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.