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Climate Flash Fiction Activity – Imagining the Future of Phoenix

As part of our panel on Climate Fiction – Science, Stories or Seeds of Transformation, we invited our audience to take part in a climate flash fiction activity. Flash fiction exercises are a tool for creative writers to hone their imagination and writing skills. A flash fiction story can be as short as a two lines and as long as 1000 words. We thought it would be interesting to bring this tool into the conversation about climate change, using its power to unleash the imagination in a very short period of time to explore climate futures. Here is how it worked: First we presented some basic scientific information about climate change in the Phoenix area around 2050 to our audience. Then we asked them to get into groups of three or four. Each group received one of two different “story preambles” to help them get started by introducing a character and some context (see below). And then they had 20 minutes to develop their story in conversation with each other. We gave all participants a few days after the event to polish their prose. We’re proud to present the impressive results of this activity. We would like to thank all participants for their effort, thoughtfulness and creativity! And we hope these stories not only inspire their readers to think about the future, but also serve as conversation starters – is this a future you could imagine? Is it a future you’d like to live in? Don’t miss out on the very last story, which ignored our preambles (but kept our main character, Selene) with really fabulous results. Please be in touch with us (mmilkore@asu.edu and jpe@asu.edu) if you have comments, suggestions or questions.  
The year is 2043 … Weet-weet! Weet-weet! Selene’s alarm clock hops up and down gingerly on its tiny rubber feet. It’s 7:59 already. After three or four hops, it tumbles off the side of the table, lands gracefully on the floor and waddles over to the window, tilting to expose its tiny solar panels to the morning sunlight. She sidles over to the faucet, pumping the foot pedal to get the water flowing. After twenty seconds or so, it starts to trickle out, allowing her to rinse her face and wet her toothbrush. She flips the switch at the front of the sink, shunting the excess water into a bucket below. She’ll splash the water over the plants in her window boxes on her way out. She knocks three times on the wall – bump bump, pause, bump – giving Miles his daily wake-up call. [Continue reading] {Comment: Maybe collapse the rest of this text with the possibility to open it up by clicking on the link} His perennially unfinished salvaged-scrap-and-plastic sculptures “vibrate with possibility” in the morning light, he claims. The light doesn’t seem to help him actually complete any of the in-progress pieces that dot the edges of the pod’s garden, though. Miles is a bit of a night owl; he does most of his sleeping in the ever-hotter, lazy desert afternoons. But the way the architects had subdivided the McMansions the Community had repurposed was magical: she never hears a peep, no matter how loud he plays his early 2000s wannabe glam-pop albums at midnight. She’ll need all her gear today – not just the UV-lined shirt and almost-unwieldy hat, but also the breathing mask. She’s going into the city. It’s an important day – even a little bit exciting – but going in always makes her nervous, and sad for the people who are on the wrong side of the Competitive Arizona Today policies that the governor’s office had spent so much energy pushing. Maybe the research she was doing will help, she thinks, as she finishes tying her boots and programs her watch to let her know if she veers into an area with unusually high particulate or spore counts. On her way out of the cluster of homes that make up her pod, she pops into the cantina and fills a small canvas sack with her breakfast – a handful of nuts and seeds, some dried fruit, and a fresh tangerine. She’ll eat on the way in – the walk will take a while.
