Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Marsh of Camarina

“Your grades really are quite spectacular, Sita,” my career advisor Mrs. Dana Rice says to me in her deep southern drawl, an accent I’ve come to associate with my studies here. “A 3.8 cumulative GPA at Georgia Tech is nothing to sneeze at. You should be proud of yourself!”

I force a smile and say, “Thank you.” But all I can focus on is the football stadium gleaming outside Mrs. Rice’s office window. Sweeping. Enormous. Empty. Baking in the morning sun. I went to a game my freshman year and cheered on the Yellow Jackets with all the other Rambling Wrecks. But after that, I got too immersed in my studies to cheer on anything but my grades. And just like the band’s snapping snare drum then, my heart beats triple time now. Mrs. Rice didn’t call me in to here to pat me on the back for my grades.

“As you may have heard, Sita,” she says, and I brace myself, “we’ve been having some . . . difficulties placing students into jobs after graduation.”

If this were a contest of euphemisms, she’d win the grand prize. By “difficulties” Mrs. Rice means that—according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Congressional Budget Office—ninety-four percent of students graduating with computer science bachelor degrees were unable to find employment last year. Their jobs were replaced by high-level AIs, programs that could build code for a hundredth of the price of a human employee. This year—though the numbers aren’t totaled yet—is shaping up to be far worse. “Yes,” I tell her, “I’ve heard some things.”

“Well, then, Sita,” she says, haltingly, “Have you considered what you’ll do when you graduate from Tech in two months? What are your plans?”

My breath catches in my throat as I gaze out the window again, at the thousands of plastic stadium seats cracking in the superheated air. It’s supposed to break 100 for the fifth time this month, and it’s only April. “My brother has severe mental and physical disabilities,” I say. “I was hoping to work for a company that designs software tools to facilitate occupational therapists’ work with developmentally and physically disabled children.”

Mrs. Rice frowns, the same frown I’ve seen on a thousand empathetic faces when I tell them of my brother, when they imagine the hardships all of us, but especially Miguel, have endured. “That’s very admirable, Sita. But with things as they are, such a career path may not be possible anymore.” What Mrs. Rice means is that with a five-minute download and a half-dozen mouse clicks, an AI can do what it took me four years and two hundred thousand dollars to learn.

“Yeah,” I say, holding back the knot growing in my chest. “I know.” Until this moment my future was a speculative thing I’d brushed away like a pesky mosquito. But saying the truth out loud makes it sting. The thing I’ve worked hardest for in my life won’t ever come to be. Now I have to find something else.

“Have you considered graduate school?” Mrs. Rice says. “Tech has one of the top computer science research programs in the country. You’d have your own fully furnished apartment in our graduate living centers.” Her palm rests on a folder, which I’ve no doubt contains several glossy brochures flowering with QR codes.

“I have, Mrs. Rice. But graduate school is impossible for me now.”

She leans back. “Oh?”

“To afford Tech I had to take out several large loans. Frankly, I can’t afford it.”

“But with your grades, we could look into scholarships and grants.”

I want to say, And after graduate school, then what? Even with financial help, I’d owe more than I do now, which is greater than the cost of a house. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life paying back government-sanctioned loan sharks. Instead I say, “Thank you, but graduate school is not an option for me at this time.”

“I see. So what are your plans then, Sita?”

“Well,” I say, “to be honest I’m still kind of figuring things out.”

Mrs. Rice leans back. Stares. Sighs. Her expression loosens, like she’s taking off her shoes and belt at the end of a long day. And it occurs to me that everything that’s come before this moment was Mrs. Rice, the professional career counselor, and everything that is about to come is Dana Rice, the human being.

Askuwheteau,” she says.

“Excuse me?”

“It means ‘he who keeps watch’ in Algonquin. Tell me, Sita, do you like the outdoors?”

“The outdoors?”

“Yes. Do you like to farm?”

She types on her keyboard, then swivels her screen around so I can see. Arrays of buildings spoke out from a tall central mill. Neat rows of crops grow tall in the interstices. And circling it all like a fortress wall is a dense boreal forest. At the top of the screen, a bold and serifed title reads:

Askuwheteau, An Experiment in Sustainable Living.”

• • • •

Three months, nine days, and three flights later—the last of which is on a four-person seaplane that scares the living fuck out of me—I arrive at Askuwheteau on a four-wheel drive electric truck. Geographically, I’m in Canada’s Northwest Territories, twenty-four miles southeast of Rocher River. But mentally it feels like I’ve traveled to another planet.

