Los Angeles, California, 2077.
Sierra Nitestar jolts awake, her eyes unfocused, half in and half out of a vivid, immersive dream. She immediately shuts her eyes and tries to slip back in, frantic to go back to the vision of her mother and father dancing, laughing, and teasing her under the fireball afternoon sun. Her mother’s vivid green eyes shower her with sparks of affection as her wild chestnut hair glints against the brilliant blue water and chalk-white shore. Her father hugs her and twirls her around with open-hearted abandon. He sings, and Flora joins in; they serenade Sierra with their rich a cappella voices. Then, the dream slowly starts to slip away like a glittering mirage.
“Are you still alive?” Sierra whispers.
A deep baritone voice cuts into her semi-dream state:
Ci-ty be grit-ty,
Dealing no pi-ty,
Don’t ask questions, You don’t want to know! LA!”
CrazyEight’s loud, abrasive corner rap seeps through her partially opened window. Sierra clenches her jaw. The sing-song rapping brings her back to her reality: living in a cold, damp, one-room cement pod stacked among many in the dank, teaming ghetto of the mangled and broken City of Angels. With the magnitude 10 earthquake of 2074, the city had splintered in two: one half vanished, the other clinging to the unrecognizable gash of the remaining American west coast. Sierra stares at the pod’s rough grey ceiling and mentally girds herself for her day ahead. She taps her black plastic temple weblink – a piece of government-issued information and tagging artifice that feeds the following official news bits onto the back of her retina:
“May 1st, 2077, 5:32 a.m.,
50 degrees and drizzly, Follow the rules,
Fay on the screen today.”
She double taps and gets her crypto balance: $1,731.00.
It has taken her three years to save this much, and she needs more.
“If we get separated, you know where to meet,” her mother’s urgent instructions drift into her mind–then blackness.
She looks at the child asleep next to her. Her face looks soft and contented in sleep, framed by her straight blonde hair—one hand clasping the gold dolphin necklace she never takes off. Sierra met her three years ago.
Outside Los Angeles, California, 2074.
The girl woke to loud rumbling noises and her bed shaking and moving like when she and her best friend Karen played jumping games on it. She wasn’t scared until her mom rushed into her room screaming, “earthquake.” She scooped her up and ran out of the house. The girl noticed the big yellow moon and the bright stars in the midnight blue sky as palm trees swayed and crashed to the ground. There was a loud BAM, and one fell on their house, knocking down half of it. That was when they started running. Her mom was holding on to her hand so tight it hurt. She felt like she was flying on the end of her mom’s hand, her feet barely touching the ground. Then they were in the middle of a crowd of other people running and screaming. In the crush of the stampede, she became separated from her mom. She doesn’t remember too much after that except for crying so much she couldn’t cry anymore. After a while, she found herself in a big camp with big and little kids. A big scowling girl with dark eyes, tangled greasy black hair, and many tattoos kept staring at her.
One day she said, “Give me your necklace.”
The girl put her hand on her necklace and sprinted away as fast as she could.
In another corner of the camp, Sierra considered her options. Her head injury was healed, and she wanted to leave. She didn’t like the youth refuge camp. There were few adults, and they were overwhelmed with all the kids and the limited resources. They couldn’t tell her anything about what happened to her parents or her home. All she remembered is the horrible shaking, hot mud raining down, running to the community shelter with her parents, and then excruciating pain after something hit her in the head.
Then, one day as she walked the camp’s perimeter, she witnessed a heavily tattooed teen girl rip a necklace from a little girl’s neck. Sierra automatically intervened, savagely kicking the bully in the knee and dropping her to the ground. The necklace flew through the air and landed a few feet away. The little girl scrambled for her pendant and clutched it to her neck.
