In Indonesia the IAP was shelling Jakarta, in China the PLA Navy was scouring the Eastern seaboard for survivors, in the UK Londoners were lining up at WFP stations for groceries, and, just twenty miles from Felix and Anya, in Muscatine the combined forces of the Louisa, Muscatine, Scott, and Cedar County police departments were performing rescue missions and responding to bouts of looting throughout the flooded riverfront of the city—but in Greatland, Iowa, it was a quiet first day of winter break.
Felix and Anya sat on the bench swing at Washington Park, a treeless half-block of muddy grass with a small playground complex, not far from their high school. They were holding each other’s cold-numbed hands, Felix stamping against the ground occasionally to swing the bench.
“I found a personal accountancy AI calibrated for the Midwest,” Anya said, “if you want to check that out?”
“I thought you said personal accountancy was impossible to calculate.”
“I don’t think I said that,” Anya murmured.
“Yes you did, because I was asking you about these credit tallies people use when they go looting.” Felix turned F’s gaze on Anya.
“Oh. Um. I think I didn’t say that. But I might’ve said it’s . . . well, it would be nearly impossible to make one that was global, but regional ones are easier. There’s one for England, I know, people have used it to make credit tallies.”
“Sure, let’s do it then. I bet your credit’s a lot higher than mine. My parents and parents’ parents and parensparensparens are European as shit.”
Anya pulled her hand away to take out her cellphone, an old utilitarian thing that she had never gotten an upgrade for as long as Felix had known her. “Okay, here,” she said, handing F her phone. The website had just a few text fields on it—place of residence, ethnicity, and class—but as Felix answered them, they branched out into further questions of religion, great grandparents’ nationality, gender, assigned gender, time of immigration, and many fields where F had to write “IDK” and move on. When F tapped the “Submit” button, the phone looked like it was crashing, but then a results screen came up. “Nine hundred and forty-eight dollars!” Felix yelled. “Holy shit! If that’s what I’m owed, I can’t imagine what your credit is!”
“Yeah, neat huh?” Anya said, taking her phone back. “I’m thinking of pulling some old census data to a make a mod that can handle inputs about Iowa counties—get more specific on it, you know?”
As she started to tuck the phone into her pocket, Felix cut in, “Wait, you’re not going to see what you’re owed? Come on, you’ve got to—I bet it’s a shitload.”
“I mean, but. I know that. I kind of already know. N’COBRA developed an AI to calculate reparations, and you can just split that number by the number of people in the US descended from slaves.”
“But this is for you—you personally. Come on, for me, I want to know.”
“Okay,” she took out her phone again, and smirked.
“What? What’s funny?”
“It does kind of seem fun.”
“It is fun!” Felix gave them a good swing, and stared out at the slushy ground while Anya entered her info. A truck, a gas guzzler, rumbled past them, and Felix shouted, “Fuck you!”
“Felix,” Anya cautioned.
“Who the hell is still driving cars—and a gas car especially. Must be some POFA asshole, if they can afford to fuel that thing.”
“Okay, just . . . .” Anya started, but then stopped and pursed her lips.
“What, what is it?”
That smirk broke out again, and she turned the phone screen to Felix: $104,667.
“Holy shit! That’s enough for . . . that’s enough for . . . .”
“A full ride to Iowa State,” Anya said.
“What?” Felix asked. “But you’ve—”
“I’ve got the Future Scientists scholarships. Yeah, yeah. I just mean, if that money got frozen, or something, like they did with the scholarships for everyone who’s a junior now . . . just a possibility, you know?”
Of course F knew. They both knew. And they both knew that Felix’s legacy scholarship wasn’t state-funded, so no one was going to pull that money to deal with the recession, and they both knew that if Future Scientists got cancelled, Felix would still be at Iowa State next year, while Anya—
“Yeah.” Felix nodded and tried to not think about it, putting F’s arm around Anya. F gave them a push, and the chains of the swing squawked as they rocked gently.
“What if we looted something,” Felix said.
“Between the two of us we have more than enough credit to justify it.”
“I’ve been reading articles about it, it’s really pretty easy in places like this. Plenty of big empty mansions out in the country, rich owners gone away for winter break . . . .”
“You’re not being serious, um, right?”
