We had just started over the bridge, toward my party, when the famously cheerful “Don’t Jump” Ad clicked on. This had never happened to me before. The billboard’s advertising systems scanned me—analyzing my age, my style, even my pulse—and calculated I was in need of a friendly reminder not to kill myself. Colorful, hopping bunnies sang at my feet, on a waist-high screen that arced the full length of the bridge wall. Traffic roared along eighty feet below. Above, the city dome was lit a diffuse, fading gray by the evening sky beyond.
I felt a little queasy. Jumpers had been growing increasingly common, but I’m sure a higher railing would have been more effective than a glib cartoon. I wasn’t planning to kill myself. I had other things to concentrate on.
Every word is Trademarked™, Restricted® or Copyrighted©. The companies and people who own these rights let people use them, but once you turn fifteen, you have to pay.
Mrs. Harris, my guardian, was still talking.
“You will get used to budgeting, Speth,” she chirped, but faltered slightly at my name, as if it wasn’t good enough for her mouth. Speth. I hated it. It sounded like someone spitting. My parents chose it from a list of discounted girls’ names. When my brother was born, they vowed not to repeat the mistake of paying for a good premium name: Sam.
I wished Sam were nearby to distract me. Sam always made me laugh. But Mrs. Harris had shooed him off to help set up my party in the park, so she would have my complete attention.
Mrs. Harris was a little bird of a woman with restless hands and a tense, wrinkled little smile. She’d been lecturing me for the better part of an hour on what to expect on my big day.
I looked down at the shiny new Cuff she had clamped around my forearm that morning. It was a marvel of engineering—a cool processor, a rock-steady tether to WiFi and a smooth glossy surface impervious to scratches, dirt and smudges. The Cuff was nearly indestructible, unless the NanoLion™ battery went haywire and melted your Cuff and your arm off. The Cuff’s main purpose was to record everything I said and did, so I could pay the Rights Holders their fees.
“It’s beautiful,” my sister assured me. She patted my shoulder. The words she spoke scrolled up her Cuff as she was charged for each.
Saretha Jime—word: It’s: $1.99.
Saretha Jime—word: Beautiful: $8.99.
Then she was charged for patting me.
Saretha Jime—gesture: pat to shoulder—2 seconds: $1.98.
Every word is Trademarked™, Restricted® or Copyrighted©. The companies and people who own these rights let people use them, but once you turn fifteen, you have to pay. At 6:36 p.m., it would be my turn; I would pay for every word I spoke for the rest of my life.
My Cuff felt tight. I tried to fit a finger between it and my flesh. There was no gap.
“In the unlikely event it needs to be removed,” Mrs. Harris said, “the proper authorities can do so. However, if your Cuff is removed for any reason, you will not be allowed to speak. Any utterance will result in a painful shock to the eyes.” As part of my transition, in addition to the Cuff, Mrs. Harris had roughly thumbed a corneal implant into each of my eyes.
“Optic shocks may cause nausea,” Mrs. Harris said flatly, “dizziness, redness of the eyes, swelling, headaches, shortness of breath, seizures, confusion, heart palpitations, vision changes and, of course, blindness.”
“Rarely,” Saretha assured me. Her Cuff buzzed and charged her $1.75. I missed when we used to really talk. She was always so positive and joyful. I supposed she still was, inside. We didn’t have the kind of money that would let us talk freely once we were paying for our words.
“Traditionally, one arrives at one’s celebration at exactly the moment one turns fifteen.” Mrs. Harris’s thin smile pulled tight.
I wished I didn’t have to have a Custodian. I wished my parents could have been here, but when I was little, our family was sued for an illegal music download traced back five generations to a great-great-aunt somewhere. We owed the Musical Rights Association of America® more than six million dollars in damages. Debt Services took our parents and placed them somewhere down in Carolina, pollinating crops with an eyedropper and brush until our debts were paid. My heart ached thinking of them so far away.
Mrs. Harris noted my sadness and moved on.
On the far side of the bridge, my celebration was crowded onto a small, manicured strip of green called Falxo Park. It sat at the very edge of the city, in the heart of the Onzième, where the dome curves down to the city wall. All the faux-Parisian-style shops crowded around the park, stretching off into the distance in a plastic approximation of Franco quaintness.
