by Adam R. Mathews
19th March 2051
Sierra de Carrascoy, Murcia Province, Spain.
The sun glinted its last over the peak of Majal Blanco and took with it the heat of the day. In the foothills of the Carrascoy mountains, Juanjo Cavernas shivered. He reached for the shirt he’d hung from the branch of a pine tree, and when he rolled his sleeves over the golden face of his watch, he unleashed a cloud of sand from the black matting of hair that covered his arms.
The air was infused with dirt; it ignited the sky in fiery oranges, and obscured the valley below. The Huerta de Murcia, as the land was known, had once been so fertile as to feed half of Europe. But it now lay beneath a reddened fog that hid all but the sounds of explosions and impacts of metal on stone.
Among the residents of the Carrascoy mountains, not one person knew that they were witnessing the construction of the largest advert ever conceived, that when the dust settled in a decade’s time it would reveal the word ‘PapPop’ written in glowing PapSolar laminate over a million acres of what had once been their home.
Among the residents of the Carrascoy mountains, not one person knew that they were witnessing the construction of the largest advert ever conceived.
Juanjo yanked on a rope and his muscles rippled as he rattled the cord over a pulley system he’d formed from old car parts. Again and again he tugged, until a bucket appeared splashing water from its rim. He unhooked it, knelt beside some lettuces, and dribbled liquid onto the soil with his hands.
As dusk fell, Juanjo was peeling black insect eggs from a tomato plant when he heard the rustle of tyres on tarmac. He cocked his head at the sound, dried his hands on his trousers, got up and made his way around the side of the house. At the sight of a bright yellow jeep pulling up outside, he threw himself flat against the whitewashed wall. He peeked around the corner and read the word ‘PapAqua’ printed in black over the bodywork.
Twelve-year-old Aliyá Talavera saw it all from the balcony of her house. That place had become her favourite hiding spot, where she would sit for hours on end with her knees pulled up to her chin. There she would try to forget the terror of being evicted from a city which now lay lost beneath a cloud of dust. But constant fear in her stomach would never let her be still, and the thought that kept spinning through her mind only tightened the knot of anxiety — would she ever feel normal again?
Aliyá watched the car pull up and a man get out wearing a dark suit and golden tie. His hair was slicked black against his scalp and he wore a pair of chunky PapDrive spectacles. She couldn’t make out the initials ‘PAq’ shining yellow from his lapels, nor could she hear what he said. But she peered over the railing and observed him coming through her neighbour’s gate with a single piece of paper in his hand.
“Juanjo Cavernas Galiano?” the man said.
“Qué haces aquí?” asked Juanjo, coming out from the side of the house. ‘What are you doing here?’ “This is private land.”
The man smiled, and when he spoke it was with the guttural drawl so characteristic of this part of Spain. “You may have papers for this land,” he said. “But the water you are stealing is ours.”
“Says you!” Juanjo replied. “If the judges had been allowed to give their verdict, our water would still belong to the people and we wouldn’t have to live on the side of this mountain.”
“I’m not here to discuss politics, Señor Cavernas,” said the man, “I’m just doing my job. As you know, the terms of sale of Aguas de Murcia stipulated that all water in the Guadalentín watershed now belongs to PapAqua. All the water in all the rivers, all the lakes, and all the wells.”
“So, what are you going to do? Issue me with a letter?” The man held out the sheet of paper and Juanjo skimmed over it. He glanced at his watch and back at the note. “But that only gives me three minutes,” he said.
“That’s correct,” said the man. “In three minutes’ time, your property is scheduled to be destroyed in a coordinated aerial assault. Please place your finger here to acknowledge receipt.” He pointed to a corner of the letter.
“No,” said Juanjo. “If you don’t have proof that I’ve seen this letter, you have no legal way of evicting me. I did learn something in my twenty years as a solicitor.”
“The attack’s been scheduled,” said the man. “The fingerprint recognition was just for PapSec records.”
Juanjo glanced around at the darkening haze and back at the man. He took a breath and pounced, grabbing the man’s arm and forcing it up behind his back.
Juanjo glanced around at the darkening haze and back at the man. He took a breath and pounced.
“In that case,” he said, “I’ll make you stand here in front of this house like a human shield. They wouldn’t kill their own man, after all.” Juanjo forced the man’s wrist higher up his spine.
The man struggled. “Let me go!” he shouted. “If you hold me here, they’ll kill both of us!”
Juanjo thought for a moment. He glanced up at his balcony and bundled the man inside. The man flailed and kicked in resistance. “Let me go!” he yelled.
“I’m sorry for this,” said Juanjo, throwing the man to the floor and punching his face until he shouted no more. Juanjo grabbed a length of rope that he kept by the door, and lumped the PapAqua man upstairs.