“Well it’s a fun idea, isn’t—” Felix stopped when F heard a rumbling behind them and turned. It was that same fairly new, dark blue Ford that had gone by earlier. “The fuck are they doing? Just cruising around for the fun of it?” Felix bent down to scoop up some mud.
“F,” Anya said, “F, hey . . . .”
The car turned left, passing right in front of them, and Felix jumped up and hurled the mudball as hard as F could. It hit the back windshield with a whap like a thunder crack, reverberating in the empty block. Felix shouted, “You piece of—” but F’s breath caught when the back lights flared red and the truck shrieked to a halt. “Shit!” F pivoted back to Anya and shouted, “Run!” Anya dashed for her bike, and Felix for F’s, not looking behind. Without meaning to they both pushed off in opposite directions, but F couldn’t turn back now. The streets were deserted, grimy with salt, mud, and puddled potholes, so F blasted through four-way stops, turning left and right and right and left, trying to lose F’s self in the waffle-iron residential blocks of the town.
A thin drizzle was passing over Greatland just a few days before Christmas when Felix texted Anya, Hey you should come over. Parents are out trying to sell the car. Felix set F’s phone aside on the couch and turned back to the YT News special F was watching. It was about the origins of the accounting AIs, how they’d been an open source reference tool for the UN climate change program before becoming the core of a global political movement. After a while, Felix paused the video and picked up F’s phone again—no response. F started to text her, but as soon as F did, there was a little knock at the front door.
Felix answered the door to find Anya outside, her bike chained to the railing of the little staircase leading up to the prefab.
“Hey,” she said. She looked beautiful, flushed from the ride over, a warm little glow of light against the suburban wasteland and sky of shadows.
“Hey,” Felix said, and hugged her. “Come in!” F stepped back, then closed the door behind her. “So, I was—”
“Actually, Felix . . . I kind of, need to—I should’ve told you right away the other day, but it’s hard, and I just . . . .” Anya paused for a while, and bit at her lip. “The state legislature voted last week to—they’re pulling funds for Future Scientists. All funds. And my parents—well we don’t know what’s—”
“So you, you can’t go to Iowa?” Felix asked.
Anya shifted her feet around. “The law could be reversed, but . . . but . . . .”
Felix felt tears boiling up around F’s eyes. “That’s bullshit! For years, people like that have been fucking over people like you, and now that the consequences of greed have caught up with them, they’re still just taking care of their own first!”
Anya hesitantly held out her arms, “Um,” then she stepped forward and hugged F. She was a little taller than Felix, and F pushed F’s face into the crumply synthetic material of her winter coat. Going off to college without Anya. Freshman sophomore junior senior year without Anya. And Anya, brilliant Anya, smarter than anyone F knew Anya, consigned to some community college. “It’s so unfucking fucking fucking fair!” Felix slurred into her shoulder.
“I know,” she murmured. “I’m. I’m really grateful for everything I have, but—I really wanted to go to a university.” She shivered against Felix and hugged F tighter. F hugged her tighter back. “I—” she started, then choked and fell silent.
The world was stupid and mean and—
“Oh!” Felix pushed back from her. “I forgot, what I wanted to talk to you about!” F sniffed, and grinned. “I found a place we can loot!”
“What? Felix . . . .” Anya rubbed at her eyes.
“All the more reason to loot it now, right?” Sniff.
“But . . . no, there’s no way . . . looting that much money, that would be traced, or, or, if we stole stuff and pawned it, it’d be really suspicious, and—”
“There are safe ways to do it though—online, you—”
“I don’t think so.”
“Really, you just use proxies and bots to—”
“But I don’t think I’m comfortable with—”
“Then fine, don’t pawn anything. We can just go, and steal stuff you like—get you a new laptop, so you can finally start designing your own AI instead of just making mods, yeah?” And maybe you’ll change your mind when you see what riches these people are hoarding, and decide to go all the way, so you can go to ISU . . . .”
Anya looked almost as distressed as she had right before telling F her scholarship was gone.
“Look at me and tell me you don’t deserve a better computer—to have the tools you actually need to do your work,” Felix said, the tears spilling out again. “Look at me and honestly tell me that, and if you can, then . . . .”
Anya stared into F’s eyes for a while, and her face slowly relaxed. Then, “Can we do it safely?”
