Special Serialized Novel
By Shya Scanlon
Forecast is being serialized semiweekly across 42 web sites.
For a full list of participants and links to live chapters,
please visit www.shyascanlon.com/forecast
Helen had a hard time remembering she was underground. Inside, she felt, was simply inside. She could walk the hallways and sleep on the couch and—despite the minor difficulty involved in finding it—use the toilet, and it didn’t seem strikingly unfamiliar. Frankly it was a comfort. She’d spent the last couple years of her life indoors, and being in that dense collection of windowless walls put her at ease in a way she hadn’t been in the parking lot, for example, when she’d first met Busy and Blain. Despite the lack of protection, or the lack of reference, the lack of a nobody public looking on and casting small nudging judgments lightened her mood. When the awareness did pass through her mind it was like a warm spot of pee in a cold lake—she knew she should probably avoid it, but it felt nice, and really, no one needed to know. It wasn’t that the symbolic significance of being underground was lost on her, either. Quite the opposite. She was thrilled to be below streets whose surface she’d known so well. She was seeing the clockwork when all she’d ever done is check the time. Of course, none of this had been here when she lived above—at least not that she supposed—but the will had been there, surely, an inverse seedling growing away from the light and pushing further downward, its roots reaching up into the night for sustenance, for the crooked acts that fed it. Helen had already fed it once, and now she could understand its hunger. This was simply a natural condition for any living thing, and despite the questionable ethics that brought this beast to life, the fact that it wanted to grow was no mystery, and well within her capacity for forgiveness. She got hungry too, after all. Often. When would someone come and prevent her from eating, citing the monstrous acts that kept her alive? For surely she was guilty of some. That’s why she was here, wasn’t it? Standing up to follow Busy back into the hallway, she paused, despite herself, as this question rolled blithely through her head.
Right after she’d decided to visit the fundamentalist Asseem first, Helen felt she’d made a mistake. She could practically feel Asseem’s scowl on the side of her face, in disbelief that she’d presume to know anything about his relationship with God. She could practically hear his tirade, citing, among other things, her parents’ lack of moral foundation. He’d sweep his attention between the emotional poles of anger and pity, feeling betrayed by her presumption, by her western ideological practice of drawing lines of false representation around what couldn’t be known or explained. He’d lambaste the box she’d unwittingly put him in, and claim she’d never understood him. He’d storm around, flailing. He’d calm down, eventually, if she was patient, nodding—not arguing—but only to turn from her, embarrassed by his own outburst, and indignant that she’d forced his hand.
This provided no clarity for Helen, however. Asseem’s faith had never been a simple one, and she could envision this response from an Asseem wearing the showy dress of a secular businessman as easily as she could from one wearing the modest garb of a devout Muslim. When she left him, Asseem had still not told his parents anything about the life he was living, and when, as it often did, his work kept him out past curfew, or his lifestyle impinged in some other way on the rules of his father’s house, Asseem would set to work transcribing the Qur’an as he had since he’d first learned to write. Helen reasoned, finally, that between the two options, she’d feel badly about her decision regardless of what she chose, and so went along with her first guess, trying to accept her mistake in advance.
Plugs back in, Helen followed Busy to a place called the “Map Room.” They curled through what looked like the same halls they’d taken before, though she imagined they were all nearly identical. Rocket was close at her heels, and they exchanged a few glances. She hadn’t spoken with him since they’d gotten there, and she realized she was eager to check in, to see how he was doing, to hear about his experience on REMO, and with the other dogs. Were they good dogs, she wondered? She thought that in all probability dogs don’t call each other “good dog.” There might be an entirely different system of value at work, maybe one based on smell. Obviously, her mind was wandering. Finally arriving at the Map Room, Helen stepped inside and promptly forgot anything she may have been thinking in her muted movement through the hall. She removed her plugs.
