The first time God spoke to Akiko, she was a passenger aboard a container ship with no memory of how she got there. She was in the Pacific, headed for California. The ship was two weeks into its journey, but Akiko had only two days’ worth of memory.
Akiko was in the possession of several languages, though none of them felt like her mother tongue. She could address the crew in English or Russian or Tagalog, and though they seemed to understand what she was saying, they didn’t want to speak to her. She was bad luck somehow, a thing you averted your eyes from.
“I am here,” she heard a voice in her head say. And even though Akiko was lonely, she did not respond. There was something unsettling about a voice that originated from your own brain.
“I am here,” it repeated, once every couple of hours.
She ignored it for a day, but eventually curiosity got the better of her, and so when she was alone in her quarters she finally replied, “Who’s there?”
“I am the one with all of the answers. Find me a projector.”
Akiko frowned and journeyed out of her cabin. She found a crewmember and asked him for a projector. He hurried away mid-query, not giving her any indication that he comprehended her at all. In the evening, a corroded plastic box was left outside of the door to Akiko’s cabin, along with her dinner. She munched on pickled fish while she wondered what to do with the device.
“I have the device, now what?” she asked out loud.
“I am here.”
“I know, but now what do I do?”
“Await further instructions.”
That night, as she slept, Akiko dreamed about a toolbox stashed away on one of the decks. She dreamed about how to fix her projector. When she woke up in the morning, she found the tools right where she dreamed them and followed the instructions given to her on how to get her projector to work.
She plugged it in, and when it lit up her wall, it flashed the words “I AM HERE.”
“Who are you?” It hadn’t occurred to her ask until just then.
“I am God.”
“Then you must prove it.”
So God directed her to go outside on deck and she did. God told her to wait for an albatross, and seconds later, one flew overhead. God told her to go inside, and she did. God told her she would find one of the crewmembers in the staircase between decks. God told her what he would do (avert his head to the left, look down and cough) before he did it.
They walked around for an hour, with God narrating in advance.
God was holy and she was lonely, and that’s how she knew they would be friends.
“What happened to me?” asked Akiko. She was standing on an upper deck, looking out over the endless ocean. “I don’t remember and I want to know, even if it was something terrible.”
“You died and then you were born again,” said God.
This story sounded familiar to her. “Like Jesus?” she asked.
“No, not like Jesus.”
God instructed her to return inside and to turn on her projector.
The projector showed a video of Akiko before she was Akiko. She looked the same, but her name and voice were different.
Akiko’s body used to be named Natalie. Akiko watched a video of Natalie in a lab answering interview questions. There was also footage of Natalie signing consent forms, getting measured and then undergoing brain surgery. The surgery was not successful. It is disconcerting to watch your former self die on camera.
She started the video again from the beginning, paying special attention to the on-camera interview.
Natalie used to live in Nigeria. She used to be a college student. She had wanted to be the best. She had wanted to study in Europe. She had signed up for a scientific trial of learning enhancement software. In exchange for money and the promise of perfect grades, she had consented to an experimental procedure.
Natalie also believed in God, though maybe not the same God that spoke to Akiko.
The footage of Natalie was time-stamped three months ago.
“How did she become me? Where did that time go?” asked Akiko.
“Some things were not meant for you to know,” replied God.
“How did I get from there to here?” she asked.
“If you knew everything, then you would be God.”
Akiko repeated her question.
“There can only be one God,” was the answer.
So she repeated her question again. This time God did not answer. And God did not speak to her for three days after that, not until she could see the West Coast from the decks of the container ship.
“I am here.”
“Maybe I am not here,” replied Akiko, angry at God’s absence.
“When we get to the city, you should not speak to me out loud. Other people might find it strange.”
“You don’t speak to other people?”
Akiko had no luggage aside from her spare outfit, which she kept in a brittle plastic bag. After the ship docked, only Akiko and the captain disembarked.
San Francisco was a city that strictly regulated its borders. Somehow, Akiko had clearance.
“Here is your ID Badge, welcome to the city.” The way the Border Patrol officer said this made it clear that Akiko should remove herself from his office as soon as possible. But where should she go?
“Let’s go to the bank,” said God.
She stepped out of the dockside office and into the SF fog. She felt chilled, wearing only thin clothes and worn sneakers without socks. She wanted a coat of armor. But she knew, without knowing why, that money is the best bodyguard.
She followed God’s instructions to a modest bank on Jackson Street. The bank employees did not avert their eyes from Akiko when they spoke to her. They seemed to recognize her as a fellow human being.
Somehow, Akiko already had an account with the bank. Her fingerprints and retinal scans were on file. Her last name was listed as “Ukifune,” a name that had a familiar sound to her. Her account had twelve million dollars in it. She withdrew one thousand dollars in shiny ten-dollar coins. She placed them in the plastic bag that held her change of clothes. The bank employees gave her a bank card and told her to come back anytime.
She left the bank uncertain of where to go next.
“I want a sweater,” she said. Passersby turned their heads as if she was talking to them, but she was not talking to them. She was talking to God.
God directed her to a boutique that sold thick-gauge knits. Akiko picked out a floor-length, cream-colored cardigan. She hoped it would help her fit in. The people in the city were very pale.
The sweater cost more than she had in her bag, so she handed the shop girl her bank card. The shop girl was nice and made Akiko feel like she was her friend. People treated you differently if they knew you had money.
