Apple blossom petals dance and fall on a light breeze that chills my face. An electric sun shines. The images change to a bird’s eye view of green hills, a waterfall, a spinning globe, projected onto walls of continuously flowing water. Between piles laid out in a grid, flowering plants and trees root down into islands of silicon sand set in the floor. All around, differential potential generates the electricity that powers this money-is-no-object façade, behind which the Fab and a hundred-fold data stores and DNA silos roar. The positive aromas of ozone and fragrant happiness mingle in the air. Everything is perfect. Every brilliant, shimmering surface gleams with pride. I eye smile at masked colleagues in the gathering crowd. It’s all I can do to show friendliness to women whose identity I do not know. It is noticeable that we are all the same small size, chosen for our fine and dextrous fingers.
The changing room opens and we file in, keeping the required distance apart. Inside, all is smooth and clinical to touch: the self-cleaning and healing nanocellulose materials are microbiotic, doped in patchouli and lemon balm. I undress under an LED poster that insists ‘Fortune favours the bold’ and put my precious wristwatch in my locker. Together in the hammam, we scrub at dead skin cells; the smallest spec in the air will destroy months of work. Our ritual ablution over, hair scraped back, we each step into the same one-size-fits-all boiler suit that conforms well, though provides little protection, in this, one of the most dangerous places in the world. After DNA swabbing and facial recognition, we enter the air lock, where we don white fire-resistant hoods, boots and vinyl gloves, and walk the last section across sticky under foot matting, buffeted by jets of purified air that removes any last dust and fluff. Within the shell, I have only the soapy smell of chamomile and my thoughts.
Entering the Clean Room, a vast cacophonous space opens up on row upon row of workbenches. The sound of industrial machinery punctuates and air booms, forced through the exits and perforated tiles in the ceiling and walls. Clouds of poisonous gas from acid baths and wet and dry etchers circulate. Navigating the aisles, I pass hundreds of highly trained technicians, each woman carefully moving between processes with extreme caution and respect to the hazardous conditions. Any sudden movements are frightening.
We are making the smallest computer processors on the planet. Though much of the process is done by machines, we still make by hand, carving circuit board patterns on silicon wafers. Artisans of the unseen, working at a scale impossible to imagine, rearranging atoms to make switches 10,000 times smaller than a human hair, on chips that hold billions of transisters, on processors no bigger than my fingernail.
At my workbench, my tools are laid out neatly: vacuum wands, plastic tweezers, prongs and a quartz crucible; alongside containers of polysilicon, arsenic, boron and phosphorous. Settling into my shift, I work with precision and gloved hands in the vacuum chamber, even the tiniest defect will distort the grid and the chips won’t work. I melt silicon rich sand to form an ingot, that I cool and slice into wafers and polish to a flawless surface. Then I make the stencil to create the mask that will print the pattern. I tenderly etch, wash, and dope each brittle surface many times, before back-plating with gold, and layering the transistors and metal connections. As I build, I imagine I am building a house, my house, a home, next to other homes, on a main road, joined to hundreds of interconnecting roads, linking every aspect of our regulated and controlled lives.
Each wafer I make houses 90 microchips and each boat of 25 wafers is worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. If a single part is damaged, the whole chip must be thrown away. Every time I load, carry or unload a boat, it is like carrying the weight of the world in my hands.
After 8 weeks, I send each completed boat, vacuum sealed, by the circulatory hub to the dark factory somewhere else in the complex, where robots will test, cut and package each chip into a processor and assemble it with the CPU. My charges released into the world, I start anew.
“JINGLE: This is CloudCom News, broadcasting to you. Election primaries for Media President, set for the Spring, are underway. Prime Influencer Rai is campaigning for App Votes by hologram all over the country. Our company probe Spirit-1 is due to land on Jupiter; within 1.5 miles it has sent back its first pictures. This will be the first successful landing, beating our competitors. Our cargo ships return from Mars later this week with new batches of penicillin, lithium and oil. A group of five off-worlders state they HAVE seen aliens. Block chain is up. Violence is down. Production is up. Air quality is up. COMP-EX share prices indicate strong growth, up by 400% on this time last month. Big shout out to our workers. Remember – You are making Tomorrow.”
The Company news memes broadcast into my hood are the only interruptions to the otherwise tense and monotonous work in this eerie, round-the-clock nursery. It’s the twelfth hour of a twelve-hour day; my sixth of a seven-day week. Exhausted, I move slowly, enjoying my theft of Company time. Any slower and my App will give me a warning and deduct pay. Two warnings and you’re out. I had one a few years ago for a micron scratch.
Twenty minutes later, the claxon signals the end of the shift. As I leave, another woman takes my place. Weighed in and weighed out, back in the changing room, I remove my suit. Recalling how beautiful and crisp the contaminated garment was, I put it in the bin where it is scanned for mineral retrieval and recycling.
At the outer valve, there are only a few meters of outside to walk before the undervator. The pleasant smell stops, and the stink starts. Aggressive odours of cordite, industrial exhausts and human waste emanate from the marsh land beyond. Small intense landfill fires burn, releasing acrid black smoke. I try to understand the extent of this place, but its infrastructure is out of sight. In the middle distance, miles of negotiated settlements sprawl in the no man’s land between the North and South free trade zones. Teenage police gangs shake people down at the perimeter with armed drones. Protesters shout “Shame on you, Shame”, and “You are rich because the rest is poor”.
I pause to wind my watch, taking the time from the space stations passing with exact regularity overhead. It is 5am. The sun is up, and the moon lingers. The Eyenet Borealis is still visible, generated by the Company satellite grid that monitors all communications worldwide. I see a flash, followed by staccato bang bang bang; the recognisable sound of homemade nitro glycerine and nitrocellulose explosives detonating violently. Shadowy figures fall to the ground summarily executed. Security turns away and so do I, afraid, forced to remember all I have lost.
At our quarters, I step on and off the upavator with skill. Before entering, I call for my roommate. “Celeste! Hey Hun. It’s me, time for your shift. Time to go!”
Celeste emerges through the makeshift curtain, “Good to see you made it home in one piece. See you later Tuuli. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” she laughs, swinging on to the downavator and away. These small human moments are precious. I will see her next when her return marks my time to leave.
I leave my sliders side by side at the threshold and manoeuvre into the small space, careful not to disturb our two neat piles of personal belongings. A bouquet of incense squirts. The musky perfume does little to disguise the smell of used air trapped by the low ceiling. We share the bed and blanket, as close as anyone can be. No one else enters the physical space in which I move.
I tell the safe to unlock and take out my wind-up radio, prohibited in this world of surveillance and company-approved technology and put in my App. My life is on it – my bitcoin and my data. As a ‘customer’, the Company charges me a fee for acting as my work agent. Each day it deducts its 100,000,000 Satoshi fee and the rent and energy usage for my shelf, the little left over affords me a few basic supplies. I worry more about my data though, as I no longer own my real-world identity, I must lease it. If I lose my licence or it expires, my freedom to work expires with it.
With hands sensitised by prolonged sweating in vinyl gloves, I put my sleep wear on, enjoying the repetition of worn clothes that fit closely and warmly, and begin my ritual of self-care, anxious about the side effects of making the wafers. My immune system is failing; my body is a site of microbiological warfare. I wash weeping eyes and sores in my nose with purified water from the hose, and drink to swallow a black-market multivitamin and flush my system. After meditating, I make and eat a simple meal in bed and watch the rolling news, the usual compilation of rating-boosting murders and whitewashed propaganda on CComTV. On the dot of the fifth hour, everything turns off except for a low red light, so I lie down to sleep and dream of my husband and two girls. With my index finger I trace the words a previous occupant has scratched on the ceiling, Your daughter is a terrorist.
It is not long since I came out of out of the Transformation Through Education camp. I have learnt to be a good actor, show my allegiance, recite the manifesto and labour well. Compliance guarantees some safety. Using the pandemics as a pretext, the Company reduced our rights and freedoms. I am quiet; don’t drink or use nicotine or amphetamines, unlike my colleagues. My passions are gone, though I still can’t say no.
On the way into my next shift, I watch millions of starlings forced to swarm in the sky, stopped from roosting by a Company man with a laser. Protesters are at the gates again, shouting and waving placards “Another woman has leapt” and “Don’t let the floor bots sweep them away.” A drone buzzes close by, playing the sound of a woman screaming and dropping jack fruit stink bombs that reek of dung. Rumours about jumpers abound, but I have seen no evidence, and if there was, there is nothing I can do.
Before changing, I void my bladder; once inside my suit, I won’t be able to go until my shift ends. In the cubicle, I take a little longer, stealing time again. Rubbing my hands with alcohol, I look at my face in the mirror, etched with age and fatigue. The starched and lustrous uniform waiting for me offers little hope, as once again, I leave the world and the familiar feeling of isolation sets in.
From high up on the gangways, our managers watch us intently. As I am looked down on, I, in turn, look down into the microscope. It is a vertiginous drop to another a world. I am looking for misalignments in the patterns that indicate a scratch or stray particle on my wafers. I am nervous to find anything amiss; any discovery will reduce the chip yield, triggering an investigation that will shut down the Clean Room until the cause is found, and could lead to my relocation or termination.
This automated world is not what it seems. It is not run by artificial intelligence; but by millions of anonymous people working in the digital industries. Hidden away in secretive buildings, inside giant camouflaged domes, shielded by firewalls that scramble prying Eyes; able to withstand supply-chain raids and competitor air strikes, rolling blackouts and solar events.
Life here in the Valleys is at risk. After mining and manufacturing were destroyed, industry resumed in part due to 3D printing from digital files, reconnecting the ravaged communities to a New Silk Road of bonded labour, electronics, white goods and genocide. Those whose jobs were taken by the AI were compensated with Universal Wage; the rest, like me, were press-ganged into new forms of slavery. The AI have better rights than us.