Through the master bedroom they went, around the double bed with its white laundered sheets. Juanjo slid open the balcony door and dangled the man’s body over the railing. He wound the rope around the man’s legs and wrists, then tugged at the ends to make sure of the knots. Only when the man was hanging secured over the balcony did Juanjo look over the valley. In the murk, he could make out a faint light flashing in the sky. It was moving fast towards them.
Juanjo gave a final pull on the rope and dashed down the stairs. He ran outside and into the road, waving his arms and shouting. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! You’ll kill your own man!”
The missiles may have been speeding over southern Spain, but the operator could’ve been anywhere; his location was so secret that not even the young man himself knew that he was in a PapSec base inside the rock of Gibraltar. Through his PapDrive headset he saw only the view of the missile; if he’d looked down, he’d have seen the cloud of kicked up dirt over which he was flying, surrounded by blurry mountains and a sky that appeared grainy even to the augmented-definition cameras. But all he was watching were the numbers counting down in the corner of his sight — 2km, 1.9km, 1.8…
Everything was on autopilot; the only thing the operator had to do was push a virtual button to engage the missiles. When crosshairs appeared before him, he took aim as if his empty hands were holding a joystick with both thumbs on the trigger. As the target approached, he spotted a man on the roadway waving his hands and jumping up and down. “What the…?” the operator said to himself. But he had no time to finish the thought before the target blinked red and he clicked the projected button to crash a pair of missiles into the ground.
The blast rocked Aliyá’s house and engulfed it in black dust. She jumped to her feet, cried “Juanjo!” and charged down the stairs and out of the door, her parents close behind her.
The Talaveras weren’t the first to get to Juanjo’s body; his other neighbours were already there. Old Carmen Hueso was kneeling with Juanjo’s head in her hands. Her husband was standing over the scene in his suit and golf club tie.
“Is he okay?” asked Aliyá’s mother, Dolores. “What on Earth happened?”
“He’s breathing, at least,” said Carmen. “And I don’t think he’s broken anything.”
“There were two big explosions,” said her husband. “One right after the other, and now it’s all gone.” He glanced over the road, and the Talaveras followed his gaze. In the clearing dust, they could just make out a yellow SUV with ‘PapAqua’ printed on the side, and a great hole in the rock where Juanjo’s house once stood.
Juanjo stirred. “I killed him,” he muttered. “I killed a PapCorp employee. We have to leave. They’re going to come after me.”
“Who will come after you?” asked Eduardo Hueso, Juanjo’s one-time senior partner. “You’ve just been blown up. I don’t imagine you’re really in a state to go anywhere right now.”
Juanjo sat himself up. “We need to go up into the mountains,” he said. “Somewhere they can’t find us.”
“There are wolves up there,” said Carmen. “I’m not sure it’s safe.”
“There are also a lot of people,” said Dolores. “From those we’ve seen going past our window these past few weeks, there must be hundreds taking refuge there now.”
“And there’s safety in numbers,” Aliyá’s father added.
“We can’t live on the side of a mountain,” said Eduardo. “I didn’t work all my life to end up squatting like a caveman. We’ve got supplies here. We’ll open up our well and we’ll survive on that.”
“They’ll do the same to you,” said Dolores. “When you or anyone else takes water from a well, they’ll come after you, too. PapAqua own all the water in all the wells.”
“Then what are we going to do?”
Aliyá put her hand up to speak. “A friend of mine lives up there,” she said, “with his mum and dad. We go climbing together sometimes. He told me that they’ve built a system to collect the rain out of tree branches and bits of old pipe. They’re digging holes to keep the water and ditches in the forest to plant seeds. They make houses by cutting into the side of the hills, and then cover them with leaves and grass to hide themselves.”
“You see?” said Juanjo, unbuckling his watch. “We’ll survive up there, just as long as we’re left alone, that is.” He took hold of the soft leather strap and slammed the face against a rock.
“Hey!” said Eduardo, “I gave you that!”
“They can track us with it,” Juanjo responded, smashing the face again. “You should do the same, Eduardo.”
“I don’t think so,” said Juanjo’s former boss, fingering the timepiece on his own left wrist. “This watch is one of the very few things I have left. And who knows, I may need to trade it one of these days. What are you doing now?”
Juanjo had tossed the shattered watch into the overgrowth, unbuttoned his shirt, and was now loosening his trousers. “I don’t want them to find me,” he said. “From now on, I renounce all possessions. It’ll be like a return to Eden. Are you going to join me?”
Adam R. Mathews is a novelist and a teacher, an incessant traveller, and a keen localist. After the idea of a corporate dystopia came to him, he spent years living across Europe, immersing himself in the cultures, quirks, and social movements of his adopted homes. He weaves his experiences into his writing to make fiction that challenges the shortcomings of neoliberalism. His latest novel PapRise: ‘A Tale of Growth and Betrayal or How PapCorp came to rule the World’ will be released in the summer of 2019. He writes at aimlesswanderer.org.
This piece is part of Not afraid of the ruins, our series of science fiction and utopian imaginings.