The Golden Gate Barrage – Part III (FINALE)

» Read Part I and Part II of The Golden Gate Barrage!

March 21, 2063, 2230 Hours, Bay-Delta Coastal Protection Zone, Oakland, California


The night air was cold and blustery. Wind gusts laced with raindrops swooped in to warn us that storms were coming. Jabari led the way, as Tati and I followed him toward the bars of blue neon light marking the entrance to Fruitvale Landing. He had security clearance to board the inner transit lines, and apparently his family’s rank within the regional authority granted him the right to bring two colleagues — provided, of course, no one had a mark on their records. I assured them my past was clean, though I did wonder whether any of my pre-teen shoplifting sprees ever made it to the corporate vidnets.

Jabari flashed his Golden Gate Authority badge to the attendant. “Good evening,” said Jabari. “Headin’ over to China Basin to check on some spawning grounds I’m overseeing. These are a coupla my insomniac volunteers.”

The attendant remained composed and indifferent as he scanned Jabari’s badge. “Please step forward and look into the scanner,” he said, gesturing toward Tati and I. Tati went first, placing her chin on the rest plate. A matrix of red laser light flashed across her eyes, followed by a green overhead glow. “You’re clear,” said the attendant. I was next.

I hesitated. What if there WAS something damning in my records? I didn’t want to jeopardize the mission! I calmed my nerves and stepped toward the scanner. “It’s okay,” said Jabari, flashing another smile. “Nobody cares about your late night swims past the safety buoys.”

Relaxed by his jokes, I plopped my chin on the rest plate and looked face-forward. The red light scanned my retina, then abruptly stopped in mid-sweep. The attendant looked at me with sudden concern. I began to panic. Oh shit! What do they have on me? Metal cuff-links quickly curled over my wrists, trapping me in the scanning chair. What the FUCK?!

“Hold on,” said the attendant as he checked the readout. “The system’s been a bit buggy lately. Looks like it was just a malfunction.” A feeling of cool relief swept over me as the metal links retracted. I stood up calmly so as not to arouse suspicion.

The blue barrier bars receded, and the attendant motioned for us to pass. We walked close together, heading straight for the escalator to the overhead train cars. Entering our car, I couldn’t help but notice how spartan and new everything looked: spotless plush seating lined each side of the aisle, which was covered in smooth, translucent plating. Most passengers were immersed in vidchats or augmented reality gear sets, while others relaxed in spacious seats with full reclining position. I’d never seen that before! I pulled out my vidpad to snap a photo of the spectacle.

Jabari grabbed my arm, pulling me into an empty seat next to him and Tati. “Probably best to keep that tucked away,” he whispered. “Some of these folks report to higher-ups in the Authority, or serve as security detail for San Francisco elites. They may not appreciate your photography practice like I do.” He winked at me, prompting me to pocket my vidpad.

The ride to the new transbay tube was smooth and comfortable — and deeply disturbing. Along the way, I saw how the waterfront neighborhoods had become one long strip of gentrified playgrounds for the rich: Alameda Shores, Brooklyn Basin, Jack London Estates. All had become their own gated economic enclaves, complete with their own security forces and their own cultural identities, connected to the inland flats only through access checkpoints.

“Don’t look so sad,” Jabari said, taking my hand. His palm was warm and reassuring. How is this guy so confident? And so steamin’ hot? I turned to Tati, who was caressing his shoulder. All I could do was smile at them, wishing desperately to quash my emotional salad of excitement, sorrow, and fear. “These places are just last-ditch attempts to hold on to a dying age.”

I gave him a goofy look of disbelief. “Oh, is that what they are?” They seemed more like a military occupation to me. “Please explain, oh wise one.” I couldn’t help teasing him a bit.

He tried hard to put on his serious face, but couldn’t hold back a grin. He gave me what I chose to think was a flirtatious stink-eye, and we all broke out laughing. After the final East Bay stop, we began our descent into the transbay tube. Jabari got himself together and continued: “Seriously though, none of those ‘hoods could survive without the protection of the Authority. And they’re almost completely powered by the bay’s wave energy coming from Goldilocks.”

Tati interjected: “So take away the barrage, and there goes their power — and most of their shoreline.” That prospect was starting to sound a bit far-fetched, not to mention messy as hell.

“And how exactly do you plan to do that?” I asked. “And where would all the fancy shoreline grabbers go, once the lights go out and their flats start flooding?”

Jabari motioned for us to keep our volume down. I’d almost forgotten that we were surrounded by economic dependents of the Golden Gate Barrage. Lucky for us, they were completely oblivious to our scheming. “Not here,” he said in a hushed voice. We paused our little conspiracy of three, and sank back into our seats. After a few minutes, a sudden surge of light filled the car, followed by the sound of crackling electrical wires. Our car began lurching forward in faster and faster bursts along the track, followed by a fading series of counter-force corrections. The lights dimmed for a moment, then returned to normal, along with our speed.

“What was THAT?” I pleaded, looking to our resident sage for some insight on the matter.

“It’s the barrage,” he said. “There must be quite a storm brewin’ up there. My pops and his team have been working to stabilize the power buffers. But the superstorms are getting too much for ’em to handle. It’s only a matter of time before an electrical surge more powerful than that takes out the whole grid.” He pretty much all but said it: we were simply going to speed along what Mother Nature had already intended.

Our car began to slow as we approached San Francisco’s eastern edge. “We’re getting off at Embarcadero Station,” said Tatiana. “We’re already late, so we have to hurry.” We exited and dashed up the stairwell, as the escalator system was out of order. Sheets of hard rain pounded the city streets, interrupted only by random bursts of lightning. How are we going to make it through all this? We don’t even have raincoats! Covering our heads with our jackets, we crossed an overpass leading across a flooded block of California Street. An interconnected network of walkways had been constructed above street level to allow second-floor access to buildings with water-logged first floors. After a series of hairy turns, we boarded the elevated train line leading to Fort Mason.

I couldn’t shake the vision I now had of floodwaters suddenly creeping up the Oakland embankments, with thousands of new residents streaming out to what’s left of our flatland ‘hoods. Had Jabari and the rebels really thought this through? Once the barrage stopped functioning, there’d be so much panic, so much confusion, and — most likely — so much violence. I  wished I was somewhere else. I wanted justice for Benito and all of us who’ve been cast aside so mercilessly, but there had to be some other way.

“What’s up, Mari?” asked Jabari. This guy can already read me like the back of his hand.

I looked at him for a sign. Some indication that he was conscious of the gravity of his actions. I knew Tatiana wouldn’t be with him unless she believed him to be a man of his word, but was he also guided by soundness of mind, or simple revenge? “I need to know we are trying to save lives here, not cause more misery. For anyone,” I said.

Jabari gave me a look of relief and admiration. “Tati warned me how amazing you are, Mariela,” he said. “All I can say is that I’m grateful you’re here with us tonight.” He paused and looked into my eyes. “We’re not going to ask you to do anything you don’t want to. We simply want justice for our communities and a return to balance.”

I couldn’t help but feel a sense of ease at his words. Tati gave me a side hug in solidarity. “You’ll soon meet the others,” she said. “I think you’ll like what you’re about to hear.”

We reached the end of the line, and began a mad dash for the entrance to Fort Mason. The night guard was composed of two groggy officers, one of whom casually examined Jabari’s badge and waved us in. Thankfully, the storms had calmed somewhat, giving our soaked jackets a chance to dry out a bit. We ducked into one of the old buildings close to the hillside, and were relieved to feel the warmth of a blazing fire. At least a couple dozen mostly young men and women sat around it on roll-out rugs and concrete blocks.

“Jabari!” exclaimed a heavier-set, beautifully adorned woman near the hearth. She radiated a powerful air of confidence as she strode towards us. Her skin was reddish brown, her hair was long, dark, and silky, and her clothes were covered with bright, multi-hued feathers. “We were beginning to wonder if you were coming,” she said, looking at him with a touch of disappointment.

“Our apologies, Ramay,” said Jabari, lowering his head. “I couldn’t risk a comms trail between us. We had some minor delays along the way.” He held out his arm in my direction, and spoke aloud to the group: “Friends, please welcome our newest ally, Mariela Rodriguez, a displaced Oakland native of many generations, whose younger brother just died from toxic pollution after last night’s refinery blast in Richmond.”

Those gathered around the fire stood up and began walking over to me. Nearly everyone wore Authority badges like Jabari. So THAT was how this was going down. It’s an inside operation. They greeted me warmly, shook my hand and offered their condolences. Most were sons and daughters of senior Authority personnel. All had witnessed the trauma it had brought to shoreline communities, and the corrupt leadership that had seized control. I could sense their sadness, but also their collective determination.

Ramay stepped back towards the fire, and turned to face the group. The flames seemed to increase in intensity as they lapped furiously skyward behind her commanding presence. “Friends, the time has come for us to reclaim our homeland,” she began. “We do not seek harm to our fellow earthly travelers here in the bay. Only a return to free-flowing waters, liberated shores, and safe homes for all our peoples. The Golden Gate Barrage promised us much, but in the end, it became a tool of oppression. Its time has passed.”

The group nodded in solemn agreement and took a moment of silence to honor Ramay’s words. Jabari stepped over to a clear section of the room and mounted a small device on the wall. He switched it on, revealing a projection schematic of the barrage, complete with security checkpoints. “We all know what’s at stake,” he said. “Remember: only eight of us need to get inside for this to succeed. Twice that many have agreed to seek entry, in case any of us are turned away. Thank you for your courage. We know you are risking a great deal.”

He stopped for a moment to scan the room, meeting the eyes of those who must have self-selected for the mission. Tatiana stepped towards him and curled a supportive arm around his back. He turned to give her a quick kiss and then continued: “Each of you with badges will be accompanied by an authorized ‘colleague’ who is, of course, offering critical technical assistance with your Authority-approved projects.” He snuck in a slight grin.

“But what if we’re rejected at security?” asked a young woman in the front.

“We’re counting on it,” said Jabari. “Part of their late night protocol is to deny entry to some, even authorized personnel. We just don’t now how many. So let’s not tip ’em off by resisting in any way. Simply smile and say you’ll come back another time.”

He went on to assign teams to entryways on both sides of the barrage, and explained the plan: we would synchronize the shut down of most of the dam’s power buffers by putting them in diagnostics mode at several maintenance control stations. In that state, even normal seaside water pressure might be enough to cause a system overload. But with tonight’s storm-powered waves, it was almost a certainty.

“Once you’re in position, simply send your coded signal to the group,” he said. “When we’ve reached critical mass, our comms system will give the green light. Good luck, everyone. Future generations will thank you for your bravery.” Jabari and Tati mingled with a few members of the mission contingent, then wandered over to me.

“I hope we inspired some confidence in us,” said Jabari, fishing for a sign from me. I nodded and smiled, reflecting a sense of hope that I genuinely felt. Granted, I still had reservations about how things would shake out, but the plan seemed solid. “I’m glad,” he responded, smiling back. “If you’re up for it, I’d like you to join me tonight.”

That took me aback. Why wouldn’t Tati be his partner? These two seemed made for this mission! “Amiga, I’d raise too much suspicion,” said Tati. “They know I’m not a professional colleague, and, pues, I’ve been kicked out before.” I needed to hear that story sometime, but immediately understood. We simply couldn’t risk it.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll do it!” A sudden rush of dread and excitement came over me.

Jabari gave me a warm embrace, then gave Tati a passionate farewell kiss. Damn, I wouldn’t mind a bit of that myself, I thought. He motioned for me to follow him, and I happily obliged. A ferocious wind tunnel greeted us as we exited the building toward the marina. A few blocks ahead, Goldilocks towered above the inner bay, holding back the angry sea. Its warning beacon was spinning wildly, providing at least some signal lighting to any vessels caught in the gathering storms. The walk was tough and cold, but we made good time. Soon we were at the base of the winding path leading up to the southern entryway.

We passed another guarded neon blue bar barricade, no questions asked, and proceeded through a long glassed-in access corridor overlooking the southern span. The rains were getting stronger again, and the lightning blasts more frequent. I glanced seaward: at least a dozen large trade ships were bouncing on the waves, waiting patiently for the storms to subside before making their way to the locks. A thick sheet of rain smacked loudly against the glass, causing me to jump. “You’ll live,” joked Jabari, grinning back at me.

At the far end of the corridor, a lone silhouette appeared. Jabari stopped, staring ahead with disbelief. I had no idea what was going on, but I knew something was terribly wrong.

