It stank. Even the orange tiger lilies festered in the inescapable, invisible rot. Carrie jiggled the briefcase in her hands and watched the once tropical vista flash by from the safety of her taxi. Flies beat in torrents against the windows. This year bred mutations that possessed sternites as big as her palm. The bio farmers were flummoxed, even frightened. They whispered amongst themselves of a strange sentience in their eyes, of intricate hierarchal colonies and a resilience that eclipsed their lab results. At the thought, Carrie shivered. Their irises did seem to glower in resentment before striking a second time. Soon a pile of battered insects accumulated, legs kicking mutinously against the black rubber tubing. The car approached a fork and veered left.
“Excuse me, sir,” Carrie called from the back. There was no answer but she persevered. “Sir, I believe that you made a wrong turn.”
The road thinned to bumpy dirt, small lizards sometimes popping up from the middle of the path. Left in the dust were faint tire tracks, evidence of humans recently making their way through. Clouds floated in a sky which had remained the same color for months on end. An influx of nitrogen isotopes had dyed the sky into a timeless blue. It had not rained for a year.
“Rio de Janeiro lies approximately two miles west from the current location,” came the automated response.
“Can you check for me?”
“Checking the server.” The automobile ground to a halt. “Destination is properly synchronized. Route will continue. Confirm.”
“Sure. I mean, uh, sure, yes, confirm.” Though the car was hermetically sealed, Carrie could still smell the putrid soil, soaked with rancid oil a century back.
The smell presaged the convention to come. Everyone thought it would be the last. Earth’s residents had been given a second chance, then a third, until sand blew across almost all land mass on Earth and the animal species had drizzled down to an inconceivable ten thousand. Crops were bitten to shreds as quickly as they were forged underground. There were no more empty pledges or treaties to make between vying world leaders. The endless bureaucracy of yesteryear had hinged on success and wealth; once these two had dried up the corporate backbone snapped. Greenpeace suddenly found its pleas grappling at air; Sierra Preservation, its letters unopened, undeliverable.
Out in Long Island I used to do landscapes. They were of the shoreline, but my clients didn’t want that. Old geezers asked for birches and elms and I didn’t even know what these looked like.
In a marriage of poverty and optimism, beggars worldwide rose in peaceful protests. Neither asking for food nor for money, these impoverished souls held posters with such stale political demands as “Starve or Save Species” and “Die Before Desertification.” Yet there was no one was left to comply with such requests. The mass of those who still held some power frantically tracked the plummeting rates of food production.
Finally there were no more forests to paint. All because of these dratted no-good capitalists, putting gunk into the water and tar into their pockets. I swear some of them ate plastic for breakfast.
Then, in a desperate gambit, scientists deployed untested microbial pesticides. The collective hope was that these would cure the withering soy, revitalize dying corn. It was to be their last move. The drones devoured their intended prey before biting humans and spitting out virulent liquid. Malaria made the world go berserk. People fled from cities, the same cities Carrie had heard from her parents were once centers of the world.
Did you know that I started out as a mere portrait maker? Back then I sketched nonstop for the Europeans who arrived, entranced by neon lights.
Her father used to tell her stories about Manhattan. With a luminous imagination of an artist, he talked about its marbled geometric structures with jazz raining out of the windows, the steak, and the sex. He talked about it with trembling hands as they flew across Ocean, and he kept on talking even when they walked out of the airport to see only a long strip of yellowed grass. It was the sixties and tourism, along with dozens of other leisure industries, had already vanished.
My hands were black with charcoal and I’d wish that my wrist could fall off every day, until the winter I saw a beautiful blonde woman walk by…
The two trailed along the deserted path for a few hours. Most of the signposts were reduced to twisted rubble, but Carrie spotted one still intact, with a bit of green paint on the edges. “42nd Street, Broadway,” she read and her father silenced abruptly. They stopped and stood at crossroad that looked no different from the rest. Shortly after that they went home, and from then on whenever Carrie thought of her father she would feel inexplicable grief well up within her. Then the FEDS caught him, but not before he’d contracted malaria and Carrie had joined the swelling ranks of Pim’s homeless.
We drank till midnight and I tied a napkin around her eyes. I told her I’d move the Moon for her. Boy, was she shocked when I took off the blindfold and we saw the ball drop!
