This is the long-version of this story. The shorter story can be found in the official brochure https://www.storiesfrom2050.com/stories
Jara had been lying on the couch all day. When Zaz called to check in, she said she was sick, but that was a lie. She wasn’t sick. Just depressed. It was a year since her dad had passed. A year wasn’t long enough to not be sad once the weekend came. Jara could have told Zaz the truth, that she was down and wanted to be alone, but Zaz would have just wanted to talk it through, to tell her that her dad would have wanted her to be happy, to get Jara to agree on plans for the night.
Jara wasn’t ready for plans. She could still barely get off the couch. So she watched the light shift in the apartment; instead, its rays turning the red foam underneath her into a glowing umber. It was nearing sunset. Her stomach began to rumble.
It was time for food. She could do that, at least. Peeling herself up with a groan, she pushed the couch back into the ApartmentPack module, moved to the adjacent divider section, and flipped a latch to pull out the kitchen. The Pack hinges swung silently apart, revealing a small sink, blond wood cabinets, a mini-fridge, and a double burner stove.
Jara opened the fridge. Just a few Gurt containers and coconut waters on the racks. She needed a salad, something fresh to crack her out of her daze. She could go up to the garden on the roof of the building – there was still credit on her monthly veggie allotment. Or maybe down to the market on Water Level. But the produce the market had been getting recently was bad -- wilted and wrinkled and edging on rot.
Thinking through her options, Jara grabbed a glass from the cabinet above the sink and flipped the drinking tap. Nothing. Was the line broken again? The building façade had been retrofitted with fog and dew-catching panels when she’d first moved in a decade ago. But the makers hadn’t thought much about birds when they designed the systems, and seagulls often left the panels covered in droppings. It wasn’t unheard of for things to break down for lack of cleaning.
Jara touched her forefinger to her thumb and activated SeeMe. She didn’t like to turn it on during the weekends -- 10 hours a day at work with diagrams and statistics superimposed over the world around her was enough -- but she needed to call the building manager and let him know about the broken line.
With SeeMe on, her apartment flooded with numbers and facts. When she looked at the narrow counter next to the sink, her Info Docket revealed it was covered in 23,875 different kinds of bacteria – cleaning was necessary. She turned to face the bathroom just off the front door and learned that her morning poop had produced 121 kilojoules in the building’s biodigester, enough power to light her bedside lamp for an hour.
Jara sighed and walked towards her window. Looking past the floating numbers telling her that it was 101 degrees outside, she trained her eyes below on the mangroves growing along the edge of the waterway. They grew well in the denser parts of town -- the ones outside were over 25 feet tall. Their branches cast dark shadows on the water’s surface, contrasting sharply against the floating white numbers that listed mangrove air pollution removal rates at 1.4 kilograms per year. As Jara stared, a series of hoverboats sped by, flooding the base of the trees with thick wakes and sending off a new flurry of numbers that declared there were 25 share-boats currently in the neighborhood and the fog was about to roll in.
Jara smiled. She didn’t need to call the building manager. She could just take her fog collar outside and harvest drinking water herself. She could tell Marcelo about the broken water line when she got back -- he could reach out to the managers after she spent the evening catching fog.
She touched her fingers, and SeeMe’s lines, diagrams, and news feeds faded. Not for the first time, Jara wondered how it used to be before people decided to supplement their sight with constant data overlay when you could choose to read a paper and then put it down rather than having the information always there, broken into bite-sized bits and layered over your eyes.
Her father had liked to tell her stories about those days. When he was younger, back in the 2010s, his family still got printed newspapers, the kind with the thin newsprint that crumpled easily between your fingers and sometimes left ink stains on the sides of your palms. “Your Grandad was a big believer in printed papers – easier on the eyes and the mind.” Jara would joke that she was born too late. No matter how many times she said it over the years, her father always laughed.
She slid the kitchen back into the ApartmentPack. With all the sections – the living room, bedroom, closet, and kitchen areas -- tucked away into the unit module, the apartment suddenly looked spacious. Just the Pack in the middle of the printed wood floor, the air quality garden under the window, a row of shoes lined up by the front door, her coolsuit and canoe paddle hanging above.
