City of Ash

By Paolo Bacigalupi

Illustration by Cam Floyd

Maria dreamed of her father flying and knew things would be alright.

She woke in the morning, and for the first time in more than a year, she felt refreshed. It didn’t matter that she was covered in sweat from sleeping in the hot, close basement of the abandoned house, or that that the ashy scent of wildfire smoke had invaded their makeshift bedroom, or that her cough was back. None of it bothered her the way it had before, because she finally felt hopeful.

She got up, climbed the basement stairs, and stepped out into the oven heat of Phoenix morning, squinting and wrinkling her nose at the ashy irritants in the air. She stretched, working out the kinks of sleep.

Smoke from the Sierras shrouded everything in an acrid mist, again — California blowing in. Trees and grasses and houses turned to char, billowing hundreds of miles across state lines to settle in Arizona and cut visibility to a gray quarter-mile. Even Arizona’s desert sun couldn’t fight the smoke. It glowed as a jaundiced ball behind the veil but still managed to heat the city just fine.

Maria coughed and blew her nose. More black ash. It got into the basement somehow.

She headed across the lava rock backyard for the outhouse, her flip-flops slapping her heels as she went. Off in the gray distance, the fire-flicker of construction cutters marked where the Taiyang loomed over downtown Phoenix, veiled behind haze.

On a clear day, the Taiyang gleamed. Steel and glass and solar tiles. Solar shades fluttering and tracking the sun, shielding its interconnected towers from the worst of the heat, its gardens gleaming behind glass, moist green terrariums teasing the people who lived outside its climate control and comfort.

But now, with the forest-fire smoke, all that was visible of the Taiyang were the plasma sparks of construction workers as they set and fused the girders for the arcology’s next expansion. It wouldn’t be Papa. Not now. He’d already be down off the high beams and on his way home, with cash in his pocket and full water jugs from the Red Cross pump, but there were hundreds of others up there, working their own twelve-hour shifts. Impressionistic firefly flashes of workers lucky enough to have a job, delineating the arcology’s looming bulk even when you couldn’t see the building itself through all the haze.

Papa said it was almost alive. “Its skin makes electricity, mija, and in its guts, it’s got algea vats and mushrooms and snails to clean the water just like someone’s kidneys. It’s got pumps that pound like a heart and move all the water and waste, and it’s got rivers like veins, and it re-uses everything, again and again. Never lets anything out. Just keeps it in, and keeps finding ways to use it.”

The Taiyang grew vegetables in its vertical hydroponic gardens and fish in its filtering pools, and it had waterfalls, and coffee shop terraces, and clean air. If you were rich enough, you could move right in. You could live up high, safe from dust and gangs and rolling brownouts, and never be touched by the disaster of Phoenix at all.

Amazing, surely. But maybe even more amazing that someone had enough faith and money and energy to build.

Maria couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen someone build anything. Probably the Santoses, back in San Antonio, when they’d put a new addition on their house. They’d saved for three years to make room for their growing family — and then the next year it was gone, flooded off the map.

So it was something to see the Taiyang Arcology rising proudly over Phoenix. When she’d first come to the city, in the refugee convoy, Maria had resented the Taiyang for how well the people lived there. But now, its shadow bulk was comforting, and the glitter and spark of construction work made her think of candles flickering at church, peaceful assurances that everything was going to be alright.

Maria held her breath as she opened the outhouse door. Reek and flies billowed out.

She and her father had dug the latrine in the cool of the night, hammering together a rough shelter with two-by-fours and siding scavenged from the house next door. It worked okay. Not like having a real toilet with flushing water, but who had that anymore?

It’s better than shitting in the open, Maria reminded herself as she crouched over the trench and peed into her Clearsac. She hung the filled bag on a nail and finished her business, then grabbed the full Clearsac and headed back to the basement.

Down in the relative cool of their underground shelter, Maria carefully squeezed her Clearsac into their water jug, watching yellow turn clear as it passed through the filter and drained into the container.

Like a kidney in reverse, Papa had explained.

When they’d first started using the Clearsacs, she’d been disgusted by them. Now she barely thought about it.

But pretty soon… no more Clearsacs.

The thought filled her with relief. The dream of escape… She could still see Papa flying, proud and strong, free of all the tethers that kept them trapped in Phoenix. This broken city wasn’t the last stop as Maria had feared. It wasn’t their dead end. She and her father weren’t going to end up like all the other Texas refugees, smashed up against the border controls of California, which said it already had too many people, and Nevada and Utah, which seemed to hate people on principle — and Texans in particular. They were getting out.

Smiling, she drank from the water jug. She tried to keep a disciplined eye on how much she had, but she was so thirsty, she ended up draining it and feeling ashamed, and yet still drinking, convulsively swallowing water until there was nothing except drops that she lapped at, too, trying to get everything.

Never mind. It’s not like it was before. Papa’s got a job now. It’s okay to drink. He said it was okay to drink.

