“It’s just like Costco,” he said, staring across his desk at the four of us. He wore a salesman smile. A small desk sign insisted his name was “John.” I doubted it, but thinking of him as Immigration Associate #4789 just didn’t feel right, so I let the name stick. John’s office was like him, designed to make us feel equally welcomed and alienated. The beige walls held stunning landscape photographs, and the glass wall behind him offered an unobstructed view of a shining city on a hill. Our new home. Hopefully.
“Now,” John said, “Let’s figure out which tier is best for you.”
“We already know what we want,” Father snapped.
“Sir,” John replied, “if you persist in your hostility, I will be forced to revoke your application. It’s policy.”
“We should hear our options,” Mother said to Father. Then, to John, “We’re your eager audience.”
“Tremendous,” John said. “We have three citizenship tiers to offer. First, we have our Liberty tier. Simply put, it includes everything: unrestricted access to our vast field of employment opportunities, boundless personal and corporate property rights, untouchable civil rights, and unlimited access to all public services, including education, healthcare, etc. Of course, Liberty, like all of our tiers, includes full human rights, free of charge. And right now, we have a special that guarantees elite university admission for your children, as well as a mega-yacht time-share. This is, in my opinion, our best value.”
“And how much is it?” Mother asked, trying to keep her hopeful voice free of desperation. A red number materialized in the air between us and John. There was like a mile of zeroes. Mother, despite herself, gasped. Father choked.
“Keep in mind that this is the lifetime price.” John said. “We also offer decade, five-year, and annual subscriptions.” The figure dropped as he spoke. Each time it did, Mother and Father waited hopefully, and each time they fought to conceal their disappointment.
“It’s just a little outside our price range,” Mother said.
“I completely understand. Frankly, between us, I think some of the Liberty perks are a little extravagant. I mean why pay for unlimited healthcare access when you spend most of your life healthy? Our Equality tier is the best choice for your fine family. You get access to the Equality job market, personal real estate ownership rights, discounted public services, and most civil rights. This is a very popular package, and it is great for middle class families, especially ones with two beautiful children like yours. It provides the coverage you need and the freedom you want, and right now, as a little gift, we are throwing in a few extra public holidays. And the price, I think you will agree, is quite generous.”
The figure dropped through the lifetime, decade, five-year, and annual prices.
“This is bullshi—”
Mother cut Father off with a sharp glare.
“I don’t suppose there’s any wiggle room?” she asked softly.
John shook his head in a show of helpless solidarity. “These rates are already below market value. But don’t worry, I think I have just the thing for you.” Mother’s expression brightened.
“Our most affordable tier is Freedom. It comes with full rights to residency, basic employment, limited real estate rentership, and full consumer status. Public services can be purchased as needed, and most civil rights are available on a subscription basis. The beautiful thing about this tier is its simplicity and flexibility. Rather than paying for services and rights you might not use, you are free to purchase what you want when you want it, or, instead, you can choose to put that money towards a vacation or something extra for yourselves. Really, it’s just wonderful.”
The red figure dropped.
I watched Mother study it for a long time. I was young, but I knew my mother. Her whole life she had fought tooth and nail to earn her place in the world, and just when she had landed that elusive tenure track professorship, the extremists had started their killing, and the whole city had fallen to ruins. All Mother had left was her pride. And now she was fighting to swallow it.
Mother and Father exchanged a look I had seen many times before but that always managed to remain somewhat mysterious. Only years later did I discover what the mysterious element was.
“What about,” Father said, his voice softened by Mother’s pain, “what about your refugee program?”
John’s smile flickered. “I’m sorry. That was a limited time offer.” He looked at us. I can only guess what he saw. “I’m sure we can work something out.”
“You are?” Mother asked, hope returning to her voice.
A sudden powerful tremor shot through my body. We all shook. Except John. He asked, “When do you land?”
We were no more really in John’s office than was he really sitting in front of us. He was in some immigration processing center, maybe at our destination, but maybe not. We were on a plane, and we weren’t even sitting together. To afford the flight, Mother had bought the cheapest fares. She and Father had separate seats near opposite ends of the cavernous fuselage. She had managed to put me near my younger brother, but he was still a couple seats over. We were all using the in-flight virtuality headsets to meet in a cyberspace office. I remember being impressed with the lack of imagination that had gone into the place. I mean, really, an office? Why not a jungle? Or the moon? What a waste of virtuality. I didn’t understand. But I do now.
Our plane was screaming through the air at nearly twice the speed of sound. It had rescued us from horrors I was already trying hard to forget, but if we failed to secure immigration status before we landed, we would be returned to where we were running from. If that happened, we were as good as dead. If it sounds insane, that’s because it was, but back then ImmiGreat, Inc. didn’t do business in our homeland. They blamed the war, religious violence, ethnic cleansing, cyberspace embargoes, and general social decay, but, looking back, I think they just knew it was easier to squeeze families mid-flight.
“Less than fifteen minutes,” Mother said.
John whistled. “Well then, no time to lose. Let’s start with the Freedom tier annual price. They don’t normally let me do this, but I’m prepared to offer you a monthly subscription at the same rate.”
The figure divided itself by twelve. Finally, it wasn’t so overwhelming. Mother breathed easier, and Father’s mood brightened just a touch.
“And, running your profiles against the latest labor stats, this is how much you are likely to earn, per month.”
Another figure appeared beside the first. It was green. And lower.
“Your country pays professors so little?” Mother asked.
John suppressed a chuckle out of whatever sense of politeness had survived his years as an Immigration Associate. He studied Mother for a moment and then straightened. “Oh,” he said, “you were serious. I’m afraid professorships are Equality-tier opportunities. But don’t worry, Freedom grants you full access to a wide variety of on-demand labor opportunities through WeWork.”
