Payment Unkind

Payment Unkind

By Andrew Leon Hudson

I connect with JossLyn en route to the mallzone, competitively bidding where to eat.

< like burgers are tokens I joke.

> which will probably be next they send.

< thatll spike

< eat your investment

> cut out the middletran

< 1 BRGR👑 trades 42 TACO🔔

> crash that

We meet in Corona Plaza, all the trees and grass and shit hiding under a UV filternet suspended from the tower tops like the spikes on a crown. We tap armtabs to link direct and head underground to avoid the families pretending like everything they remember being normal is still normal. Out of the sun.

The mallzone is kind of a cavern, a massive deep hole, brightly lit and colorful, and slotted full of floors, with chasm gaps so you can look down and see how the levels are all clustered with pop-up stalls and bars and eateries and so on, and around the sides at every level, brands all disappear into private caverns of their own.

< retro?

> ys pls

TruBurger is a chain just like all the other chains, but it’s also totally retro because your order doesn’t emerge from your table hub like at MuckyDs, or a service point like most of the rest, and they don’t have a slave bring it to you, either, like KFuckingC, small mercy. Also, they’re pretty small, like probably only six or eight stores in every serious popcen, so eating there feels friendly and personal, even if in reality it’s totally corp, just like everything else.

At TruBurger, the food sometimes takes five minutes to cook. And someone actually calls your name when your order is ready. And you fetch it yourself. Crazy.

Place is pretty empty when we arrive, so we perch a window table easy, kicking into the ankle clamps and syncing to the menu. JossLyn always spends like ten hours scrolling options, so I do a little trading while my order queues, armtab unrolled into tablet mode for screen space.

“Starter for Maze!” someone calls, and JossLyn flicks > 🤭⁉🤡 my way since that’s obviously not how to say MayZ. I unclip my clamp and go collect my dippers and sauce, and don’t bother clipping back in because they’ll call my drink and main soon enough. Dippers are divine—who cares what percentage chicken? JossLyn snags one and I let them, but the sauce pot is the size of a bottle cap, so you can bet they’re eating it naked.

Then their armtab vibes, and they drop the dipper unbit. “Oh fuck,” they say, and I almost choke because I can’t remember the last time they actually used words.

“What?” I ask—out loud—with my mouth.

Their fingers jerk at their armtab’s screen like they’ve been tased. “Crash.”

For a moment, I think they’re just swearing, but then my skin goes chill. Not crash, but A crash.

Dipper grease messes with me fingerprinting my tablock, and by the time my wallet’s open again, I’m already fucked. Cryptos are flatlining left and right; worse, I left the wallet’s AI set to advise mode when I was trading pre-starter, so it’s done nothing to save my ass in the thirty seconds or so since the world started ending.

Our table beeps, and an answering beep comes from beneath it, down where my toes are junky-jiggling against the footrail.

My ankle clamp.

JossLyn looks at me, flinches when I make eye contact. They know as well as I do: retro doesn’t just mean they call out your order and you carry your own food, it means you pay when you leave. My order’s in their system, and I’ve already taken possession.

Which means now I’m in their system, and they have possession of me.

“JossLyn?” They’re already kicking their clamp back into its slot, pulling free and dropping off their stool. “Loan me?”

“Can’t,” they mutter, avoiding my gaze. “Sold everything. Can barely keep my coffin. Need to find a gig. Sorry.”

“JossLyn!” I shrink, furtive, and force myself to whisper. “Help me!”

Really sorry.” They hesitate, then put their hand on mine. “Sleep all your accounts—socmed, dating, everything. Kill your coffin. Save.

I’m almost crying. “Don’t leave me here!”

“Good luck.” Then they’re out the door and gone, a flash past the window, out where probably everyone in the mallzone can see my clamp blinking a little red light. I’d follow, but I don’t fancy flopping about like something they used to call a fish, three meters from the exit as my ankle eats fifty thousand volts.

I stare down at my tablet. I’m broke: crypto investments reduced to just a whole lot of worthless fungies and NFTs no-one’d ever buy. I look away and see the middle-aged slave manager coming around from the counter and heading my way, wearing a sympathetic expression between his plastic paper hat and tie.

And I do cry. Ugly.


