Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

A Smell of Jet Fuel

We met on the 107th floor of the South Tower. She was standing in quiet contemplation, watching fire spread through the building across the plaza, smoke and paper billowing out into that baby blue sky. I was nursing a thunderous hangover, neglecting my tour group, which had all gone to the southern side of the observation deck to watch the second plane’s approach. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

“So, come here often?” I said. I sidled up.

She shot me an appraising glance. “First time, last time,” she said.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Repeat customers are a big part of our business.”

She wore a boxy, dark gray skirt-suit with an atemporal white cotton blouse—more period-appropriate than most of the chuds I chaperoned. She had brown skin, and a few gray strands glinting in her short black bob made me guess her age at early forties. Her eyes were solemn and consequential.

“What do you think?” I asked. I gestured sweepingly at the scene out the window.

“It’s bigger than I thought it would be,” she said, thoughtful. “You see something played on screen a million times as a kid, you lose a sense of its scale. It just, I don’t know, fills the screen. But this is—well, it’s big. You can’t take it all in, even from here. Still, it’s smaller too, isn’t it? They always made it about the whole country, but right now, to all those people running around down there, it’s just about whether you’re in the towers or out.”

Well, she wasn’t a contemporary, that much was clear. Sometimes we did encounter them: maintenance or janitorial staff checking this or cleaning that before the observatory floor opened, perhaps drawn by some uncanny sense of our arrival. Once an office worker forced the locks and barged in right when I was giving my introductory spiel. It was rare, and a pain in the ass when it did happen, requiring paperwork, reports to the government regulators, all that. Each trip came with miniscule iterations, tiny butterfly puffs of chance—a graviton here tugging a molecule there, a neurotransmitter firing out of turn. Nothing that would have a major impact for thousands or millions of years, but once in a while the contemporaries got weird ideas.

If she wasn’t from here, she must be from back home. For some reason I couldn’t remember seeing her board. Granted, I wasn’t at my most attentive today—Craig the intern’s sendoff drinks had gone a little late. And these thirty-head tours were a lot to track. No one could expect me to memorize ninety new faces every day. Still, I would have remembered if she’d been in my group. Which left one real possibility: she was a regulator.

“Eckelson. Brad Eckelson.” I offered my hand. She reached out, then stopped herself, got a skeptical look on her face.

“A handshake? Really?”

I put my hand down. “Sorry. Period training, you know. Just in case there’s a malfunction, and we end up somewhere public. It’s never happened, but hey, that’s why I get paid the big bucks.”

She gave a little bow. “Velasco. Sitra Velasco.”

“Is that Mrs. Velasco? Or . . . maybe Agent Velasco?”

She looked startled for a moment, then smiled.

“Let’s not stand on ceremony today,” she said. “Sitra is fine.”

The window was starting to radiate with heat from the blaze in the North Tower. We both took a step back.

“How much longer?” Sitra asked.

“Seven minutes to the second plane. Sixty-three minutes until this tower falls. We’ll start reboarding in about forty.”

I’d led this tour so many times, I knew the beats by heart.

“That seems like a generous buffer. No thrill of the final drop?”

The government did this, I knew: sent in plainclothes agents to make sure we were staying on the up-and-up. Usually they just bought a ticket, secret shopper style, but not always. I’d heard rumors that agents could show up with their little pocket Machines, grill us for twenty minutes, and then split. Whatever kept us on our toes. If it got back to management that I’d bungled a regulator visit, I’d be demoted to costume enforcement on the Hindenburg.

“You’d be surprised,” I said. “Getting all these tourists back in the Machine is like herding cats. More than once I’ve had to cut it closer than I’d like. Not that close, obviously. Safety is our priority. Anyway, there’s not a ton to see after a while. The smoke gets pretty bad. The Machine keeps this room clear, but it does obscure the view. Honestly, I see some people get bored by 9:15 a.m.”

“So we don’t get to see the North Tower fall?”

“No, that won’t happen until a good half hour after this one. A lot of folks are disappointed by that, I know.”

“Is there another tour—to the other tower, perhaps? In case I wanted to buy a second ticket.”

Next she’d be asking if it would be possible to get a private tour—well compensated, of course, but off the books. Probing to see if we ran private trips.