Felix had found the house on Red Door, a bnb-like website with stricter membership requirements, aimed at wealthier travelers and homeowners—definitely people with debt, not credit. The place was un-booked (surprise, no one wanted to go to Greatland Iowa for their holiday break), and had been available since the fifteenth. It was out in the countryside, a twenty-minute bike ride from Felix’s house.
By the time they turned off the highway, it’d stopped raining and the sun had set. The drive led them through a thicket of trees into a postage-stamp clearing surrounded by forestry. At the center stood a two-story house with an excessively furnished front porch and a stretch of chain link fence visible toward the back.
“What if that’s for a dog?” Anya pointed at the fence.
“If there was a dog it would’ve been mentioned on Red Door,” F murmured. “Your mask is slipping some.” F pinched the fabric and stretched it up over the bridge of her nose. They both wore scarves wound tight around their faces just below their eyes and skull caps above, in case of security cams.
“Alright,” Felix said, taking out F’s phone, “I’m gonna call you now.”
F walked their bikes over to the side of a long shed catty-corner to the house, then propped F’s phone on the handlebars so the camera pointed out to the road.
Anya took out her phone. “So if I see someone drive through here on this call, what do we do?”
“We hide in the trees and wait them out,” Felix said. “Private security is not going to want to find us, you know? They’ll get here, look around the house, and assume we ran away. They’re not in the business of catching people, just chasing them off.”
“What about police?”
“Police are all in Muscatine helping with the flood, they don’t have time for anything happening in pissant little Greatland.” F made for the house. “Now come on, let’s do this.”
They’d cased the place on Google Maps and seen, in a summer picture, little plants set out on the shallow incline of the porch roof. If someone could move plants in and out through the windows, a person could probably make it through too. They’d also discovered that one wall of the porch consisted of a lattice choked with vines, which made for an easy climb up to the awning.
“Look, this is the one,” Felix whispered, motioning Anya over to one of the second story windows. Behind the glass, they could see the plants set out on the windowsill. Although it was a pain to remove the screen with their gloves on, the window wasn’t actually locked or bolted into place, and it slid up easily.
“Careful with the plants, Felix,” Anya said, as Felix squirmed past them.
“No names, Bug,” Felix hissed back at her, and as she came in behind F, F went and looked for the light. “You in?” Felix asked.
“Yeah,” Anya said, and hearing the window sliding shut, Felix hit the switch.
The room was a bathroom, with two sinks and a closet twice the size of Felix’s own, but just for towels. The shower/bathtub overflowed with products—conditioner, dry scalp conditioner, scented shampoo, bodywash, a chunky bar of soap, washcloths, a luffa, a glass jar of bath salts—and the counter of the bathroom held even more—shaving cream, razors, more bars of soap, combs, hairbrushes, nail scissors, deodorants, perfume, eyeliner, lip gloss, foundation and setting powder (none the right shade for Anya or Felix), mouthwash, toothpaste, an army of orange prescription bottles. Just as stunning as the quantity and variety of the stuff, all of them were name brand. These people were debtors for sure.
As they progressed through an upstairs hallway, then down a flight of stairs to the living room, they followed the same routine. Turn on the lights, survey the area, check in with each other to see if either of them wanted something, then turn off the lights and move on. Felix didn’t take much, but Anya wasn’t taking anything. “Are you sure?” Felix asked. “Something small?” They both wore backpacks that they could stuff a lot of things into. “No,” she said, “I don’t want their stuff. I’m just looking for a laptop.” And on they went.
The house was overstuffed, top to bottom. Even the fridge and pantry were well-stocked, with more animal products in one place than Felix had ever seen outside a supermarket. F used Anya’s phone to check the price of a block of cheddar cheese, $31.50. F marked it down on F’s tally and took it, instantly tearing open the packaging and taking a big bite. Felix hadn’t had dairy cheese since F was six, before the carbon taxes made it too expensive, and it was creamy beyond anything Felix could remember. Rich and dense like a potato, sweet, and salty and fatty like peanut butter. F offered the block to Anya. “Want some?”
“No, I’m vegan. Aren’t you vegan?”
“Everyone’s vegan,” Felix said, taking another bite, really chewing on it.
“So why are you eating that?”
