They still called it California even though the United States was long gone.
It was the Year 13. Why wasn’t air-travel better? I’d left Liberia early the night before and spent ten hours traveling just to get to the connecting flight at Heathrow. I was hungry and tired.
The plane cruised lower and lower, and my ears popped with the change in pressure. I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes and looked out the window. California rose beneath us, variations of copper and green, higher elevations coming into focus first, then the valleys and fields, the sun now streaming through our cabin.
The Center for Advanced World Studies wasn’t even my first choice. I wanted to study with Wen’s group, in China, but their hiring had trickled to a halt in the years since they’d bought Apple for 4.28 trillion. There was no application process to work there, no strings my teachers could pull. If Wen’s group wanted you, they’d find you.
The Chinese were ascendant now—every child in Liberian elementary school was taught that, along with conversational Chinese. Every passing year proved it. Their infrastructure projects in Monrovia, the success of Chinese solar power all through Africa, South America, and Asia, and their legendary charity work across the globe meant they were the Big Dogs now.
A sudden swing right made me open my eyes. My stomach rumbled. The food on both planes over had been terrible. I needed something that tasted like home. I remembered my mother's chicken peanut soup. I pictured her sprinkling in the cayenne, and I could smell the coriander
I was the only Liberian going to California.
Just two weeks ago Mr. Sayeh, my high school teacher, stood in front of our class, his grey shirt stained with his usual armpit sweat, explaining why the most ambitious of us had to leave Liberia.
“Wen seized Apple for a fire-sale price. Rival search-engine giant, WhoozHooz was blind-sided by this, so they quickly set up the Centers for Advanced World Studies, in California, Greenland, and Australia to compete. The Religious Wars, the New York City subway bombings, the arrests…The United States was worn down and merged. The Triumvirate is where all the action is now. It is either CAWS or Wen, in China. Nothing in Africa. California is The CAWS Mothership.”
I looked out at the land drawing closer, and I wondered about who my roommate was going to be. I suddenly remembered the going-away ceremony they’d held for me back home. Food, pictures, speakers, my mother clapping, wiping tears from eyes when they introduced me. I remembered her laughing when the Education Secretary said, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, then you are probably dinner.”
The businessman next to me started making grunting sounds. Suddenly, he was leaning over into my seat-space, shoving his HIVE-TV wrist-device in front of me.
“Look at this,” he said.
The screen was an off-shade of blue. I immediately recognized it; the Army of the Righteous. That was their trademark color. It made blood look vivid. Were they still around?
“It never changes,” the businessman said. “Over and over and over.”
The soldiers held the family members by their hair to make sure they were sitting upright for the camera. There was bad Southeast Asian music.
I knew there’d be screaming, crying, begging, and then horrible sounds, so I looked at the businessman’s leg instead of the screen. I was right. There was wailing and desperate attempts to bargain for their lives. I didn’t need to see this. He didn’t either.
It also wasn’t clear whether this was straight film footage, or one of the Synthesized Creative Reality Apps (SCRAPS) that had become big in Year 9. The professional in me accepted it as a challenge. I glanced back at the screen.
Death. Blood. The shadows seeming to fall in the right places.
“Child murderers,” the businessman blurted.
This was my arrival into California. Hideous stuff on HIVE-TV, as worn on the wrist of a businessman next to me. I looked one last time.
The positions the bodies fell in looked real.
It was upsetting on any level, more so if it were real. There had obviously been post-production work. Humans didn’t ordinarily sound like that. An enhanced SCRAP, most likely. But, then again, I’d never been in such a situation, so I couldn’t judge. No one I’d ever known had either.
“Animals,” the businessman said.
“It’s fake,” I said. “Not real.”
The plane touched down with early morning ease.
“Worse than animals. Y’know, where those murderers are now? Dust.”
He didn’t seem interested in my assessment of the media.
