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What song the sirens sang

The kindred visit a post-apocalyptic Davie Village

Credit: James Loewen photo

Reb was fixing the Denman St desalinizer when the glowing figure of a seachild climbed over the dike protecting old Stanley Park.

Female, guessed Reb, despite the distance and the seachild’s boyish figure. The iridescent pressure suit-secondskins, they were called-split open, revealing a figure with muscular, chocolate-brown shoulders, coltish legs… and an unlined face.

Reb’s breath caught. It had been years since she’d seen anyone young.

“Need a hand, Grandpa?” Kicking away her secondskin, the kid sprinted over, splashing through the puddles of the salt flats. Definitely a woman, thought Reb, watching her breasts bounce and feeling like a dirty old man.

“Does it look like I need help?” Habitual tartness covered her embarrassment at ogling, but the kid didn’t appear put off. She watched with interest as Reb installed the salt filter and rebooted the pump.

“Ever hear of solar radiation, kid?”

“My name’s Fern. Don’t worry, I’ve got gel on.” She caught Reb’s hand in hers, examining her weathered skin, then rubbing a thumb over the thistles tattooed on Reb’s wrist. “Your text’s frozen, Grandpa.”

She pulled loose. “It’s not Grandpa, it’s Reb, and that’s not a screen.”

“Not Grandpa?” A delighted grin. “I thought you were ex why.”

“What?” Then Reb remembered: not ex why-XY. Genderlingo.

“I’m female. XX, more or less. Born and raised a girl, even if I never fit the mold.”

“Same!” An animatronic XXxy swam across Fern’s right palm, flashing orange. “Cisgendered, female, verging boy…”

“The oldtime word for that is butch.”

“Butch.” Savouring the term, Fern raised her other hand, displaying another textscroll: XXb, XXxy, XXxx…

“What’s this?”

“My fucklist.”

Reb parsed meanings from the alphabet soup: bigendered, butch, femme, all genetically female. CHIxx probably meant chimera, and Ixx could be intersex, both with a female lean. She’d heard the sea colonies had a high percentage of intersex and transgendered kids.

Still, if Reb was reading Fern’s palm correctly, all that text just meant she was a lesbian. “You transmit sexual catalogues?”

“Avoids misunderstandings,” Fern said.

“Right. What brings you topside?”

A shy grin: “We wanted to meet you. And, maybe… see The Book, if you still have it?”

“We have it,” Reb snorted.

Back in the zero years she’d gotten a tome on global warming. A 30th birthday present, it was all doom and gloom: melting ice caps, oil shortages, rising seas. The peat bogs would melt, it claimed, choking the air with methane. Viruses and the scorching sun would decimate the overpopulated, foolhardy human race.

The well-intentioned gift left Reb lying awake at night, wondering if she could reasonably hope to die of old age in a world anything like the one she’d been born to.

There had been plagues, all right, shortages, riots, and resource wars. But people fought to roll back the damage, fought like their lives depended on it, you might say. The catastrophe’s effects were blunted.

Then the birthrate plunged, and suddenly all anyone cared about was making babies. Corporations recruited desperate wannabe parents to the sea colonies, to underground cities, to space stations. They fled like rats, leaving the infertile, the aged and the outsiders to fend for themselves.

“Reb?” Kyros Stephanos lifted his walker carefully onto the boardwalk, dapper as always and sporting a jaunty grin.

“Water’s flowing,” Reb said. “We lost two hours output from this pump.”

“I’ll pass the word. But I actually came down because my grandkids are coming ashore.”

“All of them?” Kyros had been one of the most successful sperm donors of the early bioengineering era. Money he’d made fathering children for ConceptionInc at the start of the fertility crisis had largely paid to establish the survivors’ colony on Davie St.

“Just the Kindred,” Fern said.

“Ah, here they come now,” Kyros said.

Reb scanned the seawall. Sure enough, two more seachildren-a pair, unmistakably male-stood astride the dike, peeling out of their psychedelic secondskins.

