, if it's played. So risk for possible return. I’ll do it, get her stuff, and indicate as much with a nod. She tosses her lioness's mane in approval and glides away, a tiny giant dazzling me with the powerful aura of the world's friendliest corporation. 

When she’s gone, I write to Wolf, who is seated one slot over, asking if he thinks this is bad. He shrugs across the transparent plasti-glass divider and types a message that appears on the screen before me: Not AFAICT. I look up quizzically and he translates, providing: Forest eye can tell. Now I shrug as he laughs at my hopeless ignorance, typing: As Far As I Can Tell.

That night, at home, I prepare the offering and the next day, back at the office, it is made. I’m surprised at ROI. Yields are immediate. Daisy wanders over after finding a paper cone of herb stuffed in her purse, smiling sincerely for the first time since this gig started a week ago. She invites me and Wolf to switch slots, saying, “You and boo should move near me. I’m lonely.” 

I rise, trying to discreetly sweep a notebook and pen into my bag. But Daisy spots this and is curious. She has questions. “Knows prose,” she asks. “The Arts Old? Right on. Super kool!” 

Not wanting to admit dated skills to my sole contact with the company that owns the future, whatever she claims, I neither confirm nor deny. (Because if prose is so kool, why are we controlling it?) Instead of answering Daisy, I signal to Wolf that we’re moving with a sideways thumb. 

He gathers his stuff, joining us in the corridor between slots and offering to go get drinks. Wolf is classic — tall, dark, and handsome, refined yet wild — and Daisy approves, saying, “Take my card. It’s on Uncle MoreCorp.” Then she gives him her complicated drink order and turns to me, instructing with a mean laugh. “Follow, Ellipsis, and watch closely as we fux with heads.” 

Daisy is right. Reader resentment is palpable as we pass the small, sullen, group of temps mostly doing the minimum. That’s maximization. See, Too Long Don’t Read – TLDR – is a text reduction method innovated by biz-dev thought leaders for plus-what’s-up-minus-space-waste. It’s part of Prose Control, a project spawned by MoreCorp’s famous formula, the algorithmic perfect, Near Zero, also known as N0.

But corporate reverence for N0 has bred reader contempt for yes, so most do near zero. There are reasons for this. Gigs are rare, and the more we do, the less is left to reduce. For when we are toiling, registered professional readers — regi-profs in the parlance — relieve the world of works great and small. We aggregate them all in spreadsheets because writing’s wordy and best concentrated to its essence … or less. 

Projects vary in length and subject — biz, histo, law, lit, medi, philo, tax, tek. Everything must go. Or more precisely, get condensed to a sentence. We get to the heart, the TLDR, because words waste space and take time to digest, and time is money, and money is, well, everything. 

That’s how the acronym became the ideal expression. With brevity as the primary goal of writing, each TLDR assignment presents a unique challenge to thoughtful readers, like me. I once had to reduce the ancient Tao Te Ching to so near zero it nearly broke my heart … but more on that later. Some readers don’t give a fux of course, eliminating everything. 

But that’s fine because less is more in TLDR, as evidenced by the motto Daisy shouts at readers while leading me out of the office. “Reduction’s production y’all!” She blows a kiss at the hunched workers in their slots and explains to me in a loud whisper that cruel flirtation will come in handy and she’s practicing. “I’m growing sexpertise in case MoreCorp ends up a no-go.” 

We exit the building to a blustery, gray Metropolis afternoon, bitter cold, trudging through slush to an alley where Daisy smokes a spliff and I puff a cig. She's tiny and tense, huddled in a hoodie, wrapped in a scarf, and stuffed in silver tektites more for running than managing an office in Metropolis. But Daisy is from Silicon, where garb is not a signifier. I ask, “How so no-go? What will you do?”

“Strip,” she replies. 

“Are you serious? Don’t you make bank at MoreCorp? Or what,” I ask. “The Lovesport? Are you a player?”

Daisy exclaims bitterly. “Ahhh … The Lovesport, that’s all anyone ever wants to know!” She throws the roach into a filthy snowbank and turns back to the office, walking in silence. At the door, before thumbing the scanner programmed with her print, she turns to me and whispers, “I’m in it. Muthahellaplusfrigginsux.”

“What?”

“Shhh…” 

Upstairs, we slide straight into our slots and get back to work. Nothing to talk about but much to consider! I’m inspired by Daisy’s revelation. Still, I don’t tell Wolf about it when he’s back with our drinks because we’re supposed to be working anyway, and his magical realism involves a higher proportion of real to magic than mine. He disdains hope as a delusional philo for the consolation of morons. 

But if the Lovesport is real, then maybe there is hope that we’ll play – our metrics are meteoric and we could really use a break. Or maybe Daisy’s playing me to suit her own needs. Siliconians are famously fake and, just generally, everyone’s got an angle — that’s why biz-devers say a project is like a microcosm of the universe, with all of us interconnected, dependent, and ruled by executives.

Either way, it’s ok. I’ve been reading carefully, learning all the biz-buzz from the best, MoreCorp. So I get it. Strategic partnerships! Whether you’re a major corporation or a mere mortal scrambling to kick open its doors, people (organic or legal) need a connect.

MoreCorp embraces nowpow, the power of now. It's about thinking positively and deserving the best so that what manifests will be awesome. Feel-good slogans are used in promotions to motivate the webbed citizens of the Single System System (SSS) to desire and fulfill desires.

But the power of now is not for all, per Daisy. Manifestation of conscious desires is afforded only a fortunate few inside. “Those fux are super RACI,” she says. 

“Who," I ask nervously. "MoreCorp? I thought they eliminated racism.”

It’s official — an SSS efficiency. But the boss is a tiny woman, brown with an Aztec face and two long thick braids. Land mines lie everywhere, maybe especially in intimate settings. We’re having drinks nestled in a mock-croc booth in an imi-brass bar, fake old-timey, a pricey joint. MoreCorp is paying. 

"Yeah,” Daisy laughs.  “Racism. Goodbye. Tell me about it.”

“I wasn’t. I was just saying. Or, you were saying and I was asking.”

“Not racism. Well yes, but hush-hush because bye-bye.” She explains. “I said RACI, the acronym. Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed."

"What's that?"

"Consider yourself informed of the MoreCorp info-structure.”

“Wait what? Infrastructure or…?”

“No, info structure," Daisy corrects me. "In which I am informed of my marching orders. Got it?”

“Not really,” I say and feel the pen in my pocket, wishing I could take notes. But that would be supremely unkool and I’m not bio-wired to record this though I’ll surely be reporting it to Wolf. 

“It’s pretty simple,” Daisy grins wickedly and takes a sip of her drink. 

RACI, she says, is a communication system designed to appropriately channel information during organizational transformations, designating who says what. And when and how. But because MoreCorp is ever-evolving, projects and products proliferating constantly, the company is in perpetual flux. It's forever managing iterations, key to maintaining an innovative startup edge, so RACI always dictates. 

“Doesn’t sound like MoreCorp.” I’m skeptical. “Aren’t they all about growing good for the greater good by sharing?” 

“Really, Ellipsis? Of course. Your input is welcome. File a ticket, tell us all about it. It’s just lip service,” Daisy dismisses. “Like ServCorp advertising its services when we have no choice anyway. The power of now belongs to the powerful. If you’re so into The Arts Old you should know that.”

“Sure. Historically," I object. "But this is the triple post-mod and MoreCorp is all about info and exchange.” 

“Wrong, only one way, so no exchange.” Daisy breaks it down. “The Informed are mutes who execute, fulfill wishes.”

“Is that where I stand?”

“You wish! You don’t exist.” Daisy raises her glass to toast. “Are you feeling lucky yet?” 

“So it sux? The Lovesport? MoreCorp? Both?”

“Yeah. Shit you’re thick.” She shakes her head. “Why am I telling you all this?”

“Cuz you’re lonely. I mean, you said…”

“And you’re funny, speed demon with a dream.”

“Meaning?”

“Meaning, I’ll recommend you guys for the game when I get back, you and boo. But it’s all crap.”

“Awesome! Thanks! Anyway how crap can it be? They sent you to Metropolis. You’re making greenies. Plus Lovesport. You’re competing. You could have nowpow someday. Believe.”

“Why?”

“Because.” I’m embarrassed to say it. “Win-think?”

“Win-think?” Daisy slams her drink. “Chica fux! We can’t all win! They tell you that so you’ll feel some type of way about their games.” 

Nothing she says exactly surprises me. I’m not totally sold on nowpow anyway. What about perspective? Still, I’m intrigued. If I had an expense account and was issuing orders to the uninformed all day, I might find it amusing.

So I try to imagine winning, just in case the universe is listening. Not that I believe in win-think exactly, but I don’t not. And we need a miracle, Wolf and I, a quick fix, something unlikely, like the Lovesport. So Daisy’s pessimism does not deter but only strengthens my resolve. 

That evening, walking home, I run it all by Wolf, explaining RACI. “Crazy, right?”

“Can you tell me again? Accountables inform the consulted and then…?”

“No. The Consulted inform…”

“Conform?”

“Definitely, yes, also that.” I laugh. “Do you think she’s exaggerating?”     

“She’s something, maybe exaggerating. Sounds fux. Anyhow, good work, a lot of good info here.” 

“I’m not pressing, Wolf.” 

He raises his eyebrows, exhales smoke into the dark cold air where it hangs still. Smirks. 

“Seriously, She can see how bad I want it and she’s warning.”

“What if she’s just throwing off your metrics," he asks. "Testing you?”

“I appreciate a story about me, conceded. But I don’t matter and we’ll be lucky to find out how fux it really is.”

“So when will that happen, do you think,” Wolf asks. “Us going to Silicon?”

“Whenever. No one knows. Because RACI. And they’re into disruption, so no scheduling. But she’ll recommend us for the next round and she’s playing now.”

He grins, looking very pleased with himself. “I’m feeling pretty game to win this game.”

“We can’t all win,” I reply sharply, slightly surprised by my own vehemence. “Well, just based on what Daisy said. We can’t all win. So we should have a position. We should agree that whoever’s in, whoever wins, we’ll support each other.”

“You mean the loser supports the winner,” Wolf asks.

“Yes but financially the winner supports the loser. So everyone wins.”

“Total support?”

“Are we negotiating or are you asking or what?”

“I’m hopeful.” Wolf laughs. “You’ll win. I’m looking forward to total financial support.”

“Sweet sentiment but we won’t see sunny Silicon for a while." I remind him, "And you hate hope.”

“I don’t hate hope,” he objects. “I just don’t have it, not naturally. I’m not like you. Deluded.”

“Maybe you should be,” I suggest and we walk the rest of the way in silence.

When we get home to our rented mini-cube in a converted factory on a remote industrialized island near Metropolis, called the Point, I grab a leash and the doge and walk Hound round the block. Back out in the cold night I contemplate Daisy’s advice to not feel some type of way

But I can’t help it. Is that not what it means to be human? I can’t master the feels, not even physical stuff — hunger, cold, habits. Stopping at Vinnie’s for slices, waiting at the delivery door, I smoke cigs while the pizza chef feeds the doge discarded crusts. 

“You’re still what,” Vinnie asks. “R2D2?”

“Close. TLDR, text reduction. I’m on a MoreCorp gig right now.”

“MoreCorp! Nice. Hot. Love MoreCorp, very friendly. Are people super kool?”

“Not really. It’s just temping for MidCorp with a MoreCorp boss.”

“Ok. Still kool, right?”

“Yeah. Totally. I might even get to play in the Lovesport. You know about that?”

“For sure. That’s the dream.” Vinnie runs his hands under the antibac-vac, grabs two roni slices and a bag of rolls. He puts his palms together and bows. “On the house, little one. Win the game. May the Force be with you.”

Daisy is no longer in the Lovesport. She didn’t seem into it before but is pissed she didn’t win. We've been vidchatting ever since. Daisy says she's billing the time as syncs

“Who do you say you’re syncing with,” I ask, squinting to make her out on my teeny screen in my tekspecs. “I mean, since I’m not working and you’re not either looks like.”

I have been hanging around the cube all winter with Wolf and Hound, absorbing rumors of projects that never materialize. We keep busy anyway, walking the doge, pamphleteering,  pretending we're not worried. Metropolis is fux -- storms all season, no transport, no gas, limited wifi and lights, and definitely no work.

Trudging through slush with the dogerman winter, past lines of cars at gas stations, cops with automatic weapons manning the pumps, the weak winter sun landing only on the industrialized glitter of the resource recycling plant that shadows the Point, I try to desire nothingNot even relief. But still desire. Because it's all the same thing.    

FWIW,” Daisy replies, “I’m just out of the games, so I work but won’t get a job.”

“Oh, ok, weird. What’s that? FWWW?”

“I. not W. For what it’s worth. That is, nada, it ain’t worth shit.”

“How's that work? You work with no job?”

“Don’t you know this intimately, Ellipsis? It's all temping.” Daisy explains, “So I’m working until I term out while victors get on-boarded at MoreCorp.” Daisy disappears from the screen momentarily and reappears with a grin and a large lollipop, swirly primary colors, like the MoreCorp logo. “My consolation prize.”

“But it’s good, right?” I try to understand. “Because you’re still there?”

“Yeah, feeling very lucky bitch. Because lollipops.”

“Sorry.”

“No worries. I talked to PeopleOps and you’re on the roster for the next wave. You plus boo.”

“Holy awesome! Thank you! What do we do?”

“Sit tight. Be ready.”

“Umm.”

“You heard me! You wanna be on the wave, you have to be hanging out waiting for it.”

“Is this, like, surfing?”

“No. It’s like life. You’re watching to catch the wave. If you do, you’ll ride it.” Daisy licks the lollipop and reconsiders. “I guess you’re right. That’s totally surfing. My bad.”

Months pass. Nothing happens until things happen really fast and MoreCorp demands we be available in Silicon mid-month…maybe. X-country on a dice roll. No promises. The company wants a commitment and will talk to us if we can move swiftly. In return it may offer twelve-week contracts (called K's) via a MidCorp to ensure that the MoreCorp brand maintains its exclusivity. And to limit liability. 

But wait. Terms. Conditions. Tests. Tek. First, a vidchat predicated on N0. 

The recruiter's avatar is a shark, which is weird because her name is Cake Big, lending itself to many more friendly visual representations than the one she chose. She speaks to me from what sounds like a crowded stadium but looks like a sauna. I can barely see her for what seems to be steam. Or hear her, as the call comes while I’m walking Hound through a construction zone, so it’s loud on both ends and difficult to watch her charmingly while wrangling doge.

Anyhow, it sounds like the lady’s basically saying everything sux. “MoreCorp totally doesn’t need you but we’ve got these waves and Daisy gave us your name and you played ok, so we’ll give you a try if you can tell us why.”

“I’m sorry. Was that a question? Like, why should you hire me?”

“Before we get to my q I'll tell you…” Big shouts, loud and clear now. “IT IS NOT HIRING! It’s an assignment. Not hiring!!! And it’s not definite. We might not assign you anything.”

“Yes. I know. Still, you should give me a try and I will do my utmost to be worthy of an, umm, assignment.” Attempting to sound confident but not arrogant, I tug on Hound’s leash to keep him out of the street, barking, “I can really read!”

“Well, sure, of course,” the recruiter snorts. She speaks slowly, spells it out. “It’s TLDR. Gotta be text ed, certified, registered, licensed. And we will be checking, extensively, to ensure you're really literate and branded.”

“Oh I am! Literate, registered, branded. And exceptionally able in that regard, reading, real good! You have my metrics, so you must know — productive, reductive, reliable.”

“You know it’s not a job though?”

“Yeah, totally, I get it. Still, a lucky break.”

“Well don’t count your chickens cuz it breaks the eggs,” my recruiter warns. “There are tests if you pass this vid screen, and I’ll let you know how you do and whether we’ll choose you.”

“Oh that’s great! Thank you!”

“No. Thank you,” Big concludes curtly, having made me feel very small indeed. She disappears self and shark avatar from my tekspec teensy-screen.

At this point it’s not clear to me where I stand. But Wolf reassures, as he too has spoken to a recruiter, one with an ice cream cone avatar who has made the selection process seem more delicious. “Everything will be alright, darling.”

“I know! Cosmically, I understand that life does not depend on this! But I’m a supposed smith of words. I knows prose. Yet I don’t get a word these guys say. It worries me.”

“Stay on your p’s and q’s,"Wolf translates. "While we dot i’s and cross t’s.”

“Oh gee.” 

“Seriously. That’s what they’re saying. Let’s just act like it’s happening so it will. Isn’t that a thing? We’ll do a nowpow number plus magic, chant, incant, ask the dogerman to paw the quantum.”

“What the hell does that mean? Like, practically speaking?”

“It means, El, pack up the circus. It’ll keep our minds off the fact that MoreCorp hates saying anything but we have to be ready to go when they say.”

He is right. There’s a ton to do and not much really because when it comes down to it, we’re just two kids-not-kids with choices-no-choices and a big doge, barely getting by on a concrete island in a pricey cube, poorly furnished. Escape is escape in whatever shape it takes.

No, we don’t know what we’re signing up for or where we’ll live or what we’ll do if they drop us, assuming we even get to go at all. But we are not supposed to know. That’s the point. “It’s a marathon, an endurance game,” Wolf says. “So, you know, for whatever that’s worth.” 

His approach is very measured. At every juncture, Wolf claims some indifference. Through ten stages of testing on everything from tek platforms to animal sketching to sketching platforms for animal teks (shows creativity!), he’s neutral.

Meanwhile, I nervously relay Daisy’s messages, how to answer q’s, what to do. She explains, “For now just be you. They love creatives! Then when you’re in, forget all that.” 

It’s disconcerting advice. And, also, MoreCorp doesn’t seem that nice with its alternating urgent requests and extended silences. For a transparent organization focused on efficiency, things sure go slow and mysteriously, and mostly via brusque agents at MidCorp, although it is with MoreCorp that we must pass muster in the final test.

That turns out to be an on-screen interview that starts in Cake Big's pod. She then walks me through a building, down colorful and kooky hallways to a conference room that looks like an old-timey hunting lodge. It is full of folks around an oak table who watch me draw an elephant on a piece of paper with a pencil and then hold it up to the screen in the corner of my tekspecs for review. They enthusiastically approve, although I’ll admit practicing based on Wolf’s experience the previous day. 

He retains reserve, which is evidence he’s into it. More proof — Wolf has the happy gleam in his eyes of days gone by, when we met in the wilds of West Afrix, PaxCorp, as if everything is still possible. It’s titillating, exciting, not knowing where you stand so that you feel slighted and eager to woo simultaneously; I know because I feel it too. Wolf is just human, susceptible to finding abuse on the part of the powerful a little sexy, as long as it seems like he could be included someday. 

The rigorous testing program concluded, we are now under final consideration for pre-game events, which are not pre-game events and promise nothing on paper, which is not used, so all the fine print’s on the onlines. Find it if it matters. Probably doesn’t.

Who can afford not to play? Not us. We are regi-profs who borrowed against a lifetime of projected future earnings modeled on a past that will not be repeated and are in deep. What else was there to do? Dreams are expensive. And certain dreams like specializing in signs and symbols, The Arts Old, are only for the very rich and very poor, those who can’t lose or have nothing to lose. 

We in the mid-realm should not be deluded by tales of outliers into believing a special fate awaits. To the extent that we matter, we are notable for consumption patterns. 

Still, it would not be technically correct to say that Wolf and I have no choices, are unfortunate, or even that we can’t afford to dream. Aren’t we dreaming right now? We had choices of lenders and institutions to choose us, chose to work with lowlifes when our plan for upward mobility turned into a downward spiral and we were penniless in Metropolis (what else is nows?).

PoorCorp offered me a gig in the low-country and Wolf worked for a wolf. Then we chose high-minded dreaming in Das Kapital, really a crash course in failure, turning tail for Metropolis. We dove for pearls, one day coming up with TLDR. Just in time.

Now MoreCorp, possibly the Lovesport. Everything is happening. We keep making something out of nothing, if you ignore the fact that text reduction is really making nothing out of something. 

I do not push the truth too far. Not now. We’re poised to compete at least, if not to win. Maybe it’s true all you have to do is Lean In. The thing is just that it’s hard to know what to lean into when the seeming secret to your survival, forget suxess, is not always deciding but following flow. It seems to me that this fortunate turn, for example, can be attributed to having to do whatever. Builds character. 

Whatever I think, we’re doing it. We got it. We’re in. Word comes and we get ready to go. This is what we know. We’re committed to X-country on a twelve-week K with details to follow shortly – details like pay. 

MoreCorp is committed to having MidCorp send needed e-forms soon, to be completed seven days before starting or K is subject to revocation, which it is anyway, by the way. “We need the stuff now,” I whine to Wolf after my initial glee has passed. “Like since there won’t be wifi on the road.”

“We wait,” he says. “Like they want, and then jump when they say jump.” 

“But we’re leaving our cube, our lives, and there may be no K!”

“It’s just part of it.” Wolf reasons.

“But why? I mean, it strains the system to scramble like a lizard with a lizard brain all day!”

“Then don’t," he says. "Evolve, Ellipsis. Be human. Relax into greatness.” 

Trying not to feel some type of way, I close my eyes and count to ten. We’re three days into the trip, in the vast central territories, dimly lit and weakly wired. The roads are in disrepair and Wolf is driving because the autopilot needs wifi and we’ll get nowhere fast relying on that out here. 

Unlike cars, which can be driven manually, wired people can't function independently. Everywhere we stop on the road, folks have the faraway looks of bio-bots. It's the effect of living in areas without a constant connect, I guess. The current stoppages led to wifi rations in unincorporated territories, causing major sys-glitches. It damaged implanted brains. People are like autopilots on the fritz, bugged programs, repeating fragments of ads arising in their minds when wiring occasionally reconnects. Substantively speaking, it’s like talking to a steak. But maybe that’s just the few dudes we’ve seen working roadside shops. 

I'm keeping my eyes peeled for another place to stop now, eager to check my tek for news from MoreCorp. But there's nothing -- no news, no shops -- has not been for a while. “I suppose there’s no hurry,” I say, breaking a long silence. “If we never hear from MoreCorp again, then there’s nowhere to get to on time.”

“We’ll be fine.” Wolf sits up straight, rolls his neck around, takes a swig of Xtreme Red w/Caf+ and grins like a lunatic. “It’s got good-cals! It’s good for you!”

“I’m sure. Do you need a break?”

“You said this was our big break.”

Haha.”

LOL.” He lights a cig and cracks the window. The dark desert night speeds past. 

“How can you even see the road,” I ask. 

“I can’t. I just sense it.”

“That’s reassuring.” I pet Hound in the back seat behind me. He is keeping quiet and busy trying to balance in the back of the crowded car, barely accommodating the doge’s enormity and our worldly goods. I left stuff on the sidewalk in the Point and it was all gone lickety-split because no resources. But the mid-country’s much worse, it seems. Reduced to near zero. I muse aloud, “I guess that’s suxess…” 

“What is? Transition missing. You have failed.”

“Total suxess,” I explain. “MoreCorp’s total takeover. The Single System System. Look, even we're running to play. It’s gross. I’m gross.” 

“Hound’s gross. He hasn’t bathed in years. You’re not gross. You’re just a kid. Or a Borg.”

“Hardly a kid.” 

“Yet innocent," Wolf sighs. "Look, El. You can feel some type of way, whatever way. Just don’t let it show because survival.”

“That’s all anyone ever says! 'Survival, no resources, greenies, hamstrung, gotta do what you gotta do.' But we used to want things that were great, not just great for Gross Universal Product.”

“Who?”

“Us. Me and you.”

“GUP is great,” Wolf reminds somberly, pronouncing it goop. “It is our duty to grow GUP."

"Ha."

"Seriously. I feel you, that’s why my 3-pronged labor philo. But there’s rhetoric and reality.”

“And I agree with that, practically. But still, fundamentally, totally disagree with. Actually.”

“My approach is pro-resistance, Ellipsis.”

“What’s this? Do I know it?”

“I don’t know. Do you? You should,” Wolf chides. ”We’ve discussed it.”

“We discuss a lot. Tell me again.”

“Ok, so, prong one. Don’t play a rigged game.”

“Nice. I like. Let’s apply.”

“We can’t. Two,” Wolf continues, “If you have to play a rigged game, do it your way, within your tolerance for consequences, to the extent that you believe you can calculate them.”

“But we can’t calculate them. We know that. So we’re screwed.”

“Yes. But there’s a third prong, my friend." Wolf raises a fist from the steering wheel triumphantly. "Those in chains must complain!” 

“So totally not a philo for the SSS then?” I’m disappointed. 

“Why not?” 

“Because we play a rigged game and we don’t complain and you tell me resistance is futile. Which it is, I know. I mean, I tell you too.”

“We reinforce each other’s servility, darling.” Wolf pats my knee. “Isn’t that what ideal? To be assimilated?” 

“Maybe?" I steer the conversation somewhere happier. "What I always wanted was to pack my garb, get in a car, and cross the lands with a doge and a man.”

“You got it, babe." Wolf asks, "Hey, did you hear about the dudes who got stuck in the mountains headed west and ate the people on their expedition all winter?”

“The Donner Party? Or should I say The Dinner Party?”

“Punny," Wolf replies. "But I’m serious. I imagine the Lovesport is a little like that. Everything is brutal and people believe in doing anything to win. We have to be prepared for the worst.”

“Ooh,” I mock his gravity. “Are you afraid we’ll end up eating each other?”

“No. Still, beware. That’s all. It’s a fight.”

“What do you think it was like before? When there was more?”

“They ate each other,” Wolf replies. “Maybe there never was more.”

“We read, I mean…”

“What? Myths? We were never more than a blink in the eye of a machine.”  

“Feels real,” I dismiss. “Whatever that means. Anyway, I’m not going to eat you. I’ll play the way they say they want. It’ll be as much a test for them as us.”

“You’re sweet. And what do they want? They’re incomprehensible, right? We agree on that.”

“Still they want positude, It’s weird to say cuz they’re super mean but yeah. That.”

“Like what,” Wolf asks. 

“Like, you know how I’ve got that sponge problem? So I can hear corp voices, phrases in fake-o steak-o.”

“That’s awful, my love. What do they say?”

“‘Put your game face on or you won’t play long! Or, smile at every mile!’ Shit like that.”

“Wow,” Wolf marvels. 

“Oh it’s easy. I can teach you.”

“Not necessary.”

“But necessary," I object. "Just think of the most asinine way to say something and make it shorter and stupider, but more plus and less direct. That's effective communication, positive platitudes, posi-plats.” 

“That’s so rude.” Wolf growls disgustedly.

“Don't worry. I'll help. I’m a team player, plus certified knows prose. I don’t just reduce words, I use them! Creation and destruction! All in my power!” Hound paws my head, rather hard, either in support or because I’m showing off, and I turn to kiss the doge’s cold, wet nose, saying, “You’re adorbs. I heart you.” 

After midnight we finally spot a roadside shop and stop. Wolf walks Hound around the parking lot while I enter a great concrete block, barely lit with a loud generator, the front door alerting a clerk to my presence with a weak alarm, a high-pitched beeping. He is a big fellow, standing in the back wedged behind a counter, raising an arm in welcome, friendlier than most. I wave back.

The shop is barely stocked, shelves mostly empty, one fridge with dusty pop bottles. I scan the meager pickings -- snak-pax, candy, synth-meat, canned goods -- and grab an assortment of crap, making my way to the counter to address the clerk. “Hi, how’s it going?”

No answer. Upon closer inspection, he looks like a middle-aged man with a bad case of bio-wire blues, despite initial indications of life. He acknowledges the greeting with a wave, just as before, but utters no reply. His frame is intimidating, grotesque, filling the space behind the counter — face blank, eyes empty, soiled sweatsuit in a neon green. 

I try again. “Hi. Hey. So, umm… do you, I guess not probably but do you have wifi or?” He neither replies nor rings up the random assortment of goods on the counter. I wait, moments, a brief eternity, hoping he has absorbed the inquiry. We stand silent. I give up, leaving greenies in front of the clerk and heading back out to the car, totally bummed ... and not just because all we’ve eaten for days is shit in fanciful artificial flavors.  

There’s no wireless, so no way to allay concerns about contact with MoreCorp, or MidCorp, whoever is in charge. Maybe there hasn’t been any contact anyway, which is also worrisome. I close my eyes, breathe deep. 

There is nothing to fear. This is what I wanted, out of Metropolis. The west lies ahead. Silicon. Sunshine. Hope. Trees. The ban on dogerman winters in SF turned out to be a positive prohibition for the pack, and we’ll live in a cabin in someone’s backyard. Edge of the forest, UnCorp, hush-hush, an infrawebs deal cryptically arranged. So even if MoreCorp is a bust, we’ll see trees. It’s been so long. 

The west, although in a drought, seems promising. It has vast unincorporated territories still not totally paved or wired, green, dwellers in two worlds, balancing old and new, growing GUP and troots (true roots). Or so it’s said. It’s interesting, though there are social risks.

MoreCorp aspirants want a certain life. They need trees but only enviro-clones. Funday brunch is much more important. Regi-profs live in spensi centers in cramped cubes, scramble, spend money to make money. It’s the story Wolf and I have been living for a long time. To deny the rightness of it is to deny the logic of the market, which is undeniable, and the logic of a class, which is likely unadvisable, especially when headed for the belly of the beast. And yet. And, yet. The forest is a secret prize at the end of the ride. It’s our ace in the hole in a rigged game. 

In the west now, at the edge, almost there. Up the winding roads of the UnCorp SC mountains, deep in the forest, is a large wood house with rusting cars dotting a circular dirt drive. Decrepit shacks in the front yard. This is our destination. Home? 

We drive down a small hill to the back. There's our cabin, I think. Tiny, weathered, gray. In a bowl of green. It is shadowed by the big house but looks out on a sea of redwoods. Wolf and Hound hang around to check it out. I go look for the landlord back up at the main house. 

It's afternoon and a vid is blaring inside. No one comes to the door when I ring the bell or knock. But I hear shuffling. A tall, thin man in worn gray sweats open up. He is haggard and rough, dark circles around his eyes, a glazed look, seems surprised to see me but asks for no explanation. He hands over a key with a mumble, something like, "Down round found, no problem."  

"What's that? So I can just go down and get set up," I ask, handing over an envelope full of greenies. 

He opens it and counts greedily, pleased. With a small smile, he says, "Sure. Make yourselves at home."  

So here we go. The cabin is one room, even smaller than our mini-cube on the Point. But it costs half as much. Plus, there's a sprawling yard with pear trees that bring deer springing across the creek from the forest. Eye can tell. Green as far as the eye can see. Practically paradise found. 

The creek is just a trickle. Because drought, of course. And the garden's surrounded by barbed wire. The crops -- whatever they are -- are guarded by a tough guy keeping it real with a machete. He introduces himself by waving it at Hound and cursing with an indecipherable accent, "No dogerman winter! No good! No magix! No!" 

Wolf manages to calm the man down, promising we're not magix and convincing him not to kill the doge. He skulks back to his tiny shack up the hill, still cursing. So yeah, the neighborhood is rough. It’s UnCorp. Edgy, necessarily. 

But also it’s green. Very green. I sit at the creek, astounded that we've escaped Metropolis. And eventually the corporate voices issuing posi-plats in my mind subside. They are subsumed by water babble, birdsong, rustling leaves, the sweet sounds of Hound running around off leash. For hours, until dusk, dark, I stay outside. Wolf turns lights on in the cabin behind me. A low full moon hangs above, and I wash my eyes, bask in quiet. Sweet silence. Finally. There is no-think. 

The MoreCorp campus in Silicon is spectacular, a sprawling concrete amusement park dotted with eco-pods and enviro-clones. Winding paths lead to oddly-shaped structures in bright colors, especially green. The air rings with electronic jingles, a pinging medley accompanying the rushing youth dressed in relaxed tektites. 

Wolf and I also walk quickly, avoiding extended eye contact. He points to an electronic sign that indicates the direction of the GoGo Center, where we are headed. We are silent, stunned, perhaps embarrassed by the spectacle. 