“Dust to dust,” I said. That was a phrase my father used to say when I was little, when we watched the news. I thought of Saturday morning motorcycle rides on the back of Dad’s Royal Enfield, him smelling of Bay Rum, the two of us leaning into the curves. He always said we should hop on the bike, “because we can," and we’d share a smile. Then he stopped being in contact with all of us. He disappeared. I preferred to think he was on an important, secret mission of some sort. “Is that from The Religious Wars?” I asked.
He nodded. “And they say they’re still out there. Hiding. Religious Ones. Waiting for a moment to pounce. They never accepted losing,” the businessman said, unbuckling his seatbelt and standing as the plane finished pulling up to the arrival gate. “You here for school?”
“Keep your eyes open,” he said, retrieving his luggage from above and walking forward “Not everyone is nice. Even in California. I don’t know if they tell you that where you came from.”
I thought back to the last thing Mr. Sayeh told me in school: “Believe nothing of what you read, nothing of what you hear, and half of what you see.”
The pilot came on over the speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Bill Gates International Airport, Los Angeles, California. The temperature is 76 degrees, the local time 7:06 a.m., Pacific Standard Time.”
The transport van had to pick up other kids from a variety of other airlines. We stopped to make pickups at Korean Air, Lufthansa, Norwegian Airlines, British Airways, and Qatar Airways. It was a swirl of colors, the sounds of doors slamming and luggage being slid into the back by men in uniforms expecting tips. I sized up the kids as they each loaded their belongings. Only about half of them gave tips. I wasn’t intimidated, though a lot of them wore glasses. They all looked smart, but I didn’t feel bested yet.
On our way to CAWS, the driver, who introduced himself as Miguel, told of a cheese and crackers reception at the conference center. “You must be some very important people, huh? For still being young people, right? I pick up people all the time, they don’t get cheese and crackers. It’s an honor, right? What did you guys do to get that? You invent stuff?” he asked, swinging his head back to check us out.
I felt sorry for him. What would it be like to have a life of just ferrying people back and forth to the airport? On top of this, no one was answering him. “We’re important in a very small circle of people,” I said. “We like cheese and crackers. We are cheese and cracker people.”
He laughed. “That’s a good one! ‘Cheese and cracker people.’ I still think you invent things. You know The Next Big Things, right? You know what’s what, right? What’s coming down the pike? Because you’re not old.” He nodded. “I get it. Smart. That’s smart, bringing you guys.”
I had just turned eighteen. Microsoft, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat – all things we’d studied about in school – were no more, having merged into FruitEdge, a lamely-named company attempting to capitalize on some sort of Apple-ish/fruit imagery. It was failing rapidly. Most of the things I learned even in tenth grade were now obsolete.
We pulled into CAWS and saw what must have been an acre of smooth, green lawn in front of the entrance. “That’s artificial,” Miguel informed us as he unloaded our luggage. “Better for the environment, they say.” I gave him a twenty-dollar tip, not really knowing if that was too much or too little. “Stay yourselves,” he said in an odd farewell, waving before driving off.
I expected him to tell us to invent cool things.
I joined the small group walking through the lobby and following the signs for the Woodcrest Room, where the cheese and crackers waited for us. The first person I truly focused on was Rudra, a handsome young man with long black hair, who looked like he was from India. He was, like the rest of us, putting on his goofy CAWS name-tag, and he came up an intriguing lapis blue color on my Predictive Friend Advisor. The PFA, which could now screen and compare name, character, and personal attributes through a centralized registry, comparing it to mine, worked within .18 seconds. It was getting faster and faster, and the one going into kids now was said to be .07.
The retinal color-coding—a brief wash of color that swooped across your field of vision and then disappeared—was easily understood as an expression of how likely it was that two strangers would be compatible. It was proximity-activated and uncannily accurate. The warmer the color, the better the match. We were all extremely used to the colors coming and going. How much attention you paid to them was up to you. The PFA was a packet of internal apps carefully constructed to be limited. The HIVE couldn’t record or maintain archives about PFA responses due to restrictions the developers baked in them. It was no spycam. This ended up being more important than we knew. In fact, this ended up being key. The PFA could only offer you advice and, as they said at the time: “It just works.”
