We had just started over the bridge, toward my party, when the famously cheerful “Don’t Jump” Ad clicked on. This had never happened to me before. The billboard’s advertising systems scanned me—analyzing my age, my style, even my pulse—and calculated I was in need of a friendly reminder not to kill myself. Colorful, hopping bunnies sang at my feet, on a waist-high screen that arced the full length of the bridge wall. Traffic roared along eighty feet below. Above, the city dome was lit a diffuse, fading gray by the evening sky beyond.
I felt a little queasy. Jumpers had been growing increasingly common, but I’m sure a higher railing would have been more effective than a glib cartoon. I wasn’t planning to kill myself. I had other things to concentrate on.
Mrs. Harris, my guardian, was still talking.
“You will get used to budgeting, Speth,” she chirped, but faltered slightly at my name, as if it wasn’t good enough for her mouth. My name was cheap and ugly. Speth. I hated it. It sounded like someone spitting. My parents chose it from a list of discounted girls’ names. When my brother was born, they vowed not to repeat that mistake and paid for a good premium name: Sam.
I wished Sam was nearby to distract me. Sam always made me laugh. But Mrs. Harris had shooed him off to help set up my party in the park, so she would have my complete attention.
Mrs. Harris was a little bird of a woman with restless hands and a tense, wrinkled little smile. She’d been lecturing me for the better part of an hour on what to expect on my big day.
I stopped walking and looked down at the shiny new Cuff she had clamped around my forearm that morning. It was a marvel of engineering—a cool processor, a rock-steady tether to WiFi and a smooth glossy surface impervious to scratches, dirt and smudges. It was rimmed in a burnished lightweight Altenium™ composite. The Cuff was nearly indestructible, unless the NanoLion™ battery went haywire and melted your Cuff and your arm off. The Cuff’s main purpose was to record everything I said and did, so I could pay the Rights Holders their fees.
“It’s beautiful,” my sister assured me. She patted my shoulder. The words she spoke scrolled up her Cuff as she was charged for each.
Saretha Jime—word: It’s: $1.99.
Saretha Jime—word: Beautiful: $8.99.
Then she was charged for patting me.
Saretha Jime—gesture: pat to shoulder—2 seconds: $1.98
Every word is Trademarked™, Restricted® or Copyrighted ©. The companies and people who own these rights let people use them, but once you turn fifteen, you have to pay. Saretha had turned fifteen more than two years before. I was wearing the same bright orange dress she had, but not nearly as well. Everything else I owned was dull, gray and from a limited selection of public domain clothes Mrs. Harris allowed us to have printed at the UnderGap™.
At 6:36 p.m., it would be my turn; I would pay for every word I spoke for the rest of my life. Foolishly, I had believed it would be fun.
My Cuff felt tight. I tried to fit a finger between it and my flesh. There was no gap.
“In the unlikely event it needs to be removed,” Mrs. Harris said, “the proper authorities can do so. However, if your Cuff is removed for any reason, you will not be allowed to speak. Any utterance will result in a painful shock to the eyes.”
I closed my eyes. My lids slid down just a bit more slowly than before. As part of my transition, in addition to the Cuff, Mrs. Harris had roughly thumbed a corneal implant
into each of my eyes. The implants were, at that moment, slowly fusing to my corneas. She said I would have terrible eyesight without them.
I’m almost certain this was a lie.
“You’ve read the Terms of Service?” she asked, but she knew I hadn’t. No one read the ToS. They were boring—hundreds of pages of intimidating, brain-melting Legalese. What did it matter? I had to agree. We couldn’t change them, and while technically I could “opt out,” I was required by Law to have the implants before I turned fifteen.
“Optic shocks may cause nausea,” Mrs. Harris said flatly, “dizziness, redness of the eyes, swelling, headaches, shortness of breath, seizures, confusion, heart palpitations, vision changes and, of course, blindness.”
“Rarely,” Saretha assured me. Her Cuff buzzed and charged her $1.75. I missed when we used to really talk. She was always so positive and joyful. I supposed she still was, inside, but I mostly talked with Sam after her transition. We didn’t have the kind of money that would let us talk freely once we were paying for our words.
“Traditionally, one arrives at one’s celebration at exactly the moment one turns fifteen.” Mrs. Harris’s thin smile pulled tight. I think she had timed our walk out to the park. Slowing down was not part of that plan.
I wished I didn’t have to have a Custodian. I wished my parents could have been here, but when I was little, our family was sued for an illegal music download traced back five generations to a great-great-aunt somewhere. We owed the Musical Rights Association of America® more than six million dollars in damages. Debt Services took our parents and placed them somewhere down in Carolina, pollinating crops with an eyedropper and brush until our debts were paid. My heart ached thinking of them so far away.
Mrs. Harris noted my sadness and moved on.
