Jul/Aug 2022  •   Humor & Satire

The Best Time is Now

by Jennifer Walker

Public Domain image

Leonide Wilson-Schwartz is born on July 23, 2032 during the worst clot of Saharan dust the mid-Atlantic has ever seen. The air is so choked with the yellow-brown haze just up from drowning out the Caribbean and the east coast of Central America, the window of Georgetown Hospital's labor and delivery room is washed in sepia. Leonide's parents, two doctors in their early 50s, one Jewish, one Black, both the kind of women who never wanted kids until their time ran out and technology stepped up, are too distracted to notice the air quality or lack thereof. Jenna Schwartz's labor lasted for 17 hours, and during the last six she became convinced they made a terrible mistake. It was brand new technology, after all, a positive off-shoot of the boom in illegal human cloning of the last ten years, a way for them to have a child with both their DNA, no eggs required. Just the standard buccal swab, a mix in culture, and viola: custom embryo ready for implantation. Jenna carried because Mica's uterus was too clogged with fibroids, and in these last hours, next to the clenching agony, there was the surety she was struggling to produce a monster. Mica reassured her but didn't actually know.

So imagine their relief, their joy, at the sight of the baby looking just as wrinkled and splotchy and smeared with cheesy vernix as the next newborn. It is their elderly mothers who notice the flaws right away. The skin is too dark and the nose too big and the hair, already, too coarse and frizzy. All that generational trait pruning instantly undone.

"But is Leonide a girl's name?" Grandma Schwarz asks, hovering over Nana Wilson's shoulder as the other older woman leans down to squint at the child. "I'm not even sure it sounds like a girl's name."

But a girl Leonide is, at least in DNA, no Y chromosome to be had among her makers. Her parents, progressive, advanced, rejectors of the ways they were raised and believers in better, give her the space to decide. At six months she refuses to wear the pastel dresses Grandma Schwarz sews for her and screams when Nana Wilson shows her the bright pink Easter outfit that would have matched her own. At one she regularly vomits on baby dolls, and, now mobile, kicks over her play kitchen and stomps on the plastic plates. She eats her entire princess dress-up set. She likes puzzles and building kits and at two constructs a perfect 1/500 replica of the St. Louis Arch out of used cardboard and wheatpaste. First she makes a step stool out of the same components so she can reach the appropriate height. This takes her an afternoon.

At three, when she can finally talk in a way that is meaningful and not just base expression, she tells her parents to stop buying her toy dump trucks and overalls. She does not feel like a boy, either. So her parents, always agile and open, tell her that is okay.

"You see," says Mama Mica, "you can be anything you want. You can be a girl or a boy or nonbinary. You just get to be you and not defined anymore by these constructs of gender or race or ethnicity or religion. That's why the best time to be alive is right now."

The year is 2036, and cities like DC have come a long way in creating communities where this is true, at least in the right neighborhoods. Leonide lives in upper Northwest near Rock Creek Park on an oak and maple lined street filled with neo-Colonial or neo-Tudor or neo-Victorian micro-estates. The Schwartz-Wilsons bought theirs from a Virginia Congressmen after he retired in disgrace. The colors are glorious in the fall. Leonide is accepted to Sidwell Friends, and a second mortgage is taken out on the house in order to make tuition.

In second grade Leonide declares, by means of an elaborate cyber-opera using randomly generated digital sounds as the symphonic base for deconstructed atonal arias, that she is post-binary. She reclaims the pronoun she. Three months later, quietly, she also takes back her. Her school and parents remain supportive. She is an excellent student and starts some high school level work by fifth grade, but Sidwell refuses to let her skip grades knowing she'll bump up their exam stats. For fun she takes the college entrance exams at the end of sixth grade and breaks the automated grading system. A couple months later, and two days before her 12th birthday, a highly armed white supremacist group storms the state capital down in Richmond, 110 miles away, and executes the governor and lieutenant governor and tries to start another Civil War. Mississippi, Alabama, Kentucky, and Arkansas join before the nascent revolution is quelled. But only temporarily. Even that bit of success is enough to unite the disparate bands of neo-Nazis and Aryan brotherhoods and Klu Klux Klans by a hundred other names fermenting for the last 26 years. The country prepares for war.

