Light into the Abyss
by Sarena Ulibarri
Who comes to a solar café on a rainy day?” Mia complained. A van had just pulled into one of the charging stations in front of the restaurant.
“Chin up, customer service face on,” Hailey chirped, already on her way to the kitchen. “See, I told you it was worth opening up today.”
“No, you told me it would be a free day to work on my mural.” Mia plunked her paintbrush into the water cup with a pout. Three young people—only slightly older than herself—entered the restaurant. “Be right with you!” she shouted as she quickly rolled the whole art station into the back.
Through the kitchen door’s porthole window, Mia watched them choose a seat. To her chagrin, they bypassed the couches and chose the table directly beneath her unfinished mural, which meant Mia wouldn’t be able to work on it again until after they left. She tossed her paint-covered apron away and grabbed a clean one.
Carrying a tray of glass teapots and cups, Mia burst out of the swinging kitchen door, wearing a practically maniacal smile.
“Hi! Welcome to Sunbaked Solar Café.”
None of them said a word or even made eye contact. They looked…hungover? Dead-tired, anyway. Though they definitely weren’t regulars, they looked vaguely familiar, especially the tall, dark-haired one with a “she/her” pin on her suspenders. Most of the Sunbaked clientele were older folx who came to gab with their friends, or local writers who’d set up camp at a corner table for several hours. People who didn’t mind the slow pace of a solar cooked meal.
She set the glass tea set on the table, along with a choice of three tins of loose-leaf tea.
“I’m sorry to tell you our menu is very limited today,” Mia explained. “We don’t have a regular commercial kitchen, you see. All of our hot dishes are slow-cooked in our rooftop parabolic hot boxes, which is a zero-carbon, zero-fuel method that leaves food juicier and keeps more nutrients intact, but…” She gestured toward the rain-splashed window beside the mural. “It, uh, requires the sun. But we can offer plenty of cold dishes, fresh from our in-house organic garden. Gazpacho, and salads, and sandwiches.”
The dark-haired woman stared at Mia for a long moment, eyes bloodshot and heavy eyeliner smeared across her temple. The other two remained equally stoic.
Mia fidgeted with her apron string. “I’ll, uh, just let you take a look at the menu.”
“I need caffeine,” the woman said before Mia could turn away, “and food. I don’t much care what, so long as it’s not meat.”
Mia slid two of the tea tins toward her. “These ones are caffeinated. Whenever you decide on food, just tap in your order here—” Mia pointed to the screen embedded in the table. All the café’s usual stews, casseroles, and rice pot options were crossed out, but Hailey had added a couple of options even in the last couple of minutes. “On a positive note, anything you order today should be out quickly.”
Mia fled back to the kitchen. “So awkward,” she groaned. “Hey, why’d the music stop?”
Hailey was mixing some red wine vinegar into the gazpacho pot. She set the bottle down and tapped the kitchen tablet. “Looks like the internet’s down. Is it flooding again?”
Mia peered out the window at the muddy street, but Hailey said, “No, I mean by the coast.”
“Probably,” Mia said. “When is it not?” She tapped aggressively at her phone, unable to load her news app. After a moment, she gave up and shoved her phone into her apron pocket. “How come the city floods, and we get cut off?”
She hadn’t meant it as a real question, but Hailey had an answer. “It’s all the fiber optic cables. They’re underground, so they get damaged and corroded by the water.”
“Good job,” Mia snarked. “Really stellar design.”
Hailey raised her hands as if in surrender. “Hey, I’m a restaurant owner, not a telecom technician. At least we’re far enough from the coast we don’t have to worry about the storm surges.”
“Aside from filtering the salt out of our tap water,” Mia said.
“Are you going to put some new music on, or just complain all day?”
“Ugh!” Mia threw her hands up in a dramatic display. Hailey chuckled.
While Hailey trimmed ingredients from the kitchen’s LED-lit aquaponics setup, Mia connected her phone to the speaker system via Bluetooth and put on her favorite band, Light Into the Abyss.
“Oh!” She stared at the album cover on her screen.
“It’s them!” Mia slapped a hand over her mouth, terrified that her outburst had been audible through the wall. No wonder they’d looked familiar. She’d downloaded all their albums and gone to several of their shows. Their music was all about justice for climate refugees and environmental restoration, themes Mia strived to capture in her art as well.
“See?” Hailey said as she sliced a red pepper. “And if you’d stayed home today, you would have missed out on meeting them.”
“Meeting them? They probably already hate me!”
