Future Tense

“The Vastation”

A new short story about a future pandemic that makes COVID-19 look simple.

Illustration of a boy looking out of the driver side window at a barbed wire fence.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.

Steering to his assigned slot in the out-going convoy behind a bulky bomb-proof escort truck, Father said, “We’re going to Greenville,” and looked for my reaction to this surprising announcement. Surprising, not just because Greenville was far away, and where my Mother had been living, but also because I had never been taken outside the perimeter of Chicago.

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Noticing that I was flustered, Father said, “Your mother’s dead.”

The words hollowed me out and left me with nothing to say, because I had hardly known my mother. I had not seen her for years. Father was silent until the convoy was passing the first checkpoint at the city’s southern gate. He beeped his medical code, saying, “Physician,” through his speaker—unnecessarily—as they scanned our faces. After that it was more fences and barriers and toll plazas—no open road, just the slow-moving file of vehicles.

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“If she’s dead,” I said at last, my voice shaky—bewilderment and grief combined—“why are we going?”

“Pick up her remains,” Father said, then he sighed. “Damn, I thought it would be quicker in a convoy.”

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“Isn’t it safer like this?” Secluded “within the walls” of Chicago, I had only heard scary things about what lurked beyond.

“Sometimes convoys attract attention from the wrong people,” he said. “We’re going it alone on our way back.”

Leaving the last perimeter at Homewood was like entering a foreign land, Father squinting, the zone of glare becoming a zone of stinging dust, no trees, no water, and nothing but bleakness, then odd high barriers thrown up alongside the road and, beyond the road, the barren prostrate landscape that I supposed had once been farmland.

“That’s a colony,” Father said, at one set of walls. “Indian, I think.”

Bright ragged flags were flying over the walls and I could see some tall buildings behind them, but then came a corner and a watch-tower—a border wall, Father said. Dust again for many miles, then more barriers, another walled-in community.

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Because the cab of our vehicle was soundproof, what I saw was like a silent movie, a long panning shot out the window. Inside the cab, the trance-inducing music Father liked provided a sort of soundtrack.

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To my city eyes, it all looked strange outside, but something stranger had happened inside our vehicle: Father seemed to be turning into someone else. With every mile, with every word, he was becoming a man I recognized less and less.

He and Tía Rosa had raised me in our high-rise in Chicago, where he was a doctor-businessman. He was often away, outside the wall, but I’d never traveled with him. He’d always been attentive to me, loving and generous, someone I knew I could rely on, and his manner was mild and reassuring.

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As soon as we were some distance away from the last perimeter, Father’s expression had changed. He was grim, with a hardened jaw, and this grimness darkened his face. His voice was grimmer, too, with a harshness I’d never heard before, and a growling certainty. His becoming different unsettled me, as though I was now traveling with a stranger.

“Colony,” Father said. He set his jaw at it. “But these are more like gated fiefdoms.” I caught a glimpse of ruined bungalows and scabby pastures, and at a hill-like dump, a pack of dogs tearing at garbage.

“She wanted to change things,” he said abruptly, and I realized he was talking about Mother. “So did I, but I had no illusions.” Then, after a pause: “That’s why we pessimists are prophets.”

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I had only the dimmest memory of Mother, because she had gone away even before I started school: It was Father who brought me that first day. But in traveling this distance to pick up her remains it seemed to me that he was honoring her memory. I admired him for taking this trouble, as though atoning for their divorce and long estrangement.

“She was an idealist—believed in making sacrifices,” he said. “She said perimeters were wrong. That you could make improvements. That’s why she went to the Delta, because Greenville had no perimeter and couldn’t afford security—still can’t.” He thought some more. “She wanted to change the world.” He studied the road. “I told her she was wasting her time.”

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“What did she say?”

“What could she!” he said. “The virus got to Greenville, a sort of fence went up—but too late. You can’t change things her way.” He was smiling now. He savored what he was going to say next as the passing landscape looked more and more brutalized. “I had a radical idea. What if things get much worse?” He nodded, looking for a word. “A vastation.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

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“Something catastrophic.”