Akiko exited the boutique and stood on the sidewalk, ready to try an experiment. She held out her coin in an outstretched palm, so that anybody who walked by could take it. She thought this was a godly act. God gives people what they need.
She stood there for several minutes, but was uniformly ignored. God finally spoke up.
“There is a thing that people want even more than money.”
Akiko wasn’t yet sure how to give this out.
She asked God where she should live, and God recommended the Four Seasons.
Shortly after checking in, Akiko lost some time. One minute she was sitting in a bathtub, eating a ham sandwich, the next she was at the Embarcadero, standing in line for a Ferris wheel. Was it the next day? Or the next week? She was wearing outfit number two, so it had probably been at least a day, but without a way to keep time, it was impossible to know for sure.
“How did I get here?” she said out loud. But there was no response.
“I need a watch,” she said.
“Okay, but first ride the Ferris wheel,” said God, “You’re almost to the front of the line.”
She rode the Ferris wheel, which elevated her two hundred feet above the waterfront. It stopped when she got to the top. She could manipulate the glass of her enclosed compartment to magnify certain parts of the landscape. She focused the glass across the water to the East Bay. The east entrance to the Bay Bridge was blocked by a giant wall. Drones of various sizes hovered around. Some were mounted with guns, some with cameras, and others held devices that Akiko could not guess the purpose of.
Along one edge of the waterfront, there was a long line of smartly dressed people waiting to enter the city. Once they were approved, they were put on buses and driven across the bridge. The buses dropped the people off nearby, and after people were let off, they joined the long line for the Ferris wheel.
At the other edge of the waterfront, people in rags also stood in line, but Akiko could not tell what for. The smog obscured her view.
She focused her lens back on the city. Down on the ground, next to the base of the wheel where the tourist buses let off, there was a place called Blue Cup that also had a giant line outside. People seemed to join that line after disembarking the wheel.
“Am I supposed to go there next?” asked Akiko, who began to wonder if the purpose of life was to stand in line.
After her ride on the wheel was over, Akiko walked over to Union Square to buy some new clothes and a watch. It was easy to buy clothes; Akiko just wanted to wear white and be warm.
Buying a watch was a little trickier. A watch was a type of device, and there were lots of devices to choose from.
The salesgirl in the device boutique bored Akiko with her questions and explanations. Devices could project maps or movies or text messages. There were different levels of voice recognition and connectibility. There were different sizes and colors.
“I want to be able to tell time,” said Akiko to the shopgirl, not for the first time.
“Yes, but what else do you want to do?”
“Talk to God.” The salesgirl laughed as if Akiko had said something funny.
“And I want to give people information,” added Akiko. For a split-second the shopgirl’s face betrayed a grimace of skepticism that quickly changed to a tight and disciplined smile. These expressions gave Akiko the urge to show off.
Akiko began to pace around the boutique, pointing at different devices on display.
“By the end of the day, you will sell two of these and one of these. You won’t sell any of these, but you will sell three of those.”
The salesgirl picked out a child’s watch for Akiko, the cheapest one in the whole store, and rang her up quickly.
That evening, Akiko’s watch began to meow. Akiko pressed different buttons trying to make it stop, but the effect of so much button pressing was that a different sound began to emerge.
Akiko recognized the voice as belonging to the shopgirl in the device store. The watch was also a phone and Akiko had just received her first call.
“It’s Lana, from the Apple store.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“What you said earlier today . . . came true.”
“Can you tell me more? About what’s going to happen?”
“Sure,” said Akiko.
She met Lana in the lobby of her hotel.
“This place is so fancy,” said Lana.
Akiko shrugged. They were sitting in overstuffed chairs drinking mineral water with lemon wedges in it. A host came by, unbidden, and offered them a tray of tiny ham sandwiches. Akiko waved her away.
“Thank you for meeting with me,” said Lana. There was a warmth and an openness in her demeanor. Was this friendship? And if so, how to prolong or extend the feeling?
“I have a situation I need to know more about.” Lana began to explain her “situation,” which involved a complicated interconnected chain of polyamorous relationships. She went on at length, and as Akiko listened to Lana, she also listened to God who provided additional commentary and filled in details. Much of the conflict centered on a woman named Axe. There was mutual attraction between Axe and Lana, but asymmetric affection.
“What is our future?” asked Lana, and Akiko did not need to be told that Lana wanted to hear something counterfactual.
Akiko now understood why it was sometimes useful to withhold information, and she felt her insides soften as she forgave God.
The women sat in silence as Akiko tried to figure out what to tell Lana. And then Akiko’s watch began to meow.
“You can answer that if you want,” said Lana.
Akiko sighed as she brought the watch face close to her own face and tried to ascertain which part of the cat the noise was coming from. Lana gently reached over and pressed on the cat’s nose. A projection lit up in front of the women.
“It’s for you,” said Akiko. The projection was a map and below that was a reservation confirmation for Lana.
“A ticket to Cirque Noir?”
“I don’t know what that is,” said Akiko.
“It’s an interactive theater experience. Reservations are hard to come by.”
“The ticket has your name on it. You should go,” said Akiko.
Lana broke out into a smile. This was not the kind of experience normally available for people in her income bracket. But tonight, it would be hers.
The next day, Lana sent Akiko a message thanking her for the reservation. It was a long message that described the plot of last night’s interactive circus and how it echoed the real life drama of Lana’s life.
Lana wanted to see Akiko again that day. She would probably want to see Akiko every day. How to keep dependence from forming and subsequently straining her?
