Cast of Wonders 530: Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived By Her Mercy

Because Change Was the Ocean and We Lived By Her Mercy

by Charlie Jane Anders

1. This was sacred, this was stolen

We stood naked on the shore of Bernal and watched the candles float across the bay, swept by a lazy current off to the north, in the direction of Potrero Island. A dozen or so candles stayed afloat and alight after half a league, their tiny flames bobbing up and down, casting long yellow reflections on the dark water alongside the streaks of moonlight. At times I fancied the candlelight could filter down onto streets and buildings, the old automobiles and houses full of children’s toys, all the waterlogged treasures of long-gone people. We held hands, twenty or thirty of us, and watched the little candle-boats we’d made as they floated away. Joconda was humming an old reconstructed song about the wild road, hir beard full of flowers. We all just about held our breath. I felt my bare skin go electric with the intensity of the moment, like this could be the good time we’d all remember in the bad times to come. This was sacred, this was stolen. And then someone—probably Miranda—farted, and then we were all laughing, and the grown-up seriousness was gone. We were all busting up and falling over each other on the rocky ground, in a nude heap, scraping our knees and giggling into each other’s limbs. When we got our breath back and looked up, the candles were all gone.

2. I felt like I had always been wrong headed

I couldn’t deal with life in Fairbanks any more. I grew up at the same time as the town, watched it go from regular city to mega-city as I hit my early twenties. I lived in an old decommissioned solar power station with five other kids, and we tried to make the loudest, most uncomforting music we could, with a beat as relentless and merciless as the tides. We wanted to shake our cinderblock walls and make people dance until their feet bled. But we sucked. We were bad at music, and not quite dumb enough not to know it. We all wore big hoods and spiky shoes and tried to make our own drums out of drycloth and cracked wood, and we read our poetry on Friday nights. There were bookhouses, along with stinktanks where you could drink up and listen to awful poetry about extinct animals. People came from all over, because everybody heard that Fairbanks was becoming the most civilized place on Earth, and that’s when I decided to leave town. I had this moment of looking around at my musician friends and my restaurant job and our cool little scene, and feeling like there had to be more to life than this.

I hitched a ride down south and ended up in Olympia, at a house where they were growing their own food and drugs, and doing a way better job with the drugs than the food. We were all staring upwards at the first cloud anybody had seen in weeks, trying to identify what it could mean. When you hardly ever saw them, clouds had to be omens.

We were all complaining about our dumb families, still watching that cloud warp and contort, and I found myself talking about how my parents only liked to listen to that boring boo-pop music with the same three or four major chords and that cruddy AAA/BBB/CDE/CDE rhyme scheme, and how my mother insisted on saving every scrap of organic material we used, and collecting every drop of rainwater. “It’s fucking pathetic, is what it is. They act like we’re still living in the Great Decimation.”

“They’re just super traumatized,” said this skinny genderfreak named Juya, who stood nearby holding the bong. “It’s hard to even imagine. I mean, we’re the first generation that just takes it for granted we’re going to survive, as, like, a species. Our parents, our grandparents, and their grandparents, they were all living like every day could be the day the planet finally got done with us. They didn’t grow up having moisture condensers and myco-protein rinses and skinsus.”

“Yeah, whatever,” I said. But what Juya said stuck with me, because I had never thought of my parents as traumatized. I’d always thought they were just tightly wound and judgey. Juya had two cones of dark twisty hair on zir head and a red pajamzoot, and zi was only a year or two older than me but seemed a lot wiser.

“I want to find all the music we used to have,” I said. “You know, the weird, noisy shit that made people’s clothes fall off and their hair light on fire. The rock ’n roll that just listening to it turned girls into boys, the songs that took away the fear of god. I’ve read about it, but I’ve never heard any of it, and I don’t even know how to play it.”

