This story is part of Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors, a climate-fiction contest from Fix.
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I say Torre Verde Vertical Farm is our marriage. It’s a metaphor, of course. Juvenal says it’s nothing like that. I rebuke saying the farm has been our home for the past 40 years, and it’s where we met for the first time and plucked our first lettuces from a growth gutter to make a salad for dinner. Juvenal insists that the farm — our farm — is just the means to an end, a collection of processes to feed a community of 300,000 souls. To which I reply that our marriage is also a means to an end, and the end is love. Our discussion usually ends when he says I suffer from GMTFS (Getting Metaphors Too Far Syndrome).
But, oh boy. Lately, I truly fear that instead of our marriage, Torre Verde might be our divorce.
Juvenal wants to retire. I want to too, only not now. I’m 78, he’s 79, so he has a point.
“We’re turnips far too ripe in here, Nádia.” He sometimes utters a silly metaphor to provoke me — and make me laugh. (Sometimes we’re potatoes, and when he’s in a bad mood we’re garlic.) His voice didn’t change so much since he was a 40-year-old Black man with a degree in agricultural engineering and a bunch of friends with not enough food. Both of us didn’t change much, actually. We’re the same farmers we were then, eager to help the Tijuca community and happy to share the knowledge with other vertical farms around Rio de Janeiro. We share a set of completely human aches — backs and knees mostly — and have a vexatious tendency to forget new names and doze off when we’re too still. OK, maybe we did change a bit. But our farm — our marriage — is still too far from being a self-sustainable miracle for Juve to think about retirement.
The pen slips from my hand onto my lap. Again. No textbook writing when you stray yourself in thoughts about metaphors and retirement. I sigh and close the manuscript, a tan, bulky notebook, one of many Juvenal found in our building’s cellar in a time when the water level was half a meter lower. He says I befuddle him with my simultaneous love for high-tech farming techniques and wrinkled, old-fashioned notebooks. I ask why he’s calling himself a notebook. He walks away grunting, but I’ve been his wife for long enough to recognize a peal of muffled laughter.
I put the book on the night table beside my chair and touch my watch to call four pollinators. After a few seconds, they buzz down from the corridor’s window. I stand and try to ignore the strain on my back, extending my palm up. The bees land on them, equidistant from one another. My nose isn’t the same as it was back in my green days, but I can still feel the slight scent of strawberries and rosemary soddened in the bees.
I insert the four of them into a recharging station, and type an ID and a location into it.
“Kids, go fetch Juvenal’s gift,” I whisper, typing to release them. They quickly buzz out of the window.
Truth is, I’m sad we’re tight in this bind. Juvenal needs rest, we need rest. It’s been 10 years that we’ve been looking at Isle of Forever Elderly Society, sited on an island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro. Self-sustaining auto-farms, recycling huts, self-sufficient energy generated through solar arrays and tidal lagoons … I love that place, yeah, but not as much as Juvenal does. For me it’s like a pistachio ice cream; for him, it’s a pistachio ice cream with chocolate drops and the promise of a flawless life. It’s all he wants lately — not the ice cream, but the community. It’s what he thinks — reasonably — both of us deserve after building and improving Torre Verde to the point of eliminating food scarcity in the Tijuca region.
The bees buzz back through the window, slower this time, bringing my pad, one tiny mini-drone on each vertex of it. I’d left it in the germination room, and they fetched it for me. After 70, it’s fairly sensible to use pollinators to fetch stuff for you. I turn on the pad and check the boat tickets. It’s a five-hour boat journey underneath the scorching heat through the watery floodstreets of Rio out into the open sea and toward the Isle of Forever. But it’s often worth the time — and Juvenal deserves to spend some time in his dream place after all the fights we’ve been having lately.
I leave my quarters and pace to the elevator and into the aeroponic level. Juvenal is talking with Julia, our trainee. The first thing that hits me is the pervasive scent of cabbage and chard coming from the growth towers. The second thing is the frown that sprouts across Juvenal’s forehead when he makes eye contact with me. He quickly turns back to Julia, childishly avoiding my presence.
