Friday, 3 April 2020

"Miles Past Xanadu" A Solarpunk Story

(As cheap as I could make it. Amazon won't allow it to go up for free.)

A Note From The Author: The big question in any speculative sci-fi is: How far to take it? When Star Trek TNG came out in 1987, they bragged that a 24th Century Starship had a Two Terabyte computer. I have something five times that size sitting on my desk now. So for this story; I elected to use technology that’s already available.
As it is set in the future; you can assume that there have been improvements and innovations in all of them. What’s experimental today can be commercially available a generation later; and successfully homemade by skilled amateurs a generation after that. But the technology involved has already gone beyond the ‘proof of concept’ stage; and I have provided links to demonstrate.
The point of this story is to demonstrate what could be done.

Chapter One

It wasn’t much. Four rooms; second level. But it was hers. More than a lot of people could ever hope to have. And now it was gone, for at least a year. The Utilities and the Fringers would extend her no more credit; no more time.
Alai gave her a ride when she left with nothing but a shoulder bag. For a Fringer trainee, he wasn’t bad; though Dana suspected he wouldn’t be doing it for anyone else. Dana was taken to the Shelter, and knew it was as bad as she’d heard the second she saw it. There were people trying to sleep on the stairs. Even more on the fire escape. The building itself would be full to bursting. “The Fringers don’t care about Infringements here?” She drawled.
Alai said nothing to that, giving her a look that suggested she should know better. And she did, even if suddenly becoming homeless wasn’t putting her in the best frame of mind. The Fringers didn’t bother with the homeless. There were too many of them, and they couldn’t pay fines.
Neither can I; so I guess I’m like these people. Dana thought bleakly. Automatically, her eyes went the other way, to the City Gates.
“Don’t even think about it.” Alai said seriously, seeing her look. “Look, Dana… I’m a Cop, but don’t let that fool you: I have a pulse and everything. If you run… Out past the Red Line there’s Nothing. As in ‘Nothing At All’. Nobody comes back from that.”
“I can’t afford to live here, Alai. The waiting list for debtor homes is years long, to say nothing of the Utility Cost for food and clothing…” She pointed at the shelter. “Those utilities don’t stop when I’m in a shelter, you know. You might get things like soap through your Employment Benefits, but I work a factory packing line. I barely qualify for toilet paper rights.”
“Dana, you won’t survive out there.” Alai said seriously. “If there’s such a thing as post-apocalyptic; it’s out there. Most people in those Shelters will never get out from under the interest on their debts. You only have to stick it out for a year. One year. The city may not be paradise, but at least there aren’t cannibals.”
Dana set her jaw. “I never believed that rumor.” Her device beeped, and she checked the message.
“Meet at the City Limits.”
Dana sighed and put her Device away. “Look, Alai… I know you worry… And I know why. But I trust my chances out there more than my chances in the shelters.” She didn’t tell him why.
“Y-you could stay with me.” Alai offered finally. “I know it’s not ideal; the place is small and with three roommates already-”
Dana softened, and leaned over to kiss his cheek before she got out of the car; heading off into the night. “I’ll be okay.”
Her brother met her with a motorcycle at the edge of the city; where the windbreaks were thickest. The concrete walls overlapped to stand against the dust storms; creating a zig-zag pattern in the road. He was waiting with a spare helmet and a hug. “I couldn’t believe it when I got your message. What happened?” He asked.
“I can’t afford the apartment.” Dana confessed, and she fought to keep the hitch out of her voice. “Four generations of our family managed to hold onto that place; and I’m the one that failed.” Her brother hugged her again, and she was grateful. “Look, Dean… There were some strong words when you left town-”
“Doesn’t matter.” He said immediately. “What’s your plan?”
“If I rent the place out; then someone else has to pay utilities.” She sighed. “A year, and I can get out of debt. I already have two families moved in; one per bedroom.” She gave him a beseeching look. “I just need a place to stay until then.”
He held out the helmet. “Of course. I’ve been wanting to get you out of this hole for a long time.”
Dana swallowed her first response. It was an old argument, and for the next year; he had won it. The motorcycle looked like a hard plastic spiderweb, wrapped around an electric motor; but she climbed onto it anyway, pulling her helmet on.
The motorcycle got them away from the city. What used to be called suburbia was either buried in dust or harvested to build the Breaks. In less than an hour, they couldn’t even see the city.
Dana shivered and looked up at the stars. She hadn’t seen stars in her life. She’d never gone beyond the Red Line. Her brother wasn’t even slowing down in the dark; but she was already further from home than she’d ever been.
Not long after the city was out of sight; they came to the Rig. Dana had never seen one before. It was the length of a bus, halfway between an RV; and a Water Tanker. The outside was clapped together; with tinted windows protected behind retractable steel shutters. Solar Panels covered the rooftop; and the outside was adorned with cargo spaces; and a harness to secure the cycle. The wheels were extended out like the legs of a mechanical insect; the tyres thick and seemingly indestructible, on shocks that could ride through an earthquake. It looked like it could motor across the world.
Dean secured his motorcycle to the side; and took out the power cell; slotting it into place on the Rig. There were a dozen such cells plugged into the main vehicle’s battery. “Every little bit helps.” Dean explained to her curious look. “Redundant batteries means I can power all sorts of things without turning the Rig off.”
Dana had power cells at home; and had to admit; the setup was a good one; but she didn’t trust the construction. It didn’t look anything like the power cells the city would approve. “So, this is where you live?” She gestured around the Rig.
“Not even close. Come on. I want to get some distance before the sun rises. Best to let it recharge during the day while it’s not moving; and I’d like to be parked somewhere useful.”
Her brother’s rig was small enough that everything was in reach, and everything had to be kept tidy. Dean could do it all, almost without looking; his arms always in motion, reaching for this and that; keeping his workstations clear. Dana wasn’t sure where anything was yet. Her brother knew where everything in the Rig was with such experienced precision that she could do nothing but be in the way.
“I promise, I’ll stay out of the way as much as possible.” She told him. “I crammed my bag with as many calorie bars as I could afford; which wasn’t much; but it should cover me for a few weeks-”
“We can handle food.” Her brother said blithely, unconcerned.
Dana froze. Nobody was casual about food rations. If her brother had enough to handle a whole second person; there was no way he got it legally. She looked around the Rig again. The back half of it was dedicated to a closet space. Her brother had a hammock instead of a bedroom; but he made room for this black, plastic box. She glanced back at the driver's seat, and snuck a peek inside. The box was full of colored lights; mists of water; and the unmistakable scent of green leafy vegetation.
The mists in the box sprayed against her face and she shut it again quickly as the Rig bounced a bit. She was living on the edge of ruin; and she didn’t dare make too many waves too soon. If she wanted answers; there were plenty of other things she could ask about. There was one project on the worktable that she couldn’t recognize. “What is this?”
He glanced in the rear-view to see what she was pointing to and smiled a bit at her look. “It’s a Condenser.” He reported. “The City gets its water from Desal Plants. But some of our projects don’t require huge amounts of moisture, just a slow, reliable trickle.”
“Projects like what?” She was confused by that; trying to figure out what that meant. “What project are you…” She trailed off when she saw another Rig rolling past them out the side windows. Like her brothers, it was large and rigged to go offroad. But the design was different. Longer, with larger water tanks riding heavy on the back. “Who’s that?”
Dean grinned. “We’re getting some people together for a MakerSpace.”
She didn’t know what that was, but was trying to process the other Rig. For some reason, she had always pictured her brother being alone out here. In their few conversations; he’d been cagey about how he was making a living, and who he was with. The other rig was made up in the same style; but very clearly a different builder; and a different frame. “How many are there, like you?”
Dean smiled secretly at the question.
There were twenty other vehicles like the Rig gathered at their next stop, parked like the old wagon trains; in a protective circle. The space within was quite large; given it was a twenty sided shape. But most of the people were all gathered at the edge of a scrapyard.
When Dana looked at it, it felt more like a graveyard to her; filled with the bodies of dead planes and cars and boats. Piles of rusted metal extended almost as far as she could see; and she knew at once the place was supposed to be abandoned. There were no drones patrolling; no signs for directing people; no banners explaining the Utility Fees for making use of the space. The City had no presence here.
So when Dana saw people scurrying around the wrecks, she felt a twinge of fear. This was them. The Ferals that the news talked about. The Wheelers that roved beyond the Red Line. The news said they were bandits. The politicians said they were Illegals. The rumors said they were cannibals.
And my brother is one of them? She was about to run away from the whole thing, when the smell hit her nose. “What’s that?”
Dean grinned. “It’s bacon.”
“How in the name of human sanity do you have bacon?!” Dana breathed in awe.
“Same way they have it back in Town.” Dean was climbing back into the Rig, calling back out to her. “We grow it in meat-tanks. Synth-meat’s been around since before Collapse, sis.”
“I know, but… How did you get it?” She called back as she heard him moving things around. “Black market?”
“Nah, we just grow our own. You saw my aeroponics in the Rig. Others have meat-wagons. Share and share alike.” He emerged from his Rig with a storage box, filled with leafy lettuce and spring onions; still misted with water. “The plans aren’t complicated; and you can see what we improvise-”
Dana jumped away from her brother and his cargo as if scalded. “That’s an Infringement!” She yelped. “A whopping big one. Food infringements have the highest penalties.”
“Dana, look around. There isn’t a Fringer for a hundred miles. The map says it’s their land; but they don’t know what goes on out here. They never look past the city.”
Dana was unconvinced; looking around the crowd. They were, to a man; wearing patchwork clothes; tied together with bizzare color combinations. None of them seemed to have any trouble gathering around slapped-together tables that were carried out of the storage units. There wasn’t a single person with a proper ration scanner; or calorie counter. They all looked happy enough; but they were dusty from their time scrabbling in the junkyard; and most had engine grease on them somewhere. Dana stood out immediately, as the only person wearing clothes that were… well, civilized. Her uniform grey outfit was the only properly made anything that she could see. She saw confusion in their faces whenever they became aware of her presence; and even a little… pity?
Dean could see her judgment of his social circle and sighed. “Well, tell you what; sis. You can stay inside and hide under a blanket with your ration pack like a good girl; or you can come along to lunch and eat bacon like me.”
Her stomach roared. Bacon. Actual synth-meat. And it was being offered free. People in Dana’s District would save for weeks to get a single slice of synth-meat jerky. The idea made her head hurt. Here beyond the city, there were hundreds of people, making their own food. It was insane. It was impossible.
“Wait. I’m coming.” She heard her voice say. She fell into step behind her brother and the box of illegal food; only to discover many other people carrying similar loads into the courtyard made by the ‘wagon train’. Her brother brought greens. Another had a box of tomatoes; another had cuts of meat; another had potatoes; another had jars of preserves and honey; another had loaves of bread…
It was more real food than Dana had ever seen; the processed calorie bars in her pockets feeling heavy against her sides.
One woman had a large metal serving plate that looked like it had been a hubcap in a previous life; and it was piled high with bright red strawberries. Dana whimpered at the sight of it.
Dean smiled at the woman. “Freya, this is my sister. She’s going to be coming along with us for a while.”
The woman looked at Dana, head to toe. Dana was still in her city clothes; all made from the same material, and all the same tone; since Dana had never bothered with the colorization fees. The woman was dressed in a bright golden cloth that seemed to wrap around her comfortably, from neck to knees. Her shoes were some kind of improvised material, bound to the soles of her feet by more of the golden weave. Dana felt like a Dickensian urchin beside her.