“Yeah, all the recordings and notations got lost in the Dataclysm,” Juya said. “They were in formats that nobody can read, or they got corrupted, or they were printed on disks made from petroleum. Those songs are gone forever.”

“I think they’re under the ocean,” I said. “I think they’re down there somewhere.”

Something about the way I said that helped Juya reach a decision. “Hey, I’m heading back down to the San Francisco archipelago in the morning. I got room in my car if you wanna come with.”

Juya’s car was an older solar model that had to stop every couple hours to recharge, and the self-driving module didn’t work so great. My legs were resting in a pile of old headmods and biofills, plus those costooms that everybody used a few summers earlier that made your skin turn into snakeskin that you could shed in one piece. So the upshot was, we had a lot of time to talk and hold hands and look at the endless golden landscape stretching off to the east. Juya had these big bright eyes that laughed when the rest of zir face was stone serious, and strong tentative hands to hold me in place as zi tied me to the car seat with fronds of algae. I had never felt as safe and dangerous as when I crossed the wasteland with Juya. We talked for hours about how the world needed new communities, new ways to breathe life back into the ocean, new ways to be people.

By the time we got to Bernal Island and the Wrong Headed community, I was in love with Juya, deeper than I’d ever felt with anyone before.

Juya up and left Bernal a week and a half later, because zi got bored again, and I barely noticed that zi was gone. By then, I was in love with a hundred other people, and they were all in love with me.

Bernal Island was only accessible from one direction, from the big island in the middle, and only at a couple times of day when they let the bridge down and turned off the moat. After a few days on Bernal, I stopped even noticing the other islands on our horizon, let alone paying attention to my friends on social media talking about all the fancy new restaurants Fairbanks was getting. I was constantly having these intense, heartfelt moments with people in the Wrong Headed crew.

“The ocean is our lover, you can hear it laughing at us.” Joconda was sort of the leader here. Sie sometimes had a beard and sometimes a smooth round face covered with perfect bright makeup. Hir eyes were as gray as the sea and just as unpredictable. For decades, San Francisco and other places like it had been abandoned, because the combination of seismic instability and a voracious dead ocean made them too scary and risky. But that city down there, under the waves, had been the place everybody came to, from all over the world, to find freedom. That legacy was ours now.

And those people had brought music from their native countries and their own cultures, and all those sounds had crashed together in those streets, night after night. Joconda’s own ancestors had come from China and Peru, and hir great-grandparents had played nine-stringed guitars, melodies and rhythms that Joconda barely recalled now. Listening to hir, I almost fancied I could put my ear to the surface of the ocean and hear all the sounds from generations past, still reverberating. We sat all night, Joconda, some of the others and myself, and I got to play on an old-school drum made of cowhide or something. I felt like I had always been Wrong Headed, and I’d just never had the word for it before.

Juya sent me an email a month or two after zi left Bernal: The moment I met you, I knew you needed to be with the rest of those maniacs. I’ve never been able to resist delivering lost children to their rightful homes. It’s almost the only thing I’m good at, other than the things you already knew about. I never saw zir again.

3. “I’m so glad I found a group of people I would risk drowning in dead water for.”

Back in the twenty-first century, everybody had theories about how to make the ocean breathe again. Fill her with quicklime, to neutralize the acid. Split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen, and bond the hydrogen with the surplus carbon in the water to create a clean-burning hydrocarbon fuel. Release genetically engineered fish, with special gills. Grow special algae that was designed to commit suicide after a while. Spray billions of nanotech balls into her. And a few other things. Now, we had to clean up the after-effects of all those failed solutions, while also helping the sea to let go of all that CO2 from before.

The only way was the slow way. We pumped ocean water through our special enzyme store and then through a series of filters, until what came out the other end was clear and oxygen-rich. The waste, we separated out and disposed of. Some of it became raw materials for shoe soles and roof tiles. Some of it, the pure organic residue, we used as fertilizer or food for our mycoprotein.

