A solar panel was malfunctioning in Cluster 4, Quadrant 6 of the Prudhoe Array. Measuring approximately three hundred miles across and hovering one thousand feet above the water, the floating array was co-owned by NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and SARC, the Subarctic Regional Corporation, which had bought out the floundering renewables divisions of three oil companies on the North Slope after prospecting was banned in the Arctic and the crude oil market tanked. In news reports, the solar array was always referred to by its government name, but locals always called it Noah’s Arc. As in, “Looks like we got another leak on Noah’s Arc.”
“I got it,” Xiomara said, noting that the other part-time technicians had laid out the blanket for a game of snerts and were distracted.
Only Charlene paused to ask, “Are you sure? This looks to me like maybe a two-hour job, plus travel to the Arc, and your shift’s almost over.”
Xiomara didn’t mind. Between panicking about her exams and worrying that her crush, Amka, wouldn’t come to her birthday party tomorrow, she couldn’t sit still. Better to move, she thought, than to keep reading the same essays on solar engineering over and over without retaining a word. “No worries. I’ll take this one. You folks enjoy your game.”
Charlene frowned over her glasses. “Do you want any backup?”
“Aww, let her take it, Charlie,” another tech said, shuffling the deck. “With her gone, one of us could actually win for a change.”
“Have fun,” Xiomara said as they kicked off the first rapid-fire round of snerts. With a swipe of the hand, she claimed the ticket in the system and alerted the depot. “I’ll need an airmachine.”
On the way, she went over her guest list in her head. It was modest, just a collection of family, friends, and colleagues who for one reason or another had never been to the top of the solar array. Amka and her grandparents had recently moved to New Deadhorse from a village in the interior, and Xiomara hoped to impress Amka with her intimate knowledge of the array and its secrets—how if you stood in the center of a cluster, the silvery panels would shimmer like a school of fish; how if you pressed a button at the edge of one cluster you could instruct it to temporarily link up with another, creating a bridge of light across which you could walk for miles in every direction without ever touching the ground.
By the time Xiomara arrived at the depot, her best work friend, Taylor, was languishing on top of the airmachine, their boots kicked up to rest on the handlebars, head flung back over the rear reflector, long blue-streaked hair cascading down the retrofitted snowmachine to dust the floor.
“Showoff.” Xiomara smirked, knocking those massive packboots off the handlebars.
With a shrug, Taylor twisted off the machine into a standing position. “Been a slow day.”
“Tell me about it. Spent three hours watching anti-reflective coating dry while studying for my A-exams in the shop. Read this article called ‘Theoretical Fluctuations in Photovoltaic Efficacy Resulting from Prolonged Exposure to Electromagnetic Instability.’”
“Thrilling. I had yet another wannabe inventor come to me with blueprints for how to make a snowmachine run underwater: propellers, turbines, a big plastic bubble with a periscope on top.” Their hands clasped around the handles of an imaginary periscope, spinning it back and forth, until finally they waved a hand in the air. “Had to break it to him that his great idea was basically just a submarine—and a pretty rudimentary one, at that.”
“Next thing you know he’ll reinvent the bus.”
“You laugh, but I wouldn’t mind some public transit once they finish the road.”
“Public transit to where?” Xiomara points a thumb over her shoulder. “Utqiaġvik is two hundred miles away. Fairbanks is more like five hundred.”
“What about a high-speed train to Anchorage? Better than finding a bush pilot.”
“I don’t think the ground’s stable enough. We only got the permafrost back ten years ago.”
With a pinch of their mouth, Taylor bobbed their head side to side, then agreed, “You might be right. All I know is I would feel better if I could decide to leave without it taking three days and thousands of dollars to get to the Lower 49.” Their packboots dragged across the depot floor to a tool bench, where Taylor picked up various items (wrenches, oil cans, a greasy pair of work gloves), then listlessly set them down again, like abandoned dreams.
For as long as Xiomara could remember, Taylor had been planning to leave New Deadhorse behind. It was a small village on land once overrun by seasonal oil workers and their deprivations. Over the last one hundred and fifty years, SARC had built a new village on top of the reclaimed Prudhoe facilities, and the majority of its residents were Alaska Native engineers and technicians working for the corporation. To both of their knowledge, Taylor was the only trans person in the village. Originally, Taylor had planned to leave for college; then, when their grades tanked in junior year and a basketball scholarship seemed like a distant fantasy, they started dreaming of opening their own shop in Seattle, where their skill as a mechanic could be put to use repairing aircycles and solar-powered RVs instead of airmachines. Each month, Taylor socked away a little money in their GenderFuck-Off Fund.