Mia fumbled the phone and stuffed it into her apron with shaking hands. Was it weird to play their music while they were in the restaurant? She reached to change it—but wouldn’t it be weirder to put it on, then suddenly turn it off? She pulled the phone out again, then put it back.
“I don’t know why you’re so nervous,” Hailey said. “I thought all your friends were artists and musicians.”
“Yes, but these are real musicians.” Mia was immediately glad none of her friends were there to hear the implication. “I mean, they’re a big deal! They played at that huge protest in New York. They’re the voice of my generation. How would you have felt at my age if the…I don’t know, The Beatles had sat down at one of your tables?”
“The Beatles?” Hailey smirked. “Okay, A—we need to have a long chat about how old you apparently think I am. And B—relax! They’re just people!”
“They’re not people, they’re rock stars, they’re brilliant artists, they’re important, they’re—”
Hailey set two shallow bowls on the tray, gazpacho sloshing against the rim. “They’re hungry.”
“What…what is this?”
Hailey placed a cold eggplant sandwich next to the soups. “It’s what they ordered. They submitted it just before the internet went down.”
Mia spun in a circle, grabbing at her hair. “Okay! Okay.” She left the music playing and carried the tray out to the table, trying not to hyperventilate.
Now that she realized, she couldn’t believe she hadn’t recognized them right away. The lead singer, Ryder, slouched in her chair, furiously scribbling in a small paper notebook. The drummer, Santiago, had a turquoise bandana over the locs that usually flung about wildly while he played. Jade, who played bass, keyboard, and bassoon, was dressed in a utilikilt and flannel shirt, and looked the most different without their usual extravagant makeup.
Mia managed not to spill the food or break anything. A miracle! She also managed not to say anything awkward or embarrassing—a second miracle!
Until Ryder pointed to the unfinished mural on the wall and asked, “Are you the artist?”
“Huh?” Mia clattered the third bowl awkwardly in front of Santiago. Fortunately, this one was a salad and not the gazpacho, so nothing spilled. “Yeah…yeah. I mean, it’s not done, obviously. And the top part came out pretty bad. It’s all bad. We’ll probably wallpaper over it. Sorry you had to see it.” So much for miracle number three.
Ryder lifted a hand, chewing a bite of sandwich. “Hey, no, I get the whole being your own worst critic thing. I was just going to say I thought it was pretty cool. Seems like an ambitious project.”
“Really?” Mia couldn’t help the grin that spread across her face. “Ambitious. I mean, yeah, it’s gotta be epic if it’s going to be meaningful, right? I know it’s just a restaurant wall in the middle of nowhere, but I’m going for that timeless, universal appeal. Art only matters when it says something about the whole world, you know? So there will be a section to represent everything, and…”
Ryder and Jade shared a look that made Mia’s heart drop. She was talking too much, again. They were rock stars, she was nobody. She should just walk away now before she made an even bigger fool of herself.
As she started to do just that, lightning flashed through the front window.
No, not lightning. Red and blue flashes. Two police cars flanked the band’s van.
All three were instantly on their feet. Ryder grabbed Mia’s shoulder. “Is there a back door?”
Mia flung her arm in the direction of the kitchen, but it was too late. The front door crashed open.
“Hi! Welcome to Sunbaked—” Mia started automatically.
A cop barked, “Freeze!” and all three band members reluctantly stopped in their tracks. The cop had a hand on their gun, but it remained undrawn. Mia’s heart thudded and she swallowed thickly. Slowly and carefully, Mia slipped a hand into her apron pocket to withdraw her phone. She’d always been told to livestream any police interactions she was nearby, but with the internet down, recording it with the camera app would have to do.
“What is going on?” Hailey burst out of the kitchen and stopped short.
Two more police officers entered and the three members of Light Into the Abyss were led out in handcuffs. Mia kept filming through the window until the car they’d been loaded into drove off. Then she slumped heavily onto one of the empty couches, staring at the unfinished meals below her unfinished mural and listening to the heavy rain outside, wondering what the hell had just happened.
A couple of hours later, Mia carried food scraps out to the composter. The rain had let up to only a light drizzle by then, though clouds still obscured the sun.
Mia looked up from the composter to see Ryder peeking out from behind the storage shed.
“Hey!” Mia said, surprised. “They towed the van. If that’s what you’re coming back for. I don’t know where they took it.”
“Yeah.” Ryder slouched toward Mia with hands in her pockets. “It’s okay, our lawyer’s already on it. No, I just wanted to come back to make sure we paid.”