I got used to staying up all night playing music with some of the other Wrong Headed kids, sometimes on the drum and sometimes on an old stringed instrument that was made of stained wood and had a leering cat face under its fret. Sometimes I thought I could hear something in the way our halting beats and scratchy notes bounced off the walls and the water beyond, like we were really conjuring a lost soundtrack. Sometimes it all just seemed like a waste.

What did it mean to be a real authentic person, in an era when everything great from the past was twenty feet underwater? Would you embrace prefab newness, or try to copy the images you can see from the handful of docs we’d scrounged from the Dataclysm? When we got tired of playing music, an hour before dawn, we would sit around arguing, and inevitably you got to that moment where you were looking straight into someone else’s eyes and arguing about the past, and whether the past could ever be on land, or the past was doomed to be deep underwater forever.

I felt like I was just drunk all the time, on that cheap-ass vodka that everybody chugged in Fairbanks, or maybe on nitrous. My head was evaporating, but my heart just got more and more solid. I woke up every day on my bunk, or sometimes tangled up in someone else’s arms and legs on the daybed, and felt actually jazzed to get up and go clean the scrubbers or churn the mycoprotein vats.

Every time we put down the bridge to the big island and turned off our moat, I felt everything go sour inside me, and my heart went funnel-shaped. People sometimes just wandered away from the Wrong Headed community without much in the way of goodbye—that was how Juya had gone—but meanwhile, new people showed up and got the exact same welcome that everyone had given to me. I got freaked out thinking of my perfect home being overrun by new selfish loud fuckers. Joconda had to sit me down, at the big table where sie did all the official business, and tell me to get over myself because change was the ocean and we lived on her mercy. “Seriously, Pris. I ever see that look on your face, I’m going to throw you into the myco vat myself.” Joconda stared at me until I started laughing and promised to get with the program.

And then one day I was sitting at our big table, overlooking the straits between us and the big island. Staring at Sutro Tower, and the taller buildings poking out of the water here and there. And this obnoxious skinny bitch sat down next to me, chewing in my ear and talking about the impudence of impermanence or some similar. “Miranda,” she introduced herself. “I just came up from Anaheim-Diego. Jeez, what a mess. They actually think they can build nanomechs and make it scalable. Whatta bunch of poutines.”

“Stop chewing in my ear,” I muttered. But then I found myself following her around everywhere she went.

Miranda was the one who convinced me to dive into the chasm of Fillmore St. in search of a souvenir from the old Church of John Coltrane, as a present for Joconda. I strapped on some goggles and a big apparatus that fed me oxygen while also helping me to navigate a little bit, and then we went out in a dinghy that looked old enough that someone had actually used it for fishing. Miranda gave me one of her crooked grins and studied a wrinkled old map. “I thinnnnnk it’s right around here.” She laughed. “Either that or the Korean barbecue restaurant where the mayor got assassinated that one time. Not super clear which is which.”

I gave her a murderous look and jumped into the water, letting myself fall into the street at the speed of water resistance. Those sunken buildings turned into doorways and windows facing me, but they stayed blurry as the bilge flowed around them. I could barely find my feet, let alone identify a building on sight. One of these places had been a restaurant, I was pretty sure. Ancient automobiles lurched back and forth, like maybe even their brakes had rusted away. I figured the Church of John Coltrane would have a spire like a saxophone? Maybe? But all of the buildings looked exactly the same. I stumbled down the street, until I saw something that looked like a church, but it was a caved-in old McDonald’s restaurant. Then I tripped over something, a downed pole or whatever, and my face mask cracked as I went down. The water was going down my throat, tasting like dirt, and my vision went all pale and wavy.

I almost just went under, but then I thought I could see a light up there, way above the street, and I kicked. I kicked and chopped and made myself float. I churned up there until I broke the surface. My arms were thrashing above the water and then I started to go back down, but Miranda had my neck and one shoulder. She hauled me up and out of the water and threw me into the dinghy. I was gasping and heaving up water, and she just sat and laughed at me.

