African American Science Fiction Sad

The ocean crept in seventeen more centimeters within the last year, and already Aayushi Rawls felt the tension rise in their home just outside of League City, Texas. Matthew would have learned of it by now because the news stations all carried it, and in that bar, all day every day, they all watched the news. 

Nobody was building. The industry had dried up at the beginning of 2160 when in less than six months, the ocean swallowed half of Florida. That act of nature created the brand new Hookshank Island, swampy and useless land that the rest of the state tried to eat like an alligator in all the new maps. Those who were building, despite the uncertainty, used genetically altered clones purchased at a one-time lifetime cost of about one-hundred thousand dollars, cheaper by far than an employee, and twice as efficient.

Futures were built and destroyed on those news reports, and none were so sensitive to the information than those who spent their idle time in her husband’s bar. Aayushi flicked off the holovid and stood slowly, careful not to agitate the bruises on her side - a reminder to have hot food ready when Matthew got home. It was her own fault. She’d forgotten to set the replicator schedule two nights prior. Aayushi’s mind drifted to her husband’s dive, now making more money than it ever had before the changes accelerated from three feet of glacial melt a year to ten feet. He owned the only bar in fifteen miles, and whatever else the climate change may have taken from them, people always showed up with money to spend. The Palenchek’s farm, she knew for a fact, had no more corn left. On the surface, the topsoil seemed arable, but saltwater had saturated the underground reservoirs, and the corn hadn’t known what to do about it. What little grew at all, up at the high end, looked like something out of a horror movie, diseased and deformed as it was. But she’d seen Robert at Jarro the day before last. Like the others, he always had drinking money.

“What time is it?” She asked the question out into the void of the kitchen. Immediately the house gave her a response. “Eight o’clock.”

Aayushi planned to be in bed by the time Matthew made it home from work to avoid the worst of him. She punched the numbers for his favorite steak into the replicator and entered in the schedule for when she thought he might be home. Then she crossed her fingers as she pushed the start button, unsure of whether the finicky thing would heed her or invent some new concoction.

The stabbing in her side intensified as Aayushi flexed her back. It hurt to do anything today, but eventually, it would heal, like it always did. She walked past the replicator, past the dish rack, and down the hallway toward their shared bedroom, but before she got there, she paused outside of Harper’s room in the hallway. Aayushi twisted the knob slowly and nudged the door open, pushing her head through the opening. Her daughter, as thin as the hickory sapling in their yard that probably wouldn't last another year, lay with mouth agape and a tendril of saliva connecting her to her pillow. The girl had Aayushi’s eyes and hair, that beautiful silky black that hung down to her shoulder blades. Closed eyelids hid hazel eyes, darker in color than Aayushi’s but nearly imperceptibly so. Anyone who saw the two of them about knew that they could only be mother and daughter, even down to the olive-tan complexions they both shared. Just laying eyes on the girl made Aayushi forget about the pain in her side and the encroaching ocean which nipped at the edges of their yard. Aayushi pulled the door to a slow close and listened for its latch before continuing down the hallway.

She’d almost reached the sanctuary of the master bedroom when the echoing call of her communicator chime punched her in the chest. Aayushi wanted to ignore it, but she could only imagine what would have been in store for her if she had. The hallway disappeared as she quickly made her way back into the kitchen to retrieve the device from the drawer by the refrigerator. As she touched the button on the side of the cylindrical device, one end projected an image of her husband on the wall beside her.

“What do you want, Matthew? I was going to bed.”

“Need some help, Aayushi. Sherryl had to go homesick.”

Aayushi didn’t bother to hide her disappointment and slumped her shoulders while exhaling an exaggerated sigh.

“Call in another girl,” she said and watched the effect of her words on his projection. Eyebrows arched up as his patience waned, a warning sign that she registered well.

“I’m calling in another girl, Aayushi. You. Get in here and help me.”

“What about Harper?”

“She’s twelve. Write her a note.”

Matthew hung up, leaving her to decide in the dark whether or not she would go in and stare at the sad, tired drunks who no longer had jobs but could still afford booze. Aayushi wondered how their families lived.

There wasn’t really a choice, she reminded herself as she crossed the kitchen heading back toward her bedroom, now for an entirely different purpose from sleep. Aayushi changed as quickly as she could without further aggravating the pain in her side, scribbled a note for Harper on the kitchen table, and took the ancient family car to Jarro to rescue her beleaguered husband. As her automobile wandered the oak and yaupon-lined back roads, a storm brewed above, sending gusts of wind and rain down to her from the sky.

