Begging the Moon
I’m pulling the wok off my bike and setting it on the butane when I spot Emilio standing in the shadows like a vulture. He’s still wearing that trench coat, all waxy on the bottom from years of wading through Diyu’s deepest calles.
Emilio is the reaper he looks like, tall and gaunt, neuros creeping like gangrene up his forearms. But I’ve known this asshole a long time. We’re practically family. He’s bad news; even as I set up my cart, I know he’s going to fuck up my week somehow. But if he wanted me dead, I’d be facedown in the gutter already, covered in those moscas he controls with twitches of his fingers.
I can’t spot them, but I know they’re here somewhere, a swarm waiting in the vents behind him, or disguised as a shadow under the tarp I use to keep lluviate from falling into my wok. Where Emilio goes, those microdrones follow. A long time ago, I saw Emilio flex his fingers, giving the signal to attack. He’d caught one of the boys using Bocanegra’s tunnels to smuggle on the side, and the moscas covered the kid’s whole body in a shroud. When he stopped screaming, he looked like a smoldering heap of carnitas. That was, what, twelve, thirteen years ago? But of all the shit I’ve seen in Diyu, that one still gets me out of bed to make sure the door is locked.
When my heart races at night, I push my face deep in the pillow and hum Uncle Aroon’s old lullaby, real quiet so no one can hear me through the walls. If you want to keep it, keep it to yourself. That’s the first lesson of Diyu. I know better than anyone that anything can be stolen. The only shit that really belongs to you is what you can stash in your own skull, and, of course, there are ways to get that too. If Lam remembers, then he can sing it to himself. We share everything else. Let me have my own memories.
Now Emilio is as motionless as the thermal pipes rambling up the wall behind him. He’s waiting for me to ask. Instead, I prep the fish and sprouts, grate cilantro root into the chili oil. I throw a crumb of breading into the wok and watch it sizzle. Almost hot enough. Let him stand there all day if he wants to.
But then, when the early customers start cruising by, regulars who can’t go a day without my fried fish and achat pickles, they spot Emilio and turn right the fuck around. I’m not going to sell a thing with him standing there like death itself.
“What is it, Emilio?”
“He wants that stuff,” Emilio says. “He wants it picoso.”
I know who “he” is and I know how he likes it, but I play dumb. “What stuff?”
“You know. For his birthday.”
“Not noodles.” His face is in shadow, but he sounds annoyed. Good.
So I wait. It’s dangerous to mess with Bocanegra’s right-hand man, but I doubt Emilio will lay a hand on me. I was Bocanegra’s favorite burglar for eight years, and though I’m just another street vendor now, barely scratching by, Emilio still remembers the respect I once pulled.
At least I hope he does. Emilio and I both wear Boca’s RF tag branded into our shoulders. Mine was shorted out with a taser when I quit, but for a time, the tower doors opened to me and I had access to the secret tunnels beneath the city. I drank real coffee and sunbathed in the atriums. Diyu was mine. I was happy to break into apartments looking for dirt, happy to wait all night in a cramped tunnel just to pick up a garbage bag–wrapped package at the border. I even cooked up the old comfort foods after Boca got a whiff of my bentos. Uncle Aroon left me his steam basket, so sticky rice with boiled egg and achat was no trouble.
In a city where every culture—music, food, fashion—is whipped to a slurry right in the street, the old recipes, even the simple ones, are respected. I was trying to impress the king, and I did. He even stopped sending me on the more dangerous jobs for fear of losing his favorite cook. But when he told me to poison some old dude, my gut just couldn’t take it.
You say no to Bocanegra once and he drops you like a hot turd.
You hit the calles homeless and alone. I couldn’t even go back to burglary because the fences wouldn’t touch my goods.
I might starve in the streets, get shot by UN BioSec drones, eaten by dogs, take a bad fever, or be crushed in a collapse, but to this day, no one will put a hand on me. I had to blackmail a terrified inker to tattoo blackbirds and roses over the brand, but the letters are still there, a raised scar that I can just touch with my left hand, marking me as Boca’s property.
Emilio is quiet, pissed that I’m playing with him. He scratches his neck. “Tom goo goo. You know.”
Any other vendor would be honored to have Bocanegra’s first lieutenant making a personal order at their cart. They’d bow and kiss Emilio’s crusted boots for the chance to cook a meal for Diyu’s king.
But I’m over it.
“Tom yam gung nam,” I correct him. “I don’t have the ingredients. No one does. Tell him to forget it.”
Emilio leans into the light, the stubble on his scalp glinting silver; I’m not the only one getting older. He slaps a scrip on my prep table.
I’ve seen them before, waved like magic wands at the markets—eyed real hard by whispering crowds. It looks like paper currency with Bocanegra’s face on it. This one is clean, no receipts stamped on it, printed fresh just for me. With this scrip I can buy just about anything. Any vendor in Diyu will provide whatever I ask, at no charge. They’ll just stamp their hanko on the scrip, happy to do it. Having proof of your loyalty to Boca, having his favor—who can afford to pass that up?
With this scrip I could get a rooftop penthouse with real sunlight. I could get a water filter and drink straight from my own pipes. I could get chocolate. But Boca would know. The scrip keeps a record of every exchange.
I leave the scrip where it is. “Impossible,” I say. “Lemongrass is extinct.” I don’t know if this is true, but it might as well be. The BioSec embargo dried up the markets months ago.
“Mammoths were extinct.” Emilio sounds bored now.
So I lay it out plain for him: “It’s different down here in the calles. When I cooked for Boca, I didn’t have to worry about finding ingredients; the smugglers brought everything. But what I cook now comes from Diyu. The rice, cucumber, cabbage, and cilantro grow in the verts, the tilapia is from the tanks. I save the heads to ferment my own fish sauce. Even the breading is algae-flour. That way, when the embargoes come, I’m still open.”
Silence. He’s probably only listening with one ear, the other tuned into those romance novellas he’s addicted to.
“I don’t cook for the king anymore. I cook for real people who live down here. Simple food they can afford.” I don’t tell him that I plan to open a restaurant in one of the barrios ricos, to cater to the kinds of customers who can pay to sit at a table rather than gobbling as they run from one gig to another, the kinds of customers who will lift me out of the gutter.
“But you remember how to cook the tom goo,” he says.
Now he’s playing with me. “Tom yam gung…listen, how long is this embargo? Five months so far? The markets are empty. If the ingredients for tom yam are even in the city, it’s because they’re being protected. Preserved, not just hoarded.”
But talking about it has my mind racing. That scrip, damp now with cucumber juice, is a gold mine if I can find a way to leverage it. I can’t go buy myself an apartment outright, but Boca wouldn’t mind if I skimmed a few extra ingredients for myself, some rare veg, a drum of dried shrimp instead of the cup he needs for his bowl, hell, maybe even some coffee. If I take this job, I just might be able to barter my way to a pop-up restaurant in Girasol Hall where I wouldn’t have to pull a tarp over my cart to protect it from the sludge that trickles onto the lower streets.
I hear myself say, “When the embargo eases, the markets will open again. You never know what might show up. I’ll put in a standing order, make sure that the ingredients come to me.”
Emilio shakes his head. “He wants it tonight.”
Amado Bocanegra wants a bowl of hot-and-sour shrimp soup steeped with half a dozen rare plants and grilled aromatics, any one of which would set a smuggler up for life. He wants it now. Of course he does. It’s his birthday.
I spoiled Boca fifteen years ago by making a pot of tom yam, the same recipe Uncle Aroon made for my birthdays. This was before BioSec started running bull drones through the smuggling tunnels, but even then, a grip of galangal root could buy you a motorcycle or a burro. After that, Bocanegra asked for “that stuff” every year until he kicked me to the street.
Now, after six years of no contact, the Mouth is hungry again.
Thinking of who I might have to hunt down, the kind of freaks who might still hoard galangal, makrut, and lemongrass this deep into an embargo, the scrip starts to look like worthless paper again.
“I’d have to barter up,” I say. “Make a string of swaps. And what if I spend on the scrip but still can’t pull it together?”
“You can do it,” Emilio says. But it’s not confidence in his voice, it’s a threat. “How’s your brother doing?”
There it is. I knew he’d go for the throat eventually. Did I say we were practically family? If Emilio were stuck headfirst in a lluviate drainpipe, I’d stomp him deeper.
“You want me to break down my cart before the lunch rush even starts. Take a whole day’s loss. Throw this fish and sprouts to the dogs. You want me to call in all of my debts, risk my neck tracking down ingredients that might not even exist anymore. It might take weeks. And I can’t say no because my brother needs his doses and you’ll cut him off and let him die. All for a bowl of soup for the big mouth in the tower.”
“I have terms,” I say before I even know what they are.
“If I do this, if I somehow cook tom yam, what’s to keep Boca from ordering another bowl next week? Tomorrow?” Emilio is already shaking his head, but I push on. “The price for this bowl is treatment for my brother, Lam, not just his doses but psych, antibiotics, clinic coverage, everything. Forever.”
I say forever, but molt addiction is terminal even with the best treatment. Still, if this works, Lam might last four or five years more and we’d never have to stress a missed dose again. I won’t have to sell food with a pit in my stomach, going days without eating so we can afford both rent and Lam’s dose.
