Issue 196 – January 2023

15590 words, novelette

Anais Gets a Turn

The world-organism is awake and has spent the last decade playing round after round of tic-tac-toe with itself.

Hearing this the first time, Anais reacts like anyone would to a stranger sitting next to them on a plane, insisting on conversation for the flight’s three-hour duration. She nods and smiles. She takes the man’s card. She makes a note to toss it in the nearest recycling bin once they land but—unlike just anyone—she becomes drawn to its design. The man prattles on about game theory and the noosphere while she inspects the card with the sort of quiet intensity only a designer would ever muster for a piece of card stock.

Her presentation for the mattress retailer client ends almost the minute it begins, and she’s back at the airport, debriefing, sipping her latte while her creative director vents. What could possess the client to bring his ten year old to the meeting without notice, and why are they now looking at five months of design and customer research down the drain because Matty—having recently taken an interest in Photoshop—stood just as soon as Anais threw up the first slide, then taped his suggestion for the company’s new logo to the screen?

After two grandes, the creative director leaves to go relieve himself. Grateful for her twenty-six-year-old bladder, Anais sits and people-watches ’til the stranger from earlier crosses her mind. She gets out the card he gave her. Looks it over again. She had quietly throttled her clicker when her presentation got derailed, wishing it was a cigarette instead, watching her creative director stare with naked derision at the paper with the winning design on it—a snake eating its tail, so it formed an O because the retailer’s name begins with the letter.

Another O stares up at her from the card now, this one locked in a three-by-three grid with five Xs and three more Os. A draw. There’s the web address on the back and a number to call. The person who designed the card had not included a name for whatever this venture is but, below the grid, Anais reads what she presumes is a slogan or mission statement.

Fix the game.

X

        O

Two years go by, and she’s at the airport again. Her art director position at the agency no longer exists; one of the casualties after a number of managers left and took half the company’s clients with them.

She wheels her luggage through a revolving door and feels the sun’s crisp caress on her skin. The stranger from the plane waves from where he’s standing behind a hatchback. He’s a middle-aged man at almost seven feet, a signpost in cargo shorts and a hoodie.

He pops the trunk as she crosses the road to join him. There’s a hug. It’s brief but the voice asking her what exactly she’s doing here comes through the loudest when he squeezes. His name is Rashad. He works for the consortium determined to help the world-organism (nicknamed Waldo) win a round of tic-tac-toe against itself.

With her luggage in the trunk, she totters along the passenger side. He lingers a few seconds behind the car as she fumbles with the door.

“You nervous?”

She gulps, reminds herself her dahlias are in the mostly capable hands of her ex back home in Modesto. Inside smells like cigarettes and heavy cologne. She lets the cool air rummage through her blazer and tank top while Rashad folds himself in behind the steering wheel.

“Brain consists of about eighty billion neurons,” he says, putting the car in reverse. “They may all be nerve cells but they’re never nervous. Very important distinction.” He makes a too-pleased-with-himself face just as he’s done exiting the parking lane. She groans at it.

She could tell him that not even up to eight billion organisms in the world are linked in such a way as to mimic the human brain’s complexity, except he knows that already. The consortium is driven by what many call a fringe science, but the funding never seems to dry up. She’s a curious mind that became even more curious ’til events in recent months sent her over the cliff. If the earliest computers could play the game, why not an organ emerging from the world’s conscious layer?

“I’m still in the process of clearing this with Tomás,” he says as he steers out of the pickup area. “He’s a real ask-forgiveness-rather-than-permission type when it’s crunch time, so don’t worry about getting off on the wrong foot.”

“I’m not worried,” she tells him. Jet-lagged. Not worried. All she wants now is to help fix the game, do what little she can to prevent blips like she witnessed that morning in the conference room with the client and his son. Many more since then. The ACH transfers, always off by an order of magnitude. The abrupt manner in which her job vanished, and she had no prospects after that, and now she sells flowers out of her grandmother’s bungalow.

She has never been clear on who Tomás is anyway. He’s one of the names Rashad tends to drop on the phone with her and in emails. Tomás is who decides who goes where. Nadine handles travel expenses. Jihae plots the first coordinates; the first play after it’s in, maybe the next one as well so Steve’s models can nail the grid down ahead of the remaining plays. Rashad finds the moving targets.

He takes her through the on-ramp and out of the city, forty miles of sparse late morning traffic to the hotel in Galveston and the port behind it.

“You’re going to do great,” he tells her. “Even if we don’t block this one, just trying . . . ” He appears to get lost in thought, then, “you ever had a health scare . . . ? Like having your body rebel against you, and you knew the only way to fight back was to make better choices healthwise?”

“I have,” she answers, but can only recall the rush to the ER to have her appendix removed. Sophomore year. No habits dropped and no new ones picked up after the procedure.

“That’s what we want,” he says. “If we can’t force a win, we can bring to Waldo’s attention that we’re trying.” He extends to her an open pack of Newports, and she shakes her head. “Don’t be discouraged if this one doesn’t go as planned. It’s a process.”

He flicks a lighter. The sound of it tests her resolve more than the smoke now whirling from his lips. The windows come down and a breeze with a pungent oil smell fans her hair. Her only other trip to Galveston was her and a college friend getting lost on their way back from South Padre and having to stop for gas. Galveston is old Victorian homes and cruise vacations.

She leans her head outside and lays it gently on her shoulder. In twenty-two hours, a ship at the port will take nearly five thousand passengers on a five-day loop through the gulf. A day after it embarks, at the precise moment it clocks the newest coordinates and stops for a reason not yet known, someone on deck will be getting a boatswain’s mate tattoo.

If they can get to the artist before she fields the request, they can force those crossed anchors elsewhere on the grid.

X

        O

She puts the news on the minute she’s in the hotel room. There’s been another blip in the world’s interface with the GPS clocks. Everything’s out of sync for the next hour, give or take.

She calls her ex, gets his voicemail while he’s still sleeping. No purchases ’til this clears up. Don’t forget the dahlias.

The bed is the type of memory foam that’s supposed to be more fire-resistant but linked to increased cancer risk as a trade-off. This and nearly half of everything she knows—things like how to safely transport floral arrangements—were learned from clients at her old job.

She lies down, thinks of her ex burning down their tiny studio apartment when they were together. She quit smoking for the third time after that. She stands, removes her blazer, then hangs it neatly in the closet. There’s chaos the world-organism can’t be linked to.

She sleeps almost two hours, then hears a knock. Rashad. One floor down. His locs are tidier than when she last saw them, and she begins to worry about the dried sweat on her from being outside earlier.

“I brought shawarmas,” he says, standing at the door with a hefty takeout bag.

She enters the bathroom to freshen up while he sits to eat and turns the TV’s volume up. The news is now on sound-bites from a symposium of marine biologists. Everyone wants to know what’s behind the increase in orcas beaching themselves. While she runs cold water through a towel in front of the sink, Rashad’s always-running commentary fills the air.

“It’s in the whales now,” he says. “Shame we can’t get an invite to one of these meetings. They might fuck around and actually learn something.”

She comes out and breathes the takeout’s dense aroma. Joining him at the table, she gets a whiff of his Newports again, decides there that she’ll have one if the next three days go as planned.

He points the remote over her shoulder and thumbs the pause button. “See that?” She turns, sees drone footage of wet sand and three orcas on their sides. “Tell me what you think that looks like.”

It looks like three orcas spaced out on the sand, forming what one could call a circle with a little cajoling. “Another round?”

“From the look of this one, it may take years between each turn. Not our beat. We get the quick ones, like the round you spectated two years ago but didn’t know. Nine meetings to show nine businesses their new logos. Six hours between each one.”

She gives him a look like a blank check, then slips a morsel of pita bread into her mouth. He’ll get the credit for convincing her but not the satisfaction. Two years ago, the trend was logos with subtle, organic shapes, and many circles came out of that. She did not follow the trend. A ten year old forced it on her. A snake eating its tail—not subtle. Maybe organic. Depends on which market the client is in.

When Rashad first told her over the phone what had actually transpired that morning, she laughed. Then he showed her more convincing examples, and she began to listen. Grids that cover entire biomes. Grids as small as city blocks. The round she was in covered multiple time zones because client meetings don’t tend to happen after midnight.

“So what happens?” She yawns, all the hours she stayed up the previous night like weights over her eyes. “We board this cruise, and we’re able to block this next one . . . number—” She holds three fingers up.

“Steve runs the numbers again but it’s mostly a workout for the algorithm. Tic-tac-toe is played with what we call perfect information. Once we have the grid figured out, we have all the possible moves. Once we block a move, it takes only a few hours for that move to go elsewhere on the grid. We have people already working the other tattoo parlors, looking at reservations, ready to cut a power line if need be. Each round, we get maybe two blocks we can really plan out. Maybe this is one of them . . . ” His eyes drop to her plate, then come up again. “Eat something.”

She slouches forward, leans her head left, and uses a forearm to support its weight. “Who’s making the argument for just leaving the game to fix itself?”

“Nobody.” He sets his half-eaten shawarma down. His normally warm expression vanishes, and he looks as grim as one might look posing for a new driver’s license. “Anais, are you sure your heart’s in this?”

