A Memory of the Future

“Mom? Why does this freeway have so many lanes?”

“Well Tom, remember when you were six, and the schools were all closed, and you did all your schoolwork as homework? And your teacher came on Zoom every day?”

“Er . . . yes?”

“Well . . . remember, before that time, that your Dad and I went away to work at the office every weekday?”

“What? No. Why would you?”

“Good question, Tom. Why did we? Why did everyone?”

“Dunno. Makes no sense to me. I mean, you only go to the office when you have to be there, right? Otherwise, what’s the point of the whole communism?”

“Commute.”

“Yeah, yeah, the commute. What’s the point of commuting if you can do . . . whatever it is you do, from home?”

“Thing is, people used to think that was necessary to come to the office every day before nine, and work from there, and hold meetings with everyone in the same room. People were convinced—your dad and I were convinced as well, that all of us gathered together in the same building was the only way to have a productive workday.”

“But . . . that’s weird. Didn’t you have internet? Couldn’t you Zoom? Or Teams, or whatever?”

“Oh no, we did have internet, and Teams, and everything. But we only used those for people who couldn’t come in to the office.”

“So everyone else would drive to the office every day? That’s . . . like . . . thousands of people, isn’t it?”

“Yep.”

“Wouldn’t they fill up all these lanes, then?”

“Yep . . . more than fill.”

“What do you mean?”

“There would be so many cars every morning that they’d all get stuck. And this traffic congestion would mean they’d all be crawling along. This whole stretch of freeway, from where we got on, to the exit for my office, takes about twenty minutes by car. But mornings, your dad and I both spent at least an hour in our cars here.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Not kidding. And all those cars would belch out exhaust fumes.”

Tom mulled this over for a while.

“Boy, I’m glad everyone came to their senses,” he said. “Do you want some water?”

He stopped walking and shrugged out of his backpack. Pulling the water bottle from the side netting, he handed it to Mom. Just ahead, road workers were tearing out the tarmac of the fourth and fifth lanes. Further down the freeway, they could see where the two lanes had already been turned into a strip of greenery, a bike path and a walking trail.

On the three remaining lanes, a steady stream of cars made their way to the commercial district on the horizon. Tom tried and failed to imagine all five lanes jammed with cars. He shrugged and looked to the side. In the distance, the North Sea sand dunes shimmered in the growing summer heat. Mom grabbed his arm.

“Look!”

She was pointing at the nearest field, where a doe was calmly grazing.

“Me too,” she said. “I’m glad too.”

 

—April 11, 2020

lady meet mr robinson

momma yell from the kitchen julius buzz her in.

buzz who

my ol high school chum dont you forget turn the hall light on

hall light dont work momma

hall black like the devils ass you open the parlor door get light down there

i done it momma

she call it a parlor goodwill couch goodwill chairs i hear this come up the steps high heels who wear them things

mr robinson watch at the door lady look scared i say he gentle wont hurt you none

lady wear cool clothes nice coat swag me out and she got big smile for me i say i am julius

i am seven keisha is five we sit quiet on the couch lady say please to meet you

mr robinson sniff lady she look fussed till he settle down by the door

momma bring in tea momma ask we wants tea or water no thank you momma

momma and lady talk been long time they got married divorced while lady cant help her self she sneak peeks at mr robinson she see he clean sleek long fur big strong dog

mr robinson he lay by the door thinkin what dogs think

lady and momma they do talk lots and us kids sit quiet to show we got good manners us listen we dont get visits much lady got plenty bones from city cause second husband killed on subway job momma pour more tea lady ask me why dog name mr robinson

i say grandpa seen jackie robinson in ebbets field long time ago i seen him on gray telvisin grandpa he gone now

lady watch mr robinson she think it funny us in east harlem sooty rooms on snap and welfare we got this big fancy dog he eat like we is rich folks she think we put on like we got dog show dog she dont say so

police siren go by fast be dark soon lady say she treat us to supper wheres a fine restraunt round here

i seen this place family up from new orlins they cook jambelia we never had none

we goin out the door mr robinson get up momma say they dont let dogs in restraunts

i say mr robinson you got to sit and stay

lady say fine handsome dog you takes good care of him

keisha say we dig brush him

lady say you likes a big dog

i say we need a big dog he keep the rats out

Everything that Happens

Robot Cities roam the baking deserts of the ocean beds like Baba Yaga huts. They strut about on titanic rusting legs so tall that to fall from the crotch to the ground takes a human 30 seconds. They sing songs, these Robot Cities, melancholic folk songs with introspective lyrics. They sing about shame and adoration, they sing about that sweet moment when love has found you out but your lover has not, they sing about becoming and not-becoming.

Humans infest them like lice. They forage on the cracked carapaces for petrel eggs, hunting wadi monkeys, scavenging for spare parts. They sing along with the cities as they work, as the cities stride about, they lose themselves in the words. They lose themselves under the searing white skies, enjoying the breeze and the infinite views, enjoying the beautiful music.

In the long evenings the Robot Cities squat on the precipitous decline of continental shelves, plucking the parasites from one another. They clean itching skin with gigantic, marvelously dexterous toes, catching between tungsten carbide digits the monkeys and the humans that lingered too long. Catching them and popping them.

“Everything that happens to me,” the Robot Cities sing, “has happened to someone else too.”

“Everything that happens to me,” they sing, “will one day happen to you.”

Much safer in the tangled interior, in the avenues and the streets through which the twisting wind creeps, the humans hide their children in shadowy places like spider eggs. They tap water from the pipes that cool the creaking reactors. The stolen moisture collects in them, in the humans, in their livers and their kidneys, in their blood, radioactive, congealing, concentrating into lumps and bumps and tumors, into the braille of survival.

“What do we do if it dies?” a child asks.

“If what dies?”

“Our Mamapapa.”

“The Mamapapas never die.”

The humans tell their children stories of how the Mamapapas once slept on the ground. They were reclining cities. But the humans proliferated to such a degree that their activities inflamed the skins of the cities and the cities woke. The cities stood up and became the Mamapapas.

They tell their children how the world used to be covered with water but the Mamapapas drank it all. The Mamapapas are cursed with thirst. They wander the desert searching for something to drink.

They tell their children visitors used to come from the other Mamapapas. They tell their children how the visitors climbed up and down the legs. How they traversed the wretched ocean floor, picking their way through the bones of the birds and the monkeys and the humans that littered the ground. They tell the children how the visitors brought a plague, a virus that killed thousands. How they shoveled the bodies out of the Mamapapas. Tens of thousands. The bodies fell through the air like rain and settled on the earth like dust.

The humans sing to their children: “Everything that happens to me, has happened to someone else too. Everything that happens to me, will one day happen to you.”

They teach their children to give thanks to their Mamapapa for food, shelter, and water. They teach them to love their Mamapapa. They teach their children to fear their Mamapapa.

The Mamapapas roam the baking beds of the ocean on their colossal backward-kneed legs. They sing songs to each other about the great ring of the horizon. About the arbitrariness of existence. They sing songs about incalculable loss. And humans infest them like lice.

Ambient and Isolated Effects of Fine Particulate Matter

On Thursday the sun rose red and stayed red, and stared at us red and red through the shifting candlewax layers of sky. We sealed the windows and cancelled gym, and forbade the children to leave until their mothers came for them, and through lunch period they pressed their noses to the glass and left smears of rainbow oils there. Before their faces and ours the bloody halo crept through the silhouettes of our buildings, picking its way down the foothills, stealing hot and infected towards the wide soft swathe of nothing that had once been San Francisco.

In the early afternoon the children left in bunches and tangles, clusters of heaving minivans like lifeboats. We gathered in the teacher’s lounge and stood with our hands wrapped round our one o’clock coffee mugs and said quietly to each other and ourselves the air quality numbers in the neighborhoods to which we would be driving through the greyness: Montclair and Emeryville, San Antonio and El Cerrito, one-eighty-five, two-seventeen, two-fifty, two seventy-one.

Some of us had masks, and some did not. Some had the wrong masks—the flimsy kind, thin and cotton, with no wires at the top to mold over our noses and cheekbones—and we discarded these in the wastebasket, a growing pile of white leaves. Those who did have the right masks put them on and looked at the others with invisible mouths, invisible lips. There were no spares.

The school was a good school. The neighborhood was a good neighborhood. It was in the Oakland hills, and it perched over the Oakland flatlands, their density and cement and graffiti and barred windows, like a pale and decorous vulture. On its borders there was a cemetery, and the cemetery was Oakland writ small: the graves dappled down the hill, and at the top were great marble monuments, pyramids and temples and fountains, and at the bottom flat stones sunk into the grass. As children we had come to these stones and sat upon them and had picnics for our birthday parties. We had stared up at the angels of the rich, and they had stared sightlessly down at us. Beneath them, we had wondered, were the rich staring, too?

Now we stood by our cars in the teachers’ parking lot and prepared to pour ourselves down the stooped hills and into the low concrete mazes we called home. Our phones were already alight with emails: would the children have school tomorrow? Would they have school next week? Would they be allowed to re-take their tests, re-write their essays, would there be extra credit? We drove through the grey and the deep grey shadows of the trees. Surely, wrote the parents, even if the district forbade the schools to open, the SAT preparation night would not be cancelled? The college essay preparation night would not be cancelled? Through the dust gathering on our windshields we watched the streetlights shudder into life ahead of us. They knew the property values of this good neighborhood, the parents did not say. They knew the price of this good school.

We sat at our kitchen tables and listened to our husbands read to us in rough voices news articles about what had happened in Paradise. Fathers had run back through fire for their daughters. Families had stood by the side of the road praying for their cars to start up again with the heat beating at their faces. Dogs had survived, and not survived. We closed our eyes and tried to see it, but there was nothing behind our eyelids, only colorlessness.

On Friday the schools were closed all day. Those of us with masks pulled them on and walked out to buy bread, and fruit, and fish for dinner. Some of us hovered in the grocery store by the tall white shelves of bottled water; the great drought was a memory less than a year old. Many of us still had buckets under the faucets in our bathtubs, so that nothing should be wasted. In the grocery store we looked at the water and saw the plastic, stacks and stacks of it like shark’s teeth, cylinders huddled together, as if the water were afraid of loneliness and afraid of touching. Those of us without masks stayed home.

The parents began to write new emails: they would not be coming to the college essay night, they said. They would not be coming to the SAT preparation night. Their lungs were weak. Their chests hurt. They had been getting over a cold; now, they could not get over it. They could not breathe. They could not breathe. They could not breathe.

They were leaving Oakland, the parents said. They were driving to their cabins in the mountains. Some of their children were coming with them; others were staying behind. They would return when the air was clear. They would return, once the fire had ended. They would come back to the city once it had made itself clean.

Many of these families had cabins in the mountains. They would ski there in the winter and swim there in the summer. This was the great mountain range on which storms broke and died, the mountain range that had made a desert of Nevada and Utah when the world was younger; these were the mountains in which the Donner Party had sat under snow and ice and eaten the meat from each other’s bones. They were covered in blue lakes and green forests. If you walked into these forests, late at night, you could look up and see the whole Milky Way spilling herself from horizon to horizon, under billions of miles of clear and shuddering sky.

Whereas it was not possible to do this in Oakland even before the fire.

The newscasters began to ask when the smoke would clear. For each other they had no answer. The fire, it seemed, would need to die, or the wind would need to change; no scientist knew when either event would come. They cut to their reporters, wide-eyed young women mouthing muffled news through their own masks in front of a blurred horizon. The cool red circle of the sun stared at us through the television.

Schools were closed again all next week. The district told us they would open after Thanksgiving, regardless of air quality. The children could not miss school forever, said the district. We hunched into ourselves over our laptops at our kitchen tables and shuffled and re-shuffled our lesson plans. We walked up the avenues to run errands and ducked into buildings softened to haze. Beside and behind us moved the people of the city, their faces wrapped in blue masks. When they held the doors of BART trains for us and counted dimes and quarters next to us and put our groceries in paper bags their hands were deep brown and tan, scarred and freckled and wrinkled and calloused, but their faces were all paper-blue, pastel blue, as blue as the sky.

Beside the BART station a woman sat down on the ground and began to cough. A crowd gathered around her almost immediately, a clot in the streetflow, and watched her cough until her inhales rasped and sizzled. One of us asked if anyone had called a doctor. The woman said, in between coughs, that no one should call a doctor. She would be healthier without a bill, she said. We watched her until the light changed, and then we dissolved into passers-by, pushing beside her, through her. The smoke hung heavy overhead, and the train roared above like thunder.

The classrooms were emptier on Monday, and the students’ voices sounded too loud inside them. They did not seem to wish to speak. When we asked them questions, their answers trailed off into silence. When it was time for gym class, they ran laps around the inside of the theater, the only noise their sneakers thumping over the red carpet, up onto the creaking stage. It took us nearly half the period to realize two boys had gone missing; when we went to look, we found them on the lawn above the library, looking down the hill from which the previous month they had been able to see the whole San Francisco Bay. One of them was holding a joint in his hand; as we came up behind them, he dropped it, unlit, and began coughing hoarse and wispy into his elbow. Half an hour later, when his mother had appeared at the gates in her minivan with her face tight and plastic and afraid, he had still not stopped coughing.

The smoke began to press closer. The sky began to settle lower each morning. It had been difficult to see down the hill; now, it became difficult to see across the street. We woke each morning to a fine layer of grey on our cars, on our lawns. If we stood outside long enough, we found ourselves shaking grey out of our hair. The older women among us told jokes about old age; the younger ones said nothing, but cut their hair short, so that in the thick tangles of their ponytails and braids and curls the colorlessness no longer collected so clearly.

We wondered if the students would ask about this. Some of us even prepared lectures on the topic, clinical or comforting, biological or historical or philosophical, depending on our fields of expertise. But the students were coming to school less, now, joining their parents far from the city in tens and twenties. Those families without houses in the mountains continued to email us, more frantic each day. The district would cancel school again, they said. The district had cancelled girls’ tennis, and football. The district did not know when the fire would end. What was our plan for the children to keep their GPAs? What was our plan for the children to keep their scholarships?

Some of us, the ones who lived near enough to the good school in the good neighborhood, took the bus home. On the bus, we began to notice, the people sitting next to us had grey in them. On their hair, in their clothes, of course, like us; but also not like us. The skin of their hands was grey, and their eyes were grey above their masks. They said nothing to anyone—not the bus driver, not the teenage boys shouting dirty things from across the aisle, not the tired-eyed woman asking them for money. None of us saw the grey people leave the bus; our stops always seemed to come before theirs did. We did not mention the grey people to each other. We did not even mention them to our husbands. But we did not forget the way they looked, how they stared at the city rushing by out the window, as if it were invisible, as if there were nothing there at all.

The parents, from their cabins in the mountains, posted photos of the tall frosted pine trees, of their sons or daughters skating out onto mirrored lakes. In these photos the sun was yellow. The light it cast was as white as the snow.

It became difficult to see across a room. It became difficult to see our hands in front of our faces. We drove to school with our headlights on and watched the soft dust fall onto our windshields. In the teachers’ lounge we took to grading essays in brighter and brighter colors: purple, green, pink sparkling gel pen, as if we were the teenage girls we had once been. It did not seem to matter. We picked up each piece of paper when we were done and shook it, and watched the ash on it settle to the carpet. The writing below was empty of all color. Even the black printed ink was faded, as if it had been sitting in a room forgotten for many years.

That weekend, one of us had a date, a concert in San Francisco. We wished her luck. The local news did not report from San Francisco any more; sometimes they would drive out to Treasure Island and turn their cameras west, and we would watch the lights of the Salesforce Tower, visible through the haze for a few silent seconds and then gone again. No one had seen Coit Tower since the fire began. There was no word from the tech companies, though we sometimes still saw their buses, employees-only, easing slowly down the streets from our homes towards the South Bay. We saw no one at their windows; but then again, we never had.

A student who we had thought long-gone, one of the earliest to flee to the mountains, showed up in school on Wednesday. We said nothing to her, but we wondered: her face had gone pale as chalk. When she was asked a direct question, she answered in a voice so soft no one could hear her. One of us, who had advised her on her college essay and who knew something of her troubles at home, went to go find her during lunch. She was not sitting with her usual friends, who were huddled on the curled brown lawn slipping bites of sandwiches under their masks. She was standing by the gates, staring at the red eye of the sun. She was not moving. She was not wearing a mask. She was breathing slowly, shallowly, and the grey had settled into her eyelashes and the folds of her coat.

The woman who had gone into San Francisco did not come to school. When we called her cell phone, there was no answer; not even her answering machine picked up. Instead, there was a thin, rustling static, which, when we listened closely, sounded almost like voices.

That night, watching the news from New York and Washington, we did not recognize the sun in the sky behind the newscasters. It was not that it was yellow, or that its light was clear and good. It was that there was something foreign about these things; it was that these things did not belong to us. This sun had never come to our city. It was not Oakland’s star.

The next day the district cancelled classes again, and said this time they did not know when school would start up. That morning, as if by prearranged signal, we cleared our classrooms. Those of us who had children paid them a few dollars to help with the heavy lifting; the rest of us labored alone, unpeeling carefully taped posters and art projects, wiping stray ink from the whiteboards, packing pamphlets and textbooks into cardboard boxes that we piled in front of the gates and carried one by one to the trunks of our cars. Our children crawled under desks and unstuck cracked old gum from their metal undersides, laughing through the small blue masks we had fit over their faces. Somewhere in the midst of this cleaning one of us found a few others in the teachers’ lounge, and said what each of us had already known: she had called her grown-up daughter, who lived in New York, and there had been no answer. No answer from her brother in Boston or her parents in Los Angeles. The television had ceased to broadcast national news, statewide news, reality shows, soap operas; even the radio carried no voices. There was only the quiet whispering of the ash.

We appeared to each other in the courtyard like ghosts, silhouettes bursting into color and then fading again. We carried each other’s detritus and swept each other’s classroom floors. When we were done, a little before noon, we gathered by the gates, and clasped each other’s hands, and kissed each other on the cheek, lips touching thin blue cloth touching skin. We told each other how very good it had been to work together. Then we let go, and went to our cars, and rolled up the windows, and listened to the low cough of our own engines.

At home, around half past one, I startled: I had forgotten my favorite book at school. I said this to my husband, though I did not know if he was listening, and I tied my mask back onto my face. Then I drove up through and through the greyness, past the BART station and the cemetery, into the winding hills. The streets were empty; I did not even have to use the teachers’ parking lot. I unlocked the gates and walked down across the lawn, around the library, and into the building which housed the classroom where I had once taught.

