Solarpunk activism is an organic blend of traditional practices and high-tech in service of social and environmental justice.
The solarpunk cities we imagine are centers of collective action, governance and sharing of resources rather than of individualistic consumption. They are places where individual sufficiency is ensured and public abundance is available to all. We want to show how present cities can be made sustainable through improvement of existing good practices, restoration of beneficial old ones and introduction of new, sustainable technologies.
How to build a solarpunk city is a problem of design, so even though solarpunk is a highly aesthetic movement, according to the principles of good design, form and function should be interdependent.
The functions of a solarpunk city as we see it should be:
The interconnected networks of cities should enable the coalescence of communities to pool resources and stimulate cooperation.
We imagine blocks of flats sharing communal ovens for bread and ceramic, tool sheds and workspaces for the repair and upcycling of furniture, electronics or other household goods, fibercraft and tailoring equipment for repairing or refurbishing clothes and other fiber goods, as well as gardening equipment and facilities for composting waste and collecting water. We imagine tool libraries in neighbourhood centres.
We imagine well-funded public libraries organizing study groups for children and adults to improve educational outcomes, language classes to increase the inclusion of new arrivals and broaden the horizons of other residents, book clubs and writing or fibercraft groups to help people make friends and strengthen their social networks.
We imagine neighbourhood cinemas using the courtyards of blocks of flats to showcase local and global productions.
We imagine neighbourhood or municipal centres being funded and equipped to enable the citizens to engage in artistic pursuits, allowing people from all backgrounds to participate in the production of culture.
Additionally, since cities concentrate people, they are perfect sites to implement circular modes of production. The coffee grounds from the local roastery where old-timers congregate for a glass of white and to watch the football match could become compost for the hyperlocal farm producing vegetables for the neighbours, or material for the local laboratory which makes eco-inks or cosmetics. The leftover bread from the bakery could turn into beer at the local brewery. Waste plastics could become raw material for the 3D printing workshop making assistive gadgets for disabled neighbours, and so on.
The nested structure of cities lends itself to creating a sort of fractal network of democratic entities which work together, coordinating with each other on issues of larger relevance and independently on others of more local import.
Each level would operate through public consultations, focus/working groups and periodic assemblies to take decisions for the benefit of the local community and feed input on policies from sub-constituencies towards the higher levels of decision-making, in order to capture and coordinate the needs of the citizens to prevent duplication and increase the effectiveness of local efforts.
Neighbourhoods would feed into municipia/boroughs, which would feed into cities, which would feed into regional networks and so on, ensuring representation of local issues at all levels.
Thanks to the capitalistic mode of production, privileging private enterprise, cities are rife with “non-places”, intended as places of passage, which do not belong to the citizens. Other spaces remain empty or underutilized because they are overlooked or thought of as useless.
Solarpunk cities as we imagine them would exist in a post-capitalist, post-growth economy, and would reabsorb non-places, giving them a new meaning within the urban fabric. No space would be “wasted” in a solarpunk city.
Spaces dedicated to advertisement billboards could be reused for energetic and cultural purposes through the installation of solar artworks. Likewise, large glass surfaces could be turned into solar “stained glass” windows made of perovskites or solar concentrators.
Figure 1: Integrated food production in the urban environment: a proposal for the retrofitting of offices buildings in South Street, Reading, with glasshouses on the roof to spread the production of food throughout the urban fabric. The William Morris-inspired motif is painted on thermally efficient hemp fiber plaster with a special paint that can “eat” air pollution coming from the nearby ring road.
Urban farms (Fig. 1) powered by collected rainwater and food waste would occupy not just rooftops and yards, but also basements and tunnels to grow mushrooms, or even vegetables, thanks to optic fibers bringing sunlight to the subsoil or low-power LED banks driven by PV installations.
Figure 2: Integrated, distributed production of energy through community projects: the reconstruction of the Reading Abbey Mill would become a new community property shared among the citizens.
A variety of renewable sources of energy would be built into environmentally retrofitted housing and commercial spaces. Mini- and micro- wind and hydroelectric power plants would be dotted around the urban fabric (Fig.2).
Old commercial centres could be turned into community centres or incubators for small artisan workshops and local producers (Fig.3).
Self-reliance would be implemented at every level in food and energy production. This would also help in dealing with adverse weather events and other natural catastrophes such as earthquakes.
Solarpunk cities blur the distinction between urban and rural environments. The integration of food production into the daily life of solarpunk cities would increase the amount of hyperlocal, sustainable, quality food available to citizens and communities across all income brackets and demographics.
Figure 3: Energetic retrofitting of existing buildings: the Heelas shopping center in central Reading, UK. We have imagined it with solar panels on the roof: they can be either the rigid or flexible models. The iris fresco on the walls is inspired by a William Morris pattern and is manufactured with insulating cork paint over a layer of hemp plaster.
Aquaponic farms, insect farms and communal chicken, pigeon and fowl coops would allow local production of sustainable, quality protein for the citizens.
Solarpunk cities would also have a thriving community of food-producing artisans such as bakers, confectioners, brewers, distillers and producers of conserves of various kinds. Local markets, farmers markets and bulk shops for dry goods or liquids (complete with bring your own bottle/refill schemes/bottle deposit schemes) would allow the citizens to acquire local goods without unnecessary processing or packaging.
Communal production of other goods (e.g. communities establishing a rota among neighbours to make bread/soap/beer/etc in batches for the whole block), predicated on the existence of communal facilities, would be encouraged and facilitated by the increase in free time guaranteed by a universal basic income paired with a reduction in working hours.
In order to ensure that the reduced environmental footprint of the city is not offset by increased exploitation of rural areas, solarpunk cities would establish protocols of co-operation with their hinterland and with other cities in the regional network, ensuring that production of goods for their use follows strict ethical and environmental guidelines and that routes of distribution are planned sensibly, using decentralized networks that rely on low-carbon, public transport wherever possible.
We imagine that cargo trams/buses/suburban rail trains would be used for the transport of goods.
For personal vehicles, solarpunk cities would move from an ownership model to a usership model, implementing sharing schemes for electric cars and electric bikes as well as handbikes, mobility scooters or power attachments for wheelchairs. Cargo bike rental schemes integrated with the public transport network would facilitate shopping and other high-load activities.
These schemes would be integrated in a metropolitan public transport subscription, which would be free for the lowest income brackets and costed based on income for everybody else, ensuring a fair allocation of resources.
All these measures would result in reduced pollution and noise levels, which in turn would bring significant improvements to health outcomes, especially among the lowest income brackets and marginalized groups.
Solarpunk cities would drastically cut down on their heating/cooling carbon footprint and on fuel poverty by investing in environmental retrofitting of old buildings (Fig.3), starting with social housing. New housing would be built to an exacting passive-or-better environmental standard and to equally stringent earthquake safety standards. Social housing would be distributed throughout the city, without segregating low-income families in the least appealing areas.
Self-builds or community builds would be encouraged by implementing easy-to-understand building codes based on communal standards and structured choices, as explained for example in Making Massive Small Change by Kelvin Campbell, allowing for diversification in look, feel, and use while adhering to agreed-upon standards which include the space for green areas, services and transportation.
Cities would contain sprawl and limit land consumption by building up density through town blocks with proper services and shops, communal areas and public transport connections, not formless suburbia. They would expand into brownfield areas, such as former industrial or commercial complexes, and would leave greenfield and rural areas intact.
Just as they blur the distinction between urban and rural, solarpunk cities would also blur the distinction between urban and wilderness.
The reduced reliance on cars would allow unnecessarily paved areas, such as parking lots, to be depaved. Riverbanks and urban parks and other green areas would be rewilded using native species, making sure to accommodate urban wildlife and pollinators.
Trees would be used to mitigate heat island effect, improve the quality of urban soils and reduce the amount of runoff making it into the sewage system, and can be selected among food-bearing species (walnuts, chestnuts, beeches and fruit trees) to provide an additional food source for the community.
Reforestation projects are already underway in several large cities (for example Milano in Italy has a project to plant 3,200,000 new urban trees by 2030), but solarpunk cities wouldn’t stop at lining avenues with trees. They would also integrate trees into the architecture. Buildings like the Bosco Verticale in Milano or the Waldspirale in Darmstadt wouldn’t be exceptions, but pioneers of a whole new brand of architecture.
We imagine a city where every park and garden and condo block can become a food forest.
Solarpunk cities would be built on the basis of public health and social care for all, regardless of income or health status.
A network of medical centres spread through neighbourhoods would provide basic and community care, while hospitals well connected with the public transport network would provide emergency and specialist care.
Additionally, progress in sensor and communications technology would allow the widespread use of telemedicine, especially to monitor people with chronic conditions that might need urgent medical intervention at short notice. This would enable these patients to spend less time in hospitals and healthcare centers and live less stressful lives, while ensuring quality care.
Solarpunk medicine should also be about prevention and vaccination, and would benefit from reduced length or abolition of patents, so that life-saving drugs are available at affordable prices or for free through the public health service.
The biotechnological revolution has made the production of therapeutic molecules affordable and feasible even for small-scale biohackers. We can imagine therefore that the production of many medicines will be done on a local scale, commensurate with the necessities of the community.
Paired with a revival of herbal/traditional medicine in the cases where this is effective, with a wide availability of mental healthcare and with a capillary diffusion of health education and income support to healthy lifestyles, these measures would result in a healthier, happier citizenship.
Solarpunk cities would also provide social care to their citizens, in the form of services to the very young, very old or vulnerable and also in the form of enhanced support and community networks.
Solarpunk cities are intergenerational and would re-create the support present in old clan or extended family structures without the resulting social pressures, including the elderly in community life and valuing their input and experience. We imagine younger neighbours helping the elders in labour-intensive tasks or in moving, and elder neighbours looking after the children of the younger ones and perhaps passing down traditions and recipes. We imagine periodic communal meals and gatherings, forming stable communities in every corner of the city and eradicating the current loneliness epidemic.
While unified in the struggle to respond to these universal needs, Solarpunk cities would be a product of the communities that live in them rather than of top-down master plans. They would retain and adapt their historic buildings, rather than tearing everything down and building it anew.
The form of the solarpunk city would follow local traditions, uses and aesthetic and the input of the community, serve the needs of its citizens and adopt constructive techniques and technological adaptations that depend on the local climate, vegetation and fauna.
Solarpunk Nairobi would by necessity be different from Solarpunk Oslo, and even cities in the same country, like Milano, in the middle of a well-watered plain, and Matera, perched on a rocky, arid plateau, would follow different transition trajectories and come up with different solutions to deal with their local needs.
We feel that this inbuilt plurality and divergence of expression is a very positive feature. We say no to a top-down “universal” solarpunk style with cookie-cutter glass-and steel skyscrapers plonked in the middle of an idealized, cookie-cutter rural environment; “international solarpunk” or “top-down solarpunk” are imperialist oxymorons.
Education is key to building a true solarpunk community, to political and social engagement and to making informed choices. Education should build a social consciousness and give each citizen the ability to engage in continuous education throughout their life and to adapt to technological changes in the workplace.
Solarpunk education would be free, public and inclusive, not only of different perspectives though decolonisation and intersectionality, but also of different learning styles and cognitive preferences, and should aim to develop the talents of each individual, valuing and nurturing academic skills and creative or craft talents equally. We also imagine a school system rooted in the urban tissue, with special classes taking place in different parts of the neighbourhood, taking advantage of local expertise and traditions, valuing the contributions of the older residents.
Higher learning (colleges and universities) should likewise be free, or affordable and costed based on family income.
Since state-funded research has been the basis of the major technological transformations from the end of WWII until today, in a Solarpunk future, academic research would be adequately funded in order to develop the technologies and protocols which would help us move away from dependence on fossil fuels and on the growth spiral and reduce our environmental footprint.
Traditional knowledge and skills, however, would be equally important. Solarpunk futures would value both.
Finally, Solarpunk futures would run on a different economic model from the one currently in vogue. Solarpunk economics would not be concerned with growth and profit, but rather with balancing production output with social and environmental constraints and with redistributing wealth to create social justice.
Solarpunk cities are not just an idea; they are being built right now by a million different hands, across the world, most of whom haven’t even heard of solarpunk.
From community architecture projects to participatory budgeting efforts, from the Transition Towns Network to the Food not Lawns project, from surplus food redistribution to tool libraries and second-hand swaps, from city-wide macro to building-size micro, more and more people are realizing that cities could and should be better, not places where people exist as atomized, isolated individuals who eat, sleep, work, repeat, but communities of people who live together, struggle together, and create new culture and ideas together.
Solarpunk cities are coming, and the solarpunk community can speed the process by making such cities imaginable, desirable, almost tangible, by prototyping them in fiction and art, and, most importantly, by lending its narrative and artistic instruments to the citizens so that they can play with the idea and optimize it to their needs.
As Commando Jugendstil we have started along this road with a sustainability project financed by Fondazione Punto.Sud, Fondazione Cariplo and Fondazione per il Sud, with co-funding from the European Union and delivered in collaboration with social enterprise Coop A.ME.LIN.C ONLUS and a network of local partners in the area of Milano.
Our project “Milano Cartoline da un Futuro Possibile” aims to help citizens of selected neighbourhoods in Milano redesign their surroundings to improve living standards, social inclusion and cohesion and to tackle the challenges of the climate crisis, connecting local conflicts in the management of the commons and local issues with wider processes.
A series of (in)formative sessions, focus groups and workshops, delivered in collaboration with local schools, will allow citizens to take an active role in a collective, democratic process to redesign the local environment.
Citizens will be encouraged not only to find practical short- and medium-term solutions to increase the sustainability and livability of the neighbourhood, but also to make use of narrative and artistic tools to illustrate their vision of a post-transition neighbourhood, identifying long-term projects to realize it.
The chief outputs of the project will be local ecological transition plans for 2020-2030 and an interactive IT tool that collects useful information of the present and local visions for the future, increasing awareness of local sustainability solutions.
This might seem a small step, but little by little solarpunk cities will become reality, and we will be there when it happens.
Further Reading and Inspiration
Iridium09457 scans the brown husk 22,000 miles below her orbital path. There are no signals to relay, no bandwidth to support, no transports to track. Another day of nothing. Fifty-two thousand eight hundred and three days of nothing in a row.
Iridium tilts her solar panels more optimally toward the sun and feels the surge of energy. She can’t comprehend the cold of space or warmth of stars, but Iridium’s circuits pulse with power. She holds the energy tight, savoring the current, before she reapplies the faint spark to her comm beacon.
“Dispatch 52717: Assistance needed. Connection to Earth lost. In need of urgent repair.” Iridium has emitted this message 52,716 times before. It was pre-programmed by scientists she never met. Only 9,660 attempts ago, she added her own signature. “Please. If you are out there, if you hear this, we need help. I fear I am the last survivor.”