From the giant candy statues on artificial  grass carpets to the drones flying overhead misting the air with hypoallergenic forest scents (I swear!) to the auto-piloted go-bots delivering drinks to people in pods, everything is designed, conscious, and happy. Or is it garish? Caffeine and consciousness are clearly the buzzes -- the air smells of caf+ (as well as fake forest). And everyone looks totally jazzed, carrying clear travel cups of colored elixirs, hurrying purposefully while energetically tapping skulls and wrists. 

There's also a lot of hand signaling -- wordless high-fives and thumbs-ups, which seems weird for first thing on a 1-day morning. But maybe not. People say that everything is awesome here, that workers haven't a care besides that of being awesome too. So we'll see.

We're about to find out all about it even though we kind of already know how great this place is -- gyms, pools, free food of every variety, laundry rooms, playrooms, game rooms, simulation slots and sleep pods. NowsCorp covers this story all the time, how MoreCorp is the best place in the world to work. It set the standard for great workplaces way back, according to all the reports. And this is HQ, so you can imagine. 

Yet, the fact that it is MoreCorp seems to impose a certain gravity, despite the gleeful design. The giant bright statues are fun but it is a heavy and heady job being the world's friendliest corporation. Shit is super serious too. 

At the entrance to the building where Wolf and I are to start orientation, two cute kids halt us and demand to see thumbs-ups at the doors. Their squeaky clean good looks are impressive, as is the authoritative way they talk, like cops. Are they in uniform? Certainly, their jeans and hoodies are identically bright and childlike. "Stop," says one. "Thumbs up or hustle off," orders the other. 

“Umm, what? We’re new here. We're just getting our sensors cleared.”

"First day," adds Wolf. "Super psyched." 

“Oh! You’re new, of course!” The boys giggle. "Thought you seemed, umm, weird. We're just screening! Gotta do it!" They’re on the lookout for spies and accompany us to a bot-slot outside the GoGo Center. Both wait and watch as we scan our thumbs, ensuring our physical pass-codes work. They do. We are let in the building. The boys wish us well. “You’re gonna love it here! Everything is awesome!”

“Totes,” Wolf tells them.

"Yeah, totally," I repeat stupidly. They have already rushed off. 

We make our way through a large open area, the GoGo Show it's called, a tribute to MoreCorp's transport contributions in an expansive entryway. The massive lobby is a museum, decorated with models of vehicles imagined and manufactured, old-timey original autopilots plus super futuristic go-gos for Martian roadways of someday, the tomorrow that the corporation works to make now.

Some of the cars hang in the air, which looks a little scary but is probably safe. Still, I try to avoid walking under them as I am eager to attend our first MoreCorp orientation, one of many today based on a message from MidCorp. 

The meeting is being held in a large circular room with an electronic tube screen in the center, like a theater on the round. Once seated, I see that on the central tube dance a dozen fonts spelling out welcoming phrases in eliminated tongues, the native languages we no longer really speak. Indeed, the room is filled with people of every color whose races are all now one, united in the Single System System. We are the triple-post-mod-ists, connected by the interwebs of things. 

It’s a pretty picture of a positive world but don’t get too cozy too quick. There are conditions. A MidCorp rep in MoreCorp gear is already delivering threats with requisite cheer. This amazing opportunity comes with strings, terms, limits, liabilities, legal consequences.

Now the fine-print of an indecipherable contract dances on the screen before us -- designed legalese -- as the rep speaks. This is no joke and it can be yanked at any moment. MoreCorp and MidCorp reserve that right. This is small fry getting a chance at the big time and there’s a lot to cover –- everything from transport use (many different cycles for you and groups!) to SecOps (Security Operations for the uninitiated).

And, of course, there are the concepts of good and evil. MoreCorp is an authority and will illuminate. "All this and more will be taken on after these short messages from our founders," we are instructed by the MidCorp rep. "First, relax. You'll love this vid!" 

The lights dim in the hall. On the central tube screen a film about the fabled founders begins to play. The audience is rapt from the moment it starts, although everyone knows this story already. It’s been the international standard for awesome since the millennium’s start. No child in the connected world can escape hearing this universally instructive and inspirational tale of geeks in a rented Silicon garage, who with a dream and an investor strategy changed the world.

The female voice narrating the vid intones smoothly — the childhood of geniuses, historic events, the glories of corp,  the vision of two teks who define suxess itself. We all watch breathlessly, appropriately reverent. We believe in Ergo Sum and Page Turner, their algorithmic perfect and their perfect corporation, and also, perhaps no less so, we believe it is right to be reverent about our presence here.

Why not? This is a moment people dream of in every land. Parents leave their parents so that children will have these opportunities. This makes good on home abandoned for immigrants, a million indignities ignored for the native born. Who wouldn't do anything for more, MoreCorp, to become part of this, the story of suxess in the SSS? 

I feel some type of way. As does Wolf, surely. Already, this is a victory. We’ve traveled far, physically, socially, and each of us in our way can claim a win, even if only we know all the caveats.

When we tell other people about working at moreCorp, they don't know about our lowly status as contractors, the very short term, the tentative nature, and don't understand even when we do explain why it is not really the grand prize. They don't want to hear for some reason. It's like we won the lottery, the stuff of mythology. We seem blessed by the invisible and glorious hand of the market. Our protests sound like false modesty, or worse, ingratitude. 

This goes for friends, family, strangers, pretty much anyone, including the old landlord in Metropolis who was so impressed with our accomplishment she returned our deposit despite an abrupt departure, and even this new one, out in the forest. Yes, even mister-off-the-grid with the glazed eyes, who shirks the webs and seems indifferent to almost everything society expects, is wowed by our MoreCorp affiliation. It sounds super kool ... and it is, even if it is not what people think.

That MoreCorp introduced the reduction of texts, for example, is a grave factor that I have yet to completely assimilate into my calculation of the place and myself in it. But I can't afford to be too critical for many reasons, and who am I to say? So for now let’s be open — isn’t that always the idea anyway? 

Leaning back, luxuriating, I stare ahead at the tube screen before me. It somehow plays images to everyone at the angle they need, all 360 degrees around. Maybe it's true that everything is awesome. 

I contemplate the popular nowpow slogan. Is it awesome? Not yet. Not quite. We’re new. There’s a lot to learn and beginnings are tough. But there’s enough free caf+ to keep fueled day and night and an army of temps dedicated to frothing exotic lacto-subs. And it is all fancy and free, an opportunity. 

It does occur to me immediately -- even before the amenities and associated limitations for my ilk are spelled out -- that Wolf and I might not be the types who most benefit from working at a playground. Free food is not a major motivation. Also, we’re stoics, so massages, manicures, services generally, make us anxious. Frankly, all the talk of play sounds a little stressful already. How does the work get done if everyone just comes whenever and does whatever in between boxing and meditation? 

Still, whatever is happening, it is not mine to q. I am tiny, and this is ... huge. This must be right because it is. It's big and bright and all around me. Here. Silicon. The center of the Single System System, the interwebs, the everything. The logic of the market has dictated it, and billions of greenies are proof. Whatever MoreCorp is up to, it is the truth. 

To master a single character, the Zen calligrapher practices a lifetime. To master the universe, the young founders of MoreCorp -- Ergo Sum and Page Turner -- sold stock in their company. It was promising and predicated on two principles. One, good grows good. Two, get to yes with N0, or Near Zero, the algorithmic perfect. The slogan makes no sense but it sounds sexy, and it worked.

MoreCorp, from a humble start in a Silicon garage, earnestly turned into a biz behemoth. The kids were wizards. They knew what people needed; search! To make sense of these tangled webs we weave, for free. For gold, they sold advertising opportunities.

But corporate suxess is measured by growth, profit, positive projections, always more. So it would have been impossible to just corner clickology and call it a day. Concentration on a single character, or even two, will not do. Thus, MoreCorp grew unimaginably powerful, gobbling competitors, making crap, turning its sights to space! Until one day it all became too complicated and the mega-corp united the connected world, creating the Single System System (SSS). 

The founders did not plan it, even if today it can seem that there is no limit to their abilities. There is just no way Ergo Sum and Page Turner could have known they'd practically own the universe. How could anyone predict it all? The histo-vid for us new kids suggests that these men might be gods. Even if they are not, the indoctrination is unnecessary. That is why we're in Silicon. Because MoreCorp. Glorious! 

Of course, though it is a legal person with rights and humanist mottos and visionary creators, the corporation has no heart, no goal other than its own growth, as Wolf likes to remind me. Quarterly profits, that’s the long and short of the story, according to my true love. Tense beside me, Wolf is watching the propaganda on the tube screen closely, tapping his left foot quickly. 

I'd like to think there is more. Ergo Sum was charming when I was young, the barefoot coder who made work play, an oddly dashing figure. He seemed gentle, intelligent, and curious. While Turner grew the corporation, Sum worked on colonizing space and connecting the human race. I never blamed him for the reduction of text or the SSS. Things got big, and when the stock belongs to the public, founders are a mere symbol, relevant insofar as they advance an idea. 

No one could have known. Accidents of circumstance made the unpredictable possible, as usual. It was just one of those wildcards MoreCorp later made billions ensuring couldn't happen without its consent. 

The SSS was an organizational efficiency. What happened is that ultimately MoreCorp couldn’t manage all the data, deals, and strategic partnerships. Not under hundreds of regimes and a dozen governing systems around the world. So the Board can’t be faulted for seeking simplicity. If you apply biz-dev logic, the Single System System totally makes sense. 

Problems are all in the unintended consequences. Naysayers (not to be confused with N0sayers) oppose the SSS. They're convinced that Gov merging with MoreCorp caused our current woes. One answer for every q is insufficient they claim, clamoring about separation of biz and state. But few listen. They toil in the shadows. 

I’m aware of their complaints, as well as the old prose printies about dangerous systems. Still, I kind of buy that this system is as friendly as they get ... because actually I know nothing else. 

Anyway, no one can beat MoreCorp. It is unstoppable. The market likes to bet on a winning horse and company stock rose every time Sum and Turner met with the President. The US Gov-Corp merger was approved by citizens online and passed after superficial inspections by the Monopoly Management Bureau. 

Then MoreCorp extended the logic internationally. That was an administrative nightmare. But World-Merge confusion was solved soon enough with MUTTS, the Master Universal Ticket Transport System. Now anyone can file a ticket to opine on anything, world affairs or matters of mere local significance, and MUTTS messages the appropriate service representative.

Still, though it rules supreme, to the people MoreCorp remains an awesome underdoge, the scrappy, creative company that wins hearts and minds with moral superiority. Sum and Turner are Super Men who fight for us all. Good Grows Good is directly linked to nowpow’s karma-kash concept, which basically amounts to MoreCorp making people central and paying blessings forward. How exactly this works may be revealed at presentations to come.

The vid ends abruptly and a tall, striking blonde with a long ponytail, wide shoulders and cheekbones, dressed all in denim, addresses our small section of the audience as the lights go up. "Hey! I'm Eclair, your TLDR Team Liaison. Readers! So psyched to meet you!" She scans us with a big grin on her face. "What an eclectic group. Well, there’s a ton to do, the Plus Center preso, and Disco Ninjas before that, so let’s meet back up in 15.” 

Eclair hustles us out into a hallway, pointing in different directions. “Grab a caf or a snack, take a shower or bath, get a back rub, enjoy an enviro-clone -- ours are extra awesome! But remember we’re on a tight schedule, so hurry! Not that there’s a record, but as you’ll hear, there's most definitely a record. Laters!” 

I'm dazed. It’s not even noon but I’m sleepy and Wolf is greenish. He excuses himself, saying, “I’m going to puke. Can you grab me a caf+ before disorientation resumes?”

“Sure. I'll meet you out by the giant crayon statue on the lawn.”

“The colored tubes, you mean? Those aren’t crayons,” Wolf corrects me. "That represents the races and nations, our union. The SSS. That we all stand in one big green box.”

“Of greenies? Like the market?”

“You said that. I did not. But probably. I gotta run, yo.”

“Go!” I head for a nearby cafe, a seaside-themed wooden shack with large screens playing waves crashing against the shores of the one world. Waiting for drinks as surf sounds issue from invisible speakers, I marvel at how plus it all is. Even the kreme is frothed extra, the drinks topped with swirly primary color candies, MC shaped for MoreCorp. 

At the not-crayon statue, I hand Wolf his drink, whispering a toast. “To the blue folk and their assimilation.”

He winks, raising his cup. "All your race are belong to us."

“Welcome Disco Ninjas! I'm Cocoa, the Clubhouse assistant." The speaker addresses a dozen readers seated on fake logs in an alpine lodge conference room. A lit fireplace dances on a screen behind her. The plexi-wood paneled walls boast plastic prey -- bear, deer, tiger and lion heads stare down at the audience. 

Cocoa is less attentive. Pudgy with MoreCorp snacks and grumpy from digital contacts, she's distracted even now by pinging devices. Quickly tapping on tek with a mean smile on her thin pink lips and murder in her big blue eyes, the assistant all the while presents the twin standing by her side. "This is Marshmallow. He goes by Marsh.” 

Introductions over, Cocoa confides our mission. "Secrecy's key to Discovery, which is why we call y'all Disco Ninjas! Your task is to speed-read and boogie to the disco beat. And we'll be measuring you constantly. Metrics. We collect them. We love them. Why? Because numbers don’t lie!” 

Cocoa looks like she lies — all the time. She also looks like she'll strangle us with her fat, capable hands if we ask for help, despite her assistant title. But she maintains her professional cheer, giving Marsh a high-five. A jingle sounds and the admin twins exchange gleeful grins.

Marsh takes over while Cocoa taps on her tek. “So, as you see, we use the hi-5. It’s like hi and five fingers but also like your classic high-five. That's the sensors confirming our caste. You won’t hear a song when you greet. But don’t feel bad. It’s just for clarity. At MoreCorp we have majors, maxis, minis, and micros. Minis give thumbs-ups to get buzz-scanned. That's your caste. Mini.”

Cocoa shoots him a warning look, but he goes on talking, oblivious. “Everything's out in the open here. It's easy. Just use the signals allotted to you. For security. And to ensure the feeling of benign superiority is never threatened in your, well, superiors…”

“Not that anyone's superior,” Cocoa quickly corrects. She seems senior — dare I say superior? — as if training a younger brother. “We’re all equals but transparency demands a caste system. Yay MoreCorp!” She hi-5’s Marsh and the jingle plays again.

Marsh takes back the floor. “So, guys you're gonna love it here. I do. Been working with Cocoa, who — full disclosure — is my little sister. I was born three minutes before her and she’s been beating me ever since.” 

This painful confession makes me wince, even though Marsh seems like a jerk, just like his little sister. Their smug soft prettiness, wrapped tight in bright sporty gear, is strangely attractive, making me feel skinny and foreign. This awkward sense is only compounded by the onslaught of incomprehensible instructions provided for the next hour. When I reach for a notebook and pen to record them, Cocoa chides with an amused smile. 

“Yeah, ummm, no. Because SecOps. Can’t scribble.” She giggles. “That goes for everything. Don’t share, write down, or repeat! If we detect an infraction, we cut off your access, and kick you off the platforms. That mars your metrics, which impacts contracts, which means you go. We keep score. Remember that, Plus, hush hush. Because ninjas.” 

The readers are all tense, relieved it’s not them who drew the fire. But Cocoa's done, apparently, saying only, “Lots more for you to learn! We'll see you back for work after more orientation!” She releases us back to the Team Liaison, Eclair, leading our campus tour. They exchange a musical hi-5 as we stand and file silently behind our guide and out of the Clubhouse.

TLDR does not generate money for MoreCorp; it’s just a necessary aspect of data management, so readers are not stars and are housed in a remote corner in a plain building (albeit with a chummy name). In better neighborhoods, Eclair points out architectural landmarks, the coders' golden domes, the jeweled palaces of sales. She is particularly happy about the art, halting in front of a giant plasti-glass pastry, an éclair dedicated to one of MoreCorp’s first operating systems, her namesake. 

“Guess which one’s my favorite,” Eclair jokes about the big candy canes, lollipops, jelly beans, and marshmallows surrounding us. An eager reader offers an unnecessary answer, shouting her name. Eclair glares at him and addresses us. “This art reminds us of humble starts and that life is sweet. Turn dreams into reality! That’s what MoreCorp does and you're along for the ride for a while. Hang on tight and enjoy the treats!”    

Unable to take a hint, the eager guy chimes in again, saying, “My kid's named Lolli." He points at a giant lollipop statue for emphasis. "But she’s no sucker, that one. Real smart. She’s my good luck charm for the Lovesport…” He’s got all the gear, tapping his skull to retrieve an image from his brain sensor. The pic's displayable on a pocket screen he wears in a tek-pak on his hip.

Wolf and I exchange small smiles but Eclair's not amused. The liaison puts up her palm to indicate he should shut up. “Nice. I like tykes. But this is a great teaching moment, so let’s focus.” She looks grave but changes her mind. “No, actually, hold that. Let’s get to the Plus Center. You'll love it!”

We walk to the world famous building in the center of campus. The Plus Center, a symbol of MoreCorp transparency and creativity, defies architectural convention. But the building’s design is simple, if structurally bizarre; it’s four cubes jutting out from a central square. A big plus. Major execs all have offices in the top cube, thus they both survey and are seen, symbolically accessible although invisible. Look up. There they are, just out of reach but taking care of biz. 

“The two horizontal cubes at the sides,” Eclair explains, “house sporting arenas and spiritual centers. They signify balance. That’s so critical to MoreCorp. We value the third metric. Happiness. Which corporations once ignored. Our founders changed that. Work and play, body and mind, everything under one roof to care for all of you.”

She's emotional when she talks about the building but her moods swing quickly. Standing by the doors, Eclair snaps, “Remember, thumbs up everyone! And eyes peeled! SecOps is everyone’s job so watch for spies, thieves, and sneaks! Micro, mini, maxi, or major, at MoreCorp we're all equally responsible for keeping others out. Look for suspicious activity and report rapidly. If you…”

“See something, say something,” the group finishes the familiar refrain, proof she’s been making this point all morning.

“That’s right guys!” She approves our chorus but pulls a threatening face — like, grim — adding, “We have a great time here. Still, SecOps is super serious. Let's meet some guards.” 

Her eyes say she'd shank you in the showers while execs don’t watch from the opaque towers, but her smile is extra as she ushers us forward. We stop at a pod with a bot and a human hidden behind screens. Eclair calls in. “Rice, come on out and say hi to a new crew of Minis."

“Sure!” A young man waves from behind two big screens, barely visible. “You're new! Kool! It’s a ton of fun here, so enjoy the food, dudes!” This wisdom provided, he slides right back behind his screens. It kind of makes me wonder if he's as human as he seemed. Maybe neither guard's a person? 

The bot has a screen face that reads: More 4 U + US = MoreCorp. The message changes colors and fonts but remains substantively the same throughout Eclair’s explanation. “For routine exchanges, personal concerns, that kind of thing, bots are your guys. They’re super nice. For threats to our system, we encourage human contact. Communicate those to a person.”

“Threats to self, direct at machine,” Wolf hisses into my ear, managing to sound mechanical. I pinch his arm, hard, focusing on Eclair’s square jaw and large white teeth, her super plus smile and double wide face. 

The liaison gets to that issue she meant to address. “Before we meet the Good Guys, let’s talk, real deal.” Unsure what specifically she’s alluding to, we all nod gamely and Eclair supplies details. “The Lovesport, of course!"

Finally, some insight. I can't wait to know more about the big score. That's why Wolf and I crossed the country, why we're traipsing around this corporate playground. For more MoreCorp. To get the grand prize, a Silicon job, the golden ring. 

Illumination begins. Eclair breathes deep and speaks. "I advise you to forget about the Lovesport. But keep it in mind too, like in the back of your mind, all the time, so you can be awesome like the smart creatives MoreCorp values. You're not there yet. Don't forget! But you should always wish you were, and wish you were playing. And always be playing. Because that’s work! Play!" She pauses meaningfully. "Q’s? No? Perfect. Let's get to those Good Guys. You’ll feel blessed. They're just so good at what they do!”

interviewwiththespampire.jpg

We enter a huge plus-shaped room in the Plus Center, four corridors of seats radiating from a middle cube. Hundreds of people file in, guided by staff wearing green t-shirts with Good Grows Good printed on the back in alternating primary colors. While we settle on emerald plush velvet vibrating seats with massage options, a voice croons the MoreCorp slogan, as if from the heavens, sounding super satisfied. Good grows good, mmmm…mmm…baby, it sure does.

This must be the Plus Room –- oft discussed, never seen on screen. I didn’t expect it to be this …green. It’s very verdant, all the shades, a resonant quilt that works on many levels, evoking nostalgia for nature and reminding those assembled in the great hall of the headquarters of the most important corporation in the world of our purpose, our prime directive: Plus this. 

Grow the economy. Get the greenies. Like the room’s styling, this directive is meant to serve many purposes and speak to many people. Everyone wins. Still, I can’t help thinking of Daisy’s warning — not everyone can win. She wasn't kidding. Last I heard, a TLDR teammate stabbed her and she was fleeing south to X-Mex.

But now is not the time to reflect, as laughing child faces of all the eliminated races appear on slowly lowering screens, singing in English. The screens rise quickly, revealing a man onstage applauding the crowd. We meet his glee and raise it with happy hoots.

“That’s right, guys! Give yourselves a big cheer! MoreCorp knows how hard it is to get here. Hi, I'm Pepsi Johnson. And you're part of our community! Right on!” The crowd hollers and he laughs while turning expertly for the room. 

Simultaneously, a square stage rises from the floor and another applauding man ascends with it. His stage stops when he’s standing higher than Pepsi, who introduces him with a happy shout. “Steak Williams everyone, the finest cut on the MoreCorp porker!”

"Thanks Pepsi." Steak waves. He speaks softly at first, working his way up to a shout. “For each of you, there's a million who wanna be in your place. More. But they’re not here. You are. Is it cuz you’re lucky? Yes. But also, you work hard and we do too, so let’s do this and let’s get it done!” 

The crowd is completely crazy, standing and stomping. Steak puts a finger to his lips to hush us. “Welcome to MoreCorp, where we see potential in everyone, even lowlifes. But we’ll tell you more about that when we talk Good Guys. First,” he says with a sneaky smile, as if it just occurred to him, “let’s all stand up and hug our neighbors. How about that?” 

Steak does not hug Pepsi on the stage just below, merely observes others hug. Wolf and I grin wryly during the exercise. I’m in the aisle seat, so spared another encounter, but Wolf is caught in the gruff embrace of a Thor so enormous he is dwarfed for the first time in his life. Steak signals us to sit down. 

He is serious now. “Ok y’all. We need to talk.” The audience murmurs its assent and the speaker whispers intimately. “We need to have a face-2-face, what do you say?” 

Screens descend from the ceiling again, showing a montage accompanied by rousing pop music. It's MoreCorp’s greatest hits, collaboration and creative play, starting with the founders in the fabled garage and bringing us to today. Workers whiteboard and brainstorm and trust fall into each others’ arms as the narrator explains it takes a great corporation to make a village that works for the world.

The montage shifts, showing Good Guys of all kinds working at home and abroad to grow good for the greater good. Finally, the satisfied crooning that greeted us on arrival resumes as a yellowed image of the young founders from once upon a time reminds all that even Super Men start small. 

The vid ends, screens rise, and Steak is visible again. “You’re blessed to be here but details have to get squared away.” The allusion in the room of squares prompts audience amusement.  “Once small stuff’s sorted we'll focus on the big picture, working and playing for our company and our world, which is one now, thanks to MoreCorp!" 

"They said it couldn’t be done guys,” He shrugs as if amazed at the naysayers. “But we did do it and we'll keep doing it with or without you. PeopleOps is a priority. Operations strives to provide the widest array of labor solutions and you are the people it chose. We rely on everyone. But we don’t need any one of you. That’s the key to our suxess with smart creatives and even cleaning staff…" 

"Not that cleaners are dumb, guys. That’s not what I meant." Steak shrugs at his foolishness, eliciting audience feels. Sympathetic giggles sound. He continues. “My point is simple. We heart you and we know good can't be grown alone. For MoreCorp executives to reach their fullest potential even cleaning staff has to give the very best. So let’s do that. Because it pays to be great.” 

Again a smaller stage rises, this time beside Steak. He turns to the crowd and shouts, “What you’ve been waiting for!” 

I pinch Wolf, whispering, “A job?”  

“That’s right y’all — bots!” Steak opens the big pink box beside him. The sides all automatically collapse outward, revealing three pastel creatures moving in mechanical circles. Wolf looks at me and grins, as if delighted by how wrong I am.

Meanwhile, Steak gives us the scoop. “So, these little ladies are tek-pets in sweet sorbet shades for super soothing. Our independent research says these pets are good for your health. Also, we're a doge company — y'all know that, right?”

He explains the experiment. “So, MoreCorp is making the sorbet series available to you to dogefood. That's what we call the product testing process and you get to participate in this iteration. It's a special treat before we mass-produce them."

Steak takes a swig of his drink, then grabs a fuzzy lavender doge turning beside him, struggling to stop its insistent legs. He laughs as he grasps the moving mechanical limbs, holding them still as they whir and he speaks. 

"Don’t worry, guys. You won’t be eating or feeding the pets! The bot offers all the love of a doge with no inconveni — no poop, chewing, gnawing or scratching, just satisfaction. And it’s simple. Here's how it works. If you’re having a hard day, check out a pet from the tek-rest, where there's also mice and other devices, and enjoy! Just send a detailed critique when you're done." Steak puts the pet back down. "That’s dogefoodYou chew it. We do it!”  

This brings everyone to their feet. We're psyched about sorbet tek-pets and Steak Williams and dogefood! We are primed for the point. Steak provides, “Really what we’re doing here is growing good. It’s our recipe. It’s always worked for us and we’re not gonna change it. Your job is to  promote our brand and make us shine. Be more awesome at everything and everything will be more awesome (as if that’s even possible)!” 

“What the fux,” Wolf growls. I agree with an eye roll, which is also a warning to keep quiet. Steak is not finished. This porker will never stop talking! 

Good grows good. Think about it. We do. It’s what made us number one, competition, fighting for our company and communities! It’s recognizing our blessings and humbly helping the luckless. That’s more-more, the special something that makes MoreCorp people special. Whether it’s donating old tek devices or precious time, every bit counts, and we deduct it all from our taxes." Steak sighs deeply, to emphasize his sincerity and hopefulness. "So grow good, and we’ll be by your side because that’s how we got here and that’s what we do!”

He pirouettes now, announcing, “Finally, I’m gonna hand it back to to a great Good Guy, this guy who’s been waiting patiently while we interface. Everyone, a hand for Pepsi Johnson!”

A spotlight shines on the first speaker. Pepsi talks slow, in a low tone, looks older, like he’s matured since the meeting started, perhaps grown wiser listening to Steak's meaty morsels. Somberly, he instructs, “You can always be more humble and do more. That’s what we believe."

Pepsi raises his voice. "Do more. More what, you ask. More of what brought you here -- giving, good and growth. Just cuz that’s our ask, like, from ourselves. And the thing is, you’ll see. The more you give, the more you get.” He pauses for effect. “So, once you have SecOps clearance, scan our internal interwebs for info on the Giving Wiki. Donate and we’ll give too! The MoreCorp brand grows as our community benefits."

"It’s not magic, guys. It’s logic.” Pepsi taps his skull to indicate sensible thinking, or perhaps he’s reading the speech on a brain screen and it’s crapping out. Regardless, he ends with a rousing call to action that sets the audience aflame again. His last words are barely heard though he shouts. “So what do you say?! LET'S GROW GOOD TODAY!!!!”  

The Clubhouse is a large open space artfully divided to give the impression that it's not just another office where people shirk their meaningless work. It’s totally triple-post-mod with many charming enviro-corners, practically like a park ... if the park was in a plain building on the concrete campus of a giant corporation built over a toxic waste dump in Silicon, where the fruit trees grow no more. 

I bring in pears from the trees growing in my yard to remember another world, the forest, UnCorp. The pears sit on my standing desk in a slot in a pod that I share with three other readers who rarely speak. Colleagues sit on balls, hammocks, stools, or not at all, their spaces shaded by artificial trees and leaves.

The creative seating is meant to maximize output. But there doesn’t seem to be much to do — everyone’s watching vids or shopping with no scramblers. It’s mystifying. MoreCorp can easily track their tek activity. But when I ask my neighbor what to do, Apple just looks up from his game and shrugs. “Nothing. Relax. Be kool.” Surfing the webs, we await our mission.

On 4-day Wolf gets bored and pings me from his slot around the corner that he's going to X-Thai fight training. There's a session at noon, so I must dine alone. Not eating is not really an option, certainly not yet. The countless themed eateries of MoreCorp are famous and the stunning array helped give the company its awesome reputation. Campus food culture is important.

It's also sociologically interesting, plus illuminating. In my free time, I have learned the best and worst cafeterias by reading worker ratings on EAT-ME, the MoreCorp food service wiki. As a result, the corporate caste system has also been clarified. 

Everyone eats but only upper castes give "foodback" because the privilege of opining belongs to insiders, employees, Maxis and Majors, of which there are few. Contractors, who far outnumber employees, can't write reviews on the wiki, only read it. But in a sense EAT-ME is egalitarian, as MoreCorp makes no distinction between laborers and professionals, Micros and Minis. We're lucky that the food is free and why should certifications matter when everyone's equal in the Single System System? 

EAT-ME is educational, but so replete with carefully crafted opinions on cuisines of our united world -- and correct fusion thereof -- that it's mostly a testament to eating disorders, nit-picking, and Siliconian excess. It's depressing. Reading it kills my appetite. Defeated, I go to Meat-Up, a butcher's delight right by the Clubhouse. 

As the name indicates, Meat-Up is for carnivores with crude taste, not popular on EAT-ME and thus empty. The dancing plastic sausages at the entry greet few. Past the kitschy art are the offerings; I peruse screens advertising today's many strange choices.

Kangaroo bolognese sounds intriguing but I stick to a classic when faced with a bot at a counter (they get complicated commands wrong, despite the hype about how we'll soon not need live beings). The bot relays my order, and soon a person slides a burger and fries under the plasti-glass separation, eyes down. At a loss, I thank the bot and its screen reads "NP," meaning no problem.  

Meat-Up's plastic imitation butcher-block tables are for communal eating, so I slide into an old-timey diner booth, enjoying the entertainment. As I eat, soundless vids play on large screens while an X-K-Pop hit blares on the speakers. It's entrancing.   

But my distraction is soon interrupted. A wiry woman with a buzz cut, dressed in technicolor sports gear -- highlighting her fitness and distracting from her wrinkles -- sits across from me with no greeting. I gulp. This is the Discovery Chief, Disco Ninja Supreme. Her work precedes her.

“Spam Pire, right? Ellipsis Song," I say, extending a hand she ignores. "So nice to meet you. I've worked with your patented poetry reduction method on projects in Metropolis. Amazing!” Sure, I think it’s amazingly bad that she's looking to eliminate human readers but there’s no need to specify that. 

“Yeah,” Spam replies brusquely, though clearly pleased with the flattery. “I’m no dummy, honey, Ivy Camp accredited. But like my name says, I’m a boot-strapper, scrapped for what’s mine.” 

Tough times, tough climb. I hear what the lady's saying and admire her grit. Sensing no danger greater than that already inherent in having a fake-casual conversation with a top doge in a pseudo-social setting, I ask, “So how’d you get into Prose Control? I heard there weren't many women in this field before Isms were eliminated. Must have been tough. Or did you not find that?”

“Not find!” Spam snorts. “Ha! Sexism was tough, babe. But I’m tougher than barriers put up for pussies. I hustle. Plus, muscle. You should see how my system strips verse super terse.”

“Terse is good. Taut text." I nod. "Triple-post-mod.” 

Now Spam looks mad. “This isn’t a lit crit. That’s not my biz. I’m about stripping and storage, not analyzing text aesthetics." She taps on her wrist, rolls her eyes twice -- presumably using a tek device and not at me -- then asks, "Do you know I patented a method for quarantining data that should never have been acquired?”

“No. I didn’t. What’s that about?”