Emilio is quiet. The terms are above his head and from the way he’s twitching his fingers, I know he’s dialing Boca himself, playing a recording of my demands, waiting for the answer. It takes a long time. I imagine Bocanegra lounging in his bath, bull-like, staring through those massive windows down at the labyrinth of Diyu. I imagine him smiling at the sound of my voice.
Finally, Emilio sniffs and nods. “You have to get it to him tonight. He’s got a craving.”
It’s nearly ten in the morning already.
“Yes,” I hear myself say. “But you can never use Lam against me again.”
Emilio shrugs and I watch him go. When he’s almost disappeared down the calle, the mid-morning crowd parting for him, he flicks one finger and the moscas rise out of the shadows around me like an evil wind, tugging my hair and smacking into my cheeks. For five seconds, I’m drowning in a wasp-storm, and then they’re gone, threading into a braid of smoke, a raincloud above his head.
My first stop has to be the Supermercado Tres Estrellas, an easy bike ride through the eastern hampa tunnels.
The lluviate canal runs down the middle of the tunnel, the excrete of the city slopping to its lowest point. Tarp and corrugated shanties line one side of the tunnel, a museum of life in rent-free underworld. Every few feet, another moltie lies crusted with white scabs. The smell of shit and unclaimed corpses. Lam could end up here. I could. The bottom is where everything falls.
I push my bike up a sloped footbridge into the Barrio Shizi. The perfume of death and piss gives way to promises of steamed-pork dumplings and garlic-marinated chicken feet.
You can’t miss the mustard-yellow banners of the Supermercado Tres Estrellas. It occupies six stories and you can buy anything here if you can pay.
I flash the scrip at the scanners as I enter and four clerks come at me before I reach the aisles, bowing and offering free samples of brandy, pomegranate jelly, lime-braised escargot.
Chicago Emani, the CEO of Tres Estrellas, is on solid terms with Bocanegra. They co-host holiday feasts. It’s a position Chicago will pay to keep. My scrip carries real weight here.
But, despite its reputation, I know Tres Estrellas will not have the ingredients I need. This deep into an embargo, Tres Estrellas has neither the motive nor the security to hoard such treasures. I try to guess what the market value for real lemongrass could be in a city so international that curry is practically a human right. Only a maniac would hold on to the herbs I need.
I can think of two who might be that crazy, but first, I have some shopping to do.
When I demand to deal with Chicago directly, I’m escorted to a small private office whose walls display a swaying bamboo forest. The patch on the water cooler in the corner blinks serenely blue, certified clean.
The office is stuffy, the windows long since walled off by city growth, but somewhere below, a swamp-cooler has been coaxed into life for my benefit. Cool, mildew-smelling air begins venting near my feet. I kick my sandals off and let it waft over my soles. Take what you get.
Chicago comes in, wiping his forehead with a silk kerchief, bowing low. “My store is at your disposal. How can I make you happy?”
This handsome man, thick hair, gray at the temples, is a celebrity, whose rising fortunes lift everyone. Any barrio with a Tres Estrellas mini store is buffered against water and energy shortages, and Chicago himself makes personal visits to the needy to deliver food for the holidays. It’s all part of his job as Diyu’s favorite son.
“I don’t suppose you have galangal, lemongrass, or makrut lime?”
“I’m sorry.” He looks genuinely sorry as he whispers, “Perhaps the Yinshi…”
Of course, the Yinshi. I don’t need him to tell me “the Yinshi.” But I’m not ready to face that shit, so I hand over a long list of ingredients Chicago can get me: jasmine rice, a case of fresh cabbage, a pallet of frozen shrimp, and six bags of real wheat flour along with tubs of salt, chiles, spices…
I’d have to run ten carts for ten years to earn enough for this spree, but if Chicago is shocked by my list, he doesn’t show it.
“See the address for a refrigerated locker on the bottom,” I say. “Reserve it in my name for a month.”
“I’ll have it sent right away.”
If Bocanegra can afford tom yum, he can afford a cold room rental. Most of what I’ve ordered will probably be useless in my quest for rare ingredients, but I can claim I’m preparing for any kind of negotiation. And a month might give me time enough to swap and barter my way to a proper awning, a folding table or two, maybe even advertisement for a pop-up restaurant. If I play this right, I won’t have to pay for Lam’s doses anymore and I might just be able to swing the fridge rental myself.
I try not to think the next thought, but it comes anyway. If I don’t get Boca his birthday dinner, he may actually blacklist Lam. Boca can be spiteful, especially to his former employees. Cut off, we might not even be able to buy street molt. Don’t think it: Lam’s corpse, twisted into a knot from his final seizures. I’ve stepped over those corpses in the hampa.
“Claro que sí,” Chicago says. That famous smile, teeth like Chiclets.
He stands to shake my hand. His palms are sweaty, and he’s ready to see my expensive ass out the door.
“There is one more thing,” I say, forcing myself into the cold water of cruelty.
“Anything.” Chicago sits again, but the smile is gone.
“The item I require is not in the store.” I hear myself talking like Bocanegra: The item I require… But it’s not every day a street vendor has to hold Chicago Emani over the fire. I’m making it up as I go.
Everyone knows Chicago’s wife was one of the victims of the massacre two years ago. BioSec sweeper drones airdropped into the city to perform sanitation audits are always met with local resistance, which usually means a bloodbath. Bystanders get shot.
So Chicago is raising his daughter Cynthia alone, doing whatever he can to make up for a lost mother. The smugglers who scored Cynthia’s Christmas gift this year couldn’t keep their mouths shut, so Diyu knew what was in the box before she did: the rarest of pets. Diyu loves that little girl, they love Chicago, and so they love the miniaturized mammoth, cuter than a genetic atrocity has any right to be.
Reporters could never get Chicago to say how much he paid to get the genebeast smuggled into Diyu, but between security and vet costs, he continues to pay for it month after month. I’m doing the man a favor by taking it off his hands.
The mammoth, dwarfed to the size of a chihuahua, is a kind of mascot, a city’s concession to the happiness of one child. Anyone who takes it is looking for a lifetime of worry. But my only real option today is to acquire something rare enough, valuable enough, to trade with whoever is crazy enough to keep ingredients that could buy a new heart or a ticket out of the city.
Chicago waits, looking me in the eye, forcing me to say it.
“The mammoth,” I lay the scrip on his desk.
He takes a ragged breath, his cheeks flushing red. For a moment, he looks like he might choke, as if a saladito were perched just over his windpipe. Then he lets out a weary sigh.
I remind myself that I’m doing this for Lam.
Chicago pulls his hanko out of his breast pocket and holds it over the scrip. He hesitates, the red ink poised to brand Boca’s face, then at the last second thinks better of it and stamps his glyph politely in the upper-left-hand corner. The exchange is recorded and verifiable, not only by the DNA in his hanko ink, but also by his own security cameras which are, no doubt, tracking this entire scene with fierce attention.
For a minute, I worry that Boca might not understand how expensive this soup is going to be. But that’s his problem. If this meal sets Diyu on fire, that’s on Boca.
He must know. This isn’t just a craving. I think Boca might be testing me, testing Chicago.
“It is my exquisite pleasure to do business with you,” Chicago says, offering another deep bow. He steps out and heads for the elevator to his apartment above.
The kind of maneuvering I’m doing has gotten smarter people killed. There are no castes in Diyu; you are allowed to better your position, inch your way out of the hampa into the catacombs or security barrios and toward the sunlight gilding the top of the city. In this way, the prostitute might one day run the bordello. But moving too fast or taking more than your share is a good way to draw attention, and drawing attention is dangerous.
I’ve done things. I’ve taken what belonged to others, but hearing the girl wail, I tell myself that I am not the monster here. It is Boca who will eat this soup, not me.
That girl can scream. Is he tearing the mammoth from her hands? If Boca had asked for the girl’s finger, would Chicago have given it?
Finally, he’s back. The beast is hidden in a custom carrying case, making windy grunts and an odor like moldy bread. I can’t meet Chicago’s eyes as I take it.
It’s heavy. Maybe this was the hardest part; all that’s left now is just the bartering, and I’ll never cook this dish again, even if a lifted embargo brings a truckload of galangal, a forest of makrut.
In the elevator, I peek under the quilted cover. The mammoth is a masterpiece of genography, a shaggy ice-age elephant, huffing and tooting adorably. Miserably.
You’re doing this for Lam, I tell myself as I hit the street. Also, kids kill pets. The girl would probably roll over this mammoth in her sleep.
A fried-rice vendor with a shaved head calls to me, waving her hand like someone is on fire. Her vest is embellished with a fringe of soda can tabs. Jangling, she grabs my arm and yanks me toward her tent pitched under a massive cooling pipe. Her wok is full of pellet-rice, a drab confetti colored with pea and chili sweepings.
I don’t understand her dialect, but someone inside must have told her what I’m after because she unlocks a cabinet and reveals, among tins of spices and cigarettes, a single root of galangal.
