At the End of the World

As the seas rose and the deserts grew, the wealthiest families and the most necessary crops moved poleward, seeking survivable summers and fertile soils. I traveled to the coast and slowly made my way towards the Equator; as a genetics engineer I was well-employed, if not one of the super-rich, but keeping our old ecosystems alive was difficult enough if you had hope, and I had lost mine a couple of degrees Celsius along the way.

I saw her one afternoon. I was staying in a cramped rentroom in a semi-flooded city that could have been anywhere. The same always nearly-collapsed infrastructure, the indistinguishable semi-flooded slums, the worldwide dull resentment and fear of everything coming from the sky: the ubiquitous flocks of drones, the frequent hurricanes, the merciless summer sun.

She seemed older than I'd have expected, her skin pale and parched, her once-black hair the color of sand. But she had an assurance that hadn't been there half a lifetime ago when we had been colleagues and roommates, and less, and more. Before we had had to choose between hope for a future together and hope for a future for the world, and had chosen... No, not wrong. But I had stopped believing we could turn the too-literal tide, and, for reasons I had suspected but not inquired, she had lost or quit her job years ago. So here we were, at the overcrowded, ever-retreating ruinous limes of our world. I was wandering, and she was riding a battery bike out of the city. I followed her on my own.

I don't know why I didn't call to her, why I followed her, or if I even wanted to catch up. But when I turned a bend on the road she was waiting for me, patient and smiling, still on her bike.

"Follow me," she said, going off the road.

I did, all the way through the barren over-exploited land, the situation dreamlike but no more than everything else.

She led me to a group of oddly-looking tents, and then by foot towards one that I took to be hers. We sat on the ground, and under the light of a biolamp I saw her close and gasped.

Not in disgust. Not despite the pseudoscales on her skin, or her shrouded eyes. It wasn't beauty, but it was beautiful work, and I knew enough to suspect that the changes wouldn't stop at what I saw.

"You adapted yourself to the hot band," I said.

She smiled. "Not just me. I've been doing itinerant retroviral work all over the hot band. You wouldn't believe the demand, or how those communities thrive once health issues are minimized. I've developed gut mods for digesting whatever grows there now, better heat and cold resistance, some degree of internal osmosis to drink seawater. And they have capable people spreading and tweaking the work. They call it submitting to the world."

"This is not what we wanted to do."

"No," she said, "but it works." She paused, as if waiting for me to argue. I didn't, so she went on. "Every year it works a little better for them, for us, and a little worse for you all."

I shook my head. "And next decade? Half a century from now? You know the feedback loops aren't stopping, and we only pretend carbon storage will reach enough scale to work. This work is phenomenal, but it's only an stopgap."

"It's only an stopgap if we stop." She stood up and moved a curtain I had thought a tent wall. Behind it I saw a crib, the standard climate-controlled used by everybody who could afford them.

Inside the crib there was a baby girl. Her skin was covered in true scales, with tridimensional structures that looked like multi-layer thermal insulation. Her respiration was slow and easy, and her eyes, blinking sleepily, catlike, like those of a creature breed to avoid and don't miss the sun. I was listening with half an ear to the long list of other changes, but my eyes were fixed on the crib's controls.

They were keeping her environment artificially hot and dry. The baby smile was too innocent to be mocking, but I wasn't.

"And a century after next century?" I said, not really asking.

"Who knows what they'll become?" I wasn't looking at her, but her voice was filled with hope.

I closed my eyes and thought of the beautiful forests and farms of the temperate areas, where my best efforts only amounted to increasingly hopeless life support. I wasn't sure how I felt about the future looking at me from the crib, but it was one.

"Tell me more."


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