This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Infectious disease
Today’s the day I have to make Emma break up with Cameron.
I do it in the morning, to get it over with. As I queue Emma up in the Elaffin interface, Gray texts on our private channel, Good luck, Jude. And remember to follow through, even if he bawls.
Of course they’d say that. Gray’s a worrier, and can’t help reminding me of things I already know.
Still, it’s not bad advice. I do hate seeing Cam cry.
Emma is meeting Cameron by VR, ominously intimate; they’re a texting couple, usually. I’ve written all Cam’s girlfriends a little too busy. It’s not that VRing Emma bothers me, even on those rare occasions when Cam fumbles at her chest and I have to imagine his hands on a different body, the way I always do outside. He’s just never seemed to mind her distance.
I can tell he’s nervous as he logs in. Though it’s just a simple voice command, he’s forgotten to tidy the VR mirror of his bedroom, big and bright, with windows overlooking the blue towers of west Milwaukee. He should suspect something: as part of his tapering I’ve been gradually making Emma’s contact less frequent. Cam’s parents want him single and over it by the time he graduates. Like Cam’s last breakup, I’ve tried to write this one to ensure he can’t resent Emma. That would keep me up at night.
Now through her distant eyes I meet his. They’re brown and troubled, shaded by his fringe. Emma lifts her hand, as if to brush the hair from his eyes. Though I can’t feel my real hand outside, I know it’s probably lifting too.
I stop myself just in time. This is a breakup: Emma isn’t tempted, or sorry.
“Hi Cam,” I say, and hear Emma’s voice, “Hi, Cam.” My eyes, her eyes, avoid his. “We need to talk.”
He starts crying at five minutes, even earlier than I’d anticipated. A dumb innie, but a soft heart—a good heart, I tell Gray sometimes, to defend myself. I want to stop the script, have Emma apologize, comfort him.
I keep going.
By the time Emma logs off and Cam’s calling his best friend, I’m holding the mic away from my face so it doesn’t pick up the catch in my breathing. ElectiveAffinities’ ghostwriters don’t have to emote—that’s what Graphics are for—but I still wish I were a better actor. So does Cam’s mother, Mrs. Dernheim. It’s the only demerit I ever get on my evals. Otherwise, I work well with Cam’s team: his Audio, Graphics, and VR curators; the handlers who monitor his few friendships with real innies; the techies who keep him from googling his way to the truth. Mrs. Dernheim has retained me through the whole of Cam’s college years, because despite my youth, I’m a good writer. My characters are very real.
Cam’s sobbing to Julian now. “Emma wants to stop seeing me,” he whispers, his forehead pressed against Julian’s narrow chest. Cam and Julian always meet in VR. “I get it, that’s what she wants. But what do I do?”
Julian’s face screws up. Cam will never know it, but among all the friends I’ve written for him, Julian’s the one who looks the most like me—I mean, what I would look like if I could, tall and angular, with two-day stubble suggesting I was merely too lazy to shave. Hence the name: Julian, mature and unruffled, the someday version of Jude.
Val thinks the resemblance was a stupid move. what if he ever saw you outside and ID’d you?? she texts sometimes. one innie reveals us and our case is OVER. elaffin fires us all, locks its data. NO lawsuit, NO justice. Val’s right; I know I should probably regret my choice.
Beneath my chin, Cam’s sobs are calming. “It’s okay,” Julian says. His fingers stroke Cam’s hair, unrepentant. “Breathe.”
Cam keeps crying quietly as I recite my script. Julian is Cam’s chief comforter and voice of reason. He has been ever since they met during Cam’s first year, when of the twenty best friends I designed and dangled before him, Cam chose Julian. Like Cam, Julian is a YaleOnliner, a student whose parents can afford four years of exclusive small-group tutoring delivered to the comfort of his own home. Like Cam, Julian groused when his parents told him it would be safer. But like Cam, Julian’s pride betrayed him when they fretted, within earshot, that YaleO might be too difficult. Though Julian lives out east in Philly, he and Cam are inseparable: best friends, just like his parents ordered. Their friendship has spanned four years at college and endless summer VR trips—the California redwoods, Raised Venice—sims whose reality I could never afford but through which Cam sweeps Julian thoughtlessly and magnanimously as a boy carrying a dog.
