The Binding of Isaac

A stunning work of speculative fiction about how racism and colonialism become violently embedded in the future.

Terraform is back. With a book. We’re running a new speculation every week, so far we’ve explored the future of mass shootings and misinformation, biodiversity collapse and drones, and nurturing nascent new forms of being. This week, we have another exceptional story, about, among other things, how colonialism and racism embed themselves deeply into the future. It’s a stunning and horrific work from rising star Tochi Onyebuchi—enjoy. -the eds.

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Max hadn’t woken that morning with the intention of buying a Master; Rami was an impulse purchase.

Under the dulcet lighting of the auction room, it hadn’t been the severe, archangelic beauty of Rami’s face that had done it for Max, nor had it been the way his dark skin contrasted with the alabaster of the other Masters on display by the fireplace. They all wore their training in their stances—one Master cosplaying as an Aryan demesne overseer, another wearing the fake medals of some European despot from a bygone era. They stood at attention, waiting to command as they had been instructed to do, to crack the literal whips that hung at their waists, to bark insults and to verbally bludgeon their buyer into an Army crawl across broken glass. But Rami, in his slim-fit, two-piece Tom Ford with his dress shirt unbuttoned, hands in his pockets, was the picture of repose. The others looked like you could knock them over with a feather. Rami looked like he had adopted his fighter’s stance, standing at an angle to his audience so they could only see him in profile, left foot forward, right foot back and perpendicular to his shoulders. That posture. This man could hurt him. Truly hurt him. Max licked his lips.

In the train car on the way home from the Auction, Max had a holo of Jeryd glowing beryl before him. Rami sat across from Max so that Max’s friend lay in super-imposed holo-glow over Max’s new Master.

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“This one’s different,” Max said to the holograph of his friend as the interior of the Domed City sped by.

“Different from Giorno?” Jeryd said around a cheekful of salt and vinegar chips. “From Tyler or whatever his name was?” Munch-munch. “I remember correctly, both ended up on the pyre after you broke them.”

It had been wasteful, sure. They both might’ve been good Masters to someone, Giorno with his large hands perfect for strangling and Tyler with his imaginative reconstructions of re-education camps. Augmented with cyberbrains, they might’ve served someone with a lesser imagination. Rami, though. Red-blooded, meat-brained Rami.

“Is it ‘cause he’s Black?”

The train shot out from the Domed City and hit a stretch of desolate, heat-fucked outdoors. The holo flickered—faulty connection—then they were underground and on the last stretch before home. Too fast for Max to have glimpsed the hazard-suited chattel laying rail outside in weather that snatched years from their lives with each passing hour. Too fast to see that those people outside were the same color as Rami. But Max knew.

“Mind you, I’m not kink-shaming.”

Max snorted. “That’s the whole point of kink, Jeryd. It isn’t kink without the bite of shame.” He leaned to the side of the holo to get an unobstructed look at Rami, who held his gaze. “He’s certainly prettier than the others, though I haven’t yet checked his teeth.”

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Your family runs a demesne, not mine,” Jeryd snapped before laughing. “Gotta go. Kevin wants to go boar-hunting.”

“Ah, yes. You grunting, hunter-gatherer types. Have fun.”

“Fuck you. Take care, man.” Then the holo winked out, and Max was left with Rami’s imperious negroid-Sphinx silence.

The first thing Max did upon bringing Rami home was to shrug off his coat. Before he could finish, Rami took it from him and hung both of theirs on the coat rack by the front door. Over eggs and avocado toast Rami prepared, Max laid out the rules of the contract. 

“There are no rules,” he said, simply. In the face of Rami’s quiet eating, he frowned. “The contract omissions are all intentional. Corporal punishment however you see fit, play-acting, ritual, all of that. Most buyers include a clause about preparatory matters, needing to be warned before a simulation is built or needing to be prepared for caning or waterboarding, but I’ve found that if you take surprise out of the equation, it rather diminishes the whole experience. Additionally, I’ve called up my personnel file here.” A few taps on the tablet next to his plate, then he slid it to Rami who didn’t even glance at it. “My mother passed when I was 12, MS. And Dad’s in a care home, Parkinson’s. 102 but he’s too ornery for death. We’re a bit estranged, so you won’t find much mileage there. Anyway, nothing’s off limits. Verbal abuse, making fun of them—my parents—restricting my time outside, all of that. I’m yours.” A dozen pages into the document were graphical displays of the ritual torture his grandfather had enacted on the chattel mailed in to terraform the planet generations ago. Max’s father had been a different kind of god, manumitting much of the family’s holdings and leaving his son with nothing but an anhedonic, luxuriously antiseptic existence.

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He was a disgusting man, Max’s father had told him of his grandfather, thinking, hoping perhaps that there was none of that industrialist in his son.

Perhaps something in those pictures might ferment Rami’s imagination, push him in a direction a mechanized or cyberbrained Master might not go. Max’s fingers itched around his fork.

Rami finished his meal, then took his plate and Max’s to the sink for washing.

Every morning, Max’s outfits for the day were laid out for him, pants and tops, hoodies and jeans, chinos and henleys all chosen in perfect anticipation of his mood. Even the scarves and beanies. 

