From the author: Another reprint - this time from the Crossed Genres anthology Fat Girl in a Strange Land. It's a story I'd write quite differently if I were doing it now, and yet it brings together a lot of the ideas I'm most interested in writing about.
I wish I could at least dream of Terra Nova. I did all the time in the early days, the years when I still held hope of escape, and the weeks soon after the devastating truth of failure hit me. I wish I could see, even in my dreams, its crystal turquoise seas, pink sandy beaches, mountains swirled with orange clouds of dust kicked up by wind. I wish I could see the settlements they are building still, the little wooden villages on the coastline, and the shining glass cities on the rivers.
Except, if I'm honest, it's not really about that. I was born and raised in the dustbowl of North Queensland, and though my adult years may have been relatively privileged, I am not unequipped to handle physical hardship. I know how to make the dwindling allowances for food stretch further, how to repair clothes and show the kids how to do it themselves, how to teach by recitation and discussion, as the technology we used to rely on gets ever scarcer.
What I want is a future. I want to be part of what's happening, where humanity's heading. I want to help build the new world... Oh the irony, that's what everyone said when I won that scholarship, headed to university, the first one in my family. And now I'm stuck behind on the dying one.
But my lot's been dealt to me – or I've chosen it, I'm still not sure – and I need to focus on what I have now. That's what this journal is for. Not for dreams.
Today we processed two new enrollments. One was brought in by his parents. That's unusual these days. Sure, fifteen years ago – before I even took this job – when Acacia Green boasted state of the art learning facilities, a home where those unable to make the journey would be cared for in a welcoming, social environment and learn the skills necessary to become future custodians of the old Earth. But now parents usually make at least a cursory effort to leave them with grandparents or family friends, even though they'll end up with us eventually.
Jeffrey is eleven years old, epileptic, and like about three quarters of the kids and all but one of the staff, fat.
"We held off as long as we could," his mother said. "We tried everything." I believe her. "But – we have two other children. No choice."
I wanted to tell her there's always a choice, but if someone gave me the chance to get on a shuttle tomorrow, I would snap it up with both hands. Okay, these aren't my kids, but I'm still responsible. So who am I to judge?
Jeffrey was stoic. His mother swore that she'd pay fees for as long as was necessary. Maybe she will, maybe she won't. 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' is kinda bullshit when there's that much guilt involved. Easier to forget about it.
The other kid was the opposite. Patrols brought her in, no sign of her parents, but she doesn't seem to be speaking. Not sure if it's just fear or if she can't, but either way that's not usually enough to exclude you from transport, and Med can find nothing else, so it will just be her weight. We're calling her Alyssa, at least for now. We reckon she's about five years old, but it’s hard to tell.
We assigned them mentors; to Jeffrey, Sami, who will soon turn fourteen, a bright kid who came to us only a year or so ago after the death of his grandmother. And Mary, seven years old, shy but adaptable, took Alyssa's hand in hers and guided her to their dorm. They'll be okay for now.
Drama yesterday – the McEwen building on the far side of the campus caught fire. It's not really our territory – we have a fence round the four buildings of this former university we actively use to mark it out as ours, and to keep the littlies in. But still too close to home. What we have left of a fire brigade – mostly men in their fifties and older, the types who will stick to their land even though nothing's grown there in years – got it under control; the building was damaged but we don't think anyone was in it. There have been noises about suing us for the cost of call out, but I'm not too worried. I think people feel bad enough about our existence.
Our new kids seem to be settling in okay. But because things can't go too well, there's been a bit of trouble with our older girls. I wish I knew what started it, but thinking back to when I was that age, it honestly could have been anything. It progressed through an allegedly stolen hair straightener, Cherry yelling "At least my parents are dead – yours just didn't love you enough," which is never the sort of thing that goes down well round here, to them forming two separate camps, with some unapproved room reallocations just to make the point a little more clearly.
So, as if we didn't have enough else to do, we split them between us and called each of them to our offices for a discussion. We are no closer to determining the cause of the conflict – though we uncovered a thousand or more random grudges – and no closer to a resolution, but we have secured promises that it will not cause any more disruption.
