On the morning of my fund day, our pilot landed the house with a particularly gentle touch. I was probably the only family-member who felt the house kiss our Philadelphia docking station. I abandoned my desk and went to the window. A crowd of grubby locals from the adjacent Suareztown had already gathered around the marble pediment of the docking station. It might be hours before we began recruiting, but they had no better use for their time than jostling for a place near the house’s entrance. Although Father refused to indulge their pretensions to serfdom by directly sharing our family’s arrival times with the Suareztowners, some groundskeeper had probably told them, days ago, that we were coming.
The leading edge of the crowd was just fifty feet below me. The mass of dirty limbs and garishly clothed torsos swayed, and arms were raised up. I waved, and the carpet of humanity rippled in time to my movements. I presumed they were cheering.
For years they had cheered me on the basis of the slenderest hope that I could help them. Today, I was finally going to fatten up those hopes.
I saw several phones raised high in the air. They were taking photos of me. I grimaced, and made the window opaque with a tap. I was glad that Yasmina, the remote operator who watched me on most days, had interpreted that gesture right. Last time, she thought I wanted to open the window. I flashed a thumbs up to the empty air and was rewarded when a whisper-soft “Thank you, ma’am,” dribbled out of the speakers.
Once, I’d loved being photographed, but my looks had suffered during my long exile. I was no longer the energetic sixteen year old waif with short hair and a size 2 frame that had fashion designers competing to dress me. Now, my waistline had expanded, and my face had begun to acquire my mother’s florid features. I wasn’t ugly, but I’d lost my youthful vividness. And that was fine. It would only make it easier to recapture the public imagination: the tabloids would glory in calling attention to my physical deterioration.
The intercom chimed. Andreas, the house’s chamberlain, said, “We have just landed in Philadelphia. First, I and all the staff would like to join together in wishing Natalia a happy twenty-first birthday. It has truly been a pleasure to watch you grow up into such a poised young woman. Second, your mother and father would like to remind you that you have a presentation to make in one hour, at today’s family status meeting, and that a birthday celebration has been scheduled for you this evening.”
On the other side of the door, one of the guards groaned. The servants hated Andreas’ updates, but I appreciated them. Of course Andreas hid all kinds of nonessential information from us, but the public nature of his updates reassured me that he wasn’t actively lying to us.
Andreas continued, “Carmina, Mr. Suarez is running fifteen minutes late. Please delay his breakfast. Guards, take your places by the entrances. Recruiters, stay by your screens, we should have initial procurement information available within the—”
I snapped my fingers. The intercom went silent: another victory for Yasmina.
Normally I liked to listen to the full morning update in order to ensure that my penny-pinching father hadn’t fired half the staff during the night, but I needed to prepare for the meeting.
Luckily, my presentation consultant was based in McKinsey’s Vientiane office, where it was already tomorrow. I called him up on the wall screen and let the sweating man— of those loathsome MBAs that even the most socially conscious owner must sometimes enrich— expound upon the analysis I’d commissioned. Our consultation was constantly interrupted, though, by birthday congratulations from a number of friends and relatives.
Finally, my cousin Letitia called.
“Happy fund day,” she said. “It’s been too long! You look…good.”
I hadn’t spoken to Letitia in years. Her father thought my father’s stinginess was unconscionably boorish, and they took turns cutting each other dead at various public gatherings.
“I’m ready to reenter society,” I said. “Can you help me?”
“I’d heard you wanted to come back,” she said. “But doesn’t your dad still have a veto?”
“A joint veto,” I said. “I think I can persuade Mother.”
“Your mom? But she’s poor. Why does she get a vote?”
“Our family operates rather democratically,” I said.
“All right then,” she said. “I’ll have you set up in no time.”
“I’ll send the money later today. You’ll have five percent of my fund to play with. Your activities should be in line with the latest fashions. I don’t want my people to be ashamed of me.”
“We’ll start with a spritz from the air. It’s no problem. I’m happy to help!” Letitia would expect to be paid well for her “help.” Since most of Letitia’s fund had been stolen by a deceitful financial manager, she was little more than a servant nowadays.
I ended the call and tried to concentrate on my slides, but my heart was beating too fast. This felt just like the first time I had tried to pilot the house. After I’d taken control, we’d dropped ten thousand feet in a few minutes. During the dive, I’d quickly run out of ideas as to what to do, and I’d just sat there stock-still and quiet. The housepilot, Amit, laughed and waited until we were a few thousand feet from crashing before he took over.
Johan was in the West receiving room, lying on his back and chanting, with his belly stretching up into the air. I smiled. The backpacker had been wandering the house for eight weeks, ever since he’d responded to my online proffer of couch space. Johan was the latest in a series of servant-class itinerants whom I’d tried to befriend during my parentally-imposed exile from polite society.
As I passed, he said, “Where are we? Yesterday it was snowing, but today it’s sunny.”
The wallscreen right next to him showed an up-to-the-minute itinerary, but, of course, to Johan that wall would be blank.
When I stepped into the sunroom, a glass table extruded from the wall and a section of floor rose up and reconfigured itself as a seat. Carmina entered from behind a sliding panel and put a bowl of mixed fruits on the table. I wondered what she saw on the screens. Probably the prices of seasonal produce. We always ate local.
“Carmina,” I said. “Could you print a copy of our itinerary for my guest? Please underline that we’re here for eight days and that our next destination is Mexico City.”
“So we’ll definitely stay here tonight?” Carmina said. She clapped her hands together. “I would really like to attend the party at the Klein/Sandoval house tomorrow.”