Now Julian reassures Cam that after graduation he’s got his internship with Dernheim Inc. waiting, where he’ll meet plenty of people (Julian always says people, not women). Julian reminds Cam how few college romances last anyway. Julian admits, realistically, that while meeting people outside is harder, its relationships are richer, realer—a private joke on my part. I can only hope I’ve prepared Cam well enough for dating after he’s tapered.
At some point this year I’m supposed to taper him from Julian, too. Mr. Dernheim wants Cam to make friends in-company.
I try not to think about it.
“Realer,” Cam says, and raises his head. His sniffles are subsiding. “That sounds good. Like leaving the Cave. The sun hurts your eyes, but it’s good for you.” The Republic’s been on the YaleO freshman curriculum for decades. Cam’s fascination with it, even four years later, is one of the reasons I dream of telling him the truth. “I could save him,” I argue to Val sometimes. “He already mistrusts his parents, knows things are bad. He wants to help.” She always knocks it out of me.
Cam continues, “Knowing the truth lets you go back inside. So you can bring other people out with you. Show them the real world.”
His eyes lift, innocent, cowlike against the VR mirror of his bedroom’s tall windows. Behind Julian, my whole body shivers. I want to slap Cam’s stupid well-fed face and run my thumb along his lips.
“The real world,” Julian says. “Sure.”
Cam’s brow furrows. “What is it? I know that look—tell me what I said wrong.” He swallows, waits patiently. Mr. Dernheim approved me for a bit of resistance—a frisson of rebellion makes a shrewd businessman—but I’ve done more than he probably wanted. “Is it that I can’t show anyone the real world because I haven’t lived there myself? Or—shit, right, it’s not your job to teach me. Sorry.”
His face crunches. Wincing, I remember he’s just been dumped. Here’s my chance to be callous, to start tapering him from Julian.
“Really, I’m sorry,” he repeats. Trying not to cry again, he catches my eyes, holds them. He smiles.
“No, it’s—” I hear Julian stumble. “It’s just I can’t explain some things. If you could only go outside with me you’d understand—”
Mrs. Dernheim saves Julian from whatever Jude was about to say. She blips into Cam’s VR room—guy has no privacy—and lands a neat kiss on his head. Placing a hand on his shoulder, she smiles at Julian. I know she’s looking at me. “How thoughtful of you, Julian, to help my son through his breakup. Change is hard. But we adapt, don’t we?” She ruffles his hair, still smiling at me. “It’s our job.”
“Mom!” he snaps. “Ugh. Sorry, Jules, have to go. Talk later?” His eyes linger on Julian’s.
Then Mrs. Dernheim’s hand reaches over, and Cam’s VR snaps off. The stale darkness of my tiny flat submerges me like a returning tide. Only at the bottom of my screen, a faint scroll in the Elaffin interface: Bravo, Jude. Such a soft touch! I never reply to these compliments. My feelings are not their point. You’ll find Cam’s tapering schedule in your console. Remember, he meets his first company friends at the end of next month.
I stare at the blinking text, thinking of the question in Cam’s eyes, the answer I’ll never be able to give him: my entire existence depends on you never leaving your cave.
Two minutes later, my phone buzzes—my real number, the one Cam’s not technically supposed to have.
Cam: outside, with you? where?
Outside that night, I jog to our group’s monthly meeting, shoulders hunched, face wrapped. Our group meets to the city’s south, in the basement of a foundry in the old industrial district. The building is three centuries old, black-bricked with soot from the factory era and fresh ash from the fires raging across the northwoods. The air’s bad, particulates enhancing transmission. Though we all wear filters, we still have to quarantine after each meeting. I jog fast, and try not to breathe too deep.
Outside means different things to different people. To most of us it’s literal: the world beyond the screen, where we can meet sometimes, dangerously, and where some live, more dangerously still. To innies like Cam, it means the world after college, the real world where he thinks he’s expected to make it, as if it weren’t already made for him.
To ghosts like me, outside is the world beyond the stories.
