Piedra's Last Stand

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Science Fiction

Marion Piedra, a climate refugee from Texas, stumbles into a new life in the far North. Please note that a character in this story experiences suicidal ideation, and the portrayal is authentic. Do not read this story if that could be damaging to you.

Marion Piedra rested on a hillside that overlooked the sprawling megapolis of Dillingham. He smiled wryly. A decade and a half ago, describing “Dillingham” as a “megapolis” would have seemed absurd to him. Perhaps only somewhat more absurd than the notion of life in backwater Alaska. Yet, here it was, and here he was. Marion felt absurd.

The city was still sprawling out from its nest in the cove off Nushagak Bay. There, a dense heart of spindly high-rises had sprung up, clustered around several towers almost a thousand meters tall. The neoplasm gleamed, overshadowing the old town and marina, an exquisitely lonesome cluster of practical buildings of red, blue, brown, yellow. But what caught Marion’s eye was the perpetual assembly of the Fugi suburbs.

From his vantage point, he watched the massive harbor cranes offload tens of thousands of nearly identical cubes from scores of barges. The cubes, set on train-car beds, crawled out to the edges of the city, where they were lugged by flatbed trucks over bare, brown earth to be anchored to freshly poured foundations. They were welded in stacks three stories high, three cubes wide, three cubes deep, so that the suburbs were block after block of great cubes, all rimmed by prefab staircases and balconies.

Recently completed stacks, punctuated by tiny swarms, shifted before Marion’s eyes from a dull metal hue to various earth-tones. He inferred the crews were spray-painting, and he wondered at what his eyes beheld. What did he see? What did he simply know?

Marion turned his attention to the bustle behind the city’s expanding front lines. He knew that crews poured networks of sidewalks, installed air conditioners, water tanks, utilities, carted in appliances, furniture, and amenities, built parks and distribution centers, and covered up the scarred earth with landscaping.

What trailed behind the tide of construction was a picturesque network of winding greenways, sporting fields and courts—grass, clay, blacktop, and cinder-block—open-air amphitheaters and bandshells, pocket-parks, vast and wooded preserves, all woven through the spokes of cubes and distribution centers that radiated from the train stations.

Marion imagined that Dillingham must be the most luxurious refugee camp in human history.

He sighed and lay back on the hillside. Through the sparse canopy, he watched clouds form and dissipate. He was a long way from home. Ah, home—he didn’t remember much about it. That had been a nice life, but it was a blur, like a memory of a dream.

He lit up a joint and inhaled slowly. He became aware of the contrast between the cool grass on the back of his neck and the bright sunlight that pierced the canopy. He sat up slowly and became mesmerized by the flurry of activity around Dillingham’s rivers below.

The most amazing thing about Dillingham, as far as Marion was concerned, was how tough it was to land a job. Surely, he’d thought, a city so rapidly expanding would have some use for him. Reality differed. The city couldn’t spam prefab neighborhoods more quickly than they arrived. No-one wanted an adjunct professor to clerk a distribution center or maintain the parks and greenways.

Every spindle of Cubes that sprung up was peopled by perhaps a ten thousand refugees, almost every man, woman, and child more useful than Marion—at least for the moment. He tried to remind himself about the future, but the present was a heavy veil. After months of applications, he suspected there was something about the process he didn’t understand.

He had re-read his cover-letters and realized they had become unhinged.

He felt discarded. He fantasized about a steep landslide he’d passed while climbing the hillside. The boulders at its base were more promising than the shrubs around his cube, and the drop was a bit higher. He thought of living as a quadriplegic and shook his head. He wondered how much trouble it would be to procure a gun. He imagined the cool barrel against the roof of his mouth, and—poof! Much simpler.

But getting a gun was so much trouble. He’d have to wait for one, he felt sure. Besides, guns worried him. When his beloved dog had passed not long after he’d fled Houston, he’d sat at her side, cradled her head and her body, and told her the story of how he’d met her, and the story of her life, and he'd held back his tears for the loss of her, the loss of the city on which her memory was written. He’d heard that your brain waves echo around after death, until they peter out, and he thought that maybe what happened during that time was heaven. At least he’d done his best to give heaven to her. But that wouldn’t work if his brains were on the ceiling. Then again, if he were correct, that could also eliminate the possibility of hell.