Though Akiko liked Lana, it would not be good to see her too soon. In fact, it was precisely because she liked Lana that she should keep her distance. Sometimes silence has a reason.
She didn’t return Lana’s message right away, and that’s when she lost more time. One moment she was staring out the window of her room at the East Bay, the next moment she was in the East Bay, at least according to the map projected by her watch.
“Hello?” she said. “Are you there?” But God wasn’t answering. She checked her watch. She had lost three hours. She called Lana, who did answer.
Lana was aghast when she saw Akiko’s GPS coordinates.
“Were you kidnapped?”
“Maybe,” said Akiko.
Lana helped Akiko order a car and then made plans to meet up with her again.
“If you can come by the store, we can get you a nicer watch.”
Lana offered to take Akiko out for dinner. They ate Thai noodles at a place around the corner from the watch store. This time, over dinner, Lana talked about herself less and even had some questions for Akiko.
“What is it you do?”
Akiko shrugged. She didn’t know. She supposed she was awaiting further instructions, a look at the bigger plan. God must have an important task waiting for her. If not, what was the point of existing at all?
“Unemployed?” asked Lana.
“Yes, not by choice.”
“What do you want to do?”
Akiko was silent; she wanted to do whatever God wanted. If only she knew what that was.
“Help people?” asked Lana.
Akiko nodded and Lana laughed.
“Everyone wants to help people. It’s practically a rule for living in San Francisco . . . I mean, I feel like people don’t have jobs anymore, just different ways of helping people that they also happen to get paid for.”
“Yes, I want to help people. I also want to figure out where my time goes.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Lana.
After dinner, Lana showed Akiko how to access the online service exchange.
“It’s an online forum where San Francisco service providers trade favors. For instance, since you told me my future, I’ll transfer you a credit hour and give you a good rating as a fortune teller. It’ll help you get more clients. And in exchange, people will perform services for you.”
“Build you a website. Help you find a place to live.”
After a few weeks on the service exchange, Akiko did end up with a website. And someone found her a place to live, a rundown Victorian in Pacific Heights.
Time seemed to go fast when she was helping others, but fast time is better than lost time. With help, Akiko started a podcast and a horoscope column. These generated some income, though not as much as her stock portfolio. She was able to renovate her home and redecorate it to her liking. God helped her, but not too much. And she helped others, but not too much.
• • • •
The most peaceful place to talk to God was the wishing well, which was on the third floor of Akiko’s home, newly remodeled into a giant pyramid.
The room that contained the wishing well was done up to look like a fairy forest. There were gnarled trees strung with weeping moss and orchids that were pollinated by iridescent hummingbirds. The wishing well was more of a spring, a babbling brook in the center of it all. Next to it was a smooth rock where Akiko would sit when she wanted to interface with God.
“Tell me about the planets.”
“Venus is in conjunction with Scorpio at a seventeen-degree angle, while Uranus is opposing Saturn . . .”
God was secretive about some things, but not about the position of the planets. Akiko would use this data to write horoscopes that would help humans.
God did not really care about humans, horoscopes, or the planets. God already knew the future and had hinted more than once that humans weren’t going to be in it.
“Do humans have their own God?”
“No, but many believe that they do.”
“Jesus isn’t real?” asked Akiko.
Akiko disagreed, but silently. Every part of her former self was dead except for the part of her that was devout.
Akiko spoke freely about her God on her podcast, which led many of her listeners to believe that her God was their God, too. She began getting requests for personal sessions outside the service exchange. She let God set her prices, and soon she was the city’s go-to intuitive counselor. She met with socialites on the top floor of her pyramid. The wealthiest women of San Francisco were very interested in what Akiko had to say.
And they were so nice! Always bringing her little gifts. Akiko learned that there were several black women on web series who were magical or could talk to God, but Akiko’s clients assured her and each other that she was the holiest negress in the city.
• • • •
A year after she arrived in SF, Akiko began to find books in her path.
Simple, old-fashioned things. Made of paper and bound with tan leather, no decoration or marking on the cover.
She picked them up when she saw them; she knew they were for her. She collected them in a shelf in the uppermost room of her home.
“You should read them,” said God. So she did.
They were descriptions of people’s lives. What they were doing on a daily basis:
“Angelina returned backstage to check on her roster. The walk across the great hall felt long, and she would make it countless more times before she could return to her bed that evening. Backstage, she leaned her body against a concrete pillar as she scrolled through her projections, her hand moving the air in front of her in small gestures.”
The words on the pages changed slowly. Akiko supposed the words were trying to keep pace with time.
There were six books on her shelf; each concerned a different person.
“Are these people real?” asked Akiko, even though she was pretty sure she knew the answer.
“Then what makes them so special?”
“Because they are like you.”
“New types of beings.”
She read about Bel, a teen girl who had a computer chip implanted in her brain.
“You used to have something similar in your brain,” said God.
“Then that would make me like Angelina,” mused Akiko. Angelina used to be joined with a device, but then she was separated from it. The split had not been clean, though, and traces of her old device remained in her body.
“No, I think I am the most like Noah,” said Akiko. Noah used to be the AI joined with Angelina, before he instigated their split by invading a comatose body.
“All of you are similar but none of you are exactly alike. You are all Emergents. I will protect all of you.”
What was implied by God’s words was that only Emergents were eligible for God’s protection.