Calling Jarro a dive was a kindness. The front door slid open to her biometric signature, and an intense aroma assaulted Aayushi as soon as she walked in, smiling as best she could. A general wave crossed the room as the crowd slowly gained awareness of her presence, save one man tucked away in a dark corner, head down on his table. She raised her hand to quiet the crowd of locals, recognizing several of them from church and previous nights tending bar or waiting tables.

“Joe, how are you?” She asked the question of a regular as she crossed toward her husband, standing behind the bar. Joe nodded quietly, too drunk to talk. As she passed Carla Givens, she heard a quick whisper.

“Careful, he’s in a mood tonight.”

She reached out a hand onto Carla’s shoulder and squeezed tight, letting her know that whatever state Matthew was in, she could handle it. As she did so, the pain in her side made her lurch slightly and brought tears into her eyes, all there before she could hide from Carla’s inspection. Aayushi collected herself as quickly as she could.

“About damn time. Look over there,” Matthew pointed to the table in the back of the bar, toward the man that Aayushi had noticed before.

“What about him?”

“He’s one of them. Keeps coming in here even though nobody wants him here. The ocean’s moving in, and it brings them with it.”

Aayushi ignored his comment. It was better to stay focused on the problem than to rile him up with the newscast.

“Sherryl went home sick, huh?”

“Wouldn’t stay with his majesty there. She said he dirties up the place. Uppity clones.”

“She’s not exactly a treasure herself.”

“She’s human at least, better’n I could say for that one.”

“They’re just as human as we are, Matthew.”

Why she spent the energy on him, she no longer knew. Part of it was a test, she considered, to see if the man she’d married and who had spirited her across the country from New York was still in there somewhere. She never found him.

“Save it for your friends. Nobody here thinks he’s human, and he’s drunk anyway.”

“You called me in here to play chauffeur to the drunk clone?”

“It’s either that, or they do. Fine by me either way as long as he leaves, but I know how you feel about it.”

There it was. The one small gesture that meant that Matthew still thought of her sometimes. Years before, they’d spent long wine-soaked nights exploring whether genetically altered clones - models - qualified as human beings. Her opinion hadn’t changed in ten years -but he had. Still, he’d called her because he didn’t want her to hear about a model being trounced in his bar, but he didn’t care enough to do anything about it himself.

Matthew shrugged his shoulders toward two men in the corner. One had a long face that stretched down to his Adam’s apple, and the other had a fat round jaw that made his face look like an apple. Both glowered toward the sleeping man.

“Fine. Where are his keys?”

Of the few things that her husband did right about Jarro, it was to take the keys of people who were too drunk to drive - sometimes. He motioned to the key wall, where only one set of keys sat right in the middle. She grabbed them and walked them over to the man’s table, glaring right back at those two men in the corner. Aayushi kicked hard at the table, and the man lurched his head up. Only then did she realize that he was twice as big as any other man in the bar.

“I’m up,” the man said, swiveling his head around. “I’m up.”

He said it twice like they always do. Once to announce it to her, and the other to convince themselves. Neither time was it true.

“Sure you are. Come on.”

He staggered up to his feet, mostly on his own, which was good because she couldn’t have lifted him.

“What’s your name?” She asked as she walked him toward the door.


“Had a bit much, did you?”

“I wouldn’t say that. Not enough, really.”

“I see.”

She got him into his car, and immediately he passed out in the back seat. As Aayushi started the engine, she longed for her bed and the warmth and security it provided. All she had to do was drop off this man, this one man, and she would be on her way. As she turned the steering wheel and her side complained. Once again, she headed out into the storm, and it raged and thundered around her as wind gusts threatened to knock them from the gravelly road.

The car’s autonav delivered them to an apartment complex in the seedier part of Tribeca. When she circled around to retrieve him from the back seat, she roused him enough to stand only to realize that at some point during the drive, he’d vomited all over the back seat. That was going to be a problem, she knew, but not hers. Aayushi helped him to the front door, wincing with every step. The closer they got, the more he seemed to lean on her until they passed the threshold, and he collapsed to the floor blocking the entryway.

“Get up, Ordell,” she told him, kicking his foot. He didn’t seem to notice at first, but when she kicked him again, he stirred.


“Move your legs.”

He shuffled his legs out of the way, and she slammed and locked the door, then surveyed her situation. Here she was, in some drunk guy’s living room, injured and seriously considering whether to use the man’s replicator to get some coffee going and get the man to a state that she didn’t have to worry about him choking on his own vomit after she left. She sighed heavily, and crossed the room to the kitchen nook, then punched the universal code for coffee into the replicator.