Maybe knives would do the trick. He imagined his shower caked in blood. But how sharp would he need to get his knives? Maybe Manny would have some drugs that would help. But Manny liked him. Manny would figure it out and refuse. Marion felt breathless, like his stomach had reached into his lungs to suffocate him.

He lay back again and let his mind wander. He liked to feel like he could make an end of things. That way life didn’t feel so interminably hopeless. That way he felt like he had some control over how much he would be required to suffer. But thinking about the details was stressful and only made things worse. He took several deep breaths, exhaling slowly each time, until he no longer felt trapped.

As the sun circled around towards evening, Marion made his way back to the nature preserve’s train-stop, climbing back to the proper side of a tall chain-link fence on which hung a sign that announced the fence was meant to separate the city-folk from dangerous wild animals. Marion only felt relief about such things. He imagined that a wolf or bear would be up to finishing the job. It would be a nature walk with a bonus.

He leaned back in his seat and breathed easily as the train carried him into the lingering sunset. It was a slow train. It crawled through the stripped brown earth of the construction zones, past the crews securing their worksites for the night, through neighborhoods established for some months now, where the newness of paint and upturned earth faded as the shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses began to sprawl naturally, and finally to his own station. He disembarked and shuffled along the gently winding greenway sidewalks until he reached his cube.

He lived alone on the ground floor on one corner of his little tower. His cube had windows on two sides, and under other circumstances he would have considered it a bright and cheery studio. He plopped onto his couch, rummaged a roach from his coffee table, lit up, and said “News.”

His holo-screen lit up. The sea-gates of Mumbai had failed, extending the reach of the Deluge. Marion was from Houston; his neighbors hailed from around the world. Now there would be thirty or forty million more. He tried not to think of it. The scope of it depressed him. He empathized with the victims—he was a victim! But he also wondered whether he could outlast the Deluge. He doubted it.

“Holo-screen, off” he commanded, and the images ceased. His apartment was lit only by the gloaming sun, streetlamps, and the cherry of his roach. He stamped the roach out in his ashtray, rolled a joint, and climbed the tower’s staircase to the roof fifteen meters up.

His neighbors had gathered near the center of the rooftop deck. A few of them danced to a combo led by a grizzled man who croaked out a melody. They all followed, off-key, a swarm of sound accompanied by a haphazard set of hand drums, bells, and a washboard, a muted trumpet, a buree, and an ancient Casio keyboard and amp. The melodies were raw. The rhythms squawked.

A woman with a soft face and shining black hair paused, smiled, and waved. Marion returned her gesture and considered joining them, but he couldn’t imagine losing himself in the music. He drifted away and settled down at the edge of the grass-covered roof, feet dangling through the railing, watching the orange-red sky until his joint burnt his fingers.

When Marion awoke, he checked his messages, as he did every morning. The habit felt pointless—that’s why it had become a ritual. But this morning he had a surprising message. The Department of Justice had extended him an invitation to interview as a Community Liaison Officer. He stamped out his morning roach. He didn’t remember making the application, but who’s checking, he thought.

He dressed and took the train to the heart of Dillingham. The Department of Justice headquarters were situated in an office about eight hundred meters above the pavement. He stood at the wooden handrail that encouraged visitors not to press their oily skin against the bomb-proof glass, and he looked down. Now that’s a drop that would do the job, he thought, and laughed.

“Number eleven,” the receptionist called, sending a jolt of panic through Marion’s heart. He was number eleven! He hoped no-one had heard his laugh. Then, he remembered himself. The receptionist couldn’t read his mind. He turned and waved his ticket half-heartedly and made his way through door the receptionist had indicated. A man and a woman sat across a metallic folding table that felt out-of-place in such a great tower. The woman motioned to a metal chair, and he sat.