I had really been looking forward to the party—seeing all my friends, what the Product Placers had brought and what my Branding would be. I was finally going to be a contributing member of society. Mrs. Harris said so. But suddenly, I didn’t want to cross the bridge. I didn’t want a party. I didn’t want a Brand. Now that I could really feel the change about to take place, I wanted to run. Why was this something to celebrate? How would I get used to measuring the cost of my words?
I would read the speech I had crafted with Mrs. Harris. I was contractually obligated to read it, from start to finish, as my first paid words.
The speech was in my hand, printed by Mrs. Harris on a thick sheet of real paper. My sponsors had approved it and subsidized my costs in return for peppering the speech with positive statements about their products.
I didn’t really care for the speech. I had thought it was funny to cram in as many endorsements as I could, giggling with my friend, Nancee Mphinyane-Smil, for weeks about how to work in something about Mrs. Harris’s favorite brand of industrial-strength suppositories.
“We should really get moving,” Mrs. Harris said.
I nodded, swallowing hard, and began to move. My eyes ached.
“I understand it can be difficult. Reducing your chat so precipitously, after fourteen years of free speech.” Mrs. Harris let the word precipitously slip out between her teeth with delight. The government paid for her words, and she relished them. There was a reason a woman like Mrs. Harris became a Custodian and took on guardianship of so many children.
“Undoubtedly you have been speaking more than normal lately,” Mrs. Harris said, waving at me to hurry.
I hated that she was right. I had been talking more. I had also been dancing and singing and practicing gymnastics. That was all finished. Every dance move, every gymnastic flourish and every note of every song was Trademarked and priced outside what my family could afford. None of this was Mrs. Harris’s fault, but I still wanted to blame her. I had always disliked her. I glared at her horrible, insincere face.
I didn’t want a party. I didn’t want a Brand. Why was this something to celebrate?
“What?” she asked, taken aback. I took a deep breath.
“Is it normal to be able to see through people’s clothes?” I asked, squinting through my new corneal overlays.
Mrs. Harris flinched and moved to cover herself, until I snorted out a laugh.
“Sorry,” Saretha said for me. Sorry was a fixed-price word at $10, and a legal admission of guilt. She should have let me say it. I still had a minute left. I just wanted to have a little fun.
Mrs. Harris shook her head, tapping at her own Cuff a few times until a micro-suit showed up. The first thing to appear on my Cuff’s screen was $30 worth of Mrs. Harris’s “pain and suffering.” She sued us all the time like this for petty grievances. Saretha just tapped PAY.
“I have helped thousands of boys and girls transition, and trust me, you aren’t any different,” Mrs. Harris sniffed.
The clock was ticking down. In a few seconds, I would officially turn fifteen. My heart was pounding. My tongue felt like a solid lump in my mouth. Mrs. Harris sighed.
The bunnies sang more loudly at the apex of the bridge. “Don’t jump, puh-leeze.”
Saretha beamed at me. Smiling was still free. How bad could things be if she seemed so happy? Her smile was wide and bright and friendly. It made you feel warm.
Saretha’s Ads were full of romance, perfume, alcohol and shoes. She didn’t come close to a jumper’s algorithm: she was too pretty, too graceful and too well-dressed. When she chose her Branding, Saretha got to choose between twenty-three different corporate brands. I would be lucky to pick from three.
Mrs. Harris thought Saretha’s looks were our family’s best chance at a better life. She looked a lot like a movie star named Carol Amanda Harving. As Mrs. Harris liked to point out, my sister and the actress looked more alike than Saretha and I did. Saretha and I looked enough like sisters, but whatever people might have said about her, they said less enthusiastically about me. With work, I could be pretty, but my skin never shone the way Sarethra’s did.
Saretha went on dates with gorgeous boys who paid for her words and expected affection in return. I went walking with Beecher Stokes, a skinny boy with messy hair who lived with his grandmother. He wasn’t terribly cute, but he made me laugh—or at least he did, until his fifteenth birthday. Then his mood soured. His jokes vanished. He would just stare at me, wordless. To fill the awkward silences, I let him kiss me—as much as he could afford. He could not afford much.
I find it creepy that the system can tell how long or hard a kiss is. I don’t know exactly what the system monitors, but Beecher would pay something like 17¢ for each second. That’s supposed to feel normal. It’s been like this longer than I’ve been alive, but something still felt wrong about it.
