Year of the Turtle

I hate driving. They tell you to watch the road, but really they should tell you to watch the other cars. I’ve had seven wrecks, all my fault, because I watch the road. I watch for turtles, frogs, opossums, raccoons, cats, dogs, squirrels, snakes, in case one gets in front of my car. I want to make sure I have space to stop, to swerve, and sometimes I don’t see the other car until I give it a little tap.

I go slow, so there are no injuries and not much damage. A small dent. A little chipped paint. But people still get upset. Because of the car. They talk about how perfect the car was, how it was almost new. How you could still see the grease stain on the hood left by the salesman.

People had to learn not to notice the things on the road, alive or dead, to be able to drive, operate giant machines, and shoot a rocket into space. No way to do all that if we are always looking at the ground. That’s why people can drive past a dead turtle without a glance, without a thought. I am the only one who looks down. I’ve done so as long as I can remember. My brother Devon would pop the back of my head, tell me to look up, look people in the eye. But you see a different world when you look at the ground. All the trash, the things that people drop and forget. All the dead animals.

I worry about the turtles the most. They are supposed to outlive all of us, but I don’t see as many as I used to. Not live ones. The whole world started on the back of a turtle. At least that’s what some people believe. When we needed solid land beneath our feet, a turtle rose to the surface, and algae grew on its back, which became the forests and rivers where we found food and shelter. You’d think we would be more careful with turtles. We would watch when they get in the road. If we hit the wrong one (or is it the right one?), if we hit our turtle, the world blinks out. Everything goes black.

It could have happened last week. I was walking past a strip mall, between an office-supply store and a party shop. I walk everywhere now that my license is suspended. A turtle was in the road, in the middle turning lane. I could see its head pull back into its shell as cars passed, speeding to buy pens or rent a bounce house for their yard party. I stepped into the road, intending to move the turtle to safety, but I had to step back as a car blared its horn, filled that lane. Then an SUV, with a chubby woman driving, turned left out of the mall parking lot, crossed the road, missed the turtle with its front tires but hit it with its rear left tire, like it was a speed bump but a bump that popped like a land mine as she rolled over it.

I closed my eyes. I like to think the driver, peering in her rearview, fighting to quiet the three kids in her backseat, showed a flash of concern. That she worried, at least for a second, about that bump in the road, that she feared for the significance of that loud crack. But like I said, I had my eyes closed. I don’t know what crossed her face as she rolled over the turtle. I squeezed my eyeballs so tightly, they hummed like a pair of vibrating atoms, and my head filled with these tiny sounds of the universe. I thought we were gone, pitched into the abyss, ashes spread in cosmic winds, until the sounds of that busy intersection, the cars, the planes, the horns, faded back in, like a TV signal rising to the surface in a sea of static. The world was still there. It wasn’t our turtle.

I doubt we’ll ever know what universe was on the back of that turtle, who was wiped out by that tire. Another anonymous world gone. One less turtle between us and oblivion. Crows were already hopping around the body, poking into the cracks in the shell, pulling out and gulping down long red strands of its innards.

Maybe that’s why we keep adding more people, even though we are fighting for space, even though people keep falling off the sides of the shell. We have to keep our turtle off the road. I see all the people crowding into stores, lakes, and airplanes, and I imagine our turtle struggling just to lift its legs. Our endless procreation, maybe it’s not so mindless. We’ve evolved a solution to stay alive – weigh down the turtle, keep it immobile, and we can put concrete everywhere else.

But a stagnant turtle has other problems. It can’t eat or drink, so eventually all the food and water on its back goes bad. Dawn told me about that. The water, not the turtle. I met her in college. She was studying disease particles, how they travel through the water and into us. That’s where this new virus, the Highway Virus, came from. It came from the water.

With all this focus on water, you’d think we would have talked turtles. I would have told Dawn about the turtle carrying our world, about its perilous existence, and we would have searched for it together, driving slowly up and down the highways looking for a turtle struggling to stand from the weight on its back. But you don’t know Dawn. Once her mind locks onto an issue, you can only watch in awe as she works through it. And in the short time I knew Dawn, she was wholly focused on the Reslo Plan.

The first question anyone asks about the Reslo Plan is – how did you find out about the Reslo Plan? It is secret, yes, and Ardo Reslo spent millions to keep it quiet, but the sheer magnitude of the project means some details are bound to slip out. Besides, he wasn’t the only oligarch looking for a way to avoid the growing pandemic. Some billionaires put their money in space, others in the ground, and Reslo decided the best chance for survival was underwater, in a controlled environment, away from surface conditions where the virus spreads at will. He funded it by selling living spaces to his millionaire brethren. He already had reserves of cheap labor. He needed someone to design his underwater arcology, a task made more difficult since he didn’t have any spots left in his virus refuge. He needed a team to design it without wanting to live in it.

He solved the problem the only way he knew how – he offered cash.