Their voice dipped low, mumbling through calculations, underlining variables beyond their control while Xiomara gathered the gear she would need on Cluster 4: dimmer goggles, conductive gloves, rubber-soled boots, spare photovoltaic panels roughly the size of her palm, a soldering kit. She stuffed this gear into a storage compartment under the seat of the airmachine, then sat sidesaddle on it, listening. Finally, she said, “I’ll come visit you in Seattle once you’re set up.”
“Yeah?” Taylor twisted around, a big grin on their face. “How will you get there?”
She slapped the saddle. “I bet I could ride this all the way across the Yukon.”
They threw their head back with laughter. “Good luck!”
“Thanks. You coming to my party tomorrow?”
“Maybe,” Taylor said, without the usual sarcasm. Their elbows settled on the bench, enabling them to lean back and cross their legs at the ankles. “It’s kind of a chore getting out there, isn’t it?”
“Just rent one of the airmachines. Company’s fine with it.”
“Are you sure? That doesn’t sound like Management.”
“One thousand percent; went through official channels and everything. See?” She brought up the approval email on her standard-issue SARC holo-tablet. It sat starred and pinned at the top of her inbox, but the interface had dimmed to minimum brightness to conserve battery, so Taylor had to step forward and squint. “Sorry—I’ve been meaning to recharge,” she said, docking the tablet in one of the airmachine’s solar-powered charging stations.
Taylor mimed putting on reading glasses. “Damn. How long is this email?” With a flick of their eyes, they instructed the interface to scroll down through pages and pages of legalese. “If I’m reading this right, this says you’re liable for any damages to the solar array and that SARC reserves the right to charge you per diem rates for any outages or repairs on the Arc.”
“Yeah, but the lawyer said that’s standard and the company would likely choose to exercise its right to waive this requirement,” she said, demonstrating with a bored hand gesture.
“And you believed that? Wow, you’ve fully bought in, haven’t you?”
“That’s not true.” Offended, she dropped her hand to grip the seat. “You know I’m as tired of the legal gymnastics of our government overlords as you are, but I want my party.” She raised her eyebrows, as if to say, I’m not going to apologize for that.
“You mean you want to seduce Amka with talk of your fancy distance PhD program.”
Flushed, Xiomara squeezed her shoulders together with self-conscious delight. “Guilty.”
Grinning again, they said, “Okay, I’ll come to your party—but only to watch you flirt!”
“Maybe you’ll learn something.” Her quip was met with a single dry ha as Taylor sauntered back to the tool bench, waving farewell over their shoulder. Xiomara donned a safety helmet and many winter layers, then maneuvered the airmachine for takeoff. “See you tomorrow!”
Before she could fly away, Taylor yelled, “Wait!” and then tossed her something.
Xiomara caught the small box, which was plastered with Pride stickers. “What’s this?”
Taylor shouted over the sound of the engine, “Early birthday present! Open it up there!”
With that, Xiomara sailed into the Arctic twilight. In November, the daylight narrowed like grains of sand through an hourglass until the North Slope slipped into perpetual darkness, with the bright face of the sun never rising above the horizon again until January. In such long, cold months, the tilt of the Earth’s axis threw the Arctic into a state of twilight where you could see rays of light streak across the atmosphere, where you could cast nets across the sky but never catch the sun. During this period, maintenance on the Prudhoe Array was all the more critical because the people of the surrounding villages relied on what little solar power the array pulled down in order to power their smart homes and connect to vital teleservices like immersive 3D classrooms that enabled kids in remote villages scattered across hundreds of square miles to attend regional schools. Five-and-a-half years ago, Xiomara had graduated from the only high school on the North Slope (NSBVRHS), which offered virtual reality vocational classes in advanced circuitry and solar mechanics. She had since enrolled as a doctoral candidate in the University of Michigan’s Energy Systems Engineering and Sustainable Systems remote dual-degree program.