“Jabari?” asked the figure, as he walked calmly towards us. “It is you. I guess I should have expected this. When you stormed off, I knew you must be up to no good. I should have trusted my instincts and revoked your security clearance. I’ve never been so ashamed.”

Jabari’s head sank a bit, and he reluctantly stepped forward to meet his father. “Pops, please listen. You don’t know what I’ve seen. What the barrage is really doing,” he said.

“Don’t ‘Pops’ me!” said his father, clearly incensed that his son would even be here. “You’re planning something. What? Some kind of sabotage? Whatever it is, it’s nothing more than some sorry attempt to inflate your ego, to satisfy your sense of moral righteousness. You can’t imagine the damage you’d cause, the lives you’d destroy, if you had your way.” I had to admit: his dad really knew how to get under your skin.

Something shifted in Jabari. I could sense a newfound determination from him as he stepped closer to his father. “Dad, I know you’ve put your heart and soul into this. I know you mean well. But I’m sorry to say you’ve been played,” he said.

Jabari’s father seethed in anger. He raised his fist in the air and shook it vigorously. “I raised you better than this!” he screamed. “Whatever crazy conspiracy you’ve got messing with your head, it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve given our people a second chance. We were losing over 100 square miles of coastline every few years before the barrage.” He looked upon Jabari with the face of a father betrayed, wracked with disappointment.

The pounding rains became even more violent, mirroring the growing tension in the air. In the corner of my eye, I saw one of the larger trade ships being pushed ominously close to the barrage, swaying wildly from side-to-side. Jabari kept pacing toward his father in a slow, suspicious manner. I stepped back, sensing the need to keep my distance.

“We can’t hold the rising seas back forever, and you know it,” said Jabari, raising his voice. “And those who you’ve wrongly chosen to serve have already destroyed the communities you claim to protect! It has to end, pops. I’m sorry it had to be this way.” He lunged toward his father, and plunged a tranquilizer syringe into his hip. Jabari held him close, breaking his fall as his increasingly limp body collapsed to the ground.

What the fuck was going on? Jabari EXPECTED this? My legs began to carry me away, almost involuntarily, back toward the main entryway to the corridor. Jabari was far ahead now, peering toward me with a look of panic. “Where are you going?” he cried.

Just then, the bone-chilling sound of groaning metal roared through the corridor. The storm waves were actually starting to strain the stability of the barrage itself! I could feel a slight sway in the structure beneath me. Outside, a blinding burst of lightning flashed across the western skyline, revealing a huge oncoming wave, easily 20 feet high. Atop the wave was that enormous trade ship, its corporate logo painfully visible as its hull smashed squarely into the barrage’s central barrier. My body flew into the glass, as the massive blow from the trade ship buckled and ripped through Goldilocks’ upper levels. I fell to the floor, which had shifted to a decline, angled at least 10 degrees bayward. This thing wasn’t going to last more than a few more minutes. I had to get out of here!

I looked over to Jabari, and saw him desperately lurching toward me as a wall of seawater began to envelop him. “Jabari!” I yelled. “Jabari!” But it was too late. He slipped and fell into the downward sidewall that had already become a river. I only had seconds before I would be swept up as well. So I lept away as best I could, pushing against the lower wall to keep my balance. At the entryway, there was no sign of the guard, and the security bars weren’t functioning. I dashed for the access pathway and sprinted as fast as possible.

Once at a safe distance, I turned to face it: the massive, once-impenetrable Golden Gate Barrage was now reeling, split in half with a gaping wound that would never heal. Water gushed through the center ravine that had formed by the crash, ripping off more and more sections of the barrage with explosive abandon. I saw at least two more trade ships smash over the opening, then crash into the barge that had struck the fatal blow.

It’s all over now, I thought. There’s nothing to stop the rising tide. Now we must simply learn to adapt. All of us. I noticed the sky becoming blacker, but not because the lightning had subsided. I turned to face downtown. A rolling blackout was blanketing San Francisco in darkness. The city had come to rely on the barrage for far too much. It would now have to learn to live within its means. Perhaps even in balance.

§   §   §


March 21, 2068, 1030 Hours, Rolling Hills Memorial Park, Richmond, California

I laid a dozen lilacs on little Beni’s tombstone. Five years ago, he lost his life. Some say it was lost due to pollution from the refinery blast. I say it was lost to indifference, corruption, and greed. I permitted myself a smile as I recalled that the refinery was now merely a fading memory — completely flooded and rendered “beyond repair” by local authorities following the destruction of the barrage. Most of the newly minted coastal ‘hoods also suffered the same fate: complete and total destruction. Very few of the pampered newcomers could stomach living among us lowly flatlanders. So most retreated to the hills or to other wealthy enclaves, where they’ve once again started building new barriers and checkpoints to keep out the riff-raff. I even heard that some corporations and construction outfits are working on a major fortress for San Francisco’s power elites.

Whatever. They can hide away, and wall themselves off to their hearts’ content. Meanwhile, the rest of us have actually been afforded a gift: an opportunity to begin anew. I recently joined the Bay Conservation Corps, which was quite easy, given my connection to Jabari. He’d become somewhat of a legend in the years following his death. I chose to keep his secret. No use in tarring his name — or risking my own arrest, of course. I figure if the Bay Area was being handed a clean slate, I may as well grant myself the same.

Who knows what the future may hold? With all the monumental challenges we face, it won’t be easy. But somehow, some way, we’ll make it through. We always have, and always will.


The Golden Gate Barrage – Part II

» Read Part I of The Golden Gate Barrage!

March 21, 2063, 0730 Hours, Bay-Delta Coastal Protection Zone, Oakland, California

Barrage_Montage_FinalWe were minutes away from Fruitvale Station. Momma was sleeping on my shoulder as the train began its final approach on the elevated track. Every few seconds, the wheels squeaked loudly as our rickety car crawled along. This stretch had always been bad as long as I can remember, but today it sounded like it was on the verge of collapse.

I peered out the window to my right, hoping to catch a glimpse of my old stomping grounds. The rising seas and the Great Greenland Flood had erased half a mile or so of Oakland’s shoreline neighborhoods. Our old house was spared only by a safety margin of several blocks, but we knew it was just a matter of time before we were next.

“Next stop: Fruitvale Station,” crackled the announcement speaker as the car slowed, blaring its arrival horns. The emerging view outside was nothing short of shocking. Beyond the cracked station walls and dilapidated platform, a 20-foot-high chain-link fence stretched for at least several blocks. On the other side — where our family had lived for generations — was a newly constructed, pristine streetscape filled with tree-lined walkways, bustling shops and restaurants, and dozens of earth-toned condominium complexes. Above street level, a parallel transit line had been erected with a gleaming tubular design covering the platform and escalator system. People in white suits and neon skirts were going to and fro, sipping on drinks and vidchatting with abandon.

They gutted everything, I thought. And they’re not worried about the floodwaters. They just walled themselves off, and created their own paradise on top of our misery. I’ll bet they didn’t even bother to fix up our old house. They probably just bulldozed it. But why would they invest so much money right here in the flood zone? It didn’t make any sense.

I woke Momma and guided her weary body out to the platform. She rubbed her eyes, and stared out the station window overlooking the massive fenceline. She rubbed her eyes again, perhaps hoping in vain to wipe away the unbelievable scene before her. “It’s gone, Momma,” I said, curling my arm around her. I stood up on a platform bench for a better view. Sleek new buildings and greenways stretched toward the waterfront as far as the eye could see. It’s almost as though the floodwaters had somewhat receded. But that’s impossible!

“Let’s get out of here,” said Momma, holding my hand for support. We had to take the crumbling stairwell since the elevator wasn’t working. Momma moved slowly, but steadily, and soon we were riding in an old diesel sedan toward Tati’s place. We were lucky today. With the gas shortage, there aren’t nearly as many cars offering rides as there used to be. And this guy cut us some slack for traveling such a short distance.

We approached the front gate of Tati’s apartment with caution, hoping to avoid beggars and the usual onslaught of kids selling candy and pan dulce. I keyed her flat code into the entry pad. Tati’s face soon appeared on the vidscreen. “Mari! Y señora. Please come in!”

As we approached her doorstep, Momma began to cry. On top of losing Benito, she now faced the indignity of not even having her own home to go back to. To grieve. In peace. Tati welcomed us with open arms, joining us for a group sobbing session on her stoop. “Stay here as long as you need to,” she said, wiping away her own tears.

“I’m sorry for your loss, friend,” said a calm, deep voice from the entryway. I looked up to see a young, handsome man in his early 20s, his face nearly expressionless beneath a well-trimmed beard. His smooth skin was a light chocolate brown, and his perfectly sculpted crew cut only highlighted his strong masculine features. I felt a tinge of excitement in my body, but did my best to hold back my interest.

“Meet my boo, Jabari,” said Tati, gesturing towards him with a smile. Jabari smiled back, and tilted his head in acknowledgment. “We’ve been kickin’ it for about a year now,” she continued. “He’s been working hard with the Bay Corps, trying to restore some of the shoreline we’ve lost.”

“It hasn’t been easy,” said Jabari. “No doubt you’ve seen what’s been happening. The suits with deep pockets have been buying up the waterfront, even the underwater parts, and building up new gated ‘hoods. See Fruitvale Landing on your way here?”

Fruitvale Landing. How pompous! I suppose the name fits though, I had to admit. “Yeah, we could barely believe it,” I sighed. “It’s like our entire lives were completely erased.” I thought about all the times we played in each other’s backyards there, my first kiss at the channel overlooking the Alameda shores, and the look on Momma’s face when Daddy died at the docks. So many memories, and so little to show for it. “But why would they set up there? It’s all in the flood zone!”

Jabari’s brow furrowed. “That’s what they want you to believe,” he grumbled. “It’s a sham. They’re not satisfied walling themselves off in the hills, keeping the rest of us fending for scraps. No, they need the shoreline too. The government’s in their back pockets, setting up these ‘Exclusion Zones’ to scare folks out.”

“That’s exactly what happened to us!” I blurted out. “We were robbed! And now Benito’s dead.” I held back my anger, eager to learn more from Jabari. Momma’s ears perked up. “But I still don’t get it. The floods are real. Richmond was knee deep in seawater, and most of West Oakland’s now gone.”

“It’s true,” said Jabari. “Much of downtown San Francisco is underwater too. So’s the South Bay shoreline, and long stretches of the Delta. But they can control the flow now with the Golden Gate Barrage. You know, the mega-dam and lock system?”

I found that hard to believe, but nodded my head in agreement. Jabari continued: “Well, the bay is basically one giant bathtub. You pour water in, the level rises. You drain it, the level goes down. Inside the dam, they installed enormous pipes that are sucking up millions of gallons of bay water each day and then pouring it out to sea.”

So THAT’s how they did it, I thought. The fuckers sure pulled a fast one! And now the rest of us are getting screwed. I caught myself staring at Jabari and quickly looked away. He seemed so confident. So savvy. And soooo attractive. Tati must be so happy.

“Jabari’s papa works for the Golden Gate Management Authority,” Tati said. “Maybe he could give you a tour of the barrage!” Her face and tone seemed a bit sarcastic, but I chalked it up as disgust for the time being. Or did she see me admiring Jabari?

He frowned and cursed under his breath. “Pops probably wouldn’t take a vidcall from me if I tried. Last time we talked, we were screaming at each other over what he was doing,” Jabari said, hanging his head in shame. “He thinks he’s saving the Bay Area.”

We hung out on the stoop for a while longer, then Momma and I took a long nap. Tati’s parents came home from work in the late afternoon, and we all shared a delicious meal of tortillas and rice. Everyone seemed nervous about bringing up Benito, but Momma finally broke the silence: “He was such a good little niño,” she said, wiping her tears. “Always helping, always smiling. I know he’s smiling on us now, seeing us all come together like this. Gracias a ustedes for welcoming us, and for being here for us.” We held hands and said a prayer for Beni, and told stories of our childhood until bedtime. Momma and I retreated to a small guest room in the back, while Tati and Jabari stayed up front, engrossed in a heated debate about his work for the corps. I crashed within minutes.

Moments later, I felt a nudge on my arm that pulled me back awake. Above me, Jabari and Tati were smiling. “Sorry to wake you, Mari,” Jabari whispered. “We thought you might want to join us.” I was incredibly groggy, so I had to sit up just to catch my bearings.

“What’s going on?” I asked, looking over to Momma who was still fast asleep.

