SOLARPUNK: The Essence of Life

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“I thought we were going to the rollerdrome?” I called after Dana as she disappeared down the narrow alley.

“I just need to check something,” she answered, without looking back.

I sighed and turned towards the sunlit street that would have led us directly to our prized destination. A calm breeze flowed gently through the trees straddling the mostly empty road; a lone automated truck delivering its goods to one of the manifold warehouses surrounding us. The sun was starting to set behind the wall, enveloping the city, and soon this district would be engulfed in its shadow. But it didn’t matter, the rollerdrome’s light show would replace the sun soon enough.

It was the perfect day to go skating. Not too warm, not too cold, barely any clouds in the sky, and there was no way I was letting Hector Ramirez try out the new hoverboards before me.

“Abby, are you coming?” Dana asked as she suddenly popped up in front of me.

Before I could respond, she grabbed my hand, turned around and dragged me down the alley.

“But the rollerdrome,” I protested, tugging half-heartedly at her grip.

“The less you complain, the quicker we’ll be done.” She glanced back to flash me a quick smile before returning her attention to the alley.

I huffed but didn’t say anything, my eyes instead glued to the ground at my feet. I barely noticed the prickling sensation on my skin where her hand touched mine, and I definitely didn’t think about the way my stomach tightened when she smiled, or how my cheeks ran hotter than they should. It must have been that I’d gotten sunburnt. There certainly couldn’t be any other explanation for it.

“What are we even doing here?” I mumbled, my eyes slowly ungluing from the ground.

The alley was cast in shadows, surrounded on both sides by giant warehouse walls – the one on the left was covered with an abstract, vaguely floral mural while the one on the right was overgrown by lush ranks of ivy.

“Bem might be down here,” Dana replied and knelt over a maintenance hatch at our feet.

 She slipped a keyring out of her pocket and fumbled with it until she found a drop-shaped key fob. She pressed it against a panel next to the hatch and the rectangular cover slid open.

“You stole your dad’s keys to go look for some random bot?” I asked, unimpressed, even if I did feel just the tiniest bit excited about this development.

“I didn’t steal them, I’ll give them back tonight.” She rolled her eyes. “And I haven’t seen Bem in over a week. All the other bots are accounted for, so something must have happened to him.”

Dana slipped into the opening, leaving me with no other choice but to follow her into the maintenance tunnels connecting all the city’s buildings.

 “Maybe they discontinued it,” I suggested as I reached the bottom, my eyes wandering over the unfinished mural stretching over the long walls of the tunnel.

It had been a while since I’d been down here. Kids officially weren’t allowed in the maintenance tunnels, but parents saw that rule more as a very vague suggestion. The mural was a community project and who could deny their children the privilege of painting on a wall without getting scolded?

Years ago, one of my dads regularly brought me with him on his maintenance shifts and I would spend my days adding the raddest dragons and lava-unicorns to any part of the mural I deemed too boring. Until people started complaining about them ruining their precious little art projects. Adults will do anything to stifle a young girl’s creative endeavours in the name of conformity.

“They wouldn’t just discontinue Bem!” Dana objected as if she herself was on the robot-management council and personally knew the future of every single bot.

With the same determination, she stomped down the corridor to our left and I had to hurry to catch up with her.

“Why would a gardening robot be down here?” I asked as I came up to her side, struggling to regulate my breathing with her speed-walking.

“I was thinking,” she said, and by her slow cadence, I knew none of this was going to make any sense. “So, Bem isn’t in any of the city gardens or the publicly accessible buildings, since I’ve checked all of those already.”

“Of course.”

“So where else could he be? Inside someone’s home? Unlikely, that’s what the housekeeper bots are for.”

“Unless a weirdo like you adopted it as a pet.”

“I wouldn’t just kidnap Bem!” Dana looked over at me as if I had just told her I preferred hanging out with Hector Ramirez than crawling around the underbelly of the city with her. “Why would I keep a bot locked up if I can simply hang out with them wherever they’re working? And stop interrupting me! So, Bem, not outside, not inside a building, in a maintenance station? Possible, but they wouldn’t keep him there for a full week. Also, I can’t get inside those to check.”

“Not with that attitude.”

“Shush! So, the last option is down here.”

“That doesn’t answer my question at all. Why would it be here?”

“You remember the stories people used to tell about there being a secret, giant garden under the city?”

“Yes. I remember them being stories. You know, the fictional kind.”

“But they’re not stories!” She cried out with delight, her eyes sparkling with the anticipation of adventure, and something strange twisted in my belly.

I promptly ignored it, electing instead to concentrate on the faint sound of footsteps coming closer. I grabbed Dana’s wrist and pulled her back. Her excited smile turned into confusion until she heard the footsteps herself.

“Who’s got the shift with your dad this week?” I whispered and slowly backed away.

“I don’t know, I forgot to check.”

Dana twisted her hand in my grip so she could hold mine and take the lead.

