“We’re completing a chapter of a journey that will never end.”
Chris Ferguson on the final launch of Atlantis, July 8, 2001
It used to rain a lot out here. Not as much as some places, but enough that we kinda earned a reputation for it. They would joke that summer didn’t officially start until the Fourth of July because before then it would be in the 60s and raining.
The 60s sound downright frigid now. And rain…let’s see…it rained last December. Early in the month sometime. It’s hard to keep track of dates these days.
It used to be real green around here, too, green and beautiful. The hills had these huge forests all over them, and the downtown buildings stuck up between them like silver pillars. On those nice, sunny days – you know, the ones you got in between spells of rain that you just treasured because they were so damn rare, if you can believe it – on those days, the city looked like something out of the future.
Well, the future as we’d hoped it would be. Exactly the opposite of what we got.
I guess I should say why I’m recording this. Power’s been out for years, obviously, with the rivers too low to run the dams. Before that we were using the Internet to try to get aid, but it was bad everywhere. There wasn’t any aid to send. ‘Round August of the third really bad year, the weather forecasters just quit posting their predictions, because there hadn’t been any change to predict. All those websites just said “help.”
Anyway, some folks had their own generators, so here and there you could get Internet if you needed something real specific that no one else had been able to tell you. But the news just kept getting worse and worse, from all corners of the world. Finally, a year and half ago I suppose, even the folks with generators couldn’t get online anymore. The weirdest part was no one seemed to know why. You’d think with all that information that’d been careening around for so many years, we’d be able to figure out why the world had ended, but all we got were wild rumors about nukes and aliens and liberals.
I guess the real weirdest part was that we didn’t mind not knowing. What difference would it make? Still no water.
Christ, it’s hot.
There used to be huge forests out in the mountains between the city and the coast. I haven’t been out there to see if they’re still standing, but I can guess. There used to be a lot of farmland out there, too, but I know for fact that’s still there ‘cuz that’s where I got run out of. Maniacs cursing the “libs” – those are finger quotes there, listeners – loaded with boxes and boxes of ammo but not enough water to drown a fly. Probably no farming knowledge, either. Good riddance. That land must be looking real bad by now. They chased me out nearly two years ago and even then it was turning yellow. Well, some fields are always yellow, but they’re still green, you know? Still alive.
Oh yeah, the tape. So there’s no more Internet, no planes, hardly any trucks…none that can be trusted to transport stuff, anyway. Paper’s mostly used up. I built a converter for my laptop but I save that for when I boot up to look at my old pictures of my grandkids. They were five and two when the bottom fell out of the world. The oldest should’ve been in high school now if everything…well.
So this tape is my invitation, I guess. I found a whole box of them in a basement so I can record a bunch, put them out here and there, maybe someone will be able to play one.
I’ve found a good spot up in the hills west of the rail depot. It’s small, but the soil does alright, and it’s secluded, which I figure is the most important part.
So if you hear this, come out and join me. I got corn, beans, some tasty cacti, even a couple apple trees. What’s mine is yours, if you’re willing to put up with a cranky old lady made extra cranky by the end times.
Oh, and my name’s Missy. That’s probably important. Look for the blue flag on the split pine. I’ll see you soon.
Abby Wambach’s farewell message, capping off the US victory at the World Cup and her own record-setting international career
Kelly Sue DeConnick may be leaving “Captain Marvel,” but an amazing team is taking over: the “Agent Carter” showrunners and one of my favorite comics artists, Kris Anka! I’m digging his redesign, especially the return of the fauxhawk. (Less thrilled that this will be the third “Captain Marvel #1″ in four years, but that’s comics for you. Mostly I’m relieved she’s sticking around after Secret Wars!)
In other women-of-Marvel news, Disney has a super-limited-edition t-shirt (available until tomorrow) on sale, presumably in response to the repeated pleas for more superheroine merch. But I kinda feel like this is just set up to fail: if it sells well, Disney will be able to get by with making a t-shirt or two and calling it good, and if it doesn’t sell, they can claim women don’t want to buy superhero stuff after all.