“It’s not like I’m buying it,” F said. “And it’s delicious. Why not enjoy the fruits of their greed?” Felix wrapped up the cheese and stuck it into F’s backpack, quickly following it with a box of cookies that ran about $29, a loaf of sourdough ($19), a jar of blackberry jam ($15), a half-used bag of Sumatra coffee (half of $44—$22), and a small travel mug ($31).
When they reached the home office Anya finally stopped checking her phone every two minutes to pore over the enormous desk at the end of the room, which held two monitors and an enormous computer tower.
F smiled under F’s scarf, then turned to the wall opposite the desk where three floor-to-ceiling bookshelves stood. After Felix had raided them, F powered on the computer to calculate how much credit F had left. F didn’t want to bother Anya asking her for her phone, as she was now sitting cross-legged on the floor, bent over a Tupperware box full of electronic paraphernalia with that I-am-now-just-in-my-own-world-and-I-don’t-care-how-I-look-to-anyone-else concentration that Felix had always found so adorable in her. $563.32—that was how much F was still owed. F was about to shut down the computer when a folder on the desktop caught F’s eye.
“Oh my god,” Anya whispered, as Felix opened the folder, titled “spreadsheets.”
“What?” F looked over, and saw her holding a small, slender laptop.
“This is so new . . . this is just a year old . . . it’s a Ryder Mini, it’s . . . .” And now, even though her mouth was completely obscured, Felix knew that Anya was smiling.
“How much is it?”
“About five thousand dollars,” she said.
“Take it, Bug!”
Anya slung her backpack around the front of her and slipped the laptop inside. “What are you doing?”
Felix’s eyes roamed across the screen. “These are quarterly reports, for this family’s farm—we could feed this into that personal AI and figure out how much these people owe—we’d know exactly how much you can take from them—it’s probably enough to pay for college.”
“Well, probably,” Anya murmured. “But . . . .”
“I’m doing it.” Felix opened the web browser and rattled off a search query.
“Fe—I mean, just, those, the AI don’t handle businesses very well. They’re not optimized for them.”
“Really? Because the site has an option for ‘business’ in this dropdown.” Felix selected this option, and then rather than filling out any forms, clicked “Upload Data.”
“Huh,” Anya said. “Must be a more recent build . . . .”
Felix selected all the folders F’d looked at, plus several more that F hadn’t, but which seemed relevant. The AI was smart, it could sort out what was and wasn’t important for itself. They both watched as a progress bar appeared on the screen and crawled from 5% to 23% to 29% to 44%, much faster than it would’ve done on Anya’s computer or Felix’s. In less than a minute, the bar was up to 99%, and then the page reloaded and the number appeared: $4,344,505.
“What the fuck?” Felix said. “Whoa, what?”
“See, that’s what I’m saying, I don’t know how accurate—”
“Would it be this inaccurate? Really? There’s something in that data, this family’s done some shit, Anya.”
“That’s . . . this number is . . . .”
“Slaveholding, or maybe they’re descended from some old shitty European dynasty, or—”
“That’s not in the data!” Anya snapped. “There’s no tab that records the number of slaves this family’s ancestors had—and we’re in Iowa, these people are probably descended from protestant Germans, not slaveholders or monarchs.”
“Then they’re paying people below minimum wage, or using some massively pollutant farming process,” Felix said. “Either way, their shit is ours for the taking. This room is a great place to start, you tell me, what’s valuable in here?”
“F, if that’s their debt, I, I don’t know how much we can trust my credit.”
“What? Of course we can, it’s consistent with other reparations AI.”
“Well, you know, that’s an average, it’s not like every black person is, has some legacy of deprivations, or—”
“Of course not, but you—your dad’s dad’s dad’s dad was a slave, right? We can say that with certainty.”
“But my mom’s white, and I’ve—I can’t deny the benefits of that, or—”
“That is ridiculous, and you know it.” Felix picked up an external drive, and unzipped Anya’s pack to put it in.
“Stop!” she yelled, spinning away. “I’m saying, I don’t feel like I’ve had some horrible life of being withheld from opportunities, I, I feel incredibly grateful for everything I’ve got, especially considering what my dad went through, and I don’t feel like a hundred thousand dollars has been robbed from me.”