I wanted to chastise her, but my mind was too busy screaming about our interlocked hands. I would have to deal with this new internal development at some point, but maybe I could manage to ignore it for another year or two. Or maybe five. Ten, if I concentrated really hard on it.

Dana opened a door to our right with her dad’s stolen key fob and we slid inside. She pressed the close button repeatedly but the door clearly didn’t feel the same sense of urgency.

“Your dad’s gonna be so pissed if he finds out we entered some random rooms,” I murmured, stepping further into the small space. The back wall wasn’t really a wall. It looked more like a section of a giant tube. To its left was a door, and standing in front of it was a console with a keyboard and a screen that lit up as I came closer. Dots on a line chart kept bouncing up and down while numbers got added to a table, and I quickly lost interest in them.

“Dad will understand,” Dana said quietly, keeping her ear close to the door. “It’s for a good cause.”

I snorted and looked over at the metal steps between the console and a platform lift. They lead up to a covered window in the pipe, so of course I had no other choice but to step up and press the button next to the window to open the cover.

“We shouldn’t be touching anything!” Dana hissed, but I simply shrugged in response. The deed had already been done.

I stretched up to look through the window and frowned. Inside the tube was something like a liquid, but not really. Moss green, and teal, and light blue flowing and swirling together, pulsing like a heartbeat. Iridescent specks drifted from left to right, showing the direction of flow of the not-quite-liquid.

It flashed bright white and I flinched, hitting the railing behind me with my back, making the entire structure rattle.

“Abigail!” Dana chastised, then quickly clamped a hand over her mouth.

We stared at each other, unmoving, not daring to breathe, waiting to see if someone had heard us. I could barely see Dana past the white that had etched itself into my retinas.

Around us, the room erupted in bright light again, followed by a flash of yellow that turned green. I leaned back, and without taking my eyes off Dana, pressed the button to close the window.

Dana lifted her hand from her mouth and placed a finger in front of her lips, then pointed towards the door to my right. I carefully descended the stairs as Dana silently walked across the room and pressed the fob against the pad to open the door. In the silence of the room, the hiss of the door sliding open sounded like an airplane starting.

As the door slid shut behind us, Dana turned to me with a frown that looked cuter than she probably intended. A strand of her slick black hair had caught on her nose.

“You need to take this more seriously!” She said and huffed the strand away from her face.

“It’s just a robot,” I replied and rolled my eyes much more dramatically than I had meant to.

Dana didn’t say anything, her frown softening into a look of confusion. She kept staring at me as if she couldn’t understand my attitude but every second of silence from her felt like it engulfed me and kept me from breathing.

“It’s not as if it’s alive,” I muttered and instantly regretted it.

I couldn’t look at her anymore, but I could feel the disappointment radiating off of her.

“Bem still deserves to be found,” she replied softly. “If you were gone, I’d go looking for you too, dummy.”

I stared down the long, narrow hallway running along the pipe and bit down on my lips, forcing myself not to say the stupid things that popped into my head. Instead, I just shrugged, as if I didn’t care if she came looking for me, when I really, really did care.

“You’re both my friends!” she declared with a wide grin. “And friends don’t get left behind!”

She grabbed my arm and dragged me down the hallway, and I had to simply live with the fact that, to her, I was the same as a robot. Something ugly started rising in my stomach, anger bubbling to the surface that I wanted to be more. More!

Not on the same level as a chunk of metal that only knew how to take care of stupid flowers.

I wanted her to look harder for me if I went missing.

I wanted her to cry and scream and be unable to sleep without me.

My cheeks ran red-hot with shame.

I slipped my hand out of Dana’s grip and was relieved when she didn’t look back.

She hurried to the first door and pressed the fob against the pad. The door slid open and we instantly came face to face with a lab bot.

“Hello, may I see your authorization?” it said in a friendly, high-pitched voice, the text of what it had said scrolling across its head.

“Ehm.” Dana froze, the key still hovering next to the pad, as she stared at the bot.

“According to my records, only Humberto Ribeiro and Ivar Lambert are scheduled to patrol the premises. Face scans tell me that you are neither Humberto Ribeiro nor Ivar Lambert. Do you have special permission to enter this room? If you do not, I will sadly have to escort you out.”

“Berto is my dad,” Dana said, as if that wasn’t going to make our situation worse.

“What she actually wanted to say,” I jumped in, “is that we just opened the wrong door. Sorry for that. We’ll be leaving now.”

I grabbed Dana and hurried back to where we came from, hoping the bot’s protocol would keep it from leaving the room. When I heard the door slide shut behind us, I turned around and hurried back to where we’d come from, passing the lab door to head to the end of the corridor. We had almost reached it when we heard the door slide open again. “Shit,” I muttered and we started running.

Dana fumbled with the key, almost dropping it, but then managed to open the door at the end of the corridor.

Thankfully the bot had been built for stability and not pursuit, so even at its highest velocity it barely reached the speed of a leisurely jog.

“You do not have the authority to enter this room!” It blared after us, a high-pitched bell ringing out as a red light flashed repeatedly.

