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Automata Albatross

by Robin Happel

The albatross almost struck Akila as it fell. With a metallic shriek, it plummeted from the empty gray sky to shatter at her feet, wires spilling onto the slick cement of the sidewalk. She stood frozen in shock as tendrils of steam coolant curled through her braids, its beak chattering eerily as it shuddered into stillness. A dead albatross was very bad luck, her offshore studies professor had told her. Perhaps he would know what to do with it. Cradling it in her scarf, she carried the metal carcass past the hissing evapo-pods of the water purification plants, winding her way to the center of CR-8, the U.N.’s designated seventh largest floating city, founded after the Bengal floods of 2047 and affectionately known to its residents as the Floating Landfill, Rust Bucket, and, most commonly, Crate.

The small bookshop Taylor owned was closed, its solar lamp flicked pointedly off, but after several minutes of persistent knocking there was a loud squawk, and his co-owner Sam came to the door with a resigned sigh. “You didn’t have to wake up Darwin,” he muttered irritably, brightening a bit when he saw the albatross. Darwin, one of Crate’s few dodos, eyed her curiously, his collar jingling as he fluttered onto the coffee table to get a better look at the drone’s dissection.

“It’s not a net drone, oddly, though it looks like one,” Sam said at last, surveying the scraps. “It’s automata – back before the pureclones, some people tried to bring back extinct species through robot facsimiles. The rubberized vaquita were cute – not as realistic as the gen-mod versions, of course. But cute.” 

A jealous beak jostled the table, and Sam reached down to stroke Darwin behind his collar. “You’re several strains away from a pureclone, beastie. More pigeon than anything,” he muttered, and Darwin puffed his chest feathers with pride before strutting into the kitchen to beg another piece of hydroponic seaweed.

“If it’s not a net drone, why is it set up like one?” Akila asked slowly. 

Sam’s brow furrowed with a fear she could not place, but he said nothing. 

Sam suspected that the drone was American in origin, and had veered wildly off course after a particularly gnarly hurricane that had flooded much of what remained of Florida. America was one of the few countries that still used the old automata builds, he knew from Taylor’s halcyon stories of the dog automata of his youth. Taylor always spoke of America fondly. It was as though he remembered only the cotton candy of his childhood 4th of July parades, and not the black-clad Vice police, the militarized crackdown against “riot boosting.” How each new storm was twisted into the wrath of an angry god, the way fear of the rising seas crept up from news chyrons to a choking, ever-present panic. As fires winked red eyes across the Western skies, strong men leaders rose like sea walls, promising to protect their flock from a new plague. Those who pushed back – who resisted the rush to blame – became blasphemous. 

The economic aftershocks of the collapse of offshore oil – propped up heavily with subsidies – had been the first blow. Then, Mexico pulled out of the lucrative trade pacts that had kept drone-retailers headquartered in America’s port cities. Much of Silicon Valley, frustrated also by the new taxes on online transactions and so-called cultural purity standards for Internet fast lanes, moved offshore, settling into the new stilt cities of Southeast Asia and, eventually, floating cities like Crate as sea levels kept rising. 

Driverless transport, once a novelty, had become the backbone of Mexico’s coastal economy, leaving its northern neighbor crumbling. And, as the unmanned barges and trucks and trains hummed silently across the globe, lonely Crate, once barely a speck of rust in the Indian Ocean, grew into an unlikely metropolis, a jostling and jovial mix of devout Sikhs and stateless Deists, Hindu refugees and renegade hipsters. Some, like Akila’s parents, were engineers who emigrated to tinker with the drone-barges that stopped by Crate for repairs, while others, like Taylor, had escaped the purges of President Cloud, 

“It was like the wild west in the early days,” Taylor said absently. “When I first came, I was writing a story speculating on whether Crate would become one of those walled cities, a floating theocracy where nothing ever came in, and nothing ever went out. It was a pendulum back then, before Mayor Fawzia, and a slight push in either direction –”

“Ironically, America went isolationist first.” Sam sank into the couch beside his husband, leaning his head onto his shoulder. “Keep Crate weird, wasn’t that our slogan in the early days? It seems so long ago…” There was a long silence, broken only by a hydroponic hum, a fluorescent flickering as the solar lamps sputtered to life, and the city settled into twilight. 

Akila had interned for Mayor Fawzia one summer, and she remembered the elderly Eritrean woman well, famed as she was for her fiery defense of citizenship for the stateless and the Albatross Autonomous Internet, the clamor against censorship that had come to define Crate’s destiny. Unlike the walled cities, Crate had turned outwards, embracing the castaways who clung to its churning wave energy converters and fashioned its first storm barriers out of plastic and broken bottles. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other offshore landfills had rapidly been subsumed in the desperate days when the floating cities were little more than rafts of tents, refugee camps forged by desperation. After decades of tense negotiation, the world’s superpowers at last proved unwilling to take in the millions who had relied on bleaching coral archipelagos. Instead, they set up the primitive hydrofreight refugee system as a compromise, and sent the starving out to sea with a few scattered packets of gen-mod seaweed.