That’s what she’d do. She’d take her fog collar, canoe over to the Wetlands Gardens, and get some greens for dinner. The glasswort and saltwater potatoes were exploding this time of year. And she hadn’t been to the Gardens in a long time. Not since her dad died, anyways.
The Gardens had always been their place, ever since he took her there for the first time when she was six. Jara still remembered the day. The Wetland Gardens had community workdays twice a month, and everyone who was a member had to show up. Jara had been asking more and more questions about where their dinner greens were coming from – did the food delivery drones give birth to lettuce babies during their flights over? Or did they stop off first at Grandad and Nana’s window-sill garden beds? When the questions continued even after a month, her father decided she was ready for a workday.
This was thirty years ago when sea levels were lower. The Wetland Gardens extended farther into the bay in those days – rows of saltgrass and seaweed that shifted into lettuces and cucumbers and beets farther inland. “This all used to be streets and warehouses and commercial buildings, Jara,” her dad told her after they moored their inflatable at the lower level entrance and pushed through the garden gates. “But when I was a teen, the city decided to invest in greener edges.”
Wetland areas and floodable open spaces could serve multiple public purposes, he explained. They could buffer against inundation while acting as community gardens, and fish nurseries like the Wetland Gardens did, or as playfields and pleasure parks. The mangrove forests north and west of the city were green edges. The barrier islands where they went for beach days and sunsets were too. These were alternatives to hard sea walls, he said, alternatives that gave residents benefits beyond protection.
As he signed them in at the member stand and got tools from the shed – shovel for him, little hand trowel for her -- he pointed out remnants of the old urban grid. The rebar sculpture behind member check-in was made from an old fishing pier. The circular culvert top beneath her right foot was where the old sewer system used to run underground. Her father had been an architect and loved to trace the details of how the city had changed over time. His rambling mostly bored her, but she stuck next to him as he prattled on that day, bent over a bed of tomatoes and pulling weeds from the ground. Jara tried to be helpful, but the sun was hot and made her so tired that she eventually fell asleep on the ground by his feet.
When she woke, water was lapping her fingers. Blinking her eyes to adjust to the sunlight, she turned her head and brushed her cheek against the scratch of her father’s beard. She was in his arms. He’d put on a pair of tall rubber waders and carried her out to the edge of the gardens where the wetlands got deeper. Keeping one of her arms around his neck, he’d stuck her other hand into the bay, gently trailing it back and forth.
“Hold on, Jara. They’re coming.” Just as the last word left his mouth, a flock of grey darts appeared on the surface of the water a few feet away.
Jara yelped and yanked her hand back. “What are they?”
“Dolphins. They come out here when the sun starts to go down. Don’t worry – they won’t hurt you.”
He retook her hand and dipped it into the water. The bay shallows were cool and clear enough that she could see the dolphins gathered close by, their bodies curling and swooping over each other, just below the water’s surface. Jara spread her palm and tapped her fingers one by one across the wetness. She could see the dolphins cock their heads and swivel from side to side in response. The afternoon sun shone through the water, hitting their grey, curving bodies with patches of yellow light.
And then one of them came towards her. He -- or maybe it was a she -- flicked his tailfin and swam forward so fast that he touched his nose to Jara’s hand before she could decide whether or not she was afraid. His skin was slick and rubbery, with a slew of silver scars traced over his face and sides. The scars were thick and knarled, so at odds with the smoothness of the rest of his body. What did they feel like? Jara moved her hand closer towards the scars but, before she could touch them, the dolphin turned and finned away.
Visiting the dolphins had been one of her favorite things to do ever since. The same pod still lived around the Gardens, and they still surfaced, every day at sunset. Some members of the pod had to be different, Jara reasoned, but dolphins could live for sixty years -- some still had to be the same. Seeing them, picking some dinner greens – that’s what she needed. And maybe the Oyster Truck would be there, selling single shooters and beer in the mooring cove.
Jara opened the ApartmentPack to the kitchen section again, got two carry bags from a cabinet, and walked to the front door. Her coolsuit was hanging just outside the bathroom door, next to her canoe paddle, fog collar, and filtration mask. Since it was only 101 outside, she didn’t need the suit. It had been a good summer so far – temperatures rarely got above 120 and then only during midday. It was usually back down around 100 by late afternoon.
