The Light Inside. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Share This

Burden’s Travels

Burden’s Travels

Chapter One

November 21, 2042, Near Knoxville, TN


The minute I saw it, I knew who sent the package. I believe I even glimpsed the worlds it could mean to me.

It was a big box covered in thick green tape, sitting on the lower bunk I’d been given about forty months before, on account of my age. When I picked it up, Mike, two rows over, yelled, “It’s 89 degrees today! Bird? Remember?” An eighty-nine degree day in November in the mountains of Tennessee. I was old enough to know this was not always a big deal. So was Mike. “Bird?” He called me a second time.

I was too curious about the package to answer. My name and address had been carved into the tape. Ink is hard to get—here—one of the thousand shortages. I thought it would be different where she worked, in the North American Research Park, Chicago. She had a corner office with big windows; she’d been promoted several times, contacts had told me. For a native born, she’d done well in the New Reality, as they liked to call it. In my experience people of her rank could get anything they wanted. They flew, even. Ink? How was that a problem?

Serena was always a very precise sort of girl. My whole address was painstakingly etched into green tape, exposing the dark brown paper beneath. Why she was so neat when her mother was a hoarder, a charming, beautiful slob, I never understood when she was growing up. Later, looking back, it was obvious. She rejected her mother even before she rejected me. By the time she was four she was organizing her underwear drawers, neat as a pin. That was not the only big, obvious thing I had gotten wrong in my life. You didn’t end up in a labor camp in bumb-fuck Tennessee working twelve-hour shifts at sixty-four if you always knew how to figure out what was coming.

Specialist 231BMR 11 (Jeremiah E. Burden) McKibben Residence Hall Section Three, Carbon Capture Towers Comm Center, Knoxville District, TN 2397762.

I tore off the tape, preserving the carving. The box was stuffed with dry deer moss (a weird, rustic touch). Inside, was an ancient Styrofoam clam. How it survived with plastic banned all these years, I had no idea. It had probably been formed to protect some tiny technical object back in the days of Amazon Prime. Holding it in my hand, remembering deliveries I got in those profligate, lavish days—the popcorn, the raffia, the bubble wrap—I shivered a bit from nostalgia. This was all done so carefully. Everything about it told me she wanted to make sure no one else broke in or tampered with it. It was for me, only. For her dad, whom she hadn’t contacted in over ten years.

Mike came over. I threw a comforter over the whole business. “Hey, Bird? Remember those Eighties Parties?”

I had known this guy since we both started working at AXXON in 2007, in New Orleans, after Katrina. He had deteriorated in the Towers—somehow on the rations we were given, he had a bad spare tire. I suspected the rotten moonshine the guards peddled. He was short of breath when we went on site and climbed the open frame staircases between the units. He often lost his train of thought when we explained to Supervisor Lee why a tower was offline or had not extracted the expected tonnage. Mike knew the engineering, but like me, he was closing in on 65. There would be a day when folks our age wouldn’t be able to work, no matter the speed they gave us—Chinese manufacture, poor quality control, in my humble opinion—or the incentives they tried—Chinese whiskey (don’t ask), hour-lunch breaks for productive workers. There was the lottery we could enter. Retirement in Vancouver Island. Where it is seventy degrees IN THE DAYTIME! The poster promised. The few who won were invariably the oldest guys, and they never got back to any of their buddies. No postcards from that paradise. Rumor was, “Vancouver Island” was a pretty painless exit. So far, I had refused to enter.

“Bird, remember?” Mike asked me again.

“Sure,” I said. Anxious he would ask about the lump under the comforter.

“Cosima organized them, yeah? Remember that dress she used to wear?”

Cosima, oh honey, to hear her name—when I was considering the possibility that my daughter Serena might actually give a damn about me. It brought back so much.

Cosima’s eighties dress was some kind of vintage something, ridiculous—padded shoulders, big teardrop hole to show off the crease between her boobs, studded with blue sequins. At the Eighties Parties, Queen was blaring. Music from when I was five years old.

It was like this: We got a text from her. Hurrah, the temperature outside had dropped below ninety. We were going to party after work. We took off our AXXON ENERGY jackets the second we left the frigid air-conditioned building in downtown New Orleans, pocketing our IDs. We’d be mugged if we wore them in public. Some of us stopped at home for crazy outfits, but most went directly down to a two-story bar in the Marigny. We danced in the upstairs lounge, ate greasy tapas, and got totally shit-faced.

One night, my third Eighties Party that fall, I went out on the balcony by myself after too many tequilas. I started to sort of pray. Asked the air to give us a break. Something, anything, to prove everybody wrong. I wanted to see 60’s in the winter, a light misty sweet rain now and then instead of the deluges we’d got used to. I wanted a day when there were no wildfires on the news, not in New Zealand, not in Greece, not in Portugal, Southern France, Italy, New Mexico, Georgia, the Amazon. I wanted a day when there was no story in the news about why people in the Indian subcontinent could not raise a crop anymore, why Bangladesh had drowned, why the Colorado River had no water. I waited a while. I got no sign.

