Since the earliest days of Terraform, we've been running stories by Tim Maughan—few writers have mastered the sort of visceral, almost-future speculative fiction we've made our MO more thoroughly than Tim. For my money, he's among the best in the biz, which is why I wanted us to be the first to share an exclusive excerpt from his novel, Infinite Detail, which is out next week from MCD x FSG Originals. It's one of the finest speculative debut novels I've ever read. This is what people are going to be talking about for the next few months—and here's a taste. Enjoy. -the ed
Frank’s cart is perfectly organized, and fuck you if you say otherwise.
He knows what’s in every bag, and how many. One hundred cans in each. Got his Cokes separated out from his Pepsis too, the beer bottles and the plastic bottles all separate, sorted by distributer. Used to be you could just bring them down here to Thrifty Redemption on MacDonald and they’d sort them for you—they’d weigh them and then give you a price, and you’d just take that and go and that was it. Now it’s all machines, and if you put the wrong can or bottle in the wrong machine then you don’t get squat. The machines know, see. They can tell which distributer the can is from as soon as you drop it in that hole right there at the front. Put the wrong can in the wrong hole and you don’t get nothing but that buzzing sound, and no way of getting your can back.
Which is why Frank likes to have his cart perfectly organized. All sorted before he turns up here. Too many canners don’t know shit these days and just turn up with everything random, and that’s why there’s long ass lines at Thrifty’s like there is today.
Frank’s cart is big too, one of those big green Whole Foods ones, but with the electronics and the screens and all that shit ripped out. Got it fixed up so it don’t know where it is anymore, so it can’t whine to the cops about not being at Whole Foods. It’s a good cart and he likes it, nice and big and the wheels ain’t too lousy, tend to go where they’re meant to be going, and the brake works still. He’s got it piled up today, eight bags. Five stacked so high in the cart that he’s gotta lean round to see where he’s going, another three tied on to the sides. Eight bags with 100 cans or bottles in each. Six cents per unit. Six bucks per bag. 48 bucks in total. Not bad for a Tuesday.
He should be happy but now he’s pissed because the line for the machines is too long, and it ain’t moving. And it’s hot. He’s tried shouting up to the front of the line but it didn’t achieve nothing. Some sort of commotion up there. He’s just going to have to go up there himself and sort it out.
So he pulls his cart out of the line and heaves it up there—no way he’s leaving it behind so these cocksuckers can start going through his bags. He catches some shit as he pushes it up there for cutting the line, but he gives back as good as he gets, telling them to chill the fuck out. He’ll get back to the end of the line, just as soon as he’s sorted out what wrong. Chill the fuck out.
There’s some kind of clusterfuck going down at the machines though, when he gets there. Like four canners all shouting at each other. Couple of old Chinese broads, this black dude, and this other Mexican cat he knows called Max.
“What the fuck’s the hold up?” he asks him.
“Machines are fucked man.” says Max.
“What you mean? Fucked how?”
“Fucked. Every can I put in, just get the buzzing.” Max turns round and tries to calm down one of the Chinese ladies, who is losing her shit at him for holding everything up. Frank knows how she feels. “Then you’re putting them in the wrong machine.”
“No I’m fucking not man,” Max says. “Seriously. The machines are all fucked. You don’t believe me you try it man.” So Frank pulls a Coke can out of the top bag on his cart, and heads over to the big grey plastic monolith of the Coke recycling machine. He’s about to drop it in the hole on the front when the other Chinese woman starts shouting at him about cutting in, but he tells her to shut the fuck up and drops it in anyway. The machine buzzes angrily. Text flashes across its front. Can has already been deposited. No redemption. Which doesn’t make any sense. “This don’t make any sense,” he says. He turns to Max. “It says the can was already deposited?”
“Yeah, that’s what it said about all mine.”
“Where they from?”
“Usual places. Prospect Park, Flatbush Ave.”
“Street trash or residential?”
“You talk to Al?” he nods over to the entrance of Thrifty’s.
“Al’s not here. Talked to that kid of his. Says he don’t know anything about the machines. Says the machines manage themselves, or something.”
Frank stands there for maybe half a minute, thinking, while the others continue to squabble.
“You know what I think, Max?” he says, eventually.
“I think these machines are fucked.”
Scott’s mouth tastes of stale coffee and mouthwash.