Mother and Father liked to joke about the fad for democracy that had given Carmina a number of invitations to households where they themselves had never been received, but they refused to see that this fad was being used to deliver some very calculated insults to our family.
I paused my fork in mid-air. The house groaned, settling down into its foundations. As usual, no one else noticed. I was the only one with ears for the house. I was awake to its snorts, when clogs in the pipes were blasted free with an increase in pressure, or its twice-daily sneezes, when cleansing fluids misted all its inner workings, or the long inhalation right before it leapt into the air. The house was alive to me, and dead to everyone else. For years, I’d looked forward to inheriting it and rescuing it from Father’s neglect. But, after today, I wasn’t sure I’d be welcome here anymore.
I arrived in the executive suite fifteen minutes early to make sure that Fritz, Father’s personal assistant, had printed the agendas and loaded the slides onto the conference table, which was currently showing a large picture of Grandfather. I wondered if that was Father’s doing.
Before his death two years ago, Grandfather’s disdain for me had driven him to make several comments to the media regarding my shallowness and stupidity. Father had convinced him not to cut me out, but Grandfather had made several last-minute changes to his will that had led us to today’s impasse.
Father came in exactly at nine. He embraced me and said, “Happy birthday! Tonight’s party will be great fun. I kept it to limited attendance.”
That was Father’s polite way of saying that attendance was limited to whichever members of our family loved him so much that they were willing to endure the social stigma of being seen at his table. Most of the large owners were disgusted at how Father had steadily downsized our household since Grandfather’s death; he’d fired hundreds of long-time servants without providing any pensions.
Father sat on the edge of his seat and studied the papers that Fritz handed him. Mother came in fifteen minutes late, wished me a happy birthday, then reclined in her chair, and glanced through the papers.
As usual, she went first.
“Let’s see here,” she said. She flipped through the papers. “I’ve got five surgeries scheduled today. Fritz has the details attached as an annex somewhere in this mess. Bottom line: I’m being paid about eleven grand. The total expense to the family, including amortization of the tele-operating suite in the basement, uplink time, technician time, etc, etc, is about five thousand, for which I’ll fully reimburse you.”
Father and I approved Mother’s schedule without any discussion. The last time we’d used our family veto had been four years ago, for their twenty-fifth anniversary. She’d suffered through the party with such a sullen simulation of good humor that we now purchased her at her hourly rate whenever we needed her time.
Father’s schedule presented more difficulties. I had not wanted to anger him prematurely, but when the picture of Grandfather was replaced by a patched-in feed from Suarez headquarters, I knew that we were about to be subjected to more of Father’s cheapjack buffoonery. On the screen, Morris Kenneman, the CEO of Suarez Industries, rubbed his jowls with his weathered hand.
I leaned in to the camera so that my face filled the outgoing picture. “You don’t belong in here. This is a family meeting.”
In that slow voice of his, the CEO rumbled, “Hell, Nat, you know I’m just a hired hand. When your dad claps, I’ve gotta jump.”
Father held a majority of the company’s voting shares and had uneasily occupied the chairmanship of the Board ever since Grandfather’s death, but he remained overawed by the CEO— had been one of Grandfather’s protégés.
“Come, come,” Father said. “I just wanted Mr. Kenneman’s opinion on some expenses. At the request of some…some interested parties”— anonymous letter from some of our workers— “I’m here to take a look at the mining concerns. Now, Fritz says that his cousin can rent us a car for about $100, and with all the expenses, including gas and Fritz’s time, the day shouldn’t cost more than $750. And really, I think that just a day should be fine, don’t you, Mr. Kenneman?”
“No,” I said. “That is unacceptable. These people have spent their lives working in mines bearing your name, and you want their first glimpse of you to be rolling up a dusty road in a single car? How will they be able to trust your judgment? This will be a disaster! Productivity will plummet! Did you learn nothing from last year’s oil field strike?”
“I don’t want to step on any toes,” Father said. “We have managers to deal with the workforce.”
“The managers are part of the workforce,” I said.
“Do you want to end up like Taru Mittal?” Father said. “His father meddled too much in the business, and they lost everything. No, I’m not going to subvert my own managers.”
“Haven’t we seen the folly of trusting MBAs?” I said. “They’ve robbed the whole world blind, and now they’re robbing you too. The mines are probably failing because the managers are siphoning off assets. No, you’ve ducked your responsibilities as an owner for too long, but surely you see the necessity of showing the workers that you are the real boss. The minimum you’ll need is four helicopters, a team of accountants, a business processes analyst, an armored car, a driver, a caterer, a mobile kitchen, an event planner, guards, wardrobe, lighting, servers, and…oh, of course you’ll want to hear grievances and dispense gifts…the workers need to trust you enough to disclose to you the crimes of their managers…”
I continued gently trying to educate Father as to his responsibilities, while Morris Kenneman looked on. His deep eyes were a nest of wrinkles; he never spoke, except sometimes to say, “Good point” after one of my salvoes. He knew that someday he’d be working for me. Still, after a few moments, Father called for a vote, and Mother sided with him, overriding me.
“Wonderful.” Father said. “Can you make the arrangements, Fritz?”
The assistant nodded and glanced up at the ceiling. Somewhere, Andreas was watching. Andreas never let anything slip.
I snapped a finger and pointed at the screen. Morris Kenneman unceremoniously disappeared.
“Well then,” Father said. “You should have gained control of your trust fund today, but, because of your Grandfather, you’re unfortunately just getting a vote. However, you’ve been good and quiet for so long that your mother and I are prepared to let you set up a life outside this house, as long as you’re not too extravagant. This money has to last for the rest of your life, and maybe your children’s’ lives too. But…well…why don’t you tell us what you’re thinking?”