“I know how much it sucks when a customer runs out. I used to work in a place like this. Well, not quite like this.” Ryder swept a hand up at the parabolic solar cookers just visible beyond the rooftop staircase. “But a family-owned restaurant, anyway.”
“Really?” Mia was still starstruck, but Hailey was right—Ryder was just a person, after all, with a backstory not too different from her own.
“Yeah,” Ryder said. “So, can I give you money? It’s going to keep bothering me.” She tick-tocked her phone back and forth. The screen showed a large “C” stylized to look like a tree: the symbol of a cryptocurrency that was backed by carbon reductions.
“Oh! Of course. I’m so glad you’re okay, I was afraid—” Mia opened the back door, then smacked a hand to her forehead. “The internet! It’s been down all day. I don’t know if we can take card or crypto with it down.”
“You can make a hotspot, right?”
“Let’s see if I can figure it out,” Mia said. “Come inside?”
Ryder followed her into the kitchen. Mia sat on a stool and messed with her phone until she got a hotspot to activate and figured out how to connect the kitchen tablet to it. Ryder ran a hand through her wet hair and inspected the mason jars full of dried and canned ingredients lining the kitchen walls.
“So,” Mia said as she logged onto the rarely used cryptocurrency converter app. “Can you tell me what’s going on? Or—” She lowered her voice dramatically. “—if you tell me you’ll have to kill me?”
Ryder didn’t laugh, just tugged absently at one of her suspenders while she stayed facing the mason jars. After a moment, she looked over her shoulder at Mia with a raised eyebrow.
“Have you heard of Plastic Island?”
Mia thought about the name. Was it something referenced in one of their songs, or the name of a similar band? If she said she hadn’t heard of it, would Ryder think she wasn’t a true fan? But then it came to her: “Wait, do you mean the big garbage patch in the ocean? Where plastic waste gets caught up in ocean currents, or something, right? It’s not really an island, but it’s big enough it looks like one.”
“It’s related to that.” Ryder leaned her elbows back against the counter, facing Mia now. “One of the companies that’s been cleaning up the patches, they had a big ocean barge full of plastic waste that got hit by a storm. It shipwrecked onto this island that used to be a vacation area for rich people.”
“Near here?” Mia asked. The idea of rich people vacationing on an island sounded so antiquated. Not that she knew any rich people, but she figured they’d head for the mountains. They’d head inland, anyway, far from the destructive lick of the rising seas.
Ryder flapped a hand vaguely toward the north. “About fifty miles up the coast. It’s not really there anymore. Just a few rocks sticking up, some ruins of houses. Anyway, this ocean cleanup company went bankrupt, so they never retrieved the barge, and the island was abandoned, so no one ever demanded it be moved. And it’s just been growing and growing as a site of illegal dumping. It’s gotten big. Bigger than we had any idea.”
“Gross,” Mia said. “Reminds me of the bottle factory here.”
Mia squirmed. “Oh. It’s nothing. There used to be a plastic bottle factory just outside town. It closed years ago, and they were supposed to convert it into a recycling center, I guess? But it never happened. It’s just been sitting there for years, all filled with trash. Kids around here are always daring each other to break into it. I’ve been in a couple of times. Did some graffiti there.”
“Huh.” Ryder stared into space.
“Sorry,” Mia said. “Back to your story. So, Plastic Island?”
“Yeah.” Ryder seemed to zip back to the present moment. “We were going to do our next music video out there. Just film it on our phones, real raw, use it to draw attention to the problem, you know?”
“Like you did with the desalination protests.”
Mia blushed, feeling like she’d just proven True Fan status.
“We made it to the island,” Ryder continued. “And we saw something.” She tapped the cryptocurrency app to complete the transaction they’d both practically forgotten about. Then she swiped the app away and sat on the stool next to Mia, pulling up a video. The footage was shaky, blurred by rain. Some kind of vehicle cruised past the island of trash, and then the video started over again.
“What am I looking at here?” Mia asked.
“That—” Ryder paused the video, zooming in on the boat. “—is a waste management boat. An official municipal one. And it’s dropping off, not picking up. See, everything that’s been publicized about the growth of Plastic Island blames ‘irresponsible people,’ as if it’s a bunch of anti-recycling fanatics using it as their own personal landfill. But it’s not. It’s overflow from government facilities.” Ryder swiped the video away. “Anyway, we tripped some kind of alarm while we were out there. We got away, and once we got back to shore, we drove until the van ran out of charge. That’s how we ended up here.”
“You’re going back, though, right?”
Ryder shrugged. “Can’t. Right now, we just have to pay some fines for trespassing. But if we go back to the island, it’ll be a lot more serious. So we can’t tell that story the way we wanted to.”