“Just this one,” I said. “This observation deck was still closed when the attacks began, and it stayed locked. So we get the place pretty much to ourselves. It’s the only spot in the towers to Machine-in unobserved and undisturbed. You see, across the way all the floors are occupied, even the restaurants. I think technically we could bring a tour there if we filed the right paperwork and were a bit more discrete, since no one above the impact zone would live to say they saw us, but it’d be much more complicated and, frankly, too macabre even for us.”

“I figured as much,” Sitra said, and I thought I sensed an odd note of satisfaction in her voice.

She strolled off, glancing at me to follow. We passed the shuttered Sbarro’s, rounded the corner. Here and around the next corner the rest of the tour was milling about, checking their watches or pointing to each other at bits of chaos down in the streets below.

As always the tourists sported American flag t-shirts, MAGA hats, “Never Forget” buttons, Thin Blue Line cargo shorts. A smattering of retro-patriotic flare whose symbolic meaning had long ago faded or blurred. All against the spirit, if not the letter, of our company guidelines. Half my job was making sure no one dropped anything that would make for confusing rubble. I tried to tell the gift shop guys not to let customers get their souvenirs before the tour, but who could blame them? They got paid on commission.

Sitra went over to one of the chunky mounted binoculars and waved for my assistance. I pulled off the red vinyl cover and inserted an antique coin. There was a click, then a ticky whir began. Sitra put her eyes to the lenses and panned over Lower Manhattan, Governor’s Island, Lady Liberty looking miniscule on her far-off patch of dirt.

“This really is as good as it gets, huh Brad?” she said. “As soon as that second plane comes into view, it’s a steady downhill for the next fifty-odd years. Or am I being dramatic?”

“Depends on who you are,” I hedged. “Where you live, what you need. All very subjective. For some groups, the next few decades mostly get better and better. For others, conditions have already been declining for a while.”

“I suppose,” Sitra allowed, still glued to the viewer. “I mean more as a zeitgeist, I guess. You can see it shifting down there, the balance between opportunity and struggle. A feeling of promise, rounding a corner. Not that things were sure to get better if today never happened. But really, these schmucks don’t know how good they had it.”

The whirring clicked to a stop. Sitra held out her hand for another coin, inserted it, and returned to the binoculars.

“It must be close, yes? Which way do I look?”

“That way.” I pointed.

A moment later we heard a deep rumble, cut with a sharp whine. The tourists began excitedly pointing, readying their cameras.

I turned away. I’d seen it all countless times, and I could handle it. I could cope. But sometimes this part still got to me. I coped better when I didn’t watch.

There was a flash first and a wave of heat. A dull bang rippled through the room and a violent jolt shook the floor. The building swayed nauseatingly with the force of the impact. Dust shook out of the ceiling.

I heard squeals from the tourists and turned back around. Those who had listened to my earlier warnings kept their feet wide, knees loose. Those who hadn’t listened pitched against the railing or grabbed onto others to keep from losing their balance. An elderly couple had fallen. I helped them untangle their legs and find their feet. When it seemed like everyone was okay, I waved for the group’s attention and launched into my next spiel.

“Please everyone, let’s take a moment of silence for the passengers and crew of Flight 175 and for those in this building who perished in the crash.” I bowed my head and most of the others followed suit. Some surreptitiously checked the little period-appropriate digital cameras the company had provided. Kids squirmed in their parents’ grip. “Thank you. Okay, we’ve got about half an hour left before we need to reboard the Machine. During that time fire and structural damage will weaken the tower’s core supports, leading to collapse in a little over fifty minutes. If you have any questions about that process, feel free to ask. There are also informational booklets attached to your seats in the Machine. You can return to your seats at any time. If you stay out here, there will be dust and a small amount of smoke in the air. I know we promised a clean-air trip, but a little dust is perfectly normal and probably not that big a deal to most of you. If the air bothers you, please don’t hesitate to use your oxygen mask. If you find yourself feeling ill, please return to the Machine and wait there. If you feel emotionally compromised, please return to the Machine. Everyone understand? Any questions?”

Hands went up.

“Bathroom?” asked the nearest. We told them to go before the trip, but they never did.

“There is a toilet in the back of the Machine for your use. We are a ‘Leave No Trace’ tour, and that means leaving no waste as well. Any other questions?” Hands went down. “Okay, have fun.”

