“Fourth and Most Important” by Nisi Shawl

Fourth and Most Important

by Nisi Shawl

Artwork by Nina Miller

The fourth of the Five Petals of the New Bedford Rose, Integration, is called by some its most important. Primacy of place goes to the first petal, Thought, of course—but linear primacy is deemed by practitioners of the Five Petals to be overrated.

—From “A Thousand Flowers of Thought: Schisms within the New Bedford Rose”

Willis loved to fly. Zooming on his sister’s couch, his phone tilted against a pillow so his shoulders stayed relaxed, he dived up, up through the thinning atmosphere. On target? Yes! The aluminum framing the entrance to his drone’s dock sparkled in the bright sun. The gossamer lines suspending the radio repeater and dock gondola from Mx. Pickell’s weather balloon shimmered in and out of visibility against the dark blue sky. They vanished as the drone swooped inside the dock and dropped into its cradle.

Switching apps, Willis settled down to operating the dock’s waldos. This was nowhere near as fun as flying. But it must be done; Mx. Pickell maintained this balloon and several neighboring ones at their own expense, and in return for access, Willis and his cohort loaded and unloaded the packages Pickell and their cohort swapped back and forth. And covertly shipped a few other things.

Willis did wish he could see in the dock’s darkness. The waldos’ grips were Sensitech: they handled the drone’s cargo expertly, seizing and releasing it with precision promised to plus/minus three millimeters and/or one gram. But the waldos couldn’t tell him what rich people like Pickell were secretly sending each other. Maybe the same sort of stuff as he was, but it would be nice to know.

His crew’s more-or-less legal additions to the drone’s load came out last: Inca-derived, necklace-like khipus—threads knotted into messages passed between care collectives. The Antitrust Authority frowned on any direct, unlicensed communication between individuals or groups. Also social media posts, even though the computer “virus” SM providers had supposedly disseminated had been proven a hoax; the AA wanted to clamp down on them, too.

The pick-up bay of the dock held a neatly coiled incoming khipu, so he stowed that away first, then extended a waldo arm hopefully toward the transit bay. Empty. “Bloodclot!” He retracted the arm. Nothing to bring to another balloon. No excuse not to come back to Earth.

***

It’s always been kind of a dirty word. True, Jung and other psychologists praised integration as a healthy goal. And civil rights activists pushed for racial integration in the 1950s and 60s, but in the 70s black power militants pushed back. Made it synonymous with selling out. In the case of the New Bedford Rose, while there’s a whole petal named for it, it’s still a problematic area. Integration of what? From what? Into what? How?

—From “Dissecting the Five Petals of Thought”

The transmitter was in the attic of his sister Flora’s garage, and the driveway doubled as a landing pad. Willis ventured out to retrieve the drone well before she would have to leave for her shift at the plant. He carried the drone to his workbench in the basement. He’d left one in her way once, and Flora never let him forget it. “Almost made me late,” she muttered at him every time she passed the couch on the way to shower.

The khipu was mostly gossip. Some clueful guesses about Mx. Pickell’s payloads: stock tips, that sort of thing. The business of business is business, as a famous economist supposedly said. Though Willis was pretty sure there had to be more to it than that.

To his left, the steps down from the kitchen creaked under Flora’s healthy weight. “Up early?” he asked as her slippers scuffed across the concrete.

“What do you care?”

A legit question. She’d been instrumental in getting it going, but since the freeze on using her kinetic charging mods, Flora’s contribution to the New Bedford Rose was mainly limited to Willis’s couch and board. That and his access to her neglected copy of Skye’s million-selling Five Petals of Thought, and a few other more obscure texts.

“Thought maybe you had time to help set up a cipher for our next message exchange.”

“Nah.” But his sister leaned over the bench like she was interested. “Stick to your system you got. Less confusing.” The system she’d come up with. Flora was hella smart—too smart to be working in a slaughterhouse. But it paid better than teaching.

He twisted the dangling cords of the khipu into a single strand and tied it around his head, over his bandana. Flora watched him closely. “So what’s bothering you?” she asked. “Your ex giving you grief for wanting custody of the therapy ferret? She went ahead and had it descented?”

Willis said nothing. Marnee was gone for good. He wasn’t going to encourage his sister to talk about her.

Flora shook her head. “Whatever’s got you worried, it’s been eating at you a while.”

Willis slapped his hands on the bench’s smooth wood. “You wanna know what’s buggin me? Tryin to figure out why all these rich people settin up the balloonnet. What they think they’re gettin out of it?”

Flora tilted her head back and smiled at the basement’s dusty rafters. “Well. That’s a problem so simple it’s got two solutions. All you have to do is pick one.”

