The Lullaby-Dirge

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Table of Contents

The Lullaby-Dirge

By Mason Carr

The endless thrum of the blades overhead beat heavy against the smog clouds that rolled past the helicopter’s cabin. Cass was bent near double, pressing her oxygen mask to her mouth and trying to quell the nausea that had taken a deep seat in her chest. Violent air flowed through the cabin and forced itself, cold, through the filters that regulated her breathing. In her ear, the pilot’s voice crackled.

“We’re just two hundred miles out from the Utah refueling station. The Nation just confirmed our landing authorization for New Navajo.”

Cass just nodded. She ran her other hand over her stomach, knotting her fingers in the synthetic weave of her blazer. Far below, cracks ran through the Nevada desert like a flickering EKG. Her eyes followed their contours—heartbeat lines traced into the drought-swollen earth. She pulled the fabric of her shirt away from her tacky skin.

Cass’s pinky grazed the chords of her stomach: old stretch marks. Like scars, they pulsed with the rhythm of the rotors.

“Don’t worry, Ambassador,” the copilot said, turned around in his chair. “We’ll get you home soon enough.”

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The call had come in while Cass was still in talks with Kalifornia. She had been on the platform city for two days and the smell of the salt air had been tearing at her nerves from the moment the group landed.

The margin for negotiation on a new pipeline deal was tighter than usual and the corporate liaisons were stonewalling. Sitting in the conference room of Platform Alpha, she stared down the company’s sun-bleached lead negotiator. The skin of his lips cracked whenever he broke a smile—admittedly not often, but often enough to draw blood. He blinked and turned away, dabbing at his top lip with a tissue.

“Abraham, you have to admit that these per-gallon costs are ridiculous. Up one hundred and seventy-five percent from the last contract? That’s in clear violation of the rate fixes built into your subsidies.” Cass kept her hands neatly folded as she spoke, resisting the urge to tap the table.

Abraham Quon pushed the bloodied tissue to the corner of the table. “You are aware that those subsidy requirements only apply to Kalifornia as a private entity; we have been a publicly traded corporation for almost three years now, and the board has decided that the value of your federal contributions has been outpaced by their baggage. We would like to take this opportunity to move beyond them.”

“I acknowledge that this is not the forum to debate Kalifornia’s fiscal standing; however, I believe it is equally important to point out that a listing on Dubai’s black market hardly constitutes public trading.”

“I am sure our investors would disagree. The D-Res is recognized by ninety-seven countries globally. It is a shame that the United States is not one of them.”

The diplomatic team’s economic advisor leaned forward, her elbows braced on the table. “The SEC recognizes the so-called Dubai Resource Index for what it is: a pirate market for oligarchs like you to gamble away public resources. Your participation not only invalidates your right to public subsidy, but also opens you up to criminal prosecution. To push this point, Mr. Quon, could put your company in a very precarious position.”

A bead of blood trembled on Abraham’s lip. His eyes jumped around the room without affect.

Cass spread her hands out on the table. “We’ve been down this road before, Abraham. You are well aware that asking the government to pay this much for water, it’s just not reasonable. You also know that, despite your listing on the D-Res, Kalifornia can’t afford to lose its largest domestic market.

“Your grand pipeline cost you more than you care to admit, and your bosses need as much market share and as many friends as they can get. Is this really the best time to be making an enemy of the federal government?”

A punctuated knock echoed through the paneled room. Everyone sat still; one of the corporate aides was frozen halfway between sitting and standing, his eyes locked on the door.

The knock came again. “Enter,” Abraham called out. The door slid open and another aide stuck her head inside.

“Excuse my interruption, Mr. Quon, but there’s a call coming in for Ambassador Larkas. It’s urgent.”

Cass nodded. “Well, I think it’s time we had a recess anyhow. Is that alright with you, Abraham?”

Abraham smiled. “Of course, Ambassador. But, before you go,” he nodded to one of his aides, who handed him an info tablet, “I would like you to take a look at this.” He passed the tablet over to Cass.

She accepted it with an outstretched arm and squinted her eyes down at the small text. “What is this?”

“That is a list of buyers, willing to purchase our product at the same price quoted to you. Some of them, willing to go even higher.” Abraham smiled, his cheeks bunching. “There are people far more desperate—and far more willing to pay—than your government.

“If you choose to leave without accepting our deal, your water stock will be put to auction. You will have to take your chances with the big dogs at the watering hole, and I would not envy that position. I encourage you to consider this carefully before making any decision.”