I spent the next fifteen minutes fending off theories and accusations from a prematurely balding white guy who was convinced that the towers couldn’t have fallen without the help of a deep-state controlled demolition team. There was always one. Eventually I shook him and went looking for Sitra. I wanted to make a good last-impression on the regulator before I started rounding up the tour to depart.

I found her ducked behind the counter of the Nathan’s Famous Hotdog stand, head bowed, shoulders hunched. There was more emotion in her body language than she’d shown before. This wasn’t uncommon; people who came in acting tough and cynical often broke down the hardest when they faced the reality of the day. Even prickly government agents had to have a heart. I leaned over the counter and stopped short.

Sitra was on the phone.

It was an ancient silver and black brick, rubbery raised buttons and a tiny square display. She had it pressed to one ear and was hissing whispers into the microphone end.

“It’s too late. No, I couldn’t get out even if I wanted to. I’m sorry. I won’t do it. I won’t make her do it. Look, you’ve got the notes. You’ll be fine. No. I love you. I’m sorry. Goodbye.”

She lowered the phone, heaved a heavy sigh. Then she looked over her shoulder and saw me.

“What the hell was that?” I said. “Please tell me you weren’t talking to someone contemporary!”

“Not exactly,” Sitra said.

“Not exactly?” I repeated, raising my voice. “What does that mean? You know information leakage is illegal, right? Like exactly illegal, even for regulators. Where the shit did you get that phone anyway? How the fuck did you connect to the cell network?”

“Would you quiet down? Just chill.” She stood up and glared at me. “Look, you’re a tour guide. Some things are above your pay grade.”

“Is that some kind of . . . time phone?” I said. Then it hit me like a steel beam to the chest. “Fuck. You aren’t actually with the government, are you?”

I don’t know quite how I guessed—the showing up unannounced, the moody banter, her overly imperious attitude—but as soon as I said it, I knew I was right. I could see it on her face as she shrunk back into the shadow of the doomed hotdog stand.

“Look,” she said. “We’re cut off now, right? There’s no way out of the building from here. So you’ll just have to take me with you.”

I hopped over the counter and crouched down with her.

“You need to tell me exactly who you are and what you are doing here,” I said.

“Fine,” she scowled, defiant. “I’m a political refugee, and I’m appealing for passage and asylum. It’s your duty to take me back with you and let me make my case to your highest court!”

“What the fuck?” I said. “What the fuck!” I repeated.

My heart sank at the thought of the paperwork this would mean, the hours of getting grilled by real government agents. The company would probably lose its license to travel while the regulators tried to find and cap the source of the information leakage. I might lose my job. I had to think fast.

“I’m so, so sorry.” I tried to sound both sympathetic and stern. “But I can’t take a contemporary back with us. I’d lose my job. I’d be thrown in jail, or, I don’t know, disappeared to some time-prison for complicity in your time-crimes. You got yourself here, and you’re just going to have to stay and live with the consequences. Actually, that’s a poor choice of words. Look—” And here I paused for dramatic effect. “If you tell me how you found out about us, maybe I can help you strike a deal. If it’s a big leak, they might go easy on you for helping them find it. But you have to tell me now, otherwise I can’t take you back.”

“There’s no leak! You don’t understand. I’m not from here. I was born the same time you were. More or less. Probably. When are you from exactly?”

“Oh no, you’re not squeezing info out of me that easily,” I said.

My hangover was gone now, banished by a stress-rush of cortisol. Tourists still strolled around the observation deck, craning their necks to get a look at the fire or the first responders down below. The air was tainted with wisps of smoke, a smell of jet fuel—acrid and heady.

I tugged at my hair. “Fuck, that’s even worse. What are you? Some kind of lost tourist? Rogue experiment gone wrong? Did you fall through a vortex?”

“I’m exactly what I said,” she replied. “A political refugee seeking asylum.”

It was getting hot. Sitra peeled off her jacket. She laid it out carefully to sit on then took a deep breath.

“My mother was in politics, many years from now,” she began. “She’d say she was a dissident. I don’t know—compared to the Twentieth Century, the differences she fought over seem so small. But when an election put her enemies in power, she decided it wasn’t safe to stay. She found a group with a licensed Machine that conducted illegal Escapes on the side. And she took me with her, back to the 1960s—post penicillin, between Great Depressions, away from World Wars.