By Margaret Coulombe, Michele St. George, Chris Deaton   It’s hard to investigate crime with your hands cinched together and butt wedged in permaplastic office chair. Even tougher when the red-faced Salt River Water Police chief staring you down is also your boss. “The charges are water theft.” Chief Roztok leaned in and snapped the breathing mask from my mouth to my chin. “They’ve found water lines, Selene. Feeder lines running from your pod’s cistern to your sink.” This wasn’t the morning that I had expected. I should’ve been walking my usual rounds of gritty Phoenix pavement, maneuvering “Wimp” – our water meter drone – over sun blanched pods and through wind-scoured high rises. Just another day in the life of a water detective sniffing out wet crime. I’d investigated rich patrons, whose nostalgia bred dash-and-drink petty water theft at high end restaurants still serving water. I’d torn apart high-end solar stills shunting cistern vapors, and reclaimed shyster entrepreneurs’ reeking illegal communal piss pots. I’d even arrested well-heeled defenders of feral cats, whose water bowls drew in homeless people from the city’s tunnels, who they then reported. Wimp could find water at parts per million – an old measure repurposed to tally illicit water wealth. If I’d planned a cover for ripping off water, this job would make me the perfect thief. “Those charges are complete crap.” I wiggled my fingers, trying to feel them, rather than emphasize my point. “How many people did I bust this month? 1,000 gallons worth? 2,000? What about that black market in lux water-shots we raided in Scottsdale? I’ve recovered enough to recharge a few feet of the Colorado riverbed for our favorite politician or for his underground pool.” Roztok nodded, looking out a small, grimy window. It looked like old style glass, but was double-paned, packed with electric power generators. Nothing was what it seemed in this urban desert – except the rising heat. “Internal investigations found it. This is serious.” She unfurled a Flex-comp viewer and tapped it with a slim finger to display my case file. “I know you. I know your dedication. Who did you piss off this time, Selene?” The list was extensive. Water barons who’d paid millions in fines, now living high and dry, have unpleasantly long memories. “Let me check out the rig. I can figure out who set me up.” She searched my face, then tapped her viewer twice, deleted the file and coiled the display. “Get on it.” Outside in the searing heat, I flicked a bit of telltale mud from my pants cuff, grinding it to dust. I’d trace that illicit pipe threading down into the tunnels under the city, where no masks, no water, no power and no homes were the norm. My purloined pipes could be petty crime or a way to fuel a social movement. The real question at hand for my boss soon wasn’t who’d done the pilfering. It was how many of the 16 million people would rise from under Phoenix’s sands to claim their water rights?
By Michael Burnam-Fink, Marci Baranski, and Clark Miller   A few minutes later, Selene was trudging up Dobson Avenue, past the endless rows of car hulks half embedded in the asphalt. It had only been a year since the Big Stick, but in truth it seemed longer. Everybody knew roadways could get softer in summertime, but a particularly brutal and bright heatwave last August had melted roads across the Valley. Parked cars sunk up to their axels, impatient drivers in big trucks tore up the pavement in their wake, and in a matter of hours the asphalt arteries of the cities had become clogged with stuck vehicles and impassible rubble fields. FEMA and the National Guard had had to come in to rescue survivors stranded in concrete islands, their heavy trucks doing yet more damage to the roads. Hasty repairs had tried to clear away as much of the damage as possible, but four-lane boulevards were reduced to one-lane trickles. The city died, victim of total circulatory collapse. With commutes stretching into the three hour range, police response time over 45 minutes, and stores unable to restock, those that could leave did. Massive convoys headed for California, New Mexico, Utah, anywhere where the roads were still there. Those that were left held on as best they could, regrouping around the light rail line than ran from Downtown to Mesa, scavenging from abandoned vehicles and buildings, and in the case of Selene’s Community, using sustainability principles to grow new life in the ruins of the suburban dream. Ahead, a group of neighbs were pulling the side mirrors off an abandoned SUV. The Community had plans to use every part of the automobile. Windows and windshields could become water-conserving greenhouse panels, but most of those had already been scavenged or broken by roving crims. Sideview mirrors, with their built in actuators, made great elements for solar ovens. Alloy engine blocks and plastic panels would be recycled eventually for raw materials, but those schemes were less mature. Selene waved as she passed, but she didn’t have time to chat. The reason for the early start was the Maricopa Sheriff checkpoint at the boarder of the Dobson Competitive Zone. Hundreds of people stood there like cattle, sweltering under the mid-morning sun as they waited to cross from the parts of the city that were broken to the parts that worked. Selene ate her breakfast as she shuffled forward, sharing the dried fruit with the Hispanic family behind her. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, she passed through the shaded checkpoint, the Oakley and flakjacket wearing deputy with the handheld retina scanner waving her through without so much as a word. He began to interrogate the family in badly accented Spanglish. Como es su business en la Zona? The Zone was a study in contrasts. Some parts were inhabited with beautiful people in perfect tans and blindingly white capris, sipping lattes in misted sidewalk cafes. Other parts seemed like 3rd world refugee camps, as whole families had crowded into storefronts and small offices. Heavily armed cops were everywhere, drawing a line between the places where law and order had fled, and places where scavenging and squatting could be met with lethal force. Rents were paid, property still private, and people still pretended that an office job made sense in the New Phoenix. Every time Selene crossed the Zone, it was like entering somebody else’s hallucination of the 20th century. The light rail at the heart of the Zone was the only thing holding the city together, and trains now ran nose to tail. This last bit of transit infrastructure was the only way to get downtown for the public meetings in a timely manner. One crowded and smelly, but blissfully air conditioned train ride later, Selene arrived at the Statehouse for her presentation. She’d pulled all her contacts to get this 15 minute slot to brief the Committee on Infrastructure and Reconstruction, and there was no way that she was going to be late. The briefing was in an anonymous conference room on the second floor. Five State Senators, a scattering of aids from the governor’s office and various federal agencies. A cheap camera on a tripod stood in for the public—these sessions were live-streamed and archived, although not even opposition research bots bothered to watch the footage these days. She nodded politely at Janey, the legislative aide who’d scheduled her into this slot. Some geezer was up now, droning on about how crime had gone up since the Big Stick, and how he could bring it back down again with a blimp-based parachute police unit. The Committee was clearly tuned out, tapping away on their phones or deep in the stereotyped middle-distance gaze of the heavy augmented reality session. Finally, the geezer shut up, and Selene got a chance to speak. Her presentation was simple, the technical details stripped out for a general audience. The basic problem in the New Phoenix was the heat. Her solution tapped the lake of brine thousands of feet below the surface to operate a closed-cycle heat-exchanger. With just a few boreholes and circulating pumps, a constant stream of 55 degree saltwater could be brought up and used to cool large buildings, road surfaces, anything at all. Her calculations show that it used 2/3rd the electricity of a conventional air conditioning system, and since it was closed cycle, no burden on the water table. The deep brine lake was a heat sink with centuries of capacity. All she needed was a little help with the permits for deep drilling, and a small seed loan for the first source well, and within a year new, cool, livable, sustainable communities could be sprouting up all over Phoenix. At least that was the plan. The blank stares of the committee and the blinking red light on the camera had Selene trembling, and she was afraid that she sounded barely more coherent than blimp-geezer. Her tables of carefully simulated numbers seemed both boring and fiction. It was a mercy when her fifteen minutes ended and the committee chairman nodded her back to her seat. The presenter up nest was some suited corporate flack from Wells-America bank, talking about successful recapitalization of loans in the Competitive Zone. Nobody could pay attention to that, and Selene didn’t. Could anything change for the better in Phoenix? She thought, idly flicking through her social media feeds and trying to drum up some positive support for her ideas. The flack finished and sat down next to her. It seemed like this meeting was wrapping up with nothing much done. Another day in local government. “Chad Hartwick,” he said, sticking out his hand. Selene looked at it, shook it. “I liked your idea, although it needs a revenue stream if it’s going to work. There just isn’t any infrastructure money lying on the table these days.”
 
The year is 2043 …   The sun descends toward the horizon as Selene approaches the outskirts of the city. She expertly touches her credit tab to the side of the closest street lamp. A weak yellow light spreads across the cracked sidewalk. She peers down the street and glances uneasily at the lamp. Its display reassures her that the precious light will last five minutes. She quickens her pace, gingerly sidestepping a gaping pothole. Across the street she sees a group of kids kicking around a brightly colored ball that is just beginning to glow faintly in the twilight. They can’t be more than ten or eleven, she guesses. The tallest player captures the ball with a daring sliding tackle while two of the others huddle together, looking over at Selene decked out in her array of protective gear and snickering. Neither is wearing anything more high-tech than nylon shorts and a thick cotton t-shirt. She hangs a right and sees the clean geometric lines and cheery LED lighting of the Driverless Car Exchange. It’s easier than ever to borrow a car from locations spread across town; fewer and fewer people are buying their own vehicles, unless they need a truck or van for work. Selene prefers to take the light rail around the city, but there are still many neighborhoods that are quite far from a station. The houses she passes are mostly in the old suburban style: bloated behemoths squeezed onto tiny plots of land. Almost all of the yards are dusty and empty, or crowded with desiccated brown stems and the shells of dead cacti. Once in a while a lone yard startles her with greenery, bursting with lush non-native plants. Selene snickers at these yards, reminders of our old bad habits. Some people still want this desert to be something that it isn’t, even with water costlier than ever. You must need to bribe some very well-placed people to divert enough water for one of these verdant oases. Her destination looms up ahead: a concrete and glass tower with a security guard posted at the door. She’ll have to check in before she can start collecting any data. Waiting at the traffic light across the from the building, she quickly checks the local particulate and spore counts on her watch, then takes a deep breath.