Cass set the tablet down on the table and slid it back to Abraham. A steely arch bridged the gap between their stares, propping itself up on the thickness of conference-room air. Cass drummed her fingers once; the sound settled with a dull thump.

“We will discuss this,” the advisor broke in, “after recess.” Her voice wavered through the room’s roaring silence. Her fists were clenched.

Cass turned and dashed out of the room; Abraham’s rigid smile hung behind her.

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Outside of the conference room, chilled coastal air whipped Cass’s skin as she sprinted down the terrace. She felt naked without her air mask, but they weren’t necessary this far west. She had heard of other, stuffier, ambassadors that had been laughed off the job when they insisted on wearing theirs. She wasn’t going to make the same mistake, but her skin longed for the masochistic claustrophobia of the filter mask.

Still at the door, the Kalifornia aide hurried to catch up with her. “Ambassador, please follow me—”

“I know where the phone is.”

The aide gulped, running her chipped nails through her dark hair. “Yes, ma’am.”

Cass quickened her pace again, the slick metal deck surface sliding beneath her formal flats as she made her way to the wall-mounted satellite phone. When she got there, she punched her authorization code into the phone’s keypad with her thumbnail. The buttons were gritty against her fingertip. Every surface on Kalifornia’s platforms was coated in a thin layer of silty salt—a byproduct of the desalination process.

A green light blinked and the phone’s sealed booth gave a suction-pop as it opened. Cass pushed her way in and pulled up the receiver.

“Identifier?” the computerized voice requested.

“Coastal Ambassador Cassiopeia Larkas.”

“Connecting your signal now.” The line clicked for several seconds. “Connected.”


The spotty signal popped and crackled over the receiver. “Hello, Ambassador Larkas? This is Dr. Gilbert Caffrey, from the DC Obstetrics Center.”

Sterile memories swept over Cass’s vision—blue light reflecting off bleached white tile and ivory porcelain, the clinical feel of metal against her skin. The DCOC staff knew where she was; her posting was in her file. There was only one reason Caffrey would be calling now.

“What’s wrong with Gabrielle?” The conversation faded into visions of twisted blonde curls, pearl-white thighs, amber eyes like blossoming embers—French bread and wine at a summer picnic, the scratchy feel of an old twill blanket.

Cass’s knees buckled and she sank to the ground, legs bristling against the salt-caked deck. The aide was standing over her, lips flapping and arm outstretched, but Cass wasn’t hearing anything. “What’s wrong with Gabrielle?”

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The helicopter touched down in New Navajo just short of three hours after leaving Platform Alpha. “We’ll need about an hour for refueling,” the pilot informed Cass. “There’s enough time for you to get some food and some rest, then we’ll get you to the airfield.”

A hostile wind blew across the red Utah plains surrounding New Navajo, carrying with it a thick cloud of dust and enmity. Cass propped her hand against her brow, blocking out the harshness of the sun as it cut through the hazy sky. The settlement was a dour sprawl of neo-adobe houses, stacked and leaning against one another. Windows faced out at odd angles, revealing the watchful eyes of the residents.

At the edge of the helipad platform, Nation Air Command captain Nakai Blackett raised his hand in welcome. “We’re surprised to have you back so soon, Ambassador.”

“Something,” Cass said, swallowing, “something has come up.”

Nakai nodded, looking into Cass’s red-streaked eyes. “In that case, please join me and my wife for a meal.”

“I couldn’t, we’re already intruding here—”

“Nonsense. You know the embassy is always welcome in the Nation. You have done great work for us.”

“Not all of your colleagues would agree.”

“Good that they’re not joining us at table, then.” He inclined his head down the dust-blown road. “Come on, Ambassador.”

As the two walked down the branching avenue, the ringing of bells rolled in from deeper in the town. A family shuffled down the opposite side of the street, a gaggle of young children flocking behind a woman—a mother, Cass corrected herself—and an older teen.

The leading two were laden down with bags of canned goods and ration packs; the rest of the group watched the ground as they walked, shoulders bumping into one another.

Were they all hers? She tasted the idea. The idea of one was hard enough to swallow. And to have them here? The greying sky bore down heavy on New Navajo—a microcosm of the greater world’s greyness, compressed between two horizons.

Cass froze in mid-step, her gaze stuck on one of the children. A young girl trailed at the back of the pack, lazily skipping along. Her heels dug into the ground as she jumped forward and landed, coughing puffs of dirt up in her wake. A braid of shiny black hair bounced against her back. Cass found the motion hypnotic—like the pendulum of a clock, propelled by the naive energy of childhood.

