Trip Yash hated his home which they had named Truog Island in the days after the Sex Wars. That was before he was born, before the mainland had become an irradiated piece of trash. Before an unlucky teen could get publically executed for losing their virginity.
Despair hung over the whole island. It was an awful place to grow up, although the older generations would tell you different. They’d celebrate the iconic downtown center of Renntown, or muse about the farmland lining the coast. They’d say life on Truog Island is better than the death and disease blanketing the mainland. They’d say it’s much more dangerous there. They’d tell you about the world without television, the internet, or modern inventions. Some of them would mention that the island used to be a vacation hotspot before it was a quarantined prison rock. That seemed like bullshit.
Trip wanted to leave. The mainland sounded more interesting than the dreary monotony of being trapped on the shores of a quarantined rock. He knew the grass had to be greener on the other side—even if the mainland didn’t have grass. It had to be better there than at his stupid parent’s house.
Trip looked at the messy interior of his room. In the corner, there was a mannequin wearing a half-sewn shirt he had started and never finished. Beside it was a bookcase with hundreds of VHS tapes he bought at the flea market in Dondo State. Pocket novels with broken spines littered the floor. Although they were well worn, Trip hadn’t read most of them. They were just for show. Trip preferred film, a fact made evident by the thirty movie posters plastering his walls. “No one’s going to sleep with you in a room like this,” one dude once told Trip after seeing his room.
Trip flexed in the mirror. His underwear was tight, and he liked it that way. It had only been a year since Trip had matured into a stocky and slightly muscular teenager. A once goofy kid made confident after shedding his baby weight. Studying his reflection, Trip paid particular attention to his hair. He dyed it in a leopard print pattern to up his sex appeal. The dye was fading, but he still looked hot. Sex appeal meant preferential treatment. It gave him a better chance of getting what he wanted in any social situation. People assumed he’d put out even if he didn’t.
He didn’t put out. He was embarrassed to bring around the guys in his life or to even talk to anyone about his sexuality to his friends and family. An experience with his mother had ruined things for him. A year ago, he’d stood in the kitchen and announced out loud to his mother, Gloria, that he had a boyfriend. Two days later, she locked him in a moving car and gave him a “just say no” speech about not letting boys put their lips on his penis.
The memory made him wince. Especially because he’d never actually had a boyfriend, not really. It had been, at best, a fling, and the guy had never even touched him. After just a few weeks, his object of adoration had moved on and now spent his days jacking off some other dude.
Other dudes always put out.
The radio in the corner of his room buzzed as a mousy woman’s voice rattled through the speaker: “Good morning, commuters. Here’s honey in your eye. We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that the following message comes to you from the Registry: this place breeds death, not pleasure.”
The loathsome message made Trip cringe. They played it every day on every frequency. Any kid on the island could spout it off verbatim because every teen on Truog thought about sex. It was a fact of life. But few acted on it. There were deaths, of course—kids who were too horny or stupid to stop themselves—but once everyone attended their first recycling ceremony at eighteen, abstinence reigned.
Trip didn’t know a single person brave enough to fuck. His friends talked a big game, but none of them made the jump. They didn’t want to die.
Trip felt the same way. He wasn’t willing to risk his life to ejaculate inside someone. If it really felt that good, everyone would be dropping like flies.
He figured it was better to live quietly. That’s what his parents always said, anyway. They had been pushed by the Registry after the Sex Wars to procreate. Trip was born two years before the sex ban came into place. He didn’t have memories from before the ban, but there was a period of procreation sanctioned by the Registry.
Whenever Trip prodded for details about life before the sex ban, his parents said only one thing: “the time of evolution was over.”
He was still trying to make sense of that one as he turned from the mirror. Trip pulled on the same gray T-shirt and khaki cargo pants he wore every day. He liked standing out by looking plain.