Onboarding happens in an admin and training annex behind the restaurant—next to a canteen; a rec room with game tables, a full-wall screen, and three rows of recliner chairs; a gym with showers; and a communal sleeping area, like a hostel or a barracks, with two-level bunk beds, mostly claimed.

Not a window in sight.

“I’m David,” says the slave manager. “Welcome to the TruBurger Family, Maze.”

I’m under control now, and I totally don’t want to engage, but you hear stories, and I might as well neutralize one annoyance up front. “Not ‘Maze.’ You say the letter, may-zee. But not slow. Just MayZ.”

“Oh, got it, MayZ, great. So…Welcome to the TruBurger Family, MayZ.”

I cross my arms even tighter, armtab underneath so I’m not tempted to look at it. “I’m not the TruBurger anything.”

David nods and smiles, just a bit. “Of course. Anyway, while you’re with us, there’s a few rules to follow. It’s all in the original service contract, but that’s a lot of legalese, so this is nicer and easier to follow, right?”

“I didn’t sign no contract.”

He smiles again, but it’s the sympathetic one now. “I’m afraid that was all in the service agreement you tick-boxed when you made your order. Basically, if you can’t pay for your meal, you have to work off the debt. Just like they did in the old days.”

I sneer. “How fucking old we talking?”

My ankle clamp beeps. I have a feeling I fucking know why.

“Real old,” says David. “Like, depression-era old, they told me when I started. Sounds like a good name for it, right? But yeah, you have a debt to recoup. The contract lays out the terms you agreed to, so let’s go over those, okay? Hey, you want me to heat this up?”

On the table between us is the tray with the rest of my order. The price of freedom: a TruBurger Double Patty Sandwich with kale, a large beanfries, a regular syrup fizzy, and a portion of dippers that’s two dippers short. No, three short. JossLyn’s went on the floor.

“Not hungry,” I mutter. Not true though.

David nods. “I get it. Bit of a day you’re having, I know. But if you change your mind, just say the word. And there’s no charge on meals during training. TruBurger cuts us a little slack. They know it’s a lot to take in. Don’t worry about the swearing, either. Sure, the clamps always beep, but the disparagement clause only kicks in once you’re through basic, and even then, only in work-category spaces.”

I chew a fry. Nightmare, nightmare. I take another. Total fucking nightmare.

“So, in a nutshell,” and David’s voice takes on a trance-like tone, like he’s reading off a screen I’m not seeing, “you are contracted with TruBurger Outlet #242 LLC, a subsidiary of TruBurger Ltd, a subsidiary of Seagrill Foodstuffs Incorporated, to provide product preparation, customer facing service, site and hardware cleaning, and basic-level maintenance here at Two Forty-Two, for a period not less than thirty-one days and until your outstanding bill is paid. You are entitled to an hourly wage of eighteen dollars and forty-seven cents, less taxes, national insur—”

“Dollars!” I almost spit dipper in his face. “Dollars? Are you fucking kidding me?” Beep.

“TruBurger accepts all forms of digital currencies for purchases, but I’m afraid salaries are rendered in fiat.” His tone doesn’t change, like food-propelling outbursts are expected at this point, and he knows fucking-well they should be: dollars! I’ll be here forever!

David pauses as he mentally resets. “…$18.47, less taxes, national insurance, healthplan fees, and your mandatory company pension contribution, which TruBurger Ltd pledges to boost by ten cents on the dollar, realized at the retirement age mandated by your nation of residence. This hourly rate exceeds the global minimum wage by over twenty percent. Seagrill Foodstuffs Inc is committed to fair and equitable employment practices for all members of the TruBurger Family.”

I interrupt: “So how much did all this shit cost me?” Beep. “Like, in dollars.

David doesn’t even have to think. “$24.40.”

“But—that’s it? Well, shit—” beep “—no problem, just take it out of my first day’s pay!” Although, on the outside, I’m still broke…

David shakes his head. “I’m afraid there’s still that thirty-one day commitment, MayZ. But the hours add up. Based on two hundred and sixty-one working days per year, and two five-hour shifts per day, a new starter’s annual gross income is $48,153.92. After deductions, but plus the annual bonus, that’s $36,610.50 net.”

Well. Divide by twelve, and it’s still only dollars, but it could be worse.