“I’m thinking of taking upon myself the responsibilities that you’ve abrogated,” I said.
With a wave of my hand, I called up my first slide and began describing the Natalia Suarez Foundation: a tax-exempt charity dedicated to bettering the standard of living in all seventy-eight Suareztowns. I proposed donating 95 percent of my trust fund to my eponymous charity over the next ten years.
Father attempted to cut in, but I spoke over him. Finally, he exploded, “Don’t be absurd! Your Grandfather spent his life earning that money. Do you really think I’m going to let you give it away? You might as well be burning it!”
After he’d gone on for some time, I called a vote to approve disbursement of the first tranche of funds to the NSF.
Father burst forth with more objections right as Mother said, “Okay.” We outvoted him.
While the argument continued, I told Fritz to witness the decision, scan it, and send it to Letitia. He smiled at me for a long moment before bending his head to examine the documents.
Andreas met me in the stairwell. “Did you hire the agitators?” I said.
“They’re moving through the crowd right now,” Andreas said. “The news crews are waiting at the south entrance.”
“Good, keep the cameras away from me until the right moment.”
Andreas smiled at me, and I swear that it was the first time I’d ever seen his facial expression change.
The Lower Quadrant was the belly of the house. It encompassed the garages, kitchens, servant’s quarters, storage, and engine rooms and was served by the North Entrance: a two story metal arch that opened onto the marble surface of the docking station.
Johan was down there, sitting on a wheel well and heating tea on a portable burner he always carried with him.
Anxious for my moment, I approached the entrance. At the scanning stations, the guards were carefully searching the new hires for weapons and parasites. Farther out, recruiters were assessing the crowd that had gathered beyond the arch.
In front were tired men with old faces who had worked for us before and had been in the system for years. They stood quietly, often holding boxes of tools, because they knew the recruiters were familiar with their skills, which ranged from plumbing to debt collection, about which you can find more, and that if we needed them, then they’d be hired. Behind them was a clamoring mob of young men, some of them shirtless, who waved their ID cards and vied with each other in making claims about how long and how hard they could work. Some threw their ID cards forward, at the recruiters, in the hope that the card would be picked up and scanned into the system instead of being trampled underfoot. Snaking along one edge of the crowd was a line of men and women in business attire. This line attempted to stay in contact with the entrance, but it also wriggled fitfully whenever the boisterous working men came too close. Off to the side was a little clot of women— dressed in chic, if dirty, clothes— stood up on their toes and shouted at me, calling me “Natalia” or even “Tally”. They cried out that they’d played with me when I was a kid, and didn’t I remember how I’d come to their house all the time and taken tea. They probably weren’t lying. I’d played in so many Suareztowns over the years.
Down at the base of the docking station, the Philadelphia Suareztown was almost empty. It was a tightly-packed shantytown sprawled over many acres. The richest homes— the families of our permanent house-servants often lived— silvery trailers that had sunken into the mud. Slightly less affluent were the houses made of scavenged plywood, with roofs of corrugated tin that you can find out more about there. Others lived in nylon tents, or mud huts, or lean-tos propped against ruined buildings. Cooking fires still burned in places, tended by distant figures: the ones too old, crazy, disabled, or depressed to engage in the job search. Most of the estate was given over to parks and gardens that constrained the growth of the Suareztown. But even in the gardens there were patches of ground that were scarred and blackened: places where dwellings or illicit crops had been burned away to prettify the estate for our arrival.
While we were docked, this Suareztown would bloom like a desert after a rainstorm. Pipes that only flowed when the house was docked would scrub clean the refuse-strewn alleyways and allow these people their first decent showers in ages. Electricity illicitly tapped from the house would light up a few of the wealthier homes, where dozens would gather at night to watch television or listen to music. Men would come back from the house with their pockets full of money and put new shoes on their children. Their families would eat hamburger for the first time in months. At night, there would be dancing atop the marble docking station. Liquor would flow. Debts would be repaid. Minds that were used to thinking only of food would open up and find room for love. Young couples would ask Father for his blessing and after he irritably waved them off they would hold their weddings under the arch of the North Entrance and carry on until late in the next morning.
When we left, a little bit of that life would remain. Maybe someone would use a fully charged battery to power a phone, so they could search for jobs, or a light, so they could keep up with their studies. Maybe one of the permanent staff-members would marry a local or father a child and continue to send remittances for awhile. Maybe someone in this crowd would be hired on permanently and their family would move into a trailer. But mostly the town would lapse into silent, tenacious struggle. There’d be thefts and killings and beatings. Old hustles would be trotted out. Some would sicken, or starve. Others would move away, hoping to find a better village, and leave their homes open to those arriving from worse villages. All would anxiously pass the business gossip to each other, hoping that each little rise or dip in Father’s portfolio heralded another visit from us. They knew that our next visit might not be for ten years, and they’d regret not having made the best of this one. This link explains it in more detail.
Theirs was a tragic life, but it was the life to which they’d been born. I could pour my whole fortune into that hole without improving it. I wasn’t the cause of their poverty. Their livelihoods had been stolen by much more cunning people than I: people who’d held it for only a few moments before squandering it. My fortune was merely that portion of the world’s wealth which had not yet been destroyed by that insatiable manager-class of MBAs.
I heard the sound of my helicopters. There were two up there, and a third arriving. Johan sauntered up to me.
“I still can’t believe people live like this,” Johan said.
“Is your village much better?” I said. “What family do you follow? I hear that the Stern-Hsus have spent considerable money on cosmetic improvements.”
“I don’t live in a village…I’m from Houston,” Johan said. “I lived in a nice, little suburb. My parents have jobs. I went to college.”
