“Any House in the Storm” by Tais Teng
Nadia is six when the Dutch dunes break. Their villa stands on the very top of a hill, with the beach on the left and the skyscrapers of The Hague far to the right. Not that there is a single inch of that beach left. The sea looks black as ink, with every wave a roaring wall, topped by gray spume.
A new gust makes the wide panorama window bulge and suddenly the sea is rolling on both sides of the dunes. For a heartbeat the skyscrapers are reflecting in the water and then the lights go out. All the lights, even those in her own house. Only the blazing white moon is left and the streaming clouds.
Nadia stands with her mouth open. This is the most beautiful, the most thrilling thing she has ever seen. So wonderfully savage and lonely.
“Don’t stand in front of the window, you little idiot!” her mother screams. “Come here. Under our bed!”
The titanium frame of the bed proves to be exceedingly well-made. When two minutes later the windows shatter and the roof is sucked into the sky, no one is hurt.
Half an hour later the thrill is gone. The hurricane makes the bed shake and ice cold water comes streaming across the floor, soaks the mattress. Sand grinds between her teeth.
When I grow up I’ll build a really strong house for us, Nadia decides. One with unbreakable windows and walls that don’t just fall down with the first gust of wind. Then Mother will never call me a little idiot again.
Natural disasters have been uninsurable for a decade. Nadia and her parents are suddenly as poor as the other three million refugees. For two years Nadia lives on the ninth floor of an apartment building where the elevator doesn’t work and hot showers are something from a former life. Nadia knows exactly where she is: just another camp, as wretched as any in Africa, with tents made of concrete this time. Not a place where people should live.
In high school Nadia’s design for a hurricane-proof house wins the second prize of the Building for the Future contest. Her house is a geodesic dome with a frame of supple titanium, anchored with carbon fiber cables and windows of cultured diamond. Even in the fiercest winter storms it will just stand there swaying, like the toughest soap-bubble ever, and always right itself.
The buried accumulators hold energy for at least three months and her desalinator could suck a carafe of sparkling water even out of Dead Sea sludge. Just you try, the house seemed to urge. I can stand any Hot House trick the world can play. I am deeply high-tech, completely up-to-date.
Rachid, a boy from her own class, god forbid! wins the first prize. His house huddles fearfully beneath a dune, with a roof of layered sod and walls of rammed earth. Only the door is visible.
“What we liked most in this concept,” the jury concluded, “is its very simplicity. This way even the poorest family can build their own house, for a price that is as close to free as it ever gets.”
A hobbit-hole, Nadia thinks, full of contempt. Something fit only for a Peter Rabbit. How could the jury ever take serious such hodge-podge? Take that laughable fragile windmill on the roof. The very first winter storm would snap it like a rotted reed.
That evening she sees her herself on the News-net, shaking Rachid’s hand, congratulating him. Such a stupid goofy smile and my hair looks horrible. I hate him! Hate him! She almost weeps across her screen to unfriend him, but she snatches her hand back. Rachid is the only pupil in her class she can talk to. The only one who understands building the ultimate perfect house. They are condemned to each other, like a born-again Christian and a Muslim in a land filled with wretched atheists.
On the Eindexamenfeest, the Dutch Prom, she somehow ends up hand in hand with Rachid in the deserted school-yard. In the sky hangs the same cold moon of the night that the dunes broke. Nadia must have drunk too much Bacardi Cola because she is suddenly kissing him. For two, three seconds he is kissing back and then he steps away, lets go of her hand.
“I…” he stammers.
“Yes?” She looks up at him. For a glorious moment everything seems possible. It is this full moon, she thinks. The Moon has still something to make up for.
He suddenly steps back, almost recoils, then strides away with strangely stiff steps.
Nadia feels a wave of icy anger, balls her fists. I should have known. Somebody who wants to build such wretched houses of course doesn’t understand the first thing about kissing.