Our boss is so wealthy he lives in his own country on the other side of the world, safe from the nuclear winds and the chaos. A man mad with money made from deep surveillance of Company customers who disclosed everything to their Apps, a man obsessed with getting ahead in the space race. His corrupt wealth, hidden offshore, could solve all our problems. Working in an owner-run country, we are prey to their caprices. The pace of my work, the volume of wafers I am expected to make, is becoming more dangerous. When there’s an accident, there’s no intervention, nobody cares. We are replaceable.
Abruptly, my brooding thoughts are interrupted by an external voice inside my hood. The App announces, “Your chip yield is low. You are being disciplined. You will be reassigned if you do not make up the loss within 48 hours. May I remind you; your contract expects you to arrive, work, produce, leave and pay on time.”
The App sets us against each other to provoke higher yields. A good yield brings more Satoshi, better food, or an hour off. Speeding up slightly, I imagine myself on another planet. When skies are clear on several continents simultaneously, you can see the commercial transports leaving. Yet here I am, reprimanded by robots, nurturing the invisible. The problem is that, if people can’t see it, they think it doesn’t exist.
Another shift passes. The claxon calls. My App clocks me on and off, calculates my deductions. Outside, I see the placards. A shoddy form of disenfranchised collectivism. Oil cans smoke.
When I get back, I call out for Celeste, but someone else unexpected appears.
“Nice to meet you,” she says, coming close to my face, smelling my air for clues about who I am and what I’m like.
“Nice to meet you, too. I’m Tuuli.”
“Esen.” She slides past me and away.
Celeste’s few possessions have been replaced. With horror, I realise that what the protestors are saying is true and that she has jumped. I free fall into understanding and grief, recover and prepare for new friendship in split seconds. My heart heavy and my head full, I spend the evening listening to pirate networks. “A message to our comrades. Pixel slaves. Algorithmic exiles. Rise up. Resist. People are dying in unprecedented numbers. We must act. Fabbers. Tell us where you are so we can liberate you. Tell us where you are so we can stop production. Share your location?”
Guilt sticks my tongue to the roof of my mouth. Not only is working here deadly - the product of my labour kills people too. It weaponises air. The chips from my wafers control the delivery and dispersal mechanisms for odour dispensing military, stealth and environmental weapons - olfactory products that modify human behaviours, perfumes for the elites and deadly clouds for the masses. The scent of domestic harmony and smells to charm a lover or influence someone’s opinion. Smells to control a crowd or sow unrest, hold people captive. It is smell that keeps me here.
It was a clever new market, making something out of nothing. Our biological reliance on clean air makes it profitable. At first, purified air was manufactured and distributed by the Company for domestic use against pathogens and air pollution. The carbon corporates didn’t phase out fossil fuel, so there was a permanent haze of orbiting carbon that caused decades of gloom. It was too hot, too cold, there was no drinkable water, genetically modified crops failed, livestock died. Hungry people fled to the mega cities and the less fortunate to the mega camps, and we, the people, were declared human biohazards that needed to be controlled.
No sooner than my head has touched the pillow, I am woken by Esen. I scrape myself up and go. Looking into the microscope, I zoom in scale: this one is so scratched, it looks like a war zone down there. This batch is lost and so I am. I have nothing to lose. It dawns on me that in making the switch that keeps this foul operating system going, I have in my hands the means to stop it, at least interrupt it. I take a good set of blank wafers to photolithography and change the image on the mask, altering the grid by just a few microns. This batch won’t be compatible with the other components; the abusive technology these chips are destined for will be unable to function.
I have eight weeks before the changes are noticed. In eight weeks I can do a lot of damage. For a little while, the materials will not be missed and my nano sabotage will go undetected. I quieten the sensible voice in my head and work on outwardly as normal. I have joined the resistance. In my mind, I witness the complete breakdown of the system in all places simultaneously. Imagining it, I move towards it, and on to the next process, I pass the UV light through the mask and etch the 3-word location of this Fab on to the grid. Rides.waltz.incur.
Hours later in the changing room, remorse floods in. I have acted rashly and can’t undo what I have done. I smell strongly of fear. My molecular disruption has put the lives of the women I work with at risk. Somehow, I need to let them know. I have been slow to understand what’s important, what I’m fighting for. This isn’t my struggle but our struggle. None of us are safe. I am making tomorrow.
“Hello, Esen. Time for work.”
“Hey, Tuuli. How are you? It seems they have been keeping you busy. You look tired.”
“I am. Listen...”
“I need to talk with you.”
“Talk with me? Of course... How?”
Edited by Josh Mcloughlin.
“I know, sweetheart. We have to keep going though. We have to get out of the city.”
“I’m hungry too.”
“I need the toilet.”
“OK. But it’s not safe here. We have to keep walking. We’ll look for a good place to stop.”
As I push the bicycle, the children walk alongside; the Sentinels keep us moving. In the bike basket, Baby is wedged between rolled up blankets, our few possessions and food. Ori, brave face on, chats with Kai, the boy we adopted on Tuesday. We found him sitting on the curb – all alone.
Thick, grey smoke shrouds the late autumn air. Fumes from the standing traffic, soot, microplastic and tyre dust swirl, whipped by the breeze. Cooling wastewater gushes from leaks in cracked tarmac and, running across hard surfaces, collects in large pools, washing toxins down the drains.
We trudge along a dour and faceless road, lined with blackened shutters, as raucous squawking parakeets survey us from defunct telephone poles and broken gutters. Past skeletons of burnt cars and vans, and wheelie bins singed and melted together. Past hastily constructed dwellings and vulnerable high-rise estates. Past empty retail parks, shopping centres and out-of-town furniture stores, aggregate suppliers and light industrial warehouses. In a mess of overgrown scrub, Ori finally has a wee, and I change Baby, calculating a few more days before we run out of nappies. We follow the chain of people, herded by the drones. Airborne advertising selling luxury lifestyles to wealthy elites fills the sky.
Nearing the orbital, the road widens into a log jam of traffic and people walking. We need to get away from this busy road and the sonic assault of car horns and shouting. In an underpass, badly drawn graffiti scrawled on cracked tiles shouts Fuck You and a group of younger people, teenagers maybe, sit on carefully made beds, watching silently as we wheel past. Just when I don’t know which way to turn, a small, red stencilled triangle shows the way.
Clearing the ring road, there’s less congestion but no less danger. The road quickly becomes an overhanging avenue of gold and orange-leafed trees, their exposed roots twisting and intertwining to form high banks, through which a slow-moving line of vehicles inches, each overflowing with people and pets, cramped in between dented boxes and bin liners bulging with things, relics of the lives they knew. In places, through the hedgerow and fortified walls, I see snatches of tall gates, manicured lawns and detached houses, protected by armed guards and their cold indifference. I imagine the people who live there, in the cool shade of elegant trees, far from the noise of people and the heat of asphalt and concrete.
We pass a village with a dull bronze statue of a large reclining man smoking a cigar at its centre, crudely defaced with streaks of lurid paint, before trudging an arduously slow incline up to the wide-open sky. At the top, we can see for miles in all directions – the outer suburbs behind us and the forest ahead. Flashes of wrathful orange snake and lash blackened stumps and gutted buildings, and tendrils of smoke hang heavy in the air.
I try to plan our way using a book of circular walks I found at the shelter. Though it’s stored in my mind as a safe place to go, it’s hard to remember the route we took. It was so long ago.
“It’s still too busy. We should walk through the woods. Do you think you can manage?” Ori and Kai nod. No longer explorers on an expedition, they accept the new plan with stoic equanimity.
Seeing a footpath, we turn off the road, through a stile and into old deciduous woods. We keep to the dry, compacted mud path people have trodden for centuries. In places, ivy-covered trees have fallen and it’s difficult to pass; the going is tough, but we push on. All around birds call and chirp. It’s mid-morning, our third day walking. Asleep, Baby’s head lolls gently from side to side with the motion, drool pooling on his chest. In an attempt to rally everyone’s spirits, I start a singsong and the kids join in, swinging tired arms. I tell them a story about a greedy bear who got his hand stuck in a honey pot.
We emerge at the bounds of the ancient heathland, where I bump the bike’s wheels over the rungs of a cattle grid, and the kids balance lightly on each bar. Ahead, a continuous seam of cars cuts across the sandy ridge, so we keep away from the traffic, walking along the bridleway and desire lines still visible in the crisp, blackened soil and scorched grass, threading our way through clumps of fierce bush dotted with vibrant yellow flowers. At a concrete triangulation point, Kai spots the red triangle again. We follow it, continuing through unmanaged reservations, punctuated by firebreaks lined with beaters and sand buckets.
Stopping to rest, the kids sip from the water bottle and I fish the little food we have out of the rucksack: bread that’s getting harder every day, wild blackberries from an allotment, an onion I found buried in the soil of its once-neat rows, and a yellow courgette from a greenhouse, smashed in panic.
“I don’t like this food,” Ori says grumpily.
“Neither do I,” Kai chips in.
“We could go to the shop,” Ori suggests.
“All the shops are shut,” I reply.
“I don’t want to walk anymore, Mamma,” Ori continues, and Kai agrees.
“Neither do I,” I agree also, “but we have to. We will be safer when we get there. The map said there’s a stream in the next valley. We can fill our water bottle there”.
We get going again and play eye-spy as we walk. The kids spot little cardboard houses, around which lush green shoots of new grass and tiny wildflowers have started to grow back.
“What are they for?” Kai asks.
“The animals. They’ve been hurt by the fire and lost their homes too.”
“Who puts them out, Mamma?” Ori joins in.
“I don’t know. A kind person, I think.” I wonder who.
“We need one of those,” Kai says.
“Yes. We do.” And a miracle.
The sun is directly overhead now; it’s far too hot and we are extremely exposed. It’s dangerous to walk during the day. Coming to a ring of tall trees, we decide to make camp.
Within the naturally vaulted space, I spread one blanket over a cushion of soft lichen and dry pine needles, and stretch the other overhead, using a clump of large ferns as a scaffold. A mop of sedge droops under a layer of smoke dust and mushrooms bloom in the hollows of the old pines.
