Fatphobia in culture, and its effects: Some thoughts and a video you should watch

I was bullied for my weight growing up, though looking at pictures from back then I wasn’t particularly fat – just fatter than a lot of my classmates. The primary effect of that treatment was that I did my best to avoid exerting myself where other people could see me. I was lucky to find groups that DIDN’T do that shit for the most part, both in my youth circus and in the wilderness/naturalist program at my high school, but it never really went away. I don’t know that I would have worked out more had I been left alone about that issue – I certainly DID work out when I was in settings where I knew it wouldn’t come up – but overall when someone mocked me for my weight, doing something physical with my body was the last thing I wanted to do. Rowling’s descriptions of fat people doing things, as highlighted in the video below, are a good illustration of how I saw myself when other people forced me to think about my body.

I also don’t remember how I felt about the cruelty in JK Rowling’s writing. I enjoyed the books at the time, and I think the grotesque caricature named Dudley Dursley didn’t hit ME to hard because my reaction was “at least I’m not that bad”. A huge number of problems in our society seem to come down to the inability of some people to see their fellow humans as people, rather than scenery or props. Writing like Rowling’s encourages that perspective, and as many have now pointed out, it’s far from limited to the fat characters in her books.

Obviously there’s a lot more to societal treatment of fat people than just Rowling’s writing, and fortunately Ok2BeFat has a lot of content, not just about the societal aspects of fatness, but also the science. This is work that needs doing, and she does a good job with it, so support her on patreon if you can.

Climate grief and perceptions of time

If you haven’t watched Arrival, I recommend you do so before reading this. It’s unlike any other first contact movie I’m aware of, and it’s worth experiencing un-spoiled. I’ll add that it is not, in any sense, a horror or action movie.

We are now caught in the storm of climate change. We have entered an age of endless recovery, and because of that, we need to make major changes to how we run things as part of our efforts to recover from disasters. It’s common for the process of rebuilding to include measures taken to reduce the damage next time a disaster occurs – it’s why we see different architecture evolve in places that are more vulnerable to things like earthquakes, for example. But with the climate warming at an accelerating rate, we cannot afford to be reactive. The scientific method can act like a strobe light on a stormy sea, giving us glimpses of the ever-shifting future. It’s not enough for us to plot out every wave that will hit our ship, but it will show us where the big swells and troughs are, and help us steer into them in a way that will reduce our chances of capsizing.

-Grim Reaping: Climate change and agriculture

In the movie Arrival, the main character Louise learns a non-linear alien language. In doing so, her understanding of time changes, as does her ability to perceive time, as it relates to her own life. Rather than living her life as a sequence of events, and the memories of those events, she begins to live all moments in her life simultaneously, experiencing them as they connect to each other. As she held her husband for the first time, she could remember all the other times she would hold him in the future, as well as the eventual failure of their relationship.

In the first moments of the movie, we hear Louise as narrator, speaking to her daughter as we watch a montage of Hannah’s birth, life, and childhood death of a rare and incurable disease. As the plot progresses, we realize that all the flashbacks Louise is having of her daughter’s life are actually glimpses forward in time. Before she even started a romantic relationship with Hannah’s father, Louise already remembered the entirety of Hannah’s life, and the heartbreak of losing her, and of losing the husband who blamed her for not trying to change the future and spare them all the pain.

While it’s never explicitly stated, I think the movie implies that the future is actually set. It doesn’t seem likely that Louise had the option of not having Hannah, and losing her. It was grief she knew was coming. At the same time, she also had all the memories of Hannah’s life – not just the pain of loss, but the joy of raising and loving a child. All the happiness and sorrow of a human life, laid out in advance.

The scientific method can act like a strobe light on a stormy sea, giving us glimpses of the ever-shifting future. It’s not enough for us to plot out every wave that will hit our ship, but it will show us where the big swells and troughs are, and help us steer into them in a way that will reduce our chances of capsizing. Unlike Louise, we can’t access our own futures to inform our present actions. Instead we just have those glimpses – clear enough to know what’s coming on a large scale, and obscure enough that many can shore up their denial by focusing on what we don’t know, to avoid confronting what we do.

When we do look at what we know, it’s hard to see much beyond the death. Arrival starts with the tragedy of a mother losing her daughter. Bad times stand out to us. In society as it exists, much of what we do involves avoiding bad experiences, and seeking good ones. The highs and the lows stand out to us, but when we learn of potential suffering in our future, it captures our attention, and we try to avoid it. That’s true when we see a rattlesnake on the trail ahead, and it’s true when we see the horrors of climate change on the horizon.

And with something like climate change, confronting reality also means accepting that at this point, there’s almost no chance that we can avoid tragedy on a scale that’s difficult to process.

You’re driving through your home town, and then, for just a minute, you can see the familiar landscape stripped barren by drought and famine, or engulfed in flames like the images we’ve seen from the United States, and Canada, and Greece, and so many other places. Can you grieve for people who haven’t died? I suppose that’s nothing new. What else do you call it when you fear the death of someone you love? When your brain conjures the image of life without them?