“The misters in this sector didn’t spray the solution yesterday,” Juvenal says, gaze fixed on Julia. He’s wearing his usual blue dress shirt and khaki pants. His control pad — which he uses to play games and keep up with all the farm’s statuses — hangs from his belt.
“We rarely have issues like that these days,” Juvenal says, peeking closely at a tower of cabbages. Some of them are already dry, senescing under the lack of proper mist. “This often means a cascade of issues, Ju.”
“I agree,” Julia says. She’s a 28-year-old agricultural engineer with a quaint and annoying way of quickly learning and solving everything she sets her mind to. She’s the best we have. If Torre Verde is our marriage, the wedding vows are Julia. I’d also say she’s the glue that keeps the farm intact in a healing, crumbly city. (Sorry, GMTFS manifesting itself). I keep looking at both of them with the pad in my hand as if I’m in a waiting room in my own farm — my own home. Clearly Juvenal is dawdling on purpose.
“The harvesting bots ignored this tower,” Julia says, “and didn’t perform the crop on the scheduled time because the mists didn’t spray properly. And if the mists didn’t spray properly, most likely nutripacks are missing from this section’s nozzles.”
I see a glint on Juvenal’s eyes when the ceiling changes its lighting config. I’m sure he already connected all the dots in his mind. His sole purpose now is dawdling. I put my hands akimbo to show it’s clear I know his strategies.
“And if there are nutripacks missing …” he says.
A flock of pollinators buzz across the corridor. Somewhere nearby, a harvesting bot is carefully selecting chards, its manipulators whirring softly.
Julia shrugs. “If there are nutripacks missing, then the swap drones didn’t replace them correctly, which would make me believe packs are missing in the storage. But there isn’t because I checked the system, so …”
Juvenal finally makes eye contact with me.
“I’m sorry …” I sigh, raising both hands. “I grabbed one of the packs and didn’t update the system.”
“Why would you remove a nutripack from the storage?” Juvenal says, and he knows the answer. I seethe, wanting to storm off and get back to our quarters to delete the damned ticket from the pad.
“I’m writing a chapter about them right now. I needed one for reference.” I have no reason to justify my actions inside my farm to my husband/business partner/co-farmer. I only give him an explanation because Julia is there, and if she’s our wedding vows, then I want to remain true to them. Damn, GMTFS.
“If you remove a pack from the storage without — “
“I know, right?” I raise a hand before he goes on. If there’s one thing my old Juvenal hates it’s human intervention in automated processes — exactly what removing a nutripack from the storage without updating the system is. “Can we talk?”
Juvenal nods, conscious I delivered him that pyrrhic victory. Julia beams an awkward smile and moves away. She’s been with us for almost five years now, but she’s still careful to tread the grounds of our relationship. She can tell us straight to our faces that we did something dumb or wasted some resource by meddling with the wrong part of the farm system. But she never intrudes in her bosses’ bitter love. Sometimes I wish she did, though. Young folks are great problem-solvers.
When Julia is out of hearing distance, Juvenal kisses the tip of my nose. I kiss his. Yeah, we might be hating each other for the time being, but some rituals die hard. I brush off a tiny leaf from Juvenal’s thinning hair. My throat is a bit sore. I grab the pad from my dress pocket and turn it to him.
He puts on his reading glasses.
“It’s been two years we don’t go …” I say.
He frowns at the pad, and for a while the only noise is the occasional pollinator buzz and the clockwork spraying of the mists coming from the racks’ nozzles.
Juvenal shakes his head.
For the first time in almost 50 years of marriage, he’s refusing one of my presents. I’ve got some violent lurches in my life: when my mother vanished when the water levels rose in Rio; when big corporations were still a thing, and one of them sent private troops to invade our building; when we wasted a whole month of crops with the wrong experimentation. But I have to confess that gift refusal hurts the most. Maybe it’s only perspective, or maybe it’s because we’ve been tautening our relationship as never before and it feels like pulling one’s hair. Perhaps it’s just because I didn’t sleep well. But, oh boy, it hurts.