“No, no, see, we have the key to the door,” I yelled back, backing into the room. “We’re definitely allowed in here if we have the key, right?”

Before the bot could answer, Dana pressed the button to shut the door.

“We are so screwed,” I murmured, but couldn’t help myself from grinning widely.

Dana tried to sternly glare at me but then broke out into giggles.

I turned around and my mouth instantly dropped open. The room we were in was gigantic. Taller than even the rollerdome, although, can you truly call a room tall if it doesn’t have a ceiling?

Neat rows of pine trees stretched across the middle, with smaller and smaller trees surrounding them until the rows became measly flowers. Tubes ran between the plants—tendrils feeding into finger-sized ones, feeding into arm-sized ones, until they all ran into the big pipe the hallway had been following.

“What is this?” I muttered, staring up at the open sky above us.

“I told you there was a secret garden down here!”

Dana grabbed my hand and dragged me away from the door, leading me between the rows of dandelions and buttercups towards the sunflowers. I had to keep my eyes focused on the small tubes that ran between the rows of plants to make sure I wouldn’t trip. Each plant had its own tendril growing out of its root that fed into the larger pipes. Had these been built to nourish the plants? But the not-quite-liquid had flown away from this room, didn’t that imply that something was being taken away from the plants?

“Where are we?” I asked, my eyes growing wider as they followed the tendrils back to the big pipe. “If the ceiling is open, shouldn’t we know about this place? We would have seen it from above!”

“I think we’re outside the city walls.”

“What?!” I stopped abruptly and stared up at the sky, kind of disappointed that it looked exactly the same as the sky inside the city.

Before I could say anything else, the door behind us slid open.

“Quick, Abby!” Dana called out and started running towards the trees.

I knew the situation was serious and we could get in a lot of trouble if caught but joy and euphoria burst through my body with every step we took and I couldn’t stop myself from laughing and laughing and laughing as we raced through the flowers and bushes and towards the forest.

The bot’s alarm resonated behind us as we slipped between the trees, the smell of petrichor and pine enveloping us.

“Where are we going?” I yelled at Dana.

“I don’t know,” she yelled back, laughter in her voice as she took a right turn. “Bem has to be here somewhere.”

“It doesn’t have to,” I replied, but my earlier bitterness had vanished.

We slowed down, the terrain making it increasingly difficult to run, and we weaved our way from left to right, glancing around for any glint of metal that could indicate Bem’s location. The lab bot had probably already alerted its human supervisors, we wouldn’t be alone for much longer. We just had to find Dana’s friend before any adults found us.

“There!” Dana yelled, pointing at a glistening reflection to our right past the tree line.

She started running again and as we got closer I also recognized the boxy, metallic shape of the gardening bot. It was lying on its side, unmoving, two of its six spindly legs trapped underneath a tube.

“Bem!” Dana cried out, falling to her knees in front of it.

As Dana touched the bot, it came to life, chirping as the lights on its body turned on in waves of colour. The legs started moving wildly, although the ones that were trapped barely moved at all.

“He must have slipped somehow,” Dana noted, looking the bot up and down to make sure nothing was broken.

“Pretty useless machine if it can’t even get back up on its own,” I remarked, slipping my hands into my pants pockets.

“Shush,” Dana replied without looking back at me.

She stood up and placed her hands underneath the bot’s body.

“Help me,” she said and I complied without rolling my eyes or complaining even once.

The body was heavy and impractical to grip, but with a lot of effort and a lot of groaning, we managed to slide its legs out from under the tube and push it upright again.

The bot moved around us in circles as if testing its legs, chirping a happy melody as a thank you, then darted right to a plant that had dared to start wilting. Long, tube-like arms grew out of Bem’s body and started working on the plant.

“It could have used those to push itself upright,” I mumbled, hands on my knees as I caught my breath again.

“If he could have, he would have.” Dana stretched her arms towards the sky, leaning her body from side to side. “Thank you,” she said and turned to me with a wide smile.

I looked away, wiping sweat away from my face with the back of my hand so she wouldn’t see the colour of my cheeks.

“You’re welcome,” I mumbled and straightened. “Can we go to the rollerdome now?”

“Yep, just a sec!”

She bounded over to the bot and leaned down to talk to it.

I sighed and looked up at the sky, remembering what Dana had said earlier, that we were probably outside of the city walls. Outside, where only death and desolation were supposed to live, but the same sun and moon watched over us.

“Hey!” Someone shouted from our right.

I jerked to see a very angry Ivar stomping towards us, and before I could consider what the right response to this situation might be, I had already turned to Dana, grabbed her wrist, and ran back into the forest, our laughter echoing between the trees.


  • Audrey is a Luxembourgish writer and audio-drama creator. She has a Master’s degree in English Linguistics, and interest in human cultures, mythology and video games, and a love for cats. As a writer, Audrey is mostly interested in the weird, the fantastical, and the dark – and also making up people in her head and playing around with them as if they were dolls. Find her and all her projects on audreymartinbooks.com

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