“You don’t have to feel it.” Felix shoved the drive into F’s own pack and started grabbing other electronics. “The computer is telling you.” F picked up a phone, then realized it was Anya’s, which she had left on the desk—but in the moment F picked it up, F saw a shape moving out of frame, toward the house. “Shit! Come on, grab everything as quickly as possible!”
“What, F, is there—” Her voice choked up.
“Yeah, let’s go!” F flipped off the lights. “Listen, do these rich assholes deserve these electronics more than you deserve college?”
“I—No,” she hissed, and she pushed past F and plunged her hands into the box of electronics, fishing out sleek black and gray apparatuses and placing them on the desk by the light of the monitor. Felix helped her, filling up F’s own pack as well as hers.
“Wait, F,” Anya whispered, staring at the computer monitor.
“What, you want to take that?”
“This isn’t the Midwest AI, this is global.” Anya looked at F. “This isn’t what they owe to the creditors of the Midwest, or America, it’s what they owe to the world.”
“Why it’s so high—someone must’ve cracked it in the past few days, figured out how to—”
An enormous crashing sound as the front door exploded open, and something came skittering down the hall, knocking off the walls and into the office. The doorknob.
“Whoever is in there,” a voice boomed from the doorway, “get the fuck out, and leave your shit!” Not private security. A looter.
There were two exits to the office—one to the front hallway, one to the dining room. If Felix remembered correctly, from the dining room they could get to the backyard—but they’d have to move quick.
“F, look,” Anya pointed to the monitor, which displayed the homepage for the site that Felix had breezed past when F was uploading the data. Anya’s finger was pressed to a text box which read,
Average debt of a lower-class US citizen
“I’ll give you till ten to come over here and surrender whatever you’ve taken!” The voice yelled.
“I’ve got a plan,” Felix hissed. “Out the back.”
Anya stuck close as they crept through the dining room.
“I hate this,” she moaned.
Felix used every shouted number as a chance to open the creaking door further.
Across the threshold now . . . .
And it was closed. They heard stomping inside and quickly scurried off the back porch to crouch beside some hedges. The rain had come back—no, it was snow this time.
“Okay,” Anya said, “what now?”
“Now we sneak around to our bikes and GTFO.”
“Wait, that was your plan? Are you serious? No, no, then we should just give the stuff back—”
“Keep your voice down,” Felix snapped, and F headed toward the edge of the house.
From inside they heard the looter shout something, and they froze at the corner of the house for a while before continuing on to the chain link fence, which enclosed the backyard. “Let’s go over the fence one at a time,” F said, “so we don’t make too much noise.” Felix fit one foot into a hole and, pushing off of it, for the first time that night felt the enormous weight of F’s pack. The chains jangled, and F climbed as quickly as possible, easing F’s body down to the other side. F could see the bikes from here just yards away, Felix could see F and Anya riding away on them, Felix could see huge sums rolling into Anya’s bank account and Felix could see her graduating with F.
“Jesus this is heavy,” Anya said, reaching the top of the fence. She sat there, straddling the metal pole running across the top. “I won’t be able to bike up and down hills with all this on my back.”
There was more shouting in the house. “You can and will,” Felix said, “now get down from there!”
Anya pulled down her scarf, one hand still clasping the fence for balance. “I can’t, Felix . . . I, you saw what that site said—none of this is ours. I mean, if we really want to be accountableist, we should donate our own things to, to displaced Indonesians—or to Puerto Ricans, or—”
“We’re just kids!” Felix said. “We can do all that later, once we’ve gotten an education and have jobs that—”
“I know you want us to go the same university, but—”
“That’s not what this is about!” Felix shouted, then instantly clapped a hand over F’s mouth. In the silence, Anya began slipping off her pack with her free hand.
Felix reached up to snatch it, but Anya twisted away. “If you let go of that,” Felix said, “you’re letting go of everything that’s been stripped away from your ancestors for generations—you’re letting go of—” F swiped at it again.
“You don’t get to steal on behalf of my ancestors!” Anya hissed. The pack now hung by just one strap, which she reached for.
“I’m not stealing it, it’s not mine, it’s for you, when you come to your senses!” Just as Anya took hold of the strap Felix jumped up to grab it. F caught onto her scarf instead and without a thought yanked as hard as possible, sending scarf, Anya, and backpack tumbling over the fence and slamming into the hard cold ground.