“So, Marion,” the man announced, “I see you were a philosophy professor in Houston. Why the change?” The man leaned back in his chair, his fingers laced behind his head, his loose sport coat hanging and his tie lolling at his side, conspirators in his feigned easygoingness.

Marion had considered whole heaps of bullshit answers. None felt satisfactory. He shrugged. “There’s no market for philosophy in Dillingham at the moment.” He sighed. Why would they ask the question?

The woman frowned. She was primly dressed, and her body frowned with her. “I don’t want to seem callous, but you’re a refugee. You’ve got housing, food, medical care, amenities, you name it, for at least the next decade. Why not wait?”

Marion took a deep breath. “I like having a purpose. There isn’t much purpose in waiting.” Besides, he thought, who would hire him after ten years of waiting? That wasn’t patience, it was a life sentence.

The man asked, “So, you’ll take any job at this point?”

Marion shook his head, although it was true that he had applied for every job opening he could find. “No—I think that Community Liaison Officer gives me a chance to use my knowledge practically. I’d be happy with that career change.”

The man smiled. “There’s no shame in getting off the train if it’s not heading to a destination you like.” The man scrunched up his face, faking concern, as if he’d seriously misspoken. He fidgeted, closely observing his fingers, then continued, “I mean, getting off the career train, not the life train.”

Marion wasn’t sure what to make of that. Was the man probing his mental state? Did he pin him as a suicide risk? Marion sighed. In his opinion, his own feelings couldn’t be uncommon. He forced a laugh. “Jesus,” he swore, “talk about getting to the point.”

The interview continued. By the end of it, Marion could tell that there were only a few important considerations. He wasn’t a criminal, was mostly sane, had learned perhaps ten Fugi languages to date, and was therefore desperately needed. Good-quality automated translators were a luxury, and they were still unreliable in high-stress situations. He left the tower late in the evening, finally employed, after a day of paperwork and training.

He walked the greenways from his station slowly, breathing more freely. A great weight of uncertainty had lifted. He did not notice that children paused to watch him with curiosity and adults halted their conversations and began to chatter again just before he passed from earshot. Those were phenomena that would grow on him over the coming days and weeks.

He entered his studio, hung his uniform in his closet, and climbed to the roof of his cube tower.

“A man in uniform, eh?” the soft-faced woman smiled, winking flirtation. She was in her mid-thirties and breathtaking in her plainness. Every part of her was, absolutely and almost unbelievably, average. Marion thought that she was perhaps the plainest woman he had ever seen. It made him smile. She asked him what he was smiling about, but he didn’t know how he could explain himself to her. He simply loved the reminder that uniqueness is a myth. The height of beauty was, he thought, found in the commonplace.

Since he couldn’t explain himself, he told her he would like to dance. Her name was Giaprish, and they danced on the rooftop patio to the grizzled man’s cracked voice, and they danced to the night. Later, exhausted but still unable to sleep, he left her sleeping in his bed and sat in the Adirondack by his doorway and smoked a joint. He wondered whether his new job would scare Manny off. He wasn’t breaking any laws, but old fears die hard.

When he awoke, Giaprish had gone. He ate breakfast, put on his uniform, and made his way to work.

Marion didn’t find training very demanding, but the other trainees could be a chore. “It’s good to see a Fugi pulling his weight,” a bulky woman opined, loudly, as he found a seat. Another trainee, unable to resist, called “you’d know about that, Prickett!” The other trainees chortled as she blushed.

In a past life, Marion would have said something, but fair’s fair. He knew the others weren’t defending him or the other Fugis. Prickett had simply made herself fair game for zingers by venturing one herself. When the other trainees cornered him, they were full of opinions, full of questions that betrayed unspoken judgment. He was a Fugi, living off the dole, and drawing a full pay scale to boot. Their eyes shone with jealousy.

They didn’t see him as a man who’d lost everything. None of this could replace the life that he had chosen for himself. That life – the self he’d spent his youth to build – it was gone, and he felt like a ghost neglected by the Reaper. It was no way to live.