It was 102 degrees when I took off from Newark last night. But here, it’s barely reached eighty. The air smells of loam and pine needles and ancient forests, and it feels cool on my skin. Light years from the supersaturated particulate soup of Jersey City. Grasses, taller than me, bend and hiss in the steady breeze, while hidden birds make strange calls from the shadowed boughs of pines.

Askuwheteau, I learned in the months since my meeting with Mrs. Rice, was founded nine years ago by a small group of scientists from around the world, with financial help from the Canadian government, as an experiment in sustainable living. Since then it has grown into a community of four hundred. Its mission: to build a city of the future. Efficient. Green. Net-zero carbon emissions. Fully sustainable. A model for cities extant and forthcoming. And for my participation in this grand experiment, the Canadian government will pay me four hundred dollars a week, room and board included. Most of that money will go toward paying off my loans. The rest I’ll send home, to help my parents pay for Miguel’s care.

My shoes sink into mud as I approach Askuwheteau, hefting my heavy suitcase. The city looks so much larger than the website implied. Like the thriving crops surrounding its buildings, Askuwheteau has grown.

As I sink and struggle and curse through the muddy slop, a long-haired blond woman in dirty overalls runs up to me. “Sita?” she says. “I’m Nazdia! We spoke on the phone?” She holds out her hand, and when she smiles her green eyes sparkle in the sun. “I’ll be your mentor until we get you up to speed. How was your trip?”

“Long,” I say. “And bumpy.”

“No doubt!” she says, grabbing my suitcase. “The jet stream is super erratic! It makes flying up here pretty hairy. But you’ve arrived in one piece, so that’s all that counts! Come, I’ll show you around.”

And she does. She shows me my living quarters, which are much larger and more comfortable than I expect. “No shortage of space around here,” she says with a grin. “With our industrial 3D printers, we can build almost anything. Later, I’ll show you the ultralight I built! Maybe we can go for a ride.” I politely smile and nod, but I think I’m done with flying for a while.

She shows me the mess hall, a sprawling cafeteria that smells of coffee and fried onions. “We grow almost everything ourselves,” Nazdia says. “You hungry? Try this.” She hands me a homemade granola bar and it’s absolutely delicious.

She takes me out to the fields, where workers in overalls and thick gloves toil over long aisles of crops. Plots of carrots. Cucumbers. Tomatoes. Corn. Soy. Kale. Collard greens. Daikon. Bamboo. And in the greenhouses, rows of taro. Peanuts. Eggplant. Okra. Plus hybrids and experimentals. And beyond the fields, blooming fruit orchards. As we walk, she spouts off more Latin than a Pope’s sermon, while yellow farm bots cruise down the aisles yanking up weeds and munching on bugs. “We’ve developed some resilient species,” she says. “But everything’s organic. Any pests the bots find, they crush, and we turn them into compost. We reuse as much as possible. Nothing is wasted.”

She takes me to the power station and shows me a vast field of solar arrays, gleaming in the sun. “We’re at net positive generation. And we have enough battery backup to run for a week. That’s super important during the short days of winter. And we can grow another twenty-five percent without adding more capacity.” She beams proudly as she says, “I studied engineering back in Boston. This here’s my baby.”

Then, after a pause, she adds, “And, no, we’re not fully sustainable. Yet. We’re still dependent on the outside world for a great many things. But one night, when you’re settled in, I’ll tell you all about our plan for world domination.” She chuckles as she takes my arm and leads me on.

She introduces me to many others: Richard, a store clerk, from Victoria; Elsa, a radiologist from Portland; Puloma, a math teacher from Montreal; Mohammed, a truck driver from Calgary. Gupta, Marie Elena, Ursa, Kelly, Thomas, and Barbara. Delilah, Shmuel, Dana, Eco, and Pravit. So many more, their names just as quickly spoken as forgotten.

As the sun descends behind the pines, Nazdia leads me, exhausted, back to my room. “Breakfast is from seven to seven thirty,” she says. “Get there early if you want a doughnut. They go fast!”

“Thank you, Nazdia. I’m tired, so maybe I missed something, but what exactly am I supposed to do here?”

“They didn’t tell you?”

They?

“Hm,” she says, running her hand through her long hair. “The problem with anarcho-socialism is that sometimes we overlook important things. Well, basically, Sita, you help here any damn way you can!”

• • • •

As it turns out, Askuwheteau needs a lot of help. There are water filtration units that keep breaking down and fields that keep getting flooded. There’s an infestation of aphids attacking the fruits, and irregular power outages in a quarter of the domiciles. But I stick to what I know: IT.