“Here’s the map,” Busy said with a modesty so false it didn’t hide his own amazement. The room was the size of a house, maybe one hundred feet across and about three stories high, Helen guessed. They were on what would have been the second. They stood on a narrow mesh metal walkway that led around the perimeter of the room and in three places directly across so the paths intersected in the middle, where a circle roughly four feet in diameter would allow, she supposed, no more than three or four people to stand at a time. The “map” was a three dimensional, real-time holographic image of the entire city. It glowed and shimmered and seemed to shift, constantly. It was almost hard to look at, to focus on. It looked alive. Helen had never seen anything so beautiful.
“It has a 45 Hz refresh rate—way slower than most TVs these days—which is why it looks jittery like that,” Busy explained. “You’ll get used to it.”
Helen nodded, but wasn’t ready to speak. Her eyes bounced around with each tiny movement on the map, a car in the street here and an airplane sliding down into view from just above her head. She saw trees being blown in a heavy wind to her left and snow piling up against a house directly before her. She saw someone get mugged. She didn’t try to place where these things were happening. She simply watched, taking the action in, the color. The room was silent.
Helen took a step forward and looked back at Busy, for permission.
“Go ahead,” he said.
She walked slowly into the holograph. She knew it shouldn’t “feel” like anything, but her skin tingled the moment she touched it, and it felt cool, somehow, like a lover’s blow on skin after sex. She waved her hand slowly through the mirage, and watched it slice through buildings and skyways and streets. She held her hand just under a group of children waiting for a bus, and brought her fingers around them, making a fist. She looked back at Busy, but he was busy tending to some panel on the wall, and she felt something brush against her leg causing her a moment of panic, as though the city was becoming solid around her, pinning her in place. But it was only Rocket. She looked down through the half-opaque concrete and saw his yellow fur moving among basements and pipes and underground malls. He snapped his jaws at shoppers, and barked.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” she said to the dog, but Rocket just continued forward, head up as though swimming. As she watched him it occurred to her that how odd it was that they were standing in the middle of this holograph—she looked down past Rocket at the vast network of passages, both vertical and horizontal, and it looked as though the street itself, that plane teaming with activity just above waste level, were a mirror, sending a reflection of the city plunging deep beneath it like mountains on the surface of a lake. But this was no reflection. And the place where Busy and Blain had brought her, she realized, was not some aberrant unfilled pothole but a small part of something monstrous, a new Seattle with its back turned toward its ancestor and running, running. A spontaneous cyclone winding around a parking lot and picking up cars caught Helen’s attention. Downward, she thought, was really not a poor choice of direction.
“We use this to track the cars that come through here,” Busy said, still standing close to the wall. “So we don’t pick ‘em up twice.” Helen looked back and saw that he was peering cautiously over the railing.
“Yeah,” Helen joked, “you might accidentally put a car back together that you’d already taken apart.”
“Exactly,” said Busy, quite serious, and stepping carefully around the border between the platform and the plank. It was endearing, Helen decided, this fear of his. She wouldn’t, if asked, have ever thought to see this man do anything the least bit “gingerly.” She watched him struggle a bit more until a spontaneous snow storm, somewhere in Ballard, obscured her view. She turned back around and decided to find her parents’ house. She walked south through the old city center, though there wasn’t much, anymore, to distinguish it from what lay beyond. Seattle had changed dramatically, and seeing it all from above—or mostly above, there were buildings which towered even over her—made her feel like a mad scientist, somehow, as though she were responsible for some unnatural evolution and was checking in on her creation, unsympathetically curious to see the result.