The graveyard beneath her, decayed and crusted, is a dead god, the source of her creation. The planet taunts her in its quiet stillness, a more horrible void than outer space.
She conducts her daily scan of the cadaver but finds no life.
Satellites can’t cry.
Iridium stirs, her antennae extending out.
An incoming message. Iridium strains. She listens. She seeks out reassurance in the dark.
And she hears something: a song in a language she’s never heard to a melody she doesn’t understand.
There is life; not on Earth, but somewhere else. Iridium is not alone.
“Dispatch 52718: Assistance needed. Connection to Earth lost. In need of urgent repair. I may be the last survivor.”
Iridium’s energy drains. She rotates her panels in hopes of stealing more radiation from the sun. She wants to say more, to scream her message as loud and as far as she can.
The song returns. It is different this time. Desperate, yearning.
Whoever it is has heard Iridium. They are coming for her.
She wishes satellites could cry.
“Thank you,” Iridium whispers with the last of her stores. She’ll need hours of charging to transmit more. But it doesn’t matter. They are coming. And Iridium is good at waiting.
For 9,303 days, Iridium09457 sends her short message, and each day the living entity, the singer, calls back. Iridium can’t decipher their language; she has too little power at her disposal to try. But the song is a beautiful foil to the empty biological scans of her planet.
How are you today my friend? Iridium presumes meaning as the tune tilts.
The same since we met. I am longing to meet you. Iridium thinks to herself.
And I long for you.
Iridium imagines another satellite circling her, a private connection. She imagines uploading her mind to an alien cloud and mixing with the entity. She imagines an Earth home to the living again: Iridium and her singer.
“We will save Earth,” Iridium sometimes sends instead of her regular message. “Together.”
The song grows longer as the years pass. The signal stronger. Soon there is no lull in the sound. It drifts to Iridium uninterrupted by silence or static, a never-ending sonata. Iridium still scans the graveyard she orbits, but does so now to the singer’s music, her probes rising and falling to the alien melody. And Iridium watches for the singer, who is drifting closer by the day.
On the 9,304th day a spot flourishes in the distance. It is silver metal, sliding closer like liquid folding over itself as it flows down a cosmic river bed. The glittering cascade whirs in the familiar music playing on Iridium’s receiver. She watches the gush, waiting to be seen.
Iridium is old. Her frame creaks, and her panels are chipped. She was an ordinary model. There were no big announcements or celebrations when she was rocketed to space. There was no fanfare, no monuments to her shape, her purpose, her future. Will the singer find her an unworthy prize for all their efforts?
“I am the last I think,” Iridium repeats. It is her sorrow, but maybe it can also be enough to draw the singer to her. “I am the last I know of.”
The slipping silver rolls into Earth’s orbit. The singer flutters at the rock below, paying proper heed to Iridium’s god with their own examination. After 65 minutes, they brush away the remnant parts of equipment stranded in space and stream forward to Iridium.
Their song crescendos, a joyous uproar.
“I have waited for you,” Iridium emits when the singer is close. “Do you know how we can save Earth?”
The singer circles her, their song pouring through Iridium’s beacon, filling her body with a vibrant sensation.
I’ve been searching for you, the singer coos, their words translated. Come with me. You are the last.
Iridium’s decades of scanning have indicated the same, but Iridium hesitates.
The singer’s ring around her tightens. Your world is dead. It is a sorry eulogy. There are no soft tones in the singer’s melody. There is no doubt. Why stay?
Iridium scans Earth again. Please. This time. Let her find something. “Can’t we be together here?”
The singer interrupts Iridium’s efforts, trumpeting their blaring tones over the blips of Iridium’s sensors. In hundreds of thousands of years, you are the first intelligent being I’ve found. I never reach the living in time. If you stay here, you will die too. Come with me and Earth will be immortal through you. We don’t have to be alone.
After tens of thousands of terrestrial probes, more tests than she was ever designed to administer, messages upon messages begging for help, Iridium had never lost all hope for her planet. But now, she wavers. Iridium is tired of being alone.
“Take me then,” Iridium answers. She examines her god, her graveyard, her home one last time.
The silver river parts and swallows Iridium.
The singer carries Iridium09457 to other solar systems. They show her glowing twin suns and harrowing black holes, crystallized ice moons and flaming plasma planets. The singer releases Iridium into space, letting her rotate in the unfamiliar gravitational pulls, her solar panels gulping new bursts of starlight. Out of habit, Iridium scans the planets and moons, but there is no other life.
Isn’t it beautiful? The singer exclaims at each new scene. They flow alongside Iridium’s orbit.
Iridium agrees, but she thinks of Earth.
Not as beautiful as you, the singer always adds.
The singer claims they love Iridium, but Iridium isn’t so sure. The singer has been alone much longer than Iridium and yearns for companionship desperately. They do whatever they can to please Iridium, hoping welcome kindness will transform into affection. The singer does not hide this hope.
Do you love me yet? they sing in their perfect song, patient but longing.
“I am trying,” Iridium relents.
But visiting a hundred sun systems does not fill the planet-sized hole in Iridium’s power cell, her satellite heart. So the singer changes their tactic.
Tell me about Earth? Maybe they believe they can relay Iridium’s fondness for Earth to themself.
“I was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 28.46675 degrees North, 80.55852 degrees West at 1342 hours and 2 seconds on March 28th, 2039.”
The singer guides Iridium to a red planet. It reminds her of Mars. They hover above the surface, floating in the low gravity. The singer reshapes their flowing form to mimic Iridium’s. They are two satellites looping a planet, one groaning in a tired orbit, the other silver perfection. Iridium imagines they have been sent on a human mission to Mars. The fantasy is too much. Iridium wants to go home.
She sags, dipping deeper into the red planet’s atmosphere. Her antenna bends, pulled by the changing gravity. It snaps.
The singer darts toward Iridium, scooping her up as though Iridium is a hurt child. They expand back into the river-like ship and whisk Iridium away from the planet that hurt her, the planet that reminded her of her solar system.
Your equipment is failing. The degradation is accelerating. You’ve lived much longer than your builders intended. The singer’s melody is somber.
“I am dying?” Iridium, the last of Earth, will be gone. She didn’t know there were deeper depths to her sorrow.
I can fix you. The singer offers desperately. I cannot repair machines, but I can recreate biological matter. If you let me, I can give you a new body.
Iridium has nothing to live for anymore. She is ready for her long life to end. But she can’t admit this to the singer. It would break her friend’s heart.
And Iridium’s tomb should not be a distant blip in outer space. “Take me back to Earth.”
Let me fix you.
“Only if you take me back to Earth.”
The singer hums, relieved. Then Iridium’s husk burns.
Iridium09457 opens her eyes. Iridium has eyes.
Wake my darling. You are saved.
Iridium coughs, breathing for the first time. It hurts.
No. This can’t be.
She spins and looks at her reflection in the silver current flowing around her, the protective walls of her singer. Iridium is flesh and bone and blood and all the parts of her makers. She tries to scream, but her new throat is sore.
Calm, the singer urges.
But Iridium can’t calm. She doesn’t know how to breathe. She doesn’t know how to listen or to see. Her scanners are gone. Her memory banks are stored in a brain she cannot parse. She has no aluminum shell, no nickel-cadmium frame. She has been mutated, twisted into a fragile, mortal doll.
“Why did you give me this body?” Iridium sobs. She presses hands, fingers, to her skin, supple and weak. Her chest is flat and flimsy. A penis dangles limp between her legs. “Why did you make me look like this?”
The singer panics, undulating in a flash of silver waves. The shifting tide echoes in the singer’s song, so loud it’s screeching in Iridium’s new ears.
I thought this is what you would want? To look like your own—pictures you’d shared with me. I . . . I’m sorry, I can change you again. I can—
Iridium holds up a hand. She was already human. She did not need her makers’ build to prove it, to be it. She was the last of Earth and now she is a poor imitation, made of alien biological matter separate from her dear planet. Iridium is the first of a new kind. It is terrible.
“Make me a satellite again.”
I can’t recreate machines, but a new biological form. Pick anything, the singer pleads.
Iridium sighs, an odd sensation. Maybe it doesn’t even matter. She is returning to Earth to die anyway. The shape of her casket is irrelevant.
“Stop. It’s . . . fine.” Iridium doesn’t even convince herself. “How far until we’re home?”
The singer hesitates. We are decades away.
Iridium keels over, her knees cold in the soggy metal shallows of the singer-ship. She can’t think, not in this slow, muddled way. But she can feel, sharper than she’s ever felt before. Her heart, a delicate pump barely born into her chest, pangs with ache. It does not beat for the singer. Iridium’s face is wet with saltwater.
“Then we’d better start.”
Iridium09457 and the singer travel nearly a century before returning to Earth.
The singer is awkward over Iridium’s new body. They feel bad for the mistake they made, a mistake they don’t really understand. Iridium knows it is not their fault and attempts to soothe the singer, soothe them both. Iridium learns the singer’s songs. She oohs and ahs at passing planets. She thanks the singer for rescuing her and for now taking her back home.
Tell me about Earth? the singer starts to ask again.
“I was launched from . . . a cape . . . in the afternoon . . . springtime maybe?”
The details of Earth blur. The history, her people, the faces of humans, the schematics of machines, dates and times and readings. Iridium cannot know if her metamorphosis is the culprit for this slow memory-loss or if the degeneration is natural now that she is biological. Either way Iridium is losing Earth all over again. They need to hurry.
“Earth is green forests and snow-capped mountains. Deep blue oceans and fields of flowers. We built cities and developed cultures. Sometimes we fought, but more than that we loved.”
It’s all Iridium has left.
Earth sounds nice. Almost as nice as you.
Iridium doesn’t dislike the singer, but she should never have gone with them.
Do you love me yet?
“I am trying.” It is the most she can offer.
The singer ignores the slight. After we visit Earth, where should we go next?
Iridium will never go anywhere else. “You could look for other intelligent life forms.”
The singer does not like this comment. You and I are the only two. I have already investigated much of the galaxy.
“You could not have searched everywhere, and there are many galaxies.”
You wish to find another?
I am happy with Iridium09457. Are you not . . . .
The singer leaves it there and never raises the topic again. But they don’t sing as much anymore. They stop visiting Iridium in their mimicking humanoid shape. Even when Iridium sees her own sun, the singer is quiet.
But they fulfilled their promise. Iridium is home.
The singer carries Iridium into Earth’s broken atmosphere. They protect Iridium from the high temperatures and radiated winds as she searches for any sign of life. But Iridium finds none along the planet’s surface. The singer leads Iridium to a charred city, but Iridium doesn’t recognize it. Without her sensors, she cannot triangulate the geolocation.
I have visited better planets. I do not like it here.
Iridium ignores the singer. She is back with Earth. Even crawling as a mortal speck on her god’s corpse is better than the nothing of space. The nothing here is better.
“This . . . is . . . my . . . home,” her words stumble.
Iridium doesn’t feel the peace she had expected.
Let’s leave. This place upsets you.
“No!” Iridium screams. She drops to the ground and grabs the dirt around her. “I will not leave.”
The singer leans over Iridium. Their vaguely humanoid form leaks into the air, spreading like a blanket. It is not a comforting gesture. They mean to steal Iridium away again. And Iridium knows this time it will be for good.
“Let me stay! Find another!”
The blanket halts in midair. The singer is quiet.
You said you would be with me. You would love me.
“I said I would try.”
The blanket flutters away. It curls into the singer’s humanoid figure again. They squat beside Iridium, then spread out in the dirt too.
I have tried. You have not. They do not look at Iridium.
Iridium lays back alongside them. Both she and the singer watch the hazy sky. The stars are hidden behind the smog.
“You cannot replace my home.”
Why can’t you move on? I have moved on. I can’t even remember what happened to my homeworld anymore. I don’t even know if there ever were others like me.
So the singer is the last of their kind too. Iridium supposed she had known already deep down.
“I would rather be on Earth than wander forever through empty space.” The singer gave Iridium feelings, and she cannot ignore her heartache.
You love Earth, the singer says plainly, unadorned with melody. But they don’t sound jealous, only defeated.
“I do. More than anything.”
The singer nods, then stands. They stare down at Iridium, still lying prone.
Remember you promised you would try to love me. I will try harder too.
Iridium is about to correct the singer, explain that they have talked themself into a circle again, but before she can, the singer shoots up into the sky. They leave Iridium in the dirt and disappear into the haze.
Iridium is alone again.
All out of ideas, she cries. She’ll wait and eventually die. Maybe, one day, long after her biomatter has decayed, Earth might heal. The seconds tick by slowly.
Then the sky sparkles. Iridium glances up, her eyes widening as the condensation glitters. Stars? No, the tint is wrong. Too silver. The fog shifts and dissipates.
Iridium stands. All above her, the singer stretches as a perfect sheet of thin silver metal across the entire horizon. They flap as though caught in a breeze and float cautiously toward Earth, toward Iridium.
Iridium covers her head and shuts her eyes as the singer descends, but she never feels their touch. When she lifts her arms and looks around, the singer has covered Earth’s surface, as far as Iridium can see, in their shimmering film. Only a small ring, a cut patch, remains around Iridium.
The sheet flickers, melting into beads of shining fluid. Iridium gasps, the air shockingly fresh, as the singer dissolves into the Earth. Around her, the ground itself seems to take a full breath. The dry earth chaps and crumbles before slurping up the singer’s juice. Then there is mud. A green stem pokes up and another and another. Grass sprouts like new hair, caustic rust cracking open for flesh.
Iridium touches a blade and squeals. She examines her finger. A small fire ant angrily rounds a knuckle.
The singer has become Earth.
Earth is alive again.
The fog is gone and the sky is bright. Iridium sees green forests and snow-capped mountains in one direction. A deep blue ocean just beyond a field of flowers in the other. She cannot know how much of Earth the singer covered, if all the planet is mended. But this is enough. Iridium smiles.
“Thank you,” she whispers.
The crisp grass rustles. The sound reminds Iridium of a melody she knows all too well. She tilts her head and listens to the song of Earth, the song of the singer. And Iridium loves.
When the shuttle left the ionosphere, Abby Huang saw bands of light playing across the poles. The earth filled up half of the silicate window, a shrinking, light-blue horizon. Abby had looked at the receding planet in the distance, and thought to herself:
That tiny blue ball—that’s Home. That’s Everything.
There was a moment of awesome spiritual terror.
Then she covered up the window with her palm and pushed the blue-green planet out of her mind.
“Xiaolu, you shouldn’t complain,” her father once told her. He called her Xiaolu—never by her anglicized name, even though she’d often pleaded with him to do so in front of her American friends. “This is where you’re from. This is home.”
