Message to the Future

 I knew it was bad news from the slight hesitance in the step of the doctor when he noticed me jump up from my seat. I tried to keep my feelings hidden, the way the living green wall of the sanatorium corridor kept the outside world hidden.

“It’s not what you think, Richard,” he started. “Carolina did pull through…” He hesitated, while a tiny sparkle of hope ignited inside me – My daughter lived! – only to be doused a moment later. “It’s not good, though; she won’t breathe unassisted and some of the poisons still reached the baby. It has problems too.”

“But Carolina has been here for SEVEN months!”

The city sanatorium, a biosphere where the air was sustained by protected plants and all water filtered, had been set up to help pregnant women to term and ensure a good start for their babies.  Its serene greenery in which we stood, did not condone me shouting.

“I’m sorry. I wish it was different, but it appears that seven months was no longer enough,” the doctor said softly. “The damage was done before she was even aware that she was pregnant. There’s nothing you or I could have done.”

I brusquely walked away from the young man, who, fair enough, couldn’t help it either. He belonged, like my daughter, to a generation that was unable to reproduce. But I felt like screaming; everything of value was dying and I could do nothing!

#

My wife had hoped for a grandchild, but Lisa had succumbed to kidney failure after having accidentally drunk untreated water when visiting her parents’ farm up north, just over a year ago, having gone there to get over the loss of our youngest. Mitchell had developed emphysema when he was six, one of the first to be diagnosed with a disease that had since taken child mortality rates close to ninety percent. He’d survived eight years, most of which in agony, especially during the ‘death summers’ when the air was literally murderous. Carolina, five years older, who’d nursed her brother and then her mother, had announced she was pregnant on the day we’d cremated Lisa. The baby had no father; he’d been run down by military vehicles during the last protest.

I’d taken my only remaining child to the sanatorium immediately. I’d sold the new apartment to pay for it, and had lived in a small hostel at the edge of town. But Carolina had started showing signs of lung degeneration. The doctors and nurses had still managed to bring her to term, but thought it best she was not alert during the delivery, to stop her exhausting herself. I’d held her hand, just before they raced her off into the theatre this morning. “Daddy,” she’d pleaded. “If I don’t make it, take the baby away from the city, please!”

“You’ll make it, honey. You’re a fighter,” I’d answered.

Apparently, I’d been right. Our Carolina had not died. She’d pulled through, but she’d be on a respirator for the rest of her life, and I was expected to go and tell her that breathing while pregnant had ruined her child; that breathing was not something modern humans were supposed to do anymore.

I felt so desperately alone when I left that doctor standing, aware that a sink hole had formed at the exact spot where my heart had always been; a cold and empty void. To my own amazement, this thought didn’t frighten me. It only filled me with a calm coldness. Life was a right of nature, so those who did this to my family must die: the politicians, the corporates, the soldiers. I’d get them back for this!

#

A week later – a week of anger mixed with cold calculations and elaborate revenge plans, all of which I tried to hide from Carolina – they told me that the sanatorium could no longer accommodate my daughter and her malformed child. There were other pregnant women with still potentially healthy babies and they had to be given priority. I had no choice than to agree they move my daughter to a hospice, knowing she’d be waiting to die there, while they didn’t have the means to care for the baby. The doctor cautiously suggested it might be more merciful if I brought it to a ‘medical helper’.

I don’t know when exactly this profession had come into existence, but the term implied a similar backstreet solution for problem babies as once upon a time had existed for perfectly healthy foetuses that came in socially inconvenient circumstances. I’d known that time. I’d been for the legalization of abortion… when we were still looking at ‘you can always have a child later’. But today was later and I couldn’t help resenting the people who could have, but didn’t want it. I wanted revenge. I didn’t want Carolina to make space for healthy babies. I wanted to kill them. Why should they get to live?

Carolina’s daughter didn’t have a name yet when I came to collect her the next day. It would never grow up beyond a few years anyway. It would never talk, probably never walk and it would not be able to eat. A little tube in its nose and a syringe with some instructions was all the nurses could provide for me. I wrapped her in one of their blankets, went to say goodbye to Carolina and left the lushness of the sanatorium to go into the constant drizzle that enveloped the city.

I’d promised my daughter I would take her baby to a safe place, but there was no such thing. My landlord had his rules: no pets, no children, no exceptions, even if she’d not be able to cry. Travelling to other countries wasn’t allowed; they all had their own problems. Some people took to the sea, but ships were regularly wrecked in violent storms. The farm of Lisa’s parents was still there, but without sanitation for water.

“Nowhere to go, sweet pea,” I told the baby.

