A Small Miscalculation

Amelia Diamond
Three Cheers and a Tiger ~ Silver


Silvery Cube_wb43_6527
Photo Credit: Klaus Riesner

Over the weeks she would occasionally review Mala’s lengthy apology, turning it over in her mind, looking for an emotional response that never came. She should feel hurt, angry, sad, something, anything—but the words that told of the end of their love may as well have been pebbles or leaves or dust. She would come home to her tiny ninety-first floor studio apartment with the bed still out and unmade and the sink full of dishes and stand at the windowscreen, which was always set to show a view onto the beach. Not the bright sunny white sand and crystal blue breakers beach, but always an inhospitable stretch of beach near San Francisco, low grey-blue sky, dull brown sand and jagged grey-brown moss-covered boulders with the smudged dark blue of rain on the distant horizon. As a teenager that beach had been a place of safety and solitude where she could pretend for a little while that the world wasn’t falling apart, that she wasn’t falling apart. She’d sit on one of the many uncomfortable damp rocks and look out across the sea, letting her eyes defocus until everything became a blur of grey light and white noise that she could fade into and, for a few precious moments, become nothing at all.

That was where she’d first met Mala, although it was several years later that they fell in love. Mala, always so curious, had come to that least-friendly of beaches to take samples of the rocks and the seawater as it broke on them. It was a science fair project, asking whether the increasing acidity of the seawater was causing increased erosion of the rocks that in so many places along the northern coast prevented large sections of land from slipping into the ocean. The boulders on the beach being more easily accessible than the sheer cliffs she was really interested in, she had come to that particular stretch of coastline to collect data.

Mala’s curiosity was boundless, even then, and she’d nearly forgotten to collect her samples for fascination with the strange girl she’d discovered meditating on a tall rock whose base was encrusted with barnacles. She looked like she had always been there, like she was a rock herself. Even her skin, pale brown dusted with damp grey sand stretched over prominent sharp bones, matched the surface on which she perched.

Their conversation lasted until the sun was low. Michelle helped Mala to gather her samples and they said good night. After, on the walk home, Michelle realized she had spoken more to the wiry intense girl than she had spoken to anyone in a very long time.

Now that beach was one of the many places that were not safe for people to visit. It had been at least thirteen years since Michelle had felt damp, dirty sand under her feet. She’d been in LA when it all went down, so she’d ended up in Bunker Hill, at first as a temporary resident until it became clear that there really wasn’t anywhere else she could go. So she spent her days monitoring surveillance footage from twenty-six simultaneous camera feeds, watching for anything important. Her knack for spacing out was very helpful; being completely unfocused made it easy to follow all twenty-six feeds without being so focused on one that she’d miss anything on the others. She was considered quite good at her job and was a semi-official supervisor and on-the-job-trainer of other employees.

She spent some evenings organizing and attending munches, strictly vanilla social gatherings for the local kink scene, including one specifically for trans* and gender non-conforming people. She was involved in a rope bondage club that met regularly to practice various knots and bindings on each other. She spent a lot of time on her computer, watching at a distance the lives of her remaining friends and family, some of whom she’d most likely never see in person again, watching cartoons from when she was a kid, and reading depressing and infuriating news articles. And, until a year ago, being with Mala.

There was a time when she’d practically been a celebrity. The wondrous Mala Desai, probable savior of humanity, greatest mind of her generation, inventor of the materials and techniques that made possible the nanotech with which Bunker Hill and so many other arcologies had been created. When an Indian-American lesbian did what no white man had managed to accomplish and halted the collapse of civilization just in time a great many figurative heads exploded.

Michelle, as her androgynous mixed-race girlfriend, was the icing on the cake. Mala always told people that Michelle was her muse, which was sweet but untrue. Mala was her own inspiration. People would occasionally ask her what Mala was really like in person. She’d always give the same answer: “Mala makes me care about things I’ve never noticed. She’ll get interested in something and suddenly it’s the most fascinating thing in the world. You can’t help but go along with her and end up in this place where everything is wonderful and new.” Mala’s personality was as powerful as the ocean and as good for making Michelle disappear.