When Beecher was ten, his father tried circumventing the programming of a food printer. He wanted to make more nutritious meals. It was in blatant violation of Copyright, Patent and Terms of Service—the Three Major Fields of Intellectual Property.
Debt Services took Beecher’s parents into Collection immediately. They would have taken Beecher, too, but Collection must let you finish school.
Beecher could have had another two years, but he dropped out of school a few weeks after his fifteenth. When I asked him why, he shrugged like it was no big deal- 50¢ to act casual. I kind of loved that he did that, even though it seemed so foolish.
“Beecher…” Mrs. Harris said, shaking her head. Beecher was at the foot of the bridge opposite us, waiting. My heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t love or a crush. The way he looked at that moment worried me.
Bunnies surrounded him, too, but in darker colors like green and midnight blue, because these were supposed to be “boy” colors. His eyes were red. Had he been crying?
“Don’t jump, don’t jump,” the bunnies sang cheerfully to us both as Beecher drew up.
“Speth,” Beecher said. His face winced. Mrs. Harris grabbed my arm and pulled me away.
He closed the space between us, quick, and kissed me. This wasn’t like his other kisses. My lips stung. My body tingled. I realized, with horror, that his eyes were being shocked for kissing with insufficient credit.
“Beecher Stokes!” Mrs. Harris warned.
My pastel bunnies and his dark ones mingled in the Ad, harmonizing, “Don’t jump, pleeeeezeey weeezeey.”
To fill the awkward silences, I let him kiss me—as much as he could afford. He could not afford much.
My cheek twitched. I put a hand there to feel the spasm. Somehow, my Cuff’s software knew I hadn’t kissed back. It really unnerved me to realize my Cuff had such weird access to my lips and intentions. Suddenly this whole system seemed too, too real.
Beecher abruptly stalked off, eyes red, head down. Black, grey, and blood red bunnies, glowing from the Ads at his feet, kept singing that he shouldn’t jump. Beecher didn’t take advice from bunnies.
That had been one of his jokes, back before he turned 15. I thought it was really funny until he mounted the rail and took a great leap into the traffic eighty feet below.
The bunnies stopped singing.
• • •
On the highway a dark line of cars threaded through the clot of traffic. Cars parted to let news, polices, and cleanup crews through to deal with the wreckage Beecher had wrought. A distinctive ebony Meiboch Triumph snaked its way to the front. Everyone knew that car and they gave it a wide berth. The law firm of Butchers & Rog had arrived.
Butchers & Rog were the city’s most prestigious firm. Silas Rog himself had drafted countless pieces of legislation for the city, and some, it was said, for the nation. It was hard to know how powerful he was, because one piece of his legislation barred what he designated as “undesirable news and information from outside the city.”
I was nine years old when Butchers & Rog delivered a bright yellow envelope to our apartment door. My father peeled the thing open and dropped a thin, torn slip of yellow to the ground. Sam tried to keep it. He was too young then to know you need a license to keep paper. The Paralegal slid it out of his hand, then held out his Cuff for my father to plead. My parents never read the terms. There was little choice but to agree. Fighting would only cost more money.
My father tapped AGREE with a hard knuckle, my mother with a trembling thumb. We had seven days with my parents while they set affairs in order and packed the few possessions they were allowed. My father tried to give us what advice he could, with what words he could afford. My mother said nothing; she didn’t want the Rights Holders to make another cent.
There weren’t many kids at my party who hadn’t been affected by the National Inherited Debt Act, and its Historical Reparations Agency. Mrs. Harris was guardian to at least a half-dozen of my closest friends. We usually steered well clear of her, as best we could.
My Last Day celebration meant Mrs. Harris was all mine for the day. They would be spared.
Mrs. Harris took me by the shoulders with her strong little hands and made sure I was facing the glossy black Butchers & Rog Meiboch™ Triumph.
