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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


Four Tales of Our Present Moment

Cory Doctorow

Tor Books


The way Salima found out that Boulangism had gone bankrupt: her toaster wouldn’t accept her bread. She held the slice in front of it and waited for the screen to show her a thumbs-up emoji, but instead, it showed her the head-scratching face and made a soft brrt. She waved the bread again. Brrt.

“Come on.” Brrt.

She turned the toaster off and on. Then she unplugged it, counted to ten, and plugged it in. Then she menued through the screens until she found RESET TO FACTORY DEFAULT, waited three minutes, and punched her Wi-Fi password in again.


Long before she got to that point, she’d grown certain that it was a lost cause. But these were the steps that you took when the electronics stopped working, so you could call the 800 number and say, “I’ve turned it off and on, I’ve unplugged it, I’ve reset it to factory defaults and…”

There was a touchscreen option on the toaster to call support, but that wasn’t working, so she used the fridge to look up the number and call it. It rang seventeen times and disconnected. She heaved a sigh. Another one bites the dust.

The toaster wasn’t the first appliance to go (that honor went to the dishwasher, which stopped being able to validate third-party dishes the week before when Disher went under), but it was the last straw. She could wash dishes in the sink but how the hell was she supposed to make toast—over a candle?

Just to be sure, she asked the fridge for headlines about Boulangism, and there it was, their cloud had burst in the night. Socials crawling with people furious about their daily bread. She prodded a headline and learned that Boulangism had been a ghost ship for at least six months because that’s how long security researchers had been contacting the company to tell it that all its user data—passwords, log-ins, ordering and billing details—had been hanging out there on the public internet with no password or encryption. There were ransom notes in the database, records inserted by hackers demanding cryptocurrency payouts in exchange for keeping the dirty secret of Boulangism’s shitty data handling. No one had even seen them.

Boulangism’s share price had declined by 98 percent over the past year. There might not even be a Boulangism anymore. When Salima had pictured Boulangism, she’d imagined the French bakery that was on the toaster’s idle-screen, dusted with flour, woodblock tables with serried ranks of crusty loaves. She’d pictured a rickety staircase leading up from the bakery to a suite of cramped offices overlooking a cobbled road. She’d pictured gas lamps.

The article had a street-view shot of Boulangism’s headquarters, a four-story office block in Pune, near Mumbai, walled in with an unattended guard booth at the street entrance.

The Boulangism cloud had burst and that meant that there was no one answering Salima’s toaster when it asked if the bread she was about to toast had come from an authorized Boulangism baker, which it had. In the absence of a reply, the paranoid little gadget would assume that Salima was in that class of nefarious fraudsters who bought a discounted Boulangism toaster and then tried to renege on her end of the bargain by inserting unauthorized bread, which had consequences ranging from kitchen fires to suboptimal toast (Boulangism was able to adjust its toasting routine in realtime to adjust for relative kitchen humidity and the age of the bread, and of course it would refuse to toast bread that had become unsalvageably stale), to say nothing of the loss of profits for the company and its shareholders. Without those profits, there’d be no surplus capital to divert to R&D, creating the continuous improvement that meant that hardly a day went by without Salima and millions of other Boulangism stakeholders (never just “customers”) waking up with exciting new firmware for their beloved toasters.

And what of the Boulangism baker-partners? They’d done the right thing, signing up for a Boulangism license, subjecting their process to inspections and quality assurance that meant that their bread had exactly the right composition to toast perfectly in Boulangism’s precision-engineered appliances, with crumb and porosity in perfect balance to absorb butter and other spreads. These valued partners deserved to have their commitment to excellence honored, not cast aside by bargain-hunting cheaters who wanted to recklessly toast any old bread.

Salima knew these arguments, even before her stupid toaster played her the video explaining them, which it did after three unsuccessful bread-authorization attempts, playing without a pause or mute button as a combination of punishment and reeducation campaign.

She tried to search her fridge for “boulangism hacks” and “boulangism unlock codes” but appliances stuck together. KitchenAid’s network filters gobbled up her queries and spat back snarky “no results” screens even though Salima knew perfectly well that there was a whole underground economy devoted to unauthorized bread.

