Art by Roberta Antonelli

The Asphalt Is Melting

The world's already hot enough to melt asphalt. But it's about to get worse.

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Dec 3 2016, 5:00pm

Art by Roberta Antonelli

The world's already hot enough to melt asphalt, as more than one tarmac-stuck plane has made clear. But it's about to get worse This week's Terraform is a special translation of a tale from Motherboard Italy's editor, Antonella di Biase—it's surreal, funny, and totally grim. Enjoy -the editor.


"The asphalt is melting," cried out the speaker on the corner of the building. "The asphalt is melting." The feminine voice kept shouting in a concerned but professional tone of voice.

"So you have to cross the street very carefully," an old lady on a motor walker told me with an unnatural British accent, while, perfectly in balance, she was overtaking me on the sidewalk. Damnit, I thought, looking at my rock-platform shoes and astro suit, which was starting to smell of sweat and combustion. We really didn't need this terrible July. Once I was a girl, but now I'm a shellfish trapped in a synthetic suit. God must have suddenly become Kafka. I kept on walking and swearing against the fireproof boardwalk, dreaming of a cool place to have a drink and take off the suit.

I was going to a job interview. A security state quadcopter had delivered me an ochre convocation letter. The position wasn't clear, nor the project. It had to be the same old dodgy stuff. They surely found my address in the university database: There were fewer and fewer graduates and they needed to make them join the bureaucratic mechanism somehow. Nobody would study, everyone was working to earn some electricity and an air-conditioning system as soon as possible. But I was too stubborn and ambitious to slave away after school in their fucking factories. So I would endure the heat and the precariousness for three more years, finally getting a useless degree in veterinary medicine.

The government had provided astro suits a few days after the peak of 170 degrees, when the number of heat-related deaths increased by 15 percent and suicides by 20.5. Then they'd increased production when people got obsessed with Mars colonization. Everyone bought his own suit and booked a ticket to go and enjoy the Red Planet's dry and charming soil. Then all the Earth–Mars travel companies went out of business, obviously. In a world where only 2 percent of the population had unlimited access to electricity it was hard to believe that anyone could afford an interplanetary travel. Almost all the people I knew lived housebound, thirsty and without air conditioning. For as long as I can remember it has always been like that, but in those months things got worse: people were committing suicide, my dog died from dehydration, and I hadn't seen my friends for weeks as messaging system didn't work.

"It's the hottest July since the concept of temperature was invented. Maybe the dinosaurs withstood such temperatures, poor creatures," a guy at the air metro told me out of nowhere. "Anyway, we'll never know their actual suffering because dinosaurs couldn't write, so they didn't pass them on to us."

"..."

"Scientists have been trying to clone them for years, did you know that? Even if they did, I don't think they would make them talk. Do you?"

"I don't know, I don't believe people who say that a trouble shared is a trouble halved; actually, I think it's a sadist asshole behavior. I'm very sorry for what happened to dinosaurs and in particular for their existing aphasia."

The guy turned away without saying a word. Maybe I was indiscreet, but believe me, with high temperatures you become oversensitive.

In the meantime the asphalt kept on melting and, while I was getting to the hiring hall, I felt as I were inside one of those simulators where you run forward like crazy because the earth is splitting behind you. Even buildings seemed to bend due to the heat. Actually, maybe they did. I needed that job. The building, a white squared parallelepiped with a red neon sign hung diagonally that read HIRING HALL, seemed one of those old notebooks my mother used at school and she would take out from a drawer to show me how they used to learn things in the analogic era. The flight of stairs at the entrance could have killed me just by looking at it: big high plexiglass steps and endless winding ramps. No lifts. I was wearing rock shoes and an antiperspirant astro suit. I was sweating and I smelled bad.

While I was staring at the horrible snail titanium sculpture, determined not to move until they lifted me up with a steel rope, a bot came in. She had an orange lipstick and her fair hair was gathered in a bun, she was wearing a thermally isolated dress, tight on her hips, she looked like a hostess: "Troisième étage," she said, and invited me to take off my suit and shoes, took them, and gave me a badge to get them back later. Shesmiled easily and I couldn't understand why she was speaking French. She knew who I was and where I had to go, but how she knew, I didn't dare to guess. It turned out the stairs were more difficult to climb than I thought, even if I wasn't wearing my shoes and suit. My thigh adductor muscles stretched and my knees cracked in a tragic alternation. Luckily the building was isolated, and maybe there was also an air conditioning system turned on, somewhere in the stairwell. I was at the peak of tachycardia.