Cherry seems to be under the impression that she's going to be spirited away to Terra Nova any day now. Poor kid. Even if she did lose the weight – and let's face it, if there was any chance of that she'd be at one of the Health Camps, not No Hopers' High – there's still her history of cancer. There's no way in hell she's going with just one lung. When she first came here she had an imaginary fairy god mother type creature she'd invented when her father was killed. I reckon the doctor who will give her certification is just its more adult incarnation.
Niamh is angry. There's this whole welling frustration, and I don't blame her. She's prone to nervous tics, scrunching her hands together, tapping her feet. She broke down part way through, says she doesn't understand why things are like they are. That she always used to have so much willpower, but when it comes to dieting she just couldn't make it work. Or, rather, she followed the charts perfectly, but she didn't lose enough and she just can't understand why. I almost wept with her, but I didn't have an answer.
Then I had a scheduled meeting with Alyssa – we meet with the newbies daily while they get settled in. She walked in hand in hand with Mary. I usually see them on their own, to check there's no bullying or anything going on, but I haven't yet worked out how to communicate with Alyssa, so I figured it would help more than it hurt.
Spent the evening drinking whisky with Lucia. We're not meant to, strictly speaking, unless we're off duty, and we can't go off duty because then there wouldn't be enough of us to meet the staff/pupil ratio; but we never meet it anyway, and frankly I thought things would be more risky if we didn't get some time off. Frankie and Deepa reckoned they could handle things, and we're reciprocating tonight.
Beautiful day today, almost spring, the kind where you forget the world's ending. We finished classes at noon and held a picnic in the central field. DIY picnic – big bags of bread, the older kids spread out fillings on the table, and then everyone helped themselves. No fights, no tears, almost too good to be true. Then recreation until supper.
We used to try and organise recreation. Then we realised that most of the kids had been through healthcamp where organised games were just another indicator of failure, and for those that hadn't, the type of sports we were used to thinking of as universal didn't really suit their bodies. So we just let them get on with it. About a third joined in a mini game of cricket; others played tag. One skipped alone. Two played chess. Some read on the grass, some walked round gossiping. We wandered between the groups, helping out, joining in, chatting.
Days like this, I think that despite the circumstances, we've actually built something pretty awesome here.
I guess it's time I come clean. About the reasons I started this journal, the things I've been doing – or more to the point the things I'm considering. It's hard to write this, because I keep telling myself I must just get on with things, accept the life I have now – and if I start writing about other things it makes them seem more real.
Truth is, I haven't given up on Terra Nova. I haven't given up hope that there's a way to get there. I've been looking round online, and... well I always figured there must be some sort of illegal transport, some sort of smuggling, if you can pay enough. It doesn't make sense for there not to be. But if I was just going to die en route it didn't seem a very smart idea. Well I've been searching round online and there are a lot of people calling the restrictions into question. I don't know what to make of it – they may just be conspiracy theorists. But they say the weight limits are really arbitrary, that there is some correlation between body mass and risk, but other factors give better indicators – and the extreme loss some people go through actually increases their risk. Ditto some of the health issues – some of them do pose serious dangers, but others have just been wholesale lumped together.
There's commentary too. Some people say that the never have approved wholesale emigration when leaving so many behind. Others say that they could've built safer systems, but there's no incentive. Criticism too of the assistance scheme – what I had thought of as simply borrowing money, people are painting as forced labour, whole earth countries enslaved.
I don't know what to think. It's given me some hope, but more fear, and maybe a little anger.
I have just about fucking had it with this place. Some fucker broke into our food storage – don't think it was the kids, reckon it was more likely an outsider. Not the point anyway – we can't afford for that shit to happen.
The only positive for the day was hearing Alyssa's voice for the first time. Not how you'd think – it was Mary's idea, actually – she lent Alyssa her pad and asked if she could talk to that. We know now that her mother is dead and she woke up one morning to find her older brother and father gone. She hasn't told us her name; she says she likes Alyssa better than her real one.
I've found what I need. That's all I'm saying for now.