The girl’s skin was just like the others’, ruddy and dried out by the merciless assault of the open sky. Unlike the others, though, she still looked up to that same sky with hope.

“Ambassador?” Nakai had stopped and was looking back at her, questions balanced between his eyes and his lips.

Cass blinked. The family disappeared off the street and the child’s joyful motion-blur was overtaken by the waves of desert heat rising off the sunbaked road. “Sorry,” she said, shaking her head. “Just distracted, that’s all.”

Nakai nodded in polite concern. “We’ll be at the house soon enough. Then we can get you out of this heat.”

Cass shrugged that off and kept walking.

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“Please, eat.” Nakai’s wife, Dibe, pushed a plate of squash and hominy cakes across the table. Cass declined the food but accepted the offered cup of warm tea. She sipped with care as Dibe regarded her with deep-set brown eyes.

Cass had done the best she could to keep up with the couple’s small talk, but it was clear that her remaining energy was drained. She had barely slept during her two days on Platform Alpha and it was starting to catch up with her.

Her eyes fluttered as Nakai spoke. The urgency of the helicopter ride had sustained her after the constant adrenaline of the negotiations had drawn back. Time skipped when she closed her eyes. Without the spinning of the rotors and the visible turning of the world to push her forward, Cass was fading fast.

“Ambassador—Cassiopeia—would you like to lay down?” Dibe rested her hand on Cass’s shoulder.

Cass pulled herself up, managing a smile and a bob of her head. Dibe helped her up, easing the cup of tea from Cass’s loose grip, and guided her over to the equipale chaise that sat at the front of the open room. She draped herself over the worn cushions and rested her head on the chaise’s threadbare pillow. Nakai pulled one of the dining chairs around, setting it up closer to Cass.

She smirked in spite of herself. “Are you going to watch over me?” Her eyes were heavy-lidded.

“I’ll keep the spirits away,” he said. She couldn’t tell if he was serious or not, but she heard Dibe chuckle in the background.

Her smirk fell away. “Nakai, can I ask a question?”

Silence in response.

“Have you ever thought about children?”


“Having them. Would you ever—” Cass swallowed, “—have any? And would you, here?”

Nakai sighed. “I’ll tell you a story. About my grandfather—he was still a young man when they started building this place. There was still water, and still life in Arizona. It was real, solid. You could walk outside and taste it in the air. This place? It didn’t even have a name, not officially. People just knew that it was a place, some land that would really, truly belong to us. Where we could be free again.

“My grandmother—she and my grandfather married young—wanted to move here as soon as she could. Take their two kids, make a new life. She begged my grandfather. Told him that the land was dying and that they had to get out while they still could. And you know what he said?

“He said, ‘This land is made of our stories. There are only two ways that stories can die—when they decide that they no longer want to be told, or when there is no one left to tell them. As long as the land wants me, I will stay and tell its story. If it dies, so be it. But I won’t be a part of that death.’”

Nakai took a deep breath. “My grandmother took my mother and her brother and left the old country. When she arrived, she learned that this land is also made of stories. The stories are newer—stories of independence, of being truly free. This is our new mythology. And as long as it’ll have me, I won’t be a part of its death either.

“Get some rest, Ambassador. You’ll be dusting off in half an hour.” He got up and pulled the chair away with him.

Cass released herself to the abyss of exhaustion.

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She was back on the helicopter. Distant behind them, Kalifornia’s chain of desalination platforms stood, black and still sentinels silhouetted on the horizon; far below, the Pacific waves rolled over the shadows of submerged buildings.

How much farther? she asked the pilot. No response.

A sound filtered up from below, fighting with the thunder of the rotors. A child was crying, somewhere in the sunken city beneath them.

Do you hear that? The pilot turned around; it was the black-haired girl, her braid wrapped around her body. She took her hands off the controls and the helicopter began to descend.

Cass unbuckled her harness, sliding the door open. Salty smog flooded the cabin. The cry was louder, carrying on the wind. She took a step forward.

Her foot missed the edge of the doorframe, finding only air. Terror flooded upward through her body; she hung there, suspended partway between containment and void, as the girl watched from the pilot’s chair.

The terror grew as she felt gravity grab on and the ocean below open up to swallow her. Her shoulders tipped forward and the current pulled her out of the door. The void took hold.

Freefall to black.