Tati leaned in and stared into my eyes. “There’s a lot more going on than we’ve told you, Mari. We’ve got friends here and around the bay who want to put a stop to what’s going on. To shut down that damn barrage once and for all.” I liked the sound of that, to be sure, but had no idea what any of us could possibly do about it. I noticed they both had jackets on and that Jabari was shouldering a large backpack.

“Sounds great to me,” I said. “But where are you going? It’s getting pretty late.”

“San Francisco,” Jabari replied. “Tonight’s a big meeting of our group. They’re gonna love you.” He shot me another of his taunting smiles, and held out his hand. Whatever doubts I had quickly vanished in that moment. I grabbed his hand, and joined the resistance.

 » Read Part III (FINALE) of The Golden Gate Barrage!


The Golden Gate Barrage – Part I

March 21, 2063, 0130 Hours, Richmond Medical Center, Bay-Delta Coastal Protection Zone, Richmond, California

Barrage_Montage_FinalBenito gasped for air. His 5-year-old lungs were failing him now. No surprise, of course — he’d breathed highly polluted air nearly every day of his life. He screamed in agony, his blood-curdling shrieks piercing my eardrums like spikes. Tears streamed down his anguished caramel cheeks as he pawed furiously at the white sheets on the hospital gurney. Momma stroked his short black hair with one hand, holding back her own tears as best as she could. In her other hand, she held an old rosary necklace, the one her mother had given her just before she passed. She made the sign of the cross, grabbed Benito’s hand, and looked him in the eyes: “God is with you, Beni.”

Then why isn’t He helping us now? I thought. The nurse told us a doctor would be in to see him soon. But that was over 30 minutes ago! I know, I know. Last night’s explosion at the refinery has them very busy treating other people. But Benito’s dying here!

I jumped off the counter and peered outside the door: an old black woman with a respirator was stumbling toward me as several medical staff walked hurriedly past her; a squealing baby in a plasticine basinett was being wheeled down the hall, its face a gruesome bluish-red; and several dozen others sat coughing in fits along a long row of chairs, the end of which I could barely make out. Poor Benito. What if he can’t hold on?

I darted over to the reception counter, cutting in front of at least a dozen haggard-looking victims of the latest oil refinery blast. I waived my hands frantically, shouting: “Please, please! My brother needs help!” A man behind a glass wall gave me a passing glance, then pressed the corner of his touch-sensitive readout. A mounted vidcam tilted downward to scan my face, producing a data set on his display. He spoke calmly into his mic: “Rodriguez, Mariela. Asthmatic sibling registered to room 109A. A resident doctor is scheduled to evaluate him at 0140 hours. Please step aside, or security will be called.”

They don’t care. None of them care.

I shrank away from the counter, lowering my shoulders in resignation. As I wandered  back, I could hear Benito’s wheezing gasps in the distance. Up ahead, several medics shuffled into his room. I quickly followed, and saw Momma standing silently over him at the foot of his gurney. “Clear!” said a man holding a blinking metal device, which he quickly planted on Benito’s chest. His upper body convulsed in rebellion as his pupils rolled skyward. A loud beeping sound blared from the monitor. Benito’s wheezing was now little more than weak gasps. Everyone was in a frenzy. Everything became a blur as medics took turns administering injections, triggering the chest device, and nervously adjusting Benito’s gas mask. The beeping became a steady high-pitched ring, and a young nurse covered her mouth, staring at the flat red line on the readout.

Momma fell to her knees, clutching Benito’s feet with her outstretched hands. “Nooooo!” she screamed. “Too young!” My own tears were welling up now. This can’t be happening. Beni was just pulling my hair yesterday. Laughing, playing. No, this CAN’T be. A rush of burning rage coursed through me. All I could think about was that swindling real estate guy who sold us that damn house in the first place. “This is the best deal you’re gonna find,” he kept telling Momma. “You’ll be out of harm’s way. Far from the flood zone. And the refinery’s totally safe now.” What a load of crap!

Before my fury got me into any more trouble, I turned and ran. Smashing through the closest doors across the hall, I came to a stairwell. I scaled several flights, trying to shake off my anger. A darkened set of stairs came into view. I kept going, hoping for anywhere to hide from all this madness, all this pain. I pushed open a small door, and stepped out to the rooftop. A faint whiff of burning chemicals breezed past my nose. That fucking refinery. Someone’s gotta pay for what they’ve done to Benito. To all of us.

I could ignore the ambulance sirens and shouting from the streets. I could ignore the toxic haze closing in around me. But I couldn’t ignore the image in my mind of Benito’s smiling, big-toothed face. Little Beni. Poor Beni. Sweet Beni. I finally let myself go, crying like a baby, gasping for breaths between my drooling lips. I draped myself over the ledge overlooking the emergency entrance. Hundreds of people, scores of them children, stood patiently in line, waiting for care they may never receive. We’re TOO damn patient. Too willing to accept these assaults on our health, on our dignity. When will it end?

My vidpad rang in my jacket pocket, playing my friend Tatiana’s unmistakable ringtune. “¿Bueno?” I said reflexively, knowing full well that things were far from good.

“You’re up! You okay?” asked Tatiana, her face overcome with worry. “I was up late, and just heard there was an explosion!” Tatiana still lived in our old ‘hood in Oakland, though thankfully a bit uphill from the floodwater exclusion zone. I hadn’t seen her in months, but ever since I was a little girl, we could always count on her and her family for anything.

“Sí, I’m fine,” I finally said, trying to hide my tears. I paused, then met her gaze. “Pero, Beni’s gone, Tati,” I managed through my sobs. “He couldn’t take the smoke.”

Tatiana put her hand over her mouth in shock, shaking her head in disbelief. “No!” she cried. “Pobrecito. I’m so sorry, Mari. I’m so sorry.”

“Gracias, Tati. I know he’s in a better place now. But Beni never stood a chance, you know?” Our house in Richmond was simply too close to the refinery, and directly downwind from its flares. We knew he was suffering, but couldn’t leave. Momma needed her care-taking job in Berkeley, and our beat-up house wouldn’t have fetched enough to move anywhere else. “We never should have left Oakland!”

“I know, amiga,” she said. “You should get out of there, at least ’til the danger passes and you and tu madre can decide what to do. You’re welcome to stay with us.”

“Muchas gracias, Tati,” I responded. It would be SO helpful to get away, I thought. If only for a little while to figure out what we’re gonna do. “I gotta go back to Momma. She needs me.”

“Of course,” said Tati. “Blessings, Mari. Vid me when you’re ready.”

I pocketed my vidpad and started back to the stairwell. Just then a bright beam of white light cut across the rooftop. I raised my arm to shield my eyes, then turned to face its source: the warning beacon perched atop “Goldilocks,” the newly constructed mega-dam right at the mouth of San Francisco Bay. Everyone’s been singing its praises for years now. It’ll keep out the rising seas, the newscasters would say, and protect our shores from the floodwaters. Of course, it’ll also provide good-paying jobs, generate clean energy, and still allow for trade ships to come in and out through its enormous system of locks.

All that sounded well and good to me, but too little, too late for us, not to mention the 100,000 or so other folks who’ve already been pushed out by the floods. And why couldn’t us Richmond folks get a proper beacon or warning system for all these refinery blasts? Why?

I returned to Beni’s room and saw Momma still bent over his lifeless body. At least he was finally at peace. I hugged her tightly, trying my best to ease her sorrow. Our sorrow. I held off the staff from wheeling him away for about an hour as we sobbed, reminisced, and finally, made arrangements for his body. A proper funeral would have to wait. We stepped outside to a calmer morning. Most of the line had disappeared, except for a dozen or so folks sleeping under hospital blankets by the front entrance. A foul-smelling fog covered the grounds, and a grey-soaked sun began to peek over the East Bay hills.

I convinced mother to go straight with me to Tatiana’s for at least a few days, despite her pleas to return home. “It’s not safe yet, Momma,” I insisted, as we shuttled to the Richmond train station. I knew we could borrow clothes from Tati’s familia or get some from Fruitvale Plaza, so it wouldn’t be a problem. As we left the station, the haze lessened, revealing a haunting sea of flooded buildings toward Richmond Harbor. We were slammed hard in the ’50s after a big chunk of the Greenland ice sheets melted, raising sea levels by several feet in less than a month. Richmond and much of the Bay Area has never recovered.

I wonder what our old neighborhood looks like now? I hadn’t been there for over a year. We’ll see soon enough. And maybe, just maybe, we can find a way out of this mess.

» Read Part II of The Golden Gate Barrage!

Destination Antarctica 3015 (Part II)

» Read PART I, New Beginnings, here.

PART II: The Journey

Pacific Ocean, Off Upper Mehico’s Northwest Coast — The first several weeks of our journey went by rather smoothly. My leg healed nicely, and none of Jin’s confidants got wind of our departure early enough to stop us, or cause any trouble for Dredge and his crew. Yasmin and I have spent many nights in our cabin reminiscing about the good times on Sutro Isle, knowing full well we’ll never see it again. It’s just as well. Adventure beckoned. And we responded.

Of course, we’ve only just begun to realize what that adventure may entail, or what awaits us when we finally reach Antarctica. Maybe we’ll find a way to jump ship early. Time will tell. For now, we’re well-fed, welcomed, and needed more than ever. Yasmin has taken to training some of the deck boys on how to handle a sword, and I spend most days at the helm.

I peered over my shoulder to the western shores. Desolate mountain ranges hugged the coastline as far the eye could see, mostly covered in brown and black. Could these have once been blanketed with forests? An old fishing buddy from my youth once said his family had lived near the southlands, but skirmishes along the slippery border with Upper Mehico forced them northward. From where I stood, I didn’t see much worth fighting over.

Two pairs of footsteps grew louder from below deck. They rose up the stepladder towards me. “Afternoon, mate!” said Dredge in his customary jovial fashion as he entered the control room. He stood to one side to make way for the captain, whose dress was far more formal than the rest of us. I’d chatted with Captain Damien in passing, but she had yet to pay me a personal visit. Maybe she’s starting to wonder about the new guy at the helm. I know I would.

She held out her hand and looked me squarely in the eyes. I stiffened my posture and put my arms at my sides. “At ease, helmsman,” she said. “Dredge has been singing your praises ever since you came aboard. I hear you’ve steered us flawlessly for the past three weeks.”

I relaxed a bit and managed a grin. “Well, I appreciate that, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to steer a class-A ship than most of the beat-up rigs I’m used to,” I said. I looked over at Dredge and noticed his usual wide-ass grin was woefully absent. The captain wasn’t smiling either.

“Still, we’re very grateful for your efforts — especially your stamina through these long days,” she said. Her gaze shifted past me to the passing shores. “See all those webs pitched along that ridge over there?” I turned to see huge arrays of thinly woven nets, spread far and wide along the ridgeline. Enormous mast-length poles jutted skyward, holding the webbed walls tightly against the rushing winds. Gusty imprints danced along the webbing for miles on end. Truly breathtaking. But they wouldn’t stop anyone trying to get through.

“What you’re seeing is probably the longest water catchment system on the West coast,” the captain said. “On some mornings, the incoming fog layer creates enough droplets to fill the locals’ cisterns to the brim. Of course, there can’t be more than a few thousand souls living in these barren lands now. Legend has it this zone was once home to millions of Tech Ancients. Would you believe they even believed they were living in a city of angels?”

I’d heard the same thing about the San Frisco Isles and our bay-delta zone. Creeping deserts, rising seas, and vanishing fresh water must’ve forced most to find new lives elsewhere — or die trying. I can’t imagine living among millions of people, all in such a small space. Must’ve been insane. In the distance, several tall grey structures began to take shape along the shore, and large plumes of smoke rose up behind them. A dozen or so other vessels were anchored at a small port directly ahead, but no one was wandering the docks.

“Are we stopping here?” I asked, tacking the rudder slightly to keep a respectable distance.

The captain looked over to Dredge, then back to me, clearly apprehensive about something. “I’m afraid we are,” she said. “But we must be very careful. On our way up, we tried off-loading some cargo on order by a local merchant. But we were turned away by the portmaster. A passenger representing one of our most wealthy clients insists that we try again.”

Dredge chimed in: “Seems there’s been a change-o’-the-guard ‘round here. From the looks of it, whoever’s taken over doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.”

Just as I was about to ask him a question, Dredge’s arm was struck by a long arrow, pinning him to the handrail. Blood shot from his forearm as he screamed in pain. We ducked for cover. I helped free Dredge and wrapped his puncture wound as best as I could.

Whooosh! Another set of arrows whizzed past the back door of the control room.