The girl looked at her rescuer, taking in the older girl’s green flecked eyes set in a deeply tanned face, her brown sun-streaked hair sticking out in unruly bunches with beads and bits of dirty, colorful yarn and lace weaved into it. She liked that she didn’t have tattoos on her face and that her smile was friendly. Her mom always said, “Don’t trust anybody with tattoos on their face.” Her dad had stars and a moon tattooed on his right cheek. But that didn’t count, Jaz thought. Although she hadn’t seen him in a long time, her mom said, “He’s chasing flowers.” The girl liked flowers and hoped he would come home soon and bring some pretty ones. She put her memory of him in a safe place in her mind, just like where she had recently put her mom. The older girl’s heavy boots, muscular arms, strong hands, and leather-trimmed clothing with metal buttons were kinda scary, but she could tell she didn’t have “the spot of mean” that her mom warned her about. Her mom could see the “spot of mean” in people and had said her daughter could see it too. So she knew when she got that funny feeling in her tummy, it meant she was “seeing” “the spot of mean.”
The older girl smiled wide, showing perfect white teeth with one gold one flashing in the light. Her smile reminded her of her mom’s smile, only her mom had more gold teeth. Her mom said she had a bad diet growing up, and that’s why she had several gold teeth. So the girl hoped when she grew up, she would have gold teeth too.
“Let’s see if I can fix that broken chain,” Sierra said.
The girl stared at her with wide, guarded eyes and then slowly handed her the necklace.
Sierra examined the necklace and noted the solid gold dolphin charm with inlaid diamond eyes that made it valuable.
“My name is Sierra.” What’s yours?”
After a pause, the girl softly answered, “Jaz.”
“That’s a pretty name,” said Sierra. “I fixed the broken chain, but from now on, keep the dolphin hidden under your shirt. You want to keep it safe, right?” Jaz nodded and put the necklace back on, carefully hiding the dolphin.
Sierra was eighteen, and Jaz was four. Slipping into the role of a surrogate mother was comfortable and natural for Sierra. Jaz clung to her and followed her everywhere, her thumb rarely leaving her mouth, her other hand twirling a lock of her strawberry blonde hair. Questioning Jaz about her past was futile. Jaz would look down and refuse to say anything, so Sierra stopped asking. One night Sierra decided to tell Jaz a story, which later became Jaz’s favorite.
“My parents always said the NeoSlabs is the last free place on earth.” Sierra began. “A place where everybody looks out for each other and a place you could survive when everything goes to hell.”
“Like now?” Jaz asked.
“Yes, exactly like now,” Sierra agreed.
“There was a magical deep-blue sea. The sea was beautiful but dangerous, as it could suddenly rise and flood. The water wasn’t safe to drink; it had to be treated. That’s what my dad did. He made sure the water was safe.” Sierra paused, thinking about her dad and his tangle of electronic equipment. “The sea had colorful red and blue striped bio-engineered fish and talking silvery bottlenose dolphins. The nearby mountains had snow-capped peaks that created reflections in the water like cotton candy. You could explore white sandy beaches covered in pink scalloped seashells. Best of all was a rainbow-colored mountain to climb on. It was called Salvation Mountain. On the edge of the sea, there were mysterious mud pots that gurgled and belched stinky sulfur gas.”
She didn’t mention how a trio of large quakes in 2045 altered Southern California’s Imperial Valley. How this re-routed the Colorado River to once again fill the desiccated Salton Basin. How the NeoSlab community was subsequently created as an early warning seismology outpost and studied how humans could best adapt to inhospitable environments. How the NeoSlabbers lived in habitats that clung to the ground during earthquakes, like riders on a bucking horse. That the settlement was named after the notorious squatter colony of the 21st century – Slab City, fondly thought of as Road Warrior meets Steampunk – a fiercely independent society of dropouts, artists, and off-the-grid RV’ers who had no use for societal norms or rules and created their own nirvana. Nor did she mention how the mud pots erupted into giant geysers and sprayed the slabs with pipping hot mud and smoke as the ground shifted and cracked. The last day she saw her family.
Los Angeles, California, 2077.
