Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Nation of the Sick

Try to picture the scene, Cybil, the same way I did when I got the call.

Christmas Eve; two cops standing in a stinking motel room. Blood on bare white sheets, and a broken syringe, and a man. My brother. Whatever sounds he made, that got the neighbors to call the cops, they’re done now. The overdose is over. He hasn’t died. He won’t, tonight. He’s sick, crying, begging—probably wishing he had died, now that two cops are standing over him and a significant unused amount of heroin. Possession—a third offense—he could be looking at thirty years—nonviolent drug offenses somehow as offensive as murder in the state of Florida.

Rain slants in the open door. Blue and red patrol car lights strobe the walls insistently, almost jovially—the holiday asserting itself, trying to Morse-code mercy into the cops’ cold hard hearts.

I always knew I’d be the one to eulogize you, Cybil. Revolutionaries rarely live long lives while henchmen fare far better. Hence Lenin died at fifty-three while Stalin made it to his seventies. Kissinger’s still kicking at one hundred ten. Et cetera.

But still, in the fictional funerals I imagined for you—crowded rooms rank with the scent of your beloved hyacinths, presidents and prime ministers and slum children united in tears—we were old. I figured you’d run your body down to the ground by sixty, subsisting as you always did on shit food and minimal sleep, and forgetting the most basic aspects of human health care. Exercise, annual physicals, blood pressure medication . . . you were too busy building the technological infrastructure for eradicating exploitation and bureaucracy—to say nothing of dozens of diseases—for any of that. Saving everyone else’s life, even at the cost of your own. I knew you’d burn bright and leave a beautiful corpse, to say nothing of an immeasurably better world.

At the very least I thought you’d do us the favor of giving us a body. Something to bury, and be done with you. Not this elegant disappearance, which has left us with so much heavy, idiotic hope. All these impossible scenarios. Cybil’s ensconced herself in Dubai or Iceland, paying someone to bring groceries and books and keep her hiddenCybil fell off a yacht, got amnesia, is currently married to a handsome humble carpenter and serving as the stay-at-home stepmom for his four rambunctious boys. In all of these absurd stories, one day you may get your memory back, or decide your experiment in humble isolation is at an end, and emerge. So, we wait.

And so, instead of funeral oratory, an open letter. The full story, about the day we met. About the call I got from my sobbing mess of a big brother, an hour before our appointment.

I hung up on him. He was hysterical, couldn’t hear what I was saying, and I was maybe a little hysterical myself. Anyway I was crying, and angry at him for making me cry. Ten years since he ran away from home to pursue dual careers in mixed martial arts and drug abuse, and I was dismayed to see that my debilitating love for him was undiminished. I hung up on my brother in his moment of greatest need, and then I cursed, took three breaths, and called up my calendar and went online and looked for same-day tickets to Tallahassee.

You were the only entry in my day. Lunch with Cybil, 1PM, Punjab Deli (look her up first). You were nobody to me, just one of a dozen strangers who had reached out to me since that WIRED feature profiled me and nine other SOFTWARE DEVELOPERS MODELING THE FUTURE. You have no idea how close I came to canceling on you, Cybil.

I didn’t get it, back then. I know this sounds strange, coming from the man who just last week was on a magazine cover, standing in a floating fungitecture slum above the immodest headline The Father of the Iterative Modeling Boom (and I swear, Cybil, I tried to tell them what a crock of shit that is—you were mother and father both, I am at best the Gay Uncle of the Iterative Modeling Boom). But it’s the truth: I didn’t get it. Modeling software was where the money was, so that’s where I worked, and I’d had some significant success—hence the article, hence you found me in the first place—but I didn’t believe in it.

People won’t get that, now. Hard to even imagine a time before iterative software farms. Now the Nunnery we built together is only the most successful of hundreds of examples, academic, military, and corporate. They’ve rewritten the rules of architecture, pharmaceutical development, urban planning, and practically every other sphere of human industry, prompting many to declare the end of the era of human software development. Back then, though, they still seemed like playthings for the Pentagon and political campaigns.