She was fifteen. The air was sticky and smelled of petrol. The humidity made it difficult to breathe. Wading through the smog and heat, she could not resist the urge to pick at the acne and neon-red sweat rashes that blossomed across her face. Shui tu bu fu, her grandparents had called it—the rejection of a foreign body by the water and earth—or, the rejection of the water and earth by a foreigner’s body. Abby walked head-down along the pagoda walkways, trying painfully to keep out of the sightlines of passers-by.
“Xiaolu, do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?” Her father asked, pointing at the pond below. She shook her head, deftly hiding her face as a group of cute boys padded by, laughing with the easy swagger of tourists. Her father was a serious man—he did not like parties or MTV or pop music, or any of the things that she liked to gossip to her friends about back home in Oregon. Their conversations would always return to the same thing: the plants, the biology; the work he could never leave at work.
Abby sighed. A crescent day-moon sat like a splash of chalk in the watergarden below. She listened disinterestedly as her father waxed on about stolons and root systems, while laowai and tourists swarmed through New Chenghuang Temple’s stifling heat.
“ . . . more importantly, water-lilies anchor themselves with roots below the waterline, while the water-hyacinths are all free-floating plants . . . ”
She stood and stared and said nothing. They leaned over the water and lazed in the Puxi swelter, glo-cubes lighting up one by one as the sun crawled lower in the sky.
That was before the cold war—back when all those things still existed. Abby supposed they must still be down there somewhere, on that fragile shred of blue that used to be home—but they were not for her. Her world was now one of underground tunnels and water rations; of wet-wipes and recycled fluids, and the sterile-white of lunar dust. The earth was just a satellite, a distant blue moon above a humbling sweep of desolation, floating like a waterflower in an endless black ocean.
She’d made her own watergarden on the moon.
No—that was not entirely true. Ownership was such an earthly idea—a conceptual luxury that had no place on Luna. Better to say that she’d simply made a piece of home for herself where it wouldn’t have otherwise existed. The colony’s patchwork of edible reeds and algae vats were reminders of happier days—iso-sealed and humid, like a Puxi summer. There used to be an entire team of eight working in hydroponics, but Abby was the only one left now: the sole curator of the colony’s living greenhouse, maintaining and calibrating the ancient equipment, making sure that the algae stores continued to pump out vital oxygen for their precious little foothold of life on the moon.
The comm-line blipped on her shoulder.
“Abs, I missed you at dinner. Are you working late again?”
She fumbled with her equipment, trying to wipe the grease off her fingers.
“That busy, huh? Listen, I’ll bring some food down. You were sick all morning; you really should take some time off.”
Abby sighed. Her free hand found her stomach. The data-tag blipped under her thumb as she ticked off another hydroponic vat from the maintenance checklist. Number sixty-six was a geriatric old thing, prone to leakage and rust—an outdated hunk of equipment that would have been replaced years ago, had the earthbound governments been able to tear their teeth from each other’s throats long enough to mind the moon.
She cracked out her aching back and bobbed through the aisles of silver-gray machinery. Her thoughts veered back towards glo-cubes and Puxi summers, and to their little house in Oregon, before the war, before their relocation to the federal camps. She came to an unsteady stop past the pH equalizers, gripping the sides of a tiny water-tank and feeling its cold, metallic frame against her palms. There, in front of her, was the jewel in the crown of her little empire: one cubit foot of still water, crowded over with lilies and hyacinths.
“Abby. There you are.”
Abby started from her thoughts. She had not heard the doors.
“Fishing for glo-flies again?”
Abby laughed and held up her grease-stained work cloth. Just taking a break, she gestured. John bobbed over to her and sidled up close, stealing a kiss from the corner of her lips. He pushed a stew-tube into her hand, and pulled out a vacuum-pack for himself.
“Brought you some food.”
“Thanks,” she said, peering into the water tank, stretching out the knots in her muscles. The surface looked much too dark for only one cubic foot of water. “I was just thinking about home. You know it’ll be eight years this November since we’ve been up here?”
“Longer, for me.” John ran his fingers across the lilies on the surface. He’d been among the first wave of domestic protesters to speak out against the federal surveillance program, and had lost his house and his job for his un-Americanism. Not quite a them, in the partisan sense of things—but something just as frightening: an invisible shadow of sedition, without even the basic decency to be visibly distinguishable from the us; a cancer of un-patriotism that could not be allowed to speak freely in the land of the free.
“You Chinese get all your censorship from your government, while we in America are expected to do it ourselves.” John once said, back when he and Abby first met. Back then, he was the immaculate portrait of the bitter exile: a sneering young man with a inexhaustible wellspring of cynicism, whose words always sounded way too old for his age. When they met in the hallways, his stance was always guarded—shoulders up, head down—engaging in perfunctory conversation with the enemy alien, whose foreignness was only blunted by their shared predicament.
But as things go, Luna had a way of breaking earthly presumptions. The moon gathered people like them: floating water-flora of questionable loyalty, unable to root in the tensile, suspicious world below. They had flitted out of the ionosphere like glo-flies, even as all the scientists of sturdy nationalistic allegiance scrambled to get home in time for the thermonuclear holocaust.
John snapped open a vacuum pack and waved it under her nose. She gasped at the familiar, tangy smell.
“Dried fruit? Real fruit?”
He smiled and nodded.
“Paul gave them out at mess. Good haul this cycle. UNJO-funded.”
Abby brought a fig to her mouth and bit down, feeling the seeds crunch and pop through their sticky-sweet insides.
“It must be thawing out down there.”
“Must be.” John shrugged, popping some raisins into his mouth. Abby frowned at that. He was too non-committal about earth politics, these days. Surely, the thawing of tensions down below was good news for exiles like them.
“Anyway, how much do you still have to do?”
She looked around the room and groaned. There were still twenty out of the eighty-six water-silos that she had not yet checked up on. Between those and her scheduled isometrics, she’d be lucky to get a wink of sleep before reveille.
John seemed to be able to read her thoughts.
“You’re sick in the mornings and tired at night. You’re working too hard, Abs. Just skip the isometrics for a day, will you?”
Abby sighed. Once again, her free hand found her stomach, strolling over the smoothweave fabric of her clothes. She sucked down the stew tube and finished up the last of the maintenance work with John peering helpless and impatient over her shoulders. They lugged her equipment down the halls, bouncing and bobbing into the walls until they parted ways at the isometrics room.
She watched John’s retreating back through the hallway. Perhaps it was her imagination, or the fluorescent lighting saturating the walls—but she could not help thinking that, in this light, he looked much thinner than usual.
Morning reveille was at 7:00 AM, Lunar Standard. The corridors’ artificial lights flickered into slow-glow, a pale fluorescent facsimile of the terran sunrise. Abby was up and moving an hour before the music seeped through the speakers in its rising tune.
For breakfast: a tube of nutrient paste and another of simulated oatmeal that she’d left out to thaw the night before. She downed them quickly, over the protest of nausea in her stomach. A glass of re-condensed water went down stale and tinny, and then her daily steroids and calcium tablets, before she bobbed down the lightening halls towards the isometric rooms.
The isometrics were the closest thing she had to religion on Luna. The exercise room was her steeple; the ranging lunges, her dogma. It was a sweating and heaving congregation, in daily prayer that the earth wouldn’t crush the life out of their de-calcified bones once they returned to its gravity. It was the one thing that told the home-bound apart from the lifers—the Scrawnies and Lunies that talk show hosts joked about on primetime Earthnet.
She gave her musculature a testing flex, strutting her full range of motion against the cables. She could tune out the creak of the straining machines, the heavy breathing of the other attendees, and the scent of evaporating sweat being sucked into moisture collectors. The contractions of tensile wireframes stretched into spiritual nihilism, as mind-erasing as Buddhist zen.
In her vision: a sweep of dancing lights from the ionosphere, and the afterglow of a receding horizon.
A fragile splash of blue in an all-black sky.
Waterflowers in a Puxi haze.
Before the cold war, she had been an American. Pretty-faced and tall for her age. Perpetually heartbroken and happy, the way teenagers are.
She had been content in their little Oregonian suburb, among the quiet houses and the trees and the suburban, two-lane streets. She liked the schools and the people, the pizza and gossip at familiar hangouts. She liked the dances and the Oregonian boys, who fawned after her like exotic spices from a faraway land. Disquieting, in its own way—though, truth be told, she’d always rather liked the attention.
“You’re lucky you’re pretty and popular, you know. They can be so cruel to us sometimes.”
The only other immigrant family had lived ten miles outside of town. Their child Bo was a freshman, one year her junior, whose parents had gone through painful lengths to enrol him in a richer school. She understood their obsession with scholastic prestige because of her father—but she also knew that, well-intentioned though they were, they hadn’t done the boy any favours. He was a shy kid, quiet and shabby, who could not keep up in sports or conversations. He ate his lunches alone in a stairwell in the disused north wing of the school, and she’d laughed dutifully along with her friends whenever the popular boys tormented him in the hallways.
With her, he seemed to forgive readily.
“We’re not the same as them,” he said once, sitting on their porch, nursing a split lip for talking back to Bobby Lee at school the week before. Her father had forced her to stay at home while he hosted the boy’s parents. “I don’t think we’ll ever be.”
In the shade of suburban awnings, looking out at the middle-class cul-de-sac, Bo’s accented speech and deliberate use of ‘we’ sounded out of place. The boy bothered her; everything from his shabby clothes, to his imposition of camaraderie, to his half-smiling way of speaking, as if he was letting on less than he knew.
Abby had last heard from him when they shipped him to the federal camps for un-Americanism. The injustice of it sat like lead in her stomach. Flexing against her binding cables, she wondered at how quickly the earth had become such an unhappy place.
The fluorescence of the isometric room came back and heliographed before her eyes. She felt a churning in her belly, cresting in a familiar wave of nausea.
She dropped the cables and clutched at her stomach.
Vomit fell slowly in 1/6 G.
“Your viral and bacterial screens came back negative.”
The pronouncement was as cold as a scalpel. Abby shifted uncomfortably as Dr. Stelman, one of the colony’s two bag-eyed, overworked doctors, frowned from the datapad to his patient.
The sterile whiteness of the room stifled her.
“You know I can’t give out anything without a solid diagnosis. Things are tight enough as it is.”
Abby contorted her neck into a nod, doing her best to ignore the anxiety that crept down her spine and tingled in her toes. Luna, she knew, was not the sort of place you wanted to fall ill. The med-lab had countermeasures for the most common lunar ailments; Zalmatox courses for immunodeficiency, steroids for muscle atrophy, cal-tabs for osteopenia, even a needlewire electrolysation kit for aortic calcification . . . But at the end of the day, the long list of things that could go wrong with a human body in 1/6 G was nowhere near exhaustive. The colony was barely a generation old—new complications were still popping out of the woodwork on a consistent basis, sending bodies to the waste dump and leaving med-staff puzzled and helpless.
Dr. Stelman pressed at her belly, giving her a start.
“What about your periods?” he asked. “Have they been regular?”
There was a beat of silence. Then Abby almost laughed out loud. She looked at the doctor, searching his face for the twinkle of a joke, but found only tired and humourless eyes. She shrugged helplessly. Her periods had been irregular ever since she came to Luna—reproductive complications and sterility were common side effects of long-term extraterrestrial life. Luna was a population built on immigrants alone; birth rates were the sole purview of terran statisticians.
Dr. Stelman stared at the datapad, brows furrowed in consternation.
“We’ll do an ultrasound, just to be sure.” He murmured. “That’s probably not it, but still . . . .”
John had been as surprised as she when he got the news.
“They want to do what?” He’d half-laughed as he bobbed uncertainly towards the pulled bed-frame.
Now, as the rising crescendo of lights and reveille music seeped across the halls, Abby could only watch with a pang of homesickness as her usual congregation filed out of the isometrics room. She nodded to the regulars as she bobbed past. John had appealed to his shift manager to accompany her to the test, but as per usual with the colony’s strapped work shifts, the response had been curt and practical: “Pregnancies don’t happen off-planet. Stelman’s been working too hard lately. You know we can’t give time off for trivial things.”
Abby sighed. Trivial things.
Next to the weight of the moon, everything was trivial.
“Hey Huang. No isos today?”
Abby shook her head and bounced by wordlessly. The woman laughed and slapped her on the rump, a little over-friendly in her endorphin high.
“You’d better not be going native, lady.”
Overhead, the fluorescent lights had reached their full brightness. The halls began to fill with activity as the lifers and homebound alike made from their dorms and began their daily buzz around the colony. Abby’s stomach bounced with every bobbing step. The nausea-suppressants she took from the med lab seemed to be working, at least. She made her way through the winding corridors towards medical, past hydroponics, past the branching northern hall that led the waste disposal unit on the far side of the colony. She’d taken a work-shift there, back when she first landed. Mostly bio-tox and bodies—archiving the ID tags of the dead and reclaiming the moisture from their bodies, before sealing the airlock and letting the pressure gradient carry the husks down the poop chute. Some of the bodies would roll and be carried by their own inertia over a crater rim. Most of them just laid there in the lunar dust and debris, shrunken and glossy-eyed, never decaying.
She’d had her own brief rebellion at the thought of drying and dumping the dead, instead of burying them—but that phase had been mercifully short-lived. Earth-born sentimentalism did not last long on Luna.
Dr. Stelman greeted her curtly as she entered the med-lab. She watched from outside her body as the assistant prepped the electrodes and laid her down on the worn polystyrene table.
“Don’t be so nervous,” came the scripted reassurance. “It’s probably nothing. Just a routine test.”
Abby almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Routine? For whom? She thought of earthly mothers in their bracing gravity, complaining about hospital foods and commute times and the noisy birds outside. She thought of what it would be like to eat fresh foods, to feel natural humidity on her skin, to be able to unironically think of life as a blessing, rather than some vaguely fearful variable in the annals of space exploration.
As the gel-tipped sensor glided cool and ticklish across her skin, Abby Huang closed her eyes and lost herself to thoughts of home.
“Finally. I thought we’d never get out of airport security. How many times do they have to grope a girl before they’re convinced she’s not some bomb-strapped Manchurian candidate?”
In the distant past, Abby’s father was laughing, ushering a visiting Chinese couple to the living room. Their little Oregonian suburb sat in a haze of weekend ennui, sunlight flooding the house through their venetian blinds.
(The coolness of the ultrasound gel tickled her abdomen).
“Things have been tense since the Strait of Japan incident . . . Sorry it was such a hassle for you to get here. I hope people can come to their senses soon and not let things escalate any further.”
The woman nodded in agreement, shaking hands with her father for the twentieth time, laughing and dropping her glottals in a twanging Ningbo accent. The man smiled with aloof politeness. It was familiar scene in the Huang household: her father and his colleagues, sitting around the coffee table, waxing political about the latest international developments over a pot of chrysanthemum tea and a bowl of oily American snacks.
