And then there was Meg, the actress. She wanted to feel the handle of a knife as it plunged into a man’s chest. She wanted to know what it was like to end a life. She assured the Producer that it was for a role, but there was no need to explain. The Producer didn’t judge. It was their prerogative to request, his was to produce.
“Lexi!” the Producer sang.
An auburn mop of hair shot up from out of a cubicle across the office.
“Run a casting call for me. Caucasian, middle-aged.” He walked to Lexi’s cubicle and stood behind her as she typed the desired demographics into her computer. The holo-screen quickly populated a list of matching profiles and headshots.
“Middle aged will be hard,” she explained. “The last local famine was like ten years ago, and most of the survivors were kids. They’re too young for this call. Now, if you want to go older than middle-aged, we can go all the way back to the survivors of the Great Soy Shortage seventy years ago, but those folks are ancient.”
The Producer swatted away the suggestion with his hand.
Lexi continued to scroll through the casting list. “We can try and find new talent.”
There was never a shortage of new talent. Everyone in the Underside wanted to catch the eye of a Producer. The gig was simple enough: lay on the couch, have the machine clone your memories, and then get a nice payout deposited in your bank account. Easy. Side effects included temporary or permanent amnesia, dizziness, and nausea. Easy.
“I’d rather get a methodologist,” the Producer said. He despised working with new talent. They were always too eager, too wild. They treated their trauma like it was a free one-way ticket out of the Underside. It wasn’t, and he hated to be the bearer of bad news.
Methodologists knew their place, knew the value of memories, and were always willing to create new ones, regardless of the content. The price just had to be right.
A few years back, a methodologist had set himself on fire for the Producer. The third-degree burns on seventy percent of his body were nothing that modern medicine couldn’t fix, and besides, the medical bills were negotiated as part of the contract. Methodologists understood the power of money. The Producer respected that, but it didn’t stop him from feeling uncomfortable in their presence.
Lexi spun her chair around to address the Producer directly. “Before we jump to extremes, I do have someone in mind, but they’re sort of a…referral.”
“No referrals. We’ll go to the Underside. Find ourselves a good methodologist.”
“Oh, come on. They’re solid, and they’ve experienced famine. They’re perfect.”
The Producer studied Lexi with a level gaze. She’d been in his employment for ten years now. She was a smart girl born on the wrong side of the city. They had first met back when a thirteen-year-old Lexi answered a casting call for a wealthy client who requested a very specific and very…perverse kind of memory. Her parents had signed the necessary release papers without a fuss. Plenty of smart girls were born in the Underside, but few ever made it out, and they knew how lucky their daughter was to have the opportunity. “No referrals.”
The Underside was a hassle to get to. No commercial travel agency ran routes close enough to the fenced-off stretch of desert. The Producer always suspected that the venture was simply a terrible investment opportunity since the traffic tended to only flow Upside. They spent two days cooped up in a rented four-wheeler, sweating and mostly silent, reviewing headshots and watching the distant mountains grow larger with every hour.
The air, warm and dry, hit the Producer in the face along with a familiar smell of deep-fried bread and mystery meats. His mouth watered instantly, but no one would willingly serve him, dressed as he was. His profession produced polarizing opinions in people, especially in the Underside. While some clung to him as if he were their savior, others ignored his existence altogether. The Producer nudged Lexi with his elbow.
Without so much as a word, she summoned her holo-screen and traced out a map. “If you’re looking for a methodologist, we best start talking to the gen-pop. They’ll know the legit ones. Hopefully we’ll find someone to match the demo.”
The Producer nodded. He knew the city well, having grown up in an indiscernible slum just a few miles from the city center. His time in a place like this taught him that even his own hungry and filthy life could be neatly repackaged and sold for a profit. And once he learned that, there was no looking back.
“We’ll make our way North,” he said, ignoring Lexi’s grimace. “Keep your eyes open for anything worthwhile. Just because we’re on contract doesn’t mean we can’t plan ahead.”
Lexi trailed behind as they wound their way through the maze of food stalls, merchants selling a variety of foods. The locals did their best to ignore them.
The Producer stopped at one stall in particular and slipped off his sunshades. He studied the merchant’s stump-for-an-arm with mismatched eyes—one green, one blue. The blue eye’s iris expanded independently as it zoomed in, the camera within it always recording.
“And how did that happen?” the Producer asked, gesturing to the stump.
The merchant turned away in a huff, a bright shawl whipping around his shoulders.
“Come now, don’t be shy.” The Producer dumped a handful of gold coins onto the stall’s counter. He hated Underside currency. It was clunky and outdated, but it was untraceable and there lay its only benefit. The large pieces hit with a clink! “There could be more in it for you.”