His severe manner wakes her fully up, and she leans back. “I’m sorry. Yes . . . Yes, I’m still just tired from the flight. That’s all.”

“This isn’t cloak and dagger shit. If you want out, you’re still welcome to go on the cruise tomorrow. Free vacay.”

“I know.”

“We can’t leave the game to fix itself because the game can’t fix itself. Waldo’s awake but it’s got the intellect of a house cat. It’s like my chickens back home. But not exactly because my chickens didn’t emerge from the collective awareness of the biosphere. It’s stuck. Corner X, center O. Center X, corner O. Left brain. Right brain. Both playing to win, so neither ever does. And what do we get for just waiting it out?

“Did you see the news from New Hampshire last week?”

“Yes.”

“Big tanker truck in the intersection with everyone just trying to get home: X. The roundabout a few days after in Cambridge: O. Another tanker. Fire trucks couldn’t get to it quickly enough. It’s chaos. Snake eating its tail. It came from us, and now it’s hijacked our free will so it can play games with itself.”

Anais, more alert than she’s been since getting off the plane, remembers reservations she buried months ago, then folds her arms. “What happens when it finally wins a round?”

Rashad pinches his eyes together. “It moves on to something else.”

“I don’t think that’s guaranteed, and I don’t know why you always act like it is.”

“Oh? Are we fixing to hear your own unified theory of everything?”

“I don’t think it even knows what winning is. I don’t think it knows what it’s doing, and I don’t think it’s actually aware of itself. You don’t keep playing after it’s clear the game can’t be won. You’ve shown me a lot of draws but never one with less than all nine of its cells filled in.”

“Uh-huh.” He sighs. Anais can see the calculating look he reserves for after he’s made the pitch and closed on a new recruit. “Well, we’re not a monolith at the consortium, so there’s people who actually agree with some of that. But I do want to ask why you’re here in that case. Fieldwork is mostly for true believers.”

Anais feels her stomach drop and thinks she’s overstepped because truly she wants to believe. “I took your card in Minneapolis,” she says. “Then my morning went bad. Then everything just spiraled after that. I want this to work.”

Rashad pushes away from the table, then stands. His good humor is back, and he shoots her an easy grin. “Fate,” he exclaims, scooting his chair under the table’s edge. “I can work with that.”

“Sorry I gave you the wrong impression.”

“No no—” He’s at the door before she’s even aware he’s leaving all his takeout with her. “Rest up. I mean that. I’ll come find you after we board. If you’re still in this, you get the pleasure of my company for five days.”

X

        O

The first morning on deck, she confines herself to a stateroom with lean furnishings and a window the shape and size of a clock. She paces with her phone to her ear. No one back home seems keen on returning her calls. She stops in front of the window but the view doesn’t help. It’s of a ship identical to this one, like a bookshelf ready to collapse from its own weight.

The stateroom is small. She soon observes that she isn’t pacing back and forth but walking in a tight circle. The captain’s radio jockey intonations fill the air for maybe the fourth time since she boarded. It’s another apology for the delay. The oil that spilled the previous night is almost contained, and they should be sailing in the next hour.

Anais puts her phone down because she thinks she may have discovered a misplaced anchor point in Waldo’s latest design. She expects Rashad to have looked in on her by now. Both on the phone and in person, he had explained that this round is being played in eighty-two-hour intervals.

“It starts with something against the usual norm,” he had said. “We miss a lot of rounds because we can’t come to an agreement on that first play, or we don’t see it ’til it’s too late.”

This round supposedly began a week ago with a cross on an estate lawyer’s forehead. Small but very ornate. He had debuted the new ink at a settlement hearing and couldn’t say what prompted it when asked. It had been on the news, one of those items impossible to distinguish from clickbait under a review for a film.

Rashad’s dulcet bass warbles on Anais’s eardrum, and she’s happy there’s someone still able to take her calls.

“Rashad. The oil spill—”

“The delay.”

“Doesn’t that put a wrinkle in this? Your projections say 8:17 tomorrow morning, then the ship gets held there for a few hours. We don’t know why but it does. This thing with the oil spill . . . we’ve been sitting here for three hours and—”

“There are no wrinkles with Waldo.”

“I don’t—I thought you would be happy with a development like this. The X goes in but it doesn’t land on any of the coordinates. Isn’t that—wouldn’t that be enough for Waldo to even just abandon this round?”

There’s a pregnant pause. She imagines Rashad flipping through a big book of bon mots, looking for something benign and equally maddening.

“I take this to mean you’re completely on board?” He chortles. “Pardon the pun.”

She groans. “I don’t like going on cruise ships, and I don’t like theme park vacations. Every summer ’til I turned fifteen, it was one or the other.”

“This one’s different.”

“I doubt that.”

“Come outside. The tattoo parlor’s on twelve. There’s already a line, and it opens just as soon as we start moving.”

X

        O

Thirty minutes after the ship embarks, she leaves her stateroom. Deck twelve near the stern has already drawn a crowd to an indoor mixer, so she skips to its terrace. Bass-heavy music follows her out, pumping through the walls, something familiar, something that almost makes her forget why she’s here.

Salt-smelling breeze sweeps through the guardrails and makes her romper look possessed. It’s a sleeveless thing with a drawstring and muted floral print. It terminates around her upper thigh, and she thinks maybe she’s underdressed for something as important as tic-tac-toe.

Through the guardrails, the water underneath is no longer the soot color from the spill. Holding the map on the back of the cruise’s itinerary close, she beats a path she’s hoping will end beside the tattoo parlor.

She looks up. She looks at the map. People mill past in the opposite direction. She overhears someone say they were able to book an appointment for the last day at the parlor. The last day is preferred because new ink needs time away from water and sunlight. She mulls this over as a cloud passes under the sun and brings her relief from it.

The consortium is after one of two tattoo artists contracted for this cruise. One will be starting on a crossed anchors design in twenty hours. Which one isn’t known at the moment. They’ve each amassed some name recognition in the world of ink, so their time—even time away from the parlor—is of immense value.

Rashad wants to catch each of them between shifts and simply tell them what’s on the line. It’s the easiest approach, he says. People like being included in things that sound on the surface like espionage. Cloak and dagger shit. Make them assets. If it’s something they take to with panache, that’s recruitment potential.

Anais sees things differently. She almost threw his card in the trash after they met the first time. Not everyone sees well-designed stationery and gets heart-eyes. A contingency plan is needed for if they manage to scare both artists away.

She begins to form a picture in her mind of the type of person who would get inked just one day into the cruise. It would have to be someone planning to stay mostly indoors and out of the ship’s numerous pools; perhaps someone wanting a last-day appointment but not yet in the line to set one up.

She goes up a few steps as she nears the ship’s bow, then hears Rashad behind her.

“You’ve passed it,” he says.

She turns, finds him seated on one of the sofas in a lounge area with mint green furniture and a patio umbrella. He’s in a basketball jersey and bucket hat. He has a foamy orange drink in his hand, which he points coyly behind him.

She follows the glass and gets an eyeful; a line of guests being herded by stanchion barriers along the wall, filing in the opposite direction to a door close to the stern. She eyes the map again and it dawns that she’s been reading it upside down.

She groans. “This is a map for masochists.”

“You should’ve just called me,” he says with the straw in his mouth.

She plops down on the sofa across from him and lets out a loud huff. She’s grown taller since her parents last booked a cruise with everyone still together. The ships, as if to compensate, have gotten bigger. If they ever actually move, she’s never felt it. Even now it’s like watching the world move from the comfort of an enormous balcony.

“Rashad—” She glances behind him at the line—moving too quickly—then locks him in an urgent stare. “Someone in that line is probably about to book the 8:17 tomorrow.”

“Wait . . . ” He sets his drink down. “You mean . . . ” He points a thumb behind his back and turns just enough that it looks like he’s trying. “Someone in this line?”

She frowns, gives him the finger.

“Want to go order yourself a drink?”

“No.”

“Alright.” He picks his drink up and stirs with the straw. “To answer the question you asked earlier, if Waldo’s ever just abandoned a round, it isn’t something we’re able to tell with our monitoring apparatus from the usual chaos every day. We’ve had a lot of false starts. It’s possible this is one—it’s always possible. But once Steve’s models clock the first O on the grid and it looks like the smart play, all that second-guessing goes out the window. Now . . . ” He adjusts his hat. “I don’t plan to waste any time on the person actually wanting the tat. They could be in that line right now. Doesn’t matter. Trying to narrow down who it is from a pool of nearly five thousand on the ship means introducing imperfect information—lot more than we can afford for this round. We already know who the two artists are, so just put on that West Coast charm I always heard on the phone with you and get ready to do some evangelizing.”

“So . . . just be a creep and follow them around ’til we have a window?”

“There’ll be some tailing involved.”

She tries to make him a face but doesn’t succeed.

“They’re in the shop now,” he says. “One already has someone in a chair. The other one’s just setting up for when her sessions begin in about four hours.” He removes the straw from his glass and points it over her shoulder. “In a few minutes, she’ll be coming out through that door.”

She fights the impulse to look where he’s pointing. “How do you know that?”

“My department is moving targets,” he answers, twinkle in his eye.

She nods, then hums a sigh. It feels like admitting defeat, but she’s also very hungry, so perhaps that’s it.