Smash! Several more pierced the window, spraying shards everywhere and slicing my cheek.

“Defense formation!” yelled the captain, as she rose to sound the alarm. Several seconds later, another hailstorm of arrows rained down on the upper deck. I could hear guttural sounds from crewmen who must have taken a hit. Now was my chance. If the intervals between barrages continued apace, I had just enough time. I sprang for the steering wheel and made a hard turn starboard. The captain shut the back door to the control room for protection. Overhead, the masts groaned in rebellion to the sudden shift in course. But our sails caught the southerly winds nicely and began pulling us to safety.

I peered out the front window to see Yasmin dragging an injured crewman to shelter. She looked at me with worried, but determined eyes and yelled: “Raise the speed sails!”

Of course! I had totally forgotten. This ship had spare sails for picking up extra velocity in times of need. The captain quickly snuck out the back door and rounded up several crew. They opened a front compartment and cranked open the booster sails. The captured winds quickly gave us a few more knots, and soon we were out of our attackers’ reach.

“That was a close one!” Dredge grunted, clearly in agony. He patted my back and collapsed.

That night, we licked our wounds and vowed to sail on, but much further from shore. “I can help guide our way by the star patterns,” said the captain. “Let’s not take any chances.”

We had a few more months until our next stop at the southern-most reaches of Mehico. Our rations could keep us well-fed until then, as long as our nets pulled in enough fish. Of course, we didn’t know it at the time, but our nets would pull in far more than that.

§   §   §

Pacific Ocean, Off Upper Mehico’s West Coast — The protein stores were nearly empty. Today’s mission: pull in as many fish as humanly possible before the stink of mutiny filled the air. Lucky for us, there were plenty of well-stocked schools in these parts. A half-dozen crew spent the morning casting nets astern, and hauling in some killer catches at that.

Only problem was, some awfully threatening storm clouds were determined to keep us company along the western horizon. Occasionally, they lashed down blazing whips of lightning and rumbling thunderclaps just to scare us. I could make out a few torrents here and there kicking up waves, but only for brief spells. Good lord, I hope we can keep clear of those.

No such luck. A heavy set of whirling gusts began pushing us dangerously close to the storm fronts, forcing us to cut our fishing expedition short. “Haul in the nets!” ordered the captain. Some predictable whining followed. Hungry bellies rarely show good manners.

I was at the helm doing my best to steer us away from the worst of the oncoming waves. Yasmin was keeping me company, along with one of her newest friends, Amuria. The two of them hit it off a few nights ago in the game room. They’d struck up a contest to see who could last the longest as the ship’s resident python slithered around their necks. Amuria lasted for at least 15 minutes. Yasmin, about 15 seconds. Needless to say, my sweet’s pride was knocked down a peg or two, until she caught wind of why she’d lost so badly. Turns out, Amuria’s a Seer — a rare, but growing group of folks who can communicate with other creatures, especially those with similar senses as we have. Pythons are a bit different from humans than most animals, but she could catch its gaze nonetheless, calming it into submission.

“You could have won hands-down,” Amuria was saying to Yasmin. “You just need to channel that raw focus of yours toward connecting with our animal cousins.” I could tell Yasmin was a little irritated. It was, shall we say, yet another ability that escaped her grasp.

“You’re too kind,” she responded. “I could never tame those wild beasts like you. Besides, if I spent too much time with bobcats and snakes, this hunky helmsman might get jealous.” She threw me a wink and a smile, and snuck her hand around the wheel for a quick grab. I focused ahead to stop from being too distracted. We’re already in enough danger as it is.

Several waves struck us hard, nearly knocking us off our feet. Or at least they felt like waves.

“Guth!” Yasmin exclaimed. Her eyes widened as a look of terror came over her. I followed her gaze out the back door of the control room. I could hardly believe my eyes: three enormous tentacle arms were slithering toward us from the ship’s stern. One of them had completely enveloped a crewman who’d been reeling in the fishnets. This gigantic octopus must have got caught in the netting as it was being pulled in. Judging from its behavior, it was none too happy about it either. The crewman screamed in horror as his helpless body slammed into the gunwale, snapping one of his legs under the sheer force of the impact.

My nerves shot through me like wildfire. I knew these creatures existed from tales that legendary sailors had told for generations. But I never imagined seeing one myself! Some say they used to be far smaller, but that long ago the Tech Ancients had hunted down all their competitors, clearing the way for their own gluttonous feeding frenzy at sea. Whatever the reason, we were now face to face with this massive beast’s hungry rage.

I began tacking us back and forth in an attempt to shake our visitor loose. Yasmin collected herself and pulled out her prized dagger, scanning the deck for a heading. She darted for the captured crewman, screaming as she ran. I peered over my shoulder and saw her lunge for the octopus’s arm. She stabbed it deeply enough to cause it to release the crewman. Its undulating arm recoiled in pain, slithering back overboard. Yasmin pulled the crewman aside.

The lightning flashes were getting closer, and the waters increasingly rocky. It wouldn’t be long before we were hit by the torrents. Meanwhile, the octopus had lifted two more of its arms on deck, and began pulling its bulbous head overboard. Dredge and Captain Damien brandished their swords and sliced through the air in an attempt to scare it off. But that only seemed to make it angrier. It tilted its head back, revealing a hungry, gaping mouth.

Before the captain knew it, she was coiled from behind by one of the octopus’s tentacles. Its suckers latched onto her body with a deathly grip. She gasped for air as her sword slammed to the floor. The creature lifted her toward its mouth, and gooey slime dripped onto the deck from its snapping beak. Dredge and Yasmin leaped to the captain’s defense, but both were swept away by another of the octopus’s powerful arms. The creature made quick work of the captain, puncturing her chest with its sharp-toothed tongue, tearing loose several ribs, and disemboweling her with its beak. We lost the captain! Her lifeless body slammed mercilessly onto the deck. But before the beast had a chance to begin dining on her, Amuria stepped in.

I could barely believe my eyes as I saw her: Amuria carried a basket of fish in one hand, and held out a fish in the other, gliding its flapping body along the suckers of one of the octopus’s tentacles. She walked slowly toward its giant head, staring ahead with calm determination. It retracted its snapping beak, and pivoted face-forward for a better view. Amuria set down the basket of fish near the octopus’s mouth, and carefully placed a hand on its slick, reddish head. It began snapping up the fish in clear appreciation. Slowly, the octopus’s skin around Amuria’s hand began to change color, mimicking the light brown of her palm. Amuria smiled, and caressed its frontal lobe. The creature opened its eyes widely, scanned the deck to see that no one was attacking, and then slowly retracted its tentacles and slid back to sea.

What a relief! My arms ached. I’d been steering us frantically away from the storms for at least an hour. I’m not gonna brag, but I think I saved our asses. Along with Amuria, of course. She and Yasmin were busy putting a tourniquet on our injured crewman. It’ll be a miracle if he makes it. Several other crewmembers circled the captain’s body, and stood in silence over her. Dredge approached the circle, placing his hands on two of his comrades. “Never forget the bravery o’ this hero, mateys,” he offered, and placed his cap over his heart.

After a few minutes, Dredge approached the control room, sporting a look of astonishment. “You, matey, are a godsend!” he belted, patting me hard on the shoulder. “I’ve never seen anyone keep their cool like that while poundin’ through storm waves, let alone navigatin’ through that.” He looked out the back toward Yasmin. “Your firebrand partner’s also provin’ to be quite the badass.” He looked back at me and waited until he had my full attention. “Only question is: now that I’m cap’n, who’s gonna be my first mate?”

§   §   §

Pacific Ocean, Off Lower Mehico’s West Coast — Bahía Nica was only hours away now. I’ve only heard of a few places that are home to ten thousand or more, and this was one of them. Much like Californ’s huge inner bay that stretches for hundreds of miles, Lower Mehico’s southernmost bay stretches for at least a hundred, and even offers safe passage to the Atlantic Coast, if that’s where you were headed. I’ll admit, the thought had crossed my mind. Lord knows how much longer I can take being out at sea, especially with all the new duties now on my shoulders. Being a first mate and first helmsman isn’t for the faint of heart.

“What if we just keep an open mind?” I asked Yasmin, hoping she might consider scoping out new horizons with me while we took shore leave at Nica Bay. “We’ve got valuables to trade, and plenty of skills to offer. Do you really want to spend the next twenty months or more cooped up on this ship?” I actually didn’t mind our quarters, which had expanded quite nicely ever since my promotion. But I knew Yasmin enjoyed her freedom to explore.

“Love, I know you haven’t had as much time to get to know our fellow travelers as much as I have.” She cupped my chin and looked deeply into my eyes. “I’ve seen how joyful they are, how proud they are to call Antarctica their home, and how excited they are to return.”

I caressed her arms and pulled her to my side. Smiling, I asked: “Then why are they spending four years away from their beloved homeland? And risking so much?”

She leaned over to me, and planted a wet kiss on my cheek. “Don’t you see? They’re adventurers. Just like us. Many don’t even live in settlements.”

Fascinating. The idea had never occurred to me. “You mean, they’re wanderers?”

“In a sense,” said Yasmin. She sat back on our bed and pulled back her hair. “More like they simply don’t dwell in permanent structures. I’ve heard some of the eastern valleys are so lush and fertile that people can feast off the land for weeks, even without hunting.”

“Amuria’s one of them, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes, and many like her, though none here with her keen abilities,” Yasmin said. “Most of the craftsmen and women on board are ‘freelanders’ like Amuria. They’ve spent a lifetime honing their skills and making some of the finest arts and crafts the world over.”

I shared Yasmin’s desire for a new home. And Antarctica did sound promising. I just couldn’t bear the thought of hunkering down at sea for another 20 months. We’d already been attacked twice in under four months! Who knows what danger lurks in the Southern Pacific?

Yasmin gave me an encouraging clasp on my shoulders, and rose to change into her nightgown. As she dressed, she looked back to me and smiled. “We’re going to be fine here, Guth. I promise to take good care of you.” She paced herself slowly back to our bedside, shedding her nightgown as she walked. “And tonight, I promise you won’t be getting to bed early.”

§   §   §

Bahía Nica, Lower Mehico — We awoke to the bustling sounds of Nica Harbor. Horns from ships going to and fro, people chattering as they walked the creaking docks, and seagulls squawking overhead. We dressed, grabbed our bags, and headed up top to disembark.

The view of Nica Bay from on deck was simply stunning: glistening blue-green waters formed a serene pool of stillness as far as the eye could see, bordered by orderly fishing villas built from wood and earthen clay. Horse-drawn carts and people carrying baskets and nets filled the seaside thoroughfare, and a local food market marked the entrance to the main port town of Managua. The morning sea breezes kept the tropical heat at bay for now, but judging from the scantily-clad throngs, it was clear we were in for a steamy stay.

“Lookin’ forward to a lil down time, no doubt!” Dredge said as we approached the off ramp. He handed us a crib sheet with some local phrases for getting by at the food stands and inns. “You won’t get far with ‘ol English in these parts. Just Mehican Spanish, and some ‘ol native dialects, if you happen to know any o’ those.” He winked and tilted his cap forward.

“Thank you,” I said, feeling a bit anxious all of a sudden. We shouldered our belongings and stepped onto the ramp. Then, Dredge abruptly blocked my path with his arm.

“Just one thing,” he said. “I’ll need yous to leave that precious golden dagger wit me.”

“Why?” asked Yasmin, as she pulled it from her sheath. “We might need it for protection.”

He shook his head in disappointment. “Come on. You’ve got half a dozen deadly knives stashed away in those pants ‘n’ boots. And Guth’s hand sword oughta scare off any attackers foolish ‘nuff to try anything. Yous got some dangerous plans I should know ‘bout?”

I bristled at the accusation. But he clearly had his suspicions. “Listen Dredge, I don’t know what this is all about, but I would think we’d have proven ourselves to you by now.”

“Oh you have,” Dredge responded. “I just can’t take any chances right now, mate. Hand ‘er over Yasmin. I promise you’ll see ‘er again as soon as I see your gorgeous self and this fine fella traipsin’ back up this ramp. Yous got three days o’ leave. Enjoy ‘em.”

Yasmin unclipped her sheath, and handed Dredge the dagger. “I’ll hold you to your word.”

“You have my word,” he said, stashing the piece in his handbag. He nodded and walked off.

We descended the off ramp and walked up the docks without speaking. I could sense Yasmin’s glare. She finally broke the silence: “He’s onto you, Guth. What did you say?”

