The first thing I remember is waiting. It had been a long time since I’d waited for anything. I didn’t have time to wait before. Reflecting on it, I suppose other people were doing the waiting for me. But I didn’t use to think about it.
There were hundreds of us in that stadium. Tapping our fingers on the hard backs of plastic chairs. Walking aimlessly through the stands. Someone had given out blankets, giving everything a sort of messy, tragic look.
We didn’t talk to each other. There wasn’t anything to say. We just watched the big screen, waiting for our name to come up.
When mine finally did I followed the loudspeaker instructions and made my way to the gate. There was a woman waiting for me with a clipboard. I was surprised by the clipboard. It was like that for a while. Every mundane, old-fashioned object would throw me for a loop.
The woman with the clipboard led me up some stairs and into one of the boxes. A moderately sized one. A mid-tier Christmas party. We sat down beside a large glass table. The woman told me her name was Angela and welcomed me to the city. Which was odd, because I grew up in this city.
I learned that we’d come back much sooner than expected. When we departed, we left behind strict instructions to be brought back once and only if it was safe. We didn’t know who would be around to follow these instructions. Some of us thought no one would be. We’d watched the earth shrink into a tiny blue pearl and made our peace with it. Then we went to sleep.
Angela told me things had been stable for about thirty years. We had been gone for eighty. Which meant that there weren’t many people alive now who remembered our time. It wasn’t until then that I thought about all the people I knew being dead. Angela put a kind hand on my shoulder. She must have done that over four hundred times that day. I didn’t think about it at the time.
Angela took me to another room and introduced me to a doctor who checked my vitals. He pronounced me very healthy for a woman in her forties who had just spent 80 years orbiting the earth in stasis. Just in shock. He gave me a cup of warm, weak tea. After, Angela walked me down the stairs and introduced me to the person who would be my welcome buddy, or ‘host’, until I got my bearings. They introduced themselves as Ren and told me their pronouns were they / them.
I now know that there were genderqueer people in my time too, but I didn’t know any at the time, so Ren was the first non-binary person I had met, and I told them that. Ren smiled and said, ‘don’t worry, it’s weird for me too! I’ve never met a Capitalist before!’
We left the stadium and walked through a park to the train station. Ren told me it was April. It was warmer than I remember April being. The train looked like the trains I remembered. Perhaps a little quieter. I stared out the window as the city glided past. It didn’t look that different either. No new brutalist skyscrapers or solar-powered flying cars. No cars at all. More trees though. Trees and buildings. Green and grey.
We got off the train in another leafy suburb and walked down the main street. It had a few busy cafes populated by mums and prams. There were some food shops, a gallery and a library next to a primary school. Ren waited while I watched the children running and yelling the way children do. I took some deep breaths. I did not cry.
We kept walking and Ren asked me if I liked coffee. I said yes and they pointed out the local cafe that made the best long black. Coffee was rationed to one cup a week at the moment, because of recent storms along the equator. They liked to have theirs on Saturday mornings.
Ren lived in a shady terrace house with three other people. A couple and a young woman. There had been one other person until recently, but she had just moved out, which is one of the reasons Ren had nominated to host me. The other was their interest in early 21st century history. Ren was midway through their PhD on the subject and therefore better equipped than most to help me settle in.
My room was spacious and bright. It had a bed, a bookshelf and desk. The kitchen was clean and Ren told me to help myself to anything I liked.
We sat down at the dining table and I realised I had no idea what I was supposed to do with myself. Now I wanted to cry. The idea of more waiting around made me want to jump in front of the silent train.
I was a woman in my mid-forties, who was really one hundred and forty something, who didn’t die in a flood or a fire, and instead was crying in front of a person whose gender I didn’t understand, in the kitchen of a sharehouse where I had no possessions, in a city where I had no family, no friends and no job.
Ren asked if it was okay if they gave me a hug? I cried harder because it was so strange of them to ask. But I nodded and Ren held me
In time, Ren and I became lovers. Their body was small and smooth. Their lips were soft and their fingers were long. When I was alone with them, I felt foolish and alive. Which is how I think new love is supposed to feel. And I let it ground me.
I hadn’t been lonely, in my last life. I’d been too busy. I didn’t really love anyone. If I did, I might not have been able to leave. I was a romantic. I consumed romance novels and rom-coms and binged TV. And I strung together stories from brief encounters and a life that felt full enough.
I wondered if this was the first time I’d ever had time to love someone. Or if it was the thrill of the new world. Or the vulnerability of it.
I wondered if I was gay. But I soon realised that was an outdated idea. I had a lot of those. I began to worry that in my ignorance I must be constantly offending Ren. But they rebuffed my concern and confusion with endless patience and kindness and I clung to them like they were the only person I knew in the world.