“So, you’ve committed not to depart the premises of TruBurger Outlet #242 at any time during the period of your employment in the event that you remain in debt to TruBurger Ltd, excepting under circumstances of emergency, which will be communicated to you by the outlet manager. That’s me,” David interjects, in a momentarily more human mode. “You will, however, be provided with a place in Two-Forty-Two’s bunkroom, plus full access to all living and recreational facilities.”

The droning continues. I finish the last of the beanfries and stare at my sandwich. Not allowed to leave. For a month. So, that’s why the food service crowd get called “slaves.”

David is still talking. “…and residency fees are $5.95 per hour.”

I try to rewind him, but it’s gone. “Pardon?”

“Residency fees. $5.95 per hour. They add up as well, unfortunately.”

“You’re saying… I can’t leave when I’m not working… and I have to pay rent while I’m here?”

His face gives a smile that means nothing funny happening. “Yes.”

Not a nightmare, a sick joke. “How much?”

He sighs. “Fourteen hours off-duty on workdays, plus two full-rest days weekly, is a bit over 6,150 hours per year. Comes to $36,609.50.”

That number sounds very fucking familiar.

“One dollar,” David says, reading my face. “Profit per year. And that’s only after the bonus comes in on your anniversary. So, month on month, you will be down on your original debt.”

My stomach clenches around the meal that landed me here. “That’s twenty-five fucking years—” beep “—to pay for a goddamn burger—” beep “—I haven’t even fucking eaten!” Beep.

“Nearly, yes. And please, prior to the end of today, you really should check the Family Handbook. Swearing in the wrong locations carries a twenty-five cent fine, applied to the original debt. No one wants that.”

“Crash that!” My ankle doesn’t beep for a change, and I stand and slap the tray off the table, my untasted life-changing burger scattering into slices, syrup fizzy splashing over what are sure to be wipe-clean floor tiles. “You can’t keep me here! I’m going!”

He stands, too, hands spread as if to somehow calm me. “MayZ, you need to take a deep breath. If you leave without paying, Seagrill absolutely will press charges. And we’re not just talking theft of a meal, we’re talking breach of contract. You think this is bad, it’s nothing like how bad it will be. That agreement is airtight, the precedent is set, these things barely even go to court. Major fines, legal fees, all of it applied to your original debt. Think what that means. And you won’t be working in a restaurant either. Customer-facing is the best-case scenario.”

I squeeze my eyes shut until the fireworks start. Anything besides seeing his pity.

“You’ve already lost. No one can pay for you, so unless you magically come into some cash, all you can do is accept it…or—” David takes a deep breath of his own “—or eff yourself worse.”

His ankle doesn’t beep, either. Way to beat the system.

Somehow, I don’t run for the door. I just stand there, shaking all over. My life. Crashed as hard as my crypto.

He gestures at the food and drink splattered on the floor. “Don’t worry about that mess, MayZ. I’ll get it. I know what you’re going through. You don’t forget your first day, believe me.”

“But it’s not fair!” I scream at him.

Something in David’s face closes then, his sympathy gone as fast as JossLyn was. “Be glad you didn’t buy a Family Meal Deal,” he says, his voice flat. “My kids are too old to come here for birthday parties now.”


I close my bunk box and try not to rub where my armtab isn’t. Its twice-daily absence still itches for my attention. The TruBurger uniform tickles on that side a way it doesn’t on the other. I can’t wait for my shift to end, to peel off these plastic rags, and wrap it around me again.

Not that it brings me any pleasure.

In the quiet of the dorm, the day’s soundtrack already plays in my mind. TruBurger Webio plays a curated pseudorandom selection of acceptable pop tracks across all outlets in all trade zones; if all members of the TruBurger Family broke into a spontaneous flashmob, our steps would be perfectly synchronized worldwide. They can mathematically be proven not to fall into repetitive sequences that might trigger annoyance among staff, who are compelled to listen to them at length. Nevertheless, familiar songs follow me across my shifts. No matter that our shifts are similarly variable, the avoidance of overt routine carefully policed for us by Seagrill’s psychological support department to ensure clarity, focus, and good mental health.

It all makes me want to scream.

