Future Tense

“Out of Ash”

A new short story about a governor who built a new state capitol—only for no one to move in.

A cardboard box labeled New Olympia and filled with packing peanuts and a model of a state capitol floats in water
Illustration by 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.

On Thursday, June 16, at noon Eastern, “Out of Ash” author Brenda Cooper will be part of an event called “What Is Coastal America’s Future?” sponsored by Future Tense and New America’s Future of Land and Housing program. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

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New Olympia was, at best, half-birthed.

The evening after the legislative session ended, I walked her nearly empty streets in a comfortable pair of jeans and a pale pink sweatshirt. The shirt was so ragged that Susannah, my chief of staff, had tried to steal it and throw it away a week ago. But I loved it, and besides, it made me look like no one. Far easier than looking like a governor. Guards followed at a distance.

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Mist gave way to soft rain, then faded back to damp cold. Stored sunlight made octagonal tiles on the path under my feet glow. I followed its light to the middle of Central Park, where dusk barely illuminated the blue and red mosaics of the town well. Volunteers had moved every piece of the well they could salvage from drowning historic Olympia to the replica in New Olympia. By car, the journey was over 65 miles. The new city perched on the lower slopes of Mount Rainier, and the water tasted as clean, although more like mountain than river. This well, like the old one, operated as a free community asset. The glowing streets, the well, and, a few blocks away, the new State Capitol all looked even more beautiful than the artist’s renderings. The city ran on sunlight. Edible plants bordered parks, fed by recycled wastewater as clean as the well water. New Olympia gave as much back to the ecosystem as it took.

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I ran my fingertips over the decorative tiles on the well. I had set the first mosaic in a ceremony that had taken all of 15 minutes. Impossible to tell now which one it was, although I recalled the blue-green of a sunlit summer sea. Immediately after, I’d been rushed away to visit heartsore firefighters after flames erased over 400 homes in Wenatchee.

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I had dreamed New Olympia into being, fought for her, introduced bill after bill and bared my soul at physical and holo lecterns. New Olympia. A new capitol for a new time. A place for a time when humans were finally driven halfway into one another’s arms by the vast price of our sins. When I first won the governor’s job, it had been partly because voters shared my vision of a new state rising from the ashes of the world we were burning with yesterday’s carbon.

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Tears stung my eyes. I should have paid attention. But no. I’d sold the idea and ridden it to power. Then I’d assumed New Olympia would work, or at least believed people when they told me it was working. So stupid.

All session, New Olympia had been full of lawmakers and deals, of passion and argument. Then, yesterday, cars drove themselves up from Seattle, Bellevue, Vancouver, Cle Elum, Walla Walla, and every other corner to gather the beleaguered servants of the State and their many minions and ferry them to shrinking constituencies far from here. The protesters had left with them. Also, all of the reporters except the few assigned to me. They knew what I knew.

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I had failed. I had built a city, but I had not moved one. New Olympia died as soon as the lawmakers left each session. Yes, Washington’s people had almost all snugged up to thriving Seattle or Bellingham, and yes, our population had shrunk for 10 years running. But there were still a lot of people in Washington State, and this beautiful place wasn’t attracting them. Meant as a model community, New Olympia served as a temporary home for a desperate government twice a year.

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I sat on the cold, hard bench next to the well, my hair damp, the sky low and dark. No stars. Nightbirds chattered. I’d rather hear the aggravated pleas of parents calling children in for dinner, the chatter of friends strolling and talking, the padpadpad of joggers, and the lilting notes of street buskers.

Exhaustion weighed on my bones and muscles. It felt almost like despair, which was never, ever acceptable.

Session had been full of knives. Not the old knives of lies, but the new ones of competing realities: low birthrates, disease, food shortages, fires, sea level rise, threats from neighboring Idaho, and no help at all from the Federal government. We had succeeded at many things—because we had to—but no bills passed to move other cities. We had merely condemned more to die as we scraped human infrastructure from places in peril. Managed retreat rather than glorious rebuilding. Returning what we had taken to nature about to take it back anyway.

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I had failed an entire state. In this, anyway. In vision. Washington’s politicians and her people—both—had bought my dream and given me money.