“I’m sorry, amor.” He notices how I feel. “Look at me. I’m shriveled, my leg’s a mess, my back seems about to crack at any time. Next time I go to the Isle, I want it to be for good.”
“We can’t leave the farm, Juve,” I stutter, knowing that’s exactly the source of our quarrel.
“Your use of ‘leave’ means we can’t stop working here,” he says, taking off his glasses and folding them into his pocket. A cue he’s done talking. “One day, ‘can’t leave’ will just mean we’re physically unable to travel.”
“We’re not fragile cabbage leaves, Juve.” I snort.
“We’re not sturdy growth racks, either.” He doesn’t find my comment funny, though.
I admit Torre Verde is extremely automated. But Juvenal thinks it’s 100 percent automated. It is not. We still need Julia — she’s a manager, an engineer, and a technician. She’s the only one, fine. In the past, we had 80 people working full-time on the farm, and now we only need her as an integral part of it. Still, she’s a human being, i.e., not fully automated. Apart from her, we occasionally hire and volunteer a few other people to coordinate cargo and distribution in the docks outside, and a few security muscles from the community to keep an eye on the building.
And it needs us — call us the Founding Couple, whatever. It needs me. I’ve been writing a highly comprehensive book, so future generations can learn and imitate what we do here, so other farms around Rio, Brazil, and the world can have a detailed manual of how to erect a self-sustainable, quasi-automated farm. It needs Juvenal, too. Between the two of us, he’s the one with the mind filled with technical data, processes, model numbers, logs, history, and other stuff that I doubt even our systems have. Of course, lately he’s been telling it all to Julia and typing it all into our data storage. He wants to make a point. Juve loves to make points. He thinks I don’t see it, but he aims to make himself dispensable. He wants to prove to me that the farm doesn’t need us anymore like teenagers using faulty arguments to prove they don’t need to live with their parents.
I sigh. I’ve been drifting too much. The notebook where I’m drafting the book is open on the table before me, and I lost track of time. I set the pen aside and rub my forehead.
Chapter XXII: How the Torre Verde Pollinators Work (Part 2).
My favorite subject, and yet I can’t drip a single word onto the page. I inhale the musty air of the hydroponics sector. I’m alone in one of the modules, sitting by a table I use exclusively for writing. The farm has some of these quiet spots I made for myself over the years. It’s often in a corner out of the bots’ algorithm paths. The occasional buzz of a pollinator and the distant warble of (almost) perfect synchronous working bots are the only sounds nearby. One day, years ago, I thought about what paradise could look like if it existed. I could go either with a solitary beach or a lush mountainside, but in either case, it’d have to have a spot like this one.
I pick up the pen and start writing. The ink’s nearly running out.
As seen in the previous chapter, pollinators are equipped with nano-sensors capable of detecting when flowers are ready for pollination. Their tiny eyes and ultra-sensitive manipulators can distinguish the light greenish-yellow hues of anthers readying for pollination [see chapter XXI] and the way petals develop in the flowers. Some of them, those I like to call Queen Bees, are even set up to adjust the humidity and the temperature of an environment through signals sent to the respective floor’s central control [see chapter XVI]. This pollinating system is self-sustainable and works with almost no human intervention, the exceptions being
It’s not self-sustainable while it needs flesh hands! If a lot of bees malfunction at the same time, we’d need to purchase or fabricate new ones. Also, their stations don’t come out of thin air like Juvenal would love to think; once in a while Julia has to cross the floodstreets to get new stations. It’s not common, fine, but it happens. In all the flow diagrams of the farm, scattered amidst the blocks and arrows crisscrossing throughout components, there’s always the tiny icon of a bald-headed, eyeless stick figure representing a human interaction. And does Juve want me to spend the rest of my life in a beachside dwelling while our farm — our marriage — crumbles, and hunger becomes once again a problem in the community? Yes, he does! And no matter how I outline the details and show him how we’re still needed, no matter how much I love that hapless wise man, he still fails to see Torre Verde is us.
And here he comes. Peace: disturbed.