It makes me want to say out loud, with my mouth, all the words I can’t, because every shit, every fuck, every fuck your burger, every and fuck you too, would be paid for with another year of my life. And even though the scale of that, the threat against a distant future, is impossible to truly comprehend—also proven by Seagrill’s psychological warfare bastards—guess what? It almost never happens, not in the service areas, not unless someone gets hurt and forgets themself; and that almost never happens
either, since the food technology is so safe, you could leave a baby unattended in a TruBurger kitchen and only have to worry about it eating too much.

“Fuh. Fuh. Oh shih. Fuh.”

As I pass through LivRec on my way to Serv, I try to tune out the sound of David and Jen having sex in the gym showers. Ignore that I’ve not touched another person that way for approaching a year, or even myself for maybe a month. Ignore that they’re so ingrained to the rules they can’t even bring themselves to say fuck when they’re fucking.

No one really swears in LivRec, where our contract says we can. Just in case.

When I enter Serv, it’s immediately clear that something is wrong. The kitchen crew are clustered as close to the counter as the intervening equipment allows, while Vannie, the shift leader, and her second, Bole, who I’m half-shadowing this month, lean against the actual counter like this isn’t the middle of PM-2—yes, it’s the quietest shift of the afternoon, but even so.

The customer zone is standing-room everywhere. Aside from a couple of tables weirdly far from the window wall, the Two-Forty-Two is empty.

“What’s going on?” I ask.

Bole gestures to the entrance. “See for yourself,” he says. “Just don’t get your hopes up.”

It’s hard to understand at first glance. There must be some kind of event in the mallzone, because people are crowding the whole window wall, all facing the other way, watching whatever is happening in the world beyond TruPrison. The only place not crammed with bodies is the entrance, but the crowd is thick beyond that, too.

Flawless soundproofing prevents any clues to the occasion from filtering in, but then a shifting of the bodies begins, and I see two figures approaching the doors. They part, and—

“—no rights, not right, no rights, not right, no rights—”

A flustered couple hurries inside to cries and jeers.

“—not right, no rights, not right, no rights, not—”

—and the closing doors cut off the chanting once more.

“Told you,” says Vannie, and Bole grunts in apparent defeat. “Okay, get ready for another order, people.”

“What is it?” I ask as the crew resume their regular places.

“Peonage protest,” says Vannie. “Against, you know…” She waves a hand that takes in herself and me, Bole, the crew. “…all this.”

I look at the windows, at the entrance, and feel my pulse rising in my throat. “Peonage.”

“Anti-slavery protests. Kinda.”

This is it.

“MayZ,” says Bole, “you heard what I said, no? Don’t get excited for this.”

This is it.

“Oh,” says Vannie. “No, MayZ, listen, you need to forget about—MayZ?”

This is it. I sidestep the counter, walk toward the entrance. The beginning of the end.

“Stop her, Bole.”

He’s behind me, hurrying. “MayZ, you can’t go out there.”

“I just want to watch,” I say. “I won’t try to leave.” I won’t have to, not now.

His hand is on my arm, my weird arm, stopping me. “Come away, okay? You don’t want this.” The first time someone’s touched me since Day One—everything is changing.

“This is it, Bole,” I say, and if I take three more steps, the doors are going to open again. “They see it, you know? They see the wrongness. They can’t ignore it—not now.”

“I’m sorry,” he says, “but it’s not like that.”

And, before I’m able to take those three more steps, I get to watch the press of bodies beyond the glass ripple and break apart into individuals, running in all directions, or blasted off their feet by air cannons and suppressed by crowd control officers, rolled and zipped and hauled up and marched away, and in a few short minutes, you’d never know there’d been anyone out there, except that the customer zone is so empty.

Which is the reason why.

And then the doors open, and some customers come in.

Things go back to normal.


I wake early and slip out of Manny’s bunk, without him stirring, pad through the dorm and gym to take a shower. He’ll be gone in a few weeks. I don’t feel any better or worse at the thought—no better or worse than any of the other short-timers I’ve hooked up with. Just a better way of marking the passage than checking my account balance. Even though, like my debts, Manny never goes down, ha ha. Or just once a year, maybe. But he won’t be here by then.

I towel myself off, marveling that I used to live by my armtab, which has been at the bottom of my locker in admin since I hit twenty-two bucks. My fingerprints haven’t changed, but I’m not sure I can even remember my mnemonics. Happier with it out of sight and mind. Seeing it in my bunk box every day was like picking a scab with a chainsaw.