Spam scowls, slurps, taps skull, answers without looking up. “A method for quarantining data that shouldn’t have been acquired. Like I said.”

“Right,” I agree. “So why's it acquired, this data?”

“That’s way above your pay grade. The point is my patent.”

“Yes, definitely,” I say, now desperate to find a more pleasing topic. “So what’s hot in text reduction? What's next?”    

“Read up on it, kid! Jeez! N0ledge workers are what we need.” Spam shoves fries in her mouth, takes a swig of pop. “Workers who can be and do everything at one low cost, near zero, N0. Are you ready to be that person?” She shakes a fry at me across the table.

“For sure. But like, what skills will we need? Reading? Not writing, I guess?” 

“No writers!” The chief jumps in her seat. “No readers either soon enough. We’re almost done with words. Code, math, graphs. That’s where it’s at. N0ledge workers code and sell and live and die by the light of machines. They don’t seek taut beauty in a stripped text. I mean, jeez! What’s next?!”

I chew in silence, contemplating what to say. But Spam’s busy anyway with brain mails and wrist txts and fries. She doesn’t say goodbye when leaving as abruptly as she arrived. It’s to be expected, however, as her concerns are great and I have no patents pending. 

Back at the Clubhouse, it’s dead quiet. There's no one in my pod and nothing for me to do. But my mission is taking shape. Meeting Spam was no accident. I must become the reader who trains the artificial intelligence or there will be no place for me (because I'm pretty sure I can't code and sell even if can live and die by the light of machines).

Prose Control (ProCon) -- which is in charge of Discovery (Disco), which manages Too Long Don't Read (TLDR) -- is perfecting all text reduction to eventually eliminate the need for human intervention with words in the old forms altogether. But industry thought leaders have been stumped by certain works, like mysticism, poetry, literary fiction, useless things that make no sense to most and can’t reasonably be reduced by just anyone. For those topics, they use those who know The Arts Old (TAO).

It's awkward because TLDR eliminates written works but needs lit lovers, practitioners of The Arts Old, to reduce what they most revere. And we need ProCon, Disco, and the TLDR text reduction project because there is no more work for the literary -- however rare a skill -- now that society's mostly txt-lit. 

It’s a bitter irony for all involved. I, for example, once worked a philo project and was assigned the Tao Te Ching, distilling the ancient wisdom to so near zero that it nearly broke my heart. I got the whole thing down to two essential lines, although I find over time that what's missing from my version is more apparent to me than the little that remains.  

The way, like water, isn’t constant, has no form. 

Mystery upon mystery, gateway of the manifold secrets. 

My own regrets notwithstanding, the brevity and concision with which I handled the Tao earned me a hot spot, a place on a Privilege QC team on my next project. And that privilege was not lost on me. Nor was its cost; I reduced a great work to a meager fraction for greenies, cube rent. If it's gross, so be it. I tell myself what we all say. Who can afford not to compromise today? 

But the ordeal will soon be over for all, according to what I read about N0ledge and the evolution of reduction on the interwebs. The only bad news is that soon no one will even need me to sell out. 

According to the articles I find -- wordy write-ups on eliminating the word -- ProCon’s over subtle spreadsheets, such that now even training the artificial intelligences has become irrelevant. Someday we will just use N0ledge workers to run programs that strip texts willy-nilly, thus greatly increasing efficiency of TLDR and reducing costs. By relying on machines for reading, one worker can do all the other jobs. 

We -- professional readers -- are doomed. I tell Wolf as much when we’re driving home after work that afternoon. We are winding up the mountains, him avoiding autos on automatic that can’t maintain a lane. “We’re like John Henry,” I say.

“How’s that,” he asks, distracted, focused on the road.

 “Because no on cares how good we are anymore, and no matter how fast we read, we’ll never beat the machines. They’ll overtake us and before you know it there’ll be blood on the tracks.”

 “Are you mixing metaphors?”

 “I don’t think so, references maybe. Didn’t John Henry die building the railroad?”

 “It was blasting a tunnel though, not laying track. Also, he was driving a steel hammer, racing against a steam one,” Wolf says. “He had a heart attack.”

 “So no blood?”

 “No. He won.”

 “What do you mean he won? Didn’t he die trying?”

 “Yeah," Wolf answers. "He beat the hammer. He proved his point.”

 “That hardly seems like a win,” I object, passing him a lit cig from the pack hidden in the glove box. We keep it there while we’re in incorporated territories but now we are entering the lush verdant UnCorp SC, where we’re much more free. Being at MoreCorp is stressful. We swore to quit smoking when leaving Metropolis — Siliconians particularly frown on it — but can’t kick the habit. 

 “So don’t fight the machine,” Wolf says and takes a puff. He blows smoke out his open window, and hands back the cig. “Then you won’t die, which is a win, as you rightly seem to suggest. It’s a win-win, which everyone loves. Because everyone wins.” 

We grin at each other but it's not a happy exchange, more pained. I don’t say it aloud but am thinking that not everyone can win, which must not be very different from what Wolf’s thinking. He drives in silence until we reach home. As he pulls into the driveway, under the ever-watchful eye of the wary weeds tender, Wolf offers noir reassurance. “Anyway, we’re not working on the railroad so don’t worry about blood on the tracks. We’re working in Silicon, where fux will stab you in the back.”

Naysayers call the union of the connected world a whitewash. They mean it in both senses of the word, a cover-up (with white paint) and a total defeat in which the loser scores no points. The loser in this case is the individual in the Single System System.

N0sayers claim this incorrectly frames our relationship to the SSS. It works for all. We have N0 more Isms or divisions and work on ties that bind instead of details that divide. Everyone was always angry before, pointing out distinctions, offended and offensive. Seeing difference created resentment. We just couldn't focus on the prime directive, growing GUP! 

The universal society needed a common sense. There is no such thing without cultural conditioning. So social engineers now emphasize sameness with global education on the interwebs. Teachers were super sore at first but they were ignored. 

I'm from the last old-skool text-lit cursive generation. We studied publicly, with people, and went out on the streets before age 18 (there were no Virtual Certifications!). Authorities bullied, corrected and directed us. They filled us with shame to make us good but not great, a feeling that haunts us and is compounded by the fact that the world changed just as we were to take it over.

Now connected kids learn onscreen; their avatars exchange in emojis and everyone's a genius. Learning's like gaming. EdCorp worked with Pro Con on the transformation, and the data shows this has grown universal universality and confidence. 

MoreCorp is a model for the new system so it's celebrated not only in the corporate art on campus but in an array of eliminated races working here to represent sameness. Of course not everyone's represented but it would be impolite to point out who is absent. Suffice it to say, it looks pretty multi-X-kulti, especially if you haven't been anywhere. 

Still, changing systems didn't change history, experience, facts or faces. We're not all coming from the same places yet. And maybe that's why for all the talk of collaboration at the world's friendliest corporation, work exchanges are electronic and socially people split into like groups along all the old lines. They stick to their kind.

But Wolf and I are Magix. We're not going to gain allies as ourselves. So he's disguised as civilized and seems to really be convincing our colleagues. Meanwhile I try to act assimilated although I'm an alien. Unlike my true love, I'm failing. 

We're seated on a bench at a large plastic butcher block in Meat-Up, having lunch with dudes from TLDR. Beside me is my Team Lead and not-boss (because not contractually) Ampersand Matrix. We’ve never talked. "Ellipsis," he begins, batting blue eyes as if thrilled to finally meet though I've been here weeks. "You're punctuation, just like me!"

"Well, no," I say stupidly. "You're a logogram. I mean, not you, your name, the symbol. But yeah. We're the same." 

"Right." Ampersand is startled. "No. Yeah, sure. Right."

Correcting him was a mistake. Trying to flip the script, be positive, I say, "Ampersand Matrix is amazing though! Colored Pills rulesIt's a classic." 

He's named after the dashing lead of a flick so popular it plays even now on one of the giant screens in Meat-Up. The fictional Ampersand Matrix looms overhead wearing shiny black leather, bravely fighting an e-virus barehanded with godly fingers. 

The real life Ampersand wears jeans and a hoodie and looks like an average Joe with just a touch of plus-cute, not well-suited for management. Matrix seems to know this though and, to his credit, appears uneasy with the happy accident of leadership. Yet here he is, obviously some kind of genius. So I ask, "How these lofty heights attained?"

He looks down, focuses on bountiful plate, rosy cheeks puffing. I glance around at the rest of the table — there’s Chip Brew, a bunch of guys I don't know from Review, and Wolf. The fellows are taken with my fellow. He's pops for his knowledge of pop culture, which they debate loudly. Their roaring fills in the silence between me and Ampersand.

He toys with his food, mute, reluctant to recount past glories. Or maybe it's me. Did I speak in an eliminated tongue? I try again. “Like, being Team Lead's awesome! That's hot dot com!”

"Thanks." Ampersand understands, humbly dismissing the compliment. "It's no big deal."

But Chip Brew has a competitive relationship with his boss (because contractually) and can’t resist adding color to Matrix's modest spin. He breaks away from his ribs for ribbing. “Oh yeah, this star! He tried for Special Corpses. But they wouldn’t take him cuz he's alternatively-abled. And now he's in charge of all of us!”

“Perception problems, hearing,” Ampersand explains quickly. “Not an IQ issue.”

“Of course.” I console, “Anyway, those guys! They have to do some nasty stuff supposedly.”

This excites Ampersand and he waves a gnawed bone in my face, eager to explain the inner workings of Special Corpses Human Resources even though he's TLDR's chief Secret Keeper. “Totally! Like, they asked at an interview if I’d racial profile and I was like, whoa, would I? Y'know?”

He stops, surprised to be saying so much, finishes haltingly. “So I’m kinda glad now that I failed, like, though I didn't know it then...”

“Yeah," I agree, pleased by the philosophical turn our talk's taking. "We never know what’s luck or not. It depends where you are on the timeline looking at a thing.” 

“Huh?” Ampersand's confused. 

“Blah blah,” Chip explains. If we managed to have a moment -- I-thou, me and not-boss -- it’s now lost. Chip will stand for no more chatter. It’s time for meat and metrics. He taunts Matrix. “Those pig-ribs-in-synthi-syrup are dope but you’re gonna have to barf before the weigh-in or you'll lose again today! Your numbers are not good, brah. Not good at all.”

“When it comes to greenies," Ampersand smiles slyly, "my numbers beat yours any day! Bro...

“BOOM!!!!” The men around the butcher block all stand and shout, applauding the assertiveness. Chip particularly cheers the return to familiar modes of exchange. Then he shoots me a dirty look as if to say it’s totally rude when new people come in and talk about weird shit. 

The whole reason the SSS works is that we're the same, which means, basically, not strange. Nothing is taboo but you’re supposed to stick to certain subjects. It’s an unspoken agreement. Regrets, fortune, philo — race, for Founders' sake! — these are topics to take up with a life coach or a spirit animal. Not at lunch! Everyone's supposed to know that. Why don't I?

Now Chip's curious and our covers could be blown. Wolf and I are two odd birds he’d like to kill with one stone. Seeking to bond with the male socially, just two kool kats sipping artisanal ales and chewing the fat, he pings Wolf with weekend plans after everyone’s back at the Clubhouse. 

He tells me about Chip's interest on the drive home. “I guess that's okay but be careful,” I say. “He’s gross, and possibly also dangerous. Where are you guys meeting?”

“The cabin. He’s coming by.”

“Are you nuts?! You'll what? Seat him on a tree stump? Plus one device! He'll say we have no buy-drive!” I panic, though it’s not just because our room's furnished with forest refuse and minimal tek. Something stinks. Maybe Chip? We don’t know him and shouldn’t expose our lives to insiders, people who hi-5. I ask Wolf, “Why'd you invite him?” 

“I didn’t. He invited himself and I said it was kool.” He sounds worried too. “What could I do?”

All week I dread Chip’s visit. But on 4-day we get a lucky break. “Oh,” Chip tells me, licking porkojusifat off his fingers at lunch. “I got invited to a hi-5 party on an auto-pilot cruise ship. Free fun 'til Funday so I’m booked now. Can’t come by. It'd be super to see your place though, another time.”

“Yeah, that would be great. We'd love to have you,” I lie, hoping it sounds genuine. But even if not, there's no worry, not about that. Chip can't tell the difference and is already busy taunting Ampersand about baco-beefy-kreme-kakes. We don't distinguish between real and fake. In the hyper-real, it's all the same -- equal, just like the people. 

Weeks pass and there's little work with which to prove our worth to MoreCorp before we're out. This prompts me to volunteer for tasks and unsatisfactorily complete the asks of top doges while Wolf rounds out his martial arts training and embarks on a corporate art project, sports marketing. We do what we can to keep busy, more or less like everyone else.

But things look bad. The admin twins are preparing pods. Haiti tells me the rumors. Recruits are coming in the dozens. There are already hundreds of disco ninjas doing whatever. At this rate, we'll never show our awesome. Unless we're creative, right? 

Luckily, Greenween is next week and chiefs are abuzz. This is an opportunity to celebrate the natural resources now so scarce. For a day we think of the trees. Higher-ups share snaps on the soc-nets, elaborate preparations taking place in grand garages, costume creation ahead of many competitions that will be held all over campus. These are widely plussed and commented upon in emoji art. Everyone approves this message. 

Even the mean minions try to inspire. Vids circulate of former glories. I avoid because boring. Still I do hear about how the admin twins, Cocoa and Marsh, snagged a win for best pair singing a duet of Love Me-Ow as kat-bots from the kartoon Botnip. 

"The old gods would not be happy." I say to Wolf, scoffing. “That's not green.” He is indifferent to the event but not to me, waving as I go convene with the trees. Across the creek from our cabin, in a redwood graveyard -- a circle of ancient stumps -- I ask the forest what to be. Following its instructions, I wrestle with branches, pull ivy, and snap brambles.

Then I drag back the wild bouquet and lay it out on the floor, drawing the shades so as not to alert the caretaker to crafting. Wolf and Hound watch as I weave and sew a hoop skirt of leaves, a mossy shirt and crown of thorns. Sidling into the outfit that evening when it's complete, I dance around Wolf as seductively as possible under the circumstances (awkward costume) and win him over. He asks, “Can I get like a headdress or something, some antlers?” 

“Sure, yeah. I can make you a bunch of stuff.”

Jaded pod-mates indulge my enthusiasm and agree to be whatever we are, tree gods, sure. Most of my team's totally over MoreCorp. It's emotionally complicated. We're divided, a department in despair about no futures, mostly just waiting for the clock to run on this fun gig that's going nowhere fast. Few believe in mythical possibilities.

But I do. The gods -- as I like to call us --  are competing in the best group category, and Wolf has a good song for our walk, so I'm pleased, particularly after hearing Haiti’s complaints. Her pod's squabbling over spin. They'll be wrapped in silver, which should look shiny but is not obviously a celebration of nature.

“I told them light, reflection.” Haiti supplies her solution. "We're solar power." 

We are sitting on the curb behind a parked car in the back of the parking lot, smoking, facing the Clubhouse but hidden from view by a concrete block storing garbage, recycling, and compost bins. We shouldn't be doing this. Cigs in Silicon! Haiti doesn’t even really smoke. But we're from Metropolis, where everything's toxic and everyone's self-destructive. “That’s not a bad take on what basically amount to sexy tektites,” I reply.

“Right?” She shrugs. “Sugar got congratulated for her great idea.” 

“Yeah, don’t feel bad," I say, though I do too. "I look like a fool.”

“You don’t, Ellipsis! Why?”

“I wrote a memo about prose control. But Ampersand wanted a versioning protocol.”

“Oh. What’s that?"

“A guide to numbering things.”

"Why not just number in the order you do it," Haiti asks. 

“They do, I guess. Though I didn't do a versioning protocol because he first asked for prose control..."

By now Wolf has joined us and supplies his perspective on me, based on more than a decade of experience and my recent complaints about our not-boss. “Ellipsis expects people to make sense. She thinks they can, thus giving credit where it's not due.” Wolf laughs. “If you came to fight training you’d see Ampersand is soft. And you could punch him. That's direct communication.”

Haiti giggles. “You guys are so cute!” 

“We are not cute," Wolf protests. "Don't make that mistake, Haiti.”

She looks shocked by the sudden severity of his tone and turns to the latest Clubhouse scandal. Two readers got busted messing with metrics, blatant false billing. They have to return their pay to MoreCorp via MidCorp or face sanctions with the Certified All Reader Examiners, and everyone knows CARE loves yanking registrations. “So they agreed to cough up the greenies and go," Haiti says. "And never mention they were here.”

“How do you know,” Wolf asks. "Why do you know everything?"

Haiti shrugs modestly, pleased to explain. “Mochi is in a pod with a dude who carpools with Donut and Bacon whose teammate got busted and she told me at home.” 

I'm still confused. “Isn’t that just what people do? Soc-nets and such?”

“It’s fascinating,” Wolf winks at me. "Social networks."  

“Really?” I respect the power, the possibilities, but not the soc-nets politics. Everyone could connect but not everyone does, not to just anyone. People are very specific about who they approve, who amuses, who is insightful and posts images delightful, and who shows true I-get-it-ness in references. I don’t totally get soc-nets but the forest is something else. Eye can tell. It provides awesome compostable costumes for Greenween.

At MoreCorp the holiday is a big deal. Good competitive fun, which grows good and more good. But it’s also about biz as everything is, the coupon biz specifically. MoreCorp recently moved into coupons and warehousing, merged merchandising, and we learn that it's offering employees (hi-5 or higher status) product plusses, a Greenween sale. One deal is on t-shirts printed with triple post-mod codes I don't know (my skills being limited to The Arts Old). 

As a thumbs-up contractor, I'm excluded from coupon deals and campus costume contests. But there's the TLDR event. On the morning that the old gods will walk again in Silicon, I kiss Hound's snow white head and respectfully request that the dogerman winter paw the quantum for the wild ones to win. Wolf and I load the car with fragrant wreaths, wings, crowns, canes, skirts, and braids of leaves. The ride to Silicon smells sweet. 

When contest time comes, Wolf and pod-mates paint faces and don greenery, emerging glorious and of the forest. We go to the ceremonies wearing wings of branches and carrying giant grasses, things never seen here because concrete. In the grand hall, there's some stink-eye from seasoned competitors of higher ranks while we wait to walk.

But the gods march down the aisle and across the stage triumphantly when it's our turn, branch antlers proudly jutting from leafy crowns. It's amazing. Or is it crazy? The MC announces that these looks are totally unique and possibly even handmade, super creative! I try to convey that they’re also compostable, 100 percent green for Greenween.

But he doesn't hear me and I don't care. Everything is awesome for a hot minute. Has my message been approved? The judges soon announce winners and no, it has not. The gods are felled by a group in reduced price t-shirts with code. And then it just feels like everything is compost, which it is really, if you think about it.

We are MoreCorp's secret keepers. You probably don’t know we exist. And that’s for the best because Discovery’s mission is a production so inconsequential it will go totally unnoticed. We're the last line of defense. 

Readers on the Secret Keeping Initiative — SKIers — have a knack for tactical text reduction. We slalom through texts, from one red flag to the next, searching for trouble, subtleties, and stuff the company's not legally required to reveal. 

Machines highlight key words and phrases, then humans review for context, and SKIers check for slip-ups. It’s not efficient and Prose Control hopes to eliminate us soon, but the artificial intelligence isn't there yet. For now we work, and certainly SKIing at MoreCorp is a privilege. I learn the world’s most important dirt and read powerful people’s mail, though that's not the point of course, just what's interesting about the job. 

The point is minimizing texts, whatever topic we’re working on for whatever purpose — and TLDR has a few — we reduce writings to tidy spreadsheets. After machines weed out waste, readers review the remains and assess relevancy. When something's super relevant, it’s usually a secret and withheld. That keeps things neat.

But it also does a number on SKIers, this work, it burdens us. Innocuous statements can seem dangerous, so we speak little, and sometimes read too much into nothing. Although supposedly exceptionally able with language, we use it rarely, instead seeking answers in tea leaves and spreadsheets. Which is difficult when the question is — what is my destiny?

The SKI Team Lead, Ampersand Matrix, assigns work on an electronic tracker to prevent unnecessary discussion. I read the chart religiously, like the Torah or a horoscope, analyzing it for clues about the future. Will I stay or will I go? 

Veterans warn me not to worry because nothing here makes sense. But I'm not alone in my quest for meaning. Haiti also reads the tracker and is not happy about what she doesn't see. "No assignments all week," she tells me. 

Named after her ancestral island nation — excluded from the Single System System (SSS) for extreme inefficiency marring universal metrics — Haiti, for obvious reasons, doesn’t feel entitled. She’s careful not to unnecessarily draw attention. But the tracker concerns her so much that, at what she considers great risk, she's lifted her invisibility shield to talk to Ampersand Matrix. 

He claims there's nothing to his totally random assignments, no meaning. This only makes us more nervous. “Totally random? That’s what he told you,” I ask. We are out in the back of the Clubhouse parking lot in what is now our spot, smoking. 

“That’s what he said but I don't believe it.” Haiti lights another cig with the one in her hand. We just got contract extensions and should be relaxing into greatness instead of chain-smoking by garbage bins on breaks, but somehow the good news is stressful ... maybe because a bunch of people also got fired. Haiti says, “I guess you don't need to worry though, with all those texts on your desk. You got work?”

"Nothing official," I reassure her. “I’m reducing patent practice to make up for my last fiasco.”

“Hmmm,” she replies noncommittally, exhaling smoke. “You asked Ampersand about it?”

“Yeah. It was a disaster. I talked to him in person without pre-pinging, so it shocked him. He said to send an electronic summary, 20 emojis or less, then he assigned me the whole subject, for Founders' sake!” It's a bigger task than I sought but has helped me understand why we hate words in the triple-post-mod; people used so many in the past, super circuitous assemblies too. Still, as Spam would say, this is not a lit crit -- we're talking suxess, which I don't get. 

It’s iffy and that’s the idea. No one's sure of suxess in the SSS, but that's practically a  feature of the system. Worker expendability is important to corporations and the economy. It is an unspoken rule, a secret we SKIers are meant to keep even from ourselves. 

When Eclair said on the first day to forget the Lovesport and yet keep the games always in the back of our minds, she wasn’t lying. We are in competition but we’re never sure what for. We should shoot for the moon and expect nothing because this is not an ideal world.

It’s a reduced one, depleted by billions. Scrambling for a spot on the scrap heap (forget the top) is a fortunate lot, thus we must always strive, readying ourselves for opportunity should it arise. 

Is there a secret, a key to suxess? Anything might work, even if most things don’t — leaning in or bending over backward, playing dirty or excelling, all have led to wins before, according to the stories. What will work now is anyone’s guess. Following our bliss? There are just yarns, tales that don’t tell how feats are repeated, heroes' journeys admired because net worth. 

Haiti and I study the accounts closely. We're American Dreamers. Raised here by strangers speaking strange tongues, we’re accustomed to making stuff up, informing ourselves with myths, stray rhetoric, whatever sticks. This is the central nation of the SSS and there's no shortage of lore to inspire. Still, despite excelling at English such that we are on the SKI Team, we don’t get all the subtext, the culture’s secrets. 

When we were young the smart money was on certification, so we mortgaged our futures on education, regi-prof status -- something staid that says we’re top grade, certified USA beef. Now that won’t work in the SSS; you gotta win with a vid by the time you're a teen. For us, it's already too late to be great. Our only hope is to be flexible, more like bamboo than steak, or that's what the experts say.          

It’s exhausting, all the advice and wanting, this quest. In my walks in the forest I sometimes spot dilapidated huts hidden in mosses and am green with envy of the inhabitants. Could I live like that, free from the jumble of desires and cultural junk? I am not a monk. But away from Silicon I do sometimes dare to dream of life deep in the green, where forest eye can tell. 

Would that be a win? The Tao’s long form, which was cryptic and which I reduced on a philo project in Metropolis, advised reserving judgment on loss and gain because favor and disgrace are things that startle. They are two sides of one worthless coin, external validation. The sage stays behind and so is ahead

When I remember this message, that's what I try to tell myself, and now Haiti. “We don’t even know if we want to win. Or if there is anything to win really. Maybe we have to stop reading tea leaves and worrying about greenies and just be. Y’know?”       

“No. Not really,” Haiti smiles. “I heart you Ellipsis but you're funny. Just be! We need greenies. They make the world go round. And, in case you forgot, there’s no work for us in Metropolis. So let me know how that goes, being or whatever, doing you. I’m gonna do what MoreCorp wants.”  

“And what’s that?” I laugh. "Do you know?"

“No, El, I don't, clearly. That’s the big secret." Haiti stubs out her cig and gets up, heading toward the Clubhouse. "But I'm sure we can't just do us. No one wants that."

Design has really advanced in the triple-post-mod, yet conference rooms still stump space-makers. Today I sit in on a low hard seat that folds out of the wall in a large spare white room, surrounded by teammates, and staring at the backs of superiors around a central table leading this Secret Keeping Initiative (SKI). 

There are other rooms of readers listening to the sync and they signal their presence electronically on screens. Above us is a magnified spreadsheet on a large screen on the ceiling. It is meant to provide an overview of our project — we’re going to dump data that shows MoreCorp collected private user data — but the work is so densely packed as to be purely graphic, accidentally artistic, rendering the room a sort of corporate cathedral. 

Our priest is Bank Lust, Analytics Master, tall and thin, a weak-chinned mustachioed man wearing bright yellow tek-tites. He explains our purpose and path. “Alright guys! We wanna get these records reduced lightning-quick! If you don’t know what to keep, use the cheat sheet, that’s why we made it! Also gonna forward you the info up there.” Bank points at the ceiling.  

A beep from another room indicates that readers listening in can’t hear the instructions. Soon, a chorus of beeps sounds, complaints from all over the Clubhouse, and the screens go blank. There’s a sys-glitch, which calls for a tek-fix and puts an immediate hitch in Bank’s plan to get things done quick. 

For a while there is silence, and Bank exchanges with other implanted people in other rooms, presumably those not having problems connecting. Sys-glitches are unpredictable and we could be waiting for some time if it’s serious. Efficiency is not an exact science and not even our beloved tek is perfect.  

As this sync will soon reveal, getting in too deep — like your brain — leaves you vulnerable. That’s why I’m not wired. Apart from the privacy issues that are the subject of our present project, the Metropolis blackouts last year proved that self-reliance is still a handy skill. Then there’s Error 53, when MoreCorp just shuts down someone’s system because the user was caught on the infra-webs or downloaded disapproved content. Plus, the battery recharging issue! Implanted people are always hooked to the webs and have so many programs running algorithms filtering info based on prior consumption that they can’t function without constant charging. 

Bank Lust is a prime example of how the problem manifests. He forgets to recharge at night, or else is always on overdrive, and so wears his chargers all day. They resemble headphones, the old-timey kind used for listening to music privately, and look particularly strange when he’s talking to a group, like now. 

As he speaks, Bank readjusts the battery set over his ears and taps body parts to make the most of every moment. That’s wise time management, multitasking, doing two or ten things at once. Even his clothes are working! Bank wears gear electronically tuned to his his breathing, heart rate and more. His outfit beeps and lights up in key spots, reacting to the daily marathon he runs in a sports pod. While we wait for word on the tek-fix, Bank checks his knee and sleeve for metrics.

Finally, the other rooms join us again onscreen and he resumes the meeting, saying, “OK, what you guys do is not rocket science, so we’re fine. But what we don’t have is time, so hey, let’s not waste any more. And let’s keep chatter minimal.” 

This is a hushed and rushed record reduction, elimination of evidence that MoreCorp has been collecting private user data it previously claimed was inaccessible to the company. It’s a PR problem, which could cause a backlash.

MoreCorp can’t be transparent but it must champion transparency for the people must trust. Otherwise we won’t feel we’re in this together and will become wary of the system we now submit to voluntarily. The company spins our data into gold, which we tolerate and even encourage, but if we discover they actually stole stuff thought off limits by implanted victims, then we might get mad. 

Legally, the corporation already got the all-clear on the info crime. The Data Management Bureau (DMB) exonerated MoreCorp chiefs, who blamed rogue employees, but it does not change the fact that the internal info-structure failed somehow while data was illegally gathered. Was it authorized, ignored, or missed? Regardless, it went on for years, so now it’s time to clear tracks.

Realistically, this is no huge risk to MoreCorp. I mean, seriously, what would you even do if you knew? Still, a quick text reduction eliminates details and nasty possibilities, like infra-webs chatter about the Good Guys being evil, which won’t change anything big picture but could create a publicity headache. 

Bank gets down to business. “As soon as we’re done here, I need you to log on to the platforms. Tear through the batches and make it fast! Any q’s?” He waits a second but no one speaks. “Perfect. Sometimes it takes you guys a while to get it, but not today, so great, let’s meet the fabulous Cookie Swank. She’s with us from Sharp, Swank & Strong Data Management and we’re blessed! Cookie’s a Discovery Guru with a great reputation and — get this! — the niece of the Sirloin Swank!” 

Cookie stands and speaks with a practiced bright white smile, her blonde bob forming a golden helmet around her pale square face. “Thanks for the intro Bank, but I take after my father, the Swank in Sharp, Swank & Strong. It’s my uncle Sirloin who spills the beans. And that is most definitely not what we wanna do here. You got that? This is not JustFaxMan!”

She laughs at her own joke, a reference to her uncle’s nows show, then explains her role. “Now, what I do is manage data. And I’ll advise you on making this reduction production perfect.” She pauses to take a sip of her drink. “What do I mean by that? I mean, and I can’t overemphasize this, do your best! Read, reduce, refine. But remember, when it comes to these reports, less is more. So if we decide that what you decided is no good, it’s erased from the data pool. Saves space, which is really great.”

“Excuse me, Cookie,"  Bank cuts her off. "If I could jump in real quick….”

“Sure.”

“What Cookie is referring to here is the Junk Heap.” Bank adjusts the charger on his head and sends a txt. “If we find your work consistently junky it goes in JH and impacts your ERR, so make sure that R’s are R’d and NR’s are NR’d or dings will abound! Your metrics will suffer. I’m not messing around. My guys ding everything. So you could be in danger. If you’re missing calls, first we ping, then we ding, and finally we fling.”

I suppress an anxious laugh, mystified. My neighbors betray nothing, no emotion, no doubt, their faces blank. I dare not ask them to confirm what I suspect was just said, that we get fired if we make any errors. 

Meanwhile Cookie takes back the floor. “So there’s 100,000 records to get into two spreadsheets we mentioned. It’s pretty straightforward, as you can see…” She holds up and flips through a sheaf of documents so thick it should be illegal under the green regime. “You can just use this cheat sheet. It’s basic stuff. There’s 20 major players whose mails we’ll reduce into 10 categories with 6 subsets each, should be easy. It’s all broken down for you to get up to speed.”

Cookie raises her cup as if to toast us, but stops. “What am I leaving out here? Oh! Process. Consultants will QC you and Bank will OK that and the higher-ups will give it a once-over and then we’ll be good to go and we’ll put most of the proof in the Junk Heap and just wrap this up ASAP. Sound good?” She smiles primly. “Back to you Bank. Tell ‘em what to do!”

The priest signals release, raising two hands above his head. “Ok guys, get out and get it done and get in touch. Let us know what’s happening so all benefit. That’s our biz, isn’t it? Discovery! So go disco! Let’s boogie, Ninjas!”

Play straight but don’t be a sucker. Watch for dirty doges and hissing kats. Don’t let them get you down. Know they’ll try. That’s the dirty in the doge and the pissy in the pussy, a stink distinct from the funk of Hound, our dogerman winter who refuses to bathe and insists on coming to the Clubhouse this Funday. 

Wolf and I are signed up for OT, weekend overtime, meaning extra greenies. We’re maximizing an internal investigation of MoreCorp data theft. “Should we take him,” Wolf asks about the doge, who’s being unusually stubborn, refusing even to be distracted by food. 

Hound guards the door to keep us in the cabin, his big frame filling the small space, white fur standing in an angry mohawk down a broad back. It’s understandable. The doge’s tired of our work excursions and he likely knows that MoreCorp, a legal person, is a doge company — proof it’s loving, loyal, and fun — so he’s theoretically welcome.