“What’s my choices?”

“You could steal a loaded drone. Fly it down here and take a peek inside.”

“Uh-uh. Less than zero chance of that. Too easy to be found out.” It wasn’t just the gossip he’d miss if his collective got kicked off balloonnet. Job postings, client ratings, Dinosaur Fat—the distribution matrix replacing Freecycle. Crucial benefits.

“Second choice is you woman up and demand they tell you.”

***

In the U.S., it’s $478,000. Singapore 696,000. That’s all you need to qualify. What’s the distinction between being in the top one percent versus the top five percent? Makes a difference to them but not much to us.

—From A Young Socialist’s Guide to Understanding Inequality

Willis picked his most efficient drone for the flight. No guarantee Mx. Pickell would recharge it for its return trip. He added his modifications confidently; he knew Pickell lived within the transmitter’s reach because he’d met them on a regional nature excursion last fall, when the two of them were assigned the same canoe.

Pickell had steered. Willis had spent as much time looking back at them as he did watching the descent of the scarlet maple leaves that matched their skin. Not a natural beauty—not with all their implants and grafts—but awful easy on the eyes. Which was a big part of being rich, as far as Willis could see: never having to be ugly or stick out in any way unless you wanted to.

So why ally yourself with outcasts like him? Why follow the Five Petals? What did he and his crew and all the Rose’s other “overconnected” adherents have that rich people didn’t? That they couldn’t buy? Because Pickell and their kind could have hired people to circulate the drones. Volunteers like Willis weren’t strictly necessary. So why use them?

He finished installing the mic and auditory sensors and went up to the couch to open the control app and enter Pickell’s physical address. Along the obsolete freeway, cutting across the overgrown high school playing field, above the precariat soy farmers with their bandanas tied over their faces for practical reasons, not just as a sign of solidarity.

The house was old. Cobbled paths converged on its sunken patio. Willis circled twice. Between the paths lay green gardens and trapezoids of bare brown earth, still damp from the morning dew.

He settled onto the patio and enabled the audio packet. The fresh twang of a screen door spring came with a chaser of bare feet rushing down back steps. A human hand darted through his visuals and turned him so he saw Pickell’s face. Their lips parted and their eyes narrowed. “Antitrust Authority?”

“No. It’s Willis.”

The eyes squinted to suspicious slits. “Right. You never come here. Your rule. What’s the matter?”

“I was wondering…” He’d made a bet with Flora he would do this. If he lost his nerve at the last minute, he had to ask Marnee for a pity fuck. “I was wondering what you ship. Why you do all this.”

“Why I do all….What? Balloonnet? The drone routes?”

“Yeah.”

“You sure you’re not—”

“Check my load.” A click and his belly opened to show her the khipu he carried. Pickell read it by touch.

“All right. The loads are nothing. Sourdough starter. Herbal remedies. The messages are free speech. As for what I want….

“I’m old.” They didn’t look it. Money. “This might be my last chance.”

“Last chance to….”

“My last chance to what we used to call ‘Eat the Rich.’”

On Flora’s couch Willis clenched his buttocks, squeezed his phone in his fists. Disconnects always threw him out. He wrestled with the dilemma, tried to grab it by the horns. “But you’re ‘the Rich.’”

“It probably seems that way to you. To me, well, it’s normal to own a big house, keep horses, that kind of thing. So many people have so much more than me. They’re the rich ones—they’ve got twelve hundred times my income. They’re the ones we have to stop.”

Willis felt his perspective shift. Pickell had lifted him. The sky wheeled, and the house’s spruce-blue walls loomed suddenly nearer. “Long as you’re here, can you come inside?” they asked. “I think I figured out a way we could expand balloonnet, make it a better alternative for us than what the AA sanctions.”

We. Us.

“What way?”

“There’ll be a lot more routes, a lot more balloons. They’ll be the fashion. A status symbol. A lot more flying between them.”

“My favorite part.”

 


Nisi Shawl is the author of a 2016 Nebula finalist, the alternate history novel Everfair, and the 2008 Tiptree/Otherwise award-winner Filter House. Their most recent publication is Talk Like a Man, part of PM Press’s Outspoken Author series. They live and breathe in Seattle, where they’re working diligently on Kinning, a sequel to Everfair.

Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination in response to transformative events. Every other Thursday, we’ll publish an original piece of flash fiction, then we’ll host an interactive virtual chat with the author and a special guest the following Monday at 1:00 pm Arizona time (4:00 pm Eastern).

Our next story, by Sarah Pinsker, will be published on Thursday, June 11.

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