I came in from the balcony and saw Cosima dancing with some girl. I faced the fact that I wanted Cosima badly. I wandered over to the corner table, with the round top. I listened to my colleagues vie for First Place in the Annals of Total Denial. AXXON would save the world. Even if we had done things in the past that weren’t kosher, now we were the only ones around who could reverse engineer the carbon problem. No way the Greens were going to save us. Too muddle-headed, too angry. Our scientists were coming up with huge projects to save us—we’d pump gajillion tons of ash into the air, like volcanoes do, to give us a decade of snowy summers. Introduce carbon harvesting on a massive scale, Suck it right out of the clouds! I’ve seen the plans! Doable! But we knew. Many things capitalism had done before, were massively, heedlessly, destructive—slave dealing, colonialism, the English forcing China to become addicted to opium so they could make a buck, pushing Oxycontin, designing Zyklon B. But what we were doing in the Gulf, and everywhere else—drilling endlessly, lying, stopping all carbon curbing legislation—was worse than making nuclear bombs, or any poison. There was no making it up to the planet. These guys were BS. I looked over and saw Cosima alone at the bar. There was a phrase she’d once used with me—a term for avoiding the news, the weather, the insane politics, the outward truths. You go inward, you focus on your private life. Internal immigration she called it. I went over and asked her how that worked, could she show me?

I imagined a lot of futures in 2028, when I started sleeping with Cosima. What actually happened, never once crossed my mind. The very idea, that one day a Coalition would just roll in, claiming sovereignty because of the global emergency. That many of our generals would go along? A bloodless coup—at least the media said so, though I knew they kept the insurrections out of the news. It was preposterous while it was happening. Months later, when I did find her and learned of her position, I asked Serena if scientists she knew had an early warning. She said, What did you think? The whole world was going to sit by while the extraction criminals you work for, and this illegitimate government, destroyed the planet? I asked her if she knew any collaborators personally. I am one! I tried to tell you to quit three years ago. I said you had to!

I am not sure how many fifty-year-old men with good paychecks and a pension coming, or sick wives who needed the health insurance, would take career advice from their twenty-something daughters who hated them. I sure didn’t. That was the last time she said anything to me I could interpret as representing concern. It was before Hurricane Adelaide, even. Much of the Caribbean and the Florida Panhandle were already on fire at the time. Out west, people couldn’t go outside at all, for the smoke. The great LA fire had already happened. We had closed our southern border, Canada wouldn’t talk to us. We were completely isolated. Still, that late, I never imagined we would lose our country. I never imagined Serena would know it could happen and keep it from me. But I might have read the signs.

“Just a little walk outside,” Mike said to me, in the barracks, twirling his index finger the way people used to, to indicate a good time. “Just—” He turned toward the big metal doors. It was our “recreation hour,” which meant we could walk a grim trail of boards, along a polluted creek and through some desiccated hardwoods forest while the snipers in the towers looked down. It could be bearable some evenings, if the sun were setting and it was under ninety-five degrees. He reminded me of the temperature again and said it would probably go below after sundown. I said, “I’ll meet you. Start without me.”

I had to unwrap the thing. I started as soon as he turned to leave.

Inside the clam, swaddled in a thin clean gauze, was a syringe. It was filled with a dark yellow liquid. A nice needle. The kind that I could get a big premium for on the black market down in the Bowels, at Baldy Mountain.

Underneath the needle, a piece of paper, written in pencil:

Burden, inject yourself. Look at the date on the vial. That’s when it expires. Do it before. Last time, you said I didn’t warn you. You called me names. Now, call me “daughter.” S

I was furious with her, once. During the darkest days of the coup. I did call her names. My bosses, people I really liked, were executed, she didn’t tell me that would happen. For a time, I thought I was going to be killed too.

Was the injection something lethal? That could be a certain kind of gift. Mercy killing. Or vengeance? But why would she want to do me in after all this time, bother to send me the means? Anyone who hated me would give me the awful life I already led.

What if it contained some benevolent gift? Some delicious drug, some hallucinogen? Truth serum? Something to make me smart, or young? The fleeting thought, that she cared for me, was enough. Call her daughter? If she were mine again, then I would pine, with her so far away, so hard to get to. It hurt. It was new, almost, to feel anything.

Through the open barrack’s door, I saw Mike’s thick form shuffle into the dry woods, a silhouette against the setting, relentless sun. I covered the package again with my blanket and turned to follow him along the poisoned creek.