The way he said it, measuring the syllables, showing his teeth, looking hungry, made me uneasy.

“Listen. When things are catastrophic”—now he was speaking in a clear, hopeful tone—“maybe that’s a kind of beginning—a leveling, which can be a purification.” He paused, probably replaying some long-ago conversation with Mother in his mind. “I told her that.” He laughed and said casually, “She said I was a ruthless physician.”

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Calling himself a physician was a boast. He had degrees in medicine, but he was one of those doctors who used his medical knowledge for commercial gain as a businessman. He had used his doctor’s status to get special access, in what ways exactly I did not know—but being able to join a convoy like this at short notice might have been one of them, even though he was frustrated by the convoy’s slowness. He was privileged, and therefore so was I, an only child, raised by him and Tía Rosa, never allowed until now, age 13, to leave the city. And I wondered why it was happening today. Perhaps he needed company, or a witness, or a further justification for the trip, to show me the countryside outside the city walls.

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“She knew nothing of history,” Father said. And then abruptly, “Our querido Mexico, for instance.”

At this word I looked out the window, expecting to see—what? Another colony? Mexicans with a wall around them? But he was still talking.

“Conquest of Mexico,” he said. “Cortés gets all the credit. But the credit should go to another man who landed with him, the poor bastard infected with smallpox. With that nameless, essenTíal man with his fetid breath, Cortés didn’t really need an army. Within a very short time 80 percent of the people in Mexico had died of smallpox. The Aztecs were a pushover, because of this—what?” He turned to me with that face. “Vastation.” His smile was not a smile.

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“It was like a miracle. Variola virus.” He seemed to be reminiscing. “An inhaled virus. The Aztecs breathed it, and they died—in the millions. The Spaniards went on to build their own version of hell on earth, but the point is that in the moment of their landing, the vastation promised to purify the land of so much past suffering and oppression.”

I began to cry, not for the Aztecs but for Mother. Maybe she died just this way, by being in the wrong place, in Greenville, and taking a deep breath.

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“This is your education,” he said at one point, seeming annoyed by my tears. “You’re going to see things you’ve never seen before.” He scowled into the blowing dust. “Poison.” He wagged his fingers at the windshield, as though trying to disperse the dust cloud. “The wind here isn’t strong enough to blow out a candle. But it can kill a person.”

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After more miles, rattled by the sight of abandoned towns and burned-out houses, I said, “We could have gone to Greenville by air.”

“They wouldn’t have allowed us to transport the body at short notice. Even though the remains are sealed, you still need approval to fly,” he said. “But surface travel is different—there’s plenty of room in this old bus. And there’ll be minimal hassle at the other end, because I’m doing the permitting.”

He explained: Mother had died in Greenville, on the river, of the virus that had taken so many lives. Because the district was “low prevalence,” not so many deaths as to attract notice, unclaimed bodies were burned. But Father with his doctor’s pass and his permits could transport the remains by road and dispose of them himself.

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“But the body’s infected,” I said.

In a sharp, contradicting tone he said, “Some viral loads are so low as to be almost undetectable.”

Talk of the virus made me anxious. I hated this empty eight-lane highway through the cut-down woods of stumps and skeletal dead limbs, and the far-off burnt-looking hills. I wished I had not come.

“Is this road dangerous?”

He shrugged, then said, “Ugly places always look dangerous.”

“It was pretty bad until the colonies got organized,” he said, and we were passing another, more walls, housing blocks looming inside them. Father explained: It was our word, colonias, the one we sometimes used for neighborhoods, and Tía Rosa still said it. The word was adapted to describe the large concentrations of people—Indians, Chinese, Afghans, Brazilians, Nigerians, and many others. A colony, he said, was an island of ethnicity, renewed country-of-origin pride and defiance in the enormous sea of rural America.

