“Kian? Kian, are you out here?”
Inhaling sharply and choking with surprise, I ram my vapour pen into my suit pocket. Turning, wheezing slightly, I peek out through the foliage. Over the undergrowth bobs a head, hair in a sleek knot. I fan the minty cloud of nicotine away and swear under my breath. It’s my manager, teetering gingerly through the wildflower beds. She looks much smaller outside of her office. After mustering what I hope is a nonchalant smile, I step out from the bushes.
“Good afternoon, Ellen, loving the power-suit.”
She swats viciously at a ladybird that has landed on her sculpted lapel and turns to me, disgust still lingering in her eyes. “What are you doing out here, Kian?”
“Enjoying the fresh air,” I improvise dishonestly. I make a gesture at the vents noisily pumping cleansed air in through the glass ceiling, just above the ‘no smoking’ sign. Seconds pass with her piercing eyes boring into mine. The vent fans pulse. Then her face relaxes, her lips curl at the edges.
“Good, glad to see you’re embracing the new ‘workplace wildlife wellness’ concept,” she says curtly.
“Absolutely! Honestly, connecting with nature has been working wonders for my wellness and productivity already. The technical project with the new clients is just… flowing!”
Is she buying it? She gestures for me to follow her further into the garden. Giving the beehive, steaming compost heap and murky pond a wide berth, we reach the garden’s edge. She leans her back against the reinforced glass. Ignoring the vertigo-inducing cityscape stretched out below, I meet her stare.
“I want you to take the afternoon off.”
So, she’s finally caught me. My face flares hot despite the artificial breeze. Best to feign ignorance.
“With respect, Ellen, the meeting with…”
“They were happy to rearrange, I’ve cleared your schedule for the afternoon.”
“Now, not to question your authority, but why…”
“Kian, drop the professionalism for just a second. We’re not in the boardroom now.” She grips my hand. My face flushes harder, eyebrows shooting up to disappear under my coiffed hair. “I have to talk to you about something… personal.”
Thoroughly confused, my mind races. Had the harshness, coldness, been a cover-up for her true feelings? I fall for anyone with muscular legs in a position of power, but I had never thought she would reciprocate. The rumours about a marriage on the rocks make sense now. But running off with me on her Thursday lunch break…
She sighs heavily. The irrigation drips. I wait for the words.
“You have to go to the hospital.”
I blink. She smiles sadly. My brain comes to a stop as I give up trying to compute the situation.
The sky train runs through the city like a river, its solar panels glistening in the harsh sunlight like the scales of a snake. No need to jostle to board, the carriages are quieter and quieter these days. Maybe people really are taking those health recommendations, pocketing their Universal Basic Income and moving out of the city?
I wouldn’t blame anyone for working remotely, or even for starting a new life in a hut made of hemp in the nature reserve somewhere. Sometimes I worry I won’t recognise my city now the “changes” are underway in earnest. The towers, erected with great plumes of fossil fuels in days past, are now a recycler’s goldmine. Across the hazy skyline, Recycleborgs rove over abandoned office buildings like the leaves of a great vine. Once the inbuilt AI has located something of value (almost any construction material is in this post-mining era), it cuts precisely and sucks out the extracted materials, rushing down stem-like tubes to its central ‘reconstitution and reuse unit’. Buildings of cultural or community value can be safeguarded, but much of the harsh concrete architecture left by previous generations has now been handed to the machines. I hope bitterly that they don’t have their laser eyes on my favourite shabby noodle bar downtown, ready to recycle it from the inside out.
Zooming silently away from the business district towards the newly boosted wellbeing quarter, I wonder if the bots have yet crept up on the hospital building itself. I hadn’t spoken up to save the building during the City Development Assembly last month, and neither had anyone else. Would anyone’s idea of a healing space in the mid-21st century include pistachio and mauve walls, cramped hallways and fluorescent striplights buzzing overhead? Childhood memories rise from the crevices of my mind. The smell of detergent, a doctor’s white coat, the ache of my tiny leg in the plaster cast. I fumble my vapour pen in my pocket and start to feel a pang of frustration. Why did I, of all people, have to be called away from the office for this? It’s not like I really know Mrs Cooper that well anyway.
The doors open silently and I step out onto the muggy platform in front of the hospital. I was right, the bots have beaten me to it. The heavy-handed concrete architecture has been enveloped, dissolved. What stands in its place is not what I had expected. Looking upwards, the façade ripples away from me like a silk scarf caught by the wind. The new hospital seems to flow organically from the land, surprising, considering it has been almost entirely conceived by robots.
A light display at the entrance reads, “Please be patient while the hospital is re-moulded. Concrete from the original structure will be recycled and used sparingly in a biophilic design. Materials are shared with the new unit 12 of the business district.” Corporate social responsibility now requires that new buildings in the province must have the ethics of their construction, their use and their long-range legacy in mind. A shiny new high-rise building, when paired with an old build like the hospital, can cooperate, share resources and create two new structures that fit modern legal requirements perfectly. Considering the rarity of raw materials, no company would consider using virgin concrete these days anyway. I am surprised that the start date of the construction work was less than a fortnight ago. These robots worked like lightning.
Sucking on my vapour pen, I crane my neck to glimpse a pair of robots still working at the hospital’s edge. The tubes of a Recycleborg, like the ones I saw scavenging the city skyline, feed reconstituted architectural waste to the elephantine 3D printer. The printer’s metal trunk ends in a pouting nozzle, squeezing out and smoothing the recycled liquid cement precisely, wastelessly. The image of cream-cheese frosting being piped onto a cake springs to mind. My stomach growls. With a whirr, it adds layer upon layer as I stomp through the great doors into the entrance hall.