Now there's an end in sight, things seem at the same time more manageable and more hopeless. It makes me ache, literally, muscle aches right down my left side, to see these kids and know how little there will be left for them. I feel guilty, for leaving them with 3 staff instead of four when there should be at least 10, and of course I feel guilty for leaving my colleagues behind. But – and I know this is self-justifying, but it's also true – I'm only doing what ninety percent of the planet is, and what almost all of those remaining would do if they had a chance.
I won't be able to take any luggage except a tiny bag, just enough for my pad and a change of clothes. The cost more or less cleaned out the inheritance from my parents, and of course, I won't be eligible for resettlement help when I get there, so I can only hope that I find work quickly. But I don't care as much as I should. Terra Nova lies in front of me, and with it my whole future.
It's 3am and I'm on the road. I've taken a brief stop to close my eyes for an hour, grab a bite to eat, and say another prayer that the fuel lasts, because there are fewer and fewer petrol stations around these days. It's a 28 hour drive to base, and I don't have much leeway.
I'm trying not to get my hopes up, and at the same time, not to freak out. There's nothing to be afraid of, my contact said. The ship transports precious cargo; would people entrust that to them if it wasn't safe? Besides, dozens have done this before me, and just think of the lives they're living now.
So I grit my teeth, and prepare to drive on.
We're about to go faster than light, and we're just three weeks away from Terra Nova. The ridiculous thing is that I miss Earth. I miss the kids I'll never see again, and the evenings I spent gossiping with Lucia.
I share the compartment with five others. I don't talk to them much, because for now everything is just temporary. I have some books and movies on my pad, but mostly I am just passing the time with my own thoughts. My own thoughts and my own plans.
Ma'am, you're going to have to give that to us now please. [Inaudible]. Do you have anything else on your person? No, just clothes. [Inaudible]. Okay, I'll be sending someone in to search you shortly. [Sounds inaudible].
[Written in retrospect as I no longer had my pad].
Overnight we came out of FTL, and by morning (as far as these things can be defined) were making our approach to Terra Nova. We weren't allowed to be near windows, but one of the crew arranged a linkup between one of their cameras and our pads. Aside from the arrangement of the landmasses, it looked not dissimilar to earth in a children's story, rather than the greying polluted images we had become used to seeing as we were urged to leave. Terra Nova was mostly ocean, deep blue with swirls of clouds above. Down the centre of the largest landmass a huge mountain range punctured the sky, visible to us even from space.
As we descended, details began to come clear. The landing site was on a huge plain with – mainly for safety reasons – little population nearby. We would be transported by bus to the nearest cities, and from there make our own way to the rapidly growing settlements which now covered large parts of the planet. But we could see patches of vegetation, islands from the northern archipelago starting to become clear. My heart started to race. This was actually happening. Everything I had been imagining.
I wasn't sure what I would do. For a start, I was unsure of my legal status, and thus if I could work as a teacher. But I'd find something to keep me going; nannying, perhaps.
As we landed, I saw the clearing of the landing site and the reception buildings. We had been warned to stay put; we would be offloaded after the inspection, but it was all I could do to stop myself forcing my way off and running round in the fresh air outside.
It's hard to piece together what happened next, but there was a lot of clattering and banging, and then at some point the door above us was opened and a bright light shone into the compartment, and we were being dragged away by government forces.
I have my pad back. I'm going back to Earth. This is why.
I was detained in a small cell with a narrow bed and a couple of blankets opposite the door, and a high window above. If I wanted to pee I had to ask a guard to take me to the toilet. Some of the guards were okay and seemed almost embarrassed by the fact I was being held there. Others were rough, though not violent as such, and treated me with disdain. One sniggered and said, "Wouldn't it have been easier to stop eating?"
I'm sure some of the others thought that too – hell, I've thought it myself enough. They just had the grace not to say it out loud, to kick someone when they were down. I was questioned – sometimes respectfully, at others aggressively, for names of those who were engaged in the smuggling, what other plans they had – they seemed to be looking for something more serious than people smuggling, but who knows. I didn't understand what the big deal was with it in the first place.