I mean, to be fair—to me—back then that’s all they were. But plenty of people saw bigger futures for them. And you—you saw utopia. You saw it, and you built it.

I typed an email to you. So sorry, family emergency, heading for airport. No, let’s reschedule. I didn’t even know why I’d said yes to you. I might have even felt a flicker of gratitude to my dumb fuck-up brother, for giving me the Grand Doozy of all good excuses, to get out of a meeting I had no interest in.

If I didn’t have such an attention deficit, I’d have clicked send. But I do, so I didn’t. Instead I looked at my flight search results first, and saw there was no plane until 8:00 p.m. As simple as that: one mouse click instead of the other, and Cybil and Austin never meet. A massive transformation of the entire world fails to happen. Or, more likely: it happens, just without me as a henchman. History has a way of unfolding in spite of us. Especially when it has a juggernaut like Cybil Natarajan behind it.

I had my smart speaker read me the headlines; the news was always bleak enough to suit my blasted blackened heart. A new round of jailed journalists, vanished lawyers. Three more opposition party legislators had just gone into hiding. Our national plummet off the precipice continued apace.

But then I walked out the door.

I wonder if you remember it, Cybil. That day was so beautiful. Fifty degrees and sunny—eerily warm for the day after Christmas, melting snow and slack winds tempting people outside without jackets.

I took it personally. How dare the weather be so wonderful? How dare they smile so, these people, when I was already grieving for a brother who hadn’t died yet? Unacceptable, all that happiness at being alive.

The day of my mother’s diagnosis had felt like that. My mother and father and me—because by then Colby was down south, calling occasionally, convinced he was just at the edge of breaking through, making it big—the three of us walked out of the oncologist’s office, and into a city full of happy people. How could they hold hands and eat ice cream when my whole world had cracked wide open? Didn’t they see the pain I was in? Or the fear in my mother’s eyes?

That had been my first sojourn in the Nation of the Sick. A state within a state; a country made from pain and fear and untellable secrets. Now I had returned, and I hated Colby for bringing me back.

“Cybil,” I said, when I saw you, because by then I had looked you up.

In person, I thought: fashionista terrorist. Army pants; stylish bright blue blazer; black woolen cowl around your neck. So high it could almost have been a hijab. Vivid eye makeup, but no other cosmetics that I could clock.

I hadn’t bought a ticket. I still didn’t know whether I’d go to Florida or not. Whether it was time to cut the cord on my dumb doomed brother and stop letting him break my heart.

“Austin,” you said. I was five minutes early, and you were already eating. The Punjab Deli only had one stool, presently occupied by a Sikh cab driver. It also had a high counter that extended down a narrow walkway, presently occupied by you and a crowd of standing cab drivers. “Get yourself something to eat.”

So much for my hope that you were working for some big spy agency or arms manufacturer, hoping to woo me with food as a prologue to an overwhelming offer.

I got a samosa, broken up in a styrofoam bowl of curried chickpeas. I scoffed at the sight of it, only to have it become one of my favorite New York City meals. When I turned to join you, your spot at the counter had been taken by a taxi driver, and you were already standing outside.

New York City winter. Dirty snow and panhandlers and the smell of cinnamon beverages. A shithole, but ours. Flooded subway tunnels and thirty square blocks being underwater had helped slow the Lower East Side real estate boom, but the place was still packed with the hip and the handsome.

I never did have any secrets from you, Cybil. Certainly not when it came to my tragic, prolific excuse for a sex life. Every sexy boy who walked by us was more interesting than you were.

“You’re the fifth one I’ve met with,” you said.

A bearded elf-man caught me staring, and grinned. “Fifth . . . one?”

“I’m meeting with all of the developers from that WIRED profile.”

“Why?”

“Looking for a partner.”

I was my brother’s first sparring partner, although not an entirely consensual one. But when he found others, I was sad about it. I missed the attention, even though it had come with bruises and aches. I missed him.