Mala had ended the relationship suddenly and quite publicly with no explanation. Her reasons became clear one month later, when the President made the announcement. Our efforts to change our ways, to halt the march of climate change and ocean acidification and soil erosion and water pollution and overfishing and all of it had been in vain. A heretofore unknown set of chemical processes had been discovered occurring deep in the ocean, like an alarm clock set by some ancient god with a horrid sense of humor. It was a rapidly spreading set of reactions made possible by the increased temperature and acidity and decreased salinity of the ocean. The seawater was removing more carbon from the atmosphere than before, a discovery that was initially greeted with hope. But then it was noticed that the water was releasing large amounts of hydrogen cyanide, an extremely toxic gas. It was soon discovered that the reaction would continue indefinitely, not reaching equilibrium until long after the atmosphere became too toxic for humans to survive.

Some people were moved to heroic action. There were companies working on giant fans to buy a few more years before the toxic gas sterilized the city, developing ways to make it possible for the fans to survive the intense storms. A space tourism business created a contest: The first person or organization to produce a truly usable design for a permanent orbital colony would receive ten million dollars and a guaranteed spot on the colony after it was built. An artist built a digital clock nine stories tall showing the countdown until the current estimate of when the air would be unbreathable in this part of LA. It was the same all over the world.

Some people dove headlong into hedonism. The munches were suddenly much more popular and needed much more supervision. Every day on the bulletin boards near all the elevators there were new fliers for all sorts of parties and events, most of them involving various combinations of music, alcohol, and sex. Others chose self-destruction. Deaths due to drug overdoses quadrupled. And there were suicides, of course. Some clever person had written IP next to the ‘R’ button in all the elevators; ‘R’ for roof of course.

The giant clock said there were at least two years left. Most people just continued with their lives. Michelle was one of these.

The day the letter had come had been a satisfying work day in which she had alerted authorities to two muggings, an attempted rape, a theft of several candy bars, and a potential heart attack. She sat on her always-unmade bed, comfy on a lumpy pile of blankets. It was five months ago today that Mala had dumped her on TV. It was three-and-a-half since the Announcement, as everyone called it. She opened her laptop and signed in, username Serafine, password SaltPoint. On those rare occasions when she really focused on something she’d tilt her head forward and squint slightly and rock back and forth. Her rocking would have been undetectable except for her shoulder length braids. She maintained them, perhaps unconsciously, at exactly the right length for the frequency of her gentle rocking to set them swinging in a way she found pleasing when she noticed it at all.

Still in her work clothes, comfortable grey linen pants and blouse, Michelle briefly scanned her new emails. There was one from a name she didn’t recognize, apparently a real person. She opened it, read it, read it again, and looked past the screen at her beach, at the ocean that would kill her. Then she read again:

Michelle— I wanted to tell you why I had to let you go. I’ve been writing and rewriting this for weeks. I guess you have a pretty good idea about why we can’t be together anymore. I’m not really allowed to have a private life now. Just work work work and save the world again. Really, they won’t let me see you. Too distracting. They forget I was distracted by you when I figured out how to make arcologies work. But no, there’s more. I needed to protect you. They’ve been talking on the news like it’s a naturally occurring process. It’s not.

Do you remember that first time we met? That science fair experiment? While I was working on it I had an idea about maybe being able to use ammonium chloride from undersea vents and fertilizer runoff to produce sodium carbonate which would help pull carbon from the atmosphere and counter some of the acidification of the ocean too. But I couldn’t see any way to make it work so I just kept it in the back of my mind all these years. With the nanotech we’ve been developing recently it started to seem possible. Imagine if we could have outdoor farms again! No more Category 7 hurricanes. Trees on the hillsides, no more mudslides and flash floods and having to stay inside every day. Imagine if we could go back to that beach in real life.

Last year, June 13, we started our first experiment in a saltwater tank up on Floor 118, and it worked. Michelle, I swear it worked beautifully for months. So we released them, little nanotech robots, I call them chembots. It was very exciting, we shot them out into the ocean with a rocket. And it seemed to be working, with the weather it was too hard to actually get out on a boat and check of course. But the experiment was working so well! Until I popped up to check on it and the whole room smelled like almond extract and my research assistant nearly died.

I don’t know what went wrong. I was sure I’d thought of everything. Can you believe that? I guess I’m the only person who could outsmart me. Of course we’re supposed to spend every moment working on it. It’ll probably get worse, the chembots are made to reproduce and disperse. The truth is, there’s no way to stop it. I think and think and I can’t imagine anything that could even begin to help without being just as bad. Sooner or later it will come out that I did this and I can’t subject you to what will happen when it does. I love you, always will. Wish me luck.