But that’s just worrying. It’s our imaginations creating something that could happen – we know it happens to other people “all the time”, but there’s no particular reason to think that it will. We calm those fears with the reminder that it happens to other people, at least until it does happen to us. We all know death is coming for us, sooner or later. We generally go through life ignoring that, because we can’t change it. Worrying about it too much can consume us.

I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory.
When’s it gonna get me?
In my sleep, Seven feet ahead of me?
If I see it comin’ do I run or do I let it be?
Hamilton: My shot

Death is certain. We take steps to come to terms with that fact. We work to prepare ourselves and each other for every time we witness the end of a life – and all of us will witness that in one way or another.

Climate change is killing people now. It will kill a great many more within our lifetimes. It’s very possible that by the end of my life, the human population will be reduced by hundreds of millions due to heat, famine, and other climate-driven catastrophes. I can’t see their faces but I can see enough to know that they are dying and I can’t stop it. I can’t even see enough to know whether I will be among their number, though I’d like not to be.

I want to keep watch, and to see if that strobe will show me a glimpse of hope before I lose the ability to experience. Even if I don’t, well – I’ll live till then, and do what I can to provide that hope for someone else. Is that all we can do? Keep ourselves going by telling ourselves that there’s a good future out there, that we just can’t see yet?

Maybe.

Have you lost someone you love? Have you lost a pet you’ve had for years? Have you ended a relationship that used to give you joy? The pain can be unbearable. In the middle of it, it’s hard to notice anything else. But the pain at the end isn’t all there is to life, and it’s not all there is to death. Raksha, my dog, is going to die soon. It’s not that she has a set prognosis or anything, it’s that she’s 14 years old, has arthritis, and can’t see well. In general, 15 years is the upper limit for dogs like her. A couple years ago Tegan and I decided that the primary consideration was giving her as good a life as we can in the time she has left. Inflicting the pain of invasive treatments wouldn’t be worth the extra couple months it might buy, especially since we can’t explain what’s happening to her.

It’s going to suck when it happens. I try not to think about it.

Do I regret the 14 years I’ve spent living with her? No. Will I? Maybe sometimes, but I wouldn’t be who I am without having had her in my life. In the end, it’s not about the end, it’s about everything else.

The future looks bleak. If humanity makes it through to the other side of this nightmare we’ve crafted for ourselves, I doubt it will be in my lifetime. Even so, I’ll keep fighting to bring the world I want to create closer to me, and in the meantime, seek happiness around me as I go.


Due to my immigration status, this is my only form of income for the foreseeable future, and it’s currently not enough to make ends meet. If you like the work I do, please share it around, and please consider supporting me at patreon.com/oceanoxia. It costs as little as $1 per month (though more is appreciated), and gets you access to a little bit of extra content, and early access to some things like my climate-related short stories.

Christianity, Rapture Theology, and the American Empire

Hopefully this isn’t news to most of my readers, but the United States is the heart of a global pseudo-empire that uses its military, diplomatic, and economic power primarily to safeguard the economic interests of its ruling class. That said, the use of that power is not solely driven by material concerns of wealth and power. This also should not be a surprise to anyone, but Christianity – specifically a version of evangelical Protestantism, also plays a large role in U.S. foreign policy – particularly in the Middle East.

Any material analysis of the U.S. empire and its foreign and domestic policies will be incomplete without an understanding of the bizarre rapture theology that holds sway with most U.S. conservatives. This set of religious beliefs – not supported by biblical text – is key to understanding things like the antisemitism behind some U.S. support for the aggressive policies of the country Israel, and why there’s so much money from these branches of Christianity going to get Jewish people to move there. It’s a complicated subject that requires a mix of material historical analysis, scriptural analysis, and cultural analysis.

Because this belief is held by so many at the core of the U.S. empire, and because it’s held by so many in the halls of power (it’s why Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem), understanding this set of beliefs is important for those within the military reach of that empire, which would be everyone. This is a belief system that is actively working to bring about the end of the world.

This is a long video, but for good reason. I recommend listening to it while doing your dishes or gaming or something like that, if you don’t want to just sit through it, but this is important stuff to understand, and I’ve yet to see a better breakdown of it than this one from Renegade Cut:

 

U.S. immigration policy is deliberately cruel under both major parties. This must change.

Disturbing photos and video from the U.S.-Mexico border show Haitian refugees being attacked by Border Patrol agents on horses with whips. At the same time, the Biden administration is deporting people back to Haiti, even as that country faces a massive natural disaster and political upheaval on top of the generations of brutal economic repression from colonial powers.

It’s particularly nice of that one agent to announce to the world that this is exactly what it looks like. White supremacy has always played a major role in U.S. immigration law, That has been true under Democratic rule, and under Republican rule. We should be standing in solidarity with these refugees, and welcoming them, not greeting them with whips and insults.

These atrocities will not stop until U.S. policy is based on what’s good for humanity, and not what’s good for a tiny ruling class. None of our “leaders” are willing to confront reality, and as climate change continues to displace people, these atrocities will get worse.