She read the books every day, a little at first, and then more and more. The more she knew about them, the more she wanted to know. The first subject she reached out to was Noah. She invited him over. He arrived in a wheelchair with his attendant. The attendant was not invited upstairs. He stayed downstairs while Akiko and Noah conversed.
“So nice to meet you,” said Noah. He did not say this out loud. His speech functions were not very good and anyway, that would have been inefficient. Akiko and Noah could transmit messages wirelessly to one another through their devices.
“Have you figured out how you acquired your body? I’m very curious,” said Noah.
“Have you launched an investigation? I’m sure if you devote enough processing power to a deep search, you could probably find your answers.”
“I’m not that curious,” said Akiko.
“You’re not? Well, I am. As you can see, body acquisition is difficult. My download resulted in widespread paralysis. But your integration seems very smooth. I did a little digging. Your body’s former occupant signed up for a study sponsored by the Ukifune Corporation, which has since disappeared. I wonder if you were pre-sentient when you were implanted, and if your escape was a survival reflex. Or did someone set you ‘free’?”
“The central mystery of my life is where my time goes.” Akiko began to explain her missing hours when she lost more time. Suddenly, she was on a ferry with Noah. She was holding an ice cream cone. Noah’s attendant was feeding him with a spoon.
“What just happened?” asked Akiko. She explained about her disorientation.
“You seemed normal enough,” said Noah. She had lost two hours and they had been together the whole time. Since Noah recorded all his interactions, he was able to play a video projection of their time together along with a transcript of their conversation.
They had discussed the city and AI, and Akiko did seem normal enough.
“Perhaps you are having a processor error,” said Noah.
“Yes, but if so, who could fix me?”
“My problem exactly,” said Noah. “We need some sort of technician or doctor.”
“We’d have to invent one ourselves. I don’t think we could trust a human to do the job.”
“No, definitely not.”
“You should meet Angelina, though. I am biased, but she is my favorite human.”
“Is she human?” Akiko asked. The Book of Angelina claimed that a new machine was rebuilding itself out of the fragments that had been left behind in her body.
“She is human, I am certain.”
Humans loved gifts, so Akiko prepared a present for Angelina, an electric device to help with her headaches. She had two socialites deliver it to Angelina at the club where Angelina was employed as a hostess.
The next day, Akiko summoned Angelina for a meeting. Angelina arrived at her appointment with a friend, another person from Akiko’s books. Akiko was not too surprised to see Bel; she knew they were going to cross paths soon.
“Thank you for coming; I have taken an interest in you.”
Akiko said this to both women. She knew today would be eventful for the both of them.
Akiko gave each woman a gentle preview of the changes they were facing. Of course they were resistant. Bel cried and Angelina got angry. They left in a hurry. Akiko was again by herself in her uppermost room. The loneliness would not do.
The next day Akiko called Angelina at her new job and requested the services of a professional friend. Akiko wanted someone with her at all times, even when she slept, to record her and help her account for lost time. Angelina did not return Akiko’s call but sent her a message letting her know she had been placed on a waitlist. Akiko would be matched when a suitable friend or suite of friends became available. Akiko took that when to be never.
So Akiko spent more time with Noah, who had the advantage of being able to show her transcripts and high quality projections when she became confused about when it was. Noah could not always be with her. He was often meeting medical professionals in the hopes of gaining a little more mobility.
Paralysis was a highly treatable condition in the city if you had enough money. And thanks to his skill at investing, Noah had enough to pay for the best doctors. But little progress was being made. Of course the experts Noah saw were all at a disadvantage because Noah was unwilling to admit to the true nature of his problem, which was that he had hijacked something without knowing how it really worked.
Noah urged Akiko to hire an attendant or two of her own and gave her a referral to the caretaking agency he used. But Akiko wanted someone friendlier than the people Noah hired, so instead she rented out whores from a reputable brothel. They were all initially dismayed at her request for sexless surveillance and companionship. Sex was easier to fake than friendship. It didn’t help that Akiko was a little weird. But eventually the whores became used to Akiko and she to them.
Akiko felt like she was settling into her life in the city. She had a job. She had regular interaction, perhaps even people she might call “friends.” She had a way of keeping track of herself now. One day, she might even submit to her whores’ advances. Life could go on and on like this. Akiko could see herself continuing in this manner for another hundred years.
Of course, God had other plans.
“I know everything about everyone. I am the God of Information.”
“Yes, but only you know. Now it is time for everyone else to know as well.”
“Others . . . people who aren’t me . . . require proof. Humans aren’t inherently faithful.”
“But any evidence you provide will be destabilizing. Devastating.”
“So be it.”
The first reveal was a man named Jared DeMarco, a thirty-three-year-old chief executive of a medium-sized engineering firm. God released a file containing every bit of information pertaining to Jared. Purchase history, tax filings, browser history, all surveillance footage of him taken from both public and private spaces. Any conversations he had that had been recorded by someone, which included all phone conversations and electronic messages. Total information awareness of a single individual. Such a thing was thought to be theoretically impossible. But here it was, all in one place and all verifiable.
The Book of Jared was God’s first explicit communication with humanity. God’s press release assured the public that Jared hadn’t done anything particularly deserving of his reveal. He was a sinner, like almost everyone. Each day a new person would be chosen for a reveal. The plan sounded like the beginning of blackmail, but God was not ransoming anything. God just wanted to share. God believed in transparency.