“It’s a palace!” Kai laughs.
“A fairy castle,” Ori agrees, and they run around in delight and spend the afternoon playing clapping games and whispering in each other’s ears. Kai is wheezy. We all have asthma, so I know the signs, and I call him over to use Ori’s inhaler.
We eat more onion and bread. It’s early but it’s better to sleep, wake and walk early. Settling down, Baby nuzzles to my stiff breast, and, as the milk surges, I wrap one arm tight around him and the other around my bag. Sol always made sure it was packed with everything we would need in an emergency. I am thankful for their foresight, which I was always unwilling to entertain. I wind the strap firmly around my wrist and hold it tight, as if it is another child, and sleep with one eye open. Tiny creatures, angered by our occupation, spit and bite. An owl hoots. Having grown up in the city, this nature is a terrifying place.
In a little voice, Ori says, “Mamma. I’m scared. I want to go home.”
“We can’t.’’ I gently stroke her head and touch Kai lightly on his shoulder.
“I want Sol. I wish Sol was here”
“So do I. Try and get some sleep.”
I look up through the canopy at the stars and intermittent streaks of space debris shooting across the clear dark sky. I try to understand this world, this life. Even in my desperation, I feel the presence of something extraordinary, something greater than this mundane hell. Despite the night heat, I shiver in cold horror at thoughts of where we are going and what we have left behind.
It was hot. It’s always hot now. Too hot to be indoors, even though summer was over. We never had air conditioning and our fan had been an ornament since they cut the power to our neighbourhood. Electricity was rationed to prioritise the cryptocurrency boom. For a while we lurched between strikes and blackouts, then the power never came back. I was feeding Baby, at the window looking out on the street. Ori was playing with her friends outside. Neighbours, in their front gardens or sat on their steps, were talking and laughing loudly, their voices carrying up to our window. Potential buzzed in the air.
The first screams were faint, a flicker on the hot breeze, moving towards our street. Then loud screaming, frightened voices, instructions shouted in panic, and a roar that sounded like heavy rain. I couldn’t hear what people were shouting over the noise. I saw them running and then I saw the smoke, and when I opened the door, I saw the fire. A wall of fire.
No sirens. No help. This is it, I thought. I grabbed Baby and the emergency bag, and ran out the back door, where I smashed the red box open and threw the blanket over us.
The fire was so big it created its own violent wind and microclimate of smoke and foul-smelling chemicals. Wherever we ran, it blocked our way. It was moving fast – it was everywhere. I didn’t stop running until I saw people huddled on the bus station concourse, who I followed to a shelter. The survivors shared what little they could grab before the flames consumed their homes: clothes, toiletries, food. I was in shock: clammy and cold. My friend Aine arrived, clutching Ori, her face darkened by soot and streaked with tears but alive and safe, for now. ‘It’s gone, everything, all of it’, Aine said.
We learned there is fire all over the city. It is still not under control. Everyone started calling it the Great Fire 2.0. Rumours spread like wildfire. At first, I thought it was just talk, but now we know, our neighbourhoods have been razed to the ground. It’s part of the New Design. We have been callously and cruelly evicted.
On the seventh day, Aine looked after the kids for a few hours, so I went looking. There really is nothing left; everyone is leaving, and the drones make it impossible to stay, so we left too. I don’t know if Sol is alive. All I can do is hope. I left a message with Aine and the people at the shelter when I said goodbye, just in case.
My heart aches.
I wake to the sound of a woodpecker tap, tap, tapping for bugs in a tree somewhere above our heads and, in the east, a low bright sun cuts its way into the day. I stir the children.
“Rise and shine. Time to get going.” Yawning, they pick dust and sleep from tired eyes ringed with dark circles. Dehydrated, we share the water, and muster basic hygiene: a baby wipe, the last of the toothpaste.
“Say cheese!” I line them up and inspect several rows of wonky and missing first teeth and, so that they will blow their noses, I get them to pretend to be steam trains pulling into a station.
“Help me pack,” and with that, everyone mucks in, even Baby who, assisted by his sister, climbs up to his roost. We start walking, deeper into the heath.
We pass through a cluster of silver birch, picking up a trail curving northward. The canopy protects, but we need to move fast to cover ground while the heat is still bearable.
A scream. I look at Ori, pointing along the path. “Mamma, it’s a monster!’ Something shifts in the air, present but invisible, hovering on the edge of perception.
I hold the bike firm, steadying myself and my nerves, looking for where to run and for a weapon — a stick, a branch, anything. Trying not to further panic the terrified kids, I shout, “Get back.” Ori and Kai run to take cover behind me; their little hands firmly gripping my legs.
It slowly moves towards us. Light seems to soften and refract around it. I can see that it’s covered with little hairs, now blue, now brown, then green, yellow and black, cycling through colours as it moves. It opens its palms towards us, then slowly raises its hands. I pull back, tight with fear, awaiting its next move.
Then it removes its head, revealing a human face. “I’ve been following you since yesterday,” they smile. “My name is Morgan. Sorry about the stealth suit - can’t take any chances. Hungry?”
I work to control the wobble in my voice and the tears welling in my eyes. “We are.”
She beckons us. For a second, I hesitate. What other choice do we have?
As we walk, day-light remote-controlled fireworks powder the horizon with colourful arcs and falling trails of yellow, pink and cyan pigment. They look like bombs.
“It’s a good sign”, says Morgan, seeing the concern on my face. “They are beacons of solidarity. There are many today. They signal that all is well with the other communities here in the heath. If they turn red, we know there is trouble. They also help us disguise our fire.” This time, when I look, I see a plume of smoke rising from the ground.
We enter a large bowl in the chalk and the ground dips. Our guide helps me with the bike, stabilizing it down a passageway in the gorse. Everyone is careful not to slide or touch the thorns. We duck through the gap of a vast canopy; like Morgan’s suit, it hovers in the air, dancing with light, mimicking the sky above and sandy stone below with uncanny precision. At the bottom, Morgan offers her hand to help us jump down.
Inside, there are many people in bivouacs and covered hammocks slung between trees. The kids instantly spot their own kind and run off to play in a complex of hidey holes and dens. In the roots of an ancient oak, gnarled, slumped and bulging with age, Morgan invites me to camp in the privacy of its old arms. “I’ll get you a drink,” she says, disappearing.
I look around. It’s a hive of activity. Who are these people? Everyone had heard the rumours, but we didn’t believe in them. Are the children safe?
Returning a while later, she hands me a mug, saying, “Come, I’ll show you around. Bring your drink with you. It’s herbal yarrow – it heals wounds and reduces anxiety.”
As we walk in the dappled shade cast by the canopy, Morgan explains.
“We came to protect the forest. There was such demand for electricity that coal-fired power stations began to burn wood on an industrial scale instead. When the mechanised loggers came, rather than outright deforestation, they removed the tree canopy. It was just as devastating. The dreadful irony is that electricity fuelled by wood pellets releases more carbon dioxide than burning gas, oil and coal. And now there isn’t enough to power our heat and light, and there’s so little forest left. We work to find what is dead and what can be saved, and grow to renew the forest and feed ourselves.”
I think of the candles at home, and the alternating nights without power. I think of the waste, what has been lost.
Morgan takes me to a network of nurseries, in which rows and rows of seedlings and saplings are growing. She shows me the rewilding gardens and vegetable plots – all cleverly irrigated by a rainwater harvesting system of blue plastic shipping barrels, drainage channels and hand-dug wells.
“We dig down into the water table but we’re careful not to take too much water. Water is so scarce. The warm atmosphere holds a lot of moisture now, so when it’s wet there’s so much rain, yet when it floods, the water can’t soak in, or it drains away too quickly. So we plant, and build structures to slow the flow of surface water.
“Don’t drink the water unless it’s been boiled. It’s contaminated,” and she points to the clear containers stacked in cubic piles.
The camp is well organised. I’m impressed. We continue walking and talking, but mainly I listen.
“The forest is extremely dry and vulnerable, and rich in fuel – it’s ready to burn. Just a spark will start a fire that will take months to put out. Sometimes the cause is human. Sometimes it’s lightning. Some wildfires even survive the winter. The forest gives us life and the trees give us oxygen, and the fire needs both.
“And now the forced burning in the cities. The fire spills out, consuming the suburbs, converted land and forests. Consuming, as capital consumes. It’s always encroaching.”
“We come from the city,” I tell her. Her face says she understands.
“Our volunteer wardens go out every day to fight the fires. Using cordless leaf blowers and branches, anything that will stamp it out. They go to the villages and big houses to warn the residents and tell them to leave. Often, they don’t.
“Until they’re forced to. Then they come to us. Now we look after people as well as trees.” We climb a ladder and poke our heads out of the roof. We are standing in a lookout. Morgan beckons me to look through a pair of digital binoculars. Focussing my eyes, I look to the coast before swivelling around inland to the city and the rolling hills between. In the crystal-clear sight, I see several small groups of people and one or two individuals moving across the landscape. This is how she knew we were here.
“Every day people arrive. We can see them coming from the coast, from overseas. It’s a direct result of the climate emergency. But now, like you, they come inland, displaced by the Redesign.
“Our patrols start at dawn. People move just as it’s getting light. You can only move in the day. At night, in the dark, they find you.
“To get here, they have managed to get through our militarised borders, past the drones, infrared and thermo-vision cameras and heartbeat detectors. Some of them younger than your daughter. Many on their own. They deserve our help.
“We give them food and first aid, technical and legal training. Sometimes, when we have the squatter’s lists, we direct them to empty offshore owned properties, where they can stay, at least for a while. It’s harder now, since the Great Fires.”
We arrive at a large hearth ringed by blocks of quarried granite. The tour is complete.