Our ruling class continues to make the choice depressingly clear: Socialism, or barbarism

Food for thought on the structure of change

Periodically there’s a flurry of discussion about ways people can help with a movement beyond being on the front lines. A lot of it goes into organizing and logistical work, but some also goes into much less involved forms of participation, even if it’s just wearing a button or something.

I don’t know how much of this is a description of what tends to happen, vs what is “needed” for a movement to be successful, but either way, I think it’s a pattern that anyone fighting for change should at least consider and account for. At the end of the day, those of us fighting for a better world have to rely on collective power, which means our chances of success go up the more people we have on board.

If Beau’s spear analogy describes a reliable pattern – and it seems like it is to me – then I think that the goal should be getting the shaft lined up behind the spearhead. BLM has done a pretty good job of that, showcasing the brutality and dishonesty of the police in a way that’s been increasingly difficult to wave away. That’s something we’d do well to think about when it comes to our own activism and communication.

Dear Small Business Owners: We need to talk about fascism

Most of the time when people talk about capitalists, we’re talking about the ones whose net worth tens of millions and up. Small business owners are generally categorized as “the little guy” that makes America function. I suppose there’s a degree of truth to that, but this pandemic and the response to it have highlighted a class conflict that will cause a lot of problems if we don’t figure out a way around it. It’s not a new problem, and I think a lot of it has to do with how incentives are structured, and “morality” is constructed under capitalism.

As we entered the pandemic, it was clear very early on that the best possible outcome for the most people relied on a real lockdown, enabled by massive government assistance to those who could not make ends meet without their wages. This, of course, was unacceptable to a capitalist class whose view of the world revolves entirely around profit and the capitalist religion’s deity, The Free Market. It was surreal to watch politicians and pundits tear their hear out over the “moral hazard” of paying people to stay home during the most deadly pandemic in a century. No real lockdown was achieved in the U.S. Instead, there was a strange “compromise” that meant people who were already well off got to isolate and protect themselves, and people who had no political power – workers – disproportionately non-white, and the elderly trapped in various end-of-life care facilities – were still being exposed, and they made up a sizable chunk of the 671,000 deaths we’ve counted so far.

The only clear benefit the working class got was the now-expired eviction moratorium. The inadequate stimulus checks, and the good – and now expired – unemployment assistance were nice, but for the most part they went directly into the pockets of the rich, as people spent that money on the myriad of large price tags the United States has placed on being alive.

But small business owners – particularly those who ran in-person services – didn’t see that income, because people were trying not to catch a deadly disease. Rather than simply pushing for more direct relief for their businesses, a lot of them pushed for an end to relief for the working class. They called for the government to basically starve the population into working for poverty wages, while exposing themselves to a deadly disease.

I talked before about how a lot of people aren’t willing to take the jobs they used to have, because the way they were fired at the first sign of trouble demonstrated that the one thing that had made their poverty wages worthwhile – the reliability – was a fiction. The short-term gain of firing workers who couldn’t work has led to longer-term problems, as workers aren’t willing to work themselves to death for wages that don’t even cover the cost of living, and a boss who will cut them loose to fend for themselves the second they think doing so is better for their own bank account.

What’s interesting about all this is that small business owners – the ones who actually own small businesses, not the hedge fund manager types who’re classified as “small businesses” because there aren’t many people working for them – are often playing at being capitalists more than they actually are capitalists. If they take a serious hit, and their business fails, they become (horror of horrors) workers. And that seems to terrify them.

This desire to be capitalists, as opposed to workers, has historically led small business owners, to side with the anti-union, anti-worker, pro-capitalist policies of fascism, while turning a blind eye to the racial and ethnic elements, and to the escalating atrocities and injustice. As with firing workers at the beginning of the pandemic, all of this makes perfect “business sense.” A lack of active, organized socialists means no danger of your business – and the hope of wealth – being taken away by the workers (which would put the owner in the nightmarish position of becoming a worker). A lack of trade unions means your workers can’t bargain collectively, so you can do things like paying each one as little as you think they’ll accept. A lack of ethnic minorities means there’s nobody around to make you think about what happened to them, so you can just go about your business in peace.

One of the primary projects in maintaining capitalism is the constant moral indoctrination. We are taught to separate our sense of morality along the class divide. It’s good to care about other humans, but that’s separate from “the economy,” and if the economy is hurt, well that clearly hurts everyone, right? And we’re taught that any effort to make our society a better system for human happiness will hurt the economy, which will then hurt the same people you’re trying to help. God has a pla -sorry, wrong theology- The Free Market will fix everything if we just put our faith in it, and serve it without question.

Part of the reason the propaganda on this subject is so relentless is that this is the primary place where the mythology of capitalism collides with reality. The free market really is a myth, and it always has been. Capitalists rely entirely on the government to enforce their claims to ownership, and to use the lethal dangers of poverty to force workers to accept wage slavery in exchange for survival. Try to maintain that fiction and its inherent contradictions indefinitely, and the lower classes, ethnic minorities, and members of the majority who can’t stomach the endless rivers of blood for profit start to fight back, and fight for change.

And that, historically, seems to be where a capitalist country turns to fascism.