By the time I reach the rendezvous I’m wheezing. Val’s partner Sula opens the door, guides me to a seat while my eyes adjust to the dimness. Sula’s a law student, the only member of our group who isn’t one of Elaffin’s ghostwriters. She’s spent the past six months coaching us on the intricacies of class-action lawsuits. We could never afford a real lawyer.
When my eyes no longer sting, I look around. I’m the last to have arrived. Val has already chalked the agenda on the charred-brick wall. She’s nearly finished her current contract, playing the poetic lover of the son of two professors. Soon she’ll die—“to inspire him,” as his parents put it. It’s one of the more melodramatic gigs I’ve seen. But at least the profs haven’t tried to trace Val, or fuck her, or withhold her pay by threatening false catfishing charges, a suit she’d lose because juries love blaming Elaffin’s freelancers for what Elaffin’s clients paid them to do. All these and worse have happened to the people in this room. It’s why we’re here.
Now Val frowns as she watches me sit. Her knit brows are mirrored in Gray’s, two chairs down.
I slide down beside them, cough, “Thanks for the advice, Dad.”
“Jude,” they say. Their forehead softens. “Look, I don’t mean to patronize you. But I’ve been doing this for a decade now, and I think you’re too deep into this job.”
If I can just deflect for a few minutes, Val will start talking and they’ll forget they asked. I roll my shoulders, mutter, “Come on, Val memorized a whole epic for the Campbells. Me learning my wines is kid’s stuff by comparison.”
“You know I mean Cameron,” they say, with frustrating patience. “I’ve been there, all right? I was twenty-four once too. I remember having fantasies about the cute innie rescuing me. It never works out that way. Just take care of yourself, okay?”
I scowl. Gray has been a mentor to me since before I started ghosting at fifteen, when they found out I don’t have a real family. Like most young ghosts I was recruited through my fanvids. I was so thrilled at thinking I could write my way to steady meals that I barely read my first contract, with its clauses about exclusive rights, non-disclosure, and offline “compensation.” Gray interceded, kept me from signing my life away. But sometimes they get too parental.
“I don’t want to be rescued,” I begin, but Val calls us to order before I can come up with a better zinger. Sula stands beside her, and I notice she’s staring at me, twisting her fingers.
“I’ll get right to it,” Sula says. “We got the name of Elaffin’s data-hosting company. It’s Dernheim.”
My stomach knots. The group’s eyes turn to me. Sula continues: “They have everything. Internal memos, financials, termination records, pictures—the sickos even recorded some of the abuse. Everything we need to make our case rock-solid. But we’ll lose all our credibility if we scrape it, even if they never trace us. Stolen info won’t fly in our courts. They’ll have to give it to us willingly.” She grimaces, and the knot reaches up to wrench my lungs.
Val is staring at me now too, her eyes apologetic. “Jude, we know they’re training Cameron to enter the company. And that he trusts one of your characters.”
I stare back. It’s a good lead, the best we’ve had yet. But still the knot tightens.
“Isn’t that kind of deceptive?” I mumble, to say something.
Val raises an eyebrow. “Letting your innie glimpse the horrors his corporation protects?” Her voice is soft but pitiless. “This might be the closest thing to truth you’ll ever tell him.”
My head falls, bobs once in a nod. I gaze at the floor, my double-stuffed socks in their old boots. In the VR-trips with Cam we always go to warm places, and Julian wears linen.
“You’ll do it,” Val says. I can hear how carefully she’s scrubbed the doubt from her voice. “Do you need our help figuring out how?”
Above me the old foundry yawns, chill and dark as a cavern. Somewhere far up, a scratch of light flickers, a passing drone or cough of moonlight. I look up and watch it dance.
Gray is wrong about my daydreams. I’m not naïve about what salvation means. Besides, I’m not the one who needs saving. “No,” I say to Val. “No, I’ve got it.”
“Great. What’s your plan?”
“It’s not important. Just give me a month.”
“Jude.” Her voice goes hard. “I know you feel bad. But there are ghosts younger than you trapped in contracts with their abusers. There’s Lucia’s medical bills—Phil’s kids—what happened to Shania.” She’s careful to name only people who aren’t here; no one likes being made an example without their permission. “Look me in the eyes and tell me your innie’s feelings matter more.”