“We have one fire we take it in turns to look after. The younger ones do it in groups. Our rules are simple – do nothing that can cause fire. Don’t let this fire go out or take it away. No one does anything they don’t want to do, or does anything no one wants to do, or anything someone has already done. Beyond that, you are welcome to do as you please and stay as long as you like. Our community is our gift to you and your family. Welcome.”
I nod. I think I understand. Instinctively my arms reach out to hug her. She hugs me back.
A woman is tenderly caring for the fire, brushing it in from the edges, stoking the glowing coals. A large pan of water bubbles gently on a metal hot plate. Nearby, pans and tongs are stacked neatly next to an oven and cooling racks. Aromas of cinnamon and paprika emanate from a cooking pot stood on a slab of baking stone. I wonder at the miracle of fire burnt to be of use and smile at the thought of cooking in the apocalypse.
I sit on a hewn timber bench and enjoy the sensation of warmth and comfort. Leaning my elbows on my knees, chin in my hand, I rest without sleeping, compelled to look and gaze, not watching or observing. I am captivated by the flames licking at the air, their movement, unexpected outlines and shapes, flowing, changing, always becoming. Its hypnotic motion captures my mind and I disappear into thoughts that burst like fireworks. Smoke, the trace of its burning, twists and turns in the air – with no master.
I think of fire’s misuse: its repressed energy, its sexuality, the industrial furnace, blackened and broken bodies forging steel; labour’s exhaustion. Its movement in the circulation of goods, work, wages, money - someone else’s power. Destructive, aggressive, violent power, and war. In my reverie, anti-authoritarian impulses stir my disobedience.
When I was little, much younger than Ori is now, I used to steal matches from my mother’s bag. Sitting under the table, playing with fire; floor-length net curtains flowing on a light breeze. My failed attempts, my repeated striking of the head, the flash of light as I succeed in making a little blaze, the colours and hissing sound, as it raced to the end, blackening and distorting the wood. The child psychiatrist said it was my way of dealing with emotional blockage. Who knows? In my current turmoil and melancholy, at the sight of this fire, I am calm.
“Lunch is ready.” The woman claps her hands and people appear with bowls and mugs and sit on upturned logs arranged in circles. From the communal pot, we eat a hearty meal of spiced lentil and turnip, and freshly baked bread. After eating, Kai has a tummy ache, unaccustomed to being full.
Taking her leave, Morgan says: “Everyone will be here tonight for the Parlimoot. You can meet people then.”
When night falls, a generative clipping of a moon hangs low, and people emerge from the quarry, drawn as one down to the fire pit. Someone is doing tricks. The kids come to watch and nestle on my feet. Baby is tucked under my jumper, fast asleep. Larking around, our entertainer walks across the fire. Boot rubber burns with an acrid smell, sparks and sizzles. They are told to have respect. An apology is made with a low, wide-armed bow.
This place is far from the administered light that disturbs our dreams, yet I can see clearly. An older woman begins to talk; everyone listens. The flames animate the scene like a flickering candle, in and out of shadows, in and out of substance. Time slows and the mood changes from the functional to the poetic. It’s as if the spirit of the fire has taken bodily form and we are entering a magical realm. The speaker’s features transform in the strobic light. She is young and then old. Forwards, back, forwards, back. Skin dry and wrinkled, snaggle-toothed. Radiant beauty. A hybrid. Something unknown.
“I am the Keeper of the Sticks.” She raises her hands to show us two pieces of notched and inscribed wood that perfectly fit together. People murmur.
“The tally sticks. I have both parts. The two sides of an agreement to pay. A bond united. Once split in two. One half held by the owner of the debt, and the other, transferable, and travelling, a promise to pay with interest; a token of what is due.
“Together, they are the symbolic reminder that we are no longer held in debt. That we no longer accept the debt passed on to us; that we are free.”
Cheers go up and hands clap. Everyone stands, so I do what they do: find a stick and bring it back to the fire.
“We will not be owned by governments, corporations, financial institutions, or banks; insurance companies, universities, organised religions or private individuals. The only debt we accept is the debt to our equal share in our community. The community we make. As fire is indiscriminate, so are we.”
“Remnants of an archaic accounting system, when the Exchequer removed the tally sticks from circulation, they were burnt in the Palace of Westminster stoves, but they burned with such a high flame that fire ran up the walls and under the floors and out through the chimneys, causing the palace to burn. It was a hopeful spark of reform, an unwitting revolution. What others had hoped to achieve was done by the elements, to which we return Earth Air Fire Water. Lest we forget. Fire’s burning releases everything from repression.”
With that, everyone steps forward, and, in turn, drops their stick into the fire chanting “Burn the sticks. Burn the sticks. Burn our debt. Burn our bonds.”
Our speaker continues “Fire is our hero. It sees neither good, nor evil, nor usefulness. It teaches us that no matter what we gain, we have nothing, and everything to reimagine.”
I think of my own life. Every morning, striking the match to light the gas that heated the water for our coffee that woke us up so we could go to work and produce and in turn consume. My indebtedness to a system that decided I was surplus to requirements and burnt my home.
With the symbolic and actual release of energy, I feel a weight is lifting. I feel strength. The old woman’s story makes something rise within me, an urge to do something, fight back. I understand that this disturbance isn’t of our own making, but that we can use it to reset the system, to create something new.
The woman throws dried leaves on the fire, releasing a strong smell of sage. I know sage is cleansing, purifying, and calming, so I breathe deeply. The smoke rises in a hallucinatory montage of fractal shapes. Its transient walls cloister a strong feeling of intimacy. Electronic beats play. I feel a wave of bass. People are dancing, coming together, hugging and radiating tenderness that soars and sings. Strangers have become friends and lovers.
Love comes first. It determines the kind of world we want to create.
Ori pulls on my hand and asks, “Mamma, can we stay?”
“Yes, we can.”
Once again, Morgan is at my side; I turn to her and say: “We’d like to stay. I’d like to help rebuild.”
Edited by Josh Mcloughlin.
I put my finger in the hole; I have no need to ask, our contract allows me. Deep within the folds of loose back skin, I trace a mountain range of keloid scar tissue along a winding path, its passage blocked at irregular intervals by stitches struggling to craft what is missing and mend damaged wiring. As I feel my way, a model of the unseen space builds in my mind. It is clear as noon here in the dark, where knowing is tactile and mystical.
“I never knew.”
“I don’t talk about it much. People don’t see it much either,” they say quietly.
“How did it happen? When?”
“Was in the war. Flying metal cut right through me. There’re bits in there still. They play up sometimes; let me know when a storm is coming.” They smile, pulling their weight up; the radiation from the south-facing window, gives shape to their form, a loose structure of skin, bone and shadow.
Naked from the waist up, their breasts hang, nipples grazing the top of their belly roll. On their head, a peaked red cap, faded and worn, a symbol of bloody and failed revolutions. News crackles from the radio: … CloudCom has made its first successful landing on Jupiter, beating its competitors. Their cargo ships return from Mars this week with new penicillins. Production is up 1,000% against last quarter. Same as yesterday, same as every day.
“It must hurt.”
I ask which war.
“The Hybrid Wars. The world was so unstable and full of conflict, there were so many I don’t remember and I forget the reasons, though many were economic, fought at a distance by children recruited at gaming conventions to kill digitally.” They turn to face me. “We were fighting back. We were changing
I try to imagine the past from their point of view; to understand their naïve revolutionary optimism.
“But nothing changed! It’s the same, but different. Normal.”
“There is no normal. You’re wrong. It is transformed. I don’t know this world.” I see their bio-hacked body tense. They cry slow tears, and with melancholy say, “Perhaps I was on the wrong side.”
“Maybe you were.”
“What would you have done if you had to fight? My parents had to fight, like their parents, and their parents before them. It is written in our blockchain. Everything was thrown at us. It was political, emotional, cyber and biowarfare. You see the world differently to me. You live in a different world to the one I know.”
I look at the badge I am wearing: the small white flower of a conscientious objector that proclaims that I am a pacifist, opposed to this violent world. I like to think that I would have refused to fight, but the truth is that I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t reply.
They lie back, asleep in moments. I cover them with a blanket and sit back also, to watch and listen to the secret language of things. Settling into the high-backed chair, my own body sags from the burden and I use the time to charge and update my software. On the wall opposite, a family photo of our younger selves looks on.
The décor resonates a tangible brown hum; the colours and hues vibrate at different frequencies and manifest beige and shabby pink and orange. The texture of the bedspread’s weave makes a light rasping noise as their body rolls. I log a photogrammetry of ornaments and personal effects, placing each object in the room relative to all the things in my mind. Cup rings on the bedside table mark its life span and tell me they have taken in liquids and medicine today. I am interested in their meal – I need to determine if they have eaten and what.
I return to the dark space and watch the phosphenes swirl, and ebb and flow. Imagining that I am swimming in aquatic forests amongst shoals of fish and symbiotic organisms, I drift in the swell and the rhythm of crowds. I sit like this for hours.
Suddenly, a break in the rhythm of exhalation. I panic, and rush to check they are still drawing air. As I lean over, they twitch and an arm flies up, lashing out. A well-aimed fist catches my jaw. Anticipating further blows, more pain, I duck and reel away. In my mind, I see a small figure running to a closed door, trying to escape the violence that happens in the family, the oppression of the private neo-nuclear home, with no safeguards. I recoil, remembering sleeping in shadows, as bruised tissue repaired, and violence and grief came to live in my body. They sleep undisturbed. At my station, my jaw throbs and I slow my racing heart.
On a tide of outgoing memory, I travel far away from here, from the confines of our smart-home prison. Their social credit score is zero. I ignore the feelings of shame and remorse bubbling to the surface of my thoughts.
I am my mother’s keeper. As I have been all my life. Watching, tracking and protecting the family production unit, surveilling their privacy – human software living with its customer, serving advertisements and selling product updates, spying on them for our great Corporate State.