On the way to Cluster 4, Quadrant 6, she recited laws of solar mechanics in her head. Upon hitting cruising altitude, she engaged the autopilot and returned to the article she had been reading about the appearance of accelerated degeneration of photovoltaic panels on asynchronous satellites within a specific radius of the Sun. What coating, she wondered, could protect those cells from the endless stream of emanating plasma that was the solar wind? Given modular design, could an array of geosynchronous satellites be installed in orbit over, say, Mars to radically reduce the red planet’s surface temperature and thus remake its climate? This was the logic behind the Arctic arrays. Block the sun. Capture the summer light before it can melt the ice that formed over winter and allow the new ice to thicken and fortify itself against future melts. In the twenty-first century, hollow silica microspheres were developed for a similar purpose—to enhance the reflectivity of melting ice caps and buy humanity time. Only after the ice caps had fully melted were the large-scale floating arrays greenlit. One hundred fifty years later, the ice caps have grown back, their Arctic-blue brims barely visible except through cracks in the international network of arrays.
About half an hour into the flight, Xiomara spotted Noah’s Arc floating on the horizon. From up here, the array was like a galaxy viewed on its axis—flat and flashy, most notable for how it manipulated the space around it. Above it, the atmosphere shimmered, primed for an aurora; below, there was only shadow, hundreds of miles of pitch-black ocean getting colder by the minute as frost collected on Xiomara’s eyebrows. Sometimes, she longed to slip under the water, to hide in that darkness and see what bioluminescent creatures rumbled to the surface, attracted by the flashing hazards of her airmachine. What if I just stay here until the party?, she thought, right before a message arrived from Amka:
Haluu! I’m just coming back from a long fishing trip. Want to hang out?
Oh, fuck, Xiomara thought, I’m not ready. She dictated: “I’m actually heading to the array for a job.”
Oh, cool! Can I meet you there? Good practice so I don’t get lost on the way to the party. 🙃
The emoji charmed Xiomara. Sure! I’ll send you coordinates when I get there.
With both hands, Xiomara disengaged the autopilot, resuming control of the airmachine’s descent to Cluster 4, Quadrant 6. After landing, she estimated forty-five minutes to an hour before Amka arrived in her powerboat. Not enough time, she thought, recalling Charlie’s estimate that this could be a two-hour job, but after clipping into the safety vest that anchored her to the airmachine with a rope, she sent the coordinates anyway. Soldering kit in hand, she psyched herself up with a hard shake of her shoulders and a couple rounds of, You got this. You’re amazing at your job. This is great practical experience for your degree.
Her tablet isolated the malfunction to one panel in Quadrant 6. Upon closer inspection, she identified micro-cracks in the conductive subsurface of the panel beneath the translucent protective shield coating that enabled the panels to bear weight. Without the shield, technicians would not be able to service the array in situ and would instead have to remotely disengage panels, then fly them to the depot to be repaired out of context, without the benefit of instantaneous reboot to know that their repairs worked. Xiomara always carried several spare panels with her in case she noticed any other micro-cracks or malfunctions while on Noah’s Arc. She pulled a square panel from the breast pocket of her tool vest, where she had also stored the box from Taylor. Once she peeled back some of the stickers, she realized that it was a cheap cardboard ring box. Inside was a silver-plated thumb ring with a small button and a series of dots on the band that looked like sensors or transmitters. A note with it said: Press me and say hi!
She removed one glove to activate the ring. She would not be able to work without the glove for long in this cold. A small red button lit up on the ring when pressed. “Hello? Taylor? You there? It’s Xi.”
A staticky response trickled through: “Xi? Can you . . . Wait . . . I’ll just . . . Maybe . . .”
While her friend tinkered with settings and frequencies, Xiomara laid out her tools in a neat line and began the laborious process of rerouting the quadrant’s circuitry in order to safely remove a damaged panel without causing an outage. Periodically, the static would flare up, and she would catch snatches of Taylor’s curse-laden attempts to troubleshoot the device. With the white noise, her mind quieted temporarily, and she found herself able to focus on the task at hand for a few minutes without thinking of Amka, only saying “Hello?” and “I’m here” every so often while Taylor worked on their connection.
“Hello. Xi? I think I got it for real this time. Can you hear me?”