My book was on my desk, just where I had left it. I picked it up, went into the hall, pulled my keys from my purse and locked the door of my classroom behind me.

When I heard my key click, I heard another noise, coming from the classroom next to mine. It was a soft sound; if I hadn’t been listening for the lock, I would never have heard it. It was not a sound of breathing or speaking. It was a soft rustling, like dry leaves. I took a step to the right and put my hand to that classroom’s doorknob—it was not locked—and eased it open, and put my eye to the crack.

They were there, all of them, every child whose parents had taken them away to the safety of the mountains. Each of them sitting at attention, with their faces faded as old newspaper. None of them were wearing masks. At the front of the classroom was the woman who had gone into San Francisco, and she was speaking, or trying to speak; her mouth was moving, but she was making no sound.

I opened the door just a little further. None of them moved.

I pushed it fully open and walked into the classroom. None of their heads turned. I said the name of one of the students; he did not look at me. I reached out to my fellow teacher and touched her hand, and I watched as her body shuddered and swirled and fell in clouds of soft fine greyness to the carpet below.

They stood, then, the Oaklanders who had reached the mountains, the Oaklanders who had escaped the smoke, the Oaklanders who had left our city for the higher ground without looking back. They stood and they pressed towards me, reaching out their hands, drifting through the desks and the chairs, and when they touched me they burst into grey, three of them at a time, five, ten, and I began to cough, and could not stop coughing. They would not stop coming. They would not stop dissolving, and yet they would not stop coming. I felt buried, buried under them, under their ash and their silence and their unceasing, limitless want. I felt like the city, vanished into endless softness. I felt like the sun.

Sky Suck

They hired me last Sunday to suck the carbon from the sky. I imagined the job might give my writing wings; I’d fly across the lower atmosphere with a vacuum strapped to my back like a forgotten character from the Ghostbusters franchise. But it turns out to be nothing like that. I was given the job mostly because my pilot’s license is still valid from the war.

Lee, the chief engineer, leads me to my plane. It’s nothing more than a small Turboprop a billionaire might take to an island off of what’s left of Belize, but she promises the plane has the propulsion potential of a spacecraft. “When you near a highly concentrated carbon pocket, the plane might shake a bit. The carbon is sequestered in an inner chamber filled with a high concentration of photosynthetic algae. There’s a photoelectric cell submerged in the water tank and a simulation of sunlight to drive the photosynthesis process. The outburst of oxygen propels you, once you get to a high enough altitude.”

“I could run out of carbon?”

Lee stifles a laugh at my question. “There’s an endless supply of carbon. We are beyond capacity. Your shift will be over long before the carbon concentration in an area drops to a level that will no longer sustain you. You are there to clean the sky.”

The tropical storm that wiped out the eastern Antilles only took three hours to move up in classification to a category six hurricane. It was the second to touch down after they added the new classification when Florida was swept up by 200 mph winds. Unheard of, but not unimaginable. We’d known where our weather patterns were headed for years, but people just raised their homes up on stilts and went on living their lives. Not that I blame them. Not that I’d want to move if there seemed to be a way to keep my life going with some normalcy if I could, but then again I haven’t lived anywhere for more than four months at a time since I left college.

I thought I was going to be a screenwriter before I got drafted. I bought pink sheets and a Breakfast at Tiffany’s eye mask I wore to bed each night. I thought this was the way you brought Hollywood to you, making routines in your life like you were already there.

I also had the idea you needed to work at a coffee shop at some point in your life to really be considered a writer. I jumped from coffee shop to coffee shop, but the same thing happened in every city I worked in: the workforce’s disposable income dropped, the cost of milk skyrocketed as dairy farmland dried up, a shipment of coffee beans from South America was blown up by a local militia, and the coffee shop closed up. I barely had enough time to get the down-on-my-luck-service-job experience I needed to become the writer I knew I could be before I had to find my way to another city and another open barista position. I felt like I had stumbled into my destiny, like finding those jobs was a sign I was headed in the right direction.

After I got my letter, I went to a psychic. It turned out to be the best thing I ever did for myself. I had the draft notice in my pocket as I sat across from her. I closed my eyes and shuffled the tarot deck like she told me to, letting the cards dance between my hands until something inside of me told me to stop. I hadn’t been around anyone before who honored that there might be something inside of you like that, never met someone who told you to follow that something.

I’d thought being a screenwriter and storyboarding in a room full of writers might be like that. Someone might laugh and riff off of a joke I’d written over the weekend as I sipped my soy latte at the corner of a coffee shop hunched over a worn notepad. But in wartime there’s no time left for dreams, and when the war is with the environment, dreams evaporate all at once. I smiled at the psychic as she took the deck back and pulled the first card, then another, lining them around the table into a cross.

“You are being called to an adventure, but not the one you’d thought you’d be going on. What you needed from the one you imagined you will find in the other instead.” A story by credit? An enticing character arc to really nail my studio pitch?

The psychic went on to say I was heartbroken and some other things I already knew about myself, like that I had a bad relationship with my sister. I left the shop thinking over what she’d said about my adventure, and I started to feel ripped off—not by her, but by the world. Who chooses war over being in a writer’s room? I certainly didn’t. I didn’t make a choice at all. And there was nothing to be done about my sister. She’d died the year before in an apartment fire set off by thermal radiation when a misfired hydrofracking blast triggered an earthquake, the tremors cracking a nuclear reactor three miles from her apartment in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Her name was Sally Fisher. You can look all of this up.

You’d be right to think there were disasters happening everywhere. I didn’t have anyone to give my new bed sheets to when I was deployed, so I donated them, but I kept the eye mask. I thought it might come in handy.

I don’t remember much of my time as a pilot, based in Mexico, flying missions in South America. I spent several days a week in the shade of a canvas tent working on a spec script for The Simpsons in between my rations of bread and coffee. Sometimes I put my eye mask on and took a nap. The other soldiers were rarely around. I was the only pilot stationed there and essentially my own boss.

Usually, by mid-week, I was handed a map with coordinates. I’d enter them into the GPS system on my plane and take off for a few days, following my new adventure just like the psychic said. A cloud might look briefly beautiful, and I took comfort in this. When the GPS began to beep, I pushed my thumb against the thick red button to drop a bomb on whatever local militia was siphoning off water from a town’s water tank or committing some other infraction against the AGAST (Allies for the Global Alleviation of Storm Trauma) treaty.

I returned to what was left of the United States three years ago, and since then the sky has become more dangerous. The carbon particles that trap heat in the atmosphere are transparent, so it’s hard to measure in real-time what I suck up, Lee tells me. Most of the aerosols that make it difficult to see were artificially introduced by AGAST to bounce the light from the sun back up into space, going against decades of advocacy to clean the soot and sulfur from the sky. To simultaneously clean up the carbon and replace it with aerosols was the best they could come up with to try to stabilize the heat, but it’s only time before the next storm hits. Now AGAST is working on a proposal to mandate breathing filters for at-risk elevations.

Lee mentions that the pilot I’m replacing had an asthma attack last week before boarding the plane and hasn’t returned since. This doesn’t bother me the way it might have years ago. Death feels bureautic these days, more like the outcome of an assembly line than anything a god or enemy might’ve done to you in an era where death could be more creative, more Shakespearean. I’ve stopped mourning who I’ve lost, what I’ve lost, the Earth itself. The only thing I can’t let go of is my desire to see a story of mine told. I know the studio systems have long gone under, and book publishers shut down, but I keep writing with an overwhelming sense that my chance is just around the corner.

When Lee starts up the plane, the exhaust pipe coughs out what looks like a chunk of artificial particles. This is what’s meant to save us? I kick the piece of strange coal around before getting in the pilot’s seat. The dusty handprint of the former pilot is still on the door. Alarmed, Lee wipes this away and stands proudly, opening up the door.

“Go ahead,” she says, smiling. “It’s all yours.”

Thank You For Your Patience

I’m lucky because they replaced a bunch of chairs last month and I got a new one. A good chair is important when you spend ten hours a day in a cubicle talking to strangers about their problems. I’ve been here three years and worked on most of Westermorgen’s services which means I can with no thought help grandma set up her wifi. Or troubleshoot banking software. Or set up your cellphone plan or help you with some app designed to find your soulmate that nevertheless fills you with hopelessness.

(I can’t help you with the hopelessness.)

It’s nonstandard, but I’m Westermorgen’s floater, and Geordie or Keersty just drop me where the calls are heavy or turnover is high. On twitter I can answer questions within five seconds of some asshole in Toronto saying wtf my TV doesn’t see the house network. And I respond I’m sorry to hear that @TOasshole let’s see if I can help. I’m impossible to rile because I’ve heard everything, every possible stupid question, every strange request regarding lapsed policies and missed payments, every paranoid rant, every sort of impotent rage. The management is shitty and the customers are irritable, but there’s beauty in problem solving.

The really bad stuff started at the end of last month, when I had to do a 1-on-1 with Geordie, teamlead for the floor. I’d been fielding a bunch of questions regarding a recent patch that had broken everything. I had this rhythm hitting my 30s AHT and typing without thinking Mark here how can I help you. But 1-on-1 is a mandated interruption, so I listened to Geordie brainstorm about improving morale. They stopped having barbecues because it was too expensive even when the burgers were sawdust and soy. Also no one wanted to be outside because Detroit was still burning and the ppm up to something like Beijing.

“Listen to this. Westermorgen. Idol,” Geordie told me. “We judge three of the top ranked calls and we have a thing and someone walks away with a Timmy’s gift card. Like. Fifty bucks.”

Geordie said that like it was a good thing.

“What about a key fob?” I asked. We can’t get out without one after hours, but only management can hold. “Or the winner gets to wear jeans. Or keep their phone for a shift?” That didn’t rate an answer. The most frustrating thing about Westermorgen is that teamleads have to hold your phone, like you’re an untrustworthy teenager who’s been grounded. I feel like I’m lost in a cave or a space station. When I do a lot of overtime I arrive when it’s dark and I leave when it’s dark and while sometimes I go around the corner for coffee or McNuggets, it always feels like I’m just visiting the world. I don’t know what’s happened: if a government’s fallen, or an ice shelf has collapsed, if Detroit is burning again, or maybe California, or the Great Lakes are dying at a slightly faster rate than they were when I left for work.

Never knowing what’s going on outside, I sit in my good chair and say That sounds frustrating, to everyone, no matter who’s talking or what they want, let me see if I understand your problem.

“You could judge,” Geordie said, still talking about morale. “You’re impartial. You hate everyone.”

“I don’t hate everyone, Geordie,” I said reflexively, though to be fair, I hate a lot of people here.

After my mandated fifteen minutes with Geordie I saw that Misty had a problem with my documentation, which has been rough since they changed policy on me. She’s in the Philippines where most of the real work happens. Upper management is all in India. They only have us because they need Canadian accents on the phones, and they get tax breaks, bringing jobs to one of the more desolate parts of the country. Downwind from Detroit, rampant West Nile, and ninety percent of the province’s heavy metals processed at the plant out by the mall. Seventy percent of the babies born here are girls, something to do with residual BPA.

Misty is on the other side of the Pacific, in Legazpi, but you’d think she was right here, considering how aggressively she organizes us.

ur shit at filling the forms mark the write up is going to kill ur rank

We’re stack ranked every shift. It gets you points you can redeem which, honestly, is worth it for the grocery store gift cards.

Just tell me what I did wrong, Legazpi.

We were in the middle of a rough month. The flu hit everywhere at once and no one could afford to lose the work, so we had a bunch of people come in sick, coughs and juicy sneezes all over the floor, and half the time you got on the elevator and everyone was grey-faced and weaving.

I came in over the weekend to cover mobile because they lost half their staff, so I’d been on for eight days by Monday when Geordie was manic trying to call people in so he wouldn’t have to go on phones. He always says, when we’re smoking outside and he’s pointedly not looking at the place where the GM building used to be, “It’s not the extra fifty cents an hour, it’s the fact that I don’t have to deal with people.” He hated taking calls.

He offered me overtime, so I started coming in at six and leaving at ten, and I didn’t even notice the weekend. I do remember going home those nights and thinking how hollow my room felt, with my roommates playing CoD in the living room, and how my body seemed to vibrate. Caffeine maybe, or pseudoephedrine. I heard phantom time warnings and chimes, and when I closed my eyes I could see the screen and call after call flooding the queue. By Saturday Westermorgen was a haunted house, but I still wasn’t sick.

That sounds frustrating. Let me see if I can help.

I was dealing with this woman on Vancouver Island who couldn’t generate invoices. We’d been at it for two hours and I could feel her getting upset when I told her to wipe the whole system and start again. I can help you do that, but she was like no we’ll lose two weeks of work, and there’s nothing I can say to that, so we keep troubleshooting even though it’s pointless.

“Okay, I said, can you go back to the root invoice and try—“

“—oh,” she said, “what—“

And that was it, I didn’t hear anything but the line itself, which just went dead, that kind of absence you get when someone hangs up on you.

“Are you there? Ma’am?”

I called back but I got a re-order tone, not voicemail or an old-fashioned busy signal but the one that means the whole system is busy or blocked or down.

I dropped out of the queue then, which you’re not supposed to do obviously, and went looking for Geordie, who was chatting with Keersty about Westermorgen Idol. I asked if they knew anything but of course they didn’t and when I asked if I could at least grab my phone to see what was happening, Keersty did a kind of elementary-school-teacher sigh.

documentation for #3990180 ur overdue mark.

Caller dropped

saw that. explanation?

Happening across the board. Looks like the problem is at their end.

I didn’t find out until Mo came back from break streaked wet in the way you are if you’ve run out into that rain blowing in from Detroit because you don’t want it to touch your skin, saying, “Earthquake on the westcoast. You know anyone out there?”

I thought about the woman trying to get the invoice together for a tiny order of sea salt from some equally tiny place on Vancouver Island, her business so miniscule it all fit into our cheapest subscription. In my un-submitted documentation for Misty I had written that her voice sounded like a hopeful-but-slightly-overwhelmed Great Aunt trying to make the remote control work.

“No one. How bad?”

“Like 9.6. The worst since forever. For hundreds of years.”

“Jesus,” I said, “Jesus. Jesus.”

I’ve had similar moments on calls. When the shooting happened in Montreal—not Vieux-Montreal, but the one where the kids ran downtown away from McGill, and the photographer caught the girl as the bullet tore out her right kneecap—I was on the line with this dickwad in a coworking space on Maisonneuve who was asking to talk to my supervisor. Then—mid whine—he stopped talking, like he suddenly didn’t care about my attitude. I could hear his phone pinging.

“Sir, are you there?”

“Can you hear that? It’s happening on the street. I can see—”

A faint popping. Voices raised and doors slammed. Then he cut the call.

I kept in the queue. I helped someone update. I did a subscription renewal. The next person, though, needed a backup and that took forever so we chatted about hockey until she said, “Did you hear about Montreal?”

“No ma’am,” I said, thinking about that sound I maybe heard before his phone cut. Fire crackers. Backfires.

“Some guys shot up the whole downtown. I think it was terrorists. Who knows. FLQ? Or Muslims maybe. Red Power. Fifty dead but it was going up every time I refreshed the page.”

She kept going on like this while we did a backup and then I made sure everything worked and it had been like three hours at that point, and I kept thinking of the guy and his silence, and what was going on in the streets while we talked about his login and how unprofessional I was. I don’t have any friends in Montreal. I went there once to drink when I was eighteen, but that’s it. I just had that guy and the thump of footsteps fleeing the co-working space.

When I took my break the rain was falling again, the faintly grey kind that runs down the sidewalks and the gutters and when it builds up enough you can see that it’s a little milky because it’s full of ash. If you think too hard about what’s running into your eyes as you stand outside, smoking until your pack is empty, you go eat a twenty-four box of Tim Bits, or six Big Macs, or you stop for one beer on the way home and only leave when they push you out the door.

Geordie was outside. I gave him a cigarette even though he doesn’t smoke, either, and he said, “it doesn’t seem to be getting cleaner. Wasn’t it supposed to get cleaner?” He grew up in Detroit, though he was already over here when it burned last year.

“Maybe it’s safer. The hum is worse. I thought the hum was supposed to go when they sent in the cleanup crews.”

We watched the warm, ash-coloured water run down the gutters until it was ankle deep. The city is a wetland, and there isn’t far for water to go, so it ends up in people’s basements, all that ashy, bony water running through foundations and drains, a constant trickle in the background. Sort of like the faint pop you might hear while you’re on the phone with a guy in Montreal who wants to talk to your manager.

“Does it feel.” Geordie said and lit another cigarette.

“What, Geordie.” I hate how often he doesn’t finish his sentences.

“Does it feel like it’s happening more often? This kind of thing?”

I dropped my smoke into the rain water and shrugged, then said, “I wish I knew what to tell you.” Which wasn’t a real answer, and I used my tech support voice when I said it because I didn’t want to have that conversation.

On my first break after the earthquake I smoked and watched the rain and videos on my phone, someone livestreaming the moment it hit—boring talk about food or weather, then a strange look on their face, their eyes dart upward, then the phone falls. Overhead footage from helicopters of downtown Vancouver, all those green towers swaying and falling, and the bridge swinging until the cables snap like rubber bands. The worst in recorded history. Worse, probably, than the last megathrust in 1700. I just kept thinking of that woman, and the sort of quiet shock in her voice, her “oh—is that—” and then nothing, and I was standing out in the rain, but still warm, when it occurred to me that I might have heard her last words. I kept thinking about the texture of the silence after the call dropped and what had happened the moment after that, if that had been the worst of it, the shock of the whole world rumbling. Or if it had been worse for her after that, or right now, or tomorrow.

I only had ten minutes because call volume was increasing. My throat was starting to tickle, and the world—just suddenly, out of nowhere—started to look glassy, the light thick from the ceiling squares, and my skin prickled when I ran my hands over my arms, which were covered with goose bumps.

The floor was nearly empty except for Geordie running around supervising and not taking calls, and the queue was packed. My first call was from way north along the coast, Prince Rupert, a woman calling about a password reset. “I want Mark,” she said, “He helped me before. Can I talk to Mark?”

While I was documenting I thought, fuck it, I’m going to tell Misty what the woman told me while we were waiting for the password reset email, about how when you’re that far north you don’t notice time passing, and you feel good in an unimaginable way in summer, luminous and hopeful, and how in winter all you want to do is die and drink yourself into a coma, so you know, it balances out.