“What exactly is going on, Fern?”

“About 60 tides ago the Parents Council decided our cohort lacked spiritual structure. Babble and worry, you know, all of it about the soulless corporate calendar, and how there were no seasons undersea. So they set up Oystercatch Day, Dolphinswim Day… today is Landing Day.”

“Come topside, check out the drylanders, see how life used to be?” Kyros asked.

“More like get to know the oldsters before they die out,” Reb grunted.

“You can’t last forever, can you?”

It was true. There was no reason why Fern’s observation should nettle her. Reb was proud of what they’d built, proud that she and hers hadn’t been scattered and absorbed into heterodominant colonies in North Van and Kits.

She looked at the lush green vegetable gardens lining the sidewalks of the Village, then up to the draping sunscreens that blocked out the worst of the midday sunlight. They’d beaten the odds; they’d made it.

The pair of boys on the dike had swelled to a clatch of 30. Stripped to their swimsuits, many of them were making out, lips locked, hands roaming with cheery, self-assured lust. Something like homesickness stabbed her; she flashed on the hedonistic abandon of Pride Parades. Beside her, Kyros looked almost sad.

“So it’s okay? You’ll show us around the Potluck?” Fern asked.

Kyros barked laughter. “They still calling us that?

Fern frowned. “Did I say something wrong?”

“It’s fine,” Reb said. The Potluck of the Apocalypse had its start during that long ago birthday party. Her friends had been flipping through the global warming book, reading its direst predictions aloud. Strictly in jest, they began planning for the end of the world.

Maria, the artist, was going to raise chickens and catch fish. Lance, who happened to own a big truck, would be in charge of looting. Reb’s lover Milli would garden; their homeopath friend, Xian, would treat illnesses and injuries.

Reb, already something of a grouch, claimed she would operate the machine guns if the desperate hordes invaded.

Whistling into the wind. The joke rose again at their next big gathering, and the next. Someone threw a Picnic of the Apocalypse in 2010 and it became an annual event. Then came the End of the World Solstice Potluck.

Bravado, games, nothing more. But one year, during a major power blackout and a lethal influenza outbreak, it stopped being funny. Reb dropped the fantasy about machine guns and started figuring out how to make electricity and fresh water. Milli got into hydroponics and heirloom seeds. Kyros bought West End condos and retrofitted them to meet new EcoCodes. They networked with experts online, wooing some to Vancouver: a drag queen from Singapore who was into growing cultured meat in tanks, a lesbian dentist.

As time passed and friends died and everyone of childbearing age started getting bought and biofitted for babyfarming, the frivolous nucleus of the Potluck buckled down, got serious, and reached out to other queers who weren’t ready to lie down and die. Thus Reb, Kyros, and 15,000 of their closest friends had ended up growing old together in this not-quite-commune in the remains of Vancouver’s West End.

She and Fern found Milli at the Oven, an old coffee shop that served as their command centre, site of the blackboards on which were scrawled numberless to-do lists and supply inventories.

“The hot water in the women’s shower smells funny,” Milli said as they came in. She was neck-deep in a garden tank, sorting seedlings.

“We have company,” Reb said.

Milli turned, saw Fern. Her jaw dropped; her face pinkened. Her voice, when she spoke, was breathy and high. “Who’s this sweet young thing?”

“Her name’s Fern, you lecher. Kid, the book you’re looking for is on that lectern-we use it as a talking stick at meetings.”

“Thanks, Grandpa.” Fern scooped it up, looking reverent.

Reb wrapped an arm around Milli, kissing her cheek. “The things I bring home, huh?”

“I thought they weren’t coming,” Milli whispered.

“Maybe Dee knows what’s up.”

“What do we do?”

“Nothing. They just want to look around.”

“I’d better rally the troops.” Milli reached for their so-called emergency alarm, an old MP3 player. “What kind of music says ‘Oh my god, the children are coming?’ Disco? Trance? Wizard of Oz soundtrack?”