“Loud and clear,” Xiomara said, getting down on her belly. “What about you?”
“Perfect! I’m sorry about the delay. My transmitter was being fussy so I had to restart.”
“No worries. I’m surprised I can hear you way out here.”
“Yeah. This bad boy’s got a range of a thousand miles.” An affectionate thud sounded through the ring as Taylor patted the machine. “If I can figure out how to boost it, we might be able to talk from Seattle.”
“That would be so cool. Feels like I’m a superhero talking into some fancy communicator ring.”
Taylor started to chuckle, then reconsidered. “Wait, does that make me the sidekick?”
“I think it makes you the inventor with the lab full of gadgets,” she said, pulling her dimmer goggles up onto her head so she could better maneuver her slim tools into the shadow gaps between photovoltaic panels. One by one, she disconnected wires, musing, “Well, I suppose we would both be the inventors, actually. A queer and nonbinary scientist tag team.”
“We should have a team name. Maybe . . . Xi & T?”
“Like gin and tonic? I love it!”
“When you get back I’ll engrave it on the ring.”
“About that: I might be a little later than expected. Amka’s on her way.”
“To the Arc? But the party isn’t until tomorrow. Unless I messed up the times?”
“No, she happened to be out fishing and now I’m freaking out. As demonstrated by the fact that I just shocked myself,” she said, yanking her hand back and shaking it. Her pinky finger tingled unpleasantly, her hand turning pink from the cold. She blew on it for warmth.
Taylor tried to reassure her. “This is a good thing, right? You get to chat alone, without the pressure of the party.”
“Except now it’s just us. Alone. With the array storing literal electricity under our feet.”
“Wow, okay, you need to relax. I can feel the tension from here and I’m a hundred miles away.”
Xiomara groaned and resumed disconnecting the wires. “I’m going to blow it. I know it.”
“No, you’re not. Just take a deep breath. Finish the repair. And think about what you want.”
Nodding, Xiomara counted as she breathed: in for four, out for eight, one more time, okay. “What I want to know is whether Amka is comfortable being seen with me in public.”
On the other end of their connection, Taylor started to reply, then paused to think. Into this gap, Xiomara poured her fluttering anxieties and infatuations, recounting a recent walk on the beach with Amka, how in her awkwardness she began collecting stones in her pocket, not because of their beauty but because without them she would fidget and attempt to hold Amka’s hand, and how Amka, seeing her, began dropping pebbles into the same pocket, calling them wishes and, when Xiomara asked, saying that wishes were better secrets and did not need to come true to have meaning. In fact, she remembered, Amka preferred wishes that never came true, because they could be nurtured indefinitely, allowed to flourish and transform in the quiet of obscurity, until they emerged more beautiful and poignant than previously imagined in the course of conversation with a friend. “What if a wish in this context is a crush she never intends to act on? And what if I’m that crush?”
“Okay, I see your point, but . . . have you considered the possibility that she’s just flirting?”
It seemed impossible to Xiomara, and yet the thought filled her with sparklers.
“She’s not your ex,” Taylor continued, bringing her back to reality.
“You’re right,” Xiomara sighed, thinking of her ex, who had never acknowledged their relationship in public but with whom she remained friendly, understanding the difficulties of being open and free in oft-unforgiving places. A ripple of fear in her chest dissipated, replaced by a tentative glimmer of hope. “Thank you for talking me down.”
“Anytime. Sounds like you just needed to work through some things.”
“Yes. And now I’ve got to finish this repair before Amka gets here.”
“Okay, I’ll let you focus, then. I’ll be here if you need to chat.”
“Thank you; this is an incredible birthday present,” she said, twirling the ring on her thumb, then removing it so the weight of the conductive glove wouldn’t accidentally activate it during the repair or her conversation with Amka. In the silence on top of Noah’s Arc, she took deep, steadying breaths and then plunged her hands into the hole left by the damaged photovoltaic cell. She worked quickly then, installing the new panel, reconnecting the wires, listening all the while for the rumble of Amka’s airboat racing across the Beaufort Sea toward the Arctic Ocean. Only a half dozen wires remained disconnected by the time her tablet dinged with a message from Amka:
Is it safe for me to park my boat up there?