Sierra and Jaz have been living in the devastated remains of Los Angeles for three years. The LA weather had mutated and was wetter than the notoriously rainy west coast city of Seattle and just as chilly. The seasons had fluctuated and smudged together into a monotonous blur of nonstop days of cold and drizzle.
“Time to wake up,” Sierra whispers and softly strokes Jaz’s hair. Jaz stirs and sleepily stretches.
“Did you dream of the dolphins?” Jaz whispers with her eyes closed, one hand clasping her necklace.
“Yes, the crafty dolphins came to the edge of the shore squealing with laughter and jumped in and out of the water showing off how good they can swim.”
Jaz laughs and says, “I wish we were there now. Dolphins are lucky; my mom said so.” It was the first time Sierra had heard Jaz talk about her family. She held her breath to see if she had anything else to say.
“My mom has a dolphin necklace, just like mine. Only hers is silver with green eyes,” she reveals.
“What else do you remember?” Sierra asks softly. “Nothing!”
Jaz jerks and abruptly sits and kicks off the covers. “I’m so tired of the cold and rain and the bricks!” she whines. “Do we have enough money yet?”
Sierra examines Jaz’s face for any hint of emotion. It was a blank mask, her eyes hard and black. Finally, she brushes a stray hair out of Jaz’s face and says, “Not quite, but close. Remember, if there is any trouble while I’m at work, go to CrazyEight. He’ll get word to me.”
“I know. He’s teaching me to rap.” “Oh yeah? Let’s hear what you got.”
Jaz gets up, a pensive expression on her face, and softly sings, her arms spread out from her body, rotating and moving like waves.
“The sea is calling, Dolphins are jumping, Living is easy,
Hopes are high,
Just escape and fly.”
The sludge factory looms megatherian and ominous in the swirling mist as Sierra steps off the tram. The stench and the noisy rumble of it hit her like a punch in her gut. She gasps and wraps another layer of her scarf around her nose and mouth. Three years and she still isn’t used to the foulness. She’s lucky to have one of the best positions available in the critical protein factory – quality control over producing the population’s primary food source – brown candy-bar-size blocks made from “you don’t want to know.” Everybody just calls them “bricks.”
Sierra hangs her coat in her locker and then steps into the cramped break room. The info screen takes up one wall and is always on. She remembers “Fay on the screen today” and hurries over to catch the message for the day. Fay appears as a thirty-something woman with straight black hair shaved into a mohawk with pink tips. She flaunts silver nose and mouth piercings that augment her facial tattoos of dark and light green tropical leaves with bright red, yellow, and orange flowers. She stares directly into the camera and spews her manic discourse.
“The quality of mercy,
A sea of madness,
Hide your sadness.”
Fay makes a fist and covers her mouth. Her knuckles display the tattooed letters “S-E-A.” She looks directly into the camera, her eyes staring as if they can see into your soul.
“Yeah!” Sierra loudly exclaims to the empty room. “Say it!”
She salutes the TV with her fist and matching tattoo. Most people think the daily information rants confuse, but Sierra knows better. They convey messages. You just have to connect the dots like solving a puzzle. She and the others with the “S-E-A” knuckle tattoos avidly follow the broadcasts and discuss what they mean. No one remembers how the tattoos got started, but everyone agrees they mean freedom to get back to your life – before everything changed. No one believes the official reports that there’s nothing left beyond LA’s current boundary – the boundary no one may cross. So they strategize how best to use the recitals to break out and make their way back to what was. Within the “S-E-A” grapevine, there’s talk of coyotes that can smuggle you out. CrazyEight says he knows one. He’s going to get back to Bakersfield, where his daughter and mother are waiting – when he’s saved enough crypto.
Regan, Sierra’s supervisor, appears in the break room. Regan is tall with dark eyes, olive skin, and a mottled scar that runs from her right eye down to her jawline. She knows all the ins and outs of the factory. After looking around the room, she approaches Sierra.
“SEA,” they both say and tap identical tattooed knuckles together. “What’s the word?” Sierra asks, raising one pierced eyebrow.