Trip left his room, vaulted down the stairs of his parents’ upper-floor apartment that had been sectioned off from the rest of the house, and walked out the front door. It was summer, and Gloria Yash was out in the garden again. The sight of her son interrupted her work. She was in the middle of planting a rose. The flower’s curled pink petals had the color of pig’s skin. The Meat Rose, a plant native to Truog. It was a truly repugnant flower that emanated the irresistible scent of sizzling bacon.
Gloria smiled at her son. “Those clothes are in such a state. The day that you come home naked, I won’t be surprised. Be good, and don’t get morbid tonight.”
“Does that mean sex?” Trip asked.
“You know what it means,” she replied.
“Don’t worry. We’re going to bathe in the plasma pools tonight, Mom.”
“I don’t know what that means, but I hope it’s a joke.”
“It’s from a movie, Mom. Don’t worry about it.”
Trip waved a farewell as he crossed Gloria’s garden and ran around the back of the house. Ree lived with her mother in the basement suite of the Yash’s yellow house. Yeah, even his family couldn’t lock down an entire building.
Trip approached the door of Ree’s backyard apartment and knocked hard.
Ree came to the door wearing only an oversized black T-shirt. She looked at Trip with sunken eyes.
“You want a ride to work today?” Trip asked.
“I’m good.” Ree shrugged.
“Well, what are you doing before the bonfire tonight?”
“I dunno. Hanging out here with Chad.”
“You want to drink a bottle of wine instead? Watch that alien cannibal movie?”
“Dude, no. I don’t have time for you tonight.”
“What? Now that Chad’s in your life, you don’t have time for your best friend?”
“Give it a rest, man. We’ll always be friends.”
“You’ve never skipped out on a walk home with me from Pondside.”
“‘Cause I don’t wanna watch the same dumb movies over and over. Fuck me, right?”
“Well, why couldn’t I hang out with you guys, too?”
“Dude, I’m not doing this jealousy shit. You need some direction, Trip. A hobby, some other friends. You’ve got to stop modeling your life after what I do. Focus on your own goals and just chill, okay? We’re good. I’ll see you later tonight at Pondside. We can catch up there.”
“Just me and you?”
Ree put her hands on her hips. “Look, man, a piece of advice. Get yourself a boyfriend.”
With that, Ree shut the door to her and her mom’s place. She shut it right in Trip’s face. We used to be friends, he thought. Friends didn’t just see each other at parties or when it was convenient. The situation was bullshit. If she wanted to be left alone, fine, he’d leave her the fuck alone.
Trip walked along the side of the house to the driveway, heading toward his car.
Gloria looked up but knew better than to say anything. They’d been down this road before. Trip didn’t open up to his mother and she didn’t open up to him; that was their arrangement.
Trip flung himself into the driver’s seat of his car. It was a white four-door sedan that was missing the side mirror on the driver’s side and the backlight on the passenger’s side. Some asshole had sideswiped him in the parking lot of the Renntown Port Immigration Terminal. The backlight was a mystery that came with the car when he bought it. But it wasn’t in bad shape for a ‘98.
He fired up the engine and reversed out onto Rosebank Road. He idled the car and gazed out at the field of green grass ahead of him. When he was a kid, he was outraged that there was nothing more than green fields near his house. Now, the reports on the radio claimed that the edges of the island were rotting. He’d never been to the far coastal states to confirm it, but this road could take him there—if only he were brave enough.
He drove along the road and turned onto the highway, taking the same road to work that he always did. Making sure to pass Pondside. He cranked up his radio and rolled down his windows as he drove by, hoping someone hanging out in the parking lot or near the pond would see him. He slowed to a crawl, but there was no one around. He sighed and continued on his way.
All the roads on the back of the island had been cut and scorched years ago. Few roads remained outside of the main highways and suburban streets. The vegetation between the states was cleared and the roads were made. The weeds and grass were plucked clean from the highway shoulders. The asphalt was a naked slab of rock with black and winding veins; it was the only road that lead from one edge of the island to the other. It went from the suburbs of Avon to the beaches of Cavendish State.
