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art by Jeffrey Redmond

Reversals

M. Bennardo's short fiction has or will soon appear in Asimov's Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, and Shimmer. (He's also been published once before in Daily Science Fiction!) He is co-editor and co-publisher of the Machine of Death series of anthologies. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio, but people everywhere can reach him at mbennardo.com.
The birds are all screwed up this morning, and for a minute I'm distracted by a swirling flock of swallows that climbs and dives around and around in a crazy loop outside the window. Then I shake my head and say to Njoki again, "I don't want you leaving the house after school."
She gives me her scornful look and folds her arms. "I'm sixteen, mama."
"I don't care how old you are," I say. And I mean it, even though I can see the stubbornness of a woman in her--the stubbornness, in fact, of I woman I know very well, skeptical and willful and independent, not prone to quiet acquiescence to any authority as arbitrary as a mother. "There's a high radiation warning today, and I want you to stay inside."
"Why can't I be inside Marian's house?"
I shake my head. "How will you get there? Sometimes I don't think you think about things, Njoki."
These days are not easy for her, I know. The high elevation and equatorial position of Nairobi already means we're susceptible to the punishing radiation of the sun, especially with the weakening magnetic field--but today there is the added danger of solar flare activity.
Dark skin and youthful obstinacy are not enough to protect anybody from the slow build-up of carcinogens--and the scientists say this could last a thousand years or more, until the magnetic poles finish their reversal. This won't get any better in Njoki's lifetime.
"You're going out," Njoki says.
"I have to work," I say, suddenly tired of the argument. Ordinarily, I would telecommute on a day with a high radiation warning, but I need to be on-site to troubleshoot the servers. "I don't have any choice."
Early in the afternoon, when school is over, I find time to call home. I have to use a landline, of course--the solar radiation is frying all the cell towers today. When I was a girl, we thought landlines were quaint, an obsolete technology and a relic of old-fashioned times. Now, many days, they are the only thing that works.
That's how Njoki went to school today--through the cable modem. That's another difference from when I was a girl. Back then, they would have canceled classes. Today, they just tell the pupils to stay home and call in on videoconferencing connections. I know it must be even duller than ordinary school, without even the comfort of chatting with friends in the hall. For a moment, I feel kindly towards Njoki. It hasn't been easy for her.
But then the phone on the other end of the line rings for the eighth time and goes to voicemail. Now I'm angry, but I try to keep it out of my voice. Perhaps Njoki is in the bathroom or listening to music, but I don't believe it. I leave a message, telling her to call me right away.
I have to work late and call again at 1830, just before I leave. There is no return message on my voicemail--Njoki has not called me back. Again, the phone rings eight times and goes to voicemail. This time I hang up.
In the bathroom before I leave work, I catch sight of my face. My jaw is set like a sprung bear trap, my eyes glittering and hot. This is how I want to look--furious, outraged, insulted. I used to wear this face often with Njoki's father. He charmed me when I was young and stupid, but he proved insubstantial and unserious.
This was a face that he feared--a face he saw when I came home to find he had lost another job. I wasn't sure where he was now, but at least he wasn't in my house, making a fool out of me every day.
I buy a potato and lamb curry on the way home and lay out two portions on the kitchen table for dinner. But the house is dark and quiet, and the message light flashes on the phone. Listening to the voicemail, I hear only my own voice. Nothing from Njoki.
When I finish my dinner, I throw Njoki's in the garbage. Stepping outside, I look up at the sky. It's dark now--the radiation warning long since passed with the setting of the sun. The aurora equatalis shimmer in the sky above Nairobi, green-blue curtains of wispy light high above the city, a testament to just how weak the magnetic field has grown.
There are no true poles anymore at all now--no north pole and no south pole. Instead, they flip and change from day to day. Sometimes there are temporary shifting holes in the magnetic field, multiple poles sliding across the face of the globe, six or eight or more at a time. Compass needles are no longer to be relied upon, when the field is strong enough for them to work at all. We'll live through it, certainly, but for now it's chaos.
I go back inside the house and consider calling Marian's parents, or the parents of Njoki's other friends. But I cannot imagine asking any of them if they have seen my daughter. What they would think of me--how foolish I would look then. And if Njoki were with any of them, she would call. No, this is more than the usual teenaged thoughtlessness. Whether Njoki knows it or not, this is an act of secession.
Then suddenly I am in her bedroom. I don't recall making a decision or having any clear thought, but I am pulling clothes out of her closet and hurling them down the stairs to the hall below. I look around her room to see what she owns, but that is all there is. Clothes, clothes, clothes--and piles of shoes. I shovel the shoes into plastic garbage bags and haul them downstairs as well. I sit down angrily in the living room among Njoki's possessions and stare at the creeping hands of the grandfather clock.
After an hour, I feel almost foolish. Njoki thinks she is a woman--I know that. But equally, I know she is not one, not yet. Do I need to prove it to her like this? She's proud, like me. Do I need to break her pride in order to win her obedience? Sheepishly, I carry her clothes and shoes back up to her room again. I put the hangers back in the closet and pile the shoes underneath. But in the living room once more, there is still nothing to do but watch the hands of the clock.
Then the door clicks open and Njoki creeps into the darkened hallway. I stand and look at her, and a ray of pale moonlight falls across her face. I'm shocked by the change from this morning--not just the dried tears and smudged make-up, but utter youngness of her face. Somehow she has been transformed into almost a child before me.
Seeing me, she drops her handbag with a low cry, and then comes forward and clutches me in a tight hug. I'm bewildered and staggered, and all I can do is press her back. Where is the willful, scornful woman of this morning? Where did this clinging, sighing child come from? Another time, I might be ashamed of such total regression--but now I can only feel the painful beating of my own heart in my tightening chest.
I know, of course, the answer to the riddle. Njoki said it herself that morning--she is sixteen. As I hold her, I only hope, for both our sakes, that these changes and these reversals will take something less than a thousand years to complete.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 14th, 2012


The idea for this story first came to me several years ago while watching a science program on the strange phenomenon of Earth's north and south magnetic poles occasionally switching places. It's not well understood exactly what triggers these reversals, but they've recurred in the past at irregular intervals of anywhere from tens of thousands of years to ten million years or more. As it's been 780,000 years since the last reversal and as the magnetic field is currently weakening, the next flip could theoretically happen in the near future. (Or not! Significant fluctuations in field strength are normal.) Although scientists don't expect any catastrophes to accompany the next reversal, it seems to me that the period of change might nevertheless create some chaos and confusion for whoever is around for it.

- M. Bennardo

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