“Hey,” he says, grunting and pulling the chair across the table from me. I know he wants to parley, and I know he’ll try to muddle it with prior chitchat. It’s his way of setting the mood. “The system changed the light uptake for the terraces’ cilantro crops to compensate for this week’s weather.”
“Hmm …” I don’t take my eyes off the notebook. My hands grip the pen tightly as if I’m able to escape from the conversation using it. Juvenal brings into the place his cologne’s bergamot fragrance with hints of something else.
“This week has been darker than usual.”
“Oh, I know …” I say, nodding, biting my lips, still not wanting to make eye contact. “A lot darker indeed.”
“I’m speaking of the cloudy weather.”
“That too.” I nod.
Juvenal stretches his head to look at what I’m writing. I turn the notebook so he can read.
“I’m not wearing my reading glasses,” he says.
“Pollinators, part two.”
“Your favorite.” There’s a smile on his lips, a faint but tender line, barely leaving the neutral ground. He rubs his index finger lightly on the corner of the page and the feeble ink smears on his skin. “Ink …”
“What about it?” I almost roar.
He shakes his head. “There’s a — “
“Make your point, Juvenal. You’re always full of points to make. You’re almost a scoreboard.”
He frowns. “GMTFS.”
I bite my lips but instead of rebuking him, all that comes out of my mouth is a muffled laugh.
“I was just going to ask you why you insist on these old notebooks,” Juvenal says. “I gave you a WritePadXS 6.5 last year, and you barely even use it.”
“Oh, I love that thing,” I say. “But I prefer to write fiction on it. All my reasoning and logic for this book about Torre Verde works better when I’m spilling it out on paper.”
“Speaking of which …” Juvenal taps his finger on my notebook. Here comes his point. “Need to read some new story you’ve been writing.”
No, it doesn’t. But I’m angry anyway.
“You shouldn’t complain if I decide not to use your gift. You refused mine.”
His mouth hangs open. OK, I thought he was going to be the one to verge our conversation toward awkwardness. I feel bad for an instant, wanting to prune away my words.
“It’s rain and flood season …” he says. Now he’s avoiding my gaze. I don’t blame him. Perhaps he’s just there to chit chat after all, and I’m the one provoking. “You know how tiresome the trip across the floodstreets is. And you want me to go to the Isle during hard weather so I remain tucked inside our cottage. It’s almost like — “
“What? That the community is tedious enough to make you never want to come back there and instead stay here forever?”
Juvenal shrugs and his shoulders slump.
I pinch my lips, fidgeting with the notebook’s hinge. “I bought the ticket with the option to change the dates if you wanted to.”
“We’re talking retirement for 10 years, Nádia.” He shows me both his palms. They’re wrinkled with two arthritis-crooked fingers. I glance down at my hands resting upon the table. “Ten years.”
“And you think this farm will resist without us? It might endure for a few months, maybe a year, but then? Do you think Julia knows everything about this place?”
“Well, she certainly knows a lot more than I did at her age.”
“That’s why I’m writing this.” I pull the book back to me. “When this is done, and we have consistent information about everything we lived here … when I lay down all we created and you want to easily give away, then we can … retire.” The last word feels bulky in my mouth.
“You said this to me before in a kind of vague way, but now I need to ask: Is this a promise? When you finish the book …”
“And publish it …”
“And publish it …” The lines around his cheeks are severe. I think of dehydrated collard greens. “Then we’ll retire in the community and leave Julia as a permanent manager of this place?”
I say nothing. A promise is as strong as planting the seeds on a growth rack with the certainty that with proper lighting, the right nutrients, and a rigid schedule they would develop into a beautiful and fragrant set of purple chives.
“It is,” I finally say, dry throat and all.
Juvenal beams the kind of smile I don’t see often. It’s not the smile of someone who won an argument, but of a person finding out flowers don’t need to grow on the soil after all. He stands and carefully walks to my side of the table. I raise my head and stretch to kiss his lips. That “something else” that goes along with his cologne is a kind of sylvan, restful scent, something I’d associate with new families sprouting up in a beachside community. He grips my hand and leaves, still smiling.
