Even after fifteen years, the humidity still took Steph by surprise. It hit her like an open palm as she cleared security and unlocked the inner door. The warm, moist air lay thick on her tongue and coiled in her lungs as she made her way to the back of The Oratorium. She supposed the time she spent in her own lab two floors below had conditioned her to expect a dry, sterile environment from any scientific facility. Of course, this wasn’t just any scientific facility. Jasmine tickled her nose as she disturbed the air with her passing, paired with the particular scent of the fertiliser they used to keep the plants alive.
The light in The O was softer too, the fluorescence filtered through layers of green, a welcome break after hours of staring down a microscope. Steph felt as if she was underwater, and clenched her jaw against the urge to try pop her ears. That impression was reinforced by the specific silence of a place filled with a dozen barely-there background noises which somehow underpinned the quiet rather than shattered it. The muffled thud of her footsteps; a metronomic tempo beneath the slight rustle of foliage and the low drone of vital-rate monitors; the asynchronous patter of condensation against the rubber tiles; and—of course—his voice. She could hear it now, as she got closer to the well-lit cubicle which was the centre of Carlyle EcoLabs, the innocuous axle of the world.
whistle of wind across the flatlands, through fields of ripening
“How’s he doing today?” Steph asked the desk clerk as he scanned her staff badge once again.
“Same as ever. We had some material from that young Swedish author yesterday that seemed to really perk him up… Oh come on!” The clerk smacked the side of his monitor lightly. “Scan that again? Damn thing is on the blink.”
“You’d think management would have moved you outside with security years ago, they must be spending half the budget on equipment that gets ruined by the humidity."
“Tell me about it! Ah, there we go. You’re free to head in, Dr Adler.”
The Perspex doors slid open.
thunderclouds built and boiled, black with rain and lit from within
It had been a few months since Steph’s last visit to the ninth floor—a conference had taken her to Hanoi to Paris and back—and she was struck with a peculiar sense of déjà vu as she moved from a lab, which looked more like a tropical hothouse than the most important scientific facility in the world, into a room which would not have been out of place in a hospital in-patient ward. The far wall abutted floor-to-ceiling windows, and the view over London was unparalleled. Today, the sky was a shocking shade of summer blue, and the Thames wound lazily between banks of blooming trees, a cleaner shade of teal than it had naturally been in over a century.
Steph still remembered the first time she’d seen a sky like that, the sense of wonderment she had felt before the confusion had set in, and the social media and news explosion which had followed. She’d still been slogging away at her PhD in climatology at UC Berkley when the miracle had happened. It was somewhat frowned upon to think of it in those terms, particularly in the scientific community, but the fact remained that no scientist had come up with a measurable, provable explanation for what had happened at the COP29 climate summit, despite the fact that so many—including herself—had dedicated their life’s work to it.
on banks of Senegambian streams,
teeming with fish, date palms bow
As she walked over to Adam, she remembered the first time she’d seen him, sitting feet-up in a recliner, a handsome mid-thirty, his wife and little daughter in a chair by the window watching enraptured as a seemingly ordinary man read the world into being. It was early days but he’d already been hooked up to a drip to keep him hydrated, and beyond the clear walls, dozens of experts had sat, clipboards poised, monitoring his every breath. Since then, the venture had surpassed any illusions of natural boundaries. A team of doctors kept Adam in the best condition possible, and the entire building below was dedicated to keeping the project which was his life running. Climatologists, doctors, writers, politicians, theologians: everyone wanted a piece of the man who could make reality.