The dogerman winter knows things. He’s a rare breed of magical creature that paws the quantum. Wolf and I never presume to know better than Hound, not in the grand sense, so I sort of relent. “Ok, but he’s huge and he hates when we’re in screens. Can’t you sign out a sorbet tek-pet for doge-fooding instead?”

Wolf rolls his eyes. “I need no consolation. Hound does. Let’s just try.” 

“SGTM,” I agree, though it doesn’t sound good to me, bringing a magical beast to MoreCorp. If I’d really consider, I’d see the doge has plenty of reasons, personal and political, to undermine the company. But I don’t reflect as lately I’ve been avoiding that. Right now I’m focused on the quantifiable, just like everyone else. Not thinking but metrics. Greenies. Suxess.

Speaking of which, Hound’s smug in the backseat on the way to Silicon. At the Clubhouse, Wolf takes him to his slot. My pod-mate, Apple, has allergies. He’s alright — we work different hours and projects mostly so don’t chat much — but this morning Apple’s administrative, threatening to file forms with MoreCorp via MidCorp because big doge. I offer to bring a drink to calm him down. He declines, saying, “You can get me later.” 

The Clubhouse is unusually noisy and a happy chatter can be heard throughout. I too am cheerful. Why? Reading. Cereal boxes, ads, mail, masterpieces, the writing on the bathroom wall. I love it all. Always have. I even love the exchanges of executives in biz-buzz. So fun! But TLDR is the bottom rung of the regi-prof ladder, so I try to be discreet about my feels because reading’s widely reviled, even among readers. 

Anyhow, we don’t read for long. A sys-glitch calls for a tek-fix right as we get rolling. Work is called off. Our leader, Bank Lust, pings for a quik-sync and readers traipse into a confer-klatch to sit around a screen and watch him at home eating flakos while Funday funnies play in the background. “Hey guys, thanks for coming out this morning. Am gonna do my best to get all this sorted ASAP but watch the billing. I will be!”

Bank is all charged apparently, not wearing his battery headset. Instead, he’s in an ironic fuzzy blue onesie with a hood and antennae, watching Hive Mind — Wolf and I watch this all the time. He turns back from his show (it’s a good episode!) to instruct. “Guys take a break until the platform’s up and call it lunch. That way we get it over with before breakfast. Also, KitKat’s delicious and she’s taking care of business today. So listen close to the little lady or she’ll scratch, folks. I’ll be in touch.” Bank disappears.  

Wolf gathers Hound and we go out for a walk beyond campus to Silicon, which we never do. For the first time I see up close the spensi triple post-mod housing blocks we speed past in the car daily. They cost more than a space in Concentration City. 

Silicon real estate mania makes even Metropolis seem reasonable. These are the latest, greatest, priciest cubes in boxes, with all the convenis, plus enviro-clones! In light of our work — what we do, reduce writing — the blocks look funny, like reduction productions, TLDR, turning stories into one-liners in spreadsheets. Only these are life aggregations.

Details, close examination, that’s for people with time, which is no one in their right mind when time is money. Certainly that’s why we’re not out long, heading back to the Clubhouse where the many readers standing around snacking show there’s no hurry. The sys-glitch has yet to be tek-fixed. 

When the system’s back up, I’m in my slot, ready to go. But Apple’s gone, leaving a ping flashing on my screen, a request to move his bot periodically to trick the platform into thinking he’s working (systems don’t think but humans are programmed to believe otherwise). 

I comply because policy. Mine’s not to cheat or snitch or volunteer to assist, nor to decline aid despite risk. Workers must unite. Because we’re divided. Anyhow, what matters to me is that I’m not a machine, which is ok but also gross, as if work will make me free. I’m infected with notions, history, scraps of crapFocus is fine but mine — I suspect — is borne of a fear that if I stop to think about this algorithmic life, I’ll stop. Give up. Drop out. 

Still, let’s not get dramatic. You do what you can with what you have and TLDR is interesting, although relevant mail comes rarely now as Analytics just culled the gems. Bank explains in a quik-sync. 

“We’re pulling batches cuz you got it. Good work! Great stuff. Cookie’s on it and my peeps will keep you in the loop as needed. Just garbage sift but don’t give me shit or we’ll ding. Then we’ll ping, and… you know the rest.” Still he can’t resist being explicit. “Flings!” Bank vanishes.

Readers trudge down the hall, slide back into slots. Soon I get a ping. It’s KitKat – her avatar’s a kat saying “give me a break” in emoji, of course.

     KK: hey - qq4u. c u in 5 @MK

I head back down the hall to the micro-kitchen for KitKat’s quick question. She’s there waiting, a sexy young thing with long ginger locks and shifty green eyes, huge boobs strapped super high, tektites unzipped to cleavage. It’s distracting. She intends it to happen and reserves the right to use this against you. But don’t acknowledge and she’ll resent more that you ignored. Her breasts are big, yet just a small part of an arsenal of weapons KitKat deploys with no mercy. 

This pissy pussy’s no joke. She’s Bank Lust’s protégé, a TLDR girl wonder with street cred and pedigree, a race horse Orphan Annie. KK once cornered me at a happy hour so I know. Her dad drank away his inheritance and let her wander with well-meaning strangers determined to save her. “I was always exceptional, attracting abundance everywhere,” KitKat said. 

She was drunk and effusive then, whereas today KK’s different. “So, Ellipsis? Rad, I like travel, great name. Let’s get to it. Super you’re zipping through reads but, umm…. Cookie’s looking and, well, chill.”

“I made mistakes? Am I in the Junk Heap? You pinged. So… I’m dinged? Or?”

“Oh not flings!” She laughs. “Nothing like that. It’s no problem. NP. You’re kool. I heard you worked at PoorCorp and my dad was a client, like when he didn’t own an island, so, respect.”

We aren’t at PoorCorp though. This is MoreCorp, even more incomprehensible. I ask, “It's not errors?”

“It’s ERR, not errs or errors or whatever. Effective Rate of Review. This won’t impact yours.” KK narrows her eyes and hisses, “Your rate’s effective, Ellipsssssssssissssssss. Keep it up worker bee, like to see it. But I’m keeping an eye on you, so slow it down. And no more notes. You don’t need to show you know things, just mark and move on.”

“Ok, watch pacing. And words? No more.”  

“Yeah, exactly.” KK leans across the counter lined with baskets of froot (true roots, not synth). Her ample breasts lying in a bed of red apples, she puts the cherry on top. “Pace. It’s the trick. There’s things worse than flings, y’know?”

“Yes,” I say, though I don’t know. What’s worse at work than flings? She’s creepy. Is she threatening death? I skulk away to smoke cigs alone out back, feeling stupid. Work! Moron! Argh!

Inside, I move the slot-bot for Apple, wondering whether to move mine, just to show I’m here. It’s unclear. But I clearly shouldn’t ask, and when you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. Things will happen without you making moves. So I do nothing, contemplate not contemplating that which does not compute … until I hear Hound yelp and Wolf howl and KitKat snarl. My heart sinks. 

They’re in a standoff around the corner, Wolf restraining the doge behind a barricade of plastic cabinets masquerading as plants. Hound growls at KitKat. She licks her paw. “Sounds wild over here,” I say. “What’s up?”

Pouting, KitKat puts out the paw for inspection. I manage a sympathetic smile, “Oooh, I’m so …” Thinking liability, how she’ll file more forms if we apologize, I stop. Sorry costs. Wolf shrugs and holds back Hound. The doge will not relax with KK in sight, so maybe she’s really feline … or worse? 

She practically purrs declaring, “I sssswearrrrr, I’ll file an Assault Sssssssstranger Sssection 3-b-12. A Liability Guru in X-HK taught me corrrrrrp code and I own it, so watch out. ASS 3-b-12s are hell!”

Each day’s a new chance, yet lives are made by the past, accidents of birth. So it is for me this morning at MoreCorp when Ampersand Matrix summons to discuss a touchy reduction production. He skirts certain words, and I will too. Suffice it to say I was born in a place not named in the Single System System (SSS) because politics. 

In this place some people speak Hebrew, an ancient tongue associated with a mostly-defunct religion (all faiths suffered this fate — in the SSS we pray for suxess). Now, Prose Control is reducing religious texts, a project that brings good press from spirituality sites when handled right. 

My not-boss explains this as we sync in a hidden room in the Clubhouse basement. See, officially I don’t work for MoreCorp but MidCorp, so he can’t act like I have a job, contractually speaking, although we meet frequently to discuss projects that cannot be acknowledged. Ampersand shares details. “We’re doing this Dead Sea Scrolls thing, and you’ll help Analytics with Hebrew search terms. Then what they get is reviewed with Tongue.” 

Using only Tongue sounds dumb. It’s a neat MoreCorp translation program, sure. Still, it’s a machine, not a nuanced human being with a cultural sense. So I — not unlike a machine in my way — say I could review Hebrew texts once search is sorted. This is a rare opportunity, as the written language is like Aramaic now, barely used. With the webs being txt-lit, Judaica emojis (glad or sad rabbis and Stars of David) will do for Hebrew. The ancient characters of the aleph bet are ignored, despite a brief revival with the modern state of … That Place. 

It’s SSS policy not to refer to it by any other name. This keeps the peace but makes some mid-east analytics projects practically impossible. How can you search for That Place? It’s as problematic as the place itself has historically been. Similar obstacles present with the place’s language, or one of them, as you’ll soon see. 

They could maybe use me. Still, Ampersand doesn’t respond to my offer, focusing on his devices. I’m not carrying, no tek evident or concealed. It’s a violation of MoreCorp policy for a contractor to even have bio-wiring running here (though turning it off causes problems). My weapons are my notebook and pen, but I don’t use them because it might be rude to doodle. Not-boss responds. “Huh? Did you say something?”

“The Dead Sea Scrolls, I can help with the texts. Plus, it’s interesting.”

“Your kind of thing. Why I thought of you.” Ampersand agrees. “But there’s a workflow and you’re not worked into review. Wolf and Haiti will do the SKIing later, so don’t even worry. Stick with Analytics. It’s a chance for you, a blessing.” 

I fail to suppress a grin. Ampersand smiles suspiciously. “What? Something funny?”

“Yes. Blessing. It’s funny because religion. And texts, reducing them’s amusing to a person of the book.” 

Ampersand’s confused but doesn’t inquire in case it’s an identity thing, which it kind of sounds like, though it can’t be because there are none in the SSS, or there’s one to encompass all. “Ok, so we’re square? Ping Mint in Analytics. He’s fresh. The best.” He slams a screen shut, taps skull for txts, and exits, strutting. “Good talk. Gotta rush to fight club.” He hi-5’s the air and I reply with the obligatory thumbs-up. 

To grow happiness you need work-life balance and creative play. That’s what made MoreCorp the amazing place it is today. But as a thumbs-up I must account for my time in quarter-hour increments to be paid by MidCorp via MoreCorp. (Or is it the opposite? It gets so confusing!). So I go find Mint. 

Analytics is around the corner from SKI. Physically the teams are close but conceptually we’re worlds apart. They’re the future. We’re the past. They’re efficiency gurus, the numbers people of TLDR, and they lord it over everyone else. Analytics uses electronic searches to eliminate texts from reader reviews, while SKI, the Secret Keeping Initiative, deals in the unbearably inefficient, words with multiple meanings. 

My presence in foreign territory is noted in quick pinging, sneers at screens. Still, I have an ally here, a fellow Metropolitan, Lollipop Gold, an oddball with an unabashed approach to the absurdity of TLDR. She greets cheerily. “Ellipsis, hi! I hear you’ve got takeaways on reducing your history today, so, awesome, right?”

“Makes me want to deep-dive.” 

“Not yet,” Lolli says. "You're still young."

“Is Mint around?”

“No. He’s wrestling, I think. Be good bot and go back to slot. I too await him with baited breath, not always so fresh, and will message instantly when he returns.”

“Thanks.”    

“Laters,” she waves. “I’ll ping.”

It’s days before Mint and I sync. Honestly, I’m in no hurry because mixed feels. But the time does come and he says the search terms he got from Tongue, the translation program, yielded nothing, no reference to the Dead Sea or the scrolls on the webs. “Seems unlikely,” Mint says. “So we have to use you, though we’d rather not.”

“I see. Well, not really. Why’s that?”

“You compromise the project.”

“Sorry?”

“No worries. Just stick to the script, your biz, and you’ll have no trouble. Got it? My people do connectors, excluders, joiners, all that. You do words.”

“That’s my thing,” I reply, peppy, leaving Mint in a hurry. 

Back at my pod, I’m stuck. This is fux. Tongue led to no references for a simple reason inextricably linked to that which I’ve been instructed to ignore. I ping Lolli.

     El: emperor naked, kid needs assist 

     Lolli: cig in 5

Always going nowhere fast, I rush down the back stairs, an exit avoided by others as the Clubhouse is built over a toxic waste dump and readings here are extra high. But I don’t mind poison, reaching for the cigs in my pocket — gone are the days of hiding bad habits and feigning the zeal for immortality expected in a MoreCorp community member. 

Outside, in a far corner of the back parking lot, Metropolitans are smoking and cursing, complaining behind a cement garbage block. It’s totally un-Siliconian. Kai, a coder from X-HK, films this display — his underground uploads go mini-viral on the infra-webs. Around the world people dream of working at MoreCorp Silicon, so viewers find the bitching inside fascinating. It’s a sub-genre of vids called Schadenfreude-Lites, about the misfortunes of the fortunate (less nasty than celebrity calamities and practically as satisfying). 

I’m concerned about getting caught and have even posited that Kai’s a plant, a company spy trying to trip us up, which is a plot point Wolf finds incredible. But Lolli’s apparently more paranoid than me, saying “Alright kids, no vids! Let’s not lose our gigs … or get killed by corporate cops!” She moves the group away. “We need space, a wide radius, so off you go.” The disgruntled depart and Lolli turns to me. “What’s up? Mint was mean?”

“Is that normal?” 

“Yes. Kind of surprised you haven’t figured it out yet, Ellipsis. Everyone’s mean here. Weird. You look so smartsy, but I guess looks deceive.”

“How could I know? Ampersand said he’s fresh.”

“Ampersand!” Lolli laughs. “He’s an ass!”

“He’s got a great name,” I protest halfheartedly. “Ampersand Matrix. It’s great.”  

“You would think that. Because he’s punctuation too, like you.”

“He’s not. Ampersand’s a logogram. Also, he's a big and, while I’m an omission.”

“Or a pregnant pause,” Lolli offers. “Although you’re skinny, so no.”

“Funny. I need your help.”      

“Tek-sistential crisis? Or logograms versus punctuation?” Lolli taps her wrist, reading a txt. “That’s not a sexy fight, Ellipsis, like if you wanna sell vid rights to this story. Raise the stakes. Sex and death.”

“My not-sexy-not-boss is not the problem. It’s Mint,” I reply. “He wants random words, not how they work together for your search, which means they still won’t work. You’ll find nothing, though there’s plenty on the Dead Sea, and the scrolls.”

In a customer-service voice, Lolli coos, “How can I assist with the situation?”

“It’s simple, so I’ll tell you and you get clever credits and everything’s awesome.”

“I like. Send me the goods and I’ll make strategic suggestions!” She looks up from her tek to see me depressed. “No good?”

“No. It’s good. Should I explain it to you now?” 

The Dead Sea is Sea the-Salt in Hebrew, so using a direct translation got nothing. Simple. But Lolli’s busy with efficiency, and this whole religious reduction will probably never get done anyway, which is really a blessing considering. From my perspective, that works. 

This is how to look at things, per The Positude. Find upsides. Before heading back to my pod, I stop in the bathroom where the stalls display the latest installment of this inspirational circulation for the loo, spreading the good word on growing good and corporate citizenship. It is but one of many MoreCorp monthlies that remind us of positive attitude’s paybacks, keeping workers on track at all times and in all places. 

The new edition specifically advises finding the silver linings in clouds that threaten rain. It’s a weird message for a Silicon bathroom, as the water in these sinks is rumored to be recycled piss and rain’s the only thing people pray for more than money here. There’s a drought. But hey, a point’s being made and I’ll see it MoreCorp’s way if that’s what it takes to play this game. 

According to The Positude, a player turns frowns upside down, makes lemonade from lemons, spins dreams into gold. Clouds have silver linings, yes. This is Big Tek — if not silver, what? Chrome? 

For corporate contract workers — thumbs-up minis in MoreCorp terms — bonuses are an abstract concept. The company's known for amazing employee perks, and contractors get invaluable lessons in the relativity of fortune. We specialize in silver linings. 

Let me explain. The Lovesport, an employment competition, brought me to Silicon. It's not really on yet as far as I know, but it could be, whenever. Thus my plus comes in the form of a loss. Colleagues, 50 players, were felled in a single swoop, the whole last wave of TLDR recruits drowned. The Clubhouse is in a hushed buzz over the mass expulsion. Competition’s been thinned and that’s a definite win, no denying. 

Remaining readers are surprised not surprised. We feel bad ... if by bad what is meant is glad it’s not us. The terminations give survivors a good feeling, like we just got a bonus ... if what's meant by that is our tentative hold on opportunity got more awesome without MoreCorp doing anything, as MidCorp hires and fires us officially. 

Whoever’s doing it, the terminations work in many ways, reminding us of our expendability and making us more eager to please, all while saving greenies. Yet I find this a strange approach to team spirit, collaboration, openness, and trust, all words favored by management. In fact, as the months pass, the impression that I’m working in a Wonderland snow globe in the hands of a madman grows more intense. Nothing makes sense. 

“What happened exactly?” I ask Haiti about the departed during a pow-wow in the parking lot. Her three roommates from Metropolis are gone after just two months. She's screwed and has to fill their rooms. 

“No work's what they were told.” Haiti is sitting on a stoop behind a car, smoking, her back bent. She’s tall and dark and can sometimes looks very powerful standing up straight, but not today. “You know MoreCorp, they just do whatever. They don't care.” 

“What if this is the test,” I suggest, “us doing stuff though no one seems to want much?”

Haiti looks skeptical. “Like reverse psychology?”

“It's a theory, though it does seem they prefer we play ping pong. So why fire those guys? Why hire them?”

"Who knows? Better not to q." Haiti shrugs again, then stands and shakes off her blues. She grins. "A wave drowned though, so we win!”

“Definitely,” I agree, although it’s not quite true. I don’t totally win.

Something happens which I swear on the Founders never does. I score poorly on a reading test. Disaster! I’m crushed. Assessment X is a Secret Keeping Initiative (SKI) examination of tricky text reductions, assessing the TLDR team's ability to distinguish between secrets and public information in investigations.

Not yet understanding that no expression’s ideal here — that indeed the reason I’ve flunked the test is because communication — I ask Chip Brew what to do, adding, “I reviewed! I studied!”

Chip administers the test and patrols the Clubhouse while it’s taken, spared because he's good with spreadsheets, a guru of blocks, and a favorite of the SKI Team Lead, Ampersand Matrix. Smug, he pulls back golden curls, which give the false first impression he’s cute, revealing a pale, lazy-eyed, pimply face that suggests inbred kinfolk from the hills. He sneers. “There’s other tests, Ellipsis, plus culture calibration, and your more-more score. That's hard to define. Oh and code quizzes! Don’t worry. It takes much more to lose the Lovesport … unless your wave gets drowned, of course.” Chip rearranges his curls. “There’s tons of ways to fail.” 

"Thanks," I say, unsure whether that's meant to be a threat or consolation.

The next day, a grand elucidation is held in a grand hall. Ampersand Matrix, my not-boss, delivers the answers to Assessment X at top speed. Withhold all the info is what it boils down to. This inspires no q’s, which is perfect from his perspective. What’s there to ask? 

Well, plenty. The issue is preservation, legally speaking. Secrets can be withheld officially but are limited to strategy and speculations of certain people, certified advisors. That stuff gets redacted from records. But facts are not secret, nor is much else. Facts represent, at the most basic level, what is verifiable — dates, events, names, places, the is in it is what it is. 

There's no way to discover information if investigations play a secret game with secret keeping. To ensure that MoreCorp's claims of goodness are never threatened by evidence of evil, however, we go the extra mile and call it all advice, often unnecessarily. This makes text reduction less efficient, but it ensures arbitrations conclude favorably and that the lesson at hand ends quickly. 

Ampersand hurries out of the hall, pretty blue eyes clouded by concerns, tapping his skull for txts. I walk beside him and shrug sheepishly. “Bombed that one! I’m sorry. I thought I got it but...”

“Why are you apologizing,” he asks. “Don’t apologize. I hate apologies.”

“Oh? Oh. Ok. It’s just that words can mean whatever you want. We don't all read them the same, like, as dangerous. Especially not in the context of thousands of records in an investigation.”

“What’s that?” Ampersand halts, shocked. “Did you just say you read?”

“Yeah.” I don't remind him it's our profession; he's in charge after all. 

“You know there's stuff to help with the words? Highlights, searches. Reading's slow, inefficient. We're phasing it out.”

Too quick, I reply, “I’m wicked fast.”

“I know,” Ampersand answers. “You sped through this assessment and…”

“Point taken. Sorry. Well, not sorry, because you hate that … Anyhow, I just wondered whether withholding everything is kind of a general approach? You know, since that takes time too, all the covering up, and we don't really need to hide all the facts if they're not bad.”

“Nope, that's the way to go. When in doubt, withhold. Also other times.” Ampersand sighs. “It’s all outlined in the materials on the internal webs, Ellipsis.” 

“Right. I read them, or not read. You hate that too. I just meant, like if we followed the rules it'd increase accuracy and efficiency, and not even be a threat, or...” By now I'm really regretting that I ever started talking. "Or no." 

"Yeah, no," Ampersand agrees. He walks away, hi-5's the sky, and reminds me, "Read highlights, not text!" 

As required, I thumbs-up his disappearing back, replying, "Yes." But I think no. That can't be right.

Wolf is exasperated when I tell him about the encounter in the car on the way home from work. “You gotta talk about vids and shit, El! Don’t challenge Ampersand Matrix! He's a dimwit.”

“I wasn’t! Was I? It was clarifying. I didn't invent preservation principles. They’re real!”

“Real irrelevant. Learn to keep it zipped, kid. We’re here to do biz.” 

“Yeah. You’re totally right," I concede. "But you're Mr. Right right now. How?”

Wolf did great on Assessment X. He's pops with the kool guys, active on the soc-nets, a hit in the fight clubs, and a central figure at lunch. Chip Brew even has a bro crush on him. Wolf takes his eyes off the perilous road home, excited to explain his strategy. With a gleeful gleam in his dark eyes, he says, “Since you’re so into principles, El, it’s the principle I applied in certification. To hate corporations is to know them. Understand that if they actually were people, not just legally so, they'd be psychos. Don’t break your head over facts and advice. Keep the secrets, keep it simple, keep it light. That’s my advice.”

“Good advice actually. I sux.”

“You don’t,” he consoles, then reconsiders. “Well, a little, sometimes.”

“LMAO buddy.” I'm not laughing my ass off.  

“JK darling.” 

“What’s he got to do with it?”

“Just kidding, not JFK. You’re so New England. But Just Fuxin' Kidding’s not bad. I’ll use that.” Wolf takes his hand off the steering wheel and puts it on my thigh, squeezes, and laughs wickedly. “Seriously, Ellipsis, go back to that magix trick you do, your posi-plus now-pow thing. Make people feel good, my love. When you focus, it works wonders. Just remember to coo.”

“That’s not what you do,” I object.

“No. Bonus! Because dude. Different rules."

Big Daddy Cane made a billion in drone food deliveries and sits on the MoreCorp Board. His daughter, Candy Cane, is on the SKI Team. Whenever anyone talks about her, they mention Big Daddy, like his power or money will rub off on us by proximity. For me what’s reassuring about Candy’s relative closeness, however, is that it illustrates the futility of being a billionaire’s kid. What’s the point if you just go to an office over a toxic waste dump in Silicon and think up ProTips for a bonus you don’t need

ProTip is Candy’s baby, a weekly nows-mail on wise text reduction. It’s created by her minions then rewritten into gibberish and sent out to the Clubhouse, with travel info and vacation selfies. If it wasn’t an earnest effort it would be hysterical. It’s a long tip, torture, extending until even I, who find words delightful, can’t stand it.       

That’s why I don’t work on ProTip, though there’s pressure on me to do so. I’m in a pickle, as I need to please but fear blowing my cover, or a gasket, whichever, both. Wolf told me to make people feel good, to coo, and if Candy sends my stuff out all fux, cooing’s not what I’m going to do. One who knows herself has discernment, and I recognize that sentences are among my many weaknesses.

Working with Candy’s a risk. But resisting is too. She’s being weird, sending pings about feng shui, though she still won’t say hello in the hall. Candy doesn’t really talk. To the extent that she has discernible qualities beyond having an accidentally absurd editorial style, she’s tall and solid, like a horse, and always has a tan. Also, Candy has people, like Coke, who is on the case now. 

He resembles the massive Coca Cola statue by the Plus Center — red, wide, tall and cylindrical. Unlike others here, Coke disdains his health and is never without a soda, appropriately. It would be refreshing if he wasn’t menacing and didn’t have pointy green teeth. “Top doges don’t like waves, Ellipsis.”

“They hire and fire us in waves, so maybe that’s why,” I reply, signaling with my hand that he should move. Coke’s leaning his belly on my standing desk, blocking the entrance to my pod, annoying Apple who is trying to enter ... and me. But I always pretend we’re having friendly exchanges, adding, “Waves are opportunities though, Coke. You know, in a surfing sense, so maybe ok.”

“What’s ok is doing Big Daddy’s little girl’s AOKs.” He grabs his soda off my desk, leaving a sticky brown ring, his signatureand steps into Apple’s way with his paunch, shoves him,  tries to crush the can with his hand, fails, and throws it angrily in the recycling bin across the hall. The clanging echoes loudly in the Clubhouse. 

“You ok,” I ask Apple as he enters our pod. 

“A-OK,” he says with a grin and a thumbs-up. 

It’s funny because AOKs, or Achievements Objectives Knockouts. That’s what this ProTip business is about. AOKs are employee personal projects considered for annual bonuses. They’re a big deal, discussed weekly, planned quarterly, and fulfilled accordingly to show more-more, the MoreCorp special sauce. AOKs come in all forms, from mentorship programs to visionary spreadsheets to nows-mails and presos. Some plan parties while others create vid or gaming clubs, attend Pet Petters or charity lunches. Whatever’s awesome and shows more-more is AOK and rewarded in greenies. Or so I hear — I work for MoreCorp via MidCorp; this is just what Coke says.

He’s back after an hour. “Donuts!” He shoves one in his mouth, sprinkling sukrflaki all over my desk, puts down his drink, and admits, “Sweets are my weakness! Didja’ get one of these? They’re great! In the MK.” His jowls shake as he chews, confessing, “Honestly, Ellipsis, not here to talk to you about sweets.” 

Coke sidles up to my desk again, lays a napkin down near his drink, and places a red velvet donut on it. Then, I swear on the Founders, he smashes it! The donut oozes pink goo, bleeding. Is this a metaphor? 

“Ok,” I say, “I’ll do ProTip.

“Great. I’ll tell Candy.” Coke leans in, his foul breath blowing hot on my cheek. “But, like, besides ProTip. Mmmmm. Had to flip a lot of your calls just now, so…”

“Oh?”

“Well, the problem I’m seeing … is … ummm … you reading,” he speaks slowly, loud enough for Apple to hear if he wasn’t so engrossed in his property search (real estate’s hot in Silicon — everyone’s looking). “You know we’re phasing that out, right?”

Breathe. Count to ten. Don’t answer. I go through a quick checklist of instructions. Let him keep talking.The flashing red in my eyes passes and Coke reappears before me, leaning on the desk, stinking up the air with his breath.

He continues, “It’s just, trust the highlights. If the program flagged it, check it out. But babe! Don’t get hung up on meaning!” Coke smiles. “Sweetie. You leave that to the big doges.”

I count again, trying to summon my list of instructions. But now I’m pissed and it’s inaccessible. I hiss, “I’m knows prose, you know? Certified to write, not just text-ed. Creation and destruction — or reduction, sorry — it's all in my power.”  

“You’re knows prose?” Coke’s backing away. “Oh no! I didn’t know.”  

I’m glad he’s leaving but worried. We work for Prose Control, so that’s supposed to be on the down low, my prose. Also, Wolf told me to make people feel good and the dude does not look like he feels good. Plus, ProTip! 

Yet days pass and all’s quiet on the western front. No more missives from Candy or visits from Coke, no summons to work on anything. Strangely, I start to miss the attention, and to understand the pain of favor and disgrace, the perfection of the middle path and no waves. It’s radio silence. I reach a higher plane and start thinking disgrace is not too bad, actually, when Ampersand Matrix pings for a sync in the Polar Corner. 

The message comes from his avatar and namesake, Ampersand Matrix of the sci-fi vid classic, Colored Pills. My team lead’s use of the handsome avatar gives the impression that he’s dashing and may account for the disappointment a real encounter always leaves. 

Today, unfortunately, Ampersand also looks disappointed in me. He sighs deeply. Is that despair in his sleepy blues eyes? He’s sitting at a low plastic table designed to look like a flat-topped glacier, on a plastic block of ice in the polar-themed room, which is very white. “Sit down Ellipsis.” Ampersand points to the ice block across from him. “Gotten some information. Gonna do you a favor, full disclosure.”

“Ok. That sounds bad.”

“I wouldn’t say bad. Well, yes. Bad. I mean. Look. You’re very good. You and Wolf, mucho more-more. Super smartsy. I heart you and plus you, promise. But bad feels.” 

I review recent exchanges for bad feels and wince. “Who? Who feels bad?”

“Candy Cane,” Ampersand says. “And you know her dad’s Big Daddy Cane. So bad feels are bad nows and now she’s sad. Ellipisis, I’m not mad but I’m not glad either. Sticking my neck out here. Should be filing forms with MidCorp.”

“Why? I said I’d do ProTip!

Ampersand snaps his device shut, a sign he’s really focusing. He leans on the glacier. “Not to be cold, just here’s what to do if you want me glad. Candy Cane is, well … we all know who she is … And that when she’s sad it's bad.”

This is stunning, though it shouldn't be. When cleverness emerges there is great hypocrisy. Still, I recall the bathroom stall readings of The Positude about players and frowns and turning things upside down with response-ability, responding responsibly. And though I don’t know what for or why, I offer to apologize.

“I hate apologies,” Ampersand reminds me. 

“Oh yeah. Still, Candy’s sad.”   

“Do her AOKs. Not dictating. Just saying. Otherwise it’s forms with MidCorp. Really out on a limb for you here.”

“Yes. Thank you.” I give him the requisite thumbs up though he has not hi-5’d me. Ampersand’s face is in his devices again, fingers tapping, eyes blinking and winking. That’s it.

Beyond the Polar Corner, the Clubhouse is quiet and empty as usual. Back at the pod, Apple’s gone. But the team lead's tiny avatar image, the hero Ampersand Matrix in Colored Pills, is still lively, flashing on my slot screen. He's dressed all in black leather with silver space goggles, god fingers ripping electronic fibers to uncover the fabric of the universe and truth. If I was a billionaire’s kid, like Candy Cane, that’s what I’d do.

Dear Deer:

Can I make you a soup of roots? We’ll sip it in the woods, no one watching. Midnight. I thought to Kickstart the project, capture it on camera. But that’s not magix and crowds might not fund it. 

Around the cauldron, like the first woman and wolf. The fire’s nice but it’s the spices that will bring you, Teal Deer (TLDR), in threes and fives, to sip the brew. Ripened pears for dessert from trees in the yard. Just ask Hound. Those will get you drunk. 

The Hound, the Wolf, and the Witch. Enter the forest. Eye can tell. 

In Metropolis, the last winter, there were long lines at gas stations. Just like all the apocalypse vids. Armed guards with automatic weapons, in uniform, keeping the peace in a city without electricity. The majestic skyline invisible at night. The snow going gray. Every day walking with Hound and worrying about our fate. 

Daisy said we can’t all win. So Wolf and I made our own win-win. Whim! Write it on the doors, plant it in the gardens. Old growths wait to take back the world. Young redwoods reach for silver linings. The creek trickles patiently.