Then seawater had risen faster than the scientists predicted, and disruptions had slowed design and building. The people of Olympia had needed to move before we finished their new home, and they had gone elsewhere.

I let the water run over my hands, cool and bracing. The original well had been forced up and out by gravity and the pressure of rocks, a gift from the Earth. Here, we had to drill down and force the water up. There was meaning in that metaphor, but I was simply too tired to pull it together. I ran my wet palms over my face, turning my skin crisp and cool. I wanted to do so much more for Washington State, but first, I had to make this right. Political enemies were already making it election fodder. Washington’s people had birthed this dream and fed on the hope it carried.

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Mist surrounded me as I strolled back to the governor’s mansion.

At home, I stared out of an ornate living room that overlooked the empty Main Street and sipped hot mint tea. After an hour, I called my harried chief of staff. “Susannah?”

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Her tone was friendly and unsurprised, even after 9 p.m. Susannah had been with me for 16 years, since 2027, when I was partway through my first stint as a state congresswoman. “Louise?”

“I need help.”

Tired curiosity edged her voice. “What can I do for you?”

I felt as exhausted as she sounded. Maybe more. “I need help with the city. With New Olympia.”

A short silence, then questions. “An urban planner? An artist? An engineer?”

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I laughed. “They did their work. I need an immigrant or two, people who will be liked.”

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“Two? Is that enough?” she asked.

“Two. With organizing experience. And of course not. I need 50. But let’s start with a team I can hide inside my operating budget.”

“Any other specifications? Immigrant is a little broad.” I heard the smile in her voice. “Refugees? From a particular country?”

“They’ll need to talk to residents. Bilingual.” I mulled her question. “Young? Enthusiastic, anyway.”

“I’ll have them there by noon.”

And she would. Susannah knew me well enough to read import in my tone. “Thank you. I … I need to fix this.”

I didn’t have to explain what, and even though it might be utterly unfixable, she replied, “Of course you will. We all need this damned city to thrive.”

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In my dreams I walked the gleaming, nearly empty city all night long.

At noon, an older woman I had seen before but couldn’t remember talking to and a woman maybe a third of her age stood awkwardly just inside my office door. The older one shifted her burly body back and forth, one foot to the other. The younger woman’s dark eyes looked eager, excited, a little apprehensive. Long black hair fell flat and perfectly manicured down her back. Her khaki pants and navy shirt were neat and practical. The older one appeared Latina and the younger East Indian. Susannah hustled them into chairs. “This is Guadalupe and Chandra.”

I smiled to put them at ease while Susannah offered them peppermint tea and small chocolate cakes. As they sat, I asked them to tell me their stories.

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Guadalupe had worked as an organizer on my first and second gubernatorial campaigns, primarily on the peninsula. A reminder of the thousands of people I had never met but needed, owed. Her family had come up from Nicaragua in the late 1990s and she had been born just after they crossed the border. A Justice Warrior now, and once, when it mattered, Antifa. Her voice rumbled through the room, deep and compelling. She would be able to convince crowds. I signaled Susannah that she was a keeper with a nod, and turned my attention to Chandra’s story. Her father died of heat, in India. Her mother brought her from Uttar Pradesh when she was 10, taking a cruise and disembarking forever and illegally in Florida. They’d made their way west, finally finding a path to green cards here. The girl looked like she might be 20 now. Maybe. She was quiet and clear in her speech, and so calm that it took me a while to understand that her response to her father’s death was a plan to fix the entire climate and remove all the greed and meanness from humanity along the way.

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I mulled that for a while. Was she too naïve for this? Too young? The job might need passion. I hesitated. Eventually, I touched Susannah’s arm to signal my approval for Chandra, and the four of us began to plan.

A day later, we rode one of the armored cars into Seattle. While Guadalupe seemed focused on the problem of populating New Olympia, Chandra peered out of the windows and took hand notes in a paper journal. From time to time she asked the car a question. After a while I put it into tour guide mode, so that it told her where we were and related snippets of each town’s history as we passed through. Chandra’s questions implied far more interest and expertise in flood and fire scars than history.