So there’s going to be a Harry Potter play written by JK Rowling, and it’s about Harry’s “early years!” Accio this play to the Pacific Northwest!
“There is a centuries-old notion that white men must defend, with lethal violence at times, the sexual purity of white women from allegedly predatory black men. And, as we saw yet again after this shooting, it is not merely a relic of America’s hideous racial past. American racism is always gendered; racism and sexism are mutually dependent, and cannot be unstitched.” A challenging but important article about the large, uncomfortable reasons behind the Charleston shooting.
Mist concealed the Calakmil as the Summer Empire Traveling Players approached. As they drew nearer, trees began to delineate themselves, dark and ragged against the fog. And something else appeared: a band of white demarcating ordinary grassland from the vast forest.
“Someone will meet us at the Wall?” Idris asked dubiously.
“Yes.” Izel consulted her letter again. “It says we’ll be guided to our destination from there.”
“Hard to imagine there’s a proper theater in there.”
“Our full payment awaits there regardless. It can’t be worse than Masul, right?”
She took the lead and the rest of company urged their nervous horses on behind her.
The Wall showed its age plainly. Along the base, roots punched through the cracks between the huge limestone blocks, while vines snaked down from the top. Still, nothing more exotic than a lily grew on this side of the Wall, as if the Calakmil was restraining itself out of politeness.
Which, given the stories, was entirely possible.
Two towering white trees, at least three hundred feet tall, stood where a gate would have been in an ordinary wall. Their pale branches arced across the entrance, shading it with their glossy, plate-sized leaves.
“Titantrees,” Jada explained from her seat on the players’ wagon. “It’s believed they grow so large because they house the souls of the Calakmil’s inhabitants after death.”
“So their afterlife is being trapped in a tree?” Sakae raised an eyebrow. She was their ingenue, young and opinionated, and prone to expressing those opinions unkindly when she was nervous. “Sounds uncomfortable.”
“Some respect, Sakae,” Jada said. “Would you speak thus about the Empire’s gods?”
Izel raised a hand. “Someone’s coming.”
Just beyond the titantrees, sunlight broke through the canopy in dancing shafts, but beyond that, the leaf-strewn path itself was shadowed.
“I don’t see any – ”
With a croak that startled them all, a large pink jungle frog hopped into the center of the path. It croaked again, then took off with long leaps deeper into the misty jungle.
Izel and Idris exchanged looks.
“Well,” she said, “the letter didn’t specify a human guide.”
“We are not following a frog.”
“It’s the Calakmil! We’re lucky our guide is something recognizable.” She started her horse forward.
“A frog is not a guide! I don’t care how much money –”
But the pink frog had stopped at the bend to wait for them. Izel waved to it and it proceeded onwards. Behind her, Idris heaved an aggravated sigh and clicked his reins.
She kept her eyes on the frog as she rode, even though they were surrounded by trees and vines and fragrant flowers that even they, who’d traveled the whole of the Empire, had never seen before. The mist dissipated as the sun climbed. Still the frog led them on.
They finally stopped at a broad circle of ten titantrees, much taller than the two guarding the Wall. Their curving white branches soared high above a soft, grassy clearing, in the center of which sat a stack of gold coins: the rest of their payment.
“Is this…our stage?” muttered Balam.
As if to answer him, the frog settled on a knobby root.
Izel dismounted. “Let’s set up.”
They opened the wagon, placed their props, and began to dress. The frog waited patiently.
“Where’s our audience?” Sakae hissed as she finished her makeup.
Izel nodded at the frog. “I think he’s it.”
“This is insane!”
“We’ve been paid to perform here, and we will,” she said firmly.
No one – and nothing – else had arrived by the time Idris began the opening monologue. Izel fidgeted with one of the coins to remind herself that this was a paid performance like any other, that there was nothing strange or concerning about being brought into the heart of a neglected magical jungle to perform a romantic drama to an audience of one frog.
Not strange at all.
It was a good performance, all things considered. Sakae had a shaky start, but Balam supported her well, and Jada had Izel and the stagehands stifling giggles as Balam’s narcissistic mother.
