Those They Left Behind

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Table of Contents

Those They Left Behind

By Jules Hogan

Not everyone fled. For some, it was a matter of finances. For others, faith. Masha had the restaurant, a dimly lit corner building, a greasy cave that her father called a pub and she a café. Masha’s ex-boyfriend Diesel called to tell her he’d be on the ships. When they broke up, he cut his hair and moved to California. Masha moved home and helped her dad in the kitchen. That night, as she took out the restaurant’s trash, she raised a middle finger to the sky.

Her father, Ivan, drank plenty of whiskey, bourbon, or scotch. He was a good man, a depressed man, a lonely man, and the last thing to bear his name would be the vinyl awning over the restaurant’s door. His history would remain untold, buried. In the evenings he drank his scotch and watched the news and yelled about it.

Ivan thought the Ascents were a myth. They’re sending them up there to die, he said. Or, those are empty ships. Lights. Blown-up space junk. He sipped, he crunched ice in his molars. Masha sat on the couch and watched him. His stomach straddling the space between his thighs, his ankles red and swollen, veins climbing in purple scrawl on his calves. His jaw, working, molars grinding the dregs of an old nicotine habit. My father is old, Masha thought. My father is going to die.

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They left behind the sick, the disabled, the blind and paraplegic and Deaf, unless you had some other immense talent. They left behind the poor, the un-bootstrapped. The imprisoned or once so, the very old, the very young. They left those who scored poorly on standardized tests, or personality tests, or those with a psychiatric condition. Those who tended to be radical, in any political direction, or who struggled with addiction: gambling, sex, alcohol, drugs, reality television, pornography, salty foods, cycling, rhetorical debate. Those who participated in socially adverse behaviors, such as sexual depravity or smoking.

Now, we were defined by this shared feature. Our great-great-grandchildren would look up into the sky and wonder about their ancestors who escaped to the stars. Where did they go? Did they make it? Was life better there, in a biosphere of their own creation? Would they ever return? Earth-bound, doomed, we all had a new understanding of our role in the future.

They left behind towers of refuse, castles of waste. Soda bottles, pen caps, plastic bags that read thank you, thank you, thank you. Batteries: lithium-ion, computer, car, double-A, triple-A, watch, solar. Shiny snack wrappers and chip packets—Frito, Dorito, corn chip, Lay’s, baked, BBQ, salt and vinegar, Cajun twist. Lightbulbs with broken filaments, icebergs of Styrofoam, rumpled silk ties, black plastic bags of chicken bones, unused sheet metal, wooden packing pallets. We scavenged and scrapped; we were like vultures surrounded by all these relics.

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Every morning, before the sun rose, Nandita kissed her mother on the cheek and wrapped an apple and a sandwich in a plastic bag and put on her face mask. She stepped out into the street, already crowded with bicycles and mopeds and scooters and small cars and men and women carrying all manner of purses and backpacks and suitcases and wire cages and wooden crates and plastic bags like her own, some full of items to sell at market and others empty, ready to buy. Nandita pushed through the crowd, her scarf wrapped tightly around her face to keep her mask from getting jostled.

The landfill was a magnificent creature, teeming with the waste of a hundred civilizations. For six hours a day, Nandita picked through the refuse looking for the lithium batteries. The pay was good and they gave health insurance to immediate family.

In grade school, Nandita wanted to become an oil-pastel portraitist, then a veterinarian for whales, then an astronaut. In high school, she studied hard and took Advanced Placement courses and learned German and Greek. The stars were still her mission. To Ascend. That’s all she wanted. She went to a good state school for undergraduate, saving money, staying out of debt. She took classes in their pre-space program. She watched her dreams line up like dominoes in a chain.

You should stay here on Earth, her mother said.

Why? Nandita asked. Your generation is the one that did this. I didn’t ask to be here. At that, she slammed her fork into her bowl of runny curry and ran to her room. She wouldn’t speak to her mother. I didn’t ask to be here, Nandita thought. I didn’t ask to do this.

She tried to continue schooling when her mother got sick. She took night classes, but the university wasn’t of the prestigious kind she needed to Ascend. She needed schools with names like precious metals. All she had was fool’s gold.