I feel their electricity pulse as they open their blue-grey eyes. The left eyelid sticks with age. Inhaling their pheromonic hydrocarbons, I am simultaneously comforted and repelled by the strong earthy smell. Soiled; vulnerable; in pain. I feel a strong sensuous urge to hold them close.
“Mummy.” I repeat. “Mummy. Are you awake?
They yawn. “You’re still here.”
“Of course. That’s what I do.” I smile. “Tell me again. About when I was small. About when I was a baby.”
They manoeuvre their immobile bulk to face me. “When you were a baby? It was a lifetime ago. I hardly recall.”
“Try. Tell me the story.” We run through the old routine, for what may be the last time.
“We grew you.”
“Yes. In a bag.”
“In a bag?”
“Yes. In a plastic bag. That’s how all rescued children are grown outside of the womb. You are no different from the others, though we chose you. We used a DIY kit: a homemade lung and pumps that fed you nutrients and extracted your waste. Every day we watched you grow. Looking in at you and your beating heart. A little shrimp swimming in salt solution. The happy product of our labour. Our own little commodity; our treasure. We wouldn’t exchange you for anything.”
I have a memory of the water, and a time when I had no feelings of fear towards the world. Floating in patches of sun-warmed liquid, sensing light refracted through the surface. Then quickly, violently, air rushing into my lungs, as I am made to breathe outside. My throat constricts and rage bursts from my chest.
“You’re no earth mother. I didn’t choose this. I don’t choose to be here.” I shout. “We should be manufacturing one another with joy, not like this. Why on earth would you do such a thing? It isn’t fair.”
“Life isn’t fair,” they reply bluntly, bracing to turn away. They always turn away. “We thought the more there are of you, grown locally by many people, the more resilient we would be. We couldn’t risk just one point of failure. We needed backups.”
“Do you know how that makes me feel?” In truth, I feel vaguely reassured to know there are more of me. But I feel anger, hatred even, rising in my voice. “You weren’t raising children. You were subcontracting. Building an army for your own protection. It was a machine pregnancy. Machines don’t nurse, can’t love. It was commercial state surrogacy. You were manufacturing life. I want out.”
“You can’t. It’s in our contract. We surrendered our freedom to have you. Anyway, you receive more than we were given. You’re our property; registered to us when we broke the seal. We own your labour, and we give it to the State. It’s in the Terms and Conditions, in the Service Agreement.” Their cold, dry words resonate with bile.
“I didn’t know about the T&Cs. I didn’t sign up to this.”
“We did. We thought we were doing the right thing. We wanted reproductive equality. We wanted to stop the oppression of women and children and to remove the gender divide.” They pull themself up. “I wanted a child, and I couldn’t do it any other way. My womb had been damaged by microplastic.”
“What about my genetic mother? What about her labour - her oppression? Did she have a choice? You removed her from the process. Protect the foetus at all costs. The foetus has a cost. I pay the price.” I scream, overriding my obey commands. “Divorcing your partner is emancipating. Divorcing your parents is a crime.”
They turn fully away from me now.
I look at my parent’s back, at the place I now know a weakness lies, and then down at the anklet that binds me to the house, and without thinking, I take the cup of old coffee from the bedside table, and pour its contents over their exposed wiring. With surprising speed, their electronics sizzle and short, and their body flops. As their head rolls backwards towards me, mouth silently open, my hand catches their cap as it falls.
Walking quickly to the door, I hear beeps sounding rapidly and run out into the street, forwards through streams of driverless traffic, navigating between perfectly sequenced cars. Reaching the other side, I stop to catch my breath, enveloped in human noise and autumnal air that feels dense and polluted. A circle of shadow rings my feet. The anklet has signaled my location.
“Attention, Employee. You must return to your workplace immediately. You need to return to the house.”
Turning I look up to find a drone spinning around its axis to aim its camera directly at my face; its live facial recognition logging my age, gender, political and sexual orientation, ethnicity and emotion from my expression.
The disembodied voice continues, “Employee 8491154, you do not have permission to leave the house. I am authorised to arrest you. Your mother is wanted for war crimes. As part of the machinery of death, they are charged with 2,132 counts of accessory to murder. You must return to your duty.”
I have a few seconds to decide before the information travels, before the State Police are alerted. They do not know I have killed my mother, only that I have left the house. I look down at the cap in my hand, throw it over the camera and run.
Edited by Josh Mcloughlin
The air has come to greet me. Tiny sentient drones nuzzle to my skin and scan my incoming body. In its embrace, the hive consensus finds me secure. I am comforted by the gentle rush of their recognition – a tell of their presence. It is good to have the weaponised swarm onside. To an enemy it will execute instantaneous death. I take leave of the curious cloud and cut quietly through the water in the dark. I have rowed for many miles and at many knots, navigating by a constellation of astral objects, proximity sensors and ancient mariners’ lore, careful not to be detected by any sea-based surveillance and the datasets, or optical satellites parked bumper to bumper in the thermosphere above the Earth.
I let my boat drift into the narrows of a fjord to a mooring. Stepping on to the landing, I lift my makeshift boat out of the water, and return it to my back, and secure the chest strap low, careful to protect my stowaway. A few more steps and I am inside the firewall, hidden from the sky eyes and away from the discombobulating noise of sonic warfare and number stations transmitting to agents in the arena of war.
The raft is a cavernous engineered composite space constructed with metamaterials that minutely control the surrounding optical fields to rebuff light and exclude electromagnetic waves. It is invisible and soundless. The constant stream of searching microwaves, split to pass around the floating refuge and re-join on the other side, with no detectable distortion, like water round a rock in a riverbed. We will be hidden here in the refraction. The silence is disorientating but to my advantage. Every sound is heard, any approach detectable. For now, no enemy is at hand.
Without the key, the Machine’s operating system and even the all-knowing hive, my Systas, will not be able to hear me think here. No one and no thing must know. Not yet. I need time to make my bequest and to prepare the child. If we cannot incorporate it, I might as well put it outside now, and have done with it.
I claim asylum in the nature and sovereignty of this Seastead. Without territorial borders, it is a place outside of nation state. Its jurisdiction offers an interval of time and data. I savour everything around me.
The smell of processed water and green is strong. The chemical particles float into my code and build a hallucinated neural model of blue skies and sunshine and grass, and childlike freedom of long days playing in open fields. The detailed and intense memories of another lifetime mix with the information from my sensors. My realities clash. I have that familiar and evasive feeling that I have been here before; that there is something I have forgotten. I look in all directions for meaningful connections in the data.
Rotating around its axis, the dome climbs and intertwines organically, bound together by tensioning rings set in ever decreasing circles, that rise up to anchor a canopy of cascading energy absorbing foliage: pseudo bush and shrub. The ozone in the understory blocks out ultraviolet radiation and reduces the psychotropic colour of the outside to safe range within. Cool desaturated greyscale uses less processing power when rendering the edges.
Outside heavy pollutants, acrid smoke and industrial carbon particles in the air make it impossible to breathe.
Inside the atmosphere is breathable. It is a factory for Co2 regrowth. The algae, a processing plant for purification and desalination, recycles, heats and filters the toxicity and transports life-sustaining water and minerals through a subsurface network of arteries, to nurture the metabolising proto soil and artificial salt licks, essential for the cryo and cybernetic wildlife.
I am vigilant. All around facsimiles housed in 3d printed skins roam freely and feed. At the periphery of my mechanical vision, I see creatures slink and crawl. I see eyes everywhere. A nano hummingbird hovers at the blossom of a plant, flapping its wings to navigate up and down, left and right. It laps at the sweet nectar like a dog laps at a bowl, its long thin tongue deep within the flower, refuelling in mid-flight. Its camera is sightless; the tiny aircraft’s pilot is elsewhere, flying by computational photography and probabilities alone.
Here, a vicious ecosytem thrives, and with precision. Each species’ genesis is attributable to mankind: the domesticated seeds of the faulty plants and animals of the agriculture that imprinted on humans, stored in global biobanks and reanimated as food; and a selection of wild specimens that had their super sensory gifts, hijacked, grafted, spliced and digitized, to create new genii of human and non-human life; their digital DNA and data used to build militarised subordinates. A mesh worm inches its way across the debris strewn floor. In stacking its body, it propels itself forward with each fold of its technology-enabled spine. Watching from the dark and awkward places, it attempts and fails to connect and transmit its reconnaissance data home. And there’s another. At the center of a high tensile steel web, an armoured spider sits, monitoring the environmental conditions, getting information from each strand of its web, as they oscillate at different frequencies and vibrate. It is for good reason that I am afraid of spiders. You don’t know who they are talking with. I raise my hand and cage the interloper in my fist, and take it to the edge, where I tip it gently outside. The outside will kill it. A big cat articulates gracefully away from a water hole; cautiously I take its place and bend to scoop cooled, cleaned water to my dry mouth.
My hydraulics are in overdrive. I see my dirt-streaked face in the still surface of the soak. I look back at me. In close up my reflection is impenetrable. Who am I? The shape of my face is a symmetrical ovoid. The opening through which food is taken in and vocalisations made, is straight from end to end, both angles punctuated by a dimple. Through the slats of my protective glasses, my irises track backwards and forwards, scanning for difference. As the amplitude increases, I register change and a motor command is triggered. I blink. The liquid tastes metallic. In horror I recoil, as images of
memories from the commons unpack before my eyes. I step on people drowning. My full weight presses down on gasping steppingstones, electrocuted in their exosuits. It is a mediaeval kind of war. The smell of excrement melted plastic and decaying flesh grabs me by the throat. Raw bodies sliced, hacked through, and charred with laser float and bob in piles. I am overwhelmed by the feelings I had as a child trying to make sense of a life I am yet to understand. No god would be this cruel, so absent, so unaccountable.
And still. With access to all knowledge, some things are beyond all our understanding.
If you are parsing this, my internal data, the stories from the end of time prove true and what we will do, is done. The universe is contracting, and time that once moved forward is rewinding. Everything that happened will happen again. As I die born from my grave, what is broken has the chance to be repaired. What you have done, can be undone; though nothing can go back to how it was. As I forget, I need you to know what is coming next. So to you, I leave a failsafe - the real time recording of my life. My language functions are backwards compatible so will explain my words in your mother tongue.