"Hello!" A thin little man with a pair of pyramidal lens glasses and a translucent red shirt yelled at me. "Hello, I'm here for the job interview," I answered.

"I know," said he.

The corridor seemed a squared labyrinth with darken glass doors and a beige, consumed and badly cleaned floor. It seemed deserted. The employee showed me the way to his office, a cubic and fresh room covered with a material I had never seen, bright green and soft to the touch.

"It's moss, a very rare plant but potentially immortal. This green reminds me of my childhood, when the lawns weren't just holograms on soccer fields, but a real sweep of green strings, aligned like an enormous obedient crowd." The metaphor gave me the shivers. "Was it difficult for you to get here?"

"Apart from the melting asphalt, I had no problems. I'm not saying I felt better at home. You can skip the small talk, anyway. Let's get straight to the point"

"I understand your urgency, even your hostility," he said, adjusting his glasses with the knuckles of his right index. "But I'm sorry, I can't get straight to the point—because I have to understand if you are what we are looking for." He got close to me and put some cold electrodes on my temples. Asking me gently "May I?" he connected them to a computer screen and started the interrogation.

"You are graduated in veterinary medicine, correct?"
"Yes."
"Are your parents still alive?"
"No, none of them."
"Have you got any close relatives?"
"My grandmother who has one foot in the grave and my brother, that you seized."
"The reason?"
"Artistic research."
"I understand. How did you make ends meet?"
"Giving blowjobs to replicants."
"..."
"So?"
"Uh. Would you be willing to completely change your life for a job?"
"I don't know, I think only combustion can be worst than this. But it depends on the kind of job we're talking about."
"Okay. Thank you for the test. You perfectly fit our standards."
"Really?"
"Yes, really. Now I'll explain/tell you everything."

The moss suddenly brightened with a deep blue. I was disgusted and confused at the same time, and also a little bit curious to know what a big load of rubbish he was going to tell me. The projection on the room walls started with a starry sky and kept focusing and getting closer to the moon. The 3D render matched with a bad Vivaldi style symphony. Images were getting more and more detailed, there was a small village with round houses, like laminated igloos made of shining metal. Through the windows you could see happy families gathered around the fire, wrapped in a warm light, like in an old Christmas card: children were playing, mothers petting cats on the sofa, fathers fixing pendulum clocks. Everything was perfectly senseless. The projection ended.

"Have you ever asked yourself when this suffocating hot temperature will end?" the man asked, clearing his throat.

"All the time." I answered.

"Perfect. Do you think there is a way to improve our situation on earth?"

"I have no idea. You tell me."
"According to all the living scientists, the answer is no."
"Great."
"And have you ever asked yourself what the government is doing about it?"
"Yes I have, and the answer, according to all the people I know, is nothing."
"You are wrong. Fortunately our aristocracy is already safe thanks to the experimental project you saw in the video."
"Oh."
"Exactly. And what we are asking you for is to move to one of the lunar villages where the aristocrats live, to take care of the animals bred there, synthetic and not?"

Aphasic like a dinosaur. Moving to the moon, surrounded by aristocrats, to take care of spoiled cats and semi-synthetic pigs to butcher.

"Payment will be related to the sacrifice and that board and lodging will be on our behalf." Invertebrate, like a marine snail. I would have spit in his eye, but I was tempted by his offer. "Please keep it strictly confidential. You have one week to think about it, but once you agree you can't go back. I'll show you the way." He opened the office door and, after showing me the way to the beige corridor, he discharged me.

While I was getting down the plexiglass high steps I didn't know whether to cry or laugh. I was holding the badge in my hand and I thought how those aristocrats could possibly live their endless Christmas on the Moon at the government expense while we were literally dying because of the heat. I wasn't expecting anything different, actually. In all honesty I've never believed in the good purposes of a conceptual mechanism called state, but I was angry at the thought I had to choose between a condition of extreme, endless poverty and lunar aristocratic shit.

At the entrance, the bot was still flawless, with her orange lipstick and her hair in a bun. She gave me my shoes and my big suit back without saying any other French word.

I got out shuffling my feet with the same crustacean clumsiness, watching the sun straight into my eyes. After all, this suffocating tropical climate wasn't so bad. You only had to get used to it.