Reslo created an academic foundation as part of a nationwide contest. The team that submitted the best, most viable plan for sustainable living in an underwater structure (all hypothetical) would win a prize of ten-thousand dollars. Dawn was on one of those teams. They did months of research, compiled mounds of oceanic data, constructed habitat plans, oxygen pumps, emergency plans, and presented it all to the Reslo Committee.

There were fourteen submissions total, and each had an equal chance of winning – because Reslo picked the winner out of a hat. A team in Missouri got a big check while the Reslo Group took the best pieces from all the plans to build their platform, like a giant jigsaw. They had millions of dollars coming in from governments, organizations, and private firms. Money for vaccinations, animal control, emergency relief, it was all redirected, in secret, by a few hundred of the world’s bureaucrats hoping to escape the virulent collapse of surface civilization by retreating deep in a warm container while the world shed its diseased dermis.

Reslo should have given each team a check. He had enough money for all of them, and it might have placated Dawn. Instead she was furious when she lost, and she started researching the Reslo Committee. There were scraps of information on the group, and on Ardo Reslo, for anyone willing to look. His family had made its fortune in bear skins, claiming they had the fur of animals slain by Ceauşescu. It was a dubious claim, since Ceauşescu kept the animals he slaughtered, but the Reslos sold each skin with a framed picture of the dictator posing in front of a fresh kill, as if the mere existence of this picture authenticated its origin.

The Reslos made enough money to emigrate to the U.S., where they bought the mineral rights to several coal mines in the East. These assets created a perpetual fortune for the family that grew for over 50 years. Ardo grew up playing hide-and-seek in the mines. As vice president of Reslo Industrials, he ordered underground encampments built for his workers, so they would never have to leave between shifts. When the workers protested, he replaced them, and when the government questioned him, he went down there himself, lived underground for a month, to show how safe it was. He opposed mountaintop removal, which put him at odds with his fellow coal magnates. “The future of coal is underground,” he said, “and we have to go down to meet it.”

When the EPA called for an assessment of the company’s hollowing operations, he insisted on speaking Chinese in the hearings. He said, “We need to learn to speak it, if we are going to do what you say.” At least that was the translation. The EPA hired a Chinese national for those meetings, and then the director had to resign after Vice President Bullocks accused her of treason for having a non-native on staff. He recommended Reslo to take over the position, but in the end the government dissolved the agency – to eliminate redundancy, limit the size of the government, and reduce bureaucracy, so they could do a better job protecting the environment. The reasons didn’t matter. The government was already collapsing from the burden of all the sick and dying. The whole of the EPA budget was redirected to the Reslo Foundation. They knew, the best bet was to hide out and wait for the worst to pass.

After months of research, Dawn found the location for the Reslo Arcology, in the north, deep in the Hudson Bay. At least she guessed its location, based on ecological shifts, which made the area more habitable, and reported sightings of mini-submarines and tubes poking through the sea surface. She figured the subs were moving materials and laborers down to the platform construction site, transporting them underwater to hammer the nails and weld the metals for this new structure. The tubes were part of the vacuum and filtration systems that would cycle clean air to the platform, a process her team had designed.

There was also an increase in the number of deaths in the area. Almost 150 people had died, Inuit laborers reported dead from boating accidents, drunken brawls, and bear attacks. But Dawn was certain they were construction accidents, submarines that had lost power, protective suits that had collapsed, and the Canadian government was hiding the real cause. It had already killed all the bear and was dumping millions of dollars to fund a seal slaughter nearby, to clear the area for human habitation, so it took little extra effort to hide a few hundred more deaths. All those workers and hunters, they were the cogs, paid pennies to build an underwater sanctuary that in the end would shut its doors on them, leaving them behind to die with the rest of us.

No one had connected the dots like Dawn, though. The pieces were there, a few people had an inkling, but only Dawn realized the full extent of the project. At the same time, she knew the inadequacy of the existing evidence. A few pictures, a few more deaths than normal, they were not enough to move sufficient numbers of people to action. Everyone was already watching the death and infection counts on the local news, and nothing seemed more irrelevant than a small, underwater construction project hundreds of miles away.

So Dawn bought a plane ticket north, to Canada. Her stated purpose was to protest the seal slaughter, but that was her cover to hunt for evidence of the Reslo Plan, to collect irrefutable proof while there was still construction, still presumably a chance to stop it. At least I think that was her goal. She packed beets with her camera. She said she was going to stuff them down the oxygen tubes, to choke all the oligarchs. “My design on the tube system is almost perfect,” she said. “They won’t break down without sabotage. Then they’ll know, I was the one who stopped them.”

Whatever her reason, I wanted to go with her. I should have gone with her. Devon stopped me. That’s being dishonest, though. You might picture him standing in the doorway, arms out, keeping me inside the room until her plane was off the ground. No. He said, “It’s a dangerous business, walking out the door.” The plane might crash. Or worse, it might be diverted and quarantined. Devon said I should stay in school, finish my degree. There would always be work to do in hydrology. I could get a job in one of the new underground labs, working for a cure, chasing parasites and bacteria with microscopes. I know what he was thinking. Once I was in a job, safely in a lab, he wouldn’t have to worry about me anymore.

