By Elsa Wilson-Cruz
Outside the conference room windows, another dust storm was rising on the dead brown horizon. But a ping on Zac’s glasses told him that it was heading east. Storm alarms wouldn’t get them out of this meeting. Zac glanced at the row of emergency masks hanging by the red-glowing exit. A dust storm wouldn’t be bad right about now, could take the edge off of the presentation that the CFO had just left them to digest. A presentation filled with words like “bankrupt” and “layoff. And of course, all the zeros. The room still smelled of the word “unfortunately.”
“We’re the only safe tower in 1000 miles to have a theme park. What happened? People don’t wanna have fun?” asked Tonya, creative director of Plantopia. She was Zac’s boss. Ex-boss.
“Same reason the Orlando parks closed. People don’t have money to have fun. Or if they do, they’re scared. They’re saying this recession will be worse than 2050,” said Anthony, an engineering officer.
Zac had considered trying to lighten the situation with a joke about Plantopia “biting the dust,” but then he remembered that one of the engineer’s children had been caught in a dust storm last summer. Too soon, he thought. They said it was the opposite of drowning. He’d choked on enough dust to know that the suffocating, stinging dryness must be the taste of death itself.
“I blame EscapeGheist for cutting their subscription costs in half. Now sitting at home with your goggles is 5 times cheaper than a day at the theme park,” said Tonya.
“And there’s no risk of getting caught in a duster,” said Shannon, who led – used to lead – customer service.
It’s true, thought Zac, we were all trying to save ourselves.
“So was the budget for new storm sensors a waste? Or the ad campaign that told customers we had them?” asked Anthony. He never liked the marketing team.
“It wasn’t because people don’t believe fun is worth it,” said Zac at last, edging up from his slouch. He might not be able to tell his joke, but he could at least defend his team one last time. “It’s because people stopped believing in magic.”
Tonya smiled like she understood.
“Magic? Really? You think people went to theme parks because they believed in magic?” asked Anthony.
“Old case studies of the Orlando parks would seem to say that,” said Shannon.
“They felt something,” said Zac. “Just like people used to feel something when they came to Plantopia. Although now plants are even more ridiculous than fairy tales.”
“And way more depressing,” said Tonya. “Because they were real.”
In the end, it was Anthony who used the bite the dust joke and everyone laughed. He made it seem like he was boosting morale and being a good sport.
“Guess it’s ‘so long in not so long,’ ” said Shannon, as they filtered through the conference room door.
“Kids these days don’t even get why the Potcoaster or the WeedWhirler were cool,” said Zac.
“You’re dating yourself you know, and I’m supposed to be the senior in the room,” said Shannon.
“They missed out,” said Tonya, who was still in her 20s.
“You’re just jealous,” said Shannon. And they laughed. By the year 2062 in midland USA, they’d heard worse than bankruptcy. Worse than unemployment.
On his way home from work, Zac stopped to pick-up his weekly lab rations. He tapped his glasses. It was still 15 minutes until his allotted pick-up time, and loitering around the Lab wasn’t permitted. A Tower Forces official with a gun glanced up to see if Zac was going to move on or not. Zac walked to the park across the street and sat on a bench, not bothering to wipe off the quarter-inch layer of dust from the seat. Why did he need to look presentable now? He was out of a job. The park was empty, just like Plantopia. Dust filled empty baby swings to his right and empty playhouses to his left. Most people stayed inside those days. Out of reflex, he touched the compact carrying case that held his folded emergency mask. They had a point. Inside was safer.
Feeling uneasy, even though the horizon looked clear, Zac stood up. He couldn’t go back to the Lab for another 11 minutes. He saw a Sower walking towards him. Zac waved her off in advance. Without missing a beat, she turned and walked the other way, shaking her seed packet like some sad instrument. The Sowers peddled “miracle” seeds that they promised would grow even in ground shriveled by two decades of drought. Did people really buy those things?
Fearing she’d return if he stayed too comfortable, Zac walked to the far edge of the park. Like Plantopia a few blocks north, this tiny park sat on the top level of the Safe Tower. Below him were stacks and stacks of apartments, office buildings, graveyards, and the swimming club he’d never been to. Outside the Safe Tower, all the way down on the ground, the Outcasts moved in and out of their tents. They were the size of dolls from here, which was good. Anyone who happened to be watching from the Safe Tower would only see doll-sized cannibalism. Doll-sized disease. Doll-sized death by dust-storm.
“I used to be there.”
Zac jumped a little and turned to see a scraggly man who could be fifty, although he looked like he’d seen a lot more than that.
“You used to live there?” asked Zac. By default, he looked the man up and down for open wounds.
“I wasn’t Outcast myself,” said the man, as if reading Zac’s mind. “I ministered there as a prophet.”
“I didn’t know there were still prophets.”
“What did you prophesy? Earthquake, fire, or worldwide never-ending dust storm?”
Zac glanced at the time again. Seven minutes. It was always better to be polite to the Dust Sleepers. To avoid aggression at all costs. The Outcasting had gotten slack lately, with all the layoffs, and that meant that some were left in the Tower who didn’t belong.
“No, I wasn’t a doomsayer. I prophesied hope.”
“Isn’t religion just hoping that whatever can save you is actually real?”
Zac pretended to flip through his glasses, hoping the man would see that he was busy.
“You know one day, the Lab’s gonna run out of money just like your theme park,” said the man, gesturing at Zac’s company polo shirt. “You’ll need another food source.”
“What are you, a Sower? I’m not interested.”
“No, no,” said the man. “I’m not selling seeds, I’m planting them.”
“Hah! So do it!” said Zac, losing his patience. Three minutes until his ration pick-up.
Around them, sun-beat brown earth stretched for miles into the hazy horizon. Not a growing thing in sight. Just looking at the land made Zac feel like coughing. So much dust. He wanted to be inside.
“Not here,” said the man. “Here,” and he gently tapped his head and then pointed toward Zac. “Seeds won’t grow here, everyone knows that, especially the Sowers. But there is a place where they will grow.”
“So you’re selling me a ticket, I’ve heard that too,” said Zac. He started to walk slowly back towards the Lab.
“I don’t sell anything,” said the old prophet. “I just tell people what I’ve seen.”
Zac waved with fake politeness and walked a little faster. Maybe the guard would focus on this guy instead of him.
“Heard you guys closed down,” said the guard, as Zac approached the Lab pick-up window.
“You already heard that?”
“I gotta buddy who did security for you guys. What was that ride? Potwhirler?”
The guard laughed and Zac realized he’d never felt so ridiculous wearing a neon-green polo shirt that said “Plantopia” in the middle of the worst drought in history. Picking up a tub of goo that was his meals for the week made it worse.
“Hey,” he yelled and turned around. The prophet guy was still behind him, as if he was waiting.
“Where is that place you were talking about?”
The prophet smiled and said, “We better talk inside.”
Dust rose on the horizon.