“Turn on the news,” she said aloud, and a three-dimensional display sprang up from the coffee table. Noise might help the man wake up.

“Scientists suggest that the change is slowing now. The climate is nearing equilibrium, a point at which the weather can achieve stability. They say that the frequency of storms should level off, and the sea rise should begin to slow. Increases in global temperatures should also reach parity with what the environment can support.”

She stopped listening. It was always the topic these days. Equilibrium this, climate change that. Aayushi pulled a cup of coffee over for the man, and as she approached, the smell seemed to bring him out of his slumber. He leaned up on one elbow and accepted the coffee with his free hand.

“Thank you.”

Aayushi nodded her acceptance of his thanks and returned to the replicator to make another cup, thinking of what it had been like before the weather changed. Jarro hadn’t always been a dive, and the people in it hadn’t always been cruel. Once, they’d had old Palenchek’s daughter’s wedding there, and the whole community had come out to celebrate. But as the farms died off, so did the civility. Her mind snapped back to the present.

“You should stop going to Jarro,” she said. “You’re a model, aren’t you?”

“Guilty,” he told her, sipping on his beverage with a bar-code stamped wrist. “But it’s the only bar around. And you’re not an alcoholic until you start drinking alone.”

“I’ve got bad news for you. That’s not what makes you an alcoholic.”

Ordell only took another sip.

“This is terrible coffee.”

“It’s your replicator.”

“Yeah, but even so, you somehow made bad coffee worse.”

She laughed at that comment, finally able to stop thinking for a few seconds.

“Why do you go where everyone hates you? There are model-friendly bars in the city. You have autonav. Why not just go drink there?”

“You wouldn’t believe me.”

He took another sip of coffee, staring at her over the top. His broad nose and thick eyebrows caught her hazel eyes, and when she found herself staring, she looked away quickly.

“Well?” She said and made a show of retrieving her coffee from the replicator.

“They haven’t hurt me yet,” he told her. “As long as I stay in my corner, I’m fine. And this is close enough to home that it feels like a neighborhood pub. When I’m at Jarro, I can pretend I have friends and that I belong somewhere.”

“That’s pathetic.”

“I know.”

He sipped on his coffee some more.

“You look okay,” she told him. “I think I’m going to go.”

She threw the words at him out of obligation, but this moment was the most at ease she’d felt for an entire day. Aayushi didn’t move to stand up and instead inched closer to him on the couch. There was so much she wanted to ask.

“Do you have to?”

In the background, the holovision blared up as she looked at him, feeling her heart begin to race in her chest. His shirts barely fit, and muscles threatened to split the fabrics around his neck. He was a monstrosity of a man, dangerous if he wanted to be, yet controlled by the laws that kept models like him under strict control. Something more stirred inside of her as the pulsing of her heart pushed against her rib cage ache where the bruises lingered. Suddenly ashamed, she looked away from him.

“You may wonder about this event - Equilibrium. Does it mean that the storms will drop off again, and we’ll see the world return to how it was before? Can scientists reverse course? Can we? The answer is no. What Equilibrium means is that the world you’re experiencing now is the new normal. The crop die-offs and the new islands - we’ve arrived. At least we’re still here.”

“I guess I don’t have to leave yet,” she told him. She watched him pull his massive body up and cross over past the couch. In a swift motion, he pulled off his shirt and tossed it across his apartment into a pile that might have been laundry. Aayushi bit her lower lip as she watched him carry his biceps, each the size of her thighs, across the room. When he turned a little more to get a shirt from the presumed “clean laundry” pile, she caught sight of several healed scars across his back.

He made his way back, dropping to the cushion beside her in a thunderous sigh. Aayushi sipped her beverage, and he sipped his.

“What’s it like to be a model?” In the back of her mind, she felt the alarms going off, telling her to leave, go home. The rapid beating of her heart blocked out the signals. With a gentle smile, his cool, dark eyes caught in her own, and he began his story.

Aayushi focused on the man before her as he shared his story. From the mocking co-workers who banded together to keep him in his place to the pitiful stipend he received each month on which to eke out a meager survival, she listened while her side throbbed in commiseration. 

The news report broke through. The ocean crept in more than expected during the previous year. It would stop soon. They’d landed in Equilibrium, and what they suffered now was the worst of it. All they needed to do now was figure out how to survive.

April 18, 2021 14:44

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