Rush doesn’t want to imagine what his tastes like. It wasn’t meant to be like this. After seven and a half hours on the plane he was meant to pop into the bathroom to freshen up, brush his teeth, change his shirt. Get those nice Samsung spex out of his luggage. Instead he got thrown in a beige holding room for 6 hours. Now he looks and smells and feels like shit and just wants to go home.
But he’s here. And he’s real. And he’s kissing him again.
They stop, pull apart, and nervously smile at each other.
“I look terrible, sorry.”
Scott blushes. “You look fine. You look great.”
It wasn’t meant to be like this. For months Scott had been teasing him, talking about when they’d actually meet, talking about if he’d pass ‘the airport test’. He was meant to be ready, prepared for it. At his best.
Scott kisses him again. Coffee and mouthwash. He never wants it to stop.
It does, eventually.
Scott seems slightly shorter than the mental image he’s built from virt and social, slightly pinker. Less composed. Real.
“How did I do?”
Scott laughs, blushes again. “Flying colors.”
They make out on the bus from Newark to Times Square. Scott wanted to get an Uber or a Google, but Rush wouldn’t let him, partly on principle, but mainly because its too expensive. The bus takes way too long, but neither of them care.
They make out in the Port Authority bus terminal, under AR billboards that try to to steal away their attention from each other, so they take off their spex, which were bumping when they kissed anyway.
They make out on the subway platform, while waiting for the Q, Rush freaked out by the cockroaches that scuttle around their feet but fascinated by the people walking by. Scott says that before you come to New York all you know of it are movie stereotypes, then when you get here you realize they’re all true. On the way into the station they’d had to hold hands as they passed through the turnstiles, Scott explaining it was so the city could see they’re together, and charge him for Rush’s fare. The idea made Rush uncomfortable, but holding his hand felt so right. He’s made a career out of telling everyone that cities know too much, but right then he didn’t care that this one knew they were together, or who it told.
They make out on the Q. It’s packed with rush hour commuters, but Scott manages to move him over to the door so that when the train bursts out into daylight on the bridge he can see the view. As they skim across Chinatown’s graffiti splattered rooftops and the towers rise behind them Rush can’t believe he is finally here. Nobody else on the train—even Scott after a while—seems to care, all lost in their tablets and spex, grasping a brief window of network access, gazing at their own private vistas. He notices Scott is wearing plastic gloves, must of slipped them on when he wasn’t looking, and sees a few other people on the train are. He asks him about them.
“Anti-bac nano-fibre. They’re just to keep my hands clean down here. I won’t touch anything down here. It’s so fucking gross.”
“Really? Didn’t take you for a germaphobe. Guess I’m learning something new about you everyday.”
Scott laughs. “I’m not a germaphobe. It’s just it’s gross down here. Filthy. You dunno who has been touching what, where their hands have been before.” “Still sounds paranoid to me,” He’s teasing him. “Maybe, maybe I am being paranoid. But trust me, I touch my face way too much. Don’t want to transfer anything. You wouldn’t want me spoiling this perfect complexion now, would you?”
They make out in the diner, where Rush nibbles at some fries while Scott forces him to download the NYC app. Rush really doesn’t want to because it’s the literal fucking antithesis of everything he is and does, and Scott says I know but it’ll make getting around and buying stuff easier, and Rush says I know and that’s the exact fucking problem, and then Scott asks him if this is their first fight. It’s not. They make love in Scott’s bed, in the corner of his tiny but neat studio which he pays too much rent for, because it’s tucked away on the third floor of one of those beautiful brownstones in Brooklyn that the female leads in romcoms can somehow always afford to have all to themselves, on just their salary, despite the fact they’re just social media marketers or virt designers or something else that involves working in an office. Nobody, Scott tells him, that works in an office can afford one of these whole buildings. After they make love they hold each other, and Scott starts to cry. Rush panics. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“Why do you think? Just because. You’re here. You’re real.”
Later on they head out to a party that Rush can’t be bothered with. He’s thirsty, still adjusting to the late summer heat, so he picks up a can of Coke from the corner bodega, along with some cheap Peruvian beers for the party. Reluctantly he pays for it with the NYC app.
They walk. A few blocks later he drops the empty can in a recycling bin, which chimes gently at him. His spex make a kerrching sound.