By Kelly Lydick   Nightly winds passed through the valley now in the same way each dusk, invisible trails that carved out a new way of living. What was once a low-pressure desert system had become a new destination on a new map, hiding behind a changing jetstream set into motion by shifting particulate counts and changing soil ph. Selene crossed the street toward her outpost at the agency, knowing she would have a long night ahead of her. Sometimes she brought tea, but tonight she skipped it, thinking coffee would be better. Truly, her job was a bore, but of the few people left in the city with this kind of expertise, she was needed. And being needed created enough demand for a comfortable life. “Max,” she greeted the security guard. “Selene,” he replied in monotone, barely looking at her. She silently groaned inside, annoyed. One would think that security would be more engaged than the average person, but even that’s too much to ask these days, she thought. Perhaps it was the nature of her job, the government outfit, the rules, the roles, the by-the-book routine that made it mindless. Or perhaps it was just further evidence that everyday relationships had changed as much as the jetstream, apparently nimble, but a consequence of greater forces beyond a single individual’s control. The government had been collecting data long before the Internet was made public, long before smart technologies and touch screens, and long before the great drought. What was now a necessity had once been taboo, a violation of civil rights and individual privacy, the stuff that made headlines and court cases. Collection now was a precarious part of survival in an evolving biosphere that was adapting more quickly than the human species could keep up. Selene waved her hand in front of the biometric pad beside the door and it opened without a sound. “I was hoping you’d be here soon,” her colleague, John, said. “Take a look at this.” A series of numbers appeared in front of Selene, red and purple and blue, a grid hanging in the air highlighting an odd-looking matrix of values. “Great,” she said, sighing, exasperated. “I hate this job.” “I know. I’m sorry,” John replied. “Who is it?” she asked. “You mean: Who are they?” he reiterated. Selene gave him a hard look. “Can you just run the report, please?” she said in a scathing tone. She wasn’t upset with John, but simply upset. After the great drought, when resources had become scarce, it took more than a decade to get the Earth’s ecosystem back into balance. That is, into enough of a balance that life could still be sustainable. It was a precarious balance and these were precarious times. Even just one birth or death could create inequity. Selene didn’t hate her job because of the job itself. Crunching numbers and running data was simple. That part was like a child’s game. What she hated was that crunching these numbers, compiling this data, was like playing God. “Pamela DuBois. And her husband, Roy,” John announced. Who would live and who would die based on the amount of natural resources they had consumed was too heartbreaking to bear. It seemed unfair. Even if Selene was just the messenger to a greater outfit, there was too much for which she felt responsible. “Thanks.” Selene scanned a copy of the Resource Order into her smartwatch and took a deep breath. Then she tapped a few times on the screen. She kept all their names, unbeknownst to the agency. It was a violation of law, she knew, but didn’t care. If one drop of water could change the fate of a single life, it deserved to be honored, she believed. She catalogued them all, every single one. And she hoped that some day, when the Earth had begun to replenish itself again, someone, somewhere would find these names and know that these people mattered. That they were not merely sacrifices, but precious beings given up to protect the life of all who remained on the planet.
By Bonnie Richardson   Selene is thinking as she waits at the streetlight. Her walk has made her more and more angry at the people who, over the last two centuries, wanted the desert to be lush, filled with vivid colors and cooling shades of green. They wanted the beauty and comfort of the large canopy trees overhead, with the leaves softly rustling. They talked about the wonderful fragrance of orange blossoms in the spring, and the amazing sweetness of the pink grapefruits and navel oranges. Her destination looms up ahead: a concrete and glass tower with a security guard posted at the door. Selena only feels her anger expand, ‘They were all so selfish!’ she said, to no one in particular. She had no way of understanding and relating to these memories and felt cheated of the experiences. I come up beside her just as the light changes to green. Side by side we approach the layered security of the monumental building. Selene is oblivious to the absurd structure that is about to imprison her. My mind keeps returning to one question, over and over: who allowed that building to grow in our desert?
