605,421,005 modular sensors floated across Earth’s waters, analyzing around 54% of the oceans’ chemical makeup. 26,304 of these sensors lay along the passenger ship Afẹmọju’s trans-Atlantic route. This was a microscopic percentage of the global sensor count, but sufficient to keep track of the vessel’s trail of pollutants. The crew and passengers were aware that their voyage would be gaining a lot of attention from the planet, as Afẹmọju should have been decommissioned years ago. As monsoon season was reaching its peak along the eastern coast of Central and North America, most Atlantic transportation resources were in use up there, leaving behind sub-par equipment like this leaky vessel that ran partially on bunker fuel. Despite Afẹmọju’s many renovations over the decades, she couldn’t help dumping sulfur oxide into the atmosphere that eventually seeped into the planet’s water supply.
Each sensor bobbing on the waves tasted the air and water that Afẹmọju left tainted in her wake and spoke to their neighbor. After the ship had traveled a little over 1,000 kilometers, the cumulative amount of pollution produced had outweighed the acceptable ratio for a vessel of her size. 5,203 sensors collectively filed a complaint against Afẹmọju. It was placed in line behind hundreds more to be processed before it (ocean-related incidents only), and in twenty minutes the complaint was addressed by Earth. The ocean was given the go ahead by the planet.
The Afẹmọju captain’s dashboard turned a deep blue as the engine was disabled by the sea. He’d half expected a shutdown to happen at some point on the way to Rio de Janeiro, but it was frustrating nonetheless. The captain, his crew, and their thousands of passengers would now wait for either the call to return home or for a drone fleet to provide assistance purifying their fuel. Without the engines, inertia pushed the vessel slightly off track. In the process, the ship’s hull crushed a small, floating computer server coded by a child from Ibadan—a server they had built for a school project with their classmates. Next morning when the child woke up to find their virtual environment offline, they cried to their mother, who traced a couple report logs and discovered how the server was destroyed. Instead of explaining the chain of events that had led to her child’s bad day, she thought it would be more interesting to blame it on Olóòkun, the god of all large waters, all oceans. In a sense, she was correct.
While Afẹmọju had landed the final blow, it had been on the sea’s command.
Prisca Brethers, the current Appalachia LF-4 Soil delegate, had arrived at the dig site. Her aide, Asmara, waded through the marsh in knee-high boots. Prisca preferred to lean against their ATV. They were at the furthest reaches of Prisca’s jurisdiction, a flat stretch of swamp water and tangled, tropical vegetation. Braving the marsh was a battle that the humidity was winning, forcing Prisca to loosen the collar of her suit.
Asmara looked down at the water choked with algae.
“As they said, the building looks intact. Well . . . intact enough. It should be easy to spin, Prisca.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Prisca said. She would check the subterranean layout of the swamp herself if not for the information streaming through her eyes’ internal HUD. It was only possible to do so many things at once. The good thing was that the numbers were looking solid. Notifications for Prisca’s speech had spread across Landfall Province 4, and a couple thousand locals were going to tune in.
It had been a year since she’d been elected delegate for her region, and the jitters that came before a speech still hadn’t abated. The first day on the job had been the worst. Prisca had woken up to the call of Appalachia’s soil union, congratulating her before explaining what she’d even done. Then came the formal invitation to serve her community for a two-year term.
While she’d undergone an abrupt, temporary change to her job description by being elected to the soil union, Prisca continued playing to her strengths. She had been a teacher, so that was how she hoped to encourage action in her community. A minute before the start of her broadcast she remembered the golden rule: speak to the children. Adults were also capable of learning, but they would be much more open to it if the youngest were on board.
Asmara came back to the ATV with two thumbs up. “We all good?”
“Yessir. Let’s go.”
With a smile, he moved to her side, brushing away the beads of sweat crawling down his forehead. There was no stretch of Earth directly untouched by human and robotic alterations except for a couple deep sea trenches, and this swamp was no exception, but the changes to the environment here were all about analyzing, not modifying. The heat was unadulterated—which would be a problem in the future if Prisca were successful today. One thing at a time.
Turning this stretch of swamp into a communal space for the region would be a herculean task in the first place, and Prisca would have to convince everyone that it was a good idea before worrying about the weather.
The schoolchildren and their teachers appeared before Prisca, their digital facsimiles overlaid across the swamp, streaming through her internal visual feed. She waved and the kids eagerly returned it, though that was pretty much it in terms of contact. She couldn’t set up tactile feedback for this livestream, since it would’ve been too resource intensive after they’d already got permission to use the ATV. Hopefully this would teach the kids good social distancing practices, since the next plague had come to the region.