Mala

Michelle sat, doing her best to not exist, until her phone rang. It was Samantha, a good friend who’d moved in for a week to keep Michelle company after Mala left her. Samantha wondered whether Michelle might be interested in seeing a movie this evening with her and her friend Cadence. The movie was predictable and dull and starred some heartthrob white male actor doing dangerous things so he could have sex with some hot white woman who only had three lines. But still, feeling annoyed and marginalized was better than feeling nothing. She went home with Cadence, a petite and fiery woman with green hair spiked in every direction, who lived down on the thirty-ninth floor. Her windowscreen showed a futuristic cityscape of gleaming chrome skyscrapers with sleek curving silhouettes stretching up to the sky. There were flying cars and a park with mushroom-shaped structures covered in fruit trees and grapevines and with benches circling the stems. People walked past on the sidewalks, outside, the way they used to, wearing shiny plastic-looking clothes in bright garish colors or billowy black dresses with hundreds of LED stars. There were even huge video billboards with beautiful Japanese women smiling and holding up objects that might have been kitchen appliances or futuristic weapons while katakana text scrolled across their faces.

Cadence, wine bottle in one hand and two glasses in the other, saw Michelle staring. “Do you like it?”

“What’s it supposed to be?”

“City of the future. Loosely based on Tokyo.”

“Oh. Do people still live in Tokyo? It must be really bad there.”

“Yeah, got a couple friends there I talk to on the interweb. They have a few arcologies. Not as romantic looking as those sexy skyscrapers and no flying cars. I guess there never will be. I guess this is all the future we’re gonna get.”

Later that night as Michelle dissolved into sleep she heard quiet crying. With an effort she came back to herself, remembered where she was and all that had happened and who was lying next to her. She snuggled close to Cadence’s back and wrapped her arms around her, narrowly avoiding being poked in the eye by Cadence’s hair. Cadence immediately rolled over and pressed her face into the space between Michelle’s shoulder and breast. Her warm little body quivered and twitched while she sobbed. Michelle stroked her hair with her free hand and didn’t say anything. She felt every tear as they rolled down into her armpit. Finally Cadence’s shaking stopped and her breathing became deep and slow. Michelle continued to hold her, long after her arm went numb, wide awake for the first time in a very long time.

It was nearly a year later that the secret got out. Riots are difficult in arcologies, there just isn’t any single place with enough room. But groups of violent, angry people wandered around breaking things and getting into fights. Three days later Michelle heard the news that Mala was dead. She’d either jumped or been thrown from the roof. Up until then Michelle had held onto some hope that things might actually work out. The giant fans were up and running, the orbital habitat was under construction, the arcologies were all being refitted to be completely sealed from the outside, with air locks and sealed tunnels connecting to other nearby arcologies. None of those were real solutions, of course, but they were buying time for Mala, who had never been defeated by anything. Michelle knew that without Mala there was no hope. Everyone knew it.

Then Michelle was summoned. She was to go to Level 214, a level which was not accessible to ordinary citizens. When she pressed the button in the elevator, red-and-gold where nearly all the others were blue-and-green, her retina was scanned. The doors opened onto a wide open area with real windows. There were groups of people and equipment in bunches throughout the vast space. A man in a black suit looked up when the doors opened and came over, a grim expression on his gaunt face.

“Miss Deveaux. Welcome. Thank you for coming. I’m Chris Klein, CIA Operations Director for Bunker Hill. Please come with me.”

Chris Klein led Michelle over to a window. She had never seen so much glass in one place. The view was toward the ocean. They were well above the scattered dark clouds that were out on this unusually clear day. Across the ocean the sky looked like a bruise, purple and swollen forever in every direction. Looking down, she could see the outer wall of the massive stepped pyramid she shared with 200,000 other people. Michelle was offered a chair and Chris Klein sat next to her, both facing the magnificent window. Michelle shivered. The room was quite cold. She wondered for a moment whether there even was such a thing as a sweater anywhere in all of Bunker Hill, where the air was always perfectly conditioned to match a normal September day in LA.

“I’m going to cut right to the chase, Miss Deveaux. Just before Mala Desai committed suicide she made this.”

He held up a metal cube that looked like tarnished silver. It looked to be about six inches on a side. He offered it to Michelle, who took it and nearly dropped it. It was much heavier than it looked. She turned it over and over but there were no markings on it. “What is it?” she asked.

“We were hoping you’d know. She left a note. All it said was, ‘Give Michelle the cube. She’ll know what it means.’ So here’s the cube. Are you sure you don’t know what it is?”