“The Brick will be out this afternoon,” Regan says in a low voice and gives Sierra a knowing look.
“Cool!” Sierra grins.
“SEA,” they both say and tap knuckles.
I’m going for it this afternoon! I’ll need to notify CrazyEight, she thinks to herself. She and Jaz could be at the NeoSlabs in a few weeks! A smile forms on her lips. My mom and dad will be waiting for me, she assures herself. If only she could get word to them.
The Brick is the factory boss. A nasty three-hundred-pound man with a vicious temper. It’s best to keep off his radar, but everybody in the factory takes chances; you had to. Regan has a knack for keeping him at bay and looks the other way for twenty-five percent of the daily take.
The steaming dark brown bars reeking of rotten fish and decay flow past Sierra’s station like a current of rectangular turds. She wields a long pole with a metal fork-like implement on the end. When a misshapen bar crosses her view, she flips it into the large red recycle bin next to the conveyer belt. She’s skilled and graceful at this macabre pole dance – so much so that she can also artfully slip bricks into hidden crevices. She can usually pilfer ten or more a day—valuable black-market contraband. Today, with The Brick out, she takes full advantage. She knows if caught, the penalty will be severe: shipped off to re-education or demotion to a vat rat. The vat rats have the worst job in the factory: cleaning out the enormous vats smeared with nauseating protein slurry after the production runs each day. She puts it out of her mind. After all, Regan has her back.
After her shift, Sierra heads to the day’s rendezvous location – a makeshift bar three station stops from the factory – and waits for Regan. Seated in the bar’s darkest corner, she orders an orange spritzer – a rare treat of plain water with a squeeze of a quarter of an orange. The drink arrives and she sucks down half of it in one giant thirsty gulp. Then, taking a deep breath, she allows herself to be cautiously happy. Today she swiped thirty-six bars. One more day and she will have enough to pay the coyote plus have some crypto to spare. Immersed in her plans, she doesn’t notice Regan’s arrival until she sits at her table with a heavy thunk. Her brow is furrowed, and her ordinarily dark olive skin is pale and tight with agitation.
“It was a setup! The Brick didn’t leave the factory this afternoon,” Regan hisses, “He called me into his office demanding to know why the production count was so low. I told him we were having supply issues, which is true but not near enough to explain the low count. He just looked at me with those cold reptile eyes. Lord! He creeps me out!” Regan grimaces. “Then, after a long pause, he dismissed me. He’s planning something, I know it, but what?”
The next day when Sierra arrives at work, the usual background chatter of the factory is eerily missing. No one greets her, and if they see her, they look away. When she gets to her workstation, The Brick is waiting for her, his whale-like frame as big as her workstation projecting power and control.
“I sent Regan to re-education,” he grunts through thick rubbery lips, eyeing her like he can read her mind. He stares at her with his dull unblinking lizard eyes for a full minute. “Don’t miss the announcement this afternoon. Oh, and by the way, I had new cameras installed.” He points a plump finger to the ceiling, where a conspicuous camera is focused on her workstation.
An icy chill runs down Sierra’s back, and she numbly starts work, the steaming bricks flowing past her in a blur. Then, at lunch, a whistle blows, preceding the factory loudspeaker’s sharp pop as it comes to life.
“Theft will not be tolerated!” blares the message. “All workers will have thirty percent taken from their crypto balances immediately! This will make up for the recent production shortages. Return to your stations.” The speaker shuts off with an ear-splitting squeal.
With heads down, the workers trudge back to their workstations in shocked silence. Sierra quickly calculates that she will need another year of scrimping and saving to even think about paying a coyote. She looks up at the camera, its blinking red light watching her.
At home, later that evening, Sierra curls into a ball on her bed.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she sobs. Jaz watches silently, then lies next to her and puts her arms around her, pressing her face into her back. Sierra just lies there in silence for a while.