Asmara introduced Prisca as she eyed the viewer count ticking away in the corner of her eye. It was in the quadruple digits already. Each person tuning in was represented as a blinking green dot hovering above the sky like a new star field. Most of them were probably using this broadcast as background noise while making lunch or something, but still. Any of these people might get interested and swing the vote in her favor.
One dot came late. It was a dark blue, and it maintained a steady light. As it did with most political maneuvers, the planet would watch from a front row seat.
Asmara motioned Prisca forward.
“Hey y’all!” she said to the class, getting a chorus of greetings in response. Though this would count as a field trip, these children didn’t sound like they were interested. No point in boring them with the speech she’d practiced with Asmara beforehand. It was best to get to the fun stuff as fast as possible.
Prisca gave them the briefest history she could muster—a history of the ground, what laid under it, and who used to walk on it. The children all knew they lived in Eno and Occaneechi territory, but their historical knowledge of the USA’s violent occupation would be murky at best. Just mentioning that fallen regime was enough to perk their interest. Some of their eyes lit up full of morbid curiosity, and others had small frowns on their faces.
“There’s a relic from the time of the American Empire under our feet,” Prisca said with the hyperbolic gravitas of a ghost story. “A really important, old building. As our community’s soil delegate, one of my jobs is to find old buildings like this that were swallowed during the planet’s big changes, and then I figure out what to do with them. For this one, I want us to work together and bring it back.”
The children’s blank stares agitated the butterflies in Prisca’s stomach. Funny how her audience was immaterial, yet the nerves were just the same as if she were on a stage. Instead of falling into the queasiness of her anxiety, Prisca focused on what she could do to convince the kids and bystanders that their past was worth an appraisal.
It wasn’t an easy task. A side-effect of the planet’s transition into the Anthropocene, with all of the collapse and death that had entailed, was inherent distrust of the people and countries who came before. These children, as did their parents and grandparents, lived in spite of their ancestors’ best attempts at eliminating their world. There was no love for the generations that had cashed in on transforming the Earth into a place unfit for the species that lived alongside the planet.
This was one of her more conservative political opinions, but Prisca didn’t feel that hatred was the best answer to their past. At least, not as an all-encompassing response. She had no qualms with disavowing the ones who benefited off the ecological terror, as not only had they ruined the world for billions of people, they had also died before they could ever face the full, planetary consequences. Nothing good would come out of advocating for capitalists. But not everyone on Earth had been an orchestrator of this genocide.
“Under our feet is a big part of my people’s history,” Prisca said. “Hundreds of years ago they built a neighborhood where we stand right now, and hundreds of years before that they’d been in chains. They were forced into one of the worst situations of all time and they came out of it still creating. It’s a bit of a miracle.”
She told them about the neighborhood that had once stood here when the land hadn’t been swamp, about the legacy of this neighborhood, an oasis within the American regime’s antiblack system. The building, Mutual Tower, was one of the financial cornerstones that made this community possible. Prisca emphasized the concept of refuge found here, hoping the children would find a connection to their lives. As the planetary environment changed, all communities became places of respite.
Before the view count could start dipping, Prisca unveiled the 3D model of the structure submerged beneath them, rendered to scale across the marsh: a concrete highrise, built with the brashness of a civilization that thought of structure and land as two different things. She let the kids loose. They ran about the building, spray cans materializing in their hands—one of the many skeuomorphic VR tools that had outlived the relevancy of their physical counterparts.
Then the history lesson was over, and the children came to say goodbye. The class dissolved into the air along with the viewers. All the green lights winked out, leaving the blue one on its own. It always took the planet a little longer to disengage from a broadcast since multiple sensory networks had to collate the terabytes of data they had collected over the course of the livestream.
“I’m feeling good about the vote,” Asmara said. “You’ve been one of our most resource-efficient delegates in a while, and this is your first big project. My prediction is you’ll swing the majority.”
Even though she felt the same, Prisca didn’t want to jinx it by saying that out loud. She nodded along, looking at the water that came up to their shins, and imagined the building hidden beneath them. The stories it might have kept close.
50 kilometers northwest of Guiyang was a factory complex staffed by 6,230 adaptive computer numerical control machines, assigned to provide auxiliary construction resources for Khentii Seismic Province 2. Unlike their predecessors from around two hundred years ago, the machines employed an ecosystem of intracommunal sensor networks and smaller robots to adjust and readjust their manufacturing parameters, resulting in a factory that could run unattended by humans 95% of the time. This didn’t make that remaining 5% any less critical.