After that I reopened #3990180.

An elderly woman, I wrote, on a phone, trying to print invoices for locally produced sea salt, looks over at the rack of glass jars in which she keeps her stock because she hears a rattle, then another, then she says, “oh—is that—“ and nothing else because at that moment, the force of twenty-five thousand Hiroshimas lit the Cascadia subduction zone—on which Vancouver island rests like a cork on a bottle—centuries of continental tension released.

I typed that, then I hit send, then I added a secondary note on her file. At 8.32 PST a 9.8 hit the Cascadia subduction zone.

And Misty was right there on ChatHive, not telling me it was Inappropriate. She wrote, rest their souls and I was comforted by those temporary words, which surprised me.

my grandparents were on mindanao in the 1976 earthquake. u got anyone there?

No

I heard the hum from Detroit. It was, somehow, a relief to know that across the world Misty was in a similar room among people evaluating documentation for apps and ISPs and accounting software. People saying that must be frustrating, let’s see if I can help. Something occurred to me.

You hear anything about tsunamis?

no word so far

Do you have your phone? So you can get the alerts?

theyll let us know. we’re so bad im taking calls so i won’t be fixing ur doc until tomorrow

I wondered if Keersty would let us know, or if she would dither about it until all we could do was climb to the top floor of the building and watch a wave consume what was left of Detroit before it swamped us, too.

Five more calls and I refilled my water bottle—the one with the slogan on it, fueling small business with the tools to succeed, that some now-lost Westermorgen contract brought in—and I was looking at my skin reflected in the sink, which was the colour of those pale, lumpy smokers you see outside the entrance, the colour of a raw filet o fish. I felt adrenalized, like a moment before I’d been terrified, but I could not remember how or why. I wondered what it was doing to me, inside, all those cells now remade into virus factories, turning to goo and mush and sloughing off while the virus proliferated through my system, and I left traces on everything I touched.

The water ran over the top of the bottle. Clear. So far the ash hasn’t worked its way through the city’s water system. Or maybe it had and it was invisible like the microplastics in the lake.

“So you going to judge?” It was Geordie. “We’re going to do it next week. I was thinking we’d set a time limit. Like, five minute calls. You and me and Keersty judge it. I grabbed fifty for the Timmy’s card, too.”

“Man,” I said, “man.”

Geordie just stared at me. “You getting sick? You know what you need to do is . . . .” He went on about Echinacea or FluFX and I thought about the tsunami that was, or was not, traveling across the Pacific. “ . . . Or just hammer your system with anti-oxidants, and take a double dose of Nyquil—”

Without thinking I pulled my phone out of my pocket.

“—You know you can’t have that anywhere near the floor.”

I was already googling Pacific tsunami alert, and it was rolling rainbows and I stared at it so hard that it seemed to take over the whole world, and then I shivered, but Geordie was still talking.

“Don’t make me write you up. I don’t want to deal with it.”

“K.” I said.

“It’s about privacy for our users. They need to know they can trust our integrity, our word, and our system.”

The poster on the far side of the break room said Integrity, Word, and System. I saw that the alert had been issued for Japan. That’s when he took my phone.

“You fuck the dog, I have to write you up. I don’t want to write you up.”

Japan in six hours. Eight pm. I’d still be here, while very far away a wave crested on the seacoast, filling the river basins and the car parks.

I know you don’t have to surrender your phone, even if they can require you to leave it at home. I know they’re not supposed to lock you in, either, or let you smoke within three metres of the door, even when the ash is falling. They’re not supposed to pay you in points you can then exchange for grocery store gift cards, which you need because the new minimum wage doesn’t even cover rent. But I need a job.

The next call I got was farther south, closer to the epicenter. The first thing I did was ask about the earthquake.

“We felt it, and there’s the tsunami warning, but we’re far enough inland it shouldn’t be—”

“—Tsunami warning?”

“So when I try to log in—”

“—Tsunami?”

“—I keep getting the same error, it says my account’s frozen. What does that mean? I need to do some invoices. And yeah, I just got the text like half an hour ago. Landfall is like an hour.”

The account was frozen due to missed payments, so I pointed that out and the guy insisted no, he’d set up an automated transfer, and he kept me on the line while he chatted with the bank’s tech support on another line to sort out the direct deposit, and then I reactivated his account, all this time the tsunami traveling toward the coast, where the shallower bottom would raise the wave’s height by narrowing its length because the last time I’d been outside I’d looked at a gif on Wikipedia that demonstrated how tsunamis crest as they travel through shallow waters.

The last thing he said wasn’t thanks, it was “there it is, the tide’s going way out, I hope everyone’s out of downtown.” Then he was gone, and I could imagine it, the water running away from shore, like a huge exhalation, and then collecting into a rising wave that would destroy them all.

The tsunami warning? I wrote in ChatHive, hoping Misty was there.

Keersty responded instantly: That is not appropriate ChatHive is for important work stuff.

we havent heatd anything but were swamped so who knows what going on outside

CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.

Maybe you should get out anyway.

CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.

CHATHIVE CHANNEL WILL ONLY BE USED FOR APPRORPAITE BUSINESS RELATED BUSINESS.

I’d been there for sixteen hours, and I couldn’t remember the last time I slept a full night at home, when I hadn’t been buzzed on cold pills and exhaustion, and the sound of CoD from the living room. That week when I did sleep I kept saying This is Mark from Magnacorp or This is Mark from Wherever I Am Right Now, and heard explosions and the way voices carry over the river from Detroit, the screams and the crowds and the gunshots. Or maybe I was never actually asleep, maybe I was just off my head. I shouldn’t have washed the pills down with beer, but there’s that thing that happens when you stop in for a beer after work and the inertia of the whole thing, the job, the shitty beer and the fact that a person brings you food, even if you can’t afford it, that sticks you to your seat. It was bad last summer when we couldn’t afford to run the AC but the bar on the way home could, and it was full of familiar guys, broke and lonely and trying to avoid looking at what was left of the Detroit skyline, or the grey-green clouds boiling to the north, and the hail and the lightning storms every afternoon like clockwork. The summers are definitely hotter, and the mosquitoes are definitely worse, and last summer I noticed that the birds don’t sing anymore, all their whistles sound like videogame lasers.

I stepped outside for a cigarette and realized the doors had been locked and I don’t have a fob because I don’t rate a fob. Geordie was there too, setting up his stupid Westermorgen Idol, piles of bright pink and green and blue post-it notes all over his desk.

“I need to go out.”

“The doors are locked for the night.”

“I need to get out.”

“We lost another girl from Online. You’ll have to take over social media if we lose anyone else. Take your break here.”

I just kind of stared at him and my skin prickled like all the pseudoephedrine I’d taken had rushed to the surface and was blasting every single nerve ending in my body.

“I need to go outside.”

“You can’t. Like, you physically can’t.”

I kind of stood there and I’m ashamed to say I wanted to cry. Like a little kid who isn’t allowed to use the bathroom, or who just wants to sit with his Dad but keeps getting dragged away by unfamiliar relatives. The kind of crying you see on the bus at rush hour when some little kid coming back from the mall loses it and lies in the aisle wailing, cramming road salt in his mouth, and you just think you and me both.

I didn’t actually cry. I hate myself, because I just said, begging, “can I please can I have my phone back, please?”

Geordie looked at me like I was an idiot, him in the middle of all the post-it notes that read CONGRATULATIONS! or YOUR A WINNER! or WESTERMORGEN IDOL!!!

I didn’t say anything. I left. At first I just sat in the lunch room, shivering and nauseous, staring at a plastic solo cup leftover from the barbecues they used to give before the ash. There will be worse moments in my life no doubt—more pain, more sadness—but I can’t imagine anything so wide-ranging in its desolation as that moment. The only thing I could focus on was telling Misty to get her phone back and watch the horizon and be ready to escape.

A girl from Online staggered through, sweaty and pale, and I knew that Geordie would be here in a moment to ask for another eight hours, overnight, answering strangers’ questions so perfectly that they all treat me like a shitty customer service AI built to serve.

There aren’t a lot of choices in your life, are there? You can choose to have kids, or not, or leave your hometown or not. Or to stay in a terrible job you are, for some reason, very good at. But other than that, what is there? Just a lot of compliance and noncompliance. This didn’t feel like a choice. I said to the girl, “we need to get out of here,” and she nodded. Then we headed down to the lobby. The doors were locked and no one carrying a key was in the building and the girl looked bad, but when I went to the fire escape she still said, “no, we’re not supposed to!”

“We need to get out—“

“—they’ll fire us!” And I could hear the fear in her voice, and I wondered how badly she needed this job, that she was here in the middle of the night, so sick she could hardly stand.

“Tell them I did it,” I said, and hit the bar.

Only it didn’t move because it was locked, too. The next thing I did was stupid, but I don’t know what else I could have done. I walked back to the lobby and picked up a garbage can and began slamming it into the glass door. Behind me she was just coughing and coughing and said, maybe, “stop stop,” but so faintly I could ignore it. Then we were out, and she was staggering toward the emergency room on Ouellette and I was alone in rainwater the same temperature as my blood. Then I went looking for a payphone because the only way to sort this out was to call in, but I couldn’t remember which of Westermorgen’s departments Misty was assigned to so when I finally found the city’s last payphone—in the bus depot—I called them all, all the sad voices of men and women here and on the other side of the world.

“Welcome to Caiphas Business Systems, Jane speaking, how can I help you?” “Welcome to Tesla Mobility, how can I help you?” “Welcome to Roscommon Account Services.” “Welcome to Lighthouse Mobility.”

“I’m looking for Misty. She helped me before.”

“I’m sure I can help you. What’s your user number?”

“Misty. Misty knows,” I said, my voice querulous and elderly. “Put on Misty!”

I could hear the exhaustion in his silence, then the compliance. “One moment, and I’ll transfer you.”

“Hey Misty.” I said, “Misty. Misty. You need to get to high ground.”

“What? Who is this?”

“Just promise, k?”

“There’s no tsunami warning—”

“—it’s on its way. It’s passing Japan and Hawaii. It hit the Aleutians. California.” I hoped she didn’t mistake me for what I felt like, right then: a crazy old man, mad with loneliness, longing to hear a voice in the void, even if it was only to harangue them for the weakness of their service and the terrible nature of their product.

“Mark?”

“Another six hours to landfall. I know you’ll still be on shift. Promise.”

I waited for her to disconnect, which was okay because at least I’d told her. Then I think maybe she said, “Thank you, Mark,” or maybe it was just the noise in my head. I held the line another moment, then hung up. I felt okay because I’d got through, because I wasn’t in a cubicle anymore, because I could walk home and enjoy the silence before CoD marathons in the living room, enjoy the ashy rain falling across my slowly cooking skin.

I walked home hoping Misty said, “thank you, Mark.” It felt like I was slipping through a gap in the world, between noises, a kind of silent passage, the way kids slip along the abandoned rail easements in town, below grade, the corridors of grass and rats and squirrels and birds. Between the noise of the phones and CoD. Between heartbeats. Between cresting waves, the silence you hang onto for just a moment when someone hangs up, before you go onto the next call because there is, temporarily, a respite from the tyranny of the queue. The silence after a bullet connects, or a wave hits on the other side of the world. I just hoped, harder and harder and harder, that Misty would insist they unlock the doors and break the windows and they could escape before the wave arrived to wash the rest of us away.

Happenstance

Sunlight hits the top floor of One Eastwaters Tower in a hard, bright wave. When the afternoon glow also strikes the lake, everything turns to dazzle.

I’ve lived high-lakeside for three years. I still startle at the ripple of water-light on the floor, dappling my skin, sparking off the bits of my exoskel that are otherwise invisible no matter what I’m wearing.

People are hardwired for pattern and expectation. Changes shock the system.

I think about this a lot. Especially when I’m working.

Shake off the dazzle, Lane. Focus on Eastwaters’ maps, the Happenstance Engineering Overlay. A fingertip pinch here, a pull there, and you’re done. Got to hit quota before end of day and it’s already late afternoon.

Patterns mean safety. Known risks instead of unknown hazards. A smooth experience.

See also: boredom and stagnation.

So the city gave a handful of Happenstance Engineers full access to the roadworks, the waterworks. With a fast calculation on the city-physics engine and some caution signs, I start an alleyway shift near Water Street. Over a few days’ time, the quiet Eastwaters alley will begin to run east-west for a block. That moves several small shops onto the main thoroughfare, out from the shadows. And it means Sam Bergo from Tower Two, seventeenth floor, and Juliette Dory, Tower Seven, floor twenty, will meet by accident on the way to work the day before their first CrossTowers date.

That’s a couple quota boxes checked with a single job.

On the Overlay, I let the meter run out two minutes early on a single seat at El Fortuna’s open four-top. A Solar Toys CEO is using two more seats as a remote office. Now I watch the dataflow as Zai Norcelli “accidentally” takes a seat. Before the new CEO of SolarToys realizes Zai isn’t the person they’re meeting for dinner, Zai has awkwardly answered questions about his custom automatons and passed a business card.

Check two.

Earbud pings break my concentration: once, twice. An inner-circle chat. That could only mean Sirocco.

“Sorry, working,” I whisper.

Siro’s probably staring at his palm in consternation at that. If he really wants me, he knows where to find me.

Ha. The thought makes me smile.

I toy with the idea of making a fountain rise from the intersection at King and Vorhees, way up on Eastwaters’s last hill within megacity limits, settle for a less-whimsical pothole instead. Less likely to get me in trouble with the city, or the water division of Civil Engineering. Foot traffic will still have to go around the obstacle and people will still shift their day slightly. Bonus: I’m all the way at the edge of my territory. That’s three.

So much for patterns, city dwellers. The changes I’ve made to the smart streets and shops start to ripple in real time: people bump into each other to avoid the pothole, grumble a lot, and commiserate. On their new path, they discover that small, out of the way shop with that thing they didn’t know they needed. The shop will drop City Engineering a thank you cred, and some of that will slide to me. Check, check, check.

I can almost hear Eastwaters’s gears click into new shapes; the streets sing. But city infrastructure isn’t my watch. Gears, physics, street sounds, and lights belong to CivE and MechE. Those engineers listen for the grind and crunch, the rush of water, the sound of a tram barreling along a tunnel.

My skel—an old model, but I keep it because I’ve made my own mods—chimes quietly. New message from Siro.

“Text and scroll.” The command sends his words to my wraparounds—the only part of the skel I can take off because they’re just for work. :: Dinner 7pm w. VC VP Ok? @Home ::

It’s 5:15 pm now. The depth of my sigh sets the suit’s monitors whirring, trying to figure out what’s the matter with Lane. Pain? Exhaustion? “Stand down.”

Annoyance isn’t on the suit’s checklist.

:: Okay ::

I wave the message away. For a moment, the sun-sparkled hypercarbon of my skel transfixes me. The light snakes from my palms, up past my elbows, and on back past the edges of my tank top. The skel looks like stars.

I’m not going to soft-pedal Siro. He knows that two hours is nowhere near enough time for me to get ready and be entertaining. He can handle the party himself.

Sure enough he texts right back. :: Catering at 6:45 ::

The skel stops trying to assess me as soon as my blood pressure drops back into normal range. Need to jack those metrics down a bit. Siro likes to know how I’m feeling, but I don’t, not this much. This is way too sensitive.

On my wraparounds, the city maps illuminate new connections built off the Happenstances I’ve put down. My earjacks feed me snippets of laughter. That’s a day’s pay when you’re a Hap Engineer. The sound of cred micropayments from the city grant going into my account. The kick of unexpected meetings and faces lighting up.

Most cities, even a few years ago? My activities might have been called mayhem. But in a smart city where everything runs on smooth, automated rails? Happy accidents have to be engineered.

I bag my Haps quota when a banana shortage I caused at Tower One’s grocery pays off. To celebrate, I vent the overhead water feed on Tower Seventeen’s second floor vertical farm. Just a little.

Points of reference light up all over the megatowers as people come out to see the rainbows. The points grow brighter still as the fish in the atrium breeding ponds rise to nibble on the fruit dropped by the soaked plants. Beautiful. More lights intersect as neighbors reconnect beneath the rain and sunbows. That district’s social nodes go bright purple on the map.

Check.

5:50 p.m. I need to move the printing supplies off the dining room table and get changed. But I want to watch Davian Mirren’s payoff once it filters down the network. Mirren needed bananas for the desert she’d looked up at work that morning. Right after I’d shorted the grocery, my mark had to find a different store. She chose the next tower over, used the crosswalk, grumbled at the inefficiency. On the way there, she met an old friend from college on her regular run. My cred record showed Davian applying for a new job at her friend’s company. Excellent.

My weekly Haps quota—upper left in my wraparounds and lower right on the main map projected above my loft’s coffee table—both go green. It’s only Wednesday, and though I’m still short on the month because I took sick leave last week, I’m catching up.

I stretch my hands and pull the wraparounds from my eyes. Drop them on the coffee table. Resist the urge to sink into the couch and watch the sun on the lake. My loft’s a big open square on the forty-sixth floor. When I found it, the tower hadn’t been popular; all the city’s hotspots were up the hill near all the good restaurants and clubs. Tower One had been a loss leader for a failed developer who didn’t understand Eastwaters’s docks, so I locked in cheap rent and camped out, eating takeout on the sofa—my main furniture besides the matterprinter and a mattress—watching sunsets through the big windows, avoiding the Oldtown protests, and working.

The plexi coffee table came in a few weeks ago, along with the chrome dining set, the retro lamps, and Siro.

“You timed the market, Lane,” he’d said. “This neighborhood’s getting hot.” His sheepish grin did the asking for him and, tired of pushing myself to get across town for dates, I let him move in.

Don’t date your boss. I know, I know.

I could say he was closest to hand. We worked together for years. But truth was, I liked him. And he was never shocked by my mods. When I told him. He didn’t mind the skel, and he wasn’t creepy about it. That was important.

Plus, his codework was damn sexy. Even his comments.

OK, I admit our code those first few years got pretty not safe for work, but it was just us, working on the Happenstance algorithm. Things just . . . happened.

And now I’m cleaning up so he can have investors over for dinner.

My skel chimes. “Stand down. Recalibrate for less input.” The skel chimes again, acknowledging.