        Freya smiled. “Well.” She said. “You’re clearly not there yet.”
A day later they were on the move again. The gathering at the junkyard had broken up; and they all went in different directions. Dean’s Rig was moving at a good speed, with Freya’s keeping pace behind him. Dana was in his passenger seat, still trying to process the day before. “I don’t get how the food can be so good out here. Do you have farms?”
“We have thousands of them.” Her brother nodded, and she rolled her eyes. “I’m quite serious.” He insisted. “What struck you most about that feast yesterday?”
Dana didn’t have to think about it. “There were still processed rations, like we get back in town; but a whole lot of it was real. Real fruit and veg.”
“Of the real stuff, what did you notice about it?”
Dana had to think for a while before she realized what he was leading her to. “Everyone brought something. You had lettuce. Freya had strawberries. Someone else had taters.”
“The way we work is to be in so many places that we can’t be wiped out.” He explained. “Not by a climate disaster, or a raid from the City, or from bandits out here. We can’t be starved out because the food is in too many places. We can’t be shut down because the Printers and the workers are in too many places. I take my farm with me. Do you think we only have what we carry?”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Dana started to ask, when the console beside her chimed. Since she was closer, she hit the switch. “TwoDee here, go ahead.”
“Dana, tell your brother that we got the weather report. Warm-front coming from the equator. Expect mid fifties celsius tomorrow.”
Dean was close enough that he’s already heard and he let out a breath. “That’s approaching heat death. Can we make it to Xanadu?”
“If we wanna finish our job, we’re gonna have to finish the planting tonight. Drips, shades, and all.”
“Then we better speed it up.” Dean responded and the rig lurched as he shifted into a higher gear.”
“Mid-fifties.” Dana groaned, already anticipating the lethal heat. “How hot can this rig handle?”
“Don’t worry, we’ve handled heat waves before.” Her brother assured her.
Is this their life? Dana thought. Grubbing through scrapyards; and running from the summers; breaking whatever law you feel like? Is this my life now; and all because I couldn’t afford my own utilities?
Her self-pity was familiar. It was the feeling of being lacking. That was just life; at least it was for every person Dana knew. The city had duty requirements to live; and too many people were rated sub-par. If they were good citizens, they’d have everything they needed through hard work and honest living. The Fringers all said so; and the news ran with stories of people who succeeded by proving themselves equal to the task.

        Dana hadn’t taken a day off work in her entire adult life; and she lived as frugally as she could. She should have been able to keep up with the cost of living; surely. She was sure every person in the shelters thought the same…
Her thoughts occupied her mind so much she almost didn’t notice she was dozing off in her seat. Her brother kept driving, and the motion lulled her. The shocks on the Rig were more than enough to handle the open ground and rock her to sleep.

