Escape Pod 637: At the Village Vanguard (Ruminations on Blacktopia)


At the Village Vanguard

(Ruminations on Blacktopia)

By Maurice Broaddus

In this, the 25th anniversary of the founding of the lunar colony, First World (colloquially called Blacktopia by its residents), The Indianapolis Recorder, the nation’s oldest-surviving African-American newspaper, continues its series re-visiting key events. Their reporter interviewed (and re-interviewed) many of the principals in order to piece together a picture of the terrorist threat that nearly ended it and the heroic actions of Science Police Officer, Astra Black.

 

Jiminy Crootz (aka J-Croo, Science Police, Senior Investigator. Retired.)

When the alarms sounded for the converter station, I had no doubt she would beat me there. The gate surrounding the solar panel farm had been slit open, like someone wanted to perform a Caesarean but only had a rusted pair of clippers at their disposal. The backdoor of the converter station had been battered in. The air, heavy and re-breathed, like the filters weren’t working at full efficiency. Panels ripped open, wires everywhere. Nanobots probably skittered across the room like roaches in my aunty’s old kitchen. The farm was strictly a backup source of power for the lunar colony, so it wasn’t as heavily guarded as say the nuclear fission power station or the magnetic generators. But there was still a man down and Astra Black stood over his body.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan (aka Dreamer, ranking Science Council member)

Astra had an elegance about her, like the waltz of a First Lady. When she walked, she stepped with purpose. Long strides, though only the balls of her feet ever seemed to touch the ground. At first glance, nothing about her stuck out as exceptional. Average height and build. Hair drawn back in Afro puffs. But she had this way about her.

Bro. Eric 12X Squared (Commander-in-Chief, Security of the First World, aka The Fruit)

All Science Police officers wore these ugly gray-and-black unitard-looking things back then. Like we were fresh from a superhero convention or performing in an Earth, Wind, and Fire tribute band. Took forever before the paperwork went through to get them changed. But she made hers look cool. Wore one of those Tuskegee airmen bomber jackets over it. Wasn’t regulation, but with her long black boots, she was a proud officer.

 

Jiminy Crootz

She wore these dark sunglasses, no matter the time of day. It was only when she removed them that something tugged at me. Her face a mask of fixed resolve except when she turned to me while everyone studied the scene. She saw me. She had a way of looking at you, as if she drank every detail. Like with a quick glimpse, she knew your past, your present, your dreams, your passions, your fears, and all of it mattered to her. Without judgment. She winked. Then in the next breath, she slipped her sunglasses back on, and her game face was back in place.

 

Lesane Parish (Cult of Tupac, high priest. Once rescued from an earlier Prepper attack by Astra Black.)

Astra Black has brought the funk for as long as I could remember. She was straight up blackity-black. She could give the kind of look an aunty gave you when you were about to enter a store that made you sit up straight and not want to touch a thing. She handed out no-look whoopings from the front seat. She wasn’t just down for The Cause. She was the embodiment of The Cause.

 

Jiminy Crootz

Some folks see us moving to the moon as reparations. All I knew was that we needed a fresh start. It began as a bit of a social experiment. The hood led the way. But it was ours. The dream realized, though it felt like an experiment everyone was waiting to see fail. Now there was a serpent loose in Blacktopia, so she was concerned. Astra had always been protective of Blacktopia. I can still picture her at the scene, bent over to get a closer look at the damaged parts.

“I’ve already called in a local override to keep the scene lit,” she said. First on scene was never good enough with her. She once told me that for her playbook, she also had to be one step ahead of everyone else. “Look what we got here, J-Croo.” She pointed to the station wall. “Someone went through a lot of trouble to get to the station.”

She knew I hated nicknames. J-Croo was a…familiarity I reserved for Astra alone.

 

Lesane Parish

He said that? You’d think with a name like Jiminy Crootz, he’d long be out of fucks to give about what people called him.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

Names were a funny thing. They gave power to the namer, which was why so often here on First World, when we came of age, we chose our own names. In the end, all a body had was their good name.