That night she dreams that Rachid kissed her back and that they rode to the beach on their Segways. They looked hand in hand at the waves rolling in. Nothing else happened and Nadia felt just happy, uncomplicated happy.
The next morning she removes him from all her social lists and blocks him. She has to dig deep in her history, all the way back to Habbo Hotel.
Nadia stands on the edge of the construction pit and the whole world seems made out of sparkling sunlight and endlessly wide. After all these years they have finally started: the biggest arcology of Europe. The Belle van Zuylen is already half a mile high and grows every day forty more meters. When the Belle is finished, it will overtop anything Dubai and China have raised in the sky. A solar chimney forms the core, sucking in air, lifting it for more two miles to drive a hundred turbines. The apartments hang from cables of twisted bucky-tubes, free to move and thus proof to any hurricane or earthquake. Above that super-tower a wheel of gliders will rotate, an Ockel’s windmill that reaches all the way to the stratosphere. On the roofs of the apartments she now sees the first date palms and olive trees growing.
“It is just too fucking big,” a voice comes from behind her. “Hooking up so much high-tech, it has to go wrong.”
Rachid has grown a stupid pencil-thin mustache, like some Wild West cardsharp, and his nose looks bigger than ever.
“Go wrong? Hah, the Belle is as solid as the pyramids! And a lot more useful. Stone and sand are dead stuff. The Belle is alive: every microsecond her computers are adjusting the cables. They react to every gust and sun ray.”
“The very best architecture melts into the landscape,” Rachid argues. “You use what is already there. Water, sand and clay. The wind and the waves.”
“The Belle had been constructed from ceramics, carbon fiber and diamond. It all comes from right here.” She stamps on the ground. “Do you remember the Hot House effect? Diamond and carbon fiber, the nano-spheres, they are made from the very air. The people are extracting so much carbon that experts are starting to mutter about a new ice age. Carbon dioxide is getting rare. Something precious.”
“The hurricanes are still howling. All the coral reefs are dead.”
“We’ll invent something to set that right. The fishes came back, didn’t they? By the way, what are you doing nowadays? Did you go to the university like you wanted? To study construction?
“Who wants half a million euro study debt? I started my own firm. A short time ago I designed a cabin for the UNESCO. It condenses its own water with a dew trap and you cook all your food with a solar oven. Everything is made from local materials.”
“Funny that you mention the UNESCO. They asked me for a cabin, too. A floating cabin, as high-tech as it gets. Diamond floaters, filled with vacuum. For all those palm tree islands that are drowning. With my cabins they no longer needs islands. They farm fishes and seaweed and there are more people living there than ever.”
“Interesting, but with my cabins those camps have suddenly turned into villages. Prosperous villages.”
Rachid is still as bad as before, Nadia understands. It doesn’t matter what I say: he’ll try to outdo me or call my design wasteful, technocratic. Nadia produces a smile that hurt the corners of her mouth. “So nice to have seen you again.”
It is very satisfactory to be the one who walks away without looking back this time.
In the metro car she googles him on her iPhone223 Classic. Rachid must have used his inheritance to build an ecological model house. It looks suspiciously like his very first design: a sloping hill overgrown with boosted rye-grass and flowering stonewort. Though it looks spacious, even comfortable, it is still just a hole in the ground. It is beyond her why he needs all those ponds.
She studies his designs, as intent as any general pondering the maneuvers of his opponent. Seven designs already and a whole lot of prizes and nominations. It doesn’t matter, all are given by tree-huggers and Back-to-Earthers. What do they know?
Nadia’s window in the Belle van Zuylen would put the magic mirror of Snow White’s stepmother to shame. It knows a thousand high-tech tricks and is so interactive that it almost seems alive. A finger-thick sandwich of vapor-deposited diamond forms the substrate: the outer coating is transparent to visible light but stops all infrared. It is the same trick that kept the towers of Dubai so pleasantly cool without the slightest whisper of air conditioning. Other layers boast polarized filters to guard her privacy or turn her window into a 3D screen.
