Illustration by Michael Gegenfurtner
Note: This is the Prologue and First Chapter of a planned novel
By Michael A.R. Co
In Upside up is up,
In Upside down is down.
In Flipside down is up,
In Flipside up is down.
But Downside knows what’s up,
And Downside sees the flip:
If Ups are brown and Flips are clowns,
Then Down is ground all ’round.
. . . We had bombed Ipoh in the early years of our ascendency. This was in retaliation for the burning of Palawan, something our ancestors took very personally. The image of a giraffe on fire was probably too much to bear. So the country launched a tactical nuclear strike against our neighbor, and suddenly everyone thought we were a nuclear power. They didn’t know it was our one and only — and our first and last — nuclear weapon.
Is the story real? Is the history real? Who cares. It’s ancient history. The Metroplex has no memory for history. Street signs constantly change. Borders constantly shift as the platform adjusts itself to prevailing winds.
We are above all earthly laws. And laws, like promises, can be broken at times. We are all at peace with one another. Crime is low due to a highly efficient and brutal criminal justice system. It’s all good. The antagonistic elements are those that hate us. Occasionally, those who love us also cause problems. How does that old saying go? Spare the rodent, spoil the cheese?
Yes, corruption rears its ugly head from time to time, but it’s never about money, and it almost always involves a foreign power trying to acquire our state secrets. This corruption is more sinister, and I should say, purer: getting someone on our side to switch allegiances, betray loved ones, and abandon our way of life.
Nationalism? Nah, we say. It’s just the absolute truth, and every country on earth will one day see things our way. We accept all. We have no immigration quotas. All we ask is you swear allegiance to us.
– “Coffee, Conversation, and Ube” by Orkus Aguinaldo IV
Dusk was long gone over Metroplex Manila as hover cars raced about like hyperactive fireflies, and above Upside’s crystal spires, clean canals, open plazas, and manicured forests, the moon was slowly rising with a sliver-thin grin.
Syd Corazon also smiled. He was pleased with his creation. The dependencies were tough to work out, and the code broke in embarrassing places, but Rickshaw was ready for action.
There was only one thing left to do: he needed to be the “chicken” . . . one who can successfully get to the other side. But after spending his entire life so far in Upside, Syd had no friends, no contacts, and no leads in Flipside. Where’s the fun in playing chicken if a guy had to wait till he turned eighteen?
His thumbs hovered above his small keypad. He had taught himself how to qwert before he was five, and he liked the obscure technological inefficiencies of antique toys. He positioned his left thumb on the letter “S.” Then he tapped away, tucking Rickshaw into a neat binary object, encrypting the package with a sophomoric algorithm and a simple three letter password. That should get the attention of the geeks below, he thought.
The old qwerty keypad served another purpose. It was untraceable. This also made it highly illegal in working condition. He had to construct his own using parts of an ancient device called a Black Fairy, a technological dead end, a “worthless” family heirloom, yet perfectly legal to own as long as it remained hidden in their secret basement of shame.
The origins of his family’s wealth, according to one tradition, came from the “erotic ramblings of a fifth-rate Bollywood hack, a novelist of minor distinction, out to make a quick buck.”
Syd Corazon believed this to be a mistranslation. Searching through the fragmented digital archives of their family history, and studying one extinct language and reconstructing another, Syd had figured out, before the age of ten, a plausible, more accurate translation: “Roderick’s ruminations as a first-rate Bangalore-based hacker, a minor, a novel thinker, looking for a fast fuck.”
For the next seven years, he kept this version secret, but resolved to follow his ancestor’s example.
A knock on his bedroom door broke his concentration. He tried to ignore it. The knock was followed by the unmistakable voice of the maid: “Sir Syd. Your mother is calling you. Dinner is getting cold.”
He continued qwerting.
“Sir Syd, please open the door,” the maid said. “I have a birthday present for you.”
He couldn’t ignore that.
He saved his work then stowed the Black Fairy under his bed. He combed his hair and straightened his shorts before inviting the maid to come right in.
The door opened slowly and the maid entered.
Helga was in her thirties. She was a tall Swedish blonde with stereotypical blue eyes. Like all the maids in the household, she didn’t wear shoes when going to the upper floors. Her feet were large, her ankles were thick. She was also a bit wide around the waist, which made her large breasts look proportional. Syd harbored a secret crush on her since he was eight. In recent months, his feelings weren’t so secret.
“Sir Syd, everyone is downstairs. They want you to have dinner with them.” She looked around the room and frowned at the cables and wires and screws on the carpet beside the bed. Syd tried not to follow her eyes; he stared at her chest, which he found easy to do. She caught his gaze and she snapped her fingers. She pointed at the mess. Syd had no choice but to acknowledge the electronic components.