She had to leave for work in half an hour, and she hadn’t even showered yet, but goddamnit, first the dishwasher and now the toaster. She found her laptop, used when she’d gotten it, now barely functional. Its battery was long dead and she had to unplug her toothbrush to free up a charger cable, but after she had booted it and let it run its dozens of software updates, she was able to run the darknet browser she still had kicking around and do some judicious googling.

She was forty-five minutes late to work that day, but she had toast for breakfast. Goddamnit.

* * *

The dishwasher was next. Once Salima had found the right forum, it would have been crazy not to unlock the thing. After all, she had to use it and now it was effectively bricked. She wasn’t the only one who had the Disher/Boulangism double whammy, either. Some poor suckers also had the poor fortune to own one of the constellation of devices made by HP-NewsCorp—fridges, toothbrushes, even sex toys—all of which had gone down thanks to a failure of the company’s cloud provider, Tata. While this failure was unrelated to the Disher/Boulangism doubleheader, it was pretty unfortunate timing, everyone agreed.

The twin collapse of Disher and Boulangism did have a shared cause, Salima discovered. Both companies were publicly traded and both had seen more than 20 percent of their shares acquired by Summerstream Funds Management, the largest hedge fund on earth, with $184 billion under management. Summerstream was an “activist shareholder” and it was very big on stock buybacks. Once it had a seat on each company’s board—both occupied by Galt Baumgardner, a junior partner at the firm, but from a very good Kansas family—they both hired the same expert consultant from Deloitte to examine the company’s accounts and recommend a buyback program that would see the shareholders getting their due return from the firms, without gouging so deep into the companies’ operating capital as to endanger them.

It was all mathematically provable, of course. The companies could easily afford to divert billions from their balance sheets to the shareholders. Once this was determined, it was the board’s fiduciary duty to vote in favor of it (which was handy, since they all owned fat wads of company shares) and a few billion dollars later, the companies were lean, mean, and battle ready, and didn’t even miss all that money.


Summerstream issued a press release (often quoted in the forums Salima was now obsessively haunting) blaming the whole thing on “volatility” and “alpha” and calling it “unfortunate” and “disappointing.” They were confident that both companies would restructure in bankruptcy, perhaps after a quick sale to a competitor, and everyone could start toasting bread and washing dishes within a month or two.

Salima wasn’t going to wait. Her Boulangism didn’t go easily. After downloading the new firmware from the darknet, she had to remove the case (slicing through three separate tamper-evident seals and a large warning sticker that threatened electrocution and prosecution, perhaps simultaneously, for anyone foolish enough to ignore it) and locate a specific component and then short out two of its pins with a pair of tweezers while booting it. This dropped the toaster into a test mode that the developers had deactivated, but not removed. The instant the test screen came up, she had to jam in her USB stick (removing the toaster’s hood had revealed a set of USB ports, a monitor port, and even a little Ethernet jack, all stock on the commodity single-board PC that controlled it) at exactly the right instant, then use the on-screen keyboard to tap in the log-in and password, which were “admin” and “admin” (of course).

It took her three tries to get the timing right, but on the third try, the spare log-in screen was replaced with the pirate firmware’s cheesy text-art animation of a 3-D skull, which she smiled at—and then she burst into laughter as a piece of text-art toast floated into the frame and was merrily chomped to crumbs by the text-art skull, the crumbs cascading to the bottom of the screen and forming shifting little piles. Someone had put a lot of effort into the physics simulation for that ridiculous animation. It made Salima feel good, like she was entrusting her toaster to deep, serious craftspeople and not just randos who liked to pit their wits against faceless programmers from big, stupid companies.

The crumbs piled up as the skull chomped and the progress indicator counted up from 12 percent to 26 percent then to 34 percent (where it stuck for a full ten minutes, until she was ready to risk really bricking the damned thing by unplugging it, but then—) 58 percent, and so on, to an agonizing wait at 99 percent, and then all the crumbs rushed up from the bottom of the screen and went back out through the skull’s mouth, turning back into toast, each reassembled piece forming up in ranks that quickly blotted out the skull, and the words ALL DONE burned themselves into the toast’s surface, glistening with butter that ran down in rivulets. She was just grabbing for her phone to get a picture of this awesome pirate load-screen when the toaster oven blinked and rebooted itself.