Colby baffled us. My mother and father and I are all cut from the same timid cloth. Docile, obedient, skittish. Mom submitted meekly to three years of cancer-related indignities before they stopped toying with her; my father adapted humbly to widowerhood. My brother was some other sort of beast. The kind of boy who at ten years old was climbing up onto roofs and walking into the homes of strangers for his daily shot of transgressional adrenaline.

But here’s the thing, the special species of asshole he was: he hated hurting people. What a dilemma, for a little lawbreaker! Bullies had it easy; they could punch someone in the throat or throw a rock through a window whenever they needed to feel themselves superior to the laws of God and man. The good-hearted monster must be so much more creative.

Hence, combat sports. The pain, the fear of fighting—he craved it, but only on consensual terms.

And, hence, drugs.

“Twelve iterative modeling programs, running at the same time,” you said. “One takes the problem—you’ve been working in defense, so, let’s say, If I reduce the number of aircraft mechanics working at XYZ Base, what scenarios are likely to result?—but instead of just running the scenarios and being done with it, the program passes the results on to the next one in sequence. And then the next. Each program created by a different developer, with its own quirks and intricacies. Twelve completely different processes for solving a problem. Generating thousands of potential solutions a second, sending the best ones to the human admins for final selection.”

“Sounds amazing,” I said. Not Why twelve? Part of your genius was to fill in the blanks so well that everyone assumed there was a good explanation.

I kept thinking: I always knew this day would come. The moment when I say goodbye to my brother forever. Not because he’s dead, but because I’d finally learn how to stop loving him. To let him go. I’d tried before, but never succeeded. Because some people we can’t save. Some people, for as long as we spend trying, we’ll never be able to become who we need to be.

“Why are you talking to me about it?” I asked. “I know you know how to put together a business plan, get a meeting with some venture capital bros.”

“I’m not involving venture capital at all. I want complete autonomy and control over what we build. Because it will change the world, and I won’t let big money do so for the worse.”

This much, I knew. You’d been vocal about it even back then. You’d established yourself by building a company around an app that optimized bicycle routes around prevailing winds, which was acquired by Seamless, who gave you two million dollars and a cushy job—which you quit in protest when you found it was being used to punish deliverymen who veered off its suggested routes.

No venture capital. Complete autonomy. That kind of crazy talk was in the air in those days.

Back then, anyway, it was crazy talk.

Every morning, I gather up a list of all the new creations for you. Even though you’re not here anymore to review them. Small stuff, mostly. Slight tweaks on biofuel manufacture; new recipes for protein slurry; monomolecular filament refinement. Some of the fledgling floating city-states in the new Arctic frontier are already experimenting with AI governance, along the lines the Nunnery first started sketching out ten years ago.

Big deals happen about once a week. This morning I watched scientists take a jagged little crystal—engineered from a Nunnery recipe—and drop it into a bottle of seawater and shake it up for sixty seconds. It crystallized all the salt out of the solution, leaving behind clean drinking water with a little quartz at the bottom. Desalination, with minimal energy consumption. A far cry from the petroleum-intensive approaches that have been the best we could do for decades. Brilliant.

But best of all, thanks to a whole lot of intricate patent law precedent-setting you orchestrated, with the help of that master corporate strategist I found for you: because it was created by the Nunnery, it’s still considered our intellectual property. No one can patent it. No one can exploit it. Copyright on anything created by a product resides with the person who created the product in the first place. Anyone can use the creations of our creation, even build a business around it, but only if they agree to a very strict set of profit sharing and worker empowerment rules. Licensing terms you set fifteen years ago—which everyone said were insane and antithetical to capitalism at the time—have now become business norms.

• • • •

To book, or not to book. I had enough money for the flight to Tallahassee. I was between projects. I could afford to step away from the city for a couple of weeks.

But my dad had told me to stop sending Colby money, to stop giving him additional chances. Every other week, Dad found a new article about how family members of addicts could stop enabling and being exploited by their sick relatives.

“That social media hack was a great trick,” you said. “I need someone who knows how to ask the unasked questions.”