“You managed to scavenge something after all.” She pointed to something I’d clutched at on my way up out of the water: a rusted, barbed old piece of a car. “I’m sure Joconda will love it.”

“Ugh,” I said. “Fuck Old San Francisco. It’s gross and corroded and there’s nothing left of whatever used to be cool. But hey. I’m glad I found a group of people I would risk drowning in dead water for.”

4. I chose to see that as a special status

Miranda had the kind of long-limbed, snaggle-toothed beauty that made you think she was born to make trouble. She loved to roughhouse, and usually ended up with her elbow on the back of my neck as she pushed me into the dry dirt. She loved to invent cute insulting nicknames for me, like “Dollypris” or “Pris Ridiculous.” She never got tired of reminding me that I might be a ninth level genderfreak, but I had all kinds of privilege, because I grew up in Fairbanks and never had to wonder how we were going to eat.

Miranda had this way of making me laugh even when the news got scary, when the government back in Fairbanks was trying to reestablish control over the whole West Coast, and extinction rose up like the shadows at the bottom of the sea. I would start to feel that scab inside my stomach, like the whole ugly unforgiving world could come down on us and our tiny island sanctuary at any moment, Miranda would suddenly start making up a weird dance or inventing a motto for a team of superhero mosquitos, and then I would be laughing so hard it was like I was squeezing the fear out of my insides. Her hands were a mass of scar tissue but they were as gentle as dried-up blades of grass on my thighs.

Miranda had five other lovers, but I was the only one she made fun of. I chose to see that as a special status.

5. “What are you people even about”

Falling in love with a community is always going to be more real that any love for a single human being could ever be. People will let you down, shatter your image of them, or try to melt down the wall between your self-image and theirs. People, one at a time, are too messy. Miranda was my hero and the lover I’d pretty much dreamed of since both puberties, but I also saved pieces of my heart for a bunch of other Wrong Headed people. I loved Joconda’s totally random inspirations and perversions, like all of the art projects sie started getting me to build out of scraps from the sunken city after I brought back that car piece from Fillmore St. Zell was this hyperactive kid with wild half-braids, who had this whole theory about digging up buried hard drives full of music files from the digital age, so we could reconstruct the actual sounds of Marvin Gaye and the Jenga Priests. Weo used to sit with me and watch the sunset going down over the islands, we didn’t talk a lot except that Weo would suddenly whisper some weird beautiful notion about what it would be like to live at sea; one day when the sea was alive again. But it wasn’t any individual, it was the whole group, we had gotten in a rhythm together and we all believed the same stuff. The love of the ocean, and her resilience in the face of whatever we had done to her, and the power of silliness to make you believe in abundance again. Openness, and a kind of generosity that is the opposite of monogamy.

But then one day I looked up, and some of the faces were different again. A few of my favorite people in the community had bugged out without saying anything, and one or two of the newcomers started seriously getting on my nerves. One person, Mage, just had a nasty temper, going off at anyone who crossed hir path whenever xie was in one of those moods, and you could usually tell from the unruly condition of Mage’s bleach-blond hair and the broke-toothed scowl. Mage became one of Miranda’s lovers right off the bat, of course.

I was just sitting on my hands and biting my tongue, reminding myself that I always hated change and then I always got used to it after a little while. This would be fine: Change was the ocean and she took care of us.

Then we discovered the spoilage. We had been filtering the ocean water, removing toxic waste, filtering out excess gunk, and putting some of the organic byproducts into our mycoprotein vats as a feedstock. But one day, we opened the biggest vat and the stench was so powerful we all started to cry and retch, and we kept crying even after the puking stopped. Shit, that was half our food supply. It looked like our whole filtration system was off, there were remnants of buckystructures in the residue that we’d been feeding to our fungus, and the fungus was choking on them. Even the fungus that wasn’t spoiled would have minimal protein yield. And this also meant that our filtration system wasn’t doing anything to help clean the ocean, at all, because it was still letting the dead pieces of buckycrap through.