“Can I ask you a question, Rashad?”

“Shoot.”

“What made you want to do this?”

“You mean how did I get involved with the consortium?”

“Yes but . . . also why?”

He takes a long gulp before setting his drink down again. Then he stands, and his hat blots the sun out for the two seconds it takes him to cross to her side. While he stands beside her, fishing something out of his cargo shorts, Anais sniffs quietly for the cigarette smell. It isn’t there. There’s a name on the back of his jersey, and it takes her a moment to recognize it. His last name. Harris.

He sits next to her. He has his phone in his hand now, and she’s guessing it’s picture time. A gallery fills the screen. He thumbs through rows of image folders ’til he arrives at one titled “eternal path.”

The first image he pulls from it is of him in a jersey similar to what he now has on. He looks ten years younger. His hair is cropped almost to his scalp and there’s an elderly, Asian man in a business suit beside him.

“This is from when I played ball in China,” he says in a low voice. “The dude standing next to me is one of the founders. Shipping magnate from Singapore. Twelve years ago, we didn’t have the operation we have now but there were folks smart enough to start noticing this stuff. Accounting errors you couldn’t trace. Misplaced zeros in the ledger. Transmission redundancies breaking down. Little things like that.”

“You were there from the beginning?”

“About fifteen years ago, I shared a flight with this man and it changed my whole trajectory. Here’s something else.” He swipes the image down and scrolls ’til he finds another.

“That’s—” Anais yelps under her breath at him decked in combat gear, posing—rifle in hand—beside a downed bomber in the middle of the desert. “That’s you in a war zone.”

“That’s a story for if we ever meet like this again, but . . . you want to know why I do this, you first have to understand that Waldo is a lot more than meets the eye. In the wrong hands, it could be made into a weapon—the last weapon that would ever have to be manufactured on this Earth.”

“Oh . . . ” Anais feels clarity like that first drag after months of being good. “Are there rival consortiums?”

“We keep tabs on several entities that infringed on our patents a few years ago and started doing the same thing we do.”

“Except they have ulterior motives.”

“Dark money and secret government programs. We’ll talk about Waldo with anyone wanting to know. They won’t. They think of Waldo as an untamed beast. One that can possess people, possess systems. Make them do things they didn’t intend.”

“If they can tame it, they can use that to their advantage?”

“World didn’t get the way it is from having only people like you and me in it.”

Anais takes a deep, steadying breath. It’s always jazz out of his mouth. Someone back in Modesto had told her she was joining a cult, someone she could usually confide in.

“Here’s something you’ll really enjoy,” Rashad says. There’s a new photo on the screen. It’s nighttime in this one. He’s standing on the bow of what looks like a luxury yacht, draped in bright, red formal wear. He has his forearm perched on the shoulder of a man with shaggy hair and rose-tinted glasses. “This one’s me with Banksy.”

Anais scoffs. “Fuck off.”

“Oh we go back, me and Banksy—back even before the consortium got its start.”

“How many people has this worked on, Rashad? That’s literally just a guy on a yacht.”

“Well, the consortium for one, being that it was me who introduced them to him.”

Thinking she’s had enough, she throws her hands slightly up. “Okay.”

He crooks her a sly grin. “The consortium has use for a worldly man like myself, don’t you think?”

While reaching for a pithy rejoinder, something in the window nearby catches her eye; a head of purple and blonde hair like she had seen in the cruise’s itinerary, under the section introducing the two artists on deck.

Rashad stands, adjusting his hat as the head of hair passes the window and disappears behind the adjoining stretch of wall. “Duty calls.”

“You should tell her how you’re friends with—”

“How do I look?”

She huffs, gives him a rushed once-over. “You look fine.”

“I’d invite you along, but I want to make quick work of this first one—hit all the points, get out, review how it went while there’s still time to bump into her again. Later today, we can put our heads together for the other one. I’ll even let you take the wheel.”

Anais suspects she’s being humored again but plays along. “Because she’ll be easier to convince?”

“Between both of them, she’s the one not here with a plus one. Girlfriend didn’t want to come this time. They had a fight.”

“Huh.”

“Oh yeah. Big news in ink world.” He strolls behind the sofa and begins backing away. “You’re in a similar situation right now, aren’t you?”

“What?” She cranes a sour expression over her shoulder.

“Alright, just pretend when it’s time. Trust yourself. Make sure you’ve had a little to drink.” He turns and finally gives her his back. “I’ll catch up in a little.”

She watches him climb the steps she was on when he startled her. Closer to the bow, a pair of doors swing out and the artist scurries through them, phone in her ear, a tablet and waist pouch bundled in her left hand. She crosses toward the guardrails and stops there. She’s short, a bit wide, tie-dye shirt, denim shorts, a pair of flip-flops. Whoever’s on the phone with her is getting an earful. She appears irritated, but Rashad doesn’t slow his stride toward her.

Anais draws her knees to her chest and grabs just above the ankles. There goes the voice again asking her what she’s doing here. Trying to fix a game. Looking for something to explain a breakdown lasting almost two years.

Rashad—now beside the artist and as conspicuous as a door hanger—holds his phone at an angle above his head. He’s pretending to look for good signal strength. He keeps this up ’til, seconds later, the artist gets off her phone. He turns to tell her something. Anais can easily guess it’s something to do with how spotty the cruise’s complementary phone service has been.

The woman softens her cross look and—just like that—he appears to have her attention.

X

        O

It’s almost seven in the evening and Rashad is AWOL.

Anais had watched from the sofa as he led the artist back inside, holding one of the twin doors open for her, looking across to the lounge area as the woman patted him on the arm for the gesture.

Since then, Anais has placed almost a dozen calls to his phone, all of them going to voicemail. She’s left him two and sent four times as many text messages.

A man came by and asked her to lunch, elderly and in clothes his grandkids likely picked out for him. She remembered she was hungry and followed him ’til they were back inside and in line for Mongolian from the twenty-four-hour buffet. The man found more lively people than her and just sort of sauntered off with them while she lifted tofu wedges onto her tray. She then sat and ate alone and forgot what deck she was on and lost a few hours playing a turn-based strategy game on her phone.

It’s at the end of this expert whiling away of time she would rather have spent on land that the second artist enters the empty dining hall. Her hair is cropped all the way down and her brown skin is laced on the neck with an intricate circuit board design that terminates behind her ears. Anais looks briefly up from her game, then has to look up again when it dawns that this isn’t another straggler passing through for a quick bite.

Three booths mark the distance from her own booth to the self-serve where the artist scoops an omelet onto her tray. Watching her prudently, Anais tries Rashad’s number again. When it rings the fifth time, the artist turns to her side so it almost looks like she heard the ring. Anais hangs up.

The artist rushes her tray to the nearest booth, not waiting ’til she’s seated before spooning yogurt into her mouth. Her name on the itinerary is Rose Gillespie. She’s about five-foot-eight and in leggings and a plain T-shirt this evening. A small towel hangs from her shoulders but the neck tattoo is still visible, like tendrils of lead on her skin. Anais waits ’til she’s seated before trying for another glance. When the glance is returned, she doesn’t flinch. She weathers the chill down her spine from Rose’s blank stare, even smiles at it.

She remembers being okay at this; back when she was periodically meeting friends of friends after-hours and having to explain to them each time what she did for work.

“I love your tattoo,” she says.

Rose returns her attention to the tray. “Thank you.”

Anais notes how meticulously she separates the pumpkin seeds from her granola bowl while guiding another spoonful of yogurt to her mouth. “You must be one of the artists at the ink shop,” she says. “I recognize you from the itinerary.”

Rose shoots her the empty glance again. “Book an appointment?”

“Me?” Anais feels a flash of heat, like sweat breaking out across the bridge of her nose. “No, I uh—prefer all my ink on dry land. Very strict rule.” She almost bites her tongue, thinking she’s overstepped. “No offense intended.”

Rose gives her a knowing smile. “None taken.”

She has an oblong face and lips shaped like a peanut shell when held together. Anais watches her eat from the corner of her eye, wondering what Rashad actually meant when he said he would let her take the wheel.

“How did it go today?”

This time, Rose doesn’t look up when she answers. “Average.” Anais begins to fear she has already exhausted the woman’s capacity for small talk. Then the woman chuckles, as if having remembered something. “So if we were on land right now,” she rests her brown eyes on Anais again, “what would you be interested in?”

“You know I . . . ” Anais folds her arms and pulls her head slightly back. “I don’t know. I have a uh—” Her voice begins to break. Where’s that tall, slick-as-oil talker named Rashad when he’s needed? “I have initials on my left side. Stupid ex-boyfriend.”

“You know you can have that removed.”

“I would already have done that if it was somewhere more visible. Also, when I started using my mother’s last name, they became my initials as well. AC.”

Rose nods. It’s as though she’s heard some variation of this before. “I meant the ex-boyfriend.”

This gets a cackle from Anais. “I’ve tried. Believe me.”

“AC . . . ” Rose puts her spoon down and leans forward, arms folded on the table. “Andrea . . . Chav—vez?”

Anais chortles when she realizes what’s happening. “No, it’s actually—”

“Hold on . . . I get two more tries.”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Amy . . . Clarkson.”

“Not in the ballpark.”