Adam’s face still bore marks of attractiveness, but they were echoes. His high cheekbones pressed against his skin as if to slice it open from the inside, and his once-broad shoulders leaned heavily into the Fowler bed which kept him propped up. The chair beside the window was empty. His wife hadn’t visited since the divorce, and last they’d spoken, his daughter had told him she had decided to stay in Australia after she got married. Steph pulled the chair up beside Adam, and sat. There was a brief flash of blue and bloodshot as he glanced up to meet her eyes, but he kept reading.
dust bursts upward like blooming flowers as the first drops
Mindful of the network of tubes and drips which kept him hydrated and fed, Steph reached for his hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. His fingers were atrophy-thin, but he returned the soft pressure as he read. Once Adam’s arm had been tan against the hospital-blue covers, but that had been years ago, and now it was pale and mottled with bruises from countless needles, constantly searching for new points of entry. Steph was suddenly struck by the image of his very veins spooled out and plugged into the equipment which lined the walls, protected in part from the moisture by clear plastic covers.
clear water, sunlit as it falls. In the purple hills, dams
His voice had been beautiful once too. Rich as chocolate, and smooth as wine. It was little more than a whisper now but it still held a particular resonance, like the sound of your voice inside your head when you have a cold.
She jolted at the electronic sound, so jarring against the soothing rhythm of his voice, the movement jerking her hand out of his. Adam swallowed around the tube which fed a slow trickle of lemon, honey and water directly into his throat and finished the sentence he was on.
the sky summer blue once more.
The teleprompter went blank and the lights automatically dimmed; the smart-glass of the windows blacked the room out. A nurse stuck her head in.
“I’ve delayed the sedative for half an hour, but we need to get him into REM sleep by 2:35.”
Silence settled over the room, save for the low drone of vital-rate monitors and the slight rustle of bedsheets, the asynchronous tapping of her fingers against her thigh. She took a breath, suddenly shy.
His voice rasped, but his eyes met hers and she knew how to read them. He smiled, the translucent purple skin beneath his eyes crinkling. He found her hand again and something inside her chest twisted violently. Stephtook a breath and focused on the freckles on the fingers intertwined with her own, before looking back at him.
“Hanoi was beautiful. The jungle, well, it was like your garden...” She nodded to the delicious monster and potted nikau palms which cast shadows on the plastic tented roof. “But so much more. I saw saola and tigers in the wild, Adam, it was incredible! I’ll bring pictures once I’ve had them printed. And we hardly even had to go looking… I only had two days when I wasn’t at the conference.”
A slight pressure on her hand and a raised brow.
“The WCC didn’t rule against private transport, and space emissions were given another exemption,” she said.
Steph sensed rather than saw Adam collapse further into the pillows. She leant forward instinctively, placing a hand on his thigh. There was barely anything there beneath the light blankets, his body wasted away by years of lying in this bed. She’d heard that in the first weeks, before she’d joined the project, he paced as he’d read, too elated to stay still, but that had taken too much energy. She wondered idly if he would have the strength to walk through the garden that surrounded them, even if he’d had the time for it.
“They did set new enforceable limits on carbon outputs for developed countries. And last week, one of the new-grads downstairs made a break-through on an absorption capsule for water-borne microplastics. We’re still making progress Adam. You’ve given us time.”
His swallow was pulpy and bitter, and reminded her that there must be earthworms, pink and pulsating, in the soil of the pots she could see in her periphery.
“Time for people to think they can still get away with waiting.”
She took a breath to reply, then released it. In the semi-dark, she leant her head against his shoulder, moving so as not to feel the sharp wing of his scapula against her cheek but there was no avoiding the slightly sour musk of his body. He, better than anyone, would recognise the hollow words of consolation, so she swallowed them. Sometimes, silence was all you could offer.
She was waiting for her coffee outside a street-cart when the Relapse happened. The strong sunlight turned murky, like an old polaroid gone yellow with time, and her eyes watered at the sudden acidity stinging her nose as the air became grainy with smog.
She glanced at her watch. Three hours, forty-seven minutes since Adam had stopped reading. A few people on the sidewalk looked up, and a young mother scooped her toddler out of the shallows of the river where he had been happily splashing moments earlier. The birdsong cut off abruptly. Most people didn’t even pause.
One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, three...