On the far side of the bridge, my celebration was crowded onto a small, manicured strip of green called Falxo Park. It sat at the very edge of the city, in the heart of the Onzième, where the dome curves down to the city wall. All the faux- Parisian-style shops crowded around the park, stretching off into the distance in a plastic approximation of Franco quaintness.
The outer shopping district and the park it flanked were beautiful if I squinted at it, awash and aglow in Moon Mints™ Ads. There was scarcely a surface in the city that couldn’t throw up an Ad. I liked the colors—sometimes. I just wished there was less going on all at once. It made my head feel fuzzy to try to take it all in—though Mrs. Harris said I had to try.
I could hear the party from across the bridge. All the younger kids were laughing and singing. I’ll bet there was dancing, too. The kids over fifteen would only join in after my speech, when the real celebration began.
I had really been looking forward to the party—seeing all my friends, what the Product Placers had brought and what my Branding would be. I was finally going to be a contributing member of society. Mrs. Harris said so. But suddenly, I didn’t want to cross the bridge. I didn’t want a party. I didn’t want a Brand. I didn’t care if I got lifelong discounts on Keene Inc. candies in return for unwavering loyalty to their family of products, or a small monthly allowance to speak encouragingly about Pamvax® Feminine Vaccines™. Now that I could really feel the change about to take place, I wanted to run. Why was this something to
celebrate? How would I get used to measuring the cost of my words?
I had a strange urge to do or say something meaningful before the clock ticked over, but such behavior was frowned upon. I was supposed to wait until the moment after I turned. Then I would read the speech I had crafted with Mrs. Harris. I was contractually obligated to read it, from start to finish, as my first paid words.
The speech was in my hand, printed by Mrs. Harris on a thick sheet of real paper. My sponsors had approved it and subsidized my costs in return for peppering the speech with positive statements about their products. Keene Inc. even offered to have it framed afterward, so I could remember my Last Day, but I’d refused that offer; I didn’t want to be responsible for keeping a sheet of paper safe any longer than I had to.
I didn’t really care for the speech. I had thought it was funny to cram in as many endorsements as I could, giggling with my friend Nancee Mphinyane-Smil for weeks about how to work in something about Mrs. Harris’s favorite brand of industrial-strength suppositories.
I suddenly wished the speech said something more. More about me, my thoughts…my future.
“We should really get moving,” Mrs. Harris said.
I nodded, swallowing hard, and began to move. My eyes ached.
“I understand it can be difficult. Reducing your chat so precipitously, after fourteen years of free speech.” Mrs. Harris let the word precipitously slip out between her teeth with delight. The government paid for her words, and she relished them. There was a reason a woman like Mrs. Harris became a Custodian and took on guardianship of so many children.
It wasn’t compassion.
“Undoubtedly you have been speaking more than normal lately,” Mrs. Harris said, waving at me to hurry.
I hated that she was right. I had been talking more. I had also been dancing and singing and practicing gymnastics. That was all finished. Every dance move, every gymnastic flourish and every note of every song was Trademarked and priced outside what my family could afford. None of this was Mrs. Harris’s fault, but I still wanted to blame her. I had always disliked her. I glared at her horrible, insincere face.
“What?” she asked, taken aback. I took a deep breath.
“Is it normal to be able to see through people’s clothes?”
I asked, squinting through my new corneal overlays.
Mrs. Harris flinched and moved to cover herself, until I snorted out a laugh.
“Sorry,” Saretha said for me. Sorry was a fixed-price word at $10, and a legal admission of guilt. She should have let me say it. I still had a minute left. I just wanted to have a little fun.
Mrs. Harris shook her head, tapping at her own Cuff a few times until a micro-suit showed up. The first thing to appear on my Cuff’s screen was $30 worth of Mrs. Harris’s “pain and suffering.” She sued us all the time like this for petty grievances. Saretha just tapped PAY.
“I have helped thousands of boys and girls transition, and trust me, you aren’t any different,” Mrs. Harris sniffed.
The clock was ticking down. In a few seconds, I would officially turn fifteen. I wanted to think of something meaningful to say, but what? My heart was pounding. My tongue felt like a solid lump in my mouth. Mrs. Harris sighed.
“It is very easy to slip up and speak, or shrug or scream, before you read your speech. This would void your contract, which would be disastrous. I must remind you of your obligation to read it first.” She lifted the hand that held the speech and shook it around, like I was a puppet. “These need to be your first paid words, Speth.”
I pulled away from her. I knew what my responsibilities were.
Mrs. Harris watched the time tick over on her Cuff. “You are an adult now,” she said, her eyes fixed on the podium in a way that highlighted the fact that we had not yet reached it.
The bunnies sang more loudly at the apex of the bridge. “Don’t jump, puh-leeze.”
Saretha beamed at me. Smiling was still free. How bad could things be if she seemed so happy? Her smile was wide and bright and friendly. It made you feel warm. She looked like she belonged in movies. A step behind us, her Ads sang a different tune across the glossy LCDs.
