Cal sat on the cracked concrete wall of the flood control channel holding a five foot stick with a heavy thread tied to the end. The thread had been cast out into the brown water, but since the water was almost still, the thread lacked any tension and fluttered in the hot breeze.
The sun was so bright that all colors seemed washed out. Earlier Cal had wrapped a white t-shirt around his head to deflect the heat and to keep the sweat from rolling down and stinging his eyes. But after noon, he had managed to find some relief in this spot. The new high-rise ZPAC building inside the fence behind him, despite its almost transparent stories, cast a growing shadow so wide and long it expanded out around him and stretched across the murky water and up the concrete wall far on the other side. For the last two weeks heat stroke advisories had called for hunkering down in the afternoons. But unlike most, the heat had just made Cal more restless, and so, daily, he had wandered the hot, empty city streets during these most dangerous times looking for something to do. His father, who lolled in their damp basement, hadn't even missed him, nor, Cal thought, would he probably care if he had. His father had succumbed to the same apathy that infected the nation.
Two days earlier when Cal was walking through an overgrown park he came close to the river's edge where the banks had been eroded away with flooding and a mucky slough had formed. Twice he observed something surfacing with an echoing splash to snatch tiny bugs from the swarm that danced along the surface of the stagnant water. So today Cal was trying to fish. The descriptions of the process in a few of his dad's old magazines seemed straight-forward enough and the photos of rugged outdoorsmen frying their catches in a pan made his mouth water. He had planned to return to the park of course, but the heat was so unbearable this day that he only made it halfway. Rather than give up though he decided to try the channel when he realized the ZPAC building would block some of the sun. So far he hadn't had a bite.
"You're not going to catch much," a voice called from behind him. Cal looked over his shoulder. An older Asian man in a white cap with a sun skirt that covered his neck and wearing the red shirt and pants of a ZPAC engineer stood near the fence with a small white plastic bag in his hand.
Cal turned back to his pole and said nothing. He was worried the man might send him off, being too close to the new building. He decided to busy himself by pulling up the line to check the status of the cockroach he was using for bait, and setting the pole at his side he pulled the line hand over hand and carefully coiled it so that it wouldn't tangle. Maybe the man would think he was preparing to leave, Cal thought, and then would continue on. But instead the man started down the bank toward him.
"If you do catch something, it probably wouldn't be safe to eat," the man said as he approached. Cal looked up at him and prepared for the worst. But then seeing the expression in the man's eyes in the shadow under the brim of his cap, he realized the man was genuinely concerned. "You don't need to leave though," the man said with a broad toothy smile.
"Probably not the best spot anyway," Cal said trying to sound like he knew what he was doing. "I haven't had a bite yet." He felt sweat running down his cheeks. "I should probably try somewhere else."
"I doubt you'll find anything alive in any of these waters. Look at the color, it's so brown. Any fish around here would be very contaminated with mercury or lead, don't you think?" The man spoke carefully, struggling at times. His accent was distinct. "Hey! Shouldn't you be in school anyway?"
Cal had been taking classes through a virtual school, but when the public broadband quit working no one seemed to be concerned about whether he finished. His father had no way, and no desire, to get him to one of the operating public schools in the suburbs, and no one ever showed up to ask why he was truant.
"Summer vacation?" Cal smirked and shrugged.
"Ahh..." the man said with a laugh after realizing the boy was only joking. "But isn't it always summer now?"
"Sure," Cal said, "but that isn't my fault. Is it?"
The man offered his hand to Cal to shake. "Nihao. My name is Wong Li," the man said.
"Calvin Morales," Cal said shaking the man's hand.
"Do you mind if I join you? Or would that interrupt your fishing?" Mr. Wong asked. "I was hoping to find a quiet spot in the shade to enjoy my lunch, but this seems fine. Here on this hot concrete. Almost the same, right?" Mr. Wong shot him another toothy grin. Cal started to feel anxious. He spent a lot of time alone these days, hardly interacting with anyone. But he motioned to the area next to him and Mr. Wong sat down. "So Calvin, do you fish for food or just for the sport of it?"
At fourteen Cal was probably a good three inches taller than Mr. Wong. But Cal was spindly. The most pressing problem that he and everyone who had lingered in the city faced was finding enough food and fresh water. It was a silly question, and Cal started to feel angry at the man's obvious mockery. Of course he was fishing for food. And while Mr. Wong was short, he was also plump and that made Cal even more anxious. For the moment the man sat down Cal remembered his father's often repeated words, "Damn Zeepack! Godless bastards here to take what's rightfully ours. There's so many of them THEY'RE probably the reason there ain't enough food."