I box the printing supplies—plastic and chrome for modding the skel, a few carbon tubes for reinforcements—and shove that under the sofa with my foot. The printer itself Siro will have to move. It‘s too heavy for me, even with the exoskeleton’s help. Some skels are work-strong, but this one is mostly support, a little reinforcement to keep my limbs from popping, a little skin-level pain-soothe. The basics.

I grab a short, sheer black dress from the bedroom closet and wiggle it over my head. Leave my jeans on. Siro wants fancier? He can damn well let me know before noon. Swap my chucks for flats. Don’t bother about the hair, which drops straight down my back like a second brace, no matter what I do to it. Check.

I have a few minutes more to watch the map before I have to deal with guests. The map soothes me. I can’t always watch the ripples caused by Happenstances, but the metrics drop from the network to the Happenstance Engineering Overlay in a few hours. Even without metrics, I can see I’m having a good day, just by the glow of the overlay. New nodes in the network are strengthening. I know it’s good work.

The algorithms Siro and I developed over the past three years and the lines we’d patched through the city’s main utility systems—plus social, shopping, traffic, and scheduling apps—were light-fast responsive. That made the work easier. Not just for me. For the two other Happenstance Engineers we’d partnered with in Eastwaters also, and for the Haps in Seattle and Shenzhen who were pioneering the system there.

A knock on the door. I wave it open from the middle of the loft and go back to work. Siro’s caterers can set up the table however they want.

Smells like salmon. Big meeting then, if Siro’s springing for real fish.

I haven’t played big with the map shifts today—I’d burned a few of those from my quota last week. Today is smalls—the most fun, in my opinion. They cause the most direct Happenstances. I like the up close shifts, the changes in just a few lives that one pause or a new conversation create.

The Happenstance overlay on the map glows brighter in that edge district. The one with the pothole. Shit, maybe that was too much. That’s a lot more people than usual in that district.

My skel pings softly again—suit charge alert this time. I ignore it for now. Still enough power in the system to support my legs and back. The map’s got my attention.

With a double click, the thick door to the loft opens, then slams closed. I barely hear it.

A few moments later, Siro’s fingers brush the bare edge of my ear. “You are an artist,” he says.

He always says that.

“I like the connections.” Leaning into the touch, I douse my maps.

Lakelight plays on Siro’s chrome gearbag, dropped on the coffee table. Dazzling. The sleeve of his grey suit’s dappled in light.

“Besides, you built the damn nodes. I just play them.” I turn to look at him. When he smiles shyly, I add, “Quit that. You know it’s elegant.”

He’s a weaver of networks. A maker of gates. All I do is help people walk through.

“You play a great tune.” Siro slides an arm around my waist, hard exoskeleton and all. Smells like cologne, bright wood tones, but not too much—so he’d been meeting with the city again—plus garlic and thai basil—he’d had lunch at his favorite pho place.

My stomach growls. “A lunch meeting and a dinner?”

“Have to, Lane. Eastwaters isn’t going to run Happenstance off grants much longer. Utilities won’t let us in unless we hand over the algorithm, and then we can’t expand to more cities. I’d rather go private. Contract to the city.”

We’d talked about this before. I liked my job better than his. “Who’s in the net tonight?”

Before we’d proved the Happenstance concept in Tower Sixteen—on the upper edge of the city, where Siro lived—no one would sit down with him. First sign of our success had been “Caledin,” a competitive food-dance gig that had grown out of an accidental cross-scheduling of two community groups. Yeah, it was as messy as it sounds.

No one realized Caledin was going to be big until it caught on in three more towers, both players and watchers. Soon after, a support group appeared for school children who couldn’t use VR gear—something the city government hadn’t even known was a problem until two disparate parents met in a fifth floor grocery over the last bag of oranges.

It wasn’t long before metrics supported so much of a shift for the better in Tower Sixteen—more students coming to classes, more residents attending events—that the tower and several more around it began to pay us. Give us access to more systems.

Sure, there were a few disasters that first outing—a flooded apartment, people who were so late to work they got docked—and we took the cred hit for that. But we learned a lot too. Three years on, people across the towers are happier, more connected. They don’t get stuck in ruts as much. The data shows it. Hell, the maps show it.

Except for the map that was lighting up too much before I had to stow it. Shit, why now?

Siro hasn’t answered me about who’s coming to dinner either. I repeat the question.

He smiles his best please-don’t-hate-me grin. “Octavian Smith.”

“I don’t need to be here for this.”

Octavian’s the worst kind of player. He likes to fund companies with pretty owners or pretty assets. He seeded the first part of the Happenstance trial run, actually told people he’d invented it, and then ditched for a higher profile project. We’d nearly lost everything, Siro and me.

Now we were successful and Octavian was back. “How can you consider him?”

My partner’s smile falters. “He’s got the best offer, Lane.”

With the suit sensitivity turned down, I can seethe and he’ll never hear a thing. “It’s the only offer, right?”

Instead of answering, Siro busies himself, taking the lids off the catering trays, pouring wine. Fish, rice, beans. The table’s set for three and he’s not changing that. My appetite goes dead.

I tap my left arm twice. The skel beeps obligingly. “I’m going outside to charge.”

“Lane, now?” Siro says.

But I’m already out on the balcony watching the sunset. Not much in the way of charging at this point in the day, but the colors are pretty. A flock of birds skids in random patterns over the lake.

Back inside, Octavian and Siro are standing on the other side of the glass, watching me. God, that guy.

Where Siro’s pale from head to toe—greying hair, light-steel eyes—Octavian’s bright and right on trend. Man loves his lips. Right now, he’s wearing two tones: chrome top, purple bottom. His polychrome jacket looks orange, then purple in the right light.

“Lane,” he gushes when I come back in. “Such a pleasure. Your stats are amazing. And Siro’s told me about your mods.” He hands me a bouquet of stargazer lilies. The smell is overpowering. My face heats up.

“She embarrasses easily,” Siro chuckles. I could almost murder him and then print out his casket and drop it into the lake.

“It’s not embarrassment,” I say. “I’d rather my stats and mods stayed out of negotiations, is all.”

Octavian’s smile brightens. “I like a challenge.”

Siro looks at me, pleadingly.

Octavian tries again. “This is such a fantastic apartment. Lane, you had such vision grabbing this one.”

Better. “Thank you.” But I don’t smile. I’m not interested in anything Octavian’s selling.

Over dinner, Octavian’s smile just gets bigger as he and Siro talk. By the time I go to bed, they’ve started drawing up plans, talking acquisitions. Loudly.

Damn. I like my job. I don’t want Octavian anywhere near it. Maybe not Siro either.

The next morning, while Siro sleeps off the wine, I watch more points on the Happenstance overlay begin to glow brighter, this time near the alley I’m shifting.

“Want to get dinner outside the tower tonight?” Siro collapses on the sofa, a glint in his eyes. “Surprises.”

I’m in no mood. “Tell me now. I hate surprises.” Especially Octavian surprises.

Siro gloats. “You do surprises for a living! How can you hate them?” But he squeezes my hand. “It’s going to be great. New project, Lane.”

Maybe it’s not Octavian? I shrug. “Sure.” I could like surprises, with enough advance warning. “I have to finish this quota set.” I put my wraps on, but keep the main map off. I can’t afford to fall any further behind, especially if Siro’s seriously considering Octavian. Maybe I can work in Seattle. Once I solve this overload bug.

The system’s set up so that Happenstance Engineers can synchronize across the city so that no one area gets more changes—and more serendipity—over another. Quotas and data keep everything balanced.

“It’s good, I promise.” Siro grins. “Hey, Octavian wasn’t kidding about your cred . . . .”

I wave him off. “Later?” That small square of the map’s glowing more brightly than last night. Too many people with too much Happenstance is bad. Kind of like too much of one kind of data overflowing one part of a system and leaving the rest blank.

Siro shrugs. “Of course. I’m going to get cleaned up anyway.” He leaves the bag on the table and closes the bedroom door behind him.

Everyone in Eastwaters has cred based on work quotas, thank yous from friends, community goodwill. Micropayments sometimes add up, though I donate most of mine to biomech research a couple of cities over. But with Siro and Octavian both talking about my cred, I take a peek on my wraps. Okay, it’s worth more than a little today. Something I’d done had gotten a big gratitude bump.

Grinning, I keep working. I can buy extra supplies for my printer with that. The map brightens again, same spot, right near the alley. Too many people there.

Might have to shut it down. That will ding me, but it’s better than having something go wrong. Happenstance can get messy if you’re not careful.

But shutting down the shift isn’t as important as figuring out where the bug is in the algorithm. How did people know to go where everything is shifting? I’m always careful to cloak my actions, so no one expects.

I heat water for tea in the kitchen. The caterers have come and cleaned up. That’s great because my hands are shaky. The skel struggles to brace my wrists and fingers, but this isn’t my crappy joints. This is nerves.

A similar in-a-rut pattern emerged after one of my early engineering runs. I’d ignored it and that’s how I’d besieged an entire floor with kittens. Long story. Longer cleanup. Don’t ask.

Now I can’t help worrying. This isn’t like the kittens or the flooding. People are gravitating toward where I’m working. They’re anticipating and—worse—hanging around, waiting for happenstance.

“That’s not how it works, kids.” I shut the alley shift down. “Sorry, Sam. Sorry, Juliette.”

If my work is becoming part of a pattern that people can anticipate somehow, that breaks the whole system.

My suit chimes again. I ignore it. Throw a frustrated poll onto the network instead. It doesn’t look like anything much—small, reward-based, single question. :: Do you think luck is hard to find? ::

I’d seeded two other polls over the past three weeks. The results all came back the same. This one does too.

An increasing percentage of people say no. I watch as real time results creep past 45%.

So strange.

I get the Happenstance Engineers in Seattle and Shenzhen up on my screen, but hold off on grabbing the two in Eastwaters. They’re aren’t online yet anyway and, besides, they work for Octavian.

“Seeing anything strange in your nodes?”

The engineer in Shenzhen shakes his head. “Nothing unusual.”

Seattle hangs onto the connection longer. “Check for scanners on the networks. We’ve had bots lately scanning keywords. We’re shifting to codes and false phrases in order to gain a bit of a head start on them.”

“Thanks. That could be the answer I need.” I take off the wraps. Look up to find Siro on the sofa with the main map open, watching my moves.

“Hey.” Too flustered to get really mad yet, I sit down next to him. Him opening my map is concerning. He’s never done that before.

“Tell me.” He knows something’s up.

That’s genuinely concerning, since I don’t have a grip on the data yet. “There’s nothing to tell.”

Siro frowns by halves, one side of his mouth dropping to match the other. “Spill, Lane.” Hung over, for sure.

I play with my wraps and then drop them on the table. Look out at the balcony, the lake beyond. The dazzle’s just about to break, but the sun’s not low enough yet.

“That thing I was talking about with Seattle?” I assume he heard. “I think people are starting to expect luck. All the time. That ruins the algorithm. Happenstance? Serendipity? Can’t be expected. None of our quotas will mean anything if all we’re doing is filling a hole that keeps getting bigger because of expectations. We won’t help anyone connect, we’ll just make another rut.”

I think of the family yesterday who’d just “lucked into” a long lost relative by the farm levels after the mini-flood in Tower Seventeen. Of the happy reunion photos that had spread across the network. I love helping nudge that sort of thing along. I don’t want to give it up because the algorithm’s obsolete.

Must be a way to fix it. Code words like Seattle? Just a kludge. I want a real mod. Something that evolves.

Siro has gone wraps-up, messaging someone. He’ll be little help until he’s over his hangover anyway.

On the balcony outside my flat, a seagull lands, then tucks its wings and cocks its head as it ponders the broad glass doors. I slide the doors open and step outside, “Shoo!”

My suit chimes as sunlight hits it, charging back up.

So that’s the jittery wrists. Note for a future mod: something to help me tell the difference between nerves and tech failure. Like, say, any number of chimes from my exoskeleton. I make another note.

I’d forgotten I needed to get to full charge. Possibly for a couple days. The skel drains easier on lower charge, and one of my new mods might be dragging the system. Either way, I hadn’t remembered to charge until I saw the bird.

People forget to help themselves sometimes when they’re busy, when everything’s in easy reach.

Below the balcony, the city spreads out on all sides in a neat grid. The lake fans against the horizon also, but with less pattern, more sunlight sparkling across the water.

Siro slides the doors open, snakes a finger down the back of my neck. “Sorry. Rough night.” Hands me a glass. Ice water. The ice is luxurious. He sips a gin tonic.

“I don’t know why you want to deal with Octavian again,” I say. Never really good at knowing when to cut my losses, me. “This mess worries me.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Siro says. “You always come up with interesting approaches. Dinner’s canceled though. Octavian says we’ve got to clean up Happenstance before we can court more buyers. He’s got some structural ideas—new nodes, line of sight stuff.”

Not just Octavian, then. A group of them, eventually. Another of Octavian’s schemes. Suddenly I feel very tired. “When were you going to tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

That you were selling me out. “A group of buyers?” Things are going to change. Damn I love this job. More than anything. It lets me be in the world if I want, when I want. It lets me make a difference.

I lean my head back, hold out my arms so the sun can hit more of the skel. The servos whir softly as the braces shift to support my back and keep my knees from dislocating. Joints. Intersections. Big old fail points. Especially if your system’s not making enough of what holds them together.

“You’ll figure it out,” Siro repeats. He’s donned his wraps again, reading. “I can get some node programmers to help you if you want.” His voice has that tin quality of someone half paying attention. He’s like this a lot lately, not wanting to sort out details with just me, assuring everyone everything will be fine.

“But don’t mention it to anyone, not yet. Not until something changes.” He looks at me over the wraps until I nod.

I stare out over the lake, looking for something to change out there. For a fish to jump, a waterspout, anything. “You told Octavian.” What I don’t say yet: Aside from shutting down the program, like I shut down the alley shift, I can’t see a way out of the rut. Worse, with Siro in the loft, I know I can’t work on the problem all night the way I want to: letting the wraps wear a red mark on the bridge of my nose, letting my suit run out of charge from lack of sunlight. No, because dinners and Siro dragging me outside or telling me to “spill” before I’m ready.

Check: still mad.

But Siro’s gone back inside. Didn’t hear me. Time to tell him to take a walk for a bit.

67% charge on the skel. Good enough. I pull the doors open.

In the loft’s greatroom, Siro has an expensive loafer up on the coffee table. He points at the map. “Hey, here’s another ten percent on the node.” He shakes his head. “Just waiting. Like they think it’s going to rain candy or something. They’ve been doing this for a while?”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll fix everything. Octavian’s got an idea. He’s coming over.”

That doesn’t sound like a fix at all. “You creeped my live feed again?”

Siro really needs to take a walk.

It’s still my loft. I haven’t added his name to the lease yet. Granted, it’s a handshake lease, not all that legal, done when everyone wanted to live up the hill. Doesn’t really matter if he’s on it or not.

In the quiet, I can hear my skel ticking. I can hear Siro’s breathing. It’s smooth and relaxed, like he’s keeping himself calm. I modded a data feed upgrade last week—that’s probably what was sucking the skel’s power dry. That was why the sick leave. But now I’m glad I did. The added room sensors and proximity monitors in the skel let me watch Siro’s heartbeat and blood pressure. Even when I brush my leg against his thigh, he’s dead steady.

Lying. Siro. And so careful about it. “I just wanted to see for myself. There’s an easy fix, you know.”

Fine. I can lie too, and he doesn’t have the upgrades to sense it. My hand twitches. The recharged skel balances to compensate. “Go on.”

“Octavian’s solution? He’s thinking we upgrade some of the land nodes. One node to start, to see if it makes a difference in predictability. Somewhere unusual, like Oldtown.”

Yeah, well, Octavian owns a big share of a node company. And shares in the other two Hap groups. We just own the algorithm.

Siro catches a faceful of my opinion. “Shit, Lane, he’s just got an idea. Hear him out, okay? We can’t do this fast without you anyway.”

There’s one aspect to installing new nodes that I can do easily. I’m a walking data center—even more than Siro knows. When I move through the city, my skel can pick up data from my surroundings, anything that isn’t marked private or no-entry. My maps load to my suit as easily as they do to the loft’s coffee table. I can engineer Happenstances from anywhere and see the results at ground level. I just prefer to be up high. Out of the noise. Away from the people. The other Haps can’t do that. Not without huge rigs and a fair bit of claustrophobia from not being used to the gear.

I’m very used to the gear.

“Sure.” I’m tired. Siro knows it. And the minute I say sure, he drops the guilt-face and blinks at his wraps. They go opaque like someone’s been waiting on the other side of the connection. The data sleeve Siro wears lights up. Three swipes and a quick reply cascade bracelets his arm. His wraps go transparent again. “Great. Octavian’s coming now.”

That’s fast. “Didn’t Octavian just leave a couple hours ago? He must have slept in an empty flat in the tower. Can’t we go somewhere else? This is still my place.”

Siro pulls me close. “We live here now, remember? Not just you.” He runs a thumb along my throat where the skel doesn’t need to support me. My skin goosebumps in the worst way. I lean away from it, feeling the warmth Siro’s hand leaves across my throat. I don’t want that right now. Too much.

I’d let him in, sure. Let him stay. But this place is still mine. He’d wanted it that way, especially at first. For years, he’d kept his things and his meetings at Tower Seventeen. Didn’t want to complicate things. I found this apartment. Created my nest. Never thought it would become one of the most sought-after towers in the city.

I just liked the height, the view. Now he likes it too.

When Octavian knocks on the door, I let Siro get it. I’d already seen Octavian coming down the hall on my wraps—yep, I modded the hallway too. I know he’s carrying more stargazers, even though I dumped last night’s stargazers in the garbage as soon as I could.

It’s going to be one of those meetings.

Siro lets Octavian into the loft. “Thanks for coming back.”

Octavian holds out the flowers so I have to take them, be responsible for them, while he and Siro begin talking. I leave them high and dry by the sink.

“So,” Octavian’s saying. They have my map projected over the coffee table. Again without asking. “Lane, you’re the best Happenstance person we’ve got. You make it look so effortless. With a few adjustments, we should be up and running with no expectation factor in a few days. Easy.”

Really. I haven’t been able to figure out how. I wonder at this. My shoulders tighten the more I think about it. Nothing’s that easy. And who gave Octavian the right to say “we?” I haven’t accepted yet. My skel tries to get me to relax, applying modulated pressure to muscles in my back. Screw that. I shrug it off. I want to be angry.