I look, then look away again quickly. “Of course they don’t.”
I feel Gray’s hand touch my shoulder, questioning. I flinch away.
Val’s voice relaxes. “Okay. Now tell me your plan.”
On the long, cold walk home, I cup my phone in my scarf. Cam’s text still blinks in my phone.
Julian: what do you say to a walk outside?
We meet in the most picturesque place I know in the old downtown, the one that looks like Raised Venice. The wings of the crumbled art museum lift from the lake, rusty snags in a swamp of concrete islands that were once sidewalks.
I know Cam has been outside before, but only to the nature preserves at the center of the state, never here. I hope he can find it. The tech sector’s climate-controlled pinnacles cluster five miles inland from the lakefront. People rarely leave; there are barely even roads. Cam will have to walk to get here, really walk, not like our endless balmy VR strolls, where I don’t have to slouch and my hips move in the right way.
Now my back aches, waiting. The smog snags in my chest. The air-quality alert is only red today—moderate smoke, the usual spring viruses—but the cold makes it worse. Though I’m bound loosely, I can’t breathe deep enough to cough it out. I’m hungry, too, and cramping. I’ve been rationing food and T in case the new contracts I’m pursuing fall through before my Dernheim job ends.
Grey foam feathers the museum’s sunken pylons. Cities used to look like this, all tall close buildings, walkways, places where people met.
He’s in a light jacket, wearing only an indoor-grade filter, shivering like a lost calf. The idiot—I jump up, extra filter in hand, and start shucking my outermost coat, though Jude’s a foot shorter than Julian, who’s an inch shorter than Cam.
I hold the filter up to Cam’s face, then realize I’ve never touched him, not really. I flinch, fumble backwards, hand him both filter and coat. In the grey light his cheeks gleam faintly, plumper than on the vids, healthier.
As he pulls the coat’s too-small arms over his hands, he studies my face. He looks ashamed and slightly crestfallen. I try to ignore it. “Sorry, I was being dumb,” he says. “I know Jules is in Philly, he said he’d send a friend. But—you look so much like him? Are you his kid brother or something?”
I almost say, I’m older than you. “Um, cousin. Alex.”
“Oh.” Uncertainly, he sticks out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Alex.” We shake. “So what’s this about? Jules said it was important.”
“It is.” I’ve rehearsed the speech a hundred times now, but I still can’t look at him as I start. “Come on, we shouldn’t just stand here, it’s cold.”
As we walk, I talk. To our left, scum curdles behind an old breakwater. Even in the cold, through the filters, the stench is thick. The real Venice stank, I remember Cam telling Julian as we strolled beside the teal canals in the sunlight. As I explain—what Elaffin is (quoting the ads like a sucker: a coordinated life experience), their secrecy and the abuse it’s permitted, the incriminating data held by Dernheim—I imagine sun blooming on the water. I think of Val and Lucia and Phil and every horror story I know; I remind myself that learning the truth is nothing compared to living it.
Over the filter Cam’s eyes are rounding slowly, like an eclipse.
He barely waits for me to finish before he explodes. “They lie to you? Fake your friends? Forge your whole life! That’s fucked!” He grips my shoulder, his anger clean and uncomplicated as an animal’s. “I knew Jules knows more about the world than I do, but I had no idea he was fighting this. God, no wonder he thinks I’m a dumbass!”
“He doesn’t,” I lie, my stomach uneasy. “But it’s really the ghosts who get screwed—”
“He doesn’t?” Cam asks, with a soft hope that silences me. “I guess not, if he wants my help with this. He trusts me to help bring Elaffin down.” Then he punches his palm, like a protagonist in a movie. “Well, you can tell Jules I’m in. I’d be honored to help him drive this thing into the ground.”
I open my mouth beneath my filter, then close it again. It’s still the closest thing to truth.