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They left behind social media profiles and photographs and voicemails, viral videos and blog posts and instant messages, email addresses and phone numbers and screen names, VPNs and IPs and gigabytes. Servers hummed with the chatter of all this displaced data. We scrolled through their histories: went on a five mile run this a.m., now gonna calorie splurge on breakfast!; glad to announce my acceptance to Stanford Class of 2076!; wow please reshare for all of those who lost their homes to the floods in Malaysia.

This formed a history. Teachers taught schoolchildren of the Ascents, the closing of the Earth, the recalibration of its systems. For generations, they told the story of the rising red graph. They gave it a plot and action. A climax, a resolution. The deus ex machina was no god but greed and fear.

They left behind such destruction, is how the story started. Famines in Yemen, Syria, Bangladesh, the Navajo Nation, Pakistan, Uruguay, Sudan. Droughts and wars over water rights and melting glaciers. Super-tornadoes and hurricanes and an untrustworthy Gulf Stream. Wildfires and mudslides and floods and pandemics. Rivers choked in poison, thirst-stricken cities, blighted fields of monocrops. They left behind all these disasters and catastrophes; what were we supposed to do?

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Naoko didn’t have to stay. She had a first-class ticket on one of the last Ascents, with plenty of other physicists and bioengineers. It wouldn’t have been hard to accept the ride. Her parents wanted her to Ascend; one of their progeny living on Mars! It was almost too grand to be believable.

And at first, she had all intentions to go. She packed her suitcases and canceled her lease and sold her car; she hosted and attended farewell parties and Ascent showers. She dealt with snide messages from jealous friends and solicitous ex-girlfriends. She got her vaccines, organized her paperwork, rehomed her cat. Naoko did all but get on the ship. She looked at the gangway to her final destination and she couldn’t take a step. She froze, clogging the aisle, till a kind assistant dragged her away.

We can give your ticket to someone else, they said.

Please, Naoko begged, and she took her luggage and ran.

Now she sat with her parents at the kitchen table where she’d solved algebra homework as a child. Her parents were perplexed. They’d been denied this amazing opportunity, and now she turned it down?

We’re just trying to understand, her mother said, smiling kindly. Last spring, they repainted the kitchen a balmy yellow. It helped her mother stay calm. When the world is ending, it’s nice to have a kind kitchen.

Naoko brushed away the hair that slipped free from her ponytail. She stared out the window, where a swing still hung from the oak tree in the backyard. She sat on that swing almost every evening for eighteen years, first pushed by her father, then supplying her own momentum, then circling lazily while she passed secrets through holoscreen calls. Naoko stood from the table without replying. She crossed the kitchen to the patio door and stepped out onto the ecocrete and then into the soft grass. Her parents followed to the doorway and watched, concerned.

Naoko brushed away the leaves that collected in the seat of the swing. She sank into it and pushed off the ground with her feet. She swung to and fro, forward and back, every push bringing her more momentum. She remembered childhood games, seeing who could go the highest, pushing so far you felt as though at any moment, you might be propelled into the stars.

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They left behind the feeling of dirt between their fingers, be it the loamy soil of Northern Scotland or the bloody red clay of the Mississippi basin or the rich black mud in the Congo or the terra rossa in the Mediterranean. They left behind birch, hazel, aspen and juniper; loblollies, magnolias, cypress and tupelo; ebony, iroko, mahogany and limba; olive, laurel, carob and myrtle. They left the birds, the capercaillie and Great Skua, the dowitcher and dunlin, the goshawk and honey buzzard, the lemon and emerald and laughing doves.

They left behind the ancient knowledge that had been with our species since we first stood on two feet. Perhaps even longer. Perhaps since we struggled from the ocean, or since we devised the great principle of sexual reproduction, or since we developed RNA. When they left, they left behind the understanding that we are all part of the same system, as connected as bees in a hive or zooxanthellae in a coral.

Did this loss hurt them, as well? Did they feel that tug in their roots?

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Masha scrubbed toilets and ordered tomatoes and counted change and fired waitstaff. She mixed cocktails and served coffee and dealt with unhappy customers and hired dishwashers and organized the books. She gave her father sponge baths and brought him dinner on a tray and served him bourbon and watched as he swelled with liquor and rage, the world changing around him.

A relic of the old years, Ivan was horrified by the seismic shifting around him. For eight hours a day, he sat in front of his holoscreen, switching from coffee to bourbon, watching as the world fell apart. When Masha was home from the restaurant, she worked under a barrage of his commentary.