Chapter Two

She awoke to find the Rig had stopped. The clock said they’d been driving most of the day. The smell of salt and wasteland was gone, replaced by something sweet and gentle. She unbuckled her harness and went outside to look.
Dana had never seen lavender growing before. It was in little patches all over the place; but Dana was just starting to realize that it wasn’t random at all. In some kind of pattern that followed the sun; or the driveable terrain, there were patches of purple all over the place. Her brother was working diligently at one of them; with Freya helping.
Her brother had printed a roll of solar cells from the 3D Printer in his Rig (a major ‘infringement violation’, she knew) during the trip; and Freya had salvaged enough junk from the scrapyard to make frames for them. Dana watched for a few minutes. Her brother would hammer the frame into the dirt; and secure a sheet of solar cells over the top, making a little shelter. Freya would check the time, then see where the shadow was cast; and then brought over seedlings. While she planted; her brother returned to his Rig and collected one of the Condesors he’d assembled the day before; securing it to the frame, where it would get sunlight.
Freya noted her interest. “The solar cells work to power the Condenser and monitors. We angle them to provide shade in the afternoon; when the sun will be hottest. The morning light will be enough.” She explained. “Our friends will be through with a Queen and a Hive. The lavender keeps the beehives fed; and the bees feed us honey; as well as pollinating everything else we plant here.”
Dana looked. “What else is planted?”
“Not much. But that will change in time. Lavender doesn’t need a lot of water; so there will be excess.” Dean gestured off to the far side of the flowering area. We built a water-trap, down below the surface, for the excess to collect as groundwater; away from the lavender roots; ready for when we need to plant something else.” Her brother stood and brushed the dirt away from his hands and knees. “This is a very long term project. In a hundred years, this could be a forest; once the soil is ready.”
Dana bit her lip. “Can I help?”
Freya laughed. “Finally, she asks.”
“Be nice.” Her brother chided. “Grab a shovel, sis.”
They worked until sundown; and Dean declared they had to hurry.
Having slept on the ride there, Dana was wide awake as he tapped at his Device; charting a course further beyond the Red Line. Dana was getting further from the world she knew with each passing day.
She was surprised at how fast the Rig started moving. “Is it safe to drive this fast in the dark?”
“We know this area.” her brother assured her. “And we took longer with the planting than we planned. We gotta get to Xanadu before tomorrow. The heat’s going to be lethal.” He glanced over at her. “I’ve haven’t slept since last night. I should teach you a bit about how to handle the Rig; because we may end up driving most of the night.”
Dana had never heard the word ‘Xanadu’ before, but she assumed it was a safe place her brother knew about. “Dean, the whole Rig is powered by Solar Cell Batteries. It’s dark. If you push the revs up all night… We could be stuck. If we’re stuck out in the open during that kind of heat…”
“I know. We’ll get there.” He promised. “Once we do, power won’t be an issue.”
In the dark, it was hard to see the Towers. When they got closer, Dana saw lights. Other Rigs, moving in convoys, from every direction she could see, including behind them. Between the lights from the vehicles; and the blanket of stars that seemed to go right down to the horizon, she could finally see the ‘skyline’. “This was a city?”
“It was. It dried up during Collapse. All that’s left are these three or four towers now.” Her brother nodded. “They’ve been long abandoned.”
The sky was starting to get light to the east; and the air was already stifling; even in the Rig. The light grew; and she started to see more details. She thought there were a surprising number of vehicles like her brother’s when she saw them gathered at the Scrapyard. But here at the Tri-Towers; there were almost a hundred of them; all moving towards the tallest tower of the lot.
Her brother tapped something into the console on the dashboard, and it beeped. Satisfied with whatever answer he got, Dean shifted into a low gear and began rolling towards the parking space. There were a few people directing the Rigs to their parking spots; and Dana started to see the shape of it.
After the rig stopped, her brother jumped into action; and she followed. The pattern was clear, seen from the outside. A semi-circle of vehicles, all arrayed into rows around the central tower. “What is this?”
“Xanadu.” Her brother said with a smile. “Help me with this.”
Her brother climbed up the side of the Rig till he was on the roof. She followed; and he began removing the panels. The rooftop of the Rig was suddenly exposed, and the flash made Dana cover her eyes as it reflected the dawning sunlight. She turned away from the gleam instinctively, and found that other Rigs were doing the same thing. They’re meant to be ferals. How can they be so organized?
Seeing all the Vans laid out around her in rows, she suddenly noticed something uniform about them as the solar collectors were all being uncoupled from the rooftops. “Mirrors.” She said. “The solar panels on your Van are hiding a mirror polish?”
“All of them are.” Her brother told her. “The mirrors are the single most valuable component of a Wheeler’s Van. The solar panels are there to protect them as much as collect power.”
“Why?” Dana couldn’t help but ask.
“We’re getting ready for a hot day. Hot enough to cause heat death.” Her brother explained. “The sun’s heat will be strong enough to risk our lives, so we have to reflect as much of that heat away from our homes as we can.” He gestured up at the Tower. “So we bring our homes to Xanadu.”
Dana looked around the careful arrangement of the vehicles, now an array of raised mirrors. The sun was now reaching them directly, and it hit her. “It’s a solar tower!” Dana realized. “You’ve turned the empty tower into a solar farm, and nobody knows it!”
“Fifty degrees celsius today.” Her brother nodded, sliding down to the ground. “Double that and you can boil water. Boil water, you can power a turbine. The more heat we send to the top of that tower, the more power we get. We use that power to cool down the inside; grow our crops, recharge our vehicles.” He gestured at the ‘insect leg’ configuration of the wheels. “Raise the back suspension, you can even tilt the mirrors correctly.”
“And all of it off-grid.” Dana was awed. “Do the Fringers even know you’re here?”
“Nobody does.” Dean told her. “Now, let's get these solar panels organized. Even on the ground, they can plug in. Waste not, want not. Every watt that we collect for ourselves means the Solar Farm can give free to everyone else; or keep charged for later. There’s some ridiculously large capacitors hidden in there.”
“So the heatwaves can see you through the blizzard months too?” Dana followed him as he arrayed the panels.
“Climate collapse giveth, and climate collapse taketh away.” Dean grinned.
Once the array was set up; most of the people nearby went into one of the towers; or herded underground. Dana was a city kid. Being packed into a small space with a huge crowd was nothing new for her. She was still the odd one out; but with a hum of power; the climate control came on; and everyone cheered; living out one of the heat-death days in relative comfort.
The interiors were basically a larger version of her brother’s Rig. She saw all kinds of indoor farms; 3D Printers churning out components; and even a few crispr sets, churning out gene-hacks. Whatever these people did when they weren’t here; they were taking advantage of the chance to collaborate. Her brother eventually roped her into a card game; as everyone passed daylight. Someone in the bunker had a pan-pipe flute; and there was music; though Dana couldn’t see where from.
Dana took the opportunity to observe. It was clear her first impression of these people was wrong. They weren’t wild; they were very well organized. Their clothing and grooming had no standardization like back in the city; but were all similar in style; as if these people were a culture of their own. There were no fights breaking out, no theft; no undercurrent of violence. Back in the Shelter, the people had nothing to do but mark time; and dwell on the fact that they’d never get off the street. These people all had something to do.
How did none of this get talked about back home? Dana wondered.
As the sun set, Dana looked back at the rest of what was left of the skyline; and saw the scaffold netting falling away from the other towers. At first she thought they were leftover construction netting, fluttering down; but very quickly she saw that they were on ropes; being reeled in smoothly like sailing ships bringing down sails.
And within…
Dana let out a shout, seeing the towers for what they were. The abandoned skeleton of steel and concrete was now a living thing; a vertical forest. Greenery was visible on all sides; filling every floor; the plants themselves protected from the harsh heat of the day before. “Vertical farms?”
“Not farming food. We can do that in small spaces with aeroponics. All that takes is some water and enough power to run LED lights.” Her brother explained. “Those farms are cultivating something more… industrial. Saplings.”
“Of what?”
“All sorts of things. You saw the gene-hackers downstairs? We’re trying to adapt the old-growth style trees to survive harsher weather.” He smiled up at the towers. “We’re not there yet. But we will be. And in the meantime, we have plenty of regular trees to plant. In these old towers, they’re easier to protect from the weather until they can handle it; and since we only grow them to a certain height, the others like us come and collect them for transport out to the old forests. Collapse has shifted the rainfall; changed the soil quality. But we’ve been restoring the old forests; in all the places the Cities no longer look.” He gestured. “See that one? It’s not a farm. It’s a carbon capture.”
Dana looked up at the building he’d indicated. It looked to have jet engines sticking out of it, stacked in grids of rows. “The parts you were scavenging from the scrapyard!” She blurted. “That’s what it is! It’s a component of an air scoop.”
Dean nodded. “Sucking the air in, removing the carbon; and letting it out again. This plant alone does the work of a whole forest. It’s good for the soil, too. Carbon has commercial use.”
“Is that what you’re hauling?” She asked automatically. “Tree saplings and carbon fertilizer?”
“No, Freya and I are working on Lavender.” He explained. “Good for bees. Keep a hive alive; and you can restore the land. We learned a long time ago how to keep a hive protected from the weather. All you need is to leave ways in and out for the bees; and something for them to feed on. Lavender is good because it lasts in low-water environments.”
Dana squeezed her eyes shut. “I thought this whole place was nothing but blasted sand and scorched earth. What happened?”
“Oh, it was like that.” Her brother admitted. “The Big Fire lasted half a year. The economy tanked because more than eight million people had to run; and… They couldn’t rebuild it. Our country was leveled by wildfires; except for the cities. Europe got hit with a massive heatwave that overloaded the power grid and killed hundreds of thousands; Asia with coastal flooding… One natural disaster after another; they finally got hit with a climate crisis that was too big to roll with. So they abandoned most of the regions, and withdrew to their cities. Even now they still couldn’t rebuild the country towns. Can’t even patrol it. Certainly can’t control it now.”
“They just let you do whatever you want out here?”
“I don’t think they know we’re out here. The infrastructure collapsed for a thousand klicks. We’re not drawing power; we’re not connected to any of their satellites, we don’t use any of their resources. We walk soft; and we plant things.”
Dana stared. “You don't use anything from back in town? No resources at all?” She caught herself. “No. No wait, you have to make raids. I’ve eaten with you guys. There’s meat-synth and stuff you grow; but… A lot of the same sort of rations. You must get it from the same place as the city.”
“The processed seaweed packs?” Her brother laughed. “We do get it from the same place the cities do: The ocean. Of all the things we make, Seaweed Farms are the easiest thing to improvise. And the one thing they can’t do is patrol the whole ocean.” He saw the look on her face. “I swear: The only thing we get from the active cities are the junkyards that they’ve long since stopped caring about.” He told her.
Dana was still staring, blinking owlishly. “I don’t understand.”