I want to pause here to address something about the United States. I can’t say with confidence that the US is unique in this regard, but it certainly stands out, and not just because of that country’s status as the center of a global empire. It is an unquestioned fact that U.S. racial policy and practices directly inspired the leaders of Nazi Germany. It’s also a simple fact that the United States has had a fascist movement within it since before that political ideology had a name beyond white supremacy. As fascism rose in Europe for the first time (I wish I could say the only time), it also rose in the United States, and has never really gone away. It lost popularity after Pearl Harbor, but even some the soldiers who the U.S. lionizes as “The Greatest Generation” retained their sympathy for fascists, driven by their bigotry, as shown by this excerpt from Howard Zinn’s account of Freedom Day in Hattiesburg, Mississippi (the censored words are my doing):

As we entered the jailhouse a few minutes before 8:00 a.m., the police dogs were growling and barking in their kennels. We turned over the bond money.

A moment later, Oscar came down the corridor unescorted. A few moments before, the corridor had been full of policemen, but now there was not a soul around. Oscar was still wearing his badly worn corduroy pants, and his old boots, caked with mud. His blue workshirt was splattered with blood, and under it his T-shirt was very bloody. The right side of his face was swollen. His nose looked as if it were broken. Blood was caked over his eye.

He told us what had happened. They had put a prisoner into his cell who was in a state of great agitation, very upset about the demonstration at the courthouse. He had been a paratrooper in World War II and told Oscar he “would rather kill a n****r lover than a Nazi or a J*p.” He pushed a cigarette near Oscar’s face and said he would burn his eyes out. Oscar called for the jailer and asked to be removed from the cell. The ex-paratrooper asked if Oscar was “one of them n****r-lovers.” The jailer nodded. The next thing Oscar knew he was lying on the floor. He had been unconscious. Now he was being kicked. He was bleeding. The police came and took the ex-paratrooper out of the cell. Oscar made his phone call.

If the United States is the greatest in the world at anything, it seems to be at telling pretty lies about itself, and convincing most of its population to believe them.

I took time to touch on the history of fascism in America because that history acts as camouflage for the fascist movement of the present. In 2019, for example, we learned that one reason Twitter wasn’t treating right-wing extremists the way they treat groups like ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, was because the algorithm couldn’t tell the difference between U.S. right-wing extremists, and a number of GOP politicians. The simple reason for this is that there is no difference. The political backlash from openly naming the Republican Party for what it is was more than even Twitter, a huge and powerful corporation, was willing to risk. This level of open fascism in the GOP is new, in some ways, but a lot of it is very, very old.

I want to take a moment to review Laurence Britt’s 14 characteristics of fascism again. Remember that not all fascist movements will necessarily have every simple element on this list:

  1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
    Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.
  2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
    Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.
  3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause
    The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.
  4. Supremacy of the Military
    Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.
  5. Rampant Sexism
    The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Opposition to abortion is high, as is homophobia and anti-gay legislation and national policy.
  6. Controlled Mass Media
    Sometimes to media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.
  7. Obsession with National Security
    Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.
  8. Religion and Government are Intertwined
    Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.
  9. Corporate Power is Protected
    The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.
  10. Labor Power is Suppressed
    Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed .
  11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts
    Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts is openly attacked, and governments often refuse to fund the arts.
  12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment
    Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.
  13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption
    Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.
  14. Fraudulent Elections
    Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or even assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

I really hope it’s clear to you how this description maps onto the modern U.S. conservative movement and the GOP, especially in light of what we’ve seen in the last year. Many people have been making this case throughout Trump’s time as the leader of the GOP, but think a bit about this list, and about American history. The only two items that haven’t been very clearly a part of US society for most of the last century are control of the media and fraudulent elections. Even there, the Red Scare was an effort to deliberately crush leftism, both in media, and in politics. Any idea that was viewed as anti-capitalist was conflated as anti-American, and the FBI, the Secret Police of the United States, has spent government resources to crush left-wing politics in the United States so effectively that even the moderate social democratic (and still capitalist) policies of people like Bernie Sanders are treated as murderous extremism, with wealthy media figures like Chris Matthews melting down on national TV about the fear of being executed in Central Park.

In many ways, the basic infrastructure of fascism is the background radiation of the United States, and has been all along. It just sits there, waiting for someone to decide it’s worth the social risk to make use of it.

And so as the shift has been made, closer and closer to a fully and openly fascist society, it’s been hard for some people to see it, because it doesn’t look that different from what they’ve always known. And since I know I’m a good person, and I haven’t had a problem with it thus far, that must mean that it’s not fascism! If it was, then I – as a good person – would be horrified and taking to the streets. But it doesn’t seem that much different from everything else, and I’ve got this small business that’s struggling – it’s taking up all of my time and energy, and now I can’t find workers who will take what I’m willing to pay them!

So small business owners ask the government to help us out by threatening or simply removing the workers’ food and shelter, so working for them – at whatever wage the boss offers – is the only way to survive. The government also helps by undermining unions, so that employees don’t have the means to exert any kind of power over the jobs that eat up most of their lives. Of course that helps the “little guys” a bit – they get a desperate, fearful workforce to keep the bosses from BECOMING workers – but much more than that, it protects corporate power (number 9 on the list) by suppressing labor power (number 10 on the list).

