Issue 191 – August 2022

1450 words, short story

Migratory Patterns of the Modern American Skyscraper


They call it the pinnacle of architectural innovation. An affordable housing revolution. They call it Plexus, and it built this neighborhood in seven days.

It starts as a colloid, a nanoparticle superfluid, a pale blue sludge that erupts from the nozzles of a hundred carbon fiber tubes on a cold Wednesday morning in late February. It tumbles over itself in apparent disarray—though there’s nothing about the Plexus that isn’t premeditated down to the molecular level. By nightfall, the foundation is built. By morning, the ground floor. By the fifth of March, a half-dozen glittering new towers stab through the San Jose gloom. Twenty units per floor, zoned by income bracket. Primed to solve the latest housing crisis, to solve the influx of professional talent that pushed us off the Peninsula, to solve us.

And hallelujah, it works. We pack up our tents, unhitch our campers, roll off our cousin’s couch and straight into a forty-ninth-floor interior unit with molded cabinets and biometric locks, every inch of it Plexus-born. It’s hard to believe the hot water taps are made from the same nanoparticles as the doorframes, and to be fair they aren’t exactly, but the details don’t bother us much because we’re home at last.

Tina organizes a party that spans three floors; Gretchen brings four hundred tamales, give or take; Darpan borrows the karaoke rig from his sister’s restaurant (along with enough coconut laddus to rot every last tooth out of our gums), and we dance until sunrise. Those of us lucky enough to have stable gigs stagger to the VTA station with bleary eyes and hopeful grins.

It’s our little paradise, for a month and a day.

Then come the whispers.

Javier hears them first, working the graveyard at the call center. Says the board at MaxMonies landed a sweet spot for their new headquarters. Struck a deal with the Plexus CEO, who struck a deal with the city, and now Tower A is slated for relocation to somewhere in Madrone. And even though the headquarters will hardly encompass a city block, all those eager workers need somewhere to hang their hats, right? Live where you work is the motto around here, so to make room for the inbound luxury condos, Towers B through F are following their sister down south. There’s no light-rail through Madrone, but they tell us the commute by bus is only an hour and change, and the alternative is there is no alternative (remember the relocation clause in your agreement, page four hundred twenty-two, they say), so by week’s end our bags are packed.

The Plexus comes down even quicker than it went up. Like towers of salt in the rain, our newfound homes just melt away. Crews suck it right back into their nozzles and rumble to a dusty stretch in downtown Madrone, spit it all out, and in nine days we’re moving back in, hallelujah, home again.

Tina hosts a subdued happy hour. We’re not sure if this qualifies as a housewarming, and we’re all a little nervous about jinxing it. But there’s Miller High Life in the fridge and some leftover street tacos from God knows where, and we make the best of an awkward time.

Next morning, well. Turns out an hour and change means something different to everyone. But there isn’t much work in Madrone, and we’re not about to take a roof overhead for granted. So we suck it up and use the three-hour-forty round trip each day to grab some shut-eye, study for night school. We’re old pros at finding the silver lining, you know. And truth be told, we’ve come to love our Plexus homes. The floor under our callused feet, the halls our children run through, it’s a part of us now. And we’re a part of it.

The whispers find us at the end of week three. This time from Darpan, by way of his nani who plays bingo with a retired city councilor. Apparently, Madrone is on the up and up. Couldn’t tell it by looking out the window, all big box stores and low-rent business parks, but the investors at CryptoNuevo see an opportunity. All they need is space.

Our towers take up a lot of space.

And San Martin only adds another half-hour to the commute.

Each way.

So we pack up and follow our homes farther south. San Martin was mostly farmland, before the last expansion; now it’s a patchwork of outlet malls and drab apartment buildings. A zoning issue forces corporate to reenvision our six towers into a dozen mid-rises and a four-story annex. But our Plexus is crafty, just like us, and pretty soon we’re home again.

This time, we forego the party. Some of us lost our jobs during the moves, and the rest of us have to budget in an extra hour for transit come morning. At least we’ve got our trusty Plexus to come home to at the end of the weekend double.

That is, until we don’t.

It happens two weeks after our move to San Martin. This time, nobody’s expecting it. No whispers, no press release buried in the Mercury News, no email from corporate. One minute we’re scrubbing mac and cheese off the casserole dish, the next minute the walls are coming down. Like a superfluid indoor waterfall. Like a flood.

We get out—all of us, a miracle in itself—before the whole complex deconstructs into a frothy sludge before our shock-wide eyes. We catch glimpses of our belongings in the fray, sofas and silverware and half-unpacked boxes. But just as quick, they’re gone. The Plexus flood carries it down Monterey, cleaving traffic like a regular nanotech Moses.

We watch our homes turn left on 10th.

Tina calls HUD.

HUD says check your eyes. No relocation on the books this month.

We stand around the empty lot, across from the other empty lots, gauging our collective best interests. It’s hot and dry and the graveyard shift starts in an hour.

Our eyes say, too late for that now.

We pile into our cars, our sisters’ and neighbors’ cars, and we follow our homes out of town.

The Plexus has a jump on us, though, and our caravan is shabby and slow. By the time we cross the 101, the retreating flood is a pale blue surge on the horizon. Once we pass the last fruit stand heading into the valley, there’s no sign of it.

Yes there is, says Darpan.

Darpan has good eyes. A minute later, we all see it. Up ahead, where the scrub reclaims the highway shoulder: a pale blue obelisk. Four stories tall, as skinny as Javier’s waistline, shimmering in the twilight gloom. Like a beacon.

Showing us the way.

We press onward, deeper into the valley. Every few miles, we pass another waypoint. An azure sphere balanced on a knuckle of granite. A fountain of translucent superfluids. A big sweeping scythe plunging into the badlands. With each waypoint, our anticipation grows. Nobody says a word. We don’t know where this strange pilgrimage will land us, but we are positively all in.

When we round the bend past Bell Station, we rumble to a halt. The highway winds downhill from here, deeper into Pacheco Pass. Our elevation affords us a sweeping view of the valley, the meandering reservoir, the pale blue city that shouldn’t be there.

It’s a thing of beauty, all glittering spires and arching bridges and lamplit boulevards nestled on the reservoir’s bank. It’s a fifty-story tower with precarious trapezoidal buttresses. It’s five city blocks of ornate glass row homes. It’s a domed arcology leaning into the tremulous water. It makes no sense, follows no convention, stands in sharp contrast to its stock-straight origins as Towers A through F. And yet, it’s unmistakable.

Emblazoned across a broad façade of sparkling blue brickwork, in bold serifs, are the words: welcome home.

How can this be? Is this the end point of a spontaneous nanotech malfunction? Did the Plexus grow so accustomed to moving that it became migratory?

Or is it like us? Tired of being pushed around, hungry for air to breathe and room to live on our own terms?

The Plexus offers no answers. But when we throw our caravan into park and pry ourselves from our saggy bucket seats, the Plexus does the same thing it has always done when it sees us coming.

It opens its doors.

We aren’t fools. We know we can’t live off the land forever. Corporate will come for us soon enough. When they see what their nanotech minions have built, they’ll price us out by dawn. But that’s a problem for another day.

Tonight, Tina’s throwing a party.

Author profile

Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared and is forthcoming in Lightspeed, Analog, Escape Pod, and elsewhere. He is a writer, a software developer, an adventurer, and a graduate of the Clarion West class of 2019. He currently calls Boston his home, although he’s lived in fourteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by two cats and one iron-willed daughter.

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