“I don’t know how many unasked questions I have left,” I said, eyes on the ass of some fetching young thing on a bike.

My big idea had been to populate the military’s urban operation simulation software exercises with actual people scraped from social media in the areas of proposed operation. Those were real faces on the civilians passing through the streets of the VR run-throughs that soldiers had to log fifty hours in before being deployed to Caracas or Tehran or Kandahar. Blow up a block of buildings and you’d see a scroll of actual baby pictures. Not just for the grunts in the first-person shooter portion, either. The generals got names and faces in their reports, too.

Not such a big idea, not really, but it happened during a huge Department of Defense marketing push to turn iterative modeling software designers into celebrities. And it was controversial enough that I got a lot of calls from journalists. What do you say to people who say you’re helping the military develop new tools for surveillance and privacy invasion, which could potentially be used against civilians? I personally didn’t have anything to say to people like that—because I didn’t care, not then, not before you—but the DoD did, and they’d supplied me with this: All personal information has been stripped, and names are randomized. This is about putting a real face on abstract war games. This is about making the military more human, not less.

The fetching young thing biked away, abandoning me.

“I’m not sure I’m in the market for a partner right now, honestly.”

“Venture capital’s day is done,” you said, unruffled by my opposition, if you noticed it at all. “Silicon Valley’s scorch-and-burn suck-them-dry tactics will soon come to seem as backward as child labor.”

And while you spoke? I believed. Ignorant as I was, and as hard as I was trying to think about sex as a distraction from worrying about my brother, I couldn’t help but see that you were special.

Your army of iterative software agents, they would conquer the world. What couldn’t they accomplish, free from corporate manipulation? What couldn’t they create, unfettered by the limits of the human?

He just happened to walk by. A total stranger, one of millions of anonymous miserable New Yorkers we walked by every day and turned our eyes away from. The sick, the old, the broken. The mad. Living in this city meant hardening your heart to them, I’d always believed, but that day my heart wasn’t hard enough. That day, because of my brother, I saw him. Really saw him.

And he saw me. Still human, under the years and the city’s slime. He saw me, and he smiled.

Sixth grade—springtime—staring out the window of my math class, aching to be out there—when Colby appeared in the classroom doorway like an answered prayer. Four years older than me, he was in high school already, so only something significantly wrong could explain his presence there.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am,” he said to the teacher. “But I gotta take my brother with me to the hospital. It’s our mom.”

I was crying by the time we walked out the middle school’s front door. Blaming myself, for wanting a way to get out of class—and here came God like the asshole that he was, giving me an afternoon off at the cost of my mother’s life.

“Stop crying, stupid,” he said, all sadness gone from his face. “Mom’s fine.”

His shitty old car was double-parked, hazards on. We got inside. He asked me, “Where do you want to go?”

My breath hitched, at the enormity of what was being offered. “Anywhere?”

“Anywhere.”

“Albany,” I said. “The mall.”

We went. We got ice cream. He bought me video games. We rolled our windows down all the way and the wind screamed through his car and we played our music too loud and the world was ours and nothing could stop us.

I’d remember that day often. He’s still in there somewhere, I’d tell myself. The boy who loved me, who wanted me to have fun, and fuck the rules if they tried to stop us. But I’d remember it too on the day my mom got her diagnosis, when Colby was nowhere in sight, and on the day of her funeral, when he was likewise absent. I told myself it was his fault, his doing, belated karma for that afternoon of fraudulent freedom.

Inexpensive, medically identical synthetic blood has extended the average American lifespan by four years. We did that.

Bizarre solar energy capture modules, which resemble bushes heavy with tiny metal leaves, have slashed carbon emissions in the developed world by 40 percent, and every year it drops another 6 or 7 percent. We did that.

Floating city construction.

New opioids that aren’t addictive.

Recreational pharmaceuticals to painlessly reach a thousand different states of mind.

Government offices that make decisions impassionedly, with no window for human corruption to intervene.

You were right, that I was good at asking questions. Like, how can we make cheap durable stackable homes?

