Joseph is picking through the wallet he lifted from the Government Man near the Flotsam city hall, when Priscilla pings his Maitre’D. “Job for you, Beachcomber. If you’re still a working man.”
Everybody’s a working man these day, not like when Joseph was a boy. Back then it was possible to be so rich you never had to do a damned thing for yourself, or at least that’s what he heard. Joseph’s never met anybody so rich as that, not before the Tide or since.
Seems even the Government Man is a working man. The visitor’s old-fashioned pocketbook contains little: a few slips of seaweed-paper cash, a temporary Sanctuary Precinct ID, and a woman’s image on a plastic card. Joseph stashes the cash, ditches the identity card and marvels at the woman’s pallor. Who has skin like that these days? Skin like that never saw any eighteen-week stretch of extreme-UV days. Skin like that cooks up brown or turns nasty inside. Joseph shakes his head, at all the Government Men of this world and the unlikely women in their pockets.
“I ain’t picking no fruit,” Joseph tells Priscilla when he logs in.
Priscilla – that’s not her real name, which makes it the one thing about her he knows for certain –pastes a smile icon across her avatar’s face. “I thought you’d say that. This one’s external to your metadata, okay?”
Meaning: not recorded, not official, and not legal. Joseph frowns. If he gets caught on anything Grade Two or above, he’ll be in breach of his protection guarantee. From there, he’s one grumpy immigration bureaucrat away from having his refugee status stripped.
But what choice does he have? Money doesn’t grow on trees in Flotsam. For that matter, trees don’t grow here either. “What’s the score?”
“I’ll tell you when we meet.”
“You want to meet in person?”
That didn’t sound good.
Nobody calls it Sanctuary Precinct Nine. To the twenty-eight thousand climate refugees, fleeing from drowned homelands, this is Flotsam.
It’s a permanently temporary agglomeration of thousands of preservation modules – bus-sized ceramic flotation devices hastily mass-produced with industrial 3D printers in the months before the Tide. Families, sometimes whole neighbourhoods, crammed into the modules to ride out the extreme sea surge events at the start of the Tide. They were intended as emergency life rafts; for a handful of the hundreds of thousands who boarded them, they became a new home. For the rest, a sarcophagus.
Joseph’s family survived. They floated until the changed ocean currents brought them to a bay in the long islands, and since there was nowhere else to go, they bound their modules together with chains and cement and called themselves a community. Now it’s just Joseph, one man of Flotsam among many.
Priscilla’s not what he expected. She’s tall, with weightlifter shoulders and hair plaited into an ink-black waterfall cascading over her shoulders. She’s dressed sharp, like a lawyer or – no, she’s a Government Man too. She has to be. Joseph suspects a trap. He can’t read her face; at first, he thinks she might have muscle implants, but it’s something better: she’s got control.
“What’s such bad news you let me look you in the for-real-eye?”
Priscilla holds out a small fortune in slips. “I’m cleared to offer cash, data allowances, and food vouchers.”
“A retrieval, Beachcomber.”
“That’s a lot.”
“How much more?”
“Expedited processing. New identity. Full citizenship.”
Joseph puffs out his cheeks. It’s a prize beyond all reason. “What am I retrieving?”
Priscilla eyes him up and down. Joseph’s in good shape, but it’s not his working man’s frame she’s interested in. “Trousers, lower right pocket. Take it out of there.”
Joseph produces the Government Man’s photo and holds it up to compare the woman’s skin to the colour of the sun-bleached preservation modules. “This?”
Priscilla takes it from his fingers and drops it into a pouch. As she zips it closed, Joseph sees the inside is lined with a network of metal filaments. When it’s secure, she tosses it back to Joseph.
“They don’t know you took it,” she says. “Not yet. When you took it out of the wallet, it pinged its position. Lucky for you, it’s my job to monitor alerts, or you’d be trying to swim to Australia right now.”
“All that for some white lady’s picture? Who is she?”
Priscilla shrugs. “Some actor from last century. Nobody now.”
She seems suddenly self-conscious. She leads Joseph out, past a market garden of potted fruit trees, a display of jewellery made from fishbone and salt crystal, and a hemp plantation covering two whole modules, all busily tended to by Flotsamers.
“It’s the image itself that they want back. Each pixel is embedded with encrypted files.” Priscilla bites her lip, before finishing the thought. “It’s the legal framework for an employment initiative. Inland infrastructure destroyed by the Tide needs a cheap workforce for rebuilding. Thousands of jobs.”
It almost sounds good. “Cheap, huh?”
Priscilla grimaces. “Modest wages, jacked up charges for meals, lodging and medical expenses. Anyone who signs it becomes indentured for life.”
Joseph shakes his head again. “Lotta people around here would take that deal for the sake of food and dry land.”
“It would annihilate Flotsam’s market economy to lose so many at once.”
“You’re a Government Man,” says Joseph. “Why do you care about that?”
“Mainland sentiment’s on a knife edge. The Sanctuary Precincts are an economic drain but people were proud to save so many lives. If word gets out of refugee exploitation, public opinions may swing in favour of advocating semi-autonomous statehood for the Precincts. Mine did.”
Joseph considers. “But if I take the deal, Flotsam goes under.”
“You never have to work another day in your life,” says Priscilla, watching him close.
Joseph thinks about the woman in the picture. Was she idle and comfortable, doing nothing in particular when the Tide came up?
He grins. “Beachcomber’s a working man’s name. Think I’ll keep it.”