During some downtime between active shifts, Building 3-A of the complex reported unapproved activity along its external wall. Unfortunately, this activity occurred in one of the four sensory blindspots in the two square kilometers of this factory complex, and there were no drones that could be diverted to deal with the situation. Most robotic labor was engaged with relocating crops after a major flood north of Shanghai. This led to a unanimous vote by the factory’s workflow algorithms to call on human help. In came Wang Zhenxian, the closest person from the nearby hills, and a farmer in his free time. The factory debriefed him on their problem and reassured him that there should be no danger to his person. They only wanted him to get a good look, and the factory would tap into his visual feed so they might gain new perspective through his eyes.
Happy to do them this big favor, Wang made his way to the factory and saw it up close for the first time. Wang walked through the factory’s near-empty streets, guided by his internal navi system to Building 3-A. There wasn’t a window or door in sight. When he reached his destination, Wang caught himself and stayed back a little, not wanting to scare the trespassers off. He zoomed in and stabilized his vision so that the factory could watch as well. Perched on a ledge was a small family of sparrows. They had been pecking at the building’s vents, attempting to build a nest in the ambient warmth, and they were probably the last of their species in this region. They had triggered the trespassing alert. Wang talked it over with the factory, and then he went home. At 3:00 AM that night, the factory complex was conscripted by Khentii S-2 for an emergency batch of 3D printer stepper motors. The adaptive CNC machines of Building 3-A remembered the sparrow nest and kept the noise under 45 dB so as not to scare them off. The sparrow nest covered a logo embossed on the vent, an ancient stamp that might have marked this factory as once the property of Foxconn, or Alibaba, or perhaps a different company entirely. A human had not stepped inside any of the buildings for over sixty years.
Throughout March, Prisca kept returning to that swamp. Every subsequent visit was through the remote services of an aerial drone, or a more terrestrial robot if she wanted some direct engagement with the wetlands and its underlying soil. It was for work, covering her bases in case there was an environmental violation or resource overreach, but Prisca had come to appreciate digging through the earth. A year ago she had barely recognized how to properly read pH, and now she pored over reams of technical reporting on her days off. To sift among the layers of peat, the new crops of vegetation that grew from it, along with the insects that had not only faced climate change but thrived in it—these gave her an unexpected connection to the environment she had been born and raised in. She had never disrespected it of course, but she’d assumed that it wasn’t for her. Becoming her community’s soil delegate was chipping away at her city girl tendency to deprioritize the natural landscape.
But again, there was only so much Prisca could do. On election night, she sat on the couch and scrolled through the chemical survey results that she’d collected over the past few weeks. Just to make sure. She splayed on the couch in her living room, reading the logs while chopping sounds echoed from the kitchen.
“Hey,” Prisca’s roommate Gwen shouted, taking a pause from whatever meal prep she was doing. “Asmara’s at the door! I’ll let him in yeah?”
Prisca looked up and gave the room a cursory glance for presentability. Mess-wise, things could have been much worse. Having windows open and catching the last moments of sunlight helped. The heat hadn’t gone above 40 Celsius today, so it had been safe to circulate the outside air instead of relying on the apartment building’s centralized AC.
Asmara strolled in with a smile and a bottle of champagne. Before Prisca could protest, he waved her back down on the couch and placed the bottle on her coffee table—not before wiping off the bottom with a handkerchief. While Asmara was a part of Prisca’s hub of contacts who had tested negative for this decade’s super virus, it was good etiquette to practice caution.
“Uh-uh,” Asmara said, “I don’t wanna hear it. We’re celebrating your first restoration project no matter what way it goes.”
She laughed in defeat, picking up the bottle. “How did you even get this?”
“One of the growers my side of town straight up gave it to me. I told him it was a special night and he’s known me for a while, so he wanted to get me a gift.”
With how dead the fields had been, it was a hell of a gift. Prisca’s roommate came with some glasses and a tray of sliced mango. They didn’t talk much, and food was their main avenue of interaction. Beyond that, Gwen wished her luck and retreated to her room. She’d be talking to her husband who was up the coast repairing New York’s sea walls, so Prisca warned Asmara they should try and keep it down.
They put the poll numbers up and watched them tick against the window. Prisca found it surprisingly natural to be both nervous and bored. A couple drinks in, she talked with Asmara about their chances, and what might swing the vote one way or the other. He thought talking to the children was the best strategy Prisca could’ve gone with. Their excitement playing about the virtual rendition of the restored building was all the endorsement the community needed. The past couple of years had grown increasingly austere, and it looked like the future wouldn’t improve on things. Not with the diminishing crop returns, and the heat that would soon force them to follow the paths of their Piedmont province neighbors down south, retreating into closed ecological systems. They needed a win now more than ever.
