When a kettle boils, it’s like a small scream. But in a long day those small screams need to happen. I was on my fifth coffee and it was around six thirty. Sometimes I just boiled the kettle and didn’t bother with the coffee, like the ritual meant more than the objective.
Our family pod was perfect, nothing was wrong. Every single little thing was recycled. When we went to the bathroom, when we breathed out, when we walked, when we shed dust, it was all stuff, it was all energy, or potential food or water for the filters.
I poured the kettle slowly to half fill my mug, so steam rose into the grating above me. My eyes were pink with broken veins and my hands were shaking. The empty bottle on the worktop was my shame.
My daughter was standing at the window when she said it. For a second I thought it was a moment of judgement but then I quickly realised she wasn’t talking about me at all.
“Dad,” she gasped, “Will this ever change?”
There were fifty family pods in our grouping. We rarely saw our neighbours in person, it was all on devices, that was easier. Getting dressed up in a radiation suit could be a drag and risky, if you were committed to a personal visit. Outside it was beautifully awful. The desert dust devils, the sudden storms, the violence of nature and then it all calmed down and we saw sunsets that were so spectacular we had to stop whatever we were doing, just to acknowledge them.
“It already has…” I replied, I was still drunk. “I remember a time when it was very different so that tells me change happens fast…”
We could just about view the little heads and movements of people in the other pods across the sands. There were some days, very bad days, when unthinkable incidents would occur quite spontaneously, for an onlooker anyway. Haden Decker across from us, just last month, walked out from the airlock, oblivious to the screams of his family. He stepped out into the world like it was last century, like he was going for a stroll in a park. You could see his skin redden and blister almost immediately. Then there was that day we saw domestic violence in the window of the Smiths. Celina was pointing and shouting at him – that’s what it looked like, then she threw something, a plate we concluded, and Matthew Smith lost his composure completely and we each held our breath in horror. We could see the blood streaks on the window where his fists went about their damage. We had to just try to talk him down on short wave. When he answered, he was grunting as he panted, like an animal, a raging cornered beast.
As it was the evening we gravitated to the centre of the main room, and took our seats around the table. We were so used to the routine it had become akin to addiction, it had become a woven ritual, something when set cannot easily be undone, no matter of desire to change. Mary, the love of my life, had given up talking in any meaningful way, she just stared at things and repeated little nothings in cycles, like ‘it will be dark soon’ and ‘put the kettle on’ and ‘we should sit at the table together for dinner’. My son, Jake watched TV shows on his device so much, earphones on, expression elsewhere, he didn’t exist fully in this world anymore.
We were safe in the pod. We had all we needed. We had our knives and forks, our plates and cups and enough reading material and TV shows to last five lifetimes.
Outside, the red sun crumbled into the horizon like it was disintegrating into death. We all looked at it through the big window together, witnessing the retreat of the light.
Our pod-to-pod supply was pretty awesome. Collectively, our grouping had worked out so much, we never went without. Ecosystem science was the only lesson we all excelled at because it was everything. How to create food from virtually nothing, how to establish friends and education, to appreciate horizons. We had our pod-to-pod vacuum supply funnels linked to each habitat and to automated warehouses in the chain, that mopped up and stored any extras we recycled or grew. It worked-ish. Frankly, if it did not, we all understood we would die. There was a specific kind of pleasure and anticipation in the sound of that ‘thunk’, of an arriving canister. It signified a treat, something from someone’s greenhouse perhaps.
The dark became all pervasive, absorbing the barren features of the land, the cluster of pods, and we noticed as the crescent of the moon became a bright shard in the night. Eventually the spell wore thin and we were all back to reading or viewing on our devices, in default.
Tessa was looking at me strangely. She was a teenager, so I understood she was becoming very frustrated with the imprisonment we endured, despite all our words and principles and lessons of how to cope. A caged bird will not thank its owner ever, just learn to live under them.
“You know, we are alive today because they went back to the moon.” Like I said, I was drunk.
She looked at me with a kind of well-practiced irritation. You live with people long enough they have no surprises left. I continued.
“If they hadn’t of set up Artemis, the colony on the moon, if they had never travelled to Mars, they would not have known how to one hundred percent recycle, how to survive psychologically in tin boxes on our dear planet.”
“Dad!” she snapped. “I know! You’ve been telling me this every other day, for fucking all my life!”
I smiled and looked at her as fathers do, with a kind understanding and barrier. I wanted her to have a full life so how was that ever going to happen in a world made of dirt?
“You do know it’s just as shit up there as it is down here, don’t you?! You call this surviving psychologically? You’re so drunk you can hardly form your words.”
Mary caught my eye, as if to see if I was in my head.
“Tessa, leave your father alone…” she mumbled.
“We have each other and that is it!” I shouted.
I stumbled from my chair and fell back against the wall. I saw it clearly in a lucid moment, our fragility, the pressure of our small world, and so I curled up in the corner, probably for the hundredth time in the year, a sight my children understood well for what it meant.
I thought I heard the kettle boil again as I drifted off, wrapping my arms around my knees to be smaller, but it was the winds escalating outside, a whistling scream, rising and rising and rising in pitch.