Swallowing, I outline the plan. Cam nods along, impassioned. Together we walk up and down the lakefront, passing the museum’s bones as the light rots away. Cam treats Alex with polite equality, asking him about his house, parents, VR set-up, other things I’ve never had. Sullenly, I mumble my replies, knowing Cam’s more likely to trust a rebel motivated by altruism than by desperation, conscious of how my pitch swings when I’m irritated.
If Cam senses my agitation, he doesn’t show it. He absorbs my answers with a prince’s careless patience, then asks another question about Elaffin.
When evening’s fog caverns the lake, I guide Cam back to the path he arrived on. He thanks me. But he doesn’t move.
“Hey,” he says, after a pause. “I was just wondering. How would you know, if any of your friends were ghosts?”
I can feel my jaw clench in panic; I’m glad the filter shields my face. He can’t have guessed. I’m too good a writer. “Normally? You wouldn’t.”
“That makes sense.” He still doesn’t move. I wait. He shifts from foot to foot. When he speaks again, he can’t quite meet my eyes. “Hey. Alex. You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but I was wondering—what does Jules think of me? Like, really?”
My heart flips. I pray it’s too dark for him to see what my eyes do before I squint them to smiling. How lucky I am to have to lie, so I don’t need to think about the truth.
“You’re his best friend,” I say.
“Oh.” He’s still looking down. I can’t tell if he’s tired or disappointed. “Sure. Good meeting you, Alex.”
In the evening’s brown fog he disappears quickly, smudged out between rubble and sky. I shiver, remembering too late he’s still got my coat.
At first it feels too easy, before I remember that in Cam’s life, most things are.
He tells his father he wants to play around in the data stacks, get to know them before he starts his internship—just like that, utterly vague, probably grinning in that charming way I know from experience isn’t faked. Cam can only play one role, but he was born to it. I can almost see Mr. Dernheim beaming at his son’s business acumen as he gives him the entrance codes. He doesn’t even bother to check him for bugs.
I’m relieved. you were right, I text Val. he’s doing it, no problem. he’s even excited. Then trying to be comradely: you dying tragically today?
watch yourself, she replies. When I text Gray they tell me the same thing.
On the day we chose, Cam opens the private channel Alex had him set up. hacking you in, he writes. He keys in the sequence that will hide my presence. I’ve got my screen open to our text program, so his next note throws me: ok, now plug in your VR.
what? I reply, fumbling for the Elaffin jack.
Heat swallows my skin, searing from weathered stone.
I look up. Around me, Raised Venice bakes in the silent noon. The alleys echo with sun. Through their floor canals wind, their blue sharp as carven sky. Window boxes plump with flowers, and wisteria sweetens the air. There are no people.
“Surprise!” Cam says again. He’s perched on a bridge, slim and tan, wearing white—as is Julian, I note when I glance down, the sort of stupid peasanty shirt I’ve always been too embarrassed to request from Graphics, its loose neck open to my sternum. I don’t know how Cam managed it, how he knew.
He must see me gaping, because he laughs. “It’s common practice for data review. Good VR makes the job less boring. Why click through terabytes of bullshit when you can browse a menu at a nice café?” His lips purse. “Though I programmed this one unpopulated—no wait staff. Oh well. Come on, let’s get those fuckers.”
He slides from the parapet. I jog to catch up, trying hard not to remember that it was to an empty Raised Venice that Cam took Emma—or was it Maddie?—for her birthday.
As we stroll, his eyes scan the gaudy, flat-faced buildings. I lag behind him, feeling my height, wondering if he sees any Alex in my gestures. I’m not sure what he’s looking for, but at a carmine palazzo he stops, then beckons me to follow. Inside, blue shadows drape a table laid with grapes, red cheese, and white wine. Warm-smelling cases of old books circle the walls.
Striding to a shelf, Cam removes a volume, hefts it, then slaps it between his palms. The book shrinks with a groan like stretched leather. He does it over and over, fluidly, until a faint sweat valleys his shoulders. He’s right: this VR is good.
When he’s finished, he wipes his brow and returns to me. “Hold ‘em out,” he says, grinning. I open my hands. With a flourish he deposits a neat, intricately-illuminated book of hours. “Courtesy of Dernheim’s future chief financial officer: everything we’ve got on Elaffin, condensed and encrypted.” He claps, a breach in the silence. “All you need to take them down!”