I thicken the word “exceptions” on the text. But the ink is gone. I take out a mobile recharging station from my pocket and set it to invoke two bees. I’m going to need a new pen.
Later that night, when Juvenal’s already snoring his dreams away in our quarters, I decide the book will need at least two more chapters.
One thing I always wanted and never could get is an oil lamp. No matter how hard I scoured the floodstreets of Rio, I never found a good, old-fashioned oil lamp, something that screamed past and bucolic. The recessed and grow lights of the farm are always too businesslike-white for my tastes. I ended up writing under candlelight, and later, under pollinator light. Many of them are more like fireflies than bees, emanating adjustable lights from their spiracles that are often used to control the light uptake in some sectors. I arrange them across my studio to bathe me in what I call fake lamplight. If anything, inspiration comes easier.
Chapter XXIV – Maximizing Crop Output.
It’s 3 a.m. and that’s all I’ve written since 11 p.m. The pollinators’ constant buzz is almost comforting, disagreeing with my slightly cramped fingers gripping the pen and the disturbing thought that when I made Juve smile I felt a bit sadder.
Torre Verde is divided into 30 floors and four main sections: processing center and management, aeroponics, aquaponics, and hydroponics. In a practical sense, it’s far more than that: There are the fast-turn crops and slow-turn crops floors, auto-chute systems for waste disposal, germination rooms, greenhouses, hundreds of decontamination airlocks, nurseries, control rooms, storage tanks, distribution centers, management floors, and a lot of other stuff that makes that single building feed an entire community of 300,000 souls. And inside each of those rooms, a set of complex, non-trivial processes and components, each of them deserving a chapter in my book. At least a subsection.
“It’s gonna take a while,” I tell the room, writing in small letters on the corner of the page. Idea for 2 or 3 chapters: the human components of the farm. I’ve been writing, drafting, sketching diagrams, making notes. I made a promise to the man I love. No matter how I think the farm needs us, I’ll finish this damn book and fulfill that promise.
My watch vibrates with a notification. Pollinators shortage in 13th floor; sector hydro-B3; rack 2818. Quantity: 3. I grab the recharging station and configure three of my tiny lamplights to address that issue. But before I can finish it, the white, undeviating lights of the room turn on and blind me for a moment.
An alarm starts to blare.
The last time a level 5 health-related alarm blared in Torre Verde was after the accident that killed Rogério Assunção. Juvenal and I had been in the passionate/euphoric phase of our relationship, not only between ourselves, but between us and the farm, the employees, the resources we gathered from bankrupt companies, the terabytes of information regarding what would become Torre Verde, the boats that came and went day by day carrying tons of growth racks, tanks, rotating beds, computing clusters, bioplastic fences, and everything we needed to erect our “manna tower” in the middle of a Rio severely impacted by the rising of the sea. Rogério was a technician electrocuted by a design failure in one of the germination-room projects. After that day, we committed ourselves to proceed with Torre Verde’s projects only after every employee’s safety was ensured.
I boasted to this day, until that alarm sounded off and cut short my writing, that the last serious accident in Torre Verde happened almost 40 years ago.
My mouth tastes funny as I walk the faster I can to the elevator and into the hydroponics section of the 14th level. Juvenal is splayed on the floor surrounded by a puddle of water. A harvesting bot stands inert next to him, a water basin hanging skewed from its manipulators.
“Juve?” I say, but my voice is barely audible even though I already turned off the alarm.
I kneel before him, ignoring the strain on my knees. We’re alone. Julia went home at 8 p.m. But that’s not supposed to be an issue. That’s our home, our marriage. We’re always safe here, right? Nothing bad ever happens.
“Juve?” I repeat, brushing the hair from his forehead. His eyes are open and squinted. He seems to be making an effort to recognize me. At least there’s no blood I can see.
“I slipped.” Juve manages to mutter, which makes me laugh in relief. “Oh, my waist hurts, sweetie … that bot’s not supposed to be here.”