They’re turning the military into some goddamned Eco-cult, Masha. Planting trees! What are we supposed to do in a war? Tree them to death? We’re fucked, Masha.

When the United Earth Convention opened all the borders to anyone with an Earth passport, Ivan, who called it “Uck,” almost had an embolism. They’re going to completely override us, he grumbled. We might as well just shoot ourselves in the mouth.

The UEC program to buy back guns and cars—a fascist ploy to neuter the civilians. Just wait, Ivan said. Soon this place will look like North Korea. A lot of people felt the same way, especially in the comments section on Ivan’s holoscreen, but from what Masha could tell, none of them, including her father, could afford either guns or cars, so it didn’t really seem to matter.

It grew harder to run a restaurant. Coffee went first, and though Masha experimented with the lab-grown varieties populating the shelf, it was never quite as popular. When the meat subsidies shut down, and ground chuck became eighty-eight dollars a pound, she shut down the kitchen entirely. She was older, for one, her wrists and ankles sore all the time, and it was becoming almost impossible to manage Ivan and the restaurant itself.

What she wanted was a little house with a garden. Maybe a place she could have some chickens, a dog. She’d get her father a fancy wheelchair. He’d see the sun, trees, have a quiet life. Maybe she’d make a rule, no holoscreens! She imagined the sun lilting through the windows. She imagined the birdsong among the trees.

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They left behind the Gullah, the Igbo, the Tucanoan and Mayoruna and Barbacoan peoples. The Inupiat and Yupik and Ahtna and Ingalik, the Seediq and Bunun and Thao. All these languages, voices, stories. This first world of people who remembered their connections to the Earth, to its cycles. Who understood that a forest is a field in its own measure, who knew how to swim with the currents of change, like the schools of fish that flashed around the reefs.

The rest of us had much to learn, the names of birds and wildflowers, how to forage and sow and tend, how to collect drinking water from the mist and calcium from the soil, how to follow the hungry herds, how to clean a fish. We became so busy we forgot about the Ascents. We stopped looking up into the sky. We stopped telling our grandchildren their stories.

At first, they sent out messages, questions, radio signals asking how we fared. They told us of the beauty of Earth’s curvature as she crested the Martian horizon. The biospheres were adequate, they said, and we have plenty to eat, but somehow, we still get lonely. We feel something like homesickness, even our children complain of this despair.

Maybe, after a while, they stopped trying. Maybe we just quit listening. After all, they were the ones who left us here.

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Nandita was building the ocean, for her mother. She still hated her job but it had gotten better since she learned to make her mosaics. She found the supplies in the landfill. Old photographs, jewelry, broken glass. Fragments of computer chips like alien maps. Magazines and tubes of dried paint, which she ground down and mixed with oil. She collected sheets of plastic, colorful cellophane, sometimes finding more of this than her batteries.

The ocean was her largest mosaic yet, built from strips of trash in every shade of blue, under a rich sunset sky. Her mother missed the ocean, Nandita knew. She grew up on the archipelago of Florida, but moved inland for more opportunity when she had a daughter. What luck, Nandita thought. There was no opportunity here.

Her idea was to build the mosaic in pieces, and then assemble it in one large mural in the living room while her mother was sleeping. The dismal room had no windows and was painted a bland shade of beige, so haphazardly that in places the sick green of the ecocrete peeked through.

She’d never seen the ocean, but she used photos pulled up on her holoscreen. Her mother once tried to describe it, the constant roar, the rancor of the gulls. You can’t recreate it on screens or VR, her mother said. Maybe one day we can go there.

That night, as Nandita pasted up the fragments of cellophane, she imagined that her ocean rippled in the lamplight like the one her mother described. She imagined the cry of birds, the smell of brine.

In the morning, when her mother woke and shrugged on her robe and went to fix a cup of fake coffee, she found her daughter asleep on the carpet, a brush still clasped in one palm. She covered Nandita with a blanket and stared at the complex mosaic on the wall. She thought she tasted seawater and realized she’d started crying. She rubbed the moisture from her eyes and poured water in the percolator.

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They left behind stories: in libraries and bookstores, on kitchen tables, on the backs of toilets, in gardens and verandas and sitting rooms. Stacks of encyclopedias in attic boxes and children’s fables in the nursery and geometry textbooks in molding backpacks. Stories about castaways on forgotten islands, pirates exploring the seas, whaleships in the Arctic Ocean. Novels featuring men and women and animals and robots and aliens and hybrids of all these creations. In every book was an entirely different universe, and none of them were quite like our own.