No sooner was I basking in Rudra’s lapis blue glow and feeling like perhaps another international visitor from a different continent was here with me to provide some company than I saw Elizabeth, standing over by the food, reaching for a plate. She was talking from the first moment I saw her and, as soon as she turned in profile, she came up brown/green on my PFA. Not good. That, combined with an intimidating British accent, kept me away.
She lectured a smiling shorter girl, who seemed to be in awe of her, standing there adoringly, practically wanting an autograph. The two of them were filling their plates with grapes, cheese, crackers, and slices of apples before sauntering off to a small, comfortable reception area with low tables and cushioned chairs. They sat, and Elizabeth kept talking. Rudra walked over and sat down with them, listening.
“The HIVE replaced old 48G coverage when we were still little wankers. Before Year Zero. Same time as The Filament. Integrated, so no more coverage, just wake up, instant-on and Bob’s-your-uncle HIVE-Weather, traffic, terror warnings… Doesn’t matter if you’re in a cave, underwater or in the loo. ‘The HIVE never sleeps…so you can,’ luv, remember? The billboards?”
I’d already heard about Elizabeth. Rumors in the geek world that there was some big-mouthed British mega-hacker who’d gone over as part of a plea deal of some sort to advise her government—and possibly The Triumvirate?—about next steps to be taken to protect themselves from someone like her. But no one knew her name. Only her hacker name: The Prime Minister. Something told me, as I watched her talk, and talk, that she took that seriously.
“You’d think that the powers-that-be could distribute our actual schedules ahead of time so we’re not walking around in circles smashing into walls, bumping into one another when we start tomorrow, maybe? I mean, come on!” (She pronounced it “shed-you-als.”) “But, oh, right, we’re in California, Land of Avocados and Self-Esteem, everyone slurping down vegan protein shakes, balancing their chakras. Pardon me, I just want to get to the projects, advanced systems design and implementation,” she said, flipping back her dark hair. She wore glasses that looked like they were from The Geek Shop. They probably were.
When she said chakras, Rudra stared at her sharply.
“I’m not mocking, luv,” she offered. “Not the Indian-Indians. Hindus, yoga-people, what-have-you. It’s just the ones from Palo Alto, you know? I mean, most of the world is in the Year 13, not great-grammy’s love-beads in your hair, hello?”
“It’s alright,” Rudra said. “My chakras don’t need anything from California.”
“Big fan of chakras,” Elizabeth said. “Wouldn’t leave home without `em. But…just organize this Academy. That’s all that I’m saying. Don’t dither.”
I’d never in my life known anyone who used the word dither.
I approached her. “Are you The Prime Minister?” I asked.
She turned, looked up at me, and actually was silent for a second. I wonder if her PFA told her the same thing mine did. “Who is asking?” she wanted to know. “People pay money for that sort of info.” Then she looked back at her admiring girl and laughed.
“I’m Zokaya Kpelle,” I said, sitting down in a fancy green cushioned chair across from her.
“Zokaya…Zokaya. What is that, Tanzanian?” she asked.
“I knew someone from Ghana once,” she said.
“Yes. Different country,” I said with some crispness. “Are you The Prime Minister?”
“We live different lives at different times, don’t we, luv? Next thing you know we’re all here, ready to learn how to surf!” She went back to giggling with her girlfriend.
“The Prime Minister did some fancy work in her day,” I said. “Above and beyond. Taking down the international banking systems? For an hour and a half?”
She stopped laughing. Her face suddenly focused, and she looked ten years older. “Do I know you?” she asked. “I don’t believe I’ve heard much coming out of Liberia.”
“No, you don’t know me. I’ve been in interactive-looped HIVE healthcare learning systems,” I offered. “You’d have to have been looking. Can I ask you something?”