“Did you?” I said. “I never saw the point in it.”
“I guess you wouldn’t,” he murmured. The sound of the helicopters almost drowned out his words.
Bits of paper started falling from the sky. My men and women in the crowd must’ve done their work well. Long before the first piece of paper was low enough to be clearly seen, hands were reaching up for it.
The crowd surged away from the entrance. The Suareztowners were jumping up and down, trying to snatch money out of the sky. Then my embedded agitators started the chant. Soon the whole crowd was shouting, “Natalia! Natalia! Natalia!” as they jumped.
The guards moved amongst them, looking for people who’d fallen underfoot. They pulled up one man, and he shook free from their grasp and started leaping up again. Far away, I heard the South Entrance open. Somewhere, news cameras were rushing towards me, but I did not let that stop me from observing the happy spectacle in front of me.
Some of the falling papers were not green dollars, but silvery coupons for admittance to the house tonight. At first these were looked at with puzzlement, and then they too were fought over.
“This is so inefficient,” Johan said. “You’re just encouraging them to cluster around your docking and mooch off you. If you really wanted to help people, you’d—”
“I don’t want to help people,” I said. “I want to help my people.”
He shrugged. Then he heaved his backpack up onto his shoulders and walked into the crowd.
Father was right that we couldn’t really improve their lives. This was the world we had, and no one knew how to change it. But that didn’t mean I had no responsibility towards them. At least I could be kind to them. Father shunned them, and still they persisted in the belief that they were vassals of the Suarez family and that their fortunes rose and fell with ours. Despite the flimsiness of this belief, it provided them with some consolation.
I wouldn’t be as cruel as Father. I would do my best to show them that my family was worthy of their loyalty.
Over the next several hours, Father telephoned several times to berate me. I didn’t take the calls. His opinion wasn’t important right now.
The near-riot at our docking station was featured on a number of news channels. At the scene, I’d told the reporters about my newfound commitment to the greater good. It was not a major story, but it was a slow day, and the channels were anxious to recycle images from my spree of five years ago: the high-speed chases, the smashed cars, the burning buildings, the overdosed companions….the evolution of my supposed pathology gave the commentariat something to mash their lips about.
I hired a publicist from the line of professionals at the North Entrance and told him to field all my media calls, while I handled the personal calls.
Ever since my name had hit the airwaves, long-lost friends and family had been calling to accept invitations to tonight’s party. I forgave them for their late RSVPs, and ordered Andreas to double, triple, quadruple the size of the celebration.
When Mother emerged from the operating theater, she said, “How much did that stunt cost?”
“Five thousand for the helicopters. Fifteen thousand for the cash.”
“Not a bad expense-to-giving ratio. If you can keep that up, I’m willing to give you a little more slack,” she said. “At least it’s more productive than burning down a nightclub.”
“So you saw that they’re replaying the old footage.”
“It’s not my name that’s getting dragged through the mud,” Mother said. “But…there won’t be any property damage this time, right?”
“I don’t need to do that anymore.”
“Okay,” she said. “I knew you’d never really get serious. It’s the money; it doesn’t let you do anything seriously. At least you didn’t end up all fussy like your dad.”
With the exponentially increasing size of tonight’s party, the whole house was in a tumult. Andreas was barking over the intercom every ten minutes. Each time his voice filled our ears, the workers cursed his name and then redoubled their labor. Everyone who’d ever served before had been hired, and now rank newcomers were being scanned, searched, and put to work.
And Andreas had ordered the reopening of the banquet hall: a vast lung right at the top of the house, covered with a thin bubble of screens that could go transparent to show the sky or could display panoramic views of 1.4 million real or simulated locales. Father hated the extravagance of the place. It hadn’t been used since Grandfather’s wake.
It was a joy to see it brought to life again. I stood in a corner, as tables and silverware were brought up from the docking station’s warehouse by the new workers. The dust was blown out of the place, and its familiar smell of aged wood, with a slight tinge of cigar smoke, reasserted itself. Overhead, the dome was lit up with skeining colors as newly-hired technicians calibrated the screens.
Two Suareztown workers walked past me, holding a table. The older of them said, “Now see here, Dan, I worked here plenty of times. You got to be careful not to scuff these floors. These floors are ancient. The old man installed them when he built this place. Hell, I was here when this room had its first event: the old man’s second wedding.”
The other worker said, “I heard that whoever’s got these silver invitations is gonna get a million dollars tonight.”
“Yeah, if that girl can show she doesn’t care about money by giving away all her millions by midnight then her dad will feel safe about letting her inherit his billions.”
“Shit, my daughter had one. She sold it to Ken Rodgers for $100.”
The silver tickets were Letitia’s innovation. I hadn’t yet asked her what she meant to do with them.
I was still in the banquet hall when Father caught up to me several hours later. The tables were set up and clad with silverware. The servers were being hastily retrained at the other end of the hall. Father wove through the tables with a hasty step. He was within arm’s reach before he let a word escape from between his gritted teeth.
“You’re going down that evil road again,” he said.
“I did what I said I would. I gave the money away.”
“I’ve had a lot of calls today from my brothers. They said that these ‘charities’ are the new fad amongst you kids. You use the money to stage horrible events: rallies, fights, races…making people crawl and debase themselves for money…they showed me pictures of the charity games that your cousin Letitia threw on her fund day….they made me sick…really physically sick…I thought you’d changed. After your last…difficulties…we talked things out. You went to therapy. You said you realized you’re not the center of the world.”
“I did what you should have been doing,” I said. “You’re too old to understand that we can’t treat people like mere employees anymore. They won’t let us. They demand to be treated like peasants, because peasants get taken care of.”