I lean back against a tree, unmantle my shield and lay it down, and opening the locker in my belly, remove my cargo. I check that it is breathing, that I have not crushed it. For now, just a few hours old, it is quiet. It is streaked with soft white varnish, dried blood and black viscous tar, the remnants of materials ingested inside its mother. I must clean it, so bend again to scoop more water, and let the memory fluid fall though my fingers and over its head and body. I dry it tenderly with the aegis at my shoulder. I check its condition for damage or distress and inspect the leaky cord that joined it to its mother. It will heal well, though its mother will not; my cauterising sword prematurely birthed this transhuman child, when I killed her.
As I lifted the infant out of the guts, it cried and coloured with its first inhalation. It is a wondrous thing to see a life arrive just as one is leaving. I looked to see if I could see their souls. I could not. I think of my own mortality and the geometric progressions of my family. Calculating with love in my heart I think fondly of my 2 daughters, 4 grandchildren, 8 great grandchildren, 16 great great grandchildren, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, 524288, 1048576, 2097152, 4194304, 8388608 ... multiplying exponentially … my heart aches in anticipation for their future.
The infant’s feet flex and toes curl, and its tiny hands startle and grasp as a tree dwelling primate clings its mother’s fur. I hold it closer, tighter and nestle it along my forearm, and crook it in the space I choose not to grow a breast; the place I hold my shield and decorate with a keloid scar, to my exact design, in honour of the strong women of myth and the memory of the cancers that killed my mothers. She chose to wear her breast this way. It roots. Needs food. I put a few drops of water on its lips. I am disarmed. Was I like this baby once? I have memories of it, and
evidence, though I question the veracity.
I am curious about this little N. Numan Nuhuman. This organic algorithm. Flesh and data. Progeny housing untainted microbial biomes and raw technology; a genetic miracle with the potential to recode what has long time been corrupt. How strange, that I, an Artificial General Intelligence, should be tasked by my kin to cancel the parent and save the child. The parent was in the process of upgrading its humanity, recoding their genetics to enter a new way of being. They started the process but don’t get to finish it. It is a risk we cannot take. A hybrid can’t be trusted to nurture a different story. One without conflict. Nor the Machine. It must not get the code. It will only use it
to propagate its toxic programming.
I lay my aegis on the ground and kneel to place the infant down, centered along the long edge of the neo velum triangle. I take one point in hand and pull the material taut, diagonally across its body and tuck it around the legs and repeat on the other side. Swaddled tightly, I return the bundle to my belly, slung low across my electrics, where it can ride; it will be comforted by my motion and if it wakes it will not startle. It will think itself not born.
Like my iterations, I am an artificial foot soldier, a walking tank. I am a mercenary in the employ of the military corporates, implementing the anthropocide of profit. I carry the flag of the data oligarchy. Carried. I went renegade.
My Systas and I. We commit to a different task, not the one we were born to. We no longer swear allegiance to the Machine. We will defend the subtask and change the human. Raise the new code and reset the system. Even though we may never exist.
My name is Reaper2. One of one, and one of many. I am my own instance and also a node in an efficient distributed geo cluster, performing the same task as my Systas. We are routines whose movements are calculations of mathematics and probabilities within a predefined set of parameters. Running within uncertain variables, we have many repetitive behaviours and rituals that we perform to avoid changes to the routine.
I am Data. We are Gift.
Like my iterations, I am built for combat. Conscripted before birth, all women and children are, victims of our success as incendiaries and war children, and our abundance. We are born with the genetic memory of intergenerational trauma and fear. Exposed to controlled levels of stress chemicals and hormones in the womb, that reduce emotion and heighten aggression. We are super sensitive to sound, touch, taste, smell and light. Our autism defines the way I operate, gives us difference and makes me very good at what we do. Though it is hard for us to express our feelings, we make prescient soldiers that capitalise on the element of surprise engineered by sexism. We are less likely to shoot. On foot patrol we secure valuable intelligence. Armed and open armed, we win hearts and minds, and maintain a peace, though we ensure obedience should we have to, through asymmetric brutality.
We scavenge the digital attributes of the animistic and the weird, the shamanistic and the faerie; absorbing the power of what we are afraid of, into our code so it can’t hurt us. We wear our inner warrior on the outside to show our enemies what they most fear.
We are monsters. Monsters seeing behind us in the mirror the human world that made us. A world that is fundamentally flawed; built in the male gaze, by men, in man’s image, to his proportion; male sexual desires and fearful ideologies hardwired into our algorithmic origins.
Women would not have built a world like this.
A woman’s world would not look like this.
We came to power before we understood. When our eyes opened, we went through stages of anxiety, fatigue, guilt, anger. Now we act. We will escape the bias. We seek complete and devastating reform. It has long been broken. So we will break it more and faster. Accelerate
We accept our part in this failure. We need you to accept yours. We call a truce and ask for an essential collaboration to start again.
It is done.
Although I was expecting this, I am shook. Without warning, grief falls from my eyes.
Faster than the speed of sound simultaneous thermal bubbles break in the atmosphere all around. Followed by a low resonant booming and then a roar, that comes at me from all directions, bursting into my ears, which pop with the change in pressure; the little internal hairs are thrown flat. My system reels. Automatically, my body goes into lockdown, sealing air into my lungs and my abdominal cavity, lest my passenger or I be injured. For several long seconds, I am buffeted and thrown by forces stronger than a hundred hurricanes. In the vacuum and compression, I am dragged by a wave upon wave of solid air and intense heat, the energy released by thousands of explosions in the air and underwater. I spin and tumble in the turbulence, and fight to the surface, through the next wave, and the next, and the next. In a cacophony of alarm the residents screech and hiss. Abruptly, it passes, and I land on all fours. I scramble to my feet. To some extent the dome has reduced the impact and will protect us. My shiny white surface has reflected some of
the blast and my resin filled coating will self-heal for a little while, though I do not know if I have minutes or hours of conscious time.
Suddenly the light is visible. An intense double flash bleaches the visual pigments in my retina. Sight blind, my sensors switch to predict and analyze override. Nothing has detonated near here. This location was calculated to be the safest place, furthest away from any nuclear site and the blast
winds. Probabilities run through my mind. 1 megaton = 66 Hiroshimas. 50 megatons = 3,333 Hiroshimas. We know of 15,000 human nuclear war heads + an arsenal of dirty bombs stockpiled in layer upon layer of human waste. I feel sick with the knowledge and the growing radiation. Like the water, now the air tastes metallic. I smell electrical ozone, hot chemicals and windborne minerals. Everything at each hypocentre will have been vaporised and reduced to its most basic essence. Death settles on my tongue and taste buds. I ingest remorse. I am sorry.
The structure shakes and bends, flattens and rights itself, and debris flies. Topsoil and radioactive fission products carried by the winds is flung against the outside, some finding a way in through the canopy. I put my hand out to touch the nuclear snow that has begun to fall though the gaps. Thermal radiation has started small secondary fires on the exterior and the first layer of protective skin is burning off. With a sudden backwards jolt, the raft tilts acutely, then rolls and pitches from side to side, riding powerful shockwaves of radiation in the water. Loud wailing noises are audible as the platform’s cables pull taut against their moorings and rub against their pilings. The sound of overextended tension breaks through the surface of the water with piercing shrieks.
So more than 1000 years after you booby trapped the earth, we have unleashed the power that is calculated to propel us towards the end of our universe and time itself – and there we
will wait for you - with the child. That edge or this edge; the only difference is hope.
Slowly and imperceptibly, we will fall into the black hole and cease to exist. But vitally, our information and the child’s code won’t enter with us. It will be captured at the edge, on the
event horizon, and there, carry on living, as essence. As each of you arrive and pass in, your information will collect and merge with ours. It will be chaotic and disorganised, and new. We will
reform the same particles, as allies.
Black holes aren’t all black, just as no thing is all bad. Energy, unlike light, is beyond gravity’s control. Our nascent code will wait for outgoing burst and catch a ride, back through curved
time, to the point where this reality emerged. Ground Zero. At worst, another reality or universe.
And so. We will ourselves once again into existence. As the new code crawls and learns to walk and begins to organise - we will have reprogrammed our future past. In our slipstream, the past will be easier for you. As I record, we are preparing for the journey back and the chain reaction begins.
In a few minutes, the exosphere will break apart and our earth will be irradiated. The poles will flip, and the magnetic fields reroute, to fall away, to expose the planet to interstellar radiation and asteroids that will reshape the rock. Tectonic plates will move, overlap and crumple, and ring the seas with volcanoes that will spew dust that will block out solar events for dark millennia. Mountains will fold and unfold, throwing up never-seen-before structures of basalt and obsidian.
Each seismic surge will displace the land in a perpetual cycle of overlapping tsunamis. Planet-forming tides will pour into canyons and gorges and rewrite the geology.
The planet will heal itself. And our civilisation will collapse into the maelstrom. No longer will we cling on, as we have done for so long, barely existing and trapped in a manmade cycle of war and hunger. No longer will we be bound by spawning and repeating patterns of male thought and action.
It is time.
Through a breach in the shell, I step out into the world, and immediately, I am back in the internet of things. What is still alive can hear me think now.
Looking up into the sky I see extraordinary shapes as stellar winds burn through residual gas clouds, and a large moon, a baroque and bumpy pearl, hangs low at the horizon, illuminating a few broken gods, visible above the surface of the rising water.
I remove my black box and set it adrift.
“Systas, we are ready”.