No problem! I always park my airmachine here. Still flat on her belly, she engaged voice command on the tablet so she could respond to future messages without having to pause the repair. A couple minutes later, she heard the turbines on Amka’s airboat whirring as it rose overhead, and her shoulder-length hair began whipping wildly around her head like the tails of hungry cats. Windblown and harried, she rose to her knees, trying to comb through the knots with her gloves. “Tablet, engage diagnostics on Cluster 4, Quadrant 6, Panel B-2-1.”
Behind her, tentative footsteps grew more confident as Amka approached, her hands tucked into the front pocket of her blackberry-colored atitluq, which was layered over her winter clothes and paired with matching fur mittens. Once within speaking distance, she slipped one hand from the pocket and waved, asking, “Do you need time to finish up?”
“No,” Xiomara said, even though the answer was actually yes. She jumped up with her tools still in hand and, not knowing what to do with them, stuffed them into the pockets of her down parka. Her shoulders pinched together as she tried to calm her nerves. “You have good timing. I just finished the hard part.”
“I’m glad.” She squint-smiled at the faint reflection of the panels and the short burst of wind passing between them. For the moment, the weather was on their side.
“Me, too. So happy this worked out,” Xiomara said, taking out the spare safety vest for Amka. She thought she would slip it onto Amka’s shoulders, but the other woman giggled, and she fumbled through securing the straps before taking a steadying step back. “It’s your first time on the Arc, right?”
Amka nodded even as her face began to formulate the question: “The Arc?”
“Oh, that’s what the techs here call it: Noah’s Arc. Because of the partnership.”
“I see,” Amka said, with a spark of recognition overtaken by macabre mirth. “It seems grim to nickname it Noah’s Arc when the sea levels here have risen so much.” Her gaze drifted off to the right, where the icy expanse of the Arctic Ocean was just visible over the lip of the array. “Could you imagine this holding a pair of elephants? Or bowhead whales?” Her mouth pinched as she considered the hundreds of miles of solar panels. “I bet you could fit every bowhead whale on the planet on top of this one array.”
“It would crash from the weight first.”
“And then the whales would return to the ocean,” Amka said, pleased.
Xiomara gave a nervous little shrug. “Noah’s Ark didn’t carry sea creatures, anyway.”
An irreverent giggle bubbled up. “That’s true. I always found that rude somehow.”
“Same. I’ve never liked the nickname. I usually call it the Arc. Like an arc of electricity.”
“I like that better,” Amka said, as she lowered the hood of her atitluq and peered up at the streaks of orange in the twilit sky. Her hand shot up, pointing to what appeared at first to be a flock of birds but revealed itself to be a flight of airmachines most likely headed to one of the nine other arrays jigsawed over the Arctic Circle. All but three of the massive arrays were owned by an Alaska Native Corporation, First Nations tribe, or Russian oligarch; together, they captured approximately 10 percent of Earth’s total electricity and 85 percent of its total solar power in summer. Once filled to capacity, arrays docked at former offshore oil rigs long since decommissioned and retrofitted to siphon solar power to massive grids. Offloaded solar power was prioritized to Arctic communities, and SARC’s lobbyists had worked on the Alaska delegation to ensure that New Deadhorse and the reclaimed Prudhoe Bay facilities always had utilities available. “It’s so nice having guaranteed power. And a pool.”
“And a cinema! It’s amazing what companies used to do for seasonal workers.”
“And what they wouldn’t do to save the planet.”
“Not to mention the millions they spent popularizing the term ‘carbon footprint.’”
Head down, Amka said, “I’m glad they’re gone,” and poked at the massive array her people co-owned, pressing the toe of her shoe experimentally against the panels, as if testing whether they would hold the weight of their full responsibility. “You know, my father and I debated moving up here for years before we did it. Our ancestors hunted bowheads in these waters centuries before Big Oil arrived on the North Slope. This has always been our land—but it was long put to their purpose. He feared that coming back here, living in their buildings, watching their movies, would perpetuate their memory—their history—instead of ours.”
“I can understand that. Stories like theirs can be dangerous.”
“Stories like theirs are dying. We’re indigenizing them, one by one.” A smile tugged at the corners of her mouth until she said, “It can be a slow process. But only if you believe in this concept people have come to call ‘time.’”