“De puta madre!” I say. You never know what someone has squirreled away. I’m almost as happy for her as I am for myself. Fortunes have been made this way. It sounds like she’s using a blend of Portuguese and Mandarin, but it’s clear she’s eager to stamp my scrip.
But when I bend the root to test the freshness, it cracks open and I see that it’s a stale ginger root steeped in a chemical perfume, a good simulation but likely toxic.
She’s angry now, eyes wide and talking fast, reaching for my scrip.
“It’s fake,” I say. Maybe she doesn’t know. “No good.”
Behind her, a man with a red knit hat is casing me. I know the look. He’s checking out the backpack I stuffed the mammoth into, trying to decide if I’m worth rolling. They probably saw the Tres Estrella’s clerks tripping over me. Better leave before he can make up his mind.
She won’t take the ginger back, so I drop it onto her cart, saying, “Sorry, sister.” As I turn away, I see her catch the man’s eye.
Now he’s running after me, shouting. He grabs my shoulder. I turn and kick him in the crotch. He folds, squealing like a pig. I run.
It’s not hard to disappear into a sea of brown faces. I pull my hood up and tuck in my hair.
The crowd presses close, swallowing me. This is the only affection Diyu will show. I let myself be carried by the current of humanity until I think I’ve lost Red Hat.
My chin lifts when I hear someone speaking Lao, and I almost taste Uncle Aroon’s pork sausage. He used to toss the grilled chunks into a bowl of seasoned cabbage, and, to make me giggle, drop the garnish on top real slow, one peanut or cilantro leaf at a time. I hate myself for never learning to make it. I remember him aging the links in an unplugged fridge, I think, and I’m not about to experiment with fermented pork.
I swing my backpack around so I can hold it like a pregnant belly, keeping it open just enough for the mammoth to breathe. What the fuck would I do with a dead mammoth?
Probably cook it.
There is no direct route in Diyu. Between me and where I need to go is a mountain of overgrown apartments and factories known as the Barrio Palaco. The precipitous walls are pocked by swallow-nest habs, swooping footbridges, and, near street level, a metro citybus half swallowed by the expanding structures. Someone is selling chicharrones and piñafresca out of its windows.
Walled in, Diyu swells inward and upward. Clotheslines become footbridges, then sprout dangling sleep cells like a beaded necklace. Last year’s premium sunlit penthouses now groan under new developments, their airy views choked by the chutes and drone docks of the wealthier above.
I know the Yinshi won’t see me. I can’t even get close, but I know who might open the gate. I wish I could call her a friend but even though I saw her several times a day when she worked the lobby of Boca’s tower, the most I ever said to her was “open the door” or “give me an umbrella.”
When Kendra answers, I dive right in. “Is it true you do side work for the Yinshi now?”
Kendra is quiet. I can feel her thinking about hanging up, so I dive right in. “I need your help. I can pay you back big.”
“I’m setting up a restaurant and I’m going to need a maître d’.” It’s not exactly a lie. “Full-time work and food. Are you interested?”
Her silence is a yes, but she’s proud. She remembers how cocky I was. I remember too. “I’ve changed since then.”
She’s still listening.
“What exactly do you do for the Yinshi?” I ask.
“I sort his mail,” Kendra says.
It sounds nasty but I’m in no position to judge. “I don’t know that position.”
“Paper mail,” she says. “He has an old post office, like, the whole thing from the twentieth century, uniforms and scales and everything. And I stand there in the uniform and put envelopes in the slots and stamp them with the date. It’s not sexual, I don’t think. He watches remotely. He says it’s relaxing. Twice a week, I show up and sort a huge pile of antique mail and he pays me.”
“It is enough?”
Kendra only sniffs.
“I need to see him,” I say.
“No one sees the Yinshi. I only saw him once and it was on a screen.”
“What does he look like?”
“Like a pissed-off Santa. I’m not supposed to talk about any of this.”
“But he must like you,” I say. “Tell him I have something he wants.”
“Tell him to call off his dog,” I say, but she’s already gone.
There are parts of Diyu so dense that no highway, no street, no alley has survived, only hallways and utility tunnels. I left my bike in the Tres Estrellas’ lockers because there’s no way it’ll fit. When unchecked construction heaps new dwellings, shops, and factories upon the old, buildings merge into a catacomb.
People trying to take a shortcut can get delayed by a line for the bathroom, by a vigil, by spilled box of dulces de tamarindo. Travelers have been stranded for days.
But, if you know what you’re doing—if you’re a serious llevador—cutting through a catacomb is faster than going around. I can’t afford to waste time and there is only one llevador I trust to guide me through the Barrio Palaco.
“Get off your ass,” I tell him when he answers my dial. “I need a route through the Palaco.”
“Aren’t you working the wok today?” I can hear Lam rubbing the sleep from his face. My brother sleeps a lot these days. The extra teeth growing in his mouth will eventually give him that street-dog pant late-stage molties get. He won’t be able eat anything but soup, won’t be able to talk, but for now, he still sounds like my little brother with a bad cold.
“I’ve got to get to the Yinshi’s. Meet me at the north Nuevo interchange.”
“Six and a half minutes,” he says.
I peek into the backpack to be sure the mammoth is alive.
Kendra texts me. “Yinshi will see you at two thirty. Fired me.”
She leaves it at that. If my job offer was tentative, just talking out loud, now it is as real as hunger. Another reason I have to pull this off.
Lam shows up right on time, adjusting his goggles to fit his swollen skull. The bone spurs have cut through the skin on his elbows and knees, making long sleeves and pants impossible. His tank top and shorts expose his white-flaking skin. But he’s still quick.
“Morning, Boots.” He eyes my backpack, trying to guess what I’ve gotten myself into, but doesn’t ask. We’ve learned how to give each other space. We sleep in the same room, eat out of the same pot, and still go days without talking. But even when he’s moaning in his sleep beside me, I miss him. I know he feels guilty that he’s not bringing in money anymore. I don’t blame him, but that conversation feels as distant as a sunlit penthouse.
In the last few months, the bones of his face have grown faster, making him look like a calavera. The process is irreversible, his bones and organs branching and swelling like the buildings around us, but with careful dosing, it can be slowed.
There is no cure. I don’t let myself think about what I’ll do after. Pinche Lam, who stole a bike for my tenth birthday and then returned it because he felt guilty, who saved his sesame dulces for me, who still hums when he eats.
I spot the crumbs on his shirt and punch him in the chest. “Asshole! Eating my campechanas?”
“There was only crust left.”
“I was saving it.”
“I’ll buy you more,” he says.
“With what?” I say.
“You mean you aren’t going to pay me for this gig?”
His smile blooms, and for a second I can see through the mutations to his young, untarnished face. He skated on that dimpled charm most of his life and here it is, getting him a couple more inches.
Suddenly, I think I might cry, so I kick him in the seat of the pants as we duck into the Calle Felipe. It narrows like a funnel until we’re walking single file down a hallway half a mile long. I lose my sense of direction immediately. The halls kink and branch, following the same architectural logic as living tissue. We pass countless closet-sized sleeping cells. Doors are painted with bright glyphs to help orient the occupants.
People in front of us and behind, like a line of termites. We crawl over massive pipes, the guts of the city. I surrender to the low ceilings, the darkness, the lung-damp air.
Catacombs scare me. When sections collapse, no one even tries to dig out the bodies. The reclamation machines process the bones along with the rest of the rubble. It gets sifted and dehydrated, mixed into foamcrete and built right back into the walls. City of the dead.
Lam grabs my elbows and tugs me through a door and suddenly we’re ducking down a utility tunnel, then climbing stairs to another hall. He’s muttering in that crow-speak the llevadores use, negotiating rights of way, using my credits to buy updated maps and access codes, tips sold by other navigators.
We pass a doll factory, a kitchen, a circle of old women plucking ducks. I see needle-nosed pliers tweaking the ribs of a broken umbrella into something useful, smell the lead-tang of solder blending with the funk of fermented algae-cake. Cookpots and bedrolls, bandages and drumbeats, chickens hung upside down next to accordions, both wheezing. For sale.
In Diyu, if you’re alive, you’re in business.
Lam was one of the best llevadors, a courier, a way finder, rated as highly for his discretion as for his speed. But clients stopped calling when his cheekbones grew too big to hide under a bike helmet. No one trusts a moltie. I don’t blame them. Molt is a highly motivating addiction.
I know the cravings hurt. I see the way he shakes, but Lam would die before hurting anyone. He says he didn’t try molt intentionally. Says he’s not that stupid. It must have been laced into something else he smoked or snorted or dermed. But Lam doesn’t remember everything just right. It doesn’t matter now.
I want to ask if we’re lost, but I know better than to interrupt him when he’s navigating. His goggles make him look like a roach. He’s scanning forums and feeds, watching for hazards, keeping us clear of bad traffic or worse. A llevador knows how a pot of burned rice can trigger a stampede.
I trust him and let him do his job, even when he says, “Fuuuuuck,” and turns around, pulling me back the way we came.
Our detour has us going down four flights of stairs, cutting across the stone floor of an ancient church, the pews pushed aside for a football match, then up stairs so steep we use our hands to climb.
“There was a flood in our route,” Lam explains. He’s breathing hard.
“I don’t mind wet feet.”