But again, it does help the small business owners cling to their status as “capitalists,” and so they support the party that does the most of that, and try hard to find reasons to justify it, and to justify looking the other way for the escalating nationalism, the minority scapegoating, and so on.

This is one way that liberal people, who would press a “save that person” button if it was offered, can end up passively supporting a fascist movement. After that point, the worse things get, the higher the emotional toll of accepting reality gets, and the more pressure there is to keep looking away. And humans don’t like being told that we’re bad people, so some small business owners get defensive and angry. They begin to hate those who try to fight back against the regime, because those people are a constant reminder that those who aren’t fighting back might be bad people for it. They support the regime, and they are generally rewarded for it. In modern America this ranges from people going out of their way to buy products they don’t need, to the support of legislators, to crowdfunding campaigns to support people seen as “heroes for the cause.”

This seems to be the path we’re on right now, and as the climate continues to throw chaos at us, and the Democrats continue to focus on failed policies like austerity and “free market” solutions, I fear it will get worse. I hope I’m wrong, but with the way things are going, I think small business owners are going to have to make a choice about whether to side with life and justice, or with their short-term economic interests, and the horror of an openly fascist United States of America.

There’s a famous antifascist play called “On the Frontier” by W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, a play that I once had the pleasure of being in actually, in which a wealthy arms manufacturer called Valerian makes weapons for a fascist dictator.

At the climax of the play the fascist dictator is overthrown, by his own people who also kill Valerian himself. But just before that there’s a crucial scene in which Valerian’s friend comes to him and says, “It’s all over, the revolution has happened, you need to run away with me now and abandon all your wealth and power and flee to another country with me.” And Valerian says, “No.”

He chooses to stay, and moreover, he chooses to give his money and weapons not to the people trying to overthrow the fascist dictator but to the fascists. And it’s choice that distinguishes Valerian from the victims of the fascist government he supports.

I’m not suggesting we should start executing industrialists; I’m illustrating that if you’re a fascist, and antifascists come for you, you have a choice.

You can give it up. […] And the historical evidence supports this: when fascists in a particular city stop getting together and organising antifascists go back to their lives as well. In fact some antifascists engage with fascists and provide services to try and get them out of the movement so they get on move on with their lives.

But if you’re a person of colour, if you’re trans, or a person with a disability, or gay, or Jewish, or whatever and fascists come for you there is nothing you can do that will make them happy except stop existing.

Abigail Thorn, The Philosophy of Antifa


Strangely, the tens of thousands of dollars I’ve spent on rent over the years haven’t reduced my need to keep paying richer people than me for the right to live. Due to my immigration status, this is my only form of income for the foreseeable future, and it’s currently not enough to make ends meet. If you like the work I do, please share it around, and please consider supporting me at patreon.com/oceanoxia. It costs as little as $1 per month (though more is appreciated), and gets you access to a little bit of extra content, and early access to some things like my climate-related short stories.

Fiction: A boring night is looking up (full story)

The zeppelin’s white skin glowed in the city’s lights as it approached the docking tower. Rivulets of water made it shimmer, drawing Tua’s eyes. She yawned, and squinted to re-focus her gaze on the cargo hold. Her mission brief was sparse on details, but the central question was clear: a handful of freight vessels had been dropping something while on approach for docking, beginning shortly after sunset. A few dock workers had seen whatever it was, and reported it to the Shipping Council, but there were no reports of anything falling from the sky, of damage, or of unexplained waste in the canals.

Something was being delivered by people who were willing to go to fairly extreme lengths to keep their business off of any books. Half the time, when Tua was called in to run an investigation, what she found was depressingly harmless. People operating in secret because they enjoyed the challenge, or starting up a strange new business venture that drew attention from “concerned citizens”.

Those didn’t tend to involve the clandestine use of one of the city’s major shipping routes. Freight zeppelins ran constantly around the country. They didn’t move particularly fast, but there was a never-ending stream of them drifting slowly around the continent. It was effectively a massive, airborne conveyor belt, and because it depended on lighter-than-air craft, weight was carefully monitored.

The zeppelin docked with a loud thunk, and Tua closed her eyes to rest them while the vessel was unloaded above her. Waiting was the worst part of this job.

Normally, smuggling investigations required very little effort. Most items that would get a smuggler in trouble were things that could poison the water or interfere with some of the city’s vital functions. Smuggling might allow someone to avoid paying access or import fees, but those were low enough that avoiding them often cost more, even if you didn’t get caught. That went doubly for smuggling anything by air. Tua had helped a gun-running operation in her teens, but that had gone along the canals. It turned out the guns were for an ill-conceived plan by a group to gain control over the city’s common housing system through a mixture of bribery, intimidation, and murder.

Tua didn’t understand it, but there always seemed to be those who wanted power over other people, and those willing to help them for one reason or another. She shifted carefully on her perch, and adjusted her goggle magnification. The next zeppelin was just visible on its approach.