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The Seattle Downtown Coalition was always happy to meet with me. I wore one of my go-ahead-underestimate-me suits complete with purple granny glasses. I settled Guadalupe and Chandra in back to observe as I pressed a room full of CEOs and CFOs. Yes, they would move some franchises to New Olympia. If we subsidized them. They had, already, hadn’t they? Who cared if they only stayed open half the year? Yes, the University was a draw. But it wouldn’t open for two more years. If that. Hadn’t the whole city been two years late? No, they wouldn’t move tech jobs there. People in tech could live there if they wanted. They could live anywhere. Anyone could choose New Olympia, if I could figure out how to make it attract them. Right now it was too far away and too sterile and there was no nightlife. What would I trade for small manufacturing? Not the price they quoted me. Couldn’t I just be patient? After all, they asked, why did it matter?

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They concluded with a question. Hadn’t they helped to clean most of the drugs and homelessness out of Seattle? Made huge investments in affordable housing?

I had to say yes to that. And thank you.

After, in my Seattle office, Guadalupe gestured and fussed over corporate greed, about the right thing being utterly unimportant. She paced. I empathized, without reminding Guadalupe we needed an economy. When the fire of her frustration burned down, she sat back and asked, “How do we teach them to give a shit?”

“Good question.” I poured myself a glass of merlot.

Chandra looked up, catching me with her quiet, intense gaze. “You asked us to watch that horrid meeting just to show us that this path is dead.”

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I raised my glass and nodded in acknowledgment.

After the door closed behind them 10 minutes later, Susannah plopped on the couch and poured herself a glass of sauvignon blanc. She brushed long dark hair away from sky-blue eyes and sipped her wine with purpose. After a long moment, she let out a noisy sigh. “Chandra’s quieter than I expected her to be. Maybe you frighten her.”

I smiled. “She parcels her words out like gold. And mostly, they are.”

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Susannah nodded and we turned to other matters of governance. Tomorrow, I had meetings on infrastructure and safety, and Chandra and Guadalupe had an assignment. Each was to find one regular person—a laborer, a teacher, a shop owner—willing to move to New Olympia for a year. We would subsidize moving. Only that; it was coming from my personal budget. Still, the basic state stipend would be enough to buy food and pay for housing. There were 40,000 empty dwellings out of session, 15 in. Two new residents a night was like two drops in a dry riverbed. Not a program, but a series of tests.

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Sunset spilled gold and umber across the glassy surfaces of the tallest buildings before I escaped to wander the city. I wore a long blue coat and a tight black hat. Just a middle-aged blond woman out for a late-spring walk. Never mind the black-clad guards behind me with dogs and the small drones scanning the area around me.

The crowd sounded good, upbeat, chatty.

Tourists. Workers. Buskers. Families. Pike Place’s iconic “Market” sign glowed primary red and the air smelled lightly of fish and flowers.

Seattle would never retreat. We’d just keep building more sea wall. The latest iteration had added 10 feet. West Seattle, visible from here as a low-lying hump of hills that projected into the sound, had climbed up and away from its beaches. Olympia had been doomed for lack of elevation. It had no place for a wall, just a thousand inlets for the South Sound that also served as outlets for multiple river basins. Seattle had the resources and will to wall itself safe. West Seattle could climb away from drowned beaches. Olympia had only been able to move or die.

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Downtown hummed with laughter, music, hawkers. Nightclubs, shows. Seattle was the “hot” city on the West Coast. With a little help from government. From me. But frankly, not much. The people I’d lost the arguments with the night before had earned the right to argue with me.

I climbed up University Street. High-rise on high-rise on high-rise. The occupants of a mere 10 of these buildings could fill most of New Olympia’s squat five-story housing.

A rooftop bar in the Nickels Building offered a view of other rooftops spread below it. Rhodies and azaleas bloomed in pots, and rooftop gardens were dark with freshly turned soil or spring-green sprouts. Laughter still inhabited Seattle—and safety. The rich weren’t going to move because I asked them to.

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I hesitated, chose a black metal table by the edge of the balcony. Two of my minders took a table near the wall and watched me watch the city. Embedded communication tech would let us talk if we needed to.