I pocket the book, lightheaded, mistrusting the ease of the thing. At the table Cam spins a chair, sits like a crusader. “I know this booze is fake, but let’s toast to our victory!”
I slide down across from him. “You’re sure your dad won’t find out?”
“Jules, dude. Your worry’s touching. But I’ll be fine.” He pulls the cork and pours us each a glass.
I stare at mine, unable to tell whether the rent in my gut is fear or anger. Shame, maybe: I’m a fool to worry. Of course it’s easy, and of course Cam will be fine. That’s his whole point.
But as he leans back and swirls his glass, his cheer is too bright. Like me, he’s a lousy actor, and I can almost see the effort as he turns the page on his script.
He sets down the glass, attempts something solemn with his brows.
“Don’t know if I told you this, but I brought Emma here for her last birthday, before we broke up,” he begins. “She seemed to like it.” His words are wooden, though not, my traitorous brain notes, with grief. “So did Maddie, when I brought her in sophomore year. And I know this is going to sound crazy, but they kind of liked it in the same way?” He meets Julian’s eyes, searching for reassurance. I don’t move. The hole in my stomach is filling with ice. “So I was wondering if maybe Elaffin…”
The cold fear explodes inside me, or maybe it’s rage—how dare he. I have to stop him; I leap into his pause: “Wow, so you think both the women who dumped you were fake?”
“I know how it sounds!” he cries. “But—Mom knew Emma broke up with me before I told her. You remember? You were on the call. How could she have known? And thinking back… Emma always did seem kind of—scripted. Not real, in the way you’re real.” His brown eyes are slightly lost. He leans forward, his voice terrible, hopeful. The catch in my throat disgusts me. “You know?”
I can’t risk looking down, to watch the sweat film Julian’s shirt, his stupid perfect chest. At the same time, I’m almost afraid to hold Cam’s eyes. How dare he: I’m a good writer, and Emma and Maddie were as good as any of my other characters, better even, because I wasn’t going to let Cam sail through college like the other innie guys I knew, who were allowed to see their girlfriends, the real ones, as ghosts.
The tiny book’s leather sticks to my palms. Still the closest thing to truth.
“No, I don’t know,” I say coldly. And then, from somewhere vicious: “ElectiveAffinities is a coordinated life experience. If your girlfriends are fake, everyone’s fake. You’re either in the cave or you’re out, Cam. There’s no halfway.”
He gapes at me for a moment; then all at once wilts, as if the fake heat’s finally gotten to him. “Right, you’re right,” he fumbles. “I’m sorry. Guess thinking about Elaffin makes me paranoid.” Rallying, he recovers his smile, aims it my way as recklessly as a child with a gun. “Thanks for keeping me grounded, Jules.”
I owe Cam nothing, I remind my vile, skipping heart. I’ve already been paid.
He lifts the wine glass again. “Cheers to the truth.”
“Cheers,” I repeat, and toast.
Later, unjacking from the VR, I see a message blinking on my Elaffin interface:
Mrs. Dernheim: Dear Jude, I submitted that reference to the Lovells for you. It’s a good one. Now please fill out your Future Report so we can keep Cam posted on his old friends’ busy lives.
Your final payment goes out Monday. Best of luck.
Cam wasn’t bluffing about the data. It’s all there, endless reams of it, enough not only for our class-action, but to obliterate ElectiveAffinities as a corporation forever.
We don’t do that, of course. Our lives depend on it.
To celebrate, we pool our money and buy a few bottles of wine and a pile of fresh vegetables, which Val and Sula roast for us in their flat. Val has just finished her contract: moved by her untimely death, her innie has decided to go to graduate school, just as his parents intended. They gave her a bonus. We chip in to hike the heat and for a few brief hours feel like innies, bubbled in a bright, warm lack of care. We even go filterless; this is a party, and the week of isolation afterwards is worth it. After the toast, Sula vids a call to one of her profs from law school, who’ll take our case pro bono, now that we’ve got evidence.