        “Clearly.” Her brother was nonplussed. “Which part tripped you up?”
“B-back in town, they talk about the ‘Ferals’ all the time. They talk about raids on our depots; on our farms…”
“None of it is true. Or if it is, it’s not any of our people.” He said simply.
Dana believed him wholeheartedly, on nothing but his word; and what she’d seen. She sank her face into her hands and started to cry.
Dean was alarmed, and stepped forward automatically to take care of his sister. “Whoa. What’s this? What’s wrong?”
“Everything I know about life outside my hometown is wrong.” She swiped at her tears.. “Even when you left… I knew they made up as much as they told; but I thought there had to be some truth in it somewhere.” She looked weakly at her brother. “I’m sorry, Dean. I thought…”
“I know.” He hugged her tightly. “I know.”

“In fact, everything I know about life inside my hometown is wrong too.” Dana sniffed. “I haven’t seen anything made by a registered factory, or a city-approved source since I met up with you; and yet everything works. The city regulates the food so tightly that seeds are illegal to have without a permit; and people here are gene-hacking whole new species of edibles to grow.” She looked hopelessly disgusted with herself. “I thought life couldn’t work out here.”
“No.” Her brother corrected. “You thought life couldn’t work in any way other than the one you were used to. You thought the life you knew was the only kind there was.” He let out a breath slowly between his teeth. “It’s not a problem limited to our generation, I’m afraid. Or how else did Collapse happen?”