A short, thin middle-aged man pulled up a chair at my table. Nondescript, with regular features and the beginnings of a bald spot, undistinguished in any particular way. “Can I buy you a drink?”

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Tempting. But I wasn’t stupid. I’d order my own. “No. But thank you.” I pulled off my cap. Ran my fingers through my hair.

His voice sounded soft and sweet. “Do you mind company?”

“No.”

He hadn’t recognized me yet. After he sat, I looked directly at him.

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“Do I … Governor!” He stood.

“No. Stay.”

He leaned away, one step already taken, poised to flee. “I didn’t vote for you.”

“I don’t care.” I smiled my best Louise Lucky smile at him. Just a public servant. Nothing to see here. “Join me.”

After a minute, he sat, and after a minute more, his shoulders relaxed and he almost smiled. “Pretty night,” he whispered.

“Yes.”

“I didn’t mean to intrude. You just looked … lonely.”

That hit a mark I seldom noticed anymore. I flinched. “I’m thinking.”

He flushed, looked down.

I spoke into the awkward void. “I’m thinking about New Olympia. How to get people to go there.”

“Why?”

Wasn’t that just the question? But I countered. “Why not? Would you go?”

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“Me?”

I laughed. “Yes. I did after all.” Not that moving the governor’s mansion was anything like moving a normal person, or even a displaced family.

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“I have a house. Here, in Seattle. If I sell it, I don’t know if I can get back in five years if I want to.”

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Real estate. Seattle’s golden goose and Achilles’ heel. “What if you could rent your place for the cost of your mortgage?”

“I couldn’t.”

Because I had helped champion rent control. “What else?”

He blushed. “And I like the opera. There’s no opera way out there.”

“I like the opera, too.”

I wore an earbud. One of my minders spoke into it. Frank Smithson. Inherited a concrete company. Built part of the sea wall. Votes for your opponents. Two kids.

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It irritated me to know people’s names before they offered them to me. I made a mental note to remind staff not to give me personal information unless someone was a threat or I asked for the data. “Thank you for saying hello. And for the honest answer.”

He nodded, smiled. And fled the moment I stood up.

A woman about half my age recognized me, gestured for me to join her. I did. I’d seen her somewhere. Ebon skin with long, black hair caught in a net. She wore a trendy emerald-green pantsuit. “Kinady,” she stood and offered an elegant and long-fingered hand. “I interviewed you for Seattle News Now.”

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I reached across the table, shook her hand. Her nails were perfect blue ovals with stars on them. We hadn’t met in person, even in the interview, but I’d seen her on newsreels and in press audiences multiple times. Always stand-up-and-notice pretty. “You talked to me about the military bases we bought?”

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She interpreted the question as an opening. “Yes. Do you mind if I ask a few follow-up questions?” Her smile was broad and friendly. “I’m freelancing now.”

“I can schedule time with you later this week.”

“I heard the Chinese … ”

I stood. “Thank you, Kinady. Nice to see you again.” I didn’t want Kinady to move to New Olympia. Reporters were required for democracy, but they were also why governors couldn’t ever say a single wrong word. “I will set up a time.”

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A signal. Staff would tell Susannah, who would set up a meeting, and I’d lose an hour for prep and 20 minutes for the interview.

I left, and before I’d had so much as a single glass of water. Back at ground level, the streets were so packed the guards walked close enough for me to hear the dogs pant.

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The next morning, we met in my most impressive Seattle conference room. Chandra looked stunned by the sweeping views of downtown and peekaboo sightings of Puget Sound. Birds wheeled by the window. Guadalupe proudly showed me pictures of three families, all brown-skinned and dark-haired, with two children peering out from behind one of the men. “They will go, maybe start a restaurant.” Guadalupe watched me closely, looking as much like a student who wanted a good grade as a 63-year-old woman.

“Thank you.” I told her, genuinely pleased. “That’s fabulous. I’ll write a personal note to the families and send it when staff contact them tomorrow.” Regular people like Guadalupe—well, regular activists like Guadalupe—could do so much more than I could. Why the hell did I forget that over and over?