The suit is ugly and bitter and settled quickly, in private. Elaffin concedes most of what we want—a real harassment policy, better pay—which isn’t the same thing as following through on giving it to us. We’ll have to stay vigilant. But it’s a start. And we’ve got the threat of publicity on our side. As Sula explained, our NDA only covers the suit itself. We’re free to talk about the company as we please. Too much press would endanger Elaffin’s business model. Nor can they afford to publicly attack Dernheim for the leak.
On our private channel, Cam mentions that there’s an ongoing investigation, but doesn’t say more. He isn’t worried. Of course he isn’t. He’s still enchanted with our plan, even with his and Julian’s falling-out, which he believes we faked to preserve its secrecy. Officially, Cam was tapered weeks ago.
It’s not all a lie, I tell myself.
After the suit’s officially over, Gray does the dad thing and takes me to an outside restaurant, one of the rare, private-table sorts that overlooks a tree-park and is mostly occupied by brunching innies. They can’t afford it, I protest—“didn’t we just have a lawsuit about this?”—but they wave my objections away, clearly pleased to be able to treat me, clearly thinking I need it. Maybe I do, I admit as I button a shirt I used to like, frustrated at the curves beneath the seams, remembering white linen.
As I cram asparagus into my mouth, Gray quizzes me on my new contract: who my client is, how I’m finding them. It’s a coded way of asking whether I still talk to Cam.
I answer their questions to the letter. “She’s seventeen, just entering college. The family wants the full package: friend group plus bff, two to three reliable boyfriends or girlfriends. Her dad’s actually happy I’m older—gave me a whole dumb speech, a safe man, blah blah blah. Four-year contract, under the new rates we negotiated. Going to get me some savings!”
Gray’s relief curls slightly at the edges. “That’s great,” they say carefully. “And there’ve been no—repercussions, from your old job?”
“Don’t worry.” I grin. “We got away with it.”
“Sure,” they reply. Their eyes are stern, but I know they can’t, or won’t, accuse me of lying.
I decide to throw them a bone and give them something else to worry about. I won’t even be faking it: the question has been keeping me up lately. “Gray, do you think what we do is wrong?”
Their brows knit. “You’ve never asked me that before.”
“Right, but why shouldn’t I? Our job is based on lies.”
They nod slowly, drumming their fingers. I watch, puzzled. Gray always takes my questions seriously, but I didn’t expect this one to stump them. They’ve ghosted for years now.
“I guess it depends on how much importance you attach to the truth,” they say at last. “And how you weigh it against other things. Take Cameron. Do you think he’s a better person than he would’ve been without your—lies?”
I know the answer they want, though I don’t know I want to give it to them. “That’s an impossible question.”
“And there’s your answer,” they begin, but a buzzing in my pocket distracts me. I pull out my phone. Cam’s private channel is blinking.
Cam: my dad found out about the files. can you call?
I nearly topple the table, standing. “Gray, I’m sorry, I have to take this—”
As I slip out of our bubble and jog towards the restrooms, I glance back over my shoulder. The white dining room furls its ribbon against the windows, black with autumn rain. Gray squints after me, as if I were slipping away into the dark.
On the call Cam’s voice is ragged. “I’m sorry, I know you’re probably working, but—Dad knows. He screamed at me for an hour, denied me my internship—everything but disowned me. So I’m moving out. I’m tired of this, tired of Dernheim. It’s a fucked-up company anyway. I want to do something good in the world, bring people into the light, you know?” He gulps; I can hear tears in his voice. “Anyway I know you’re busy and we’ve never met outside, but I was thinking—what if I moved to Philly, with you?”
Something in me twists, turns over. The phone is pressed to my cheek, so close I can hear Cam breathing, and, after a time, the little swallow before he asks, “Jules?”
“That’s sudden,” I say, the blood loud in my ears. “It’s expensive out east, and without Dernheim you won’t have income—”
“Oh!” He sounds relieved. “Is that all? Don’t worry! I don’t have the internship anymore, but my folks haven’t cut me off. They’re not monsters.” He laughs shakily. “They’ll keep me up until I find my feet. I thought—if you’re okay with it—maybe you could take a break from your job, too. Let me, you know, take care of you. So we can finally do it.”