“Set the damn thing on random and crank her.”

Milli touched a button. A second later, Wham bopped out over loudspeakers up and down the street, calling the Potluck together. There was no need to explain the situation: as people emerged from the colony work sites, they stepped right into the gaggle of boys, girls, and androgynes ambling up the street with Kyros.

So many kids. Most were built like Olympic divers, with brawny shoulders and densely muscled legs. The swimmer’s physique was the only commonality; they ran the gamut of heights, skin colours, genders. Lumpy belts-wireless computers, Reb remembered-hung at their hips. Palmscreens flickered text back and forth, gene and gender codes, identities and sexual preferences.

Genetic engineering had not been kind to them all. Reb had heard rumours about undersea mutants. Now she spotted a lesbian with raw-looking, dysfunctional gills. Amid Kyros’ grandchildren was one with mottled skin and artificial hands. A beautiful, full-lipped boy had mismatched eyes, webbed feet and glossy black claws.

Salted in among the crowd were also more than a few who were pregnant. Women with bulging bellies, a sight Reb had thought never to see again. And something new: trans and male Kindred wearing polymer wombpacks, translucent sacks of fluids and embryos, stitched to their bearers with plastic intravenous tubing.

“Reb!” Dee, at 97 oldest of the Potluckers, wheeled up in her chair, looking worried. Dee portioned out the Potluck’s limited bandwidth, ensuring their online time went to necessities: arranging supply and labour trades with other communities, bartering for the freshwater and tank meats they produced. “They said they’d come in two weeks. Their sense of time… They’re terrible with the dryland calendar.”

“There’s no real problem, is there?”

“It’s just-“

“What?”

“Those pods hanging from their processor belts,” Dee whispered. “Gifts.”

“Shit.” In a world defined by scarcity, you did not take without giving back. “Where’s Lance?”

“There,” Dee pointed. Their Supply Czar was leaning on a palm tree, looking at the seachildren, tears running down his wrinkled cheeks.

Reb slipped over, squeezed his hand, and damn near choked up too. She throttled the emotion. “Dee thinks they brought us stuff.”

“We have jam and applesauce,” he said, wiping his eyes. “The jars are attractive and reusable.”

“Enough for everyone?” Reb asked.

“No. I’ll rummage around. Can you dig through storage in the bookstore?”

“Okay.” She squeezed his hand again and they headed in opposite directions.

Fern followed her. “Can I come with you?”

Like a damn imprinted duck, Reb thought. But she said: “Suit yourself.”

“Thanks.”

If she had to have a shadow, she could at least pump the kid about potential gifts. “So tell me, what are you all hoping to get out of this visit?”

Fern’s smile was dazzling. “I want to see a cat or a mouse or a monkey. I want to smoke tobacco, draw a picture on paper with ink, eat popcorn, pick a flower-“

“There’s a dandelion right over there.”

“It’s okay? Nobody owns it?”

“We don’t run on the corporate model. What else?”

She plucked the weed, beaming. “Watch TV, dance standing up, sleep on grass, run, look at everyone’s body paint, flip off a cop, drive a car…”

“Driving’s for emergencies. No monkeys here, or cops. I can show you the gesture though.”

“I know it,” Fern said, proudly waving her middle finger.

“No cops undersea?”

“Snitches. ConceptionInc restricts your breeding privies if you don’t behave.”

“And I bet that keeps you in line.”

“Not always. But being a holdout has its costs.”

“So what else is new?”

They continued along the street, opening up the bookstore, newspaper office, old stores. They passed Milli, perched on a stool with 20 of the Kindred cross-legged at her feet, like story time in kindergarten. She was talking about the legal marriage fight.

Kyros led a mob of boys into one of the clubs, lip-synching to an Annie Lennox song and gingerly demonstrating a standing bump and grind.

Dee was answering questions: “What was it made a high school high? What’s a parade float? Do you have horses? What was so bad about living on pigeons and squirrels?”