I was one of those willing to help, she reminded herself. Her current gig as an investigator had started as community service after she was caught along with everyone else involved in the attempted takeover. She hadn’t known what goods she was moving, but neither had she asked. It had gotten her better food and housing, and more than enough money to access some of the more interesting clubs around town. It had also been more fun than she had had before or since.

A bell rang above her as the zeppelin finished offloading its cargo, and glided away into the rainy dusk. The next one approached, and Tua watched, her goggles recording everything in case she blinked at the wrong moment.

She didn’t.

An object dropped from the hold, nearly invisible, and vanished between a couple buildings.

“Mark this section of the recording, and send it to Kenneth for analysis.”

Tua basked in the brief adrenaline spike for a moment as the zeppelin  docked, then clambered rapidly down the outside of the tower. Two stories down from her perch, she slipped through an access hatch and closed it carefully behind her. The suit that covered her head to toe would prevent her from showing up on any heat-sensitive equipment, but the more time she spent out on the side of a building, the better the chances someone would notice her.

If the people behind this operation knew they were being investigated, they’d disappear entirely.

There was a soft beep in her ear.

“Go ahead.”

“From what I can tell, you’re looking three rows north, one row west.” Kenneth’s voice was high, and a little nasal. “Based on your footage, there’s no way that hits the water without enough of a splash to draw attention, which means it’s being caught on the way down.”

“Any ideas how they’re doing it?” Tua’s mask prevented her voice from carrying more than a millimeter beyond her lips.

“Nothing you haven’t already thought of. There’s no permanent structure that would allow for it, so they’re putting out a net or something, without anyone noticing, catching the cargo, and pulling it in.

“And there’ve been no reports that might be related?”

“Not that I can find, no. The reports are all from dock workers, and altogether it seems like a considerable amount of something has been coming in at a pretty constant rate for some time now.”

“How much?”

Tua slipped quietly into a stairwell on the south side of the building, and headed down to another access hatch, guided by the display on her goggles.

“We won’t know till you get a better reading. Try to get a recording of the cargo being dropped, and we should be able to figure out how much each package weighs.”

“On my way.”

She heard someone the stairwell one floor below her as she reached her destination. She slipped through her door and closed it silently behind her. She followed her directions through a floor of offices to a utility corridor, and slipped out the access hatch at the end of it.

It let her out onto the roof of a causeway that ran through, and between buildings. Glancing up, she saw another zeppelin coming in to dock, its bulk peeking out around the sides of the building. Two thirds of the way across the causeway bridge, hopped over the side, hooking her grapple on a strut as she fell past it, and swinging up to cling to the underside of the bridge. A catwalk ran under the causeway, put there for inspection and maintenance of the machinery for the moving walkways that carried people around the city. She set off north at a jog, keeping her footfalls light. The hum of motors and gears above her would drown out most noises, but Tua liked to be careful when she was trying to avoid notice. Three rows north of the docking tower, she stopped in the middle of a canal and looked west.

“Kenneth.”

“Wait there for the next drop, then reposition.”

“It’s always ‘waiting.’”

“Really? I had no idea.” Tua could hear Kenneth’s eyes rolling. He worked out of his apartment, and complained bitterly any time he was forced to actually go out and do any investigating.

Tua complained any time she was forced to sit and wait, and most of her work involved waiting. When she told someone what she did for work, they thought it sounded thrilling and glamorous. When she told them it mostly involved waiting around, they generally assumed it was to hide thrilling secrets.

She heard the soft sound of something moving against metal and glanced to the side. A cat had found her, and decided to join her.

“Well” she murmured, “I suppose a catwalk is more your domain than mine.”

Kenneth’s breath puffed against his microphone as he chuckled into it.

“Found another cat, did you?”

“They find me, Ken.”

“Just don’t get distracted.”

“Do I ever?” The cat sniffed delicately at her gloved hand, and then rubbed its face against her fingertips.

“Yes. Often. That’s part of why you record everything in front of your face when we’re working.”

“Then it’s not likely to cause any problems, is it?” Her new companion flopped on its gray-striped side, its paws pressed against her thigh, and blinked up at her, tail tapping gently on the metal grate of the catwalk’s floor.

“That depends.” Kenneth’s tone was dry. “Do you expect the cat to be catching the cargo? If not, you may need to actually look in the correct direction for me to have anything to analyze.”

“Analyze my butt.” She turned her head to glare down the canal, scratching at the cat’s ear with a knuckle.

“Ugh. No thanks.”

Tua grinned. The few times she’d asked about Kenneth’s social life, he’d described himself as being in a blissful relationship with his work. Nearly everything about his life seemed boring to her, but the more she worked with him, the more she realized that he hadn’t been kidding. His life truly was blissful. He got along with everyone, had a few close friendships, and absolutely no interest in romance.

When she got to know him well enough to see the shape of his life, she had said his lifestyle would drive her to jump off buildings just for something to do. He responded that she did that anyway, so clearly her own lifestyle was also too boring, and at least he was content with what he had.

He wasn’t wrong.