I was assigned a lawyer who laid bare my options. I could accept voluntary deportation. I could strike a deal in exchange for information, information I did not have, though I don't think even she believed that. Or I could appeal. The latter would likely take a year, maybe more, but I'd be detained for that time and it would be unlikely to succeed in any case, and even if successful there was likely to be a penalty, perhaps further imprisonment, for making the journey illegally. The idea of a year in jail seemed like nothing compared to the years I'd spent trying to get here, and yet unimaginable. She said I didn't need to decide now, I could think about it. When I got back to my cell I cried for hours.
Three days later they transferred me to another facility. I shared my new cell with two others, and there was a spare bed which I imagined would be used at some future time. Despite this it was better than the previous one, more space, some books – if not particularly good ones – on a shelf, a separate toilet, and thin mattresses on the bunk beds. I met with my lawyer again, and told her I planned to appeal – I hadn't come all this way to give up now. She didn't seem entirely pleased at my decision, and warned me against it, but she was there to represent me and so she sighed and set it in motion.
The woman with the bunk beneath mine was called Amelia, the other Essa. I spoke to Amelia more; Essa spent most of her time reading the damaged bible. Why we were there was a touchy subject we avoided for some time, but I guess my reasons were obvious, and eventually she explained hers. Unlike us, she had travelled legally, with her four year old daughter, under a bonded labour scheme. It was the only way for her to afford passage, like for many others, and she didn't have a problem with it at first; it seemed just like a loan with a guaranteed job while she paid it off, and she'd taken out plenty of loans before.
She was assigned to work in land reclamation and bioengineering. It was heavy, manual work, and most of the small stipend she received went on childcare for her daughter. But she found a way to push past that, telling herself that it was only for a few years, that she had secured the future she wanted for her child, and here, under the Nova sun, was a dream. A new world in the making. She was helping to grow it, and it didn't really matter if her participation in the manner she chose was delayed a few years.
That, at least, was what she continued to tell herself. In truth her situation had begun to take its toll, in ways other than those which she had anticipated. She had considered the possibility that she would be badly treated, that the work would turn out to be backbreaking, or worse, dangerous rather than simply hard; that her daughter would be miserable or the day care facilities would be unsuitable.
In reality, none of that was the case, at least at first. But every time she wanted to leave the area she needed to complete form after form, even though it was one of her rare days off. She cleaned out the tiny bedsit they were given, put some coloured paper on the walls, fixed the broken window frame that banged all night – and then were given two days' notice they would be moving and she had to start from scratch all over again.
"It's hard to explain how these things add up," she said, but I did understand. Not to the same degree, but I understood.
She got through it by reassuring herself that her daughter was okay. Then the kid started having problems. Nothing definable at first, maybe even nothing abnormal, just a stage, but the day she woke up with nightmares and just wanted her mother to stay home, just stay with her this once, was the day Amelia snapped and tried to make a run for it.
We were often taken out to meet with our lawyers and such like, and the last time that happened to Amelia I didn't think anything of it. She returned pale and shaky, her hands held out in front of her to grasp the bunk and sit down, as though she couldn't see it.
"Are you okay?" I asked.
It was clear she wasn't, but she put on what I guess she assumed was a brave face and gave a slight giggle. "My daughter's been adopted. It's probably for the best."
I was, of course, horrified. "There's got to be something you can do. We need to fight this. I'll help you, I swear." But she just shook her head and repeated the same words. It's probably for the best.
I woke up with a jolt and the feeling of the bunk moving. Essa was already out of bed and screaming by the time I focused, and I leapt to where Amelia had torn a pair of jeans, tied them round her neck, and suspended herself from the rail of the bunk.
Essa held her up while I tore with my fingers at the ripped pair of jeans around her neck, my face flushed and thumping, both of us shrieking all the while for help. We got her down as guards rushed in, asked us to step back as they resuscitated her. I was reluctant to do so, I didn't trust them, but Essa pulled me away. There was nothing more I could do.
They took her away to the hospital, I guess. She was breathing when she left, but I don't know any more than that. Essa and I sat on Amelia's bunk and sobbed, holding each other for a while. When Essa went to bed I carried on, silent tears so as not to disturb her.