A burning anger came over me. “Oh, so now it’s my fault Dredge is getting paranoid?” I barked back. “You think I’m stupid enough to give him reason to worry?”

Yasmin pulled away. She was clearly hurt, her growing frown crowding out any other emotion. “But you must have given him reason to suspect something,” she said. Her tone grew shrill. “Honestly, Guth, I can’t believe you’d be willing to risk our future like this!”

What future did she mean? Our long slog at sea? Our murky life in Antarctica? “And what future would that be, exactly?” I asked. “You have absolutely no idea what’s in store for us. Except that it’ll just be you and me, scrabbling for some sense of place and purpose!”

Tears began welling up in Yasmin’s eyes. I’d said too much. Or perhaps I simply hadn’t said enough before today. She looked down at the dusty ground, wiped her eyes, and slowly lifted her head. “I didn’t know I was so hard to be with, Guth,” she finally said, sobbing through her words. She collected herself and said calmly: “Maybe you should go find another luckless lady in town to ‘scrabble’ around with. I’m sure there are plenty here who’d be more than willing. Who knows? She might even give you that son you’ve always wanted.”

I stepped towards her, arms outstretched. She turned away, waving me off, and began walking briskly toward the main drag. “Yasmin!” I shouted. “Wait! Please wait!” But it was too late. What had long been unsaid was now suddenly a gaping wound. My rising anger had morphed into festering sadness. She knew full well I deeply wished to be a father — a father to my own flesh and blood. Worse, it was a wish she could never hope to fulfill.

Perhaps it’s best we spend some time apart. Clearly, our emotions are getting the best of us. I wandered through the produce and spice stands, taking in the heavy aromas and beautiful faces. Children ran around a small tree in an open circle, as chickens waddled freely among them. I walked toward a long row of inns, stables, and merchant shops.

I know I could be a good father, I thought. Would it matter if my child was mine from birth? Yasmin was willing to join me in raising a child. And she would be a wonderful mother. Why couldn’t I find solace in that future?

The next three days were harrowing. I wandered the streets in search of Yasmin, frequenting the main drag, the markets, and the docks. There was no sign of her anywhere, and worse, no word from the crew. Could she have left, abandoning our journey? How ironic that would be! Each night I slept alone, recounting my words to her, and regretting my overreaction. I couldn’t imagine continuing on without her, at sea or anywhere else for that matter. In a couple hours, I would need to make a decision.

I packed up and headed over to the local blacksmith. Whatever I do, I’d better sharpen up my hand sword. As I entered the shop, I overheard a familiar voice. My heart began racing as I rounded the display cases. Yasmin was browsing some knives and daggers, of course. She turned and caught my gaze. I was smiling uncontrollably as I waited for a sign.

“Guth!” she responded, smiling with forgiveness. I dashed over to her and gave her a long embrace, whispering: “I’m so sorry, my sweet. I should never have said what I did.” I lifted her chin and kissed her deeply. We both cried for several minutes as we held each other close.

“I’m here to sharpen my sword for our journey,” I made sure to say. She laughed and held up two gleaming, newly forged daggers. “Looks like we’ll both be ready for the next attack.”

We grabbed some fresh produce on our way back to the ship, and headed up the ramp. At the top, Dredge grinned and pulled out Yasmin’s pride and joy. “Good to see the two o’ yous!” He patted my shoulder hard, nearly knocking me off balance. “Oops! Sorry mate!” he said.

After we settled back in, napped, and grabbed some grub, dusk had settled over Nica Bay. With Dredge at the helm for our departure, we decided to take in the view from on deck. Several other crew and their families had the same idea, making for a bit of a deck party.

One family of three sat across from us, with the mother breastfeeding her newborn. “Your daughter is simply a gem, Jornatha,” said Yasmin. Jornatha smiled back. Tears suddenly began streaming down her face. Yasmin leaned over to comfort her, taking her hand.

“I’m sorry,” said Jornatha through her sobs. “It’s just, well, I can hardly believe this day has come. Torm and I had been trying for so long. It wasn’t until years after we’d moved to Antarctica that we got pregnant. I always thought folks like me couldn’t have any of our own.”

“Folks like you?” asked Yasmin. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Jornatha looked at each of us, searching for a sign of trust. “I thought you knew. I’m a third, like you, Yasmin. But somehow, somehow, that unspoiled land holds healing powers. I’m fertile.”

Chills coursed through my spine. Yasmin gasped for air. I put an arm around her as the news sank in. Could it really be? Could we actually have a chance at our own children? New possibilities raced through my mind, and feelings of excitement suddenly consumed me.

“That’s so wonderful!” Yasmin managed, fighting back her own tears.

She faced me, grabbed my hands, and stared lovingly into my eyes. No words were needed. We kissed and cried, holding each other under the brightening stars. Nica Harbor receded into the background, and the dark, misty night replaced the warm glow of Managua.

Although we wouldn’t reach Antarctica for well over a year and a half, it had already become our new home. In the months to come, tales of its rich cultures, its glorious mountains, fresh waters and bountiful valleys would only add to our conviction to carry on. But it was only on that night, as we left Nica Bay, that our journey to Antarctica had truly begun.


Destination Antarctica 3015 (Part I)

Destination_Antarctica_3015PART I: New Beginnings

Presidio Point, San Frisco Isles — The sea mists landed gently on my face, tickling my nostrils as I rounded the sedum-lined path. It was an atypically foggy morning at Presidio Point, with only a hint of sun piercing the billowing haze. Behind me, the last towering remnants of the once-mighty citadel broke through the clouds. I heard a growing murmur up ahead as I came closer to the lighthouse. I must not be the only one with the same idea.

And then I saw them: a crowd before me unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. The pier was packed with onlookers, all jostling back and forth along the ropes. People streamed onto the docks like army ants, just to catch a glimpse of it. What “it” was, I wasn’t exactly sure. All I knew was that a giant seafaring vessel was coming in before noon, bringing wealthy traders, craftsmen, and other folk from faraway lands. Quite a few swindlers too, no doubt.

I was mostly just curious. As of yesterday, I’d finally finished a major rigging job over on Sutro Isle for the island master’s security fleet. So I had some time to kill. Master Jin’s a paranoid pain-in-the-ass — and a low-balling cheapskate at that — but I can’t turn down two steady meals a day, plus a private dorm for myself and my sweet. A small ship of my own would be nice someday, but I knew that wasn’t happening anytime soon.

Jin would no doubt flog me if he knew I was here. “Don’t ever think you can get a better deal working for some other master ‘round here,” he’d always say. He was probably right, but I couldn’t help but wonder. Thankfully, he was out sailing to Merced Shores right about now, and wouldn’t be back ‘til nightfall. He’ll never even know I was gone.

The throngs roared as I elbowed my way onto the main walkway. And then I saw it: its soaring masts catching the morning gales as its massive bow sliced through the waves with barreling fury. Well over a dozen windows lined its starboard side just below deck, signaling that this was no ordinary passenger ship. Eventually, the sea colossus slowed, came to port, dropped anchor, and extended a wide ramp down to the pier’s edge.

I kept my distance, waiting patiently for what everyone had come to see. After a few minutes, four security guards emerged, decked out in full-plated armor, each carrying a broadsword and shield. Two-by-two, a parade of men, women, and others followed, some dressed in leather vests and pants, others in elegant earth-toned robes. Almost all of them were adorned with jewels. Around a dozen porters carried chests, burlap sacks, and boxes of varying sizes. These folks expect to make a killing.

With some help from the pier patrol, the security guards cleared a path for the well-heeled visitors, and began escorting them up the embankment to their horse-drawn chariots. Halfway down the line, one man stood out from the rest. Outfitted in sleek deck clothes and a sailor’s cap, he carried himself with a youthful swagger and a confident smile. He scanned the crowd intently as he strode up the walkway toward me. Admittedly, I stood out a bit, being one of the last remaining islanders whose ancestors hail mostly from West Eurasia.

“G’day mate! Where can a sea bloke find some knock-out grog ‘round here?” he asked, pulling on his cap. “Not the new stuff. Those ‘ol brews yous West Islanders are famous for!”

“Are we now?” I asked. I hadn’t heard that one before. The guy’s got good taste though.

“No question.” His smile widened, revealing several golden teeth. “’Course, yous all got a few centuries on us. Where I’m from, so many different folks are brewin’ all sorts of new crap. It’s hard to find anyone who’s perfected the art.” He held out his hand. His palm was weathered and dry. He must already have a couple decades of experience on the high seas.

“Nice grip,” he said. “You’ve done some sailing yourself, matey, am I right?” He looked at me intently now, his smile widening even more.

Maybe I should keep quiet. Word could get back to Jin. So I punted: “Well, I can hold my own at the helm, but not like the guys ‘round here at Presidio. Far more experience than I.”

“Name’s Dredge,” he said, laughing under his breath. “First mate of this fine beaut. Brought her all the way from ‘Ntarctica along the Western shores. And who might you be?”

“Jorel,” I offered, though not my real name, of course. Better safe than sorry.

“Good to meet ya, mate” he said. “Turns out, my crew’s lookin’ for another helmsman. No one too cocky, ‘course. You strike me as a strong, honest fella. We could use a bloke like you.”

Taken aback, I tried to mask my excitement. “Well, I’m just a local rig hand, and well-tended to by my master. My meager skills are being put to good use.” Those words were hard to say. I’m one of the best in these parts, as most sailing folk around here could attest.

“I’m sure all dat’s true,” said Dredge, sizing me up from head to toe. But this time, the smile faded. “And yet, here ya are, wit no master ‘round, sniffin’ out opportunity.”

He had me there. “Well, it’s not often that we see such a magnificent sight pulling into Presidio Harbor,” I said. “If you really want some of that ale, I suggest you make it out to Sailor’s Lair at Land’s End. But hurry. Their stock won’t last past sundown.”

His smile beamed now, his eyes meeting mine with an eerily familiar gaze. “Thanks mate,” he said, patting my shoulder as he darted further up the path to rejoin his entourage.

I’ll admit: I haven’t felt that tempted in a very long time. I’d best be back to meet Yasmin before she starts wondering where I’ve gone off to.

§   §   §

She peered at me with scorn and worry as I entered our tiny bungalow. Even with her frowning lips and furrowed brow, Yasmin was still the most beautiful being I’d ever laid eyes upon. Her face bore smooth, golden-brown cheeks, pearly whites in perfect order, and fiery, auburn eyes. Of course, none of that compared to her graceful, yet powerful demeanor, which has held me captive since the moment we met.

“Where’ve you been, love?” she squawked, tying her wavy, silky black hair behind her back.

There was no point in lying. She could see right through me. “Across the sound,” I said. “Up Presidio way. Heard there was a trade ship coming in. Bigger than usual.”

I saw her upper arms tense up and her jaw tighten at that. A reminder of her masculine side. Yasmin, it should be said, is not fully female. She’s a feminine “third,” as most call them in these parts. Definitely a woman in appearance, voice, and manner, but not born with the same set of parts you’d normally expect. Other thirds can be mostly masculine as well, and some have found a way to straddle the line, expressing a range of both genders in one. No third has ever given birth — a source of great sadness for Yasmin. Me too, truth be told. Apparently, all the chemicals and toxic soup left behind by the Tech Ancients spoiled the land and water so much that thirds became commonplace. Incredibly beautiful people, if you ask me, but the end-of-the-line for each and every one of them, at least reproductively.

“Why?” she screamed, clasping her hands over her head in desperate confusion. “You couldn’t wait for one minute after finishing a job to go traipsing off? And for what?”

Oh no. Here we go again. I’d better reassure her somehow. “Sweetheart, there’s nothing to worry about. No one saw me. And here I am, back early to see you before Jin returns.” I stepped closer, reaching my arms out to embrace her.

She turned away, her backside facing me in defiance. It was hardly a punishment, however, and she knew it. I continued my approach, resting a hand gently on her shoulder. She turned to face me, revealing a small tear escaping from the corner of her eye. Her sobs were hard to take. I curled my arms around her and guided us to our bed.

As we lay side by side, her eyes met mine. “I can’t bear the thought of losing you, Guth. You’ve seen what the masters do to disloyal hands.” It was a dark truth I’d buried deep within me, mostly to cope. I held her tight, caressing her arms and wiping her tears.

I sighed, and said what needed to be said. “I’m sorry, Yasmin. I know you’re right. Curiosity got the best of me. It won’t happen again.” I held her tight, praying for forgiveness. I knew the prospect of my passing tormented her at times. And her infertility made her feel even more vulnerable to a life of solitude. So far, we had weathered those storms quite well.