She remembered how it had been the day after Taiyang International hired him: him coming home with a five-gallon cube of water and two rolls of toilet paper, plus pupusas that he’d bought from a pop-up stand near the construction site — but most of all, him coming home smiling. Not worried about every drop of water. Not worried about… well, everything.

“We’re all good now, mija,” he’d said. “We’re all good. This job, it’s a big one. It’ll last a long time. We’re gonna save up. And we don’t just got to go north now. We can buy our way to China, too. This job, it opens a lot of doors for us. After this, we can go anywhere. Anywhere, mija.”

He kept saying it, over and over again: We can go anywhere.

Papa had a job again. He had a plan again. They had a chance, again. And for the first time in months, he sounded like himself. Not the scared and sorrowful man who kept apologizing that they didn’t have enough food for the night or the medicine that Mom needed, or who kept insisting that it was possible to go north when it clearly wasn’t. Not that man who seemed to crumple in on himself as he realized that the way the world had been was no longer the way the world was.

It had all happened so fast. One minute Maria had been worrying about what her mother would say about her B on a biology test and the dress she’d have for her quinceañera, and the next, America was falling apart all around them, like God had swiped his hand across the map and left a different country in its place.

You weren’t supposed to get turned back by militias at the border of Oklahoma or see people strung in the margins of the interstates. But she’d seen both. Her father kept saying that this was America, and America didn’t do these things, but the America in her father’s mind wasn’t the same as the America that they drove across.

America wasn’t supposed to be a place where you huddled for safety under the shield of an Iowa National Guard convoy and woke up without them — waking with a start to desert silence and the hot flapping of a FEMA tent, realizing that you were all alone, and that somewhere out in the darkness, New Mexicans were planning to make a lesson of you. In Papa’s mind, that shit didn’t happen. On the ground, it did. There was America before Cat 6 hurricanes and megadroughts, and there was after — with everyone on the move.

That was all past now, though. Papa finally had a plan that would work, and a job that paid, and they were getting out.

Maria settled back on her mattress and dug out a language tablet. The Chinese gave them away free to anyone who asked, and people hacked them to get access to the public network. To make up for her greed with the water, she decided to study instead of watching pirated movies.

The screen lit up, and a familiar Chinese lady started the lesson. Maria followed her prompts. The lady moved on from numbers to other words, tricky games that highlighted the tonal differences between “ma” and “ma,” “mai” and “mai.”

Different language. Different rules. Tones. Tiny differences to Maria’s ear that turned out to make all the difference in the world. If you weren’t trained to listen for them, you didn’t know what was going on. You were lost.

The lady in the tablet nodded and smiled as Maria said “buy” and “sell” correctly.

Maria was so engrossed in her study that it took a while to notice that time had passed, and Papa wasn’t home.

She got to her feet and went out into the choking furnace of 120-degree heat. The smoke had thickened. It seemed like all of California was on fire, and all of it was blowing in to Phoenix.

Maria peered toward the Taiyang, but even the construction cutter flickers were invisible now. Papa was never late coming off shift. He always did his shift, got his pay, filled his jugs from the Red Cross pump, and came straight home.

She started walking toward the construction site, making her way down the long dust-rutted boulevards, where Texas bang bang girls stood on the street corners and tried to pick up rich Californians who were over the border to go slumming. Walking past the Red Cross pump, where the lines for water stretched around the block and the price always seemed to go up. Past the shanty towns of suburban refugees that filled Fry’s and Target parking lots, all of them scavenging and building plywood slums around the relief pump, grateful to be close to any place where they could get water. Past the Merry Perry revival tent, where people lashed themselves with thorns bushes and begged God to send them rain.

Maria trudged through the choking smoke and dust, wishing she’d saved some of her water jug for the brutal heat of the walk. The arcology loomed out of the smoke, a jumbled collection of boxy interconnected towers, as isolated from Phoenix as if it were a castle fortress.

On the Taiyang’s construction side, the gate guard wouldn’t let her in. He didn’t seem to understand English, Spanish, or her broken Chinese. But he did make a call, though.

A Chinese man came out to her. A polished man, he wore a hardhat, nice clothes, and filter mask around his neck — a good one from REI that would keep California and Phoenix out of his lungs. Maria eyed it jealously.

“You’re here about the accident?” he asked.

“What accident?”

“There was a fall.”

He spoke with an accent, but his English was clear enough. It had been a long fall, he said. She wouldn’t want to see his body. He was very sorry. Taiyang International had made arrangements for the respectful disposal of his body. She could pick up his remains in the evening. There was some leftover pay, and Taiyang would cover the costs of the cremation.

Maria found herself staring at the man’s fancy dust mask as he droned on. The rubberized seals and replaceable filters…

Her father would be smoke. More smoke, adding to the burn that people tried to keep out of their lungs. Maybe she was breathing him in, right now — him and the Sierras and all of California.

His ash, flying free.

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