Octavian fills in the space left by my silence. “People don’t value the work that goes into Happenstance. Just like folks used to leave the faucets running before they installed the timeout meters.”

Siro nods in complete agreement.

“Sometimes you just want to take a long shower.” I’m growling now.

Siro sighs and opens the doors to the balcony. No birds out there now. No dazzle either. Just the real city’s grid expanding out from the lakefront below.

Octavian points, down and to the left. To Oldtown. “To plant the node, we need you to go to Oldtown, by the ph shop, and open up a new line.”

“A line too? In Oldtown?” Lines, like everything else in the smart cities, have to be cleared with the city. A direct line-of-sight control on all the hypercarbon embeds in city structure? So much paperwork. Siro was all about the clearances so I didn’t press. If he was signing off, this was legit.

That was Siro’s favorite takeout place anyway.

“Just a temp line.” Octavian nods. “It’ll be like old times before we’d laid down any of the Happenstance nodes.”

We. Again. I don’t recall Octavian running any lines three years ago. Just dropping some cash and running away.

“A temp line to do what? There aren’t any smart streets or pop-up builds for blocks beyond Tower Seven in Oldtown.”

“There are a couple nearby. You dropped a pocket park just across the street from where we’re going, so it’s line-of-sight to the next node. The couple there run a grocery and the ph shop, in a three-story tucked into Tower Seven’s shadow, east side. They’ll let you up on the roof for sight access,” Octavian answers. But it isn’t an answer, not really.

The sun hits the lake, white diamonds sparkle on the tower glass.

Three-story walk-ups are rare now, except in Oldtown. But the skel makes stairs easier.

Siro clears his throat. “You’ll just need to grab their data key in order to loop them in. I’ll do the rest.”

“What’s the rest?” And who grabs anyone’s data key anymore?

“Bigger Happenstance. A new way to push things forward. The walk-up is at a great location for line of sight access to five towers. So there can be more randomness, and people might not be able to predictive-jump the Happenstance spots so frequently. Also bigger. Did I mention?”

I hesitate.

Octavian looks at Siro with a meaningful eyebrow raised, then sits down on the sofa and pats it, trying to get me to come sit too. “Come on, Lane. Show me the mods you’ve been doing. Compared to them, a node install is a cakewalk.”

I don’t move. There’s a long silence.

“She’s an engineer, not a prop,” Siro finally says. “You don’t get to play with her.”

“I can speak for myself.” Annoyance doesn’t register on the skel, thank everything. I pick the bench just beyond Octavian’s reach. Ignore his interest in my mods. “What do you bring to this?” And what has Siro promised you?

“The new algorithm gives you enough variation that your activities will be invisible to your districts. You’ll be invisible to almost anyone until you’re right on top of them. Better than that, it will give you some surprises too.”

“I don’t want surprises. I don’t want your code. Siro’s code is fine.”

Octavian purses his lips and clenches his thick fingers in his lap. “That’s unfortunate. My review of your work says you could use some surprises.”

The leather-analog surface of the bench I’m sitting on is cool to the touch. While my skel whirs, adjusting support, I trace the bench’s upholstery: circles, triangles. The minute stitching, the three-ply thread, and the woven padding beneath.

His review of my work. “I don’t see why.”

Siro clears his throat. “Lane, doing a deal with the cities meant we had to look hard at everything. That turned up some questions about whether your work has been giving you unfair advantages. Whether you had some bias in your project selection. Octavian offered to look into it when we hired him to solve the predictability problem a couple of weeks ago.”

They’d brought Octavian on around when I’d first noticed the problem. Before I’d said anything. Siro had known for that long and not said a word.

Couple weeks since he’d moved in, too. I felt physically ill.

“I couldn’t say anything because the city had questions. And I didn’t want to upset you. Make you sick.” He tilts his head. “Okay?”

I mute my skel’s alerts. Not okay.

I’d taken nothing for myself. Worked ridiculous hours for nothing. Met all my quotas once we landed the grant.

“I get to decide, remember?” I decide what I can and cannot handle. “How have I been unfair? My data’s clean.”

Octavian jumps in. “Your data’s wrong.”

Siro puts out a steadying hand. “Just subconscious bias; it can be fixed.”

Then Octavian’s saying, “You’ve been missing things for a while. Given your condition . . . .” That makes me want to toss them both into the sun.

Then don’t let them say that to you. Push back.

“My condition’s got nothing to do with my work. And my data’s good.”

“I wish that was the case,” Octavian says. His voice turns velvet. He’s so very sorry. “But my assessment doesn’t lie.”

“It does. This time it does. Whatever you have, it’s nothing I’ve done.”

Velvet-voiced and oh so sorry, Octavian spreads out data sheets on the table.

“Here’s a list of your last hundred Happenstances. They’re all well distributed. You’ve been working very consciously to make sure everyone gets a fair chance. But . . . .” He flipped another data sheet. “Here’s the value on your flat. And your cred.” The numbers climb. I can see the pattern, almost—but . . . it looks strange. With every happenstance, my value, and the value of the one thing that’s mine, rises, based on Octavian’s calculations.

“You think I’m enriching myself? Making this neighborhood more popular?”

“Not consciously, no.” Octavian plays with a twitch-ring, moving the gears back and forth. “Just by being you? Maybe. The city’s concerned. You’re in a very important position, especially if we become contractors. We want to make sure everything is . . . clear.” We again. I realize he’s offering me something. I don’t want it.

Siro continues, “So we’re here to help you optimize and modify. The first step is setting this node, giving yourself some unpredictability in your districts. If you’re willing to do that, the city can see the rest is an accident.”

“A little diversification of your investments won’t hurt either,” Octavian adds.

A deep breath feels like fire in my nostrils. “Diversification of what?”

“Yes. Your cred, your investments. You need to look cleaner for the city to take us as a consultant. Your loft too. It’s rocketed in value. If you sublet it, or move, you won’t look quite so complicit.”

I shake my head. “I have too much work to do to deal with this bullshit. You two should take your data somewhere else.” No way am I moving when I don’t want to.

Sensing the resistance, Octavian puts a hand on Siro’s shoulder. “Maybe we should do this later, over dinner.”

“Do what?” I say. I run through the other things I’ve bought—three pairs of shoes, a few tunics to go over the skel. Some music.

Octavian’s rich clothes and expensive hair are just the start of his investments, I know.

Siro, too. He looks carved, toned. He’s been cleaning up a lot better lately. And me?

“How long have you been collecting data on me?”

Octavian shrugs. “Not on you, Lane. Never. Just on your work for us.”

For at least as long as Siro’s been in the apartment, then. My skin crawls beneath the frame of my skel.

Siro reaches out to me across the space between sofa and bench. I stare at his hand, hoping it bursts.

“I was concerned. Worried for you. Then Octavian said . . .”

“I know what Octavian’s saying,” I interrupt. “What do you want me to do to fix it?” When they say I can’t do something, that makes me want to do it twice.

Octavian smiles at Siro. “I told you she’d want to help.” He moves to the bench, sits beside me, and takes one of my hands. I can retract the braces, but I don’t. He gets a fistful of hypercarbon and chrome. It feels rude.

I’m okay with rude.

Siro ignores the gesture. Sits on my other side, puts his arm around me. “You just need to run that one line. Drop one node. Everyone will see how much you want to help, and it will be fixed. Fast, too. The system will be so much more robust.”

“They might not want that much luck. Not in Oldtown.” Sandwiched between the two of them, I feel like a three-story walk-up shadowed by megatowers. “People don’t like too much change. Just enough that it’s a discovery.”

Siro withdraws his arm. “You said you’d go.” He needs me to go. Why?

“And I will. I’ll go now.” It’s not yet late afternoon. I grab the chrome gearbag. Leave Siro and Octavian sitting around the coffee table.

As soon as the loft door shuts, I un-mute my skel. Every notice goes off. Pulse, breathing, tension, pain.

“Stand down.” The skel quiets.

Going will fix the problem.

So. I’ll go.

Where the upper lofts in Eastwaters are filled with light, the lifts are narrow and dark. Odd feeling, being encased thrice, once by my skel, once by the lift, then by the tower itself.

People crowd me too.

Descending the lift in Tower One, I’m trapped in a full-surround argument. Yelling, waving hands. Pushing.

Not my argument. Drunk couple. From a floor below, who’d been up to the roof.

“You don’t understand,” the pushing one says loudly. “I forgot I was supposed to meet you. It disappeared from my calendar.”

They’d met over a calendar snafu, I knew.

Waving-hands just groans. “You forget about me all the time.” The doors open and the couple steps out onto the market and gym floor of Tower Three in a dark silence.

I ride the rest of the way to street level alone. On the wall near the lift controls, someone’s posted a note, using a pen and actual paper. “I’ve not been outside in ages. If you have a dog you want walked, or want company walking one, flag me on the network?”

The tear-offs where people take contact info off the sign are all gone.

People hunger to connect and don’t know how any more.

I flex my fingers and my skel flexes with me. I know how. But can I keep helping without gaining unfair advantage?

I’d no intention of enriching myself, even subconsciously. Just thinking of it horrifies me. That Octavian has data on it? That’s even worse.

My skel beeps. “Stand down.” I know my heart rate’s still way off. I can feel it in my temples. The skel pings again, ignoring me. Lights up a display on my wrist: orange bars—Power down to 45%. Not red yet, but I sure could have used some more charging time before I left. Shit.

But I’d been too angry to stay.

Make the node Octavian wants and get them both out of my hair. Then I can think.

What will I do if I can’t Happenstance?

Another ping, this time from the Haps overlay. Fail report. My pothole has caused three bikers to collide. My cred takes a ding, then keeps falling as more people come out to see what the fuss is. I watch it drop. I pull my wraps up, leave them half-opaque in case someone else gets on the lift. I want to be able to see. Open up the map to have a look.

The accident’s near the pothole all right. I adjust so that it will be less dangerous. Slide a garbage can on seamless magnetic controls across the street with a swipe. Redirect people even more around the approach to the area.

With the wraps on, I can’t miss the notice from my building manager as it flickers its way into my inbox. Let it go until later. I have a mess to clean up.

Two more nudges and my cred stabilizes. But I’ve undone two big haps from yesterday. My quotas are in the hole now too. A complete mess. No one to blame but myself.

The lift stops, the doors slide open. Right into the lobby. Empty.

Outside, I stop, caught between the sunlit lake and the towers. Feel the exposed lines of my skel warm and begin to charge. Better.

Then I swing left onto a street between Tower Three and Tower Six. Head for Oldtown, and the takeout place.

The high towers immediately block lake and sunlight. The dappled shadows of reflected windows aren’t enough to charge a piece of paper, much less smart carbon.

By the time I reach the shop, my skel’s at 30%.

Powersuck. Shadows. And the ph place is caught up in Tower Seven’s shadow. I’ll have to work fast to place the node or I’ll be crawling back to my loft. No thanks.

“Come on,” I tell my legs. First thought: Faster. But no. That will suck power too. I’m really not the most efficient body out here. But the suit has two hours of charge left if I’m careful. I set it on low-power. Noisy but it’ll get me through.

Octavian’s new line and node will take an hour, tops.

Finally, I spot the front of the walk-up, with the smart towers built up and over it. Happens a lot in Oldtown, where brickwork and six-over-six windows are slowly devoured by the smartbuildings.

One of Just Ph’s owners stands outside, arms folded. She watches me cross. Hears the low-power whine of my joints. “What’s that?” She glances at her building, as if looking for cracks.

“Me,” I try. “I’m a Happenstance engineer. They told you I was coming, they said?”

The owner nods. She doesn’t smile.

In the shade where we’re standing, I don’t think she can see my skel.

“Won’t take a second. I did a little work just up the smart side of the street.” I point at the small pocket park I’d dropped. Where there’d once been a blank intersection, now there was a jungle gym and a colorful merry-go-round. Two kids playing, parents standing quietly nearby.

“That was nice work,” she finally says.

My wraps say the owner’s name is Pham Thi Bao Lan.

Mrs. Pham frowns. “What kind of install are you doing?”

“Just a node and a temporary line.” The woman’s frown stays stable. She points me to the roof. “Stairs OK?”

Stairs are fine with the skel. Even on low power. Once I’m up, I pull a micro carbon line from Siro’s chrome bag and began to set the anchor in the roof. It can’t get picked up by birds or blown away by the wind this way. There’s too much chance something would snag it if I didn’t lay it down carefully and then synch it with the rest of the lines on Tower Seven.

The line can’t impact physical elements the way they do in the smart part of the city—nothing smart to talk to here—but it can share data and relay information into the apps in a new way. Just Ph will see a bump in traffic. Other Oldtown stores will too.

Once the anchor’s set, I trail the thin line through my fingers all around the building, shivering in the shadow of the tower. Use an epoxy to seal it to the roofline. Then I pop the end of the line with its miniature network drive on the ledge. Line-of-sight for days up here.

Once I have it all up, I register the node with the city using my skel’s connection and the Happenstance Overlay. Watch it light up, green. Check.

“There you go,” I say to Octavian and Siro.

They don’t respond.

Fine by me.

When I’m done with the install, especially once the main line-of-sight is in, I can see the impact hit. Down the street, my park begins to shift slowly, adding a new bench. That motion expands, rippling, so that walkways and thoroughfares begin to smooth around the benches. Soon the whole corner’s reconfigured, with seats facing the Ph shop, and people have to change directions to go around.

Inside the pocket park, two parents pause and begin talking. “Good to see you! We should grab lunch.” People are stepping outside their circuits. It’s working.

My shoulders relax. That should help me with quotas. But I don’t want any cred for this.

Even so, my cred’s wobbling. I can’t get a lock on the value.

Even so, I wave the owner’s proffered handshake away. She still uses a manual cred-transfer. “Don’t worry about it,” I say.

But she’s not looking at me. She’s looking at a wall just below where the tower meets her building’s roof. I can hear the load-bearing-wall beneath it groaning.

That isn’t going to be okay with the city. The smart tower is growing down over the three-story again. And the restaurant’s wall is going to crack.

“I’ll report it.” How could this happen with a permit down?

“It’s because of your Happenstance,” Mrs. Pham says. “The buildings move too fast.” She means ‘move at all.’ They shouldn’t be moving. But if they are, it’s going to be worse now. Because of the new line.

“Not at all, ma’am. No one would do that if there was a risk.” Buildings don’t move unless an engineer told them to. I haven’t told anyone to move anything.

14% charge. I need to hurry back to Tower One before the sun goes down.

Mrs. Pham’s cheeks color a deeper hue. “You think you can make me pay, but you can’t!”

“What are you talking about?” Utterly befuddled, low on charge.

I’d refused her offer of a tip.

“Your friends said you’d be by if I didn’t pay up. That Happenstance was a two-way street. Have you no empathy?” She’s almost crying. “You people always take advantage of the next modifications, the next new everything. But,” she points at the wall, “it is breaking us.”

The three-story building makes a sound like my skel, groaning under the pressure.

Her wall line begins to sound. “Other business owners, in adjoining buildings.” She points. That’s a lot of angry faces. All wanting to know what I’ve done.

What have I done?

Massive fail points stacking up, and meantime my own cred is suddenly thriving again. Outside, people are interacting, everything’s got a boost. Big, like Siro said. Only this shop is losing out.

“Pay up? Who said that to you?” The penny drops. “Octavian.”

Mrs. Pham shrugs. “We can’t prove it . . . he knows we can’t.”

“Has this happened before?”

“Just rumors.”

Furious, I look at the Happenstance overlay. Sure enough, someone’s running a hap right on top of us. The building is shifting, grinding into the three-story. I power up to full and throw a hold on the modifications.

It’s not entirely legitimate, but technically this is my territory so the map lets me do it. The node I just activated fades and the building stops creaking. The crack stops growing. Mrs. Pham whistles appreciation. “Thank you.”

“That shouldn’t ever happen.” I try to see where the work originated, but the map’s powered down to short range, because my skel’s charge can’t support a citywide. 3%.

I try to grab Siro on my wraps but I can’t get a signal out that way either. Not past tower seven. No links. No coms.

The map has faded to a low-charge grey. The only reason I can connect to anything at all is the line I just planted.

Worse, the skel’s slowed to a crawl. I can strip it off, which might make it easier to move at this point, since the joints are all servo-guided, but then I’ll have zero support, and no way I could get down the stairs. I doubt I can even ping a cab to take me back to Tower One.

I thought I’d packed the emergency charge cables in Siro’s bag, but they aren’t there. I’m stuck here, until I can get a charge.

Worse than stuck. Dependent.

I look at the restaurant owner. “I’m afraid I need your help.” I hate asking for help. It gives people power over you.

When I let her know what I need, Mrs. Pham shakes her head: No solar, no backup charger.

Nothing that will connect with my skel.

I’m stuck in an Oldtown three story with no power, no sunlight. It’s too far to walk to get out of the tower shade. We’re losing what light remains anyway.

“But I can make some calls for you,” she says. She tries to ping Siro first. No answer.

She calls up to my flat for me on her wall screen. It doesn’t connect. She tries again.

By the third try, I’m sitting on the floor, my knees and arms locked up. The friendly face of the tower supervisor appears. “Lane! We’ve been trying to reach you. There’s been a flood at your apartment level.”

“What do you mean? Since this morning?”

“We had to clear it out. You’re being moved down a few floors.”

“Temp quarters?” How many floors? Mrs. Pham’s looking at me, trying to overhear.

“Permanent—your lease was up anyway, and with the repairs we’re going to have to raise the rent to someone with higher cred. Yours is . . . plummeting. I hope you’re all right?” The supervisor’s smile doesn’t say anything of the sort.

To a shadier floor. And I’d never signed a real lease. The tower just let me and a few other creatives crash there to keep the lights on years ago, then I’d started paying rent. Now the building’s popular and I’m not.

“I can up my rent. Not a problem.” I liked my flat. And I had cred.

But now the other area businesses are filing complaints and I see he’s right. My cred’s dropping faster than it rose earlier. Damn.

“We’ve already got someone lined up. You know him, actually.” This time, the supervisor frowns.

“Octavian.” Siro, how could you trust the man? This is the worst kind of surprise.

A clatter from beyond the restaurant’s kitchens. Mrs. Pham leads out one of the customers, who wears a partial skel on a wrist and shoulder. He holds up a power cord. “Yes?”

Oh yes. “I’ll pay you back for the charge.” Lucky, this. Very.

Mrs. Pham nods. “You can pay me back by stopping what’s happening here—keep our home safe.”

