17. The land of the free

It’s the best part of a day before we reach our destination. At least, it is in terms of hours, but we seem to be on the edge of daylight for the duration. Almost the whole time, we seem to have been passing over water, but looking out of the copter screen now, I can see that we’ve found land.

It’s more land than I’ve seen in a long time: it stretches out to the horizon, which is something I didn’t know dry ground could even do anymore. There are plants of some kind, and fields, and enormous concentrations of the same dark, round buildings we saw earlier, popping up out of the vegetation like mushrooms.

The copter is gently lowered down on what looks like a giant, metal conveyor belt, which snakes across a concrete plain through a series of large, rectangular buildings with sloping roofs. There are more copters landed on it, spaced out in a regular pattern, slowly making their way around the course.

Above us, what looks like a giant piece of flying scaffolding lifts up. Other copters are attached to its skeleton arms as it rises: it looks like it dropped us off, perhaps with a few other copters, and it’s picking others up, ready to gingerly deposit them somewhere else.

“We’re here,” Sal says. “Maintenance.” They take a hard look at the copter control panel. “But where is here?”

I look beyond the copters outside. I see no writing or signage anywhere, but bare mountain peaks surround us in the background. This is nowhere near home.

“Arizona,” Sal says, finally. “We’re in fucking Phoenix, Arizona.”

Let used to tell me stories about America. He’d been there once, a long time ago, before I was born. Something to do with our parents; a trip they’d taken to meet with other scientists, back when people still thought there was a way to save the world.

They flew over in a plane, drove everywhere in gas-powered cars, and flew black in another one. It was like visiting a mass delusion.

And that was the country in a nutshell. He said it was sometimes really beautiful, geographically speaking, but that even in the rise, with the waters rising and societies coming to a crumbling halt, people didn’t believe in climate change in enormous numbers. They thought it was an affront to God, or it was an inconvenient thing to believe in, or they stood to make themselves very comfortable from hoarding resources when they became more and more scarce.

It took a revolution after the rise to eradicate that word: profit. Even now, people horde more so they can barter at scale. The things people will do to enrich themselves as individuals are sickening.

“People didn’t believe in climate change.” Even that phrasing came from them: believing in climate change implied that it was a matter of belief rather than accepted scientific fact, and it was hard to say what “climate change” even meant. It was clever marketing that had doubtless come from an expensive agency, focus groups, a campaign in order to diffuse what really had to be done.

By then, of course, it was almost too late, and nobody knew it. The Earth was getting hotter and hotter, and the water was rising higher and higher. The planet was getting less hospitable to human life, and the most vulnerable people were paying the price first as their homes and resources disappeared. But climate change purposefully conveyed none of that, so that the people with all the money could stay in their luxurious positions, at least until the waters lapped at their doorsteps too.

There were plenty of good people, naturally, just as there were good people tangentially involved in every atrocity in the history of the world. The way Let put it, it didn’t matter that not everyone believed in putting financial profit over the well-being of people. Unless they fought back and took stands, they might as well have been in full support. And very few people did fight back. Most were very nice people who didn’t want to stick their necks out as the planet burned around them.

One of the first and most ironic signs that everything had gone too far was in Phoenix, Arizona. One summer it was so hot that the air was too thin to support air travel: the planes that had burned the atmosphere to begin with simply couldn’t take off because there wasn’t enough air to support them. Then, it happened the next summer. And the next. And then it became normal.

They found other ways to fly, but only when it became so impossible to power air travel that a lot of people who ran airlines began to lose money. So they funded new technologies and built new vehicles. Someone realized they could cheaply build modified quadcopters that ran electromagnetically, and personal air travel was transformed. But by the time the problem had become so serious that it radically hurt the wallets of those rich businessmen, the climate was too far gone.

“The invisible hand of the market,” they apparently used to call it. The invisible hand of the market, left to its own devices, strangled us all.

Even then, after all that, after the rise was complete and the United Kingdom and many other places were under water, after the aircraft couldn’t take off and fires choked entire states, people in places like Arizona still said they didn’t believe in climate change.

Let hated the place.

Is he here?

Here we are.

We’re slowly traveling around the conveyor belt. It’s not clear what’s inside the buildings, but we probably don’t want to find out: rather than a trap, this time, it’s more likely to be robot disassemblers that aren’t programmed to deal with live bodies inside the craft. Neither one of us particularly wants to be disassembled. Not today.

So we hatch a plan. The plan is this: we’re going to open the door to the craft, and then we’re going to run away from the maintenance plant as fast as we can, until we can’t see it anymore and we’re sure we’re not being followed. If we encounter anything similar to the events in the corridor, we’ll just lie down and wait for it all to go away. If it seems like an irreverent plan, it’s because we’ve had enough of it all at this point, we don’t know what’s going to be successful and won’t, and we would honestly prefer to be in bed. Maybe with each other.

Sal, being generally braver than me and more alert, goes first.

They open the door and a wave of heat hits us. It’s almost overpowering, even though we tried to be prepared for it. I have trouble imagining that anyone could survive in this for very long. It’s a dry heat, like kindling.

They look back at me once, briefly, and then run. And then I’m running too, across the grounds, concrete under my feet. We have to cross the conveyor belt, and I find as I run across it that the metal is so hot that I leave footprints behind me as the soles of my shoes begin to melt.

Sal looks back at me as they run and smiles slightly. I check back behind me and find that nothing is following. It seems like we’re in the clear, but we can’t take it for granted. We’ve got to keep running until we’re away from all this. There’s no time for “and then what?” - we’ll work that out once we get there.

The sky is a cloudless blue and I find myself squinting; there’s something about the light that seems brighter and more vibrant. We’re closer to the equator and the sun is hitting us at a different angle, so maybe that’s it, but it’s striking.

At the edge of the concrete is a fence, and beyond it, trees and buildings. I now see that some of the trees aren’t trees at all, but poles laden with clusters of some kind of device, disguised to look like trees. It’s either for aesthetics or camouflage; the first suggests utility, the latter defense. We don’t have the luxury of going around, so I hope for the former.

The fence is chain link, and it’s burning hot. Sal reaches it first and begins to climb, and I think I can even smell their flesh searing against it. Then I reach it, and I feel the pain of it searing me, too. I try and block it out of my mind and climb as fast as I can, just as Sal seems to be.

Once I’m at the top I let myself fall to the ground on the other side, and I immediately realize what the trees are, and how incredibly irresponsible their presence is; worse, I’m glad for them, and I feel guilty for that sensation of relief.

The trees are air conditioning. They’ve been positioned to provide lower temperatures outside, in order to make it safe to be out here for longer. There’s no way to build this at scale without continuing to pump fumes into the atmosphere; the more of these there are, the hotter it will become.

Right now, just for right this second, they feel good. I hold my burned hands up to the cold jets of air. It’s soothing.

The air conditioning trees seem to follow paths between buildings, which probably means there are soldiers patrolling out here. I don’t see any yet, and nobody followed us, but it’s only a matter of time.

Sal is eyeing the trees up and seems to be thinking along similar lines. “We’re not going to be alone for long,” they say. “We should keep moving.”

I take their full body in while we’re standing still. Just a few minutes ago we unlocked something new between us. Now we’re on the run again - to find Let, and figure out who’s behind the lenses and the soldiers.

Sal half-smiles. “I’d hold your hand, but,” they say, holding up their burned palms apologetically.

And then they’re off running, and I’m following as best I can.