Rose purses her lips, taps the table, and her eyes roll half back. “Adri—ana . . . Costa?”

“Anais Contreras.”

Rose slaps her table with both hands, then waves. “Rose G.”

“G for Gillespie?”

“G for Gilpin. Gillespie is a pen name. Hey, do you just want to . . . ” she gestures at the other bench in her booth, “move your shit over here?” Anais looks down at her shit; an itinerary folded up and pinned under her phone. “Come on. I have just ten minutes to eat, then I have to report to the gym and FaceTime my trainer back in Toronto.”

Seconds later, Anais scoots in across from her ’til she’s leaning on the partition at the other end of the booth.

“You’re from Toronto?”

“T-Dot.”

“I always wanted to visit.”

“It’s nice. I moved my studio there about a year ago. If you ever visit, it’s Rose’s Ink and Concept Parlor. Free NFT with anything four hundred and up.”

“Huh.” Anais digs for everything she knows about non-fungible tokens. It isn’t a lot. Her ex once floated the idea of selling “virtual floral arrangements” as that, and she couldn’t tell how that differed from just selling photos of the azaleas from her grandmother’s backyard.

“Do you own any?” Rose asks.

“NFTs?” She catches herself staring intensely at the woman’s collarbone; the exposed part where the filaments that make up her circuit board tattoo close in, appearing to converge somewhere along her sternum. “No.”

“Anais . . . ” Rose takes a second to allow the food in her mouth down the hatch. “I’m not leaving this booth without convincing you to start investing. Fiat is dead. If it isn’t, it’s stuffy white dudes with country club memberships and Cialis budgets. You don’t look like the type to me.”

“I’m . . . ” Anais nearly winces as it dawns that she’s being cornered into one of those meetings where someone stands in front of the room and talks about how they made so much in just a year from selling knife sets door-to-door, so much that they were able to retire from their boring desk job. “No.”

“Alright, look . . . What do you actually do? Let’s start there.”

“I’m . . . ” She clears her throat. It’s an easy question to answer; she makes and sells floral arrangements. However, Rose might take it as an invite to echo what her ex had proposed, so she blurts, “I’m in the design field—graphic design, art directing.” She immediately regrets this when she remembers there’s already a surplus of designers slapping the NFT label on their work.

Rose sets her water down and stares for a moment, then, “get out. I did graphic design early on. That’s what my degree is actually in.”

“Huh. Me too.”

“Okay, let’s table the NFTs for now. Where do you work?” There’s a grin but it looks forced, and Anais fears what’s coming next. “There’s someone I went to school with looking for work right now, contract or full-time.”

“Oh.” This one’s even easier. “You know, I’m actually between jobs right now.”

“Oh . . . ”

Anais pays her a sage nod.

“Okay um . . . so, like I was saying—”

“Have you gotten a request for a boatswain’s mate design?”

The question comes like a reflex, like something sneezed out at the prospect of more NFT talk.

“What?” Rose’s mouth is agape, but she’s at least smiling.

“It’s like . . . ” Sensing that a pivotal threshold in this exchange is being crossed, Anais gulps and wishes Rashad would materialize from thin air beside her. “It’s two anchors that come together to form an X.”

“I know what it is. Why are you asking? Is that what you want?”

“I was just curious. Wouldn’t that be one of the more common requests? You know . . . because we’re on a boat.”

“I used to see people come in for it when I was apprenticing but that was all on land. I haven’t had someone request it on one of these ships, but I’ve only done this twice before. That’s not to say people aren’t coming in for flash-level shit. Someone came in this afternoon asking for a Popeye design; little sailor dude with spinach in his can.”

Not completely clear on the reference, Anais shakes her head like she is. “Don’t you just hate that?”

“Oh no, I love it. You want the loud stuff but not everyone has the energy for it. I can usually tell once they start telling me what they want. When I consult, half the time, I’m just talking someone out of something they’ll end up hating because it isn’t them. People don’t understand that canvas factors in as much as the ink, or that happy clientele makes any design ten times better once it’s out in the world. If you’ve dealt with clients enough, Ms. Art Director, you know what I’m talking about.”

Anais wants to say something, but she chortles instead, feeling her guard come steadily down.

“So where have you worked?” Rose asks. “Agencies? In-house?”

“Agency—one. I interned there while in school, then got hired after I graduated.”

“That must have been a dream for you.”

Anais holds her breath for the few seconds it takes to screen her memories of the agency for something idyllic. “It wasn’t a bad place,” she says, shocked at how wistful she sounds. “I even got to travel, depending on the client.”

“That’s what’s up.”

“Thanks.”

“Biggest client you worked with . . . ”

“Uh . . . ” She titters under her breath. The answer to this one feels like lifting a carpet to reveal where all the dirt has been swept. “I uh . . . doubt you’ve heard of them. Or maybe you have but in a bad light.” She takes a breath. “Otto Mattress. They’re based out of Minneapolis.”

“I haven’t heard but . . . why in a bad light?”

“They unveiled a rebrand campaign about two years ago, and it was bad. So bad it actually went viral. I think it was three late night TV hosts who ended up making jokes about it in their monologues. It may even have been more, but that’s where I stopped counting.”

Rose hums as she munches now on her omelet. “Wild.”

“Since then, they’ve gone back to their old design but the logo itself was an um,” Anais pauses for a strange flash of giddiness, “snake eating its tail.” Rose cocking an eyebrow at this gets her tickled enough that her volume goes up and a mid-Atlantic accent creeps into her voice. “Now I’m sure we all have our different tastes but if I say ‘logo for mattress retailer,’ how many guesses would you need before arriving at ‘snake eating its tail’?”

Rose shakes her head. “How does this happen?”

“Well, on the agency side, I was the art director, so ultimately it happened with my involvement. But I promise you the idea didn’t come from me. In fact, I had something else. We spent months doing, you know, all the stuff you’re supposed to do; discovery, talking to their customers, looking at their positioning in the furniture retailer space. We went through about four rounds of revisions on a design the client was just enamored with. Then on the day we were supposed to show them the final thing, the owner brought his ten year old to the meeting. Apparently, the boy had shown his dad the snake design the previous night and that’s all it took to invalidate months of actual work.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.”

“For stuff like that, doesn’t the agency have recourse? Like, wouldn’t it be in the contract somewhere that the client can’t just brute force their children into the process like that?”

“You know, that’s really a very eloquent way to put it, Rose. And I wish that had been the case, but we couldn’t even just bow out respectfully; bill the hours already worked and close the ticket like you normally should be able to. No, this client was too important to us, so I basically ended up having to Frankenstein snake-tail into everything else we produced for the rebrand.”

Rose guffaws, briefly having to cover her mouth. Anais is often still able to find the ordeal funny, but only in a cackling-into-her-drink kind of way. She waits for Rose to quiet down, then resumes.

“Basically it started a domino effect within the agency that ended with a lot of top-level people leaving and me losing my job a few months later.”

“Oh . . . ” Rose straightens up but doesn’t succeed at miming a neutral expression. “Oh no, you poor thing.”

“Sorry I’m bumming you out. I know you have your trainer to get to.”

Rose takes a moment to breathe, then levels a wistful glance at Anais. “My experience was mostly in-house with a few property managers. One day I decided I liked doing this better and that was it. I wasn’t acting on principle or any of that stuff. I just needed to not be designing ads for student housing all the time anymore, you know?”

“I get that.”

Anais thinks back to the two weeks she did some of that while waiting to hear back about the dream internship position that would later become the dream job offer. Apartment owners relegate most of their marketing efforts to property management firms. Property management firms—at least those in the student housing business—prefer ads where the tenants resemble cast members from never filmed seasons of The Real World.

She watches Rose center her granola bowl on the tray, then, with her phone, begin taking photos of it. In a few minutes, the woman will leave for the gym and this window will be gone. There’s a fleeting urge to swap more stories with her, and maybe they can obsess together over things that used to occupy Anais’ time when she was more bright-eyed than she is now. Maybe Rose also once spent a whole year indulging a pastry shop idea in her spare time.

“You know,” she says, knowing she’s likely about to close the door to any of that ever happening, unable to stop herself. “I didn’t really answer your question.”

Rose thumbs hurriedly through her screen, likely dropping off new goodies for her followers on Instagram. “What question?”

“You wanted to know how it happened—the logo.”

“You mean there’s more?” She sets the phone down and fixes Anais that half delicate, half mendacious grin again.

Anais recoils slightly, then hums under her breath. “There’s probably not enough time.”

“Bullshit.” Rose picks the phone back up and resumes her thumb-tapping. “I’m texting Kels right now . . . my trainer. I want to hear this.” Seconds later, the phone comes down again, and she twiddles her thumbs beside it. Her smile this time looks expectant. Anais inhales deeply and tries convincing herself that a little embarrassment at sea means nothing on dry land.

“Funny story,” she says. “A little weird; actually very weird. I think maybe if you can be into NFTs and crypto and all of that, maybe you won’t start laughing ’til I’m done.”

“Girl, just give me the tea.”