“The factory is taking thirty percent from everyone’s crypto balance,” she says at last. “ And now there’s a camera watching my every move. That means I won’t be able to take any more bricks.” Sierra pauses. “If we’re lucky, we can scrimp and save enough in a year or so.” Her voice drops off. Jaz presses harder into Sierra’s back. Sierra turns over and hugs her. After a while, Sierra looks Jaz in the eyes and says, “We’ve gotten this far. We can handle one more year.”
“That’s too long to wait!” Jaz says.
Sierra’s eye catches the sparkle of the dolphin’s diamond eyes poking out from under Jaz’s shirt. She touches the necklace and then looks into Jaz’s eyes.
“I’m not selling my necklace!” Jaz says.
“OK,” Sierra says. “We’ll figure something out.”
As Sierra fixes dinner, Jaz takes the dolphin out from under her shirt and traces its body with her finger. She kisses it and then puts it back under her shirt. She thinks about her mother’s dolphin necklace just like hers, only silver with green jeweled eyes. “We have twin necklaces,” her mom had said. “When I look at mine, I think of you.”
The following day, CrazyEight’s rap filters in, waking them both up at the same time.
Face the day,
It’s a mind play,
Come what may,
Without a word, Jaz slowly takes off her necklace and hands it to Sierra.
A few days later, the night they are set to leave, CrazyEight drops by.
“SEA,” he taps knuckles with Sierra.
“Everything OK?” he asks.
“Yes, I hope so. I planned as best I could.”
“Get word to me when you can and let me know what the game is out there.”
“You be good, Jaz, and keep on rapping!” CrazyEight says, winking at Jaz.
“I will,” Jaz smiles.
“I got a good-luck rap for you all; it goes like this:
“LA, a new day,
Getting out, free of doubt,
Stay on track, don’t look back,
Down by the sea, you’re set free,
Beside you all the way, lucky day,
After two days of travel, Sierra and Jaz are on the last leg of their escape. The sand craft comes to a stop in midair, then drops inches from the ground. It’s close to dusk. Sand and dust swirl in the light of the amber headlights.
“How far are we from the NeoSlabs?” Sierra asks. “According to my dated map, about a mile.” “Have you been there? Is anybody living there?”
The driver looks out the window and then fiddles with his controls. “I’ve heard that, but like I say, I haven’t been there. I’ve seen some dwellings in the sand on my daytime runs, so I know folks are living out here, but it can’t be easy.” Just as he spoke, the craft begins emitting a low beeping, and a red light starts blinking on the console. “This is as far as I can take you.” the driver says. “If I go any farther, I won’t be able to get back on the fuel I have.”
Sierra swallows and puts her arm tighter around Jaz, asleep on her shoulder. The driver looks at the sleeping child, sighs, and hits the steering wheel.
“Look, the NeoSlabbers were one tough bunch; if anyone can survive out here, it’s them. But you said you grew up there, so you know how to survive.”
“That’s right,” Sierra agrees and gathers up her gear.
“I never say this, but since you got that kid with you, I’m going to give you my private web pingback number. If you need to get out, send a pingback to the number. I’ll come to get you, but I have to charge; fuel is costly.”
Sierra nods and wonders if she’s making a mistake. They could go back. She shuts her eyes for a moment and sees The Brick’s fleshy face sneering at her, the steamy, stinking protein bricks flowing down the conveyor belt, and her mom and dad laughing and dancing under the fireball sun.
“Thanks, I appreciate that; we’ll be OK,” she says.
“Wake up, we’re here,” she says, gently shaking Jaz.
“You’re 200 feet from a shelter,” the driver calls out the window.
The shelter is a simple three-sided structure offering minimal protection from the drifting and blowing sand. But it’s better than nothing, Sierra thinks as they set up their tent.
“Look, there’s something scratched in the wood,” Jaz says, pointing.
Sierra turns up her headlamp and directs the beam at the carvings. She can just make out the words “Bombay Beach” scratched like an ancient hieroglyph. Sierra laughs. “We’re in the right spot! That’s the name of one of the Salton Sea beaches. The sea should be within walking distance from here. Someone marked this site for the NeoSlabbers. Everybody knows we’d come back.”