But it is. Probably replacing the water of a hydroponic reservoir, somehow forsaking its main algorithm since our current config doesn’t allow this kind of maintenance after midnight.
“I’m going to take you to the med room.” I lift his head. Something sticky coats my hand.
There’s the blood.
“Call Julia on the emergency line,” I say to my watch. But Juve can’t wait. I need to take him to the med room and all I can think of is how it was I who put that bot there.
“Hello? Nádia?” Julia’s voice is a relief that lasts until Juvenal grunts. The spilled water is reddening. It’s supposed to be creating life, not taking it.
“Juve fell.” It’s all I can say. Julia hangs up. She understands what’s happening.
But I can’t wait for her. I set the emergency protocols in my watch and put my mobile recharging station on the wet floor. Making an effort to navigate the exceedingly small station interface, I invoke all Torre Verde’s pollinators.
Juve passes out. I whisper his name as if it somehow can wake him. I fear removing my hand from the back of his head. I fear even shifting my fingers one centimeter.
I close my eyes and all I see are Juvenal’s arthritic hands opening before me. Ten years.
While the pollinators — all of them — gather themselves around my Juve and lift him from the ground by their minuscule legs, the guilt weighs on me.
Yes, I put that bot in Juve’s path. I made him fall.
My thoughts fluster in the same kind of logical processing Julia uses to solve problems. A farm is all about timing. That harvesting bot is only there because something disrupted its schedule. Something like removing a nutripack from the storage, which then cascaded into a set of events that positioned that particular bot in that exact place to exchange a reservoir at the same time Juvenal was probably sleepless and taking a walk. Fate. Doom. Call it whatever you like. Unraveled by me, a bald-headed, eyeless stick figure intruding in the farm’s automation. Unfurled by each pollinator I disrupt from the system. By each chapter I decide to add in my never-ending textbook.
As I see my Juve flying away from me, hovering above the racks we built up out of love and necessity, I realize the farm’s never going to be the way I want it to be. The farm is us. And our future is incognito.
The boat waits at Dock No. 1, not coincidentally a revitalized version of the one that Juvenal, a team of 35 farmers, and I arrived on so many years ago to a decaying building, heads filled with projects of feeding everybody we could.
“Seven minutes to departure,” Julia yells from the dock, wheeling Juve’s last luggage.
I’m already aboard the boat, elbows propped on the gunwale. On other docks, cargo autoboats come and go, mere nodes in the food-distribution web. Some volunteers help us load crates onto the boats, but most docks already function with the cranebots I developed in almost another life.
“I had more stuff than I thought,” Juve says, smiling at me. I lift my hand to wave. Under the brigadeiro sky, unmarred and unclouded, I can almost catch his happiness. Despite his limp, he has recovered well from the accident, but the crutch probably will be his companion until the end of his days, a reminder of how Torre Verde can’t be our marriage.
But neither is it our divorce.
After a few minutes, everything is set up and Juve joins me on deck, glancing one last time at the tower where we erected our lives. I sense the aerobic aroma of hydroponics, gourds, strawberries, rosemaries, and the subtle bergamot of my Juve.
“Will you miss it?” Juve says.
“Not as much as I missed you when the hospital reprinted a couple of your joints.” I straighten a tuft of his hair behind his ears and kiss the tip of his nose. My fingernails are still crusted with dirt from the greenhouse harvest I did a few hours before.
“But I’m bringing some of it with me.” I show him my nails.
He bursts out laughing. “GMTFS, my love … GMTFS.”
Later, when the boat leaves the ever-receding floodstreet waters and sets off toward the Isle of Forever Elderly Society, I leave Juve staring at the open sea and withdraw to the boat’s cabin.
Two bees bring me my pen.
Prologue: How to know when it’s time to harvest.
Renan Bernardo is a writer and computing engineer from Rio de Janeiro. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Dark Matter Magazine, the Life Beyond Us anthology, Three Crows Magazine, Simultaneous Times podcast, among other places.
Born and raised in suburban New Jersey, Grace Abe is an illustrator and designer based in Boston.