“And the gladiator fights your cousin staged? Was that taking care of them?”
I had never heard of any fights, but I wasn’t going to cede my ground. “Some kind of abasement has to be demanded from them as a symbol of our interlocking responsibilities.”
“I don’t know how I raised such a monster,” Father said. “I can’t believe I spent all those years arguing with your Grandfather about you. I’m done. I’m giving all this up. The servants, the docking stations, the house, the helicopters, the cars, everything. It was a mistake to keep them. Your Grandfather deserved them, because he’d earned them. You and I haven’t earned anything. I’m putting the house on the market tomorrow morning.”
“You can’t!” I yelled, as Father stalked away.
I stopped myself from running after him. He couldn’t be serious about selling this place. An owner without a house would be nothing more than a name on a bank account.
By nightfall, there were a dozen houses floating above, larger than clouds, and sending down tiny helicopters full of guests. Some had flown for much of the day in order to attend what was being called the rebirth of an enfant terrible onto the social scene.
All three of Father’s brothers arrived, with wives and children in tow. Mother’s family was cobbled together, thrown on planes, and picked up from the airport by limousines. More distant cousins, whom even my father hadn’t seen more than twice in his lifetime, appeared by the score. And there were a number of attendees from other families: the Aldritches, the Yamagachis, the Stern-Hsus, the Bilals, the Mittals, the Morgensterns, the Okowonwes, and many more. I recognized most of the scions from my younger days.
And then there was Morris Kenneman. How could my Father have invited him? He and his wife walked alone through the halls of my house. Wherever they went, eyes narrowed and heads shook. At dinner, the Kennemans’ assigned tablemates stood up and went to other tables. My father took pity on the CEO and invited the Kennemans to sit with him and Mother up on the dais. In the presence of my parents, Kenneman became expansive. He exploded with laughter and clapped my father on the shoulder. My father sat forward, with the splayed fingers of one hand poised on the table, and soaked up Kenneman’s business lectures with open eyes. Why did he worship that man so much?
After dinner, the guests drank copiously, and the youngest set, the ones who’d come up after me, sampled the new drugs in bathrooms and bedrooms and carports. The din reached a crescendo and fell and started again like it was some modern composition, ‘Wealth,” As Performed By Three Hundred Voices.
I was feted wherever I wandered. I preferred the darker corners, where my old set gathered to relive more dissipate days.
I’d last seen Father on the dais in the banquet room. He was speaking in soft, but quick, words to Kenneman. Their heads were so close that they were almost whispering into each other’s ears. When I tried to gain his attention, he remained silent.
I was standing with Letitia, Sean Stern-Hsu, and Leon Aldritch in the sunroom. While I’d spent the last five years contemplating my place in the world, they’d spent them in a continuous debauch. Apparently, I’d chosen the more taxing occupation. They’d managed to retain the beauty which I’d lost.
“Natalia was always the wildest,” Sean said. “Remember the time you bought out a library that was closing down, and burned all the books?”
“Oh god, you loved fire,” Letitia said.
“It was a political protest,” I said. I didn’t like to be reminded about those wild days. I’d derived far too much pleasure from that mayhem.
“What were you protesting?”
“I don’t remember.”
“You did everything for the cameras,” Letitia said. “And you got more of them than anybody.”
“I…must have been protesting the library closure.”
“When did you ever go to a library?” Leon said.
“People use libraries,” I said. “They’re necessary things. People use them. Come on. We all know that this is about more than cameras.”
After a few more drinks, Letitia took us down into the little holding room where we jailed erring servants until land-based authorities could be reached. Right now it was crammed full of about fifteen Suareztowners. We stared at them through the one-way glass.
“They’re the ones who came with the silver tickets,” Letitia said.
“What do you have planned?” I said.
“Maybe an Impossible Game?”
“What about A Red Herring?” Sean said.
“My sister tried an Adoption Party,” Leon said.
I laughed along with them. During my exile, I hadn’t paid much attention to society news. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I had asked Letitia to make my return as chic as possible.
Some time later, I detached myself from them and shadowed Father through the back hallways. I needed to catch him alone and make him see reason.
At the end of the hallway, someone said, “I can’t believe anyone could have this many servants.”
“Most of them are temporary. They’re from the Suareztown.” I recognized Johan’s voice.
“Oh god. From that slum?”
Johan came into view. He had a girl with him who I’d never seen before.
“Hey Natalia,” he said. He waved to me. “This is my college friend, Sarah.”
“So all this is for you, then?” Sarah said.
“It’s my birthday party.”
“How can you bear to do something like this when people are living in shacks all around you?”
“I’m sorry, what family do you serve?” I said. If this girl and Johan came from such wonderful villages then some family was making the rest of us look bad.
“I work,” Sarah said. “I’m in marketing.”
“Mother works,” I said. “She doesn’t earn very much money, but she likes it. She pulled herself up. I’m glad you managed to pull yourself up. It’s not easy to do.”
“What is she talking about?” Sarah said.
“What family is your village attached to? Have you ever met them? They might be here.”
“I’m not from a slum!”
“Oh, you’re another one like Johan. Some of the older Suareztowners still call their home ‘a suburb’ too.”
“We’re nothing like your fucking ghetto servants,” Sarah said. Her face was flushed now, and her chin was shaking. “I work. My parents work. Everyone I know works. I have an MBA in—”
“Oh,” I said. “You’re managers.” I turned to Johan. “You as well?”
He shook his head as if he didn’t understand me.
“What is your father’s profession?”