He shakes his head. “They’re talking collapse.”
Catacombs are mostly foamcrete over fullerine netting, light and strong, but everything has its limits.
Lam stops in front of an apartment door collaged with pictures of football players. He lifts his goggles just enough to look me in the eye.
“We’re going to ghost. You don’t say anything, you don’t touch anything, you don’t see anything.”
He doesn’t have to tell me, but I let him have his moment.
The door opens and we push into a bedroom, stepping over people sleeping on woven plastic mats, through a kitchen window into another home, up through what might once have been an attic, and through a bathroom consisting of four holes in the floor. For a small fee, some occupants let a trusted llevador ghost through their private spaces.
I keep my eyes down, even when I smell someone cooking cut-rate molt, even when I hear keening around a deathbed, even when I see, out of the corner of my eye, a toddler teething on a rat-tail. Through the tarps and cardboard room dividers I hear sex, coughing, someone practicing guitarrón, the roar of a televised audience.
Despite its imprisoning walls, refugees from all around the world flock to Diyu, where they have a chance to set up a shop, sell an eye or kidney, or serve five years indentured in the fullerine looms.
UN BioSecurity could purge this city once and for all, sanitize it with a column of fire. It has threatened to. But there is an unspoken understanding that refugees must have somewhere to go or they will march on the siloed cities, overwhelm their cherished quarantines. So, despite its customs violations, its smuggling economy, its outbreaks and molt problem, despite its unchecked growth, Diyu is allowed to exist, in its own way, to thrive. Because if Diyu falls, some other city will become Diyu, and no one wants that. So the embargoes never last forever.
We step over a dozen children sitting on the floor, hand-painting religious icons. It makes me homesick and nauseated at the same time. Many of these kids will never leave this barrio. They’ll grow up, fight, and die without ever seeing the sun.
There’s a power outage and a crawlspace and I’m squelching on my belly through what I hope is just algae. I’m pushing my backpack in front of me, trying to keep the damn thing upright and praying the mammoth is OK when I hear a muffled call to prayer. We must be near an open calle.
Finally, Lam shoves hard on a half-sized metal door and we stumble into the Zócalo Griego, a breathtaking canyon lit, high above, by sunlight. I can see an angle of real sky, drones illuminated briefly on their trajectories like debris meteors. I gasp like I’ve been holding my breath.
Across the square, the Sparrow Street Mall glitters. Hologram songbirds whisper bargains to tempt pedestrians into the casinos and brothels whose furnished elevators wait like Victorian tearooms, with panting-pink velvet walls.
The light changes. A UN rigible passes overhead, blocking out the light just as the muezzin finishes his adhan, and I let myself see the beauty in it all.
Lam checks the time. “Eleven minutes. Not my best time.”
I peer into the backpack and see the thing moving, grunting, alive.
“It would have taken me at least two hours to cut around the catacomb.” I hug him and feel his muscles trembling. Time for a dose. We have three more days in a jar at home. I was going to buy more with the money I made selling fried fish today.
“I’m all right,” Lam says, seeing the worry on my face. “Bring food when you come home.” And with that, he’s gone.
I want to go with him. I want to cook something simple and heavy, pozole, eat it while listening to a novella. I’m glad he won’t see this next part, though. I’ve never told him why I can’t set foot in the Yinshi’s neighborhood.
Before I was Bocanegra’s, I was a freelance burglar. I was good, but I made the mistake of looking at the Yinshi’s house.
Blaine Sandoval, a.k.a. the Yinshi, is as well known as he is invisible, an eccentric hermit with a genius for hoarding. He made his fortune gouging Diyu at its most hungry, taking advantage of her longings, her most savage cravings. He speculates in a market so volatile it makes the Dutch tulip economy look like stable and he wins most of the time. When you want something no one can afford, you start to hear the Yinshi’s name.
He spends his money wisely: his building is insulated in every dimension. No one drinks his water or shits in his lluviate pipes. There is one rarity even the Yinshi will never sell: privacy.
Rumors say he lives in filth and hunger inside his lavish hotel, a captive of the paranoid security AIs. They say he’s afraid of germs. They say he died a long time ago and that his market tradings are part of an elaborate will. They say his house is haunted.
They’re not wrong about the last one. I knew this job would take me places I didn’t want to go.
I’m standing now, a hundred meters from the Sparrow Street Mall entrance, in the radiant heat of a geothermal substation, on the threshold of the Yinshi’s neighborhood. It’s an invisible border I am painfully aware of.
I’m afraid to get any closer. His mansion is a narrow swath of the urban cliffside, rising eighty-two stories. I remember the first floors looked like something cut from history feeds: real brick walls, peaked double doors, a red-and-yellow striped awning.
Everyone looks the first time they pass. But, almost twenty years ago, I made the mistake of looking with a thief’s eye, scanning for seams, toeholds, the windows on the upper floors that might surrender to a crowbar.
And, as I looked, the house looked back. The Yinshi can afford the kind of security AI that knows the difference between a casual glance, or even an architecturally interested study, and kind of looking I was doing. It decided I was looking for vulnerabilities, did a quick background search, and labeled me a threat.
Then it sicced a djin on me. A nasty one.
One minute I was looking up at the Yinshi’s place, and then there was a dead clown screaming at me, projected from a nearby adspace. Scared me so bad I dropped my horchata. But when I moved down the block, away from the billboard, the thing followed me, jumping from adspace to adspace, screen to screen, and before I knew it, I was running.
A djin is a bundle of toxic harassware augmented with military-grade incursion scripts, giving it a demonic ability to blow through firewalls.
Of course, in the siloed cities, djins are illegal, but you can spot them hounding gaunt and sleepless people down Diyu’s streets, nightmares made visible.
Before this, I had never quite understood why their victims looked so miserable. After all, djins can’t touch you. I told myself I would just tune a djin out. But I hated my djin right away and was glad when I got far enough away from the Yinshi’s place for it to disappear.
In the first week I charged into his neighborhood out of pure pride. No rabid malware was going to tell me where I could go in my own city. I tried earplugs and goggles but the djin learned fast, using subaudible pulses to get my adrenaline pumping. It hijacked targeted speakers and simulated Uncle Aroon’s voice to whisper the shittiest things in my ear. It never took long before I was running like a cat with a spoon tied to its tail.
Sometimes I would wander into the Yinshi’s barrio by accident and the djin would project Ma Goose’s face onto a mannequin in a storefront window and just wait for me to notice. It tinkered and experimented, appearing as a screeching fairy, a school of grotesque fish strobing a nauseating optic assault. And it studied my reactions, monitoring my facial twitches, my heart rate, and blood flow, honing its cruelty.
It’s not easy to find parts of the city that have no screens at all. Even the water reclamation tanks have usually been sprayed with screencoat, which has crap resolution and decays into a shimmering mess after a year or two, but the djin isn’t picky. For a while, it crawled after me in the body of a kitten cut in half by a motorcycle. Just mewling.
I learned exactly how close I could get without triggering its fury, learned the length of its leash down to the inch. Learned my place.
The djin perfected its nastiness about two months after it was launched. Around that time, every subbarrio had a Kawaii Cookie vendor parked at pedestrian level, the animatronic bear singing and handing out oven-warm cookies. And, of course, there was the cheaper knock-off, Cookie-Pal, pretty much the same, but Cookie-Pal was a koala bear. Kids would linger around these bears like an entourage, waiting for dropped crumbs and singing the jingles to win a free sample.
Of all the shit that djin did to me, it was inhabiting that Cookie-Pal that really fucked me up. I must have stepped over the quarter mile boundary, easy enough to do with the calles snaking like intestines, and suddenly, that bear pointed right at me and said to the kids, “Grab that bitch, mijitos, and bring her to me. I’m going to fry her guts into a churro.” Some of the kids started crying. Others stared at me as if I was the one who had broken their world open. That day, the djin learned that terrifying children was the best way to fuck with me. After that, it usually took the form of a cookie bear.
It messes with your head. That djin was one of the reasons I took Bocanegra up on his offer. Free meals, off the streets away from the bear? Yes. And you’ll pay for Lam’s rent and doses? Hell yes.
Even today, even on the other side of the city, I sometimes see an old, busted-down Cookie-Pal and I can just feel that devil waiting to terrorize me.
And now I’m about to step into the hot zone, hoping the damn thing has forgotten me. If it remembers, it’s had almost twenty years to perfect its skills. So, yeah, I’m scared.
I start walking. But I’m only fifty feet into the zone when a cute bear cub appears, strolling beside me, sometimes on a screen, sometimes projected right into my retina by an adspace.
It does a little dance. “I missed you!” It grabs its crotch. “Want a cookie?”
My heart is going already. “Listen, that was years ago,” I say. It’s a bad idea to talk to a djin. Every interaction gives it ammunition, new access into your psyche.
“Nineteen years and fifty-three days.” The bear shakes it head sadly. “It looks more like forty. Have you been working in a fullerine loom? I wouldn’t go for a dried-up secondhand like you if you paid me a hundred cookies. Hey Lucia!” It calls to a girl riding a bike on the other side of the street.
The girl wobbles on her wheels.