Against the windows bands of rain pound, light and dark and light again. My heart throbs with them. “Do what?” I whisper, already knowing the answer.
“Take down Elaffin! You and me, together. It has to be us, don’t you see? The lawsuit wasn’t enough. All that blackmail, and they just ended up embarrassing the fuckers—and even paying them more, can you believe it?”
“You do know Elaffin’s not the same thing as its contractors, right?” Cold clogs my throat. “They’re just people, Cam.”
“People who work for an evil corporation! It’s like you said—”
“That is not what I said!” My voice claps suddenly, cracking, surprising even me. “Never! You just never bothered to listen!”
He sputters into silence. I bite my lip, then slide down the wall, curling around my aching chest. As if I were outside I breathe shallow, preparing myself. Even Cam isn’t that stupid.
When it comes, I’m already numb to it. “Oh my god. You work for them, don’t you? That’s where you got hired, after Yale. It’s why you stopped after the lawsuit. It’s why—” he sucks in his breath, “—fuck, it’s why you don’t meet me by VR anymore. It’s not because you had to protect our plan. It’s because your new job rewired your setup to be someone else!”
“Someone elses,” I mutter, because I can’t resist a zinger.
“What the fuck, Jules.” His voice shreds. “I thought you were on the good side.”
“I’m on the side whose family isn’t funding his personal fucking rebellion.”
Silence again, colder. Then: “Right. Okay.” I can almost see him pushing his hands through his fringe. “All I wanted was for us to be—to do this together. But you know what? I don’t need you. Dernheim has all the data I need to take Elaffin down. If you go down with it, I guess it’s because you chose the cave. I’m sorry, Jules.” Despite everything, he sounds like he means it. “Jules?”
I don’t answer. I hold the phone away from my face, so he can’t hear the hitch in my breathing.
He asks once more, faintly. A fainter silence follows. Then my screen goes dark.
For another minute I crouch outside the restroom, the phone pressed to my cheek like a bandage. Beyond the window, dark rain hammers. A midwest November is closing in over the lake. We won’t see the sun again for six months—long enough, some years, to forget it was ever real.
I rub my sleeve over my eyes. Still the closest thing to truth. I’m such a good writer, I convince even myself.
Then I push to my feet, and walk back to the dining room, to tell Gray that we have to prepare ourselves, because there’s an innie with a grudge who wants to drag us all outside, into the light.
By late January, grey bergs seize the lake. In the smog they seem to climb the horizon, until the whole sky is a dark ceiling of ice.
How long do you wait for a roof to cave in?
Val: nothing yet? why’s he taking so long?
don’t know, I reply. maybe he reconsidered. maybe it was an empty threat. Or maybe it just takes time to learn to do something real, by yourself.
In the meantime, I write friendship and love and grief for my new client, tell her lies that will maybe make her a little better. Though I have a better contract now, with Cam still out there I can’t take chances. I keep skipping every other shot, eating once a day, stuffing money beneath the mattress. Loss isn’t new to me, or to any ghost. I wait, and prepare.
I only see Cam once more, outside. It’s at a party held to mark the first gummy mud of March. People bundle up and gather filterless to light candles, setting them afloat on the murk of the old lagoon. Custom has it that the fires draw the germs away. It’s a story, like most of outside, dangerous to take literally. But we have to believe in something.
Cam might be the only innie there, and I might be the only one who knows. He’s thinner, grimier, eyes grimmer. What clothes I can see in the gaunt candlelight finally fit the weather. Maybe he’s slumming, or gathering evidence, or maybe he really did reject his trust fund. It isn’t safe for me to ask, so I don’t.
I do shadow him a little. The light’s bad, and my beard has finally come in; the chance he’ll recognize me is slim. Besides, as I watch him I realize he’s been drinking.
Near the end of the night, when the fires have sunk on the water, he turns suddenly and looks me in the face.
His brown eyes go wide. “Jules?”
For a second I look back. I can’t help it. Cam stares through me like a ghost.
Then I turn away. When my heart protests, I hook it in its darkness. I drag it back with me to the real world.