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Cass’s head shot up from her desk. Her forehead was slicked with a cold sweat and her skin was clammy in the rolling lecture-hall air. She pressed her thumbs over her eyelids, rubbing away the crumbs of sleep.

“—and as I am sure you are all familiar, Japan then became the first of many countries to have its birth-death ratio and overall population growth drop below zero. While this drop is a long-predicted feature of industrialized democracies, it was also emblematic of a larger change—a rejection of the desire to reproduce—”

Cass sighed as the lecture droned on and stretched her arms out in front of her before picking her stylus back up.

“Of all the consequences to come out of the ‘birth strike’ movement of the late 2020s, many see the implementation of the draft as the most wide-reaching. Even with this program in place, though, it is notable that the population of the United States alone has reached its lowest point in the last century.” Professor Illescas paced the front of the room as he lectured.

“This is something some of you may want to consider for your term paper—has the birth draft been an effective mechanism for keeping the United States competitive amongst western countries? How does it compare to the largely unchanged birth rates of a country like South Africa? Has it achieved its goal? These are all valuable questions that I don’t see many of you writing down.” A fierce scribbling and typing rose up from the mass of students.

Cass’s eyes drifted over to the curled poster plastered to the door of the classroom. The silhouette of a pregnant woman, neon text hovering inside her outlined womb. “Do your civic duty! Only you can nurture our future,” it proclaimed.

Her draft card had been delivered the day after she turned eighteen. Every day since, she could feel it burning a hole in her wallet. A couple of her high school friends had already received their draft notices. They acted thrilled.

One of them, Sara, had gone to one of those state inpatient pregnancy clinics. She was constantly posting about how good the food was, and how her doctor was her new best friend. Cass had had to unfollow her; the whole thing was nauseating.

The lecture carried on. Professor Illescas had passed the official end time—like usual—and half the students were squirming to get out of their seats.

“Next class, we will review the demographic effects of climate asylum. We will be using the exodus of the Sahelian peoples to southern Asia and Europe as a test case, so be sure to focus on that portion of your reading.”

Once he finished speaking, there was a stampede for the door. Cass hung back, waiting for the flow of bodies to thin out. When most of them were gone, she made her way down the steps and to the door. She paused there for a moment, regarding the birth draft poster. The eyeless woman looked out at her, her yellow outline reflecting contempt back out to the world.

After a certain hesitation, she shot her arm out and tore the poster down. Glancing left and right, she quickly shoved it into the wastebin next to the door. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw the professor watching her. He blinked, pursed his lips, then nodded. Cass pulled a weak smile, slipped her air mask on, and pushed through the door.

Gabrielle was waiting outside. “Hurry up, you bitch! You always keep me waiting.” Her eyes were squinted; she was smiling beneath her mask. Raising a manicured hand, she swept her goldilocks curls out of her eyes.

Cass had met Gabrielle at the planning meeting of a birth protest that neither ended up attending. They had sat silently in opposite corners of the room, Cass looking down at her stomach with unfounded anxiety as other girls got up and gave vehement speeches about not bringing any new life into a dying world. She had been self-consciously pulling at the hem of her blouse, trying to hide the marks on her sides—marks that she was convinced would prove she didn’t belong.

It was Gabrielle who approached her at a pause between the speeches, desperate to escape before they started up again. There were introductions, and ten minutes later they were curled up on Gabrielle’s dorm futon, watching sitcom reruns on TV with a stiff drink shared between them.

It was a year of uncomfortable excuses before Cass was settled enough to talk about the baby that she had never met. About how she had cried in her hospital bed, the nurses leaving her alone to play out her inexperienced sorrow. Afterward, Gabrielle had kissed her. She never brought it up again, and Cass loved her for that.

“How’s the pre-law seminar going?” Cass asked.

“Awful, thanks for asking. Professor’s still a pig, I’m still the only one that does any fucking work. How about you?”

Cass opened her mouth then closed it again. She was embarrassed to say that she had fallen asleep again. “It’s fine, nothing super interesting.”

“What, you don’t love spending every afternoon learning about the imminent death of the planet?”

Cass swung her head around to Gabrielle, eyebrow arched.

“Kidding, honey, just kidding.” She glanced down at her watch. “Hey, you got time to come back to my place? My last class is canceled, and I don’t feel like hanging around here.”

“If I go with you, you know I’m not leaving until the morning. So sorry, but no. Lunch, though?”

“Lunch will be nice. Bitch.” Both girls laughed and headed away from the classroom annex, fingers laced together.