Eventually, the sobbing stopped, and she turned to look me in the eyes. “Promise me?”

“I promise,” I said, planting a kiss on her cheek. She came at me with full force after that, her tongue darting for my mouth. Our bodies slid into heated rhythm soon afterward, and it wasn’t long before we were writhing back and forth beneath the sheets. Thankfully, I’m able to hold my own for longer than most men I know, which is no small feat with Yasmin. Nothing beats resolving an argument with sexual abandon.

We fell asleep in each other’s arms, exhausted from our passions. An hour later, we awoke to the sound of our front door bursting open and several dishes smashing to the ground.


One of Jin’s henchmen charged into our room, brandishing a club in one hand, and a long wire whip in the other. Behind him, Jin entered slowly, arms crossed. “GUTH!” he roared, looking at me with an angry, piercing stare. “Where have you been? I scored a big job this afternoon, and had no rig leader to introduce our new client to. You made me a fool!”

The henchman smashed several candle pieces and plates on our table, then stomped over to the bed, lashing his whip. Yasmin clutched me from behind, covered in blankets. I’ve seen Jin upset many times before, but he’s never brought a punisher. I took a deep breath.

“Jin, you know I’ve served you well. I was merely taking a break after a hard day’s work so I’d be in prime condition for our next job. I had no idea it would come so soon.”

His eyes narrowed as he grunted in response. “You know, part of me thought you would be wiser than to lie to me. I was so hoping we could continue to trust one another.” He looked over to his henchman. Then came the sharp, searing pain of the whip as it sliced deeply into my right leg. Blood splattered onto the sheets. Yasmin screamed, and quickly backed away. I bit my lip, and covered the gushing wound, hoping to stop the flow.

Jin leered over me, calmly watching my suffering. “My Presidio watchman had you at the docks right around noon, longingly peering at the southern trade ship, and then chatting up its first mate no less. Pardon me if I find your tale of innocence less than convincing.”

Another look. Another lash. And the rest was mostly a daze. Except for one thing: Yasmin had stepped over to the prep counter and grabbed two of our sharpest and longest knives. She’s defended herself quite well in the past, and today was no exception. Before a third lash could come my way, each of those knives found its way squarely between the eyes of Jin and his henchman. They both dropped instantly. And so did I.

I awoke gasping in pain. Lucky for me, Yasmin had stopped the blood flow with tightly wound rags just above my knee. They covered a gash nearly a half-foot long. Feels like a half-foot deep as well. “You all right, love? Can you move?” she asked, caressing my hair.

I grabbed her hand and pulled myself up. Pacing around the room, I tested my stride. It’s not too bad, actually. Thank the maker! Looks like I can walk just fine, as long as I’ve got a helping hand to steady me. I glanced over at the two lifeless bodies on our floor. I had never imagined it would come to this. We’ve got to get out of here. And quickly.

“My sweet, I know you did what you had to. Thank you for that. But the island masters won’t let this go.” I sighed and said: “They’ll have my head for this.”

Yasmin’s eyes met mine. A look of determination and acceptance came over her. “I won’t leave you Guth!” she exclaimed. “We can finally get out of this forsaken place. Start a new life somewhere.” The idea had always held some appeal, and now it had powerful urgency.

My thoughts quickly turned to Dredge and his offer. Was he serious? Would he really just let me join his crew? Could Yasmin earn passage as well?

“I know it was reckless, but my visit to Presidio Point may have bought us the ticket we need,” I explained. “The first mate of that big ship practically offered me a helm job this morning.” I went on to describe our encounter and the potential opportunity. “Of course, I have no idea if the guy was serious, or where we’d end up.”

Yasmin examined my leg, adding another layer to my dressing. She kissed me and said: “At this point, mister, I’m ready for whatever. Let’s get out of here.”

That’s my Yasmin. Always ready for adventure. It’s hard to describe the love I feel for her.

“Okay then,” I said, managing a smile. “Let’s hide these poor fellows in the cellar. That’ll buy us maybe a day or so. And grab what you need. We’re heading to Land’s End.”

§   §   §

Sailor’s Lair was bustling and rowdy as usual. Rig hands like me often outnumbered helmsfolk or upper ranks, which was why I liked coming here. I only hoped Dredge was as much of a drinker as I pegged him to be. Yasmin and I scanned the place from front to back, but to no avail. Friends and mates patted me on my back or nodded their heads as we wandered through. I grabbed us a couple sunset mixers and found a cozy nook across from the bar.

Yasmin has only joined me here maybe a handful of times, mostly due to her own demanding schedule, but this time felt particularly liberating. I was first to say so: “Why do I feel so damn excited right now?” I should feel scared shitless.

She grabbed my hand, and guided it slowly to her cheek, glowing in the lantern light. She peered at me lovingly and whispered: “Because you’re finally free, my love. We both are.”

Crash! Clank! Thud.

I turned around to see Dredge’s limp body attempting to sit up, from what must have been a pretty hard fall. Two fellow rig hands from South Sutro were angling for another blow, clearly incensed with my newfound friend. I shot over to them before Dredge’s face became a bloody pulp. “Gents, please!” I shouted, as I held out my hand to block their advance. “I’m sure this cocky mate gave you good reason to be angry, but he and I have some dealings to work out. Let me take him off your hands.” They grunted in agreement as I pulled him over to our table. Dredge was smiling the whole way, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth.

“I’d advise you to watch yourself,” I told him. “These guys don’t take kindly to off-islanders starting brawls on their turf.” We all plopped down on the benches, facing each other.

“Who says I started it?” he responded, smiling through his bloody teeth. He straightened his collar and tipped his cap to Yasmin, eyeing her with obvious interest. “But seein’ as how yous rescued me from a nasty beating, I s’pose I should say thank ya.” His brow furrowed with curiosity as he leaned forward. “Kinda s’prised to see ya here though, Jorel.” The smile widened. “I thought you were such a busy, ‘well-tended-to’ bloke.”

I bristled at the presumption, but couldn’t blame him for calling me out. “Let’s just say I’m now quite interested in your offer,” I said, hoping to refocus the discussion.

“Glad to hear it!” he yelped. “But I can’t help wonderin’, ‘What’s changed?’ Your master catch wind o’ your wayward ways?” His smile lingered. I tried not to let it bother me.

Should I tell him the truth? And jeopardize our chances? I opted for a half-truth: “We’ve had a falling out. I’m no longer in his service.” I grabbed Yasmin’s hand and continued: “My partner and I are both seeking a fresh start. Somewhere we can both apply our skills where they’re truly appreciated. You seem like the kind of guy who could offer that.”

From the look on his face, Dredge was pondering all this very carefully. He turned to Yasmin: “And why would a lovely lady like yourself wanna leave one o’ the most beautiful, bustlin’ island chains in da world? This bloke really worth hitchin’ yourself to?”

I was half-tempted to punch him myself at that. But Yasmin calmed the mood: “Not only is he worth it. I’m worth your while every bit as much. My defense skills as head of security for several island companies will no doubt come in handy as pirates threaten your vessel.”

Dredge raised his eyebrows. “We could shore up our defenses, dat’s for sure. Ran into a nasty pirate ship on our way up just past Santiago. Killed two o’ ‘em myself.”

“All we’re looking for is safe passage, and room and board,” I said. “In exchange, we’ll both work under your command. Diligently and loyally.” Yasmin and I shared a hopeful glance, knowing full well that we could make good on our promise.

Dredge leaned forward again, and looked us squarely in the eyes. “You do understand we’re returning to ‘Ntarctica? Ya know, the new land as far south as the winds’ll blow us. It takes nearly two years.”

I remember him mentioning that before, but the length of time it would take hadn’t dawned on me ‘til then. Yasmin’s nod gave me her assent, but I was still processing what it all meant. I knew Antarctica had opened up over the past several centuries as a new realm with uncharted possibilities. Its once-vast ice sheets had mostly melted into the sea, and its glaciers had receded, unveiling spectacular mountain landscapes, fertile hills, and valleys. “But what would we do in Antarctica?” I asked. “You’d need us for the whole trip?”

“Yep, the entire journey. What ya do when ya get there’s entirely up to yous,” Dredge said. “’Tis a free land with no masters, no servants, and plenty o’ open space for wide-eyed couples to start a new life. Granted, it’s now a popular destination for all sorts o’ scoundrels, refugees, and opportunists from far ‘n’ wide. But so long as you’re willing to put in an honest day’s work, yous’ll do well for yourselves.”

It sounded like a dream. I’d spent all my days growing up, fishing, boating, and rigging all over San Frisco’s main islands, never imagining I would leave. But my time had come. Our time had come. Yasmin was giddy with excitement. We’ve been given a second chance.

We shook hands with Dredge, promised our allegiance, and made way for a nearby inn. As we headed out the door, he called out: “We load up at mid-day tomorrow. Don’t be late.”


Clash of the Citadels, Part III (Finale)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part three of a three-part sci-fi series chronicling the adventures of several leaders in a post-petroleum, climate-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area in the early 22nd century. It was inspired by John Michael Greer’s cli-fi, post-industrial anthology, After Oil. Read Part I or Part II.

ImageMarch 15, 2115, 0530 Hours, St. Francis Citadel, San Francisco, California Autonomous Region

Bryce couldn’t sleep. Battle strategy was all he could think about. He was set to help lead the armada attack in a little more than an hour. He turned to his sleeping lover, tracing his index finger along his neck, down his spine, and slowly to his buttocks. Would he see him again? Bryce planted a gentle kiss on his neck, and rose to greet the dawn. He dressed and quietly exited his quarters, heading down the corridor to Main Defense. “Morning Chief,” he heard repeatedly from the stream of officers and soldiers he passed. He entered the central planning chamber where Premier Alito, along with more than thirty commanders and captains, had gathered for their final briefing.

All ears were tuned in to an East Bay radio program. The broadcaster said:

“… Some fear an attack could take place as early as this morning. In a statement released yesterday, Council President Nesalla Imani vowed to use all means necessary to protect East Bay residents. She praised Hayward Councilor Brandon Lee for rebuilding ties with Piedmont Citadel. Lee is widely credited for brokering regional water-sharing agreements between many of the Bay Area’s competing citadels, cities, and townships.

In an interview with Oakland Prime Radio, Lee extended his thanks to Piedmont Citadel Premier John Stewart: ‘The premier has not only committed ships to help protect our shores, he has vowed to release a quarter of his citadel’s water flow to East Bay communities in greatest need. We are deeply grateful for his partnership during this crisis. Now is the time for us all to unite in common cause to defend our coastland.’ The premier could not be reached for comment …”

Alara cast a menacing stare at Bryce. She was clearly incensed by this latest development. “Isn’t that sweet? Premier Stewart thinks he can buy his way into the hearts and minds of East Bay lowlanders,” she said. “What a fool. He and his fleet of latecomers are in for a big surprise.”

The SF Defense team poured over the details of their plan, double-checking their weapons inventories and cross-bay attack formations. Their hidden fleet of some 50 ships had already sailed from Baker Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf, where SF soldiers were boarding by the hundreds

“Is each frontline attack vessel fully equipped with bayonets and canon balls?” asked Bryce.

“Every one,” answered his fleet commander. “Once we’ve breached the weakest section of their wall, we should overwhelm them in less than an hour.”

“Just be sure you take out Piedmont’s so-called defense ships first,” said Alara. “We’ll stand watch at the overlook with the solar reflector ray, in case you need an assist.”

“To victory!” Bryce announced, signaling his command team to depart. They marched single file to the northern exit chutes, and caravanned to the waterfront to take command of their vessels.

A thick fog blanketed the wharf, providing a welcome cloak to their armada. Hints of sunlight began piercing the night as the fleet’s 3,000-strong contingent waited for their cue to launch. Bryce wondered what Piedmont Citadel’s new “partnership” might mean for them in the minutes and hours to follow. It was only a matter of time before their “unity” would prove too little, too late.

A deep, reverberating horn sounded from the shore. The pier lighthouse suddenly came to life, its radiant beam slicing repeatedly through the fog layer. It was time. They disembarked, sailing southeasterly in perfect V-formation, with their heavy attack vessels leading the charge. Sailing five ships behind the main attack cruiser, Bryce peered through his eye scope toward the eastern defense wall along Oakland Inner Harbor. Strangely, there was no sign of any ships.