Chapter Three

With their work at the Towers done; she and her brother returned to the Lavender patch. Remembering the scorching heat, Dana found herself fretting about the small plants, and she hurried to look.
They were safe; still growing, still making the air smell sweet. And Dana suddenly realized she’d never smelt flowers before. Back in the city, only the Domes had grass and trees and flowers; and she could never afford residence.
The day Dana noticed her first seedling tray was sprouting actual shoots that she had planted, she had let out a shout so loud her brother thought she’d been bitten by something. Dana helped as they spent a few days planting lavender and setting up condensers to gather water for them. The solar cells protected the delicate flowers from the harsher afternoon sun; and powered the condensers that fed them water and nutrients. Despite herself, Dana marveled at it. They could have put one of these plant stations anywhere; and it would have run forever without humans being needed at all. Everything they made back in the city rolled off an assembly line; and was issued only to those needed for their use. It was how they kept the infringements to a minimum. The idea that you could make something yourself was alien and unsettling to Dana; but she had no doubt her brother could make a thousand more.
The next day they were on the move again; heading back to the Scrapyard. As before, they weren’t the only ones.
Dana found herself looking around the huge collection of Vehicles with fresh eyes. Her brother had brought a large basket of greens. She’d seen the seedlings growing in his rig. She’d seen them growing into big leafy lettuce plants. In the slapped-together cube with the lights, they’d grow all day, all night; all year round.
The meat-wagons were there too. Dana could see the shape of the tanks, packed in like the owner was hauling a cargo of water heaters. What’s in them? Bacon? Chicken? Beef?
She looked back to her brother’s friend. “Freya.” She whispered. “You offered me a strawberry.”
Freya looked at her, reading her mind; and gestured for her to follow. “Everyone has their contribution.” Freya explained. “Most of us have a group we meet up with as often as we can. Each ‘cluster’ can support itself. But it’s the ‘little luxuries’ that gets you through Gatherings like this.”
“Your thing is Strawberries?” Dana guessed.
“Strawberries are some of the most sought after fruit you can find. Enough that I can trade for everything else I need.” Freya gestured at her own Rig, and Dana entered it. Like her brother’s, it was twenty percent living space, thirty percent workspace; and fifty percent overlap between the two. Also like her brother’s Rig; she had a sealed up cubicle near the back. Freya turned a knob on the side to kill the water feed; and levered the front of it open.
The ‘cubicle’ was the size of a narrow shower; and lined with pipes. growing from the pipes in neatly cut openings were dozens of strawberry plants; each one misted with water; under colored LED lights.
“The water circulates constantly in a mist around the roots.” Freya explained. “Because of the lights; the plants aren’t limited to a 24 hour day/night cycle. Sealed up, I don’t have to worry about parasites; weather, seasons…”
“What’s that one?” Dana asked in awe. The usual plants grew almost a dozen strawberries each; but a large one near the top grew dozens of the fruits in bunches.
“My pride and joy.” Freya said proudly. “We managed to gene-hack a strawberry plant and cross it with a grape-seed. I’ve got the only strawberry bushes for a thousand miles that can grow fruit in bunches, like grapes on a vine. More than any of the others can make. It’s been enough to keep me and Dean equipped for ages.”
“Thought you guys shared everything.”
“Oh, we share everything we need. But there’s a natural sense of barter that’s just human nature; especially in co-ops.” Freya shut up her farm. “All day, all night; I’m creating these babies.” She gave Dana a look. “Now you.”
“Now me… what?”
“Well, your brother hasn’t put it to you, because he knows you’re not there yet; but everyone does their bit. You’ve been helping us with the Lavender; but I think we both know there’s better things ahead.”
Dana squeezed her eyes shut. “I… don’t know much about any of this.”
“Neither do any newcomers.”
“I didn’t think there were a lot of newcomers.” Dana commented.
Freya grinned. “Where do you think I came from?”
Dana was placed with a ‘class’; and Freya was the teacher. Just over half a dozen kids, all of them under twelve. Dana was a curiosity to them; but she felt even more awkward and uncomfortable than she did when arriving at the overcrowded Shelter. Back there, she was one face among hundreds; all of them with the same story.
Here in this place, she felt obvious. All of these kids were more ready for adulthood than she was; and she could hardly ‘blend in’ with pre-teens.
“Alright everyone.” Freya sing-songed brightly. “Today’s project? Making power.”
The kids were all thrilled. Dana felt something in herself relax too. Electricity was pretty much the only thing that wasn’t an Infringement. When the Oil ran out and the Coal got too expensive to mine; it had been a mad scramble to keep the lights on and the world turning; to the point where nobody would ever have ‘on-grid power’ ever again. The damage was done, but the Powers That Be had to find other things to monopolize. ‘Infringement’ on those things was the most commonly punished crime, and largest source of revenue the City Fathers had.
Making a DIY power generator would be the first thing Dana took part in that wasn’t breaking a law she’d lived with her whole life.
Relief gave way swiftly to discomfort again. She’d never ‘made’ anything before. Creative arts was not one of her skills; and home repairs and DIY were hobbies fraught with Infringements.
Freya was giving the kids a thorough safety lecture, all about using gloves; watching out for sharp edges; and how to make sure their finished products were safe to use. Dana barely heard it; looking out over the junkyard; wondering how anyone was meant to turn all this rusted refuse into life. Intellectually, she knew it was possible. Her brother had already done it. So had Freya...
“Pair up and see what you can find.” Freya clapped her hands loudly. “See you all at Dinnertime.”
And Dana was just left staring helplessly again… until she felt a tugging on her belt.
The little boy was about ten years old, if that. His face was painted with all sorts of clever designs, and his hair was cropped short, covered by a hand-stitched scarf. In fact, all his clothing was rough patchwork; except for one adult sized ski-glove that reached to his elbow. “So?” The boy said.
“So.” Dana agreed. “You’re stuck with me, huh?”
The boy shook his head. “I asked Freya if I could partner with you.”
“Really.” Dana was taken aback. “You know that I’m no good at this stuff, right? I mean, just because I’m a grownup…”
The boy looked at her like she was simple. “You got something better. You’re tall, and you got hands.”
As if to make the point, he pulled off the oversized glove. His gloved hand was without fingers; stopping at the knuckles.
Dana fought to keep her expression even. She didn’t know much about this wild tribe her brother was part of, but she’d never heard any of them speak in pity, for themselves or another.
“So, let’s get busy!” The boy declared like he was leading a cavalry charge. “And my name is Marko.”
Dana felt completely lost. The kids were powering through the scrapyard like they had a sixth sense guiding them exactly where they needed to be. It was like watching a team of acrobats. They were slipping in and out of empty frames; scampering up and down like the scrap metal was a playground.
The adults were doing the same. She could see her brother prising up whole sections of curved metal from the wings of abandoned aircraft; the airscoops from jet engines. Now that she knew what they were for; it seemed amazing how many he could find.
Marko tugged her sleeve and gestured for a boost. She hoisted him up on top of a rusted out soda machine; and he scanned from the new vantage point. “There!” He hissed; as though he’d just spotted buried treasure. “Hurry! Get that washing machine! GoGoGo!” His voice was hushed so that the other kids wouldn’t overhear. Whatever was in the washing machine, it was worth more to the boy than gold; and Dana scampered. She was the odd duck in the whole group; and Marko only had one good hand. Of all the class, they were clearly the misfit team; and if she couldn’t figure out what she was looking for; she had to at least follow instructions as best she could.

The fact that she was suddenly working for a ten year old wasn’t even the strangest part of her week.
Marko had produced a pair of metal cutters from nowhere, and Dana was playing the part of his hands; cutting the metal sides of the dead washing machine into shapes along the lines he had drawn.
“The really important part is the motor.” The boy explained. “It has a turbine; which is enough to generate power from movement. The printer farms can make the same parts; but that wasn’t the assignment.” He tapped the thin metal body of the dismantled appliance. “We can make fins for the windmill. A piece of pipe is all we need.”