“Hoo . . . okay. So, we were on the flight from San Diego to meet the client and present the finished work—revamped collateral, in-store signage, packaging, outdoor media . . . everything. It was a three-hour flight. My CD was sitting somewhere else, and I wound up next to this guy . . . Rashad. He started talking to me about tic-tac-toe; like really getting into it. He went over the history of the game and probably every version of it ever. Now, I didn’t sleep the previous night, and I was still rehearsing my part of the presentation in my head so mostly I think I just pretended to listen. Then he um . . . ” She pauses to breathe. “He told me about something he called the world-organism. So um . . . ” Her hands go up and suddenly she’s gesticulating. “You know how the human brain—your brain—is made up of neurons basically passing signals back and forth? Like everything you think of as a coherent thought or action actually being the end product of processes and interactions between those neurons that you’ll never be completely aware of?”

Rose squeezes her face slightly but is still smiling. “Mm-hmm. Yeah.”

“So this thing—this . . . world-organism; it’s like that, but on a global scale. And—if you’re still following—kinda like your brain and all its neurons, it evolved from our interconnectedness roughly ten, twenty years ago. Now, some of the people in the consortium, the um . . . ” Anais clears her throat and wishes for a sip of water. “The company monitoring this stuff, they think it’s actually conscious; as in, a living entity that’s able to think on its own and do stuff. I don’t know where I stand on that but . . . am I—” Sweat trickles down her side in a lone rivulet. Her chest becomes tight as Rose’s eyes begin to glaze over. “Am I losing you?”

The silence feels like an eternity but only lasts a few seconds. Rose heaves a momentous sigh, then rubs her eyes. “So it’s like the noosphere?” she asks. “Gaiamind, stuff like that?”

“Wow . . . yeah. Not exactly but . . . ” Anais stops at the thought that someone else would so casually volunteer knowledge of those things. “So you’re also into this stuff?”

“My partner.” Rose crooks her another grin. This one looks pained. “I’m not going to lie to you, I always roll my eyes when she brings it up, but yeah I know a little about it.”

“Oh . . . ”

“I’m not going to roll my eyes at you.”

“Okay. So um . . . back to the plane. So . . . Rashad—he’s from the consortium. Turns out he was sitting next to me that morning because the consortium had sent him to see if he could block Waldo’s—that’s their name for the world-organism—to see if he could block its next move in a game it was playing at the time.”

“Let me guess . . . the game was tic-tac-toe.”

“Okay, you’re really good at this guessing stuff. Yes. The game . . . Waldo—it’s obsessed with tic-tac-toe. It’s been playing round after round with itself since probably before the consortium first noticed it was there. The problem is Waldo is good at tic-tac-toe, so it always ends in a draw. Actually that’s not the problem. The problem is the way Waldo likes to play the game. You know how sometimes you can feel like a pawn on someone’s chessboard? Like you’re being manipulated into doing things you normally wouldn’t do?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“That’s what’s been going on for the last ten years . . . at least. Each time Waldo plays a round, it uses us to mark the Xs and Os on the grid. Sometimes it’s harmless. A lot of times, it’s chaos. Our meeting that morning was one of nine similar client meetings that occurred over a span of sixty-hours, and all of them happened in locations in a three-by-three grid like you would need to play the game. All nine meetings had been held to preview new branding or similar artwork. In five of those meetings, the art was in the shape of the letter X. In four of them—ours included—the art resembled an O. Rashad sat next to me with the assumption that I was getting ready to present a logo with a distinct O shape to the client. That prediction was off but, well . . . ”

“Snake eating its tail?”

“Snake eating its tail.”

Anais takes a long breath. It’s all out. It’s done. Not exactly; there is still the request, but that doesn’t seem as daunting now. She’s on a cloud, then she sees Rose’s mouth hanging open.

“Anais, this is a lot.”

She pays the remark a fiendish nod. “I know.”

“My partner—we had a fight or else I would call her right now so you could tell her all of what you just told me. It’s the kind of spacey new age shit she’s always grokking better than I can. Not to say I didn’t get any of that. Just . . . ” She laughs. She shakes her head. “I’m going to be honest, I think this Rashad dude may have been fucking with you. You don’t actually believe any of this, right?”

“I—” Anais swallows hard. This isn’t the slam dunk she thought it was just seconds ago. “I’m skeptical but I’ve seen enough proof and . . . yeah I believe some of it.”

“Anais, look at me. Listen . . . ” Rose folds her arms on the table and leans in close enough that Anais is able to see the birthmark under one of the circuit board’s vias. “Has he asked you to empty out your savings for the consortium? Like at any point, has he asked you this?”

Anais feels a chill up her spine, then a frown she doesn’t try to hide. “No,” she intones. “And Rose . . . ? No offense meant, but if you want to have that conversation, we can go back to you trying to push your NFTs on me.”

For a second, Rose looks deflated, then she breaks and her laughter reaches the self-serve at the far end of the hall, making a few people turn their heads. “You’re lucky I already have exposure to this type of stuff,” she says. “I don’t always have this patience you’re enjoying right now.”

Sensing the last vestige of hope for a budding friendship gone, Anais slumps her shoulders. “Fine . . . but there’s a little bit more.”

“Really?”

“Have you ever had the issue where you transferred some money—maybe even some of your crypto—and the sum was ten times more than you specified?”

“Yeah but that’s pretty common. What does that have to do with . . . Where’s Waldo? They’ve had people looking into it for a while.”

“That’s actually Waldo.”

“Uh-huh.”

Anais balls her fists, and they almost reach her temples in an attempt to massage them. “Look, it’s just a theory, okay? None of it is proven, and I’m not pretending it is. It’s just very compelling once you’ve actually seen proof, and there’s plenty of that.”

“Waldo’s been in my crypto wallet?”

“Sort of. Speculation from the consortium is that before it started on tic-tac-toe, it existed first as a sort of ghost in the machine and meddling with the world’s transactions was an um . . . primordial manifestation of its awareness. That it still happens has been equated to unconscious human activity like blinking or even just breathing. You can also thank Waldo for all the blips with the GPS clocks that started happening all the time about a year ago.”

Rose gets a calculating look as she nods and licks her teeth. “So why try to block moves in the game? What’s the point if it’s not just this Rashad dude screwing around?”

“We want—” Anais brings her voice down from high-strung to just strung. “The consortium wants to fix the game so Waldo can finally win a round against itself. The thinking is that once it wins a round, it’ll find something else to do; hopefully something without side effects like I suffered after that client meeting. Two years ago and I still haven’t recovered from it. I don’t want to sound dramatic but that’s the truth. It’s wreaked more havoc than just me losing my job and having my life go up in smoke. I can show you the news clips. I can explain how it all connects on the grid.”

Rose looks away for a moment and frowns. She looks down. “Sorry I was being insensitive.”

“That’s alright.”

“It’s my partner. She’s . . . I think I was projecting our issues toward you, and that’s not fair at all. I don’t even know you.”

Anais feels her sinuses flare up, and she begins to sniff. Four days to go and already she’s caught something. She tries looking Rose in the eye but is unable, so she gazes at the circuit board instead.

“At 8:17 tomorrow morning, someone is going to ask you or the other artist in the shop for a boatswain’s mate design. We’re at a ninety-two percent certainty that’s what they’ll ask for but if not, it’ll be something resembling the letter X. Very striking resemblance; you won’t be able to miss it. If I can just get you to talk them out of it . . . ” She tries to ignore Rose pocketing her phone and gathering everything else onto the tray. “I know it’s probably out of line for me to ask that but—”

“Hey . . . ” Rose reaches a hand out ’til it alights on her wrist. “You know what I’d be doing right now if I was in your situation? Look around you. You’re on a party boat. Go have some drinks. Put on those pumps you don’t ever wear. Go upstairs. Get hype. Meet someone, alright?”

“Okay,” Anais says, almost whimpering as Rose gets up, and she’s only able to stare at the tray now in her left hand.

“I’m going to go do my workout, then I’m clocking out for the night. It was nice meeting you, though. Really.”

“Nice to meet you too.”

She doesn’t see her walk out. She doesn’t see the guests who come in to sit in a neighboring booth, talking about plans for another cruise in a few months, one where someone they affectionately call Perc John will be able to join them.

It all happens in a blur around her as another hour passes, and she thinks of what she might do when she sees Rashad again.

X

        O

The phone rings. She answers but says nothing. The TV is on mute and ads for excursions at the cruise’s upcoming stops play in a loop while she sits crisscross at the foot of her bed.

“Ms. Contreras . . . ”

“Where did you go?”

“All over the ship. Looking for you. Looking for where I left my phone.”

“Did you think about checking the dining hall at any point?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you with food in your mouth.”

“So you didn’t?”

“I came by your room and knocked a few times.”

“When we get back to Galveston, I’m going to have money transferred so I can pay you back for the flight and hotel. I’m going to pay my ticket for this cruise as well. I’ll just need more time.”

The silence that follows is rife with the snapshots that often flash in her mind whenever she thinks she could have handled that last day at the agency differently. She’s swinging her forearms erratically at her creative director. She’s being escorted off the premises, and there’s a security van waiting outside. She breathes, shuts her eyes. She’s back inside her stateroom.

“Don’t you have some folksy nonsense you would usually say here?”

“I’ve had a rough day too, Anais. You’re not the only one.”

“What? Did purple-and-blonde-hair not believe you’re friends with Banksy?”

“Fuck you.”

“Fuck you.”