Like the sun coming out from behind a cloud, blue began to bleed back into the sky. The stench of the river blew away on a cool breeze as its flow picked up pace, washing away the green scum which had choked it mere seconds ago. She looked toward The O, its peak just visible beyond the high-rise tangle of Canary Wharf, and wondered what Adam had been reading. It wouldn’t have been about London—with the way funding had gone, first world countries had been dealt with first, major cities made pristine and utopian one by one as the money had flooded in. The problem was, when Relapses occurred, nothing was exempt.
Whatever inexplicable rules governed The Reader weren’t static. In the early years, the fifteen minutes of sleep he’d collapse into, exhausted, would set everything back instantly. The world had been broken for a long time, then, and getting worse. Winters were so bitter it was hard to believe you could ever be warm again; tropical storms raged long past season; sea-levels were so high that the land-loss had already caused yet another refugee crisis.
In the months after the First Reading, the sudden shifts between realities had almost been more damaging than the anthropogenic dumpster-fire that was the planet. And so, Adam stayed awake longer, surviving on a cocktail of uppers and downers that gave him the sleep he so desperately needed in the shortest doses possible. Of course, it couldn’t last. Adam crashed, and for a moment it looked as though the miracle was going to die with him. But he recovered, and some attentive researcher realised that in the first forty minutes of that week, while the best doctors in the world had dropped everything to get The Reader back online, the world hadn’t reverted. In true scientific fashion, they’d set up a series of tests, and discovered that as time went on, he could take longer, more frequent breaks without so much as a flicker in the sky. The reason remained as mysterious as the origin of the Reading itself.
Steph basked in the returning sun and watched a group of highschoolers order drinks with ridiculously complex names and considered that to them, this was normal. They’d never known a world which didn’t occasionally shift between the perfect-now and the broken-past, the world they should have inherited, the one which was held at bay by a man trapped by his gift just a few blocks away.
Steph leafed through her mail one-handed as she slid a plate of leftovers into the microwave. A few bills, an invitation to her niece’s birthday, and yes...
“About time,” she muttered, opening the stiff card envelope. She’d hoped the printouts from her trip would have arrived yesterday morning so she could have taken them in for Adam.
Slumping onto her couch, she flicked through the photographs, before slipping them on top of her purse. Maybe she could drop them off after her meeting with Dr Payne—who was in charge of both Adam’s health team and the research into his physiology, thus far unfruitful. Even as one of the head researchers, she needed the semblance of an excuse to see him.
The microwave beeped but she ignored it in favour of the prep folder for tomorrow. She started skimming through the vital reports, spreading them out on the low table as she finished with each. Mental Health Evaluation… how had that got in here? She put the document face-down on the table.
The microwave beeped again. The chicken casserole hadn’t been that great yesterday; she doubted it would be better for being reheated.
Her notes attempted to skitter across the table in the breeze from the window, but she’d pinned them down with her worn copy of Adam’s first textbook. His only textbook, actually, published the year before his fateful address at the COP29, when his unexplained ability had manifested. The World Climate Council had supported his family financially since he had become The Reader, but she’d heard the royalties from An Illustrated Phylogeny of the Plant Kingdom were not insubstantial. It was a textbook, sure, but it was also a work of art. The specimens were hand-drawn, with precise penmanship that bespoke a quiet pride and confidence. The pages were yellowed now, from where she’d run her fingers over them, and wondered. In all the time they’d spent together, they’d never really spoken about his life before. They didn’t need to.
Steph understood Adam, down to his artist’s soul. She’d tried to find as many of the plants from his book as she could and made a garden for his home. He’d thanked her, but they didn’t speak about it. He had so few words that were his own, so when he did speak, he asked only about the progress of the world outside, always the progress. He spoke to the scientist in her, in both of them, the reason they were both there. So what if they hadn’t voiced what was between them? They understood each other, and that was enough.
Steph hesitated, then picked up the Psych-Eval.
