FULL STORY | "Rewilder" by Laduke Ely Loomis
The Rewilder wakes and finds himself alone, residence cube dark. He dresses in a white jumpsuit as the walls brighten. The plasma-touch system displays the date, time, and weather conditions (haze and dust will be thick today, and air acidity is up 200 PPM). With a tap he turns the panel before him reflective, with another he summons the news. He shaves morning stubble hearing about tensions between East Dome and West Dome. He brushes his teeth watching trailers for new Sense-Sim™ games and interactive movies. He thinks about sending Molly a message, but looks at the chat box too long and regrets having sent her three the night before. She has yet to respond.
The Rewilder flies over the place once called Utah and is almost alone. Peco sits in his charging station, solitary blue eye swiveling around the cockpit. He is a NipponAI Mark X, male designation. The Rewilder refrains from sparking conversation with the orb–he believes it is an unhealthy habit. Emotion, he thinks, should be reserved for things that have it.
They set down at 39° 31’ N, 110° 12’ W, to check on last month’s planting. The Rewilder breathes through his helmet. Peco hovers from his centrifugal motors, spinning fast enough to warp the dust around his body into a congress of twisters. Man and orb approach twelve-foot saplings and record data. One fell to winds, ripped out by its roots. The others have survived. Peco data-taps the bark of each tree with a needle and his partner stands, arms crossed, looking but not looking at the readings across his heads-up display: CO2 absorption nominal, O2 output nominal.
Dusting a lake with an algae solution, the Rewilder messages three characters to Molly: “Hey.”
Nightfall, and the Rewilder meets someone online who says they’re lonely and would not mind keeping him company. The Rewilder knows it might be a man, a bot, a teenager, or anything other than the beautiful Latina he sees in his goggles, but he does not care. Her avatar presses a hand against his chest and he feels the heat and touch replicated by the sense nodes on the back of his skull. He slides between tumescent polygons, and somewhere on Earth she feels his push. They end after an hour and the Rewilder logs out without getting her contact code–rinsing off his chest and stomach in the shower.
“It’s been a century since Mother Earth belched twelve trillion tons of methane from clathrate deposits across the sea floor,” remarks the morning news, as the Rewilder eats Soylent Solution No. 9 topped with artificial honey. More dismal facts follow: indoor UV-farms producing truncated yields for the past three months with no apparent cause, reports of neo-tuberculosis outbreaks in West Dome’s crowded sublevels. He can’t help watching the anchor’s lips move as she relays this, fixating on the motion and not her words.
The Rewilder enters the gym and finds the sight of the treadmill frustrating; he suits up and leaves. Gravel crunches under his boots, panting fills his helmet. He thinks the air looks clearer than it has been in weeks. Staring straight up, the sky is almost blue. He jogs from the residence cube into the canyon where granite walls guard a muddy river. A quarter of his oxygen is depleted in the time it takes to reach the bank. Breathing hard, he looks down and sees a humanoid footprint in the mud. His eyes follow the tracks downriver. The Rewilder leaves faster than he came.
HQ claims the current batch of pinus radiata won’t hold up to the spring megastorms. The Rewilder needs to find a solution. He is tired. His mind is weary from thinking about Molly. He mentions this offhand to Peco, and a moment later the orb plunges a hypodermic into the top of his spine. XRM stimulant floods his serotonin receptors. He spends most of the night hybridizing the pinus radiata with a breed of Mediterranean fig, listening to century-old hip-hop through headphones.
A terrorist attack blows open the outer layer of East Dome’s GeoFront. Tens of thousands die from asphyxiation in the first minute of exposure. The news does not know who to blame, and the Rewilder fights panic as he reaches for his phone. By the time Molly answers, he is in a cold sweat.
She says she is okay, and hangs up.
The Rewilder passes one of his own above the Rockies. He sends a comm bing, flashes spotlights, receives the same. The other glider slides further and further away on his radar until it’s gone and he feels a pang of regret. He wishes they could have set down and shared a moment’s rest, speak to flesh and have flesh speak back. HQ would have found out and docked his daily payment–a fair trade. He casts a glance at Peco. The blue unblinking eye stares back.
He sets down to check up on his trees. The saplings at 39° 31’ N, 110° 12’ W are dead. The Rewilder stands over them, goosebumps bristling along his neck. Each has been cut, hacked off at the base by an ax. He thinks of the footprints on the riverbank. He feels like he’s being watched.
Peco flashes a quick series of photos live transmitted to HQ. “Sir,” he beeps, “this location is not safe. We should extricate immediately and await instruction.”
They fly home. The Rewilder recites Article 1-B from the Gaia Redux Corporation’s field manual at Peco’s behest:
You are not to speak of the Others. If Others are sighted from flight, terminate with extreme prejudice. Under no circumstances is any rewilder permitted to attempt contact with the Others. If any rewilder attempts such contact, your NipponAI Mark X will terminate you. The existence of the Others is classified for reasons of public security. Divulgence of said existence will be dealt with.
He wants to speak to Molly. His fingers hover above holo-keys, message subject “I Miss You.” His hands turn to fists and he turns from the screen. She wouldn’t read it anyway.