The Department shared a sense of humor with fate and paired Marion with Prickett. They patrolled the Fugi greenways on motor-scooters. Their presence was tolerated, but they were not welcomed. The uniform made Marion an outsider sent to impose order on stir-crazy people.

Marion understood the Fugi towns. What most of the others couldn’t get through their thick skulls, he thought, was that everyone in these towns had left behind purpose and a future, drowned out by the Deluge. Others were shocked that people so luxuriously provisioned would engage in crime.

Prickett was no better. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” she would opine, as if knowledge of Proverbs would have prevented the surprise.

Crime in the Fugi towns was the stuff of boredom and ingenuity—extremely little was done that was truly threatening. Marion’s people—that’s how he thought of them—understood as much and thus resented enforcement all the more.

Of course, Marion’s neighbors—and not just Giaprish—appreciated his position. The unsanctioned economy springing to life was a relief—if it stayed a few blocks away. Having the law on your block tended to encourage that. But the appreciation was, for the most part, distant, and certainly unspoken. The days ground onward. Marion felt stable, reasonably happy, but not accepted. He felt, though, that it could not be helped.

Late one afternoon, a few blocks from Marion’s home, he spotted an open door on the third floor of a cube tower. He heard shouts and the sharp noise of shattering glass over the low hum of his electric scooter motor, and he waved Prickett down. She nodded—she’d heard it too.

As they rushed up the staircase to the third-floor balcony, there was more crashing, as if a great struggle raged. Marion stood with his back pressed against the wall by the door, pumped full of adrenaline, his weapon drawn, when a woman’s frenzied shout carried through the door. “My God. Take it! Just take it!”

Prickett returned his sharp nod, and Marion burst through the door into the open studio, just as a surreal screeching hit his ears: “EEh-er-EEh-er-EEh-er-EEh-er!” He reflexively pulled his trigger as a half-naked man twisted to face him, a bare-breasted woman looking on in shock from behind the man’s nude torso.

Marion felt that he watched in slow motion as the electrodes reached out and burrowed into the man’s shoulder.

The man fell onto the mattress and convulsed as the woman lying on the bed clutched the bedsheets to her chest. “Oh God, oh God, oh God…” Marion said.

Prickett laid one hand on his shoulder and with the other took the taser from his frozen hands. “Honey,” she chided, “I don’t think that was your line.”

Marion was feeble with the shock of the moment and leaned against the wall near the doorway as the naked man slowly turned over, righted himself, and sat leaning over on the edge of the bed, holding his head in his hands.

Prickett glowered at the man as he raised his eyes to meet her stare. “Next time shut the goddam door,” she said. And she wheeled around and pulled Marion behind her, slamming the studio door.

A small crowd had gathered at the base of the cube tower. Prickett faced the wall and laughed manically, somehow managing to choke back the sound of it, before pulling herself together. Marion struggled to wipe an embarrassed grin from his face, the sort of grin that tugged at his lips when he felt complimented or relieved. They descended to the crowd.

“We were on a dispatch and got the wrong address,” he lied to the crowd. It was an unbelievable lie, but what could he do—tell the truth? He didn’t know whose son or daughter, whose husband or wife, whose lover, was in that studio.

But the lovers were less bashful, and the story did travel. Marion was sure of it when Giaprish suggested she might tase him to see what the experience was like. “Would the woman be shocked, too?” she wondered, aloud. It was a good story and gave people something to gossip about.

Weeks later, Marion sat blushing as Prickett embellished the tale for the tenth time as their unit drank itself silly in their regular downtown hangout.

Marion chuckled as he recognized the makeshift band from his tower’s rooftop, pressed into a corner of the tavern. They played for booze and tips, not quite part of Dillingham’s proper economy, but not exactly not a part, either.

The drums beat an intricate rhythm under the buree’s airy melody as the trumpet and keyboard bleated out a counter-beat, and the grizzled man hollered and rasped with a mad passion unchained by refinement or skill.


Submitted: September 25, 2022

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