Almost at once, tinkerers from around the world had begun prodding these curious patches of floating misery. From well-wishers around the world, in packages of every shape and size, came solar batteries and hydroponic waste treatment and algae generators and pieces of the first-generation storm stabilization systems, the ballasts and spherical barrier walls that had steadied Crate through many a tropical typhoon. Most of the heavy lifting was done by the residents themselves - refugees who forged a floating city where everyone knew every job and everyone. In the first few generations, fixing the barrier shields was done by hand, not by drone, and there was a monument on almost every street corner to those who had been lost in the perpetual struggle against the sea. Crate had been forced to flounder along on the revenue from seaweed farming for over a decade before finally settling into a steady suburban hum, a comfortable carpet of coffee shops and cloning start-ups. These far-flung gen-mod firms had later produced pigeon monstrosities like Darwin, who was currently hopping to and fro, sputtering indignantly at not being allowed on the couch.

Taylor patted him absently, and Darwin cooed, momentarily soothed. “At least the pureclones are friendly,” he muttered. “That – that thing on the table is not.” Sam shot him a glance.

“Should we tell her?”

Taylor sighed, settling back to stroke Darwin’s feathers. Within a few minutes the dodo was snoring on the rug.

“After the Third American Exclusion Act, President Cloud started a new crackdown. What you found was a propaganda drone – an ancient model, a bit like the net drones social networks used to send out in the old days, before the low-orbit satellites made that largely obsolete. Your bird here would have circled the states for thousands of miles without stopping, re-routing any signal it came in contact with.”

“A very old femtocell hack,” Sam said softly. “Not perfect, but fairly unpredictable, and if you get caught with something you shouldn’t…” Taylor shuddered. 

“So it’s the opposite of our albatrosses? Fawzia’s Autonomous Internet?” Akila felt a warm sliver of indignation prickle across her chest. 

Sam chuckled. “Technically, I think it’s supposed to be a bald eagle, but the paint wore off. Not much we can do, I’m afraid. If we fix the nav system, it might make it home. Otherwise, it’ll just make it to my scrap drawer. I might just build a new dodo to replace this one.” He nudged Darwin gently with one foot, and Darwin stirred in his sleep and rolled over, scaly feet clasped peacefully across his bulbous belly. 

Taylor chuckled. “Let’s talk about something more pleasant. Tea?”

 After a few more pleasantries, Akila stumbled out into the twilight, shivering as a fine mist drifted down from the barrier hull far above. A low growl echoed through the deserted streets as the barrier hulls tightened, the rings of metal curling like petals around the slumbering city after the sun went down. Drifting just east of Madagascar, President Cloud and his albatross seemed a world away.

For the next week the albatross circled ceaselessly through her thoughts, until at last Akila burst through the shop door, her face flushed, startling Sam and frightening Darwin. 

“The campaign against Pinochet!” she gasped at last. Darwin cooed quizzically. “Cloud’s platform is all about fear, right? So you counter it with something saccharine, something fluffy and upbeat. Something the censors won’t expect.”

“The opposition can’t run ads, it isn’t allowed,” Taylor said tersely.

Akila sighed, exasperated. “You always say politics is a pendulum. So why not try to push it? Why not give the states a real choice for once?”

“I did try to push it, and it pushed me here,” Taylor snapped. “At least Cloud has one less drone now. What do you expect me to do?”

 “Why not start with fixing the nav system?”

On the eve of the American election, the New Unity Party were facing down the American Lions, President Cloud’s party, and, as always, the Green Party, proudly clinging to 5.4% of the electorate. The Lions had long since switched to an online voting system, eliminating the former certification process - and a healthy swath of voter registrations - to ensure their continued limp to victory.  

At 8 p.m. sharp, President Cloud’s face flickered across every watch, display, and e-mug in America, promising a golden dawn of prosperity. And at 8:04 p.m. an undead albatross plunged into the heart of the Vice Ministry’s media hub, a targeted strike on the one zotta-processor through which all communications were routed.

The video they had chosen was more medley than montage, a slip-shod history that President Cloud denied existed. Flappers frolicked on Rockaway Beach before the New Jersey offshore drilling operation collapsed. Ticker tape fluttered through Times Square on V-Day, and piles of bananas and papayas glistened in supermarkets before the Tropical Fruit Embargo of 2025.  Bayard Rustin mapped out the March on Washington, fading into other marches, other speeches, a flipbook of all the pages the Vice Ministry had torn out of textbooks. Akila watched with bated breath as the first net drones went up, and Dorothy Vaughn smiled in crisp black and white. The U.N. Secretary General announced the creation of the hydrofreights. 

The video sped up, flipping faster and faster from present to past. In the dizzying collage of photos and clippings was the full Fibonacci tree of futures, the endless branchings and re-branchings that led, however improbably, to President Cloud, to Crate, to a world of walls and albatrosses. She saw the floating cities built from scrap, the desperate scrabble for life as superpowers turned inwards. She saw two paths, spiraling out from one other, a world spread like a spider web across the sea, a state governed by the stateless, and a feudal, frightened world, circling ever inwards. She saw the end of history, and a choice in how it would end.

The first clusters of no votes appeared, glittering like stars, constellations that spun outward from a half dozen cities. The pendulum trembled, then began to tilt. The projection shivered, and when the image came back whole swathes of the map gleamed silver. 

“Even if Cloud doesn’t concede they’ll know,” Sam said softly. “They see it now, even if they didn’t before.”

Shortly before midnight, the New Unity Party began lifting the censorship standards. And, ten thousand miles away, Fawzia’s albatrosses flew west on silent silver wings, bringing good luck for a new century.