It seemed like they would get it. By the time the stars were coming out and the moon was staring down Prisca’s street, 90% of the votes had been processed and more than 70% were in her favor. Then it would be Earth’s turn. She’d bothered Asmara with the likelihood of harebrained scenarios and turns of events for so long that he had to get Prisca to stand down.
The province was done, and for her first proposed project, the response was solid. If they could only pause it here, clink glasses, and get to work, Prisca would’ve been ecstatic. But of course, after the complete statistics flashed on screen for a minute or two, the green bars and percentages melted away to be replaced by the planet’s favorite shade of blue. It was a pulsing color, like it had a breath all its own—and it had taken hers away.
Two words faded in. Revision Needed. Then it was over.
Asmara raised his glass in excitement, spilling a few precious drops of champagne on the table surface. Prisca sat, deflated, and waved at the display still printed along her windowpane.
“Can you not read or something?”
“Seems like I can read better than you, Prisca! Congratulations.”
“Congratulations on what?” She already waved away the verdict, delving into the data behind it. An extensive list of calculations filled the air before them. It wasn’t the most practical way to process this data but she didn’t feel like standing up and fetching a proper screen. After the loss, she wasn’t planning on getting up from the couch for a while.
She wasn’t in the headspace to give this the attention it needed, but the gist was obvious. The cumulative data collection from the marsh’s monitoring systems had compared the power needed to restore the building compared to what was available in the area, to the effect on the local ecosystem, to what those resources might instead be used for . . . . If the planet had shared the entirety of its thought process with Prisca and Asmara on this single issue alone, they would have been left processing it for the rest of their lives. The worst part with the decentralized intelligence of a planet was how it could never point you to a single reason for failure. Instead, there was an endless list.
“Hey,” Asmara said, grabbing Prisca’s hand and whisking her from the streams of data. “I know that you’re new to this position—which is the whole point of why it exists—but you gotta understand, this is excellent. For your first project at that? Doesn’t matter if you’re a soil or atmo or a damn water delegate, the first idea you float into the scene tends to get shot down immediately. This isn’t even a dismissal!”
“I know. It’s a revision. But on what?”
“That’s for us to figure out, I guess,” he said with a sip of champagne. “That’s why I got us drinking before the verdict. It takes the edge off the work ahead.”
She refilled her glass. Maybe he was onto something with that. There was not a chance Prisca would get over the Earth’s dismissal by tonight, or possibly not by this week, but she didn’t want to stop here. Not while her province responded so positively to the project.
Living mainly among humans, it was easy to forget that they weren’t the only ones who held a stake in the land. When Prisca was reminded of the others involved, it sometimes felt like an imbalance when it was actually sharing. On the next draft, she’d listen a little harder to what the swamps said.
Virtually all drones employed by the planetary sensor grid ran on legacy software. Good software, but legacy, because humans had taken recycling to heart and it would take catastrophic failure before any firmware was rewritten. 1,000 kilometers west of South America, in Carnegie Ridge Province 12, the Galápagos Islands were a natural memorial to the extinction of over 500 endemic species that had once lived there. Due to risen sea levels and extreme heat, all wildlife were now skeletons wedged between shelves of cooled lava. Intermittent volcanic activity over the past few centuries kept the peaks of Isabela just above sea level. The island was barren, sloped expanses of pumice.
Five years ago, after decades of being devoid of life, Isabela welcomed its first visitors again. One of the mistakes that had been nestled within the drones’ firmware had become amplified over hundreds of incremental updates. A single, bungled mathematical operation in the drones’ navigation algorithm resulted in the coordinates of Isabela’s volcanic graveyards being misinterpreted as an all-encompassing true destination—the place where the drones would land and a bright light would go off in their circuitry and their task would be marked as completed forever. Approximately 0.17% of the Earth’s drone population passed close enough to the Galápagos to be affected by this glitch, and half of that percentage had received an updated firmware that rendered it harmless. Over the course of a year, 204,332 drones landed on Isabela. After they landed, they didn’t lift up again. Soon stacked atop each other, their landing sensors interpreted the towers of drones as uneven terrain, and they oriented themselves at the cleverest angles to prevent them from damaging the “ground.” The drones made a procedurally generated structure on the last stabs of the Galápagos that jutted from the ocean.