Joconda just stared at the mess and finally shook hir head and told us to bury it under the big hillside.

We didn’t have enough food for the winter after that, so a bunch of us had to make the trip up north to Marin, by boat and on foot, to barter with some gun-crazy farmers in the hills. And they wanted free labor in exchange for food, so we left Weo and a few others behind to work in their fields. Trudging back down the hill pulling the first batch of produce in a cart, I kept looking over my shoulder to see our friends staring after us, as we left them surrounded by old dudes with rifles.

I couldn’t look at the community the same way after that. Joconda fell into a depression that made hir unable to speak or look anyone in the eye for days at a time, and we were all staring at the walls of our poorly repaired dormitory buildings, which looked as though a strong wind could bring them down. I kept remembering myself walking away from those farmers, the way I told Weo it would be fine, we’d be back before anyone knew anything, this would be a funny story later. I tried to imagine myself doing something different. Putting my foot down maybe, or saying fuck this, we don’t leave our own behind. It didn’t seem like something I would ever do, though. I had always been someone who went along with what everybody else wanted. My one big act of rebellion was coming here to Bernal Island, and I wouldn’t have ever come if Juya hadn’t already been coming.

Miranda saw me coming and walked the other way. That happened a couple of times. She and I were supposed to have a fancy evening together, I was going to give her a bath even if it used up half my water allowance, but she canceled. We were on a tiny island but I kept only seeing her off in the distance, in a group of others, but whenever I got closer she was gone. At last I saw her walking on the big hill, and I followed her up there, until we were almost at eye level with the Trans America Pyramid coming up out of the flat water. She turned and grabbed at the collar of my shirt and part of my collarbone. “You gotta let me have my day,” she hissed. “You can’t be in my face all the time. Giving me that look. You need to get out of my face.”

“You blame me,” I said, “for Weo and the others. For what happened.”

“I blame you for being a clingy wet blanket. Just leave me alone for a while. Jeez.” And then I kept walking behind her, and she turned and either made a gesture that connected with my chest, or else intentionally shoved me. I fell on my butt. I nearly tumbled head over heels down the rocky slope into the water, but then I got a handhold on a dead root.

“Oh fuck. Are you okay?” Miranda reached down to help me up, but I shook her off. I trudged down the hill alone.

I kept replaying that moment in my head, when I wasn’t replaying the moment when I walked away with a ton of food and left Weo and the others at gunpoint. I had thought that being here, on this island, meant that the only past that mattered was the grand, mysterious, rebellious history that was down there under the water, in the wreckage of San Francisco. All of the wild music submerged between its walls. I had thought my own personal past no longer mattered at all. Until suddenly, I had no mental energy for anything but replaying those two memories. Uglier each time around.

And then someone came up to me at lunch, as I sat and ate some of the proceeds from Weo’s indenture: Kris, or Jamie, I forget which. And he whispered, “I’m on your side.” A few other people said the same thing later that day. They had my back, Miranda was a bitch, she had assaulted me. I saw other people hanging around Miranda and staring at me, talking in her ear, telling her that I was a problem and they were with her.

I felt like crying, except that I couldn’t find enough moisture inside me. I didn’t know what to say to the people who were on my side. I was too scared to speak. I wished Joconda would wake up and tell everybody to quit it, to just get back to work and play and stop fomenting.

The next day, I went to the dining area, sitting at the other end of the long table from Miranda and her group of supporters. Miranda stood up so fast she knocked her own food on the floor, and she shouted at Yozni, “Just leave me the fuck alone. I don’t want you on ‘my side,’ or anybody else. There are no sides. This is none of your business. You people. You goddamn people. What are you people even about?” She got up and left, kicking the wall on her way out.

