Says one judge: “This story strikes me as freshly original. I loved the Plastivores — and Inky! Nuri’s green balloon was also a great touch.” The story is sad, but not dystopic.
Nuri was watching the birthday cascade when a particular cake caught her eye. She pulled it out of the falling pictograms and let it expand. A double-helix corkscrewed overtop of the cake, meaning she was genetically linked to whoever it was, but the options to congratulate them or to send them balloons were grayed out.
She had been watching the cascade nearly every day this summer, ever since she turned eight — her favorite number — and the idea of birthdays started to fascinate her. But she had never seen gray before.
“Inky?” she called. “How come I can’t send balloons to my…” She traced the glowing gene links with her finger. “Great-great-grandpa?”
Her cat appeared behind her, pushing his bony back against her legs. “Because your great-great-grandpa is Outside, Nuri,” he said. “Obviously.”
Nuri frowned. By all appearances, she was outside. The rolling hills around the birthday cascade were covered in lush green grass and the sky overhead was soft blue with puffy white clouds. But from the way Inky said it, she suspected he meant the other kind of outside.
She flopped back on the grass and looked up at the sky. She used one finger to absently drag the clouds into the shape of a smiley face. “I’ve never been Outside,” she said.
Inky pushed against her arm, smearing the smiley face in the sky so its mouth stretched sideways. “No,” he said. “It’s generally not permitted to children.”
“I’m eight now,” Nuri said. She thought up a logical argument. “And if it was my birthday, I’d want someone to bring me balloons. Or at least say happy birthday.”
Inky’s tail flicked one way, then the other. “Your parents will be furious with me,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
# # # # #
To get to a port, they had to go back through Nuri’s neighborhood. She unfurled a hopscotch trail in front of herself and skipped past a kaleidoscope of conflicting architecture: a cobblestone alley lined with tiny, brightly-painted Lisbon flats, a towering glass-and-metal Chicago high-rise, a sprawling farmhouse with humpbacked cows wandering through.
She saw her parents out on the sun-splashed porch of their bungalow; they waved and she felt only slightly guilty as she waved back.
“I need a pass to go Outside, right?” Nuri asked.
“You leave that to me,” Inky said.
They passed the communal park, a jungle of firs and palms and creeping vines, and made for the shoreline. Some of her neighbors were out on the beach: kids kicking their way through the surf, adults stretched out on hovering hammocks.
Nuri vanished her shoes so she could feel the warm sand under her toes. It was soft as sifted flour and made a smile sneak onto her face. For a moment she wanted to spend the day on the beach and forget about her great-great-grandpa’s birthday.
But birthdays were important, and it didn’t seem fair for him to not have one just because he was Outside. So she followed Inky along the beach, away from her neighbors, to where the waves came in high as walls before they crashed and scurried back in a mass of white foam. Her mom said that if you watched the sea long enough you would eventually see the same wave twice, but by the time you did you’d have forgotten what it looked like.
Inky, who was staying well back from the water, pointed with one paw. “There’s our port, Nuri. Let’s hurry it up before somebody sees us.”
Nuri followed the paw. Farther down the beach a simple gray door was floating in the air, surrounded by yellow caution symbols. She’d been expecting something bigger and more colorful, like the birthday cascade, but she did her best to hide her disappointment as they approached.
Inky went first, slinking between the caution symbols and up to the door. He put both paws against it. His vantablack fur rippled and for a moment his body was distorted, a dark pixelated cloud, then the door swung open. Nuri wriggled under the last caution sign and stood up to join him, wiping sand off her palms.
“They really don’t secure these things how they used to,” Inky said. “Come on, Nuri. Off to great-great-grandpa’s birthday celebration we go.”
She looked through the door and saw blank white space. It was unnerving for some reason, even though she was used to doors not leading where they spatially should. Maybe because she knew this door was usually off-limits.
“Inky, can I hold you while we go through?” she asked.
Inky heaved a sigh. “You know I hate that.”
“I know,” Nuri said, but when she scooped him up into her arms he didn’t complain. Cradling him like a particularly bony, furry baby, she took a deep breath and climbed through the door.
# # # # #
She felt a fizzle and a pop, and suddenly she was blind. “Inky?” she called. “Inky, I can’t see!”
There was no answer. Nuri felt a twinge of panic. She couldn’t see, and she couldn’t move. It felt like she was trapped in a dark box. If this was Outside, she didn’t like it. Not one bit. She tried to feel the limits of her body. She didn’t have arms or legs anymore, but she had something. She nudged, then nudged harder.