At noon, the kids broke out their giftpods. They had brought medicine and vitamins, precious sea-grown espresso, hydroponic rice that smelled of saffron and cloves, fertilizer, and fragile glass lamps full of phosphorescent algae. The drylanders gave back music files, jam, mushrooms, and plastic rainbow flags Lance had found in some long-forgotten crate.

“Tribes,” Milli murmured as they began to set out a communal lunch. Reb saw what she meant: the trans kids, who had been disappointed to find so few intersex elders up here, were sticking close to the Potluck’s surviving drag performers. Kyros was holding court to a crowd of mostly young men, while the clump of pregnant seachildren had gravitated to the half-dozen couples who had raised babies of their own.

“People are still people,” Reb said.

“Plus ça change,” Milli agreed.

Fern plopped down between them, chewing a carrot, starry-eyed. “It’s like there isn’t anyone else, just Kindred.”

“No gay ghettos undersea, kid?”

“Sort of.” She fiddled with her belt, projecting an image against the sunscreens: footage of the undersea city in the Strait of Georgia. It was a force-grown coral bowl, stadium shaped, with rising ranks of glowing doorways. Humans swam within the amphitheatre, their glowing secondskins making them visible in the murk. Their activities were all too familiar: harvesting, maintenance, stockpiling.

“Here at the bottom it’s mostly us,” Fern said. “Holdouts, the infertile, mutants. We get the undesirable and dangerous jobs.”

“Where’s everyone else?”

“Crèche.” The camera tilted up, zooming in on a green grid, a floating platform midway up the bowl. “You can bear here, you can carry a wombpack, you can sell your DNA to ConceptionInc-“

“The company allocates the best housing and jobs to XX/XY care groups with functional offspring,” Dee put in.

“We’re fighting extinction. They say it’s only fair,” Fern said.

“Bullshit,” Reb interrupted.

“Sorry?”

“You don’t all want to get on the reproductive choo-choo, so they’re treating you, collectively, like shit. Are you just taking it?” She tried to crush the swell of frustration. She shouldn’t be angry just because these youngsters hadn’t developed the habits of activism she’d learned at their age.

But Fern smiled that ludicrous, joyful smile, and tweaked her belt controls. A trio of lewd coral sculptures shimmered into view: three guys, fucking, while brightly coloured fish wound between their entangled limbs. The image gave way to a studious-looking mutant with bulging goggles, who was reading a declaration of “cellular self-determination” protesting ConceptionInc’s assumption that it owned the genomes of all undersea residents.

A poly family, five adults strong, celebrated its marriage to a sixth by chiselling through the walls of their habitats to join their homes together, apparently in defiance of corporate law.

Next came testimony by two lesbian holdouts who wanted to raise their newborn outside the corporate crèche. Then a multigender orgy, synchronized swim of lust and flesh, deeply joyful.

There was more. And this time when the surge of emotion came, Reb couldn’t shove it down.

“Careful,” Kyros murmured. He had come up behind her; he had a tub of popcorn balanced on his walker and was distributing handfuls. “Smile like that, you’ll sprain something. And lose your cred as a curmudgeon.”

“Shut up, old man.” She snapped her teeth at him. “Next you’ll be wanting to invite the tunnel kids up.”

“And the Moonbabies down,” Milli put in. “Don’t you?”

“Queer Moonbabies,” she repeated. The smile broke across her face again. “Why not?”

Just before sundown, the kids started making their way back, strolling down to the beach and reclaiming their garish, glowing secondskins. The Potluckers, all those with enough mobility anyway, walked them as far as the boardwalk.

“Did this work out?” Fern asked Reb. “Company says we can come annually, but if we aren’t welcome…”

“Come anytime,” Reb said. “And stay in touch.”

“Try and stop us,” said Fern, wrapping Reb in an unconsciously intimate embrace. With that she skipped off, indefatigable, vanishing over the Stanley Park dike with all her Kindred while the scorching sun set in the west.