She hums a sigh and hears one just like it on the other end.

“This is the game. I’m guessing you took the initiative in my absence and it didn’t go how you wanted it to go. This is the game.”

“Can you just . . . stop calling it that?” Her eyes begin to water. She’s no longer able to convince herself it’s sinuses.

“I don’t know what else to call it. Everyone gets a turn eventually and this was yours. You didn’t back away from it. That’s really all that matters. That’s it.”

She sniffs and wipes her nose. “How do you know I didn’t just talk to her about coming in for an appointment at her actual studio?”

“So you’re just sitting in your room right now about to cry because of how much you missed me today?”

“Oh you’re the worst.”

There’s a chortle on the other end, then, “you know what you really need, Anais?”

“No, but everyone else seems to.”

“You need . . . another hit from the proof pipe.”

“The proof pipe?”

“Remember early today when I told you Waldo doesn’t do wrinkles?”

“Yeah . . . I think. You’ve said a lot of stuff today, Rashad.”

“The captain just announced it an hour ago; I don’t know if you heard. To cover lost time, they’re going almost twice the regular speed tonight. What does that tell you?”

Moments later, she’s off the phone and taking in the things-to-do in Cozumel, Mexico at a low volume. When she was younger and sailing with the whole family together, the ports of call were nowhere near the Mexican gulf.

The first nudge of turbulence almost rolls her off the bed. There’s a muffled scream outside her room, then laughter. She didn’t have the alertness for Rashad’s question when he asked it, so he had told her to step outside when the turbulence begins so she can see for herself.

Grudgingly, she takes her feet off the bed and plants them on the vinyl below it. Minutes later, she’s on the terrace closest to her deck, dawdling under a half moon that catches wanly on her blanket and gives her a wizardly air.

Between here and her room, she’s managed to get used to the rocking, but seeing the rest of it makes her feel for the first time like the ship is actually moving.

Waves lap noisily against the hull and at times, she almost sees them swell to eye level at the stern. The deck is empty save one straggler on a bench nearby. She thinks it might be Rashad but when she calls his name, the figure doesn’t answer.

She sits on a neighboring bench, stares at the moon. It’s almost eleven and she’s groggy, but she’s a few other things aside from that; things she’s too groggy to articulate if asked.

When she sleeps, she sees her dahlias. They bloom as big as lifeboats and dot the expanse around the ship for miles, pinks and purples, yellows and reds.

The captain’s voice fills the air and, in her effort to hear what’s being said, she wakes up.

X

        O

She smells smoke even before opening her eyes; not the kind she’s been jonesing for since getting off the plane two days ago. She hears a commotion to her left, then another on her right side. The captain’s announcement echoes past her bench as passengers flock toward the guardrails in her periphery.

It’s morning. Smoke billows from the stern and smears the sky over the ship’s thousand-feet length. One of the engine rooms below deck is on fire, says the announcement. Everyone should remain calm while efforts are being made to stop the spread. In the meantime, propulsion has been affected and the ship is momentarily stranded.

There’s a sharp pain in her back from the bench’s armrest, just below the right shoulder blade. She pulls her blanket tight and breathes. Her phone rings.

“Where are you? Did you hear the announcement? Don’t start panicking just yet; it sounds like they’re handling it.”

His frenzied manner makes it real for her. The last remnant of sleep rolls off, and she sees the throng of passengers about, many on their phones, idling with their eyes wide and their lips moving, adding to the cacophony of unease in the air.

“I’m not panicking,” she says. She eyes the massive tufts of smoke overhead and thinks she might still be dreaming.

“This is it. This is the stop we were expecting. We’re where we need to be, and Waldo’s getting ready to pencil in another X.”

Rose’s face flashes in her mind. She’s leaning forward with a smile and saying something. Anais blinks the image away. “You almost sound excited.”

“That’s because I am. Every encounter like this with Waldo is an opportunity to propose to it the concept of free will. A chance for dialogue.”

“Alright, well . . . just to remind you, the ship’s on fire.”

“Come up to the French place on eleven for breakfast. I want to show you something.”

Minutes later, Anais squeezes through the throng ’til she’s back inside. Waiting to board an elevator, she overhears chatter about similar incidents years ago. A woman also waiting for the elevator recounts spending three days on a cruise without air conditioning or fresh food after a fire below deck took out the ship’s vital systems. When she gets around to mentioning the canned food the coast guard had to airdrop and the toilets refusing to flush, Anais turns her attention elsewhere. The mere thought of that happening here is enough to induce that panic Rashad advised her against.

She gets herded to the very back of the elevator, behind eight or so riders grumbling about smoke inhalation and refunds. The TV inside says it’s 7:23 and shows all events for the day happening as previously scheduled. The port of call at Costa Maya will be shortened by about an hour. The tattoo parlor is reminding everyone with appointments today that it will remain open throughout.

Moments later, she crosses the arched entryway belonging to the French café. The aroma is welcoming but there’s smoke here as well. The place is half occupied by guests in casual wear. They all look inadequately rested. The smoke must have entered through their balconies and triggered the smoke alarms while they slept.

Anais stands by the entrance and searches the small, square tables spread throughout ’til she finds Rashad’s raised hand. She joins him at a table beside twin doors providing access to the terrace.

He doesn’t say anything as he slathers butter on a bread roll; just a loaded grin at her, then a nod before looking down. The jersey is a different color this morning. She eyes his bucket hat while he bites into the roll. Maybe he slept in it. Maybe he doesn’t sleep. She doesn’t know where his stateroom is located.

“So we’re done?”

He hums, food in his mouth. “We’ve planted the seed of curiosity—doesn’t matter how well it was received. All we can do now is wait.” He looks at the watch on his wrist, then at her. “Unless you mean to spend the next hour at the parlor’s entrance—causing a stir.”

Anais looks away. Three round windows channel sunlight into the restaurant, like a sky-colored ellipsis amid paintings on the imitation-brick wall of the French countryside. A wisp of smoke blemishes the otherwise beatific view of the sun just over the horizon and the shimmering surface below. She thinks this must be what it was like for the neighbors at her old apartment while her ex slept through the smoke alarm. She was having a bowl of oatmeal at the work cafeteria when the call came. Then it was one week at a hotel. Then the termination notice.

Rashad picks his phone up off the table. “I wanted you to see something.”

“You on a yacht with the caped crusader?”

He flicks a few times with his thumb, then extends the phone over the pitcher and bowl of bread between them. “Take a look.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she collects the phone. On the screen is a light beige canvas with a world map outlined very faintly on it. Red dots blink on and off throughout, some almost too tiny to see, some as wide as her thumb and translucent except in the middle.

“That’s the Metagrid,” Rashad tells her. “Up ’til now, you’ve only seen isolated grids.”

She steals a glance at him. “What are the hot spots?”

“Tap one of them.”

She selects one somewhere on the Alps. The screen zooms in and surfaces a glut of overlapping red squares, an amoebic mass too difficult to recognize as anything. “These are all rounds?”

“Round potentials. Three percent on average amounts to something when isolated.”

“How do you usually tell which three percent?”

“That’s Jihae’s department. What you’re looking at there is just razzle dazzle unless you have specific coordinates to key in.”

“Huh.”

“Try finding us on your own.”

She pinches the screen, then swipes ’til she’s over North America. Selecting a dot in the Mexican gulf reveals a similar glut. She squints ’til she’s able to spot a green square that doesn’t blink like the others. When she taps it, everything vanishes and the usual three-by-three grid fills the screen. There’s an X in the upper left. There’s an O in the center.

“So at 8:17, bottom-right gets an X and that’s how we know we whiffed it?”

Rashad clears his throat. “Not exactly. The way that app works is it interfaces with our proprietary search engine for records of Xs and Os as they show up on the web. However, the search engine first has to trawl for everything it can find to tie each result it catalogs to a time and place of creation. Photos posted online, videos, status updates, news articles, a lot more than that.”

“Oh . . . ” Anais winces. “Should I be hearing this?”

“It’s all aboveboard the way it’s done. I mention it to prepare you for the next few hours of uncertainty ahead. Whether or not we ‘whiff it,’ that grid you’re looking at won’t be updating ’til there’s a strong digital footprint tying the tattoo we’re after to this ship or one of the other six cells Waldo hasn’t played in.”

“So we just sit on our hands and hope whoever gets the tattoo doesn’t take very long posting a photo of it to Instagram?”

“Or texting someone about it, depending on which messaging app they use.”

Anais scoffs. “This is aboveboard?”

“There is one way to shorten the wait time.”

“How?”

“Confirm it with your own eyes. Call Jihae or Steve. Have one of them manually update the grid.”

“Which one of us gets to go loiter in front of the ink shop?”

“Neither. Unless you really want to. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but this cruise is overwhelmingly people in your age demographic, and they’ve spent the last twenty-four hours clogging the complementary phone service with data uploads. If there’s a boatswain’s mate tattoo here in the next hour, it won’t take long reaching the web in some form.”

Anais looks around, wanting to confirm or prove him wrong. The guests skew slightly younger than her and almost all of them have their attention split between their phones, the food in front of them, and the people they’re sitting with.

“Wait . . . ” She looks at the grid as something troubling crosses her mind. “Something like an anchor—provided it’s a small design—should take an hour, maybe two.”