“He’s in financial services, what he does is…”
As Johan went into a long explanation, I got angrier and angrier. Two managers had snuck into my home and taken advantage of my hospitality. Of course, I’d rubbed shoulders with managers before, at the stores and bars and clubs where that vulgar class was only too quick to squander the earnings it had stolen from us. But at least in those settings, I was not expected to socialize with the managers.
“How dare you step foot in a productive household?” I said. “How dare you steal our hospitality?”
“Look,” Johan said. “I’m just travelling around, trying to learn about the world and about how people live so that I can start trying to fix all the prob—”
“You want to manage the whole world, don’t you?” I said. “I thought you were a struggling beggar, trying to find a place. But you’re just a manager spy.”
I turned and walked away. I thought of having them ejected, but I’d much rather round up Sean and Leon and convince them to pulverize some managerial scum, they way we used to.
While I was looking in the banquet room for Letitia, Sean and the rest, I ran across Father. He was on the dais, worrying away with delicate nibbles at the morsels of flesh inside the broken-open torso of a crab. One of his brothers was snoring next to him. The dome was lit up with a view from Father’s hunting lodge in the Smoky Mountains. It was a sped-up view, transitioning from dawn to dusk in less than fifteen minutes, and going through the night and back to day.
I sat down next to him and waved at the sky. “Is that where you’re going?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’ll live in a New York apartment.”
“You can’t be serious. There’d be MBAs everywhere. You might even have to share a wall with one of them.”
“What is it that you think your Grandfather and Great-Grandfather did?”
“They were businessmen,” I said. “They created wealth. They didn’t steal it.”
Father snorted. The banquet room was in disarray. There was half-eaten food on many of the tables. The tablecloths were splotched. Near the bar there was a large group of heavy drinkers still going at the whiskey. Here and there, tables were still animated and full of life. Elsewhere, duos looked into each others’ eyes or up at the shifting starscape and whispered quietly.
“You can’t give it all up!” I said. “Mother and I will veto it.”
“I already talked to her. She will approve it, as long as we settle near a hospital. She’s anxious to have blood on her hands again.”
“And what about me?”
“You have your fund,” he said. “We’ll allow you a small stipend for your upkeep. And your mother supports your charitable activities. She even suggested that I start my own charity.”
“She doesn’t support me,” I said. “She’s just unhappy. She hates us.”
“I know you love this house,” Father said. “I won’t sell it.”
“Thank God,” I said. “I knew you’d recognize your duty, eventually.”
“I’ll destroy it,” he said. “I’ll burn it down like you burned down that nightclub. I’ll leave it right on this docking station as a blackened wreck.”
“Grandfather built this house,” I said. “You have no right to harm it!”
“He left it to me. He trusted me in a way that I’m not sure I can ever trust you.”
“That trust was misplaced,” I said. “You’re ruining this family. You know you’re not as capable as Grandfather, so you pinch pennies, trying not to lose the money he left behind. But your miserliness has made you weak and friendless and vulnerable to the managers. They’re bleeding you, just as they’ve bled so many other owners. If we’re going to survive, we need to make sure that the servants and workers are loyal enough to combat this management robbery.”
“If you want this house to survive, then abandon these regal pretensions,” Father said. “Dissolve your trust fund. Return it to me. Learn thrift and caution. Then, maybe, when I die, I’ll be able to hand all this over to you in good faith.”
I felt a tear forming, and surreptitiously wiped it away. Father didn’t say anything. We sat there in silence for a long time. Eventually, he started snoring. I sniffed his glass. It was very full of undiluted whiskey.
“Yasmina,” I said. “Please make this dome transparent.” The landscape altered, and I could see the blank, grey night. Most of the houses had drifted away by now. One hundred feet below, the Suareztown was lit up brilliantly. There were thousands of people down there. They’d stopped whatever they were doing to look up at me.
Even after a lifetime among them, the Suareztowners were still faintly alien to me. In my mind, they existed only collectively, and I found it hard to credit them with individual thoughts or feelings. I loved my house more than I had ever loved anyone from the servant class. It had cocooned me since birth and learning its secrets had been the major joy of my life.
Was their loyalty really important enough to me to be worth losing the house forever?
“There you are!” Letitia’s voice called out. “I should’ve known you’d be precocious enough to meet us here.”
Letitia, Sean, Leon, and the rest of our set had rambled in, herding the fifteen ticketholders, each of whom was now holding a young child.
“You missed the first round,” Letitia said. “We did it by the North Entrance. They had to pick their favorite child!”
“The crowd loved it,” Sean said. “The women were crying, and blessing each child, and saying prayers over them. It was quite a scene.”
There were dozens of news cameras trailing them, held at a decent distance by our guards. Andreas was there in the wings, directing the movements of the crowd. Servants came to the front, near the dais, and cleared the tables. Two workers picked up my father and took him off to bed. The party was ushered towards me.
Letitia sat next to me on the dais.
“We’re playing The Scholarship Game,” Letitia called out.
All of my set applauded. A few older people stood in the wings, looking on. Some shrank away when the cameras panned to towards them, and others did not.
What Letitia proceeded to outline was an auction. The bidders had educational data on each of these children, and knew all about their potential for work, so they’d compete with each other to pay money to the parent of each child. The winner of each auction would get to take the child away, for a ten year term of service, during which they’d learn a trade. It was the Suareztown dream of finding a place in a big house.
I thought the children would fidget through these explanations, but they stared with wide unblinking eyes and seemed to see everything that was inside us. Only one parent objected. He said, “But we want to work for Mr. Suarez.”
Letitia carefully explained that all of us came from good families but any parent had the option of refusing the money when the auction was over.