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“They started as little districts and grew from that. A few colorful neighborhoods, and then sprawl, and conflict, and finally high walls and borders. But no border is secure. People slip through, they travel in and out, all over the country.”

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“Why would they want to leave, if they’re safe in their colony?”

“Because every state has colonies, but it’s not just an American phenomenon—there are colonies in most foreign countries. That Nigerian one we passed is only one of many—there are lots in Europe. There are three or four Pakistans in Britain alone. There are Brazilian colonies in New England. Somalias all over—we might pass one. They cooperate, the people migrate from one to another, they are more interconnected than we are. What does that tell you?

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“That they get along with each other?”

“That they’re vectors.”

Which meant nothing to me but gave Father another grim look. On this straighter, wider road we had picked up speed, and going faster, Father began to relax.

“I wish I was home.” I felt feeble and afraid when I said it, but I needed to tell Father.

Sitting back, he said, “Yes, but that’s why I brought you here. Because you have no idea of this when you’re in our hot-house, safe in the city,” he said. “You never hear any news of these places. But most colonies are pretty well regulated. They have their own utilities—though some are better than others. And many of them are territorial. Lots of the neighboring colonies are at war with each other.”

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“I’ve never heard about any wars.”

“Because they don’t affect the cities. But it’s life-or-death for them.” Now he nodded. “It was all foretold, they say in the Indian colonies. This is the ultimate period of the earth, the Kali Yug—the Black Age.”

It was the first time I’d heard those words. He said them melodramatically, in an odd voice, as though it was a private joke, to convey the impression that he didn’t believe it. But Black Age made sense. It seemed accurate as a description of the dark uncertain life we imagined outside our walled cities, and what I was seeing on this trip.

“It always looks like they’re trying to convert me to Kali Yug,” he said. “There’s all kinds of confusion and strange alliances—unrelated colonies helping each other, or skirmishing. The Indian colonies and the Chinese ones are always at it, because of blurred boundaries. That’s the major problem outside all cities—clusters of colonies in conflict because of encroachment.”

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Later, under blackish thunderclouds, he woke me from my doze and said we’d come to an important place. He pointed into the distance at a crossroads, where a colony wall was in flames, a mob of people throwing stones at tanker trucks, the scene floodlit from the beams at the sides of watchtowers.

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“Indians attacking the fire engines,” Father said.

“Why?”

“Because that China wall is on fire.”

“They don’t look like any Indians I’ve seen in Chicago.”

“They’re true believers, they’re old-fashioned. Those are some Kali Yug people,” he added. “People are so relieved when their prophecies seem to be fulfilled. The more violent the situation becomes, the more convinced they are that they’re right. It strengthens them in their belief. It keeps some Indians determined to hold back any progress.

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“This Chinese colony, meanwhile, is thriving by comparison. They have factories and hospitals, they’re always looking for spare parts for transplants. What happened was that two or three China colonies sprawled and merged and displaced the Indians in the surrounding countryside here and became one big China.”

“All that fighting,” I said.

“It’s besieged by Indians who’ve lost their homes.” In a reprimanding tone he said, “This is one of the most important intersections in the country, not just for manufacturing, but for meeting and dispersal.”

I turned and saw his reddened eyes, that heavy face, the face of a stranger.

“Those folks don’t stay behind that China wall,” he said. “They go everywhere.”

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“But not to Chicago,” I said, hoping he’d agree.

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And he did. “Not to Chicago.”

“Have you been here before?”

“Many times. A doctor is welcome everywhere.”

He was calm, the convoy moved on without a hitch now, but all I could think of were the people at the crossroads pelting the fire engine with incendiary bombs, and this vision of attackers with howling faces terrified me. I asked him if we’d have to come back this way, through this crossroads.

“You’ll see.”

To calm myself, to hear Father’s voice, I asked him, “Do you believe what they believe?”

He shrugged but didn’t answer at once. Finally he said, “Like I told your mother long ago, things have to be a whole lot worse before they get better,” and leaning into the windshield, added, “Great purifying vastation.”