“What was that?”
“‘Bin’? Oh, the trash! You just got your eight cents.” Scott smiles.
“Your deposit for recycling the can. Buy something with the NYC app and then when you toss it in the recycling here or at home you get your deposit. It’s pretty neat.”
“It—what? How long has this been going on?”
“It’s pretty new actually. Been running in some neighbourhoods for a while but only got turned on in Brooklyn last week.”
“The city does this? They basically track every can of drink in the city?”
“I guess. They got some tiny chip in the cans now. I think the city did it in partnership with the drinks companies. And Google.” Rush is kind of stunned, in that resigned stunned way only professional cynics can be. “So . . . let me get this straight—the city—and Coke and all these companies, and Google—know every time I buy a can of pop, and where from, and every time I toss it away, and where? They basically know every time I have a drink, and where I am? For which they pay me eight cents?” “I guess so, if you look at it that way.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Not really, I think it’s kinda neat. It’s not just them, you can see all of it too. The NYC app lets you sync it with your health app stats. It’s great for watching your calories, you know?”
“Plus last week, there was a story on Gothamist where they said the police had arrested this guy because they used the trash can data to prove he was lying about where he was the night this girl got attacked.”
“The police have access to it too? Of course they do. Perfect.”
“Jesus Rush, you do worry. Too much.” Scott grabs his hand and pulls him along. “C’mon, we’ll be late.”
Every time Frank pulls something out of this trash can it buzzes angrily at him, the same buzz the machines at Thrifty’s do when you put in the wrong can. It doesn’t make any sense, and it’s pissing him off.
It’s hot on Vanderbilt, and he can feel himself sweating under his beanie. He could do with a drink. A beer would be nice. But he’s broke, got no money because the machines at Thrifty’s are still on the fritz. Same with the one’s down at Cash 4 Cans on Linden. They’re all fucked. For three days now. Al came back to Thrifty’s, tried giving them all some bullshit excuse that nobody understands about how the machines are changing, how it was all changing from this to that, and with the networks and everything, and how things are smart now, and how now you could only get shit redeemed if you bought it yourself. Which doesn’t make any sense to Frank, and is pissing him off.
His cart is overfilled, more bags than he’s ever shifted at once. At least 160 bucks in there. It’s getting hard to push around, tricky to see where he’s going. Not that he minds, but others seem to get pissed with him easily when they’re standing in his way. He’s just pulling a plastic Sprite bottle out of the buzzing can and who should show up but Max, pushing an empty cart. Empty! “Hey Max, your cart is empty!”
“Yeah man, just emptied it.” Max looks happy. “Gonna go eat man, get some food, ya hear me?”
“The machines working at Thrifty’s again?”
“Nah man. Not Thrifty’s. Not Brooklyn. Everything in Brooklyn is fucked man. None the machines in Brooklyn working.”
“Then where’d you take ‘em man?”
“Chinatown.” Frank’s heart drops. “Chinatown Manhattan?”
“Yeah man, Chinatown Manhattan. You know that place, just off Canal. You know that old place man. Just over the bridge.”
“Yeah, I know that place. Fuck. The machines working there?”
“Yeah man, the machines are working there just fine. Just like normal. Someone said they ain’t been updated yet or something? I dunno. But whatever’s made the machines in Brooklyn all fucked, it ain’t happened there yet man.”
“Ok. Well. I guess I’m going to Chinatown tomorrow then.” The place will be closed by the time he gets there tonight, he’ll just have to talk nicely to the super in his building again, hope he lets him keep the cart in his lock-up for one more night. He can’t keep it in his apartment when it’s full like this, it makes all the roaches come out. And then his sister and her kids start fucking going on. Like they don’t go on enough already as it is. It pisses him off when they’re always going on. Plus they’re just looking for another reason to kick him out on to the street again. “Ok then. Chinatown, Manhattan. Tomorrow.” Frank sighs loudly. “I fucking hate Manhattan.”
Frank hates fucking cops.
Now he’s got two of them busting his balls, cos he pushed the cart through the emergency exit at 7th Ave, and all the fucking alarms went off. Like they always do. Just happened to be these two fucking cops standing around playing with their balls this time.
