We are pleased to present an excerpt from the first story from Futures: A Science Fiction Series—Always Blue by John Dermot Woods. The story follows Schulz, an instructor of Wind Tuning at the City Academy. When he detects a draft crossing his campus and clouds appearing in the permanently clear sky, he suspects his greatest invention—the Windwall that protects his island city from the increasingly volatile climate of the world around it—may be failing. But is he more concerned with complete environmental disaster, or with losing his cushy post at the Academy?
Always Blue is a work of literary science fiction that explores how our day-to-day struggles and inconveniences—irritating colleagues, entitled students, aloof administrators, uninspired lunch choices—can make it impossible to see the real threats to our world.
by John Dermot Woods
“Air’s not right today. Is it, Mr Schulz?” Stacey Graham avoided eye contact with her instructor. She twisted her ponytail around her wrist and inspected the frayed ends of her hair, pretending vanity concerned her. Her wrinkled linen shirt and loose flannel pants told a different story.
Schulz said nothing. It was his right to be left alone. He was chewing one last smoke on the plaza before their seminar began. Three straight hours of student presentations were on the agenda. These minutes before class qualified as a period of non-interference. They’d created rules about these things for a reason. He was not required to respond to his student—not even expected to—and he wouldn’t. Stacey would have to wait until their class to engage him. He rolled a waxy tube between his palms, getting it good and soft, and bit off its end. A moist chemical tang hit his tongue and he closed his eyes. Warm relief crept over the top of his skull. Stacey moved on.
Air’s not right? What the hell was she talking about? The air was fine. He should know. The Academy had appointed him Distinguished Instructor of Draft Engineering. His work at the City Division of Wind Tuning had ensured that their island city woke up to a blue sky and a moderate temperature every day of the year. The air was always right, goddammit.
Except on those rare gray days, when the valve was released on the system and the moisture and humidity moved through. There were some clouds with enough weight to cast a shadow, sometimes a drizzle of rain. But those days were planned. Everyone knew well in advance. They followed a pattern that he’d established when he still ran the City Department of Wind Tuning. Schulz had the calendar of gray days for the next three years committed to memory. He could assure Stacey, assure anyone in the city, that the air was right. He bit hard on his smoke and let the bitter ooze seep between his lip and gums.
Soon he had a good mouthful of vapor. He filled his lungs and held it. Students read quietly on the benches, while his colleagues conspired as they returned to their offices. He exhaled the smoke into the air. It blew to the left. The stream was supposed to go straight. To go left meant there was a breeze. There could be no breeze—that would mean Stacey was right.
He took another bite off his smoke and filled his lungs. This time, when he exhaled, the vapor floated straight up. He was sure of it. No drafts, no currents, no anomalies. Schulz was glad. The last thing he ever wanted to do was put his skills into practice. A decade at City Tuning was enough. He’d gotten his appointment at the Academy. He was done working.
He couldn’t let a student like Stacey—intellectually unremarkable and generally irritating—get in his head. She had him detecting phantom drafts, traces of catastrophic wind shifts that were rationally impossible. Improbable, at least. Emotions made for bad science.
Five full minutes had passed since all twelve students had arrived, taken their seats, and pulled out their notebooks. Schulz, seated in the back row behind them, hadn’t spoken, so no one else had either. Finally, he sat up and said, “Shall we?”
Stacey almost leapt from her seat. She was scheduled as the day’s first presenter. She approached the lectern at the front of the room, Schulz’s usual position, and poked at the laptop tucked inside. The projector woke up and cast her first slide onto the wall behind her: a stock art image of a khaki-clad couple walking down an empty beach, calm surf caressing their toes.
“What are you presenting on, Miss Graham?”
“As you know from my proposal, my study is entitled: ‘Recreational Applications of Recent Windflow Technologies.’”
“I was asking for the benefit of your fellow students.”
Stacey said nothing, just looked at Schulz, inspecting him across the room. His chair was tipped back, his shoulders pressed against the back wall. She wasn’t waiting for a cue; she was waiting for him to slip up.
Schulz dropped his chair forward, the metal feet striking the tile floor more sharply than he’d expected. The eleven seated students all flinched, but none looked back at him.
“Charles,” Schulz said, “does Stacey’s title compel you?”
An unusually tall and robustly coiffed guy in the first row turned to Schulz, but could not answer. This was Charles Reiser, a student whose prodigious anxiety was not matched by his intelligence.