I was sitting in the place of honor, with all those cameras pointed at me. Letitia served as auctioneer. She brought up the little boy of the father who’d spoken out. I knew that all this about educational data was just a pretense. My set joked with each other, starting off with absurdly low amounts, and only raising their bids infinitesimally, trying to see the father squirm.
The father thought he was going to have to choose between selling off his boy to a stranger for a pittance or losing the best opportunity he’d ever been given.
I entered the bidding, and kept bidding, destroying their fun. I ignored Letitia’s whispered comments that I was disrupting the cadence of the game, until she was forced to gavel the auction to a close and declare me the winner.
I sat the little boy down next to me, and motioned for some more food to be brought out.
Letitia whispered, “You weren’t supposed to win. Leon liked the looks of that one.”
“Wait,” I said, before Letitia started the next auction. “Yasmina. Please enable exterior broadcast.” It was the protocol my Grandfather had used to show the town his wedding ceremony. I knew that the exterior of the dome would light up with the image of the dais, and that our words would be broadcast through the town at ear-splitting volume.
Then I proceeded to buy all the rest of the children. At first, my set was angry that I’d disrupted the auctions. What was it that they had planned to do with these children?
But then Letitia went among them and told them about a new game. After that, they smiled and bid me up to astronomical sums just to see the sheer, molten hope bubbling out of those parents’ faces. I wasn’t going to pay the money, of course. I’d claim a misunderstanding and send them off with only a tiny sum, just as I wouldn’t really enslave their children, I’d apprentice them so they could learn to be pilots, or sommeliers, or cooks, or waiters and eventually find good places in good households…or more likely just spend their lives waiting, silently, in front of some family’s recruiting entrance.
When Letitia returned to her seat next to me, I asked, “What are you doing? If I hadn’t stepped in, you’d have riled up the servants.”
Letitia wrinkled her forehead. “I thought you wanted to have some fun…”
I opened my mouth and then closed it. My hands smoothed the edges of my dress. Letitia wasn’t acting. The reddened faces of my peers were open holes that drained bottle after bottle and spit up jangly laughter. None of them were acting. They’d become what society needed them to be. But they hadn’t yet realized they were necessary. They thought they were just having fun.
Letitia rose to raffle off one more child. But then my cousin squeaked and an amplified gasp ran out over the room and, presumably, the Suareztown below. Father had pushed her back down into her seat. He rose up at one end of the dais and shouted, “I’m here! I’m your master, aren’t I? Well I’m right here! Listen to me! I have”— voice suddenly grew ten times louder as the contextual operators caught on and began amplification—”an announcement for you!”
I gestured frantically at the walls. I even went so far as to mouth the words, “Yasmina. Cut off the exterior feed.” But nothing happened. Her eyes were probably pinned on my father.
“Come on up here, Mo.” Father gestured, with an empty champagne glass, at the CEO. A waiter appeared and filled the glass. “Don’t be shy. Come up here! This is all going to be yours soon!”
Every organ in my body was switching off. I wanted to stand. I wanted to shout. Letitia looked at me with her eyes wide open and grabbed the meat of my upper arm. But I could do nothing.
Morris Kenneman maneuvered his old man bulk onto the dais. My staggering Father grabbed the CEO’s hand and raised it high into the air. All of this was being projected live on the exterior of the house!
“It’s a complicated transaction. I’ll leave Morris here to explain it. But the company’s buying all of this. The house. The docking station. The lodges. The summer homes. Everything. And they’re buying back all my stock too. Every share. Morris is going to arrange financing through his contacts in the financial sector. And I’ll be stepping down as Chairman, of course. It’s time the company was entrusted to more capable hands than mine.”
I couldn’t speak. I could barely think. Was Father really subjecting our company—’s company— a leveraged buyout?
Morris was stony-faced. He said a few words, but quickly realized he wasn’t being amplified.
Father said, “Andreas! Fritz! You’ve got the contracts. File them.” Then he sat down abruptly. Immediately, Fritz was on hand, having shouldered his way past Kenneman. He gave a bottle of water and a few pills to Father, who swallowed them without looking. Kenneman assayed another attempt at a speech, but his voice still came out quiet. He shook his head once and then clambered off the dais.
All around, guests were leaving. Above, helicopters danced around each other as they tried to land and pluck their owners from a birthday party that had suddenly turned into a funeral.
My father sank down, rested his head against the back of his chair, and fell asleep. Fritz organized a crew of servants to carry him to his room. At the foot of the docking station, the Suareztown shimmered: doors were opening and closing; hundreds of people were milling in the streets. Within a few weeks, they’d be living in a Kennemantown.
I woke up with a splitting headache. Letitia and I had kept drinking until early in the morning. She wouldn’t stop asking me if things would be alright. Finally, she left me and hopped a ride with Sean.
The house rumbled through my body. Laying atop my bedspread, in the darkened cocoon of my room, I could pretend that everything was still okay. What time was it? I snapped a finger and pointed at the windows.
They remained opaque.
I sat up.
Wait…the house was rumbling a bit too much. I dropped to my knees and put an ear to the hardwood floor. The whole house was humming with the distant orchestral sound of eight engines working in concert.
We were flying. Why? Where was Father taking us now?
I stepped into a pair of sweatpants and shrugged into a t-shirt, then I said, aloud, “Yasmina. Put me through to Father.”
I walked to the door and it did not open. I tapped on it and it did not open. I slammed my open palm against it and that whispery voice drifted out of the speakers, “I’m sorry, ma’am…Andreas says…”
“What the hell is going on!” I yelled.
The door clanged. A muffled shout. Then footsteps echoed out.