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An awful thought, especially as we were within sight of hills clawed apart—erosion, Father said, no topsoil—and abandoned farm buildings and the scattered bones of cattle. But even though he seemed like a stranger in the car, he was a stranger with a heart. Going to this trouble to retrieve Mother’s body made him seem compassionate and kind.

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“Mother got sick before she could make any difference. But what did she expect in the Delta, where the so-called pandemic hit hardest?”

“As a doctor you could have helped her.”

“As a doctor, I knew it was hopeless—in the short term. She didn’t have a chance.”

“You said ‘so-called pandemic.’ ”

“Because it was contained. It was a short-lived event. No telling what can happen to any community in the long-term.”

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“She was in a community?”

“No. The community of viruses and organisms.” He made a fist and raised it to demonstrate this cluster of germs. “They seem to recede and disappear, but sometimes they come back,” and he swallowed. “All of these colonies can build their walls, but they all remain vulnerable, especially with their carelessness and greed.”

I couldn’t help but think of the crossroads, the colony of China abutting the colony of India, and how we’d be passing it on the way back, might even be stopping.

“The belief in Kali Yug means they’ll go on fighting. But it’s nothing orderly or predictable as a war. It’s an endless feud—a prolonged series of battles, ambushes and surprise attacks, like those stone throwers and arsonists back there. It could go on for years unless some drastic event accelerates it. Then they’re all doomed. Like the Aztecs.”

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In the early afternoon we came to a town on the river, Cairo, but instead of going off the road we stopped at the toll plaza, for fuel and to dig out the food Father had brought, which we ate in the vehicle.

“At last, we leave the convoy here,” Father said, driving away, across the river, down the new road. I fell asleep after that, and when we got to Memphis I was woken by loud-speaker voices, and the business of showing our passes and being scanned through the checkpoints to the hotel.

“The river’s more dangerous than any road,” Father said, leaning against the window of our hotel room. “Boats get hijacked. Barges get stolen. Some colonies are smack on the riverbank.”

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“Can we go outside?” There was still some daylight, and I’d heard of Memphis as a historic city. “I want to look around.”

“Too risky.”

“They got a fence, Dad.”

“All these river cities are insecure.”

So I went to my room, that adjoined Father’s, and wasted time on my phone screen, and thought how I could be doing this at home, and fell asleep.

“Up, up, up,” Father said, early the next morning, knocking on my door.

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We ate in the hotel cafeteria and left for Greenville around 8.

“Two hundred and fifty clicks,” Father said. “We’ll be there before noon. The body’s ready.”

In the distraction of these new landscapes, the colonies and the towns, I had not thought about Mother, so his mention of “the body” startled me. After he said it I thought of nothing else.

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We traveled alone, and faster without being in a convoy, and near enough to the river to see the scaly glitter of its sun-struck current some of the time, and of the flatness on the green scum of backwaters. What Father had said was true—there were some large colonies on the riverbank. And because they were far apart, none of them shared a wall. They were like stockades, and there was always a wide space between them, a no-man’s land, that had been cleared of trees, packs of dogs yapping on the waste ground, corralled animals and acres of stumps in clear-cut woods. Father guessed at what the colonies might be—China, Syria, Bolivia, or Congo—but he said he was not sure, except when he saw a peculiar building, a temple or mosque or church.

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“You’d think they wouldn’t travel—too risky. But they do,” he said. He frowned out the window. “Some for business. Some because they’re desperate, for food, for business, for fuel.” He pointed to the miles of tree stumps. “That was a forest once.”

The river separated these colonies, he said, but that did not deter people from crossing in speedboats—many of them boats that had been stolen upriver. Father said that for a long period in the past, river travel had been quicker, safer and more reliable than road travel, but with more traffic on the river, and better boats and wealthier boatmen, piracy and hijackings were common and the wide river became impossible to patrol, a waterway of danger.