What the fuck else was he meant to do? Can’t get a cart through a turnstile. Won’t fucking fit. Gotta go through the emergency exit. That’s what it’s there for. So that’s what he did. Problem now is that his cart is on one side of the barrier, and he’s on the other. And there’s two fucking cops and the closed exit between them.
“You got money, go through the turnstile,” says fucking cop A.
“But that’s my cart, officer. That’s my cans.”
“No they ain’t,” says fucking cop B, squinting at the cart through his fancy sunglasses. “Those cans don’t belong to you. They’ve all been redeemed already.”
“What you talking about? They’re my cans! Of course they’re my cans. I collected them.”
“Sorry old man,” says fucking cop A, “These cans are already in the system as deposited. They ain’t worth shit to you now. They’re just trash.”
“I just notified MTA Cleaning and Removal,” says fucking cop B. “They’ll have a unit down here in 8 minutes to take it away.” Frank panics. “No! NO! NO! Fuck you! Nobody’s taking my cans! They’re my fucking—”
“OK OK, calm down, I SAID CALM DOWN,” Fucking cop A puts a hand on Frank’s chest. “You want your cans, even though technically they ain’t your cans anymore, you go through the turnstile and get them. But from what I can see you ain’t got no metro credit, so unless you got cash to get back there and and get a single fare ticket, you ain’t getting your cans back.”
“Cleaning and Removal unit ETA: seven minutes,” says fucking cop B. Frank stares through the scuffed mesh of the emergency exit at his cart. It’s there, just there. Nearly 200 bucks’ worth of cans. His cans. His eyes start to fill with tears.
Scott had jokingly told him to not get in trouble, it being his first day out in the big city on his own. He’d laughed. What did he think was going to happen?
Now he’s got some homeless looking guy all up in his face pleading with him, while these two pissed-off looking cops are eyeballing him from a few feet away.
“Please man!” the homeless guy seems frantic. “Please! You gotta help me, I just gotta get through the turnstile, that’s all! They got my cans through there, look! That’s my cart!”
He’s pointing at this big shopping trolley on the other side of the barrier, full of what looks like trash. Rush is having trouble keeping his eyes off the cops though. He knows they’re watching him, both with their own eyes and those they wear for the city. He knows how quickly, how little effort, it would take them to know exactly who he is. Literally just the blink of an eye.
“I’m sorry, I got no cash . . .”
“Don’t want cash, just get me through the turnstile!”
“Just hold my hand! C’mon man! I gotta be quick, they gonna take my cans away in a few minutes!”
The homeless guy runs over to the turnstile, looks back at him, sad puppy eyes full of tears, holds out his hand. Black fingernails and peeling grey bandaids. “Please! Just hold my hand!” Rush looks at him, glances over at the cops, one of whom still seems to be watching him. “For fuck’s sake,” he whispers under his breath. He walks over to the frantic guy, takes his hand. It’s warm, clammy, rough with cuts and callouses, sticky with trash residue. He thinks back to the guy with the robot hand and no fingerprints, Scott’s little anti-bac gloves, cockroaches at Times Square. They cross through the turnstiles together, hand-in-hand, like lost children. The city knows they’re together, and it gently chimes its awareness in Rush’s ear, flashing a double fare deduction across his spex. The guy sprints ahead of him, gets to his shopping cart, starts fussing around it, checking it’s all there. Rush ends up helping him down the stairs to the platform with it—nearly dying twice—and on to a Q heading into Manhattan. “What you got in this thing man?”
“Cans.” The old guy says. He must be in his late 40s at least, Rush guesses. “Mostly. Bottles as well. Both plastic and glass. Gotta take ‘em to fucking Chinatown to be recycled.”
“Really? You can’t do that in Brooklyn?”
“Nah, all the machines are fucked in Brooklyn.”
“Yeah. The depositing machines. They all fucked. Take your cans but don’t give you the money back. They’re fucked.” Rush looks at him, looks at the cart. Blinking through menus in his periphery, he pulls up a home-brewed RFID reading tool. Suddenly the cart is covered in hundreds of little labels, tiny floating tags, one for each can and bottle. Each has two numbers, 12 digits long, that he can’t understand, but knows the city can. He guesses the first one is written on the can’s chip when it’s bought, the second when it’s tossed. Cross reference those with the city’s database of NYC app users and bingo, instant tracking of every can bought from shop to being recycled. It’s elegantly simple, he has to agree, but hardly secure. The potential for abuse is huge. “Hey, you know these cans can’t be recycled right? What I mean is, they won’t give you money for them. They’ve all already been deposited.” The homeless guy shakes his head at him. “That’s what everybody keeps saying, but they wrong. They fucking wrong. These are my cans. I found ‘em. I dug them outta the trash. I been doing this for 15 years now, collecting cans, and I’ve never heard of this ‘they ain’t your cans’ bullshit. These are my cans.” “15 years?”