“An accident,” the seller muttered, his back still turned.
The Producer nodded at Lexi. “Get his info down. You never know when some spoiled oligarch will want to experience an amputation—”
“An accident,” the merchant repeated, his voice taking on an edge. “In case you missed it the first time, sir.”
“Same thing,” said the Producer.
“Not the same thing. This was from a landmine.”
“Well, that’s even better.” The Producer flicked another few coins on to the counter, watching the merchant’s face relax further with each new gold piece hitting the rotting wood. “Don’t go giving your name out to any other Producer who comes through here. This is just a taster. Those coins are only a small fraction of what I’m willing to pay. Think about it.”
Good, vivid memories could be sold for a hefty sum. The Producer’s own memories had sold for far less when he was a boy, back when he didn’t know much about contracts and sales, but they had earned him enough to buy clothes, food, and shelter. But when his existing memories ran out, he needed another way to make do. That’s when he learned about methodologists. Here in the Underside, people of all sorts were willing create the vilest of memories for the right price. During his own three-month stint as a methodologist, the Producer had accumulated enough funds that clothes, food, and shelter would never be of concern to him again. People were willing to pay exorbitant sums for the memories of a young boy.
Lexi jogged to catch up to the Producer.
“Did you give him my card?” the Producer asked.
“I know the drill. You could have been a bit more polite, though.”
The Producer’s mismatched eyes surveyed the streets—dusty, orange, and pungent. Yet, beneath the grime there was boundless potential only his trained eye could see. “Polite doesn’t pay the bills. Money does, and we offered him a lot of it. Men like him understand as much.”
“I know,” Lexi groaned. “It’s just business.”
The Produced smiled. “And business is good.
“About my referral,” Lexi said between spoonfuls of beans. They had paid three times the price for a modest lunch from one of the stalls. Lexi liked to call it the Producer Tax.
The Producer leaned against a wall while he ate. He had removed his suit jacket and slung it over his forearm, now balancing the plate on top as if it were a heat pad. His sunshades sat casually atop his head.
“Do you know why I don’t do referrals?” he said between bites. “Why no Producer ever does referrals? Because it’s never a good idea to work with people you know, people from your past life. That time is over and done with. Be grateful that you get to forget. We’re not a charity. Don’t go promising people what you can’t deliver on.”
Three more spoonfuls before Lexi tried again. “But she could really use the work.”
“No exceptions. Even for family.”
Lexi’s hand tightened around the spoon handle. The Producer waited for the onslaught of pleas from the girl, but none came. She had been uncharacteristically short on words since they arrived at the Underside. He decided to press. “This referral, she’s your sister. Is she not?” The Producer took another bite of his lunch, chewed loudly. “I looked her up. The resemblance is uncanny. Have you considered loaning her the money?”
A small commotion at the stall, change of the guard. A middle-aged woman tied an apron around her wide hips. She started to leisurely run a knife over a whetstone, barely paying attention. The Producer smiled sweetly at her. “I pay you a respectable salary as is,” he gave Lexi the same smile. He turned to the woman. “Tell me, how much do you make a day? A month?”
She drew back in confusion for a moment, resting the knife flat on the counter with a dull sound. “Oh, five units on a good day.”
“And how much does that add up to in a month?”
The merchant woman shrugged. “I don’t know. A hundred units or so.”
The Producer turned his attention to Lexi. “Remind me, what was your commission last month?”
A flush spread across Lexi’s face. “Twenty thousand,” she whispered, eyes poised on her lap.
The merchant woman whistled her astonishment. “That’s a good business you’re in, little girl.”
“We’re in the business of making memories,” said the Producer.
“More like selling them,” Lexi muttered.
“I know what you are,” the woman said. “Every person in the Underside knows what a suit like that means.” She chewed on her lip. “Come to think of it, I might be in the mood to sell a memory or two, if you’re interested. Which ones fetch the most money?”
The Producer winked with his dark blue eye, the camera snapping the woman’s picture for his roster. “If I knew that, I’d be wealthier than all my clients. But you can’t time the market, my dear. Desires are difficult to project.”
Lexi spoke through a mouthful of beans. “It’s the fucked-up shit they want,” she said. “The more fucked-up the memory, the more it pays. Violence, gore, a whole bunch of perverted shit, you know, the usual.” She had somehow grabbed the knife from the counter and punctuated every word with a small stab into the weathered planks. “You don’t need to time the market because the market never changes.” She pointed the knife at the Producer. “And don’t let him tell you otherwise,” Lexi said with a small grin. Her eye looked down the edge of the blade to the man’s stomach, lingered there for longer than it should.