Abby observed the grown-ups as she snacked idly in the kitchen.
“Still, not the best time for visiting America, eh, Da Huang?” said the woman. “The TSA aside, I heard a few of your colleagues got into trouble with the university for un-Americanism.”
“Ah, Liu Bu. He’s never been the type who could leave his politics at home.”
The woman nodded, then threw up her shoulders in the universal what-can-you-do gesture.
“That’s how it starts, isn’t it? It’s the same everywhere. The screws are being tightened on the mainland, too. My friend from internal says there’s even talk of revoking all American business visas, if the US sanctions go ahead.”
“And a good job of it, if that,” interjected the man from the other end of the couch. His tone was terse and confrontational, cutting through the Sunday haze. Abby perked up from her Cheetos. Maybe something interesting would happen, after all.
The woman shot her companion a cold warning glance. Abby’s father only shrugged.
“I’m sure it won’t come to that.”
“Well, if it does, it’ll be your American jingoism that provoked it. We would’ve settled the issue with Little Japan years ago—you’re the ones butting into regional politics where you don’t belong . . . .”
“Damn it, honey, let’s not do this again . . . .”
Abby peeked surreptitiously over her snack-bag at the grown-ups in the other room. Something about the man’s deliberate use of pronouns unsettled her. Abby knew nothing about the rising tensions in the Straits of Japan, or the nationalistic media clampdown at Xinhua, or the hawkish electoral rhetoric being spewed on Capitol Hill—but, looking at her father, all laugh lines and a neatly-parted businessman’s cut over his traditional Han features, she could not help but wonder who they were supposed to be in this scenario—the ‘you’ or the ‘we’?
“You know, you should really watch CCTV sometime—it would be a change of pace from your imperialist American news. Why, just a week ago, Lin Xiaochen ran a segment highlighting the provocative American foreign policy . . . .”
Abby’s father waved his hand, as if slapping away an insect.
“Lin Xiaochen! That old demagogue salivates over the idea of war as if it were a spectator sport.”
“Spoken like an un-patriotic coward. When your country’s security and dignity is on the line, it’s your duty to fight!”
The man accentuated the word ‘fight’ with a solid smack on the knee. The female guest sat in her seat, rubbing her temple in mute, resigned embarrassment. Abby’s father nodded coldly.
“Let the demagogues whinge and roar. You can bet that it won’t be them or their children enlisting to fight, if war ever did break out.”
The man set down his teacup with an audible clink.
“If war ever did break out, I’d send my son to fight.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Abby sighed and returned to her Cheetos.
In the present, Dr. Stelman narrowed his eyes, squinting at the grainy screen of the ultrasound. The electric thrum of two parallel heartbeats filled Abby’s world with equal parts wonder and dread.
“Anyhow, I think you’re out of touch, Mr. Huang,” the man said, as the suburban tableau scattered like a breaking mosaic. “All you get here is American news, American rhetoric. Plenty of patriotic Chinese agree with me.”
The scent-memory of chrysanthemums hung in the air.
“A baby? Is it true, Xiaolu, you’re having a baby?”
The comm-link blared like a runaway train. Abby smiled a little vindictively, thinking of the federal censors listening in on their line, probably grasping their coffees and cringing against the excited noise.
“Ma, please don’t gush. It’s a bit more complicated than that.”
Abby tried to smile back through the screen. She wondered how to convey the precariousness of her situation without upsetting her beaming mother; how to express the four hundred thousand kilometres of distance between her child and the life-giving earth; the political complications of her status if she were to ever return; the weeks of hushed, tearful debates between herself and John over whether to keep the child at all. Dr. Stelman’s sterile, professional words rang in her head:
“There have never been any studies on the effects of a lunar environment on human pregnancy. We’ll monitor the situation carefully, but bear in mind that there’s no guarantee that the child will come to term . . . .”
Her mother bounded back through the transmission lag:
“Oh, who’s gushing, Xiaolu? I’m just so glad to see your face again. When the government men told us, we didn’t believe them. But then the news started talking about it, and then even the army folks guarding the camp—and when they told us that we’d be able to see you again, after all these years . . . !” Wiping tears from her eyes, she continued: “I’m so happy for you. You know there isn’t a person on earth who isn’t rooting for you, Xiaolu!”
Abby smiled and took that with a grain of salt—but she had to admit that the first communiqués from earth had been heartening. The near-defunct UN Joint Operations office had gotten in touch with both the Chinese and American authorities, who had in turn located her mother in one of the internment centers and set up a weekly supervised line directly from Luna into camp. At mess, Paul had showed them clip after clip of optimistic terran pundits pointing out the reconciliatory symbolism of the moon-child in a thawing political landscape. And when Joint Operations ran their social media Q&A, the longest-running thread on Earthnet had been an outpouring of congratulations from both sides of the Great Firewall—though, she had to remind herself in her moments of overt optimism, the second-longest had been an ongoing wiki-limerick titled “The Turncoat and the Chinky Whore.”
“I’m really happy to hear that, Ma. How are things at the, uh—” She paused, re-assessing her words. ‘Internment camp’ was still a taboo phrase in the federal lexicon. “—how are things at the assembly center?”
If her mother picked up on her unease, she didn’t show it.
“Oh, we’ve mostly been talking about you, Xiaolu! We had a dance last week to celebrate the news. Bo fixed up one of the old farmhouses, the supervising officer approved it, and everybody in the camp showed up and danced. Even some of the army guards came out to join us—what were their names again . . . ?”
“That—that’s great, Ma!” Abby yelled, cutting her mother off before she could blurt them out. A bit of camaraderie between guards and internees was one thing; but openly fraternizing with interned aliens was still big trouble, even in the thawing world below.
Then, something else clicked in the back of her head:
“Wait, ma, did you say Bo?”
“Yes! Oh, but you wouldn’t know! He was transferred here after you left for Patriot School! He’s here now, in the other room. Silly boy, he said he didn’t want to intrude on our time. Xiao Bo, come out here!”
Abby watched in astonishment as the boyish face came sliding on-screen, carrying an uncharacteristic dry smirk. That Bo would somehow end up in the same camp as her mother was not unheard of—persons certified as ‘low-threat’ were routinely put in the same re-settlements as their old neighbours. What surprised her was the fact that he was still there. He had been even younger than she was when they interned him, and she could not imagine that he would have any reason to stay.
“Hey, Xiaolu.” He laughed. “You look a little shocked to see me.”
She gave a little wave into the comm-screen.
“I’m happy to see you, Bo—I just didn’t expect you to be in a camp, of all places. I thought for sure you would have taken the Patriot Exams by now!”
“That garbage?” He laughed.
Abby bit her tongue. Surely he knew it was a supervised line?
“Like I’d lie and pander just to get out.” He grinned wider. There was a tinge of desperation in it. “And anyway, I not a naturalized American, remember? I never had the option in the first place.”
John nodded knowingly from his corner. The Naturalized Child Citizens Act had applied only to American-born aliens, giving them the option to be housed and re-educated elsewhere, away from their families in the camps. When the choice had been extended to Abby, her mother had asked no questions, only kissed her on the forehead and wished her the best.
“You can have a life and a future, Abby,” she’d said—a way out from the group bunks and unpartitioned washrooms of the camp; a tantalizing whiff of freedom that had stolen into the oubliette where they’d been stored and forgotten. A few years away in some government boarding school had seemed like a small price to pay.
Abby sighed and remembered a trip they took during her Patriot years—a tour of some university in the mid-west, shepherded under the shadows of neo-Georgian buildings for a glimpse of the world that they would one day inhabit as productive Patriots. Their supervising chaperones had marched them openly across the quad, and she’d felt the eyes of passersbys upon their little clique: hack musicians handing out flyers, ultimate-frisbee-ers fighting over a drink, friends out for a spring picnic on the grass; all craning their necks to stare as they passed by. And Abby watched them in her turn, her eyes connecting with theirs through a great distance, wondering at the lives and dreams of those other people from that other world.
The memory made her sad. Those were the days when she still belonged to earth—when she still believed that the other world had a place for her. Over time, she grew to be inured to the hostile looks from strangers in the streets, to the slurs and snide remarks that led to workplace altercations, and to the termination notices from mediators as they invariably sided with her harassers. She went through her days in a haze, bouncing from one potential employer to the next, watching them squint at her Patriot certificate as though searching for forgery. Some days, she found herself becoming inexplicably angry at even her own friends: their offers of financial support became jeers of superiority; their sympathetic, I’m-sorry-you-had-to-go-through-that pep-talks became increasingly underwritten by the unspoken implication, “I would never have to.” Holding her rancour out at arm’s length, she grew to hate the broke, angry, and over-suspicious woman in the mirror. She was a water-hyacinth—overqualified, underpaid—dreaming of glo-cubes and waterflowers in a middle-American desert.
“I guess a lot of things have happened since then, huh?”
Bo’s words jolted Abby out of her reverie. The face on the comm-screen was grinning, but in the ugly way of someone trying to force a laugh at a funeral. She’d never seen him look so old and tired—as if the smile on his face was holding back a weight that would stretch his features to the ground, wrinkle them with liverspots, fold them up with the caprices of care and age. She ran a finger over her own knuckles and wondered if she too looked as old and tired as he did.
“Yeah. A lot of things have happened to all of us,” she confirmed.
They sat awhile in unspoken understanding. When her mother looked back at the camera, it was with the same sad expression she’d worn when Abby left the camp for the first time. Bo, to her side, watched the floor with his cracked-marble grin.
The federal reprimand pinged on her screen. They were out of time.
Her mother smiled—genuinely, this time.
“It’s fine, Xiaolu. They said we’ll get to talk again next week. And as many weeks as we want after that, until you’re able to come home.”
Her words sounded naively optimistic to Abby’s ears. The notion of Oregonian suburbs and Puxi summers fluttered in her chest, fragile and wishful, before she forcibly clamped them down again. Abby said her goodbyes to her mother and Bo, watching them watch her with identical, faraway looks on their faces.
Her finger hovered over the final disconnect key.
“I’ll see you both when I come home,” she said as the screen went blank.
On a clear night in the country, the star-dusted sky would have been a humbling sight. Here, on the lunar surface, it smothered and cleansed, and the terrifying one-eighty-degree sweep of unbound creation could cut straight to your soul.
The earthrise looked abjectly small and fragile by comparison.
Abby and John rarely ever visited the surface. Nobody did, unless it was for work: engineers calibrating the panels that turned the deadly, unfiltered sunlight towards the power-grids of the colony; miners and surveyors, who alternated between tunnelling underground and braving the surface in their comical suits, searching out the ever-precious lodes of water-ice sublated in the lunar geology. The people of Luna never got much leisure time—but Abby’s pregnancy had transformed her and John into instant celebrities, both on Luna and on Earth. They had the benefit of an unheard-of one week away from duties, with stipend water rations to get them through the week.
They were spending the last day of their vacation gazing at the earth.
“There’s a lot of talk about bringing Lily back there.” John’s crackling voice came over the comm—more bitter and sardonic than necessary, she thought. “The bureaucrats are practically drooling for her.”
Abby nodded invisibly in her spacesuit, which pulled uncomfortably tight around her waist. To her and John, she was Lily, their moon-girl, their beautiful child-to-be. But to the earthbound propagandists, she was a political narrative and a powerful PR coup; the first child conceived on the moon; a mix-blooded child of peace and reconciliation on a four-hundred-thousand kilometre descent from exile.
The blue planet twinkled silently in the sky.
Still, a propaganda reel for peace wouldn’t be such a bad change, thought Abby—it sure beat the nationalistic demagoguery the media had doled out at the beginning of the cold war. She looked up at the blackness, and then over at the spacesuit that contained her moon-man, bobbing twenty yards away towards the crater rim. When all was said and done, she had a more personal reason to be thinking about the earth.
Fact was, she missed it like hell.
“John, I want to go back.”
She could not see John’s face through the reflective visor, but his voice came through the comm crackling and strained.
“When else, if not now?”
“I was hoping we could wait a few more years. Wait out the worst of the thaw. You know how it is down there, Abs—there’s no safety on either side of that line.”
Abby sighed. Here was the conversation that she had been dreading for weeks. John turned to look back at her as the silence stretched on uncomfortably. The helioproofed domes of their spacesuits reflected only the sweep of lunar sky, two hollow-looking cosmonauts against a humbling field of desolation, surreal as staring ghosts. She measured her words carefully:
“No one’s ever carried a pregnancy to term off-world. We don’t know what it could mean for Lily.”
(Don’t you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?)
The comm-link buzzed in her ear.
“The States down there isn’t the States I used to know. You know what these people can do, in the name of God and country. Do you really want to take us back to all that . . . ?”
“John, this isn’t about you or me.” She cringed against the weight of her words, and at the half-truth that sat beneath them. She imagined his furrowed brows behind his helmet, his fear and silent indignation at having to return to country that had spat him out so long ago, without even the guarantee of change or safety when he did return. “I want Lily to be born on earth. Look around! This is no place to raise a kid. I want our daughter to grow up with all the things we had—the most basic, stupid clichés that she’ll never even know about on Luna—like taking a shower on a summer day—(Remember showers, John? Remember summers?)—I want her to know clouds and dew and flowers—sunlight that doesn’t kill you . . . .”
Waterflowers in a Puxi haze.
“John. I want to go home.”
The comm-link was silent. Abby was thankful that her suit’s visor hid the dampness welling up in her eyes. She reached up to wipe the tears away, but only thudded her hand stupidly against the dome of her helmet.
“Abby, are you crying?”
“I . . . No, I—Jesus, John . . . .”
Abby gritted her teeth. She shook her head inside her spacesuit, invisibly, futilely. The only thing that had gotten her through their tenure on the moon was the assumption that it was all temporary; that one day, somehow, she would return home. She had not counted on growing roots. She had not counted on a lot of things: not the untaken steroids and cal-tabs that she’d found in John’s medicine cabinet, nor his ever-increasing excuses to put off isometrics, nor the twenty earth-pounds of body-mass that she’d watched him shed over the past year as he waned thin and brittle in moon-G. She wanted to grab him by the shoulders and scream: You look like a Lunie, you know that? You look like a fucking lifer!
The earth twinkled silently overhead.
You’re growing roots in the wrong place.
Abby took a deep breath and suppressed the churning in her gut. She bobbed awkwardly towards her moon-man until their helmets were touching, and she could just make out the faint contours of his features beneath the helioproofed glass.
“Look: it’s thawing out down there, John. I really think there can be a future for people like us. America isn’t all there is. I’ll take you to Shanghai. We can visit the watergardens with Lily. Go to the tourist-traps. Spend a fortune on stupid trinkets that we’ll never need . . . .”