One-hundred miles north of his residence cube is the supply depot: a squat, obsidian ziggurat pulsing with neon light and spewing pillars of water vapor. The Rewilder sits alone in the cafeteria, enjoying the heat of the coffee-filled mug on his bare hands. Peco and the cargo drones load up his glider. He was only needed for a signature. The wall monitors stream the news, still chattering about the attack on East Dome.
There is a mechanical inhale as an automatic door slides open. He watches a colleague enter and place her helmet and gloves on a nearby table. She gets coffee and a protein bar before noticing him. She approaches. They sit opposite in silence. From her chest pocket comes a rusted flask, engraved with barely legible text: Visit Sunny Palm Springs. As she pours the whiskey into her drink, the Rewilder can’t help himself.
“Where’d that come from?”
“Canada,” she replies, and pours some into his without asking.
It is hard for the Rewilder to believe Lucy passed away six years ago today. He was working in Texas at the time, reintroducing phytoplankton to the Gulf of Mexico with nanite-enhanced exoskeletons so they wouldn’t dissolve in the water. He had not seen her in over two years. When he arrived late to the funeral, Molly screamed, beat him, and told him to leave.
He keeps the rings in his bedside table. Crying, he wonders why he left.
The Rewilder wakes alone in his bed to alarms and glowing walls. The news is panicked. Fearful anchors relay that West Dome was responsible for East Dome’s attack. They say both cities have declared war. They say the missiles are already in the air. They begin to cry. Some leave the camera. Some pray. The Rewilder gasps for breath and calls Molly for the last time.
“Dad!” he hears, then static.
Rewilding is hard work, but it’s harder still living in the Domes. Now two are gone, cities within cities bigger than mountains reduced to scattered atoms and fallout. The Rewilder does not leave his bed. He does not move. He does not try to make it better. He weeps.
The remaining Domes around the planet seek new methods of diplomacy. They say, “We’ve lost so much already, and now above all, we must learn to live together. This tragedy must never again repeat.” The Rewilder laughs at that. Gazing at a pus-colored sunset, he thinks, this tragedy can only repeat.
HQ commands the Rewilder to exterminate the Others that cut down his recent planting. He’s waited three weeks for the order. A severance mission, they say, in light of his loss. They promise a big pension. Like he gives a shit.
The Rewilder plants his new Radiata-Fig hybrids as bait; they grow six feet a week. The Rewilder cannot recall when he last slept. He stays in the lab for hours making seeds, keeping Peco around for stims. He is alone only when he claims to go jogging, but instead tinkers with the machine gun mounted on the front of his glider in an effort to turn it into a hand-operated weapon. He’s begun to eat some of the seeds.
“Who’s that?” Molly looks away from the camera, following the trajectory of her father’s finger across the living room to Lucy, on the red sofa, beaming.
“Mama!” she says, giggling as she toddles toward the woman.
“Who’s that?” Lucy says toward the camera when Molly is inches away. The little girl whips back.
“Mama!” She points at him and walks back, stopping as her parents laugh, looking between them in confusion.
Lucy points now. “That’s Dada, Molly!”
Back, forth, goes her little head. Back, forth, back, forth, back–she looks to the camera and gives a huge grin. “Mama!”
The frame pauses at the Rewilder’s command. He stares at his dead daughter, at his dead wife. When the goggles come off, he finds the light from Peco’s eye has drenched the cockpit blue. Outside, the night is dark and the mutant saplings sway in the breeze. The Rewilder doesn’t want to speak, holds his Sense-Sim™ console between his face and the robot’s light. After a few seconds of processing, Peco shuts down without comment.
The Rewilder kills Peco the following morning with the glider’s gun, as the Others approach. It detaches from the chassis with the pull of a pin, and the orb bursts like a piñata of silicone and titanium. Debris lands a foot past the ship’s cloaking field. The Others stand still as he and the glider materialize, axes mid swing, unaware The Rewilder saved their lives. He’s never seen them so close. He did not expect something so human. They wear the furs of other forgotten creatures from beyond the Domes, out of sight and mind, thought to have died. Naked children cling to mothers’ waists, hide behind fathers’ legs. Their skin is black, and brown, and pink, and gold. Their hair is short, and long, and straight, and wooly. They do not attack. They drop their axes as he bestows upon them his seeds, his moss, and his algae. The gun he keeps in an embrace tight against his chest. He wonders what they think he is beneath the helmet, so he takes it off.
As he suffocates in air thick as stone and feels his skin blister with heat, they encircle him. They touch his face, warble and click. So they understand, he swallows a final seed. He is blind now, eyes cooked in his skull. He is not alone.
The Others leave the Rewilder and his glider where they found him, on his knees, weapon clutched tight to his chest. Over the weeks they watch his body grow branches, his skin turn to lichen, his blood to chlorophyll. From the husk of his suit and the husk of his body grow things that are green and tall. The things flower in colors the Others do not yet have words for, and produce sweet black fruits they do not know to call figs.
They stop cutting trees, and begin planting them.