“Yes sir. Been a canner for 15 years now.”
“That’s how you make money? I mean your only way?”
“It is right now, yes sir. Canning is my job. Full time.”
“There a lot of people doing it? There a lot of canners out there?”
“Hell yeah, there’s hundreds of us. Thousands maybe. City is full of em. Used to be a lot of people did it as a part time thing, but more and more are going full-time it seems. Especially since there’s no work for cabbies now, y’know? I used to know a lot of cabbies that would just do a little canning on the side when work was slow and all, but now they gotta go full-time they says. Say nobody wants anyone to drive a cab anymore. I ain’t worried though.”
“You ain’t worried?”
“Nah man, I ain’t worried. About the competition I mean. I’m good. Best canner there is, no shit. Because I’m organized, understand? I’m organized. My whole cart is organized. I know where everything is in there, and how many there is of it. And fuck anyone that says otherwise. Plus there’s enough cans to go around.”
“Hell yeah! Canning is a growth industry. I been doing this 15 years, and every year I seen more cans than before. There’s always going to be canning, as long as there’s people that want to drink. They’ll never stop that. Never take that away from me. They might not need cab drivers anymore, but they’ll always need canners.” He smiles, for the first time. Rush isn’t sure what to say to him. He sighs and looks at the cart, and the hundreds of floating tags reappear. His heart sinks.
He knows he shouldn’t get involved, not here and now, but he can’t help it.
He rummages in his bag, pulls out a small wand like thing, something he’d wired together himself from cheap Chinese made components and gaffer tape. He pairs it with his spex. As discretely as possible he waves it slowly over the cart.
“Hey man, what the fuck you doing?”
“Shhh, be quiet a sec.”
The first exploit he tries fails, but to his amusement the second one works straight away. He tries not to laugh to himself. He passes the wand over the cart again. As he does so the labels change color, emptying themselves of numbers, resetting to their default, un-tagged state.
“There you go man. Sorted. They should all work now when you take them in.”
“The cans?” The guy doesn’t look like he understands what he’s saying.
“Yeah, the cans. I reset them all. They’ll work now. They’re yours.”
“Yeah, ok.” The guy looks at him like he’s mad, talks to him like he’s a child. “Thanks man, thanks for that.” The next stop is Canal, and Rush helps the guy get his cart off the train before jumping back on. He waves at him, smiling, as the doors close. The guy waves back, shaking his head like he still thinks Rush is crazy. Rush laughs to himself, smiles, and steadies himself against the lurch of the train as it pulls away by grasping a nearby pole with his unprotected, naked hand.
Frank gets to the recycling place just as they’re loading the last of the machines on to back of the truck.
“What the fuck are you doing? Where you going with the machines?”
One of the laborers, some Mexican looking guy, turns to face him. “No more machines old man. They out of service now.”
“Out of service? Here too? When you bringing them back?”
“Never. We ain’t never bringing them back. That’s it man. New system, no need for these old machines. They redundant.”
“But I just brought these all the way over from Brooklyn . . . how am I going to get my money for them? I need some cash! There’s like 200 bucks here!”
“No cash,” the guy says, as he jumps up on the trucks front platform, where its cab should be. “No cash for recycling, just credit. You gotta get the app now.”
“This doesn’t make any fucking sense,” says Frank.
“You gotta keep up man, gotta get smart,” the guy shouts down from the front of the truck, as it starts to drive itself away. “The city is changing.” Frank watches the truck roll past him, watches it pull out onto Canal Street. Looks over at his cart. He walks over to it and starts to push it away. “Fuck you,” he says, to anyone that can hear. “Fuck you and your changing city.”
Excerpted from INFINITE DETAIL: A Novel by Tim Maughan. Published by MCD × FSG Originals, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux March 5th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Tim Maughan. All rights reserved.