Mother fell silent.
“What is WeWork?” Father asked.
“You don’t have WeWork where you’re from?”
We all shook our heads.
“It’s the greatest thing,” John said. “Every citizenship includes ImmiGreat’s Direct Resource and Economy Access Matrix neural implant, DREAM for short. Every DREAM comes preloaded with the WeWork app. You make a profile where you indicate all the various skills you have or, for some positions, that you would like to learn on the job. Whenever there is work near you, you get a notification with the details. If you want, accept, show up, do the work, and get paid through the same app. Do a great job, and you’ll get a great rating from your employer that will keep you eligible for the best opportunities. If you don’t want the gig, then you can decline without any repercussions. You can work where you want, when you want, and every day is a chance to reinvent yourself. Everyone loves it. It’s really just tremendous.”
Mother looked horrified. She still couldn’t speak.
“And my wife will earn that much?” Father asked, nodding at the green figure.
“What? Oh,” John said. “No. That is what you can expect to earn combined.” He gestured to them both.
It was Father’s turn to look horrified. “Then who will raise our children? Who will care for them? Who will feed them? Who will teach them?”
“You are free to continue doing all those things,” John said, sincerely. “And with WeWork, you can even tailor your work schedule around your children. I can tell they are the center of your world, and they still can be.”
Father looked at us. What I saw in his eyes made me want to cry, but I knew he needed me to stay strong for him, so I blinked back my tears. I wanted to reach out and touch him, but, even if I dropped out of virtuality, I had no idea where to find him in that mammoth plane. We were running out of time.
Mother broke the silence. “Thank you. But it’s still too much.”
“You don’t have any savings? Additional financial source? Anything?”
Mother and Father shook their heads.
John sighed. He studied us for a long moment, shifting his gaze slowly to me, then to my brother, then to his holoscreen. He tapped, scrolled, and swiped through a few screens, then returned his attention to us.
“I have great news,” he said. I could feel the plane beginning to decelerate. “We are prepared to offer you Freedom-tier citizenship on a monthly subscription for this, I think you will agree, very affordable rate.”
The red figured dropped. It was less than the green, but only just barely.
“It’s not every day we are able to offer something like this,” John continued, “but it just so happens that one of our partners has a special promotion at the moment, which, if you take advantage of it, will make your dreams a reality.”
“Who’s the partner?” Father asked.
“MiliCorp,” John said. “They are currently recruiting for their infantry delayed entry program. Enlist now, serve later, and this special one-time citizenship rate is yours.”
“I did want to be a soldier, when I was young.” Father said, throwing Mother a smile that said, see? We are going to be okay.
“I’m sorry, there seems to be a misunderstanding,” John said. “They’re not interested in you. They’re interested in your son.”
It was like the air was sucked out of the room. I couldn’t hear anything except this loud ringing. We all turned and looked at my brother. He was only five, too young to really understand what was happening, but he could sense that something was off. He looked at Mother and Father, then he looked at me, fear welling up inside him.
“What’s going on?” he asked. “What’s happening? I’m scared.”
Without taking my eyes off him, I lunged across the laps of a couple suddenly irate strangers, groping in a world I could not see for the hand that had never needed me more. I found it, and I gripped it, and nothing could make me let go.
“Don’t be scared,” I said. But I was terrified.
A hydraulic whine announced that the landing gear was deploying. A message flashed in our headsets. We were on final approach.
“We’ll take it,” Mother said.
Father dropped his eyes to the floor.
“Excellent. There is just one more thing,” John said. “Your religion.”
“What about it?” Father growled.
“I’ll be honest. Members of your religion have committed horrific atrocities and acts of terror all over the world. Just look at what they’ve done to your own country.”
“Those are radical extremists,” Father shot back. “We are nothing like them. In case you haven’t noticed, we’ve risked everything to escape them!”
“You seem like nice people,” John admitted. “But your religion is an ideology of violence. You cannot bring it with you.”
This seemed like too much. How could they take this from us? How could they demand this of us? We could lose everything else, but we could never surrender our religious identity. I looked at Mother, waiting for her to mount some brilliant defense, deploy some negotiation tactic to allow us to preserve this last shred of dignity. But she only nodded. Father, too. And, just like that, we were no longer Christian.
“Wonderful,” John said with a smile. “Welcome to your new lives as Freedom-tier citizens of the Unified Commercialwealth of PanAsia.”
The plane slammed onto the runway of Shanghai International Airport, and the cyberspace office crashed to black.
I would like to say that in escaping America we found a better life. I would like to say that this is a rags-to-riches story. But I can’t. They implanted our DREAMs and Mother and Father started working. I took care of my brother, and we educated ourselves in public virtuality booths. Mother and Father moved us from city to city, chasing the high-paying WeWork gigs. We managed to stay together for a couple years, Mother and Father earning just enough to make our citizenship payments and buy necessities. But then we had a hard month, and Father’s subscription was cancelled. We never heard from him again. I started working. A few years later, my brother started working. Somewhere along the way, we lost Mother. When he was old enough, my brother began his MiliCorp contract. Last I heard, he was deploying to America. That was last year. I reach out, but he doesn’t answer.
I would like to say that struggle strengthened us. I would like to say that poverty ennobled us. But it didn’t. It ruined us, from the inside out. You probably don’t believe me. You probably think we didn’t work hard enough, because you’ve always gotten what you worked hard for. You probably think we didn’t sacrifice enough, because you’ve always gotten what you sacrificed for. That’s okay. Your opinion does not change the reality of my life. It does not change where you found me. It does not change that I, a young woman with her whole life ahead of her, wrote this, my suicide note.