Payback. I can do that. I just don’t know how, not yet.

When I have enough juice from their wall unit—10%—I open the map once more. The hap to Tower Seven’s been made under my name. That’s why my cred’s heading for the gutter again. Good luck getting any of the other engineers to help me either—this has third rail disaster written all over it.

But I can do one thing. I ping Siro. Leave a message. :: You need to meet me in Oldtown. I found out what Octavian is doing. You can’t do a deal with him! ::

If Siro’s working with Octavian, that will get him down here. If he isn’t, that will get them both down here.

I pull myself up from where I’d sat down when my skel drained. 13% charge now. Enough to get across to the park, where the sun is finally breaking the treeline just a little. It’s risky, but I can charge and watch the shop at the same time. “If anyone comes in, stall them, okay?” Mrs. Pham and the customer both agree.

I sit on the jungle gym, soaking in late afternoon sunlight. When I see Octavian approaching, I drop my first happenstance. Just up the street from where he’s walking. A big fountain, ornate hypercarbon, with plenty of water features.

I’ve been prepping it for an hour, loudly, so that all the search bots lurking in the happenstance grid can alert their owners.

The fountain pushes against the hypercarbon surface of the smart road there at the edge of Oldtown, self-printing and generating more of itself as it goes. Octavian sees the bulge in the street, but doesn’t quite understand what it means yet.

The bowl of the fountain hollows out, and from within it, another tier rises, then another. Water begins to trickle down the terraces, catching the light and refracting it.

“Mrs. Pham, I came to check the work done by our engineer,” Octavian says.

Our.

There’s enough pull on the pipes from that fountain that Civ Engineering is bound to check in. I block their calls. They’ll alert the city. The police.

Then I toss my second happenstance, the one that sets off the fire alarms in the lowest three floors of Tower Seven.

The fountain’s big enough now that people can sit by it, cool off in the spray.

11% power. The skel’s dropping fast. :: Lane what are you doing? :: Siro pings. :: Octavian left like his hair was on fire, and I’m trying to catch up. I saw your haps drop. What happened? ::

:: I’ll show you when you get here. ::

By this time, there are a ton of people in the streets. Those who’ve begun flocking to my workpoints in hopes of catching some serendipity have come to Oldtown. Dozens of them.

And then the Tower Seven residents emerge because of the alarms.

Octavian’s surrounded by people. Happenstance seekers and residents of the old town and the new.

That’s when I walk out from the park to meet him.

I unblock the fire department, the city. Connect to a wide-channel for everyone in range, except Octavian. I can network too.

Octavian stares at all the luck seekers.

:: That man’s been shaking down your city, charging people for serendipity. ::

I show them the evidence, and Mrs. Pham comes out to back me up. Several other store owners and residents light up my statement and share it.

With so many people around, when Octavian sees me, he doesn’t threaten or try to wave everything off.

“Why didn’t you say anything before?” one of the CivEs asks Mrs. Pham. “Someone would have helped you.”

“We didn’t think anyone would believe us,” Mrs. Pham says.

In the crowd, Octavian turns this way and that. “City wants to talk to you,” a firefighter says. She waves a hand and two officers take Octavian away.

My skel pings. :: Your apartment’s available again. ::

Thought it might be.

They send a real lease this time. I’ll look it over. Later.

I’m watching the city reps stare at the ornate fountain in the middle of Oldtown. The CivE raises her eyebrows. “Who’s going to pay for that?”

The crowd looks at the fountain too. They turn to me and I groan.

My cred, what’s left of it, isn’t nearly enough to pay for an entire fountain, plus all the water. So much for the loft.

But then Mrs. Pham raises her hand. “I’ll help.”

“And me,” says someone from Tower Seven. Their words echo in the crowd.

More volunteer, until the entire neighborhood has pooled enough cred for the disruptive, ornate Happenstance. I’m amazed. The waterspouts glitter in the refracted light.

Siro finally arrives. The sight of him makes my breath hurt. I keep breathing anyway.

He spots the fountain. “What did you do? How did all this happen?”

Mrs. Pham laughs. “Just old fashioned good luck.”

By the time my skel’s at 100% and I’m ready to leave, Siro and the city have talked up a tentative utility fee rather than privatization.

“You’ll stay?” he asks me.

The setting sun passes through the trees, hitting the fountain. The light bubbles and tumbles across the water, sending dappled sunlight across the shadowed alley.

“I will, but I want rights, access. Lockout privileges.” I hold my gaze steady as he squirms. “I’ll ship you your things.”

It’s a good kind of change, for the moment. Like all the best surprises.

 

 

“Happenstance” originally appeared in the first volume of Futurescapes.

The Water and the Wall

The wall looms outside Amanda’s window, its overlapping concrete segments curving into the distance like a vast serpent. It rises to the height of a four-story building and stretches to the north and south until it merges with the horizon. Three years ago when she first arrived at the refugee camp, before the water came, she couldn’t stop touching the wall. Nobody touches the wall anymore. The water’s too deep now, but at the beginning she and the other refugees pressed against the wall as if their longing could bore a hole through it. Several times a day she leaned her forehead against the pebbled concrete and listened to what sounded like the quiver of a thousand hearts imprisoned inside the wall, but was only the wind rustling in the salt marsh that used to surround the camp. The refugee camp is not a place for listening to hearts, hers or anyone else’s. Every time she touched the wall she felt herself shrink into someone harder and smaller. Because of her daughter, Tiana, she stopped touching the wall. She taught herself to look at the water and sky instead, but in her dreams the wall abrades her cheeks and drips with the tears she doesn’t cry when she’s awake.

Today for the first time in many months she looks at the wall. In an hour she’ll meet with the camp commander for a re-entry review. The last time a refugee was approved for re-entry was thirteen months ago. It’s a day when she needs to be as impervious to hope as a pebble. A crusted border of silver salt ripples across the wall just above the water line. She licks her chapped lips. In the shadow of the wall the water looks purple, like the skin of a plum. Tiana’s seven years old and has never felt a ripe plum split open beneath her teeth. Sorrow curls around Amanda’s tongue, then slides down her throat, lodging in the fluttering tissue of her lungs.

Four feet below her the water laps dark and hungry at the side of the dormitory. The cot frame creaks as Tiana crawls over and lays her head on Amanda’s thigh. Since the water rose, forcing residents to double up in the small dorm rooms, Amanda and Tiana have been sharing one narrow cot. She pulls Tiana’s thumb out of her mouth, then laces her fingers into Tiana’s small, damp ones.

“Momma.” Tiana’s chin digs into Amanda’s thigh. “Don’t look at the wall.”

The wall undulates under Amanda’s fixed gaze. It’s an optical illusion that their roommate, Layla, has told her about. Stare at the wall long enough and it starts to pulsate like a breathing animal. She imagines it writhing away into the water, imagines the water rushing into the space where the wall stood, spreading across the land to find a river that can return it to where it belongs. Tiana’s hands on her face turn her away from the wall.

“Tell me a story,” Tiana says. She pats Amanda’s cheeks, the urgency of her touch so near to a slap. “Tell me about the water. Tell me about how it’s going to wash away the wall.”

Long before their arrival at the camp, the ocean began nibbling the marsh that encircled the refugee compound, but five months ago it stopped nibbling and gulped. Two inches of amber water like under-brewed Lipton’s tea seeped out of the ground overnight. In the morning ground that had been only spongy and damp before revealed itself as glassy and opaque beneath the rising sun. The smell of ozone, like lightning, filled the air, rising off the water. Since then the water’s grown steadily deeper.

She touches the tangled, salty loops of Tiana’s hair. “Today isn’t a day for stories.”

“Under the water everything’s more beautiful,” Tiana prompts her. “Tell me about the kelp forests and the fish playing hide and seek.”

Every night Tiana swims through Amanda’s dreams, backstroking through a midnight expanse of water and sky, diving into pools of starlight, seaweed entwined in her hair. Every night Amanda clings to the wall. Slender ghost sharks, dark veins pulsing beneath their pale skin, nudge her legs in a languid invitation as she presses herself against the wall. Every night Tiana smiles as she slips beneath the water to join the sharks, disappearing into the depths of the ocean. Night after night Amanda wakes with the taste of saltwater on her lips and a throat raw with suppressed tears.

She’s relieved when the door opens, jarring the side of the cot where she and Tiana sit. In the hours since breakfast, Layla’s managed to find fingernail polish. Her glossy fuchsia nails gleam against the chipped paint on the doorframe.

“You’re not dressed.” Layla frowns at Amanda’s jeans. “I told you to borrow my dress.”

Layla has a knack for camp life. Illicit rations of cooking oil keep her face and hands soft. Her purse bulges with fistfuls of butterscotch candies and packs of spearmint gum. When the most recent platoon of soldiers started their tour of duty a few months ago they brought boxes of donated clothing. Layla plucked a silky, flowered sundress, store tags still attached, from the piles of plaid blazers and pilled sweaters. Because it was Layla, none of the other women challenged her right to claim it.

“Won’t fit me,” Amanda says. The seat of her jeans is almost worn through, but they’re hers from before. When she bought them, her life hadn’t yet cracked apart, split by the fissure that swallowed the dusty earth of her home.

“Oh, stop.” Layla grabs the dress from a box beneath her cot and drapes it around Amanda. Pink hydrangeas bloom on a creamy background. Cool silk slides across her bare arms. Tiana crawls into her lap and lays her cheek against a cluster of hydrangeas.

“You belong on the other side of the wall,” Layla says. “You deserve to be there.”

“None of us belong.” Her voice grates like the cries of the gulls that roost on the dormitory roof. “We’re the leftovers, the ones they don’t know what to do with. We’ll be here until the water covers us, washing our bones clean.”

Layla lifts Tiana from Amanda’s lap. “Honey, go find some of the other kids.”

The sharp angles of Tiana’s elbows and the fragility of her neck evoke the long-legged egrets that bobbed through the marsh before the water rose; beautiful creatures that alit in Amanda’s life, then disappeared too soon. When Tiana leaves the room without looking back at her, it feels like water rising over her head.

Layla settles onto the cot next to Amanda. “Soon they’ll have to let us all in, whether or not our applications are approved. They won’t keep us here. Have a little faith.”

“Faith in what? Humanity?” Amanda leans out the window and inhales until salt coats the inside of her mouth with the regretful, unripe taste of green olives. Above the water the stucco corner of the building is already crumbling. This is a building with light switches in rooms without light fixtures, electrical outlets that fizz with sparks, and floors that slant to meet the walls at drunken angles. Everything about it betrays its hasty construction by the lowest bidder.

“Yeah, humanity.” Layla loops her arms around Amanda. “What else is there for us to believe in?”

Little in Amanda’s life has encouraged her to believe that relying on the good will of others is a sound survival strategy, but the yeasty warmth of Layla’s body pressed against her back makes her want to try.

“A little hope won’t kill you.” Layla’s hand on her cheek turns her away from the window.

She lets herself rest her head on Layla’s shoulder. “You really think they’re going to approve all of us for re-entry?” she asks, eyes closed so she can’t see the wall.

An hour later the flowered dress swirls around her legs as she climbs out the window that’s become a door. When the water first started to rise, the soldiers bolted metal walkways to the sides of the buildings just below the second-story windows, joining the dormitories and headquarters together with a safe, dry path. Now the water has crept over the walkways.

She holds the window frame for balance as she steps into the water. For a moment its buoyancy resists her weight. When she was Tiana’s age she spent a summer watching Jesus bugs skate across the pond behind her foster family’s house. Every time she steps into the water, its hypersalinity encourages a sharp instant of belief that this time she will skim untouched across the surface, just like the Jesus bugs of her childhood. She cannot rid herself of the painful irrationality of hope.

The water closes over her foot and creeps up her ankle. The commander will tell her that her application has been approved. Or he’ll tell her it doesn’t matter—he’s taking everyone to the other side of the wall because the water has risen too high. Or the rising water will float everyone over the wall like a theme park ride, the kind that comes with life jackets and a safety guarantee. The water is only water, the wall only a surmountable obstacle. She and Tiana will find a life on the other side of the wall, emerging from this place unscathed, as if it never happened.

She splashes through the water. At the other end of the walkway she climbs through the window to emerge in the officers’ mess hall. They, too, have been forced to double up and repurpose rooms as the water has risen. A few security officers seated around a folding table in the middle of the room glance up, then return to their card game. The damp hem of the dress wilts against her legs.

“Commander’s that way,” one of them says, hooking a thumb toward the back of the room.

She finds the camp commander in a small room off the mess hall. It might once have been a supply closet, but now it’s an office. When she knocks on the open door, he rises into a polite crouch beneath the sloping ceiling. She recognizes him as the officer who smokes cigarettes on the headquarters dock at dawn.

“Call me Jake,” he says as he shakes her hand. His shirt cuff rides up to display the salt rash on his wrist.

She holds his hand a little too long, grips it a little too tightly. “Was my application approved?”

“Have a seat,” he says.

He’s still standing, his knees bent and his shoulders stooped to accommodate the low ceiling. His crew-cut bristles like the sea urchins that cluster beneath the docks. Her knees bump his desk as she sits in the rusted folding chair. What does it matter whether he’s friendly or not? The decision on her application has already been made by someone on the other side of the wall, someone who can’t see the sun blisters on her daughter’s legs, someone who doesn’t care that Tiana knows flowers only as a pattern on a hand-me-down dress and has never tasted a plum.

“It’s better if you just tell me. This is my seventh re-entry application.”

The skin around his eyes looks soft and bruised. He folds himself into his chair like his joints hurt, but she can’t feel sorry for a man who has the right to leave this place.

“Please just tell me,” she says, but she already knows. She rubs her fingers across the dress, tries to remember Layla’s warmth and certainty, but even Layla hasn’t managed to talk anyone into taking her to the other side of the wall.

“You know, there are a lot of complicating factors for refugee re-entry.” He opens the file and touches the letter on top. “A lot of records were destroyed.”

She reaches across the desk and takes the letter from him. “We regret to inform you” it begins. She makes her eyes scan across the page so that it will look like she’s reading it, but the words have dissolved into indecipherable black marks. The damp paper curves into waves beneath her fingers.

“You can re-apply,” he says. Dark, untrimmed hair lines the insides of his nostrils. He touches the papers on his desk with broad, nicotine-yellow fingertips. “Form F-9V12 lets you request—”

“A comprehensive review by a citizens committee. I know. I’ve submitted that form before. Twice.”

Sometimes it would be easier to believe that there’s nothing on the other side of the wall, that the refugees and the soldiers that guard them are the only people left in the world, but then every three months the USS North slips across the waves and a new platoon of soldiers steps off still smelling of hamburgers and gasoline. The way they stare at the wall and the endless water tells her that the world she used to know still exists in places, it’s just that she’s no longer a part of it.

“You can’t keep us here. The water’s still rising.”

A plain silver band encircles his ring finger. Somewhere on the other side of the wall there’s a person he loves. The knowledge makes him seem approachable, as if all she needs to do is find the right words to make him understand.

“There’s so few of us left here. What could it matter if you took us back with you? How are a handful of women and children a threat to anyone?”

“The US doesn’t have unlimited resources. Times are hard for everyone. We have to make sure that the people in our country have a right to be there.” He taps the file in front of him. “You don’t have birth certificates for you or your daughter.” He says it kindly, but the message is clear. He’s a rule follower and she doesn’t fit his rules.

“Everything of mine is missing. The places I’ve lived, the place where my daughter was born—they don’t exist anymore.” The town where she gave birth to Tiana was one of the first to disappear into the earth. She saw pictures on the news of the jagged chasm where the hospital used to be, the air thick with dust.

“You’ve provided no contact information for any established citizens who can sponsor you. Nobody’s come forward to corroborate your application.”

“It’s always just been Tiana and me.” Layla’s the closest she’s come to having family in a long time. “Resubmit the application as it is. No changes. I have nothing to add.”

Jake reaches for the ink pad and stamp at the corner of his desk. The creases of his shirt are wilting in the damp air. He rolls the stamp in red ink, presses it to the top page of her application, then holds up the paper so she can see that he’s stamped it “urgent.”

“It’s the best I can do,” he says.

“My daughter’s been at this camp for almost half of her life. Tiana’s seven. Her whole life is in a single building. And the water keeps rising.” Her belief in the possibility of him ushering everyone in the camp onto the deck of the supply boat is so strong that it feels like a memory of something that’s already happened. She can see herself sitting on the deck, Tiana at her side, the boat churning along in the lee of the wall until they come to a place where there’s no more wall.

Jake thumps his stamp in the red ink again and inks the duplicate copy of her application. “I have a daughter, too. Emily. She’s four years old.”

She imagines a preschooler with his long jaw and thick eyebrows, living the life she’d wanted for her own daughter. “You could take us all with you at the end of your rotation. Every person in this camp. Load us onto your troop ship and drop us off on the other side of the wall.”

“Look, there are problems on the other side of the wall, too.” His voice is gentle. “The storms are bad everywhere. There are worse places than this camp, you know. At least here you’re fed. Looked after. At taxpayer expense.”

Salt burns her foot where her wet sneaker has chafed the skin. Even in this windowless closet, she can feel the looming presence of the wall. When Jake’s rotation ends in a few months, he’ll wear the same unconscious look of relief on his face that all the soldiers do when they leave. She closes her eyes to help herself remember how to talk to someone who has the right to leave this place, but the wall is there behind her eyelids.

When she opens her eyes, Jake’s wrestling with a desk drawer swollen in its frame. He takes out a chocolate bar wrapped in foil and pushes it across the desk toward her.

“Here,” he says, “for your daughter.”

She doesn’t want it. How many chocolate bars will he hand out so that he can travel home at the end of his tour of duty and kiss his wife and daughter, believing that he’s a good person?

“Go on, take it.” He tosses the chocolate bar into her lap.

If she’s nice enough, maybe he’ll change his mind. She hates the part of herself that believes this might be true, the part of herself that’s afraid to be angry. “My daughter loves chocolate,” she says. “Thank you.”

“Mine too,” he says. She can see that he believes in her gratitude. The floor rocks, as if the building is shifting on its foundation. A pen slides across his desk and he catches it before it falls to the floor.

“Nothing to worry about,” he says. “Just a little subsidence.”

She puts the chocolate into her pocket. It’s only a few ounces, but it weights her steps as she leaves his office, reminding her of all the things she can’t give her daughter: ice cream cones and playgrounds, air that doesn’t taste of salt, a future. Her legs feel almost too heavy to lift her over the windowsill and into the water.