At last I stopped crying. I hammered on the door. The guard came and flipped open the hatch.
"I'm accepting voluntary deportation," I said.
"Wait there," was his only reply.
So now I'm going back to Earth. Back to the dying planet I risked everything to leave behind. And I'm doing it with a lot of fear, but a lot more confidence than I ever had, that Earth, not here, is where I belong.
I do worry a little, though. I know I can cope with Earth, soul destroying though it may be at times. I am – though I'm only just beginning to believe this – healthy. I know from experience that I can survive a lot. But I worry about some of the others, those that may need medical attention which will soon no longer be available on Earth; and whether by giving up on Terra Nova I'm not only giving up my own dreams, but also my principles and responsibilities.
But then I think about those I left behind, and realise that they're my future now.
I've written a load of entries: self serving, navel gazing, angsty crap. I've deleted them all. But hey, it's Christmas, I should have some record of what happened to me in the Christmas of my thirty fifth year. The answer; on a government ship being deported to Earth. Nothing happens. I'm technically a prisoner until I land back on Earth, but as long as we don't try anything they're pretty relaxed. There are five of us on this ship. The irony that we're being put on a trip that is supposedly dangerous for us because we took such a trip is not lost on us. One of my fellow deportees actually made a legal challenge on that basis, which makes me feel a bit better about not staying and fighting, knowing I'd almost certainly have been doomed to failure anyway.
I think, often, about Amelia; what happened to her, did she get to stay, was she on the next ship, or..?
I pass the time by playing puzzle games, my pad networked with those of the other deportees, watching the same films over and over, and thinking about what to do when I return to Earth. Having decided there's no future for me on Terra Nova is not entirely the same thing as having convinced myself there is one on Earth.
Today I buy – or more likely steal, if it is theft when the owners are no longer on this planet – a car, and start the drive back to the campus.
I contacted Lucia ahead. She's still a little pissed with me, I reckon, and I don't blame her; the workload was bad enough with four of us, and more than that, I was (am?) her friend, I should have told her. But she's told me to come back, and I reckon we will work things out.
Terra Nova, my whole experience, feels like a fuzzy dream, and I guess in many ways it was. Here, now, the taste of rust in the air and the sand that blows into the towns in the wind, the cracked tarmac and the taste of the curry I bought from a street vendor, this may be hard, but it's what's real. I'm going to tell myself this, at least.
Woke up with my head thumping and the glare of the sun shooting right through the window. I felt as I have had most of these past few weeks, an abject failure, but that changed by lunchtime – or at least the success of the others far eclipsed my failure. Today, my third officially back, I learned a few things. Sami and Cherry are dating. They also found an old book on woodworking, and acquired some tools – I'm not going to ask where from; I assume someone abandoned them in their shed. Turns out they got pissed off by the chairs being so small and uncomfortable for them, so they're going to make their own.
Some of the others are talking about designing new clothes, clothes that they like, and making them rather than just endlessly repairing the old ones, or accepting donations from the health camp when their kids are too small for them – I doubt anyone could dream up anything more damaging to our kids' self-esteem, really.
Alyssa can now speak to Niamh and to Deepa when they're alone. They've found the name for her silence – selective mutism – and got an app on her (salvaged, repaired) pad that helps synthesise a voice for her. We reckon she will be able to talk to everyone without it eventually, but this is a good step in the meantime. Anyway, she found the programmed voices too old and too American, so she hacked it to record her own voice saying the various words. Turns out she's got quite a talent with computers. So she's going to help me set up an e-learning network with the other schools; if we take shifts with other teachers elsewhere, we can focus on education, not just supervision. When I was at school e-learning used to be quite normal, but so many of the structures were left to disintegrate. There's work to do.
It's not just about lessons, though.
We won't change the world, even this half abandoned shell of a world, with a few chairs and ramps. But they're blueprints. Once we get together, who knows what we can create. For us.
This story originally appeared in Fat Girl in a Strange Land anthology from Crossed Genres Publications.