“I was just a child then. I had no choice in the matter. We lived peacefully, quietly, carefully. My mother knew the timeline, knew where we could live that would be out of the way of History. She’d just move us around, and then we’d see something terrible on television, and she’d say, ‘yes, definitely best not to be anywhere near that.’

“It wasn’t that bad a time to be in America, if you knew what to expect. We never did anything that might change the timeline. Never voted or voiced an opinion or made much money. We knew the rules against leakage. We never let on when we were from or what we knew. I barely remember the world I was born in. We just kept our heads down, lived a decent life. And then this year she died.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said automatically.

“Thank you,” she replied, and I thought she meant it. “My mother never told me much of what was going to happen, but after she died I went through her things, found her papers. It was all there. Details about major and minor events, all the shootings and bombings and disasters. All the hazards she made sure we avoided throughout the whole Twentieth Century. And, also, everything to come in the Twenty-First.”

“Oh,” I said. Then it sunk in. “Oh no.”

“Exactly!” Sitra started wringing her hands anxiously. “A decade of fear and terror. Then economic crisis, political insanity, plague, riots, fascism, climate collapse. You know what’s coming! Would you want to live through all that?”

“I suppose there is a certain terrifying uncertainty to this era,” I admitted. “But you’ve got a solid fifteen, twenty years before things get really rough. There’s a lot of good culture in the meantime. You’d get to see so many classic movies in actual theaters. You’d get to experience peak TV!”

I wasn’t sure what I was trying to convince her of. The argument was moot now that the second plane had cut off the upper floors.

“Well, you’re white!” Sitra said. “I’m Persian and Mexican, and my documents are fake. I didn’t want to take my chances, even knowing some of what will happen. Anyway, I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for her.”

She put her hand on her belly, and I noticed for the first time that beneath her loose white blouse was a slight bump.

“Fuck!” I said.

“Yes, fuck,” she agreed. “Listen, I don’t care who won that election or about my mother’s politics. I didn’t ask to live in the Twentieth Century, and my child definitely didn’t ask to be born into the Twenty-First. Had I found my mother’s papers earlier, I never would have gotten pregnant. But I did, and now I know what’s coming. If they punish me when we get back, so be it. I don’t care. I won’t let my daughter grow up in this.”

She waved toward the window, a gesture that somehow encompassed not just the horrific scene around us, but everything that would unfold after, half a century’s worth of strife and needless death, another fifty years of fixing what we could—the primeval garbage dump of history, that hill of nightmares and terror.

My watch beeped. 9:45 a.m. My last-ditch reminder. I almost never needed this alarm. I always turned it off as soon as I started the reboarding process. But now I was five minutes late in rounding up the tour. We had less than fifteen minutes before the South Tower fell.

“Shit, shit,” I said. I stood up and called out to the tourists on this side of the observation deck. “Okay, everyone. We’re going to begin reboarding now. Please make your way in an orderly fashion back to the Machine. And please triple check to make sure you have all your belongings.”

The spiel came out automatically. Meanwhile my mind was turning over, trying to figure out what to do. One way or another, the tour and I needed to be back on the Machine in the next few minutes. The question was: was Sitra coming too?

“Walk and talk,” I said, swinging my legs back over the counter. I held out a hand to help Sitra follow. “I have to get these people boarded.”

With my cheery-but-firm tour guide smile, I started nudging the tourists down the observation deck, around back to the west side where I’d parked the Machine.

“What about me, Eckelson?” Sitra asked, following. She touched her bump again for emphasis. “What about us?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I stooped to pick up a crumpled brochure one of the tourists had dropped. “A few people made it out of the upper floors of this tower alive. I could give you one of our masks, try to unlock the door to the stairwell.”

“No!” she pleaded. “There’s not enough time. No way I’d make it.”

“Yeah, well, you stalled me pretty good, didn’t you? How did you get in here, anyway?”

“I bribed a guard to lock me in overnight. It was surprisingly easy. I think he thought it was a sex thing.”

“Wow. So, what was your plan? Just get on the Machine and hope no one noticed that we brought back more people than we’d left with?”