“That’s correct.”

She looks up. “So we’re stuck here for that long, they put the fire out, patch up whatever they need to, and we’re moving again . . . ”

Rashad beams her a wide grin. “Finish the thought, Anais.”

Her breath catches in her throat. “I don’t think I want to.”

“Why not? You’re on the right track.”

“I don’t want to be stuck here longer than two hours.”

“Even if it means knowing we pulled it off?”

Anais feels the phone’s weight as her hands begin to shake. “Rashad, I don’t think I can survive five days on this ship without a port of call.” She titters under her breath. “We could even be here longer than that, couldn’t we? If Waldo doesn’t come back to this cell ’til all the others are filled in, we might be stuck here for weeks.”

Rashad’s expression becomes blank. “Won’t be that long.”

“How do you know?”

He takes a moment to answer, and she can see the usual calculus in his stare. “We left another ship at the port in Galveston. It’ll be coming through here as well.”

She sets the phone down and scoots it across. “You’re saying that to make me feel better.”

“Maybe. But if you’ve heard the gossip since the fire broke out, you know we’re excellently positioned for four days without movement. The power is still on. The toilets are flushing.”

Folding her arms, she glowers across the table. He has a rough edge, but this morning she observes only the smoothness of Bezier curves on him, and it sets her mind adrift. She flashes back to her last day at the agency again. She had been inelegant. She had lost touch with something, and this last year has been about getting it back.

Minutes later, an elderly couple approaches their table. The man, having apparently recognized Rashad from across the restaurant, nods slightly and says in accented English, “Rashad Harris. Number thirty-two.”

“Go Aviators,” Rashad replies, lifting the neck of his jersey as he does. “Where are you all from?”

“Hong Kong,” the man says.

The woman slips a phone and selfie stick out of the man’s tracksuit. “Can we get a . . . ?” She gestures with the stick. What begins as a few selfies becomes more than two hours of conversation in Cantonese once Rashad gets them to sit.

Anais orders a chocolate souffle and makes herself eat all of it. At exactly 10:17, an alarm on her phone goes off and brings the banter to a halt.

While they’re all looking at her, she kills the alarm and—in English—asks Rashad if she can have a look at the Metagrid again. He slides his phone across. As the conversation resumes around her, she stares at the grid and waits for an update, constantly refreshing, eventually having to plug the phone into her wireless charger.

After she’s had enough of being left out, she remembers her grandmother wanting duty-free loot from the shops on deck and excuses herself.

X

        O

X

On the little workout mat she packed with her luggage, she makes her body stiff and leans her weight sideways on a forearm. There’s a very soft knock. She barely hears it at first, but when she does, she almost falls out of the plank position.

It’s been four days with the ship in the same place it was when it stopped moving. The first ended with news that the fire, which took three hours in all to put out, had caused more damage to the propulsion engines than previously stated. Each hour the captain’s voice lost a little of its luster as it filled the air with updates; first about the fire being completely doused, then a series of estimates on when the affected engines would be working again, then the announcement that drinks were now free everywhere on deck, then news that the coast guard would be flying in the next morning to assist with repairs.

Some of the announcements were met with cheers. Once the fire had been extinguished, everyone seemed to accept that they would be losing one day of travel, which wasn’t so bad with food and drink still being served.

Anais no longer hears the announcements in the captain’s voice. She’s instead convinced herself the increasingly affectless monotone is Waldo, thinking out loud, cycling through iteration after iteration of a scenario—not entirely worst-case—in which the ship is still here when it decides to try for the bottom-right cell in the grid a second time.

She springs to her feet when she hears the knock again.

“Rashad?” There’s no answer, but it’s likely his insistence on having her memorize the sound of his knock. She goes over her face with a small towel. “Just a minute, and I’ll be out.” One step away from the workout mat brings her close enough to the bathroom to poke her head in for a look in the mirror.

She’s observing, in one of her myriad compulsions, the bags like parabolas under her eyes when the knocker answers from outside the room.

“I’m not Rashad.”

The voice drills into her bones, soft and muffled as it sounds. She spent the last four days mindful to avoid hearing it again. For fear of it, she’s here with her mat instead of in the gym upstairs. She stares at the door. Her mouth hangs open, and all she can think is that it’s a nice voice, all else considered; breathy but dark, like a surface she could slip and break something on if she isn’t careful.

She opens the door enough to confirm. “Hey Rose . . . ”

“I thought I wouldn’t ever see you again,” the artist says. “They’re finally sending tugboats like they were supposed to. Did you hear the announcement?”

Her hair has grown by a fraction of an inch, and she’s dyed it platinum. There’s a hint of nerves behind her smile. Coupled with the hushed sound of her breathing, it puts Anais at a loss for what to say.

Three days ago, when the captain announced that the coast guard had not been able to repair the propulsion engines, she had joined Rashad at one of the bars to celebrate. He showed her the grid again so she could see the diverted X had landed in the bottom-left. He called a colleague somewhere on land and handed her the phone so she could hear for herself the compliments on a job well done.

The woman on the other end sounded cool and congenial when she spoke, which made Anais wonder if she could ever believe in anything with such conviction. She mentioned her own chance meeting with Rashad while attending a work conference several years ago. Then she touched briefly on her plan to spend the next two days staging a car accident that will—for at least an hour—reroute traffic to and from the downtown area where another ink shop occupies the middle-left cell on the grid. With Xs in the top and bottom cells, the consortium had begun expecting that Waldo would move next to prevent a win on that side.

Anais clears her throat. “Actually, I think they’re already here,” she says. “They’re setting up right now, then first thing tomorrow morning, we should be—”

“Do you want to go for a walk?”

“I . . . ” She gulps. “How did you . . . ?”

“I saw you with your posse yesterday—the ball player and the Asian couple.” Rose laughs and cocks her head back. “That’s Rashad, isn’t it?”

Anais nods grudgingly. Yesterday was people-watching, trying to pick up Cantonese, then more people-watching ’til she crawled back to her room and slept off all the daiquiris she’d had to drink.

“We didn’t meet officially,” Rose resumes. “I only saw when you all got off the elevator and went to the slots.” Her eyes bulge urgently. “Hey, I’m not here to talk to you about crypto again.”

Anais takes a moment to appraise her denim jacket and jeans before modeling a frown for her. “How did you know to find me here?”

“How did you know I would be in the dining hall when we met?”

“I didn’t.”

“I followed you. I thought you were leaving your chaperones to go get into something else, but you just came back here.”

With stagey effort, Anais huffs under her breath. “Creepy . . . ”

Rose steals a glance at something behind her. “Is that a workout mat? You know there’s a gym upstairs.”

Anais bristles mutedly. Her breath catches in her throat when she tries to answer, so she traipses through the door instead and shuts it gently behind her.

Having taken a step back to make room for her, Rose folds her arms. “You don’t want to let me in?”

Anais weathers an insistent flash of embarrassment as she continues her effort to form a response.

“We can go for a walk.”

X

        O

X

The breeze is easy on the terrace this evening. The poison aroma of rum wafts over from a tiki bar next to twin doors that lead back inside. Moonlight glints off about a dozen patrons in swimwear and illuminates more than it typically does. They look relaxed as they mingle around the bar and the hot tubs to either side, but there’s an unspoken sluggishness between them, and it’s contagious. They’re ready to disembark.

Anais tries to ignore them as Rose leads her past the bar. The artist waves at a few of them who recognize her under the flat brim hat she slipped on some minutes ago.

“You’re still pissed at me for the other day,” she says. The question—not really a question—rankles and makes Anais slow her stride very slightly.

“No,” she answers, almost at Rose’s back, scrambling to close the gap forming between them so she reads nothing into it.

Rose makes her a face ripe with mischief, then sweeps her gaze back to the stretch of promenade ahead. “Gosh,” she exclaims. “You’re really trying to make this hard for me . . . even after I did what you asked.”

Hearing this sends a jolt through Anais. She stops moving because she has spent the last three days assuming it had been Rashad who succeeded where she failed, convincing the other artist; and—as luck or perhaps Waldo would have it—that had been the artist who needed convincing. She had assumed this because it felt oddly good to pretend Rose had actually stopped listening midway through her pitch. She had done as much with Rashad two years ago.

Rose inches forward another step before turning to meet her with a pitying smirk. “Girl, are you going to make me crazy like you?”

Anais gets a flash of heat, then sweat across the bridge of her nose. It’s tiring; the usual sign that she’s too sleep-deprived at present to match wits with anyone. “Oh no,” she blurts. “I’m not interested in making you . . . crazy. I’m not . . . ” She looks away. She wants to say she isn’t crazy.

Rose grants her a quick reprieve, then titters under her breath. “That’s like what my partner would have said to me when we first met. It’s cute.”

Anais nods, looks up to meet her gaze. By some miracle of nerves, her lips curl up, and she exhales. “Thank you.”

Rose’s smile widens in turn. She shakes her head, then gets her phone out of her jacket. After a few seconds thumbing through the screen, she holds it up for Anais to see. “This is the guy who asked for it. That’s his great granddad next to him.”

Anais squints as the spark of recognition ignites between her and the old man on the screen. Five days ago, that man had asked her to lunch. In the photograph, he’s wearing streetwear similar to what he had on that afternoon. The man next to him looks no older than twenty, built like a gymnast and wearing a creased tank top.