Still, something must be getting me today, because when I’m in the canteen, I can’t get out of my head that my Breakfast Bowl has upped what I owe by eight dollars, and when my shift starts, there’ll be
another $17.85 rent on there, too. After a stimulating day of enforced employment, I’ll still owe fifty or sixty more than I did when I woke, and there’s more existence-on-site dues to pay before tomorrow’s first shift rolls around. Forget checking your balance—until your crashday anniversary, just thinking about money is depressing. Why I’m so preoccupied all of a sudden is beyond me.

By contrast, Manny gets up within ten minutes of a late-start fine and inhales an egg-o-bun on his way to the fryer. Same losses, either way, but sleeping while your blood gets sucked is probably not a bad strategy—provided you’re only doing a year, instead of twenty-five to life. Manny can afford to snooze off his spell inside. If I did the same, I’d wake up deep in my forties.

“Morning,” says David as he enters. “Warning. If your late-night dalliance with my temporary fry cook has him falling asleep mid-shift, I’ll be talking to HR about it.”

I give a wan smile. “Crash yourself, David.”

“Gasp, potty mouth. What’s on the menu?”

“What day is it?”


“Then it must be the Wednesday Special.”

“Sweet.” He sits across from me, and we talk though the rota. The rest of our crew emerges as the clock ticks down, but with Manny yet to resurface I go claim the prime seat in the rec area to screen some forgettable nonsense for my last hour of expensive liberty. I’ll get on with my studies after I wash the smell off this evening.

I work AM-2, catching the breakfast and early-segment lunch spikes, then take an hour for lunch, gym, and shower, and a three-hour siesta. PM-3, the Early Dinner shift, is what we of the Two-Forty-Two call a crashshow—crash being a verb so widely applied in our inbred branch of The Family that the ankle clamps fail to recognize it for what it is: our universal slur. Outlet #242 LLC now has the lowest disparagement fine-rate of the entire corporate ecostructure. My little contribution to the afterlife.

Anyway, “busy” is what I’m saying.

Manny blasts frozen patties four racks deep before platforming them on the grill belt, flipping them halfway. Behind him, Jen works the salad like some kind of demented florist, making endless efficiently identical corsages-on-a-bun. Maggal assembles, keeping one eye on the beanfries toppling into the indrawn breath of the fry mister, a cloud of super-hot oil that drifts between the bar lamps, caressing them to browned perfection on their way to the package funnel. And Oscar dunks breaded dippers and cheezballs and all that crash into a bubbling golden pool, from which they emerge tanned and glistening and glorious. At the head of the team machine is Gio, my second, capping syrup fizzies, while I bag and tag or tray for hand off, overseeing it all, ready to act in case of emergency. Off to my right, David and his team does exactly the same.

All the while, their constant calm chatter barely reaches the service counters, punctuated by pseudo-curses, and David and I calling out to customers:

“I’m so crashed, I could sleep a week.”

“Order for Jones!”

“Another crashed patty here, looks like a cow stepped on it.”

“No cow has ever been near a TruBurger.”

“Starters for Brionny!”

“What’s a crashing cow?”

“Think a vat’s-worth of patties crammed into a giant dog.”

“Double-Dark Hard Fiz and Dippers for Lionel!”

“Ah, crash it…”

“Kiss your mom with those lips, butterfingers?”

“If I ever get out of here, I might.”

“Order for Joss-el-yn!”

“What the crash is ‘butter’?”

David’s call turns my head. Across the zone, I see his customer unclip from a distant table and weave our way. It’s been years but, as David once told me, you don’t forget your first day. Joss-el-yn. I can imagine the eye roll, or at least the emoji of one.

“Swap,” I say, and he hands me the tray as we pass.

The customer doesn’t look up from my hands as I slide the tray across. But they do when I say, “Order for JossLyn, sorry about that.” And there we are, face-to-face for the first time since they ran for the door.

They’re looking good, bit more masc in the face than they used to, bit more fem in the rags, but it suits. “Enjoy your meal,” I add, absolute pro, right down to the smile and tone. And maybe surprisingly, no bile, genuine.

“Thanks,” JossLyn says, eyes as big as the lid on their fizzy, and when their body turns to go back to their table, it’s like their neck is gonna break until they finally manage to look away.