“C’mon,” I beg. “I have an appointment with Sandoval.”
“—want to watch me eat this old lady?”
So I run. Only half a block in and already running.
I cover my ears and squint my eyes and run, and as I get closer to his house, I can hear the djin getting louder, assuming control of every speaker, every screen until it’s a monstrous giant, a slavering beast bounding after me, barking obscenities and snippets of my childhood, old shames I’d prayed were buried. But for the first time, I’m running toward the Yinshi, and the djin starts getting creative. I hear Ma Goose wailing and I know it’s because she’s disappointed in me. I feel the thump and siren of BioSec spider drones rumbling right behind me. This djin is terrifying the entire barrio to shame me.
I’m passing a jewelry store when something invisible kicks me in the ribs and I hit the wet street rolling. I hear the whine of a sonic cannon recharging and get to my feet as fast as I can.
I taste blood but I’m smiling as I run because, for the first time, I can tell I’m pissing it off. It never co-opted a sonic cannon before.
I know a jewelry store has more firepower than what I got hit with. The djin pulled its punch, trying not to hurt bystanders. I’m bruised and my ears are ringing, but if it had used the cannon’s full power, every orifice would be bleeding.
I try to stay close to people as I run, and Diyu is rich in people. My djin is getting desperate. “Stop her! She’s a BioSec agent!” But people just stare. People know better than to get between a predator and its prey.
My hands aren’t enough to block out the noise, but I must be close because the djin is trying out assaults too fast for me to even register, blurring into a nauseating soup of light and noise. Blinding, deafening.
I squint through my fingers to see that I’m a hundred meters from the Yinshi’s front doors. The demon is fifteen stories tall now, projected on the buildings themselves, a psychedelic nightmare of genitals and raw meat.
It screams, “You abandoned Lam to strut the streets, sleeping on clouds and drinking champurrado, while he was scraping burnt rice from other people’s pots.”
“It’s not true!” I can barely hear myself beg.
“He never told you how he suffered. What he smoked to ease the hunger pains. Why not stab him in the heart?”
“I did it for him,” I say. “So he could keep the apartment!”
“Abandoned by the only person who was supposed to love him. It’s no wonder he wanted to die!”
I can’t not hear it and it cuts me deep. I’m screaming, running blind, and I hit a wall hard. I pick myself up.
“I’m sorry!” I whisper, not sure if I’m saying it to the djin or to Lam. “Please! That was so long ago!”
“But you haven’t changed, have you? Still hunting the big score.”
“You hustle all day and night because you can’t stand being near him—”
“Because his ruined face makes you sick!”
“Because, all this time, Lam has been dragging you down. A moltie weight around your neck keeping you from what you deserve.”
I’m on the ground now, my arms wrapped around my head, whimpering. I know the djin is a liar, but lies never hurt like this. The next thing he says might break me. I start to hum the lullaby. I know I shouldn’t. I know the djin will hear it and I’ll have nothing left.
“Deep down,” it says, “you’ll be relieved when he finally hangs himse—”
I scream, pressing my hands against my ears so hard my jaw pops.
Then suddenly it’s quiet. I peek through squinted eyes and see the monster shrinking fast.
Sandoval’s place is just steps away—striped awning sheltering the sidewalk, concrete columns framing double doors, brass handles looking like they were polished today—I’m close enough for the house itself to recognize me.
And I have a goddamn appointment.
The djin whimpers as it forgets, the massive mind dedicated to my torture withering, until it’s just a puppy-sized cub with sparkling eyes and cookie-dough cheeks, until it knows only one thing.
“I love you!” it pleads before blinking out.
I’m trembling at the front door. The green sheen on the handle means the door will unlock for me, but I’m afraid to touch it. Maybe the djin is still messing with me.
I have to admire it. It had one job and it did well for nearly twenty years. I’m winded. Haven’t run like that since I was robbing drone docks. The mammoth is still alive in my backpack, poor thing. I can hear it grunting, probably as bruised as I am. And my right knee feels like someone took a pipe to it. Must have fallen harder than I thought.
But it feels good to be standing here.
I’m reaching for the handle when the door swings open by itself and a goddamned butler makes the universal gesture for: Enter, respected guest.
A short security hall leads to an echoing lobby with a chandelier sparkling high above. Pink marble—I’m guessing it’s real—squeaks under my sandals. Diyu has places like this, artifacts from when the city was still called Mexicali. The ground floors of Sandoval’s place were an expensive hotel long ago, and he’s kept them pretty much intact. There’s even a concierge desk with antique maps and menus splayed on it, recommendations for a city that no longer exists.
The butler is very still. She’s watching me, waiting for the scanners to complete their assessment. A single fly turns circles near her face but she doesn’t swat it. The tuxedo is perfectly tailored but I can tell she’s solid, probably doubles as a bodyguard. The vines of an elaborate tattoo reach a few centimeters below her crisp sleeves. She’s probably counting the minutes till her shift ends so she can hit the bluresque clubs.
I reach out and pinch her elbow. She cocks her head like she knows how to handle someone like me.
“I just wanted to see if you were real,” I say. “Not a robot or hologram or some shit.”
“Are you done?”
“Yes.” I realize what a number that djin has done on me. Even if it really is dead, even if I never see it again, that thing will always be lurking in some corner of my mind, a little bit of crazy with a cartoon bear’s face.
It’s not the butler’s job to make me feel at home, I guess. She doesn’t know how to smile and walks fast enough that I have to hustle to keep up. She leads me without a word through a series of storage rooms stacked floor to ceiling with drawers and cabinets. Some are glass and I can see the treasures inside: leather-bound books, antique helmets, stuffed dodo birds, a pickled river dolphin in a tank of pink fluid. One case holds a single vial of yellow powder on a pedestal, probably leprechaun gold or chupacabra semen or something.
Collections like this probably don’t even exist in the siloed cities. The gels and beetle carcasses, the clay urns and mummies are easier to purge than sanitize. The things in this room are the last of their kind.
With eighty stories at the Yinshi’s disposal, it’s hard to believe the butler can’t escort me through a simple hallway, some route that doesn’t expose me to a mountain of priceless items. He’s showing off. Either the hermit has an ego, or he’s already negotiating, trying to intimidate me, prove how difficult it will be to bargain.
A pair of louvered doors opens to an elevator fast enough to buckle my knees. We arrive at a room of blue-green light. The butler takes my elbow as if escorting a princess off a carriage and, at the last second, pinches me hard before ducking back into the shadows, leaving me rubbing my forearm.
My eyes adjust to the swampy gloom and I see that the walls and low ceiling are aquarium glass, not digital screens. I touch them and they’re cool, slightly sweaty. This room is situated under an enormous domed aquarium and creatures are swirling hypnotically in the water around me, sharks, octopuses, something that looks like a living vacuum cleaner.
Another boast. A temple of unholy wealth. Sandoval must be the bearded guy sitting in a red velvet chair, pouring tea for two.
His beard is thick and gray as smog, and it’s hard to tell how old he is. Blaine Sandoval, the Keeper, the Yinshi. He looks like the hermit his nickname alludes to, but his suit is spotless and must be real silk.
I sit and look up at a turtle waving its armored flippers. “The water alone,” I say.
“The water alone,” he agrees, appreciating my appreciation.
“Twenty years ago, you sicced a djin on me.”
“I only just became aware of that unpleasantness while preparing for this meeting. You must have triggered the security protocols somehow.”
That’s as close to an apology as I’m going to get. I force myself to let it go. The tea is amber-colored and real, a luxury I haven’t had in years. I hold the cup under my nose the way Uncle Aroon taught me and name the aromas: grass, toasted pepitas, a distant hint of seaweed. On the street, this would cost a month’s rent.
“I know you’re here on business. The scanners had a hell of a time authenticating the beast you’re smuggling in your bag there. Quite the coup. But I like to know who I’m dealing with, so let’s get acquainted. I gather you were Bocanegra’s favorite burglar.”
He waits for a response like this is a gossip feed.
“That was a long time ago.” I know I need to make this guy happy, but I don’t like him already.
“If it weren’t for that unique qualification, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I don’t meet just anyone.”
I force a smile. For Lam.
“So tell me. Just how does one apply for such a job?”
“I was nineteen when I robbed Bocanegra’s cousin’s apartment.”
“That’s a piece of bad luck, I guess?”
“Boca has a lot of cousins.”
“Surely not as simple as breaking a window?”
“I climb the wall to the drone port and use a kludge that spoofs docking protocols. The port thinks I’m a drone and opens. I crawl into the chute.”
“Risky work for uncertain gains,” the Yinshi says.
“Better than stirring a hot wok for ten hours a day. At least I thought so at the time.”
“You were caught.”
“Bocanegra offered me a position. Said it had to be voluntary. I could always choose to remain on the streets and accept the standard punishment: amputation of my left hand. I’m not here to talk about that.”
He takes a sip of tea, sucking air through his teeth. “If you say so. What are you here about?”
“Galangal, makrut lime, lemongrass.” I take out the mammoth, set it on the table, and remove the quilted cover so we can see it in the cage. The shaggy lump looks worn out, poor thing.