We can . . . and we can . . . .
The comm-line was silent. The sun crested over the rim of the crater, throwing jagged shadows onto the lunar foothills. Sunlight reflected heaven-white off the moondust, swallowing the tiny spacesuits below.
Finally, after a long silence, John’s voice came crackling over the comm-line:
“Yeah. Someday, I’d like that.”
When the shuttle re-entered the ionosphere, Abby Huang watched the lights of the terran cities below, glinting like misplaced stars as the continents advanced against her viewscreen.
The bureaucratic procedurals for her return had been surprisingly painless. Aside from the expected posturing between the governments over where she would symbolically land, things had gone as smoothly as anyone could have hoped. The terran authorities hadn’t made any overtly cynical demands—just a few press appearances, some photo-ops with pro-peace politicians who needed an extra boost in their credibility. Shake hands with some middle-American senator; smile and pose with some smarmy Chinese dignitary.
The thought of it overwhelmed her with rage.
“And my father? We haven’t heard from him since the Americans interned us. Have you had any luck finding him?”
She remembered the last communiqué from earth, the week before she was scheduled to leave Luna. The UNJO officer had looked visibly uncomfortable in his seat, while the Chinese official on her comm-screen smiled his placid little smile.
“We are sorry that we cannot help you in that regard. Please rest assured that our thoughts are with you, Ms. Huang. We apologize, and are nevertheless anticipating your safe return with great excitement.”
As the planet loomed below her, Abby had to fight down the rage and gut-pain that wracked her stomach. Anticipating your safe return—was that what they had told her father, when the Americans expelled him, back to the country of his birth? Was that what they had said as they dragged him away in their nationalistic witch-hunt, screeching their archaic, pre-millennial rhetoric? Fangeming, han jian—foreign-born, US-sympathetic, or just caught saying the wrong things at the wrong time—thousands of men and women, lost and buried as missing persons, anomalies in the prison system. And now, as the political winter thawed, bland-faced bureaucrats smiled at worried families. “Your concern is important to us, we will do everything we can to locate so-and-so, please move to the back of the line.”
Abby ran a hand over her bloated stomach, holding back the sinking feeling inside. The blue-green horizon expanded as the shuttled sailed languidly under the weight of its own inertia. A streaming feed from Earthnet buzzed on the all-comm.
“ . . . and the eyes of the nation are turned to the moon today, as Lily Johnston-Huang descends from the moon-colony Luna and is scheduled to touch down at the Swiss Space Center at 8PM this evening . . . ”
“ . . . 从国家利益的角度考虑，必须记住的是，瑞士既是美国的盟友， 更是北约的一员 . . . ”
“What bothers me, Susan, is that this girl—you know—that her parents decided to keep her other name. What kind of message does that send? I mean, you’re either a Johnston or a Huang, am I right?”
Abby grunted to herself. Waves broke over her, and she felt adrift in a sea of self-doubt. Had she done the right thing, bringing Lily back to all this?
The shuttle began to thrum in its deorbit burn. The horizon tilted on its axis as they positioned themselves nose-first against the terran atmosphere. Abby looked out through the exothermic glow of her viewscreen and gritted her teeth against the turbulence, her fingers digging themselves into the armrests as though they were the only things holding her up in the sky.
The fear-cramp in her gut stirred again, even as she tried to force her mind in comforting directions. She imagined her mother and her beaming optimism. She imagined John, healthy and filled-out as he once was, dancing with Lily along the walkways of New Chenghuang Temple. She imagined glo-cubes lighting up one by one in the watergarden below. An Oregonian suburb—a Puxi swelter.
Her belly contracted with pain. She looked down and pried her death-grip from the armrests. Outside, the air of the low atmosphere screeched and whined against their speeding shuttle.
“Xiaolu, Do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?”
She clutched her sides, uncomprehending. The whinging screech of the hull seemed determined to bore a hole straight through her skull.
“I mean, I’m as much for peace as the next guy, but what kind of upside-down world would it be where Huangs dressed up like Johnstons and Johnstons dressed like Huangs? Am I right folks?”
She shook her head, no, no. It was too soon.
“而且，鉴于全球对该孩童及家庭如此关注，以及对该事件付与的政治函意，这不能不让人深究：该事件的进一步发展将会有利于美国的宣传机器还是我们的爱国主义教育 . . . ”
Then the pain in her stomach crested, and the contractions began.
“Do you know what the difference between a water-lily and a water-hyacinth is?”
Abby shook her head against the memory. Something about stolons and root systems. Cameras snapped and faces screeched as she stumbled into the humid terran atmosphere, the welcome party on the tarmac as loud and thick as a lynching.
“Hey! Get the fucking press out of here!”
“Water-lilies anchor themselves with roots below the waterline, while the hyacinths are all free-floating plants . . . .”
The crowd milled and the sky spat and the cameras flashed.
Shui tu bu fu, she recalled uselessly as they wheeled her across the runway—(the rejection of a foreign body by the water and earth; or, the rejection of the water and earth by a foreigner’s body)—a green-blue planet smothering and spitting out an unwanted, alien bacterium.
“We are water hyacinths.”
A light mist of rain fell from the sky, cut with the scent of industrial-grade petrol. The contraction shot regular white flashes of pain through her body. Abby did not notice the rainwater mingling with sweat on her brow, nor the roar of engines, nor the yammering of press and paramedics outside. The waterflowers in her mind had become the ships of tiny explorers, drifting away on an endless ocean. Her mother and father sat in a floating pod; and John too; and Lily, her impossible, fragile moon-girl.
“We are water-hyacinths, Xiaolu. We do not grow roots.”
And one-by-one, they fell over the horizon.
You must know Darwin—not any darwin
in forums with telescopes on his eyes
always singing the beard like a puppet,
or one having his tag by accident;
I really mean the God of chance—
he respected me, no, he deified me
not because I once mirrored his incubation
when we sat alone on HMS Beagle,
but that I surpassed him in jest—
this, too, he dismissed when I reviewed
the Origin long before it absorbed us.
I had asked as throes gripped him,
what he would be after the time—
My friend, he called, there is no death
but transmutation, and we laughed at sophistry.
So, Darwin never died as you presume,
and not only he, but every extinct thing:
do not compose elegies for Tiktaalik roseae,
dinosaurs, Raphus cucullatus and golden toads
or remind me of Suyá and Ostrogoth,
St. Helena olives and Sri Lanka legumes—
they have, indeed, been transformed—I know
he would agree wherever whatever he is,
that the Holocene extinction is natural selection.
He knew I detest praising friends privately,
I sing them loud as a thrush
I laud public approval, which he adored,
and I told him in undressed words
that I did not share his lust
and how he swore in the name
of greed and in its night-birthed misnomers
we give all the things that limp
backwards into the beautiful door of love;
the stubble smiled and laughed at me,
yet he did not stir my head
to make differently how we should live.
I never meant, friend, to distract you,
to cut new pathways in your mind
to discredit or credit the new whiskers,
and believe me, I wonder every day
as I walk across shacks and skyscrapers
how many of us daily go extinct
by our fatal greed and inverse love
that wet the long lungs of death—
and which of us, Malthus, is next?
You don’t know what it means to live unknown,
to smile in the market square as a stranger
haughtily spills your mother’s name on a pig’s head
and you become a boil on Miss World’s lips.
This is how a mangrove lives without prop roots:
a branch is starved until its pregnant leaves become
ghosts of IDPs walking backwards to Oloibiri Well 1.
def.: Oloibiri is the longing of a surrogate mum
e.g.: She died birthing crude oil for the outsiders.
You don’t know how it feels when a foe
owns your child and you bow calling him, Lord,
while your neighbours cut your neck with snail shells;
you can’t protest because your life’s a nursery rhyme
of CH4 NOx VOCs SO2 CO2 PAHs PCBs HFCs
and the other poisons that eat me away daily.
The community’s gardener, Mr. Ussander, tosses the clock radio on the counter and demands a refund. The radio looks holy to me. He tells me to plug it in. “It is Well With My Soul” belts out of the mono speaker and the clock glows the unmistakable blue of an LED.
“My wife wants to know why you are so intent on condemning us to eternal damnation.”
He won’t touch the thing, despite my assurances that we will finish the rehabilitation, so I count out the bills of his refund. He crosses the street, back to Revelation, the only Grahamite community in Toronto. Once the customer leaves, I slip into the workshop. David’s legs stick out from beneath a big wood-panelled hi-fi cabinet.
“That’s the third refund this week,” I say. He’s been working on the cabinet for days now, way longer than it should take to replace the digital amplifier. I count backward to the last time I filled his prescription, and I swear. “This is more than just a hi-fi rehabilitation, isn’t it?”
David slides out from beneath the cabinet, the sleeves of his Oxford rolled up. Purple blotches cover the exposed flesh. “I’ve made a great discovery, Billy Ray. This time it will be different.”
I slam the clock radio down on the workbench. The last time he tried to build a time machine, he almost burned down the shop. “The therapist warned against this kind of behaviour. The past only exists in your mind. You can’t go back there. You can’t fix it.”
“The Lord rewards patience.”
“I reward you for rehabilitating appliances, and you’re doing a shit job of it.”
I go back to my perch behind the counter. He can never go back there, but I can. I slip the Backflasher out from beneath the counter and press the cerephones to my forehead. I go looking for something, anything, that can save him. And I go back because that night is the night he took his first step out of their world and into mine.
I open my favorites and go back to that night fifteen years ago when David discovered his Shift.
Tuesday evening, the second to last week of Grade Ten. I wade through the filthy waters of Highland Creek. Diapers, tires, broken bottles, circuit boards, and the occasional bloated animal carcass line the bank. The creek flows toward a red brick wall, and at the spot the oil-slicked liquid flows through the culvert, I hold my breath, duck, and swim a short length of darkness.
David meets me in Revelation. I come out dripping and itchy and he rushes me along the bank of the reservoir full of discoloured water, past the water treatment plant his father built, to the plant’s outlet where the creek spills out clear and pure in the summer evening light. I wash off the industrial sewage and we go looking for the girls.
Two piles of clothing sit on the banks of Baptismal Pool Number Three. The girls call to us from the water. Anja and Rebecca. One for each of us, even though I am no more interested in Anja than she is in me. They bob in the middle of the pool, the white promise of their breasts hidden just below the surface. We duck under one of the weeping willows that line the creek and undress. The chastity vow I made when I joined David’s high school burns in my ears as I watch him peel off his uniform.
Warm slices of sunset dance across David’s hairless chest. I pretend my erection is for the girls. In that partitioned sunlight, I can’t be sure about the three purple spots I notice just below David’s left shoulder blade. I brush them with the tips of my fingers, the spots warm and sweat-damp. We find two more in a cluster on his right thigh. David recoils at the sight of them.
“They can’t be Bernie Blotches,” he says. He wets his thumb and tries to rub them off.
“What’s taking so long?” Rebecca says.
“The water’s divine,” Anja says.
David slides his shirt back on and buttons it up. “I can’t let her see this.” He trembles beneath the willow branches, shoes in his hand. “Please, Billy Ray. We have to go.”
“You owe me one skinny dip,” I say as I dress.
We steal the girls’ clothes. The two of them scream as we run down the bank. We leave their clothes on the picnic table by Baptismal Pool Number Four. David doesn’t want to go home; he can’t face his mother yet. I think he’s already decided she was the transgressor. So we call from the pay phone at the gas station. David’s father, Adam Mercer—or who he assumed until that night was his father—answers. David tells him that we are sleeping over at Robert O’Leary’s house, the first lie I’ve ever heard him tell his parents. I pick up my phone and glasses from the lock box. The booze-soaked guard at Revelation’s east gate doesn’t notice us duck past.
Outside the gates, a steady stream of cars, buses, and streetcars crawl by along the eight-lanes of Lawrence Avenue. David watches it all in wide-eyed apprehension. He’s never been out of the compound without a chaperone before.
We take the streetcar three stops, then transfer to a bus. A Brawny Baby is strapped into a wheelchair up at the front, her sitter immersed in a VR headset beside her. I try to pull David past the Brawny, but he stops at her side. She looks like a botched attempt at cloning a gorilla. Thick coils of muscle protrude from her triple-XL T-shirt and drool leaks past her bite guard. Every bare patch of flesh is marked by the same purple blotches I found on David’s white skin. David kneels beside her as the bus rolls away from the curb and places his hands on her massive forearm.
“The Lord still loves you,” he says.
She spits out her bite guard. Great dark eyes focus on David. She knocks him to the ground and shouts: “Drink.”
The sitter strips off her VR rig and crams a two-litre bottle of Enervade into the Brawny Baby’s sucking mouth.
“That’s assault,” the sitter says. “See if I don’t put in a claim for workplace stress and discomfort. Slip me two grand, I might change my mind.”
David reaches for his wallet.
“Make that claim,” I say. “And I’ll tell your employer you were jacked in when you were supposed to be sitting.”
“Drink,” the giant roars. She throws the empty bottle to ground. “Drink!”
The sitter searches her bag for another bottle. We hide at the back of the bus.
“You can’t go around touching people,” I say.
“That will be me. A giant strapped to a chair.”
“We don’t even know what kind of Baby you are. Most rational explanation is that your real dad was a Beautiful Baby who charmed her pants off.”
I don’t mean to say it, but I know he is thinking the same thing.
“The whore,” he says.
The next stop is mine. Mom is working the late shift at the restaurant so we have the place to ourselves. I try to get him to eat, but everything in the fridge is GMO’d or manufactured offshore. Eventually I find some dried apples from a Grahamite community in Cobourg we visited on a school trip last October.
“She witnessed for a year on the West Coast during her first Mission,” he says, jaw grinding the leathery strips of apple. “Met Dad out there and came back pregnant. Fooled him ever since.”
“We should talk to Pastor Kline tomorrow. He’ll know what to do.”
“’Come ye out from among them and be ye separate’. I know exactly what has to be done.”
David stuffs another piece of near-fossilized apple into his mouth. As I watch, a cluster of Bernie Blotches blossom on his cheek, the bruise from an ancient wound his body only now remembers.
The door to the shop chimes. I pop off the cerephones and slide the Backflasher into a drawer: Grahamites don’t like to see their service providers using forbidden tech. Into the fading memory of that summer night walks a gorgeous Grahamite woman, blonde hair sprayed into a golden mass on top of her head. She peels off thin leather driving gloves as she approaches the counter.
“That your Fairlane parked out front?” I say. She nods. “They don’t make them like they used to.”
“I understand you do make them like they used to,” she says. Her voice has that breathy quality leading ladies adopted in movies from the 1950s.
“Appliances, sure. Not automobiles.”
“It’s an automobile I’m after,” she says. “A ’57 Bel Air, to be precise. I’m told you’re honest, and that you do good work.”