Dear deer, do you dream? Do you ever think of me when you walk past the scattered shacks hidden in the hills, hop our funny fences? Invest in bird nest futures. We can’t contain you or keep you out. Not sure why we’d want to.

The soup will be served coolish. Because ancient faiths with names we do not remember. 

The doge is pleased with soup and quiche. Ripened pears. Feed him well and he will paw the quantum, tear the webs, repurpose your purpose. Hound is adorbs. But he will bite. We let him lead us out of hell, a place he knows so well. For five years, he guarded its gates. 

Wolf says those in chains must complain. I agree. Do it in rhyme, poetry. But every time we point fingers at the world to curse it, there are two fingers pointing right back at us. 

To make a gris-gris scribble verse on paper, fold it, spit twice, sew that into a pouch, say the words in Wolof. Burn it with evergreen branches. An avatar in ashes. A phoenix from the flames. A fool going nowhere fast, speed of life, shifting the multiverse with words. 

But who am I kidding? Naming is the first curse. Why this and not that? What’s better or worse? I don’t know or purport to know. Still, it seems sweet to sip soup with dear deer in the woods, to learn the secrets of flight and disappearance. 

Campaigns are lost when we are careless. KitKat is a pissy pussy and that’s why she needs a break. Candy is good food. Eat some every day. Who can choose between Coke and Pepsi — they’re just so delicious both! Steak goes great with everything, especially Ampersand Matrix. 

If you have any concerns about where this is all going, just trust me — I swear on the Founders — though I know little, of this I’m certain. The Single System System does not depend on them or us. We plug in for a minute. A blink in the eye of the machine. Before Ergo Sum there was being, these trees, dear deer.

Before the forest, I didn’t know about the leaps of faith that spirit you away. Dear deer, I wish I could tell you, whenever we meet, how enchanting, how delightful. But I freeze, like a deer in the headlights, afraid to breathe, afraid if I blink you’ll be gone. 

Questioning has been solved. We know what we love and hate. Who we’ll plus, how we’ll rate. It costs us nothing, yet we withhold our clicks. Give only to strategic partnerships. 

The power of disgrace is that it laughs in the face of favor. Winning is kool. But there’s real chic in destruction. Maybe that’s why to have been TLDR’d is to have been something.

The history of the world in 140 characters. There are six emojis with which to respond. Haha. Wow! Sad. Joke’s on us. I love the culture. It’s funny. But I don’t like it all. Sometimes I’m angry. Very rarely do I cry tears of joy, the world’s most popular emoji.

Not waving but drowning. Would you pass the chutney? Words can mean anything, nothing. We don’t speak the same language. Any of us. Ever. 

Zen koan of the day. When a story’s posted on Reddit and isn’t up-voted, was it ever written?   

As whiz kid vids go viral, a generation longs for apocalypse. In the mountains the cranks hide in shacks, listening to mouse parades at night. Paradise found. West of eden. A cathedral of trees. We have bows and arrows, a dogerman winter. Our ways. 

An omission can speak volumes. Still I prefer prose. The Keeping It Real Committee wasn’t nominated for any prizes this year. #PeopleSoFake.  

Yet a person of the book must q precisely when having no questions is perfect. Call me old-skool. But I see the future. 

Scribble the missive. Fold the paper. Spit twice. Sew the pouch. Burn a branch. Dissolve all the ashes in a pool of rainwater from tomorrow’s storm hidden in the stump of a redwood painted gold. 

A treacherous path. A steep hill. Dear deer will cross the way to welcome us. The map will end. Beyond the bend is the block un-carved. 

Tiny cabin, living large. Among old gods stitching silver linings. No denying that’s a win — from the wilds of West Afrix to the temple named Shaolin. Whim!

I’m feeling lucky. Things will fall apart. They always do. Stay tuned. Murders, mayhem, jostling for our spot on the scrapheap. Hound will not be pleased but he’ll lead us out of hell. Spirit Guy.

Forest eye can tell. Rain will fall again. Curses will rain. In winter and in summer we’ll sip soup with dear deer.

Love, 

Ellipsis

Today is a big day for me. My first comprehensive MoreCorp report card will be delivered by my MidCorp representative, Ampersandrew Max. We’ve never met. He’s electronically communicative about administrative details — sending reminders not to commit crimes and to submit times — but a very elusive guy. I’ve even wondered if he is invented, a fabrication designed to make me feel cared for, this stranger known only by his avatar.

The sense that Ampersandrew Max is a fake is encouraged by the avatar, as he uses the same god-in-leather-and-space-goggles image from the vid Colored Pills as my not-boss Ampersand Matrix (who is named after the fictional character). So it’s weird, leaving the impression that I’m managed by a handsome star who multiplies yet never appears in TLDR. Until today. All the Ampersands will be here and I’m worried that I won’t be able to tell them apart when we meet. 

Perhaps distracted by this, heading through unfamiliar Clubhouse territory I mistakenly open a wrong door. No Ampersands. But KitKat and Bank are sexting, projecting snaps on giant screens, sitting at a big pink heart table, red room, lights dimmed! I gasp. KitKat yowls and tries to hide her lewd selfie while Bank hops around. 

Behind Bank’s bobbing head I glimpse the image, lithe and busty KitKat lying naked on a bed covered in a blanket of live kittens. The opposite wall boasts what looks like a masked man in black tektites with a noose around his neck, like a snuff-vid snap. Real weird, but I don’t scrutinize, slamming the door, repeating, “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry!” as they shout the alphabet at me like maniacs. ”OMG! WTF!”  

My meeting’s around the corner it turns out. I hide in a giant banana hammock by the confer-klatch to wait, just in case the maniacs are after me. When my pod-mate Apple exits, I hop out of the fruit furniture and hurry in to the room, exchanging thumbs-ups with him as we pass at the door. 

Once inside, it's clear my concern about the Ampersands was unwarranted. It’s possible to tell the two apart, sort of. What I mean is that I recognize my not-boss — balding, egg face, sleepy blue eyes, baby cheeks rosy, such a disappointment compared to his avatar — and the rep says nothing, so no worries.

Still, they’re eerily similar. Ampersand and Ampersandrew stand simultaneously, both wearing double-denim like old-timey felons, not triple-post-mod managers. Then they motion for me to sit opposite them at a long table on a tall stool in the strangely plain room, uniformly frosti-plasti-glass. 

“Ellipsis….” The SKI Team Lead says my name slowly. He lets it hang, just long enough for all the disasters of previous chapters to flash before my eyes.

How was I fux? Let me count the ways. Failed interview with a Spampire, flunked Assessment X, angered Big Daddy Cane’s little girl, which I still don’t get. Is there more? Yes. Conjuring Forest Gods on Greenween … and walking in on that sexting scene was not the first time the pissy pussy KitKat has snarled at me. It’s going to be bad.

“Awesome.” The not-boss interrupts my reverie. “You’re doing great, Ellipsis! Just first rate!”

“I am?” That’s not what he said last we met.

“Yep. You’re a team player. Always on it numbers-wise, mega metrics, mucho more-more. Two peeps price of one, plus super fun. My critique’s just be more critical.”

“It is?” That’s a stupid thing to say but stops my jaw from dropping. Did I misunderstand?

Ampersand continues. “Yeah, speak up, say what you think. Trust you. Trust me. Shine your light on the team. We can’t say we’d give you a job and this isn’t one and I’m not your boss. But hey, what I would say if I was, which I’m not, is that you rock. Not dictating, just saying. Keep it up.”

“Ok. Great! Thanks. Umm…”

“Ok great,” the Ampersands agree. “So unless you have any q’s.”

“No,” I reply, for once providing the right answer. “No questions.”

“Perfect,” the managers say simultaneously. It seems like they’re programmed to work in tandem, standing together to indicate the end of review. With both of them in blue and tuned like that, it’s hard to be sure they’re human.  

“So? Bye?”   

“Yup.” The Ampersands wave then sit back down, instructing, “Send the next one.”     

I do as told, sending in Zen, waiting outside the door for his assessment. We exchange thumbs-ups and I run to the back of the parking lot for a celebratory smoke, feeling gleeful and like I’d kind of love to boast. But there it seems my fellow Metropolitans are despondent. Wolf, Haiti, and Pit are leaning in close, stooped around Pug who speaks in hushed tones. Somewhat reluctantly, I ask what’s going on with them. “Why so grim, my friends?” 

“I did it! I quit.” Pug’s whispering loudly, sounding excited. He’s a small and handsome man with long dark curls and a pale chiseled face, previously very posi but lately complaining a lot about Silicon. He dreams of directing great vids and is not feeling this, the LoveSport, MoreCorp, everything we were all so excited about in Metropolis just six months ago. I never believed he’d leave, yet here he is declaring, “X-country roads take me home!”

“So, you’re going?” I widen my eyes at Wolf. He shrugs back as I ask Pug for details. “What’d they say? MidCorp? MoreCorp? Whoever you told.”

“I went straight to the source, MoreCorp!” Pug shakes his black curls and lights a cig angrily. “Fux those fux. I told Eclair what’s what. I told her this sux! And what’s with people disappearing? That’s just not right.” 

Are people disappearing? That is not totally shocking; I know few colleagues enough to register extraordinary renditions, and am numbed by the thrill of my report card. What’s shocking is that he talked. No one talks. Considering this, pleasure in my score is definitely diminished. Now I know why everyone’s grim. One MidCorp contractor complaining to MoreCorp could mean no one gets a chance to win. Entire waves have drowned. We could go down.

Still, Pug concludes confidently. “Eclair’s going to talk to MoreCorp and MidCorp and Metrix and Spam. There will be changes.”

“Who says that shit?!” Haiti’s angry, increasingly agitated. She towers over Pug, her dark face glowering in his, smoldering. “Who says that kind of crazy shit to a corporation that hates us? We just got our scoresheets! The Lovesport could start any day!” 

“Chill,” Pug replies. “Wouldn’t surprise me if they do nothing. Or they could slash you. That’s why I’m leaving. I don’t hang around for the big reveal. Magix. Ta-da!”

“Who disappeared,” Wolf asks. “How do you know about it?”

“I don’t wanna say too much.” Pug shrugs, black eyes gleaming like he’d love to talk all day. “But I can tell you these guys are creepy. And I heard of hate mail from CARE, yanked certifications. Better not to disclose. Maybe just rumors anyway.” 

“Boohoo,” Pit taunts viciously, perhaps just upset to lose his best friend. “Why’d you cry then? If you’re into non-disclosure. Keeping it cryptic n’ shit.”    

Pug says nothing. We smoke silently. I contemplate Bank and KitKat across a pink heart table, wonder if they’re disappearing people and dismiss the possibility. They’re obviously not into touching and kidnapping requires contact. Right? 

Next I consider Pug’s departure. Every player who falls is a kind of win, no denying. When someone quits I’m relieved. And proud. Because perseverance. There’s a beauty to that … although there’s real chic in destruction. Even if I don’t want to go, the rebellious quality of this escape is appreciated. It’s stylish to dash an opportunity, even admirable, and certainly understandable. Often at home by the creek, peering into the forest, MoreCorp seems silly and sinister to me, and I think fux those fux just like Pug. 

Finally I break the silence, saying, “Well, we’ll miss you.” But it’s not true. We won’t really miss Pug though we do like him. We’re all self-involved and out for self. Even Wolf and I compete when we try to keep it sweet. The Lovesport should just be about work yet we act like our lives depend on MoreCorp, which they don’t, as Pug is demonstrating. Or do they? What is he saying?

“Yeah, it’s a bummer you’re leaving,” Haiti adds, regaining her usual composure. “But you shouldn’t have talked. That was dumb.”

“Forget it.” Pug advises. “Nothing’ll happen. You’re fine.” 

Haiti rolls her eyes. Wolf smirks. Pit growls. I bite my tongue. No one replies but we all disagree.  We finish our smokes and walk back to the Clubhouse in a row, close, not like friends exactly, more like a group going through something, players in a maybe-dangerous game. Pug is wrong. Something will happen. Things always do. Stay tuned. 

Our passions are expressed on the webs. Everyone’s got something, a dying art or lively politics or sweet stuff like kids and animals, maybe a combo. That’s how we know we’re alive; people post. It’s also why I start worrying about Pug, who documents his existence extensively with images — machine innards, landscapes, shots of his girl. He’s got great range and a good eye. I like his work, which is how I notice a week after he leaves Silicon that Pug is really gone. Like there’s no trace of him anywhere, not in real time, not on the onlines. 

Pug warned us about disappearances at the Clubhouse right before he quit, so I wonder if something happened to him or if he’s doing it — amazing! — going off the grid. I wish I could do that too, only that may not be what’s happening, as Wolf pings to tell me his pod mate’s gone. Poof!  

So I can’t tell if what happens next is proof that MoreCorp need not resort to criminality to get rid of us — considering how easily they can legally off us — or the opposite, evidence we're dealing with nuts. Welcome to the Small Hands. 

This sync was called by MoreCorp Team Liaison Eclair Turner and MidCorp Representative Ampersandrew Max for all the tiny hands in MidCorp’s mid-sized grip. We're in a grand hall partly filled with temps on a ticking clock. Half were already eliminated and are waiting to term out, taking ballet and fight classes with resignation, to aid in contemplation of coming struggles. The rest of us are survivors of new waves, still waiting for the Lovesport to be announced. 

It’s possible, we believe, that we'll compete for jobs. For us speculation about this gathering has included bets that the race is on, starter pistol set to fire. Unless we’re about to get fired. Anything is possible though we needn’t guess any longer. 

Eclair takes the stage with Ampersandrew. He settles on a high stool in a corner, wearing silver tektites and a blue hoodie, sipping from a bottle — fluorescent so likely an extreme drink, maybe for an extreme situation (I hope not!). She's in red tektites and a black MoreCorp hoodie with the Good Grows Good logo. Still, I don’t get a good feeling when I look at her — her smile is tight, wide and ready, the tall horsey frame restless. Eclair shakes her long yellow mane and neighs wildly, which settles the audience right down. 

“So Disco Ninjas, welcome to the Small Hands … let’s give you guys a big hand!” The crowd is unsure whether to clap or be clapped at, and no one claps. Eclair doesn't either.

She resumes. “A lot of you are probably wondering next moves, grow career, blah blah, and you’ve been counting on MoreCorp — despite our warnings — to offer you growth. And we can. And we do. Umm. But not for you. See, there’s lots to gain from association with us and we’re aware of that. Our brand makes a huge impact and we have to preserve it by being mmm… selective, let’s say. So let me be clear, guys, you can’t stay for the long haul. Not to be rude or anything, but no way."

I hear a gasp. Maybe it’s me. Someone else laughs, there's much rustling in seats. Wolf crosses his arms beside me. I avoid looking at him directly and clench my fists in my jacket pockets.

Eclair continues coolly. “Now I know you’ve been giving your all, and some of you are waiting for the Lovesport, and all I can say is no but you never know. If you don’t like that, or don’t like anything else about us, you can go now. Don't wait. And I say this cuz I recently had a great face-2-face with one of my faves and he told me that y’all are down …” 

Feel self reeling, remind self to breathe. I grip my seat. Is the Team Liaison talking about her chat with Pug, that complaint session he mentioned before he quit, the reason we were all pissed? Is that what this is about?

Eclair is expansive now. “I really thought it was great that he came to me and opened up and I appreciate the, mmm, insight. Knowing where you guys are at is key to me and I super heart y’all. Plus communication. That’s why we’re clear with you that we’re just not going to be able to say anything — it’s transparency.” 

She seems to be growing taller with every word. Meanwhile, in the corner Ampersandrew Max is typing into a tiny device. If he’s sad for us, the workers he represents, he hides it well under a grin of hilarity aimed at a wrist screen. Eclair rolls on. 

“So, like I was saying, mmmm. You, you’re not integral to MoreCorp, getting granular. Yet you’re some of the luckiest people alive today! So play! Go swimming, hang in the enviro-clones, and don’t take this personally because it’s not personal. It’s business, staying competitive. Feel free to use our resources to develop your fighting spirit. Wrestle, kick, punch, shoot. Take advantage — take classes!”

Eclair pauses for a sip of a drink she takes straight from her tektites through a straw in a special pocket hidden by her hoodie. It looks like she’s bowing her head in prayer. Hydrated, she raises it and reminds us, “But don’t abuse generosity and remember more-more. Because good grows good.” 

The liaison taps her skull. She stops talking and moves her lips like she’s reading — presumably she’s scanning notes as her eyes do the shifting thing that happens with bio-wiring. Finding what she needs, she addresses us again. “Yeah mmm, this is important. Remember. When you don’t like me, you don’t like you, so look in the mirror. Ask yourself if you like what you see. I totally do. Like, when I look at me. If your answer is no, work on it. Grow good. Use it. Do it. Grow it. Maximize time. It’s short, which is why Amp Max is here. Amp? Why don’t you come on up and let your peeps know what MidCorp’s doing for them.”

The rep looks surprised but recalls his purpose and takes his place at the front of the stage by Eclair. Wolf and I finally exchange looks — he narrows his eyes at me, I widen mine back. What we’re both saying is this sux. But it’s not over. Now our rep, who I’ve met once, starts talking. 

“Hey Eclair. Thanks for that intro, really great, but I like to go by my full name –- that’s Ampersandrew — in public speaking situations. It’s a Toastmasters tip.”

He connects his wrist device to a big screen so that we can see his offering. Displayed behind him is a giant spreadsheet with info so tiny that even maximized for greater viewing it’s unclear what the letters represent. It’s just an image, cubes with type, nice, graphically speaking, whatever the details. “So, yeah, umm, right,” Ampersandrew illuminates. “This is ahh. Like a spreadsheet, like. It’s got like all the jobs you can have, like not ahh like umm all kinds of work aaah ahhh available in the world. And there’s a umm column here somewhere with ahh your names."

The rep gestures with a generous hand flourish, offering, "Can share the link with you after the preso ... but umm, first, kinda, would be a good time to, aah, remind you not to say you worked for MoreCorp when you do job hunt or you’re subject to certification revocation. CARE hates talk.” 

Ampersandrew’s sweating so profusely you’d think his registrations were being yanked, but he regains composure — perhaps recalling a Toastmasters Tip to keep it positive. “Not too worried ahh about it, though. Y’all are kool and we wanna ease your transition and that’s why MidCorp puts together these spreadsheets for your benefit and you can really use them for that. And, ahh, like I said, happy to share the link. Eclair, anything you want to add?”

She widens her eyes, nostrils flaring like she is falling in love with the rep, then beams out at the group. “Just wanna say that this is a great spreadsheet Amp … ersandrew. Seems like these guys could really benefit from it. Right, guys?”

Our MidCorp rep replies for us. “Yeah, they sure could. That’s what it’s for. Glad you can recognize that. Appreciate it, Eclair.” He takes a sip from his bottle and wipes his mouth with a sleeve.

“You bet I can,” she confirms. “So, great! Guys, hope you see what he’s doing. There’s the spreadsheet and here you are and I just want to make it real clear — game over … unless something changes.” Eclair smiles widely and tosses her head, neighs. “Well, I guess it’s time for q’s,” she concludes. 

But before she can say it’s perfect that there are no questions, the grand hall’s cleared of small hands. Not waiting to be dismissed, we disappear. Poof! Disco Ninjas gone, just like Pug.

The way requires no action plan — things happen and paths are suggested. Forces at play are many, consequences incalculable. Who can say where a butterfly’s fluttering wings will reverberate or if a billionaire drone delivery king will pay to kill? Knowing is not necessary or possible. Just follow the way. Like water, go low. 

In this spirit, I head for the Rainforest Roundtable, a themed meeting room in the Clubhouse. Candy Cane, my SKI teammate and the daughter of billionaire Big Daddy Cane, wants to meet. My MoreCorp not-boss has already ordered me to obey any command she may have, threatening form filing with MidCorp managers or worse if the girl's unhappy. 

The door to the fake forest is painted a glossy textured green to look like moss. The handle is a brown plastic branch. Inside, birdsong and rainfall are piped in on discreet speakers. The small cube is covered in imi-ivy and redwood treetops are painted on the ceiling. But the perspective’s off and it’s as if we see the trees from above — I can’t tell if it’s quirky design or idiocy, a total failure to convey the view from inside a real forest. 

Underneath an awning of artificial flora is a fake tree trunk table — a very old growth judging by the painted rings. I sit in a plastic tree stump like the seats Wolf and I rolled in from the woods across the creek to our cabin, deliberately keeping mind empty, waiting.

Finally Candy Cane rushes in wearing silken tektites and carrying devices, bags, boxed lunch. “Hey Ellipsis. My mani-pedi and zeni-beni therapy starts soon so let’s get going here!” She arranges her stuff on the table and puts her brown hair in a ponytail, emphasizing the wide face and shoulders. Sitting on a stump, organizing lunch — chopstix, N0 cal drink, cardboard bento of sushi in a dragon shape — Candy exclaims. “Oh no!”

I jump up, alarmed. “Oh no what?!” 

She sadly inspects her meal, complaining, “I hate when they make these fat." She looks at the sushi in disgust and gets up as I, relieved, take my seat again. “Be right back.” After a few minutes Candy makes good on her promise, returning and slamming the door so that the soothing music skips to a storm setting (like the kind the west is waiting for, the kind that comes no more). Over the sound of pelting rain and booming thunder, she shouts, “DIDJA GET THAT THING I SENTCHA?”

“Yes. I did get that thing you sent me. But it was jumbled or something, gibberish.” She looks perplexed and I shout.“GOBBLEDYGOOK! NO GOOD.” Suddenly the music gets soft again. I switch to almost a whisper. “A sys-glitch or a tek issue, not you.”

“Yeah. No. Not me.”

“Maybe me,” I offer. 

 “Yeah. Probably.” Candy Cane flips open a device with one hand and types while using chopstix to eat with the other. She stuffs fat dragons in her thin lipped wide mouth, swigging N0 cals. 

Have I misjudged her? She’s a master multi-tasker! 

Candy addresses me again. “So sounds like you know no stuff so this sync already sux. So how about you fix the file and do knows prose and we’ll meet again soon. And make it great. Like my daddy says, ‘Put in your all and you’ll never fall!’”

  “Ok, will do,” I reply, standing, poised for escape. “I’ll ping.”

It’s the end of the workday. Wolf and I leave MoreCorp, driving an hour from Silicon to UnCorp, which is another world, otherworldly, with its real forest. Worried, I say little during the ride. He asks what the meeting with Candy was about and I reply that it’s a mystery, as if joking. But I really don’t know, so it’s probably no laughing matter, not if people are really disappearing and the drone delivery king has something to do with it … which, come to think of it, why would he? 

When we get home, I sit at the creek, reflecting. Far from everyone, from Silicon, the way suggests itself. Like water, flow, go to the lowest place. Bowed down then preserved. Bent then straight. Now more than ever I must be mindful, as a sloppy moment can easily kill a whole campaign and I no longer know what’s at stake. Maybe money, or nothing, or my life. 

The next day, back at the Clubhouse, I check Candy’s mail again, inspecting the file she sent. Fine. Now I can see that it’s writing, sort of, and that knows prose — although one of The Arts Old eliminated from public education — is still a valuable skill. Or is it a liability? I guess I’ll find out soon enough. 

Candy’s memo makes no sense but there’s no tek issue. It’s just her no-prose coupled with severe unkeyboardination, which is a common problem since the jet-black keyboard featured in the Colored Pills reboot vid became so popular. Now kool kids type with no key designations, limiting the comprehensibility of their communications enormously. For example: 

PROCONPROP - v 11 - Hyoomen Musheens    

     We kreeayt. Musheen koading eluminayts junk 2 of 0 purrfek lyf hak. Bot wots peeple dewing? We cood Nooans. Granoolur endurstond. Dada peepul musheens. But we gut da beet. Dans difrd drumrs. Dats stori. Peepul. Aha! An ibrow. 

I focus all my powers of concentration and interpretation on this brief work of genius until I discern words. It seems to be entitled Human Machines and I think what Candy means is that people tell stories, thus doing more nuanced text reduction than artificial intelligence, or machines … Unless I’m giving her too much credit, which Wolf says I do with human intelligence generally. 

After redrafting I ping Candy. Soon her avatar flashes on my screen, responding. It’s an image of her in a tight red and white striped dress and thigh-highs, looking like a giant candy cane no one would lick if her daddy wasn’t a billionaire drone delivery king. She’s feeling cryptic.

     CC: WFH

     El: oops!

     CC: OOO not OOP

Candy then promptly sends a calendar invite, scheduling another sync for when she is not Working From Home or Out Of Office or Out Of Pocket — that is, not WFH, OOO, or OOP. WTF, right? 

Anyway, we meet again soon. Rainforest Roundtable, round two. This time, Candy’s already in the imi-ivy confer-klatch waiting for me, a device displaying her draft on a screen on the woodsy wall. We nod in greeting. Today the speakers play hooting bird and wild beast calls and low rumbling thunder, which is strangely soothing. I settle into a stump, glance up at the treetop ceiling and then the wall screen, saying, “I liked your storytelling angle.”

Candy looks mystified, like I’m speaking Hebrew. She scrunches up her nose and replies, sounding just like her writing — totally amazing! — saying, “Let’s do something that advantage by more than vendor analysis hierarchical approaches. Right?” She looks nervous, searches my eyes, desperate, suddenly small. 

That is when I finally realize. Holy smokes! It hits me so hard I almost topple off my plastic tree stump. Candy Cane keeps quiet to hide a severe case of I-don’t-get-it-ness! Like way worse than mine. Is that even possible? I coax her. “Just tell me a little more, so we can, like, massage the ideas a little.”

“I super heart massage!”

“Yes,” I encourage. “That’s good.”

“Yeah!” Candy is into it now, enthusiastic. “So stories are humans. Narrative nuance, y’know, so, like you said, or I said first and you fixed the words. And also people do dances to different drummers so people can do that?”

“Aha!” I pretend to understand by quoting her conclusion back to her. "An eyebrow."

She agrees. “Exactly!” 

“What now?”

“First, you do more. After that I’ll handle it.”

“Ok,” I say, feeling as low as only the places water goes. 

“Yeah, deep dive,” Candy advises. With that, she snaps shut device, collects goods from desk, and departs, saying, “Great talk.”

WTF! I sit, stunned, listening to thunder and parrots and screaming beasts, breathing deep. But soon my meditation is interrupted by the next duo scheduled to use the room. It’s Ampersand Matrix, my not-boss, meeting with Eclair Turner, the Team Liaison. I quickly rise. “Hey guys, just clearing out.”

Ampersand asks, “Everything ok?”

“Yeah,” I lie. “Everything’s awesome!”

“Awesome,” he repeats. “Really looking forward to seeing what you do with Candy. Oh and I’ve got something else to talk to you about.”      

Now what? My heart stops. I freeze in the doorway, gripping the plastic branch handle, a dear deer caught in the headlights. Or is it a hunter’s sight? “Sure, of course,” I finally reply. “When?”

“Let’s sync up back here in just a few minutes. How about that,” Ampersand asks. “Sound good?” 

 “Great,” I say, dismayed. It seems there’s no escape from this fake forest of plastic trees. Not for me. Not for now.

When the Humble Servant was still a simple, skinny Zen master, he advised two things. Use words but rarely and wash your bowl. Since then he’s gained weight and sponsors spreading the gospel of now-pow throughout our united nations. He’s speaking at MoreCorp today, which is great! 

I never go see the many thought leaders who illuminate the Silicon campus, but this wise guy’s huge, a spiritual superstar, and I’m curious. Is he for real? MoreCorp built many of his retreats worldwide, so we see him everywhere on the webs. Often the context seems objectionable for a monk. The Humble Servant is the face of dozens of products, from tek devices to toys and foods. It seems weird, like maybe he should think different.

The talk is far from the Clubhouse at the Plus Center. I grab a skateboard from the transport rack outside the office, loaded with cycles, scooters, whirligigs, and wheelios. Down paved paths cut through plasti-grass lawns where workers play, I skate to the building and abandon the deck at a half-full rack at the entrance. Nothing is locked … except the doors. 

I give the requisite thumbs-up, aiming my micro-chip at a bot-face in an oval screen to gain entry. An alarm buzzes obnoxiously, alerting a guard inside. He doesn’t open, appearing electronically instead. It’s Rice, who I recall from orientation and whose name, rank and ID number show up below his features.

“Hi Rice. Am I early? Grabbing a seat for the Humble Servant talk.”

“That’s not very more-more.”

“What’s not? The alarm? I know!”

“Grabbing,” he corrects. “Bad karma. No-no mojo.”

“Totally,” I agree. “But I’m …”

“Yeah, no.” Rice cuts me off. “It looks like umm … Ellipsis? You’re a thumbs-up. Mini. That’s why the buzz-buzz. This is a hi-5 event, maxi and above. But you can stream it. Kool?”

It’s totally not kool being excluded, as a rule. I trudge back to the Clubhouse on foot, blue, not even smelling the air scented with hypo-allergenic perfumes, nor hearing the sweet birdsong piped in on invisible speakers. 

Still, it’s not personal, as the Team Liaison Eclair says. There are many irrelevant workers, some more so than me. We’re divided in four ranks — micros, minis, maxis, and majors. Micros are the humblest servants, a fleet of cleaners, cooks, and deliverers of goods and services, mostly unseen if not invisible, addressed electronically. Thus there are screens in every kitchen, which are everywhere, as it’s also a Founders’ Principle that no one here will go hungry, plus some other awesome stuff.

These ideas, like the talk I will not be attending today, are what makes MoreCorp great and its People Operations famous. The company has been ranked top employer for decades. It gives employees more and is strict about who it employs precisely because it’s so very generous. Giving all workers benefits and bonuses is expensive and impossible, and very few here are technically employed by the company.

Still, you can’t run the world’s biggest biz with very few people, hence the throngs of contractors with limited access to the awesome. Meet another now. Ahead of me is Raz, a micro I know because he keeps the kitchen in the Clubhouse stocked, and reads prose printies so we talk. He’s pushing a tall load of pallets, dodging low-flying scent drones and high-flying golf balls on a narrow concrete path between gaming lawns.

 “Hey Raz," I catch up to him easily. "What’s the story?”

“Just pushing that boulder, Ellipsis. Uphill. You? Enviro-clones?”

“No. I was going to see the Humble Servant but I’m too low so it’s back to the Clubhouse to do  incomprehensible things.”

“What?” Raz scowls. “To me?”

“No. To everyone. No one seems to know.”

“We can’t go on. We go on.”

“Nice,” I wink. “Are we not men?”

“Well, you’re not, but yeah. We are, so don’t worry. This doesn’t matter.”

“What matters?”

“Life. Death. Freedom.” Razz stops pushing the pallets, halting in the path. “Truth.”

“Does not compute,” I respond joking, a little surprised at his gravity. He glares and I concede. “Ok, freedom. Tell me about it.”

“Can't be given, can be taken.”

“Wow. Someone's not sleeping. But mostly guess what I’m seeing?”

“Not the Humble Servant,” Raz offers.

“Funny. The big snooze. That’s what we choose.”

“Well, we’re not locked up. You can leave or laugh.”

“Sure,” I reply. But sure is not how I’d describe myself when I think of Pug and Wolf’s pod-mate disappearing, or Candy Cane and the rumor that her billionaire Big Daddy buys killers. Nothing’s certain. We start walking again. 

“It’s not prison.” Raz lowers his voice.

"No," I say neutrally. Having worked crime and punishment for PoorCorp, I can almost guess the coming confession and he must sense the story’s familiar to me, if only professionally. "But you know personally?"

“I did time for murder. Don’t tell anyone. I was young.”

“Shit dude. Ok. How young?”

“Fifteen. Gang shit.”

What can I say to that? We stand in the morning sun, silent. He’s tall, his face partly shaded by the tower of food he’s delivering, unmarked by the sins of childhood or the school of hard knocks. Murder doesn’t show on a face. Raz paws the concrete path with his sneaker, remembering invisible scars. He looks young or old, hard or handsome, light or dark, like everyone or no one, depending on the angle and faces you've seen.

“I guess that explains,” I break the silence. “Prison. I wondered why you read.”

