Chapter 19 (counting down to 0)
“I want to take you somewhere.”
Sonja’s voice was nearly inaudible, but Michael had a way of hearing her when others couldn’t. She looked down at the broken concrete and then out towards the bayou. Michael knew that ‘somewhere’ could be anywhere for a woman with no home, so he made peace with the loss of the day.
“Do we walk or ride?” he asked.
“We can ride. It’s easier if we have an…escape.” She chose the foreign word carefully, letting it stumble from her mouth.
They unplugged the motorbike from the electrical post that straddled the neighbor’s yard and attached a bio-cell in case it powered down. Michael couldn’t afford the new converter parts so the energy cells depleted more rapidly than the current models. He built the bio-cell for emergencies but used it more and more lately. After the fuel-short riots of O-19 it was easier to find organic waste than e-poles with rapid chargers.
It was hot for October, making their skin dimple with moisture. Sonja drove east on Harrisburg, snaking around storm debris. The rains always left the roads one step closer to a war zone. Michael used his knees to hold on and watched as the landscape turned from townhome to vacant lot in quick succession. Entire blocks of houses, their roofs crushed under the weight of history, were reclaimed by wild vines and trees. Not many people lived in Magnolia Park by choice and even fewer in Manchester/Harrisburg. It was close to 6pm and alerts from the wealthier part of town were sounding to warn citizens of the air quality. The alarms never worked east of EADO. Suddenly it was dusk and the ship channel became both a verb and a noun.
Pulling off the road onto a forgotten alley, Sonja slowed as she approached the gates to Valero Park. The public areas closed after sundown so only a few stragglers were meandering along the walkway towards the parking lot. She hid the bike behind a gnarled swamp chestnut oak and they began stepping through the tall grass towards the elephant path just south of the main entrance. Like most public projects, Valero Park ran on the notion of rewilding that was popularized by Harvard zoologist Edward O. Wilson and various environmental groups that found their voice in the O-20’s. Principally, re-wilded zones were partly separate from human interaction to allow biological life to regenerate, but they also allowed for limited human interaction to view or participate in the process. Houston was late to the game, so when Valero’s parent group tucked tail and finally turned to interplanetary power like everyone else, the city agreed to split the cost of redeveloping their abandoned industrial site.
Each structure in the petrochemical complex was evacuated of its residual compounds and cleaned. Bio-remediating plants were spliced with engineered rapid growth genetic doppelgängers cultivated by A&M’s college of agriculture and life sciences. Their success at quickly cleaning the Valero site was widely chronicled and used as a standard for regenerative landscape design. Since the site was located directly adjacent to the ship channel the city requirements asked for proposals that would be flexible for future development. The result was a microclimate park that began to thrive faster than even the scientists expected. Thick ropes were anchored to the bottom of the ship channel and stretched like a porous skin over the cleaned infrastructure. It formed a web that was large enough for small animals, water, and insects to pass through but narrow enough that humans were precluded from entering.
Visitors to the park were able to access long walkways that stretched over and across the tall-roped environment in a linear park reminiscent of the elevated Highline in what used to be New York City. Armchair naturalists and students of ecology speculated that the universities and research groups maintained a hidden entry to the enclosed bio web that was off limits to the general public. There was no such entrance, however. The park was a time capsule waiting to be opened once the site was ecologically viable. As each year passed, the public lost interest and the wild grew wilder.
Michael knew the park from his many walks along the bayou but hadn’t ventured farther than the entrance. It always struck him as a park for wealthy whites day-tripping through the heart of his black history. They poured money into donation boxes at the entrance while waltzing past the graveyard of homes where ghosts still lived and died a thousand times a day. Where was FEMA after hurricane IKE, the storms of O-18, and the surge and riots of O-22? His family like all families still walked in the shadows of a post democracy failure predicted in O-16 and lived 15 years later.
Sonja could sense Michael's agitation growing as they slipped past a group of kids exiting the grounds. Her hyper-sensitivity to body language developed from years evading capture by the government. After the wall was fortified, being illegal was a death sentence. Like thousands of others who attempted to return to Mexico when the incentive programs led to mass incarcerations, she couldn’t go home. The drug war was over, but the wall wasn’t. After 2 days in the back of an open-bed semi holding someone else’s baby, Sonja found the concrete and steel wall had grown so tall it shadowed the former borderland she was still scarred from crossing the first time. No one could cross now; not even to return to their homeland.
She returned to clutch city mostly out of familiarity. There wasn’t time for tears and regret. Living as an imposter, wearing a Texas culture shawl, meant survival. It was shortly after her return that she met Michael. Late one night the pain of hunger drove her to take vegetables from a community garden off Brays Bayou. The police were fast to respond and chased her with a vigilance that spoke more about their biases than her wrongs. It didn’t matter that her hunger was killing her body. It didn’t matter that she planted more seeds than she could ever sow. Life didn’t run that way in the first world. Here she was always last. Michael was walking the streets that night and when he saw the fear in her eyes as she passed, he jumped the chase. He wasn’t running from the law that night but didn’t see why he shouldn’t be. They hid together in the relative safety of a construction site and fell in love over string beans.