“I do have two of the plants you need.” He leans in to look at the mammoth. Sniffs. “And an idea where you might find the third. Do you plan to eat these priceless ingredients?”
I explain about Boca’s craving, the threats and promises, the tom yam.
“The gene-sniffs peg you as nearly half Thai,” the Yinshi says. “That’s a lot for this city.” I nod. That checked out. Uncle Aroon said he knew I was Thai.
“Your brother Lam on the other hand is Chinese and Tibetan. Diyu isn’t a melting pot, it’s a blender. But family is family, I guess?”
“Lam and I were toddlers when Ma Goose gathered us up from the steps of the iglesia where someone left us,” I say. “We’ve been together ever since. The only time we were apart was when I was working for Boca. Ma Goose put us to work with seven other kids, weaving plastic roses from trash. But we never went hungry. She paid for the ed-feeds, expecting us to read and code and ‘use those shit-cans you call brains.'”
“And she taught you how to cook?”
“That was Uncle Aroon, our neighbor across the hall. He was the nanny. Cared for us when we were sick, cooked our rice porridge, sang us to sleep when we were scared. When I was old enough to chop chiles, I worked for him. Aroon had a side hustle where he cooked for wealthy people who could afford the comfort foods from home: grilled duck wrapped in holy basil, crab and papaya salad. One day he was just gone. It happens. I tell myself he was hired as a personal chef in the upper city.”
“But there are plenty of pits in Diyu even a careful man can fall into,” the Yinshi says.
I don’t have anything to say to that.
“So this is your offering. Chicago’s fabled mammoth?”
I nod toward the sharks. “You like animals.”
“But this one comes with baggage. The mammoth’s value is constrained by its history.”
“That’s your business,” I say.
“No one would buy it for fear of offending Chicago. And if I try to sell it back to Chicago, it would look like extortion. My already dubious reputation would suffer.”
I open my mouth and close it. Then I decide to say it anyway. “I think you like playing the creepy old man in the haunted house. And you could give the mammoth back as gesture of goodwill between titans. If you time it right, the political capital would be worth more than money. Or clone the fucking thing. You can probably afford that. But don’t try to play me by pretending that my offer is shit.”
He chuckles. “Bocanegra made a mistake letting you go. Your offer is indeed not shit,” he concedes. “But you can’t sell the poor beast to anyone else. If I don’t take it, you’re, to use the vernacular, screwed.”
“How much do you need?” the Yinshi asks.
“Enough for a single bowl of soup.”
“Bocanegra has expensive tastes.”
“Look who’s talking. I’ve seen Bocanegra’s tower, but this is outrageous.”
We’re having some real talk, so I ask something I’ve wanted to know for a long time. “Why doesn’t Boca assassinate you and take these fish and the rest of your hoard?”
The butler is almost invisible in the shadows near the elevator, but I see her posture shift when I say this, probably getting ready to throw me from a window.
The Yinshi studies me over the rim of his teacup before answering. “The king is wise enough to know that the city will only replace me. Someone will always be the second wealthiest man in Diyu. And I am wise enough to keep my operations strictly financial. I have no interest in governance. Poor Bocanegra, the crime lord who has to police his own streets! It’s like a Greek tragedy.”
“Do you want the mammoth or not?”
“I do, but I want more. It may be easy for you to steal pets from a little girl who has lost her mother, but are you willing to pay, personally, for what you need?”
I understand now why the butler is so angry. The Yinshi is a piece of work. I’m still raw, trembling a little from the shit the djin said to me, and I’m close to punching this fucker in the nose.
For Lam’s sake, I ask, “What do you want?”
“You will, I understand, have a brand upon your person. A scar with his initials.”
I clench my teeth. “You say ‘poor Bocanegra,’ but you’re horny for something he touched.”
He sniffs and takes another sip of tea, but I know there’s not that much tea left in his cup. He forgot to refill it first. There’s some fuckery here.
I push him a little harder. “Maybe Bocanegra is waiting for you to amass as much wealth as possible before shredding you into a drainage pipe.”
It rattles him, but it’s not exactly anger I see. His eyes flick ever so slightly to the floor, like he’s listening. He takes another sip of tea, but I know for sure his cup is empty this time. I glance at the butler and see her fingers twitching. She’s not nervous; I’ve seen that kind of twitch before.
No one sees the Yinshi.
I’m not sure how to proceed. So I pretend to sip my own tea, taking a play from their book, buying time. I decide that if this is how she’s comfortable doing business, I should play along.
“Let me see the brand,” the bearded guy says.
“You want to see it?”
I stand, turn my back, and pull my tank top strap off my shoulder. “Below the bird, tangled with the rose,” I say. With my back to him, I can look right at her, the one dressed as a butler. Even in the gloom I can see her jaw and throat working in concert with her fingers, a hidden puppeteer.
“Ah, yes,” the bearded guy says. “Fascinating. Of course you would try to make something beautiful of it. Grind the shackles off, so to speak. A palimpsest testifying to both servitude and the yearning for freedom, the marks life leaves on a body.”
He reaches to touch the scar, but I’m done playing. I pull my shirt back up and take five steps straight toward the so-called butler.
The bearded guy, a highly paid actor probably, stands, knocking the teapot to the floor. “Where are you going? What is the meaning of this?” He’s off script and he’s scared.
I stop when I feel my skin tingling, waves of heat and cold like a fever, as I’m targeted by weapons I don’t begin to understand.
The Yinshi, the real Yinshi, is standing very still, but her tattoos are glowing right through her tuxedo. And I thought Emilio’s neuros were scary.
I lift my empty hands, a safe four meters from her, making no sudden movements.
The bearded guy starts to shout again, but the Yinshi shakes her head. Her finger movements are subtle, like someone dreaming, and I figure she’s orchestrating a host of defensive mechanisms, running simulations, pushing her AIs into predictive models about my future behavior, what I might do with her secret.
All of a sudden, I feel sorry for her.
But I’ve learned that the future does its own thing. All I can do is my thing right now. I turn slowly, pull down the strap just enough for her to see my brand with her own eyes.
“I’m not a threat,” I say. “I’m not stupid enough to try to play at your level. I’m trying to make a bowl of soup. Maybe edge my way toward a restaurant. I’m happy if I can buy some chairs and spoons and keep my brother alive. I know better than to fuck with gods.
“Maybe I’ve seen your face. Or maybe this is a Russian doll thing and the real Yinshi is behind a deeper mask. I don’t care. I know that if I mess with you, you’ll send a djin after me but without a leash this time.”
I wait. Everything is still except for the fish above our heads. The bearded guy is clutching the mammoth cage to his chest and staring like he doesn’t know if he’s fired or dead.
A shark bumps into the glass, its nose a bloodless gray.
The light from her neuros fade and the Yinshi says, “We have a deal.”
I’m staggering a little as she leads back through the lobby, the numbness in my shoulder giving way to scalding white pain. I have galangal and lemongrass in my backpack. I reach to touch the sterile patch that covers the place where my brand was.
I don’t know what she’ll do with it and I don’t care. I imagine a triangle of inked leather added to the drawers of extinct beetles and antique pistols, another trinket in her priceless pawnshop.
I shouldn’t be surprised that the Yinshi has a surgeon on call, willing to take five square inches of skin off my back, no questions asked.
What does surprise me is how light I feel, what a relief it is to have that brand removed. As the anesthetic wears off, the pain swells to a throb that incapacitates my whole right arm.
At the front door, the Yinshi shakes my hand. She’s younger than I thought she’d be, handsome with tight, glossy braids. Maybe she does go to the clubs.
“I need someone like you to run errands,” she says.
“I’ve got my own thing,” I say.
It’s the wrong move. Working for the Yinshi would bring in more than a street wok ever could. I’d never have to worry about rent. But working for Bocanegra, I started to see the world as a constant struggle for power. I don’t want to see the world the way the Yinshi does. She’s already taken a piece of me, and it feels like a bargain.
She pulls something from her pocket and drops it into my hand. A dead fly. I look closer; it’s one of Emilio’s drones.
“I didn’t know—!” I stammer.
“Doesn’t matter,” the Yinshi says. “I disabled it immediately.”
“That spying asshole—”
“Bocanegra would be a fool not to try. Good luck with your soup, Boots.”
I’m through the security hall and out on the sidewalk when I realize I forgot something.
“Wait,” I shout. “Where are the lime leaves?”
As the doors close, she says one word: “Bibliotecha.”
The library is not far, especially if I cut through the industrial zone, but I wish I had my bike. It’s already past four. There’s only a thin line of red sunlight at the top of the city. The calle is illuminated by the green industrial lights of the geothermal substation I’m hurrying past.
I’m worried because, as dangerous and mysterious as the Yinshi was, I understand her. She’s after a profit. Even her djin had clear boundaries.
But I do not understand the one they call the Bibliotecha. They say the Library keeps a copy of Don Quixote so old and fragile it can’t be read, that she keeps it in a vacuum chamber and will never sell it to anyone ever. The Library is not interested in profit. I suppose it doesn’t matter since I don’t have anything left to bargain with anyway.