After that, everybody was on my side.

6. The honeymoon was over, but the marriage was just starting

I rediscovered social media. I’d let my friendships with people back in Fairbanks and elsewhere run to seed, during all of this weird, but now I reconnected with people I hadn’t talked to in a year or so. Everybody kept saying that Olympia had gotten really cool since I left, there was a vibrant music scene now and people were publishing zootbooks and having storytelling slams and stuff. And meanwhile, the government in Fairbanks had decided to cool it on trying to make the coast fall into line, though there was talk about some kind of loose articles of confederation at some point. Meanwhile, we’d even made some serious inroads against the warlords of Nevada.

I started looking around the dormitory buildings and kitchens and communal playspaces of Bernal, and at our ocean reclamation machines, as if I was trying to commit them to memory. One minute, I was looking at all of it as if this could be the last time I would see any of it, but then the next minute, I was just making peace with it so I could stay forever. I could just imagine how this moment could be the beginning of a new, more mature relationship with the Wrong Headed crew, where I wouldn’t have any more illusions, but that would make my commitment even stronger.

I sat with Joconda and a few others, on that same stretch of shore where we’d all stood naked and launched candles, and we held hands after a while. Joconda smiled, and I felt like sie was coming back to us, so it was like the heart of our community was restored. “Decay is part of the process. Decay keeps the ocean warm.” Today Joconda had wild hair with some bright colors in it, and a single strand of beard. I nodded.

Instead of the guilt or fear or selfish anxiety that I had been so aware of having inside me, I felt a weird feeling of acceptance. We were strong. We would get through this. We were Wrong Headed.

I went out in a dinghy and sailed around the big island, went up towards the ruins of Telegraph. I sailed right past the Newsom Spire, watching its carbon-fiber cladding flake away like shiny confetti. The water looked so opaque, it was like sailing on milk. I sat there in the middle of the city, a few miles from anyone, and felt totally peaceful. I had a kick of guilt at being so selfish, going off on my own when the others could probably use another pair of hands. But then I decided it was okay. I needed this time to myself. It would make me a better member of the community.

When I got back to Bernal, I felt calmer than I had in ages, and I was able to look at all the others—even Mage, who still gave me the murder-eye from time to time—with patience and love. They were all my people. I was lucky to be among them.

I had this beautiful moment, that night, standing by a big bonfire with the rest of the crew, half of us some level of naked, and everybody looked radiant and free. I started to hum to myself, and it turned into a song, one of the old songs that Zell had supposedly brought back from digital extinction. It had this chorus about the wild kids and the wardance, and a bridge that doubled back on itself, and I had this feeling, like maybe the honeymoon is over, but the marriage is just beginning.

Then I found myself next to Miranda, who kicked at some embers with her boot. “I’m glad things calmed down,” I whispered. “I didn’t mean for everyone to get so crazy. We were all just on edge, and it was a bad time.”

“Huh,” Miranda said. “I noticed that you never told your peeps to cool it, even after I told the people defending me to shut their faces.”

“Oh,” I said. “But I actually,” and then I didn’t know what to say. I felt the feeling of helplessness, trapped in the grip of the past, coming back again. “I mean, I tried. I’m really sorry.”

“Whatever,” Miranda said. “I’m leaving soon. Probably going back to Anaheim-Diego. I heard they made some progress with the nanomechs after all.”

“Oh.” I looked into the fire, until my retinas were all blotchy. “I’ll miss you.”

“Whatever.” Miranda slipped away. I tried to mourn her going, but then I realized I was just relieved. I wasn’t going to be able to deal with her hanging around, like a bruise, when I was trying to move forward. With Miranda gone, I could maybe get back to feeling happy here.