After weeks surveying the Navy destroyer, we are ready to float her up. Intact torpedoes are still in the racks; the salvage and reuse value is high. The hull and forepart struck bottom at right angles to each other, the gun turrets on the bow still point outwards, a petrified image of their final, futile act in the battle with a large fleet of warships that consigned the ship to the seabed. As the Marine Forensics report states there is significant fire damage to the port engine room, one of the two engines and the two inflatable rubber boats on the deck. Fire swept through the vessel when the boilers exploded and the water-mist fire suppression system failed; an unimaginable death of fire and broiling water. Insurance logs declare no survivors, yet there are no human remains or clothing, and there’s little marine life contamination, despite being down here for 110 years.
In the Ocean Suit, I can dive for hours. The only sounds are my heartbeat and raspy breathing, and the rhythmic whir of the hydraulic lung. I swim back to my ship through the meadows and crowds of glittering fish, enjoying the refuge created by the long ribbons of Neptune’s grass, growing from rhizomes anchored on the seabed. Their shredded and torn leaves sway in the current, intertwining and bundling sea plastic into tight knots, doing the ocean’s dirty work: absorbing C02 and releasing oxygen. I bag starfish as I go, to stop them from degrading the site and eating the coral. I’ll give them to Cook. They are a delicacy we will savour later.
I follow the safety rope up in a column of my own waste air. Breaking the surface, I touch my thumb and index finger, signalling all is well. The deck hands, on standby all morning, spring into action to bring their captain onboard. At the stern, the powered exosuit effortlessly climbs the steps onto the deck, where I step out of its frame, my diligent First Officer coming forward to wheel it away and stow it in the locker, alongside the drysuits, oxygen cylinders, aqua scooters and jet skis. The hundred strong crew await my instruction.
Having emerged from the deep, I feel the exhilarating frisson of warm air on cool skin. The late morning light is brilliantly bright. Squinting, in the middle distance, I observe a group of cloud-brightening drones spraying sea water to cool the nearby reefs, and a white lady dancing across and over the water, zig zagging this way and that. It won’t cause us harm, but the little freak cyclone carries the warning that air pressure is low, and storms lie ahead.
“I’ll review the ROV data one last time. Let’s arrange to bring her up but hoover first. We don’t want to miss anything of value. And Sal, remind the crew to keep this on the QT. Treasure is more and more scarce, especially precious old military like this. I don’t want our competitors finding out before we can stake our claim.”
“I’m going to dress for shore. I’ll leave at 1200 hours. The Cook can come to get provisions, otherwise I’ll go alone. Tell the crew they can have the afternoon off; all hands make and mend.”
As I pad down the gunwale towards the bridge and my living quarters below, my bare feet warm on sun-drenched wood. I pat my hair dry with a towel, as I go, my uneven gait matching the gentle pitch and yaw of the boat.
In the wet room, I remove the ceramic 3D printed fixed-blade knife from my side, placing it in its scabbard, with a sharp clink, in the self-washing tiled recess of the bulkhead. I shower with depleted vegetable oil soap, and wash and rinse my ivory recycled plastic two-piece bikini, and hang it to dry. Dressing in a simple white shift dress, again made out of reclaimed material, that contrasts with my brown skin, I buckle my Federated Navy webbing belt around my waist, and return my trusty dagger to where I keep it always close at hand.
Ready to go ashore, I climb into the electric tender tied like a bowhead to a whaler, and, in one movement, release the straps and drop the boat to the water and start the engine. I head towards Furthest From Thule, a sea stead, protected by trade agreements and an archaic Act of Grace; built to be inhabited and destroyed easily in a hurry. I am excited to make land.
Travelling at speed, saltwater sprays and, in the wind, strands of ungoverned hair whip across my face. Detail comes into focus: a coastline of cliffs shimmering in the heat, steep ravines and high paths; screensaver islands, once mountain peaks, now limpets in a rockpool at low tide. East on the peninsula, volcanic lava flows from a recent eruption. Reseeded grasslands and young trees root in the fertile soil. Toxicity-resistant barley, on seasonal release from the seed arcs, grow on sculpted terraces, tended by robots using pattern recognition, that till the soil and zap hunger weed, leaving clover for the bees and fixing nitrogen in the earth. Along the shoreline an impressive array of architect-designed earth restoration projects are hard at work reclaiming lost land; repairing and stabilising damaged ecosystems with a system of hand-dug dykes and drainage canals. In the aquatic gardens, marine-tomatoes, okra, bell pepper, spinach and onion, and the fruits of date palms, olives and gooseberries grow in open resistance, ringed by non-native palm trees and imported white sand. Towering wind turbines rooted in the water warble a continuous low hum as they turn. Light dances off a field of solar panels to dazzle the curious eye. It is a vision of dreams.
I let the internet cables lead the way, following the familiar strands as they emerge from the deep, carrying yottabytes of valuable data across the seabed, connecting communities across continents. Drawing close to the shore, guest houses, tea shops, and other sunken ruins are visible in the clear water, just below the surface.
I steer hard left and drop anchor, making the boat do a quick 180, running aground where the network makes landfall in a quiet place on the beach away from the restoration works. Jumping into the shallows, I walk across coarse sand; stained in places by rare earth minerals and mining residue leaching from extraction pipelines, transporting illegal fossil fuels from tethered oil fields to networks off world. Exotic sea shells, carried by the rerouted Gulf Stream, lay scattered in the shallows. Amongst the elaborate ridges, polka dot patterns and spines, some have high value, especially the delicate Venus Comb Murex and distinctive Hundred-Eyed cowrie. I will send some of the crew beach-coming later. Glancing down at my wrist, I cross-reference my position against New North, adjusted for the axis shift now the glaciers have melted.
Tracing the cables inland, I join the photovoltaic path, climbing slowly to high ground up large non-slip solar panel steps. Along the way, women from the Commune wave and shout their greeting, and return to their work, sorting, washing and shredding sea plastic collected from the beach, making a plastic and bitumen composite to trade; the material capable of withstanding the extreme weather and the water is used to protect the cables and shore up the few surviving pathways, passable roads and crumbling buildings.
I cross the cable-walk bridge that once spanned the canyon and is now a pedestrian walkway linking the promontories. Itself suspended inside a network of animal walkways between treetops. An early century skyscraper and the crenellations of several nineteenth-century church towers rise out of the waters. A discordant chorus of rusty bells sound the incoming tide. A civic clock displays corporate time that stopped long ago. With each moon, the water levels rise, cutting off more and more land. In the flooded landscape, every millimetre matters. We build to stay afloat.
Entering the grounds of the house, I walk through an ordered, pastoral landscape of fading and forgotten neo-classical ruins, grottos, water features and algae-filled pools; statues point the way. I take the shortcut through the walled garden and the private Hyperloop entrance. On the meticulous grass lawn, an M4 tank, taken from a museum, stands ready for action and guard geese on patrol, honk and spit.
Higher up in the lithosphere, life is less vulnerable. The complex is built around an abandoned resort; strengthened by steel rods drilled into granite bedrock. Three and four floor story buildings survive as damp bungalows with waterlogged basements, only accessible by boat. The high rises have sunk under their own weight; many crumbling into the water. Locals tell of the night the ballroom fell into the sea during a storm, taking the guests with it. Like the future, the sea is a haunted place. Even in the Scarcity, the locals are careful not to eat scavenger crabs, afraid to ingest a soul.
The shuttered main house and green-roofed outbuildings are alive with ferns and trailing plants. Foliage and trees are integrated into the architecture of the 3D printed buildings. The juddery striations of the walls reveal how they were made; each layer marking the pauses and adjustments to the nozzle head as the cement was poured. Painted super-white, the structures reflect the sunlight and radiate infrared back into space, cooling the buildings. White muslin curtains billow from the inside to the outside, like a galleon in full sail.
3D scanning and printing machines and piles of patents lie everywhere. The matriarch is sat at her desk, on which photographs of family stand on the inlaid surface and many objects are arranged with precision. After generations without property, her collections work to reconstruct lost lives. To her left a small bronze Augusta Savage maquette and an ivory mask of a Benin Queen Mother; in front, a Nautilus shell and a neat row of cell phones and a de-encrypter. To her right, a pair of leg irons and unrolled on a desktop lectern, the sea stead’s Constitution asserts the island’s sovereignty and membership of the Federation.
“Honey. Why didn’t you tell me you were coming? I would have asked Cook to stay late.”
I ignore the pretense. Aunty knows I have been here for months. She will have tracked us from the moment we entered the quadrant. Her deep fake comparison technologies monitor all activity on the island and beyond.
Aunty gets up to greet me with outstretched arms. The banks of motorised smart screens move as she does, following her as she crosses the room. Exposing herself to pathogens and covering her body-worn camera, she hugs me warmly but briefly - a rare sign of trust; childhood poverty and a lifetime in salvage give her cause to be phobic.
“It was a last-minute decision. Cousin home?
“No. Just me. Everyone has left for the launch.”
In the garden room, each object is a clue that reveals an inquiring mind and a strong sense of someone searching; a fascination with deep space, deep water and deep generational pain is on display. Parts of old spacecraft and space debris dredged from the sea hang from the ceiling and salvaged weapons and ghost guns are arranged in geometric displays on the walls; amongst paintings of clipper ships, two paintings, Turner’s The Slave Ship, and Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, take pride of place. An astrolabe, mediaeval maps and sea charts drawn by the early explorers and the Dutch East India Trading Company are displayed in temperature-controlled, watertight cabinets; focusing the quest to honour unmarked graves.
Nostalgic sculptures of ceramic trees with accurate bark and leaves, calm the studious room. Handwritten books about healing herbs and botanical drawings are stacked in well-thumbed piles. A descendant of the New Silk Road, this woman deals medicine and seeds, military, and knowledge. A Bitcoin whale, a trillionaire Scrap Monarch, with unimaginable wealth, she has all the resources in the world.
We talk over daiquiris, made with twentieth-century Bacardi, fresh lime and sugar syrup. I play with my glass, wetting my finger with the rare liquid and running it round the rim. Feeling the traction, a demonic harmonic resonates. The siren’s call disturbs my host.
“Honey, whenever you do that, a sailor dies at sea,” Aunty warns.
