“It’s just like Costco,” he said across his desk at the four of us with his salesman smile. A desk sign insisted his name was “John.” I doubted it but thinking of him as Immigration Associate #4789 just didn’t feel right. John’s office was like him, equally welcoming and alienating. Beige walls held stunning landscape photographs, and the glass wall behind him framed a shining city. 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, 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 offer three citizenship tiers. First, 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.”
“How much?” mother asked, trying to keep her voice hopeful. A red price materialized in the air. There was like a mile of zeroes. Despite herself, mother gasped. Father choked.
“Keep in mind that this is the lifetime price.” John said. “We also offer decade, five-year, and annual subscriptions.” As he spoke, the price dropped. Each time, mother and father fought to conceal their disappointment.
Finally mother said, “It’s a little outside our price range.”
“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 price dropped through lifetime, decade, five-year, and annual.
“This is bullshi—”
“I don’t suppose there’s any wiggle room?” mother asked.
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. 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 price dropped.
I watched mother study it for what felt like forever. I was young, but I knew her. She had fought tooth and nail to earn her place in the world, and just when she had landed that elusive professorship the extremists had come and everything had gone to shit. But she had her pride. And now she was fighting to smother it.
Mother and father exchanged a look. I had seen it many times before, but it always managed to remain somewhat mysterious. Only years later did I discover what it meant.
“What about your refugee program?”
John’s smile flickered. “I’m sorry. That was a limited time offer.” He looked at us for a long moment. “I’m sure we can work something out.”
A powerful tremor shot through my body. We all shook. Except John. He asked, “When do you land?”
We were not really in his office. He was in some immigration processing center somewhere. 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 cabin. I was a couple seats from my younger brother. We were all using the in-flight virtuality headsets to meet in John’s cyberspace office. I remember being impressed with the lack of imagination. An office? Why not a jungle? Or the moon? What a waste. I didn’t understand. But I do now.
Our plane was screaming through the sky at twice the speed of sound. It had rescued us from horrors I wanted to forget, and if we failed to secure immigration status before we landed, we would be sent back. We’d be 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 knew it was easier to squeeze families mid-flight.
“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.” Finally, the figure 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.”
Beside the red price appeared a green figure, less.
“Your country pays professors so little?” mother asked.
John suppressed a chuckle out of whatever sense of politeness had survived his career. “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 said nothing.
“What’s WeWork?” asked father.
“You don’t have WeWork where you’re from?”
“It’s the greatest thing,” John said. “Every citizenship includes ImmiGreat’s patented Direct Resource and Economy Access Matrix neural implant, or, for short, DREAM. Every DREAM comes preloaded with the WeWork app. You make a profile, indicating all the various skills you have or, for some positions, that you would like to learn on the job. Whenever there’s work near you, you get a notification. If you want, accept, show up, do the work, and get paid through the app. Do a great job, and you’ll get a great rating from your employer. Great ratings get you the best opportunities. If you don’t want the gig, you can decline without any repercussions. You can work where you want, when you want, and every day is a chance to reinvent yourself. It’s really just tremendous. Everyone loves it.”
Mother 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.”
“Who will raise our children?” father asked. “Who will care for them? Who will feed them? Who will teach them?”
“You are free to continue doing all those things. With WeWork, you can tailor your work schedule around your children. I can tell they are the center of your world. That doesn’t need to change. You have that freedom.”
Father looked at us. What I saw in his eyes made me want to cry. I wanted to hold his hand, but, even if I dropped from 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? Assets? Credit?”
John sighed, studied us, gaze shifting from mother to father to me to my brother. The plane shuttered into descent. He tapped his holoscreen, scrolled, swiped, and looked back to us with a new smile.
“Great news. 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 price dropped below the green figure, 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 seize the opportunity, will make your dreams a reality.”
“Who’s the partner?” mother asked.
“MiliCorp,” John said. “They’re currently recruiting for their 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, smiling sideways at mother.
“Oh no,” 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 but he could sense that something was wrong.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
I lunged across several irate laps and felt in a world I could not see for his hand and I found it and gripped it and nothing would take it.
“Don’t be scared,” I said. But I was terrified.
A whine announced the landing gear was lowering as our headsets flashed FINAL APPROACH.
“We’ll take it,” mother said.
Father said nothing.
“Excellent. Oh, there is just one more thing,” John said. “Your religion.”
“What about it?” Father growled.
“Members of your religion have committed horrific atrocities and acts of terror all over the world. Look at your country.”
“Those are extremists,” father shot back. “We’re not them. In case you haven’t noticed, we risked everything to escape them!”
“You do seem like nice people,” John admitted. “But your religion is violent. You cannot bring it.”
How could they demand this? We could lose everything else, but we could never surrender our religion, our identity. I looked to mother and waited for her defense. But she only nodded. As did father. Just like that, we were no longer Christian.
“Tremendous,” John said. “Welcome to your new lives as Freedom-tier subscription citizens of—”
The plane slammed onto the runway and the cyberspace office crashed to black.
ImmiGreat implanted our DREAMs and mother and father started working. Brother and I educated ourselves in public virtuality booths. We moved a lot, chasing work. Mother and father earned just enough to make our citizenship payments and buy necessities. Until the first hard month. Father’s subscription was cancelled. They sent him back and after a while we didn’t hear from him anymore. I lied about my age so I could work. A few years later, my brother started working. Somewhere along the way, we lost mother. When the time came, my brother began his MiliCorp contract. They trained him and deployed him to our old country. That was last year. I’ve reached out but he doesn’t answer.