“Are you here as a condition for your release? Some sort of insider-plea-deal thing?”
“I’m here for the same reasons you are,” she answered. “Fame.”
It didn’t feel right. It might’ve been right for her. But we weren’t all there to be little Elizabeths. I knew, right then, that she’d be my major competitor. And that the difference between us is that she wanted to be a celebrity. Mr. Sayeh warned us about celebrities the first time our class talked about tech developers; they were people who were “well-known for their well-knownness.”.
I just wanted to be the one noticed by Wen. I wanted to know what Wen was up to, not CAWS’ next project. Wen thought big. Everyone knew this. I belonged there, not here. I never settled for second-best. I’d been identified early on as exceptional in the field of HIVE encoding and bio-evolutionary sequencing because I was.
Some of my work was speculative, but with the right resources, it wouldn’t remain that way for long. I was midway through developing a two-way HIVE/individual health-loop that would allow for remote medical care, sleep, and personalized hormone control. I could finish this in a year. If I did this at CAWS, it would make sense that I could jump ship to Wen’s crew by my second year. Wen had to have people looking to poach the best from CAWS. CAWS and WhoozHooz just seemed to aim so low. Daily- living things that made life-schedules more pleasant. I wanted to make technologies that were transformative. I didn’t want, in Year 13, to be working on developing a better can opener. Not when ultimate healthcare as an ever-evolving mutually-transacted HIVE-loop was within our sights.
I was contemplating the reality of just having met someone I didn’t like, the first one since getting off the plane, when a blonde woman sauntered into the room. I wasn’t sure if she was one of us, a teacher, or something else entirely. There was a stealthy quality to her movement, as if she were trying out this body in this way before committing to the room, and to our company.
She wore an old rucksack slung over one shoulder, had short hair and was extremely pale. She found a chair alone around a different table. She wasn’t tentative, though, once she decided she was in the right room. I felt an aura of an unknown presence that surprised me. My PFA sprung into a golden-warm reading. Her face looked completely calm. Kristina looked like she didn’t need to speak. She popped some lip balm out of her rucksack and applied it. I don’t know how I understood it from such small gestures, but I had the distinct feeling of being in the presence of great power.
I had a surge of missing home. Something about her face made me feel both a longing and a sense of aloneness. There was a whole level of sound back home, the way that words and laughter and sing-song expression went together, that was missing here.
I walked over and sat across from her. To my relief, she smiled. “Zokaya,” I said, not really knowing if I should shake hands or what.
“Kristina,” she said, tilting her head to the right, and scanning me.
I sort of half-waved, and we both laughed, because she half-waved back.
“Liberia,” I said, as if she’d asked me anything.
“Sweden,” she volunteered back.
I hoped her PFA was telling her good things about me. My next thought was that must hardly have any sunlight in Sweden because she was one of the fairest-skin people I had ever met. We sat there as the quiet ones, for a moment, before Elizabeth’s voice crackled through the room, loud enough for all to hear. We turned.
Elizabeth continued on: "What, pray tell, is the purpose of Pacific Standard Time, anyway? Why not just use Mountain Time? A need for California to be special again? Some more? I'm asking! For real.”
"You know perfectly well the rationale for Pacific Time," Rudra offered. "It is familiar enough a time zone to not raise hackles but different enough to cultivate regional identity."
“Isn’t it so sad that they need that in order to feel good about one’s self?” Elizabeth pondered out loud.
An announcement came on, telling us to pick a partner and go for a walk on the designated Health Trail. You could also, optionally, run it. The announcement said it was now a requirement that this be done at least once a day, and it was fine with me. Rudra approached me and raised his eyebrows, which was the invitation to walk, and I gave him a nod.
The Health Trail was warm and sultry in the late afternoon. I was happy Rudra had asked me. Maybe he would be my first friend here. We both had different roommates, and neither of us had met them yet. He walked like he was ready to own this place. He stood tall and looked like an adult.