The room filled with Andreas’ voice. “Greetings and good morning! Late last night, the house developed technical difficulties that hampered central control of appliances. Currently, we are in the air above Los Angeles, en route to our maintenance station in Yokohama and…”
I put my ear to the door. This wasn’t the daily report. This was only coming out of the speakers in my room; it wasn’t being broadcast to the hallway.
“Help me!” I shouted. “I’m held prisoner!”
Andreas’ report suddenly cut off. I kept shouting and slamming my body against the door. Finally, I heard voices on the other side:
“…she’s a whore…just keep her hip-deep in cocaine and cock and she’ll let us do whatever we want…”
Then Andreas said: “She’ll stay inside until we figure out how to manage her.” The voice wasn’t coming through the speaker. It sounded like he was actually standing in the hall.
“…then what? You’ll be in charge? No…fuck that…” this voice sounded a bit like one of the cooks.
“Last night she promised money for my boy…what about his scholarship…?”
Andreas said, “We must stay calm. She will be released eventually. We just need to—”
“You all saw her face last night. She hated the old man just as much as we did. She’ll be grateful to us.”
“Sides…we can’t keep her holed up for long…all kinds of reporters have been calling and emailing and trying to get ahold of her…”
This time the speaker was my usual door-guard: “…if someone’s gotta be in charge…then it sure as hell can’t be old Andy here. He’d work us to the bone in no time.”
“…she was going to give away all her money. She wants to help us!”
Andreas said, “We can manage without her. You just need to trust me.”
But the chant had already started: “Let her out! Let her out! Let her out!”
Through my speakers, Yasmina whispered, “Forgive me” and then the door opened. The servants surged into my room. Carmina put an arm around me and warded off the rest with her other hand. She pulled me out into the hall. The guards yelled at me to forgive them. A woman, holding her son by the shoulders, told me she didn’t have anything to do with this, and did I really think her boy could—
“Wait!” I said. “Where are my parents!”
A throat cleared. Andreas said, “Your mother is in her operating room.”
Fritz burst out. “We did it for you! He was going to sell your house!”
They swirled all around me. Through the windows, all I saw was white. Not clouds—. Off to the left, a huge jet kept pace with the house: it was our in-flight refueling tanker. With it, the house could remain aloft indefinitely.
“Where are we?” I said.
They went silent. Andreas said, “We’re in international waters. The Arctic circle.”
“This is insane,” I said. “You can’t hold my father prisoner…”
“He’s sick,” Andreas said. “Thousands of people saw him behaving erratically last night. He’s been getting stranger and more withdrawn for ages. Now he doesn’t want to see anyone.”
“Take me to him.”
The crowd pulsed and opened up a space for me. Cooks, guards, maids, drivers, and dozens upon dozens of people I’d grown up alongside— of them met my eye. Andreas stepped into the vacuole.
“No,” he said. “Your father doesn’t want to see you.”
“That’s a lie. You’re imprisoning him.”
Andreas pursed his lips. “Fritz and I both witnessed and signed the documents attesting to his incapacity.” He sighed. “And…in light of that incapacity, certain provisions of his and your trusts have become active. As of today, you are his voting proxy for the company stock.”
A warm sensation sludged my veins and Carmina caught my outflung hand. We tottered for a bit, but she kept me upright.
“The company is still ours, then?” I said.
“Your Father grew ill before we could file the paperwork,” Andreas said.
Someone in the crowd shouted, ” He was going to sell us downriver!”
They devoured me with hungry eyes. As my breathing quieted, they grew stiller and slower. Movement stopped. Even the boy eventually stopped fidgeting. How desperate must they have been to join together in this terrible plot?
“What are you going to do?” said the boy’s mother.
I looked out the window and shivered. Then I let out a holler. “Can’t say I’m in the mood for snow right now. How about you prep the shuttle? I think I’ll take a run down to Rio. A few days on the beach sounds like just the ticket.” We hadn’t visited the Brazil Suareztown in six years. If the house servants were this desperate, then how much bolder and angrier must they be in the neglected Suareztowns? Our family’s apathy had bred so many enemies.
“We’ll have you prepped for departure within the hour,” Andreas said. The crowd milled around me. Then Carmina smiled, and they broke open, sweeping me along in a babble of questions. At one point, I was carried past mother’s operating room. Amid the torrent of noise, she emerged with the sensory-transmission gloves still on her hands.
She nodded to me. “I thought you’d finally have to make something of yourself,” she said. “But I hear you wriggled free.”
“Take good care of dad!” I said. “I’ll be back soon to check up on him.”
“You could have been something,” she said. “You could have done something.”
I was loaded up with bags upon bags: everything I could possibly need. They didn’t give me an unescorted moment until they loaded me into the shuttle. But then, just before its doors closed, Andreas plopped down beside me.
“If he goes free, you know that he will sell everything.”
I was going to have to spend the rest of my life watching Andreas. He was my Morris Kenneman.
“Give me a month or two to build the case for dad’s ‘illness.,'” I said. “Then we’ll transfer him stateside.” I’d give him his apartment in Manhattan, if that was really all that he wanted.
Andreas nodded slowly, and then he popped out. The hatch snapped shut immediately.
As the shuttle flew past the house, I thought I saw a man in a suit standing in the window of Father’s bedroom. But he did not see me. His fingers were touching the glass and his eyes were locked on the glaciers down below.
Copyright 2013 Rahul Kanakia
About the Author
Rahul Kanakia is a science fiction writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, the Intergalactic Medicine Show, Apex, Nature, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. He currently lives in Baltimore, where he is enrolled in the Master of the Fine Arts program in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Stanford University and used to work as an international development consultant. If you want to know more about him then please visit his blog at http://www.blotter-paper.com or follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rahkan.