Not in front of them anyway. SF’s lead attack cruiser was showered with flaming canon balls, a dozen of which slammed into the hull, ripping two gaping holes into its port side. Walls of fire consumed the main sails, while dozens of burning soldiers quickly jumped overboard. Bryce hadn’t anticipated such a maneuver: a group of six East Bay attack ships had been waiting for them under the bridge by Yerba Buena Island, and were in perfect position to bombard their offensive line. They continued their deadly volley, managing to sink several more SF attack vessels. Before long, however, return fire from SF’s front line laid waste to their small contingent.

By now, the sun began to rise above the East Bay hills, thinning what remained of the early morning fog. The SF attack fleet reinforced their frontlines, and Bryce lit a signal flare to continue their approach. Once again, he peered through his eye scope, scanning their northern and southern flanks for any more surprises. He refocused on Oakland Inner Harbor. Something was different this time. A hint of motion. And then he saw them: a fast-moving line of defense-class cruisers, sailing one-by-one toward their position. Piedmont Citadel’s fleet. He began counting. Surely, there couldn’t be more than 20, he thought. As the number breached 40, however, he knew the game had changed. They had clearly requisitioned more vessels from the inner delta. This would be a bloodbath.

Still, if they maintained formation, they just might be able to breach the wall. And if Alara can see Piedmont’s expanded fleet from her position, she’ll know to offer her assistance, he thought. They sailed on at full speed, veering northeasterly toward Uptown Harbor, which SF intelligence agents found had the weakest barrier walls. They also just happened to block off an underground “tube-like” corridor leading straight to Regional Hall. This would be their pathway to triumph.

Bryce started to make out the oncoming ships’ masts as their distance rapidly closed. In seconds, they would be within range of Piedmont’s catapult arcs, exposing their fleet to enemy fire. At this point, however, they had no choice. An instant later, Piedmont’s lead vessel was hit with a blistering circle of bright light. Its path cut a deep swath of searing heat through the ship’s central mast, loosening the ropes. They snapped free of the rigging, lacerating several crewmen on deck. The solar ray worked! The blazing circle adjusted itself, burning through the bottom crossbeam and bursting the mast and sails into flame. The ship slowed, veering sharply off course. The vessel directly behind crashed into its stern, starting a pileup of crashed ships. One by one, the solar ray seared through them, turning Piedmont’s frontline ships into little more than smoldering ruins.

Bryce regained his confidence, and his smile. Now they must move quickly to breach the wall.

*   *   *   *   *

March 15, 2115, 0800 Hours, Oakland Central Plaza, Oakland, California Autonomous Region

Desirae mingled among her newfound allies, doing her best to assure them that their bravery would make a difference. As Brandon had predicted, she had made significant strides yesterday, trekking around town from one community hub to the next, listening to people’s hopes and fears, and slowly bringing them into the fold. Once word of Premier Stewart’s water-sharing offer spread amongst the lowlands, people’s sense of optimism grew, as did the number of those willing to join their cause. By last count, over 2,700 citizen recruits had signed up with the defense corps, nearly a thousand of whom now stood guard in front of Regional Hall at Oakland Central Plaza.

Brandon dashed over to her, his CB radio blaring. “They’re breaching the Uptown wall!” he said. “Commander Dolman’s fleet has been decimated. Only about twenty of our defense ships are still in the game.” He took Desirae’s arm, and lowered his voice. “You worked miracles yesterday. I know it’s not easy to hear right now, but because of you, we may still stand a chance.” He kissed her cheek, and rushed off to consult with several field commanders.

The sound of gunfire roared in the distance. Why had SF forces chosen Uptown Harbor to make their way through? It made no sense. Desirae looked around at her comrades, wondering how many of them would survive this day. A feeling of pride overwhelmed her now, as she took in the faces of all the selfless, committed souls standing by her side. In the corner of her eye she saw something strange: a small plume of billowing smoke, rising from the far end of the plaza. The area appeared to be an abandoned stairwell. Where it led, she had no idea. She wandered over for a closer look.

As she came within yards of the stairwell, she noticed a crack in the sealed entryway from where the smoke was coming. “Desirae!” she heard Brandon yell from behind her. “Come back!”

But it was too late. A firestorm of flame, metal, and stone blasted towards her. A flying metal panel sliced into her lower torso, and the impact tossed her 50 feet from the blast zone. She laid under a tree bordering the plaza, wheezing from pain and losing blood rapidly. “Noooo!” she heard Brandon yell. Her vision was fuzzy, but she could make out his likeness moving towards her. Then came the shots, firing mercilessly toward the citizen soldiers assembled in the plaza.

“Focus your fire on the stairwell!” pleaded one of the field commanders. “They’re coming up from the old train tunnels!” Bullets whizzed past her through the air. She saw the SF forces emerge, seemingly in slow motion, as dozens stormed into the plaza, guns blazing. East Bay forces held their ground, showering the invaders with their own punishing fire. But SF soldiers were now half-way across the plaza, flanking the defense bunkers as they made their way toward Regional Hall.

It was too late now to stop more loss of life. But perhaps she could do something to stem the conflict. Desirae fought the pain as she grabbed the grenade from her belt. She held it to her mouth, pulled out the safety pin with her teeth, and threw it as hard as she could toward the stairwell. Metal clanked on stone, becoming fainter as the grenade bounced down the stairs. Moments later, she saw dozens of SF forces blown into the air, along with streams of rock, dirt, and metal. A deep rumbling sound followed as huge swaths of the entryway collapsed, blocking the flow of SF forces.

Desirae managed a slight grin, and slowly turned her head toward the plaza. Fighting continued, but SF forces were now on the run, vastly outnumbered by the East Bay defense line. Brandon ran towards her in shock, yelling something she could not understand. “Thank God you’re alive,” she finally heard him say as he approached. He leaned over her and checked her pulse. “You’re going to be fine, Desirae,” he said calmly, smiling as he took her hand. Several medics arrived to remove the metal section and dress her wounds. She had never known so much pain.

“How many did we lose?” she asked. He looked her in the eyes, trying to hold back the tears. One tear escaped anyway, cleaning a narrow line down his soot-stained cheek.

“Too many,” he said, caressing her shoulder. “But we prevailed. Alito will think twice about ever attacking these shores again. Who knows? She may even face new resistance on her side of the bay.”

“Councilor, are you there?” crackled Commander Dolman’s voice from Brandon’s radio. “If you can hear me, they’re retreating. I repeat, SF’s ships are retreating from Uptown Harbor!”

Brandon turned off his radio, and leaned forward to kiss Desirae’s cheek. She grabbed his neck and moved his lips to hers. They took each other in, soothed by the warmth and wetness of their kiss, if only for a moment.

As they looked around the plaza, they saw hundreds of people laying down their guns and embracing one another. Joy. Relief. Hope. Sadness. All these emotions and more flowed through the East Bay citizen defense corps. For now, the foreboding fear of a pending attack was over. For now.

Clash of the Citadels, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part three of a three-part sci-fi series chronicling the adventures of several leaders in a post-petroleum, climate-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area in the early 22nd century. It was inspired by John Michael Greer’s cli-fi, post-industrial anthology, After Oil. Read Part I or Part III.

ImageMarch 14, 2115, 0900 Hours, East Bay Regional Hall, Oakland, California Autonomous Region

Regional hall was crowded like never before, bustling with scores of councilors and their aides from towns as far north as Pittsburg, as far east as Pleasanton, and as far south as Fremont. Everyone had been summoned with the same basic message: an attack by SF forces seemed imminent. But was an all-out conflict inevitable? Could anything be done to stop it?

Council President Imani slammed her gavel on the podium. Conversations ebbed, and everyone quickly took to their seats. The tension in the air was palpable. The president would have a lot of explaining to do. “This emergency session of the East Bay Regional Authority has commenced,” announced the hall guard. “Council President Nessalla Imani presiding.”

“Friends… allies… freely elected representatives of our united East Bay — I want to thank each and every one of you for making the journey to Regional Hall on such short notice,” Nesalla began. “You elected me president to look out for the best interests of our communities and to safeguard our common defense. As you know, access to our precious waters is vital to our economy and to all of us who call this land our home. Today, I fear we face the greatest threat we’ve ever faced: SF Citadel’s renegade premier, Alara Alito.” Approving cheers mixed with angry jeers rang through the hall.

Nesalla raised her arms, sending her commanding gaze throughout the room. Shushes and calming pleas brought the frenzy to a murmur. “I understand those are harsh words,” she continued. “But you all know her forces were caught sneaking through security at San Pablo Reservoir three years ago. And now, we have proof that SF forces with high-power explosives were patrolling inside the security perimeter only two days ago. Please shut the curtains.”

Darkness consumed the hall. A large projection image flashed above Nesalla showing several men carrying what appeared to be bundles of dynamite. “These three were spotted only yards away from one of the main aqueducts at San Pablo. If our security teams hadn’t seen them in time, who knows what they could have done?” She went on to outline the threat posed by potential sabotage, emphasizing how vulnerable East Bay communities would be if any of San Pablo’s flow were disrupted. “Each of these aqueducts serves over 50,000 people,” she said. “If we don’t come together with a defense plan — and soon — I fear we won’t just lose our water, we’ll also lose our freedom.”

The room remained uncomfortably quiet. People whispered to one another, assessing the evidence, wondering aloud what the appropriate response should be. Finally, Richmond Councilor Jerrod Jones stood up. “President Imani, you’ve made a compelling case. There is clear cause for concern,” he said. “But how can we be certain these infiltrators hail from SF Citadel? There seems to be a lot of assumptions being made here. Should we really be fanning the flames of conflict at such a sensitive time?” Since Richmond now had the most functional port in the East Bay, his town had a unique relationship with the citadel across the waters. Moving into defense mode might threaten that relationship. Still, his questions resonated with other councilors.

“Yes, with all due respect, president Imani, shouldn’t we confirm the identities of these men before doing anything rash?” asked Walnut Creek Councilor Sasha O’Reilly. Similar questions followed, creating a flurry of conversation in the hall. What had initially seemed a clear-cut case for action was quickly degenerating into furious debate about whether any action should be taken at all.

Sitting calmly in the far back of the hall, SF Citadel’s Defense Chief Bryce Morgan grinned. His disguise as a council aide was convincing, dressed as he was in semi-professional attire, and fitted with a wavy blond hairpiece. Earlier that morning, in a private meeting with Councilor Jones, he promised very favorable trade relations with the port town of Richmond, and assured the councilor that Premier Alito had no plans for aggressive action. The councilor harbored suspicions, but given the dire times facing his constituents, he managed to suspend them.

Nesalla surveyed the room, visibly flustered by the growing dissent. She pounded the gavel firmly three times, and took a deep breath. This would be her last chance to turn the tide. “Friends, it’s moments like these when I’m reminded why we’ve stood so strong together over all these years. While so many regions have devolved into little more than feudal states lorded over by fools and tyrants, we’ve built on our democratic traditions, holding fast as one of the last remaining freely elected regional authorities in California.” She paused for emphasis, hoping people would remember that other decidedly undemocratic district ruled by its citadel across the bay.

“I understand your hesitation, and I respect your call for clear evidence,” she continued. “What I haven’t yet told you is that our patrols were able to monitor the infiltrators’ movements after they left the scene. Upon reaching Richmond Inner Harbor, they boarded a schooner and sailed around Angel Island, veering south toward Fishermans Wharf, SF Citadel’s main harbor.” That clinched it. Only the most cynical in the room would doubt Nesalla now. Throughout her political career, she had sued for peace between and among the cities and townships of the Bay Area. And even with this clear case of attempted sabotage, she was only calling for a united defense plan, not retaliation.

Hayward Councilor Brandon Lee rose from his bench, meeting Nesalla’s eyes for permission to speak. “President Imani, the people of Hayward — I dare say all residents in these parts — thank you for your efforts to protect us from this clear and present threat,” he said. “But given that Alito’s original plan has failed, I assume you believe we now face the possibility of a full-scale attack to seize control. If so, I fear we will need nothing less an army to defend our shores.”

“I agree with your assessment, councilor. And yes, we’ve acquired intelligence confirming that SF forces have stepped up military exercises in the Presidio, and that cross-bay rifle shipments rose sharply in the days leading up to the breach,” said Nesalla. “We’re going to need all the troops we can muster. That, and probably a several dozen large ships from the coastal marinas.”

Suddenly, the sound of people turning around in mass echoed through the hall. From below the rear balcony, about a half-dozen soldiers from Piedmont Citadel marched forward in perfect unison. Commander Torm Dolman motioned for them to halt. Looking squarely at Nessala, Torm said calmly, “You’ll have your ships. Twenty from Piedmont’s defense fleet, and however many more we can requisition by midnight.”