Fungitecture was our first big success. A software-engineered mushroom species that grows fast and fills a mold to produce a material as strong as cement, as light as Styrofoam, and cheaper than cotton. Like shipping containers, but at a tenth of the cost—and they float. That’s the most important part these days. Two percent of the planet’s population live in fungitecture homes today, including all thirteen thousand citizens of Tuvalu, floating over the ruins of their sunken homeland, and the eighty thousand climate refugees they’ve admitted.

I had so many questions, once I let myself start asking them.

“Austin?” you said, seeing my face go slack. “Are you okay?”

I nodded. I wasn’t. That random damaged man had moved on, but I had not.

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

You nodded. Your eyes locked onto mine and didn’t let me look away.

Once you’d gone, I opened up a sex app. Growled or woofed at a couple dozen gentlemen in the space of two minutes. Started typing more detailed messages to the ones who’d growled back.

It was no good. My heart wasn’t in it. To my great shame, something other than sex was weighing too heavily on my mind.

I dialed the number Colby had called me from. He answered immediately, his voice a whisper:

“Austin?”

“Hey, brother,” I said, hating how my heart hurt at the weakness in his voice, making my own more cheerful in allergic response. “This your new cell number?”

“It’s a strip mall pay phone,” he mumbled. “Across the highway from the motel they kicked me out of.”

“Jesus Christ, Colby,” I said, looking at my phone for the time at which he’d called me. “You mean to tell me you’ve been standing by the pay phone for the past three hours?”

“Sitting, actually. The sun is nice.”

“Florida’s got that going for it, at least.”

“Florida’s not so bad,” he said. “I don’t know why you guys are so down on it.”

Doors slammed, somewhere. On his end, or mine? Tears somehow blurred my ears as well as my eyes. Made me unsure where and when and what I was. “You okay, Colby?”

“Yeah,” he said, which is what he always said, no matter how badly he was bleeding. “Sorry about before. I just kind of lost it.”

“Of course you did, buddy. You almost fucking died.”

“Dying didn’t scare me,” he said.

“What did?” I said, and now it was me who was whispering. “What happened, Colby?”

I’d gone to visit him only once.

The fights, I didn’t mind. They weren’t my thing, but there was something pure about them, something compelling in the contest of brains and brawn. What gay boy is completely immune to the spectacle of two sweaty mostly naked men grappling on the ground together?

What made me sick were the managers and promoters who made or broke a fighter. The moneymen behind the scenes who kept good fighters grinding away in obscurity while less skilled ones got the big matches that made the big money. Shit was unfair, what the fuck else was new?

So I stayed away. From all of that, and from the rest of his messy life. The drugs, the girls, the alcohol. When he called me, high, I’d talk to him. Listen, mostly. Big theories about the deeper meaning of a Pixies song or a Biggie lyric. Elaborate plans for how to work the system, game the gamers, get the stardom he deserved. I know how they work, how they think, he’d say, how to play them, how to burn it all down. He refused to see how screwed he was, how helpless.

That optimism, that faith—it had always been as alien to me as his addictions. And just as pitiable.

Then, though—on the phone—I envied his belief so acutely that it actually made me cry.

I said goodbye. I hung up the phone. I booked the ticket to Tallahassee.

You scared me, Cybil. Of course you know that. That was always your thing, a look and attitude you cultivated. Spiky hair, jagged metal jewelry. The whole way to the airport, I kept thinking about you. A good sign, I thought. It showed I was less scared for my brother’s life.

I had to take three buses to get to the airport. Construction of the Trillion-Dollar Fool-Proof Flood Locks had shut down most of the FDR, and the Real Estate Riots were in their sixth month. Not being underground, I could research you at greater length.

Intensity: that’s what I saw when I looked in your eyes. That’s what most people saw, to judge by all your press coverage. Now, though—I don’t think that’s what it was.

I read eleven of your interviews, in the interminable trip between La Guardia terminals. You called out the tech sector’s casual solipsism, skin-deep liberalism, how we talked a good talk but never walked the walk, how we were “woke” on Twitter and thought that was enough. How the world was going to hell in a handbasket, and would continue to do so until the Silicon Valley rank-and-file—and workers everywhere—got off their fucking asses.