 

Nora Bradford (Astra’s longtime friend)

Astra was born Livinia Watson II, named after her mother. She didn’t legally change her name until after her mother passed. It was like she didn’t want to disrespect her momma by changing her name in front of her. Astra loved the history and legacy of her name, but she still had to go her own way.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

Her partner, Jiminy, now he was a train wreck. Wore his hair in that classic George Jefferson style, you know, just short of a full-blown Bozo the Clown or something. Until he finally accepted that his hair was never coming back and shaved it off. Had a paunch belly, the kind married men got when they had too much home cooking and not enough exercise.

 

Jiminy Crootz

Fuck Dreamer. Fake-ass rasta. Always hated me cause I was light-skinned.

 

Bro. Eric 12X Squared

Whenever he squatted down to examine something, his knees popped like a series of firecrackers went off from his joints. One time, my men took cover ’cause they thought they were under fire.

 

Jiminy Crootz

She joked at the scene, talking about “Easy there, old man. You ain’t even a hundred yet.” That note of concern in her voice, mixed with one part reproach, like you was about to get on the wrong side of Big Momma, and one part ball-busting. It was weird, I found myself half-apologizing to her, promising to take better care of myself. Even pointing out that despite my wear and tear, I still looked good. All she whispered was “Black don’t crack” as she turned back to the scene. Her mind spun through its calculations, almost the way Dreamer does when he’s connected to the A.I., Morpheus. Eyes heavy lidded, focused on the details, trying to make sense of things. Except things weren’t always made to make sense.

 

Morpheus (Artificial Intelligence/operating system of the Mother Ship)

Often derided as The Preppers, the white survivalist offshoot of the Doomsday Party, they formed their own privately funded lunar colony. Each member primarily saw to their own interests, uniting only to attack First World for resources.

 

Nora Bradford

They were afraid that we were taking what was rightfully theirs. What was supposed to always be theirs. They thought that they were losing out on something, that we might have power over them, and you know how folks get when they’re scared: they lose their damned minds. They wanted the Mother Ship.

 

Morpheus

The Mother Ship was an orbital disk, a circular station with 1500 little wheels inside. Feared to be some sort of nuclear platform. The Mother Ship remains undetected by radar because it doesn’t always exist on this plane of reality. It existed between spaces commonly referred to as Tesseract folds.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

The Mother Ship wasn’t even ours. No one knew its origins, though everyone was quick to take credit for it. I still don’t know how Elijah Muhammad first heard tell of it, but to hear him go on, it was built by humans many centuries ago. We communicate with its A.I. Through the masks. That’s as close as we get to knowing it. Of course some people viewed it, viewed us, as a threat.

 

Lesane Parish

Fucking Preppers…pardon my French, but damn, even when we go to the moon, some folks just can’t let us be. Yeah, I might still sound a little bitter. Still have some issues to work out. It was just that those damn Preppers have a way of bringing everything back up rather than just let us be.

 

Bro. Eric 12X Squared

We’d caught word that the Preppers were up to something. Paranoid bunch, all but wore tin foil hats as their official head gear. They followed us up to the moon not too long after our scientists and survey teams had the foundations in place for mass exodus. They lived in a constant state of fear. Preppers fled from one vague threat or another: H1N1, H5N1, airborne toxic events, radiation fallout, robots, networked machines. Something was always out to get them. Reminds me of something my father used to say: no matter how far you run from your problems, there you are. You ask me, they were what they kept accusing us of being: marauders. Opportunists who instead of making their own plans hooked themselves onto other people’s preparations. They couldn’t stand that we were getting out, getting on, without them. So they kept running up on us. Well, we caught one of the saboteurs, no, let’s call them what they were…terrorists. And we transported him back to headquarters for interrogation.

What was that phrase Astra used to always say?

 

Nora Bradford

“Run up and get done up, son.” Whenever we said that, it meant things were about to go down. For real.

 

Morpheus

To test the viability of First World, the Mother Ship deployed the Mother Plane to collect a neighborhood. It selected the Haughville section of Indianapolis.

 

Jiminy Crootz

That’s why Haughville became the unofficial capital of Blacktopia. Plus it had Long’s Donuts. I ain’t lying, I’d cross the galaxy for some Long’s.