"Not sure. I never caught anything yet," he admitted cautiously.
"Ah… when I was a boy I lived on a river, a good clean river, and I used to fish almost every day… for food. But now I am not a fisherman any longer. Now I am but a humble farmer." Mr. Wong said with pride.
Cal looked at him with some confusion. But Mr. Wong reached into the bag he was carrying and pulled out a vibrant red fruit covered with tiny seeds, a strawberry, Cal figured, though he didn't remember ever seeing one other than in pictures, much less eating one.
"See?" he said. "Look at that fantastic red color. Perfectly ripe. And those tiny golden seeds. Can you smell it? I bet you would just love to taste this. I find fresh strawberries can be quite intoxicating… but here." He placed the fruit in Cal's hand.
"No, I couldn't," Cal said remembering his father's words. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a 1000 calorie Patriot Bar. "I've got my own lunch right here." The bar was wrapped in glossy cellophane covered with the familiar red, white, and blue of the American flag and stamped with the words 'DAILY RATION.' He hadn't opened this one yet. After all, he was sick of them, but his father qualified for two 30-bar boxes a month.
"Please," Mr. Wong said, "I have plenty more."
Cal took the ripe strawberry and tasted it. The flavor was almost overwhelming, sweet and tart at the same time. And Mr. Wong was right, it was intoxicating. Cal hadn't had fresh fruit since he was a little boy. He could remember trying an apple once when he was small before his mother died. She had given him a bite of the sweet juicy fruit, his new teeth made only a couple of marks in its waxy peel. She laughed and then cut him a slice to gnaw on. Mr. Wong reached into his bag and pulled out another one for himself and another for Cal. The bag still seemed to be quite full.
"Would you like to see where I got these from?" he asked. "I probably get too excited about it myself, but I think you're just the type of person that will find it fascinating too. Besides it's cool inside. And we can eat some more of these."
Cal gathered up his fishing pole and followed Mr. Wong up the bank. At the fence they walked along a sidewalk until they came to the main entry gate. As they walked Cal studied the ZPAC building. It seemed to be constructed entirely of glass and the whole structure was long and rectangular. It was fifteen stories and now Cal could make out people in white suits working on every floor. The main entry had two gates for coming and going vehicles, but on the other side of the guardhouse there was a smaller gate for pedestrians. Mr. Wong motioned to the guard in the guardhouse.
"Mr. Smith, could you let me back in please?" Mr. Wong asked. "I've changed my mind about that walk. This is my new friend Mr. Morales. I'd like to show him around."
Cal expected the guard to balk, but he just smiled and buzzed the gate for them. The man did stare with some persistence at Cal's fishing pole as they walked through though. Cal tried not to meet his eyes.
The walking path to the building was made of light red brick laid out in a herringbone pattern. People in the white sun-caps and red uniforms of ZPAC workers were busily landscaping the area, finishing the lawn, planting shrubs in curving rows and flowers in newly constructed raised beds on either side of the path. Cal heard the scrape of shovels and rakes on dirt in all directions and the hum and clicking of insects.
"Soon this will be a very nice park, don't you think? With trees and flowers… a nice place for us to walk or lunch in the shade," Mr. Wong said.
They continued along the snaking path until they came to a large entry plaza at the base of the massive building. The entry was in the center of the building and was flanked by a parking area on one side and a row of loading docks on the other.
"Is this your office Mr. Wong?" Cal asked, figuring the building was some new outpost of ZPAC bureaucracy, though its placement in this rundown part of the city was very puzzling.
"No." he said with some disappointment that Cal apparently hadn't figured it out. "This is not an office at all. I told you I was a farmer. And this is my farm, a fifteen story farm with fields on every floor," he said with some satisfaction.
Cal had never heard of a farm in a city before.
"We are just getting underway. The strawberries were the first crop. Bamboo wasn't available for hydroponic piping so instead we used treated PVC just to get the first three floors operating. We pushed to start before the building was even complete. Of course this is nothing new. Come this way Calvin."