They left music in all its forms, voices on records and cassette tapes and CD-ROMs, the empty mouths of instruments patient for players, the rippling sheets of notation. They left halls and museums and basements full of art, oil paintings and watercolors and charcoal portraits and ceramic sculptures and mystifying creations of hollow glass. Movies and music videos and amateur pornography, wildlife photos and still-lifes and an unusually large amount of art featuring cats.

This told a history. A story. What we cherished, desired, feared. Who we loved, what felt like home. Why were there so many landscapes of mountain vistas or ocean shores? Why did this one man paint, over and over, the same woman?

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As a child, Naoko loved to visit VR aquariums and watch the animals that lived in the deepest seas. Octopi with five hearts and immense tentacles, bioluminescent jellies, sperm whales and enormous squid going to battle. She might have inherited this love for the ocean from her great-grandfather, a fisherman in Tokugawa. Or maybe her grandmother, who trained dolphins.

In her lab, Naoko designed graphene nets that removed pollution from the ocean currents and resembled siphonophores; floating islands that could hold crops or livestock or people; turbines that harvested energy from the tides. At home, over dinner with her parents or while they watched game shows on television, she sketched out these new inventions.

What are you drawing? her mother would ask.

Naoko looked down at the legal pad of messy line work. Just some ideas for work, she said. She imagined communities like beehives, each working separately but toward the same direction. She never regretted not Ascending. As an old woman, her life stretched behind her, she’d look back and cherish that she never made that singular mistake.

Naoko applied for grants and planted roses in her mother’s garden. She sent out requests for press releases and learned how to help her father with his physiotherapy. She cooked dinner for her parents and stayed up late reading journals and one night, while pouring a glass of wine, she realized how much her own cycles had shifted. If she’d Ascended to the stars, would her parents be able to hire nurses or aides? Would her lab be as successful without her? These were the questions she couldn’t bear and this is why she stayed.

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They left behind graphene, photovoltaics, open-flow hydroturbines, micron and UV filters. Chronicles of scientific advancement since the dawn of time. Artificial-intelligence neural networks that could dissect and diagnose all our missteps, give us a map for the labyrinth of choices. The golden thread. We were our own minotaur, our own Icarus. One wrong move could bring us closer to the sun.

They left their means of destruction—their hypersonic weapon systems and aircraft carriers. A horrific, kaleidoscopic array of guns. Fields of sleeping F-35s, the fleet of the U.S. Navy slowly rusting in the Pacific. The metal cages and concrete prisons, the lists of human numbers, each one a heartbeat. They left behind their maps and borders and border security, their geo-positioning-systems, their geography. It would have been so easy, to replay our history in all its delightful violence, to reject every lesson and fable, to become our worst enemies. They left the nuclear warheads and missiles and red buttons. They left us the blueprint for destroying ourselves.

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Masha sold her restaurant and bought a desiccated farmhouse far from town. When she moved her father to the country he grumbled about the lack of 5G but took to watching the birds out the window. Masha planted a garden, the size of the restaurant’s dining room. She grew pumpkins and squash and melons and beans, radishes and cucumbers and peppers and corn, she traded eggs from their chickens for flour and sugar, ate berries straight from the bramble, wore her hair in a tight braid down her back.

She felt younger. She bought goats. She pushed her father on walks along the pasture, down to the riverbank, where mallards and wood ducks pleaded for bread. She didn’t miss the hectic life of the city, and with the lack of holoscreens, Ivan stopped his ritualistic grumbling. He began to read the novels and biographies on the shelves. In the evenings, Masha and her father sat in their separate armchairs with fat dusty books, reading and sipping from glasses of whiskey and ice.

It wasn’t easy, life on a farm, and Masha often felt like quitting. When the foxes ate their chickens and the deer destroyed the garden. A year of drought and none of their plants seeded. But even with the setbacks, Masha reveled in her dirty, callused hands, the musty smell of the goat barn, the clamor of the chicken coop. She never felt so secure as she did when she watched her garden take root and flourish, food she grew with her own two hands. Her father began to take small steps from his chair, then through the house, out into the garden.