The Lawyer began to speak almost as soon as the driver had his door open, “Beecher Bartholomew Stokes allegedly engaged in a public emotional gesture. A gesture of such magnitude must be collected upon, by the state or a plaintiff. This alleged jump occurred publicly at a celebration of you, Speth Jime. On behalf of Butchers & Rog, and Senior partner Silas Rog Esquire, I, Attorney Derrick Finster, Esq., advise the party hereforth referred to as the provisionally counseled party “…that you, Speth Jime, may reasonably anticipate compensatory damages should you, Speth Jime, choose to engage the services of Butchers & Rog against the psychologically distressing actions of one Beecher Bartholomew Stokes. Silas Rog himself has taken an interest.”
Finster stood before me politely, letting me think.
Traffic on the road began moving. Beecher’s body had been cleared and the roads scrubbed of him. The thought of it made me sick. A gentle but smoggy wind fluttered my hair as speeding cars pressed me with their wake.
Finster tallied some costs on his Cuff and licked his lips. His Ebony Meiboch™ Triumph was parked askew on the sidewalk, its driver waiting expressionless for his return.
There weren’t many kids at my party who hadn’t been affected by the National Inherited Debt Act, and its Historical Reparations Agency.
Finster continued, “Our preliminary, and by no means binding, estimates suggest compensation should be sufficient to abrogate your existing family debt and thus relinquish all claims against your assets including, but not limited to, time, labor and servitude imposed upon those members of your household in debt bondage.”
“Our parents could go free?” Saretha asked.
Finster’s face broke into an eager, gap-mouthed smile. He nodded reassuringly. “All you need to do is agree,” he said. He held out his Cuff for me to tap AGREE.
Mrs. Harris blinked and her brain tried to work out what this would mean for her.
“She hasn’t read her speech,” she said, quickly. Her face was bright red. “She does have a contract.”
Finster cleared his throat and smiled, like we had passed some test. “Butchers & Rog recognize your pre-existing obligation to read, as your first and primary paid words, the sanctioned a priori speech approved by the entities of Keene Inc. and its subsidiaries. I hereby defer communication concerning Lawsuits and damages levied against Beecher Stokes, his corpse, his family and/or his assigns until such time as Speth Jime, has fulfilled her obligation of said speech, and can freely affirm her intention to retain Butchers & Rog for legal representation pursuant to actions against Beecher Stokes, his corpse, his family and/or his assigns.”
“The hell you say?” Sam asked.
“He is agreeing,” Mrs. Harris explained calmly, “to allow Speth to read her speech before giving a response.” She smiled like his was a great favor.
How generous, I thought.
“How generous,” Sam said flatly. I loved Sam.
I stepped to the podium and saw the crowd of partygoers watching, wide-eyed. Even the younger kids were silent. I lowered my head and covered my eyes. Nothing made sense. If I could have our parents back surely it meant a worse fate for someone else.
“Read your speech,” Mrs. Harris said.
My breather grew fast and labored, like I couldn’t get enough air.
Finster stood placidly by. He knew exactly how everything would play out. I didn’t have any real options. I had to read the speech. I had to tap AGREE. I had to do what everyone expected. Silas Rog would sue Beecher’s grandmother or Beecher’s mangled body, or whatever his vile plan was, and he would grow richer from it. In the bargain, I would get our parents back.
The small quaint buildings on either side of the park seemed to close me in. I saw worry on faces in the crowd. Norflo Juarze shouted, “Feliz Quinceañera!” $25.99 spent on Spanish words he couldn’t afford. Sera Croate smirked, her eyebrows raised. I was taking too long to speak. She wanted me to fail, of course. Your friends come to your Last Day, but so do your enemies.
Beecher’s grandmother was watching from the bridge, expressionless. I wish she had been angry, or sneered. I wish she had walked away. I wish she had told me it was okay. The speech in my hand had no words of comfort or mention of Beecher. It was nothing more than typical generic nonsense about consumer responsibility.
I held the speech up. I couldn’t say how I felt about it. I wasn’t allowed to speak other words. Suddenly, a tide of rage coursed through me. My hands seemed to burn.
I would be one of those few pathetic kids you see on the news who squeak out a few words of protest before being carted off. Finster waited for it, smiling, as though he expected me to break contract.
Then, suddenly, another option blossomed in my mind. I seized it, because it was a choice—my choice—and one I’d never heard anyone suggest or seen anyone do. I put a shaking thumb and finger to the corner of my mouth and drew my hand slowly across. I made the sign of the zippered lips, and I silently vowed I would never speak again.