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A Wrinkle Ironed Out

Alison Wilgus is a Brooklyn-based writer of comics and prose, whose short fiction has previously appeared in Strange Horizons and Terraform. She has two upcoming nonfiction comics with First Second books--about the history of aviation and the future of human spaceflight to Mars--and is currently working on a historical SF graphic novel duology for Tor. She also co-edits The Sockdolager, a quarterly magazine of short genre fiction. She tweets at @aliwilgus and occasionally posts comics and stories to her website: alisonwilgus.com.

Ada lies on her back, her face inches from the cathedral's ceiling, and dabs at soot with moistened cotton swabs. The left elbow of the Virgin Mary looms above her, a patch of rich blue pigment emerging, the latest in a blossoming field of color she's coaxed out of the gloom. When Ada was a child, a project like this one would have warranted a team of conservators, a documentary film crew, a commemorative book of befores and afters. In her adulthood, the Calm has settled over Earth like a woolen blanket, and our interests have shriveled and retreated to our doorsteps, our driveways, to rooms with curtains drawn. The cathedral no longer holds services, and Ada tends to its treasures alone and unobserved.
Or she did, for a time. Some months ago, when an angry handful organized themselves enough to launch artillery into orbit, the Calm ground an acre of their makeshift barracks into a smear of dust and blood. Now three hundred self-determined soldiers shelter beneath the cathedral, watched over by a host of marble angels. And by Ada on her platform, listening to their boots shuff on the stairs down to the catacombs.
Ada, who sits in the deanery with a girlhood friend, she dressed in frayed coveralls and he tucked neatly into an olive jacket.
"They know you're all down there," Ada says.
Thom sips his wine, his eyes still on the paper map he's laid out on the table. "Nice of them to tell you."
"The air feels different," she says. "Thicker."
"Oh, well then."
"It's just the same as last time," she says. She visited the barracks, too, and sat inside those small boxes of corrugated metal. She remembers how it felt to breathe--the soupy, viscous weight in her lungs. She picks at her cuticles and adds, "They've known for weeks."
"And for weeks they haven't done anything," he says, patient.
"The mill would be better. Thicker walls. Harder to see from above."
Thom folds the map and leans back in his chair. "Ada, this isn't a problem that needs fixing. They're not going to hit the cathedral, it's a landmark. Practically a museum."
"They understand cause and effect. If they flatten this place, there'll be riots. People are sentimental about..." He crosses himself sarcastically.
Ada's fingers twist in her lap. "It's math to them," she says. "You've overloaded one side of the equation."
"Oh, Ada." He smiles in a way he must think is reassuring. So handsome, and younger even than her. Brown eyes that charm with crinkled corners. A face no one refuses. "Even if the worst happens, we'd survive well enough. We'll stay in the catacombs. The building wouldn't collapse that far down, and there's a tunnel out the back."
Ada's breath hitches at this, and she holds a hand up to her mouth as a tide of panic rises inside her. Thom reaches for her other hand and brings it to his lips. "I'm going to be fine," he says.
The Calm has been orbiting Earth for nearly thirty years. Ada is old enough to remember what things used to be like, how she felt when we were still a solitary spark of life, but she thinks of those days very little. The Calm smooths any wrinkles of resistance, plodding and relentless, an indifferent weight which irons human lives into something easy and straightforward. Convenient. Into a version of Earth which an alien mind can manage and understand.
Thom is a wrinkle. Ada pulls her hand out of his grip. "They know," she says again. "You can't stay here."
He sighs. "It's not my decision to make."
"Of course it is."
"As soon as you send up the next rocket, they'll--"
"Ada." He stands, the map tucked under his arm. Even frowning, his face is a warm welcome. "I'm sorry to have put you in this position. But it's my duty as an officer to follow orders, and my orders in this case are very clear." He isn't an officer. There is no army anymore.
She tears away a hangnail, exposing unfinished skin that burns as it cringes from the air. "You're making yourselves worth the trouble."
He rests his palm on top of her head. "You're tired," he says, and leaves her alone with the dread in her stomach.
Earth is a depot: conveniently located along a trading route, gravity well of manageable depth, comfortable distance from a non-threatening sun, moon regolith to melt into glass and aluminum, plenty of water, occasionally useful infrastructure.
The Calm pays as little attention as it can to what we do. Unrest of any scale will spark a dim awareness, focusing a fraction with every bombing, each demonstration. The Calm thickens the air with the weight of their attention, a creeping syrupy slide until the moment, outside our understanding, when a line is crossed. When even from geosynchronous distance, the granularity of their view reveals a bump of sufficient size. And that bump triggers the Calm's only reply to inconvenience.