A few seconds later, she held a slice of bread to the toaster’s sensor and watched as its light turned green and its door yawned open. Halfway through munching the toast, she was struck by an odd curiosity. She held her hand up to the toaster, palm out, as though it, too, were a slice of bread. The toaster’s light turned green and the door opened. She was momentarily tempted to try and toast a fork or a paper towel or a slice of apple, just to see if the toaster would do it, but of course it would.

This was a new kind of toaster, a toaster that took orders, rather than giving them. A toaster that would give her enough rope to hang herself, let her toast a lithium battery or a can of hairspray, or anything else she wanted to toast: unauthorized bread. Even homemade bread. The idea made her feel a little queasy and a little tremorous. Homemade bread was something she’d read about in books, seen in old dramas, but she didn’t know anyone who actually baked bread. That was like gnawing your own furniture out of whole logs or something.

The ingredients turned out to be incredibly simple, and while her first loaf came out looking like a poop emoji, it tasted amazing, still warm from the little toaster, and if anything, the slice (OK, the lump) she saved and toasted the next morning was even better, especially with butter on it. She left for work that day with a magical, warm, toasty feeling in her stomach.

* * *

She did the dishwasher that night. The Disher hackers were much more utilitarian in their approach, but they also were Swedish, judging from the URLs in their README files, which might explain the minimalism. She’d been to an Ikea, she got it. The Disher didn’t require anything like the song and dance of the Boulangism: she popped off the maintenance cover, pried the rubber gasket off the USB port, stuck in her stick, and rebooted it. The screen showed a lot of scrolling text and some cryptic error messages and then rebooted again into what looked like normal Disher operating mode, except without the throbbing red alerts about the unreachable server that had haunted it for a week. She piled the dishes from the sink into the dishwasher, feeling a tiny thrill every time the dishwasher played its “New Dish Recognized” arpeggio.

She thought about taking up pottery next.

* * *

Her experience with the dishwasher and the toaster changed her, though she couldn’t quite say how at first. Leaving the apartment the next day, she’d found herself eyeing up the elevator bank, looking at the fire-department override plate under the call screen, thinking about the fact that the tenants on the subsidized floors had to wait three times as long for an elevator because they were only eligible to ride in the cars that had rear-opening doors that exited into the back lobby with its poor-doors. Even those cars wouldn’t stop at her floor if they’d picked up one of the full-fare residents on the way, because heaven forfend those people should have to breathe the common air of the filthy commoners.

Salima had been overjoyed to get a spot in her building, the Dorchester Towers, because the waiting list for the subsidy units that the planning department required of the developer was years deep. She’d been in the country for a decade at that point, spending the first five years in a camp in Arizona where they’d watched one person after another die in the withering heat. When the State Department finally finished vetting her and let her out, a caseworker met her with a bag of clothes, a prepaid debit card, and the news that her parents had died while she was in the camp.

She absorbed the news silently and didn’t allow herself to display any outward sign of her agony. She had assumed that her parents had died, because they’d promised to meet her in Arizona within a month of her arrival, just as soon as her father could call in his old debts and pay for the papers and database fiddling that would get him on the plane and to the U.S. Immigration checkpoint where they could claim asylum. She’d been a teenager then, and now she was a young woman, with five years’ hard living in the camp behind her. She knew how to control her tears. She thanked the caseworker and asked what had become of their bodies.

“Lost at sea,” the woman said and donned a compassionate mask. “The ship and all its passengers. No survivors. The Italians scoured the area for weeks and found nothing. The wreck went straight to the bottom. Bad informatics, they said.” A ship was a computer that you put desperate people inside, and when the computer went bad, the ship was a tomb you put desperate people inside.

She nodded like she understood, though the sound of her blood in her ears was so loud she couldn’t hear herself think. The social worker said more things, and gave her some paperwork, which included a Greyhound ticket to Boston, where she had been found a shelter bed.