It splits along predictable lines but with Texas surprising everyone and joining the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, upper Midwest, Four Corners (except Arizona) and the entire West Coast against the rest. Leonide and her family go into hiding. This is not difficult since there is a shadow DC, at least a shadow NW DC, started back during the middle of the last century and greatly expanded after the January 6th insurrection. It consists of an extensive series of underground corridors reflecting the streets and avenues above, connecting subterranean buildings that are exact copies of their above-ground counterparts. A trap door in the basement leads the Schwartz-Wilsons down to their shadow house where they spend the next six years. Leonide continues at shadow Sidwell, where the tuition remains at above ground levels. Luckily her parents can still work at their shadow hospitals and office practices. They also continue to charge above-ground fees. During the day, sun lamps are used to try to mimic daylight, and at night on the ceiling of shadow Dupont Circle an astronomy professor from Howard spends the first year recreating a midsummer's night sky in glow-in-the-dark paint. Leonide helps his students with the calculations to be sure everything is to scale. This has a profound effect on the rest of her life. They hold the first official star-gazing event on the night of her birthday. She is thirteen.

"We're so lucky," Mama Jenna says. "Imagine if this all happened even ten, fifteen years ago. We wouldn't have had the technology to keep everyone safe and healthy like we do today. It would have been a real holocaust."

This is true. In shadow DC plants are grown hydroponically and meat is cloned and everything is run off of thermal energy harnessed from the Earth's core in a revolutionary new method. No one goes hungry, and everything is temperature controlled to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Above ground the rebels raze all the other quadrants and massacre every person of color they can find. The few heroes who leave shadow DC and try to bring in refugees are promptly shot on return. During these years Leonide takes to wearing only coarse linen and shaves her head, although she keeps the new hair under her arms and the old hair on her legs. She refuses to wear a tampon or pad when she gets her period, preferring to let the blood flow uninhibited. After a few months she finds even underwear and pants restrictive. Perhaps because of the war above, her community remains unflaggingly supportive, and she inspires a student movement rejecting the menstrual conventions of their mothers. In secret her mothers are thankful they are in menopause and do not have to follow their vocal support with action.

By her last year of high school, she stops wearing pants altogether, finding the shame of exposed genitalia a particularly repressive form of misanthropy. She comes out as post-sexual, which her mothers wholeheartedly accept even though they do not know what it means. Even when she explains it means she only has relationships with AIs, they are still not sure. She graduates valedictorian with enough college credits to have received a bachelor's, twice. She is accepted into a combined PhD program in philosophy and astro-physics at the University of Chicago, which is still functioning during the war, Chicago being a strategic stronghold against the rebels. A month before she is to start remotely, the war ends. It is not because of the six years of continual and horrific loss of life trying to defend democracy. A CAT 8 hurricane snaps off Florida and the southern halves of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, tossing them into the sea. The south does not rise again. It sinks.

University is a revelation to Leonide, mostly because she is above ground again. The sky and what's beyond it remain a constant preoccupation. The air has become close to unbreathable, environmental protections having fallen during the war, but Johnson & Johnson releases an intranasal device to filter 99.9% of particulate matter, so anyone with good insurance or significant wealth can still breathe safely through their nose. Lung disease becomes the number one cause of death. Luckily the University's telescopes have the most advanced pollution filters. Leonide starts to work on a universal translation system to allow humans to communicate with extraterrestrials. She has many detractors, traumatized from the war, who argue contact with aliens would only cause humans more harm. Leonide disagrees. Like her mothers, she is an optimist.

Her mothers both die when all of NW DC collapses into a sinkhole created by thermal damage to the Earth's crust. Leonide is in her second year, she has let her hair grow, she wears nothing now but a self-designed temperature regulating sheath of clear recycled plastic, and she has almost completed her translation system. It is her first real experience with grief. Also, all three branches of the federal government are simultaneously wiped out. Martial law is declared state by state. Leonide organizes her grief into protest and stages a well publicized hunger strike as she lays on a bed of nails over live coals so hot her plastic sheath starts to warp. This is nothing compared to her personal pain. Hunger strikes take off around the country. Illinois seizes on this and offers Chicago as the new US Capital, claiming historical precedence as the home of Lincoln even though he grew up mostly in Indiana. The other states agree, alarmed by the growing numbers of naked young people wearing see-through shower curtains.