“I’m sorry, I have no idea. We hadn’t spoken in a long time.”

“You of course understand how urgent it is that anything at all made by Miss Desai be understood and in our hands?”

“Yes, of course.” She made to hand back the cube, but Chris Klein held up a hand. “Keep it. She wanted you to have it. We’ve been trying to get it open and we’ve gotten nowhere. There are more important things for us to be working on. It’s yours and it could be it’ll only do whatever it’s supposed to do for you. It probably is just a sentimental thing, though; everyone knows she was crazy about you. But if it turns out to be anything other than a big shiny cube, you call me immediately, night or day, you got that?” He handed her a business card printed on thick plastic. “All right now, get out of here. Thanks for your time.”

Riding the elevator down, Michelle examined the strange cube. It seemed solid. Mala had always liked giving Michelle enigmatic little gifts and watching her try to figure out what they were supposed to mean. When Michelle got home she put the cube on the little table next to her bed and sat facing it, leaning on the windowscreen. She focused on a point somewhere in the distance and let her eyes relax, let everything blur into pure texture and let the cube slip unfiltered into her mind. Eventually she returned to herself with no new insights and gave up for the day. The cube sat by Michelle’s bed for six weeks. She mostly ignored it, only occasionally wondering what Mala had meant to say to her. She preferred to lose herself in her daily routine and the cube was somehow jarring when she really paid attention to it.

One Saturday evening Cadence stopped over. They hadn’t seen each other or spoken since that night when Cadence cried herself to sleep in Michelle’s arms. Time was running out and neither wanted to sleep alone any longer. When she came into Michelle’s apartment she picked up the cube and sat down at the foot of Michelle’s bed, next to the windowscreen. “What the heck is this?” she asked as she turned it over and over.

“A very strange gift, I guess. From Mala.”

“Oh.” Cadence stood to put the cube back and to hide her discomfort at being reminded that she was planning to share a bed with the ex-lover of Mala Desai, the woman who’d doomed them all.

“Stop!” Michelle’s barked command startled Cadence into dropping the metallic cube. “Sorry. Please pick it up and then hold still, right there. Please.”

Cadence did as she was bid. She was watching Michelle’s burning brimming eyes, so she didn’t see the windowscreen, where Michelle walked into view carrying the cube and bore it into the water, carefully placing it so that it touched one of the larger boulders. Something greenish began to flow out of the cube as the large boulder seemed to glitter. Then the scene ended and the windowscreen again showed the empty beach.

Michelle stalked up to Cadence and kissed her hard. “You have to go. I need to think.”

Cadence placed the cube back on the table and stalked out, suppressing the desire to break things on the way.

Why would Mala have done it this way? If she found a solution why wouldn’t she just tell the people she worked for? It didn’t make any sense. It couldn’t just be a simple solution, there must be some reason why she wouldn’t have trusted her superiors with the cube. Michelle brought it close to the windowscreen again and watched the scene play out, looking for more information. Then it occurred to her to turn on the volume. Like most people, she normally kept her windowscreen muted. This time, as the scene played, she heard Mala’s voice.

“Trade one apocalypse for another. The problem with our nanotech is that once it’s released, if it spreads there’s no easy way to stop it. These will disassemble the chembots and cannibalize the metals to make more of themselves, maybe even before everyone dies. But of course after that they’ll disassemble other metal things. You can imagine what that means. I’m sorry to give you this choice. Maybe it’s better for us to die than to have to face this. It’ll only work for you. I trust you to make the right choice, if there is a right choice. I love you. Goodbye.”

Michelle switched the channel on her windowscreen to show what she’d see if it were a real window. The sky was dark, low swirling clouds to the horizon. Rain fell in a torrent like a waterfall, nonetheless blown sideways and sometimes even back upwards as the wind gusted. Something large flew by, possibly one of the few cars that hadn’t already been blown away. Huge bolts of lightning again and again struck the many tall metal towers that emanated like porcupine quills from the Hollywood arcology, leaving blue-white afterimages in her vision. It was a typical day in LA and a long way to San Francisco. She guessed she was going to need a raincoat.

pencilAmelia Diamond has worked as a gardener, environmental and agricultural consultant, energy auditor and environmental activist. She produces electronic experimental noise music, occasionally performing live with one of several bands. Mostly she works as a mom of two along with her partner of 14 years. She has been telling stories her whole life but only recently began writing them down. Amelia frequently publishes short stories on her blog. Email: yasha20[at]gmail.com

 

 

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