Clusters of bivalves encrust the sides of the ramp. A trace of algae furs the metal panels beneath her feet. Quarter-sized jellyfish float in the dark water, trailing poisonous tentacles. The wall looms above her. High tide is still half an hour away, but already the water covers the tide line on the wall.

After the water swallowed the first floor of the refugees’ dormitory with its common area and kitchen facilities, the soldiers knocked out the walls between three bedrooms on the second floor. It’s a place to feel less alone. Even though her borrowed dress is soaked to mid-thigh, Amanda goes there instead of her bedroom.

The sound of Layla’s voice floats through the open window. Amanda climbs out onto the dock that runs the length of the building. On the ocean side of the dormitory the wall’s just a shadow unless you crane your neck to see it rising into the sky above the dormitory. Layla’s telling a story to some of the other women, hands gesturing. Their laughter blends with the squalling of the birds wheeling above them. None of them notice Amanda standing by the window.

Tiana’s alone at the other end of the dock, stretched out on her belly. As Amanda walks over, Tiana wriggles forward, cantilevering herself over the water. She’s humming the lullaby that Amanda sang her to sleep with when she was a baby. The water creeps up her wrists to her elbows, then higher. Amanda watches the water engulf Tiana’s arms. A school of silver fish no bigger than a thumbnail eddies around the dock like chain mail flashing in the sunlight, then disappears beneath. Tiana lowers her face until the water touches her lips. Her hair floats in mermaid tendrils on the surface of the water.

“Don’t,” Amanda says, her voice squeezed thin with fear. The air tastes like tears.

“Look, Momma.” Tiana touches a barnacle clinging beneath the water line. It closes at her touch, tightening into a gray rosebud. “It’s pretty, isn’t it?”

The words release Amanda from her paralysis. She falls to her knees and snatches Tiana into her arms. “It’s not pretty,” she says before she slaps her hard enough to leave a white handprint across her cheek.

It’s the first time she’s ever hit her daughter.

Startled tears turn Tiana’s eyes glassy. Her fingers drip seawater onto her shirt as she puts her thumb in her mouth.

“It’s not pretty,” Amanda repeats. The second time she hits Tiana she’s had time to think about what she’s doing and she does it anyway. The second time she hits her it’s because even the sting of her hand on her daughter’s cheek won’t change anything, but there’s nothing else she can do. The force of her slap knocks Tiana off her lap onto the dock. She’s horrified by what she’s done and she wants to hit her again, and then Layla’s there.

“Shhh,” Layla says. She puts her arms around Amanda and Amanda realizes that Layla’s crying. Her own face is dry. “Shhh,” Layla says again as she reaches to gather Tiana into her embrace. “Your momma didn’t mean to hit you.” Maybe Layla even believes that, but Amanda knows what she’s done and knows exactly how much she meant it. When Layla explores the welt on Tiana’s face with careful fingers, Amanda’s as aware of the texture of her daughter’s skin, the heat of bruised flesh, as if it were her own fingers.

“It’s going to be okay,” Layla says, but she’s crying hard enough to hiccup. “We’ll all get to the other side of the wall. Soon.”

Amanda’s anger is like lemon juice on metal, corrosive and sharp. She pulls away from Layla. The chocolate bar in her pocket bumps her upper thigh.

“Look what I’ve got for you,” she says. She holds the chocolate up in front of Tiana’s face. Tiana’s eyelids have swollen from the tears she’s holding back. She’s sucking her thumb, wet hair plastered to her neck.

“You love chocolate,” Amanda coaxes, hating herself. After a moment Tiana reaches for the chocolate. Amanda wants to tell her not to take it, but she drops the chocolate into Tiana’s hand.

The dock bobs up and down with a rhythm like a heartbeat. Where the shadow of the wall ends, the water sparkles like an ad for a Caribbean vacation. When they first arrived at the camp, a strip of yellowing grass edged the sidewalk between the buildings. After the water rose, refracted sunlight transformed the grass into glowing gold beneath the water. The saltwater killed the grass within a few days, but first it made the dying grass beautiful.

That night after Layla has fallen asleep and Tiana has been still for so long on their shared cot that Amanda believes she’s the only one in the room still awake, Tiana turns and burrows her face into Amanda’s neck. “I saved you some,” Tiana whispers.

Foil rustles and then Tiana presses a square of chocolate into Amanda’s hand. Sorrow wells up in her as vast and inescapable as the water that’s swallowing their refugee camp. “You have it, sweetie. The chocolate’s for you.” She finds Tiana’s hand in the darkness and wraps her fingers around the chocolate.

“I didn’t mean to make you mad,” Tiana says. “I only wanted to see what the world looked like under the water.”

“Under the water everything’s more beautiful,” Amanda whispers. “Right beneath us in the hall where you used to run, glittering blue mackerel swarm. The water foams white with the flicker of their tails. If you touched one, its scales would feel like velvet.”

Tiana sighs and snuggles closer. The building rocks with the lullaby of the ocean.

“Pink and purple anemones lodge in the crevices of abandoned furniture.” Amanda lays her cheek against Tiana’s hair and inhales the smell of brine clinging to the curls. “Hermit crabs with legs the color of rubies scuttle across the bathroom tiles. A spiny pufferfish peeks out of the cupboard where you played hide and seek. Silver air bubbles cling to its spikes like beads on a wedding dress.”

It’s a bedtime story without a happy ending. “Do you still have that chocolate?” Amanda asks. She opens her mouth and lets Tiana feed her the square of chocolate. It melts on her tongue, chalky and bitter beneath the sweetness. She can’t make herself swallow. The chocolate pools in the back of her mouth. The wall is only a darker part of the night outside her window.

Tiana’s breath is even, her body heavy and relaxed. Finally Amanda does the thing that she’s known she will have to do since the moment she opened her mouth and allowed Tiana to place the chocolate on her tongue. When she can no longer bear the feel of it in her mouth, when the bitterness has overwhelmed any residual sweetness, she swallows, because there is no other possible choice.

The Last Good Time to Be Alive

@antediluvian: london isn’t alive, zuri

@antediluvian: london is just a city. it can’t hurt you.

@ZRI_: yeah yeah i know

@ZRI_: just let me be delusional for a minute okay i’m having a Time over here

@antediluvian: can you get here? are the railways still up?

@ZRI_: lmao no

@ZRI_: power’s off and everything

@ZRI_: it’s whatever. it be like this sometimes

@antediluvian: i love you

@antediluvian: okay? i love you. don’t fucking die in rugby.

@ZRI_: dude

@antediluvian: without wanting to steal your look or whatever

@antediluvian: just let me be delusional for a minute okay

@ZRI_: you lunatic

@ZRI_: i love you too.

London isn’t alive, says Marlo, but that’s easy to say from her place inside its heart. You don’t think babies conceive of—anything, really, before they’re born. But you can’t imagine you thought of your mother as alive when you were taking up space in her body way back when. Outside of the city, on the wrong side of the flood barrier that hasn’t been opened in years, it is easier to see it for the monster it is. It sucks the life from the land around it, and then shrugs off the consequences when they threaten to hit home.

The rain has not stopped falling. It’s the middle of the day at the height of summer; the windows are slick with condensation, the air heavy with humidity and heat. When you were a little girl your mother would watch downpours like this from the window and mutter darkly to herself: “It never used to be like this.”

You go about the process of preparing for the flood like you are only a machine, some switch flicked inside you to turn off all but the essential. Mains power off. Generator unplugged. Sandbags at the doors—you trap the tight curls of your hair under the hood of your raincoat, shove the hems of your jeans down into your boots. The water’s already halfway up the garden. You’ve been lucky in the past; it’s made it this far and no further, the godawful reek of the brook behind your parents’ house lingering in the air long after the flood had receded. But this is the future, and the clouds overhead are smog-choked and steely grey, and the endless thrumming of rain on rooftops is shutting down pathways in your brain. It isn’t going to stop. When you get back inside, there’s rainwater, inexplicably, soaked right through your socks to your feet.

There’s no sound in the house but the rain—no refrigerator humming, no air conditioning unit keeping up an endless desperate wheeze. You don’t remember the last time you felt small here, like the vastness of home could swallow you whole.

@ZRI_: Hey mama

@ZRI_: I just wanted to let you know I’m taking care of the house

@ZRI_: The whole place is sandbagged now and I turned off the power

@ZRI_: How are things in London?

There’s no reply.

@ZRI_: i’m looking out at the street and the kid i used to babysit is chucking toys out the window

@ZRI_: like trying to see if they’ll float? i think?? is the reasoning there???

@ZRI_: made me think of yr old video about the car trying to drive through a flood

@antediluvian: !! what old memes can tell us about flooding!

@antediluvian: is it awful that i still think the original vid is kind of funny

@ZRI_: nah it’s fine

@ZRI_: gotta laugh, right?

@antediluvian: we used to be better at that

@antediluvian: like someone saw this person doing this incredibly stupid thing and got his phone out to film it

@antediluvian: the whole time telling the driver what a fuckin tit he was being

@ZRI_: what a bellend

@ZRI_: what a fuckin knobhead!!!

@antediluvian: and then he shared it on the internet bc it was funny! it just was

@antediluvian: like obviously people still absolutely live to humiliate other people on line or whatever but i don’t think the car flood video would happen now

@ZRI_: idk

@ZRI_: i’d be filming amal’s toy purge rn except it’d eat right into my battery life

@antediluvian: idk if people would laugh

@antediluvian: i think they might just find it sad

@antediluvian: like this is what we do for fun now……… we just throw toys in the flood water. hashtag good old days hashtag bring back hanging.

@ZRI_: lmao

@antediluvian: idk maybe i’m just a big sensitive Baby

@ZRI_: no i don’t think so

@ZRI_: you’re human

@ZRI_: more historians should be human about this shit imo

@antediluvian: ‘historian’

@ZRI_: car video is history okay!!! you talk about history

@ZRI_: i want to watch your flood meme doc now. fuck

@antediluvian: battery?

@ZRI_: ye

@ZRI_: listen

@ZRI_: if phone signal goes

@antediluvian: zuri no

@ZRI_: you know it could happen and if it does i want you to check in on my mum and dad

@ZRI_: they’re in the ez motel in stratford under the name christopher emmanuel

@ZRI_: i know it floods out there and mum’s not replying to my messages

@antediluvian: i’ll do what i can

@antediluvian: but for real though

@antediluvian: i need you to not talk like you’re going to drown or something

@ZRI_: that’s okay i can do that

@ZRI_: that was like my one thing. we good now baby i promise

@antediluvian: lmao ‘baby’

@ZRI_: wish i could watch the flood documentary

@ZRI_: any of your videos really

@ZRI_: kind of just want to hear your voice? today in gay as shit with zuri dot online

@antediluvian: god

@antediluvian: i love you extremely

@antediluvian: and when this is all over you’re fucking. coming to london and we’re watching the video together

@ZRI_: yes’m

@ZRI_: <3

It’s your thing, the vintage heart emoji, the one that looks like a less-than-three. Marlo did a whole documentary once on that, the way people made faces and expressions out of numbers and punctuation. Before people even had emoji. Sometimes you want to burst into song about Marlo—my girlfriend is an internet celebrity and she knows so much cool shit, the single, the album, the musical—except that nobody in Rugby has the time or the wherewithal to care. There aren’t any famous people here. Just warehouses and terraces and the ruin of an old cement works, looming large over every skyline in town.

You’re the person you are because you lived here all your life. Your parents got you into high school and promptly disappeared to London, living out of bunk beds in a motel room because it worked out cheaper than commuting to work by train. Every time you see them, they’re a little more like strangers, in their second-hand suits with ID cards on lanyards around their necks. London devours all the life it absorbs, bit by bit. You could swear your dad is shrinking to fit the room he lives in, harder at the edges every time you say goodbye.

You stayed, though. You studied. You got used to filling silences in your parents’ tired old house, blasting witchhouse and blurcore on speakers you rigged up yourself, falling asleep to video footage of Marlo explaining how things used to be. You are tough and enterprising and equipped for disaster. You are Zuri goddamn Emmanuel, wringing out your socks over the bathroom sink, eyes straining for perspective in the unlit dark. You live here and no goddamn flood is going to change that now.

The garden’s underwater, out back. You pitch up in the living room instead, looking onto the street as the drains start to choke. There’s a plastic toy boat bobbing weakly in a puddle that is threatening, not without grounds, to turn into a lake.

@antediluvian: <3

Before Marlo even knew who you were, you had learned the ending of her goddamn flood documentary by heart. What does this tell us about the way things used to be? she asked, as the picture faded from a flooded suburban street to a photograph of historic London, gleaming in the sun, the Eye still unbranded on the skyline. At first glance, there’s not a whole lot to learn from a silly video from way back in 2016. But I think it tells us a lot about how people in the tens understood the world they were living in—a world that was starting to see real-time evidence of its own impending doom. We didn’t know how to come to terms with it, so we laughed at it, as best we could. We looked past the unthinkable for something we could understand—which was comedy, or absurdity, or just plain old human error. We didn’t know how to answer for everything we’d done wrong. Can you blame us? Could anyone?

You snap a quick photo of the boat. You’ll send it to Marlo later, when the power’s back on. Once it’s safe to laugh in the face of death again.

This is the best time to be alive, said Marlo; you remember how your heart swelled in your chest, watching her film herself walking through the city, watching her expressionless face open up into a smile. London all around her, the perfect co-star, bright and enticing and undrowned. Maybe this is the last good time to be alive. We don’t know what’s coming next, or when it’s coming. Of course that’s scary, and of course we should pay attention. But maybe we should be readier to look for joy, as well. Do we want to look back from the end of the world and realise we wasted the last days we had?

Maybe you should throw all your shit out the window, too. Amal from two doors down looked like he was having fun.

You give up on the ground floor at about 5pm.

It’s still light outside, which is something. You can sit in your parents’ bedroom, its every surface coated in a thin film of dust, and watch the world descend into chaos with something like a bird’s eye view. A half-eaten tub of ice-cream in your lap, scavenged from the freezer and already melting at speed. Water’s rushing down the slope of the street toward your house like the worst kind of waterfall, some unnatural wonder of the world. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear it seeping into the walls and the floorboards, soaking the bones of the house so they’ll never get dry.

@ZRI_: mama if you are reading this could you please message back

@ZRI_: I don’t have power to check the news and i want to know if you are safe

Your parents won’t care about the house. It’s barely theirs anymore. They would have sold it years ago if you’d been able to sleep in a store cupboard at school, like a really dutiful daughter would’ve done. Mostly they’ll be mad about the water damage, although it’s not like there’s anyone to blame. You did everything you could. Your hands are shaking in your lap, too unsteady for a decent grip on your phone. You’re so fucking frightened you could puke.

@ZRI_: downstairs just flooded lol

@antediluvian: well fuck

@antediluvian: tell me you’re upstairs

@ZRI_: yeah, with food

@ZRI_: we had ice cream in the freezer can you believe it

@ZRI_: be a crime to let it melt

@antediluvian: i hate this so much

@ZRI_: yeah i’m not exactly hype about it myself

@antediluvian: you have to leave

@ZRI_: little late for that babe

@antediluvian: no i mean after this. it is not safe for you to be in the suburbs anymore

@ZRI_: rugby’s barely a suburb

@ZRI_: a freight terminal maybe

@antediluvian: come live with me

The world drops away, precipitous, leaves you suspended like some dumbass cartoon character in the air. You’ve visited Marlo’s place. It’s some high-rise shit in Tower Hamlets, gentrified almost to death thanks to a comparatively minimal flood risk and paid for entirely with internet video money. She does well out of what she does; it’s a really nice flat. You just see Essex underwater in your head every time you look out the window. Barriers closed, water rising downstream. You have a ticket to safety, ready and waiting whenever you want it—but not Amal, not his mum. Not any of your neighbours, who will be digging out their emergency kits right about now if they have any sense about them.

What sucks beyond belief is that the thought has its hooks in your heart. No more water seeping under the door. She caught you at the best possible time.

@ZRI_: whoa

@ZRI_: are you asking me to move in with you

@ZRI_: i mean i’ve heard of shipping but this is pretty intense

@antediluvian: u-hauling!! oh my god zuri it’s called u-hauling

@antediluvian: shipping is

@antediluvian: whatever

@antediluvian: not the point. come live with me. i’m central and high up and insured

@antediluvian: the flood barrier works in my favour and i need it to work in yours too

@ZRI_: marlo

@antediluvian: no listen i am trying to be sincere for once in my life can you just

@ZRI_: i know

@antediluvian: let me do that

@ZRI_: i promise i’m not trying to be an asshole i just like

@ZRI_: i don’t think i can just quit

@antediluvian: ‘quit’

@ZRI_: on home.

@antediluvian: the same home you just called a freight terminal

@ZRI_: idk what to tell you

@ZRI_: sometimes home is garbage

@ZRI_: doesn’t make it any less home

@antediluvian: zuri i cannot go through this again okay

@antediluvian: i’m not physically equipped to be alive and in love with you and know you’re right in the middle of a flood and not know from minute to minute if i’m ever going to hear from you again

@antediluvian: and i know this sounds like the most entitled bullshit

@antediluvian: i know this is scarier for you than for me

@antediluvian: but i am scared, zuri

@antediluvian: i don’t think i’m great at being scared

You don’t realise you’re crying until there are big, rainbow-smeared blotches of water on the screen of your phone. It’s fine. You scrub at your eyes with the back of one hand, swallow your tears until your breathing’s started to calm. You want to be with Marlo. You don’t know who you are without your home wrapped tight around you. You’re a crab inside a shell, and if you leave that shell then you’ll turn into something you don’t know how to be, laid bare before the elements with nowhere to hide. But you want Marlo, more than anything in the disintegrating ruin of the world. You want Marlo’s safe place, high above the water where catastrophe can’t get you. If there’s a flood barrier, and you know in your heart that there’ll always be a flood barrier somewhere, then there’s a miserable, craven part of you that needs to be on the right side.

There’s no Brighton anymore, no Essex, no Kent. London closed the barriers and it left them behind to drown. How long does Rugby have, if it keeps getting worse, if the tides keep rising and the rain keeps falling all your life?

@ZRI_: me neither

@ZRI_: can we talk about this later? like i know you’re worried and i get it and everything but

@ZRI_: i am also scared and i need to concentrate on like

@ZRI_: not, being that,

@ZRI_: so i don’t completely lose my whole shit,

@antediluvian: that’s okay

@antediluvian: i’m sorry. i love you.