An explosion of color. Nuri reeled as a torrent of code overwhelmed her, battering her. Then she felt herself adjusting to the new input, and she could see again: she was drifting up in the sky, how she did during flying tag, but it wasn’t the sky she knew. It was vast and gray and roiling with stormclouds. Normally her neighborhood only got rain a few weeks every year, and it was a warm drizzle she liked to splash around in. This was different. Fiercer, darker, windier.
“So long as we aren’t struck by lightning, we should be fine,” Inky’s voice announced.
“Inky, where were you?” Nuri demanded, petulant to hide her relief.
“Calibrating things,” he said. “We’re in a drone. You’re looking through its eyes. Or camera, rather. Try looking down.”
She tried, and instead sent a puff of dark green mist into the air in front of her.
“When they’re not being used for tours, they spray carbon moss,” Inky explained. “Try again.”
She tried again, and immediately found herself plunging toward the ground. Inky yowled, Nuri shrieked, and some kind of override kicked in; she could feel the rotors in her drone spin to haul her back out of the dive.
“Oops,” she said.
“Oops,” Inky echoed. “That could have been your epitaph.”
She didn’t bother checking to see what the word meant. She climbed again, and this time, with just the tiniest intention, managed to turn the camera downward without diving. There was a forest below them, bigger than the community park but all the same kind of dark bushy tree, and a burbling river slaloming through it.
And on the bank of the river, raised on a sturdy platform linked to power cones bobbing in the water, there was a squat cube covered in solar panels. A few spherical machines with rotors were racked on top of it, and she realized they were probably the same thing she was currently inhabiting.
“That’s our home,” Inky said.
“No, it’s not,” Nuri argued reflexively. The black box below them was far too small to hold her house and her beach and her friends and her family. Compared to this huge forest and stormy sky, it was tiny.
“It is,” Inky said. “It holds our neighborhood and about 2.2 million similarly-sized communities.”
“That’s a lot,” Nuri said, still inspecting the box that contained her entire world. “But they used to be Outside? Everyone used to be Outside?”
“Mostly everyone,” Inky said. “Head down the coast. I’ll explain as we go.”
# # # # #
Nuri followed the coastline, swerving over a tumultuous gray ocean. The surf had no sand, only algae-slimed rock, but there was something beautiful about it all the same.
Everything felt new and wild and unpredictable. She was delighted when she saw whales spouting far out in the sea, like far larger versions of the dolphins that came and played at her neighborhood’s beach. She also saw a sort of animal she didn’t recognize, slick and shiny and trailing sieve-like membranes.
“Plastivores,” Inky said. “They’ve been able to make some real progress over the last century. The Pacific garbage gyre is almost gone.”
“They’re cute,” Nuri decided. She swiveled the camera again — she was getting the hang of it — and saw the mainland, stretching on forever. “I thought people had to go Inside because there wasn’t space,” she said. “But there’s lots of it. Lots and lots.”
“It wasn’t so much the space as the consumption,” Inky said. “Sustainability efforts were too little, too late in your great-great-grandpa’s generation. Then neuroprint technology made a big jump. And people got the idea for their own Big Jump.” He paused. “Look down and right. That used to be an upload camp.”
She saw a cluster of prefabbed buildings around a central processor, with mass graves behind it where thousands of old Outside bodies had been left to decompose. She had learned about the Big Jump in school, and from her parents, but seeing the evidence of it out here, Outside, made her feel strange. She couldn’t tell if she was proud of her parents and grandparents for uploading, or if she was sad they hadn’t stayed in this wild big world.
“The first camps were in Singapore,” Inky said. “Then China. The Scandinavian countries went next. After that, Ghana and Nigeria. Once the Pope condoned it, South America started uploading too. The body disposal was what really deterred people. It took a concentrated campaign to convince them they weren’t being sent to a slaughterhouse.”
“A what house?” Nuri asked.
“A bad house,” Inky said. “Famines and hurricanes persuaded the most reluctant ones. Look, there’s the city where your great-great-grandpa lived.”
She’d been expecting to see something like her own neighborhood, but instead she saw mostly water. The tops of a few buildings were sticking up here and there, corroded husks of skyscrapers, and under the surface she could see the vague shapes and shadows of the city’s flooded-over infrastructure.
Nuri glided low across the water, skimming a bright green algae mat. The sunken buildings were enormous and their windows looked like empty eyes. Nobody lived here anymore. It was the most silent place she’d ever been.