“I’ll clean it up later,” he said.
“You had better,” she said. “I won’t be here tomorrow. I won’t be able to look after you once I’m away.”
“I know. Thank you. I’m going to miss you.”
“Yes,” she said, “I know you will.” She reached into the front pocket of her apron. She pulled out a little red box. “Open it later. Happy birthday, little Syd.” She was still a few inches taller than him and she loved calling him “little.”
The box was light; it felt empty. Syd placed it on top of his bed.
“Later, okay?” she looked at him with her pale blue eyes. “Promise?”
“Good. Now Sir Syd, please join your family downstairs. For me.”
Illustration by Michael Gegenfurtner
It wasn’t really his birthday. It was just a regular dinner. But Helga constantly looked for reasons to celebrate. It was their private joke. If all goes well tomorrow, they would have much to celebrate indeed.
Both parents were already eating when he got to the dining room. The menu was an ordinary affair. They were having grilled buttered tiger prawns, Perigord truffles, mashed sweet ube-potatoes, Atlantic lobster bisque, and a warm arugula salad with capers and cream. An elegant glass pitcher of sparkling French spring water rested on a smaller service table along with several unopened bottles of young Chilean wine and some local beer. Syd was disappointed that they weren’t having spicy roasted pork belly. He was in the mood for pork and some pinakurat vinegar.
Helga had gone into the kitchen while two other servants waited near the smaller table: a redhead and a brunette. Having more than one human maid was a status symbol on Upside because androids were awkward to deal with, and in some cases, utterly incompetent — they were best used for repetitive, routine tasks like flipping burgers, packing instant noodles, window washing, or guilt-free sex. Androids couldn’t think for themselves and they required specific instructions. With human maids, however, you could give out vague instructions, and they would try their best to figure it out. They didn’t always get it right, but that was part of their appeal. They sweated and showed fear. The dad gave Helga vague instructions all the time; she had figured him out after her first week on the job. Guilt was never far behind.
Syd took his usual spot at the dinner table beside the dad. The chair to his left was empty.
“Where’s Dante?” Syd asked.
“Studying for his entrance exams,” his mom answered. “He’s eating in his room.”
“Seriously? Why can’t I eat in my room? I’m two years older than him.”
“Dante needs to get to a good university,” the dad said. “If you had studied harder, you’d understand.”
Syd helped himself to a generous heap of mashed potatoes. “Big fucking deal,” he mumbled.
His mom pretended not to listen. The dad was not very good at pretending. “What did you say?”
Syd took a prawn with his fingers. He licked his thumb and said, “Nothing.”
“I want you to repeat what you just said.”
“I said big deal.”
“That’s not what you said.”
“Then I guess you heard me just fine.”
“That’s not what you said.”
“It’s the gist of what I said.”
“That’s not what you said.”
“Can’t we all just enjoy our dinner?” Syd’s mom felt she was the only adult in the room. “Try the arugula. It’s hydro-organic.”
The dad put down his utensils. A bad sign. “Syd, I want you to repeat exactly what you just said.”
“I said big freaking deal.”
“That’s not what you said.”
Syd reached out for the pitcher and was about to get up from his chair when the dad suddenly grabbed his wrist. “Syd, I want you to repeat what you said.”
Syd looked him in the eyes. Without blinking, Syd replied, “Big … Fucking … Deal! Let go of me.”
A long pause. The dad held Syd’s wrist tight.
“Go to your room,” the dad finally said. He released Syd and watched for a reaction.
Syd got up, walked to the small table, returned with the pitcher, and without a word, he poured himself a glass of cold sparking water. His mom chewed on her arugula salad. The maids looked away.
“I said go to your room!” The dad slapped Syd’s glass from the table. It shattered on the marble floor. Water and broken glass shimmered against the dark veins of the meticulously polished marble, making it dangerously sharp and slippery. The dad signaled to one of the maids, the redhead, to clean it up.
Syd stood and threw his plate at the puddle, breaking it in two, spilling mashed potatoes and a lonely prawn all over the floor.
“I wanted pork anyway,” he said. He marched toward the hover stairs.
“Syd!” the dad yelled. “Come back to the table!”
“You told me to go to my room, didn’t you? Make up your fucking mind!” He made a rude gesture with his middle fingers but aimed them at his own temples like pistols. “I’m going to my room.”
“Syd!” It was his mom this time. “Your father and I did not raise you to act like that! Please Syd. Apologize to your dad.”
Syd stopped, took a breath, and yelled, “He is not my father!”
The dining room fell silent with the truth of his statement. Syd paused briefly to look at the maid on the floor. She continued picking up the shards of French porcelain and Venetian crystal with their pale fingers.