“My plan was to appeal to your humanity,” Sitra said, half-sarcastic. “I just needed to figure out what kind of person you were first. I was going to come talk to you as soon as I finished saying goodbye, but it took me longer than I expected to get through.”

“No shit,” I said. “Cell towers are kind of jammed today. Who were you talking with, anyway? Husband? Boyfriend? How is the father okay with this insane scheme? Tell me you haven’t been promising time travel Escapes to contemporaries.”

“The father isn’t in the picture,” she said. “I called my brother, Maiz. I wanted him to come with us, but he didn’t believe you’d really be here. And he was scared. He was even younger when my mother moved us. He doesn’t remember anything about the time we came from.”

“There’s two of you?” I groaned. “You know I’m going to have to report that, right? The regulators might try to pick him up.”

“He had his chance,” Sitra said, defiant, but I could hear a note of sorrow in her voice.

We rounded the corner, and the Machine was there, in all its roaring light, its pulsating, city bus glory.

“Still can’t believe this is it,” Sitra muttered behind me. “Fuckin’ Magic School Bus-ass Time Machine.”

“Yeah, well, it’s like I said earlier. We want to be inconspicuous if we accidentally land in public. Because running around in the open—risking contemporaries finding out about time travel—is extremely dangerous. Which is why Escapes are extremely illegal.”

“Take it up with my dead mother,” she said, more than a little bitter. “I never asked to come here, and this is the first chance I’ve ever had to leave.”

“Okay, everyone,” I said, turning to the group. “Back in the Machine, please. Single-file, watch your step.”

I started counting the tourists as they shuffled onto the bus, lost my count, started again. Even close to the Machine, the observatory was hot. I was sweating bullets. My watch beeped again, five-minute warning. I slapped at it until it stopped. When I was sure we had everyone, I paused, blocking the door, and turned back to Sitra. “That reminds me, how did you know we’d be here? Your mother’s notes?”

“They told me this would happen, but not that you’d be here,” she said. “That I had to guess.”

I had to take a beat to process this. There was nothing but black-gray smoke out the windows now. The smell of burning things filled the air. Under my feet, I felt the building tremble.

“You guessed,” I repeated. “You came to the 107th floor of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, because you guessed a Time Machine would be there.”

“I still remember it, the place where they helped us Escape,” she said, gaze driving into me through decades and centuries. “It was the day after the election. They brought us in at night. I carried my baby brother while Mother talked to them. I read the sign on the wall. ‘Time Tours, Inc. Visit Famous Past Events. You Name the Catastrophe. We Take You There. Witness History.’ So I always knew you people were out there. When I read about today in Mother’s notes, I knew you’d be here too. Like you said, this is the only place in the towers to bring in a Time Machine, undisturbed.”

A last beep of my watch. One minute left. I could close the door, leave her behind. Let untold tons of concrete and metal and glass put an end to this forty-year perversion of the timeline. Save my job, save the company. Hell, it might even be the right thing to do—might save time itself from whatever rippling paradoxes these mothers and daughters had unleashed.

“Why now?” I asked. “I’ve led this same tour dozens of times, and you never came before. Why are you suddenly here now?”

“I don’t know,” she said, hand on her belly. “And I don’t care. I just want to get us out.”

Sitra’s eyes were solemn and consequential, and also wild. Only then did it really sink in how truly desperate she was. Made desperate by a well-founded fear of what the Future would bring—and by bonds of motherhood I couldn’t begin to fathom, bonds that had compelled her to walk into the worst hell imaginable. Perhaps she should have had more faith that there would be unexpected good to balance out the expected horrors. Perhaps she was seeing my time through rose-colored glasses. I couldn’t know the balance there. All I could ask was: if our positions were reversed—if it was my Future and my child’s life—would I really want any different?

“Get on,” I said, and I stepped aside.

She took the padded seat behind me. I sat at the controls, turned on the Machine. A glance at the display clock: 9:59 a.m., only seconds left. I felt the floor under the machine begin to drop.

Like a stone idol, like a mountain avalanche, the South Tower fell. I had no words for it. So many lives cut down, so many Futures abolished. However much this day would be twisted in the years to come by fear and hate and greed and nihilism; however much my own presence was proof that people could turn anything into a spectacle, a product, a justification, a farce—whatever else followed, this moment, at least, was tragedy.