But Carrie chided herself for being so sentimental. Her plight was just another everyday trauma, her parents another forgettable couple who had died in the plague, two corpses out of millions sating the hungry dirt of some small farm across Ocean.
But of course that was all a long time ago.
There was still an estimated fifteen minutes to go. Carrie unlocked her briefcase and skimmed her own files again, a skimpy half inch document with barely any statistics written on it. Her superior had advised her to cut off the data just at the border between fiction and truth. Pim’s initial records had implied tantalizing results, but it took only a month to shatter the wishful illusion. Beneath every tree lay hidden contraband. She’d unearthed canisters of DDT, sprayable GeneticMod capsules, embezzled climascience funds, and million dollar checks made out to Purring Axe. Worse, she knew why she had not been tipped off beforehand. Traders knew that if they could steal an acre grant of arable land, they could bribe policemen into eternal silence.
“Destination reached.” Carrie had already unlocked the door, zapper curled in an outstretched hand. Like too bright a light she averted her gaze from it, and felt rather than heard insect bodies dropping to the bottom of the container. Quickly she paid the requisite amount and left, hand always above her to repel the insects. When she finally arrived at the dustbowl designated for the Rio Earth Summit, she was surprised anew by how small and dingy it was, an area so squalid it was hardly deserving of a name.
The space was quickly filling with representatives entering from various pathways. The atmosphere was dour and stifled; there was no small talk to be heard unlike in the years before. Cellphones rang but they were allowed to ring, their tinny melodies faded shortly as if sucked away by the hot air. Women’s lips contorted, telegraphing their discontent as they lowered themselves in neat rows. Men patted down their linty black ties, their faces all indistinguishably pale and effete. Carrie sat down in her usual bench, stumbling over a large rock underneath her shoes. After a few minutes she began to hear a high drone which eventually resolved itself as acoustic feedback. Augustine had arrived.
“Ahem,” he deliberately coughed into the microphone before tapping it with his fingernail, letting a shriek emit from the machinery. A toothy smile spread across his square face. “Well, it seems that the microphone is in working order.” Augustine’s grin stayed there for a second, but without blinding camera flashes from the audience, he let it drop. Still a couple females giggled amongst themselves, and Augustine seemed to brighten. “Well – I think we can start! As all agents here have stayed through my opening spiel in the past years, I’ll try to shorten it a bit, let’s see…” He flipped to another page from the podium and shook his hair.
Augustine’s rambling, punctuated by a few laughs, slid past Carrie’s ears without comprehension. Yet even without listening Carrie could detect a current of nervous tension fraying at his carefree demeanor. She easily guessed why and was soon proven correct.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said once he had finished. “I am very sorry – stupendously sorry – to report that after a quick glance at the nations’ files, it looks as though we are once again at an impasse.” He uttered the last word of the sentence with clear relish. “An impasse of ecological improvement. Of course I could be mistaken, I could definitely be mistaken. So I’ll leave it to you, folks. Starting as usual with the arctics of Aed…” Augustine gestured to his right.
Typical of him to babble about everything but the earth’s demise, Carrie thought as the next spokesperson took the mic. Aed was no better than from last year. With little improvement in the five categories outlined in the first Rio summit, imminent ruin seemed clear. Zero headway had been made in filtering the northern waters, its depths contaminated with a surfeit of still unidentifiable green dots. A small ice fragment had been found, an auspicious sign that melted as quickly as its manifestation.
“Possible solutions include greater commitment on part of our general mayor and citizens, enforced rulings on Climascience edicts dating from 2020, and increased funding for ecoprovement research organizations and independent scientists.” Carrie cringed. It was her own conclusion verbatim.
One by one representatives spoke and were checked off, with the expected tedium that accompanied the revelation of something already known. As she was wont to do at Rio meetings, Carrie began to drift off into her own thoughts. The news did not seem to affect anyone the way it did her. Others became bored but every new speaker only made her more morose, especially Patty from Pam, the one directly before Carrie. Carrie barely knew the woman, but what she did know tugged at her heart, and at her memory. Patty was the sole survivor from New York.
“Carrie. Carrie from Pim. Carrie, please.”