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I glanced at Chandra.

She smiled. “I found a piano teacher willing to move if we help her move her piano. I said we would do it.” She projected a picture of a diminutive Asian woman with wispy white hair and deep wrinkles.

Less impressive than Guadalupe’s find, especially since the piano teacher was a senior citizen. But, I thought, better than I’d done. I asked, “Chandra, why did you choose her?”

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The girl offered me a wise smile. “Every city needs music, and Amelia Wu is the matriarch of a large family.”

Well.

The seven days went quickly. We collected 30 people in all, which was 10 more than my budget had planned for. My efforts accounted for two.

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Susannah found me a donor to cover the costs. God bless the chiefs of staff of every elected official everywhere.

We were making progress and learning lessons. But in a week, I would have to stop this foolishness and run back full-tilt into campaigning and the other duties I was giving half-time to.

I gathered Chandra and Guadalupe together. “Where shall we go now?”

“Spokane?” Guadalupe suggested.

I shook my head. It was a gateway to Washington, but military intelligence suggested it would fall to Idaho soon. Not through actual war, of course, but Spokane’s people (mostly) liked the Idaho ideology of every man, woman, child, wolf, and dog for themselves. “Walla Walla?” Guadalupe asked.

“No. But that’s a good idea. I’ll have the Border Patrol tell immigrants they let in through Walla Walla and Vancouver that we’d look kindly on them locating in New Olympia.”

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“Can you make them?” Guadalupe’s voice fell to a mumble as she said, “I know it’s not what you normally do.”

“And become a dictator?” Spokane might be falling in love with a dictator in Idaho, but Washington wouldn’t go there on my watch. “People need the freedom to move where they want. We’ll encourage immigrants to choose New Olympia, but I won’t force anyone.”

Guadalupe’s slight grin signaled relief. So she had become comfortable enough to test me. Good.

Chandra stood and moved to the window. “What smaller cities are being relocated? I hear there were votes about that, money given.”

Her question was good. The Long Beach peninsula had been gone for 10 years, and Ocean Shores and Moclips lost as well. The tribes were taking care of themselves; gambling increased near the end of the world we used to know. The Quileute Tribe and the Lummi Nation had each moved significant parts of their reservations to safety. I stood and stretched, providing a moment for my minders to catch up and whisper in my ear. Sultan’s downtown.

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I did remember. Good choice. “Sultan. On the Skykomish River. We prohibited rebuilding two years ago, and this is the year of return.” Return. The law called it managed retreat, but return sang happier in my heart.

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Guadalupe’s eyes widened slightly. “How the hell did we lose Sultan? That’s not near the sea.”

Chandra spoke up. “Atmospheric rivers. The Skykomish flooded Sultan and Gold Bar badly in 2036 and again two years ago. They hadn’t really finished rebuilding yet.” She looked proud of herself and called up a few more facts. “One hundred seventy-two homes were destroyed, and 86. A chunk of Highway 2 as well.”

I had signed a disaster resolution for that. But somehow it hadn’t surfaced in my head, not really. Sultan wasn’t huge, but it had been home to families and lost a historic downtown. “I’ll have two days.”

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Susannah asked, “A formal visit?”

I didn’t hesitate. “No. I’ll stealth in.”

“Does that work?” Guadalupe asked.

Susannah answered for me, laughing. “Sometimes.”

Chandra raised her hand for attention. “Can we go next week instead? Saturday?”

“Why?” I asked.

“That’s the town’s LastDay. The burning.”

I’d been to Olympia’s burning. I’d hated it. But she was right. I glanced at Susannah. “Can we make that happen?”

“I have to move out some meetings on next year’s agenda, and the interview you just scheduled. Kinady.”

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“OK.”

Chandra spoke up, an unusual note of pleading in her voice. “I went to school with Kinady. Can she come?”

A reporter? Chandra had started to earn my trust, but now she wanted me to jump off a ledge. I stopped myself from saying no. “Why?”

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“She sees things I don’t. All of her work bends toward fixing things.”