“He wanted the boatswain’s mate?”

“He wanted one because great granddad has one. His hero. Said he fought in World War One.”

Anais grimaces. “You mean two.”

“What?”

“World War Two. He wouldn’t have been alive for—” She notes the glint in Rose’s stare and fears it’s annoyance. “You know, I think I actually met him the same day I met you; a couple of hours prior.”

“Wow.” Rose turns the screen and brings it close to her eyes.

“Isn’t that crazy?”

“So you could have just told him everything you told me, and I wouldn’t have had to custom draw a photo of him in uniform instead?” She swipes, then points the screen at Anais again. It’s a close up of the young man’s bicep and the tattoo on it: a face with no readable expression and one of those old envelope hats over it.

Anais eyes the insignia where the ink begins to fade out past the uniform’s collar. Her breath stops at the intricacy in it. “You’re amazing.”

“I did it for free. That means I had to cover the charge from the cruise company. He really wanted the anchors.”

“I’m sorry.” Anais feels her stomach drop as she’s hit with a pang of guilt.

Rose shakes her head, still smiling. She puts the phone away, then wipes the terrace with her gaze, turning slightly to give Anais her right side. “So what happens now . . . ? Did he win? Has he won?”

Moving her lips to answer, Anais takes a moment to read Rose’s body language for confirmation that she wants to talk more about Waldo.

The artist looks humbled, with her sudden cowed expression, and her hands clasped behind her back. Her cap’s visor has cast a shadow over her eyes. It almost appears she knows this as she looks down, then angles a glance at Anais.

“We’re close to forcing a win,” Anais tells her, more optimistic than she has been about the plan with the staged car accident now underway. Nothing to boost her confidence like hearing her own proverbial car wreck in front of Rose had worked.

Rose faces her fully and folds her arms. “What happens after that?”

Anais simply looks at her and laughs; the same laugh from when she would often consider dropping off the face of the earth, then remember she already did that. “I don’t know,” she says. There’s what Rashad has been telling her would happen but right now, she’s just happy she can say she stood in the way of something. She did this. Not Rashad. Not anyone else from the consortium.

They walk farther along. Rose tells her about being in junior high and learning things about herself no one would ever have guessed. They laugh at a video of her from around that time. She has bangs and pom-poms and more school spirit than the twenty-two-second clip was able to capture.

The conversation shifts back to Anais while they stop and peer through guardrails close to the bow.

“Whose shirt is that?”

Anais peeks covertly down at her red shirt and baggy gray pants. The shirt has the word “lifeguard” in all caps across the chest. She chokes back laughter at herself for having packed it in the first place. “You don’t think it’s mine?” Rose cranes her neck, and Anais relents under the weight of her smile. “Belonged to my ex,” she says. “We were on and off in college and then after that, when we moved to San Diego, and he tried to get into acting programs.”

“On and off?”

“You have no idea. It wasn’t healthy, but I liked it. We would tell each other to fuck off every few months. It was like a routine. Even when I didn’t see it coming, I wouldn’t try to fight it because I always knew it was temporary.”

Rose persists with the smile that makes it feel like they’re seated beside a fireplace, not in the middle of the ocean, stranded on a ship refusing to move.

“Everything in this life is temporary,” she says.

Anais whinnies under her breath. “A week before I lost my job at the agency, he burned our apartment down. That was permanent. These last two years . . . ” She chokes, unable to get the words out.

“What happened?”

“He left his cigarette on a stool we were supposed to have thrown out when it became wobbly. Then he went to sleep. Somehow he survived without a single burn.”

“I’m talking about your job at the agency. What actually happened?”

Anais feels Rose’s glare like holes through her head. What actually happened is blurred and only still comes to her in flashes, sometimes in echoes of the dread she felt that morning, coming in to work to find an invite to a meeting with the new head of personnel at four in the afternoon.

“I lost it,” she says. “When they said they were letting me go, it’s like they flipped a switch and all I saw was red.”

“Damn.”

“I ran upstairs to my CD just to ask how long he had known, but then I started kicking down the cabinets in his office. Then he tried to pull me away and it became an altercation, like a real, physical altercation.” She shuts her eyes, but the images come flooding back, and she has to open them again. The moon’s reflection slinks on the water. She almost begins to sob, looking at it. “They say I had a psychotic break. I don’t remember a lot after that. They called building security, but apparently I only left after someone went to get a close friend who worked in the same building. Then they said I vanished for a month and nobody could reach me, not even my ex at the hotel we stayed in after the fire.

“I don’t remember any of it. There was an arrest. I had been jumping the turnstiles downtown, and they took me in. That’s how I was found. Everyone who knew me started keeping their distance because I was having these symptoms that looked like schizophrenia, so I agreed to enter a program and they put me on something for a few months. It worked but when it was over, everything I had was gone. I couldn’t sit for interviews without freaking myself out and making the people who conducted them nervous. That part of my life was over.”

Silence like something prescribed possesses her while, behind her back, passengers thrum with banter that’s a lot less draining. She’s screening her memories for anything else she feels comfortable divulging when Rose taps her on the shoulder.

“You can still get it back,” she says.

Anais turns and they lock eyes and—perhaps for the first time—she sees real concern under the hat’s visor. “Thank you.”

“I really like you. I’m glad we met, and I hope we can stay in touch. I want to see how this Waldo stuff turns out but also I want to see you living your best life again.”

Sensing a whirl of conflicting emotions course through her, Anais tries to ward it off. “You’re not still worried I’m crazy?”

Rose shrugs. “All my friends have something I end up learning about. I already know about your shit. Plus I think there’s actually something to it. All that stuff you don’t remember . . . it could have been Waldo, right?” Anais pays her a halting nod. It could have been; otherwise she wouldn’t be on this ship. “Sorry for how I reacted the other day.”

“Sorry I had to spring it on you like that.”

A moment passes quietly as they rest their eyes on each other. Anais wonders if it would be overstepping to let a single tear down from hers.

Rose looks wearily about, then, “Would you like some new ink?”

“What?” Anais regards her with mild apprehension. “You mean when I come visit you in Toronto?”

“No. Like right now. But I’ll still take that visit.”

“I . . . I don’t think I have anything in mind right now, or even the money to pay you if I did.”

“It’s free. We’ll go up to twelve, and it’ll be just an hour or so.”

“But the shop is closed.”

Rose crooks her a sly grin. “I can get us in . . . ” Anais scrunches her face up, leans her head back. “Come on. It’s the last night on the ship. Do something spontaneous.”

X

        O

X

The needle stings the inner forearm, sending a wave of soreness to the connected elbow crease. A shooting pain finds the bone, then numbness all over as Rose keeps the pen steady and wraps her other palm around the wrist.

It’s less discomfort than Anais recalls. She fixates on the platinum hue of Rose’s hair to keep her mind off the needle. The artist has her head bent as she works, and Anais is unable to see her expression. She imagines something stoic, like a monk in ritual obeisance. The buzzing is so loud, she worries someone outside might hear them. The smell of disinfectant overwhelms Rose’s perfume and floats like an omen in the air.

Rose lifts the needle, then looks up to meet her stare. It’s a half smile. “You know you can still change your mind,” she says. She had suggested this design as a joke. “This could become part of an abstract piece instead. No one would be able to tell how it started.”

Anais thinks nearly a half hour back; the pent belly laugh ’til she ached and wheezed and wiped tears from her eyes and nodded like a fiend presented with the very thing she wants even as she knows it will destroy her. Yes. Yes. Oh God, yes!

She holds her gaze now at Rose, tries to memorize the expectant look in her eyes. She knows who’s behind it. Or is it what? Somewhere on land, a car has crashed into another, and this patch of wetness teems with intention again.

She sees the artist’s lips move. “Girl, I need to hear something . . . ”

She looks down at the design’s progress. “Finish it,” she mouths.

“Are you sure?”

She breathes, then purses her lips, pensive for a moment as events compete for an audience in her mind. The meeting with the client. Weeks of her playing it back ’til the memory claimed parts of her brain previously reserved for vacation plans and friends’ birthdays and reminders to eat. Finding the card among her items still in storage. Calling the number on it when she felt she could do no worse than the job interview that was really a chance for her interviewers to settle a bet over whether this was the Anais Johnson who set fire to her last place of employment on her way out.

She studies the unfinished line work; the fangs, the impression of scales tapering into a spear’s tip between them. There’s a flash of recognition, a moment alone with the organism as consent—lucid and resolute—is bargained.

“I don’t want anything else.”

An hour later, she cradles the bandaged forearm across the deck and into an elevator. Rose walks her to her room, then enters after her. While they’re beside each other in bed, the artist uploads a photo of the snake to Instagram.

By morning, she’s gone. Anais dreams her everywhere on her skin, starting under the bandage, whorling out with the needle a design that looks like nothing she’s ever seen. Maybe that’s what she needs.

Her phone rings. It’s Rashad. He has excellent news.

X

        O

X               O

Author profile

R.T Ester does some writing on the side while working professionally as a visual designer. However, most of his time is spent raising two young kids with his wife and drawing any inspiration he can from the Texas heat. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld and Interzone.

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