Charles nodded at Stacey. “Repeat the title.”
“Recreational Applications for Recent Windflow Technologies.”
“No.” Charles readied his pen over his notebook. “It doesn’t.”
Schulz’s students took the social acceptance of candid opinions for granted, but he’d grown up in a time when complex social graces and white lies were still expected. He was old enough to find Charles’s response refreshing.
“Let’s disabuse Mr. Reiser of his first impression, Stacey.”
“That is the purpose of my presentation.”
But, despite her confidence, her analysis turned out to be as pedestrian as her title suggested. She offered a parade of generic images exemplifying the predictable fun that a controlled weather environment afforded the residents of their island city, and a couple of spreadsheets that illustrated the consistent income that resorts and smaller concerns (e.g. cabana rentals, beach volleyball leagues, mini-golf tournaments) might expect. Her boldest assertion was her prediction that parasailing would enjoy a renaissance. Had that embarrassing pastime ever been popular?
They’d all lived on an island with perfectly tuned weather for a decade now. Anybody who was half-conscious understood that environmental constancy meant predictable business. Stacey had offered no revelations, no insights at all. So, it was odd when Charles nodded at Schulz as soon as she concluded. Schulz nodded back, granting him permission to speak.
“May I clap?” Charles asked.
“Have at it.”
Charles offered Stacey a modest round of applause. The other students joined him. Schulz alone refrained. Stacey kept her focus on her instructor in the back of the room, impervious to her peers’ flattery. The projector cast black. She said nothing—that would’ve been unthinkable—and her expression revealed little—but Schulz knew she was pissed.
“Antoine,” he said to the student who’d replaced Stacey at the lectern. “The room is yours.”
The students filed past Schulz’s desk on the way out of class, picking up their graded essays. Stacy had not earned top marks and he knew she would insist on addressing the issue.
“A second level?” Stacy stared at the paper in disbelief.
“Your presentation fulfilled the dictates of the assignment. But it didn’t offer the invention or exceptional insight necessary for first level marks.”
Stacey tapped her fist against her drawn lips. She and Schulz stood alone in the front of the classroom. Schulz wanted to leave. Quickly.
“Antoine’s topic was ‘Workflow Solutions for Windwall Observation.’ And that received a first level?”
“I saw what you wrote on his eval.”
“Antoine’s work isn’t pertinent to your own.”
“Except when it’s evidence of discrimination—your vendetta against a specific student.”
“Vendetta?” Stacey was a mediocre student and general pain in the ass. But it would have been absurd to claim that he cared enough about her—or any student—to harbor a vendetta. “Against you?”
“It’s part of a pattern. And this grade is evidence.”
“My crushing blow against you is giving you a second level mark?”
“You’re threatened by me.”
“I am?” There was no way to predict the delusions his students might harbor.
“Your work—your intrepid Windwall—has holes in it.” The Windwall that Schulz had engineered was not a physical wall but a system of climate controls that isolated their island city from the region’s increasingly erratic weather patterns.
“No one at City Tuning has admitted it. Yet. Your silly colleagues don’t know it. Yet. But I know it. And so do you.”
Schulz appreciated the credit she gave him, but he wasn’t aware of any failures in the Windwall. Still, his smoke blew left this morning. “I’d be interested in seeing your evidence for these…holes.”
“You will soon enough.”
He turned his back on her, ending their conversation. In breach of social protocol, she persisted, “And you fell asleep during my presentation.”
Had he? That was likely.
“I’ve already registered a grievance with the academy,” she said. “I will add today’s behavior to the report.”
Schulz kept his back turned and looked out the bank of windows on the far side of the room. The sky was as blue as it had ever been. He remained still until he could feel Stacey leave. Finally alone, he dropped into a chair in the center of the room.
Fuck, he thought. Normally he would dismiss this kind of nonsense. The Schulz Windwall—the whole damn system that protected their island city from a world whose climate had stopped forgiving the people who lived on it—was named after him. Job security was not a concern for Schulz. But he’d just applied for promotion, and Stacey’s grievance—that might be a hassle.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Dermot Woods is a Brooklyn-based writer and cartoonist. His previous works include The Baltimore Atrocities (Coffee House Press) and Activities (Publishing Genius Press). John’s work is known for its poetic verse and deep explorations of character. Always Blue is his first work of science fiction. Visit his website at http://johndermotwoods.com/ to find more of his work.