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Even when she had to skewer me or one of my programs to do that? But it wasn’t like I could populate New Olympia by myself, and damn it, the town needed people. I hesitated.

“Please?”

The piano matriarch had, in point of fact, already convinced two of her children to go with her. And they had children. But a reporter? A hard look at the trust and hope in Chandra’s eyes convinced me to surrender. “If she’ll agree not to broadcast unless I say she can.”

“But you won’t censor her? I mean, if you do let her do a show?”

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I relented. “Very well. She can meet us there.”

We rode in a line of armored trucks camouflaged with dents and scrapes and missing bumpers. I had ordered the stealthy appearance, including requiring my guards to dress in old jeans and leave the dogs in the car with a minder.

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Blue sky hung over a late spring day. Sultan’s streets were potholed and cracked, spalled at the edges, and in a few places missing altogether. The houses, of course, had been scraped off the selected streets by the Department of Ecology cleaning crews. Street trees and yard trees showed off their best bright new growth, the greens of katydids and not-quite-ripe limes. They would stay behind to capture carbon and retain memories until they flooded or burned away. Glass and metal would have been recycled, the best wood as well. Toxins carted away and properly disposed of. Street art re-homed. Now, a pyre of consumables built on a parking lot rose almost two full stories. Rotted but unpainted wood from fences and side yards, paper and cardboard, cotton draperies. It was deliberate. Everything could have gone. But every town we retreated from deserved a funeral pyre. There were at least 100 cars and trucks pulled onto the high school parking lot and field already. Residents whose homes were high enough and didn’t need utilities, and thus had been allowed to stay. Former residents. Curious neighbors. Press and pseudo-press. National Guard, as well, scattered here and there in soft camo. Tables and chairs and bright canopies filled the center of the field. People grouped and mixed and mingled. Children played. Dogs barked at one another.

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It was going to be hard to stay here all day. So much pain.

More people came. Families. Women holding hands and glancing at the burn pile with distrust or loathing. Children running and playing, laughing while they waited for the last town barbecue. The river that had destroyed the town ran gray-blue and fast, holding itself neatly inside its banks as if it were well behaved.

Chandra walked up to me, Kinady striding behind her. Today, Kinady’s shirt was a blue brighter than the sky. Darker blue and carmine beads clattered together in her newly braided hair. She wore drones like decorations, small and expensive. A tribute to her success, even if they did look like pet insects.

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Food came in on trucks labeled with the names of various climate NGOs and community groups, even Elks and Rotarians—vestiges of an old world almost lost. I pulled my hat down and went to wander through the tables and gathering crowds.

No one expected me; no one saw me.

A pair of old men commented on the size of the crowd. “Vultures coming to watch us die.”

His companion answered him with a bit of a growl. “People need entertainment.”

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The first speaker laughed. “It’s not Burning Man. Did you ever go? That was entertainment. We were making a new world. The man was 80 feet tall the year I went. What the hell do we burn the town for?”

The other man laughed. “So we know it’s gone.”

“I knew that when it flooded.”

I passed them, lost the thread of their talk. Catharsis. Not creation. I’d been to see the man burn once, and that had been defiant and showy. City pyres were acquiescent and sad. Small, to keep the carbon cost low. A woman told two daughters, “Stay away from the fire until it starts up, burns a few minutes. Someone hid fireworks in the Ocean Shores pyre.”

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Guards watched this fire. Not just because of me. This day would wipe away a city founded in the 1880s. Its loss wouldn’t please anyone. Generations had owned some of the houses we’d forced them out of. Nobody liked it. Return hurt. Every town fought its own demise. Not that it made a difference. Lawyers, insurance companies, and climate events were bigger than the people who lived in these places. Every adaptation stuck a knife in someone’s heart.

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I passed a middle-aged man sitting on a bench by himself, fiddling with a drone. He was dressed in old clothes, and a large backpack sat on the ground beside the bench. It had tools and water bottles and a red raincoat tied to it.

I picked up my pace, trying to force myself out of the morose mood squeezing my chest.

A hand on my arm. Kinady. I turned to look at her, a brightly colored dark woman in a sea of mostly white rural Washington faces, her body so full of energy that even when I stopped to give her an opening, she bounced in place. “What do you want to tell people?” I asked her.