The filtration mask, though, was always necessary. Like everyone else her age, Jara had been taught to be careful anywhere with CO2 levels higher than 770 ppm. That was the point where your cognitive function started to falter, where your mind got sleepy, and your thinking slowed. That was most places these days. As an urban planner, Jara couldn’t afford to bank on good days. Thinking strategically was her job. So she’d worn the mask daily for the past twelve years, scrubbing extra particles of CO2 out of every inhale any time she stepped outside.
Jara linked the fog collar around her shoulders and pulled the filtration mask over her mouth. She took down the canoe paddle and placed her eye in the front door scanner. As she waited for the door to open to the hall, her reflection in the bathroom mirror caught her eye. The fog collar stuck out like one of those necklines you saw on English royalty from the Elizabethan age – all pointy spikes and protruding curves. The filtration mask was slightly less obtrusive, just a smooth white cover over her mouth and nose that clipped behind her ears. If she got the mask in black, Jara mused, she’d look like one of those ninjas from old movies.
The front door slid open, and Jara walked down the hall to the lift. Other, newer buildings had transit beams in place, but hers was old, built 180 years ago, just after the Great Quake of 1906. It had to stick to historic preservation rules. No beaming for quick teleportation, but Jara preferred it that way. The beaming always gave her static cling for hours afterward, her hair standing on end and her skin lightly shocking the people she touched.
The lift clicked to WD, and Jara stepped out onto the water dock. Lights shone from the concrete ceiling, glinting off the buoy number signs. Individual hoverboats and older zodiacs were tied in an orderly fashion next to each one. A slinky white hoverboat at buoy #1. A dark, wood-paneled speedboat at buoy #8. It belonged to Silvo Tartev from Apartment 4B. He loved fast, retro things.
Jara preferred a slower pace. She walked down the line to buoy #15 and her rusting green canoe. Other folks were into hoverboats and teleportation and getting around by personal drones, but not her. She liked to take her time moving through the city, through any landscape, really. It gave her more chances to look around.
She’d taken the canoe the day she and her dad went out to the sandbars to watch the sunset. That was their last outing together, their last adventure before he stayed in the hospital with his drip and died. He told her there, on the sand bar, how the bay had looked centuries before, before it became the dry, desert place she’d known since she was born. He told her how it was before the bay got famous for its wine and peaches and grass-fed beef, how it was before cows were ever introduced into the area. He told her about how it had been all the way back 15,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age when the bay wasn’t even a bay at all but a river valley.
People were always skeptical when she told them that the bay hadn’t always been a bay. Even Zaz had taken a while to believe her, Zaz, who she’d known since they were in school together, and who liked history almost as much as Jara did. “Where’s your proof?” she’d ask.
Jara was ready with bathymetry maps, bringing them up on Zaz’s SeeMe. “See where it’s so much deeper, along those lines in the middle? That’s where the rivers used to flow.” Jara liked to be prepared. Facts and hard evidence were so calming compared to most people. Facts didn’t need to be persuaded. They just were.
Jara stepped into her canoe and pushed off the dock, plunging her paddle into the water with firm, practiced strokes. There was a little motor attached to the stern for when her arms got tired, but she ignored it for now. The tiredness that had plagued her all day was starting to fade. The strain on her arms felt good.
The city still had its dry parts but down here, in the old financial district, it was all canals and waterways. Many of the buildings were like hers, almost two hundred years old. When sea rise spiked in the 2050s, lots of developers just filled in the first floor or two with concrete, creating thicker foundations and floodable structures. What with the historic preservation restrictions on the area, it was easier and cheaper than building the brand new floating buildings they were constructing in other parts of town.
Jara aimed towards the edges of the waterway, where the mangroves grew. They were planted decades before, part of a city-coordinated effort to improve air quality and reinforce the coastline. The groves farther offshore were designed as storm surge buffers but doubled as fisheries and tree farms too. Over time, they’d even become go-to tourist spots. You could spend the day fishing or swimming or lounging at the floating bars. Some folks liked to scuba dive the reefs growing off the underwater power lines that funneled electricity from the tidal turbines off the bay’s edge. Back in the more developed parts of the city, mangroves were for keeping temperatures cooler, creating habitats for fish and insects, and maintaining air quality control.