Joconda came along when we went back up into Marin to get the rest of the food from those farmers, and collect Weo and the two others we had left there. We climbed up the steep path from the water, and Joconda kept needing to rest. Close to the water, everything was the kind of salty and moist that I’d gotten used to, but after a few miles, everything got dry and dusty. By the time we got to the farm, we were thirsty and we’d used up all our water, and the farmers saw us coming and got their rifles out.

Our friends had run away, the farmers said. Weo and the others. A few weeks earlier, and they didn’t know where. They just ran off, left the work half done. So, too bad, we weren’t going to get all the food we had been promised. Nothing personal, the lead farmer said. He had sunburnt cheeks, even though he wore a big straw hat. I watched Joconda’s face pass through shock, anger, misery, and resignation, without a single word coming out. The farmers had their guns slung over their shoulders, enough of a threat without even needing to aim. We took the cart, half full of food instead of all the way full, back down the hill to our boat.

We never found out what actually happened to Weo and the others.

7. “That’s such an inappropriate line of inquiry I don’t even know how to deal”

I spent a few weeks pretending I was in it for the long haul on Bernal Island, after we got back from Marin. This was my home, I had formed an identity here that meant the world to me, and these people were my family. Of course I was staying.

Then one day, I realized I was just trying to make up my mind whether to go back to Olympia, or all the way back to Fairbanks. In Fairbanks, they knew how to make thick-cut toast with egg smeared across it; you could go out dancing in half a dozen different speakeasies that stayed open until dawn. I missed being in a real city, kind of. I realized I’d already decided to leave San Francisco a while ago, without ever consciously making the decision.

Everyone I had ever had a crush on, I had hooked up with already. Some of them, I still hooked up with sometimes, but it was nostalgia sex rather than anything else. I was actually happier sleeping alone, I didn’t want anybody else’s knees cramping my thighs in the middle of the night. I couldn’t forgive the people who sided with Miranda against me, and I was even less able to forgive the people who sided with me against Miranda. I didn’t like to dwell on stuff, but there were a lot of people I had obscure, unspoken grudges against, all around me. And then occasionally I would stand in a spot where I’d watched Weo sit and build a tiny raft out of sticks, and would feel the anger rise up all over again. At myself, mostly.

I wondered about what Miranda was doing now, and whether we would ever be able to face each other again. I had been so happy to see her go, but now I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

The only time I even wondered about my decision was when I looked at the ocean, and the traces of the dead city underneath it, the amazing heritage that we were carrying on here. Sometimes I stared into the waves for hours, trying to hear the soundwaves trapped in them, but then I started to feel like maybe the ocean had told me everything it was ever going to. The ocean always sang the same notes, it always passed over the same streets and came back with the same sad laughter. And staring down at the ocean only reminded me of how we’d thought we could help to heal her, with our enzyme treatments, a little at a time. I couldn’t see why I had ever believed in that fairy tale. The ocean was going to heal on her own, sooner or later, but in the meantime we were just giving her meaningless therapy, that made us feel better more than it actually helped. I got up every day and did my chores. I helped to repair the walls and tend the gardens and stuff. But I felt like I was just turning wheels to keep a giant machine going, so that I would be able to keep turning the wheels tomorrow.

I looked down at my own body, at the loose kelp-and-hemp garments I’d started wearing since I’d moved here. I looked at my hands and forearms, which were thicker, callused, and more veiny with all the hard work I’d been doing here—but also, the thousands of rhinestones in my fingernails glittered in the sunlight, and I felt like I moved differently than I used to. Even with every shitty thing that had happened, I’d learned something here, and wherever I went from now on, I would always be Wrong Headed.

I left without saying anything to anybody, the same way everyone else had.

A few years later, I had drinks with Miranda on that new floating platform that hovered over the wasteland of North America. Somehow we floated half a mile above the desert and the mountaintops—don’t ask me how, but it was carbon neutral and all that good stuff. From up here, the hundreds of miles of parched earth looked like piles of gold.