“We also need a way to turn the turbine.” She pointed out. “Can you make gears?”
“Making a circle out of metal isn’t the easiest thing; but it can be done.”
Dana took a deep breath. Every suggestion she’d made had been laughed off; because she didn’t know what she was doing; but she suggested it anyway. “I saw a little kid’s tricycle in one of those scrap piles. The rubber from the wheels is rotted away; but it’s still two small wheel-rims and one larger one. That’s how gears work, right?”
“Get it!” Marko agreed eagerly. “GetIt!GetIt!GetIt!”
The wind turbine they had made was turning easily when Freya came by to check their work. Freya had a multimeter with her; and checked the output. “Not bad.” She declared. “Enough to charge a battery slowly. You put that in the right spot; you could run a better charge than those printed solar cells we put with the lavender.”
Dana felt like she'd just discovered fire. The other kids were putting their own creations together. One group had created a solar oven, and were making flatbreads. Another group had taken their turbine idea and created a pedal-powered version. Dana had forgotten that she was in a class for children. She was learning the first new thought she’d had in her adult life; and it was making her giddy.
“It’ll be great when it’s finished.” Freya nodded.
Dana froze. “It works.” She promised, somewhat derailed.
“I’m sure it works great, but it’s not finished.” Freya told her. “Now you have to make it beautiful.”
Dana stared at her. “What?”
“Your first impression of our life was the junkyard. You thought we were savages; picking through refuse.” She gestured back in the general direction of the lavender fields “Do you still think so?”
“No.” Dana admitted. “I thought your way of life was messy and dirty and made of junk that barely held together. I was wrong. It’s not chaos, it’s… I don’t even know the word. It’s individual. It’s made by everyone.”
Freya nodded. “That goes for everything. Food, clothing, home. We can conjure it from scraps; and make it beautiful. Those saplings you saw back at Xanadu? They’ll keep growing, and growing. And they start from the tiniest little seeds.”
“Walk soft and plant things.” Dana found herself saying; suddenly getting it.
“Plant things, or make things.” Freya smiled. “Nice to know that no matter how small we are; we can make room to grow.” She gestured back at Marko. “So shouldn’t they be beautiful too?”
So Dana returned to her newly remade turbine. Marko was still with it; and she suddenly noticed: Marko was dressed artistically. She thought it was just patchwork; everything thrown together in whatever way covered him from the dust. But trying to view things aesthetically; she suddenly saw that he’d already done it to himself.
“Marko.” She said suddenly. “You made that outfit, didn’t you? It wasn’t something your mother stitched together.”
Marko nodded, eyes still on the contraption they’d made.
“But you’ve only got fingers on one hand. How do you sew?”
“Five fingers, ten toes; twenty teeth. Mama said: One imagination makes many tools.” The boy shrugged like it was no big deal. “There’s ways.”
Adding ‘beauty’ to the project was something else entirely. Dana was still trying to find ‘parts’ in the junk; let alone art. She stared at it until her vision blurred. She let it, hoping she'd gain some kind of artistic insight if she could pretend to see through the real world.
Marko taught her how to mix pigment, and she saw the colors mixing under his fingertips. He painted the shaft; the wheels; and the curved fins. I learned to make electricity from scrap; now I’m learning fingerpaints.
But it wasn’t enough.
“You know something?” She found herself saying. “It never occured to me until just now, but nobody tries to make anything beautiful back in the City. Everything’s… uniform. Nobody has a garden anymore; because seeds are tightly rationed. Same for water, and for space. If you have room for a yard; you have room for a one-person compartment; and that’s what you use it for.”
Marko didn’t really follow that, but he saw she was looking sad. And when she finished telling him about her life, he suddenly understood why; looking her over. Her clothing was thin, with only one color. She stood out as a shade of plain grey. She fit in with the junkyard better than any of the people. “Things aren’t pretty at home?” He said sympathetically.
She shook her head absently. “I’ve never been asked to make something before. I’ve never been asked to make something look beautiful, either.” She bit her lip. “Maybe if we paint the fins all different colors so they mix when it turns?”
“That could work.” The boy sniffed. “I smell food.” He rose. “I’mna get some food. You comin’?”
She waved him off, eyes still glued to her project. It’s there. It’s right there. I can see it, except I can’t see it.
Marko came back a few hours later with a plate. Dana had discarded her jacket, and tied her hair back. She had apparently returned to the junkyard and come back with thin pipes. She’d also woven a thin piece of wire back on itself enough that she had a semi-flexible strap. “What are you doing?”
Dana jumped in surprise. She hadn’t even noticed he was there. “It hit me when I thought of the bicycle.” She explained. “I never had a bike; because the streets were ruled for cars only; and using the path was an infringement. But I remember my dad told me about this old movie once, where kids rode bikes; and they’d stick playing cards in the spokes; so that it’d make this drumming sound really fast.”
Marko grinned. “So instead of making it look good…”
“I thought, what if we could make it sound pretty. Like windchimes. Except wind chimes need somewhere to hang from…”
Marko came over to look at her work. “But if you mount the chimes around the moving parts; then as it spins, you can have something hit the chimes.”
Dana nodded, pleased with herself. “The trick was finding something flexible enough that it won’t get stuck when it hits the chime; but solid enough that it would stay upright.”
“What tune does it play?” Marko asked.
“That… is actually the hardest part; as I’ve only got five or six notes.” Dana admitted. “But sooner or later, I’ll get it.”
Marko held the plate out. “Can I have your dinner then?”
Dana smelled the food and her stomach roared. “How long have I been sittin’ here?”
“About four hours longer than the rest of us.” Marko teased. “We were only meant to work until dinner, remember?”
“Yeah, well… I’ve never done this before. I want to get it right.” Dana was already back to work, tapping at the pipes; trying out different combinations of the notes with one hand, eating with the other.
She didn’t notice her brother watching from a distance, with a grin slowly growing on his face.
The pan-pipe was back. Dana drifted, halfway between asleep and awake. The pipes played a soft haunting tune again; this time backed with a six-note melody, playing over and over; speeding up and slowing down. Dana felt something brushing her face, too heavy to tickle her awake; too light to hurry her to wakefulness.
She felt something lay warmly over her; and she settled into it, contented.
As with all time of sleep, it seemed only a moment later when she woke. The pan-pipe was gone, but the melody remained, playing over and over. Dana drifted in the sweet spot between dream and thought; until the melody started repeating itself faster. Then water dripped on her face in tiny points, and she opened her eyes. Her brother was beside her with a small plate of strawberry slices, and some scrambled egg-synth. The rain was just starting; but not heavy enough to make anyone move.
And beside them, her homemade wind-turbine was working steadily. Her brother was beside it, testing the voltage. “You did well.” He said to her. “We can use this.”
Dana took her breakfast from him, looking around. The other Vehicles were largely gone. Dana had fallen asleep beside her creation and not noticed then leaving. Electric vehicles ran so quietly. Someone had put a handmade blanket over her during the night.
Dana said nothing until she’d cleared her plate. “Back in the city; what a person has is tightly regimented, because resource control is everything. But out here… Even the things that every single person has, like a Rig; or a container aerofarm… no two of them are alike; because every person has to make their own; out of anything they can find.”
“I’ll let you in on a secret, sis.” He told her. “The margins of survival aren’t as narrow as you think. A lot of us go for the more enjoyable option. It’s why Freya makes strawberries instead of high-calorie food; and why we plant lavender around instead of dandelions. The weeds would live better in dead soil. But we pick the more beautiful option, even if it takes a bit more work.”
“Doesn’t seem… smart. Efficient. Whatever the word is.”
Dean gave her a hard look. “You ever see nature shots from the Pre-Collapse time?” He asked her. “It’s beautiful stuff. I mean, crazy beautiful. The kind of thing the world just doesn't have anymore.” He grinned. “But it will. The more people like us work to put something beautiful and varied and natural into the world; the more beautiful and varied the world becomes. We’re putting it all back. Forests; flowers; water… We’re bringing it back to life.”
Dana shook her head. “I don’t know that I could do that. I could barely figure out fingerpaints. I don’t know how to turn scorched earth into something beautiful.”
Dean grinned like a crazy person and pulled out a small mirror. He’d brought it from his Rig, just waiting for her to notice. When Dana saw her reflection, her jaw dropped. “Marko?” She guessed, hand going to her face. “I thought I dreamed it…”
“He’s got a light touch.” Dean nodded with a smile, letting her take the mirror. “He didn’t like that you grew up without pretty things.”
The facepaint Dana now wore looked like the same style as Marko’s. She had a bright yellow cartoon sun painted merrily around her right eye. Her left cheek was painted with teardrops, coming down from the other eye; but painted in the same grey as her city clothes. He’d braided her hair so that it hung straight in the middle, framed on each side with two braids, woven with red ribbons. There were vines painted on her bare forearms; with little flowers; the same colors that Marko had on his face paint.
She heard footsteps and turned to see Freya coming up behind her with a bundle. “I guess Marko’s decided you’re one of us now.” She teased, tossing the bundle to Dana. “You’d better dress the part.”
Dana stepped out of Freya’s rig in her new outfit. There was no dusty grey left. Instead, she wore a cross between a pair of overalls; and a summer tunic. There was protective padding woven into the legs and knees; and an olive-green cloak that tied warmly around her shoulders. The cloak and the pants had large pockets; and the boots were a print of some kind; designed around her own feet. How Freya had measured it, Dana had no idea; but the whole thing was designed for her. Back in the city; there were a set variety of sizes to choose from; and you picked the closest one you could find. Out here among these people; everyone was made for the individual.
All in all, she looked… like them. Like the Solarpunk Makers that could turn scraps and relics of a forgotten age into intriguing, life-giving artworks.
Dean and Freya were gazing at her with odd little smiles; like they were meeting the real her at last. “Nice to meet you.” Freya said warmly.
Dana felt a shiver hit her, deep in her bones. She was crossing a line somehow; moving away from her old life. “Dean…” She heard herself saying. “How does this all play out, exactly? I mean; what’s the endgame for…” She waved her hand around the Rigs; around the junkyard, the turbine she’d helped build. “... for any of this?”
Dean and Freya exchanged a look. They seemed to be having an argument about something. Finally, Dean spoke. “Dana, there are a few things that I have not told you about our lives.”