“Too bad,” Mia said. “Ooh, what if you use a drone? Get some good aerial shots, then zoom out, show the garbage patch too, the whole ocean, really show the whole huge scale of the problem. It would be epic.”
Ryder’s face scrunched in that same way it had the first time Mia had used that word, talking about her plans for the mural.
“Our work is never about zooming out, though. That just overwhelms people, it doesn’t inspire them. The bigger the scale, the more it feels like someone else’s problem.”
Ryder stood up and fixed Mia with a penetrating gaze. “You’re wrong about the mural, you know.”
The criticism and sudden change in subject left Mia gaping, speechless for possibly for the first time in her life.
“You don’t need to try to tell the story of the entire world,” Ryder said. “One island or one building can have the story of the whole world wrapped up in it.”
Mia blinked rapidly, all the persistent insecurities she had about her art boiling up, that sense that she’d never create anything truly meaningful threatening to crush her like one of those discarded plastic bottles. One building… Then she gasped, understanding at least a piece of what Ryder was saying.
“Is your equipment still impounded?” Mia paced the kitchen now, already scrolling her contacts for everyone she might be able to ask for a favor. “I have friends with instruments and amps, all of that. I’m sure they’re not the quality you’re used to, but I can convince everyone to let you use them.”
No one believed Mia’s story, but they showed up anyway, hauling drums and guitars and effects boards down to the abandoned, graffiti-covered factory.
Dominic handed Mia some equipment through the broken basement window and then slid in after.
“Did you find a bassoon?” she asked. It was what made the signature sound of Light Into the Abyss, what really set them apart. Without it, they were doomed to a paltry imitation.
Dominic lifted a case much too small to be a bassoon and opened it to reveal an oboe. “Hayden’s little sister gave us this?”
“Close enough. Or is it? Maybe. I don’t know. Definitely not.” Mia drooped. The rain had picked up again, pattering on the factory roof. She checked her phone. She’d sent Ryder the location, but had heard nothing since they parted ways. What if the band didn’t show up, and she’d dragged all her friends out here for nothing?
They hooked up some salt batteries, still charged from yesterday’s bright sun, and a string of lights glowed to life. Dominic draped them over the disabled machines. He switched on the amp and gave his electric guitar a strum, eliciting cheers and whoops from the dozen locals hanging around. About a dozen more showed up, and the pleasantly bitter scent of weed smoke began to overpower the sour, chemical smell of the trash.
Then her phone buzzed and Mia jumped to her feet.
“They’re here, they’re here!” she shrieked as she raced to meet Light Into the Abyss outside and lead them through the broken basement window.
Everyone applauded when the band arrived on the factory floor, but Ryder hardly paid attention to the tiny audience. She walked up to one of the bales of compressed plastic, gave it a kick to test its sturdiness, and then jumped on top of it.
“Oh yeah, this is disgusting,” she said, the plastic creaking beneath her shoes. “It’ll work perfectly.”
Using the plastic bales as a makeshift stage, Light Into the Abyss played a previously unheard song while the footage they’d filmed at Plastic Island projected onto the factory wall behind them. At the request of this pop-up concert crowd, they played two other songs off their last album—the oboe sufficed after all—and then everyone gratefully agreed they needed to get the heck out of the smelly place.
“Come over to Sunbaked!” Mia suggested, and most of them did.
Mia let everyone in the back door of Sunbaked Solar Café and raided the tea stash, bringing out hot water and mugs for all. Hailey would understand, wouldn’t she? It didn’t matter; Mia would work some free shifts if Hailey needed her to make up for what she was giving away. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Santiago and Ryder plugged in the instruments again and invited the locals to jam. Jade collected the footage from everyone who had filmed the performance, and then sat on the couch with a laptop. Mia nestled beside and watched the magic as Jade stitched together the various different angles, along with the footage from Plastic Island and the video of the band’s arrest that Mia had taken earlier that day. They had the studio recording of the song, so it turned out that the borrowed instruments and terrible acoustics of the factory made no difference at all.
Around two in the morning, Jade shouted, “Internet’s back up!”
Ryder and Santiago paused their jam session and everyone who had stuck around that late turned to Jade. They stood up from the couch and held their phone aloft in a ceremonial position. They spun their other arm a few times like a baseball pitcher and then pressed a finger to the screen. “And…uploaded!”
“What the hell happened last night?” Hailey asked.