“You might want to help her,” he told the dad.
The dad returned to his meal. His mom followed his example.
“Unbelievable,” Syd said, a little too loudly. He took the hover stairs to the second floor and walked down the long corridor to his bedroom.
Dante, his half-brother, peered out from his own bedroom door. He had a soup stain on the corner of his mouth. “What happened?”
“No big deal,” Syd said. “Good luck on your exams.”
“Thanks.” Dante wiped the soup stain. “Um, Syd?”
“You’re still my brother.”
“We’re cool right?”
“We’re cool. Tell mom you didn’t hear a thing. It’s a fuckin’ big house.”
“She won’t believe me.”
“She will. She’ll want to.”
When Syd got back to his bedroom, he wanted to break something. He needed fresh air. He opened the window. Nights were especially cold in April. Although they lived in the tropics, Metroplex Manila hovered 3,000 meters above sea level. It was always chilly in Upside all year round, with temperatures ranging from two to twenty degrees Celsius. “Like Stockholm in summer,” Helga once told him.
The cold air stung his cheeks. Goosebumps formed on his arms, and he rubbed them briskly with his bony brown fingers.
Upside glittered in the night. Syd could see the lights of the homes of their other ultra-rich neighbors glowing in rows along wide open roads. Private parks and private golf courses and private country clubs of the Bangville district were framed by estate houses made of wood and stone, a throwback to an ancient image of a suburban paradise, of a country that once ruled the world but no longer existed. The thin moon was now hidden behind dense clouds; the occasional limited edition sports car zipping through the sky shined brighter in her absence. Tomorrow evening, she would become the new moon, and disappear completely in Earth’s shadow.
Syd took another deep breath. Then he exhaled with a sigh.
Upside bored him. He found Upsiders superficial and dull. And by dull, he meant stupid.
Flipside was where all the action was, where innovation was forged in mighty inverted towers, where the women were hotter, and where the lack of pedigree made them hungry for risk.
Flipside was where he would find his fortune; Syd was never keen on seeking fame.
His phone buzzed in his wrist. It was a news alert. Emperor Orkus Aguinaldo IV was about to speak about the new border security procedures. It always puzzled Syd why the Emperor himself took an interest in delivering this kind of routine news. What’s the point of being Emperor if you can’t order people to speak for you?
Using his phone as a universal remote, he switched on his holoscreen. He imagined his parents doing the same in the dining hall. The handsome, ageless face of Orkus IV floated in front of his couch, above the low coffee table. His teeth were perfect, his skin a deep tan. The Emperor habitually preferred to keep things loose and extemporaneous, thinking it would bring him closer to the people. Yet it was an awful, uninspired speech, the type a flight attendant would announce upon landing.
Orkus IV spoke in Flipinese, the colorful vernacular language of the Flipside masses. His speech was subtitled in the more formal Hashtagalog, the terse literary language of Upside and the entire Metroplex Archipelagic Empire.
“Citizens of the Metroplex, a pleasant good evening to you all,” the Emperor began. “In preparation for the Tikbalang elections tomorrow, we will be tightening security at all airports effective immediately. All incoming visitors to Metroplex Manila will need to undergo secondary screening upon arrival. Some residents from the colonies may be randomly selected for further questioning by I.S.A. agents who are fully authorized to conduct racial profiling if the situation so warrants. All flights will likely experience delays so please plan your trip accordingly. Upsiders, who are usually exempted from any such restrictions on travel, won’t be able to avoid the queues. I strongly suggest that everyone stay home. Cancel your travel plans until the election is over. Most important of all: don’t complain. We will treat complaints as a clear and present danger to Metroplex Manila.” The Emperor smiled and winked at the camera. “We do this is to ensure the safety of our citizens and to protect the electoral process of our Tikbalang allies. Terrorists from all sides seek to undermine their democratic way of life. Now, let us bow our heads and pray that Senator Roman Corpus wins another term.” The Emperor bowed his head and stayed silent for a full minute, occasionally twitching his nose. Then he sat straight and looked at the camera. His eyes were watery. “I felt that. I felt your prayers. I’m sure the good Senator felt it, too. Thank you and good night.”
This might complicate Syd’s plans. But he wasn’t listening as closely as he should have been. So he didn’t notice the full implication of this ruling.
Instead Syd focused most of his attention at the marquee that scrolled underneath the Emperor’s image. Jubilee Energy shares had closed lower today. Ube prices have also dropped in the commodity markets.
Just as Syd had predicted.
Meanwhile, an area of low pressure was forming over the Western Pacific.
Syd needed to act fast. An opportunity like this happens once every two hundred and fifty years.
Rickshaw must not fail.