“I can’t wait! When I wake up, I’ll see the sea and the dolphins,” Jaz squeals.
The sun is barely above the horizon when Sierra stirs. Careful to not wake Jaz, she gets up and peeks out the tent flaps. All she can see are mounds of sand lighting up with the first flickers of the sun. The heat emanating from the sand and the rising sun is palpable. It shouldn’t be this hot, she thinks. She quickly dresses, grabs her pack, and steps out of the tent with one quick look at the sleeping Jaz. According to her memory, the Salton Sea should be just over the rise to the east – she has time to walk to the top of the hill before Jaz wakes up. Everything looks different, but that’s to be expected, she tells herself. The sand seems more profound and appears to have a different texture than what she remembers. There’s no sign of any vegetation, which is odd, as she remembers many shrubs and grasses. The only thing similar from her memory is the silence – something she loved. She nears the crest of the hill, and it’s noticeably hotter. Tapping her weblink for the environment readout, she sees nothing. She taps again, and a very faint reading appears, then disappears. Tapping once more, she can make out the soft reading before it disappears.
“July 28th, 2077, 5:10 a.m.”
The heat, like a steadily rising oven, is feeling uncomfortable. She takes a long drink from her water bottle and figures they have enough for two days, three max. Once they get to the NeoSlabs, they should be OK. It will be so good to see the sea. She takes a deep breath and steps onto the crest of the hill. Sand as far as she can see. Drifting, blowing mountains of sand. She gasps, sucking in her breath, then takes out her binoculars and scans the vista. First she just sees sand, then something different takes shape. In between the blowing sand, there is parched, cracked earth. A vast salt plain dotted with bleached bones of fish, birds, and larger carcasses. A hint of water appears and disappears. The temperature has increased again. She taps her weblink.
“115 de,” she reads, and then it blinks off.
The sun is now entirely above the horizon and is rising fast. She remembers studying the desert with her parents, who said you can survive any environment with the proper planning and gear. I can handle this, she tells herself. They trained me to survive in the desert. But she never imagined the sea could vanish into thin air. That means – her thoughts trail off. Suddenly she remembers the driver’s private pingback number. She taps her weblink – blank. She taps several more times – nothing.
Her eyes focus on the mirage, pulsating with a hypnotic rhythm, drawing her in. Time passes. Finally, forcing her eyes away from the vision of it, she swallows the fear rising in her chest and slowly turns around. In the distance, she can just make out the dot of the shelter and the hint of the blue tent – Jaz! Tears stream down her face as the sun’s scorching rays paint her back.
NeoSlabs, California, 2050.
Holden lay on his back, resting on an outcropping of smooth rocks overlooking the Salton Sea’s deceptive shimmering blue water. Silence surrounded him except for the soft lapping of the waves against the shore. Occasionally a fly buzzing or a bird call added ambiance to his reverie. White puffs of clouds drifted across the azure sky as the sun baked his torso into a darker bronze. Long jet-black hair splayed around his head like an ebony crown, as if he was an indigenous king of this extreme environment. After a while, he rolled over and tossed an orange-sized red ball into the water below. The orb hit the water with a resonant kerplunk and slowly descended to the bottom of a deep, glassy pool. He watched as it changed color from red to blue and disintegrated into a swirl of bubbles. The small black instrument with a short antenna poking out of his pack recorded this chemical reaction from the sensors he had placed in the water earlier that day. This data would fine-tune the desalinization and water purification necessary for survival for those living in the nearby NeoSlabs. The Salton Sea sustained this community through careful water management, as there were many known and unknown carcinogens in the water. Holden was a water engineer and had joined the NeoSlab outpost in early 2050. His wife, Flora, a seismologist, was already living there when he arrived. Sharing a passion for the stark environment and scientific challenges, they fell in love and married. They had one daughter – Sierra Nitestar.