Whale Teeth by Else Fitzgerald

We’ve teamed up with RMIT’s School and Media and Communication and asked students to respond to the themes of Melbourne Knowledge Week and reflect Melbourne’s future. This response by Else Fitzgerald explores memory, climate change and AI. 

If climate change remains unchecked sea levels will continue rising, with some speculation that we could see a rise of up to 8.9 metres by the end of this century. What would our city look like if this happened? How would our lives change? Whale Teeth imagines a future Melbourne where water floods through our streets. A future where in an attempt to prevent further warming of the climate we’ve constructed a giant solar shield in space to deflect solar radiation. A future where sentient technology, a Bio Operative, is integrated into our bodies and our complex emotions and memories. A future where love is still the most important thing.

~

<memory file> No more streetlights. The water oily-slick and black down Canning Street. Wade from the raft to the staircase and climb up to the second floor, tide lines spidery on the wall like veins. Still night air thick with smell of damp and the funk of the kero lamps. The condensation beading on the walls, bright trails in the lamplight. His thin back framed against the dusky light, fishing line disappearing off the balcony, down into that murky flood. Terraces across the water dark scrapes against the dim sky, so few windows lit now.

~

<Bio Operative 494 pulling up plate angulation data. Checking all plates. Assessing plates for repair. Calculating… 48 plates angulating at less than optimal ratio for reflection. Inputting plate numbers, programming repair schedule. Repair schedule formulating… approximately 17 hours, manual assistance required on plates 5478, 5689, 6438, 6890. Prepping welding system. Activating manual deployment protocols. Airlock opening in 30.>

~

It feels strange that they’re inside you. It’s like what you remember rain to feel like, slick and wet and cool, sliding along your synapses.  Flex your fingers under the sheet, feel them in the tips brushing skin. Bio architects didn’t prepare you for this and even all these years later it’s the in bit that you still can’t get used to, the filledness of it. Reaching for all the unseen parts. Everything shared now, all your human failings corrected, no room for mistakes up here. Bo humming in you, scudding like a base note up your spine.

~

                ‘How far?’

               ‘The shade has to be balanced between the gravity of the Earth and the sun.’

               You shape your hands in the hot heavy air, fingers folding in an arc. ‘It bounces the solar radiation.’

               ‘Yeah but how far?’

               No more than the distance between you now: a few meters of torn lino, the width of a broken table propped up with bricks, the gape between                  your bodies in the bed at night.

             ‘The L1 point. A million miles.’

 You can hear it in your voice, that burning, and you wish you were a better liar. That when you’d said it’s ok you really could’ve meant it. He doesn’t say anything, keeps washing rice in the sink, water gone milky like a blind eye.

~

From the space station you can see the whole of the Aegis spread beneath you, the plates folded against each other like scales of the fish that used to fill the oceans. Sometimes, when the sun hits the shield at the right angle the whole thing looks lake-like, fluid, reflecting like water. A metal sea meant to protect the earth beneath it, that tiny blue eyeball far below, which is drowning in another kind of ocean. There’s so much you deserved to be punished for.

~

<Internal temperature fluctuating. Data indicating sleep state interrupted.>

             Are you awake?

Blood floating even with the gravity drive. Press of space all around.

             Yes.

             Can I see him?

<Bio Operative 494 requesting access for memory file 4745990>

           Again, Bo?

You feel worn, like paper too long in a pocket, formless and thin. You want to remember how it used to feel, under that porch light that coloured everything firelight tinge.

           Please.

Breath sighing out, loud in the empty air.

<Allow Bio Operative 494 access to memory>

<memory file> Curve at the base of his throat, a cradle. Whistles of air between his teeth while he sleeps, an involuntary flickering of muscle around his eyes. Your cheek bone pressed against his ribs, rising and falling with every inhalation, on and on through the night. A knot of gristle in the cavity of his chest thrumming under your hand, flickering in an ocean of blue blood. The sound of being human.

~

You wonder if he might be watching for you. A bright fizz scudding across the dark sky like a forgotten star. If he’d still think of you after all this time. In the city it could be raining, the sea surge lapping at the sides of the old skyscrapers. So much sunk in those grey ceaseless waters, churning over the tarmac, the tram tracks, the cemetery with the graves in crooked rows like old teeth. When the coordinates are right and the station clears the edge of the shield for those few hours, letting you glimpse Earth through the scopes, you imagine your eye following a beam of light down into the mess of concrete and water, right there to the windowsill where you used to hang your washing.

~

               ‘Two years in the program and we’d have enough to get out.’

Out of the city, the terrace, those damp walls. Maybe you believed it a little bit.

                ‘Don’t be stupid.’

He wants you not to go, to believe that it had meant nothing.

                ‘I’m scared.’

The water is there all the time now, lapping at the base of your staircase, no longer tidal. The cloud seeding failed. At the institute they still had access to the net and you’d read that the solar radiation levels weren’t affected by the cloud blanket. All that poison in the sky for nothing. Sun piercing through. The Greenland ice sheet collapsing into the sea.

        ‘I’ll finish the geoengineering training in 2 months. I don’t have a choice.’

An easier truth. But you both know why you are going.

~

            What does it feel like?

            You know, Bo. You’ve seen.

            Describe it to me anyway.

Their voice droning in your head.

            It feels like…

Like all those bonfires burning in backyards you stood around, beer bottles necks wrapped in your hands, back before the electricity went out and the beers were still cool against your fingers. Like the sharp edge of a knife, like a papercut, like the impression left on your eyeball after glancing at the sun.

           …breaking. Breaking open.

Love used to make you feel like you were drowning and it was glorious. The sound of his voice, the weight of his body beside you in the bed. A small sound in the back of your throat, a noise like waking.  A memory of him saying quietly everybody wants to fall in love.

            What was it like after?

After the bees, the bears, the birds, that loss.

           After the flood?

           Yes.

~

<memory file> Everything smells damp – before the storm walls broke the swell would still crest over sometimes and even with the enormous heat nothing ever felt quite dry. You didn’t expect him to be home, expected him to be alone. Watching from the doorway, the shopping bags cutting into your fingers, heavy with the cans you’d paid more for than you could afford. The doors onto the balcony hanging open, the room lit with greenish light from the floodwater reflections rippling across the mouldy ceiling. Below, out the window covered in plastic sheeting, the water gurgling all around. That feeling like the holding of a hot thing, a bright flash before the pain. A single can tears through the shitty plastic and suddenly they’re all thumping out across the lino, rolling and knocking against the legs of the mismatched furniture you’d salvaged together. And his face lifts from the other and sees you there in the doorway and his expression is enough to rupture the moment and then you’re gone, back down the ruined staircase in that half-sunk building and out onto the narrow edge of porch left jutting above the water with the torn plastic still fluttering from your fingers and your breath caught in you like something broken.

~

You can see the storms from up here sometimes when the light is right and the arc of the flight path allows. Sometimes you want to go back. Punch through the sleet of leftover metal whirling and fizzing in the atmosphere. Down to that city which combs the water like whale teeth, the sea straining between the skyscrapers, threads of life lingering like hair in a drain. Melbourne heaving in your memory like a wet lung, refusing to go under.

Written by Else Fitzgerald. 

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