0.06% of the global drone population gone missing was too small of a percentage for the humans to get concerned or curious. The species had more pressing business to handle, like the mountain of interrelated problems their ancestors had been happy to leave as a parting gift. Until a marine biology student named Achanqara, bored from working on her thesis, decided to check the satellite imagery off the coast of her hometown of Guayaquil. She was the first human to witness the drones’ resting place, the interconnecting circles they had built across their sliver of island, their shining plastic heads of white and gray and black. Achanqara immediately told everyone, and yet the humans weren’t quick enough to see it themselves. By the time enough resources were free to stage a small expedition, the drones’ navigation glitch had been patched by a group of East African programmers who had taken it on as good coding practice. The drones awoke and deserted their island in a flock of buzzing motors. Isabela was left in peace.
“Make sure to count your blessings,” Aunt Charlotte muttered, “because your Grandma being dead is certainly one of ’em.”
Prisca snorted, moving her checkers piece a row forward. She was engaging with a fragile stack of virtual overlays while sprawled in the ATV’s backseat. Even though Prisca was playing on a physical, portable checkers board, her aunt’s side of the game was beamed in all the way from the northern tip of the Appalachians, resulting in occasional lag. Aunt Charlotte’s hologram sat up with a huff, crossing her arms.
“I’m not joking, girl! She’s doing pirouettes in her grave at the very least. You’re out here melting into your galoshes every day to resurrect a bank?”
Prisca peered from their parking spot in the shade, swamp sprawled to the horizon. Asmara stood deep in the muck, just like when they first came out here to teach the kids, though his eyes glazed over with the HUD of a long-distance call. He was enduring an informal check-in from the soil union, judging from the amount of sighing going on over there.
“It wasn’t a bank,” Prisca said, shifting back to the game. “It was an insurance company.”
“Don’t tell me there’s much of a difference.”
“I’m not here to convince you to like my projects, auntie. I’m here to beat you in the next five rounds.” She hopped over a few virtual checkers pieces. “Besides, like I said, resurfacing the structure’s not to recreate the past. It’s to make it something new, something useful. You’d rather our history dissolve?”
“There’s a whole lot of history I’m not eager to claim.”
“Fair,” Prisca said. But she hadn’t stopped thinking of the Mutual Tower since Earth had hit her with the revision note, imagining the concrete building beneath the swamp water like a hulking creature.
“It’s Black Wall Street. North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance started not far from here in the late 1800s, auntie. It helped make this one of the few places where we could build.”
“They really slapped ‘Black’ on it and thought it’d make a difference.”
“Please don’t be like that. It’s not literally Wall Street.”
“But it sure as hell was capitalism.” Aunt Charlotte huffed, pointing a finger at Prisca like the hologram could provide tactile feedback and poke her niece in the shoulder. “This what I’m talking about, see? Poor Mom would’ve died all over again to hear you speak like this.”
If only her family could have channeled their penchant for dramatics into acting. Instead, Prisca had to juggle a legacy of bickering teachers, librarians, and activists.
“People aren’t gonna read a few plaques, take a small tour and then be swayed by the remnants of a fallen civilization to bring back fossil fuels and become landlords or whatever,” Prisca said. “They’re smart, and I’ll teach them.”
“Teach them what?”
Asmara began stomping back to the ATV. Prisca packed up the checkers board in preparation for when he hopped behind the wheel.
“How about you be the one thing in my life to gimme some time and think on it? I’ll call you later to finish up the game. Love you.”
Aunt Charlotte faded out, promising more chastising and a rematch, and Asmara took her place. He slumped into the seat beside Prisca, eyes barely open. Without a word, they swapped seats. Prisca started up the vehicle and steered them out.
“So that wasn’t a great call, I assume.”
“Something like that,” Asmara said. “More deadlines, fewer resources. They’re iffy about extending your term as delegate because they want everyone in the community to get their time. But we’ll get it. At least the months we need to lift your damn tower out the ground.”
“Man do I hope it’ll only be a few months.”
“You know what? Let’s just not talk about it. I challenge us to a drive with no work things.”
They trudged back home. Partway back to town, Asmara fell asleep. It had to have been the ATV’s rocking that did him in. As dusk settled, Prisca switched on the headlights, grateful that they didn’t outshine the stars. A glimmering net emerged from the sun’s pink. Prisca wondered how the planet might have watched them then. As per Asmara’s challenge, she wouldn’t think of work. Only of the path filled with screeching bugs, the heat that clung to her back, and the whir of the vehicle she trusted to bring them home.
Prisca mistook many of the lights they passed in the night for the planet’s unblinking eye.