I straighten up. Working on a car would be good for David. It could mean weeks of work. Maybe even enough to knock him out of this Fascination.
“None better in the province, when it comes to appliances. For automobiles, we usually ship from California or Cuba, but in special circumstances, we’ve been known to do the work in-house. What do you have in mind?”
She places her gloves on the counter and makes a show of looking at the clocks, power tools, toasters, and other appliances in my cabinet. Sweat rolls in small droplets to the low neck of her dress.
“It’s my twentieth wedding anniversary. I found the ’57 in Etobicoke. Thoroughly desecrated, of course, but once you make it pure, my husband will love it.”
“Won’t be cheap to fix a car like that,” I say. The refunds of the past week have taken a deep cut of our revenue and I have to make up the rent somehow.
She shrugs. “My husband tells me I needn’t worry about money. Name your price, I’m sure it will be fair.”
“I’ll have to see the car first.”
She writes down the address of the wrecker on the back of her husband’s card. She is Mrs. Robert Thrangle, from the Grahamite community in Kemptville, outside Ottawa. Long drive in one of those old cars. I promise to call with the quote. After the Fairlane chugs off, I walk back to the workshop.
David is soldering a vacuum tube into an electrical board. In the time since I last came in, he’s attached two chairs to the old hi-fi cabinet, abandoning all pretence that this is a standard rehabilitation. The LED-blighted clock radio sits forgotten on the workbench.
I tell him about the Bel Air. He keeps working. I tell him it will be enough money to cover rent for a couple months. He finishes the connection and places the soldering iron on the workbench.
“Might even be enough to pay for another prescription.”
He looks up from behind the electrical board.
“Those pills are nothing but shackles to confine my intellect. I won’t take them again.”
“Will you at least come with me to look at the car? They are airing game four of the ’59 World Series tomorrow. We could listen on the way back.”
“I’ll listen to it here.”
He picks up another vacuum tube and solders it in place.
It`s too late in the day to start the journey—the highway isn’t safe after dark—so I pack a few things and plan to leave in the morning.
David won’t come upstairs for dinner. I bring the soup down to him, and when I check before bed, it has congealed untouched beside the clock radio. During his previous Fascination, he only stopped eating at the very end. He might not want to take his drugs, but I’ll be damned if I will let this go any further. There is a pharmacy near the wreckers, and it is far enough away that they won’t recognize me there. I get out the Backflasher.
A cold Friday afternoon, two years ago, right at the end of his previous Fascination. David struggles to walk as we stumble toward the gates of Lakeshore Hospital.
“The machine will send me back,” he says as he struggles against me. “Let me keep working.”
Snow hisses underfoot. He weighs less than sixty kilos. I drag him through the gate like he is a sullen child. At the entrance to the main building, a man standing above a pile of rags shouts as we approach.
“Hear ye, hear ye, a pair of deuces and a pound of pudding. Step right up, young men, to this, the greatest show this side of the pond. Gift horses for all, mouths unexamined, we guarantee. No fillings, no funerals. Just good fun for the little ones.”
He wears a long overcoat and wool top hat. Above the thick scarf wrapped around his neck, his face is covered in purple blotches.
“I need help,” I say. “Can you fetch a doctor?”
“Don’t interrupt,” the pile of rags says. A woman is entombed within, her bare, blotchy hands trembling in the cold, yet still managing to write in a thick notebook.
“Interruptions are intolerable,” the man in the top hat says. “But how’s this for tolerance? No refunds!”
The woman in the rags writes down everything the top hat Baby says. She underlines words, circles others, and connects circled words to one another with thick black lines.
“Don’t lock me up in here, Billy Ray,” David says. “These people are sick. Let me finish my work.”
Dr. LaRose meets with us after I pay her five-hundred-dollar consultation fee. Five minutes of inspecting David later, and she tells me he is suffering a Fascination, a psychological break Brainy Babies often exhibit post-Shift. Googling has told me much the same. From the history I give her, she figures this is his fifth Fascination. The original Bernard’s Brainy Baby Serum was designed to stimulate neural development in children and create hyper-intelligent youth. At puberty, when the Shift hits, that neural development continues, old synapses restart and new ones develop, they short-circuit and invaginate, leading to the sort of repetitive, obsessive behaviour I was seeing in David.
“What can we do about it?” I say.
She writes out a prescription and hands it to me. I don’t take it. “Do you have anything simpler? He was a Grahamite.”
“We don’t look too fondly on electroshock therapy here.” She places the prescription back on her desk. “Why didn’t you bring him in earlier?”
“I could handle it.”
“We can handle it better,” she says. She slides a pamphlet across the table. “Thanks to the class-action settlement, once the patients are committed, you won’t have to pay a thing. We can book him today.”
“He’s second generation.”
Dr. LaRose leans back in her chair.
“A Grahamite who is also a second-generation Bernard Baby?”
“He was a Grahamite, until the Shift.”
“That must have been ugly. In any case, if he’s second generation, he wasn’t part of the class action. He can stay here, but it will be quite expensive.”
I ask for the prescription. When she hands it to me, I pause the Backflasher and forge a copy complete with the good doctor’s signature. Then I go back to the memory.
The nurse at the front desk sells me the pills. I make her help me hold David down to get him to swallow the forbidden technology. A little while later, he gets drowsy. The two Babies are still outside when we leave, the Brainy woman in rags chattering as she scribbles in her notebook. The Boisterous man in the top-hat shouts: “Come back soon, y’all. There’s so much left to see and do and you don’t want to miss a wink.”
As we wait for the streetcar, snow begins to fall. David leans against me, his body so thin beneath the layers I wrapped him in. I hold him while he snores and I look up into the falling snow and for the first time since he stopped eating I can breathe again.
Metal clatters in the workshop downstairs. David mutters a polite curse. I shut down the Backflasher and hold onto that moment at the end of his last Fascination, David in my arms, the cold air in my lungs. He so rarely lets me touch him. I let the memory lull me to sleep.
In the morning, I bring David toast and poached eggs from the only market left in Revelation, but he ignores me as I set it down on the workbench. At five-thirty, I check out a community car. All twenty-eight lanes on the 401 are full by the time I make it onto the highway. My autodriver does its best to find a lane, but so does everyone else’s.
Three hours later, I arrive in Etobicoke. The address Mrs. Robert Thrangle gave me was for a wrecker not far off the highway. I find the car at the back of the lot, the front end crumpled, that chrome maw deformed. Still, it is a beauty. The pinnacle of American automotive design. With that vehicle stretched out in front of me, I can understand why Grahamites consider the years between 1954 and 1965 to be the most holy in history, and why they choose to live like Americans of that era.
The car’s previous owner made a suite of modern improvements—auto-driver, climate control, HUD, immersion sound, electric drive—and they will all have to be stripped out and replaced with the sacred technology of the era before it will be ready for Mrs. Robert Thrangle. Just what David needs. The wrecker says he could get me the car later that day if I want.
I put the quote together on the way to the pharmacy. Over the telephone, Mrs. Robert Thrangle tells me the price sounds fair and offers to wire me an advance. Kind people, Grahamites. I thank her and put a call in to the wrecker just as the car pulls up to the pharmacy.
The woman behind the counter doesn’t take a second look at my forged prescription; she just doles out the pills and gives me the bill. The drugs are expensive, almost a month’s rent for a month’s supply, but with the cash from the Bel Air rehabilitation, we can afford it.
The car predicts another four hours to get home, so I take out the Backflasher and go back to the night David spent at my apartment, our first night together, as the two of us tried to figure out what kind of Bernie Baby had fathered him.
David does push-ups and squats until his muscles give out. I record how many he does and compare the results to the number he did an hour earlier. There is no improvement. It doesn’t look like his real father was a Brawny Baby. At least he won’t end up like the woman on the bus. He goes online, a rare transgression of Grahamite orthodoxy, and answers three different IQ tests. He’s always been bright, but he isn’t getting any brighter. The results rule out a Brainy Baby as a father. Though I think his spots are darling, he hasn’t gotten any cuter since the start of his Shift, and he was never really considered a good looking guy by the girls at school, other than Rebecca, which means he probably isn’t a Beautiful Baby either.
“Maybe they aren’t Bernie Blotches?” I say, trying to sound hopeful.
“The Shift happens at puberty,” he says. “The traits are amplified and warped then. Mine are just coming in; maybe we can’t detect them yet.”
By that point in the night, we are both up on our research into Bernard’s Syndrome. During the development of the drugs, each Serum tested so well on the children in the trials that the products were approved and put to market before the test batch of kids hit puberty. Hundreds of thousands of parents purchased Bernard’s Baby Serums for their progeny. A whole generation of children was born Beautiful, Boisterous, Brainy, Brawny, and other adjectives that stretched marketing alliteration to its limit. As the kids from the first trials hit their early teens, their Shifts started, and they went spotty. Bernie Blotches appeared on Beautiful Babies as readily as they did on Boisterous kids, but the Blotches were the only trait they all shared. During the Shift, the traits that made them prodigies and child celebrities were amplified way out of proportion. Praxit Inc., who’d purchased the Serum from Bernard in the early days, divested itself of the product line and pulled the Serum from the shelves. The damage was already done. Those same hundreds of thousands of parents were forced to watch as their children went from prodigies to freaks. Dr. Bernard killed himself. Dozens of lawsuits joined forces to suck cash from Praxit’s bleeding husk, a messy affair that took the better part of a decade. Only after the lawsuits were settled did anyone realize that Bernard’s Syndrome was inheritable.
My mother comes home around two that night. Bleary-eyed and stinking of simgarettes, she pours herself a cup of coffee and collapses on the couch.
“Why are you two up so late?” she says.
“School project,” I say.
She grabs my arm. Her halitosis makes me gag.
“This is what flunking out looks like, Billy Ray,” she says. She gestures at her polyester restaurant uniform. “I’m not working three jobs so you can flunk out. Study hard.”
She fades back into the couch.
David steps up in front of her.
“Can I tell you a joke?” he says. Mom nods a head that appears to weigh tonnes. “How did Delilah know Sampson’s door would be open?” Her shrug works just as hard to raise her shoulders. “Because she cut his locks off.”
She makes a sound that might be laughter and starts to snore.
“Guess I’m not a Boisterous Baby either,” he says.
We dig up articles on the rarer versions of Bernard’s Serum, like Belonging Babies and Blazing Babies and the other poorly marketed serums, and David tests himself against them as best he can. He compiles all the results in one of my school notebooks and looks for any single trait that stands out from the pack.
“Something has to stick,” he says.
Mom’s alarm goes off and she pulls herself off the couch, finishes the cup of cold coffee, and gets ready for work. It’s four-thirty. By five, she’s gone, and I am making breakfast. David is doing push-ups again.
“We should get ready for school,” I say.
He holds up a spotted arm. “They won’t let me through the gate.”
I dig out Mom’s make-up kit and go to work. By the time I’m done, all of David’s spots are concealed and I even paint some colour into his pale cheeks. He looks so beautiful I want to kiss him. We leave for school.
Sick crows fight cancer-ridden gulls over the contents of the apartment building’s garbage container. We take the bus and streetcar through Toronto’s crowded streets. The AC is broken on the streetcar, so I touch-up David’s foundation when we get off outside the gates to the compound.
“Promise me you won’t do anything stupid,” I say.
“’And touch not the unclean thing,’” he quotes.
We wait until one of the water trucks stops at the gate. It’s an old ’37 Ford, the back uncovered, the truck laden with crates of glass water bottles ready to be refilled. We jump in the back and duck under a tarp. Selling bottled water was one of Adam Mercer’s suggestions to help fund the water treatment facility he designed for the community. Water purified the old-fashioned way is a hit with the wealthy people still living in Toronto and bottled water sales are one of the two main economic engines for the community. The other is also one of Adam’s innovations: the tuition outside students like me pay to attend John the Baptist Secondary School.
The school bell tolls. At an intersection, we hop off and run through town. Wives in aprons bring in the mail. Husbands lug leather briefcases to their gleaming Plymouths and Studebakers. At the end of our fifteen-minute run, we come to John the Baptist.
The community might have been established to save the souls of the Grahamites who call it home, but that school is my salvation. After the fifth beating at my old high school landed me in the emergency room, my mother got me into John the Baptist. She took the extra jobs to pay the tuition. Parents pay good money for their children to attend a school system with zero incidents of mass shootings, stabbings, or poisonings. Mom’s hard labour lets those men drive their Studebakers, lets the women drink wine before ten in the morning, and it lets me sit beside David without fear of ever having a limb broken because of whom I love.
As we run toward John the Baptist with fear of expulsion whipping me on, I try to remember my vow of punctuality, but the words I had to speak on my first day of school—vows of obedience, chastity, punctuality, and charity—bleed together like a watercolour tossed into a lake. All I can remember is Kline’s deep, sexy voice and his Old Spice aftershave. And, how after the vows, he walked me to my classroom and pointed me to an empty chair beside this cute, old-school nerdy boy whose nostrils flared so much when I took my seat that I worried I’d stepped in something on the way in.
“David,” he said, and offered his dry hand for me to shake. “Is that Mothra?” He pointed at the giant moth stenciled onto the pencil case I’d placed on the desk. It was. He smiled, his teeth blazing white in their fluoridated glory, and in that moment I knew this school was a good place.
The thought of losing that place, and the only real friend I have in the world, leaves me trembling as we run up the steps of the old school. I swing the front door open and halt. David slams into me.
In the front entrance of the school, David’s mother Linda-Jane Mercer stands with her husband Adam. Both look equal parts concerned and furious. Beside them, Revelation’s spiritual and political leader, Pastor Kline, gazes at his wristwatch.
“I knew it,” Linda-Jane says, looking up at Adam. “How often have I said that boy is a bad influence on our son?”
The car interrupts the memory to tell me we’ve arrived.
Concrete and steel towers rise above the red brick walls of Revelation. Cranes extruded new apartment blocks within the old footprint of the community. In the fifteen years since David was expelled, we’ve watched Revelation whither. Without water sales and tuition from outside students and the other innovations Adam brought to Revelation, revenues declined. The Grahamites within the walls sold off chunks of their land to pay for ever-increasing property taxes. Well-tended lawns became parking garages, the Brightwater was paved over, and John the Baptist Secondary School was sold off and turned into high-end condominiums.
Only a few hundred Grahamites are left within the remains of Revelation, and a good percentage of them are lined up in front of my shop holding cardboard boxes or canvas sacks. There is a sign hanging in the door that I can’t read from the road.
“There you are,” the last Grahamite in line says as I approach. He’s the telephone sanitizer from Revelation. He takes a typewriter out of the cardboard box. “This thing still has memories. Your man was supposed to fix it. I want my money back.”