“Obviously.” Dana nodded. “You guys aren’t just improvising.” She gestured at the Rig again. “At first, I thought you guys were all runaways from the city; putting together piles of scraps to stay alive; but I was wrong. There’s a style to all this. Even if you don’t mass produce anything; you’re working together with more than just the people I’ve seen.” The more she spoke; the more ideas occurred to her. “Nobody sets up ‘automatic lavender growing stations’ just because they like flowers. There’s a plan to all this.”
“Yes, there is.” Freya agreed. “But the heart of it is the one thing we keep a secret. It’s the one thing the Cities might care enough to come and take a look at.”
“I’ll vouch for her.” Dean said finally. “Let’s roll.”
They drove deeper into the wasteland. Dana saw the scorched earth; where old forests used to be. The land still hadn’t recovered from the collapse. They drove further; and they came across a real forest. Dana had never seen trees up close before; and insisted on stopping to look; but her brother overruled her; keeping an eye on the battery.
The forest made Dana wonder; because she was certain she had seen signs of lavender growing on the forest floor; as well as a few printed solar cells; half covered over with fallen leaves. Is this what they’re trying to do with the lavender patch we worked on?
They came out of the forest and Dean turned to follow it towards the mountains. Dana had expected them to drive uphill; but instead went parallel to the mountain range. They drove on, with Deen checking his console; until something signalled him; and he swerved towards the mountains directly. At first, they were so close that Dana couldn’t see the mountains; but eventually the ground rose on either side of them. There, about two hundred meters wide, was the entrance to a canyon.
The canyon turned after half a kilometer… Dana leaned forward in her seat so fast she nearly fell out of it. “My gawd!” She blurted.
The canyon wasn’t as wide as she thought it must look; crammed full of life as it was. At the centre of the canyon was a large lake; with walkways and stone paths through it. Even from a distance, Dana could see the lake was the centre of their community; with people growing huge quantities of bamboo and rice in the water; between the trunks of the biggest trees that Dana had ever seen; growing straight out of the water.
Above the water line were huge, colorful rooftops; halfway between the paper and cloth walls of Japanese style dwellings; and the pulley-systems of circus tents. Above those were many, many wind-turbines of all designs, constantly moving as the canyon funnelled the air from the mountains. The sounds of waterfalls came from further in; and the walls of the Canyon were lined at the top with solar panels; and the walls themselves with cliff-dwelling structures made from bamboo and reclaimed material. The structures weren’t boxy things like storage containers. They were rounded; as though they’d grown from the stone itself.
There were more dwellings woven into the branches of the trees; and the whole space between them was criss-crossed with rope lines that ferried people along the paths on top; and hung rows of lanterns with colored lights underneath. Dana had no doubt it would be as beautiful a sight during the nighttime as it was during the day.
At the ‘entrance’ they had just driven through was a long row of vehicles, of which her brother’s was only mid-sized in comparison. And between the ‘parking lot’ and the lake was a wide array of workshops; all under tents and grass rooftops of their own. Dana wasn’t sure if it was a marketplace or a storage depot; but like the rest of the canyon, it was filled to bursting with colorful, vibrant, living things.
Dana couldn’t say a word as Dean parked, pole-axed by the sight. She climbed out of her seat and went outside on autopilot, her jaw hanging open; as a wave of scents hit her. The smell of food, living things; the perfume of a dozen different flower species.
And the people. The people all had the same quality as the people she’d met in the scrapyards. The same natural rainbow colors; combined with the hardy work-clothes. Those on the upper-level were dressed in less hardy clothing; emphasising a natural sense of health and connection to all the vibrant nature in the Canyon.
Yes. Dana thought, feeling quite misty-eyed about it. They make sense now.
Her brother was watching her reaction. “You’re thinking: ‘The People at the scrapyard make sense now.’.”
Dana winced. “I hate that you can read my mind like that.” She told him. “But yes, that is exactly what I was thinking. The people you work with fit in here far more than against piles of rusted scrap.” She rounded on him. “You never told me. You never told me about this.”
“I know.” Dean nodded. “I wanted to. But let's be honest; if you hadn’t seen it for yourself; would you ever imagine it right?”
“I wouldn’t have had to imagine.” She groused.
“You weren’t ready yet.” Freya said. “This canyon isn’t just a hiding place; it’s a company town. Everyone here is working towards something; and you only just figured out the difference between your old life; and ours. Look around this place; Dana. Nature and Civilization don’t just overlap; they’re the same thing. We’ve restored forests to the east; a few lakes to the northwest; the atmosphere is finally recovering; the ocean is starting to come alive again on the coasts… Our goal is to make the whole world a place like this one day.”
The idea made Dana deliriously happy. A moment later she remembered the City. This place was the anti-city.
I was only meant to be away for a year.
The walls of the canyon had several caves; set up to be comfortable domiciles. Dana was given one about the size of her bedroom back home; with a hammock to sleep in like the one her brother used. She slept, listening to the wind blow through the canyon, listening to the water run softly. It was an oddly natural sound. There was the sound of birds calling in the dark. Something she’d never heard before.
Dana felt herself start to drift. Something inside her had relaxed since arriving here. Something she hadn’t known was missing had just been found. She felt… at ease. She hadn’t realized how tightly she was wound; until the pressure suddenly went away.
It was the best night's sleep she’d ever had.
She had a familiar face greet her when she woke up. “Marko.”
The kid had brought her something. It looked like a white honeycomb structure. SHe tried to decipher it, when he unslung a pack from his shoulder. The pack was made of three short wooden cylinder; tied together. He began assembly, and she suddenly realized. “It’s a chair?”
Marko attached the legs, and set it down. It was indeed a chair. Her first gift in this space was furniture. She came over and prodded the material of the seat. “What is it?” She asked in wonder; having never seen anything like it before.
“Mycelium.” Marko explained. “Same stuff that makes a mushroom grow. You can grow it, like foodstuff; and you use a growth medium to bind the whole thing together. You just set it in a mold and let it grow.”
“My chair is made of fungus?” Dana froze in disbelief.
“It’s biodegradable.” Marko insisted. “Mycelium construction is used all the time. Our Printers can make all kinds of shapes to grow in. We either print a hundred chairs, or we print one mold and grow a hundred chairs.”
“I suppose that makes sense.” Dana yawned, still waking up. The chair was comfortable enough. She suddenly jumped up again. “Wait! You’re using both hands!”
Marko smiled and took his glove off. His hand was now mechanical. He had five fingers that all worked normally. The prosthetic was made of the same feedstock as everything that came out of a 3D Printer; but it was clear he’d already painted it up. He worked the fingers to demonstrate; the support for it going up the length of his forearm. “I can’t wear it all the time.” He explained. “Because I’m young, my ‘dimensions’ keep changing. They have to print a new one for me now and then.” He made a fist. “But it works.”
“Y’know something, Marko? I keep forgetting you’re nine years old. You’re just too clever. Kids back in the city don’t know words like ‘biodegradable’ and ‘mycelium’ let alone pronounce them perfectly.”
Marko grinned wide. The first big smile she’d seen from him. He was missing one of his baby teeth. “My mom took the wind turbine we made. It’s set up outside our quarters in the canyon. We’re high enough to use Turbines.”
Dana smiled. “I’m glad.”
Dana spent months in the Canyon. Her little quarters were more or less the same size as her apartment. She had learned the knack of creating furniture and clothing; and been gifted a Printer by her brother. She’d let her imagination go wild for the first time since she was a little kid; and she’d set up her own little workshop; finding more uses for the mycelium molds.
Her brother still lived in his Rig, heading back and forth to bring useful parts for the Canyon; and to help restore living spaces for things to grow. Dana had seen the maps of everywhere they worked. She had travelled with him sometimes; seeing the seaweed farms on the coast, and the restored forests deep inland. Little by little; they were restoring the world.
Back in the canyon, she had made friends; and established a different sort of life; helping grow food; and tend to the animals. Animal Breeders were carefully keeping track of birth rates; and using gene-hacks to correct for genetic diversity; preparing for the time when they could release some of their charges back into the wild. There were people restoring habitat for them every day.
The day Dana had first hand-fed the little sparrows was among the happiest of her life.
Dana had met the founders of the Canyon Community; and learned a lot about how they were organized. There was a real plan working itself out; and Dana had to admit; she would have loved to see the world become full of life and creativity.
Dana had taken to beekeeping during the night, and her own projects during the day. When Dean and Freya returned, she had finished her newest project: Creating seedling planters for her brother to use in the field. He’d be able to plant organic pots the size of an eggshell into the ground directly; and let the bio-matter rot away naturally. It wasn’t a new technique; but she was thrilled to be helping.
Having the Rigs back in the Canyon was always an occasion. The MakersMeet out near the Junkyards and the Solar Towers were places for people to trade and share the use of equipment; or to collaborate on blueprints for the next project. But whenever several teams happened to be by the canyon; it was a party.
Then one night; Marko came to Dean with a message from Dana. It was only two words long, but Dean knew what it meant immediately.
Happy Anniversary.
Dean came hurrying to see his sister, and froze in the entrance to her dwelling. The conversation was over before it started; and Dean knew it the moment he saw her; back in her grey city clothes. The same outfit she wore when she first arrived. “Well. One year, and you could go back, debt free. You weren’t kidding.”
Dana bit her lip. “It’s not what you think.” She promised. “You’re right: I can’t go back to the way I was. And I don’t want to. I’ve made friends here. With your help, I’ve made things grow across half the country… But here’s the thing; Dean: I have friends back in the city too.” She spread her hands wide. “When I first joined you, I was a mess. I believed what I was told: That if I was homeless and starving, it was because I was too lazy and wasteful. But if I had even a fraction of the knowledge I do now; I could have done so much more than just ‘survive’. All the people I know back there are in the same position.”
Dean came in. “And… what? You think you can rescue them?”
“They don’t need rescuing; they just need a little help. They don’t want to be rich and powerful; they want to feel safe.” She gestured around her living area; now with furniture and equipment, and creative things she had made to decorate. “I feel safe. When the heatwaves come; my crops won’t die. When the winter comes; I won’t freeze. I haven’t seen money in a year; so it’s not a question of working harder. I know how to make things grow. Things that will feed me. Things that will protect me.”