Paddling her canoe in the slower traffic lane, Jara slid under the shade of the trees and, not for the first time, was thankful for their presence. Beneath the canopy, the air felt at least ten degrees cooler. There weren’t many others in the slow lane with her. If folks didn’t have a hoverboat of their own or failed to qualify for a jetpack system, most took a hover-share. If you couldn’t afford that, the public ferries weren’t bad either. The region had invested in transit over the years, and a majority of residents now had a Bay Pass – an access ticket to all public ferries, hover-boat, and high-speed transit lines, at all times of day at a single price. You could even take the ferries out to the barrier islands. And you didn’t have to feel bad about speed-boating – everything was electric. No emissions, no fuss.
While she was glad the option was there for other people, Jara rarely used her Pass. Ride the ferries, and you went too fast to catch sight of the schools of fish that lived in the canals or see the kelp leaves shimmer on the surface when the wind blew hard. Jara liked those moments.
She paddled through the right-side water lane, ready to make the turn towards the Gardens, but a sudden flick in the corner of her eye made her pause. Down that side canal, where the buildings ended, and the mangroves grew in thicker, there was a shining light. Like sun bouncing off a mirror. What was that?
The turn towards the Gardens was at the corner, just thirty feet ahead, but Jara was curious. She could go straight to picking saltwater greens or take a little detour first. It would be quick – just see what that light was and then paddle back on track.
She veered right down the side canal. The way was narrow, and the wake from her canoe slapped against the edges of the buildings. Racks of green lines ringed the brick facades, reminding Jara that it was low tide. A good time to harvest saltwater. She should head over to the Gardens. But that shining light was just getting brighter the closer she paddled. Was it a mirror someone accidentally dropped into the mangrove canopy from their window? The nest of a bird with a preference for shiny things? Jara shipped her paddle on the edge of the canoe and shaded her eyes with her left hand. And then she saw.
It was a houseboat: Not one of the shiny, glass-paneled ones that were so popular in the floating neighborhoods farther south in the city, the ones with tanning decks and in-house lawns. This one was falling apart. There were holes in the hull above the waterline, their edges swollen and sagging. Rust lines trailed from the ends of the metal railings, crisscrossing the white hull like trails of orange tears.
Jara stuck her paddle back in the water and sped her strokes. She felt like some kind of magnet was pulling her in. She had to see what the houseboat looked like up close. Ruins like this were almost never out and about on the waterways. The city was rigorous about keeping traffic lanes open and clear at all times, especially in the historic areas downtown. But on this narrow little side canal, with the mangroves growing so thick at the far end, no one had noticed to haul the boat away.
Jara didn’t care how it got there – she just wanted to get inside. She wouldn’t turn on SeeMe, though. Bringing updates and facts about the houseboat would undoubtedly tell her things she wanted to know, but it would also record what she was doing. This didn’t need to be recorded if the houseboat belonged to someone, better if there was no voluntarily documented evidence that she’d been there.
She paddled the last few strokes towards the boat, tied her canoe to a hitch off the side of the hull, and jumped onboard. The deck creaked a bit under her weight but didn’t give. Jara exhaled -- she’d been holding her breath. The filtration mask was hot, and sweat was beading on her upper lip, sending salty trickles into her mouth. Even her fog collar, which never usually bothered her when it was empty, felt heavy and awkward on her shoulders.
Taking care to keep her inhales slow and steady, Jara pushed forward, sidling through a door hatch that had lost its door, down two creaking steps and around a bulkhead built out with now-broken shelves. A pile of board games and books was on board, red on the spotted carpet below.
Careful that her fog collar didn’t catch on the shelves, Jara stooped to scan the titles. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardobe. The Color Purple. Alice Through the Looking Glass. She shivered. These were books she’d read before, but always from her SeeMe or on an I-CAM or some other kind of digital screen. Never from paper, she could hold in her hands. You could still find real books these days – she even had some in her apartment -- but it was only possible through special orders that took ages to arrive and cost way more than the digital versions. Who was this person who had so many, and why were they just lying there, heaped on the floor?