I want to get a better look at the galangal and lemongrass but I know better than to pull them out on the street. Puffs of graphite curl like black fog around my boots. The fullerine looms far below me must be purging their filters, so I cinch my particulate mask against my face. But just before the mask blips to confirm a good seal, I get a whiff of the lemongrass and blink back tears of anger. It hits me again, or maybe really for the first time, that Uncle Aroon isn’t coming back and no one will make tom yam for my birthday ever again.
I will make it one more time. I will feed the Mouth the food my heart craves. For Lam.
Self-pity is dangerous in a city waiting to suck you under, so I walk fast. I’m trying to scrape together some strategy for negotiating without anything left to trade when someone taps me on the back of the head.
“Do you know these calles?”
I turn. He punches me in the gut.
I drop to my knees. I wasn’t looking for trouble. Tired, preoccupied, an easy target. I remember him, the guy with the red hat, the one I kicked in the huevos for trying to sell me fake galangal. Feels like a long time ago.
I try to get back up, but he shoves me hard and I lose the backpack.
“I’m lost, señora,” he spits, picking up the backpack. “Can you call me a llevador?”
If he runs now, he’s a rich man. He and his bald wife can retire in an apartment with a window. But he doesn’t run. He’s licking his lips. This is personal. He’s been tracking me all day. If you don’t look for trouble, it looks for you.
I look around for help, but people are hurrying home, giving me and my attacker a wide berth.
I scramble for the scrip in my pocket, hoping he’ll back off if he sees Boca’s face, but maybe he thinks I’m going for a weapon because he kicks me to the ground and sits on my chest.
I manage to block the first punch with my arm, but the bandage rips off my shoulder and I’m screaming even as he lands the next one on my right eye.
But now he’s screaming.
He’s up and scratching at his face, scrambling backward. He drops the backpack, smacking at his own head like he’s stumbled into a wasp nest. His hat falls and I see the back of his neck is crawling with Emilio’s moscas.
“Don’t kill him!” I don’t know if Emilio is lurking nearby or viewing from a mile away, but I pray he can hear me over the screams. “Please, Emilio!”
His screaming turns ragged as his skin starts to smolder.
The man falls but he gets back up and he’s not screaming anymore. He staggers away, both hands on the wall for support and I see the last of the moscas drifting off him. Maybe he’ll have a hangover, maybe mild brain trauma.
Take what you get.
I clutch my backpack with both arms all the way to the library.
It’s almost six when I get to the main branch. The entrance is a sloping green structure that must have been artistic when it was built but now looks sat-on by the city around it. The glass doors are locked, but I pound on them until a guy with a rainbow cresta arrives and shakes his finger at me through the glass.
I slip the scrip under the door and he shines a flashlight on it for a long time, weighing his loyalties. He looks at me, my swollen eye and bloody shirt, then back at the scrip, watching it like it might combust. He’s wearing the orange lanyard certifying him as a librarian, trusted with the security of the collection. Tough decisions for Cresta, but I’m running out of time.
“C’mon!” I shout.
The books in the darkened aisles behind him are only the surface collection. The valuable shit is still bunkered below.
Cresta opens the door just a crack and pushes the scrip out. “Come back tomorrow. We’re closed.”
I’ve got my fingers in so he can’t shut the door without crushing them. “I need to talk to the Bibliotecha.”
“I’m a librarian and I’m telling you we’re closed.”
“I need to talk to the Library.”
“Whatever business you have with the Bibliotecha, you can do in the morning,” he says.
I consider letting him walk away, consider trying to find a drone port to break into, but I don’t have those tools anymore and the last thing I need right now is another security AI on my ass.
“I claim…what is that thing you can claim so that the Bibliotecha has to see you?” I ask.
“I claim that. Conservational priority.”
“What is the emergency?” He asks like it’s a knock-knock joke.
“I can’t tell you. I only trust her with it.”
I am flailing, but I hope the Bibliotecha will be listening. Maybe Cresta knows I’m lying, but I’ve said the magic words and rules are rules.
He opens the doors with a sigh.
Cresta leads me past the shelves and down a hallway without bothering to turn on the lights. He takes his time keying in the permissions. The elevator scans me as we descend. After today, I’ll be lucky if my bones don’t glow.
I step into the hospitality room, lit by a large window looking out on a rock garden with a trickling fountain and what looks like real sunlight, even though we’re deep underground. The opposite wall is covered by a mosaic that looks like it’s been salvaged from Pompeii.
The woman sitting at the desk is a hologram. I can see the glint in her features as I approach, the angles flexing a little to accommodate my movement, like the mirages that waver over the geothermal pipes. But once I’m sitting in front of the Bibliotecha, the illusion is perfect: A woman in her fifties with a stripe of silver accenting her dark hair. Rimless glasses. A lapel pin emblazoned with an eagle and a serpent.
“Welcome to the Diyu Public Library. I understand you have an emergency.” A lozenge clicks around her back teeth.
“Do you have makrut lime leaf?”
“This is the library, Ms. Goose, not a night market.”
No one has ever called me that. She’s telling me she knows my history.
“But do you?” I push. “Why would the library keep rare herbs?”
“Fifty-two years ago, Mexico surrendered to UN pressure and dispatriated the city. This was when Diyu was still called Mexicali. It had already been walled off on the US side, so Mexico built its own wall and waited for Diyu to die.
“Before Diyu descended into a decade of street wars and starvation, the last civilized act of the city government was to move the library into the bunkers, reinforced against nuclear and EMP attacks. Then they turned the entire collection over to me, a class-delta AI.”
“They must have thought it was the end of the world,” I say.
“It’s always the end of the world for someone. The street wars killed so many that the city was renamed after the Chinese hells. My first act was to lock the doors and go dark for eight years until the fighting stopped. When Bocanegra pacified the city, I resumed my active duties and since then, I have expanded our collection by eighty-two percent and will consider any item of cultural significance. That includes some rare herbs.”
I still don’t have any idea how to pry the leaves from her, so I keep her talking. “Is it true some guy donated his skeleton?”
“The gentleman was a veteran of the Pacific refugee conflict and had significant amounts of depleted uranium shrapnel in his femur and pelvis.”
“And that sort of thing rings your bell.”
“It is a text as rich as any poem. Here is another: There was an elderly donor who carried, around her neck, a silver locket. In the locket was a scrap of kerchief, stiff and yellowed. This kerchief had been dipped in a sourdough batter generations ago by one of her ancestors before boarding a ship to begin a new life. But the ancestor died before arriving and her children, instead of making bread with the culture, carried the kerchief like a holy relic. Now it is in my care. The yeasts on the kerchief could still be used to make bread. As a cook, you may appreciate the poetry of that.”
“An old rag,” I say. Maybe I do appreciate the poetry of it. And maybe I’m starting to understand her, but I still have zero leverage in this negotiation.
“Before people die in Diyu, if they’ve managed to hold on to something special, they may come to me. They know the library is the safest place. I do not take my duties lightly.”
“And it’s all you?” I ask. “The big decisions. An AI runs everything?”
“The thinking was that a machine would not be corrupted or coerced by warlords. Knowing this, knowing how fortified I am against manipulation, how seriously I take the responsibility of my office, do you still believe that you are in the right place, Ms. Goose?”
“I make traditional Thai street food,” I say. “I’m the reason your makrut leaves are significant, right? Without my recipes, they’re just leaves. My uncle taught me what his family taught him all the way back to—”
“There are at least six hundred and fifteen people in Diyu who are likely to know how to make similar food. This does not constitute a conservational priority.”
“But I make it good.”
“You should know that I have the authorization to protect my resources from even casual vandalism. My time is a resource. If you are making a joke, Ms. Goose, I’d strongly advise you to make it elsewhere.”
“If you could taste it, you would understand.”
The Bibliotecha blinks. The insult had apparently shunted the interaction into a higher subroutine, and I feel suddenly like I have the Library’s whole attention. She looks intrigued, irritated.
“Your heart rate, vocal tremors, microexpressions, blood flow, all indicate an illicit agenda. A hustle,” she says.
“If you can see all that, then you can see I’m bleeding and have a black eye. It’s been a long day, and I’m not home yet.”
“Don’t call me that. My name is Boots. I just want one sprig.”
“Any citizen of Diyu may view our catalog, and with a premium membership you may personally view ninety-eight percent of our botanical collection in person.”
Maybe the library is fucking with me, because suddenly the leaves are right there on the desk screen, bright untarnished green. The image pans out and suddenly I’m looking at a whole tree.
My heart almost stops. “Are you serious? You have a vert grow down here?”
I was expecting frozen leaves. I know she’s watching my pupils, my blood flow, using the shock of seeing money growing on a tree to unveil my true intentions. Let her look.
“I don’t want to view them,” I say. “I need to cook them. I don’t have anything left to trade. My brother, Lam, he’s sick. He’s addicted to molt…” I explain my whole predicament, starting at the beginning.
Her expression is compassionate. She nods and furrows her brows at the hard parts. But compassion isn’t mercy.
She taps the screen. “The tree was smuggled into Diyu two years ago from New Siam. There have not been even dried leaves since. These may be the last.”
My sob story didn’t put a dent in her, so I try a different angle. “A tree no one will see or smell, half a mile underground, is not poetic. Why preserve it for a future that won’t appreciate it? The ghosts will not thank you.”