I start work in one of the storehouses, where a dozen farm bots, dirty, yellow four-legged spiders the size of nightstands, lay heaped in a pile. Some have blown motherboards and others have broken servos, while others just need a software refresh. Their control code uses an out-of-date, open-source AI, and as I print, download, patch and reboot, the irony isn’t lost on me. Here I am fixing the very things that obsoleted me. If I do my job too well, I’ll displace myself all over again.

But I actually like the work, and it keeps me busy through the long daylight hours. And each time I send one of my bots into the field, it feels bittersweet, as if I’m a mother, watching her child leave the nest. In less than a week I’ve repaired all the bots, and I’ve vastly improved the efficiency of the others.

The first Friday night, Pruvit, a former dockworker from Baltimore, carefully pours out cherry-flavored vodka she distilled herself to a growing crowd.

Nazdia pulls me aside. “How’s it going?”

“Pretty good,” I say, taking a sip of Pruvit’s vodka—it’s amazing. “I’m done with the bots and was thinking about attacking the internet uplink tomorrow. I think I could double the bandwidth by next week if we split the signal across multiple satellites.”

“That’s good,” she says. “That’s real good. But if I could distill the best advice I’d ever received here—”

Distill?” I say, grinning, as I hold up my glass.

Nazdia doesn’t smile back. Instead, she looks serious. Maybe even worried. “Take it slow, Sita,” she says. “The worst possible thing you can do here is work yourself out of a job.”

“But I thought you said there’s always so much to do?”

“There is,” she says, then downs the rest of her drink. “And there will be. But maybe we like it that way. Maybe it’s always better waking up knowing you have somewhere to be.”

• • • •

“Entonces, you getting along with your coworkers?” Papa says to me. “They nice?” His face pixelates and reforms as the uplink jumps satellites. I’ve been here three months, and I still haven’t quite worked that bug out. It’s almost midnight back home in Jersey City, 2,200 miles away, and Papa looks exhausted.

“Everyone’s been pretty great,” I say. “Nazdia has been showing me around.”

“Nazdia? She’s your mentor, right?”

“Yes, Papa.”

“And have you made any other friends?”

“Papa, please. Not tonight.”

“Mm,” he says, pursing his lips. “Okay.”

But I can see in Papa’s face that it’s not okay. Papa worries I’ll never get married, settle down, and produce offspring. And while I’m somewhat gender agnostic in my sexual preferences, the truth is that, even if I wanted to, there’s no possible way I can achieve that enduring western fantasy, to marry, produce children, and own a home. I could never afford any of that. I’m barely making my loan payments as it is.

“Look who wants to say hello!” Mama says, and the screen jumps to Miguel’s bedroom. She stands beside my brother, who waves enthusiastically from his wheelchair. He wears the Star Wars pajamas I bought him just before I left.

“Hello, Sita!” Miguel says. “You at the North Pole? Did you meet Santa?”

“Not yet,” I say, my throat tightening. I want to hug him and kiss his warm cheeks. I want to snuggle with him and watch cartoons together, like we did every Saturday morning, before I moved away to college. God, I miss him so much. “But I do have something special to show you.” I shut off my bedroom lights and swivel my screen to face the window. Outside, a rare early showing of the aurora borealis paints phosphorescent ribbons across the sky.

Wooooooow!” Miguel exclaims. “It’s beau-ti-ful!”

No one can see me as I wipe my eyes. I was going to make tools to help suffering people, like Miguel. Yet here I am, half a continent away, a glorified weeder. I want to go home, to help them, to be with them, but this is where I have to be. Without my income, I don’t think my family would survive. I let them watch the aurora for a while, then I swing the screen back.

“Okay, Miguel,” Mama says. “It’s way past your bedtime. Say goodnight!”

“Goodnight, Sita!”

“Goodnight, Miguel. I love you.”

“I love you too!”

Mama blows me a kiss and signs off, but Papa stays online. We sit in silence for a while. There is not much one can say after seeing the aurora.

Papa, a first-generation son of Mexican immigrants, used to do construction all over Brooklyn, Queens, Westchester, and Long Island, working long, hard hours that did hell to his body, until construction bots took over his job two years back. My parents dumped a lot of their savings to send me to school, to give me chances they never had. I’d always imagined I’d be doing something important, something for the greater good, making a decent living, and helping out my family in all the ways they helped me. Yet here I am, holed away on a muddy farm, doing work any average high-school kid could do, sending home crumbs. I’m a failure.

“Have I disappointed you, Papa?” I say.

“Never! You’re my pride, Sita. Siempre.”

“I feel like I should be doing something meaningful.”