“Not from the city.” He warned. “Back there? There’s a reason why we haven’t all gone to the cities and tried to make something like this canyon happen in the middle of their towns. They will fight you, and they won’t listen.”
“Neither would I when I first arrived.” Dana said simply. “But I think… I think they’re just… not there yet.” She rose. “But they will be. Some of them, at least. If only because the way they’ve got can’t last forever.”
“The Fringers back there will be watching for our kind of work.” He reminded her. “You said it yourself; building your own meat-tank is considered piracy. Same for having seeds. Everything in this room is illegal back in the City-States. They won’t let you change things.”
“I know.” Dana said sombrely. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, travelling with you? There’s all sorts of places nobody thinks to look; even in the city.”
Dean looked unsure. "Do you even know the way back to the city? We're miles past Xanadu."
Dana wasn’t swayed. “I'll find my way back. I have to try. I have people back there too. People I know. People I care about. People who need to know… what I know. And if enough of them realize there’s a better way… Isn’t that how small seeds grow to something big?”
Dean had Printed his sister a motorbike, just like the one he’d had when he first collected her from the city limits. She’d returned to ‘city style’ hair and clothing. Hidden in her jacket were concealed pockets full of seeds; and datachips full of information. She would have to scrounge up the rest; but she knew how to do that in a junkyard. Doing so in the city would be no different.
Freya had given her a tight hug; and contributed a few seeds from her strawberry plants. If she could keep them safe until a harvest, the fruits would be worth more than anything she’d ever had before.
Dean sighed as she made her final goodbyes. “Well, I didn’t think you’d stay forever. And to be honest, when this started; I wasn’t sure you were going to be speaking to me by the end.”
Dana chuckled. “I’ll come back.” She swore. “I promise. And when I do, I’ll have friends with me. People like us.” She hopped on her bike. “Keep a light on for me.”
“We will.” Freya promised. “Good luck!”
And Dana rode away, taking everything she needed with her. Her mind was already whirling with how to approach the problem; who to talk to first; how to protect her new knowledge and resources.
“I’ll have to be careful.” She said to herself. “I’ll have to walk soft; and make things grow. I’ll have to search out people who won’t turn me in. People who can see what things can become.”
And despite herself; she was really looking forward to it.


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(Copyright Matt Stephens 2020. Cover Image By Canva)