“Thank you commander,” said Nesalla. “Please send our appreciations to Premier Stewart.” Piedmont Citadel was making amends. Last time things came to a head over security issues, East Bay Regional didn’t hear a word from them, which didn’t help their standing with the low-lying communities. Clearly, they’ve come to see Alito as a threat to their own interests as well.

By this time, Bryce’s grin had long-vanished. His plan to sow the seeds of discord amongst the councilors had failed. Their unity under pressure was an alarming surprise, and now with Piedmont Citadel coming to their defense, there was little time left to prepare for a frontal assault. SF Citadel’s forces would need something more powerful to carry the day. As all eyes were on Torm, Bryce snuck out through a side passage. He had to get back to Alara at once.

Brandon, by contrast, was pleased by this turn of events. Still, it would take far more than a few dozens ships to change Alito’s mind. She would need to see thousands on the move, ready to take a stand. That made Desirae’s mission all the more critical. “President, I’ve put out a call for support from our friends in the Urban Water Guild and neighborhood assemblies,” he announced. “However, I strongly suggest that we call upon our local assemblies to set up recruitment centers, just in case.” Cheers of agreement filled the hall. The East Bay was truly coming together, Brandon thought. Now, if only he could get Premier Stewart to make a stronger gesture of support for the lowland communities. Then, perhaps only then, they might stand a chance to rally the support of the people.

*   *   *   *   *

March 14, 2115, 1115 Hours, Ferry Plaza, San Francisco, California Autonomous Region

Bryce became anxious as his shuttle boat approached the docks at the Ferry Building. He glanced up at the old clocktower. Time was not on their side, not with all the newfound unity being forged, minute by minute, amongst his enemies. Enemies. Is that what they were? The word came forth so easily in his mind now. Granted, most people he’d encountered in the East Bay were hard-working and honest, but their backward devotion to democracy, and meetings — constant meetings! — was exhausting. Good lord, it was enough to drive any normal person insane. And for what? So they can bicker and posture, make false promises to one another, and in the end, forge weak-kneed compromises where everyone loses just a little bit more of the dignity they once had.

Yes, those people were definitely his enemies. They may feel smug and secure now, but their fixation on process would soon be their undoing. The San Francisco Bay Area needs bold leaders like Premier Alito to restore the international glory it once had, he thought. As he strode through Ferry Plaza, Bryce surveyed the landscape. Or rather, the seascape. Most of the piers, the Embarcadero, and China Basin were now under water. But thanks to a major seawall and land bridge constructed to connect the Ferry Building and the foot of California Street, there was still a major point of embarkation on the city’s eastern waterfront. Keeping it safe was another matter.

His carriage entourage wended its way along the well-guarded waterfront streets, newly restored with perfectly laid bricks and lined with well-trimmed hedges. This sector, once known as the Financial District, now boasted some of San Francisco’s finest construction firms, SF Waterworks, locally-renowned breweries, and bustling butcher shops. A few furniture, textile, and carriage dealers were also tucked away amidst the cafes, groceries, stables, and tailors.

As they turned to begin their ride up Columbus Ave., Bryce was suddenly showered in white light. He looked up at the Transamerica Pyramid, where a repeating flash of sunlight beamed down upon him, reflecting off a hanging sheet of metal. Most of the upper floors had been gutted of useful materials, having long been abandoned due to their sheer height. Without electrical lifts, most of the upper towers had simply ceased to be useful, except to the birds. That piercing reflection of light though. Now that could be useful, if only it could be harnessed in battle.

They passed through citadel security at the Columbus and Broadway gate. Bryce leaned forward. Something was amiss. A dozen or so soldiers surrounded his carriage, pulled him abruptly from his seat, and escorted him to the main lift. “What’s going on?” he demanded. Silence. The workhorses began circling the lift turnstile. He gazed out toward the bay as he and four soldiers made their ascent. Those few minutes seemed like an eternity. What had he done to deserve this? Once they reached the eastern defense corridor, he was pushed out of the lift.

Alara stood facing him, arms crossed, clearly enraged by his recent East Bay adventure. “Leave us,” she said, waving the soldiers away. “I had half a mind to send an assassins party to come after you. What if you’d been captured? They could have assessed our plans straight from the SF Defense Chief himself! Wouldn’t Nesalla have thoroughly enjoyed that?” she laughed.

Bryce carefully considered his next words, knowing his future with the citadel was far from certain. “Premier, please forgive this oversight,” he said. “You’re right to be upset. I acted rashly.”

“Rashly?” she asked, flashing him a look of disbelief. “Foolishly is more like it.” She began to walk toward the main defense chamber. “Lucky for you, we’re on the eve of a major operation that requires your leadership, such as it is. And what did you learn on your secret journey?”

“They know we’re preparing for an assault,” he said. “But it’s clear they have little sense of the scale of our forces. Most coastal leaders appear committed to Nesalla. She whipped up quite a frenzy at Regional Hall. Her, and that damned peacemaker, Councilor Brandon Lee.”

“The water deal-maker?” asked Alara. “What a curious new role for him. Peacemaker turned warmonger. He must be up to something.”

“He’s definitely rallying to Nesalla’s cause,” he said. “Seems to think they’ll need an army to withstand us.”

“Well, he’s right about that. But it won’t be enough,” she boasted. “The armada we’ve amassed will carry thousands of our soldiers swiftly to their shores. They won’t know what hit them. No more water swindles from Regional Hall.”

Bryce was afraid to bring it up, but Alara had to know. “Premier, I’ve also learned that Piedmont Citadel has struck an alliance with Nesalla. They’re offering ships, at least twenty from their fleet.”

Alara fell silent. This was unexpected. “I never thought we’d reach this point,” she said, sighing in disbelief. “A clash of the citadels.”

At this, Bryce began pouring over their battle plans. Yes, they still had naval superiority. Yes, they had them outnumbered, at least in terms of battle-ready soldiers. And yet, he could sense that momentum was building amongst the people of the East Bay. A growing sense of unity and pride. As a veteran of many battles, he knew that counted for something. Indeed, it often makes all the difference in the world. SF Citadel must strengthen its hand. But how?

And then it came to him: the light. The painful, blinding light that rained down on him as he rode back this morning. “Premier, do we still have that large reflector telescope in the observation tower?”

“Yes, I think Proctor Gabriel has been using it to study sunspots and flares, or something like that,” she said. “Why are we talking about astronomy right now?”

“Let’s just say we’re going to have to commandeer it. It may just give us the advantage we need.”

*   *   *   *   *

March 14, 2115, 1230 Hours, Piedmont Citadel, Piedmont, California Autonomous Region

Premier John Stewart scanned the intel reports his defense team had drawn up detailing SF Citadel’s recent military buildup, its attempts to sabotage San Pablo Reservior, and Council President Imani’s increasing defense measures. Ever since the war for California Autonomy had ended, Piedmont Citadel hadn’t really engaged in military matters, leaving East Bay Regional Hall in the driver’s seat. The past couple of decades have seen mostly peace throughout the region, interrupted only by the occasional ground skirmish or gun battle between contending parties.

Now, however, with water reserves running low, and tensions running high, a crisis seemed unavoidable. John was a reluctant premier, having questioned the continued rationale for the citadel since secondary school. Now that last century’s food and water riots were largely over, and democratic rule had returned to most of the East Bay, why couldn’t Piedmont simply rejoin the rest of the region in shared governance and economic development? “They’ll always covet what we have,” scolded his father. “You can’t trust a lowlander. Plain and simple.”

What his father didn’t know at the time was that he was dating one of those “lowlanders” since he was 16. Maya caught his eye on one of father’s trade trips to the Oakland shipyards back in 2095. Her graceful poise, silky dark hair, and stunning smile kept him dreaming for days. Finally, when he journeyed on his own to the waterfront one fateful afternoon, they found joy in each other’s shared passion for bayshore hikes, rowboat adventures, and deep conversation. They fell in love. Now, with her and their two children by his side, the thought of possible war with SF Citadel made him cringe.

“Premier, Commander Dolman has returned,” one of John’s security guards informed him. “And he’s brought an elected from Hayward, Councilor Brandon Lee.”

“Please show them in,” said John. He gathered the intel reports, and took a seat at his desk.

Torm Dolman hurriedly entered. “Premier, my apologies. Councilor Lee insisted on meeting with you,” he said, clearly irritated by his tagalong visitor. Brandon entered, following closely behind.

“Greetings, Premier Stewart,” Brandon said. “Deepest appreciations for your contributions to the defense of our shores. President Imani sends her regards.”

John took a moment to look upon him, a man whom he deeply respected. From what he knew of him, Brandon Lee was an honest broker, an idealist who put his people skills to the service of peace. And he produced results. He must be here for the same purpose, John thought.

“You’ve made quite a name for yourself,” he said. “I’ve watched your political career with a great deal of admiration, councilor.” He smiled at Brandon, stood up, and extended his hand.

“Thank you, Premier,” Brandon said, shaking his hand. “Your father was very helpful in the ’95 water accords. It was an honor working with him.” He paused, knowing that there was still an awkward feeling in the room. He had to ask: “Pardon me for my curiosity, but I can’t help but wonder: why is Piedmont Citadel now taking such an active role in regional military affairs?”

“The situation calls for greater involvement, don’t you think?” John said. He turned to walk around his desk toward Brandon. Facing him, he continued: “It’s been far too long that we’ve allowed our divisions to fester, letting our past get in the way of charting a new future together. Alito’s aggression has simply sped up that poorly tended possibility, I’d say.”

Commander Dolman stepped forward. “Premier, I’ve relayed to President Imani that we can add at least twenty of our coastal defense-class ships to their contingent. If I may, my team and I plan to continue seeking additional vessels in the event of an attack.”

“Please carry on, commander,” said John. “And thank you for representing us today.”

Brandon was intrigued by the premier’s collaborative tone. Obviously, he was willing to put serious resources toward their campaign. Still, he knew SF Citadel’s forces were far more numerous than the East Bay’s largely volunteer army, and far more experienced. They would need more than a fleet of ships and a rag-tag militia to carry the day. “Premier, Piedmont Citadel’s participation is truly a godsend. I had my doubts that we could resist SF’s formidable forces before Torm showed up at Regional Hall,” he said. “But I need to be honest with you. It’s not enough.”

John’s face turned quizzical. He looked down for a moment, pondering Brandon’s words. “What more would you suggest, councilor? Guns, bayonets? Perhaps commanders from our guard?”

“Yes, yes, all that would help,” Brandon replied. “But if Alito is serious about gaining a commanding foothold here, she must be readying thousands of her troops. Even if a sizable fraction of them broke through our defenses, what resistance would they meet? Hundreds of freedom-loving, courageous souls, to be sure. But not enough to withstand the power and number of her forces.”

“I see what you mean,” John acknowledged. “But even if we offered all of our commanders, soldiers, and field officers, that would only double, or at best triple East Bay forces, as I understand them.”

“True, true,” said Brandon. “But there’s something you can offer that’s even more powerful, premier.” He paused for emphasis, and said: “A share of your water flow as a gesture of good faith.”

John was taken aback. He couldn’t even begin to fathom the opposing cries from the Quorum, much less the protests he’d receive from the master gardeners, the metalsmiths, the chefs, or the bath, pool, and fountain stewards — the list of expected grievances seemed endless in his mind. But perhaps that was the point. If everyone sacrificed a little, that could add up to a major contribution.

“Despite appearances to the contrary, councilor, this isn’t a dictatorship,” John said. “I’d need to consult with the Quorum, our water chief, and forum of advisors. We’d need a compelling story to convince our ten-thousand-plus pampered cita-dwellers that it’s all for the greater good, you see.” He smiled at Brandon, and raised his eyebrows in search of suggestions.

“Well, if the prospect of a military occupation by a competing citadel at your doorstep doesn’t concern your people, premier, I don’t know what would,” said Brandon. “Thinking optimistically, it’s fair to say an offering of this scale would not only bring far greater numbers to our cause, it might go a long way toward healing the mistrust that has built up over the years.”

John reflected on Brandon’s words. Perhaps a new era was truly within reach. He walked over to a west-facing window on the far end of his quarters, and peered out over the bay toward SF Citadel. Its stone towers rose ominously above San Francisco’s aging skyline. The peoples of the Bay Area have a lot of healing to do, John thought. It was time for him to do his part to turn history’s pages.

He turned to Brandon and said, “It would appear I have quite a bit of leading to do this day.”