Sometimes, when she went to town for supplies, Masha would find a bar with a holoscreen on and take stock of the news. Viruses spangled through the world, a drought precipitated another famine, carbon dioxide numbers were down. A woman drove all her kids off a bridge, the feds were regulating methane production, the ocean was seeing more growth than it had in decades. The Arctic ice was still melting, kelp forests expanded, income-assistance programs were proving successful. She learned all she could over the course of one beer and then she left, unable to listen any longer.

As her skills grew stronger and as Ivan grew healthier, their garden and goat pastures spread, and Masha took to feeding the families around her. The bustle reminded her of the rush of running a restaurant, but often after dinner people stayed to tell stories and chat with their neighbors, strum guitars and mandolins and ukuleles. Late into the night, they stayed and sang and shared, until all the stars glimmered above them and the moon began to sink into its holler between the hills.

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Nandita began to sell her mosaics, first to neighbors and friends and then to strangers and passersby. She stopped collecting batteries. Every morning she passed the ocean in her living room and thought of her mother, long since lost. She thought of the ocean as a type of altar, a symbol of faith.

She moved to a smaller city, far from the landfill, and leased a space on the corner. It used to be a restaurant and she paid to have it renovated as a gallery and coffee shop. In the back, she built a small studio, and most days she worked on new projects, stepping out into the store front as guests appeared. After a few months, she hired an assistant, and a few months later, a desk clerk. Her mosaics of sea turtles and elephants and golden lion tamarins, created out of trash, garnered a lot of attention from local magazines and tourist papers. A video was made and went viral. Soon, Nandita had more orders than she could account for, each new piece replacing one that had sold.

It looks so different! Masha said, upon entering Nandita’s gallery. I used to run the restaurant that was here, she explained to the assistant, who nodded happily though she had no idea what Masha meant.

Nandita came out of her studio. She did not recognize Masha, had never met the former owner, but welcomed her with a warm smile all the same. Look around, she said. If you see something you like, let me know.

Masha saw a lot she liked but she’d never been one to purchase art. Ivan saw it as flippant, but now, Ivan was gone. Maybe Masha would like a trash-mosaic turtle in her bathroom, or a rainforest vista over her bed.

You collect all the trash yourself? Masha asked.

I don’t think of it as trash, Nandita said. More of, as collections. I used to work collecting batteries for the lithium. That’s how I got started.

They’re so detailed, Masha said.

Well, so is life, you know?

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Naoko went into the gallery almost as a dare. She’d been on her way back to her apartment, saw the sign that read Open Exhibition, and thought, why not? It’d been years since she’d done something fun, something for herself.

There were only two other women there, staring at the pieces hung on the walls. Naoko stepped further into the room and admired the mosaic-like art on the walls. It seemed that each piece was made from recycled trash, probably from the landfill. Naoko approached the two women, casually, admiring the details in a sea turtle or jellyfish. A different perspective, Naoko thought.

She almost ran into Masha, who almost tripped over Nandita, and the three women laughed after they righted themselves.

Please, have a tea, on the house, Nandita said. They shared a pot of matcha by the window. Outside, sleet fell, cold and gray. Naoko sipped her tea and watched the other women. Three generations wrapped in this little room, and each had her own story. So many things that Naoko could never know. How had they ended up here? Was it fate, another gamble?

The women finished their tea and looked out into the rain.

I guess we’re stuck here till this is over, Masha said.

Please, stay as long as you need, Nandita promised. She took their cups and set them on the counter. The storm grumbled.

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Soon, we’d forget those who left us. We wouldn’t remember the colonies on Mars as anything but fables. The Ascents themselves seemed like a forgotten story. A chapter from an old religion, a psalm, a handful of stardust. But here, on the Earth, we were real. Yes, it was painful and hard, and it took a long time, but we learned how to balance. We grew used to dirty fingernails, changing seasons. It felt good to taste your homeland in an apple. It took every ounce of courage we had, but we managed.

And after all was finished, the only thing left was our stories, no matter how small. They connected us to the end of time and the beginning, they made us feel whole. What are we, except our histories, our mistakes and hopes and fears? That time we stubbed our toe when we were eleven, or wanted to become a painter, or had a dream that might save the world.

Without these little moments, who’s to say who we were?

There are some who tell a different story, that no one left our planet, that the Mars colonies were a dream we could not withstand. That story could end mostly the same way. We have everything at our fingertips. It’s just a question of where to begin.

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Author’s Note: This story borrows pieces of its syntactical structure from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (Houghton Mifflin, 1990).