 

Nora Bradford

For any first genner, it was hard to break the old habit of looking to the sky to hunt for the moon. There was only the dome overhead. The city grew darker though it wasn’t the shadows that were the illusion but rather the light. The sky was light reflected from the sun and cast against the ceiling. A cold, sterile light; function without nuance. No wind, no warmth, no overcast skies. Only endless, cloudless light. The mirrors directing the sunlight slowly shifted, continuing the masquerade of sunlit days. As the day faded into a smoky luminescence, it grew darker and quieter when folks re-entered the city proper.

When you walked the streets, no one minded the darkness. Night time was personal. Light from houses, the occasional passing electric buggy. The buildings were three and four stories high. A series of modules, rows and rows, much like the farms of solar panels that fed into the converter station. Shiny intestines of the city, stout and resolute.

Astra was always proud of the city we created.

 

Bro. Eric 12X Squared

The Science Police was the security of the First World, though people often called us The Fruit, short for the First fruits. We were established with the idea of being a “medical constabulary” because “crime was a disease and the Science Police were the physicians,” so the smarty art folks said. On Original Earth, criminals were often “rehabilitated” through the use of drug collars that dozed them during the course of the day to keep them sedate and out of trouble. Higher level offenders—everyone from excessive debtors to murderers—were simply warehoused in facilities. We wanted to leave the ways of O.E. behind. Do things different.

 

Jiminy Crootz

With easy access to free education, with opportunity abounding for all, what few criminals we had usually feared one of two things: 1) hospitalization, with the endless questions of psychiatrists and the poking by too attentive doctors, who rarely had the opportunity to study an actual criminal up close; or 2) us telling their momma what they were up to. No one could bring righteous justice like an upset or ashamed momma.

But not everyone liked what we were doing.

 

Nora Bradford

The Preppers saw us as something to be feared, an excuse for anger, gave them purpose and meaning through hate. Agency through fear. They never knew how much we validated them until we were gone. Then they were out of excuses. So they chased us out here.

 

Randall A. McCarthy (Sergeant-at-Arms, Patriot aka Doomsday Prepper) – from transcripts of his interrogation by Astra Black

Randall A. McCarthy. Sergeant-at-Arms. 900013XAT.

 

Jiminy Crootz

Name, rank, and serial number. Seriously? That was all he repeated for the first hour of his questioning.

 

Randall A. McCarthy

Under the Geneva Convention, that is all you are entitled to.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

I don’t even know where to begin with all the wrong in that sentence.

 

Jiminy Crootz

His teeth gleamed like yellow buildings, each sprang out in their own direction (with the occasional building apparently having been knocked out entirely). His expression, sour and morose, like he’d been forced to eat under-cooked chitlins. A full white beard and a hunter’s cap drawn low on his head. Eyelids heavy, half-asleep. I often saw it in their eyes. A reminder of what they thought about us. Like a coat in the back of the closet we forgot was there, a coat that no longer fit. Born of oppression and ignorance, baptized in self-hatred. A part of ourselves we had shed.

 

Nora Bradford

We had the opportunity to remake the world. So we created the world we wanted to live in. Economic imbalance. Political imbalance. Fixing deeply entrenched wounds to correct a spiritual imbalance. Of course we expected that once we’d gone in and done the work of colonization then the government wants to take over. Which is why we’ve petitioned the U.N. for sovereign status.

 

Bro. Eric 12X Squared

Back on O.E., they’d have marked Astra as one of the special ones. One of those brown people they allowed to shine. With that talent that couldn’t be denied so they pat that special one on the head and let them succeed as if they were doing them a favor.

 

Randall A. McCarthy

What side of the door do you want to be on? Don’t call us “Preppers.” We’re Patriots. Of course we knew what you were up to. This extended vacation of yours where you plot and scheme against us. Where you plan our genocide. Here’s what I know: this should have been ours.

 

Lesane Parish

I love how the Preppers conveniently re-remember history. Like we ain’t got nothing better to do than think about them.