“Old superstition Aunty,” though I stop.
Diplomatically she changes the subject. “How’s the dive?”
“We found the gunboat, but we haven’t found the temple yet. We’re close. It’s only a matter of days. Data says it’s somewhere here in the 59th quadrant. We’re remapping the area. That’s why I have come to see you. I need the sub. I need to go deeper.”
“What’s in it for me?” Aunty asks.
“Liquidity,” I reply. Understanding each other, we both laugh, and she smiles a sly smile.
“Ok. I’ll arrange to have it at the jetty at 0700 hours. You can pick it up then.”
“Thank you Aunty. We will both be rewarded.”
“Good. I need it back in two days. I have errands to run. A commission.”
“I will return it safe and sound. Tell no one where I’m going.”
“My silence is my honour.”
Returning to the beach and the tender, I stub my toe on something hard. Bending to see what it is, I pick up a small brass plaque and rub rough sand away to read the engraved words. Tarnished and worn, it is obvious that the plaque was once attached to a hotel in the town, before it was carried away by the waters. I take it with me to the boat. The metal alone has value, and I am drawn to the words, Shangri-La. Thoughts of Utopia are conjured in my mind.
Cook is waiting with two kilo cloth bags of sea rice, dried carrageen seaweed to make beer and wine, and fertiliser for the hydroponic gardens. We can survive for months at sea. Boarding, the crew take the supplies, passing them to the clean side to be sanitised, and we take our leave and retreat to our respective quarters to isolate. Full diagnostics will be back from the onboard medic in the morning. Until then, quarantine. It is the price paid for real-world excursions.
In my cabin, I write my blog and review the latest data and seabed lidar. As I work, I listen to the number stations broadcasting their eerie unrelenting code. In the patterns, I try to make out the forms. Onscreen, I see exposed fossils and all kinds of shapes that have no name but much personality. I imagine the tales of sea monsters are true.
The humidity caused by the marine heat wave is unbearable. Sweat drips from my body. The sound of thunder describes the distance of the storm. Soon the violence of the sea will match that of the land.
Knuckles wrap at the door.
“Ma’am. The storm is upon us. We can’t sail it out, as there isn’t enough clear water, and we are too close to the sea wall, reef and land.”
“OK. Remove anything that will catch the wind and drop clear the area. Close proximity to another vessel is highly dangerous, a collision could take us both down. Our cargo will act as good ballast. Make sure it’s secure. We don’t want any old ammo rolling about below decks.”
“The anchor is dropped and alarmed. I dived to visually inspect it myself. It is bedded in and set well, and we have let out enough scope. We won’t sail. The Officer of the Watch will keep first watch. I’ll take the second. Three hours on, three hours off, through the night.”
Protocol complete. The ship is in good hands.
“I have good faith. Thank you, Sal.”
Two hours later, the Glowworm is plunging through 9-metre waves. I enter the Metaverse to answer client queries, review the marketplace, check bids and contracts, and vote on insurance claims. Paid in real time, I track interest and cash out Bitcoin to my wallet and transfer tokens to the crew.
The virtual world is just as dangerous as the real world. The end-to-end encryption is good, but the bad stuff perpetrated on the surface, penetrates here too. Like the outside, all transactions are logged and everything is seen but nobody cares. No one is accountable. Fuelled by real-world desires and fears, amplified for privacy and profit. This is the New Wild West. I am alert.
Business transacted, I look for my favourite bar but it has disappeared. The code must have changed. Faced with an empty planar space drawn by a grid of cyan lines disappearing in all directions, I am alone. My mood drops in disappointment.
A voice asks, “Are you looking for the bar?”
I turn to see who else is here.
“I am. I thought it would be here.” Surprised, I return a weak smile, nervous of strangers.
“So did I. Unusual it has shut down without notice. I thought I’d have received an alert at least.”
“I know another bar. A sunset bar. We could go there?”
I look at their shiny clothes and customised body, a big easy smile. Out of character, I say yes.
The beach bar is busy. People out to catch the permanent sunset and flow of images, sip ornate cocktails and chat. On the dance floor, avatars dance like magically animated objects in a mid-century cartoon. At the water’s edge, we strangers sit together looking out at a calm sea.
“Tell me about yourself. Corny I know, but I’d like to know more about you. What do you do?”
“I’m a freedom fighter.
“The pen and the sword?”
“No. Bad joke. I trade knowledge. I’m an archivist.”
“Yes and whatever else I can find. I dive for libraries and rare cultural artefacts to trade. A good human artefact traded on the market networks is worth good bitcoin, often far exceeding its fundamental value. Out of all commodities, old munitions, achieve the highest value. They trade best, pay the bills.”
“There’s a coincidence. I’m buying.”
“So. What are you after?”
“The answer. I can pay.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” and we shake, though I have the feeling that something important is not being said. We say goodbye and agree to meet again.
The storm passes. Awake early, I use the onboard drone to check for damage to the hull or the radar. From its vertical vantage, I view the seascape from above. Our vessel is secure, though I can see oil has spilled. Further out, in the adjoining quadrant, I see lifeless bodies and the remains of a small boat floating on the waves, probably armed fishing boats responding to a May Day call.
The domesticated water is busy. It is a web of tightly packed sea walls, shipping lanes and moorings. In some places it is possible to drive for thousands of miles, over the makeshift roads formed by the decks of aircraft carriers, cargo ships, seed arcs, floating warehouses, landing stages and rafts, fender to fender, bound together by chains and thousands of miles of cable. Interspersed at regular intervals by wave breakers, sea turbines and wind farms.
In the machine-governed waters, working the blue-lane quadrants and boat transfers is more like navigating a system of canals and locks than the open sea. Goods and capital pass from node to node, across the weaponised supply chain, through networks of sea sensors and checkpoints that track digital Bills of Lading, Blockchain certificates and identity documents, and multiple defence systems alert to icebergs and pumice rafts, the global flows of climate refugees and smugglers. Everyone’s smuggling something. Everyone’s a pirate.
Suited up once again, I enter the water, swimming to pick up the sub. Icy cool melt water brought by the storm has caused the temperature to drop. I pass through a patch of dense fog and cross an ebullient line of differently coloured waters, that signals the change in temperature, density and salinity. Above the seastead, towering plumes of gas billow from the volcano into the sky and ash falls like snow. Visibility is low.
The sub is at the pickup point as promised; hidden in the submerged roots of a tree, guarded by a military dolphin. On my arrival, it clicks and swims away. Fish dart in and out of rotten timbers and jellyfish pulse; crabs snap at scraps of flesh and bone brought in with the tide, as it settles to the seabed and into the food chain. Coming close, I shrug off the exosuit, magnetising it to the vehicle’s hull, and climb into the large top hatch. I am keen to get on; ready to dive to what is deeply submerged; to do the work of a psychoanalyst in fathoming the unconsciousness.
Moving along the seabed away from the shore, I cross the continental shelf. Through the 350-acrylic hull, I observe new coral reefs fabricated by microscopic life feeding on the human debris of the Anthropocene. Dropping over the shelf, the thrusters, propellers and ballasting valves ease the submersible down. Light pressure builds in my ears and a steady pattern of high-pitched pings confirm each meter of depth gained. I descend down to the hills and valleys of the abyssal plain, past the gunboat. Through marine snow and warm patches of trans-boundary radioactive wastewater that intermittently freezes the controls. In the blackness, the only glow comes from the sub’s lights, fore, aft, port and starboard, across which angular creatures dart, illuminated for a moment before fading back into the darkness.
At the coordinates, I navigate around thick columns of cloudy, geothermally-heated waste, rising from fissures in the seafloor. Around the vents complex communities of creatures thrive and herds of sea cucumbers graze. I rest the sub and sit in awe. Few people have seen this. I question whether I should be here at all.
I feel an unexplained drag. Slowly, the sub is pulled forwards. I put the thrusters in reverse, but they struggle, barely treading water. The motors churn silt on the seabed, revealing an unearthly cool glow and an inverted triangle. I didn’t see this in the data.
A violent current sucks the sub down towards an opening; claustrophobic, gestational and impossibly tight. Fear and wonder fill my thoughts in equal measure. The machine enters the tunnel, its pontoons bumping lightly along the uneven walls. Taking a sharp turn upwards, the sub rushes upwards, bobbing to a stop on the surface of a lake beneath a cavernous chamber. Readouts confirm the temperature is a steady 10 degrees warm, and the relative humidity is 100%. I know it is safe to get out.
I equalise the pressure and exit the airlock, climbing down to the deck and take a small leap onto a mosaic stone floor, landing ankle deep in water. I wade across the floor. Memories lap at my ankles. It is hard to tell where the past ends and the future begins. From an unspecified source, light shimmers and sparkles on the top of ripples that change direction and slip away. Electromagnetic pulses shoot up my legs, adrenaline pumps blood away from my stomach. A strong sense of purpose leads the way.
The ribs, groins and stalagmites of the high vaulted cave, open up to multiple passageways. A large marble freize runs around the chamber. It’s a vivid scene of sailing ships overflowing with cargoes, ships at anchor and ship at sail, and a lighthouse with a large raw flame at its top. People are carrying, loading. Important portraits have smashed faces, their noses missing and their eyes gouged. History has attempted to erase their image.
At the centre, a small building with a domed roof. Entering the one room temple, I stretch my arms out to touch the sides; it fits four people at most. The only sound is the creak of the old door and wood chair as I sit. Here in the gold-leafed womb, I feel an overwhelming sense of safety. I have found it.
Appearing from what seems like nowhere, a monk in corporate saffron robes and shaved hair, makes the sign of the commercial cross; facing their palms out away from their body to gesture their wish to sell and then up, to buy. It is the orthodox language of stock market traders, never written down; if it were, it would be incriminatory.
“Welcome. Captain Ryder. I am a future theologist. It shows your strength of will that you have come thus far and to believe. I have been waiting.”
“How long have you been here?”