Holding her close to my chest, I walked the miserable streets, devoid of colour, devoid of talk, frowning at the passers-by who were hiding from reality in their smartphones.

In front of me, a woman with a ratty-looking dog, stopped to let it pee against a poplar tree, which was no higher than the woman, mostly bare and leaning dangerously.

“I hope that poor tree has somebody to comfort it, Sweetpea,” I whispered into the green blanket, the colour of which seemed to make a mockery of the grey city. The woman looked at it with empty eyes: a mirror of the void inside me.

But I also despised these empty vessels for giving up; the void inside me was filled with hatred, and that kept me going each day. I didn’t feel as helpless when thinking of ways to blow up corporate offices or how to murder all those miserable politicians who had ignored the signs and reports of the first two decades of this century, because they were in it for the money.

“Well, guess what, morons, money can’t buy clean air!”

That wasn’t quite true; the rich lived in houses with filter systems so advanced the space station couldn’t equal them. But space, too, was a lost hope. So many had signed up to go to Mars – where the air was worse – that the governments had stopped all registration, after which mobs of angry people had attacked the facilities and destroyed every chance of anybody leaving this planet in the next five years. The soldiers had come and killed them, as soldiers do, but at least the exploiters wouldn’t get to leave the Earth either.

“What will we do” I asked the silent baby. She didn’t know any better. Would never know what it was like to sing, make a tiara out of daisies, swim in a pool, feed the ducks or kiss her mama goodnight – all that was gone.

I entered the hostel to get my clothes, my ID and  photo album. I put it all in a backpack, changed the baby’s diaper, which I left on the bed for the landlord, and went back out.

“I may know of a place, Sweetpea,” I told her. “I know where one the promoters hides out.”

I’d not seen Alan since I’d cursed him and almost literally kicked him out, right after Mitchell had died and he’d apparently believed he was cheering me up by revealing that he was a promoter. Before that we’d shared all our ideals.

#

Most promoters kept to themselves, because it was dangerous business promoting the end of the world. They were not merely predicting it; no, they believed it better for the planet to get rid of all people now, so that the remaining plants and animals would have a chance.

Alan still lived in his little bungalow, because he’d buried his daughters in its garden and wouldn’t desert it. He let me in without a word, without asking about Sweetpea. Just silently, as if he’d always known I’d turn up. There wasn’t much garden left above Alan’s children, but he showed it me anyway.

I told him what had happened to Lisa and Carolina; told him I had nowhere to go, no future and no hope. He understood, as did Maria, his wife, who came home a little later.

Though skinnier than I remembered them, and pale like everybody else, Alan and Maria didn’t look like empty vessels; there was still life in their eyes. They offered me and Sweetpea the spare room in their house and invited me to the promoters’ meeting the next evening. The baby came too.

I was interrogated on the way in, but Alan and Maria vouched for me, and if not them, then Sweetpea did, simply by the way she looked.

At least fifty people were gathered; men and women, all alive with anticipation and the knowledge that they were making a difference; not the difference we’d all wanted only a few decades ago, but still. These people – there was a vast network of them all over the planet – had been developing secret weapons and devices. Another month and they’d release their “big bangs”, the name given to the two hydrogen bombs that would create sinkholes the size of Europe in two locations: Yellowstone National Park and Lake Taupo in New Zealand. They would simply help the Earth by setting off these super volcanoes deliberately. Within a year, the only survivors would be that life that was independent of vegetation. Smaller bombs were also already in place, in Japan and Indonesia, just to make sure. Large amounts of Belladonna and Strychnine were being harvested, so that the promoters didn’t have to await the starvation and darkness that would follow.

It was a brilliant plan – well, not for the animals and plants they’d intended to save, of course, but I didn’t speak that sentiment out loud. Instead, I volunteered for some of the organizational work, feeling a little guilty for joining in this late, and because I started to share their sense of purpose: We’d leave it up to Gaia to start again. Humanity had been a mistake; it was for the best.

But not everybody was here only to promote the end of the world. There were some – Alan whispered to me – who had additional plans. They weren’t satisfied with just killing humanity; they wanted to punish the responsible parties: the politicians and polluters, who’d refused to listen to the people; to make them suffer before simply perishing with the rest, because it was not fair if they went believing they were innocent. I saw Maria talking to some of them. No doubt, her heart was just as cold and bitter as mine.

When we came home, Alan opened a bottle of wine of a 2019 vintage, from just before the death summers. It must have cost him a fortune. We drank to the elimination of humanity.

“Oh Sweetpea,” I whispered when struggling with the syringe to feed my little granddaughter before crawling into bed with her later. “You have to know, even if you’re too little to understand, that I was never like this. I don’t like killing people.”