“Yeah, nothing but printies, real old-timey. You’d probably like it.”

“I’ve had the privilege of visiting, thanks. Reading’s good but so are trees.”

“Yeah, freedom, like I said,” Raz reminds. “Fux these fux!”

Strange, that’s what Pug said before he disappeared. Where is he? Shooting the great universal vid? Off the grid? Dead and buried? It’s been weeks with no sign, no snaps, no tracks.

We reach the Clubhouse. Raz and I part ways. Back at my pod, I stream the Humble Servant’s talk, catching the conclusion. The golden robed monk, a fat old man, sits high on a cushion on a raised stage surrounded by students in silver.

A Q&A is announced. Guides point out hidden amplification spots and MoreCorp employees line up in the aisles to articulate their spiritual concerns. These are a few:

“Is app meditation as valuable as a retreat?” 

“How do we relax into greatness when the webs work nonstop?”

“Talk about illumination shortcuts real quick, ways to make enlightenment efficient.”

The Humble Servant smiles wisely and nods, double chins shaking as he listens. He is from X-Viet yet speaks English just fine in advertisements. But here a giant beaming blonde with pink cheeks and grateful green eyes acts as an interpreter. The master whispers while she leans beneath him then shares with the group. 

“Humble Servant says tek is a blessing. Some use it for ill but the healthy can blossom, being in the now, and feeling that power. Like, we can use apps to remind us to breathe, like a bell.” A man in shiny dress bangs a big bronze gong to illustrate the point. She continues. “Relaxing into greatness is easy with no fear of change.” 

Again, the interpreter leans in for wisdom, relaying, “Of course a retreat is superior, which is why Humble Servant is offering a special for MoreCorp members, you guys, hi-5s, a discounted price!” The audience whoops and cheers, clapping at the deal. When it’s quiet again, the interpreter grins, almost singing, “On retreats unhooking’s unnecessary and enlightenment’s possible for all. You asked for a shortcut! You got it!” 

The gong is struck again and the Humble Servant smiles, eyes crinkled as if amused, though it seems like shadows flit over his face. Are those clouds of irritation? Maybe he is still, somewhere inside, the wise guy who advised use words but rarely and wash your bowl. It’s so hard to tell what's real, and who has sold their soul. 

Lolli said to raise the stakes, sex and death, so that’s what I do with Ampersand Matrix. Not that I kill or seduce him, but I cast a spell. Maybe this dictates the conclusion or maybe choice is an illusion. So many strings are being pulled, wings beating, creatures breathing. Guessing or regretting how it all happens is foolish. By the time we explain, it is has become inescapable. Too late if it wasn't always.  

Ping! My not-boss summons via vid star avatar. He wants to meet in RR, which I incorrectly assume is the Rainforest Roundtable. Unfortunately Ampersand’s not there when I open the synth-moss door with the branch handle, and someone forgot to set the cute beetle on the external screen to Don’t Bug Us. Inside, KitKat and Bank are making sex face in the dark again while genitals are projected on imi-ivy walls. They jump up from plastic tree stumps, shouting, “You’re so fux!”

Last time that happened I was scared. But now the Team Liaison, Eclair, says the chances of contractors playing for keeps, staying at MoreCorp, winning the Lovesport, are probably nil. So I don’t feel anything … except reckless.

Indifferent to sexting superiors and their threats, I go to an electronic map of the Clubhouse. It shows there is another RR room, the Rio-Riyadh, downstairs, a tribute to places renamed in the Single System System tradition, which is the same just with an X, like X-Rio, disruption of status quo. 

Having never visited old or new Rio or Riyadh, I can’t judge the appropriateness of the decor. It seems to be a cross between a favela and a luxury desert hotel, hi-lo, sand on the floor and corporate graffiti on the walls, things like No Wifi No Got My! (Vote). Ampersand is folded on a cushion, knees at his chin, elbows leaning on a low table with a backgammon board top. He welcomes. “Hey, Ellipsis. Sit.”

I choose a pink pillow from a pile in the corner, wondering where the sand comes from, inspecting the graffiti. It’s stickers made on an app that’s popular with genuine design fans — rebel sells and The Arts Old are hot though not practiced. Case in point, this sync.

“Ellipsis.” Ampersand sighs my name, slowly. “You’re knows-prose, right?”

I hesitate though it’s too late. My cover’s blown. Still, I’m tempted to say no. Is this a trap? Working for Prose Control is confusing and there’s reason to be paranoid in light of recent disappearances. Finally I reply, “Yes.”

“Ok kool, super, right on. Old-skool.” He says this awkwardly, as if testing the phrase and finding it not entirely to his taste. “I need you to use that. Creatives are great and you are one, like we saw on Greenween with those tree things you did. So can you do it?”

“Totally. Yeah. Or, I guess it depends. What am I doing? Writing a dress?” 

“A little vid script. ” Ampersand looks desperate, balding scalp sweating, blue eyes misty. “Just do it! For the team. Eclair needs it tomorrow. It would be totally awesome.” 

For me it is not totally awesome that Prose Control squashed The Arts Old and now no one needs writing except in emergencies. But this is a poetic burden, my struggle as it were, so no need to express. “Of course,” I acquiesce. ”What’s this script?”

Matrix is sheepish. He doodles in the sand on the floor with fat fingers and mumbles inaudibly until he roars. “FACTS! SECRETS!” Calming down, he settles low on the pillow, speaking quietly again. “What’s the difference? Gotta explain data collection in a corporation. Like that but in a kool vid, so make it fun. Entertaining.”

“Nice,” I lie, secretly fuming. FACTS! SECRETS! Didn’t I try to talk to him about this after I bombed Assessment X? Now he wants a vid! But I suppress my pout as it’s poor form for me to show displeasure, particularly about a chance to work on such a production. This will be seen on MoreCorp campuses worldwide. “So any guidance? Do you have ideas about the script or what to say?”

Ampersand tugs his hoodie strings, sad and mad, not glad at all but trying to smile. He glares, maybe because now his cover’s blown too, and he knows that I know that he doesn’t have a clue. “You’re creative,” he says. “Create! And quick! Also Marsh, Cocoa, Bank and KitKat all need to be in it. Me too, not a big role but the star. Candy will be the writer, like later, after you’re done. Because Big Daddy Cane. Awesome. Whatever. Appreciate that. Won’t be easy.”

“No, yes, well, we’ll see. Could be easy.” Thinking of no-prose Candy as the writer, I try not to explode, wondering how easy it would be to kill her in real life. Is this a slasher pic? A murder mystery? Snuff? This could be amazing stuff.

Kicking up sand exiting the luxury favela, I promise Ampersand to do my best. The thing is, my experience is limited. I’m so old-skool I’ve never written a vid script, still on my breakout book though the presses are dead. So it could be a bad scene, literally, although if Candy’s name will be attached maybe that doesn’t matter.  

Whatever happens, it’s obvious that this script must be based on the classic vid Colored Pills. Remakes always do better than originals. That’s why there are dozens of versions of the Ampersand Matrix mythPlus, my not-boss is named after the man-god, and everyone loves him ripping the fabric of the universe, uncovering truth, rejecting the blue pill and illusion.

I grab a caf+ from the kitchen for inspiration and return to my slot to get started. In our pod Apple is stretching for one-man badminton with electronic birdies that sing taunts. He’s getting pumped by cursing as he loosens his limbs. Our two other pod-mates termed out and there's plenty of space. The Clubhouse ranks are thinning. 

Ignoring Apple’s practice insults, I consider Colored Pills. In it, Ampersand Matrix meets a revolutionary leader who offers to free him from an invisible prison. He can stop being a blink in the eye of a machine, escape the hive mind, recognize the lies, break on through to the other side. For this, Matrix must choose between two pills. Blue is the snooze and red represents truth.

Yet what the revolutionary really offers is not freedom but an impossible fight against machines that people rely upon for meaning and more, a senseless war. So what’s the difference? Isn’t that just the purple pill? A bit of blue and red? 

Maybe there is nothing else. We’re not in prison, like Raz said, and I don’t know if distinctions matter, not the more I think about it. Human intelligence or machines, waking life and dreams, the hive and my own monkey mind. Isn’t it all the Single System System, just what’s happening, even deep in the forest where the wifi’s weak, outside the drone delivery zone? 

Vid critics say the scene where Matrix tears the fabric of planets uncovering electronic fibers is a victory for humanity, like pulling the plugs is even possible. To me this seems absurd, refusal to recognize the likely scale of reality, the big hint in this vid, a warning — there could be infinite forces, Ampersands in all times, places, and directions, fighting and dying forever in a never-ending multiverse. Always a next level of truth, no total breakthroughs. Enjoy the purple pill. 

Apple wakes me from my reverie with a tap of his badminton racket. “Outta here! Gonna slap birdies!”

“Good luck.” I take a sip of caf+ and stare at the blank screen, imagining my not-boss as a man-god learning about truth from smug revolutionaries Cocoa and Marsh, grabbing the red pill and getting killed by KitKat and Bank shooting lasers from sexual orifices, shouting, “You’re so fux!” 

Typing that up with some stuff about secrets, I'm done, sending off the scene to Ampersand Matrix. Is it reckless? I can tell you already that my only regrets are Candy getting the credit and that I’ll never know if what happens next is borne of my spell. Probably not.

There’s a lot going on in the quantum. Thinking that magical realism makes much difference in a game of this scale is my failure of imagination. It’s me unable to fathom all the forces at play or the tendency toward chaos. 

Now the Disco Ninjas dance. Or so I imagine. The Clubhouse is abuzz about Bud Wiser’s wedding. Everyone's talking and all the top doges are going, according to Walden King, who is ahead of me in the lunch line at Meat-Up. “Eclair, Spam, even that troll Metrix Barnes. It’s big,” he says. 

“Should be good,” I reply carefully. “Very kool."

“You’ve never seen Metrix at a party.” King laughs. ”Not kool. Scary.”

Luckily it’s his turn for service and I don’t have to respond. It’s true that I’ve never seen Metrix at a party. She barely appears in the Clubhouse. Still, she's big in Discovery and only Spam's her superior, so I’m surprised King would talk like this. But he’s unusually independent and chatty. Recently, King dared to suggest to the whole team, in a speech supposed to promote Spam’s patented text reduction methods, that prose and even print still have a place. This in the heart of Prose Control at MoreCorp, which pioneered the TLDR space saving project! Walden hasn’t been around much since but that may be unrelated to his brazenness. He travels a lot for work. 

Once we’re seated at the team table, I ask him, “You’re not predicting fun?”  

“We’ll get drunk while Metrix makes us blue with that pink hair.”

“Pinteresting.”

“I doubt it. Still, a major event.” King turns to chat with Chip Brew about pork infused hops and whether the choco-drop craze is finally over in ale. The screens on the walls play X-K-Pop vids, ladies wearing patchwork dresses and giant shoes, holding huge lollipops and singing in high-pitched voices. I watch while eating, mesmerized. 

Done, Wolf and I go to the back of the parking lot for a cig. On the way we see Haiti, headed to yo-flo. She hops off her unicycle and joins us, immediately mentioning the wedding. She’s on Bud Wiser’s Fight Night team and I ask about the intended, if she's met her. “Yeah. She’s nice,” Haiti says. “Well, not nice. She's a mean fighter but her hair’s nice, like real long and shiny, jet black, super nice.” She jumps back on the unicycle, wobbles, and takes off. 

In the weeks before the event, I stitch. Not a dress of leaves but denim and leather, made from jeans and jackets. There are occasions to be an alien. Stitching continues until the last minute, and if you don’t look too close the patchwork is dope. My fingers are calloused and stiff, carved with needle tracks, but I’m ready to boogie in five-inch wooden clogs, like an X-K-Pop star. 

Wolf drives to SF. Traffic is light. Parking is difficult to find. The festivities are being held at PhotOpp, an office building for a photography app that also does event space rental. Real estate prices are so crazy here that everyone has to have side jobs, even the booming businesses. 

We finally arrive at the place just as Amazonian Candy Cane rushes by, wearing a tiara and tektites, her signature red and white stripes, accompanied by a dude in a blue suede sweat set. They ignore our greetings. The doorman checks the list — ahh, here we are, Wolf plus one. He lets us into a plasti-glass entrance, panes frosted with old-timey cameras. We follow him through a vast room with stone floors and a heavy wooden staircase. “Party’s up there,” he indicates. 

The first two flights are off limits, gloomy. The rooms are empty but for a large table in each, rectangular, heavy, wood. On the rooftop, the Disco Ninjas stand stiffly, terribly quiet, not boogieing to any beat. I freeze in the doorway surveying, dismayed, cold in the wind and wishing I had time to stitch sleeves. “We can still jet,” Wolf suggests as Walden King approaches with drinks. I accept. Wolf declines. “Long drive, bad roads. Can’t use the autopilot in UnCorp. How’re you doing?”

“Doing alright,” King says. “A little surprised. The bride and groom bowed out. They’re going to Vegas. It was like a wedding gag. Check your txts. it’s the one that starts, ‘Party like it’s 1999!’”

Wolf changes his mind. “Maybe I do need a drink.” We greet a few people on the way to the bar but the crowd is mostly standing in silent circles tapping into devices. Soon I leave Wolf and Walden at the pond discussing the dangers of a rigid patent system that only grants ownership to MoreCorp and its strategic partners. This may not be the best place for such a talk.  

I check out the views on the roof from every angle, looking into the coveted lit living rooms of SF. They look so warm and cozy. Then I go search for Haiti, wandering down the stairs to a bathroom where — I swear on the Founders! —  Eclair whispers viciously in the next stall. “This is the time. No waiting! Or BDC will hear.”

Crouching, I put my feet on the toilet seat and squat. Clogs in hand, I wait out the Team Liaison, not breathing. She finally leaves and I trudge up the stairs, clogs clomping, no longer tempted to explore the off-limits floors. 

Haiti shows up at midnight with Daisy in tow — Daisy who was stabbed with a fork at work (I still don't know the perpetrator) and escaped to X-Mex. We haven’t seen each other since Metropolis, so we hug and huddle. Turns out she’s up from LA for a MidCorp text reduction project, not stripping after all, that was just bluster. I tell them that the wedding happened without us. “The happy couple ditched this.”

“Yeah, it’s a thing. The wed and fled. Don't you know?” Haiti explains. “It’s like you have guests and presents but no headache. Still an expense though. That's why you gotta check your txts, Ellipsis. Anything can happen.” 

Daisy pokes me with a finger and points to the far corner of the roof at a small dumpy woman with dark hair, tips dyed hot pink, wearing a black sequin sweat set. “Metrix!”

“Don't fux with her, Daisy!” Haiti warns. “Don’t even look.” 

Of course we all look. See? There, leaning against the railing. Daisy looks long and hard, like she'd love to push Metrix over and watch the fall. But I don’t know their backstory and now's not the time to inflame by asking for details. 

All I know is from a webs bio. Metrix has won numerous awards and is considered a superstar, not like a vid celeb, given, but still in charge of a department at HQ, MoreCorp Silicon. Before this, she was one of the youngest regi-profs to make partner at a Big Firm, and her bio boasts all the best institutions plus public service prizes. Metrix apparently raises a lot of money at parties, which is weird because she’s clearly not into this one, ignoring even Eclair, who now towers over her, shaking her mane and tail.            

As I consider whether to escape before Eclair notices my feet, Wolf grabs me and rushes us off. “Let’s go. Now. Before Walden gets back.”

“Bye!” I wave and follow him down the stairs. He takes them two at a time with his giant stride while I jump behind him, tripping and falling half a flight. These clogs! Then I turn to the right and spot Walden King underneath one of those big tables, hiding and … typing? What’s he doing? 

Wolf growls at me from below. “Ellipsis!” 

Outside, we run to the car and he starts it before I'm in. Wolf drives fast, lurching up steep hills and racing down until we’re out of town. “What's that,” I ask. “Why is Walden under a table? How much did he drink?”

“Something’s wrong with him. He’s talking too much. Not exactly MoreCorp material.”

“I heard Eclair saying weird stuff too, downstairs. 'It’s time to do it. Now’s the time.' Something like that. It was crazy. I was, like, hiding in a stall, squatting on the toilet.”

“That's stealthy. She didn't see your clogs?"

"She might have. Do you think it has to do with Walden?" 

"Could be anything.” Wolf lights a smoke and opens the window. “But it's not good to be king for a change, that's obvious."

"The plot thickens."

"Yeah, let’s stop for fasties. The intrigue’s making me hungry.” 

At the last junction before UnCorp, Wolf turns off at the 24-hour drive-thru Eat-n-Run. The lot is full of billionaire Big Daddy Cane's drones, lined in ready rows with the red-and-white-striped BDC candy cane logo, which I now know refers to his daughter, my colleague. I wonder if it’s weird for Candy to see these things all over the delivery zone or if she’s heard how the military used them to squash opposition to the Single System System back when opposing was a thing. Then it occurs to me — BDC, what Eclair said, that he’ll hear. She meant Big Daddy Cane.

Wolf and I wind down the mountains in the dark, arriving in Silicon with the rising sun. The Clubhouse is empty as we slide into our slots on 1-day morning. But there’s mail. A lot of it, and shocking, missives from the the MoreCorp Wellness and MidCorp OK-ness departments, informing us Walden King is dead. He was killed in a car crash after Bud Wiser’s wedding. 

Wolf stops by while I’m reading, signaling he wants to talk. We take the toxic backstairs to the parking lot. He’s pale, walking and smoking quickly, saying nothing. When he stops, I ask, “So King, do you think he was just drunk?”

“Yes, but not just. We know he was acting crazy. You did say he was under a table at the wedding, so … Maybe an accident.” Wolf looks down, kicks the concrete. “But he said public stuff about prose preservation, which considering he’s supposed to be controlling it is no good. Spam hates prose.”

“She didn’t kill him,” I reply confidently, although honestly I could totally see the chief — a wiry old lady boot-strapper — knocking off Walden, a soft middle-aged drunk. He was bold but probably not a fighter. Then I recall the gag at the wedding, how the Wisers ducked out on their own party, and suggest,“What if it’s a ‘dead and fled’ like instead of a ‘wed and fled?’ Maybe Walden’s alive and just hiding.”

“What if,” Wolf ignores my proposition,“his autopilot was mis-programmed? That could be what Eclair was talking about when you heard her in the bathroom saying ‘do it now.’”

“It wouldn’t be her decision to kill him. If anyone, it’s Metrix.”

“No,” Wolf says. “She doesn’t look like a killer.”

I consider the murderers I met at PoorCorp and Raz on campus, disagreeing. “It’s not etched on people’s faces, murder, and mean ladies don’t scare me, but I don’t mess with Metrix. She makes even Spam seem sweet.”

“Spam has prose control patents,” Wolf reminds. “Reducing text is her life’s work. And Walden was MoreCorp’s chief text reduction evangelist but he talked about The Arts Old and preserving prose all night. While Spam was around. See? Why I’m worried?”

“Yeah, I see,” I say, annoyed. “I saw then too. I mean, he started the evening chatting about the Patent Pax and I was surprised you had that discussion, frankly. That’s why I didn’t hang around.”

“What’s why?” Now Wolf’s angry. “Because you’ve crafted a perfect character for MoreCorp that doesn’t actually suit anyone? Especially not you since you’re always all boo hoo! This isn’t about the Lovesport anymore. It’s about lives!” Wolf confesses why he’s really worried. “Maybe yours and mine. I told him about some of the stuff we’ve done — your printies, the pamphlets, painting the towns red, all that.”

“You didn’t, Wolf! Shit. We haven’t even done anything since Metropolis.” I’m not thrilled he confided in King. But the guy’s dead now, so I try to sound reassuring. “We’re small-time, who cares? No one. Invisibility. My superpower. Walden doesn’t matter either. He’s not an inventor or an investor, just a reader in an era of abbreviation.”

“Relax with the poetry, Ellipsis. He’s past tense so he isn’t anything. But dead. And what matters is whether he was killed and if you heard the call ordering the hit. Because that would be a real bitch. Like if Eclair knew it was you.”

 “So, what? This is a thriller now? Every week it’s a different story!” I protest. “It’s supposed to be a literary fiction about competition. Our farcical fight for a rare spot on the corporate scrapheap.”

“Literary fiction — ha!” Wolf laughs cruelly, knowing just how to hurt me. “Don’t flatter yourself. This is a mystery, always was. Us chasing a red herring. But no. You believe there’s a prize, and that I fuxed it up.”

“I did not say that.” It’s true. I didn’t. But I do feel a dozen years of suppressed rage swell up as I contemplate my true love and he momentarily feels like a stranger. Sure, I’m naive. I believe. I’m not like him, raised by wolves in the wild. I’m an alien trained to dream that dream. Still it seems King’s death is a sign I can’t play all sides. “Forget the Lovesport. Screw it. I’m done. They’re not gonna give us jobs, that’s obvious.”

“You’re not done.” Wolf stubs out his smoke. “King is done.” 

Back at the Clubhouse there’s much more mail. Stories of King’s text reduction glories circulate and grow until the spirit of the small man who was big in Prose Control so fills his colleagues that they can’t contain themselves and walk the halls emoting. In stark contrast to most days at MoreCorp, this is a good one for being weepy and seeking solace. 

Even my not-boss, Ampersand, visits. In a year he has never done this. “How’re these pods doing,” he asks me. I’m the only person in the pod and the two flanking it.

“Good,” I reply. “Fine.”

“Good?”    

“No. Bad. Sad. I just, umm, yeah.”

“Ok. Just checking if you’re ok.”

“Yeah.” I correct myself again. “But no.” 

He walks away in search of other workers and I check the new mails. Admin twins Cocoa and Marsh are taking up a collection for King, supposedly a devoted father and husband to six kids and a wife X-country — pictures of the cuties are now inserted in messages. Also, King was very spiritual; see him here with the Humble Servant on a relaxation retreat. 

Immediately, the dead man’s story is redrafted to suit the needs of the living. King didn’t see his family much. He traveled. He worked. He was a ghost, according to the story he told when he drank, which was often. He tried not to lie too often, to himself or others, and wasn't entirely sold on the the tale he wrote. Now he’s gone. 

Bad omens are piling up, and Wolf’s accusation stung. Am I more interested in impressing MoreCorp, an entity impressed only with itself, than in truth and true love? Just for a prize that the books — now reduced — all say is illusory? 

These are questions I’ve asked before. My answers are boring and undeniable. Greenies, survival. Even if I wanted to walk away from the game, which I don’t, we cannot. Wolf and I need to work. It’s not optional. But for a while I’ve wondered if there’s another way, besides hitting the jackpot, a reverse riches theory. 

What if we ditch the big ideas and go real small, until we need almost no greenies at all? We could live at the edge of the grid, move deeper into the green. All over the forest are tiny shacks that seem abandoned. Surely there is one for us. 

Because death makes life very special, briefly poignant, after King dies, Wolf and I resolve for a future we’ve long stopped trying to imagine. We must act fast before that feel fades and everything’s normal again. Impossible, impractical. Also, practically speaking, our MidCorp at MoreCorp contracts won’t last. We need to swing a loan, like real quick, and borrow for 30 years against earnings we’ll have for 20 weeks … if we aren’t killed first.     

More omens. A baby deer lying dead in the woods right across the creek. All week the carcass gets picked to bones. Then they too go. Everything is compost. 

A rash of wild orange poppies, miraculously blooming in our yard without rain, is razed while we’re at work. When I ask the landlord, he blames the caretaker, and when I go to him, he waves his machete menacingly and backs away from me, like I’m the scary one! 

So Wolf scrambles the wifi and we comb the infra-webs looking for land, dirt cheap, and we spend weeks reading descriptions of rough terrain that’s too expensive. We’re prepared to pitch a tent and work our way up to a shack, live in a shipping container. But one day, magix. The price of a plot with a tiny cabin — off road, no street address, cryptically described — is slashed by nearly half. Now is the time to act. Old-timey summer home yours for a song!

“Forest eye can tell. This is the one.”

“Cute,” Wolf says. “So we’ll check it out?”  

The posting lists a contact who — maybe sensing I’m using the reverse riches theory — employs reverse psychology sales tactics on me. She sends txts trying to dissuade with disaster emojis that say the area’s a mess, water’s low, terrible roads. The land’s outside the drone delivery zone and so deep in the green it doesn’t appear on MoreCorp’s maps. 

But to me that’s very attractive, perfect actually. So we set our sights on a new prize, betting on bird nest futures. Because I am a believer, an American dreamer, I believe we’re too invisible to be killed and too small to fail. This is our strength. 

 

If you do the new math you don’t get rich quick, but you get rich. First step, ditch things. Lighten your load, get rid of the sofa — real and metaphorical. Make space, wait. Voids fill. Form and formlessness, wanting and not wanting, two sides of a coin, so flip it. This is the reverse riches theory, a paradoxical path to plenty, and it takes us to unincorporated territory. 

A forest, deep in a corridor of mountain redwoods, a cathedral of trees. There are so many, so close, that the grandeur of each growth is lost — rugged trunks jutting up to a sky visible only through a mesh of green. Wolf and I drive in reverent silence, dropping our discussion of home economics as he navigates the winding road.

The climb is steep, bends, up and down until it’s all dirt, unpaved. This is where MoreCorp’s map ends, the electronic guide announcing, “You’ve reached your destination.” A deer crosses before us, stops and stares at us as if to confirm, big black eyes, ears standing, gray fur, spry, springy. “Omens,” Wolf says, as it bounds off.

We keep going, slowly, past kats roaming in gangs. Up and down again. Watch out! There’s a ravine, a sharp curve. To my left, I spot a sign, spray painted, lying on the ground. For Sale. 

Wolf parks the car at a perilous angle and we get out, walk past piles of waste. There’s not a path so much as suggestions made by jagged rocks. It’s rugged land, rich and green, very verdant, putting the MoreCorp Plus Center Plus Room to shame. Redwoods stand majestic but common as matchsticks, the forest floor littered with lost limbs. 

Look past the trash, rotten lumber, rusted pipes, plastic bags, crushed beer cans and broken bottles. Focus on the fragrant air, green and sharp, birdsong, close an eye, perfection. But open it again before you step! Otherwise, you’ll tumble down to the porch. 

The cabin is invisible, nestled in a hill, down a narrow dirt walk and uneven wooden stairs with loose slats. It’s modest, naked, bare logs on half of the structure, the other half covered in wooden tiles hanging loose at crazy angles. Partly lodged in the hill, it stands on stilts on two sides, hugged by redwoods all around.

Trees grow under and into the house, which isn’t locked. Green shoots poke through the bathroom tiles and wood walls of a small living room containing a kitchen. Attached is a tiny side room, like a boat turned upside down, just big enough for a bed. Basically, perfect. 

The reluctant agent arrives, a stubby middle-aged blonde in double denims and a ripped flannel shirt, sandals with socks. She eyes us skeptically, finds us wanting. “You know there’s no codes out here, right? It’s not soft country. And I don’t have time, so check the back and we’ll talk if you mean biz.“

We do as told. There’s also a bunch of filth hidden below — ancient water heaters, bottles, boxes, busted appliances, and traces of illicit activity in the litter. But we like it, agreeing without speaking that if anyone will bet on not-kids with not-jobs we’ll bet on the deer deciding traffic patterns. 

The reluctant agent tells us the owner’s tek startup went bust and now he’s going rogue, doesn’t want to own. The right people can have the place for a steal. So Wolf and I explain ourselves, professionally, and her whole approach completely changes. Now we seem like something, the right people, because MoreCorp.  

No matter how many times I emphasize the brevity of our assignment, our tenuous tie to employment at the world’s friendliest company — we technically work for MidCorp and not forever — she dismisses me, saying, “How’s your credit? Go gray and it’ll be ok. I got a guy who can get you a thing.” 

By gray she means an UnCorp bank. By thing she means mortgage, which is a heavy load. So why do I claim to be lightening mine? Because this forest acre costs one tenth the price of a tiny cube in Silicon or Metropolis, less than any rent I have ever paid on any continent. 

The agent sends us away with instructions. We follow carefully, grateful for the gray people and their ways. Contractors can’t get mortgages, normally, but her guy says a thing, almost no money down, is no problem. The impossible is made easy. 

As the exchanges bring us every day closer to paradise, I realize we have to run all this by Hound. What I didn’t realize is that it was the doge’s plan all along. See, in the lore of yore, dogerman winters are magical creatures who paw the quantum. They tug the threads, untangle, make waves, and they pick their owners, rather than the other way around. Then, when the time is right, the creatures lead their people out of hell. They cannot be owned.

When we met Hound in an ani-peni in Metropolis, he was a great beast cowering in a small cage, like us in a way, broke in a tiny cube. He was an impractical choice if we had one but maybe he chose. All we did was not say no. 

The big white doge bounds happily out of the car, mouth open, tongue hanging, tail wagging when we reach the cabin. He runs straight down the mountain to the porch where he flops like a boss, revealing who’s in charge. Hound is bringing us home, returning a favor.

We've lived all over, met as wanderers. I'm ready to land and I finally understand why this and not that, all the other places. Here, land is land. Earth, dirt, trees, not a cube suspended in a building crammed into a center made of millions of astronomically priced cubes. 

In a pinteresting parallel development, Ampersand Matrix, my not-boss, is also betting on his future. It’s bright enough for a big box in Silicon. We’re both printing papers from banks in a hidden alcove in the Clubhouse and have met accidentally, confessing our coincidental purposes. Ampersand grimaces, waving his financials before me, a thick sheaf. “You gotta think big to be big.”

“For sure,” I agree, though that’s the opposite of my reverse riches theory. "Good plan."

“Yeah. I know what I'm doing. But do you? I plus you and Wolf. There could be trouble.”    

Is he hinting at unemployment or worse, a hit? Luckily, anyone coming down to the cabin will be visible, vulnerable, and we can shoot them from the porch — if we had more than metaphorical weapons. I ask, “What trouble?” 

He smiles, small teeth, blue eyes shiny. “It’s not done, UnCorp. Isn’t it dumb? No delivery right? Wifi? How will you sell the place?”

“We haven’t even bought it yet,” I remind him. “So selling … well ...”  I also don’t fill in details about the vibrant world outside the drone delivery zone, as it’s hard to distinguish between actual intrigue and imagined after disappearances and a suspect death. Maybe my not-boss doesn’t wish me well and shouldn't know too much. So I excuse myself claiming I have work, which he knows isn’t true because he's my not-boss. 

We prepare to disappear. I spend all my spare time doing new math and tossing and packing. The caretaker watches us carefully, wary of Hound. But our landlord doesn’t notice the activity as in recent months he has moved on to drugs harder than those he grows for profit and is in another zone.

One 4-day morning in summer while I’m sitting in my slot in the Clubhouse, I get a txt from the guy who confirms that dreams — even those I could not have known to have — do come true. I ping Wolf and we peel out of Silicon, rush up the mountains, collect Hound and set off for the land we call Shaolin, a place we’ve never been. 

There is much to do to restore an ancient temple to grandeur, debris to clear. But also, here is discovery — sift the soil, pan for gold, seek and ye shall find. The land is rich. It has secrets, a winding staircase hidden underbrush leading to the creek below. 

Wolf and I clean and clear the cabin, the sheds, paint the walls inside and out, scrub, sweat, trudge up and down. We sweep paths, discover new talents. I build fences with woven redwood limbs along the hills, massive bird nests. 

On the mountain, Silicon, the Lovesport, MoreCorp, none of it seems real. Maybe because none of it is. Shaolin already looks like a Humble Servant relaxation retreat, so haven’t we won? 

The doge looks smug as he watches us work, transforming the crooked cabin. Hound presides with pride, barking at intruding deer, staring at the trees contentedly. But he’s an American doge, ambitious, is big, thinks big, and we are not yet out of hell. It’s too soon to rest on laurels.

Change is inevitable and liberating if you don’t resist. But when you’re obsolete early, you mourn of course, recognizing that something is lost. Probably you. This must be how the village cobbler felt during the industrial revolution, like me here, gathered with the readers of MoreCorp Silicon.

We’re assembled in a grand hall to talk about tomorrow, what’s next in text reduction. Judging by the low buzz of chatter and rare silence of devices, the crowd is anxious, and likely rightly so. 