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The voice drifted into Cass’s addled brain.

“Ambassador, the helicopter is ready to lift off. We should go.”

She blinked her eyes open. Nakai was standing, arms crossed, at the door. The pilot was in front of him, hand extended to help Cass up. She lifted her head off the chaise, running a hand through her hair and struggling to remember exactly where she was.

Nakai spoke up, “A call came into the Air Command station while you were out. From a Dr. Caffrey.”

Everything snapped into focus as the pilot nodded. “The timetable’s been moved up. We need to get you back as soon as possible.”

Cass took hold of the man’s hand and let herself be hoisted up. “Let’s go, then.” Her words trailed with uncertainty. Part of her wished she could stay in New Navajo, sealed off from time and the world. The crisp burn of cleaner air would keep her in a world of dizzy semi-lucidity, far away from whatever was happening back in DC.

The other part of her let herself be led back to the helicopter while she contemplated. Before she fully realized it, she was strapped into the stiff seat again and the rotors were beginning to stir the air.

“Thank you,” she called out to Nakai. He gave her a weary smile of encouragement before sauntering away from the platform. The manufactured wind picked up as the helicopter cleared the ground.

“Course set for Denver airfield,” the copilot crackled as New Navajo shrunk away beneath them. “Max ETA, two and a half hours.” He turned back to Cass. “You going to be okay, Ambassador?”

Cass nodded slowly.

“Here we go, then.” The helicopter picked up speed and set off into the horizon.

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Cass was in a daze for the remainder of the trip, her fugue only broken up by the switches in transportation—helicopter to plane in Denver, plane to town car in DC. She felt the constriction of the city air in her lungs, but her surroundings were lost on her.

The jolts of the car over the broken tarmac had thrown her back to the heart-clogging despair that she had felt nine months before. Gabrielle had met her outside their house, draft notice in hand. She thought it was a sick joke; seventeen years together and Cass was sure that they could both go the rest of their lives without being drafted. Inside, they read over the notice together, Gabrielle out loud and Cass in glowering, hateful silence.

“The recipient herein named is obligated to report to the licensed obstetrician of her choice for mandatory physical evaluation. If deemed to be fit for service, a certified fertilization is required within three months of evaluation.”

Cass had wanted to burn the notice and pretend that neither of them ever saw it. She and Gabrielle had fought that night, fierce but dispassionate; they both knew that reality was unavoidable.

She allowed someone—she didn’t remember who—to slip an air mask over her face as she exited the car outside of the DC Obstetrics Center, flanked by the two embassy aides who had accompanied her from the airfield.

Dr. Caffrey met the party outside. His manner was firm but compassionate, his wide, watery gaze holding on Cass. “Ms. Larkas, please come with me. The rest of you may stay in the waiting room, if you wish.”

He led her through a wavering maze of white sterility, hallways differentiated only by the variety of potted plants and inspirational posters. Opening a door next to an artificial ficus, he ushered Cass into a small anteroom. The walls were a shock. They were painted a bright blue and decorated with stenciled flowers. The door opposite them was a grassy green.

“Now, Ms. Larkas, please sit down.” He gestured to the low bench that ran the length of the wall. “I need to explain some things.”

Cass stared at him, still standing.

“Ms. Larkas, please.” When Cass continued to stand, he sat down instead. “The last several hours have been difficult for all of us. Your wife started hemorrhaging shortly after our first call. We got her into surgery, but we had to make some difficult choices. Normally, the choice would be yours, but—” He trailed off.

The door opened a crack and another doctor, surgical mask hanging from her neck, stuck her head out. “Ambassador Larkas?” Cass nodded. “I’m glad you’re here. It’s been a difficult couple of hours, but we saved her.” Caffrey’s eyes widened and he started shaking his head at the other doctor. She didn’t seem to take the message.

“You can come in and see her whenever you’re ready.” The doctor ducked back into the treatment room. The door stayed open a crack, the clinical light leaking into the anteroom.

Dr. Caffrey turned back to Cass, his eyes quivering. “I’m sorry, but it is best that you know.” He opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, unsure of how to continue.

The edges of Cass’s vision began to blur. She swung her arm out, propping herself up against the wall. Caffrey had stopped trying to talk, settling for just looking up at her and hoping that his gaze would convey what he needed to say.

From behind the green door, Cass heard a baby start to cry. Underneath that, she heard the other doctor singing, softly.

For the first time in years, Cass started to cry.