An hour later, she realized the microwave was still beeping intermittently. In a daze, she reached for her photographs again. She stood, opening the bin with her foot, and flicked through them without really seeing them. Dappled light in the jungle outside Hanoi; mottled bruises beneath the gentle light of The O; the sweet explosion of a starfruit in her mouth in the market, juices running down her chin; honey dripping down Adam’s throat, soothing his voice as he read.
The microwave beeped again.
She opened the blasted thing and scraped the food straight into the bin, the food spattering wetly onto the envelope of pictures. She had no appetite anyway.
She was in the middle of a PCR assay when the lab phone rang. Hands full, she ignored it, and sure enough, one of the post-docs picked up after a few rings.
She gestured the woman over, and had her place the phone against her ear. Trapping it with her shoulder, she answered.
“Dr Adler speaking...
“Yes, yes, I know of your programme…
“What?” Steph nearly dropped the phone, and her auto-pipette went clattering onto the bench as she scrambled to grab the handset and put it back to her ear. “Yes, I’m still here. A new... Are you certain? Was she control-checked.... Yes, sorry, I’m sure you did. It’s just this is…”
She trailed off, biting back a giddy laugh.
“Well, thank you. Please keep me appraised of the details. I’m sure I’ll be hearing from you soon.”
She stripped off her gloves, leaving the forgotten mess of her PCR strewn across the bench.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Steph called back to her post-grad, stripping off her lab coat as she headed for the elevator.
A few minutes later she stood, bouncing her leg as she explained to security for the third time that, yes, she wasn’t scheduled for an appointment, yes, she was aware that he was busy reading, and no, this couldn’t damn well wait.
Eventually, the guards waved her through the metal detectors and unlocked the main doors. She thrust her ID at the desk warden and strode into the room.
it is the beginning of the end of a long winter,
buds coiled spring-like beneath the melting snow
Steph took a moment to steady herself, calm her voice. For a moment her face-splitting grin faltered as she looked at Adam—really looked. She was accustomed to his ghoulish appearance, but now that she knew to look for it, there was something intangible lacking. A spark of animation that, despite the shifting cadences of his voice, had guttered out sometime in the past few years. Her spittle tasted sour. She hadn’t even noticed.
Confusion pulled at his brows as he glanced up briefly, but there was no curiosity in his gaze as he kept reading. Steph remembered the look in his eyes in the very first months. The wonder and hope. She saw now only a grim determination, the set-jaw dedication of a soldier returning to the field of battle, knowing whatever help came would be too late, and far too little.
She knelt next to the bed, and grasped his hand.
“They’ve found a new reader. A girl down in Sydney, she’s fifteen.” A stray thought interjected that that was her niece’s age, a girl with her whole life open in front of her. But this girl wasn’t her niece, and she wasn’t Adam. She pushed the thought down.
“Arrangements are being made for her family to move to London as soon as possible. There will be an overlap period...”
The reading stuttered to a stop. Slowly, as if moving against a current, Adam turned to look at her. The silence stretched; she could see his stubble catch against the pillow, and the ripples in the IV bag as the liquid dripped away. The bed was shaking slightly, and Steph braced one hand against the floor to steady herself.
The shaking continued. Adam was trembling, tendons in his neck strung like piano-wire, biting his lip as if allowing any sound to pass between them would rip him apart. A bead of blood welled up between the cracked skin. Steph was suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to cup his haggard face in her hands and kiss him squarely on those chafed lips. The urge passed as Adam turned his face into the pillow, but the light still caught on the tears flowing down into his greying hairline.
A breath ragged with sobs had Steph moving to hold him, cradling him as his world shook apart, not caring that his collarbones were digging into her. She wanted to tell him that she understood, that she felt it too. But the words tangled in her chest, all the truths she didn’t know how to voice. The words that would tell him she hadn’t meant for any of it to hurt him, that she’d wanted to share the world with him because she cared. But she swallowed them.
There would be time to tell him tomorrow.