 

Nora Bradford

Like somehow we had robbed them of their dream, their birthright. We went to the moon for the same reason Marco Polo traveled to China; for the same reason Columbus sailed the ocean blue; for the same reason Hillary climbed Mount Everest. For the adventure. For history.

Man, white tears are the least sustainable form of energy.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

Those with means prepared to move off the planet into space. O.E. had gotten so bad, people tossed around phrases like Venus Syndrome and Extinction Level Event like they were guessing a crossword puzzle. We’d seen how this story ended before. The poor, huddled masses let them develop their wealth on the backs of the poor before they planned to get out. The national debate weaponized ideology, their words as preamble to flicking the switch to exterminate the poor once and for all.

But we left.

 

Jiminy Crootz

Yes, but not the way they meant it. Blacktopia gave us a reason to change. You know how folks can go to a conference or vacation or something. Back home they’re an upstanding businessman, faithful wife, a deacon at their church, coach their kid’s little league. Then they go away. They shed their old selves. Maybe slip their wedding ring off in their pocket. Not give their real name. Become someone else for as long as the trip allowed. That’s what Blacktopia is. There’s no “going back to” for us. That has never been a real option for us. This is it. We are here now and we are who we are. There’s no place for us back there. Even if there was, we aren’t the same people we were when we left.

 

Nora Bradford

We were Black. Human. Equal. No longer a nigger. Or nigga. I always hated that. Like we were all a part of some subversive club thinking we were more cute than we were. It still took a generation to shed our O.E. mindsets, to lower our guards and accept ourselves. To raise up a generation who never knew the insanity of colorlines and blood politics, laws of exclusion, a differentiation of class by shade. Who never experienced the conditioning of poverty or the nihilism of hopelessness.

 

Bro. Eric 12X Squared

But in that Prepper’s eyes, he didn’t see any of that. All he saw was us taking what was supposed to be his.

 

Nora Bradford

When she was in the public school system, back on O.E., she did horrible in school. Astra was hood tough. A survivor. The journey did not drive her insane. I had no doubt. We stay sane. We survived the Middle Passage, the journey, the deprivation, the bondage. We could survive a trip to the moon. She had always been a high energy child—ADHD or whatever it was they used to call kids who wouldn’t sit their ass down when told. And she had zero fucks to give. None. She always did her thing and didn’t care what people thought. Leastways, that was the way she acted. Defiance as her first impulse. But given a moment to pause, she leads with her heart. She transferred to the Dunbar Academy where she thrived. Not at first: the first year, she did very little. If a teacher, hell, anybody approached her, she shut down. Attention wasn’t to be trusted. She eyed everyone with equal suspicion. She ended up having to repeat that education level. That second year, she began to flourish. It was as if she had to detox from her old life, her old mindset, her old way of doing things. Her teachers, familiar with the whole Negro-to-Black conversion experience, gave her room to do so. By graduation, she was the top of her class.

 

Randall A. McCarthy

Bull. Shit. You people ran for the money. There’s a dollar or two to be made in “adventure.” Trade in He-3 from your mining. Working with Russian cosmonauts and Chinese taikonauts on space-based construction. Charges to use the observatory facilities alone could fund a third-world nation. Tourism, hydroponics…

 

Lesane Parish

In Blacktopia, weed is legal and a major export. I, myself, dabble in Space Crush and GILF Weed.

 

Randall A. McCarthy

Don’t get me started on your name. If we called our society “Whitesville,” you’d call us racist.

 

Jiminy Crootz

Dude, seriously, Whitestown was just up the road from me on O.E. He was just mad that there ain’t no trees on the moon and it’s hard to hang one of us. Here in Blacktopia, I’m sorry, “First World” if that makes you feel better, I can pull out my phone and make a call rather than worry about being shot.

 

Randall A. McCarthy

We just wanted what was ours. And we were going to get it “by any means necessary” as you like to say. Everyone struts around with their chests puffed out like they’d done something spectacular. Even those back home started carrying themselves differently.

 

Nora Bradford

They just don’t know how to deal with people who are proud.

 

Randall A. McCarthy

You’re all tough talk and mean postures while you have your Mother Ship to hide behind. We wanted to see just how tough you were without it.