And somewhere in all of that, something else started to shift.

You quoted some old novel or short story: It’s not enough to hold justice in our hearts like a secret. Justice must be spoken. Must be embodied.

Something else you upended. The casual cynicism of our politics; the toxic partisanship; the hypocrisy and the apathy. Now we look back at those dark years and shiver, seeing clearly how close we came to becoming another one of history’s cautionary tales of a nation committing suicide via nationalism.

• • • •

“What happened?” I asked Colby for a third time, when I called from the airport.

“I’ll tell you later,” he said. “I just . . . I needed to hear your voice. It’s stupid. I’m sorry. I know you’re real busy these days—”

“I’m on my way,” I said. “I’m at La Guardia. My flight leaves at five fifteen.”

“Really?” he said, and I heard the tears start on his end, which kicked them off on mine as well.

“Of course,” I said. “Of course I’m coming, Colby.”

Here is what happened. Colby didn’t tell me until we were together, late that night, eating bad delivery food on the bed of a better hotel than the one he’d almost died in.

Try to picture the scene again, Cybil. The half-dead junky on the bed; the rain in the open door. The two cops. Flashing squad car lights. Christmas music from the next room over. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer too loud on the television; citizens of the Island of Misfit Toys singing songs of their lost homelands.

Lying on his side, mid fetal position, Colby locked eyes with the cops and begged. Waited for them to reach for the cuffs.

“The Black cop, I think maybe he recognized me,” Colby said. “Maybe he saw me fight, somewhere. Maybe that’s why he did what he did.”

I guess that’s possible. It’s also possible that my brother wanted desperately to construct a narrative where something other than blind dumb luck kept him from spending the rest of his life in prison.

Whether he was a fight fan or he just didn’t want to do the paperwork or he really and truly had the Christmas spirit—or all of the above—or for some other unknowable reason altogether, the Black cop put his hand on his partner’s shoulder and tilted his head at the door, and the other guy looked startled, nodded, and then followed him out.

The strobing lights darkened. The car started. The cops drove away. Christmas carols continued, coming from across the wall. Colby cried and did not move, not for a long long time. Convinced they might come back. That they were fucking with him. That Florida could not contain such good fortune, not for him, anyway.

“It’s Austin,” I said, when you answered the phone. It was 2:00 a.m. in Tallahassee—What time is it in New York? I thought to wonder, but of course it was 2:00 a.m. for you too. My brother slept in the bed beside me. My hand was on his arm, like I could hold him tight and keep him safe, like I could save him from a savage world. “I’m in, Cybil. If you’ll have me, I want to be your partner.”

One week later, I went home alone. Hopeful, but not confident. Colby in rehab. His stuff in storage. His word he’d call every day. His unuttered plea to come live with me when he got out.

You called me for lunch, this time at Little Poland. A booth in the back. Plates and plates of pierogies. Our second meeting, and I didn’t know ‘til it was over that I had been on the clock since I’d sat down, that I already worked for you.

“What’s wrong?” you’d asked. “When we met before—and even today—you’re troubled by something.”

So I told you. Just the basics: big brother’s an addict; almost died; didn’t.

“Bring him in,” you said. “He needs a job, or something. Right? If he’s gonna stay sober. We can find something for him.”

Of course there’s more to Colby’s recovery than me getting on a plane. Most of it, you already know—most of it was your doing—how you figured out, over Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles, where his skills sets were: how effortlessly he could play people, the same way he’d played my middle school math teacher; how he, like you, wanted to burn it all down. How you bought him a suit and set him up with three investor meetings. It’s a long complicated messy story, but it isn’t this one. This is just the story of how I said yes to him, and yes to you. I’m telling it to you, Cybil, but I’m also telling it to myself. I’m finally understanding: we can change our minds, and we can change the world, but we can’t change who we are.