The merchant woman turned her attention to the Producer. “Well, if it’s perverted shit you’re after, I know someone who can help.”
Even in the dark, the Producer knew these streets well. Over there was his aunt’s old house, now long-abandoned, and over there was the food stall that sold the best fish balls. There is where the neighborhood kids played soccer, and there—
Lexi interrupted his thoughts. “It would have been so much easier to just hire my referral.”
“This new tendency of yours—the one where you tell me how to run my business—it’s wearing thin,” the Producer said. He nodded to the small three-flat in front of them. “Looks like our kind of place.” The run-down building matched the description the merchant woman had provided. White paint peeled from its decrepit walls, leaving long, narrow gashes.
“Down here,” said Lexi, pointing to a dark staircase that descended beneath the building.
They descended the rusty stairs and knocked on an equally rusted door. A boy, no older than ten answered. His eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”
The Producer straightened his suit jacket and slicked back his hair instinctively. “Depends on who’s asking, young man.” He peered past the boy to the small crowd that had gathered inside the small basement. They were a sorry looking bunch, fifteen of them in total—three women and twelve boys—all filthy and teeming with wounds old and new. One was missing an eye.
Lexi cleared her throat and addressed the room. “This here is a Producer, a real one, and we’re looking for a methodologist. A merchant by the name of Mara pointed us to this address, said we can find one here.”
“We’re known to pay some of the best rates in the industry,” the Producer added. “So, which one of you is the methodologist?”
A spatter of amused snickers made their way through the crowd.
“We all are,” said the boy.
For the first time in a long while, the Producer was pleasantly surprised. His dark blue eye flitted from face to face, zooming in, zooming out, quickly capturing headshots of everyone present before he lost track of the monotonously gaunt faces. He looked to Lexi. “How fortunate of us to be in the presence of so much young talent.” And then back to the boy, “May we come in?”
The boy allowed them to enter the basement and then locked the door behind them.
“What are you in the market for?” one of the three women asked.
“I’m looking for some famine,” the Producer answered.
A few people chuckled.
“I know,” said the Producer, trying his best to sound on their side. “Can you believe it? Famine. They’re stuffing themselves full of caviar and truffles up there, but all they really want is to experience something unpleasant. I don’t understand it either. But I go where the money is.”
The woman who had asked the question came forward. “I might have the right product for you.”
The Producer looked her up and down. He took her chin into his hand and turned it left, then right. “You do fit the demo. Do you have it on you?” He tapped a finger against her temple. “The experience.”
The woman shook her head no. “I need to make it. But if you give me some time, a month, I’ll make sure it’s worth the wait.”
The Producer thought for a moment. “Done,” he said. “Lexi, please take this woman into the next room and get her set up with a contract. And give her a nice advance. I don’t want a half-assed famine. Nothing short of near-death will do.”
Lexi didn’t budge. “I can’t,” she said meekly.
“What? Why not?”
“Because the contract has already been filled. I-I had my sister sign a digital contract a few hours ago. She needs it. You don’t—”
The Producer’s face turned ugly with rage. He grabbed Lexi by the shoulders and shook her roughly, her little head knocking into the wall behind them. “You ungrateful little—” His hands moved to her throat.
He didn’t see Lexi pull the knife from her waistband, the one Mara had so casually left on the counter. She slashed first at his thigh with three quick slices. Blood spurted out as the blade made easy work of the trousers and the ribboned skin beneath.
The Producer screamed in pain and retaliated with a strong punch to Lexi’s face. The girl tumbled over herself and landed on her knees.
The Producer looked around the room at the wide-eyed Methodologists, all frozen in shock. “Well? What are you waiting for?” he barked. “Help me disarm her!”
Lexi lunged at the Producer, who caught the blade in his hand. The harder he squeezed, the more blood dripped from his clenched fist. Lexi got in his face, her pouty lips twisting into a hungry scowl. “Do you know how much I’ll get paid for a murder? For the memory of a murder? Do you?”
“Help me!” the Producer screamed as more blood was squeezed from his fist. “I’ll pay you anything.”
“And do you know what your memory of dying will sell for?” Lexi ripped the knife from the Producer’s hand, sending a rush of blood splattering against the wall. The man doubled over in agony, clutching his hand to his chest. “That pesky eye of yours records everything.” She kneed the Producer in the face and then kicked him in the stomach. He crumpled to the ground with a half-winded moan.
Spitting blood, he muttered, “I saved you.” His voice was tired, weak.
Lexi grinned. “And I’ll never forget it.” And then, she plunged the knife into the Producer’s artificial eyeball and pried the blue camera from its socket.
She held the eyeball up for all to see. “Now, let’s make some money!”
Copyright © 2023 A. D. Sui