She spoke fast, smiling and speaking with her whole body. “I found a family I want to talk about. They moved here 20 years ago, from Mexico. Fleeing Tijuana. Now they have to flee again. And the Xiangs. They came here from China. And the Paulsons, who have been here as long as they know. All of them. Not one kid moved away. Now everyone has to go. I will make their stories compelling.”

I pursed my lips. Thought about the mother and the old men. “Can you make the burn pile mean something? The sacrifice?”

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She nodded.

I wanted more. “Can you keep the story from being sad?”

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Her smile had a sardonic edge to it. “Maybe not. Not for these people.” She glanced toward the crowd continuing to gather around the food, to take plates. Kinady continued, “Chandra asked me to talk about Amelia Wu. She’s already moved to New Olympia. Chandra and Susannah found her a condo on the top floor. When she practices, her music will spill out into a park.”

Chandra hadn’t told me that. Surely she was going to? I could see the story Kinady was putting together in her head. “So people will see that New Olympia is a valid choice?”

“One of many good choices, but yes.”

Could she pull it off? She was following the rules I had lain down, asking. Legally, she didn’t have to do that. I really didn’t want to like a reporter. “Chandra wants you to include me in the story, right?”

Kinady smiled at me as if I were a 5-year-old who had earned a silver star. It irritated me, a little. The people from Sultan probably had places to go already. But some might not. And there were two other towns on the list for this year. Maybe no more for a few years. Maybe. If the damned disasters slowed down.

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Kinady was a reporter. She’d be hard on me. “You’re going to tell them how I failed.”

She licked her bottom lip, hesitated, then leaned slightly toward me. “I’m going to say that it takes more than you to succeed.”

I thought of the well in New Olympia, how the old well had given to us freely and the new one took engineering, force, and effort. Hope, and bringing a heartbeat to New Olympia, also required engineering and force, and Kinady was a true force of human nature. And Chandra. And me, to the extent I could get out of the way. “Go ahead. Have fun. Tell me when you need me.”

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She grinned. “Can I be the one to reveal that you’re here?”

I swallowed.

“Not yet.” Her eyes danced with the idea of her story. “In a little bit. In fact, I’d like it if no one knows you’re here for another hour.”

“I often get recognized.”

“I know.” She leaned toward me, almost a move to give me a hug, but then stopped herself.

We stood self-consciously apart for a moment. Then I told her, “Thank you.”

She disappeared into the crowd despite her bright colors. Maybe I would regret this. But maybe not. There would be no single answer to New Olympia’s population problem, no one way to bring life and heart to the city when we politicians weren’t there.

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The firefighters coming to keep the last fire safe pulled up in a truck. We had robots, but I knew from briefings that we chose humans on purpose. Somehow it was far more fitting to see the young men and women in bright yellow uniforms with white helmets and silver tape and big black boots. They looked appropriately somber.

I tugged my hat further over my eyes and headed to find Chandra and offer her a more permanent job on my staff. She had a good eye for detail and strategy. I could use that. I’d get a grant for Guadalupe’s operation, help the people on the peninsula who weren’t going to be displaced by flood. They were threatened by the damaged ocean anyway, with its depleted fisheries, strong storms, and dry forests. Washington needed a good leader there.

And after that, in spite of the horror of it, the sadness and loss, a part of me was looking forward to Sultan’s funeral pyre.

Out of ashes.

Read a response essay by a managed retreat researcher.

Read More From Future Tense Fiction

The Trolley Solution,” by Shiv Ramdas
Congratulations on Your Loss,” by Catherine Lacey
In the Land of Broken Things,” by Josh Bales
The Skeleton Crew,” by Janelle Shane
Collateral Damage,” by Justina Ireland
Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter
The Wait,” by Andrea Chapela
Ride,” by Linda Nagata
If We Make It Through This Alive,” by A.T. Greenblatt
Good Job, Robin,” by JoeAnn Hart
Empathy Hour,” by Matt Bell
The Woman Who Wanted to Be Trees,” by Cat Rambo

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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