“It’s funny, right?” Miranda seemed to have guessed what I was thinking. “All that time, we were going on about the ocean and how it was our lover and our history and all that jazz. But look at that desert down there. It’s all beautiful, too. It’s another wounded environment, sure, but it’s also a lovely fragment of the past. People sweated and died for that land, and maybe one day it’ll come back. You know?” Miranda was, I guess, in her early thirties, and she looked amazing. She’d gotten the snaggle taken out of her teeth, and her hair was a perfect wave. She wore a crisp suit and she seemed powerful and relaxed. She’d become an important person in the world of nanomechs.

I stopped staring at Miranda and looked over the railing, down at the dunes. We’d made some pretty major progress at rooting out the warlords, but still nobody wanted to live there, in the vast majority of the continent. The desert was beautiful from up here, but maybe not so much up close.

“I heard Joconda killed hirself,” Miranda said. “A while ago. Not because of anything in particular that had happened. Just the depression, it caught up with hir.” She shook her head. “God. Sie was such an amazing leader. But hey, the Wrong Headed community is twice the size it was when you and I lived there, and they expanded onto the big island. I even heard they got a seat at the table of the confederation talks. Sucks that Joconda won’t see what sie built get that recognition.”

I was still dressed like a Wrong Headed person, even after a few years. I had the loose flowy garments, the smudgy paint on my face that helped obscure my gender rather than serving as a guide to it, the straight-line thin eyebrows and sparkly earrings and nails. I hadn’t lived on Bernal in years, but it was still a huge part of who I was. Miranda looked like this whole other person, and I didn’t know whether to feel ashamed that I hadn’t moved on, or contemptuous of her for selling out, or some combination. I didn’t know anybody who dressed the way Miranda was dressed, because I was still in Olympia where we were being radical artists.

I wanted to say something. An apology, or something sentimental about the amazing time we had shared, or I don’t even know what. I didn’t actually know what I wanted to say, and I had no words to put it into. So after a while I just raised my glass and we toasted to Wrong Headedness. Miranda laughed, that same old wild laugh, as our glasses touched. Then we went back to staring down at the wasteland, trying to imagine how many generations it would take before something green came out of it.

Host Commentary

What I love most about this story are its sense of hope, acceptance, and community. The post-eco-apocalypse setting is convincing and quite scarily plausible, but it’s the communities and relationships that show how undaunted the human spirit is in the face of global challenges. The Wrong Headed community is vibrant, creative, caring, human… and at times both ruthlessly pragmatic and naive. Human flaws, as well as human virtues, but the drive is always there to make the world better. It’s not something that happens overnight, but the idealism is ever-present. Even when Pris moves on with their life, away from the community, the integrity of what it meant to them, and how free they were to be their authentic self, still shines through. That’s a future worth living in.

About the Author

Charlie Jane Anders

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of the Unstoppable trilogy: the first two books, Victories Greater Than Death and Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, are out now, and the final book, Promises Stronger Than Darkness, comes out April 11, 2023. She’s also the author of the short story collection Even Greater Mistakes, and Never Say You Can’t Survive (August 2021), a book about how to use creative writing to get through hard times. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night and All the Birds in the Sky. She’s won the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Lambda Literary, Crawford and Locus Awards. She co-created Escapade, a trans superhero, for Marvel Comics and wrote her into the long-running New Mutants comic. And she’s currently the science fiction and fantasy book reviewer for the Washington Post. Her TED Talk, “Go Ahead, Dream About the Future” got 700,000 views in its first week. With Annalee Newitz, she co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.

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About the Narrator

Serah Eley

Serah Eley is a software developer and writer who once, under the name Steve Eley, started a little science fiction podcast called Escape Pod. You might have heard of it. She was the original founder of Escape Artists, our parent company, before retiring from podcasting in 2010. She’s spent much of the past ten years exploring the frontier territories of multiple-identity and gender, and is just starting to write home about what she’s found. You can follow her exploits at

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