It took Carrie a moment to remove herself from her reminiscing. She coughed as way of apology. “Sorry.” Her eyes might have felt a bit of stinging, but she could not afford to cry over people long gone. Yet as she made this resolution her memories, like mirages, appeared in front of her with graphic detail. She could almost reach her hand out to her father’s distinctly lean profile and oval glasses, his worn cotton jacket that would surely smell of turpentine. A hackneyed story perhaps but it was Carrie’s alone to remember, and Carrie alone to be touched by. Even recalling his frequent histrionics about Earth brought a bitter smile to her face, and as Carrie opened her mouth she attributed her memory of her father to the words that she uttered next.
“What are we all doing here?” she said, and as soon as she did she saw the dustbowl wake up. Augustine, who had been toying with his shirt, froze and looked at Carrie with confusion. A nondescript, flabby middle-aged woman met his eyes. But what was it that she had just said?
“I-I mean…” Carrie stuttered, and her next sentence held even less conviction, but she persisted. “Do any of you realize that we’re doomed? That this convention is pointless? And that all the future ones will be just as… as meaningless?”
No one responded and heat flushed to her face, dying her throat and cheeks an ignominious crimson. However, in the ensuing silence Carrie’s embarrassment soon changed to rage. The faces before her swam into one, converged into a single herd of sheep that were unaware of the destruction they had brought about, their passivity paving the way for nature’s demise. Our Mother, her father used to call it. Our beautiful Mother Nature. Then, Carrie had laughed when she heard the outdated moniker. Now laughing was the farthest thing from her mind.
Carrie threw her briefcase to the ground. She forgot about the careful turns of phrase that bespoke political correctness and tact, and talked instead as if singing, throwing her life into a melody that had composed itself while she was asleep. The dormant speech within her had been triggered and she knew only that she was speaking her mind, without the knowledge that her father too had been in nearly the same position a generation ago, lambasting his colleagues with determined fury.
“The decades gone by have made it too late for change! Maybe it was conceivable in our earliest stages as a Rio conference to give more grants to our researchers, pay more attention to our footprints, ban Purring Axe from ever coming into existence, but not anymore!” Though lacking in eloquence Carrie’s tone had teeth. “Does anyone understand me? …Anyone?”
At least the question had elicited a murmur from the audience, which was now suitably stunned. A few even looked upset and Carrie felt satisfied. Augustine had his remote to his ear but did not seem to be giving any instructions to security, still staring at her mutely.
Suddenly Carrie heard a clap from her listeners. She whipped her head around, but there were tens more from different parts of the stadium. With rising ebullience she watched as they stood, the noise level reaching a peak as some argued between themselves and others congratulated Carrie. Still others shouted at her with clear anger from the stands.
Carrie wet her lips. “I say that we must work together for once in history. Forget about filling some quota for your represented country and think instead of how much stronger we could be together…” At a loss for how to continue Carrie tried to quote something she had heard often as a child. She had to shout to be heard now. “As one finger, we only tap on the surface. With two, we are a gentle pressure. If we curl our hand together into a fist, we will finally be felt, we will finally provide an impact, we might yet be able to save our collective earth. Our collective home. Home,” she pronounced amid the ear-splitting buzz around her.
The insects had descended from the sky, the beautiful blue concealed by countless pairs of fluttering wings. The zapping machines were useless shields against the sheer quantity of flies. Flies. The flies swarmed as a single formation, dizzying Carrie’s eyes as a shadowy sea, bombarding her ears with the soft shuffle of cartilage and hard inhuman clicks. They headed directly to the nose, the eyebrows. They bit men’s wrists encircled by watches, women’s ankles exposed by sandals. Carrie took a horrified step back, then another, and pivoted to run, feet stepping over Augustine, who moaned in distress before quieting. But even as she sprinted for safety the flies latched onto her neck. Bristly legs dug near her spine. Invisible teeth gnawed off patches of skin. One, two, three, four…
By the fifth bite Carrie had already collapsed to the dusty earth, her supine body one out of the two hundred who came. Their tears fell from their faces to sate the hungry dirt. Their listless veins pumped with alien vigor, ready to host new infants they could have never imagined before.
Christina Zhou, Age 16, Grade 11, Hunter College High School, Gold Key