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This first time out of Chicago I saw that I lived in a country of walled enclosures, of city perimeters, and barriers. But the walls nearer Greenville had fallen into disrepair. The land was flat, the road was straight, the bunched-together houses made up clusters of communities surrounded by fields of stubble. One of these communities—larger than the others—was Greenville, with no checkpoint and no scanners.

Father drove with conviction, guided by the coordinates he had programmed, and pretty soon we were in the thick of Greenville—beat-up houses, empty buildings, pot-holed streets and sorry looking people pulling carts heaped with rusted metal.

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“Scavengers,” Father said.

“Scary.”

“Harmless,” he said. “Unless you have something they want. Like food or weapons,” and he turned to me, adding with his mouth turned down in disgust, “They eat anything. They love guns.”

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I had no memory of Mother, could not bring up her face, yet it pained me to think that she had lived in this terrible place, and appalled me that she had died in it. So I was proud of Father for going to all this trouble to reclaim her body. Although the town was on the river, I could not see anything of the river itself. But now in the center of the town, near a sign saying Greenville Municipal Administration, I saw the fences. Instead of an encompassing perimeter wall, the town contained neighborhoods and little districts that were fenced in.

At Greenville Health Services, Father stuck his pass out the window, saying “I’m doing a pick-up,” and a man in body armor at the booth waved us through the gate to the morgue. “Loading dock’s at the rear.”

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Father drove to the dock, then backed up the ramp so that the rear end of our vehicle was level with the dock.

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“Verification,” he said, taking a yellow envelope out of his bag. And he looked hard at me. “I’m locking you in. This is not a good place, even inside the fence. I won’t be long. Just sit tight.”

Sitting there, I thought, I will never leave home again. Maybe that’s what Father wanted me to feel. But even though he seemed like a stranger to me, I had a glimpse of his kindness. I hated what I saw of the countryside and the colonies, all the divisions, and what looked like dangers. Not only did the landscape look broken and beaten, but the people too looked different from any I was used to seeing—how they dressed differently, were curious in ways I was unfamiliar with. For example, the boys in gathered on the other side of the fence, staring at me, or perhaps at Father’s large vehicle.

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A clatter at the back, and voices, woke me from this reverie.

Through the back window in the cab, I saw a box being loaded, which I took to be Mother’s remains, not coffin shaped, but a sealed container, a cube, that might have held a small oven, or a curled-up corpse.

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“We’re off,” Father said in his brisk business-like way, climbing into the cab.

Through the gate, past the empty houses, up the street of boarded-up shops, and out of sorry-looking Greenville.

“This place is poison,” Father said. “It’s the virus. But you notice not many people around? No one wants to live here.”

“Mother came to live here.”

“To die here,” he said. “She had special knowledge. She could have put her science to good use back home. But she wasted it here.”

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“Wasted how?”

“By trying to contain the virus.”

We did not stop in Memphis, but just kept driving, saving time by not going through the protocol of entering the city.

Music filled the cab, filled the silences between Father’s utterances, and was intended to soothe us and pass the time. I wanted to tell him that I admired him for going to all this trouble, to preserve Mother’s memory. But I was too anxious to speak. I dozed and dreamed of pounding down a road, and when I woke I was breathing hard, horrified that what I had dreamed—speeding on the road—was reality, the movement of the vehicle entering my dream.

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“How much farther?”

“What’s the hurry?”

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I didn’t want to tell him, I only wanted to be home, in our own apartment, high up, with Tía Rosa, away from all this, safe in our city.

“You’re thinking, the crossroads,” he said. He knew my worry. He must have seen my fear at the place as we’d passed the flames, the mob stoning the fire truck, and setting it alight, the shrieking onlookers. The Kali Yug people.

“I wish we didn’t have to go back that way.”

“It’s why we came,” he said, and seemed almost jaunty. That should have reassured me, his good mood seeming to return him to someone I recognized as my Father, but instead it made me feel that in this confident frame of mind he’d be more inclined to take risks.