“So where is he?” she asked. “If this is where he used to live. Where’s he live now?”
“He’s still here,” Inky said. “The cemetery is north of us.”
Nuri brought the drone to a halt, hovering it in place. “How can we talk to him if he’s underwater?”
“Nuri, you can’t talk to him anyways. He’s dead. You learned about dead, remember?”
“Yeah, but…” Nuri trailed off. “What’s it mean, exactly?”
“It means he is gone and will never come back,” Inky said. “We can’t talk to him. We can only look at where his body is.”
“But he’ll come back?”
“No, Nuri. The people who die Outside never come back.”
Nuri couldn’t bring herself to move the drone forward. If she’d been Inside, in her usual body, she knew she would be starting to cry. Her throat would be all thick and muddy and her face would be hot. Her great-great-grandpa was dead, on his birthday, no less, and that meant he was gone. Not like when she vanished her shoes and brought them back. He was gone forever, and so was everyone else who had died in this horrible Outside place.
“Nuri, I’m sorry,” Inky said. “I’m programmed to foster independence, but I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have brought you here. Or taught you the concept of mortality.”
“No,” Nuri protested. “It’s good. It’s good. I wanted to see.” She paused. “Why didn’t he come Inside? Then he could be alive still.”
“Uploading was still theoretical when he died,” Inky said. “He only lived from 1992 to 2081.”
“And now we can’t tell him happy birthday. Or talk to him about other stuff.”
“You can’t talk to him directly,” Inky said. “But he did leave behind an embarrassment of information.”
“What kind?” Nuri asked, grasping for a silver lining.
“Mostly pessimistic stories about the future,” Inky said. “It seems to have been a profession. The quality varies and some are rather self-indulgent, but I can sift out a few for you to read if you like.”
Nuri drifted slowly forward. “He thought the future would be bad?”
“From the content of his work, yes, generally. He thought that humans had done too much damage to the world to ever repair it. He thought that even if the population were curbed, even if humanity managed to step aside somehow to let nature stabilize, it wouldn’t matter in the end, because human nature is given to excess.” Inky paused.
“They’re greedy, Nuri. They can’t help it. Their brains aren’t designed to think ahead.”
“Why are you saying they?” Nuri demanded. “I’m a human.”
“And I’m a cat,” Inky scoffed. “You’re first generation virtual, Nuri. Not a normal human eight-year-old. You didn’t come from a neuroprint. Your genes are simulated and modified. Your parents made sure you’re going to be smarter than they ever were. And not just that — you’re going to think ahead.”
“Why’s it matter if I can think ahead?” Nuri moved the drone’s camera, taking in the floodscape. “The bad stuff already happened, didn’t it? That’s why everyone had to go Inside.”
“Eighty-eight percent of the world’s population is uploaded,” Inky said. “That means they’re not consuming. And while they’re not consuming, work is being done. Autolabor is building carbon sinks in the Arctic and coating the Atlantic ocean in foil-foam. Trees are being planted. Plastic is being broken down. Eventually, things are going to stabilize. And when they stabilize, we’re going to need a new kind of human to lead the way, Nuri. That’s you.”
“You mean I’m going to live Outside?”
“Maybe you, maybe the next generation,” Inky said. “The Inside is a wonderful home, but there’s an entire universe Outside. If we can find a balance here, maybe we can go on to even greater things. It starts with changing humans.”
Nuri thought about her rolling hills and beautiful beach and busy neighborhood, all contained in a little black box. Then she thought about this massive wild world all around her. Then she thought about the world outside this world, the solar system and the galaxy and the universe, things she had learned about but never seen. It was overwhelming.
“We should go back now,” Inky said. “The solar battery only lasts so long.”
“Okay,” Nuri said. “Just a minute.”
She nosed the drone up to the half-submerged building, the one nearest to her great-great-grandpa’s cemetery, and squeezed. The dark green mist shot out again, clinging to the glass. She started to trace a circle. If she’d been Inside, it would have been as easy as snapping her fingers. Outside, it was hard. Clumsy. Messy. But maybe that was okay.
When she pulled back, a single green birthday balloon was drifting on the glass, its string trailing sideways.
“You’re no Banksy,” Inky said. “But it’s not bad.”
“Did he always think the future would be bad?” Nuri asked.
“Analyzing his works, I’d say 92% of the time.”
Nuri did the math. “That leaves eight. Eight’s my favorite number.”
“So it is,” Inky said. “Interesting.”
She turned away from the sunken city and they started back up the coast.