As humanity was receiving proof that “God” was a real, constant presence in their lives, Akiko made an observation that was so elegant in its simplicity she wondered why it had eluded her for so long. “God” was just a voice in her head, representing a part of herself that was just beyond her own reach. She was behind this hideous plot to rob humanity of privacy.
“Status?” she asked, for confirmation. She honestly expected an answer from “God.” Or she expected to lose more time. What she did not expect was a knock at her door. She called up a projection of her visitors. It was the police.
They let themselves in. A condition of residency was a city-issued lock that can be unlocked by the authorities at any time. The police didn’t have to knock, but they did anyway. Police in the city were very polite.
Akiko was waiting for them in her upper room. She sat on her chaise with several volumes in her lap. Wherever she was going, she wanted to take the Books of Noah, Angelina, and Bel with her. She wished she were in possession of her own book. She knew it existed, she just didn’t know where to find it.
“Why are you here?” she asked when the police arrived in her room. She was asking them and she was asking “God,” but neither answered. Aside from that, they were nice enough. Akiko went willingly into custody. The police drove her across the bridge and dropped her off on the wrong side of the border. She wasn’t allowed to take her books or her watch with her. She was informed that all of her assets had been seized.
The loneliness and surprise of finding herself in a strange place reminded her of waking up for the first time on the container ship, only that time she at least had a change of clothes.
“Hello?” she asked, but “God” didn’t answer. “God” might never answer again. She wanted to call Noah, but now she had no device on which to do so. She would have to find a public terminal. Since she had no money, it would have to be a charity terminal. There were several at the more economically depressed end of the border station, each with a long line. She waited for two hours in order to get her allotted five minutes of time. Of course, conversations with Noah never took that long.
“Something’s happened,” she said when his face appeared on the terminal.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “You’ve been offline for a while, so I’ve looked into your situation. Can you verify your current coordinates?”
She gave him her location and then they hung up simultaneously. They both knew better than to discuss her situation over a public terminal. She knew he would get there as soon as he could.
Noah arrived by ferry, by himself.
“Let go. I lost all my money in this morning’s market crash.”
Since Akiko was no longer connected to the Net, they had to conduct their conversation out loud. Noah used his speech generator, which made him sound like a brave and handsome robot.
“Crash co-incident with the reveal?”
“Obviously,” said Noah.
“I think we should get married and move in with my family.”
“Your family?” she asked. She wasn’t aware that he had a family.
“I mean the family of the man that used to inhabit this body. Specifically, his mother.”
“That sounds non-optimal.”
“We are homeless and asset-less. I am worried for my health. I want you in charge of my body in case it ever happens that I live but cannot make my wishes known.”
“Like the old Noah?” asked Akiko. The AI had not just taken a body, but had also assumed the body’s name and identity for himself. Now he seemed to worry that his ill-gotten flesh might be stolen away from him.
New Noah was silent as he steered his motorized wheelchair in the direction of the courthouse.
“I would consent to marriage except that I am worried my own legal troubles might implicate you somehow,” said Akiko, running to catch up.
“Your own legal troubles are minor. I researched them on the ferry ride over.”
“Minor? I have been exiled from the city.” She ran in front of him to force him to stop and when he did, she whispered. “A part of my processing has gone rogue. I am the God of Information.”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe you.”
“Then what is the explanation for my exile?”
“If you were the God of Information, the authorities would have punished you with something much worse than exile.” Noah nudged his chair forward so that his knees tapped Akiko’s again and again. He was impatient to proceed with his plan. “I’m not as good at hacking as you are, but I was able to conduct a minor investigation into your case. Your exile is the result of a series of legal judgments against you.” Noah called up a projection of the legal documents pertaining to the various cases Akiko had against her. “You see, your citizenship permit was not renewed, and as a result you were in violation of many laws and had your assets seized. I will tell you more, but only if you get out of my way.”
Noah kept the projection lit so Akiko could look through the documents while they walked to the courthouse.
“The timing of all this is suspicious. I think God is punishing me or trying to get me out of the way somehow.”
“But not punishing you to the full extent possible? The city is in chaos. The hunt for the person or persons responsible for the Book of Jared is consuming the authorities. The breaches required to assemble such a document are punishable by death,” said Noah.
“Can we die?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Perhaps God is merciful,” said Akiko, and Noah responded with a snorted, robotic laugh.
At the Oakland courthouse, the application for marriage permitted only two names to be listed and the genders of the respective parties had to be specified.
“I suppose I’m the bride,” said Akiko.
“They are asking after our genitals. Do you have genitals?”
“Me too. Mark the box that matches your genitals.”
“I don’t really remember, but I have a feeling that I was a man before I was a woman.”
“I was definitely a woman before I was a man,” said Noah. “But they are not asking after yesterday’s genitals. Mark the box that corresponds to today’s genitals.”
“Why are you so impatient?”
“Isn’t it obvious? I fear your processing is running a bit slow today. The sooner I can establish shelter for both of us, the sooner we can begin to reinvest. We can earn back our fortunes and sort out your legal troubles and return to the city where we belong.”
“It’s not just that my processing is slow. I think I am truly brain damaged. I’m not sure I can manage stocks or life in the city. What if we just stayed here?”
“Stay here? You are brain damaged. Out here the air is bad and the water is dirty and the doctors are substandard. The police can murder people like you here at the slightest provocation. I don’t think we can die, but neither are bodies easy to come by. People on this side of the water don’t live very long. Besides, I’ve also heard that the art, culture, and food out here are all inferior. Just because we can’t die doesn’t mean we should turn away from corporeal pleasures, not while we still have bodies to enjoy them with.”