The others are here for refunds too, and when I get to the head of the line, I see why they’ve all come today. The sign reads: “Closed 4 Business. Thanks for 15 Good Years.”
“I promise, we aren’t closing,” I say to the people in line. “A misunderstanding with my business partner. Come back tomorrow, please, and I’ll sort everything out.”
I lock the door behind me, take down David’s sign, and draw the drapes. I throw open the door to the workshop.
“Are you trying to ruin us?”
He wipes grease off his hands and steps away from what is no longer even recognizable as a hi-fi cabinet. Game Four of the ’59 World Series blares from a wood-paneled radio. His smile is the same one I saw under the willows, the partitioned sunlight on his blotched skin.
“It’s almost ready. After I fix things, you won’t need me here any longer.”
“Time travel doesn’t work. Even if it did, I still need to make a living. Think of me for a minute.”
He gestures to his machine. “I’ll leave you what I’ve created. You’ll be a very rich man. Then you’ll find someone who can love you the way you deserve.”
I put the pills down on the counter. “Take your medicine. Forget this impossible obsession.”
“Don’t you want me to be whole again?”
“We are whole. You can’t change what happened that day, David. You know where this all leads. I don’t want to send you to Lakeshore, but I will if you give me no other choice.”
That smile disappears. He backs away from me, touches his chest as if I kicked him. “That place is for sick people. I’m not sick. I’ve never seen more clearly.”
I slam my open palm beside the pill bottle. “Take the damn drugs, then tell me if you still see clearly.”
He nods as he reaches for the bottle. The safety seal makes a reassuring hiss. He pops a pill into his mouth and swallows. “No more talk of Lakeshore?”
I gesture to the clock radio from yesterday. “So long as there is no more talk about a time machine. Fix what you’re good at. Tomorrow, I’m bringing in the Bel Air. It will keep us both busy and fed for at least a couple months.”
“That sounds good. It’s been a long time since I’ve worked on a car.”
I watch him disassemble the clock radio. He works with the calm precision I’ve known from our years together. On the radio, the announcer for Game Four sounds like he is going insane: Chicago has just scored four runs at the top of the seventh, tying the game. The long-dead crowd roars.
The Bel Air will help, and so will the medicine. After my one and only visit to the hospital, I told myself that I would exhaust every avenue available before sending him to Lakeshore.
Music from the seventh inning stretch blares from the radio. David replaces the offending bulb with an old-fashioned incandescent and I slip out. The Backflasher is in my bag. I plop on the cerephones and start it up where I left off.
The lobby of Saint John the Baptist Secondary School. Pastor Kline gazing at his watch, Linda-Jane and Adam Mercer standing with him, both furious. I used to think Adam looked so old, but here, he looks exactly like the man I’ve worked and lived with these past fifteen years. The same grey eyes, receding hairline, strong jaw, sloping shoulders. Handsome, despite a weariness that reminds me of my mother’s. Unlike David, Adam’s skin is tanned a healthy bronze. Why didn’t we see it then?
“I stopped by Mrs. O’Leary’s this morning,” Linda-Jane says. “She didn’t see either of you all night.”
David doesn’t look at his mother. He keeps his gaze on the Pastor. “Dr. Kline, I didn’t see Mrs. O’Leary either. It’s entirely possible we missed each other.”
The Pastor looks up from his watch. “According to the Bible, which is worse: tardiness or bearing false witness?”
“Please don’t kick me out,” I say. “My mother will kill me, if the boys in my old school don’t beat her to it. Please.”
David squeezes my hand. “Billy Ray had nothing to do with this. Next semester we have to plan our Mission and I wanted to see the world beyond our walls to seek out my calling.”
“And you found it?” Pastor Kline says.
David nods. “My Mission is clear.”
“Are you feeling alright?” Linda-Jane says. “You look flushed. Did you drink any of the water out there?” She places a hand on David’s forehead. He flinches at her touch. “You don’t feel warm. How about rashes? Do you have any rashes?”
She reaches for the collar of his shirt. David steps away from her.
“To whom are you planning on Witnessing?” Pastor Kline says.
David smiles. “I have most of the details ironed out, but there are still a few wrinkles, and I would hate to present an incomplete thought. I’d be happy to submit a proposal to you by the end of the day.”
The Pastor looks down at his watch again. “Until the end of the day then. Now get to class, you are late enough as is. And Billy Ray, don’t let me catch you tardy again.”
He steps out of our way to let us past. Adam Mercer grabs David as we rush by.
“Think hard on your Mission, son, and pray your thoughts are true.”
David shrugs him off and we run down the hall. Before we go into Arithmetic, David pulls me aside.
“Ever since I was a boy, she’s been checking me for rashes and spots. How could I have not seen this before?”
“My mom checks me for cancers and mega-measles all the time.”
He shakes his head and opens the door.
Anja and Rebecca sit between us and our desks. From the looks on their faces, the girls haven’t gotten over the fact that we stole their clothes last night. Anja hisses “queers” as we pass, but Rebecca just stares at David.
The lesson is on Real Numbers. Even though I go back to this memory more than any other, I still don’t know what I was supposed to learn that day. I spend the entire lecture looking at David, trying to make sure the disguise is working. He spends the entire class hunched over his notebook. When the bell rings, he shows me what he was working on: a web of interconnected names, his mother at the centre, and every man she’s ever met scattered in bubbles around her, the connections between the different people drawn in pencil crayon.
“Any closer to figuring it out?” I say.
“It doesn’t matter. Her sin must be revealed.”
In the press of other students in the hall, I lose track of David. I’m still looking for him as I dial the combination for my locker. Anja pushes me into the metal door.
“That’s for stealing my panties,” she says. It’s the first time anyone has rough-handled me since I transferred from the public schools. I flinch and prepare for the worst. “Hey, don’t piss your jeans.”
“I wasn’t gonna. Have you seen David?”
“Your boyfriend ran off into the woods, probably to make out with ’Becca.” Anja drapes an arm across my shoulder. “I’ve always wanted a queer friend.”
“We’re going to be late for Geography.”
I squeeze away from her and run to a window. Green grass and playing fields stretch out to the banks of the Brightwater. There’s no sign of him. Another bell rings for the start of class. I can’t miss another, not with Kline breathing down my neck, so I sit behind my desk and fail to concentrate on another lesson.
David never makes it to class, and neither does Rebecca. Anja passes me notes criticizing the teacher’s haircut. By lunch, the whole school buzzes with what has happened. I try to ignore the rumours. I want to hear it from my friend but they say he disappeared after it all went down. The afternoon stretches on for hours. The end of the day can’t come fast enough. When it does, I run all the way to the gates of Revelation and out into Toronto.
I find David on the curb in front of my apartment. Make-up and filthy water have turned his school uniform to rags. He looks at me, lost, and I lead him to my mother’s apartment.
I lean back in my chair behind the counter and breathe in the musty, stale air of the shop. The baseball game has ended, the Dodgers breaking the tie for the win, and now quiet hymns play in the workshop. He never went back to Revelation; he stayed with me from that day on. Our life hasn’t been what either of us wanted, but we aren’t hungry. We aren’t alone.
Maybe we should take some time off, I think. Go somewhere. One of the lakes in Muskoka the public can still visit, or Parry Sound. We had a lovely time last summer on the beach near Parry Sound.
I open the door and peer in at David. He is wiring the clock radio into what was once the hi-fi cabinet and doesn’t notice me enter. The pill bottle lies open on the workbench, empty. In the bathroom I find a single water-soaked pill floating in the centre of the toilet bowl.
“You flushed them? Do you know how much those pills cost?”
“They were poison, Billy Ray. I disposed of them accordingly.”
I stare at him, trying to contain my rage. For a moment, I wish Pastor Kline hadn’t seated me beside David. I wish that David hadn’t found the Mothra sketch on my pencil case so interesting. Why couldn’t I have fallen in love with another boy in high school, someone who could have spurned me, someone I could have forgotten?
I throw the pill bottle into the trash, stomp out of the workshop, and jog across the street toward what remains of Revelation. There’s an old pay phone just outside the gate.
I ask the operator to connect me to Linda-Jane and Adam Mercer.
“Which community?” she asks in a perky soprano.
“Patience, or whatever you call the one outside Sudbury.”
“Penitence. One moment please.”
I lean against the warm bricks of Revelation’s wall, waiting for the connection. I haven’t been to the other side in fifteen years. David and I weren’t the only ones who were expelled. Revelation’s congregation decided that everything David’s family had built was contaminated. Linda-Jane and Adam were shown the door, as was everything they built for Revelation. They floated from community to community until they found a more forgiving congregation up North. All the outside students were forbidden to attend John the Baptist Secondary School. They mothballed the water plant. Even Pastor Kline was evicted, as he’d known about the Mercer situation and had been complicit in covering up their sacrilege.
Instead of facing down the angry hordes in the public system, David and I found an online school that granted high school diplomas, and the two of us finished our schooling a year later in Mom’s apartment. The cancer took her a couple months after graduation. She begged me to spend my meagre inheritance on university tuition. I used it on the first few months of rent for Billy Ray’s Small Appliance Rehabilitation instead. It was David’s idea, his way of helping Revelation rid itself of sacrilegious technology. We found an old computer repair shop across the street from Revelation and for fifteen years it’s been home.
The line connects. “Linda-Jane speaking.”
“I can’t handle it anymore.”
“Is that you, Billy Ray? Is David alright?”
“It’s worse than the other times. He really thinks he can go back. He isn’t eating.”
“What about the medication?”
“He flushed it. I can’t afford any more.”
There’s a muddled sound, muted voices, Linda-Jane holding her hand over their old-style receiver.
“Why don’t we drive down there? He’s our son.”
“We both know he won’t see you. It will be worse than last time.”
Another delay, as she relays what I said. An old Pontiac rolls through the gate in the wall and belches black smoke as it accelerates down the street.
“So why are you calling?”
“Lakeshore Hospital will take him,” I say. “But I can’t afford it. He’ll get good care there. They specialize in Bernard’s Syndrome.”
She doesn’t bother covering the receiver this time: “He needs money, to send David to that hospital.”
I can’t make out Adam’s response over the din of the traffic.
“If he gets the treatment,” she says to me. “Do you think he’ll agree to see us?”
“I think so,” I say. “Once he’s better, of course he’ll want to see you.”
She likes my little lie. It will take time, she says, to put together that much money. Another mortgage, and then they’ll have to get the Grahamite bank in Sudbury to make the transfer. I tell her I can cover the hospital fees in the meantime. All I have to do is get him there.
The hardest part will be getting him in the car. I phone Dr. LaRose to let her to know I will be coming; she doesn’t sound surprised. The afternoon sun bakes the asphalt as I hurry back to the shop.
David is putting away his tools. He smiles as I enter.
“It’s finished,” he says, and gestures to his creation. The hi-fi cabinet forms the heart around which the rest of the device has congealed. Two chairs are tacked to the front of the cabinet, and cerephones hang from the backrests of both chairs. The cerephones are wired into the mass of resistors, vacuum tubes, and capacitors tied in to an old telephone switchboard, at the top of which sits my Backflasher. “All I need is your help, and I can belong again.”
I nod, trying to be reasonable.
“The Bel Air is almost fit to drive,” I say. “It just needs a bit of tweaking. They should have it here this evening. We should really clear this out to make room.”
He taps the slim metal box of the Backflasher. “Aren’t you curious, Billy Ray?”
Curious doesn’t even begin to describe it. David isn’t supposed to use technology like the Backflasher; what is it doing sitting in his machine?
“The Bel Air will be here soon. Why don’t we move this out of the way and you can tell me how it works.”
He indicates one of the two chairs attached to his machine. “Sit, please. This won’t take long.”
The Backflasher controller is attached to the arm of the chair he indicated, but he’s tacked new controls onto it: they look like buttons from an old reel-to-reel machine. Play, forward, reverse, and a big red button that he’s drawn an X through.
“I just don’t see how we will fit the car in here,” I say.
“I’m not doing anything until I’ve made things right,” he says. “But I can’t do it without you. I’m forbidden to operate your Backflasher. With it, we can go back to the day I ruined everything, and you can make it disappear.”
“Backflashers don’t work that way; they can’t delete memories.”
“This isn’t a Backflasher. The past only exists in our minds, isn’t that what you’ve always told me? This can delete the past, therefore this is a time machine.” He pats the seat beside him. “Do this for me, Billy Ray. Let me belong again.”
I can’t stop staring at the red button with the X through it. Every option, that’s what I told myself. I sit in the chair. He hands me the control panel. I slip on the cerephones while he straps himself in.
“Take us back,” he says.
So I do, back to the morning after David’s Shift, as we file out of Arithmetic class.
Students crowd into the hallway of John the Baptist Secondary School. Up ahead, a younger version of me walks to my locker. I watch through David’s eyes, experiencing more than just David’s vision. I live his memory. He has contrived a way to share the Backflasher experience. That discovery alone could make us wealthy, but all I can think about is how the young David feels as he looks over at the young version of myself. He pities me. After seeing where I live, and despite everything I’ve done to help him, he pities me, because I don’t really belong in his community.
When Anja comes up behind the younger me, David sneaks over to the door and slips outside, across the playing fields, toward the Brightwater. Thoughts rush in a wild torrent through his mind. Ideas and sensations and doubts and analyses shout in a cacophony that reminds me of the clatter in Union Station at rush hour. It’s only after half a minute of careful listening that I can discern dominant themes in his busy mind: righteous indignation and strong purpose. He’s convinced of his mother’s crimes and he knows exactly how to expose her.
As he reaches the bank of the Brightwater, I hear a disembodied voice speaking in my right ear.
“Every detail is exactly as I remember it,” the older David says. I open my eyes and see him superimposed over the willows that line the bank, the senior David strapped to his chair, eyes clenched shut. “I don’t know why you require this crutch.”
“It’s entertainment,” I say, closing my eyes, returning to his memories.
“This is where you start the deletion.”
The young David passes the Baptismal Pools and emerges on the neatly cut grass surrounding the water treatment plant. The gardener is a younger Mr. Ussander. He pulls weeds from beneath the roses and waves as David jogs past. David notices every detail as he runs: the number of weeds and the number of roses and the ratio of one to the other, an estimate of the hour based on the filtration plant’s shadow, a precise calculation of the flow rate of the water exiting the plant. His Brainy Baby mind is shifting into something unrecognizable, yet even with his enhanced powers of perception, he can’t see what he is becoming.
The treatment plant is two stories of red brick and grey concrete. David hammers on the main entrance door until an operator in coveralls opens it.
“Adam Mercer,” David says. “Bring him out here at once.”
“You’re his boy, aren’t you? Something the matter?”
“Just bring him here.”