 

Nora Bradford

Astra also had a melancholy streak. One minute her spirits soared high and swept everyone around her up in its fervor. The next, like she flew into a dark cloud, she grew sullen and withdrawn. Depressed because the world doesn’t have to be that way. Possibilities were there. To see less, to fall so short, wore her spirit down.

 

Jiminy Crootz

She stopped talking to Lieutenant Commander Nutjob mid-interrogation. She got real quiet and turned away from him. You know the kind of quiet when clouds gather and darken and you know a storm is brewing? All she said was “You…you’ll ruin everything. Why? We just want to be at peace.”

 

Randall A. McCarthy

What makes you think you deserve peace? What makes you so special?

 

Jiminy Crootz

I don’t know why she bothered to spend any time trying to convince him of anything, but that was her way. She always believed that as long as she was dealing with someone old enough to reason, that should be her first recourse. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, even moreso since we’ve been here, is that you can’t reason with hate. Besides, if they got a foothold here, the first thing they’ll want is to get their own month.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

The Observatory was one of our chief sources of revenue. We worked with governments from around the planet to conduct research. The spirit of Harambee, “let’s pull together,” harnessed the power of selfishness as a way to turn around the crabs-in-a-bucket mentality. What benefits us all benefits the individual. It was similar to how we were governed by the Science Council. No political system per se, simply the brightest minds who had contributed the most rose in the ranks. The more they served, the more they were asked to lead.

 

Jiminy Crootz

I hated it whenever I had to go to the Observatory to deal with Dreamer, but we had to lay out the situation for the Science Council.

Rows of herbs hung about, their loamy scent tickled the back of my throat as if there was phlegm I wanted to cough up. Dreamer hobbled about the lab, tut-tutting to himself under his breath as he puttered about thinking. He didn’t get high to escape. He got high to expand his consciousness. That’s what he told himself. A tangle of dreads bobbed behind another bank of computers. When it rounded the corner, there was Dreamer wearing that damn mask he uses to communicate with Morpheus, which covered the top half of his face.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

I hate it when he calls me “Dreamer.”

 

Lesane Parish

I wasn’t one to shit on another person’s religion. My family traces its ties in the Cult of Tupac back to the prophet himself. We are all Dreamers. Of the line of George Clinton and Sun Ra and Earth, Wind, and Fire, Black cosmonauts in thought and deed, our prophets were taken from us too soon.

 

Jiminy Crootz

“California Love” plays whenever anyone enters one of their temples.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

The final war between God and the devil is to be fought in the sky.

They wanted the Mother Ship. All of this…such a waste. The Preppers and their like saw it as an armed, vengeful angel hovering over the moon, the planet. A masterpiece of mechanics and engineering, in the wrong hands, the greatest military weapon ever created. So of course we’d have nothing better to do with it than threaten white people. A strictly O.E. way of thinking. Lord have mercy.

 

Nora Bradford

If you’re taught hate and violence, marinated in it for generations, you end up with hate and violence.

 

Lesane Parish

The Mother Ship? I’ve never even seen it.

 

Jiminy Crootz

That’s some fairy tale nonsense they drum out whenever the Science Council is testing out tech they don’t want us knowing about. No, I’ve never even seen it.

 

Bro. Eric 12X Squared

I’ve never even seen it. I simply believe.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

They were planning on taking over the Mother Ship. The attack on the solar farm was only the first step. It wasn’t easy to detect, but the Preppers installed an electromagnetic hatch as a way to board it. The hatch acted as a gateway into the ship and held open, undetected, as long as the power remained intact. Its battery was the solar grid itself. Our EMF meter could detect the Mother Ship with it. So could theirs. An electromagnetic pulse might cripple it. We didn’t know how much time we had.

Once Astra laid out the situation, she was ready to go after them herself. A solo operation made sense. I knew that we could get her to the Mother Ship undiscovered. All we had to do was use the dishes at the Observatory to convert electricity into an electromagnetic field. We equipped her suit with special magnets with the same polarity. When she jumped, she’d come down, but the fields would catch her. Think of it like a wireless bungee jumper.