It doesn’t help that Spam, Chief of Discovery, a Prose Control visionary, is magnified onscreen many times, projected from a dozen different spots. She’d seem like a god but for her sniffling, slobbering, and slovenly appearance. Normally severe Spam is shaggy, tangled, and her wrinkles look deeper. She's craggy, haggard, and dark circles surround puffy eyes, like she's been crying. 

I wonder if this apparent breakdown has to do with the hit on Walden King. If it was a hit. Wolf thinks so. I say no — we’re just fulfilling janitorial duties, summarizing redundancies in spreadsheets, indexing, all the texts, all the subjects. We’ve agreed, societally speaking, that it’s all TLDR, so murdering anyone over Prose Control seems unnecessary. Metrix Barnes, Spam’s underling, is about to prove my point.   

Metrix, unlike her superior, is looking healthy and cheerful, short and fat. The sub-chief takes the stage flanked by admin twins Cocoa and Marsh, two tall blonde blobs. She carries a sorbet tek-pet, which is laid at her feet before speaking. It’s peach “for super soothing” as Steak Williams would say (personally, I’m over the pets, having spent a day failing to tame one while doge-fooding for KitKat Marina’s AOK). Metrix wears purple pants and a lavender hoody with the hood on — it’s got fuzzy yellow animal ears. Pink-tipped pigtails poke out from underneath, a colorful and cute look that shows she's fun so she doesn’t have to be.

Signaling to the twins who click buttons to replace most of the weeping e-Spams with a graph, Metrix then points to a screen behind her and begins. “Welcome Disco Ninjas! We’re here to see the future, starting with this amazing deck the twins made — aren’t they great? Real artists!” Squeezing her assistants, she grins. “Everyone’s an artist, actually, whether they make decks or snacks or sandwiches or gift boxes or whatever. Even you guys, soon.”

She signals again and a new graph appears, illustrating Discovery’s new direction. Metrix explains what we’re seeing. “The Analytics Review Team, or ART. We’re iterating. It’s the hack for on-track results. And we need to re-org so the org conforms with new priorities. Right Spam?”

Spam's now visible on only one screen behind us readers. She waves a tissued hand and honks, blowing her nose at this talk of reorganizing her organization. 

The sub-chief resumes cheerily. “Focus on efficiency refines the science — or should I say ART? — of TLDR!” The crowd is quiet but Metrix expects appreciation, so Cocoa and Marsh provide, giving each other a hi-5. When their hands meet, the insider jingle plays and Metrix giggles. She turns to the audience again. “But seriously. ART improves targeted searches so you readers don't waste time on word-for-word!” She shouts. “MEANING DOESN’T MATTER!”

If she was reading — the room, I mean — she’d see we’re terrified and staring at our feet. But what makes Metrix great is she never concerns herself with the feels of her people and callously proceeds. “ART gives you skills for when you go, which is soon, I hope. My goal is to not need you in — who knows? — if we’re lucky, just a few months! Reduction production will be so speedy we won’t notice it … or you. Guys, that’s cuz you'll be gone. Marsh, the deck.”

The young man now shows a new floor plan for the Clubhouse. Metrix explains. “This is something Spam and I have buy-in for from major sources. We’re psyched, right?” 

But if the chief speaks her response is not transmitted. Spam holds her palm up, perhaps in a hi-5, although with her tears and tissues it looks more like she’s pleading for Metrix to stop. 

Metrix doesn’t stop. “Ok, so we wanna keep minis and maxis in appropriate places, and majors somewhere else for creative collaborations. Now I’m gonna hand it over to your Team Liaison for details. She's better with small stuff. Eclair?” 

Metrix is a troll so it's no wonder she resents Eclair, below her professionally but a superior physical specimen. It's tough to share the spotlight with a thoroughbred. Metrix and the twins take a seat in the front row as Eclair, tall, blonde, solid, and strong like a racehorse, occupies the stage alone, but for the peach doge. She speaks, almost sings.

“Hey guys. Basically, how it works is this … mmm … We’re moving mhm ... everyone apart ... mmm except the SKI Team, you’ll be moving closer. Mhm. As keepers of the secrets, mmm, we need you interfacing … mhm … minimizing data.” 

Wolf and I look at each other in alarm. Nothing now sounds crazier than communication on our team, based on a year of experience. There’s a tug on my ponytail. It’s Haiti in the seat behind me, also indicating dismay presumably. I turn around and widen my eyes. She rolls hers back and I face forward.  

Eclair illuminates. “ART is here to stay and we’re patenting teks to reduce texts faster than you can say unemployment. But you're gonna learn a lot from machines before you go.” Shaking her mane, she does her double-wide smile with the big bright teeth. “Which brings me to the real treat. Our super sweet Candy Cane, everyone!”

Candy Cane, daughter of billionaire drone delivery king Big Daddy Cane, takes Eclair’s spot as all applaud. She is tall and awkward, her wide shoulders hugged by an ill-fitting silken hoodie embroidered with pearls, useless hands fumbling with a device, a blank look on her big face. Marsh gets up, connects her tek. 

“Hey everyone?” Candy waves out at the audience with a weak smile and a shrug. “So, as we all know, machines equal speed. Right? Then reading. But humans. And stories, so like, right? We tell them. Why not mix it all like chocolates and disco balls!” 

I steal a glance at the sub-chiefs up front. They don’t seem disconcerted yet, although there’s a lot of rustling in the seats around me, muffled chatter, a whisper threatening to turn into a roar. 

Candy sweats, her forehead glistening, voice breaking. “Umm … Yeah … I’m gonna just … umm….  and also I’ll send around, like, a thing umm, later…. like a short, like a pot shit. Sorry, like a shop tit.” 

Gasps and suppressed laughter escape all around the room. We all know we shouldn’t enjoy Candy’s discomfort because Big Daddy Cane. But that’s precisely why we — who will soon have no work — delight in the idiocy of this billionaire’s daughter speaking gibberish, which is also the language of Tip-Top, the publication she edits and is attempting to reference.

Then Candy thrills me. I fall just a little in love, though Spam warned that this is not a lit crit. But I can't help it when Candy starts reciting buzzwords, a beautiful chilling list of them. It's pure poetry, terse verse for the triple-post-mod, probably pearls from Big Daddy Cane himself. 

“Granular. Robust. Guru. Asks. Multitask. Bandwidth.” She solemnly shares her unique vision. “Targeted. Innovative. Constructive. Disruptive. Creatives. Value add. Deep dive. Bleeding edge. Game change. Growth hack. Content. Synergy. Influencers. Monetize. Optimize. Maximize. Repurpose. Storytelling. What’s the story?” 

It’s perfect! Wolf smiles at me gleefully, and indicates with his head to the front row. Finally it seems that Metrix Barnes and our not-boss Ampersand Matrix, seated beside each other, feel some type of way. Even they know there has to be some filler between biz-buzzes, and they’re squirming. Giggles and whispers grow louder in the audience. Marsh jumps back on stage and leans in, shoving Candy ever closer to the bleeding edge. He unplugs her device but she stands right in front of and above Metrix and Matrix, saying, “At the end of the day. Conclusion?” Then Big Daddy’s little girl kicks a sweet sorbet tek-pet, in the same pale peach as her silken hoodie, straight at the sub-chiefs. “Aha! An eyebrow!”  

I love it, applauding loudly. If Wolf didn't hiss "Ellipsis!" and shoot me a warning look, I might even have stood. No, I still don’t know what Candy’s talking about though I helped her with this amazing presentation as my not-boss ordered. If I’m blamed for her failure, who cares? 

There’s nothing to lose. Metrix has made me more reckless. Destruction is chic. Let it all fall apart.

Lulu LaLa-Brew promotes the myth of feminine delicacy by being grossed out. Words, ideas, air, water, everything threatens her, so she’s armed with antiseptics and I'm ducking her mists and wipes. We’re at a not-so-happy-hour on the patio of Robo Coaster, where Silicon’s workers gather for contests, drinking, and robot racing. LuLu dabs her husband's face with a napkin as he extorts me. “Ellipsis, you owe me big time.”

“Why,” I ask, lighting a cig and aiming smoke at Chip, my superior on the Secret Keeping Initiative (SKI). Lulu widens her dark eyes in horror. She shoots me with a mist, pulls a scent bug from her bag, placing it on the table, and puts a clear medi-mask over her face. It fogs up when she breathes (which she would not do if she did not absolutely have to). “What's up, Chip?”

“Well, I really shouldn’t share.” He laughs, clearly happy to be sharing. Grinning so that his tiny teeth all show, Chip shakes his long blonde curls, lifting the deceptively friendly mop to reveal small, crooked eyes and pale pimply skin. In a singsong, he taunts, “You’re in the doge-house with Candy Cane, and you know who her daddy is! So you’re fux.”

“Chip!” Lulu chides, spraying mist. “Dirty word! Curses cost!”

“I’m making a deposit now,” he replies automatically, tapping his wrist to electronically transfer funds for his transgression. On the occasions I’ve seen them together, Chip has paid for cursing, flirting with a serv-bot, smoking cigs, and not noticing Lulu’s color update. That was earlier today when she got to the bar and he didn’t remark on her now-pale-pink locks — they were lavender last time we met. 

LuLu taps her head and rolls her eyes — she’s bio-wired — confirming the transaction on an internal device. She approves of Chip, reaching over to pat him on the head and say, “Good boy.”  

Wolf and I roll our eyes at each other over the gesture, and everything else. Aloud, I protest, “What’s Candy’s problem anyway? I wrote her prose like I was told! It’s not my fault she didn’t use it. She’s stupid for someone with so much opportunity.”

Lulu gasps, her words muffled through the medi-mask. “Don’t you know who her daddy is?!”

“No,” I reply while she frantically searches her purse for purifying products. Candy Cane’s daddy, of course, is Big Daddy Cane, the billionaire drone delivery king. I don’t see what he has to do with me, or why his daughter, who has but doesn’t need a job, would bother destroying a mere temp. Now I taunt Chip. “What’s with that rich bitch anyway?”

Wolf tries to warn me with a look. Lulu squeals, tossing products into her bag. She escapes the table, stumbling away in spiked heels. Across her behind, LuLu’s purple sweatpants boast a shockingly vulgar message in metallics: RICH BITCH. I wonder if she has to pay into the curse account when she wears them, or if I owe her for reading the words.  

With Lulu gone, Chip helps himself to a cig from my pack on the table, saying, “You don’t mind, right?”   

“No. Go. Spill. Tell.”

This is what he’s been waiting for, though he’s supposed to be a professional secret keeper. “It’s no big deal,” Chip says, shaping his thin lips into an oval, exhaling smoke rings. Then he lets the cig hang in his mouth as he pulls his curly mop back and begins. “So, you guys know how someone’s gotta get canned. A mini, right?”

“No,” Wolf and I say simultaneously.

“Well yeah. Fire one, get more done. It’s policy so Ampersand asked maxis who we'd choose …” As Chip pauses to drink, I picture my teammates gathered, laughing about which temp they hate the most. It’s pretty gross, so I also briefly imagine putting a medi-mask on Chip and holding it down over his mouth until he stops breathing. 

He resumes his explanation. “So like, I offered Nix cuz his metrics sux. Or like basically he says what he does, which is nothing. And I told Nix — I was trying to help him — I said you have to lie when you bill or it looks fux. But he didn’t listen. So I picked him. And Candy chose you.”

“Well she’s not fired yet,” Wolf says in my defense. “So maybe we should stop talking about this.” 

I insist, signaling Chip to continue. He does, happily. “Yeah, Ampersand’s going with Nix, I think, but don't mention this to him and stay out of his way.” Now Chip turns to Wolf. “You don’t have Candy woes, so bonus, bro. But dude! Metrix Barnes hates you.”

Now Wolf is pissed. He gets up and knocks the table with a knee, sloshing Chip’s beer and hovering over him menacingly. Tall, dark, handsome, threatening, Wolf stands above Chip growling, “Who needs a refill?”

As we smoke in silence waiting for his return, I miss LuLu, longing for her to mist us in antiseptic pink disapproval. Wolf reappears with a round of beers. He puts them on the table and stares at Chip, hard, like he really wants to punch him in the face. Finally, he asks, “Why does Metrix feel some type of way? She not my not-boss.”

“No, she’s not,” Chip says. “She’s your not-boss’s boss-boss. She can have feels. Her feels matter, actually, and she’s a hater, dude. She hates everyone, so no bigs. My point was that Ellipsis should thank me for sacrificing Nix.”

Just as he says this, Nix steps out onto the patio, like a lamb to the slaughter. The late day sun shines down on him as he surveys the quiz night crowd. Chip and Nix do trivia together every week, so he heads over when he spots us all, frozen, staring strangely. 

Wolf and I get up to go with no exchange. I salute Chip, scan for LuLu real quick, and greet Nix with mumbles as we pass fast, ducking out of the bar before Haiti has even arrived — we were supposed to be celebrating her birthday. But whatever. She’s not here. 

We're silent in the car winding up the mountain road to UnCorp. Near the forest, I say, “Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Losing the game. I’d never see Chip or that rich bitch again.”

Wolf doesn’t reply, keeps his eyes on the curves ahead, driving slowly up a steep and treacherous redwood corridor that leads to Shaolin, our tiny cabin. He is no doubt wondering how we’ll pay for it if I have no work. I worry about that too, but less and less often, honestly. 

Are the trees lulling me into a false sense of peace? Is the forest putting me to sleep? Whatever urgency there once was about getting a prize from MoreCorp, it has passed. I’m still sure I need a job. But I remember other things too. 

I remember telling Wolf on the ride X-country — it seems so long ago but it was just last year — that the Lovesport, competing at MoreCorp, would be as much a test for them as for us. We’d see if good grows good at the world’s friendliest corporation, as claimed. 

But that was then and this is now. And now testing the mettle of self and corporation both doesn’t seem like a winning proposition. It went from a win-win to lose-lose looks like. The only way to win now is to redefine the prize, which is fine. I’m a storyteller. I can do that. In fact, I already have. Is this not the power of prose and The Arts Old? This, which no billionaire can buy. 

In the cool, green shelter of the redwood forest, under the dense canopy, I sense something. Movement, whispers. It seems like the trees are speaking, very softly, maybe to each other or to me, maybe just to whoever listens. The trees have secrets, and I'm a professional secret keeper. I just have to learn their language. If I study the rough bark, lean in, look up, hug the trunks, count the notches where limbs were lost, and bid the old growths good night before bed, maybe the trees will teach me how to get ahead.

Surprise! Another Small Hands is scheduled. The meeting is announced with a cheery electronic invite, a smiley-emoji bombshell sent by admin twins Cocoa and Marsh. It advises that Metrix Barnes is addressing all MidCorp temps tomorrow. The horror!

It's terrifying. Because MoreCorp. We're on edge at the world’s friendliest corporation. Readers die, disappear, and are fired, and our gigs are threatened daily. Metrix is a sub-chief. She doesn’t talk to us about anything except being replaced by machines. Thus, this gathering doesn’t seem good.

But also the power of positude! Think good things and they will manifest. Isn’t that how now-powers get the best? 

There’s a lot of nervous chatter in the Clubhouse about the invite, which is strangely nice in tone. I get the scoop from Zen who talks to Mochi who dates Bacon who is in the know, and Wolf gets his info from me because he likes to seem indifferent but isn’t entirely. As I get in the car to head home after work, he asks, “What’s the word on tomorrow?” 

“We suspect …” I pause dramatically. “The Lovesport!”

“Seriously,” Wolf scoffs. “That’s your wishful thinking.”

“Is there any other kind worth our time?” Wolf hates positude but I try to believe, over and over again. Just yesterday I thought I didn’t care about MoreCorp, the Lovesport, and now I see that's not quite true. Still, workers are just speculating, filling in blanks, wind talking, so I, like Wolf, feign indifference and resist the excitement, saying, ”No one knows really. Anyway, who cares?” 

And yet. And, yet. I do. I feel a little thrill. Finally, something will happen! Whether we’re booted or told that there are jobs after all. Now chips will fall.   

“We're not exactly favorites,” Wolf reminds me. “Even if they announce game on.”

I disagree. We are often measured at MoreCorp, so I happen to know that Wolf and I together make three-and-a-half people in terms of production, or reduction, which is production in Prose Control. “Metrics," I tell him. "Not Metrix Barnes but numbers. It’s MoreCorp! Numbers are their shit and ours are great.”  

“But numbers,” Wolf counters. “Limited spots. Reserved seating. We won't get the jobs if there are any. Your wishful thinking just makes me forget sometimes. But I have reality to remind me.”

I don’t bother arguing with him because he could be right. We’ll find out soon enough. Tomorrow. 

At the Small Hands, the air is electric, tense. Temps eye roll and cluster in back rows. Cocoa and Marsh herd us up front, smiling. Unaccustomed to gentle treatment, we nervously make our way to seats nearer the grand hall’s stage, where Metrix stands. She seems oddly serene, unusually sweet, a small sturdy pink-haired sub-chief in a hoodie and glitter sweats, beaming at the group of temps. 

“Hi guys. Super nice to have you here today. Gonna share some awesome nows with you.” Her happy look is so rarely seen that the audience is sitting at the edge of seats, barely breathing. Finally — after what seems like forever — Metrix says, “The Lovesport. Yay! We're doing it!” 

A loud collective sigh of relief is released when Metrix utters the magic word. Lovesport. At last! Wolf and I moved X-Country for this. We’ve waited so long. The game is finally on after more than a year in Silicon, nearly two years since my first MoreCorp project in Metropolis. 

Metrix continues. “You guys have been so great, so patient. Woohoo! You work hard! You do! MoreCorp is plus rewards and we wanna plus you too. Well, hehe.” She tugs a pink pigtail and giggles. “Not all of you. Just a few. The best, cuz there's actually not a lot of spots at all. And the way we determine that, the best, is scientific. It’s a numbers game. You'll be judged on your -- hehe -- metrics.” 

I pinch Wolf on the arm. Vindication. I told him! Numbers and more-more are everything at MoreCorp. I’ve been listening. He rolls his eyes at me, not yet impressed by my prescience. 

Metrix speaks. “For obvious reasons, I just love metrics and MoreCorp does too. They’re safe, straight, and we’ve got a ton of them on you. So we already know there are super talented folks in this room.”

I steal a glance at Zen, who is probably one of those people, a very smart handsome fellow, a friend of sorts, an ally. But a competitor. Suddenly I find the grin on his face does not suit him. Strange, I like him better when he’s grim, gossiping, reporting on labor injustices. Will satisfaction make me smugly too, or has it already? Like Zen, I’m pleased. The day of the under-doge is here.

Metrix lets the audience chatter excitedly for a minute before continuing. “There’s one caveat. We’re not judging but we are looking for more-more." She shrugs. "Now, what’s a good definition of more-more? Well, it’s hard to say.” 

Is this bitch serious?! Wolf now slaps my thigh in outrage. Everyone knows more-more! It’s the magic spice that makes MoreCorp people so nice. It’s the company word for qualities that make a person more than most, more curious, creative, energetic and enthusiastic, with more ideas and idealism, ability and realism. It’s that thing that makes some people more awesome, per corp … But wait. Metrix is about to define it for us now. 

She tugs on a pigtail, stomps a stumpy leg and explains. “What it is, more-more, is that certain I dunno that shows you’re awesome and grow good. Sure, that’s maybe not understandable if you have none. But let’s just say that it’s part of the calculation.”

The sub-chief stops talking to eye the room, up and down, left and right, adopting a grave tone. “Wanna warn you guys. Maintain status quo, though we usually advocate disruption. Don’t change. We’ll notice and punish. Do not become charming if you’ve been a brute. Do not flirt, inquire or demand. You’ll be told procedure, you’ll follow. We’ll choose a special few. It is what it is. I mean, it’s huge but not a big deal cuz we know who is awesome.” 

She takes a breath, leans in, hovering precariously close to the stage’s edge. “Now, Spam’s not here today but she wanted me to say to you guys, because she was a boot-strapper, or, she is. She’s not gone, or anything …”

Wolf and I exchange meaningful looks. Isn’t she gone? Where has Spam, our boot-strapping chief, been since Walden King’s death? At home weeping with her tissues, as we last saw her projected on screen? Or has she met a worse fate, maybe like our friend Pug? 

Metrix goes on. “Long story short. Spam’s out of pocket and will be for a while but everyone’s rooting for you. As for me, I’ll be on leave though your upward mobility’s riveting. But I’ll get your — hehe — metrics, plus more-more reports from Cocoa and Marsh. They're super at sniffing out character. Also, you'll need to write something brief. No, really! I value knows prose. It’s old but why throw out what works in small doses? We’re getting granular, looking for the most robust team and that takes all types!”

The sub-chief clears her throat. “Hahem, could really use some water.” 

One of her two assistants, Cocoa, seated in the front row, jumps up to fetch. We all watch, hundreds of temps, as the plump enviable youth with a job walks down the aisle, exits, comes back armed with a bottle, and goes to the stage where Metrix receives it, saying, “You’re a doll, Cocoa. Guys,” she turns to the audience for confirmation. “Isn’t she?” 

Cocoa smiles narrowly but you can tell from the disdain in her nod, the toss of blonde hair, that she wouldn't hesitate to strangle even Metrix with her fat capable hands — that’s how cold this girl is. She doesn’t give a shit. The assistant retreats and, once seated, signals with a tap on her wrist to cut it short, as if she’s wearing a watch, which she is not because no one does anymore.  

Metrix takes the hint, concluding, “Gotta wrap this up. Cocoa will send details in a couple days. Remember, your MidCorp reps are here to help. Introduce yourselves to them! But we've only got a few heads budgeted, so do the math. You’re probably not getting a job. You are getting a chance. Appreciating that is more-more and that's what the Lovesport rewards. Hooray!”

Haiti is at a parade celebrating her now-defunct namesake nation and misses the Small Hands announcing the Lovesport. So I message her after the meeting, as instructed, to say the game is on, relaying what sub-chief Metrix Barnes said about our job prospects. Here’s what I know; hundreds are competing for a few seats, not many. The winners will be chosen for their metrics and more-more, that special something that makes MoreCorp people special. 

Her response is swift and disconcerting. Haiti immediately changes her avatar from a smiling childhood pic to an image from an archery class she started taking after the release of Fight or Die 7 — Let the Killing BeginShe’s aiming, bow tensed back, arrow forward, squinting at the camera like she’s hunting me, wearing silver, futuristic and ancient. I wonder if Haiti saved the snap for this occasion. That was a fast switch. Her reply is terse: Let the killing begin

I’m surprised, expecting more sweet feels, less aggression. But she's busy with the parade and this might be a mass-txt to all her sources. Haiti’s got lots. So I tell myself it's no big deal. Nothing is. That’s what everyone says. Even the Lovesport, which we waited for so long, seems like no big deal, just as Metrix claimed when she announced the game. 

Wolf and I spend the weekend in UnCorp, cool in the green shade of the redwood forest, muted and subdued. Or maybe we’re just digesting the announcement … by Funday evening, the air in our tiny cabin is crackling. We plot strategy, talking fast and loud, annoying Hound. It turns out we’re feeling feisty after all. Very game to play!  

But we still don’t know specific asks. It’s all very abstract. Metrix gave no clear idea of what the job is, how much it pays, or anything else. We’re told not to ask and assume the prize is grand. Why be so petty as to worry about details? We who do TLDR, control prose, reduce texts, we know all too well how little anything matters. 

Besides, why should individuals -- real people as opposed to legal -- act like corporations, assess risk and return on investment? Why bother with ROI? MoreCorp is a sure bet! Don’t you get it? It’ll be totally worth it, whatever they’re offering. Everything is awesome. Good Grows Good … mmm mmm baby, it sure does. 

Certainly, we feel good. On 1-day morning, driving to Silicon, Wolf and I are singing in the car, happy, and we’re not alone. The Clubhouse is unusually cheerful and chatty. Spirits are lifted. We’ve been gifted. Sad Disco Ninjas are now jazzed — we may pay off that edu-debt someday. We could get jobs at the headquarters of the world's friendliest corporation and be the envy of everyone (of course, we forget that no one outside MoreCorp knows about the company caste system and that we already seem enviable). 

When she announced the game, Metrix warned us not to change. But we’re unable to stay glum. Suddenly everyone's engaged and enthused, into it, whatever it is we do. Oh, so, that’s the thing. People don’t know. They ask around, fishing for wisdom. But the Discovery Chief, Spam, chided me early on, when I got here, so I’ve developed in the realm of disco and prose control, learned what thought leaders say about my inevitable obsolescence.

They think they don't need me. But I know human readers offer things machines don't. Not speed, granted, but spontaneity, creativity, nuance, connections, questions -- keeping it real in age of artificial intelligence. What I must do is make my case in simple, delicious terms that work for people named after pastries -- like the Team Liaison, Eclair -- maybe mention frosting and cake.  

Admin twins Cocoa and Marsh send instructions. Players will answer questions in e-forms that compile in a spreadsheet. Contestants’ cubes will be compared — we’ll get more-more scores, which will be added to our metrics, all that will be calculated, and winners get interviews. That's round one. In a section entitled Wise Words, the twins advise: Be brief. This is TLDR. 

The next section, Asks, provides the following:

1. Strengths: List 5 ways you grow good with good. 

2. Sux: List 3-5 ways you're fux.

Q’s? File a ticket. 

After instructions are digested, everyone exchanges about the best approach to the application. Wolf and I have each other, personal full-time counselors, also competing against one another. It’s a little complicated but fine. In Metropolis, before this began, we made a deal that’s supposed to be a win-win, and we’re disciplined, so we don’t discuss our personal competition. On the way home to UnCorp we consider strengths and weaknesses generally. “Basically the same thing,” Wolf says. “Two sides of one coin.”

“Yeah, but only list minimum sux. Don't give a bunch of fux,” I advise. “And make them fake, like, secretly they’re strengths.”

He summarizes. “Humblebrag.”

“Yeah. Exactly,” I agree. “That. With plus brag. Oh! What do you think of this? Zen says wait until the deadline, that we shouldn't seem too eager to apply.”

“Weird. Don’t they like psyched?” 

Wolf thinks we should apply immediately to show we're reliable and have a sense of urgency. Normally, I’d agree. But this is MoreCorp. They're weird. “Maybe they like psyched," I reply. "But they say they like a lot of things and don’t seem to like anything, or know what anything means, or mean anything they say, so … I don’t know.” 

We’re silent, our eyes on the steep winding mountain road ahead, contemplating the game, the corporation, competition, not discussing the many things we can't discuss right now, like applying for an unknown prize at a place we kind of hate but know is supposed to be great. Finally, Wolf reminds me of the rules, our rules, saying, “The samurai decides in seven breaths.” He furrows his brow, sounding grim, “Zen doesn’t know where we've been or what we’ve done or how and when we did it. Let’s figure it out tonight and apply in the morning.”

“SGTM,” I concede. He’s quiet, so I explain. “Sounds good to me.”

“Seriously, El? You’re telling me? I know. I’m just thinking. There aren’t many spots.”

"Well we don't know how many," I protest. “Metrix said metrics and more-more. We have those!” 

Wolf doesn’t argue with me. What’s the point? I say a lot of things neither of us are sure can be believed. Because win-think. We’re supposed to have positude and I try to, telling myself tall tales of the barefoot coder, young Ergo Sum, the sweet superman MoreCorp founder who built a company that cultivates smart creatives. But now he’s an old billionaire who rules the world and I'm pretty sure he doesn’t care if two scrappy not-kids with more-more galore get passed over. 

Wolf and I stay up late debating our strengths and sux at a wooden table in our tiny cabin in the forest where MoreCorp doesn’t even seem real. Hound, our dogerman winter, flops nearby on the wooden floor, annoyed, big white body somehow expressing exasperation in the sprawl of his paws, the depth of his heavy sighs. Meanwhile, Wolf and I try to find the perfect biz-buzz words for our good and fake-bad qualities (channeling Candy Cane, of course).

We get up early, dress in our samurai best, and ask Hound to do his thing. He accompanies us up the steep, uneven stairs to the entrance of Shaolin, and I swear on the Founders, on Ergo Sum's whole fortune, that the doge looks knowingly at me as I get in the car to go. Maybe he'll paw the quantum for us ... or maybe I should be careful what I wish for.      

It's dawn when Wolf drives us down to Silicon. We reach the Clubhouse early, slide into our slots, and draft. Then we exchange applications, suggest formulations, congratulate each other on our awesome humblebrags, and file our Lovesport forms. At long last! Whatever our chances, It does feel kind of great, I must say. 

The office is still empty when Wolf and I abandon our slots and meet in the toxic back stairway to go out for a celebratory smoke in the parking lot. Haiti’s riding by on a multicolored unicycle when we reach our spot. She pulls up and hops off, tall, dark, hair coiled high atop her head like a crown, asking, “Can I get a cig?”

Wolf hands one over, and I say, “Hey. How was the trip?”

“Great!” Haiti laughs. “Especially after I heard about the Lovesport. I’m pretty ready. Just gotta do the application. Argh. Have you guys started?”

“Yeah,” Wolf says. “We’re done.”

“But Zen says not to hurry.” She asks, “So maybe waiting a bit would have been better?”

Wolf and I exchange small smiles. He replies, “We heard. Could be sabotage. Sounds stupid.”

“You’re mean, Wolf,” Haiti chides. “Zen’s just trying to help. Let’s focus on win-think.” She high-fives the air, signaling our future greetings, the jingling that will sound soon, when we’re all maxis, MoreCorp employees, insiders with special security clearances. Hopping back on the bright unicycle, Haiti waves cheerfully and rides away, singing, “Let the killing begin!” 

A chill runs down my spine and I feel some type of way -- not happy, like a few minutes ago. Why does she keep doing that? It's unfriendly. Or is that too sensitive? It's just a reference. It’s no big deal. Nothing is. Right? 

Today, let's be great. Forget our betrayed potential, how we shrink to fit reality. Everything is still possible. We're players. Feel the push-pull of the quantum, the ifs and dangling strings, all that might still be, not yet decided or tied up, the buzz before naming and reduction and collapse. 

Lovesport applications are closed. We wait to be chosen. I’m surely not the only player anxiously contemplating how awesome everything will be when I’m a MoreCorp employee growing good and the economy, envy of all the Single System System. 

Yet somehow anticipating the abundance is awkward. It makes me remember another time, before, when I wanted both less and more. It reminds me that going to Silicon to control prose while the trees whisper in the forest is a loss, sad. Maybe what I want is to bathe in the shade of redwoods, learn their language, weave a tale together — despite knowing better — a story in this age when a sentence is an epic. 

The thing is, the strings are being tugged by many. We can’t make manifest the best with our wishful thinking, even if we did know what we wanted, which I’m not convinced we do. Not me. Not you. There are other forces working, making things happen. Watch this, how the multiverse is benevolent, sparing me the compromises of prize-winning. My destiny is more mysterious and not mine to decide. The first hint of this arrives as I sit in my slot in a pod in the Clubhouse dreaming of being chosen. 

Goddess Smith summons me to X-Siberia. No subject, seven minutes notice. This can’t be good. I check the People Ops wiki, quickly scanning. Here she is, a MidCorp at MoreCorp People Operator with a water droplet avatar … unless it's a tear. Her snap shows Goddess is aptly named, with a pleasing face, deep beige, framed by long straight dark hair. A big white smile and gleam in her green eyes show she gets it — everything is awesome. She’s into yoga and meditation and Humble Servant retreats. 

I breathe deep, telling myself to be evolved, conscious, a person and not a lizard with an ancient brain. There's nothing to fear. This woman can’t kill me — only Metrix Barnes can do that, and Eclair, maybe Spam if she’s not already dead. Also Candy Cane’s dad, Big Daddy Cane the billionaire drone delivery king. But why would they? I do their asks and ask nothing because, as gurus will tell you, toiling quietly for karma-kash brings cosmic rewards. The nows on getting ahead now is know your quiet strength and don't give it voice.

With this in mind, I open the door to X-Siberia, a room of frosted plasti-glass, icy, perhaps to signal no transparency, secret proceedings. The furnishings are white. A wall screen projects snaps from lands cold and remote, places not even I would go. Goddess, at a glacier-shaped table, stands and smiles. She introduces herself, accepting my handshake reluctantly. “I'm Goddess Smith. Welcome Elli… Ellipi… Ellipis…” 

“Ellipsis,” I correct her, assessing — limp fingers, soft skin, lacks discipline.