We took long walks through the city. Along the bike paths and creeks that trickled through the valleys where the roads had been. I told them about what I remembered of my time and they told me about theirs. We filled in each other’s gaps.
Once I asked Ren if it was against the rules for us to be together like this, given they were my host? They said that there weren’t really rules anymore. Just things that made sense and were fair. And if we both felt this made sense and was fair, then it was okay.
Often, Ren would leave me alone to work on their thesis. Sometimes they would huddle at the kitchen table tapping away on a laptop. Sometimes they would go to the university. I felt lost at those times. Like they had gone somewhere I could not reach them.
Of course, I accumulated my own things to do over time. I had a psychologist that I was encouraged to see once a week. Her name was Matilda and she told me that in the future everyone had a psychologist they saw regularly, because the mind was just like the body and it needed a tune up and realignment every now and then. She said that she was treating me for multiple traumas and that untreated trauma made us selfish, so really, working on my mental health was good for society.
Angela checked in on me once a week as well. The first few times she came to the house and then later she just called. She encouraged me to find things to do to fill my days. She said I didn’t need a job to make money as most of my basic needs would be met by the free community services and local food gardens and co-ops. But she thought that finding a useful way to spend my time might help me develop a sense of purpose. The way she said it made it seem like this too was an antiquated concept.
My skills in financial services were useless now so I asked Angela what would be helpful and she said they were in need of assistance at the local hospital. I was put to work as an orderly, making beds and washing sheets. It wasn’t a large hospital. But it was busy enough.
I am ashamed to admit that I was relieved when I discovered that even in this strange well-ordered world, they had not conquered death.
I was often startled by these kinds of thoughts that I had. I suspect it is why I was discouraged from making contact with the other people who came from my time. The ‘time refugees’, as Ren had taken to calling us. We were spread out and placed around the city. We were not given each other’s contact details.
I was only required at the hospital three days a week, so there was plenty of time to get used to being idle. I began to take an interest in history books. Trying to close the gulf between the chaos I remembered and the peacefulness of now.
The disconnect had begun to bother me and I found myself pumping Ren with questions. When did the climate stabilise? How many zones are as liveable as this one? What size is the earth’s population? What type of energy powers the trains? What are children taught in school?
Several nights a week I would wake up in their bed, sweating and crying, accelerating away from a raging fire and towards a world of scarcity. Ren would stroke my back and say, don’t worry. You’re safe now. And I would shake my head and ask how that could possibly be?
Matilda said I had survivor’s guilt. Most people I knew died in the 2030s. Probably in horrible ways. I know I only got away because I was rich. Stupidly rich. Rich enough to buy a ticket on one of the only lifeboats.
What I don’t know is what happened after that. There is a blank period in the history books. A gap.
Ren and I talked about it often. They took me to the library at the university. We scoured the shelves together. I was heartened by their desire to understand as well. They shared my burden as if it was their own.
We shared everything. This, like so much, was a first for me. From our thoughts and fears to everything in our house. Except Ren’s laptop. Which I had never touched. They took it with them when they left the house.
The day they left it behind, they had gone to the library clutching a paper notebook and left the laptop on the kitchen table. At that moment I saw it as a sign of their growing trust in me. Later I would wonder if it was deliberate.
My working theory is that once the Time Refugees left the earth, their absence acted as a catalyst, triggering the remaining inhabitants to take the transformational action necessary to avoid the predicted devastation of climate change. The isolation and removal of this one factor – an elite class of people who controlled most of the earth’s resources – demonstrates that they were the single biggest factor preventing the rapid decarbonisation of global economies.
Of course, their departure was disruptive in itself. Governments collapsed, corporations went insolvent, entire workforces were made redundant. For the first time in decades, mass groups of people were forced to work together to re-imagine and build a society capable not only of surviving systemic environmental collapse, but of sustaining and supporting the majority of human life. The release of private property and corporate interests meant everything was up for grabs. Most people, having been relieved of formal employment, set to work solving the problems they experienced. There are not many records from this time, but what has been found suggests that there were mass public meetings convened in most towns and cities, where collective decisions were made, and smaller working groups were formed.
There were some who took advantage and tried to exploit the situation for personal gain, but the evidence suggests that the groups held these people to account, giving them choices between reform or expulsion. Over time, civilisation as we now know it began to take shape.
My study of just one member of this class has supported this theory. On arrival the subject demonstrated qualities of extreme selfishness, entitlement and diminished empathy. These qualities are consistent with a class of people unused or unable to consider the needs of others.
However, after five months of exposure and integration into modern society, she is beginning to show signs of improvement. Further study is required.
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