Mia blinked awake, realizing she’d fallen asleep on the Sunbaked couch. She sat up with a sharp intake of breath and looked around. The restaurant wasn’t trashed, but it certainly wasn’t clean the way Hailey would want it to be for the day’s first customers. She scrambled to her feet and started collecting mugs.
“The band came back.” She told Hailey all about Plastic Island and the bottle factory and the music video. “For one night, we transformed that terrible place into something special. It was…” She stopped herself before she used the word “epic.”
After they cleaned up, Hailey prepped the day’s specials and Mia carried pots up to the roof, placing them in their stands in the center of the parabolic reflectors. She picked up a stray plastic bottle, wondering how it had gotten onto the restaurant’s roof.
Yesterday’s storm had cleared and the sun was already bright and hot. The previous night seemed like a strange dream, with nothing more than a social media tag to prove Mia had anything to do with it.
By mid-morning, Mia was getting agitated. She kept checking the video, and the band’s social media. The new video was getting some attention, but it was all the usual commenters and music critics and environmental activist groups. One even criticized the video for lack of vision, because “everyone already knows about Plastic Island.”
“Everyone does not know,” Mia grumbled, leaning against the door next to the composter. She hadn’t known until yesterday. Even the band members hadn’t known the scale of the problem until they’d taken a boat out there. This new video was supposed to be a way to let everyone know.
Hailey opened the back door. “Mia, this new table’s been waiting for a while now.”
Mia looked up at the sky with an exaggerated “Ugh!” Everyone who came into the restaurant was just going about their usual business and she was stuck climbing up and down from the roof, serving casseroles and sunbaked pizzas as if it were any other day. Why wasn’t everyone angry and inspired? Didn’t they know that everything had changed?
This was big, this was world-altering, this was—
Only, no, it wasn’t. It was an abandoned bottle factory in a small town. It was a sunken island off of a flooded coast. It was a solar café on a rainy day. It wasn’t big, not at all. And that, Mia suddenly understood, was exactly why it mattered to her.
Mia charged inside, brushing past Hailey.
“What are you doing?” Hailey asked.
Mia ignored her and tapped at the kitchen tablet, minimizing the list of orders Hailey was working on. A moment later, the sound of the new Light Into the Abyss song blasted through the entire restaurant. Every table screen that normally showed the menu now played the music video instead. As she watched the video this time, Mia thought about how change could happen in an instant, like the slice of a knife, and how sometimes it took a while, like a slow-cooked meal.
Hailey frowned, but she stood there and watched the video in its entirety. “Happier now?” she asked Mia once it finished and the menus returned to the screens.
“Closer,” Mia said. She carried a tray of teas out to greet the new table. “Welcome to Sunbaked Solar Café!” she said as she set their cups in front of them. “Did you know that video was filmed last night at the abandoned bottle factory outside of town?”
By afternoon, the online discourse had gained enough momentum to produce a petition for federal investigation of recycling fraud and a class-action lawsuit against several cities near Plastic Island. Mia talked about the video with everyone who came into the restaurant and encouraged them to donate to the ocean cleanup fundraiser Light Into the Abyss had linked. After a while, the customers started talking to each other instead, and by early evening, the Sunbaked Solar Café had turned into an informal town hall meeting, with several dozen locals seriously discussing what they could do to either demolish the bottle factory or revamp the plan to turn it into a recycling center. People lingered in the café long after the last dish was served.
“You should head out,” Mia told Hailey when she started to become impatient. “I’ll stay.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Mia said. “Besides, I still need to work on that mural.”
Hailey went home for the day and Mia dragged out her art supplies, taking another look at the mural she’d started a few days before.
She glanced over her shoulder at the scene behind her, a multigenerational group arguing and brainstorming how to clean up an old mess. One island or one building can tell the story of the whole world, Ryder had said. That certainly seemed true in this moment. Mia turned back to the mural, imagining a different vision than the epic sprawl she’d planned. But fortunately, she didn’t need to wipe it all away and start over. She could work in the changes right around what was already there.
Sarena Ulibarri (she/her) is a speculative fiction writer and editor currently living in the American Southwest. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed, DreamForge, and GigaNotoSaurus, as well as anthologies such as And Lately, the Sun, Biketopia: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction in Extreme Futures, and Worlds of Light and Darkness. She edited the anthologies Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers (2018) and Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Winters (2020), and co-edited Multispecies Cities: Solarpunk Urban Futures (2021). Another Life, a solarpunk novella set in a Death Valley commune, will be released by Stelliform Press in 2023. Find more at www.SarenaUlibarri.com or follow her on Twitter @sarenaulibarri.