She read the itinerary through three times. She’d learned to read English in the camp, taught by a woman who’d been a linguistics professor before she was a refugee. She’d learned geography from the mandatory civics lessons she’d gone to every two weeks, watching videos about life in America that were notably short on survival tips for life in the part of America where they slept three-deep in bunk beds in a blazing desert, surrounded by drones and barbed wire. She’d learned where Boston was, though. Far.


“Two days, seventeen hours,” the social worker said. “You’ll get to see all of America. It’s an incredible experience.” Her mask slipped for a moment and she looked very tired. Then she pasted her smile back on. “Get to the grocery store first, that’s my advice. You’ll want some real food to eat.”

Salima had got good at being bored over her five years in the camp, mastering a kind of waking doze where her mind simply went away, time scurrying past like roaches clinging to the baseboard, barely visible in the corner of her eye. But on the Greyhound bus, the skill failed her. Even after she found a window seat—twenty-two hours into the journey—she found her mind returning, again and again, to her parents, the ship, the deep fathoms of the Mediterranean. She had known that her parents were dead, but there was knowing, and there was knowing.

She debarked in Boston two days and seventeen hours later, noting as she did that the bus didn’t have a driver, something she’d missed, boarding and debarking by the rear doors. Another computer you put your body into. Given the wrong informatics, the Greyhound could have plunged off a cliff or smashed into oncoming traffic.

There’d been a charge port on the armrest, and she’d shared it with the seatmates who’d come and gone on her bus, but she made sure she had a full charge when she stepped off the bus, and it was good she did, as she used up almost all of her battery getting translations and directions in order to find the shelter she’d been assigned, which wasn’t in Boston, but in a suburb called Worcester, whose pronunciation evaded her for the next six months.

All her groceries were consumed, and everything she owned fit into a duffel bag whose strap broke as she was lugging it up a broken escalator while changing underground T trains on her way to Worcester. She’d spent half the funds on her debit card on food, and had eaten like a mouse, like a bird, like a scurrying cockroach. She had started with nearly nothing and now she had nothing.

The hardest part of finding the shelter was the fact that it was in a dead strip mall, eleven stores all refitted with bunks and showers and playrooms for kids, arranged along the back plane of an empty parking lot that was half a mile from the nearest bus stop. Salima walked past the mall three times, staring at her phone—whose battery was nearly flat again; it was so old it barely held a charge—before she figured out that this row of shops was her new home.

The reception was in an old pharmacy that had anchored the mall. It was unattended, a cavernous space walled off by a roll-down gate, with a row of touchscreens where the cash registers had sat. It smelled of piss and the floor was dirty, with that kind of ancient, ground-in grime you got in places where people trudged over and over.

Only one of the touchscreens was working, and it took a lot of trial and error before she figured out that she needed to tap about 1.5 centimeters south-southwest of the buttons she was hitting. Once she clocked this, things got faster. She switched the screen to Arabic, let the camera over it scan her retinas, and repeatedly pressed her fingers to the pad until the machine had read her. Once it had validated her, she had to tap through eight screens of things she was promising: that she wouldn’t drink or drug or steal; that she didn’t have any chronic or infectious diseases; that she did not support terrorism; that she understood that at this stage, she was not permitted to work for wages, but that also and paradoxically, she would be required to work in Worcester in order to pay back the people of the United States for the shelter bed she was about to be assigned.

She read the fine print. It was something she’d learned to do, early in the refugee process. Sometimes the immigration officers quizzed you on the things you’d just clicked through and if you couldn’t answer their questions correctly, they’d send you back to the back of the line, or reschedule your hearing for the next month, because you hadn’t fully appreciated the gravity of the agreement you were forging with the USA.

Then she found out which of the former stores she’d be living in, and was prompted to insert her debit card, which was topped up with credits she could exchange for food at specific stores that catered to people on benefits. As she tapped through more screens, entering her phone number, choosing times for medical checkups, she became aware of a low humming noise, growing closer. She turned around and saw a low trolley trundling through the aisles of the derelict pharmacy, with a cardboard banker’s box on it. It steered laboriously around corners, then moved to a gate set into the roll-down cage, which clunked open. The screen prompted her to retrieve the box, which contained linens, a towel, a couple six-packs of white cotton underwear, t-shirts, a box of tampons, and a toilet bag with shampoos, soaps, and deodorants. It was the most functional transaction she’d had in … years … and she wanted to kiss the stupid unlovely little robot.