As they walked through the entryway Cal felt refreshing cool air pushing against him. Then they walked through a second door and into a large atrium. The atrium was also filled with small trees and beautifully cultivated plants in massive terracotta pots. On the far side there was a long white desk. Several ZPAC workers stood at and behind it conversing and comparing their tablet computers to displays built into the desk. Cal suddenly felt very under-dressed and out of place. He unwrapped the shirt from his head and tried to conceal the fishing pole behind his back.
"Are you sure it's okay for me to be in here?" he asked.
"Of course," Mr. Wong said somewhat absent-mindedly as a tall sandy-haired worker walked up and showed him a tablet. "No. No." Mr. Wong said after a moment. "Here and then over here." He took the tablet and drew out something to illustrate his point.
"Ahh… Much obliged, Dr. Wong." The man said. "We'll be fixing to try the plasma converter soon." Mr. Wong turned his attention back toward Cal.
"Yes, of course it is okay," he said frowning. "You have nothing to worry about when you're with me. Now, let's take a fun little ride."
He led Cal past the large desk to a clear curved glass door at the rear of the atrium, the door of a transparent elevator. "You aren't afraid of heights are you?" he asked with that same toothy grin while stepping in.
Cal looked up nervously and then followed. The door closed with a whoosh and Mr. Wong made several selections on the panel and the elevator started to move up and out of the atrium. In a moment it had exited to the open air and slowly climbed up the outside of the massive glass high-rise farm.
"I cannot take you directly inside the growing area since it must be kept very clean at all times. But I had them add this elevator for just such a situation; I knew I'd be showing this to someone like you."
Cal felt a little nervous, but the elevator climbed very slowly and even though he could clearly see through the elevator walls in all directions, including the floor, in a few moments he started to feel more at ease. Mr. Wong pointed to a smaller building to the side of the loading docks that was connected to the main building by a glass breezeway.
"That building houses our laboratory… and our nursery. Seeds are all examined for contamination before they are introduced into the farm."
Then he directed Cal to look at the floor they were currently passing. Cal saw several workers wearing white suits that he had only previously associated with hazard clean-up. They were checking several rows of strawberry plants that were growing in hydroponic piping. Every few inches along the pipe was another perfect green plant, with heavy red berries hanging down to the sides. From Cal's perspective the rows seemed to stretch off in either direction into infinity.
"This is where our strawberries came from. Here, have another." Mr. Wong said reaching into his white bag. "They are preparing to harvest this floor, which will be very labor intensive. But then another crop will be started immediately. You see, we can grow crops year round since we are not adversely affected by the weather, crop diseases, or pests."
Mr. Wong pressed the control panel again and the elevator started to speed up toward the top of the building.
"The entire facility is built of a strong, corrosion-resistant, and temperature-resistant plastic. It is clear and allows us to maximize crop exposure to sunlight which we can also supplement with OLEDs, lights designed to give only the wavelengths of light that the plants need. Crops like the strawberries are grown hydroponically, but some of the upper floors will be set up for aeroponics."
"What kinds of crops can you grow?" Cal asked.
"What can't we? Strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, lettuce… even corn. If we can carefully control the nutrients they need, the temperature, and the light, we can grow most anything," he said with obvious pride.
As they reached the top of the building the elevator slowed and came to a stop. From here Cal had the city at his feet. Looking through the clear floor of the elevator he could see the city's abandoned buildings crumbling and windowless, car-less streets choked with weeds, and sidewalks people-less in the wake of the economic and climatological disasters that had been brought about by human negligence.
"But why would you build it here?" Cal asked, puzzled. "There aren't many people left living in the city. And the ones who do don't have any money. Who's going to buy all these fruits and vegetables?"
"Zhongguo Pan-America Corporation has already placed high-rise farms all over China, in Mexico, in Canada. There are 10 billion other people in the world today and every one of them is just like you. There is not enough arable land left to grow crops to feed them all. So far attempts to keep up with demand have polluted the planet. The shortfall means people will either starve or die fighting over the scarce resources. Making money is not our goal. We are attempting to save our species from extinction. Now look down there," Mr. Wong said pointing to the area past the laboratory. "There is where we will build the aquaculture center. How would you like to help with that? You seem to know something about fish, right? There you will have more fish than you will know what to do with, eh?"
"Me?" Cal was stunned.
"Yes, you and anyone else who desires to learn and who will put in an honest days work. You will bring your city back from the brink. For when this farm is up and running, my ZPAC engineers and scientists will be gone, on to another project. And then you will be, how does your saying go? …left minding the farm?"
Cal couldn't help but smile.