Uncovering secrets was an intensely satisfying job – more so than just keeping them for other people – but she did find that her craving for adventure seemed to build exponentially every time she had to just sit and wait somewhere. If something fun didn’t happen soon, she’d have to enter herself into a ring fight just to alleviate the boredom.

The cat hooked a paw into the grate and pulled itself so its head rested on her thigh. She glanced down at it and tickled her fingers on its exposed belly. It immediately grabbed her hand with its mouth and front paws, and rabbit-kicked her wrist. The tough material of her suit protected against thorns and cat claws alike, but he was keeping his weapons sheathed, and his bite was playfully gentle.

She cooed at him, forgetting that the sound wouldn’t escape her suit.

“Tua…”

“Yeah, yeah.”

She turned her head and watched the long, glittering ribbon of the canal. The only disturbance on the water’s surface came from the dripping buildings, and the dripping sky. Movement caught her eye directly under her perch, but it was just the headlight of a small submersible drone, cruising along just above the bottom of the canal. As always, she wanted to know who was piloting it, and why, but that wasn’t the secret she was hunting tonight.

The cat let go of her hand, and sat up, staring at her. She gave it a shrug; she didn’t carry anything a cat could eat when she was working.

Her companion noticed the disturbance just as she did. A little less than one row west, something had appeared on the surface of the water.

“Kenneth, are you seeing this?”

“Yep.”

It was a black circle against the lights reflected in the water, maybe about four feet across. Tua whispered a command and her goggles began cycling through polarization and wavelength filters.

“It looks like there’s some sort of tube or something leading from the surface down to a gap near the base of that building.”

“Yeah. Can’t tell for sure, but-”

An object dropped into the middle of the object with a soft flap, and Tua’s goggles showed it sliding down the tube like a large fish moving down a snake’s body in a time-lapse video. Before it reached the bottom of the tube, it had already retracted below the surface, until the whole apparatus pulled back down to disappear where the canal met the building.

“What the hell was that?” Kenneth sounded almost disturbed.

“What we’re looking for, and it’s something new!”

“Tua…”

“I’m going to find a new perch. It looks like the vines on the side of the building will let me sit right over that spot without sticking out at all.”

“Be careful,” said Kenneth.

“That’s your job, Ken, not mine.”

“Tua!”

“Stop whining, Ken. Mark that spot for me so I can make sure I’m positioned right?”

“Fine.”

She stood carefully, and did a couple squats to warm up her legs again. The cat stood with her, but disappeared back the way it had come as she headed to the row of buildings. Her pulse drummed a little faster as she slipped from the catwalk into the building, and trotted down a narrow utility corridor. Her goggles had identified the building as a farm, which suited her fine. Farms always had a nice collection of walkways to allow people to do as much work as possible without risking contamination of the clean-room environment that kept the crops pest-free. After about 100 meters, she turned to a fire escape, and looked up, checking air traffic.

Her goggles outlined the long line of zeppelins for her, each about a kilometer apart. None of the sensors built into her suit were picking up surveillance beyond the standard stuff that wouldn’t care about her. She took a moment to pick a route, and began bouldering along the side of the building, moving from ledge to vine until she was over the bright orange spot Kenneth had put on her display to mark the drop point.

She hooked a couple straps to the vines around her so she could hold her position comfortably.

“In place. Time for more waiting.”

“Stop,” said Kenneth, “I can’t bear the excitement in your voice.”

“Hey now! We’re about to uncover a new secret! This is about as exciting as this job gets!”

“Maybe. From what we’ve seen so far, the next step is to call in a dive team. You and I might never even know what they find.”

“Hmph!” He was probably right. She hated not knowing.

“Stop whining. Look up so we can see the next one drop.”

She obeyed, pointing her face at the featureless, dripping sky

“At least the last spot had a cat.”

“Maybe this one will have a spider you can pet.”

“You’re so funny, Ken!”

“Nobody appreciate my genius.”

If any spiders were trying to befriend her, she couldn’t feel them through the suit. Every time she thought watching canals or buildings was boring, she could just remember watching the sky, and she’d feel better by comparison. The only changes in the sky were the transition from underlit yellow clouds at night, to overlit gray clouds during the day. Sometimes, a particularly dramatic sunset or sunrise would add a green or pink tint to things.

A zeppelin passed overhead without incident.

“How many more drops do we need to see?” The next zeppelin was a good five to ten minutes out.

“Probably one looking up, and one looking down,” said Kenneth. “Maybe two? Depends on how it’s dropped and on what we can gather from the landing spot.”

“Ugh. I’m gonna be stuck on this wall all night.”

“If it helps, it seems like about every third vessel on this route is smuggling cargo, so the next one should have some entertainment for you.”

“It had better…”

The next one looked different as soon as it came into view.

“Ken, are you see-”

“Yes, Tua. I’m seeing everything you’re seeing.”

There was a bulge on the underside of the zeppelin’s gondola. It was the same color, but looking carefully, even in this dim light, Tua could see that it was divided into three sections. The outer two were much larger than the central one, and Tua guessed they held a lifting gas. As it drew almost directly overhead, the outer sections suddenly deflated and retracted, and the whole thing dropped away, leaving the underside of the vessel completely unmarked. She kept her face turned upward as the object dropped past her, and flapped into its target, in case there was any activity on the zeppelin itself that she’d missed.