She couldn’t carry her box and her duffel bag at the same time, and she didn’t want to let either out of her sight, so she staged them down the face of the strip mall, moving the box ten paces, setting it down and getting her duffel and carrying it ten paces past the box, then leapfrogging the box over the duffel. Her pile of papers from the kiosk included a map showing the location of her storefront, near the end (of course), so it was a long way. At the halfway mark, a woman came out of the store she’d just passed and regarded her with hands on hips, head cocked, a small smile on her face.

The woman was Somali—there’d been plenty in the camp—and no older than Salima, though she had a small child clinging to her legs, gender unknown. She wore overalls and a Boston University sweatshirt and had her hair in a kerchief, and for all that, she looked somehow stylish. Later, Salima would learn that the woman—whose name was Nadifa—came from a long line of seamstresses and would unpick the seams on any piece of clothing that fell into her hands and re-tailor them for her measurements.

“You are new?”

“I am Salima. I’m new.”

The woman cocked her head the other way. “Where are you staying? Show me.” She walked to Salima and held out her hand for the map. Salima showed it to her and she chupped her teeth. “That’s no good, that one has bad heat and the toilet never stops running. Gah—here, let us fix it.”

Without asking, the woman hoisted her box, and led her back to the office, Salima trailing after her alongside the little child, who kept sneaking her looks. The woman knew which screen worked and could land her finger at the exact south-southwestern offset needed to hit the buttons. Her fingers flew over the screen and then she had Salima stand before the retina monitor and put her fingers on the scanner again, and new paper emerged in the kiosk’s out tray.

“Much better,” the woman said. Salima felt confused and a little anxious. Had this woman just moved her in with her family? Was she to be a babysitter for the child who was staring at her again?

But she didn’t need to worry. Single women stayed in one of three units, and families in two more. Salima’s new home—thanks to the woman, who finally introduced herself—had once been a nail salon, and its storeroom still had a few remnants from those days, but it was now hung with heavy, sound-absorbing blankets made out of some kind of synthetic fiber that turned out to be surprisingly good at shedding dirt and dampening sound. The woman and her kid left her there, and she pulled the fabric corners shut and tabbed them together and spent a moment in the ringing silence of the tiny curtained roomlet, a place that would truly be hers, shared with no one, for some indeterminate time.

Later, she’d discover all the ways that the other shelter-dwellers had decorated their little spaces, which most of them called cells, with heavy irony, because every one of them had spent months or years in literal cells, the kinds with concrete walls and iron bars. She’d decorate her own room, and Nadifa’s children would come to poke their heads in without warning and demand stories or someone to play a game with or ideas for pictures to draw. She wasn’t exactly roped into being a babysitter, but she wasn’t exactly not roped into it, either, and she liked Nadifa’s kids, who were just as bold and fearless as their mother, who was also a lot of fun, especially when she found a bottle of wine and sent the kids out to play in the common room, and they’d perch at opposite ends of Salima’s narrow bunk, telling lies about men, and sometimes the odd truth about their lives before the shelter would slip in, and there’d be a tear or two, but that was all right, too.

Nadifa already had her work papers and she showed Salima how to get papers of her own, which took months of patient prodding at the one working kiosk to get it to emit pieces of paper that she’d have to bring to government offices and feed into other kiosks, sneaking the trips in between her work details. The irony of being too busy working to get a work permit did not escape her, and oh, how she laughed at the irony as she scrubbed graffiti and picked up trash in the parks and cleaned city buses in the great bus-barns in places even more out of the way than her Worcester strip mall.

Getting her work papers wasn’t the same as getting a job, but Salima was smart and she’d spent her years in the camp pursuing different qualifications by online course—hair braiding and bookkeeping, virus removal and cat grooming—and she felt sure there’d be something she could do. She searched the job boards with Nadifa’s help, enrolled with temp agencies, submitting to their humiliating background checks, which included giving them access to her social media and email history, an invasion that was only made worse when she was later quizzed on the messages she’d saved from her parents, videos and picture-messages sent after they’d been separated, but before they’d both died.