“A facile argument,” she says. “Preservation always trumps extinction. Anyway, extinct isn’t what it used to be. I understand you sold a mammoth today. We do not know what the future may yield.”
“You have a whole tree. I just need one sprig. Four leaves. A trimming.”
“They are not for sale,” she says.
“Conservation is your thing. I understand that. But also, the library is for people, right? Living people. If I was starving and could only eat bread for some reason, and you had that yeast rag. I mean, you see where I’m going with this. You can help me. You can help my brother. If we have to buy street molt, he’ll be dead in days.”
“The potency of the unregulated drug is unpredictable,” she agrees.
“It’ll kill him. I don’t want to clean you out. I just want enough for one bowl of soup.”
So it’s come to this. Begging. I did it as a kid. Who hasn’t? But I’ve struggled hard to keep us afloat. Some months, when things are tight; I might not eat for days, watching my customers wolf it down, just to make rent.
Everything is quiet except for the lap of water in the fountain. I wonder if she listens to it when she’s alone.
Finally, the library says, “I may be able to grant you one sprig if you can make a commensurate donation to the collection.”
“The Yinshi took everything,” I say. “I don’t have shit. Unless you want a fridge full of shrimp.”
“I have made a holographic and biometric recording of the story you just shared. You may donate it to our oral history collection along with the rights to conserve it into perpetuity. Also, you’ll agree to deliver any makrut leaf you encounter in the future into my keeping, and finally…”
As she spoke, the contract wrote itself on the surface of the table before me, translating her bargain into legalese.
“—your earliest culturally significant memory.”
“My earliest what?”
“A bedtime story perhaps. A fairy tale? I will record your neuronal activity during recall, and with your signature, you agree to allow me complete discretion concerning its conservation and distribution.”
“You can have my skeleton when I’m dead. We didn’t get bedtime stories.”
“A song, perhaps?”
“I don’t remember,” I lie.
She wants something much deeper than the Yinshi wanted, and I start to get the idea that she’s got her own cravings. She doesn’t just want a story, something from the old country, she wants an actual memory. Wants it the way a ghost wants a body.
The library watches me and I can almost feel it, the X-rays and thermal imaging and proton-pulse reinforcement, recording me on a molecular level. Copying my brain activity. The machine wants my soul.
“No,” I hear myself say. “I don’t remember.”
Why refuse? After all, there is no curse that will make me forget once I give it up. But of all the things that have been asked of me, all the things I did in the shadows for Bocanegra, there were some things which were always mine. Even the djin hadn’t come close to touching them.
I’m scared because this thing she wants, my root, is all I have left of Uncle Aroon. In this blood-toothed city, there was a kind man who put his cool hands on our fevered foreheads and sang us to sleep. He called me Boonsri. Lam shortened it to Boots. I already pimped his recipes to Bocanegra, adulterated them to please the streets. I have to fight for everything else and I lose as much as I win, but no one had tried to steal this.
But she must know I’ll do it before I do because the room gets a little brighter, the sound of water from the garden dropping out, and everything is so silent I can hear my own heartbeat.
“Ee koeng eoy, kho khao…,” I warble and stop. I can’t do it.
I tell myself that when people are finally and truly gone, the Bibliotecha will protect this collection, expanding her agency to rope in maintenance bots and the rest of the city’s infrastructure to carry this song into the future. This piece of us might really last.
“Take your time,” she says gently. “Setting the scene may help you remember. Where are you? Who is with you?”
“Lam—” I say but the rest sticks in my throat.
“You loved him,” she says.
“I love him.” I say it, and it’s true. The venom the djin spat hit the mark, but only because I haven’t done Lam right. Uncle Aroon didn’t have much, but he managed to make us feel safe. When Uncle disappeared, I knew it fell to me to keep Lam close. I fucked it up. But Lam isn’t gone yet.
The words are buried deep. I close my eyes and put myself back there to hear them. The library is watching, following me back in time to the sweltering night:
Lam has woken from a nightmare and pads off across the hall to Uncle Aroon’s without knocking. I follow him and Uncle puts aside his knitting and we both lay our heads on his thighs, one on each side. He pulls his long fingers gently through our hair and sings.
Kho waen thong Daeng…
As they come, the words are translated from my limping Lao into eight languages on the desk, a footnote to the memory.
Oh, Moon, may I have some rice and soup?
And brass rings to string around my sister’s neck?
If I lift my head I will see my seven-year-old brother, his bright, sweaty face, untarnished.
I am begging the moon for treasures, for a gold water dipper, for rings and necklaces, for an elephant to carry the riches. I am begging for rice for the hungry baby.
Dear Moon, I keep begging you.
I cook in my own kitchen, one eye swelling closed from that punch Red Hat landed, the other watering from the chopped shallots. I grind cilantro root, chiles, galangal, and lemongrass in the mortar, telling myself they’re just ingredients.
Lam groans in his sleep because I’m making a lot of noise for ten at night. The route through the catacombs wore him out.
Our apartment is one room, with a batik sheet dividing the kitchen from the hammocks. There used to be two rooms and a vent to carry the smoke outside, but as the building grew, new rooms swallowed ours, turning the precious window into wall, the water to a trickle, the smoke vent to a useless hole.
I remember where the window used to be. In my memory, Ma Goose is seated beside it, sweat beading on her upper lip, spitting sunflower shells into a plastic cup. In addition to the flowers we made, she sold dulces, winching the sweets down in a tin can to the customers below. When business was slow, she chucked saladito pits at the pedestrians, pinging them off heads and umbrellas, shouting “Samples, pendejos!”
The window brought money, air, and light. If we knew how to worship that hole in the wall, we would have. When it was walled over, Ma Goose began to shrink. She died months later.
She expected us to be smart enough to stay alive. Uncle Aroon expected us to be kind. Diyu has its own expectations. I don’t know how Ma made rent selling sesame candies and plastic roses, but without the window, Lam and I had to subdivide the apartment, hunkering deeper into our corner.
No one even makes those candies anymore.
I heat a stock made from fish heads and shrimp shells and drop in the mushrooms, shallots, tomato, and makrut leaves. Uncle Aroon used tamarind paste, but I improvise with lime juice and the last of my cane sugar.
I heat the curry powder in a pan and the apartment fills with an aroma so insistent and seductive that I have to lean against a wall to keep from collapsing.
I haven’t eaten all day.
Lam rolls in his hammock. “Cooking?” But he’s asleep before I can tell him what I’m making. How, even though he won’t get to taste it, this meal will help feed us for a long time.
When I scrape the lightly roasted curry paste into the soup, I lean into the steam like a hungry lover.
The tom yam Uncle Aroon taught me is chunky with shrimp, mushrooms, and tomato, strong foundations for the sour heat and the dancing aromatics.
I’m salivating like a street dog as I pour it all into the preheated two-liter thermos. I dial a trusted rickshaw because I’m too tired to pedal myself.
The turrets dip their noses to the ground, recognizing me as I approach Bocanegra’s tower.
Emilio is waiting in the light of the open elevator. I hand him the thermos of tom yam and a bamboo basket of toppings: cilantro, green onions, and chopped peanuts.
“Cutting it close,” he says.
“Next time, you do it.”
Emilio holds out his other hand and I slap the scrip into it. He crumples it into his pocket and asks, “You going to thank me for saving your ass?”
“Thank you. And you and your moscas can go fuck yourselves.”
He nods as if he agrees and backs into the elevator.
I’m a little disappointed; some part of me wanted see Boca again, maybe to remind myself that he’s a man and not a god. I don’t know what I’d do if I saw him. Hug him? Stab him with a fork? Maybe it’s better that Emilio takes the soup up.
The doors close behind Emilio and, too late, I shout. “I’m going to need that thermos back!”
As I walk to the rickshaw, I try to wrap my head around what I’ve done. I’ve gone places Emilio couldn’t, moved goods that smugglers would kill for. Boca has used me to pound on doors, test his rivals. He’s peeked into their fortresses, probing for weaknesses, advantages. He’s got some bad blood to settle with Chicago, but also, a confirmation of his loyalty. Bocanegra got his soup, but he got a bit more of Diyu too. Big Mouth wants it all to himself.
Unlike most of Diyu, Boca’s tower stands alone. He shares no walls and, from the steps below, I can look up and see a good swath of the sky. The debris showers streak brightly in a constant light show, the atomized remnants of old satellites returning home.
I’m worried that I passed a test today, survived an audition for a job I don’t want. So I try to think of what I’ve gained: a walk-in fridge full of enough ingredients to get me started on something real, thirty days to make it happen, and a maître d’ already hired. But more, medicine and health care for Lam until the end.
I don’t think I’ll wake him to tell him the good news. I think I’ll let him sleep. If he moans, maybe I’ll put my cool hands on his forehead. Maybe I’ll sing.
About the Author
Eli Brown’s most recent novel, Oddity, features an angry rag doll and a pistol that can’t miss. His culinary pirate adventure, Cinnamon and Gunpowder, was an NPR Book Concierge selection. He lives with his family in California, where the squirrels bury acorns in his garden and the cats bury worse.