Saretha’s Ads were full of romance, perfume, alcohol and shoes. She didn’t come close to a jumper’s algorithm: she was too pretty, too graceful and too well-dressed. When she chose her Branding, Saretha got to choose between twenty-three different corporate brands. I would be lucky to pick from three. Saretha was a Facer, which meant that when she drank a soda in public or ate some chips, she was expected to face the product label out so people could see it. The systems almost treated her like an Affluent, although they never digitized her into the Ads. Truly wealthy people often had their likeness scanned, recreated and enhanced
to look a little more beautiful and happy in a commercial.
Mrs. Harris thought Saretha’s looks were our family’s best chance at a better life. She didn’t just look like a movie star—she looked a lot like a particular star named Carol Amanda Harving. Carol Amanda Harving’s smile was more perfect and white, but somehow Saretha’s was more comforting and real. As Mrs. Harris liked to point out, my sister and the actress looked more alike than Saretha and I did. My heart sunk every time she declared it, usually in a tone she reserved for crueler moments.
Saretha and I looked enough like sisters, but whatever people might have said about her, they said less enthusiastically about me. Saretha was beautiful with an almost golden complexion. With work, I could be pretty, but my skin never shone the way Saretha’s did. Saretha had dark, welcoming eyes, the color of chocolate. Mine were just dark and sharp. Saretha had long, amazing, black wavy hair that rode over her shoulders like a shampoo Ad. I kept mine short, fashioned in a pixie cut Mrs. Micharnd, my gymnastics teacher, found for me in the public domain. When she was my age, Saretha already had curves, and now she had more. I had next to none. I was small, sinewy and perfect for gymnastics.
Saretha went on dates with gorgeous boys who paid for her words and expected affection in return. I went walking with Beecher Stokes, a skinny boy with messy hair who lived with his grandmother. He wasn’t terribly cute, but he made me laugh—or at least he did, until his fifteenth birthday. Then his mood soured. His jokes vanished. He would just stare at me, wordless. To fill the awkward silences, I let him kiss me—as much as he could afford. He could not afford much.
I find it creepy that the system can tell how long or hard a kiss is. I don’t know exactly what the system monitors, but Beecher would pay something like 17¢ for each second. That’s supposed to feel normal. It’s been like this longer than I’ve been alive, but something still felt wrong about it.
Mrs. Harris didn’t think it was appropriate for me to be with him, given what she called his “circumstances.”
When Beecher was ten, his father tried circumventing the programming of a food printer. He wanted to make more nutritious meals. It was in blatant violation of Copyright, Patent and Terms of Service—the Three Major Fields of Intellectual Property. Mr. Stokes disconnected from the network, but he was caught anyway. Debt Services took Beecher’s parents into Collection immediately. They would have taken Beecher, too, but Collection must let you finish school.
Beecher could have had another two years, but he dropped out of school a few weeks after his fifteenth. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him why. He shrugged like it was no big deal—50¢ to act casual. I kind of loved that he did that, even though it seemed so foolish.
“Beecher…” Mrs. Harris said, shaking her head. It was like she knew I was thinking about him. She really didn’t like him, which was part of the reason I kept seeing him.
Mrs. Harris hadn’t read my mind, however. Beecher was at the foot of the bridge opposite us, waiting, like he wanted to catch me before the party. My heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t love or a crush. The way he looked at that moment worried me.
Bunnies surrounded him, too, but in darker colors like green and midnight blue, because these were supposed to be “boy” colors. His eyes were red. Had he been crying?
“Don’t jump, don’t jump,” the bunnies sang cheerfully to us both as Beecher drew up.
“Speth,” Beecher said. His face winced. Mrs. Harris grabbed my arm and pulled me away.
He closed the space between us, quick, and kissed me. I felt a sharp jolt. This wasn’t like his other kisses. My lips stung. My body tingled. I realized, with horror, that his eyes were being shocked for kissing with insufficient credit.
“Beecher Stokes!” Mrs. Harris warned.
My pastel bunnies and his dark ones mingled in the Ad, harmonizing, “Don’t jump, pleeeeezeey weeezeey.”
My cheek twitched. I put a hand there to feel the spasm. Warmth spread through my face. Somehow, my Cuff’s software knew I hadn’t kissed back. It really unnerved me to realize my Cuff had such weird access to my lips and intentions. How did it know? Suddenly this whole system seemed too, too real.
Beecher abruptly stalked off, head down, hands jammed in the pockets of his dumpy brown public domain longcoat. Black, gray and blood-red bunnies, glowing from the Ads at his feet, kept singing that he shouldn’t jump. But Beecher didn’t take advice from bunnies. That had been one of his jokes, back before he turned fifteen. I’d always thought it was really funny—until he mounted the rail and took a great leap into the traffic eighty feet below.
The bunnies stopped singing.
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