 

From One Caldron to Another

By Kraig Farkash   The fire tornado slid over the neighborhood’s entombed homes like a whirling current of erect lava. Selene, who studied as a postdoctoral Climatologist at Arizona State University, stood in its path. It was high noon. She reached toward the cyclone’s ignited torso with her armored hand, slapped the power button positioned at her diaphragm with the other, and smiled. Awakened, throngs of teeny metal fingers interlocked, and rounded bodies coalesced. The nanobots, like dutiful family, found strength by holding onto one another. It always tickled when they booted and yawned, moving across her flesh like a ripple on water. When settled, they formed around her an impenetrable metal-organic framework of flexible nanosheet. Selene’s suit was clean like polished chainmail, each link a set of hugging nanobots that gripped the next set. They covered her entire body. Chin to chin; all looked upward with optic sockets glowing blue around the edges of dark, minuscule pupils. Domed at her head, a few thousand translucent bots bent forward and formed a helmet. A lock of dirty blond hair drifted loosely past her brow as she cranked her neck. On the edge of her left shoulder, two bots snuggled so closely that they popped up, discordant with the others. They met her copper colored eyes, winked in unison, and squeezed back into formation. With all of her tiny protectors online, she ran defiantly toward the fire tornado, and dived into the violence of its guts. Aflame, and twisting, it vaporized most everything it touched. Selene’s adopted family, the Sonoran Desert’s denizens, knew this since it first arrived at the start of the drought-stricken age, which began back in 2035. Now 15 years on, the tornado was dependable as it touched ground nearly every day during the month of June. With a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning, multiple burning vortexes appeared. They combined into a singular funnel cloud that rumbled over the barren skyline, and swatted at the sun. Meandering crossways, it scorched the flatlands, and its gravity swirled the ashes of uplifted cities around its mile-wide base. The tornado leveled the architecture of the past, and left death in its wake. The remaining desert people, those too stubborn to evacuate, rebuilt and buried their new houses 3/4 deep. Like a city of basement apartments, pocked with white roofed shelters, coddled in crags, packed in Earth against the wrath of this new nature, the survivors carved their claim out of rock and signed title in blood. The depravity of men, their greed, their ignorance, had accelerated the inevitable: the distortion of Earth’s climate. Unchecked, this created the conditions for nature’s rebellion. The planet fought back. From the endless winters in China and Russia, to the floods of Pakistan, humans had lost the war. In Arizona, the constant rise in temperature, and longer days, caused the chaos. Most blamed the influx of state-mandated bovine farms, and the endless plumes of airborne particulates belched into the atmosphere by the semi-robotic mining of The Grand Canyon. Selene’s experimental armor buckled. Her visor cracked with wee screams as tens of thousands of little fingers pried apart. Precious gasses escaped, exploded, and flames burst into her headspace. The nanobots nuzzled each other defensively; they clung to her and burned. Their structures gave way to liquids. They mutated and merged into a protective shinny rubber that encased her body. She floated deep within the tornadoes’ bowels, at first spinning softly, then with great velocity. The heat and pressure of Earth’s worst forced her upward, toward the whirlwind’s gaping throat. She was weightless, on fire, and jutting toward her escape: the open sky. Her reflective, dead suit was bright with the angry blaze of hell. She was a glistening fireball shot through the heart of God. Still smoldering, Selene cut loose her spent fire-retardant parasail. She had touched ground a hundred miles past her mark. Not that it mattered to her. She had entered the hottest place on the planet’s surface, blasted out of it, and returned with an operational data-coil crammed with evidence. Her suit was ready for its intended mission, and her theses complete. More than that, the experiment was an engineering first, and an utter win. It worked. I’m alive. In time, Selene’s exploratory spacesuit would enable humans to pierce the sun’s photosphere, and land upon the rocky surface hidden beneath its neon waves. With her suit, man could hold star fire in their hands without the threat of incineration. Humankind would finally harness the epic power of creation, steal a sliver of its paternal soul, and use it to desalinate the seas. Seagulls nested in the ocean sprayed corners of colossal machines, which lay dormant upon the American coastline, inert, but ready. Once engaged, their turbines would spin by guzzling solar plasma. This technology allowed miles upon miles of attached, wide-mouthed, snaking tubes to gush with clean water. These enormous conduits would push life force back into the crusted heart of the Southwest. Then, with an abundance of irrigation, the world would drink anew, and the fire tornado would die…by her hand. She laughed to herself while Professor Tyson’s Chevy Silverado barreled toward her, still a dusted dot on the horizon. Upon arrival, he popped open the truck’s passenger door. “Well done, Selene.” The sweat on his ancient brow sparkled with the days dying light, “You’re a hero.” “You’re late.” She said flatly with a grin, “And I’m not a hero… I’m an engineer.” “Indeed.” He nodded as she climbed onto the threadbare bucket seat. With the slam of her door, he spun the truck around, and headed back to the campus labs. Selene wiggled out of her armor’s remains, and tossed them onto the back seat. The tee shirt and jeans she had worn underneath were damp with sweat. She pulled her beaded sandals from the bag at her feet, slipped them on, and rolled down the window. Looking back, she watched as her tornado dissipated. Its diminishing glow caressed her face and gave way to the darkness of night. Soon, the wastelands were awash with moonlight. Selene and Professor Tyson would arrive in the small hours. By then, Tempe’s temperature would hit its lowest point of the day: 90 degrees F. From one caldron to another…