I kept feeling like anyone watching us would think a member of the staff here was giving me a tour. As with Elizabeth, I felt like I might’ve met my match. Whereas my ambition was to be the one who would work with Wen. Rudra’s, I imagined, was to somehow be involved in running the whole world.
But then there was the side of him that could laugh. We laughed about the trip as we walked and compared miles traveled to get to CAWS. I came 6,963 miles, he came 8,688 miles, winning by a long shot, entitling him to two more airline meals.
The trees had a hushed sound as the breeze came through. I asked him, “Does this place remind you of home at all?”
“Can’t say it does. There’s a sense of place that’s very particular, but I’m guessing it’ll take a year to get my bearings.” He answered the way an adult would. “Liberia for you, right?”
"I don't know a thing about Liberia," he said.
"What do you want to know?" I asked.
"What's it like?"
"Beautiful. Lush. Warm. Peaceful. Then not beautiful. War. Then beautiful again. Then not beautiful," I answered. "Ebola, then a cure, tribal hatreds, more Ebola, economic growth, lots of Religious Ones."
"Sounds like India," he said. "Different diseases."
"Good people, though. My people. They don't waste everything like they do over here,” I said. “At home, restaurants don’t throw out unbought food. Even at the airport, I saw them throwing out enough to feed two villages.”
"In India we waste more than people know. People like to think of the fairy-tale India," Rudra offered. “We have mountains of discarded computer junk. People think if they land in India and talk to someone with a beard, they will be healed of whatever ails them. It’s a good place to grow a beard.”
It felt good to walk after the plane. The crunch of the small stones on the trail under our feet felt restorative.
“How old were you when you got implanted? I was five in Year Zero,” I said. “The same timing over there?”
“Yes,” Rudra said. “My mother refused to call it Year Zero all year long. She kept saying ‘2026.’ She kept thinking it was going to be like a monster movie operation, instead of just a microscopic Filament in the back of the neck. She calmed down after they showed her the size.”
“They did all the newborns from Year Zero on, here, within the first eighteen days, retrofitted the rest of us, up to age twenty-one. It’s a birth-entitlement now. Updated every two months. Same thing there?” I asked.
We crunched on ahead in some silence again.
“Where’s the worst food you ever ate?” I asked.
“Easy,” Rudra said. “Hands down: England. Elizabeth’s pride and joy. The native specialties: inedible. Unknown with a gluey sauce. Worst food you’ve eaten?”
“Haggis. Sheep heart, liver, and lungs. One of The Religious Ones ate that back home, shared a taste. From Scotland.”
“Maybe we’re talking about the same things,” Rudra said. “I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it really was. I just couldn’t stop eating fast enough.”
I heard a bird singing out a message to its partner high up in the trees.
“Do you ever think The Religious Ones got a raw deal?” I asked. “I mean, they’re just…different, right?”
“They behaved like savages. They started the whole war. It was on every continent.”
“Middle East first?”
“No, coordinated. Everywhere at once. In North America, before it was The Triumvirate. That was the hot spot. If it fell, everything could fall,” Rudra said with authority.
“I would say it didn’t fall.”
“Hardly. The Religious Ones paid the price for trying to bring it on The End of Times. It was the end of their times, not ours. And I am grateful.”
“You don’t feel sorry for how they were treated? The revenge attacks?” I asked. My mother told me this happened in Liberia, France, Iraq, Poland, Russia, and England. And, of course, North America.
Rudra looked at me. “You do understand they fought against everything we are trying to accomplish here, right? They stood against human order and progress.”
We walked in silence. The jet lag had almost completely left me the more we moved and breathed. The lapis blue PFA had been right about Rudra, it felt good hanging around him.
With the sun sinking lower in the sky, everything was still radiant and warm. The Californian people I’d met so far, in passing, seemed smart, easy, and relaxed. Except for the businessman on the plane. It was us international talents who weren’t so easy or relaxed. Particularly Elizabeth.
“How many girls do you think there are at CAWS,” I asked, almost immediately regretting how young I sounded.