“Is not what you expect,” she offered, checking the sky to time her movements with the sun’s trajectory.
“I don’t expect much these days.” Michael stepped inside her footsteps, in the way of the indigenous peoples. There was no need for both of them to be hunted if things went wrong. Things would most certainly go wrong and Michael knew who they were hungry for. The ‘Final States of America’ stripped them down to ironies and caricature while using their struggle as a daily meme to amplify the fears of the uneducated. Michael’s blackness made him a target while Sonja’s bronze made her invisible. Houston wasn’t as bad as other places. The city was rich with color, vibrancy, and passengers through the daily slog of life. Being one of the largest cities in The States, it was home to a wide diversity of cultures that kept the hate to a simmer.
They stepped through the soggy brush that ran parallel to the netting. “This way along east side is good. We climb up rope and then trees.” Sonja quickened her steps. Their romance deepened despite or perhaps because they were prey to a system that sought to dismember them. Wherever Sonja went, Michael went. She didn’t need him and he didn’t need her. It was this way for those that lived their lives in strength instead of fear.
Night enveloped the sound of their shoes sinking in the loamy clay. Wild grasses scratched at their ankles and provided a fragrant smell that made the stench of nature’s processes bearable. In the new darkness Michael suddenly bumped into Sonja. “What’s wrong?”
“There is hole here.” Sonja didn’t move. No lights were installed on the interior of the park in order to protect the nocturnal activity of the wildlife.
“What do you mean a hole?” Michael reached out to the coarse rope and ran his hands along the frayed edges of a large aperture in the net. “What is this? What could cause this?” He whispered.
“This is bad.” Sonja took a step forward instinctively drawing closer to the unknown world inside the dark enclosure. “It no clipped by vandals. Is eaten.”
“You think an animal bit through the net to escape?”
“Or to enter.” She said turning to face him for the first time. “New idea. We go inside the net.”
The smell inside the roped park was dank and thicker than outside. Sounds of the night creaked and croaked intermingling with wind pushing through the structures. A soft roar of drones still kept the baseline, but it was as removed from Houston as it could be this close to the city. Doors and windows were removed prior to the installation of the net to allow free movement for the growth of the habitat. Now, 15 years after the park’s initial construction, Sonja and Michael were the first humans to enter the re-wilded area. A sign at the entrance of the park stated that it was 335 acres, meaning that they could walk the perimeter in roughly 20 minutes if they stuck to the edge. Their only exit was where the hole exposed both worlds. Michael began mentally cataloguing what kind of beast could chew a hole that size in the thick mariner rope. An alligator was the most likely candidate, but a wildcat couldn’t be ignored. The real question was what was the catalyst that made this one moment in time the exact moment for the hole to appear? Did an apex predator grow within the park and escape into the urban jungle or did one enter seeking refuge?
There is no silence in a living habitat. Mating calls, warning songs and daily activity are a constant symphony. Ecosystems are harmonious precisely because they were designed by interdependence. Even the most dissonant of sounds had a place. So it was that Michael and Sonja’s entrance was unexpected, yet perfectly logical. They were part of a system, but without tools, weapons, or light, they were as much wild game as any other species. Concrete was broken by emerging tree roots and littered the ground with shrapnel. Menacing pieces of rebar thrust awkwardly towards the sky marking areas that were broken by machine, not nature. All of the buildings were dull in the screened moonlight and aged with a patina of vines, moss and insects. From above, birds eyed the newcomers with equal parts suspicion and excitement.
Birds know all, Sonja’s grandmother told her once. That is why when the coyote drags you too far from water, you look up and follow the birds. Something metal flashed and came falling down off a silo. Michael grabbed Sonja’s arm out of instinct and raced forward towards the open door of a nearby building. Through the opening in the wall where a door once hung the order of the floor was immediately clear. Every 5 feet a tuft of grass was interrupted by glowing moss that formed a tight path through the room. Their faces reflected green in the hollow tomb. Michael became aware of the sweat beading on his body as the temperature inside the enclosure elevated. Whatever it was that caused the debris to fall was large in size. Sonja held her small hand out palm up as a gecko jumped onto her. Both human and amphibian melded together in the glow of the moss. The floor began to suddenly shake with a deep tremor unnatural for Texas tectonics.
“We are not alone in here, Sonja.” Michael’s breath quickened.
“We are never alone, Michael.”
They entered the biotope through a tear in the safety net. Inside they found a world foreign in its familiarity and awake with the beginnings of night. Hungry and unafraid, something wild was awakened with their arrival and nothing would protect them.
NOTE: This is the first part of a dystopian science fiction novel entitled "Zer0:Emancipation." The 20 chapters will count down every two weeks from 19 to 0. The book centers on the near future in Houston, Texas, after the collapse of the oil industry. Four friends live and struggle together in a shotgun house located in the fifth ward. The numerical entity 0 arrives and begins to live with them, eventually revealing itself to be not of this world. Time begins to collide with space, creating holes and paradoxes in reality as the numerical representation of nothing erases everything. Racism, individual identity, and governmental failure are critical themes woven throughout.