Work trickled in, a few hours here and there, shifts dwarfed by the long commutes on the bus to and from the jobs, but she cherished hope that taking these shitty jobs would build her rep with the agencies that were sending her out, that she’d pay her dues and start getting real shifts, for real money. She bought a couple external batteries for her ailing phone so that she could work on the bus rides. She and Nadifa had divided up the entirety of New England and every day they ran hundreds of searches to look for new high-rise approvals that came with subsidized apartments and then made a note of the day that the waiting list for each would open. They knew the chances of either one of them getting accepted were vanishingly small, and if they were both accepted, it was pretty much impossible that they’d end up in a place together.

Which is why the Dorchester Towers were such a miracle. It was bitter December and the shelter hadn’t ever gotten its promised shipment of winter coats, so everyone was making do with multiple layers of sweaters and tees, which didn’t read as “professional” and had cost Salima a very good weeklong bookkeeping job for a think tank that was closing its quarterly books. She’d been worried sick about losing the job and, worse, getting a black mark with the temp agency, which had got her several other great bookkeeping jobs that had fattened her tiny savings account more than a dozen cleaning jobs.

Rattling around the strip mall with the other denizens trapped by the weather and the inadequate clothes, she pondered raiding her savings for a coat, trying to figure out how much work she’d have to lose before it would be a break-even proposition and estimating the probability that the long-delayed winter-coat shipment would finally arrive before too much work was lost. Her phone let her know she had a government message—the kind that she would have to retrieve from the kiosk in the shelter office—so she put on three sweaters and stuffed her hands into three thicknesses of socks and fought the gale-force winds to the office.

Standing in a puddle of her own meltwater, she logged into a kiosk—they’d fixed them all, including the one that sort of worked, and now all of them were equally unreliable and prone to falling into an endless reboot cycle—and retrieved the message. She was just absorbing the impossibly good news when Nadifa staggered in from the cold, carrying her smallest one close to her for body heat.

“Does that one work?” She pointed at Salima’s kiosk and Salima smiled to herself as she wiped the screen and stepped away from it.

“It works!” Her joy was audible in her voice, and Nadifa gave her a funny look. Salima stifled her grin. She’d tell Nadifa when—

“Oh my God.” Nadifa was just staring at the screen, jaw on her chest. Salima peeked and laughed aloud.

“Me too, me too!”

The message was that Dorchester Towers had approved Nadifa’s residency, with a two-room flat on the forty-second story that would be ready to move into in eighteen months, assuming no construction delays. The rent was income-indexed, meaning that Nadifa and her kids would be able to afford to live there no matter what happened to them in the future. Nadifa was sometimes loud and pushy, but she was never squeaky, so it amused Salima quite a lot when Nadifa threw her hands into the air and bounced up and down on her toes, making excited noises so high-pitched they’d have deafened a dolphin.

She didn’t even stop bouncing when she hugged Salima, pulling her along as she jumped up and down, laughing with delight, and Salima laughed even harder, because of what she knew.

She logged Nadifa out of the kiosk and logged herself in and quickly tapped her way into her official government mailbox, and simply pointed wordlessly at the screen until Nadifa bent and read it. Her jaw dropped even further.

“You’re on the thirty-fifth floor! That’s only seven floors below us! We can take the stairs to each other’s places!” Nadifa’s smallest child, confused by all the shouting and bouncing, chose that moment to set up a wail, and so Nadifa pulled him out of his sling and twirled him around over her head. “We’re getting a place, a place of our own! And Auntie Salima will be there, too! We’ll have a kitchen, we’ll have bedrooms, we’ll have—” She broke off and cradled the boy under one arm, used her free hand to grab Salima and shake her by the shoulder. “We’ll have bathrooms. Our own bathrooms! Our own bathtubs! Our own toilets!”

“Our own toilets!” Salima shouted, and the little one said something that was almost toilets and that set them both to laughing like drains, laughing until tears streamed down their faces, and the kid laughed with them.

The coats arrived after dinner that night, too.

Copyright © 2019 by Cory Doctorow