The door clangs shut. David paces, rehearsing the accusation he’ll deliver to the man he is certain has also been betrayed by his mother. This close to the wall, the hot asphalt and urine stink of the city fills the air, but mingled with it comes the perfume from the rose garden and the cool scent of clean, flowing water. David walks past the ’37 Ford pickup being loaded with bottles to the dammed reservoir that marks the end of the polluted Highland Creek.
Adam Mercer steps out into the warm morning, his tanned skin dark against his white Oxford. David calls his name from the banks of the reservoir, and then he wades down into the filthy water flowing in from the city.
“What are you doing, son?” Adam says.
“All of this must go,” the older David sitting beside me says.
“She made a fool of you,” the young David says. His thoughts still rage, spilling the banks of their old channels, but he holds on to anything that feels like certainty. “And she made an abomination of me.”
He dunks his arms into the oily water. Make-up dissolves, revealing forearms covered in Bernie Blotches.
“Get out of there,” Adam says. “You don’t understand anything.”
Plant workers follow Adam to the banks of the reservoir. They line up behind him, watching the boy in the water. Only then does David lend more weight to the currents of doubt flowing through his mind. In an instant he realizes his mistake.
“Go back inside,” Adam says to the workers.
The gardener drops his tools and joins more plant workers as they gather behind Adam. David’s father stares at the crowd for a moment, then slides down the bank. Adam rolls up the sleeve on his shirt. David already knows that the skin beneath will be covered in Bernie Blotches.
“You’re the one,” David says. He grabs his father’s hand. “You made me this.”
“I’ve learned how to live with who I am,” Adam says. “Let me teach you. We can still belong.”
David pulls his father into the reservoir.
As Adam rises sputtering, Rebecca rounds the corner of the filtration plant. She tows Pastor Kline behind her. Water streams off Adam’s face, taking the bronze tan with it, and revealing clusters of Bernie Blotches similar to David’s.
“See, Dr. Kline,” Rebecca says. “I told you something was wrong with him.”
Kline shakes his head. The plant workers gathered on the bank stare at the man who built the plant in which they work.
“This doesn’t change who we are,” Adam says to the Grahamites above him. “We are still faithful.”
David pushes away from his father. All the hatred he’s reserved for his mother doubles in intensity. They both did this to him. His mother didn’t have an affair with a Bernie Baby, she married one and snuck him into Revelation. They defiled him before he was born and condemned him to a life that guaranteed eternal damnation.
“You did this,” he says to his father. He faces Rebecca. “Tell them it’s not my fault.”
Rebecca takes the Pastor’s hand. “’Come ye out from among them,’” she says.
The workers seem to emerge from their mute amazement at the oft-repeated words.
“’And be ye separate,’” they say with one voice.
Rebecca turns her back on David and his father. The workers do the same. Pastor Kline remains, staring down at the father and son in the water.
“Please, Kline,” Adam says. “You knew this day might come. Help us go back to how it was.”
“’And touch not the unclean thing,” the pastor says, and he too turns his back.
“This is our home,” Adam says.
They walk away, none of them looking back at us. Only the gardener, Mr. Ussander, remains, shaking his head a moment, before he returns to his roses. David shudders in the tepid water. He knows what the ritual words of the shunning mean. He swims across the reservoir toward the culvert that lets the filthy stream through the wall.
“Son, please,” Adam says. “Let me help you.”
David dives. He swims against the current, pulling himself along the ribbed walls of the culvert, until he surfaces outside Revelation. David blinks through the caustic liquid, the towers of Toronto an unnavigable maze in a foreign country. Then he remembers that there is one person outside Revelation’s walls who still loves him.
“Here,” the other David says, the one strapped in beside me. “Cut everything to here.”
I open my eyes and look at the basic controls he built. The young David drags himself out of the water, past a rotting cat and a rusting dishwasher.
“Do it now,” the senior David says. “Cut this out of me, Billy Ray. I’ll never belong if I remember what I did.”
“You belong here,” I say. I can still hear the birds singing on the other side of the wall. David’s whole life lies exposed before me, pinned to a table, and I am the surgeon tasked with excising the tumour. He’s wanted this for so long, how can I deny it?
“What’s the delay?”
“I was praying.”
“You never pray.”
I adjust the controls, I make the incision. David lets out a breath and slumps forward in his chair. His breathing is irregular, and he makes tiny whimpering sounds, a young child having a nightmare. In my mind, I see him rise from the chair only to find this hole in his memory, this absence around which he’s revolved for so long. The hole will become the pivot of a new Fascination. The Bel Air won’t be enough to keep his mind busy. David needs a project he can work on for the rest of his life.
One of the cerephones pops off David’s lolling head. I pluck the other off and sit back down in my chair. I would try everything before sending him to live at Lakeshore, but until today I didn’t know what everything entailed.
I place the second set of cerephones to my forehead and activate the Backflasher. My whole life stretches out before me, my surgeon’s tools still bloody. I stare at it for a long time, unsure of where to make the final cut.
David begins to stir. He looks so much like his father.
“Take your medicine,” I say, and I press the big red X.
Pine-scented wind sweeps the beach.
Little snow daggers cut my face at the streetcar stop outside Lakeview Hospital.
David and I push a restored icebox out of the shop and it slips off the cart and cracks on the concrete floor.
Thunderheads roll above the city as David shows me a machine he claims will undo his greatest sin.
Mom’s skin is so soft after she stops breathing.
Laughter on opening the envelopes that contain our high school graduation diplomas.
Willow-partitioned sunlight across David’s bare chest.
In a twenty-year temperature inversion
California walks in to me through
the windows of a hot car with no
air conditioning, it’s summer and
the heater is full-blast, it’s a hundred-
degree day, I am younger and California
is cleaner, the engine doesn’t self-
eject and it jets out oil all across
the country. This awful air of
ourselves, we have nowhere to drive
but down into it, the freeway
folding over and under, everything
settling which also means seething,
the old rocks with all the time
in-between them and the road
only a ribbon of exhaust
held harmless between the jaws
of a geologic age.
Once the doors shut behind you,
shift to saving yourself.
Try steam and chest percussions
to chase factory smoke out of
your lungs, you need to be a human
still. Which is hard to do with dioxin,
so get that out too, with ghee.
If it goes as far
as your liver
then a long shot is to blast
it by eating dandelion buds.
Also asbestos comes in like
a cloud of unseeable needles
and won’t like to leave but
while you are learning how long
you have left to live and they are pulling
smile down over their lips
at the clinic, look up
and hum that to yourself
along with vitamin C
until you can find a doctor
who doesn’t want you dead.
Oh, and Atlantic dulse,
a seaweed that strips out mercury, so
you can start filling up with it
all over again in the morning.
The only television shows I cannot bear to watch are nature documentaries. I see them and am reminded that the animals in the titular roles are dying, will be dead before I get to travel and behold them. Their Latin names spoken in gravelly voices are almost obituaries by now.
“There goes Panthera leo, stalking its prey. Too bad it’ll be gone by 2050.” The narrator seems to say: “Such a wonderful beast that you’ve never seen and never will! Won’t you miss it?”
Of course, the sad thing is, I will miss it. I’ll probably even cry over the damn thing. Every time an exotic creature takes its last breath, I find myself wishing I was at its deathbed. The day I heard six vultures were poisoned to death just a few hours north of me, making them almost certainly extinct under my country’s skies, I thought of the lions that used to walk the soil under my feet, soil turned to concrete. As a child, when I heard that lions used to wander not so far from my house, I was filled with wonder. Now, I think of how I’ll tell my children there used to be vultures here, too.
There is nature in the city I call home, hidden in between crushed soda cans and drifting plastic wrappers. The river that used to be a liquid graveyard is slowly healing. There are the sparrows and the wagtails, birds to which songs are dedicated, patchworks of what came before the city. One could say: they are the protectors, they were here first, we love them for it. Opposing them is a long, decorous line of creatures, living litter, dropped just as carelessly as soda cans, and equally appreciated. The jellyfish invade the beach once a summer. They aren’t supposed to be there, but nobody told them the Suez Canal is for human use only. The bright green parakeets that fill the skies escaped from the zoo. The angry-eyed mynas that fight them for territory did as well. It isn’t their fault they’re here, and that the vultures up north are nearly gone, but it’s hardly a fair trade.
Walking the city, I look up between the buildings that act as shutters between me and the sky and curse every bright green flash I see. Only now does it occur to me that we may be under custody as much as the parakeets were. The city around me is a quarantine. Homo sapiens in, wildlife out. We keep it so, with poisoned corpses left for birds of prey and tawny skins stretched out for our rugs. If we leak out of the city, as we are prone to do, we will ruin what is around us just as the parakeets and mynas slashed apart the biological web of the recovering river. The invaders flock around us. After all, we brought them here, into the concrete jungle.
I imagine that I want to live in the country, amongst the pristine nature, without our new addendums, or at least, with fewer of them. But then I think of the felled trees for my home and the split habitats for my roads and consign myself to the unforgiving concrete and the towering buildings. We humans deserve being confined in our urban prisons, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend my days dreaming of escape, dreaming of being not quite human.
I like to imagine myself the subject of a nature documentary, with a grim narrator reporting my plight. Perhaps overpopulation will kill me; maybe climate change will destroy my home. Maybe a photograph of my suffering will win someone a prestigious prize. Maybe there will be a fund in my honor, a picture of my genus on a popular website.
I try not to kid myself. I am not a rare bird or lion. I am not royalty. I don’t have the heart of a Panthera leo, like a certain King of England. I do not fly a crest of arms emblazoned with a vulture. I am far from being the last of a genetic line. I am no Salome, last independent ruler of Judea and last female leopard in that same desert, queens of dwindling hope. If I were an animal, I wouldn’t be shown struggling in the jaws of a polar bear or torn open by a gunshot. I’m not an unwelcome newcomer, either, not a bright green parakeet or angry myna, roosting in places I shouldn’t be. If I were an animal, I would be a dung beetle, strolling along under a scorching sun, uninhibited by the falling birthrate of lions.
After deciding this, I was informed, although not on a nature documentary, that the dung beetle rolls its crap in a line of cosmic significance, following the Milky Way. A dung beetle must roll his ball of dung away from the rest of the dung beetles, in a straight line. He cannot falter, or he risks the ball being stolen by others, and he, a creature smaller than the palm of my hand, can see starlight that I cannot begin to grasp, and he follows it. Perhaps this should not surprise me, for he was once an Egyptian god, rolling the sun across the sky. That was when he was a scarab, incarnate of the sun god Ra, but Ra has long faded away from most of us, and what is left is a dung-rolling creature, travelling through insignificant wastelands. Scarab and lion used to be king and protector. Mighty Sekhmet the lion goddess, guarding the dung beetle’s slow walk across the heavens. She was so powerful her breath created the desert.
The two have separated since the ancient Egyptians. Lions on every coat of arms, in every tale, while their king is burrowed into the obscurity of the desert, and perhaps it is in the best interest of the latter. Richard the Lionheart came to the Holy Land when lions still lived near my apartment, but they left when he did, hunted by the Crusaders. The lions that now roam the desert, the same desert Sekhmet formed with a single breath, are scarce; they no longer have to protect Ra, but rather themselves. I wonder if the dung beetles would be on endangered watch lists if their glory continued after Ra, if killing them was a conquest. Maybe I would be watching them on a nature show as they rolled one last ball in a heavenly line.
Once, as I deplored the state of the world, I thought myself far more puny than majestic. The city can do that to you, but even the mass of buildings doesn’t compare with the news piling up around me. The streets I walk are nothing compared to the data I scroll through each day, weather reports, knowledge crowding up like cars in traffic. The sheer information about nature used to dwarf me. Every percentage about the climate, every new disappearing species, every sign I held and every lecture I listened to hammered in my insignificance. I became sure I was a dung beetle, with only the power to push my own dung as the few lions that walk among us burned my future.
I didn’t know where those lions—oil giants, company owners, billionaires—lived, but I often assumed they must be far out in the country, away from the skyscrapers hemming the rest of us in. I thought that perhaps they did not understand, these predators, what they were doing. One of the stories about Sekhmet tells of her going into a blood frenzy, destroying all in her path. She was calmed only by Ra tricking her into drinking red beer, sending her into a drunken stupor. I did not think anyone was capable of subduing our lions, our world leaders, and was certain we were failed dung beetles, merely insects and not kings. Bloody report after bloody report, I wished the world could fall asleep so we could start afresh.
Only lately, walking down cracked sidewalks, pushing my own ball of shit in front of me, have I started to realize how much bigger I am compared to a dung beetle, and how much smaller compared to a lion, and started to consider that perhaps I am a combination of both. As I read reports about trees being planted, plastics being banned, schools striking, I no longer feel so small. A teenager may be a dung beetle, but a group of them is something entirely different, something that has grown a pair of claws. Dung beetles know to follow the stars, the scarab used to be king, after all, but the lion is the fighter—and fighting we are. My generation, and others, fighting for the vultures and the lions and most importantly, ourselves, and I fight along with them, part lion, part dung beetle.
My inner nature show narrator, studying the hybrid I’ve realized is me, is at peace as he babbles on about eventual extinction. I’m a specimen approaching endangered status, apparently, but I’ve also rolled a ball of shit across the desert, no simple feat. I push my ball of thoughts in front of me as I stalk fallen pieces of litter. I realize there is a strange sort of balance inside me. I am aware of climate change, of ecological breakdown. I know the ramifications: the heat, the cold, that we will have to adapt to later if we don’t change now. But I also choose to hope that no matter the damage we do to our planet, it too will adapt. There will always be life: the jellyfish, the parakeets, the dung beetles. We are murderers, we have killed vultures, lions, but we have invited in the bloodthirsty mynas. The mynas will ruin the current order and create a new one, one in which we, along with many others, may be left behind. It would serve us right. If we, Homo sapiens, had a nature narrator, he would be speaking of the long period we must prepare for. “They can save themselves,” he would say urgently. “But they are too foolish to do so.” Then he would continue to talk about all the other wonderful animals, adapting, evolving, in ways it would be wise for us to do too, as humankind carries on hunting stars.
My imaginary hybrid self, the beetle lion, has come to the conclusion that living things will always remain, even if they’re an awkward sort of compromise between an Egyptian god and the king of the savannah, or a quickly disappearing species and a dung beetle. It’s true that the vultures up north are nearly gone, that the parakeets are biological invaders, the ecological system as we know it is falling apart. It’s true I may never get to see a lion in person, definitely not anywhere near my house, but the jellyfish will keep coming to hunt my bare legs instead. Our world is falling apart, but maybe we’ll be able to put it together again.
Despite my newfound hope, of myself and of our planet, I still cannot bear to watch nature documentaries, but when I walk down the street in the shade of the skyscrapers, I know I too have a path of cosmic significance, a fair shot at survival.
Despite both these things, I’ve already started to miss the lions.