“They might not even…” Tua trailed off.

“Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s why nothing odd was showing up on the  weight readings. The two sacks on the sides kept it neutrally bouyant on the underside of the gondola, and it probably had a releasable suction cup to keep it attached enough to move along with it.”

“That’s a really clever system.” Tua was impressed. “They wouldn’t even need to have anyone on the inside or whatever. If they’re a little careful, they could be attaching these things at any point along the route and nobody would notice.”

“I’ve been marking the ones that are carrying the extra cargo, so we’ll be able to track when the last time someone had a recording of the undersides. We should at least be able to figure out where they’re coming from.”

The zeppelin out of sight, Tua turned her gaze downward. With the help of her goggles, she could even see the hole at the base of the building.

“You know, I could probably just dive down and have a look at that hole…”

“And then drown at the bottom of the canal? Doesn’t seem worth the sacrifice to me, but it’s your life, I suppose.”

“Sun, Moon, and Stars, how boring can you get?”

“Hey now…”

“Sorry, it’s just-” She took a deep breath. “Our differences aside, this suit doesn’t just keep me off I.R. scanners, it also feeds me breathable air. It’ll do that under water, too.”

“Even without tanks?”

“Iffy. I’d need to move slow to keep oxygen requirements low.”

“Sounds like you’d get bored halfway to the bottom,” said Kenneth.

“Very funny. It wouldn’t be boring, it would be a challenge, and then we might actually get some answers.”

“Better to get people who won’t suffocate if they get out of breath.”

“Maybe…”

Kenneth sighed. “Look, just watch for the next one so we can at least get some idea of what kind of weight these things are.”

“Watching…”

The gently rippling water below her was hypnotic. Time always passed more quickly when she was staring at the shimmer of lights and colors that made up the canal’s surface at night. After a little while, Kenneth spoke up again.

“Should be something on the next zeppelin, in about five minutes. I’m pretty sure they’re using hydrogen, and from the size of the gas bags, the cargo and container probably add up to around 70 to 75 kilograms.”

“Huh. That’s about what I weigh.” Tua couldn’t see any movement below her yet.

“You think they’re smuggling people?”

“With a drop like that? Not unless they don’t care if they’re intact on arrival.”

“I dunno…” Kenneth paused.

“What?”

“I had some numbers running after we got that first recording. It looks like the water pressure on the outside of the tube might provide enough of a gradual slowdown that it wouldn’t do any damage.”

“Clever system all around.”

“If I’m right, the weight of the cargo would pull it down even without the momentum of that drop.”

“Reeally…”

“The inside of the tube would probably need to be oiled or something, but- wait. Tua I don’t like the tone of your voice.”

“Don’t be silly. How far down do you think it goes?”

There was a moment of silence, and Tua saw movement below her. The tube was slowly rising up below her, pushed by several long, thin rods attached to the hoop that formed the “target”.

“Probably down to the old subway tunnels, maybe below.”

“So maybe a minute or two in the tube?”

“And then someone at the bottom to receive it and clear the way for the next one.”

“Underwater?” The tube had almost reached the surface.

“No,” said Kenneth. “From what I can tell, I’m willing to bet there’s an aerated structure down there. This whole system seems designed to protect whatever they’re smuggling from water.”

“Even though they’re dropping it into a canal?”

The tube reached the surface, and stopped just above it. Looking down, Tua could see it had a flat black cover. The edge of the circle twisted around, and the cover opened like an iris, revealing a sort of gullet, glistening with the oil Kenneth had predicted, and held closed by the water around it.

“Yeah,” Kenneth sounded excited. Tua’s heart was pounding now. “See that? The cargo just slides in, and has an easy trip down. It’s like they’re bypassing the city entirely.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“No idea.”

“Don’t you want to know?”

“Sure, but- Tua you’ve got that tone in your voice again.”

“What tone?” Tua carefully unhooked her anchors, and glanced up. The zeppelin was almost there.

“Like that time you got so bored you used your grapple to take a joyride on the underside of a delivery drone.”

“Oh yeah, that was fun!” She stared at the landing spot. It pulled back in about twenty seconds after the cargo hit, and the cover took about five seconds to open.

“How much did you have to pay to cover damage and wasted fuel?”

“That was a legit company. I don’t think these people have the resources to enforce any fines.”

“I bet they have the resources to make you sorry you interfered…”

“Maybe.” Tua pulled out her collapsible baton, and clenched it in her right fist.

“Tua don’t-”

“I’m gonna.”

“You’ll get covered in oil.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Gross,” said Kenneth. “You could die.”

“At least it wouldn’t be of boredom. I wanna know what’s at the other end of that tube.”

“But-”

“They might notice a dive team, but they won’t be expecting this.”

“Because it’s so reckless that nobody would-”

The smugglers’ cargo flashed past and flapped into the tube. Tua hopped after it.

Flap.


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