 

Nora Bradford

Often when we were together, I’d catch her just looking up at the stars. Dreaming. She had the words “I will breathe” tattooed on her scapula. She called me before she left. She had that half-wistful grin on her face. Right before she disconnected, she said, “I don’t trust the laws of physics that much.”

We faced reality head on. Astra was revolutionary. She dared to dream. She dared to speak. She dared to stand. Because “someone has to raise their voice,” she said. She was what we wanted our children to grow up and be. She was free.

 

Astra Black (aka Livinia Watson II, Science Police, Lt. Commander. Posthumous recipient of the Key of Life Award for meritorious service to her people) – jump suit transmission log

I’m on the Mother Ship. I’m monitoring their chatter. They’re having problems getting more than a small squad in. Morpheus has them locked out. Yes…now I need you to send me the codes to allow them full access.

[garbled message]

I know, I know. You need to trust me on this. I need as many of them on board as possible…no, I haven’t been compromised.

[long pause]

I’m tired, Jiminy. I have an idea to deal with them once and for all, but I need my partner’s help. No, not J-Croo. Not this time. You’re Senior Investigator Jiminy Crootz. I’ve always respected the name.

[garbled message]

I live now. In the moment. I am who I am today. Transmit the codes.

 

Dr. Hensley Morgan

Many believe that the white light we’re supposed to see at the moment of death was a desperate, dying brain’s electric last gasp. Synaptic death, a neural big bang before the final whimper. I don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know, I’m just not afraid to admit it. There was a white light. No sound, just impossible brightness, then like a hitched breath, the Mother Ship was gone. The last gasp was her downloading Morpheus into our systems.

 

Bro. Eric 12X Squared

There’s this phenomenon called the overwatch effect. Astronauts get it. Anyone who’s been in space, peered long and hard into the infinite nothingness and gain a sense of perspective. To see the earth, this ball of life, so precarious, bobbing in the blackness. You can’t see no boundaries between countries. Can’t see no religions. Can’t see no race. Only life. Fragile, fragile life.

 

Nora Bradford

Astra Black never set out to be a hero, but that was the thing about heroes. They were ordinary people who did the right thing in extraordinary circumstances. Sometimes all you need to do to be a hero was just stand up and be counted.

 

Lesane Parish

I think I loved her.

 

Jiminy Crootz

My father was in his early forties when President Barack Obama was elected president. Some people didn’t understand why people broke down and cried or why folks danced in the streets. Those people never had to worry about being excluded from a system or the feeling of being targeted by that same system. Those people never had to live under a government whose constitution saw them as 3/5 human. This was why the thought of a black president was the stuff of fairy tales. Not in my lifetime he told himself.

Not in my lifetime.

At night, I still look up at the sky out of habit. A part of me still wanting to look for her. Still feeling watched, even protected, by her. She was something many of us never thought we’d see in our lifetimes in light of our many tragic yesterdays: a hope of a better tomorrow.

About the Author

Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus

A community organizer and teacher, his work has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Weird Tales, Apex Magazine, Asimov’s, Cemetery Dance, Black Static, and many more. Some of his stories have been collected in The Voices of Martyrs. He wrote the urban fantasy trilogy, The Knights of Breton Court. He co-authored the play Finding Home: Indiana at 200. His novellas include Buffalo Soldier, I Can Transform You, Orgy of Souls, Bleed with Me, and Devil’s Marionette. He is the co-editor of Dark Faith, Dark Faith: Invocations, Streets of Shadows, and People of Colo(u)r Destroy Horror.

Find more by Maurice Broaddus

Maurice Broaddus
Elsewhere

About the Narrator

Stephanie Malia Morris

Stephanie Morris

Stephanie Malia Morris works in a bookstore by day and a library by night, which gives her access to more books than she can possibly read over several lifetimes. She is a recipient of the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Award and a graduate of the 2017 Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH, Apex, and Nightmare. She has narrated short fiction for StarShipSofa, Far Fetched Fables, Uncanny, and all four of the Escape Artists podcasts.

Find more by Stephanie Malia Morris

Stephanie Morris
Elsewhere