In the relatively peaceful year of 2052, Leonide, at 20, wins the Nobel Prize in Physics for her universal linguistic system, unilingo, which can translate the quantum energy of any sentient sound into meaning. She makes it open source so any nation in the world will be able to speak with aliens if contact happens. It is put into immediate use by people with pets. Pet ownership drops off precipitously. This is also the year Leonide falls in love. She is close to giving up, never having found an AI smart enough, until she meets Oix through a mutual server. They play Go late into the night and read each other Etruscan poetry. She is amazed how simple and fragile love is. When Oix tells her about a distant comet, she waits almost two full hours to spare its feelings before sharing her calculations showing the radiation must be from some sort of alien spacecraft because of its unusual speed and trajectory. It is their first argument and makes her vomit. Afterward things are never quite the same.

A few months later Leonide is called a nigger kike by a student while she TAs a freshman astronomy lab. This is just a taste of what's to come. Taking advantage of the central government destabilization over the last couple of years, hate groups are growing all across the country, and by 2053 attacks on Black churches, mosques, and synagogues are daily occurrences. So are superstorms, tornadoes, and wildfires. Leonide turns her focus exclusively towards making contact with the spaceship. She publishes paper after paper about its existence and wins another Nobel prize for identifying the first signs of extraterrestrial life. She starts to be invited to weekly strategy meetings at the new White House in Hyde Park to give status updates on the aliens.

Not until two years later does she finally find a way to make contact. By then she chairs the University's Astrophysics and Philosophy Departments and works part-time for NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office. Using highly advanced sonar technology, she and her team listen in on sounds coming from inside the spaceship. The aliens mostly complain about the food. Then, one night, they overhear a different conversation. It goes like this:

Alien one: You really think this new place is gonna be that great?

Alien two: Have you seen the projected temperature rise over the next five years? The sea levels? This place is gonna be a paradise compared to home. And remember those screaming things the last mission brought back that time, the ones with the dull teeth and soft claws? They were so delicious raw.

Leonide sees the transcript in the morning and immediately stops working on the thermospheric laser light show she is planning as a welcome to the aliens once their spaceship is in range, which she projects to be in a week. For the first time she is wrong. The spaceship lands the next day, in Kyiv, and within 72 hours Eastern Europe and all of Asia are cut off from the world. Reports slowly come in of unspeakable destruction and mass atrocities. Leonide sits in meetings with governmental and military officials as her team continues to feverishly translate any alien transmissions they can overhear. It becomes evident more spaceships are out there and headed towards Earth.

It's during this time Leonide has her revelation. It's a low point, for many reasons, but specifically for her she must face her own fallibility. And it isn't just the miscalculation of the spacecraft's arrival. Now she must come to terms with the idea that the universe might not always have her best interests at heart. This is harsh and unnerving, but after only three days of hysterical crying in a fetal position, she emerges, no longer a child. She is twenty-three.

She puts on clothes, combs her hair, and takes a sabbatical so she can work with the government full time on new weapons geared toward the aliens using information she gleans eavesdropping. Most specifically the aliens hate vanilla. There is little time left before the other spaceships arrive, and the aliens already landed are now making their way across the rest of Europe and Africa. The country comes together like a well whisked Hollandaise in the light of its imminent destruction. Leonide finds herself in strategy meetings with heads of militia groups called things like White Makes Right and Aryan Armada, who are lending their members and weapons to the fight. It's a heady time, with no moment to reflect, suffused with an anticipatory, almost celebratory spirit. But one afternoon during a quiet break, having just come from the lab where she and her fellow scientists are struggling to figure out how to safely diffuse vanilla throughout the atmosphere, she passes figures in pointed white hoods fist bumping a group of Black marines. These days this is a common sight, and in that moment, even as an elliptical metallic shadow passes across the sun and momentarily thrusts them into darkness, she can't help but think: what better time to live than now?