Out of surprise, Xiomara laughed once, musing aloud, “Do I believe in the concept of time? Good question. I guess I believe in how long it takes for a glacier to form. And how quickly it can melt.” She gazed down at the ragged patches of young sea ice floating below. “Perhaps time should be measured like that: in events.”
“Perhaps.” A bright smile lit Amka’s face then. “Did I tell you we got an ice cellar?”
“You didn’t tell me that. Congratulations! That’s a huge step.”
Amka giggled, adding, “It has backup solar power.”
“Awesome. Have you filled it up yet?”
“The other day. We transferred everything,” Amka said, dipping a hand into her atitluq to retrieve a small package wrapped in brown paper. Inside were four strips of maktak, perfectly portioned and color blocked, the pale pink whale blubber meeting the inky black of its skin in a clean line, like elegant patisserie. Her teeth sank into its chewy skin. Her hunger awakened then, and she endeavored to eat slowly, not wanting to make a fool of herself.
Halfway through their strips, Amka said, “Thank you again for inviting me to your party.”
“Of course,” Xiomara said, swallowing the resurgent fear that Amka would not come.
“Will there be games and music?” She glanced around, searching for a table and snacks.
“Oh, yeah. We’ll have dancing and cake and hologames.” In her excitement, she babbled for a while about decorations and arrangements, how she had to account for wind shear and precipitation and the possibility of devices running out of battery if the party ran long, which she hoped it would. She wanted everything to be perfect. She blushed at the nakedness of this desire, then tried to shrug it off and play it cool. “Anyway, there’s plenty of time. I’ll bring the stuff up tomorrow.”
“That’s wise. It’s supposed to snow tonight,” Amka said, her head tilted back to the sky as if to catch the snowflakes before they fell or alighted in her hair. During storms, Xiomara told her, the three-hundred-mile expanse of the Prudhoe Array was disassembled, the clusters disengaging from the totality, then breaking into quadrants, sectors, and finally subdivisions, which all tilted on their mechanical axes until they floated at 45-degree angles in rain and 75-degree angles in snow, so that precipitation would slough off the coated panels, like meltwater off of pointed roofs.
“I bet it looks like a million tiny waterfalls,” Amka said, her tone reverent.
“Yes,” Xiomara nodded, “but you can only see them when lightning strikes.” She lifted her face to the heavens—the streaks of mottled blue and gray coalescing into storm clouds—and as she gazed skyward Amka’s right hand slipped out of the atitluq and found her fingers in the cold. Had they ever touched before, skin to skin? Xiomara searched her memories for a graze, a brush, even a soft tap on the shoulder, but found nothing like this. The way their hands fit together as Amka tucked them both into Xiomara’s coat pocket and snuggled closer against the cold.
One day, Xiomara hoped, she would show Amka the electric waterfalls. Before the Arctic froze over again, before the air was too cold for thunderstorms, they would rent an airmachine from the depot and fly out to a docking station to watch the lightning bolts arc down from the sky in hundreds. This was not the future her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents had pictured when they first moved to New Deadhorse, Alaska, but it was the future she wanted.
• • •
This story is read by an ensemble cast.
Carolina Hoyos (she/they; as Narrator, Xiomara, Charlene, and Amka) is a Queer Two Spirit first generation Peruvian-Ecuadorian Afro-Indigenous Latine. They are Quechua-Kichwa and Quariwarmi (3rd gender), or non-binary. Carolina writes, directs and acts for stage and film as well as releases records as singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist, A Girl I Know. Film/TV credits include MTV Hits, Nicholas Winding Refn’s Too Old To Die Young, Austin Film Festival winner Blackwater and a Netflix *NDA* series releasing late 2022. Carolina is a 2021 Peace Studio Creative Peacebuilder, a 2020 West Hollywood Directing Artist, a 2019 LA Skins TV Writer Lab Fellow and an official LA County Artist until 2024. https://carolinahoyos.com
Kelly McLeod (as Technician and Taylor) is an emerging trans voice actor from Vancouver, Canada.
They have provided voices for indie animations and audio dramas such as TV Demon in season 2 of Precious Puppies, and Conrad in season 3 of How I Died. With a rich background in folk music, community organizing and harm reduction, Kelly is deeply passionate about community connection through performance and storytelling. He is currently based in Montréal.