They flatten with shockwaves pulsed from orbit, great pistons of air which crush entire buildings and everything inside them, which erase whole city blocks along with all their harbored problems.
Thom and his garrison are a bump.
Ada cleans greasy dust from the Virgin's wrist. The air is like water in her lungs.
The Catacombs are older than the structures above them, layered with centuries of Roman dead and the works left to honor them. Underground frescos, spotted and cracked from many lifetimes of dampness and neglect, haunt Ada's conscience. They're dissolving even faster now in a haze of hot wet breath and cigarette smoke, and her fingers twitch when she thinks of them. The tunnels are crammed with soldiers and their business; there isn't room enough for her to work.
There isn't room enough to live, either. Not properly. And sometimes Thom's brothers and sisters-in-arms are coughed up into the nave, restless and starved for new scenery. They open the main doors and sit on folding chairs in a pool of sunlight as dust from the square blows in around their feet. And they talk.
Ada is on her back beneath the ceiling and cannot see these people. But she can listen, however little they seem to care about that. She knows so much about these breathing, sweating, laughing strangers, most of them half her age, all of them alive and desperate to matter.
"It'll never reach orbit."
"Yeah, well. You'll see."
"They'll pound the whole facility. Soon as we launch, boom." A sharp crack of someone slapping their thigh.
"We'll be gone by then. It's all remote. I'm telling you, this shit isn't fucking around."
Ada dips the end of a cotton swab into distilled water, moves it through syrupy air toward the ceiling, brushes away a few particles of grime. Her heart leaps against her breastbone; throws itself toward the ailing treasure of plaster and pigment which has consumed her life.
The gas mask is the hardest thing to find. She manages to scavenge one from the old bomb shelter under the deanery, and wrestles with stiff leather straps until it sits as it should. The lenses hold the room at glassy distance.
Everything else waits on the dusty shelves of a supply closet: bottles of bleach and drain cleaner, a stack of empty paint buckets, a portable fan.
She drinks the air in choking gulps.
Ada is not a large woman. She can only move the bodies one at a time, dragging them by their arms across the marble floor, through the narthex, out into the courtyard. Some were able to run as far as the nave before they collapsed. Others fell on the stairs into a tangled heap which trapped those who followed underground.
Ada takes her time, rests when she has to, plans her approach, as single-minded and methodical with this as she is with all her work. She walks the whole length of the tunnels with a rifle slung over her shoulder. She makes certain it's a thorough job.
Out in the sunlight, she arranges their cooling bodies in lines away from trees and benches, as neat as she can manage alone and easy to see from above. Easy to count.
Much of Thom's skull is missing, his hair and his jacket dark with dried blood, but his face is recognizable. Ada picks up his boots and hauls him into the center of the courtyard, leaving a wet trail across the ground.
She opens the plastic briefcase of the remote launch system as wide as it will go and sets it onto Thom's chest. The screen describes a sleeping rocket. Its keyboard is smashed in with the butt of a rifle.
She looks up at the azurite sky and breathes deeply of cool, clear air.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, July 8th, 2016

Author Comments

I attended Clarion West in 2014, and our Week One instructor--the excellent James Patrick Kelly--had us kick off the workshop by writing flash pieces with the common theme of "love." For a panicked couple of hours I wandered around the U District alone, convinced that I had flown across the country only to make an idiot of myself in front of my peers, until I finally got the idea to write a story about a woman in singleminded love with a building.

That night I hammered out the first draft of "Preservation," the story which would become the bones of "A Wrinkle Ironed Out": Ada, Thom, the cathedral full of soldiers and the war which threatens them all. But the context of the conflict was vague, the plot unnecessarily complicated for such a short piece, and Ada herself a bare outline of a character.

By the summer of 2015, I'd revised most of my CW stories but hadn't even read "Preservation" since coming home from Seattle. With the clarity of distance, I realized that I quite liked Ada and still found her terrible situation pretty interesting. But how was this story any different from the dozens of Blitz tales I'd read before?

"I should add in some aliens," I thought to myself, half-joking. "Surely aliens will fix this."

Lucky for me, in this particular instance? They did.

- Alison Wilgus
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