The Machine roared. All that history rushed past us. 2001, 2007, 2016, 2020. Then faster, as though the Machine could not bear to linger on these years. 2029, 2037, 2055. Onward! 2063, 2099, 2140, further. We approached our year. The Machine slowed, murmured, stopped.

I turned and faced the back of the bus. “Sorry about the bumpy ride, folks, but now you’ve got quite a story to tell. Again, please check that you have all your belongings. In a moment here, we’ll be exiting the Machine and heading back into the office. Bathrooms will be on your left. The gift shop, if you haven’t already been, will be on your right. Refreshments are available at the cafe in the back of the gift shop. The exit is through the cafe. Thank you so much for joining us today. If you have any lingering questions, the gift shop staff will be happy to answer.”

Sitra was gazing rapt out the dust-caked window of the Machine. She reached over the seat and grabbed my shoulder.

“That’s the sign!” she said, pointing. “The one I saw as a kid. This is the same place, the place where we Escaped. I can’t believe it.”

“Welcome back,” I said. “Now let’s go in and have a long, awkward conversation with management.”

Then I turned back to the crowd. “Okay, folks, oxygen masks on. I’m about to open up the doors.”

There was a general rustling as everyone pulled masks and helmets out of their bags and deftly slipped them on. Sitra looked at me, confused.

“Oxygen masks?” she asked.

“Oh yeah, I guess you don’t have one.” I rummaged in the glove compartment. “Here, you can borrow my spare.”

“But why? Why do I need it?”

“Well, we have to go outside to get from the parking lot back into the office. Can’t go outside without a mask on, obviously.”

She took the mask and put it on, then looked out the window, then back at me. Her hands twitched. She had an odd expression on her face, but that was to be expected. It must be a shock to be back after all that time.

I led everyone across the parking lot and back into the office. Everything was as it always was: lobby, bathrooms, gift shop, cafe. I kept an eye on Sitra as she stepped slowly through the gift shop, hand on bump, gazing around, head cocked as if hearing a silent whistle. She moved like she was drinking some oddness in through her pores.

At the end of the cafe, she pushed through the inner exit door. I followed. I’d steer her back inside in a few minutes, to start the reports and the paperwork. In the airlock I helped her put her mask back on—oxygen depletion was high today, and getting worse. Then we walked out, past the sentry guns, and onto the ash-choked street.

“No!” Sitra cried, chest heaving, eyes wild again. “This isn’t right! It’s the same year, but it’s not the same! It’s wrong! It’s worse! Where are the trains? Why isn’t anything green?”

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“She must have changed something. Or I did. But we were so careful! It’s barely been two hundred years. That’s not enough time! What did we do?” She started pacing. Turret-eyes on the buildings swiveled to surveil her movement. I tried to keep her in arm’s reach, in case she bolted. I could see the clockwork of her mind spinning out of control. “Maybe I shouldn’t have left Maiz alone. Maybe I shouldn’t have left him the notes. Maybe—maybe I was supposed to stay and help. Maybe she needed to be there!” She grabbed me by the shirt, dragged me mask to mask. “You’ve brought us to the wrong Future, dammit! You have to take us back! We have to make it alive again!”

I shook my head. “Everything is exactly how I left it.”

Sitra let go of me, shivering. She clutched her belly. She stood in quiet contemplation of the dirty street, the hot, gray sky. Before I could stop her, she pulled off her mask. She sniffed the dead air. It was acrid and heady and toxic, I knew. Soot and burning plastic. Dust and car exhaust. A smell of jet fuel.

Andrew Dana Hudson

Andrew Dana Hudson

Andrew Dana Hudson is a speculative fiction author, sustainability researcher, and narrative strategist. His debut book, Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures, comes out April 2022 from Fordham University Press. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, Slate Future Tense, Terraform, MIT Technology Review, and more. He is a member of the Clarion Workshop class of 2020/2021 and is a fellow in the Arizona State University Center for Science and the Imagination’s Imaginary College. He lives in Tempe, Arizona. Find him on the web at andrewdanahudson.com, on Twitter at @andrewdhudson, and on Substack at solarshades.club.