Felix stared in horror. “Oh my—Anya, Bug, I didn’t—I’m sorry, I—”
Anya pushed herself up. “Fucking take it, asshole,” she said, shoving the pack into F’s hands. “I don’t want it.”
“But the laptop—”
“Fuck the laptop. Slave labor pollutant bullshit anyway.” She walked past F, then froze.
“Hand it over!”
F turned and saw the looter heading toward them. As they got closer, Felix could see a handgun tucked into the waistband of their jeans. “My buddy in the car heard you idiots. What’d you think, I came alone?” Though their face was covered by a ski mask, they sounded young, maybe early twenties.
“What’s, what’s your credit tally?” Felix asked, voice shaking. “Why do you deserve this more than her?” The looter stopped a few yards away from them, and Anya backed up to stand in front of Felix. “She needs this money for college.”
“College? Fuck off,” the looter said. “Give me the bags.”
Felix chucked over F’s own bag, still holding onto Anya’s pack. “You’d just take a girl’s education from her? She deserves a—”
“Kid, unless she’s a Rohingya or some shit, she doesn’t deserve dick. Looting isn’t about deserving, it’s about wanting. If you prefer to use a credit tally, whatever. But my credit tally’s only twenty-k. Fuck that. I want a car, I want a treadmill, I want some weed and I want a flat screen and a VR system and I want a big motherfuckin’ hamburger, and I want that goddamn backpack, now.” The looter’s hand had come to rest on their handgun. Felix held out Anya’s bag, and the looter took it. “Community college is cheap enough anyway, she’ll be fine.” They then grabbed Felix’s bag off the ground.
“Don’t take that,” Anya spoke up. “There’s a few electronics on top, you can take those, but the rest is just books and some food.”
The looter, putting on Anya’s backpack, unzipped Felix’s and upended it, shaking it out vigorously. After a moment’s consideration of the pile of takings, they cast the empty bag aside and stood back up. “I don’t want any of that shit.” They turned and headed back to the house.
“Do you treat most looters like this?” Felix asked. “Why can’t we work together? We’re on the same side!”
“Yeah kid,” the looter called back. “We’re the debtors.” They disappeared from sight then, but F heard a car door slam, and after a while the front door of the house opening and closing.
Felix picked up F’s backpack as Anya walked away toward the bikes, and F looked at all the items scattered in the snow and dead leaves. Books and electronics that weren’t F’s. What the fuck was F doing with someone else’s food?
F arranged the petty plunder in a neat stack by the side of the house, using the heavier items to weigh down the flimsier ones. F put on the empty backpack and walked to the bikes, spying someone inside the looter’s car who watched F back. When Felix had biked out to the edge of the property, F was surprised to almost come crashing into Anya, who was standing on the edge of the highway beside her bike.
Felix pulled down F’s scarf. “You deserve the world,” F said to her. “You deserve everything, nothing could be enough.”
Anya didn’t respond.
“You’ll still do great, even without going to a big university. I’m the one who’s going to be struggling, without, without . . . .” A cold wind whipped through F. “I’m so sorry. I know an apology isn’t enough, I owe you so much more—”
“Can I have my phone?” Anya said.
“Your . . . .”
“When you saw the car come in, you took my phone,” Anya said.
“I . . . .” Felix felt F’s stomach roll. “I put it in your bag. I can, I’ll go back and—”
“No,” Anya said, “don’t be reckless.”
“Then—then you can have my phone, please, let me—”
“No. Just text my phone, letting the looters know I’d like it back. And give them your number so they can work it out with you. It’s a cheap phone. They won’t mind not keeping it, and if they do it won’t be expensive to replace.”
“Oh—okay.” Felix nodded, and Anya got on her bike and kicked back the stand.
“Hey, what’s the credit tally needed for snow?” she said, then pushed off down the road.
For the first time, Felix realized, truly took account of the fact, that it was snowing. It was snowing, in Iowa, in December no less. F couldn’t remember the last time that’d happened—maybe before F was born.
The credit tally needed for snow. More than Greatland deserved. More than Middle America, agricultural heart of a miserly old debtor empire, deserved. More than Felix deserved, too, idiot. But it was falling on F, anyway.