She just looked at me and then fell asleep when I stroked her cheek. What wouldn’t I give to hear her cry? “I’ll make them pay for this. I promise,” I whispered.

That night I woke up from a dream in which Maria had asked me to take part in the torture and I’d enjoyed it.

#

I stayed with Alan and Maria. After every feed, I hoped Sweetpea would go to sleep and not wake up again, so she’d not have to endure the coming horrors, but she grew stronger that month. Like her mother, she was a fighter. I both felt sorry for her and content knowing the end was near. I didn’t listen to any news from outside anymore. I didn’t go back to see Carolina, but whispered my regrets about that to her baby at night.

The day before the big bangs, Maria, being in a festive mood, announced that she was going out “to buy bags full of sweets for our last day on Earth.”  She stopped to stroke Sweetpea’s head while leaning over the back of my chair. “She’s an angel.”

Alan stood up. “Are you sure?” he asked his wife.

She looked at him defiantly. “Absolutely!”

Alan took her into his arms and kissed her, as he so often did. His back to me and Maria hidden from immediate view, I never realized that this was a very long embrace, never thought twice about the jerky movements Maria made, never even wondered why she suddenly slid to the floor – not until I noticed the rope in Alan’s hand and the line on Maria’s throat.

He’d strangled her? I knew I sat there with a pounding heart and my jaw hanging open.

“She was going to kidnap and torture the ministers who were responsible for the environment at our darkest hours,” he said, putting the rope on the table and picking up the lifeless body of his wife to put gently onto the couch. “I couldn’t let her do that, not even for the girls.”

Aware I was not moving or responding, I watched Alan walk to the liquor cabinet, open a bottle of rum and pour us both a large glass. He was calm, not worried about my response, not worried about consequences.

“What does it mean anymore, ‘right or wrong’?” he asked. “I’m saving her the pain of the last days, is all.”

I automatically took the glass he handed me, and then wondered how he could just sit down like that, beside her, with absolute composure. “But… why take away those last days from her?”

“I told you; she didn’t want to give up on the idea of torture.”

“But all she was trying to do is set things right.” I hesitated, wondering if he would attempt to kill me too if I took Maria’s side. “She just wanted to avenge her babies; don’t you?”

“I’ve been there, Richard. I do understand, but revenge on who? Who are you going to blame for centuries of pollution? Your parents? Your grandparents? Or do you think it’s a problem of the last decades?”

“No, of course not, but they could have stopped it.”

“They? Who?”

“They, the rich, the politicians; if they’d only listened to the protesters!”

“The protesters, Richard, were splinter groups. They each had their own agenda. We joined some of them, remember? And then we left them again, because we didn’t like some of their other ideas. Plenty of politicians wanted to clean up the world, because they had children too, but they couldn’t, because they work in a system that is so full of red tape that nothing ever gets decided.”

“Then they didn’t do their job.”

“They did do their job; the exact  job they were elected for: to appease the masses. You’re right, technology and greed brought us pollution, but democracy ensured that we didn’t do anything about it in time.”

Alan was too calm, sipping his drink, while I, despite having gulped mine down, was getting more and more agitated. “Then they should’ve left the job to people who KNEW how to take charge!”

My outburst unsettled Sweetpea. I automatically stroked her head, until I realized that was what Alan was doing to Maria.

“Yes, but when we were young, were there not already people calling for autocracy by natural born leaders, so as to save the Earth?” Alan asked. “Did we not still go and vote, you and I, believing we had freedom and a voice? Did you not teach your kids that?”

“But we know better now.”

We know now, they knew it then, but did we listen? If we had, we could have maybe prevented it. If everybody had listened, but you and I took a decade longer to see it, and many still have faith in the old stories. Politicians, by their very definition, follow the lead of the masses, because that is what they are elected for; to follow, not to lead. Or would you have voted for somebody who said what you were not ready to hear?”

“You’re defending them!”

“No, I’m trying to explain to you how the groupmind works. I was a psychologist, remember? We’re all on this merry-go-round together, Richard; those you accuse as well. They’re not deliberately deceiving us, no matter how much easier it is to believe that.”

“Then they’re stupid! If I can understand the facts, then so should they.”

Alan smiled, stood up to refill our glasses and then left the bottle on the table between us. “Should they?” he asked. “When I became a promoter, you knew as much as I did, but you didn’t join. You believed I was wrong. Unless you’re the only person entitled to believe something different than others, you have to accept that people are not clones. New ideas spread slowly. By the time we realize something new is dangerous, the infrastructure has changed and we can’t undo it. Did you not have a smart phone?”