Spreading her fingers she zooms in on the islands in front of the coast. A mighty mangrove forest roots into the sandbanks. They will stop every tsunami. No high tide hurricane will ever break the Dutch dunes again.
Electricity meanwhile is too cheap to meter: every window is covered by clear solar cells that are a lot more effective than your old-fashioned chlorophyll.
“If you want any eggs sunny side up for your breakfast tomorrow…” the freezer pipes up.
“I know. I know. I’ll take….”
The window turns an urgent blood-red, starts to blink.
“There is a message for you,” the house says. “Highest priority. Triple A.”
“What do you mean, triple A? Is the building falling down?”
“A potential client. He was in last year’s Forbes list of billionaires. Do you want to take the call?”
“From a Forbes person? Of course!”
A moment of blackness and the man steps from the window in glorious 3D, sits down in Nadia’s favorite chair. He wears a parade-uniform with rows and rows of medals. Star-bursts and Maltese crosses, leering skulls and sheaves of grain.
“Laba diena, ponia Nadia Becker,” he gibbers and then the translation software cuts in. “My name sounds Linas the Fourth, grand duke of Riga. Ich have eine honorable Vorschlach for you, leading to successful profit both of us.”
Save me from low-tech hicks that insist on their own translation-ware, Nadia thinks. “I am all ears,” she says. Ay, I hope his program works better in the other direction. “Uh, please tell me?”
“I make social houses for humble citizen-subjects, Frau Becker. Contest for house building, eh? You are one of the selected candidates. Prize for winning design to the number of two million euro-dollar and the title of Great Master Builder of Greater Lithuania. With lots more commissions.”
Nadia almost whoops. All too eager is always a bad idea. “That certainly sounds interesting. Who are the other candidates?”
“One only. Herr Cernik. Rachid Cernik.”
“Count me in.” It is almost humanitarian to enter the contest when Rachid is the only other candidate. Before you know it those poor Lithuanians would be living in mud hovels. “When do you want my preliminary concept?”
“Tomorrow. And nicht only blue lines on paper. I have no use for bulging cloud-castles. You have to build your house right on the site. With your own hands. Build the best house you can, your most dazzling dream. There is no Second Prize.” The hologram winks out.
“Wait!” Nadia calls. “Where should I…”
“He left a place and a time,” the house says.
“This is madness! To find a contractor in a single day, get building supplies. And he seems to think it normal that I start without an advance.”
“Everything a client asks is doable. That is what you always said.”
The building-site is as dismal as it ever gets: a meadow under a drizzling gray sky. Also, the grand duke proves to be a head shorter than Nadia, who isn’t exactly tall herself. Not so good: those pint-sized Napoleons always turn out to be the most difficult clients.
“Your lots,” the grand duke barks and strides across the wet grass, makes a sharp turn to the right. “I’ll pace out your parcels.” Each heel-print turns into a day-glow orange spot.
Fifty by fifty meters, Nadia estimates. That is huge for just a one-family home. She herself is already quite happy with her twenty square meters. Land must be incredibly cheap in Greater Lithuania.
“Now you start,” he orders. “You have until sunset.”
Nadia doesn’t try anything too ambitious. A dome with two floors, thermal storage in a zeolite layer underground. The same kind of standard windows as her own apartment. She point her remote and the truck unloads a dozen 3D printers. The biggest has the size of a folding caravan and the smallest is no bigger than her fist.
At least Rachid is no longer wearing that stupid mustache. And that good for nothing thought of carrying an umbrella. He has always been more practical than I, more organized, even if he loves to slug through the mud.
“We were ordered to build the house personally,” Nadia protests, “with our own hands! Rachid, Mister Cernik, he brought along a dozen workmen. That is against the rules!”
“Is good,” the grand duke nods. “In every village a righteous man has uncles and nephews. To help build.”