“You are. You’re doing honest work, just like the thousands of others up there with you.”

“There are only four hundred here at Askuwheteau, Papa.”

“I know, but I’m counting the other eco-cities too.”

Other cities?”

“You don’t know? I just read there are six eco-cities like yours in Canada now, and a dozen more planned. It seems, mija, that you’ve started a trend.”

• • • •

Summer gives way to fall, and judging by the quickly shortening days, I know it’s going to be a long, dark winter. (Pruvit isn’t the only wise soul; many others are fermenting large quantities of alcohol.) It seems to me I see new faces every day: Edna, a nurse practitioner from Halifax; Myron, an accountant from Qualicum Beach; Jaakkina, a marketing exec from New York; Rozamund, a barista from San Francisco. Last I checked, our population has grown to over five hundred. The only thing I can tell that unites us all is our debt, our unemployment, and our general lack of career direction, most of which, as far as I can tell, isn’t our fault. AIs are tearing through jobs like sharks through fish.

It’s not quite two p.m., the sun dipping low in the sky, when I get the call. Another farm bot has drowned itself in a puddle. I put on my boots and overalls and wade out to the muddy fields. About two-thirds of the crops have been harvested, stored, and preserved for the long winter. Their plots have been covered in hay and compost to keep the soil warm, and the greenhouses have been shielded and reinforced for the predicted frigid gales. The rest of the crops aren’t far behind, their tired, browning leaves bending earthward. I walk past a row of fattening gourds, squash, and pumpkin, their gnarled vines like witch’s fingers trying to yank them back into the ground from which they came.

“Howdy, Sita,” a woman in a knitted purple hat says to me. Her French-accented voice is familiar, but it takes me a moment.

“Xavierre? Holy shit.”

“Indeed! Hello, Sita.”

Xavierre and I met at a student art show at Emory University, when I was there to support a friend, and she was just a lonely Classics major cruising for art-loving girls. We dated a bit, freshman year, and for a while we thought we loved each other. But after a year, the sparks faded, and she went off into the world of medieval European literature, and I went off to study binary search trees and NP-completeness. I hadn’t seen her since graduation day, when she came by to give me a card and a goodbye kiss. “I had no idea you were here.”

“Just arrived last week,” she says. “Surprisingly, knowing how to distinguish between Middle-High and Middle-Low German dialects is not as marketable a skill as I had at first presumed.”

We both burst into hysterical laughter. God, how we used to laugh. But our voices fade into the cool of the afternoon, into the gusting winds. “And you?” she says. “I thought you were all set to conquer the world of adaptive devices and interfaces.”

“Turns out, there are things better at it than me.”

“Yeah,” Xavierre says. “Join the club.”

We stare at each other for a long moment. So much time has passed, and it feels as if we’re different people now. “Got one here that had too much to drink,” she says, and kicks the machine with her boot. The yellow bot rests half-sunk in a foot of water. “Heard you’re the robot girl around here.”

I walk around to inspect it. “Damn. That’s the fourth drowned one this week. It’s the melting permafrost. These floods never stop.”

“No,” she says, looking off into the trees. “This is our Marsh of Camarina.”

“Our what?”

“Our Marsh of Camarina. Camarina was an ancient Sicilian city. Its people kept getting sick with a strange disease, and they believed the local swamp was the cause. So they consulted an oracle, who advised them against draining it. The disease would pass, in time, the oracle said. But the people didn’t heed this advice and drained the swamp anyway. The disease vanished. But as it turned out, the swamp was the only thing preventing the Carthaginian army from attacking. Every last person in Camarina was killed. Sometimes when you remove one problem, you just make another.”

The bot sinks deeper. “Enough with the history lessons, professor,” I say. “Help me get this thing out of the mud.”

Together we heave the bot from the brown water, and the mud slurps and gurgles as liquid rushes to fill the hole.

Xavierre wipes mud from her cheeks and sighs. “So this is what we’ve become. Two students at the top of our class, reduced to farm hands.”

“There’s nothing wrong with honest work,” I say, echoing my father’s words.

Honest?” Xavierre says. “You know full well that AIs could do all of the jobs around here better than we can. I mean, there’s a reason why you’re using old hardware and obsolete code, right? It’s so you have something to do, to busy yourself with.”

“Damn, that’s bleak,” I say.

“Bleak, but true. I’m not here to do honest work, Sita. I’m here so I don’t starve. I’m in debt deeper than these fucking pools. But the truth is, I kind of like it.”

“You like being in debt?”