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After the order and security of the southern convoy it seemed risky to be navigating alone on the wide road north, few other vehicles near us. I’d been happier in the convoy. My anxiety wearied me and I fell asleep again. I did not wake until I heard Father calling out sharply, “Heads up.”

The wide crossroads lay ahead, dimming in dusk, the gathering darkness simplifying the ramps and overpasses. The blackened sides of the burnt-out houses were like part of the evening shadows that were rising from the waste ground and sinking the houses in nightfall. Those India houses, that China wall, that gutted fire truck tipped off the ramp, all of it was a dead zone. It was the same fire truck we’d seen on the way down, and its wreckage seemed like a warning: We can do this to you, too.

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Then the stillness stirred, and what I took to be shrubs and bushes and foliage were human figures in camouflage. The lights were so bright we could not see past them, and it was easy to imagine a whole army massed behind the glare.

But from the high walls that rose above the lights I saw that two of the four corners were marked by watch towers, and spotlights on the watch tower roofs illuminated the people in camouflage, and the camouflage I now saw was body armor.

I felt sick with worry. Instead of speeding through the crossroads Father was slowing down and steering towards the roadside and the soldiers.

“No,” I said, an involuntary cry, and I choked on it.

As he drew nearer, I could see more people emerging from the shadows. Father switched on his own spotlight and swiveled it, working its beam over the approaching people, all of them masked.

“Why are you stopping?”

“Because this is the place.”

Now the people were all around us, their faces jammed against our windows. They raised their weapons—charred sticks, fist-sized stones, rusty slashers.

“This is China Central,” came a voice from a loudspeaker.

Speaking into his mike, Father called out, “I have an appointment.”

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The loudspeaker voice came again, “Identify yourself.”

“I’m the doctor.” And then a light flashed on his face, and mine, and dazzled us: a scanner.

With beckoning hands, a man in uniform motioned us forward and then a screech from the loudspeaker, “Proceed.”

And as this word was spoken, a wide door in the wall slid open, so that we could pass through.

Father seemed calm but in a solemn voice he said, “This is one of the most aggressive colonies in the Midwest. It is also one of the hungriest. They’ve had a famine here. But they’re industrious and ingenious, and optimistic about the future. Unlike the Kali Yug people.” Seeing my face he said, “They have connections all over.”

“Where?” I asked.

“In the world outside our world.”

We were now within the wall and being directed to take the right fork at a crossroads. What surprised me was that in contrast to the milling crowds outside the wall, the parched fields, the burnt hills and the stray dogs, all within was orderly. The tidiness reassured me. I saw no animals at all. The people in this colony were occupied with one task or another—spray painting a door frame, repairing the shutters on a window, digging, hip-deep in a trench that contained a pipe—a water or sewer pipe.

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After seeing the high heavy exterior walls, I’d been expecting a prison-like place inside. But this was wide-open and well-lit, and troughs lined the road, planters with flowers growing in them- no, not flowers I then saw but vegetables, tomato vines and peppers, and bean stalks, strung up or staked. Looking through the front window of our vehicle I saw netting or bunting spread overhead, like the roof of an enormous tent, and hanging lights illuminated everything on the ground. Because of the bright lights shining straight down it was a colony without shadows.

Now a man with a flashing laser steered us to a building, and swung it around indicating that Father should back up.

“Doctor,” the man said, as Father rolled down his window.

Father said, “Professor Ma. This is my son.”

The man turned sideways and called out to a small boy, who ran to him.

“My son,” Professor Ma said. He said something in Chinese to the boy.

“Peng,” the boy said, and I took it to mean his name.

“We’re clean,” Father said.

The man smiled. “I know Chicago is clean.”

I wanted to say, But we’ve just come from Greenville.

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“I’d like you to show my son your colony,” Father said, getting out of the vehicle.

“Do you have the papers?” Professor Ma asked.