Trip fiddled with the radio tuner as he drove, spinning the dial until he found the news. He liked to stay informed. The drone of a female reporter filled the car: “With viral infections at an all-time high on the mainland, Truog Island will assume an ever-greater importance. The Registry expects thirteen independent arrivals today, imposing another economic boost, and driving Truog export prices even higher. Quail Penrod interviews Permit Anson today at two p.m., direct from Head House.” Trip yawned and turned off the radio.
Trip drove from Rosebank Road to the western edge of Renntown.
A border fence jutted out of the mud, separating Avon State from Sherwood State. The chain links were uniform all the way up to the razor wire guarding the top. It was the type of fence you’d see around the perimeter of a junkyard, but they were everywhere on the island. This was the state border.
A group of elite military officers patrolled the fence. The Lich. They wore hardened internal organs like body armor. Even though they looked like “inside-out men” from a distance, they had sturdy legs and breathed air. They were human.
Trip watched for a moment. Each of the Lich carried a rifle. These weapons were made of flesh and bone, and had puckered lips in place of a muzzle. Each had magazines shaped from finger bones and gagged with bullets of sharpened teeth. Such a device might have seemed visionary if it wasn’t so commonplace.
Trip idled his car near the gate leading through the fence. The Lich guarding the border gave his car a once over, and one of them approached the window. Up close, these pale renditions of what used to be men were hideous. Their eyes were lidless, and their jaws were broken and hung agape. Their ears had been torn off, leaving behind ragged red holes. These men weren’t the result of some vile punishment or attack, but a conscious choice on their part to look menacing. By all accounts, these men shouldn’t be living, but live they did.
“Finger,” it said through the crude hole it called a mouth.
Trip stuck his hand out the window and pointed his index finger at the Lich. The man took a little handheld blood analyzer from its hip and prodded Trip’s finger, drawing a drop of blood.
To cross state borders, residents had to prove their blood was clean. It was the Registry’s way of keeping the infected in check. Rumor was that people’s blood changed after sexual contact. The Registry kept the border fences to ensure everyone who broke the sex ban was recycled.
The blood analyzer dinged and glowed with a green light. The Lich at Trip’s window looked down at him and said, “You’re clean.”
The rest of the Lich at the fence waved him through.
Trip’s tires rumbled as he pressed toward the heart of Truog’s capital city: Renntown.
Trip worked at the Renntown Port Immigration Terminal. It was the only marine terminal facility on Truog Island, welcoming infectious arrivals as well as supply shipments, weapons containers, and barges of agricultural fertilizer. The facility contained a warehouse, a half-dozen shops, a port of arrival, and the biggest group of teenage employees on the island.
As Trip parked in the gray expanse of the parking lot, he saw the concrete ship The Recycler moored at the dock. It only docked on Wednesdays—arrival day—otherwise it just quickly offloaded exports and onboarded imports. It carried a new batch of people sent into quarantine every arrival day. It was always an intense process, and Trip was supposed to be the one running things today.
Trip jogged to the docks to reach his post before his boss, Mr. Anson, noticed he was late. Anson was an ugly, ordinary man who always made a point of reminding Trip that his “family situation” was regrettable, but fate had joined them together. His gray suits were always slick with sweat, and he dabbed at his fat neck with a pink handkerchief.
Anson took great pride in running the only dock on the island. It was a position of importance that allowed him to sit on the local board of government as a Permit. Trip didn’t know much about Permits—only that there were ten of them, each assigned to a different state of Truog, and each had their role to play in some ongoing political struggle against one another.
Trip’s boss gave him a sad look of appraisal. “You’re late for arrival day, Trip,” Permit Anson said with a forced smile.
“I’ve only got a three-hour shift today,” Trip reminded him.
“Fine,” Anson replied. “I’ve already assigned them careers and issued dwellings based on my assessment. All you have to do is brief ‘em and brand ‘em. The Lich will take them to their new abodes and clothe ‘em.”