Idris delivered the conclusion. The actors bowed at the silent frog. Izel peeked around the wagon, waiting.
The frog looked up.
High overhead, the titantree boughs began to wave. There was no wind, and no creatures visible to disturb them…
Jada understood first. “Bow again,” she hissed, gripping her costars’ hands. They bowed and the trees rustled more, their leaves whistling.
“Well done, players,” Izel murmured, and she took her bow.
My firm sent every available inspector to investigate the Brandt mansion the moment his lawyers called. Something had gone wrong on his estate on the rim of Tycho, rendering the house a total loss, but he refused to say what happened. It was our responsibility to find out.
I had always wanted to travel into space, to see with my own eyes what Earth looked like from a distance. Unfortunately, I was bad at science and atrocious at math, which narrowed my prospects significantly. Having a solid reputation for discretion and reliability, however, opened up certain other opportunities, which was how I ended up going to the Moon as a claims inspector for the rich and famous. The paperwork was a pain, but the views made up for it. Going up in the shuttle, gliding down the ladder in the EVA suit, watching your feet make contact with the surface of the Moon…even on my seventh mission, I knew it would never get old.
I was partnered with Chen. I paused while we unloaded, unable to look away from Earth. The Pacific was in view, shrouded by thin veils of cloud, fragile and elegant as steam.
The mansion was almost as impressive.
“I think I could fit nine of my house inside that,” Chen commented.
“I don’t even want to know how many of my apartment could squeeze in. Twenty?”
“At least. Plus another five in the garage.”
“Please, it’s not that small. That garage is only four and a half Fox apartments at most.”
Brandt had borrowed the style of the antique British great houses for his mansion, replicating a small three-story palace in space-friendly metals and polymers. The mansion’s windows were triple-paned, triple-reinforced, and equipped with alloy shutters that were designed to close automatically in case of breakage. Instead of a practical tunnel linking the entrance to the garage and shuttle pad, it had an honest-to-God front door and porch, encased in a thirty-foot-tall half-bubble of clear polymer and accessed via an airlock that linked with the rover that brought guests – fully dressed for the party, because who wanted to arrive at a Brandt function in a spacesuit? – from the shuttle pad. Visitors could step out of their car and walk up to the house like they were arriving on a red carpet, except for the constant risk of ruptures, breaches, or implosions.
None of which appeared to have happened here. The house, airlock, everything we could see from the outside looked undamaged.
“Shutters didn’t close,” I pointed out. I could even see a grand piano through one of the ground floor windows.
“Maybe the windows weren’t the problem.”
The exterior inspectors started up their buggy and careened off towards the rear of the estate, where they would inspect the other half-bubble that protected the veranda. We picked up our own gear and headed towards the airlock in easy, gliding leaps. “Forgot how fun it is up here,” I called.
“Eyes on the prize, Faye.”
“What?” I laughed. It wasn’t that funny, but everything became less serious in low gravity, even mysteriously ruined houses. “Who even says that?”
“I overheard West. Whoever figures out the cause is up for a big promotion.”
“In that case, more luck to you.” I took another flying leap, still gazing at the ever-changing swirl of silver and blue. “Promotion means sitting behind a desk all the time, never getting to come up here.”
“Also means less chance of a variety of terrible deaths.”
“You’re no fun.”
Chen keyed the airlock for entry. “After what happened here, how many of these billionaires do you think will stick around?” he pointed out. “This job may not exist in a few years.”
We entered the airlock and I sealed the door behind us. “Then I’m going to enjoy it while I can.”
The exterior guys found it first: dust buildup in the circuits that monitored the veranda’s pressure independent from the house. When they overloaded, it registered as a pressure loss, and the bubble compensated by drawing oxygen from the house. It happened gradually, giving Brandt time to evacuate and concoct some story to hide the fact that he’d broken his multi-billion dollar estate due to crummy maintenance.
West dealt with Brandt’s lawyers while Chen and I began the paperwork. He obviously pined for the promotion, but I was relieved. I barely registered the papers through my waking-dream memory of the empty mansion and the sunlit, ephemeral marble of Earth beyond it.