Father passed him the yellow envelope I’d seen him studying in Greenville.

“Leave your truck—we will do the rest,” Professor Ma said. He whistled and a motorized cart drew beside us and seemed to buzz in impatience. Professor Ma passed the envelope to the driver of the cart, who got out and walked towards Father’s vehicle.

Professor Ma took the cart’s steering wheel, the boy Peng beside him; Father and I in the back seat, and we buzzed down the road.

“We are leaving the hospital labs,” he said, gesturing to the tall building where Father had parked. “Down there are the gardens”—I saw a row of glass houses, the lights on inside illuminated planters of greenery, and in one glass house what looked like an orchard of small fruit trees.

On the far side of the road were buildings, not tall, seven or eight stories. “Housing blocks,” Professor Ma said. And near the housing blocks, similar sized buildings that he said were factories. All these buildings were plain, made of painted cement blocks or rough bricks; none had signs on them, though all were marked with large numbers, or Chinese characters.

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To be friendly, I said, “Where’s your school, Peng?”

The boy didn’t answer. His father said, “Factories are for learning—better than schools.”

At each intersection, I saw a man or woman in a white helmet gesturing at pedestrians, telling them to wait or signaling for them to cross. And now that I saw many people I realized they wore the same sort of clothes—blue pajama suits, blue caps, black slippers, men and women dressed alike.

But Professor Ma wore a white lab coat, like a smock, and a peaked cap with a visor. He slowed the cart and stopped at the brow of a low hill, and he pointed ahead.

“The reservoir, more gardens, and over there the metal works, the brick kilns,” he said. “The sports field. The gym.”

Spotlights over them showed that blue- suited people could be seen through windows or inside the greenhouses, and fitting and welding pipes at the reservoir.

“People working,” Father said. “At night.”

“We never stop,” Professor Ma said. He said this evenly, stating a fact. Then, “End of tour. Time for me to go back to work. I need to deal with the delivery while it’s fresh.”

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“And time for us to leave.”

Back at the car, Professor Ma asked Father all of the sudden if we could take Peng to the city for a time, to learn a different life. “And perhaps he could come here, also to learn,” he added, pointing at me. I was starting to feel a pit in my stomach—hadn’t Father said this trip was my “education”

But Father was already stepping back with a jolt, shaking his head. “No, sorry,” he said, “You have what you want, Professor,” and he opened the door to our vehicle, gesturing me with his eyes to get in; quickly. Then he waved and we were away, back to the wall and the gate that opened for us, and back on the road north to Chicago,

“That was a surprise,” Father said. He was speeding now, as though wishing to get away from the colony as fast as possible.

“What was the surprise?”

“The suggestion that we can save each other,” he said, all grimness once more. “It’s too late for that.”

Father said nothing more for a while. I fell asleep, uncomfortably in my seat. I woke again, aching,

Father said, “Don’t worry. Things will change. In the end, all will be well.”

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“I’m tired,” I said.

“Crawl in the back—stretch out,” he said.

And that was when I saw that the back of the vehicle was empty, the cube containing Mother’s body was missing.

“She’s gone,” I said. I was shocked by the helplessness in my voice, and I realized she’d been unloaded at the hospital lab in the colony. “You gave her away!”

“She’s more useful where she is now,” Father said, in the harsh voice I’d been hearing on the whole trip, a voice I did not recognize as his. “You need to know that.”

He was a stranger to me again. He gunned the engine and we sped off, into the road, and I wept for the woman I didn’t know and in terror for what was coming.

Read a response essay by Allison Bond, a physician in hospital medicine and infectious diseases.

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Paciente Cero,” by Juan Villoro
Scar Tissue,” by Tobias S. Buckell
The Last of the Goggled Barskys,” by Joey Siara
Legal Salvage,” by Holli Mintzer
How to Pay Reparations: a Documentary,” by Tochi Onyebuchi
The State Machine,” by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne

And read 14 more Future Tense Fiction tales in our anthology, Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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