So I worried too much to get on a plane. But once Dawn was gone, I couldn’t focus on school. I missed classes. I was infected with a feeling, the fear of significant events occurring on the edges of my mundane life, and I froze, as if standing still would reveal them in my periphery.

I tried to focus on Dawn’s precepts. She had written instructions for me, ways I could keep the fight going – Don’t watch the news, Water is war, Everyone has to drink, Flush anything in toilet that will fit, Drop roadkill in the sewers. I made posters of these sayings and tacked them to the walls. I saw them when I woke up, when I went to bed, every time I sat at my computer desk. I thought they would inspire me to action, but they became reminders of my failures. My inability to act in my own life.

I went out a few nights, walking the interstate, looking for roadkill. There were dozens, maybe hundreds of animals, but only half had been hit by a car. The rest were infected, with rotted skin stuck to the concrete by pools of dried foam, juices that had drained out of their diseased bodies. I knew what Dawn wanted me to do, what she wanted everyone to do – she wanted these bodies in the sewers, and their germs would eventually come out of every faucet, every hose, every spigot, and soon no one could hide behind money or power because everyone had to drink water. We had to make risk universal.

I had agreed with her before, when she was here. Dawn radiated certitude wherever she was, which made everything she said seem so absolute. But I lost that feeling once she was gone. I started to think, what if we are supposed to go back to the water. The earth is sending us back to the source. As the load gets lighter, our turtle can move again. Then it goes to the water, creating a new era of submersion, and if we are not prepared to live on the water, or in it, we will all die.

The Reslo Plan might be, simply, the necessary next stage, a survival plan written into our genetic code, one that comes out when attacked by a certain type of virus. Of course, if that’s true, then some people will have to die for us to make this step. And why not? Hundreds, maybe thousands of people died building the pyramids, the Great Wall, the railroads. Millions had to die, so I could live where I am. And then workers were crushed, killed, burned, in factories and labor camps, to produce concrete and cars and beef. Our history has grinded people into powder, lined up bodies of billions of people like the bubbling corpses of roadkill I see on the highway, all to make this world and create more food and buildings than we need. As long as we think we are at the end of the timeline, we look back with a sense of admiration – and accept the necessity that everything’s built on piles of bodies.

Why should today be any different?

Devon’s upset. The end of the world is tough on him. He’s the type of person, it’s easy for him to talk to people, to make fleeting friends, to be a pal to everyone. This skill gets less useful as more people drop off – and those remaining get depressed and laconic. It’s tough to be a friend to everyone at the end of the world.

He is also tired of bailing me out of jail. The cops are watching the roads, and they’ve picked me up three times now. They claim, of course, they are looking for trogg dogs. They pick me up from the interstate, put me in a holding cell, all for my own protection. Maybe they believe that. The boss cop tells them to watch the roads, and they do their duty. But the directions started much higher on the chain of command, from a governor, a senator, someone looking to get his space in the Reslo Arcology. He starts a plan to protect the water supply, to keep the germs out of the sewers, because they flow into the ocean and pollute the areas where he hopes to live. By the time these dictates reach the cops, they are simple commands – watch the road, keep people off the highways, arrest any stragglers. They are following these orders, even though one day they will be on the diseased outside, looking in, like so many other people, when the Reslo Group seals off their new society.

I should tell them. I want to – but it wouldn’t accomplish anything. They might hold me without bail. Anyone – a judge, a sheriff, a commissioner – could be part of the Reslo Group, and if they think I could spoil their secret, they could toss me into a deep, dark cell. And I have to go to Canada. I never told Dawn about our turtle. She has to know, we are all on the edges of its shell.

We cannot stop our unmaking.

That’s the advantage of looking down. I can see the end coming because it always starts with the little things. All others, they have the dead-end gene to look up, to drive their cars blindly down a dark highway, and they cannot see their imminent fall. I am meant to survive. I am meant to go to Canada.

My role is to get Dawn into Reslo. Not to destroy but to survive. To help salvage humanity. After all, she designed the Reslo Arcology. She could spend her days testing water purity and levels of ocean acidification. She could fix the flaws that winnow into a job driven by covert bureaucracy, cracks in the foundation that would ultimately rip into the protective shell and doom the remaining human race. And I am with her, spending the rest of my days walking on sanitized steel floors and staring out double-glass walls into an empty ocean.

That would be fine.

Problem is, most of the commercial flights stopped about a month after Dawn left. Here’s where I need Devon. He has friends at the university. He can get me on a plane to Canada, and he’ll do it, as long as I am a problem. As long as I’m acting crazy – but not crazy enough to be kept in jail. Those are our roles for now. Once I’m gone, I don’t know. I probably won’t ever see him again. He’ll have to make his own choices, try to make friends with the few people left behind. This time next year, Dawn and I will be underwater, breathing filtered air, while the remnants of today’s society, perhaps a whole world, will be dead on the surface.

Life’s tough on the turtle.