“They’ve raised the acceptance rate for females to fifty percent of the total student population. But a lot go independent instead. So, there could be thirty-six. How come?”
“No reason,” I lied.
I had a girlfriend for about five months in Liberia—Akeelah—but she backed away immediately when she found out I’d be going West. It seemed cruel, but I would have done the same thing in her position. Most who go West only come back to visit, not to live. Not since Year Zero, anyway.
Seeing Kristina earlier punched up feelings of what was missing in my life. It made me feel both lonely and excited at the same time. I tried imagining what dozens of other girls might look like.
“You liked Kristina, huh?” Rudra asked.
I was embarrassed. Liked made me sound like a schoolboy. How did he even know?
“No. Just that she looked retro. Stood out.”
“Well, that’s how things start, right” Rudra asked, smiling.
“How about you?” I asked. “Anyone back home?”
He seemed caught off guard. “No. Not really. Perhaps. I don’t know. It’s hard to tell. I'm focused on padding my resume and going looking at the intersection of HIVE-linked-productivity loops and monetization right now." There was some awkwardness to the silence.
“You’re going to figure out a way to make a lot of money from all this?”
“Without a doubt, yes. A lot.”
We both saw a black and white rabbit in front of us, nibbling on plants, nowhere to go that would be better, nothing to do to be happier.
Then we heard feet fast approaching us from behind. The rabbit skittered off. “On your left,” a voice shouted as we felt and saw the woman jogger zip past. Brown/green PFA. It was Elizabeth. “Don’t stop me to talk, I’m making time!” she said, presuming that the idea would’ve crossed either of our minds.
“What do you make of her?” I asked Rudra.
“Smug. Bossy, and smart,” he said. “First impression. Should do well here. Could be an obstacle."
"Obstacle?" I asked.
"To me," he said. "I get that she thinks she's in charge. I don't like it."
She was waiting for us up around the next corner, holding two of her fingers to the pulse point of her neck and checking her progress.
“One-ninety-six,” Elizabeth said. “Not bad. Could come up.”
We ignored her and kept walking. She caught up and started walking next to us.
"The two of you saving the world?" Elizabeth asked.
We ignored her.
“I didn’t mean to startle you. I’m on a strict physical regimen. I’d been becoming of those tech-toads who sit behind screens all day guzzling carbonated sugar-water and I was almost five stones too fat. Three-and-a-half down.”
She walked with us a little and seemed, briefly, to want to fit in with our quiet. “I wanted to tell you Affinity Groups have been assigned. I think ours is top-of-the-pops. The two of you, me, Kristina, and someone else on their way tonight. Affinity Groups keep tabs on each other, challenges and inspires each other’s growth. That’s from their guidelines.” She sounded like a SCRAP for this place.
“How many people attend CAWS?” Rudra asked.
Elizabeth was quick to say, “I think it’s about eighty. But we’re the ones they’re counting on for big things.”
“How do you know that?” I asked. “About who they are counting on?”
“Because I’m in your group,” she said, putting her hand back on her neck-pulse and starting to run again. “And I just hacked a WenBook.”
We both stood dead in our tracks. This was not possible. We’d all seen the SCRAPS, as kids, that showed how WenBooks were impervious to attack and were only for educational purposes. This were the two things that set them apart from all other machines.
Rudra tilted his head and said, “That’s not possible. It’s military-grade. And there are billions of them in circulation, all secure.”
“I’m not saying it was easy,” she said, starting to run away. “Mirrors upon mirrors. Had to think way outside the box. Not much of a way in. But I’ve been working it for years.”
“There is, in fact, NO WAY IN,” Rudra sputtered, eyes glaring. “How did you do it?”
“Oh, c’mon, that would take all the fun out. Sharing it with you two, wouldn’t it?” she said, running off and disappearing.
I felt my stomach churning and fingers tingling. Elizabeth had just told us something that should be immediately reported.
Was this a test?