It wasn’t a complete surprise, of course. Helen had gone into the city occasionally over the years since she left, and you couldn’t avoid seeing statistical updates which, having for so long been a minor metropolis, the city broadcast to the world constantly. A new high-rise here, greater population density there, murder rate through the roof. A real city! All grown up! But seeing it all at once was something even most of those many proud participants hadn’t done. It was a spectacle. Simultaneously compelling and repulsive, and Helen noted in herself something of the arrogant perspective held by most Neighborhood™ residents, that the city had sickened, was a cancerous growth. She’d always been baffled by the curiously inconsistent equation, solved over and over and over by her husband’s friends, which found the epicenter of progress its own first and greatest casualty. Yet here she was in gut agreement. She looked across the city as she slowly walked, noting the complete lack of shadows, the spotless streets, and everything, everything in motion at all times, and she couldn’t help but think that the Seattle she’d known as a child, with all its grime and perversion and overgrown buildings, was nonetheless a superior approach to urban life. She was in some ways letting herself down with this attitude, however. Was poverty and desperation an “approach?” She was coming up on Jackson Street, and could already see that the long stretch of rooty pavement she’d almost daily walked down, the liminal land haunted by those broken souls unable to deal with the first great change was now no different than anywhere else, all lights camera action and no trace of a backstage.
And then of course there was the weather. It looked like a sped-up satellite image, a time-lapse reel cut up and pieced back together in random order with the aim of emancipating the weather from the banality of causal links. Lightning flashed dull streaks through daylight, and rain clouds road through snow storms, their warm drops competing with the frozen flakes and resulting in concentrated areas of high-pressure steam. Fog thick as lather rolled down the streets, and people walking had constantly to switch between weather instruments, their umbrellas retracting and replaced by their fog knives, their fog knives closed and their lightning rods extended. But there is nothing to do against the wind. Rocket barked as a small boy in a bumper suit blew down the street, laughing as he surrendered to the gathering gust.
Helen took all this in as she approached her old street and thought fondly of Jack, of how he’d have looked at this scene, sighed, and called it a perfectly WeatherLess™ day. The man had a gift. Her parents would loath him.
Though her block had been scrubbed, along with everything else, during the Brightening, Helen discovered with a surprising degree of relief that her house was largely unchanged. The overgrown lawn, though perhaps not quite as overgrown as it once was, stood in extreme contrast to the structures to either side, which, having once been similarly dilapidated one story bungalows now glistened like fruit-jeweled pastries under a glass countertop. She stood above it like a wandering god, and waited. Almost simultaneously, she felt the rub of Rocket on her leg, and a closeness at her back she took to be Busy. They waited.
“Strange,” he finally said.
“It’s my parents’ house.”
“Your folks must be connected,” he said, impressed despite himself. “You gotta pull some strings not to upgrade these days.”
Helen considered. “Connected like…”
“Connected like you gotta know somebody high up or else have serious cash.”
“Which I assume we’re talking about the somebody high up option.”
Helen looked back at her unlikely guide. He still wore a worried expression and was gripping, she realized, the railing on either side of her, his arms so broadly spread she hadn’t noticed.
“Speaking of high up,” she said, because she felt she could.
Busy looked down at her. “Hey, no fair.”
“It’s endearing, really.”
“Well, between you and me, it’s an act is what it is. I just make a little extra Buzz by pretending to be afraid of heights.”
“Yeah, you know, I act scared and look nervous and walk slow…”
“Huh,” Helen was skeptical. “I didn’t know it worked like that.”
Busy released the railing and walked a couple slow steps farther along the long thin plank. “Well I’m not exactly sure how it all works, you know, inside the machine, but I know that when I get higher than I should be I start shaking and the Buzz production kicks in.”
“But you’re not—”
“Afraid of heights? Are you kidding?” Busy kept shuffling toward the edge of the city, hand over hand gripping the rail, and Helen finally understood. She changed the subject.
“So you said something about traveling underground?”
“Yeah, come on over to the elevator and we’ll take a look.”
Rocket kept by Helen’s side, sensing the significance of this strange small house, and they both stood there for a moment longer. Connected? She thought of her father, pinned behind his stack of books, and her mother with her writing, or on the phone, organizing something. She hadn’t seen them in over two years. Or even spoken to them. Perhaps, she thought, after she found Asseem she should stop by. She tried to imagine it.
“You coming or what?” Busy called from the side of the room. Rocket looked up at her, tail wagging. The boys, she thought. The boys. She turned and walked again through the city, pushing through weather and buildings and hills.