“Thank you, sir. Happy to do it,” Trip responded.
That was a lie.
Trip ran down the long dock. He worked in toll booth #8. There were ten toll booths in total. They were designed like the type of toll station you’d see on the highway, except they were meant for incoming people, not vehicles. The oppressive sight set the stage for those arriving. The turnstiles made it clear that they were about to enter a life of quarantine. There was no turning back once they walked into the land of the confined.
Jesse was inside Trip’s booth waiting to leave. When he saw Trip, he grabbed his stuff and stepped out of the musty box. The spiritual guru looked rough. His hair was greasy and unkempt. His clothing was stained with sweat. Trip knew he often came to his night shift straight from a long night at Pondside.
“Hey, man. It’s all yours,” Jesse said, gesturing to the booth.
“Thanks,” Trip said.
“Sorry ‘bout the mess in there. Night shift sucks. Nothing to do but crank down.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’d do the same if I were stuck in that box watching water all night.”
Jesse looked Trip up and down. “You going to Pondside tonight?”
“Yeah, and I want to get loaded. Totally fucked out of my mind.”
“Like Ree did last night?”
“Her and Chad came back after you left. He’s slipping her the hollow.”
“See for yourself. Tonight, man.”
With that, Jesse walked down the dock dragging his feet.
Trip stepped inside the toll booth, replaying Jesse’s words in his head. What the fuck did he mean, he thought. Fuck, the toll booth reeked of sweat and protein. He looked around at the mess inside. There were a collection of binders, loose papers, tide charts, Recycler arrival times, and a garbage bucket on the ground. The bucket was filled with the mess Jesse had mentioned: a pile of balled up paper towel. Jesse liked to jerk off during the night shift. It was understandable. Really.
Trip plugged his nose and looked at the booths to either side of him. They were brown with rust and smelled like fish guts. He grabbed the paper towels and pitched them through the window into the water. Littering is better than huffing Jesse’s seed, he thought.
He looked around the booth for the pristine binder of arrival documents. Every booth had one. Inside were meticulous notes on every person who would walk through the turnstiles each arrival day. It had photos, sexual history, new name documents, and a small vinyl pocket holding a branding pen—a little device that burned the uppercase “A” into the neck of each new arrival.
Branding was part of Renntown Port’s compliance with the Registry’s Port Facility Code. Each booth held a certificate of compliance also issued by the Registry under the Viral Infections Transportation Security Regulations. The whole process was one big corporate circle jerk. Trip was supposed to spout this information off to every new arrival, but he usually didn’t bother.
Testing his defiant thoughts, Trip watched as two Lich marched down the dock holding the arms of a tall, thin black teenager. He was in a state—stripped, shaved, and dazed. There were no signs of torture, but the Lich efficiently threw the teen into the turnstile of Trip’s booth like a piece of meat.
Trip looked through the wired glass window of the box and declared, “You are now in the protective custody of Truog Island, out of the reach of prospective hosts for your infection. You are among the lucky. You have survived.” He said all this without a smile or a thought.
The black teen looked up. His eyes made Trip catch his breath. He had done this dozens of times before but had never been stopped by a look. The piercing blue eyes of the new arrival seemed to bore into him, drilling through his breastplate and piercing his heart. His pulse quickened. For a moment, all he could do was stare.
Trip shook his head, checking the guy’s paperwork. His name was Cron. He was nineteen going on twenty, an adult, but one who didn’t know anything yet. He was muscular, though, like Trip’s grandfather on his mom’s side. He’d stay this way for years, Trip figured.
“You’re infected,” Trip told him. “You have been sent here for your crimes against nature. In exchange for food and shelter, you must agree to abide by the rules of the Registry. Do you understand?” The teen nodded once. Resigned. “If you try to spread your disease, the Registry will recycle you. If you encourage others to fornicate, the Registry will recycle you. If caught, uh, pleasuring yourself—”
“I get the picture,” the arrival named Cron said. His voice was dark and rich, like coffee grounds. Trip had an impulse to lick his neck. “They send you to check on that last part yourself?” He raised those blue eyes again.