“No, I like having time. I do a little bit of work in the day, and at night I read all the books I want. Have you been to the library? They have hundreds of books, Sita. Actual paper books. Oh, the smell! It’s heaven.”

“You’re insane,” I say, smiling.

“And that’s why you’ve always loved me.”

The sun is already scraping the tops of the trees. “Come on,” I say. “It’s getting late. Help me heft this thing back to the shop.”

“Aye, aye, cap’n,” she says, saluting me. “Onward march.”

• • • •

The winter is long and cold and lonely, and more than once Xavierre and I cuddle together in the dark, in her quarters or in mine, staring out at the slowly turning stars. I know, and I think she does too, it’s not love that draws us together, but the feeling that these loping spans of darkness are better endured with company.

When she’s not with me, Xavierre devours literature, and I often find her holed up in some uncomfortable nook, so engrossed in a book she doesn’t hear me call her name. She’s introduced me to Parzival, The Decameron, Sholem Asch, and Shirley Jackson. I connect with some stories, and not others, and there are times when I find myself staring off into space, like I’ve regressed to some pre-literate savannah ape, focused solely on being and survival. Sometimes it feels as if I’m trying to fill a void.

And we, humanity, are very clever at filling voids. Miranda teaches painting, and Alma starts a choir. Humberto forms a book club, and Aruna teaches Hindi. Michael gives guitar lessons, and Trisha does improv. And there is alcohol, overflowing quantities of it, like Pruvit’s vodka and Martin’s beer and some commercial liquor smuggled in from “below,” what we now call everything beneath the 60th parallel.

Perhaps it’s Seasonal Affective Disorder, but sometimes I can’t help but feel as if these are all just distractions we use to keep ourselves from facing bleak truths. All of us here had dreams of being one thing, and now we must become another. Even on the shortest of days, we have time, and perhaps too much of it.

On those days when the sun flashes for a moment above the horizon before vanishing, and on those nights when I sleep alone, I feel the great immensity of the universe, the Earth as one small speck in an infinite black sea, and we, humanity, are just aphids on its back. I try to shake off these thoughts as best I can. Still, they persist.

When, at last, the long, dreary winter gives way to spring, when the snow begins to melt, and the muddy fields become visible again, a restlessness stirs within me, as if I’m a seed in the thawing ground, ready to burst forth. I tell Nazdia I’m ready to take her up on her offer, to fly in her ultralight.

Twenty minutes later she gleefully straps me in to the back seat of her aircraft of carbon-fiber tubes and thin plastic sheeting. She painted the wings to look like Canada geese and told me that more than once she’s been followed by a flying skein of them.

“You ready?” she says. I give her the thumbs up, and she starts the engine. We race down the field of dead grass and take off in less than a hundred feet. My stomach lurches into my throat. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

“I’ll take us up to 1,500 feet,” Nazdia says to me over the headset. “That’ll give us a great view!”

We ascend in a wide corkscrew, and I swallow down my growing nausea. But after a few minutes, she levels out, and I let myself breathe and relax.

“Look!” she says, pointing down.

I risk a glance over the edge of the airframe. Askuwheteau spreads like a giant snowflake over the Earth, rectangular fields placed around it in strange, new hieroglyphs. I read a projection that by the end of the year Askuwheteau will be home to nearly two thousand people. And it makes sense why Richard, the store clerk from Victoria, and Elsa, the radiologist from Portland, and Puloma, the math teacher from Montreal, and Mohammed, the truck driver from Calgary, and all the others have come here. It makes sense why Askuwheteau is just one of dozens of eco-cities popping up all over Canada. Why the United States is pumping money into these cities too. Why the waiting list is large and growing. There are machines now, machines that we invented, which do our jobs better than us. And when, given a choice between paying more for less, or less for more, humans, like nature, always pick the latter.

“The battery’s getting low,” Nazdia says. “I’m going to head back now.”

She takes a sweeping turn, and the sky is blue and endless to my right, the Earth, green and sprawling to my left. And here I am, stuck in the middle, between dirt and eternity. I’m not sure what I’m going to do today when I get home. All I know is I have to do something.

Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel

Matthew Kressel is a writer & software developer. He has been a finalist for the Nebula Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Eugie Award. His short fiction can be found in Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, Analog, io9, Nightmare, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy, 2018 Edition, and The Best Science Fiction of the Year – Volume 3, as well as many other online and print publications, and has been translated into seven languages. As a software developer, he created the Moksha submissions system, in use by many of the largest SF publishers today. Matt is also the co-host of Fantastic Fiction at KGB reading series in New York alongside Ellen Datlow. Find him online at @mattkressel or at www.matthewkressel.net.