“I DIDN’T have a choice!” I took a big swig. “I never wanted a smartphone, but they took the public phones away and wouldn’t give me a job without one.”

“Exactly. Nobody has a choice, Richard. Nobody set out to destroy the Earth. If it were that simple, we could have stopped them. You say ‘them’ when you talk destruction and ‘we’ when you play the victim. You do that without thinking, and so does every other person. And that’s why people blame others; that’s what Maria was about to act on and what you did to me after Mitch died.”

Somehow, I’d always known that was coming, “I’m sorry about that,” I told Alan. “I was angry that day.”

“Yes, you were. You lashed out, because you were hurting. But on that one angry day, how many other people did you hurt? And what do you think they did with their hurt? Or are you the only person who’s entitled to get angry?”

I started to feel defeated by his calm and his always having an answer, so I drained my glass and immediately refilled it. “You must have rehearsed your lecture to Maria,” I scorned.

“We’re all in this together, is what I’m saying,” Alan replied. “We, as a people, live in illusions, not just politicians; we all preached free will, free markets and democracy, even in the face of disaster. We all accepted that we had a voice, when all we had was a vote. Even you, Richard, you’re still promoting your personal rights; you call yourself free, even if you can’t breathe.”

“That isn’t FAIR!” He was playing with Maria’s hand, stroking it, and it made me irritable.

“For the last time, Richard. Survival is not about fair. Is it fair that we know what will happen tomorrow and have the means to avoid panic and starvation for ourselves? Is that fair? We’ve done all we can. It didn’t work, because we bought the fairy tales of freedom and equality.”

“But we can’t just give up. Humanity has survived natural disasters before.”

“Yes, but those people were a lot smarter than we are. The Egyptian pyramids hail from an era – long before the Egyptians – when people understood the groupmind. They sent us a message in stone, which we failed to understand. Maybe the next wave of people will.”

“So, you think there will be survivors?”

“Who knows? Life is resilient.” He pulled the bottle away from me when I reached for it, still without any agitation. “We have a chance, Richard, you and I. We’re in a position to help the future. Maria was not the only one making plans beyond the big bangs.”

“What do you mean?”

“Before you spend your last day on Earth blaming everybody else, try to understand what information is and that people are just bits of that. If there’s only the slightest chance that, someday, an intelligent species will rise again, should we not warn them, so they might succeed where we failed?” Alan’s eyes reflected that same purpose I’d seen before.

“Are you planning to survive somehow?”

“Me?” He smiled and stroked Maria’s hair. “No. It’s too late for that, but we can do something; we can send a message into the future, like the Egyptians did. Instead of revenge, let’s think what message we can send those who will inherit the Earth. What would you tell Sweetpea if she had a chance?”

I had no idea. “What if they don’t get it in time?”

“Then some of them, like some of us, will send a better message the next time around, and so on until, one day, it won’t be too late.”

“What kind of message?” I was beginning to feel resigned to his calm, to his deliberation and I slowly began to see he may be right; everybody was in the same boat and we’d rocked that boat as a group. “But how, in Gaia’s name, do we write to the future? We have no stone structures.”

#

We never went to sleep that night. Alan eventually carried Maria to the bedroom, put the air conditioner on cold and opened another bottle, while I fed Sweetpea with the syringe and changed her diaper. After that, we planned our message, but we needed two bottles of rum to get ready for it.

Only a month ago, if you’d asked if I could kill a person without remorse, I’d have said, “No, of course not! I’m no monster.” But now, on the eve of the big bangs, I’m deliberately and calmly killing my own grandchild with a pillow to make sure it will be over for her and she won’t suffer. But more importantly, so that she can become a message; the only message that might get through.

Aware that I’m as calm as Alan was when he strangled Maria – out of love – I wait till she stops breathing, then pick up Sweetpea’s tiny body, give her a cuddle and carry her to the kitchen, where Alan is already carving his message into Maria’s bones.

I try not to look. Luckily, my baby’s scalp only has a thin layer of skin and is just big enough for a small story; the story of a people who believe themselves bigger than nature, of a woman who can’t breathe. Trying only to think of the message, I carve tears with my knife; tears to explain to those who’ll find it, that this was not some callous act; that I weep for my child and through her for all people. Weeping real tears, I am driven by the purpose that we – that is a large number of promoters in all corners of the globe – are embedding a message for future paleo-archaeologists, so they might put one and one together. For that is the nature of information; it can travel through time.

When we’re ready, Alan and I go outside and silently dig a grave near Alan’s children, but much, much deeper. It takes us till early morning. Then we bury them together. Exhausted, I take a last shower, make a nice cup of coffee and add some strychnine. My message has been sent.

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