In the afternoon Rachid has produced a deep muddy hole, several hundred bales of pressed straw, a tank filled with liquid clay. On Nadia’s parcel the 3D printers have woven a man-high stack of diamond plates, ceramic pipes and flapping sheets of aerogel.
Nadia looks at her own palms, at her chipped nails and the blisters on her fingertips. This is bizarre, she thinks, an architect designs houses, she doesn’t build them herself. But it feels right somehow: only if you use your own hands, can you ever call a house your own.
When the sun drops behind the roof-gardens of the skyscrapers, Nadia is just gluing the last sheet of diamond. The water pump starts with a gulp, then settles down to a drone. She steps back: her house glows like an enormous ruby, with every facet reflecting the last sunlight.
Rachid’s house meanwhile is no more than a bulge in the landscape, with a light well in the middle. Ponds surround the house, each with its own wind-mill.
The grand-duke folds his arms. “Winter in my Lithuania it gets so cold the snowman, he shivers. In summer the mosquitoes fall down and sizzle.” He turns to Nadia, lifts an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“Well, in summer my house pumps water around to cool itself. The water is stored underground and comes up in winter, still hot. Also the walls are aerogel with a protective sheath of diamond. Aerogel is lighter than air and insulates like nobody’s business. It a really cheap kind of foam. With a bucket of ingredients you can insulate a whole house.”
“And you, Herr Cernik?”
“To start with, my house was build underground, with thick walls of honest straw and loam. The loam is doped with nano-particles that make it completely waterproof. Even a thunder shower won’t dislodge a single grain. Underground it is a constant seven degrees. Cool in summer and thanks to the insulation easy to heat.”
“Good. Another point,” the grand-duke says. “Drinking water. Half the wars are about drinking water nowadays.”
“My ponds,” Rachid says. “My house only needs a dozen bathtubs worth of water. All your dishwater streams first through the ponds with sand and pebbles. Next is algae, fishes and reeds. In the end you just open your tap. Clean drinking water. By the way, my fishes and algae are quite tasty.”
“How about your house, madame?”
“The solar cells in the windows pump all water through smart filters and it doesn’t matter if it starts dirty or brackish. Even industrial sludge is fine.”
The grand-duke strides through both houses, turns taps, knocks on walls. When he is finished, it is completely dark outside.
“So sorry,” the grand-duke says, “this isn’t what I was looking for. Both of the houses have their good points. The rug of living grass in Herr Cernik’s home, the view from madam’s window and free hot showers all year long. But I can’t stick my subjects underground like moles, now can I? And windows with twenty thousand channels are not a good idea. In Riga we have one government channel with the state opera and my fine speeches and the rest is foreign rubbish.”
Their gazes intersect and suddenly it is like before for Nadia. She and Rachid are the only smart ones in a classroom filled with idiots who don’t have the slightest idea what is truly important.
“Just tell us what you like in both of these houses,” Nadia says, “and we’ll combine them. Put your dream house together.” She doesn’t dare to look in Rachid’s direction. Please, oh, please don’t spoil this. We’ll never get a chance like this again.
Rachid slowly nods. “For Cernik & Vermeer the customer is king.”
“I didn’t know you were working together,” the grand-duke says. “Right, we start again.”
A house with walls made of straw and a roof like a soap-bubble: Nadia jots down the wishes of the grand-duke. In a circle of fish-ponds. OK, with windmills. It doesn’t matter, as long as it weathers a storm. She suddenly notices that she is walking hand in hand with Rachid. She doesn’t feel the slightest urge to ever let go of that hand.
About the Author
Tais Teng is a Dutch sf writer and illustrator with the quite unpronounceable name of Thijs van Ebbenhorst Tengbergen, which he shortened to Tais Teng.
In his own language he’s written about everything from radio-plays to hefty fantasy trilogies. To date he’s sold about twenty-five stories in the English language and one novel, The Emerald Boy. Most recently the Night Land site ran his novella “And the Sky is Filled with Eyes”, while Perihelion sf published his story “Respect of Headwaiters”.