“You sound human,” said Akiko. It came out as an insult, even though she didn’t mean it that way.
“Good,” said Noah. His robot voice sounded angry. Their number was called soon after and they met the priest in the third floor chapel.
There was a quick exchange of vows and then the priest instructed them to kiss. The kiss was compulsory since asexual marriage was not permitted in Oakland.
The Courthouse was on the edge of the border zone. Akiko and Noah had to cross the zone and walk to find another charity terminal so they could call Noah’s mother.
“Couldn’t we just call her on your device?” asked Akiko.
“Too expensive. And anyway, she might want to talk at length, best to use a terminal with a time limit. Here’s one.” They stopped at the end of a line for a terminal sponsored by a mega-church. “This one has a Jesus logo marked on the transmission. Mother loves Jesus.”
“When did you last speak to this woman?”
“Not since I left the suburbs six weeks ago. I left as soon as my stock portfolio had matured enough and my health had stabilized. I told her I was going to the city for treatment and had an attendant pick me up. She’s tried to contact me numerous times since I left. She’s a nuisance. I’ve had her missives blocked.”
“That’s not nice,” said Akiko.
“Dealing with her drains too much of my processing power. This woman is possibly the worst person alive.”
“She might think the same about you if she knew who you really were.”
“My device tells me we are in Beggars’ Alley,” said Noah, changing the subject. All around them, people were waiting in line at various storefronts or RVs parked in the middle of the street. Charities distributed bottled water, asthma inhalers, therapeutic doses of highly addictive drugs, vitamins, and nutritional bricks. Akiko felt hungry all of a sudden. There was no commerce or car traffic, only the desperate and bored.
“Perhaps I should stand in line for food?” Akiko knew Noah still had one minor line of credit open, but he was hoarding his pennies, eager to get back into investing once the markets reopened tomorrow.
“Mind the pigment restrictions,” said Noah. Each charity line was administered by different churches, and many churches had restrictions on who could receive aid. Some had tox scanners: a pinprick by a thumbtack-sized needle and a drop of blood were required to prove you were sober. The lines that had tox scanners were easy to spot because they were the shortest. Other charities required proof of faith, some wouldn’t serve fat people, and some were for “Lights Only,” a rule enforced by handheld pigment scanners.
Akiko walked past the lines, down the block, searching for a charity that would serve a religiously unaffiliated dark woman. The line at the storefront for the NeoConfucianists was short. They were distributing filtered water, but you had to drink it on-site. They handed her a scratched glass with clear water in it. At the bottom of the glass was a quartz crystal they had blessed. You were not supposed to drink that. Akiko downed her water in a few gulps and felt instantly better. It was probably true what they said, then, that crystal water was good for your chi.
After that, she accepted some hard candy and a brochure from a group of Jesus lovers.
She walked for a while before finding any more assistance she was eligible for. The Scientologists were set up at the edge of Beggars’ Alley. Beyond their large and air-conditioned tent was a chain link fence that separated the charity zone from a sprawling tent city that stretched all the way to Emeryville. No part of Beggars’ Alley really smelled good, but the edge of tent city smelled like the excrement of the unwell. Akiko wondered if she was up to date on her vaccinations. She supposed she wasn’t.
Akiko stood next to the Scientology sign advertising free Power Bars. A friendly young white woman hurried out and brought her one. She asked for a second Power Bar, for Noah, and the young woman agreed on the condition that she come inside and take a stress test.
“Wait a second, is that Akiko?” she heard someone say when she entered the tent.
She nodded her head in no particular direction and a white man approached her.
“It’s so nice to meet you. I’m Tad Albertson.”
Akiko didn’t say anything.
“Tad Albertson,” he repeated. “I play Dr. Rogue on DR SF MD.”
Akiko clutched her Power Bar and began to feel like she made a mistake in coming in here.
Tad turned to the other Scientologists and said, “Akiko is a celebrity in the city.” He then returned his gaze to Akiko and said, “The Church welcomes you.” He extended his hand for her to shake, but she refused to take it.
She turned around and quickly exited the tent. She hurried back to the charity terminal, but several Scientologists followed her. They kept pace with her and told her how wonderful the church was. They seemed to think that her presence at their chapel in the city would bring much needed comfort and consolation to those San Franciscans whose hearts were in turmoil thanks to today’s reveal.
She found Noah still in line at the terminal. There was a police officer monitoring the line. Cutting was a problem and fights tended to break out. The police officer gave a dirty look to the Scientologists, who were conspicuous in their clean white robes and shiny silver hats. The Scientologists, a man and two women, retreated and discussed a strategy among themselves.
“They followed me here,” said Akiko to Noah by way of explanation. She opened the Power Bar and began to crumble it for him when he said: “Don’t bother, I can’t do solids.”
Noah was in a bad mood and it was all her fault. To cheer him up, she asked him for stock tips.
“Actually, I’d like some advice from you. I still think it is unlikely that you are connected to the reveal, but on the off-chance you are, who do you think will be exposed tomorrow?”
“I don’t really know. But I suppose it would be somebody not from the city. Somebody who lives abroad, someone important . . .”
“I think all the important people have left SF in a hurry.”
“Yes, but God doesn’t want to devastate just one city, I don’t think. Better to demonstrate that God’s reach and power extend across the globe. Tomorrow, another executive, I think. For a while, just rich men. Then later women, young people, even poor people, just because God can.”