“Maybe he was broken when you bought him,” Jeryd said to Max over holo one afternoon. Max knew that wasn’t the case. Even in the face of the cooked meals and the washed linens, even in the case of the arranged playdates with his children and visits to his father’s care home—the calendrical repair of Max’s life—even in the face of all that, Max knew that wasn’t the case.

Max was flailing. Outwardly, not a bead of sweat marked his porcelain, climate-controlled body, but a pit of quicksand grew inside him, in which he found his calmness slipping. He had Rami lay out the purchased tools on the living room floor. Between them: a cat-o-nine-tails, a ribbed shock-baton, handcuffs, knives and a straitjacket.

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“Don’t tell me you don’t know how this works,” Max said, reclining on his couch, ankle over knee, tumbler of whiskey swirling in his loose grip. When Rami mirrored his pose on the opposite couch, the tools arranged between them, fury boiled over and a hairline fracture shot through the tumbler. “Or are you trying to wind up on the pyre?”

Was it a trick of the light or did a smirk ghost across Rami’s face?

“Do it yourself,” Rami said, before pushing himself off of the couch. “Dinner in an hour.”

A vision flashed before Max: him holding the cat-o-nine-tails high over Rami’s already torn-to-pieces back. Customer dissatisfaction. But something washed it away. Something golden and blossoming, something wet and warm. If Max searched in the words Rami had spoken at him, plunged deep enough into the intonations, he might’ve heard the whisperings of a command.

So Max waited. As his diet improved, as he saw more artificial sun, as he attended his check-ups more regularly, he waited. Even as Rami would smile at him while doing the dishes, even as Max would walk into the office Rami had set up for himself and catch his Master color-coding the administration of his life, Max waited. That first command had sent a shock of pain-pleasure from the base of his spine down to his loins, and he lusted after its repeating.

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Visiting his father, he still found himself waiting.

Max sat outside the hyperbaric chamber that encased his father like a sarcophagus, his bald head protruding from the enclosure, wires and cords connecting his skull to all sorts of cryptic machinery glowing behind him. Max, cyberized as he was, didn’t need any helmet to Connect with his father, so he simply sat with his legs crossed on the hoverchair and, between sips from his mug, spoke and listened.

“Call him whatever century-old slur you want, Pop, but he’s the reason I’m even seeing you again. Which is what I said last time and the time before that and the time before that.”

“That some crack about my Alzheimer’s?”

“Don’t worry, you’ll forget it by the next visit.”

“Very funny, son. Very funny.” A pause sat between them.

After a minute of unfilled silence, Max’s father made a throat-clearing sound that reverberated in Max’s brain, then said, “I’m gonna do it. Treatment’s good and all, but I’m not getting any better. I’m just getting worse slower.” Max made to speak, but his father interrupted with “don’t. I still got enough brain to make this sort of decision. This…this is all fake. You comin’ here more and more made me realize that. You’re not talking to me. You’re talking to a cobbled-together mental projection of me. I don’t talk like this, I never did. And I don’t wanna be kept alive like this. Law says I can pull my own plug. I don’t need your permission. I’m just telling you to be polite.”

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Knowing a thing would be said didn’t keep Max from tensing in his seat with anxiety.

“Keep this up any longer, you’ll just be talking to yourself. A version of yourself with no more hair. Maybe a little more swear-y. But it ain’t gonna be me. Hasn’t been me for a while now.”

“We’re going to get you a new brain.”

“I’m not gettin’ cyberized. I told you.”

The epiphany was a thunderclap in Max’s metal skull. “I know where to get one. Organic.” He knew his father would rather die than take his own son’s Augmented brain, would rather perish than kill his kid, so Max knew to head that objection off at the pass. “Lightly used.”

Max came home to a candlelit dinner, and the dulcet tones of the dining room had him, by the time he settled in his chair across from Rami, bathing in a feeling of rightness. He would miss Rami, the way he had sanded away the edges of Max’s life that constantly scraped at things, the way he had, from the wings, repaired his relationship with his kids and his father, changed his habits, got him to drink more water. But this wasn’t what a Master was for. He could have paid less for a Friend and even less for a Dog. But this wasn’t waste like with the others. Sure, he was sending Rami to the pyre, but that would be only after his brain was extracted. Then the sense-less body would be lit, its remains jettisoned Outside for the laborers to deal with.

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When Max finished explaining all of this to Rami, Rami, his expression unreadable, said, “No.”

“Excuse me?”

“No.”

“What are you—” He felt it. That warmth spreading like a stain in his groin. He was dizzy with it. “I—” He fought for words in the face of the ecstasy bursting to life behind his eyes.

“Sit down and finish your meal.”

His body moved before his mind could tell it otherwise. Everything felt rendered in high definition, the wood finish of the table glistened, the lamb gushed piquant juices on his tongue.

“We won’t be going to the pyre.”

This was what he had been waiting for, what he’d known was here all along. Refusal. All the others had linked Max’s words to “customer dissatisfaction” as explained in the contract and had then scaled the mountain to put their head to the stone for sacrifice. But Max wanted a Master who saw past that, past the four corners of their contract. Who saw past the act. Who could hurt him. Really truly hurt him.

“You’re going to save my dad,” he said, tensed, hungry, almost blind with want, fingers brushing against the divine, the otherworldly, on the threshold of entry into a pleasure unimaginable, waiting for that one last nudge into deliverance.

“No.”

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Science Fiction

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