She stood and walked around the bulkhead. The carpet, soaked in some places and dry in others, gave an occasional squelch beneath her feet. There was the bathroom, through a little sliding door hanging halfway off its hinges. And there was a kitchenette next to it, with a kettle waiting on the narrow stove. A few dishes caked in some kind of calcified, reddish sauce lay scattered on the adjacent counter, with some broken ones on the floor. Jara sniffed around for smells of rotting food but, aside from the slight stench of mold from the aging carpet, there was just the salty breeze coming in through the broken portholes.
The corner of a bed stuck out past the edge of the counter. Jara walked over. Piled blankets and sheets covered the mattress but, behind them, she could see there were a few drawers hanging open, each full of papers and photos. Careful not to touch the bed, Jara reached for the closest drawer and flipped through its contents. There was a crumpled bill for a lobster dinner from Gary’s Place from 2057. A faded photo showed a dark-skinned man smiling with blindingly white teeth, his arms around a tiny woman with a big, pregnant belly. She held her bulge protectively, and he cradled her in turn, his thick, swollen muscles making her look even smaller than she must have been in real life.
There were more pictures of the man, mixed in with layers of creased grocery lists and marked-up utility bills. Jara hadn’t seen so much paper in one place in years. No one had printed photos anymore, yet here was another one of the men, a glossy black and white headshot, only slightly torn at the edges. A shot of him accepting a trophy wearing just a tiny swimsuit, his body was glistening from some kind of oil. But no more of the pregnant woman. No baby photos anywhere.
He must have been a bodybuilder, Jara thought. Or an actor. Or both. Someone who liked getting his photo taken, at least. Who liked reading fantasy stories from real books. Who had a pregnant girlfriend or a sister at one point but never cared enough to follow up and take a picture once the kid was born. Who probably refused to get the chip embedded in his eye and never learned to use SeeMe. And who, by now, was probably dead. You didn’t leave houseboats like this, still full of all your things, to decay if you were still alive.
The thought made her shiver. Jara hadn’t felt like she was invading before, but she did now. This was someone else’s home. A dead person’s home. She tried to imagine how she would feel if someone had broken into her dad’s apartment after he died after all the treatments and freezing tests hadn’t stopped his tumors after he took her hand on that hot summer day when she paddled them out to the islands for the last time to watch the sunset and the dolphins, and he told her that he was ready to go and join her mom. Would Jara have screamed? Tried to hit the person who’d snuck inside? Maybe she would have just walked away, silent. She didn’t know.
Jara put the papers and photos back in the drawer and walked through the soggy, carpeted hall to the deck. The sun was going down in earnest now, and the narrow canal, still quiet and empty, was laced with saffron, pink, and orange. The brick buildings seem to glow. Jara could hear rustles in the roots of the mangrove trees – fish and birds starting their evening feed. Her own stomach started to rumble again at the thought. It was time to go.
She lifted her mask just long enough to wipe the sweat from her upper lip, dropped into her canoe, and paddled back out towards the main waterway, towards the Gardens and the dolphins. They were just a ten-minute paddle away. She could still make it over there in time to see them jump.
As she reached the end of the side canal, a large hoverboat cruised by. Jara paused to let it pass. It set off a choppy wake that rocked her canoe and lashed a small spray across her cheek. She let the water trickle down her filtration mask, remembering something her father once told her during another work-day at the Gardens.
Jara couldn’t remember what chore they’d been doing at the time, whether it was weeding saltgrass or seeding new algae spores. She just remembered the dark spots on the backs of his hands, the way their waders smelled of rubber, and the sun glinting off the white in his beard. He was standing, with hands-on-hips looking out at the bay waters rippling around them, and beckoned Jara to do the same. “Water never disappears,” he said when they were standing side by side.
“What? What are you talking about?”
“This water, what we’re standing in, it’s been around for millions of years. It might have looked different in different times – could have been a gas in the air or frozen in some kind of ice. But it was here, on this planet.” He splashed his hands in the shallows as he spoke. “How about that, right?”
Smiling at the memory, Jara set her paddle on her knees and dipped her hand over the side of the canoe. The water was cool against the heavy afternoon heat. She twirled her palm along the surface, letting the liquid swirl around the base of her fingers, and wondered what other places that water had been and the kinds of people it had touched along the way.