For years I wondered: why me? How did you walk away from that bench—and from me, with all my arrogant disinterest—and think, that’s the one? Even when I called to tell you I was in, I felt sure I’d flunked the interview. I knew why I wanted to be on your team, but I couldn’t imagine why you wanted me there.

I get it, now. I know why you chose me. Telling this story, writing this progress-report-turned-obituary, I see what it was. And I can turn this obituary into a goodbye letter.

Those other hotshot Titans of Iterative Modeling Software, boys and girls juiced up on the WIRED star treatment and exploding social media mentions—any one of them would have been smarter, more ambitious, more energetic than me. You always saw people as they were, no matter how they tried to hide the truth of who they were from others and from themselves. You’d have seen the hunger in their eyes. The hustle.

What you saw in my eyes was pain. Panic. The certainty that I’d lost my brother forever—the knowledge that maybe it hadn’t happened that day, maybe he’d survived that overdose, but he wouldn’t survive the next one, and if something didn’t happen to disrupt the status quo of his long, lonely self-destruction, he wouldn’t stop taking the risks that would eventually put him on the wrong end of a back-alley switchblade or a tainted shot or a fatal shared syringe.

You saw it in my eyes, and you recognized it.

You, too, are a citizen of the Nation of the Sick.

I see that now. I never did before. I bought your PR, even though I wrote most of it and so I should have known it was bullshit. That haunted look that sometimes flickered in your eyes—I imagined it was intensity, drive, the inexhaustible determination to bring a better world into being against all the formidable forces that opposed us.

And, yes, you contained all those things.

But you were something else as well. You were sick. Sick enough to one day take yourself out of the world completely. None of us noticed. Your fans, your followers, your henchpeople . . . we never saw your sickness. That’s our failing, our guilt to carry—that we saw you every day, and never saw you. Never offered you the help you needed.

I’m sure you’re gone for good. I know better than anyone how you think. You chose a death that would leave no body. There are millions of them out there. You chose something mysterious and open-ended enough that the vultures who’ve tried for years to take us down would never have a corpse to point to, to know when it’s time to pounce. But the bottom line, I believe, is: you chose death.

Colby is convinced he’ll find you. As our charming, gregarious corporate strategist travels the globe, helping build worker-owned coop incubators and collectives of gutter-punk coders who analyze and refine and write manuals for the bizarre new fruits our tree bears, he scours every crowded street he comes down. Every market square. He even had the Nunnery craft an algorithm to scan for your face in the feeds of every public traffic cam on the planet. He loves you, the poor dumb puppy. Same as me. You made him what he is—although he thinks it was you and me, but I know how that’s bullshit, how you were making me at the same time as you made him. You turned me into someone who believes in something, and you turned him into someone whose unconventional skill set could be put to positive use—and he can’t accept that he’ll never get to thank you for it.

Against protocol and all probability, a cop takes pity on a sad-sack, broken-down, dope-sick ex-fighter. A direct flight to Tallahassee is a few extra hours away, so an asshole boy takes a meeting he’d otherwise skip. A homeless man happens to walk by; happens to slow down to make eye contact; happens to smile. If any one of those things hadn’t happened, my life suddenly looks a whole lot grimmer. So does the whole fucking world, for all I know.

Citizenship in the Nation of the Sick means knowing how fragile our happiness is, how accidental our comfort, how little it takes to turn the warmest sunny day into dark cold night. We citizens of the Nation of the Sick, we know that all we have is the people we love. The ones we can save, and the ones we can’t.

Sam J. Miller

Sam J. Miller is the Nebula-Award-winning author of The Art of Starving (an NPR best of the year) and Blackfish City (a best book of the year for Vulture, The Washington Post, Barnes & Noble, and more – and a “Must Read” in Entertainment Weekly and O: The Oprah Winfrey Magazine). A recipient of the Shirley Jackson Award and Astounding Award, and a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, Sam’s short stories have been nominated for the World Fantasy, Theodore Sturgeon, and Locus Awards, and reprinted in dozens of anthologies. He lives in New York City, and at samjmiller.com.