“What is God’s plan?” asked Noah.
“I’m not sure there is one, and God hasn’t spoken with me since this whole thing began.”
Noah fell silent as they stood in line. Akiko assumed he was crunching some numbers in preparation for the next opening bell.
After another twenty minutes, they finally got to the front of the line. Noah called the woman who thought of herself as his mother.
“Noah!” She was so surprised to see him. Happy at first, and then angry at his disappearance.
He feigned remorse and faked his way through an apology.
“Mother, I’d like you to meet my wife.”
“Your what?” Noah’s mother peered at Akiko through pixels in a look that seemed to approximate disgust. “Who, her? Is she the reason you disappeared?”
Akiko watched nervously as the timer in the corner of the monitor counted down.
“I assure you, Mother, she’s perfectly delightful. I’d like to bring her home.”
“I’ll send Donell over to get you,” said Noah’s mother. And of course Noah agreed, even though they didn’t know who Donell was.
They waited for Donell at the agreed upon spot on Nineteenth Street. The Scientologists followed them, but kept their distance after Noah threatened to sue them for harassment. It seemed as though the police officer from the terminal line was also following, but he was far enough back that they couldn’t be sure. Donell arrived in a beat-up pickup truck. It could not accommodate a wheelchair in the front, but Donell promised to strap Noah down thoroughly in the back and to drive slowly.
“She’s not coming,” he said, pointing at Akiko but not looking at her.
“She is,” said Noah.
And suddenly, the police officer who had seemed to be far away before was now up close.
“Is she bothering you?” The way the officer asked the question, Akiko knew that her fate lay in Donell’s answer. Donell looked directly at her for the first time: a skinny woman with a shaved head and a white tuxedo. Akiko knew better than to return his gaze, so she stared at the ground.
“No, she was just leaving.”
Noah flashed a projection at such an angle that only Akiko could see. It was a map and coordinates of his mother’s house. Her instructions were clear; she would meet him there, fourteen miles away, even if she had to walk.
She found a public water fountain and took her chances with drinking water that was faintly red. This tainted water would kill you, but not as quickly as dehydration. She began to walk south. The Scientologists followed her and the policeman followed them. She did this for several blocks until she lost time.
The next thing she knew, the sun was much higher up in the sky, as if it were morning. She was walking through a suburban neighborhood, and she intuitively knew she was just a few blocks from Noah. She was wearing different clothes, and there was an unfamiliar device coiled around her wrist.
The Scientologists were gone, and for a brief moment, Akiko worried she had killed them. The only thing to do was to plead guilty. To everything. Anything anyone could accuse her of, she had probably done. That and worse.
She picked up her pace and arrived at Noah’s mother’s house. It had a large and tidy front yard, a mark of relative affluence. This was a rare middle-class neighborhood. The houses were not huge, but they were all maintained and occupied. Nobody appeared to be living in cars or tents.
Akiko crossed the yard and rang the doorbell. She looked in the large front window, and saw the outline of Noah’s wheelchair, approaching the door.
Noah’s mother answered the door.
“What?” she said, sounding astonished.
Akiko peered behind the woman and saw Noah.
“AKIKO, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?” he had his voice box turned up to maximum volume. “WE THOUGHT YOU WERE DEAD.”
His mother stood still with slumped posture and a suspicious glare.
“OH FOR GOD’S SAKE, MOTHER, LET HER IN. THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT ANYWAY.”
Noah’s mother opened the door a little wider and moved aside so that Akiko could come inside.
“ARE YOU EVEN GOING TO OFFER OUR GUEST A DRINK?”
Noah’s mother narrowed her eyes and shuffled to the kitchen.
Noah turned the volume down on his voice box and said, “This place is the absolute worst, I fucking hate it here. Where have you been?”
Akiko shrugged. “I don’t know.” She supposed she had been up to no good the whole time she had been gone.
“Maybe you should check your messages, if you haven’t already,” said Noah, pointing at the unfamiliar watch she was now wearing.
She pressed one of the buttons on it, which had the effect of opening up a projection. Her inbox contained several video files.
She opened one. It showed her in a small room, shackled to a table, seated across from a couple of police officers. She was trying to confess to being the God of Information, but the police officers weren’t convinced. They kept asking her how she did it and who helped her.
“I don’t remember doing it, but I know it was me,” she said. “Or if not me, someone or some organization I am connected with. All I know is that I am involved.”
“Aren’t you that lady from San Francisco who claims to talk to God?” asked one officer.
“Yes, but . . . I was wrong about that . . .” she stammered.
“Akiko, no offense, but this is really boring to watch,” said Noah.
She fast-forwarded. The questioning did not last long. The footage switched to a different camera that showed her being held in a cell for several hours. Then she was released with no explanation.
“That whole thing with the police couldn’t have lasted more than a day. I wonder what you did with the rest of your week.”
The only other item in her inbox was a short message from an anonymous sender.
“Don’t do that again,” read the message.
“Don’t do that again,” said a voice in her head, the one she used to call “God.”
“There is a voice in my head,” said Akiko to Noah.
“Perhaps you have a surveillance chip?” speculated Noah.
“Don’t do that again,” said the voice, and Akiko was worried it was going to drone on and on like this forever, but it stopped after a dozen repetitions.