Thankfully, the place is nothing like I remember from when I broke my leg. It is sun-drenched, gleaming. It even smells better, fresher somehow, less caustic. I look down from the arching, honeycombed ceiling and frown with impatience. Okay, call it a biophilic-minimalist-sustainable-architectural masterpiece. But how am I supposed to find my way around with no signs on the wall and no information desk? I think longingly of the hearty lunch I’m missing in the noodle bar downtown. About to march up the nearest corridor and give a piece of my hangry mind to the staff…
I jolt to a stop at the sound of my name right in my ear. I turn incredulously to find that the soft but clear voice comes from an eerily smiling figure several meters away. If women keep creeping up on me like this, I’ll be asking for a heart attack! Approaching her, my initial concern evaporates. Her AI ID badge gleams on the chest of her pristine turquoise uniform and she hovers just off the polished floor. Holographic staff are so realistic these days that sometimes their personalised presence still startles me when I’m not expecting it.
Her glowing purple eyes crinkle kindly. “You’re visiting Sarah Cooper today?”
“Erm, yes I am. How do I…”
“We are glad you received our call. You have arrived just in time.”
“Great, which way to the…”
“Your check-in scans are now complete. Follow me. This way.”
And with that, she vanishes.
A glitch? I roll my eyes with exasperation. But before I can march off again, a purple light wells up from the floor in front of me. The violet LEDs light a path down one of the many corridors. Okay, I get it. As I follow its lead, I join a stream of other visitors all following their own coloured paths of light through the capillaries of the hospital. Portholes allow glimpses of automated medi-porters, trundling supplies and equipment along their own corridors away from the human traffic. The crowd meanders easily as people come and go from the flow to enter and exit the wards.
When I passed Mrs Cooper in the hall one evening several months ago and she struck up a conversation, I fully expected that she was asking me to water her dreaded jungle of houseplants again. Her quavering voice was quiet, but her words felt abrupt. She told me that she had her diagnosis now. She would be away much longer than a few days this time. I stood on my doormat with my keys in my hand, trying to force some reassuring words from my tired, post-work mind. I think I said something about medical care being excellent these days and that I was sure she’d make a full recovery. The long, complicated name of the cancer that she carefully pronounced and the stillness in her smile left me with a heavy feeling as I closed my door and tried to relax into my sofa. Now, following the glowing purple path, I start to wonder ominously what state my elderly neighbour will be in when I find her on the ward. Why has the hospital called for me of all people?
Coming up to another ventricle of the great maze of hospital wards, I almost stride headlong into a small boy. He’s stopped in front of me to tug on his mother’s arm in delight. “Mummy, is Daddy really coming home this time?”
“Yes, my love, would I lie to you? His tumour’s all gone now. The doctors shrank it away, remember?”
“I can’t wait to play with him again!”
“I know, darling, let’s go and get him.”
Hand in hand, the jubilant figures disappear around the curved wall and I hear a soft voice welcome them to the cancer ward. I stare after them, then down at my purple guiding lights leading me further into the hospital. If Mrs Cooper isn’t in the cancer ward…
I’ve been walking for some time now, no doubt the intention of the health-conscious hospital designers, I think begrudgingly. But finally I can follow the lights no further. I’m in a bright space which feels like the inside of a huge egg. Sunlight seeps through the perforated concrete roof as if through tissue paper.
“Welcome to the hospice.”
I jump, and turn quickly to make eye contact with the hologram who has materialised again, smiling reassuringly. Unexpectedly, I feel glad of her company. With a subtle gesture of her translucent arm, a sliding door opens silently and I’m met by a smooth breeze.
“Sarah is not far away now.”
The purple lights coax me onto a paved path through an unexpected garden. They glimmer like fireflies amongst the lush foliage. Slowly, I walk through the dappled verdant green, passing people sitting just out of sight amongst the glossy leaves. One last sliding door, and I’m in a private clearing. An earthy, homely muskiness fills the air. The sky opens up sapphire blue above. And there is Mrs Cooper.
Wrapped in a warm green blanket, her frail form is cradled at a gentle angle by the life-support machinery. Silicon valves open and close quietly. Tubes carry clear liquids. Leaves sway on their stems. The nurse, bowed over her, straightens up and nods me a welcome. Mrs Cooper’s eyes are closed.
Anxiety had threatened to knot my stomach since my boss broke the news to me in the office garden that I had been elected as Mrs Cooper’s bedside presence. It had masqueraded as hunger as I pushed it down, denied it, but it can’t stay buried now. It leaps to fill my throat as I rest my eyes on Sarah. There is no point denying how tired she looks, skin grayish against the green.
This really is it. I smooth my suit and my hair. I take her hand.
Her papery eyelids open like the wings of a butterfly. When her milky brown eyes meet mine, I can’t look away. I’m aware of her every breath.
“Thank you, Kian,” she whispers.
I gulp down my empty replies and return her impossibly warm smile. Her hollow face rests in her nest of coiled white hair. The plants cast a mosaic of golden and green shadows. She looks serene in the quiet stillness. My tears finally roll. I had no idea that I was all she has, and I’m so glad to be here.
After an eternity, Sarah breaks my gaze. She beams at her nurse, gently holding her other hand. She takes in the hospice garden surrounding her, full of the plants she loves so much. Her attention rests on the flower-laden foliage cascading just above her head. The radiant petals burst against the expanse of sky. Her eyes twinkle. She takes a shaking breath, savouring the blooms’ aroma in one last grateful taste.
And then, breathes out.
Emma Brown UK Emma is a student, writer and illustrator from the south east of England. She joined the Cli-Fi Meetup during the 2020 lockdown, fresh from reading Rob Hopkins’ “From What Is To What If” and keen to find a creative community online. While studying sustainability, she finds exploring positive futures through Cli-Fi radically illuminating. View all posts