“No. No, the Lich, they do all the . . . policing.”
The arrival gave him another look, up and down. Trip cleared his throat and checked the script in the binder. “This place breeds death, not pleasure. So practice restraint.”
“It’s just a script. Uhh—present your neck please.”
Cron stuck his neck out like a turkey. Trip hated this part. He grabbed the branding pen and stepped out of the booth.
He was impressed by the fullness of Cron’s naked body. He was smooth and looked agile. Trip wanted to mount him there and then. “Just hold still,” Trip said.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Cron said.
Trip sighed and stuck the branding pen into Cron’s neck. The small device let out a soft whir and—with a barely audible click—ten four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings and cut an “A” into Cron’s neck.
Cron winced with pain. His eyes welled with tears.
Trip felt his pain, and it was awful. He wanted to apologize but couldn’t find the right words, so he went with a canned performance. “Don’t mind that. Standard procedure,” Trip assured him. “They like to separate the arrivals from those born here.”
The two Lich who carried Cron to the turnstile tromped back down the dock, leading more arrivals to other booths as The Recycler departed. Trip counted thirteen new arrivals for all ten booths. It was the most he’d seen since he started the job. Luckily, arrival day was only one day a week. It would be hectic but he’d be back in the warehouse tomorrow, the booths would be closes, and it would be business as usual at the port. The news report was right—things on the mainland must be getting bad, indeed.
Trip wasn’t supposed to be out of his booth. He stepped back inside with a wave to the Lich. The window between him and Cron was shrouded in a smoky haze. “Hold out your hand,” Trip said.
Cron hesitated. He raised his right arm slowly as if unsure it would work properly. He flexed his fingers, then offered his hand to Trip.
“Here’s your new information.” Trip placed a small packet in Cron’s palm. “You belong to the Registry now. We add context and information to everyday acts of humanity. Which means, they control all information about social, scientific, and sexual facts of the residents on this island.”
“They do all that?” Cron asked.
“You don’t know Truog, do you?”
Trip leaned over the musty old counter of the booth. “The infection, it’s in your DNA now. The states on this island, and all the people on it, they’ll see you for what you are. The mother superior, Gaia, will find you. At some point she’ll speak to you, tell you what’s what.”
Cron nodded. He opened his eyes wide and asked, “And why can’t I go home?”
“The mainland declared viral existence a crime years ago, so now we have to exist outside the jurisdiction of the law until we all rot. Everyone on Truog has the same infection you do. It sucks, but we make the best of it. Don’t have sex and you’ll be good.”
Trip flipped through the binder. All arrivals were supposed to offload their old names, but Trip liked the sound of “Cron.”
He decided not to give Cron his new name. It was a break in procedure, but it didn’t matter. The dude was cute.
Trip reached for Cron’s hand, took it in his own. Touching him also went against procedure, but there was something about this guy. The touch was an unspoken agreement of protection from teen to new arrival. Cron winced when Trip felt him but then relaxed.
Trip smiled and said, “They’ve given you an apartment in Sherwood Hills state. I’m supposed to screen you for other stuff, but you seem cool. So why don’t you just go through. The Lich will drive you to your new place.”
Trip let in three more arrivals after that, though none of them made such a significant impact on him. Not like Cron. He couldn’t stop flipping back to Cron’s file to stare at his handsome face. His striking blue eyes.
Nevertheless, being seventeen, he could not ignore that night’s party for the new arrivals. The pure clarity of their interaction was alluring, sure, but Trip would deal with it by getting drunk that night. He would get psychotic and loose and shit-faced, and forget the feeling of Cron’s hand in his. The way it had pulsed. Like it had a mind of its own.