@ZRI_: i love you too

@ZRI_: and you know i want to be near you

@antediluvian: i do

@antediluvian: it’s okay, zuri. i promise it’s okay.

@ZRI_: i don’t want you to be scared marlo

@antediluvian: hey. if i’m not great at being scared then maybe it follows that i am great at being brave?

@antediluvian: so i’m going to test that theory

@antediluvian: and maybe you can do the same and we can compare notes later

@ZRI_: <3

@ZRI_: can you like

@ZRI_: keep your phone on you

@antediluvian: like i haven’t been physically attached to it literally all day

@ZRI_: lol that’s fair

@antediluvian: <3

@antediluvian: i’m here.

@antediluvian: i’m not going away.

The light gives up before the rain. Sunset happens all at once; the clouds swell and darken and blot out the sky, and just like that, there’s nothing to see. You get on your knees and dig out the emergency kit from under your parents’ bed—wind-up torch, bottled water, tinned fruit and tuna and beans enough for a couple of days without power. It’s not a small box. The last time you had to use it, you were new in high school and your parents had just left town. You got under the bed with the torch and a book and you tried to forget that you were twelve, and alone, and with no guarantee that anyone would find you if you drowned.

Not tonight. You resume your post at the window like you’re a cop in a prison watchtower, like actually the water is trapped in here with you. You’re eighteen years old and so you turn the torchlight onto the street, where the water is almost at window height and rising. If there’s anyone else at their windows looking out, then they’ll see. You might be going down, but at least one person is going to know that you were here.

For a split second, you don’t think anything of the splash.

What gets you is the sounds that come after, these weird, choked-off little gasps and shouts that hesitate right at the edge of your hearing. You pause, and you listen, and you nudge the window ajar, and it takes you a second to make out what’s going on—it’s Amal, it’s the kid from down the street, his dark head bobbing just above the surface of the flood. The light from your torch hits a little speck of plastic, just out of his reach and floating ever further away.

You don’t even have to flip the switch. All your inessential processes start to power down on their own; your body knows what needs to happen next.

@ZRI_: marlo i gotta go for a minute

@ZRI_: <3

You drop your phone onto your parents’ bed and you hurtle down, torch in hand, two stairs at a time. The hallway’s flooded up to the second step—up to your knees, pouring right over the tops of your rain boots and soaking your feet in an instant. It doesn’t matter. The grossness of it passes you by. You tuck your hair up into the hood of your coat, zip it right up to your chin and pull the drawstrings tight. You open the front door and you’re kicked in the shins by a tsunami puked up from the overburdened drains, but that doesn’t matter, either. It can’t matter, because there’s a three-year-old baby out there in the water, and nobody that small can swim well enough to handle a flood.

You force the door shut behind you, and you take a breath of air that reeks of shit, and you throw all your weight against the current.

There’s nothing left in the world but the wind and the rain, plastering your hood to your hair and your sleeves to your skin. It’s cold; you hadn’t expected that, which is almost impressive for being so stupid. Middle of summer or not, the world is cold like this, with water up to your waist and soaking you all the way through. You drag yourself through the flood, through the confusion of cold and dark, and onto the pavement, shouting all the while: “Amal, holy shit, Amal, can you hear me?”

Your voice is so fucking small, and the rain and the wind are drowning you out—drowning you, full stop, no qualification required. Your face is numb, freezing, except for where the cold has made it a bright bloom of pain. You keep moving forward, down what would be the street if you could see where the fuck you’re going. You try again—“Amal”—but your mouth isn’t working right; you’re slurring a little where your lips have gotten too cold, muscle memory not quite enough to get you by.

He doesn’t see you. He doesn’t even turn his head, intent on that fucking toy where it bobs just out of his reach. It doesn’t matter. You feel it like a knife in the gut when he falls, splash, gone under the surface—like a wire in your head being cut, instantaneous, leaving you paralysed and useless in the dark.

He doesn’t scream when his head breaks the surface, or when it dips below and out of sight again. He just reaches, up and out of the water like he’s trying to find purchase on the sky.

You wrench yourself, hard, back together. You take a step, and another, and you keep going and you keep reaching until you can grab him and lift him clear of the flood. He’s so heavy it hurts to hold him up, but he’s alive, breathing, clinging to you and sobbing terrible breathless sobs into your coat. You should comfort him. It’s so dark and so cold and the rain is lashing at your body like it’s trying to fight you for him, and you know what you should say but the words stick hard in your throat. You don’t have it in you to string together a sentence. You barely have it in you to go back, following the current, back to the window he found his way through, where his mother is screaming his name into the night.

With the last strength you have, you lift him up up up and into her arms. She clutches him close, dripping wet and reeking, crying hard enough that her whole body shakes. He’s the only family she has, this kid you used to babysit while she worked late shifts at her second job. For a second there’s no storm, no flood. There’s just a mum holding her son, who survived.

You go. The door opens easily when you reach it, pushes back hard when you try to close it again. You make it, you figure, maybe halfway up the stairs—just clear of the water, whatever that means—before you drop. Your hands are wet and filthy and shaking on the fastenings of your coat, on the soles of your boots, your socks and your shirt and your bra and—everything. It’s all ruined, isn’t it? You peel away layer after layer, trying to get clean, and you don’t realise you’re crying until there’s nothing left to claw away but your skin.

It’s so fucking stupid, is the thing. There’s a bath towel upstairs, maybe more than one. You could use some of the bottled water, try to get yourself clean, except your whole body is trembling and useless, and you’re crying hard enough that it hurts to open your eyes. This isn’t you. You are Zuri goddamn Emmanuel and you deal with shit; you don’t cry about it, a huddle of raw nerves and bare flesh that couldn’t even make it up the stairs.

It’s so stupid. The world is ending. You’re living in the end times and the most you can do, the absolute outer limit of your capacity to help, is rescue one kid from a flood. He nearly drowned, he definitely inhaled a whole mess of filthy water in the process, and you didn’t even think to fetch the toy he went in to save. You can’t open the barriers on the Thames, or force London to accept its share of the things the world’s done wrong; you can’t repair the holes in the ozone, take planes out of the sky, burn all the poison out of the ocean or the air. You’re one person. It’s bigger than you, all of it. The house is going to flood no matter what you do, over and over until it finally drowns.

Boneless, hopeless, the stink of the flood choking you by degrees. That’s you. It always has been. It’s not enough to try to be better, anymore.

@antediluvian: zuri what

@antediluvian: what do you mean what are you doing

@antediluvian: if you don’t reply right this second zuri i swear to god

@antediluvian: come on come on come on

@antediluvian: ZURI

@antediluvian: oh my god what did you do

@antediluvian: where are you

@antediluvian: i’m losing my fucking mind

Your fingertips are wrinkled and tender but they are dry, and they are clean. You cradle the phone in your hands, huddled on your parents’ bed and swamped in a dressing-gown you co-opted from your mum, and wait to feel worse than you already feel. It doesn’t happen. Maybe you’ve plateaued. You climbed the whole mountain, and from the peak of feeling terrible, you can see a whole world of terrible things, sprawling endlessly away from you in every direction.

@ZRI_: i’m so sorry

@ZRI_: i’m okay i’m here

@antediluvian: i am so fucking mad at you

@ZRI_: yeah i

@antediluvian: i am going to physically come to rugby and fight you

@ZRI_: probably deserve that

@antediluvian: god

@antediluvian: zuri i am

@antediluvian: in the immortal words of the ancestors

@antediluvian: crying irl

@antediluvian: you could have fucking died

@antediluvian: i wouldn’t even have known

@ZRI_: i know

@ZRI_: i’m really sorry

@ZRI_: i know it was stupid i just

@ZRI_: the kid was drowning

@antediluvian: what

@ZRI_: the kid

@ZRI_: he was throwing his toys

@ZRI_: he got out the downstairs window and i saw him and i just

@ZRI_: i couldn’t

@antediluvian: holy shit is he safe??

@ZRI_: yeah

@antediluvian: jesus

@ZRI_: he was just trying to get one of his toys back

@ZRI_: i couldnt even find it for him marlo

@ZRI_: he was crying so much

@antediluvian: zuri

@antediluvian: you’re like

@antediluvian: i can’t believe

@antediluvian: i love you so fucking much zuri i wish i were there i wish you were here

@antediluvian: idk how to do this anymore

@ZRI_: lmao me neither

Or maybe you haven’t plateaued. Perhaps you are just hiding from it all, burrowed down deep inside the crab-shell of your body, waiting for the sadness to crest overhead. It might break itself apart against you but you won’t even feel it where you are. It can be something that happens, for once, to somebody else.

@ZRI_: if i come to london

@ZRI_: could you really like

@ZRI_: is there actually room in your flat or were you just

@antediluvian: yes

@ZRI_: trying to get me to agree or something

@antediluvian: zuri

@antediluvian: there’s room

@antediluvian: i promise

@ZRI_: i feel weird inviting myself to live with you lmao

@ZRI_: hey there, minor internet celebrity, it is i, your new and surprising housemate

@antediluvian: no

@antediluvian: you didn’t invite yourself

@antediluvian: i invited you and i would fucking love it if you accepted the invitation

@antediluvian: more than anything in the world

@ZRI_: haha well okay then i

@ZRI_: i guess i accept

@antediluvian: when the water’s gone down we will talk trains

@antediluvian: okay? i will make it work and that is a promise

@ZRI_: i fully do not doubt it

@ZRI_: @ flood waters watch yourselves marlo is ready to part the sea

@antediluvian: hell yeah baby

@antediluvian: i’m gonna get you directly out of there come hell and/or high water

@antediluvian: preferably and, tbh

@antediluvian: i could take em both

@ZRI_: i believe it

@ZRI_: and i love you

@ZRI_: <3

@antediluvian: <3

The rain’s starting to slow—not stop, but it’s something. It’ll do, short-term. You’re sitting up in bed and you’re drifting, Marlo’s last little less-than-three heart blurring at the edges as you start to lose focus; your whole body is heavy with exhaustion, your skin tender where you scrubbed it clean of the flood. You think floating for a moment, and then you unthink it, pull yourself back before you float into a current you can’t swim against. You’re drifting. Like a bird on an updraft of wind, high above the water and the world.

Your phone buzzes in your hands, once and again and again. The vibration in your palm pulls you back into reality, three sharp jerks of a chain.

@GlorisEmmanuel: Hi sweetie sorry I forgot to charge my phone!! Lol

@GlorisEmmanuel: No flooding here praise God! Ur papa and I stayed home all day watching modern lovers can u believe they had a video maker on lol! Like your friend marlo tho her videos were all about pranks haha

@GlorisEmmanuel: Love u sweetie ur papa says hello!!

You don’t register your own reaction until your knees are pressing hard against your forehead, your shoulders shaking with useless, breathless laughter. There has to be something to leaven these last remaining days, some small, stupid joy you can cling to. Marlo will laugh as well, you think, when you can show her at last in the flesh.

Dead Horse Club

Barren Island is the only place or locality in or near the city of New York for the destruction of garbage and dead animals in the city, and is the only proper place for the rendering of the same . . . .

The New York Supplement, Volume 70 (New York State Reporter Vol. 104), containing the decisions of the Supreme and lower courts of record of New York State, permanent edition, May 23-July 11, 1901

The first horse makes itself from the bones of other horses scattered in the bay. It sews its parts together with the spines of baitfish. It drags itself from the water and bleaches on the island shore until it is pocked-white, picked clean as it can be by the flies and the birds and the mites that make caves of its marrow.

Still the first horse stinks. More than an ordinary corpse, more than the sweet rot at low tide, the pink undertongue of marshy sand. No one remembers that smell anymore. The diseased breath of the first horse fills the air now. It is the breath of the boiling tank, of bodies distilled to dust, fat-clogged sewers, the trash of the whole city rising in gas and embers to the sky. Even on the clearest, brightest day, out on the barrier of sand to the east where happy children play in the waves and their mothers pull their skirts up to their ankles, when the wind picks up there will be no forgetting the things that happen on this island. The first horse makes sure of this, most of all to the people who live here and cannot leave: the men who stir the tanks, the rag-picking women, the children whose sorry schoolhouse floods with the tide.

On the shore the first horse collects itself bone by bone. A diadem of jewels hangs over its hollow eyes. This is a treasure from a rag-picker, the loss of which earned a maid fifteen lashings in a fine house uptown when it tumbled out with the rubbish.

The first horse is used to taking things. It was born a whisper of breath from the mouth of a ship. It was cough and itch and boiling blood rolling far across this continent before the time came to collect the bones.

Yet the people of the island know the first horse by sight. Buckling with each step, it walks the streets of their town in the shadow of smokestacks, down the twisted lanes until it comes to the sunken schoolhouse. It pushes open the door with a nod of its caverned nose. The children feed it their fingers; it lets them lick its hollows in return. Beneath the tallow rot they taste something like freshwater and look up into its empty eyes with love.

The second horse never wanted to be, but here it goes: gathering itself out of baby shoes and broken glass, taking bottlemouths for eyes, the handles of meat cleavers for jawbones. Hairbrush bristles are the crooked line of its backbone; the second horse makes itself lopsided, one leg a stack of old boots, one a mantelpiece beaten to driftwood, one a collection of rolling pins, one a lady’s dress twisted to a rope and stiff with saltwater.

The second horse is red, for it is holding itself together with clots of rust: the rust of doorknobs and window grates, the forks and knives and spoons of people who left their homes too quickly to carry them along. It is pulling itself from the water, bleeding its red hoofprints down the risen highways of the city.

The second horse knows it has a father. It is going to find him and crush his neck in its jaws of rotted wood. Dragging a rusty trail down the highway’s median, taxicabs and trucks swerving, as it runs the second horse sheds the spoils of its father’s war, a war waged on the people of the city. It releases and returns the guts of razed homes: ointments and treasures, brooms and soapboxes and nail polishes and crockery and Clorox bottles. From fire escapes and rooftops, stoops and storefront windows, people set down their work and stare. By the time the second horse finds its father it will have nothing left but rust and its boot-leather lips, drooling red spittle up the marble steps.

But with the highways its father has woven a labyrinth, and the second horse loses its way. Under the high sun, halfway down Long Island, it is peeling and flaking, and its glass eyes are burning prisms. By the side of the road a woman tending chickens runs to bring it water in a dirty tray. It stares at her strangely but stops to drink, in long rasping gulps.

When she pets its scaly neck, trying to understand, the second horse breaks to dust under her palm.

She takes up the scattered bottles and leaves them in her windowsills, and in the spring fills them with meadow flowers: Queen Anne’s lace, milkweed, clover blossoms.

The third horse rises halfway from ocean slick, stretching its oily neck. Its skin is patterned with camera eyes, forever shifting, working muscles beneath of liquid mercury, bones of palladium and cadmium. Below the surface, swollen guts of polyethylene choke and stutter on hydrocarbon slurry, saltwater and antibiotic substrate. The third horse swims in this amnion, drinking it ceaselessly as the whales of old: its own blood and body. Nothing could ever be enough. The third horse was born famished.

It does not come ashore. The shores are further now than ever, and the city is quiet even in its highest towers.

The third horse did not fashion itself like its kindred but was beaten together in the surge of storms, a sticky nucleus snotting alive from ultraviolet radiation, a wet black foal dreaming beneath the waves. Now it drifts and starves, dreaming human dreams, its body an endless aching library, bloated with memory. Microprocessors and microplastics sway in its intestinal dark. The third horse knows a hundred billion names, murmurs ten trillion histories to an audience of plankton evolved to eat its quiet secretions. It knows so much and still it hungers.

When on occasion a ship passes the third horse—a tanker buoyant and empty, a girl-sized woman paddling a skiff—it will roll its heavy head in that direction, and blinking camera-eyes with no recognition, dive again below to suck poison through its teeth.

One morning the girl-sized woman paddles out with a knife and an empty jar; on the far-away shore they need fuel, and the third horse’s blood will do, in a pinch. Clots of it have washed up on the beaches, and in their campfires and cookstoves it makes a strange multihued flame that smells sharp and strange, but it burns, and this is what matters. Now from her skiff she spots it like a storm in the water, spinning with its own gravity. As its current draws her closer, she murmurs thanks for the gift of its blood as she has been taught, her own voice startling her. It is small but sounds so loud, with all that endless water around her, the empty towers sparkling in the distance.

An oar’s-length away the third horse raises one eye to the white spot of the sun. Gently, her skiff drifts onto the dark halo it makes in the water. Its head is lolled at the sky, showing its neck, and she almost laughs. She has only to reach her knife into that outstretched vein and muscle, and what will fill her jar will feed many fires, and many mouths on shore.

She takes the knife and the jar from her belt, subtle as she knows, and reaches.

The moment before she is pulled under, she sees a face reflected in its shiny hide—hers—before her world overturns and all is dark and plugged and choking. It has swallowed her, is eating her whole with gnashing thrusts of a huge tongue, or claws, or unseeable teeth, nothing certain but the force of its hunger. She yearns to scream but cannot speak, to struggle but cannot move, and the harder she tries the more it tightens its chokehold, until she has gone totally still, and the third horse goes still around her. Then she feels nothing at all.

Until she opens her eyes and sees at once the whole horizon, the skeletal city in the distance, the sea extending everywhere, the sky embered bright with stars. When she stirs in the water and heavy droplets fling from her mane, she is surprised, but distantly. She knows so much more now, and she is rearranging her molecules, summoning her parasites, swimming for the shore, changing the waters with her as she goes.

The fourth horse has been here from the beginning. It is bone-meal, glass ground to sand, metallic flakes, polymer and hydrocarbon dust.

Mostly it is air. It rises from our firepit, shimmering pale silver, bucking on the wind. Here it is small, but the fourth horse can make itself out of anything it likes, anything that remains. We see it some nights, dancing over the bloody-bruised sunsets and violet-shadowed storm heads; when the rains come the fourth horse trips high into the clouds, where it scatters and rearranges and scatters itself again.

One day soon it will go higher. It will gather the rime of the sea and the ash of our fires and it will rise hot and fast, hooves forging solid in the heat of its ascent, hurling itself through the darkening layers of the sky.

And it will not stop. The fourth horse knows what stars are made of, because we told it.

When it comes home again, we will not be here to greet it, but until the last of us lays in the earth we will look to the heavens and remember.