They hired me last Sunday to suck the carbon from the sky. I imagined the job might give my writing wings; I’d fly across the lower atmosphere with a vacuum strapped to my back like a forgotten character from the Ghostbusters franchise. But it turns out to be nothing like that. I was given the job mostly because my pilot’s license is still valid from the war.
Lee, the chief engineer, leads me to my plane. It’s nothing more than a small Turboprop a billionaire might take to an island off of what’s left of Belize, but she promises the plane has the propulsion potential of a spacecraft. “When you near a highly concentrated carbon pocket, the plane might shake a bit. The carbon is sequestered in an inner chamber filled with a high concentration of photosynthetic algae. There’s a photoelectric cell submerged in the water tank and a simulation of sunlight to drive the photosynthesis process. The outburst of oxygen propels you, once you get to a high enough altitude.”
“I could run out of carbon?”
Lee stifles a laugh at my question. “There’s an endless supply of carbon. We are beyond capacity. Your shift will be over long before the carbon concentration in an area drops to a level that will no longer sustain you. You are there to clean the sky.”
The tropical storm that wiped out the eastern Antilles only took three hours to move up in classification to a category six hurricane. It was the second to touch down after they added the new classification when Florida was swept up by 200 mph winds. Unheard of, but not unimaginable. We’d known where our weather patterns were headed for years, but people just raised their homes up on stilts and went on living their lives. Not that I blame them. Not that I’d want to move if there seemed to be a way to keep my life going with some normalcy if I could, but then again I haven’t lived anywhere for more than four months at a time since I left college.
I thought I was going to be a screenwriter before I got drafted. I bought pink sheets and a Breakfast at Tiffany’s eye mask I wore to bed each night. I thought this was the way you brought Hollywood to you, making routines in your life like you were already there.
I also had the idea you needed to work at a coffee shop at some point in your life to really be considered a writer. I jumped from coffee shop to coffee shop, but the same thing happened in every city I worked in: the workforce’s disposable income dropped, the cost of milk skyrocketed as dairy farmland dried up, a shipment of coffee beans from South America was blown up by a local militia, and the coffee shop closed up. I barely had enough time to get the down-on-my-luck-service-job experience I needed to become the writer I knew I could be before I had to find my way to another city and another open barista position. I felt like I had stumbled into my destiny, like finding those jobs was a sign I was headed in the right direction.
After I got my letter, I went to a psychic. It turned out to be the best thing I ever did for myself. I had the draft notice in my pocket as I sat across from her. I closed my eyes and shuffled the tarot deck like she told me to, letting the cards dance between my hands until something inside of me told me to stop. I hadn’t been around anyone before who honored that there might be something inside of you like that, never met someone who told you to follow that something.
I’d thought being a screenwriter and storyboarding in a room full of writers might be like that. Someone might laugh and riff off of a joke I’d written over the weekend as I sipped my soy latte at the corner of a coffee shop hunched over a worn notepad. But in wartime there’s no time left for dreams, and when the war is with the environment, dreams evaporate all at once. I smiled at the psychic as she took the deck back and pulled the first card, then another, lining them around the table into a cross.
“You are being called to an adventure, but not the one you’d thought you’d be going on. What you needed from the one you imagined you will find in the other instead.” A story by credit? An enticing character arc to really nail my studio pitch?
The psychic went on to say I was heartbroken and some other things I already knew about myself, like that I had a bad relationship with my sister. I left the shop thinking over what she’d said about my adventure, and I started to feel ripped off—not by her, but by the world. Who chooses war over being in a writer’s room? I certainly didn’t. I didn’t make a choice at all. And there was nothing to be done about my sister. She’d died the year before in an apartment fire set off by thermal radiation when a misfired hydrofracking blast triggered an earthquake, the tremors cracking a nuclear reactor three miles from her apartment in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. Her name was Sally Fisher. You can look all of this up.
You’d be right to think there were disasters happening everywhere. I didn’t have anyone to give my new bed sheets to when I was deployed, so I donated them, but I kept the eye mask. I thought it might come in handy.
I don’t remember much of my time as a pilot, based in Mexico, flying missions in South America. I spent several days a week in the shade of a canvas tent working on a spec script for The Simpsons in between my rations of bread and coffee. Sometimes I put my eye mask on and took a nap. The other soldiers were rarely around. I was the only pilot stationed there and essentially my own boss.
Usually, by mid-week, I was handed a map with coordinates. I’d enter them into the GPS system on my plane and take off for a few days, following my new adventure just like the psychic said. A cloud might look briefly beautiful, and I took comfort in this. When the GPS began to beep, I pushed my thumb against the thick red button to drop a bomb on whatever local militia was siphoning off water from a town’s water tank or committing some other infraction against the AGAST (Allies for the Global Alleviation of Storm Trauma) treaty.
I returned to what was left of the United States three years ago, and since then the sky has become more dangerous. The carbon particles that trap heat in the atmosphere are transparent, so it’s hard to measure in real-time what I suck up, Lee tells me. Most of the aerosols that make it difficult to see were artificially introduced by AGAST to bounce the light from the sun back up into space, going against decades of advocacy to clean the soot and sulfur from the sky. To simultaneously clean up the carbon and replace it with aerosols was the best they could come up with to try to stabilize the heat, but it’s only time before the next storm hits. Now AGAST is working on a proposal to mandate breathing filters for at-risk elevations.
Lee mentions that the pilot I’m replacing had an asthma attack last week before boarding the plane and hasn’t returned since. This doesn’t bother me the way it might have years ago. Death feels bureautic these days, more like the outcome of an assembly line than anything a god or enemy might’ve done to you in an era where death could be more creative, more Shakespearean. I’ve stopped mourning who I’ve lost, what I’ve lost, the Earth itself. The only thing I can’t let go of is my desire to see a story of mine told. I know the studio systems have long gone under, and book publishers shut down, but I keep writing with an overwhelming sense that my chance is just around the corner.
When Lee starts up the plane, the exhaust pipe coughs out what looks like a chunk of artificial particles. This is what’s meant to save us? I kick the piece of strange coal around before getting in the pilot’s seat. The dusty handprint of the former pilot is still on the door. Alarmed, Lee wipes this away and stands proudly, opening up the door.
“Go ahead,” she says, smiling. “It’s all yours.”