JossLyn eats slow. Also different. Constantly on their armtab—well… that’s the same. But they watch me a lot, too. Whenever I’m able to glance back from my team, their gaze flicks away, then immediately returns. Finally, they hold up their armtab, body language making it a question. What can I do but jerk my head at the wall clock and finger binary for “ten”? It’s only eight. After a while longer, they get up and leave.

But at five minutes to the end of my day, they come back in.

I skip the post-shift shower. Since the alternative is one of the blah garments TruBurger supplies us with, I put on the same clothes I was wearing the last time I sat opposite JossLyn. The look David gives me when I walk past is the look I gave myself in the mirror two minutes earlier. Who was I back then?

The look JossLyn gives me now.

“Hi,” I say, since someone has to.

“Hi,” they say. Just when it seems like that’s the conversation, they add, “Really, really sorry.”

I half smile. “Nah. Not on you. Just bad luck. That and some unholy Terms and Conditions.”

They tap their armtab with a fingernail. “You stopped logging.”

“Course. Don’t you remember? Sleep everything, kill your coffin.”

“But…everything? Not even basic chat?”

“What would I say?” I can imagine a version where this makes me angry, but I’m feeling nothing. “The sit was what it was. Connecting with outside just made me feel bad. Haven’t turned it on in years.”

They look at me like I’m unreal. “What are you doing here?”

I shrug. “What do you think? Working. Sleeping. Working again.” I skip over the institutional sex. “I study some. But mostly work. Work, work, work, working off my debt.”

“No. MayZ.” JossLyn leans forward, eye contact like never before. “What are you doing here still?”


That night, I keep to my own bunk. After Whoever’s muffled sex noises have ceased, giving way to distributed muted snores, I slip out from under the sheet and ease open my bunk box. There it is, unrolled in tablet mode, fully charged now, but I keep my fingerprints away from the smartscreen until I’m through the gym and safely locked in a toilet cubicle.

Turns out I remember my mnemonics like it’s only yesterday.

I don’t wrap it around my arm, just the thought makes my skin kind of crawl. I don’t open my TruBurger account either. No need. I’m thousands of dollars in the red, halfway to a bonus that will shrink me back up to just…what…nineteen?

No. I open my crypto wallet.

When I crashed, when I was crashed, when my life was bent over and crashed fast and hard and without permission, I did exactly what JossLyn said: shut down or slept everything that cost money. And it didn’t make a difference other than not to make things worse. I shut down my wallet, too, because why not? I was wiped down to zeros—in crypto value, that is.

But not in crypto quantity.

Here it all is. Digi-coins not worth decimals on the dollar, currencies so worthless you’d literally have to pay to give them away—and who would want to have them? I page over to my NFTs: tokens for apps and services and causes and stores, half of which no longer exist, most likely. I thumb open the archive, which is where I store my stupid childish collect-em-alls: battle cards and trophy tokens for games I hadn’t looked at since I was a tween.

The kind of things that trend, go viral, come back into retro fashion.

And spike.

I look at the numbers. It boils down to one thing: I can buy my life back. I don’t even have to wait until bonus time. I can clear the whole debt now, with ease.

I can leave.

I close the wallet and hibernate the tab. Unlock the cubicle, slip out through the gym and into admin. I beep in my locker code and stash the tablet in its old home again, back amongst my strange old clothing, right where it’s been lying since my debt hit twenty-two. Since protest day. Three years. Then I close the locker again.

I can leave.

I tip-toe back into the darkened dorm. My team are anonymous humps beneath their sheets, and though I know exactly whose bunk is whose, the names that go with each unclear shape feel like scatterings of letters, not words, not labels for people, not the names of people I work with every day—some of whom I sleep with, not just next to.

I can leave whenever I want to.

I climb into my bunk, draping the sheet back over me. I raise my hand before wide eyes, its back a shadow on shadow, and I know it like I know every square centimeter of the place I live and work. Like here, and yes, they are names: David’s bunk is two up, one forward, upper. Gio’s three down, one back, lower. Maggal, Oscar, Jen, Manny for a month or so more—I know exactly where each one of them lies. The others, too.

And I can leave, whenever I want to.

I rest my hand again and close my eyes.


Copyright © 2023 Andrew Leon Hudson

The Author

Andrew Leon Hudson

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