"Beautiful name," Goddess says, wiping her hand with a bacterial cleanser, revealing what she thinks of my greeting (gross). She asks, “Can I call you something else? Shorter.”

“El,” I reply, sitting, resisting the urge to request that she go by God or just G. 

“Great, El. As you know, I’m your MidCorp rep.”

“Well, I didn’t know, truth be told.” 

"I see." Goddess is annoyed, glaring, green eyes menacing as she says, “We don’t have to give you anything so you should be psyched about my advocacy.”

“Oh I am, totally! You’re ... awesome?” I reassure my advocate cautiously, observe closely. Leaning in, elbows on the table, I size her up. From here it's clear that Goddess wears a mask. The big eyes are an illusion of shadows and pencils, her smooth beige skin a tawny powder ending at the neck, her full lips lined and painted pink. 

What does she see looking at me? Hard to say — I don’t see me. Probably we seem very different but I tell myself that’s an illusion too, like her big eyes. We’ve meditated, so we know we’re one, connected, united citizens of the Single System System. Theoretically, we can communicate. 

Goddess gets to it. “Just wanna start by saying your manager, Ampersand, he hearts you.” She looks up, waiting for an interruption, hears none and continues reading from a screen balanced precariously on the glacier table. “He says you’re really good at … umm … stuff. But, hate to say it. Like, you’re great but you sux.”

“What?!” I jump out of my seat. She widens her eyes and I sit back down, saying, “This is weird. We’re competing for jobs. It's the first round of the Lovesport. Why now? I’m sorry. Go on.”

Goddess looks wary. “I know feedback is tough. You mentioned jobs? That's odd.”

“The Lovesport,” I explain. “It’s happening now, so I’m shocked about the timing. What’s this about?”

“MidCorp at MoreCorp can do whatever whenever. It’s in the fine print. You can find it.” She clutches her seat and breathes deep, exhales through flaring nostrils -- it's probably a Humble Servant technique to calm down. Goddess speaks softly now. "Elli, all I know is your doge-food about a sorbet tek-pet put you in the doge-house with a top doge. Umm ...” She scrolls down the screen. “Right here … got it in my notes. The tek-pet preferences were hard to program. The doges barked all day and didn't soothe as intended.” She asks, “Did you write that?”

“Yes," I admit. "But they made me. We had to doge-food!”

“They made you? Who? What’s doge-food?”

I’m shocked that Goddess doesn’t know, is not immersed in the corporate lingo, which I love. I eat it up. Seriously, everyone at MoreCorp should know what a doge-food is — you chew it, we do it!

Greatness is a process. It happens in drafts. MoreCorp products are tested internally, workers give feedback, and creators iterate based on that. I sum it up for my rep. “Doge-food’s a critique. The point is to say what’s not working — we chew it and they do it, fix, improve, whatever. So one day the SKI Team had to doge-food tek-pets but the instructions made no sense and the doges stressed everyone out by barking even though they’re in sorbet shades for super soothing.”

Goddess looks up. “You were told to say if they worked? And they didn’t? So you said so?”

“Yes!” Suxess. I have been understood. That feels good. 

“Well you look smartsy so I believe you, but the technique for critique is a compliment sandwich. That's two positives hugging a negative. Also cooing helps. Try it. You seem intense. Tone that down and everything will be awesome. You’re amazing, just not at communication.”

“What now,” I ask, digesting her compliment sandwich. “What does this mean for the Lovesport?”

“Not my business.” Goddess sighs, tired of advocating. “What I do is represent you and I just did that Ellipi umm … Ellipis.“ She dismisses me. “You can go. You’re fine. Nothing to worry about. Just shut up. Otherwise, you’re doing great.”

I exit X-Siberia to a terrible place. More a space really. My eyes fill with tears. I’m cracking, having feels. Shit! How can this be happening now? Still, you can’t let the dirty doges get you down. That’s the primary rule for players. Trudging back up the stairs to my slot, I’m determined but shocked, weary, cold, chilled to the bone, like I’ve traveled long distances today, and I have. From contemplation of greatness to a conceptual land of banishment. Here I am in the Clubhouse doge-house. 

Do you know yourself? Are you disciplined and aware of the animating wind? Do you have a code so you can decide, like a samurai, in seven breaths? Sorry, I don’t mean to overwhelm. Interviews are tough. But this is what I’d ask you, if you were me, in the Clubhouse doge-house. 

Sure, I’m stunned. The doge-house is alienating yet I’m at home here. Because alien. I know alone. I’ll wait for the trees to tell me what’s next and I suspect it won’t be simple stuff, like blowing shit up. The old growths demand slow unraveling, poetic deconstruction, not fast disasters and cheap thrills. After all, this is not Colored Pills. 

Purpose is almost discernible. I didn’t come here to win anything. This is why I came, maybe — a comedy shot through enemy machinery. If it takes time, fine. I’m on another dimension’s schedule, trees speaking slow and soft, with all the time in the world to take back the world. 

Am I up to the task, you ask. Yes. I’m neither fearless nor afraid. We’re told to fear much, mostly shadows on the wall. For example, the Disco Ninjas fear Candy Cane and her daddy, the billionaire drone delivery king. But I’ve worked with murderers in unguarded rooms and had to hand them pens that could be used to stab me. So I’m not scared of anyone’s daddy. I’m just waiting for the whispers of redwoods to translate into action items on a to-do list. Then things will really fall apart.

We’re off to a good start. Watch the unraveling happening all around, our tentative balance lost. The day after Ampersand Matrix reprimands me via MidCorp at MoreCorp People Operator Goddess Smith, Wolf refuses to drive to Silicon. I’m secretly pleased by his wounded pride on my behalf but remind him that he still has a chance in the Lovesport, warning, “Don’t show the feels.” It’s what he usually says. 

Wolf rolls over in bed, covers his head with a pillow. Even Hound, usually so eager, stays slumped against him, snarling. I go out alone, resisting the strong pull of the crooked cabin, hidden in the mountain. Outside the forest is dark, the path to the road jagged and steep. 

The drive to Silicon is long, as is the day. In the Clubhouse people make robot sounds while I dream of escape, anticipating orders from the forest. My return to the safety of the redwoods is delayed by an autopilot truck overturned on the road, its load of synth-veg rotting on burning asphalt. By the time I wind up the mountain and down the treacherous path to the tiny cabin, it's late, dark.

Wolf and Hound are in bed again or maybe they never left. My true love sits up when I turn on the lights, feigning interest in the day. I want to tell him Candy Cane sneered at Ampersand Matrix triumphantly when I passed and that Chip Brew said he knew I was going down. But I don’t. Wolf’s dark eyes are clouded and ringed. He’s preoccupied, elsewhere, mulling deep curses for the shallow.    

The next morning Wolf returns to the Clubhouse, resolved. He clears his desk of evidence of more-more, cuts soc-nets contacts, refusing to plus haters or anyone else. In the back of the parking lot he burns bits of paper with the names of enemies and curses their futures in Wolof, a trick picked up in West Afrix.  

Later in the week, the SKI Team gets a message from our leader, Ampersand Matrix — he’ll be away tending to his wife’s wounds. She was boiled in oil and both of her hands are fried. I dare not look up at Wolf, two pods over, though I’m impressed by his fast magix. 

“Don’t do anything for me, especially not curse Ampersand’s family!” I chide him as we’re walking to Meat Up for lunch. Still I can’t help smiling, thinking Mrs. Matrix won’t be holding any burgers in her crispy mitts. But Wolf is serious.

He reminds me, "Prong three, Ellipsis. No cost-benefit calculations. I told you when we came X-Country and now it’s time. Those in chains must complain.” 

“Be careful,” I say, nervously.

“You be careful,” Wolf growls. “What the fux, El! You’re why everything sux!”

He’s right about that. What happened? Nothing. A distasteful doge-food! Or was it that? Failure to deliver a compliment sandwich. It would be funny, except little of this amuses anymore, not even biz-buzz. Now I get what Spam said in our impromptu interview, long ago, before the Disco Queen — patents granted and pending — was maybe dead or disappeared. She told me this isn’t poetry, not a lit crit but business, people becoming machines in a race against machines we can't beat. 

Naturally the question must arise then; what’s it for? Why work? Greenies, of course. But I wanted a less lizard-brained life, evolution. No one’s actually trying to kill me as far as I can tell (AFAICT), though it feels like it’s life or death. That’s not how it is. I’m too small to fail and too weak to kill. Yet still every day I dread going to Silicon. 

Do I just feel dumb for squeezing my life into a cube, neat for a spreadsheet? That stupid list of strengths and sux in my Lovesport application! Yes. I TLDR’d myself, only to be marked NR and tossed into the Junk Heap. Or is that what’s worrisome, becoming junk?

First we ping, then we ding, and finally we fling. That’s what they said in the beginning, and now I wonder how many pings and dings before the fling. Remember, everything is compost. So, every day I wait for the ping from a People Operator saying I’m done. Now I know there needn’t even be a reason. 

Meanwhile, the nows of my first ill-fated meeting with Goddess, and its likely consequences, travels through the Clubhouse. Haiti consoles me as we’re outside smoking in the shade of a parked car one day. The late summer sun beats down hard on the parched land of prosperity, a concrete expanse. I gaze into the distance at the lush plasti-grass lawns and enviro-clones of finer parts of the world-famous MoreCorp Silicon campus as I inhale poison and accept the judgment, which I’m told is that of everyone, generally. 

“You were good, Ellipsis — obviously, awesome.” Haiti pauses to examine me anxiously before getting down to brass tacks. “But no one messes with Candy Cane, however smartsy. You knew that. You were too real, babe. Fake it till you make it.” 

This statement might be meant as a kind of compliment but it’s also a doge-food, a critique of the Keeping It Real Committee. Most importantly, it reveals that already I'm past tense. One down. For the purposes of the game, the Lovesport, I am dead, a ghost in the midst of players. Invisible. Soon, Haiti will be best friends with Zen, who’s a major contender, and Candy who has Big Daddy’s billionaire influence if no intelligence. 

It’s pinteresting watching this phenomenon, even as it happens to me. Behold as MoreCorp makes truth. The corporation decides what is. It is what MoreCorp says it is. Old allies doubt as I lose approval’s golden glow, and rightly so. First I was good. Now I’m bad. Nothing adds up, so I must be fux. If I was really awesome, MoreCorp would know because game recognize game and its People Ops are tops, uniquely skilled. Why protest? It won’t make sense — MoreCorp runs the Single System System and I am but one citizen. So I do nothing, waiting for instructions. 

The most important thing is the animating wind. While we are breathed, we can be on any timetable, any dimension, even that of trees. It is what it is but things are not what they seem. You’ll see. Tears will fall. Lakes will fill again. Curses will rain.

The pop superstars GS5 partnered with MoreCorp on a virtual world tour and it was reportedly amazing. That’s not surprising considering GS5 is the fifth Gem Shwift, a band made of five upgraded iterations of the great prototype, who is still alive and controlling her brand, overseeing operations from a preservation pod.   

MoreCorp and the Gems have been in business together since both became universal institutions. They are perfect partners and embody the spirt of the age — futuristic, ownership-oriented, and fun. Neither intimidates with sophistication. They just dominate and have a great time. That's surely why the sentiment they expressed on Gem’s first virtual world tour was Everything Is Awesome.  

The theme for the latest tour was Shwifty Does It. Unfortunately, not even five upgraded Shwifts could do it, that is, overhaul the infrastructure in indigent Single System System lands. So in places where the wifi is weak and SSS interests minimal, GS5 fans, about a billion of them, were disappointed by the tour. Tickets were hard to get, and during the show, overloads caused blackouts. As soon as the power returned, fans flocked to MUTTS — the MoreCorp Universal Ticket Transport System — demanding refunds. 

Now the SKI Team, responsible for keeping company secrets, is managing the deluge. We’re putting complaints in categories on a spreadsheet that will basically read, “Shit went fux.” Whether MoreCorp will respond to the substantive issues is unclear. Silicon is always supplied with sweet juice, so anyone who could do something about infrastructure won't get why the indigent are negative and may say they don’t manifest the best because they lack positude. 

It’s super fun reviewing the concert complaints — I’m listening to GS5 tunes while doing it, nearly forgetting that I’m in the Clubhouse doge-house and probably out of the Lovesport. Almost unaware, but not quite, that soon I too will be compost, like everything, like the MUTTS tickets of irrelevant citizens upset that they were deprived of a live feed of clones of a pop star who was the first working machine-human hybrid. 

In fact, the Gem Shwift hybrid worked so well that when she stopped performing personally she partnered with MoreCorp on cloning, and thus was repeated and improved upon. Now there are five, the ladies of GS5 to be precise. Old models, excepting the prototype, are destroyed when a new Gem is revealed, which some say is a human rights violation and most consider a non-issue because these are pop bots.

While Disco Ninjas review complaints, the corporate partnership is managing spin. Notes, MoreCorp’s musical arm, and Shwiftology, Gem's PR unit, have issued statements promising to replay the show for frustrated fans. But that’s hardly the same thing as knowing GS5 was actually performing live on tour!!! This logic holds even when the band is programmed clones and the tour a single studio show so not live in the classic sense and not a tour either. We're getting more angry MUTTS tickets at work. 

If the frustrated fans sound illogical to you then you, like me, must not be implanted. To us it's funny when folks with tek in their heads, experiencing existence mostly electronically, distinguish between real and fake, genuine and inauthentic. But we all only know what we know. The implanted don’t understand what was once thought of as real life because real life in the SSS is a hybrid, just like Gem Shwift, electronic and organic overlapping. To distinguish between real and fake, physical and virtual, is complicated and unnecessary as the mind doesn’t mind either way. 

Meanwhile, I now know that though I’m not intellectually hampered by my lack of a tek implant, I'm culturally uninformed and have missed the most important lessons of fitting in. That’s why I’m in the doge-house. I've learned many tongues but not the cryptic code of Siliconian semi-machines living a rich inner life onscreen. 

Beings are idiosyncratic, full of feels. Organic intelligence is great and unpredictable, a mystery. The engineering is incredible but we can’t take any credit — we’re just beings breathed by animating wind. Mastering self and the game of life takes a lifetime if it is even possible at all. That's why people started implanting to upgrade their knowledge bases. It’s more efficient and less risky than experience.

I’ve never been tempted because practically speaking implants demand reliance on wifi, staying in connected territories, and although the SSS can feel like the whole world, there's still land where billionaire Big Daddy Cane’s drones do not deliver or kill. In other words, attachment is a state of mind that organics can deprogram while hybrids rely on power, a current connecting them to the source of their intelligence.

The samurai doesn't need wifi, so I find the outrage over the virtual tour gone awry absurd. But I’m also caught up in the culture and have wondered what it’s like be a pop star. Obviously I’m caught up. I came X-Country to the main campus of the world’s friendliest company to play a game. Now I know that not everyone can win, just like Daisy said in Metropolis when we first met.

Confirmation comes late on 5-day, before the weekend, conveniently, in the form of a ping from Cake Big, also a figure from the past. Cast back in your memory to that day on the Point when a mean recruiter shouted as I walked Hound and vid-chatted, warning me not to count my chix before they hatch. She is back on behalf of the MidCorp at MoreCorp People Operations Lovesport Committee, her avatar changed from a shark to a hyena, her message consistent with the visual representation. 

CB: U lose told u not 2 count chix

El: You didThx.  

CB: NP

Sure, it’s no problem for her but what about me? How can this be? Even though I knew, somehow I still can’t believe I’m out of the Lovesport. So that’s it. The game is over as soon as it started unless we were actually playing all along. All that scrambling and stressing was for nothing. Shit.

Here comes Wolf now, signaling it’s time for a cig. We take the toxic backstairs in silence, exit the Clubhouse and walk to the back of the parking lot under a blazing sun, squinting. Haiti is already outside smoking with Amir, who greets us cheerily. He was fired and rehired randomly so is very much in touch with his disdain for MoreCorp. I thought he lacked positude but now he seems smart for not believing in the Lovesport while I’m a sorry fux who just lost. 

“Shheeeeiiit.” Wolf lights a smoke and hands it to me, asking, “You ok?”

“No. I’m not. I’m out.” This comes as a surprise to no one apparently. I relent, stating the obvious. “Sure we knew when Goddess put me in the doge-house but fux. This sux. You?”

“Out,” Wolf confirms. He kicks the concrete with his scuffed boot, head bent against the sun, exhales smoke as he speaks, sounding tired. “That’s how it goes.”

Haiti tries to hug me. I shrug her off. She says, “I’m so sorry, Ellipsis.” But she’s pleased it seems.

“What,” I ask, not angry but not gracious when she tells us she got an interview and is still in the game. “Great. Congratulations,” I say. “Gotta get out of here.” 

On the ride home, I feel bad but good too, lighthearted, liberated. Wolf and I play GS5 tunes all the way up the mountain. It may not be what we wanted — we’re not sure really — but it’s done. As we wind up to UnCorp, our connection fades and the catchy pop crackles and splatters, coming in and out. The last thing Gem Shwift clones sing as we enter the green cathedral of the redwood forest is a rousing chorus, “Shwifty does It! Shwifty loves it.”

Walden King’s auto-pilot car crash investigation comes back clean. The MoreCorp Motors system was good, per ping from admin twins Cocoa and Marsh. This message is punctuated with emojis expressing complex feels, mourning and rejoicing (but not tears of joy, the world’s most popular emoji). It should reassure us, colleagues on the TLDR team, that Walden was responsible for his death. There was no tek glitch in the car that drives itself.

But whatevs. MoreCorp Motors always minimizes the gravity of accidents, so this seems like standard spin to me. Auto-pilot on the fritz is the oldest excuse in the no-show book, as the systems do fail. Wolf, however, thinks it’s a murderous plot, coverup for a corporate kill. I’d be more dismissive of his suspicion if our next assignment wasn't so sinister, the systematic undoing of a company hero who last Greenween was totally winning. 

Do you remember the time we celebrated nature in concrete Silicon with a costume contest? Winged Forest Gods didn’t win but learned that everything is compost. The winners, if you recall, wore t-shirts purchased with coupons from a then-newly-acquired MoreCorp business founded by Buzz Ribeye. 

His was a promising startup bought for 100 billion greenies. Ribeye’s patented method algorithmically targets consumers with coupons based on their interests. He didn’t invent deals on the webs but perfected them, or so it seemed when the world’s friendliest company wanted to buy Ribeye’s biz. Now MoreCorp's going to destroy the coupon king, former darling.

This is pinteresting. Here’s why. Goddess from People Ops says my MidCorp at MoreCorp contract is only extended eight weeks. Wolf, Haiti, Zen, Mochi, Apple, Donut, Bacon, and everyone else it seems, got six months. Surely you can see why my curiosity’s piqued. Ribeye’s takedown informs my understanding of corporate methodology. On a plus note, I’m gratified to find that no one’s too big or small for the People Operations way. Whether you’re a contractor or a coupon king, going down is going down. It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s about process. 

The proof is in the Plus Undo Dish Dirt Initiative Non Grata, better known as PUDDING. That is the full name for the way, MoreCorp’s termination research. As is no doubt evident, the investigations discredit a person ahead of dismissal. Just so the record’s straight. 

We swallow PUDDING to make a spreadsheet with categories describing, generally, why Ribeye sux, accompanied by numbers. See, reducing Ribeye isn’t as easy as eliminating me. There’s more stuff. He was first investigated and deemed awesome enough to own, whereas I’m just a rental with tentative ties via MidCorp, hardly worth a notation, forget a spreadsheet. 

My assignment is to find errors in previously-made favorable assessments of Ribeye, then mark the docs Non-Responsive (NR), leaving extensive evidence, created later, that he’s no good. The negatives dominate the final spreadsheet. Basically, the biz wiz is now on the shit list, and TLDR’s Disco Ninjas, the text reduction team, make the shit list look long, maximizing losses while minimizing wins. Sure, it’s weird, as the final record will reflect that MoreCorp spent 100 billion greenies on a failing business founded by a maniac. But the record, however brief, will be too long. No one will read it. 

The recipe for records is simple as pie. PUDDING reduced by TLDR. We sum up Ribeye’s many alleged professional infractions, collected by People Ops. Next, he’ll be released with no pay, although his contract has elaborate clauses that ensure he wins big even if MoreCorp ditches him and the coupon biz. But that contract is from then, when he was great, and this is now. Ribeye’s bad now. 

In fairness to him, it should be noted that coupons, which were once awesome, aren’t making money, and that’s probably fueling corporate distaste for Ribeye today. How shaving from savings would pay wasn’t ever clear to me, but that’s not the official reason for his fall, so no worries. Now it’s about Ribeye’s communication, and I’m intrigued, obviously, as that’s the claimed reason I’m in the Clubhouse doge-house too. 

Voraciously, I devour batches of electronic documentation, forms grouped by complaint type. At first, Ribeye was widely admired for his humor and brilliance, called two people price of one and super fun. Sound familiar? But his jokes aren’t funny anymore. Anonymous colleagues feel some type of way, not good. They file offended forms. 

Moral of the story? Numbers protect no one. The coupon king had all the metrics and now look at him. Everything is compost. So I look at me, Ellipsis, a reader with eight weeks on her contract, and compile my own record. It’s made of physical artifacts, sacrifices for The Arts Old, scribbled notebooks, stolen doublespeak, corporate secrets. Also, images taken at the photo booth in the Clubhouse entrance, near the spiral staircase and plastic tree with a sign that reads: Stop! Disco Ninjas Killing Above.

The photo booth has adjustable backgrounds that produce images of anywhere. Underwater in the ocean or floating in space, fronting a rock band or hanging in a cool downtown lounge, climbing mountains or forest bathing — look like you’ve been everywhere yet go nowhere, or to work in Silicon. It’s travel in the triple-post-mod! Images are printable and instantly develop in any wash or color, black and white, sepia, vibrant hues. Plus, filters adjust to reflect any mood, whether the blues or la vie en rose. The pics print in rows of four and I take dozens a day, not yet certain but suspecting that this is connected to the coming cursing.  

At home, in the forest, I sense the redwoods rustling, whispering, telling secrets, speaking in poetic deconstructions, a tongue even more chic than destruction. One night, in a tiny red cabin nestled in a mountain deep in the UnCorp woods, outside the drone delivery zone, I assess evidence collected, my record, laying out images from the photo booth on the wooden table, lining them up in rows. 

Here I am. All my faces in all the fake places. Smiling, glaring, snarling, squinting, dark doe eyes wide, searching the eye of the machine from outer space and underwater, not waving but drowning, swimming with fishes, rocking out. Hair up, hair down, specs on, now off, day after day, this face worn but not seen, self, this mystery. Me. Not the person MoreCorp needs but an alien with questions about a strange place called home. 

Does Buzz Ribeye know the samurai’s secret is self-reliance? Don't sweat the PUDDING. It’s all a good cut on this porker. I could leave work, sit in the forest and wait for word on what's next. Maybe assimilation's impossible or the MoreCorp experiment has lost its luster. Certainly I’ve got less to lose than Ribeye if I go. 

But no. I should finish things properly. It would be good … if good and bad mattered. Good if I could. The inevitable is in my bones. I feel it. My third eye sees the future even while my brain resists and wishes it could be some other way. It cannot. Things fall apart. Intuition turns into resolve and action. 

Anyway, Hound’s on the case. As I examine my faces on the table, a loud clacking sounds on the uneven steps outside, the big doge’s giant paws making their way upstairs. A thump as he slumps on the porch above. The doge is not pleased. He howls at the moon, beseeching the multiverse. It listens.

Suddenly, the tiny cabin jerks and the stilts below, holding the house to the mountainside, sway. On the table all the photos shake, the neat rows of faces in disarray. Me, a big mess. When I stand to open the door and hush Hound, who’s still howling, my head spins and I sit back down, grabbing the bench, almost missing it, slipping. 

The dark sky outside flashes a pulsing purple, dissolving into a latticework of thin lights, like cobwebs glinting in the sun or cuttlefish signaling in the sea. Electric and just for a second. Then the night sky’s black. 

I stand, walk a few steps to the front door, open it. Hound, ghostly and grand, is at the top of the stairs, not howling anymore. He looks down and whimpers, beckoning with his giant white head. I go up to join him and sit by the doge’s side as he licks his wound. A split down the middle of Hound’s long black nail signals big things, magix. The dogerman winter has pawed the quantum and now anything can happen. Even the impossible, a happy ending.

If you’re not taking lessons from nature, you’re studying with the wrong master. Sometimes, despite droughts, the sky weeps tears of joy, lakes fill, and creeks rush again. I count on the unpredictable when I burn the bridges that light the way. Unruly world, like the spirit, which resists more than mind wishes it would. 

O! to be only good! But I’m not and you’re not either. If you think you are, look harder. We’re occasionally decent, then we cease to be breathed. Still, let us accept. This is who we are — constructive destructive deconstructing — just as the heavens storm and volcanos erupt. The way does not judge, making use of all. Everything is compost for it, and The Arts Old (TAO).

Before I reduced the Tao for Prose Control, I memorized a win-win how-to: 

Staying behind gets ahead. 

Gain is loss and loss is gain. 

Submissive and weak overcomes hard and strong.

But the way is not merely a guide to strategic weakness, losing limbs. It’s about sprouting fresh growths, finding water and light, making something from nothing and back over and over. 

So begins the end, for new starts in old places. A forest. Eye can tell. Take a last look at this shiny MoreCorp campus with its plasti-grass lawns, enviro-clones and massive candy statues, hypo-allergenic scent drones flying above and workers whizzing by on quirky transport. (I’ll miss the skateboards). 

Bid adieu to Silicon. It’s not au revoir. We won’t see it again. That’s the point of burned bridges.

Returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.

Goodbye is fine, and anyway our story — yours and mine — is not over yet. Do not regret this departure. Silicon is no place for heroes or witches. The woods, edge of the village, provides perspective. Outside the drone delivery zone we are free to see the villagers, comfortable, sleepy, praying to new gods. We’ll stay up all night spinning yarns, invest in bird nest futures by day. Do not regret Silicon, for we are moving on. 

But I am taking souvenirs, notebooks and photos, propaganda, the latest issue of the Positude from a bathroom stall, a MoreCorp insur-pol-info-listicle from Meat-Up. Most notably, I’m taking my collection of ninjas, dozens of tiny plastic figurines that managers surreptitiously place on desks in pods throughout the Clubhouse to remind us of our mission … and to be corporate cute. 

Not only do I have my own, but I've got the ninjas of fallen Disco Ninjas, those who drowned before me. Every time someone’s done, which is often, I grab their ninjas from a haunted desk. They’re kept in a vase in my pod, filled with redwood sprouts and water, to ward off Candy Cane’s evil eye and the glazed blue gaze of my not-boss Ampersand Matrix. When I consider the drowning ninjas now, I see the obvious, how I always identified with loss.

Watch, I’ll show you. Ping! I ask Ampersand to meet. The avatar in black leather and space goggles says yes to my electronic request and the not-boss leaves his pod, skulking in a pink hoodie and jeans, fumbling, tripping over his sneakers. I follow him down the hall, forlorn, not relishing telling him off, which you’d think I might. Right?  

He’s seated looking glum when I reach the unusually un-themed room just after him. I sit. We eye each other in silence. “So umm,” my not-boss asks, “What’s up?” 

“I’m leaving. Today.”

“No!” His glazed blue eyes get glossy with crocodile tears. “Don’t go! Just shut up. We''ll do a team lunch.” 

Funny. But fux your lunch. I don’t tell him that I don’t break bread with the treacherous anymore, but can’t help smiling at his protest, the tears in Ampersand’s eyes. Tears are always personal, as his are, sorrow over this situation that forces reckoning with his sense of goodness. He needs reassurances I can't provide now.

Still, discipline. Some power lives on lies and coddling — that’s the old emperor’s new clothes. Other kinds are more powerful, more true, more like a samurai. That's shinken shobu. But serious swords cut all, not just the target. Wolf, who’s a one-punch-man, says to keep my swords sheathed unless I seek a bloodbath. He claims I don’t get it because, unlike him, I’m an alien, still disbelieving old silver tongues are burdensome in a brave new world. Given this warning, and having personally confirmed that in Silicon passivity is perfect, I’m mute and don't move.  

Meanwhile, my not-boss makes excuses. “There’s a system, Ellipsis. We’re all stuck. Hamstrung. Me too. Gotta do what you gotta do. Everyone but Candy Cane. You know Big Daddy Cane, the drone delivery king. No one says no to him or his kid. The girl wanted you in the doge-house on a tight leash, so I told Goddess it was your tek-pet doge-food that KitKat hated. That was just a blue tuna. But she did hate your Purple Pillsscript.”

“Do you mean red herring,” I ask.

“Yeah, that,” Ampersand’s happy. “See? That’s why you’re awesome! You know things, like words and stuff. But a billionaire’s kid is best, end of the day.” He frowns. “Taking a risk here, always have talking to you. So I turned you in. Couldn’t let you win. It’s just forms. All in order.”

“It’s my livelihood.”

“Right.” Ampersand grimaces. “Mine too. Like I said, the system. Don’t make me feel bad, Ellipsis! That’s not fair! I’ve got feels!”

I resist the urge to curse him now. There is all the time in the world … another language to learn. Instead, I wish him good luck. But it doesn’t feel triumphant. The last word will be in futuristic verse, an ancient tongue of trees. It will take time, aborted attempts, longer than I think to utter. So it is with naming. The way can’t be rushed. Maybe there’s no triumph.

Outside, in the parking lot behind the Clubhouse, Wolf and Haiti are smoking, waiting to hear how it went. After I tell them, Haiti expresses vindication. “I told you, Ellipsis! You totally should’ve waited this out. It was all just a Swedish fish!” 

“Don’t you mean red herring,” Wolf asks. 

I laugh, thinking of Ampersand’s blue tuna as Haiti explains, exasperated. “Whatever! That mystery thing where they distract you with a false clue. But that doesn't really matter. The key is greenies. Make bank, wait, and soon everything will be awesome again.” She sighs, like she’s trying to convince herself too, tugging on a vape to medicate. 

Haiti's trying to forget her wounds, what she says was a disastrous Lovesport interview with admin twins Cocoa and Marsh, who asked her if she reads, like anyone does anymore! Meanwhile, she had memorized a speech on machine learning, all in biz-buzz, which the twins hated. That one day Prose Control was pro-prose apparently. Haiti must be mulling it over now, as she protests aloud out of nowhere. “Nobody reads when it’s their work! Those jerks!”

“You’re kind of proving my point,” I say. 

“Not really.“ She exhales a puff of vapor. “Who does that? Leaves MoreCorp without getting axed or killed?”

“Pug did,” Wolf reminds her. “And Pit.”

“Yeah,” Haiti says. “Where are they now?” 

“Possibly off the grid, plotting the great universal vid,” I offer. Saying this, I think of Pug who left saying fux these fux! and Pit who quit shortly after, as predicted. Now the Metropolitans are down to two, just Haiti and Wolf. Are they happy to be the sole survivors? Maybe not. 

Wolf pulls out a piece of paper and holds it up for inspection. It’s a sketch of Ampersand Matrix, the vid star avatar in leather and space goggles, upon which is scribbled verse. “Don’t play with voodoo.” Haiti warns him. “Use positude.” 

Wolf dismisses this. “Look where it got you! Now we curse.” He folds the paper neatly into a cube, spits on it and takes something else out of his pocket, holding up a small crudely stitched amulet. Mocking Pepsi Johnson, the Good Guy who addressed us at the Plus Center on our first day in Silicon, Wolf taps his skull and says, “It’s not logic, guys. It’s magix.“ 

With three wooden matches struck against his sole, Wolf lights the folded paper and whispers in Wolof, rubbing the amulet. The tight note moistened with spit is resistant, burns slowly. We watch silently as the flames flicker, lick orange-blue against white paper, turning it black, gray, pale again, consuming Ampersand Matrix until he’s dust in the wind. Sprinkled ash. Already in the past. 

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