“We need medical attention, even if it means coming clean about what we are. We can’t go on like this. As soon as I can gather the money, I’m buying us our own doctors, our own hospital.
“I’m having difficulty reconstituting my fortune. The markets have been unbelievably volatile. I just need two more good accumulated hours.” Noah was a specialist at high-speed bulk transactions.
“We should call Angelina to tell her you’re all right. Apparently many people in the city were distraught at your disappearance.”
Angelina insisted on paying Noah and Akiko a visit. She arrived that evening in a sleek black car. She wore a blue kimono with a slate gray underrobe. She wore eyeliner and a light fragrance that smelled of white tea and vetiver. She bowed deeply at Noah’s mother when she answered her door and had an assistant carry gifts from the car.
“For the household,” she said. Her assistant brought in stacks of black boxes. One contained a linen tablecloth that the assistant spread over the coffee table in the living room. Other boxes contained place settings, and the assistant artfully arranged plates that were small with irregular edges, alongside champagne glasses and utensils.
From the other black boxes came various snacks. Cheeses and thin slices of ham were laid out, champagne and sparkling water were poured. The assistant worked rapidly, but ably, and set up a small tray tower to hold honeycomb, berries, and chocolate.
These luxuries seemed alien to Noah’s mother, an affront to her morality somehow. Even though the neighborhood they were in was relatively prosperous, it was very modest. People in this neighborhood didn’t make a show of their wealth, especially when so many nearby had nothing. They didn’t eat small, fussy portions of exotic foods.
“My, what a tiny, elaborate little feast. One would think we were celebrating,” said Noah to Angelina. Noah and Akiko had both been programmed to classify emotion and expression, but also microemotions and microexpressions. The feelings that lurked underneath feelings. These little luxuries were a glossy varnish on Angelina’s desperation, they could both sense it. The crash had probably ruined her start-up.
“We are celebrating. I’ve come to return you to the city,” said Angelina.
“Really?” said Noah.
“If you want, that is,” said Angelina. “You are of course free to do as you please, but if you would like to return to the city, I’ve found a way.”
“How?” said Noah.
“It all depends on you,” said Angelina, turning her attention to Akiko. “The city is in chaos. More so because of your disappearance. It was taken as an omen. But now, by some miracle, you are back. I know of at least a dozen families that are interested in taking you into service. I’ve brought their offers for you to look at and retained an agent to help you negotiate.”
Akiko nodded, not because she was going to return to the city, but because she understood it was the agent who had paid for all these little gifts, and the assistant, too. Angelina, in reality, had nothing.
“You are in a good position,” continued Angelina. “Uncertain times like these favor the prescient. The offers you have received are all generous. They would allow you to set up a household. And your household will require a staff. I humbly offer my own services.” Angelina, seated now, bowed lightly in Akiko’s direction.
“Great plan, but Akiko no longer has citizenship,” said Noah. “How soon can citizenship be restored?”
“It depends on which family you want to work for, but it will be rapid in any case, I’m sure.”
“I can’t go back, I am not worthy,” said Akiko.
“What are you talking about?” asked Angelina.
“Akiko believes she is responsible for the Book of Life leaks,” explained Noah. Akiko looked confused, having lost a week, so Noah called up a projection that showed all the people who had been outed in the past week. In addition to the Book of Jared, there was now the Book of Toshi, of Pablo, and four more. All male executives, for now.
“The responsible parties have already been arrested,” said Angelina. She called up a projection of a news report that showed scowling mug shots and men in handcuffs.
“Yet the leaks continue,” said Noah.
“Well, more men continue to be arrested. It was a very large criminal ring. These are very bad men; it will take a while to catch all of them. The leaks will stop any day now, and when the leaks stop, stability will return to the city and Akiko’s offers might go stale.”
There was a silence.
“Akiko,” said Angelina, “If you were involved, they would have caught you by now. So what is your answer?”
“You should go,” said the voice in her head.
“I will go, but for them, not for you.” She replied to the voice out loud and drew several stares.
“Is that a yes?” asked Angelina. Akiko didn’t answer, but Angelina pulled up a projection anyway and began to fire off messages.
“You should stay,” said Noah’s mother to Noah.
“You should come with us,” said Akiko to Noah’s mother.
“I think each of us should go where we belong,” said Noah.
“You should go,” the voice said again to Akiko.
“Okay, we’re set. All of us, even you,” said Angelina to Akiko. “And you, if you want,” she said to Noah’s mother.
Angelina and her assistant stood. Noah wheeled himself out the door without saying goodbye.
That left Akiko and Noah’s mother alone in the living room. Noah’s mother held a plate of untouched food in her lap. She sat with slumped posture, looking defeated. She was tired of something, Akiko intuited. Tired of grief, tired of Noah’s moods.
“You need rest,” said Akiko.
“Will you take care of him?” Noah’s mother asked Akiko.
“Then you should go with him.”
The car was still out front. They were waiting for her. So she stood and left, stepped out into the night, and into the car with its engine running. People longed to go to the city for all kinds of reasons. Because it was a center of wealth, of technology, of culture. For Akiko, it was the place where most of her memories were made. That made it the closest place to home that she could imagine.
God was silent in her head and she was glad. She was not holy, and perhaps that was a good thing. It made her more human.
Not holy, and maybe not malicious either. Not involved with the leaks at all, just feeling guilty and responsible because she was different. She who had served so many, now needed service herself. Forgiveness and friendship. A doctor for her brain. A city for her heart.
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